Sunday, June 28, 2009

Another Woman: Grade A

Another Woman (1988)
Gena Rowlands, Mia Farrow, Ian Holm, Blythe Danner, Gene Hackman, Sandy Dennis, Martha Plimpton, John Housman. Writer & Director Woody Allen

Despairing the quality of summer releases, I went to the stacks and pulled out this gem from 20 years ago. Better acting in an adult relationship film you will not find. Gena Rowlands is an eminent college professor who overhears a conversation between a young woman (Farrow) and her psychiatrist concerning love, relationships, self esteem. This gets the professor thinking about her own life and relationships. Later we see that her relationship with her husband (Holm) is perfunctory, and although she still seeks a flame of romance, he has long since shut her out with clever words. She meets an old friend (Dennis) and discovers that relationship is not what she thought it was. She sees her husband with another woman. And on and on. Nothing happens. There are no gunfights, explosions, car chases or even much laughter. But the story does goes to the heart of modern adult relationships. Sets and costumes are deliciously perfect in the Woody Allen trademark style of wealthy New Yorkers. Every detail is perfect. Cinematography (Sven Nyquist) is stylish and perfect as always. And the acting! Gene Hackman was flat, but the others were memorable, especially Sandy Dennis. This is a movie that rewards another look.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Code: Grade D

The Code (aka Thick as Thieves) (2009)
Morgan Freeman, Antonio Banderas, Robert Forster; Director Mimi Leder.

How does a big star like Morgan Freeman get roped into projects like this? He is a master jewel thief who recruits Banderas, apparently a professional thief as well, to steal two Faberge eggs from “Romanov’s” a Russian jeweler in NYC. Stupidly but predictably, the owner of the shop gives a guided tour of the impenetrable security, demonstrating the biometric passwords, laser scanners, motion detectors, and the biggest steel vault door you have ever seen. But this is all no match for our thieves. Catherine Z. Jones looked good dancing between the laser beams in some other movie with this cliché scene, whereas Banderas slips by on a mechanic’s crawler. In the end, there are complex double-crosses and surprise plot revelations that contradict whatever fragile plausibility the beginning of the movie ever had, so the story only works for people with memory deficits and short attention span, which is maybe the intended audience. It’s a waste of acting talent, although the players do their best. It was nice to see Robert Forster on screen again.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Saturday Night Fever: Grade A

Saturday Night Fever (1977)
John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney; Director John Badham.

This glorification of the disco era is much better than I remembered it. The acting is remarkably good, directing is good, and the story has a lot more subtlety and sociological complexity than I remember. New York sets are rich and authentic. Travolta is king of the Brooklyn disco hall, often opposite partner and romantic interest Gorney. Disco dancing (of the Travolta-esque kind) looks contrived and silly, but the killer Bee Gees music makes it infectious nevertheless. I always liked disco music and was sorry to see it fade away. None did it better than the Bee Gees. This is definitely worth a repeat look.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Don't Move: Grade D

Don’t Move (2004)
Penelope Cruz, Sergio Castellito; Director Sergio Castellito. (Italian, subtitled)

This was Cruz’s breakthrough to stardom and it is worth watching just to see what she looks like without makeup and before her face work. Her performance is good, as is Castellito’s but the story is weak and I never believed in the relationship between the two main characters. A married surgeon from the city has a car breakdown in the country. He meets Cruz and asks to use her phone but then rapes her. Great way to start a relationship. Weeks later he returns to apologize but ends up having sex with her again. She submits passively and unenthusiastically for reasons unknown. He doesn’t even bother to take off his pants when he does her. Actually there is very little nudity in the film. Similar episodes are repeated several times until they are in a sort of default “relationship.” Few words are ever spoken between them. Meanwhile, his daughter is injured in a traffic accident and he is upset by that. Finally, both women get pregnant, his wife and his country lover. You would think that as a doctor he would have some clue about how such things work. Everybody is thrown into crisis and the ending is somewhere between despairing and tragic. The cinematography is good, scenery is good. It is a very slow movie since only about three events happen in the whole 90 minutes. It is billed as “erotic” but I found it to be anything but. You can see the spark of life in Cruz however that eventually made her into a big star.

Defiance: Grade F

Defiance (2008)
Daniel Craig, Liev Schrieber; Director Edward Zwick

Two Jewish brothers flee the Nazis in Poland to hide the forests of Belarus. Others get the same idea and soon they have a community of several dozens, then hundreds of refugees. Nazis hunt them down, and so do Russians, with whom they form an uneasy alliance to fight Nazis. There are a few gun battles of the type where no Nazi can hit any target but no Jew ever misses, but mostly it is the story of how the community survives and evolves. They are hungry, dirty, sad, and despairing, but they endure with dignity and fortitude. Craig stares off into middle distance quite a bit, supposedly to indicate depth of character, but actually indicating air-head since we know nothing about the character or what he might be thinking. Characters speak English among themselves in the forest but only Russian outside it, for some reason. Finally the time is up and the movie ends without resolution. Supposedly the whole tale is “based” on a true story, but so what? Nothing interesting happens. Dialog is pedestrian, vignettes are mundane, characters are not developed. I think we have already got the picture on this period of history. Nazis: bad. Jews: victims. There is nothing new to learn here. Some nice scenery and sets are shown, but even there, the forest had no underbrush, which seemed unnatural.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Grand Torino: Grade A

Grand Torino (2008)
Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her; Director Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood is Walt, a crusty old Korean War veteran who lives alone in a run down section of Detroit that has been taken over by immigrant families including the extended southeast Asian Hmong family next door. He talks to himself and his dog so we can understand that he is still fighting the war, angry, alone, bitter, and an unrepentant racist. By chance, he saves the young neighbor boy from a group of Hmong gangbangers, so he becomes a neighborhood hero. He tries to reject that role, but gradually and grudgingly takes a liking to the young boy and his sister. The youngsters all speak English while the parents and old people do not, which gives ground for a good deal of humor. Walt voices some outrageous racist comments, which the Hmong youth accept with equanimity since he is obviously just an old fart who doesn’t know any better. That part is not exactly realistic, but it does show the audience the racism that is just under the surface in real life so it serves a social function. Walt teaches the young man some skills, and he gets a job, but the gang just won’t leave him or Walt alone. Walt realizes that the younger generation has no chance at all of making a decent life while the gang is around. His dramatic resolution to the problem invokes a complex of Dirty Harry and Catholic symbology in a predictable but effective ending.

The movie is a deft combination of serious drama, sociology, humor, history, tender feelings and “message.” For example, Walt gives the “Clint Eastwood Look” of intimidation several times and waves large guns while staring down bad guys, but never fires a weapon in anger. The only people who do are handcuffed and sent to prison. Yet the spirit of Dirty Harry is not lost. “You ever notice how there are some guys you just shouldn’t fuck with? Well I am that guy.” There are many layers and allusions to appreciate in this movie. I’d have to say it is as good, or better than Forbidden. Clint is nearly 80 now and we probably won’t see him on screen much more. If so, he goes out on a high note.

Valkyrie: Grade D

Valkyrie (2008)
Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branaugh, Tom Wilkinson, Terrence Stamp, Eddie Izzard; Director Bryan Singer.

Cruise is Claus von Stauffenberg, the Nazi colonel who led the 15th and final plot to assassinate Hitler during WWII. The plot fails and he is shot. The movie relies on general historical knowledge, general interest in Nazis, and on some big name stars to keep you interested but it barely does. There is virtually no dramatic tension in the film. The bomb is in a brief case so there are not even any red LED numbers counting down. Most of the movie is taken up with bureaucratic infighting and negotiations among the Nazi officer corps (“Are you with us or not?”). The characters are flat and the acting mediocre, even by Branaugh. Wilkinson gives the best performance but he is swamped by swooping cameras and over-lit sets. Direction looks like made-for-TV. CGI effects are noticeably weak. Sets and costumes are immaculately clean and shiny, and nearly the whole movie is shot on unconvincing sound stages so we do not have a sense of time and place. The war itself is strictly in the background. Dialog is lame. Cruise’s motivation is simply declared in the beginning, but we don’t know where it comes from because we don’t know who he is. He demonstrates non of his natural wit and style; just speaks his lines on cue. Pounding heartbeat music tries to inject some drama. The period vehicles are nice to look at, and the story plods along slowly but steadily. There is just enough color and movement to save the movie from utter disaster.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The International: Grade B

The International (2009)
Clive Owen, Naomi Watts. Director Tom Tykwer.

In this thinking-person’s thriller, Owen is an Interpol agent trying to bring down an international bank he believes guilty of money laundering and weapons dealing. The bank is named after the real IBBC bank which collapsed in a cloud of corruption and criminal scandal in the 1980’s. Watts is a NYPD detective pursuing the bank’s New York office, working with Owen on the case. Unfortunately, Watts gives a terrible, flat, non-believable performance that kills any relationship theme between the two of them. This is a mystery in itself because Watts has proven herself a first rate actor in other contexts. She must have had bad direction.

Owen’s Interpol partner is killed as he interviews someone at the bank who will turn state’s evidence, and as Owen pursues clues, everybody ends up dead either just before or just after he talks to them. The point of view is omniscient so the audience knows more about what’s going on than he does, and that puts the burden on us to keep it straight, but after the movie is over, you realize there were a million loose ends. Who killed Calvino, and why? IBBC had no motivation. Why would Calvino’s sons believe Owen’s wild tale? At the time, you think such mysteries will eventually be resolved so you let them go, but in the end they are still hanging out there.

Owen’s performance is quite good, as are several supporting actors, and the overall story is marginally plausible. The film is visually excellent, shot in high contrast blacks, whites, and yellows, and featuring some very fine European architecture and some creative angles. The action highlight is a terrific gun battle inside New York’s Guggenheim. Music is unobtrusive and attractive. It is not a satisfying story, but an entertaining movie.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Revolutionary Road: Grade B

Revolutionary Road (2009)
Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio. Director Sam Mendes.

Winslet was nominated for best actress in this film and won best actress for her much less compelling (although naked) performance in The Reader. This is by far her better work. DiCaprio also delivers outstanding acting and the two of them raise this mediocre screenplay far above average. Imagine Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. DiCaprio is some kind of cubicle worker in 1955 New York city (did they have cubicles then?) and Winslet is the suburban housewife in Connecticut. Despite being young newlyweds at the bottom of the food chain, their house is a magnificent, two-story, 5,000 sq. ft Colonial outfitted for a prince, but never mind that, because real estate agent Kathy Bates calls it a “charming little cottage,” so there you go! We never do understand what DiCaprio does for a living but he hates the job, has martinis for lunch we see the affair with the secretary coming from a mile away. We don’t know what Winslet does all day either. She acts in a dreary community theater, but her two young children don’t eat, read, go to school, play ball or even talk to her, so that must leave her a lot of free time. Yet she feels suffocated in a pre-Betty Friedan sort of way and yearns for she-knows-not-what, but it would definitely be in Paris. Instead of that, DiCaprio takes the big promotion at work, so they fight. Dishes are thrown, chairs are smashed, epithets are hurled. Events ensue. The ending is not happy.

The screenplay is mundane and predictable. The 1950’s are caricatured as strict, suffocating conformity, and some of that was true, but I remember those times and there was plenty of diversity. After the war (WWII), people were extremely eager to have stability, conformity, predictability, respectability and above all, steady income. It was not oppression, it was opportunity. For DiCaprio and Winslet to be existentially tormented, they would have to come from a very non-typical background, but we know nothing about their history, social class, education, parents, military service, nothing at all. We don’t know why they feel trapped by circumstance. They are mere stereotypes.

Recreation of the 1950’s is pretty good, although with anachronisms, and over-use of the same Buick. This could have been a killer movie if it had been set in modern times, because then the writers could not have relied on 1950’s stereotypes and would have had to come up with some real character motivation and dig into some genuine existential issues. Still, it is worth watching for the good acting.