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.”)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Film Review | United 93 (2006)

United They Fell

by Thomas Delapa

On the day of infamy that was Sept. 11, 2001, America wasn't any more prepared for a sneak attack than it was on Dec. 7, 1941. If you need reminding of this and other appalling 9/11 facts, fasten your seat belts and spend 95 harrowing minutes aboard United 93. Director Paul Greengrass' exacting reenactment lands in theaters as one of the must-see films of the year.

On the fateful morning that changed America, no one onboard United's Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco could have known that their final destination would be a field in the middle of Pennsylvania. Of the four jets hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists that day, 93 was the only one that didn't find its target. The crew and passengers' "Let's roll" heroism is now the stuff of heart-wrenching legend. Greengrass and company tell their story with soaring moral authority.

Yet United 93 expands its flight plan with a provocative review of 9/11 as experienced by those who helplessly watched the events unroll first-hand. Greengrass tracks the paths of the other three airliners through the eyes and ears of the air-traffic monitors, both military and civilian, along the Eastern seaboard.

This is a film every American should see, if only to be reminded of how easy it was for a handful of hijackers armed with razor blades to mount a devastating and demoralizing attack on the most powerful nation on Earth. In but a few shockingly unreal minutes, the terrorists destroyed the most visible symbol of American financial might, and came close to destroying this country's military headquarters.

Greengrass' "real-time" re-creation begins with the four neatly dressed terrorists preparing to board the Boeing 757 at the Newark airport. At the gate, oblivious passengers chat on their cell phones. In a cruel twist of fate, one man barely makes it on the plane before it departs.

A British director, Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) approaches his subject with exceptional diligence and respect. There are no Hollywood stars here, only non-professional actors who were cast for their similarities—in appearance and background—to their models. Former United pilot JJ Johnson plays 93 Capt. Jason Dahl. In an eerie bow to verisimilitude, the role of FAA operations manager Ben Sliney is played by Sliney himself, whose first day on the job began the morning of Sept. 11.

From the thousands of audio recordings that day, Greengrass and his crew reconstruct the chaos, confusion, shock and terror that shook the U.S. to its roots. Necessarily, we are also made to watch again the unthinkable inferno of the World Trade Center towers, images that will forever burn in the minds of Americans.

For all its agonizing familiarity, United 93 also dramatizes the little-known events that were of crucial importance in the terrorists' success once the planes were airborne. Forty years ago, Stanley Kubrick gave as doomsday scenario of Dr. Strangelove, which ridiculed our arrogant reliance on military technology. For all the billions of dollars in high-tech equipment at the disposal of the government, effective communication was muted by bureaucracy and complacency. Minutes before the hijackers stormed the 93 cockpit, a sign warning "Beware of cockpit intrusion" was flashed to the pilot and co-pilot.

This lack of preparedness was duly followed all down the line, from the civilian to military oversights. Well after the U.S. military was made aware of the hijackings, it was only able to muster two fighter jets in the air to intercept the planes. Meanwhile, since the president and the vice president were both incommunicado, it was impossible for anyone to give the command to shoot down the hijacked planes.

As the surreal doom settles in, Greengrass puts his attention on the last horrifying minutes of Flight 93. For those who believe United 93 should have never flown as a movie, please feel free to locate the exit doors and go stick your head in the sand.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly 5/04/06