Friday, October 29, 2010

Sin Nombre

I love a movie that shows another culture or people group from the inside.  Sin Nombre takes us into the lives of Honduran gang members and of illegal immigrants coming to the U.S.  I love the authenticity and emotion of Sin Nombre, but, as you might expect, it leans hard on melodrama and attempts a great deal of sympathy for the illegals.

Sarya, a Honduran teenager, is setting out for a new life in New Jersey.  She and her father and uncle ride the trains with hundreds of other immigrants, sitting on top of a cargo train for days.  They meet up with Casper, who's fleeing his gang.  After the gang leader tried to have his way with Casper's girlfriend and accidentally killed her, Casper betrayed a fellow gang member, killing him before he could have his way with Sarya.  Sarya and Casper team up as they head north on the trains with Casper's gang in hot pursuit.
Even though Sin Nombre is in Spanish and was filmed in Mexico, it was written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, an American. Fukunaga personally spent time riding the trains with real immigrants and hanging out with gang members; he even had a couple of them help him edit the script to ensure the realism of the dialogue.  As a result, parts of Sin Nombre have an almost documentary feel.  I got the feeling that even though the story is fictional, it portrays reality as many Mexicans and Central Americans experience it.
Reflecting the lives of the gang members it portrays and the plight of the immigrants it follows, Sin Nombre is a rather bleak movie with glimpses of hope.  Having been born and raised in the U.S., I can't relate to the hope Latin Americans have of a new life in the promised land north of the border in contrast to their home countries.  Sin Nombre brings us face-to-face with gang members and illegal immigrants as real people with hopes and dreams.  This is a movie worth watching, for sure.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Like Stars on Earth

Every now and then a movie from "Bollywood," the thriving Indian movie industry, trickles over here to the U.S.  I haven't seen many, but they're generally thoroughly enjoyable.  You can count on them being pretty clean, and they always include extended musical numbers, which may or may not fit with the story and tone of the rest of the movie.  A favorite of mine, Lagaan, tells the story of some Indians who feel oppressed by their British colonial rulers.  They challenge the British to a cricket match, wagering the tax the British want them to pay.  It's a great movie, with wonderful history and social commentary, but they interrupt the story frequently with big song and dance numbers.

The star of Lagaan, Aamir Khan, also directed and stars in Like Stars on Earth.  Khan, who has starred in dozens of Bollywood films, plays a fun-loving art teacher at the boarding school where Ishaan has been sent.  Ishaan has failed his classes and angered his demanding father by skipping classes and not attending to his studies.  I love this portrayal of the struggles of a dyslexic kid with ADHD.  He tries to read, but the words leap off the page and the letters get all jumbled up.  He is distracted by every little thing.  Under the art teacher's tutelage at the new school his artistic talent is revealed, leading to an overall maturing, success, and reconciliation with his father.
Like Stars on Earth is a fun movie, affirming of those kids among us who live and learn differently.  As the parent of some kids who don't fit the typical mold of the "good student," I appreciated the sensitivity and joy with which the movie portrayed not only Ishaan, with his ADHD, dyslexia, and free-spiritedness, but also the physically and mentally disabled children at the art teacher's other school.

Yes, there are some lengthy musical interludes that don't really drive the story, making the movie longer than it ought to be.  (Maybe that's when India moviegoers step out for popcorn, or whatver they eat during a movie.)  But Like Stars on Earth is still an enjoyable film.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Box

The premise for The Box sounds like something someone came up with staying up late with his college roommates: what if someone gave you a box, and in it there is a button that, if you push it, you will get a million dollars; the catch is that someone, somewhere, whom you don't know, will die.  What a wild and crazy moral dilemma!  Get me another beer!
It is conceivable that this type of dilemma could provide the basis for a good movie, but this wasn't it.  It started as a slightly compelling situation.  The happy couple is having financial troubles, and a mysterious stranger shows up with the box.  A million dollars just for pressing a button.  You know there's going to be some complication, but wondering how it will play out kept me interested.  Before long, though, it started spiraling into a barely cohesive sci-fi story about aliens judging the human race.  Yuck.

Overreaching and manipulative, The Box is one to be skipped.  Don't press the button.

Bottom line, 1 star.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Sometimes a movie comes along that is so bad that even when you know it's going to be a bad movie you're disappointed in how bad it is.  I knew from the previews that Armored would be an over-the-top shoot-em-up, but I thought the presence of Laurence Fishburne, Jean Reno, and Matt Dillon might raise the level a little.  It's not that their performances were that bad, or that the special effects were bad, but the overall dumbness level was too high.

The movie focuses on a crew who works for an armored truck service who devises a fool-proof plan to steal $42 million from the company and get away with it.  Of course we know that if the plan were really fool-proof, there would be no movie.  When things begin to go awry, the thieves turn on each other, and everything spirals out of control.  Dumbness on top of dumbness.
You have to admire some of the efforts here.  The chase scene with armored cars flying around the abandoned factory must have been quite a feat.  But wild, choreographed action sequences don't make up for a groan-inducing story and predictable plot.  You've been warned: if you choose to waste your time with this one, don't blame me.

Bottom line, 1 star.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Every now and then I watch a movie that just clicks.  This was one of them.  I really liked it.  First of all, it stars Zooey Deschanel.  She is the perfect super-cute, super-desirable girl for a romantic comedy.  (Same thing in (500) Days of Summer.  Like I said in that review, she will always be Trillian to me.)  Gigantic is definitely a romantic comedy, but so much better than the typical release in that genre.  Release?  Was this movie even released?  According to IMDB, it only played in a handful of theaters.  I guess it's not mainstream and stupid enough for the mass markets.

Brian (Paul Dano) has a boring job selling mattresses.  His dad and much older brothers are successful in their fields, but he doesn't have much passion for work.  He does have a passion for adopting a child from China, even though he's a single man in his 20s.  Then Happy (Deschanel) comes in to pick up a bed for her dad (John Goodman).  They chat, she falls asleep on a display bed, Brian falls in love.  They go through the typical "he gets the girl, loses the girl, maybe gets the girl" romantic comedy relationship curve, but the movie as a whole is good enough that I can forgive that. 
My favorite scene has Brian and his brothers hunting mushrooms in the woods with their dad, charmingly played by Ed Asner.  The conversation turns to Brian's hopes for adopting a child.  His dad offers some encouraging words: "I hope you get the kid. .. .. I think you'd be great at it.  You've got what it takes."  Brian asks, "What does it take?"  After a pause, Dad responds, "Well. .. . I haven't the foggiest idea to be truthful.  But, uh, uh listen.  Here we are, walking together in the woods, and if you can aspire to be walking in the woods with your kids after they've made it as far as we've made it then I think you've done the right thing."  I know there's a lot more to parenting than that, but I love this advice. 

On the negative side, the happy couple starts having sex immediately upon the acknowledgement of their feelings for each other.  It almost seems like people who make movies today can come up with no other way for couples to show their affection for one another.

All in all, this was a terrific movie.  The positive view of adoption, the lovable characters, the not-as-formulaic-as-most-romantic-comedies romance, and the quirky, hilarious dads made this one fun.  I recommend it.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Gentlemen Broncos

A few years ago, Napoleon Dynamite hit a nerve with moviegoers, gaining a cult following no one really expected.  Writer/director Jared Hess followed up that success with Nacho Libre (which I have not seen) and now Gentlemen Broncos.  As a life-long sci-fi fan, I was interested in this movie about a teen-ager whose novel is ripped off by a famous writer.

Chevalier, a prolific and well-known fantasy/sci-fi author, has hit a crisis point in his career: he's run out of ideas and his publisher is breathing down his neck.  At a writing workshop, Benjamin submits a manuscript for Chevalier's evaluation.  Chevalier likes it so much he decides to coopt the story for himself, making a few changes and submitting it for publication.  Meanwhile, Benjamin's friend Lonnie decides to make a movie from the manuscript.  The movie flips around from this movie-within-the-movie, to Benjamin's distress at learning his idea has been stolen, to Chevalier's accusations of Lonnie's stealing the movie idea from him. 
The tone and humor of Gentlmen Broncos definitely fits in the Napoleon Dynamite mold: quirky characters, flat delivery, small-town folks, and teens struggling with their own awkwardness.  GB, however, has a more complete story than ND, in which any story was incidental.  Gentlemen Broncos is a dumb movie, but in a good way, not dumb as in stale, trite, or a waste of time, but dumb as in celebrating the dumb, funny, goofy, entertaining normalcy of normal, funny people.  This is not fast-talking, stand-up comedian comedy, but comedy on a human scale.  I like it.

Bottom line, 3 stars.