Monday, August 27, 2007

Court of Lonely Royals: Grade C


Court of Lonely Royals (2006)

Damon Gameau, Samantha Noble, Leah De Neise, Ayse Tezel. Writer, Director Rohan Michael Toole. (Australian)

I love the youthful exuberance of this obscure, dark, gritty, Aussie crime thriller. Two young people are hired assassins working for the police in an unidentified Australian city. The young man wants out of the business but is told “there is no out.” A depressive young woman is eventually given a contract to kill him, but not before she forms a relationship with a hooker who wants to be part of the business, for excitement and to get revenge on men. Various incidents and accidents occur until the noir-ish, unresolved ending. The story is patchy, not quite strong enough in character or plot to carry the weight, but with fine individual scenes of intense drama or subtle humor. Strong acting and noticeably good directing keep you watching. The music is good, urban, hip, but the sound engineering is so bad that it obscures much of the dialog. Directing and photography are very creative, borrowing the creepy nocturnal violence of Hong-Kong crime drama and using loads of creative photographic techniques: color intercut with black and white, solarization, filtration, tinting, odd pans and zooms, double exposures, and on and on. All that experimentation lacks discipline however and becomes distracting, but it’s still fun to see what the young people are doing these days.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fracture: Grade A


Fracture (2007)

Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling, David Strathairn, Rosamund Pike. Director Gregory Hoblit

Mr. “Ate-his-liver-with-fava-beans-and-a-nice-Chianti” treats us again to his intellectual psychopath bit. Despite the cliché role, Hopkins is a magnificent actor. Allusions to Hannibal Lecter are done with lighting, directing, and acting, not by script quotations. But once again we have Hopkins as a super smart murderer who plays cat and mouse with the young assistant DA (Gosling). Gosling, who was great in Half Nelson, is on par with Hopkins here. What starts out as a slam dunk case with a full confession, ends up as an acquittal due to no evidence, as Hopkins gets away with the perfect crime. The sudden reversal at the end depends on some giant leaps of faith by the audience, but is within the range of plausible. The romantic substory between Gosling and Pike seems like an afterthought. Lighting is often distracting – mysterious strong light below faces and law office and courtroom scenes lit by streaks of dusty light through louvered blinds as if it were 1925. Music is stereotypically manipulative and adds nothing. These flaws are easily overcome by very strong acting and a good story.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Wild Hogs: Grade C


Wild Hogs (2007)

Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy, Ray Liotta, Marisa Tomei. Director Walt Becker.

Four professional men in their 40’s and 50’s are fed up with suburban life and decide on a cross-country motorcycle trip. They wear “Wild Hogs” insignia on their black leathers. Harley-Davidson obviously helped finance this movie. It’s like City Slickers on bikes, only not as funny. Disney owns Touchstone Pictures, who put out this movie, and this has the heavy hand of Disney stereotypy. The first hour is so full of lame, juvenile homophobic “jokes” that I almost quit watching. Who finds that stuff funny? I think even young kids are more sophisticated than that nowadays. But the humor picks up slightly in the last half and that saved the movie for me. Acting is completely adequate. Macy does a great job. There are some funny one-liners and a “surprise” cameo at the end is a hoot, so overall the movie made me smile even as it made me more annoyed with the pernicious social influence of the Disney corporation.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

I Think I Love My Wife: Grade C


I Think I Love My Wife (2007)

Chris Rock, Kerry Washington, Gina Torres. Writer, Director Chris Rock.

Rock is an affluent stock broker in Manhattan. His shirts are button-down, his briefcase leather, and he shops at Saks, not Macy’s. In the suburbs he has a lovely wife (Torres) and two cute kids in a huge, well-appointed house. But alas, Rock tells us in tedious voiceover, he and his wife no longer have sex (for undisclosed reasons). He therefore fantasizes about being wild and single again, and surprise, along comes the devil in a red dress (Washington). Will he take the bait? Stay tuned to find out! These are all archetypes of modern life, none realistic or intended to be. But neither are they novel or interesting. Instead of showing us dramatic or comedic situations, Rock narrates a witty stand-up routine over mundane scenes. He is such a funny guy, that approach could work, but instead of the insightful social satire he is capable of, we get worn-out pre-adolescent sexual innuendo and farce, along with facile racial/racist one-liners. Add it all up and you have a shallow comedy that could only appeal to a child's mind.

Nevertheless, there are two redeeming virtues. One is the subtle message about growing up. It often does happen that one day you ask yourself, “Is this all there is?” You have suppressed the wild urges and dreams of adolescence in exchange for the respect and stability of adulthood, only to find you have traded the best part of life for a living death. That is a modern tragedy deserving serious attention. That would have been a great movie. The theme is here, but buried. Why is Rock’s character bored? He has no interests except sex. He doesn’t read, play the violin, watch movies, coach baseball, sail a boat, collect stamps, follow politics, or even show interest in work or making money. He is indeed the living dead, and it wasn’t marriage that caused it. What is that story?

A second tantalizing, unexplored theme is race. Rock’s character is over-the-top successful. He’s not CEO of the brokerage, but he would be in the top 5% of income earners in America. His clothes, habits, household, language, values, everything about him, are white stereotypes. He is the black man who achieves virtual whiteness. It is nice not to see the typical black stereotypes but why substitute white stereotypes? Putting a white stereotype on a black man is not played for laughs here. It is simply the factual premise of the character. Yet there are only the slightest hints of tension between those two stereotypes. How does he feel now about being “b-l-a-c-k,” as he says to his wife so the girls won’t understand? Did he check his ethnicity at the door along with his adolescent joie-de-vivre when he became an adult? This is the second theme that makes you think long after the movie is over.

I get the feeling Rock had a serious movie in mind but lacked the courage to go for it, the result being a couple of deep ideas thickly plastered over with safe, familiar jokes. The movie is thus perhaps an unintentional self-portrait.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Darwin Awards: Grade C


The Darwin Awards (2006)

Joseph Fiennes, Winona Ryder. Director Finn Taylor.

An insurance investigator (Ryder) teams up with a forensic specialist (Fiennes) to check out several insurance claims in this episodic comedy. Each of the incidents they look at involves someone who accidentally got killed while doing something incredibly stupid, but as the title suggests, it is probably better to have those individuals out of the gene pool (Har, har. Assuming intelligence can be defined and is a genetic trait). The humor comes from the crazy situations, which copy movies like Jackass, Dumb and Dumber, etc. but are mostly made to seem almost reasonable as they develop. There is no overall plot or outcome. The dialog is mildly witty. It’s good to see Ryder on screen again but her over-earnest performance is grating here. Perhaps that’s the director's problem. Fiennes looks amazingly like his brother. An amusing but forgettable light comedy.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Disturbia: Grade F


Disturbia (2007)

Shia Lebeouf, Sarah Roemer, Aaron Yoo. Director D.J. Caruso.

This is a horrible remake of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, for teens who presumably have seen neither the excellent original nor the mediocre Christopher Reeves remake. Lebeouf is a filthy rich teen under house arrest who uses binoculars and camcorders to spy on the neighbor girl (Roemer), and who begins to match clues on TV about a serial killer with another neighbor, leading to suspicion. For a while there is some tension as you wonder if he suffers from overactive imagination or whether he has discovered a real menace. But that thought quickly dissipates into slasher madness, which I guess teens like. This is a 45 minute story tops, the rest padding. Poor acting and directing are dominant, backed by undistinguished photography and music. The depiction of the teens is painfully pandering and stereotyped, yet conspicuously sanitized, having none of the sophistication of Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, or the insight of Napoleon Dynamite. In the opening segment there is an extremely well done car crash, although gratuitous to the story.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Played: Grade D


Played (2006)

Mick Rossi, Vinnie Jones, Gabriel Byrne, Anthony LaPaglia, Val Kilmer; Director Sean Stanek

This gangster movie is shot in the mean streets of London and some in LA. Mick Rossi (co-writer also), took the fall for a bad robbery, and now out of prison, wants revenge on the guys who betrayed him. High body count, lots of point blank murders. Unfortunately there are way too many characters in the movie, all of them shooting at each other. It is impossible to keep the characters straight or make out any clear story line. The big names, like Kilmer and Byrne, appear only briefly. In the DVD extras the writers and director are quite proud that this is a zero-budget movie with ad-lib dialog and no story boards. They claim it proves that “anybody” can make a movie. I think they are right, and this is the result you get. I give it a barely passing grade because of some good acting, by Rossi especially, good characterizations (if a bit stereotypical), and some good “gritty” scenes.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Number 23: Grade C


The Number 23 (2007)

Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Director Joel Schumacher

It’s hard to say why this movie fails, but it’s not Jim Carrey. He does a terrific job in a dramatic role without any mugging. His character has a sense of humor, (and having him be a dogcatcher is a subtle nod to his Ace Ventura days), but he gives a full range acting performance. Madsen doesn’t have much of a role as his wife but does her part well. Carrey becomes obsessed by seeing the number 23 everywhere he looks (if you include arithmetic operations, obscure code substitutions, reversals, and other transforms that make everything come out to be 23). That nonsense just goes on and on. Unless you happen to suffer from OCD yourself, it is fast-forward boring. When the story finally does take shape later in the film it is highly improbable and does not fit with what has gone before, especially the part his wife has played. There are so many red herrings and loose ends that the so-called surprise ending comes off as totally arbitrary, unbelievable, and uninteresting. The photography is beautiful, creative, and surreal however. I recommend turning the sound off and just watching the great pictures.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Hot Fuzz: Grade A


Hot Fuzz (2007)

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost. Co-writer and director Edgar Wright

This British send-up of cop buddy movies is literally a laugh a minute. The dialog is so witty you can hardly keep up. Excellent performances throughout, especially by Frost. The action sequences are first class and even the editing is humorous. Some of the themes from Shaun of the Dead (same star and director) are carried forward. This time it is grim-reaper-like hooded figures who do the gory (but funny) killings. Despite the dedication to laughs, there is also a serious subtext about small town social life. The set up before the hero gets to the small town where the action happens takes too long, and the multiple endings run on far too long. The DVD outtakes are a scream in themselves. A little editing would have made this an even better picture, but even so, it is worth watching more than once.