Monday, January 15, 2007

Gypo: Grade B


Gypo (2005)

Pauline McLynn, Chloe Sirene, Paul McGann, Rula Lenska, Tamzin Dunstone. Director cannot be revealed, but Jan Dunn has writing credits.

Gypo is a derogatory slang term for Gypsy, which is itself a slang term for the Romany people of central Europe. In this zero-budget British Indie, a low class English family meets a mother and daughter from the Czech Republic. They are hoping to get British passports soon, but fear being hunted and returned home by abusive husband and brothers. The big-hearted English housewife offers food, friendship, and comfort even while she struggles to care for her insolent and irresponsible daughter’s child. The boorish husband is ignorant, racist, and useless. The mean Romany husband and brother do show up and the women try to escape them. This basic story is told three times, once through the eyes of the housewife, again from the point of view of her husband, and finally as experienced by the Romany mother. Unfortunately, I did not catch on to that schema until the end of the movie so I was confused much of the time. It’s a much better movie the second time. The acting is so convincing that you squirm in your chair at the difficult interpersonal interactions portrayed. Sets and locations are perfect. The commentary on immigration, economics, and racism in Britain is acute. The main drawback is that the story line is very weak.

What gives this movie another dimension entirely is the fact that it is a Dogme film. “Dogme 95” is a collective of filmmakers founded in Copenhagen in 1995. The director Lars Von Trier is its best known ringleader. The Dogme filmmakers reject the Hollywood trend of using CGI, special effects, and other tricks to show unreal fantasies rather than genuine human drama. To this end, Dogme filmmakers must adhere to certain rules in order to produce a certified Dogme film (See the rules at These rules include, no special effects (not even music added on later), no sets or props, hand-held camera only, natural lighting, and so on. Another is that the director may not take credit for the work. I have enjoyed several Von Trier Dogme films before (such as Dogville) but this one is not so highly stylized as his. It has a very natural, believable feel which really makes me take the whole Dogme idea much more seriously.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Rhinoceros Eyes: Grade B


Rhinoceros Eyes (2003)

Michael Pitt, Paige Turco, Gale Harold. Director Aaron Woodley

Pitt is a young man working (and living) in a movie prop warehouse, in this obscure Canadian independent film. He is extremely withdrawn and as the movie progresses we see he is mentally ill, experiencing delusions and auditory and visual hallucinations. The thread of the story, such as it is, is that an art director (Turco) requests oddball props, and he provides them for her, sometimes by robbery, feeding his fantasy about her. Harold is a detective investigating the robberies. The acting is well above average, but the story is incoherent. Pitt attends the same bad movie every day and quotes lines from it as if they were his, and sometimes sees himself and the other characters on the screen. The detective then gets a role in a movie as a singing and dancing detective (an excellent performance by Harold). I don’t like movies about mentally deranged people because it lets the writer off the hook for presenting a plausible character. Anything goes if you’re nuts, so the audience can’t relate to the character. The stop-action animation of his inner demons is outstanding. The costumes, sets and colors are eye treats, and the story gets high points for originality even if it is nonsense. The DVD "Making of" feature is just as nonsensically incoherent, so this may be a new form of filmmaking that I just don't appreciate. I’d like to see more of Turco and Harold.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Illusionist: Grade B


The Illusionist (2006)

Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel. Directed by Neil Burger.

Norton is a stage magician in Vienna, around 1900, specializing in communication with the dead. He is in love with Biel, who is about to be engaged to the arrogant, woman-slapping Prince Whomever, ambitious heir to the throne. Giamatti is a police detective who keeps an eye on Biel for the jealous Prince. Norton and Biel fall in love and worse, Norton publicly embarrasses the Prince in a stage trick. Of course the Prince will have his revenge. The lovers are separated, Norton is pursued, the detective detects, and finally the evil Prince gets his comeuppance and the ending is happy. The historical setting is interesting, although the excitement of fin de siècle Vienna is not represented. There are horses instead of cars and a sepia palette indicates “last century.” Biel speaks with a British accent, Giamatti with an American one, and Norton with some unidentifiable lilting affectation, which is weird but not unattractive. His lab notes are written in German however. Street signs are in German. But the crowds in the theater speak English. Why didn’t they just set the whole story in London? Norton gives a fabulous performance. He is a truly magical actor, but his magic tricks are just uninteresting CGI effects. He could pull a horse out of his ear and we wouldn't care. Giamatti gives a disappointing hammy performance. Biel has obviously attended the Scarlett Johanssen Academy of Lip Acting. The story depends on unlikely coincidences and against-character behavior, so while clever, it is not satisfying. Still, Norton’s performance and the clever story make an entertaining hour and a half.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Free Zone: Grade A


Free Zone (2005). (In English, Hebrew & Arabic, subtitled)

Natalie Portman, Hanna Laslo, Hiam Abbass; Director=Amos Gitai.

American Natalie Portman breaks up with her boyfriend in Jerusalem and gets a cab driven by Hanna Laslo, who is actually on her way to Jordan to collect a debt owed her husband. Portman, at loose ends, agrees to go along, so it is a road trip. The tension at the border crossing is palpable, and the scenery in Jordan is fascinating and depressing at the same time. Laslo meets her contact, a Palestinian woman (Abbass), only to discover that the man with the money has disappeared. Portman finds him but the money is not recovered. The film ends with Laslo and Abbass arguing about “the debt,” but you see that they are really arguing about Israel and Palestine, even if they themselves do not realize it. As they argue, Portman, the American, jumps out of the car and runs across the border back into Israel. Beyond the sometimes heavy symbolism and speeches, one does get a real feeling for the chaos of life in that part of the world, and how people on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide try to live normally despite uncontrollable circumstance and an indelible history.

This would have been a powerful slice of life movie in itself, but in addition, there are some terrific cinematic techniques here. When Portman is remembering her time with her ex-boyfriend, that scene is superimposed on the landscape going by the cab in Jordan, which is just how it is with memory (and politics!): you don’t quite see what’s around you while you are absorbed in the past. The opening 9 minutes of the film is one long, tight head shot of Portman thinking about the breakup and coming to tears. I guess that’s a triumph of acting, but I found the scene far too long, yet I admit it is not something you see every day. All three actors give fully developed performances, especially Laslo, who I totally believed in at every instant.

The movie was a little unsatisfying in being “only” a slice of life portrayal, with no real story. I want a movie to have a beginning, middle, and end, and I want it to have a point: something achieved, defined, saved, lost, learned, etc. But upon reflection, I realized that with this movie I was on the receiving end of cultural globalization, a rare experience for an American. There are different kinds of movie and other ways of telling a story.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

4: Grade B


4 (2004)

Directed by Ilya Khrjanovsky (Russian, Subtitled)

Two men and a woman converge in a Moscow bar at 3 am and describe their lives. A hooker claims to be in advertising; a meat wholesaler claims to be a caterer to the Russian president; a piano tuner claims to be a genetic engineer. All the stories are detailed and believable, and it is not clear who is fooled, but afterward, when we see their bleak and desolate lives (mostly the girl’s), we understand why they have these fantasies. The scene at the bar is simple, just talking heads, but a masterpiece of filmmaking and acting. After that, the movie is all about the photography, landscapes, and sounds, as the girl returns to her village for a funeral. She walks across devastated, muddy terrain, the grounds of a nuclear reactor, a municipal solid waste site, and possibly a steel mill. The harsh scenery, rain, mud, and wild dogs are reminiscent of Belá Tarr’s Damnation. The dog, bird, and unidentifiable industrial sounds are fantastic. There is also a “meat” theme throughout, from the meat wholesaler’s warehouse, to people gnawing on bones at meals, to the nude shots of the girl and her friends, especially when contrasted to the bodies of the aged old crones in her rural village. The idea seems to be that people all reduce to meat and nothing more; life is about eating, drinking, sex, and death. It is a dark, existential statement. There are a few banal scenes shown twice with very slight variations. I didn’t get the point of those. Some of the edits are so bad (jerks in the motion, etc.) that I wondered if they were supposed to be artistic in some way. But overall, this film was haunting, especially the first hour, and you get the sense that it really is a look at Russia today.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

My Super Ex-Girlfriend: Grade B


My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)

Uma Thurman, Luke Wilson, Anna Faris, Eddie Izzard, Rainn Wilson, Wanda Sykes. Director=Ivan Reitman.

Owen Wilson has done dozens of these silly romantic comedies. This is the first time I have seen Luke hold his own without making me think he was imitating his brother. He falls in love with Uma Thurman’s character, who turns out to be a Supergirl. There are numerous quotes from the Superman movies, which is unimaginative given so many other possibilities, but this movie is not designed for subtlety. Uma does a terrific job, alluding to her Kill Bill role as a violent action hero with a comedic twist. She becomes jealous and possessive so Luke breaks up with her then she becomes vengeful, and nobody wants a vengeant, superpowered ex-girlfriend. Eddie Izzard plays the evil nemesis with terrific irony. He seems to have studied John Malkovich, to good effect. Anna Faris reprises her Scary Movie role in some scenes, but in others, gives a solid dramatic performance. Rainn Wilson cannot escape his Dwight Schrute role from The Office. Wanda is crippled by watered down dialog and overly cautious directing; too bad. The pacing and the editing are perfect. Every one of the DVD deleted scenes is good, and every one had to be deleted. It's nice to see a tight movie. The happy ending suggests so many other roads not taken. But for a mindless laugh, this movie, though really loud, is surprisingly good.

The Black Dahlia: Grade F

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Scarlett Johansson, Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank. Director=Brian De Palma.

Not even Scarlett’s ruby red lips can save this film. I confess I gave up after one hour. There was just nothing there. The story is set in LA in the 1940’s and involves two detectives (Hartnett and Eckhart), searching for a killer. Each has a romantic interest (Swank and Johansson, respectively) but no romantic feeling is conveyed. The directing is abominable. Actors spew out their lines without feeling or expression, at a rate so fast it verges on unintelligibility and certainly allows no time for nuance. The photography relies on the lame device of slanting sunlight through louvered blinds, no matter what time of day it was supposed to be. Did nobody have electricity in the 1940’s? Worse, these scenes also use backlights and highlights that come from nowhere. If you can’t even get a cliché right, what hope is there? The so-called action is limited to scene after scene of talking heads commenting on things we didn’t see. The only good thing I noticed was that they got the period cars right, and they were beautiful, but predictably, all spotlessly clean and shiny. The real mystery is how so much talent can be utterly wasted.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Beauty Academy of Kabul: Grade A


The Beauty Academy of Kabul (2004)

Producer & Director: Liz Mermin

Six American women went to Afghanistan to teach women how to do hair and makeup. This short documentary tracks their experiences. After a slow start about the logistics of setting up the school, the film gets into the Afghan women’s personal stories, which are remarkable, and which reveal a great deal about life in that country during and after the Taliban. Some of the Americans had fled Afghanistan in the 80’s and were horrified and moved at the destruction they found upon return, and touched by the courage and ambition of the women who stayed. It would have been only a moderately interesting documentary, but the DVD extras, which are as long as the film itself, include monologues from each of the American women telling what motivated them to join this project, and what they learned from it. These “deleted scenes” are revealing, insightful and moving. The documentary is a background context for them, and they raise the whole project to a high level of documentary achievement.

Nobody Knows: Grade A


Nobody Knows (2004) (Japanese, subtitled).

Akira Fukushima, others. Director=Hirokazu Koreeda

Three girls, aged about 4 to 10, and one 12 year old boy, Fukushima, are abandoned by their call-girl mother in a tiny Tokyo apartment. They try to survive, mainly through the efforts of the boy, who begs and steals what he can. Fukushima is very good looking and a remarkable actor. The children’s daily lives are full of humor, innocence, and sadness. The details in their lives and of the city are compelling, especially if you’ve been there, but even if you haven’t, the photography is excellent and itself displays a Japanese sensibility. There are a few twists and turns, but basically the story doesn’t resolve; the movie just ends. I was surprised I liked this artistically done slice of life so much.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Hard Luck: Grade B


Hard Luck (2006)

Wesley Snipes, Mario Van Peebles, Jackie Quinones, James Hiroyuki Liao, Cybill Shepard. Directed by Mario Van Peebles.

Wesley is a former drug dealer trying to go straight but manages to be present at a big deal that goes wrong and he escapes with the cash, Quinones his hostage. Mario is the cop in hot pursuit. In a very creative sub-story, Shepard and Liao are psycho serial killers whose lives implausibly intersect with Snipes’ escape. There is also some really original photography in the early car chase. But overall, it is a standard cops and robbers movie, filled with clichés. How many times do we have to see a pimped out black guy with dark glasses in a smoky blue strip club, distracted by the girl on the pole while he postures with his low-life buddies? Hey Mario, it’s been done! Neither Snipes nor Van Peebles show much acting talent, although Quinones, Liao, and Shepard do. There is enough creativity in the story line, photography, music, and characters to keep the viewer engaged.

Loverboy: Grade F


Loverboy (2005)

Kyra Sedgwick, Kevin Bacon, Marisa Tomei, Oliver Platt, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock. Directed by Kevin Bacon.

Kyra Sedgwick plays an overprotective mother of a six year old boy and has separation anxiety when he goes to public school. Finally he does go to school and she gets over it. That’s it. This may be a hot social/psychological issue I am unaware of but even if it is, this movie does not provide any analysis or insight. Kyra looks good for an aging beauty, but what's the point of showing that? There are some nice Hallmark Cards type of photographic moments. Kyra repeatedly explains to the kid that she wants them to be together forever, as they discover a crab on the beach or a bird fallen from a tree. The kid is super cute but that’s his only contribution. The directing is terrible, and you have to wonder what Kevin was thinking with the unnecessary display of his wife’s body. You wouldn’t think a movie with this many talented people could add up to such a big zero, so perhaps that's a tribute to human creativity.