"Up In The Air" *** 1/2 (109 minutes)

Monday November 30, 2009

Cary Grant is alive & well, and his name is George Clooney. There are not many actors who can play such a disagreeable lout as Ryan Bingham with such aplomb and come off smelling like a rose. But Clooney is now making a career putting out that charisma in bucketfuls on the silver screen and, as a result, look for an Oscar nomination (and my early prediction to win it for the 2nd time) to come his way yet again. In fact, I count at least 6 noms (picture, directing, acting, and screenplay) for this smart, biting, intelligent look into the larger world of corporate firings and the smaller world of personal comeuppance, based on the 2001 novel by Walter Kirn.

Ryan is a guy who loves his work. His company supplies folks who do the dirty work for corporations who are employee downsizing. Instead of doing it themselves, it is much cleaner to have someone like Alex "gently" come in and fire the employees for them. Fact is, he spends 260+ days of year traveling (he's asked on one of his myriad airline flights where his home is and he deadpans "Here.") and he couldn't be happier. His only pursuit in life: to become the 7th person on the planet to accumulate 10 million airline miles which will earn him a special card, a dedicated line, and a personal conversation with the airlines #1 pilot.

When he's not doing this job, he travels the country giving self help-type motivational speeches about how to uncomplicate ones life by emptying their cluttered "backpack" of things & relationships they have accumulated. Funny. The dude definitely has practiced what he's preached-keeping his life as uncluttered and uncomplicated as possible by never having connected with anyone in his life for very long (including family).

However, all of that is about to change when, in a hotel lounge, he meets his match: Alex Goran (later on she tells him she's him with a vagina). Ryan & Alex (given a perfect spot-on performance by Vera Farmiga from "The Departed" & "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas") connect instantly. In fact, our hero might be wavering as he reluctantly relents to attend his younger sister's wedding (Melanie Lynskey, who started acting opposite a young Kate Winslet in the terrific "Heavenly Bodies"). He invites Alex to be his date-instead of having their usual tryst in a hotel room. Their relationship forms one part of the story.

The other part is his relationship with fresh faced, spunky, just-out-of-Cornell-and-ready-to- conquer-the-world Natalie Keener portrayed by Anna Kendrick ("Rocket Science" & "Twilight") that will also surely earn her a supporting Oscar nomination. She has come to Ryan's boss, Craig (ably played by Jason Bateman) with a novel idea: why not save thousands in unnecessary traveling airline fees by firing people via online video hookups instead of face-to-face.

When Craig calls everyone off "the road" to introduce the new employee and to inform them they are all about to be permanently grounded, Ryan is appalled. He sees his pat life flash before his eyes as it is about to come crashing to earth-literally & figuratively. In order to show that his way is the decent, sensitive, "morale" approach of doing business, he and Natalie takes to the road together to show her the ropes of the trade, as he desperately tries to stay "up in the air".

Director Jason Reitman is making quite a name for himself. The son of Ivan Reitman ("Ghostbusters") has made 3 standout films. He wrote & directed his first film, 2006's indie hit "Thank You for Smoking" and co-wrote this script (along with Sheldon Turner who penned the remake of "The Longest Yard"). His sophomore effort, "Juno", although not one of my personal favorites, was a huge Oscar-nominated hit last year. (I prefer his writings much more than Cody Diablo's-so I won't hold it against him.) He actually had this film in mind before the others and produced a script that is relevant to these trying economic times while intelligently reflecting on the modern human condition that tends to be devoid of human commitment & empathy. The screenplay is, hands-down, one of the smartest for any film I've seen this year.

Rolfe Kent has provided the perfect low-key unobtrusive music as he had for 2004's phenomenal "Sideways", "Thank You For Smoking", & a myriad of other films during a cinematic musical career that began in 1998.

All in all a terrific start to the December onslaught of films vying for Mr. Oscar.

The Paramount film starts platforming around the country on December 4th.

Ryan (George Clooney) & Natalie (Anna Kendrick)

Alex (Vera Farmiga)

"Michael Jackson's This Is It" **** (112 minutes)

Thursday November 5, 2009

Music has always been a passion-having attended hundreds of concerts in my lifetime-from classical to blues to rock. Back in September 1984, I took in the Jacksons' controversial Victory Tour concert at Washington D.C.'s RFK stadium-which ended up being their last tour of the U.S. & Canada. Jackson's popularity was at a peak with "Thriller" still riding high on the charts (it remains the best-selling album of all time). I was swept up in the Jackson mania and thought this was a great opportunity to catch a legend at his peak.

I remember the concert as being just so-so; and as his bazaar behavior continued to multiply each passing year, it diminished my respect for his artistry and his music. So, when he died last July, I was ambivalent at best. My opinion of him was that of a brilliant artist who became nothing more than a cultural oddity and side-show.

When news of this documentary first came out, my impression was that here was a last ditch effort by the promoters to bank on his name and untimely death. So when I started hearing and reading the positive buzz on the film my interest perked. I decided to put all my negativity aside and go into it with an open mind. What did I find? Hands-down one of the best music documentaries I have ever seen, and, as a result, I now view MJ as an extraordinary artist who tragically died way before his time.

Director Kenny Ortega (director of the latest "High School Musical" incarnations and who was the choreographer for "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" & "Dirty Dancing") was also the director of the MJ tour that was never to be. What he was made here, however, is a snippet of what might have been one of the most exciting musical/theatrical events ever.

Going in, I expected a lot of talking heads with scattered behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage that showed Jackson setting up the show. I expected, maybe 50-60% percent music. I got 90%-and what a 90% it is! Shot at rehearsals held from April-June 2009, the seamlessly edited musical numbers are nearly complete compositions that focus on Jackson giving an intimate concert-like performance-sans thousands of screaming fans. Here was a consummate artist who gave his all even when it didn't "count".

Despite an absence of 9 years, his voice (never his strong point; for me, his standout was always the movements) is as competent as ever and his dancing still impeccable. I remembered how frail he looked on the tabloid TV shows over the last several years-being wheeled into courtrooms during his infamous trials. That Jackson was not present at all on screen.

We are also treated to the ideas that would never come to fruition: the elaborate staging is merely hinted at, and pieces of the production, such as using blue-screen to insert MJ into old movie clips are shown during the rehearsal sequence in such a way that I yearned to see the final product. A final number that illustrates Jackson's love of the planet using a filmic clip of the rain forests cradling a young child as trees are bulldozed around her is effectively heartbreaking. As is the final gathering of all the principals holding hands in a circle to show their camaraderie for what was supposed to be Jackson's swansong concert tour-probably shot mere weeks before his demise.

A short segment in the beginning concentrates on the worldwide search for the dancers that would mirror MJ's style and talent. Many expressed a lifelong dream to be performing with Jackson. Tryouts reduce the thousands to a handful lucky enough to be selected. I kept thinking how devastating they must now feel that their dream vanished so suddenly.

But what really wowed me is the backup band that promised to be nearly as special as the front man. Ortega used HD quality sound (seeing it in a theater with a decent sound system is a must!) to show that the talent on screen matched the best pop bands I have ever seen live. The standout is 23 year-old Australian guitarist Orianthi Panagaris who was hand-picked by Jackson after viewing her on YouTube, and has played with Prince & Carrie Underwood, as well as being named as one of the 12 Greatest Female Electric Guitarist. She's featured on a couple of numbers and you realize that this tour would be the showcase that could launch a career.

Jackson always lamented growing old and so, ironically, he has departed the planet without doing so. However, as the credits rolled, I was overwhelmed with sadness. We will never know whether or not the heinous molestation charges were true. However, viewing this, I do know that his "King Of Pop" moniker was well-deserved and will remain unchallenged-a tribute to a one-of-a-kind entertainer and celebrity.

Orianthi Panagaris & Jackson

"The Blind Side" ** (126 minutes)

Wednesday November 6, 2009

By now, most sports fans in general, and NFL fans in particular, are familiar with the incredible real life story of Michael Oher. Most everyone else who have turned on a TV recently, have been bombarded with the trailer of this film starring Sandra Bullock as the no-nonsense mom who adopted the homeless 300+ lb behemoth African-American teenager and who guided him to become, not only a college graduate, but also the Baltimore NFL Football Raven's first round 2009 draft pick.

Phenomenal feel-good story. Not so phenomenal movie. In fact, as an extremely passionate sports fan, I was thoroughly disappointed in this manipulative Hollywood schlock. The film is based on the 2006 novel "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game" by Michael Lewis and it is entertaining on some levels (in fact, the Baltimore preview audience collectively seemed to love the film); but as a gritty true-to-life expose, it fails miserably. And to be honest, I'm not surprised. What should have been titled "The Leigh Anne Tuohy Story", this is numero uno on why, generally, I favor independent and foreign films.

Sandra Bullock dons tight clothes (you'll see her in about 20 different form fitting outfits) and sports a blond mane to portray the no-nonsense wealthy Republican fireplug-giving a one note performance that is nauseatingly clichéd from start to finish. (Someone suggested she should be nominated for an Academy Award. If so, I'll eat this review!) And I just loved the scene when Sandra confronts Michael's homeys in the Memphis projects with a sass that would have probably gotten her killed in a real setting.

The subject of the film, played by first timer Quinton Aaron, is so low keyed throughout, you wonder how in the heck he ever attained anything in life. I desperately wanted some insight into his psyche or how he ever managed to survive the streets of Memphis before being "rescued" by The Tuohy's-which would have really been a much more interesting storyline for me. Instead, we get the usual Hollywood gloss-over with only a passing mention of his drugged-out mom & absent father.

Playing opposite his better half is country singer Tim McGraw, whose role is merely to be a doormat for his spouse. And to bring even more levity to the proceedings is the Tuohy's precocious preteen (played annoyingly to the nth degree by Jae Head) whose main job is to be the spokesperson for his mostly mute "brother".

Writer/director John Lee Hancock has made a career tacking sport themes, directing the 2002's critically acclaimed "The Rookie" and screenwriting 2008's well-received "The Express". But somehow the decision was made to completely dummy down what could have been a real socially conscious blockbuster. Like I said-there is entertainment value here but the true-to-life feel-good story on the screen is too sugarcoated for my tastes.

Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock) & adopted son Michael
Oher (Quinton Aaron) in the halls of Ole Miss

Sean Touhy (Tim McGraw), Coach Cotton
(Ray McKinnon), & Leigh Anne Touhy
discuss Michael's performance
on the high school team

"The Road" *** (119 minutes)

Monday November 2, 2009

Off to the AFI Silver Theater again for another special preview with a post-screening Q&A with Australian Director John Hillcoat, who burst on the scene with one of my favorites from 2006, "The Proposition". This post-apocalyptic tale, first scribed by American novelist Cormac McCarthy (for which he received a Pulitzer in 2007), is a nice, but flawed, 2nd effort.

The story is basically a tale of love between a father & his son, and their effort to survive an unnamed event that has made rubble of our cities, and burned-out embers of our forests, while the populace is reduced to archaic roving gangs in desperate search for food and water.

The film opens with The Man (earnestly played by Viggo Mortensen) and his pregnant wife (sparsely utilized Charlize Theron) witnessing the beginning of the end of civilization from their bedroom window. The action quickly skips forward some 10 years later where The Man and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee, "Romulus, My Father") are living on the street pushing a cart carrying what's left of their belongings. For the next 2 hours, the story involves them avoiding capture for purposes of slavery or as a meal, while following "the road" that will take them to the coast-where, supposedly, life will be better.

And that's the main problem-that 2 hour running time where there is virtually no suspense build up to the scenes of fury. In-between we see, and get, the love connection between the two principals but the repetition of the relationship gets tedious-especially when there is no substantive oomph to the action scenes.

So why the respectable 3 star rating? Namely the acting, especially by Mortensen (look for a possible AA nod); the outstanding production values by production designer Christopher Kennedy ("The Proposition) & art director Gershon Ginsberg; the effective dreary cinematography created by Javier Aguirresarobe ("The Others", "Talk to Her", & "The Sea Inside"): all make it worth recommending. A nice score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave complements the visuals.

However, the series of scenes never come together to form a cohesive whole; and Theron is somewhat wasted in the scant flashback scenes that are supposed to signify The Man's sense of longing for a happier time and help to explain why she flew the coop. Although the story does offer some semblance of hope in the end, be prepared for a totally grim experience that, unfortunately, might be closer to reality than we'd like to think.

Dimension Films releases "The Road" nationwide on November 25th.


After the screening, AFI Silver Programmer Lori Donnelly moderated the Q&A with Director Hillcoat who revealed that he got Cormac's manuscript before it was published. He also stated that although Cormac was on set with his son, he never asked to review the script. John noticed that their father and son interraction was source of inspiration for the 2 fictional characters.

Some of John's interesting revelations:
-His directorial style involves giving utmost attention to the details.
-Kodi's 6'6" father was an extra (he played one of the cannibals).
-One of the references he used for the film was the Italian classic "The Bicycle Thief".
-The film presented technical challenges where at times he had to resort to CGI to block the sun, jet streams, birds, & blue sky.

Viggo Mortensen & Kodi-Smit McPhee ponder their
reflection in a scene from "The Road"

AFI Programmer Lori Donnelly & Director John Hillcoat

The documentary "The Horse Boy" (***) OPENS 11/6 IN BALTIMORE

I screened this film at this year's AFI SILVERDOCS Film Festival last June. It opens at The Charles for what will probably be a limited run. Here is a repeat of my review:

There always seem to be stories in the news about the lengths people take to try and find a cure for an illness when conventional medicine fails. "The Horse Boy" (***-94 minutes), based on Rupert's book, is one of those stories-and the illness is autism. The parents of autistic child Rowin are Rupert and Kristin Isaacson who are an engaging couple, he from Liverpool, she from Texas where the couple met and married. Their 2 1/2 year old son was first diagnosed with the mysterious ailment which the medical community has no consensus as to cause and treatment. They sought out all of the available resources but saw no sustaining progress. Currently he was a social worker who had professionally trained horses while Kristin was a psychology professor. Rupert had also written about the African Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and he had witnessed several shamanic ceremonies. When he saw how Rowan had calmly taken to Rupert's horses and how much joy he exhibited when riding horseback, he got the idea that maybe a trip to Mongolia to seek out a shaman or 2 might be the key to unlocking the autistic mystery and help cure his now 5- year-old son-something conventional doctor's in the States couldn't accomplish. To his classically schooled wife this idea seemed preposterous. It took a ton of convincing on Rupert's part but off they went with fellow Texan and novice film maker Michel Orion Scott to record the 4-week journey. And what a journey it was! The film shows progress and setbacks everyone encountered along the way and, in the end, there, indeed, seemed to be major changes in Rowin. Questions are raised such as whether these positive changes were due to the spiritual healings of Shaman, the affects of undertaking such incredible journey never experienced by the child, his interactions with children along the way. Combinations of these or other reasons, or were they just imaginary short-term results? Whatever the reason or reasons, the visual and spiritual journey is amazing and well worth the trip. The stunning cinematography is utterly captivating as most viewers will enter a world far removed from their usual habitat & experience. At the Q & A the film maker stated that Rowin is making progress but still suffers from the malady. However, both parents believe that the trip was life-changing for all involved. The film has been picked up by Zeitgeist Films with a September 11th limited U.S. release date.

"Good Hair" ***1/2 (95 minutes)

Wednesday October 13, 2009

Who would have thought that a comedic take on hair would be so controversial? Or that anyone could actually fill out 95 minutes on the topic? Leave it to Chris Rock to raise the ire of such a large class of humans (the female black population) while being so informative and entertaining at the same time.

Rock (who co-wrote the script along with director Jeff Stilson, Lance Crouther, Chuck Sclar) is front and center of the action as he takes us into this "secretive" culture which is a 9 billion dollar industry. Secretive, because who knew the expense, pain, and trauma black women (and children) endure to obtain straight hair &/or hair extensions?

The doc takes a while to get going, and I kept wondering if the topic would hold my interest, but when it finally hits its stride, there are as many eye opening revelations as laughs to be had. The film is centered on the 60th (!) annual event held in Atlanta that is sort of a combination hair products show & American Idol for hair stylists. The theatrical contest (which occupies the last part of the film) is the highlight of the Bonner Brothers International Hair show that is also a convention showcasing hair product companies.

Early on, Rock and his crew take us into the black -owned Dudley Products in Atlanta, (considered the industry's world leader), then over to India, where women, who have their heads shaved in a religious ceremony, ship the locks off for a profit. We are taken to a lab to show the effects sodium hydroxide has on a soda can (not pretty!)-especially noteworthy since this is the chemical women and children place on their head-and would explain the burning sensation these humans experience when using the hair products that contain it. And we visit a barbershop where black men humorously discuss their take on the whole subject with hilarious and revealing dialogue.

Interspersed throughout are entertaining interviews with such notables as Maya Angelou , Nia Long, Ice-T, Salt-n-Pepa, Al Sharpton, & Raven Symone, among others (where was Don King?).
All the while Rock provides the narration and one-liners that is his trademark.

But it is the final contest in Atlanta, that curiously has no relation to hair styling, that neatly wraps up the proceedings and feature an under water act and upside down hair cutting! And who would have thought that the favorite to win each year was a white dude!!

The documentary has been in limited release since October 9th & opens in Baltimore on Friday October 30th.

"Where The Wild Things Are" *** (141 minutes)

Tuesday October 13, 2009

There is a lot to recommend about this filmic adaptation of Maurice Sendek's 1963 beloved children's picture book. Writer/director Spike Jonz' ("Being John Malkovich", "Adaptation", "3 Kings") has expanded the extremely sparse narrative (the book contains a handful of sentences comprising 338 total words!), while using Jim Henson's creature shop & CGI to recreate the fanciful drawings of the original source. The result is an intriguing, yet overlong, look into the mindset of most pre-teens who are striving to be accepted and loved by everyone around them.

Max (Max Records, who first appeared in 2008's "The Brothers Bloom") is a precocious hyperactive kid who just can't seem to connect with friends, siblings, & mom (Catherine Keener-a Jonze fav). After a run-in with his single parent, Max wanders off in his wolf suit and his imagination wanders off in a boat that takes him to a wondrous island inhabited by fascinating creatures who, at first, want to eat the dude. After Max stands his ground, they quickly decide to anoint him king.

What happens next is . . . well, not much to be honest. Each of the creatures has voices of famous actors (James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forrest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, & Lauren Ambrose) that, if you close your eyes, you can picture their human form. The middle third of the film has them cavorting, constructing a fort, being jealous and vindictive. All the while Max tries to maintain control and keep together his new-found subjects.

The soundtrack by the talented Carter Burwell is original for this kind of film, & the Australia locations are breathless and beautifully integrated into the visuals-but after a while, I started to zone out. Although the creatures were initially intriguing, the paper thin plot doesn't hold up as well over the 141 minute running time.

I get the angst that Max experiences that translate into the imaginative "story" of trying to gain acceptance, and finally realizing that "there's no place like home". The real question is what minimum age should the child be to see the darkness that is on the screen? Well, the answer is, it depends. It depends on the emotional level of the child to recognize that Max's imaginary world is sort of a microcosm of the real world and hopefully won't be totally freaked out when there is talk of devouring a little child.

"More Than A Game" (****) OPENS TODAY IN BALTIMORE & D.C.!!!


Time for my favorite festival, the AFI SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Fest. And, being the sports nut that I am, I'm really looking forward to the opening night as the U.S. premier of "More Than a Game" (****-102 minutes) kicks off the 7th annual festival in a big way.

"Hoop Dreams" (1994) is not only considered one of the best sports documentary of all time, in some circles it is argued that it may be one of the greatest docs. Steve James' personal and emotional account of 2 teens, William Gates & Arthur Agee, from Chicago's inner city, resonates on many levels. James followed both talented basketball players for 5 years as each was eying a future in the NBA.

I may be going way out on a limb, but Kristopher Belman's stunning doc compares in every way with what is considered the standard in sports docs. Belman's amazing initial effort (he wrote and co-produced it as well) chronicles, over a 9 year time span, the "Fab Five". These were 5 African-American youths from Akron Ohio, 4 of whom have been playing basketball together since they were 11, who went to great lengths to stay together at any cost to win a championship. For example, when one of them decided to attend the elite St. Vincent-St. Mary school, a predominantly white school, the rest of them passed up going to a closer predominantly black school, so as not to break up their longtime chemistry-to the dismay and scorn of their community. Oh, and one of those players happens to be LeBron James-who went straight to the NBA from that same high school to become one the most famous NBA players on the planet.

However, even though most of the media ads will no doubt prominently display James' mug, don't be mislead. This is not his story alone. In fact, he was merely one fifth of the equation. It is more a story about their assistant coach, Dru Joyce II, who replaced SVSM's already successful head coach who suddenly left for greener pastures during their junior year, and who instilled valuable life lessons both on and off the court. Father of little Dru, the diminutive point guard, Dru Sr. would try and right the ship after the head coach's defection to try and lead the team to a championship. All the while, James was being touted as "The Chosen One" by Sports Illustrated placing him on its front cover (the first high school player ever to achieve that honor) and their games were being nationally televised on ESPN because of it.

Belman has created an extraordinary achievement as he and co-screenwriter Brad Hogan have structured this film like a narrative and have successfully made it dramatic enough, despite its known ending, to make it seem fresh and exciting. The score by producer Harvey Mason Jr. is superlative and "today".

The best compliment I can give to it was by 2 ladies sitting next to me. Prior to the screening, they gave me the impression they didn't know a basketball from a marble and I don't have to tell you they had never heard of LeBron. After the screening they turned to me and exclaimed "Wow! What a film!!"

The post screening discussion was as outstanding as the film. The sold-out audience (the 3 AFI Silver theaters and the Round House Theater next door were all filled to capacity) was treated to a terrific interview hosted by NPR's "All Things Considered" host Michelle Norris. Present were producer and music director Harvey Mason Jr., Director Belman, all 5 of the Fab Five, and coach Dru Joyce. Of course the audience was buzzing when LeBron graced the stage, but the comments by the other players were equal to the task.

Belman revealed that the full length feature sprung from his 13 minute college project and his decision to continue following the team ended up being a stroke of great luck. Producer Mason said he corroborated with Belman on the music. LeBron, who was raised predominantly by his mom, said that his house was like a "Chuckie Cheese for kids" with the constant visitation of his friends. And huge Sian Cotton said watching it with an audience was a thrill and admitted he started to cry a one point. The audience laughed when he commented that the film was so suspenseful that even he wasn't sure how it was going to turn out in the end. When each was asked by Michelle to make a comment to the young people who want to be the best that they can be, the soft spoken LeBron, who was the last to speak, imparted wisdom from the perspective of a superstar that perfectly wrapped up the half hour dialogue.

The after party, as it has been since 2003, was held in the beautiful Discovery Communications headquarters. The catered food was geared to the theme of the night, complete with gourmet hot dogs and bags of peanuts and popcorn, and wonderful musical entertainment was provided by D.C. rappers, Tabi Bonney and Wale.

"More Than a Game" is scheduled for limited nationwide release by Lionsgate on October 2nd. Put it on your calendar!

"A Serious Man" ***1/2 (104 Minutes)

Thursday October 1, 2009

In terms of religion, how interesting to follow my last film ("The Invention of Lying") with this one, the latest offering by the brilliant & highly successful brothers Joel & Ethan Coen. Where Ricky Gervais considers a universe where everything appears to be morally correct and is devoid of religion, here is a narrative that immerses itself in it-more specifically the Jewish faith.

It reminds me of my hometown boy, Barry Levinson, who really made his mark and started to became bankable after working with Mel Brooks writing 1976's "Silent Movie" then Directing 1977's "High Anxiety". Then he won an Oscar for directing "Rain Man" in 1988. This success over the years allowed him the time/money to pursue his more personal "Baltimore" films ("Diner", "Tin Men", "Avalon", & "Liberty Heights"). In a way, this seems what the Coens have done; creating a film that you can tell comes as much from their heart and history than any of their previous works.

I ventured down to the fabulous AFI Silver to attend the screening complete with a wonderful Q & A (more on that later) with Michael Stuhlbarg who plays Larry Gopnik-the main character in the film whose entire world is about to crumble. Before we're introduced to him, though, we get a curious prologue set in a Polish shtetl where it seems the husband has invited a dybbuk (a demon) into the household. When his wife recognizes the dude for what he is (or may be) he is promptly dealt with that may, in its own way, be a curse or salvation-something we never know. However the tone of what follows is set: what happens to all of us during our lifetimes is never fully explained or understood.

This modern version of the Story of Job then flashes to 1967 in a northern town in Minnesota (both brothers grew up Jewish in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis) where our hero, Larry, is dealing with a multitude of problems. You know how people say that tragedies seem to come in 3's? Well for him, it seems that figure is multiplied by multiples of 3's. No matter where he goes or what he does, a dark cloud is above his Keppie (head for those of you not well versed in Yiddish) and storming over his brow.

How's this for starters: one of his pupils (Larry is a physics professor at the University of Minnesota) is concurrently bribing & blackmailing him(!); someone is trying to sabotage his attempt to get tenure by sending anonymous damaging letter to his superiors; his about to be bar-mitzvah son is more concerned about getting high than high grades; his teenage daughter is stealing money for that nose job she desperately "needs"; his immediate next door neighbor on one side hates Jews; the one on the other side is sex-crazed; not to mention his wife wants to leave him for his best friend, Sy Abelman. All the while, Larry, trying to keep stoic through all of this, starts seeking out advice/answers from the local rabbi's. How can the Almighty Being allow all of these travails from happening to such a "serious" man?! Like real life, no easy answers/explanations can be found. Larry is just trying to get by as best he can.

The brilliant script is matched by the Coens' forte: for the most part using little known or recognizable character actors that are incredibly believable. Michael Stuhlbarg is so perfect in the role that you'd think he was born to be Larry Gopnik. Known more for his theater work (Michael was nominated 4 years ago for a Tony for his role in "The Pillow Man", appeared on TV, and had a couple of minor roles in the films "Body of Lies" and this year's "Cold Souls"). While Fred Melamed (as Sy), Richard Kind (as Larry's live-in brother, Arthur who's constantly dealing with a draining neck cyst), Sari Lennick (as Larry's wife Judith), and Adam Arkin (the most famous name in the cast who plays Larry's divorce lawyer) are spot-on perfect!

The Coens' outstanding Director of Photography, Roger Deakins (who lately was also the DP for "Doubt", "The Reader", "Revolutionary Road", & "In the Valley of Elah") and their art department have created a 1967 suburban milieu that is stark and barren and I'm certain taken right out of their childhood. I love the look of the neighborhoods with the tiny lawns devoid of trees and shrubs. And the original music by their long time corroborator Carter Burwell is perfectly entwined with the music of the 60's that is craftily inserted throughout.

And don't feel you have to be Jewish to fully appreciate the movie, any more than you needed to be Italian to enjoy "The Godfather". Just sit back and let Joel & Ethan take you for a wild ride into situations & predicaments that, unfortunately, are common to us all.

The film is being platformed beginning October 2, opens in D.C. on October 9th, and probably in Baltimore on October 16th.
Following the film the audience was treated to a entertaining Q&A with Michael Stuhlbarg moderated by CBS News' Dan Reviv. Brought out during the interview and Q&A:

Michael revealed that his very first pre-professional performance was in "Bye Bye Birdie", ironically at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center. He has also appeared in the stage and film version of "The Grey Zone"-so there might be some type casting here.

He's currently working on the pilot of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" which Martin Scorsese is executive producer & directing, about the birth & high times of Atlantic City.

Eleven months before being hired, he tried out for the husband's part in the prologue and even got a Yiddish coach to learn Yiddish and to help in the dialect. However, the Coens ended up using actors from the Yiddish Theater Company in New York City instead. Six months later, he was called in to try out for the parts of Larry & Arthur and found out months later he received the lead role.

In talking about the Coens, he said that they actually are the editors and use the alias Roderick Jaynes ("Jaynes" was actually Oscar nominated for "No Country For Old Men"); they act as "2 sides of the same head" on the set often agreeing and never fighting; Joel does the actual directing while the slightly younger Ethan "holds his head down and paces around in the back of the room and just listens listens listens very carefully"; they storyboard every scene and are so totally prepared that the 2 month filming came in ahead of schedule and under budget.

Michael revealed that the 3rd head on the set was clearly their long time DP Roger Deakins who was quite the perfectionist (the results are clearly seen on the screen).

As for whether the film was biographical, Michael revealed that the Coens' parents were both professors (their father taught economics at the University of Minnesota) and that several of the character names were actual names from their past but, overall, the main story was somewhat fictional.

Sy (Fred Melamed) tries to confort Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg)
after informing him of his affair with Larry's wife
Joel & Ethan Coen on the set

CBS News' Dan Reviv (l) & actor Michael Stuhlbarg (r)

Actor Michael Stuhlbarg

"The Invention of Lying" *** (99 Minutes)

Tuesday September 29, 2009

Comedian Ricky Gervais (creator of BBC's "The Office") co-wrote and directed (along with Matthew Robinson) this parable of a world where everyone tells the truth and literally speaks their mind as if there was a microphone attached. Gervais asks the question: What if some average bloke of a loser decides to change his fate by not telling the truth in this alternate universe? And that is the premise for this inventive tale that goes far beyond the telling of a little white lie.

Mark, a fat dude with a pug nose, is about to lose his job and his home. When he tries to withdraw money from his bank to cover his rent, something goes haywire in his brain (this is not fully explored but, like other aspects of the plot, you are asked to ignore a lot and just run with the concept) and, instead, tries to withdraw more than he has. Of course, the teller, whose computer is down, hands it over with no questions asked since no one tells a lie in this world. This sets in motion all kinds of possibilities for our protagonist, who proceeds, knowingly and unknowingly, to change his world and everyone else's around him.

The plot is helped along with some fabulous supporting roles from Jennifer Garner (as Mark's love interest who is clearly "above his league"), stand-up comic Louis C.K. (as Mark's main drinking bud), and Rob Lowe (as his ex co-worker who tries to win over Garner); and includes wonderful cameos by Tina Fey, Christopher Guest, Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Tambor, Jonah Hill, & Jason Bateman. The cinematography is somewhat lacking but, hey, you're not going in to this one for the scenery.

As with any one-joke premise, there are some bits and ideas that don't work as much as others, but, for the most part, the marks are hit right on that bulls-eye and should have you reflecting on religion, relationships, sex, & truths that this satire incessantly ribs with great success.

The Warner Brothers film opens nationwide on October 2nd.

Ricky Gervais, Rob Lowe, Jennifer Garner, & Louis C.K.
Jennifer Garmer & Ricky Gervais

"Bright Star" ***1/2 (119 minutes)

Thursday September 17, 2009

E-X-Q-U-I-S-I-T-E! The first word that comes to mind to describe this stunning biopic of the Romantic English poet, John Keats. New Zealand born writer/director Jane Campion, whose 1993's "The Piano" won 3 major Academy Awards, has done the near impossible: she's seamlessly combined the beautiful language of poetry with the visuals of the 19th century and the results is one of the most mesmerizing competent films of the year.

The film begins in 1818 when Keats is a young man of 21-full of promise and unrecognized talent. Three years later, he would be dead-stricken by tuberculosis-the disease which also claimed his brother. John is immediately smitten when his neighbor, Fanny Brawne, a beautiful seamstress who lives next door, creates an embroidered pillowcase for Keats’ brother.

Clearly Franny became the crux of Keats’ inspiration that follows and, sadly, their romance is never consummated because, John Keats was poor and his conscience would not allow him to marry the first love of his life. Enter into this equation is Keats’ friend and mentor, Charles Armitage Brown, who views Franny’s presence in his life as a major distraction. Although the rest of the world didn’t, he recognized Keats’ enormous ability & genius and didn’t want anything to sabotage it.

The players are magnificent. Ben Whisaw (“Brideshead Revisited”) gives a perfectly muted angst to his role. You believe he is fully capable of creating the literary beauty of the words that sing throughout the script. Paul Schneider (“Lars and the Real Girl” and more recently in Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go”) as Brown, displays a wonderful range in his performance as Keats’ confidant. But it is Australian actress Abbie Cornish (“Stop-Loss”) as Fanny that delivers the presence and spunk that captivates the audience as well her suitor. And her reaction on hearing of the poet's demise is so chilling that it will surely help to garner her an Academy nomination early next year.

The cinematography never seems artificial while the overall effect is one of entrancement. And by all means stay through the credits to hear Whishaw’s recitation of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” which seem a fitting tribute to what has been superbly portrayed on the screen for the previous 2 hours.

Paul Schneider as Charles Armitage Brown
Writer/Director Jane Campion

"The Burning Plain" **1/2 (106 minutes)

Wednesday September 16, 2009

I really wanted to love this movie which was Mexican writer/director Guillermo Arriaga's initial foray into directing. As a screenwriter, he's a talented veteran, penning several of my favorite films of the last 8 years. He burst onto the scene in 2001 writing the critically acclaimed "Amores Perros". He followed that success as the scribe for 2003's "21 Grams", Tommy Lee Jones' "The 3 Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (2005), and one of my favorite films of 2006, "Babel". Other than "The 3 Burials", his director for these films was the famed Alejandro González Iñárritu.

However, it's been reported that he was upset that he wasn't given his proper due for "Babel" so he decided to split with Iñárritu and direct his own film. And the results are mixed at best. Using a structure similar to the more successful "Amores Perros", "21 Grams", & "Babel", the story is non-linear in time and space as it conveys a story of tortured souls who must sort out their demons and try to rise up from the despair they helped to create.

The film begins with a brief shot of a lone trailer in the middle of a New Mexican wilderness totally engulfed in flames. The next shot is in a bedroom in an urban city with a pensive Charlize Theron starring out a window while her male companion (John Corbett) is lying in bed. Another scene shifts to Kim Basinger, who plays a mother of 4, including the fetching Mariana (nicely played by first-timer Jennifer Lawrence) who is having a love interest with Santiago (JD Prado) whose father (Joaquim de Almeida) happens to be having an affair with Mariana's mother. Then the scene shifts to a young girl whose father is injured when his crop dusting plane crashes in a field. We are introduced to these & other characters at both these varied locations as the film continuously jumps back and forth in time. How they may be related and how their lives intersect is a hallmark of most of Guillermo's previous tales.

However, the construction of the script is either getting old, &/or lacking the solid execution of his previous scripts and I found myself not as emotionally involved as I would have liked considering the weight of the subject matter. Totally devoid of any humor (even black would have been welcomed), "The Burning Plain" will maintain your interest, if only to see how all the pieces fit-but, like me, you might not even care by the time the end credits roll. And that is another flaw of the film: that ending is just too neatly wrapped up considering the heaviness of all that went before it.

There are some things to recommend; namely the superb acting by the 2 Academy Award winning actress, and the production values are top notch including some splendid cinematography. However, the film left me as cold and barren as these characters' lives.

The film opens in limited release (including the Washington area) on September 18.
The mysterious Jose Maria Yazpik followingCharlize Theron
Kim Basinger with her lover Joaquim de Almeida


Here was my review from 6/19 below after I screened it at this year's AFI SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival:

We go from inside Oklahoma prison walls to the inside walls of the fashion industry with award winning producer/director R.J. Cutler's "The September Issue" (***-90 minutes). This is mainly a portrait of Anna Wintour, the editor of "Vogue", who is one of the most powerful, influential, and elusive figures in the fashion world, as she prepares for the year's most important edition that is literally 9 months in the making. Cutler was given unprecedented access to Wintour and her staff for the doc that allows one to witness what it really takes to produce an issue of high fashion that is hundreds of pages in length and nearly 5 pounds in weight. Wintour is credited for pumping new life in her mag when she opted for putting celebrities on the cover-something unheard of previously. Most people got a glimpse of her earlier this year via a CBS "60 Minutes" feature, but it is this film that allows us to see her in action-a rare event afforded to a film crew. Included are scenes of Wintour at home with her daughter (who wants nothing to do with pursuing a career in the fashion industry). However, the real joy for me was the presence and influence of 14 year "Vogue" creative director and visionary Grace Coddington, who is constantly at odds with Wintour. Each respects the other, yet, there is an underlying tension as to what should ultimately appear in the issue-of which Wintour always has the final say. Grace, a former 60's model and the junior fashion editor of London "Vogue", who survived a horrible automobile crash in her 20's, has as much influence and artistic vision (if not more) as her editor. In the end I was craving to know more and more of the personable and talented Grace instead of the dour Wintour. However, Cutler chose to concentrate mainly on what it took to create the issue that featured Sienna Miller on its cover. A kind of fluff piece that skims the surface of its subject, "The September Issue" does deliver entertainment-I just wanted to know more about the personalities involved-especially Grace. A fabulous discussion and Q & A with Cutler was moderated by Pulitzer Prize-wining fashion writer Robin Givhan. Roadside Attractions is releasing the film in theaters on August 28th.

"Humpday" *** (94 minutes)

Tuesday July 28, 2009

One of the more interesting aspects of this indie gem is that it was made with the sensibilities of a woman. Writer/director Lynn Shelton came up with the idea when she heard of a peculiar "film festival" held each year in Seattle called Humpfest. Entries consist of amateur films that depict sexual activity but any scenes showing penetration will result in disqualification.

Lynn has used this event to put an interesting new take on a male buddy/bonding theme explored to no end in countless films. Shelton has changed the rules in her film and made Humpfest a, er, penetrating-allowed film festival. The premise: What if two, 100% heterosexual males decide to compete and take it to the nth degree? What if they film themselves having sex? As one of them put it: "That's beyond gay!"

The 2 guys are Mark Duplass & Joshua Leonard. Mark is becoming one of my favorite indie personalities. He wrote and starred in "The Puffy Chair" (directed by his brother Jay) which was one of my favorite films at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For an encore, he directed, wrote, and produced another fine indie film, "Baghead" which I screened at the 2008 Maryland Film Festival. Here Mark dons only his actor's hat playing Ben, a happily married dude who is paid an unexpected visit by his old school buddy, Andrew. Andrew has showed up after years of traversing the planet, still single and carefree.

When both go off one night to attend a wild party, they proceed to get smashed on whatever is being passed around. Then, when they hear about Humpfest, their male competitive spirit is aroused when one of them gets the wild idea that no way could a film showing 2 heterosexuals having gay sex lose.

Having fully committed their egos to the project, they must now conceal it from Ben's wife, Anna, wonderfully played by newcomer Alycia Delmore. How she finds out is classic and her reaction to the project is priceless and understandable considering that a woman's perspective is behind the words!

The last act deals with the 2 boys attempting to make their film and it is fascinating how it all plays out, no pun intended. This scene is unscripted and wonderfully portrayed by the 2 friends; and it is thought-provoking about how our society looks at friendship, sexuality, and homophobia-especially when it comes to male sex.

The film is in limited release and it will probably go the way of most indie films: direct to disc. So, look for it, as well as "The Puffy Chair" & "Baghead", at NETFLIX or at your nearest video/DVD outlet.

Mark Duplass, Alycia Delmore, & Joshua Leonard

"500 Days of Summer" **** (95 minutes)

Wednesday July 22, 2009

Finally! After sloughing through a bunch of mediocre films lately, here is one that is not only great but clearly one of the finest I've screened this year. First time director Marc Webb has created a brilliant take on young love that will not only sweep you up in its originality & humor but will cause you to reflect on your past love(s) with remembrance and poignancy.

No, this isn't a tale of a "summer" romance. The title is the name of a 20-something woman who has dumped the hero and narrator of our tale, Tom. Don't fret. This isn't a spoiler. You find this out in the first minute of the film.

Summer is played and given a spot-on performance by indie film vet Zooey Deschanel. Tom is embodied by the wonderful Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("The Lookout"), who started off working in TVs "3rd Rock from the Sun" and has moved smoothly into the cinema and is currently building a terrific portfolio appearing in an astounding 35 films (!) in 10 years. Together they have produced movie magic and their chemistry ignites the screen.

Most of us guys have been through this at least once in our lives: You are absolutely totally in love with a girl who has it all: looks, brains, & personality. Except there is one itsy bitsy problem: she loves you-but not as much. And that drives you absolutely berserk! You see, Summer loves Tom-but only to a point. A point that Tom has uncontrollably rocketed pass early in the relationship.

The non-linear structure announces each scene by the number of days that have lapsed since Tom, an aspiring architect, first laid eyes on his new greeting card co-worker. For 95 minutes, you see and feel Tom's emotions roller-coaster about, back and forth, up & down, from total despair to total glee and back again.

Webb has effectively used many different techniques to pull you in, from clever music video-like montages, to black & white, to references to Fellini films. Although some of his bits fall short of their mark, most hit hard & true. And the repeated references to "The Graduate" are so perfectly placed that I still can't stop thinking about that film and what it meant to me when I identified so much with it back in 1967 when I was so wonderfully in love!

The screenplay by Scott Neustadter ("The Pink Panther 2") & Michael Weber never seems forced, and the soundtrack by long-time composer Mychael Danna & Ron Simonsen unobtrusively compliments the story. And, after you see the flick, I guarantee that you'll immediately smile the moment you hear Hall & Oates' "You make my dreams come true".

It might rate a "10" on the cutesy scale, but I loved this film!!

Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Zooey Deschanel

"Julie & Julia" **1/2 (Chick Flick rating: ***) (123 minutes)

Thursday July 9, 2009

(Blogger Note: There's a first for everything. I feel it is my humble critic's duty to give a separate "Chick Flick" rating since I have to recommend this more to my female readers.)

Nora Ephron has had a hit or miss career as screenwriter and director. Her hits have been home runs (writing "When Harry Met Sally", writing & directing "Sleepless in Seattle") while her misses have been swinging strikeouts (director of "Mixed Nuts", and writer & director of "Bewitched"). Here, she has another mixed bag writing and directing this tale of 2 cooks using Julie Powell's book, "Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen", as the basis of the film.

Julie, a bored office worker, and a frustrated writer, needs a challenge. So she takes up cooking by trying to replicate Julia Child's 524 French recipes over the course of one year while charting her progress in a BLOG. To further extend this simplistic plot, Nora in essence, creates 2 films in one by flipping back and forth between Julie's quest while chronicling how Julia Child became the person known worldwide as "The French Chef".

To portray these 2 characters Nora has, somewhat, reunited Amy Adams & Meryl Streep who were playing opposite each other in last year's "Doubt". Somewhat, because, unlike last year's film, here they have no scenes together. Julia refused to meet Julie as she was somehow offended by Julie's personal challenge. Then, Ms. Child died in 2004, a year before Julia's book was published.

Amy, who is building quite an impressive resume, is certainly capable as the affable Julie, but it is Streep's remarkable impersonation that makes it all worthwhile. And what an impersonation it is with Ephron accurately creating the incredible illusion of having a diminutive 5'8'' actress portray a 6'2" behemoth of a woman. You could close your eyes and, hearing Streep's voice, picture the woman who took French cooking to global heights.

Although the husbands (Chris Messina as Mr. Julie, and Stanley Tucci as Mr. Julia) generally take a back seat to the proceedings, Julia's hubby makes the most of it. The always dependable actor Stanley Tucci, gives a nice supporting role as the U.S. diplomat whose job causes him & Julia to relocate to Paris, and who reacts to his wife's new cooking obsessions with mixed patience & wit.

Curiously, for a movie geared to the preparation of food, I didn't leave the screening with a craving desire to head straight for the nearest gourmet restaurant-unlike other food films that come to mind like "Big Night" or "Babette's Feast", where your mouth was incessantly watering like a fountain! And you knew that somehow someway, Ephron was going to include the classic SNL bit with Dan Ackroyd trying to "cut the chic-kun" but slicing everything but! But overall, the film left me flat and its appeal will undoubtedly be more appreciated by a select segment of the audience (hence the added 1/2 star).

"My Sister's Keeper" **1/2 (108 minutes)

Tuesday June 23, 2009

Director Nick Cassavetes has teamed once again with co-screen writer Jeremy Levens (2004's "The Notebook"), and has assembled an impressive cast to produce one of this summer's bigger disappointments. The concept, put forth by Jodi Picoult's best-seller, is intriguing and thought-provoking: a daughter ("Little Miss Sunshine's"s Abigail Breslin) is created via invitro fertilization to be a perfect organ match to her dying sister (effectively played by Sofia Vassilieva). Unfortunately, Cassavetes execution is painfully maudlin.

The acting, as expected, is not the problem. Everyone gives a capable and believable performance, especially Cameron Diaz who finally is given a script to showoff some valid acting chops. She's the mom who is desperately trying to keep her eldest daughter alive-despite the fact that the youngest has finally cried "foul" when asked to donate a kidney after repeatedly donating throughout her young life. She's decided to take her case to a local hotshot lawyer (Alec Baldwin giving another nice supporting job) in order to make her own life-changing/life-giving decisions. And a sequence involving Sofia becoming romantically involved with another cancer patient (well played by Evan Ellingson) she meets in the hospital is sweet and affecting. Only Jason Patric (as the girls' father) is given little to do but appear sympathetic to the younger daughter's situation.

The main problem I had is that you can see pretty much where the plot is going and the obvious manipulation to pull those tears from your eyes had my eyes rolling more often than not. And those music-video like sequences just feel silly and awkward compared to the overall heavy seriousness of the film.

I like a good tear-jerker every now and then (in fact, I'm a fan of "The Notebook"). It just seemed a shame that this controversial topic wasn't handled in a more intelligent way that just dissolving into a corny mess. I suppose the book is a lot better.

"Crystal Fog" *** (98 minutes)

June 17, 2009

I took a brief time-off during SILVERDOCS this day to attend a special cast and crew screening of the latest narrative film by award winning Baltimore-based educator, actor, & director Steve Yeager. Steve took home the 1998 Sundance Filmmaker's Trophy for Best Documentary Award for his outstanding documentary on the early John Waters era "Divine Trash" which documented the filming of the cult classic "Pink Flamingos". He followed that up with a continuation doc on Water's early career entitled "In Bad Taste" (2000), which is still being run continuously on Bravo and The Independent Film Channel.

He's directed a number of films and theater productions but until now has never written a screen play. With this film Steve wears 4 hats: writer, director, actor, & co-producer (along with his wife Patty Barzyk). His script is loosely based on an episode of his late brother's life, who before his death in 1996, was a drag performer.

"Crystal Fog" chronicles a somewhat bazaar love triangle: middle aged Warren (FrankMoorman) meets and falls in love with the young Darren (Steve Polites) while each are attending an acting class (Yeager plays the instructor). Darren is having his ups and downs with his girlfriend when he unexpectedly meets and, even more unexpectedly, falls in love with Tommi (wonderfully played by Jordan Siebert) who performs as Crystal Fog in a local club. Needing a place to live, Darren rents a room in Warren's pad not initially aware of Warren's hidden desires and at the same time Darren is pursing the charismatic Tommi.

Yeager's smartly scripted tale focuses more on human drama and interaction than on Tommi's flamboyant world. And as Tommi, Jordan Siebert has created an intriguing character that is totally believable and tragic (he also performs & contributed the lyrics to several songs on the soundtrack). The other roles are not as successful especially Frank Moorman (who is a trained Shakespearean actor) who plays it a little over the top more often than not for my taste. However, overall kudos to the entire production which includes a fabulous soundtrack full of original songs-including a wonderful creation by singer/songwriter Viki Nova over the end credits.

Shot and filmed over 2 years in Baltimore, Yeager hopes to hit the festival circuit with "Crystal Fog" in the near future. He is currently working to complete a documentary on his late friend and Academy Award nominee Howard Rollins who tragically died of AIDS in 1996.

Post film discussion with (from l to r):
actors Steve Polites & Jordan Siebert, dir. Steve Yeager,
actor Frank B. Moorman, and publicist & broadcaster
Gayle Economos who moderated the discussion

7th SILVERDOCS-Day 8 & Final Thoughts

Monday June 22, 2009

The last day is reserved mainly for screenings of the award winners and those films that were well received by previous audiences over the week. I began the day with The Sterling World Award Winner "Mugabe and the White African" (****-90 minutes). There have been numerous films over the years dealing with genocide and dictatorships in Africa, both fiction and nonfiction, and viewed from many different perspectives. This one deals with the efforts of the rightful owner of a Zimbabwe farm to, not only retain his property, but also, fight for his life in one of the most politically volatile countries in Africa. Mugabe is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the white African is 75-year grandfather and landowner, Michael Campbell. In 2000, the dictator put his land reform program in motion which gave him carte blanche to seize white owned farms under the guise as belonging to the people of Zimbabwe-people who, in many instances, have no knowledge or interest in farming. As a result, the country descended into economic disarray with its citizens suffering from famine, illness, and an inability to produce enough food. Despite employing and caring for hundreds of black workers and their families, Mike has endured years of intimidation from the numerous attempts of the government to gain control of his property. In an effort to retain it, with the aid of his son-in-law, Ben Freeth, he attempts to fight for retention by taking his case to the South African Development Community, an impartial International court which is part of the regional African cooperation of countries. Over the course of a year, the family sees repeated postponements and rescheduling and, in between dates, the family is subjected to even more intimidation & violence in an attempt by the government to discourage them from staying and to vacate their rightfully owned land. The drama doles out suspense by the bucket loads as each court delay brings increasing tension to the family who are attempting to fight for their rights under a dictator who is determined to destroy them. Directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, as did Jon Blair, the director of “Dancing With the Devil”, have put themselves in direct danger while secretly filming the action (the press is banned in Zimbabwe), making the filmic achievement all the most remarkable. The film plays out like a carefully scripted mystery and Andrew’s cinematography is superb making this film well deserving of its award. A truly unforgettable David vs. Goliath story that has worldwide human rights significance involving a fight for justice against one of the most ruthless dictators on the planet.

I slipped into the “October Country” repeat screening to catch the Sterling Short Winner, the Danish “12 Notes Down” (*** ½-27 minutes). Director Andreas Koefoed has made an emotional short that concentrates on Jorgis, an accomplished 14 year-old performer in the Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir, who learns how to deal with a life changing event. You see, his voice is changing and, despite a storied career traveling all over Europe with the choir, he must now come face-to-face with the reality that, by continuing in the choir, he risks permanent damage to his angelic voice. The final moments of him singing in his last performance is heartbreaking and moving as he realizes that it is time to move on from something that has totally defined him in his short existence. As wonderful as this short is, my pick would have been the stunning Special Jury Mention, “Salt”, (see review on SILVERDOCS-Day 4 Below).

Time to take in the Cinematic Vision Award Winner, “Old Partner” (** ½-77 minutes). This small quiet Korean film by first time director Lee Chung-ryoul refers to the old partner of an elderly S. Korean rice Farmer, Mr. Lee. And, no, it isn’t Mrs. Lee, his incessantly nagging spouse. The old partner is Mr. Lee’s true companion: his ox. The doc takes us to a remote South Korean village where, using old-fashioned tools to farm their trade, the Lees have managed to raise 9 children. Instead of retiring into the sunset, we see Mr. & Mrs. Lee as they continue to toil on their farm with the aid of the old ox that has been with them for over 30 years. Mr. Lee has refused to use modern pesticides for fear it will harm the ox and even works to feed it natural grass instead of man-made feed. He is determined to see him die so that he can bury the animal himself. Mr. Lee has taken such a liking to his 40 year-old “pet” (they usually don’t last past age 15) that he refuses to sell the animal to the utter dismay of Mrs. Lee who is constantly bemoaning her fate as a workhorse at this elderly age. In fact, it is her incessant rant over and over that makes the 77 minutes seem a lot longer. You figure out quickly why Mr. Lee is more taken to the ox than to his human partner. However, the doc does take you to a place on earth and a way of life that one would probably never encounter (and for that reason, “Old Partner” gains a half star in my overall rating) while operating at a pace that moves as slowly as that ox-if not slower.

I follow the weakest film I screened this week with one of the strongest. Director Peter Esmonde’s fascinating portrait of a sonic inventor and artist extraordinaire: “Trimpin: The Sound of Invention” (****-77 minutes). Trimpin (he doesn’t go by any other name), born in 1951, grew up in Germany’s Black Forest where he was exposed to sounds of his region’s cuckoo clocks and coin-operated musical instruments found in numerous establishments around town. His interest in playing brass instruments as a youth was sabotaged by an allergy condition, but his creative expression was boosted when he immersed himself in “The Harpers Electricity Book for Boys” which introduced him to analog electronics that taught him how to create electronic gadgets from scratch. He has now become a renowned 21st century artist with his installations appearing in museums around the world. And what are these installations? Why, some of the most magical and fun sound works comprising everyday objects-a lot of which were retrieved from junk yards. Trimpin the man is almost as intriguing as his creations. Here is a guy who refuses to have a cell phone, website, or manager, and he's shunned gallery representation while abhorring recorded music and loud speakers! His sounds of preference are all acoustical. And the visuals are as stimulating as the varied sounds he produces. Take the electric guitar installation in Seattle's (his home base) Experience Music Project, a 60-foot tower sculpture of automated self-playing guitars; or a machine that uses tiny hammers to beat inside wooden clogs-which he set up and displayed in The Silver's lobby during the festival (see photos below). Everything he creates starts with an idea and then he goes for it, not knowing if it will work in the end-which for the most part always does. After the requisite background on this multimedia artist, the remainder of the film focused on his experimental project involving the talented string group Kronos Quartet (who did the score for "Requiem for a Dream"). Known for their experimental interpretations of all musical styles from classical to rock (their take on Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" is a perfect example of their talent and reach), it seems the corroboration with Trimpin would be a perfect marriage. We see bits and pieces of their ever changing practice sessions which, in no way, prepare you for the actual performance. In fact, no one could predict the success or failure of the performance, part of which involves the use of toy instruments! The build-up is suspenseful and the actual concert is, well, as successful as the artist of the title. By the end, you will have a smile on your face that you'll swear you could hear. At the Q & A, Peter mentioned that the film will be reshown in the Washington Area at The National Gallery of Art as it makes its way on the festival circuit. A fabulous expose on an amazing artistic genius of our time.

SILVERDOCS is also known for its free outdoor screenings held in the Silver Plaza around the corner from the theater and part of the outstanding retail complex created in downtown Silver Spring. This year's entry was the outstanding 1989 Academy Award winning film about the Apollo program and its astronauts, "For All Mankind", which was presented outside last Friday. Tonight, they showed it inside and followed it with an amazing panel discussion moderated by Washington Post columnist, Joel Achenbach which included the command module pilot of the last Apollo mission (Apollo 16), Ken Mattingly, as well as two Shuttle pilots, Tom Jones and Frank Culbertson. Add in director Al Reinert and you had a session-to-be-remembered by the audience lucky enough to be there. Among the interesting information imparted, Ken mentioned that for all the technology it took to get to the moon, there was more computer power is his watch than on the Apollo and that everyone involved took incredible risks to pull it off. In referring to what he saw outside the command module as it circled the moon, he said that despite the incredible look of the film, nothing could compare or capture what it really looked like. When Joel asked Al to talk about the music in the film, the director said he was surprised to find out that most of the astronauts in the Apollo program brought their own music on cassettes and that portions of the film utilized the actual music they chose to accompany them on their journey. The most compelling part of the discussion was when Frank described what happen on 9/11. He was on the ISS about a month into the mission when he was told by mission control that "they weren't having a very good day down here on earth". As they approached and traveled over Maine that could see smoke 400 miles south over Manhattan. He then mentioned seeing a billowing black column of smoke and realized that it was the collapse of the 2nd tower. On the 2nd pass, which took about 90 minutes, they were closer to D.C. and could see emergency vehicles and a hole in the Pentagon. What was amazing to him was that he happened to be reading Tom Clancy's "The Sum of All Fears" on board at the time and was quite struck by the irony of it all. As for whether or not they should be trying to send man to Mars, Tom stated it was certainly doable in about 25 years because the NASA budget this year is about 18.7 billion dollars-which is only one fortieth of this year's stimulus bill. With small yearly increases in the budget, it could be quite feasible to accomplish this feat down the road.

What better way to wrap up a week’s worth of wonderful documentaries then with “Best Worst Movie” (*** ½-93 minutes). And what best worst movie is the title referring to? A wonderful piece of incredibly awful filmmaking from 1992 entitled “Troll 2” (which the festival actually screened as a double bill earlier in the week with some of the original cast members present for the Q& A). From the writing to the production to the acting to the . . . well, you name it, it’s awful. What makes this documentary worth seeing is the focus it puts, not so much on the film, but what it has become: a cult phenomenon that is starting to rival the cult status reserved for such “masterpieces” as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Pink Flamingos”. Most people would probably think that most sequels suck. So what’s new? As it turns out, “Troll 2” has nothing at all to do with the original forgettable 1986 “Troll” starring Michael Moriarty. This one is about a family who happens upon vegetarian goblins in the town of Nilbog (hey folks: that’s GOBLIN spelled backwards) who turn humans into edible vegetables. And there’s that witch who uses an ear of corn to seduce her prey. What’s even more amusing is that there isn’t even a troll in sight in “Troll 2”! That should set everyone up for a film that has been labeled the “Citizen Kane” of bad movies and has been voted the worst movie ever made by IMDB users. Seventeen years later, we see that this extremely low budgeted film with no name actors from Utah (one serious actress has refused to include T2 in her resume or participate in the documentary) has gained such notoriety that there are now parties and sold-out screenings in major markets around the country. BWM rookie director Michael Paul Stephenson played the family’s 10-year-old son in T2 and his documentary examines the film’s growing popularity as well as his quest to locate the original leads. George Hardy, who plays the father of the family, has thankfully given up his desire to make it in Hollywood to get a day job that pays: he’s now a dentist in Alabama, who is tickled pink that he’s becoming famous-although not in the way he originally intended. A totally charming dude (one of his fans is his ex-wife!), the good doctor is now traveling around the country to screenings where fans treat him like a rock star. And then you meet the incredibly naïve Italian director, Claudio Fragrasso, and his wife (who wrote the T2 screenplay), who actually believes its new found popularity is due to the fact that people are finally recognizing its true artistic brilliance. We see Claudio attending a screening infuriated that the audience is laughing when it shouldn’t and not laughing when they should. He clearly just doesn’t get it. And we get to meet several of the cast members, including a now homeless dude who confesses, not surprisingly, that he was stoned during the entire production. The film loses some of its steam about ¾’s of the way through, but overall, this is a compelling look at how an obscure terribly made film can somehow find an appreciative audience-for all the wrong reasons; or maybe for all the right ones-depending on your perspective. Hollywood has yet to figure out the sure-fire formula for success. Sometimes top stars and top money equal disaster (can you say “Ishtar”?). And sometimes a disaster can become a cult hit. This film documents that process and it is quite a hoot to behold!

Final Thoughts

For me, this was clearly one of the strongest SILVERDOCS yet and for those of you who scoff when the word "documentary" is mentioned, take my word that you are missing out on one of the best genres the cinema has to offer! Anyone who reads my takes below on the 21 feature films and 16 shorts I screened and reviewed in this BLOG, not to mention the yearly Guggenheim Symposium that honors a leading documentary filmmaker complete with retrospectives, conferences, special events, and a free outdoor screening, has got to conclude that what this leading festival offers year and year is truly remarkable and totally entertaining and thought provoking. Consider the fact I traveled the world in 8 days visiting such locales as Russia, New York, France, California, England, Florida, Massachusetts, Poland, Cuba, Australia, Mongolia, Oklahoma (o.k., it was at a prison), Louisiana, Japan, D.C., Brazil, New Orleans, Zimbabwe, Denmark, Korea, and even outer space: without ever leaving my seat! And I explored a vast array of human interest topics including prize fighting, family dysfunction and diversity, corporate history, Russian psychiatry, the arts, Hollywood legends, fashion industry, prison rodeos, autism, Hurricane Katrina, Japanese murderous assault on dolphins, D.C. politics, figure skating, drug wars in Rio, plastic surgery, human rights in Zimbabwe, quiet living in the hills of South Korean-just to name a few. And each are covered with story telling and professionalism that are equal to the best mainstream narratives that Hollywood has to offer. Not to mention the fascinating Q & A's with the filmmakers and, in some instances, the subjects of the documentaries. Mucho kudos to Skye Sitney who did a phenomenal job in her first year as Artistic Director (after 3 years as Programming Director) and her staff for screening and bringing such outstanding docs to Silver Spring for the past 8 days. Where else can you be in the presence of filmmaking legends, astronauts, columnists, & even a world class professional athlete all in one location? So if this sounds appealing to you in any way, be certain to circle the 2nd week of June on next year's calendar and regularly visit http://www.siverdocs.com/ to get the latest news and info on what has become one of the leading documentary film festivals on the planet!

Michael Campbell, the white African in "Mugabe and the White African"

Jorgis, subject of the winning short "12 Notes Down"

Mr. Lee and his "Old Partner"

Peter Esmonde, director of "Trimpin: The Sound of Invention"

Trimpin working on his musical clog installation in his lab

Trimpin's installation in the AFI Silver lobby

"For All Mankind" after film panel discussion (from l to r): director Al Reinert, shuttle astronauts Tom Jones & Frank Culbertson, Apollo 16 command modulepilot Ken Mattingly, and panel moderator Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach