Thursday, March 29, 2007

Children of Men: Grade A


Children of Men (2006)

Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Claire-Hope Ashity. Director Alfonso Cuarón.

I expected a throwaway action-adventure, and was totally surprised. There is action, adventure, and plentiful explosions and gun fights, but thematically, this oddly named movie is about a future when all women have inexplicably become infertile. There hasn’t been a baby born in 20 years and humanity moves inexorably toward extinction. It’s a thought-provoking premise. Schools are derelict, playground noise a memory. I would have liked to explore the consequences of the idea, such as, what would be the meaning of the family? How would economics be structured if there were no next generation? What would gender relations be like? Would there still be motivation to create art and literature? Would the environmental movement continue?

What would we do, as a species, as we face our end on this planet? The movie’s answer is that we would persist in trying to kill each other. It is a dark, apocalyptic portrait of state terror and rebel resistance, set in London. As in all such dystopic visions, cities are in ruins, society has broken down, and tyrannical government rules. The urban landscape is seen through blue filters with mandatory bonfires in the street, but at least not in old oil barrels. Why people in the future always want fires on sidewalks is a mystery understood only by movie directors.

The main social strife is between rebels and the government. The rebels are refugees from other countries that have disintegrated, for reasons unknown. No explanation is given for the breakdown of law and order, and if it is the infertility problem, that connection is not made. The chaos is not justified by the film, which also shows automobiles running on roads in good repair implying healthy petrochemical and manufacturing industries; thriving radio, television and advertising, well-fed and clothed people, functioning public transport, and even a wealthy Tate museum. The refugees are shown herded into camps and pens reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps. The violence between the government and the rebels recalls the IRA rebellion, the Bosnia-Serbian war, Israel vs Hamas, and Iraq. The unifying theme is violent state suppression of ideological opposition with indifference to human rights and dignity. What has that got to do with infertility? I don’t know. Perhaps the infertility theme should be taken metaphorically – maybe it represents the sterility of efforts to accommodate people other than ourselves, the impotence of creative solutions to social problems, or a highlighting by contrast of women’s contribution to civilization. A term paper would have to be written.

The McGuffin is that one of the refugee women (Ashitey) becomes pregnant. Her gang, led by Julianne Moore, plans to smuggle her to a mysterious research ship. There is no explanation why she cannot just go to a hospital. Maybe there are no OB-Gyn specialists left. Moore recruits Owen to assist. He hides the girl for a spell at the country home of an unreconstructed hippie (Caine) who plays his role with obvious relish, to the obvious delight of Owen. But bad guys are in hot pursuit and the meta-refugees must move on. Each scene is directed masterfully, with enormous tension that had me squirming in my seat. The battles especially seem realistic, not cartoony like most. Finally everybody dies except the girl and the baby, who somehow make it to the boat (for what purpose we don’t know).

The DVD extras include a completely fascinating essay on modern society featuring, for no obvious reason, Thomas Lovejoy, founder of the Gaia environmental theory, expounding the dangers of global warming. Other segments are on the societal effects of fear, terrorism, globalization, capitalism, war, and other forces. While completely disjointed, and only tangentially relevant to the movie, it is a thought-provoking extra that alone justifies a DVD rental.

Based on a book by P.D. James, the narrative of this movie doesn’t really add up to a coherent story, but the ideas and images paint an impressionistic vision that stimulates thought.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: Grade F


A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones. Directed by Robert Altman (his last).

Written by beloved radio host Keillor, this movie purports to show the last live radio broadcast of PHC. It is an unstructured mélange of video clips, dominated by really bad singing of sappy airheaded songs. Streep and Tomlin manage to sing without embarrassing themselves, but it’s not good, by any generous measure. So why do it?

Kline does a pathetically lame Inspector Clouseau bit for no purpose. Keillor’s humor hinges on using “funny” words like “tweezers” and “Oshkosh” in meandering, mind-numbing anecdotes that make me want to scream.

The body of the film is an endless stream of inane songs, interspersed with old people displaying early Alzheimer’s by recounting their mundane youth in irrelevant detail to anyone who will listen. Tommy Lee Jones has a few good lines but he mumbles. The famous Altman overlapping dialog is evident but is obviously scripted, which misses the point.

The photography and directing are undistinguished. The camera becomes dizzying as it zooms and pans repetitively in a desperate attempt to add interest to Streep and Tomlin’s droning. I avoided this film as long as I could but my wife encouraged me to rent it, out of curiosity. She agreed in the end that it has no redeeming virtue. I confess I have never been a PHC fan and I actively dislike Keillor’s manufactured sing-song intonations on NPR, but I love Altman, and all these actors, so I went in without prejudgment. Call me un-American, but this movie is a dog.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Shut Up and Sing: Grade B


Shut Up and Sing

The Dixie Chicks (Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, Martie McGuire).

This is a documentary of the rise and fall and rise of country music act, The Dixie Chicks, starting from the 2003 anti-war incident in which Natalie announced that she was ashamed that George Bush was from her home state of Texas. As is well-known, conservative groups then mounted a campaign against the group, boycotting their records and the radio stations that played them. Most country stations (owned by only a few giant corporations), stopped playing their records. The movie shows the girls discussing their dismay and anxiety, and trying to rebuild their career after this political victimization. The film ends before their triumphant 2007 best album Emmy. It is a moving personal story, a brief look behind the scenes at the group and the industry, and it has a nice free speech theme. The women are inviting and likeable and the music is good. Overall, however, there is little substance. This was not really a free speech constitutional issue. Natalie first tries to minimize her comment as a joke or “misstatement”, but then later decides it is a righteous issue. None of the women seems to realize that the whole incident had nothing to do with them, but that they were pawns in the battle between the reds and the blues in American culture. We don’t learn too much about the music industry, although there are some tantalizing clues. One gets the impression that country music fans and their conservative radio stations deserve each other. The fact that this documentary exists at all indicates some extremely shrewd marketing people in there somewhere. We don’t learn much about the women themselves. They have babies and husbands, and that’s wonderful, but there is very little biographical information. We have no idea where Natalie came from or who she is. We really don’t even know what the women believe. I’m sure I could look all this up, but the point is, the documentary is superficial. I can imagine in the future there might be a definitive bio-pic on the Chicks. This isn’t it. Still, as an annotation of a curious episode in American pop culture, it is a watchable film.

SherryBaby: Grade A


SherryBaby (2006)

Maggie Gyllenhaal. Giancarlo Esposito. Writer-director, Laurie Collyer.

This is a tour-de-force performance for Maggie Gyllenhal. If it hadn’t been such a dark subject matter, it would have been more widely acclaimed, I’m sure. She plays a just-out-of-prison drug addict who tries to go straight, get and hold a job, and re-connect with her young daughter who has been cared for by her brother’s family, all the while fencing with her parole officer (Esposito). We are supposed to understand her confusion, immaturity and weakness, rather than blame her, and we do. It’s an oft-told story, quite similar to Kiera Knightley’s role in Pure (2002), although this manages to achieve a more realistic, downbeat ending. Gyllenhaal is utterly compelling as an actor, a real master at only 30 years old. However, it is a tired old story with nothing new to add. I give it an A only because of Gyllenhaal’s virtuoso performance.

Stranger than Fiction: Grade A


Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah. Director Mark Forster

Will Ferrell plays a dramatic-comedy role straight, not his usual manic slapstick, and he does a good job. He is an Asperger’s type idiot-savant IRS inspector with comorbid personality disorders (obsessive-compulsive, schizotypic, etc.), but he is represented in the move as more or less “normal.” The details of his humdrum life are narrated in a voice-over by Emma Thompson. One day he starts to hear that narration himself. Then we learn that the narration is being done by an author (Thompson) who is writing a book in which he is the main character. Ferrell goes to a scene-stealing psychiatrist played by the venerable Linda Hunt who diagnoses him as schizophrenic. In the course of investigating a tax-evading baker (Gyllenhal), who inexplicably “mothers” him with milk and cookies, he falls in love. Literary professor Dustin Hoffman, who has the biggest faculty office in the history of academia, advises him that author Thompson always kills her main character at the end of her books. Ferrell finds and confronts Thompson to plead for his life. Thompson is predictably excellent, but her character is too nutty to be believable. There is a second layer of humor and irony for appreciators of literature, as Thompson’s book, called the greatest literary advance of the 20th century, is obvious schlock. The ending is unsatisfying, both for the fictional book and for the movie, as if the screenwriter could not think of how to extricate himself. For some reason the director is obsessed with orality, showing lots of spitting, eating, drinking, vomiting, smoking, and teeth-brushing – just about everything you can do with a mouth. It makes no sense and adds nothing. Gyllenhal is magnetic throughout. She has charisma, but we don’t really believe her character would fall for Ferrell’s. Nevertheless, this is a genuinely funny light comedy, well worth seeing.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Know Your History: Grade A


Know Your History

Paul Mooney

This short (83 min.) act has comedian Paul Mooney sitting on a stool, from which he never strays. He holds the mike with both hands under his mouth and emits no wild gestures, body acting, pacing, impressionistic voices, stereotypical black language or intonation, or any of the other usual stand-up techniques. He just sits there and delivers very well thought-out, very funny commentary on race in America. He was a writer for Richard Pryor but his style is not personal like Pryor’s, but more sociological. He reminds me of Shelly Berman or even Lennie Bruce. The material is completely original, not a rehash of standard black race jokes, and it is uniformly insightful. The stories are not wild exaggerations, like, for example, much of Wanda Sykes’ material. Instead they focus on irony, hypocrisy, and pretension. Of course the main theme is that white people are all racists and blacks are all victims. His overall message seems to be something like, “If black people think they are finally joining middle-class, mainstream culture, here is your wakeup call. You are still black.” Yet the fact that that is a joke sends another message at the same time. Subtle stuff. There was one misstep where I thought he was way off base with some gratuitous racial insults about Asians that afforded no insight, but it could have been an ethnic thing I just missed. I also suspect that the DVD is edited/censored because while the subtitle is “Jesus was black…so was Cleopatra” there is not a word about either character in the act. Too bad for that.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Perfect Crime: Grade A


The Perfect Crime (2004)

Rafael Gonzalez, Monica Cervera, Luis Varela. Director: Alex de la Iglesia. Spanish (subtitled).

Gonzalez is a department store clerk, head of ladies wear, locked in a comically serious sales contest with Varela, head of men’s wear. More fun is Gonzalez’ nighttime romps with the gorgeous women clerks in his department. He stays overnight in the store with each one, and they dress up fancy off the racks, serve themselves a feast from the deli department, toast each other in furniture (with the tags dangling from the glasses), and “sleep” in the bedding department. One plain-looking clerk (Cervera) is left out of the rotation however and that is trouble. When a murder plot develops, the movie shifts gears, from frothy farce to dark and macabre comedy full of visual and situational humor that ranges from slapstick gag to magical realism, to existential and sociological commentary. The Spanish title is funny and more appropriate (El Crimen Ferpecto). As long as you overlook the stereotypical dehumanization of the women, it is a thoroughly entertaining movie, well-acted and directed throughout.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Little Trip To Heaven: Grade B


A Little Trip To Heaven (2005)

Forrest Whittaker, Julia Stiles. Dir = Baltasar Komakur.

Whittaker is an insurance investigator in some cold and bleak rural town that looks like it could be anywhere from North Dakota to Kansas in winter, but actually it was shot in Iceland. There is a car crash in which the driver is burned to a crisp and he had a million dollar policy payable to his impoverished wife, Stiles. Whittaker is trained to look for fraud and he slowly unravels a mystery that uncovers a murder. (This is not giving it away, because we see the murder set up by the bad guy in the opening). In the end, the details of who did what to whom and for what reasons, are so tricky that I couldn’t follow. Anyway, I don’t see how proving it was a murder would save the insurance company any money, unless they had a murder exclusion clause in the contract. The movie is beautifully photographed and the sets are perfect. The decrepit farmhouse with mold growing on sickly green walls is wonderfully creepy. The acting is first class, especially by Stiles. Whittaker, you expect to be good, and he is. This is an obscure little independent movie but it should be around now that Whittaker has won an Oscar. It’s worth looking for.

Casino Royale: Grade B


Casino Royale (2006)

Daniel Craig.

Casino Royale

Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikklesen, Judi Dench. Director Martin Campbell.

This is an “A” movie within the category of Bond pictures, one of the best, but as movies in general go, it is a typical Hollywood action-adventure, maybe a little above average because of the high production values and locations. Daniel Craig is a good Bond, as everyone says, with a menacing scowl, but even in a tux, he does not exude savoir-faire as did Sean Connery and Roger Moore. His emotional range seems limited. When he confesses love in a monotone, it is totally unconvincing. Yet in the DVD extras, Craig himself is quite dynamic, so I put the limitation down to poor directing. The director also did not show the character development of Bond, from hard case, emotionally shut-down killer, to vulnerable lover, then to some resolution of those two. Instead, action trumped all subtlety. That makes sense for this franchise, but the slight suggestion of genre transcendence is unused. The opening 20 minute chase scene is completely irrelevant (as is the custom in these movies), and for me, far too long, but other 007 movies have exploited every vehicle known to man, from subs to spaceships; snowmobiles to jet-skis, so a foot chase was a novelty. The milky eye on villain Mikklesen is perfectly creepy. Eva Green gives a varied, complex, and consistently top notch performance. Dench was lazy casting for “M,” her excellent diction notwithstanding. The extended poker scenes, I found tedious, Bond’s recovery from a heart stoppage unconvincing, and finally, I didn’t understand the ending with “Mr. White.” It must have been a transition to a sequel. The DVD extras, on a separate disk, are basically promotions for the movie and contain no information. (The disk will not play on some Tivo DVRs due to Sony's formatting).

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Fast Food Nation: Grade B


Fast Food Nation

Greg Kinnear, Luis Guzman, Paul Dano, Wilmer Valderrama, with Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Bruce Willis, Kris Kristofferson. Director Richard Linklater

The most compelling of the two stories has nothing to do with fast food, but is the story of how Mexican laborers cross the desert to find work in meat processing plants (and hotels), and what they have to do to get and keep jobs that are physically grueling and disgusting (like skinning and eviscerating cattle). But the film gives the main narrative line to Kinnear as an executive at a thinly disguised McDonalds-type burger corporation, trying to find out why there are fecal coliform bacteria in the meat patties. He takes a tour of the meat processing factory, which is actually quite interesting, and interviews a few people who have no real information but make grand, vacuous speeches about the state of America. Kinnear discovers nothing factual. Despite my expectations, this movie is not an expose of the meat packing industry. People may be horrified to see how cows become hamburgers, but there’s nothing scandalous about it. Cows are a crop cultivated to be eaten, just like carrots. The young white college students who are horrified by meat processing are shown to be ignorant and silly. On the other hand, how the Mexican laborers struggle to make a life in America is scandalous, but that story is not developed, except to show stereotypes of their travail. We don’t get insight into any of the characters and the movie ends without resolution. Ethan Hawke gives a standout performance but his part is completely irrelevant to the main themes. On the plus side, the visual imagery is strong, especially the meat processing and the suburban squalor, the dialog is snappy, and the acting is pretty good all around. Better story integration, tighter editing, and more character development would have made it an A movie.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Borat: Grade F


Borat (2006)

Sacha Cohen (also co-wrote). Director Larry Charles.
(In Hebrew, Armenian, and English, subtitled).

I tried to think of a reason to pass this movie even with a D-, and I couldn’t. It is a mockumentary of a reporter from Kazakhstan who travels to America. Unaware of customs, he says and does outrageous things. Some of the scenes are in a candid-camera or Michael Moore spirit, where he violates social norms and the camera catches the shock and horror of Americans trying to be polite and helpful to the foreigner. Other scenes are clearly manufactured and not the least bit funny. There are some slightly satirical moments, such as when he interviews and offends a group of humorless feminists. But mostly it is just crude, pre-adolescent remarks about sex, nudity, homosexuality, body functions, and so on. These references would be funny for children between 6 and 14 (or people with the minds of children), but who is really the target audience? It’s a very popular movie, so I am afraid to know. Borat announces that his sister is a prostitute and that he has had sex with his mother in law. Titillating! He shows pictures of his family, including his frontal-naked grown son. What a scream. “I like sex. Is nice!” Hilarious. There is one extended scene where he wrestles with and chases his fat old male friend through a hotel, and that could have been a daring cinematic first, except that there are black and pixilated censorship covers over the butts and genitals. What is the message? We are naked men, but don’t look? I wasn’t offended by this movie, I just didn’t get it. Sorry.

Fuck: A Documentary: Grade B


Fuck: A Documentary (2005)

Drew Carey, Billy Connolly, Janeane Garofalo, Bill Maher, Miss Manners, Hunter S. Thomson, Benjamin Bradlee, Pat Boone, Sam Donaldson, Alan Keyes, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, and on film clips: Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce; and many others. Director: Steve Anderson.

This is a very silly film, celebrating the “dirtiest word,” for Americans, at least, with some very funny people, whether professional comedians, persons on the street, or unintentionally funny “defenders of standards.” You definitely will laugh out loud (unless you have a stunted sense of humor). Unlike “The Aristocrats,” this movie tries to be more than just comedically vulgar. The organizing principles for the interviews are the censorship policies of the FCC, first amendment rights to free speech, and changing cultural mores. Those themes are important, but the investigation of free speech is one-sided and shallow, making it seem pretentious or maybe just an afterthought. This is not a meaningful documentary about free speech, yet at the same time, there is no in-depth exploration of how the F-word is used (e.g., what does “fuck off” even mean, really?), so in the end, the film is not satisfying, but entertaining nevertheless.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Look Both Ways: Grade B


Look Both Ways (2005)

Justine Clarke, William McInnis. Writer-Director: Sarah Watt. Australian.

This is a quiet contemplation on how we face death, as individuals and as a society. McInnis, a strapping, healthy-looking newspaper photographer, discovers he has runaway cancer and only a short while to live. He meets Clarke, a starving artist, at the site of an accident where she saw a man run over by a train. They are attracted to each other for different reasons. He searches for comfort and intimacy to assuage his terrifying prospect. She looks to satisfy her loneliness and maybe to quiet her biological clock. But they don’t speak these things to each other. An interesting technique is that Clarke’s character imagines dreadful disasters happening to herself and others, at every moment. These imaginations are depicted in intercut penciled or water color animations. As she looks at a train, we see a spectacular train wreck. At the pool we see swimmers chomped in half by sharks. It is an innovative way to show a character’s thoughts, but it is poorly used, as her obsession with horrible accidental death does not play into the main story. The technique works a little better with McInnis’ character, who tries to imagine what he did to “catch” cancer. There are also some loosely related substories. The driver of the train that struck the man is overcome with grief and eventually delivers his condolences to the widow in a touching scene. A colleague of McInnis at the newspaper discovers his girlfriend is pregnant and is reluctant to accept responsibility as he struggles to manage his two young children and argue with his ex-wife. The movie is quiet and slow, but very well acted, especially by Clarke, and the themes of confronting both birth and death are humanly compelling. And it is nice to see Australia (Adelaide, I think it was). The music was Aussie pop, lost on me, but mostly inoffensive. This is a zero-budget indie that will be hard to find, but worth looking for.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Running on Karma: Grade B


Running on Karma (2003)

Andy Lau, Cecilia Cheung, Directors: Johnny To & Ka-Fai Wai

Chinese (Hong Kong), subtitled.

Lau is an ex Buddhist monk who specialized in martial arts and is now a Hulk-like body builder and stripper-exotic dancer. He is gifted, or cursed, with the ability to see people’s karma, a sort of clairvoyance in which he foresees a person’s fate and the karmic reason for it. He is busted for indecent exposure by policewoman Cheung but he ends up episodically helping her pursue bad guys, saving her from harm, and eventually a sort of relationship develops between them. At least she declares her love for him. It is not clear that he ever feels anything. The karmic clairvoyance story is interesting but soon becomes too muddled to make sense as a plot device. What’s left is the strength of the film, its sheer visual originality. Lau wears an enormous balloon of a muscle suit, clearly indicating a comic character. Yet he flips and turns his kung-fu moves as gracefully as a ballerina (on wires), can climb up the side of a building like a gecko, and leap through the air as if flying. It is CGI and video game syntax, yet “Biggie,” as he is known, is not a fantasy superhero. The movie keeps such a tone of realism that amazingly, we are seduced into a dreamlike world in which we can accept the reasonableness of his incredible actions. The movie creatively uses the visual medium in a completely original way, and that’s well worth seeing, even if narrative content is weak.

À Tout De Suite : Grade B


À Tout De Suite (2004)

Isild Le Besco, Ouassini Embarek, Director Benoît Jacquot

French, subtitles (B&W)

When you’re 19 years old, your brain is not even fully formed so it’s no wonder if you lack judgment. Le Besco is swept away in love/sex/infatuation for a studly young fellow she meets at a dance club, because when you’re 19, love/sex/infatuation seems to define a relationship more real than any other. Alas, her fellow turns out to be a criminal and must go on the run after a bank robbery in which two people were killed. Since she “loves” him, naturally she leaves her family without a word and runs off with him to Spain then Morocco and Greece. Inevitably, he ditches her and she is left penniless and alone in a foreign country. She uses her wits and sexuality to make do until finally rescued by her Parisian parents. Has she learned anything; grown up at all? One imagines yes, but the movie only hints at a transformation. So what is the point then? It is simply a study of 19-year old confusion and searching for meaning. As that, it is pretty good. Le Besco’s face is not typical for a movie star, and that makes her more real, forcing you to look deeper to her psyche. The film’s style is that grainy, black-and-white look of a Goddard movie from the 1960’s, with beautiful sets and long, lingering, silent camera shots. I like that, but in fact this is not a 1960’s film, so the style is a gratuitous homage. All très French.