Monday, May 28, 2007

Fay Grim: Grade A


Fay Grim (2006)

Parker Posey, Jeff Goldblum, James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan. Writer-Director: Hal Hartley.

This is ostensibly a sequel to Hartley’s 1997 Henry Fool, but it is not necessary to have seen the earlier film. This one stands as a brilliant parody of international espionage thrillers, not the chase-and-explosion James Bond type, but the tricky, intellectual ones, like Syriana, The Good Shepherd, Bourne Identity, Manchurian Candidate, and the Le Carre thrillers like Tailor of Panama and Constant Gardener. Posey is an ordinary, single, suburban mom until CIA agent Goldblum tells her that her missing husband (Ryan) is not really dead, but a rogue, ex-CIA terrorist on the lam. The CIA needs his prison notebooks, which supposedly encode embarrassing state secrets, if not specifications for nuclear weapons. She agrees to help in exchange for releasing her poet brother (Urbaniak) from jail. International travel, assassins, double-crosses, murders and secret handoffs follow, but the send-up is subtle and ironic. There are a few goofy slapstick bits but this is no Austin Powers. Each scene is so well directed, acted, scripted and photographed, it is completely absorbing and believable, even if, after it is over, you realize it doesn’t make any sense (as is often the case in spy movies). There is real “spy” tension in each scene, even when characters say things that upon a moment’s reflection, are obviously self-parodies, allusions to other films, or self-referential jokes. Even the music is funny. I loved every minute of this movie’s 2.5 hours and never wanted it to end. On a larger view, the film satirizes Americans’ ignorance of world affairs, the chaos of post-cold war international relations, and the self-serving cynicism of intergovernmental espionage. There is an implied yearning for the “Spy Who Came In From The Cold” era. Goldblum says with furrowed brow, “Yes, I think Fay has gone over to the other side.” Her young son (Liam Aiken) asks pointedly, “The other side of what?” I haven’t seen Henry Fool, but I will, even though Fay Grim is a perfect multilayered comedy on its own.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Dead Girl: Grade A


The Dead Girl

Toni Collette, Piper Laurie, Giovanni Ribisi, Rose Byrn, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt, Kerry Washington. Writer-Director: Karen Moncrieff

A dead girl is found in a pasture. Five scenarios ensue showing the ripple effects into other people’s lives. All feature some kind of sub-psychotic mental disorder: clinical depression, substance abuse, psychopathy, and various severe personality disorders. It is interesting that on the DVD extras, the interviewed actors “explain” their characters as being tested by hard life and tough breaks but nobody, including the director, mentions mental abnormality. It’s hard to believe that is such a blind spot. Without that theme, there would be no movie because healthy people do not act like this. But as a writer/director’s gimmick, it justifies surreal acting. Kerry Washington as a hooker is astonishing. Newcomer Rose Byrne is completely absorbing. Toni Collette is so good she gives you the creeps. Marcia Gay is wonderful. Photography and directing are outstanding, especially a favorite fixed camera shot into one room from another room. I don’t know how the depth of field is controlled on those. Moncrieff has done mostly TV shows and that probably accounts for the episodic nature of the story, but the overall theme does unfold in an organic way. Only the mistaken identity of the girl in the morgue rings a false note. If you love good acting, this is the one.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Good German: Grade D


The Good German (2006)

George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Toby Maguire. Director Steven Soderbergh

Photography is the star of this black-and-white movie set in 1945 Berlin and Potsdam. Clooney is a reporter who “accidentally” encounters his German mistress from years ago (Blanchett). She does a skulking lady of mystery, acting well, but with no character to act around. Her husband, a proxy for Werner von Braun, is dead and now she hangs out with a young American GI (Maguire), hoping to find her way out of Germany. She puts off Clooney’s interest, if it interest is not too strong a word. They show no hint of former or current passion. It’s a clunker of a relationship. Maguire is horribly miscast, his manufactured and anachronistic effervescence grating on the nerves. The role needed a sly and sophisticated wheeler-dealer like James Garner in The Great Escape, or even a dark Peter Lorre type, and someone closer in age to Blanchett’s character. Clooney brings nothing but stone-faced mug shots to the role. The evil Russian is the only standout actor. The plot is not well-told and generates no tension. The only thing keeping your eyes on the screen is the photography, high-contrast, side-lit and bottom-lit stuff as from an old Bogart movie, well-shot and well-composed. The ending is a lame allusion to Casablanca. But even the photography loses its way at times, with bright light coming from the center of someone’s desk so their face can be lit from below. Still, the movie is worth watching with the sound off, just to appreciate the pictures.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Little Children: Grade A


Little Children (2006)

Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson. Director & co-writer: Todd Field

In this extremely well-written movie, Winslet is an unhappily married, affluent suburbanite who takes her toddler to the park and mingles with stereotypical suburban moms and their young children. The anthropological satire is biting, highlighted by voice-over from that deep-voiced guy who narrates PBS documentaries like Frontline. But it's a one-off joke, a result of having two writers. This is not really a comedy. Stay-at-home dad Wilson appears in the park with his toddler and he and Winslet strike up a conversation leading to a passionate adulterous relationship. She justifies her own behavior in a reading group discussing Madame Bovary. She describes Bovary as refusing to settle for a life of unhappiness regardless of circumstances or consequences. Wilson is a simple minded jock who cannot pass the bar exam, and is alienated from his beautiful, intelligent, high-achieving wife, Connelly. The adulterers would risk their lives, social status, families – everything – just to have sex on the washing machine or in the attic. What sense does that make? Sexual desire overcomes reason and responsibility. Meanwhile, there is a sexual predator living in the neighborhood, generating remarks among the characters about what should be done to him. The predator’s urges do not make sense either, but at least he knows he is slave to them, a self-awareness the other characters lack. We almost feel sympathetic toward the adulterers until we (led by Winslet) suddenly see how selfish and blind they have been. The ending is rushed, leaving us on our own to consider the meaning of what happens. The acting is riveting and whoever did the casting should get an award. Winslet confronts the camera honestly, without makeup in some scenes. Costumes, sets, and dialogs are perfect. This is an unblinking look at adult psychological development.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

.45: Grade B


.45 (2006)

Milla Jovovich, Angus Macfadyen, Sarah Strange, Aisha Tyler. Writer-Director: Gary Lennon

Jovovich looks as good as she did as God in “The Fifth Element,” and shows acting talent too. She is the battered girlfriend of sociopathic hoodlum “Big Al” (Macfadyen). Her social worker (Tyler) tries to convince her to move out, get a restraining order, etc., and Jovovich considers it, not because Al treats her like dirt and beats her senseless, but because he cut her hair. That’s going too far! It’s a revealing moment typical of the insightful script. Although the topic is dark and the scenes gritty, there is enough humor, surprise, and compassion to prevent it being a downer. There is something wrong with the directing though. Maybe it’s when secondary characters talk to the camera. They perform well and say interesting things, but they sound like actors rehearsing lines instead of characters. Even the main characters are often caught standing with hands at sides, at a loss for how to behave. The weak directing and slightly muddled ending detract from an otherwise fine film.

Deja Vu: Grade C

Déjà vu (2006)

Denzel Washington, Paula Patten. Director Tony Scott

Time travel movies are fundamentally sterile because of the familiar paradox: if you change the past, its future will not unfold as before, so you will not be in a position to change the past. Nonsense is thus guaranteed. Denzel is an ATF agent working with government technologists who have discovered how to use spacetime wormholes to see the past on a huge video screen. They are searching 4 days in the past for a crazy bad guy who blew up a New Orleans car ferry for no obvious reason. They identify him and arrest him (in the present tense, after the tragedy). But Washington wants to go into the past to save the life of one particular woman. Why? Because she’s cute. The plot does not quite hold water. Unlike Memento, to which it alludes, the logic is not tight. The romance has no basis either. The ATF voyeurs watch the girl in her home, tapping into our webcam consciousness, but of course she knows nothing of her watchers. The gee-whiz technology is well-done (reminiscent of 1998’s “Enemy of the State”), calling out our paranoia about NSA snooping. Denzel is highly watchable, but overall this is a quickly forgettable picture.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Code Name: The Cleaner: Grade C


Code Name: The Cleaner (2007)

Cedric the Entertainer, Lucy Liu. Dir=Les Mayfield

This one must have caught me in a silly mood, because I enjoyed it, even though it is ridiculous. Cedric is a building janitor but he wakes up next to a dead body and a briefcase full of money, and with amnesia. He decides he must be a secret agent. Predictably, bad guys pursue him, but it’s not the money they want, no, it's a computer chip holding a video game, which actually disguises plans for a WMD. I said it was silly. He befriends waitress Liu, who is not who she appears to be (A waitress with a Saab should have been a tip off). A great moment was Liu affecting a disbelieving black woman’s attitude as Cedric tries to explain his involvement with another woman. An irrelevant, crazy song and dance routine was also good fun. Most of the humor stays close to bump-the-head slapstick and obvious gags, but there is some subtlety. Filmed partly in Seattle made it fun for me, also. Liu’s infectious giggle in the DVD extras is charming. I don’t think we have seen all she has to offer.

Moonlight: Grade B


Moonlight (2002)

Laurien Van den Broeck, Hunter Bussemaker Director Paula van der Oest. (Netherlands, mostly in English, no subtitles).

This older film just popped up at my video store, or maybe I just happened to find it. A young Middle-Eastern boy is a drug mule in The Netherlands. The bad guys shoot him and leave him for dead (for no obvious reason), but he survives and finds his way to a wooden shed, where the young girl (Van den Broeck), discovers him bleeding to death and tends him back to relative health, without telling her fabulously wealthy parents. These kids are portrayed as about 10 years old. The children communicate mostly by gesture, signs, charades, and intuition. In fact there is remarkably little dialog in this movie and it would have been a fine achievement to do the whole thing without any. The bad guys pursue the boy, so the two kids run away (it is not clear why she does not just tell her parents). They hitchhike, stowaway in a truck and end up in a city in Belgium. The scenery and photography are good. But then the charming buddy movie collapses. The kids spontaneously start smoking, drinking, snorting cocaine, and having sex. It could happen, I guess, but that’s not the movie I was watching for the first hour. The ending is contrived and predictable, but overall, the European sensibility, the economy of dialog, and good acting by the girl, make this watchable.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Alpha Dog: Grade A


Alpha Dog (2006)

Justin Timberlake, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Shawn Hatosy, Anton Yelchin, Sharon Stone, Bruce Willis. Writer, Director: Nick Cassavetes.

A gang of mostly white, young, drug-dealing hoodlums in LA go about their low-life activities, talking trash, strutting macho, objectifying decorative females, drinking beer (Heineken only in this movie), smoking tobacco and weed. It’s a depressing start, watching a bunch of dim bulbs.

But the pace quickens as we find that a couple of characters owe money to Hirsch, the gangleader-Godfather (looking and acting a bit like DiCaprio) who lords it over them. He’s got perfect gangleader moves, expressions, and psychopathic smiles. Foster, one of the debtors, ignites the screen with his intense performance. He sizzles like Ben Kingsley did in Sexy Beast. Genuinely scary. His little brother (Yelchin) is kidnapped as debt leverage, and Timberlake becomes his minder. Timberlake’s acting is subtle and nuanced, a revelation.

And speaking of revelations: Sharon Stone as the kidnapped boy’s mother. Where has that performance been all her career? Unbelievable. There is a lot of outstanding acting in this movie: stars of tomorrow. The directing is hard to describe, but the result feels real, human, and intimate, not cartoony like so many gangster movies. The influence of the Godfather and Goodfellas is evident, but these gangsters are scary because they haven’t got a clue. Their wealthy, self-obsessed, absent parents render a subtle social commentary. Some split screen shots showing different camera angles add interest, but I didn’t understand what they meant. This movie was a real surprise. It will be a classic.