Monday, November 26, 2007

Outsourced: Grade B

Outsourced (2006)
Josh Hamilton, Ayesha Dharker. Co-writer and Director John Jeffcoat.

In this charming indie, a Seattle call center manager (Hamilton) is forced to go to India to train his own replacement when the whole call center is outsourced. We follow his learning curve as he encounters every culture-shock cliché, from stomach cramps to understanding the Indian English accent. He quickly adapts and is successful putting together an all-Indian call center that meets American specs. While overcoming a succession of tribulations he has a fleeting romance with an Indian employee (Dharker). The ethical implications of that are not explored. The issue of outsourcing is handled with kid gloves on a ten foot pole. It is made out to be not so bad, really.

Without a political message or serious romance, what remains is a mildly comic, cross-cultural exploration whose lack of pretension makes it delightful and actually informative. For anyone who has traveled in India beyond the international hotels, each scene brings a knowing smile, although the humor is never disrespectful of either culture. The acting is compelling across the whole cast. The script has a sharp observational wit. The music, all original compositions, is quite enjoyable if you have an ear for Indian music. The cinematography fills the four corners of the screen with color. Although it is a lightweight film, the director is successful in conveying the sense that despite cultural differences “we are all family,” and that’s what makes the film satisfying.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Hairspray: Grade D

Hairspray (2007)
John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, Nikki Blonsky. Director Adam Shankman.

This musical comedy pretends to a serious message, advocacy for racial integration in 1960’s Baltimore. A chubby white teenager (Blonsky), born to dance to rock ‘n’ roll, gets a spot on the TV show representing American Bandstand. She engages the black dancers (who appear only on “Negro Day”) and introduces new moves, consisting mainly of flailing the arms, to a white audience. The story treats the racial divide of the period as a cartoon, and except for some colorful costumes, the movie is not even good looking. The music is highly repetitive. Harmonies are bland, tonal range is about four notes, rhythms grate unrelentingly, and lyrics, when intelligible, are inane. None of the excitement, soul, or romanticism of 1960’s pop music, black or white, is captured.

This is a remake of the 1988 Hairspray, which was already a knock off of Travolta’s 1977 Grease. There was also the long running Broadway show, Hairspray. So here it is again on film for some reason. Travolta plays Blonsky’s mother in the kind of enormous fat suit favored by Eddie Murphy. Walken is the husband in bowling shirt. Neither character is funny, not even in that contrived, “let’s all pretend this is funny” musical comedy sense. The dancing is tragically awful. Michelle Pfeiffer still looks good but, I am sorry to report, cannot sing. Walken can’t either, but doesn’t really aspire to. Queen Latifah does have musical talent however, and she is one of the few bright lights in this dim movie.

Live Free or Die Hard: Grade C

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
Bruce Willis, Justin Long. Director Len Wiseman.

If you suffer from ADHD, you will love this kinetic, guns, chase, and explosions thriller. Bruce Willis, who must be 55 years old, looks remarkably good as the invulnerable John McLane, NYPD. He and prisoner-in-custody Long (the “Mac” side of the well-known Mac Vs. PC commercials), escape from, then ultimately find and destroy a group of cyber-terrorists who want to shut down the US information infrastructure just because they are bad, and oh yeah, he also needs to save his daughter who the baddies have kidnapped, as required by the formula.

Explosions are big and frequent, and the FX and music definitely exercised my surround sound 5.1. You wouldn’t think there could be any vehicular stunts that haven’t already been done, but there are a couple in this movie. One must suspend all belief in reality to enjoy action for the sake of action. Willis gives his trademark wisecracks, although they are less frequent and witty than in the past. There is no dramatic tension, no acting, not even a coherent story, only stunts and explosions. Sets tend to green or blue, not attractive. As a member of the “Die Hard” series, this film stands as a highly impressionistic encapsulation of the vehicular-action crime genre without crossing over to parody. For that it’s worth seeing.

Monday, November 19, 2007

This Is England: Grade A

This is England (2006)
Thomas Turgoose, Stephan Graham, Joe Gilgun. Writer-Director Shane Meadows.

A ten year old boy (Turgoose) is “adopted” by a gang of skinheads in a working class town in England. There he finds friendship and since his father died in the war, what seems to him like adult guidance (Graham). He shaves his head and becomes the gang’s skinhead mascot. The social unrest caused by the 1980’s Falklands war is interpreted by the skinheads to mean that patriotism requires racism, so they terrorize a Pakistani storekeeper, and worse. The movie shows us that these gangsters are not inherently evil, just horribly uneducated, unsocialized, often mentally deficient, and consequently, socially outcast and doomed to act stupidly. Such people exist in any society, and stupid or not, they have needs for love, esteem and belongingness like anyone else. It makes sense for them to create a subculture to survive psychologically. The technique of seeing the skinhead culture through the eyes of a child humanizes these outcasts without making them especially sympathetic. I hate to see any child actor (it is a form of child abuse), but I admit Turgoose gives an amazing performance here. The rest of the actors are also very convincing. The costumes and sets are perfect, and the period music is quite good. Editing and directing sag for about 20 minutes in the middle, but mostly are tight. I had a little trouble with the accents. Affecting, important, and memorable.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen: Grade D

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
George Cloony, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Elliot Gould, Bernie Mac, Al Pacino, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, Carl Reiner, Ellen Barkin, Andy Garcia, Larry Paine. Director Steven Soderbergh.

In this sequel, the gang is out to destroy Pacino’s Las Vegas casino/hotel because he tried to kill their buddy Elliot Gould. The plan is as silly as the script. They will rig the slots, tables, and wheel to break the bank of the casino, but the goal is revenge, so they will also assure that the hotel gets a bad review and that Pacino’s diamond collection is stolen. That should really annoy him. Seems that it would have been easier just to kill Pacino, but then there would be no excuse for this elaborate Mission Impossible scenario. To insert the rigging, the boys need to circumvent the security computer. Cutting the power is out of the question because that was done in Ocean’s Twelve, so instead, they get a giant boring machine that tunnels through rock and shakes the hotel’s foundations to simulate an earthquake. Great plan. Sensible! The acting is negligible despite all the star power. Pacino and Barkin were especially disappointing because we know they are capable of much more. Extremely high production values, good photography, and good music keep you watching, but with no story and no acting, that’s not enough to make the movie succeed.

Year of the Dog: Grade C

Year of the Dog (2007)
Molly Shannon, Laura Dern, Regina King, John C. Reilly, Thomas McCarthy. Writer-Director Mike White.

Standout acting from Shannon, King, and Dern are the highlights in this sentimental and contrived story. Shannon is an uptight, lonely thirtyish secretary whose beloved pet dog dies. She replaces it with a large German shepherd who has "some behavioral issues,” and a gay/bi animal activist trainer(McCarthy) to “work with” the new dog. Delighted to have an actual human relationship, Shannon goes vegan and becomes an animal rights activist. She is obsessed, ignores her work duties and even steals from her boss to donate to animal rights causes. She never was self-aware, and is oblivious to the discomfort she causes to coworkers (King), and brother and sister in law (Dern) by pressing her obsession upon them. She descends into madness, gets fired, fills her house with stray dogs from the pound, is evicted, and finally attacks somebody (Reilly) with a knife. Playing the madness card is a lazy way for a writer to make a character do something unexpected. But not to worry! She gets therapy, probation, and the boss she stole from even gives her the job back, so everything ends on a happy note. The story thus portrays animal rights activists as mentally ill instead of addressing the genuine issues involved, and it cancels any character development by undoing everything in the last act, leaving us with a net of zero. There are some funny, socially awkward observations, and Shannon puts out some great acting, well worth watching. Dern’s ditzy suburban housewife is a cartoon, interesting for her amazing rubbery face.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Ratatouille: Grade B

Ratatouille (2007)
Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter O’Toole, Janine Garofalo (voices). Writer and Director Brad Bird, Co-director Jan Pinkava.

I give this movie a B rather than a C because of fine animation (except for the oddity that Remy, the main rat, was blue). Pixar has set a standard for animation that few others will be able to achieve. The tone does not strive to virtual reality, but conveys a magic world, like Snow White did in another generation. But the narrative content has the stamp of the Disney pablum “message” (Never give up your dreams; anyone can achieve anything...), and despite a few witty lines, the script is prosaic. O’Toole, the implacable food critic, is by far the best character and the best voice, but we don’t get much of him. I also wanted more food jokes, garbage jokes, cooking jokes, satire of the haute cuisine world, parody of French food obsession, even more rat jokes, something, anything that would convey the comedic point of the movie. But there is no point. It’s just rats acting cute. And how cute can rats really be? When the kitchen is seething with thousands of them, it’s creepy. The animation is so precise that when they move, they really do look like scurrying rats, and that’s creepy too. Maybe kids wouldn’t mind, since they do not associate rats with the Plague and so on. But I think kids need more than cute characters to sustain them and even the pernicious Disney glorification of individualism seems like an afterthought.

Fido: Grade B

Fido (2006)
K’Sun Ray, Billy Connolly, Dylan Baker, Carrie Ann Moss; Co-writer and Director Andrew Currie.

The great zombie war is over by the time this movie opens in the 1950’s, in a leafy Pleasantville suburb. An electronic collar renders zombies harmless (though zombie-like) servants and menial workers. Ray is a 10 year old boy ("Timmy") who bonds with his family’s zombie (Connolly), who he names Fido. The anticipated Lassie references are not long in coming. Baker plays Timmy's repressed father, and Moss his gender-role straightjacketed mother. My favorite line is mother to father: "Just because your father tried to eat you, do we all have to be miserable?" Fido’s collar malfunctions one day and unfortunately he eats Mrs. Henderson, the nice lady next door, but after being chastised and having his collar repaired, Fido recovers docility, yet still seems to have more life in him than billy’s parents. This “boy and his zombie” movie is thus a mild satire of suburban life in the 1950’s, not really a parody of zombie movies. It is clever enough to make you chuckle continuously but not guffaw.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sicko: Grade B

Sicko (2007)
Michael Moore

Progressive activist and documentarian Michael Moore promotes socialized medicine as the sensible alternative to America’s shameful health care problem. There are 45 million Americans without any health insurance. And even if you have health insurance, you may not really have health insurance, since private for-profit companies are motivated to deny your claim. But this documentary gives few statistics. Instead, in his inimical style, Moore pushes a camera into someone’s face so we can watch them cry over the death of their loved one whose insurance claim was denied. Interviews with insurance company people whose job it was to simply deny claims are revealing, but not necessarily representative. Interviews with people in Canada, U.K., and France make the case that when the government pays for “free” health care for all, the quality is good and people are satisfied, if not deeply grateful. Are those widespread beliefs? We don't know. Moore’s technique of selected personal interviews combined with publicity stunts is humanly interesting but deceptive because it suggests that it is presenting an intellectual argument when in fact it is just one long sequence of rhetorical fallacies appealing to emotion and personal remarks, proving nothing. As a documentary film, it has shock value and human interest, but even though I happen to agree with its point of view, I did not find it persuasive.

Moore asks, why doesn't the American government pay for “free” health care for all? His answer is that Americans have an irrational, knee-jerk reflex against socialism of any kind. It is a step on the slippery slope to communism and tyranny. He tries feebly to counteract that fear, noting that public schools are paid by the government and free for all, yet they haven’t gone communist. Police and firefighters represent socialism in action. Highways are free for all – more socialism at work. But these analogies are not going to persuade anyone. If he wanted to explain why America doesn’t have universal coverage, he could look at comparative tax laws. America doesn't have universal coverage because we don’t want to pay for it. It’s a culture that valorizes individualism, not collectivism. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your point of view.

I would have preferred a presentation of properly sampled facts about health coverage, but that would not get the attention that this film has. I give Moore credit for raising the issue and hopefully, getting people to talk about it. The film could be quite useful for high school and college discussions.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Three Days of Rain: Grade A

Three Days of Rain (2003)
Peter Falk, Blythe Danner, Lyle Lovett, Don Meredith; Writer-Director Michael Meredith.

I stumbled upon this older DVD in my video store and I’m glad I did. It’s an indie presenting several small dramas connected only by the fact that they all take place during a three day rainstorm in Cleveland. The dramas are supposedly inspired by six Chekhov stories. In all but one the main character is down and out, struggling, desperately and hopelessly, it seems to us, to right the ship of life. An aging alcoholic lives in a shelter but maintains his fantasy of being a dapper player, but is forced to ask his son for money. A young drug addict visits her infant daughter in foster care with her father, a father who abused her as a child. She fears the worst for her daughter. A ceramic tile artist/contractor is broke, has an eviction notice, and tries to collect on a job he did for a woman who will not engage him but directs him to her accountant. In one story, the down-and-outer is a homeless man who asks a rich couple for their restaurant leftovers. The husband has a compassionate reaction but the wife keeps an alienated emotional distance from the beggar and refuses. That fracture grows into a crack in their relationship. The stories are two-dimensional, as short stories are, because there is no time to develop any texture, so they use obvious and well-understood character conflicts, nothing subtle. Still, what makes this movie great is the loving, sensuous photography and the hypnotic jazz music that plays throughout (Joe Lovano “and friends” perform original music by Bob Belden, in a bluesy style suitable to rain). Add to that fine acting and competent directing, and you have a real winner.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Idiocracy: Grade B

Idiocracy (2006)
Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Terry Crews. Writer-Director Mike Judge.

Wilson and Rudolph are cryogenically frozen and forgotten. They wake up 500 years in the future when American culture has become so dumbed down that they are the smartest people in the country. Actually, Wilson’s character is declared the smartest man, although it stands to reason that Rudolph would be the smartest woman, but that is overlooked since this is strictly a male POV movie.

In the future, everyone (male) is zombie-like stupid, interested only in TV, sex, fast food, and farts. They no longer even have the intelligence to pick up their own garbage or grow crops, so life is desperate. There still is technology for cars, planes, clothing, television, vending machines, scanners, and weapons, so the story is that evil, greedy corporations have succeeded in purposely dumbing down society to sell more goods. That’s not such a far-fetched idea, judging from contemporary pop culture. It is optimistic to set the action 500 years in the future. A century might have done it. The “President of America” played to the hilt by Terry Crews is a cross between James Brown and one of the more flamboyant wrestling stars. There are genuinely funny situations and lines, and I am an appreciator of silliness, but emphasizing the Jackass/Dumbass genre (which is satirized, but copied anyway), diminished the film for me by going for adolescent gags instead of developing the real satiric potential of the story line. But, something for everyone, I guess. How the filmmakers got away with spoofing brands like Starbuck’s, Costco, Carl’s Junior, and many others, is a mystery. Maybe the whole movie is actually a marketing vehicle for those companies to reach the IQ challenged, and the joke’s on me.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Broken English: Grade C

Broken English (2007)

Parker Posey, Drea de Matteo, Melvil Poupaud. Writer-director Zoe Cassavetes.

Parker Posey is always fascinating, and she held my attention throughout this plodding, uneventful, romantic drama. Her fleeting gestures are especially captivating, but as much as I like her, I think she does better in a satirical role where she can display her signature arch irony. Here, she is a Manhattan single looking for love, who meets only disappointing guys. The character drinks too much (there is a wineglass in every scene), pops pills, eats junk food (which we don’t believe for a minute, looking at her trim, muscular figure), smokes continuously, is depressive, has no interests, and suffers anxiety attacks. I wonder why she can’t meet an interesting guy? She does finally meet a Frenchman (Poupaud) who she sort of likes but doesn’t trust, but he leaves after one weekend. With her friend (de Matteo) she goes to Paris on a quest to find him, but can’t. Why does she do that? Desperation, maybe. She wouldn’t know love if it bit her, even though she has a tender, loving relationship with her girlfriend. The directing does capture the psychological intimacy of the characters, and that is no easy feat. Many scenes have characters standing against a featureless wall where there is no escaping the camera. It’s act or die. However, the whole movie reminds me of a weak Woody Allen film about rich New York neurotics whining about inconveniences. Nothing happens in this story and despite Posey’s magnetism, her character’s development is too slight to be very interesting. Watchable and forgettable.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Talk To Me: Grade A

Talk To Me (2007)
Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen. Director Kasi Lemmons.

Can this be the same Don Cheadle who starred in Hotel Rwanda? His range of talent is astonishing. In this historical docudrama he is Petey Greene, an ex-con who became a popular radio DJ in Washington DC in the mid 1960s. He “tells it like it is” to the black community, who respond with enthusiasm. His on-air announcement of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., and his response to the riots afterward, are moving. The story of Petey’s life and career, which Ejiofor believes he is managing, is a sophisticated character study. Both of those lead actors give outstanding performances. Petey’s girlfriend, Henson, plays too broadly, but that’s probably the director’s fault. Petey’s signature line, “Wake up, goddammit!” is reminiscent of Robin Williams’ “Good Morning Vietnam.” The dialog is “right on” as we used to say, and the costumes “far out.” There were a few small anachronisms in the sets (mailboxes the wrong color) and the costumes might have been on the edge of parody, but maybe not; I don’t remember everything, and I was never black. Wonderful period music is used. The movie has a lot of very funny lines satirizing black jive but I wouldn’t call this a comedy. I think it is a serious snapshot in a long cultural dialog about race that is not over yet. But the bottom line is Cheadle. He completely nails this role.