Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best DVDs I saw in 2008

Movie

Grade

Find the review archived in 2008: Month/Day

Paris, Je T’Aime

A

1/2

Shoot ‘Em Up

A

1/4

12:08 East of Bucharest

A

1/27

The Nines

A

2/3

Ira & Abby

A

2/3

Across the Universe

A

2/10

Michael Clayton

A

3/1

Rendition

A

3/2

Margot at the Wedding

A

3/3

Lust, Caution

A

3/11

No Country For Old Men

A

3/23

In the Valley of Elah

A

3/30

Romance & Cigarettes

A

4/8

Talk to Her

A

4/15

Juno

A

4/19

Charlie Wilson’s War

A

4/26

Savages

A

4/28

The Diving Bell & the Butterfly

A

5/3

Rain in the Mountains

A

5/18

Cassandra’s Dream

A

6/1

King of California

A

6/14

Lost in Beijing

A

6/15

4 Months, 3Weeks, and 2 Days

A

7/5

Into the Wild

A

8/2

The Counterfeiters

A

8/10

Slippery Slope

A

8/17

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

A

8/23

Redbelt

A

8/30

Recount

A

8/31

The Sensation of Sight

A

9/7

The Fall

A

9/15

War, Inc.

A

10/20

The Visitor

A

10/21

My Blueberry Nights

A

10/26

Four Minutes

A

11/16

Sukiyaki Western Django

A

11/24

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

A

11/28

The Match Factory Girl

A

12/8

The Edge of Heaven

A

12/9

Going Shopping

B

1/2

3:10 To Yuma

B

1/9

A World Without Thieves

B

1/27

Savior’s Square

B

2/21

The Brave One

B

2/23

American Gangster

B

2/25

Slipstream

B

3/9

Bee Movie

B

3/20

Hard Boiled

B

4/6

Gone Baby Gone

B

4/7

The Invasion

B

4/15

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

B

4/16

Sleuth

B

4/20

Undoing

B

5/24

The Bothersome Man

B

5/25

Cleaner

B

6/3

Flawless

B

6/7

In Bruges

B

6/29

Election

B

7/6

Persepolis

B

7/19

Shotgun Stories

B

7/29

There Will Be Blood

B

8/4

The Walker

B

8/5

The Onion Movie

B

8/10

Married Life

B

9/6

The Legend of God’s Gun

B

9/8

Shine a Light

B

10/26

Antibodies

B

11/3

Red

B

11/3

Shut Up and Shoot Me

B

11/16

Wall-E

B

11/22

The White Lioness

B

11/30

The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour

B

12/1

Man on Wire

B

12/14

Traitor

B

12/21

The Women

B

12/23

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Burn After Reading: Grade C

C
Burn After Reading (2008)
George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins. Writers and Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen.

The first scene is Malkovich getting fired from the CIA. His sputtering, outraged reaction is comic genius. But that strong opening is about as funny as this comedy gets. Clooney fools around with Malkovich’s wife (Swinton), but ends up in bed with McDormand, who works at a gym with Jenkins and Pitt. All the actors do a first-class job, as you would expect from such talent, but the characters are flat and the jokes clichés. Pitt, who is 45 years old, plays a physical fitness trainer in his early 20’s and that didn’t work for me, although he gave it his energetic all. Swinton’s severe, humorless character is supposed to be parodic, but is only severe and humorless. She copies her husband’s CIA memoir to a CD as evidence in her anticipated divorce (why the memoir and not financial records is not explained). The CD falls into the hands of McDormand and Pitt, who attempt blackmail unsuccessfully. In other words, plot is virtually non-existent, so we must rely on goofy comedy to carry us along, but the jokes are lame, with a few sparkling exceptions. Good acting and a lot of pretty faces carry the movie. If there is a theme, it is a meta-theme, that despite youth-worshipping Hollywood, aging actors still have the liveliness to fill the screen with fun.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

An American Carol: Grade D

D
An American Carol (2008)
Kevin P. Farley, Kelsey Grammer, Leslie Nielsen, with appearances by Bill O’Reilly, Dennis Hopper, John Voight. Co-writer and director David Zuckoff.

I rented this movie because I thought it would be a Leslie Nielsen Airplane-esque spoof of left wing politics, especially the Michael Moore variety. Instead, it is a one-theme political diatribe of the form, “Michael Moore hates America!” The assumption is that any criticism of any part of American government makes one a traitor working for the country’s enemies. But the main problem is that the movie is not funny. Maybe funny is not something that the right does.

There are two or three scenes of inspired silliness, such as the opening, when the terrorist leader calls for one of his men, “Mohammed! Come here!” and 15 guys appear from behind rocks and rush to him. They play that joke out for two or three more minutes. That is the real Leslie Nielsen silliness I love. Another inspired segment has Dennis Hopper as a judge blasting his shotgun at ACLU zombies who have invaded his courtroom. Hopper was terrific in that role. Kelsey Grammer was outstanding as General George Patton, a ghost who escorts Farley as Michael Malone across time and space, per “It’s a Wonderful Life,” to see what would have happened if war were banned as left-wing liberals insist. We see that Malone would now be a slaveowner because the Civil War was not fought and “Victoria’s Secret” had become “Victoria’s Burka.” Is that funny? I see only heavy handed didactics.

Liberal politics certainly is ripe for a satire, but this isn’t it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Women: Grade B

B
The Women (2008)
Meg Ryan, Annette Benning, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Candice Bergen, Cloris Leachman; Co-writer & Director Diane English.

The dialog is still funny in this update of the 1939 classic comedy. Meg Ryan learns that her husband is having an affair with a shop girl (Mendes). Her girlfriends, especially Benning, give her copious advice. Now on her own (although still wealthy) she discovers that she doesn’t have to be a wife to be a person, so she starts her own fashion business. She resolves to get a divorce but can’t sign the papers. It turns out she wants to be married after all. Who could have guessed that?

The original film was fascinating for showing idle rich women in the midst of the Great Depression, and also because back then, women really were little more than wives, so breaking free to be a female person was a radical character development. All that context is gone in this movie, leaving only witty dialog, and it’s witty in a jokey, sitcom way, without the acerbic tones of the original.

The modern characters are brain-dead and the story a catalog of banality. Despite its ostensible celebration of women’s independence, this film does the cause a disservice by stereotyping its characters’ concerns around clothing, food, children, babies, marriage and domestic matters. There are no men in the movie but a male definition of the world is built-in, whether in ogling Eva Mendes’ butt or by having men and marriage be the psychological hub of life.

The acting is nothing special although it is fun to see so many big names. Bette Midler’s cameo is a high point. Jada Smith’s performance is seriously grating. There are some nice directorial touches. The silly dialog and cheap sentimentality make this light, empty-headed comedy an amusing diversion.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Traitor: Grade B

B
Traitor (2008)
Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Saïd Taghmaoui, Jeff Daniels; Co-Writer & Director Jeffrey Nachmanoff.

You’ll need motion-sickness medication to watch this movie. The camera swoops, spins, tracks and zooms dizzyingly in every scene. Fast pans move from one close up shot to another so quickly you can hardly tell what you’re looking at and if you try to follow the motion your eyes will cross. The movements are completely gratuitous, seriously detracting from the film. When it is not swooping around, the camera is hand held, jumping and jittering wildly with the action but incomprehensibly, shot from no consistent point of view. This syntax of camera-as-character is common in television, but usually done more intelligently. But all is not lost, for in the last 1/3 of the film they apparently changed personnel and the movie settles down to a much more enjoyable, professional looking work. You just have to make it through the first hour.

And you should try, for this is basically a good movie. Don Cheadle is a deep undercover agent for the US Government, penetrating a terrorist organization based in Yemen. His undercover status is not revealed for the first 45 minutes, (although I guessed it right away -- he is Don Cheadle, after all), so we first get to know him as an explosives dealer who also instructs his customers in making bombs and suicide vests. Taghmaoui is the militant Islamic extremist who Cheadle befriends. To earn his bones, Cheadle must blow up an American embassy in Europe, which causes him a crisis of conscience, and we learn that his character really is a devout Muslim, not just an undercover pretender. Acting is consistently superb throughout. The dialog is intelligent and the story is engaging. However, sets, scenes and costumes are so self-consciously overdone that they are unconvincing. It is courageous of Cheadle to put his career at risk by playing an Islamic terrorist but he plays it extremely well, so much so that we can understand the point of view of the anti-American Islamic extremists. Despite its flaws, good acting and a good story make the move worth seeing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Man on Wire: Grade B

B
Man on Wire (2008)
Philippe Petit. Director James Marsh

In 1974, Philippe Petit strung a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City then walked out into the void. He spent 45 minutes out there, a quarter mile above the traffic, dancing, twirling, showing off. It was a worldwide news incident, as intended. When he finally came in, police snatched him up. He was charged with trespassing.

This documentary tells the story with some background from his youth and reports on his earlier wire-walks between the towers of Notre Dame and the towers of a bridge in Sydney. The story is told in convincing reenactments, archival news footage, and interviews with Petit and the friends who helped him. The story is only slightly interesting, though photography, editing and directing are excellent. Philippe is charming, as is his French-accented English. I would have liked a lot more information about the technical and financial aspects of the stunt. How is the wire made and anchored? What kind of slippers does he wear? Where does he fix his eyes while walking? What does he think about? How is the balance pole used? Who paid for all the equipment and airline flights? None of these questions is addressed. What's left is a report of an inconsequential media stunt from three decades ago.

At first, I wondered what kind of a nut Petit was. He would have made an excellent terrorist. But in the DVD extra interview with him, I became convinced that he is a genuine performance artist, deranged only to the extent any great artist must be. It might have been a better film to frame it more clearly as an inquiry into the soul of an artist rather than as a news report. But it is an engaging worthwhile hour of viewing.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Edge of Heaven: Grade A

A
The Edge of Heaven (2008)
Nurgül Yesilçay, Tuncel Kurtiz, Hanna Schygulla, Nursel Köse; Writer-director Fatih Akin. (German and Turkish; subtitled).

Turkish-born German director Akin tells of three families whose lives intersect in random ways, per the now formulaic Crash template. Much of the action and dialog takes place in Istanbul and in northeastern (Kurdish) Turkey. An old Turkish man (Kurtiz) in Germany invites a Turkish prostitute (Yesilcay) to quit the business and move in with him. His son is a German professor of Turkish studies, who goes to Turkey to search for the woman’s adult daughter. Meanwhile, the daughter (Kose), a Kurdish activist hunted by police, goes to Bremen to search for her mother. Those two characters cross paths but never meet, though we badly want them to. The daughter befriends a female college student in Bremen and they become lovers. When tragedy befalls them, the student’s mother (Schygulla) travels to Turkey. There her path crosses that of the now-deported old Turk who had befriended the prostitute, but they never meet. The story just ends when the time is up. There is no resolution and it is frustrating, until you realize that in real life, no bell rings to mark “resolution.” We each live in a bubble, trying to make sense of our own lives. As the viewer we have an omniscient, God’s – eye view of how these six lives interact over time, culture, and geography, yet we are forced to settle for the tunnel vision of a mere mortal. It is a contradiction.

The cinematographer prefers high contrast lighting with bright, contrasting colors, especially red and white. It’s a sharp look, very pleasing even in scenes of urban squalor. Acting is marvelous, especially by Köse, who dominates the screen. Apparently she is a big star in Turkey but unknown (until now) outside the country. Schygulla has a smaller role but she still has the magic of her youth. Just asking for a cup of coffee, she rivets your attention. The directing does not draw attention to itself but the writing does. For supposedly ordinary people living ordinary lives, too many low probability events occur and when those tales are not concluded, we wonder what the point was. So in the end, the movie is not quite satisfying, but the beautiful pictures, fine acting, and fascinating languages and cultures more than make up for any deficit in story.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Match Factory Girl: Grade A

A
The Match Factory Girl (1990/2008)
Kati Outinen. Writer and Director Aki Kaurismäki. (Finnish, subtitled).

This new release of the classic 1990 film is a masterpiece of minimalism. A poor, urban young woman works in a factory that produces wooden matches. She gives her meager salary to her exploitative mother and ugly stepfather. There is virtually no dialog in the movie, few utterances of any kind. It's almost a silent movie, and eerie because of that. All the feelings and conflicts are illustrated visually, in a masterful use of the medium.

The woman is not depressive, despite palpably depressing surroundings, but she is withdrawn; not shy but with nothing to say. She plods through life without complaint, like the worn, functional machinery in the match factory. In an uncharacteristic one-night stand, she becomes pregnant. The baby’s well-to-do father rejects her and her parents throw her out of the apartment. Alone and defeated, she executes a childish revenge on the paternity offender and on her parents. It is a stupid plan and she is quickly caught by the police. What is striking is the woman’s flat, mechanical dullness. She is not unintelligent, but unknowingly oppressed by poverty, lack of opportunity and lack of imagination. In her vengeance she is not enraged but matter-of-fact. The effect is haunting.

This is the third in the director’s “Proletariat” trilogy, the only one I have seen. This release is an “Eclipse” edition, a line of classics like the Criterion Collection. Eclipse offers high quality versions of hard to find films like this one, at low cost, without the remastering and supplementary material of Criterion. I am grateful for Eclipse, because without it, this wonderful glimpse into the life and mind of lower class Helsinki would have never come my way.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour : Grade B

B
The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (2007)
Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jobrani, Aron Kader, Dean Obeidallah. Director Michael Simon.

Four Middle-Eastern stand-up comics talk about the immigrant experience. Each enters the stage through a mock metal detector and is scrutinized by a TSA employee, then does a 15 minute routine. There is no interaction among the performers. The stand-up acts are well-rehearsed and high quality. Many jokes are anecdotes about the average American’s ignorance of Middle Eastern history and culture (“Oh, you’re Arab? I love hummous!”). There are predictable jokes about Middle-Eastern accents, police profiling, TSA profiling, the Patriot Act, hijacking airplanes and Bin Laden. Many jokes seem manufactured, not flowing out of the comics’ personal experience, but that’s ok because these topics need to be brought out in the open and laughed at. The four acts effectively defuse a lot of subterranean cultural anxiety. My favorite part was watching the mostly Middle-Eastern audience squirming in their seats with a mixture of appreciation and embarrassment. The jokes were all political, social and ethnic, with not a single reference to body functions (refreshingly), and virtually no jokes about history, romantic or domestic relationships, pets, children, television shows, sex, drugs, rednecks, and all the usual topics that stand-ups cover. It was a self-consciously focused presentation on Middle Eastern stereotypy, ethnicity, and prejudice, and its purpose was obviously to send a message to the mainstream: Middle-Easterners are people too! The show succeeds at delivering that message, and also simply as a LOL hour of enjoyment.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tropic Thunder: Grade C

C
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., with appearances by Nick Nolte and Tom Cruise. Co-writer and Director Ben Stiller.

This satire of Vietnam war films takes a self-referential, postmodern approach, meaning that its own satire is part of the joke, making it also a satire of Hollywod filmmaking. A patrol of GIs is filming battle scenes (shot in Hawaii, which had to be expensive), but the actors are bickering and one multi-million dollar special effects explosion is ignited when the cameras are not even rolling. In desperation, the director drops the patrol into the jungle to see if they can straighten out their relationships while trying to survive. Somehow they are dropped straight into the Vietnam war and are attacked by guerrillas. But they think they are still making a movie and act accordingly. That goofy premise makes for some delicious inside-Hollywood laughs and some good parodies of well-known scenes from Rambo, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Rescue Dawn, and others.

One of the funniest bits is between RDJ playing a tough, barking black sergeant, and a young, hip black soldier who is perplexed by his stereotypical phrases and attitudes. There is no real plot, just a series of gag scenes, so everything depends on the humor, which is inconsistent. It loses its satiric edge and degenerates into crude, easy laughs as the movie progresses, until finally it becomes flat and boring. Jack Black has his fans, but is too crude and hammy for me. Nolte does a great self-parody. Cruise comes across as creepy; the magic is gone from him. Directing is notably good, and the sets, props, costumes and production values are high quality, but after about 45 minutes, the movie has little content to keep you going.

The White Lioness: Grade B

B
The White Lioness (1996)
Rolf Lassgard, Basil Appollis, Dipuo Huma. Director Per Berglund. (Swedish; mostly English, with subtitled Swedish, Norwegian and Afrikaans).

I picked this one from the stacks because I remembered having read the book years ago. I didn’t even know it was ever made into a movie, but the book was terrific. This movie is pretty good too; I give it only a B because I was disappointed by the movie’s extreme compression of the book’s rich and complex characters, but I guess that’s how movies are made.

The movie is set at the time when Mandela and De Klerk shared a Nobel peace prize for bringing an end to apartheid. A group of reactionary white Afrikaners are afraid of the coming cultural and governmental change and plot a high level assassination. They hire a young black killer to do the job. The assassin and his keeper train in a small town in Sweden, where they incidentally kill a snoopy woman. The small town police detective finds the body but is perplexed. Very slowly, tiny clues begin to emerge and he eventually follows the trail to Cape Town. The scenery is beautiful and it makes me realize how seldom we see South Africa in movies. Without giving too much away, the plot is thwarted in the nick of time. The story is so compressed that it is difficult to follow, but logically tight if you pay attention. Acting is superb and so is the directing. Locations are wonderful to see. Very worthwhile.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: Grade A

A
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (2008)
Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner; Director Martin Ritt.

This “Criterion” release of the 1965 Le Carre film adaptation is a feast for the eyes. The film is perfectly restored, and black and white has never looked so good. It is stunningly beautiful and perfectly suited to the film noir genre and to the cold war 1960’s. Burton is very good in this role, but I think he was overrated. His acting seems flat and manufactured to me, although some of that is the character portrayed, and some of it legacy of the stage. Claire Bloom does a good job but Oskar Werner’s performance is riveting. For fans of Le Carre, this is a perfect adaptation. It captures the tension, the emotions, and the moral ambiguities of the novel and of that period of history. British spy Leamus (Burton) is supposed to act like a defector to give the East Germans some misinformation in Amsterdam. But they whisk him off to East Berlin and he learns that the British have abandoned him, so he now really is the traitor he was pretending to be. I love the way Le Carre can turn the world inside out like that.

There is a second disk in this edition showing a long, recent interview with Le Carre in which he discusses the making of the film, working with Burton and Ritt; all fascinating stuff, especially where it highlights the different points of view of a writer and a filmmaker. Then there is longish feature which is Le Carre’s autobiography told through film adaptations of his novels, focusing of course on the autobiographical, A Perfect Spy. It seems he has been self-aware all his life (the hindsight of age encourages that view), and exquisitely attuned to subtleties of the human condition. Then there is an extensive 1967 interview with Burton, who is fascinating and disturbing. And much more. Even if you have seen the original movie more than once, this Criterion edition is well worth renting.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sukiyaki Western Django: Grade A

A
Sukiyaki Western Django
Hideaki Ito. Masanobu Ando, Koichi Sato, Kaori Momoi, Quentin Tarantino; Co-writer & Director: Takashi Miike. (Japanese, mostly in English, some dubbed).

This is a tongue-in-cheek remake and homage to the Leone/Eastwood 1964 classic spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars. A nameless gunman bids his services to two rival gangs competing for hidden gold, as in the original. Innumerable fistfights and gunfights ensue. But instead of a dry, dusty town in the American west, these scenes take place in a wet, muddy town in rural Japan. There is a fascinating mix of 19th century Japanese and Southwestern US architecture and culture. Curly-eaved, lacquered classical Japanese buildings sit alongside clapboard saloons and liveries. The Japanese saloon is especially fun. It looks mostly like a ryokan, with shoji windows and wooden barrels for stools but there is a huge set of Texas longhorns mounted over the bar. The swinging saloon doors have Asian scrimshaw instead of louvers. Several times I had to pause the DVD to admire the creativity and wit that went into set design. Costumes are the same way. And above all, the filmmakers got the two things right that you must get right in a spaghetti, the colors and the sound of the gunshots. Both were perfect.

While the story line was very close to complete nonsense, the acting was engaging and the dialog witty. Directing is strong, cinematography exceptional, and the scenery beautiful. Tarantino’s small part at the beginning sets you up for satire, but the film takes itself pretty seriously overall. There are references to the samurai tradition, and visual allusions to Kurosawa. I am probably overrating the film because I am such a fan of satire, the spaghetti genre, Japanese film, and Tarantino, so this was a delight for me.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Wall-E: Grade B

B
Wall-E
Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin; Co-writer and director: Andrew Stanton. (Animated).

Wall-E is a beat-up, post-apocalyptic robot trash compactor on a desolate earth. The apocalypse was not the customary sci-fi nuclear holocaust or biological plague, but an environmental tragedy: the planet overwhelmed by trash. In Wall-E’s world there are piles of trash as high as skyscrapers (most of it seems to be scrap metal), no living things except a solitary cockroach, and a desolate desert landscape plagued by fierce duststorms. However, electricity is still plentiful, advertisements play from loudspeakers and illuminated billboards offer fast food. Hey, it’s a kid’s movie.

All the humans took spaceships to a distant mother ship, Axiom, where they have lived in spotless luxury and hi-tech comfort for 700 years. Of course they have all turned into shapeless whales gliding on hovercraft chairs as they slurp their 32 ounce sodas. They are surrounded by fast food advertising of a generic nature, but which is colored yellow and red to give the unmistakable impression of McDonald’s.

The mother ship sends out a robotic probe to Earth. The probe is a sleek, white, jet- and laser- powered, egg-shape named Eva. Eva was obviously designed by the people who did the iPod, whereas Wall-E was designed way back in the 21st century by a tractor company. Inevitably, the two robots develop a romance, and that is the heart of the story. Wall-E stows away on the shuttlecraft when Eva returns to Axiom, and Star-Trekian onboard adventures ensue as the humans are awakened to their senses and motivated to return to Earth.

The animation is out of this world, as we have come to expect from Pixar. They have no peer for technical skill or animation creativity. I was amazed at how a wide range of simple yet effective emotions were projected from a couple of robots with minimal human features. They have no eyebrows, not even noses or mouths, and hardly any language, and yet somehow, the two robots are anthropomorphically alive. It’s brilliant.

The Romeo and Juliet emotional caricatures and the heavy-handed eco-message are too simple minded for most adults. But there is a layer of inventiveness, humor, and allusion that will keep you engaged. There is also another thematic layer to consider. Wall-E and Eva, despite being robots, are clearly the characters we identify with, whereas the blimped-out humans are robotic. There is a satirical concern about our technologically-driven society, nostalgic longing for a fanciful agrarian past, and anxiety about the future of humanity.

Disney distributes Pixar, so it is noteworthy that the usual invidious gender stereotypes are largely missing from this movie. Wall-E and Eva have no sexual characteristics (other than their names) and do not behave in stereotypically gendered ways. That is a very large step forward for a children’s movie and I applaud it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Four Minutes: Grade A

A
Four Minutes (2008)
Monica Bleibtreu, Hannah Herzsprung; Writer-Director Chris Kraus. (German, subtitled).

An old, stoop-shouldered, gray-haired, cardigan-wearing woman (Bleibtreu) gives piano lessons to women prisoners in contemporary Germany (although the prison looks dated to the 1920s to 1940s). One day a wild, angry murderer enters the prison population, a young woman who nevertheless has considerable musical talent and experience on the piano (Herzsprung). The old teacher is delighted and convinces the girl to try to win a forthcoming competition. Many problems are encountered and overcome, including the girl’s preference for loud contemporary sounds (“Negro music” as the teacher disparages it), instead of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, upon which the teacher insists.

The music is beautiful throughout and I wanted to hear more of it, but the heart of the story is really the relationship between the old woman and the girl, and what each has to teach the other about life. As the story progresses, bits and pieces of their former lives are revealed, enriching the film and their relationship. The final scene (the big prize concert) is a knockout, and not what you probably expected. The writing is original and the directing noticeably deft.

There was one obvious error in the story, having the young woman’s hands burned but miraculously recovered the next day. I did not care for the art design, with its opressive green filter. Yes, it made the inside of the prison look depressing but it was overdone to the point of being intrusive and unrealistic. Acting by both women was superb, but especially by Herzsprung, who should be catapulted to international stardom with this performance.

Shut Up and Shoot Me: Grade B

B
Shut Up and Shoot Me (2008)
Karel Roden, Andy Nyman, Anna Geislerová. Writer-Director Steen Agro. (U.K. and Czech Republic, in English).

An English couple are tourists in Prague when the wife is killed in an accident. The husband (Nyman) decides he cannot live without her so hires his Czech driver (Roden) to kill him. But the scheme goes wrong, not once, multiple times. One is reminded of a Roadrunner cartoon as sillier and sillier situations unfold. What makes the story funny is the deadpan tone in which the lines are delivered in absurd situations. Nyman offers to pay for his execution with his credit card. The driver is outraged. “If this card is empty, I’ll kill you!” “Yes, that will be fine.” One misadventure leads to another even more improbable, until the whole movie just stops when the time is up.

The dialog is funny and the lines are well delivered, but no serious relationships develop among the characters. The story is not realistic, but not fantastic either; just plausible enough to make the deadpan humor work. For example, my wife cringed when a bad guy shot a woman’s shopping bags full of Prada, Ferragamo, and other high end goods. Seeing Prague in winter was enjoyable. Camera work was noticeably good, both with the outdoor scenery and in tight indoor shots. This is a lightweight, mindless comedy for adults, but a cut above average.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Red: Grade B

B
Red (2008)
Brian Cox, Tom Sizemore. Co-directors Trygve Allister Diesen
Lucky McKee.

It is a pleasure to see Brian Cox in a leading role like this. He was a standout actor (about the only one) in The Bourne Supremacy. Here he plays a taciturn gentleman retired to his country home in western Oregon, living more or less in seclusion. He wears a bulky, plaid cloth jacket and a wide-brim cowboy hat, moves slowly and drives a beat up, 20 year old pickup. While fishing at the river one day, with his old dog, Red, he is robbed by three hoodlum youths. He has no money, so in frustration, the nutty kid shoots his dog dead. The boys get away, and from there, a tale of revenge develops.

The old man wants the boys to apologize because the way he construes the world, that's how things should work. He tracks down the ringleader and speaks to his rich, arrogant father (Sizemore), who dismisses the old man’s entreaty. Slowly and methodically, the old man finds each of the boys and talks to him, with little result except to increase tension. The tension grows palpably with each additional encounter until there is a completely out-of-character, unmotivated, and not-believable bloody gunfight ending that spoils the whole story.

Obviously, the producers were not comfortable with the slow pace of inner development, so grabbed for an easy “fix”. But the best payback is not death. It is the opponent’s own self-destruction or self-torture. Or alternately, the old man could have come to the conclusion that some people are immune to moral argument, and realized that his social construction of reality was wrong. Or, there are numerous occasions where he could have used the law to pursue the opponents, with assault charges, for example. Despite the ruinous turn of the plot however, acting by Cox and Sizemore are worth seeing and the characterizations are above average in the first half of the film.

Antibodies: Grade B

B
Antibodies (2005)
Wotan Wilke Möhring, André Hennicke, Hauke Diekamp. Writer-director Christian Alvart. (German, subtitled).

This update of Silence of the Lambs adds a religious ambiguity to the investigator but does not break new ground. Maybe we are just burned out on the serial killer theme, or maybe nobody can ever top Anthony Hopkins for emanating sheer pathological menace.

Möhring is the killer, captured by police in a riveting short scene before the titles, perhaps one of the best scenes in the movie. In prison, he won’t speak. A country policeman (Hennicke) interviews him in connection with a missing child in his town, and the killer suddenly starts speaking in cryptic riddles with the intention of messing with his mind, as Hopkins did with Foster. The policeman becomes obsessed with ascertaining whether this prisoner is the killer of the girl in his town. The killer claims she was dead when he got there, but he saw the real killer. He drops enough clues that the policeman begins to suspect his own son (Kiekamp). The thought drives the policeman nearly mad from religious guilt and a heavy-handed Biblical theme of Abraham and Isaac is played out. That could have been a good theme for recasting the whole story, but it is just thrown in at the end.

The directing and cinematography, though often bloody and violent, are outstanding and raise the film above average. Acting is only average though. The imprisoned killer is intelligent but also just batty, covering his cell walls with slogans and crude drawings of mutilation. Möhring does not have the stillness Hopkins used to convey menace. Policeman Hennicke is distractingly histrionic. The story sags badly while he discovers his shadow side amidst much breast-beating angst. There are a few late-breaking surprises that are just too clever, and the happy ending contradicts the film's noirish mood.