Sunday, July 19, 2009

12: Grade B

12 (2007)
Numerous Russian actors unknown in the west; Co-writer and director Nikita Mikhalkov. (Russian, subtitled).

This is a remake of the 1957 classic American courtroom drama, Twelve Angry Men, done in a peculiarly Russian way. The broad outlines of the original story are kept, but instead of the American version’s didactic exercise in critical thinking, the Russian characters make their points and persuade each other with rambling, often poignant, personal stories, characteristic of traditional Russian culture. The accused is a young Chechen, reviled and presumed guilty of killing a Russian military officer, but the stories gradually introduce a sliver of compassion, shreds of doubt, and eventually a re-thinking that overturns the initial consensus. It didn’t seem as dramatic a conversion as in the American tale, but that is probably because I am American, not Russian. I got the sense from the stories told that the drama would have been quite intense for a Russian audience. Acting is uniformly good, pacing is good, and it is enjoyable to get glimpses into the values and thinking of ordinary Russians. It would have been a better movie if it had been an original Russian story “based on” a similar situation and had not used clunky adherence to original plot points. But maybe the larger message was that educated Russian society is now thinking about democracy and justice along American lines.

The Caller: Grade C

The Caller (2008)
Frank Langella, Elliott Gould. Co-writer and director Richard Ledes.

In this stylish neo-noir drama, Langella is a financial analyst who blows the whistle on an energy company’s evildoings. Naturally, they hire a contract killer to silence him. He knew they would do that, so he hires a PI (Gould) to keep an eye on him, but he tells Gould (with an electronically disguised voice) that “the subject” is a dangerous murderer. The logic of that move is unclear. The PI gets to know the exec, without realizing he is also his employer. He learns a few things about the exec, all of it mundane, none of it important. In a series of irrelevant Langella flashbacks to a WWII childhood, we learn that the exec and the PI were childhood friends who narrowly escaped the Nazis in France. Gould however is unaware of this historical link, and in the climactic scene of the movie, he becomes aware. So what? So nothing. The story in all its parts is pointless. However, you might want to look at this movie anyway to see Langella’s fine, brooding performance, and excellent acting from Gould and several other characters, and the high quality cinematography, directing, and music, especially bandoneon music, which I am nuts about. This is really an attractive movie; too bad they did not have a decent story to tell.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Humboldt County: Grade C

Humboldt County (2008)
Jeremy Strong, Brad Dourif, Frances Conroy, Peter Bogdanovich; Co-writers and co-directors: Darrin Grodsky & Danny Jacobs.

Uptight medical student Peter (Strong) goes on a bender and wakes up in a hippie house in the redwood forests of Humboldt County, CA, the marijuana growing capitol of the nation. Some mildly humorous straight vs stoned scenes follow as we get to know the colorful characters of the community. Peter abjures the weed and vows to get back to town but somehow manages to miss the once-daily bus several times. Gradually he becomes sympathetic to the potoculturists and when he is finally “rescued” by his overbearing and arrogant father, a prominent physician who treats him like an idiot, Peter has to make a life choice. Guess what it is.

The acting is good and the characters are interesting, although shallow stereotypes only. They laugh and sing, eat and drink, forget things and tell wild stories, but only one of them, an ex-theoretical physicist, has any background of interest. We get just a tiny glimpse of that. Overall, it is a pro dope movie, and the growers are shown in a favorable light. They argue that they are simple farmers who live lightly on the earth, harming no one, and should be left alone. They don’t mention who their buyers are, and whether those buyers are also committed humanists or possibly armed members of international drugs cartels, and there is no hint that the growers are part of an illegal drugs supply system that brings untold grief to millions of people and their families when users end up imprisoned, or worse. So that argument is extremely one-sided and annoying for that.

Yet when Peter argues that as a medical student, he accomplishes more in one week than his cannabis obsessed counterpart has in his lifetime, that is something to think about. Is it true? What do medical students accomplish? What does anybody accomplish in life? Aren’t all our so-called accomplishments just exercises in self-aggrandizement? When you’re dead, what does all that accomplishment matter? Maybe you will get a bridge named after you. Whoopee. If “accomplishment” is an inauthentic value, why not just smoke dope, don’t worry, and be happy? Why worship the frontal lobes? It makes you think (if you don’t inhale).

Having Peter and his father be physicians gives more weight to their argument, because physicians alleviate human suffering, surely a worthwhile value and a legitimate rebuke to the dope growers. In the end, Peter chooses the life of the weed, so the film makes its point. Yet there is ambiguity. Was Peter’s choice a personal Oedipal reaction, or was it a symbolic rejection of mainstream society’s emphasis on achievement and accomplishment? While these issues are presented sophomorically, it’s still a good film for a discussion group.