Friday, December 30, 2011

D.A. Pennebaker Reconsiders "Don't Look Back"

Film: Dylan Revisited

D.A. Pennebaker looks back for the deluxe edition of 'Don't Look Back'

By Steven Rosen · March 7th, 2007 · Cincinnati CityBeat

For D.A. Pennebaker, the time has come to look back. For the new digitally remastered "deluxe edition" DVD of his classic documentary Don't Look Back, which followed Bob Dylan during a 1965 solo acoustic tour of England, Pennebaker went back to his unused footage to make a film called 65 Revisited.

In doing so, he found himself confronting and challenging the very essence of Don't Look Back. That film, shot verite-style, is as much a freewheelin' narrative about the pivotal tour as it is a concert film. Much of it occurs in rehearsal rooms and hotels before and after the shows.

It's especially about an edgy, prickly young Dylan -- just on the verge of transferring himself from folksinger into Rock & Roll star -- cagily sparring with the press and others who try to get to know him. While it has a generous number of songs performed onstage by Dylan, many are excerpted so as not to detract from the film's own pacing and behind-the-scenes glimpses.

65 Revisited is a companion piece to Don't Look Back rather than a replacement. It's just a shade over an hour, and in places the sound and lighting are problematic. But it nonetheless serves as a meaningful alternative, a new take.

For one, Dylan is relaxed and even boyishly sweet with the fans he meets. He's also honest rather than evasive when asked questions.

He's generally happy and shows it -- in one scene he smiles with delight hearing his new Rock & Roll single, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," on the radio.

And Revisited contains riveting, electrifying full concert performances of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "She Belongs to Me," "To Ramona," "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and the rare "If You Gotta Go, Go Now." There are also short scenes of Dylan composing new songs "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" and "I'll Keep It With Mine" on piano.

Talking from his New York office, Pennebaker -- now 81 but still busy -- said the catalyst for Revisited came from his editor getting him to watch Don't Look Back's outtakes.

"It was like a towel being taken off my head," Pennebaker says. "I saw something I hadn't bothered to think much about for Don't Look Back. I saw that those performances themselves were really the whole reason Dylan had an effect on people.

"It wasn't just that he was this little Kerouac kid running around being funny with the press. It was those performances to those huge, hushed masses of English guys who thought it was poetry and music put together in an amazing way. So we sat down to make a film about that.

"I don't feel this knocks that one out of the box. It was just a further insight for me where I hadn't been looking before. The charisma that came off that stage when he got up and sang those songs is just startling."

When Pennebaker first agreed to make Don't Look Back, he knew virtually nothing about Dylan. He's still unsure why he was invited, although during the ensuing tour Dylan mentioned he had seen a documentary on cellist/conductor Pablo Casals that Pennebaker and partner Richard Leacock had shot for CBS.

"Albert Grossman (Dylan's manager) came into our office and asked would I be interested in accompanying his client to England for a tour," Pennebaker recalls. "It wasn't a job. I was going to have to pay for it, I suspected. But that was the offer and I said yeah.

"I think I knew one song by him, the one Peter, Paul & Mary were singing ('Blowin' in the Wind'), but I didn't know anything about him. I had read a piece in Time magazine suggesting he was a guy singing Folk music and wasn't very good at it. That sort of intrigued me."

Pennebaker thinks Dylan wanted to see how the director's intimate, fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking worked.

"I think he wanted to see what making a film on this level was like -- not big-time filmmaking, just a single person. But I never knew, and he never talked about it."

The next year, when Dylan toured Europe with a Rock & Roll band called the Hawks, he directed a film called Eat the Document for an ABC special. Pennebaker served as his cameraman. Overly arty, that film was rejected by ABC and never released. Pennebaker prepared his own more straightforward film of that tour called You Know Something Is Happening. It, too, hasn't been released although portions were used in Martin Scorsese's 2005 Dylan film for PBS, No Direction Home.

Don't Look Back also is famous for starting with what has been called the first music video -- it opens in an alley, with Dylan holding up and discarding pertinent cue cards while "Subterranean Homesick Blues" plays on the soundtrack. His friend and road manager, Bob Neuwirth, and Allen Ginsberg stand in the distance. The deluxe set includes two alternate versions -- one shot in a park with Neuwirth and Ginsberg, another on a hotel rooftop with Neuwirth and record producer Tom Wilson.

"Originally, when I did the film I started off in the dressing room with Bob singing, 'You will start out standing (from the song 'She Belongs to Me'). I thought, 'That's a good way to start a film,' " Pennebaker says. "But as I looked at it before doing a final version, I said nobody knew who this guy is yet. So we had this thing we shot that we didn't have any reason for shooting. It was just a funny thing. I stuck it on the beginning and that was it. It never came off."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Film Review | Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004)

Mass Deceptions

by Thomas Delapa

British statesman Benjamin Disraeli said that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics. When it comes to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration apparently bamboozled the public with all three.

Further, there are at least two travesties involving the devastating, must-see documentary, Uncovered: The War on Iraq. Only the first has to do with the war itself. The second is that the film is only playing in two theaters in Colorado. If you thought Fahrenheit 9/11 burned the Bush administration, Uncovered pours gasoline on the flames.

Dodging the pitfalls of Michael Moore’s feverish polemic, producer/director Robert Greenwald opts for a reasoned, deliberate approach. At the outset, Greenwald introduces us to his gallery of experts, from ex-security advisor Richard Clarke to former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay. Veteran CIA analysts, ex-military officers, politicians and diplomats round out the interviews.

Though we’ve heard much of the material before over the polarizing last 18 months, Greenwald summarizes it in compelling, if sound-bite, fashion. Uncovered should shock and awe audiences, leaving you infuriated that the U.S. engaged in its first preemptive war against a country that, contrary to the Bush administration claims:

1) Had no weapons of mass destruction.

2) Had no relationship with al-Qaeda.

3) Had no nuclear-weapons program.

In addition, the failure to find any of the above during the American occupation has effectively proven that the U.N. weapons inspection program was working.

Although the Bush administration has now expediently changed its tune for going to war, it behooves us to watch again Secretary of State Colin Powell’s momentous pre-war address before the United Nations. In the words of one sober observer, Powell’s crossing-the-Rubicon speech was "a masterful performance...but none of it was true." Time and time again on TV, Pres. Bush, Vice Pres. Cheney and the White House inner circle insisted that the Hussein regime was a clear and present danger to the United States–thus the decisive reason for going to war.

On that WMD front, today even Kay admits that "We were wrong." During the occupation, Kay’s inspectors were doled a budget of $600 million to seek out the WMDs. Kay sees parallels between the U.S.-led Iraq war and our disastrous 20-year intervention in Vietnam. Both Presidents G.W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson (after the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident) were granted carte-blanche war powers by an acquiescent Congress.

The consensus in the film is the 9/11 attacks presented a convenient excuse for the Pentagon "neo-cons"–like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle–to execute their neo-imperialist, might-makes-right geopolitical plans. These advisors believe that America has no need to justify its foreign policy, not to its so-called allies and certainly not to the U.N. The plan to install a Western-leaning government in Iraq has been on (or under) the table for years, well before the 9/11 attacks, most notably circulated through the hawkish Project for the New American Century think tank.

Throughout the months leading up to the Iraq war, strategic analyses culled from the CIA were either distorted or selectively used by the White House to sell the war to the American public and the media. When Foreign Service veteran Joseph Wilson challenged these conclusions, he was first subjected to a smear campaign. Then someone* in the know leaked the name of his wife Valerie Plame, a CIA officer, to the conservative press, putting her cover–and life–at risk.

Uncovered: The War on Iraq unrolls like an American tragedy, delineating for now and posterity a watershed moment in our history. But perhaps the real tragedy is yet to come. In this critical election season, the damning truth of Greenwald’s exposé may be lost in the blinding fog of war.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 9/16/04

POSTSCRIPT: On December 18, 2011, the last U.S. troops left Iraq following nearly nine years of warfare. To date, the war has cost over 4,500 American lives and at least $1 trillion; while estimates of Iraqi deaths vary radically, most surveys count at least 100,000.

*Later determined to be Cheney's top aide "Scooter" Libby.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Film Review | The Descendants


by Thomas Delapa

After such critically acclaimed hits as Sideways and About Schmidt, you’d think that director Alexander Payne would have nowhere to go but up. But success can be a slippery slope in Hollywood. Even with hunky George Clooney out front and sunny Hawaii in the background, The Descendants is a balmy downer.

Call it Melancholia in Paradise, with Sir George playing Matt King, a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. With his wife comatose in the hospital after a freak boating accident, Matt is morosely adrift, especially when it comes to handling his two troubled daughters. “I’m the backup parent,” he ruefully admits in his narration, a declaration that becomes obvious as watch his bewilderment faced with young Scottie (Amara Miller), whether acting out in grade school, or teenage Alex (Shailene Woodley), who curses—and drinks—like a sailor.

Based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants has risen dramatically in critics’ 2011 Top Ten lists, though I’m as bewildered as Clooney’s rather dull and doltish character is. Unless your idea of comedy is watching Clooney wildly run around Hawaii in sandals (imagine a pineapple balancing on his head), I’d say that old Hawaii Five-0 re-runs have more juice.

Payne does his own balancing act, erratically mixing low-grade laughs (aren’t bratty kids so funny when they swear?) with a dead-serious plot that digs into both mortality and infidelity. Not only does Matt’s wife lay stricken and comatose in a hospital bed, but he’s apparently the last one to know that she has been unfaithful to him. Out of this stiff contrivance arises our hero's madcap adventure to track down and confront his rival.

After last year’s turn as a stoic, coldblooded assassin in The American, Clooney goes to the humid extremes, wearing a dewy-eyed guise of bitter and hapless vulnerability. Payne’s camera comes in for so many close-ups of actors tearing up, I thought I was watching a Kleenex commercial.

The director’s once-reliable gifts for irony and satire seemed to have dried up, replaced by clammy sentimentality. As his wife’s health goes downhill, Matt must face the ultimate choice of pulling the plug.

During the crisis, he must also deal with the business of selling his extended family’s lush swath of virgin land on neighboring Kauai. Passed down from his mixed-race ancestors, 19th century settlers of Hawaii, the land is certain to net the clan a king’s ransom.

Other than as vehicle for Clooney to show off his warm side and great tan decked out in floral shirts, Payne’s pallid film seems content to pose the star against a series of scenic Hawaii locations, accompanied by banal island music that seems better fit for a luau. Even though dysfunctional families are still alive and functional in Hollywood, this is one family tree that’s full of sap.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Film Review | Melancholia

When Worlds Collide

by Thomas Delapa

Nothing if not provocative since his 1991 breakthrough with the neo-Expressionist Zentropa, Danish director Lars von Trier has stepped from the portrayal of carnal devotion (Breaking the Waves) to postmodern musical (Dancer in the Dark) and Brechtian Western (Dogville). He also was one of the founders of the influential “Dogme 95” group, which advocated an austere, anti-Hollywood filmmaking aesthetic. More infamously, while appearing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he claimed to be a Nazi and “understood Hitler.”

Controversial gaffes aside (he’s since retracted those comments), his Melancholia may be the most depressing film of the year—excepting perhaps x-rays at a cancer clinic. Part psychodrama, part sci-fi, this intriguing but portentous end-of-the-world fantasy had me checking my watch, not the Mayan calendar.

You’re in for the time of your life if you fancy a close encounter with nebulous story lines and trippy imagery. Melancholia is really two movies, schizophrenically orbiting around a gothically apocalyptic plot. Following a surreal (and too-revealing) prologue, we’re invited to the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her adoring groom (Alexander Skarsgard), held at the posh country estate of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her prickly husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Looming literally and figuratively at a distance is the planet “Melancholia,” once hidden behind the sun and now headed dangerously close to Earth.

Von Trier’s rogue planet might be the biggest metaphor in the universe, seeing how it shadows Justine’s unstable emotional state, which rises and falls as the party drags on. While we’re not told what’s wrong with her (other than she works at an ad agency), we do see her capriciously desert her husband and run off for a quickie tryst on the lawn with a stranger. As a flighty female neurotic, Justine is only a few feathers away from Natalie Portman in last year’s Black Swan.

Everyone at the party, including Justine’s bitchy, cynical mother (Charlotte Rampling), seems on edge, waiting for when the bride will crash and burn. “No scenes” warns her sister Claire; but the party doesn’t end well, much to the disgust of John, who had to foot the bill.

With scant coherence between or within the film’s two parts, von Trier jumps ahead to Claire’s story, which takes place vaguely later at the estate. As Melancholia nears, it’s no honeymoon for Justine or anyone else. Smugly buoyed by scientific predictions, John assures the family that the planet will easily pass by Earth. Justine, near catatonic and on her own dark side of the moon, is saturnine.

As Melancholia approaches, accompanied by an eerie low rumble and Wagnerian music, the film ascends to an otherworldly beauty, like a scene from a Ray Bradbury story. One night, the family ventures out to watch the uncanny and stunning sight of twin moons lighting up the sky. As Claire grows anxious and panicky, Justine becomes curiously calm, if not content. The world is evil, she says, so good riddance.

Though Dunst won the Best Actress prize at Cannes, you can just as easily credit (or fault) von Trier’s shaky, invasive camera, which gets in her face for every toothy smile and nervous frown, yet reveals much less about her character than meets the eye. Whatever one thinks of Dunst and her radiantly opaque performance, even she is eclipsed by von Trier’s astronomically glum ending, which might only please lunatic doomsayers—and maybe ancient Mayans.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review | Woody Allen: A Documentary

Play it Again, Woody

By Thomas Delapa

Did you hear the one about the documentary that thought it was an artistic infomercial?

It’s no joke. You might think that in a three-hour-plus portrait of comic icon Woody Allen, more than a few discouraging chuckles might be heard. But in Woody Allen: A Documentary from PBS’ American Masters series (now on DVD), director Robert Weide doesn’t stray far from Allen’s corner—as dark as it might be. The result is a profile that’s long on fawning adulation and short on serious criticism. While rousing in stretches, Allen’s long take on life, love and death is a bit of a sleeper.

A TV director (HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) and film biographer of such comedy titans as the Marx Brothers and W.C Fields, Weide has said that his profiles are “personal thank you letters” to his cultural heroes. Allen should send a thank you note back (plus roses) to Weide, who surrounds his uber-private subject with collaborators and ex-partners (like Diane Keaton and Louise Lasser), critics (like Richard Shickel) and a fellow New York director (Martin Scorsese), who only have praise for the famed, partially infamous, writer/director.

Few, if any, American film auteurs have had the staying power of one Allen Stewart Konigsberg, who precociously began writing jokes for national TV shows and newspaper columnists in the early 1950s, while still in his teens. Though obsessively publicity shy, Allen evolved into one of the most popular stand-up acts of the 1960s. In this heady time of such game-changers as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, Allen was something completely different, a bespectacled Jewish joke machine who looked like a cartoon character, yet fearlessly helped drag neuroses, sex and absurdist humor into popular culture.

Weide’s most entertaining bits come early, especially during rarely seen footage of Allen’s TV appearances, whether a 1980s BBC interview, guest shots on friend Dick Cavett’s talk show or, memorably, boxing a kangaroo. Granted a series of unprecedented interviews with the graying, gnomish, still horn-rimmed Allen (now 75), Weide talks to Allen in his office, his bedroom and, most nostalgically, while accompanying him back to his old Brooklyn neighborhood, where he reminisces about his boyhood home and local movie theater.

These trips down memory lane are bright and lively, as are the clips of Allen’s early film forays as writer/director, like Take the Money and Run (1969) and Bananas (1971). For some critics (myself included), Allen hit his artistic peak in 1977 with the bittersweet, stylistically ingenious Annie Hall, which won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Practically nonpareil in U.S. filmmaking (not unlike Charlie Chaplin), Allen has managed to exert almost total control over his 40-odd films, from writing and casting all the way to the editing stage.

While Part I of the documentary arguably ends near Allen’s professional apex, there are ominous signs of hubris, if not artistic petty crimes and misdemeanors. Interiors, his hollow follow-up to Annie Hall, echoed with gloomy, derivative Ingmar Bergman—his cinematic idol—while Stardust Memories (1980) dimly reflected Fellini’s trend-setting, autobiographical 8 ½. Yet even though Allen’s career has decidedly alternated between luminous and lackluster over the decades, Weide doctors the spin, inserting comments from gingerly uncritical critics like Shickel and Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf. One can only wonder whether Allen put any conditions on Weide’s supporting cast, all fans, including Allen’s sister.

Mia Farrow, his one-time leading lady off and on the screen, is naturally not in the building. Weide does treat the scandalous 1992 Allen/Farrow split that led to his marriage to Farrow’s college-age adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, but it’s mostly glossed over in fast-forward, as if it were all just a bad movie.

An apparent workaholic, Allen is barely done with one film before he’s on to his next one, especially now since he’s been able to obtain European backing for his latest films/travelogues. He believes in the “quantity theory,” betting that the sheer number of releases will increase his chances for critical and box-office success. This anti-Kubrick strategy has translated into a torrential output of features in recent decades, many flimsy and forgettable, redeemed only by Allen’s reliable one-liners and his near-mesmerizing ability to attract A-list actors, especially dishy leading ladies.

While Allen has assuredly taken a place in the American cinema pantheon, too little has been written about his penchant for arty, arch dramatic pretensions, which he regularly drapes over his scrawny plots like a pair of baggy khakis. Near the end of Weide’s non-definitive chronicle, Allen wistfully rues that he wasn’t born a “great tragedian.”

Seriously, Woody, you’re right.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Film Review | Like Crazy

He Loves Me,
He Loves Me Not

By Thomas Delapa

As wispy as cigarette smoke in a cyclone, Like Crazy might be likened to a precious, humorless When Harry Met Sally. This surprise Sundance award winner is a little romance, and a lot of heartbreak.

Audiences might be mad about Felicity Jones after her radiant breakthrough as Anna, a young Brit attending college in Los Angeles. While Drake Doremus’ film falls short on classy luster, Jones may have graduated to stardom.

In light of Jones’ vivacious, scene-stealing charms, Like Crazy is a one-sided relationship in more ways than one. While Anna falls passionately in love with Jacob (Anton Yelchin), an American design student, it would be a stretch to say that the stolid Yelchin is Jones’ acting match.

Largely improvised by the leads, Doremus’ “script” hinges on a weak, squeaky post-9/11 plot. In violation of her student visa, Anna overstays her U.S. welcome after college, a transgression that comes back to haunt the couple. Once back in the U.K., Anna is told that she can’t legally return to the U.S. Though Jacob can visit her and her parents, he’s not crazy about moving to England.

So the romance ping-pongs back and forth across the miles and years, and often via a series of rather mundane telephone messages. Long-distance relationships may be common in our globalized world, but they don’t exactly reach out and touch you as intimate drama. Unless Elizabeth Barrett Browning is writing them, LOL, text messages aren’t as poignant as love poems or swooning embraces.

Pert and poignantly vulnerable, Jones almost dials up a winning connection. That’s in spite of Doremus’ maddening hand-held camerawork and jumpy editing, which seem to be his heavy-handed way of conveying the nervous fragility of the romance. The small, tender moments between Anna and Jacob are finely captured, but they amount to pecks on the cheek, not rapturous kisses.

Before their first forced separation, Jacob gives Anna a bracelet engraved with the word “patience.” It’s a watchword that he will begin to forget, much to Anna’s chagrin etched on her face. Doremus tracks the doubts and insecurities that can arise between lovers that grow apart physically and emotionally. Alone in his L.A. studio designing furniture, Jacob faithlessly falls for his fetching blond co-worker (Winter’s Bone Jennifer Lawrence). Climbing the ladder as a journalist in London, Anna turns to a former neighbor (Charlie Bewley) for consolation. In our crazy and fickle modern world, vows, like hearts, seem made to be broken.


Friday, November 11, 2011

This Saturday night: Post-screening discussion of "Take Shelter" at Cincinnati's Esquire Theatre

Join us Saturday night at the Esquire for Our Next "Open for Discussion" Series Q & A

Directly After the 7:30 pm Screening of


"Take Shelter," the award-winning new psychological thriller starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, is arousing keen audience debate over whether the apocalyptic visions experienced by Shannon's character are based on reality. This stylized, artful and profoundly thought-provoking film doesn't tell us outright, so after the 7:30 p.m. Saturday screening at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton, CityBeat contributing editor and film critic Steven Rosen will lead a discussion into how writer-director Jeff Nichols offers us clues to figure it out -- or not. He’ll also lead an open discussion about other aspects of the film. This movie seems headed for many end-of-year "Best Of" lists and maybe even Oscar nominations, so discussion about its intent and meaning will only increase in coming months. Be among the first in Cincinnati to get your voice heard -- and hear from others.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

New DVD Release: "Music Makes a City"

Music Makes A City

Owsley Brown Presents, 2010, Not Rated

By Steven Rosen · October 11th, 2011 · Cincinnati CityBeat

The Louisville Orchestra is in a sad state these days. While it attempts to reorganize after bankruptcy, its fall season has been canceled. So while waiting and hoping for it all to sort out, it’s a good time to watch this new documentary on the orchestra’s remarkable history.

Founded in 1937 after a devastating flood and smaller in size than established orchestras like Cincinnati’s, it floundered looking for a sense of purpose. Then the city’s visionary mayor, an intellectual populist and true original named Charles Farnley, and conductor Robert Whitney hit on an original idea. They would commission new pieces from contemporary composers around the world and then perform (and often record) them.

The orchestra also worked directly with the great dance choreographer Martha Graham.

This was at a time when the major orchestras and their audiences were wary of New Music, with its overtones of hard-to-understand atonalism and serialism, so you’d imagine it would be a really tough sell in a neo-Southern Midwest city like Louisville. Yet, against the odds, it worked and became a rallying point for a city looking toward the future. And the U.S. government, eager to promote Louisville’s modernism to the world during the Cold War, arranged for Voice of America broadcasts.

This fine documentary, directed by Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiller and narrated by Will Oldham, tells the story of that exciting era in the city’s history. It includes interviews with some of the composers the orchestra worked with (Elliott Carter, Lukas Foss, Gunther Schuller and more), as well as the Louisville Courier-Journal critic taxed with learning New Music in order to review the performances.

There’s a wealth of archival footage, and the film also pauses for musical excerpts of some of the commissioned works accompanied by ruminative nature photography. There’s also a full bonus disc with extra interview footage. Through it all, Whitney and Farnley emerge as fascinating figures. Louisville was lucky to have them; one hopes the orchestra today will find comparable civic and musical leaders to help it revive.

Grade: B+

Monday, September 26, 2011

Film Review | Moneyball

A League of His Own

By Thomas Delapa

Brad Pitt is easy to like.

He might be the most likable big-league male star around, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Tom Hanks notwithstanding. If you throw in his liberal-minded leanings on top of looks and easygoing charm, Pitt is batting close to a thousand.

But likability, like good intentions, can be a road to perdition—just ask Barack Obama. For my money, Moneyball should have been called Brad Pitt Ball (or The Money Pitt). Gee coach, didn’t anyone tell him that there’s no “I” in team?

In this wobbly inside pitch at baseball, Pitt plays Billy Beane, architect of the Oakland Athletics’ winning ways beginning in the early 2000s. As a young general manager determined to shake up the old game, Beane took the A’s from the cellar to the penthouse in 2002, mostly with a bunch of bargain-basement players.

Not unlike Tom Cruise in his tailor-made Mission Impossible franchise, Pitt is close to a one-man team while the ballplayers themselves are as anonymous as the actors playing them. Pitt only shares the spotlight with Jonah Hill, cast as a boyish baseball wonk who convinces Beane that obscure statistical analysis (now called “sabermetrics”) can help turn the A’s from zeroes to heroes.

From a 2003 book by Michael Lewis, director Bennett Miller (Capote) fields a film that curiously stays outside the foul lines, focusing largely on Beane’s unorthodox moves that threw a curve at baseball’s most hidebound traditions for evaluating talent. Beane not only has to win out against conventional wisdom, but has to spar with his old-school manager (a sour Philip Seymour Hoffman), who thinks Beane’s ideas are totally off-base.

While hardcore fans will likely enjoy this scruffy, locker-room look at the game, most audiences may want to reach for an overpriced beer. Director Miller’s costliest error might be that he tosses in a minimum of on-field drama, and only as fuzzy TV replays. You can look it up: Compared to The Natural or even A League of Their Own, Moneyball has all the action of a seventh-inning stretch.



Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Tabloid" Is Ripped From Yesterday's Headlines.


By Steven Rosen

Even though Errol Morris’ best-known documentary, Oscar-winner The Fog of War, was about one of the most important men of modern American times – Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense when the Vietnam War started – the director has always shown a penchant for films about offbeat, colorful characters whose life stories are more weird than profound.

He’s returned to that predilection with Tabloid, the bizarre story of an American beauty queen – Joyce McKinney – who in the 1970s chased her runaway Mormon boyfriend to England, where she kidnapped him, manacled him to a bed, and had her sexual way with him. The story was a huge tabloid sensation in England; she eventually did some jail time and disappeared from the public eye.

Until a couple years ago, that is, when she went to South Korea to clone her beloved dog. Morris loves vividly expressive, emotional interview subjects; his camera studies their faces as Rembrandt would when doing a portrait.

And has he ever got a live wire in McKinney! She is so charming, naughtily flirty yet defiantly defensive today about all her actions. But she wears out her welcome, as does our interest in her 15-minutes-of-fame story, well before the film is over. It becomes pretty clear she’s an unreliable witness, and the film grows tedious since her kidnap subject – still alive – doesn’t participate in the film.

Morris’ attempt to broaden the subject matter to investigate Britain’s tabloid culture is a good call – British tabloid journalists also make colorful on-camera interview subjects – but compared to the revelations now sweeping that country about Rupert Murdoch’s corrupt tabloid empire, this is pretty minor stuff.

Since cooperating with Morris, by the way, McKinney has turned against the film and been vociferously complaining about how it makes her look.

Grade: B-

(From Cincinnati CityBeat, 8-31-11)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Film Review | The Help

Mississippi Groaning

by Thomas Delapa

If any summer movie badly needs help, both dramatically and historically, it is, yes’m, The Help, which serves up a big slice of white-bread liberal fantasy about black life in the Jim Crow South.

Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help tells of the crusading “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a frizzy-haired, fair-skinned graduate of Old Miss who has a dream to help, if not free, the city of Jackson’s segregated black maids in the early 1960s. As improbably played by Stone, Skeeter seems less like a female Atticus Finch than a slumming cheerleader from High School Musical.

The daughter of wealthy bigots and friend to a coven of racist socialites, Skeeter nevertheless has a copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son prominently displayed in her room. But Skeeter’s enlightenment towards blacks really brightens when she’s shocked to discover that her friends’ African-American maids are forbidden to use the bathrooms in the homes where they work. (Um, do you suppose Donald Trump’s help is allowed to use his master bathroom?) Led by the vicious Hilly (lily-white Bryce Dallas Howard), these tinny magnolias decide that their maids should have their own outhouses, in-house.

As a theme (and odious punch lines), feces circulate throughout this revisionist sitcom drama, shot in glossy, overcooked colors and acted with an accent on melodramatic, Tyler Perry-flavor anguish. Director Tate Taylor, who wrote the script with Stockett, drops in period TV footage to remind us we’re in the tumultuous real world of the Medgar Evers and JFK assassinations, instead of Skeeter in Wonderland.

Taylor and Stockett also toss a cinder or two of Mississippi Burning into their hot pot. Skeeter reads from the appalling Jim Crow laws regarding the separation of the races, while the two central maids, the downtrodden Aibileen (Viola Davis) and the sassy Minny (Octavia Spencer), suffer constant indignities under the feet of their high-heeled, tight-skirted masters.

One could argue that the movie is faithful to the “spirit” of the times, but is it? A budding writer, Skeeter buzzes around town secretly gathering the oral histories of the maids, getting a tentative go-ahead for a book from a slick publisher in New York City. The film gives the fictional impression that Skeeter/Stockett courageously sought out the interviews and hammered out the exposé in the pivotal sixties. Perhaps Taylor needs a helpful reminder that Stockett’s novel was only published two years ago, while the author herself was barely out of diapers in the early 1970s.

If Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was the last great literary whitewash about the Civil War, plantation South, The Help goes to the other side of the fence, painting the whites as lazy, ignorant racists (excepting the pre-feminist Skeeter), while the black maids are canonized as saint-like figures who nevertheless adore the neglected white children of their loveless bosses.

Fiddle-dee-dee. As a liberal Hollywood fantasy dripping in white guilt, crudely mythologizing mammies into martyrs, The Help belongs right on the syrupy shelf next to The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Film Review | Super Size Me (2004)

My Big Fat American Meal
by Thomas Delapa

We’re talking fat, not phat.

When Morgan Spurlock decided to embark on a month-long "McDiet," little did he know he would gain 25 pounds, suffer liver damage and, in general, feel like hurling each and every McDay.

For 30 days straight, the New York filmmaker was his own guinea pig (emphasis on the pig), eating only McDonald’s meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With camera in one hand and a Big Mac in the other, Spurlock documented his dieting debacle. The result is Super Size Me, which might even give Ronald McDonald indigestion.

By now, most of us have heard the gross facts about fat America. Two out of three of us are overweight or obese. Poor diets and sedentary suburban lifestyles are the biggest culprits. In Manhattan alone, McDonald’s has 83 outlets. Not only do Americans eat too much, but restaurant portions are taking on monster proportions. The 7-11 Double Big Gulp contains 64 ounces of soda--a whole half-gallon. An order of McD’s super-sized fries has a whopping 600 calories.

On the eve of his experiment, Spurlock sees a battery of doctors, who all give him a bill of good health. After 30 days of Quarter Pounders, fries, Cokes and Egg McMuffins, Spurlock balloons from 185 pounds to 210 and his body fat rises from 11% to 18%. Before the month is up, his doctors tell him that his liver is showing signs of toxicity.

Now, you say, nobody eats nonstop fast food for 30 days. True, but millions of people eat fast food several times a week, and have done so for 30 years or more. Even McDonald’s’ "healthy" salads, when slathered in dressing, have equivalent calories to their burgers.

Despite the weighty subject, Spurlock’s style isn’t always delectable. His capacity for calories exceeds his ability as a stand-up comic. And he could have thinned down all those repeated shots of pot-bellied passersby.

But Super Size Me comes with an order of extra-large social comment. Spurlock’s tour of a Wisconsin grade-school cafeteria appallingly reveals kids regularly lunching on snacks, sweets and other junk foods.

If you want the skinny on America’s flabby diets, start with Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and top it off with Spurlock’s fast-paced, low-carb documentary. Together, they may wipe the smile right off your Happy Meal.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 5/20/04
Winner of Denver Press Club award, 2005

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Film Review | Cowboys & Aliens

The Only Good Alien...

by Thomas Delapa

Cowboys & Aliens opens tomorrow. I wonder what that’s about?”
--David Letterman

If the classic western has gone south, and science fiction is plumb tired, what’s a desperate Hollywood to do? Well, if you’re director Jon Favreau, the answer is easy, pardner: Take both genres, mix them up, add a stampede of special effects, and point and shoot.

With such producing honchos as Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard riding herd, you might figure Cowboys & Aliens would gallop off into the sunset as a sure-fire winner. But once you look beyond the bizarre blend of gunslingers, sagebrush, barroom brawls and evil E.T.s, Favreau’s mixed-up mélange is a close encounter of the worst kind.

Basing their script on a 2006 graphic novel, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci steal from western classics (like The Searchers) for their template, hogtied to a malodorous plot about alien abduction. Our amnesiac, Bourne-again hero is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), who wakes up on the prairie to find a weird, space-age shackle on his wrist. When three grubby outlaws try to rob him, Jake shows us what a tough hombre he is.

Just to make sure we know we’ve landed in a western (as opposed to the real West), Favreau loads in clichéd dialogue (“Palms to heaven, friend”) to go along with the iconic, widescreen landscapes. From this well-trod fictional universe, we are transported into an empty, politically correct no man’s land where evil, bloodthirsty aliens take over the role that used to be played by Indians.

In the corrupt town of Absolution, the good guys (and a tribe of nice Indians) are forced to team up with the bad guys to fight the monstrously ugly invaders. Though Favreau pays lip service to the classic western, this travesty only comes to life during the alien attack on the town. From their marauding spaceships, the creatures brutally lasso the humans with hooks, dragging them back to their desert lair for unearthly experiments.

Away from the dramatic attacks, Favreau’s dialogue is as flat as Death Valley. As the laconic Jake, Craig rides short in the saddle, glaring his vacant blue eyes and looking as comfortable on a horse as James Bond in a leisure suit. As the town’s leathery cattle baron with a trigger-happy son (Paul Dano), Harrison Ford scowls and spits out his lines, a Han Solo gone to seed.

With the double-barrel star casting, you might reckon it means that Ford is passing his rusty action-hero badge on to Craig. Whatever the aim, the gesture is nothing but a bum steer.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Strong New Documentary on Folk Singer Phil Ochs Released on DVD

Phil Ochs: There But For Forture (Review)

First Run Features, 2011, Not Rated

By Steven Rosen
from Cincinnati CityBeat, July 27, 2011,

Phil Ochs was Bob Dylan’s chief rival as a Folk-based protest singer in the 1960s — Christopher Hitchens, interviewed in this documentary, maintains Ochs was better, more politically pointed and with a more sarcastic and thought-provoking lyrical bite. But while Dylan went electric and became a Rock & Roll star, Ochs struggled with the transition to Pop, although his first ambitious attempt — a heavily orchestrated album called Pleasures of the Harbor — had astonishing variety and great beauty.

Ochs, a good-humored idealist who studied journalism at Ohio State, idolized President Kennedy at first but grew ever more radicalized at the outrages of the 1960s and early 1970s (the assassinations, Vietnam, civil-rights turmoil, Watergate). He also had personal demons — alcohol and depression, especially. This all led to him working against his best interests career-wise and fading from public view. After all sorts of misfortunes in the 1970s, he committed suicide in 1976 at age 35.

This documentary by Ken Bowser, produced by Ochs’ brother Michael, moves at a fast clip but gives due to all the facets of Ochs’ career and life, both the tragic and triumphant. And it does delve into what he did in the 1970s, away from the limelight, when he was struggling. The variety of archival footage, including performances, is impressive, as is the lineup of those who wanted to be interviewed about Ochs: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Sean Penn and more (but not Dylan).

There are times when the film tries to be a primer on the politics of the era and loses track of its subject, but it always returns. It also makes a pretty good case for the music Ochs recorded after Pleasures — his derided-at-the-time attempts at flat-out Rock and even County. Grade: B

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Discuss the Meaning of "The Tree of Life" This Sunday

Discuss "The Tree of Life" This Sunday (July 24) after 1 p.m. Screening at Cincinnati's Esquire Theatre

Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" -- winner of the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival -- has provoked all sorts of discussion on its meaning and the nature of its narrative structure. Some people find its investigation into existence and the presence of cosmic consciousness to be profoundly spiritual and religious, the first great mainstream American movie to address such questions since "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "2001." Others are just perplexed or wary -- they wonder why a film ostensibly about a family in small-town Texas in the 1950s has an interlude with dinosaurs, or shots of a mysterious flickering light. And why does the story line jump around so much?

This Sunday (July 24th) at 1 p.m. at the Esquire Theatre, 320 Ludlow Ave. in Cincinnati, you can see the matinee and then stay for an audience discussion moderated by Steven Rosen, Cincinnati CityBeat film writer. The price is $6.75 -- standard matinee admission.

Malick has only made five movies in a long career, starting with 1973's "Badlands," and each is painstakingly personal and marked by an attempt to see his characters as players on a larger stage where nature, itself, has equal billing. Is "The Tree of Life" his masterpiece? Or is it overly ambitious?

This is your chance to see the movie, discuss it and hear other ideas. Weigh in on one of the year's most talked-about films and a potential Oscar nominee. For more information, visit

Friday, July 15, 2011

Revisiting "Benjamin Button" as an Allegory for the Bush Presidency

The Curious Case of Benjamin ... Bush?
Is David Fincher's film a veiled allegory for America under George W. Bush?

By Steven Rosen
(This first appeared in Cincinnati CityBeat, Feb. 18, 2009

I’ve been perplexed by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which leads all movies with 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

Yes, it’s beautifully crafted, with transformative makeup and digital effects to support its central concept — a man ages in reverse while those he knows get older. And the acting, too, is involving.

Brad Pitt unsentimentally plays Benjamin as an everyman, and his New Orleans accent has a pleasantly melodic ring. Cate Blanchett is spectacularly attractive as his great love, Daisy.

But this film is roughly three hours, and what is its point, exactly? Yes, it goes to great length to illustrate a truism — you can’t turn back the hands of time. But to quote the philosopher Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Further, Pitt’s Benjamin, while a New Orleans-born everyman, is not an especially smart one. A follower rather than a leader, passive rather than active, he has no special wisdom to impart or lessons to learn from his unusual circumstances. He seems to know that his life is a drag on others, which is why he pulls away from Daisy when she needs him most. But he just plods along toward the inevitable.

Even Benjamin’s journal, discovered after his death — the key plot device — lacks insight; it’s just description. He is incapable of truly enlightening self-reflection. That makes him a tragic figure, and the movie has an overall morose, melancholy and fatalistic tone to match, aided by David Fincher’s direction and its cinematography. One passage is even set in Murmansk, Russia, which looks to be one of the coldest places on Earth.

Benjamin is like an unfunny Seinfeld character — no lessons learned. Or like … George W. Bush? I’ve been wondering if this film can be read as a veiled allegory — or epitaph — for America under the vacuous Bush. An epitaph not just for the Bush Administration, now mercifully departed, but for what’s left of the country — war and recession — in the debris of his hurricane-like wake. The film is not hateful, not angry. It might even see him as a victim, too. But it is filled with a rueful post-9/11 sadness.

In that regard, we are like the film’s aged and dying Daisy, in a hospital bed in New Orleans, retreating into the “fantasy” of Benjamin as her daughter reads from his journal. Is there a parallel to our own fantasy of the past eight years — that the endlessly rising home prices of the unregulated Bush years would take care of us in the future?

This notion came to me because of the ominous way the film starts. As Hurricane Katrina approaches, the hospitalized Daisy wonders what will come next. Katrina, coming about a year after the “re-election” of Bush in 2004, was the event that finally exposed his incompetence even to his supporters. And things really went to hell after that. So making it such a specific reference point in this movie encourages a political reading.

So too does the central metaphoric symbol, also introduced early in the film. After World War I, while everyone in New Orleans is celebrating victory, a Monsieur Gateau creates a train-station clock that works backwards. “So perhaps the boys we lost in the war may come back again,” he explains with doomed naivety. (The device is reminiscent of the French anti-World War I classic, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, in which slain soldiers return to life.)

Benjamin, although he’s born at the same time and, indeed, lives backwards, learns nothing from that clock. The parallel? In America, Bush launched a war in Iraq under false pretenses, still with no clear end. He learned nothing from the past, even while giving us another Vietnam.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I’m desperately trying to read something into the pointlessness of Benjamin’s life. The film’s origins are in a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but that is set in the 19th century, so the film is hardly meant as a faithful adaptation.

And Fincher’s other films seem to have a dark, pessimistic, metaphoric attitude. Certainly Se7en, Fight Club and The Game, and reviewers called 1992’s grim Alien3 an AIDS allegory. His last film, Zodiac, about a real-life San Francisco murderer who was never caught, had a sociopolitical context.

The principal screenwriter, Eric Roth, wrote Forrest Gump, a film I detest, but more recently he contributed to Munich and The Good Shepherd (about the CIA), two political films that take a dim view of the costs to a person’s psyche of endless war.

And one other thing: Benjamin, as born, is an aberration — a freakish event, a baby in his eighties. Bush’s ascendancy to the presidency in 2000 was similar, losing the popular vote and needing a partisan Supreme Court decision to stop a Florida recount of disputed ballots. And it’s been all downhill — or backwards — from there.

So what, then, is to be learned from Benjamin Button? An aphorism is repeated several times in the film, “You never know what’s coming for you.” That’s post-Bush America, all right.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Film Review | Larry Crowne

Happy Days

by Thomas Delapa

As cine-therapy during the Great Depression, Hollywood gave us The Grapes of Wrath, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Dead End. During the Great Recession, Hollywood has bestowed on us...envelope please...Larry Crowne?

If you want to see how depressingly out-of-touch mainstream movies have become, buy a ticket (if you can afford one) to watch Tom Hanks show us the sunny, funny side of unemployment. If life is like a box of chocolates, director/star Hanks tells us that getting fired can ultimately be a sweetheart deal.

As titular everyman Larry Crowne, big-box retail clerk, Hanks earns a pink slip from his smarmy supervisors, ostensibly because of his lack of a college degree. Recently divorced and now downsized, Larry pauses only briefly before he goes to work reinventing himself, usually accompanied by a soundtrack of bouncy, optimistic Tom Petty songs.

Hanks and co-writer Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame and fortune) tick off a litany of topical problems that Larry overcomes as easily as Forrest Gump jumping over shrubs. Big, gas-guzzling SUV? Just trade it in for a cute motor scooter. Too much stuff around the house? Just sell it to a haggling but helpful neighbor. Can’t afford the house? Just give it back to the bank, no questions asked. As for income, we never see Larry waiting in line at the unemployment office or stressing about bills. In short order, he gets a job as a cook at a friend’s diner. Yep, Larry pulls himself up by his bootstraps, enrolling at a local L.A. college where overqualified instructors teach a generation of underachieving students.

“Times are tough” says Larry in his Tom Joad moment, but they’re about to get a lot easier, at least for him. At the college he’s promptly taken under the wing of a pretty young student (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who teaches him to text in class. She also treats him to a hip makeover, accessorized with trendy glasses. But Larry really scores when he signs up for a speech class taught by Miss Tainot (Julia Roberts), a smoldering burnout married to a porn-addicted blogger. Roberts, still flashing that A-list smile and those million-dollar legs, struts in to help turn this big-screen sitcom into a remedial version of Welcome Back, Kotter.

For Hanks and Roberts—crowned with three best-acting Oscars between them—Larry Crowne must have been a lark, not even a job, since neither shows an inclination to do any real acting. Tanned and puffy-faced, Hanks has especially regressed; he’s so dull and uninvolved, right now he’d have a hard time passing muster in his old Bosom Buddies role.

In this cloying, sub-sophomoric movie, no child is left behind, not even Larry’s fatuous classmates who are magically transformed by Miss Tainot’s inscrutable classroom skills. The audience never learns how Larry’s college experience will help him find a good-paying job, but that’s academic. As long as he makes the grade with his hot teacher, life will work out fine and he’ll graduate into his reborn American dream.



Thursday, July 7, 2011

Now "Food Inc." Is Threatening the Honeybee

Queen of the Sun (Review)

New Documentary looks at the importance of honeybees

By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati CityBeat
Grade: B

In the wake of Food, Inc. have come numerous documentaries about how our profit-oriented tinkering with the natural world is producing disastrous results for both our health and that of the plants and animals we depend on for our food. Not to insult another species, but we are pigs.

Queen of the Sun, directed by Taggart Siegel (The Real Dirt on Farmer John) investigates how we’ve now managed to screw up the life of honeybees — there’s a crisis of what’s known as “colony collapse disorder,” in which the worker bees are disappearing from hives. And this has a threatening impact on the entire world, since we’re crucially dependent on pollination for agriculture.

We also learn in the film about a growing threat to American bee health — the wholesale trucking of colonies to California for use by the almond industry. So a lot is at stake in the subject of this film. Yet it is beautiful to watch. The close-up photography is superb — the colonies with their queen and workers, the way that bees are attracted to flowers and crops, the way that honey is produced … we have a front-row seat to watch nature in all its intricacies and delicacies.

We also learn about the grassroots movement toward “green” beekeeping and creation of bee sanctuaries (a movement strong in Cincinnati). And we get some expert commentary on the problems affecting honeybees from, among others, author Michael Pollan and beekeeper/writer Gunther Hauk. And this raises the one problem I had with the film. I attended a screening where Hauk spoke afterward and blamed “colony collapse disorder” on genetic engineering. The film could have gone into that subject in more detail.


Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wild Man Fischer: First "Derailroaded," Now Departed

Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry "Wild Man" Fischer (Review)
MVD Visual, 2011, Not Rated

By Steve Rosen
. . . . . . .

Frank Zappa loved his freaks. Through his record labels Straight and Bizarro, he recorded such one-of-a-kind acts like Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart, the GTOs (a bunch of groupies) and, last but not least, Larry “Wild Man” Fischer. Fischer, who died a couple weeks ago at age 66, was a manic-depressive, paranoid-schizophrenic Los Angeles street singer whose songs (“Merry Go Around”) have an appeal to those looking for truth and purity in the art of “outsiders.”

Fischer brought an extremely unusual voice to the venture — an enthusiastic yelp that is equal parts joyful and alarming. Zappa produced a two-disc album called An Evening With… that sold all of 12,000 copies. Fischer, whose volatility once prompted him to pull a knife on his mother, was so angry at Zappa for failing to make him a Rock & Roll star that he threw a bottle at him, just missing Zappa’s infant daughter. That maybe should have been his end, but Fischer hung around L.A. as a local personality, even recording a song popularizing Rhino Records in the 1970s.

Derailroaded, which Josh Rubin and Jeremy Lubin named after a Fischer song and worked on for years as a labor of love, both with and without an often-troubled Fischer’s cooperation, considers whether Zappa insensitively opened a Pandora’s box without understanding the consequences, but it also shows that Fischer’s wild music and good humor — when he was in the right mood — was pretty infectious on those who encountered him.

The movie has a deeply sobering, sad side — as Fischer got older and more difficult, the weight of his illness bearing down on him and those nearby, you worry how he gets through every day. Yet even still there are those in the L.A. music business who try to help — especially the novelty-song producers known as Barnes & Barnes (Robert Haimer and Billy Mumy), who are extensively interviewed. They somehow arranged for one of the strangest chapters in Fischer’s career (and in the film), a 1986 duet with Rosemary Clooney on a song called, fittingly, “It’s a Hard Business.”

Grade: B

(Cincinnati CityBeat, 6-29-11)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Film Review | Super 8

8 Is Enough

By Thomas Delapa

Interviewed for Super 8, his retro, 1970s-era monster movie, writer/director J.J. Abrams declared to Parade magazine his idea was to “invoke the spirit of films that inspired me as a kid without xeroxing them.”

Well, no one can possibly say that Abrams’ toothless send-up is a carbon copy of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. or any other Steven Spielberg monster 1970s/1980s hit. It’s astronomically inferior. It makes 1941 look like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The creator of TV’s Lost who’s also made a small leap to the big screen, Abrams even got Spielberg to co-produce. What might be hero-worshipping homage for the former adds up to reel self-glorification for the latter.

Subpar on almost every level, Super 8 unspools as an ode to old-school amateur filmmaking in the days before the ascendancy of the video—and digital—universe. In the small Ohio town of Lillian, a group of nerdy kids (think Goonies) are making their own zombie flick. It’s the brainchild of chubby Charles (Riley Griffiths), whose crew includes the mop-haired Joe (Joel Courtney) and a blond leading lady (Elle Fanning) without a license to drive. In the first of Abrams’ tin-plated plot conceits, little Joe has just lost his mother to a deadly accident at the local steel mill.

An adolescent auteur in search of a story, Charles’ quest for cool production values leads the cast and crew to a desolate railroad station in the dark of night. But living truth demolishes undead fiction when a speeding truck slams into a passing train, causing a gratuitously over-the-top, pyrotechnic derailment that could only exist in a digitally juiced-up Hollywood movie of today.

In the aftermath of this wreck (both train and movie), all hell breaks loose in the town. Hidden aboard the train, the kids find a mountain of strange white metallic cubes. But something else has been unleashed, something gnarly and weird, and only the sinister U.S. Air Force knows what. That’s not the biggest mystery in Abrams’ story: Lillian must be such a backwoods burg, no media outlets bothers to cover the ensuing events, even as the calamities approach Three Mile Island fueled with War of the Worlds.

While Abrams pays lip service to the power of old-fashioned filmmaking, he derails it at every twist and turn. Loaded on as the major plot device, Charles’ Super-8 camera inadvertently captured the train disaster, but the revealed footage doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know or haven’t previously seen; the whole scene is treated like an outtake instead of a major MacGuffin. When we do find out what the train’s top-secret cargo is, it’s also thrown in like excess baggage. Abrams’ cavalierly hands the menace over to his special-effects crew, who generate a super-fluous digital monster that would put Roger Corman to sleep.

By contrast, take any of the aliens, spaceships or even demonic trucks from Spielberg’s classic sci-fi/horror hits and it’s striking just how much they were invested with a wondrous, otherworldly quality and weight. Abrams has no sense of wonder or real imagination. He’s a synthetic, low-gauge sampler of somebody else’s dream works.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Film Review | Midnight in Paris

Night at the Musée

By Thomas Delapa

In the opening minutes of Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen presents a loving—yet languid—montage of postcard-pretty sights from the City of Light. Mon dieu, we get it, Woody: Paris is a beautiful backdrop whatever time of day it is.

In the latest stop in Allen’s expatriate cinematic tour after London and Barcelona (If it’s Tuesday, this must be France…), the serio-comic auteur toasts Paris, home to all things cultured, sophisticated and artistic. After Manhattan, Paris is Allen’s self-proclaimed spiritual home, and now he’s turned that moveable feast into a movie fantasy, if a half-baked one.

No, you’re not dreaming. In Owen Wilson, Allen makes a baffling choice, casting the Texas-born comedy star as his newest cinematic alter ego. Wilson is Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter on vacation abroad with his vapid fiancée (Rachel McAdams). A closet Proust, Gil yearns for “Paris in the twenties in the rain,” and before you can say “slushy plot device” three times, he’s magically whisked to that literary and artistic golden age. Each night at the stroke of 12, he’s picked up by an antique coupe to begin his rendezvous with a gallery of greats, who all treat him like a long-lost comrade.

By day, Gil contends with an assortment of ugly, boorish Americans, whether his girlfriend’s shopaholic parents or a pompous professor (Michael Sheen) who’s an expert on everything, even correcting a museum tour guide (French first lady Carla Bruni). What Allen expediently forgets is that the faux casting of Wilson is almost as crass as his bluntly caricatured Yanks. Every present-day American in the film is a French-fried twit, excepting, of course Allen’s starry-eyed stand-in. Acting as supporting props to the Paris sights is a handful of chic French beauties who ooze charm, culture and ooh-la-la.

Meanwhile, back in the Jazz Age past, Gil hobnobs with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali. As a swarthy, pre-Papa Hemingway, only Corey Stoll shows off some grace under pressure, punctuating his impersonation with droll and, yes, Hemingwayesque bravado. The rest of Allen’s cameos enter and exit like walk-ons from a wax museum.

While neatly dressed up with cigarette holders and Cole Porter music, Midnight in Paris clocks in as a high-toned Night at the Museum, with Hemingway taking Teddy Roosevelt’s place in the semi-living tableaux. Wilson—who appeared in the latter—has a penchant for light, slacker comedy, but his nasal voice and boyishly gee-whiz persona are wearing old, and he’s fast becoming part of a lost generation of 40-something Hollywood actors.

Wilson is out of step with the Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard, indifferently cast as a Picasso groupie who herself is nostalgic for the belle époque of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge. Gil can insist all he wants that “Prufrock is my mantra” to a visiting T.S. Eliot; when it comes to a fitting movie setting, Wilson may slip right into Shanghai Noon, but in Midnight in Paris, he’s way out of time.


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Bona Fide Funny

by Thomas Delapa

How to describe O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers' latest wild and wooly film fantasy? Ostensibly based on Homer's Odyssey, it attempts to do for the deep South what Fargo did for the upper Midwest, only in a far lighter vein. It may be the only movie to combine Greek myth, bluegrass music, a biblical flood and a Ku Klux Klan rally.

The gods must be smiling on the Coens, for somehow this wacky extravaganza works.

I may live to regret saying this, but I take back almost everything I've said about George Clooney's acting abilities. Discarding his stolid, tough-guy roles, Clooney dusts off a bright, charming comic personality to go along with his matinee-idol good looks.

Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill, one of three prisoners who escape a Mississippi chain gang during the Depression 1930s. With him are his dim, down-home cohorts, Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (the wild-eyed John Turturro). As incentive to escape, Everett promises the other two a share of the million dollars he's hidden away from a robbery.

After the Odyssey, the brothers Joel and Ethan take the idea of a husband trekking home to claim his wife after years away. But the Coens also borrow from Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges' 1942 screwball comedy which told of a Hollywood director who hobnobs as a hobo to research his upcoming human-interest drama called Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

You don't need to know Greek to enjoy the misadventures of this trio. Blessed with the gift of pedantic gab, Everett is a cheery optimist who's obsessive about his brand--Dapper Dan--of hair gel. When it comes to winning back the wife (Holly Hunter) who's disowned him, he insists, "But I'm the pater familias" in a manner that suggests Bugs Bunny crossed with Clark Gable.

Clooney's ably supported by Nelson and Turturro as his partners in grime and ex-crime. The dumbest of the bunch, Delmar postulates that Pete was turned into a toad during a close encounter with a threesome of sultry sirens along a riverbank.

Along with Roger Deakins' glowing, golden-hued cinematography is a toe-tapping sprinkling of old folk favorites as the score. Once the boys wander in to a recording studio and serendipitously sing "Man of Constant Sorrow" accompanied a black guitar player (Chris Thomas King), unknown to them they become a sensation on the airwaves. Toward the end, they get to reprise their hit in rambunctious hootenanny wearing false beards.

O Brother might have been better had it ended with its gleeful musical finale. Instead, the Coens bother to add on a deus ex machina flood that washes away some of the buoyant momentum.

Nonetheless, after the big letdown of The Big Lebowski, the Coens are back on top in this terrifically odd but uplifting Depression odyssey.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 1-18-01

Monday, May 23, 2011

Film Review | Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Dead Man Swimming

by Thomas Delapa

For the fourth voyage of Pirates of the Caribbean, producer Jerry Bruckheimer set sail with a new director at the helm, a slimy new villain and a salty leading lady. But don’t shiver your timbers, mateys—flighty Cpt. Jack Sparrow is back at the wheel, this time with zombies, mermaids and a load of mascara in tow.

Subtitled On Stranger Tides, this waterlogged swashbuckler sends Depp and crew on a—wink, wink—quest for the legendary Fountain of Youth. With three-time director Gore Verbinski, as well as stars Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, wisely abandoning ship, new skipper Rob Marshall (Chicago) goes overboard to revive a foundering franchise that by now should be sleeping with the fishes.

The new cast netted Ian McShane as the infamous Blackbeard, who’s enhanced his piracy with voodoo powers and a super-sized sword. Barely onboard is Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s daughter, whom Sparrow deflowered in a convent and now vows revenge. Hamming it up from stem to stern, Geoffrey Rush got his King’s Speech transfer and returns as Sparrow’s peg-legged rival Barbossa.

Screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio treat the rudderless plot like driftwood. Rather than be beaten by the hated Spanish, England’s King George hires Barbossa to find the Fountain of Youth first, with Blackbeard’s ghostly ship in vague pursuit. Blackbeard has “zombified” his crew, which is a pretty fair description of Pirates’ remaining ticket-buying public. In another lethargic nod to Depp’s original homage, Keith Richards flies in for a cameo as Sparrow’s dad, just long enough for a crusty in-joke. (“Does this face look like it’s been to the Fountain of Youth?”)

Exactly where all these pirates and privateers are going is as clear as mud, since almost every scene is an excuse for a tsunami of stunts, dull swordplay and special effects. An unusually bewitching scene with a singing mermaid quickly morphs (literally) into a screaming attack by a school of mermaids, digitally spawned into man-eating monsters.

With Knightley and Bloom in dry dock, the surviving stars are castaways in an inane story that gets old before anyone finds the Fountain of Youth. Cruz—evidently pregnant during the production—comes off as peaked, if not seasick. Depp’s tipsy, swishy shtick should have been deep-sixed two movies ago, but Disney and first mate Bruckheimer have never been shy about wringing the last drop of box-office booty from their franchise mega-hits.

On the surface, one might think that McShane—so suavely menacing in TV’s Deadwood— might be able to singlehandedly keep this Pirates voyage afloat. But like everyone else, he goes down with ship, victimized by a moribund story and scurvy dialogue.

Aye, avast the S.O.S. On Stranger Tides is a washout.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Harry Shearer's Very Serious Film About New Orleans

The Big Uneasy (Review)
Harry Shearer looks at why the New Orleans levies failed

Cincinnati CityBeat 5-11-01
. . . . . . .

The compelling argument that the catastrophic 2005 flooding of New Orleans was caused not so much by Hurricane Katrina but rather by negligence in the construction and operation of levees by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been reported in newspapers and magazines.

But because the information has come out in dribs and drabs after the fact, it hasn’t really made much of an impact on the national public consciousness, much less produce a sense of outrage.

So Harry Shearer, the This Is Spinal Tap actor and humorist (and part-time Crescent City resident), has decided to get serious and put all the story elements together in this (literally) muckraking documentary.

It’s a worthy effort, filled with great insight into the making of the flood and the troubling revelations about the arrogant way the Corps does business and is protected by the U.S. Congress.

But it also shows the limits of a single 98-minute film to clearly and easily (and visually) keep track of such a complex story. That’s a nice way to say it’s easy to get lost following the many points it makes, and the editing doesn’t help.

It could use more narration by Shearer and less jumping around among interviewees. But there is an excellent graphic, at the film’s beginning, about how the levees were breached, where they collapsed from shoddy construction, and how that caused a chain reaction of flooding. And the section about the environmental hazards of a boondoggle of a Corps project called “Mr. Go” (Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet) is downright frightening.

The core of the film consists of interviews with Ivor Van Heerden, head of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center, who led a state investigation critical of the Corps and appears to have been fired for it; Robert Bea, a UC-Berkeley professor who led a National Science Foundation investigation also critical of the Corps; and Maria Garzino, a Corps engineer who has criticized the quality of new pumps used to protect against future flooding.

Grade: B

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Film Review | Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

All in the Family

by Thomas Delapa

Of all American institutions, none is quite as sacred as the family. It’s been the fodder (and mother) for a score of sitcoms, from Leave It to Beaver to Home Improvement. Even dysfunctional families–like the Osbournes–have their own TV shows. The family is that great, warm-and-fuzzy bulwark against the world, a safe haven that’s revered, if sometimes reviled.

Yet families are fragile things. Divorce and death–and time itself–can tear them apart. But nothing comes close to the destruction of New York’s Friedman family, caught on film in Andrew Jarecki’s riveting Capturing the Friedmans.

A Sundance award-winner, this disturbing documentary unfolds like a factual version of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Both films are deeply concerned with the labyrinthine relativity of truth. Both attempt to rehash traumatic past events from the prism of individual testimony. Is the truth ever really out there? It all depends whom you ask.

In the early 1980s, the Friedmans were a typical middle-class, Jewish family from Long Island. Arnold was a quiet, respected schoolteacher who taught piano and computer classes at night. Arnold and wife Elaine were busy raising three teenage sons, David, Seth and Jesse.

"I had a good family, right?" Elaine asks in retrospect. We’re reminded early on that looks are deceiving. In 1984, the FBI arrested Arnold on charges of receiving child pornography through the mail. Agents searched his house and found kiddie-porn magazines hidden behind the piano. It was just the beginning of the Friedman nightmare. Soon after, both Arnold and Jesse were put on trial, charged with more than a hundred counts of child molestation and sodomy. The alleged victims were boys from Arnold’s computer class.

Capturing the Friedmans is dicey, difficult material, and not simply due to its ghastly subject matter. The Friedmans–first Arnold and then son David–were almost obsessive about documenting their lives in home movies. Jarecki in turn skillfully incorporates that footage into his film. The result is a devastating record of a family coming apart before our eyes.

At the same time, Jarecki shakes our belief in the nature of truth and justice. Through interviews with the principals in Arnold and Jesse’s case, Jarecki raises troubling questions about the way the police conducted the investigation. The judge staunchly maintains that Arnold was guilty. A journalist who specializes in such sex cases argues that Arnold and Jesse were victims of overzealous police and a Crucible-like community hysteria.

Yet Jarecki isn’t a muckraker a la Errol Morris in The Thin Blue Line (his 1988 documentary that helped exonerate a Texas man convicted of murder). Jarecki raises questions, but doesn’t necessarily set out to answer them. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Arnold Friedman’s trial is that absolutely no physical evidence was submitted. The conviction came strictly on the boys’ testimony, some of which came through the dubious use of hypnosis.

It is evidently true that Arnold was a pedophile. He had several clandestine relations with teenaged boys apart from the computer class. To this day, David vehemently believes in his father’s innocence. In one of many of the film’s wry ironies, David today is one of the most popular "birthday clowns" in New York City. (Seth refused Jarecki’s request for an interview.)

On first glance, the Friedmans’ home movies exude an air of normalcy. But Elaine’s hindsight criticism of the unusual bonds between Arnold and his sons made me look closer. The outrage voiced by both David and Jesse may be indicative of two brothers working on at least two decades of denial.

As you watch the Friedmans destruct at home around the dinner table, you wonder if the truth of what went on will ever be known. And you may worry just how close similar deviance is to other "normal" families. On the surface, the Friedmans were right out of Ozzie & Harriet. But lurking under the dinner table, there was something dark and festering that no one dared say–even today.

[N.B. Arnold Friedman died in prison in 1995; Jesse Friedman was released from prison in 2001 after serving 13 years of his sentence.]

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 7/24/03

Friday, May 6, 2011

Now That It's May, It's Time for Some 'Fair Weather'

“It’s Always Fair Weather”
(Warner Home Video)
Grade: A

By Steven Rosen

Cincinnati CityBeat

Any short list of the greatest movie musicals should include this inexcusably overlooked 1955 MGM masterpiece from co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, a sequel of sorts to “On the Town” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Way ahead of its time, it’s a biting, surprisingly pessimistic satire on 1950s-era consumer culture – television, advertising, fixed boxing – and middle-aged angst, punctuated by some of the greatest dance numbers ever choreographed.

Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd dance with trash-can lids on their feet, Kelly has an astonishingly graceful yet athletic number on roller skates as he sings “I Like Myself,” Cyd Charisse goes at it with beefy boxers on “Baby You Knock Me Out,” and the wonderful Dolores Gray has two numbers as a preening TV host.

DVD extras include a Kelly/Charisse dance number (with just partial audio) cut from the film as well as a short documentary about “Fair Weather’s” history. (It’s sold separately, or part of an MGM “Classic Musicals” box that also has “Till the Clouds Roll By,” “Ziegfeld Follies,” “Three Little Words” and “Summer Stock.”)