I generally dig the work of director James Mangold, but there was something bugging me, in back-of-the-mind, lingering fashion, about the impending Knight and Day, his summer action confection reuniting Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. And I finally figured it out. It’s the TV ads’ use of Muse‘s “Uprising.” Trailers that use really popular, of-the-moment music frequently (not always) have big tonal problems, and so the use of a surging chart hit or on-the-rise band, particularly in heavy rotation small screen advertising, is an empty signifier; it’s meant to prod and rouse and make the movie seem in thumping lockstep with the zeitgeist, when it’s frequently not, and sometimes the exact opposite. It’s a shortcut end-around figuring out a more effective and honest way to sell the narrative, in other words, a not infrequent sign of makers’ (or at least distributor’s) remorse. One wonders if Cruise (or Mangold, for that matter) even knows who Muse is.
It’s a happy birthday to Annette Bening, who, as improbably as it may seem, turns 52 today. Bening’s marriage to Warren Beatty probably cost us a handful of great performances around a decade back, but after doing the family thing for a bit (and tackling some stage work, to mixed reviews) Bening is back, and in Mother and Child and this summer’s The Kids Are All Right, she has two powerhouse performances that virtually guarantee her a Best Actress Oscar slot. So kudos, AB.
Small screen sensation Lost may have wrapped up this past week, but there’s another showdown this week set largely on an island and centered around feuding factions — some desperate for survival at any cost and others more sanguine about their fate. With his sixth zombie film, Survival of the Dead, writer-director George Romero tells the Hatfield-and-McCoy-esque story of one banished patriarch, hell-bent on clearing Plum Island of zombies like so much dead brush, who hooks up with a group of self-interested mercenaries and clashes with a longtime nemesis who thinks it morally wrong to dispatch afflicted loved ones. I recently caught up with Romero to talk about his filmmaking niche, tribalism, balancing practical and CG effects, and why he doesn’t think zombies have health club memberships. For the interview, from New York Magazine‘s Vulture, click here.
Picking up immediately after the events of 2008’s Diary of the Dead, Survival
of the Dead is the sixth film from writer-director George
Romero to posit and examine a world where humans are in the minority, and flesh-eating
zombies rule. It’s also a sad confirmation of if not his complete creative bankruptcy then certainly his wildly diminished gift for imparting glancing metaphorical dread.
The film opens off the coast of Delaware on Plum Island (based loosely on the same-named remote animal disease center 100 miles northeast of New
York City, in the Long Island Sound), where zombiedom is apparently only the latest wrinkle in a generations-long struggle for power between two families. The O’Flynn clan, headed by patriarch Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh, dialing up the Billy Connelly), approach the zombie plague with a lock-and-load, shoot-to-kill attitude. The Muldoons, headed up by Shamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), feel that the zombies should be quarantined and kept alive, in hopes that a solution will someday be found.
When Shamus and his crew get the drop on Patrick, they force him into exile by boat, where on the mainland he meets up with a band of soldiers, headed by the square-jawed Sarge (Alan Van Sprang). After a shootout and standoff, a cajoling Patrick rebrands himself and misrepresents his mission, sneakily getting Sarge and his military brethren to sign on for a return to the island. There, they find that the zombie plague has fully gripped the divided community. As the battle between humans and zombies escalates, Patrick has to come to terms with a difficult reunion with his infected daughter, Janet (Kathleen Munroe).
A huge part of Romero’s justifiably earned credit as a master genre filmmaker lies in his blend of humor and pointed social commentary within the horror milieu. Survival of the Dead reveals, though, in the starkest terms possible,
that a large part of Romero’s reputation has always been a result of diminished expectation — of his penchant for being able to do more with less, in terms of production resources and a professionally trained cast.
Many other reviews will likely pull punches regarding the craftsmanship of the film, but Survival of the Dead repeatedly exhibits poor choices on both narrative and technical levels, from picking the wrong point of entry into the story as a whole and dawdling with less interesting set-ups to flatly framing its action. In fact, none of the attack sequences are either executed at a skill level high enough to raise heart rates, or even staged in a fashion to evoke such feelings.
Furthermore, there’s a warped, nonsensical nature to the film’s interior logic. (Hammy performances and awkward, emotionally-on-the-nose dialogue don’t help matters.) Characters are by various turns motivated by money (in a world where clearly this no longer matters) and misplaced senses of air-quote glory, even when they’re aware of the apocalyptic conditions of the world beyond the story’s most immediate borders.
Most damningly, though, Romero doesn’t seem to bring into focus any viable subtext, to prop up what is otherwise an exceedingly one-note, uninteresting conflict. There’s the faintest hint of Shamus serving as a stand-in for isolationist/anti-immigration viewpoints (“We have an obligation to protect what’s ours,” he thunders at one point), but this isn’t ever developed in a substantive way, and so interpretations in this regard wither on the vine. Even Romero doesn’t seem to know — or care — where all of this is really going. Somewhat miraculously, the film builds to a climax — involving the attempted training of zombies to eat animal meat, rather than persons — where even
one of the main characters dozes off. If a gun-toting fundamentalist in a supposedly tense standoff in a world full of marauding zombies can’t be bothered to stay awake and invested in the proceedings, how can an audience? (Magnet, R, 90 minutes)
The AP’s Christy Lemire has a nice piece in which she assays the lack of review screenings for Killers, and in which I partially rhapsodize on Lionsgate’s general strategy of muffled opinion for its forthcoming action-comedy, starring Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl.
The hilarious money quote of explanation from Lionsgate’s Wednesday statement: “We want to capitalize on the revolution in social media by letting audiences and critics define this film concurrently. In today’s socially connected marketplace, we all have the ability to share feedback instantly around the world. In keeping with this spirit, Lionsgate and the filmmakers want to give the opportunity to moviegoing audiences and critics alike to see Killers simultaneously, and share their thoughts in the medium of their choosing.”
This ignores some facts, of course. Sandwiched in between the releases of Gerard Butler’s The Ugly Truth and Law Abiding Citizen, each of which screened for critics and posted an opening weekend of over $20 million, Lionsgate released Gamer in September of last year. It didn’t screen in advance for critics, and it opened to around $9 million. But hey, a bonus to whomever at Lionsgate drafted the above response; it’s good, hard spin. Ridiculous, but in a finger-to-the-wind, let’s-toss-this-into-the-zeitgeist-peppermill-and-see-if-it-takes kind of way.
Advances in science, technology and medicine have taught us that keeping fit and maintaining a nutritious diet can prevent diseases and promote a longer life, but did you know there are actually ways to train the brain so that you’re conditioned to live healthier? Along with The New Science of Learning: Brain Fitness for Kids, hour-long PBS documentary Brain Fitness Frontiers delve into this very subject, instructing audiences about the brain’s “plasticity,” and the huge benefits cognitive training can have on everyday life.
Hosted and narrated by Peter Coyote, Brain Fitness Frontiers is built around interviews with luminaries of science and medicine, including Dr. Michael Merzenich, Dr. John Donoghue and Dr. Skip Rizzo. Deftly utilizing these experts of their field, director Eli Brown challenges many misconceptions about brain development, and offers forth examples of how ordinary people are using their brain’s variability, and the power of neuroplasticity, to create lasting and astonishing changes. Neuroscience research and cognitive training alike are explained in layman’s terms, making for an engaging viewing experience.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Brain Fitness Frontiers comes to DVD presented in 1.76:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language stereo track. In addition to a link to PBS’ web site, a small clutch of additional interview footage is offered forth as a supplemental bonus. To purchase the DVD, phone (800) PLAY-PBS, or simply click here. Or if Amazon is totally your thing, meanwhile, click here. B (Movie) C+ (Disc)
One doesn’t fire up a DVD entitled The End of Poverty? thinking there are finger-snapping good times on the horizon for the next 90 minutes or so, especially since the red question mark at the end of the film’s title (contrasted with its black text) looms rather ominously. Yet the clear-eyed, straightforward manner in which this affecting documentary — which premiered at Critics’ Week at Cannes last year, and subsequently played at more than 30 international festivals — plumbs its subject matter serves as a powerful natural depressive for anyone with a heart and an ounce of curiosity about the state of the world at large.
Narrated by Martin Sheen, director Philippe Diaz’s film reframes the debate over extreme poverty, laying out the case that while human struggles over resources and land are a fairly natural thing, there in fact exists enough of everything (space, food and resources) for a far more equitable system of national governance and international relations. With a variety of interviews that extend beyond the parameters of just the usual talking heads of academia, Diaz provides a superb thumbnail sketch of the history of colonialism,
and its lingering effects, generations on. Assaying unfair debt, trade and tax policies, the movie imparts important details without becoming overly wonkish.
Part of this owes to the fact that Diaz smartly mixes in case study-type interviews with often surprisingly eloquent laborers who are basically indentured servants. It’s heartbreaking, listening to the Brazilian sugar cane cutter who for 17 years has toiled for the equivalent of under $40 a month, rising at 1 a.m. for breakfast and funding repairs of his own work equipment. Some of the movie’s proposed macro-solutions to poverty are more open to debate, so the film undeniably works best an ire-provoking indictment of conspicuous consumption, particularly amongst certain industrialized nations. With only five percent of the world’s population, the United States still consumes a quarter of its natural resources, and produces around 30 percent of its pollution; overall, less than a fifth of the Earth’s population uses more than 80 percent of its resources. There’s a moral component to this struggle, certainly, but as Diaz also justly, implicitly notes, this sort of path isn’t eternally sustainable — it’s a breeding ground for discontent, radicalism and revolution, and all the further instability that eventually brings.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with a snap-release tray, The End of Poverty? comes to DVD on a region-free disc in what’s billed as a “special educational edition,” replete with extra DVD-ROM content and a handful of other disc-situated bonus features. Befitting its area of inquiry, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Swahili subtitles are also included. There’s a downloadable study guide at the film’s web site, but on the DVD there’s 32 minutes of additional interview material with author Susan George, professor Chalmers Johnson, University of Nairobi constitutional law professor Okoth Ogendo and Gitu wa Kahengeri, leader of Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising. There are also trailers for a quartet of other Cinema Libre home video titles. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. A- (Movie) B- (Disc)
Vin Roberti, Chairman of Palisades Media Corporation, announced today that veteran industry executive Soumya Sriraman has been named President and CEO of Palisades Tartan US and UK. “Soumya’s executive background with the studios and entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with her fresh perspective and keen insights, make her an ideal fit for our growing company,” stated Roberti. “We are looking forward to her immediate contributions.” Sriraman, for her part, returned the love: “Vin’s track record of success with Palisades is reflected in the amazing catalog and team he has built. I am a huge fan of the Tartan catalog and plan to aggressively rebuild the brand and introduce American audiences to a new collection of cutting-edge and remarkable films,” she said.
Straddling both continents, Palisades Tartan has emerged as one of the premier distributors of independent and arthouse cinema in the United States and United Kingdom, and has been at the forefront of a couple consumer trends, particularly as it relates to Asian cinema. Roberti and Sriraman added that they planned to aggressively build the Palisades Tartan brand in the American and British territories with new strategic acquisitions and mergers over the coming year. Sriraman remarked that despite shrinking shelf space, newer delivery mechanisms, including digital platforms, represented a significant opportunity, offering consumers many viewing modes to whet their appetite for independent films.
The titular ditty’s crunchy guitar riff, which was recently (and rightly) lauded in one of those VH-1 song-list countdown specials, is an enjoyably filthy thing, all forward-leaning adolescent momentum and pelvic energy. So it’s no surprise, really, that You Really Got Me: The Story of the Kinks gives good attitude while also maintaining a pinch of mystery, interspersing an array of superb color and black-and-white concert footage, from the 1960s right on through to the ’90s, with some nice biographical nuggets.
Of all the British bands that broke through commercially in America who
were part of the so-called “British Invasion” of the ’60s, the Kinks may have been the most quintessentially English. Led by Ray Davies and his younger brother Dave Davies,
the group burst onto the music scene in 1964 with their groundbreaking
hit single “You Really Got Me,” which topped the U.K. singles chart and made the American top 10 to boot, spawning an entire generation of power-chord riffs (American musicologist wrote that the song “invented heavy metal”). That tune gets a loving treatment here, of course, but some of the other performances
in the international collection of footage are equally notable, including “All Day and All of the Night,” “‘Til the End of the Day,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “Days” and “Celluloid Heroes.”
A lot of reach-back, artist-specific concert docs like this have the advantage of a handful of performances that have been rarely seen since their first rotation, if at all, outside some regional broadcast and promotion. But if there’s not any artist participation, and the talking heads aren’t lively and informed, they too often can sputter and fail to capture what’s intriguing about Band X or Artist Y. Thankfully, You Really Got Me: The Story of the Kinks also contains comments from various members of the band, including both the Davies brothers and drummer Mick Avory. The gentlemen talk about their roots as a rhythm-and-blues band, and their maturation as musicians. The band continued touring until mid-1996, and despite Dave Davies suffering a stroke in 2004, certain rumors of a reunion persist out there in various corners of the Internet. If it never happens, this title at least showcases the Kinks’ worthy legacy.
Housed in a regular clear plastic Amaray case, You Really Got Me: The Story of the Kinks comes to DVD on a region-free disc presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with an English language Dolby digital 2.0 stereo audio track. Its supplemental features consist of… well, nothing really. But the nice slate of captured musical material makes this disc alternately thrash and kick, and sing and soar, and that’s good enough for properly aged or curious rock ‘n’ roll fans. To purchase the DVD, click here; or if you’re all about Amazon, click here. B- (Movie) C- (Disc)
Since its small screen inception in 1998, Sex and the City, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, has served as a chatty, fashionable sounding board for the thrills and travails of big-city professional women, and the turbulence in romantic expectation that the changing landscape of gender roles has wrought. The follow-up to the series’ enormously successful transition to the big screen, Sex and the City 2 spins forward its heroines on an adventure abroad. The result is a bloated, wearyingly unsubtle and dramatically inert valentine to conspicuous consumption. Writer-director Michael Patrick King, who served as show runner on the TV series for most of its duration, aims for a comedy of material extravagance, but his tone is so willfully broad as to cause dissociation with almost any sentient adult, regardless of income bracket. Working with a reported wardrobe budget of $10 million, Oscar-nominated costume designer Patricia Field at least gives armchair fashionistas much to ogle. For the full original review, from Screen International, click here. (Warner Bros., R, 146 minutes)
A documentary investigation into surging American religious fundamentalism, and in particular its fetishistic preoccupation with end-time prophecy and the Bible’s Book of Revelation, Waiting For Armageddon is a fascinating look at the intractability of a certain subset of religious thinking, and how seemingly at odds it is with the very idea of modernity while simultaneously peddling a curious, blinkered sort of global engagement. Notably, this First Run Features title doesn’t arrive at its provocation cheaply, but instead through substantive examination of serious questions.
Co-directed by Kate Davis, Franco Sacchi and David Heilbroner, Waiting for Armageddon focuses largely on Israel’s unique status as the blasting cap of religious conflict in the Middle East, and explores the condescending, head-patting triumphalism of much of America’s 50-million strong Evangelical
community when it comes to the Jewish state. In their narrative, support for Israel is but a simple, necessary card to flip on the yellow brick road toward the Rapture; Muslims get evicted from the Holy Land by the Jews, who then rebuild the Temple of Solomon to jibe with Biblical prophecy, so that Christ can then return and trump all others. (As the chosen people, of course, Jews get “last-call dibs” on recognizing the error of their ways, and accepting Jesus as the son of God.)
Interviewees here include investigative journalist Chip Berlet, who
specializes in the study of right-wing movements and other extremism within the
United States, but the film is thorough and fair-minded — there’s no voiceover narration, so a wide range of subjects get to directly voice their beliefs and opinions, allowing viewers to decide for themselves. The picture that emerges — not surprising to those who actually grew up in or around pockets of such fundamentalism, but perhaps a revelation to some of the so-called media elite — is that many if not most religious fundamentalists are not super-ignorant, actually, but rather overwhelmed by the pressures, despair, poverty and manifold injustices of modern life.
There’s the fascinating and of course rather depressing spectacle of bearing witness to a mother who raises her children telling them they most likely won’t live to graduate college or get their driver’s license; in this sort of environment, where’s the personal incentive to learn or grow rather than just blindly embrace prepackaged dogma? (It doesn’t exist, of course.) There’s also a bit of an unseemly voyeuristic thrill in some of these “Rapture junkies,” in the feeling that they on a certain level want to see and/or bask in the suffering of others, perhaps if only a means by which to elevate themselves. Regardless of these unpleasantries, and the particulars of some of the more radical viewpoints espoused, one can certainly empathize with each interviewee’s own quest for centeredness and order, whether fully articulated or not. That yearning is a very human one, in my book.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Waiting For Armageddon comes to DVD presented in anamorphic widescreen, with an English language stereo audio track. Supplemental bonus features include an interfaith roundtable discussion, as well as a scrollable text statement from the filmmakers. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) C (Disc)
A late and somewhat out of place grab, but teabonics is something to behold, truly. I realize that mocking Tea Party protesters for the creative “grammer” of their signs in some ways only emboldens them, reinforcing the death-grip paranoia of this cleverly constructed narrative of their persecution at the hands of the media elite. But… so be it. Sometimes an idiot just needs to be revealed as such. That’s the case with some (not all) of these folks.
Adapted from the same-named series of Saturday Night Live short comedic sketches about a clueless, angsty soldier of fortune whose talkative nature habitually prevents him from disabling a series of bombs, the willfully crude and vulgar action-comedy MacGruber should end the series of big screen bombs adapted from the show. A foul-mouthed send-up of testosterone-infused, small-budgeted ’80s action flicks, MacGruber is more of a functional than revelatory success — its script doesn’t really substantially or satisfyingly delve into a number of amusing character defects it sets up for its self-involved hero. But there’s undeniably a woolly, shambling charm to the film, particularly in the contrast found between Will Forte’s blustery, buffoonish performance, and Kristen Wiig’s tight-lipped, nervous energy. For the full review, from Screen International, click here. (Universal, R, 90 minutes)
A selection at Sundance earlier this year, period piece drama Holy Rollers lifts a veil on Jewish Orthodoxy and reveals a world where — shock of shocks — religious adolescents aren’t immune to doubt and desire and even behavior that contradicts their own sense of self. Unlike the recent Happiness Runs, another skewed sort of coming-of-age tale, Holy Rollers takes filtered, subjective truth and drug experimentation and spins it into something personal and woozy and idiosyncratic, yet still relatable to an outside audience without much of a deeper knowledge or rooting interest in its subcultural milieu.
Directed by Kevin Asch, from a screenplay by Antonio Macia, the film is inspired by actual events in the late 1990s when Hasidic Jews were recruited as mules to smuggle ecstasy from Europe into the United States. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Sam Gold, a young Hasid from a tight-knit Brooklyn community who is nervously following the carefully prescribed path laid out for him by his family, which includes studying to become a rabbi, working with his garment dealer father, Mendel (Mark Ivanir), and awaiting the final confirmation of a pending arranged marriage to Zeldy (Stella Keitel, daughter of Harvey and Lorraine Bracco). At this time, Sam falls under the sway of the charming older brother, Yosef (Justin Bartha), of his good friend and neighbor, Leon Zimmerman (Jason Fuchs).
Yosef taps Sam to help him transport “medicine” for Jackie Solomon (Danny Abeckaser, above left), an Israeli dealer who operates under the guise of an import-export business. (Yosef’s amusing advice for a nervous Sam: “Relax, mind your business, and act Jewish.”) Crunching numbers on the fly, Sam quickly demonstrates his business acumen to his new boss, who takes Sam under his wing. As he showcases his increasing indispensability to Jackie, Sam finds his heady exposure to the respective nightlife worlds of Manhattan and Amsterdam, which he frequents for travel, to be both exciting and corrosive. As the business grows and his family starts to become suspicious of his illegal activities, Sam grapples with a not-exactly-discouraged burgeoning attraction to Jackie’s girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor, above right), and slowly comes to realize the unstable nature of the façade related to all this easy money. Caught between life as a smuggler and the path back to God, Sam has no easy answers, but instead only tough choices.
Eisenberg is an actor who, ever since bursting onto the scene in 2002’s precious, somewhat contrived Roger Dodger, has induced in me a not completely explicable exasperation. He suffered a terrible wig in Cursed, which would’ve failed irrespective of his involvement. And I’ve actually legitimately dug a couple films in which he’s appeared, most notably The Hunting Party and Adventureland; while it would be snide and neither fair nor totally true to say I enjoyed them in spite of his presence, they haven’t exactly been actorly triumphs, in my view. I’ve tolerated Jesse Eisenberg, in other words, waiting for him to give me something different, something less mannered and obvious than the same stammering nice guy wallflower of whom he’s played various iterations.
Holy Rollers is the film that finally shows a glimpse of something different. It’s not jaw-droppingly revelatory, but Eisenberg’s attuned performance showcases the slow bleed of secularism into Sam’s distinctly ethnic patter, and when he propositions elopement with Rachel in fitful fashion late in the movie, it plays as both a mock come-on from a guy who doesn’t know from flirting as well as heartbreakingly real.
Debut feature director Asch keeps the tone relaxed and real, so that one has an appreciation of the sincerity of Sam’s faith without it becoming a smothering trait. In portraying the difficulty with which Sam stands astride two worlds, increasingly at odds, the movie doesn’t implicitly choose a side, and the audience is the ultimate winner in the adaptation of this unlikely true story, which richly captures all the befuddlement of youth, albeit in some circumstances of extreme duress. (First Independent, R, 89 minutes)
It’s no surprise that Middle Eastern-set tales of war, religion, families torn apart and the jumbled intersection of all three have become rich documentary fodder over the past decade; nonfiction filmmakers, as much as anyone else trading in the feature narrative realm, go where the stories are. The worst of these movies goad and poke, playing merely to audience expectation about what feelings their subject matter should elicit. With The Oath, though, director Laura Poitras does something remarkable, and in its own way instructive and important: she constructs a three-dimensional portrait of a ex-jihadist who, nearly a decade removed from the commencement of the war in Afghanistan, still hasn’t found what he’s looking for, and in some ways remains more confused than ever.
Though imprisoned at the time, Abu Jandal (above) became an important figure in American intelligence circles in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks. As Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard and a self-proclaimed “emir of hospitality” for Afghan jihad recruits, he personally met and hosted all of the 9/11 hijackers, even though he claims (and there’s good reason to believe) he had no operational foreknowledge of their plan.
A nominally reformed family man (after serving more than two years in Yemeni prison, for charges stemming from the bombing of the USS Cole, he was released in 2003 as part of a government reeducation and reintegration program), Jandal is a taxi driver in Yemen when we meet him. He doesn’t make a great first impression. One glimpses some of the salving effects of domesticated life (Jandal waking up his
son Habeeb for 4:30 a.m. prayers, and instructing him in religious ritual), even as one winces at the pictures of an infant with an AK-47. Almost immediately, Jandal emerges as a bundle of contradictions, extolling the “stain” upon America’s reputation rendered by the World Trade Center attacks while also popping a Coke, a detail the director doesn’t miss. Later, he explains why, despite having fought on the front lines in Bosnia, he would not have participated in a “spectacular” attack like 9/11, even if asked by bin Laden; the next day, he reconsiders, and asks the tape of that interview to be deleted.
The offscreen foil for much of Jandal’s inner tumult is his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, bin Laden’s personal driver and the first Guantanamo Bay prisoner to face America’s controversial military tribunals. The pair’s intertwined personal histories, and Jandal’s lingering guilt over his role in Hamdan’s fate, act as prisms which allow Poitras to explore and contextualize a world that has largely confounded Western media — that of the aggrieved and politically voiceless Muslim working poor.
Poitras, helmer of the Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country, constructs The
Oath largely as a psychological character study of Jandal, so the natural ebbs and flows of one’s opinion of her subject seem to matter relatively little. She works in file footage (Jandal on 60 Minutes,
etcetera) alongside new interview material, but also lets audiences see him in a more natural and relaxed habitat, holding forth with younger Yemeni Muslims, some of whom might be sympathetic to a life of dedicated jihad. On a certain level, the educated, reflective Jandal seems to have a bit
of a narcissistic streak; he appears to like the attention that his erstwhile
association with bin Laden provides. Yet his regret and concern for Hamdan is genuine, as is a seemingly burgeoning realization that guns and violence do not solve everything.
In so tracking Hamdan, the film also provides an overview of the flaws in America’s schizophrenic treatment of war-on-terror detainees (Congress adopted a retroactive “material support to terrorism” felony charge after the 5-3 landmark 2006 Supreme Court decision in the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case). The Oath‘s objectivity, its greatest narrative asset, naturally limits its potential commercial reach, since reactionary forces even beyond the reach of FOX News still peddle this brawny, mock-patriotic notion that the faintest strokes of grey morality give “aid and comfort to America’s enemies,” as if either complacency or contentment can themselves pack a C4 cap or trigger a dirty bomb, or were somehow in abundance in Afghanistan on September 11.
What one is left with in The Oath is a stirring, engaging film that elicits more questions than it answers. Near the end of the movie, we learn that the actionable intelligence
from Jandal’s (non-coerced) debriefing, spread out over two weeks, was so
important to the United States learning more about bin Laden and
Al-Qaeda that the very start of the war in Afghanistan was delayed in
order to allow for it to continue. We also see Jandal talk broadly about human rights, and then moments later argue against Al-Qaeda ever being drawn into the political process, saying, “When you accept the other as he is, then you’re in agreement with his infidelity and lowliness.” His fuse seems still lit, basically. So what gives? Radicalism isn’t just a flame to be snuffed out, the movie posits, perhaps unnervingly to some. After all, both water and fire are sometimes used to fight fire. (Zeitgeist, unrated, 96 minutes)
Kevin Costner exudes trace elements of that same rumpled, weary Costner-ian charm that’s made him a very rich man in The New Daughter, a moody, middling and partially supernatural drama that suffers from a subject-mismatched title and terrible DVD cover art.
In similar fashion to movies like The Uninvited and Brittany Murphy‘s Deadline, The New Daughter is one of those flicks where a wounded protagonist/family (preferably including a writer) repairs to remote rural home, in an attempt to shake off recent malaise or trauma. Here, Costner is John James, a newly divorced father of two (and, yes, writer), who moves into a two-story South Carolina manse with his 14-year-old daughter Louisa (Ivana Baquero, of Pan’s Labyrinth) and seven-year-old son Sam (Gattlin Griffith). When Louisa starts to behave in a bizarre and increasingly violent manner, John must determine whether her acting out is linked to a giant, mysterious burial mound on the edge of his property. (Hint: it is.) A teacher at his kids’ school (Samantha Mathis) tries to offer some aid and comfort to the newly single John, and a local professor (Noah Taylor) eventually shows up to drop some verbiage regarding burial mound mythology and all that. In the end, though, it’s all about John, a shotgun, and fire, which seems a bit yawningly conventional for all the rather laborious set-up here.
There’s a pinch of The Others-style spookery here, but The New Daughter, based on a short story by John Connolly, ismostly a drama of domestic unsettledness. The directorial debut of [Rec] and Quarantine screenwriter Luis Berdejo, the movie benefits from Costner’s mooring presence; he instinctively knows that less is frequently more, and his slow-peddling — along with Berdejo and cinematographer Checco Varese’s decision to rely mostly on wide lenses — help give the proceedings an aura of naturalness and respectability. This isn’t merely an exercise in boo-scares, in other words. Still, for all its slow-building drama, the screenplay never really builds upon its surface-level dread in deeply interesting ways; the threat is pretty much what one figures it to be early on, and nudging adornments in parallelism (Sam gets an ant farm in his classroom) don’t exactly thrill.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, The New Daughter comes to DVD presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Supplemental extras include a robust slate of deleted and extended scenes (mostly the former, and more than a dozen, running 22 minutes), an 11-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that includes interviews with Costner, source material author Connolly, the film’s producers and others, and the movie’s theatrical trailer. Its weightiest bonus feature, however, is a feature-length audio commentary track with Berdejo. Although his heavily accented English is at times an impediment to understanding, he comes across as a humble and interesting guy, and also shares good anecdotes and practical filmmaking tips (shooting down directly into a flame will result in smoke damage to a camera, so use a mirror, kids!). He also gives props to many crew members for their ideas, and talks up Jorge Rojas’ art, which is used in the movie. To purchase The New Daughter on DVD via Amazon, click here. C (Movie) B- (Disc)
Brett Ratner is credited with helping Jackie Chan cross over into American superstardom via the Rush Hour series, so it’s perhaps less curious than on the surface it seems, him lending his pop cinema instincts to another filmmaker. Director Anurag Basu’s Kites is a unique Bollywood movie in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that it unfolds mostly in English and Spanish, with a pinch of Hindi. Then there’s its unprecedented release strategy, which sees a reworked 90-minute version, “remixed” by Ratner and featuring a new score by Graeme Revell, land in theaters May 28, one week after the 130-minute original. A multicultural mash-up, Kites centers on a carefree Las Vegas grifter and dance instructor (Hrithik Roshan) who haphazardly reconnects with a Mexican beauty (Barbara Mori), one of many illegal immigrants he’s married for money. On-the-lam shenanigans ensue. I caught up with Ratner recently to talk about the globalization of film, spare Bollywood foley work, and what on his Wikipedia page haunts him. For the interview, from New York Magazine‘s Vulture, click here.
What’s really left to say about Avatar that hasn’t already been said? After Titanic, self-proclaimed “king of the world” James Cameron did something precious few in-demand filmmakers even attempt to do — he basically went away to dream it all up again. That Cameron returned and basically smashed another industry-redefining grand slam out of the park is an amazing feat. That he even tried — that he wasn’t interested in merely collecting big paychecks for summer movie action tentpoles, which he could do annually until well past the age most everyone else would retire — is what’s most interesting to me.
Avatar broke all sorts of commercial records, and even evoked the interest of homeless people. It raked in a cool $750 million domestically, but an even more astounding $1.98 billion worldwide. Its technological innovations — from its proprietary camera system and face-mapping to its 3-D presentation — helped drive this hearty, collective ka-ching!, turning the movie into an event even for those that don’t typically turn out for films in theaters. So what does Avatar play like revisited on DVD, where it not too long ago saw its release?
Well, stripped of its 3-D “wow factor,” in which the expansive vistas of Pandora are understandably clipped by any home-viewing experience, some of the film’s stitching and seams undeniably reveal themselves. But this dual-layer DVD is filled nearly to its size limit, which means the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks superb, with striking color and contrast. There are English language Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 stereo audio tracks, as well as Spanish and French Dolby surround tracks, and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. The rub — no supplemental extras. The loaded special edition no doubt lurks out there on the horizon, so plan accordingly. If you’re a stickler for the most up-to-date stuff, you might want to hold off, or of course go with the Blu-ray version, if you don’t already have that; if you’re a less discerning fan who just wants a copy of the (new) biggest movie of all-time to revisit at your leisure, well, this release works fine. To purchase this DVD via Amazon, click here. A- (Movie) C (Disc)
Over on his new IndieWire blog, Todd McCarthy has a go at Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, Film Socialisme, noting that it elicited an empty reaction set from him — neither provoking, amusing, stimulating, intriguing, infuriating nor challenging. Sight unseen, but based on descriptions of the movie as well as wading through a couple of Godard’s last several films, I have to say I would most probably be inclined to agree. There’s a difference between works that are abstruse, but leave one a bit gobsmacked and leaning forward, and the punishing hectoring of a brilliant but mean-minded auteur.
A bawdy, non-politically correct comedy that wears its considerable chip on its shoulder with a certain unmitigated glee, Bad Santa may be one of the most one-note comedies of the year, but it’s also one of the funniest, packing three times as many laughs as Elf, a movie too timid to commit to anything beyond the notion of a set-piece. Written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Cats & Dogs) and directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, the documentary Crumb), Bad Santa is a film whose vulgar insolence is manifest from the start — there’s not so much an arc as a furiously maintained plateau — yet it’s also a strangely involving picture, akin to Michael Ritchie and Walter Matthau’s classic Bad News Bears in its annoyed and lecherous yet ultimately relatable humanity.
A deliciously irritable Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie Stokes, a coarse, washed-up, boozed-up department store Santa Claus whose self-loathing has transformed into a general nastiness and truculence that oozes from every pore. He swears at kids, urinates in his pants and screams down mothers who try to approach him as he eats. The Santa gig is his con, though; together with his increasingly exasperated dwarf partner Marcus (Tony Cox), the two suffer Novembers and Decembers in humiliating costume in order to pull off Christmas Eve heists. It’s worked for eight years running, but when they settle in Phoenix, the doting attentions of a fat, picked-on kid (Brett Kelly, above right) drive Willie even further past distraction.
Those smitten with the softly rhythmic, oddball charms of Zwigoff’s first two films will be largely thrown by his work here; the film seems undertaken more as a curiosity or perhaps to settle a bet. It’s not that smooth most of the time, but it does share a rich and unflinching affinity for damaged characters with those earlier efforts. Zwigoff doesn’t insert any leavening winks, either, to try to let Thornton’s character off the hook, and let audiences know that they’re all in on the joke together.
In interviews, Thornton has described the movie as bringing to bear the sensibility of South Park upon the spirit of It’s a Wonderful Life, and he’s not far off really. Bad Santa is lewd, irresponsible and in its narrative longview perhaps not extremely well sketched. Yet its unrelenting nature, winning supporting players (the late John Ritter, Bernie Mac and Lauren Graham all guest, to bizarrely amusing effect) and consistently hilarious joke writing can’t help but win you over. It’s comedy outside the lines, and it’s absolutely wonderful — a twisted holiday movie for “the rest of us.” (Dimension, R, 93 minutes)
The American Cinematheque’s Margot Gerber, guesting over at The Wrap, takes a look at all the big screen infidelity coursing through the Cannes Festival, including Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, which sounds… interesting. As she notes of the film’s raunchy slang — comment dites-vous “vagetarian?”