Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Pride & Prejudice: Grade A

A

Pride & Prejudice

Kiera Knightley, with Judy Dench and Donald Sutherland. Director=Joe Wright

The classic Jane Austen love story is well told, and Kiera Knightly jumps off the screen. It’s hard to believe this is the same woman who starred in the gritty thriller “Domino.” Nicole Kidman better watch her back. I generally do not enjoy “costume dramas” but I was drawn by the Austen story, and I’m glad I was. The language is beautiful, the writing superb. Photography is excellent and the totally believable sets appear to be well researched. The costumes are, well, costumes – too clean, too perfect, too colorful: costumes for the sake of costumes. Except for that, you get a real sense of time and place (England, 1813). Note to guys: there are no guns, explosions, vehicular chases, or heists. This is just a great exercise in wit and subtlety.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Derailed: Grade B


B

Derailed

Clive Owen, Jennifer Aniston, Vincent Cassel, Xzibit, RZA

In this somewhat formulaic thriller, a couple (Clive and Jen) are caught in an extramarital affair then Clive is blackmailed by the marvelously evil Cassel. The story is tight, the acting is completely adequate, and the sound engineering is a standout. Aniston is persuasive, but Owen is wooden and has too much eye makeup. Lots of cash stuffed into briefcases, good cat and mouse tension, and satisfying gun battles. Enjoyable, forgettable

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A History of Violence: Grade B

B

A History of Violence

Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt. Director = David Cronenberg

Ex mobster has gone to ground, made a new life in a small town with a family, when, sure enough, his past returns to haunt him. A fine acting job. Ed Harris is deliciously creepy as the mobster who tries to bring him “back to Philly.” Hurt is unconvincing as the mob-boss brother. Maria Bello, a wife with a great jawbone, plays her part extremely well. The movie has lots of blood and a high body count, as you would expect from Cronenberg. The plot is reminiscent of The Long Kiss Goodbye, with Geena Davis as an amnesic ex-assassin. This story is not as tight however. The opening scene showing murderous bad guys is totally gratuitous, as are the two prurient sex scenes. The bully at school theme was stereotyped and flat. The ending is dubious. The sets were terrible throughout – way too fussy, detailed, clean and shiny, they did not look lived in or convincing. The camera work was inexplicably vertiginous, especially in the beginning, although it seemed to settle down later. The strong acting carries the movie over these rough spots.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Good night, and good luck: Grade B

B

Good night and good luck

David Strathairn, Patricia Clarkson, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Langella. Directed by Clooney.

Edward R. Murrow, broadcasting on CBS News in the 1950’s challenges the constitutionality of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt that destroyed the lives of many. Actual footage of the McCarthy hearings gives a good sense of historical realism. The acting is good, especially RDJ, though not superb. Straithairn does the one stern Murrow look and that’s it. There is no range. He is just a speechifying two-dimensional cutout. We don’t know anything about him, or any of the characters, so the movie overall is emotionally and dramatically flat.

The parallel between the 1950’s government trampling civil rights in the name of “security” and today’s comparable situation is sharply drawn, and no doubt the major motivation for the film, but the political message got in the way of good story telling. There is no dramatic tension. However, the music, sets and costumes are fantastic. It’s a wonderful period piece, worth seeing for that alone. The movie was probably subsidized by the tobacco industry, because cigarettes star as a major character– it’s just too prominent to seem natural. And interestingly, no ashtray is ever shown. Cig companies would not want us to see the filthy butts and ashes everywhere. One false note is when a wife recommends a tie and says “the blue one.” That was an odd thing for a b&w movie and momentarily broke the magic.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Exonerated: Grade A

A

The Exonerated

Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover, Delroy Lindo, Aidan Quinn, Susan Sarandon, David Brown, Jr. Director= Bob Balaban

In this nonfiction piece, six people who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned, then later exonerated, tell their stories. The actors speak the actual words of the prisoners (who are shown in a DVD extra), under solitary spotlights on a darkened stage. There are no sets. The six stories are interleaved, so the overall flow moves through situation, arrest, trial, imprisonment and exoneration. The exonerated people are simple, poor, and unreflective, and they describe mundane, low-life circumstances. There is nothing very interesting about them except the fact that they were wrongly imprisoned, for years, some for decades. The law enforcement and judicial processes come off as racist, incompetent and callous, although these are one-sided tales, not investigative reports. No doubt there is much more to each story. What makes it such a good drama, in my opinion, is not the sentimentality of the theme or the implied criticism of the criminal justice system, but the plain, honest language of the speakers and the riveting acting by these six stars. The film should be shown in acting schools. Until you can perform like this, you can’t call yourself an actor.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Ice Harvest: Grade A

A

The Ice Harvest

John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen. Director = Harold Ramus, Screenplay = Richard Russo

This is a delicious revival of the film noir style. It is dark, gritty, with sidelighted cigarette smoke, lots of drinking, murder, bodies stuffed in trunks, strippers, and a $2 million heist. Set in the present, this is no formulaic remake. The script is tight and sharp and hilarious. (“When she tells me to redirect my anger in more positive ways, it makes me want to slap her silly.”) The acting is outstanding by the three principals. They could have done a tongue-in-cheek parody, but didn’t. Cusack is the best I’ve ever seen him (which is not enough). BBT really acts instead of hamming it up. Connie Nielsen, still beautiful, but not the knockout she once was, does a fine job. The only false note, which is the director’s fault, not hers, is when she imitates Lauren Bacall. There’s some strange lighting, with rooms inexplicably bathed in red floodlights, but otherwise the photography is a standout character of its own. The DVD shows alternate endings and the theatrical version is, predictably, the “happy” one. But the second one really is just too dark, and the third is confusing.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Weather Man: Grade B

B

The Weather Man

Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine, Hope Davis

This is like two movies stitched together in the middle. In the first part Cage, a Chicago weatherman, is shown giving the weather on TV, and struggling to make contact with his ex wife and monosyllabic young children. But the story of the divorced dad seeing the kids on alternate weekends is hackneyed, and there is nothing new here. We don’t know anything about the weatherman, where he lives, what he eats, what music he likes. He is not a real person so I didn’t care about him. The first part is therefore quite boring. In the second half, the movie picks up so abruptly and forcefully that you wonder if there was a change in personnel on the crew. He interviews for a national TV job in NYC, makes contact with his daughter, speaks at his father’s funeral. In other words, things happen, allowing him to reveal who he is and we do care about him. The ending is an existential knockout. He’s in a Macy’s day parade, on the network’s float “behind the fire department, but ahead of Sponge Bob.” The archery theme, prominently displayed in trailers and on the DVD box, is a total irrelevance. Outstanding photography and fine acting by Hope Davis.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Rent: Grade C

C

Rent

Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Wison Heredia, Jesse Martin, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Tracie Thoms. Music by Jonathan Larson

A rock n roll musical based on La Boheme, set in New York City in the 1980’s . The story is tried and true, although it slouches along slowly here. Lots of music is the headline feature, with dozens of songs. Unfortunately, with one or two exceptions I did not find them attractive. They lacked interesting rhythmic structure except for specific genres, like tango. Melody was narrow in range, very cadence-oriented, with contrivances like octave jumps for variety. Harmony was rare – lots of unison singing. Lyrics were uniformly sentimental, if not maudlin. These are all the reasons I do not care much for pop music anyway, so maybe it’s just me. It was a long running show on Broadway and a huge international hit so I must be wrong. But it is my review and that’s what I think. The singing was not so great either. Rosario Dawson acquits herself, but Tracie Thoms is the only one with real ability. The acting was either flat or over the top. The good part was that the story does capture the feelings of hopelessness and confusion of people living with the AIDS epidemic at that time. The DVD extra on Jonathan Larson’s career was far better than the movie itself.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Empire Falls: Grade F

F

Empire Falls

Paul Newman, Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt, Robin Wright Penn, Joanne Woodward

That many big names should have been a tip-off. Also the fact that it was an HBO release. The warning signs were there, I ignored them. Every sentence, gesture, picture, costume, sound, set, and even every lighting angle is painfully contrived. Each scene made me groan in disbelief at the banality, stereotypes and clich├ęs, often chosen in obvious contradiction to realism and rationality. If you like Norman Rockwell illustrations and afternoon TV, you’ll like this movie. The scary part is that a lot of people did like it. With just a little imagination the filmmakers could have pushed it over the top into parody, but sadly, everyone seems to take this as a serious movie. This is what happens when people with too much money and no judgment are in charge. Something positive? It could be used in film school as a negative example.