Monday, April 30, 2007

10 Items or Less: Grade B


10 Items or Less (2006)

Morgan Freeman, Paz Vega. Writer, director Brad Silberling.

Freeman plays Morgan Freeman, a fading movie star researching a role by observing a neighborhood grocery store in a small southern California town. (Details like flaking green paint cue squalor, with no cars in the lot and few customers, but the spacious, well-lighted store has an enormous inventory. Odd). Freeman meets checkout clerk Vega, from whom he bums a ride home, but then decides to help her get ready for an interview for an office job. They have several innocuous adventures. The light comedy arises from mild cultural differences and Freeman’s fish-out-of-water disorientation as he sees the life of a working class Latina through the eyes of a movie actor. More of that could have produced a strong satire rather than a weak buddy movie. Vega is not as striking as Penelope Cruz, which will help her avoid stereotypy, but she is good looking, her Spanish accent just as charming, and her acting outstanding. A rising star, I would say. Freeman’s character is undeveloped, making him goofy, not really engaged in the relationship. Vega goes through a mild character change, winning self confidence and determination to succeed. Freeman is untouched by anything. Dramatic tension, such as it is, comes from tiny banalities (Is the shirt the right color or not? Omigod!). Music is good: Mexican Hip-hop and Paul Simon. Vega is the big draw, and the humor makes this modest slice of life watchable. DVD extras on “the making of” are informative.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Does God Exist?: Grade B


Does God Exist?

Writer, director, producer, editor, cinematographer: Antoine Douchet. Actors Keith Eyles and John Rakham.

This zero-budget independent will be hard to find, but is worth looking for. It is shot in hand held video so although we don’t see him, we have the point of view of Victor, a French police officer documenting a serial killer investigation in England. The shaky picture can get tiring, but is generally well used and gives the tone of a reality show like “Cops.” The serial killer, who calls himself God, also carries a hand-held, so we look down the gun barrel as he pops at least a dozen people. There are allusions to “The Terminator” movies and some amusing penis acting you don’t see very often. The plentiful humor in this movie has the sensibility of a college student, so it surprising to learn that Douchet is 40 years old. The whole thing seems like a film school project, but rather than characterize it as amateurish, I would call it “ultra-new wave.” It breaks so many moviemaking traditions, I think it could define a future direction. Worth seeing.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Queen: Grade C


The Queen (2006)

Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen. Director Stephan Frears.

Princess Diana died in a car crash in 1997, and this is the story of how the queen failed to respond immediately to the public outpouring of grief, and of how new prime minister Blair cajoled her into finally making a public statement. Archival news footage shows Princess Di in public appearances, to tug at your nostalgic heart strings, if any. Mirren does Lizzy II down to the waddle, but it is more than a fine impersonation. She brings real complexity to the role and her Oscar is well deserved. Costumes and sets are perfect; dialog is believable. Music is over the top. There is a fine symbolic subtheme involving a 14-point stag representing the crown. The problem is that nothing is at stake. True, the royal family did not make an immediate statement about Diana’s death. Gosh and golly, how serious is that? Monarchy is a British cultural obsession that eludes us Yanks. It seems like everyone at Number 10 and Balmoral spend all their time watching television news and reading newspapers. Sadly, that might be right. This drama might have made a good brain-dead television show, but as a feature film, save Mirren’s performance, it is unremarkable.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Notes on A Scandal: Grade C


Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett. Director Richare Eyre.

Amazing acting by Dame Judi raises this work up from near failure to average. She has you riveted to her face just by the way she smokes a cigarette. She plays a pathologically lonely spinster who tries emotional blackmail on Blanchett to secure an intimate friendship. Dench happens to see Blanchett having sex with one of their school’s students, and promises to keep the secret in return for friendship. Never mind that it is statutory rape and they both could go to prison. Blanchett’s character is a cipher. She acts irrationally and since we don’t know anything about her, there is no reason for her behavior, personality, profession, husband, or any of her choices. Anything she does is unmotivated so it’s difficult to care about her relationship with Dench. Add to that a droning voice-over narrative by Dench, supposedly representing entries in her diary (the titular “notes” on the scandal), and the audience is held six feet away from engagement. Dench’s character has some kind of severe personality disorder. If somebody is nuts, they can do or say anything without regard to common sense because hey, they’re nuts! But as a result, the audience can’t relate, so when Dench turns vengeant for some trivial reason, we don’t even care. This story has about as much psychological reality as an afternoon soap opera on TV. The music by Philip Glass is good, but it is manipulated into service of melodrama, with swelling violins at the “emotional” moments, pizzicato cello for tension. That spoils both the music and the drama. Still, Dench’s performance is worth seeing as its own tour de force.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Last King of Scotland: Grade B


The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington. Director Kevin MacDonald.

Whitaker is Idi Amin, the genocidal dictator of Uganda in the 1970’s. McAvoy is a young Scot doctor (too young, it seems to me) who becomes his personal physician. Showing their relationship reveals Amin as a paranoid psychopath and the Doc, who seems to have no common sense, realizes too late he is in over his head. Whitaker delivers an amazing performance but there is little historical context for it. Not all of us are clear on where Uganda even is, let alone the circumstances that motivated Amin's actions thirty years ago. There are fleeting moments suggesting Amin was legitimately panicked and confused, maybe not just a degenerate nutjob. Those fascinating suggestions are tribute to Whitaker’s skill. I wished for more context so we could understand what the characters were thinking. Many deleted scenes provided connective tissue and they should have been left in, cutting instead dancing and singing in colorful native costumes. Sixty seconds of that would have been more than plenty. Kerry Washington, who was fabulous in “Ray,” gives another standout performance.

Color Me Kubrick: Grade B


Color Me Kubrick (2006)

John Malkovich. Director Brian Cook

Malkovich is a brilliant actor and this is a vehicle for him to shine, a light comedy in which he plays a Stanley Kubrick impersonator. By talking like a movie director (more like a producer, actually) dropping big names and alluding to new “projects”, he manages to get free drinks, hotel rooms, cigarettes and sexual partners until he is finally found out.It’s a commentary on how ordinary people and even movie insiders lose all critical thinking capacity when they’re around the rich, famous, and powerful.That’s not much of a premise to sustain a whole movie and Malkovich is way better than the movie. But it’s funny and he is terrific, especially for his dedicated fans.Honor Blackman, who was Pussy Galore in 1964’s Goldfinger, looks remarkably good (at 80 years old!) in a bit part.

Monday, April 16, 2007

3 Needles: Grade D


3 Needles (2006)

Stockard Channing, Lucy Liu, Chloe Sevigny, Sandra Oh, Olympia Dukkakis, Shawn Ashmore. Director Thom Fitzgerald.

Three and a half short stories about the AIDS epidemic are dramatized. The first (and best) full story has Liu as a black market Chinese blood dealer. With unsterile equipment she accidentally spreads AIDS through three villages. Her acting is subtle and the scenery is great, but the point of the story is what? AIDS exists? AIDS is terrible? The main theme uniting all three stories is that greed trumps morality when it comes to AIDS education, prevention and care.

In the second story, a porn actor in Montreal (Ashmore) disguises his blood test and continues working even after he suspects he is HIV-positive. His mother (Channing) pulls an insurance scam so they can at least die high on the hog. Again, greed trumps morality. Channing gives the best performance in the film. I’ve always thought she is underrated.

All the sex scenes in this movie are puerile and prurient. There are a lot of ways to present porn in the context of an AIDS story without trying for (unachievable anyway) shock value. The same in the other two stories: Lucy Liu was gang raped in a van – something not essential to her story. In the third story, a nun strips and her body is sensuously explored by the heavy. While many characters in the movie inexplicably don’t seem to know that AIDS is an STD, there is, of course, no connection between crude, shocking, or violent sex and AIDS. Any kind of sex will do it. Is the director trying to make an irrational quasi-moral connection? If so, that would be shocking.

The final full story has three Catholic nuns in a South African village trying to bring souls to Jesus before they perish from the epidemic. This story has a palpable sense of place, but its purpose is not clear. Some young boys steal used needles, repackage them as new and sell them. Again, greed trumps morality, although perhaps the boys are too young to understand AIDS. A second theme has Sevigny offer her body to the plantation owner in exchange for cash for the mission. Presumably she has a high moral purpose, but the bottom line that is she repeatedly prostitutes herself. And the point about AIDS is…?

Finally, there is a half story of some African tribal boys going through a circumcision ritual. It is well filmed, and one cringes at the bloody, unsterilized knife being reused, but other than that allusion, the segment is unfinished and unrelated to the rest of the movie, except that it is consistent with the offensive and destructive subtext that only "bad" people, including porn actors, darkies, pagans, peasants, and ignorant foreigners get AIDS. We do not see a story of AIDS striking a rich white family in Boston.

An extremely obnoxious feature is a stentorian narrator (it might be Dukkakis), who adds zero value. The narration is apparently to thump witless viewers over the head, spoiling whatever artistic effect might have been achieved with pictures alone. In the end, does the narrator conclude that greed trumps morality? No. Contrary to the previous 2 hours of film, she concludes that the AIDS epidemic is God’s fault. What? This seems to have been a well-intended didactic effort but it is so coarse and chaotic it delivers no message but a pseudo moralistic stench.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Conejo en la Luna: Grade A


Conejo en la Luna (2006)

Jesús Ochoa, Adam Kotz; Writer, Producer & Director: Jorge Ramirez-Suarez. Spanish (subtitled)

Truckloads of grit fill this urban crime thriller. Set in Mexico city and London, it is a dark, creepy story of government corruption at the highest levels. To cover up an assassination, an innocent couple and their friends are picked as suspects, but all does not go as planned. There are high suspense chases, paranoid suspicions, evil henchmen, and scenes of dark desperation. The body count is high, but guts and gore minimal, as vics are shot off camera. It’s also a cultural commentary about the helplessness and hopelessness that corruption visits on ordinary citizens. The ending is realistic but not entirely happy. What makes the film great is the intricate plotting, full of entirely plausible surprises, no red herrings, and edge-of-seat tension throughout. I love a tight plot. Acting is good, music is strange but interesting, more sound effects than music, but the editing is terrible, to the point of being jerky. Film noir doesn’t get better than this.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bobby: Grade D


Bobby (2006)

Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, William Macy, many others. Written and Directed by Emilio Estevez.

This is not a movie about Bobby Kennedy. It is about two dozen ordinary people who were in the hotel where he was shot in 1968. Some short archival clips show him making speeches, adding authenticity to the setting, but there is no exploration of the man, his policies or achievements. It is not a political movie. The two dozen "little people" are played by a huge cast of stars, which implies the Estevez-Sheen family is very well connected in Hollywood, because the roles are all light throwaways and what acting is present is suffocated by the clunky dialog and stereotyped characters. Even Hopkins gasps for air. There is no dramatic tension. We know Kennedy gets shot, and that is dramatized in the last moments, but the preceding hour and a half is an exercise in banality, people worrying about their shoes or the Dodgers. The Vietnam war is vaguely in the background. I give credit for meticulous period sets and costumes, although everything is so new and shiny they are not entirely convincing. Period music burbling in the background is a fine tease (I don’t think I have heard Donovan since 1968). But the script is appallingly mundane and full of anachronisms (Operators did not say “How may I direct your call?” in 1968, and nobody said “Have a nice day.”) If the nostalgia is not even right, what is left? If you did not live through that period, I cannot imagine what possible interest this movie would offer.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Volver: Grade C


Volver (2006)

Penelope Cruz. Director Pedro Almodovar. (Spanish, subtitled)

A daughter (Cruz) was estranged from her mother when the mother was believed to have died but the mother unexpectedly returns from years in hiding, providing a chance for mother-daughter reconciliation. That’s not exactly a fresh story, but Almodovar makes every scene so visually compelling it’s like visiting an art gallery. Cruz is unquestionably easy on the eyes and she gives a performance more realistic than a stereotype (as she was in Bandidas, for example). This light comedy is a vehicle to display her acting (but not singing) talent, and the director’s own prowess, and it is successful to that extent. Her mother reveals implausible dark secrets from the past, but Cruz does not reveal her own secrets, either to her mother, her daughter, or her sister. None of the relationships feels authentic. Almodovar has Cruz sitting on the toilet, doing laundry, cooking, singing, smelling farts, and denying that she’s had work done on her breasts, apparently to move her from bigger-than-life female icon to ordinary working woman in a suburb of Madrid. But if he wanted to humanize her, he should have put her in a character that had a real developmental arc instead of in this cutesy, slightly ditzy role where she is at all times, Penelope Cruz.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Good Shepherd: Grade B


The Good Shepherd (2006)

Robert DeNiro, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Michael Gambon, Joe Pesci, John Turturro. Director Robert DeNiro.

It seems like DeNiro wanted to create a “Godfather” epic here, using the founding and development of the CIA instead of the Mafia in America (Francis Coppola produced). But it doesn’t work. What made the Godfather stick together was the Corleone family. Here the family of early CIA agent Damon is only sketched. He drifts into spy work from his network at Yale, and his father was a spy with the OSS, but we never see him choose that career with passion. There is a faint suggestion that Damon needs to compensate for his father’s failure but that is very faint. I might have imagined it. Damon is forced to marry Jolie but the passionless marriage does not survive his six years abroad. His mixed-up son gets involved with a woman with questionable security so Damon is torn between protectiveness, permissiveness, and duty.

The movie is episodic, with numerous mini-stories of deception, paranoia and backstabbing, but there is no momentum. The Godfather was also episodic but the themes of building the crime empire, ensuring family loyalty, and going legitimate, were overarching. There is nothing like that here. It is just “one damn thing after another.” The long (160 minute) run time would have been tolerable if there had been a thread to follow. The acting is adequate, the music good, and individual episodes, written Le Carre style, are directed with a real sense of cloak and dagger, but it is all unconnected. Annoying cliche green filters are overdone. Damon is completely unexpressive, almost catatonic throughout. In Godfather III, Pacino was catatonic but conveyed seething menace. Here Damon has no interiority. It would be great to see a Godfather-like epic moving through the cold war, but this isn’t it.

Death of a President: Grade C


Death of a President (2006)

Co-writer, director: Gabriel Range

George W. Bush is assassinated by a sharpshooter while traveling in Chicago (on October 19, 2007). This fake documentary tells the story in retrospect as if it were a “Frontline” news analysis or a segment on “60 Minutes”. It uses all the clichés of those shows, such as news footage interspersed with interviews of key players like FBI investigators and family members of suspects. Some of the news clips are real and used to good effect. For example, eulogies delivered at former president Gerald Ford’s funeral are edited to be appropriate for a Bush funeral. Some news clips are realistically staged. There are fake video security camera tapes and fake interviews using the standard shallow depth of field portrait shot of highlighted, high-contrast people recalling “how it was.” It is a realistic-looking documentary but it overlooks the fundamental fact that such documentaries are generally boring as dirt. They actually don’t give much information (like exactly how the security failed, the background and motivation of the shooter, the forensic trail, the political consequences, etc.), but rely on dramatic music and a deep-voiced announcer to imply gravity, and use irrelevancies to pad out 5 minutes of whodunit suspense to 90. The result is air salad. Creating a good simulation of something so empty is not much of an achievement. There is also a gratuitous left-wing criticism of Bush foreign policy and the Patriot Act. A fake counterfactual documentary is a clever idea but the novelty wears off quickly. The shock value of imagining the assassination of George W. Bush dissipates even more quickly.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Blood Diamond: Grade C


Blood Diamond

Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly. Director Edward Zwick.

This movie earns a C instead of a D because the story of conflict diamonds is important and it is clearly told here. The message is pounded in with heavy handed speechifying, but I give credit for trying. Also, DiCaprio does a fine acting job, with a convincing Afrikaans accent, although he is too delicate to be fully believable as a crusty, he-man adventurer. Hounsou doesn't have many lines but is a physical actor who projects a lot of presence. I hope we see more of him. Connelly is wasted by the abyssmal dialog. (To L.D. dying, "I'm really glad I met you." L.D.: "I'm really glad I met you too."). She was so good in House of Sand and Fog, it is inexcusable to reduce her to a pretty face. The story is almost, but not quite the life-cycle of one huge raw diamond found by Hounsou in Sierra Leone. DiCaprio is a smuggler who wants to sell it to a thinly disguised DeBeers corporation. Connelly is a reporter trying to expose the blood diamond trade. Meanwhile rebels are overthrowing Sierra Leone by indiscriminate killing and recruiting of child soldiers. Corrupt generals on all sides also compete for the special diamond. Amazingly, after the second village slaughter, I became bored with slaughter. Have Hollywood editors lost all independence? I personally could have cut this movie back from 2.5 hours to 90 minutes. The African scenery is nice, but also repetitive. The violence is shocking at first, but soon I started trying to see how the special effects blood spurts were achieved. There are about 5 themes here, each worthy of a movie, but just when you think the movie is over, another theme is introduced. That's called rambling.

Cars: Grade B


Cars (2006)

Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, others (as voices). Director John Lasseter.

Animation is the star of this Pixar/Disney movie. Throughout, I marveled at the computing power needed to render the complex reflections and motion effects that made the animated surfaces and movements look so good. In fact the weakest part was the background scenery, which Snow White artists could have done as well. Also, everything was too bright. Even the shadows were bright, which detracted from the realism. The car characters however were near-perfect, despite some anthropomorphic awkwardness involving hands, arms and shoulders (how would a car operate a camera, anyway?) Wilson was perfect in the lead.

The story is typical sentimental claptrap reinforcing normative stereotypes, which is why I find all Disney films so depressing. In this case the themes were that community trumps individualism, simplistic aesthetics are best, cramped, change-resistant, small-minded, small town values are best, all steeped in 60's nostalgia. Still, the voice acting was terrific, the realizations of character in the cars was excellent, and the dialog was genuinely funny, subtle at times, and consistently strong enough to sustain the piffle of a story. I understand that NASCAR is all the rage these days, but I had to fast forward through many repetitive turns around the track. The extended tipping tractors joke could have been cut. Kids will love this movie for decades to come.