Monday, October 27, 2008

Youth Without Youth: Grade C

Youth Without Youth (2007)
Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara. Writer-Director Francis Ford Coppola.

No film by Coppola should be missed, but this is an example of what happens when one person is producer, director and screenplay writer: there is no pushback and the project becomes solipsistic. The cinematography is beautiful and recognizably Coppola’s, especially that late afternoon Italian sunlight casting a slanting yellow glow over buildings, people, landscape. The musical leitmotifs are likewise reminiscent of the Godfather series. But in this film, Coppola channels his inner David Lynch to express something about lost youth, the inevitable diminutions of aging, and a vague hope of everlasting life. None of it makes any sense. Turn the sound off and look at the beautiful photography.

Tim Roth would win best performance in a totally enigmatic role. He is a washed-up, 70 year old professor in 1938 Bucharest who is struck by lightning one day in front of a medieval church. That is the most unexpected and shocking scene in the film. It evokes more than lightning; it is somehow a divine intervention into human life. To the amazement of doctors, he does not die, but even more amazing, recovers as a 40 year old man. The story possibilities at this point are endlessly intriguing, but instead all semblance of story is given up. Inexplicably, the old-young man now has paranormal powers, such as clairvoyance, telekinesis, hypermnesia, and the ability to speak, read, and write just about any language in the world, past or present. Cool! He also suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (what used to be called split personality) so he can have deep conversations with himself. There are some neat visual shots with mirrors portraying that idea.

He meets a young woman (Lara) but somehow she is transformed into his Picture of Dorian Gray. As she suddenly ages (with some gray hair and not-too-convincing makeup), she also regresses to her former life as a cave-dwelling spiritual seeker of centuries ago in India. Hey, it could happen to anyone! Fortunately, Roth speaks Sanskrit, so they can talk about it. Lucky break there.

Meanwhile Nazis want to capture Roth to possess “his secret” whatever that might be, so he flees Romania, and I can’t remember what happens next but it doesn’t matter. In the end, he dies, and the girl becomes young again, with no memory of her cave dwelling life.

Can any meaning be inferred from all this incoherent nonsense? It does seem to express Coppola’s intuition (I am guessing), which is something like, “Dammit, I can’t be 70 years old already! There must be more to the human condition than just living, eating, sleeping and dying!” So in the film he explores some possibilities that defy aging, defy the limits of one person’s knowledge, but ultimately he accepts death. If I am not reading too much into it then, the film at least gestures at an existential protest.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

My Blueberry Nights: Grade A

My Blueberry Nights (2007)
Norah Jones, Jude Law, David Strathairn, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz; Co-Writer and Director Kar Wai Wong.

A jilted young woman (Jones) travels around the U.S. to get over her loss and get in touch with herself, but before she goes, she happens in at Jude Law’s cafĂ© where he serves her blueberry pie and they talk about love and life. In her subsequent year-long road trip, she sends him a stream of postcards. Along the way, she meets Strathairn as a drunken cop in a bar where she works nights, and encounters his estranged wife, Weisz. She meets high-stakes poker player Portman in Nevada and rides to Vegas with her. Finally Jones returns to New York and Law’s cafe, realizing that love is closer than you think.

The movie is as sweet as blueberry pie; utterly charming, leaving you feeling good. The acting is spectacular throughout, even by Jones, who also narrates and sings on the sound track. Strathairn is as good or better than he was in the 2006 Sensation of Sight. Weisz seethes with a Tennesee Williams intensity, much more passionate than her usual controlled, intellectual roles. Portman plays a character older than I would have expected and jumps from the screen with exuberance. This many big names in a movie is usually the kiss of death, but everybody puts out 100%, a tribute to Wong’s directing as much as the actors’ talents.

Cinematography is so good you could print any frame and hang it in an art gallery. There are some amazing shots, such seeing the character through a long lens, through the lettering on a shop window. Colors are fantastic. The long speech by Weisz at a nighttime bus stop seems to be done all in one take and is nothing short of courageous. There is a small amount of CGI, used artistically and perfectly. Even the editing is creative. The sound track is wonderful, with Jones singing softly, but also with original work by Ry Cooder. This is moviemaking at its best. The only criticism is that the storyline is weak to non-existent and the pace is slow. I was never bored, but this film cannot go up against a superhero flick. It’s all about the characters and their relationships, not some contrived plot.

Shine a Light: Grade B

Shine a Light (2008)
Rolling Stones; Martin Scorcese. Director Martin Scorcese

As concert films go, this one is cinematically excellent. It captures the Stones on their “Bigger Bang” tour and displays the Stones’ shtick. If you’re a Stones fan, you’ll like the music. I found it disappointing. Mick and the boys simply do not have the vocal talent of long-ago youth. Tunes are highly compressed in tonal range, the voices used more as rhythm instruments now. The music is a mere shadow of its former greatness. Mick struts and prances with elbows above his shoulders, pretty amazing for a 60 year old dude. But what lifts the film above average is the beautiful photography, directing, and editing. It demonstrates again that Scorcese is a master. Comparisons to The Last Waltz (1978) are inevitable. This one doesn’t even come close in terms of musical content and entertainment value. This is about Scorcese and his extremely high level of skill in making a concert film. The content is merely so-so.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Visitor: Grade A

The Visitor (2008)
Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbas; Writer-Director Thomas McCarthy.

An aging, burned out economics professor (Jenkins) leaves his home in Connecticut to visit his apartment in New York City. He finds a young couple (Sleiman and Gurira) living there illegally. The young man is an aspiring musician from Syria, a player of African drums, while she makes and sells beadwork of her native Senegal on the street. The professor politely asks them to leave and they politely leave, but he realizes they will be destitute and invites them back to share his (amazingly spacious) apartment for a while. Relationships are awkward but he develops a friendship with the young man, but alas, the ICE (immigration authorities) capture the young man. His mother (Abbas) appears at the professor’s door and the movie shifts to the slowly developing relationship between the professor and the mother as they try to get her son out of prison.

The acting by these four principal characters is nothing short of phenomenal. They are all utterly compelling, but Jenkins’ performance is astonishing. He says in a DVD interview, “I have been waiting all my professional life for this role.” It makes you wonder why he had to wait. Abbas also gives an outstanding performance, as does the director in portraying the quiet yet deep relationship that develops between the two older adults. The first half of the picture features the exuberance of the younger couple and conveys the multicultural world that is modern New York. The city is a star character in its own right, lovingly portrayed and beautifully photographed to unite the two halves of the movie. Writing and dialog seem authentic. I didn’t notice a single clichĂ© in dialog, characterization, or photography.

This movie has the slow pace and subtle emotions of a serious foreign film. There are no guns, no drugs, no explosions, no sex, no violence, no stereotypes. It will not please most American moviegoers, but for the few who do enjoy a deeply meaningful study of modern human lives in development, it will be very rewarding.

Monday, October 20, 2008

War, Inc.: Grade A

War, Inc. (2008)
John Cusack, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, Joan Cusack, Dan Ackroyd, Ben Kingsley. Director Joshua Seftel.

In the “future,” a huge military contractor, a thinly disguised Halliburton, occupies a middle eastern country, Turaqistan (get it?). The CEO, played very vice-presidentially by Ackroyd, hires John Cusack, a professional assassin, to take out a certain oil minister. The assassin’s cover is as the head of the corporation’s enormous trade show, organized by his assistant, sister Joan. Meanwhile, Tomei is a dogged investigative reporter who smells scandal. Kingsley has a small but funny part as some kind of evil bad guy, and Duff has an equally wild part as a bizarre sex-crazed belly dancer. It is all just madcap fun as those hilarious car bombs blow up all around.

The dialog is funny and the satire is often sharp, but this is not laugh-a-minute. Serious issues are raised about violence, torture, the commercialization of war, political corruption, American imperialism, and so on. But nobody wants to see a moralizing anti-war movie, so those serious moments are short and sandwiched between thick slices of silly nonsense, with plenty of crude jokes for the youngsters, sophisticated film allusions, and subtle wordplay. You might take it as a throwaway comedy and you wouldn’t be far wrong, except for the very serious political themes just under the veneer of the satire. Even though it is not a grade A comedy nor a grade A thriller, the artistic value of what this movie attempts to do makes it a must-see.

Both Cusacks are great; can’t get enough of them. John is a good comic actor with just the right tone of pseudo-seriousness. Tomei is fascinating no matter what kind of a role. The politically aware audience will detect a left-leaning bias, but the genuinely funny comedy should overcome political annoyance.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Boy A: Grade C

Boy A (2008)
Andrew Garfield, Alfie Owen, Peter Mullan, Taylor Doherty. Director John Crowley.

A young man (Garfield) is released from prison after a childhood murder he participated in (played by Owen), with his violent childhood friend (Doherty), now dead. His social worker (Mullan) helps him get a job in a warehouse in a different city, with a new name, to start life fresh. He is successful and although extremely shy, makes friends and even develops a female romantic relationship. Inevitably though, his past leaks out and his new world crumbles when everyone rejects him. The strength of the movie is the very strong acting, especially by Garfield, who is a completely sympathetic character, and that’s what makes the tragic ending so poignant. The main weakness is the way the backstory is revealed to us in small flashbacks in an attempt to create artificial mystery where there really is none. That is a cheesy technique you would see on television. All it does is make the main character uninterpretable until we have enough background information, which is late in the movie. That could have worked to make us have the point of view of his contemporaries and then experience the change in attitude when we learn the truth about him, but the flashbacks are fragmentary and ambiguous and actually seem to exonerate him.

The working class British and Scottish accents are a bit thick for American ears, and many lines are mumbled and slurred, so it is a challenge to track the dialog. Overall then, this is a mundane though tragic tale, badly told, but well acted.

OSS 117: Grade C

OSS 117 (2008)
Jean Dujardin, Bernice Bejo. Director Michel Hazanavicius. (French, subtitled)

I appreciate French culture and I can see how this movie would be hilarious to a French audience, but for me, it was a not-so-funny spoof of 1950’s spy movies, as made by Hitchcock, for example, starring Cary Grant. It has the suave, debonair, Bond-like spy (Dujardin) who drives an exotic sports car while fake scenery flows past. Seated beside him is the exotic woman in a silk head scarf (Bejo). He is a French secret agent sent to Cairo to find out who stole a big arms shipment. His cover is to run a poultry company because, as we know, chickens are universally funny. What probably tickles the French audience is the spy’s Clouseau-like clumsiness and incompetence, and especially his social and cultural faux-pas. He evaluates a Muslim religious practice with the comment, “Hmm. What a strange religion. It will never last.” He beats up a muezzin for making a racket at dawn when he is trying to sleep, thinking the poor fellow is just a local rowdy. Toward the end, the movie abandons sophisticated cultural humor and goes for a bizarre showdown with a Nazi organization holed up under a pyramid. The film is a competent spoof, playfully acted and moderately funny, but I think it works better if you are French.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Iron Man: Grade B

Iron Man (2008)
Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terence Howard, Jeff Bridges. Director Jon Favreau.

The wealthy, irresponsible head of a weapons company (Downey), invents a suit of armor with rockets that enable him to fly (jet around, really). It is also outfitted with flame throwers, RPG's, and other weapons. With this suit he vows to “fight evil,” as anybody would, of course.

The first evil he identifies is a Middle Eastern tribe that uses his company’s weapons. How that makes them evil is unclear, although there is a background report that they have killed women and children (just as American forces have done). Nevertheless, the evil Arabs are dispatched with flame throwers and explosions, which emotionally wipes out the hero's dissolute past so he can now concentrate on being a do-gooder.

Iron Man’s second evil adversary is an executive of his own weapons company, Jeff Bridges, who wears a bad bald cap that makes his head look like Dr. Phil’s, though his sleazy character reminded me more of Steve Ballmer. He develops a rival iron man suit so we can have a Manichean showdown. The plot is recycled stuff, but it is from a comic book, so what do you expect. The CGI effects are pretty good and fun to watch, but the gizmos are not as imaginative as those used by Batman or Spiderman.

The strength of the movie is RDJ’s acting which is wonderful, as is the performance of his personal assistant, Paltrow. The relationship between the two comes through – romantic but coy, as it was between 007 and Miss Moneypenny. The script is strong, with droll humor to keep adults engaged. There are plenty of visual allusions to other action pictures, including the Incredible Hulk, Batman, Spiderman, Robocop, The Terminator, and even Mission Impossible, but I don’t know what the point of those references is except to invite comparison, which is risky. This is a good introduction to Iron Man, who will definitely be back.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Leatherheads: Grade F

Leatherheads (2008)
George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski; Director George Clooney.

The three principal actors attracted me to this movie, but even their combined charms did not redeem the rambling, 2 hour and 45 minute tale of professional football in the 1920’s. Clooney seems too old to be galavanting about as a professional football player. Krasinski (“Jim” from The Office) always seems ironic, even when he’s not supposed to be. Zellweger might have had some bad face work. She is stiff and not her formerly expressive self. Clooney hires superstar Krasinski from college football into the pros on the hope of reviving his failing pro team. Zellweger is a reporter sent to shoot down Krasinski’s star by trolling for dirt, which she finds during an improbable quasi-romantic moment.

Dialog is rapid-fire snappy lines and comebacks, which are childishly smart-alecky rather than funny. They may have been trying for the tone of the old screwball comedies, but they did not even achieve cleverness. The comedic scene with Clooney and Zellweger in the train’s sleeper car was so painfully corny I winced. The palette of the film is relentlessly sepia, which was pleasing at first, but became intrusive with its orange walls, walnut furniture, blonde hair, brown grass, yellow lighting, tweed costumes, brown leather, brown mud, red streets, dark interiors, etc. Was this tedious near-monochromaticity Clooney’s attempt to recapture the tone of O Brother Where Art Thou? Story realism dooms that approach here.

The film crawls toward the mandatory “big game” ending, at which nothing in particular is at stake, but the crowd goes wild, and that’s all that matters, apparently. I can’t even discern what goal the filmmakers were trying to achieve with this project, but whatever it was, no points go on the scoreboard.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Grade B

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
Jason Segel, Kristin Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand, with Jonah Hill. Director Nicholas Stoller.

A Hollywood musician (Segel) is dumped by his TV star girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Bell) and decides to go to Hawaii to forget his grief. There he meets hotel clerk Kunis, but alas, his ex is also at the same hotel with her new boyfriend, a British pop star (Brand). Comedy ensues as Segel tries to get over Sarah and establish a relationship with Kunis, while being jealous of Bell and Brand.

The greatest flaw in this movie is its three hour length, which is inexcusable and unnecessary. Whole characters could have been eliminated without loss, such as Segel’s brother, and the sexually dysfunctional Mormon couple, just to name a few. There is no real story, just endless situations setting up sexual and relationship gags, so there would seem to be no constraint on what could be edited. The second problem is that the characters are all two-dimensional stereotypes and it is hard to care about any of them.

However the acting is just terrific, from all characters except Segel, who is fairly wooden, (not including his penis, which is shown several times). The other three principals are entrancing and kept me glued to the screen. Brand does a terrific over the top, self-obsessed character with inherently funny diction and good physical acting. Kunis is also mesmerizing, despite a lip job that makes her look like Michelle Pfeiffer. The dialog is quite witty and keeps you strung along even though the characters themselves are unimaginative. These virtues overcome the film’s length, languid pace and boring story.

Superhero Movie: Grade B

Superhero Movie (2008)
Drake Bell, Sarah Paxton, with Leslie Nielsen and Tracy Morgan. Writer & Director Craig Mazin.

This spoof of the superhero movies has tons of laughs, most of them broad and obvious. The opening sequence, in which the young protagonist Bell gets banged on the head and knocked down three times in quick succession, fairly sets the tone. Still, if you like slapstick, and I do, you have to admit that these stunts were done perfectly.

Bell is bitten by a radioactive dragonfly and acquires super powers. The Spider Man references are played to the hilt, but there are also good spoofs of Batman, Superman, some of the X-men, and even Mission Impossible and that scene in The Firm, where Tom Cruise hides on the ceiling, dripping sweat as Gene Hackman hunts him just below. Of course, in puerile form, it’s not sweat but another bodily fluid in this parody. My favorite joke was the dragonfly explaining what he was doing on a rooftop. “Why I’m just perching here on this gargoyle, gazing meaningfully out over the city,” he answers, as if that were the standard and customary behavior of a superhero, which it was, for Batman and Spider Man at least. This film is not as funny as The Naked Gun or Scary Movie, but good writing makes it just a cut above average.