Monday, April 28, 2008

Savages: Grade A

Savages (2007)
Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins.

Adult brother and sister must find a nursing home for their estranged father who is showing clear signs of dementia. The father has never been good to them, and they have never been close to each other, making their anxiety in dealing the situation poignant. It’s a universal story, and one that an increasing number of baby boomers are now facing. The writing is sharp and very witty. There is only one speech (People are dying in there, and death is gaseous, smelly, and ugly… etc.) that makes the character sound like the writer’s mouthpiece. Most of the script is right on target. At the same time, both brother and sister are aspiring but not successful writers, envious, and competing for acknowledgement from each other. Neither has a successful romantic life. Linney is a great but underexposed actor. Here, she plays the neurotic, vulnerable, struggling New York writer to a T. Hoffman is so consistently good that you expect it of him, although his character is not as clearly outlined as Linney’s. A student ironically asks in his classroom, “What is the difference between plot and narrative?” This story has plenty of narrative but there are no guns, no missing money, no drugs, spies, bank jobs or explosions. Just good writing and powerful acting.

Reservation Road

Reservation Road (2007)
Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino. Co-writer and Director Terry George.

Good acting by Ruffalo and Connelly, fighting the script all the way, save this picture from an “F”. It should have been a strong thriller. Ruffalo is an attorney who accidentally kills Phoenix’s and Connelly’s child in a hit-and-run (a mistake that few attorneys would make). The police are impotent so Phoenix hires an attorney to move the investigation along. Guess who he hires? That’s right! So there should be crackling tension there between the two men, but there isn’t. A lot of the movie is taken up with grieving over the lost child, with long drawn out funeral and Connelly gnashing teeth and wailing interminably. Of course it is a tragic situation, but I get that. I do not need to wallow in melodrama for its own sake. Likewise, Ruffalo spends a great deal of screen time beating his breast in guilt, grief, fear, and confusion. It’s just sappy sentimentality, cliched and not convincing. Eventually Phoenix does figure out (by magic it seems) who the perp was and the story ends in yet another melodramatic flourish. We never see the inside of a courtroom. What a wasted opportunity to tell a cleverly conceived story!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Charlie Wilson’s War: Grade A

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts, Amy Adams, Ned Beatty. Director Mike Nichols.

Hanks is Charlie Wilson, a real Texas congressman in the 1980’s who sat on several important committees and was able to surreptitiously get funding to supply weapons to Muhadjadeen in Afghanistan who were fighting off the Russian invasion of 1980. Hoffman is a CIA analyst whose goal is to “kill Russians” and he facilitates Wilson’s scheme. Roberts is a wealthy, Christian, anti-communist Texas socialite (and sometimes dalliance for Wilson), who throws fund-raisers so Wilson can get re-elected and carry out the plan. The plan was enormously expensive but the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988. As the movie ends, Wilson cannot get funding to rebuild the country. Hoffman reports that the victorious, well-armed Afghan chieftains are moving to Kabul to take over the government, but nobody in congress cares about Afghanistan any more, if they ever did.

The movie is more enjoyable if you know recent history in the Middle East. That also lets you in on many of the wicked jokes. But even if you don’t know history, this movie could almost be called a comedy because the script is so consistently clever and witty. Hanks delivers his best acting in a complex, nuanced role. Hoffman is fantastic and I wanted to seem more of him, but it wasn’t his story. Roberts was cute and funny in her Texas bouffant wig.

It’s a funny and serious story at the same time. If there is a message, it does not try to hit you over the head like Lions for Lambs did but presents a subtle anti-war conclusion, because despite the enormous cost and effort, what was really achieved? If the Russians had prevailed in Afghanistan, it would have been for only 10 years until the empire broke up anyway. Did the war drain their treasury and contribute to the break-up? Maybe so. Maybe we should take a lesson from that in our own time.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Grade C

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei; Director Sidney Lumet.

Bad editing can completely spoil an otherwise good movie, as this feature demonstrates. Hoffman and Hawke are brothers in contemporary New York, both desperate for cash; Hoffman because he is a junkie who has been embezzling from his firm, Hawke to make child support payments. They conspire to rob a jewelry store, but it goes wrong and two people are killed. For the rest of the movie they have to cover their tracks and deal with the consequences of their act and with their desperate lives. The ending is quite good. Alas, the editing, or lack of it, lets the pace sag to the point of boredom. It would be easy to cut at least 15 minutes (out of an unconscionable 2 hours) just by eliminating non-informational shots of cars moving down highways, people getting in and out of cars, and people walking down streets and hallways. These shots do not establish time or place and are just uninteresting, wasted film. Then entire irrelevant scenes could be cut, if not entire characters. Marissa Tomei does brilliant acting in two very short scenes but is otherwise in the movie only to show her breasts. They’re very nice breasts, but they contribute absolutely nothing to the story or characterization. Several long sequences with Finney and with Hawke should have been cut. The story is tediously spliced into overlapping flashbacks so we must endure the same scene multiple times, each from a different character’s point of view. The characters’ points of view are not important to the story and not that different anyway, so the technique serves little purpose and adds more deadwood. The redeeming virtues of the movie are strong plot and excellent acting by Hoffman and Finney. Hawke can act when there is a gun to his head, but otherwise he is undistinguished. Hoffman, however, gives 100% in every scene he is in and it is a pleasure to watch him.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sleuth: Grade B

Sleuth (2007)
Michael Caine, Jude Law. Director Kenneth Branaugh.

This is a remake of the 1972 classic in which Caine played the younger man against Olivier’s wealthy eccentric. Here Caine is the wealthy eccentric living in a cold, blue, angular, architectural, ultra-modern country mansion, and Law, who has been sleeping with Caine’s wife, comes over to ask Caine to divorce his wife. For the next 85 minutes these two men, the only actors in the movie, talk with each other, trading insults, plans, entreaties, witticisms and a tiny bit of action. The dialog (by Harold Pinter) crackles with energy and wit, but the bottom line is that it is just two guys talking about random subjects for over an hour. The so-called plot involves each one inviting the other to play a game of wits, in which one is humiliated and the other gloats. It is not believable so ultimately the characters are unmotivated and boring. The story has the contrived feel of a theatrical play (which is where the script started), and Pinter’s writing reminds me of Mamet and in places of Beckett’s Godot, with plenty of rhythmic one-word lines and non-sequiturs. That’s fun, but only for 10 minutes. The whole “battle of wits” theme doesn’t make much sense and did not sustain my interest.

However, there are two strong reasons for watching this movie. One is marvelous acting. Michael Caine has always been one of my favorite second tier actors and here he combines his best face acting with his unique diction. But Jude Law! His acting is superlative here, especially in the “detective” sequence, unlike anything I have seen him do before. We can only guess what Branaugh did to bring out this talent, but it is worth seeing. Secondly, the overall production values are superior, from the innovative and daring cinematography to the artistic sets and excellent makeup and costumes, to perfectly composed and paced music that really contributes to the flow. Lack of a decent story and believable characters are pretty tough handicaps to overcome but this movie almost does it.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Juno: Grade A

Juno (2007)
Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons; Director Jason Reitman.

Ellen Page is a smart-talking 16 year old who gets pregnant and decides to give the baby for adoption. Her shy, skinny boyfriend (Cera) takes no responsibility. Her working class parents treat the situation calmly and help her through. She has the baby and gives it up, and everything is fine, as if nothing had happened. The banality of the story and two-dimensionality of the characters are the weakest parts of the movie. However, the story does separate teenage pregnancy from reflex moralizing, and demonstrates that it is not necessarily a life-wrecking tragedy. Page is mesmerizing, as she was in 2005’s Hard Candy. Her loquacious, witty, precocious character is similar here, a not very believable writer’s contrivance. How does a high school student who never even touches a book manage to quote philosophy, religion, classical music, foreign languages, history, and much else in her incessant stream of sarcastic and ironic witticisms? How does she remain ironic and emotionally detached from her pregnancy? None of the characters in this movie is well-rounded, but the occasionally insightful, hip teen dialog, along with great acting, keep you engaged. Directing is impeccable, even inspired in places. Sets, props, and costumes are very well conceived. Editing is perfect. The music is not for my generation but was inoffensive. Except for shallow characterizations and a weak story line, this is an exceptionally well made movie.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story: Grade B

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer. Director Jake Kasdan

As a satire of the music biopic genre, this movie is more silly than insightful. It mocks recent pictures such as Ray and Walk Tall, and many individual musical styles, from Dylan to the Beatles. The musical writing itself is even humorous, the way original songs are made to sound like well-known songs without actually copying. Interspersed with unfunny melodramatic exaggeration, there are some very good postmodern digs at individual artists, such as Elvis or the Beatles. The references are “postmodern” because while making fun of the target, the jokes also ironically draw attention to themselves, so the joke itself is part of the joke. It is clever stuff, but only clever, not revealing of anything. The whole movie has the feeling of a somewhat lame SNL sketch, or a series of them. Reilly does his own singing however and that’s quite impressive. Fischer (“Pam” from The Office) really can act. You don’t once think of her as a receptionist. If you’re a fan of goofy, adolescent humor, and of co-writer Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, etc.) then you’ll enjoy this light, throwaway comedy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Talk To Her: Grade A

Talk To Her (2002). (Spanish, subtitled)
Javier Camara, Dario Grandinetti, Lenore Watling, Rosario Flores. Director Pedro Almodovar.

In this ingenious story, a male nurse (Camara) attends to a beautiful woman (Watling) who has been in a coma for four years. He washes her hair, applies lotions to her body, and massages all her muscles every day. It is not difficult to imagine how that relationship might develop. He talks to her as if she were fully present, reading to her, telling her about his day, confessing his secrets. That approach is cheerful and charming at first but soon you realize that he actually prefers a woman who is no more than a beautiful body, the ultimate dehumanization of woman into a male sex object.

In a parallel relationship, another man (Grandinetti) is emotionally attached to a woman he only recently met (Flores) but she had an injury and goes into a coma at the same hospital as the first pair. Camara urges Grandinetti to talk to his comatose woman the way he does to his, but Grandinetti thinks that is too weird. The men nevertheless develop a friendship around their concern for their women. Grandinetti’s relationship with his woman is sentimental. He is in love with the memory of who she was, not the corpse she is now. The two men form an emotional relationship that might be more grounded in reality than their relationship with their women.

The pace is slow (as European films are for Americans), but the filmmaking is enjoyable, with lots of clever symbolism and dark humor. Acting is strong, and the music is outstanding, ranging from Carlos Jobim to K.D. Laing, to Henry Purcell. Cinematography is a treat for the eyes. Almodovar’s well-known misogyny is evident, but his exploration of sexual feelings, emotions, urges, and relationships goes beyond simple categories.

Y Tu Mama Tambien: Grade C

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). (Spanish, subtitled)
Ana Lopez Mercado, Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal. Director Alfonso Cuaron.

In this exploration of sexuality, two young Mexican best friends are confident in their manliness through vigorous, frequent, and casual sex with their girlfriends, who then go away on a trip. The abandoned men/boys go on a symbolic and actual journey with an older woman to a special beach far from the city. Along the way they all talk about sex and body parts, male and female, in a prurient way that does not seem realistic, especially for the woman. The boys are obviously very close friends, but their macho attitude prevents them from being aware of the intimacy of their relationship. Along the way, the older woman seduces them both and the boys learn a great lesson about the fluidity of sexual orientation, which is the main point of the movie. It normalizes same-sex intimacy by demonstrating its continuity with heterosexuality in a plausible, if not entirely convincing way. To that extent the movie is a success in what it sets out to do. But it’s a long way to go for a simple idea, and without the idea, there is really nothing going on. The characters are not believable or engaging. The pace is very slow and the acting is nothing special, although sets and locations are attractive. If you are especially interested in this topic, the film will be absorbing, but otherwise, it is pedestrian.

The Invasion: Grade B

The Invasion (2007)
Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig. Director Oliver Herschbiegel.

In this third remake of the 1956 classic, Kidman is a Washington, DC psychiatrist and Craig is a physician. The invaders come as spores on the space shuttle and spread through bodily fluids. But even after you have been infected the transformation doesn’t “take” until you fall asleep. Kidman starts to notice patients and friends who are “not themselves.” It’s ambiguous, because there is nothing unusual about these people unless you knew them well. They are not the easily identifiable zombies of the original movie. After a while the aliens dispense with stealth and just start killing humans who betray their uninfected status by showing emotion. The aliens argue persuasively (and with feeling!) that a world without emotion is better. Kidman and Craig race around town pursued by alien zombies, trying to get an antidote before Kidman, who is infected, falls asleep. Whereas the original movie is generally interpreted as reflecting McCarthyism and fear of communist infiltration, this version expresses fear of an AIDS-like global pandemic, called “flu” in the movie, and also fear of totalitarian government (the aliens go for the police and government officials first – an odd choice). The moral dilemma, whether humankind would be better off without its “animal” passions, is displayed, but not examined. The story is more campy than a serious exploration of any idea. It is a well-done film, although I miss the big green pods. Both Kidman and Craig turn in good acting. I am mystified by Kidman’s boob job, which is prominently on display. Why would such a talented actor with such a beautiful face do that to herself? Maybe she is an alien.

Lions for Lambs: Grade D

Lions for Lambs (2007)
Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise. Director Robert Redford.

This anti-war movie is a diatribe urging young people to get involved in politics to oppose the war (in Iraq), which is portrayed as ill-conceived, unsuccessful, and morally illegitimate. Cruise is a US senator who has a new plan to win the war by increased military action. He is portrayed as if he were Commander in Chief, when really, all a senator can do is authorize or cut off funding for a war, but this is the movie’s way to avoid direct criticism of the president. The senator releases news of new military action to reporter Streep. They have a snappy dialog about the legitimacy of the war, its history, aims, and processes, but it just rehashes familiar arguments. Lefty Streep wants the Republican senator to take responsibility for disastrous foreign policy but he changes the subject to argue an unrelated point. He wants to talk about the future, not "dwell" on the past. These attitudes and rhetorical strategies fairly represent today’s political discourse, making the senator look either stupid or dishonest, but surely self-blind.

Redford is an unlikely political science professor who chastises his star student for apathetically choosing personal ambition over political engagement. It is the "message” of the movie, that young people need to get involved, but it is a simplistic view delivered with deadening Redfordian pomposity. The professor tells of two other students who got involved by enlisting in the army. That option is portrayed ambiguously. He criticizes it, but the soldiers themselves justify it. Those soldiers end up in Afghanistan, in a set of dark-blue-filtered scenes that is so muddy and dim you can’t even make out their faces. I think that was done to disguise the unconvincing Styrofoam rocks and powdered snow. With plenty of noisy but meaningless gunfire, this segment of the movie is to remind us that if you go into the Service, you could be killed. Better you should lick envelopes at campaign headquarters.

The well-worn arguments in this movie are stated, not portrayed in a story that might bring them to life. I happen to agree completely with the sentiments and attitudes expressed but that doesn’t make it a good movie. Acting by Streep is worth watching, but that’s about all. Directing is adequate for the talking heads but dreadful for the ambushed soldiers. I think the filmmakers failed to get sufficiently engaged themselves and settled for easy speechifying, frittering away a powerhouse cast.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Romance & Cigarettes: Grade A

Romance & Cigarettes (2007)
James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, Eddie Izzard; Writer-Director John Turturro.

“Madcap” is the word that comes to mind. It is a nominal musical, but also a satire of musicals. We hear originals from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, including James Brown, Elvis, Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdink, and many others – all well chosen tune cooties that stick in your ear for days. The cast seems to have a blast singing them and dancing to some weakly formatted choreography. Sarandon does well, and apparently Winslet really can sing. Walken can’t of course, but you are laughing so hard at his Elvis schtik you don’t care. The cast sings just a little, for fun, but mostly lip-syncs to the originals, because otherwise it would be a horror picture.

The story, such as it is, concerns Sarandon’s fury over husband Ganolfini’s infidelity. She recruits Walken to help track down Winslet the hussie, and there is an actual catfight (interspersed with song, of course). The husband eventually sees the error of his ways and tries to patch it up. It takes a long time to tell this story because there are so many nonsequitur scenes along the way. There is no serious character development though. The outline story is just a framework on which to hang song and dance numbers. Yet the music is not related to the story. It is just music for the sake of music. As a satire of the genre then, the movie doesn’t quite work because of that.

Oddly, the dialog centers around crude descriptions of sexual activity and sexual organs. Writers and directors take a note: this is 2008, and there is the internet now, maybe you’ve heard. Sexual crudity is no longer shocking or funny, doesn’t develop character or plot, so why not use your fine craft to tell us something?

The acting in this film is compelling, especially by Sarandon, Winslet, and Buscemi. Gandolfini will always be Tony Soprano and seems miscast here. But this is not high drama, more like sketch comedy. The multitude of self-contained, five-minute sketches is mostly engaging, even if pointless overall. The sets and costumes are good: working class Brooklyn or Queens in the early to mid 1970’s, is my guess, although it is difficult to be sure since there are several anachronisms. This movie is weird, wacky, chaotic, bizarre, not for everybody, but entirely original and a pleasure to experience.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Gone Baby Gone: Grade B

Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Michelle Monaghan; Co-writer and director: Ben Affleck.

This crime drama has the look and feel of novelist Lehane’s earlier movie, Mystic River: Boston setting, working class neighborhood, exaggerated New England accents, missing child of a cop, police corruption, etc. It’s a rehash, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad since the earlier movie was quite good. Ben Affleck is no Clint Eastwood, however. The directing in this movie is noticeably clunky. Characters walk like wooden puppets to their marks so they can announce their lines. The dialog is also artificial. Characters speak only clever, multi-layered declarations and make only deeply meaningful, pithy remarks. Nobody speaks normally. Does a working class detective who can barely mumble his lines really use the word, “ignominious” in casual conversation? All characters except Affleck's are two-dimensional. Characters are always posturing rather than being the ordinary people we are supposed to believe they are. To top off this television-like exaggeration is a swooping, panning, diving, zooming camera that is extremely distracting but which is the trademark of cheesy television drama. I am just not adapted to that syntax.

Casey Affleck carries this movie almost single handedly, despite the fact that he mumbles so badly that I missed about a quarter of his lines. He is a working class detective with his unlikely “partner” Monahagn who does nothing but tag along with him. He is searching for a missing toddler. That doesn’t sound terribly engaging, and it isn’t, so there are extensive shots of newspaper headlines and TV announcers waxing apoplectic over the incident. Again we are supposed to accept mass media, television-driven values of what counts as "major news." Freeman is the police chief who had his own daughter kidnapped and killed once, which gives him license to pontificate repeatedly about the importance of finding the little girl. Ed Harris is a police detective on the case, but his performance is so overdone that his character is a mere cardboard cutout. There are multiple surprise revelations, nearly all in the last 30 minutes. The movie is a slow starter, and there is an embedded segment about a missing boy – entirely different case – that should have been cut out. The saga of the missing girl ends, then ends again, then ends again, and it just won’t quit. This is clever writing at its worst, calling attention to its own cleverness so often that the story becomes implausible and you lose interest. I did, anyway.

There is a legitimate moral quandary at the climax point, framed rather suddenly as a whole line of unlikely twists and turns unfold. Casey Affleck’s performance is outstanding however and that alone raises this humdrum picture slightly above average.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Hard Boiled: Grade B

Hard Boiled, 2-disk Reissue Edition (2007)
Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung; Director John Woo (Chinese, Subtitled)

This 1992 Classic still looks good. It defined the hard boiled, trigger-happy, blood-soaked cop genre that has been copied so many times since (most recently in Shoot ’Em Up, with Clive Own and Paul Giamatti, which shamelessly steals even specific choreographic moves). All the Die-Hard movies are derived from this one, as are many others. The acting is good, the story is just strong enough to support its own weight, photography is excellent, music outstanding, and the gunfights are beautifully choreographed.

Alas, the endless gunplay becomes tedious because we have seen it all so many times before, and the story is really only a loosely knit set of scenes. There is some high drama when Leung, an undercover Hong Kong cop, must betray his adopted Triad gang to win the trust of the evil, gun-running gang he needs to penetrate. But that tense scene lasts only a few minutes when yet another gun battle breaks out. There are gunfights in restaurants, on boats, in hospitals, in the street, in warehouses, you name it. In this genre, there is no problem hitting your target with a handgun while leaping through the air. A car door will protect you from a 9 mm bullet. Actually, even a cigarette lighter will, in this movie. Bad guys with fully automatic weapons spraying like garden hoses cannot wound the hero from 3 feet away as he leaps and rolls to safety behind a section of sturdy wallboard. The movie wants to cling to realism, but just can’t, so ends up being slightly ridiculous, unlike its American imitators that go completely over the top into comic surrealism. That’s only to say that the genre has moved on since 1992, and our expectations are different now. But this original still stands on its own. The extended extras, interviews with John Woo, and so forth, don’t really add much value. It’s just a reissue of a good, classic action movie.

Smiley Face: Grade C

Smiley Face (2007)
Anna Faris, John Krasinski. Director Greg Araki

In this fluffy stoner comedy Faris eats a plate of “electric” cupcakes by mistake and is completely stoned when the movie opens. She remains stoned for the whole rest of the day. Never mind that marijuana dosage is not additive like that or that it would be pretty hard to stay high for a full day on any single dose. It’s a “I am so high” joke and you have to accept that premise.

Her agent reminds her of a big audition, which she will have to do stoned, and her pot dealer (who pontificates on Reagonomics) warns her to be at Venice beach by 3pm to pay the money she owes, “or else.” The audition is hilarious. While trying to bum a ride to Venice, she runs into Krasinski (“Jim” from The Office), who gets her involved in some adventures ranging from a trip to the dentist to acquiring a rare manuscript copy of the Communist Manifesto. There are some subtle political jokes there. But I enjoyed the parody of the Scary Movie series, (which was already a parody). Faris starred in those movies and here she makes good fun of herself, if you are alert to what’s going on. Instead of monsters and chain-saw killers, the “horrors” are the sounds of the dentist’s office and its wood-paneled waiting room, squalid offices, the Marxist professor’s suburban wife, a ride on a city bus, and so on. It's funny satire, helped a lot by Faris’ Scary-Movie-like mug shots and physical acting. The stoner jokes involve well-worn references to memory loss, munchies, present momentism, lack of motivation, and so on. There are a few funny lines, but most of it is pretty lame. Still, Faris’ self-parody keeps the ball rolling even though the story is ultimately pointless. There is no character or relationship development. Krasinski seems utterly lost.