Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Review – Divine Trash

If you’re a fan of John Waters and/or Divine, you should enjoy this documentary immensely. It doesn’t reveal anything especially new or interesting about Waters and his coterie, and many of the interviews are less than fascinating. It also isn’t a sterling example of the documentary art, structure and editing unobtrusive but not much more. On the plus side, however, it does feature some interesting archive footage. The behind-the-scenes material from Pink Flamingos was especially good. Mildly amusing

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Review – Born into Brothels

A photographer gives cheap cameras to a handful of kids in the red light district of a big city in India, and the rest of the movie pretty much makes itself. This production is priceless proof that Social Darwinism – particularly the notion that poor people are miserable because they’re stupid and talentless – is a lie. The subject matter virtually guaranteed that this documentary would turn out to be uplifting and extremely depressing at the same time. Emotional swings notwithstanding, the most impressive thing about these kids’ stories is just how good some of their photos turn out to be. Maybe I should show them this movie the next time I teach photojournalism. Buy it

Monday, March 20, 2006

Review – But I'm a Cheerleader

Imagine a John Waters wannabe directing an After School Special about teenage homosexuality and you’ve got some idea of what you’re in store for here. This picture’s heart is clearly in the right place, and it raises some important criticisms of society’s treatment of teenage sexuality, particularly the camps designed to “de-gay” kids who seem to be straying from the straight and narrow. But most of the humor depends on kitsch and/or cliché, and the serious moments frequently come across as stiff and contrived. Still, I’ve seen worse movies. And if I was a gay teenager I might find some comfort here. Mildly amusing

Friday, March 17, 2006

Review – Birds of Prey

The box for the DVD trumpets not the other triumphs of the director or the past accomplishments of the cast but rather the vita of the guy who did the aerial photography. I suppose that in a movie that’s mostly about helicopter chases, that’s a good thing. Certainly the chopper shots are the high point of this made-for-TV production from 1973 about an ex-Flying Tiger (David Jansen) now reduced to flying a traffic chopper. From his vantage point in the sky our hero witnesses a bank robbery. The robbers take a hostage and – as luck would have it – escape in a helicopter. The rest of the movie is chopper chase after chopper chase, punctuated occasionally by long stretches of pointless conversation. If you see this, consider fast-forwarding through the talking. Most of the dialogue is so stiff and contrived that it could have been written by Mamet and Tarantino, but only if both were having an especially bad day. See if desperate

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Review – The Constant Gardener

Rare is the movie that fails to work on this many levels. It’s a mystery about an English bureaucrat in Africa whose liberal crusader wife is murdered under strange circumstances. The truth behind the killing becomes apparent to even the dimmest audience member almost immediately, but our hero flails on and on trying to reach the place we’ve all gotten to ages after we’ve gotten there. Like some other movies based on LeCarre novels, this show features some action movie elements. But there’s nowhere near enough action for it to qualify for that genre, either. Having an international drug company and its government stooges play the bad guys suggests that the production is also trying to be a message piece, but the message is so simple-minded (poisoning Africans to test drugs for Western markets is bad) that it isn’t any more interesting than the non-mysterious mystery. Finally, the picture seems to be going for stylish and in places erotic. Heroine Rachel Weitz sort of makes it work, but Ralph Fiennes plays his character’s tense and nerdy aspects far too well for him to appeal to viewers as a hero suited to a slick, sexy action movie. The result has lots of ambition but not much achievement. Mildly amusing

Monday, March 6, 2006

Review – The Corpse Bride

Tim Burton is slipping. He used to be known for his excellent use of art direction to create unusual movies. Early in his career – in particular the animated short “Vincent” – he was doing this sort of thing with animation. Trouble is, now the look-and-feel has been co-opted by so many other sources that it’s just not all that much fun anymore. Indeed, large sections of this picture play like an early level of the video game Voodoo Vince. When the innovative visuals aren’t innovative anymore, all that’s left are standard stuff such as plot and character. And in those departments all Burton can muster here is the equivalent of a Rankin-Bass holiday special with goth-grim death themes rather than Christmas cheer. Burton veterans – including Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Danny Elfman – lend their talents to the production. Not bad overall, but far from anyone’s finest moment. Mildly amusing

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Review – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

In some ways this is an interesting story. On the surface Ken Lay and his cronies appear to have pulled the biggest con job in history. These guys built a huge house of cards, painted over it with government connections, and then ran for the hills with their pockets well lined when the whole mess finally collapsed. And fortunately for the documentary-makers who would follow, they left a copious paper and videotape record in their wake. However, the farther I got into the movie the more I began to suspect that the crimes committed by Enron’s executives were neither as unique nor as scandalous as the audience was being led to believe. The use of creative accounting techniques to perpetrate a fraud on investors might not be all that widespread, but neither profit from corporation-created misery nor close relationships between wealth and government is at all uncommon in our society. I can’t very well fault the film-makers for not pursuing an indictment of all the corruption in American capitalism, but they nonetheless failed to sufficiently distinguish Enron from Haliburton or GE or any of the legion of huge bloodsuckers coddled by our economy and our legal system. Also, the off-the-rack music on the soundtrack is often more intrusive than it should be. Shortcomings notwithstanding, this was a better movie than at least a couple of other productions in the running for the Best Documentary Oscar, including the movie that won. [Supplemental note: they got convicted! Yay! Then Ken Lay croaked over, so now it’s between him and God.] Mildly amusing