Sunday, June 29, 2008

In Bruges: Grade B

In Bruges (2008)
Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clemence Poesy, Thekla Reuten, Jordan Prentice. Writer-Director Martin McDonagh.

This ultra-noir comedy is shot in Bruges, Belgium, a beautiful city. Two hitmen (Farrell and Gleeson) await instructions from their boss (Fiennes) about their next job. There is humorous back and forth as Farrell, exercising his Groucho Marx eyebrows, petulantly complains about being bored with “culture and all that crap” (“history is just a bunch of stuff that’s already happened”), while Gleeson drags him to medieval churches and takes him on cold, windy canal tours. We learn in a flashback the special rule that governs these hit men: if you kill an innocent boy, that’s wrong, and you must kill yourself. Makes sense, right? Whatever, that’s the rule that controls the whole story.

The story is utter nonsense, and any residual of realism is sacrificed when Gleeson falls from a tower, his head exploding like a watermelon on the sidewalk, but he isn’t dead! No, he still has time to give a few crucial words of advice to Farrell. When Farrell is shot five times through the abdomen with an automatic weapon loaded with dum-dums, he doesn’t die, either. There are some funny lines and some melodramatic moments too, but there is no realistic overall comedic or dramatic story so the character arcs are hard to take seriously. Farrell overacts; Gleeson does a good job, Prentice is fascinating, but Fiennes is super intense, even electrifying. His character should have been brought in much earlier. Cinematography is stylish and enjoyable, as is the music. A tighter story with more respect for realism would have made it an excellent film.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Charlie Bartlett: Grade D

Charlie Bartlett (2007)
Anton Yelchin, Kat Dennings, Hope Davis, Robert Downey Jr. Director Jon Poll.

This high school, coming of age picture is half way between a comedy and a drama. As a comedy it is more along the lines of Napoleon Dynamite than the vulgar (but funny) humor of SuperBad, but it doesn’t contribute anything of its own, not the snappy teen dialogue of Juno, or the silly caricatures of Mean Girls. Dramatically, the movie poster quotes John Hughes’ 1968, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, about a high school wise guy, but that film had a charm that this heavy-handed and unmotivated story lacks.

Charlie Barlett (Yelchin) is a rich kid who has been kicked out of private school for reasons unknown, so his mother (Davis) enrolls him in public school, where he cannot make friends. There was a great opening here for some intellectual snobbery and class warfare humor, but it passes by. Instead Charlie sees a psychiatrist after being beat up in school (blaming the victim?) and the Dr. gives him Ritalin, which gets him high (which Ritalin does not do). Charlie starts selling the pills at school to win popularity. He reads the DSM to trick other psychiatrists into giving him additional meds (without his mother’s knowledge?) and soon he is a wheeler-dealer BMOC. He falls for the principal’s (Downey) daughter (Denning). None of the underage drinking, smoking, drug-dealing and drug taking is funny (or even noticed by adults). All the humor derives from Charlie being precocious about teenage mental health. The teens’ “rebellious” attitude toward the school administration is contrived. What kind of school is this, anyway? Nobody cracks a book, goes to a class, or throws a baseball. Hope Davis and Robert Downey Jr. give excellent performances worth seeing. Yelchin is a pretty face, but only competent as an actor, not a shooting star like Paige’s Juno.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lost in Beijing: Grade A

Lost in Beijing (2007)
Tony Leung, Bingbing Fan, Dawei Tong. Cowriter and Director: Yu Li. (Chinese, subtitled).

A young, poor couple and an older, rich couple interact in modern Beijing, which was unrecognizable since I was there in 1979 when there was no building over about 7 storeys, and even those were crumbling stone blocks built by the British. Now gleaming glass and steel towers sprout like mushrooms after a rain, under a filthy brown sky. It could be Detroit or Miami or any other modern city. The movie gives a glimpse into the lives of people living high in the towers and low on the ground.

The young man (Tong) is a window washer and happens to see through the window, his wife (Fan) being raped by her boss (Leung). The young man demands payment in retribution, but things become complicated when we learn that Fan is pregnant. This movie is banned in China and the filmmakers are forbidden to work for two years, ostensibly because of the sex and nudity in the film. But I don’t think that is the real reason it was banned. There isn’t really much nudity on screen and the film is in no sense pornographic. We see some naked legs and buttocks, and that’s about it.

Of course among a billion people, there is sex every minute of every day, but to show it on film probably contrasts too harshly with the “official” view that all Chinese people are proud and dignified. The sharp division between inner and outer personality is core to the culture, and this film allows all the world, especially us barbarian Westerners, to look past the outer formalities to the inner private life.

More important though was probably the censors’ embarrassment or shame about how badly women are treated. The movie is a strong social statement by the female director and co-writer. Women are raped, beat up, murdered, ordered to have an abortion, forbidden to have an abortion, kidnapped, their babies bought and sold. Although the movie is not explicitly violent, the story makes it very clear that women are chattel in China today, despite the veneer of modern civilization. If that were not so, the censors would not be embarrassed by the movie and would have let it run. In the ending, the protagonist woman makes a defiant move, her declaration of independence, but I wonder how realistic that possibility is in today’s Beijing.

It is a very well-acted movie, with considerable sensitivity and humor, great photography, some interesting editing, and a stunning look into modern Beijing. But above all, it is a courageous expose and plea on behalf of Chinese women, and women everywhere.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

King of California: Grade A

King of California (2007)
Evan Rachel Wood, Michael Douglas; Writer-Director Mike Cahill.

Douglas gives a terrific performance as a geezer just released from a mental institution to his 17 year old daughter (Wood). She has been driving her beat-up Volvo to work at McDonalds in a California suburb, just getting by. We see in flashbacks that their 100 year old house was once a jewel in rolling agricultural acres, but now is a sore thumb in an endless sea of unimaginative tract homes. Charlie, her dad, believes he has discovered a map to golden treasure, buried nearby by early Spanish explorers. He schemes to find it, even selling the Volvo and the house to finance his exploration. The best line in the movie is the daughter’s incredulous outrage: “What? Are you nuts?” He stares at her. She says quietly, “Sorry.” He actually does not seem to be psychotic, only slightly delusional, and who isn’t these days? That ambiguity makes it plausible that she would become Panza to his Quixotic search for the maybe-gold. The ending is accordingly ambiguous as well. We are half-convinced there might be gold, but finally we realize it doesn’t matter. The point is that she is able to re-establish her relationship with her father during the adventure. The movie is also a cry of anguish over the squalor of cookie-cutter “development” that relentlessly buries the treasure of natural beauty under concrete and commerce. It is a surprisingly sensitive performance from Douglas, and first rate from Wood, too.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Air I Breathe: Grade C

The Air I Breathe (2008)
Kevin Bacon, Julie Delpy, Andy Garcia, Brendan Fraser, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Emile Hirsch, Forest Whitaker; Co-writer and Director Jieho Lee.

Four mini-dramas are loosely connected in the style of Crash. Whitaker is a clerk who bets big on a horse that loses, leaving him indebted to a vicious shark (Garcia), so he does the only reasonable thing and robs a bank, but gets shot by SWAT. Garcia does a great hot-and-cold psychopath that channels Pacino. It is totally derivative but really a great imitation. Whitaker’s character is not well motivated but he gives a strong performance anyway. Fraser shows the best acting of the movie, and the best I have ever seen from him, as an emotionless debt collector for Garcia. Fraser gets glimpses of the immediate future so he knows when he is going to be attacked from behind, for example, very useful for a gangster. When his clairvoyance fails for the first time in his life, he becomes happy at his new freedom (a logic that escaped me), and falls in love with an emerging rock star (Gellar) who is “owned” by Garcia since her manager paid off his debt with the management contract. I’m no expert in contract law, but I don’t think that would be an enforceable agreement. Nevertheless, the girl is tyrannized by the evil Garcia, and Fraser can only protect her for a little while. Meanwhile, Bacon is a physician with a patient who requires an immediate transfusion but who has a rare blood type. He just happens to overhear a television interview with the rock star who just happens to reveal that she has that blood type! Rather than make a phone call, Bacon rushes downtown (conveniently same town, and staying nearby), to accost her in the street, which leads, predictably, to him being beaten up by her bodyguards. Somehow that unpleasantness is resolved (not shown in the movie), and the patient is saved. We don’t know what happens to Garcia.

It is difficult to understand what the writers were trying to achieve with these weak-to-ridiculous stories, or with the overused format of linking stories through common characters, no matter how implausible the linkages. What saves the movie from total disaster are strong performances by Garcia, Whitaker, and especially, Fraser.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Flawless: Grade B

Alas, this gem of a movie is flawed. Moore gives an outstanding performance as an executive in 1960 London, working for a DeBeers-like diamond supplier. She looks terrific in the period costumes and reacts with subtlety and depth when she is repeatedly passed over for promotions. Caine is a rascally janitor who, because of his unrestricted access to the building, knows all about her, her career and its frustrations. He suggests that they remove a thermos full of diamonds from the vault, retire happily, the company never the wiser. He counts on her frustration and desire for revenge. The heist goes well, with enough tension to keep us on edge, secret motives are revealed, and some unexpected twists surface. We are satisfied, as we were in The Thomas Crowne Affair, when these anti-heroes get away with it.

Or we would be satisfied if it weren't for a wrong-headed set of before and after scenes obviously tacked on later. In the opening scene, a reporter interviews an aged Moore, newly free after 30 years in prison. What that means is never explained, but it contradicts the story to be told and turns it into an emotionally distant flashback. The closing scene of the movie is Moore telling the reporter that she never heard from Caine after the heist. These scenes don’t make any sense, are unnecessary, and spoil the perfection of the movie. The opener was probably added to foil (falsely, it turns out) easy plot predictions, then the opener needed the closer. Very bad choice.

Otherwise, though, photography is clean and bright, directing and editing are good, sets and costumes are perfection. Paul Desmond’s clarinet solo from “Take Five” sets the mood. The feminist theme blends well into the story, giving the tired heist genre a lift. All the actors give strong performances. This could have been a sophisticated heist movie, until somebody realized there were no guns, explosives or car chases, so added a stupid red herring instead. You have to wonder how such poor decisions get through.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Cleaner: Grade B

Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, Eva Mendes, Luiz Guzman; Director Renny Harlin.

This is an entirely plot-driven, light throwaway “dirty cops” story that has been told a thousand times before, but this one is above average for several reasons. First, Jackson does some of his best acting ever, showing depth and range. Then there’s Guzman, who usually must radiate his considerable talent from a deep background part, as in Fast Food Nation, but here is featured as the lead detective on the case. Ed Harris is always a pleasure to watch, and Eva Mendes is easy on the eyes, although both of those latter actors do not shine here as well as they might.

The story is silly, about a sort of janitorial service that cleans up stores and residences after messy homicides and suicides. When you think about it, I guess somebody has to do that work. The visuals showing Jackson in his hazmat suit, taking the squeegee to blood spatter on windows, are aggressively graphic and I think, tongue in cheek. He cleans up a homicide in a rich suburban house, forgets to return the key, goes back the next day to find the house populated by a woman (Mendes) and a dozen children celebrating a birthday party. She knows nothing of any homicide or any cleanup, and Jackson, confused and wary, backs away. That was a pretty good start to an intriguing paranoid mystery.

But instead the story takes a number of unlikely turns to become some other, much less interesting, non-mysterious story about cops on the take, a secret book of all their badge numbers formerly owned by the homicide victim, now owned by Mendes and hotly pursued by Guzman. Mendes befriends Jackson for reasons unknown and the story writhes on. In the implausible end, some justice is served on a platter of compromise. I would be disappointed if I spent money to see this film in a theater, but as a DVD rental, it will amuse you as much as any television cop show.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Cassandra's Dream: Grade A

Cassandra’s Dream
Colin Farrell, Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Sally Hawkins, Tom Wilkinson; Writer-Director Woody Allen.

This is a classic tragedy in ancient Greek style. Cassandra was a mythological Greek figure who could foretell the future (usually tragedies) but could do nothing to change it because nobody believed her. In this movie, Cassandra’s Dream is the name of the small sailboat owned by two working class brothers (Farrell and McGregor) in modern day London. The movie opens with the men buying the boat and it ends with them dying on it. The idea we are supposed to take away is that one cannot change one’s fate, but that is an allusive pretension the movie didn’t need. In fact the story is a very slow starter and that whole early scene of buying the boat could have been cut. My guess is that Woody Allen wanted the boat to play the part of the Greek Chorus, but again, the allusion is weak, pretentious, adds little, and wastes time.

The brothers have dreams of greater things, but get into debt. A rich uncle (Wilkinson) seems their salvation until he reveals that he will be imprisoned if a colleague is allowed to testify. He convinces the brothers to kill that man. Farrell does some fine acting as he wrestles with his conscience before and after the event. Wilkinson and McGregor also produce great performances. The directing and dialog are noticeably stilted and stagey, especially in the first half, but that may be to support the idea that this is an update of a classic Greek tragedy. The flow smoothes out in the second half. The climax of the movie is Farrell’s crisis of conscience when he says something like, “We have done something that goes against the order of things. The world must be made right again.” That is crux of all Greek tragedy, and in fact, Allen manages to have a character throw in a reference to Euripides in case we were not catching the allusion. I would have liked more attention paid to whether the brothers’ actions were really personal choices or just fulfillment of their inexorable fate. Allen has not quite captured the essence of a Greek tragedy but I certainly enjoyed his attempt.