Thursday, July 31, 2008

Yella (2007)

I've had time to contemplate this one. Saw it on a night off from painting. (Venue: the Grand Illusion). Dan and I had the theater to ourselves, which was perfect because this is one that begs throwing out comments and asking questions in real time. When the movie begins, you learn a few things about the intriguing Yella: she has a stalker, she's accepted a job away from the home she shares with her dad in Eastern Germany and she takes a loan from her dad (which turns out to be his nest egg). These details set the stage for the fiasco that follows.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Yella and her father portray a peculiar, almost sexual relationship. You only get a brief scene but the feeling lingers. The stalker turns out to be her estranged husband who is still hurting from her departure. While Yella makes terrible (almost unbelievable) decisions, I was entirely edge-of-my-seating it. I was rumbling to Dan: "She's nuts, why would she do that, NO WAY!" Dan had his own rumblings, but we were sucked in. The worse her decisions (accepting a ride from her stalker, taking a job offer from a shady business owner, trusting a different shady stranger defrauding people out of money, choosing to become the business partner of the second shyster and then falling for him), the more she tricked me into wanting to know more. What is at Yella's motivational core? Wait for it...can you guess...MONEY! That's the other part of this's brutally honest. Her decisions are money-based. (Yella, herself, wouldn't disagree.) People's relationships to money are as diverse as people themselves and this twists up this story.

The story sequence is in flashbacks and what seems like real-time. You spend a lot of time with Yella. Maybe that's why you feel like Christian Petzold has taken you on an enjoyable ride and then after a snap, he yanks you off, making you feel short-changed. Initially, I HATED the ending; seemed like a cheap way out. After discussing it more with Dan over Korean-style spicy squid, I came to dislike it less. Best to leave it there. The details are rich if you choose to pay attention to them, the clarity forms.

Themes: trust, economic issues, unhappy marriage, East Germany

Director: Christian Petzold

Country: Germany

Genre: Thriller/Drama

Minutes: 89

Scale: 3

Chalk (2006)

Chalk was described to me as an Office Space for teachers. How could any fan of Office Space not say, sign me up? One of the opening shots announces the grim stats: 50 percent of all new teachers quit within the first three years. Although a mockumentary, at Chalk's core remains this disturbing nugget of truth.

It has its moments but definitely not giving Office Space a run for its money. Perhaps funnier to teachers and those working with students, the situations seem real but taken to that untenable place. In some school system, all of these situations are occurring.

The teachers are all a little nuts in mostly endearing ways; all are resoundingly filled with hope. They are doing their best at a hard job. Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan) shone as the newly minted AP (Assistant Principal). She showcases what her life becomes after becoming AP--excruciatingly long hours, no time with her husband, no sex. Yet, she keeps showing up every day. Once she starts as AP, her friendly relationship with Coach Webb (Janelle Schremer) deteriorates and Webb is left with few allies. Coach Webb is a hoot.

These actors embody their roles and make these wacky situations believable. Maybe the underlying message will stay with you. It did with me...we're screwed.

Themes: School system issues, lives of teachers, romance at the workplace

Director: Mike Akel

Country: US

Genre: Mockumentary

Minutes: 85

Scale: 2.5

Back to Blogging

Hello to my two fans. If you've visited lately, I have been offline for a while. Painting my place took a time toll but it was worth; it looks vibrant and bright. I didn't complete my place. The bedroom is next but I couldn't do it all at once. The downside is that I was dedicated to the painting for too long and didn't do much of anything else besides work. I snuck movies in and thought a lot about the blog. I've kept a tally of movies watched. They aren't as fresh in my noggin but I'm gonna do my best. Stay tuned folks.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Michael Clayton (2007)

Michael Clayton kicks off and runs at a furious pace. The title character, played by George Clooney, is his law firm's fixer. (What is a fixer? As defined at, it is "a person who uses influence or makes arrangements for another, especially by improper or unlawful means.") He is good at his job. When his friend and colleague, Arthur, goes off his meds (he's a manic-depressive and schizophrenic), Arthur has a change of heart about the U-North case he has lived and battled on for years. Is he delusional as Clayton points out or is he, for the first time in his life seeing clearly? That is the question.

Pay attention or perhaps watch it twice, but this is a must-see. Upon second viewing, so much more makes sense initially because you know each character's intentions from the get-go. It's an exciting and fast-moving plot and the way the pieces add up at the end, it sparkles. The casting is a show-business trifecta: Tilda Swinton opposite George Clooney opposite Tom Wilkinson.

This role was made for Clooney. He's not a favorite of mine; seems like he plays the same role a lot and just shows up. This performance was different, soulful. He becomes Michael Clayton and he is complex--conflicted, stressed, confused, lonely. Tom I have to say a word? This is one of his best (In the Bedroom and Normal also great). Tilda Swinton envelops her juicy role!

Themes: mental illness, lawsuits, corruption, corporate crimes

Writer and Director: Tony Gilroy

Country: US

Genre: Drama/Thriller

Minutes: 118 minutes

Scale: 5

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)

Danish director Susanne Bier works with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro on her first English language film and she does it with the same skilled emotional stomping used in her Danish films.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Audrey (Halle Berry) and Brian (David Duchovny) enjoy a full life with their two kids in Seattle. When Brian goes out for ice cream one night and doesn't return, Audrey learns he has been killed trying to stop a domestic violence incident. We meet Jerry (Benicio Del Toro)prior to the funeral. He grew up with Brian and the two have been best friends since, but Jerry is an addict and Audrey had never liked him and couldn't understand Brian's friendship with him.

Audrey has an epiphany about Jerry and finds him. She learns he's  been clean few weeks. She offers to help him get on his feet and move into the extra room in her house. Once he moves in, everyone benefits. Audrey learns new things about Brian. Jerry helps the kids with the loss of their dad. Jerry's life improves--he starts exercising, working toward a job goal and bonding with Audrey and Brian's kids. At a certain point, this pisses off Audrey and she kicks him out. Jerry relapses and Audrey goes after him.

This movie, as in many of Bier's films, depicts how pain and sadness seek out hope in surprising places. I'm partial to Bier's movies: After the Wedding ( 2006), Brothers (2004) and Open Hearts (2002) made me cry. They have the same formula--a woman suddenly left without her boyfriend or husband due to some traumatic event. A different man enters the scene to help out and it's what follows. Sounds basic, sappy and a little sexist but the stories are always complicatedly woven to keep your interest. The plot subtly provides essential details without distracting you. I wanted to understand what drove Jerry to become an addict, after it was mentioned he'd been a lawyer. He names the drugs he started with--just one sentence about why and it's enough. The actors are brilliant portraying their characters' raw emotion. You connect with the characters on a non-verbal level, making some explanations irrelevant.

In my ranking of the four Bier movies I've seen, this one would be listed in last place. Although good, it was the most predictable. I still recommend but After the Wedding is my favorite, followed by a Open Hearts and Brothers.

Themes: loss of a husband, loss of parent, heroin addiction, grief, compassion, family, murder

Director: Susanne Bier

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Minutes: 117

Scale: 4

Jindabyne (2006)

Set in Australia, Jindabyne tempts you with a strong cast, the possibility of intrigue and the suggestion of a grand resolution, yet it doesn't deliver. We are led through the lives of four sets of couples; five if you include the two kids, who are pals. The main characters Claire (Laura Linney) and Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) are struggling in their marriage. They don't enjoy each other's company and his mother's presence often nearly unhinges Claire.

Their wavering marriage hits a thornier patch when Stewart and his three buddies go fishing and discover a dead young woman floating in the water. With no cell reception in this remote area and too late to hike back to the truck to call police, the men decide to continue fishing instead. Stewart secures a string around the woman's ankle so she won't float away. They proceed to fish and enjoy the sunny weather. Stewart even goes back to visit the body.

Upon weekend's end when they call regarding the dead girl, the questions begin. When did you find her? Why didn't you report it immediately? This makes the town news and unleashes racial tension as the dead girl is aborigine and the men are white. Claire is incensed with Stewart and becomes obsessed with the case.

Based on a Raymond Carver short story called "So Much Water So Close to Home," this isn't the first time this story has been made for the big screen--Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993) incorporated an adaptation. Jindabyne is much longer and provides more character details. It opens up many sub-plots, adding unnecessary complexity to the already busy story, and fails to tidy up. The acting is good but the characters don't make sense sometimes. The final scene leaves you wondering what will happen and it felt like a truly real moment.

Themes: mid-life issues, strained marriage, post-partem depression, murder, race tension

Director: Ray Lawrence

Country: Australia

Genre: Mystery/Drama

Minutes: 123

Scale: 2

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Cidade de Homens (City of Men) (2002)

If you are a fan of the Brazilian movie City of God, this series delves in a bit more. In 20 episodes spanning four seasons, you spend time with best friends Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunhan) learning about their daily life and adventures in their favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Favelas house the displaced, poorer people of the city. They are cramped, resemble shanty towns and have explicit rules followed by residents.

When the show begins, both boys are young...perhaps 10 or 11. They deal with not having their dads in their lives or even knowing with certainty who their dads are. They have each other as they navigate the issues of poverty, girls, virginity and their desire to lose it and staying out of the eyes of the drug dealers who serve as the de facto governing body in the favela. You become acquainted with the recurring characters; this helps strings the seasons and plots.

Social issues are presented in smart fashion.

In one of my favorite episodes called Uólace e João Victor, Laranjinha and Acerola confront the realities of being poor juxtaposed with the middle-class life of João Victor. However, similarities also exist and they are presented as well as the same prejudices shared by both the poor and wealthier boys about each other. There's a fantastic montage when Acerola, Laranjinha and their homeless friend are trying to get money to buy a burger when João Victor and his best friend walk by. The film is slowed down and music is added. Acerola and João Victor's friend lock eyes. Silently, they hurl derogatory slurs at each other and after a few minutes, we see they are using the same words. This was brilliant. It speaks to social hierarchies and class tension.

Coming of age is the theme of this series and the directors and cast do a great job here. The plots are creative, funny and poignant. The main characters physically age as the seasons progress and the plot lines work accordingly. Trite solutions are never employed. You connect with the two main characters and are usually rooting for them as they attempt to cut a different swath through the life they didn't choose but have accepted. They always hope for better and you end up doing the same from the sidelines.

Weeds, Season 3 (2007)

Weeds is the id on methamphetamine. It's hedonistic, narcissistic and self-indulgent. Sometimes some of the characters are mean, even cruel to each other. Yet, I look forward to marathon viewing. This season contains 15 episodes running approximately 30 minutes each.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Is Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) a bad mom? In the previous two seasons, it may have been easier to avoid the question. She got into this "business" as a matter of survival. She's good at it and has met the right folks to help. Life has become more complicated. By now both her sons Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Shane (Alexander Gould) know she's a pot dealer.

Nancy's often on the go, working and nurturing her criminal mind through myriad issues that continue to crop up. With all this navigating, she isn't home much. She enrolls Shane in summer school, which turns out to be different than expected. Silas starts dealing and recruits his new girlfriend, Tara (Mary-Kate Olsen) to help.

They take jabs at the military this season and there are times when Doug (Kevin Nealon) crosses so many lines that you wonder how much longer he can get away with it. Nancy gets a job and occasionally sleeps with her boss, (Sullivan) Matthew Modine, who's also sleeping with Celia (Elizabeth Perkins). Much like but better and faster paced than a soap opera, this escape-from-reality continues when Nancy has to pay off a debt to a thug called U-Turn. For supposed toughs, they're pretty nice to her. When she has to deal with the antagonists of those thugs, again, they respect her in spite of her being a skinny white lady that really has no idea of what she's getting herself into.

I enjoy watching Nancy trying to do the right thing while watching her back while having to outsmart those who want a piece of the earnings. The scripts are witty and always turn a corner, even when you think they've hit the roadblock to end future plots.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Olympic Sculpture Park and Fireworks @ Myrtle Edwards Park (July 4)

With several fireworks shows to choose from in Seattle and surrounding areas, decisions must be made. Most years, I go to Gasworks Park in Fremont for the show. The variety of colors and streams used in those fireworks push the boundaries of traditional fireworks shows. Downside is that Gasworks gets suffocatingly crowded.

When reviewing the choices, Myrtle Edwards Park combined with a trip to the Olympic Sculpture Park seemed a good plan. I hadn't yet been to the nine-acre waterfront park (opened in January 2007). I'd seen this austere beauty a few times whilst driving by. A tree constructed of metal:

5 Tree of Metal_hero

In a daydream state, you could walk by and overlook that this is not an actual, breathing tree. In the setting of an industrial park gone fancy, it especially works. As you enter the park, you see the first of the giant orange cones:

6 Cone & Neil

The entrance has several eye benches. The are functional art pieces that people actually use--see the heads occupying each seat.

8 Waterfront has eyes

9 Joining the Eyes

For the fireworks, guards were checking the contents of backpacks and larger bags and containers:

11 Uh Oh

Getting into role:

12 The Frisk

13 The Frist Redux

Once in the path, here is what you see:

14 Scultpure Park Wall

15 Iron

18 Neil and More Art

19 Ampersand

20 Needle Mantis

Being Myrtle Edwards newbies, we had no idea from where the fireworks would be launched. What added to the confusion was how little crowded it was. By 5:30, to have arrived to find a good spot at Gasworks would be tough, but here there it was no problem. We found a spot and put down the blanket. Scene of love next to us. (Please see background):

23 Animal Kingdom

The weather was cooperative:

26 Neil_Waterfront

There were patriots all 'round. Please notice the fantastic work-of-art red-white-blue mohawk:

33 Patriots 

34 Patriots 

The fire brigade was either putting on a pre-show or perhaps testing the water pressure/hoses/safety setup. Pix don't do it justice:

37 Neil & Fire Brigade Boat

38 Neil and Fire Brigade Boat


The crew:

53 4th Crew

The show began a little after 10pm and seemed to last a long time--about 28 minutes. Gasworks wins the fireworks content--much more spectacular, but Myrtle Edwards wins the venue contest. I wasn't able to get terribly wonderful shots. Here are the heroes:




Fountain on the way out of the park. Triptych:

75 Olympic Park Fountain

76 With Andy @ Fountain

77 @ Fountain

Post-fireworks shenanigans:


View of downtown waterfront from Bell Street Pier overpass:

79 Downtown Seattle

Seen at Lava Lounge. We argued about this. Most of us believed this was by design:

81 Oh Dear



Grand finale...lamp graffiti:



Wednesday, July 2, 2008

In the Valley of Elah (2007)

Tommy Lee Jones's enigmatic craggy-faced character of Hank Deerfield guides us through this murder mystery/thriller set at an Army base in New Mexico. When his son, Mike, currently serving in Iraq, returns for leave, he absconds and no one has any answers. Hank drives from Tennessee to the base to investigate but instead runs into bureaucracy. Due to laziness and sloppy work, the local police have turned over the case to the military cops who aren't as concerned with solving the crime. Charlize Theron is the detective who decides to help Hank find out what happened to his son.

The director, Paul Haggis, is also the man behind Crash. Most people loved Crash. I did not. It made an important point about racism but it banged your head way too often. That said, I wasn't expecting to, but I LOVED this movie. The topic is timely and the social commentary breaks down a man's long-held opinions and firm beliefs. You see it happening one scene at a time. Hank believes in the military and that it makes a person strong. But, Hank will doubt himself and face difficult realizations.

The plotting is shrewd. Clues are strategically placed. At times, you might get ahead of the investigation and yell at the TV for the characters to dig deeper, but the twists are plentiful. As Hank investigates, he views videos taken by Mike on his cell while abroad and these provide unexpected insight. Your final idea about what kind of person Mike was may surprise you but it illustrates how war can affect young people. (Not that I know this from personal experience, but rather from what I've read about or have heard in news reports about returning soldiers.)

TLJ carries this movie. The entire cast helps make ITVOE a resounding success, but you spend the most time with TLJ and he was a flawless casting choice for the character of Hank.


Themes: personal costs of war, murder, military police policies, sexism, camaraderie, military families, father-son relationships

Director: Paul Haggis

Country: US

Genre: Drama, Murder Mystery, Thriller

Minutes: 121 minutes

Scale: 6...having just recently awarded another movie a 6, I must learn to limit but this one is deserving

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Introducing the Dwights (2006)

This little gem from Australia is an example of how many films made outside the US are comfortable wrestling with family issues without offering a quick solution. Jean Dwight (Brenda Blethyn) is an entertainer still chasing her big break. She does bawdy stand-up, mostly aimed at her estranged husband (also a performer). Her son, Tim, usually drives her to her shows, watches and brings her back to their home.

Jean does her best to be a good mom, but her issues complicate this process. She hasn't achieved her dreams of success, but she thinks she's close. She's overly involved in her two boys' lives. Her disabled son Mark lives a full life. When Tim meets Jill, Jean has to confront her detachment anxiety. Tim confronts his own anxiety when he can't spend the night at Jill's because he doesn't want to upset his mother. The writer and/or director approached this as a serious issue, rather than making it a comedic twist. It isn't until Jean sees Mark with a girlfriend and hears him tell her he loves her that Jean realizes she's finally lost all control. Jean, Tim, Jill and Mark must confront the chaos as their household erupts in drama. This coming-of-age film puts Jean into the uncomfortable position of having to let go of Tim, whist Tim starts building his own life and reaching for his dreams.

Relationship complexities are probed and ample time is provided for the viewer to get tangled up in the characters' motivations. We don't always do the right thing. Sometimes, we get caught up in pride or being right. This movie hits that head-on, no shortcuts taken.


Themes: coming of age, mother-son relationships, jealousy, ambition

Director: Cherie Nowlan

Genre: Nicely combined drama/comedy

Country: Australia

Time: 106 minutes

Scale: 3.5