Sunday, October 15, 2006

The President's Last Bang: Grade B


The President’s Last Bang

Written and Directed by Im Sang-Soo. Korean (subtitled)

This is a dramatization of the coup d’etat in 1979 in which president Park was assassinated by the Korean CIA. The characters are portrayed as ordinary people with ordinary concerns, bumbling along even as they overthrow the government. It is billed as a satire, and it is comedic, but I think it is actually just a docudrama with a light touch. This topic is apparently still taboo in Korea, so keeping it light was a good choice for the writer-director. The movie gives a glimpse into the Korean culture at the government level. The language, music, and values are interesting. The shoot-em-up scenes are more realistic and mindful than the typical Hollywood cartoon version. Sets and costumes are perfect. The photography is fantastic, and not because it shows beautiful scenery. It is beautiful just because it is done so expertly. You could watch this movie with the sound off and have a very enjoyable experience. But with the sound on, it is also a good story. The only thing it lacks is emotional engagement.

Art School Confidential: Grade B


Art School Confidential

Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich, Anjelica Huston, Steve Buscemi. Director Terry Zwigoff

This is a deliciously funny comedy for anyone who has been to art school or for anyone who appreciates the visual arts. A young man (MM) is burning to be “the next Picasso.” His talent is obvious to the audience but in school his portraits are overlooked for stupid trendy work, including “found art” sculpture, meaningless scribbles, and trite pop culture clichés. Each of those pieces is an “in” joke itself. The critical commentary on it all from burned out art teacher Malkovich and the other students is extremely funny. Huston and Buscemi give standout performances in bit parts. MM tries to find his own style and get noticed so he can win the heart of a girl (SM), but to no avail. Meanwhile there is a serial killer stalking the campus grounds and that theme eventually plays into the highly contrived ending. I was really engaged by the struggle to find an original artistic voice and identity. There were so many ways that story could have gone, all the while keeping the jokes flowing. But instead, the serial killer mystery swallows the story and crashes it into a lame clichéd ending. A lost opportunity there, but maybe the filmmakers were afraid the movie was becoming too highbrow. A DVD extra of Malkovich delivering a short speech in three different modes of acting is revelatory. MM’s distracting pouty lips remind me of Gael Garcia Bernal.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

American Gun: Grade D


American Gun

Marcia Gay Harden, Forest Whitaker, Donald Sutherland, Linda Cardellini; Director Aric Avelino

Four small disconnected slices of life are shown. The acting is first class and that makes the movie worth seeing. You could show this movie in a drama class, the acting is that good. But, there is no plot, no music, no great directing, no dramatic tension, no interesting photography, no point to it all. Maybe a few interesting edits are in there. Forest Whitaker is the overwhelmed principal of a city school plagued by misbehaving students. None have guns because of the metal detectors at the door, but guns are at least talked about. Marcia Gay harden is the mother of a boy who did a school shootout, and apparently was killed himself. She and her seemingly normal second teenage son have fights about whether he should attend that same high school. Donald Sutherland runs a gun shop at which his sullen granddaughter works. She takes shooting lessons but nothing comes of that. Nothing comes of anything and the movie goes nowhere. Quite a difference from the 2002 movie of the same name starring James Coburn and Virginia Madsen, which at least had a story and a political point to make.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Thank You For Smoking: Grade B


Thank You For Smoking

Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Adam Brody, Sam Elliott, Katie Holmes, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, Robert Duvall, Cameron Bright. Director Christopher Buckley.

Eckhart plays a tobacco industry lobbyist who is successful and loves his job. The humor of the story comes from his outrageous portrayal of “big tobacco” in a positive, even angelic light. His bull sessions with fellow “Merchants of Death” (gun and alcohol lobbyists) are a scream. His relationship with his son, who wants to learn how to argue to win, adds enough dimensionality to lift the movie up beyond a mere skit. Fine acting all around. The movie is a light satire, not an accusation like “The Insider.” Oddly, not a single character is shown smoking in the whole movie; not even a single lit cigarette is shown anywhere. That’s not really believable, but there is so much tobacco product placement in movies today that the producers either were wary of preserving the moral high ground, or they could not find a tobacco company with a sense of humor that would chip in.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Libertine: Grade D


The Libertine

Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich

This is a dreadful costume drama set in 17th century London. The director used gray and sepia filters to make everything look dark, foggy, smoky, and colorless. Maybe that’s how life was back then, but it sure makes an ugly movie. The story is the hackneyed theater within theater theme. JD writes a play for the king (JM) starring protégé SM. But the play is puerile and prurient sexual material that could hardly hold the attention of an adult, but predictably, the king is offended and clever words are spoken. What saves this murky movie from failure is mesmerizing acting by Depp and Morton. These are towering acting talents who have such skill and presence that they rise above all mud, and they alone make this movie worth having a look.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Proposition: Grade C


The Proposition

Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson; Director John Hillcoat

The Australian outback is the stunning location for a story set in the 1860’s of lawmen vs the outlaw Burns Gang, three brothers. The two younger bros are captured, but the middle one is released with instructions to kill the at-large older one, if he wants to save the younger from hanging. It’s an unlikely proposition, and the cops don’t even bother to follow Guy Pearce to learn his older brother’s whereabouts. Emily Watson and Ray Winstone do standout acting as the police captain and his wife, but their roles are pointless. There is lots of bloody violence but it is in context and not offensive. Too many male characters looked and acted alike and I had a hard time telling who was who. Dusty, sweaty scenes with flies around the eyes give a palpable sense of place. Orange filters are overused, probably to (unnecessarily) underline the heat. Still, the movie is above average in beauty. Photography, music, and directing recall Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone, but the story doesn’t hold up. We never see the outlaws do anything lawless so they just seem like a random bunch of crazy men. There is no cat and mouse tension. Characters are two-dimensional and unmotivated. GP finds his brother and eventually kills him as ordered. The end. There is no drama and the movie is flat. It would be equally enjoyable, even better maybe, with no dialog whatsoever.