Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In the Land of Milk and Money: Grade B

In the Land of Milk and Money (2004)

Christopher Coulson, Kim Gillingham. Writer-director Susan Emshwiller

In this bizarre comedy a scientist (Coulson) introduces a genetic modification into cows to increase milk production, but the milk causes mothers to become psychotic killers of their children. The contamination only affects mothers and they only want to kill their own children. The situations that develop are hilarious, as sweet, stereotype moms quietly go nuts and try to kill their (mostly adult) children. Mercifully, we don’t see any violence against youngsters. The agribusiness corporation naturally covers up the scandal while the scientist works feverishly on an antidote. Meanwhile, zombie-like mothers across the country are captured and placed in concentration camps suggestive of the Japanese-American internment camps of WWII.

What is life like without any mothers? The movie echoes “A Day Without A Mexican” to show how much everyone depends on mothers, but in other respects, men prosper taking women’s places in the workforce, reminding us how it was in Germany when the Jews were whisked away, and some men are happy to be free of nagging wives. Gillingham is a pregnant news reporter who finds out the story then is desperate for the antidote before her child is born.

The sets are corny or ironic abstractions of 1950’s suburbia, right down to the furniture, costumes, colors, hairstyles, and accessories (except, oddly, the scientist drives a Miata, and the news equipment is modern). Music tends to uptempo pizzicato strings from 1950’s TV ads or drive-in movie intermezzos. The acting is remarkably good for such fluff. At first I thought this would be a wicked satire of popular concern over mad cow disease, then it seemed it would be a parody of 1950’s B-movies, or 1950’s stereotypes, then it looked to be comparing the morality of American and German WWII concentration camps, then by the first hour I knew it was only a collection of funny skits and silly bits in a dark mood. But it kept me laughing.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Evan Almighty: Grade D

Evan Almighty (2007)

Steve Carell, Morgan Freeman. Director Tom Shadyac.

Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey was silly-funny and enjoyable. This is not quite a sequel or a remake, although Morgan Freeman is still God, this time without wit. Carell is a suburban congressman commanded to build an ark prior to a promised great flood. The premise is basically funny, and the involvement of the animals is cute, but the script must be aimed at 5 year old children, Christian and Jewish children who can recognize the Biblical story, because despite a few clever one-liners, this movie is devoid of imagination. And acting. Carell’s family is cringingly bad, as are his colleagues in congress. Even Wanda Sykes – how can you suppress her? But somehow they did. Carell does some good Carrey-esque physical acting but is basically boxed in the lifeless script. There were hints of more, as when Carell’s wife (Lauren Graham) is perplexed by her husband’s messianic turn, but the possibility of mental illness does not cross her mind. I only give this failure of a movie a passing grade because of a very faint, very sly political satire, that I may be reading in. President Bush has said that God talks to him, so the movie makes you wonder if God told Bush to build an ark in Virginia, would he do it? I wish they had played that theme out, which goes all the way back to Abraham and Isaac. The clues for the theme are slight but I thought I saw them. If so, it was a lost opportunity.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Mr. Brooks: Grade D


Mr. Brooks (2007)

Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, Dane Cook, William Hurt. Co-writer-Director Bruce Evans.

This should have been a good movie. It has a great story premise, a mild mannered businessman (Costner), who is addicted to killing. He even goes to an AA meeting and announces that he is “an addict.” Demi Moore is a troubled detective hunting Costner and Cook is a younger fellow who wants Costner to teach him how to be a serial killer. The second big plus is a gimmick in which the killer’s conscience is portrayed as a character (Hurt) so the killer and his conscience can have on-screen dialog. “Raines,” a recent TV show that sadly, didn’t make it, involved Jeff Goldblum as a detective with a visible alter-ego. Beats a Shakespearean soliloquy. Add to those benefits a strong cast and some very good cinematography and you should have an excellent movie.

So what went wrong? Two things: the acting and the writing. The acting is flat, mechanical, and dull from the beginning, to the point where we just don’t engage with any of the characters. I wasn’t convinced that any of these players were strong actors to begin with and this movie confirms my opinion. The bad writing is more difficult to fathom. After a strong first hour, it inexplicably goes south, becoming increasingly stilted, unimaginative, and implausible. There was a promise of character development in the beginning, with Costner trying to quit his killing habit, but nothing comes of it. When Costner goes to kiss his sleeping daughter and she suddenly lunges up and stabs him in the neck with a large pair of scissors, I knew the writers had become desperate for ideas. And that’s no spoiler either, because it didn’t really happen. Ha-ha. It’s just an illustration of how stupid the writing becomes, serially killing what could have been, with better actors, or with a director who could make these actors dance, a potentially great film.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Man Push Cart: Grade B


Man Push Cart (2005)

Amahd Razvi, Leticia Dolera. Writer-Director: Ramin Bahrani.

This is an enjoyable though somewhat depressing slice of life – of a young Pakistani street vendor in New York City. He hauls his stainless steel cart through the busy pre-dawn streets to sell bagels and coffee to office workers when the business day begins. He lives alone, pines for his deceased wife, and tries to connect with his young son in foster care. He tries unsuccessfully to form relationships. He rescues a subway kitten, which then dies in his apartment. It’s a cold, hard, extremely lonely life, in which the tiny bright spots are the small kindnesses exchanged among street vendors and fellow Pakistanis in the city. The cinematography is beautiful and the music haunting (although unnecessary). Sound engineering is exceptionally good. New York City never sounded or looked so good. The success of the movie is in giving us a sense of intimacy with the character. We feel that we understand what it is like to be inside that coffee cart, inside his skin, grateful that we are not, and how hard life really is for immigrants like him. One former street vendor who has been wildly successful is described as now working in a Dunkin Donuts in Albany. “He’s got it made, man.” I enjoy this kind of artistic cinema, but I confess it was sloooow, even for me. I get that life is hard, without having to see him wrestle his cart down the street SIX times. Twice would have done it; maybe only once. A little character development also would have gone a long way.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Hoax: Grade A


The Hoax (2006)

Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden. Director Lasse Hallstrom.

Since the success of Capote last year, there have been several movies about novel writers and their New York publishers. I think there was even a second Capote movie. In this rendition, Gere plays Clifford Irving, a writer who in the 1970’s wrote a fake autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes and sold it to McGraw Hill for millions. He was found out and went to jail, so there isn’t much dramatic suspense built into the story. What keeps the story alive is Gere’s acting, yes, actual acting. I usually avoid Gere movies, but here he shows unexpected talent. Is the character a psychopathic liar or just a desperate and creative man who must continue to one-up himself? It must have been good directing that brought Gere out. The overwrought sidekick (Molina) is difficult to decipher but he is an interesting face actor. Marcia Gay Harden looks good as Irving’s wife. I couldn’t tell what kind of an accent she was putting on, but her performance was somehow both comedic and serious at the same time. This is not a great movie but it remains engaging throughout. Also, it is nice to see an intelligent story about real human dynamics, with no explosions, murders, gang fights, or drug sniffing; okay maybe a little money laundering, tops.

Do or Die: Grade A


Do or Die (2001)

Tom Long, Kate Ashfield, Hugo Speer. Director Rowan Woods. Australian.

This older Aussie TV miniseries is now out on DVD and it is worth a look, despite the fact that it really should have English subtitles for those of us who do not speak Australian. I lost about a quarter of the dialog into the accents. And it does have the tinny feel of television, especially in its abrupt edits and implausible, melodramatic story. Despite these flaws, excellent acting by the principals and sharp dialog, makes the overall product quite good. In upper middle class London, Ashfield’s young boy is diagnosed with a leukemia that only transplanting white blood cells from the father can treat. This situation forces the mother to reveal that her husband (Speer) is not the father. The real father (Long) is a convict in Australia. She goes looking for him, but he escapes from prison just before she arrives. She must find him before the police gun him down. Several twists and turns ensue. Tom Long as the convict father is tremendous. His scowl through furrowed brow is wonderful, and he has a great screen look. He also shows subtlety of expression equal to Ashfield’s, so while the characters are somewhat flat, the project stays grounded, never escaping into cartoon land. Very high end TV!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Civic Duty: Grade D


Civic Duty (2006)

Peter Krause, Khaled Abol Naga, Kari Machett, Richard Schiff. Director Jeff Renfroe.

I would call this government propaganda but it isn’t, really. For that, the government must control both the source and the message. Here, I think the filmmakers were telling their own story, even though it accepts uncritically the government’s fear-mongering message that there is a terrorist under every bed. Structurally, the movie is like another bad remake of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. An unemployed accountant (Krause) spies a “middle-eastern” fellow (Naga) in the apartment next door, doing “odd” things like taking out garbage in the middle of the night and receiving boxes from other (“evil”) dark-skinned people with facial hair. All the while, government propaganda does play incessantly on the TV “news” shortly after the 9-11 attacks, urging citizen vigilance. Kraus becomes convinced that the neighbor is plotting a terrorist act and his beliefs and actions flow rapidly into a hostage standoff that invokes some torture imagery. He suffers a mental breakdown which “explains” his irrational reasoning and vigilante mentality, but maybe he is not really nuts, only patriotic. We should be not only the eyes and ears of antiterrorism, as the president says on TV, but also, apparently, the executioners. Notably bad, way too loud orchestral music tries to create suspense where there is none, an admission of story failure. There is no character development or acting to speak of, though I do like Krause. He has more potential than this. I won’t give away the ending except to say that it is either cynical and dishonest, or disturbingly ignorant. I don’t mind movies with a message I disagree with, but they have to offer some artistic value or at least some ideas more robust than racism and unthinking propaganda.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The TV Set: Grade A


The TV Set (2006)

David Duchovny, Sigourney Weaver, Ioan Gruffudd, Judy Greer, Fran Kanz, Lindsay Sloane. Writer-director Jake Kasdan.

This satire of the TV business is so sly it is almost a straight documentary. Duchovny is a television writer who creates a pilot for a new TV show. Weaver is the studio executive who "offers” her often absurd-sounding ideas on how to “improve” the show to make it commercially viable. (“What if it were just prison instead of suicide? Suicide is so depressing!”) The nominal tension is between commercialism and artistic integrity. Weaver (and the other “suits”) also suggest different lead actors, the director has different ideas about how to shoot scenes, and the actors are hopeless. Duchovny swallows his pride to get the show on the air. American TV viewing preferences are an easy target for satire, but what makes it work so well here is good acting and great writing. Weaver is a little too much, but we can imagine such an oblivious yet dialed-in executive. Duchovny’s long-suffering sighs are too much, but we do sympathize. The best acting comes from Judy Greer, his effervescent assistant. The dialog has plenty of laugh out loud lines that keep the ball rolling, even though the destination is foreordained in the first 10 minutes. The BS “professional” conversations are hilarious and often cringe-inducing. I think For Your Consideration was a better and funnier movie, as was The Player, but this one was subtle and sophisticated enough to keep my funny bone tickled throughout.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Few Days in September: Grade B


A Few Days in September (2006)

Juliette Binoche, John Turturro, Sarah Forestier, Tom Riley, Nick Nolte. Writer-Director Santiago Amigorena. French and English – subtitled.

I was shocked to see how Juliette Binoche had aged, although she would say the same about me. I haven’t seen her on screen in many years, and it is a pleasure to see her again. She still has “the look” and her acting is as compelling as ever. She is some kind of a government agent, U.S. I think, trying to find the mysterious CIA rogue agent played by Nolte (who appears at the end just in time to get shot). Why she needs to find him is never clear. She has in tow his clueless adult children (Forestier and Riley). All of them are followed by enigmatic hit man Turturro. He casually kills several clerks to establish his ruthlessness while he also hunts the mysterious David. Who he works for and why he is on the hunt is unknown. Meanwhile, untrustworthy American, Saudi, and French guys are also after David. So the story is a mish-mash of a chase theme and though we never know the characters’ exact roles or motivation, it all hangs together just enough to highlight the fine acting, witty dialog, great locations (Venice and Paris), and outstanding cinematography. I especially enjoyed the technique of having the camera set to a flat depth of field then having characters walk in from the blur to the focal point. Neat. Turturro does an excellent job as a smiling, poetry-reading assassin who has to call his psychoanalyst after he kills someone. Even though the overall tone of the film is noir-ish (neon reflecting in dark, rain-slicked streets, gratuitous murders, kitty lapping the expanding pool of blood, etc.), and the category pretends to “thriller,” I would say this is actually a subtle comedy.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Knocked Up: Grade B


Knocked Up (2007)

Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd. Writer & Director: Judd Apatow.

This movie, especially the first half, demonstrates or discusses in detail every possible body product, from semen to sputum, farts to urine, blood, sweat, tears, and others too numerous to mention. I don’t think anything was omitted. There must have been a comprehensive master list somewhere. Anatomy discussions are restricted to the body parts you would expect for someone with a mental age of 10. This is more than uninteresting, it’s downright depressing for what it implies about the psychological development of American moviegoers. I almost did not get through the first hour, but the last half picks up when the central theme turns slightly more toward adult relationships, marriage, and issues of trust and self-disclosure. The basic story is that Heigl’s character goes out on a drinking binge and ends up in the sack with a dorky, nerdy loser guy (Rogen) who gets her pregnant. Even with an alcohol crazed brain, the character’s actions are not believable, but that’s the story. Then it’s a matter of the two of them building a relationship of necessity. Mann and Rudd play bickering married neighbors who alternately frighten and support the protagonists. Rogen’s gang of childish, deadbeat friends retard his psychological development but he eventually breaks free. All this would be no more than an exercise juvenile pandering except that, amazingly, the writing, acting, and directing are outstanding. If you can ignore the tedious body function topics, you find that the script is often intellectually sophisticated and socially subtle. The face and voice acting are wide-ranging, well-integrated with the dialog, and completely believable. Even members of the dimwitted gang of loser nerds often have socially attuned, deliciously ironic lines. The doctor who delivers the baby is a gem of a character. Even the DVD outtakes and other extras are wonderful. It is a terrible waste to burn up all that talent on jokes about farts and blowjobs, but the movie business is what it is.