Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lakeview Terrace: Grade C

Lakeview Terrace (2008)
Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Patrick Wilson. Director Neil LaBute.

Wilson and Washington, an interracial young couple, move into a California suburb where their neighbor is LAPD cop Jackson and his two young children. Jackson seems to have a problem with interracial marriage and makes life difficult for the newcomers, without being overtly nasty. With a warm, broad, charming smile, he simply invites Wilson to live somewhere else where his values would be more accepted. The movie plucks the racial strings well and subtly, although I don’t know if anyone gives interracial marriage a second thought anymore, especially in California. It is portrayed as the cop's problem, not a larger social issue. Jackson’s harassment becomes increasingly overt until the movie finally ends in a gun battle. Sure, that could happen. It’s a shame the writers could not have done better than a Hollywood cliché.

Whenever I see a mentally disturbed character, I assume it is so a lazy or unskilled writer can avoid developing a proper characterization. It is obvious that the cop suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder. Crazy characters are expected to act crazy for no reason, and sure enough, he is nuts and gets nuttier as the film goes on.

Despite the poor writing, Jackson gives a very attractive performance, full of humor and menace and a full range of emotions. Kerry Washington gives an impressive performance too, and being gorgeous doesn’t hurt either. She has a lot more potential than the few small but outstanding parts we’ve seen her in (like Idi Amin’s wife in The Last King of Scotland, and Ray Charles’ wife in Ray). Wilson plays his role convincingly, although he does not jump off the screen like the other two principals. He was supposed to be a plain, bland, suburban white guy, and his performance was bland and I kept thinking he was Kevin Costner. Maybe that was an achievement. Camera work was good, and sets captured perfectly aspirational middle class aesthetic squalor. Music was annoying. But at least there was no car chase.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Igor: Grade C

Igor (2008)
John Cusack, John Cleese, Steve Buscemi, Sean Hayes Jay Leno, Eddie Izzard, Jennifer Coolidge, Molly Shannon. Director Anthony Leondis (animation).

The animated fantasy world of Malaria exalts evil, and this fable focuses on a competition among evil scientists to create the most evil monster, a riff on the Frankenstein genre. Igor (Cusack) is a hunchback assistant who dreams of becoming an evil scientist. He gets his chance, but his monster (Shannon) turns out good rather than evil, and then is mistakenly programmed to be a neophyte actress who wants to play the lead in a production of Annie, which leads to some pretty funny “evil” jokes.

Buscemi and Hayes are Igor’s sidekicks, the funniest and most creative characters in the script. The writing for them is a level above. Buscemi steals every scene he is in (using only his voice!). Unfortunately, Cusack is not much of a voice actor, and since Igor is the main character, he flattens the whole picture. Izzard stands out although his character is stereotyped and not very funny. Coolidge does excellent voices, but her characters are not very funny either. Leno is undistinguished. Shannon, as the good monster, gives an adequate performance, but she has some great lines so the character is a big success. The writing is highly variable, from Buscemi’s delicious, nihilistic rabbit-thing, to Hayes’ brain-in-a-vat, all the way down to Cusack’s Igor, a character that is not cute, funny, or interesting. One wonders how one writer could be so inconsistent.

Animation is attractive but quite simple. The style is more sketchy than fully realized, with the overall art direction borrowing heavily from Burton’s Corpse Bride. Other liberal borrowings are from Wall-e, Monsters, Inc., and Kung Fu Panda, and they are quotations, not parodies. The characters are creatively drawn, cleverly animated, and a few are brilliantly conceived, even if the story line is cliché. Music is loud and noisy, as kids prefer it. Kids will like this cartoon-- it is silly, not scary -- and there are plenty of LOL guffaws to justify adults’ time.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sleepwalking: Grade B

Sleepwalking (2008)
Charlize Theron, Nick Stahl, Annasophia Robb, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Hopper. Director Bill Maher (not the comic).

Rarely will you see such fine acting, by every player in the film. Theron (also produced) is a master. Hopper electrifies the screen, as he always does. Stahl, who is in nearly every scene, is totally convincing, as is the amazing young Robb. This is acting at its finest.

However the story is utterly bleak. A deeply troubled single mom (Theron) is suddenly made homeless when her loser boyfriend is busted for drugs. She crashes at her brother’s (Stahl) decrepit apartment. The confused daughter (Robb) is “creeped out” by her uncle. It is a very awkward situation, then the mom disappears, leaving a note that she will be back in “about a month.” The daughter is devastated. Out of emotional necessity, she forms a tentative relationship with her uncle. He loses his job and the apartment so they drive a beat up car to his abusive father’s (Hopper) derelict cattle farm. And so on. There is no plot. It is just a story about characters at the very bottom of the societal food chain, how they cope with life. There is some development in Stahl’s character toward the end, but overall, the story has no point.

The scenery, costumes and sets are unrelentingly desolate. It is the dead of winter in Denver, on the depressing side of the tracks. Everything is cold, gritty, grubby; the characters dull and unknowing. They are all poor, uneducated and unskilled, so they have no choice but to blunder through their lives. This makes the pace of the film slow, and if you stick with it, the effect is a merciless emotional downer. Yet the acting is so good, directing so nuanced, dialog so honest, production values so perfect, that you realize you have just seen a fine piece of American cinema.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger: Grade B

Kill the Messenger (2008)
Chris Rock. Director Marty Callner.

This was an HBO show compiled from Rock’s standup performances in New York, London, and Johannesburg. The same act was performed at all three venues so you see him suddenly in different apparel and with different length hair as the the three performances are intercut. There is no appreciable difference among the performances except sound quality, and that’s too bad. Perhaps the idea was to emphasize that Rock is an international star, but that’s important to him, not the viewer. It would have been far more interesting to hear and see how he tailored his act for the different audiences, as he surely did.

The jokes are characteristic Rock, outrageous in style, racial, and profane. He is a funny man and a very good standup. But a lot of the material was tired. Men say this, women say that; blacks do this, whites, do that; fat people are this way, skinny people are that way; the rich believe this, the poor believe that. It was well-worn stuff, although delivered expertly, and apparently well-received.

There were only few truly off-the-wall creative pieces that caught my attention. There was a terrific scene that involved Rock being stabbed in the neck with a pen by Regis Philbin. That was from left field. Another had GW Bush walking by with a “pocketful of fucks” but he wouldn’t give one when asked. But such moments of real creativity were rare. A lot more jokes involved blowjobs than transcendent silliness or keen observation.

Rock has clearly studied George Carlin and even Eddie Murphy. He probably studies all the greats. But the Carlin and Murphy gestures stood out as imitations and were not well-integrated. You get the feeling that Rock is trying to re-find his groove, and he almost has. He’s not as good as he was in his youth, but that could be said of us all. Still, he is a first class talent and the show is worth watching.

Mamma Mia!: Grade F

Mamma Mia! (2008)
Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgaard, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski; Director Phyllida Lloyd.

I know, I know! I am the only person in America who did not like this movie, and I apologize for that. I tried to like it. I like musicals. I like these actors a lot. I like a lot of color and movement on the screen. I like romantic comedies. I just could not find any redeeming virtue here. Yet the movie is hugely popular, so obviously I was not in the right mood or maybe I am from Mars.

I did not see the Broadway show, so this movie was my only introduction to the work. It started out very slowly, and then got even slower. The story could not be more trite or less believable: an apparently American young woman (Seyfried) living on a Greek island with her mother (Streep) is going to get married, and decides to invite three men who once dated her mother. One of them, she figures, must be her father. She does not advise the mother of her plan, and the men do not know each other. Imagine the hilarity that ensues. Singing hilarity of course, since it is a musical. But alas, I did not care for the songs. The music was by ABBA, a well-known popular band from the 1970’s but it was not my cup of tea. And, while Streep can acquit herself without too much embarrassment when singing, Brosnan definitely cannot. He was excruciating to hear. The others, so-so. There was not one outstanding warbler in the bunch.

Acting? What acting? How can you act in a story like this, characters like these? There is nothing to act about. The whole thing was so artificial, any performance would be as arbitrary as any other. There was no pathos, no joy, no nothing. The non-singing dialog was supposed to be witty, I think, but it was beyond lame. No dancing either. There was lots of twirling and farcical gestures and jumping into the sea, but no dancing. Putting 60-year old Streep (or her stunt double) on a wire made her look sprightly, albeit like a Jack-in-the-box, but not like a dancer. Nor did I get any sense of sun, surf, and laid-back Zorba-time in the Greek isles. Like I said, I’m Martian. Sorry.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Family That Preys: Grade C

The Family that Preys (2008)
Alfre Woodard, Sanaa Lathan, Rockmond Dunbar, Cole Hauser, Kathy Bates, Tyler Perry. Writer-Director Tyler Perry.

I tried this one because I really like Alfre Woodard, and she gives a good performance here as a contemporary woman who inexplicably lives in a house far beyond the means of the owner of a small diner grossing $200 a week. She has daughter (Lathan) married to a construction worker (Dunbar). Bates is head of a wealthy family and CEO of a large construction firm. Her ambitious but inept son (Hauser) schemes to get her job. In a confusing opening, we are to understand that these two families and the two matriarchs especially are longtime friends. How that friendship came about or what sustains it is not revealed but we must accept the premise. The story is classic soap, as Woodard’s ambitious daughter has an affair with the rich and married son of Bates. The middle act is a pointless Thelma and Louise - style road trip for the two older women that allows some moments of acting. In the end, the wayward children get their comeuppance, morality is preserved, and everything is rosy. It’s just dreadful writing, perhaps designed to appeal to afternoon couch potatoes. However, the acting and directing are respectable, production values are high, and sets are very detailed and convincing. It is a visually attractive film, tightly edited and well-paced. It just seems to be content-free.

Apaloosa: Grade C

Apaloosa (2008)
Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons. Co-writer and Director Ed Harris (also co-produced).

In the 1880's, two cowboys (Harris and Mortensen) arrive in the small New Mexico town of Apaloosa, which is being terrorized by a gang of brutal lowlifes working for Jeremy Irons. The cowboys agree to save the town if the townspeople make them autocratic sheriff and deputy with absolute power. I can’t remember which Leone/Eastwood film this story is taken from, but it is a well-used cliche. The clinker in this tale is that Harris falls for Zellweger, who arrives without explanation or purpose from St. Louis, dressed in city finery. After a non-believable, instantaneous courtship, they are building a house (with 20th century dimensional lumber and balloon framing) on the edge of town. This development adds complexity to Harris’ tough cowboy character, but that complexity is never explored. It just exists as a contradiction. You know as soon as Zellweger steps off the stagecoach that there will be a hostage situation. Finally the bad guys are shot up and all is well, the end. There is no real character development.

Harris and Mortensen give exceptional performances despite the weak script. Zellweger is a lead weight. I don’t know what has happened to her. She used to be a good actor. Here she just tries to be cute and it is painful to watch. She seriously spoils the movie. Scenery is good, but costumes and sets are precious. Music is nondescript. There are numerous anachronisms in sets, speech, and behavior. Overall, the movie has the archetypal dusty western scenes you expect to see, but it is emotionally and intellectually flat. It might be worth seeing just to get a look at Harris’ and Mortensen’s performances.

Righteous Kill: Grade D

Righteous Kill (2008)
Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino. Director Jon Avnet.

“Camera suspense” is the dishonest technique of restricting the camera’s scope so the viewer cannot tell what is going on. Typically, there will be a tight shot on a person’s face, but we are not allowed to see what that person sees. Or the camera shows the actor’s feet walking along a sidewalk but no surroundings, and we’re not even sure which character it is. These, and similar techniques are designed to add suspense to a scene that does not have any. Camera suspense is a crude attempt to cover up bad writing or bad directing, or both. This film is entirely based on camera suspense.

A second structural deception is the “And then I woke up” gambit. That’s the way ninth-graders end stories they have started but cannot resolve. This movie doesn’t use that technique literally, but it inserts arbitrary writer’s tricks to end a story, and those tricks inevitably invalidate much of what has gone before, making them a slap in the face of the viewer. Like camera suspense, it is deeply dishonest, a cheap cover-up for poor writing.

DeNiro and Pacino are NYPD homicide detectives after a serial killer. There is suspicion in the department that the killer might be a cop. In the end, the killer does not shoot a victim dead enough, he identifies his assailant from his hospital bed, and the killer is caught, but it’s not who you think, because of the dishonest writing that just jerks the story to a close, so who cares.

The dialog is terrible, full of clichés, platitudes, lame smart remarks, and statements of the obvious. The story reeks of racism and sexism. Granted, it is a cop movie, but it does not skillfully use racism and sexism as story telling devices. Rather it is just an unself-conscious racist and sexist movie. It could have been made in the 60’s.

The acting is uniformly abominable. The characters are not developed nor crafted by the actors. DeNiro gives about 5 minutes of acting and I saw about one minute from Pacino. Otherwise they were asleep throughout. These two mega-stars could have saved this movie with the right director, but my hunch is that all the filmmakers were so star-struck that they forgot they needed to tell a story. Redeeming virtue? DeNiro and Pacino. They really do have charisma, even when they are sleepwalking.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hamlet 2: Grade A

Hamlet 2 (2008)
Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, David Arquette, Elisabeth Shue, Amy Poehler; Co-writer & Director Andrew Fleming.

An ex-actor of awful commercials (Coogan) is now a highly emotional high school drama coach on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with a class full of uninterested students, many Latino. He struggles to give them some appreciation of theater and also to please his fed-up wife (Keener, who always delivers). The teacher writes a bizarre play, a hodge-podge of ideas only vaguely related to Hamlet and not at all to Shakespeare. The kids contribute ideas to give it street cred but the school cuts the whole drama department. In the tradition of Stand And Deliver/Dead Poets Society, the students become inspired and the show must go on, in this case to draw the public’s attention to the school’s funding problem. The school tries to cancel the play claiming it is indecent and irreverent but the ACLU (Poehler) defends it. The last act presents the play, which is insanely over the top and very funny in multiple layers of parody and satire.

What makes this film good is the fine comic acting by the principals and the mandatory cute and talented youth. The dialog is very witty, very satirical and mostly subtle. Delicious fun is made of high school drama departments, the whole theater/movie industry (Shue does a fantastic job there), academics in general, inspirational teacher movies, musicals, life in the Southwest, small towns, fertility anxiety, racism, religion, and much else. There are a few pratfalls and body jokes – something for everyone, but generally the dialog is sophisticated and always completely original. On the downside, the story is not original nor are the characters. You can almost tell which of the two writers wrote which parts of the script. Still, the jokes are so good I had tears in my eyes. Amy Poehler (who played Hillary Clinton on SNL) had some show-stopping lines. The lyrics of the play’s songs were even funny. Any movie that makes me laugh that hard gets an A.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Ashes and Diamonds: Grade C

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyzewska; Writer-Director Andrzej Wajda. (Polish, subtitled).

This highly acclaimed classic film is the last in director Wajda’s World War II trilogy. It was recently released on DVD. The black and white images were murky, although maybe that’s how it was supposed to be, suggesting the emotional darkness of that time. The Germans have just surrendered, but two leaders of the resistance know that the struggle is only beginning again, as the Russians have displaced the Germans. The protagonists are ordered to assassinate a communist political boss in their town, but the volatile young man (Cybulski) falls in love, and that makes him hesitate. He wonders if the killing will go on forever.

I was extremely impressed with Wajda’s film, Katyn, shown at the Seattle International Film Festival recently. It too was a mournful look at the long-suffering Polish people as the communists replaced the Nazis. Wajda is world-famous, I liked Katyn, and Ashes and Diamonds is acclaimed, so how could I go wrong? Yet somehow, Ashes did not grip me. The acting seemed histrionic, the story plodding, sets and scenery dark and muddy. I did feel like I was in 1940’s Poland, and could sense the psychological despair of the people. But after a strong opening, there is a very long hour to get to the melodramatic ending, during which innumerable cigarettes are smoked and vodkas drunk. Various responses to the depressing hopelessness of the Polish situation are presented, from the desperate celebratory denial of some, to the clueless oblivion of others, to the clench-jawed resolve of the resistance. I can see why it was acclaimed in 1958, but it has not aged well in the intervening 50 years.

Kung-Fu Panda: Grade C

Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Lucy Liu, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Seth Rogan (voices); Directors Mark Osborne, David Stevenson .

This Dreamworks animation is a great story for kids and has enough humor to amuse the parents. Set in a remote valley in China a hundred years ago, the panda (Black) is chosen as the next martial arts Dragon Master, to save the valley kingdom from the Luciferous Tai Lung (McShane). Panda is a clueless overweight buffoon, expressed well and naturally by Black, a source of much of the movie’s humor. Hoffman is his exasperated kung-fu trainer. Meanwhile, a gang of five superheroes stand at the ready: Monkey, Viper, Tiger, Crane and Mantis. However, they are defeated by the bad guy, leaving only Panda to save the day. Guess how it ends?

The colors are very bright, and high contrast blocks of saturated color give the film an attractive comic book look. The choreography is a pastiche of Jackie Chan movies, Hero, Crouching Tiger, and any number of other martial arts films of recent years, along with a good dose of Wile E. Coyote gags. Animation is smooth but more like a Saturday morning cartoon than a subtly expressive Pixar character. Still, it surely will pass muster with the young ones, as will the hyperkinetic scenes that move the farcical, pseudo-serious story along.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Ghost Town: Grade B

Ghost Town (2008)
Ricky Gervais, Tea Leoni, Greg Kinnear, Kristin Wiig. Cowriter-Director David Koepp.

Gervais is a misanthropic Manhattan dentist who clinically dies for 7 minutes in a hospital and afterward is able to see and converse with ghosts. One such is Kinnear, who wants him to prevent his widow (Leoni) from marrying a lawyer he thinks is a sleazeball. Gervais reluctantly agrees but then falls for Leoni himself and confuses her by revealing information that only her dead husband would have known.

The story is a composite of many ghost stories, including Topper, Ghost, and The Sixth Sense and there is even a bit of Groundhog Day. Gervais was the original boss in The Office before it was remade for American TV and I am highly susceptible to his brand of understated British humor. He is a great face actor as well. I am also a fan of seldom-seen Leoni. Her face and voice are particularly expressive. Kristin Wiig, well known from SNL, plays the surgeon presiding over the hospital disaster. She is a comic genius. Kinnear holds his own against these huge talents. The directing and editing let us feel the characters’ situations, and the writing is laugh until you cry funny with these players. Overall however, story is an implausible, overly sentimental romantic comedy that is quite pointless. The “message” that the living clinging to the dead is what makes them remain as ghosts, is flatly contradicted in the final act. The romance between Gervais and Leoni has zero chemistry. In fact none of the characters is literally believable so the movie is more like an elongated sketch. And the sentimentality inherent in a ghost story is nothing but cheap emotional exploitation. But despite the weak story, the jokes are genuinely funny.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Eagle Eye: Grade D

Eagle Eye (2008)
Shia La Beouf, Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson, Billy Bob Thornton. Director D.J. Caruso.

The strong cast attracted me to this techno-thriller, but that’s about all it offers, a strong cast. The writing is abysmal. It is supposed to be a commentary on the dangers of government spying on citizens through the Patriot Act, and that would be a fine theme for a movie, but this story is so far beyond reason that it cannot be taken seriously. A giant computer in the pentagon spies on, and even manipulates US citizens by having universal access to every telephone, security camera, cipher lock, subway train, GPS, traffic signal, advertising sign, ATM, television and toaster in America. You would have to be pretty naïve to go with that, so maybe the movie is for a much younger audience.

Like HAL 2000, the computer goes rogue and must be disabled in exactly the same way, albeit without Kubrick’s cinematic wit. In the meantime, ordinary citizens LaBoeuf and Monaghan are pursued as terrorists by the FBI (Thornton) and a wide assortment of government heavies in black SUVs. A mysterious cell phone caller gives these innocents precise instructions on how to escape capture multiple times, although they remain mystified and terrified. They are the only two people in America who don’t know that a cell phone is a GPS beacon so they are unable to escape the tyranny of “the voice,” as they stupidly keep answering the phone every time it rings. Music is of the loud, annoying “heart-pounding” type and the plentiful explosions approach the threshold of pain, but if you turn the volume down you can’t hear the dialog so you just have to be quick on the mute button. The acting is good, considering, and the faces are attractive, and the car chases have some novel elements. A few good pictures are framed well. The movie should make it to cable soon.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Baby Mama: Grade C

Baby Mama (2008)
Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Greg Kinnear. With Sigourney Weaver, Maura Tierney, Steve Martin, Romany Malco. Writer-Director Michael McCullers.

Fey is a successful executive who is unable to conceive so she uses Weaver’s agency to hire a surrogate mother (Poehler). Poehler’s character is an uneducated, unemployed goofball living with a loser boyfriend. She and the boyfriend are actually scamming Fey just for the $10K fee, and Poehler must go to ever greater lengths to fake the pregnancy. The jokes keep coming as the two SNL comedy stars play off each other. The wit is linguistic and social observation, based on the fertile topics of fertility, social class, and marriage. There are no sex jokes and nobody walks into a wall. Malco is a standout in a small part as Fey’s apartment doorman. The story is predictable and bland, right up to the sappy ending tied up with a bow. No serious issues are addressed. There are no side-splitters but plenty of yuks to fill a couple of hours with pleasant amusement.