Saturday, February 28, 2009

Frame of Mind: Grade D

Frame of mind (2009)
Carl T. Evans, Arija Bareikis. Co-writer and Director Carl T. Evans.

This indie looks good and is put together well. A Policeman in a small New Jersey town finds a tiny strip of film in an antique jewelry case that shows a gunman on the infamous grassy knoll at Dealy Plaza in Dallas on the day JFK was shot. For motives unknown, he tracks down the owner of the jewel box and discovers the significance of the film, that it would prove a conspiracy. As he researches theories of JFK’s shooting, it becomes apparent that unnamed government bad guys are after the film, in an attempted coverup, and they get it, and he is left with nothing, the end. It was a great premise for a story, and it could have gone in so many directions, but it loses its way by trying to be a half-baked remake of Oliver Stone’s JFK. Why? Granted, this is a low budget independent film, but they could at least have had a writing instructor look over the story. It’s a lost opportunity. There are moments of good acting, but also plenty of the opposite. And the pace is off. For a supposed thriller, too much time is wasted establishing that the cop and his wife are just plain folks, an angle that does not play into the story line. Sets and locations were good, but characterization was very weak. There is latent talent here. Maybe the movie will capture some TV eyeballs.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

W. Grade C

W. (2008)
Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton. Director Oliver Stone.

The impressions were the most fun in this docudrama biography of George W. Bush. Brolin, as GW Bush, had the voice and gestures down cold. I totally believed him. Condi Rice was near perfect (Newton) and so was Dick Cheney (Dreyfuss). Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) was the least convincing, not only because the look was not close, but the speech and gestures weren’t either, nor was the character’s persona (compared to what we saw in public). One couldn’t expect 100% on the impersonation front, but the result was highly variable.

Beyond interesting impersonations though, what was the point of this movie? It documented, with restraint and respect, Bush’s early wild years of alcoholism, aimlessness and dissipation, and his rise to the presidency. But we never got a sense of who he was. Why was he wild and self-destructive? Was he jealous of brother Jeb? Oppressed by Poppy Bush? These were suggested in the dialog but there was nothing revealed through the character’s behavior. To show who a character is, you put him in the vise grip of a situation and watch how he reacts and that’s how you know who he is. But this movie didn’t do that, and I did not come away from it thinking I had any more insight into W. than before. One day we see him at an AA meeting, but we don’t know why he is there. There was a suggestion that he had a really bad hangover and that’s what made him change, but that hardly seems a compelling explanation.

One day he collapsed while jogging and looked up at the treetops, and after that he became a born-again Christian? What? So it is throughout the movie. He marries Laura. Why? No clue. He decides to run for congress, then Governor. Why? Don’t know. Things happen, and they are shown. But nothing is explained. The same is true for the other players, such as Powell. He objects and is even sullen during the discussion of WMD’s in Iraq, but next we see him at the UN giving his famous false PowerPoint. Why? No explanation is suggested.

There is also little dramatic tension in the film, and not just because we know how everything turns out. This script doesn’t know if it is a documentary or a drama and it comes up neither. There is plenty of intrinsic drama in the GW Bush story, but it is not captured. Even if Bush was not smart enough, or not introspective enough to understand the conflicts inherent in his personal and public life, the filmmaker surely should have been. Since there is no story and no character development, all the acting talent is focused on doing impressions, and some are better than others.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Religulous: Grade C

Religulous (2008)
Bill Maher. Director Larry Charles.

Comedian Maher travels the world, supposedly trying to understand how seemingly rational people can believe the incredible stories told them by religion, especially in Christianity. It’s a lot of fun to have Biblical stories reframed by him, such as hearing the Garden of Eden scene described as two naked people and a talking snake.

His wit is sharp but he aims it at easy targets, making him seem mean-spirited. He visits a roadside chapel for truckers and informs them that none of the apostles were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life. They don’t believe him and some take offense. These are enormous, simple-minded guys in flannel shirts, uneducated, sincere, and well meaning. Maher’s intellectual challenges to their beliefs is all about him, not them.

He also interviews preachers, priests, ex-Mormons, and one scientist. Interviews are intercut with ironic news, movie, and commercial scenes, such as GW Bush explaining what God wants him to do. At the end of the film Maher goes pedantic and gives an unnecessary speech that reveals his lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the documentary.

Maher has some genuinely funny one-liners here and I love his style of humor, but the whole project seems juvenile. Of course religion is ridiculous; that much is clear to the most casual observer. Why not ask why it persists then; what psychological and social functions does it serve? A much better documentary on the absurdity of religion is Richard Dawkins’ Root of All Evil, although it is dead serious, only unintentionally funny. But perhaps Maher’s intended audience is children and young adolescents. For that group, this movie might be enlightening.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Bottle Shock: Grade C

Bottle Shock (2008)
Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, Freddy Rodriquez, Chris Pine, Dennis Farina, Rachael Taylor. Co-writer and director Randall Miller.

This is a wine-lover’s indulgence, in the spirit of Sideways. Set in 1976, it dramatizes the true story of how a Napa valley vineyard won a blind tasting in Paris, an event that launched the success of California wines around the world. Pullman owns the scrappy vineyard in Calistoga. Pine is his hippie loser son. They are visited by the British owner of a Parisian wine shop (Rickman), who is curious about California wines. He sets up the competition in Paris that results in the California victory.

I enjoyed scenes of golden sun falling on ripening grapes, and of sampling barrels in the cellar. Winemaking is glorified, but there is not much actual information about it. Pretty pictures and fine-sounding turns of phrase substitute for facts. The dialog is pedestrian, although there are a few good exchanges. Pullman: “Why don’t I like you?” Rickman: “Because you think I’m an asshole, but I’m not really. I’m just British.” The scenery is nice, how could it not be, but cinematography is unimaginative. How many swooping aircraft shots over vines do we really need? Acting is clunky, probably constrained by the one-dimensional, stereotyped characters. Rickman’s considerable talent, especially, is underutilized. The story is formulaic and melodramatic, something you would expect to see on television. As a mildly interesting, inoffensive, quasi-historical drama, this choice passes the time.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

RocknRolla: Grade C

RocknRolla (2008)
Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton, Tom Wilkenson, Toby Kebbell, Karel Roden; Writer-Director Guy Ritchie.

Lenny (Wilkenson) is a real-estate gangster in contemporary London. He bribes cops, judges, and city council to get irregular building permits so he can work his deceptive schemes. In the opening scene, he defrauds two small-time crooks out of a warehouse, but they come back later to sting him. Lenny thinks he has hit the jackpot when a Russian billionaire (Roden) needs a permit for a sports arena. The Russian loans Lenny his prized “lucky” painting, whose content we never see. The deal is set but the Russian’s accountant (Newton) tips off the local crooks about the money transfer, which they intercept. Meanwhile, somebody steals the Russian’s painting from Lenny, the suspect being a drug-addled rock singer who turns out to be Lenny's estranged stepson.

The story continues in this fashion with dozens of characters and as many improbable plot twists. There are double and triple crosses, but since nobody is properly motivated, none of it matters, so don’t waste your time trying to track the intricate plot. Instead, just enjoy gangsters doing gangstery things, the gritty sets, smart dialog, and gratuitous violence perpetrated by psychopathic hotheads. There is some good wit and plenty of British-isms in the dialog for Americans to puzzle over. The accents are manageable. But characters are no more than video game avatars and there is not one convincing emotion in the whole picture. Editing and directing are the strongest aspects of the film. The overall look is attractive, but there is nothing significant.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Pride and Glory: Grade A

Pride and Glory (2008)
Colin Farrell, Edward Norton, John Voight, Noah Emmerich, John Ortiz; Co-writer and director Gavin O’Connor.

This is a traditional corrupt cops movie without anything new to say, but the acting is outstanding, making the drama extremely intense. Anything with Colin Farrell is going to be intense anyway, but opposite Edward Norton, the movie just sizzles. Kudos to the casting director on this one. Actually there are outstanding performances in many secondary roles as well, including Emmerich and Ortiz.

Norton is persuaded by his father (Voight), a retired NYPD chief, to transfer out of “missing persons” to find the guy who shot four cops in a drug bust gone bad. We quickly find out, but Norton doesn’t, that his brother in law, Farrell, heads a cabal of corrupt cops involved in extortion and drugs. They’re after the shooter because they want the drug money back. Several well-dramatized and well-acted scenes show the bad cops brutally forcing information out of street informants. Eventually Norton discovers there is a dirty cop inside the case. His father wants him to suppress the information, “for the good of the force,” and we learn that years ago, his father had persuaded him to lie to a grand jury, a decision he regrets.

As he cautiously pursues doing the right thing, Norton edges closer to the inevitable confrontation with Farrell. Unfortunately, right at the end, the movie goes south, and instead of busting Farrell in the normal way, both remove their weapons and have a juvenile fistfight that proves nothing. Not only is that stupid and out of character, but the whole tone of the photography and direction changes in the final act, so one suspects this was not the original ending. It is easy to visualize a very dark ending with Norton getting the shaft and the evildoers getting off. That would have made a terrifically noir morality tale, but apparently some producer decided that goodness must reign so we get this very weak ending. Disappointing as that is, the ending was not ruinous, merely diminishing what was almost a pitch-perfect movie.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Grade B

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson. Writer-Director Woody Allen.

This is classic Woody Allen. When the four main characters are walking and talking on a Barcelona street and one objects to another’s “facile categorical imperative,” it could have been Annie Hall or Manhattan. Woody Allen is an acquired taste, but I have acquired.

Single girls Hall and Johansson (Vicky and Cristina) vacation in Spain for a couple of summer months at the home of a friend (Clarkson). They are picked up in a bar by a handsome stranger (Bardem). Vicky is offended by his proposition to go away for the weekend, but Cristina is game. They both end up going but only one of them succumbs. A narration moves the story along in great leaps until we find Cristina living with the man, who is an abstract painter. (He paints only in orange and brown tones to keep with the pallette of the movie). Vicky’s fiancĂ© joins her from New York. But then the painter’s crazy ex-wife returns (Cruz) and all the relationships take new directions.

As in other Woody Allen movies of this genre, it is an illumination of the human condition, in this case, why love is so hard to find and hard to keep. Vicki has opted for the Manhattan businessman and looks forward to a suburban house with Persian carpets, while Cristina rejects conformity and searches for, as she says, “something more.” But as ever, the heart has its reasons that reason does not know.

The characters are not well-developed people, just placeholders for Allen’s storytelling. Hall even has to do the stuttering Woody Allen shtick through most of the film, which is either Allen being egocentric or reveals a dearth of character ideas. Also true to form, all the characters are immensely wealthy, well-educated and idle, all neurotic about relationships. What holds the movie together are the beautiful faces, beautiful scenery and photography, excellent lighting, directing, editing and music. It is perfection in the craft of movie-making, even though it has no point and even though the characters are only two dimensional. Woody Allen is so good he doesn’t need no stinking plot or characters!

Rebecca Hall, does a wonderful acting job but it's odd that she looks so much like Scarlett. However, Hall can take a close camera full in the face. Scarlett never looks comfortable when the camera is stealing her soul. Hall can stare right into its evil eye. Bardem gave a wonderfully sensitive performance, especially compared to No Place for Old Men, but Cruz is the one who pops off the screen. Even disheveled and with no makeup, and speaking only Spanish or Catalan, she is riveting, for reasons I cannot fathom. Patricia Clarkson proves again what an underrated actor she is. So everything about this movie is excellent except there is no plot and no characters and the story is lame. Only Woody Allen can pull that off.