Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best DVDs of 2009

Best DVDs I saw in 2009



Find the review archived in 2009: Month/Day

Hamlet 2



Pride and Glory



Frozen River



The Lucky Ones






Rachel Getting Married






I’ve Loved You So Long



Frost Nixon



The Wrestler



Just Another Love Story



Saturday Night Fever



Another Woman






Big Man Japan



Sin Nombre



Sleep Dealer



Adam Resurrected



The Inheritance



Lady Vengeance



Brief Interviews With Hideous Men



Ghost Town



Chris Rock-Kill The Messenger






Vicky Cristina Barcelona






Body of Lies






Nobel Son






The Great Buck Howard



Kill Shot



The Unknown Woman



The Last Hit Man






State of Play



Yonkers Joe






Waltz with Bashir



The Return



The Escapist



Old Boy



Maiden Heist






French Film



Lone Star






Bon Cop, Bad Cop



Inglourious Basterds



Julie & Julia



District 9



Wednesday, December 30, 2009

District 9: Grade B

District 9 (2009)

Sharlto Copley; Co-writer and director Neill Blomkamp. (English and Alien; subtitled).

An enormous space ship hovers motionlessly over modern Johannesburg. A million weak and sickly aliens emerge. We never do learn what was wrong with them or why they came. They are (as is usual with aliens) extremely humanoid, with upright, bipedal locomotion, frontal eyes, opposable “thumbs” and in general, looking like a very humanoid morphology. The main thing that makes them alien-looking is an insect-like scaley skin (which they really don’t need since they obviously have endoskeletons), and an insect-like face with creepy-looking tentacles that don’t do anything, and some gratuitous antennae.

The aliens are quarantined to an area called District 9, which over the years becomes a sprawling slum just like Soweto under the apartheid regime. Aliens are held in contempt by mainstream society (black and white). There are alien riots and confrontations with the police, all reported in a pseudo-documentary style by scientists and news coverage. The apartheid analogy is played for over an hour so that even the most dim-witted viewers cannot miss it. Neverthless, there is no point; no new insight or twist. Apartheid happened, we knew that. Okay, blacks seemed like space aliens to the white culture maybe, got that. But what is the point of on and on and on with the allegory? After the initial novelty of the setup, boredom quickly sets in.

About half way through, the lead white detective is contaminated with some secret alien fluid (which is also space ship fuel, it turns out), and he begins to change into an alien himself, growing an alien claw-like hand. The special effects are pretty good there. He is on the run then from the police. The head alien-chemist promises to stop and reverse his conversion in exchange for the secret fluid. But the police intervene and there is a gun battle, and a melodramatic ending involving what seems to be the only juvenile alien in the population.

So the story is just barely interesting. Acting is negligible. Directing is good. Special effects are uneven. The aliens are more silly than creative or scary, but their language is interesting. High concept is the main attraction, supported by some though-provoking details. Sci-fi films as a genre are inferior in quality to most, for unknown reasons (with notable exceptions, such as Kubrick’s), so an “above average” rating for this one should be taken relative to the genre. It gets points for thoughtfulness and competent execution.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Wrong Turn at Tahoe: Grade C

Wrong Turn at Tahoe (2009)
Cuba Gooding, Jr., Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Keitel; Director Franck Khalfoun.

This is a nice, average gangster movie, well photographed, well-paced, tightly directed, with dialog that is direct and free of most clichés. Gooding collects debts for a violent and psychopathic drug lord (Ferrer), who kills (beats to death with a baseball bat) a lieutenant of an opposing drug lord who is even more lordly (Keitel). So the war is on. Plenty of gun battles and a high body count are in the offing.

Keitel gives a good portrayal of decadent, still vicious, but slightly burned out elder gangster, but there is little trace of the intensity we enjoyed in Pulp Fiction or Cop Town. He is 75 years old now, so we should be happy he is still working. Gooding is maturing nicely, both physically and as an actor. His character has a tiny bit of depth.

It’s an unimaginative, typical crime drama, but remarkable for avoiding the usual stupidities, such as gratuitous car chases and building explosions. The sets are well done, especially the pseudo-opulence of Keitel’s palace, which is humorous in its own right for its ironic specification of an owner who has more money than taste. Music is inoffensive. In fact the whole movie, despite the blood and violence, could be described as inoffensive.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: Grade A

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (2009)

Julianne Nicholson, Timothy Hutton, Bobby Cannavale, John Krazinski; Co-writer and Director John Krazinski.

Nicholson is Sara, a graduate student doing anthropological research by interviewing on film a sample of young men (20 to 40 years old) about their attitudes toward women. We see short clips of her conducting the interviews and parts of the interviews themselves. The men are uniformly self-centered, mendacious, un-self-aware misogynists. That makes their statements humorously ironic, so we get the message that this movie is a postmodern comedy. Taken in that spirit, it is indeed funny, although not LOL hilarious. But postmodern humor never is.

Sara is played straight, not ironically, and she is horrified to discover the truth about the alien species called men. When her own boyfriend (Krazinski) cheats on her then comes back with a compelling, heartfelt apology and explanation, she is loathe to believe a word of it, since she now knows men are all lying, manipulative bastards. But could this be different?

The story line of the movie is thus slight, and there is neither deep psychological insight nor outright laughter. The entertainment value is in the subtle, postmodern, ironic rib-tickling. Acting by some of the interviewed men is outstanding, but Nicholson’s performance is unremarkable, and I can’t get past “Jim” in The Office when I see Krazinski. He is a competent actor but he never steps outside the range of expression that is so familiar from that TV series.

But what makes the film terrific is Krazinski’s directing. He has found his calling there, even though the movie is not well-integrated overall. The interview clips are starkly edited; lots of jumpy cuts make each interview a collage rather than a real soliloquy, but that’s why they are so interesting. There is not a microsecond of slack. They are 100% very good acting, even though some segments might be only a single gesture or a single phrase lasting no more than 5 seconds. That’s an innovative and very effective technique for producing outstanding scenes of superior acting, and an educated visual sensibility easily accepts the format. The director has a gifted eye for micro-acting.

There are several other directorial innovations, or at least interesting choices and embellishments, many reminiscent of Woody Allen, such as when one character tells a story of a girl stood up at the airport by her boyfriend, and the storyteller appears in the scene along with the girl. Very effective. The anthropological interviews are against a stark brick wall background. Elsewhere in the movie, one character gives a great speech to a closed door. There are experiments with color and movement and many other directorial gestures that make this movie an excellent exploitation of the medium of film. Krazinski the director is a revelation and the story line is amusing in its own right, so overall a big success for this one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Shrink: Grade C

Shrink (2009)

Kevin Spacey, Keke Palmer, Mark Webber; Director Jonas Pate.

Spacey is an L.A. psychiatrist to celebrities, but he is suffering from depression, possible alcoholism, and, it seems, drug addiction, although we only see him smoking marijuana, which does not make you depressed, and we only see him drinking occasional wine and beer, so the addiction story is not convincing. His real problem is that he is grieving over the recent suicide of his wife, although we do not see him go through much actual grieving. Mainly he just stares into space as if depressed, and makes angry, sarcastic remarks to everyone, which is not consistent with depression. So it is not clear what is up with him except he is burned out on life in a monumentally self-centered way.

One of his clients is a high school student (Palmer) who is also grieving, over her mother’s suicide. We never learn much about that situation, but over the course of the movie, each character yields enough self-defensive anger to become sort-of friends in a way reminiscent of Good Will Hunting. (Actually, Robin Williams appears as an alcoholic patient in an uncredited role, and Spacey’s dope dealer looks like Matt Damon – probably not accidents).

There is no story really, it is just various characters adrift, confused by life, searching for something. In the end, everybody conveniently finds some kind of salvation to wrap it up on a relatively happy note. Without a story and without believable characters, there is really nothing going on in this movie, but Spacey is always a joy to watch, and Keke Palmer is extremely interesting. I wanted to see a lot more of her character, and a lot less of the other deadbeat characters.

Photography has some noticeably good moments but sets and scenes are nondescript or clichéd. Music is appallingly bad, designed to evoke sentimental feelings, but had me reaching for the mute button. Directing is obtrusively trite. The script is terrible. No therapist could survive a week in business with the skills of Spacey’s character. So all you have left is some enjoyable acting, especially by Spacey and Palmer.

In The Loop: Grade C

In the Loop (2009)

Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McKee, Mimi Kennedy, James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Anna Chlumsky; Director Armando Iannucci.

This British comedy is like The Office set in Number 10 Downing Street instead of in a commercial establishment . Maybe a cross between The Office and the BBC series, Yes, Minister is a good description. Clueless mid-level managers frenetically strut their self-importance, vie for ephemeral recognition, lord it over their staff, who are by turn ambitious, idealistic, naive, and cynical. No characters are developed. The style is not the mockumentary style of The Office but the sitcom feel is unmistakable. It is a movie adaptation of a television series (which I’ve never seen), and that’s how it plays.

The basic story is that the U.S. President and the British Prime Minister are set on invading Iraq, and within the government staff on both sides of the Atlantic there are factions supportive of that decision and those ardently opposed. Facts are manipulated, reports are doctored, committee meetings are held in secret, and other shenanigans are executed as each faction tries to facilitate or obstruct the political trend. That’s all good political fodder, but this is a comedy, not a serious movie about the decision to go to war.

As a comedy, it is successful, especially if you like British humor. However, any sitcom is only amusing for 20 minutes, so 90 minutes of clever one-liners, creative profanity, snappy comebacks, snide remarks, and witty zingers wears you down. Real people are not that funny, so the verbal deluge of wit is a writerly conceit that gets in the way of the story, except the story is only perfunctory, and I lost track of it, characters’ motivations, and even their names. Despite the film's failings however, there are laughs to be had.

Julie & Julia: Grade B

Julie & Julia (2009)

Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina; Co-writer and director Nora Ephron.

Streep is Julia Child, the famous cookbook author and prominent television chef over several decades. In postwar Paris she is drifting without purpose to be with her diplomatic attaché husband (Tucci). She takes the Cordon Bleu course, and after many years of effort manages to get her book published, the iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The television show hardly features in the movie.

This is not a very interesting story but Meryl Streep is mesmerizing. Her impersonation of Child is perfect, not just the falsetto voice, but the gait, gestures, attitudes, diction: all perfect. Channeling counts as acting, and even if you don’t know Julia Child, you would find the character interesting and its expression masterful. However, as a biography, there isn’t much content there. It’s all about the acting.

Meanwhile, Adams is Julie Powell, a depressed young cubicle worker in modern New York, living in a flat over a pizza place in Queens. Like Child’s character in Paris of 60 years ago, she takes up cooking just for something to do, and she decides, for no obvious reason, to cook every recipe in Child’s book within a year, and blog about that experience. She does that, with predictable tribulations. The scene of putting live lobsters into boiling water is unashamedly lifted right from Annie Hall, and most of the other cooking, serving, and eating scenes are equally unimaginative. This character is not very interesting and neither is her story. However, Amy Adams is brilliant, even within this restricted role. As with Streep, even though you don’t care about her character, you do care about her superb acting.

So those two stories alternate in time slices and that’s it. Julia and Julie never meet, but they both accomplish their goals. As a piece of storytelling, you are left with the thought, “Who cares?” But the acting by the principals makes the film worthwhile. The cinematography is also above average – extremely sensual pictures of food. The movie will make you hungry for sure. The directing is expert but pointed at sentimentality over psychological or narrative substance, which for my taste, is a defect.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Grade B


Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger. Writer-Director Quentin Tarantino. (English, German, and French – Subtitled)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie is the marketing. The trailer, played endlessly on TV, shows Brad Pitt as a WWII officer barking out his unit’s “mission” to his band of men: to kill, maim, and mutilate Nazis. So we expect an action picture with plenty of death, mayhem, and blood from the director of the blood-soaked Kill Bill.

But the trailer is misleading. The movie is mostly about a Jewish cinema owner (Laurent) in occupied France who is forced to have a special showing of a German war film for all the German bigwigs, including Hitler. It is also about British and American spies among the Nazis. Pitt and his “Basterds” play only a small role in the story. A few Nazis are multilated as promised, but that is a sideshow.

The main story is not strong either. The Nazis watching the special movie are ultimately locked into the theater while it burns, but there is no real suspense or narrative drive. The picture is more like a series of loosely connected scenes that don’t add up to much.

But what scenes they are! They demonstrate Tarantino’s brilliance as a director. The opening scene, in which the nasty, but effusively polite and multilingual Nazi commander (Waltz) interrogates a French farmer about hiding Jews, has nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat tension, created entirely by the director. The German officer is polite and urbane, and there is no violence until the very last moment when machine guns shoot through the floorboards. Yet the precision with which the Captain unscrews his pen, writes in his ominous book, asks his questions, are rife with emotion. The farmer’s reactions are equally calibrated to create a very high tension scene in which nothing is going on but an inane conversation. That scene alone demonstrates Tarantino’s genius. And it is not the only one like that. There are dozens of scenes of equally stunning directorial mastery, including even an excellent barroom gunfight. That’s why you want to see this movie, for the directing.

Acting is very engaging by Pitt and Waltz, and the dialog is snappy, alternating between comedy and tragedy. Production values are first class, photography is faultless. But if a movie is suposed to be a vehicle for telling a story, this one falls flat. The characters are all two-dimensional so we don’t know or care anything about them. The war is way in the background and there are no new insights on that. Nazis are evil, as always. Human relationships are perfunctory. The narrative lacks suspense and forward momentum. The ending is trite. This is a failed exercise in storytelling, but as a director’s showcase, it is a winner.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bon Cop, Bad Cop: Grade B

Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006)

Colme Feore, Patrick Huard. Director Erik Canuel. (English and French, subtitled).

This Canadian comedy involves an English speaking cop from Ontario partnered with a French-speaking cop from Quebec. Actually they are both completely bilingual but the purpose of the setup is to allow each to make fun of the other’s language and culture, invoking many cultural stereotypes. The jokes and jibes are extremely funny if you know a little French and if you are familiar with Quebec. Having lived in Montreal, I was laughing until I had tears in my eyes, but I have to admit it is not a great movie overall.

There is a serial killer on the loose who targets hockey players and owners (hockey rivalry of course being a huge source of competitive pride between the two provinces). When a victim is found literally on the border, the two cops are forced by their superiors to become partners on the case. They investigate leads and get into fist fights on both sides of the border, enabling each to make fun of the other on his home turf. The plot gets confusing and there are lots of loose ends, so even though the killer is finally caught, the story doesn’t add up, but that’s not the point. It’s a comedy.

You have to be a fast reader if you don’t know French because the dialog is dense and sophisticated. Photography is good (although overusing green filters for some reason, which really gives a picture a dreary look. Why do cinematographers love green filters? ). Music is undistinguished except by its overloud volume. Direction is spotty, a gratuitous car chase, for example, inserted just for an arbitrary pacing change. Acting is very good by the two principals. I’m rating the film a bit higher than it deserves because I had such a good time, but I recognize it is not for everyone.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fulltime Killer: Grade C

Fulltime Killer (2001)

Andy Lau, Takashi Sorimachi, Kelly Lin; Co-directors: Johnnie To, Ka-Fai Wai (also co-wrote). (Chinese and Japanese, subtitled).

This is a classic Hong-Kong action thriller in the style of Johnnie To. A new, brash, and flamboyant hit man (Sorimachi) is in town, challenging the hegemony of the king of assassins (Lau). They also compete over the girl (Lin). There is a high body count, as you would expect, and a plodding police detective after both young men. The acting is above average, music is excellent, and Hong Kong is displayed in all its glory. Although this is a typical shoot-em-up, the good story, acting and photography are strong enough to keep you engaged. I have probably overrated this film because I am a fan of the genre, but it is pretty good on its merits.

Monday, December 14, 2009

3-Iron: Grade B

3-Iron (2004)

Seung-yeon Lee, Hyun-kyoon Lee, Hyuk-ho Kwon; Writer and director Ki-duk Kim. (Korean, subtitled).

A young man (S. Lee) breaks into empty houses in a Korean city and makes himself comfortable for a few days. The owners are away (which he learns from their answering machine message) so he eats their food, sleeps there, watches TV, fixes their broken appliances, waters their plants, does their laundry, then leaves. It’s a neat premise. In one house however, there is a battered woman (H. Lee) who watches him, then confronts him wordlessly. In fact, neither character says a word to each other in the whole movie. (The woman says five words at the very end, but it is ambiguous whom she is addressing). So the movie is almost a silent film, giving it a dreamlike quality.

The young man saves her from another beating by her mean husband who comes home, and she runs off with the young man and joins him in his house-breaking enterprise. Inevitably they get caught when the family comes home unexpectedly. In one case, it is not clear how that problem was resolved, but in another, the young man ends up in jail and the woman is returned to her husband. The ending is not really a proper resolution but is emotionally satisfying. Photography is good, directing is good, and sets are excellent. It’s a beautiful, quiet, romantic story worth seeing. Only the lightweight (even silly) plot detracts from its overall quality.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Public Enemies: Grade D

Public Enemies (2009)

Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard; Co-writer and Director Michael Mann.

It’s gangsters in 1930’s Chicago doing gangstery things. Have we not seen this before? Street battles with tommy guns, bank robberies, lovely cars and costumes, art deco interiors, tough guy talk, prison breaks, the incorruptible FBI agent in obsessive pursuit, and every other period gangster cliché you can think of – it’s all here. There is absolutely nothing new.

Depp is John Dillinger, notorious bank robber and Bale is his FBI nemesis with a bizarre, ludicrous, and totally unnecessary southern accent. I thought, with all these big stars, what could go wrong? Bad script, that’s what. It is so wooden and unimaginative that the actors have no chance of bringing it to life. Story? What story? FBI pursues bank robber, shoots him dead. There is no suspense whatsoever and the characters are two-dimensional cutouts.

The film’s 2:20 running time is unconscionable, especially since the first hour could be eliminated with no loss. Sure, you would miss a shoot-em-up bank robbery, but there are two others, almost identical to look at later. The only thing that keeps this movie from complete failure is the fine photography of excellent, detailed sets. The pictures are crisp and creatively shot, compelling to watch. The sepia colors are overdone, but pleasant and moody, some even fading to black and white to remind you that this is a quasi-biography “based on” Dillinger’s life (even though we learn nothing about him). When the colors are not sepia, they are through a green filter, which is less attractive, but still interesting. There is some good period music, Billie Holiday and the like, but some of it seems anachronistically modern and unconnected. That’s not much to recommend a film with so much resource behind it, but that’s all there is behind the muzzle flash.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Star Trek: Grade C

Star Trek (2009)
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldano, John Cho, with Leonard Nimoy; Director J.J. Abrams.

This is a competently made explosion film that will amuse boys 8 to 14 years old, and is watchable by others because of nostalgia value. It treats the original (1966) Star Trek television series with respect but imagines the beginning of the story as a prequel. Captain Kirk’s father is killed off by evil others (I never have been clear on the difference between evil Romulans and evil Klingons, but whatever), and his successor, Captain Pike is captured, leaving Spock (Quinto) commanding the Enterprise.

But Spock shows emotion when he punches out Kirk The Younger (Pine) for insulting his mother, so he resigns his position, putting Kirk in the captain’s chair. (This development overlooks the fact that Spock had previously been kissing Lieutenant Uhuru (Saldana), but apparently, not with any emotion – a guy thing, I guess).

Meanwhile, Spock as his future self (Nimoy) arrives from the future to give counsel to both Kirk and Spock the younger. It was great to see Nimoy in the pointy ears again. What a hoot that must have been for him. He looks like his 80 years of age, but the voice still says “Spock.”

Ninety percent of the movie is taken up with ballooning exothermic chemical reactions and swooping spacecraft, which is more Star Wars than Star Trek, which tended to the cerebral (and, like the original, ignored the fact that there is no fire in space because no oxygen, and no sound because no medium to carry it).

Also, they didn’t quite “get” the character of Captain Kirk, who was not simply a wild rule-breaker, as portrayed, but was a master strategist, able to change the grounds of engagement to his favor. Subtlety is not a feature of this movie. It is actually quite unimaginative, relying on spectacular effects and ear-splitting noise and music for excitement. Obnoxious (and unnecessary) as it was, the music was actually complex and interesting. The pace was good, and acting competent if hammy. The "human" relationships were compelling but the "scientific" side of the tale was pure nonsense. Kids won't know the difference.

It was satisfying that the script managed to include nearly all the nostalgic clichés. Scotty frets over the engines, Kirk recites into the captain’s log, and Spock says “Live long and prosper.” I missed only “Phasers on stun,” and the whoosh of the accelerating starship. In a final nod to nostalgia, Nimoy read the preamble (“These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise…”) at the end of the movie, only very slightly updated for modern times. It would have been better with Shatner, but he apparently is done with that phase of life.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Limits of Control: Grade C

The Limits of Control (2009)
Isaach De Bankolé, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt; Writer & Director Jim Jarmusch. (English, Spanish, and French with subtitles)

This movie has no story; it is like a student’s exercise in filming the same scene in several different ways. Scenes are well staged, excellently photographed, directed, and acted.

A tall, bow-legged black man (De Bankolé) walks around Madrid, Seville, and other cities in Spain in a shiny suit, carrying a duffel bag (an amazing duffel bag that holds at least two other nicely pressed shiny suits). In each city or district of a city, he waits for a couple of days in some apartment. We watch him wait: he lies on the bed, looks out the window, does Tai Chi exercises. Pretty exciting stuff. Mercifully we do not have to watch him brush his teeth.

Then he goes to a café and waits some more. A stranger appears and gives him a small box of wooden matches. He exchanges it for his own box of matches. The stranger gives a cryptic speech but the protagonist remains silent. The stranger departs. The protagonist opens the new box of matches, reads a matrix of numbers and letters on a slip of paper, and eats the paper. Then he goes to the next appointment and the entire sequence is repeated, at least six times, maybe as many as ten times. There are small variations on the sequence, but that’s about it for the movie. He does manage to strangle Bill Murray at the very end, for no reason at all.

The big name stars each appear in one of these small scenes, so that’s no excuse to seek out the movie. Music is good, especially the Flamenco. The film could be a satire on the international espionage genre, but lacking satirical force. It is a comedy without humor, a drama without drama. There are some allusions to the Sergio Leone Spaghettis with the facial close-ups. The repetition does create a sense of time slowed down.

The movie is like a writer’s notebook or an artist’s sketchpad. Variations on a scene are played out to see what they look like. Some of the scenes are visually memorable, but it all adds up to nothing. It will be of interest to film students, but not a wider audience.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Lady Vengeance: Grade A

Lady Vengeance (2005)
Yeong-ae Lee, Min-sik Choi; Co-writer and Director Chan-wook Park. (Korean, subtitled).

This is the third and final film in director Park’s revenge trilogy. I have seen and reviewed recently Old Boy, the second in the series. In this one, a young woman (Lee) is unjustly imprisoned for the kidnapping and murder of a child. In intercut scenes we see her as a model prisoner, kind to all, and yet managing to make a prison murder look like an accident, so we know she has two faces. Upon her release, she is intent on revenge against the man who set her up (Choi), and she engages other ex-cons to help her. The final revenge involves torture and buckets of blood (this is a Tartan films release), but unlike Old Boy, the torture is not explicit and that makes those scenes watchable. So revenge is had. Or is it?

I don’t think Park really has captured the full phenomenology of revenge, either in this film or the last. When you have a psychotic serial killer, death or even torture, is not sufficient because he will never feel remorse. You can cause physical pain, but revenge is about dealing with the victim’s psychological pain, which is not satisfied by blood. In Lady Vengeance, this is acknowledged, because despite the ultimate torture and murder of the perp, the focus is on the families of the murdered boys. They get their pound of flesh, but are they satisfied? The perfect revenge movie has yet to be made.

However, Lady Vengeance is well worth watching because it is beautifully shot and creative, well-acted and masterfully directed. The music is wonderful, classical notes setting a calm tone that only heightens the story’s mood of desperation. There was also a stunningly beautiful vocal piece in there that may have been from Orfeo and Euridice, the opera. My main complaints are that the narrative was jumbled by aggressive time slicing, making it often confusing, and that there are at least two anti-climactic endings, the final one being especially superfluous (although beautiful to look at). So overall, this is a beautifully made film that also makes you think.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Lone Star: Grade B

Lone Star (1996)

Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Ron Canada; Writer-Director John Sayles.

It’s not a western, although it is set in a small Texas border town and the major players wear cowboy hats and guns strapped to their hip. Deeds (Cooper) is the town’s sheriff, the third in a line of bigger-than-life figures to hold that office. His father was a legendary sheriff in the 1950's who succeeded the evil Charlie Wade (Kristofferson), a corrupt racist who stole thousands from the town pension fund and absconded without a trace. But when a skeleton with a sheriff’s star is dug up in the desert, Deeds wonders who it was. As he unravels the mystery, he learns more about who his father was, and who he is. There are several compelling subplots that run parallel to that main theme. I saw the surprise ending coming, but even so, it was interesting and reasonable.

About the only thing wrong with this movie is its 2:15 length, which is due to a slow pace and perhaps too many subplots. Sayles’ writing and directing make the characters rounded and believable, except Kristofferson’s. That character, who shoots Mexicans and blacks on sight if they do not pay extortion, is over the top. He stands as an unrealistic personification of evil that the other characters can work against. However, sets and cinematography are perfect. Costumes are excellent. But the characterizations are the best part.

Cooper’s performance in particular creates a genuine character, with spot on accent and speech timing, but he was a bit too taciturn, too remote to be fully engaging. I like a little more personality in my brooding sheriffs. Tommy Lee Jones captured the character in Electric Mist (2009), which may have been an attempt at a remake, although it was a terrible movie. It’s not so easy to imitate John Sayles. His artistry makes this film a completely engrossing experience.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123: Grade C

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

Denzel Washington, John Travolta, Luis Guzman, John Turturro, James Gandolfini; Director Tony Scott.

I never saw the 1974 original, so I took this remake on its own terms. Hijackers (Travolta and Guzman) take over a NYC subway car and hold 17 hostages, demanding 10 million dollars. Washington is the train dispatcher who becomes default hostage negotiator, a role he has played before. Turturro is the “official” hostage negotiator who tries to muscle in on Washington, but Travolta won’t have it. Gandolfini is hizzoner, who must come up with the money. The money is transferred, most of the hostages are saved, the bad guys almost get away, but not quite.

The story is extremely weak, with innumerable non sequiturs, absurdities, loose ends and contradictions. The basic plot, as described above, is basically boring. The obvious attraction of the movie is the spectacular special effects and great photography of New York City. The sound engineers obviously had collected tons of authentic train sounds, and they make sure you hear them. Pseudo-dramatic music, and traffic are equally deafening, triple the level of the dialog. This is a very noisy movie. You will need your mute button. The visuals are very good, for the most part, although some shots near the end plainly look like models. The stunts/special effects are the usual car crashes in the city with taxicabs flipping end over end. Happens all the time in New York, I’m sure.

Travolta plays an excellent psychopathic bad guy, enjoyable to watch despite the stereotype. Washington plays himself. Gandolfini turns in a sincere, believable, non-hammy performance. That’s the good part.

But the plot is so implausible, it is very difficult to stay interested. If Travolta is actually doing a stock market manipulation, what does he need the hostage money for? If he didn’t already have the money, how did he make the stock market bet on gold? Why does the money car coming from the federal reserve have a police escort? It is obviously useless for anything but bright lights, loud engines, and sirens, since the convoy has three spectacular fatal accidents on its short trip. Couldn’t the police have just turned all the lights red? How do the police identify two random-looking men on the street as bad guys and proceed to shoot them to death? Did they have “Bad Guy” stenciled on their foreheads? And so on.

The movie is obviously about car crashes and sparks flying from the wheels of trains, not plot development, not character exploration. It will be successful among children and child-like minds as yet another immature action movie. Just what we need.

Friday, November 13, 2009

French Film: Grade B

French Film (2008)

Hugh Bonneville, Eric Cantona, Anne-Marie Duff, Victoria Hamilton, Douglass Henshall; Director Jackie Oudney.

This light romantic comedy is remarkably witty, very well-acted, and nicely directed. Two couples in contemporary London are all friends. Jed and Cheryl (Bonneville and Hamilton) have been living together for ten years but the relationship is stale, even though Jed insists that it “works.” They begin to see a couples counselor. Their friends Marcus and Sophie (Henshall and Duff) are in a seemingly ideal romantic relationship.

Blanketing all the couples’ chit-chat are intercut scenes from a supposed documentary interview of a “major” French film director (Cantona), who self-importantly explains what love is, how it works, and how to recognize it. He illustrates his points with clips from his own films. These clips are melodramatic black and white relationship scenes that look like they could be from the French New Wave of the early ‘60’s, actually attractive in their own right. Cantona’s pontifications are hilariously pompous, with his bearded visage and thick French accent, waving a cigarette in one hand with satirical gravity. He serves as something like the Greek Chorus, commenting indirectly on the romantic relationships developing in the main part of the movie.

So Marcus falls in love with another woman (real love this time, though, he insists), and the couples counseling goes south. Everything falls apart but there is a predictable happy ending (as the French film director had already explained: “Ze ending ees found in ze beginning”).

The acting is first rate in this film and that’s good enough reason to enjoy it. The humor is terrific, although it is very British humor, not American farce. Cantona’s performance is the highlight. The film reminds me of early Woody Allen films like Manhattan, couples walking about and sitting in cafes saying clever things. It is all just talking heads where nothing is discovered, but a delight nevertheless.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Adoration: Grade B

Adoration (2008)

Devon Bostick, Scott Speedman, Arsinée Khanjian. Writer-Director Adam Ergoyan.

A high school student (Bostick) writes a short story for his French class about how his father was a Muslim terrorist who attempted to smuggle a bomb onto an Israeli airline to blow up his mother (pregnant with himself) and everyone else. The teacher (Khanjihan) likes it and since she also teaches drama, encourages him to develop the story into a dramatic monolog, which he does, and he tries it out on his friends, on the internet, as a true tale. They believe him and he does not disabuse them of the ruse. We find out later that his parents were killed in a car crash, which is why he lives with his uncle (Speedman).

So is that the whole movie? -- Boy plays practical joke on his classmates? That’s just about it. But by intercutting dramatizations from the parents’ imagined past and their real past, Ergoyan manages to create some confusion about the truth, even though it is just obfuscation. Also there is an interesting relationship between the teacher and the uncle, who are both concerned about the boy’s developing sense of personal identity, not having known his parents. So overall, it is a pretty lame story. Incidental mentions of terrorism, Muslim extremism, racism, and other political themes are just gratuitous comments, adding nothing.

But what makes the movie strong are the magnificent visuals and the interesting dialog. Cinematography is stunningly beautiful (although the lighting is overdone in some indoor scenes, such as in the violin shop). Many shots involve striking symbolic imagery that you want to stop and examine in detail. The dialog has an extremely spare quality about it, not exactly realistic, but not exactly artificial either. It has a Mametesque quality in its minimalism and use of ambiguity, but it is not an imitation. There is an “Ergoyan” style of dialog, I would say, and I like it. Music is quite pleasant (violins, since a violin features in the story), but is not distinguished. Acting is very strong by the three principals. Overall then, the story is not successful but good acting and good visuals raise the quality to above average.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Maiden Heist: Grade B

The Maiden Heist (2009)

Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, William H. Macy, Marcia Gay Harden. Director Peter Hewitt

The three men are long time security guards at a Boston art museum and each has a favorite work of art that has become an obsession. When all three of those pieces are to be traded to a museum in Denmark, they are devastated, and decide to steal them, replacing them with fakes. They do that, and that’s the movie. Along the way there are complications of course, but what makes the film enjoyable is the great performances by seasoned actors, and some witty writing. Macy especially hams it up to hilarious effect. Walken is his usual droll self. He is much funnier in some of the deleted and blooper scenes, but the director kept him dialed down. Freeman is just fun to watch. Harden, as Walken’s character’s wife, has fun with a stereotypical ditzy wife, very enjoyable to watch. This is a lightweight, really, throw-away caper movie, with visual and narrative elements from Space Cowboys, The Thomas Crowne Affair, Entrapment, The Italian Job, and others. It is not a satire of the heist genre, just a silly romp worth an hour and a half for fun.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Whatever Works: Grade F


Whatever Works (2009)

Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begely Jr.; Writer-Director Woody Allen.

And whatever does not work should not be foisted off. This movie is close to completely unwatchable, that’s how painfully bad it is, and that is remarkable for a long-time Woody Allen fan to say. An elderly New York misanthrope (David) rants without mercy about how he is a misunderstood genius but the rest of humanity is scum. This might have been funny in high school, but for an adult movie it is extremely lame.

David’s performance is amazingly stiff and you can actually see him glance at the script on occasion. All the actors chronically suffer from having their mouths too full of words to deliver any meaningful lines. Patricia Clarkson is by far the strongest, although Wood does as well as she can with a miserable role.

The overarching theme of the film is that one should not be constrained by society’s traditional ideas of what a “normal” relationship is. Old guys and young foxes are ok (David-Wood), homosexuality is fine, and if ménage a trois works for you then go for it. This is not exactly a mind-bending concept. The movie does not even bother to showcase Manhattan as so many other Woody Allen movies have. Allen “breaks the fourth wall” as they say, by having David address the camera and the audience directly, and in the beginning, even gives a longish soliloquy in second person voice, an impressive writer’s tour de force. But alas, even that speech is stultifying in its banality. High schoolers and younger might find something to like in this movie, but to any normal adult, I am sorry to report it is a disaster.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Old Boy: Grade B

Old Boy (2003)
Min-sik Choi, Hye-jeong Kang, Ji-tae Yu; Director Chan-wook Park. (Korean, subtitled)

A middle aged man (Choi) is imprisoned in a windowless hotel room and he does not know why. Food appears under the door, and each day the room is filled with gas that puts him to sleep while the staff cleans the room. Predictably, he goes nuts, but he recovers (more or less) upon release without explanation or context after fifteen years.

He meets a sympathetic waitress (Kang) and develops a relationship with her, but he is consumed by desire to know what happened and for revenge on his captor (Yu), who he discovers through careful research. There are many twists and turns and a surprising ending.

The film is beautifully photographed, well directed, and the music is outstanding. The picture is extremely stylish and good-looking. It is also drenched in blood. Tartan Films (Tarantino’s outfit) “presents” the movie, so you should know what to expect. I just fast forwarded past the most violent scenes.

Acting is outstanding by Choi and Kang and it is fun to get a glimpse into Korean culture. A sense of modern, urban, existential alienation comes through although the ultimate theme of the story is fairly pedestrian, not as shocking to an American audience as the actors’ reactions suggest. I recommend it on the basis of excellent filmmaking.

Not Quite Hollywood: Grade C

Not Quite Hollywood (2008)
Writer-Director Mark Hartley.

This is a documentary of Australian action and horror films of the 1970’s and 1980’s, few of which are known to a wide audience. Mel Gibson’s Mad Max is probably the best known example. They featured buckets of blood, naked breasts, and above all, high speed land and sea vehicles that ultimately explode.

Dozens of films are briefly reviewed with short clips and commentaries from the actors who appeared in them, their producers and directors, film critics, and Quentin Tarantino, who presents himself as some kind of an expert on the genre and who seems to want to elevate it to the level of the Spaghetti Western.

The films are interesting, especially in the first hour, but Tarantino’s comments are inane and obnoxious, telling us over and over how great these films were and how much he loves them. That is just not informative or helpful. However, the comments of the aging actors who appeared in them are often insightful. They include a few well-known actors such as Dennis Hopper, Jamie Lee Curtis, and George Lazenby, but mostly are unknown (to me) Aussies.

There are some worthwhile insights about the development of the Australian movie industry in general. After about an hour though, the whole project becomes repetitive and boring. How many exploding cars can you watch? It becomes apparent why the genre never transcended its roots.