Sunday, May 31, 2009

Out of England The Stand-Up Special: Grade A

Out of England The Stand-Up Special (2008)
Ricky Gervais. Director John Moffitt

Gervais is the very talented writer, director and star of the original BBC The Office television series. I was not aware that he also did standup. This is his first HBO standup comedy special and it is a home run for those who enjoy British humor. His genius is in convincing you that he is telling you a story he just thought of. You know it takes weeks and months of very difficult work to get 90 minutes of material, but he makes it seem spontaneous. He does great facial acting, embarrassed giggles, and convincing self-interruptions to suggest that he is just making it up as he goes along, which is of course far from the truth. His best material tends to the intellectual, where he deconstructs ridiculous advertisements, pamphlets or child-rearing practices. I also loved his animal jokes, in which he seduces you into imagining animals having fantastic conversations. One of my favorite bits was on the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme. Note to parents: if your surname is Dumpty, don’t name your offspring Humpty. He’s already an egg anyway, isn’t he, and that’s bad enough. I was less amused by his crude sodomy and masturbation jokes, but it is his job to provide laughs for all levels of humor. His riff on obesity as a disease was misinformed and not funny for that. But he did have some great bits on the holocaust and on cancer patients, if you can imagine. Overall, I was delighted.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Let the Right One In: Grade B

Let the Right One In (2008)
Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson; Director Tomas Alfredson. (Swedish, Dubbed)

Oskar is a 12 year old, bullied terribly at school. He meets Eli, a 12 year old girl who moves into his apartment building. They strike up a friendship, but soon it becomes apparent that she is a vampire. Oskar is horrified but being so alone, he likes her anyway. She likes him well enough to avoid biting him, and she encourages him to strike back at the boys who bully him. These two themes are explored separately, the bullying and the vampire life, in a charming relationship story that seems quite ordinary except for the awkward detail that Eli must kill someone every day. This counts as a horror film for sure -- plenty of blood -- but the story is so gentle in its own way that it takes you by surprise. The final scene was obviously an afterthought designed to avoid ending on a completely down note, but it is not satisfactory. Too bad, because 20 minutes could easily have been pulled out of the rest to allow for a properly developed ending. Another complaint is that the voice actors were terrible. Animations can get good voice actors, why are they not available for dubbing? Maybe it was a cost constraint. Fortunately, this is a quiet film with not much dialog, so the bad dubbing is tolerable. I would much rather have enjoyed the Swedish language and read subtitles. Despite some obvious logical loopholes in the story, this is a well-made and surprisingly enjoyable movie.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Paul Blart Mall Cop: Grade C

Paul Blart Mall Cop (2009)
Kevin James, Jayma Mays, Raini Rodriguez; Director Steve Carr.

James is a proud but lonely security guard at a typical American suburban shopping mall. He imagines that he is actually a state trooper as he whips around the mall on his Segway. He longs for a young woman (Mays) merchant in the mall, to no avail. Bad guys invade the mall, take hostages, and it is up to James to save the day. The story is completely formulaic. It could have been lifted directly from Kung Fu Panda, for example, but the attractiveness of the movie is actually James’ comedic talent, which is considerable. He’s a great face actor, and remarkably light on his feet, turning in some good stunts. The script has some delicious moments (James co-wrote), such as when he corrects someone about his title: “Security Officer, actually, not Security Guard.” More of that could have made it a real winner. The movie is apparently designed for children (or adults with child-like minds), so a scene where he gets sloppy drunk in a bar seems out of place, but that is the only false note. It’s the kind of movie that makes you smile rather than laugh out loud.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Nobel Son: Grade B

Noble Son (2007)
Alan Rickman, Bryan Greenberg, Shawn Hatosy, Eliza Dushku, Mary Steenburgen, Bill Pullman. Co-writer and director Randall Miller.

In this offbeat comedy-caper, Greenberg is the twenty-something son of an egocentric, overbearing father (Rickman) who gives him nothing but contempt. The son meets a weird, poetry-reading woman (Dushku), but before the relationship can develop, he is kidnapped by Hatosy. The ransom payoff involves one of the more interesting car chases you will ever see. There are so many double and triple-cross plot turns that you don’t know who you can trust. The plot is thus unguessably clever but also self-consciously writerly. We don’t for a minute believe in any of these characters, but the dialog is intermittently witty enough that the implausible story successfully navigates between ridiculous irony and serious drama. Excellent acting by the three young people (Greenberg, Hatosy, and Dushku) makes the film compulsively watchable. Dushku especially is magnetic. Rickman blusters as only he can, and Steenburgen, as the youth’s mother, proves her greatness again. A small part with Danny DeVito is gratuitous. The music is strangely eclectic, from pounding techno-rave to subtle orchestration. Camera work and editing are often intrusive, probably trying to align with the comedic element. Despite a too-slow half hour opening, the movie quickly picks up the pace to become an unexpected oddball delight.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dark Matter: Grade C

Dark Matter (2007)
Meryl Streep, Le Yiu, Aidan Quinn; Director Shi-Zheng Chen.

Le Yiu is one of a group of students from China who come to America for doctoral research in cosmology under a famous teacher (Quinn). Streep is a social facilitator who helps the students find their feet in the new culture. Le Yiu is a brilliant mathematician but proposes a thesis that goes against the professor’s pet theory so he does not get his Ph.D. and becomes depressed.

Nothing much happens in this movie. The dramatic turns are tense to anyone with advanced academic experience, but pretty boring to everyone else. Exploration of the Chinese students’ cross-cultural experience is realistic and insightful. The highlight of the movie is outstanding acting from Streep and Le Yiu. Their expressions seem real and heartfelt and make the movie worth seeing. However, since nothing happens until the very end, the movie is basically boring. And the ending was obviously an afterthought. It rings false, inconsistent with the character. Photography, directing, and music are all good, and the acting raises the picture to the high end of average.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Taken: Grade C

Taken (2008)
Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace; Director Pierre Morel.

Neeson is an ex-government tough guy of unspecified type whose daughter (Grace) is kidnapped in Paris and sold into sexual slavery. He rescues her, apparently before much harm has befallen her. How he does this is not entirely clear. He just seems to know who the bad guys are and where to find them. When he does find them, he hits them with a single hand chop, which usefully renders any assailant lifeless. Despite his age, he is able to beat up whole roomsful and boatloads of young toughs in this way. Fortunately, none of them can hit a target even with a machine pistol at 6 feet, although Neeson does take a minor flesh wound late in the movie. By contrast, he never misses, felling his opponents with a single squeeze of the trigger. His body count runs over a dozen but the Paris police don’t give him any trouble. The car chases are conventional, the explosions grossly exaggerated. Music is loud orchestration designed to add excitement where the picture itself doesn’t have much. Dialog is predictable, the story unimaginative, and the acting unremarkable. This will do fine on TV.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Just Another Love Story: Grade A

Just Another Love Story (2007)
Anders W. Berthelsen, Rebecka Hemse, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Charlotte Fich; Writer & Director Ole Bornedal. (Danish, subtitled).

An ordinary family man living an ordinary life is in a car accident. The other driver becomes traumatically blind and amnesic. To get into the hospital to see how she is doing, he says he is her boyfriend. Her family is there and assumes he is the boyfriend they know about but have not met. Through deft directing and scriptwriting, it happens that he can’t get a word in edgewise so goes along with the ruse. The injured woman shows some improvement so the wealthy family urges him to visit often, which he does. He soon falls for the recovering woman and is accepted into her family, giving him a whole new life. However, as you might guess, things do not work out perfectly for him in the end.

It is a well-crafted story with just a few psychological loopholes, but they are small and no story is airtight. Suspense is high and the pace never flags. Characters are plausibly motivated. Acting is terrific, music attractive, mood-setting, but unobtrusive. Sets are quite good, except I got tired of the hospital bedside scene, which was overused. Cinematography and directing are exciting and creative. The filmmakers intercut pictures and juxtapose sound tracks aggressively as part of the storytelling, but it’s not overdone. The opening is especially creative. Sadly, the ending is a compromise. It is by no means a happy ending, but a jarring, self-referential voiceover attempts to insert some ironic humor into what would otherwise have been a very bleak ending indeed. It is supposed to be film noir, but apparently the market doesn’t take noir very well, so the filmmakers lightened it up, the spineless chickens. Apart from that, this is a nearly perfect mystery-thriller.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Grade F

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson; Director David Fincher.

This movie was not popular on Mars, where I live, although I understand Earthlings were wild about it, nominating it for best picture of 2008. It tells the story of a person born at 80 years old, whatever that means. Embryology aside, the person is baby-shaped and baby-sized, but has facial wrinkles and a doctor says he also has arthritis and cataracts, and is going to die. But no, this baby (Benjamin) will grow in reverse, to become younger every year, although his brain must develop in the normal direction, since an adult brain does not fit in a baby skull.

As Benjamin “ages” he gets younger, and moves from balding hair in a wheel chair at 7, to a mature gentleman, who, although only 20 years old, acts like he is 60. His skin has become smoother, his head hairy, but he also has grown into an adult-sized person, which wouldn’t make sense if his body is aging in reverse. How did Benjamin learn bodily coordination without a childhood of playing? Wasn’t school a bit awkward when he looked like he was in his 70’s? And were there no doctors or scientists around who might have been curious? Oh well.

In his “youth” Benjamin befriends the little redhead neighbor girl. Later, he goes off to seek his fortune at sea. He returns home in his twenties as Brad Pitt and by then the little red-haired girl is a young Cate Blanchett. They marry and have a child. Nobody notices or is concerned about his younger appearance. Oddly, Pitt loves rock and roll and living like a hippie, though his mental age would be over 60 at this point. He and Blanchett understand that he will be a mere child when the daughter grows up, so he leaves. The girl grows up and reads this entire story out of a diary he left, although we never saw him write in any diary, nor show an iota of self-reflection. So most of the movie is tedious voice-over, showing disconnected vignettes as illustration. Dialog is banal. Acting is unremarkable, except for Swinton who does a good job with a terrible part.

CGI effects are laughable, but interiors are detailed and interesting. Makeup is amazing but there was no DVD extra on makeup, so nothing to learn there. There should have been some thought-provoking ideas but the basic premise was so confused that nothing can be inferred. As a 30 minute short, this could have been a charming conceit and we would forgive the contradictions. As a 2.5 hour movie, we expect some serious exploration of the idea, or the characters, or the historical period, or existential themes, or something, but there is nothing.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Last Chance Harvey: Grade C

Last Chance Harvey (2008)
Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson. Writer-director Joel Hopkins.

Hoffman is an American businessman in London for the wedding of his estranged daughter. Just before going there, he was put on probation by his boss, so he is doubly upset when he learns that he is only tolerated, not really welcome at the wedding. We have no explanation why he is in trouble at work or why he is not welcome at the wedding, but Hoffman does his hurt and bewildered Willy Loman act to great effect. He misses his flight back to New York and is fired. Depressed, he meets Thompson in an airport restaurant and strikes up a conversation. It is just barely plausible that they find an immediate friendship which develops quickly thereafter into affection. Her character is a lonely single in her forties (Thomson is actually 50), and we might believe she would be open to friendship with a 70 year old American she just met and knows nothing about. For him, the motivation is completely opaque. Implausibly, he convinces her to attend the reception after the wedding, where they bond, and eventually, the two of them walk off into the sunset hand in hand.

The story starts well, with scenes from Hoffman’s life intercut with parallel scenes from Thompson’s. Both actors demonstrate why they are truly great in these opening scenes. After the restaurant meeting however, the story switches from existential angst and humor to sentimental claptrap and by the time they go to the wedding reception, the script has degenerated to adolescent melodrama, from which it never recovers. Likewise direction starts out crisply but then degenerates to cliché montages indicating “romance.” Music begins with an interesting piano tune based on a Satie groove, but quickly mutates into loud, noxious, relentless orchestration. Overall, the fine acting in the first half makes the movie worth seeing, but the last half could be skipped entirely.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Nothing But the Truth: Grade C

Nothing But the Truth (2008)
Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, Vera Farmiga, Alan Alda, Angela Bassett, David Schwimmer. Writer and Director Rod Lurie.

Vera Farmiga, who we do not see enough of on screen, is a covert CIA employee in Washington outed by a newspaper reporter (Beckinsale). National security officials (Dillon, Alda) require the reporter to reveal her source or go to jail. She chooses jail. In a final flashback we learn who the source was.

Despite a fine cast and some good acting by Farmiga and Dillon, the story is not very dramatic. Why should we care who the source was? It means nothing to us. Nor do we really care that the CIA agent was exposed. No consequences are suggested, nothing is at stake. The reporter goes to jail for some months, and her husband (Schwimmer) leaves her, but jail was her choice; what did she expect?

The real life story on which this unimaginative tale is based was rich and dramatic. The agent (Valerie Plame) was allegedly revealed by a deliberate leak from the GW Bush administration in order to punish her husband, Wilson, a diplomat on assignment for the CIA. Wilson claimed that Bush lied about Iraq having bought uranium from the African state of Niger, part of Bush’s justification for the invasion of Iraq. Wilson found the report of uranium sales was fraudulent, and later the CIA confirmed that. His wife’s career was ruined as retribution for him revealing the president’s lies, he claimed. The White House denied this, although an aide to Vice President Cheney was convicted of obstruction of justice in the case. It later was revealed that the leak had come from the State department, not the White House. Plame’s career was ruined nevertheless and she resigned the CIA.

That is a way better story than the simple-minded one this movie told. This event could have been made into a fabulous political thriller. Instead, the movie took a pedestrian approach: reporter declines to reveal source, goes to jail, the end. It is yet another of Hollywood’s inexplicable lost opportunities.

While She Was Out: Grade F

While She Was Out (2008)
Kim Basinger, Lukas Haas; Co-writer and Director Susan Montford.

Basinger is an ordinary suburban housewife who can’t find a parking spot at a shopping mall at Christmas. She is annoyed by a big old car taking up two spaces and leaves a hostile note on its windshield. When she comes out of the mall, the owners of that car are waiting for her, four young punks who surround her with hypermacho lip. A mall guard intervenes and they shoot him dead. Basinger jumps in her car and for some reason flees to an uncompleted housing construction project, where she grabs the metal toolbox from her car and hides in some framing. The toolbox miraculously has no mass and she carries it effortlessly. The punks chase her into the nearby woods, improbably a mature Northwest rain forest. As they pursue her through the inexplicably well lit night forest, she manages to ambush them one at a time, killing them with tools far too large to have come out of the box. On the last bad guy, she uses her feminine wiles to get him sexually distracted, which works, despite the large difference in their ages.

Basinger has had some amazing cosmetic surgery that makes her appear thirtyish if you don’t look too closely at the grotesquely sculpted features or at her 55 year old hands. Still, she is far from being a female Bruce Willis, which I guess is what I was hoping for. The acting is abominable, especially by the young men, in keeping with the brain-dead story. Costumes, sets, music, directing, scenery, cinematography – all are so bad that you keep watching in horrified fascination, but that doesn’t make it worth your time.

The Hit: Grade C

The Hit (1984)
John Hurt, Terence Stamp, Tim Roth; Director Stephen Frears.

An English gangster (Stamp) turns state’s evidence against the gang then goes on the lam in southern Spain. Eight years later, inevitably, a couple of henchmen (Hurt and Roth) come for him. They need to transport him to Paris, where he will be killed, so the rest of the movie is a long road trip north, through the Pyrenees, into France. The trio acquires a young Spanish woman to act out stereotypical scenes. There are various incidents along the way such as bar fights, car breakdowns, temper tantrums, and so forth, as the characters get to know each other and we get to know them, during their journey. The henchmen are perfect stereotypes, Hurt with his implacable face and steely gaze, Roth the labile psychopath. Stamp plays a sort of otherworldly existentialist who accepts his destiny with equanimity, talks about life and death in philosophical terms, with humor, and does not try to escape. All three of those performances are enjoyable, even if the characters are superficial, because the story is delightfully oddball. This is a recent Criterion Collection re-issue with the film all cleaned up, colors bright, sound clear. Unfortunately there is only one DVD extra, a very boring television interview with Stamp.