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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008


The story of America’s immigrant past has been well documented by the motion picture. From the boat trips across the ocean to Ellis Island and the accompanying acclamation, our heritage has made for some memorable film. Yet it seems strange that the current migrant situation, dealing with undocumented workers and border crossing illegals gets short shrift. Part of the problem is politics. No one is eager to foist the problems of an already marginalized population on an uncaring and unforgiving public. The other issue is creative. Few artists have attempted to capture this element of the immigrant experience. While it stereotypes several of the circumstances surrounding a Mexican mother and son’s day-to-day struggles, La Misma Luna - in English, Under the Same Moon - does a decent job of showcasing their specific plight.


When his grandmother dies, little Carlitos is determined to be reunited with his mother, Rosario. The only problem is, she’s across the border in Los Angeles, working a pair of jobs to earn enough money to bring her son over. Of course, she’s an illegal, and is afraid to ruffle feathers less she finds herself deported. While her best friend Alicia wants her to marry a man with a green card (or better yet, an actual citizen), Rosario hopes that she can work things out without lowering her personal standards. Still, a local security guard named Enrique manages to catch her eye. Meanwhile, Carlitos tries to get local ‘coyote’ Dona Carmen to get him across. Instead, he gets smuggled by a couple of well-meaning but bumbling Americans. Thus begins a journey cross country to find the only family he has left.


Maudlin and melodramatic when it doesn’t need to be, but insightful and engaging when it counts, Under the Same Moon represents both the best and worst of the revelatory road trip narrative. Director Patricia Riggen mines this material for as many colorful characters and recognizable circumstances as possible, yet just when she needs to rise above the familiar formulas, the clichés undercut our sympathy. We need to identify with these people, to be considerate of their needs and attentive to their dreams - especially since many of the plot points put unfortunate individuals in horrible predicaments. But since Riggen resorts to obvious emotional tugs, we spend more time rolling our eyes than wiping them.


The biggest foul committed by Under the Same Moon though is asking us to believe that a little boy of incredibly limited means and resources could manage to make it from Texas to California without raising a single suspicion. Instead, screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos provides a series of chary coincidences - dim bulb border patrols, easy to breach impound fencing, paternalistic strangers - that help keep the journey from jerking to a halt. We never completely believe in these manipulations, just as we don’t feel the terror when Carlitos is literally sold to a pedophile so a dope fiend can get a fix. It all feels scripted and control by forces outside of reality. While Riggen manages some moments of true authenticity, they are few and far between.


Thankfully, the acting tends to overcome these particular problems, especially when it comes to our main characters. While her problems are practically Herculean, Kate Del Castillo delivers a nicely nuanced turn as Rosario. She seems ridiculously obsessed with ethos - she’s pretty enough to be anyone’s border bride without lowering herself - but when push comes to shove, there’s a fire in her eyes that keeps us interested. Similarly, Adrian Alonso avoids many of the child performer mistakes, delivering an organic, unforced portrait of Carlitos’ little boy lost. Though there are times when Riggen gets him mugging for extra pathos, he has a naturalistic quality that keeps things from going too far overboard.


In fact, if one had to balance the effectiveness of the leads with the storyline they’re stuck in, Under the Same Moon stands as a draw. It doesn’t find the easy gravitas a tale like this could legitimately generate, yet at the same time, we feel compelled to follow things through to the end. Rosario’s determination, matched by her son’s own spirit, provides enough of a catalyst to carry us beyond the problems and the pigeonholing. For every event that feels lifted directly out of Villalobos’ laptop, there’s a scene that resonates as powerful and commanding. It all makes Under the Same Moon a difficult film to embrace. It also makes it a hard movie to ignore.


As a result, Riggen simply piles on the predicaments. There’s a wistful quality to the backdrops, an attempt to showcase the issues surrounding illegal immigration through out of the way places and underground avenues. Carlitos ends up in several places that look like leftovers from a post-apocalyptic wasteland, illustrating that many a migrant exists far outside the center of society. Had the story centered on these fascinating fringe elements, Under the Same Moon would be amazing. Instead, it asks us to accept a lot without making good on its myriad of promises. On one level, it’s great to see the contemporary experience of these misplaced and marginalized people expressed so. Then again, such a compelling story should have been much, much better.



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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008


It’s becoming painfully obvious that modern moviemakers know nothing about making a true family film. Not just a movie aimed at a certain unsullied demographic, but an effort that sparks the imagination of anyone from ages eight to eighty. The latest attempt at finding the right formula is the undeniably uneven Nim’s Island. As a work of whimsy and wonder, it offers too many unexplainable elements. We never fully grasp the reality - or unreality - of the situations we see. On the other hand, there are parts and performances here that illustrate the direction such a project could take, especially when not guided by studio pressures or focus group interference.


On a magical South Pacific atoll, Nim Rusoe and her oceanographer father Jack lead an idealized, tranquil life. Keeping in touch with civilization via satellite phones, the Internet, and a monthly supply boat, he studies plankton/protozoa while she plays with her animal pals. Nim is also a voracious reader, and her favorite book series centers on a macho adventurer named Alex Rover. One day, an email arrives asking for information on a local volcano. It appears to be from Rover himself. Nim responds, but doesn’t know that she’s really ‘talking’ to Alexandra Rover, author of the wildly successful tomes. Living in San Francisco as a literal hermit, the agoraphobic scribe wants to avoid the real world as much as possible. But when Jack goes missing at sea, and a cruise ship arrives, Nim grows nervous. She asks for Alex Rover’s help. Thus begins a journey of self-discovery for both our anxious author and the little girl she is determined to save.


There are two amazing elements to Nim’s Island, a pair of performers that literally lift the movie out of its ditzy doldrums every time they threaten to overwhelm the spectacle. As an Oscar nominee for her work in Little Miss Sunshine, Abigail Breslin does her best to infuse the quixotic nature of the narrative with fun and familiarity. As a character who literally talks to sea lions and lizards, who can craft a tasty treat out of vegetables and meal worms, who easily survives monsoons but panics the minute she sees other humans, it’s a hard act to sell. Our spunky little lead is supposed to be viewed as heroic and helpless, capable on the outside but frightfully needy within. Breslin brings all this to her work, and it’s one of the reasons we connect with the otherwise cracked events playing out.


The other shining star is two time Academy award winner Jodie Foster. Following up her magnificent turn in last year’s The Brave One, this comic about-face verifies why she remains one of our best modern actresses. Sure, her skittish psycho routine seems a bit forced at first, but that’s just because we don’t truly understand Alexandra Rover’s plight. Foster finds the right beats so often, building a character of such subtle complexity that we forgive the blatant slapstick and pratfall foolishness. By the last act, when the danger turns from imaginary to very, very real, Foster’s face illustrates all we need to know. While some may consider it over the top, this is one performance that perfectly matches the tone attempted here.


Unfortunately, novice filmmakers Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin confuse crazy quilt culturalism with fantasy, Apparently, juxtaposing Englishmen, Americans, Aussies, Islanders, and any other eccentric ethnicity one can muster is supposed to signify something otherworldly. All it really does is mandate a set of subtitles. Similarly, there’s a reliance on cartoonish imagery and obvious CGI (especially a pelican named Galileo) that breaks the magical mood the pair strives for. Sometimes, they get things just right. The opening credits that explain what happens to Nim’s mother are novel and well done. But the entire cruise ship episode stinks of a poorly produced pilot for a Downunder sitcom. When combined with the scattered script, which sees too many leaps in logic, even for an imaginary adventure, we get the distinct impression that there is a better version of this material to be had. Nothing Flackett or Levin do inspires the kind of recognition that will make little girls want to be Nim.


Indeed, the identification factor is the primary problem that ultimately undermines Nim’s Island. We don’t mind being whisked off to places unknown, interacting with individuals totally unlike ourselves, as long as we see a little authenticity in their actions. Even the wildest, most outlandish feats will fly just as long as we feel connected to what the characters are doing. But Nim’s Island is all too insular, lost in its own unique universe somewhere between Swiss Family Robinson and Joe vs. the Volcano. As a book (by Wendy Orr), one envisions a pleasant, pulpy page turner. As a film, some of it succeeds. The rest renders the pleasantries only passable.



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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008


The media just loves to fawn over George Clooney. With his combination of classic Hollywood charisma and contemporary self-effacing nerve, he tends to enhance, and sometimes overwhelm, the projects he touches. From his early, ineffectual work in films like One Fine Day, to the critical acclaim accompanying his turns with the Coens, he’s a student of the old studio system as well as a jester in his own idiosyncratic kingdom of considered cool. But what’s most fascinating about this man’s career is not his rise to mainstream prominence. Instead, his unique turns behind the camera - Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck - indicate an artist willing to bend tradition in order to place his own unique stamp on cinema. His latest effort, the attempted screwball comedy Leatherheads, is no different.


Poor Dodge Connelly. All he knows is football. He’s been playing an unappreciated professional version of the sport for years, unable to capture the public imagination the way the college game has. When his team folds, he heads to Chicago to talk with old ally C.C. Frazier. The sleazy entrepreneur is representing Princeton star Carter Rutherford, and Connelly thinks he can con the young war hero into going legit. Of course, as with every story like this, there’s a dame in the mix - in this case, ace Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton. Quick with a word and decisive on a deadline, she is out to undermine Rutherford. Seems his WWI mythos might just be bunk after all. Of course, destroying his reputation may just put the fledgling fortunes of professional football in jeopardy - and Connelly won’t let that happen.


You’ve got to give Clooney credit for trying, especially when most of Leatherheads is a jaunty, jazz age dream. He’s definitely learned a lot from his many collaborations with ones Joel and Ethan, and his visual flair never fails him. This is a smart, good looking movie, never overplaying its period piece precision or resorting to camp or kitsch. Clooney’s attention to detail is flawless, his comic timing as polished as the brass of a speakeasy’s spittoon. So why then is this movie merely good, and not the amazing masterpiece it wants to be? Where did this director and his dedicated cast go wrong, especially in light of all the things they both get so very, very right?


One answer may be the genre. As Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day indicated, the screwball comedy is a dead genre for a reason - it’s hard as Hell to recreate. Not only was the format a product of its time, but it also reflected the obvious anxieties of a world between wars. Clooney clicks into the aspects that cause instant recognition - ditzy dialogue, razor-sharp put downs, lightning quick conversations - but never finds the narrative mechanics to amplify everything else onscreen. During the opening football sequence, we see the kind of cinematic zing required to pull this off. By the middle of the second act, all that pizzazz has petered out.


Then there’s Renee Zellweger. While far more tolerable here than in other starring roles, she’s still the hollow feminine side of a rather lax lover’s triangle. With a pinched up face that blocks her needs to be expressive eyes, and a delivery pitched somewhere between community college thespianism and The Hudsucker Proxy, she never settles in to her function here. It’s the same with John Krasinski as Rutherford. He is supposed to be a genial lox, the kind of wide eyed innocent who doesn’t mind dipping into the dark side once in a while - or at least, that’s how the script handles him. He goes along with the get rich quick scheme forwarded by Connelly and Frazier, rather mercenary in his decision. But then, when Zellweger’s Littleton betrays him, he acts like a hurt puppy - albeit one that freely stained the companionship carpet whenever and wherever he wanted.


It’s up to our creative cheerleader to hold everything together, and it’s a testament to Clooney’s talent and magnetism that he manages to make it work. Connelly’s moxie, his sense of purpose and passion for playing football comes across loud and clear. Similarly, when smitten with Littleton and jealous of her wandering attentions, we believe in the legitimacy of their love. It’s too bad that the second act gets bogged down in ancillary plot points. Had Leatherheads simply stayed focused on showing how football moved from a college to national pastime, we’d have a winning sports epic. But emotions that should soar merely lumber along, failing to get our undivided attention.


As a result, Leatherheads stands as an almost success. It does the best it can with the cast and content collected, and still ends up delivering an occasionally delightful entertainment. It’s clear that, as he continues his career, Clooney’s choice behind the camera will be as brave and as interesting as the movie roles he options - maybe even more so. No one but this mainstream man-crush could use his considerable clout to forge a ‘20s era experiment in style and sass. While it doesn’t always work, Leatherheads definitely looks and feels right. And in the case of this clever attempt, two out of three is all that’s really needed.



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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008


Who, exactly, are the Rolling Stones circa 2008? Considering that it’s been 45 plus years since Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Brian Jones played ballsy blues badboys to the Beatles scrubbed and sanitized pop laureates, one has to challenge where a group of aging 60+ year olds fit within the modern mainstream music scheme. Granted, they are legends, myths making noise long after many thought them relevant. True, it takes an intense amount of chutzpah to step on stage and endlessly recreate your greatest hits from three decades past while hoping to work in a few of your current composition. It’s a concept that’s bested other icons - David Bowie, for one - and yet the artists formerly known as the greatest rock and roll band of all time continue to soldier on.


So when it was announced that Martin Scorsese, the moviemaking mind behind such monumental aural efforts as The Last Waltz and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, was planning on capturing the Stones on their latest tour in support of their 22nd studio album A Bigger Bang, fans and film fanatics were agog. Imagine the combination - the man responsible for some of contemporary cinema’s most masterful works directing the last real remnants of the socially conscious ‘60s through a sonic discourse of their entire career. The results should be something magical indeed. But Shine a Light suffers from something akin to inadvertent over familiarity. Instead of appreciating the Stones for surviving all these years, the movie appears to mock them for hanging on for far too long.


It begins with the otherwise astonishing IMAX presentation. While the movie will be available in the regular Cineplex format, seeing Jagger and Richards in 70mm clarity is shocking to say the least. It’s like watching outtakes from Dawn of the Dead, The Musical. Both men are indeed old, and not just in human years. They suffer from that rare malady known as rock and roll ageism. For every month they’ve spent on the road, or in a recording studio, they’ve ripened several decades. For his part, Jagger is still a jocular jumping bean, pulling off the preening moves and cock jock jerkiness that made him an icon. In fact, if Shine a Light has a single saving grace, it’s this enigmatic frontman. He is energy personified, able to whip up the crowd into a frenzy with little more than his onstage presence and instantly recognizable vocals.


But as they plow through their hit heavy playlist, as they touch on all aspects of their endless time as titans, certain elements undermine the show. Richards, for example, may be a substance abusing badass, a blood changing champion of music making debauchery, but he’s an incomplete element to the overall sound. Chopping away at his guitar, barely interested in completing a signature riff, he’s lost in his own world of aural satisfaction. Since most of the audience are far too young to remember when the Stones toured America in stadium showboating events, this offhand approach seems lazy. In fact, there are many times when Richard’s random strumming ruins an otherwise incendiary classic (“Brown Sugar”, “Start Me Up”).


It’s a zombie like malaise that stifles many otherwise amazing moments here. We really get into the groove of “Some Girls”, but then a bit of editorial oddness derails the experience (fans of the song will definitely understand). The band brings on some celebrity guests to fill out the evening, but only Buddy Guy delivers with his bravado blues belting on “Champagne and Reefer”. By the time we get to the encores, and the signature Stone tune “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, one actually yearns for DEVO’s deconstructionist take. Our old men are merely going through the motions, delivering what they think the audience wants while providing just enough effort to easily appease the masses.


For his part, Scorsese is stuck as documenter only. Unlike Waltz, or his amazing Dylan overview, there is little opportunity to add clarification or context to the Stones’ performance Instead, we get clichéd comic bits - interviews from 1964 addressing the band’s proposed longevity while, 44 years later, the guys are jamming away on “Tumbling Dice”. There is no mention of other band members, no recounting of the troubled history that followed their fame (we do get mention of Jagger and Richard’s run-ins with the law), or life outside the limelight. Indeed, Scorsese is striving for a Stop Making Sense kind of relevance - a movie where the music and how it is performed says everything about the artist featured.


In that regard, Shine a Light struggles. Diehards will drown in giant-sized waves of nostalgic recall, while the casual lover of the band’s output will grow restless towards the end. While the mood changing choices of country comforts like “Far Away Eyes”, or their bow to Marianne Faithful (who covered their composition “As Tear Go By”) are welcome, it’s the high energy entries that keep us engaged. Jagger is indeed the juice. Yet there is still something unsettling about the entire performance, as if part of the passion that drove these English lads to music four decades before has been lost in waves of commercialism and cash. Still, Shine a Light does deliver in a way few concert films can - especially given the timeless talents on display. It’s just too bad it’s not more illuminating. The Rolling Stones as a symbol of pop culture’s past deserve as much.



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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008


The War in Iraq remains a tricky cinematic situation. Over the last few months, there’s been a myriad of motion pictures that have decided that the best way to interpret the conflict is to make the soldiery a kind of indirect villain. Instead of celebrating the bravery and duty of these incredible young men and women, they’ve turned the political/policy elements of the conflict into a means to murderous, madmen ends. No matter the theater – foreign or domestic, religious or military – it’s nothing but the worst of our fears made very, very human. Kimberley Peirce’s Stop-Loss wants to buck this trend. It hopes to illustrate the Bush Administration’s ridiculous reenlistment strategy, a revolving door that keeps haggard and harried defense forces in harms way long after their effectiveness has waned. But instead of getting to the heart of the matter, it mines the middle of the road for a series of clichéd contrivances.


After leading his men directly into an ambush, Sgt. Brandon King returns home to Texas a decorated, if disconnected hero. He is celebrated by his hometown, along with buddies Steve Shriver and Tommy Burgess. With just a few days before he gets out of the service, Brandon hopes to restart his civilian life. But when he reports to turn in his gear, he learns he is being Stop-Lossed. In layman’s terms, it means he is being involuntarily reenlisted for another tour of duty. Angry over this perceived betrayal, Brandon goes AWOL. He decides to go to Washington and speak to a Senator who promised to help him out. Steve’s fiancé Michelle decides to be his driver. Naturally, the military doesn’t look kindly on deserters, and it’s not long before they send his friends after him. Desperate and on the run, Brandon can’t understand why the country he served would treat him so. It’s a horrible lesson that he and his fellow recruits will soon learn all too well.


For the first ten minutes or so, Stop-Loss crackles along on a bed of preconceived patriotism. We watch fresh faced young men battling ambiguous Arab enemies, rocket launchers sending Hummers – and humans – to a planned pyrotechnical reward. By the time we see the trademark tableau (dead Islamic family, including kids, lying in a pool of blood and bullets), we think this film might be ready to break from the formulaic mold. But alas, director Peirce (of Boys Don’t Cry fame) brings the drama back home, and it’s here where Stop-Loss stumbles. In fact, within a short time of landing stateside, the movie meanders into a series of vignettes that replay every tired post-service chestnut ever offered. Over the course of the 105 minute running time we get the doomed alcoholic, the commitment-phobic jarhead, the conscientious objector, the fading Vietnam Vet father and any other stereotype you can stomach.


This doesn’t make Stop-Loss dreadful, just predictable. The moment you hear a commanding officer warn the troops about banned leave conduct – no drunk driving, no wife beating, no sex with underage partners – we recognize the various plot point beats the narrative is going to traverse. Sure enough, Tommy takes his car for an inebriated spin, while Steve’s gal pal suddenly sports a shiner. When combined with the other archetypes abounding (rebel yelling soon to be recruit, compassionate care-giving mother), we get a veritable cornucopia of cornball cinematic extremes. That Peirce manages to keep everything from swerving into parody or direct outrage is commendable. Yet the script by the director and Mark Richard keeps veering into easy answers and simplistic sentiments. In the end, we feel like we’ve witnessed all these war stories - both at home and on the front lines – before.


As for the acting, there is some reason to rejoice. While he’s typically been known as Reese Witherspoon’s ex, Ryan Philippe actually redeems himself as a serious performer – albeit of a decidedly MTV era bent. He looks less like a waifish pretty boy and more like a Lone Star soldier here. Equally engaging, though far more limited in range, is Channing Tatum. Best known for being the badass stud muffin in tween treats like Step Off, he certainly looks the part of a tattooed marksman. But when required to bring the big guns, dramatically speaking, he slips just a little. And while she may have a jailbait Charlize Theron look to her trailer trashiness, Abbie Cornish is a vapid, vacuous female lead. Among the underused and downright forgotten are Ciaran Hinds as Brandon’s worn warrior dad, Timothy Olyphant as the crusty CO, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the consistently tanked up Tommy, and a blink and you’ll miss it turn by Rosanne‘s Laurie Metcalf as a grieving mother.


In fact, the movie is more of an artillery based Abercrombie and Fitch road trip than a concise character study. There is no desire to dig deeper into these men, to see why a series of tours in a remote Arab land turns some young boys into fractured, failed men. Sacrifice is stressed, but not the lingering horrors of being a hired killer. Stop-Loss is not a movie of insight. Instead, it skirts most important issues in favor of more post-adolescent angst. Peirce falls into the typical motion picture parameters. She relies on musical montages, pop culture cues, and the standard shaky-cam suggestion of chaos. And since we don’t have more meaning to the events, we end up losing interest. No amount of pizzazz or flash can permeate the failed policies of George Bush and company, and since the movie only gives the Commander in Chief cursory criticism (and an “F” bomb beratement), its possible points become moot.


This renders Stop-Loss anticlimactic and average. While better than ball buster bravado like Redacted and Rendition, it can’t compete with more serious efforts like In the Valley of Elah. In fact, the film is very much like our mission in Iraq – poorly defined, jingoistic, and destined to be unpopular. While marketing may drive the 20 something demo into theaters, audiences with more life experience will scoff at the black/white pronouncements. It is clear that this war is taking a toll previously unfathomable to those who initiated it. But what’s also evident is that Stop-Loss – as a movie and as a course of action is a failure as well. 



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