Sunday, July 24, 2011

RANDOM MOVIES REVIEWS: EDITION #2: "ANOTHER YEAR," "GASLAND", "WAITING FOR SUPERMAN," AND MORE

Another week, another mix bag of films I've viewed. I'm ever closer to the , not-really-that-elusive 3,000 feature films in my lifetime. They run the gammit from Mike Leigh to Roger Corman this week, and includes two of the bigger documentaries of the past year. Oh, in case you haven't noticed, I'm going to try to make my blog only an every-other-day blog, 'cause pumping out a new thought or review everyday can be exhausting, and I don't want to cheat any readers I have with something I just whipped up because I thought I had to write something. When you put yourself out there, whether it's good or bad, you better have taken your time and made sure it was something that was really worth saying. I also work on my own screenplays and sketches when I'm not doing this, and neithers time should be taken up more by the other. Okay, with the business at hand taken care of, onto the reviews of the week:

Another Year: (2010) Director: Mike Leigh
5 STARS
After watching most Mike Leigh films, I immediately want to see them again. They aren’t quick-paced, half of them barely have a discernable plot, but they all touch on some of the most human of conditions and the most realistic of characters. Of his films, I’ve seen, “Topsy-Turvy,” “Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake,” and “Happy-Go-Lucky”. His films center around eccentrics, but he then fills the screen with other characters that would seem ordinary or at worst cliché, under the direction of any other director. “Another Year,” involves an eccentric named Mary (Leslie Manville,” in an amazing performance. ) She’s a co-worker of Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and occupies the role of crazy aunt in their household, the kind that stomps by unannounced, for no particular reason other than she’s unhappy. Ruth and her husband Tom, (Jim Broadbent) can clearly see how unhappy and in need of help Mary actually is, but probably wisely put up with her until she figures it out on her own. Aunt Mary also has a crush on their 30-year old son Joe (Oliver Maltman), and there are allusions to some kind of history between them, but there are allusions to many unsaid moments in the film.
By now, many are familiar with Mike Leigh’s screenwriting  technique, where he gathers a group of actors from his basic plot and characters, and films improvised rehearsals for months on end, before forming a script out of the improvisations. It raises some questions when his movies keep getting Oscar-nominations in the screenwriting category, (as this film was) but it takes the best actors in the world just to approach his character development. “Another Year, “ is separated into four distinct segments, during different parts of a year, but the emotional undertones created in the subtle nuances in the Lesley Manville performance, that express Mary’s hidden pains and emotions are what the film’s really about. It doesn’t just take a great director to end a film on a long one-shot of an actor, it’s takes a great actor to make us feel for her while we just sit and stare at her.
Gasland: (2010) Director: Josh Fox
4 1/2 STARS
An Oscar-nominee for Best Documentary, and now a multiple Emmy-Nominee, Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland,” all but eliminates the notion that natural gas industry’s, mainly, Halliburton’s invention of the process of “fracking,” isn't systematically poisoning the water supply of all those who live on or near the natural gas reserves, and because of provisions in their government contracts, they’re immune from all the clean water and air laws that had been passed over the last few decades (many of which, were passed by Nixon, including the Clean Water Act). Skeptical, and want proof? Fox goes into many people’s home and is often handed water samples, and gets invited to do something strange. He turns on many peoples sink, holds a match under the tap water, and the tap water is then lit on fire, often exploding over the entire sink. It happens again and again and again, and that’s just the first experiment he tries.
Fox basically turns into a soft-spoken Michael Moore type figure, trying desperately to get interviews with anybody in any natural gas company or somebody who represents them, but he does it with a sly and somewhat maverick filmmaking style you’d usually see in a student film, and it’s strangely effective and times creepy, at times funny, and occasionally, he has a banjo. It’s an in-depth look at a process that we all are assured is safe, but undeniably isn’t.


Waiting for 'Superman': (2010) Director: Davis Guggenheim
5 STARS
It surprised most Oscar pundits when “Waiting for Superman,” didn’t get nominated for Best Documentary this past year. It had won many of the lead-up awards, and was one of the more popular documentaries in the nation, and director Davis Guggenheim had won an Oscar for his great Documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” a couple years ago. This movie does very well what it sets out to do, which is, to show the many ways in which public education is flawed in this country, and how the most basic of changes could drastically improve our schools. Well, having grown up in what was literally, the worst school district in the nation; I certainly knew and understood many of these issues. It focuses on a few students from all over the country, all of whom feel there education hopes lie in at least one lottery to a charter school, a private school, or a school without tracks, parents will do anything to get out sending their kids to a dropout factory in an inner-city. The scene where one little girl isn’t allowed to go to her Graduation at one of these alternatives because her mother didn’t pay the tuition in time is eerily reminiscent of the scene in one of the best of all documentaries “Hoop Dreams,” where Arthur Agee’s mother can’t get her son’s records from the high school that recruited him to play basketball because she can’t pay the tuition fees. Most students are put through a lottery process because there are too many applicants at the most prestigious charters, magnet, and alternative schools.  Even so-called good schools with top of the line technology, are outdated by using a track system which only allows certain students to take college-levels/ready classes.
From my own experiences, I went to a Magnet Program for a year, one that I did poorly at, and one that I later found was ran rather poorly compared to similar programs in other states. (I also found out that I didn’t know how to cheat, which most everybody else in the class did know.)It showcases a few education reformers, most notably Gregory Canada, the founder of Harlem Success Academy, which produces results better than all of the best Urban schools despite accepting mostly underprivileged kids that if they don’t get so lucky in the lottery, they’re all but guaranteed to enter dropout factory school, some of which produce 80% dropout rates, and the controversial Michelle Rhee, who took over the Washington D.C. schools, has been doing brash reinvention the moment she walked in, as has all but bullied the Teacher’s Union on practically every issue.  The issue of teacher tenure is brought up often, and secret videotape evidence of teachers who have clearly chosen to not teach, (or have never been qualified to begin with) is shocking, but what’s insulting is how the unqualified teachers aren’t allowed to be fired, ‘cause of the powers of the Teachers’ Unions in giving them tenure after two years of teaching.  
I don’t know if this is a perfect documentary, but I certainly looked back and thought about my education watching this film, and I had a pretty good education, or at least I think I did. In the last thirty years, America schoolchildren have dropped in every statistical category except one “Confidence in their schooling.” If there is a point to the movie it’s that certain things are proven to work, the system we have now, doesn’t, and any new idea that can radically change schools will be fought with by drastic force by, of all people, the teachers who we trust to teach our kids. It’s a powerful documentary, one of the most important, and hopefully one that will actually effect change.
A Man for All Seasons: (1966) Director: Fred Zinneman
4 1/2 STARS
“A Man for All Seasons,” won six Oscars in ’66, including Awards for Best Picture, Director for Fred Zinneman, and Actor for Paul Scofield. Based off of a Tony Winning Play, I think succeeds overall because of it’s narrow focus on Sir Thomas More (Scofield) and his crisis of personal conflict between England at the Roman Catholic Church during that notorious time when King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) formed the Church of England so he can get a divorce and marry Anne Boleyn.  This is one of those few time periods that I have always had a difficult time with in film and TV in the past. (Most recently, having to sit through the movie “The Other Boleyn Girl,” a more historical-fiction account, and the HBO TV series “The Tudors,” which I generally found more annoying and melodramatic as it went on [Although my mother’s opinion on that show in particular differs greatly from mine]) Henry VIII always comes off as a shallow and at times, pig-headed caricature, and the disturbing part is with all the other suspicious characters he apparently surrounded himself with, he was blatantly unaware how little of his own life he actually had complete control of. Maybe that’s why he’s so devoted to the altering of such trivial matters as who his Queen was, that he abandons his own Church. While at times, the behind-the-scenes melodrama of era creeps into “A Man for All Seasons,” More’s intellectual and religiously philosophical stances, or lack of stances famously lead to his beheading, are shown here not as the game of power roulette it was, but from the point-of-view of a respected outsider to the Crown, and frankly it’s a relief. More’s a much more interesting character, and while at times the film is overly repetitive in outlying his stubborn non-opinion stance, the film is an amazing small part of this story told well, and with a great performance by Scofield, which for intensive purposes carries this film.
Everlasting Moments: (2008) Director: Jan Troell
3 STARS
Everlasting Moments, is a movie that sprawls everlastingly. It’s centers around a Swedish family in Sweden in the early 19th Century. The father is a workaholic and alcoholic, and it’s often best when he’s away. The wife, wins a camera in a lottery, and suddenly her world opens up, and through that magic medium of photos, she’s able to record time, and express a hidden artistic nature that her typical role as simply mother and occasionally beaten wife doesn’t offer.  The family struggles to get by, and the movie is episodic in nature, and frankly so the episodes are more interesting than the others. The film was directed Jan Troell, who’s made many movies about struggling families in the past, most notably in America, “The Emigrants,” which earned him two Oscar nominations, and is a film made specifically for America’s bicentennial. (Yeah, Sweden made movies for our bicentennial, I don’t know what to think about that either. ) This film got a Golden Globe nomination, but in general, I think the movie drags as much as it hits, put the hits are powerful. While she loves her husband and her kids, the film is really basically her love affair with her camera, and through the operator of the store which she walks in at first to sell it, which happens, but she still gets to use it thanks to a nice and strangely fair man running the store. I’m on the fence, but I can’t think of any reason to stop people from watching it, so it’s a minor recommendation.
The Little Shop of Horrors: (1960) Director: Roger Corman 
2 STARS
I can see how quite easily, how this Roger Corman, ultra-low budget B-movie horror-comedy would inspire a Broadway Musical and another movie in the eighties that’s problem more well-known than this original version. While I had both on my Netflix, the library for some reason only has the original. Shame, the original was shot mostly on a soundstage and apparently only took a week to shoot, but I have a feeling it has better value having seen the second version. The movie involves, a  bumbling worker at a local struggling flower shop, and an ever-growing plant that talks, and then swallows you whole. The plant, an apparent variation on a venus flytrap, insists on being fed, or it dies quickly, costing the young man who grew it his job. The movie is shot with mostly unknown actors, including a then-unknown Jack Nicholson, in a weird scene in a dentist office, where he insists on the dentist taking his teeth out. That joke doesn’t quite work. A few of the jokes do, and a few work just on the pure absurdity of the situation and plot. Corman is certainly the king of the low-budget b-movie, but I think I’ve always preferred contemporaries of his like Russ Meyer more than Corman. No doubt his influence is vast, and this film in particular has unusual staying power, but it basically didn’t have enough to really keep my interest. I think B-movies are often “a matter of taste,” to quote Tim Gunn of “Project Runway,” but I do wonder if a newer, musical version of the film would’ve worked on me better.
Tank Girl: (1995) Director: Rachel Talalay
1 1/2 STARS 
“Tank Girl,” is exhausting. I was hoping to make that sentence longer with words like “interesting,” “unfortunate,” and “albeit,” but it’s just exhausting in that frantic and frenzied way a film is when it decides to throw everything including the kitchen sink at you all at once. I was getting dizzy by the middle of it, and then they throw in a musical number that’s just strange.  The movie claims to take place about forty or so years into the future where a “Mad Max,” type world now exists after a comet has destroyed most of the world’s water supply, and apparently, although it apparently happened in between episodes of MTV “House of Style,” and the beginning of a “Singled Out,” marathon. “Tank Girl,” is played by Lori Petty, you might recall her most at Geena Davis’s sister in “A League of Their Own,” plays “Tank Girl,” who speaks with a smart-assed ten-year old voice, and acts and dresses like a combination of Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics and Downtown Julie Brown. Are there any late ‘80s-early ‘90s MTV references I’m missing? If there is “Tank Girl,” probably thought of them already. For a sci-fi movie, this film has an unusual amount of pop culture references, most of which are fairly dated. The movie is filled with many ideas, too many. It quick-cuts between action scenes, animation that’s both comic book stills and actual animation based on the stills, special effects, elaborate campy costumes, elaborate campy soundstages made to look like desert, it even has a Human-Kangaroo hybrid of soldiers that are played by rap artists, Naomi Watts trying very hard to look unattractive for no particular reason, and a musical number set in something that resembles a strip club based on the Garden of Eden, again for no particular reason. It certainly has a lot of things that are interesting in of themselves, but shoving them altogether makes it look like the director, (a female director interesting enough for this material) didn’t want to make any decisions, so she made all of them. It might not have been the worst idea with material this campy, but even campiness should raise the level of the material. Instead, all it raised from me was a migraine.
Osama: (2003) Director: Siddaq Barmak
3 1/2 STARS 
“Osama,” was the first movie to be made in Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era, and it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film. I remember that clearly, because it was the worst edited moment at an Awards show until the Emmys on FOX a couple years later when they cut to an overhead shot whenever Sally Field said something intelligent and thoughtful. Clearly the director of the Awards show hadn’t seen the movie or heard what the film was about. It’s about a young girl who during Taliban rule, after her father is passed, is forced to disguise herself as a boy so that she can get work and support her mother. The story itself is kind of slow-moving and predictable, but what I found interesting was the glimpses we get of like in Afghanistan, under Taliban rule. They have a presence in the everyday rules they enforced, like the ridiculous, to quote Bill Mahar, “beekeeper suits”, they force the women to live in, but mostly, the actual people seem to show out of nowhere. Sometimes they come to fire at a protest and ‘cause more havoc and hell. Other times, they just come down and pass out turbans to schoolchildren. They don’t seem as much a repressive government religious force as a sudden outburst that interrupts the daily lives of the citizens, most of which seem to just want to go on with their daily life. It’s an interesting little piece for a country that hadn’t made a movie for over a decade, and hopefully they’ll be able to make more, but in generally, this isn’t a film that particularly stood out to me in any memorable way, outside of its cultural importance of it being made, but maybe that's just enough.
 
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