mondo mini movie reviews!

This is what I’ve watched in the past week or so.

Black Dynamite
A hilarious homage to the blaxploitation flicks of the ’70s, this one should not be missed. A dose of Dolemite with a dash of The Mack and Superfly, martial artist Michael Jai White plays the title character who’s out to avenge his dead brother, who was working for the CIA when a mafia drug deal went sour. It begins with him kicking an old lady through a door, and ends with him kicking ass at the White House, as his battle leads him to The Man himself. It gets a little silly in the middle when we learn what the Sinister Plot is, just in time for a homage to Enter the Dragon, but the dialogue is so moronically clever that you’ll be laughing the entire time. “If your momma was alive to see this, she’d be spinning in her grave!”

4 out of 5 fat muthafuckas wrestlin’ over pork chops ‘n greens

The Cove
If you ask the average person in Japan if they eat dolphin, they’d say no. So then why are thousands slaughtered every year in a secretive cove in Taiji? This documentary plays like a heist film as the man who trained Flipper, now turned activist, exposes the brutal and bloody secret of the dolphin industry, where hundreds are harvested for amusement parks and the rest are butchered for meat, and because the Japanese fishing industry thinks they eat too many fish. Yeah, really. This doc certainly has an agenda, but all good ones do; it takes great pains to show that the average Japanese has no idea this is going on, and this is no different than the corruption in America’s cattle industry, which keeps us from testing every animal for Mad Cow disease. You’ll never go to Sea World again after you watch this one.

4.5 out of 5 senseless slaughters

A Serious Man
The Coens weave a darkly comic tale of Larry Gopnik, a physics teacher whose life takes on the story of Joband the puzzle of Schroedinger’s Cat as his life begins to fall apart. I found it interesting, but at times deliberately difficult, and a little pretentious. It calls back to Barton Fink, and is enjoyable as a dark comedy if you don’t want to wonder if Gopnik is destined to misery because he’s angered God, is being tested, or has just made a serious of bad choices that like Schroedinger’s Cat, he can’t tell the result of without affecting it. It’s a good discussion film, but not for everyone; if you hated Synecdoche, NY you’ll probably find parts of this a little pretentious. I myself liked it, but felt some of it superfluous. The opening story of the dybbuk makes sense in retrospect, as it can be likened to Schroedinger’s cat, and then the issue of a student who may or may not be trying to bribe Gopnik for a better grade, and so on. There’s also the story of his son preparing for his bar mitzvah, which is both entertaining and nostalgic; did I mention it’s all set in the Jewish neighborhood of Minneapolis suburbs in the late 60’s? Nice touch. Much like the story of the dybbuk, it places it in the past and gives it all the feel of a parable.

4 out of 5 Larry Storches
The Hurt Locker
Wow. This is a war film, and the best depiction of the Iraq War I’ve seen, but first of all it is a character study. A study of the kind of adrenaline junkie operator who can handle the job of Explosive Ordnance Disposal- defusing bombs and IEDs in a war zone. Kathryn Bigelow has made a documentary-style masterpiece that takes the opening sequence of A Touch of Evil, where we see a bomb put in a car’s trunk and follow it, knowing it must go off, and makes it into a gripping war thriller. The movie is over 2 hours long, but felt like 90 minutes. Like the heroes of a Michael Mann film, these are men who define themselves by what they do, and there is a paucity of dialogue. Sgt. James leads a small squad after their leader is killed; they’re short timers who just want to go home, but he actually seems to love this job. And he’s incredibly good at it. The story unfolds like a memoir, with little structure, jumping from a sniper battle in the desert to an Iraqi base rat kid who James takes under his wing, to his men wondering if he’s going to get them killed. He’s a mystery; but in the end, we see his heart, and what makes him tick. It’s a brilliant character study of the kind of man it takes to do this insane job, disguised as a satisfying thriller. It is one of my favorites of the year, and it’s a toss-up to me whether it or Up in the Air is the better picture. Both make great entertainment out of prescient issues we’d rather ignore.

5 out of 5 Best Director Oscars for Kathryn Bigelow, Dammit

The Ghost Writer
Fuck you, Polanski. Come let justice be served. Stop being Noah Cross. Have you made a great movie since then anyway? You’re not getting my money until you pay your debt.

Temple Grandin
Excellent biopic of an autistic woman who revolutionized the beef industry by making slaughterhouses more humane. I read her story in the Star-Ledger years ago, and Claire Danes portrays her amazingly in what will surely be an Emmy-nominated performance. This is playing on HBO, and you should see it. It tries to give us the view of the world through her eyes, and while some of the direction is a bit indulgent and lazy- a montage set to guitar as she figures out how to get on a cattle lot that won’t let women in for example- the story itself is compelling and touching. It’s a TV movie for sure, but Danes performance, and David Strathairn as the teacher who understands her genius, make it worth your time.

3.5 out of 5 moo moo everywhere a moo moos

Dirty Ho
No, not porn! One of the better humorous kung fu flicks of the ’70s. Pita-San and I watched this and One-Armed Boxer vs. the Master of the Flying Guillotine, which has some cool fights and great kraut-rock music by Neu!; Dirty Ho is a kung fu comedy from ’79 starring Chiu hiu “Gordon” Liu, best known as Johnny Mo/Pai Mei from the Kill Bill movies. I’d recognize that bald noggin anywhere! He plays a prince with many brothers who’re trying to kill each other off for Dad’s inheritance, and he tricks a scheming thief named … Dirty Ho… to help him. Let’s face it, the name is what makes you watch this movie the first time, but it has great training sequences and fights, and plenty of laughs and slapstick. Plus a great scene where Gordon “fights” using his servant. An underappreciated classic, if you love kung fu flicks, you must find this one.

4 out of 5 dirty ho’s

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

The Reader

This is a fine drama but I’m not sure it deserves a best picture nomination. Like Frost/Nixon it is held together by performances, like Rachel Getting Married it has some flaws. Kate Winslet is 99% fantastic, channeling Marlene Dietrich as a German woman named Hannah nearing 40, and still working as a ticket taker on a tram. One day a young man named Michael (David Kross) is sick on her trolley and she helps him; later his mother urges him to go thank her, and a spontaneous affair begins when he peeks at her putting on her stockings.
The first act of the movie is Summer of ’42 and the lovers spent a great deal of time naked. Some complain, but this feels and looks natural. It doesn’t stand out as gratuitous, but shows how prudish most movies actually are these days. As the physical relationship softens and becomes an emotional one, young Michael begins to read to her. It becomes obvious to us watching that Hannah cannot read, but the movie treats this as a surprise later. Perhaps if the movie wasn’t called “The Reader,” and I didn’t immediately think “who’d need a reader? a blind person, or an illiterate?” it could have been a surprise. But it is not, and the movie feels clumsy when it tries to make it so. As Michael ignores the beautiful young girls flowering around him at school, Hannah one day disappears, breaking his heart but freeing him to live a normal life.
We see Michael go to university, years later, where he is studying law. His ethics teacher wants his students to know the difference between law and morality; he takes them to the trial of SS guards charged with the murder of Jews. And Michael sees Hannah again, and she’s not a member of the jury. The “secret” of her illiteracy becomes the linchpin of who is the guiltiest person on trial, and she is too ashamed to admit it. And it becomes obvious that her shame of illiteracy led her to become a guard during the war, and “sign” a statement she could not know the contents of. At first this seems like a clever construct- what if someone ended up a monster through no motive of their own? But it is not. Does redemption exist for ordinary people who followed the rules and abetted atrocities? Or are they just scapegoats for the entire country?
Soon it is Michael’s turn to stand up to the unstoppable engines of the government, justice, and the country’s demand for absolution. Like Hannah, he has a shameful secret he is loathe to reveal, and makes a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. For every whistleblower, for every man who stands up to the tanks at Tienanmen Square, for every Oskar Schindler there were a million people who just went along. The Reader is about those people.
Michael’s shame weighs down on him throughout his life and makes him distant from his nonexistent wife and neglected daughter. Played by Ralph Fiennes, he manages to be quiet yet expressive, a shadow of the passionate young man he once was. The third act is his attempt at redemption with Hannah, his daughter, and a survivor, and the weakest part of the film. There are plenty of good scenes, but the pacing is languid and the editing awkward. Like The Return of the King, it doesn’t know when it’s ending, and we get several denouements. We get a clumsy and unnecessary flashback structure with bookends, and it weakens the film.


I think it is still worth seeing, and the performances of Winslet, Kross and Fiennes hold together the director’s clumsy web. If you want to see Kate’s nipples, they’re like the double crimson sunsets on Tatooine in Star Wars on the big screen. Her make-up is excellent and while not as creepy as Benjamin Button’s, she ages convincingly. With her accent and severe expressions, Winslet proves that she can transform into a character- even if that character is eerily reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair. Only once, when she smiles up at us, did she remind me who she was. It wouldn’t be an outrage if she got the Oscar for it.
4 big red Nazi nipples out of 5

Defiance

I love a good World War 2 movie. The problem is we’ve heard so many of the stories from that war. Well now Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Glory) and Daniel Craig (James Bond) are telling us one we haven’t heard before about the Bielski Partisans, Polish Jews who fought back against the Germans and saved 1200 people by camping in the forest. It’s an amazing tale and makes you wonder if the city folk of the ghettos were as well armed as their country cousins, if they could have fought back the onslaught of Hitler’s blitzkrieg. But that’s something for writers of Alternative History fantasy books and nerds rolling dice in their basements to decide.

Defiance is the tale of Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brothers, who come home to find their mother and father murdered by German soldiers. When they find out that a local constable has been pointing out the Jews for the invading Germans, Tuvia takes a pistol and goes to the man’s house for revenge. From then on they are fugitives, hiding with friendlies and making quick raids for food and to kill soldiers when they can. But other Jews who escaped the trains to the camps begin to find them. Not all can fight. And those aiding them are murdered. So Tuvia and his brothers Zus (Liev Schrieber), Asael and Aron take to the woods with them.
The forests are deep. They begin with simple lean-tos, but eventually have a huge camp with small cabins, soup lines, and scheduled food raids. The locals don’t take too kindly to being raided, and Tuvia tries to spread the pain around so no one suffers too much. Some give freely, but others need the persuasion of gunpoint. Survival is survival; the thefts are not glossed over. The camp grows and grows, and everyone brings sad news of towns emptied of Jews- either killed or herded to the trains. Zus wants to be true partisans, to fight the Germans, but Tuvia would rather “save one old Jewish woman than kill ten Germans.” And this brings the film its only real conflict.



This is what gives the film a bit of depth, because when your enemy is the Nazis, there is little ambiguity. Instead, we get to think about whether it is more noble to save the innocent, or fight evil. In the end we need to do both, but it is not always an easy choice. The movie does not dwell too long on these tough choices, but does not ignore them. It is not an easy task for Tuvia to lead his people. Some fight, and all work. The fighters want a bigger share of their meager meals. They bring a German soldier prisoner, and Tuvia’s declaration that they will not behave as animals is put to the test.
But in the end this is a war movie, and the action is excellent. As partisans they fight with ambushes and guerrilla tactics, and Zwick does not gloss over the violence. A car full of German officers and their dates are ambushed on the way to a party. There is no hesitation. The Jewish women fight as well, for guns are the great equalizer; and they die, in numbers, without sentiment. They are women fighting for their lives, not Ewoks. Their lives and honor are just as important as the men’s. Zus fights with the Russian partisans and learns that “comrade” be damned, they have no love of Jews either; Stalin’s “socialist principles” are only enforced when it serves the right purposes.
I enjoyed Defiance, but like Zwick’s other epic films- Legends of the Fall, Glory, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond it has an old-fashioned Hollywood quality with broad appeal and background characters drawn in stereotype. The smaller characters seem like functions of the plot and filler for color- we have an apolitical teacher and an intellectual hashing out whether Stalin will be any better than Hitler, which is ironic to us with 20/20 hindsight. The women and younger brothers fade into the landscape. The women take up with the men without the usual courtship and call themselves “forest wives,” but most of them blend in with the trees. But like Glory, Zwick once again tells us a tale we did not know before, and puts a face to history. He does a fine job, and made another memorable film here.

3.5 Schmeissers out of 5

Religulous

I’m not the biggest fan of Bill Maher now that he seems to concentrate on politics, but he’s always been a sharp and witty comedian. Now he sets his sights on religion with Religulous, taking the cue from Richard Dawkins to stop being apologetic for atheism and say what you really believe. There are reasons that you don’t talk politics or religion in bars, and this documentary sets out to be offensive, but I didn’t find it as strident as I expected. It’s actually very funny and only gets to be a bit much at the end when he tries to put a message on it.

The movie doesn’t purport or try to be fair; directed by Larry Charles (Borat), it intercuts the interviewee’s words with silly images, clips from hilariously bad religious educational films, soundbites and info-taters. It’s sort of like when Bugs Bunny stands next to someone holding an image of a screw, and a baseball. Screwball. Get it? But it still works, because he chooses his targets wisely. He goes after Jews for Jesus, strict Mormons, pagans, Scientologists, Bible-literalist evangelical Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, a man who claims to be the second coming of Christ, and some Fundamentalist Muslims. He doesn’t let anyone off the hook.

Going to the Holy Land with a film crew and asking about religion was already done in this year’s decent Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, and Morgan Spurlock got kicked out by his Saudi keepers, and chased out by Orthodox Jews threatening violence. Maher doesn’t manage to top that, in fact he walks out on a rabbi so tolerant that he attended Iranian Holocaust denial conferences. In fact, Maher was so angry he barely let the guy talk, so I couldn’t decide whether he was stupid, crazy, or an apologist. That was distressing, seeing Maher lose his cool. But otherwise he’s pretty in control and doesn’t get too snarky when asking people why they believe what they believe.

If you’re on the internet or watch Stephen Colbert or South Park, you know some of the secret and trademarked tenets of the Church of Scientology, and just how crazy they are. I won’t go into it here, because I don’t want to be attacked by lawyers, strangled with cans attached by string called e-meters, or pelted with enormous tomes of L. Ron Hubbard’s space opera sagas. Go to Operation Clambake at http://www.xenu.net if you’re curious. Maher spouts their teachings at the Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park , where nuts have shouted their imprecations for over a century.

What’s his point? When someone laughs at the idea of aliens nuking our souls in volcanos, he says “yeah, but Jonah living in the whale, that’s perfectly sane.” When he’s talking to the Bible literalists this comes out. “No, it was a very big fish.” Oh, that makes more sense. He speaks to the man who plays Jesus at a Christian theme park- who seems like a nice enough fellow, even as the Romans whip him for the entertainment of the Christians this time around- but he can’t put into words why he believes what he believes, and that’s some of the point. He goes to the Creation museum to see dioramas of the Flintstones, where kids can play with pet dinosaurs.



These are easy targets. Some are valid and scary. Do I want a politician who believes the Rapture will come in our lifetimes, and Armageddon will be soon fought on the fields of Megiddo? I’d prefer if he tried to stave that off. Maher even goes to Megiddo. Looks like a strip mine. Let’s hope it stays untouched. It’s not all fun and games- he goes to where film maker Theo Van Gogh was murdered for speaking out against fundamentalist Muslims. He speaks with rapper Propa-Gandhi, who looks like a nice hipster doofus, but sings about destroying the West. He gets a friendly Muslim to sneak him into the Temple on the Mount where Jews are not allowed. The guy looks very nervous.
If you’re not religious, this is very funny– but sometimes Maher’s pretty strident, and he’s obviously not trying to convert anybody. He may go for easy targets but he’s even-handed, going at it with rabbis and a company that sells products to help observant Jews try to trick their way around violating the sanctity of the Sabbath, by not really dialing the phone. He even goes for the obvious joke about how this is lawyering with God. He gets kicked out by the Vatican and the Mormons. He speaks with Satanists and even pot worshipers. For atheists it’s very entertaining and reassuring, and it’s a good record of the current state of religions all over the world in 2008 from the eyes of an unbeliever with a sense of humor. But there are no revelations here, either.

3.5 atheists in foxholes out of 5

Spamalot!

It is generally a rule that any young nerd must adore Monty Python; I was no exception. I haven’t watched the comedy classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail for over ten years, even though it’s had several special edition DVD releases. I was just burned out on it, so I avoided Spamalot on Broadway when it first came out. And boy do I regret it, because this is one hilarious show.
Clay Aiken is the only “big name” singing this time around, in what will be its final run. David Hyde-Pierce and Tim Curry were in it, but Clay does a fine job as the cowardly Sir Robin. He doesn’t play the gay one? What a lost opportunity. King Arthur is played by Michael Siberry, and he has a sort of Jack Sparrow slur to his voice but none of the effeminacy, and manages to make the role his own and not a pale shadow of the late great Graham Chapman. That’s a worthy achievement, and nearly as difficult as Roger Bart stepping into Gene Wilder’s shoes for Young Frankenstein.
The plot is much the same as the movie with a few twists thrown in, some new songs that play on favorite scenes, and plenty of Broadway in-joke humor. Arthur and his “horse” Percy are seeking knights, and eventually hunt up Galahad, Bedevere, Robin and the homo-cidal Lancelot (more on that later), and God (voiced by John Cleese) tasks them with finding the Holy Grail. The new songs are more Broadway than Python, but have the same biting humor- for example, Clay Aiken sings “You can’t have a Broadway show without any Jews,” and they get in on the Mel Brooks act with a Star of David themed number; the movie’s one-off joke about Lancelot being gay (when he “rescues” a fellow knight from the perils of Castle Anthrax and its sexually rapacious nuns) becomes a big dance number with riffs on the Copacabana and gay ’70s disco culture.


There’s still plenty of original Python songs and humor- Sir Robin’s song, and the fantastic “Knights of the Round Table” song is extended. The Lady of the Lake is made into a major character to give the all-male story some female interest and songs, and she even has a “What Happened to My Part?” song gag in the middle, done Vegas style. They keep things topical with the Taunting French Knights, who not only farted in their general direction, but also threatened to throw shoes at them.
For old Python fans like me & Milky, it was a blast- and even Firecracker, who’d only seen Holy Grail once and wasn’t a huge fan, still loved the show and laughed quite a bit. I found a few of the Broadway song gags a little on the long side, like “The Song That Goes Like This,” but there was never a dull moment. The set design is incredible, and even the nosebleed seats- which we got for a mere $20 from Broadway Offers- gave a great view. Seeing the Killer Rabbit, the Knight who keeps fighting as he’s delimbed, and the cow catapult onstage was a blast. The humor swings from absurd to risque in classic Monty Python fashion, and there’s plenty of swag- from coconut halves for your “horse,” to Killer Bunny slippers- to fill up on. They also have a Karaoke CD (link at end of post)
The show ends on January 11th, so see it while you can. Do the Broadway economy a favor and see it on the cheap. Go to www.broadwayoffers.com and use coupon code SPBAL20 to see it for $20, or $28.50 with ticket fees. Vhat a bargain! We ate at Five Guys Burgers & Fries (a mere 10 block walk) to avoid Broadway crowds, and as always it was a fresh, inexpensive, quick and tasty meal.