Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Carol

Has there ever been a story adapted for the screen (big or small) as Charles Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol?  A search on IMDB returned dozens of hits; I stopped counting after 40.  There are plenty of live action and musical versions, plus the Smurfs, Barbie, Flintstones, Mister Magoo, and the Muppets, and I'm sure many TV show episodes based on the story.

In this 1999 TNT version, surely one of the best adaptations made, Patrick Stewart's portrayal of Scrooge has to rival George C. Scott's from 1984.  I think Scott's Scrooge is the one I remember.  I haven't read Dickens's story in some time, but  this TNT version seems to have made an effort to capture Dickens's time and tone.  I would not be a bit surprised if much of the dialog was straight from the pages of Dickens.
That's the legendary Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past
A Christmas Carol, in whatever version, tells a wonderful story of second chances.  Although you will look fruitlessly for explicit references to salvation through Christ here, the message of the gospel is implicit throughout.  Even after a lifetime of hard-heartedness and self-centeredness, there is hope for renewal and reconciliation.  Scrooge's nephew personifies the openness of the gospel: even when Scrooge is at his worst, his nephew persists with unconditional love and acceptance.

This Christmas, let's remember the Scrooges among us.  Those neighbors, coworkers, and even family members who live bitter, lonesome lives need to see the love and grace offered through us by the one who came to seek and to save us.  It's never too late to accept Jesus' love, and it's never too soon to share it.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Including Samuel

Last week I attended a screening of Including Samuel with Kelly and Elliot.  It was shown at a local elementary school and moderated by our friend Jennifer, who has attended ARDs with Kelly and assisted her tirelessly with paperwork and ARD preparation.  Including Samuel addresses the challenges of including children with disabilities in mainstream classrooms, a topic that is near and dear to us as we have struggled to get Chloe placed at school.

Samuel is the son of photojournalist and filmmaker Dan Habib.  When Samuel was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, he was forced to face the issue of inclusion, a topic about which he hadn't thought much about before.  Habib follows Samuel's progress, as we see Samuel interacting with his peers at school and participating in the regular education classroom.  The Habibs are fortunate to live near a school whose philosophy of full inclusion accommodates students of varying levels of disability in a single classroom.
Samuel interacts with typical classmates.
Besides Samuel, we meet hip-hop artist Keith Jones, an inspiring adult with cerebral palsy who has not let his disability prevent him from a full life, including working as a music producer, marrying and having children, and functioning independently.  He says the best thing to have happened to him was to be placed in regular education classes, not segregated classes.  Other individuals featured in the film illustrate the clear benefits of full inclusion for both the disabled and their typical peers.
Keith Jones--one inspiring guy!
Habib doesn't try to sugar coat the difficulties that arise with inclusion.  In teacher interviews, we see the range of opinions and emotions, from Samuel's teacher, who believes that full inclusion is the best way for all  children to learn, regardless of speech or mobility problems, to the mainstream teacher who tearfully describes the challenges of reaching both the superbly gifted and the profoundly disabled at the same time.  As one teacher points out, however, the danger of creating separate classrooms for disabled children is that if there is a separate classroom, it will be used, needed or not.

Given our experience with schools which have not practiced inclusion, this quote hit way too close to home: "Inclusion is an easy thing to do poorly.  When we do it poorly, we become convinced that it cannot work."  Even when one parent or one teacher promotes inclusion, a simplistic approach of placing a child with disabilities in a mainstream classroom without adequate support or appropriate modifications can lead to failure.  I fear that in many schools, poor execution has led to suspicion or outright rejection of full inclusion.

While Including Samuel does not provide all the answers, the film does a great service by raising lots of questions, and, most importantly, raising the possibility that full inclusion can and does work.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Eu cand vreau sa fluier, fluier (If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle)

Another not so great movie from Film Movement.  I've said before that while some Film Movement films aren't that great story wise, they show a glimpse of life in another culture that might make the movie worthwhile.  If I Want to Whistle does so only if you're interested in the culture of a Romanian prison for juvenile offenders, and then it doesn't even do that very well.

Silviu is about to be released from the juvenile lock-up, and his mom returns to Romania to take Silviu's little brother back to Italy with her.  She had ditched her family years before, and Sivliu had been taking care of his brother.  He looks forward to resuming his caretaker role upon his release.  Already distressed about his mother's actions, he gets into trouble and jeopardizes his chances of being released, so he takes the pretty prison social worker hostage.  Chaos ensues.
How do you get what you want? Hint: not like this.
Desperate men do make desperate choices; I realize that is a reality of life.  But I get frustrated with this type of portrayal, in which reason and rationality seem to be tossed aside by the filmmakers.  This film had difficulty getting from point A (desperate young man) to point B (hostage situation).  It reminds me of the old cartoon, where the scientist has a blackboard full of equations, and in the middle it reads, "Then a miracle occurs. . . ."  If I Want to Whistle is not without some decent acting, but it's lacking in exposition.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Un homme qui crie (A Screaming Man)

I finally published a new movie review Monday, after a 17-day break!  On the one hand, I haven't been watching quite as many movies lately.  On the other, I've watched higher-than-normal number of dogs. 

Calling A Screaming Man a dog may be a bit too strong, but I have to say it fits the pattern of most of the Film Movement movies I have watched recently: a well-made film that presents an interesting snapshot of a particular cultural milieu, while telling a rather uninteresting story.  In this case, Adam and his son Abdel work at a hotel pool in Chad.  Adam was a swimming champion in his heyday; the decades since then have been dedicated to the pool.  With Chad in the grips of a civil war, and the hotel under new ownership, Adam loses his place at the pool and struggles with his purpose.
Screaming on the inside?
Despite the loud title, A Screaming Man is a pretty quiet movie.  Not necessarily boring; there are a few laughs and likable characters.  But it does lean toward being a snoozer.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

La sconosciuta (The Unknown Woman)

Irena, a Ukrainian immigrant, seems obsessed with an Italian family, but never approaches them directly.  She befriends the doorman in their apartment building and the family's housekeeper, rents an apartment across the street, and stalks the family.  Eventually, she gains their trust and becomes their housekeeper (after killing her friend, their current housekeeper!).  Gradually we get hints of her motivation.  When a bad dude from her past begins to call, then shows up, we learn that she was actually a slave who escaped by violently attacking her master.  Flashbacks reveal the horrific nature of her captivity, eventually tying into her obsession with the Italian family.
She's watching . . . what's she watching for?
The slow reveal of Irena's past and motivations make this movie.  As Irena's past catches up with her, things begin to spiral out of control, throwing Irena's whole project into question.  I am reluctant to reveal much more than that; this movie is best enjoyed knowing little about the story.  I will say, as a word of caution, that the flashbacks to Irena's captivity, though brief and fleeting, have some disturbing images. 

The Unknown Woman is a little creepy, not horror movie creepy, but creepy in the sense of an almost understandable obsession.  Irena crosses the line, but as she does so, I sympathized with her plight.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Green Hornet

I'm a sucker for super hero movies.  I don't enjoy the dark, brooding heroes so much, like Batman.  Goofy heroes suit me fine.  I wasn't previously familiar with the Green Hornet radio and television shows, so I can't vouch for whether The Green Hornet movie's goofiness captures the personality of those earlier incarnations.  I can vouch for this: Seth Rogen captures the personality he portrays in his other movies, that of an annoying, overgrown kid, who's mildly funny but not funny enough not to be annoying.
Jay Chou as Kato outshines Rogen.
In The Green Hornet, he plays Britt Reid, the good-for-nothing playboy son of a newspaper publisher.  Due to his father's unexpected death, he is thrust into the role of publisher.  Not satisfied with publishing stories in the paper about crime, he decides to become a crime fighter.  It just so happens that his father's chauffeur, Kato, is a martial arts expert and an engineer/inventor/weapons expert who can make anything; Kato becomes Reid's sidekick, and together they fight crime in some rather unorthodox ways.  Their crime fighting exploits are entertaining, the action and special effects are well done, and the story is actually OK.  Rogen doesn't quite kill the movie, but I would have liked it much better without him.  I guess I can handle action stars adding comedy better than I can handle comedy stars doing action.  At least in this case.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Choking Man

I'm on a pretty good string of disappointing Film Movement movies.  The strength of the Film Movement films is primarily the cultural record.  In the case of Choking Man, the story revolves around a dishwasher at a diner in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Queens.  Jorge, an Ecuadorian immigrant, can scarcely speak, due to his shyness, or perhaps even an undiagnosed autism or similar condition.  Above his washing station, monopolizing his view all day, hangs a Heimlich maneuver poster.
Jorge has very little to say.
The acting isn't bad, and Jorge gets a little bit of sympathy since he's so pathetic.  But the build up of the story is a slow fizzle.  Even the surprise element at the end doesn't have much impact.  I didn't completely choke on Choking Man, but, in spite of a good effort, I couldn't completely swallow it.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Monday, October 31, 2011


Just in time for Halloween, here's a new horror movie out on DVD.  I'm not a big horror fan, but when I saw the preview for Rubber, I knew I had to see it.  Now that I've seen it, I realize it's a funny idea that's perfect for a spoof preview, but in this case it doesn't flesh out into a decent movie.
The police confront the suspected killer.
The star of Rubber is Robert, the tire.  Yes, he's a tire who somehow becomes sentient, and somehow gains telekinetic destructive powers.  He moves from bottles to small animals to people.  The movie tries to be sort of artsy and innovative by putting an audience in the movie and then sort of involving them in the story itself.  That part doesn't work.  The story doesn't work.  It's not even that funny.  I was thinking it might be funny bad like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or something, but it was just bad.

Bottom line, 1/2 star.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

Poor Stieg Larsson.  He finished this series of 3 novels, and died before he even saw them published.  For his sake, I hope the novels are better than this movie adaptation.  Also for his sake, I hope the American remake coming out in December is better than this Swedish version.

The girl in the title, Lisbeth, a counter-culture computer hacker, comes to the aid of Mikael, a journalist hired by a wealthy industrialist to look into the disappearance of his niece 40 years ago.  The industrialist and his extended family, creepy super-rich people who live on an island, have mystery and secrets surrounding them.  They do not approve of this journalist and punk girl living in the guest house on the island.
Aww, an established journalist having an affair with a tattooed and pierced girl half his age.  Isn't that sweet.

So this unlikely pair figures out that a serial killer has been stalking young women.  And guess what?  Big surprise!  The killer is an ostensibly upstanding citizen who quotes scripture!  Give me a break.  I get so sick of seeing these "religious" serial killers.  Come up with something original.  (Oops.  I'm speaking ill of the dead.  Sorry Stieg.)

Besides this major thematic turn-off, I guess it was an OK movie.  No, I take it back.  It was a muddled mess with questionable plot manipulation and poor characterization.  Bleh.  I have a feeling the American version will be slicker, with better music, but will still be a mess.  Oh, by the way, the dragon tattoo has nothing to do with the story.

Bottom line, 1/2 star.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Meet Dave

A couple of weeks ago I posted a review of I am Number Four, a teen-drama take on aliens living among us.  For a kid-comedy take on aliens, Eddie Murphy comes through with Meet Dave.  Dave is a spaceship designed to look like a human.  Murphy is the spaceship, as well as its captain.  The crew, tiny humanoids with Spock personalities, have come to retrieve an orb that will take the salt from the Earth's oceans, transporting it to their planet.  The orb has ended up in the hands of a little boy in New York.
Dave disembarking from . . . Dave!
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say Eddie Murphy is a comic genius.  Sure, he's been in some not-so-great movies, but he's hilarious and fun to watch in Meet Dave as a spaceship trying to portray itself as human and as an alien trying to reflect American Earth culture.  He's plenty silly, with some gross-out (but kid-friendly) humor.  The story, a passably entertaining alien tale, a la E.T., moves along nicely, but mostly as a vehicle for Murphy's comedy.  Good, clean, family-friendly fun.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Kak ya provel etim letom (How I Ended This Summer)

I tend to like many of the movies put out by Film Movement.  Most tell great stories, and almost all of them capture a slice of life in a foreign place.  How I Ended This Summer doesn't so much portray another culture, as another landscape.  I've never been to the Arctic, and may never go, but this movie captures the bleakness of that environment, and, even in your warm, cozy house, makes you feel the cold.
Cold enough for ya?
As well-made as the movie is, and as stunning as some of the visuals are, the story isn't much to report.  Pavel and Sergey are manning a remote weather station on an island in the Arctic Circle.  Sergey's the old hand; he's been there for years.  Pavel, the new guy, doesn't take things as seriously as Sergey.  Personality conflicts abound, exacerbated by close quarters and limited contact with others.

Pavel makes things worse when he receives a radio message concerning Sergey's family, who have been in an accident.  He avoids telling Sergey as long as he can, and in the meantime, both of them act like idiots.  This made the movie seem rather stupid to me.  I thought, "Why doesn't he just tell him!"  And then they make a bunch of other stupid choices.  Boring, and a little pointless.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Monday, October 10, 2011

I am Number Four

This is a pretty cool twist on the usual alien invasion story.  Hiding out on earth, trying to avoid the pursuit of interplanetary bounty hunters, "John Smith" makes every effort to blend in as a typical American teenager.  He is Number Four; the bounty hunters systematically hunt down his kind, killing them in order.  Number Three has just been killed, so he and his guardian take off for another part of the country, assuming new names and identities and covering their tracks as best they can.
Seems like the guys with the super powers get all the cute girls.
I couldn't help but wonder why they bothered enrolling John in high school.  He looks old enough to be out of school; just get him a job where he can be more anonymous than he can in the high school environment.  Or, for that matter, why get him a job at all?  In any case, he falls in love with a human, meets another student whose dad researched aliens and knows much about John's people, and eventually is found by the hunters.  I especially liked Number Six, who comes around to help Number Four against the hunters.

I am Number Four is good fun, and, even though it's a Disney-distributed product, it's produced by Michael Bay, who directed the Transformers movies and others, and directed by D. J. Caruso, who also directed Eagle Eye and Disturbia, both decent thrillers.  The effects and action meet up to their standards, and the story surpasses the teen angst and romance to move along to a satisfying, but possibly sequel-yielding, conclusion.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Zuo You (In Love We Trust)

Most of us will never face the type of moral dilemma faced by the families in In Love We Trust, but all of us, especially parents, can empathize with the gut-wrenching choices they make.  Set in modern-day Beijing, In Love We Trust introduces us to the cute 5-year-old Hehe, who has been diagnosed with leukemia.  Hehe lives with her mom and her loving step-dad, but sees her father regularly.  Treatments are unsuccessful, leaving a bone marrow donation as the only option.  The doctor says a sibling would be an good option, as there are no other matches.  Sibling?  Are you kidding?  This is China, with the one child policy!
But Hehe's mom has a plan: she proposes that she and her ex-husband, Hehe's father, get together and have another baby.  That's problematic for his new wife, who desperately wants a child, as well as for Hehe's step-dad, who realizes that this would rule out his having a biological child, given China's policy.  Emotions run high, and the couples reflect on the meaning of sex, and consider what sacrifices they are willing to make for the sake of Hehe.

In Love We Trust treats these questions respectfully and thoughtfully, while giving some insight into the life and culture of modern, urban China.  Fair warning: the nature of the story puts the couples in bed together, and although they are portrayed while having sex, no nudity is shown.  Far from being titillating, it was almost uncomfortably intimate, as the two couples struggle with their relationships.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


The preview of Unstoppable made me think of Speed 3 or some such movie.  A runaway train, civilians in danger, unexpected heroes heroically trying to stop it.  I fully expected a terrorist plot, a dirty bomb in the cargo, a criminal band making demands, or some other explanation for the train's rogue journey.  I was pleasantly surprised all the way around.  Those other elements don't necessarily indicate a bad movie, but they lean toward the formulaic.
There's enough smash-up action to keep things interesting.
So while Unstoppable doesn't completely avoid disaster movie cliches, it is refreshing that rather than resorting to some nefarious plot to send the train out of control, this disaster in the making was a simple matter of bad human judgement, mechanical malfunctions, and bad luck that sends the freight train down the tracks.  Unstoppable, based on 'true events,' has so many hairy close calls that I wonder how much was embellished and what was really true.  Even so, it's an exciting thrill ride, with plenty of impressive special effects, in which regular guys get a chance to be heroes. 

I don't know much about trains, but I can get behind a solid suspense movie with heroes you can cheer for.  Good performances by the stars, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, but the rest of the cast really seemed to add to the realism of life on the railroad. 

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Friday, September 30, 2011


Dreams within dreams within dreams. . . . In Inception, Dom Cobb is a thief.  He can break into your dreams and steal your secrets.  Questionable science, I know, but that's why they call it science fiction.  He is master of this art, and has a reputation as a sort of corporate dream raider.  When a client hires him not to steal a dream, but to plant ideas in a dreamer's dream, he takes the art to a whole new level.  It's all pretty far fetched, as the characters interact in dreams, essentially sharing one dream.  I had heard that Inception was confusing to follow with the interweaving dreams, but I didn't find it as confusing as silly.
This scene in a tumbling hotel was visually fantastic.
The special effects are pretty impressive.  It turns out that if your in the dream of someone riding in a van, and the van hits a rough road or gets rolled over, the world of the dream does likewise.  This presented challenges for the filmmakers, but some stunning visuals for the viewer.  Further, it seems that time passes slower in a dream, exponentially slower in a dream within a dream within a dream.  That makes for some interesting strategizing. 

The story of Inception is pretty interesting, with Cobb's family dynamics driving his work, and the victim's family dynamics playing into the job.  But the star of the movie is the special effects and the occasionally mind-bending dream-within-dream reality or unreality.  Like I said, it's not that confusing, but if you step out for a minute for popcorn, you might come back lost.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The American

If I'm going to be held in suspense, I'd like to know at some point what I'm in suspense for.  And if there's a movie about hired killers, I'd rather the story fit in the context of larger issues (international struggles, conflicts between powerful but corrupt businessmen, revenge), not some internecine squabbles among the killers themselves.  Sadly, The American, with its meticulous, plodding exposition, delivers the latter.
Jack/Edward's client checking out his handiwork.
This movie was pretty cool in its timelessness.  It seemed like it could have been made decades ago.  Most of the movie is set in a tiny, remote Italian village, which looks like it could have been unchanged for centuries.  Jack, or Edward, depending who he's talking to, makes specialty weapons for assassins, and tells his handler this is his last job.  He doesn't know how true that is.  A bit of romance with a local prostitute, a bit of soul searching with the local priest he befriends, and a bit of suspense as we wonder who the target is makes for a decent, but not great movie.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


This is a pretty cute movie.  Anyone who has ever struggled to fit in can relate to Ricardo, who goes to a new school and wants to be in the "in crowd."  His efforts are futile until he happens to mention to some boys that he has some Playboy magazines that he'll share with them.  With high hopes of seeing some skin pics, the boys welcome him into his circle.  Ricardo's problem is that it's a total lie; he doesn't have any magazines and has no idea how to get them!  But the lie is enough to establish friendships and the boys become fast friends, learning much about each other and themselves.
Ricardo's in heaven when the girl of his dreams stays after school to help him with his work.
1981 doesn't deliver anything profound, but it captures the travails of middle school in the context of the 1980s in an entertaining way.  Anyone who ever lusted after a Walkman, played Coleco games, or had a Star Wars bedspread will enjoy the nostalgia trip. 

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mal Dia Para Pescar (Bad Day to Go Fishing)

Bad Day to Go Fishing has an endearing quality to it.  We meet the over-sized but lovable Jacob van Oppen, who once held the title "the strongest man on Earth," and his charmingly sleazy promoter and manager, "Prince" Orsini (it's never quite clear what he is the prince of. . . .) as they travel around South America setting up wrestling matches and exhibitions in small towns.  Armed with a scrapbook full of reports of Jacob's laurels and feats, Orsini tries to raise funds for challenge matches, offering $1000 for anyone who can stay in the ring with Jacob for 3 minutes.  As Orsini fishes for the right challenger (i.e., someone who's willing to throw the fight for a cut), his relationship with Jacob deteriorates, Jacob questions this lifestyle, and a pregnant young wife who thinks her husband can beat Jacob challenges their scheme.
Jacob and Orsini promoting the upcoming "fight."
I found myself embracing these characters, as well as the small-town life depicted.  Anyone whose glory days are past, athletic or otherwise, can relate to both Jacob and Orsini, who clearly had some notoriety and wealth at one time.  As it turns out, the actor who plays Jacob, Finnish strong man Jouko Ahola, was actually the "World's Strongest Man" in 1997 and 1999.  (See his web site here.)  So I guess a real-life strongest man on Earth, when his glory days are gone by, stars in a movie about a strongest man on Earth whose glory days have gone by.

This is a decent, enjoyable movie with likable characters and a strong finish. 

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Friday, September 9, 2011


What would you do if you came home and a burglar was hiding under your bed?  Call the police or sit down and wait for him to come out?  In Eldorado, Yvan chooses to wait, the befriend the burglar and give him a ride to his parents' house.  Elie, the burglar, is a junkie, supposedly trying to get clean.  Neither one of these guys have anything better to do, so they might as well take a road trip together.  This was not a terrible movie, but it wasn't very interesting and didn't have much point.  There are some funny moments, but mostly Eldorado was a waste of time. 

Bottom line, 1 star.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Speaking of drawing on sympathy for illegal aliens (see my review of Welcome here), who can wish for a political refugee, who only wants a safe place to raise her teenage son, to be deported?  In Illegal, Tania, a Russian, lives in Belgium with her son.  Randomly stopped on the street without proper ID, she winds up in a detention center, stuck in the bureaucracy and frustration of separation from her son and appealing to be granted asylum.
In an almost documentary format, Tania experiences and witnesses the abuse and confusion of immigrants in Belgium.  Countries have a right to secure their borders, but they have an obligation to treat all within their borders humanely.  Activists who would point to films like Illegal and Welcome for examples of the plight of refugees refuse to acknowledge the need for border while focusing on examples of abuse.  But I guess that wouldn't make as good a story.

Illegal is well-made, emotionally stirring, but wholly inadequate for a debate on immigration.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Micmacs à tire-larigot

Great movie.  I was, of course, predisposed to like this one, knowing that this was from the same director as Amelie, one of my all-time favorites.  But Micmacs stands all on its own for its creativity, memorably motley cast of characters, and a comically satisfying revenge story.
Welcome to our junkyard home!
Poor Bazil.  When he was a boy, his father was killed by a land mine and his mom went nuts, leaving him an orphan.  Years later, he's nearly killed by a stray bullet during a street fight.  By chance, he stumbles across the identities of the arms manufacturers who made the mine and the bullet, and, with the assistance of his new friends, sets out on finding some revenge on both.
Bet you can't do that!
His friends live as a sort of family under a junk heap.  A lovable collection of rejects, they put their assorted gifts together in an elaborate plan to set one arms manufacturer against the other.  Their methods and attitudes cracked me up. The whole movie is a visual treat, imaginative and full of interesting details. Anyone who likes to see the little guy win (not to give away the ending or anything) will love this one.  It's a fun show, sure to please.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cosa voglio di piu (Come Undone)

These people are so stupid.  Based on a random meeting, Anna and Domenico strike up a hot and heavy illicit affair.  So they're attracted to each other; they gave themselves plenty of opportunities to let reason take hold, but still kept meeting.  Anna has a very nice, if a bit goofy, live-in boyfriend.  Domenico has a faithful, attractive wife who stays home caring for their young children.  Needless to say, Anna and Domenico are simply selfish, creating an unsustainable, costly, and irresponsible relationship, if you can even call it that.  Basic story, they meet, they decide to have sex, they know they should quit meeting but can't, wonder, "Why couldn't we have met sooner?", then they have to figure out whether to stay together.  Sorry not to have anything to say about the quality of this movie as a movie, I just couldn't stand it.

Bottom line, no stars.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Living in Texas, we hear a lot about the threat of illegal immigration and the social consequences it brings.  I guess I never think much about illegal immigration to other countries.  Welcome tells the story of a young Kurd from Iraq who works his way to France and tries to stowaway on a truck bound for England across the English channel.  He gets caught hiding in a truck and tries to come up with other options for crossing the channel.  He jumps on the obvious, but difficult, option of swimming across.  He begins training with a swim coach who befriends him and helps him out, and determines that he will swim the channel to be reunited with his long lost love.
Hey coach, how far is it to England?
Welcome challenges notions of immigration, drawing the viewer emotionally to the side of immigrants and their advocates.  The movie definitely plays on sympathy for the poor teenager who has traveled hundreds of miles to escape hardship and oppression in his homeland.  After all, why wouldn't any country welcome someone from the oppressed Kurdish people of Iraq?  And on top of that, he wants to be reunited with his sweetheart?  How can any bureaucracy deny him that?

I don't know much about immigration laws.  I was surprised how openly the immigrants lived in France; it was as if the French were happy to provide a launching pad for immigrants wanting to go to England.  Welcome doesn't set out to seriously address immigration policy, it only appeals to emotion, demonstrating that a moving story should not move policy.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Great Dictator

Here's a fascinating and entertaining historical relic.  Charlie Chaplin had no love for Adolph Hitler.  Best known for his silent films, The Great Dictator was Chaplin's first "talkie."  He plays both Adenoid Hynkel, a thinly veiled parody of Hitler, and a Jewish barber who looks just like Hynkel.  His exaggerated comic portrayal of Hynkel, the dictator of Tomainia, must have enraged Hitler and delighted everyone else.  Released in 1940, the movie served as anti-Nazi propaganda before the extent of the evils of Nazism were fully known.

Even without the historical background, Chaplin's trademark humor comes through and the movie can be enjoyed on his merits alone.  His sputtering mock-German may have been offensive to Germans (and may be funnier if you know German--there was probably some real German mixed in there) but I found it amusing.  This globe scene is classic.
After the slapstick and satire throughout the film, Chaplin as the simple Jewish barber takes an opportunity at the end to give a powerful speech excoriating the Nazi regime. Having been mistaken for the dictator, he addresses a massive political rally, imploring for peace.
Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts. You are not machines. You are not cattle. You are men. You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don't hate, only the unloved hate. Only the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers: don't fight for slavery, fight for liberty. . . . Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfill their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise.
Real Nazis didn't get to hear the speech, at least not for a while; the movie was banned in Germany.  I wonder why? You can watch the whole speech here:

Bottom line, 4 stars.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Angelina Jolie is cool.

Some actresses can make even a bad movie look good, and make a good movie great.  That's how I feel about Angelina Jolie. 

Her most recent movie, The Tourist (well, her most recent live-action movie. She did have a role in this year's Kung Fu Panda 2.)  She plays Elise, charming, seductive, beautiful, rich, and on the run. She's under surveillance by the police because her lover is wanted for tax evasion.  Her lover, a mysterious financier whose identity is unknown, bilked a gangster for billions, so is on the run from the gangster and from the police.  Elise randomly selects Frank, an American schoolteacher played by Johnny Depp, pretending like he is her lover, in an attempt to fool the police, but that gets Frank into trouble.  Much chasing and shooting and capturing and escaping ensues.
She looks great, even after being shot at and driving a boat in a daring escape.
The Tourist, a hodgepodge of genres, plays out sort of like Hitchcockian slapstick.  The beautiful, mysterious stranger, the bumbling but likable tourist, the easily outwitted cops and beefy bad guys, all come together in story of deception and daring with some well-placed twists.  It ain't Shakespeare, but we know it's not supposed to be.  Jolie and Depp play the whole thing with a smirk (it seems).  They probably had fun with this movie, and you will, too.

On a bit darker note, Jolie plays CIA agent Evelyn Salt in Salt.  When a Russian defector claims he has information on planned assassination attempts on the presidents of Russia and the U.S.  He even names the assassin: Evelyn Salt. Suddenly under suspicion, she goes on the run.  But is she running to prove her innocence or running to accomplish the assassination?  It's a fun ride, with plenty of unbelievable action sequences, wildly convoluted conspiracies, and impossibly duplicitous characters.  I am a firm believer that some of the most enjoyable movies are also some of the most outrageous.  The good news: Salt 2 may be in the works!
You don't want to mess with Salt!
Speaking of unbelievable, how about the gun action in Wanted?  Jolie is part of the Fraternity, a secret society of assassins who have mastered a technique of controlling the trajectory of a bullet after it is fired.  Far-fetched?  Of course it is!  As is most of the action and story!  What did I just say about outrageous movies?  The action sequences are sometimes cartoonish, true to Wanted's comic book roots.  Jolie has had larger roles, but the number of her tattoos we see is larger than ever.  Wanted is a bit strange, but fun to watch with the crazy, over-the-top action sequences.  (By the way, she also plays an assassin in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but that movie falls more into the romantic/ action/ comedy genre of The Tourist.)
I don't think these are movie make-up tattoos.
I won't say I'll watch anything Angelina Jolie is in, but my perspective is that she's in some great movies, and she makes every movie she's in much better.  She's not always an action hero like she is in these movies.  Her early role in the not so great Hackers (my review here) certainly made that movie more bearable.  More recently, she played a detective in the otherwise mediocre Taking Lives (my review here), to which she added some spice, so to speak.  So action, drama, whatever, I'm always interested in what she's working on next.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Assassins are cool.

Have you ever noticed that, according to Hollywood, assassins are cool?  Who can argue that James Bond is the epitome of cool?  I've never met an assassin (that I know of), and I don't really want to, but I have a feeling they're not all so cool and fashionable.  I reviewed Killers a while back (here), with the supposedly charming and sexy Ashton Kutcher starring as an assassin.  Here are a few more recent movies with a variety of assassins.

The most stylish assassins are, of course, English, as we learn in Faster.  They're also cocky, well-traveled, and brilliant.  Right.  "Killer" (the character is unnamed in the movie) fits that description, but he may have met his match in Driver (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson). Driver, just out prison, goes on a killing spree seeking revenge for his brother's killing, but he's got Killer coming after him, too.  Killer turns out to be a disappointment, and not even the cool action sequences, Johnson's tough guy acting, and Billy Bob Thornton's cop character can rescue this bungled mess.

Speaking of bungled messes and convoluted plots, whoever is responsible for Operation: Endgame ought to have a contract on his movie career.  It's not without its clever spots, unexpected twists, and quirky characters, but for the most part, this one was painful to sit through.  Two rival teams of government assassins meet up in a secret underground facility and start killing each other off.  I won't bother you with the why.  It's a motley group, with some messy killing, and few laughs.

The assassin in Machete is actually quite the opposite of the stylish, sophisticated operative of the prior two movies.  The title character, played by scary-looking tough guy Danny Trejo, was hired to kill a senator, but then realizes he's being set up, so he sets out for revenge.  (Assassins can be pretty vengeful.)  The result is a violent, bloody mess, but this is actually a pretty good movie, if graphic yet purposeful violence doesn't drive you away.  One thing I love about Machete is its origin.  It started as a fake trailer for Grindhouse, but fans wanted to see the movie, so viola, here it is.

The final assassin movie for today is the much more mainstream Red.  You wouldn't know it by his boring persona now, but Bruce Willis is a retired assassin.  When someone starts coming after him, he has to visit some of his old colleagues to figure out who has the hit on him.  Along the way, his dream girl, who he's never met face to face, gets stuck in the middle of it.  Also starring Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren, Red has plenty of star power, the brand of action/humor we expect when Willis is on the screen, and a clever conspiracy and revenge plot, all of which combine for a satisfying flick.  Red also features Rebecca Pidgeon, whom I loved in The Spanish Prisoner and who does not get enough big roles. I think she's terrific.

There may be a place in this world for an assassin.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously played a part in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler.  I guess you could call Seal Team 6 assassins.  But I have a feeling that real-life assassins of whatever stripe would scoff at their big screen portrayals.  In the meantime, the mystique is there, and will be as long as Bond novels are written and others want to share his success, even if most efforts miss the mark (so to speak).