Monday, July 30, 2007

The Lost Room, "Play All" Version: Grade A


The Lost Room (2006)

Peter Krause, Julianna Margulies, Kevin Pollak, Directors: Craig R. Baxley & Michael W. Watkins

The DVD main menu lists several segments, such as “The Key,” “The Comb,” etc. At the bottom of the list there is a button for “Play All,” which I clicked. After 42 minutes, one goes to the second DVD where the same situation prevails, to play the last 30 minutes or so of the movie.

The result is a dizzying, surrealistic head trip that I quite enjoyed. So much is unexplained, including the central thesis of the story, that the viewer must use very active imagination to keep up. Yet there is enough skeleton in that 75 minute movie to drive the characters and the plot, making the movie an exhilarating, creative sci-fi / horror journey.

One learns that there is a room in an derelict, abandoned motel near Gallup, NM, in which ghosts are held prisoner, some since 1961 when “something” happened (we know not what). The protagonist (Krause) wants to rescue his 5 year old daughter from the room. How she got in there or became a ghost is unknown. There are a lot of non sequiturs, but one must go with the flow, for no details are given. The point is, as in Dante’s Inferno, that the hero wants his girl back. The key to the room is the key to the plot, for it is a magic key that not only opens the door but activates the ghosts.

The magic key is sought by sinister groups of “object hunters” who covet it and several other magic objects, like the comb and the bus ticket. Each object has a unique magic power, some lethal. We see the objects used in the movie, and can only surmise their backstory, but we get the picture that they are magic and that there are desperate bad people hunting them. A travel alarm clock apparently trumps most other objects in this intricate “paper-scissors-rock” scenario. It’s a wild, creative ride, and an interesting metaphor for the common person's anger at science for having demystified life.

Well, it turns out that the full story of all the objects is told if you click on each segment individually instead of “Play All,” which does not play all. It’s a software error on the DVD (or maybe not). I wondered why they needed two disks for a 75 minute movie.

A little research revealed that this is or was a television miniseries on the Sci-Fi channel and the whole story runs to six hours. I never heard of it (I am one of only six people in America who does not have cable). Once I discovered what was up, I went back and started watching the individual segments, where everything was explained, but I soon lost interest and didn’t finish. I don’t like everything explained. I thought the weird, trippy surrealism of the 75 minute synopsis was perfect as cinematic art form. It was very well photographed, well-acted, extremely well edited, with good music and a compelling main story line (father saving daughter). The full 6 hour version is full of sci-fi gadget worship, writerly contrivances, and becomes tedious. I give my A grade to the “Play All” version.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Contract: Grade C


The Contract (2006)

Morgan Freeman, John Cusak. Director Bruce Beresford

Freeman can do a menacing bad guy, but he wasn’t very bad in this movie. He is an ex-government assassin (a lot of those on the loose, judging by Hollywood), now a mercenary hit man. The govt thinks his latest contract is on the president so they are in hot pursuit. Improbably, he finds himself separated from his team (why he needs a team at all is unclear), washed up on a riverbank (but unwrinkled and hardly wet) in the beautiful Cascade mountains in Washington. Cusack and his son, on an unlikely camping trip without a tent, find him and hold him at gunpoint because they believe the dying words of a nearby guy who claims to be a federal marshal. Freeman is inexplicably docile as they trek him through the woods, pursued by his evil team wearing night vision goggles, and also by “bad” govt agents who want everyone exterminated to avoid unspecified embarrassment. Imagine the gunfights! Including very loud choppers! What could be more exciting! Freeman and Cusack do their best, but they have nothing to work with.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Zodiac: Grade C


Zodiac (2007)

Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. Director David Fincher

The Zodiac killer terrorized San Francisco in the 1960s and 70’s but was never caught. Some murders are shown early in the movie but the bulk of the story is about the police investigation, which never gets off the ground and results in nothing. There is no tension in the story, just false leads, dead ends, and jurisdictional disputes. Early in the movie, RDJ plays Woodward against JG’s Bernstein in scenes gratuitously evoking All The President’s Men. Ruffalo as the police captain gives the best performance in the movie despite a stupid Columbo shtick that has him running around in a wrinkled raincoat. The period costumes and sets are so meticulous that they actually distract from the drama. You find yourself saying, “Wow, look at that Coke machine!” Even so, there were several dialog anachronisms. I liked the way Donovan’s “Hurdy-gurdy Man” took a sinister aspect by being associated with the killings, but period music was not used throughout. The real mystery is why nobody saw fit to edit this 2.5 hour movie to make a story out of it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Aura: Grade A


The Aura (2005)

Ricardo Darin, others. Writer, Director: Fabien Bielinsky. (Spanish, subtitled).

This Argentine story is mostly a psychological thriller, very well written, acted, directed and photographed. A couple of taxidermist buddies decide to go hunting (how ironic is that?). They get separated, and the quiet, extremely introverted, epileptic one stumbles onto a plan for an armored car robbery, after which the hunting theme continues metaphorically. The good part of the story is how the main character insinuates his way into the plot without really knowing what’s going on. The bad part is 2 hours and 13 minutes of length. I was never bored, but the pace is far too slow for a typical American audience. Every scene served a story purpose, but there were too many themes overall. I enjoyed the complexity and the careful setup however. The ending was slightly unsatisfying, psychologically questionable, but artistically correct. Original and enjoyable.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Amateur: Grade A


Amateur (1995)

Isabella Huppert, Martin Donovan, Elina Lohwenson. Director and writer: Hal Hartley.

I recently enjoyed Hartley’s Fay Grim, and then watched his earlier Henry Fool, and realized I am a Hal Hartley fan. So when I saw this older movie in my video store, I rented it, and it is a wonderful comedy. A mysterious man (Donovan) with total amnesia is befriended by an ex-nun (Huppert) who writes pornography so bad she can’t sell it. Their paths accidentally cross with a porn actress (Lohwenson) who thought she had killed Donovan, but now is herself being pursued by mafia types. It’s basically nonsense but the brilliant dialog delivered deadpan is hilarious. ("Why are these called floppy disks? They’re square. And they don’t flop"). There is a Monty Python element in one scene, and much spoofing of movie genres, but in general the tone is existential absurdity. The directing is innovative and dance-like. Photography is excellent, sets fabulous, music is wonderful. Pretty much a perfect movie (said the fan).

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Letters From Iwo Jima: Grade F


Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

Ken Watanabe. Director Clint Eastwood. (Japanese, subtitled).

This WWII movie does have one redeeming virtue and that is the photography, which is well composed and rendered just on the colored side of B&W. It’s a great look, but I already admired it in Flags of Our Fathers, the immediate predecessor to this movie, and here it is just more of the same, so no points. In fact I recognized several scenes in this movie that look like they had been clipped directly from the earlier one, which is kind of dishonest. The movie shows the invasion of Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view but there is nothing new. There are flashbacks to pre-war family scenes to make the point that “Japanese are people too.” I think after sixty years, that is not a point that needs to be made for Americans. In the movie, the soldiers bark at each other in stereotypical declarative fashion, obscuring any attempts at real acting. Some soldiers commit suicide, others are killed in battle. They all die, as we know from history. Overall, the movie is dark (though not muddy), since most of it takes place in caves, and the lighting is confusing at times. CGI war effects are crude, especially aircraft, but exothermic chemistry is in plentiful supply for those who enjoy explosions. I think this movie was grossly overrated because we all love Clint.

The Astronaut Farmer: Grade C


The Astronaut Farmer (2006)

Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Max Theriot, with bits from Bruce Willis and Jay Leno. Co-writer and director Michael Polish.

This low-budget independent movie is a “family picture” in two ways. The Polish brothers not only wrote and directed, and played several parts, but their totally adorable children (Sunshine and Stanley) also star in it. On the other hand, it is a Disney-esque family picture reminiscent of Field of Dreams. Dad (BBT) builds a space rocket in his barn to serve his dream of going into space. He spends all his money, mortgages the farm and upsets his wife (Madsen) in his mad quest. Will the rocket ever launch? Who cares? The premise and every detail of the story are completely unbelievable, so you just have to go with warm fuzzy sentimentality. The strongest part of the movie is the writing, and there are some genuinely funny lines. Acting is hammy and the kids are very tightly edited to make them cute. But it’s a mild family drama, not really a comedy.

Ever Since the World Ended: Grade A


Ever Since the World Ended (2006)

Unknown actors; Writer and co-director Calum Grant. Co director Joshua Litle.

An unnamed virus wiped out most of the world’s population a dozen years ago, and this is a documentary film interviewing the few survivors. There are only 186 people left in San Francisco (all middle-class white except for one Native American). The idea is to explore today’s society by imagining what it would be like without the population density and our social, technical, and economic infrastructures. How do communities get along without police and judges, for example? A small amount of electricity is available from storage batteries taken from millions of useless vehicles. Food comes from fishing and hunting, but oddly, not agriculture. What would education, religion, recreation be like? The movie does an adequate job of exploring these topics and it could be used in a high school social studies course to stimulate discussion. Unfortunately, the overall message is depressing. It seems that not a single intellectual survived the plague, so the story has dim-witted people doing and saying dim-witted things. Maybe that’s how it would be, who knows? The acting is so good, it is hard to believe the interviews are scripted. They are utterly believable and a pleasure to watch.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Daniel Tosh-Completely Serious: Grade A


Daniel Tosh: Completely Serious (2007)

Daniel Tosh.

This young standup is popular with college crowds, probably because his humor is slightly more cerebral than the run of the mill. He has obviously studied Dennis Miller and is fond of arcane allusions and long setups. Also like Miller, his material tends to be sarcastic yet well-observed and well-spoken. His Christian emphasis is offered with a light touch (as is the cross on the DVD cover), and is not offensive. What’s new about his act is the way he jokes about his own jokes (metajoking), drawing the audience’s attention to the joke structure and his writing skill. Example: “Notice how that joke had apples, pteradactyls and vaginas in it. How often does that happen?” All comics do metajoking to some extent, but Tosh raises it to a new level. It’s funny in a self-deprecating way and it flatters the intelligence of the audience.

Harsh Times: Grade B


Harsh Times (2005)

Christian Bale, Freddy Rodriquez, Eva Longoria. Writer-Director David Ayer.

Excellent acting makes this dark tragedy lift its head above banality. A couple of loser guys in their 30’s on the mean streets of contemporary LA, drink, smoke, do drugs, play with guns and generally act like stereotypical lowlifes while half-heartedly searching for jobs. By luck and circumstance, they do manage to get jobs, and take a disastrous trip to Mexico to celebrate. They return, have a shoot out, and the movie ends, so there is no real plot, just a series of incidents. A confusing story error has Bale sell his gun but continue to own it in later scenes. Character development is virtually non-existent because Bale’s character is a certifiable psychopath with overt symptoms of some kind of brain disorder that disposes him to unpredictable violence. The other characters gradually come to realize something is wrong with him. This is one of my pet peeves, writing a psychopathic character into a script, because anything can happen for any reason without the character being realistically motivated. It’s lazy writing. Despite all these problems, the fine acting by the three principals keeps your attention on the screen.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

School for Scoundrels: Grade D


School for Scoundrels (2006)

Billy Bob Thornton, John Heder, Michael Clarke Duncan, with bits by Ben Stiller and Sarah Silverman. Director Todd Phillips.

Napoleon Dynamite II is what this movie is supposed to be. The earlier movie captured the essence of a young man’s finding his self esteem in about 9th grade. Now the character (played again by Heder) is a young man in his twenties with the same problems of lack of self-confidence, self-esteem, and social skills. He fears he is a chronic loser so he enrolls in a motivational seminar led by BBT. There, he and the other male students are taught to embrace psychopathic aggression, modeled by BBT and his sidekick Duncan. For some of them, self-esteem improves. This long, drawn-out stretch of the movie is tedious in the extreme. The basic idea is stupid: adopt a psychopathic lifestyle to improve your self-esteem, and its dramatization is just implausible and crude slapstick. Nevertheless the story thickens in the last half as our hero develops a relationship with a girl but the sleazy BBT moves in and steals her. Is it just another “reality” teaching technique or is it a genuine double-cross? BBT is foul-mouthed and surly, but without irony. Heder is likewise unenthusiastic, as is the whole movie. The angst of young adulthood is sincerely hinted at, but not developed at all. The Dynamite charm is gone. The DVD interviews with the cast are funnier than the movie.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

For Your Consideration: Grade B


For Your Consideration (2006)

Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Sandra Oh, others. Director Christopher Guest.

Here is another mockumentary in the tradition of A Mighty Wind, this time satirizing the movie industry, an easy target. A drama called “Home for Purim,” a Jewish holiday, set in the American South, is being filmed. Its abominably hammy scenes go well past parody into sophomoric stupidity. But the interactions among actors, agents, directors, producers, publicists, and entertainment media people are rib-ticklingly clever. There are also plenty of visual jokes, from har-har gags to sharp satire, as when Catherine O’Hara’s character is revised from a handsome middle aged woman to a painfully desperate California youth manqué. Fred Willard as an entertainment reporter is a pleasure to watch. There are plenty of laughs to keep you engaged, but this genre is becoming obvious and tired.

Breach: Grade B


Breach (2007)

Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney. Director Billy Ray.

Cooper is Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who sold secrets to the Soviet Union and Russians until caught and sentenced in 2002. His newly assigned assistant (Phillippe) works for FBI counterespionage and is supposed to get incriminating evidence on Cooper. The movie is thus a cat and mouse between the clever, intuitive, and paranoid Hanssen and the untested but ambitious young assistant. Laura Linney is Phillippe’s control officer in a standout performance. The realistic squalor of government offices is palpable and the acting is competent. The story is one big mind game, yet unlike All the President’s Men, another mind-game movie, there is no forward momentum, no unfolding development, no surprise. Manufactured suspense, such as waiting for a download to complete while the boss’s key turns in the lock, is so clichéd it no longer creates tension. The actual Hanssen case is far more interesting than this movie. Why couldn’t they have shown his career of deception and its FBI fallout? Movies are a visual medium. The film also did not adequately portray his motivation. He is intelligent, arrogant and feels underappreciated, but that could describe a lot of us, and we don’t become traitors. Cooper gives a fine reptilian performance, but his character remains opaque. In all, an unsatisfying but enjoyable story worth hearing.

Shooter: Grade B


Shooter (2007)

Mark Wahlberg, Michael Peria, Danny Glover, Sara Fenn. Director Antoine Fuqua.

Wahlberg is an ex Marine sniper called out of retirement to advise the Secret Service (Danny Glover) how to protect the president from an assassination attempt. The first 30 minutes is a direct copy of one of the Rambo movies, as is much of the rest of the film. Wahlberg mumbles as badly as Stallone but without the charming accent. He is generally expressionless, but makes a few attempts at wise-cracking humor that don’t do anything for the character. The sniper technology is interesting, but not well-explained. Despite the sniper’s advice the assassination attempt occurs anyway and he is framed for it. A long, drawn-out chase ensues, with Wahlberg using his technical military knowledge to stay ahead and ultimately seek revenge on the government bad guys. Peria does a fine acting job as Wahlberg’s friend and helper despite a ridiculous part. Fenn succeeds as a pretty face and with a fine Kentucky accent. The plot has no loose ends as long as you are generous in suspending disbelief. Photography is noticeably good, music is stereotypically manipulative, and the mandatory explosions and car chases are what you would expect. The chase tension built into the plot is sufficient to keep you engaged for an enjoyable thrill.

The Painted Veil: Grade D


The Painted Veil (2006)

Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schrieber, Toby Jones. Director John Curran.

You have to be a fan of Somerset Maugham novels to appreciate this sluggish movie. With Maugham you are supposed to get into the mind of the characters and experience life as they do. But these characters are not developed enough for that, leaving only a series of scenes that don’t add up to anything. Norton is a bacteriologist who takes his wife, Watts, to central China between the world wars to fight cholera in villages. He is utterly without emotional expression and thus a cipher both to his wife and to the viewer. Watts’ character is emotionally abandoned, frustrated, and purposeless. In bored desperation she signs up to care for cholera stricken children at a Catholic missionary. There are rumors of civil war. Villagers die of cholera. And so on. The cinematography is well done and the movie is perhaps worth watching for that. Toby Jones gives a small but well-executed performance but overall, this is a tragic waste of acting talent.