Monday, November 27, 2006

Kárzohat (Damnation): Grade A


Kárzohat (Damnation)

Béla Tarr, writer, director. Hungarian (subtitled)

I saw this film at the Northwest Film Center in Portland, OR, on a recent visit. It was Thanksgiving evening and the whole town was locked down except this one film screening. Lucky me. Actually, about a dozen people eventually showed up to watch it. The movie was released in 1988, but I had never heard of it, or the director. It is a plodding “existential” film, shot in low-contrast black and white. The story is perfunctory: a man is in love with a married cabaret singer and schemes to get her husband put in prison. But that hardly matters. The movie is really about the relentless rain, the dimly lit industrial cityscape; decaying buildings; deserted, muddy streets; packs of feral dogs; smoky bars; laconic conversation and doleful music. There is aggressive omission of anything aesthetic; no pictures, flowers, or sunlight; even human bodies are utilitarian, not beautiful. Can people live like that? Hungary under totalitarian rule is palpably conveyed (this was pre-Wall by a year). A recurring image is water seeping over worn stone walls. It takes a lot to wear down stone, but relentless water can do it. The people are stone-faced, their humanity worn away by life in a lifeless society. I loved the photography, the excruciatingly long takes, the way sound and picture are integrated, the Hungarian music, and the sets. This two hour movie should have been boring, but I found it riveting.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Land of Plenty: Grade A


Land of Plenty

Michelle Williams, John Diehl, Richard Edson. Writer & Director: Wim Wenders

A PTSD Vietnam vet (JD) sees terrorists under every rock and drives his surveillance van around LA looking for “cells.” His niece (MW), newly arrived from an extended visit to Gaza, works at a homeless shelter (so the director can comment ironically on America as the land of plenty). She wants to reconnect with her family so hangs out with him as he hunts for terrorists. She seems to realize he is eccentric but doesn’t care. The uncle is brainwashed into the militarization of a “war on terror,” but she is well informed about cultural differences. In the end, he seems to realize he has been delusional, but giving it up means losing his meaning and way of being. It is a brilliant, artistic representation of different American reactions to the anxiety of post-9/11, seen by a German observer. While critical of America in some ways, the movie is ultimately compassionate. Very fine acting all around, excellent photography, good music.

The Kid & i: Grade C


The Kid & i

Tom Arnold, Eric Gores, Linda Hamilton, Joe Mantegna, Henry Winkler, Arielle Kebbel, Yvette Nicole Brown, Richard Edson. With appearances by Shaq O’Neal, Arnold Schwartzenegger, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Dir=Penelope Spheeris.

Tom Arnold plays a washed up movie maker who gets a chance to do a movie for a rich family. Their cerebral palsy son wants Arnold Schwartzenegger’s role in True Lies (which Tom Arnold really did write). The proposed movie will never be seen by anyone but the kid’s family and friends. Comedy ensues as Arnold learns that it is a “vanity” movie, not a real theatrical production. There are good Hollywood in-jokes and a good parody of the True Lies action movie. The kid’s action movie gets made and everybody is happy. The acting is top drawer all around, especially by some of the unknowns. It is a movie with a lot of heart, mildly amusing, and profits go to a CP charity.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Memory of A Killer


The Memory of A Killer

Jan Decleir, Koen De Bouw. Dir= Erik Van Looy. Dutch (subtitled).

What a great premise for a movie: A hired killer suffers from progressive alzheimer’s. That interesting theme carries the audience over a lot of clichéd plot devices. The killer (JD) refuses to execute a 12 year old girl, so his boss has someone else do it. He is implausibly offended by this and starts a revenge spree, killing all the middlemen on the way to the boss. He has to get it done before he forgets who they are. Flashback montages convey his memory slipping away. Meanwhile the police are after him too. He has incriminating evidence against the big boss, but forgets where he hid it. Great European locations (Belgium) and the whole movie has an enjoyable European sensibility despite the very dark themes. The acting is uneven, as was the music, and the story line difficult to follow, since characters were not well-rounded and therefore not distinctive. But as far as assassin movies go, this is one of the best.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Sick & Tired: Grade B


Sick & Tired

Wanda Sykes

This is an HBO stand up comedy show, the second of Wanda’s that I’ve seen. Her material is very intelligent, funny and socially incisive. Her street syntax and intonation add another layer to the stories that increases their value. A lot of the stories are on socially sensitive topics, like racism, sexism, abortion, homosexuality, and the incompetence of the Bush administration. Her material is far more political than last time, making some heavy handed liberal political “points,” and while still funny, they are more clever than insightful. Perhaps the hot button social topics are already worn thin by the time the comics get to them. I like her best when her material goes surrealistically loopy, like the bit about the detachable pussy. That kind of stuff is totally original, unexpected, satirical, and LOL funny.

The Sentinel: Grade D


The Sentinel

Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland, Eva Longoria, Kim Basinger

MD is in the secret service assigned to the president’s wife (KB) with whom he has an affair. Meanwhile bad guys of unknown origin (KGB was suggested but there is no KGB any more), for unknown motives (they’re just bad – dark skin, foreign accents, facial hair), want to kill the president. Some other government officials are killed too, with silencers, in broad daylight, just for sport, I guess. Turns out there is a mole in the SS working with the bad guys, for unknown motives. The existence of a mole is revealed by a street informer who has no reason to know it. Everyone has to take a polygraph, to find the mole, and MD fails by lying about his affair. Kiefer heads the posse that closes in on him, so MD does the only sensible thing, goes on the run to find the “real” bad guy before it’s too late. Guess how it turns out. Plenty of gratuitous car chases, sirens, radio-speak and explosions. Lots of loud, meaningless noise. A huge helicopter taking off is not noisy enough – no, there also must be ear-splitting trombones. Of course! Why not turn the volume down? Because then you can’t hear the dialog, which, it turns out, is no great loss. MD is getting too old to be a credible action figure, especially when being chased by much younger guys like Kiefer. The women are only pretty faces. The plot has enough intelligence to be mildly interesting, if you like law enforcement pictures.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Edmond: Grade A



William H. Macy, Julia Stiles, Joe Mantegna. Written by David Mamet. Director Stuart Gordon

Macy plays a bland, insignificant executive in a large corporation who one day decides to leave his wife out of sheer boredom. Exploring his new freedom, he walks around sleazy bars and strip joints in NYC, engages street hustlers, pimps, and prostitutes. In all this he seems unrealistically naïve about how street life works, and increasingly detached. Finally repressed rage bursts out and he becomes even more dissociative, manic and violent. At the end of the movie the psychosis is gone and he is only eccentric. So the short story is, mild-mannered executive has a psychotic break.

Basing a story around mental disorder is a cheap trick because no ordinary psychological motivation applies. The character can do or say anything because “he is nuts.” Consequently, the story is arbitrary and uninteresting. There is a thin attempt to say that “modern life” causes “basic manhood” to become repressed rage, but that is just cheesy psychobabble. In a DVD deleted scene, we see a fortune teller set up the story as that of Macy’s fate unfolding. I agree that would have been an even less interesting theme than unexplained madness.

Despite all these flaws, Macy’s acting leaps off the screen. He is absolutely stunning, showing amazing range of expression and subtlety, utterly convincing at all times. The movie gets an A based on his performance alone. Julia Stiles does an excellent job. Mantegna is disappointing in a bit part. Mamet’s dialog is very “Mamet-esque” and sometimes his authorial speechifying gets in the way, but I love Mamet, so never mind. The screenplay tracks his book, “The three uses of the knife” philosophically and metaphorically. I was utterly enthralled throughout, even knowing my strings were being pulled. Too bad this is an obscure independent film. It’s the best acting there is.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Looking for Kitty: Grade B


Looking for Kitty

Edward Burns, David Krumholtz. Writer, Director=Edward Burns

Burns plays a not-too-slick private eye in NYC who is hired to find DK’s missing wife. Turns out his wife wanted a divorce and left him because he is an unappreciative, narcissistic, baseball-obsessed bumpkin. In the course of the movie, DK realizes and accepts this. Burns, whose wife has died, comes to accept his loneliness and finally removes his wedding ring. The two men develop a friendship as they each become self-aware. Burns’ character is interested in old NYC buildings whose owners would not sell out to big developers. The implication is that both men are themselves holdouts, resisting change, clinging to the past. The movie is apparently set in modern times but no computers are shown; they drive a 70’s era beat up Ford, and only one clunky cell phone is shown briefly, so you get the feeling yourself of being a holdout against change. Dialog is sharp and witty, and the acting is first class all around, especially some of the quirky gestural moves. Music and photography are excellent. The characters and script are completely original and authentically human. I’m not sure why I don’t give it an A. Something is lacking. Is it too subtle? There is a story, but no plot, maybe that’s it.