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"Trouble the Water" *** 1/2 (90 minutes)

Tuesday October 28th, 2008

Jed Dietz, director of The Maryland Film Festival, has done it again. So impressed was he by the 2008 Sundance Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner, that, when a release timing conflict prevented him from screening it at last May's Maryland Film Festival, he was finally able to bring it in Baltimore-along with filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessen-for free! The winner at this year's AFI Silverdocs and Full Frame Film Festival, this extraordinary film literally puts you in the eye of the storm known as Katrina using footage taken firsthand by Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott-who happened to be residents of the ill-fated 9th Ward. The back story is amazing. Carl & Tia (who previously worked with Michael Moore) were filming in Alexandria, La when they happened upon Kim & Scott who had gone there when they were finally able to retreat from the storm. It seems that shortly before the rain and wind hit, Kim had purchased a camera for $20 on the streets of New Orleans and, instead of filming family events, turned her camera onto the devastation about to hit her neighborhood. Although totally unfamiliar with the camera, she managed to capture the harrowing experience that destroyed her community. Its utter rawness actually gives you a "You Are There" account that no poor Weather Channel reporter could ever convey! You are there as the Scotts' camera trains on the untouched neighborhood, on the initial raindrops, on the flooded streets below the attic where they and other folks were huddled, on the desperate 911 call where their pleas for rescue went for naught because no one was able/willing to rescue them, on the destruction of the 9th Ward after the rains had subsided. All along, Kim gives commentary that only adds to the terror of her surroundings. Although the battery power lasted only 30 minutes during the storm, there is enough pre and post hurricane footage to give the audience the full human impact that no one else could ever provide. Interspersed, Carl & Tia have provided the professional footage of the news reports and interviews that everyone across the country were receiving. After the waters had subsided, Kim and her camera walk the deserted streets. You follow Kim as she happens upon a house holding the remains of a homeless man she happened upon, and warned, just hours before the storm hit. And you are witness to the utter abandonment by their Government-especially after over 100,000 residents were unable to evacuate the city before Katrina hit the shores of Louisiana. (Scott remarks that they felt like they weren't U.S. citizens!) You follow them to a deserted Navy base where there are hundreds of unused beds, but, incredibly, they are turned away by sailors with M-16's. (You later learn that these same soldiers received Presidential commendations for their work in the city in the aftermath!) You watch as they are forced to take up residence in their old school-where their bed is made by pushing desks together. You come to realize what it was like to live in the shoes of the survivors that the news reports could never convey. As depressing as all this sounds, the film is ultimately uplifting and hopeful as it speaks volumes on the capability and fortitude of the human spirit. Kim has gone onto a singing career as a rap artist (as Black Kold Madina) and has even started a recording company (Her on screen performance of one song is quite inspiring and three of her songs grace the soundtrack.) Scott felt the need to do meaningful work and has succeeded in helping to rebuild his community-instead, as he says, of making drinks in a French Quarter bar. A small quibble: The filmmakers have correctly supplied subtitles for the heaviest accented New Orleaneans. I had just wished they had used it more as a lot of Kim's narration is indecipherable. Other than that, this is one powerful doc that is deservedly generating glowing reviews (currently 47 out of 48 critic approval on Rotten Tomatoes). One interesting side note: When the Scotts attended this year's Sundance Film Festival they attended the premiere on January 20th. Kim gave birth in Park City the next day: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The film was bought by HBO and will be shown sometime next year. In the meantime, it has opened in limited release around the country. On Friday, October 31st, it will open at The Charles Theater in Baltimore. Considering the short screening life of documentaries in most theaters, I strongly behoove you to get your behind to the nearest theater it arrives in it as soon as possible to witness this astounding film on the big screen.

"The Boy In The Striped Pajamas" *** (94 minutes)

Sunday October 26, 2008

Off to the AFI Silver Theater for another great members-only event: the pre-release screening of Mark Herman's ("Brassed Off" & "Little Voice") film based on John Boyne's award winning children's novel of the same name-attended by both author and director. Screenwriter/director Herman tells this Holocaust fable mainly through the eyes of a German child about a German family who uproots from their posh surroundings when the patriarch (David Thewlis) is placed in charge of a Concentration Camp. His wife, ably played Vera Farmiga ("The Departed") , and his 2 children (Asa Butterfield & Amber Beattie) are initially kept under wraps about what lies just beyond the fringe of the "estate". Bored out of his wits, 8 year old Bruno starts to explore his surroundings and ends up meeting another 8 year old clothed in "striped pajamas" (Jack Scanlon) on the other side of the fence encircling what he believes is a farm. Meanwhile, his 12 year old sister (Amber Beattie) is slowing being indoctrinated into the Nazi mindset by their tutor and her attraction for a cruel German Soldier (Rupert Friend), who is housing his own secrets. Lacking anyone else he can relate to, young Bruno starts to closely bond with his new friend. Herman has used excellent production values to recreate the Nazi milieu. The cinematography and set design are top notch (the film was shot in Hungary), as is award winning composer James Horner's haunting soundtrack. My main problem: the use of distinguished British actors to play the German characters. It was hard to wrap my head around watching the Nazi monsters speaking in proper English accents. During the Q & A, Herman said he had no problem not using German dialogue with subtitles since the book itself was translated worldwide. I agree that the fable is universal and that it doesn't matter what language is on the printed page. It was just difficult matching that to the visual realism on the screen. And how often do you have a novelist and a screenwriter appearing together for a Q & A? Boyne said that, even though the screenplay was written by the Director, he revealed that Herman forwarded all the drafts to him for input. Boyne also noted that though the ending was slightly different, he wished he had written the scene when Bruno discovers a collection of naked dolls from the Jewish children inmates piled high in the basement of the house. I asked the filmmaker whether he considered filming in black and white. He responded that he did indeed consider it but nixed the idea stating that it has been done that way before. Herman tells the story with great economy as he effectively covers arcs of great emotion in a little over an hour and a half.

"Pride and Glory" *** 1/2 (125 minutes)

Monday October 20, 2008

Gritty-the first word that comes to mind to describe the latest by director/co-screenwriter Gavin O'Connor. I loved his first indie work, 1999's "Tumbleweeds" (in which Janet McTeer earned a well deserved Golden Globe Best Actress award, as well as noms from the AA and Screen Actor's Guild) which I screened at Sundance. Here he teams with screenwriter Joe Carnahan (who wrote another powerful indie police tale "Narc") and employs a top notch cast to tell this tale that begins with the ambush of four of NY's finest during a drug bust. All are from the same unit, headed by Noah Emmerich, whose father (Jon Voight) is his superior. Noah's brother (Edward Norton) is brought into the investigation by his father to investigate, who soon discovers that the killer was tipped off by another cop. Colin Farrell is the brother-in-law in the same unit and we quickly learn he is not one of NY's finest, to say the least. The film is effectively shot in stark muted tones by veteran cinematographer, Declan Quinn (DP for the currently well received "Rachel Getting Married") and has a nice companion score by vet Mark Isham ("Crash"). The dialogue, action scenes, and acting are very realistic and, even though the story is familiar, it will hold your interest to the end.

"W." ** 1/2 (129 minutes)

Tuesday October 14, 2008

The trailer had me expecting an SNL-like satiric biopic of our lame duck pres. Knowing full well director Oliver Stone's liberal political leanings only enforced this expectation. So, I was genuinely surprised to, instead, view something quite different. Stone has been known to inflict his own agenda and realities into previous presidential films ("JFK" and "Nixon") so I thought he would come to this project a tad differently considering that the topic deals with a sitting president (the first such movie to do so). Indeed, I read that all the "conversations" are based on documented "facts" so I was curious to see how Stone would approach current history. The fact that he quickly put it all together (he began filming in May) so it would be released before next month's election, would indicate that he would somehow try to influence moviegoers with his antiwar philosophies by putting our distinguished President in as unfavorable light as possible. The result: an uneven account into the psyche of our 43rd president. Stone flips back and forth in time to show how this dimwitted dude, shown early on during a drunken initiation to join his college fraternity, could ever become President. Specific periods of his life depicted include how he met future First Lady Laura, his bouts with drinking, his born again conversion, his runs for The Senate and then as Governor of Texas. However, a good deal of the film deals with the period after 9/11 and how he involved us with the Iraq war and the subsequent revelation that no WMD's were ever found. Interspersed are his dealings with his inner circle as well as the elder Bush with the revelations that both he and mom Barbara considered him inferior to brother Jeb. All of these periods are just snippets which seemed hastily thrown together to disturbingly reveal a dude who is no more qualified to be the leader of the free world than . . . well, you can fill in the blanks on this one. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who also co-scripted Stone's "Wall Street") does include some humor, but, in the end, it is more a drama than comedy that ultimately left me feeling ambivalent, sad, and angry that this country elected a guy who has plunged our economy down the tubes, and has involved us in another insane war for all the wrong reasons. That being said, the main reason to recommend it is the acting by Josh Brolin-who is creating quite an impressive catalogue of work. His W is absolutely amazing. More than an impersonation, it is worth the price of admission to see how much he embodies him. Other acting notables are Richard Dreyfuss (Chaney), Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell), Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld), Toby Jones (Karl Rove), James Cromwell (George Bush, Sr), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Bush), a wild turn by Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush), and an unrecognizable Thandie Newton as Condi Rice. However it is Josh Brolin who really pulls it off-whose physical and vocal mannerisms brings W to life to such a degree that you will be counting down the days to when the prefix "ex" is attached to W's presidential moniker.

"Happy-Go-Lucky" *** (118 minutes)

Monday October 13, 2008

The comedy genre and famed English writer/director Mike Leigh are not usually synonymous. Used to cutting his chops on such heavy topics as adoption (1996's "Secrets & Lies") and abortion (his most recent film, 2004's wonderful "Vera Drake"), this is territory that we usually don't see Mike traverse. His critical and artistic success can be measured by his 100% critic approval rating for his previous 8 films rated on Rotten Tomatoes. So it is really no surprise that he has hit another winner in this acting tour de force by Sally Hawkins (seem most recently in Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream). I attended a screening at the AFI Silver Theater where I was treated to an extremely entertaining interview and Q & A with the director moderated by Washington Post critic Desson Howe (more on that later). Sally plays Poppy, a, well, happy-go-lucky gal who goes through life with the proverbial blinders-on, letting none of life's downers, disappointments, and tragedies get in her way to distract her from her positivity. Hers is always a glass half full as she is constantly running interference around life's obstacles. We see her M.O. from the start when her initial reaction to her stolen bike (which she gleefully rides through the opening credits) is "Gee, I didn't even have a chance to say goodbye". What really makes this one special are the characters she interacts with along the way. Particular of note is a homeless man played absolutely brilliantly by veteran Irish actor, Stanley Townsend. Most people would run the other way, but Poppy instead delivers a touching connection to the schizophrenic man that speaks volumes as to what makes her tick. Another winning supporting performance is delivered by Irishman, Eddie Marsan, who plays Poppy's driving instructor-whose view of life is diametrically opposite of Poppy's. Although not a laugh riot type of comedy, it is actually geared more to reality-a drama splattered with moments of humor. In the Q & A, Leigh was quizzed as to the degree of improvisation the cast might have used-considering the realism of the dialogue. He stated (as anyone knows who is aware of how he directs), that very little improv is used as the cast puts in nearly 6 months of rehearsals that precede the actual filming. He added that improvisation creates much less usable dialogue than a well rehearsed script and is the reason he puts his actors through the rigid rehearsal paces that are his trademark. All this lends to a unusual naturalness of the acting and makes the finished product seem more like everyday life than one can usually expect. And kudos to a wonderfully giddy, infectious soundtrack by Gary Yershon, who worked on Leigh's 1999 musical, "Topsy-Turvy".

"Body of Lies" *** 1/2 (128 minutes)

Tuesday October 7, 2008

Although not always a definite, the pedigree for this political thriller was an indication that my 2 hour plus attendance would ultimately be worthwhile. After all, you had one of world's most talented director (Ridley Scott), 2 of our most talented actors (Leonardo DiCaprio & Russell Crowe), and an Academy Award winning screenwriter (William Monahan who won Best Adapted Screenplay last year for "The Departed"). My faith was fully confirmed as this is one helluva taut intelligent thriller, masterfully directed by the "Black Hawk Down" maestro- who fully knows the genre. Based on the novel by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Monahan has written a smart script that will have you intrigued throughout. Although Crowe has gained 50 pounds and very capably plays a cynical CIA boss (albeit a rather pedestrian one note performance), this film belongs to DiCaprio, playing a CIA field operative whose every move is being orchestrated by the stay-at-home Crowe. I fully expect another AA nom (he's even better than last year's wonderful "Blood Diamond"). DiCaprio is working with the Jordanian intelligence chief (chillingly played by Mark Strong, an English stage and screen actor whose work here might garner him a supporting acting nod) trying to flesh out a terrorist leader in Jordan who is anonymously creating havoc in European cities. Golshifteh Farahani plays DiCaprio's Jordanian love interest whose kidnapping sets up the final half hour of action and suspense. My only main fault, once again, is the ever present, incessant soundtrack (this time around by Mark Streitenfeld who is back working with Ridley after scoring "American Gangster") that seems to be a part of virtually every scene. Scott knows how to stage spectacular effective action sequences as well as anyone on the planet. That as well as the wonderful script is sure to keep you from watching your clock to see when it all will end.