Category Archives: 2006 Movies

49 Up (2006)

In 1964, filmmaker Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist) interviewed 14 seven-year-old kids from different British backgrounds asking them about their futures. The half-hour TV special by Granada was called 7 Up and it aimed to show the world where the future politicians and doctors and trash collectors would begin. Every seven years since, Apted has returned to those same kids and peaked in on their lives, chronicling their lives. It’s one of the most famous documentary series in history. Thanks to the virtues of Netflix’s streaming service, I was able to watch six of the seven movies in the Up anthology (sorry 35 Up, the lone film not available for streaming). I spent the next twelve hours watching the lives of 14 complete strangers from childhood to middle age, and by the end they didn’t feel like strangers any more. They felt, weirdly, like family. And that’s the true appeal of the ongoing series: you are watching the evolution of human beings. It’s not everybody that gets a visual scrapbook of their life that’s viewed by millions worldwide.

01_49up-1Finally, after many hours, 49 Up is the first in the anthology to address the ideas of selective editing and building storylines to suit the “characters.” Long before reality television smoothed away life’s edges to make everybody fit into archetypes, Apted positioned the Up series as his thesis on class struggle. He purposely selected a cross-section of English schoolchildren from private schools and public schools and even two from a boy’s school for orphans. You can see it at 14, 21, and 28 how Apted sticks to his same line of questioning about class advantages and disadvantages, peppering his subjects with questions about what they didn’t have and then showing their current situations in a specific manner to make the audience feel a specific emotion. It’s not deliberately diabolical or partisan but the class warfare ideology certainly can chafe. Do the kids at the top still get all the perks? Are the kids at the bottom suffering with limited opportunities? Has anybody transcended class? Apted starts attributing achievements by the upper class boys as part of their upper class advantages and not due to their hard work, dedication, or talent, which they have every right to complain about. John complains at 21 that when, at seven, they declare their education ambitions, and Apted follows it up with narration, “John did attend such and such,” that it creates the illusion that everything has been handed to them. The hard work and long hours are not shown, and fair point. A few of his subjects actually begin to challenge Apted over his perceptions. Suzy takes aim at his line of questioning, hinting at her life’s disappointments, and fights back, accusing Apted of trapping her into a small narrative box. She even brings up another heated conversation in the history of the series, when Apted questioned whether Suzy, at 21, had experienced enough of life to settle down (she eventually divorced years later). You witness her youthful indignation and she remarks, with some resignation, that Apted is free to edit this outburst as he will and she is helpless (obviously Apted kept this in). It’s the first time I’ve seen the stars of Up contest their onscreen portrayals.

It is also with 49 Up that the film series starts to finally reflect. Part of that comes with living half a century, and many of the 12 on camera subjects are now at an age where they have grandchildren and are setting up retirement (I wonder what the economic meltdown of 2008 did for those plans). They can reflect about the accomplishments of their lives, the past dreams captured on camera that never came true, the marriages that dissolved, the joys and struggles of rearing children, the pains of burying parents, etc. They seem to be at that stopping point where they can take stock of a life lived. On top of that, the participants now begin to reflect on what being apart of the Up series has meant to them. It certainly shapes public opinion about who they are as people, and Apted gropes for any new info to connect with the prior material in the earlier movies.

28 UpPerhaps Apted feels like he has to keep flogging his class thesis because most of his subjects are pretty regular, i.e. boring, people. They’ve lived lives of modesty and hardship and persevered, but they’re at heart no more interesting than your neighbors. The problem with selecting a bunch of seven-year-olds you plan to follow for the rest of their lives is that you have no clue what will happen. The narrative is completely up in the air. This is why Apted, early on in the series, sticks doggedly to his class thesis to provide some sort of framework he can revisit every seven years. That’s why the series starts to become something of an echo chamber. The exact same sound bytes get used over and over again, trying to find new relevancy. The adults get forever defined, and continuously redefined, by something they said at seven years old, like Neil’s worry that a wife would force him to eat greens and he “don’t like greens” (I’m in the same boat, kid). The echo chamber effect is even more obvious if you watch the Up series in a row. You will start to memorize the childhood catch phrase of everybody and then watch the same clips recycled from 7 to 42. Each is like a little stepping-stone to the present. When viewed as a whole, the series can almost come across as facile. Apted doesn’t probe very deep into his subjects and their lives, mainly sticking to the Life’s Checklist of Accomplishments of Being an Adult: school, job, spouse, family. Personally, I hate how we become defined by a profession. That seems to be the second question that rolls off our tongues when we meet a stranger: “Who are you and what do you do?” What do we do? That’s a loaded question and I object to the idea that our job is the only relevant thing that we “do.” But that’s just my hang-up, I suppose. Apted also lets his subjects reveal the biggest changes in their lives, meaning that if somebody doesn’t want to broach a topic then it gets left unanswered. It can get frustrating and makes for some opaque follow-up visits.

Not every participant is thankful for the Up series. In fact, many of them are wary and somewhat disdainful of participating. Every seven years these people have to rehash their life’s highs and lows, boil them down into a package, and then have it picked over by Apted and his leaning questions, stirring drama anew. It’s easy to see why this becomes a difficult and challenging experience for most, something akin to a cross-examination about your life. So why do most of the 14 return every seven years? Is it the secret hunger for fame? John Brisby ducked out of the Up series after the third installment, upset that he had been made into the series villain through editing. He came across pompous and like a prototypical “old money” sort who lived in a small privileged world (fox hunting!) and reinforced Apted’s thesis on class advantages. Of course his interviews didn’t help him, but I’ll give the guy the benefit of the doubt. I’d hate for everything I said when I was 14 and 21 to follow me for the rest of my life. Well, in 35 Up, John returned, though begrudgingly. He had a reason. His wife and he had begun a charity to raise funds to help the beleaguered educational state of Belarus, a country where John’s family once resided. In 49 Up, he travels once again to that ancestral country and he remarks, somewhat graciously, that it was directly because of exposure on the Up series that donations increased and the kids in Belarus today have books and school buildings and dedicated educators. John made the most of his fame and directed it to a worthy cause. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that John’s passionate desire to help Belarus (his wife is the daughter of an ambassador to the country) feels like the “character” of John has matured.

7up1-1Is there any sense of privacy when you know that cameras will be regularly scheduled to appear? There’s this enormous pressure to continue with the Up series, I imagine. But whom do these lives belong to? They were chosen by school officials and Granada at age seven, so they never really had much of a say in what has turned into a lifelong commitment. It seems that the world has a sense of ownership over these 14 individuals’ lives, an ownership that they never granted permission. They must feel an enormous obligation to keep informing the public about their lives, much like a nagging relative. We are a nosy, intrusive lot, human beings are. And I must say that I personally feel weirdly paternal about them. I feel happiness when they too reach happiness through whatever means. I was smiling from ear to ear when Nick, who at 14 was so shy and awkward, became a wonderfully charismatic, articulate, thoughtful, and rather handsome 21-year-old man (he looked strikingly similar to Andy Samberg). I feel despair as well when marriages don’t work out or once secure jobs vanish. Watching the Up series is like watching the evolution of a human being through time-lapse photography; it’s voyeuristic but at the same time it’s like having an extended surrogate family that requires no commitment. We can watch people grow up, mature, gain wisdom, and without anything more than the click of a button. We can watch hairlines get thinner, faces get larger, bodies get saggy, wrinkles multiply, all while playing the visual game of connecting the current iteration of participants with their past selves. We have these 14 people’s lives at our disposal for entertainment.

The Up series aren’t individually great documentaries. In fact, they’re pretty plain and not fairly insightful. As a whole, they present a fascinating document of the human experience and make for a great way to spend a rainy day. You can’t help but reflect on your own life after watching several of the Up movies, and curiously wonder what you have done with your own life at various intervals. As of this writing, all 14 original participants are still alive, which is somewhat amazing in itself. It will be morbidly interesting to see how the film series carries on after one or more of the participants pass away. Millions around the world will mourn what otherwise would have been a normal stranger passing. It’s probably selfish to keep hoping for future installments, and for the participants to keep updating me about their personal lives, but after a 45-plus year investment for some, it’s hard not to feel a sense of attachment to these people.

Nate’s Grade: B

Series Grade: A-

The Lives of Others (2006)

A mesmerizing and piercing human drama that burns into your memory long after it’s over. This Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Film actually deserved to beat out Pan’s Labyrinth. This vastly intriguing, dense, and extremely moving film explores life inside East Germany before the Wall fell, a life not often seen in the movies. The crux of the movie follows a career officer (Ulrich Mühe) in the secret police who has been assigned to eavesdrop on a playwright and his actress girlfriend. It is this assignment that shakes the man’s blind faith in his government, and The Lives of Others becomes nerve-wracking when our silent listener decides to become active in trying to protect his subjects from his boss. This is masterful, artistically illuminating filmmaking with a tight, deeply felt story and superb acting and direction. Germany has been crafting some of the world’s finest cinema as of late, including Oscar-winner Nowhere in Africa and Oscar-nominees Downfall and Sophie Scholl. See this film before Hollywood remakes it and ruins it. Tragically, Mühe died of stomach cancer in July 2007 just as American audiences began to see The Lives of Others and witness the depths of his talent. He will be missed by the world of cinema but his work in The Lives of Others is a lasting testament.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Fountain (2006)

After six years of anticipation, I cannot escape my crushing disappointment with writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s long-awaited follow-up to one of my favorite films, Requiem for a Dream. While the film manages to be visually resplendent, there is no emotional involvement at all because of how abbreviated the story is. This thing barely covers 90 scant minutes and, this may be the first time I’ve ever said this, but The Fountain needed to be an hour longer, minimum. The separate time frames bleed into each other and there’s a lot of repetition, but then we discover that the cutaways to the 16th century and the visions of the LSD-heavy future are simply side trips detailed in a book. The real meat of the story is on one man losing the love of his life to illness and how they come to grips with eventual loss; however, I can’t feel any empathy when he movie fails to take any time to set up characters. Aronofsky keeps things interesting, and rather weird, but this romantic fable ends up being nothing more than a misguided folly thanks to a total lack of breathing room for the characters to live. This was probably my single biggest disappointment of all the 2006 movies.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Hey, I got an idea. How about we make a Black Dahlia movie and hardly involve anything having to do with the notorious Black Dahlia murder? I’ve got an even better idea; let’s center the action around a love triangle involving cops who are, say it with me, too close to the case. And then we’ll have a wacked out rich family where the mother (Fiona Shaw, God bless her) gives a performance that isn’t three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk, she is staggering, cataclysmically, powerfully, off-the-wall drunk. Watching her sway and sneer and hiccup is like watching Daffy Duck in this Brian DePalma mess. The central actors feel too young for their parts (the best actor is Mia Kirshner, seen briefly in an audition reel as the soon to be eviscerated Elizabeth Short), and the ending is an insipid caper to an ongoing, unsolved murder mystery. The Black Dahlia is appallingly boring and yet also appallingly dimwitted, but it does occasionally look good thanks to the technical proficiency of its director. DePalma has had a very up and down career. Consider this one of his valleys.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Good German (2006)

Steven Soderbergh has always seemed uncomfortable with his success and thus tried to stretch his creative wings with experimental gambles. They’re certainly ambitious but many times Soderbergh seems to be giving himself busy work. Did anyone see Bubble? I didn’t think so. The Good German is a film that wants to be seen as a forgotten relic from the 1940s, and Soderbergh went so far for period accuracy that he filmed with equipment from the same bygone era. That kind of artistic integrity is great, but what does it do to make the movie any better? The Good German aspires to be a cinematic cousin to Casablanca, even aping the iconic ending to that famous film. You’ll also get Chinatown déjà vu, especially when characters say, “Hey Jake, it’s Berlin.” The plot hinges on a murder around the Berlin conference with the Allied powers that will decide the fate of Europe and reshape the map. The story is too muddled and confusing and seems to amount to little to nothing after flirting with intrigue. The actors give hammy performances that may be true to the stagy, well-articulated acting styles of old Hollywood, but it does little in the realm of being enjoyable. Cate Blanchett is intended to be Marlena Dietrich, and George Clooney is intended to be Cary Grant, but neither manages to escape being a second-rate impression of their film noir forbears. There’s an interesting post-war story buried under all this period homage and Method-style artifice, but Soderbergh only seems interested in pleasing himself with these experimental errands, and this is coming from someone that loved Schitzopolis.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Black Book (2006)

If there’s one thing you can say about Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, it’s that his films are never boring. He’s shameless when it comes to the amounts of sex and violence he squeezes into his films, and this isn’t typical bouncy violence but cold, serious violence that manage to have whiffs of dark comedy to it. The sex is sleazy and ridiculous, often outpacing the late-night flesh peddlers on Cinemax. I don’t think Verhoeven knows how to do anything subtle, and frankly I wouldn’t want him to. The man is responsible for brawny sci-fi (Total Recall, Robocop), killer lesbians (Basic Instinct), the most subversive mainstream Hollywood movie of the modern era (Starship Troopers is pro-fascism, people), and the most surreal visual effect I have seen in my life – a breast groping itself (Hollow Man). Verhoeven even shows up in person to accept his Razzie award for Worst Director for 1995’s camp classic, Showgirls. This man doesn’t have an off switch. The man makes enjoyable movies, both intentionally and unintentionally.

It’s been a long six years since Verhoeven’s last film and in that time off he’s settled back into his homeland. Black Book (Zwartboek) is a tale loosely based around true stories involving the Dutch resistance in the Nazi-occupied occupied Netherlands. And if there is anyone that can throw in some sex with our good old-fashioned WWII violence, it is Paul Verhoeven.

Rachel (Carice van Houten) is a Jew hiding out in the Netherlands. She and her family is trying to pass out of the country by river when they are ambushed by the guns of a Nazi boat. Rachel is the lone survivor and watches all of her family members get mowed down. She joins the underground resistance movement to find out who betrayed her family. She dyes her hair blonde, both above and below the waist to be thorough, and cuddles up to a stamp-collecting S.S. leader, Ludwig Muntz (Sebastian Koch). She works her way into his trust and along the way uncovers a twisty conspiracy to trick rich Jews into ambushed escapes.

Black Book is skillfully made and pulpy enough to keep the viewer’s enjoyment level in a good place. From start to finish the movie presents enough trials and setbacks to keep an audience satisfied, and enough sex and violence to meet out the standard Verhoeven quota. Nazi occupation hasn’t been deeply explored from the Dutch point of view, and Verhoeven decides not to make everything so black and white. Muntz is a compassionate S.S. officer that wants to work negotiations with resistance fighters to stop further bloodshed. Rachel deeply falls for him, at the disgust of some of her fellow men at arms. On the other side of the coin, once the Nazis have been toppled there are several Dutch civilians and bureaucrats that can behave just as cruel. Those now with power strike out against those deemed to have sympathized and collaborated with German rule. Verhoeven is making a point that there was good and bad on both sides, which is admirable, though this point has been made better elsewhere. Black Book is filled with various twists and double-crosses, so the audience is involved until the very end. Plus, the sex and violence help too.

There’s terribly little below the surface when it comes to Black Book. It’s a thrilling, unabashedly entertaining movie but nothing beyond a sexed-up, suped-up version of a 1940s behind-enemy-lines potboiler. The characters have little to them beyond basic motivations like greed and lust and revenge, so it all can seem like an empty but high-spirited, fun-filled time at the movies. Verhoeven has never imbued his female roles with much characterization, more often showcasing them as ass-kicking vaginas on legs (whoa, now there’s a mental image for you). Another flaw is how Black Book is structured. We open on a tourist trip to Israel in 1954 and see Rachel teaching a class of schoolchildren. This colossal misstep drains the tension from whenever Rachel is in danger; we already know she has to survive to teach our little ones. [I]Black Book[/I] is a largely fictional take, a collection of various historical pieces and figures, so that means that the outcome for our heroine is not preordained. Rachel very well could die amidst her undercover infiltration, but alas the movie opening in flashback erases this threat.

Van Houten is an enticing screen beauty that brings to mind Hollywood stars of old. She has a very simple, prim, elegant look to her, and a presence that is coy and sensual but far from trashy or vulgar. This helps add traces of believability to a figure that does some incredible acts in the name of God and country. Hollywood would have cast Rachel as a tall, buxom bombshell, but it would all be wrong. If this girl turned heads she would be dead. Van Houten gets thrown through the wringer, and at one point literally shit upon, and she handles it with steely grit. The best moments are when we see how Rachel rebounds from setbacks, when she is forced to break from her resolve and think. Her first encounter with Muntz in a train car is a good example, but even better is how she reacts when Muntz accuses her of dying her hair and being a Jew. She grabs his hands and places them on her hips and finally rests them on her exposed breasts. “Are these Jewish?” she asks. She defuses the situation and lives another day, and it’s perfectly played by a nervous but nervy Van Houten. She makes two plus enjoyable hours even more enjoyable.

Black Book is clearly and fairly rated R, but part of its rating piqued my curiosity. One of the items that help push the film into the restricted rating is “graphic nudity.” Now, what exactly is graphic nudity? I recall last year’s Babel also getting an R-rating for what was deemed “graphic nudity.” One thing the two films have in common is that they both show quick glimpses of exposed female genitalia. I suppose that the MPAA feels that nudity becomes graphic when we see pubic hair. This confounds me. What about pubic hair turns nudity into an extra, more offensive category of nudity? At the end of the day, it’s just hair, people. I did some quick research and [I]Basic Instinct[/I], infamous for Sharon Stone’s career-making leg crossing, is rated R for mere “strong sexuality.” For the record, when Stone flashes her naughty bits they were bare. So let the record show that hair seems to be the qualifier between what is nudity and what is graphic nudity. Maybe I’ll write a dissertation on this some day.

As for another aside, how freaking cool is the name Zwartboek? It sounds like some fun term I’d come across in the pages of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Dutch language is a tad bizarre for my American ears; it’s sounds like a mixture of English and German, and sometimes it seems like a subtitled sentence is actually direct English. I know I can’t stop saying “zwatboek” around my home in place of gasps and curses.

Black Book is Verhoeven’s first Dutch language film in over 25 years, and it also feels like he’s enjoying movies again after his bad experiences across the Atlantic. I welcome more entertaining Dutch films from their favorite filmmaking son. He may not be he most subtle man behind a camera, but we already have plenty Terrence Mallicks and Gus van Sants to bring confounding contemplation to movies. We need more people like Vanhoeven who know how to please the sense, kick you in the balls, and make you grateful for the experience.

Nate’s Grade: B

Dreamgirls (2006)

When the smoke cleared after the 2006 Academy Award nominations, there were some media members in disbelief. How could Dreamgirls, an expensive, glitzy musical that many perceived as the front-runner for Best Picture, fail to even get nominated in the Best Picture category? Theories abounded; the mostly white Academy couldn’t acknowledge a movie steeped in black culture, the film fell prey to backlash against a momentous hype machine that rubbed people the wrong way, or even that it was unfairly judged against recent musicals, like 2002’s Best Picture winner Chicago, instead of being judged on its own merits. After having now seen the film, I have an altogether simple explanation: the Academy thought there were better movies and I couldn’t agree more. Here are five reasons why Dreamgirls just didn’t cut it.

1) The film just falls apart after the halfway mark. The focus is on the rise of the all girl group the Dreamettes in the 1960s Detroit music scene. Effie (Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson) is the strong-willed lead singer with big curves and a big voice. She’s pushed out of the way by her band mates so pretty face Deena (Beyonce Knowles) can front and sell records. Effie is our star and she doesn’t take the news well, and explodes in an emotional fury that results in the film’s true showstopper song, “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going.” Trouble is, there’s still an hour of movie left. The second hour of Dreamgirls feels like a plot layover, as our characters don’t do much more than stuff their hands in their pockets and grumble. It’s astonishing how deflating the second hour to this movie is, and the film cannot sustain a viable interest or energy, leaving the audience to tap their toes to songs that already ended an hour prior. It’s a troubling sign when a film peaks at the halfway point and seems to only stall and sputter after.

2) The songs are not that special. Dreamgirls would have been far more entertaining if what we got was some honest, soulful, groove-inducing Motown music. Instead, what we get is the same pop filler that the characters bemoan what commercialism has transformed their music into. None of these ditzy ditties are very memorable and many of them start to just blend together, thanks in part to montage-obsessed editing. The other focus of Dreamgirls is on the rise of Motown, how a very Berry Gordy-like figure, played by Jamie Foxx, patterned black music and made it hit for white listeners. I think this was the most depressing part of the film for me, the fact that I could have done without the music in a musical.

3) The tone lacks clarity and can be grating. For about 80% of the movie when the characters sing it’s on stage as performance. Then two characters sing their displeasure with each other and the audience is like, “What the hell?” I accept the laws that govern musicals, and people spontaneously bursting into song and choreographed hoofing does not bother me, but whatever the choice it needs to be consistent. When the audience is used to seeing the singing contained to the stage, it becomes jarring when it transpires in reality. Director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) cleverly worked around this problem in his screenplay for Chicago by placing all the song-and-dance moments as glimpses into one woman?s musical-obsessed psyche. It seems so careless and easily remedied, so what were they thinking?

4) Dreamgirls is desperate for Oscar attention. At the end of the movie, after an awfully messy run to the finish line, come the end credits, however they aren’t so much as end credits as they are “for your consideration” ads. When the director of photography credit appears you see a man in a camera crane. When the costume designer is credited we see her sketches and the real outfits side-by-side. Some of it is silly, like when the casting director is listed and we see, no kidding, a checkerboard of faces, like the movie is saying, “This is what a casting director does, look.” The sequence is moderately annoying and a little patronizing, but it is a splendid example of the filmmaking ethos. It feels like the over zealous studios thought that by throwing together a bunch of musical staples and covering it with fancy decoration that they could fool audiences into thinking they saw a full-blooded story.

5) You fail to feel for any of the characters. In the rush of production numbers and period detail, the characters all suffer horrendously. The Dreamettes are obviously a take on the Supremes, and Deena is obviously supposed to be Diana Ross; they even recreate iconic Diana Ross pictures with her. By this token, it seems like the filmmakers felt they could slack off on characterization and just banish their actors to the ghettos of genre archetypes. I didn’t feel for anyone, even Effie once she got her walking papers for being essentially fussy, overweight, and sticking with her integrity. She tries to pick up the pieces of her life but even she seems disinterested once the stage lights no longer shine upon her. The characters have about a dewdrop of depth to them and can be summarized each by one sentence. Shallow characters and a less-than-compelling second half doom the movie.

There are enjoyable aspects to Dreamgirls, notably the performances from the supporting players. Eddie Murphy experiences nothing short of a career resurgence playing Jimmy Earl Haley, a groundbreaking soul singer with a fiery stage presence. Murphy puts his all into the performance and is such a live wire that Dreamgirls seems downright downtrodden without him. Former American Idol contestant Hudson has been collecting accolades for her diva-like performance, and while her singing is full of bluster and verve, I cannot say the same for her acting. She gives a solid overall performance but doesn’t try hard to hide her inexperience with acting. I wouldn’t have given Hudson an Oscar, but then I wouldn’t have given Oscars to a lot of the eventual winners (Julia Roberts, your hardware rightly belongs to Ellen Burstyn).

Film critic David Poland was nearly beside himself with Dreamgirls‘ omission from the Best Picture contenders. He argued that had it been nominated it would have won (I’m not sure how that logic works, but I do have a bridge I’d like to sell Poland). Dreamgirls is not bereft of technical charms and entertainment, but to posit this as anything above a mediocre musical is just plain madness. The characters barely leave an impact, the music is the same pop pap it laments, and the movie just simply peaks too soon. There’s nothing daring or innovative with this song and dance revue, and for long periods it feels like a pandering exercise in dress-up and nostalgia. I suppose in the end the Academy just thought there were five better movies than Dreamgirls, and, for once, I agree with them.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Prestige (2006)

Christopher Nolan can do no wrong in my book. The director of Memento, Insomnia, and Batman Begins has bewitched me with his clever non-linear storylines and artistic vision. The Prestige is 2006’s second period set magician movie, and in my opinion it’s the better of the two. Nolan’s film lacks the magic of The Illusionist, instead focusing more on the bitter realities of obsession, self-destruction, and the lengths that men will travel for vengeance. The script centers on a pair of dueling magicians (Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman) that are each trying to discover the other’s trick and top them. The storyline is as twisty as a pretzel and told in Nolan’s familiar non-linear fashion, building to a very dark reveal. Whereas The Illusionist sweeps viewers up with the wonder of magic, The Prestige is all about how tricks are orchestrated both on and offstage. The results are a tad cold; you don’t really feel for either magician. The movie is itself a trick but one grandly told with excellent slight of hand. The final act takes a step outside of the film’s tone but it works for me, and it’s been weeks since I last saw the haunting final images and I still cannot get them out of my mind. The Prestige is another notch on my Nolan love meter.

Nate’s Grade: A

Shut Up & Sing (2006)

With the clarity that a few years offer, can we all agree that what happened to the Dixie Chicks on the eve of the Iraq War was insane? Lead singer Natalie Maines, in concert in London, told the crowd that the group was not for war and was ashamed President Bush hailed from Texas. What followed was a maelstrom of irrational behavior; boycotts beckoned, people protested, and long-time Dixie Chicks fans threw out their CDs and called the group traitors, my God, someone even sent a death threat, all for disagreeing with a country’s march to war. Shut Up & Sing chronicles their lives at the time of the 2003 controversy and their 2006 follow-up album, mostly compromised of songs inspired by the anger and frustration they felt. The documentary itself is nothing too slick or overproduced; it really just follows a headlining group through the most volatile time of their life. For that, it’s intensely fascinating and bizarre to watch the Chicks backlash, but there’s little else as compelling. Several of those in protest questioned the Dixie Chick’s patriotism for questioning whether the war was necessary, and some said they should be strapped to bombs over in Iraq. Four years later, 3500 American deaths, no WNDs, scandal after scandal, no discernible way out, a civil war, and a president that can’t even get the time of day, I wonder how many of those decrying the Chicks would be apologizing to them today. Another highlight of Shut Up & Sing is the most ludicrously ignorant statement I may have ever heard, courtesy of Toby Keith defending his songwriting skills: “She said ‘We’ll put a boot up your ass’ is ignorant, and that anyone could write that. Well, she didn’t write it.” Bravo Mr. Keith, bravo.

Nate’s Grade: B

Shortbus (2006)

How do we define pornography? John Cameron Mitchell (creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch) wrote and directed an examination on human relationships that also employs hardcore sex. Yes, the actors are really having sex and we really see, among other things, a man fellate himself to climax. There’s hetero sex, homo sex, masturbation, and, in small flashes, a whole sweaty orgy of people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and tastes. This movie celebrates the sheer possibilities and enjoyment of sex. Mitchell isn’t the first serious filmmaker to show people really doing it, and the movie shows sex in a realistic fashion that is rarely seen, with all the humor, playfulness, and stumbles that can arise. It?s refreshing and a great window into the depths of human interaction. That’s the deal: everyone in this film is reaching out to feel something. The script mostly follows the pursuit of a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm. The sex will get the headlines but it’s the quiet reflections on human connection that really sneaks up on you and can hit hard. The movie doesn’t cover every facet with ease, like a stalker-esque character, and some of the acting is a bit amateurish; however, it’s a daring film that has a disarming sweetness to it and an open-hearted message that’s rather romantic after all. And no, it’s not porn.

Nate?s Grade: B

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