Friday, January 22, 2010

In Theaters: "Soundtrack for a Revolution"

“It was the music that created a sense of solidarity.” Those words come early in Soundtrack for a Revolution, and they form the somewhat tenuous connection between the two halves of Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s film. Like Standing in the Shadows of Motown, it is a hybrid of historical documentary and modern performance film, with icons like Julian Bond, Ambassador Andrew Young, and Congressman John Lewis telling the story of the civil rights movement while artists like John Legend, The Roots, and Blind Boys of Alabama perform the songs that defined the time. They don’t quite manage to pull it all together—the documentary segments barely skim the surface of this story, while the music is hit and miss—but it is a passionate film with an important story to tell.

Its streamlined approach to the history of the civil rights movement sometimes amounts to a “greatest hits” approach, with only the most familiar signposts of the era visited, and then sometimes only briefly: the Montgomery bus boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, the Birmingham jailings, the March on Washington, the Missippi murders, the death of Medgar Evers, the Selma voting protests, Bloody Sunday. The reminisces of those who were there are unquestionably valuable, and there are many fascinating memories; I particularly enjoyed Lewis’ opening remarks about how “the first time I got arrested, I felt so free,” as well as the story about Dr. King’s reaction to hearing LBJ state that “we shall overcome” in his civil rights address to Congress.

The only trouble is that so much of this material has been covered, with greater depth and insight, in countless other, better documentaries, from Eyes on the Prize to 4 Little Girls to Tom Brokaw’s recent (and excellent) King TV documentary. Much of the archival footage is powerful (I’ll never get numb to that shocking film of Bloody Sunday), but it’s almost entirely clips we’ve seen countless times before.

The film’s other flaw is that it can’t quite thread its theme into the narrative in a compelling way; the idea of telling the story through the music seems like an afterthought, an obligation to attend to whether it is organic or not, and the new musical performances sometimes stop the movie cold. Joss Stone, for instance, is a fine singer and an able performer, but her take on “Eyes on the Prize” is all wrong; she performs it like some kind of a slinky sex kitten, and her over-singing approaches Mariah Carey territory. Other songs, performed by The Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir, go too far in the other direction towards the rote and uninspired. And I’d not heard of Mary & Mary before this film, but after their forgettable performance, I’m not too worried about it.

Some of the other performances are memorable. Wyclef Jean’s number is elegant and polished, while Richie Havens’ simple, direct, and moving take on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” (accompanying heartbreaking pictures of those who were shot, beaten, lynched, drowned, and bombed—some you’ve heard of, many you haven’t) brings tears to the eye. The Roots’ rendition of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” is evocative and brilliant (seriously, what can’t these guys do?). And John Legend’s rich, pure voice is exactly the right one to accompany the footage of Dr. King’s funeral procession.

There’s not much in Soundtrack for a Revolution that’s new to those who have studied the period or have seen other, superior docs on the movement. But its accessibility and brevity, and the hook of the performances, could make it an easier sell to younger and less informed audiences. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up playing in a lot of high school history classes—and let’s be honest, that’s not a bad fate for a documentary these days.

"Soundtrack for a Revolution" opens today in New York.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

In Theaters: "Creation"

"Tell me a story," pleads Charles Darwin’s daughter Annie, in the opening scene of Jon Amiel’s biopic Creation. “What about?” he asks. “Everything,” she replies. In many ways, that’s exactly what the naturalist writer did with his seminal 1859 book On the Origin of Species; many of his conclusions contradicted the basic tenets of Christian faith, which is why his theories remain controversial to this very day. Creation is not the kind of anti-Christian tract that some might expect—it is more interested in the man than in taking on his enemies.

The narrative focuses on the years leading up to the publication of the book, as Darwin (Paul Bettany) and his wife Emma (his real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly) have radically differing reactions to the death of Annie, their eldest daughter—Emma strengthens herself with her faith, while Charles plunges into a crisis of conscience that manifests itself in both physical and psychological sickness. He is being pushed, and hard, by Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) to publish his theories and findings, which they believe will effectively puncture the hold of religion across their country (and the world); Darwin is not so eager to stir up the stew of contention within his church and his home.

Based on Randal Keynes’ biography Annie’s Box, Creation is a high-minded and intelligent picture, and its conversations about science and religion touch on some invigorating and fundamental questions, articulating a debate that rages on still. But John Colleee’s screenplay adaptation too often stops cold for those scenes, rather than weaving them into the fabric of the story. Darwin’s inner turmoil is more effectively conveyed, as his questioning of (and impatience with) his own faith drives him further into sickness and (perhaps) madness; the scenes of his reaction to the strict, religious school’s punishment of Annie’s opposure, and his subsequent discomfort during a subtly combative church service, are equally telling and compelling.

Bettany is an actor who seldom makes much of an impression on me, but he’s mighty good here, shouldering Darwin’s tremendous intelligence as an unfortunate burden and seizing on his interactions with loved ones as the keys to the character. His marital relationship is well-defined and intriguing as well; Emma (well-played by Connelly) is given a strength and strong will that is admirable without being anachronistic. The narrative mines the real pain and suffering of their loss, and seems to understand how it affected them differently—and erected something of a wall between them. Those two actors have the bulk of the screen time; Jones is underutilized, though his brief scenes are welcome (“You’ve killed God, sir!” he tells Darwin, cheerily).

Amiel is a director whose filmography is spotty at best (his previous features include Copycat, Enrapment, and The Core), and Creation isn’t always smooth sailing; its structural tics take some getting used to, and some of it is arid dry. But it is a smart and honorable film about an important and, strangely, timely subject; indeed, Darwin remains so controversial in the United States that there was some concern that the film wouldn’t find American distribution (it was ultimately picked up by NewMarket, a smaller distributor which, amusingly, found its greatest financial success with The Passion of the Christ). It certainly bogs itself down in spots, but much of it is brought off admirably, and with considerable heart and intelligence.

"Creation" opens Friday, January 22 in limited release.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

New on Blu: "Smokin' Aces"

Smokin’ Aces, the blood-soaked neo-Tarantino action/comedy from writer/director Joe Carnahan, is dripping with atmosphere, style, and energy—so much, in fact, that we wonder whether it’s all flash. Unfortunately, these suspicions are pretty much on the mark. There is much to recommend in Aces, but not enough to keep it from feeling like a step backwards for Carnahan, whose previous film Narc was a lean, tight, hard-boiled cop movie with an edgy visual style that was nearly undercut by its heavy heart and overwhelming sadness.

Aces, on the other hand, is all pyrotechnics—and while they’re expertly done (there’s no doubt that the guy can build an action sequence), it’s a pretty empty experience. It also suffers from about eight unnecessary characters and three too many subplots; working on a broader canvas than the intimate Narc, Carnahan simply lets his story get away from him.

This is a shame, since there are flashes of greatness in the resulting picture. Some of them are in the performances; Ryan Reynolds, for example, turns in a stand-out dramatic performance as an FBI agent (this was his first truly impressive piece of work). Ray Liotta gave one of his finest performances to date in Narc, and while his role here (as Reynolds’ partner) is nowhere near as meaty, he does get some chewy dialogue (if memory serves, he gets to use the word “donnybrook” at one point) and he and Reynolds have a nice, natural chemistry.

Alicia Keys (in her film debut) is tough and sexy as a hit woman; Taraji P. Henson is entertaining—if a little over the top—as her better half. Rapper Common gets a nice scene where he tells his boss exactly what he thinks of him. Ben Affleck turns in an entertaining (if brief) appearance as a bail bondsman, and Jason Bateman is hysterical as a shifty lawyer, giving the film some early, much-needed laughs after an overload of expositional information. And Jeremy Piven, as the object of everyone’s derision, is nearly perfect—a sweaty, bloated, coked-up mess that you can’t take your eyes off of.

The usually-reliable Andy Garcia, on the other hand, has an icy demeanor that plays a lot better than his screwy accent. And several of the rogue’s gallery of hit men could have gone by the wayside—I’m thinking particularly of the batshit crazy redneck Tremor Brothers, who are neither entertaining nor interesting (though it’s fun to look for an unrecognizable, pre-Kirk Chris Pine as one of them), as well as Martin Henderson’s left-for-dead ex-cop, whose story thread goes nowhere slowly.

However, the sequence where all of the film’s threads (good and bad) converge on Piven’s penthouse is awfully tight, and the resulting shoot-outs are well-made, exciting action cinema—blazingly cut while never unclear. In fact, Carnahan might have been smarter to have focused on the film’s action/thriller elements and dropped its illusions of comedy (and, therefore, the elements that only exist for comedic purposes).

There is a bit of a twist at the film’s conclusion, though it’s not that difficult to see coming (not that this prevents Carnahan and editor Robert Franzen from doing their best imitation of the reveal sequence in The Usual Suspects). However, once that’s out of the way, Carnahan puts Reynolds into a room, points his camera at him, and gives us a final scene that is so efficient, concise, and effective that you’re tempted to forgive the mistakes the film made in getting there. Smokin’ Aces misses more than it hits, but it sure as hell has its moments.

The three-year-old movie is clearly getting the Blu-ray treatment as a promotional tool for the new direct-to-video sequel, Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball. There are plenty of deep catalog titles that I’d rather see get the deluxe Universal Blu-ray treatment, but that’s neither here nor there; Smokin’ Aces is too damned busy and entirely too derivative, but it’s still a pretty good ride.

"Smokin' Aces" was released on Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 19th. For full audio/video and bonus features details, read this review on DVD Talk.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Today's New DVDs- 1/19/09

Che (Criterion Collection): Steven Soderbergh's epic yet personal, experimental and potentially alienating biopic is a bit of an undertaking, but there are some amazing things happening in it (particularly on second viewing).

Magnolia (Blu-ray): One of the great movies of the 90s, rich and textured and emotional and heartbreaking. And it looks great on Blu, too.

The Invention of Lying: Ricky Gervais' satire has a killer cast and some incredible moments, though it is undone a bit by its own too-high ambitions.

No Impact Man: It sounds absolutely insufferable, but this free-wheeling documentary portrait of a family that attempts to put their environmentalism where they mouth is benefits from its charming subjects and light touch.

Aziz Ansari- Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening: Aziz is a funny dude. That is all.

Streamers: It's not one of Altman's best, but it shows the master filmmaker at an interesting crossroads, trying to find a way to meld his experimental and improvisational tendencies with a tight stage script.

On DVD: "No Impact Man"

Colin Beavan's heart is in the right place, but you can see how he'd be a little insufferable. No Impact Man is the documentary account of how he decided that he was going to spend one year making no environmental impact. He did it as an experiment, and also to provide himself with subject matter (Beavan is an author--he kept a blog throughout the project and just published a book about the experience); more importantly, it gave the self-proclaimed "guilty liberal" the chance to put his money where his mouth is.

The rules of the "no impact" year are multitude: no automated transportation (biking only), no non-local food, no material consumption, no new clothes, no trash generation, no packaging. No meat and no television (there's the part where you'd have to count me out). Six months in, no electricity. And (gulp) no toilet paper.

What keeps No Impact Man, directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, from descending into the well-intentioned but dull rhythms of most liberal eco-docs is the fact that Colin doesn't take on the experiment alone: he also has a two-year old daughter (she's charming and good on camera, which helps) and a wife, Michelle, who writes for Business Week and loves her retail and Starbuck's coffees. Her presence in the picture is absolutely invaluable; she's funny and interesting, and provides a valuable counterpoint, particularly in the early scenes.

Gabbert and Schein's cameras clearly had full access to the Beavan family throughout the year-long project, observing some difficult conversations between the married couple. If some of it feels somewhat set up, or at least amped up for the camera, it is at least acknowledged; at one point, Colin remarks, "This feels like a reality show, to have this conversation on camera." But the film is unquestionably well-assembled and compelling, particularly in the section dealing with the media scrutiny his experiment generated (some of it critical and mean-spirited).

And not every critical voice is on the page or on the Internet--in one fascinating, uncomfortable scene, Mayer (the organic gardener who Colin is working with) takes him to task for his wife's place of business. He notes that trees are chopped down for the magazine, which "promote(s) the fully fallacious propaganda that American corporate capitalism is good for the people" and tells the writer that if "it's your contention that she makes up for it--that it evens out--because she doesn't take the elevator in your Fifth Avenue co-op, I have to say, you are either dishonest or delusional." When those kinds of harsh, but honest and complicated ideas become a part of the conversation, No Impact Man is thoughtful, complex, downright fascinating viewing.

And in many ways, Michelle sort of saves the movie; she begins as the cynical voice of reason and practicality (a naturally sympathetic position, thanks to both her natural wit and the extremity of the project) but, through the duration of the film, slowly comes to embrace and celebrate their new way of life. To some degree, she becomes the audience surrogate, and that's a valuable storytelling tool that is too often missing from documentary films (due to the nature of the beast). The picture doesn't really come to a definite ending--it ends more with a dash than a period--but I prefer that kind of modest, unassuming ending to the moralizing and monologues of something like Super Size Me (which the filmmakers pinpoint as an influence).

The filmmakers' caution throughout No Impact Man is admirable; the content and ideas of the picture could easily veer into the territory of the overbearing, but the naturalistic filmmaking and engaging personalities of the parties involved keep the documentary light and nimble while remaining contemplative and informative. Worth a look, particularly by those who are down with the cause.

"No Impact Man" hits DVD today.

On DVD: "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 Philip 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 available today on DVD and Blu-ray.

On DVD: "An Englishman in New York"

An Englishman in New York is a slight, minor work, but it is absolutely worth seeing as a showcase for a brilliant John Hurt performance. Quentin Crisp, the famed writer, raconteur, and all-around gay icon, is a role Hurt has played before (the 1975 TV version of Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant was a breakthrough role for the British thesp), but he brings to it the full skill of his decades as an actor; it’s a snappy, razor-sharp performance, full of bitchy charm and devilish grins. It’s also a warm, likable turn that pauses for pathos without clobbering the audience.

If only the movie were having as much fun as he is. They’re sometimes in sync, particularly in the opening scenes, which find Crisp arriving in New York in the early 1980s, thoroughly delighted by what he sees—he struts through the village to the sounds of Donna Summer and Rhinoceros, his voice-over assuring us that “without her outcasts, the metropolis would be a very dull place indeed.” Brian Fillis’ screenplay has moments of punchy exhilaration, but it often verges on didacticism; Cynthia Nixon is compulsively watchable as performance artist Penny Arcade, but her first set of scenes are written like position papers. And Fillis doesn’t trust his own subtext. An early scene finds Crisp, at a cocktail party, failing miserably to connect with a young gay man who has been told to admire him. The awkwardness of their encounter is palpable, but that’s not good enough—he has to walk away with a friend and sneer “Welcome to the 1980s” under his breath.

Crisp finds a friend in Phillip Steele (the invaluable Denis O’Hare), the editor of “Christopher Street” magazine, which retains Crisp as its film critic. Hurt and O’Hare’s friendship is as comfortable as an old pair of house shoes; they play well off of each other and make a nice team. Steele is a constant as Crisp ages, first struggling with his own potential obsolescence, then settling into a new profession of “aged curio.”

Before that, however, he has a bit of a crisis of conscience; during a question and answer session, he makes an ill-advised throwaway joke about the then-exploding AIDS epidemic, and then stubbornly refuses to apologize for it. The controversy alienates him from much of the gay community; for a time, his only close friend is the young painter Patrick Angus, played by the passable (if rather forgettable) Jonathan Tucker. Hurt isn’t quite evenly matched with the young actor, but their scenes have a sweetness and honesty to them (“There is no great dark man,” Crisp advises his disciple. “Trust me, I looked”).

Director Richard Laxton has some difficulty staging big scenes. The theatrical sequences are too clean and easy; the Q&As feel scripted and tightly controlled instead of spontaneous (which they presumably were), and when that one goes wrong, the direction is too on-the-nose. The entire audience turns immediately, shaking their heads and muttering and overacting like extras in a high school play. It’s a major moment in the plot (as it should be), but it’s handled with the clumsiness of an amateur. In smaller, quieter scenes he fares much better; he appears to like actors, and is smart enough to stay out of Hurt’s way.

Paul Englishby’s music is also troublesome; the score is too damned pushy, sitting on nearly every scene and trying to crush it. Laxton may have relied on it too much to try and build momentum; Fillis’ script keeps starting and stopping, jumping ahead years at a time in such a fragmented fashion that it almost feels as though scenes are missing (the picture runs a suspiciously brief 74 minutes).

However, Laxton finds exactly the right nimble tone in the closing scenes, and has the good sense to hold that tone for as long as possible. Its final moments are just perfect, and they, along with Sting’s closing title song (it’s from his 1987 album …Nothing Like The Sun and is based on Crisp, who was casual friends with the singer), leaves the viewer with a warmth and good cheer that the film may not have entirely earned. In spite of its flaws, my affection towards An Englishman in New York is genuine. It feels incomplete, yes, but what’s there is frequently effective, and Hurt is just a joy to watch.

"An Englishman in New York" hits DVD on Tuesday, February 23rd.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Previously on DVD Talk

Most of the reviews I post here are cross-posts of the stuff I write for DVD Talk. However, in the interest of brevity and focus, I tend to just post the portion on the content of the disc here; the fuller versions on DVD Talk also include Audio/Video information and details on the Bonus Features. I try to link back to those later (particularly in the "Today's New DVDs feature"), but sometimes I miss them, or we get screening copies after the original release date. Soooo... here's a few of my recent DVD Talk reviews, along with the site's "Advice" rating (which goes from "Skip It" to "Rent It" to "Recommended" to "Highly Recommended" to "DVD Talk Collector's Series").

Brick City
United States of Tara: Season 1
It Might Get Loud (Blu-ray)

In The Loop (Blu-ray)
The Simpsons: Season 20 (Blu-ray)
The Brothers Bloom (Blu-ray)

The Hurt Locker (Blu-ray)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

On DVD: "Acting Shakespeare"

Shot in New York City in 1981 and broadcast on PBS the following year, Acting Shakespeare finds an impossibly young Ian McKellen alone onstage, without props or books, in an extended monologue that combines Shakespeare’s biography, his own history with the Bard, and lengthy cuttings from several of the author’s greatest plays.

He opens, appropriately enough, with the “all the world’s a stage” speech from As You Like It, before proceeding to explain his desire, in the hour and a half to come, to “share the stage” with Shakespeare’s characters, to “summon up (their) spirits.” He then proceeds to relate how we grew to love Shakespeare, and how that love propelled him into Cambridge University (he also refers to himself and classmates like Trevor Nunn, Derek Jacobi, and Dudley Moore as the “Cambridge Mafia”).

McKellen’s personal reflections are quite enjoyable; he’s chatty and funny, and never seems to take himself too seriously. His droplets of Shakespeare’s biography maintain that wit; of theories about the health of the Bard’s marriage, he notes “All I can tell you is, nowhere in the plays is there a single happy marriage.”

But the main attraction here is the cuttings from the plays—and they are, unsurprisingly, fantastic. Most of the classics are trotted out: Henry V, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, and Richard III, which he would rivetingly bring to film over a decade later. His choices are frequently stage-related (as with the “speak the speech” scene from Hamlet, or the prologue of Henry V) and, though they’re mostly obvious choice, he does throw in a few curveballs (like his reading of Sonnet 20). Perhaps his finest moment comes near the end, when he plays both of the titular characters of Romeo and Juliet.

Director Kirk Browning shoots the performance inventively, with smart camera movement and placement; he utilizes slow push-ins and tight close-ups to maximize the effect of McKellen’s words. The overall effect is interesting and enjoyable; the only potentially problematic element of the piece, strangely, is the title. I had presumed it was some kind of a master class in Shakespearean acting, akin to Michael Caine’s wonderful Acting in Film from around the same time. It’s not; it’s basically 85 minutes of Ian McKellen doing Shakespeare. There’s worse ways to spend your time.

Acting Shakespeare is an entertaining and well-performed monologue by one of our great actors, with interesting background information on the plays, the writer, and the performer. It’s certainly not for everyone—Anglophiles need not apply—but it’s a brisk and smart piece of work for the right audience.

"Acting Shakespeare" was released Tuesday, January 12th on DVD.