Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tropic Thunder: Grade C

Tropic Thunder (2008)
Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., with appearances by Nick Nolte and Tom Cruise. Co-writer and Director Ben Stiller.

This satire of Vietnam war films takes a self-referential, postmodern approach, meaning that its own satire is part of the joke, making it also a satire of Hollywod filmmaking. A patrol of GIs is filming battle scenes (shot in Hawaii, which had to be expensive), but the actors are bickering and one multi-million dollar special effects explosion is ignited when the cameras are not even rolling. In desperation, the director drops the patrol into the jungle to see if they can straighten out their relationships while trying to survive. Somehow they are dropped straight into the Vietnam war and are attacked by guerrillas. But they think they are still making a movie and act accordingly. That goofy premise makes for some delicious inside-Hollywood laughs and some good parodies of well-known scenes from Rambo, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Rescue Dawn, and others.

One of the funniest bits is between RDJ playing a tough, barking black sergeant, and a young, hip black soldier who is perplexed by his stereotypical phrases and attitudes. There is no real plot, just a series of gag scenes, so everything depends on the humor, which is inconsistent. It loses its satiric edge and degenerates into crude, easy laughs as the movie progresses, until finally it becomes flat and boring. Jack Black has his fans, but is too crude and hammy for me. Nolte does a great self-parody. Cruise comes across as creepy; the magic is gone from him. Directing is notably good, and the sets, props, costumes and production values are high quality, but after about 45 minutes, the movie has little content to keep you going.

The White Lioness: Grade B

The White Lioness (1996)
Rolf Lassgard, Basil Appollis, Dipuo Huma. Director Per Berglund. (Swedish; mostly English, with subtitled Swedish, Norwegian and Afrikaans).

I picked this one from the stacks because I remembered having read the book years ago. I didn’t even know it was ever made into a movie, but the book was terrific. This movie is pretty good too; I give it only a B because I was disappointed by the movie’s extreme compression of the book’s rich and complex characters, but I guess that’s how movies are made.

The movie is set at the time when Mandela and De Klerk shared a Nobel peace prize for bringing an end to apartheid. A group of reactionary white Afrikaners are afraid of the coming cultural and governmental change and plot a high level assassination. They hire a young black killer to do the job. The assassin and his keeper train in a small town in Sweden, where they incidentally kill a snoopy woman. The small town police detective finds the body but is perplexed. Very slowly, tiny clues begin to emerge and he eventually follows the trail to Cape Town. The scenery is beautiful and it makes me realize how seldom we see South Africa in movies. Without giving too much away, the plot is thwarted in the nick of time. The story is so compressed that it is difficult to follow, but logically tight if you pay attention. Acting is superb and so is the directing. Locations are wonderful to see. Very worthwhile.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: Grade A

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (2008)
Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner; Director Martin Ritt.

This “Criterion” release of the 1965 Le Carre film adaptation is a feast for the eyes. The film is perfectly restored, and black and white has never looked so good. It is stunningly beautiful and perfectly suited to the film noir genre and to the cold war 1960’s. Burton is very good in this role, but I think he was overrated. His acting seems flat and manufactured to me, although some of that is the character portrayed, and some of it legacy of the stage. Claire Bloom does a good job but Oskar Werner’s performance is riveting. For fans of Le Carre, this is a perfect adaptation. It captures the tension, the emotions, and the moral ambiguities of the novel and of that period of history. British spy Leamus (Burton) is supposed to act like a defector to give the East Germans some misinformation in Amsterdam. But they whisk him off to East Berlin and he learns that the British have abandoned him, so he now really is the traitor he was pretending to be. I love the way Le Carre can turn the world inside out like that.

There is a second disk in this edition showing a long, recent interview with Le Carre in which he discusses the making of the film, working with Burton and Ritt; all fascinating stuff, especially where it highlights the different points of view of a writer and a filmmaker. Then there is longish feature which is Le Carre’s autobiography told through film adaptations of his novels, focusing of course on the autobiographical, A Perfect Spy. It seems he has been self-aware all his life (the hindsight of age encourages that view), and exquisitely attuned to subtleties of the human condition. Then there is an extensive 1967 interview with Burton, who is fascinating and disturbing. And much more. Even if you have seen the original movie more than once, this Criterion edition is well worth renting.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sukiyaki Western Django: Grade A

Sukiyaki Western Django
Hideaki Ito. Masanobu Ando, Koichi Sato, Kaori Momoi, Quentin Tarantino; Co-writer & Director: Takashi Miike. (Japanese, mostly in English, some dubbed).

This is a tongue-in-cheek remake and homage to the Leone/Eastwood 1964 classic spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars. A nameless gunman bids his services to two rival gangs competing for hidden gold, as in the original. Innumerable fistfights and gunfights ensue. But instead of a dry, dusty town in the American west, these scenes take place in a wet, muddy town in rural Japan. There is a fascinating mix of 19th century Japanese and Southwestern US architecture and culture. Curly-eaved, lacquered classical Japanese buildings sit alongside clapboard saloons and liveries. The Japanese saloon is especially fun. It looks mostly like a ryokan, with shoji windows and wooden barrels for stools but there is a huge set of Texas longhorns mounted over the bar. The swinging saloon doors have Asian scrimshaw instead of louvers. Several times I had to pause the DVD to admire the creativity and wit that went into set design. Costumes are the same way. And above all, the filmmakers got the two things right that you must get right in a spaghetti, the colors and the sound of the gunshots. Both were perfect.

While the story line was very close to complete nonsense, the acting was engaging and the dialog witty. Directing is strong, cinematography exceptional, and the scenery beautiful. Tarantino’s small part at the beginning sets you up for satire, but the film takes itself pretty seriously overall. There are references to the samurai tradition, and visual allusions to Kurosawa. I am probably overrating the film because I am such a fan of satire, the spaghetti genre, Japanese film, and Tarantino, so this was a delight for me.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Wall-E: Grade B

Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin; Co-writer and director: Andrew Stanton. (Animated).

Wall-E is a beat-up, post-apocalyptic robot trash compactor on a desolate earth. The apocalypse was not the customary sci-fi nuclear holocaust or biological plague, but an environmental tragedy: the planet overwhelmed by trash. In Wall-E’s world there are piles of trash as high as skyscrapers (most of it seems to be scrap metal), no living things except a solitary cockroach, and a desolate desert landscape plagued by fierce duststorms. However, electricity is still plentiful, advertisements play from loudspeakers and illuminated billboards offer fast food. Hey, it’s a kid’s movie.

All the humans took spaceships to a distant mother ship, Axiom, where they have lived in spotless luxury and hi-tech comfort for 700 years. Of course they have all turned into shapeless whales gliding on hovercraft chairs as they slurp their 32 ounce sodas. They are surrounded by fast food advertising of a generic nature, but which is colored yellow and red to give the unmistakable impression of McDonald’s.

The mother ship sends out a robotic probe to Earth. The probe is a sleek, white, jet- and laser- powered, egg-shape named Eva. Eva was obviously designed by the people who did the iPod, whereas Wall-E was designed way back in the 21st century by a tractor company. Inevitably, the two robots develop a romance, and that is the heart of the story. Wall-E stows away on the shuttlecraft when Eva returns to Axiom, and Star-Trekian onboard adventures ensue as the humans are awakened to their senses and motivated to return to Earth.

The animation is out of this world, as we have come to expect from Pixar. They have no peer for technical skill or animation creativity. I was amazed at how a wide range of simple yet effective emotions were projected from a couple of robots with minimal human features. They have no eyebrows, not even noses or mouths, and hardly any language, and yet somehow, the two robots are anthropomorphically alive. It’s brilliant.

The Romeo and Juliet emotional caricatures and the heavy-handed eco-message are too simple minded for most adults. But there is a layer of inventiveness, humor, and allusion that will keep you engaged. There is also another thematic layer to consider. Wall-E and Eva, despite being robots, are clearly the characters we identify with, whereas the blimped-out humans are robotic. There is a satirical concern about our technologically-driven society, nostalgic longing for a fanciful agrarian past, and anxiety about the future of humanity.

Disney distributes Pixar, so it is noteworthy that the usual invidious gender stereotypes are largely missing from this movie. Wall-E and Eva have no sexual characteristics (other than their names) and do not behave in stereotypically gendered ways. That is a very large step forward for a children’s movie and I applaud it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Four Minutes: Grade A

Four Minutes (2008)
Monica Bleibtreu, Hannah Herzsprung; Writer-Director Chris Kraus. (German, subtitled).

An old, stoop-shouldered, gray-haired, cardigan-wearing woman (Bleibtreu) gives piano lessons to women prisoners in contemporary Germany (although the prison looks dated to the 1920s to 1940s). One day a wild, angry murderer enters the prison population, a young woman who nevertheless has considerable musical talent and experience on the piano (Herzsprung). The old teacher is delighted and convinces the girl to try to win a forthcoming competition. Many problems are encountered and overcome, including the girl’s preference for loud contemporary sounds (“Negro music” as the teacher disparages it), instead of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, upon which the teacher insists.

The music is beautiful throughout and I wanted to hear more of it, but the heart of the story is really the relationship between the old woman and the girl, and what each has to teach the other about life. As the story progresses, bits and pieces of their former lives are revealed, enriching the film and their relationship. The final scene (the big prize concert) is a knockout, and not what you probably expected. The writing is original and the directing noticeably deft.

There was one obvious error in the story, having the young woman’s hands burned but miraculously recovered the next day. I did not care for the art design, with its opressive green filter. Yes, it made the inside of the prison look depressing but it was overdone to the point of being intrusive and unrealistic. Acting by both women was superb, but especially by Herzsprung, who should be catapulted to international stardom with this performance.

Shut Up and Shoot Me: Grade B

Shut Up and Shoot Me (2008)
Karel Roden, Andy Nyman, Anna Geislerová. Writer-Director Steen Agro. (U.K. and Czech Republic, in English).

An English couple are tourists in Prague when the wife is killed in an accident. The husband (Nyman) decides he cannot live without her so hires his Czech driver (Roden) to kill him. But the scheme goes wrong, not once, multiple times. One is reminded of a Roadrunner cartoon as sillier and sillier situations unfold. What makes the story funny is the deadpan tone in which the lines are delivered in absurd situations. Nyman offers to pay for his execution with his credit card. The driver is outraged. “If this card is empty, I’ll kill you!” “Yes, that will be fine.” One misadventure leads to another even more improbable, until the whole movie just stops when the time is up.

The dialog is funny and the lines are well delivered, but no serious relationships develop among the characters. The story is not realistic, but not fantastic either; just plausible enough to make the deadpan humor work. For example, my wife cringed when a bad guy shot a woman’s shopping bags full of Prada, Ferragamo, and other high end goods. Seeing Prague in winter was enjoyable. Camera work was noticeably good, both with the outdoor scenery and in tight indoor shots. This is a lightweight, mindless comedy for adults, but a cut above average.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Red: Grade B

Red (2008)
Brian Cox, Tom Sizemore. Co-directors Trygve Allister Diesen
Lucky McKee.

It is a pleasure to see Brian Cox in a leading role like this. He was a standout actor (about the only one) in The Bourne Supremacy. Here he plays a taciturn gentleman retired to his country home in western Oregon, living more or less in seclusion. He wears a bulky, plaid cloth jacket and a wide-brim cowboy hat, moves slowly and drives a beat up, 20 year old pickup. While fishing at the river one day, with his old dog, Red, he is robbed by three hoodlum youths. He has no money, so in frustration, the nutty kid shoots his dog dead. The boys get away, and from there, a tale of revenge develops.

The old man wants the boys to apologize because the way he construes the world, that's how things should work. He tracks down the ringleader and speaks to his rich, arrogant father (Sizemore), who dismisses the old man’s entreaty. Slowly and methodically, the old man finds each of the boys and talks to him, with little result except to increase tension. The tension grows palpably with each additional encounter until there is a completely out-of-character, unmotivated, and not-believable bloody gunfight ending that spoils the whole story.

Obviously, the producers were not comfortable with the slow pace of inner development, so grabbed for an easy “fix”. But the best payback is not death. It is the opponent’s own self-destruction or self-torture. Or alternately, the old man could have come to the conclusion that some people are immune to moral argument, and realized that his social construction of reality was wrong. Or, there are numerous occasions where he could have used the law to pursue the opponents, with assault charges, for example. Despite the ruinous turn of the plot however, acting by Cox and Sizemore are worth seeing and the characterizations are above average in the first half of the film.

Antibodies: Grade B

Antibodies (2005)
Wotan Wilke Möhring, André Hennicke, Hauke Diekamp. Writer-director Christian Alvart. (German, subtitled).

This update of Silence of the Lambs adds a religious ambiguity to the investigator but does not break new ground. Maybe we are just burned out on the serial killer theme, or maybe nobody can ever top Anthony Hopkins for emanating sheer pathological menace.

Möhring is the killer, captured by police in a riveting short scene before the titles, perhaps one of the best scenes in the movie. In prison, he won’t speak. A country policeman (Hennicke) interviews him in connection with a missing child in his town, and the killer suddenly starts speaking in cryptic riddles with the intention of messing with his mind, as Hopkins did with Foster. The policeman becomes obsessed with ascertaining whether this prisoner is the killer of the girl in his town. The killer claims she was dead when he got there, but he saw the real killer. He drops enough clues that the policeman begins to suspect his own son (Kiekamp). The thought drives the policeman nearly mad from religious guilt and a heavy-handed Biblical theme of Abraham and Isaac is played out. That could have been a good theme for recasting the whole story, but it is just thrown in at the end.

The directing and cinematography, though often bloody and violent, are outstanding and raise the film above average. Acting is only average though. The imprisoned killer is intelligent but also just batty, covering his cell walls with slogans and crude drawings of mutilation. Möhring does not have the stillness Hopkins used to convey menace. Policeman Hennicke is distractingly histrionic. The story sags badly while he discovers his shadow side amidst much breast-beating angst. There are a few late-breaking surprises that are just too clever, and the happy ending contradicts the film's noirish mood.