Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Synecdoche, New York: Grade C

Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Diane Wiest. Writer-Director Charlie Kaufman.

It’s a great list of scintillating stars, but really it is the Philip Seymour Hoffman show and a little bit of Samantha Morton. Keener is written out of the script after 20 minutes and the other stars have small parts. Hoffman is a depressed, hypochondriac director of “bluehair regional theater” in upstate New York. His acerbic wife (Keener), exhausted by his whining, leaves with their young daughter for Europe and never returns. The movie had sparkle and humor up to that point, but then just wanders. Implausibly, the morose director receives a McArthur Foundation “genius” award, so relieved of financial concerns he begins a monster production in a huge NYC warehouse, of a play he hasn’t written yet. He experiments with ad hoc scenes while years and even decades slip by. He dates one of the staff members (Morton) who lives in a house on fire, but that relationship doesn’t pan out. His incoherent play involves an old guy who plays him trying to mount a play while dating a staff member, and there are some surreal confusions of reality and theater, but they don’t mean anything. Unlike Willy Loman, the Director comes to no meaningful epiphany. Hoffman is a terrific actor, there is no question about that, and the supporting cast is flawless, but the characters don’t do anything or go anywhere, so after a while, there is nothing worth watching except the good acting and the writerly surreal bits that are exactly as relevant to the story as the title is to the movie.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Body of Lies: Grade B

Body of Lies (2008)
Russell Crowe; Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Strong. Director Ridley Scott.

This CIA spy thriller set in the middle east delivers the action and suspense we expect from Ridley Scott. DiCaprio is a field agent who has a lead to a big, bad Arab terrorist lynchpin that the CIA has not been able to find or identify. To get to this bad guy, DiCaprio must maintain the trust of the head of Jordanian intelligence, well played by Strong. However, DiCaprio’s CIA boss in Langley (Crowe) keeps meddling in the plan, disrupting the operation whenever he tries to “help,” causing breach of trust with the spymaster in Amman.

DiCaprio meets an attractive girl there, which is as good as stamping “hostage” across her forehead. There are suitable fiery explosions that blow out whole buildings, aerial surveillance drones, machine gun battles, frantic chases through crowded markets, and so on. Locations seemed real because of the lighting and city scenes, and were attractive. Sound engineering was particularly detailed. I appreciate hearing brass shell casings hit the ground. However, it was not convincing for DiCaprio and Crowe to have instantaneous, secure, and perfectly clear conversations across half the world on their cell phones (no doubt they were “special” phones) nor that CIA staff could sit omnisciently in a video paneled room counting every whisker on DiCaprio’s chin. Acting by DiCaprio was mature and convincing, and Crowe really shone as the southern-drawling, dumb-as-a-fox CIA spymaster. The movie was intellectually engaging and suitably kinetic but not thematically serious. It is just an adventure for the sake of adventure, though well-done for its genre.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rachel Getting Married: Grade A

Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Anne Hathaway, Debra Winger, Rosemarie DeWitt, Anisa George; Director Jonathan Demme.

Hathaway is Kym, the black sheep of the family who gets out of rehab to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding at the magnificently wealthy family home in Connecticut. Kym is intensely self-centered, immature, angry, and disruptive to all. Family members try to be nice to her but really would rather she disappeared and she knows that and lashes back to demand acceptance. All the scenes you expect of a dysfunctional family are played out as we pace through the fitting of the costumes, the wedding rehearsal, the big wedding, the cutting of the cake, the reception, and on and on. There is no plot, although some supposedly shocking family history is inevitably dredged up.

We are not buried under the banality of family muck because Hathaway’s acting is spellbinding. It is a performance equal or better than the one that got Penelope Cruz the Oscar this year. Hathaway is an amazing actor who dominates every scene she is in. Debra Winger also grabs your attention and won’t let go. Those two actors alone make the movie. But in addition, the sets are marvelous around that gorgeous, sprawling house maintained in tip-top condition, as only old money can afford. Then there is Demme’s excellent direction. Most of the camera work is hand-held so you feel you are watching a documentary, or even that you are a participant. That makes the family scenes familiar and compelling, especially when emotions are demonstrated rather than spoken about. Excellent writing gives the principal characters three dimensions and a good deal of wit. Some of the dialog is a little too witty, as if everyone were channeling Oscar Wilde, and most of the wedding scenes went on too long (the movie runs almost 2.5 hours). But overall it is a very satisfying family drama.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Elegy: Grade B

Elegy (2008)
Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Dennis Hopper. Director Isabel Coixet.

How could a sensitive relationship movie with these stars be boring? You wouldn’t think it possible, but that’s what is achieved. A sixty year old college professor (Kingsley) is sexually attracted to a thirty year old former student (Cruz). That is believable, men being the animals that we are, but it is less clear why a gorgeous young woman would be attracted to a crusty old guy with a big nose. Her psyche is not revealed. There is a suggestion that the professor is motivated not simply by lust by also by an irrational, only partially conscious attempt to deny death by possessing a young woman. As the movie progresses, there is a hint that he really cares for her, maybe, so some character development is vaguely suggested. Cruz remains a cipher until the last act when she returns to him for solace. But since we never knew why she was with him before, it seems arbitrary that she would come back, so neither character adds up psychologically. There is no plot, so without characters, there is nothing, and that's a tragedy, because the themes of ageing, sexuality, and intimacy are rich veins of gold.

What makes this movie worth watching however is brilliant acting, especially by Kingsley and Cruz, but also by Clarkson. These are master players and you can’t take your eyes off them. Every moment of every scene is compelling, even if nothing is going on. Cruz shows her breasts, which was surprising. A case could be made that it was to demonstrate the old guy’s view of her as a body rather than a person, although with better writing that would not have been necessary. Photography is stunning. There are a lot of tight, intimate shots of conversations, with strong lighting and interesting camera angles. It’s a beautiful-looking picture. You could enjoy it with the sound off. Technical triumph in acting, directing, and cinematography cannot overcome lack of narrative content, but almost does in this film.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Milk: Grade A

Milk (2008)
Sean Penn, Josh Brolin; Director Gus Van Sant.

This biography of San Francisco city councilman Harvey Milk is slow moving, but amazing acting by Penn keeps you glued. Milk was the first openly gay councilman (the first gay elected official in California, actually), who succeeded on his fourth try, in 1977. When he was murdered in 1978 I remember becoming aware for the first time of how demented gay bigotry is. The movie is focused on the man and his complex character, but it is also a documentation of the gay rights movement coming out of the counterculture. Both themes are well illuminated and though-provoking. Sets and costumes are perfect.It must have been difficult to recreate San Francisco street scenes of the 1970’s but I was completely convinced. Great camera work and deft direction are displayed. The camera stays on a conversation just as long as it needs to and not one moment more. Movies don’t get any extra points from me because they are “based on a true story” because all human expression is. If this movie had been a fabrication rather than a biography, it would still be excellent, though lacking in the grand, exaggerated gestures we expect of dramatic productions. Such gestures are only caricatures of life's real dramas, but oddly, when they are missing in a feature film, something feels lacking.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Page Turner: Grade B

The Page Turner (2006)
Catherine Frot, Deborah Francoise. Co-writer and director Denis Dercourt. (French, subtitled).

A ten year old girl in a piano competition is distracted by a teacher who signs an autograph in the middle of her performance. The girl loses her train of thought and the competition, and never plays again. That’s not very likely, but it is necessary to set up the revenge story that follows. Ten years later, the girl, now young woman, gets a nanny job at the home of the teacher, who does not recognize her. Eventually the girl is trusted with the job of turning pages for the teacher, now a concert pianist, during an important concert. But the act of revenge is not the obvious thing you expect. Instead it is far more subtle and for that, hurtful. Very nice, though it raises the question: if the victim never knows that the grief was due to revenge rather than fate, does it still count as revenge? There’s not much action in this psychological thriller, but the acting by the two women is very good. Sets and costumes are luscious, and the music is lovely. It is a very "inner" movie.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Blindness: Grade C

Blindness (2008)
Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal. Director Fernando Meirelles.

Inexplicably, people in a major modern city go instantly blind, one by one, until the whole city is blind. That’s the premise we must accept. Ruffalo is an ophthalmologist who examines a patient with the mysterious ailment, then “goes” himself. His wife, Moore, accompanies him to the quarantine, even though she remains sighted. Soon the quarantine is overcrowded, chaotic, filthy and surrounded by guard towers, so we have morphed from an allegory of social fear of biological pathogens, like an escaped virus or maybe HIV, to some sort of Holocaust metaphor.

Moore conceals her visual ability, for reasons unknown, and helps individuals and groups get somewhat organized. But the “bad” group gets hold of a gun, seizes the limited food supply and demands payment from the others for food. The dramatic situation could have been resolved in five minutes, since a gun is not that useful for a blind person, while sighted Moore could easily have overcome the lot of them. But instead the movie morphs into a Lord of the Flies theme to show the dark side of human nature. Finally someone thinks to check the front door, which is open and all the guards are gone and the city is empty of life except other starving and dying blind people. And so on. There is no resolution, no message, no point to the whole thing.

The strengths of the film include terrific (though terrifically bleak) cinematography, compelling acting from Moore, and some moments of insight. On the down side, the screenplay lacks any semblance of story arc or character development. Some scenes are thought-provoking, such as the realization that it makes no sense to segregate the genders for dressing and bathing, since everybody is blind. But in general, the movie is an insult to blind people, and over all nothing adds up. We could accept throwing reason to the wind for the sake of observing human behavior in a contrived crucible, but Lord of the Flies has already been done, so why do it again, badly?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Changeling: Grade C

Changeling (2008)
Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Michael Kelly; Director Clint Eastwood.

The recreation of 1920’s Los Angeles is one of the best features of this movie, although it is not completely convincing. Everything is sparkling brand new, no sign of any wear or dirt on any car, street, trolley, train, household, or costume. That’s a common flaw in set designs. The sepia toned palette looks good though.

Jolie is a working class single mother whose 10 year old son is abducted (why or how, we never learn), while she is at work. The police find the boy, bring him home, but she claims he is not her son. The police insist however, and hold a self-congratulatory press conference. When the mother continues to protest, she is put away in a mental hospital. A local preacher (Malkovich) with an anti-police axe to grind takes up her cause. We never do learn what burr is under Malkovich’s saddle, nor do we ever find out why the police are so motivated to pursue the false child gambit. Nor do we understand the false child’s motivation for playing along. It seems like it would take all of about 20 minutes to sort out the subterfuge (i.e., with an independent doctor, not one sent over by the police).

Meanwhile, in an unrelated thread, a psychotic serial killer in Canada is abducting and killing dozens of young boys. How Jolie’s child ever found his way to that Canadian ranch is left untold. The bad guy is caught and eventually executed, and the hanging scene is detailed and good.

Jolie does a completely competent acting job despite fire-engine red lipstick that makes her look like she is wearing comic wax lips most of the time (the lip color is toned way back on the DVD cover). The story and dialog are melodramatic, with huge, over the top gestures, not real feelings. There is very little dramatic tension, and none of the characters is well-developed. The story is not much of a mystery or character study. While it documents practices in forensic psychiatry (involuntary commitment, etc.) the film isn’t a period documentary either. Maybe Clint didn’t know what it was, and that is the problem. The story is excruciatingly slow, especially in the beginning, perhaps an allusion to an earlier pace of life? But there is just not enough content in the movie to excuse its self-indulgent 2 hours and 20 minutes. It might have worked as a tear-jerker if there were situations that cause tears to be jerked. Child is abducted – it’s a terrible thing, but not enough by itself to get worked up about.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

In The Electric Mist: Grade D

In the Electric Mist (2009)
Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman, Peter Sarsgaard, Mary Steenburgern, Ned Beatty, Buddy Guy. Director Bertrand Tavernier.

No movie with Tommy Lee Jones should be missed, but this one could be lower on the priority list. He is a detective in contemporary Louisiana bayou country, a perfect, steamy, location for a murder mystery. Locations, sets, costumes, and characterizations are all excellent, giving a palpable sense of place. But that’s the strongest feature of the movie. A serial killer is in the area, and so is evil mob boss Goodman, who is making a movie in town. Tommy Lee struts about asking questions and threatening people but does not follow police procedures in any detail. The mystery does not unravel. It just stays where it was at the start. A murder case from 40 years ago is also reopened, and it is unclear if it is related to the serial killer, who is never caught anyway, so who cares. A bad cop is shot as an apparent evildoer and Ned Beatty confesses to something, but the ending is chaos. There is a nice bit where a drugged TLJ talks to a hallucinated Confederate general, but there was no point to it. There are some tantalizing moments of fabulous blues from Buddy Guy, but inexplicably, the filmmakers mostly opted for cliche orchestration that cheapened whatever artistic merit the film has. What a blockhead decision that was. Good acting is evident from all the stars, but in the absence of a credible screenplay there is no way this movie had a chance.

What Just Happened: Grade C

What Just Happened (2008)
Robert De Niro, Catherine Keener, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Michael Wincott. Director Barry Levinson.

De Niro is a Hollywood producer just finishing a movie that the test audience hates, and so does the studio executive (Keener). The crazy, drug-addled director (Wincott) is ordered to recut the ending (which involves Sean Penn). De Niro must get him to do that before the premier at Cannes. Meanwhile, De Niro tries to reconcile with his estranged wife but the Bluetooth phone stuck in his ear makes his attempts seem less than authentic. He is also trying to pull together the next film starring Bruce Willis, who has become fat and grown a beard, which the studio will not accept. All this is funny, in a very inside-Hollywood way. We are supposed to be amused at the outrageous, immature, irresponsible, self-serving characters in the business, but that is a well-worn theme and there is nothing new here. I'm sure it is a scream for industry insiders. On Charlie Rose, well-known producer and director Levinson said that although the movie is fiction, there is nothing in it that hasn’t actually happened. It is good to see De Niro acting well again, after a wasted recent outing in Righteous Kill. But this movie is like an extended sitcom without much overall structure or dramatic tension. In the end, nothing is resolved and no point is drawn. It was mildly interesting to see what might be an approximation to the life of a Hollywood producer. It is worth watching, but not worth remembering.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Lucky Ones: Grade A

The Lucky Ones (2008)
Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams, Michael Peña; Co-writer & Director Neil Burger

Very strong acting distinguishes this story of three wounded army soldiers returning from the Gulf. Thrown together by a cancelled airline flight, they rent a van and embark on a long road trip. Robbins’ home is visited first but he learns that his wife wants a divorce and his son needs $20K in three weeks for Stanford tuition. McAdams’ expectations are also dashed as she discovers that her dead army boyfriend was a complete fraud. Peña’s character re-thinks his commitment to the army. Along the way, sharing their laughter and tears, the three become friends. We also get several snapshots of how civilian America views its soldiers. The movie conveys a sense of the characters’ simple, uncomplicated, but earnest attitudes and their fish out of water feeling in the “real” (non-military) world. That’s good writing. McAdams is dazzling in this performance, and Robbins is as good as I’ve ever seen him. The film is reminiscent in structure to Heroes, a 1977 film with Henry Winkler as a returning Viet Nam vet, but Lucky Ones lacks the poignancy. The wounds are not severe and are treated with humor. The characters are disoriented and socially inept, but not shunned. This is a lightweight film lacking pathos or message, but the great acting makes it a winner.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Frozen River: Grade A

Frozen River (2008)
Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott; Writer-director Courtney Hunt.

A single mother (Leo) lives with her two sons in a tin-box trailer in New York, right near the Canadian border and the Mohawk reservation. Her life is the picture of low income desperation. In the darkness of winter she works part-time at a Dollar Store trying to stay ahead of the the Rent to Own company coming to take the TV. She serves the kids popcorn and Tang for dinner. The older son (McDermott) accuses her of driving away her no-good gambler husband. The bleakness of their lives is unmerciful.

Leo meets a Mohawk woman (Upham) who offers to buy her husband’s car if she will accompany her on an errand to get the money. They drive a cross a frozen river into Canada and make several stops where seedy-looking guys take something from the trunk, we presume drugs, and hand over cash. Despite their mutual cultural, racial, and personal distrust, they continue the relationship to keep the money flowing. The job evolves into smuggling immigrants into the U.S. In a masterpiece of writing, the women do finally come to trust each other completely.

Cinematography is outstanding, for the vast emptiness of the river and the claustrophobic interiors. Dialogs are so realistic you never lose sight of the characters. Excellent acting is what makes this movie stand out. It made only $70K on its first weekend, showing on 7 screens, but the word got out and now it makes 2.5 million a week and Melissa Leo was nominated for an Oscar and Upham won best supporting in the American Indian Movie Awards.