Saturday, September 30, 2006

Down in the Valley: Grade A


Down in the Valley

Edward Norton (Produced also), Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, With Bruce Dern. Director and Writer = David Jacobsen.

Norton plays a psychopathic and delusional, but not floridly psychotic young man who believes he is an old west, gunslinging cowboy, but he actually works dead end jobs in the San Fernando Valley. He meets up with lonely teen Wood, and romance ensues. Dad, played perfectly by David Morse, is a cop and smells trouble, with predictable father-daughter fights. The little brother is frightened by it all. The film starts slowly as these relationships build. I got restless after a half hour but I’m glad I waited it out. Norton’s character is charming and persuasive (as psychopathic personalities often are). Good writing there. He gets deeper into trouble with his delusion, dragging the children along with him, since young people have no clue about mental disorder. All the characters and relationships are pitch perfect. ERW was least convincing to me, but that could have been the clunky writing for that character. The photography is beautiful and the cinematography in general is wonderful, with its surreal juxtaposition of “old west” looking scenes and suburban housing projects. Norton occasionally slips into the slurred speech of the retarded (or CP) character he played opposite DeNiro in “The Score” a few years back, but other than that, he is riveting throughout, sometimes doing a Jimmy Stewart imitation. What a talent. David Morse, a second-tier actor you’ve seen a thousand times, is a real standout in this picture. A haunting movie.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Plan B: Grade D


Plan B

Diane Keaton, Paul Sorvino. Director Greg Yaitanes

Keaton works as a secretary for Mob boss Sorvino. He gets captured by a rival gang and she discharges the gun she was holding, killing all the bad guys. Sorvino is impressed and makes her his main assassin. She figures out a way to deceive him. That’s the story, a wasted opportunity. In an early scene she takes a brown hat from a guy and wears it, improbably, for the whole rest of the movie to make her look like Annie Hall. Who voted for that? She grins and mumbles the slapstick anxiety she learned from Woody. Sorvino and the other mobsters have some good lines, but the characters are uninteresting stereotypes. The whole thing is only mildly amusing, not well-made (her New York Cadillac has Florida plates), and basically pointless. Diane Keaton is a fine actor and this is way beneath her, so I have to believe she did it as a favor for somebody.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Hard Candy: Grade A


Hard Candy

Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh. Director David Slade

A 14 year old girl (Page) flirts with a 32 yr old photographer online and they agree to a meeting. He invites her to his house, gives her an alcoholic drink, but she turns on him, believing he is a pedophile, and makes him a captive. Shocking developments ensue, in a tense psychological thriller. Sandra Oh has a brief appearance as a neighbor; the rest is cat and mouse between the two principals. Ellen Page dominates the screen throughout with a riveting performance.

After the climactic scene, the final ending seems like an add-on, a twist for the sake of twisting. It is not well motivated and retrospectively alters what we think of both characters, in ways that are inconsistent with the first part of the movie.

The story expresses strong cultural revulsion against pedophilia and so much frustration about the law being unable to stop it that vigilantism seems justifiable. Also expressed is every parent’s worst fear about the dangers of computer social networking. None of those issues is addressed directly in the film, but they drive it. Also, while the movie is very intense, it is not creepy. There is no nudity and both characters are treated with respect. Unlike The Woodsman, there is ambiguity in the characters. The DVD extras are highly educational about the process of filmmaking.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Lucky Number Slevin: Grade A


Lucky Number Slevin

Josh Hartnett, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, Lucy Liu, Danny Aiello. Director Paul McGuigan.

This is a familiar story about a guy (JH) taking revenge on a Mob boss before he himself is killed. How many of those movies have I seen? Nevertheless, the talent here is huge, and all give first rate performances and that makes the move very enjoyable. The story is a bit confusing because some key details are not revealed until the very end when the main character explains what he did (killers in movies love giving speeches to their victims just before they kill them.) Only when you get the “How I did it” speech can you piece together the elements of the story in retrospect. But it all does fit, with only one bit of hand waving to get past a tiny weak spot (why did MF assume that BK was responsible for his son’s death?) The characters are not drawn in depth but are quirky enough to be entertaining. The script promotes racist, sexist, gay, and Semitic stereotypes, but not in an overtly malicious way. The dialog is actually very funny but that is its problem – it is too funny. People don’t really talk to each other like rapid fire Burns and Allen. So the funny dialog makes you think, “funny dialog,” and makes the characters unconvincing. But a few flaws don’t spoil an enjoyable movie.

The Scream Queen: Grade B


The Scream Queen

Liz Lavoie, Nipper Knapp. Director Tatiana Bliss. (Digital Video)

LL plays an aspiring Hollywood actress whose only success has been as a screamer in really bad horror movies. The depiction of making the horror movies is a great parody of that genre. But she does have goofy fans, a group of whom graduate from film school and want her in their horror film. She refuses, they kidnap her out to the desert where they make a hilariously stupid movie, and in the process, she kicks her substances habit and starts to notice that the people around her are really quite decent. The whole thing is total silliness, but for a zero budget movie, it is remarkably good, and funny too.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Friends with Money: Grade A

Friends with Money
Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand; Writer-Director Nicole Holofcener.
I’m giving a generous “A” because I love all these actors, even Aniston, who has persuaded me that she really knows what she’s doing. Her character is unlikely, a housecleaner who can’t get a date. What are the odds? But she does a fine job with the role. Her three girlfriends are rich. What are the odds? There is some hilarious satire of the wealthy that hits easy targets, but dead center. There is no real story, just girls having lunch together and being unintentionally funny. There is a funny bit with one of the women’s husbands being naively gay. Joan Cusack is just riveting; can’t get enough of her. McDormand breaks out of “Fargo” mode and does a great, original job. Keener is actually the weakest of the bunch, but still compelling. Very strong directing. Great sets. Great writing. Can’t remember any music.

Troublesome Creek: Grade C


Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern

Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher, filmmakers.

This documentary of Iowa farmers trying to hold on to their land in difficult economic times is an oft-told story and there is nothing new here. I have probably seen three other documentaries just like it on Nightline, Dateline, Whateverline, on TV. This won at Sundance, and has rave reviews from newspapers quoted on the box. Maybe you have to be from the Midwest to appreciate it. I did five years in the Midwest and was never so glad to get away from a place. The subtitle of the movie is accurate: this film captures the simple, dull, plodding, sentimental, unself-aware life of a Midwest farm community. The scenery and photography are notably good. The gritty, kitschy, unaesthetic settings are absolutely real. Food, clothing, furniture, language – every detail of the ghastly culture is captured. It is a well-made documentary about a tired topic.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Manderlay: Grade B



Bryce Dallas Howard, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Isaach De Bankole, Lauren Bacall; Director Lars Von Trier

BDH and her gangster father WD find a derelict plantation in Alabama in 1933. She discovers that the black workers there are all slaves. Shocked that slavery still exists in America, she confronts the dying plantation owner, Bacall. Bacall, who looks dead even alive, dies and BDH throws open the iron gates and declares all the workers free. They remain in place, ostensibly because of total passivity bred by institutionalization. She tries to teach them to value freedom, but in the end gives up in disgust and leaves.

What’s good about the movie is Von Trier’s stylistic moviemaking. It is done just like Dogville, with virtually no sets other than a kitchen table or the frame outline of a building. Actors walk around on a bare stage illuminated by spotlights, knocking on imaginary doors. I enjoy that minimalism. It really makes the acting and writing stand out. However, it was already done in Dogville, so what’s the point of doing the exact same thing again? That’s not creative. Supposedly, this movie is #2 of a trilogy, so maybe that justifies the repetition, but I found the concept less interesting than I did the first time.

What’s wrong with the movie (other than the need for editing), is the writing. None of the characters is psychologically realistic. Glover turns out to be a big time Uncle Tom, but that is inconsistent with his character as presented in the first half. And so on for other characters that show any spark of life at all. The black slaves are presented as children, if not subhumans, with no interests, values, motivation, or intelligence. So when one of them criticizes BDH for being a hypocritical, white, self-serving do-gooder, the viewer wonders where that animosity comes from. The same is true for each time any flash of emotion is shown. It is just incongruous. Von Trier mechanicallyand cynically pushes racist buttons, without justification. Glover, who is a socially responsible person, might have seen the script as a sociological commentary on the impossibility of changing centuries of culture with a proclamation of freedom. But I think the movie is shallow and malicious, even racist, and not in an ironic way. Yet here I am still typing. I begrudgingly acknowledge that it is an important movie.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World: Grade B


Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

Albert Brooks: writer, director, star

This movie starts out hilariously, with AB as an out of work, second-tier American comic who is hired by the US Government to go to India and Pakistan and find out what makes Muslims laugh. The humor is extremely subtle at points, sarcastic, ironic, and with some wonderful digs at politics and Hollywood. At about the halfway mark, when he gives his first stand-up performance in India, his show bombs, and the movie starts going south. The jokes in his act are so stupid and inappropriate that even a nine-year old could do better. Why does Brooks take the movie in that direction? Was he afraid to not offend Middle-easterners by showing they do not appreciate American humor? Or was he afraid not to offend Americans by presenting a kind of humor they couldn’t understand? The solution he chooses, to make fun of himself and drop the movie’s story line altogether, is veryunsatisfying.