Tag Archives: review

Disconnect Movie Review

My review of the film Disconnect

In some ways, Disconnect, the new film by Murderball director Henry Alex Rubin,
is American Beauty for our wired world, an arresting look at the complicated entanglements that technology can create. Merely calling it a cautionary tale about the dangers of the big bad Internet would be reductionistic, however–sure, none of the calamities that befall people in the movie are terribly novel and, in fact, seem directly plucked out of headlines, but it’s the acting that lends a very human touch to what could have otherwise run as a public service announcement. The film’s title could be interpreted as a reference to the disconnect and alienation the characters feel from each other and for the need for all of them to simply click the log-off button and disconnect from the webs they are so inexorably captured in.

Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) are a married couple still mourning the loss of their baby. Their relationship strained by Derek’s stoic way of dealing with it (think the very male “I don’t want to talk about it” scenario), Cindy turns to an online support group for help, developing a cyber friendship with a man. When all of their assets are stolen by an identity thief and they seek to find the culprit, they are forced to face their own estrangement. This is one place where the movie mildly sputters, especially on the technological tip. For example, the private investigator tells them that this person “knows everything about you,” as though the fact that the thief has their vacation pictures is of the most relevance here when he has emptied out their bank accounts. Also, the explanation for how one can get a credit card number on the Internet and how a “Trojan” works was ham-handed at best and seemingly aimed at an audience that apparently has yet to learn what the definition of phishing is. The typing out of chat conversations on screen is also a bit clunky.

Jason Bateman turns in a compelling performance as a high-powered/Blackberry-indentured lawyer, oblivious to what is going on in his son’s life. When his son is the victim of cyber bullying, he plunges into a world of self-condemnation and guilt and turns to Facebook, ironically the very source of the tragedy, to “get to know” his son. Frank Grillo plays the overwrought father of Jason, the cyber bully. The film does a good job of showing how bully behavior is often a learned behavior and one that has roots at home. It also excellently portrays the vicious mean boys/mean girls school environment today’s youth have to contend with.

Nina (Andrea Riseborough) is a career-minded, unscrupulous TV reporter who convinces Kyle (Max Thieriot), an 18-year-old webcam model, to participate in her piece on the underage sex webcam industry. Initially, she appears to mean well, but quickly finds herself way in over her head and her motives become increasingly loathsome and self-serving. She uses Kyle to further her career yet does nothing to really extricate him from the life he is trapped in, especially when her actions literally endanger his life.

Disconnect thrums with suspense and maintains an undercurrent of threat to the very end. The acting is engrossing even though the character development leaves a bit to be desired. Ultimately, it does a good job of portraying just how elusive “reality” is starting to become in the superficial world of Facebook and social networking. Are the characters revealing their true selves and unspoken truths when shielded behind a screen or are they acting out an alternate identity in the digital playground? And while they somehow manage to weave their way back towards at each other, the costs are undoubtedly high. Disconnect manages to avoid the pitfall of being overly didactic and preachy, even if the subject matter could have been something plucked out of cyber security awareness month brochure.

China Heavyweight Movie Review

My review of China Heavyweight
China Heavyweight, a documentary by Yung Chang [Up The Yangtze], is a glimpse into the burgeoning popularity of boxing, a sport that had been banned by Mao. While the extensive footage of boxing training harkens a bit to other underdog stories like The Boxer and other recognizable sports tropes, China Heavyweight is very firmly grounded in its setting and provides an interesting look into an unfamiliar social landscape.
Set at a boxing school in the Sichuan province, the film follows two teenagers, Miao Yunfei and He Zongli. Their trainer is Qi Moxiang, a former professional boxer who still harbors dreams of returning to the ring despite being in his thirties. Without offering any extra commentary, it takes us deeply into the world of Confucianism-informed Asian culture through the eyes of the two teenagers and their interaction with their parents. While boxing is portrayed as a way out of their parents’ very hard life of being a tobacco farmer, we get the sense that boxing is also something that is not done for personal glory but for the greater community. The coaches frequently reference that boxing is what elevates you from your “Mother’s son” to a “son of the people.” Lofty ideals like bringing pride to your family and community, brushing shoulders with the very Confucian values of humility and honoring your elders.

“We have to be modest at all times,” repeats the father of one of the boys while remarking that he had heard people say his son is a great boxer. Yunfei Mao idolizes Mike Tyson and “the great ambience and the grand entrance” of professional boxing, yet respects his parents enough to give up his dream. China Heavyweight is also a poignant look into the highs-and-lows of a very brutal sport and the paternal relationship between the coaches and the boxers. “You must persevere because I believe in you,” says Qi to his young charge, yet when the talented boxer must leave training, he offers lifelong help to him, regardless of the loss to the school.
China Heavyweight is also interesting in its portrayal of how boxing fits within a very unfamiliar to the West social milieu.  We are offered brief glimpses into political leaders taking an interest in the goings-on from the perspective of recruiting successful Olympics athletes. Much more interestingly, however, the sport appears to have a tremendous mass appeal despite its very Western origin. The film does not really explore that aspect much, instead focusing on the fighters themselves, but it would have certainly added much value. Another loss is we do not learn much about the teenage girls that are also recruited into these boxing schools and who undergo similar training. There was a story there that remained untold.
Ultimately, a very universal, non-Western sentiment emerges from China Heavyweight. Boxing is about “not being afraid of losing” and “the more you fail, the more courageous you become.” The very non-goal/non-individual-focused ethos makes this documentary a refreshing departure from other pugilistic films and one definitely worth seeing, especially with its sweeping, beautiful shots of the mountain areas of China and subdued cinema-verite style.  While the pacing drags at times, there is enough to the premise and its setting to make it a film worth checking out.

Being Flynn Review

My review of Being Flynn:

Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.” In Being Flynn, Jonathan Flynn says, “Life is gathering material.” There lies the absurdity of prose: it is both prosaic and profound, complex in its very simplicity. Being Flynn is a film about bleeding and writing, stumbling and surviving. Based on author-poet Nick Flynn’s memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” it recounts Nick’s (Paul Dano) relationship with his estranged father Jonathan (Robert De Niro).
Nick grows up a latchkey kid, raised by a loving but terribly over-worked mother (Julianne Moore). His only sense of his father comes from the bombastic letters he receives from prison; they are filled with Jonathan’s proclamations that he should have a place in the pantheon of great American writers. While Jonathan manifests as an absence in his son’s life, his non-presence couldn’t be more momentous to Nick, not the least of which because Nick writes just as well. Such is the basic tension of their father-son relationship: he declares “I am *not* like my deadbeat Dad” while wondering “How much like my father am I really?” Jonathan’s absence has built up the mythos of him, yet their approach to writing couldn’t be more different. Jonathan is full of swagger, in contrast to Nick’s meek “I write, but I am not a writer.” And surely enough, it’s through this fraught relationship and struggle that Nick will come into his own.

Being Flynn is also a film about homelessness, literally and metaphorically. Director Paul Weitz uses his lens to show the brutal Bostonian winter landscape with a gut-wrenching intensity and poignancy. Long after Jonathon leaves prison and descends into alcoholism, Nick meets him at a homeless shelter. Snippets of Nick’s writing provide a literary backdrop to the film. His description of his father’s going to sleep on a Metro grate as “an invisible man in an invisible room in an invisible city,” is a trenchant metaphor for the blind eye toward homelessness. The shelter is a microcosm of the struggles of the outside world and a testament to how hard it is to stay changed. The way up is long but the way down quick and always lurking around the corner. When Nick takes on the job in the shelter, maybe subconsciously he’s hoping to see his father. As Nick says, “if both of you are lost, you both end up in the same place, waiting.”
Through their push-and-pull interaction, Nick and his father tumultuously find a way to reach other. Paul Dano plays Nick with a quiet vulnerability and just enough of the inherited-self-nihilism required. DeNiro plays Jonathan with borderline-insane megalomania, a seething intensity, and a tragi-comic flair (he calls his masterpiece The Memoirs of a Moron). He doesn’t want our pity; he insists he is a survivor. And so is Nick, who finds his own voice.
You can’t kill someone with words, Jonathan Flynn says, but it doesn’t mean the words are not heavy as stones.

Rampart Review

My review of Rampart:
In the pantheon of crooked cop movies like Training Day and Bad Lieutenant, Rampart shines as a unique character study, relying more heavily on the psychological element rather than the thrills that are hallmarks of the film noir genre. Woody Harrelson’s Dave Brown is not the typical one-dimensional thug or the sociopathic power-abuser with simple motivations of greed and control. His performance is intense, roiling with an undercurrent of claustrophobia and threat; he’s a man on the brink of a complete unraveling.
Co-written by crime novelist extraordinaire [The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential] James Ellroy, Rampart is partly inspired by the real-life story of the scandal that rocked the Rampart District of the LAPD in the 1990s, where nearly 70 of the department’s force were accused of egregious misconduct and, essentially, running a gang of their own.
The movie, set in 1999, riffs on the tensions that the Rodney King case stirred up. The action unfolds with Dave getting caught on video beating a suspect. The film has some vaguely X-Files-ish overtones: there is the ear-whispering Smoking Man played by a reptilian Ned Beatty. Dave Brown seems to have no problem digging his own grave, but there is no shortage of people handing him shovels either. When he is wryly advised that he “could just stop beating people up,” Dave acerbically retorts, “I don’t stop to see if there’s a camera in my way when I do the people’s dirty work.” No doubt he can’t really be “framed” for something he did anyway, but there is also the sense that Dave will be the poster child for the department’s crackdown on malfeasance. The shifting tide seems destined to sweep Dave with it and his refusal to change (or maybe inability) now has deleterious consequences.
This is some of what makes his character so interesting and different from the macho caricatures of Training Day and Bad Lieutenant. After 24 years on the force, he is equal parts placated by rationalizations yet crippled with guilt. He is not so far gone beyond the moral boundaries to be unaware of them and his coping mechanisms seem to be a result of his view of the world as an antagonistic place, not too different from a jungle. When he tells a wide-eyed rookie, “Everything you learned at the Academy is bullshit. This is a military occupation,” we see that he probably believes that, or at least that this is a suitable enough cover that lets him sleep at night.
Director Oren Moverman‘s cinematography is perfect for setting the tense atmosphere of the film. Extremely close shots convey the feeling of claustrophobia and paranoia. No one is what they seem to be and answers are hard to come by. Brown is a complex and conflicting study of a man—he may act like a thug, but he is extremely eloquent and clearly very smart. He is not the compulsive womanizer of the cop movie past; if anything, he tries to be a good father and a husband (of sorts) to his two ex-wives. He is not nihilistic or self-destructive for the mere sake of it. At his core, Brown is characterized by cynicism and misanthropy: “I am not a racist. I hate all people.” Ultimately, he wants to fix the mess he is in, yet his incorrigibility plunges him into quicksand.
Rampart is a taut and mesmerizing portrait of a man “falling down.” It steers clear of reductionist explanations and breathes a new life into tired genre.

Into The Abyss Film Review

German documentary film-maker Werner Herzog [Grizzly Man and his most recent documentary on cave art in France, The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams] takes on a macabre American Gothic-esque tale of death and life. It is equal parts Capote’s In Cold Blood and an expose on the no-less-grisly underside of capital punishment. A particularly timely movie in light of the recent Troy Davis execution in Georgia, Into The Abyss turns the lens on a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas. Teenagers at the time of the crime, the movie centers on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett ten years later—Burkett is sentenced to life in prison and Michael Perry is facing execution.

While documentaries are inherently “biased” in that they present a position, Herzog’s approach is fresh and interesting. The focus is not on the issue of guilt or innocence—as such, it is not a who-done-it crime procedural. There is no confusion on Herzog’s personal opposition to the death penalty, but as an interviewer, he has an uncanny way of educing visceral, evocative, and unexpectedly eloquent responses from his subjects. For example, when he asks how “something feels,” rather than drawing bafflement, he elicits trenchant answers such as when he asks Jason Burkett’s wife to describe what his hand feels like over hers or how it felt for Jason’s father to be chained next to his son or when he asks the prison chaplain to “please describe an encounter with a squirrel.” His interviewing style, at worst is a bit unsettling, but for the most part, is surprisingly disarming. Into The Abyss makes copious use of police video of the crime scene, as well as footage of what the execution room looks like, grimly named “The Death House.” The interviews with the surrounding characters are what really offer some truly unique perspectives and pack an emotional punch. The segment with Jason Burkett’s father, who himself is serving a prison sentence, is especially poignant. His plea to the court at the sentencing to “please do not kill my son” is a stark and haiku-like encapsulation of just what capital punishment means at its most uncomplicated—taking away a human life.The segment with Fred Allen, a captain in the Death House unit, who after unstrapping his 125th prisoner from the gurney could not bring himself to do it one more time is especially powerful in its insider perspective on the “process.” His conviction that “no one has a right to take a human life,” is cogent in the context of seeing the damage his work did to him and his transformation from a man simply committed to “carrying out the law in a professional manner” to one who could not physically or emotionally continue to do it.

Into The Abyss also does an excellent job of portraying the milieu of violence that haunts the small Texas town, appropriately entitled the “dark side of Conroe.” As such, it also reminds the audience that capital punishment is meted out to people of different backgrounds. It’s a bleak reality—generations of families in prison, rampant violence, struggling working class, gated communities…Jason Burkett’s father, serving a sentence himself, blames himself, explaining how his son never had a chance. When he describes the moment when they were handcuffed together in the same prison bus, he heartbreakingly narrates that he felt like a “total failure as a father, being there with my baby son. Doesn’t get any lower than that.”
The film’s pacing seems reflective of the complexity of the thorny issue of crime and punishment, yet steers clear of dogmatic asides, opting to simply present things as they are. The daughter of the one of the victims describes that she was shocked to see that Michael Perry was “just a boy” and not the monster she had imagined him to be, yet she feels like a weight is lifted off her shoulders when he is executed—her words are a small example of just how slippery the idea of retribution and, even more so, justice is.

Into The Abyss does a tremendous job of humanizing such a broad, firebrand issue as the death penalty. It manages to steer clear of normative polemics or moralizing, instead opting for a subtle view into what it actually feels to take away a life.

The Adjustment Bureau Review

The Adjustment Bureau Successfully Blends Romance, Sci-Fi

Grade: A

Can one outrun one’s fate? The Adjustment Bureau answers that question quite literally. Based on the short story “The Adjustment Team” by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, the film is a sci-fi-tinged romance not unlike Gattaca or Code 46 in its ethos, and despite its fairly gravitas subject matter, it is incredibly entertaining and captivating in its human angle.

Matt Damon stars as a rising political star/Senator candidate David Norris, whose chance encounter with a contemporary modern dancer Elise [Emily Blunt], sets him on an inexorable path. Elise’s character is instantly lovable—she is irreverent, ebullient, and free-spirited. David has a reputation for being a “loose cannon,” but under her influence, he loosens up instead. So, their romance begins until David encounters the men of the Adjustment Bureau, who tell him, “You peeked behind a curtain you weren’t supposed to know exists.” Apparently, it is not according to the “plan” for David and Elise to be together. Even though the plausibility of the level of ardor they have for each from just a few encounters requires a leap of faith, both Damon and Blunt play their roles perfectly and their on-screen chemistry carries the storyline well. There are a couple of silly moments, such as when David is to be prevented from seeing Elise dance by the Adjustment Bureau because he will instantly fall in love with her if he does [gasp—he does], but these minor hiccups do not detract from the overall enjoyability of seeing their relationship grow.

Director George Nolfi’s [Ocean’s Eleven, The Bourne Ultimatum] portrayal of The Adjustment Bureau as fate’s company men is incredibly amusing and easily makes this movie worth seeing for that alone. The use of corporate speak—e.g. the higher being is “The Chairman,” “angels” are “case officers,” “briefcases” are interventions—is really clever and apt in building the mythology. The various adjustments, calibrations, and irregularities are very reminiscent of “glitch in the Matrix” motifs and accessible to the viewer [no elaborate sci-fi mumbo jumbo here]. The droll, English-men-like bureau men have serious jobs, but they certainly have a sense of humor. The dapper bureau men are powerful but not omnipotent—as Harry, one of the bureau’s men who comes to David’s aide explains, it’s all science. They have an interest in making sure humans do not screw up too much, but they cannot read their minds or watch everyone at all times and can only predict outcomes based on the percentage of weights options-ha! Therein lies David and Elise’s out—there is margin for irregularities, chance, and the big one, free will.

The Adjustment Bureau is a thrilling film with just the right mix of sci-fi plot elements and a strong human story—it is clever and funny, without being overbearingly technical or requiring extreme suspension of disbelief.

Inside Job Review

Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job is a trenchant, chilling expose on the2008 financial meltdown. Like his most recent documentary on the Iraq War, No End In Sight, it is taut, well-researched, highly provocative, and impressive in scope. Ferguson explained that the choices he made in the documentary were with the idea of making the seemingly highly esoteric subject of this particular economic crisis “accessible to all viewers” and he sought to not only narrate what occurred but also in a more current sense, “explain why America is still in such economic difficulty.”

The documentary begins with an apt case-study, Iceland, which Ferguson describes in the film as “one of the purest experiments” in the potential outcomes of de-regulation. The very grim statistic that, at the time, Iceland’s GDP was 10 billion, and bank losses were 130 billion gives viewers a keen grasp of the sheer enormity of the collapse. Inside Job posits that the de-regulation policies begun in 2000 had an adverse effect on both the environment and the economy.

Inside Job presents a well-researched timeline of the series of developments that combined to create the perfect storm. After the Great Depression, the United States experienced 40 years of growth with no economic crises. The landscape began to change in the 1980s. At the time, many investment banks went public. During the Reagan era, de-regulation under Rubin and Summers allowed behemoth mergers to take place, such as the creation of Citigroup, which would have been impossible under the older legal standards set by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act repealed part of that act, opening up the market for the existence of behemoth hybrid banking, securities, and insurance companies. Ferguson then touches upon the long-standing track record of nefarious activity by financial institutions—the litany of culprit banks who were fined for too many things to name and not the least of which for money laundering for corrupt politicians stretches far and wide.

Ferguson does a brilliant job of demystifying the often-heard during the crisis but rarely understood buzzwords of “subprime mortgages,” “mortgage-backed securities,” and “derivatives.” In interviews with a veritable treasure trove of who’s-whos including economists, business-school faculty, Justice Department officials, Federal Reserve chairmen, Congressmen, financial press members, foreign government ministers, he constructs a picture of a massive inter-relationship critical for the viewers’ understanding of why things got as bad as they did. To put it in the most basic terms, Inside Job diagrams that the historical chain of home buyers to lenders was essentially replaced by the home buyers-lenders-investment banks-investors chain, which allowed banks to make riskier and riskier loan offers because they were no longer concerned about the ability of the buyers to repay the loans directly to them. The creation of complex financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations [CDOs] came hand in hand with increasingly predatory lending since the interest rates on the subprime mortgages were the highest. As early as 1998, people like Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Future Trading Commission, feared the consequences of having a 50 trillion unregulated derivates market and lobbied for legislation, but Larry Summers and Alan Greenspan firmly objected to it and none passed. In addition, the relaxation of leverage standards, which passed SEC approval in 2004, allowed unheretofore seen shockingly high levels of borrowed-to-bank money, such as 33:1, having enormous implications for bank liquidity. Combine that with the fact that rating agencies continued to rate CDOs at super high grades [two days before its collapse, Lehman was rated as 2A] and later on washed their hands of this oversight error [to put it mildly] by calling their ratings at Congressional hearings mere “opinions.” In the increasingly complicated picture, the true testament to Wall Street greed was that investment banks were selling and betting against the same CDOs at the same time and routinely deceiving their clients about the quality of the investments. Inside Job also features interviews with the two leading voices of reason—Raghuram Rajan and Nouriel Roubini, who were sounding alarm bells as early as 2005. Rajan, IMF’s former Chief Economist delivered a paper, “Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier” warning of the looming disaster. Other leading economists are also interviewed including Paul Volcker, Andrew Sheng, and Christine Lagard.

Ferguson does not shy away from tackling controversial issues and the courageous gusto with which he peppers his interview subjects with uncomfortable questions is amusingly droll. A major point that the documentary drives home is that almost entirely independent of political lines, the government remains a “Wall Street government,” as Ferguson put it. The fact that the financial industry routinely spends 5 billion in political contributions and the fact that most of the key government economics advisors are former financial industry honchos speaks to how deep this collusion is. Inside Job also delivers a searing indictment on the lack of criminal prosecution for the culprits, who not only walked away free but they walked away with staggering pay packages to the tune of hundreds of millions. Ferguson stated in the discussion after the film that, “the fact these guys are going to get away with this is a major public policy failure.” In further testament to the “structural corruption,” Ferguson also very smartly illustrates the ideological impact of having professors from the top business schools engage in blatant conflict-of-interest activities such as earning 80% of the their income consulting for the very same financial companies that precipitated the crisis.