Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Reader (2008)

Kate Winslet won big at 2009’s Golden Globes and Academy Awards  for The Reader. She was on fire, but Winslet and DiCaprio’s mutual admiration ass-kissing club got to me with the: “he’s the best actor of his generation/she’s the best actress of her generation.” I opted *not* to see The Reader, despite all the hubbub.

I’d read the book years agoSexy time and recalled feeling lackluster. When Michelle brought the movie to Brian’s, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to see it. Once we started watching it, however, I was there (fast and furious-like) in pre-WWII Germany.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

German Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) works as an attendant on the trolley transportation. Teenager Michael Berg (David Kross) meets much older woman Hanna and they begin a clandestine sexual relationship lasting all summer. Part of their trysts involve Michael reading to her. He reads The Odyssey, The Lady with the Little Dog and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As Michael falls deeper and deeper for Hanna, he finds that Hanna can’t let her walls down; this leads to several rows. Michael is dismayed when he stops by to see her after school one day and finds she has absconded without a trace. Fast-forward nearly 10 years, Michael is in law school. His class is attending Nazi war crimes trial, when he is amazed to discover that his former lover, Hanna, is among the defendants. This re-opens the never-quite-healed wound of Hanna Schmitz. This time, Michael will learn devastating facts about his enigmatic first love.

Winslet is an acting goddess. She is Hanna Schmitz and wholly deserving of her awards. I do agree with DiCaprio’s assessment of her as one of the best actresses of her generation…I just wish he’d let us make that determination. The Reader is stellar and I will re-read the book and hope I get something different out of it this time.

Director: Stephen Daldry

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 123 minutes

Scale: 5

Art Institute of Chicago

Miniature dioramas:

Mini roomMini roomMini room Mini room Ancient Asian art:

Don't screw with him Six arms Oil print from wood block Monica Bonvicini exhibit: Light Me Black

Light Me Black Light Me Black Light Me Black Architecture and Design:

interactive projection by Stefan Sagmeister and Ralph Ammer Corallo Bench by Campana Brothers Chairs Chairs Chairs Light play Light play Light play Modern wing:

100_5136Sunny Morning–Eight Legs by Lucian Freud 100_5138 100_5140 100_5141 East River by Ellsworth Kelly Woman Descending the Stairs by Gerhard Richter Brushstroke with Spatter by Roy Lichtenstein 100_5148 100_5149 View of Millennium Park against Chicago skyline:

100_5150 Views of Modern wing:

100_5151 100_5152

Man on Wire (2008)

This one got one good review after another but I wasn’t convinced. I misunderstood that it was mostly clips from the event; a movie sounded blasé. Once I started watching, I was captivated. The documentary’s success is based on the large personalities involved, the vast planning and the incredible feat that couldn’t  occur in our post-9/11 world.

Baby steps Parisian Philippe Petit grows up with a passion for tightrope/high wire walking. He starts young and takes his act to the streets, setting up small-scale tightropes, performing for Parisians. The movie does contain clips of Petit in his youth (late teens and early 20s practicing) and his co-conspirators during their planning sessions, but it’s exciting to see the footage and see how they aged.

Petit’s first coup was setting up and executing a high wire walk between the Gargoyle-protected towers of Notre Dame in Paris. After this success, he and his posse take to Sydney, Australia, where he walks a tightrope between the two north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Neither wire walk would’ve been possible without Petit’s fiercely loyal friends, as you see in the doc. Remarkably, no cops or security got wind of it until Petit was mid-walk. Petit gets hungry for much more…he set his eyes on New York City’s World Trade Center towers. The year is 1974, but the dream begins years prior, even before construction of the towers has finished. The planning part is full of suspense and drama and just days before Petit starts his most famous walk, they almost cannot get everything done.

I could go on and on and on about Man on Wire, but I encourage you to see it. If you have reservations about this 2009 Oscar-winner for Best Documentary, see it anyway. You will be in awe…I promise.

Director: James Marsh

Country: US

Genre: Documentary

Run time: 90 minutes

Scale: 5

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Alphabet Killer (2008)

Whenever the viewer is teased with the ‘based on a true story’ hook, it raises curiosity and expectations. Unfortunately, taking license with these stories often leads to cinematic implosions.

Megan Paige (Eliza Dushku in a tranquilized, lame deer-in-headlights acting performance) is a cop hot on the trail of a serial killing pedophile. This person victimizes young girls with first and last names always matching in their first initials. Megan gets so into her crime fighting that she starts hearing the voices of and seeing the dead girls. They appear to her in beginning stages of decomposition. The girls seem to antagonize and plead for Megan to hurry up and solve the case.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

The stress continues getting to her until she has a nervous breakdown. Her cop boyfriend, Kenneth Shine (a heavily make-up laden Cary Elwes), is given the news—Megan is diagnosed with adult-onset schizophrenia. She is treated with medication and goes into a support program. There, she meets Richard Ledge (Tim Hutton) a man confined to a wheelchair who leads the support group. It’s now two years later—her relationship with Kenneth is over and she’s been demoted. The Alphabet Killer is killing young girls. Megan begs Kenneth to let her get involved with the case again, but on a detective-light scale. Kenneth allows it and partners her up with Officer Steven Harper (Tom Malloy). They begin making connections. Megan stops taking her meds. She starts hearing the voices and seeing the apparitions again. She hides this and continues on the case. After a few false leads, they are finally getting somewhere. Until the next breakdown involving a priest and Megan flailing and shooting a gun in a church. She’s hospitalized again but in an unlikely scenario, she breaks out to keep following up on the case. We are then presented with the bizarre, improbable and confusing climactic ending, which leaves you as confused as Megan.

I liked that the movie took on mental illness in an atypical fashion and in a unique setting but what the hell? It was peculiar, the actors are stiff and their situations are extremely difficult to believe.

Director: Rob Schmidt

Country: US

Genre: Thriller

Run time: 97 minutes

Scale: 2

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009)

My only question…WHY? In fairness, I watched the first hour. It was painful and I turned it off. Don’t let yourself be fooled by the miniscule moments of humor on which the trailer desperately focuses. It’s not funny. There are tiny moments where you chuckle, but that’s it!

Paul Blart (Kevin James) is a down-on-his-luck-with-the-ladies mall cop who has a crush on the woman who sells wigs in a mall kiosk. He wheels around on a Segway maintaining the ridiculous mall rules, such as wheelchairs not travelling at too fast a speed. He lives with his daughter and mother who frequently urge him to forge into the online dating world. (His daughter, by the way, is the product of his relationship with a Latina who “tricked” him until she could get citizenship and then take off).

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

When the mall cop trainee and his coterie execute their plan of taking the mall hostage and stealing profits from the stores, I had my last straw at the ridiculousness. Give me another scenario of hostage taking in the mall but please not a seizing mall store profits. James is funny and has excellent comedic timing; unfortunately, it cannot carry this carnage to your humor sensibilities. I discourage this viewing, but if you must, please report back with your results. I would love to hear that it turns about and ends up being a double-thumbs-up. I’d be dumbfounded if that happened.

Director: Steve Carr

Country: US

Genre: Comedy disappointment

Run time: 91 minutes

Scale: 2

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Elling (2001)

Second time around, the delightful Elling holds up.

After two plus years in the nuthouse in Norway, Kjell (Sven Nordin) and Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen) are ready to start over on their own in an apartment in Oslo. Elling, having been sheltered for most of his adult life by his mother in their messy house (reminiscent of Hoarders), is scared but does all he can to avoid admitting it. Kjell is an oversized moose of a man hyper-interested in sex (he’s still a virgin) and food. Their social worker, Frank (Jørgen Langhelle), loads them up with aBaby steps large helping of tough love, instructing them to become familiar with living, that that’s what they must do. Elling isn’t convinced. After Frank leaves, they move the second bedroom bed into the first bedroom, separated by a night table. Now, they are roommates again, just like in the institution. When Kjell attracts the attention of the kooky pregnant neighbor, Elling is fearful. He’s going to have to break out on his own. Soon, he discovers his calling in poetry.

This excellent movie is simple and gets to the heart of what’s important in life. While we fuss and sweat most things, there are folks truly struggling and battling their demons. Kjell and Elling are never very far from theirs and to watch them make their way in this new world and overcome life’s obstacles and their insecurities is a good kick in the pants to get up, get lost and forge your way again.

Director: Petter Næss

Country: Norway

Genre: Dram-Com

Run time: 89 minutes

Scale: 4

Monday, December 14, 2009


American Airlines, I’m singing your praises. My flight to Chicago boarded as scheduled and departed on time. No hint of turbulence and we landed 45 minutes early.

On the way out of Seattle, the pilot alerted us to the lovely view of Mt. Rainier:

Mt. Rainier Mt. Rainier Cascade mountains

Here’s a view of Chicago as we prepared to land:

Snowy Chicago

With Brian at O’Hare:

With baby bro

West side art:


Westlake Center Tree Lighting

Merry-go-round Buy More Stuff

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Yogen (Premonition) (2004)

Japanese filmmakers know how to spin horror. The cinematography here employs shots that focus, then close-in on characters having them looking directly into the camera. Angles draw you into the action. Slow at turns, you don’t get the extreme sense of urgency and heightened tension until near the end, where you are morphed from one plane to another.

Hideki (Hiroshi Mikami) is a workaholic who cannot take time to sing along with his wife, Ayaka (Noriko Sakai), and adorably cute daughter, Nana (Hana Inoue), on a road-trip. Instead, Hideki insists Ayaka drive back to a roadside pay phone. He must send his urgent e-mail when the Internet connection in the car isn’t allowing him to complete the transmission from the backseat where he types furiously while the gals sing away.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Agreeable Ayaka turns back. While he is in the phone booth sending his file over the extremely slow connection, he finds a newspaper with a printed story of the death of a young girl trapped inside a car when a truck collides killing her. The picture of the dead girl in the story is his daughter. He turns to look at the car in time to see the truck hit the car and the car start on fire. He runs over but he and Ayaka can only helplessly watch at the car explodes into a massive ball of fire.

Since the accident, Ayaka and Hideki divorce. But soon, due to a psychic, their paths cross again. Turns out Hideki continues to receive the newspaper clippings foretelling disaster and death. When he and Ayaka re-join forces, they not only rekindle their love but they start getting to the bottom of the fate that has gripped them.

This one is creepy enough to keep you entertained but not enough to grip you entirely. Plus, the newspaper clippings appear out of nowhere and only to some but you never really understand why to some and not to others and how in some instances fate is interfered with while in other instances, it cannot be stopped.

Director: Norio Tsuruta

Country: Japan

Genre: Horror

Run time: 92 minutes

Scale: 3

Tyson (2008)

Boxer, animal, convicted rapist, lost, bamboozled, womanizer, soft-spoken, egotistical, wounded. Regardless of whether you admire or dislike Mike Tyson, he’s a provocative figure. This gripping documentary is the man himself reflecting on his life. He’s worked hard, coming from his humble beginnings in Brooklyn as a thug and not knowing his father (or even being sure who his real father is) to finding his way out of juvenile delinquency through boxing. He found a father figure in Constantine “Cus” D’Amato, who trained Tyson but died before seeing him crowned the youngest heavyweight champion. As Tyson details his life’s highs and lows, he displays vulnerability, seething rage, disappointment and joy. His delivery is monotone, whether it’s rich with underlying anger or whether he is holding back tears. He doesn’t censor and his monologue is vibrant and authentic. It’s like you are watching a domesticated animal describe his taming process but you get snippets of the parts that cannot be kept down. Several times, I verged on tears. Tyson covers  describes meeting and marrying his first wife, Robin Givens; the rape accusation by Desiree Washington; his prison experience; finding Islam; his relationship with Don King, and the ear-biting incident with Evander Holyfield. You get archive footage ands clips of Tyson and and those who played key roles in his life. Prime conditionTyson mumbles fast and softly. You don’t miss much but a few times, what he says isn’t immediately clear.

My dad is a boxing fan. Growing up in our household, big matches were anticipated and prepared for. The beat-downs were difficult to watch and I mourned for the losers. This movie is Tyson cracking open his insides and offering the world a compelling view of the winner and the loser. Not to be missed.

Writer/Director: James Toback

Country: US

Genre: Documentary

Run time: 90 minutes

Scale: 4

Monday, November 30, 2009

Californication (Season 2) (2009)

Season 2 starts slowly. Hank (David Duchovny) and Karen (Natascha McElhone) are shacking up and doing well…but will it last?

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Where's Cokey Smurf?

Through flashbacks, we learn how Karen and Hank began. There’s complicated magic between these two and it’s evident.

Couplings begin crumbling. The fallout of Hank’s past tail-chasing catches up with him. Trust and boundary issues get to Karen (surprise, surprise). She tires of dealing with the man-child’s antics. Is it realistic that that many women throw themselves at Hank that often? And, all the sex without condoms? REALLY? In this day and age in Los Angeles? It’s a show but hard to believe it’s his modus operandi. Pregnancy seems the least of his concerns. And, while I’m on this tangent, what’s with using the expression retarded as a diss in almost each of the first six episodes? Not to get all PC here but really, people, don’t we need to rid our lexicon of that expression?

At about episodes 6/7, the plots began cooking when Marcy (Pamela Adlon—also the voice of Bobby Hill on King of the Hill) cannot stop indulging in the snow, while Charlie (Evan Handler) gets fired for chronic masturbation at work, which leads him into producing porn and landing a cameo in Vaginatown (porn remake of Chinatown), which leads to a wrinkle that leads to a tear in his marriage. You just know it won’t be a happy ending; I was disappointed with where the diminutive Runkles ended.

Hank indulges in a bromance with a music producer and the trajectory of their friendship transcends superficial and one thing is made clear…there are bromantic rules and these hedonists have ethics. This storyline was enjoyable but again, doesn’t end well.

The end of Season 2 snuck up. Before I knew it, it was over. Not sure that much really changed with Hank but it was entertaining, as the fairy tale of an LA man who refuses to grow up.

Guinevere (1999)

A strange movie, indeed, yet, compellingly watchable.

When naive Harvard hopeful Harper meets beguiling photographer Connie at her sister’s wedding, she’s intrigued, despite their considerable age difference. The two become friends. Connie proposes mentoring Harper in the arts. Harper is enticed, but she has no idea what she would “study.” With his help, she decides on photography and their relationship begins. Her Harvard Law-educated parents and sister expect she will follow in their footsteps. Connie senses she doesn’t want that and urges her to find her passion. The odd coupling of Harper’s awkwardness juxtaposed with Connie’s manipulative, charming belief in her is interesting; the ending bothers me.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Connie’s thing is to find a young woman (they seem to get younger and younger) to mentor in the arts. It’s typical for him to ask for a five-year commitment and he works with one young woman at a time. He grooms them in their chosen art. He helps them believe in themselves and become accomplished, yet in his own life, he’s a failure—a renowned artist who can no longer produce. I just didn’t buy it. This supposed great man, gifted photographer and brilliant mentor getting by hand-to-mouth and manipulating his protégées to work and sustain him while he still doesn’t produce! When protégées break free, it’s usually acrimonious,  but years later, they remain full of love for and indebted to him. When Connie gets sick, they hold a protégée reunion, which made me want to vomit. The acting is good up to that point, especially ESPECIALLY from Jean Smart, as Deborah Sloane, Harper’s mom. When she goes head-to-head with Connie, I wanted to clap because she sees through his seduction. Overall, not sure…highly recommended for the acting; cannot recommend the ridiculously cheesy ending.

Writer/Director: Audrey Wells

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 104 minutes

Scale: 2.5/3

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Machuca (2004)

Setting is Santiago, Chile, 1973. Civil unrest abounds. A coup is eminent. When principal Father McEnroe (Ernesto Malbran) invites lower-income boys to attend his school and integrate with his upper-class students, life changes for loner Gonzalo Infante (Matías Quer). The class bully’s seat is moved away from Gonzalo and new student Pedro Machuca takes his seat. The two boys forge a friendship that draws Gonzalo out of his tumultuous home life and his undesired collusion with his mother, while Pedro gains a needed male friend.

Events leading to the military coup of General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973, are depicted as they affect the characters in this coming of age film. TThe Threeensions heighten between the wealthy (Gonzalo and his family) and the impoverished (Machuca’s family). This, ultimately, roadblocks the blossoming friendship. Quer’s expressive face brings great life to Gonzalo’s character. His happiness at his new friendship and experiences is palpable. Machuca’s lack of fear in the face of the bully and authority provides Gonzalo courage. When they both fall for same girl who seems to prefer Gonzalo (although she constantly criticizes him calling him a rich snob), their friendships begins its descent.

As you can tell, I love films from abroad. The French do them very very well, but recently, the Spanish and Latin Americans are leaving me more entertained, impressed and on the search for more. This one is fantastic. (How do kids act so well at such a young age?) They display passion, fear, sadness, joy; they’re brilliant at emoting, something adults don’t often permit themselves without condemnation.

Co-writer/Director: Andrés Wood

Country: Chile

Genre: Drama

Run time: 119 minutes

Scale: 5

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

La habitación del niño (The Baby’s Room) (2006) and Para entrar a vivir (To Let) (2006)

Part of the 6 Películas para no dormir anthology (6 Films to Keep You Awake), this double-feature is scary. More psychological than gory (although you do get gore), both features play upon some of our deepest-seeded fears. In La habitación del niño, a Spanish couple—Sonia (Leonor Watling) and Juan (Javier Gutiérrez)—and their baby, move into their dream home: a lovely fixer-upper in need of serious work. When Juan’s sister and brother-in-law stop by for an unannounced visit, it’s not just frustration they cause. They leave the couple with a set of baby monitors to enable them to keep tabs on their boy without having to leave their room. When the baby monitors seem to malfunction, Juan invests in a infra-red video monitor so they can not only hear but also see baby, which leads to the trouble. Juan starts seeing an intruder in the baby’s room; problem is Sonia doesn’t. Is it in Juan’s imagination or is there paranormal activity in the baby’s room? And, who is this strange woman who speaks about no good coming out of their new home? The couple’s relationship suffers as Juan’s sanity is questioned, but what is he seeing in that monitor? The size of the house and it’s mess create an eerie atmosphere.

Co-writer/Director: Álex de la Iglesia

Country: Spain

Genre: Thriller/Horror

Run time: 77 minutes

Scale: 4

Flip the DVD and escalate the creepy factor in Para entrar a vivir, an even creepier movie. This time, the couple at center is seeking a new apartment. Mario (Adrià Collado) convinces pregnant Clara (Macarena Gómez) to check out an unbelievably priced place. Clara fights him on it—she’s tired, got a headache and just isn’t up for it, but Mario insists—price is too good. As Mario drives there, Clara falls asleep. Upon awaking, a torrential rainstorm is coming down. They arrive to the barren neighborhood in the outskirts of an area with which they aren’t familiar. Just as Clara is trying to convince Mario to just drive off, the rental agent (Nuria González) meets them outside and convinces them to come on in, as they are already here. As they are viewing the flat, the agent keeps talking to them as if the place is already theirs. Clara snaps at her and the agent suggests she lie down. In the bedroom, Mario discovers his old sneakers, but how did they get there…he chucked them a week ago? And, the picture of Clara and Mario bike riding…who took it and how did it get here? Getting out of this pickle proves more difficult than simply walking out, as the young couple soon finds. If you like scary stuff, check these out. Not sure about the remaining four in the anthology…but if you see them, let me know what you think.

Co-writer/Director: Jaume Balagueró

Country: Spain

Genre: Thriller/Horror

Run time: 68 minutes

Scale: 4.5