Category Archives: Movie Review

Song of the Day #156 – Young At Heart

I’m cheating a bit because today’s selection isn’t really a song, it’s a movie trailer. But it’s a movie about music and it contains a bunch of great songs so I don’t feel too bad. Young At Heart is a documentary about a choir of senior citizens who perform modern rock songs with the kind of gusto that would make a punk rocker envious. This small, unassuming movie has something for everyone: comic moments during rehearsals, the triumph of live performances, poignant interviews, and moving life stories that unfold before your eyes. But more than anything else, this film is a celebration of music and the joy that it can bring to people of all ages. This is one of those movies that does more than merely entertain – it makes you think about what it means to live a fulfilling life.

Song of the Day #11 – The Swell Season

Today’s song is “Falling Slowly”, by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who collectively perform as The Swell Season. This song was originally released by Hansard’s band, the Frames, but it really took off after appearing in the 2006 film Once. By the way, if you haven’t seen Once, head to your nearest video outlet, online or off, and treat yourself to a copy. You won’t be disappointed – it’s one of the few movies I had to see twice in a row, with a fantastic soundtrack to boot. The video below combines “Falling Slowly” with scene’s from Once.

Movie Review: The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner

We’re all going to die someday, we just don’t know when and how. As the main character points out, with the exception of how we die, most of us have the ability to control the major decisions of our lives. At the time this film was made, only one of our 50 states (Oregon) gave citizens with terminal illness the legal right to end their suffering.

The story is told through the eyes of well-liked former WA Governor Booth Gardner, who retired from politics in 1993. Out of the spotlight for 15 years, Gardner now suffers from the debilitating symptoms of advanced Parkinson’s Disease. At a time when Gardner is physically and mentally most vulnerable, he decides to re-enter the public arena in order to fight one more battle: promoting WA state initiative I-1000, the “Death with Dignity Act”. Not including the victory in Oregon, similar ballot measures around the US have resulted in a long string of consecutive losses so Gardner is fighting long odds.

In addition to the courageous protagonist, we meet a number of interesting characters on both sides of the issue, including Dwayne French, a quadriplegic advocate for disabled peoples’ rights, who serves as one of the opposition leaders. We also learn some of the policy details; for example, a person seeking to end his or her life must be competent, must have a terminal disease and must be certified by two physicians to have six months or less to live.

Ironically, Booth Gardner himself would not be covered by this law because his Parkinson’s Disease is considered a chronic illness, not a terminal disease. But like Moses, who was allowed to see the promised land but not enter it, Gardner fights on in order to make a better life for others.

What makes this short (37 minutes) documentary so compelling is that it works on three different levels:  heroic character study, complex public policy issue, and nail-biting election night climax. I won’t spoil the result here but I will say that “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner” is informative and inspiring. After the screening (part of the Seattle International Film Festival), we were treated to a panel discussion including Booth Gardner, who received a standing ovation as he mounted the stage. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.

The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner was nominated for an academy award in the best short documentary category. Here’s a trailer:

The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner clip from Just Media on Vimeo.

Movie Review: A Tale of Two Indies

Nearly all my reviews are raves and I sometimes wonder if people think I just love everything. The truth is that I’m pretty selective — my reviews are overwhelmingly positive because I only bother taking the time to write about books and movies I really like. But today I’m going to break that rule because yesterday I saw two movies in one day (at the Seattle International Film Festival) and it provided an interesting study in contrasts.

The first was an indie drama/comedy called “A Little Help”, featuring one of my favorite actresses, Jenna Fischer. I’m a huge and long-time fan of Jenna and her work on “The Office” but, unfortunately, this film is a mess. The dialog is trite and forced, much like a TV sitcom. The characters are under-developed and unbelievable. The plot is full of cliches. Several of the performances are over-acted to the extreme. Even Jenna Fischer does not seem comfortable in her role. There are a few bright spots: Daniel Yeltsky is very good as a tortured tween adapting to life without a father and the original music by Jacob Dylan is lovely, but, sadly, that was not enough to make me care about this muddled movie.

After that disappointment, I saw “Cyrus”, which was a very different story, literally and figuratively. The characters are compelling and believable. The dialog is real and engaging. The story is intriguing.  The acting is sublime. Even at a technical level, this movie is interesting: there is extensive use of hand held cameras and extreme close-ups, which has the effect of drawing the viewer into the action. The filmmakers, Jay & Mark Duplass, are known for their minimally scripted, highly improvisational approach to filmmaking, and the result is a very raw and very honest film about real people in a complicated situation.

I find most mainstream Hollywood fare to be “formulaic”, as if constructed by a kind of cinematic Mad Libs, which is why I love and support independent films. But to be successful, a good movie, like any work of art, needs to be original. “Cyrus” is funny, sad, poignant, powerful and entertaining – but more than that, it’s one of the most original movies I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Movie Review: In Bruges

If I had to categorize “In Bruges”, I’d go with Thriller/Travelogue, which is not a very crowded field. It’s the story of two career hit men who go on a little vacation, ostensibly to lay low after a recent crime spree. But as you might guess, there’s more to this trip than meets the eye.

I call it part travelogue, because this movie does a wonderful job transporting the audience to the real city of Bruges, a beautiful and amazingly well preserved medieval city (pictured above). Situated on a series of canals in northwest Belgium, it’s sometimes called “Venice of the North”. Visiting Bruges feels a bit like going back in time.

To these picturesque surroundings, the filmmaker has added a large dose of Hitchcock style suspense, some Tarentino style violence, a few darkly comic moments and some first rate acting.

The film is far from perfect – character development, frequently a weakness in the thriller genre, could be better. There are several strained plot elements that really should have been cut from the script. And I found the climax convoluted and disappointing.

Nevertheless, despite the unsatisfying ending and other flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Even if you don’t love this movie, when it’s over you’ll feel like you just got back from Bruges, which is not a bad place to spend a couple hours.

Here’s the Rotten Tomatoes page, where “In Bruges” currently enjoys an 80% score.

Movie Review: Who Killed The Electric Car?

Good documentaries make you feel something. This film will make you feel angry. Very angry.

The story begins in California, which has both the nation’s worst air pollution problem and one of our most progressive state governments. That combination should lead to dramatic change and for a while in the late 90s it did. The CA state agency in charge of air quality imposed strong new requirements on auto makers to sell a minimum percentage of “zero emission vehicles”. This led General Motors to introduce the EV1, which was a convenient, powerful, fuel efficient electric vehicle. And it was cool looking to boot.

Other auto makers followed suit and, for a while, it seemed like California was on the brink of a genuine automotive and energy revolution, which just might sweep the country. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. “Who Killed The Electric Car?” explains why and who’s to blame.

In addition to telling a good story, this film will teach you a few things about the air pollution problem in CA, the auto and oil industries, battery and hydrogen fuel cell technologies and some cars you probably didn’t hear about, which were sold just a few years ago. Along the way, you’ll meet an interesting assortment of heroes and villains.

A popular bumper sticker of our time reads: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. This movie helps you pay attention. Fortunately, “Who Killed The Electric Car?” ends on an optimistic note, which is nice, because it takes a little edge off the outrage.

Here’s the Rotten Tomatoes page for “Who Killed The Electric Car?”, where it enjoys an 88% score (93% among top critics).

Movie Review: “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?”

I’m a sucker for offbeat, quirky documentaries. My favorites have a little dose of crazy – either in the characters or the story or both. For me, the craziness is what makes it human and compelling.

The story in “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?” is so strange you’ll have a hard time believing it’s true – an elderly female truck driver (you read that right) of very modest means buys a cheap painting in a thrift store and discovers, to her amazement, that it appears to be an authentic Jackson Pollock (the drippy guy) painting worth several million dollars. And that’s just the beginning.

In order to certify a master work of art (and thereby sell it for big money), you need experts to give their stamp of approval. This quest for authentication leads to an epic culture clash: brash, street smart and determined trucker lady vs. erudite, snobby and skeptical art critic. Throw a world renowned forensic scientist and a felonious art promoter into the mix and you’re in for quite a trip.

I won’t reveal any further details but this film is a gem – in a relaxed way it explores class boundaries, the battle between science and art and the inner workings of the art world, all told through the eyes of some wonderfully eccentric characters.

Here’s a link to the movie on Rotten Tomatoes.