Saturday, October 3, 2009

In Theaters: "The Invention of Lying"

Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s The Invention of Lying is nothing if not ambitious; it tries to work as a) a high-concept gimmick comedy, b) a religious satire, and c) a romantic comedy/drama. Well, two out of three ain’t bad, I guess.

The first movie is the one that’s being promoted in the film’s ads and trailers; it takes place in an alternate universe where no one has ever thought to lie. As a result, everyone is brutally, and sometimes painfully or uncomfortably, honest. Gervais (creator and star of the original British version of The Office) plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter for “Lecture Films” (since no one can make anything up, motion pictures consist of people reading about historical events). Mark is about to lose his job and can’t make any headway with Anna (Jennifer Garner), the girl of his dreams, who is bluntly dismissive of any future together because of his poor genes. When he gets fired and can’t make the rent, he has an unexpected idea during a visit to the bank—he tells the teller that there’s more money in his account than there is. She cheerfully hands over as much as he asks for. Mark realizes he’s on to something, and finds out what it’s like to live life as the one man who’s capable of stretching the truth.

This first act is sharp and consistently clever; Gervais and Robinson (who co-wrote and co-directed) find inventive ramifications for this particular reality, including how total honesty would affect advertising (“Coke: It’s Very Famous”; “Pepsi: For When They’re Out of Coke”) and other elements of everyday life (a rest home is called, simply, “A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People”). Then it maneuvers a tricky mood change. Mark’s mother is on her deathbed, and in order to comfort her, he manufactures a story about how she won’t “disappear into nothing” when she dies—she’ll go to a wonderful place where she’ll live in happiness with everyone she loves, for all eternity. Well, word gets out, and suddenly everyone wants to know about the place where you go when you die.

The deathbed scene is a serious one, and while the tonal shift is a touch jarring, Gervais manages to pull it off with his performance (surprisingly strong). But as he is pressured to explain “what he knows,” and finally addresses the teeming masses to tell them about the “man in the sky,” it suddenly dawns on the viewer that the film is subtly making a fairly radical, and undoubtedly controversial, statement: that religion is, in fact, a lie. Hmmm, wonder why they aren’t putting those scenes in the trailers?

But that scene, where Mark lays out the dogma, is one of the more sophisticated pieces of religious satire we’ve seen in many a moon. Sure, some of the jokes that surround it are cheap and easy (like his use of pizza boxes as Moses-style tablets, or the Jesus beard-and-hair sight gag), but it’s a funny notion, no matter how much it may alienate some viewers, and Gervais gets some of his biggest laughs through his improvised notions and interactions with the rather thick crowd.

Soon Mark is world-famous, but his wealth and power can’t convince Anna to give him a real shot. And here’s where the movie shifts again, into a semi-serious romance, as he watches Anna’s courtship with his biggest rival, Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe), who is rude and unsupportive of her, but boy will they make some pretty babies. The problems with the Mark/Anna romance, which consumes most of the third act, are multifold. First, despite Garner’s best efforts (she really does have some fine moments), the character is given so many opportunities to hurtfully reject Mark that she ultimately becomes rather unlikable. More pressingly, the tone of the romantic scenes is all wrong—they’re played as big, sometimes maudlin encounters, full of open-hearted confessions and tears and so forth, and they just don’t fit in with either the broad comedy of the first act or the sharp satire of the second. Instead, the picture clomps into some awfully well-trod territory, complete with Mark’s voyage to Brad and Anna’s wedding. Any guesses what happens there?

It’s rather a shame that The Invention of Lying falls apart as it does; it’s got more great scenes than many far better pictures, and the comedy all-star team that Gervais assembles (Louis C.K., Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Christopher Guest, John Hodgman, Jeffrey Tambor, Nate Corddry, Martin Starr, and Edward Norton and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, both uncredited) is mighty impressive. It’s worth seeing for what it gets right, though with a bit more discipline, Gervais and Robinson might have come up with the great movie they were clearly striving for.

"The Invention of Lying" is currently in theaters.

On DVD: "Yellowstone"

When Stephen Colbert had documentarian Ken Burns on a couple weeks back to promote his new documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, he hilariously dubbed the series “nature porn.” But it’s not just nature lovers who are lapping up these docs when they hit Blu-ray; when the BBC’s Planet Earth was released in both HD formats back in summer of 2007, it quickly became the must-have demo disc for any respectable high-def enthusiast. The mini-series Yellowstone (dramatically retitled Yellowstone: Battle for Life on the cover art, but not on the menu or titles) also comes from across the pond, and offers more of the stunning wildlife photography that Blu-ray owners crave. It’s also informative, intelligent, and often downright fascinating.

The show comes in three episodes, each running about 50 minutes: “Winter,” “Summer,” and “Autumn” (they don’t get much of a spring in Yellowstone, since winter lasts a good six months). Narrator Peter Finch describes the Colorado national park as “a world of extremes that challenges all that strive to live here.” The first episode is probably the best; not only does “Winter” explain the crippling conditions of those months (“for half the year, Yellowstone is frozen solid”), but it also delves into how the park got there, and why it’s so potentially volatile.

“Summer” begins in April, as the bears come out of hibernation and the migrating herds return; “Autumn” picks up in late August, in the run-up to that crippling winter (“the animals of Yellowstone will have to get ready… or get out”), as pine squirrels, birds, and beavers prepare for the long winter ahead.

As a viewer, I’ve never been tremendously involved in wildlife documentaries; they tend to conjure up thoughts of Saturday afternoons, bored at the grandparents’ house while Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” droned on in the background. Well, nature films have come a long way since then, as Planet Earth proved; the advances in lenses, photography, and high-definition video technology have made these films closer, tighter, more intimate, more personal.

Yellowstone has an abundance of amazing moments, of scenes that take your breath away and make you wonder how on earth they got that on film. In the winter, a fox hunting for mice deep in the snow leaps straight up and then deep into the thick white carpet in a truly stunning display of speed and grace. In the summer, there is extraordinary footage of an underwater traffic jam—“Yellowstone cutthroat trout” preparing to spawn. In that same episode, a mother bear and her cubs go fishing, and it’s fascinating to watch them; they’re rather clumsy, yet somehow adorable. That episode closes with an amazing sequence of the mother bear fiercely defending her cubs from a wandering male bear—as Finch intones what has happened to the mother, I realized how involved I had become in their struggle.

The highlight of the autumn episode, for this viewer anyway, is the section on beavers; that footage, of the animals chewing down trees and building their dams, is wonderful. But that sequence does what the best of these documentaries do—it shows these animals in their element, engaging in their ingrained behavior and following their natural instincts. This world that they inhabit is so fully realized over the course of the first two hours of the mini-series that the late appearance of humans, in the form hunters in nearby forests, is frankly a little shocking; likewise, the sections concerning the effects of nearby oil drilling are particularly poignant in light of the dance of nature we’ve just witnessed (forgive me for letting my liberal flag fly—I’ll pack it away now). That dovetails nicely into an interesting disclosure of the surprising importance of wolves to the entire Yellowstone ecosystem. It’s a bit of a cliché, but everything is indeed circular, a fact we consider as the animals of America’s first national park prepare for another hard winter, and the cycle that kicked off this fascinating series begins anew.

The close proximity of Yellowstone’s release to the aforementioned The National Parks: America’s Best Idea surely couldn’t just be a coincidence; indeed, the final line of narration in Yellowstone reads, in regards to national parks, that they are, “some say, America’s best idea.” But the BBC documentary stands just fine on its own two feet; the photography is remarkable, the information is valuable, and yes, it will show off your Blu-ray player and HD-TV beautifully.

"Yellowstone" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Today's New in Theaters- 10/2/09

Holy shit, look at this week. Four new movies, and all of them either are good, or look good. Happy fall!

Zombieland: No less than three other DVD Talk writers got an early look at this horror/action/comedy, and all but one had good things to say about it; that's a miracle over there. It seems that the movie has buzz on its side, and for good reason: it delivers fully on the guilt-free good time promised in its ads. (AV Club liked it too.)

Whip It: I like pretty much everybody involved in this one, from director/co-star Drew Barrymore and through the rest of the cast, which includes Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig, and Marcia Gay Harden. Ebert gives it a glowing review, noting of Barrymore: "In her debut as a director, Barrymore shows she must have been paying attention ever since Spielberg cast her when she was 5."

A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers' latest certainly has its moments; they've seldom been given the opportunity to so freely indulge their sprung comic sensibilities. But it doesn't quite add up the way their best stuff usually does; you keep waiting for it to all come together, and it never really happens.

The Invention of Lying: Ebert's also nuts for Ricky Gervais' big-screen debut as a (co)writer/director; it seems that there's a lot more happening in this one than the (admittedly clever) trailers let on. "Watching the movie, I thought -- oh, yeah, that's right: It's October. Good movies are allowed again." Amen to that, brother Roger.

Also, Capitalism: A Love Story goes wide; a perfect date movie for those of us who are in the lower 99%, and are steamed up about it.

In Theaters: "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men"

I’m not sure what exactly John Krasinski, the writer/director/co-star of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, has done to earn the scathing reviews his picture has been greeted with; he certainly didn’t make a bad film. He did make one that is flawed and uncertain and occasionally too mannered, yes, but it is also funny and unorthodox and sharp as a razor. None of that seems to have come across to the critics who are slicing it up; the Village Voice (a publication which, in all fairness, hates just about everything) calls it a “disaster,” while the Times insists that “there is no unifying motif connecting the fragments,” as if such a thing were necessary or, in this case, even desirable. (Plus, you could argue that there is one, so there’s that too.) In fact, Brief Interviews is at its best when it’s content to pop around like a blackout sketch revue, with a funny encounter here and a disturbing confession there and an unexpected interpolation following.

The film’s critics might ask what the hell any of that has to do with David Foster Wallace, whose book inspired the film, and that’s a question I don’t have an answer to, since I haven’t read the book (a confession which may negate this entire review in the eyes of some readers). Too often, criticism of a literary adaptation is couched in how well the film is adapted, rather than how well the film stands on its own merits; I can’t judge if Krasinkski’s screenplay is faithful to the source material, but I can judge how well it works as its own beast.

In fact, it feels more like an adaptation of a play than of a book—it has the rhythm, efficiency, and brute force of early Mamet (particularly Sexual Perversity in Chicago), and it has a very theatrical mood (that’s meant as a compliment), particularly in the stylized language of its many smart monologues and an extended (and rather brilliant) duet scene between Christopher Meloni and Denis O’Hare. This is not to say that the picture is stagey or claustrophobic—indeed, the debuting director is clearly having fun playing with form, exploiting inventive voice-over and circular editing like a kid playing with a new toy.

Wallace’s book was a collection of short stories, which Krasinski expands into a full narrative by creating the character of Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), the unnamed interviewer of the original, now a graduate student pondering the male psyche. Some of the title interviews are just that, a man in a room, talking into a microphone; others are overheard, or pontifications by the men in her life, including her thesis advisor (Timothy Hutton), a neighbor (Will Arnett), and, most devastatingly, a recent ex (played by Krasinski himself).

In fact, the film is stocked with excellent actors; Josh Charles, Bobby Cannavale, Ben Shenkman, SNL’s Will Forte, and the great Clarke Peters (aka Lester Freamon on The Wire) drop in, and all of them get a tasty chunk of Wallace’s text to chew on. Krasinski runs into trouble when he gets into more conventional dialogue scenes; they often don’t have the same zing as the monologues, and some of the connective tissue is awfully tentative. But Nicholson’s understated performance helps; with her cropped hair, open, blank face, and dry wit, she’s perfectly cast.

The first half of the film is more successful than the second; early on, it functions primarily as a comedy (albeit a dark and occasionally disturbing one), with the laughs often found less in the sharp turns of phrase and more in the perfectly-timed pauses and half-beats. The back half of the picture, in which Krasinski starts to take the material more seriously, has some problems; an extended piece with Frankie Faison talking about his father works just fine as a self-contained short film but doesn’t have jack squat to do with the rest of the movie, though the difficult sequence that follows (a sharply-sliced combination of several confrontations with a combative, repulsive student) is undeniably effective.

Krasinski does make one critical mistake at the film’s end, by casting himself as the “subject” who must deliver the monologue that Sara finds most personally annihilating. He’s a terrific comic actor (a fact proven, week in and week out, on The Office), but he’s just not up to the job here; the speech, as he performs it, sounds “written” in a way that none of the other actors’ did. The smart play would have been to swap roles with Chris Messina (Krasinski’s Away We Go co-star), who is good if underutilized in a comic encounter early in the film.

But Krasinski, the actor, coming up short doesn’t derail the accomplishment of Krasinski, the writer/director. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is far from perfect, and a more disciplined adaptation could have possibly been cleaner, tighter, more fluent. But it might have lacked the fire and ingenuity of Krasinski’s passion project. This is an actor who could probably keep making easy payday projects like License to Wed until the cows come home, but instead, he put together a risky, difficult project by an author who most directors consider unfilmable. That counts for something.

"Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" is currently playing in limited release.

In Theaters: "A Serious Man"

If there’s one thing you can’t accuse the Coen brothers of, it’s selling out. After achieving perhaps their greatest critical success (and multiple Oscars) for No Country for Old Men and boffo box office for their inspired comic follow-up Burn After Reading, they’ve gone and made their most befuddling picture since Barton Fink. A Serious Man is an oddball period black comedy/drama about Jewish suburban angst, populated by a cast of mostly unknown actors. It’s hard to assess whether it works, since what there were going for is anybody’s guess. But it certainly keeps your attention.

It begins with a truly peculiar prologue that plays like Fiddler on the Roof by way of Franz Kafka. We then plunge into the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college professor and family man whose life is about to fall apart. His bid for tenure is looking shaky, his kids are indifferent to him, his neighbor is encroaching on his property line, his unemployed brother (Richard Kind) is living on his couch, and his wife (Sari Lennick) is about to leave him for family friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). And then there’s the student who seems to be trying to buy a grade. And the angry representative of the Columbia House record club.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this one—it has a puzzling feel, and as a viewer, you’re not sure where it’s going or what it’s all going to lead up to. The Coens have rarely indulged their odd, offbeat comic rhythms more freely, and, to be fair, it’s full of the kind of stylized dialogue that they write so beautifully; the first conversation about the divorce is immaculately timed, and that phone call with Columbia House is a masterpiece of circular logic.

Those scenes play. So does Stuhlbarg’s frazzled leading performance; he’s a wonderfully reactive actor, and his steadily, subtly irritated double-takes and dialogue reactions (“We can’t know everything,” he is told by one of many rabbis, to which snaps, “It sounds like you don’t know anything!”) are pitch-perfect. Melamed is also impressive as the insufferable Sy. And its final moments play like a spiteful poke in the eye to those who disliked the ambiguity of No Country’s last scene (“You want open-ended?” they all but cackle. “We’ll give you open-ended”).

And yet… as enjoyable as it is (particularly for a fan of the filmmakers, which I consider myself to be), it doesn’t coalesce into a cohesive whole, as the Coens’ best films do. The narrative seems at time to be purposefully, spitefully illogical; there’s all kinds of scenes that don’t seem to have much of a compelling reason to exist, aside from the fact that the Coens made a list of stuff they wanted to put into the script. For example, the appearance by Michael Lerner (Oscar-nominated co-star of Barton Fink) is a great one-scene joke, but looking back on the film, I’m not sure why it’s there (aside from providing an easy laugh). Same goes with the subplot about the sultry neighbor, or the scene with Larry and his brother at the beach. It’s a spotty picture, hit and miss; sometimes jaw-droppingly audacious, sometimes bewilderingly esoteric. When you see a film described as “personal” (as many have described this one), it usually means that it’s intensely intimate and autobiographical in its themes. With a movie like A Serious Man, it’s more like the talented, stylish directors don’t care if anyone but them is in on the joke.

"A Serious Man" is now playing in limited release.

In Theaters: "Zombieland"

You won't often find a movie as honestly advertised as Zombieland. If you've seen the trailers, you know exactly what you're in for; the picture knows why you're there, and delivers. It's gory, goofy fun, filled to the brim with shotgun blasts and exploding zombie heads and wry laughs and badass posturing, and that's all some folks ask for in a movie. You know who you are.

The trouble is that it never really finds its own unique comic voice, but it also can't quite match up to the films it draws from and pays homage to. It quotes liberally (and sometimes ingeniously) from Ghostbusters and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, as well as the films of Edgar Wright (director Ruben Fleischer is clearly a Wright fan, and this--his studio debut--mixes the cheeky horror humor Shaun of the Dead with the hyperkinetic stylization of Hot Fuzz). The problem is, a film so open with its influences sets the bar pretty high for itself. Zombieland can't quite clear that bar, but it has a helluva lot of fun trying.

The picture takes place in a not-too-distant future where a virus has turned the bulk of humanity into fast-moving, flesh-eating zombies of the 28 Days Later variety. Jesse Eisenberg stars and narrates as Columbus (no one is referred to by their proper name, but by their eventual destination), the unlikely hero who has managed to survive by living by a set of stringent rules ("Always check the back seat," "Don't be a hero," etc). The idea of the meek, nebbish anti-hero dropped into a man of action situation is a good one, and Eisenberg is a nice fit for the role. While roaming the land, he joins up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a shotgun-wielding badass; they end up losing their ammo and transportation to Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a pair of young con artists, but the quartet eventually joins up in the interest of mutual survival.

The opening scenes, in which we meet Columbus and Tallahassee, learn Columbus' rules, and take in the world gone mad, have a lunatic genius to them; Fleisher's direction (and the script, by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) is cranked up to 11, filling the screen with gallons of fake blood, zippy camerawork, and clever on-screen text. You're not sure if they can sustain that energy, and turns out, they can't--though I'm not sure that they'd want to (pounding away in the same style and at the same pace is part of what makes Michael Bay's movies so insufferable). But there's no question that it hits a bit of a lull; the dynamic of the two female characters isn't as well-developed as that of the men, though there are still some funny bits here and there.

Things perk up with the crew lands in Hollywood and pays a visit to the seemingly abandoned mansion of Tallahassee's favorite movie star (I wouldn't dream of revealing who it is, though the beans have been spilled in some early reviews and on the movie's imdb page). Before you know it, they've already arrived at the climax (the picture is not a moment too long at 82 minutes), a crowd-pleasing zombie battle at an amusement park, full of smart action and good gags (bonus points for the Black Keys cue).

Eisenberg is carving out a nice niche as a comic lead--he's often compared to Michael Cera, and indeed they play some similar roles, but Eisenberg brings a different kind of comic timing to his work (to a degree that Drew McWeeny's comparison to a young Woody Allen is fairly accurate). Harrelson is brash and badass, but with a grin; it's the most entertaining work he's done in years. Breslin (from Little Miss Sunshine) has some nice moments, and Stone (most memorable as the object of Jonah Hill's desire in Superbad) is tough and sexy as hell--her relationship with Eisenberg is sweet and charming.

Zombieland sputters on occasion, and threatens to run out of gas in that middle stretch. But when it works, it really works--it's a knowing, witty, winky movie, cheerfully bloody, subversively smart, and slyly droll. It's a rare movie that gives you what you paid for--and, in places, might even give you a little more.

"Zombieland" is now playing.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bookshelf: "The Marx Brothers as Social Critics"

Martin A. Gardner’s The Marx Brothers as Social Critics: Satire and Comic Nihilism in Their Films was expanded from the author’s PhD thesis, and reads like it. The notion of how their films sent up the morals and mores of their time is a ripe one for analysis, to be sure. The trouble is, that ground has been thoroughly covered by Simon Louvish’s indispensible Monkey Business and Joe Adamson’s brilliant (if unfortunately hard to locate) Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo, and those books were enjoyable to read; funny, insightful, entertaining. In contrast, The Marx Brothers as Social Critics is a dry slog, its arid academic approach apparent from the title forward.

Though there is some valuable information here (particularly the background on some of the team’s finest writers, who frequently don’t get their due), there’s little new for anyone even casually familiar with the Marx filmography; in fact, there are frequent, embarrassing errors. In an early chapter on the Marx influence in comedy and pop culture, Gardner writes, “Woody Allen created an entire film referring to the Brothers and entitled A New Kind of Love, from one of the songs performed by Zeppo in the film Monkey Business.” This sentence will leave both Allen and Marx fans scratching their heads; digging deeper into his description of the film in question, the reader finally realizes that he’s talking about Everyone Says I Love You, the title taken from a song each of the four brothers performed individually in Horse Feathers. How many seconds on imdb would it have taken to check that? (And not split hairs, but Zeppo also wasn’t the only one to perform “A New Kind of Love” in Monkey Business; all four brothers took a stab at it, during the famous “passport” sequence). Later, Gardner names Buster Keaton as one of the uncredited writers involved in A Night at the Opera; Keaton’s time as an MGM gag man didn’t begin until two years after that film, in 1937, and every Marx and Keaton bio notes that he first went to work for the Marxes in 1939’s At the Circus.

The bulk of the book, however, consists of scene-by-scene (often line-by-line) breakdowns of the Marx Brothers movies, and Gardner’s painstaking commentary and contextualization basically boils down to having someone sitting next to you, explaining every joke. He schlepps us through Groucho’s first scene in The Cocoanuts, which includes the line “Remember, there’s nothing like liberty, except Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post.” Gardner then helpfully interjects, “Liberty, Collier’s, and The Saturday Evening Post were three popular magazines in America at that time.” You get the idea. The Marx Brothers as Social Critics feels much longer than its 210 pages, and its price tag ($35 for a trade paperback) doesn’t match up with the quality of what’s inside.

"The Marx Brothers as Social Critics" is now available at bookstores and online.

Today's New DVDs- 9/29/09

The Girlfriend Experience: Steven Soderbergh's profile of a high-priced Manhattan call girl is experimental in structure and style, but then again, we'd expect nothing less of our most reliably unconventional filmmaker--only Soderbergh would hire a porn star and then have her front a movie that's more about honesty and commerce than sex. My review link above is for the VOD/theatrical release in May; here's Rich's review, with some additional insights and info on the extras and A/V quality.

Away We Go: Sam Mendes' 180-degree follow-up to Revolutionary Road is light, sweet, and funny, and John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are just perfect in its leading roles. The picture is a touch uneven (the Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal segments are too broad by a mile), but it's still awfully good.

Management: The raw materials are promising, but Stephen Belber's stalker/romantic/coming-of-age comedy/drama can't find a tone that works; it veers wildly from zany comedy to heartfelt drama, but isn't nimble enough to negotiate its own wide turns.

How I Met Your Mother- Season 4: I was late to the HIMYM party; we didn't start watching until this most recent season, after a marathon catch-up viewing of the first three seasons. It remains an engaging, funny, inventive program; I'll have a full review of this Blu-ray release (the show's first) in the next week or so.

42nd Street Forever Vol. 5- Alamo Drafthouse Cinema: I'm the proud owner of all of the "42nd Street Forever" discs to date (even the un-numbered "XXX-treme Special Edition" disc-- dirty!) and this one is on pre-order; they're a hoot for fans of 70s cinema and kitsch in general. Paul Mavis' DVD Talk review promises more of the same good stuff.

Monday, September 28, 2009

In Theaters: "Capitalism: A Love Story"

Michael Moore may not be our most subtle filmmaker, and true to form, his new documentary/political treatise Capitalism: A Love Story is rather all over the place; while some other directors approach these kind of hot-button topics with the precision of laser beam, Moore prefers a shotgun approach, blasting his shrapnel onto whatever side topics wander into his field of vision. I note this as an admirer of his work; this more stream-of-consciousness style, perfected in 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, fits the loose, rambling filmed-essay form he’s adopted in that time, and if the transitions are a little wobbly on occasion, our interest seldom wavers.

Some of his tropes have grown a bit tiresome as well—his children’s story-style narration has overstayed its welcome, and while they dig up some awfully good stock and educational footage, the opening interspersion of an historical film about the fall of ancient Rome with recent news footage is too heavy-handed, even for Moore. But once those early stumbles are cast aside and the divisive director gets down to business, he assembles his finest, and most effective, motion picture in years.

Since its explosion just over a year ago, the global and national financial crisis has fallen prey to mindless partisanship and the 24-hour news cycle; the path to disaster was such a ridiculously convoluted one that most people have arrived at answers and explanations that are just too easy. What Moore’s film provides is some much-needed contextualization. He goes all the way back to the “good old days,” to the comparatively debt-free and comfortable 1950s and 1960s, before bringing us up to the Carter and Reagan administrations (and the dangerous influence of Reagan’s Treasury Secretary, Donald Regan). Clinton gets off a little easy (Glass-Steagall was repealed on his watch, after all), but Moore does get in some well-aimed parting shots at his old nemesis, George W. Bush.

Once the history has been filled in, the second act of the picture wanders a bit, though each of the detours is fascinating. We’re told about the “PA Child Care” scandal, in which two judges were given kickbacks for sending kids, many of them minor offenders, for extended stays in a state-funded private juvenile facility. We’re given some mighty scary information about how grossly underpaid airline pilots are. And, most disturbingly, there is an extended, shocking section on (often secret) life insurance policies taken out by corporations on their employees (called, crassly, “dead peasant” insurance).

These somewhat scattershot examples of reprehensible behavior motivated solely by greed leads to his stunning, but ultimately somewhat logical, thesis: that capitalism is a scam, a bill of goods that’s been sold by the wealthiest 1% to the rest of us, a “plutonomy,” as explicitly outlined in a series of leaked internal Citigroup memos from 2006. From there, he travels to the epicenter of American greed: Wall Street, where it takes a bit of work to come up with a plain-English explanation of how the housing crisis, and particularly the home loan implosion, happened.

This section of the film, an examination of the fall of the house of cards, is riveting, fierce, and angry (“What the fuck happened?” Moore asks one of his financial experts, pointedly). Simply put, it will make you furious. But the best is yet to come—the sequence dealing with the fall 2008 bailout (a move that Moore likens to rich banking interests “stealing the silverware on their way out” of the Bush White House) is thrilling, beautifully cut, and one of the finest pieces of work the filmmaker has put to celluloid. Breathlessly intercutting news footage, Congressional floor speeches, and virulent analysis, Moore calls that bailout a heist—and constructs the sequence accordingly. And then he builds it to a beautiful comic payoff, with a scene reminiscent of his unfortunately short-lived TV series The Awful Truth (I wouldn’t have minded a cameo from our old friend Crackers, the Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken).

The closing scenes find Moore at his most bitter and yet most hopeful, and amount to nothing less than a call to arms and a rally for revolution. And his final images (which have unfortunately been spoiled by some reviews and—bafflingly—Overture Films’ own publicity photos) and voice-over are powerful and heartfelt. Capitalism: A Love Story is a long film (perhaps a few minutes too long), but it is rich and thoughtful, and—notably—isn’t merely a partisan screed (as some of his other works have been, for better or worse). But it is a smart, funny, entertaining picture, and it couldn’t be more timely. It’s Moore at his best—rambling, undisciplined, and utterly brilliant.

"Capitalism: A Love Story" is currently playing in limited release. It opens wide on Friday, October 2nd.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

In Theaters: "The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers"

The press notes for The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers don't call it a documentary; they call it a "political thriller," and the description is apt. The film may engage in the most familiar trappings of doc filmmaking--sometimes to its own detriment--but the story it tells is so engaging and engrossing that we're swept right up in it. It's a film about a moment in history--a specific moment, right before the entire house of cards that was the Nixon administration came tumbling down--but it is also an intimate, candid portrait of a man who had a crisis of conscience, and decided to act on it.

The film, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, runs on two tracks: as a personal biography of Ellsberg and a historical snapshot of what he did. The second part is easy, and part of the record: a former Pentagon insider, Ellsberg was a man transformed by the early 1970s. The once-hawk was now a dove, furious about the lies that the American government (particularly, five of its Presidents) had told the people about the circumstances leading up to our involvement in Vietnam. When his attempts to bring Congressional attention to a top-secret Pentagon study highlighting those lies failed, Ellsberg leaked the so-called "Pentagon Papers" to the New York Times, setting up a chain of events that pitted the Nixon administration against the free press, influenced public perception of the floundering Vietnam conflict, and led directly to the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon presidency.

The details of that story, the whens and hows and whos, are riveting viewing. But you can find all of that in books and other documentaries. The juice here is Ellsberg's personal journey from one of the architects of the war to one of its staunchest enemies. Careful attention is paid to the details of his psychological make-up, to the doubts that were percolating in the late 1960s, to the concerns and fears that finally led him to conclude that "it wasn't that we were on the wrong side. We were the wrong side."

Those are Ellsberg's own words; he both narrates the film and serves as its primary interview subject, a splitting of focus that requires a little getting used to. But that conceit does work, particularly when it leads to scenes like his powerful description of the moment when his life "split in two."

Some of the picture's other devices don't play quite as well. The use of reenactments should always serve as a last-ditch, Hail Mary option for any documentary filmmaker who isn't Errol Morris; those scenes, and the cheeseball music and graphics of the opening sequence, give the film the unfortuante feel of a History Channel special (nothing against History Channel specials--I just don't want to pay good money to see one in a theater). Some of the other, more inventive solutions to presenting scenes at which cameras weren't present (like the occasional use of simple animation) are more successful.

There are other somewhat amateurish moments (like when Henry Kissinger is identified, via on-screen text as "national securty advisor"), but most are forgivable, particularly as the narrative tightens and picks up speed in the last 30 minutes. Those Nixon tapes continue to stun (was there ever a grown man who used profanity more awkwardly?), and Ehrlich and Goldsmith do a first-rate job of conveying the real risks taken by both the Times and Ellsberg himself (he faced the possibility of 115 years in prison). The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is guilty of occasional missteps, but nonetheless, it is still a riveting, exciting documentary film.

"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" is currently playing in limited release.

On DVD: "Sunshine Cleaning"

Sunshine Cleaning’s ads were eager to play up its connection to Little Miss Sunshine (it comes from several of the same producers), and like that film, it is perhaps too mannered and self-conscious in its quirkiness. Yes, Alan Arkin returns as another slightly unbalanced patriarch; yes, Clifton Collins Jr.’s character is missing an arm, for no real reason of consequence. But in spite of its occasional flights of fancy, the picture is grounded in a specific, lived-in reality; Megan Holley’s screenplay and Christine Jeffs’ direction are all about the understated details, and the film’s vivid impressions and small moments add up to a genuinely involving narrative.

Amy Adams might want to be a little careful about her screenplay choices—she’s got the adorable, plucky, determined gal down pat, and should perhaps start getting wary of repeating herself—but she’s might good here all the same, investing the leading role of Rose with just enough self-confidence for us to see that she’s drawing from a reserve that’s just about empty. She’s evenly matched with Emily Blunt, who manages to play the damaged, screw-up younger sibling as if it’s not a cliché; this is an increasingly interesting actress who is better each time I see her.

The vivid, believable quality of their performances help bring off a third-act crisis that I realized had totally sucked me in; Holley’s screenplay may not have a terribly inspired structure, but it plays every beat expertly. Its closing scenes are unexpectedly moving, and if the film’s final moments are a little pat, well, maybe they’ve earned them. The snark patrol dismissed Sunshine Cleaning, but to hell with them; this one is a likable, well-crafted winner.

"Sunshine Cleaning" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

On DVD: "The Willie Nelson Special"

The Willie Nelson Special (given the amended title The Willie Nelson Special—with Special Guest Ray Charles for this DVD release) catches the iconic country troubadour in a 1985 performance at the Austin Opry House. He was riding high at this point in his career, thanks to his recent pop radio hit “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” (a duet with Julio Iglesias), his appearances on the “We are the World” single and as part of the country supergroup The Highwaymen, and his organization of the first Farm Aid benefit.

Nelson and his band (with the help of guitarist Jackie King) perform a relaxed, intimate set of standards and Nelson’s hits. The real attraction, however, is the appearance by Ray Charles (I can’t help but think that this disc’s release falling less than a month before the arrival of the new Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis Play the Music of Ray Charles can’t be a coincidence). Ray joins Willie and the band early in the show, following an opening sequence that accompanies “On The Road Again” with credits and off-stage footage, bound together by a seemingly endless array of cheesy 80s video effects and wipes. Next is a lovely performance of Willie’s 1982 cover version of “Always on My Mind,” and then Ray joins Willie and the band on stage.

The two men have a clear and loving rapport, established immediately after Ray’s entrance when Willie tells a funny story about Ray’s keen chess-playing abilities (echoing an anecdote told by Bill Cosby on his Live at Madison Square Garden album); their playful, enjoyable interplay is a treat. Charles sticks around for six numbers, a good half of the program’s running time, so this is less of a traditional “guest star” spot and more of a full-on collaboration. As with Nelson’s recent pairings with jazzman Marsalis, Nelson and Charles meet in the middle, between his country sound and his partner’s soul stylings, to play some blues.

After a brief improvised instrumental break, their first number is a bluesy take on the jazz standard “Angel Eyes.” It’s quite good, a marvelous mix of Ray’s playing and Willie’s unique vocalizations. Nelson then casually joins Charles at the piano for a full-on vocal duet, a rousing rendition of “Seven Spanish Angels.” Their take on “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is also excellent, but the highlight of the set may be their performance of Ray’s signature tune, “Georgia on My Mind,” which wonderfully mellow, but goes out strong with a good rave-up at the end.

Glimpses of rehearsal footage and interspersed throughout the special, including the entire first half of their closing number, “Mountain Dew,” a grooving crowd-pleaser. The special’s biggest problem, however, is that Charles’ songs are undoubtedly the highlight, but once it builds to them, there’s nowhere left to go. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with the second, Ray-free half of the show, but it’s a bit of a comedown after the heights of the Nelson/Charles duets; the special would have benefitted greatly from a re-edit that shuffled the Charles material to the second half.

There’s still good stuff after he’s gone, though. The nimble fingers of guitarist king make for particularly jazzy renditions of “My Window Faces South” and “There Will Never Be Another You,” while the performance of “To All The Girls” gets a giggle from the audience when Nelson begins the second verse, sung on the record by Iglesias, with a quick impression of the Spanish crooner. “Who’ll Buy My Memories” and “Without a Song” are also well-performed, and the quick video excursion to visit old friends in Willie’s hometown of Abbott, Texas is a nice inclusion. But while the final number, “Whiskey River,” is perfectly adequate, it’s not the kind of barn-burning closer you might hope for.

For fans of Willie and Ray, this one is a no-brainer; their duets are terrific, and both musicians are in fine form. But the special is something of a mixed bag (thanks primarily to its odd organization), and the audio and video presentation, while not necessarily bad, are somewhat underwhelming. Those minor fumbles, along with the lack of any supplementary material, makes The Willie Nelson Special one for the rental queue.

"The Willie Nelson Special" was released on DVD on Tuesday, September 22nd.