Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore's latest offering is an indictment of the death of the American middle class thanks to an increasingly greedy upper class.
He continues to mostly preach to the choir, not entirely by fault of his own. His fans are fervent. His critics even more so.
Sadly, the points of this movie that are not speaking with a liberal bias are read as that by anyone who doesn't actually see the world from Moore's point of view.
Many of the people who trash Moore's politics haven't actually watched his movies, and they are certainly missing out.
Capitalism: A Love Story is following a long tradition of well made documentary films from a champion of the working class. Moore's own liberal slant comes through often in this film, but also questions the democrats who are now at the reins. The politics are secondary in this film though. The heart of his story is told showing the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.
His message is less about the right or the left causing or solving the problems and more about the problem itself. He even points out that politicians did less to cause the problem than they did to ignore the problem and just allow it to happen with the deregulation and looking the other way while the American public was robbed blind.
Drawing a direct line from the golden days of the 40s and 50s to the recession we see now, the main difference shown by Moore is a disastrous imbalance of power. The system worked with the principles of capitalism walking hand-in-hand with the principles of democracy. Once unfettered greed was allowed to run rampant on our financial systems, democracy took a back seat to the politics of the almighty dollar.
He goes as far as arguing that capitalism is a sin that is synonymous with that same unfettered greed. This point seems to be what is resonating with all of the usual Moore detractors.
Nowhere in the movie does Moore actually call for a socialist take over in America, but this is exactly what the anti-Moore folks seem to think he is saying.
He touts the ideals of democracy and illustrates how the people have no power in a country where the banks and CEOs have more influence in the government than the voters do.
Moore makes a lot of valid points and touches on some rather emotional territory to balance the goofy antics like putting up crime scene tape around the stock exchange and some humorous archival footage.
The overall movie is a good balance of humor and gloom. Moore clearly has a point to make, but that is typical for him and for most documentary filmmakers.
Capitalism: A Love Story gets a B+.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

How do you make a children's book of a few hundred words and a couple dozen drawings into a feature length movie?
You add your own wild interpretation to the source material and turn a children's book into a movie no one should take their child to.
In spite of robbing the youth of another potential kids' classic, Spike Jonze has created a visually compelling film that is clearly aimed at the grown kids who read the book when they were young, and not at kids who have recently enjoyed the book.
Where The Wild Things Are is probably the best looking film of the year. Art direction, special effects, cinematography, costumes and every other visual aspect of the movie are nearly perfect. Jonze and company have created a look to the film that somehow both captures the aesthetic appeal of the book and expands it to a much larger and darker adventure.
This interpretation is much more grown-up and desolate than I was expecting going in to the theater, but that is apparently what Jonze was aiming for. He hit his mark.
Following Max (Max Records) through his family troubles and his inability to fit in, the story adds more background to why Max needs to create this world of his imagination. Max's world seems to become filled with joy as he enters and becomes the king of the land, but soon crumbles around him as the menagerie of dysfunction unfolds before him and the friends he has made are revealed to be neurotic and insecure, just like the people in Max's real world and Max himself.
The beauty on the screen can still not make up for the lack of interesting story. There are a lot of slow points and an inconsistent pace to the movie overall. There is little in the story that is even near as compelling as the visuals on the screen.
In spite of his age, Records delivers on the lead performance like a seasoned actor and shows the complexity of childhood through the surreal lens of a Spike Jonze film.
The supporting cast, mostly voice work, all complement this with solid ensemble performances that you would expect from names like James Gandolfini, Forrest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose. The real stand out supporting role is Katherine Keener as Max's real-world mother. She balances a compassion for Max's eccentricities and quirks with a clear inability to truly know how to deal with the same.
Where The Wild Things Are is enjoyable to watch, even while it holds more melancholy than anyone could imagine in the original book, just getting lost in the dreams of a child that still lives in the back of Jonze's mind is well worth the price of admission.
I'm giving it a B+.

Monday, October 12, 2009


There are a certain type of movie that you don't expect a lot from except that you will have a good time.
Zombieland is certainly that type of movie, and it delivers just that.
From the opening credits, there are crazy images of zombie attacks and victims frightened and running. These are so over-the-top and outlandish that they work from the first one because of how completely goofy it is.
With a clear intent to spoof the horror genre, the film honestly fits the amusement park imagery used in most of the publicity materials. Especially the finale in an amusement park where the quartet of heroes try to lay waste to scores of the undead.
The story follows four unlikely survivors of some type of disease that turns them to the zombies you've seen in so many horror movies. I actually liked that they didn't spend much time trying to explain what caused the zombies because that takes so much time in other zombie movies.
There is a familiar feel to the more serious parts of this movie (yes they are there, even if they are few) if you've ever read The Walking Dead comic books. That is about as big a compliment that could be given to any zombie movie since that series is one of the best zombie tales ever woven.
The lead characters are known to each other only by the cities they each claim to be heading for and are all played well by an oddly eclectic group of Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin.
Let's be honest here, who doesn't love the idea of the little girl from Little Miss Sunshine demolishing undead monsters? It was lots of fun.
All of the lead actors made the film though because of the chemistry that developed through the movie. Stone and Breslin are sisters trying to make their way to a location rumored to be untouched by the infestation. They are using any type of chicanery that will work in order to get there.
Eisenberg and Harrelson are an unlikely pair of neurotic mess and crazy tough guy, respectively, that would make it in to any buddy-cop movie that you watched in the 80s.
These two duos meet up along the way and the good times roll. Eventually.
The story is pretty predictable, but that's what should be expected from a zombie comedy. It delivers on the brutality and clearly doesn't take itself to seriously, so it is a fun time for the entire duration.
I'll give Zombieland a B+.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Whip It

Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is good.
I can honestly tell you that I didn't expect to be saying that at all before I saw Whip It.
A coming-of-age tale within a movie about an extreme sport set in Podunk, Texas, directed by an actor who hasn't ever directed before.
It doesn't seem like a winning proposition, but it makes it through with a defiant grace befitting its subject, women's roller derby.
Revolving around Ellen Page as a 17-year-old kid from a tiny town outside of Austin, this story takes a look at a roller derby league in Austin and does a nice job of explaining the sport and showing some of the allure it holds.
While it has the familiar trappings of a first-time director, Barrymore is clearly an adept storyteller. She hits some of the typical melodramatic tones that you would associate with a newcomer, but overall avoids letting the whole movie fall to cliche.
That seems to be hard for many directors to do with sports-themed movies in general, so it is impressive to see Whip It teeter on the brink and come back successfully.
Bliss Cavander (Ellen Page) is a high school student who becomes enamored with the roller derby vixens that she meets and decides to get involved when one of the women suggests that she come to try-outs.
Not surprisingly to the audience, but much to Bliss's own shock, she's pretty good at it. Fast and agile, but inexperienced, she earns herself a spot on the worst team in the league.
She also meets a cute boy who sings in a band at one of the derby after-parties.
There is the obvious spark between them and it barrels down that road toward cliche.
While there is a visually pleasant love scene underwater (which is one of the most well shot sequences in the film), the love story part of the movie makes Bliss seem weak and childish while the rest of the fiery independence and the roller derby make her seem tough and spunky, and a complete person.
Without divulging too much of the plot, I was happy to see Bliss come out strong in the end.
There is a lot of good acting throughout, and some mediocre acting mixed in, but Page and SNL's Kristen Wiig (yeah, I was shocked that she was a good actress, too) are definitely the best performances. Alia Shawkat and Daniel Stern needed some more screen time because both of them did well, but their characters seemed kind of flat.
I hope to see more from Barrymore as a director because she gave an impressive first effort that was enjoyable from beginning to end.
Whip It gets a B+

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh's latest is a true-story based film starring Matt Damon as a corporate big-shot who teams with the FBI to expose corruption in an agricultural giant, ADM.
It's an enjoyable ride as Mark Whitacre (Damon) starts to "accidentally" spill the secrets of some shady activity within the food production industry to FBI agents.
The story is set in the early 90s but looks like the 70s for some reason. Initially, I just thought that was because the Midwest is kind of behind the times, but it seems to be just a strange stylistic choice by Soderbergh.
Damon's performance is solid as a scientist who seems to lack common sense and gets in over his head with the FBI when they come to his work to investigate an extortion attempt that Whitacre reported to his bosses. I don't want to say too much more about the plot, so as not to spoil it for anyone.
Joel McHale's intense portrayal as 7 minutes of an FBI agent make it worth the admission price. Okay, maybe that's just my man-crush providing a bias.
The fatal flaw in The Informant! is that there is no real value in the tale that is told.
It is a tale told well with good actors and moderately pleasing visuals, but the story of Mark Whitacre isn't that interesting.
There is little drama inherent in white-collar criminals pushing up the cost of corn syrup by manipulating the market from behind the scenes. Argi-business is just not that interesting.
Many scenes of Whitacre's inept spying provide a bit of amusement and the story is good enough to hold the audience's interest for nearly two hours. But what is lacking is a reason to really give a crap about any of it.
The Informant! gets a C+.

The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais heads up an all-star cameo-fest in The Invention of Lying.
He co-wrote and co-directed this one with Matthew Robinson and is the lead actor in a tale about a parallel world where no one has ever told a lie. Not even an exaggeration of the truth.
Gervais' Mark Bellison decides to just make something up that isn't true.
The concept is golden and offers many moments that are quite funny. The unfortunate part is that the idea of brutal honestly isn't as funny in this as it could be. They make it kind of cartoony and childish at points, so that it makes less raw humor and more just mild amusement. What could be hilarious ends up getting a few chuckles scattered around.
As with much or Gervais' work, there are points where it drags to an almost intolerable pace and picks back up again. This is annoying, but doesn't kill the whole movie.
Some of the jokes get beaten over and over again, which is also annoying, but again doesn't kill the movie. We get it, Gervais and Robinson think religion is a lie, so they make that the butt of all of the jokes for the second half of the movie. We get it, the girl thinks Mark is fat and ugly.
What kills the movie is that they take a good, original concept and stretch it out over cliched storyline where a boy likes a girl that is too good for him and ends up winning her over in the end. The ugly duckling story all over again, don't judge a book blahblahblah...
It feels like the audience gets robbed of what could have been a much funnier movie if it didn't take it self so seriously.
The curse of Ricky Gervais.
I'm giving The Invention of Lying a C.