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"The Joneses" ** 1/2 (96 minutes)


Tuesday April 13, 2010

I'm a huge fan of TV & movie satires. When done right, this form of entertainment can be quite satisfying on a number of levels. For me, the best satirical films that come immediately to mind are 1976's "Network" (satire on the television industry), 1984's "This is Spinal Tap" (satire on the music industry), Mel Brook's 1968 "The Producers" (satire about Broadway conventions), & Kubrick's 1965 brilliant "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (satire on the global nuclear war threat).'

First time director/co-screenwriter Derrick Borte (who, not surprisingly, has an advertising background) tries to hit a home run but it turns into a long fly out at the fence with this satire based on consumerism. The premise is based on the catchphrase "keeping up with the Joneses" and, although it begins with great promise, the film unfortunately fizzles out in the last reel or two, when Borte tries to abruptly change direction, loses his way, & turns the plot into a maudlin conventional mess.

David Duchovny (last seen in the 2008 theatrical version of his hit TV series, the "X-files: I Want to Believe") does a more than adequate turn as Steve Jones, the head of an attractive, yet fictional family unit who arrive & set-up shop in an affluent community. He, "wife" Kate (Demi Moore, who gives her best performance in years), along with their teenage "daughter" (Amber Heard) & "son" (Ben Hollingsworth) are all actually working for some unnamed marketing firm (nice to see Lauren Hutton as their employer's go-between contact). The idea is to send these bogus attractive families into communities to try and convince everyone they meet (be it neighbors, golf buds, schoolmates, etc.), using just their attractiveness, popularity, & friendly nature, to buy anything and everything the bogus family uses.

Borte plays beautifully on this concept until the story takes a darker turn involving their next door neighbors Larry & Summer (played by the steady Gary Cole & Glenne Headly). And, of course, you can't have attractive folks living in the same space without personal/sexual motives & tensions getting in the way of the professional plan.

I was very close to giving this a 3 star salute but, because the film maker failed to stick with his conviction to make a definitive commentary on why we buy the things we do, my rating is what it is. However, if I could give a 2 3/4 review this one would probably get it.

A near-miss.

The Joneses (l to r: actors Ben Hollingsworth, Amber Heard,
Demi Moore & David Duchovny)

Steve Jones (l) with his golfing bud & neighbor
Larry (Gary Cole) & friend

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" **** (154 minutes)


Sunday March 28, 2010

Time for another Sunday morning offering at Cinema Sundays for this film, based on the international bestselling novel by the late Stieg Larsson, that has been generating some terrific buzz, as well as terrific reviews surrounding its platform release date of March 19th.

Larsson, who died of a massive heart attack in 2004 at age 50, was a Swedish journalist and writer who had completed 3 manuscripts and part of another before his untimely death. They were part of the Millennium Trilogy of crime novels (he actually completed the synopsis for a 4th & 5th, with a planned total of 10). He never had them published before his death-writing basically for his own pleasure. When the first 3 were posthumously published, they became instant hits. The first was "Men who hate Women"-renamed "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" when it was published in English. Each novel has Lisbeth Salander & Mikael Blomkvist as its primary characters.

When the film opens, we see an elderly man meticulously opening a package. When he sees that it is a pressed flower in a frame, he begins to weep. The scene shifts to the case of investigative journalist Blomkvist (played with perfect conviction & believability by Michael Nyqvist) who has just been found guilty of libel and is preparing to serve a jail sentence 6 months hence. Fully prepared to accept his fate without appeal, he is asked to meet with wealthy tycoon, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube, "The Eagle Has Landed").

It seems Henrik, who lives in a gloomy mansion on a remote island, has been forlorn ever since 1966 when his favorite niece, Harriet, disappeared at the age of 16 on the day the only bridge off the island was temporarily closed. The suspects? Only all 30 of the Vanger clan-some of which are Nazi sympathizers! It seems that Mikael used to be babysat by Harriet. Henrik feels that Mikael was, therefore, the perfect person to uncover the mystery once and for all-at least before he scoots off to jail.

After he sets up shop in the mansion, his computer investigative activity related to trying to solve the decades old cold case is intercepted by the intense Lisbeth, a sexy Goth hacker (Noomi Rapace in a truly electrifying unforgettable performance). She's a private investigator, on probation for an unknown crime, who had been previously hired to investigate Blomkvist during his libel trial. Unable to unearth anything tangible on him, she becomes curious when she stumbles onto his computer activity while he's trying to solve the disappearance/murder.

We learn that she is a master investigator herself and when she sends him a clue while stealthily analyzing his data, he contacts her and soon she becomes his assistant.

There are a couple of separate subplots that are necessarily laid out that beautifully explains who these characters are and add to the wonderful tapestry, as well as some graphic sequences that are not exploitive and are absolutely essential to the story. If you love a great thriller/mystery (think Agatha Cristie for the computer age) with rich characters and enough action to keep you intrigued throughout-if you relish trying to solve a puzzle-then this is the film for you!

And speaking of computers, I loved the way they're used to investigate the mystery. Director Niels Arden Oplev uses the Internet, web cams, photo-editing, scanners-you name it, to such believability, that you never doubt the authenticity of the action. (I loved the way the director uses photographs to a chilling effect throughout.) Everything from the stark cinematography, to the exquisite soundtrack by Jacob Groth, works to produce one heck of a memorable 2 1/2 hours. And don't let that running time stop you in the least. This film never stops moving from the first opening scene to the last satisfying conclusion.

When host/moderator Jonathan Pelevsky, standing in front of the near capacity audience, asked how many had read the book, over half read their hands. Judging from the Q&A that followed, and talking with several people afterward, those who read the book agreed that the film was as good or better than the novel. High praise considering that such transformations to the screen are not usually successful-especially when translating an over 800 page novel!

An American 2011 remake (groan!!!) is in the works. After seeing US film makers hack other remakes in the past, I strongly urge you to make every effort possible to see this version, especially considering it won 3 2009 Golden Beetles (Swedish Oscars) for Best Picture, Leading Actress (Rapace), as well as the Audience Award!

Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace)

Lisbeth & Mikael (Michael Nyqvist) investigate a break-in at their cottage

"Up" **** (96 minutes)

Saturday March 20, 2010

When I saw a chance to see the phenomenal character-driven PIXAR film with director/co-writer Pete Docter doing the Q&A, I couldn't pass it up. Docter's credentials are impressive, to say the least: he's credited with the story for the original "Toy Story" & 2008's "Wall-E" as well as directing last year's "Monsters, Inc". So down I-95 to D.C. I traveled to attend a special one-time only presentation of The Academy's 2009 Animation winner (and one of the richly deserved 10 Best Picture nominees), showing as part of this year's D.C. Environmental Film Festival at the National Geographic Museum.

Following a brief intro it was time to settle in to view the latest PIXAR masterwork that just happened to open last year's Cannes Film Festival-the first ever animated film to be so honored.

By now, most film goers have seen the beautifully rendered animation that explains how it is never too late to pursue a dream. The trailers never hint at the wonderful arc the story line takes (I had repeated bouts of laughter & tears alternating throughout-not usually expected when viewing an animated film). And based on those trailers, you would think that this was merely a story about an old geezer who floats away in his house with an unexpected visitor at his door after the house is airborne. There is so much more to the narrative that Docter, and his co-writer Bob Peterson, have created that, if you haven't seen it I won't spoil it for you here-best to be surprised.

We are first introduced to Carl (the crotchety old man in the house) as a pre-teen in a movie theater in the 30's watching one of those newsreels shorts (and you older readers will know exactly what I'm referring to) that shows the latest international human interest story to the audience. This one concentrates on the exploits of the world famous explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer) who has unearthed a newly discovered creature in South America. Carl idolizes Muntz and yearns to be an adventurer in his footsteps when he grows up.

We then see him meet the effervescent Ellie and together they form a pack to explore the world together. Early on we witness their love affair from youngsters to adults and there is a stretch which summarizes their life together that is one of the most magical excerpts I have ever witnessed-be it live or animated (more on this later). Although Ellie is actually on screen for a fraction of its length (she's not even hinted at in the trailers) she is a main focus of the story. Her presence is always felt and helps to drive the remarkable tale forward.

After Ellie passes, their dream of exploration a forgotten memory (after all, saving for their life-long adventure isn't easy with bills and unexpected events keeping the dream from being realized), Carl (wonderfully voiced by Ed Asner, whose visage resembles Carl) becomes grumpy & forlorn with only pictures of Ellie gracing the walls of their long-time love nest to forever remind him of her presence. When faced with eviction because his house is in the way of the latest urban development, he solves the dilemma with those thousands of balloons and, voila, the dream comes alive.

Where he lands and what he founds there is what this tale is all about and by the end, you learn, along with our hero, that life and dreams can indeed intertwine, we should always be open to new lessons, and that one is never too old to change. A film for young and old that will bring happiness and sadness and make you think more than once about what it means to be alive. You'll realize that life is a journey full of surprises that you don't necessarily need a house lifted by balloons to experience. This is a true work of art on so many levels.

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What followed the screening was one of the most remarkably entertaining Q&A's I've ever witnessed. The 40 minutes began with Pete, who has been working at PIXAR for over 20 years, displaying a wonderful slide show to show how the project came together. He said the characters came to look like actual people (it was no accident that the young Explorer Scout who shows up on the front porch to join in the adventure appears Asian as his inspiration came from someone in Pete's office). And the South American falls predominate in the film was an actual location: the huge Angel Falls in Mt. Roraima in Venezuela-discovered in 1884 and was the inspiration in Arthur Conan Doyles "The Lost World". Since the film focused on the magnificent falls, it provided the ideas for the design of the film. To that end, the production team ventured to the actual site to scope it out and to make the drawings on the hillside like painters doing landscapes. These drawings translated beautifully to the magnificent color palette seen on the screen.

Revealed during the discussion was that it took 5 years from the time that Pete started scribbling his idea for the story on restaurant napkins to the final product. (This is not atypical for PIXAR, who allow their artists the necessary time for them to work their brilliance. Pete mentioned that "Cars" took 6 years!) And that wonderful silent (except for music) sweet & sentimental sequence that shows Carl & Ellie's life together took a year & a half to complete to, as Pete said, "To get it right". And get it right they've done! The string of scenes, written by Bob Peterson, depicting Carl & Ellie's life together, originally was 20 minutes long covering 20 story reels which included snippets of dialogue. They needed to shorten it so they cut out the dialogue until each scene was carefully orchestrated by either setting something up or paying something off. When complimented on the sequence, he revealed that it was the portion of the film he was most proud of. An absolutely brilliant interlude that I've never witnessed before in an animated film.

Pete also mentioned that his inspiration as an artist and a person was the late Disney legend Joe Grant-who designed the Wicked Queen in Disney's 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", and, at 95 was still drawing (he came up with the name "Monsters, Inc."). He died at age 96 in 2005.

Someone mentioned the brilliant score by Michael Giacchino, who also composed the scores for "Ratatouille" & "The Incredibles". His talent in establishing themes and his ability to fit the music of the times to the visuals is nothing short of amazing.

Other inside looks at the creative process: unlike other animated films, he made a conscious effort not to include a reference to anything (well-except for the dogs playing poker drawing); the later segment involving Muntz was rewritten and reboarded over 50 times; the story is first scripted followed by 6 or 7 artists drawing it out to thousands of storyboards. These storyboards are then put to film with music, dialogue, & sound effects-allowing them to actually edit before it is shot in order to find the right story and characters; what is actually on the screen are not actual drawings but are computer photographs of conventional objects that utilizes a sort of stop-action animation (like Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas"); Peter is the voice of Kevin, the rare bird in the film.

He finally informed us that PIXAR will release Toy Story 3 this summer & a sequel to "Cars" sometime next year.

If you haven't seen this extraordinary work, be certain to put it at the top of your list of must-sees!

Director/co-screenwriter Pete Docter leads the Q&A at
the D.C. Environmental Film Festival screening

Carl & Russell reach their destination
Carl and his house under attack

"Yes Men Fix The World" *** (96 minutes)


Friday March 19, 2010

Michael Moore has made his living successfully exposing various corporate/government/individual misdoings ever since he hit the scene with his 1989 brilliant General Motors expose, "Roger & Me". However, over the years, his film making tactics have been controversial & polarizing-especially from the right side of the political spectrum.

What was needed was a somewhat softer approach to illuminate to the majority of the world's populist the evil greed exhibited by a lot of the same targets Moore had in his sights throughout his career. Enter stage right Mick Bonnano (Jacques Servin) & Andy Bichbaum (Igor Vamos)-university professors in real life but here known as The Yes Men.

Off to the historic Senator Theater where Yes Man Mike was hosting their latest-a follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2004 "The Yes Men". This time around, we watch them unleash their resources and energy on Dow Chemical, Halliburton, Exxon, and the U.S Government's Chamber of Commerce and Department of Housing.

We see them in their "office", which is actually a run-down warehouse equipped with a computer and a couple of chairs, as they set-up a fake Dow Chemical website. In 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant exploded in Bhopal India-killing over 8,000 and injuring many more. Its long lasting effects can be seen in birth defects that are still occurring today in the populace. As the 20th anniversary of the disaster approached, their idea was to represent Dow Chemical (who bought out Union Carbide in 2001) and, in a breath of corporate fresh air, admit to the wrongdoing by "offering" 12 billion dollars of corporate profits to the victims of Bhopal. That's exactly 12 billion more than was previously offered by the now defunct Union Carbide.

That's where the fake web site comes in. When they were asked to be interviewed by The BBC, they were off and running as Andy, posing as a bogus Dow rep, announced to the world that the corporate giant was ready to make good and come clean by compensating the victims in honor of the 20th anniversary. Needless to say, the stock market didn't approve as the company's position on Wall Street promptly dropped like a piano in a lake.

The point was made that maybe this wasn't such a good idea-that it was a cruel hoax on the Indian victims who were given tons of false hope. However, when they visited Bhopal after being exposed, the Yes Men were actually greeted as heroes by the residents because of the resulting world coverage that served to reinforce the corporation's greed as it continues to refuse to right a terrible wrong.

Next on their agenda was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We observe them holding a phony press conference at the National Press Club in D.C. after the agency "declares" they are reversing their decision on global warming. It was fun to see Fox News reporting on it throughout the day (raising the old adage that you can't always believe what is being reported).

Another target was the corporate giant Halliburton. Posing as Halliburton execs, they are present at an insurers' conference where they are introducing their latest invention: the Suvivaball (see the poster above) meant to save the inhabitants in the event of any and all catastrophic events. Hilarious. Surely anyone in the audience would catch on, right? Wrong! We see them approached by several attendees, after their bogus demonstration, seeking their business cards.

Another segment shows them at an energy conference in Calgary, Alberta. Now we see Andy as an Exxon rep as he introduces a new biofuel made of Vivoleum-which is supposedly made from the flesh of deceased humans. To illustrate, they pass out the foul smelling candles made of the new substance to the audience. Part of the stunt is stand-up comedian Reggie Watts playing an Exxon janitor who, in a hilarious video presentation, has decided to end his life and donate his body to the project.

They next travel to the Katrina stricken community of New Orleans as they expose the disgusting goings-on by HUD as they "work" to rebuild the damaged region. We see Andy, posing as HUD rep Rene Oswin, announcing that, instead of tearing down untouched public housing, they would actually rebuild for the purpose of bringing back its displaced citizens-much to the chagrin of the independent contractors (and even a noticeably perplexed Mayor Nagin who was present at the news conference). Again, the question was raised as to whether this was more a cruel hoax on the residents than on the government that was there to protect and help them recover.

A final segment shows them preparing to print and distribute a bogus New York Times that proudly declares on its front page "All the news we hope to print". Its headline in bold print: "Iraq War Ends". We see them and their volunteers handing out for free over 100,000 copies to the populace on the streets of New York-who can only hope the news they're reading is true.

One of the more humorous touches were interviews the film makers interspersed throughout with corporate talking heads who are unknowingly being blue screened with outrageous back-drops. And hovering over all of this is the "evil" Milton Friedman (who they labeled "The Guru of Greed"), the Nobel Prize winner who championed free-market economics (who died in 2006).

How effective all this is in the grand scheme of things is left up to the viewer. For me, it was a hoot just watching their intended targets deal with the absurdities of their own actions. We can only hope and pray that a new kind of revolution can be realized to truly institute global change suggested by the antics of The Yes Men.

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At the Q&A, the first question was the most obvious: how were these guys not sued out the Yin Yang or even thrown in jail for their shenanigans. Mike calmly stated that none of what they did was actually illegal-especially compared to what these corporations were doing which , in most instances, were so much more morally criminal. When asked about an update on the end result of the New Orleans Lafitte Housing Project, Mike revealed that HUD moved the residents back in for 3 months, only to move them out and tear it down. Unbelievable. Mike announced that, after many screenings at festivals around the country including its premier at Sundance, this was his last public appearance promoting the film.

Concluding the Q&A, an auction was held to benefit the Maryland Chapter of the Physicians for a National Health Care Program, an organization of over 15,000 physicians, medical students and health professionals who support single-payer national health insurance. Representing the group was Margaret Flowers M.D who was present to explain their national "improved Medicare for all" campaign and the Maryland state single payer bill. To raise money a couple of "Reggie Candles" were auctioned off by Mike (he said they were the last of the lot) and several copies of their New York Times special edition were made available for purchase.

The film is now available on DVD.

Yes Man Mike Bonnano


Producer Jennifer Lopez, Margaret Flowers M.D, & dir. Mike Bonnano