Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Delirious: Grade D

Delirious (2006)
Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Alison Lohman, Gina Gershon; Writer-Director Tom DeCillio.

Buscemi is a sleazy, blowhard paparazzo in New York who takes in homeless youth Pitt as his unpaid assistant. Buscemi offends teenage star-of-the-moment Lohman, causing her to reject him and lovestruck Pitt. Pitt then gets an acting role through a chance encounter with casting director Gershon and becomes a successful TV personality. With that status, he is reunited with his lost love. This is supposed to be a satire of the cult of celebrity and of the paparazzi. Buscemi shows no range with his character, doing only the angry, hyper, edge-of-crazy routine reminiscent of his performance in Reservoir Dogs, and while initially interesting, it seems out of place and gets boring real fast. Pitt shows an attractive wide-eyed innocence, as he did in Octopus Eyes, but that’s his one trick. Gershon delivers the best acting, but why did she sign on to this awful project? Her talents are wasted. Sets are good, especially Buscemi’s apartment and his parents’ house. There are numerous errors arising from the filmmakers’ inability to avoid cliché, such as showing circled frames on a contact sheet after a digital shoot. Celebrity glitz is not very glitzy anymore, too easy for cliché humor, so despite a few funny lines and gags, the movie flops from uninspired writing and banal directing. I should have guessed as much from the sophomoric DVD cover with a slack-jawed Buscemi.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Bothersome Man: Grade B

The Bothersome Man (2006)
Trond Fausa Aurvaag, Petronella Barker. Director Jens Lien. (Norwegian, subtitled).

A ragged man (Aurvaag) wanders in the Icelandic desert until he is picked up by a black limo and taken to the city where he is inexplicably given a posh flat and shown to an easy office job at a nice company in the city. That is his transition from the wilderness to civilized society. He adapts quickly to civilized life and begins dating a co-worker (Barker). But is something wrong in paradise? The food is tasteless, the drinks never make you drunk and nothing has any smell. The the city is geometrically interesting but almost colorless; grays, blues, taupe. Even the inside of people’s apartments and houses are minimalist and “inoffensive.” The man moves in with his girl, who is obsessed with interior design. They have mechanical sex. He is unfaithful to her but the new girl won’t commit to anything, finding him only “pleasant.” A crack in the façade of polite society is represented by a crack in a basement wall. Beautiful music seems to be coming out of it. The man attempts to tunnel through the rock and concrete to the music and the light. The idea is not original, (e.g., The Truman Show, The Prisoner), but it is a timeless one, beautifully photographed, subtly presented, and well-played. It is nice to see Oslo and the Icelandic desert and hear an interesting language.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Undoing: Grade B

Undoing (2006)
Sung Kang, Kelly Hu, Russell Wong, Tom Bower; Writer-Director Chris Chan Lee.

This crime drama is set in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Sam (Kang) returns after being on the lam for a year, to try to reestablish his life (although we don’t know what that was – drug dealer?). A year ago his best friend was shot to death in a drug deal gone bad. Why he feels guilty about this is unknown. His girlfriend has moved on in a year and rejects him at first, although she eventually comes over to him (although my wife said that character wouldn’t do that). Sam does a drug deal to get the girlfriend out of debt to her boss/suitor, but somebody, possibly at the order of a dirty cop, is trying to kill him, thinking he has the drugs or the money from the year-ago deal. It’s unclear if he does or not. The story is confusing but it limps darkly along. There isn’t anything particularly Korean about the project except some of the actors. The acting is good, especially by Kang and Bower, and the cinematography is stylish and thoughtful. The music is enjoyable and unintrusive. The characters do not develop and there isn’t much narrative drive, but the film is pleasant to look at, the actors are attractive, and there is just enough interest.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rain in the Mountains: Grade A

Rain in the Mountains (2007)
Steve Pierre, Joseph Heldman, Nick Erb, Audrey Seymour. Co-writer and Director Joel Metlan.

I am a sucker for Native American humor; I don’t know why. There is something about it’s quirkiness that becomes positively loopy. I am reminded of 2006’s Expiration Date which was similarly creative. In this charming tale filmed in the Pacific Northwest, an older, unemployed Native American (Pierre) encounters a dead man (Heldman) in the woods, a spirit-character, who tells Pierre “his destiny,” which is to lead his people back to the traditional ways. Pierre immediately takes his son (Erb) out fishing, but it turns out that neither of them knows anything about fishing. There some good slapstick scenes, but what I like is the wry irony in the grand, spiritual-sounding pronouncements of the old Indian who can’t fish. He tries hunting also, even though his only gun is a BB gun and the only prey he can track is his neighbor’s cow. When the power company cuts off his family’s electricity, he knows who the enemy is: electricity itself. He goes on a mission that soon gets him into trouble with the law. Throughout, the humor is completely original and very low key, depending on fine absurdity and subtle irony. The acting is painfully sincere and there is a larger, poignant, metaphorical theme.

The Independent: Grade C

The Independent (2007)
Jerry Stiller, Janeane Garofalo. Co-writer and Director Stephen Kessler.

This is a low budget mockumentary made in 2000, of a washed-up ‘B’ film maker (Stiller) who wants to make a comeback with a musical of the life of a serial killer. His daughter (Garofalo) reluctantly helps him get the film shown at a film festival but the only one he can get is in North Dakota, and he is the only featured director at the festival. Acting by both principals is strong and there are some very funny jokes and satirical scenes, but it is like a 5-minute comedy sketch padded out to 90 minutes. It is a lot of fun to see mock interviews with Ron Howard, Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich, Nick Cassavettes, in which they discuss the old director's work and personality. There is some insightful satire of the genre here, but it all gets old very quickly. Funny, but For Your Consideration is a better mockumentary, or try The Player, or even Mel Brooks’ 1968 The Producers.

The Great Debaters: Grade D

The Great Debaters (2007)
Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker. Writer-Director Robert Eisele

Stand And Deliver meets Dead Poet’s Society? Washington is a Debate coach at an all-Negro college in the south in 1935. Can his team of young, enthusiastic students, including the first female to ever make the team, win the regional championship? Of course they can, with Washington’s incessant harangues. Whitaker is the stern, conservative father of the youngest debater, and he wants to be sure his son is studying, not fooling around with that girl. The son, for his part, is ashamed of his father for having been humiliated by some white rednecks (who, actually, did nothing more than make him pay for a pig he accidentally killed with his car). Washington stupidly barks his lines without a trace of understanding or subtlety, preventing us from forming any sort of connection with him. Whitaker shows a much higher level of acting but his character is such a stereotype, we never really understand him. I have been a judge for high school debate competitions, and they are highly ritualized procedures that look and sound nothing like what this movie shows. Maybe it was different back then, but these melodramatic and “precious” speeches I’m quite sure would have won no contests even in 1935. Overall, the movie is trite, stereotyped, derivative, badly written and badly directed. Its main virtues are some acting by Whitaker and the fact that it displays intelligent, thoughtful, hard-working black people in the 1930’s.

I’m Not There: Grade C

I’m Not There (2007)
Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Leger, Co-writer and director: Todd Haynes.

Multiple actors portray episodes in the life of male folk-singers in the 1960’s. The characters are all quite different, and none of them is named Bob Dylan. Yet we are made to understand that they all represent Bob Dylan at various times in his life. Several Dylan classics are played along with other period music. This picaresque approach to a Dylan biography is creative but interesting only if you are well-informed about his life, which I am not. I loved the iconic early protest classics and I really liked Nashville Skyline in the 70’s. That is the full extent of my Bob Dylan knowledge, so this movie, presumably packed with meaningful allusion, was mostly lost on me. The sequence in which Cate Blanchett plays Dylan is well worth seeing. They could have done the whole movie around her amazing performance. Unfortunately, it is just one segment among many dull, badly acted, badly directed, witless, pointless scenarios.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Southland Tales: Grade F

Southland Tales (2006)
Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, Sean William Scott, Bai Ling, Janine Garofalo, Justin Timberlake, many others. Writer-Director Richard Kelly.

Terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb in Texas and the US tries to respond appropriately. This is a futuristic apocalypse showing a dystopian society. The actual destruction and effects of a nuclear explosion are not considered, but instead there is focus on generating a police/military response (to what?). Interesting, wacko characters try to work the social system for personal gain. Johnson seems to be some sort of ex-military guy who has important information about something, but has amnesia. Nothing makes any sense, and I could not discern any plot or narrative thread. So taken as just a collection of individual scenes that you might want to look at, some of them are visually interesting, several are satirical, and many are funny, especially in the first half hour or so. But since the movie is total chaos, confusion is quickly followed by boredom. I came away with nothing.

Military Intelligence and You: Grade D

Military Intelligence and You (2006)
Patrick Muldoon, Elizabeth Ann Bennet. Writer-Director Dale Kutzera.

Old World War II military training films and war footage are blended with live actors to create a black-and-white film of a WWII story about saving an Allied bomber squadron from German air attack (or something like that), complete with a romance at headquarters between the two principal actors. The story is a satire of old WWII movies, and of military training films, and a commentary on the futility of war in general, and of the Iraq war in particular. On top of all that, there is a voice-over that comes in from time to time, converting the whole project from a satirical war story to a military training film. Whew! The narrator’s comments are often funny, in the style of Mystery Science Theater. The war story itself is humorous too, with brazen stereotypes and soap opera exaggeration. Finally, the old training film snippets are somewhat amusing (they even include one with Ronald Reagan). But after a half hour, the same style, jokes, gestures and clips are just repeated. The writer was caught in an endless loop. A lost opportunity, this could have been a scorching social criticism. Too bad, but the first half hour is worth a look.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Bernard and Doris: Grade C

Bernard and Doris (2007)
Susan Sarandon, Ralph Fiennes; Director Bob Balaban.

Doris Duke inherited a fortune from her father, for whom Duke University is named. This movie portrays her (Sarandon) as an eccentric, autocratic self-obsessed alcoholic and drug user who flits about the world on various adventures, but while she’s home at her mansion in New Jersey, is served by her Irish butler, Lafferty (Fiennes). The butler role is well-executed but not elevated to high art as it was by Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day. Duke is a caricature, not a person we ever get to know or understand or care about. As time goes on, the two trust each other and become friends. When Duke is away, Lafferty drinks his way through her wine cellar, and they become co-dependent addicts, laughing it up when she brings home colorful guests from her travels. Suddenly, in one scene, she has a stroke and in the next scene she is dead, leaving her fortune to her butler. He died shortly thereafter. There is no plot, and while Sarandon is a magnetic actor no matter what, there isn’t much work for her here. The detailed sets of a fabulously wealthy woman’s house are the most fun part of the movie. I rented this without noticing it was an HBO film, and its quality confirms my bias that television movies are often a full cut below theater releases, even when strong actors are billed. I haven’t a clue why that should be.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Grade A

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze; Director Julian Schnabel. (French, Subtitled).

In 1995 the prominent editor of Elle magazine suffered a stroke in Paris, at age 44. When he awoke 20 days later, he found himself totally paralyzed except for his left eyelid. In this movie of that experience, the camera takes the stricken man's point of view as the lens peers out into the hospital room. We hear his voice, representing his thoughts, as he is first perplexed by his condition, then horrified, outraged, self-pitying, then finally challenged. He can see and hear perfectly well. It’s a brilliant use of the cinematic medium. When he cries, the lens, his left eye, goes blurry. Doctors, therapists, and friends stand in front of his one good eye and speak to him, many giving outstanding acting performances.

As the movie progresses, we move out of that restricted point of view so we can see him sitting in a wheel chair at the sea, and we have a full field view of his surroundings. The diving bell of the title is his paralyzed body, the butterfly his imagination, which is rich and varied. In beautiful photography, he reminisces on his life, especially on his relationship with his father, and imagines faraway places, journeys to other centuries, luxurious meals, and so on (though oddly, not tennis, rowing, dancing, or other vigorous bodily activity). One of his therapists develops a system of communication in which she reads the alphabet to him, and he blinks to indicate his choice of a letter in the list. By this method he manages to “dictate” an entire book, his memoir (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Translated by Jeremy Leggatt. Knopf, $20). This movie is a film treatment of that book. It is a treat for the eyes, with great acting and a fascinating story that never leaves you bored. The only disappointment is that most of the authors’ reminiscences are sentimental and banal. I would have liked him to reflect on the human condition, pride, ambition, the nature of suffering, fate, existence, God, the relationship between mind and body. But he was not that guy, so we get what he had to give, which is interesting enough, packaged into a very well-made film.