Live-In Maid

20 09 2007

Cama Adentro
Live-In Maid
(Cama Adentro) really touched me. It’s the story of a time of transition in the lives of Beba (Norma Aleandro) and her longtime maid, Dora (Norma Argentina). The two have lived together in Buenos Aires for nearly 30 years, but Beba has recently fallen on tough times. She hasn’t paid Dora in seven months, and she’s been reduced to selling cosmetics and pawning her personal effects. She appears to have no real prospects, few friends, and no support system. At home, she’s fairly helpless—even when it comes to simple things like pouring a drink.

Despite what one of the chatty women behind me in the theater seemed to think, though, the relationship isn’t entirely one-sided. Dora respects Beba’s sense of style and approach to life.  In the past, too, Beba has obviously taken care of Dora when necessary. More fundamentally, Dora has simply become a member of Beba’s family. These women are dependent on one another.

Live-In Maid isn’t really so much about what happens at this one point in time. Instead, director Jorge Gaggero is interested in having us experience the relationship at this moment. This isn’t to say that nothing happens in the film; indeed, something fairly dramatic does happen. But I left the theater thinking more about Beba and Dora’s ties, not so concerned about particular plot points.

Both of the lead actresses are quite good. Aleandro, a prominent Argentine actress who earned an Academy Award nomination for Gaby: A True Story, absolutely commands your attention. Argentina, amazingly, is a neophyte, one who has actually done some housekeeping; her inexperience simply doesn’t show.

On my four-star scale, I give Live-In Maid three solid stars.


Deep Water

18 09 2007

Deep Water
Deep Water
is a documentary that tells the story of Donald Crowhurst’s 1968 attempt to win a British race to become the first sailor to complete a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the globe. Crowhurst was quickly in over his head, but he was propelled by his dream and, perhaps more importantly, by a crazy financial arrangement that meant failure would cost his family dearly. He was in a bind, seemingly forced to choose between bankruptcy and almost unimaginable risk.

Going into the screening of Deep Water, I pretty much knew the broad outlines of Crowhurst’s story. (If you watch the trailer, below, you’ll know the same.) But that knowledge didn’t make the film any less watchable. The story is itself riveting. And the visuals—including amazing shots from the race—are arresting. The world of yachting is pretty foreign to me, but directors Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell made it seem more accessible than I would’ve thought possible.

But it’s the interviews that make Deep Water a truly satisfying documentary. Crowhurst’s widow and one of his friends provide complex, and sometimes disturbing, points of view. (What should you do when your loved one’s dream is possibly foolish?) We hear, too, from one of Crowhurst’s sons, who was a young child when the race took place. An adult now, of course, it’s entirely clear that Crowhurst’s race profoundly shaped the son’s life. Interesting perspectives are also provided by one of Crowhurst’s competitors as well as the wife of another. (This competitor’s journals are well-used, too.) And Tilda Swenson provides interested and engaging narration.

Deep Water gave me quite a bit to consider. For that, it’s highly recommended. I give it three stars.

The King of Kong

13 09 2007

The King of Kong
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
is a documentary about, of all things, a Washington man’s attempt to get credit for setting the world Donkey Kong record. Oh, and this just happened. There are still people playing, and obsessing about, Donkey Kong. (For some reason, that makes me feel so much better about my own life….)

The Washington man is Steve Wiebe, a middle-school science teacher. He’s an enormously sympathetic figure, not least of all because things just never seem to go his way. When he sets the world record, it seems like a long-overdue payback. But, of course, there’s an obstacle. The governing body (yeah, that’s not a joke!) for Donkey Kong scores is insular and all too tied to a previous record-holder, Billy Mitchell—who seems, in so many ways, to be a throwback to 1982.

Mitchell is definitely the bad guy in The King of Kong. At some early points in the documentary, I wondered whether the filmmakers were being entirely fair to him. But he exhibits some clearly jackass-y behavior. He never holds his ego in check, and you get the sense he’d do just about anything to stop Wiebe. (His 1980s-era mullet somehow makes him seem even more sinister.) The question is whether Mitchell and his following will give Wiebe a fair shake.

I won’t tell you what happens, of course. I will tell you that The King of Kong is one of the best films of the year. I truly don’t care one whit about Donkey Kong—or video games in general. But I was quickly and completely caught up in Wiebe’s story. And so was a surprisingly full theater of Philly filmgoers. The King of Kong will probably be hard to find, but it’s definitely worth the search.

I give The King of Kong three stars.

This Is England

23 08 2007

This Is England
This Is England
takes the viewer back to 1983, to Thatcherite Britain, and to a remote corner of England marked by pessimism and unemployment. We see this world from the point of view of a newly fatherless 12-year-old boy, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who—just in time—is adopted by a lovable band of teenage skinheads. The group becomes a surrogate family for Shaun, and his future seems brighter.

Into this world comes a darker force, Combo (Stephen Graham), an older skinhead who returns from a prison stint and introduces Shaun’s band to a nasty brand of racist nationalism. (As you undoubtedly know, a wave of racism did overtake British skinheads in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Before and after that time, skinhead culture was not synonymous with neo-fascist politics.) Combo’s actions split the group, and Shaun falls into orbit around Combo.

The divisiveness introduced by Combo is the central conflict of This Is England, of course. I won’t spoil anything for you, but I will say that director Shane Meadows’s story is absorbing. You can’t help but be on Shaun’s side, and you can’t help but be drawn to the band of skinheads that takes him in. Moreover, to the film’s credit, even Combo is not a caricature. He may be evil, or at least do some evil things, but This Is England makes certain to show us how he became the man he is.

The acting in This Is England is first-rate. In his first role(!), Turgoose comes across as a polished professional. Graham brings an almost scary charisma to Combo. And Joe Gilgun (Woody), Andrew Ellis (Gadget), Andrew Shim (Milky), and Vicky McClure (Lol), among others, give notable performances as members of the band of skinheads.

Best of all, there’s some real substance to This Is England. When I left the theater, I was thinking about the relationship between militarism (either of the Thatcherite or the non-Thatcherite variety), nationalism, and racism. I was really moved by This Is England, and I bet you will be, too.

I give This Is England three or three-and-a-half stars.

P.S. If, like me, you were a teenager in the early 1980s, you will absolutely be drawn to the music used in This Is England. Dexys Midnight Runners, anyone?


16 08 2007

In Interview, Steve Buscemi—who directed the film1—is Pierre Peders, a jerky, serious journalist who’s annoyed by his assignment to interview Katya, a vapid celebrity-actress played by Sienna Miller. For almost the entire length of the film, the two wrestle. Both seem to be everything you’d expect them to be. Peders is so uninterested in Katya that he doesn’t prepare for the interview and is openly dismissive of her. Katya insists on getting her favorite table at a restaurant and does lines of coke for dessert.

But, of course, things aren’t necessarily what they seem. Unfortunately, you probably won’t actually be too surprised at what’s lying “just” beneath the obvious surfaces of Peders and Katya. Journalists and celebrities must use one another. Yawn. They may use whatever resources are handy—words, flirtation, subterfuge—to get what they want. Double yawn. Neither can be trusted. Sigh.

What I didn’t expect was just how openly cutthroat the conflict between Peders and Katya would become. The climax of this conflict wasn’t entirely believable, but it was watchable. What I also didn’t expect—and this was far and away the best thing about Interview—was how compelling Miller would be. As every fan of indie film knows, Buscemi is a force of nature. We knew that. We didn’t know that Miller was the kind of actress who could hold her own against a force of nature. Point taken.

Would I recommend Interview? Maybe, but mostly just for the acting. I doubt you’d want to see it a second time.

Interview gets two or two-and-a-half stars.

1Dutch director Theo van Gogh was to direct the film, and he cast the leads. He was assassinated before the film went into production.

The Ten

16 08 2007

The Ten
The Ten
is a collection of 10 short, mildly overlapping films, each loosely based on one of the Ten Commandments. Directed and co-written by David Wain (The State), The Ten is a comedy. But, truthfully, I didn’t really laugh that much, or even particularly like, the first three or four of the films. They were silly and sophomoric (a man [Adam Brody] falls out of an airplane and must live his life partially buried in the ground; a sexless librarian [Gretchen Mol] travels to Mexico and has a passionate fling with Jesus, a carpenter; a physician [Ken Marino, who co-wrote The Ten] leaves surgical scissors in a patient “as a goof”). I smiled occasionally, but I was getting more than a little antsy in my seat.

And then, finally, one of the films really got to me. In that one, a prisoner (the surgeon from the “goof” sketch, now the “bitch” of his gruff cellmate) finds common ground with a new inmate (Rob Corddry). Hmm, how can I explain, tastefully, what happens next? I can’t possibly do any better than Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman:

The two flirt like schoolgirls, discussing their shared love of sushi, until the new dude confesses that he wishes he were the one doing the violating, ”without your consent.” Our hero, with a sweet smile, then says, ”That’s what makes it rape, right?” At which point the new butch beau replies, ”That’s what makes it rape!”

And, yes, that film’s tied to the commandment against coveting your (thy?) neighbor’s wife. The two prisoners go from zero to 60, from ‘schoolgirl’ crush to prison rape, in about four seconds. That sounds like it’d be in bad taste, I know, but—somehow or other—it’s all done too preposterously to be offensive. I laughed, and everyone else in the theater laughed, too. Dang it, it was funny.

After that, The Ten had me. I couldn’t stop laughing at Winona Ryder, who, naturally, stars in the piece about stealing. And by the time that A.D. Miles was ditching church to hang out naked with his straight, guy friends and listen to Roberta Flack records (keep the Sabbath holy, don’t you know), well, I was pretty much sold.

The Ten won’t change your life, but you’ll enjoy yourself. Just be willing to surrender to it after the first half hour or so.

The Ten gets two-and-a-half stars.


14 08 2007

A whopping 13 other filmgoers and I caught tonight’s prime-time showing of Sunshine, the sci-fi film that—somehow or other—has landed on the art-house circuit. I liked it; you should see it.

Sunshine tells the store of an eight-member international crew sent on a desperate mission to re-charge the dying sun. The first half of the film is simply amazing. The visuals and special effects are especially spectacular. Naturally enough, the sun in Sunshine is ever-present and beautiful. The crew’s spacecraft, the Icarus II, is stunning, too: The crew’s psych officer spends an time on a breathtaking observation deck, while the on-board biologist maintains an oxygen farm a botanical garden that rivals any on, erm, our planet.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to its early promise or its top-notch effects. At some point in the second half, the crew makes a decision that didn’t strike me as likely—but, hey, I was still game. That plot device leads, though, to something still more implausible: On a spacecraft containing eight of Earth’s best and brightest, wouldn’t somebody (or, silly me, the sophisticated on-board computer) be double-checking critical flight changes?

And even if I was willing to accept that kind of error—after all, humans are flawed planners—I just couldn’t accept the film’s final plot twist. I won’t spoil it here, except to say that Sunshine, which first had me convinced it was a 2001: A Space Odyssey-caliber film, suddenly had me remembering some pretty mediocre horror flicks. Blame for that has to be placed on director Danny Boyle and scriptwriter Alex Garland.

You’ll still want to see Sunshine. It’s a fun ride, and the acting (Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, and others) is competent. And, of course, you’ll want to see Sunshine on the big screen. Even when the plot starts falling apart, the visuals remain.

I’d give Sunshine two-and-a-half or three stars.