9

9 (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Shane Acker
viewed: 09/27/09 at Century San Francisco Centre, SF, CA

Produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, 9, director Shane Acker’s feature film debut, is a richly animated and designed science fiction fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic world in which machines have eradicated all life.  Rated PG-13 and quite full of darkness and scares, I opted to see this film without the kids.  I think it was the right move.  On DVD it probably wouldn’t be so frightening, but then again, the things that I think will frighten them tend to be somewhat different from the things that do.  You’d think I’d have figured that out by now, wouldn’t you?

9 is very gorgeously designed and the animation is vivid.  The characters are these enlivened burlap-sack androids, all nameless, but numbered, and the hero, the titular “9” comes to life with an interest in finding out why the world is the way it is and who they are and where they came from.  Though this is moderately metaphysical, and there is a subtext there, perhaps even slightly about the “sub”, the story also tells of how machines, created without “souls” could be influeced for evil and death.  What is posited is that if the “Creator”, here the scientist who has created both the evil robots and the good-hearted burlap people, gave the robots only his intellect, but gave the burlap his “soul”.  Then, the robots, completely lacking in morality, were quickly turned into killing machines and wiped out humanity.

So, there is both this strong quasi-religious theme and this additional fear of technology gone mad, a common enough theme historically in science fiction, but one that always strikes me as ironic in modern films that rely so heavily on technology to deliver their visions.  That irony is of course not addressed.

But really, the film, fast-paced as it is, lacks conviction in its storytelling, giving short shrift to these portentous themes as well as character development above the fairly standard-issue kind.  Much like producer Tim Burton’s work, the film is a lot of style with shallow depths of substance.  Where its design is striking, and the characters are visually vivid and delicately designed, all the qualities are a great visual facade, just empty within.

Still, not a horrible film by any means, and hopefully, if this director can find more interesting material, his design work would go for more and be more.  Sophistication in design is one thing.  Sophistication in narrative, character, and themes would be nice too.

Trumbo

Trumbo (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Peter Askin
viewed: 09/27/09

Trumbo is a documentary about Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, adapted to an extent from a theatrical piece written by his son Christopher Trumbo and heavily populated with excerpts from letters that he wrote to various people throughout his life.  The film’s approach includes several semi-dramatic readings of these letters by a number of Hollywood actors of the present day including Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti, Donald Sutherland, Joan Allen, and Michael Douglas to name a few, as well as a few interviews with people who knew him privately and professionally.  Overall, the approach seems flawed and choppy, but what cannot be detracted from is the power and integrity of perhaps the greatest and most important writer who suffered from the Hollywood Blacklist during the Red Scare in the 1940’s – 1960’s as a result of persecution from the House of Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC).

Frankly, I think if you are looking to persecute a group of people, writers are a dangerous bunch.  They are by nature well-spoken and may leave behind such eloquent and articulate treatises that will damn you unendingly unless you had any right to condemn them.  And frankly, history is the judge, and though history is theoretically “written by the winners”, history does allow for perspective and re-analysis.  It’s all we really have, the opportunity to parse and dissect and understand what happened, separated from the illusions, the lies, the heat and passions of the times, and ultimately, as flawed as it still is, is much more than is often known in the time.

And history says to Sen. Joseph McCarthy: “You were despicable.”

For those who aren’t familiar with the Hollywood blacklist and the McCarthy hearings that triggered the blacklist, the seeking to weed-out America of “Communists” and the fear and hatred and ruining of people, well this film isn’t necessarily a primer on the subject but you should read at least the Wikipedia entry on the topic (I shan’t belabor my own full interpretation of history here).  But I think it’s fair to say that “McCarthyism” and “the Red Scare” have come to be equated with some of the most loathsome aspects of fear-mongering in the USA ever and are parallels, much as Nazi-ism or Hitler is to “pure evil” (although thinking through recent usage of even those more broadly known elements in comparison to Barack Obama, maybe the average citizen isn’t even aware enough of the significance of those supposedly more well-known villains to understand or even be aware of these other American evils.)

The fact is that Trumbo was the top of the line screenwriter when he was brought before Congress and the HUAC, accused of affiliating with the Communist Party (without evidence) and all that such an affiliation implied (implied being the key word here, not what it genuinely meant or represented but simply what was inferred from such an affiliation).  What is tremendous about the stance that he and the others of the “Hollywood Ten” who stood to not name names nor to even address the accusations was that they didn’t invoke the Fifth Amendment (against incriminating themselves — since they rightly stated that they had done nothing criminal) but rather that they invoked the First Amendment, about the right to freedom of speech and thought, untamperable with by the government.  And they paid for their honorable approach with being denied a right to work and by becoming public pariah in American society, them and their families, condemned and mistreated.

Trumbo’s words do state it best throughout, condemning the Hollywood producers who publicly decried the HUAC rulings but ultimately were the ones who enforced a blacklist.  The pain of the path of the noble, not that Trumbo himself was the worst sufferer, but rather that he knew first-hand how crushing the experience had been to friends and peers, how it ruined families and lives, and how ignoble it truly was.  At one point he says something about how when you are an American who has not named names and are side by side with someone who has, which person really shows the ideals of American values and which person is the most likely to sell out his country and countrymen, the one who turned to protect himself and his own needs, or the one who stood against the oppression.

And that statement is quite profound.  And it has relevence so deeply throughout the early years of the post-9/11 America, where un-Americanism reared its ugly head as a moniker of demonization.  And how apt is such clarity of character and belief in a world so fraught with lies and ignorance as now, when the discussion of a bill for healthcare reform has a ripe dialogue in news media that includes such heinous critiques of an American president’s character and integrity?

The bottom line is that the HUAC story, the story of the Hollywood Ten and more, Dalton Trumbo’s stories, are all stories that should be known and understood by Americans.  It is a warning against great wrongs and injustice in the facade of American ideals and is still so potent and dangerous.

Dalton Trumbo is symbolic in his winning an Oscar during his blacklist for a screenplay/story that he’d written under a pseudonym, for being the first of those writers and artists to get his screen credit back under his real name Spartacus (1960), and for being someone of profound intelligence and integrity, and truly a powerfully adept writer whose legacy is left in his books, screenplays, and personal writings and interviews, that prove out above the heinous mistreatment that he and others suffered under during a shameful period in American history, not even a full lifetime away from now.

This documentary didn’t impress me itself.  I disliked the style of its composition and the dramatic readings seemed a bit self-satisfied and smug.  That’s just my opinion.  But I think that Trumbo’s is a story that should be more widely known, something that we should continue to utilize in these heady days of our own modern fear and political bullshit.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Gavin Hood
viewed: 09/27/09

What an un-great title for a movie: X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  You know, that would have been pretty lousy title for a comic book.  All it indicates is branding and that this is a series of stories that go back to tell the “origin” of a superhero from the X-men team of characters from The X-Men comic books.  In other words, it is a title that serves clarity and marketing over anything more artistic or interesting.  Which is why suck a lousy title might yet be apt for such a film as this.

Really, what Marvel Comics and their film production side managed to do with successes around their Spider-Man and X-Men franchises was notable at the time.   I’ve noted it before, that their biggest success with X-Men (2000) was casting Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, their most-beloved character from the comic books, going a step further than “just not screwing it up” and actually getting it pretty right.  They carried this over into X2 (2003) and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), though watering down the qualities, especially with the latter film, a sloppy piece of crap compared to the marginally above-average first two films.  And it was only a matter of time before Jackman got a film all to himself (so to speak).

If anything, it’s a little surprising that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is actually an improvement on X-Men: The Last Stand, especially given the negative reviews that the film received.  I mean, it’s not a great film, not even by comic book adaptation standards, but it does merit from the casting of Liev Schrieber as Jackman’s brother, the character of Sabretooth, a big step up from the version played by Tyler Mane in the first X-Men movie.  Enough at least to give relative weight to the Biblical-esque love-hate relationship between the siblings.

For me, who left the X-Men comics behind in the 1980’s, a lot of the “origin” story was new, elaborated upon from earlier suggestions and mysteries in the comics over the years.  And while much of the story is hokey as hell (or all of it for that matter), there is relative reward in understanding the “story” such as it is.

For me, this is the kind of entertainment that can’t hardly go wrong on DVD.  If I’d paid to see this in the theater, I might well have felt differently overall, which is what I did with the X-Men: The Last Stand, unfortunately.

It’s all product, all marketing, all building more groundwork for sequels and spin-offs, for which this film already has several in the works.  With comic books, at least in the old days, there was a series and you could follow it.  Since I stopped collecting/reading these comics, though they did it before to an extent, there are so many fractured variations and products along these product lines that I wouldn’t even know where to start to find their tropes.  I think they’ve splintered the main series jillions of times, offering various re-namings.  Maybe in that case it justifies this “branding titling” “X-Men Origins:” if it’s so hard to know the full bore of the product line.

Hardly a pure thing in anyone’s version of filmmaking, adaptations of existing narratives from pre-existing forms, but still…  They could attempt to aim a little higher.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Return of the Jedi (1983) movie poster

(1983) dir. Richard Marquand
viewed: 09/19/09

Richard Marquand?  Director of a Star Wars movie?  Sure, for the hardcore, that’s probably one of the initiation things.  But seriously, ????

Writing about any of the Star Wars movies always feels a little weird for me.  I mean, as a kid, they were the most incredible things in the world to me.  And frankly, my passion for them (at the time) far outstretched most other kids I knew.  As an adult, and as a film student, and as time has marched along, I’ve come to realize how pervassive these films are, far more pervassive than I could have ever imagined, and that people have adopted them on such massively infintessimal levels that I am just flat-out amazed.

I mean, the world has changed, sure.  Way more than we could have conceived as children or young adults, though not in the ways that we might have anticipated.  Who would have thought how completely pervassive Star Wars would be 30 years after?  I mean, here I am, sitting with my son, who is almost 8 years old, watching a film that he chose and connects to (perhaps through Wii Lego Star Wars more than anything), the age that I was (8) when in 1977, I first got introduced to the coming legend.  It’s mind-boggling.

It’s also full of ironies and weirdness.

Felix’s favorite part of the film he likes to refer to as “the teddy bear war” which is where the ewoks fight off the stormtroopers with their old school technology (No lasers, lightsabres or robots for these miniature models of lost humanity.  No, they employ rocks, logs, nets, and their bows and arrows.  Surely there is a full analysis here of how the ultimate battle of the series comes down to non-technology and “human spirit” over evil and advanced weaponry.  — It’s easy to digress.)

So, I was 8 years old when Star Wars (1977) came out, prime age, seriously prime age (my son’s age now almost).  I was 11 years old when Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) (or as we simply knew it then: The Empire Strikes Back), pretty fucking prime.  But by the time that Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi came out, I was 14, a cusp age for the whole thing, still willing and interested, but moving on to other things and more cynical.  And the film itself was a bit of an anti-climax.

Arguably, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was the best of the series, and in leaving the cinema in 1980 (which I still remember vividly), thinking that we’d have to wait 3 years for a sequel, I was disheartened to the max.  The cliff-hanger stuff worked exactly the way that George Lucas had wanted it.  But to cliffhang for 3 years?  Dude.

The Return of the Jedi, again, as we knew it in the old days before all the chaptering began in earnest, was a disappointment.  The ewoks were cute but seemed like a marketing grab.  I mean, by this time, they’d been making action figures for 6 years and could certainly see the value in overpopulating the films with characters that all viewers would need to own some semblance of.  Jeez, even at 14, I noticed that.

But hell, my old feelings aren’t the current feelings.  Though they highly influence my current feelings, and frankly, my writing about films is all about “my” feelings.  But I am appreciating my childrens’ feelings as well.  Felix likes the “teddy bear war”.  And though I find the ewoks cloying, I appreciate that they appeal to others.  And to tell the truth, to sit on the couch and watch this film with my son, who genuinely likes and appreciates something that I adored as a kid his own age…  it’s freaking beautiful and freaking weird.

It’s beautiful to have such a connection, absolutely, even if I’m removed from it.  I’m absolutely aware of my own childhood feelings (Felix wears my original Star Wars t-shirts that I wore as a child).  But also, I recognize the radical difference of these films in the present sense.  So complicated one doesn’t even think to try to fully encapsulate the whole reality in one thought but here’s a stab: video games, DVD/video, post-modernist absorbtion (Felix was amused at jokes in Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series of books that referenced the films),… I mean, these films are as much if not more of our cultural identity than The Wizard of Oz!!!  Which may have been the primary such thing for most of the 20th century.

It’s bigger than many comprehensible concepts.

But it’s still a movie.  One that I watched on a Saturday afternoon with my almost-8-year old son who has a fever.

My impressions this time:  Harrison Ford was the man.  Han Solo delivered his lines with aplomb.  Carrie Fisher pulled off the sexy outfits.  She had a great voice.  Mark Hammill should have never worked in cinema, only televison, and his face looks strangely plastic.  And discussing how they handled Yoda, a puppet, with Felix.  Strange on many levels.

But I hate the digital additions made in the re-releases.  The films should be the films that they were, I believe.  Flawed or wonderful, the tampering only dilutes the reality.  If they can transcend time and experience, let them do that as the things they are, because the rest of the world is changing.  Adding little digital asides (or worse) is criminal in a sense.

You know, there is too much said about these films to say anything original.  But yet I still have this very personal connection to them.  I won’t belabor the point other than to say what an overall anti-climax this film was in its day, and how it holds up a tad better than that overall.  One’s experience with this film or this series is unique to each individual, no matter how un-unique it is in the world’s truly broadened, widened self.

Memories vs. today.

Today includes the memories.  And it changes it.  The experience of the Star Wars films is something unlike many, many other things.   And their power and success, diminish beneath their own mythology (their own mythology and the mythology of their pervassive success and cultural influence.)  Strange.  Bizarre.  Yet not unpleasant.

Babe

Babe (1995) movie poster

(1995) dir. Chris Noonan
viewed: 09/18/09

Babe, the pig.

Babe is a great childrens’ film from 1995, a rare thing, really, if you get down to it.

Back in 1995, those heady days before I had any children, I still had enough of an affinity for children’s films to seek them out, at least on video or DVD, if not to see them in the cinema.  In fact, our cat, Bob, developed an affinity for Babe, the little stuffed pig that I’d picked up at McDonald’s at the time.  He used to carry Babe around with him and sleep with it, like a little Teddy.  And we had seen the film and enjoyed it back then.

Looking for films for the kids, I selected Babe when other Peanuts gang features besides the ones we’d already seen were not available on DVD.  It had been a back pocket selection for a while, but I hadn’t gone to it.

Sadly, Felix was feeling quite under the weather and only watched the beginning and end of the film, but Clara was enthused throughout which is hardly surprising.  As Chris put it, “Pigs and sheepdog puppies, how could you go wrong?”  And of course they talk.

The film is adapted from a book, an English book, but the film is Australian, though the world in which the story takes place is an amalgram of many places, which I think if further elaborated on by the film’s sequel, Babe: Pig in the City (1998), which didn’t receive the same success that the original did, though it had a minor cult status and was Gene Siskel’s favorite for Best Picture the year he died of a brain tumor.

An orphaned pig is brought to a sheep farm and raised by a sheepdog, among other talking animals, and eventually develops a knack for herding sheep.  Unlike the dogs, who master the sheep with discipline and aggression, Babe masters them through friendlienss and good nature.

What’s not to like?

James Cromwell as Arthur Hoggett offers an apt and charming performance, something between a normal children’s film and Jean-Pierre Jeunet fim (like Delicatessen (1991) or The City of Lost Children (1995).  And his wife is a perfect oddity of charm and backwardness.

The film has themes of anti-animal cruelty and perhaps even what some might read as a “Vegetarian agenda”, but mostly it’s a charming and fun film, a film for all ages, which transcends time and place and generation, and manages to achieve the rare and hard-to-grasp: a children’s film classic (of sorts).

Though the duck from the film has been clearly pilfered in the meantime by Aflac.

Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha (1972) movie poster

(1972) dir. Martin Scorsese
viewed: 09/15/09

I think I’d had this in my queue for some time, Martin Scorsese’s first feature film, Boxcar Bertha, produced by the legendary Roger Corman who gave many a young filmmaker their first shot at filmmaking, though typically in the form of some form of exploitation or horror film.  And it’s this trope that suddenly interested me.

In some cases, Roger Corman’s “film school” as it is sometimes referred to includes not just Scorsese, but Francis Ford Coppola ‘s Dementia 13 (1963), James Cameron’s  Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto (1972), and Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974), not to mention Peter Bogdonavich and Targets (1968) and Joe Dante’s “original” Piranha (1978).  There are probably loads more, not to mention actors and other film dudes.

Anyways, Boxcar Bertha is the first of this latest trope of movies that I’m planning to watch.  There will be more, in fact, many of the movies listed above will soon be watched and written about right here.

Boxcar Bertha falls within another category of films that I’ve been interested in.   These are films about “real-life” outlaws from the era of the Great Depression, ones who came to represent an anti-hero, anti-establishment popular figure in their own time, but rediscovered in the late 1960’s – 1970’s as representative of the anti-establishment mentality of the time.  Boxcar Bertha herself, though, from what I can tell, wasn’t so much a real person, but the film was adapted from an “autobiography” that was co-written supposedly by her, Sister of The Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha – as told to Dr. Ben Reitman.  From what I can tell, this is something of a fiction.

The film doesn’t care.  It claims to be based on a true story.  And who knows anyways.  It fits within that brief grouping of films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Dillinger (1973).  Am I projecting or are there more of these?

Anyways, Scorsese worked with a tight budget and a tight timeline.  The film stars the young and beautiful Barbara Hershey (who knew how pretty she was when she was young?) and the late David Carradine.  The interesting thing in this film is that the outlaws come to robbery as a means to an end, largely inspired by Socialism and Worker’s Rights, though their crimes come to outweigh their qualities.

Not a rip-roaring fim nor a dud.  It could be interesting for a Scorsese scholar.  He shows the most flair in his final shoot-out scene in which Carradine is crucified to the side of a train.  The action is shot with some slick camera movement that is perhaps comes to greater fruition in movies like Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980).

Bertha, as played by Hershey, is a sprite of sorts, a free-lovin’ gal, who is still true to her man.  She’s an outlaw and a rebel but maybe not all that intelligent.  Who knows?

The music is nice, with lots of blues and harmonica music.  The railroad of the period is well-evoked.

I have to say, the name of the film doesn’t really capture one’s imagination reflectively of what the film turns out to be.  I don’t know what you think when you hear the term “Boxcar Bertha” but the lithe and pretty Hershey is probably not the image.  It’s an interesting thing though, the original text.  The guy who wrote it was quite a character himself.  More research is due.

Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock (1947) movie poster

(1947) dir. John Boulting
viewed: 09/12/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The Pacific Film Archive and the Castro Theatre are doing a series on British noir, which is an interesting thing, given that it’s considered to be a very American style (though brought to America by multiple European immigrant directors).  And unfortunately, I couldn’t get out to see more of the series, but I did earmark Brighton Rock to see, as I’d read Graham Greene’s novel a year or two ago and found it quite striking.  Beyond that, it’s been coming up more and more as a cultural reference, and I was surprised by its significance.

The story is about a small-time thug in Brighton, set between the World Wars, a time in which poverty and crime combined to be quite a menace in Brighton, apparently.  Though the British censors and Brighton tourism made sure that the film had a prologue title to say that this had all been cleaned up by the police.  The thug is quite a character, Pinky Brown, played with ultimate seedy gusto by a very young Richard Attenborough.  He’s a loathsome figure, hating the world, women, himself, everything.  And being a small-time thug, he still thinks he’s bigger than he is.

The book is a bit of a detective novel, using the bawdy character of Ida, a barroom good-time brassy loudmouth, who loves her fellow man, as the unlikely gumshoe who wishes to prove the murder of a man she just met but took a shine to.  She also seeks to protect the innocent waitress who Pinky sidles up to in looking to keep her quiet regarding an aspect of the murder.  She falls for him, delusional and lovingly, though he hates her guts.

The film is a very apt and stylish adaptation.  Characters are well-cast and the film has several moments and sequences with great style and flair.   One of the nicest sequences is when Pinky murders Fred in the Haunted House ride on Brighton pier.  The images of the ghosts, skulls and ghouls flash up like the would in almost animated swoops.  The trip to hell was never quite so literal.

Great book, good adaptation.  Oddly, in my research, I see that it’s being re-made for release next year.  I guess that is less odd all the time since very little gets away with only being made once.  This version, while not necessarily definitive, was co-adapted by Greene himself.  No slouch at the screenwriting either.  Good stuff, indeed.

Nightbreed

Nightbreed (1990) movie poster

(1990) dir. Clive Barker
viewed: 09/11/09

There was a day that writer Clive Barker was considered to be the “next big thing” in horror writing.  At least, such is my memory of such a thing.  I recall people reading all his books and his movies were anticipated.  Frankly, I think that this was primarily in response to Hellraiser (1987) and its subsequent sequels.  I kind of recall Nightbreed being quite silly in many ways, though he continued to attract attention with Candyman (1992) and then sort of disappeared from my knowledge after Lord of Illusions (1995).

I think that I’d forgotten that he’d not only written Hellraiser and Nightbreed, but had directed them as well.  And while I’d had some sort of less than positive memories of Nightbreed, something made it come up and creep to the top of my rental queue.  For the life of me, I can’t recall why.

The most interesting thing is that Barker has director David Cronenberg in to play the evil psychiatrist.  The second most interesting thing is the setting of the film, in and outside of Calgary, a Calgary that was still very 80’s.   He populates the world with lots of odd characters, homey touches, oddballs and country thinking.  And the cast, while very low-budget, are largely pretty decent.

The story, essentially, is about a group of monsters (the Nightbreed themselves) who live in an underground world beneath a isolated cemetary.  They are kind of dead/undead, and they are all different and their various weirdnesses, ranging from a quilled porcupine lady to blobby guys with their heads in their stomachs to devils and “berserkers”, it’s all a lot of pre-digital FX, which has a charm to it, even in its super-goofiness.  And the main character, who sports a sort of stylish mullet, is drawn to this place and his psychiatrist, Cronenberg, wants to draw him there, too.  But that turns out to be because Cronenberg is a psychopathic murderer of all Nightbreed.

The bottom line is that the monsters are the good guys.  The cops and psychiatrist psychopath and the drunked priest are all bad guys.  Freak flags need to fly.  We are all good, not so explicitly BDSM as Hellraiser, but outsiders, fringe people, and freaks.

It’s hardly a “good” movie, but I don’t think I can help myself from liking it a bit.  Barker isn’t a master director nor screenwriter, but he’s able to get enough fun stuff in there to make it kind of enjoyable.  It’s not “scary” per se, though Cronenberg does offer a particularly slimy villain, creepy in his suaveness.  Who would have thought that it had some redeemable qualities.

Trouble the Water

Trouble the Water (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Carl Deal, Tia Lessen
viewed: 09/11/09

While I’d long planned and wanted to see Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary about Hurricane Katrina and the disaster that it wrought on Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, but its daunting length, I think has kept me from it thusfar.  This documentary, running at a more usual 90 minutes or so, seemed more easy to schedule.  And being the 8th anniversary of the September 11 tragedy in New York, it seemed apt to turn my mind to another disaster that struck nearly five years later, one that took the lives of nearly 2000 people.

This film focuses on a young woman and her husband, her family and her community, who happened to tape and document their experiences before, during, and into the aftermath of the storm’s destruction.  And it draws some stark critiques of the U.S. government’s response to helping those people.  Interestingly, while the film is far from apolitical, the crucifixion of George W. Bush, Michael D. Brown, and FEMA is not the primary focus of the film.

The film does highlight the death and destruction, the unpreparedness of help and rescue, the blindness to the potential of the disaster, and even the military’s ironic blockade against people seeking shelter, protecting a shuttered Navy base that could have housed hundreds, if not thousands.

But the story of this film is Kim Rivers Roberts and her husband, who up to that point had lived in poverty in the 9th ward, selling drugs to survive but too poor to leave before the hurricaine.  But the difference is how the experience changed them.  They experienced the humanity and generosity of neighbors and friends huddling together for safety and survival, the heroism of some folks who were also transformed in the experience, and ultimately awoken to the life that they want to lead.

One man, who had been a neighborhood face and not a friendly one, finds a floating punching bag from a local gym, and takes it house to house, taking people to higher shelter.  Afterwards, he even laughs at himself, that he was never the kind of person you’d expect to go around rescuing people, but the experience bonded him with people who became like family.

It’s a moving story and Kim and her husband and their friends and family do evolve through the footage, moving from her sassy voice-over as the storm is building to an increasingly considerate, wise, and caring person.  And as she recounts her life, born to a drug-addicted mother who died of HIV complications when she was 13, it’s clear that her life had not been easy and could have been much worse.

It’s refreshing and warming to see a story, even one set against such politicized and horrific realities, one in which the change is positive.  And it’s one that is personal, human, and individualistic.  It’s a great testament to humanity in that sense, against great odds and badness.

The film isn’t the most powerful of documents, constructed from her rough footage and then built upon by the cameras of the professional film crew, who stumbled upon a great story but more just great people.  It’s good, solid.

I still need to get around to the Spike Lee film sometime.

Adventureland

Adventureland (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Greg Mottola
viewed: 09/09/09

This “coming of age” movie set in 1987 in an amusement park to the tunes of college radio of the day tries hard to get the period and temperment right.  Hard to argue with a soundtrack that includes Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Lou Reed and so forth.  And its winsome protagonists, played by Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale (2005)) and Kristen Stewart (Twilight (2008)), are mostly likable, though Stewart plays with her hair like its her only character trait and Eisenberg does lots of not looking people in the eye, over-sweetened nature are both single note characteristics.

Written and directed by Greg Mottola who directed the very funny Superbad (2007), this absolutely feels like a personal story, as “coming of age” stories are.  I mean, everyone “comes of age” at some point in their life, and it’s often in the teenage to early 20’s age range, and is frequently (though hardly requisitely) the loss of sexual innocence as one of the key realizations and learned experience of maturity and worldliness.  It’s all universal, in a sense, and yet the stories can be unique.  Occasionally, they can be very telling.

In this case, it’s a tad flaccid.  The setting is nice and I totally identify with the time period.  I am probably 5 years younger than the characters in this film, so yeah, I was there.  But Mottola populates his story with some fairly standard-issue characterizations, such as the park operators, played by Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, are supposed to be quirky and hilarious, but you just kind of sit there, unmoved, unlaughing (or at least I did).  And the whole thing has a timid, lightweight feeling, dabbing at drama like you might expect from Noah Baumbach, attempting broader humor like Superbad, but doing nothing potently.

Even the editing feels out of whack.  Scenes end with dull fade-outs, not flowing, not being poignant.  It’s sentimental, romantic, while still a little dull and predictable.  Eisenberg is likeable, cut from a similar cloth as Michael Cera (though far less funny), the quiet, intelligent, cute but shabby nice guy lead.  And Stewart was far more appealing than I found her in Twilight.  I was also a bit surprised by Ryan Reynolds, one of the new Hollywood buzz guys.  He plays the philandering repairman, but interesting enough in his way, not made to be really bad, just a low-level lothario.

I consider this a mediocre film of the genre, and that is despite liking the music.  The soundtrack is pretty cool, but that’s just because it’s a lot of music I like and already listen to.  Not something I’d need to go and get.  Familiarity in this case is an appreciation of like-minded taste, though nothing groundbreaking or unusual.  True to the film itself.