Sunday, June 24, 2007

George Carlin: Life is Worth Losing: Grade C


George Carlin: Life is Worth Losing (2005)

Carlin is a modern master and I am a long time fan. But in this, his 13th HBO stand-up, he fulminates unrelentingly against people and life with little leavening from irony or nonsequitur. He wants to start a live suicide show on cable to demonstrate how stupid people are. He dwells on the details of autoerotic asphyxia. He describes an apocalyptic world of fire, flood and total destruction. The material is imaginative, poetically written, and energetically delivered, but is it funny? There are some funny ideas sandwiched into this breathless, high-speed recital, but for the most part, it comes across as the ravings of an old geezer. Standout material is his well-known introductory poem: “…I've been inputted and outsourced. I know the upside of downsizing I know the downside of upgrading. I'm a high tech low-life. A cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, bi-coastal multitasker and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond. I'm new wave but I'm old school and my inner child is outward bound…” It’s a marvelous piece that will go down in comic history. He also makes some acerbic remarks about American politics and culture that really bite, but these are brief. “It's called the American Dream. Because you have to be asleep to believe it.” The rest is just ranting. His language is as Carlin-esque as ever and that’s an enjoyable art form in its own right, but where is the guy who used to take the little sewing kit in the hotel room and sew buttons onto the lampshades "just to leave a mark?” An artist has a right to change to a new mode, but I miss his sublime silliness.

American Cousins: Grade C

American Cousins (2003)

Gerald Lepkowski, Shirley Henderson, Danny Nucci, Vincent Pastore, Dan Hedaya. Director Don Coutts.

A couple of American mobsters (Hedaya and Nucci) on the run lay low in Glasgow with some Italian-Scots relatives who run a café (Lepkowski and Henderson). The mobsters claim to be in “public relations” but Henderson suspects Mafia. When local extortionists put pressure on the restaurant owner (Lepkowski), the Jersey boys know how to handle it. Satire of the mobster genre is delicious and this indie movie could have used a lot more of that. But actually the central story is the developing romance between Henderson and Lepkowski, with some jealousy provided by the charming Nucci. The characters are attractive but the drama is without tension. There is a flash-bang gun battle but it is not distinctive or memorable in any way except that nobody gets killed. The ending is a humorous but mild and strained joke. Watchable, inoffensive, amusing.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Half Nelson: Grade A

Half Nelson (2006).
Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie. Co-writer, Director: Ryan Fleck.
A young junior high school teacher (Gosling) is a drug addict who means well by the kids but can’t focus on the curriculum. In fact, it’s not believable that he could hold down that job at all, although we do see him become increasingly disturbed as the movie progresses. He strikes up a special friendship with a 13-year old student (Epps) whose brother is in prison, her single mom desperately trying to make ends meet, and drug dealer family friend (Mackie) providing financial support. The drug dealer and the teacher know each other and vie to protect the child. The drug dealer is the more sympathetic character, his occupation just a value-neutral "job," with no connection to the destruction of the teacher's life, portrayed as a lifestyle choice. That complex theme could have been developed a lot more. The friendship between teacher and student is tender and mostly unspoken, and not at all sexual, like Lost in Translation. The acting is fantastically good, especially by Epps and Gosling. The down side includes long, pointless musical interludes, and mind-numbing domestic scenes such as feeding the cat, making the bed. When we see Gosling's parental family wickedly satirized in a domestic scene, that defines his character, but there is no need to show mindless domestic chores. The audience has more imagination than that. If I see one more person brushing his or her teeth, I am going to spit. A classroom theme highlighting social intolerance and government malfeasance in American history takes up a lot of screen time for no purpose. This movie was developed from a short but they puffed too much air into it. The great characterizations and fine acting carry the day however.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ghost Rider: Grade C


Ghost Rider (2007)

Nicolas Cage, Peter Fonda, Sam Elliot. Writer, director: Mark Steven Johnson

A young man sells his soul to the devil (Fonda) to save his father’s life. He becomes the devil’s sleeper cell. Fonda is a slow-talking, ironic devil, like Jack Nicholson without the menace. There are nice visual allusions to Easy Rider. The wit in this movie is its most attractive feature and Cage has some fine comedic moments, but it is not a consistent trait as it was for Bruce Willis in the Die Hard series. A lost opportunity there. As an adult, Cage must find and destroy the devil’s son before some nonsensical McGuffin is found. At that point, a good half hour into the movie, Cage morphs into Ghost Rider, a black-leathered dude with a flaming skull for a head, riding an enormous hog that leaves a trail of flames. The special effects are imaginative but rendered with cheese. GR’s assignment and strategy are unclear. He rips around town, burning up the highway, but pausing to save damsels in distress from urban punks, reminiscent of the Charles Bronson vigilante movies. There are also allusions to Dirty Harry, and later, to Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns. The flaming bike even behaves and sounds like a horse at times. And there’s a werewolf theme, as well as some Spider Man imagery as GR cycles up the vertical face of skyscrapers because he can. Any of these themes could have supported a story and/or parody, but the writer was directionless. Sam Elliot is a wonderful avuncular cowboy who gives Cage pointers on Ghost Riding. Finally there is a murky showdown between GR and Son of the Devil, though it is unclear what they are fighting over or how, since everyone is immortal and invincible. But Son of the Devil has dark eye makeup so he’s bad and must “die.” This whole movie is obviously designed to set up a franchise. Watch for Ghost Rider II: Avenger of Evil.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Beat That My Heart Skipped: Grade B

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). French, subtitled.

Romain Duris. Director Jacques Audiard

Duris is a 20’s something thug in modern Paris. He and his partners buy old apartments, evict the tenants and sell. His aging father is also a slumlord and he sometimes asks the son to beat up somebody who doesn’t pay the rent. Duris is a chameleon who can turn from quiet reflection to head-bashing violence in an instant. It’s a fabulous acting job. By chance he meets an old piano teacher who rekindles his love of the instrument and he imagines himself as a concert pianist. He takes brush-up lessons from a Chinese instructor who speaks no French but the music and the body language are enough for them to communicate. When she yells at him in frustration, we know exactly what she means without understanding a word. He struggles with two lives– business thug and concert pianist – right up to the final moment of the movie. The structure is episodic: beat up a guy here, meet a girl there, play a few tunes. There is no suspense except the question of whether or not he will be successful as a concert pianist, and that idea doesn’t hold much water. A person must start playing the piano in the womb and continue a lifelong obsession to even have a remote shot at such a goal. One does not just take a few lessons after decades as a real estate “enforcer.” And anyway, his playing is not so good, so it is quite a shock to find that he is eventually successful, even though he still beats up guys from time to time. That’s got to be hard on the hands. The character is so improbable that it’s difficult to be engaged in the story, which wanders aimlessly from one scene to the next. Still, the acting is great and the directing is stylistic. Worth a look.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Breaking and Entering: Grade B

Breaking and Entering (2006)

Jude Law, Juliette Binoche, Robin Wright Penn, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone. Director Anthony Minghella.

Where were the editors on this one? It is a very slow moving 2-hour tale of a London architect (Law) in a strained relationship with his wife (Penn) and her hyperactive daughter. Why is the relationship strained? The story unconvincingly pins it on her chronic depression but it is clear that Law’s character is an insensitive, workaholic, psychopathic jerk. There are several misogynous themes like that. Penn excels at emotionally scrambled characters and she is in her element here with a fine performance. Law is the best I’ve ever seen him, but that’s not up to the level of Penn, Binoche, and Farmiga. He barks his lines, perhaps hoping fine diction will compensate for stiff acting. While watching his office at night for another attempted break-in, Law encounters Farmiga as a brazen and witty hooker. They strike up a friendship of sorts. It is a small part but Farmiga plays it to the hilt in an enjoyable and memorable performance. Binoche is a Serbian refugee whose son did the break-ins at Law’s firm. Law tracks the kid but when he meets the mother, he inexplicably falls in love with her and neglects to call the police. Binoche gives a subtle and rich performance, with a perfect accent. It is a pleasure to watch such excellent acting, but the endless scenes of domestic banality in this movie are just dead weight. Photography is noticeably good. The ending is Hollywood happy, not the least bit believable.

The Pursuit of Happyness: Grade D

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Will Smith, Jaden Smith (Will’s son), Thandie Newton. Director Gabriele Muccino.

My wife urged me to rent this movie because she adores Will Smith. I admit he is cute, and his son is even cuter, and Smith exudes earnestness here, but cute & earnest don’t offset an extremely syrupy story. He tries to sell a medical device that nobody wants, so he can’t make rent even though his crabby wife (Newton) works double shifts in a laundry. The landlord is howling at the door. Things get worse when the wife leaves and father and son must stay in a homeless shelter downtown. Smith applies for an extreme longshot stock broker’s job at Dean Witter. His wife says sarcastically, “Stock broker? Not astronaut?” and she is right to be incredulous. Nevertheless, he gets the job, and overlooking the fact that it is illegal to make sales calls without first passing the broker’s exam, Smith knocks himself out and eventually makes millions, which defines happiness, apparently. This trite morality tale shows how a smart, fit, hard-working guy with no vices, through no fault of his own, can find himself way down on his luck, yet maintain dignity, humor, compassion and ambition. That’s a nice fairy tale, even though it is hard so see why somebody his age with his experience, smarts and ambition would be in such a fix. Where’s his navy pension, for example? It might be an instructive story for kids under 12, but adults can skip it.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Seven Days of Grace: Grade F

Seven Days of Grace (2006)

Ria Coyne. Director Don E. FauntLeRoy

A thirtyish woman (Coyne) inherits a “ribs” restaurant from her father but did not get the recipe for the secret sauce. Oh, no! She and her girlfriends try to make a go of the restaurant before the landlord forecloses the mortgage. Grace is self-consciously cute and her five girlfriends are ostensibly “characters:” an unreconstructed hippie, a black leather-jacket tough, a dimwit, and so on. This is supposed to be a comedy but the humor escaped me. There is a slightly ironic, postmodern “arch” tone in the dialog that could be construed as funny, except it’s really just mind-numbingly banal. The premise lacks dramatic tension (how hard would it be to buy a cookbook?) and there is no story line. Performances are like a high school theater class, which must be a stylistic device, because professional actors could not really be that bad, but whatever effect it was trying to achieve, it didn’t.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes: Grade F

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005)

Amira Casar, César Saracho. Directors: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay.

The images are the main feature of this surrealistic fairy tale. In some kind of a dark world, an evil psychiatrist holds his patients prisoner and attempts to turn them into singing marionettes in his automated, mechanical music machines, which are a mixture of pin-ball, player piano, and 19th century mechanical toys. The piano tuner is supposed to repair the machines, but gets wise to the plot, which he possibly foils, or possibly not; it is impossible to tell. I’m a big fan of imaginative surrealism, but to appreciate the pictures, one must be able to see them. These images are extremely dark and muddy, mostly black and brown shadows with no detail, punctuated by blasts of overexposed, blinding light, creating silhouettes and high contrast close-ups of who knows what. Many shots are heavily gauzed and vignetted, just to be sure you don’t see anything. A very unpleasant movie to look at. The dialog was equally murky. Perhaps that was an artistic analogy to the visuals but there is hardly much value in an inaudible and incomprehensible sound track (some of it in untranslated, unsubtitled Portuguese). The music was too loud, consisting of inane strings expressing nonexistent tension, and meaningless sound effects. Acting: was there any acting? I couldn’t see. Story: was there any story? I couldn’t follow. I think the directors went over the edge of surrealism into pure obscurantism.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints: Grade C

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)

Robert Downey, Jr., Chazz Palminteri, Rosario Dawson, Dianne Wiest, Shia LaBeouf. Writer, Director: Dito Montiel

A long series of clichéd vignettes are strung into a loose story about an adolescent and his friends growing up on the mean streets of Queens in the 1980’s. Chazz Palminteri is the father, and although the Italian patriarch stereotype is a sort of Godfather, Palminteri escapes the Mafia schtik to deliver a standout acting performance. Dianne Wiest is terrific although she is directed badly, rushing her lines. Dawson has a small part, an “appearance” really, but she shines. Downey has a moment with her, but mostly he is catatonic. The rest is the usual tough kids talking tough, smoking, stealing, screwing, fighting. We’ve seen it all before. The Lords of Flatbush did it better in 1974. The second half becomes slightly more linear but not enough to save a story. The sets, costumes, and dialog are good. That, and some pockets of acting, raise the project up to watchable.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Seraphim Falls: Grade A


Seraphim Falls (2006)

Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson; Anjelica Huston. Director and co-writer: David von Ancken.

Set right after the U.S. Civil war (1867 or so), a grizzled cowboy in a black hat, ex-Confederate soldier, pursues another grizzled cowboy in a black hat, ex-Union soldier, through the beautiful landscape of New Mexico, from the snowy, pine-forested mountains to a desert basin devoid of vegetation. Motive: revenge. As we learn in a series of flashback dreams, Union soldier Brosnan had ordered Neeson’s house burned down, killing his wife and son, even though the war was over. Apparently, Brosnan did not get that memo. As a revenge movie, it is very well written, photographed, acted, and directed. Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns are referenced in the fine cinematography. I noticed no anachronisms. The music is excellent. Neeson and his gang hunt the wounded, staggering, bleeding, and freezing or desiccated Brosnan. But Brosnan evens the odds by using his wits against one pursuer at a time. The motivational story is not well-told (why did Brosnan do it?), and likewise the ending is unclear. I can’t give my interpretation without spoiling it. But this is not supposed to be a character movie. It’s all about the chase, which is excellently rendered. Neeson, usually wooden, is convincing in a taciturn part. And Brosnan, well, if you’ve seen Matador, you know the the cork is out of the bottle on him: he really can act. This is a strong A for the western genre.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth: Grade B


Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú. Director Guillermo del Toro. (Spanish, subtitled).

Chthonic is the word that comes to mind to describe this film. Along with dark, muddy, creepy, bloody, disturbing, and in the end, tragic. A preteen girl (Baquero) is brought with her pregnant mother to a military compound in Spain, in the mid 1930’s during the Spanish civil war (nice cars). The Captain, the woman's husband, but not father to the girl, is a Nationalist, hunting anti-fascist rebels in the woods around his compound. The girl lives in fantasy, which is the main theme of the movie. She enters into the underworld guided by insect-like fairies, and is instructed to undertake dangerous trials involving scary monsters, an allusion to Dante’s Inferno. The underground world, and much of the movie, is rendered in a dark blue tone that obscures detail and which I found very unpleasant to look at. However the animation effects, especially the fairies, are highly imaginative, and elevate the movie above mediocrity. There is no story, really. There are a few mini-melodramas, but no overall narrative. It is a hodge-podge of imagery from Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Brothers Grimm, and Mayan mythology. Good imagery it is, but even a fairy tale is supposed to be a tale, and there isn’t anything coherent here. The child’s point of view is not consistently held so it is not just a charming fantasy either. The above-ground theme of the civil war involves torture, blood and violence, making it not really a children’s movie, so you have to wonder who the target audience is. If there is an analogy between the underworld adventures and the politics of 1930’s Spain, I didn’t get it.