Tag Archive for 2009

Movie Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats (11/7/09)

Movie Poster: The Men Who Stare at Goats
The Men Who Stare At Goats

Directed by Grant Heslov
Screenplay by Peter Straughan
Based on a book by Jon Ronson

Lyn Cassady – George Clooney
Bill Django – Jeff Bridges
Bob Wilton – Ewan McGregor
Larry Hooper – Kevin Spacey
Todd Nixon – Robert Patrick
Gen. Hopgood – Stephen Lang
Gus Lacey – Stephen Root

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Movie Still: The Men Who Stare at Goats

A Good Farce with a Great Cast

Imagine a world in which the military trains soldiers not to kill enemies of the state, but to infiltrate their minds with the Jedi mind trick. A different political and military climate in which soldiers in camo sport long hair, have dance parties, and hold daisies in their hands. A military unit in which recreational drugs enhance the training, where drills include psychic exercises and the Privates’ chakras are open to the world. Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats plops the audience into this seemingly alternate universe with the admonition that “more of this is true than you would believe.” The film is based on a synonymous non-fiction book by Jon Ronson that provides a comical look into the government’s struggle to exploit the paranormal to win wars.

A good part of the American population would likely watch George Clooney brush his teeth and be thrilled about it—the man oozes charisma from every pore. As Lyn Cassady, a former member of the disbanded New Earth Army, Clooney manages to take a completely preposterous character and lend warmth and seriousness to the role. Ewan McGregor plays journalist Bob Wilton, whose marriage dissolved when his wife left him for his editor (who inexplicably has a weird black prosthetic hand, adding to the comic unreality of the situation). Wilton “went to war” to prove himself, landing practically in Cassady’s lap. Strange coincidences (or is it fate?) lead the duo on a voyage into the Iraqi desert while the film reveals the New Earth Army’s formation and dissolution.

Cassady’s tale exposes the travails of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam vet who discovers that only 15-20% of new army recruits shoot to kill, while the others harbor an innate desire not to harm other humans. Armed with this statistic, Django wondered, “How could love and peace win wars?” With the question, there’s a striking insight into the American military system. How many people have pondered the notion, and for how long? There still isn’t a real solution—as evidenced by the book and the film. Django dives headfirst into the New Age movement (conveyed in an entertaining montage: The Hot Tub Exercise, the Beyond Jogging Exercise), and emerges a long-haired, gentle soul. His soldiers practice Tai Chi and yoga, dance to classic rock, and let their hair grow long. Adding a touch of reality to the subject matter, the film claims the Army’s slogan “Be All You Can Be” originated with the New Earth Army.

McGregor’s narration leads the audience on his journey from utter skepticism to complete conviction that why, yes, a person can affect the world around him with his brain. Along the way, Clooney steals scenes with his “sparkle eye technique” and his grizzled good looks. Hi-jinks ensue, and a number of strange occurrences gradually link together to form eerie evidence that perhaps there’s more to psychological warfare than forcing prisoners to listen to Barney the purple dinosaur.

 

The only particularly visually stimulating shot is the opening close-up of a Brigadier General (Stephen Lang) deep in concentration. The editing is fluid and invisible. While the story takes the driver’s seat, the stars hold the wheel. Clooney seems to be eminently comfortable playing comic characters who are a little off, and he performs soundly once again. Bridges imbues Bill with a sweet naiveté that contrasts hilariously when juxtaposed with the stringently regimented codes of the U.S. military. His performance is understated and funny, but he’s hard-pressed to top The Big Lebowski’s The Dude. McGregor plays second fiddle, but he does it well. Kevin Spacey lends his talent to the role of Larry Hooper, the driving force behind the decimation of the New Earth Army. Most of the roles Spacey chooses are slightly nefarious—and his deadpan, droll persona fits perfectly with this character (though he has one outright hilarious moment involving LSD and a gun).

Clooney and Heslov have a production company; last time they collaborated, Clooney directed and Heslov penned the script for Good Night, and Good Luck, a fantastic drama about another, more famous journalist. The Men Who Stare at Goats is an insightful (though slightly silly) glimpse into American military strategy, and it may be exactly what audiences need in the current political climate. Everyone involved seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself—and viewers will pick up on it. While it may not be the best movie of the year, it’s a smart caper with a great cast, and that will surely be enough to draw audiences.

Movie Review: Taking Woodstock (8/28/09)

Poster: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock

Directed by Ang Lee
Screenplay by James Schamus

Elliot Teichberg – Demetri Martin
Devon – Dan Fogler
Jake Teichberg – Henry Goodman
Michael Lang – Jonathan Groff
Max Yasgur – Eugene Levy

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Still: Taking Woodstock

An Iconic Event Gets a Human Face

Ang Lee’s comedy-drama Taking Woodstock will probably only draw a certain niche market, but its appeal is universal. It’s set during one of America’s most defining eras: in 1969, the Vietnam war was raging overseas and battle-scarred soldiers were coming home to an increasingly intolerant America. Meanwhile, men were walking on the moon and peaceful protests in D.C. were forcefully disbanded by the police. America was a war zone in and of itself. Taking Woodstock is an affectionate look at the tentative, grudging merge of diverse cultural ideals: druggy, flower-power culture and agriculture, so to speak. The film tells the true story of how the Woodstock music festival came to take place on Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York, the people involved, and the hippie infestation that brought acceptance to a largely Jewish, conservative region of the country.

Lee’s recent work has been hit-or-miss. Brokeback Mountain made a true movie star of the late actor Heath Ledger (and attracted all sorts of criticism from the same people who voted for Proposition 8), but Hulk drew sneers and jeers from comic fans across the world. Though his oeuvre includes everything from melodrama to martial arts, Lee’s most endearing projects are intimate, sensible, plausible stories about people who might as well be your parents, your friends, or your schoolteacher. Taking Woodstock is based firmly in reality, but the film isn’t about one character’s journey: it’s a coming-of-age story about America.

 

Filmmakers have chosen to focus on this particular era of American history many, many times, and Taking Woodstock doesn’t bring any new perspective to the subject matter. Demetri Martin’s Elliot Teichberg veritably stumbles through the film; though he sets up the deal with Woodstock’s promoters, he does it only to keep his parents’ rundown El Monaco Motel from foreclosure. Like Forrest Gump, Teichberg accidentally finds himself in a fantastical situation. Imelda Staunton plays Elliot’s mother Sonia, a grouchy, downtrodden woman whose greed and grudges make her impossible to like. Staunton is undoubtedly an incredible actress but her role, like Martin’s, left little room for development. Notable screen time went to Liev Schreiber, playing a cross-dresser with a pistol who performs security detail at the El Monaco, and Emile Hirsch’s Billy, a freaked-out, war-scarred Vietnam vet whose flashbacks provide surprising comic relief.

Teichberg returns to his parents’ farm from Greenwich Village to help them keep their motel from going under. The plot drags in the beginning of the film, but succeeds in making the viewer feel the way the characters must. In White Lake, New York, things move slowly. Once the game is afoot, though, the pace picks up. Lee’s penchant for split-screen cinematography actually makes sense here: it was a technique common in film and TV in the 1960s and 70s. Overlapping action and audio convey a sense of chaos—so much happened at once during the planning and execution of Woodstock, and the film plays with that idea.

This is the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, but aside from that, the film’s timing is perfect. In the current economic climate, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan plaguing the collective American psyche, and with the first African-American President in office, the parallels between 1969 and 2009 are hard to miss. Lee is unquestionably a visceral, visually motivated director, and the differences in color saturation from the beginning of the film to the end conjure The Wizard of Oz. When Teichberg finds himself taking acid in a van with two traveling hippies, the colors and patterns take over the screen, offering the audience a look into a drug trip like none other. When Sonia and her husband Jake eat hash brownies, they dance in the rain with Elliot—a sweet scene in which age and cultural boundaries fall by the wayside.

Though the movie is a simplistic story about a lot of people gathering in one place (and a lot of big-name actors assembling in one film), it’s a smart, endearing tale whose timing is impeccable. Near the end of the film, Woodstock promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) approaches Elliot on a horse. As the two watch festival attendees clean up their trash and wade through the mud, Elliot asks, “What now?” Lang, a mysterious hippie type, replies, “Well, everybody’s gotta chase the money now.” Though this actually refers to the aftermath of the festival, it seems to be the film’s true message: maybe Americans should take a deep breath and look around once in awhile. The idea seems to be that, well, maybe we’d realize things can in fact be, as Lang says, “beautiful, man, beautiful.”

Movie Review: District 9 (8/15/09)

District 9 Movie Poster
District 9

Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

Wikus Van De Merwe – Sharlto Copley
Grey Bradnam – Jason Cope
Sarah Livingstone – Nathalie Boltt

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Still: District 9

“We Have Met the Enemy and…”

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 had a fantastic marketing campaign. The first trailer released contained surveillance footage of a tentacled creature handcuffed in an interrogation room while human investigators berated it with questions: What are you doing here? Why don’t you just leave? How do your weapons work? The creature’s face is blurred, as though, like a criminal on Cops, its identity must be protected. It responds to the interrogator’s questions willingly enough, but its language is a series of grumbles and clicks—completely unintelligible to the audience. Only when another version of the trailer leaked was the creature’s face seen in its entirety, its words subtitled: “We didn’t mean to land here. We had no choice. We mean you no harm. We just want to go home.”

The choice to first release the trailer without subtitles, to let the audience respond to the creatures by their appearance and foreign speech, is a fiercely intelligent marketing decision. District 9 is a summer-blockbuster science fiction film, but it is effectively about racial segregation, the depth of human cruelty, and ultimately apartheid.

Twenty-eight years before the film takes place, an alien craft came to hover, not above Chicago, Washington, or Manhattan, but in the sky over Johannesburg, South Africa. The government investigates, finding the creatures “extremely malnourished” and “in need of help.” The nation responds by placing them in alien refugee camp District 9—which, by the time the film takes place, is a disgusting slum. The creatures are referred to as “prawns,” bottom feeders. They do in fact bear a resemblance to some kind of sea creature; although humanoid in shape, they are taller, thinner, and slimy, with small tentacles to create speech and evidently to aid in digestion. They are filmed eating raw meat, vomiting black fluid, and digging through the trash. Humans are disgusted by this decidedly uncivilized behavior, and riots force the government to relocate the aliens to another locale.

In a fictional August, 2010 (deliberately not far at all in the future), the South African government has hired Multi National United (MNU), a weapons manufacturing corporation, to perform the relocation. What eventually becomes apparent is that MNU has no desire to move the aliens; they want to learn how to use their weapons, which are linked to alien DNA and only fire in the arms of the creatures.

 

District 9 was developed and financed by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, and directed by and starring South Africans. It is perhaps the most dystopian vision of alien contact ever filmed: the aliens are not the enemy, we are. The humans in the film are horrid, cruel stereotypes, laughing as alien eggs pop like popcorn, shooting creatures at random, and torturing an innocent man to discover the meaning of the alien weapons. The aliens (one of whom is Christopher Johnson, a decidedly nondescript and very American name) are scammed, abused and tortured, living in a horrendous slum. Unlike in Independence DayThe Day the Earth Stood Still, or any number of other self-congratulatory sci-fi films, we are not fighting to save ourselves from these unthinkably pitiful creatures. We’re using, torturing, and abusing them. The scariest part of E.T. was the point at which scientists break into Elliott’s house in their faceless helmets and enormous white suits—at that moment, it became clear humans were the enemy. District 9 compounds that point, exposing the humans’ malice and the creatures’ vulnerability throughout the film.

The film’s documentary style is reminiscent of 2008’s blockbuster Cloverfield, minus the shaky-cam. The director chose to use steady-cam as often as possible, which brings the audience directly into the fracas and creates a realistic feel. The special effects are brilliant: the makeup and CGI are Oscar-worthy. Director Blomkamp’s previous credits include work as a 3D Animator on a small number of films, and this knowledge evidently helped him helm a movie whose visual feel is truly authentic. Though the effects are an integral part of the picture, they are not used to boast new technologies or to flaunt how cool the creatures are. Instead they’re employed to enhance the story and add to the documentary style of the movie.

Apartheid only ended in the 1990s, and South Africa is still rocked by its remaining waves. The film begins with interview footage: subjects range from people on street corners, to licensed social workers, to jailed white-collar criminals. They say, “Keep them separate from us,” “they must go away.” Signs bar aliens from certain areas of the city: “No non-human loitering,” and finally, most importantly, “We must learn from what happened.” It’s obvious the film is an allegory for segregation, its setting in Johannesburg only a finishing touch on the message. Although it feels formulaic at times (to be fair, science fiction as a genre appears hard-pressed to come up with new and different plots these days), the film’s style and special effects make it a good addition to the long list of high-quality sci-fi.

Movie Review: Julie & Julia (8/8/09)

 

Julie and Julia Movie Poster
Julie & Julia

Directed and written by Nora Ephron

Julia Child – Meryl Streep
Julie Powell – Amy Adams
Paul Child – Stanley Tucci
Eric Powell – Chris Messina

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Still: Julie and Julia

An Unconventional Romance

Nora Ephron’s film Julie & Julia is a romantic comedy. It isn’t, however, about love between men and women. Certainly, marriage and relationships play a part in the film, but the real romance is between the protagonists and the food they so adore. The film is based on a book by blogger Julie Powell, who in 2002 documented her experiences chopping, filleting, and braising her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The movie draws seamless parallels between Julie (Amy Adams) in Queens in 2002, and Julia Child (Meryl Streep) in Paris in 1949. A garden of culinary delights, Julie & Julia lovingly embraces French cuisine, the inconstant nature of everyday life and the comfort inherent in good food.

The movie begins with Julia Child’s move to a French chalet in 1949. Her love of France and experiencing a new lifestyle is tangible. The only hindrance is this: she cannot figure out what she should do. She tries such mundane preoccupations as hat making, bridge, and French lessons. Finally her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), asks, “What is it that you really like to do?” “Eat!” Julia responds. So begins her schooling at the Cordon Bleu. When the women’s class proves to be too elementary (“how to boil an egg” is the first lesson), she asks to be admitted to an advanced class. The headmistress of the school expresses disdain: “It is full of men, professional cooks, which I am sure you will never be.” Sensing a challenge, Julia enrolls and soon overtakes her male counterparts.

In 2002, Julie Powell is working for the Lower Manhattan Development Company, trying to help reconstruct lives and aid survivors and their families following the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy. She is about to turn 30, has abandoned the novel she meant to write, and her friends far surpass her in monetary success. Downtrodden and miserable, Julie begins a year-long endeavor to conquer Julia Child’s 524-recipe Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Through thick, thin, boeuf bourguignon, aspics (“beef-flavored jello molds”), tortes, mousses, and colossal meltdowns, Julie’s life begins to improve as, back in 1949, Child strives to publish her famous cookbook.

In a post-WWII, pre-second wave feminism, men headed restaurant kitchens and women were expected to make simple, down-home meals to please their families (i.e. Baked Alaska in a Flowerpot, Marshmallow Fluff). Child’s opposition to such ordinary dishes and her persistence in learning new and different ways to cook made her a world-renowned chef. Her independence, persistence, and talent made her an icon to women across the country. Her obvious love for food, her warm, charming personality, and her rather strange appearance made her a household fixture. Powell viewed Child’s accomplishments as an inspiration—and inspired the blogosphere (and now movie audiences) to do the same.

 

Meryl Streep’s performance is impeccable. She took Child’s odd mannerisms, accent, and joyful persona and ran with them, creating a character viewers will want to hug. Child was 6’2” tall; Streep wore lifts throughout the film, and the set design promotes her largeness. Playing Julia’s sister Dorothy, Jane Lynch (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) is charming as usual, even on stilt shoes and working next to the force of nature that is Streep. Julia and Dorothy were both extremely tall and married men shorter than they were. Though this is played for comedic effect, it enhances the message that women are not necessarily meant to fit into meek, diminutive, stereotypical housewife roles.

Amy Adams’s Julie rather pales in comparison to Streep as Julia, but Julie is alternately lovable and a little obnoxious—traits with which most women will identify immediately. Powell’s honesty and self-deprecation make her a great subject for such a confessional, and her sheer love of cooking (through burned stew, collapsed aspics, and culinary masterpieces alike) is relatable to anyone who’s ever experimented with adventuresome gastronomy.

Streep, Adams, Tucci, Lynch, and Mary Lynn Rajskub (playing Julie’s friend Sarah) are an impressive group of actors. Each takes his or her role to the expected level. Particularly, Streep and Tucci have great chemistry: they truly seem to enjoy each other, creating one of the sweetest, most functional marriages in recent film. Rajskub’s dry delivery brings laughter to off-moments. Though Julie Powell and Julia Child share no screen time together, the seamless editing and transitions create a film through which parallel storylines weave discreetly and intertwining eras of American history are drawn together.

Although the film focuses on Julie’s relationship with husband Eric and Julia’s loving marriage to Paul, this movie is not about conventional romance. In fact, throughout the film both women occasionally shirk their husbands’ affections in favor of their ovens and cutting boards. Child’s name and her recipes are a household fixture in the U.S., and Powell managed to pull herself out of a rut by following in the footsteps of one of America’s most intriguing female figures. In the last scene of the film, Julie says to Eric, “She saved me.” Eric responds, “You saved yourself.” This, more than anything, is truly significant: feminine strength and passion are a force to be reckoned with—and balancing personal aspirations with blissful relationships is more than possible: it’s worth the struggle. Julie & Julia is a valentine to female independence, an ode to striving for what you truly enjoy.