Monday, June 26, 2006

Separate Lies: Grade C


Separate Lies

Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Rupert Everett

Basically a glorified soap opera, the story is about a woman, her husband and her lover involved in covering up a hit and run accident she caused. The plot has a few unexpected twists and an overall Hitchcockian cleverness about it, but it goes on too long. There is a dramatic and effective denoument where it should have ended, but then a surprising voice-over narrative kicks in and extends the story another 20 minutes or so, robbing it of its dramatic effectiveness. That is inexplicable. The acting is strong, especially by Watson and Wilkinson, although their relationship stretches credulity because of the age difference. Everett does a wonderful villain. The story, set in London and the countryside nearby, has a stagey, Agatha-Christie claustrophobia because we can’t really see the context of these people’s lives. Sets and scenery are good. The camera does a lot of television-like swooping and circling, which detracts from the performances. Watchable for the acting, but nothing special.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: Grade A

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo

Set in modern day rural Texas (somewhere near Odessa), a young, emotionally stunted border patrolman (Pepper) reflexively, but accidentally shoots an innocent man out in the desert, and buries the body to cover it up. The man was a best friend and employee of TLJ, ranch manager. The body is found, circumstances implicate the border patrol, but there is no investigation, to keep things quiet. TLJ kidnaps the patrolman, makes him exhume his friend’s body and drags them both on horseback to Mexico for a proper burial in his home town. Some fine, macabre scenes involving the corpse. Beautiful scenery, and a good story between the two men on the journey, like many others where two antagonists are tied together on a long trip. The story takes place in some surrealistic world, as in Leone’s Westerns. Even the “in-town” scenes are otherworldly. This allows the characters to be symbols of human qualities rather than actual people. That strategy works. Ultimately it is a story of friendship, commitment, forgiveness and redemption. There is a political subtheme about immigration and the border patrol. Even at two hours, I didn’t want it to end. It’s TLJ’s first time directing a film, and the directing is noticeably excellent. Acting by Pepper is remarkable, and not bad for TLJ either (especially his drunk scene). Many unknown Latino actors do outstanding work. Photography is terrific. The music is inoffensive, suggestive again of the Sergio Leone spaghetti pictures.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Syriana: Grade B



George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Peet

Clooney is a CIA operative in Teheran, doing what exactly, we aren’t sure. Damon is a high flying financial consultant trying to get a contract with oil-producing sheiks, in some Arabic country, maybe Iran, maybe not. Wright is a lawyer-investigator for a big US oil company who is trying to find out something, or cover up something, we aren’t sure which. Later, Clooney is “reassigned” to assassinate an oil prince for reasons unknown (he is declared as “bad” by the government, and that seems to be good enough), but we don’t know if he is successful. A couple of Pakistani guest workers lose their jobs in the oil fields but that is not connected to anything else. Damon’s child drowns in a sheik’s swimming pool but there doesn’t seem to be any foul play so the tragedy is gratuitous to the story. Except there is no story. Good photography, acting, and script. A nice quiet movie, engaging. There is often a sense of high tension in the scenes, but in fact nothing ever happens. A non-thriller that had the elements of a great thriller. All it needed was a good filmmaker.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Girl From Monday: Grade A


The Girl From Monday

Bill Sage, Sabrina Lloyd, Tatiana Abracos; Director=Hal Hartley

A sci-fi story, set in the future, when a giant marketing monopoly has taken over the country (or is it the world?). They monitor every citizen’s impulses then create products and services to satisfy them. Independent thinkers, the bright and curious, are weeded out early. Immigrants from outer space try to rebel against the system. The story is very similar to Godard’s 1965 “Alphaville,” and themes from “The Fifth Element” are borrowed, along with “Splash” – an alien woman (from the ocean) has to learn earth culture quickly by watching TV. Bill Sage looks like a young Robert Redford, and the two main women look like young Genvieve Bujold (high forehead, eyes low on the head, disappearing nose, small chin). So all in all, the movie is an unoriginal pastiche. Still, it’s an engaging story, good social satire, humorous script, good acting, fantastic, dreamlike photography, and interesting music. Those features overcome its lack of originality.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Celebrity Mix: Grade A


Celebrity Mix

David Hyde Pierce, Felicity Huffman, Jim Belushi, Laura Kightlinger, Lewis Black, Coolio, Amy Lippman, Others. An independent from tla releasing. It may be hard to find but Netflix has it.

This is a collection of eight short films by different teams. They have nothing in common except they are all very entertaining. They run from about 2 minutes to about 15 minutes. All are high production values – no grainy hand-held home movies here. All are well written, acted and directed. Most are very funny. David Hyde Pierce plays a Hollywood producer in the opening piece, which just parodies that character type. Laura Kightlinger, a prominent stand-up comic, appears as Cinderella in one film (Fairy tale women in a group counseling session led by Jim Belushi), and she wrote and directed and stars in another film of her own (as a temp worker in an anonymous corporate office). She is a real talent to watch in all categories. These are the up and coming film makers.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Dear Wendy: Grade B


Dear Wendy

Lars von Trier (writer) Thomas Vinterberg (director)

Jamie Bell, Bill Pullman, Alison Pill, Danso Gordon, others

A half dozen young people in a W. Virginia mining town start a gun club in which they each acquire one pistol, learn everything there is to know about it, and shoot targets in an abandoned mine shaft. There are made-up rituals, costumes and vows taken. They carry their guns outside one day to escort an old woman and a shoot-out with the state police ensues. Themes are 1. A gun makes you feel powerful, can even give your life meaning. 2. If you own a gun, you will use it. 3. When guns are around, people get killed. 4. Killing with a gun is trivially easy. 5. A gun can be a personal expression or just a technical killing machine. When those ideas are in conflict, the latter triumphs.

The characters are all 2-dimensional so we don’t mind when they are blown away – reinforcing the media stereotype. The sets look awfully “setty.” The story is creative, weird and improbable. “Wendy” is the name of a gun. The lead character writes letters to it as if it were a lover. I get the point, but its believability is low. The story does not unfold, but is shown, like a fable designed to illustrate a moral, though it is engaging after a very slow first half hour. The shoot-em-up finish on a dusty street is exceptionally well done. Fabulous music by the 60’s group, the Zombies. This movie would have been better if it had developed theme 5 more, which is somewhat original. The rest of it is old news.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Firewall: Grade D



Harrison Ford, Paul Bettany, Virginia Madsen, Alan Arkin, Robert Forster

With all due respect, Harrison Ford is way to old to be chasing after bad guys. He can hardly walk upright. Needless to say, he is also way too old for Virgina Madsen. Skillful editing blends the stunt doubles ok, but somebody should slip him the word: he is no longer credible as an action figure. Of course, what else would he do? His facial acting ranges from scowl to frown, his vocabulary from grunt to mumble. He doesn’t need the money, so why wouldn’t he want to preserve his dignity at least? Bad guys hold his family hostage to force him to rob his own bank. How many times have we seen that one before? The plot is like swiss cheese. The technical gizmo for breaking into the computer (a fax scanning rod taped to a CRT, wired to an iPod), is laughable though creative. The good parts are reasonable acting by a strong cast (HF excepted), and the music. Paul Bettany makes a good evildoer.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The War Within: Grade B


The War Within

Unknown Pakistani actors, Director: Joseph Castelo

A Pakistani engineering student sneaks into the US and joins a terrorist cell planning multiple suicide bombs in NYC. The plot is somehow foiled and only two of them remain free. He finds an old friend and lives with that family in New Jersey while he regroups. The family catches him making bombs in the basement. “The mind of the terrorist” is an important story that needs to be told, but this doesn’t do it. The protagonist is a mystery man: silent, solemn, expressionless. He mouths some platitudes about jihad, but we don’t understand his motivation, except that in nightmares we learn that he was tortured by Western intelligence in Lahore and his brother was killed. So is he on a personal revenge mission because he can’t handle grief? That doesn’t seem right. He quotes from the Koran about doing “God’s will” but what is that? He never is tempted by evil western ways (alcohol and naked women). So what is his problem? He displays the numbness of severe depression, so maybe he needs a lithium treatment. Or maybe such terrorists are simply psychologically opaque to western understanding. A very watchable movie, with good photography, but it doesn’t teach us anything.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Transamerica: Grade B



Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan, Graham Greene

A man living as a woman (Huffman) is about to have a transgender operation that will make him a physical woman, when she discovers she has a long lost son (Zegers). She bails him out of jail, representing herself as a do-gooder from a Christian church. They drive from New York to LA, so most of it is a road movie where they get to know each other. The story is driven by surprises – she discovers her son, he discovers she is a guy, then ultimately that she is his father. The character completely absorbs Huffman. Makes me wonder how it would have worked if a male had been cast in that role. The script is excellent, ranging over subtle and sensitive to obvious guffaw. Is it a comedy? It is LOL funny in moments, but more a human drama told in a comedic vein. Not a joke-a-minute, but a serious exploration of gender and relationship. What does it really mean to be male or female? It’s a puzzling question. Flanagan, Huffman’s mother, is a scene-stealer. Greene has a small role, in which he actually sings. Huffman did a fantastic job, no question, but she played her character too loopy to be fully believable; absent-minded, disconnected, reminiscent of Peter Sellers bumbling through.