Sunday, March 30, 2008

In the Valley of Elah: Grade A

In the Valley of Elah
Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon; Writer-Director Paul Haggis.

When you send 18 year old children into a war, you should not be surprised if they come back intellectually and morally confused. Amputees get our sympathy, but the subtle wounds to the soul are at least as tragic. It’s a tale told before, but one that bears repeating. Coming Home told the same story about a Vietnam vet, as did many others. Here it is a soldier recently back from Iraq who has gone missing and his parents (Jones and Sarandon) search for him. Jones is a retired sheriff who doggedly pursues the clues to find his son. Theron is a local detective who rebuffs his amateur help at first but eventually comes to trust him and sympathize. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the son is dead, because the core of the story is the whodunit, with good suspense maintained as the clues slowly accumulate. Acting from Sarandon, although brief, is superior. Jones plays his usual stiff-backed, taciturn but ironic self, and Theron is adequate although disappointingly restrained. She really is much better than what we see here. The music was good, from a full orchestra, but unnecessary, adding nothing. Sets and costumes are unremarkable. The movie’s virtues are that it is an engaging murder mystery, very well told, with a strong social message.

Great World of Sound: Grade C

Great World of Sound (2007)
Pat Healy, Kene Holliday, John Baker; Director and co-writer Craig Zobel.

Down on their luck but ambitious young men attend a “get rich” seminar in which a couple of smooth con men explain how they can become record producers. The company puts ads in newspapers and the “producers” screen the singing acts that appear, promising to make the dream happen, if only the artist will put up $3000 (a mere 30%) to “participate” in the production. Two of the guys, Healy and Holliday go forth earnestly and do rather well. Much of the movie shows excerpts of the acts they review and the cajoling of the “participation” fee out of the naive, self-obsessed artists. The acts are generally awful, a few show potential, though none are great. This part of the movie was waaaaay too long. I got the idea after the third clip, but over a dozen are shown. Gradually, the “producers” (at least Healy) come to realize that no records are going to be made and they are just ripoff artists. That should be a great dramatic story of conscience, but it doesn’t quite fly here. The climax occurs when even after his self-realization, Healy is forced to cold-heartedly rip off one more innocent just to make plane fare home.

The con men running the company are archetypal, and that part of the movie is terrific satire, reminiscent of Glengarry, Glen Ross. Then the theme changes to a buddy movie as Healy and Holliday learn how to screen and fleece the acts, though at first they are sincere. Holliday might be wise to the con from the beginning; that is not clear. Healy’s epiphany is not very dramatic. It just seems to sneak up on him. More confrontation was needed to dramatize his character change, which is the heart of the movie. The consequences for the victims are not explored, for example. Finally, the guys quit the company and go home as if nothing happened, a thud of an ending. Acting by Holliday and Baker (the company boss), is notably good; less so, the others. Dramatic tension is at the level of wet laundry. The directing and editing are good on the various performing acts, but there is too much of that. Sets are terrific. So it is a watchable movie, not a comedy, but a human drama with a few laughs.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Atonement: Grade C

Atonement (2007)
Kiera Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave; Director Joe Wright.

This will be a satisfying romance for many people, but I am not one of them. An alarmingly thin Kiera Knightley delivers razor’s edge acting, but that is not enough to salvage this plodding melodrama. Just before World War I, an aristocratic young English girl (Ronan) sees an argument between Knightley and the gardener’s son (McAvoy) and interprets it as sexual aggression against her sister. Later she walks in on an intimate scene between them and makes the same Oedipal interpretation, leading her to falsely accuse McAvoy of a crime. Implausibly, that is sufficient to send him to prison. I suppose we are to assume that English law was heavily biased toward the aristocracy in 1914. From prison the young man goes to the war in France and commences the middle hour of the movie in which he tromps around in his army helmet. There is a grand panorama shot reminiscent of Flags of our Fathers, and one impressively long dolly shot, but it all just brings the romantic story to a complete halt. War is hell, but it would have been better to show him suffering in prison, since presumably he would have fought in the war regardless.

Finally the estranged lovers are re-united after the war, or are they? There are replays of several scenes, each from a different character’s point of view, to convey ambiguity about what really happens. Even that contrivance, however, does not mitigate the dishonest ending, which tries to have its cake and eat it too. Atonement for the young girl’s lie is only important if you believe it caused the destruction of the romance, but there is little evidence that it did, or even that it was much of a romance to begin with. On the plus side, the sets and costumes are sumptuous and convincing, especially life in the aristocratic castle. Knightley is fantastic, easily as good as Nicole Kidman. Vanessa Redgrave, at 71, is riveting when she delivers her few lines. But overt sentimentality does not make a good story, for me anyway. If the filmmakers thought the drama was so strong they should have omitted the hyperactive swelling strings and trumpeting French horns that indicated when you were supposed to feel something. I can see where this might have been a good psychological novel, but as a movie, it only adds up to soap.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

No Country For Old Men: Grade A

No Country For Old Men (2007)
Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson. Directors Ethan Coen and Joseph Coen.

Brolin is a poor cowboy in east Texas in the 1980s. While hunting in the desert he stumbles across a drug deal gone bad; bloated corpses, a truckload of heroin and two million dollars in a suitcase. Bad guys (apparently from the buyers’ side) see him there, shoot at him, and he narrowly escapes. However, now they know who he is and where the money is so the chase is on. It is unclear what happened to the dope but it is gone by the time sheriff Tommy Lee shows up to investigate. He despairs at the carnage and more generally at the violence wrought by the scale of the drug trade, something he didn’t experience or anticipate in his long career. The scrub country he loves has turned into an alien blood-soaked battleground; thus the title of the film.

Bardem plays a Terminator-like psychopath who stalks Brolin through Texas and into Mexico. Tommy Lee is always one step behind. There is excellent cat-and-mouse. Harrelson has a small but standout role as an assassin hired by the money guys to take out Bardem, for reasons unknown. After two hours, the movie just stops. I’m not even sure what happened to the money. It’s a shame the plot was not stronger, but the film is not really a story of what happened so much as a portrait of the crazy, mindless violence that drug culture brings. In that regard this movie succeeds.

The characters remain stereotypes throughout. There is no story through line either, so what do you have left? Directing, terrific directing. Even though it is a well-worn theme with stereotype characters, the tension is Hitchcockian. And that palpable tension comes with no music! A music director is credited, but it must be for FX sounds. Despite all the gunplay, this is a very quiet movie, like the desert itself. I think 95% of American movies would be improved without music telling us what we are supposed to feel. If the camera cannot tell us that, then maybe the movie is not good enough!

The cinematography is very good here, and sets are perfect, from the brilliant desert to dark, seedy motel rooms. The dialog is spare and sharp, with fine use of East Texan accents and idioms to underscore the taciturn characters. Tommy Lee is such a natural in his role he doesn’t seem like he is acting. Bardem is the central character, an unfeeling, unthinking humanoid who kills without hesitation or mercy, deriving no pleasure from methodically following his destiny, yet somehow distantly amused and perplexed. It is a complex performance. He represents perfectly the dehumanization that drug culture bestows on its participants. A stronger story line would have made this a timeless classic, but it is still far superior to standard fare.

The Darjeeling Limited: Grade C


The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman; with Anjelica Houston. Director Wes Anderson.

It’s actually the Owen Wilson Show. Brody and Schwartzman hardly have a dozen lines between them. Wilson does a terrific job as the dominating brother of the trio as they make their way across northwestern India by train. They are apparently wealthy, since they buy their way out of any situation, but they are also slackers, interested mainly in cigarettes, cough syrup, pain-killers and other over the counter meds, sex, poisonous snakes. None has achievements to tout, interests, ambition, or direction. Consequently, they are just not interesting characters.

The brothers are nominally journeying to find their mother (Houston), but the characteristically Andersonian theme is really sibling rivalry and the brothers’ (mostly Wilson’s) attempt at reconciliation. Wilson is intense and comedically sincere. He reminds me in that way of Steve Martin: you either laugh or cringe. Sets and locations are marvelous, the colors bright, and the Indian music enjoyable. There is no point to this light comedy, but it passes the time agreeably.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bee Movie: Grade B

Bee Movie (2007)

Jerry Seinfeld (co-wrote), Renee Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, John Goodman, Chris Rock, Ray Liotta, Sting, Oprah Winfrey, Larry King. Directors Steve Hickner, Simon J. Smith. (Animated).

The grade was not pre-ordained despite the double entendre title, but the jokes and gags are not plentiful enough to sustain the film as a joke-fest, yet the story is too weak to make an interesting drama. Seinfeld’s wit is scintillating as ever and his droll delivery reminds us who’s behind the protagonist. But that’s the problem. If this is supposed to be a Seinfeld stand-up routine, the pace is too slow. If it is supposed to be a kids’ cartoon, it is too sophisticated and not dramatic enough. If it is supposed to be a social commentary, the theme is missing.

Barry the bee (Seinfeld) leaves the hive, discovers that humans eat honey, and is appalled. He decides to sue the humans to end the exploitation. He is assisted in the human world by Vanessa, a housewife (Zellweger) who appreciates bees. After the lawsuit is successful, the bees have plenty of honey and stop working. Crops wither from lack of pollination. I can’t remember how that crisis is resolved, so limp is the dramatic tension of the story.

The animation is adequate though the visual gags are weak, not what we saw in Antz, for example. But the Seinfeld wit is omnipresent. Having Sting criticized for exploiting a bee theme is a stroke of brilliant silliness. Chris Rock is predictably hilarious. The sophisticated verbal humor raises the picture above average (for adults) but overall, I get the impression that this film was just a lark for everyone involved.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Lust, Caution: Grade A

Lust, Caution (2007)
Wei Tang, Tony Leung. Director Ang Lee. (Chinese, subtitled).

Wei Tang lights up the screen in this visually gorgeous historical drama set in Shanghai in the late 1930’s. The Japanese have invaded China and Leung is a collaborator rounding up anti-Japanese resisters. Tang’s college theater group makes it their patriotic duty to assassinate him. Tang insinuates herself into his wife’s mah-jongg group then seduces him, setting him up for the kill. In their increasingly passionate relationship she sacrifices her body and her soul to gain his trust. There is no reason why the resistance cell could not just pop him while he walks down the street. The idea that he needs to be seduced is an arbitrary story device.

There are a couple of attractively photographed and very steamy sex scenes that border on the gratuitous, but could suggest her mind moving from murder to lust to love. I didn’t buy it. Tang gives an impassioned speech to her fellow assassins about how she despises the guy and is making this huge sacrifice of her mind and body for the cause. Was she lying to them? I thought not. At the key moment in the movie a big diamond clouds her mind and she makes a choice that betrays everything. Dramatic, but again, I didn’t buy it. That’s not her character. So even though tension is maintained between the title nouns, lust and caution, the plot line is anemic and inconsistent with the protagonist’s psychology. But it is a different time and a different culture, so who knows, really?

Another criticism is that every costume, car windshield, bicycle, storefront and sidewalk is perfect, clean, and brand new, not a speck of dirt, dust, or time-worn age anywhere. There are no flowing gutters, no street beggars. Lots of cigarettes but no ashtrays. I’m sure it was artistic choice, perhaps to make the sex scenes seem more aesthetic than sex is. But once you accept the abstract visual style, you can appreciate that Tang’s face is stunning, the costumes are stunning, the sets are stunning, the music is stunning. The movie is a feast for eyes and ears, so beautiful, you don’t need a plot.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Slipstream: Grade B

Anthony Hopkins, John Turturro, Christian Slater, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kevin McCarthy. Producer-Composer-Writer-Director Anthony Hopkins.

Sir Anthony plays the screenwriter of a low budget movie being shot out in the Nevada desert. When a key cast member dies he is called in for a rewrite. However, for the first 45 minutes we don’t know we are (mostly) watching crazy disjointed scenes from a movie within a movie. Then we find out and we watch the movie being made. Then it unfolds that we are actually seeing everything through the imagination of the screenwriter, Hopkins, and since he’s losing his mind, we have been watching a visual of his fevered stream of consciousness. And of course any movie is a fantasy anyway, so as we watch, we partake in yet another layer of reality!

The editing is incredible, with hundreds or thousands of images and scene fragments from about a fifth of a second to two seconds, flashed singly or in rapid sequences. The layers of reality/fantasy interact, so when Hopkins "fires" the script supervisor by writing her out of the meta-script, she becomes irate and tells him that continuity in the movie will suffer. At that point we realize why Christian Slater’s Corvette has been alternating among yellow, pink, and green – bad continuity! But not as "bad" as what the aggressive editing has done to the movie we are watching! We can appreciate the clever analogy between the screenwriter’s fragmented mind and the untrammeled creativity of the Hollywood dream machine. But the idea of a dream within a dream is only exploited, not explored here.

Lynch’s Inland Empire was a systematic exploration of cinematic technique. Hopkins’ film does extend the art form with the incredible stream of short edits, which I enjoyed, though it was fascinating rather than beautiful. This film seems to have no point. The acting was good but not special. There is no plot. On the plus side, the music was great: pop tunes from the 50’s and 60’s and some nice original work by Hopkins. Costumes and sets were flawless. Allusions to old Hollywood movies, sets, styles and characters were abundant, especially the nod to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, starring Kevin McCarthy, now 93 years and looking good. Stronger writing would have made this movie a winner instead of a better than average experimental film.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Margot at the Wedding: Grade A

Margot at the Wedding (2007)
Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black. Writer-Director Noah Baumbach.

This case study of borderline personality disorder (BPD) is so faithful to the diagnosis it could be used in a college classroom. Kidman delivers her dazzling magic. She is one of the best actors working today. Leigh also gives a superb performance. Jack Black is good, for Jack Black. Kidman is Margot, a Manhattan writer who visits her estranged sister (Leigh) in country Vermont, prior to the sister’s wedding to a goofy, unemployed wannabe writer/artist (Black).

Margot and her sister both have textbook BPD, a serious psychiatric disorder of hypersensitivity to criticism, huge short-term emotional swings, inability to sustain relationships, impulsive behavior, self-image disturbances, cognitive distortions, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and other high-risk behaviors, just to name a few symptoms. Wikipedia gives a good overview of the syndrome. The sister’s boyfriend has a different kind of personality disorder, not drawn in detail.

Margot disapproves of Black and lets her sister know it. The sister is pregnant but hasn’t told her fiancĂ© yet. She tells Margot in confidence, but do you think Margot will keep that secret? The infighting and emotional swings are dramatic and often funny. There is something to recognize from anybody's last dysfunctional family reunion. However, because all the characters are “nuts” (to use a technical term), their behavior is arbitrary and seemingly unmotivated, so it is impossible to care about them. There is no plot, just endless bickering. The hothouse of emotions recalls Woody Allen’s neurotic Manhattan films, and especially the 1966 classic movie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The dialog crackles with sophistication but at the price of making the characters mere dialog delivery vehicles. Throughout, the writing stridently calls attention to itself. I give the movie an A because the acting by Kidman and Leigh is so good that I watched helplessly with the morbid fascination one has for a spectacular highway crash.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Rendition: Grade A

Rendition (2007)
Omar Metwally, Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Moa Khouas, Zineb Oukach, Yigal Naor, Meryl Streep, Peter Sarsgaard, Alan Arkin. Director Gavin Hood.

This didactic movie describes the U.S. government practice of “rendition,” in which captured terrorist suspects can be transferred, without judicial process, to a prison outside the U.S. to be tortured. As the president and the secretary of state have repeatedly said, “America doesn’t do torture.” This movie shows how that may be literally true. CIA agent Gyllenhaal merely observes torture conducted by an Egyptian ally (Naor). An Egyptian man living in America (Metwally) has been captured, hooded and “rendered” to Egypt for torture on orders from hard-boiled CIA boss Streep. His wife, Witherspoon, appeals to her senator (Arkin) via his aide (Sarsgaard) for intervention but gets the “classified secrets” stonewall. In a completely separate story, a young Egyptian man (Khouas) becomes a suicide bomber when his brother is captured and tortured by Egyptian police.

The film is well-researched, well-made, and very well-acted, especially by Metwally and Naor. Streep speaks her acid lines with perfection. Sarsgaard gives a nuanced performance. Gyllenhaal’s character is under-written, so there’s not much for him to do, but his silent head nods are as good acting as you’ll see anywhere. Reese Witherspoon gives an amazing dramatic performance. Directing is deft, cinematography fully convincing, and the music is outstanding. It’s a first class movie all around, except…

There are two problems. One is that the time sequencing of the two stories is so chopped up that it is very close to being incomprehensible. It took me an hour to realize there were two separate stories, and until the three-quarters mark to realize that most of what I had seen had been flashback. The ending scenes don’t make a lot of sense unless you have been taking notes on a yellow pad. Two stories were not needed. The main rendition story would have been more than enough. Whether this was botched editing or poor planning from the beginning, the disjoint timeline torpedoes both stories.

Extra-cinematic criticism is inevitable for this politically and morally sensitive story. The message is clear: the U.S. does not obey its own or international laws, tortures people, and lies about it. Lip service is given to the countervailing argument that we should thank the government for protecting us from terrorists by whatever means prudent. It would have been a better movie if Metwally’s character had been more ambiguous, not an innocent victim of an inhuman, racist, immoral government. It is a “Shame on you, America” message, and though very well made, its political point is bound to alienate many.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Michael Clayton: Grade A

Michael Clayton (2007)
George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack. Director Tony Gilroy.

Clooney is Michael Clayton, a high powered attorney at a prestigious New York City law firm, in the present day. One of the firm’s lawyers (Wilkinson) goes off his meds and AWOL and we learn he has had a crisis of conscience and is about to turn whistleblower on a big corporation the firm is defending. Clooney’s job is to reel him in before he does the damage, but Clooney also becomes infected with conscience and then hunted by unnamed assailants (we suspect the evil corporation, fronted by their attorney, Swinton). The familiar story is like any Grisham novel, and actually a lot like the movie, Erin Brockovich, so it is a stretch to call it a “thriller” or even a mystery. It is just an ordinary story, well-told. The script is realistic and the acting is very convincing, so you are interested in what the characters have to say and do, and isn’t that the essence of a good movie? The cinematography is a star in its own right. Every shot is obviously done with thoughtfulness and an artistic eye. I could have used stronger plot development, and especially a better ending, but that carries its own risks. I'll take naturalism over tricky, self-conscious writing.