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Thursday, Apr 10, 2008


A comment from an official in charge of Alabama’s prison population says it all - the treatment of criminals in America has slowly shifted from rehabilitation and reclamation into society to pure, unadulterated punishment. It’s a waste, a warehousing mentality, the direct result of a sentencing guideline given where life without the possibility of parole is handed out with startling regularity…without consideration of the consequences or repercussions. Inmates don’t need care. They need caging.


Into this unstable fray, a world where law and order don’t mix as much as mitigate each others’ existence, comes the Vipassana, a rigorous 10 day course of meditation and self discovery. It’s one of the toughest disciplines in all of enlightenment. For the inmates of Donaldson Correctional Facility in the very rural South, the chance to apply the teachings of Buddha provides some optimism for their otherwise hopeless lives. For the residents surrounding the imposing facility, including the conservative Christian community, such Eastern promise smacks of leniency - something these convicts don’t require.


An intriguing film about the practice from three first time documentarians, The Dhamma Brothers, delves deep into the battle of wills between hardened criminals, a reluctant administration, an uncaring society, and a pair of wide-eyed teachers whose only desire is to see men change through individual illumination. In some ways, the story is simple. We quickly learn that the secret of Vipassana is the acceptance of personal responsibility. During the ordeal, where for nine days the prisoners cannot speak to or communicate with each other, their crimes and catastrophic past become burdens they have to acknowledge and manage through quiet contemplation and chanting.


For the basic bleeding heart, it’s a humane way of dealing with the long considered barely human. For the jingoistic jail proponent, it’s all part of the “fake it ‘til you make it’ mentality of inmate con jobbing. There’s an incredible sequence about a third of the way in where locals are given a chance to comment on the prison’s decision. One calls Buddhism “witchcraft”, while another stresses that these men lost any chance at compassion when they killed/robbed/raped who they did. It’s both sides of a single compelling argument, one that The Dhamma Brothers never fully addresses, or puts to rest. 


This is especially true when the mandatory denouement occurs. It’s not a case of recidivism or criminal chicanery. Instead, the State of Alabama listens to the pleas of several concerned religious organizations, and determines that the Vipassana, as well as the ability for these inmates to meet on a daily basis for medication, constitutes a “preaching” of a particular belief system. As such, it violates the long established “Go with Jesus” gerrymander. It’s a stupid sentiment, but it works. By the time the program returns four years later, its original removal is chalked up to politics played as usual.


While the personal angle really sells the film, these outer issues really are important to understanding The Dhamma Brothers’ dilemma. We see that the process really does provide some manner of rehabilitation for even the most unapologetic lifer, but to argue that it violates religious freedom when the Courts have constantly held such a preference quasi-Constitutional paints Alabama in a bad light. At least the directors - Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, and Anne Marie Stein - don’t demonize the prison staff. Everyone, from the warden to the guards, is given a chance to question the practice…and then offer their indirect apologies when the convicts disprove their apprehension. 


Still, what many will remember about this otherwise informative film is the way in which we get to know these men. Grady Bankhead, inside for murder, tells of how his mother took he and his brother to an abandoned farmhouse when they were very young, kissed them on the forehead, told them to be good, and simply left them there to die. It’s a astonishing revelation, as are many of the personal stories and memories offered. Perhaps even more stunning is how open and honest these men eventually become. Vipassana has forced them to confront their darkest fears and recollections. The act of mental attrition, of drawing into oneself and meditating on the horrors within, has emboldened each and every one.


It’s a feeling that flows even through the more stereotypical aspects of the narrative. As a talking heads piece, the actual Buddhist rituals requiring isolation (and therefore, no filming) to be effective, we get little insight into the process. It would be nice to see some hidden camera footage of the men interacting, of how a typical day plays out for them. Much of the Vipassana is left unexplained, as if the teachers want the technique protected out of reverence - or maybe something more mercenary. Yet it’s hard to imply anything truly sinister to what we see here. There is so much good being done that finding fault is next to impossible.


The Dhamma Brothers does, however, lack one element that’s mandatory for a great documentary. Call it an entertainment epiphany, or a moment of cinematic transcendence, but we never feel lifted outside the experience at Donaldson to see a bigger cosmic, or karmic, picture. Instead, stories play out, men learn from the experience, and while some slip, others like Bankhead or confirmed convert Rick Smith successfully pitch and preach. In the end, we recognize the value and vital importance of such a program, and we wonder why other institutions haven’t employed the technique instead of simply using captivity for their collection of ‘animals’.


If anything, Vipassana suggests that, once a man gets to truly know himself, and has the opportunity to regularly explore such a domain, he’ll find his place within the civilized social order. It may not forgive him for what he’s done, and oddly enough, few feel the need for such clemency. Instead, all they want is the chance to investigate themselves further, to use the techniques taught to moderate internally what they couldn’t while out in the world. The sooner the penal system accepts that, the quicker collections like The Dhamma Brothers can spring up around the country. It seems like the only sensible solution in a realm replete with tired old tendencies - and abject failures.



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Thursday, Apr 10, 2008


By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered.


When we first meet Sorowitsch, he is gambling in a Monte Carlo casino. As he places a bet, his mind wanders back to pre-War Berlin. The Nazi party is making life impossible for members of his faith, but he feels invincible—after all, he’s the best phony paper pusher in the country. Unfortunately, he is captured, and sent to a concentration camp. There, his unique talents are championed by Lagerkommandanten Herzog. In charge of Hitler’s plan to undermine the British and US economy, he wants Sorowitsch to counterfeit the pound sterling. If he’s successful, America’s dollar is next. Among his group of well cared for inmates is a Communist print master named Adolph Burger. He wants nothing to do with the scheme and hopes to rise up against his captures. But Sorowitsch is only out for himself, no matter how selfish that sounds.


There are times when you want The Counterfeiters to be great, to stand up and recognize the inherently intriguing tale it has to tell and do so magnificently. You want it to stop meandering about, to cease giving unnecessary time to Burger and his tired whining and posturing, and instead really explore the dynamic of turning rags and inks into top quality currency. This is a film that hints at the process, but never digs deeper. But it’s impossible to deny the quantitative curiosity factor present, or the unusual way writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky tells the tale. Applying a Dogma ‘95 like technique, scenes are lit naturally, scenes playing out amongst minimal sets. All the Holocaust horrors remain indirect, experienced through sound cues, suggestion, and the occasional half-glimpsed moment of gore. This is not just Sorowitsch’s story, yet who he is remains the center of the situation at hand.


It’s a weird dilemma for the criminal. In one way, he is helping his persecutor undermine his potential liberator. He understands the rules of survival and how to bend them just enough to get what he wants. He’s surrounded by accomplices and antagonists, men willing to play along with the Nazi plan and those already defeated by their torturous treatment. In essence, Ruzowitzky needs the battle of wills between Sorowitsch and Burger, letting each one have a pro/con position before turning the evidence against them. Logic argues for our hero’s stance. He does what he’s told in hopes it will save his life. His chief antagonist is more interested in the soul. He can’t see aiding and abetting a bunch of demons, no matter the protection it provides.


In the middle are the rest of the counterfeiting crew, and one of the film’s few weaknesses is its treatment of these people. They come across as clichés, the supplicant and the surly, each one trying their best to find a way to deal with the death around them. Rozowitzky wisely keeps them off to the side, decided to focus on Sorowitsch, Burger, and Herzog instead. The camp commandant is an interesting character, unlike any we’ve seen in recent Holocaust recreations. He’s compassionate without being kind, ruthless without taking out his agenda on the prisoners. He demands results and doesn’t mind using intimidation and anger as a way of getting them. But there is also a surreal side to his personality, something that intimates a kind of caring for those he’s exploiting.


A good way of seeing this dichotomy arrives when Sorowitsch is invited to the Commandant’s house for an important meeting. In a short, savvy montage, the director offers the officer’s shrewish wife, a perfect Aryan fright with a smiling face that barely covers her genocidal disgust. Though it flashes by in a few seconds, it says a great deal about why Herzog is not really a villain. He’s bad—a last act event will definitely underline this—but he’s also the picture perfect illustration of the mind “merely taking orders”. Just to be safe, Rozowitzky gives us a couple of jackbooted Sturmbannführers so as not to lose sight of the real issues involved—that is, the extermination of an entire people.


Indeed, what’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era—the deplorable conditions, the inhuman suffering, the random violence—are reduced to a filmic footnote. In its place is another kind of abomination, one that rests solely on morality and how people will subvert their will and principles for the sake of saving their skin. It’s not just that Sorowitsch and his crew are willing to help the Nazi’s undermine the Allies—it’s that they actually succeed. In one of the few cases where a German plan managed to achieve its evil ends, England was flooded with millions in bogus currency.


Still, it’s the subtler moments that resonate the fullest: Sorowitsch’s tireless struggles to defeat the dollar; the arrival of a ping pong table; the realization that their dressier clothes have comes from other camp victims; the fate of the ‘new shoe’ gang. It all adds up to a powerful, if rather predicable vision. We know where most of this story is going (after all, it’s being told in flashback). But the journey toward such a revelation is rife with engaging ideas and unforgettable performances. The Counterfeiters may represent a heretofore unknown aspect of Hitler’s reign of terror, but it remains a story well worth telling.



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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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