Sunday, January 27, 2008

12:08 East of Bucharest: Grade A

12:08 East of Bucharest (2006)
Mircea Andreescu, Teodor Corban, Ion Sapdaru. Writer-Director Corneliu Porumboiu. Romanian (subtitled).

It seems clear that this film was made for domestic consumption in Romania. It’s hard to imagine it would appeal to an American audience, yet inexplicably, I enjoyed it tremendously. In a contemporary provincial town, a dreary television talk show interviews two locals, asking them where they were and what they were doing on that fateful day in 1989 when communism fell in Romania and dictator Ceausescu fled. The two men interviewed say they were out in the town square protesting the government and calling for its overthrow. But the interviewer presses them for details: were they protesting before 12:08 pm when the dictator fled, or were they celebrating after that time, when it was safe? In other words, were they really part of the revolution or just observers of it? The style of the questions and answers start to take the shape of an interrogation by the secret police, focusing obsessively on tiny details. The interviewees get defensive, angry, depressed, and defeated. In the background is a lifeless flat mural of the empty, barren town square in front of a concrete hulk of a government building. There are comments about whether the clock in the tower ever was accurate, a fine metaphor for life under communism. Callers-in to the show are hostile, dismissive, or contradicting of the interviewees. One claims life was better before the revolution. One is now a rich factory owner, but formerly was with the secret police, as the interviewees well know. He intimidates the interviewer about “libelous claims.” We start to understand the larger question of whether there really was a revolution at all for the ordinary people. What is different now? They still struggle to pay their debts and put bread on the table. It is a rich metaphorical film, reminiscent of a story by George Orwell, and one senses that it still touches raw nerves in Romania today. It also gives a rare look into provincial life there. I give the movie an ‘A’ because I enjoyed it so much, but it is so subtle that I wouldn’t recommend it to the average American movie watcher.

A World Without Thieves: Grade B

A World Without Thieves (2004)
Andy Lau, Rene Liu. Writer-director: Xiaogang Feng. Chinese (subtitled).

A pair of thieves in contemporary China spot a village idiot on a train carrying his life savings in his backpack. The woman thief (Liu) has compassion on the boy and resolves to protect him and even resolves to “quit the business” and settle down, possibly because she is secretly pregnant. Her partner however can’t get his mind off that money. A rival band of thieves on the same train also spot the mark. Lau’s character repeatedly saves the boy, rescues the money from the “bad” thieves, and reluctantly returns it, to appease his girlfriend. There are numerous battles of wits, tricks, picking of pockets, and contests of skill, many involving eggs, which apparently figure large in the rural Chinese mindscape. The characters are attractive, the story amusing, and the acting convincing although played with self-conscious irony much of the time. Characters often quote Confucius (I assume) at each other to convey complex meanings indirectly. Those are quite witty, probably much more so for a native speaker. The cinematography is wonderful, displaying the Chinese countryside, villages and cities with equal care. The train set is a hothouse where the action sprouts organically. It is a small movie. There is no master strategy, as in The Sting or The Orient Express; just a series of incidents. The film also lacks the epic historical sweep of many Chinese pictures and there are no martial arts or traditional costumes or weaponry on display. But the story carries its weight and as a bonus you get a glimpse into contemporary Chinese life.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

He Was A Quiet Man: Grade C


He Was a Quiet Man (2007)
Christian Slater, Elisha Cuthbert, William H. Macy. Writer-Director Frank Capello.

Slater gives a superb acting performance as a put-upon office nerd who decides to go postal but just as he draws his gun, another frustrated nerd in the next cubicle beats him to it, killing several office workers. Slater blasts the first shooter and becomes a hero, but the woman he secretly loved from afar (Cuthbert) has been paralyzed in the shooting. The construal of these events is that he saved her from certain death, so they develop a relationship with him as her caregiver. Macy is the self-centered boss in a throwaway role. Some difficult paraplegic/wheelchair scenes are well written and deftly directed. The cinematography is superior, especially the use of color and composition. However, there are very serious problems with the screenplay that ruin the movie’s integrity. There is a 15 minute (it seems) section in the middle where a tedious folk song plays over a montage supposed to show Slater and Cuthbert building a relationship. It is mind-numbing and ineffective; a dead weight that brings the whole movie to a halt. The story recovers, but in the final scene, the suggestion is left that it was all a just dream anyway, which is how a nine year old likes to end a story. Earlier dreamlike sequences surrealistically imposed on the realistic narrative could suggest that Slater’s character was psychotic, but they were more humorous than serious and his emotionally complex relationship with Cuthbert negates the idea of psychosis, making the ending just stupid or lazy. How a single writer-director could be so inconsistent is a mystery.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Death Sentence: Grade D

Death Sentence (2007)
Kevin Bacon, Garrett Hedlund, Kelly Preston, Aisha Tylor, John Goodman. Director James Wan.

Bacon is an insurance executive whose son is murdered by a gang. He loses confidence in the legal system and goes out for vigilante justice. Murder and mayhem ensue. Charles Bronson played the same part better in Death Wish (1974), even though Bacon is a much better actor, and that’s because this movie is so badly written and directed. A great deal of screen time is devoted to assuring us that Bacon is an ordinary family guy who celebrates birthdays with his kids. But that’s boring: we assume it and the message could have been conveyed in 60 seconds. When he turns vigilante, he acts without planning, is unsure and even horrified at himself when he “accidentally” stabs a kid with a garden knife. What kind of vengeant resolve is that? There is none of Bronson’s grim determination or the besieged perseverance of Die-Hard’s John McLane or the revenant fury of Rambo. Bacon’s back is never up against the wall and he seems clueless throughout. As he waits (!) for the gang to come after his family he makes sure the windows are locked in his nice suburban home. There are many other stupidities that detract from the story. What kind of head wound justifies gauze bandages wrapped around the forehead to look like Ray Milland in The Invisible man? Why would you choose a two-shot shotgun to go after a gang of 25 killers? What kind of street thugs bounce up on their toes with each step? The movie tries to make the moral point that personal revenge is not worth it, but that platitude is lost on Bacon. What raises the movie above complete failure is the excellent cinematography, especially in the chase scenes.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

3:10 to Yuma: Grade B

3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Ben Foster, Logan Lerman; Director James Mangold

Crowe is the arrogant, smirking, Bible-quoting leader of a vicious gang of western bandits who holds up a payroll stagecoach (something they have done many times before), slaughtering most of its Pinkerton guard. The feat is witnessed with disgust by peaceful cattle rancher Bale and his son (Lerman). When Crowe is captured, the head of the Pinkertons wants him escorted to a distant train station, where a prison train, stopping at 3:10, will take him to a federal prison in Yuma. Bale’s character volunteers to join that mission, which involves about 5 men. Crowe’s gang of thugs pursues them to free their boss. The rescue gang is led by Ben Foster who delivers the high intensity that electrified the screen in Alpha Dog. The posse faces various threats on the way to the train station as the gang closes in. At the station and outnumbered, even the Marshall and the Pinkerton guy quit the effort, fearing for their lives. Bale tells his son: “If I don’t come back, you can say your father took Ben Wade to the prison train when no one else would.” Crowe and Bale’s adversarial relationship evolves into a kind of mutual admiration.

It’s a great human drama, and a well-produced western, with lots of guns, horses, wagons, dirt, and steam engines. It was shot in New Mexico, which is the wrong kind of terrain for Arizona, but most people won’t notice that, and the cinematography is outstanding. Directing is flawless and the acting is exceptionally good, even by Peter Fonda, and Luke Wilson (who has an uncredited bit part). In fact, the acting is so good, it raises the quality of this film way above average. What ruins it however, are thoughtless plotting and annoying music. The character drama almost overcomes the contrivances of plot, but not quite. Why does the posse holding Crowe check in to the bridal suite of a hotel to wait for the bad guys, instead of waiting at the railroad station? Why do they wait at all? They could have stayed in the hills outside of town until they saw the train. Why do the bad guys surround the hotel but sit and drink whiskey, waiting for the train, instead of storming the hotel room? And couldn’t the posse come up with another pair of handcuffs or at least a little piece of rope to prevent Crowe from repeatedly escaping and killing off their members? In the final scene, Crowe’s resolution to support Bale is not clear so the big gunfight makes no sense. Who is shooting at whom, and why? Why doesn’t Crowe just sit down and have a smoke instead of running from his own gang? Of course all the bad guys can only hit posts and fixtures while Bale never misses his target once while waving his 30-shot six-shooter. Bale does get shot in the back once, but it apparently heals up within 10 minutes and he is fine. There are many anachronisms in dialog and sets, which is just laziness in a period movie. These defects in the screenplay spoil what could have been a “High Noon” kind of classic, and the grating music misses an opportunity for a restrained and suggestive sound to match the vast openness of the desert and the understated but powerful performances of the actors.

Monday, January 07, 2008

La Vie En Rose: Grade D

La Vie En Rose (2007)
Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud; Co-writer and director: Oliver Dahan. (French, subtitled)

Cotillard gives a convincing portrayal of French chanteuse Edith Piaf, who was enormously popular in Europe and America from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. My high school French teacher used to play her records for the class, so the songs are familiar and nostalgic to me, although I did not realize until I saw this movie how perfect Piaf’s diction really was and that is probably why the teacher played the tunes. Cotillard lip syncs the songs perfectly, and the songs and “the voice” are the reason I give this movie a pass. There is nothing else to recommend it. Nearly every scene is indoors and the lighting is so dark, as if everything were lit by cheap candles. Walls are green and brown. Costumes are green and brown. Shadows are deep. Look at the DVD cover. The whole look of the movie is murky and muddy. Though Piaf sang through two world wars, there is little sense of history or geography. The unnecessarily zooming and panning camera is often distracting to the action. Acting is only adequate. Even Cotillard, who gives a 100% performance, is bound by the tedious, melodramatic script. The narrative alternates between scenes of adult aging and childhood flashbacks, which is interesting but goes on for an unjustified 2 hours and 10 minutes, with numerous scenes apparently designed only for tear-jerk potential. She was raised in a brothel, how awful. As a child she was blinded by an eye inflammation for months, how awful. But these scenes and many like them contribute nothing to our understanding of the character. The adult Piaf never refers to them, and the filmmakers never suggest that they had any effect whatsoever on her. So why are they in the movie? At the end of this biopic, I know next to nothing about Edith Piaf except she liked to sing, drank too much, and was lonesome. That could describe a lot of people. There is nothing here that explains the great Piaf-Piaf.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Shoot 'Em Up: Grade A

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)
Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Belluci; Writer-Director Michael Davis

This is a comedy of violence, along the lines of Kill Bill, or other Tarantino picture. Owen is the Bruce-Willis-like, James Bond-like hero against Giamatti’s evil gun manufacturer. Owen stumbles into a situation where bad guys are trying to kill a pregnant woman. He saves her (for a while) only to learn that the baby is the real target. He delivers the baby, literally, to Belluci for caretaking, but those pesky bad guys with guns just won’t let up. Why they are after the baby is not entirely clear. It’s something to do with a rare blood type needed by a senator for a marrow transplant, but the senator is also (ironically), pro gun control, so that’s why Giamatti needs to stop the senator by killing the baby. Whatever. The point is not the story, but the action and the humor. Owen and Giamatti get lots of clever one-liners. (Giamatti: Guns don’t kill people, but they sure help!). There are plentiful guts and gore, car chases, gallons of blood, an enormous body count, torture, and guns, guns, guns. But all of it is done in a campy, ironic way. Giamatti is an evil villain the way Goldfinger was an evil villain. You either get the humor or you don’t.

I especially appreciated the allusions to Owen’s career, including the James Bond role he wanted but never got. Well, he’s got it now, and it is way better than any Bond film. The skydiving scene, for example, parallels the one by Roger Moore, but is so over the top it is hilarious. Clive drives only BMW’s of course, homage to his film, The Driver. There are numerous allusions to the Eastwood-Leone spaghetti westerns, from the echoing gunshots to the sweaty-faced close-ups. Extensive borrowing from the Die-Hard series is obvious, and likewise from gritty urban Hong Kong crime cinema. Again, it is a nasty, violent picture and if you take it literally, it has no redeeming virtue, but that would be a thick-headed mistake. It is intended as a genre comedy and as a contemporary art form which demonstrates excellent technical, directing, and cinematic talent, and as that, it approaches perfection. The DVD extras are as long as the film and almost as entertaining.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Paris, Je T’Aime: Grade A

Paris, Je T’Aime (2006). Mostly French (subtitled).

A plethora of actors, known and unknown, including Steve Buscemi, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emily Mortimer, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara , Natalie Portman, Gerard Depardieu. Directors include Sylvain Chomet, Joel and Ethan Cohen, Gerard Depardieu, Wes Craven, and many others.

Twenty-one short stories five to eight minutes long, each portray a romantic relationship unfolding somewhere in Paris. I was boggled by the scope of creativity. Each piece is a jewel; not a lump of coal in the bunch, but the range of ideas, cinematic styles, themes, settings, and music, is just stunning. Some stories are direct: boy and girl fall in love in Paris, the end. Those depend on fine acting and moviemaking for their punch. Several are subtle and surprising and you have to pause the video and think about them for a minute. A couple are wildly surrealistic, making little sense other than to indulge a riot of images and sounds. Some are sentimental and affecting. Others are obvious but witty or creative, such as the romance between two vampires. My least favorite was the wordless romance between two mimes. All segments are of exceptionally good quality, and with fine acting. The one with Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands was a little off, because the skeletal Gazzarra had slurred speech and looked like he was recovering from a near-fatal illness. It’s nice to see that he is still alive, but his was the only performance that detracted. Rowlands held him up though. This is a wonderful movie, something for everybody, and everything for the person who loves cinema.

Going Shopping: Grade B

Going Shopping (2005)
Victoria Foyt, Lee Grant, Mae Whitman. Cowriter and director: Henry Jaglom.

This extremely low budget indie explores shopping obsession among women. The owner of an upscale clothing store in Beverly Hills (Foyt) discovers she is broke and about to be evicted from the shop. Her boyfriend apparently stole her money, but that topic is not explored. The point is she is broke, so she plans a big Mother’s Day sale to raise money to make rent and postpone eviction. She is also a single mom and her preteen daughter (Whitman) is rebellious, but nevertheless steeped in the culture of fashion, clothing, and lookism. The shopkeeper's mother (Grant) is a California granny determined to look 20 years old forever, who hassles her but eventually helps out in a surprising way that should have been the narrative theme of the movie, but is only a throwaway.

The women shoppers are California youth-worshipping, age-denying, more-money-than-brains stereotypes. Foyt tries to borrow from a very nice but utterly ruthless mobster, in one of the most entertaining scenes, and tries to enlist a capital partner, among many ploys to raise the cash. Liberally interspersed are dozens of 60 second interviews with women who explain various aspects of their shopoholic obsession directly to the camera. These are well acted and the women have interesting faces, but since we know it is all scripted, it is not particularly convincing or revealing. There are pathological shopping obsessions, but there is no reason to believe they look like this. As a psychological exploration, a documentary approach would have been better. As it stands, the social commentary about female shopping verges on misogyny. The movie has no narrative drive so feels much longer than its 106 minutes. The big sale is a success, the shopkeeper pays the rent, but now has no inventory, and still no money, so the McGuffin remains essentially unaddressed. The film thus fails as a narrative and as a social commentary, leaving only good acting, satirical visuals and dialog, attractive actors, and bright sunny California colors, all of which are enjoyable in a mindless sort of way.