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

Say Hi @ Neumo's--11.7.09

Ooha & Aahs Discovering a new band is an excellent feeling. More satisfying is when the new band has an upcoming live date and sound even better live.

After seeing Say Hi on Art Zone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle channel, I noted their next local date, about six weeks out, as they were hitting the road for a short tour. When I told Carrie, Andy and Corinn about the show, everyone was on-board. The night began with some odd misadventures that I won’t get into but, to summarize concisely, people are strange and this makes life infinitely much more entertaining.

Local band Sea Navy opened with jauntiness. They played harder, especially as their set progressed. With a Pavement-meets-Pixies edge, they warmed up the eager crowd.

By the time, Say Hi hit the stage, the crowd had filled in a bit more. The trio had palpable chemistry, which as an audience member, energizes me. Bands that stand up there, look cool and act like each one of them is the only one on stage are passé (hear that, Ladytron?). Andy commented on their Nirvana-esque vibes. We all agreed. The drumming was raw power at the hands of a bearded man. In fact, all three were bearded, leading to Eric Elbogen, lead singer, to comment on bearded-guys-in-bands night. My favorite song of the night was Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh (love how it begins with a quiet simmer and turns into a rolling boil—I listen to it on repeat). Carrie was pleased her song Northwest Girls was played. Elbogen sings and plays the guitar, bass, synthesizer and drum machines on the Oohs and Aahs CD. For the live show, he plays with two accompanying musicians who bring proper rock energy to the live show. (Elbogen does solo performances using synthesizers and drum machines he dubs ‘his robots.’)

The headliner David Gazan (lead singer of now defunct Pedro the Lion) and his band (which included two of the Say Hi men and mostly bearded men) hit their EMO quick step (or shall I say slow-step), it was time for us folks who prefer harder, more rawking sounds to vamoose and leave on our high note (by this time, Neumo’s was good and packed). I look forward to more Say Hi in my future.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

12 and Holding (2005)

A kids' movie for adults. Four kids dealing with loss and the rocky path of adolescence.

Brothers Jacob and Rudy (both played by Conor Donovan) experience a tragedy at the hands of bullies, leaving family and friends struggling to continue living and mend their saddened lives.Before the loss of innocence

Leonard (Jesse Camacho)is obese. When his gym teacher, Coach Gilman (Bruce Altman), shows an interest in getting him to shed his excess weight, Leonard has to go up again his morbidly obese parents who have no interest in changing their eating habits. This leads to Leonard’s alienation and eventual drama where he takes drastic measures to get his own mother to change her own eating habits.

Lonely Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), daughter of therapist Carla (Annabella Sciorra), is dealing with the break-up of her parents and not seeing her father, although he and her mother have frequent phone arguments. She becomes infatuated with her mother’s client Gus (Jeremy Renner) and starts stalking him and trying to make a connection with him despite the fact he’s a good two decades older than her. Gus is in therapy to get past a tragedy from his past and through her stalking, Malee learns he’s a tragically broken person she wants to save.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Jacob has to deal with a birthmark spread across half his face. He starts spending time at the juvenile detention center visiting the boys responsible for his brother’s death after Malee suggests he get closure by telling them how he feels. He wants them to never forget what they did to his brother. He forges a relationships of sorts with one of the boys. When Jacob’s parents adopt, Jacob decides it’s time to make a big change in his life.

As Leonard, Malee and Jacob delve deeper into their pain, they spend less time together and progress toward climatic resolutions. This gripping movie surprised me. The kid characters, all in their early teens, grapple with dysfunction and do a brilliant job spotlighting their struggles. (I’m sure we will see more from these three actors.) Several twists and surprises make this one a definite must-add to your movie list.

Director: Michael Cuesta

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 94 minutes

Scale: 4

Gran Torino (2008)

After I repeatedly hear about how excellent a movie is, I become skeptical. Often, I won't see it for a long time due to expectations mangled to the point where the movie suffers, as I ask, 'That's it?' It was like this as I started Gran Torino. Many mentioned it was woooooonnnnnnderful; I was apprehensive.

Symbolic tool beltWe meet Walt (Clint Eastwood) at his deceased wife Dorothy's funeral. Walt is a curmudgeon--grimacing and growling with displeasure at his teen granddaughter's skimpy outfit and the disrespect displayed by his two adult sons. A Korean War vet, he's racist and a holdover in his now predominantly Hmong neighborhood. He dislikes everyone except Daisy, his Labrador (yet another example of an exceptional canine actor). We meet Sue (Ahney Her) and Thao (Bee Vang), the Hmong siblings living next door. Thao tries evading his cousin's threatening insistence that Thao join his gang. After his cousin's relentless persistence, Thao accepts the challenge of initiation into the gang but ends up failing. In his failure, he becomes indebted to Walt. As they get to know each other, the two men learn a lot.

At the same time, the parish priest, young Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) has made a promise to Walt's widow that he  would get Walt to make confession. Walt is vehemently opposed, insisting it was his wife who was the churchie, not him. But, Janovich isn’t easily deterred. Carley’s Janovich does an excellent job facing off against Walt’s grumble and brawn.

Initially, Walt is too one-dimensional in his crankiness. It was distracting and I didn’t buy it. But, then you notice him changing. It’s not so drastic that you don't buy it. The racial slurs never worked because after a while you just want him to stop but somehow the Hmong characters don't mind (which I found odd). Clint Eastwood is fantastic. As director and producer of Gran Torino, he still has the right touch. He incorporates his whole body into his acting to portray and become the character. It was neat to see Hmong culture portrayed. (I learned a lot about Hmong culture years ago when I worked with refugees). Gran Torino does a good job educating the viewer in an intriguing way. I loved Thao and Walt's relationship. Their banter exemplifies how they both come to need and depend on each other. The scene where Thao gets the prize is lovely. The ending is sad yet you see how much Walt has learned and his actions help him show Thao the way to be a strong, honorable man, something Walt wasn't able to do with his own sons. A film about mistakes and redemption.

Director: Clint Eastwood

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 116 minutes

Scale: 4.5

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sin Nombre (Without Name) (2009)

Teen Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), her father (whom she hasn't seen in years) and her uncle take off from Honduras toward Mexico in an attempt to get over the border and to New Jersey. Concurrently, gang member El Casper (Édgar Flores), also known as Willy, is dating Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia) but keeping it Sayra and Caspersecret from his Mara Salvatrucha gang to protect her.

Film opens as Casper recruits a young boy, El Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), to join the gang. We witness his jumping in. As movie progresses, Casper keeps more than just Martha Marlene from the gang, breaking the #1 rule of not lying to his "brothers." This leads to tragedy; one Casper can't accept. The facially tattooed top dog of the gang forces Casper and Smiley to accompany him to a cargo train robbery. They board the train and rob the individuals on their long trip to the Mexican border to sneak into the United States. Casper retaliates and saves Sayra. Now--a traitor--he's a marked man. Sayra, feeling indebted, tries to help Casper but ends up putting herself, her uncle and her father at risk.

Sin Nombre is authentic. Its got a low-roar smoldering quality. The vulnerability between Sayra and Casper is palpable. He saves her from a sociopath, but this movie is about a journey--explicitly physical, implicitly emotional. Things aren't buffed up for the viewer. The crowded train tracks where the people wait to embark on their train journey looks convincingly crowded, dirty and sparse. Gang slang used to give us a portal into the MS lifestyle. The stress of having a limited supply of money, the fear of being arrested and possible death on this perilous journey. There is way too much cooking in Sin Nombre for it to be missed.

Writer/Director: Cary Fukunaga

Country: Mexico

Genre: Drama

Run time: 96 minutes

Scale: 5

Friday, November 6, 2009

Surfwise (2007)

Too close for comfort? Documentary explores the life of Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, a Jewish Stanford-educated doctor turned nomad with his tribe of nine children and wife. The eleven lived in their 24-foot trailer, traveling along the coastlines surfing. The kids didn't attend school. Doc believed money was the root of evil in the world so they didn't have much. He felt it was better to educate his family with the experiences of life on the road. He didn't allow junk food in their diet. One son said he tried junk food at friends' homes. The kids recalled how friends would comment about how they wished Doc was their dad and how cool it was they lived like this, while the Paskowitz kids suffered, desiring a stable, stationary home with an everyday life.The eight boys and one girl lived on the road until their late teens when the exodus began. First son had become like the enforcer and wasn't well liked by all the siblings. Some of them learned that without formal education, they had a hard time integrating into the real world. The eldest had dreams of becoming a doctor but it would have taken many years to make up for the years of no formal education. A few of them made it big in surfing. The family later opened a surf school. Lots of strife ensued as kids split and exposed their years of live on the road.

In the end, the family meets, putting their rifts aside. Interestingly, most of the kids complain at one point or another how much they hated growing up that way, yet they all can marvel at the many great things they gleamed from the experience. In fact, one son states he'd like to embark on a similar experience with his own family. Go figure. At times, we hate experiences as they are occurring; other times, some of the hated bits play into the fondest of memories. Despite your feelings, see this fascinating documentary.

Writer/Director: Doug Pray

Country: US

Genre: Documentary

Run time: 93 minutes

Scale: 4.5

He's Just Not That Into You (2009)

I was curious about this one due to the excellently varied ensemble cast. Movie is based on the popular eponymously titled book co-written by Greg Behrendt (who also has a cameo as the priest) and Liz Tuccillo.

The movie delves into the love lives and friendships of a loose circle of friends. Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) is always looking for signs that the guy is "into" her but she is usually off mark. Desperate for aBaffled relationship, her friends insist he will call. She stares at the phone and decides to do her own dialing after Conor (Kevin Connolly) doesn't call after their date. Conor is pining for Anna (Scarlett Johansson) who isn't as interested. She has had a chance meeting with married Ben (Bradley Cooper) who is struck by Anna's beauty and charm. Meanwhile, Janine (Jennifer Connelly), Ben's wife is focused on their home remodel and obsessed with the possibility that Ben has been cheating...with cigarettes. Beth (Jennifer Aniston) and Neil (Ben Affleck) are a happy couple. Together for seven years, Neil doesn't believe in marriage while Beth yearns for it. There's also Mary (Drew Barrymore) who trawls social networking sites for potential love and shares every detail with her posse of gay boyfriends. Alex (Justin Long), Conor's roommate, becomes Gigi's counselor, interpreting what guys really mean by their behavior and words.

I'm exhausted typing this cluttered plot summary. Watching it was similar. It plays like a collection of vignettes rather than a cohesive piece. HJNTIY takes on too much and drags on too long. Gigi is the standout. She's insanely obsessed but her positivity is fun, while the rest are mostly boring. This movie switched gears from funny to sad to odd; that worked for me but I couldn't connect with certain characters' struggles. Interesting attempt at adapting a non-fiction book.

Director: Ken Kwapis

Country: US

Genre: Rom-com

Run time: 128 minutes

Scale: 2.75

Monday, November 2, 2009

Final Destination (2000)

This movie makes me want to write a screenplay. Not the best movie ever, but it possesses a simple and solid plot. At the crux is the fear almost everyone has experienced at one time or another--the fear of flying. Specifically, the fear that while in flight, your plane will crash and everyone, including you will die in a great ball of fire (or something similar). Main character, Alex (Devon Sawa) is likeable. The other characters are okay, albeit it high school stereotypical. You root for Alex who is neither a jock nor a nerd but somewhere in between beating to his own drum.

Unlucky survivors When Alex experiences an eerily realistic premonition that the plane he's just boarded for a class trip to Paris will explode, he has a panic attack and starts screaming as he tries to get off. This starts a fight between jock Carter (Kerr Smith) and Alex's best friend's brother, who also gets kicked off the plane, along with Terry (Amanda Detmer), Carter's girlfriend. Loner Clear Rivers (Ali Larter) runs off the plane, believing Alex may be right. A melee ensues in the terminal. When the pilot tells them they aren't re-boarding his plane, one of the French teachers stays off the plane with them. The jock and Alex get into a fistfight and as they are wrestling, being held back but trying to get loose and kick each other's ass, the plane takes off. Suddenly, it explodes mid-air into a huge fireball.

Then, the Feds get involved, believing Alex had something to do with it. Everyone is clearly afraid of Alex after this. No one can figure out how it happened or how Alex knew it would happen. He devotes himself to learning plane mechanics and engineering to figure out what happened. Then, sinister things begin to occur. At this point, the movie goes terribly wrong. We learn that the individuals that got off the plane have eluded Death and Death don't play that. Their time is ticking as Death makes house calls, but Alex might have the key to outsmarting their imminent deaths. Death does things that defy credibility. You get some of the trite wind blowing the curtains to signal something bad is about to happen. The worse line I've heard in a long time is delivered by the one-dimensional Carter: "I'm never gonna die." And, a lot happens as people are sitting on toilets.

Overall, I liked it. Gets a bit cheesy, gory and silly but it has some good components that make it watchable.

Co-writer/Director: James Wong

Country: US

Genre: Thriller/Horror

Run time: 98 minutes

Scale: 3

Death at a Funeral (2007)

Take your favorite telenovela and all the possible plots that support it during a year (or two or three) and place them in a story that takes place in one day and you have the chaos and adventure that is Death at a Funeral.

The misdeeds begin on the day of funeral of the patriarch of an English family (held at the family's home). When Martha (Daisy Donovan) and her fiance, Simon (Alan Tudyk), pick up her brother, Troy (Kris Marshall) the chemist in training, for their uncle's funeral, Troy's just concocted a hallucinogenic cocktail. He's placed the pills in a bottle labeled Valium and is on the phone telling a friend about it and how he cannot wait to try it. While he's finishing his phone conversation in the other room, Martha spots the vial  (unaware that its contents are *not* Valium) and takes it for Simon, whose nerves are frayed at seeing her family, who doesn't approve of him. Simon says gets naked at a funeral On the way to the funeral, Simon takes the pills (unbeknownst to Troy) and starts experiencing odd sensations.

As they arrive, Martha is spotted by Justin (Ewen Bremner), who has a lingering crush on her from a one-night stand. She hardly notices him because she's trying to keep Simon upright and quiet while he's tripping on the pills. Meanwhile Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) is working on the eulogy for his father while everyone expects his successful novelist brother, Robert (Rupert Graves) to do the honors. But, Daniel is a fledging writer and wants to show off his own literary skills. Daniel and Robert are already at odds about the cost of the funeral and the fact that Daniel lives in England watching over their mother, while Robert is in New York City living carefree. Peter (Peter Dinklage) is an unknown guest at the funeral. He drops a big bomb on Daniel about his father. The Reverend (Thomas Wheatley) is on a time crunch to get to his next appointment. Martha loses the pills and Troy is attempting to find them when Simon turns up naked at the top of the house philosophizing nonsense from his perch. You have the rest of the cast causing trouble, bathroom humor and unrequited love tweaking the tension. This movie is fun, silly and full of suspense.

Director: Frank Oz

Country: UK

Genre: Dark comedy

Run time: 90 minutes

Scale: 3.5