Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Wrestler: Grade A

The Wrestler (2008)
Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood; Director Darren Aronofsky.

Rourke is “Randy the Ram,” a washed-up wrestler (theatrical wrestling, not the real sport). He looks great with his chiseled, beat-up face, long blond hair and muscular though sagging body. He speaks in a deep mumbling monotone like Stallone, that gives the sense of a large, dangerous, but confused animal.

He has a heart attack and must quit wrestling. Completely lost, he confides in his only friend, a middle-aged pole dancer (Tomei) at a sleazy club. The similar yet different lives of the flesh these characters lead are parallel. Each of them knows they are too old to be meat-based performers, but neither knows what to do. While much has been made of Rourke’s seemingly autobiographical performance (and it is tremendous) the best moment of the movie is Tomei wiggling around the pole and coming to an epiphany, shown by her facial expressions alone, “What the hell am I doing?” It is a truly memorable moment of film acting.

The relationship between Rourke and his estranged daughter (Wood) is a small subtheme that gives him a chance to display his tender side, but even there the interaction feels genuine and Wood delivers a fine performance. The story is extremely well written, so the parallel between Rourke’s and Tomei’s desperate lives is well defined. In the end, each character takes their drifting life into their own hands, each in their own way. The directing is exceptionally good as well. You get a real olfactory sense of those locker rooms, gymnasiums, and that strip club. A moving film, worthy of its many award nominations.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Frost Nixon: Grade A

Frost Nixon (2008)
Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall. Director Ron Howard.

Langella plays Richard Nixon as a discouraged, self-pitying, defeated man, which he was after the Watergate scandal and his subsequent resignation from the presidency. Sheen is David Frost after his talk show did not survive in New York and he was reduced to interviewing starlets on Australian TV. Both men are has-beens who crave redemption. The first part of the story is about Frost putting together the famous Frost-Nixon interviews, risking his own money and career to do it. Nixon is motivated by the money but also by the chance to redeem himself with the American public, not realizing that he is universally despised. Frost knows that Americans want to hear Nixon admit wrongdoing and apologize for it.

From reading Nixon’s memoirs, I became convinced that he suffered from a mental disorder, and this movie portrays that well. Oblivious of reality, Nixon blusters his way through the interviews until the very end, when Frost finally corners him and Nixon seems to have a moment of self-awareness in which he sees that he is culpable and socially irredeemable. The dialog of the interviews is taken from the actual transcript, as are many of the camera angles and closeup shots. The movie has a real documentary quality.

Even after all this time it is shocking to hear Nixon aver, “If the president does it, it is not illegal.” Despite the patent absurdity of that belief, it did return to the White House with George W. Bush and director Howard may have intentionally drawn that parallel as a political comment. But this is a great drama in its own right that does not rely on historical knowledge for its tension. Still, it serves an educational purpose, since nobody under 40 years old today will remember those events. The movie well-deserved its multiple academy award nominations.

Timecrimes: Grade C

Time Crimes (2007)
Karra Elejalde, Bárbara Goenaga; Writer and director Nacho Vigalondo. (Spanish, subtitled).

Hector1, a perfectly ordinary middle class guy (Elejalde) is sitting in his back yard with his wife when he spots a naked woman in the nearby woods. He goes to investigate and is attacked by a scary guy with his head wrapped in blood-soaked bandages. Terrified, Hector1 runs, stumbling into a nearby scientific laboratory where a technician urges him to hide in a big vat of milk. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is just barely believable, so we go with it. Well, what do you know but that big vat of milk is actually a time machine! It’s a terrific realization of a time machine. Why do we always assume such a machine would involve complicated electronics, sparks and electric motor noises? The vat of milk sends Hector1 back in time, but only an hour. He emerges from the vat as Hector2, confused, and walks back through the woods to spy Hector 1 sitting in his lawn chair with his wife, an hour ago. Hector2 is enraged that this “other fellow” has appropriated his wife, and vows to kill him. The scientist explains that the other fellow is himself, but Hector2 doesn’t get it. Presumably, if he did kill Hector1, he, himself (Hector2) would cease to exist. Hector2 then inadvertently gets into a car accident, cuts his head, which he wraps with bandages. A buxom young woman comes to his aid. Needless to say, she will end up naked in the woods where Hector1 will see her. The plot convolutes further until a Hector3 emerges from the time machine! I was unable to keep the time travel paradoxes sorted out, and it seemed like a lot of illogical nonsense to me. Maybe my mind is just too inflexible. I would have preferred more insight into the characters’ thinking, rather than just watching their strange behavior. But the story has a neat idea and the movie is amusing enough.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Secret Things: Grade D

Secret Things (2003)
Coralie Revel, Sabrina Seyvecou; Writer and director Jean-Claude Brisseau. French (subtitled).

Two out-of-work young women in contemporary Paris decide to use their sexuality to get good office jobs. But before they do that, they have to practice being sexy (of course!), so they make out with each other and do some public flashing. Then they charm their way into the same office, although it is not shown how they manage that. Once in, they plot to seduce the manager and the boss’s son. The younger woman (Seyvecou) arranges to have the manager walk into her office while she happens to be masturbating and that starts a romance, as of course it would. But the plan is to make him crazy jealous because men stick better when they are jealous, so the girls arrange to have this hapless manager walk in on them while they are having sex with each other (in the office again -- who knows what goes on after hours?) The manager naturally joins in the fun, but then the boss’s son walks in on the ménage a trois, feigns horror and fires the manager. But he also takes the two women for his own, to join him at his mansion with his beautiful sister for an incestuous orgy. In the end, the movie orgies-out and some metaphysical nonsense about the meaning of life is introduced, out of lack of ideas and perhaps to insert nominal redeeming social value.

Plenty of fine young breasts are on display, but the movie doesn’t succeed as pornography because the sex is unconvincing. Shiny women writhe and moan as if they were having orgasms, in a guy’s fantasy. There is no actual sexual detail shown, so the sexual tension, such as it is, is achieved only by suggestion. In the beginning, I thought the film would try to manage that fine interface between imagination and reality the way Catherine Breillat does (e.g., Anatomy of Hell), but I was disappointed there. Then I thought the story would be a delicious, bitter revenge story of women against male sexual and economic exploitation. But again I was disappointed. Could it be a sociological commentary about group nudity? Not that either. Nothing is going on here but prurient voyeurism, a terrible waste of opportunity. Acting is pretty bad all around. On the plus side (for a hetero guy), the women are beautiful, and the movie is well-photographed and directed. But as a movie, it has nothing to say and is misogynist the way the women evolve from determined individuals to brainless, passive vessels in the hands of men.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I’ve Loved You So Long: Grade A

I’ve Loved You So Long (2008)
Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein. Writer and director Philippe Claudel. (French, subtitled).

A woman (Thomas) is released from 15 years in prison and stays with her married sister (Zylberstein) and the extended family while she tries to re-enter society. Predictably, she has trouble finding anyone to hire an ex-con, and moreover, she is alienated from everyone and society, having been gone for so long. It is a realistic portrayal of such difficulties. As the woman talks with her sister and interacts with her family, we slowly learn the details of her life. Why did her sister never visit her in prison? Why is the sister’s husband afraid to leave her alone with their two young children? What crime did the woman commit, anyway? The information is revealed naturalistically over the course of the story in a very skillful way, and that provides just about the only dramatic tension in the movie. The relationships are very realistic, not a single false note. There is little music because the focus is intensely on the truth of the ex-con’s inner life without any gloss of artificial emotion. It will be a slow-moving story for Americans, as European films often are, but it is so deeply human that you never lose interest. Acting by Thomas is superb. The children are directed perfectly. After the movie, you will find yourself thinking about the human condition. For anyone who likes a very interior psychological study, this will be satisfying.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Reader: Grade C

The Reader (2008)
Kate Winslet, Ray Fiennes, David Kross; Director Steven Daldry.

Winslet won best actress for her role as Hannah, a dim-witted ex Nazi prison guard. She randomly encounters a young boy (Kross) on a Berlin street, takes him to her apartment and has sex with him. He is thrilled, naturally, and comes back several times for more, but she remains emotionless, and finally moves away without notice. Time passes and he is a law student attending a Nazi war crimes trial, and who is among the accused but Hannah, his former paramour. Still dim-witted, she expresses herself without guile, demonstrating what philosopher Hannah Arendt in 1963 called “the banality of evil.”

In the last scene, Hannah is released from prison after 20 years and the boy, now grown up into Fiennes, agrees to help her re-enter society. Why does he? No explanation is provided. He stares a lot into middle distance with anguished expressions, but we have no clue what he is thinking. Were they ever in love? There is no reason to think so. Did they ever care about each other? Not apparently. Do they care about each other after many decades? We are supposed to believe that they do, but it is just not believable.

Kate Winslet is a fine actor, fully deserving of the Oscar, but not for this picture, in which she is mostly expressionless. The make-up people aged her well, but that is not acting. She does the first few scenes nude, and that could be considered daring, but being naked is also not acting. The acting is pretty bad in this movie, mainly because the characters are drifting without a narrative to reveal them. You can’t show good acting if there is nothing to express. Fiennes manufactures some unspecified emotions just so he has something to do. Winslet shows an ounce of emotion during her trial, but generally remains in zombie mode. What is the point of this story? Nazis were people too? That is not a new idea. Sets, scenes, and costumes make the movie watchable but it is not very interesting.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wisegal: Grade C

Wisegal (2008)
Alyssa Milano, Jason Gedrick, James Caan; Director Jerry Ciccoritti.

The Mafia movie is just about as worn out as the western, even when it involves a woman member of the mob. But this film just different enough to be interesting. A poor woman (Milano), makes a few bucks selling cartons of cigarettes on street corners for a friend. It turns out that the friend works for the mob and is skimming the cigs. Soon enough, he sleeps with the fishes. But the head wiseguy (Gedrick) likes the woman’s spunk, sassy talk and good looks, so he offers to let her run a dumpy Italian diner he recently “acquired.” She is skeptical but desperate, and goes for it. In the least plausible part of the story, she suddenly is full of design expertise and business acumen and miraculously turns the place into a successful night club (no mention of where the capital improvements came from). Her success attracts the attention of capo de capo Caan, who could play a mobster in his sleep, as he does here. He wants the woman to smuggle drug money from Canada. Eventually, everything goes wrong, as you knew it would, and she is cornered, holding a gun at Gedrick’s head. But the ending, though not believable, is more clever than you might suspect. Milano gives a reasonable performance. She has potential for greater things. The other players are not distinctive in any way. Production values are high and overall, the movie is enjoyable if forgettable.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Australia: Grade F

Australia (2008)
Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman; Co-writer and director Baz Luhrmann.

Kidman is an English aristocrat who goes to northern Australia just before the Japanese bombed Darwin in 1942. Her husband is dead but she decides to continue running the cattle ranch with the help of ranch-hand Jackman. There is some predictable humor as the city girl confronts the grit of the outback.

The movie is actually a concatenation of two stories, which explains its 2 hour plus running time. In the first story, she must get 1500 head of cattle to Darwin before the monopolistic cattle baron King Carney sews up the contract with the army. A ragtag crew is put together, including herself on horseback, speaking politely to the cows (guffaw!), a drunk handyman, and a cute aboriginal boy. Together they endure many misadventures as they drive the cattle for several days. The landscape is beautiful and beautifully photographed. There is a subtheme of the boy’s relationship with his grandfather, an aboriginal shaman who seems to live in the wild, away from any community. In the end, the cattle arrive on time, she gets the contract, saves the ranch, earns her spurs and falls in love with Jackman. What more could you want?

Then the second movie starts with the Japanese invasion. There is much fire and destruction, the boy is captured by Catholic missionaries and taken away, and Kidman is separated from Jackman. Each assumes the other has been killed, but then there is a sentimental reunion with swelling violins, and you’d never guess this part, the young boy is returned safely also! Everybody goes back to the cattle ranch happy, healthy, and whole.

The acting is terrible, even from Kidman, who is a master of the craft, so I would have to put that down to bad directing. Everybody barks their lines without context, while gestures are pure canned ham. Even Kidman’s famously expressive facial twitches are exchanged for slack-jaw farce. At first I thought all this was supposed to be ironic, because the movie has the feel of a 1960’s television show, like an extended episode of Bonanza. But it’s not ironic, it’s just bad.

Music is exceptionally obnoxious; loud, irrelevant, in-your-face orchestration that instructs you what to feel at each moment. The aboriginal theme is trivialized rather than explored. CGI effects are primitive, intrusive, and unconvincing. The narrative is just one cliché after another, utterly predictable, cloyingly sentimental. The second story was perhaps supposed to be a Gone With the Wind or Casablanca sort of epic showing individuals as pawns in a larger historical drama, but if so, that failed also, because the individuals were only cardboard cutouts and the war story only perfunctory. Is the great Australian scenery enough of a value to save this movie from failure? Not quite.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Doubt: Grade B

Doubt (2008)
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Viola Davis; Writer-Director John Patrick Shanley.

The harsh principal of a Catholic school in 1960’s New York (Streep) believes for no reason that the head priest (Hoffman) is abusing one of the boys in her class. Then one of the teachers (Adams) reports that the boy had alcohol on his breath after a conference with the priest, though that action was off-screen. In fact the whole movie is talking heads discussing other places, other actions, other conversations. No action is seen first-hand, making it a slow-moving movie, but not quite boring. The principal confronts the boy’s mother (Davis) who gives a knockout, memorable performance in her short scene. Acting by everyone is at a very high level, and that makes the movie worth watching.

The priest asks the principal if she has any evidence against him. She doesn’t, she admits, but she has certainty. The priest asks her if she has doubt, and she says no. So the theme of certainty without evidence becomes a parable for religious faith versus doubt. For those who are slow to pick up that connection, the priest gives several sermons to make it obvious. And that’s about it. Nothing happens, nothing is resolved. Dramatic tension is parasitic on recent cultural hysteria about priestly sexual abuse of children. The story does not develop its own tension. Costumes and sets are excellent, especially the dowdy parish offices and classrooms. The stench of church authority, delusional ritual, and small-minded thinking succeeded in getting up my nose. Exceptionally fine performances redeem a weak story.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Seven Pounds: Grade C

Seven Pounds (2008)
Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson. Director Gabriele Muccino.

Will Smith is aging well. The lines in his face make him look distinguished, and he can still manufacture that dazzling smile. He is an IRS agent who, improbably, goes around to people’s homes, offices, and hospital beds to hassle them about their tax debt. Along the way, he encounters and eventually falls in love with a woman (Dawson) with a bad heart who only has a month too live. Cue the violins! This is a set up for the most maudlin of melodramas, right up there with ghost lovers and reincarnation stories. As the girl gasps and faints toward her destiny, Smith continues to visit a motley selection of debtors for unfathomable reasons, doing things that are not motivated by his character. We get flashbacks to suggest a great tragedy he is trying to forget, but instead of turning to gin, he drowns his sorrows in tax collection? None of it makes sense and it is hard to take the character or the story seriously.

However the developing romance was engaging because Smith and Dawson give such interesting performances, despite the weak, unrealistic dialog. Harrelson also shines. Good acting raises this disaster of a story up to average. Sets, costumes, and camera are high quality, but the story is a fishnet with too many holes to catch a genuine emotion. Ultimately our questions are resolved in a plot turn that ties up as many loose ends as a jellyfish has tendrils, but the ending is no more believable than what has come before, and is so crassly sentimental that I just shook my head in disgust when the bell rang for me to cry. There is a serious social theme brought forward at the end but only as a gimmick. It would have been a much better movie to tackle that theme straight on and dump the ridiculous redemption story, which was incoherent, implausible, and badly told.

Tell No One: Grade C

Tell No One (2006)
François Cluzet, Marie-Josée Croze ;Co-writer and director Guillaume Canet. (French, subtitled).

The first half of the movie is a good mystery/thriller. (A mystery is where the crime has occurred and the only question is whodunit. In a thriller, you don’t even know what is going on until later.) A pediatrician (Cluzet) and his wife (Croze) are at their summer cabin when she is kidnapped. (There is a rash of recent movies where the husband is on a swimming dock while the wife is on shore when something bad happens. Who voted for that device ?). Eight years later, the Dr. receives mysterious emails and a video clip that appear to be from his wife. Could she still be alive? He begins to investigate the history of the incident and as he does, clues slowly dribble out to us, but then the police get interested and he is the prime suspect in his wife’s demise. They don’t believe she is alive because the body was identified by the father. But then the movie goes south. The Dr. flees the police, his path hidden by a layer of red herrings. Also, many of the women looked similar and were hard to discriminate. The story became so arbitrary that the nominal surprise ending was anticlimactic. Good acting, poor screenplay.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Grade C

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal; Co-directors Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan. (In English and Hindi subtitled).

A young man in Mumbai (Patel) wins the grand prize on the Indian TV show, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. As he approaches winning the jackpot he is interrogated and tortured by police because, as a beggar from the slums (a slumdog), they assume he must be cheating. During the the interrogation he describes his impoverished life with his brother (Mittal), and a childhood playmate (Pinto). That life is shown in long flashbacks intercut with the quiz show and the interrogation. Improbably, the questions asked on the quiz show just happen to be on topics of which he has some personal experience from his chaotic life. That is not believable, but as a storytelling device it gives the narrative the tone of a fairy tale and removes us from immediate engagement. The young man’s brother goes to work for a gangster and the slumdog gets various jobs in Mumbai as he searches for the young girlfriend he now longs for.

This movie won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2008. Everyone loves a melodrama, I guess, especially if it involves poor children who make good and if love conquers all. Heavy-handed sentimentality does not have universal appeal however. I prefer a story that tells us what people are made of, or at least one that engages the intellect. These characters do neither. Much as been made of the great acting by the children and young adults here, but it is only “great” because they are not trained actors. If you take the acting at face value, it is adequate at best. The story is boring, repetitive, contrived, and too long (two hour running time). The characters show little emotion and they behave opportunistically, rather than from complex motives. The themes of the movie are trite (poverty is awful; rags to riches; love conquers all). On the mix of Bollywood vs Hollywood, I’d say it was 60/40.

On the plus side, it is an authentic-looking portrait of some aspects of India on the low end, beautifully photographed. Mumbai is almost unrecognizable since I was there. The music is contemporary Indian, quite interesting. Scenery, sets, and costumes are excellent. It’s not a bad-looking movie; just not very interesting.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Special: Grade A

Special (2006)
Michael Rapaport, Alexandra Holden, Jack Kehler; Co writers and directors Hal Haberman & Jeremy Passmore.

I have been a fan of Michael Rapaport since I saw him in Zebrahead in 1992 when he was only 22 years old, and I never could understand why he didn’t become a mega-star. Looking over his bio, it seems he has opted for serious acting roles in small movies, and for television, where I have surfed over him a few times and been appalled at the waste. But he’s back at full strength in this small, obscure movie.

Rapaport plays an ordinary, lonely guy, a parking cop, who signs up for an experimental drug testing program. The drug makes him believe he has super powers, such as the ability to levitate, read minds, and walk through walls. He decides to become a superhero so he makes himself a hilarious but sincere costume like a white ski outfit cum flight suit. He proceeds to thwart crimes at convenience stores and on the street by tackling the bad guys.

The brilliance of the writing and directing is in management of the point of view. We learn that police are searching for a strange guy in a white costume who tackles innocent people on the streets and in stores, and we start to get the idea that “Les” is delusional and that this movie’s genre is not fantasy but realism. Then it switches back to Les’s point of view and we realize that even if he is nuts, he has never before felt so confident about himself. The pills have given him new life, which is exactly what patients say after taking Prozac or other antidepressants. So we wonder, is he really delusional or just eccentric in living his life to the fullest? The point of view flips around skillfully, keeping us guessing and the dramatic tension high.

It is a very well-made movie, well-acted, and it illuminates the human condition. What more could one ask? Rapaport is even better than I remember him, in Kiss of Death (1995), for example. He is a joy to watch. Alexandra Holden, who has a small part, gives a standout performance.