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Friday, February 22, 2013

Movies You Missed 76: Atlas Shrugged: Part II: The Strike

Our weekly review of flicks that skipped Vermont theaters

Posted By on Fri, Feb 22, 2013 at 4:26 PM

)This week in movies you missed: Visit a dystopian future, Ayn Rand-style.

What You Missed

In Atlas Shrugged: Part I (three are planned), we were introduced to a near-future society in which the energy crisis has made railroads central to the economy again. This is convenient for a retelling of Rand’s 1000-page-plus novel, first published in 1957, because the protagonist, Dagny Taggart (played here by Samantha Mathis, replacing Taylor Schilling), is a railroad magnate.

In Part I, our heroine teamed up with Henry Rearden (Jason Beghe), a granite-jawed steel manufacturer who had created an amazing new alloy. Now the government is persecuting him in an effort to make him comply with the Fair Share Act.

Meanwhile, all the great scientists and artists of the world are mysteriously disappearing, which makes it hard for Taggart to find a genius capable of investigating a machine she discovered in an old factory — a device that could end the world’s energy woes forever.

Why You Missed It

I cheated on this one. Atlas Shrugged: Part II did play for a few weeks at the Palace 9 in South Burlington. However, if you are the average reader of Seven Days, it’s quite possible you chose not to buy a ticket to this film produced and funded by committed acolytes of Rand’s philosophy and its libertarian political offshoots.

Should You Keep Missing It?

I’m not an Ayn Rand fan. I like the welfare state. I couldn’t get more than a few pages into The Fountainhead. But I do find her a fascinating cultural figure, and occasionally enjoy reading the more literate internet arguments she inspires. And she seems to be exerting quite a bit of influence on Republican politics these days, so yes, I was interested.

Having seen Atlas Shrugged: Part II, I still think the best Ayn Rand movie ever made is Gattaca. No, it isn’t based on her work and doesn’t reflect her philosophy (overtly, anyway), but it portrays a world where the wealthy have been genetically engineered to be even smarter and prettier than they naturally are. Everything and everyone in the movie is sun-soaked and superior, even the physically imperfect hero who must trick his way to the top (meritocracy!).

You may not approve of Gattaca’s world, but it’s very seductive to imagine yourself among those titans. I can only imagine how Atlas Shrugged: Part II might have looked with the budget and talent of Gattaca. Instead, it has the production values and acting of a Syfy movie, with touches of Lifetime-style soapiness thrown in.

And that isn’t so seductive. Some of the time, like when the film is exploring Rearden's marital woes, it's dull. When characters are earnestly spouting dialogue like “I refuse to be either a slave or a slave driver,” it’s laughable.

I will say one positive thing: It's rare to see a movie where the heroine's struggle to keep a business afloat takes precedence over her romantic issues. I'm all for movies about hard-working ladies (or men) making tough decisions. But in this case, Rand and her stand-in, iconic rebel John Galt, seem to have made all the decisions in advance. Taggart is just waiting to have her eyes opened to the glorious truth.

If you’re a fan of the series, you already know this critique is merely inspired by the parasite’s natural envy of society’s true creators. I won’t bother to argue with you. For the uncommitted and curious, however, here are a few things I learned from Atlas Shrugged: Part II:

1. Society’s true creators are all old-school industrialists, scientists or artists. (Rearden invariably has sparks flying behind him in the scenes at his steel mill, to remind us how sexy the Rust Belt can be.) Society’s parasites work for the government or loiter on the street calling themselves the 99.98 percent. Software manufacturers, internet moguls, the financial sector and China don’t seem to exist in this world, though personal computers and cellphones do.

2. Society has a limited supply of geniuses; if they went on “strike,” we peons would all be screwed!

3. You have two choices: to believe that “Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue” (the Rand quote that closes the film) or to be a redistributing do-gooder who insists that “Money is the root of all evil.” Any intermediate stance is craven compromise.

4. Craven compromise will inevitably lead the nation down a slippery slope to the point where the government owns all existing patents and declares inventing new stuff illegal. That’s right: They’re so jealous of creators, they outlaw creativity!

5. The common people aren’t inherently evil, just kinda stupid. If the government tells them to blame the rich, they will run and start an Occupy-style protest. If a granite-jawed industrialist makes a speech about the virtue of private ownership, they will tear up and declare him their natural better.

6. Samantha Mathis’ career sure has gone downhill since Pump Up the Volume.

Verdict: Films designed to promote an ideology tend to be a deadening experience. (Yes, I also feel this way about the work of Michael Moore.) Atlas Shrugged: Part II at least has some camp value on its side. More liberals should probably watch it just to see what the fuss is about. But don’t expect to be converted.

More New Off-the-Beaten Track DVDs

Anna Karenina

The Factory (John Cusack, Jennifer Carpenter, serial killer stuff)

Small Apartments (another offbeat indie with Juno Temple! Plus Billy Crystal, Johnny Knoxville, Rebel Wilson, James Caan.)

Undefeated (doc about underdog high school football team; scored an Oscar nom last year)

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Movies You Missed 75: Detropia

Our weekly review of flicks that skipped Vermont theaters

Posted By on Fri, Feb 15, 2013 at 3:53 PM

This week in movies you missed: Want to see how America might look after a full economic collapse? Look at Detroit.

What You Missed

In this documentary, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) present present-day Detroit with little commentary. It starts with images: a young woman exploring abandoned buildings. Opera singers on stage. Grass encroaching on bricks and pavement.

Then we meet the people: a video blogger who loves the city too much to leave, just chronicles its decay. A union man who remembers when a string of vacant lots were thriving factories. A nightclub owner who quotes radical sociologists.

And we get the stats: In 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in America. Now it’s the fastest shrinking. In the past 50 years, it lost half its population. Unemployment, the mayor says, stands at 50 percent. City government wants to move residents out of dying neighborhoods where it’s too costly to provide services, then turn them into urban gardens. Residents aren’t having it.

And the final irony: Now that prosperity has moved out of Detroit, the hipsters and starving artists are moving in.

Why You Missed It

You may have caught Detropia at last fall’s Vermont International Film Festival.

Should You Keep Missing It?

First the critique: By not providing “expert” commentary via talking heads, Ewing and Grady limit what they can do. Detropia doesn’t feel like a comprehensive portrait of Detroit; it doesn’t weigh the urban planners’ opinions against residents’ interests or suggest a solution to the city’s woes.

Perhaps too much weight is given to the speechifying of the owner of the Raven Lounge — a fascinating, passionate guy, but not necessarily informed in his views. He’s the one who voices the documentary’s dark, underlying implication: As Detroit goes, so goes America. Then, in the DVD extras, he rants about Arabs, which suddenly makes him seem less like a credible armchair philosopher and more like an angry caller on AM radio.

But, as a fan of experiential documentaries, I loved Detropia as a moody, oddly beautiful experience that also provided some information. Some have criticized it for turning urban decay into found art (see the photo above). The film touches on the issue of exploitation in a scene where two young men from Switzerland admit they came to Detroit as tourists, because the ruins are more “interesting” than anything their home has to offer.

Crystal Starr, the video blogger, also finds the postapocalyptic landscape “interesting.” But for her, it’s something more: home.

Verdict: Do you take a strange pleasure in watching the mighty fall? Read Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, then sit down and watch Detropia. And ask yourself whether it's really the empire builders who suffer most from an empire's collapse.

More New Off-the-Beaten Track DVDs

Bully

The Kid With a Bike (Dardenne brothers’ latest)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Awkward kid loves Hermione Granger, or whatever her name is here.)

Robot & Frank (Grouchy old guy plus near-future robot)

The Sessions

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Movies You Missed 74: A Late Quartet

Our weekly review of flicks that skipped Vermont theaters

Posted By on Fri, Feb 8, 2013 at 5:33 PM

This week in movies you missed: No, this is not Quartet with Maggie Smith, which is slated for the Savoy Theater in Montpelier on February 15. It’s a different movie about classical musicians with an all-star cast.

What You Missed

For 25 years, the Fugue String Quartet has won accolades all over the world. Now its founder, cellist Peter (Christopher Walken), is feeling his age. When he’s given a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, he realizes he’ll need a replacement if the quartet is to go on.

Violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), to whom Peter is a father figure, struggles to accept his departure. Her husband, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the quartet’s second violinist, decides this is a good time to point out he’s always wanted to try playing first chair. That doesn’t go over well with the first violinist, Daniel (Mark Ivanir), who was Juliette’s first love and is currently teaching the couple’s violinist daughter (Imogen Poots). Feeling cold-shouldered by his wife and colleagues, Robert gets cozy with a flamenco dancer.

Will the quartet survive the transition and make it through a season-opening performance of Beethoven’s Opus 131?

Why You Missed It

You may have caught A Late Quartet during a run at the Savoy or Catamount Arts, but not in Burlington.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Fans of Beethoven, string quartets and classical music generally should check out A Late Quartet. It’s a restrained, beautifully acted drama that does not fall prey to Hollywood stereotypes about professional musicians. No divas or egomaniacs here. As the offspring of two classical flutists, I found the characters and their upper-class New York milieu plausible … if a little stifling.

While the characters are believable, the screenplay (by Seth Grossman and director Yaron Zilberman) doesn’t delve far beneath their surfaces. Everyone can be summed up by one dominant trait: Peter is nurturing, Juliette is cold, Robert is insecure and passive-aggressive, and Daniel is a perfectionist who needs to experience “passion.” As for Poots’ twentysomething character, she seems to exist only to give Daniel the “passion” he needs and then to guilt-trip Juliette for being an absent mother. She doesn’t make much sense on her own.

Because of this shallowness, and because the quartet’s drama is pretty easily resolved, I found myself more interested in the actual music, played by the Brentano String Quartet. The film would have benefited from less classy soap opera, more music geekery.

Verdict: Christopher Walken lecturing about the history of Opus 131: surprisingly absorbing. (Who wouldn’t want him for a prof?) Christopher Walken confronting his mortality: good stuff, but we’ve seen it before. A lot lately.

More New Off-the-Beaten Track DVDs

Celeste & Jesse Forever

The Day He Arrives (latest from Korean auteur Sang-soo Hong)

Deadfall (Eric Bana. Olivia Wilde. Casino heist.)

Little White Lies (Marion Cotillard. French family drama.)

So Undercover (Miley Cyrus. Doing her version of Miss Congeniality.)

Yelling to the Sky (Zoe Kravitz. Inner-city drama.)

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Movies You Missed 73: The Imposter

Our weekly review of flicks that skipped Vermont theaters

Posted By on Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 3:39 PM

This week in movies you missed: a true story stranger than fiction.

What You Missed

In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay left his home in San Antonio, Tx., and did not return. Nearly four years later, his family received a call from Spain. Their missing child, they were told, had been found. Nicholas’ grown sister, Carey Gibson, jumped on a plane.

What she didn’t know — but the viewer of Bart Layton’s documentary does, early on — was that “Nicholas” was actually a 23-year-old Frenchman named Frédéric Bourdin who made a habit of impersonating abused or abandoned teenagers. His motive, he claimed, was to find the love and care his own family had denied him.

Until now, Bourdin had invented his false identities, he tells us in interview footage. He stole Nicholas’ only because the authorities threatened him with finger-printing, which would have revealed his long record. As soon as he saw a color photo of the missing boy, Bourdin realized he could never convince Nicholas’ family that he — dark-eyed, dark-haired, not a native English speaker — was their blond, blue-eyed, all-American son.

Or could he?

Why You Missed It

Like many docs, The Imposter skipped most U.S. theaters, reaching 31.

Should You Keep Missing It?

The strange exploits of Bourdin are already well documented — for instance, in this 2008 New Yorker piece, which reveals how he continued successfully to impersonate teens and fool sympathetic do-gooders even after his fame as an imposter had spread across the U.S. (They don’t watch Connie Chung in France!)

While it explores a narrower slice of the story, The Imposter is still well worth watching. Layton’s documentary has three components: interviews (with Bourdin, Nicholas’ family members, the FBI agent assigned to his case, and the private detective who first suspected him); snippets of VHS footage from Nicholas’ family; and re-enactments of the events using actors.

These aren’t lurid, basic-cable-type re-enactments; they’re restrained, generally soundless and artistically shot, à la Errol Morris. They draw us in while also reminding us how much fabrication is involved in storytelling — particularly when the storyteller is an attested pathological liar like Bourdin. He loves to talk about himself, but can we trust anything he tells us? For that matter, can we trust Nicholas’ family?

Layton uses film noirish touches to emphasize his dramatic shaping of the story, which features a Texan private dick, Charlie Parker, straight out of a Coen brothers movie. While the FBI agent looks for the child sex ring that supposedly abducted Nicholas, Parker is the one who thinks to compare the shape of the boy’s ears in a childhood photo with those of Bourdin, then growls, “The ears don’t match!”

Bourdin’s disguise wasn’t exactly hard to penetrate. (Even today, he speaks with a strong French accent unimaginable from a native English speaker.) The real question is, how did he fool so many for so long? As Parker speculates about whether Nicholas’ family really thought Bourdin was their son, and why they might have conned the con man, the story develops another, more disturbing layer of mystery. Like many real-life mysteries, it lacks the satisfying wrap-up of a fictional whodunit. But the journey is worth taking.

Verdict: See it if you like con-artist stories or documentaries that explore the dark corners of human behavior. Then memorize your kids’ faces (and ears).

More New Off-the-Beaten Track DVDs

The Awakening (Rebecca Hall in ghost story set in 1921 England)

“Downton Abbey,” season 3

I Am Bruce Lee (TV doc about the martial-arts star)

Seven Psychopaths

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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