In Theaters:
Love Ranch

As Grace Bontempo, the seen-it-all madame of the titular 1970s Nevada brothel, Helen Mirren should have knocked this film to the ground and made it beg for mercy. Instead she watches from the sidelines with a grim, exhausted fatalism as the whole thing collapses about her. Granted, her character is delivered some harsh medical news at the film’s start, and life hasn’t dealt her the best hand—a whore for a mother and a fool for a husband—but Mirren’s misdirected passivity is still shocking to behold…

Love Ranch is in limited release. You can read the full review at Film Journal International.

In Theaters:
The People vs. George Lucas

It’s a love-hate relationship, this thing that Star Wars fans have with the father / creator of so many of their space opera fantasies, and one that director Alexandre O. Phillippe deftly explores in his winning documentary on the subject. The crowd at Silverdocs’ East Coast premiere of the film was suitably keyed up for a film whose makers reportedly screened over 600 hours’ worth of fan-created Star Wars videos, remixes, remakes, and animations…

The People vs. George Lucas is on the festival circuit and may soon be coming to a holographic projector near you. Read the full review at Notes from the Road. Also, check out the trailer here.

In Theaters:
Wild Grass

A stalker story where reality quickly takes a tumble down a slippery slope, Alain Resnais’s take on Christian Gailly’s novel (L’Incident) — about a man who decides that the finding of a woman’s lost pocketbook entitles him to some form of romantic connection — plays a risky game, one that it loses in the end…

Wild Grass opens in limited release Friday. You can read the full review at

In Theaters:

From mid-2007 to mid-2008, Battle Company from the renowned 173rd Airborne Brigade was stationed at a lonely, isolated outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal valley, where they took enemy fire nearly every day, one of the longest exposures to combat American troops had seen since World War II. Writer Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and cameraman Tim Hetherington spent months in the valley with Battle Company, following what happened after their captain, a bluff and impatient guy named Kearney, decided to take the fight to the Taliban…

Restrepo opens in limited release Friday. Read the full review at

In Theaters:
8: The Mormon Proposition

In 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. One of the first couples to get married was Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, the almost improbably happy couple introduced at the start of Reed Cowan’s passionate but scattered documentary about the religious conservative fight to rescind their right to marry. Although Cowan’s film deals in a broader way with the movement that opposes gay civil rights, it’s much more specifically an attack on the Mormon church and its role in that movement. Interestingly, not only are almost all of the subjects interviewed in the film Mormon (current or ex) but all the filmmakers – including Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black – are as well. For his part, Cowan was a onetime Mormon evangelist. Everyone has axes to grind…

8: The Mormon Proposition is out now in limited release. You can read the full review at

In Theaters:
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Each summer, the self-explanatory group Human Rights Watch sponsors a film festival in London and New York with entries whose subjects (mostly documentary, with a few narrative films) cover the gamut of human crisis and suffering around the world. It’s a sometimes bleak affair, but always more rewarding than simply depressing because of the great variety of diverse human experience it illustrates.

I’ve been covering some of this year’s films for Notes from the Road, at PopMatters. Here’s links to the reviews of what I was lucky enough to see. You’ll be able to catch most of these on Netflix, with some (like the excellent a12th & Delaware) showing up on HBO.

  • 12 & Delaware – A documentary about a street corner in Florida, one side of which has an abortion clinic, and the other a pro-life activist center. Review.
  • Iran: Voices of the Unheard – In this beautiful, poetic documentary, a disparate group of people — a secular teacher, a nomadic tribesman, and a disaffected young urbanite — describe what life is like under the oppressive reign of the mullahs in Tehran. Review.
  • Nero’s Guests – A documentary about a crusading Indian journalist who tries to bring attention to the plight of desperately poor farmers who have been committing suicide in record numbers (some 200,000 in the last few years). Review.
  • Camp Victory, Afghanistan – One of the strongest, saddest documentaries to come out of the Afghanistan war, this one follows life at a small Afghan Army outpost where poorly-motivated recruits and a seasoned general (veteran of the fight against the Russians) bump up against the expectations of their American trainers. Review.
  • Presumed Guilty – The Mexican justice system’s comically absurd unfairness is examined in this documentary about a man convicted for murder for no good reason at all. Review.
  • War Don Don – A fascinating documentary about the war crimes trial of a rebel leader accused of unbelievable barbarity in the Sierra Leone civil war. Review.
  • The Balibo Conspiracy – Anthony LaPaglia stars in this Australian drama based on the true story of journalists who went missing covering the start of the East Timorese genocide in 1975. Review.
  • Last Best Chance – Senator Edward Kennedy’s office leads the exhausting fight for comprehensive immigration reform in the face of short-sighted xenophobia. Review.
  • In the Land of the Free – An examination of case of the “Angola 3,” a trio of prisoners who between them have spent about a century in solitary confinement (possibly for crimes they didn’t commit); narration by Samuel L. Jackson. Review.
  • The Unreturned – Almost five million Iraqis have fled their country since the American invasion and less than ten percent have returned; this is a film about those unable to settle elsewhere and too frightened to go home. Review.

In Theaters:
The A-Team

Bereft of inspiration or not, Narc director Joe Carnahan’s reboot of the 1980’s Stephen J. Cannell series is a rare thing these days: the action flick that knows its limits; this is probably due to it not being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Certainly there are moments of Bruckheimer-itis here, with Carnahan’s propensity for sunset-hued helicopter shots and an irritating Action Movie 101 score by Alan Silvestri. But Carnahan completely disregards the Bruckheimer bigger-is-better school of filmic thought. When these guys get into a jam, they tend to get out of it by being smarter and quicker, not simply willing to expend more ammunition and amass a higher body count…

The A-Team opens everywhere today. You can read the full review at Short Ends & Leader.

New on DVD:
Burma VJ

Anders Østergaard’s pummeling, electrifying documentary is a hybrid kind of creature, both about Burma’s Saffron Revolution itself (so named because of the color of the robes worn by the monks who bravely forsook their monasteries to lead marches for freedom) and the impossible lengths many went to in order to record what happened. The “VJ” of the title stands for “video journalists,” the scrum of people darting in and out of the crowds thronging Rangoon’s streets during those tumultuous days, documenting every they can. The idea is to smuggle footage out of the country or get it posted online to get around the oppressive junta’s media blackout…

Burma VJ will be available on DVD next week. You can read the full review at

In Books:
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

It’s the rare novel that can live up to a killer premise, those bombshell ideas that get readers’ minds snapping and crackling like crossed wires, so much so that the printed page translation of that idea almost always pales in comparison. We create our own fantasies, after all, artists simply point the way. So to say that Aimee Bender’s (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt) crisply dreamlike new novel doesn’t fully deliver on the promise of its central conceit is less of a criticism than it might seem. Bender takes a clever idea and runs with it as well as can be expected, being more focused on how one particular life-changing event affects her protagonist rather than on its repercussions for the wider world. For the latter, that’s why we have science fiction…

Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is on sale now. You can read the full review at PopMatters.

In Theaters:

For their gripping documentary about the persistence of urban legends in the adult mind, co-directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio returned to the place of their childhood and its darkest fears: Staten Island. Standing in a strip of deep forest that still runs through the middle of the rapidly developed island are ruins that speak to the island’s not-so-distant past as New York’s dumping ground for the unwanted. For decades, the island, the smallest of the region’s five boroughs, was home not just to the massive Fresh Kills garbage dump (visible from space), but also tuberculosis sufferers and mental patients. The sprawling complexes like the Willowbrook Mental Institution now darkly loom, deserted and graffiti-covered, as reminders of past sins — Willowbrook was closed after official investigations and muckraking reporting by a young firebrand named Geraldo Rivera uncovered a shocking level of abuse — and also dream factories for the production of urban legends…

Cropsey opens in limited release tomorrow. You can read the full review at

In Books:
Directive 51

This is why so many people don’t like science fiction. Character is subordinated to event, nuance to overkill, dialogue to exposition, and story to sheer information. John Barnes’ Directive 51 isn’t a story so much as it is a lightly fictionalized datadump, the sort of thing more correctly experienced as a handout addendum to a PowerPoint presentation on the Newest Threat Facing America being given by some think tank in a Washington, DC-area Hilton conference room…

Directive 51 is on sale now. You can read the full review at PopMatters.