Monday, February 25, 2008

American Gangster: Grade B

American Gangster (2007)
Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Director Ridley Scott.

It may be unfair to compare this movie to The Godfather, but if you’re going to do an American gangster movie, you have to be ready for that. Well, this is no Godfather. The characters are two-dimensional, despite obvious efforts to round them out, with a child custody struggle for Crowe, a romantic relationship for Washington. But those subthemes are formulaic and fail to get us inside the character. In The Godfather you had the sweep of history, the ethnic bond of family, driving ambition, and the principle of vendetta all giving context to the characters’ actions. This movie, by contrast, is straight cops-n-robbers, without developing the psychology of either side.

Washington’s drug-dealing kingpin is slick but too cool, never vulnerable except once when he burns a chinchilla coat. But his self-blindness that led up to that was not consistent with his character in the first place. Crowe’s detective is a sloppy, taciturn, self-indulgent, down-on-his-luck working class cop who nevertheless has the mind of a brilliant attorney and the moral fiber of Elliot Ness. We don’t know why he returned a seized million dollars to authorities. Just because it was the right thing to do? Okay, but how did his character escape the pervasive police corruption so well documented in this movie? We have no idea. The characters are flat, even though they are based on a true story and the real-life people who are shown in the DVD extras. A straight documentary film might have been more nuanced than this fictionalized story.

There are plenty of questions to raise about the story. Do we really believe that Washington would step from a diner, shoot a man through the head at noon on a city street with a hundred onlookers, then just go back to his lunch? Does a criminal who “names” corrupt police officers provide enough evidence to convict? Would the prosecution really forgive and forget the military connection that made the whole drug smuggling operation possible? And what was the point of cameo roles by Cuba Gooding and Armande Assante? They contributed nothing more than the dozens of naked women who add gratuitous nipples to the screen. Finally, we have to ask, what was the point of this movie? Morality or legality are never seriously considered. There is no significant character development. Why did this movie need to be made? There is plenty to enjoy, including fine acting, directing, and cinematography, but despite being engaging and watchable throughout, the movie has a disappointing lack of fizz.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Brave One: Grade B

The Brave One (2007)
Jodie Foster, Terence Lawrence. Director Neil Jordan.

Though mistitled (nobody is brave in this movie), this revenge thriller is emotionally satisfying. A NYC woman is beaten into a coma and her fiancĂ© killed by a gang of thugs in Central Park, late at night. When you see the couple walking nonchalantly into one of those dark creepy overpass tunnels in the park that even a tourist would avoid, you are cued that this will be a clichĂ©-ridden story. Foster’s character recovers, traumatized, now seeing her beloved city as alien and frightening. She buys a gun for self defense, but inexplicably still likes to walk around seedy streets at night, stepping over drunks, taking late night subways, going into dimly lit convenience stores. Bad guys show up in these situations and she kills them. She is supposed to be surprised at her own behavior, but that’s not very convincing and denies motive anyway. Yet she isn’t enraged. She isn’t really out for revenge, since these are random bad guys. She isn’t overtly looking for trouble. She is supposed to be in some kind of dissociative state in which she is only vaguely aware of her zero tolerance of bad guys.

Detective Lawrence is on the trail of “the vigilante killer” (although the papers would have no reason to call it vigilantism), and he eventually suspects it is her, but they develop an implausible relationship of trust and intimacy. Finally, she decides to go after her original assailants and amazingly, immediately finds them through some moves that we can surmise but which were edited out. There is no explanation for her sudden change in motivation from mentally disturbed sleepwalker to clenched-jaw revenge killer. But she gets her satisfaction.

It is a competently told but hackneyed story without anything new to say. However, Foster’s acting is the best I’ve ever seen of her. She has come a long way since Silence of the Lambs. I also think it is gutsy for a prominent female actor to appear without makeup, showing her age, having full confidence in her craft. Terence Lawrence also turns in a strong performance. The music is very well designed, the way it often contrasts with the violent action. The cinematography is consistently outstanding. These plusses raise the picture above average.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Savior's Square: Grade B


Savior’s Square (2006)

Jowita Miondlikowska, Arkadiusz Janicze; Directors: Joanna Kos (also wrote), Krzysztof Krauze. (Polish, subtitled)

A young couple and their two young boys, in contemporary Poland visit their new home, a condo still under construction in a new development called Savior’s Square. When the man goes to talk to the foreman about some detail, he learns that all work on the development has stopped, the builder is bankrupt, the deposit paid (the whole price) vanished. The family is devastated, since they already sold their apartment to make the condo payment, so they have to move in with his mother, a humiliation and an extreme imposition for the mother. In the very close quarters of her apartment tempers flare often. The husband has to demand that the wife give up her Visa card; she cannot find work because of the child care problem. The mother nags. There is a meeting of all the defrauded condo buyers but they learn there is nothing they can do, no money to be recovered, nobody to sue.

This domestic tragedy is low key, slow moving, and actually a bit boring, until you catch on to the idea that it is not really about this family’s troubles at all. The family represents the state of Polish society since the end of communism, when party cronies hijacked the national wealth in bogus privatizations, leaving the ordinary people impoverished and bringing the economy to a stop. Sure they have political freedom now, but what good is that if you have to live with your mother and can’t afford food? The family’s children are consistently presented as burdens, liabilities. They are never shown as people with futures, because the truth is, they have no future, nor do the citizens of Poland. Maybe I read too much in, but I really started to enjoy the movie after I understood what it was about. As a bonus, you get to see a slice of ordinary life in contemporary Poland and to sample the language. Throw in good acting and thoughtful cinematography, and you have a strong movie that sneaks up on you.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Across the Universe: Grade A

Across the Universe (2007)
Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, with Eddie Izzard, Bono, Joe Cocker, and Salma Hayek. Director Julie Taymor

This is not a Beatles movie but a traditional Grease-like musical about the late 1960’s in America, using exclusively Beatles songs. Director Taymor Surveyed 200 songs in the Beatles’ catalog owned by Sony (this is a Sony movie), and arranged a dozen of them to fit a conventional a romance (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl), set against Vietnam war protests. A young factory worker from Liverpool (Sturgess) comes to New York and falls in love with a girl (Wood) who is working with an anti-war movement. Her brother (Anderson) is drafted and there are antiwar marches, protests and riots until the protagonist is arrested and deported.

The characters sing their way through these events, giving the Beatles’ songs shocking new meanings. For example, Strawberry Fields has Sturgess’ character, a graphic artist, squeezing metaphorical blood from fresh strawberries against images juxtaposed from the war. An animated war poster of Uncle Sam sings, “I Want You” and that morphs into a mind-boggling reconceptualization of “She’s So Heavy.” As that song evolves a fantastic piece of choreography develops in an Army induction center. “Let it Be” becomes a song of utter despair when it is sung in the midst of the Detroit riots of 1967. As for “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” well, it demonstrates the stunning scope of Taymor’s imagination. It’s hard to believe this is the same director who filmed Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus so brilliantly a few years ago.

There is no attempt to recreate the lives, voices and sounds of the Beatles, which would be impossible anyway. Yet the visuals acknowledge landmarks in the well-known Beatles’ story. Eddie Izzard does a show-stopping, Sargeant Pepper-esque number with giant Blue Meanies (alluding to Yellow Submarine). Bono leads a psychedelic crowd seeking a guru in the countryside, in a stereotypical but still beautiful solarized and color-manipulated segment. Yoko-like characters swim underwater. The movie is rich with musical and cultural allusions that survivors of the era and fans of the Beatles will appreciate.

The music is lovingly sung, usually at a slower tempo than we remember, which highlights the beauty of the songs. Their complex production has been excised, revealing stark melodic purity. The singers perform them organically, from the heart, again making the audience reconceptualize them. The young unknown actors are very talented, especially Sturgess. His rendition of the title song makes it completely new. I think if I had not come of age with the music, I still would be enraptured by the brilliance of this movie.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Ira & Abby: Grade A

Ira & Abby (2006)
Chris Messina, Jennifer Westfeldt (also wrote), with Robert Klein, Jason Alexander, Fred Willard. Director Robert Cary.

Fabulously wealthy but neurotic Manhattanites struggle to find and maintain romantic relationships, while making ironic, sarcastic, and sardonic quips about life, family and psychotherapy. Sound familiar? If Woody Allen appeared in this movie you wouldn’t be surprised. Ira (Messina) is an intelligent but socially inept Ph.D. student who is fired by his psychoanalyst. He meets Abby (Westfeldt) in a health club and they are enchanted with each other immediately. Abby’s character is reminiscent of the loopy, airhead role played by Mira Sorvino in Allen’s 1996 Mighty Aphrodite, which highlights a distinction: Allen’s New York comedies have layers of sophisticated literary and cinematic allusion that this competent but light comedy lacks.

Ira and Abby impulsively get married and the game is on. Jealousy, suspicion, infidelity, relationships with ex-partners, mistaken identities, the awkwardness of breaking up and reconciling, compatibility of different lifestyles; all the standard relationship foibles are explored. If there are any overarching themes, one is to question the nature of marriage itself. There are some very funny scenes in which the meaning and value of marriage is discussed. We see weddings, divorce, remarriage, annulment, and finally rejection of the very institution of marriage. A less heavy-handed theme is a hilarious ridicule of psychotherapy. A closing scene with all the story’s therapists, analysts, psychologists and psychiatrists in attendance with the principal players had me squawking with delight. What raises this lightweight comedy up to excellence is the outstanding acting by almost everyone. It is a joy to watch. If you like Woody Allen movies, you’ll love this knockoff.

The Nines: Grade A

The Nines (2007)
Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, Melissa McCarthy, Elle Fanning. Writer-Director John August.

This is more like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone than a serious narrative film, but it is extremely well acted, well photographed, and consistently engaging. The same characters appear in three short stories that represent different segments, or aspects of their lives. In one, Reynolds’ character is a crackhead video game creator under house arrest, monitored and befriended by parole officer McCarthy, seduced by neighbor Davis. In the next story, Reynolds is the writer-director of a TV pilot with Davis the network executive who forces him to fire his star, McCarthy. In the final story, the same three characters have yet different interrelated roles.

What do all the stories have in common? That’s the mystery the viewer must untangle. Confusion of reality and fantasy pervades all the stories (very Hollywood), but there is also a Platonic theme: is our life experience all that there is, or are we really prisoners in a cave, watching shadows on the wall while the real world is outside in the light? Compulsively watchable acting and sharp dialog keep this pretentiously heady film floating above metaphysical silliness. Two grating musical numbers disturbed the flow, but for the most part, the directing was competent. The big mystery of the stories is largely resolved, although there are too many loose ends and inconsistencies in characters’ points of view for it to end with a satisfying thump. Maybe lingering ambiguity and a sense of having been duped is consistent with the movie’s theme. I give it an A because of outstanding acting and a story that kept me on the hook.
A short DVD extra starring McCarthy is a bonus little gem.