Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best Documentaries of 2010

(photos of Joan Rivers, top, and Banksy)
By Steven Rosen

Cincinnati CityBeat, 12-29-2010

The golden age of documentaries continued in 2010, with filmmakers tackling all sorts of subjects with stylistically innovative approaches. But you had to work hard to keep up with them. Our local independent theaters didn’t book everything. Some played first-run on cable-television’s video-on-demand platform; others on HBO. And thank goodness for our great Public Library system, which seems to buy every documentary available as soon as it’s released on DVD. Here are my 10 favorite docs:

1. Inside Job: Charles Ferguson’s masterful look at the unchecked greed that caused our economy to almost collapse in 2008, and at the close ties between those charged with monitoring Wall Street excess and those getting rich from it. It unfolds like a great thriller, filling you with outrage while at the same time making a complex subject accessible.

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop: Count me among those who believe this Banksy-“directed” look at the world of street art and its cooptation by consumer culture isn’t really a straightforward documentary. But if the movie itself is a prank, it’s a deeply layered, clever one that makes you love it — and art itself — all the more.

3. A Film Unfinished: This disturbing, mournful meditation by Yael Hersonski on the meaning of 60 minutes of forgotten raw footage that the Nazis shot in the Warsaw Ghetto is an important addition to Holocaust studies. It shows the cavalier, inhuman way the Germans tried to exploit as Jewish-caused the horrors of ghetto life — starvation, corpses in the streets, improper sanitation — that their own genocidal policies caused.

4. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child: Director Tamra Davis had interviewed the doomed young artist in the 1980s, right as he was becoming an art star, and uses that footage as a starting point to build this perceptive study of his life. Among her important points is that he wasn’t a naf — he was well-informed on art and culture and smart about his intentions.

5. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: Directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern treat Rivers with respect, not as the desperate, aging celebrity that pop culture likes to present her as. She rewards them by revealing the tough, sensitive, shrewd, outraged and outrageous comedian-philosopher that she has always been.

6. Casino Jack and the United States of Money: Alex Gibney intricately lays out the way Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, working with the Republican House Majority leader Tom DeLay and others (including former Ohio Rep. Bob Ney) put the interests of the country (and, in some cases, Abramoff’s own clients) second to their own financial interests. It’s a strong, penetrating indictment of Republican politics in the George W. Bush era.

7. Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?: In the year’s best music documentary, director John Scheinfeld reminds Boomers (and educates younger viewers) about how gifted a singer-songwriter the late Nilsson was. While he doesn’t shy away from depicting the artist’s self-destructive, substance-abusing side, he also shows that Nilsson never stopped trying to be a productive, caring human being.

8. The Tillman Story: With the cooperation of Pat Tillman’s family, director Amir Bar-Lev methodically unravels the government cover-up about how the football-player-turned Army Ranger was killed in Afghanistan, and the attempt to turn the atheist, intellectual athletic star into a clichéd stereotype of a God-fearing, unquestioning soldier. After the movie, I felt I knew him much better.

9. Gasland: Thanks to HBO for presenting this provocative, artfully made film by Josh Fox about the environmental dangers of a form of natural-gas drilling called “fracking” and the role Vice President Dick Cheney played in making it easier to do. It’s a useful, unexpected addition to the debate on energy policies.

10. The Art of the Steal: Don Argott’s look at the history of Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection of priceless Impressionist art portrays the imperious Dr. Albert Barnes as a rebel against Philadelphia blue-blood society who fought to keep his art out of their greedy hands. I don’t completely buy it — Barnes seems to have confused the collecting art with the making of it in terms of importance — but this is a lively, opinionated slice of American art-collecting and museum history.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010 Was an Epic Year for Crime Dramas


It was an epic year for crime dramas

Cincinnati CityBeat, 12-22-10
. . . . . . .

Any short list of Best American Movies would include Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films from the early 1970s, maybe as a single entry. Using the world of crime for its potential to offer great drama and action through interlocking narrative, they also serve well as knife-sharp metaphor for the political and economic rot underneath the nave American Dream — they are deserved masterpieces. Epics, even.

So maybe it’s not surprising, then, that Hollywood rarely if ever tries to equal that achievement, anymore. Coppola certainly failed with 1990’s Godfather, Part III. The kind of complexity and real-world relevancy is just too hard — and maybe too, well, challenging for today’s American movie audiences.

And yet 2010 was a year filled with attempts to make “crime epics” worthy of the first two Godfathers’ ambitions and acting levels, if not always with the same kind of resources available to realize the vision of Coppola’s classics. But they’ve moved beyond the American dream — these new attempts often come from abroad and play the art-house circuit. And, increasingly, they’re being made for television. Two great American examples — Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire — are on cable channels. The British Red Riding trilogy, while released to theaters and video-on-demand in the U.S., started life as a television project.

French director Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is the fact-based story of the Venezuela-born terrorist/revolutionary Ilich Ramirez Sanchez who committed violent acts on behalf of radical groups the world over, including the brazen 1975 kidnapping of OPEC ministers at a meeting in Vienna. It already has played in the U.S. as a Sundance Channel miniseries. A shortened version that still packs a wallop is now available on video-on-demand and in some theaters, and gives Edgar Ramirez a showcase for acting.

Jacques Mesrine was a notorious, egotistical French criminal who had delusions that his crimes — bank robberies, kidnapping, prison escapes — in some way constituted revolutionary acts. Before French authorities finally ambushed and killed him in 1979, he seemed invincible. In the four-hour biopic Mesrine (divided into two separate films, which played here briefly) directed by Jean-Francois Richet (and based on the criminal’s own autobiography), Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) as Mesrine shows swagger, passion and the sexiness, but also cold-hearted cruelty and volatility.

Ajami, an Israeli film that played here briefly, locks together separate stories about Arab and Jewish residents of Tel Aviv/Jaffa, showing its characters’ interconnectedness. It starts with a drive-by shooting in a gritty Arab neighborhood called Ajami, a payback for another shooting, and from there builds as the various parties become ensnared in both the problems of a criminal underworld and the society at-large.

Set in Melbourne, David Michod’s Animal Kingdom — an almost-hit on the art-house circuit — features a family of low-life criminals ruled by a deceptively cheery matriarch played memorable by Jacki Weaver. Living in a suburban-style home, at war with a corrupt police force but by no means an honorable alternative, they are deromanticized and made ordinary by this film. Their world seems like ours, which makes them all the more relevant. And horrifying.

The British Red Riding trilogy, an adaptation of novels by David Peace, made it to American video-on-demand as well as a few art houses (not here) this year and is now on DVD. Consisting of three separate but interrelated movies by three directors, it’s set in the era of the real-life Yorkshire Ripper serial killer — 1970s to early 1980s. But the trilogy is far more concerned with a corrupt, murderous police force that sees the Ripper as a nuisance at most. The trilogy boils over with the atmospheric rot and bleakness of a crumbling urban society.

Ever since The Sopranos, there’s been recognition that American cable-TV series about gangsters can, given the time to burrow deep into their settings and develop their characters, provide profound commentary on the American experience.

So far, one great post-Sopranos crime series has emerged — AMC’s Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, which finished its third season this year. But rather than occurring in a Mafia-laden New Jersey, it takes place in the bright, sunny Southwest, the land of growth and promise. An Albuquerque chemistry teacher stricken with lung cancer and distraught over medical bills, resorts to making the best meth possible to support his family. Bryan Cranston has won three Emmys as that teacher, Walter White, and the series has followed as he slowly travels ever deeper into a world of evil he struggles to stay above. It’s a slow, transfixing Dostoyevskian journey.

Boardwalk Empire, an HBO series that just completed its first season, is set in the wide-open Atlantic City of the Prohibition Era and is modeled on the life of a historical figure, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who got rich making sure booze stayed plentiful in that resort town. As played by Steve Buscemi with estimable range and subtlety, the somewhat-fictionalized “Nucky” is the city’s treasurer and undisputed political boss.

Created by Sopranos writer Terence Winter, Boardwalk’s ambition is to place crime (and greed) front and center as a shaping force of the 20th-century American character, and to show how politics, urban development, personal relationships, entertainment — wealth — depend on it. With a sizeable production budget and a Ragtime-like sensibility for mixing real-life figures (Warren Harding, Sophie Tucker, Al Capone, the Chicago Black Sox) with literary creations, it aims to be a genuine crime epic.

So while we wait for more mainstream American movies to pick up the Godfathers’ mantle and carry it, just look elsewhere. You’ll see it’s been a good year for these kinds of filmed stories. They’re just not often at the multiplex.
(Film still from Carlos)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Film Review | True Grit (2010)

No Country for Young Women

by Thomas Delapa

True Grit may not be reckoned a great movie, but it does have a fistful of great scenes—and all of them with young Hailee Steinfeld, sitting tall in the saddle in the Coen brothers’ sprightly Western remake. As a 14-year-old pigtailed whippersnapper hell-bent on revenge, Steinfeld nearly lassos the picture right from under marquee stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.

Old-timers will recollect that John Wayne bagged a Best Actor Oscar for the original 1969 oater, based on Charles Portis’ gem of a novella. As boozy U.S. marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, the Duke himself had a sharp female foil in Kim Darby, playing the part of the headstrong Mattie Ross out to avenge the murder of her father.

Youngins expecting either a blackly comic or tongue-in-cheek treatment from the brothers Joel and Ethan (Fargo, No Country for Old Men), will be mighty disappointed. Neither bloody nor simple, this is truly an homage, not to any one star in particular, but to the classic Western as whole, from its rugged, wide-screen vistas to the old-school sense of morality and violent retribution.

“There is nothing free except the grace of God,” is how Mattie commences to narrate her neo-biblical quest in the valley of the shadow of death, otherwise known as the Old West. True Grit rises to the heights when it most closely follows the trail of Portis’ language, a richly idiosyncratic blend of colorful prose and quaint 19th-century regionalisms. The “pitiless man who loves to pull a cork” is none other than the ornery, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, sought out by Mattie to make good on her vendetta. The lowdown varmint they’re after is Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), rumored to be hiding out with “Lucky” Ned Pepper and his gang.

In an old flour sack, Mattie lugs around a hulking six-shooter that belonged to her father, and she aims to use it on Chaney. But in this mean, windswept country overrun by desperadoes and other bad men, Mattie’s most potent weapon is her tongue. In likely the movie’s best showdown, Mattie puts a few holes in the ego of LaBoeuf (Damon), a puffed-up Texas Ranger who makes the fool mistake of trying to put Mattie in her place. It’s not a hard chore to begin with, but Damon’s low-key, likably simple-minded part will make you forget all about singer Glen Campbell’s sorry misfire in the original.

Toe-to-toe against the towering Hollywood legend of John Wayne, the Oscar-winning Bridges trots out in a different, meandering direction. Sometimes drunk and usually disorderly, Bridges underplays his hand, taking Brando-esque mumbling out on the range, while frequently burying his lines. But this Rooster sobers up and flies right just long enough to do what a man has got to do, especially one with true grit and a dead shot. Mattie isn’t just on a quest for her father’s killer, but a fatherly knight in shining leather.

Shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins in New Mexico and Texas, True Grit rides to the screen as a handsome elegy for the classic Western, but armed with a modernist afterglow on the moral consequences of violence and revenge. In this barren and brutal land, even Mattie has a fall from grace, tumbling down a mineshaft crawling with snakes. In the Eden that once was America, the God-fearing and righteous also succumb.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Who Is Harry Nilsson -- Really?

Who Is Harry Nilsson? (Review)
Lorber Films, 2010, Not Rated

By Steven Rosen

Cincinnati CityBeat (12-15-10)
. . . . . . .

Harry Nilsson was a late-1960s/early-1970s Los Angeles-based songwriter’s songwriter — The Beatles adored him and Three Dog Night recorded his “One” — who also had such a fluidly expressive vocal range that he briefly became a best-selling recording artist with both hits that he wrote (“Me and My Arrow,” “Jump Into the Fire”) and ones he covered (“Everybody’s Talkin,’ ” “Without You”). But a weakness for booze and drugs, as well as a reputation for being difficult and ambivalent about success, caused a fade from public view long before he died of heart disease at age 52 in 1994.

On his way down, Nilsson and John Lennon once famously got ejected from an L.A. club for heckling the Smothers Brothers.

For this documentary, which has a wealth of archival footage — as well as excerpts from candid audio interviews with Nilsson about his life — director/writer John Scheinfeld sets out to explore in depth just how strong his artistic accomplishments were. And he doesn’t shy away from the self-destructive aspects of his personality.

A who’s-who of L.A.’s great Boomer songwriters (Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, Paul Williams, Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson) are on hand to share their opinions and remembrances. (So, too, are the Smothers Brothers.) Richard Perry, the producer of his million-selling breakthrough Nilsson Schmilsson album, offers deep insight into the creation of that classic, as well as some damning opinion about why Nilsson subsequently tried to sabotage that success.

But actually, as you hear the music he went on to make — including a stately album of standards and a lovely song for the movie The Fisher King — you wonder if Perry was right. Nilsson also honorably dedicated himself to handgun control after Lennon’s assassination and tried to do right for his family as he grew weaker from ailments.

Overall, he emerges as a kind, caring but deeply flawed man and a terrific songwriter. Grade: B+

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Film Review | Black Swan

Bird Watching

by Thomas Delapa

In the jarring clash between high and low art that is Black Swan, let’s just say that culture takes it in the neck. Darren Aronofsky’s freakish thriller set in the ballet world even turns Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake into an ugly duckling.

For this dark backstage fantasy of ambition, sex and jealousy, Aronofsky (The Wrestler) shines a spotlight on Nina (Natalie Portman), a mousy ballerina with more Freudian baggage than Norman Bates. A 30-year-old virgin, Nina lives with her controlling, passive-aggressive mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave up her own dance career when she had Nina.

In the featherweight script (by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin), Nina’s art takes over her life—the plot is a pale, sexed-up knockoff of Michael’s Powell’s classic The Red Shoes. Nina’s dream comes true as a nightmare once the company’s crude, autocratic, but so French director (Vincent Cassel) chooses her for the double lead roles of the White Swan and the Black Swan in Swan Lake.

Aronofsky’s bizarre Frankenstein creation is sort of like David Cronenberg grafted onto Margot Fonteyn. As the fragile and neurotic Nina, Portman comes up short as a prima donna, skittishly tip-toeing through the movie less like a swan than an anorexic deer caught in the footlights. Aronofsky’s camera follows Portman relentlessly, framing her in a series of mirrors that reflect her own narcissistic and delusional traps.

But Aronofsky cheats in both plot and his urban-gothic visuals, dancing around what is real and what are Nina’s paranoid delusions. Just as Nina gets the lead, she’s haunted by a doe-eyed rival dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who’s everything—confident, sexual—that Nina isn’t. Aronofsky peels away the beauty and grace to find the pain and obsession underneath, yet he also simplistically (and perhaps chauvinistically) reduces Nina’s neurotic compulsions to her fear of sex.

This is where Black Swan takes a nose-dive. Despite its guise as a modernist, female-centered psychodrama, underneath it’s mostly lurid male fantasy, trumpeting on one pole Portman’s sex-starved nymph and Kunis’ wanton, lesbian leanings on the other. Somehow Nina wins the lead role, despite her lack of oomph as the Black Swan. The director is fond of sexual euphemisms to criticize Nina’s rehearsals. When he’s not French-kissing her to tap into her inner vixen, he’s yelling “Let it go!” as if she’s making a porn movie, not a ballet. Lily’s rehearsals, on the other hand, are sultry and seductive. “She’s not faking it,” he sneers at Nina. This is not your father’s George Balanchine. Achtung, you don’t need a German dictionary to figure out that the shadowy Lily is Nina’s doppelganger diva, whether real or imagined.

Black and white or in living color, Black Swan tries to soar with the eagles, but crash-lands into high-toned kitsch.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Film Review | Avatar

Pandora’s Box

by Thomas Delapa

Since its release one year ago, Avatar has soared to become the biggest box-office hit in the known universe, even leaving writer/director James Cameron’s own Titanic in its wake. Yet audiences following the advice of the DVD tagline (“Return to Pandora...”) may well be amazed by the sci-fi fantasy’s epic lack of depth, made even clearer when bereft of the digitally generated 3D theatrical spectacle.

While it’s notoriously difficult to argue with—or stem the tide of—any Hollywood blockbuster, the few choice discouraging words that greeted Avatar now loom larger now, with or without glasses. Whether you derisively dub it Dances With Smurfs or Bambi Goes to Outer Space, Cameron’s environmentally correct outer-space morality tale uproots just about every cliché in the revisionist book, transplanting them for a story that pits tree-hugging big blue humanoids against an armed invasion of evildoing Earthlings.

In place of Union soldier Kevin Costner going native in the old West, Cameron drafts wooden B-lister Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine who lands on the faraway planet of Pandora. In this Alien-ated, energy-starved universe, the ruthless RDA Corporation is set to mine all of Pandora’s precious “Unobtanium.” Standing in the way are the super-sized Na’vi people, a race of ten-foot-tall, blue-hued natives who are one with nature. While a compassionate scientist (Sigourney Weaver) wants to make nice with the Na’vi, a scarred, sneering colonel (Stephen Lang) is happy to terminate them with shock-and-awesome firepower.

A Y2K Spielberg with his pulse on the anemic poundings of popular culture, Cameron shrewdly mines the burgeoning video-game anti-aesthetic to boot up the plot. To surreptitiously befriend the Na’vi on their own turf, the scientists have developed hybrid humanoid shells called Avatars—much like the fantasy alter-egos beloved by players in the cyber-game universe. These ginned-up genetic disguises allow Jake and company to leave their bodies behind at the lab so they can fraternize with the locals. In his Blue Man guise, Jake instantly strikes up a relationship with the lithe and loinclothed Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Cameron’s Pandoran Pocahontas.

Little matter that neither Cameron nor the audience can figure out how the Avatar process practically works. Throughout his adventure, Jake constantly ping-pongs back and forth between his Edenic life with Neytiri and his time back on base, but it’s never clear how this is possible. This is a guy who never sleeps, and has the magic ability to be in two places at the same time.

On the small screen, Avatar’s eye-popping, computer-generated splendor fades against a plot and characterizations that are, at best, wallpaper. With the zeitgeist of ecological cataclysm during this year (cresting with the BP oil spill), Cameron’s message obviously hit a mother lode with worldwide audiences, grafting environmentalism with pro-Native (American) sentiments. Yet as with most Hollywood big chiefs, the director’s naive, touchy-feely themes are no match against his delight in delivering massive battle scenes designed to bring out the popcorn warrior in us all.

Once the Jake-led Na’vi insurgents go on the warpath, how their arrows manage to smash through the glass of heavily-armed space helicopters is a mystery only Yoda could solve. Yes, Jake goes native in a big and tall way, even taming the king of flying dragons to take the homeland fight back to the colonel’s evil corporate army.

At the 2010 Oscars, while his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow walked off with the Best Director and Best Picture awards for The Hurt Locker, Cameron nevertheless won the box-office war in a rout. He still may be the king of the world, but in today’s diminished Hollywood, that world is very small indeed.