by Tim Van Schmidt
The Stoning of Soraya M. ****
The tension in this movie underscores everything because it is inevitable what happens- that is not a surprise- but it is how it happens that bewilders the mind. A mother of four children is falsely accused of adultery in a small town in Iran. It turns out the husband wants a divorce because he is enamored with a much younger girl, so he cooks up a plot to get his current wife out of the way. The other men in the town go along with the plan, due to various pressures, and convict her, condemning her to be stoned to death.
The bewildering part is how a whole town full of people end up participating in the execution- some by throwing the stones, some by standing aside and allowing it to happen. Just as the weaker people of the town are powerless to stand up against deeply rooted religious and cultural laws, those who protest the stoning are powerless too. Everybody in the town seems to be trapped by the circumstances around them and are unable to break free, even if they want to.
The entire sequence detailing the stoning itself is horrific. These scenes are long and painful and that’s before the first stone is thrown. How can a husband be so cold-hearted? How can a woman’s own sons and father participate? Why doesn’t the town mayor stop the thing even when it is obvious he doesn’t believe the charges? These questions swirl around the mob crowding the town square.
But nothing is so horrible as when the stones start hitting the woman, who is half buried in the ground. It makes you wonder how people who have lived their whole lives as neighbors can put one of their own to death with so little evidence. It also makes you wonder how easy it would be for such a thing to happen elsewhere in the world- maybe in our own communities.
Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh…2008…114 min…featuring Shohreh Aghdashloo (as Zahra,) Mozhan Marno (as Soraya,) Navid Negahban, Ali Pourtash, David Diaan, Parviz Sayyad, James Caviezel.
A small trash-compacting robot on an abandoned Earth finds robot love, has an outer space adventure and changes the course of the human race- all without saying a word other than the name of the sleek robot who enters his solitary existence. It’s all based on a single, tiny plant the old robot finds- a signal to space-bound humans that it is time to return to their home planet. The expected Disney cuteness and happy show music keeps this movie from getting anywhere near serious. Still, it is a well-imagined story.
Directed by Andrew Stanton…2008…98 min…featuring voices by Ben Burtt. Elissa Knight, Sigourney Weaver.
A base and disgusting side of humanity is exploited here- the side that indulges in physical torture and murder as well as wants to watch it happen. A cyber-crimes unit catches up with a murderer who uses “creative” methods to kill his victims, including streaming the process live on the Internet and increasing the intensity of the torture as the visitor numbers go up. Pedestrian desk-side action is interrupted by elaborate scenes of gore. The funniest line in memory, however, came up as one character describes the power of the Internet: “It’s a jungle in there.”
Directed by Gregory Hoblit…2008…101 min…featuring Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross, Mary Beth Hurt.
Food, Inc. ****
A revealing introduction to the present-day manufacturing of food and philosophies about eating.
Directed by Robert Kenner…2008…94 min…featuring Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser.
In Bruge ****
Two hit men are banished to Belgium to await further orders when a job goes wrong. The medieval setting of Bruge is a stately backdrop for a story full of crude, decadent and violent behavior.
Directed by Martin McDonagh…2008…107 min…featuring Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes, Brendan Gleeson, Eric Godon, Zeljko Ivanek, Clemence Poesy.
Troubled Water ****
Emotionally powerful and intense, “Troubled Water” brings together a man convicted of murdering a young boy with his grieving mother years after the events that changed both of their lives. Nothing is clear cut here- there are no pure villains or saints- so the entire production moves in the grey area of doubt, making this a complex and riveting story. There are no easy answers for what happens and there is no easy redemption.
“Troubled Water” not only presents complicated characters, but it also adds deep religious themes- about forgiveness and second chances. The movie also includes some magnificent music- when the man gets out of prison on parole, he gets a job as a church organist and the music gives him an outlet for the brooding guilt that tortures him. All of this combines for a disturbing story that nonetheless touches the heart.
Directed by Erik Poppe…2008…115 min…featuring Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen (as Jan Thomas,) Trine Dyrholm, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Trond Espen Seim.
Quick-cutting scenes, a whirlwind of exotic locales, a compelling storyline and an excellent soundtrack combine to make “Traitor” an intense, grey-area look inside the world of international terrorism- and the battle to stop it.
Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff…2008…114 min…featuring Don Cheadle (as Samir Horn,) Guy Pearce, Said Taghmaoui (as Omar,) Neal McDonough, Archie Panjabi, Jeff Daniels.
Wendy and Lucy (Train Choir) ***
A strange, static slice of life on the streets for a young woman and her dog.
Directed by Kelly Reichart…2008…80 min…featuring Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Will Oldham, John Robinson, Wally Dalton, Larry Fessenden, Ayanna Berkshire, John Breen, Deneb Catalan.
Rock ‘N’ Roll Stars **
A compilation of contemporary live performances by classic 1950s groups at a place called “Little Darlins.” No credit material, introductions, captioning or other identifying material sorts out what is on the screen and this unceremonious presentation suffers for it. Still, the performances are curiously fascinating, blurring the lines between authentic expression and just simply making a buck off of nostalgia.
2008…60 min…featuring Crickets, Tokens, Coasters, Diamonds, Brian Hyland, Contours, Wolfman Jack, Bobby Vee, Troy Shondell, Shirelles, Comets, Original Juniors.
Liam Neeson stars as a father letting nothing get in the way of his finding his daughter, who has been abducted on a tourist trip to Paris. He just happens to be a super special agent with plenty of killing skills. That turns this into a brutal, nasty production where the violence is the important thing, not the fleeting moments of perfunctory emotionalism. This is about revenge and bloody determination. Also featuring Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen. Directed by Pierre Morel. 2008.
The Hurt Locker ****
Dusty, hot, trashy. It doesn’t look like the streets of Iraq are a good place to be visiting even without a war. But add in the tension of snipers, suicide bombers and deadly booby traps at any time, any place and it becomes understandable that the soldiers in “The Hurt Locker” have frayed nerves. Intensifying it for them is their job- to identify and disarm bombs, big and little.
On duty, the three act with varying degrees of professionalism, generally relying on training and instincts to survive. One guy’s a cowboy, jumping into the bomb suit at every opportunity, recklessly bulling on through without regard for his own safety or the safety of his team. One guy’s losing his grip, just barely hanging on, making him unreliable. The third guy tries to hold things together in the middle, using procedure and street smarts to try to make it through another day alive.
But that’s really only half of their job. The other half is in keeping sane while waiting for their next shift. That may mean begrudgingly talking to a service psychiatrist, or playing hardcore metal at ear-bleeding volumes. It may mean drinking profusely and fighting each other in the barracks for fun. There doesn’t seem to be a healthy alternative for these guys and they build an edgy camaraderie by just making it up as they go along.
What comes from all of this is a sense of heroism based on personal action. It doesn’t seem clear to anyone whether the politics of being in Iraq are right or not, so nationalistic pride doesn’t play much of a part in the movie. What’s right in “The Hurt Locker” is stepping up to each situation you encounter and doing your job the best way you can. In the face of constant exposure to danger, their brand of heroism is based on concentrating on the job at hand, putting as much personal fear aside as possible. Each day, each situation is a personal test that they must endure. That some guys actually get addicted to the adrenalin of danger makes it all the more complex.
What elevated “The Hurt Locker” for me were the last few minutes of the movie, when the wildman bomb specialist has returned home. The scenes in the grocery store are so ironic, it makes you laugh- a dark, painful chuckle. In Iraq, he pulls bombs out of the corpses of young boys. At home, he looks up and down the cereal aisle, somehow stopped in his tracks by the mind-boggling number of choices in a clean, quiet environment.
“The Hurt Locker” is a grim experience. At one time, war movies were about overcoming huge odds for a good cause. In “The Hurt Locker” the soldiers seem to be losing the battle, not winning. There is no sense of triumph here. There is a sense of confusion, of muddled, even twisted values. The movie invokes sympathy, horror and disgust. At one time, war movies may have been meant to inspire. “The Hurt Locker” is one of the newer breed of war movies that reflects the lack of glory in warfare and the toll it takes on those who serve.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow…2 hrs. 10 min…Featuring Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Guy Pearce, Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie…2008.
It’s shocking to think of something that is so plentiful and so common as water as something with a mystery. This documentary, however, well establishes the idea that water may be much more complex and much more responsive to the world than we think.
“Water” (1 hr 27 min…2008) reveals, through interviews with top researchers from around the world, that the substance we know as water has a “memory” that collects its “experiences” and stores them in its structure. That means that the structure of water is sympathetic to what is around it. The water coming from a remote source in Venezuela, for example, is structured completely differently from water coming out of a tap in New York City.
These hypotheses set the stage for various experiments that include speaking to water, even praying to it, and measuring the result by freezing it immediately and analyzing the crystal patterns revealed in the ice. Predictably, music by Bach, Beethoven and Mozart is shown to create ornate, symmetrical crystals, while heavy metal rock creates a disjointed, messy crystal. Beakers of water, according to documented experiments, respond differently if they are being told “I love you” or “I hate you” repeatedly.
The producers of “Water” then go the next step and connect water with spirituality. Interviews with clergy from various religions give support to the idea that water plays a big role in certain major spiritual events and that the connection between God and water is perhaps stronger than we might guess.
Whether you go all the way with “Water” or not, the discussion of the element’s significance could not be more important as the world population continues growing- while the amount of water on earth does not. These weighty questions alone make “Water” worth watching. The stuff that goes one step beyond, however, also adds intellectual spice and wonder that in itself is valuable if for no other reason than to think out of the box.
Bottle Shock ***
Ultimately a light comedy, “Bottle Shock” tells the story of how California-produced wine came to the attention of the global wine market in 1976, thanks to a formal French wine tasting event that lauded the American vintages. The movie is full of the silly, snobby stuff that seems to be a part of the wine world, but it’s balanced by the angst continually displayed by Bill Pullman’s patriarchal character. While everyone else- his son, longtime employees, a young female intern- is gushing about the flavors and magical effects of the wines, he’s trying like hell not to let his business go bankrupt and it turns his character into a cynical grump with a severe attitude problem. It all shifts the right way, but its a bumpy ride for him anyway. Alan Rickman plays the British wine snob who brings the idea of a France-California tasting event to the Napa Valley. Also featuring Chris Pine, Freddy Rodriguez, Dennis Farina…1 hr 50 min…2008.
Death is a grim and unsavory subject for many people and that is exactly why this movie succeeds- because it tackles this subject with dignity as well as a little humor. Humor, about funerals? No, the humor isn’t about the funerals themselves, which are handled with care and gravity. The humor comes from the living characters. Despite some rough and even sad stories, the people in “Departures” have a kind of lightness of being that counteracts the physical and emotional distress of death.
The story follows the career change of an unemployed cellist, Daigo, played by Masahiro Motoki, who moves back to his hometown from Tokyo after the orchestra he plays for is dissolved. Through a misunderstanding of a newspaper ad he answers, Daigo enters the world of preparing dead bodies for burial, a ceremonial process performed in the company of the deceased’s family and friends. Daigo’s boss, played by Tsutomu Yamazaki, is a kind of Zen master of the art and teaches Daigo how to honor the dead with their work. Rather than being the weird and even disgusting job that many in Daigo’s path abhor, including his young wife, it becomes a position of great importance to the loved ones.
That death comes to all underscores the need for clear-minded, measured action and Daigo gets it- like he was born to do the job like his boss says. Some of the movie slips into some goofiness- at times, the characters go beyond normal in their reactions to create a light atmosphere- but when it comes down to what is really important- the honoring of the departed- it is served with grace and respect. I would want people like these to attend to me when I am gone, and that says something important about this movie…directed by Yojiro Takita…2 hrs 11 min…2008.
The Secret Life of Bees ***
“The Secret Life of Bees” is kind of like a fairy tale of sorts- an abused girl finds love and truth when she escapes her grim circumstances. Despite some pain and some tragedy, the girl triumphs over her past and the terrible emotional burden she bears. Added to this is the intense racial backdrop of the civil rights clashes in the South in the early 1960s. Dakota Fanning plays Lily, the 14 year old white girl and Jennifer Hudson plays Rosalee, her black caretaker. Queen Latifah and Alicia Keys also appear as two more of the “mothers” who take charge of Lily with some elements of an American magical realism. It’s kind of surprising that with so much musical talent in the cast- Hudson, Keys and Latifah- that there isn’t much music- just a hymn at a burial. Directed by Gina Prince Bythewood, novel by Sue Monk Kidd…1 hr. 49 min…2008.
Slumdog Millionaire *****
So much more than a love story, “Slumdog Millionaire” is a cultural tour of contemporary society in India. Mixing very old ways with very new ways, India is a country of unsettling imbalances in “Slumdog.” Television, technology and an urban construction boom reveal the modern face of India, while throngs of its citizens live in appalling squalor, garbage flowing like a river next to huge shantytowns, streets ruled by ruthless gangsters, without much chance of it ever changing.
However, the main character of “Slumdog,” Jamal, perseveres through adversity to not only survive, become a winner on a TV game show, but also get the girl of his dreams. This movie is a fairy tale, but an aggressive one, using creative storytelling, quick action sequencing and a bone rattling soundtrack. The cast is extremely versatile, often three actors of different ages playing the same part. Even the final credits of the movie are entertaining.
This is the second time I have seen this movie- the first time was in the theater. This second time was at home on a DVD. Watching a DVD on a smaller screen cannot help but diminish just about any production as perfectly made for the big screen as “Slumdog” is. Added to that is the fore-knowledge of what happens. However, I found myself completely involved in the viewing emotionally- frightened for the horrors the characters confront, elated for their triumphs- and was sorry when the movie ended. The movie skillfully builds and releases tension no matter what you know about the plot. That is the mark of an excellent movie. Highly recommended. Dev Patel. Irfan Khan. Freida Pinto. Directed by Danny Boyle. 2008.
According to this movie, there were 15 attempts on the life of Adolph Hitler and this is the story of the final attempt. But more than an assassination attempt, the conspiracy of German military and political figures behind it planned and almost pulled off a coup of the government in order to end the war. In hide-sight it is perhaps easy to identify how the plan failed- resulting in multiple executions- but the story here is more about the awesome fortitude it took to get as far as they did. This reveals that there were many heroes in the German resistance movement, despite nearly universal devotion to Der Fuhrer. Tom Cruise creates a strong-willed and determined character in Col. Claus von Stauffenburg, the central figure in the assassination attempt. However, no matter how much you change his appearance- with an eye-patch and disfigured hands- you still know its Tom Cruise. Stephen Fry. Bill Nighy. Ediie Izzard. 2008.
Taking Chance ***
Just the subject of this film elevates it from average entertainment. In fact, this isn’t “entertaining” at all. The entire movie follows the process of returning the body of a soldier killed in action in Iraq to his hometown in Wyoming. It is both a somber and emotion process, touching strangers all along the way, even those who may disagree about the war itself. Kevin Bacon plays the escort, a tight-lipped man who volunteers for the duty. 2008.
Let the Right One In ****
Static and as cold as the Swedish deep winter freeze that serves as an effective backdrop for “Let the Right One In,” this movie scores points simply for not giving in to the urge to concentrate on the violence intricately involved in the story. A young outcast makes friends with a neighbor girl only to discover she is not a girl at all, but a vampire. He falls in love with her anyway and that seems to be the point- it is a love story more than a horror movie.
Don’t get me wrong- there is plenty of gore and wicked violence in “Let the Right One In”- but those scenes are concentrated and quick, often shot at a distance. More shocking is the love that grows between Oskar and Eli- when they converse after Eli has fed and when they lay in bed together in the cold.
Directed by Tomas Alfredson…2008…115 min…featuring Kare Hedebrant (as Oskar,) Lina Leandersson (as Eli,) Per Ragnar, Karin Bergquist, Ika Nord.
Righteous Kill **
Tired tough cop movie.
Directed by Jon Avnet…2008…101 min…featuring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, 50 Cent, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg, Brian Dennehy.
In “Sugar,” a baseball prospect from the Dominican Republic gets pulled up into the minor leagues in the United States. He ends up on a team in Iowa, with only a very limited knowledge of English and even less about the culture around him. The player makes money that he is able to send back home to his extended family, he stays with a dedicated family and he has raw baseball talent as a pitcher, but somehow, things do not connect for him. Algenis Perez Soto’s portrayal of the young pitcher is brooding and mysterious. He makes his character come from a truly different land. The movie is well-shot, scenes connecting the action full of rich imagery as diverse as the Dominican Republic and Iowa.
Directed by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck…2008…1 hr. 54 min…featuring Algenis Perez Soto (as Miguel “Sugar” Santos).
Yes Man **
“Yes Man” is a romantic comedy that is light on the comedy. A negative guy stuck in a rut goes to a self-development event and resolves to change his life by saying “yes” to everything that comes his way. He ends up meeting an unusual girl as a result and the two end up working out their differences and become a couple. The story itself doesn’t really go anywhere. What saves the movie is the lampooning of California life- from the self-development movement to photography while jogging.
Directed by Peyton Reed…2008…1 hr. 44 min…featuring Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, John Michael Higgins, Rhys Darby, Danny Masterson, Terence Stamp.
Entre les murs (The Class) **
This movie follows French teacher Francois Begaudeau in class with a rough mix of kids. Tempers get hot while some educating happens, but that’s really about it. The classroom scenes are mixed with staffroom scenes and while this may provide an interesting study of the trials and tribulations of inner city education for those interested in the process, it fails as entertainment for others. There is no sense that the movie is going anywhere- it’s a big long slice of life of a place I’m not particularly interested in going to.
Directed by Laurent Cantet…2008…2 hr. 10 min.
Experiencing both really bad and some really good luck, a teenaged orphan uses her attractive looks and willingness to put out sexually to get by. Everybody else in the movie is a user or deceiver in some way, so her actions are not shocking considering her environment. The real development here comes through the one steady thing in her life- art- which nonetheless takes a back seat to the tumultuous relationships she gets into throughout the production.
Directed by Dan Ireland…2008…121 min…featuring Jessica Chastain, Frances Fisher, Rupert Friend, Dermot Mulroney, Cazz Palminteri, Theresa Russell, Michael Vartan.
The racism of South Africa’s apartheid era is underscored by this true story of “white” parents with a “black” daughter and the social and personal upheavals that occur as a result. Just as a country is painfully divided in “Skin,” so is a family.
Directed by Anthony Fabian…2008…107 min…featuring Sophie Okonedo, Terri Ann Eckstein, Bongani Masondo, Sam Neill, Tony Kgoroge.
A South African literature professor is forced out of his job after having an improbable affair with a student. When he visits his daughter living out in the country, events turn much more serious during a home invasion incident that ends in gang rape. The professor, played with an unnerving and arrogant cool by John Malkovich, brings himself to confront his own actions back in the city, but cannot help his daughter who stubbornly refuses to run away from her problems among the native people. This movie reveals a horrible clash of cultures and personal motivation.
Directed by Steve Jacobs…2008…119 min…featuring John Malkovich, Natalie Becker, Antoinette Engel, Jessica Haines, Eriq Ebouaney.
Quantum of Solace ***
Another James Bond thriller with the usual ingredients- exotic locales, exotic women and unrelenting violence tempered with occasional scenes with dialogue.
The previous sentence might suggest that “Quantum of Solace” is just a run-of-the-mill production about the iconic secret agent character. Maybe so in many aspects, but I came away from the movie with a good appreciation for the job Daniel Craig is doing as the most recent of the long string of James Bonds. Craig’s Bond is not a suave, arrogant wisecracker, but a severely dogged and obsessive character- and tough. Whatever his goal is, Craig’s Bond is in full gear to get there.
Craig’s Bond, then, fits well with the style of action scenes in this movie- really short, quick blasts of imagery going as fast as the action would be going if you were in the middle of it. Without the dogged dedication of Craig’s Bond- from leaping from one building to the next in a foot chase or to the whirling, screeching and roaring of a high speed car chase- he could not survive. As he scrambles along, things disintegrate around him and there is not a nanosecond to lose- or die in his endeavor. This isn’t about his cleverness as much as his will to continue.
This makes “Quantum of Solace” a nearly exhausting action film. All those expected James Bond movie elements take a back seat to the constant motion of Craig’s Bond.
Directed by Marc Forster…2008…106 min…featuring Daniel Craig (as James Bond), Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench (as M), Giancarlo Giannini, Gemma Arterton, Jeffrey Wright.
Phoebe in Wonderland ***
A family drama about the struggles of a young girl to fit in.
Despite fantasy sequences involving “Alice in Wonderland” characters, this movie is about a real and serious condition. Elle Fanning is the most believable actor here- there are times when she seems exactly like a confused, scared child, not a “professional” trying to act that way. Patricia Clarkson plays a strange yet supportive theatre teacher who is able to reach the little girl, while her parents, played by Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman, are clueless and ineffective despite their academic credentials.
Directed by Daniel Barnz…2008…96 min…Elle Fanning (as Phoebe,) Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Pullman, Campbell Scott, Ian Colletti.
Lazarus Project **
An ex-con turns back to crime to pay the bills for his young family, but the heist goes wrong and results in some deaths. What then starts as an execution becomes a low level mystery as he sorts out what happens to him and his wife and daughter. Very watered down and reminiscent of “Shutter Island.”
Directed by John Glenn…2008…100 min…featuring Paul Walker, Piper Perabo, Brooklynn Proulx.
Sunshine Cleaning ****
Far and away the most emotionally satisfying disk I viewed recently. Two sisters become crime scene clean-ups in a quest for survival. Believably built, full of rich character treatments. Amy Adams. Emily Blunt. 2008. 1 hr. 31 min.
A downer. Makes you think your life is not so bad after seeing these Long Island families disintegrate. Timothy Hutton. Alec Baldwin. Rory Culkin. Kieran Culkin. Cynthia Nixon. Jill Hennessy. 2008.
Babylon AD ***
A hardened mercenary helps transport and guard a special young woman.
Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz…2008…90 min…featuring Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Melanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Mark Strong, Charlotte Rampling, Gerard Depardieu.
2012 Doomsday *
A very weak, improbable blend of ancient Mayan and Christian mysticism.
Directed by Nick Everhart…2008…85 min…featuring Cliff De Young, Dale Midkiff, Ami Dolenz, Danae Nason, Joshua Lee.
A young couple end up ensnared in drug running and murder as they make their way across China and Russia on the Trans-Siberia Railway.
Directed by Brad Anderson…2008…111 min…featuring Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega.
20 Years After ***
Directed by Jim Torres…2008…95 min…featuring Joshua Leonard, Azura Skye, Diane Salinger.
24 Redemption ***
Tough US Agent gone renegade, Jack Bauer, gets drawn into an international crisis in Africa- trying to save a bunch of boys from being inducted into a brutal war lord’s army.
Directed by Jon Cassar…2008…102 min…featuring Kiefer Sutherland, Cherry Jones, Bob Gunton, Colm Feore, Powers Boothe, Robert Carlyle, Jon Voight, Peter MacNicol, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Siyabulela Ramba.
Dead Space: Downfall ***
Directed by Chuck Patton…2008…74 min…featuring Nika Futterman, Keith Szarabajka, Jim Cummings.