Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Shotgun Stories: Grade B

Shotgun Stories (2008)
Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs; Writer-Director Jeff Nichols.

In contemporary rural Arkansas, three adult brothers are notified by their hateful mother that the despised father who abandoned them years ago has died. They attend the funeral where they encounter the three half brothers from the runaway father’s second family. These half-brothers seem to be a little better off economically, but such things are only relative in this poor community. The oldest of the abandoned brothers insults the memory of their father and spits on his grave, starting a family feud that begins as insults and threats, and over the weeks escalates to fistfights, knives and shotguns. It is a sensitive portrayal of character, not the shoot-em-up vendetta movie it is promoted as. You can feel the sweat running down your back in the hot, humid, rural settings. Characters move slowly and talk slowly. The writing is Faulkneresque in the way it portrays the rural south, the naivety and ignorance, yet sensitivity of its inhabitants. I don’t like Faulkner for that reason. It is just not very interesting to watch stupid people behave stupidly. Yet the acting is superlative, directing, sets, costumes are perfect, and the script is engaging and original, so the movie, while a bit too slow for me, never sags.

Turn the River: Grade C

Turn the River (2007)
Famke Janssen, Jaymie Dornan, Rip Torn. Writer-Director Chris Eigman.

Janssen is a pool hustler in modern New York City, hanging out at a dingy pool hall run by Rip Torn. She is desperate to “find a game” so she can raise money for fake ID so she can kidnap her own son (Dornan), who lives with his father. The rich father is a mean drunk, the stepmother is clueless, and the meddling grandmother a witch, so the boy is supposed to be unhappy there, making the mother’s kidnap plan seem less selfish and more acceptable to the audience. We don’t know anything about the marriage or divorce, or why she didn’t get alimony or child support, or why the incompetent father got custody. The film shows some nice pool shots, although the camera has to cut away to allow professionals to slip in there and make the spectacular plays shown on the table, so the continuity of the games is not smooth. Still, the movie is about the woman and her child, not really about the game, so that is ok. She raises the money and takes the child. There is no character development and we never really understand her. All the characters are stereotypes, and the acting is only adequate, except for Rip Torn, who is really obnoxious, barking his lines without context as if he were deaf. There is no chemistry among any of the characters, not even between mother and child. But sets, costumes and colors are good, and it is nice to see a woman play the “tough-guy” pool-shark role.

A Lawyer Walks Into A Bar: Grade F

A Lawyer Walks Into A Bar (2007)
Six law students in California, plus some commentators. Director Eric Chaikin.

This documentary follows six law students for a few months as they study for the California Bar exam, one of the toughest in the country. They range from recent graduates to a middle-aged man who has already failed the exam 41 times. The candidates tell why they want to pass (to get a law license, of course!), and about the pressure on them to pass, their personal anxieties, and so on. We don’t get to know much about any of them, or care about them. Artificial suspense is built as they wring their hands over how important it is for them to pass. In the end, some pass and some don’t, just as you would expect. I learned nothing from this movie. It is promoted as “a witty, seriocomic look at the American legal process.” It isn’t. Reviewers rave, “Edge of my seat,” “Impressive,” Gut-wrenching,” “Hilarious,” and “a film that every prospective lawyer should see.” I disagree with all those comments. The film is boring and uninformative. I’m sure every law student in California and in the whole USA understands that they must pass a bar exam and that not everybody does pass. The film does not seriously explore the American legal system, the legal educational system, the bar exam, or anything else, and despite the great title, the movie is not funny. A documentary on legal education could be fascinating, but this one isn’t.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Bank Job: Grade C

The Bank Job (2008)

Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, David Suchet; Director Roger Donaldson

In 1970’s London, a group of amateur thieves (headed by Statham) is recruited by an old thief acquaintance (Burrows) to rob the safe-deposit boxes of a bank “while the alarms are being repaired.” In fact she works for the government, which wants to recover embarrassing pictures of royalty held in the bank by a blackmailer, but the government wants deniability, thus the ruse. All this is told to us in the first few minutes of the movie, robbing the story of any dramatic tension. We watch the team dig a tunnel under the bank vault with zero suspense. There is nothing interesting to see. The robbery goes without a hitch and they get away. The government agents learn that the pictures have not been recovered and millions of dollars are gone, but they manage to track down the thieves without much trouble. In a last minute twist involving cops on the take, the pictures are turned over to the government but the thieves are allowed to keep their money. None of this is very interesting and the story would strain credulity except it is supposedly based on a true event. That doesn’t make it a good movie though. Except for the lack of computers and cell phones, the film does not have a period feel. Acting is adequate although there is no chemistry among the players. The filmmakers apparently forgot they were doing a movie and thought it was a documentary, and the compromised result is completely flat.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Persepolis: Grade B

Persepolis (2007)
Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Gabrielle Lopes; Co-writers & co-directors Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi. (French, subtitled)

This animated feature is an autobiography of Satrapi, who grew up in Teheran during the Islamic revolution, survived the long war with Iraq, and finally left for good to escape the oppression of the modern theocracy. Apparently there is a graphic novel (comic book) of this story, upon which the movie is based. The animation style is unusual, using only flat black and white areas, no shading, with close foregrounds and far backgrounds in a sepia tone, giving the scenes just a bit of depth against the very high contrast figures. Nearly every shot is vignetted, reminding us that it is a memoir. The style is simple, but not simplistic, as there are plenty of interesting angles, silhouettes, and unique point of view shots, including some fantasy and dream-like sequences that are the most creative parts of the film. There are a few colored scenes to indicate the present, but since 99% of the film is memoir, most is in black and white.

Satrapi apparently felt that Iranian people are not known in the West, except as violent fanatics, so this movie intends to demonstrate that she is, and most Iranians are, just ordinary folks like everyone else. That sentiment is expressed in the movie. There is also national pride in the selection of the title, as Persepolis was the magnificent palace of emperors Darius and Xerxes, built near Teheran after 518 BCE.

Despite its 95 minute length, the story drags after the novelty wears off, as anybody’s life story other than one’s own always will. It is no more nor less than the banal story of a girl growing up, going to college in Vienna, returning after the war to the oppressive theocracy, then finally moving to France. Nothing special happens to her or her wealthy, comfortable family, and she remains politically na├»ve, so the film sheds little light on Iranian or international political or cultural history. However, the autobiography seems honest and heartfelt, and it is easy to become emotionally engaged with the Satrapi character.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Rambo: Grade F

Rambo. (aka Rambo, The Fight Continues) (2008)
Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Graham McTavish. Co-writer and Director Sylvester Stallone.

I enjoy one-man-against-the-army movies, including the first Rambo of 1982, the Die-Hard series, the Death Wish series, and many memorable westerns. It’s a vehicle for Nietzschean exaltation of individual physical and moral superiority in the face of overwhelming opposition when no one else has the strength or courage or wits to do the right thing. And you would think that Stallone of all people would understand that theme. Alas, this latest (and presumably last) Rambo does not “get” the Rambo archetype.

In the early Rambos, the character was on a revenge or rescue mission, motivated by personal righteousness, with a grim determination that pushed him to near superhuman feats of endurance, resourcefulness, and strength against huge odds. Here, Rambo is merely catatonic, perhaps clinically depressed, but certainly “emotionally unavailable” to put it kindly. No explanation is provided for his sluggish movement and expressionless monotone. He has been living in civil-war-torn Burma since the Vietnam war, for reasons unknown, catching snakes for 30 years apparently. A group of Christian missionaries including the mandatory young blonde (Benz) convinces him to take them upriver to distribute Bibles and medicine. He drops them off and guess what, they are quickly captured by evil soldiers. The church hires a group of mercenaries to rescue them and Rambo takes them upriver also. Guards have their throats cut and gunfights ensue. Most of the missionaries are rescued. The blonde falls in the mud and ruins her outfit, but she is okay. The combat emphasizes heads and body parts being blown off in enormous sprays of blood. The special effects are good, but not new. The mutilation goes on and on, to the point of boredom. That’s what tipped me off that this is probably designed as a video game for mindless youth, and indeed the video game came out right after the movie’s release. There is no point to this movie except to blow up as many bodies as possible.

Early on, Rambo kills a gang of bad guys with a high powered bow and a quiver of arrows, a neat trick, but the bow quickly vanishes, traded for a more blood-spewing machine gun. Rambo has no particular reason to care about the missionaries and since their fate was entirely predictable, had no reason to take them upriver in the first place. Cryptically, he accepted no pay for taking them, implying a sudden Christian conversion? It is impossible to salvage a story out of this nonsense. Stallone looks fit for his 60 years but that’s not enough to carry a movie. Individual scenes are well photographed if you can ignore the heavy green and blue filters that indicate night or rain. Night is green and rain is blue; rain trumps night. Acting and dialog are uniformly abominable, except for some glimmers from mercenary McTavish. Music is what you’d expect to accompany glorification of pointless, bloody violence.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Election: Grade B

Election (2005)
Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka Fei; Director Johnny To. (Cantonese; subtitled)

This Hong Kong gangster film is one of the best of the genre. There is already an “Election II” sequel out (not yet on DVD). In this movie, a 100 year old triad (gang) elects its new chairman (Yam), but the loser, "Big D" (Leung) does not accept defeat. He tries kidnapping, bribery, and intimidation to get his way, but the “honor” of the gang’s tradition does not yield. Big D declares he will form his own organization (with himself as boss) declaring war on the others. But the police round up all the leadership, and there are meetings in prison. The winner and the loser agree to work together, sort of, for a while, maybe. The story is easily strong enough to sustain the action. The violence is brutal and shocking (as is the custom in this genre), but also very personal because there are no guns in the whole movie! Enemies are beaten, stabbed, run over with cars, bashed with shovels and hit with whisky bottles. I kept imagining guns that were not there. Three black Mercedes screech to a stop and 12 thugs jump out. Cue the ouzi’s! But no, it is a fistfight with knives, machetes, boxes, and steel barrels. It’s amazing how much more effective the violence is without the depersonalization of the gun. There’s no martial arts either, making every scene feel realistic. The sharp dialog and good characterizations also help us engage with the humanity of the characters. There is a real sense that these guys are like any society of people, with history, tradition, and alliances, dealing with their particular culture of violence, individual talents, social hierarchy, and even mental illness. The scene with a community of monkeys watching a violent murder is especially telling. You come away appreciating the breadth and depth of Triad life in Hong Kong.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days: Grade A

4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days (2007) (Romanian, Subtitled)
Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu.

In Romania, just before the fall of communism, a college student (Vasiliu), needs an illegal abortion. Her roommate and friend (Marinca) helps her through the whole process, which is completed successfully. At one level then, it is a story of friendship, in which the implicit understanding of what it means to be a woman, especially in this environment, pulls the women through almost unimaginable stress.

Is it a pro-choice statement? An abortion does take place, but the extremely bleak environment, the unblinking anti-sentimentalism of the cinematography, emotionally honest dialog, and difficult consequences of the story make me wonder if it is. It could as well be an anti-abortion message. I’d say it is neutral on that dichotomy. I don’t think that was the issue being addressed.

It is also about Romania under communism. The bare winter trees and slushy roads describe the cultural climate, while the scenes of making hotel reservations convey the stifling bureaucracy perfectly, and we feel the background of paranoia that permeates everybody’s life. The movie succeeds on that level as well.

But at it’s core, the story focuses on the conflict between the roommate’s (or any woman’s) socially defined personality, and the biological facticity of reproduction. For these women, conception is a biological punishment for the social act of sex, but in a horrific scene, we also see that the social value of sex can be used to regain control of the body. This conflict between a woman’s biology and personality is the driver of the story, all the more remarkable for it having been written and directed by a man.

Brilliant cinematography, directing, acting, and editing tell the story as well as the dialog. The roommate has dinner with her boyfriend’s parents, where there is joking, singing, story-telling, and wine, in a warm, brightly-lit atmosphere of educated people surrounded by books and laughter. In the next scene, in a stark hotel, the quack doctor negotiates his price. Then it is the harsh reality of the procedure. We are, with the protagonist, plunged from the socially constructed world of the dinner party, ten stories down a chute to the biological foundation of reproduction, with such suddenness that we are disoriented, as are the two women. In the final scene, the women sip water in the hotel restaurant, waiting for the only food left on the late-night menu. They can hardly speak to each other, they are so stunned by what has happened. The waiter brings the food, what was served at the concurrent wedding party: cooked brains, liver, and marrow, a healthy, high protein meal, no doubt. The dish is pushed aside without a word.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Honeydripper: Grade D


Honeydripper (2007)

Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Yaya DaCosta, Charles S. Dutton, Gary Clark, Jr., Stacy Keach, Mary Steenburger, Keb’Mo’; Writer-Director John Sayles.

With all this talent, it is hard to explain why this movie is so bad. It’s a black movie about a slice of black history. Sayles is white, but I don’t believe that old fallacy that you can’t understand someone’s struggle if you aren’t a member of their clan. Movies are supposed to illuminate the human condition, but this one doesn’t.

Glover owns a dumpy road house in rural Alabama in the 1950’s, but he is on the verge of bankruptcy. His last hope before eviction is to pack the place by bringing in a regional star, “Guitar Sam,” but Sam doesn’t show up. Instead, a drifter with a homemade electric guitar (Clark) takes the stage and all ends well.

The problem is that it takes two hours of “What we gonna do” hand-wringing for Clark to play, and then he plays about 60 seconds of hot electric blues before he and his pickup band lapse into featureless rock and roll while all the young people jump like they’re on American Bandstand. 1950 is almost a decade too early for rock n roll to be supplanting blues in Alabama, but we can let that go. Even more frustrating is that throughout the movie, Glover encounters a blind dobro player around town who absolutely rivets your attention every time he plays a couple of notes. It is Keb’ Mo’, the well-known blues artist with a Robert Johnson legacy. I was yelling at the screen, “Danny, it’s Keb’Mo’ for God’s sake! Put him on your stage!” But he didn’t hear me. There was a suggestion that slide guitar was “too common” to pass for entertainment, even though he had already acquiesced to Guitar Sam. So the movie plods on for another 90 minutes with its stereotyped characters, wooden acting, aimless story, stilted script, and incongruously bright-and-shiny sets. Everybody wears the same (spotless) clothes for a week and there are numerous anachronisms in props and dialog. What saves the movie from utter failure are the all-too-brief snippets of fine blues music, and the noble, if failed, attempt to portray an important piece of black history.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Fierce People: Grade C

Fierce People (2007)
Donald Sutherland, Diane Lane, Anton Yelchin, Chris Evans, Kristen Stewart. Director Griffin Dunne.

Yelchin is a 15 year old with absent father and alcoholic mother. He is obsessed with anthropology and the fierce Amazonian Yanomami tribe. His mother (Lane), a masseuse, goes on the wagon and takes her son to a rich client’s estate in New Jersey. Sutherland, the rich man, gives a wonderful performance as a modern day Great Gatsby. There are parties, feasts, festivals, balloon races, and romances as the undereducated, amoral and idle rich fritter away their lives. The thrust of the story is that the boy is supposed to study the wealthy clan anthropologically, establishing a parallel with the premodern Yanomami by showing extremely primitive motives and behavior beneath the veneer of high society. The sets and costumes are excellent and do convey the boy’s sense of being accepted into the upper crust, but as a mascot, not a real member, perhaps as a participant anthropologist would be.

Unfortunately, all the characters are two-dimensional and uninteresting. The rich people’s antics are stereotypical, exaggerated, and the portrayal is mean-spirited. The directing of physical movement is good but the dialog is clunky so characters seem to be reciting lines. At the end of the movie, everybody just goes home. No conclusions are drawn, no lessons are learned. The filmmakers add some ghostly Yanomami tribesmen in the woods to reinforce the supposed parallel between the two kinds of “fierce people,” and that’s a nice touch, but only a superficial overlay, symptomatic of the way the premise for the story is wasted. The Nanny Diaries also adopted the anthropological premise but like this movie, threw it away. Rich people with feet of clay is a fertile topic, but it was explored better in The Godfather series or even in TV shows like Dallas, than in this movie. One last criticism is that Yelchin’s character grated on my nerves throughout. He plays a slow-talking, highly controlled, extremely precocious youth, so precocious that the character was downright annoying. The movie is a lost opportunity but moderately interesting for what it attempts to do.