Review: Soul Power (2009)

Soul Power rocks, it's a lost goldmine of great soul, blues and African music from a music festival arranged to coincide with the "Rumble in the Jungle," the title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.

The film opens with a little blurb describing the concert and some of the circumstances surrounding it, including the fact that Zaire's dictator, Joseph Mobutu, may have promised to foot more of the bill than ended up happening, perhaps a reason why the film was not cut together and presented for so long. There are some other scenes of the difficulties and obstacles presented to actually staging the concert, and they're a little bit interesting in places, but more could have been dropped without bad effect.

But James Brown and Ali are the undisputed stars of the film, Brown in performance and conversation, Ali mostly in conversation and action. Both are at the tops of their games as performers and commentators, and it's a true pleasure to discover this historical document of that time and place.

It's a concert film, and a top-notch one at that. Brown is electric, and other standouts include the Spinners, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba and Celia Cruz (!). But it's more than that, too.

It's more in the sense that we get a lot of behind-the-scenes moments surrounding the concert itself, and the good parts are very, very good. Scenes of Brown, Don King and Ali talking about the significance of the concert itself, the significance of traveling to Africa and the politics of the time are priceless. Some of Ali's monologues are masterful musical performances of their own.

Several of the American artists travel out to the local populace, and welcoming and impromptu performances by street musicians or groups of children, along with footage from the plane ride over for many of the top-billed performers, keep the music going even when we've stepped away from the concert itself. There's a great sequence of Celia Cruz and her group getting warmed up to perform that alone is more than worth the price of admission.

I'm a big fan of most of the musicians featured, as well as quite interested in the other characters of the film, so I was literally glued to my seat the whole time, not wishing to miss a note or a word. There are a couple of performances which leave a bit to be desired, but it's more than made up for by some of the little moments never before seen anywhere else, and the extravagant perfection of the best stuff included.

In particular, I would have liked to hear a better Bill Withers song, but on the other hand, the one he performs represents his style and personality fairly adequately, so it's not a big complaint.

In terms of overall shape, Soul Power is not quite on the level of the truly great rock documentaries, like Don't Look Back, Gimme Shelter, or The Last Waltz, but it's not because of a lack of great music, great cinematography, or an irreplaceable cast of characters. In those regards, Soul Power more than holds its own. Clearly, an amazing time was had by all, and it's so watchable.

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Review: Orphan (2009)

Orphan is a changeling. It has a twisty secret which makes it make more sense near the end, but at the same time that it's fully competent, serious, suspenseful, it's also wantonly cheesy, silly, nutty, stupid and cheap. In other words, it's nobody's great movie, but for a popcorny horror flick, it's not bad.

The film starts with the movie's title fading over a lit background in about the same way and with the same font as the beginning of "Oprah," a visual pun I found somewhat amusing. It's a little indicative of the sense of irony and humor which are on display throughout the film--a bit weird, a bit sick, and not too sure of the point.

Vera Farmiga is the heart of the movie, and, as with a few of her other recent efforts, without her, it would be much less. She plays Kate Coleman, a young mother still grieving the loss of a child during childbirth when she and her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) decide to look into adopting an older child to add to their family, which already includes a young son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and a hearing-impaired daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer).

They (rather, shall we say, unwisely) decide to adopt the first child they meet, Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who is smart, a talented painter, and lovely. She is a Russian-born child raised in a Russian orphanage, and her previous adoptive family ALL DIED IN A FIRE SHE MIRACULOUSLY ESCAPED. This does not seem to make much of an impression on the Colemans, who are seduced at first by Esther's eccentricities and interests, and bring her home for good very quickly.

The young actress who plays Esther is really pretty good, too, even if the script poses challenges to credibility. She plays Esther as the perfect manipulator, a true "bad seed," who controls her environment with ruthless efficiency, whether this requires her to play innocent, charm or threaten to get her way. Fuhrman has the range to bring it off well.

Overall, from the adoption, the movie moves pretty well, even quite cleverly in places, though stupidly in others. There's a strong Chekhovian economy of symbols, like Kate's journal, a locked treehouse and a rosebush with particular significance. They are incorporated well and come back into focus in the story just about like they should. The other children in the family are pretty interesting and persuasive, and in particular the silent sign-language world of the youngest daughter, Max, is often entrancing. And Esther's relationships with both parents work pretty well for most of the movie, with John's particular affinity for Esther, and Kate's well-meaning attempts to include her. This breaks down a bit as we go along, but is mostly effective.

There's also some interesting timing from the director when we get to the jump-startle parts of the film. Instead of just paying them off, or leaving them hanging immediately, they are signals that have a more delayed resolution, sometimes unexpected. It's a little intelligent relief from more predictably paced recent jumpers.

Near the end, the film adds the aforementioned twist, which I don't want to spoil, even if I think it's stupid, and veers in other ways as well. Kate finally does some research into Esther's past, which is coincidentally placed, but not particularly believable in its amazing tardiness. There's a strange scene with Fuhrman and Sarsgaard which pushes a lot of buttons, but doesn't mean much. And the neon night-light paint-overs of Esther's serene canvases pushes things into some pretty silly, schlocky territory, without being as fun or diverting as real schlock.

Overall, it's a good night at the movies, especially if you're just looking to be jump-thrilled and see some good performances. If you're looking for much more than that, like meanings, common sense, conviction--look elsewhere. The closest this film comes to meaning anything is the handy advice to grieving recovering alcoholics not to adopt children with a history of arson, which is handy, but probably not an actually enlightening lesson. There are a couple of more interesting recent "bad seed" type of films which are more fun and deeper, Birth and Joshua, but this isn't a terrible horror version.

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Review: The Hurt Locker (2009)

It's hard to write a movie review about a movie about a bomb squad without including any spoilers, but I promise I will try to do my best. If you wish to avoid any chance of them altogether, I'll just say that The Hurt Locker is the best movie I've seen all year, a great, suspenseful, entertaining, intelligent war and action picture, and an all-around perfect film, and you can bail out here.

The film tells the story of an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit in Iraq, and follows them through several missions until the last several weeks of their deployment end. Though they are a specialized unit which defuses and destroys bombs of all shapes and sizes, as the main character, Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner, exceptional) puts it, "This is combat," so what might seem routine, if extremely dangerous, often isn't routine in any sense of the word.

James leads a unit comprised primarily of himself and two assistants, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spec. Edridge (Brian Geraghty), with different levels of support for each mission. Sanborn and Eldridge are experienced in their supporting positions, and have also faced casualties and danger before, but even they are surprised by James's gung ho, go-it-alone attitude, and not sure they like it at first, or at last. In between they find some common ground and a grudging respect for his abilities, focus and leadership.

There's an everyman quality about James, which is spooky. We know just enough about him to know he takes great personal risks at great cost, and is on an incredible winning streak, but always with the chance of the tiniest error in judgment or movement capable of sending him off to his final reward. Just like any soldier in combat. He walls himself off from thinking about the what-ifs in such a successful way that the audience, not to mention his fellow soldiers in the film, question his sanity, but it's hard to argue with the results, a fascinating and illuminating Catch-22 of military leadership, to be sure.

There are several indelible images in the film, mostly of death. A few are images of death by bomb, unsurprisingly, though they are surprising and unique in context. A couple are of images of death by distant gunfire, realistically muted and final. And one gets inside the "war is hell" idea quite literally, without being contrived or heavy-handed.

The supporting cast is stellar, and, yes, the supporting cast. Guy Pearce plays a sergeant with the same job as James, David Morse plays a higher officer with compliments for James, and Ralph Fiennes plays a Brit in-country to capture the kinds of criminals who make the "most wanted" deck of playing cards. All are quite good, but they have minor roles.

The major roles are for Renner, Mackie and Geraghty, who briefly portray a military unit working in harmony, and mostly play a military unit just holding together. These three actors are outstanding, subtle and great with great roles.

Still, there's no question that Renner is the star. He holds the screen with a tough but playful nonchalance that is amusing at times and chilling at others. He seems to understand James inside and out, and that this is a wonderful part. He never overplays or gets sidetracked. He delivers the goods with a complex and unsettling character.

The Hurt Locker is funny, tense, terse and exciting without ever losing a sense of authenticity and a hard-nosed wisdom about war and combat. It works, exactingly, on the visual, intellectual and visceral levels in a way few war films have. You'll be impressed, and you'll want to see it again. It's about the Iraq War, and faithful in the telling; in a larger sense, it's about war, and more.

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Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

I've read all the Harry Potter books, and seen all of the movies, and am a big fan, so it's no surprise I was very satisfied with the new film. It's not the best Harry Potter movie, though it is made from one of the best books, but it is quite interesting and entertaining.

The film starts and ends with the symbol of the Death Eaters, the servants of the Dark Lord, Voldemort, in the sky overhead. In a scene reminiscent of Superman II, the first appearance is in the Muggle world, over London, as three streams of black smoke descend, each carrying Death Eaters who wreak havoc on the city. Then we cut to Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), flirting with an attractive waitress in a coffee shop, before his assignation is cut short by the appearance of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, incredible) across the street, who has news and an important errand for Harry to help him with.

Open warfare between the forces of good and evil finally broke out in the last film, which was very much a superhero film in the Superman or X-Men mold, but the superteam from that film has suffered casualties and setbacks, and the new film is more meditative, and focused on three main characters, Harry Potter, of course, Dumbledore, and the new Professor of Potions, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, perfect), who, in the tradition of all new Hogwarts professors, has a secret.

I have to admit, though I've read all the books once, I don't have a very good working knowledge of all of the details and plot points which might differ or be condensed from the book, so I can't comment much on specific faithfulness, but in general, Half-Blood Prince seems to me faithful to the spirit and the general story.

Lots of it is about school politics, the nature and propriety of relationships between teachers and students, what is learned in school, and what should be learned in school, and the difference between school and the real world. There are also some love-relationship subplots which are amusing and relevant to the larger themes, and blocks of Voldemort's backstory which are quite effective and also underpin the main ideas. Broadbent in particular is just right as Professor Slughorn, a well-meaning and avuncular but slightly creepy teacher who has trouble finding the lines between instructor/student interactions and friendship. This contrasts well with Dumbledore's deft handling of the tensions between his duties as headmaster of Hogwarts and magical mentor, and ally of Harry in some messy and dangerous skirmishes with Voldemort and company.

In director Yates's hands, this film feels much more expressionistic than any of the previous films. Instead of detailed explorations of the films arcane settings, we get symbolically and visually arresting composed frames which seem to contain and magnify the action, rather than meandering through the halls of Hogwarts or the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. In some ways, this is missed, but in other ways, it's quite effective. Many of the scenes echo the great illustrations of Mary GrandPré for the books, and this is quite well done, too.

It's no spoiler to say that a character who, along with Harry Potter, has been most instrumental and knowledgeable about the fight against the reemergence of Voldemort and the Death Eaters dies at the end of this film. The final appearance of the Death's Head in the clouds announces this triumph for the forces of evil, and also foreshadows the fight ahead without this character's guidance, as Harry Potter becomes the central focus of the battle.

One might have wished for more of the flashier magic of past films, flying cars, magical creatures in action, a wizard tournament, and also a bit more of a feeling of Hogwarts as a school, as that is much of what the film is about, but none of these things seriously detract from the fun and action of the film. It did seem to be the first film in which a good working knowledge of the books would have helped some, that the telling of the story was perhaps a bit too insiderish, but again, it's a very good film.

My official rating of Harry Potter films in order of quality would be: Order of the Phoenix (5), Prisoner of Azkaban (3), Half-Blood Prince (6), Goblet of Fire (4), Chamber of Secrets (2), Sorceror's Stone (1). Yates is an excellent director, and the last book only contains more weirdness and fun, so I'm glad he's set to helm the final two films adapted from that book.

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Review: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is the third in a series of animated films, of which I have only seen the first, for full disclosure. I very much enjoyed the first film. It was clever, entertaining, funny, and the Scrat the Squirrel sequences were little Tex Avery-like masterpieces of squirrel against nature. Frankly, the other characters were a bit less interesting, but their interplay was fun and made some skewed cartoon sense.

The third film, available in 3-D, which is how I saw it, was a big letdown. For one thing, the 3-D rendering, with the exception of a few quite interesting and well-done tableaux, is the least impressive I've ever seen, including The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was not even orginally designed for 3-D. Compared to the best I've seen, Coraline and Bolt, it was amateurish at best. For some reason (I'm not a 3-D technician), specific blue and purplish colors left streaky shadows that were mostly distracting, though not too bad when the scene was mostly ice. A strange glare effect used widely took away from the resolution of the images, making them blurry, indistinct, and flatter. Most scenes did not seem designed to take advantage of the format at all, and it seemed pasted on, not dynamic at all. I do not think there was a projection issue, as the theater where I saw it has had 3-D for a good while and has excellent projection in general.

Then there's the story and the dialogue (oof!). Our woolly mammoth characters, Manny and Ellie (voices of Ray Romano and Queen Latifah), are expecting a little mammoth soon, which makes the tiger, Diego (Denis Leary), feel his own mortality and contemplate finding a change of scenery. It also makes Sid the Sloth (voice of John Leguizamo) depressed and jealous, until he finds three eggs in an underground ice cave and resolves to raise them as his own, whatever they turn out to be when they hatch.

They turn out to be dinosaurs, which all of our familiar characters had thought to be extinct (me, too), but which turn out to have survived in at least one underground hot pocket. ("Ice Age: Senselessly Prolonged But Sure Extinction of the Dinosaurs" would not have been as mellifluous, or fit on the marquee.) Sid, of course, is abducted there by the real mother dinosaur, and Manny, Ellie, Diego and two possums attempt a rescue mission.

This opening part is all pretty sleep-inducing, and not very entertaining, despite the sense that everyone was trying very hard to pretend it was while making it. I think there are too many characters, for one thing, for any sharp or bright conflicts to develop.

One character who does seem necessary, and adds some excitement, if not depth, is Buck (voice of Simon Pegg), an eye-patched adventurer weasel who makes his lonely and insane way in the dinosaurs' keep. Most of the visually interesting and exciting action takes place around him. He doesn't say much clever or funny, but he does some clever and funny things, which is a welcome relief.

Which brings us to the return of Scrat the Squirrel, whose return is not so welcome. The 3-D preview is another little masterpiece, and played in the theater to laughter and applause every time I saw it. It adds a female squirrel for Scrat to flirt with and fight with over an acorn, and it is the opening sequence of the film. Talk about blowing the good parts of a movie in the preview! The rest of the Scrat interludes are cruddy, forced and lame.

I do have the sneaking suspicion that if I were to watch the second movie, or if I were confronted point by point on some of my criticisms by enthusiasts of both of the first two films, that might give me reasons from the plot of the second which might enlighten me, or even change my opinion slightly in places. This is not an invitation for enthusiasts of the first two films to confront me point by point, but maybe some will anyway. Maybe I'll even go back and watch the second one sometime.

This film was tops at the box office over the weekend, so it's entirely possible I'm the odd man out. Kids may enjoy it, or maybe it's riding on the popularity of the first two films and will crash quickly. I would certainly not pay to see it again, or pay the extra little bit to see it in 3-D again, especially if I was bringing lots of kids along with me.

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Palin to resign Alaska governorship shortly

From the Washington Post:

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) announced this afternoon she will resign from office on July 26 and return to private life, a stunning decision by last year's Republican vice presidential candidate to leave office before the end of her first term.


Palin, 45, is a major star in the GOP and is seen as a leading candidate for the party's presidential nomination in 2012. Her decision not to run for reelection in 2010 and to leave office imminently came as a shock to Republican strategists today.

"We've seen a lot of nutty behavior from governors and Republican leaders in the last three months, but this one is at the top of that," said John Weaver, a longtime friend and confidant of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the party's presidential nominee in 2008 whose of selection of Palin catapulted the first-term Alaska governor to national prominence.

Huh? This helps who how (besides all the people of Alaska)?

Choose Our President 2012


Review: Public Enemies (2009)

Public Enemies is the latest Hollywood incarnation of the John Dillinger story, and like another recent outlaw film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it takes a terse, muscular, and yet meditative view of one of America's most notorious criminals.

Johnny Depp plays Depression-era bank robber Dillinger with hot and cold authority. He actually looks a lot like the real Dillinger, at least from the mug shots, but he brings him to life in such a way that he begins to resemble the real Dillinger even more than still photographs could ever suggest. By turns violent, seductive, brutal, playful, idealistic and fatalistic, he seems to get inside Dillinger's head and truly disappear into the role.

The film opens with a daring jail break by Dillinger and his gang, and the action never stops from there. Mann fills each frame with interesting and authentic detail, often using real settings from Dillinger's life. He shows the action as it must have happened, and largely lets it speak for itself, with not much time for looking back or slowing down, as Dillinger's real life during these events must have been. And yet there are lots of scenes, or little moments within action scenes, when fascinating, telling details come to the fore, when the frame becomes almost a little painting, composed so perfectly and yet realistically that it speaks volumes about the story with an enviable economy.

There are a couple of specific instances of this. After one of their heists, the gang is making its escape, and it's a close one. They trade gunfire with police and barely get away. As they drive off, almost as an afterthought, the left side of the frame shows rolling legs, while the camera does not move. We don't know if these legs belong to a police officer, a gangster or a member of the public with bad timing, if they belong to a dead man, a mortally wounded man or somebody who jumps up and has an amazing story of a close call to tell for the rest of his life. Along with the deaths of Pretty Boy Floyd and the maniacally determined Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham, excellent) under the guns of FBI agents Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, absolutely cold and subdued under pressure) and his crew of G-men, it's a nearly perfect film moment, a stunning, iconic moment of film violence that means something.

Another fascinating aspect of the story is how it moves between eras. The bank robbers of the 1930's, many glamorous and facinating Robin Hood types like Floyd, Nelson and Dillinger who became folk heroes to a nation beset with financial woes, are giving way to more organized, sophisticated crime organizations. At the same time, law enforcement is becoming more organized and methodical with new technologies and a federal war on crime led by the fledgling FBI. These developments are the noose around Dillinger's neck, and the film is the story of how it tightens.

The cast is superb, with Depp leading the way as Dillinger, with an able assist from Marion Cotillard as his girlfriend Billie Frechette. She's stunning, bringing to mind a slightly more complicatedly gorgeous Meg Ryan. When Dillinger watches the Clark Gable gangster film Manhattan Melodrama near the end of the film, his resemblance to Gable in the part, and Cotillard's to Myrna Loy, and the way Mann intercuts the old film with Depp's reactions, is masterful. Jason Clarke has one of the most convincing and affecting death scenes I've ever seen as Dillinger associate "Red" Hamilton, and John Ortiz is impressive as gangland go-between Phil D'Andrea.

A special word about Billy Crudup: he's amazing. He plays J. Edgar Hoover as the ultimate, ruthless, brutal, calculating bulldog of law enforcement we know he was. He also plays him as just slightly fey, flattering, seductive, dangerous, which we know he also was. It's Crudup's best performance of all time, and on the heels of Watchmen, this must be his breakout year--if not as a movie star, then certainly as one of the most interesting, nuanced character actors working.

The music should get a special mention as well. Many scenes build their tension and suspense without it, and this is noticeable, and there are other scenes when the tension builds and we only notice the music part of the way in. Elliot Goldenthal's score sneaks up on you effectively, and, along with some other carefully chosen tunes, only adds to the feeling of the story.

Public Enemies is one of Michael Mann's best films, and one of Johnny Depp's best films. It's beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful, gripping--an immediate classic gangster film, ranking up there with some of its models and predecessors like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, both versions of Scarface, Bonnie and Clyde, Mean Streets, the first two films of The Godfather, Goodfellas, True Romance, Reservoir Dogs and Donnie Brasco. It's one of the best realistic crime dramas ever made.

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