Review: Ofir: A Wildlife Crime Documentary (2013)

Mark McDannald's Ofir: A Wildlife Crime Documentary is a great story and a rather astonishing achievement. It's true crime, animal welfare, the fight against the extinction of the great ape and other endangered species in Africa, specifically, in the movie, in the nation of Cameroon. It's a story of frontiers, boundaries, hard realities and the many inspiring and often troubling intersections of human and animal lives and spirits.

The movie starts with Ofir Drori, our title subject, caring for a rescued chimpanzee (which he names Future). Drori is an Israeli wildlife preservationist working to rescue animals and use rarely enforced laws in Africa to prosecute those who harm, kill or traffic protected wild animals. He traveled to Cameroon with the intention of writing a story about those on the front lines of protecting the great apes, whose extinction Jane Goodall had called imminent. Who he found at the front lines was himself and some other people willing to join his effort.

As we'll see throughout the movie, at the beginning of his project in 2003-4, physically caring for animals was a big part of the job Ofir set out for himself. Striding into wild places, interfacing with other activists, workers and sometimes corrupt, recalcitrant or resource-strapped officials to find homes and transitions for animals and to investigate crimes against them, using informants, constantly staying aware of his surroundings as he travels and works, it's no easy or repetitive struggle.

It's shown rather journalistically, from the ground level in the movie. It's early in Drori's and his group's effort to establish the credibility of their mission and organization, but he's jumped in headfirst and just started saving animals while trying to get laws enforced, a volunteer humane society worker and sheriff who tries to get the job done, working with the systems in place when possible or somewhat around them when necessary. It's something to see, as is the animal photography throughout. I didn't know what a tree pangolin was until I saw a close-up of one of the gorgeous creatures here Ofir returns to its forest habitat.

It takes someone of extraordinary heart and capabilites to even attempt, much less to have some successes and navigate the varied environments and circumstances in which Ofir places himself in this movie and in the larger context his activities have taken on in the nations of the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Gabon and Guinea.

(This is as good a place for full disclosure as any: I do not know Ofir Drori or anyone associated with his organizations LAGA: The Last Great Ape Organization or AC: Anti Corruption Org nor the co-author of his book The Last Great Ape: A Journey Through Africa and a Fight for the Heart of the Continent, David McDannald, who appears in this movie. I did go to college with the documentary's director, Mark McDannald, who has given me a look at the movie ahead of festivals.)

Shot on video, some of it undercover, the quality of the visual and audio components is rough at times, but the important story comes through clearly. With camera work by subjects Ofir Drori and David McDannald, the movie is evidently a personal work, sometimes almost a video diary, and a labor of love. Watching it one understands why they wanted the story told so much and admires how they tell it so well.

Original instrumental guitar music by David McDannald accompanies much of the movie effectively, with a feeling of motion and discovery, and the end credits feature an original song by LAGA investigator and musician Kalebass Rostrand, who participates in a gorilla rescue depicted in the movie.

Worthwhile on its own as a document and engaging as a complex narrative, Ofir is documentary filmmaking as it should be: finding a compelling story and making it real for an audience. Even if any particular audience member might not have been deeply concerned or interested about the issues with which it grapples, they're presented in an immediate and fascinating way, a modern true story, messy, moving and worth engaging.

The Magic of the Movies


Review: Sparkle (2012)

Salim Akil's Sparkle, based on the 1976 film of the same name (very loosely based itself on The Supremes), updates and transforms it so much that despite still using the same basic structure (especially at the beginning), characters and names, and even many of the same songs, by Curtis Mayfield, it is nearly completely unrecognizable. I recently saw the '76 version, which, despite some good performances and versions of Mayfield tunes, I could not recommend. As for the new one, I can recommend this Sparkle to just about anybody.

From the opening static crackle of 1968 radio playing news of the day, Marvin Gaye and MLK to the in-credits final song, Sparkle stands up the hairs on the backs of the audience's necks with virtuoso acting, singing and performing from stars Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King in HBO's "Boycott," Away We Go), "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks, late legend Whitney Houston and Tika Sumpter as a family of four strong and independent women in Detroit around the music scene.

Screenwriter/co-producer Mara Brock Akil (the director's wife) has moved the story from its original setting a decade earlier in Harlem, and transformed its story's outcome and features vividly to Motown and a larger music and entertainment scene. Watching the original, which I saw only after the new one, I could feel the love and respect for the material, the characters themselves, involved in creating the new one, but a total dramatic reimagination in the writing invests them with more genuine sympathy, respect and scope, especially as portrayed by these great actors in slightly altered emotional territories. Every stitch of melodrama has been restitched for more credibility and reality. Any musical, even one in which the characters don't just break into song, but are performers, like this one, will have elements of camp and soap opera, but on the whole this is a realistic drama of discovery and family legacies and relationships.

Jordin Sparks plays Sparkle Anderson, a dreamy but practical teen songwriter with bound books full of lyrics she carries everywhere. She convinces her older sister Tammy (Ejogo, wonderful), who is mostly referred to as just Sister, to perform one of them at a rocking amateur night hosted by Black (Cee-Lo Green with his own number). She's a hit, and people are chasing them out the door, notably Stix (Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher, Red Tails, very good as Sparkle's boyfriend) who later represents the two sisters plus the third, Dolores/Dee (Sumpter, excellent) as they form a girl group, "Sister and Her Sisters," singing Sparkle's songs (a key innovation of the new version which adds a lot of depth).

As they perform more, the act can't help but come to the attention of Emma (Whitney Houston, outstanding), their mother, who thinks of herself as a failed professional performer (though she can lead the church choir) because of unfortunate experiences she had trying to make it as a singer which she transmits as warnings to her daughters. She has strict expectations of her children regarding church and school, especially for Sparkle and future medical student Dee.

Sister Tammy is a different story. She is not in school and has returned home after a few hard knocks in the real world. Her leading the band soon becomes her major focus, and this, along with her well portrayed love/hate story with Satin Struthers (Mike Epps, great), a scary-suave drug-dedicated comedian, alienates her from her mother and prompts other conflicts within the family and the group.

Interspersed with this very convincing drama are the very convincing songs, gospel from Houston, Mayfield and R. Kelly period-piece rock and roll (which actually feels more credible for '68 than the original film's '58 setting), performed at the perfect moments for the story with superior arrangements, great costumes, choreography and other details which bring the story to life and keep the audience moving with it.

There is emotional resonance in the tragic loss of Whitney Houston in much of the film and its story, in her character's background and in the unfolding story of Sister. These elements are present and effective in the film, but are not direct commentary. They are added upon by Whitney's story, but do not exploit it in any way. I've seen it three times now and cried at least that many times, I couldn't help it. I also got a first-class, truly rocking, truly soulful rock and soul show and a persuasive and moving family story. I'll be back.

Do or don't go see Sparkle as a tribute to Whitney Houston, though it is admirably one, but don't express any disapproval of or disappointment with her life or how it ended by staying home. Go see Sparkle. Houston, Sparks, Ejogo, Sumpter (and all) make it a great movie. It's four of four stars all the way.

The Magic of the Movies


Review: Mirror Mirror (2012)

Tarsem's Mirror Mirror is a gorgeous and good-humored version of the "Snow White" tale with great visual depth and texture, a classic but slightly cracked approach to the story and fun performances from all. I haven't found a lot of critics who agree with me on this, but I have to say I believe it's as good as the most famous version by Walt Disney and is a truly great movie overall.

The film opens with an animated narration of the backstory (spoken by the Evil Queen, played by the excellent Julia Roberts), with a fairytale kingdom full of dancing, happy citizens led by the widowed King (later Sean Bean), who loves his beautiful daughter, Snow White (later the charming Lily Collins), so named for her pale skin and dark hair. The King endeavors to give her everything she needs, and to teach her everything she needs to know to be a princess, and perhaps later Queen of the realm.

Enter our narrator into the main thread of the story, our Evil Queen, who, playing on the King's desire for a mother who can teach Snow White about feminine things, and using her Magic Mirror, convinces the King she is the right woman for him to marry. When the King is called away to fight, the Queen takes over and confines Snow White to a room high in the tower of the castle, spreading rumors of mental and physical infirmity throughout the land to explain Snow White's absence from public view.

The King is soon assumed dead, the people stop dancing and suffer from oppression and overtaxation to support the Queen's overindulgence in luxuries. This is where our story stands as it begins, with Snow White's 18th birthday.

Not everyone has forgotten the old state of affairs. In particular, a baker in the palace kitchen, Margaret (Mare Winningham), remembers the King and knows his daughter well. Having been shut up for so long, Snow White is largely ignorant of the world beyond her bedroom walls, but Margaret arranges for her to make an undercover birthday visit to the main village of the capital to see what the Queen's stewardship has wrought.

Along the way, Snow encounters a wandering prince, Alcott (Armie Hammer, The Social Network, just right) and his aide in the dark forest which separates the castle from the village, and rescues them from a tight spot they've been put in by a gang of bandits, but only after insisting on teaching them a little about manners. The Prince and Princess are immediately attracted to one another, but both must continue on their paths, Snow to the village and the Prince to the castle, where his romantic inclinations will be sorely tested by the grasping Queen and her penchant for love potions.

The story of Snow White itself is a slender reed, and needs embellishing. This has been done rather expertly, I thought, in this film's script, which enfolds and winks at elements from Disney and other fairytale versions (Nathan Lane, fantastic as the queen's head servant, Brighton, even quotes some of his own lines as Timon from The Lion King), Shakespeare, Jay Ward's "Fractured Fairy Tales" (a dwarf quotes George of the Jungle's theme song: "Watch out for that tree!"), Terry Gilliam films and more influences too numerous to list here, certainly including Tarsem's previous feature film work. The depiction of the seven dwarves, played by Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Martin Klebba, Mark Povinelli, Ronald Lee Clark, Jordan Prentice and Joe Gnoffo, is inspired and effective in every way, not to spoil it in this review.

There are many stunning vistas and imaginatively depicted characters and scenes, but I'll preview one in particular. The Magic Mirror is presented as a reflection of the Evil Queen's evil soul, and as a shimmering silver lake surrounded by mountains and housing two wooden huts, one in which the Queen schemes from all angles, the other never visited, containing perhaps an evil spirit, the Queen's most sordid dreams and the key to the beast of the forest. Despite the over-the-top or sillier elements of the story and visual style, with costumes by Tarsem's late, great costume designer Eiko Ishioka, the feeling of evil is not greatly diminished nor trivialized in its effect, though it's also probably not too scary for most young children.

Mirror Mirror is bright, silly, smart, fun and worth seeing for any kind of film fan or just as a light diversion or a good film for the whole family to attend together. Its flaws are only minor to vanishing. Stay into the beginning of the credits for an entertaining music video/mashup which is pleasant and witty and sends you out of the theater tapping your toes after seeing one of the best movies of the year so far.

The Magic of the Movies


Romney leads GOP presidential nominee web poll results for March while slowly clinching nomination

Since I last updated, Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) has slowly but surely inched toward clinching the GOP nomination, with a few embarrassing hiccups of support for Fmr. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA). Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) has all but ended his lackluster presidential nomination effort.

Meanwhile, Romney led March voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are March's results:

March 2012

#1 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 40.2%
#2 - Other ... 25.5%
#3 - Fmr. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) ... 21.6%
#4 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 6.9%
#5 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 5.9%

102 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages. By next month, barring unforeseen developments, I'll try to switch the poll question to possible Romney veeps.

Choose Our President 2012

P.S. I never blogged February's results. My bad. Here they are:

February 2012

#1 - Other ... 31.2%
#2 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 28.4%
#3 - Fmr. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) ... 27.5%
#4 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 11.9%
#5 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... .9%

109 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%


Review: Undefeated (2011)

Daniel Lindsay's and T.J. Martin's Undefeated, the Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, is a solid, sincere, affecting documentary of one year in a North Memphis, Tennessee, high school football program. It's a story of the place, the team and its individual members, and, strikingly, volunteer head coach Bill Courtney.

North Memphis is a community under the influence of high unemployment, the foreclosure crisis, crime and blight which, as Coach Courtney says more than once, is all but disavowed as even part of the state of Tennessee in other, more prosperous regions and cities of the state. There's also a crisis of fatherlessness which Courtney identifies with and recognizes personally himself. The team he leads at Manassas High School has never won a playoff game and is not usually treated as a serious football program among local media or other schools. The players deal with pressures on and off the field, in their schoolwork and in their home lives.

The 2009 school year is Courtney's sixth (and final?) year coaching, meaning that he's had time to do some recruiting of serious local talent who might have written off their chances to stand out at Manassas, and to refocus the football program under his leadership. Courtney has known most of the players since their freshman years and tried hard to help them develop their abilities, and not just on the football field.

I'd kind of like to run down the list of players who come to make up much of the heart of the film, but on the other hand, I'd like to let viewers meet them for themselves in context without previewing any of their struggles or triumphs more. There are a number of standout players and stories, and they speak for themselves as presented in Undefeated. Leaving even their names out of this review is not out of disrespect for them, but out of respect for the film's methods and successful storytelling. If you get to see Undefeated for yourself, and I strongly recommend that you do, maybe you'll see what I mean, and I'm sure their names and stories will stay with you.

The stories of the film, which come together in the bigger picture, are emotionally resonant and rather self-contained. The filmmakers deserve great credit for their being so, as they present them fully and well, without much direct editorial comment beyond some explanatory titles and the intimate footage they've amassed.

I'll admit I teared up a few times, and didn't feel very manipulated to do so, which is the best way to tear up in any kind of movie. Of course the story elements and the moments which are chosen to be portrayed have to have some manipulation in order to have an emotional impact like Undefeated certainly has, but the emotions are not cheap, fake nor overwrought to the point that they lose anything realistic or important.

Indeed, the overwhelming feeling transmitted about the film's framing and execution is admiration, and sometimes wonderment, at how unobtrusive the filmmakers have been in documenting an amazing year at Manassas, and the large and small, public and private human interactions which make it up. Attempting to put oneself in the filmmakers' positions in capturing all this is mind-boggling. They establish a nearly undetectable style while still maintaining the rapport and trust with the film's subjects necessary to put the film's true events, story and meaning over to the audience.

The film's soundtrack is noticeably well done. It consists both of original music by Michael Brook and a list of lesser-known soul music songs of their era which are not necessarily big, easily recognizable hits, but which pack a punch here and demand further examination themselves. Still, the music doesn't intrude, but tracks and helps move the story at a certain pace, with a certain feeling that matches the overall goals of the film well.

Undefeated is not, in my estimation, the very best documentary of 2011. I count four excellent documentaries ahead of it in my official rankings for the year--Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Born to Be Wild, The Interrupters and Pina, to be precise, some Oscar-nominated and some not--but Undefeated is mentioned in their company to its advantage. It's a fine, moving work about struggle, and about a man who chooses to stand in the gaps, to make a difference, to show others how it can be done, which avoids exploitation or just plain corniness to tell its true, truthful and valuable story. More good questions are asked and vital needs expressed than can get wrapped up simply, and this is true, too.

The Magic of the Movies


2012 Oscar nominations (with my favorites and predictions)

I have seen (but not yet reviewed) all of the nominated films on this list, except for The Help, A Better Life, Warrior and A Cat in Paris. This year's Oscar nominations (in the major categories I follow most):

Best Original Screenplay

Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
J.C. Chandor, Margin Call
Asghar Farhadi, A Separation
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids

My favorite: J.C. Chandor, Margin Call
My prediction: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Best Adapted Screenplay

George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, The Ides of March
John Logan, Hugo
Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, The Descendants
Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin; Stan Chervin, Moneyball

My favorite: John Logan, Hugo
My prediction: Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Actress

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

My favorite: Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
My prediction: Viola Davis, The Help

Best Actor

Demián Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

My favorite: Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
My prediction: Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Best Supporting Actress

Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

My favorite: Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
My prediction: Octavia Spencer, The Help

Best Supporting Actor

Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

My favorite: Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
My prediction: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Best Director

Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo

My favorite: Martin Scorsese, Hugo
My prediction: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Best Animated Film

A Cat in Paris
Chico & Rita
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots

My favorite: Chico & Rita
My prediction: Rango

Best Picture

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

My favorite: Hugo
My prediction: The Artist

I'm pretty happy with these nominations, but Take Shelter, especially, was shockingly ignored, and especially for Michael Shannon for Best Actor. Leonardo DiCaprio should have been nominated for Best Actor as well, for his great work in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar. I would like to have seen more recognition of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Another Earth and The Interrupters as well. Bad Academy.

The Oscars will air Sunday, Feb. 26 at 5 p.m. Pacific time on ABC.

You can also click to download a .pdf of this year's ballot to play my regular Oscar game, Oscar Golf. You'll need copies for all of your guests, with time to fill them out before the first big award of the show.

Happy Oscars!

The Magic of the Movies


Other, Gingrich lead GOP presidential nominee web poll results for January and round-up

Since I last updated, Fmr. Gov. Jon Huntsman (UT) withdrew from the race, supporting Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) for president. Gov. Rick Perry (TX) followed Huntsman's lead and also withdrew, supporting Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ahead of South Carolina's influential primary, which Gingrich won.

Gingrich faded fast, however, and Romney and Santorum wins have made them the top two candidates to watch for now, however painful it actually is to witness. Arizona and Michigan vote Feb. 28, and fifteen states vote in March's Super Tuesday contests, in which two or three candidates are expected to post wins.

Meanwhile, the "Other" option and Gingrich led January voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, very narrowly edging out Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX). As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are January's results:

January 2012

#1 - Other ... 40.5%
#2 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 29.8%
#3 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 28.9%
#4 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... .8%
#5 - Fmr. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) ... 0%

121 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

I have now removed Huntsman and Perry from the poll and the GOP field page.

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Choose Our President 2012


Bachmann's out, Ron Paul leads GOP presidential nominee web poll results for December but places second to Romney-Santorum Iowa caucuses dead heat

Yesterday Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN) left the presidential race, "suspending" her campaign after a disappointing finish in Iowa's caucuses, where the Ames straw poll initially boosted the Iowa-born author of the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act and founder of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus to some prominence.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) led December voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are December's results:

December 2011

#1 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 36.8%
#2 - Other ... 27.9%
#3 - Gov. Rick Perry (TX) ... 22.1%
#4 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 10.3%
#5 - Fmr. Gov. Jon Huntsman (UT) ... 1.5%
#6 - Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN) ... .7%
#6 - Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (MI) ... .7%
#7 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 0%
#7 - Fmr. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) ... 0%

136 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

Meanwhile, Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) and Fmr. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA), who don't ever seem to do very well in this site's monthly poll--hmm--finished in a dead heat for first place in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses. Ron Paul finished a strong second to these two, with the rest of the field limping away smarting. 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (AZ) threw his support behind past rival Romney for president, for some reason. The Romney campaign apparently is keeping annoucements of endorsements from Fmr. Pres. George W. Bush (TX) and Fmr. Vice Pres. Dick Cheney (WY) in its back pocket in case things get really weird.

I have now removed Bachmann from the poll and the GOP field page.

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Choose Our President 2012


Cain's out, Ron Paul leads GOP presidential nominee web poll results for November (estimated)

Yesterday businessman/radio talk show host Herman Cain (GA) effectively left the presidential race, "suspending" his campaign citing publicity over allegations of sexual improprieties, harassment and assault and concern for his family.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) led November voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are November's results (estimated):

November 2011

#1 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 28.1%
#2 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 20%
#3 - Other ... 16.2%
#4 - Herman Cain (GA) ... 15.7%
#5 - Gov. Rick Perry (TX) ... 10.3%
#6 - Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN) ... 3.2%
#7 - Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (MI) ... 2.7%
#8 - Fmr. Gov. Jon Huntsman (UT) ... 2.2%
#9 - Fmr. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) ... 1.6%
#10 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 0%

185 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

(This month's poll results are estimated with a fair degree of accuracy. The server hosting the poll had to be changed, so perfect results are not available. Margin of error ±100%)

I have now removed Cain from the poll and the GOP field page. He only lasted one month in the Choose Our President 2012 web poll, because he only recently seemed to be gaining support.

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Choose Our President 2012


Review: The Muppets (2011)

The Muppets is a fun, funny family film in the best tradition of Jim Henson's musical puppets. While relying on the shopworn plot "Let's put on a show!" the film interweaves a new, clever twist which keeps it fresh and allows it to comment on the relationship between people and their puppets, Muppets and their fans.

All your favorite Muppets are here--Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Rowlf, Fozzie Bear, Scooter, Gonzo, Animal--along with some older and newer ones which even more ardent fans might be hard-pressed to pick out of a line-up, plus the aforementioned clever twist character, Walter, a new Muppet.

Walter has grown up with his brother Gary (Jason Segel, very good, and a co-scriptwriter) in Smalltown, USA, as, inexplicably, a Muppet-looking child among humans. Puppets aren't very good at sports or fitting in generally with other children in everyday situations, so Walter feels left out and alone--until he and Gary discover "The Muppet Show" on t.v. Suddenly a huge Muppet fan who imagines joining their crew someday, somehow, Walter finds new ways of fitting in and seeing himself in the world.

While Walter never grows an inch, Gary does grow up and finds a girlfriend, a beautiful, capable shop teacher, Mary (Amy Adams Enchanted, The Fighter, very good as well). Gary and Mary are planning a trip to L.A. for their anniversary, and of course Gary invites Walter along so they can make a sidetrip to Muppet Studios.

Instead of a bustling tourist attraction, however, Walter, Gary and Mary find a nearly abandoned entertainment complex with no Muppets nor evidence of Muppet production anywhere. Walter overhears a conversation about the future of the studios which prompts him and Gary to try to find Kermit so the Muppets can pull together a gig and save their showbiz home from destruction.

Pretty standard-sounding plot there, but the destination is in the journey. As the Muppet gang reunites and Gary's and Mary's anniversary trip gets sidetracked, some very simple but effective emotional tugs-of-war play out among the puppet and human cast and their jokes and musical numbers which make for an entertaining and solid movie (full of celebrity cameos I won't spoil here).

As for the music, classics along with new songs by Bret McKenzie of "Flight of the Conchords," I found it got off to a bit of a slow start, but it builds to two great duet montages between Mary and Miss Piggy and brothers Gary and Walter which bring it all together and reach heights of humor which had me laughing out loud pretty hard, which can be embarrassing. But I didn't mind. "Me Party" and "Man or Muppet," especially "Man or Muppet," are well planned and executed songs and numbers in the right place at the right time. I didn't, frankly, expect anything this funny in the movie, while still fully expecting to be entertained with at least passable Muppet goodness, so they were a very pleasant surprise indeed, and are a large part of what gives the film its heart and overall feeling. I could have done without the rap song and probably the Nirvana cover, but there they are.

I'm not the world's biggest Muppet fan, I admit. Not that I dislike them, I like them very much generally, and watched many episodes of "The Muppet Show" and the cartoon "Muppet Babies" when I was a kid, along with having seen most of their movies and t.v. productions. They're good fun, but I couldn't get canonical about it in a serious nerdy discussion.

Some people will never go see a Muppet movie, some people couldn't be held back with torches and pitchforks, but The Muppets just might please them all. Give 'em a chance if you never have, or if you always do. This one holds up and hits all the right notes. It's really quite good.

The Magic of the Movies


Other, Ron Paul lead again in 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for October

The "Other" option and Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) led October voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

October 2011

#1 - Other ... 39.6%
#2 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 34.7%
#3 - Gov. Rick Perry (TX) ... 13.4%
#4 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 5.4%
#5 - Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN) ... 4%
#6 - Fmr. Gov. Jon Huntsman (UT) ... 1.5%
#7 - Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (MI) ... 1%
#8 - Fmr. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) ... .5%
#9 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 0%

202 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

Georgia businessman Herman Cain has joined the poll for November, just in time for the sexual harassment charges firestorm which has engulfed his campaign. We'll see if he lasts out the month as a candidate....

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Choose Our President 2012


Review: Take Shelter (2011)

Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter is a brilliant, hypersuspenseful, ominous, serious tour-de-force through human psyches, most notably Michael Shannon's Curtis's and his wife Samantha's (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life, The Debt). Both are wonderful characters in balance with each other and the story in amazing performances from each actor.

I had very little idea what the film was about before seeing it, but was willing to go along and find out what was in store. Immediately, the film is gripping, frightening, mysterious, commonplace in focus and yet utterly unique. In retrospect, it reminds me of a number of other great films, but none so much that they rate specific mention as overwhelmingly influential on Take Shelter.

While being thrilling moment by moment, the film also feels very original and earned through the quality of the script, the style of storytelling, the characters and the story. You won't be able to put it down.

Shannon's Curtis is a construction worker in rural small-town Ohio, laconic to the point of autistic--or perhaps some other diagnosis? He supervises the operation of lots of heavy machinery with a small crew, sometimes only one other worker, his friend Dewart (Shea Whigham, Machete, Wristcutters: A Love Story, excellent). Curtis has a beautiful wife, Samantha, and a beautiful daughter (Tova Stewart), with whom he is learning to share more and more communication through sign language, as his daughter is deaf.

Then there are the dreams. Curtis is afflicted more and more with insomnia, bad dreams and other related disturbing events. And are these ever bad dreams! Each is visually stunning as presented, horrific, universal and terrible, and not story cheats but perhaps prophecies.

The dreams have common themes which begin to run through his waking life as well (and yet each dream still feels like an authentic dream). He takes actions based upon them which seem to threaten or burden his and his family's future. He doubts his own sanity, and looks for help with it. He starts remodelling the storm shelter in the backyard.

Getting too much further into the plot would not be doing a service to anyone, but the set-up is enthralling and the finish well justified, though at first I was a little skeptical. It has a certain type of ending, which is open to interpretation, but feels to me in dramatic alignment with all that has come before. I admire it.

Director of photography Adam Stone's muted autumn palette is perfect for the time of year when it has been released, as well as for dramatic effect, and the soundtrack of bells, chimes, strings and dusty guitar notes from composer David Wingo is a thing of beauty entirely emotionally connected to the film. Writer/director Nichols has assembled a fantastic filmmaking team to make a great work of art. You could watch it for Halloween or anytime.

Go and see Take Shelter. I haven't had a better time at the movies this year, and this movie gets my first four-star dramatic film review of the year. (I have it in second place overall after Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3-D.) Shannon's and Chastain's are the outstanding performances of the film and of the year. Here's a cave full of troubling remembered dreams.

The Magic of the Movies


Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) won't run for president in 2012

From msnbc.com:

Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and tea party favorite, announced Wednesday that she is not running for president, saying, "my family comes first."


She added that she will "help coordinate strategies to assist in replacing the President, re-taking the Senate, and maintaining the House."

Oh, well, it might have been fun. Doubtless her supporters are disappointed, and many liberals will have less heartburn. I have now removed Palin from the GOP field page, and replaced her entry in this month's poll with "Other."

Choose Our President 2012


NJ Gov. Christie won't run for president in 2012

From CBS News:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced Tuesday that he would not seek the Republican presidential nomination, saying that while he thought seriously about entering the presidential race, "now is not my time."

Christie said he made his final decision last night and told those closest to him this morning. He said he went to the bed last night "knowing exactly what I wanted to do" for the first time in weeks.

He declined the chance to close the door on a future presidential run, saying he is "not going to preclude any employment in the future."

There you have it. The race is set, pending Palin news.

Choose Our President 2012


Other, Ron Paul lead again in 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for September

The "Other" option and Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) led September voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

September 2011

#1 - Other ... 39.1%
#2 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 23.4%
#3 - Gov. Rick Perry (TX) ... 13.6%
#4 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 13%
#5 - Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN) ... 6%
#6 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 2.2%
#7 - Fmr. Gov. Jon Huntsman (UT) ... 1.1%
#7 - Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (MI) ... 1.1%
#7 - Fmr. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) ... .5%
#8 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 0%

184 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined the poll for September and leapt into second place. Let's see about October....

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Choose Our President 2012


Review: Drive (2011)

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is a sphinx about a sphinx, a cipher about a cipher, a satisfying action picture which also frequently flirts with pure silliness, especially near the end, which I found somewhat less than totally satisfying--yes, even for an ultra-violent, terse, arty grunter.

Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine, Crazy, Stupid, Love.) plays the main character, a jack-of-all-manly-and-dangerous-trades, who alternates working as a mechanic, a Hollywood stunt driver, and an expert getaway driver for local heists, and who aspires to race stock cars with his pal Shannon (Bryan Cranston, "Breaking Bad," Larry Crowne), who is also his boss at the garage and his intermediary for both stunt and criminal jobs, a handy contact for a dangerous loner.

Drive is heavily indebted to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, without question, along with many other films, and a lot of what's strong in it is what's strong in that film and other films with similarities to both: character development without excessive dialogue, wonderfully sharp and bright images still tinged with shadows, stark action violence which is smart and considered (though not always nearly as well in Drive as in most notable predecessors). Unlike Travis Bickle, and more like our mulberry bush hero in Yojimbo or Eastwood as the Man with No Name, Gosling's driver has a lot of useful skills.

Things are humming along pretty nicely for our hero, criminal wrongdoing and all. He's good at committing crimes and stunts while remaining ever in the background, his skill set keeps him going while progress is made toward his stock car racer dreams in the form of a financial backer, the shady but pragmatic-seeming Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, Taxi Driver, Out of Sight), who has a crass and mobster-y business partner, Nino (Ron Perlman), and he meets Irene, a blonde with a slightly mysterious, unresolved past.

Is the driver's mistake to get involved with Shannon, Rose and Nino or Irene (Carey Mulligan, Never Let Me Go, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), and later her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac, Robin Hood, Sucker Punch)? Yes, of course. We know from all movies of this genre that emotional involvement is the downfall of professional criminals, killers and other psychopaths at all times in all places.

The only other Refn film I've seen as I write this is Valhalla Rising, which is The Seventh Seal meets Yojimbo meets Unleashed meets Dead Man meets The New World. I can tell you that Valhalla Rising and Drive share a nameless hero, ultra-violence, minimal dialogue, spectacularly good imagery, camera movement and framing and a penchant for oddity over story at times.

This will drive some people crazy with love, and others crazy with hate. I call it all admirable. This is not to say it always works just right, because it doesn't. It's usually funny when it doesn't, though, which is a plus. From my limited exposure to Refn, I'd like to see more, and there's lots more.

This film is worth seeing to chart the progression of Ryan Gosling's acting career alone, which is definitely going places. (Does he always have to talk like De Niro?) But Drive is fun while the fun lasts. It goes over and around the top by the end, in my opinion, but great acting from the whole cast and strong pacing still make it a ride worth taking. Some will disagree with me by hating it, and some will disagree with me by loving it, and I am happy to stay right in the middle.

Drive itself is a touch above middlin', certainly a step in class up from the worst Jason Statham action movies, and definitely not just an off-the-shelf retread. But if you hated The American with George Clooney, I believe I can solidly advise you to choose another movie to watch than Drive. Me, I liked The American better, but I like Drive okay, too. I would have liked to have felt more like the director was in complete control of the story, but some might call that another of the film's assets.

The Magic of the Movies