Monday, August 30, 2010

A movie review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

Director - David Michod
113 Min; R

Ben Mendelsohn - Andrew 'Pope' Cody
Guy Pearce - Detective Leckie
James Frecheville - Joshua 'J' Cody
Jacki Weaver - Janine 'Smurf' Cody

The Australian film Animal Kingdom won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic World Cinema in 2010 and it is easy to see why it received such high praise for artistic quality, but as a film it is greatly overshadowed by a few magnificent performances, and though I love the attempt at a unique style of storytelling and a gritty, 'real' feel, the story as a whole didn't capture me the way I had hoped for when I first saw the trailer.

It was definitely a risk for the director to shoot in such a realistic manner, portraying the Cody family in its normal everyday routine as they go about their business of planning crimes and carrying them out. They are past their prime, it seems, as bank robbery is just too difficult compared to the past, and one member of the family contemplates getting out and dabbling in the stock market. There isn't a lot of stylized scenery of the 'bad guys' getting together in a warehouse to plan their capers, rather we see them walking around the house, having a drink, snorting coke, discussing what is next. This criminal family is in a battle with a corrupt police force and the blurry line is often crossed as we discover nobody can be trusted.

The opening scenes include voice over by the character 'J', who explains to us what we are about to see - his mother having overdosed on heroin. As a general rule I detest voice over, especially at the start of the movie, and especially when the cinematic approach taken in this film simply didn't require it! I felt everything the character was saying and the emotion I was supposed to feel was evident from the surroundings, characters, etc. It was very much a moment of me wanting to scream 'show don't tell!' I also had problems with the performance of James Frecheville, portraying the young J who is thrown into the underworld of crime his family has been a part of (without him) for many years. Perhaps it was the director's choice, but his mono-emotional and over-passive style simply did not work for me, and just once I would have liked him to be a normal teenager.

The film rises well above average thanks to 3 special roles.

1. Jacki Weaver plays 'Smurf', the Oedipal grandmother of J and matriarchal figure of the entire family. Her performance oozes of creepiness and power. As the strong protector of 'her boys' she not only knows the shady business they deal in she is a major part, yet at the end of the day she likes to give a much too lingering kiss on the lips to each. I will remember her performance for a long time as the quintessential two-faced monster who at one moment will shower you will love and at another put a gun to your head.

2. Guy Pearce as Detective Leckie is nuanced and complex. At no point can you tell what his motivations are nor where his thoughts will lead him. At one moment he may be the cop looking to take down the family through a series of manipulative maneuvers, and at another he may in fact be the one we should fear. I have always loved this actor and this role just helps to solidify that stance.

3. Ben Mendelsohn seals this film. As Andrew 'Pope' Cody you will have trouble finding such a terrifying look at a psychopath. One moment he is the father figure to family and friends encouraging them to speak to him and tell him things, and the other he is a savage beast capable of murder or worse. He weaves back and forth throughout the film in subtle ways that will scare you to death when you realize people like this exist in the world.

The film is shot with one too many long, drawn out scenes with musical backgrounds - the kind that make many people say 'that was too artsy' - yet I respect the attempt and some of the scenes really aid the film. I find it hard to put a number to the film because it clearly will not appeal to everyone, yet some will find it fascinating as a film to dissect. I'm comfortable with my opinion.

**** out of 5

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A movie review: Get Low (2010)

Get Low (2010)

Director - Aaron Schneider
103 min; PG-13
Robert Duvall - Felix Bush
Lucas Black - Buddy
Sissy Spacek - Mattie Darrow
Bill Murray - Frank Quinn

A very good reason for you to see the new film Get Low is that it will make you smile inside and out. I don't know if you need much more of a reason to want to see it, but if you do, see it because this is a fun performance to watch by Robert Duvall as a 1930s Tennessee hermit (Felix Bush) based very loosely off a real life character of similar folklore. I'm not sure any molds have been broken by this performance, but at his age it just feels good to see Duvall command an entire movie the way he does, really becoming this character and making it very difficult for you to take your eyes off of him, not that it is something you would do.

Yes Bill Murray is in this film, as a funeral home owner who accepts the strange request of Mr. Bush to throw a funeral party for him while he is still alive so that he may attend it himself, but this is in no way a Bill Murray movie. What I mean is, I think he does a pretty good job of showing a complex man played simply, but he really is a supporting character in the film, and at times he feels out of place in a 1930s small town setting. It doesn't detract for me though, and I like his performance as a man who is probably running from his own demons, but we never really know.

It is Lucas Black and Sissy Spacek who fill most of the screen time besides Duvall, and as Murray's funeral parlor assistant and the old hermit's long ago girl, the two do very good jobs at holding the story together at appropriate times and reminding us there is a world outside of that of Felix Bush.

There isn't a whole lot to tell about the movie, for it is actually quite simple, and I'll go ahead and leave it at that. It's not going to overwhelm you and maybe you won't be talking about it like something else you have seen, but I think the story of a man who falls so far and ultimately has the chance to rise again is timeless, and in the hands of a master such as Duvall it comes together very nicely in this film.

**** out of 5

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Documentary Review: The Tillman Story (2010)

The Tillman Story (2010)
aka "I'm Pat ___Tillman" - USA (working title)

Director - Amir Bar-Lev
94 min; R (language)

Narrator - Josh Brolin

Director Amir Bar-Lev spoke for approximately 15 minutes after his new film The Tillman Story came to a close during a rainy Sunday afternoon screening in New York. Had it been left up to him the title would have been quite different: I'm Pat Fucking Tillman. For obvious reasons this never reached the light of day, but those few words are so powerful and encapsulate such a large amount of what this film was made for that it would have been absolutely perfect.

I've been busy reading everything I can get my hands on about this film, the making of the film, actual letters and documents available online, and anything else that my mind wanders towards. This really is a fascinating story and even a full length documentary such as this can only cover so much and I really wish it could have uncovered even more. I suppose I am slightly confused as to what the actual aim of the film is, that is to say, was it created to shed new light on a subject that has been discussed in great detail over the years? or was it put together to tell the story of Pat? or of the Tillman family? or of a government conspiracy? etc.? I suppose that ultimately it works extraordinarily well on all levels, and though we never reach fulfilment on certain questions this is one hell of a springboard towards potential future uncovering - perhaps a follow up in 5-10 years would be a perfect complement.

The film is packed with perfectly placed footage and interviews that left me involuntarily teared up and at the same time I felt a deep, guttural anger towards those involved. I credit the director quite highly that I do not feel like he was setting up the audience for these moments as some sort of 'gotcha' moment, rather I felt very much that these moments are there as a reminder of truth, of what actually happened, and how it affects each person may be slightly different, but I'm willing to bet that there will be a common theme of emotion.

There is no way to give a 'basic' outline of what this film strives to cover, but in a sweeping attempt to bring unity to this review I will attempt a brief synopsis:

Pat Tillman, a standout football player at Arizona State University and eventual professional player for the Arizona Cardinals, walked away from a multi-million dollar contract in the aftermath of 9/11 and took up post in Afghanistan Along with his brother Kevin. He was very private about his reasons and never publicly spoke of his decision. During a second tour of duty Tillman, along with an Afghan friendly, were killed by what was initially said to be a heroic effort on Tillman's part during an ambush on his convoy.

Russell Baer was there when it all happened and he knew the truth, yet he was told to keep quiet, along with everyone who knew, while he quietly flew back to the US with Pat's brother Kevin and the coffin sitting between them. Subsequent information, due in large part to the efforts of the Tillman family, brought to light a likely cover-up by the US government and army in regard to the actual cause of death - 'friendly-fire' - Tillman had been killed by his own men. So why was there even a need for a cover up? Why not just report the facts? This film takes a hard look at the reasoning behind these questions, about why Tillman was treated as such a national hero, and why his family wanted the truth about their son to be known - that he was not a hero any more than the others he fought with, that he was a human being who made mistakes but always tried to do the right thing, and that he was not some poster-child to be broadcast across the country for some political agenda.

Rich Tillman, speaking at his brother Pat's funeral after listening to a line of people speak of Pat being 'home' and 'in a better place with God', simply cannot hold back his most pure feelings on the entire situation: "Pat isn't with God. He's fucking dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's fucking dead." The film holds no punches regarding the Tillman boys' use of the F-word, liberally, nor of Tillman's atheism, and his brother had simply had enough of what he viewed as other people projecting their views of his brother onto the world.

Pat's mother Marie (Dannie) worked tirelessly after obtaining some 3,000 documents from the military, much of it blacked out, to uncover discrepancies and truth. In a recent article she discusses some interesting items: (

Pat's father Patrick Tillman's letters (only referenced in the film) to the army can be read in full here and I strongly recommend you do so to get a first hand view of what this man and his family was going through in their quest to uncover the truth - it is very powerful to feel the emotion yet composure: (

How deep is the cover up? Evidence exists and is suggested at in the film that not only was this a 'friendly-fire' death but potentially the unthinkable of a planned murder. It was known that Tillman was to have a meeting with noted anti-war writer Noam Chomsky regarding war crimes - a meeting that was to take place just 60 days from his death. As a well known face of the war and in the wake of the Jessica Lynch debacle and Abu Ghraib scandal, there is an entire case to be made for that tangent, but such details are not pressed in the film, and evidence of such an end to Tillman's life is not quite there (though an independent autopsy analysis found that 3 tightly packed bullet holes in Tillman's head strongly suggest that they took place as close as 10-30 yards away.)

"I'm Pat fucking Tillman. Why are you shooting at me!" These were the last words as evidenced by Bryan O' Neil who was there when Tillman was killed. He states in the movie he witnessed Pat's head completely shot to pieces in front of him, and that right up until the end Tillman was waving his arms at his own team below yelling "I'm Pat fucking Tillman. Why are you shooting at me!" over and over again.

Why were they shooting at him?

**** and 1/2 out of 5

Friday, August 6, 2010

A movie review: The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Director - Lisa Cholodenko
106 Min; R
Annette Bening - Nic
Julianne Moore - Jules
Mark Ruffalo - Paul
Mia Wasikowska - Joni
Josh Hutcherson - Laser

The Kids Are All Right is a really good film. It's probably going to appeal to an older crowd, in general, but I don't think it is stretching it to say that many generations of people can enjoy this one. In a time when the definition of 'family' is so wide and varied that nobody seems to know for certain what it even means anymore, this film takes a look a typically dysfunctional functioning family that is dealing with the everyday ups and downs, that is, until the arrival of a new piece in the puzzle - then things get messy.

Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are a loving lesbian couple, married for many years and raising two children together. Joni is the 18 year old child of Nic, played by Mia Wasikowska, and like her mother she is smart and in control. Laser is the 15 year old child of Jules, played by Josh Hutcherson, and like his mother he is a free spirit. Joni and Laser are actually half brother and sister, since their 'moms', as they call them, received sperm from the same donor. Joni is 18 and ready to leave for a good college, but Laser, 15, wants her to do one thing for him before she leaves: contact their father. Joni is hesitant but agrees, and so the two of them call and meet with their biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). A little of both children can be seen in Paul, and though neither intended for it to happen, they begin a relationship with him that spills over to the 'moms' with mixed results.

I always felt that Annette Bening would have won the Oscar for Best Actress for her wonderful role in American Beauty, had it not been of course for Hilary Swank who was never going to lose after her performance in Boys Don't Cry. I think this film gives her as good a shot as any at walking away with the statue. I'm not certain why, but I can't seem to get away from Julianne Moore's breasts, having just seen Chloe and now this, both times bare-breasted, and though she is a fine actress, I'm not seeking that out. In this film she is flighty and light and caring and complicated, and she does a good job juxtaposed with Bening who is the stable and thinking adult in the relationship. The two of them play off each other nicely and we get the true feeling that they are in love but like many people they struggle to maintain balance.

Ruffalo as the father Paul is excellent. He is in his late 30s and still having one night stands as he pleases. He runs an organic restaurant and has never been married and has no kids of his own. He has never even seriously thought about it, until he meets Joni and Laser. His way of thinking has been changed and with it he brings change to the entire family. This is a comedy of sorts, and you will laugh somewhat, but it is really a light hearted drama and I don't think I've seen too many films in recent years that have really strived like this to be a portrayl of a typical (atypical) American family.

**** and a half out of 5

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The American President #7: Andrew Jackson

Please feel free to add anything you want about Andrew Jackson

Two-term President: March 4, 1829-March 4, 1837

- Vice-President John C Calhoun and Martin van Buren

-Election of 1828: Electoral vote Jackson 178; John Quincy Adams 83 (popular vote 647,286 - 508,064)

-Election of 1832: Electoral vote Jackson 219; Henry Clay 49; otheer 18; Popular vote 687,502 - 530,189

-Born March 15, 1767 in Waxhaw region along North/South Carolina border
-Died June 8, 1845, at the Hermitage, Tennessee

-Nickname: Old Hickory - earned from his leadership during the war of 1812

-Presbyterian; Democrat; no higher education; Lawer and soldier

-Johnson had a tough life, his father died before he was born, and he was slashed on the face by a British officer when, as a boy, he refused to polish his boots. He would hold that grudge his entire life, saying everytime he shaved he was reminded how much he hated the British.

-Known for his quick temper, Jackson was involved in numerous 'duels' - some simple and just a little threatening, others with deadly consequences. Jackson killed one man in a duel after being shot first, and the bullet remained in him his entire life.

-In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act which basically said Indians from the Southeast would be moved to Oklahoma (we wanted the gold)

- Supreme Court Justice John Marshall wrote that Georgia had no authority to do this, in Worcester Vs. State of Georgia, but Georgia and President Jackson felt otherwise, thus the Trail Of Tears happened when nearly 25% of the Cherokee tribe died while marching to Oklahoma.

-Jackson was lucky to survive not one but two misfires from a would be assassain, Richard Lawrence - the man attempted to shoot Jackson from close range and both times misfired, with Jackson repeatedly belting him on the head with his cane until help arrived. Lawrence was declared legally insane and spent his entire life in an insane asylum.

-Jackson oversaw the end of the national bank, of which he thought was totally corrupt, but found tons of problems in doing so and creating many smaller regional banks.

-The battle of the Alamo happened on March 6, 1836, when troops under Mexican President General Santa Anna ended a 13 day siege. 189 defenders died including former Tennessee congressman Davey Crockett. Their deaths led to the rallying cries of 'remember the Alamo!' which ultimately led to the independence of Texas.


-National debt is 337,000
-26 states in the union
-Jackson is on the $20 bill
-1830 - Frenchman Barthelemy Thimmonier invents first practical sewing machine
-1830 - In pAris, revolutionaries depose Charles X and he is replaced by the duc d'Orleans
-1831 - US population is at 13 million, which outnumbers Britain
-1831 - Charles Darwin departs for the Galapogos Islands
-1832 - the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence dies (Charles Carroll of Maryland) at age 95
-1834 - Mt Vesuvias erupts
-1835- Alexis de Tocqueville publishes Democracy in America

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A mini-movie review: The Runaways (2010)

The Runaways (2010)

Director - Floria Sigismondi
106 Min; R
Kristen Stewart - Joan Jett
Dakota Fanning - Cherie Curry
Michael Shannon - Kim Fowley

It would be difficult to find anybody over the age of 21 who hasn't heard the classic song I Love Rock and Roll, made famous in 1982 by Joan Jett. Not everyone knows, however, that her career began 7 years earlier as a teenager when she met rock producer Kim Fowley and together they formed the 'world's first all-girl rock band' - The Runaways. This film is a look at the band and their success and struggles, but it is not an entirely fleshed-out piece, and therein lies some of the problems which keep this film from crossing over to something really special.

Kristen Stewart nails her role as a young Joan Jett. I am not a rock historian, but I have seen and heard enough to know what a young Joan Jett was like, and Stewart is simply wonderful. She sings her own parts and has all the correct mannerisms. Dakota Fanning is brought in as Cherie Curry, the 15 year old 'jailbait' lead singer who seemingly has only one reason for being in the band (slimey producer Kim Fowley played by Michael Shannon wants her to makes guys want her.) Together with other members of the band they embark on a world of rock and roll and the obligatory sex and drugs. And there is a lot of sex and drugs. In the end Curry leaves the band mainly due to the lifestyle.

I leave out the other members of the cast intentionally, for this film focuses almost soley on Jett, Curry and Fowley, and it is too bad because I would have loved to see more of the group dynamic. The film is based on Currie's 1989 biography of the band and due to bad blood between some members, well, let's just say there is a long backstory you can look up to see why, but ultimately this is Curry's story as a young girl thrust into the limelight and the incredibly driven young Jett who wants to be a rock star. We only see Curry's backstory and homelife, never getting even a glimpse into the other member's worlds.

I liked this film a lot. The acting was very good and the story was entertaining, but it definitely lacked any teeth and completely leaves out so much possible story. A former member of the band Vicki Blue made a documentary called Edgeplay (on netflix instant) which I plan to see soon, that is basically a more direct piece about the days of the band (Jett refused to take part.) I admit that after seeing this film I am incredinly interested in learning more and plan to read up quite a bit, and I think you will find it interesting as well.

*** and a half out of 5

A movie review: Chloe (2010)

Chloe (2010)

Director - Atom Egoyan
96 min; R
Julianne Moore - Catherine
Liam Neeson - David
Amanda Seyfried - Chloe

It would be easy and conveinent for me to write that Chloe (2010) is a suspensul, erotic thriller that will keep you thinking while dually tantalizing your emotions, but I've never been one for taking the easy view. This film is simply a formulaic 'erotic-thriller' that happens to have a note-worthy cast, which is unfortunate because, combined, the 3 main actors all give very good performances. It is unusual for me to watch a film with solid acting and yet find the overall appeal to be, shall we say, unappealing, and not even the bare breasts of actress on actress could titilate me enough to recommend this film.

The entire story centers on Catherine (Julianne Moore) as a well-to-do gynecologist who suspects her Opera-expert husband David (Liam Neeson) of cheating on her. In an unconventional move (though not entirely out of place for your average psychotic woman) she enlists the practices of an upscale call girl, Chloe, played by the lucsious lipped Amanda Seyfried, a role seemingly made for her. The dynamic in play throughout is that of the psychological: A woman scorned and her need for knowledge; a man constantly tempted yet resisting temptation; a woman who chooses to hold power over the men in her life.

Julianne Moore is very good at portraying this character and I feel she is the link that holds the film together, however, not even her performance here can save the fact that the film is too slow paced for the subject matter and it never really delves deep enough into the psychology of the husband or the call girl. We are being toyed with by the director and when the very unfulfilling and predictable ending occur I feel nothing - something you wouldn't expect from a film that is selling emotional content.

** out of 5

A movie review: An Education (2009)

An Education (2009)

Director - Lone Scherfig
100 min; PG-13
Carey Mulligan - Jenny
Peter Sarsgaard - David
Rosamund Pike - Helen
Dominic Cooper - Danny
Alfred Molina - Jack
Cara Seymour - Marjorie

16 year old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is about to move from theoretical education to the practical. A top student bound for Oxford, she is a musician, a linguist, and very pretty. She is also very dull and seemingly driving through life on auto-pilot. All that changes in almost in instant when a chance-encounter with a handsome older man David (Peter Sarsgaard) presents itself, and soon young Jenny finds herself in a world she may have seen in films or read about in books, but frolicking in Paris for a birthday weekend was not something she had ever envisioned for herself.

An Education is a film that hinges squarely on the young shoulders of Mulligan, and she pulls off the role with such ease and poise that it is no wonder she received such acclaim. Without her ability to transform between young, naive but eager to sophisticated, worldly and bold and back again is something special, and her light-heartedness with the role plays well against her use of a dramatic tone in certain scenes. I'm not willing to say this is a great film but it certainly would have made my top 10 of 2009 had I seen it in time. It is a very very good film that I highly recommend for a wonderful performance by Mulligan but also for an overall very well acted piece by the supporting cast. With the exception of Rosamund Pike as Helen (David's friend Danny parades her around on his arm) the perfromances are all nuanced and well placed. Helen, however, feels out of place with the film, and though I understand her role as the older and chique woman whom Jenny both envies and pities, she doesn't ever seem to fit in with her surroundings.

Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour represent fairly common 1960s British parents in their style and wants for their daughter and I found great little moments out of each of them. Ultimately the story reveals itself a little too easily for my tastes, but that does not detract from the overall sense of wonder at a film that actually allows you to escape into the world of a completely different person and really enjoy the ride. To over-simplify things, this is a coming of age tale with all the typical puzzle pieces falling into place, but it is done with a subdued flare that really left me with a warm feeling.

**** out of 5