Sunday, August 31, 2008

Recount: Grade A

Recount (2008)
Kevin Spacey, Laura Dern, Denis Leary, Tom Wilkinson, Ed Begley Jr, John Hurt, Bob Balaban.
Director Jay Roach

This HBO docudrama tells the story of the 2000 US presidential election, in which the vote was so close that the country did not know who won for 35 days until finally the Supreme Court simply declared Bush the winner. Spacey is head of the Gore campaign and Leary, in a notable performance, is his foul-mouthed technician. On the Republican side, Tom Wilkinson absolutely channels James Baker. Laura Dern is fantastic as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Bush and Gore are portrayed only in glimpses, but seen on contemporary television snippets. The film is remarkably tense, considering that we know the story by heart and there is no mystery about how it turned out. I would put it right up there with All The President’s Men as one of the great historical political thrillers.

Is it accurate and fair? DVD extras, which include interviews with some of the principals, suggest that the filmmakers took great care to assure that the facts were correct, and they seemed so by my memory. However characters come from the art of filmmaking, and though based on the facts, they definitely make the Democrats the good guys and victims. Spacey is the noble protagonist, Dern/Harris is a buffoon, and Wilkinson/Baker is an unprincipled Machiavelli. However, the vote count always was within the margin of error so the outcome of the race was, and always will be, genuinely indeterminate. I came away feeling that the Republicans did not really “steal” the election. Despite all the dirty tricks and hard feelings, the resolution had to be political, as there was no other possibility. In that sense, the film is laudably educational.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Redbelt: Grade A

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Emily Mortimer, Joe Mantegna, David Paymer, Ricky Jay. Writer-Director David Mamet.

David Mamet, lord of talking heads, doing a martial arts movie? Would the characters actually fight, or only talk about fighting? But it turns out to be a good blend of action, dialog and characterization. Ejiofor radiates presence. I see Jeff Goldblum in his slack-jaw, heavy-lidded stare and a young Samuel L. Jackson in his voice and movements. He was a showstopper in Children of Men and a standout in American Gangster. He is magic here.

He plays an impoverished jiu-jitsu instructor in Los Angeles, married to a Brazilian wife whose brother runs a shady bar and promotes martial arts contests. Mortimer is in some kind of unspecified distress when she stumbles into the martial arts studio, where in her jumpiness, she accidentally discharges a gun that a police officer inexplicably left unattended on a countertop, loaded, with the safety off. That triggers, so to speak, a Rube Goldberg contraption of a plot.

Ejiofor saves a Hollywood actor (Allen) from getting beat up in the Brazilian bar. Allen is impressed, invites Ejiofor to consult on his film that coincidentally involves jiu-jitsu. Meanwhile, Ejiofor’s wife borrows money from a loan shark (Paymer, who we do not see enough of). As the screws tighten, Ejiofor is forced to compete in a fixed fight to get the money he needs. He thus moves from the highest spiritual principles of martial arts to participating in a fixed fight to save his hide. Yet the movie ends before we learn how he accommodates that change, or indeed, if he even wins the money. Emily Mortimer gives a wonderful performance even though her character is nonsense.

At first, Mamet’s sophisticated phrases do not fit into the mouth of the jiu-jitsu instructor. But later the dialog calms down and is strong enough to drive the story through its implausible coincidences. It is possible that Mamet intended the multiple unexpected plot turns to mirror the inner action of jiu-jitsu itself, but if so, that strategy was not effective. Mamet is a student of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is a mix of the ancientJapanese martial art with boxing and kick boxing. The action scenes are good, although not very exciting. They are shot with close-ups and short edits so you have the feel of a fight without really seeing one. The best of the action is when Ejiofor demonstrates how particular moves work. The Brazilian flavor, with smatterings of Portuguese, add color. This is not a masterpiece, but the acting, directing, dialog and sets are so strong that I remained completely engaged.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Life Before Her Eyes: Grade D

The Life Before Her Eyes (2008)
Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, Eva Amurri. Director Vadim Perelman.

Wood is a high school student who, with her friend Amurri, narrowly survives one of those depressingly common school shootups by a nutcase student. The experience colors the rest of her life. Thurman is the anxiety-ridden adult who can’t get over the event, especially at the (unlikely) 15th anniversary memorial service for it in the small town where, unlikely though it seems, she still lives, near her high school friend, with her husband and daughter. She seems to have PTSD symptoms but mainly she suffers (and so do we) from incessant flashbacks to the traumatic event. Scenes from her youth are repeated multiple times with hardly any variation. I understand what flashbacks are without seeing identical film clips repeated every few minutes. Okay, so it was traumatic. How about a therapist? There is no forward movement to the story and no character development. Absolutely nothing happens. Thurman just has flashbacks and panic attacks for 90 minutes. We do not even get to see the resolution of the traumatic incident. Was the shooter captured? How did Wood and her friend manage to escape unharmed? Nothing is revealed. Perhaps the filmmaker wanted us to feel what it is like to suffer from ongoing PTSD, but if so, the effort was lost on me. Redeeming virtues are that Thurman and Wood are fine actors, always enjoyable to watch. The relatively unknown Amurri also does a very good job in drawing a character contrast to Wood.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day: Grade A

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (2008)
Amy Adams, Francis McDormand, Shirley Henderson. Director Bharat Nalluri.

Francis McDormand shines as Miss Pettigrew, an impoverished temp maid-nanny in 1939 London. After getting fired for being eccentric, she connives her way into the home of a fabulously wealthy starlet (Adams), and through a series of misunderstandings and events, manages to make friends with her employer. It is slightly unbelievable that an unemployed maid would have an upper class British accent and character but other than that, McDormand does an excellent job with the fish out of water setup. Her acting is quick, understated, and sophisticated; just perfect. This is her movie. Adams also does a fine job, but her character is supposed to be a ditzy self-centered airhead so she doesn’t have much range to work with. Nevertheless, she nails that characterization.

The starlet has “boyfriend problems” and there are bountiful shopping, parties, and night clubs. The sets are so rich, textured, and sensuous, you can almost touch red velvet and feel cool, polished brass. The art deco set design is fantastic. This movie really should be viewed on a big screen. Jazz and swing period music is wonderful but not intrusive, and the bandstand shots are exciting and creative. Costumes are to die for. You could watch this movie with out any dialog and enjoy the sets and costumes 100%. But the dialog is great. It is all silly stuff, petty jealousies and social conspiracies, but well written, funny, and well delivered in a whirlwind, off the cuff style of the screwball comedies of the ‘30’s and 40’s. Directing is flawless. If you are in the mood for a light romantic comedy that is also an excellent period piece, this movie is about as close to perfection as you could get.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Smart People: Grade C

Smart People (2008)
Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church; Director Noam Murro.

“Snappy Dialog” would have been a better title. This is a talking heads movie in which nothing happens except words, and they are clever. Like a sharply written sitcom, every character is full of packaged sardonic wit, but as with a sitcom, that gets tiresome after 10 minutes. Quaid is the stereotypical, burned-out, cynical English professor. Parker is his M.D., former student, and wannabe romantic interest. Page, the professor’s Young Republican daughter, plays smart-mouth Juno again. Church is the stereotypical stoner, loser brother who crashes at the professor’s house for comic interest. All the characters are flat, uninteresting stereotypes. There is no chemistry among them and it is even hard to believe that they get along as people. Colors are drab, sets are uninteresting stereotypes, directing is unexceptional. There is no plot either. A redeeming virtue is competent acting by some big stars. “From the producers of Sideways,” says the DVD box; producers who did not understand that the success of that film was characterization, not manufactured dialog jokes.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Slippery Slope: Grade A

Slippery Slope (2006)
Kelly Hutchinson, Jim True-Frost. Writer-director Sarah Schenk

A struggling, out of work filmmaker (Hutchinson) learns that her film Feminism for Dummies has unexpectedly been accepted at Cannes, but she can’t afford the lab bill to retrieve it from the shop. Desperate to raise $50K in a few weeks, she searches the classifieds for jobs. Through circumstance and luck she lands a job directing a cheap indie movie, but when she shows up on the set, discovers it is a porn film. In the only special effect of the movie, black rectangles appear over the floppy bits of the actors, indicating her horror and repulsion. That was funny but an odd break from the otherwise straight ahead comedic realism of the movie.

She needs the money so badly, she goes ahead with it, disguising the project’s true nature from her husband (True-Frost). But soon she commits to rewriting the appalling script to put more humanity into it, and must make up ever more elaborate and hilarious lies as she workes feverishly at home. The husband finally catches her red-handed, but in desperation she recruits him into the project. Their love life at home takes a turn for the better and in the end there is some mad dashing about to get the money.

Acting and directing are terrific, including for the movie-within-the-movie. The pornography scenes are realistic but tame and not disrespectful or crude, and fun to watch. The overall message is difficult to ascertain. One theme repeatedly articulated is that pornography harms women, dehumanizes us all. Yet through the action, we see that the porn industry is also an economic and artistic opportunity for many people, and that porn can even be cathartically therapeutic for some. I think that is a realistic mixed conclusion, but in arriving at it the film takes us on a delightful ride.

Juncture: Grade F

Juncture (2008)
Christine Blackport. Director James Seale

A young woman in contemporary New York or Boston (there is no clear sense of place), has brain tumor and only two months to live. With her remaining time she chooses to hunt down and kill “bad people” who have harmed children, and that includes everything from middle aged men who collect kiddy porn, ex-con pedophiles (who have served their time), and neglectful, heroin-addicted mothers. She uses newspaper headlines for her research and whatever they say is enough justification for her to travel to a person’s city and blow their head off.

I love a good revenge/vigilante story but this is a cartoon. The character is not well- motivated. She starts her killing spree even before she is diagnosed, so her motivation seems to be (guessing from a brief shot of some tombstones with her family name) based simply on grief. Nobody suspects her and nobody is after her even though she wears no disguises and has a tendency to stand under bright porch lights. At the end she acts stupidly and is chased by police but there is no dramatic tension The acting and directing are execrable, consistent with the terrible writing.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Counterfeiters: Grade A

The Counterfeiters (2007)
Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow; Co-writer (screenplay) and Director Stefan Ruzowitzky. (German, subtitled).

I didn’t think there was anything left to say in film about World War II, especially not about Nazis Vs. Jews in the concentration camps, but this movie proves me wrong, for it is an original. A light fictionalization of a true story, adapted from a memoir of a surviving participant, this films tells the tale of master Jewish counterfeiters sent to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp north of Berlin. Their job was to counterfeit British bank notes, which they did perfectly. Nazis posing as businessmen get experts and even the Bank of England to certify the authenticity of the notes. But as the surviving counterfeiter reveals in a DVD extra, there is an almost imperceptible difference between a Sachsenhausen and a genuine five-pound note. That’s a fascinating technicality that should have been in the movie. After the pound, the mission was to counterfeit the dollar, a much more difficult task requiring a tricky transfer process. The prisoners realize that if they are successful, they will prolong the war by damaging the American economy, and also that once they are successful, they will be shot. On the other hand, if they fail, they will be shot.

I would have liked a lot more detail on the counterfeiting processes, but this is really the story of how the prisoners survived, what stories they told themselves about what they were doing, and how they dealt with the knowledge that they were clean and well-fed while their families and friends were being gassed every day. The acting is superb but the writing is even better. When the prisoners arrive at the new camp, they are given civilian jackets to wear over their prison stripes. All eagerly put them on and the camera is on the two main characters when they notice the names of the dead victims from whom the jackets were taken, pinned to the sleeves. Salomon (“Sally”), the “whatever it takes to survive” leader, discards the name tag and puts on his coat. Burger (the young man who is the now-90 year old survivor who advised the director of the film), sees the name tag and drops the jacket to the concrete. He stands alone in his stripes among the men. Without a word of dialog, we understand oceans about these two characters. It’s brilliant screenplay writing.

The screenplay writer and director, Austrian Stefan Ruzowitzky says in an interview that he could not bear to do a traditional concentration camp movie, but since these prisoners were treated well by the Nazis, he was able to focus on their moral struggles without being swamped by the emotion of how most prisoners were handled in the camps. He is a wise man and this is a wise film.

The Onion Movie: Grade B

The Onion Movie (2008)
Len Cariou, Scott Klace, Larissa Laskin, others, and Steven Seagal; Directors Tom Kuntz & Mike Maguire.

A long series of satirical sketches is loosely tangled into a story stabilized by a news anchorman (Cariou) who reports bogus news in the style of Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show. He becomes “mad as hell” (as in the movie Network) when advertising intrudes on “hard news”. Just as he is about to give an on-air scathing denouncement, the studio is attacked by terrorists. He is saved when the terrorists are distracted by “Cherry,” a popular singer who does thinly disguised pornographic videos, and that gives Steven Segal, gamely appearing as himself, who is the hero in the blockbuster action movie, Cockpuncher, an opportunity to save the day by doing what you would expect a character with that moniker to do.

The quality of the humor is wide, from stupid, childish and vulgar, to sharply cutting social satire of news reporting, politics, popular music, terrorists, cultural values, social attitudes, and even, preemptively perhaps, film criticism. The sketches are all very well-acted, well-directed; most are well-written, and all are shot with high production values and good attention to detail. Even lazy, prurient sketches like an ad for a gay cruise on the “Queen Nathan II” are produced with fine visual satire of ads of that type, even though the gay jokes are unimaginative and unfunny.

Other jokes, such as the porno-denying sexy pop singer are only slightly less sophomoric, but again, done with spot-on visual satire of the genre. Some sketches are just silly, like the failed automobile safety device, the neck-belt. The writers obviously took lessons from SNL, and Monty Python, and from movies like Idiocracy and the National Lampoon series. The quality varies about as widely as it does on The Onion itself ( But despite the uneven quality, I spent a lot of time laughing and hooting.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Walker: Grade B

The Walker (2007)
Woody Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin, Willem Dafoe. Writer-director Paul Schrader.

Harrelson is a gay Washington, DC escort and gossip-monger for ageing rich women and wives of the powerful (e.g., Bacall, Tomlin, Thomas). He plays canasta with them in the afternoons and takes them to the opera in the evenings. They accept him into their circle like a useful mascot. When one of the women’s secret lovers is found murdered, the walker calls it in to shield her from publicity, but soon he is the prime suspect. He keeps the secret even when he quickly becomes a social pariah. His "ladies" won't see him any more. He breaks up with his boyfriend in a crisis of self-loathing. I’m not even sure who committed the murder, possibly Ned Beatty? Disconnected talk about a senate scandal hearing went by too quickly. The story is really about Harrelson’s character, although it would have been a better movie if it had taken the whodunit angle more seriously.

This is Harrelson’s show. He is always a strong actor, but often as a supporting character. Here he demonstrates that he has the chops to carry the whole film. It is such a great performance, he is almost unrecognizable as the same guy who was in No Country for Old Men and Trans Siberian. Schrader’s writing and direction highlight Harrelson’s talent. The walker’s character resolution in the end is weak, as he simply announces his motive for keeping the secret. It is believable, but that motivation was not well-demonstrated in the action, so we just have to accept him at his word. The strong part of the movie is the characterization of the walker and Harrelson’s conveyance of it.

Monday, August 04, 2008

There Will Be Blood: Grade B

There Will Be Blood (2007)
Daniel Day Lewis, Paul Dano. Writer (screenplay) & director: Paul Thomas Anderson.

There is no blood. This mis-titled movie is about oil, or rather about one particular oilman (Lewis) in the early years of 20th century California. He is a psychopathic, greedy egomaniac who buys farms and drills them for oil, along the way alienating everyone he meets. He shoots a man who pretends to be his long lost half brother, threatens others, beats up still others. He is humiliated by, and finally humiliates in return, a country preacher (Dano). The preacher's character is just as crazy and self-obsessed as the oilman's but Dano gives a fascinating rendition of a complex person who has some inner life, unlike Lewis' character. Finally the oilman retires wealthy, lonely, still angry, and unenlightened. There is no plot, and little dramatic tension. The oilman’s character never changes, so this 2.5 hour film is merely a depiction of early oil exploration in California. Its virtues are visual, the wide open spaces, the men sweating to build and operate wooden derricks. (Women are nonentities in this film). The opening 10 minute mini-drama is accomplished without any dialog and is the best part of the movie.

Lewis’ acting is widely acclaimed (won best actor), but I thought it was just adequate. Since his character is psychopathically unpredictable, who can tell if the acting is good or not? The dialog for all characters was stilted, strangely formal. No contractions are used and everyone says “yes,” never “yup” or “yeh.” There were numerous linguistic anachronisms as well. The music, rich, varied, and full orchestra, was exceptionally beautiful, but completely disconnected from the rest of the movie, as if a high-dollar composer was hired to show his or her stuff, without having read the screenplay. This movie has been vastly overrated, yet it is worth seeing, for the good scenery, sets, costumes, and plausible historical description.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Into the Wild: Grade A

Into the Wild (2007)
Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughan, Jena Malone, Hal Holbrook. Co-writer (screenplay) and director Sean Penn.

A young man (Hirsch) leaves his wealthy suburban life in contemporary Atlanta, escaping his battling parents (Harden and Hurt), to pursue his fantasy of a hobo’s life “on the road.” He rides “third boxcar, midnight train.” He works in fast food joints and on a Kansas wheat farm. He kayaks down the Colorado river, hitches with truckers and stays with old hippies in a painted van (Keener and Dierker), until he finally makes it to Anchorage, where he vows to “live off the land,” free of society’s hypocrisy. Along the way he quotes Thoreau, Tolstoy, and great poets (being a recent university graduate). All this makes for a charming, if lightweight, adventure story.

The cinematography is stunning and original music by Pearl Jam’s Eddy Vedder (among others) is gripping. Penn’s directing is intense, thoughtful and nearly perfect. There are some groan-eliciting visual clich├ęs, such as the camera spinning around Hirsch’s uplifted face to indicate giddy happiness, and several scenes drag on, but these faults are overcome by the fine performances Penn gets out of his actors. Hirsch is a standout as the enthusiastic young man. More surprising are tremendous performances from Vince Vaughan (best I’ve ever seen him), and 83 year old Hal Holbrook, who is unexpectedly nuanced. Catherine Keener is as wonderful as she always is and it would have been nice to see more of her. Harden, likewise, gives 100% of her best stuff. Dierker, who I did not know, reminded me of a younger Donald Sutherland.

The young man embodies the idealism of youth, but aside from quoting poetry, he does not make a case that society is corrupt and best left behind. There is a vague suggestion that he is running away from an awful childhood, but that theme is not well-established. Stultifying voice-overs by his sister (Malone), distance us from him. At least it should have been his voice so he could explain to us what was on his mind. Without much insight into him, we can only say, here is a kid on an exuberant, youthful adventure (which ends badly for him, but that hardly matters for the bulk of the movie). Some of his remarks suggest an anti-intellectual tone, as when he says “just being” in nature is the highest good, yet he always has his nose in a book and he declares to Keener that he seeks “truth, not love.” Also, for such an attractive young man, he has no romantic interest, male or female, which seems odd. The point is that it is a superficial, well-worn story, watchable, but of little intrinsic interest. This is, above all, a movie about Sean Penn’s directing and for that it is well-worth seeing.