Sunday, September 21, 2008

88 Minutes: Grade D

88 Minutes (2008)
Al Pacino, Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Deborah Unger; Director Jon Avnet.

It’s a lot of fun for me to watch movies set in Seattle. I can say things, like, “How did they step out of the University of Washington right into Pioneer Square?” But other than seeing my city in the movies, there was not much to sustain this poorly written and directed whodunit. Pacino, with a bizarre bouffant hairdo, is a forensic psychiatrist (even though his office door says psychologist), who is called in to profile a serial killer who hangs beautiful young women upside down from one leg before he cuts them. Do we really need to see tortured and mutilated women, repeatedly? What were they thinking? I get what a serial killer is, without the exploitative, vicious misogyny. It's offensive.

Pacino gets a series of mystery calls on his cell from someone who claims they will kill him in 88 minutes, 70 minutes, only 56 minutes, etc. Why he believes this is unknown until the end of the movie when a lame explanation is offered, but he apparently thinks the serial killer is after him, even though, if he were hung upside down by one ankle, his wig would fall off.

There is much racing about in his Porsche convertible, although nobody buys convertibles in Seattle. You could only lower the top 1 week out of the year. Suspense is sustained by introducing a long line of red herrings, false leads, false confessions, nonsense actions and arbitrary flashbacks. I chuckled when Pacino’s character stops people and interrogates them by flashing his wallet credential: “Licensed Forensic Psychiatrist.” Wow, that would make you raise your hands! In the end, the “bad guy” is discovered (although it was obvious to me at 50 minutes).

Pacino doesn’t act; he just plays Al Pacino. The other actors give television grade performances, even Sobieski, who is way better than this (e.g., My First Mister). Unger still has magic. There is just enough artificial story suspense and kinetic imagery to save this badly written work from complete failure.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Heckler: Grade C

Heckler (2007)
Jamie Kennedy, Bill Maher, Arsenio Hall, Louie Anderson, Leonard Maltin, Howie Mandel, & many others. Director Michael Addis.

In this documentary, comedic actor and television producer Jamie Kennedy interviews stand-ups about hecklers in the audience: how they feel about them and how they handle them. There are some film clips showing disruptive hecklers, but mostly it is the comics talking, and they uniformly despise hecklers, considering them no more than drunken baboons. But surprisingly, most comics also seem genuinely disturbed by them, even if they handle the situation well with a snappy retort or by calling security. Bill Maher explains, you need a thin skin to be a good comic.

Most of the movie, however, is given over to criticism of film critics, who are lumped into the same category as performance hecklers, which is an error. There are some funny bits as Kennedy confronts some critics of his own work “Why do you hate me, man?” Some critics are only vicious egotists, true, but Kennedy does not have a clue about the social function of a critic, which would imply that he also has little understanding of the social function of performer.

The critic translates artistic expression into propositions that can be discussed. That articulation does deprive the artistic product of its pristine facticity, but in exchange, embellishes its communicative power. A stone, even a jewel, does not mean as much as it can until somebody comments on it.

The documentary did not get to the bottom of the heckler phenomenon either. Most hecklers probably are drunken baboons, but that is not enough of an explanation. They are also commenting (inarticulately) on the artificiality of the standup format: you (the comic) act personal, folksy, and intersubjective with me to get a laugh (at my expense) but I am excluded from the conversation. I heckle to be included. Kennedy produced this film, so in a small way, he may be trying to close the circle of that conversation, but if so, he should have spent more time interviewing hecklers and critics and less time whining. Despite its internal conflicts, the documentary has a few laughs and can be thought-provoking.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Watching the Detectives: Grade F

Watching the Detectives (2008)
Cillian Murphy, Lucy Liu. Writer-Director Paul Soter.

Murphy and Liu are easy on the eyes, but that’s about all this brain-dead romantic comedy has going for it. Writing and directing are abominable. Murphy owns “Gumshoe Video” which rents only VHS tapes. His stereotypically geeky friends argue about plots and characters in old b&w detective movies. Hilarious. Liu appears out of nowhere for no reason, acting cute. Inexplicably, Soter tried to make her look and act like she was 13 years old. Actually she is 40, and while still drop-dead gorgeous, it is insane to have an actor of this quality giggling around in short skirts, knee socks and tennies. Her character is an ADHD nutcase who revels in practical jokes, but the directing is so bad that she is obviously lost, her considerable acting talent wasted in a stream of meaningless scenes. Murphy’s character seems like a sensible guy but claims to be attracted to her despite her pathological behavior. He also does not know where to go with this script. Nothing happens. I am a big Lucy Liu fan, but this project is irredeemable.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Fall: Grade A

The Fall (2008)
Catinca Untaru, Lee Pace. Director Tarsem Singh.

This dreamlike fantasy is a visual masterpiece. Colors, costumes and characters flow past in a kaleidoscope of swirling images. If you weren’t high when you started watching, you will be at the end. An injured, drug-addicted, and suicidal Hollywood stunt man (Pace) is in a 1920’s Los Angeles hospital when he meets a little Romanian girl with a broken arm who barely speaks English (Untaru). The visual of the girl in a cast braced up over her shoulder is indelible. Untaru is a charmer even saying very little, and that is a tribute to the director’s skill (even though I think it is unethical to put such young people in movies). The man tells the girl a fantastic story of five heroes in a desert, all vowing to kill the wicked Count Odious. Pace, in a sort of Sergeant Pepper outfit, also plays the Blue Bandit, leader of the heroes, which include Charles Darwin and his monkey, Alexander the Great, an escaped African slave wearing a fantastic headdress of gazelle horns, too much else to describe.

Costumes are unbelievable, like nothing you've ever seen. The film was shot in 18 countries, and there are beautiful architectural scenes of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in Agra. Meanwhile, in the hospital, the man recruits the girl to steal morphine from the dispensary, as that story and the fantasy story increasingly overlap. The iceman for the hospital appears as the slave in the fairy tale, for example. The visual and narrative creativity of this movie is intoxicating. The fantasy story is somehow light-hearted and dramatic at the same time, yet the core story between the man and the girl is consistently engaging, both humorous and poignant. Music is by Beethoven. One of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Vampire Diary: Grade C

Vampire Diary (2007)
Anna Walton, Morvin Macbeth; Directors Mark James & Phil O’Shea.

I have questions about vampires and this movie did nothing to clear them up. Aren’t vampires immortal? So what is their fear of being captured or shot by the police? And how nutritious is an exclusive blood diet, anyway? Don’t vampires need the basic 20 amino acids? This movie introduces a whole new set of questions about vampire reproduction as well.

Vicki is a relatively good-looking young woman, in a dark, Addams Family sort of way. She crashes vampire parties held by Gothic teens who wear false fangs and use loads of eye and mouth makeup. Vicki falls in love with Holly, the host of a vampire party, and eventually confesses that she is a real vampire, that she is pregnant, and that she is hungry. Holly shows about sixty seconds of skepticism then vows to help her lover get what she needs. They start hunting derelict drunks, but Vicki complains about the low quality blood, so they have to move upscale. Details are sketchy, but some members of the party crowd turn up dead. The city-wide hunt is on for the “Vampire Killer.”

But the movie is really about the relationship between the two women and the lengths to which Holly will go to protect and sustain her friend. Most disturbing is how the film justifies and ennobles self-mutilation, which is actually a severe psychopathology. Holly cuts herself with a razor blade to feed her lover. Camera work is dark, grainy, shaky hand-held video, and reflects the fact that many young people have video cameras going all the time, objectifying their lives instead of living them, another disturbing trend. Editing is primitive, directing is clunky. I could not evaluate the music, which is from a youth culture I don’t know. But the acting was actually pretty good. As she hands her new baby to Holly before the police get there, Vicki says that she is not really a vampire, just a psychopathic serial killer. There are no vampires, she says. That would have been a good ambiguity to play throughout the story instead of throwing it in at the last minute. Despite the mediocre writing and very low production values, the result is mildly interesting, not too bad.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Legend of God's Gun: Grade B

The Legend of God’s Gun (2007)
Robert Bones, Kirkpatrick Thomas. Co-writer, cinematographer & director Mike Bruce.

This stunning homage to the spaghetti westerns is gorgeous to look at and a fine example of postmodern filmmaking. Gritty handheld western sequences are solarized and colorized with abandon. Costumes and sets are terrific. Photography is very appealing. The attractive, original and attention grabbing music is mostly in the spaghetti style, but sometimes diverges in creative ways. Directing captures Leone’s and Eastwood’s look beautifully, although with a strong ironic sense of humor. Sound engineering is likewise on target, but ironically over the top. Camera work is a pleasure. And that’s it. There is no story, just a couple of half-hearted goofy ideas. There is no character development (actually few clearly identifiable characters), no obvious script, and very little dialog. What dialog there is, often is anachronistically inappropriate or heavily ironic, and often the sound is out of sync with the lips, as it often was in the Italian originals. This is just a series of western scenes, cowboys on the dusty trail, gunfights, bar fights, closeups of sweaty, cigar-chomping faces. Acting is beyond bad. It had to be ironic acting to be that bad. In a sense, this film is a tragic near-miss. With a story and a few characters it could have been an important homage film, but what it lacks in traditional structure, this youthfully exuberant, zero-budget adventure balances with dazzling color, flair, and style.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Sensation of Sight: Grade A

The Sensation of Sight (2006)
David Strathairn, Daniel Gillies, Ann Cusak, Joseph Mazello; Writer-director Aaron J. Wiederspahn.

This existential indie echoes Beckett and Mamet in its writing and Hal Hartley (without the sense of humor) in directing. A depressed English professor leaves the classroom to sell encyclopedias door to door pulling a child's wagon. Or at least that is his story. He is actually drifting aimlessly through a bleak, November New England small town, sleeping on park benches and sometimes selling a single book for $20 to strangers who take pity on him. He is supposed to be “finding himself” but he speaks like an idiot savant. It is riveting acting by Strathairn, but at no time do we believe he was a college professor. Meanwhile, multiple subplots in the town develop, and Crash-like, become increasingly interwoven. A depressed ex-con walks around with his guitar, trying to find himself, shadowed by the dead brother he can’t forget. Another ex-con tries to visit his young daughter while the wife and daughter avoid him. The salesman happens to stay at the same B&B as the mother and daughter and happens to knock on the door of the husband, and happens to have lunch with the despondent guitar-player’s father and sister. None of it makes much sense, as with life itself, we are to understand. Nevertheless, Stathairn’s performance is a revelation and the photography is pure eye candy. The dialog is stagey and writerly but engaging. At 133 minutes, the film easily could have been edited, as could almost any film where the writer is the director and a distanced perspective is lacking. Music is highly listenable and varied, but not integrated. All but two of the parts elicit strong acting, making the viewing experience very positive overall.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Married Life: Grade B

Married Life (2008)
Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams; Co-writer and director Ira Sachs.

Fine acting is the main attraction in this quasi-noir film set in the late 1940’s to early 1950’s, judging from the cars, d├ęcor, costumes and sets, which are perfection for that period. Brosnan shows again that he is a real actor, not just 007, although he does not work as hard here as he did in Matador and Seraphim Falls. Although he is still good looking, he is too old for Rachel McAdams, the girl he steals from his childhood friend, Cooper, a businessman in his 50’s who is really too old for McAdams. Cooper’s character cannot bear to have his wife (Clarkson) learn of his infidelity, so he tries to poison her, and the director had Hitchcockian fun with that part of the plot. Cooper and Clarkson radiate acting talent. Cooper was merely stonefaced as the traitor in Breach, but here he is subtle and nuanced. McAdams tries, but she is only the McGuffin. Directing is also good in quiet scenes filled with meaningful glances or teacup rattling on saucer. Music is good but doesn’t add anything. Overall, the film is not noir enough, does not have a strong sense of style, and the happy ending is unbelievable, destroying whatever dark tone the story had, but still, the acting was far above average, well worth seeing.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

21: Grade C

21 (2008)
Kevin Spacey, Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Lawrence Fishburne. Director Robert Luketic.

Kevin Spacey is a physics professor at MIT who puts together a team of students to learn a simple card-counting system to beat the Las Vegas casinos. In blackjack, every card played is shown so you can count how many aces, face cards and 10’s have been played. Since you know how many of those are in a deck, you adjust your betting according to how many are left, beating the house odds.

On the team, Sturgess develops a passionless relationship with Bosworth. Fishburne is the casino security manager who spots the scam after it becomes apparent that the casino is losing money. There is no explanation why the team stupidly plays the same casino night after night, week after week. Nor can we understand why Sturgess doesn’t open some bank accounts instead of stashing wads of cash over a ceiling tile in his dorm room. For a bunch of smarty-pantses, the team is weak on strategic thinking.

Despite the intellectually engaging story, the movie is very slow. “Filler” scenes of cityscapes, neon lights, people boarding airplanes, driving, walking, sleeping, eating, shopping, burn up most of the screen time. The characters are not well developed or emotionally engaged. Finally, 90 dead minutes into the movie, new writers must have been brought in, a genuine plot develops and it’s pretty good, although the ending, which suddenly turns the entire story into a flashback, is lame. Spacey is always enjoyable to watch, as is Fishburne, but the rest of the cast was unremarkable.