Miss Bala


The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Stephanie Sigman, Irene Azuela, Miguel Coururier, Gabriel Heads, Noe Hernandez, James Russo, Jose Yenque, Juan Carlos Galvan, Lakshmi Picazo, Javier Zaragoza, Leonor Vitorica, Hugo Marquez, Eduardo Mendizabal, Sergio Gomez Padilla, Felipe Morales, Sergio Miguel Martinez, Gabriel Chavez, Leticia Huijara Cano. Directed by Gerardo Naranjo

Innocence is a commodity that falls by the wayside in a corrupt society. It is hard not to take sides when absolute power rules with brutality and intimidating force and often the side you take is not one taken of your own free will.

Laura Guerrero (Sigman) is a sweet and unassuming teenager who works selling secondhand clothes with her father (Zaragoza) and little brother (Galvan). On a whim she and her close friend Suzu (Picazo) decide to enter their names for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. That night they decide to go to a local night club and party.

During the evening, a group of thugs shoot up the club. Laura, who was in the bathroom at the time, escaped but witnessed the whole thing, being one of the few survivors. Her ordeal is just beginning; she is kidnapped the very next day and taken to Lino Valdez (Hernandez), the head of the drug cartel. Lino. Rather than executing the witness however, he uses her as a courier to ferry money across the border into the United States, bringing back arms and ammunition.

Lino and his gang use her brother and father to control her, threatening to execute them if she doesn’t do as they say and so she becomes a part of the gang. When they figure she can be useful for them as a pageant winner, they get her into the Miss Baja pageant and bribe the judges into letting her win. Her high profile allows them to use her as a means of seducing the powerful General Salomon Duarte (Couturier) and gaining control over him by that means. However, when she discovers that Suzu had not survived the shooting at the club (they assured her that she had), she realizes that nobody is getting out of this alive and she is left with a big decision to make.

As thrillers go this one is raw and gritty and sometimes not so pretty, even given the beauty pageant background. It displays the effects that intimidation, violence and brutality have on the lives of those caught in the crossfire and does so very effectively. Although it didn’t make the final short list, it was submitted as Mexico’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2012 Academy Awards.

There’s a gritty realism that shows not only the desperation and poverty of the people who live in Baja but also the arrogance, the brutality and the opulence of those in power. The consequences of our war on drugs have never had such a human face as this.

Sigman is not well known to me as an actress; she has mainly appeared in Mexican films and since this movie was made has had a recurring role on the F/X TV series The Bridge. She certainly has the beauty and the innocent look but there isn’t a lot of emotion that we get from her other than terror which isn’t necessarily a deficiency on her part – the role doesn’t really call for much else and therein lies the main problem with the movie.

We really don’t get to know Laura at all before the massacre and kidnapping. She seems like a fairly sweet kid, a typical Mexican teenager trying to help her family make ends meet. However, the movie gets into the action so quickly (which isn’t normally an issue for me) that by the time we really know what’s happening Laura is already in victim mode, and that’s really the only way we know her throughout the film all the way to its ambiguous ending.

Sometimes the ins and outs of the politics of the movie can be a bit confusing as to who is on who’s side, who is screwing who and who is at war with who. Things do come out of left field seemingly and while that keeps us off-balance a little bit, some further explanation might have been helpful, particularly for us gringos.

Where the movie excels is in its suspense and tension. From the moment the massacre starts most viewers will be on the edge of their seats, and not really sure what’s going to come at them next. Think of it as riding a roller coaster blindfolded and never sure if you’re going to go flying out of your seat. Some might find that an unpleasant experience but for the purposes here that does satisfy the Type A personality in me.

Despite the recent upsurge in quality Mexican films, this one didn’t get a great deal of attention when it was released back in the early months of 2011 which is a bit of a shame. While it isn’t as good as, say, Y tu mama tambien or Amores perros it is as good as any thriller that has come out from Hollywood in recent years.

WHY RENT THIS: Raw and gritty. Raises the thriller bar up a notch..

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Don’t really connect with Laura as much as we should. Occasionally confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rough language, a goodly amount of sometimes strong and bloody violence as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on Laura Zuniga, the former Miss Sinaloa, beauty queen and model who was arrested on December 22, 2008 for narcotics trafficking.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maria, Full of Grace

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Being Flynn

Fiddler on the Roof


Tradition!

Tradition!

(1971) Musical (United Artists) Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser, Raymond Lovelock, Elaine Edwards, Candy Bonstein, Shimen Ruskin, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich, Alfie Scopp, Howard Goorney, Barry Dennen, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ruth Madoc, Roger Lloyd Pack. Directed by Norman Jewison

Once upon a time movie musicals were some of the greatest entertainment you can get onscreen. They got the big production values, the big names and the big publicity pushes. They also pulled in the big box office numbers. Like the Western, the movie musical grew less important and relevant as the 70s set in.

Some say the last of the great movie musicals (Chicago and A Chorus Line notwithstanding) was Fiddler on the Roof. It was the most popular Broadway musical of all time until A Chorus Line and Cats came along and the big screen version was a big deal, so much so that when Broadway version star Zero Mostel wasn’t cast, he bore a grudge against Hollywood producers that lasted until his death.

Based on stories by the great Jewish author Sholom Aleichem, the story is set in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in Russia in 1905 on the cusp of the Russian Revolution but at this time, the Tsar still reigns and he doesn’t like Jews much. Tevye (Topol) is a dairy farmer with five daughters and no son to help him in his labors. His horse is old and often goes lame so he is obliged to deliver the milk to the village himself. He is married to Golde (Crane) who is somewhat shrewish but one can’t blame her considering all she has to put up with from Tevye.

Three of the daughters are all of marriageable age; Tzeitel (Harris) whom the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Mann) wants to marry but only has eyes for Motel (Frey), the poor and shy tailor. Then there’s Hodel (Marsh), the free-spirited one who falls for Perchik (Glaser), a revolutionary whom Tevye hires to teach his daughters lessons from the Bible. Finally there’s Chava (Small), the gentle red-haired girl who loves to read and falls for Fyedka (Lovelock) who isn’t Jewish.

Tevye, who hangs on to the traditions of his people like a life preserver through troubled times of discrimination and pogroms, is tested by his daughters as they move into the 20th century a little bit ahead of their father.

Critics of the time gave Fiddler on the Roof a right pasting but we were just entering the era of the anti-hero and musicals like this – which was pretty dark and somber as musicals go. Frankly, the movie was kind of a throwback to the great movie musicals like West Side Story and Showboat but at the same time had that kind of ’70s non-conformist attitude. Still, the movie would go on to make an impressive profit (for the time) and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three of them.

One of the things about Fiddler on the Roof that stands out are the songs. They aren’t just hummable ditties but are about something – cultural identity (“Tradition”), the passage of time and regret (”Sunrise, Sunset”), poverty (“If I Were a Rich Man”) and moving on (“Anatevka”). “Sunrise, Sunset” was one of my father’s favorite songs and it still has a bittersweet melancholy when I hear it. Incidentally, when you hear the fiddler play, that’s Isaac Stern you’re hearing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the chorus for this play in my high school production of it so I may well be a little more well-disposed towards it than most. And I do like this movie. It blows like an autumn wind through my soul. I’m not Jewish myself but I know that it occupies a special place in the heart of the Jewish community and deservedly so. This movie celebrates the determination and resilience of the Jews in the face of persecution and misery.

Most musicals are uplifting, upbeat and sunny-cheeked. Fiddler on the Roof does carry a warmth to it but it is the warmth that comes from strength and love, the kind of warmth that is earned after hard work on a cold winter day. It’s a beautiful movie to look at (filmed in Serbia back in the day) but it is a beautiful movie to consider. It has a place in my soul but it isn’t for everybody – but most people will find something to like about it. It is certainly one of the best movie musicals ever made.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous music and a very deep subject for a musical. Some terrific performances, particularly from Topol, Crane, Glaser and Small.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Topol isn’t the greatest singer you’ll ever hear. The film might be a bit long for modern audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some frightening images, some mild violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jewison wanted an earthy tone for the film. Cinematographer noticed a woman wearing a pair of brown nylons and knew that it was the perfect tone for the film. He asked the woman for the nylons and filmed nearly the entire film with the stockings over the camera lens; if you look closely from time to time you can see the weave of the garment.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: They don’t stock DVDs like this anymore. There is a piece on the late director Norman Jewison who also appears in a couple of interview segments. He also reads some stories from author Sholom Aleichem and there’s a featurette on the historical context of the events seen in the movie. You’ll also find production notes from the original production. The 2007 Collector’s Edition also includes additional interviews with the actresses who played Tevye’s daughters, conductor John Williams and composers of the original stage play Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (virtually all of this appears in the Blu-Ray edition).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.4M on a $9M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabaret

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Winter in Wartime

Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso)


Cinema Paradiso

Movies are magic!

(1988) Drama (Miramax) Jacques Perrin, Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Agnese Nano, Marco Leonardi, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Isa Danielli, Leonardo Trieste, Roberta Lina, Leo Gullotta, Enzo Cannavale, Nicola Di Pinto, Nino Terzo. Directed by Giusseppe Tornatore

 

Some movies are so personal to the director that you feel like you are getting a glimpse of their very soul. Those movies can be a mixed blessing, but in other cases they become timeless classics that change your point of view forever.

Cinema Paradiso is one such film. It charts the journey of Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita who as an adult (Perrin) gets a phone call from his mother that his childhood mentor Alfredo (Noiret) has passed away. He returns to his home town in Sicily, a small village where the 20th century arrived kicking and screaming.

As a boy (Cascio) he waited in vain for his father to come back from the war. He soon found something to be fascinated by – the town’s only movie theater which is basically the only source of entertainment for the village. He is taken under the wing of Alfredo, who allows him to watch movies from the projection booth. There he learns the language of cinema – of close ups and cross cuts, of montage and flashback.

But the idyllic life of a small town takes a dark turn when a fire robs Alfredo of his sight – and it would have been more had it not been for the courage and quick thinking of Toto. As a teenager (Leonardi) he takes over the projectionist duties with the help and guidance of his mentor. He also develops a crush on Elena (Nano), a blue-eyed blonde who confounds and bedevils him, but also excites and inspires him.

He will reach a point in his life in which he will need to make a decision to go or stay – to remain the conduit of dreams in his little village, or to become a maker of dreams. We know what he chooses but why he goes down the path he takes…well, it is not exactly what you might expect.

This was the 1989 Best Foreign Film Academy Award winner, and deservedly so. Oscar doesn’t always get these things right but they sure did here. This film is a classic, a once in a lifetime movie that not only gives us a sense of nostalgia for why we love the movies but a sense of sadness for the roads not taken.

Tornatore brilliantly cast three different actors for the same role. They don’t really look much alike, but they certainly all channeled the essence of Toto. I don’t know if Perrin, Cascio and Leonardi had much communication before filming began but the performances sure come off as if they did. The three actors are seamless in changing from one to the other – and never at any point do you feel as if you’re seeing the interpretation of a role but three actors playing the same person at different points in his life. It’s amazing to see and critical to the success of the film.

There are moments of pure magic – such as Alfredo projecting the movie on a building across the square after the theater has closed for the night, or a montage of kissing scenes that were cut from the movies at the behest of the village priest who every week meticulously sat through each film, ringing a bell whenever he wanted Alfredo to snip a scene out.

Hollywood has often viewed small town life through a rose-colored lens and it’s kind of comforting to know that Rome has the same lens in place. This is a film that moves you and touches you. Even if you didn’t live a life anywhere near what Toto did you will certainly find elements of the story that will resonate with you. Cinema Paradiso isn’t just about the movies – it’s about life, and maybe that’s why we love the movies so much because at the end of the day, that’s what all movies are about in some way shape or form.

The original cut oddly enough is not the one shown in America initially. The Weinsteins made some cuts and it is that version that won the Oscar. Later, they released it briefly in its original uncut form. Strangely, like Roger Ebert, I prefer the cut version. The original one feels a bit overlong to me although it does give a good deal more insight into the Elena-Toto romance and what happened to it. You should certainly see it if you loved the American version of it, but it requires a more patient European personality I think.

WHY RENT THIS: A marvelous look at the meaning of home for better and for worse and of the place of movies and magic in it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Runs a little bit long, particularly the director’s cut edition.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality on the director’s cut and a disturbing scene of a fire in both editions.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Samples of dialogue from the movie can be heard in the Dream Theater song “Take the Time.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD collector’s edition includes both the theatrical and director cuts of the film as well as recipe cards for dishes inspired by the film as well as the Food Network show in which Michael Chiarello discussed the film and the dishes he created around it. Because the rights to the director’s cut edition lie with a different studio, the Blu-Ray version of the film includes only the shorter theatrical cut and none of the extras (including the commentaries and featurettes) found on the DVD so you might be better off finding the collector’s edition on eBay.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was in all likelihood a hit (as we only have domestic box office figures).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Picture Show

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei)


 

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Why do Japanese swordfights look so much better in the snow?

(2011) Samurai (Tribeca) Koji Yakusho, Naoto Takenaka, Hikari Mitsushima, Eita, Ebizo Ichikawa, Kazuki Namioka, Hirofumi Arai, Munetaki Aoki, Ayumu Saito, Takashi Sasano, Takehiro Hira, Baijaku Nakamura, Goro Daimon, Yoshihisa Amano, Ippei Takahashi. Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Honor is a word whose meaning varies from culture to culture. For some, honor means keeping one’s word – when it suits them. For others, honor is all about the written word. If it’s on paper, the it’s binder. If not, a verbal agreement is worth the paper it’s written on.

For the Japanese honor has a much more stringent connotation, particularly among the samurai – their warrior class. Honor is the be-all and end-all to life for them; without it, they couldn’t exist, much less function. The samurai have always been an object of fascination, even to the modern Japanese. Of late, there has been a revival in the samurai film, the genre of film that is perhaps as uniquely Japanese, a signature to their entire national film identity as Bollywood is to India.

Hanshiro (Ichikawa), a ronin (masterless samurai) shows up at the castle of Lord Kageyu (Yakusho) asking leave to commit hara-kiri – ritual suicide by disembowling himself with his own sword – in the castle courtyard. Kageyu is willing but regales him with a story – of a young samurai who had recently come to his door asking the same thing. There had been a rash of false suicides – ronin who came to their door asking to commit hara-kiri but not intending to go through with it, instead using the ritual as a means of getting money or employment. The lord and his samurai made sure, however, that the young samurai followed through. He begged that three ryu be sent to his family to pay for treatment of his sick wife and son, then he committed the ritual disembowelment – although he only had a bamboo sword, adding to the agony of the act.

Hanshiro also has a tale to tell; one of his daughter Miho (Mitsushima)  who had fallen in love with the gentle, bookish Motome (Eita), her childhood friend. They got married and had a baby, but the clan both Motome and Hanshiro served had displeased the shogun. He ordered that their castle be dismantled so that a new clan might build their own, the samurai dispersed. Samurai have no skills other than those they’d been previously using; finding work was next to impossible for them.

They were getting desperate; Motome was selling off the few possessions he had to get food but Miho, who had always been sickly, is having trouble taking care of the home and the baby. As winter arrives, their struggle becomes life or death but Motome has a plan.

Miike is best known for his cult classic Ichi the Killer and more recently the samurai epic 13 Assassins. He has a reputation as a director who doesn’t let convention get in the way of telling a good story. He constantly pushes the edge, with varying degrees of success. He certainly is prolific; something like 54 films already under his belt and he’s just barely passed 50 and his pace is picking up. Most of his films don’t make it to America – about one in five do.

The ones that do are always interesting. They don’t always connect with me but they always have something that grabs my imagination. This one is no different and in many ways actually exceeds expectations. It’s not my favorite of his movies but it’s right up there.

The cinematography, like many Japanese movies, is superb. The landscapes lend itself to beautiful images. Even the impoverished village where Motome lives with his family has a kind of serene beauty. I think one of Miike’s conceits is that beneath the beautiful veneer are ugly things – like Motome dropping an egg he’d purchased with a book he’d sold and licking the yolk from the ground because he was starving.

The performances here are quite restrained. Ichikawa is at times the concerned father, the proud father-in-law, the wise sage and the fearsome warrior. Each co-exists within the other within Hanshiro and each appears as needed. Yakusho captures the essence of a powerful man; by his own rigid code of honor he has done nothing wrong and is convinced that he has acted properly. The conflict between Kageyu and Hanshiro is inevitable but also understandable. Hanshiro has learned through grim experience the fearsome cost of the rigid code of the samurai.

The hara-kiri scene is excruciating. The young samurai is forced to kill himself with a bamboo sword which bends and splinters while he is exhorted to twist the blade by a sadistic second. It is one of the few scenes in the movie that have any gore involved (Miike is well-known for showing realistic carnage in his films) and it is hard to watch at times. The more sensitive readers might want to give some thought before seeing the movie.

But the rest of the movie is much more character driven rather than action driven, which makes that scene all the more jarring – and all the more intense. I think by doing that, Miike made the scene far more powerful because it’s not just one stomach-turning scene among many. It’s unforgettable but again, I must stress that it’s not for the weak-stomached.

The nature of honor is a powerful question, but particularly in Japanese society so it’s no wonder that these sorts of film appeal to them as a nationality. For me, this is a compelling look into the samurai culture which shows the darker elements of the samurai code, which sets it apart from the many films that celebrate it.

REASONS TO GO: Subdued performances make for a subtle character study rather than a typical bloodbath. Well-choreographed action sequences as well.

REASONS TO STAY: The hara-kiri scene is brutal and hard to watch. The pacing is slow and it’s possible that the middle section could have been trimmed some.

FAMILY VALUES: Not a lot of gore but when it’s there it’s quite intense. Definitely not for small children although teens who aren’t too squeamish might enjoy it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was another movie of that name from 1962 with a similar theme, this isn’t a direct remake.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are very good in general.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lone Wolf and Cub

SWORD LOVERS: The swords used in the film are modeled on genuine samurai swords of the period. Motome’s bamboo sword was not uncommon in the era either.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Babies (Bebes)


Babies

Laughing all the way to the bank.

(2010) Documentary (Focus) Bayar, Hattie, Mari, Ponijao. Directed by Thomas Balmes

 

As a species, we have a thing about babies. Now, that doesn’t differentiate us much from any other species – procreation is, after all, a survival imperative. However, what does is that we obsess about the babies of other people, not just our own. While other species will protect the babies of those within their own family or group, they don’t particularly show much interest beyond that. You don’t see a lion cooing over another lion’s cub.

Of course, lion’s don’t coo either. However, humans can and do and will. Here we have plenty of opportunity to coo. This is a French documentary about four babies born in four different parts of the world – Hattie in San Francisco, Ponijao in tribal Africa (Namibia to be exact) Bayar on the frozen steppes of Mongolia and Mari in bustling Tokyo. The film covers roughly the first year of their life, from shortly after birth.

What differentiates this movie is that there are no cute graphics, no narration and no attempt of some Hollywood star to read a script from a writer who purports to know what the babies are thinking. This is not a Disney nature film in other words. There are no statistics, nothing particularly depressing, just 78 minutes of watching babies do their thing, be it nursing, snoozing, smacking other babies about the head, playing with toys, crawling, crying and being cuddled.

While it is a fresh approach (and welcome to most), therein lies the issue for me. It really is completely observational of the babies themselves and while that can be fascinating for a short time by the end of the movie (and it’s a short movie folks) I found myself fidgeting. It’s really akin to watching someone else’s home movies, albeit with better production values. Most of us don’t have HD film cameras and high-end film stock; we mostly have to settle for digital cams and cheap home video recorders, even cell phone video cameras.

That said, there are a lot of people who are going to ooh and ahh over this and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you love babies in general, you will find your nirvana here. All of the kids have definable personalities and indulge in all manners of cuteness, whether they are in a yurt or a pricy Tokyo apartment. There is also a lot of nudity, both from the babies and their moms (and in the case of Namibia, most of the rest of the tribe as well although the men are rarely seen).

The cinematography can be quite beautiful, ranging from the gorgeous Bay Area shots to the majestic but desolate Mongolian steppes, the hyper-kinetic Tokyo cityscape to the dry and dusty African plains. You will certainly get a sense of the environment each baby is growing up in and no value judgments are made either – the ones growing up in abject poverty are no less happy than the ones growing up in the West.

I’m not really a baby person. They’re cute, sure, but I don’t need to spend a whole lot of time around them. I’ve kinda done my time. So take this with a grain of salt – I admire the technical end of the film, the filmmaker’s dedication to giving an unfettered, unvarnished look at babies around the world. I know that there are plenty of people who are going to love this movie.

I’m just not one of them. It was a little like watching paint dry from my aspect, and having a repetitive musical score didn’t help matters. Maybe I’m a little too MTV but I need a bit more than a static camera focused on a bunch of proto-humans who left to their own devices would eat dirt. Not my cup of tea – but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be yours, nor are you any worse a person if it isn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Cuteness personified. Reaffirms that we are more alike than not.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is like a 78 minute home movie; if watching someone else’s baby isn’t your thing, you’re going to get restless.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is nudity here of the maternal sort; some nursing and such. If that offends you, this might not be the film for you..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ponijao belongs to the Himba tribe who live near Opuwo, Namibia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an update on how the children are doing three years after they were filmed. There is also the winners of a studio-sponsored contest in which parents were urged to submit baby videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie was almost certainly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: This Means War

In Time


In Time

The future is a hell of a party.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Vincent Kartheiser, Alex Pettyfer Johnny Galecki, Olivia Wilde, Nick Lashaway, Collins Pennie, Rachel Roberts, Matt Bomer, Yaya DaCosta. Directed by Andrew Niccol

Time is money they say and in some ways it’s literally true. When we are employed, we are not only being paid for our skills but for our time. A good percentage of us receive our wages paid by the hour and our work lives are measured in how many hours we work so when you buy a gallon of milk at the grocery store, the money you pay for it is symbolic of the time you worked. That gallon of milk represents twenty minutes of work you put in to make the money you paid for it.

In the future, there is no pretense about it anymore. Cash is a thing of the past and the only thing that matters is time. An hourly wage is literally that. We’ve been genetically engineered to stop aging at age 25; after that, we’re given a year of additional life and in order to extend it beyond our 26th birthday we need to work to add hours and days to our lifespan. We can even see how much time we have left by a digital countdown clock in neon green that is imprinted on our forearms. When it reaches zero, our time on this earth is done.

Like most people in the ghetto that is called Dayton (not Ohio – it looks a lot like Los Angeles), Will Salas (Timberlake) lives day to day, waking up each morning with less than 24 hours to live. He lives with his mother (Wilde) who’s in the same boat but for whatever reason she seems unable to hold onto time – time management is a necessity in this future. She is working a double shift and won’t be back for more than a day; Will goes out to a bar with his best friend and drinking buddy Borel (Galecki) and encounters Henry Hamilton, a millionaire with more than a century on his arm who seems out to kill himself.

It turns out he’s lived more than a century and has become disillusioned and bored; he wants to die. He has attracted the unfortunate attention of Fortis (Pettyfer), a gangster who leads a gang called the Minutemen who essentially rob people of their time. Fortis wants Hamilton’s but Will intervenes and hides Hamilton in a warehouse. Hamilton tells Will that there is plenty of time for everyone, but the rich are hoarding it so that they can live forever. The two men wax philosophic before falling asleep.

When Will wakes up, Hamilton is gone and Will has more than a century on his arm. He looks out the window to see Hamilton sitting on the edge of a bridge. Will tries to run out and save him but Hamilton’s clock zeroes out and he falls to his death. Security cameras catch Will on the scene and the police force, known as the Timekeepers, are alerted. Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Murphy) is assigned the case and the general perception is that Will stole Hamilton’s time and murdered him.

In the meantime, Will’s mom is getting ready to return home on the bus only to find out that they raised the fare and she doesn’t have enough to return home. She has about an hour left of life to her and a two hour walk so she runs. She tries to get people to help her, give her an extra 15 minutes of life (people are able to transfer time from one another by holding their wrists together) but nobody will help. Will, realizing that she’s not on the bus, takes off at a dead run; she sees him as her time is counting down and they run towards each other but it’s all for naught; she dies in his arms.

Determined to face down the injustice that is ruling the lives of the poor, the now-wealthy Will travels to the wealthy part of town (this costs quite a bit of money to cross from one “time zone” to another) which is called New Greenwich. This is where the wealthy live in spectacular luxury. There are also casinos where you can literally bet your life. Will plays poker with one of the richest men on Earth, Philippe Weis (Kartheiser) and wins a millennium. This catches the eye of Philippe’s daughter Sylvia (Seyfried) who invites Will to a party that evening.

At the party, Raymond catches up with Will and arrests him, taking all but 24 hours from his wrist. However, Will escapes by using Sylvia as a hostage. He manages to make it back into Dayton where he and Sylvia are both robbed of most of their time by Fortis; it would have been all but the Minutemen are scared off by the approaching Timekeepers. Will and Sylvia escape into the anonymity of the slums.

There Will demands a thousand year ransom from Philippe for the return of his daughter. However, Philippe refuses to pay it. Sylvia, incensed, tells Will where to find lots of time. They begin robbing banks, where people can get loans of time. The two take the time but distribute it to the poor. They go on a crime spree which threatens the balance of things; the rich retaliate by raising prices exorbitantly. Will’s Robin Hood crusade looks to be derailed but there might be one way yet to thwart the rich.

That this is an allegory of modern economics seems to be a slam dunk; substitute “dollars” for “time” and you have what is essentially a commentary on the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. There really isn’t anything subtle here although I wonder if there is a connection between the Minutemen – taking from the poor, and the Tea Party who have been accused of doing the same thing. There is a bit of a Revolutionary War theme going here don’t you think?

Timberlake has shown a good deal of potential in going from boy band idol to serious actor. He gets one step closer with this role. It is mainly upon him to carry the movie and he proves to have strong shoulders .Will has got essentially a good heart that he keeps hidden because he’s smart enough to know that it can get you killed in an environment such as this one. Timberlake plays him very minimally, allowing audiences to read between the lines of his performance. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but for my money this is his best performance to date. He’s not quite ready for the kind of stardom of, say, a Brad Pitt or a Matt Damon but he’s getting there.

Seyfried spends the film in a Louise Brooks-like wig that contributes to the overall retro look of the film. In a sense it makes her timeless. Seyfried has at times been impressive in her short career but I would have liked to see a little more fire from her here; something tells me that she was directed to be more subtle with her emotions.

Speaking of the look of the film, it’s an odd mix between high tech (the arm digital display) and retro (the vehicles are mostly chassis from the 60s and 70s souped up a little). Although the movie is set in the near future, there are characters in it who are a century old. One wonders if there was some reverse genetic engineering done for people who were alive when the breakthrough was made. Certainly the wealthy would have been the ones to receive such treatment.

There are some good action sequences here and a nice car chase, but this is more a movie about ideas than action. As such, it isn’t going to get a lot of love from the fanboys who like their sci-fi with phasers set to kill. I get the sense that the design of the future world wasn’t terribly well thought out and budget limitations probably kept them from making the world look too futuristic but this is a well written movie that makes it’s point rather firmly. I suspect Herman Cain might not like this movie much which might be all the reason you need to go and see it.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing premise with lots of modern day allegories about class distinctions. Timberlake’s best performance to date.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks imagination when designing the future.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, some sexuality (with a little bit of partial nudity thrown in for good measure) and a teensy bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Olivia Wilde plays Justin Timberlake’s mother in the film, she’s actually younger than he is in real life.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the chase scenes are going to look a lot better on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Dinner for Schmucks

Rio


Rio

Linda (foreground, in the blue) gets her inner samba on.

(2011) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, George Lopez, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, Jermaine Clement, Carlos Ponce, Jane Lynch, Wanda Sykes, Thomas F. Wilson. Directed by Carlos Saldanha

The benchmarks for animated features have been Disney for traditional animations and Pixar for computer animations. While some recent entries into the field have shown some promise, for the most part the best animated features to come from places other than the Mouse have largely been those with their own style and subject matter.

Fox has had success with their Ice Age trilogy (a fourth entry makes its way into theaters next year) and the makers of those films have turned their eyes to more sultry climes, the Brazilian paradise of Rio de Janeiro. However, things start off initially in the Arctic-like environment of Moose Lake, Minnesota where lives Linda (Mann), who found a blue macaw that had been stolen from the rain forests of Brazil and sent to the United States for purchase (except it had fallen off the truck). Blu (Eisenberg) lives a very pampered life, warm and secure in Linda’s bookstore, wanting for nothing and being provided with every little need by the doting Linda. They have a wonderful life together.

Into their life walks Tulio (Santoro), a Brazilian ornithologist who informs Linda that Blu is one of only two blue macaws left in the world and that it is imperative that he be mated with the last female, who is in Rio. Because they have a controlled environment available in his bird research center, it is decided that it would be easier to bring Blu to the mountain rather than the mountain to Blu. Reluctantly, Linda agrees to it although she’s not too enthusiastic about leaving home – she has no desire to see the world, somewhat refreshing amongst spunky animated movie heroines.

Blu is flown down and shoved into a lovely environment with Jewel (Hathaway) who wants nothing more than to escape captivity. She is not really interested in mating, particularly with a pampered pet that can’t even fly. The two don’t get along at all which means of course they are going to get along GREAT by the end of the movie.

An amoral poacher named Marcel (Ponce) sends a couple of thugs and a nasty cockatoo named Nigel (Clements) to kidnap the two blues, knowing that as the last of their species they’ll fetch a hefty price. Together Blu and Jewel manage to escape and flee to the rain forest where they are aided by a crafty toucan named Rafael (Lopez), a couple of disreputable looking birds named Nico (Foxx) and Pedro (will.i.am) and a drooling doggie named Luis (Morgan). With Nigel and a barrelful of monkeys looking for them, Blu unable to fly and Linda and Tulio desperately searching for them, it will be a long walk back home. Oh, and did I mention it’s Carnival time in Rio?

In many ways this is the most Disney-like of all the Blue Sky/Fox films. From the score to the musical numbers, this looks and sounds very much like a traditional animated Disney film, from the bright colors to the cute, cuddly anthropomorphized parrots. This is going to appeal to the very young and the merchandising that’s sure to go on is going to drive the kiddies absolutely bonkers and their parents to the poorhouse.

The problem here is that all the color is on the screen – none of it went into the characters, who are all as bland as can be and could have been culled from dozens of animated movies and television shows. And for a movie set in Brazil there’s little to no spice and this movie could have used some. Brazil has some beautiful, exotic locations but one gets the feeling that the farthest the animators went to research their drawings was the Jungle River Cruise and Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland.

Sure, it’s a great looking movie but I for one am getting tired of animated features that extol kids to believe in themselves. Judging from surveys, self-belief and self-confidence isn’t something our children are lacking. Rio looks good but in the end it’s like cotton candy – colorful but lacking any substance.

REASONS TO GO: Lush and colorful, with some beautifully drawn images.

REASONS TO STAY: Stock characters and story; trying too hard to be Disney-esque and wind up without much of an identity.

FAMILY VALUES: This is absolutely fine for any family – nothing for parents to be concerned about for any ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The makers of the wildly popular Angry Birds game created a version of the game set in Rio as a tie-in with the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: It’s beautiful and the kids are gonna insist.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Hanna

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio


The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

Julianne Moore and Laura Dern have varying degrees of '50s enjoyment.

(2005) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Trevor Morgan, Ellary Porterfield, Simon Reynolds, Monte Gagne, Robert Clark. Directed by Jane Anderson

Raising a family is never an easy proposition, even under the most ideal of circumstances. Raising a family of ten children when the father is an alcoholic who spends most of what little he brings home from the machine shop on booze is nigh near impossible.

Somehow, however, Evelyn Ryan (Moore) does just that. A promising journalist, she left her career to wed aspiring crooner Kelly Ryan (Harrelson) and like a good Irish Catholic, proceeds to pump out a wagonload of kids while putting her own career on hold. Unfortunately for Kelly, a tragic traffic accident ends his singing career and sticks him in the Ford machine shop in Defiance, Ohio. Always partial to liquor to begin with, he begins to really get cozy with the bottle.

With bills due, the mortgage past due and the kids needing one thing or another, Evelyn puts her writing skills to use by entering the tremendously popular (and profitable) jingle contests that were a staple of the ‘50s, when this movie is set. She’s good enough to win appliances, shopping sprees, cars, bikes, vacations, plants, toys and yes, cash. She also manages to keep a positive outlook despite Kelly’s need to lash out and her own children’s need to find themselves. She yearns for things beyond the city limits of Defiance and makes a connection with other contesters, as she calls them, led by the affable Dortha (Dern). Denied even the comfort of friends, she becomes the rock of the Ryan household, and her older kids know it, even as their father continues to make horrible mistakes one after another.

Based on a true story (written by Evelyn’s real-life daughter Terry, who appears briefly as herself at the end of the movie), this is a nice portrait not only of a time and place, but a look a poverty in America, a subject that we rarely turn our attention to. It is also a peep into the role of women in the household, and while it is certainly more a view of the place of women in the 1950s, it resonates to the modern woman (and the modern man as well).

Told with a spiffy voice over by Moore and some nicely done asides that advance the story from one trauma to the next, Anderson made her feature debut with this after years in television. She uses her skills from the small screen nicely here, further giving this a kind of ‘50s “All’s well in America as long as the TV is working” gloss. In fact, if there is a problem with her work, it is that sometimes it seems a bit too small screen for the silver screen, if you get my drift.

Moore, who has four Oscar nominations to her credit, does a very nice job with this. Having to play a saint who is forced to turn a blind eye to the injustice of her situation while nonetheless aware of its inequities, she manages to convey her frustration that she hid carefully from her children and even from her husband. Harrelson tones down some of the acting excesses that took him from A-lister ten years ago to the B-list where he is now. He does some of his best work since The People vs. Larry Flynt, playing Kelly as a guy helpless to his own inadequacies, wanting to do the right thing but always, tragically, doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

While this was sadly overlooked during its late-2005 run, there is a lot to like here. The attitudes of the 50s male towards women, particularly when the woman you love is turning out to be a better breadwinner than yourself, are the kinds of feelings men grapple with today a half-century later. While most of the Ryan offspring wound up as faceless, being too numerous to keep track of as they aged during the course of the film, nonetheless I found this exceedingly entertaining. You may not remember the Ryan children when all is said and done, but you will certainly remember their parents.

REASONS TO RENT: Nice evocation of the ‘50s. Strong performances by Moore and Harrelson. Storytelling is quirky and fun.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many kids who tend to all blend together. Some of the vignettes seemed to be “same stuff different day” without offering much more than the vignette before it.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and some mild language concerns.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the dresses worn by Julianne Moore dresses that actually belonged to Evelyn Ryan, whose daughter Betty saved them and offered to the film for use.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PRFORMANCE: $689,028 on a $12M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paris

City of God (Cidade de Deus)


City of God

Talk about reaching a dead end.

(Miramax) Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Jefechander Suplino, Alice Braga. Directed by Fernando Meirelles

When you think of Rio de Janeiro, perhaps you think of the impeccable beaches there, or the world-class nightlife, or the seductive music. Most folks don’t think of poverty and crime and yet Rio has plenty of both, also in world-class numbers.

One of the worst areas of Rio is known as Cidade de Deus or the City of God. It was created by the Brazilian government to move the very poor away from the center of the city, and then was basically abandoned by any form of authority, leaving the residents to fend for themselves. The slum, or favela became ruled by vicious gangs.

Rocket (Rodrigues) is a young man, son of a fisherman who yearns to get out of the slums and become a photographer. His brother, who runs in a gang called the Tender Trio, is later ambushed and murdered by a young boy named Lil Dice (Silva) who grows up to be called Lil Ze (Firmino). Ze’s bloodlust is nigh insatiable and he rises to the top of the gangs of Cidade de Deus by simply killing off all his rivals, or putting them to work for him. He is prone to fits of violence and when one of these rages leads to him taking out most of a family, their remaining son Knockout Ned (Jorge) declares war on Ze, aided by one of the few remaining rival gang leaders (Nachtergaele).

This is a vibrant movie in which the camera constantly moves and captures images of color and ferocity. The people of Cidade de Deus live in a warzone and accept that’s their lot in life. I’m sure that is not unlike the attitudes of the residents of Baghdad and Kabul.

Director Meirelles tells the story in a non-linear fashion, often taking tangents into the backstories of important categories, or revisiting events previously related to show them from another viewpoint and explain why characters aren’t reacting as you’d expect they would. It sounds like that would make things hard to follow, but in reality that’s not the case.

The performances of the mostly unknown cast are natural and unforced, resonating with a certain amount of realism. Their reactions may bother some viewers until you consider that these characters live with the kind of violence and degradation depicted here on a daily basis; this is nothing new for them, nothing to get worked up over. For them, it’s the equivalent of having to deal with a particularly annoying telephone solicitor.

There is a great deal of violence, but not more than you would find in a comparable Scorsese film. There are also moments of comedy that transcend the sheer misery of life in the favelas of Brazil. Some publications have called this one of the ten best movies ever made. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but this is certainly one of the more inventive and arresting movies made in the last decade. Although the characters themselves are fictional, the events depicted here are based on things that actually happened in Cidade de Deus in the 1960s and 1970s. The author of the novel the movie is based on lived there during that period and knew many of the combatants. That makes the movie all the more sobering.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily film of a place rarely captured on film; Mereilles brings the violence and amorality to life of a gang-run slum.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too real for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The filmmakers are matter-of-fact about drug use, violence and sexuality; they are intrinsically part of the story, and while not handled in an exploitative way, I would sincerely hesitate to let anyone other than the most mature of teens view this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Nearly all of the actors had no previous experience and many of them lived in the actual Cidade de Deus itself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An hour-long featurette on the real drug war in Rio is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.6M on an estimated $3.3M production budget; the film was a smash hit.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ladron Que Roba a Ladron

Flipped


Flipped

John Maloney is fully aware that youth is wasted on the young.

(Warner Brothers) Madeline Carroll, Callan McAuliffe, Anthony Edwards, John Maloney, Aidan Quinn, Rebecca de Mornay, Penelope Ann Miller, Kevin Weisman, Ashley Taylor, Israel Broussard, Cody Horn, Ruth Crawford, Stefanie Scott. Directed by Rob Reiner

Everyone remembers their first love. It holds a special place in our hearts, something that is never recaptured in quite the same way. Often we can remember minute details about the object of our affection, where we were when we first realized what we were feeling, the music that was playing, even the smell of their shampoo. It’s the kind of magic that science can’t explain, that nobody can really put into words but nearly everyone can understand on one level or another.

Bryce Loski (McAuliffe) is moving into a new neighborhood, which in itself is a traumatic thing when you’re in the second grade in 1957. However, when you’re a 14-year-old boy in 1963, nothing is more traumatic than attracting the attentions of the girl next door, or in this case the girl across the street. She’s Juli Baker (Carroll) and she has the kind of smile that lights up a room, and the kind of spirit that warms that brightly lit room. Besides that, she has the kind of character to stand up for what she believes in, even if there’s risk. She also has the compassion to understand the frailties of those around her, especially her dad Richard (Quinn), who paints pictures for a living and sells them at local art shows and county fairs. She has the kindness to want people around her to be comfortable.

All that is lost on Bryce, however; he’s more concerned with the mortification of having someone besotted with him. He does everything he can to deflect her attention, some subtle and some downright cruel. The only thing he doesn’t do is tell her to leave him alone and that he’s not interested.

She takes his disinterest for shyness and redoubles her efforts. Even when he starts going out with her nemesis, Sherry Stalls (Taylor) she just sits back patiently and waits for the relationship to fizzle, which it does courtesy of Bryce’s best friend Garrett (Broussard), possibly the worst best friend ever.

Most everyone can see the shine on Juli, especially Bryce’s grandfather Chet (Maloney) who is grieving for his wife that Juli reminds him of strongly. Certainly Bryce’s Mom (De Mornay) can see it; perhaps the only one who can’t is Bryce’s dad Steven (Edwards) who is a bitter, angry man although he disguises it with a crooked grin and a manly slap on the back. Eventually all of Bryce’s little cruelties open Juli’s eyes to the thought that the boy with the dazzling eyes may not be greater than the sum of his parts. He may be, in fact, less.

This is bad news for Bryce who has begun to see Juli for what she is and has flipped for her. He’s made so many mistakes in running away from this girl; can he convince her that he is the boy she saw those years ago the day he moved in to the house across the street?

Rob Reiner has a great eye for era; he proved that with Stand By Me and Ghosts of Mississippi. He’s gone a few years without a truly outstanding movie on his resume, although he has plenty of great movies, including The Princess Bride, A Few Good Men, Misery and When Harry Met Sally among them.

Here he takes the acclaimed Wendelin van Draanen young adult’s novel and transplanted it from a modern setting to 1963, an era in which he seems comfortable filming, possible (because he was a teenager himself at the time albeit an older one (his IMDB page lists his birth date as 1946). What he does retain from the novel is the alternating point of view, relying on voice-over narration from the two main characters to address the same incidents from different points of view, something Kurosawa made famous in Rashomon only on a grander scale.

It works here because everything that happens is about motivation, and you can’t always tell what someone’s thinking by what they do and it’s very important that the audience understands what the two young people are thinking. That Reiner makes the back-and-forth work so seamlessly is a tribute to his skills as a filmmaker.

The movie is sentimental without being unnecessarily sweet; this is largely because the two young actors, Carroll and McAuliffe are so stellar. It may be my imagination, but we seem to be going through a phase where really good juvenile actors are much more common, from Dakota Fanning to Abigail Breslin to Saorise Ronan and now, these two. Carroll, in particular, strikes me as the kind of actress who could have a legitimate career that could extend well beyond her teen years; sometimes you catch a glimpse of that and it strikes a chord in you. I may be wrong about her, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I was right.

There are some notable performances in the supporting ranks as well, particularly from Maloney who always manages to project character and kindness in every role he plays; as the grandfather he is wise and giving, although saddled with a son-in-law who is not. Edwards, who we’re used to playing sympathetic roles as in “E.R.” and Revenge of the Nerds, plays a thankless, unlikable role and manages to give the character hidden depth; just enough of the source of his frustrations are revealed to hint at humanizing Steven Loski and making him almost sympathetic.

There is a different family dynamic between the Loskis, who are outwardly more prosperous but internally dysfunctional, and the Bakers, who are outwardly struggling and inwardly close. The differences between the two fathers – Richard who is loving, artistic and a little bit Bohemian and Steven who is uptight, condescending and boorish – help explain why the two children are who they are. I have to say that one thing that impressed me was that nothing here seemed manufactured in any way; everything about the plot is organic and flows nicely, even the flipping back and forth between like and dislike for Bryce and Juli.

Quite honestly, I initially wasn’t looking forward to seeing this and did mostly because something about the trailer spoke to Da Queen. While I like Reiner as a director, his recent track record has been spotty and I was thrilled to see him not only return to form, but deliver a movie that will seriously challenge for the number one spot on my year-end list this year. I was touched by the movie and left it feeling warm inside, remembering my own childhood crushes and aware of how wonderful sitting in a sycamore tree and able to view the world around you can be. I tell you, hand to God, you will not find a movie with more heart than this one.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful and rich in detail, this presents a romance in an organic and non-manufactured way that is charming and yet realistic. This is a movie that will grab you by the heart and keep holding you there.

REASONS TO STAY: People who have difficulty dealing with the finer emotions may find this boring.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a couple of scenes that might be a little difficult for the smaller sort to understand, and there are a few suggestive words here and there but certainly this is fine for teens and most pre-teens as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rob Reiner founded Castle Rock, the production company behind Flipped but later sold it to Warner Brothers; this is the first time he’s worked with them since 1999.

HOME OR THEATER: While much of this movie is shot on an intimate level which is normally fine for home viewing, I think the overall experience is heightened by seeing it in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Frost/Nixon