Monday, February 26, 2007

The Departed: Grade B


The Departed (2006)

Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Walberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga. Director Martin Scorsese.

A gangster film from Scorsese is always enjoyable. The intricate plot, snappy dialog and excellent acting make this one compulsively watchable and re-watchable. The level of violence is high yet stylistic. I can’t even count how many characters got their brains blown out at close range. It’s not quite comic violence as in Kill Bill, but the blood sprays can be taken as part of the syntax of the movie and even as a Scorsese trademark. Sheen is the police captain in pursuit of crime boss Nicholson, who peforms the classic, clowny, mugging, sociopathic part he has been doing since Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s not good acting, but it’s good Nicholson. Sheen seems lost in his part. The real acting comes from DiCaprio, an undercover cop in Nicholson’s gang and to a lesser extent, from Damon, a Nicholson mole in the police department. Each organization suspects a traitor within so there is plenty of paranoid tension. Farmiga is a government psychologist who gets involved romantically with both moles without either being aware of the other. It is not a very plausible triangle, but Farmiga's acting shines. She reminded me of Catherine Keener. The plot has lots of twists and revelations, and uses de rigueur time-sliced editing to keep the pace up. Being a gangster movie, few characters have any realistic motivation. Killers kill because they are killers. So overall, the movie is not emotionally satisfying, just an enjoyable puzzle, like The Usual Suspects, as long as one overlooks the fact that both moles constantly cell-phone their bosses but nobody ever thinks to check phone records. The multi-twist ending spoils the intellectual integrity of the story so blatantly that one wonders if it is actually some kind of inside joke. Good, solid genre entertainment.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Babel: Grade B


Babel (2006)

Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi, Adriana Barazza. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu .

This is actually four mini-movies, the stories loosely connected, like Crash on a global scale. Two of the stories are in Morocco. A young shepherd takes a pot shot with his rifle at a tour bus over a mile away. By chance, the bullet hits the bus, shooting Blanchett in the neck, horrifying her husband Pitt (although there’s no way the ballistics work out. The kid shoots at the bus coming toward him way down in the valley, but the bullet enters the bus from a side window). One story then is Pitt trying to get medical help for his wife in the middle of nowhere. He shows some moments of acting though mainly shouting and flailing, and Blanchett has nothing to do but bleed and pee so she is wasted. Meanwhile, the police search for the shooter, and spotting him, his brother, and their father on a hillside, they jump out of their jeeps and open fire, no questions asked, killing the boy’s brother. End of that story. A helicopter arrives from the US Embassy and whisks Pitt and Blanchett away. End of that story.

Those two stories could have been made into a good 90 minute movie by applying some writers. The remaining two stories are not related. An illegal Mexican nanny (Barazza) takes care of Pitt and Blanchett’s two archetypally cute 6 year old children in San Diego. She takes them to her son’s wedding in Tijuana. Drinking dancing, and chicken chasing ensue, and when her drunk nephew (Garcia-Bernal) drives them home, they are busted at the border. She has to remain in Mexico. She protests to US border patrol, “But I have made a life of 16 years here.” The BP answers thoughtfully and compassionately, “You should have thought of that before.” We don’t know what happens to her nephew. The children somehow make it home. End of that story.

Finally, there is the story of a deaf-mute teenager in Tokyo, played extremely well by Kikuchi. She is on a mission to lose her virginity, to prove to herself that she is a normal person, not a monster. She tries to pick up boys twice at clubs, and makes moves on her dentist and a police officer, all to no avail. Finally her father comes home to find her standing nude on the apartment’s balcony, possibly contemplating a jump, and they embrace. End of that story.

Each of the four movies is beautifully filmed. The sense of locations are palpable, the colors and compositions are gorgeous, and the music is haunting and enjoyable in its own right. And it is quite an accomplishment to create three completely different worlds, each so convincing. Unfortunately, that’s also why the overall project runs to an inexcusable 2.5 hours. There are pockets of acting, especially by Kikuchi. There are a couple of stunning visual moments, as when Blanchett is shot or when Kikuch appears naked. I give the move a generous B for many cinematic virtues. However, there is no narrative reason for this movie.

Call me old-fashioned, but I insist that movies tell a story, or even four stories, if that’s what they want. This is like four random slices of life connected by vague gestures. There are a few themes. The difficulty of communication is highlighted by the deaf-mute girl, by Pitt trying to get help in Morocco, and by the nanny’s Spanglish. But that hardly amounts to a thesis of global Babel. We note that when people use poor judgment there are bad consequences. We see that children should not be left unattended. We are reminded how government intrudes on everyday life. Fate and destiny are invoked. But, bottom line, there is no compelling story told anywhere in this movie and that makes it slow and hard to watch.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers: Grade D


Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Director Clint Eastwood. Unknown (to me) actors.

I thought we were done with WWII movies. Every story that could possibly be told about that war has surely been told by now and maybe that’s why this movie is only a long string of clichés stitched crudely together. War is hell, okay, we got that. The angle in this movie focuses on the 6 Marines who raised the flag over Iwo Jima in that famous Rosenthal photograph. Three survivors of that event are shipped stateside to flog War Bonds in support of a bankrupt government and military. They are appalled at being cynically plugged into a public relations machine that paints them as heroes, but they do it anyway. The acting is cringingly bad and the characters are flat, uncreative stereotypes, right down to the drunken Indian. There is no dramatic tension. There are some photographic moments in the war scenes where the colors are just this side of b&w but that’s not good enough to sustain the first 40 minutes of this 2:12 snoozer. There are not even any redeeming DVD extras. The directing looks stagey, and the script, costumes and sets are 100% cliche. The sound engineering is abysmal, as if ear-damaging explosions will enhance your understanding of the movie. I give it a pass only for some grand photographic moments; that’s all there is to look at here.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land: Grade B


Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land: U.S. Media & the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2004)

Noam Chomsky, Seth Ackerman, Hanan Ashwari, others. Producer and co-director: Bathsheba Ratzkoff.

This documentary carefully exposes how U.S. media coverage (television mostly) of the Arab-Israeli conflict is, and has been, systematically biased to a pro-Israeli slant. This is an old story for anyone who is media-aware, but alas, most Americans are not. This documentary shows in detail how the bias works. It is startling to see clips of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and other reporters and news readers delivering Israeli propaganda word-for word. The documentary emphasizes that in the U.S., Israeli actions are always characterized as “defensive,” whereas in the rest of the world, it is a plain fact that Israel is illegally and aggressively occupying and settling Palestinian land. The film also shows where this bias comes from: money and corruption. The U.S. provides billions to Israel in military aid, but they must buy the weapons from U.S. companies, who in turn, donate big bucks to political campaigns. This cycle of money perpetuates the status quo and feeds the propaganda machine. Despite its strong point of view, the thesis is very well documented and seems fair.

This movie should be shown in high school and college classes, perhaps along with Al Jazeera, a documentary on the same theme from a few years ago. Try to wake up the young people before their minds are deadened by U.S. “news” media. I don’t think this DVD was ever theatrically released (who would go to it?), although it has received high praise at various film festivals. Individuals can buy the DVD for $30 from

I came away with two ideas. One is a criticism of the film. It arbitrarily starts in 1967 when Israel illegally (per U.N. resolution 242 and others), occupied the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza. The rest of the story proceeds from that occupation, which persists to this day. But an old strategy in this old argument is to pick a moment in history and tell your story from there. This movie suggests at several points that Israel invaded because it wants more land and water. The documentary overlooks the political and military context in 1967 in which Egypt, Syria and other countries attacked Israel with the expressed goal of wiping it completely off the map, a goal still held by many countries in the region today. So in this movie, Israel looks like the bad guy (which it is), but without the mitigating context of self-defense. A documentary has to start somewhere, but failing to introduce adequate context is a form of bias.

The second idea is that Chomsky is really smart to reveal and hopefully change the laziness and corruption of the U.S. news media. I thought, why do I knock myself out trying to teach critical thinking techniques to college students? That will never work. They are always going to respond to human interest pictures and emotions. Reason and evidence do not change anybody’s mind. The better approach is to change the tone and content of those human interest stories and emotions. That’s what people will respond to. Chomsky has already thought of this, but I hadn’t.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Expiration Date: Grade A


Expiration Date (2006)

Robert Guthrie, Sascha Knopf, Dee Wallace-Stone. Director, co-writer, co-producer Rick Stevenson.

Charlie Silvercloud III (Guthrie) is a 24 year-old Native American in Seattle, getting his life in order prior to his impending death. How does he know he will die next week? Both his father and grandfather were killed on their 25th birthdays, run over by milk trucks. It’s a family curse. While shopping for a casket, he meets Bessie (Knopf), who is preparing for her aged mother’s death. Romance ensues, with complications, naturally. The premise of the story is ridiculous but somehow sufficient to sustain suspense as Charlie’s 25th birthday arrives. Scenes of menacing, lurking milk trucks are hilarious, reminiscent of Spielberg’s 1971 movie, Duel and of Jaws. I’ve been interested in Native American humor for decades but I still cannot grasp how it works (think “John Wayne's teeth” in Smoke Signals). True to form, Expiration Date is full of quirky humor so original and unexpected it had me hooting. At the same time, there is a touching love story. Plus, it is shot in Seattle by somebody who really loves the city. It is thrilling to see the ferry at sunset, the Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, Gasworks Park, lots of coffee shops, and all the rest. Most movies set in Seattle are actually shot in Vancouver, B.C., so this is a rarity. The DVD extras include an irrelevant but totally fascinating Native American hoop dance contest. You will have to search for this indie. See

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Lisa Lampanelli The Queen of Mean: Grade C


Lisa Lampanelli: The Queen of Mean (2002)

Lisa Lampanelli

Lampanelli is a 35 year old white woman in this stand-up act, performed at some dreadful comedy club in a suburban strip mall in New Jersey. That’s working for a living! She is known as an insult comic, in the style of Don Rickles. This show was entirely racial insults, focusing on Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews. The audience seemed to be mostly black. Her shtick is to hurl racial insults at individual audience members as she points, nods, and responds to their comments and reactions, but the camera stays on her, so she could be performing a fixed piece to an empty house for all we know. No interaction is shown. The jokes are not original or insightful, just gratuitously insulting. She assumes a black man just got out of prison, that an Indian woman doesn’t bathe, and that Jewish men have small penises. The jokes focus mostly on sex and money. The humor, such as it is, derives from the audience members’ squeals of self-recognition and shock at having these racial stereotypes so publicly aired. Stereotypes are pervasive in America and maybe it’s cathartic to air them out. The audience seemed to enjoy the show, judging from the interviews afterward, but it’s not for everyone.

Kamataki: Grade B


Kamataki (2005)

Matt Smiley, Tatsuya Fuji, Kazuko Yoshiyuki. Director Claude Gagnon. Mostly English, some subtitled Japanese.

A late-teens, Caucasian Canadian man is sent to stay with his Japanese uncle in the Japanese countryside. The genetics of that must be overlooked. The young man is supposedly depressive, having attempted suicide in Canada, but he comes across as an ordinary, surly, taciturn teenager trying to find himself, showing no particular signs of mental pathology. The uncle is a wealthy potter who does raku in a huge, wood-fired earthen kiln. Gradually, by apprenticing to the potter, and by literally chopping wood and carrying water, the youth overcomes his mental confusion and finds meaning and hope in life. There is essentially no dramatic tension, no action, and very little dialog. Characters are suggested but not rounded out. However the photography and locations are authentic and beautiful, the music is fantastic, the sets compelling, and the story line is quietly sentimental enough to keep you engaged. I may be overrating the film because I have visited just such a traditional potter in rural Japan and I understand how a particular place and time find their way into the pottery. But I don’t think that would come through objectively in the movie, although it did win 5 awards at the Montreal Film Festival, so who knows? I would have preferred a stronger linkage between the youth’s coming of age and the artistic values of the pottery.