Category Archives: Movie Reviews

‘On Each Side’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

 

Metaphor is seldom more obvious or more heavily played than the one used by director Hugo Grosso in this 2006 film, his first non-documentary effort. Perhaps Grosso thought that without factual exposition to give viewers all the answers, we couldn’t figure out that the building of a bridge — again, the building of a bridge — was going to connect people who lead different lives. But again and again, Grosso hits us with images of Argentina’s under-construction Rosario-Victoria Bridge to underscore links between people with seemingly disparate stories. But it’s no big deal because what On Each Side lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in its facility with tightly focused storytelling. Perhaps due to his documentarian background, Grosso’s work finds dramatic arcs where many would see daily life. On Each Side brings us stories of small peoples’ lives — two frisky sisters, a curious photographer, one of the bridge’s engineers — and demonstrates the universal peculiarities that define people as individuals. The narrative is strong (with or without the symbolism) and funny, while Grosso’s visuals provide a strong sense of intimacy.

 

First appeared Jan. 28, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

Advertisements

‘Takva: A Man’s Fear of God’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

Sometimes, a job promotion ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. In the case of the quiet and well-meaning Muharrem (played by Erkan Can), the revelations that await him when he’s chosen by his mullah to be a money collector for his mosque conspire to not only upend his deeply held religious beliefs, but also throw him into a modern world in which he is none too comfortable. It’s appropriate that this 2006 film hails from Turkey; just as Muharrem struggles with the reconciliation of tradition and modernity, of faith and finance, so to do the streets of Istanbul quiver from these same tensions. As Muharrem experiences more and more of the modern world — he never exactly fits into the suit and cell phone he’s given — and as he sees more and more of his mullah’s craven, un-spiritual financial dealings, his previously well-defined religious outlook gets disoriented. Director Ozer Kiziltan put all he had into this, his debut film, and Takva does occasionally heave from the weight of Kiziltan’s multiple subtexts. Still, Takva manages to be both an intimate and personal story with a considerably larger message about religious hypocrisy and the corrupting influence that money can have on even the most (outwardly) pious people.

First appeared Jan. 21, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

‘Slacker Uprising’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

What’s perhaps most notable about Michael Moore’s latest election-year cinematic salvo is how little controversy it’s generating. Perhaps it’s due to the distribution scheme — it was originally made available as a free download, and then released as a super-cheap DVD — but more likely it’s because there’s very little of Moore’s typical bomb-throwing to be found. Sure, Slacker Uprising is deeply partisan, existing mainly as a document of Moore’s effort to encourage young (and presumably lefty) Americans to register and vote during the 2004 elections. But that Michael Moore finally dispensed with all pretense and simply went ahead and made a movie about how awesome Michael Moore is, combined with the reality of the results of the 2004 election … well, that just doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for debate. Those young voters Moore was attempting to mobilize didn’t turn out for John Kerry, despite the palpable electricity surging through the voluminous crowds shown at these events. Ergo, Michael Moore failed. Yet Slacker Uprising is also a documentary of the man at the peak of his powers, when his populist, partisan name-calling was one of the very few ways to get like-minded liberals motivated. Now, one can look at this approach as truly quaint, particularly because Obama won. Quaint or not, Moore shunted the film out using such a “novel” distribution approach. Or maybe nobody’s making a fuss about Slacker Uprising because not even the most self-flagellating liberal or gloating neocon wants to revisit the election that led to the four worst years in American political history.

First appeared Nov. 19, 2008 in Detroit Metrotimes.

‘Water Lilies’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

Can we please be real for a moment? Water Lilies is marketed as a “provocative and perceptive portrait of teen angst,” a “coming-of-age” film, and another in a long line of daring movies that could only be produced by a nation as devoted to the purity of the cinematic arts as France. And, while it may be those things, none are the reason you’ll be watching. No, this tale of three French teenage girls on the cusp of their sexuality — along with all the emotional hostility, naïveté and nubility implied therein — is interesting not because of its plot (predictable) or pacing (plodding), but because, well, it’s about three French teenage girls on the cusp of their sexuality. The perceived libertine French attitudes about sex and cineastes’ “artistically” excused penchant for explicit sexuality come together in Water Lilies in a way that nearly defies the viewer to not feel a little creeped out. Both because of what’s onscreen — three teenage girls on the cusp of their sexuality — and what’s going through the viewer’s mind: “This is in French, so it must be art, right?” “If my wife/girlfriend/mom catches me, I’ve got a good excuse, right?” “I’m ashamed to buy a copy of Barely Legal, but the latest film by Céline Sciamma is totally aboveboard … riiiiiiight?” Rationalizations about subtext, philosophy, and vérité are available by the Kleenex-box-load for those viewing Water Lilies, and had Sciamma actually delivered on the contextual possibilities of the subject matter here, perhaps the movie could have been a truly great piece of art. As it is, though, it’s just like any other piece of porn: you’ll be fast-forwarding to get to the good stuff, and when you’re done, you’ll be left with a sense of sticky guilt.

First appeared Nov. 12, 2008 in Detroit Metrotimes.

Zack & Miri Make A Porno movie review (Baltimore Citypaper)

You know those triumphant moments when the forgotten and dismissed hero returns to the field of battle on which he used to dominate and–despite the fact that nobody expects him to even be able to hold his own against the newcomers now running the show–completely schools the whippersnappers and the unsuspecting crowd? With Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Kevin Smith has become that aged champion who is once again victorious. Stepping into the raunchy rom-com category that everyone now thinks was invented by Judd Apatow, Smith deftly incorporates and amplifies the raunch, romance, and comedy–and adds his own patented brand of cynical sweetness.

This is not new territory for Smith, but it’s clear that by casting Seth Rogen in the lead he was eager to show Apatow and company how it’s done. While the first quarter-hour is largely wasted on exposition–that recalibrates your ears to Smith’s penchant for voluminous profanity–once the movie moves into full screwball territory, it’s a juggernaut of laughs and, yes, romance. Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are lifelong friends, bonded by history and shared loserdom, and they’re also so irresponsible and insolvent that they wind up with no water and no power in the middle of a Pennsylvania winter. After a particularly debasing experience at their 10-year high-school reunion, they decide there’s nothing left to lose, so they’ll make a porno so they can get rich.

While Smith doesn’t shy away from the nudity and sexuality that’s, well, part of pornography, neither does he hesitate to point out the mundane ridiculousness of it all. (Traci Lords’ role is nearly as depressing as it is hilarious.) Of course, the whole scenario is there to ratchet up sexual tension between the protagonists, an effect that only heightens the impact of the comedic elements. It’s truly remarkable just how many zingers Smith has jammed into Zack and Miri, and even more remarkable how few of them issue from the stars’ mouths. Rogen is perhaps the least funny of the entire cast, being continually shown up by the likes of Justin Long and the always-hilarious Craig Robinson. Long plays the gay porn-starring lover of Miri’s high-school crush–Brandon “Superman” Routh, of all people–with deep-throated, cocktail-swilling savoir-faire, while Robinson’s character is half black-power stridency and half pussy-whipped husband. An abundance of cringe-inducing physical humor accentuates the script’s crackling comic timing, and, when combined with surprisingly believable acting from Rogen and Banks, Zack and Miri comes together to redeem Smith for both Clerks II and Jersey Girl.

First appeared Oct. 29, 2008 in Baltimore Citypaper.

‘Brick Lane’ movie review (Baltimore Citypaper)

[After its opening date was pushed back multiple times, when Brick Lane finally opened in Baltimore, there wasn’t room for the full review I had written. The edited version is up on the site; this is my original version.]

Novelist Monica Ali’s 2003 debut Brick Lane tells the story of a young Bangladeshi woman, Nazneen, who, after an arranged marriage, moved into the predominantly Bangladeshi “Brick Lane” neighborhood in London. The story gradually unfolded as Nazneen tentatively acclimated herself to her new environs–starkly different from the rural village in which she grew up–and gained new perspective on both her past and current lives. The neighborhood depicted in the book was dire, unforgiving, and oppressive to the young Nazneen, who opted to remain inside her flat mostly, depending on her good-natured–if generally delusional–husband and her fully assimilated children to bring her news of the world beyond the small area she was willing to explore. Ali’s deftly painted portrait of an insulated immigrant community wasn’t devoid of archetypes and stereotypes, for which she received considerable criticism, nor did it fully address many of the issues–feminism, faith, the immigrant experience–it raised, but it was nonetheless an evocative backdrop for Nazneen’s personal growth, which came slowly but quite surely.

Director Sarah Gavron’s feature-film debut Brick Lane, however, is a movie about a young Bangladeshi woman who gets up the nerve to fool around on her gullible husband. It’s pure, pedantic hackery to discredit a novel adapted to the screen for not living up to the literary strengths of its source material–different storytelling formats, fundamental shifts in perception, imagination doing less heavy lifting, blah, blah, blah–and Brick Lane certainly doesn’t fall to the dream-crushing depths that fans suffered through with, say, The Golden Compass. Yet Gavron’s gutting of Ali’s richly textured and precisely populated world, along with some considerable temporal shifts (events are reordered, compressed or reconfigured with great gusto) results in a work that elicits an entirely different emotional response than its predecessor. Not worse. Just different.

Gavron’s movie dismisses the urbane, post-colonial implications of Ali’s book and instead focuses solely on having you empathize with Nazneen’s struggle to establish herself as a woman, both within the four walls of her family home and within the turbulent immigrant’s world of early 2000s England. In this task she is greatly abetted by Tannishtha Chatterjee, an actress blessed with a perfectly expressive visage. When we first see Nazneen smile–almost halfway through the movie–Chatterjee’s face blossoms with a joy that lifts the tight veil of tension that had dominated her reserved countenance. This epiphanic moment is almost as much a relief to the viewer as it is to Nazneen, and in that moment it’s clear that Gavron wisely afforded Chatterjee plenty of room to inhabit the character fully.

But it’s also the first moment that you are able to connectwith any of the characters in the movie. Chatterjee does a great job of outwardly presenting the timid stoicism of someone who is sociallyand emotionally isolated from the world around her. The few lively characters that pop up in the movie’s early goings–Nazneen’s garrulous husband, her surly elder daughter, her boisterous, “modern” neighbor, the usurious crone and, of course, the handsome object of Nazneen’s desire–never get fully drawn, leaving you to ponder Nanzeen’s glum flashbacks to her village along with her. While that
was surely Gavron’s point, watching someone shyly mumble and avert her eyes doesn’t make for the most engaging filmmaking. (Sadly, the movie
has none of Ali’s narrative motion to draw you into it.) Yet, in that smile, the movie opens up along with Nazneen, and the storytelling train begins to chug along in earnest.

Gavron then shifts gears from studied stoicism to expressive overload, discarding limited exposition in favor of multiple points of action, involving an extramarital affair, pre- and post-Sept. 11 racism, a revelatory fever, job loss, and more. Yet just when Nazneen is about to get swallowed up in the movie’s newfound hustle and bustle, Gavron again tightens the focus on Chatterjee’s face, and you can’t help but notice that her eyes have darkened and her smile is wistful and wizened. Nostalgia has been replaced with a newfound independence. Though Gavron gets there in an entirely different–and
decidedly less substantial–way than Ali, you’re still confronted with a main character who has undertaken an epic journey in a very confined space.

First appeared Sept. 17, 2008 in Baltimore Citypaper.

‘Ghost Town’ movie review (Baltimore Citypaper)

With Ricky Gervais finally taking the lead in a movie, you would hope that it would play to the British comedian’s wry, acerbic strengths. Sadly, Ghost Town doesn’t. Gervais struggles to squeeze himself into a misanthropic dentist whose “cessation” during a routine surgical procedure enables him to communicate with ghosts throughout New York. That struggle occasionally pays off with some winning laugh lines, but for most of Ghost Town, Gervais looks less concerned with making us chuckle and more focused on making his sad-sack/asshole take on Dr. Pincus believable. As an actor, he fails miserably, primarily because anyone as loathsome as Gervais’ dentist character would never–under any circumstance–be appealing to anyone as pleasant and beautiful as Téa Leoni’s Gwen. Of course, that contrast is the fuel that drives Ghost Town, as Pincus is on a mission (from an equally repulsive ghost played by Greg Kinnear) to sabotage Leoni’s current relationship by presenting himself as an alternative. And yes, it’s all completely unbelievable. Even the movie’s ghostly aspects are poorly played by director David Koepp; though we’re led to believe that “New York is lousy with” ghosts, only the same four or five show up to pester Pincus. Gervais and Leoni provide their respective sparks with enough regularity to keep the movie from becoming a total drag, but its hollow premise, muddled execution, and leaden morality combine to make Ghost Town beneath Gervais’ reputation as a top-tier comedian.

First appeared Sept. 17, 2008 in Baltimore Citypaper.