Friday, April 23, 2010

Oil + Water

Two delightful stoners/professional kayakers decided to take a hunk of a year off and drive from Alaska to Argentina, kayaking some of the best spots in the world along the way. As they planned they realized that the cost of gas was going to be their greatest expense and would likely have a big, negative environmental impact. So, they had a question, can anyone do such a thing as convert a petrol powered car into one that can drive for miles without a drop. They did all they could to find this answer and then suddenly had it. They engineered a truck-type vehicle with a piece on the side that could grind up any natural/compostable material into fuel.
And so, they set out, from northern Alaska, all the way to the southern tip of Argentina, never using a drop of petroleum. They tried all sorts of different fuels from pig fat to palm branches. They had to fix the car now and then and had widely varying degrees of success with this or that fuel, but, in nine months, they made it and it seemed, as they went along, that word was getting out; thus, they ended up having parades and carnivals waiting for them in many of their South American stops. These guys are some of the nicest, most fun-loving, easy going guys in the world, I’m convinced. And they seemed like the sort of people you could be stuck with for nine months in a car and have as much of a blast in Alaska, Argentina or anywhere in between.
The only thing I didn’t like about this movie was that there wasn’t enough of it. With a running time right at 50 minutes, it felt more like an easy little TV program than it did a feature-length documentary. I wanted to see more of just about every aspect of this movie: the people they met, the risks they took, the technology, the kayaking, and on and on. This is an easy, fun doc about model citizens and I suggest everyone watch it, enjoy it and learn from it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Good Hair

Chris Rock says that as his two daughters get older it began to give him cause for pause to think about the costs expended and the lengths endured by African-American women to look beautiful and have, as he puts it, good hair. He began to realize the issue is greater than he’d ever imagined. Not only are black women (and in some cases children) willing to suffer through physical and monetary pain, an entire industry of black hair products has grown into an international money machine. So, Rock decided to get a team together and make a proper documentary about it.
His tone is genuine and honest (he even shows home footage of his family) and, while he’s lighthearted, a true concern for this culture is readily apparent. The movie is about hair, yes, but it’s largely about the extent women in general and African-American women in particular are willing to go to in order to be accepted as ‘normal.’ The women interviewed, which truly run the gamut, all talk about getting their hair straightened or wearing painful weaves because they want to look ‘natural’ and ‘easy to approach.’ One girl says that black hair left in it’s natural state is something people have to endure before they actually get to know the person, which is why she straightens, so this doesn’t happen at job interviews.
The entire thing is very sad, especially because these women truly believe this stuff. The idea that a poor black woman needs to spend thousands of dollars a year so her hair doesn’t make white people feel uncomfortable is pathetic. Rock focuses almost entirely on how the African-American culture sees their own hair, interviewing very few non-African-Americans. It’s a very telling look at our culture, the state of modern racism and opportunistic capitalism. Somehow Rock tells this depressing tale in a way that’s easy and enjoyable to watch. You’ll laugh, think and (hopefully) get pretty pissed off. It’s worth a watch for sure.

I Love You Man

Have you ever met someone who you thought, “this person is so socially awkward that it’s not even funny?” Well, that basically sums up this movie. Paul Rudd plays Peter Klaven, a man who seems to have it all, a beautiful fiancée, a successful real estate career and a beautiful LA home. But he’s so socially awkward that he doesn’t have a single friend, outside of the aforementioned fiancée. He is the epitome of the person so bad socially that it’s not even funny. The problem for this movie is that, in his case, this expression is literal, it’s not even a little funny, it’s just awkward.
Peter begins ‘dating’ guys to become their friend. He lines up nights to go out with dudes in an attempt, not to date them, but to become their friend. Sound lame? It is. He goes through some bad ‘dates,’ but finally strikes gold with a man much more bohemian than he, Sydney. Peter and Sydney become unlikely best friends. And, folks, that’s it. That’s the story.
If you’re attracted to the idea of watching the most socially inept person you’ve ever met try and make friends for two hours, boy, this is the movie for you. This should’ve been a thirty minute episode of the office, not a feature. As a short episode, I’m sure it would’ve been pretty funny. I mean, it had it’s moments. Tom Lennon is freaking hilarious. But as a full on feature the vast majority of the movie was either painful or unnecessary. Maybe, though, it’s just me. Maybe I just don’t like this style of point at the weirdo and laugh comedy, but I took nothing from this movie and was happy to shut it off at the end. Rudd’s Peter is just such a schlub. Countless times during the movie I thought, how did this idiot become so successful at LA real estate or, for that matter, land such a beautiful girlfriend? The whole thing is simply idiotic.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Red Riding: 1980

Red Riding 1980 is the second installment in the Red Riding trilogy mentioned below, produced by Studio Canal and BBC 4. The trilogy concerns several true stories that highlight the realities surrounding the awful crimes and terrible investigation of the Yorkshire Ripper. Tons of terrible deaths resulted, primarily, from the corruption and incompetence of local law enforcement and civic leaders and while 1974 educates the viewer on this reality by showing some back story and laying foundation, 1980 dives into the actual crimes and ensuing investigation, focusing namely on the period after 12 victims when investigators were brought in from outside Yorkshire in an attempt to clean up the Yorkshire police force and end the investigation. Things don’t turn out so well and, after all, there is a third movie.
This movie seems to have been made by a more seasoned director than the first, as everything, even the sound recording, is tighter and of better quality. I like the tone of the first one more and felt that, though it suffered from inefficiency and relied too much on easy out’s like sex scenes, the first one had a more unique vibe. That said, this one is great and does a great job of the now very conventional cop investigation movie. The streets are mean, the cops aren’t much better than the criminals and the job takes it’s toll on the story’s heroes. Yes, we’ve seen this played out on the big and small screen a billion times, but somehow 1980 didn’t feel like just another episode of The Wire or Law and Order. It had it’s cliché moments, but overall the acting was too good, the writing too subtle and effective, and the visuals too engaging for it to come across as yet another indiscriminate face in the crowd. The case of the Yorkshire Ripper was sad on all sides, with terrible crimes to victims, a perpetrator rife with mental illness and a police force so corrupt as to be complicit with the Ripper himself. If you like cop dramas and dig on true crime stories, this is a good one that you won’t want to miss.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a 2009 stop-motion animated feature about, well, Mr. Fox, a clever, cordial fox who just can’t help himself when it comes to thievery. While most of his life is spent as a reporter, father and friend, every once in a while he simply must indulge his love of the steal. This is just fine, until things get very hairy when Mr. Fox decides to go after the three roughest farmers in England. When he messes with them, they decide to mess with him, bringing the whole armada. Now he must not only save his own hide, but those of what seems to be the entire animal population of the area. Will he make it? Can he rally together the group to pull off this great escape?
Wes Anderson is known for his highly stylized, borderline monotone comedies where it seems everyone is the ‘straight man.’ This works very well for his adult movies and appears, here, to transition well into the world of family films. If you like his approach, making movies that appear to have been produced by very creative children, then you’re going to like this one. It looks like something someone made with stuff from around the house and, in fact, it largely was. Anderson says he tried to keep this movie as simple as possible, using everything from cotton balls to cheese to create the worlds on display. The result is a movie that has a kind of quaint easiness to it. The voice acting and writing is as good as the production design as well, with ingenious devises used, like constantly calm voices among the animals and gruff angry voices among many of the humans.
While it’s no masterpiece, it’s a cute, quaint kids flick that feels like it was made decades ago and would be a great flick to watch on an afternoon on the couch with the kids.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Red Riding: 1974

In 2009 BBC’s Channel 4 decided to try a filmmaking experiment by having three different filmmakers adapt three novels from the Red Riding Trilogy to the screen in the same year and release them a week apart, like old Hollywood serials. Each of the movies focuses on a year of particular import to the true story of the Yorkshire Ripper case.
A big part of the scandal surrounding the Yorkshire Ripper case was the revelation of the corruption and incompetence of the Yorkshire police. The people of England became outraged at the nastiness of the cops in Northern England. Think LAPD and both the OJ Simpson and Rodney King cases.
1974 is a bit of a primer. They don’t really talk much about the Ripper, but instead set the stage for the films to follow by profiling a specific storyline from the period that serves to show the law enforcement realities of that time and place. In other words, it’s backstory.
The story is that of Eddie Dunford, a young reporter who is assigned to a story in Yorkshire. He’s aggressive, naive and seems to have more curiosity than sense. He’s sent to simply report on a missing girl, but he begins to find broader, juicier stories about local corruption and possible complicity with these crimes. In the end, he doesn’t get much story, but gets tons of brutal interaction with local power figures and law enforcement. The cops seem to all be on the payroll of prominent Yorkshire businessmen and act more like mafia thugs than officers. There is a moment where he’s about to be tossed out the back of a moving police van and the cop pauses, points and says, “you see that? That is the south and we’re heading north.” What the cop, of course, was really saying was, we run things up here and we run things how the hell we want, so stay the hell out. All of this has little to do with the Ripper case factually, but profiling this true story paints a picture of the setting for the investigation and subsequent trial in the case and shows how and why things went as poorly as they did.
I plan on seeing all three as they are now being released in US theaters one week apart as well. This installment was well acted, well written and well shot. Outside of some unnecessary romance and sex, all of it felt just right and the director of this one of the three did a fine job of setting up the two to follow. If you don’t live in a major city, you may have to seek it out on DVD, but I encourage you to do so. It’s dark, it’s gritty, but it’s damn good.