Thursday, September 27, 2007

Closure: Grade B


Closure (aka: Straightaheads) (2007)

Gillian Anderson, Danny Dyer. Writer-Director Dan Reed. British.

This slightly claustrophobic revenge movie is extremely violent, much more so than a war or gangster movie showing dozens of people mowed down by automatic weapons or shot in the head by hired killers. Nor is it stylistic violence as in Kill Bill and similar movies. This is far more violent because the action is so personal and well motivated. Anderson and Dyer are beat up and raped by a cocaine-crazed gang on a lonely highway. As they slowly recover from their ordeal, Anderson accidentally discovers where the ringleader lives. The pair stalks him with a gun but Dyer is inclined to let it go while Anderson is bent on bloody revenge. But as developments ensue, Anderson becomes ambivalent. Then she gets over that and finds a brutal revenge that satisfies her, but then Dyer is suddenly unsatisfied and wants complete, bloodthirsty revenge, reversing their earlier dispositions. The scenes are so violent because we understand exactly what the perpetrators are trying to accomplish and we participate in their psychological need. Despite that considerable cinematic achievement, I thought the characters were so emotionally inconsistent that I often felt jerked around. This was true of the substory characters as well. Anderson and Dyer especially are alternately manic and depressive, filled with grim determination then ambivalence, compassion flipping to detachment. Maybe that’s how people would be in such a situation, but it didn’t seem authentic to me. Also, several story points were not properly motivated, such as having Dyer sneak into the bad guy’s house. Photography seemed dark and dreary; even the outdoor scenes, which was perhaps appropriate to the theme, but not very attractive to look at. Music was unintrusive. Despite some flaws then, after a slow start, the film gives a good ride if you can tolerate the violence.

13 Tzameti: Grade B


13 Tzameti (2005)

George Babluani; Writer-Director: Géla Babluani. French, subtitled.

Babluani is a young roofer working on an old mansion when an envelope with a ticket and instructions accidentally comes into his hands. Since the owner of the house died and he will not be paid for his work, he decides to use the ticket and follow the instructions, based on a conversation he overheard about possibly big financial rewards. The film is in beautiful black and white, well composed and photographed, reminiscent of French existential films of the 60’s. The “deal” he walks into is an illegal gambling operation very similar to the situation of Christopher Walken's in The Deerhunter. That outcome was was disappointing after such a nice tense buildup. There are so many more interesting story possibilities for a young man walking blindly into an illegal deal. Anyway, the life and death gambling proceeds in the obvious way with predictable outcome, although a few surprises await the young man on the way home. There is a faint existential theme: “A man only lives once and dies once. Why not do it this way?” But the situation was formulaic and abstract, robbing such words of their meaning. The acting is good and the photography very pleasing, but the tension of the central set piece was too contrived to be engaging.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lonely Hearts: Grade D


Lonely Hearts (2006)

John Travolta, Janes Gandolfini, Salma Hayek, Jared Leto, Laura Dern; Writer & Director Todd Robinson.

Travolta and Gandolfini are 1950s era detectives on the trail of a pair of con artists (Leto and Hayek). Leto romances elderly women to rob them. Hayek hangs around looking beautiful while he does this, and sometimes kills the women and helps cut up the bodies. Meanwhile, Travolta is supposed to be having an affair with Dern, but that relationship is lifeless and pointless. This is a tired theme, done much better as a comedy by Michael Caine and Steve Martin 20 years ago (and it was a remake even then). There is no humor in this version, which is just a long trail of dark, sordid episodes as the con artists swindle one victim after another. Gandolfini does his Tony Soprano shtik without self-irony, Travolta frowns a lot, but the only decent acting is from Hayek, who gives a fine performance despite a stupid role. Music and directing are mediocre at best. Costumes and sets try to make up for a weak narrative, but only detract. Were police station walls really painted in Sears green, including the wainscoting? A large stellar cast like this is usually a bad sign, and this project proves that rule.

The Contractor: Grade F


The Contractor (2007)

Wesley Snipes, Eliza Bennet, Lena Heady; Director Josef Rusnak

Snipes is an ex-government hit man called out of retirement for one last job. Wow, what a novel premise for a movie! He kills the target but then the CIA wants to kill him as part of a coverup. I’m shocked! The action is set in London so closed circuit cameras peppering that city can be used by police to track Snipe’s movements. But fear not; Snipes has a flash drive filled with evidence of past CIA assassination orders as his “insurance” although how that would protect him is unclear. Snipes gets shot several times but proves remarkably resilient. Fortunately for him all the bad guys are incredibly incompetent. The evil CIA boss corners Snipes in a commercial kitchen (great place to hide), but only manages to shoot the large bowls of salad with his double barreled shotgun (standard CIA issue), blasting lettuce into the air but missing the pots of boiling soup. Great shooting! Snipes does befriend a child (Bennet) along the way who helps him map an escape route, and that is the only development of interest in this entire brain dead movie.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Slow Burn: Grade D


Slow Burn (2005)

Ray Liotta, LL Cool J, Taye Diggs, Jolene Blalock. Writer & Director Wayne Beach

The DA (Liotta with too much hair) hunts for a mysterious gangleader nobody has actually seen. As in The Usual Suspects, Roshomonic stories are told in flashback until he is revealed. Blalock, the assistant DA, plays the evasive interviewee created by Kevin Spacey, although in this heavy handed script the revelation of the bad guy is arbitrary and uninteresting. There is a mild racial theme since Blalock is supposed to be a black woman who passes for white but that has no real bearing on the story. These are good actors but bad directing sucks the energy out of them. I know Liotta is capable of much more than slack jaw surprise, so why mug that shot repeatedly? It is no mystery that the wordy and lifeless dialog comes from that same director.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Inland Empire: Grade B


Inland Empire (2006)

Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Jeremy Irons. Director David Lynch.

This is the best movie I have seen all year but it lacks one critical ingredient, a story. It is a set of hundreds of individual scenes in which characters act out small situations. They tend to group into thematic categories. The largest has Laura Dern, in a fantastic, riveting set of performances, as a Hollywood actress who gets a part in a dreary B movie directed by Irons and co-starring Theroux. In this movie-within-a-movie, her character falls in love with a married man, and in the making of the movie, maybe the actress and actor also fall in love, an ambiguity heavily exploited by Lynch. Quite often you think you are watching the actors off set when the director yells “Cut!” and you realize you have been watching the inner movie.

In another group of scenes, Dern goes down long dark hallways or through steel doors and emerges in other locations, including a cheesy 1950’s bungalow, a stone mansion, an extremely sensuous gilded interior, and at the seedy corner of Hollywood and Vine. No explanation for these through-the-looking-glass events is given but I thought I detected a similarity between one of the many sound tracks and Jefferson Airplane’s “Go Ask Alice.”

In another group of scenes, a woman (not Dern) walks enigmatically and fearfully around pre-war Poland in the winter. In a group of scenes that seems connected to those by color and texture, Dern tells a story to an interrogator in a dank basement.

The giant rabbit-headed people in a one-room green apartment must be mentioned. They take turns pronouncing nonsequitur statements that made me think of Mamet, interspersed with laugh tracks, so they must be in some kind of a sitcom.

There are other groups of scenes as well. Some of the narrative mini-themes intersect slightly from time to time. Individual scenes recur throughout the three hour (!) movie but are never exactly the same. They are time-warped or close-up, or recontextualized. It all just ends when there are no more scenes to show.

Call me old fashioned, but I think the number one purpose of any movie is to tell a story. I loved this movie, but without a story, I will not give it an A. I can imagine a comedic meta-theme about the inability to distinguish reality and fantasy, but that might be reading too much in. After about an hour, I started to get a "contact high" and could literally feel the mental disorientation that Dern's character was experiencing. Laura Dern’s astonishing performance alone should earn the movie an A, but I am sticking to my no-story rule.

Here’s what I think the movie is about: cinematography. Lynch explores every narrative cinematic technique you can think of, from creepy horror gestures to silly farce, and it’s a joy to watch a master effortlessly at work. But above all, I think he is exploring a new way to deal with light. The movie was apparently shot with a digital camcorder so there isn’t much tonal range. Consequently the brights are blindingly bright and the shadows are black without detail. The amazing thing is how he gets both of those in the same shot. How is it even possible? I think he recruits the human eye’s (or brain’s) tendency to conserve meaning, in order to bridge the sensory gaps where the video is lacking.

For example, two characters are sitting in a dimly lit warehouse, and you become visually engaged in those surroundings, when suddenly the door opens and the full strength of California noontime sunlight comes blasting through the opening, turning one side of the picture into a blurry white fireball, while the interior of the room goes into extremely high contrast relief, colors leaping off every surface. Then the door slams and you are back in the dim brown light of the warehouse where the characters casually greet each other. You feel the pupils of your eyes struggling to adapt. And they do, so the net result is that you would say, “The door opened and somebody came into the room.” But in retrospect, you realize what a mind-blowing visual experience you just went through.

On the DVD extras (in the special edition 2-DVD set), there is a 20 minute B&W film that I think confirms my hypothesis. It’s called Quinoa, and shows Lynch boiling a pot of water and making a serving of quinoa, while blithering inane narrative about what he’s doing. If you didn’t realize it was really about putting the whitest of whites intimately next to the blackest of blacks so the viewer’s eye and brain must provide the interpolar context, you would think this was the most boring, meaningless bit of film ever created. But once you get what’s going on with the light, it is an exhilarating work of art.

I should also mention that the sound track was extremely diverse in this movie, from computer generated, to string quartets, to 50’s rock n roll. I think Lynch may have been trying to do with the sound the same thing he was doing with the light, but for me, it was less successful. Because of the experimentation with both sound and light, Inland Empire would probably be worth seeing on the big silver screen, although it’s too late for that now. DVD on a large screen digital TV is still an incredible head trip.

Finally, once again, here’s my vote for Laura Dern for the most stunning acting performance of the year.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Even Money: Grade B


Even Money (2006)

Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Kelsey Grammer, Ray Liotta, Tim Roth, Forest Whitaker. Director Mark Rydell

Two short stories about gambling addicts are very loosely woven. Basinger hides her problem from her trusting husband (Liotta), while Whitaker convinces his basketball star brother to shave points so he can pay off his evil bookie (Roth). Predictably, both addicts' lives crumble to dust. Grammer is a Columbo-like detective snooping around for unclear reasons, while DeVito is an ebullient casino rat who befriends Basinger for no particular reason. The story line lacks tension and the characters are predictable and not very interesting. But the acting is a joy. Roth was born to be evil. Whitaker and Basinger show their chops. You can’t ever forget you’re watching Danny DeVito, but you have to admire a guy who gives 110% to every scene. The cinematography is a standout. Overall, the movie is a compassionate message without moralizing: Gambling addiction is tragic. Strong acting and photography raise it above mediocrity.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Copying Beethoven: Grade F


Copying Beethoven (2006)

Ed Harris, Diane Kruger; Director Agnieszka Holland

First let’s be clear about Beethoven’s 9th symphony: It gets an A+. But this movie can take no responsibility for that. It fails on so many levels. Ed Harris does a respectable job with a lame story and a dead script. Kruger does well with the jarringly inane dialog. Lighting is ridiculous, photography stereotyped, directing unimaginative. Beethoven’s hearing loss is not treated consistently. At times he is stone deaf but at other moments he hears whispers. There is no story line pushing the action. The social significance and musical revolution of the 9th are glossed over. The relationship between Beethoven (Harris) and his copyist (Kruger) is lifeless. There is just nothing here.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Perfect Stranger: Grade D


Perfect Stranger (2007)

Halle Berry, Giovanni Ribisi, Bruce Willis; Director James Foley

The movie opens with a long irrelevancy, always a bad sign. Berry is a big time New York reporter who gets the goods on a gay senator and is about to expose him when the story is spiked for reasons that suggest political interference. She quits her job in protest but it doesn’t matter because none of that has anything to do with the movie anyway. The real story starts when a childhood friend turns up murdered. A home computer shows she was involved in torrid chat with Willis’ character, a rich advertising man, and that they had a brief affair, after which he dumped her and she then threatened to blackmail him. Aha, that seals his guilt! Since Willis is in advertising, it is an excuse for shameless, in-your-face product placement, from Sony computers, to Victoria’s Secret, Reebok, and many others. Why, we hardly noticed! Ribisi is Berry’s friend at the newspaper (I think –he never is seen working), who helps her dig up more dirt on Willis. Why Berry cares is not clear, since she is not even a reporter any more. Some flashback memories try but fail to establish her motivation. She gets a job as a temp at Willis’ ad agency where she can tap her foot waiting for a file transfer on his computer before he comes into the office. Have I ever seen that situation before? Hmmm, let me think. The camera work is so stiff in this movie, I suspect Willis and Berry were never actually on the same set together. Sets and costumes were way too fussy: elaborate, brand new, spotlessly clean, shiny and bright, untouched by human hands – major distractions from the characters. Halle Berry is gorgeous of course, so predictably the camera tediously lingers on her butt and cleavage, but she really can act and there are flashing moments of talent. Willis remains asleep throughout. Ribisi is an interesting actor but his character was amorphous. The surprise ending is so contrived it is unintentionally humorous. Why do I give the movie a passing grade? Berry is easy to watch, and the music that plays over the closing credits is quite good. Is that enough? I’m feeling generous.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Lookout: Grade C


The Lookout (2007)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode. Writer-Director Scott Frank

A high school student (Gordon-Levitt) suffers severe head injury in a stupid car crash in which several of his friends were killed. We come upon him 2 years later in rehabilitation classes trying to improve his memory, speech, and social skills. It is a realistic and sensitive portrayal of recovery from moderately severe brain injury but extremely slow moving and repetitive. The first 45 minutes of the film could have been conveyed in a few lines of dialog. The character’s blind roommate is Daniels, who leavens the depressive tone with sarcasm, but otherwise is a vague and undeveloped character. Finally the protagonist meets a cute stripper in a bar and the story begins. She seems to care for him, but as soon as he has sex with her, she is written out of the story without a trace, her entire presence reduced to the role of an ashtray. The hero, meanwhile, is a night janitor at a rural bank in Kansas. Some bad guys led by Goode manipulate him into helping rob the bank. The heist goes bad and the movie ends where it began, a young man with brain damage trying to make his way in life. It’s like a tedious documentary about living with brain trauma, with a bank heist thrown in for excitement. The documentary is boring and the bank heist is stereotypical, so the whole thing adds up to a question mark. Strong acting by Gordon-Levitt and Goode make the film watchable.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Lives of Others: Grade A

The Lives of Others (2006)

Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Muhe. Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. German, Subtitled.

Five years before the fall of the Wall, the GDR Stasi spies on its citizens. A prominent playwright (Koch) and his star actress (Gedeck) are targeted by the police for surveillance. The apartment is bugged and the captain in charge of listening (Muhe) waits for incriminating talk. There is none. But he learns that the reason for the surveillance on the playwright is that a fatcat higher-up government minister lusts for the actress, not because of any threat to state security. The movie describes the character transformation of the captain as he slowly comes to sympathize with his prey. It is a tremendous story once you accept that he is capable of that radical change so quickly. It’s not psychologically believable, but every great story hinges on a lie, and that is a relatively small one. Excellent directing, costumes and sets. A DVD extra explains why night scenes are shot through a yellow, instead of a traditional blue filter (it looks a lot better, too). The music is wonderful, the acting thoroughly compelling and the historical theme relevant to modern Germany, and by analogy, modern America.