Saturday, August 29, 2009

Julia: Grade B

Julia (2008)
Tilda Swinton, Kate del Castillo, Aidan Gould; Director Erick Zonca

This is Tilda Swinton’s well-deserved vehicle that proves what a stunningly good actor she is. She is mesmerizing; you can’t take your eyes off her even though her character is an unlikeable, acerbic drunk.

She kidnaps a boy (Gould) and negotiates the ransom, but the plan does not go as smoothly as she hoped. It takes two and a half hours (!) for no plot to develop. Where was the editor? It is easy to see where an hour could have been cut out. Instead of plot, there are arbitrary twists and turns, one damn thing after another, and maybe that idea was to parallel the character’s chaotic life, but it just made for a chaotic story line. Along the way, we see her develop a softer side as she forms a relationship with the boy, but she does not really undergo any great transformation, have an epiphany or learn any great lesson. So the movie is not strong as a character piece and is too drawn out to sustain dramatic tension as a thriller. But Swinton carries every scene with amazing intensity.

Photography is crisp, bright, and unobtrusive. Sets and costumes, in California and Tijuana, are excellent. Lighting is exceptionally good. For example after a drunken night, the harsh light of dawn, actual and psychological, is clearly shown. Directing is flawless. If only there had been an editor on hand! Maybe the filmmakers realized they had a gem of a performance from Swinton and were loathe to cut any of it. That’s understandable, but it was the wrong decision.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Soloist: Grade C

The Soloist (2009)
Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey, Jr., Catherine Keener; Director Joe Wright.

In this docudrama of a true story, Foxx is Ayers, a schizophrenic homeless man in contemporary Los Angeles. Downey is an LA Times reporter who does a story on Ayers’ skilled playing of a violin with only two strings. He befriends Ayers. In his research he discovers that Ayers was once a gifted cello player with the LA symphony before he succumbed to schizophrenia. The reporter provides Ayers with a new cello and takes him to a couple of classical concerts.

There is no plot beyond that. The man has schizophrenia, which means he hears voices, has delusional thinking and incoherent speech. The reporter is unable to get psychiatric medicine for Ayers, not that he would want it or take it. The movie is really a dramatization of the awful plight of the homeless in all big cities. Most are victims of drug abuse and/or mental illness and all are in financial ruin. They are abandoned by their families and friends, by the medical system and by all of society (except for a few dedicated but overwhelmed social service organizations). This movie demonstrates all that, and gives a fairly accurate portrayal of schizophrenia. I was pleased that Foxx’s character did not suddenly become “cured” in Hollywood melodramatic style, upon playing the cello again, or upon meeting his mother again, because schizophrenia is an incurable brain disorder. It can go into remission, and it can be managed, but there is no happy ending.

As a docudrama this film performs an educational service. Acting by Foxx and Downey is superior and well-worth seeing. But as a movie, it is a not very interesting or entertaining, and as a documentary, it is superficial. It takes two hours to give a 15 minute story on homelessness. Neither Ayers' nor the reporter's life is examined in meaningful detail. Schizophrenia and its treatment are not explored. Not even the tragedy of becoming afflicted is well dramatized. The camera swoops around dizzily as on a TV show, for no apparent purpose, although there are a few individual shots that prove a good photographic eye is behind the lens once in a while. The dialog is pedestrian. The characters do not develop over time. We never do understand the reporter’s motivation for getting involved. Catherine Keener is wasted in an incomprehensible character. The overall pace is far too slow. And, as mentioned, there is no plot. There are some interesting DVD extras on homelessness in LA, including interviews with the real life Ayers and the reporter, but these do not redeem the movie.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Class: Grade C

The Class (2008)
François Bégaudeau (also wrote); Director Laurent Cantet. (French, Subtitled)

The French title is « Entre les murs », literally, “Between the walls,” a more appropriate title for this story of teacher of French in a suburban Parisian junior high school (students 13 and 14 years old). It is a docudrama, almost a documentary, of one academic year as professor Marin (Begaudeau) attempts to teach grammar and poetry to unruly, inattentive, and uninterested students. There are teachers’ meetings, PTA meetings, trips to the principal’s office, and all the ordinary events you would expect. There is a very slight story about a particularly disruptive young man who eventually gets kicked out of class. Other than that, nothing unusual happens. The movie is too long and too slow.

The strength of the movie is the interesting and genuine portrayals of the students (played by actual students, not actors, and largely unscripted), and of the teacher-student interaction. Few of us can remember what it was like inside a junior high classroom and it is impossible to get inside today unless you are the teacher. So this does give an authentic glimpse “between the walls” of that hallowed chamber. What goes on in there however is more depressing than enlightening. The students are justifiably uninterested in the imperfect subjunctive and the teacher is unable to connect grammar to life, so everybody is, predictably, frustrated.

As a lifelong teacher of young adults myself, the emotions are too close to home. I didn’t find it enjoyable or useful to glorify the frustration of trying to teach poetry to a stone. Not that I wanted yet another Stand and Deliver, but the upside of teaching was almost completely absent, leaving only “le bummer.” It’s a well-made picture and might be interesting to non-teachers who wonder what goes on entre les murs.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Last Hit Man: Grade B

The Last Hit Man (2008)
Joe Mantegna, Elizabeth Whitmere, Romano Orzari; Writer-director Christopher Warre Smets.

Mantegna is a worn-out hit man near the end of his career. His daughter (Whitmere) drives getaway. He doesn’t want her to know he is burned out, but she suspects and is protective of him. When he flubs an assignment, the employer sends a hit man after him (Orzari) but they end up becoming friends and try to find out who has ordered his death. The ending is believable and poignant.

Mantegna gives a very sensitive performance. He is not a stereotypical mobster, just an ordinary guy who misses his deceased wife and loves his daughter and enjoys his country house. His assassin cum friend (Orzari) also shows subtlety and complexity. The director really knows how to pull expressive performances out of small gestures and a few words. Whitmere does a competent job but her character is under-written so she is relegated to the obvious. It is the two men who keep you riveted. The story is inventive enough to keep up the pace. Photography is excellent, especially the black and white sequence before the titles. This is not great art. You have to accept that people hire contract killers to solve their problems, that murderous psychopaths also have gentle family lives and ordinary values, that there are no police or insurance investigators sniffing around, that killers never leave evidence, that bodies bury themselves, and much else. But within the constraints of the genre, this little Canadian film is surprising and satisfying.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29: Grade D

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2008)
Various players who were on the teams; Director Kevin Rafferty

Unless you are an American football nut, you can skip this documentary about a college football game that happened forty years ago. The game is shown play-by-play, in unrestored television footage with washed out color, grainy images, and with the original announcer. Between plays, there are contemporary interviews with bloated old guys who were on the teams in 1968. They recall every play, every move, every nuance, like golfers after the round telling with deep emotion how their birdie putt lipped out on number eleven.

The documentary is competently made, but I am at a loss to understand why anyone would care about a forty year old college game. Was it a good game? Sure. Yale was ahead by ten points at the half but Harvard turned it around to tie the game. But again, so what?

I wonder what such contests would be like if there were no onlookers. The reminiscing old players talked repeatedly about the euphoria of being cheered. They say it was life-changing. How that could be, I cannot imagine. The game is a socially manufactured situation, entirely arbitrary, with nothing of consequence at stake. Certainly athletic contests measure a person’s skill and character in ways that go back thousands of years, and are worthy for that. But the game itself is not the point, the performance is. That is not how Earthlings see it, apparently.

The crowd’s excitement is just as mysterious. Noam Chomsky once remarked in an autobiographical comment: “I was watching the game when I suddenly wondered, why do I care if my team wins?” Exactly.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Unknown Woman: Grade B

The Unknown Woman (2006)
Kseniya Rappoport, Clara Dossena; Co-writer and director Giuseppe Tornatore. (Italian, subtitled).

A young Ukranian woman (Rappoport) searches for work as a cleaning woman in northern Italy. Gradually we discover that it is not just any work she wants; she must work in a particular apartment building. Then by hook and crook, she wheedles her way into a position as a maid/nanny for a particular family. Why she is stalking this family, we do not know, but the tension is palpable. Through a series of brief but graphic flashbacks, we discover that she had been a sex slave in the Ukraine. She escaped by killing her boss in a gory, blood-soaked scene, and she took his stash of cash also. Inevitably, the Ukrainian bad guys are after her and the money. Slowly we learn why she is interested the Italian family, and at the same time is pursued by her old Ukranian boss, despite him being dead (she has to kill him again). It makes no sense at all. There are many other inexplicable non-sequiturs in the story and the ending is particularly unsatisfying. The brutal violence in the sex slavery scenes is hard to take, but it is integral to the story and not merely exploitative.

The pace is too slow, as European movies are for Americans. I could easily have edited 30 minutes out of the two hour run time. On the plus side, the movie is beautiful. It is very finely directed (Tornatore did Cinema Paradiso), and superbly acted. Sets and costumes are perfect. The story has just enough direction to carry us through the scenes, even if it does not add up in the end. You watch this movie for the exquisite acting, excellent directing, thoughtful photography, and lovely language. Overall, it is a worthwhile and memorable movie experience.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Phoebe in Wonderland: Grade D


Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)

Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Pullman; Writer-Director Daniel Barnz.

The only thing that saves this self-consciously precious domestic melodrama from total failure are a few excellent acting scenes. One from Huffman, as the mother of her disturbed daughter (Fanning) is riveting. Clarkson possesses the screen each time she is on, even if she says hardly anything. I grudgingly admit that Fanning is charismatic, though I object to exploitation of child stars. She is only an adequate actor but has the incongruous face and voice of a female twice her age.

Phoebe is about 10 and suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, a variant of OCD. At first we see just children’s games of the “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” variety, but soon full fledged OCD emerges. Oddly, despite being a Ph.D. candidate, the mother remains unaware and thinks the girl’s problems at school are caused by her own inattentiveness. She rejects recommended psychiatric medication out of ignorance. Phoebe gets succor and zenlike advice from the monosyllabic drama teacher (Clarkson), gets in trouble with the caricature dimwit principal, but the show must go on! (the show is Alice in Wonderland). The conflict over psychiatric meds remains unresolved, as does the child’s future.

There is about 30 minutes of story. The remaining hour-plus is filled with mind-numbing domestic scenes of no consequence, kids acting precocious, adults pronouncing clichés and platitudes. There is a mild but genuine story about the difficulty for parents of recognizing and coming to terms with childhood mental illness, but here the theme was swamped by maudlin sentimentality. There may be an audience for this kind of movie among brain dead mothers who don’t get out much. It’s hard to fathom why critics generally liked it.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Tokyo! : Grade A

Tokyo! (2008)
Numerous unknown Japanese and French actors; Co-writers and Directors: Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Joon-hoo Bong; French and Japanese (subtitled).

These three strange stories are not for everyone. They are weird and surreal, but beautiful, provocative, well-acted, well-directed and exceptionally creative Each film is about 30 minutes and produced by separate directors, crews and actors.

In Interior Design a broke young couple searches for their first apartment in Tokyo. The young man wants to be a filmmaker and we see samples of his fantasy work. The woman has no apparent direction, although we otice that she is a talented visual artist. He criticizes her for lacking ambition and direction and she becomes despondent and turns into a wooden chair. Yes. The story reminds me of Kobo Abe’s 1967 one-act play, The Man Who Turned Into a Stick.

In the second film, Merde, A deranged man who lives in the sewers surfaces to terrorize Tokyo. He is arrested but there are only three people in the world who speak his strange language. The film has a lot of fun with how arbitrary languages can seem. Monsieur Merde’s special language involves hoots, whines, guttural noises, tapping the teeth with a fingernail and slapping of the right side one’s own face with the left hand. It’s hilarious, but a careful observer will note that the language sounds are culled from actual human languages, and that there is a definite syntax to the made-up language. The linguistic games reminded me of the synthetic language in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. It could be an overdeveloped theme for those not as interested in language. What does Mr. Merde stand for? He is definitely from the sewers and that metaphor could be taken literally. There is also a suggestion that he represents Uncle Sam or at least, non-Japanese foreigners in general.

Finally there is Shaking Tokyo, about a man who has become a recluse, living inside his Tokyo apartment without seeing anyone for ten years. He orders his pizza and dry cleaning by phone, until one day there is an earthquake and he accidentally makes eye contact with the attractive young pizza delivery girl. Eventually he leaves the house to search for her and finds the streets empty and the city deserted. Everyone has become a recluse! Apparently this is a real social problem in Tokyo, and it is understandable, the population pressure being so enormous in that city.

Any one of these films is a gem. All three of them are mind-spinning. There are interesting DVD extras, each as long as its film. Highly recommended for the adventurous.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Killshot: Grade B

Killshot (2008)
Micky Rourke, Diane Lane, Rosario Dawson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Thomas Jane; Director John Madden.

A strong cast and outstanding photography make this action-thriller a good watch. Rourke is a mafia hit man in northern Michigan who, for no reason except maybe loneliness, makes friends with a psychopathic (close to psychotic) young man, Richie (Gordon-Levitt). The two of them shoot up the office of a guy Richie is trying to blackmail. The guy isn’t even in the office, but a husband and wife (Lane and Jane) are there, so obviously, they must be killed in order to “tie up loose ends.” But inexplicably, the bad guys leave and then have to hunt down the witnesses later.

Does this make sense? A mafia hit man needs to kill two real estate agents because they saw his face when some windows and plaster were broken? It is not a believable premise. One gets the feeling the script was re-written so many times it lost its way. The last part of the movie focuses on the hunt. The couple goes into witness protection, but predictably, that doesn’t work and there is a confrontation.

The story is so lame it robs the movie of any dramatic tension. However, much else about the movie is good. Rourke’s brooding Indian character is believable and fascinating. Gordon-Levitt gives 110% in an energetic performance well worth watching. Sets and photography are outstanding, characterizations for the bad guys are strong. The pacing flags at times, and Rosario is wasted, but it’s an engaging, satisfying film anyway, and Rourke stands out.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Great Buck Howard: Grade B

The Great Buck Howard (2008)
John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt. Writer-director Sean McGinly.

Malkovich plays such a perfect evil villain that it is a treat to see him play a comic role, although even here, there is a dark shadow over the character and the humor. He is an aging stage magician and mentalist, playing small audiences in towns like Bakersfield, Akron, and Cincinnati. He offers the same act he did 40 years ago on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, an achievement he tells to everyone he meets. But now he is old, crabby, and nobody cares. He hires a young assistant, Troy (Hanks, son of Tom) as his road manager. Troy treats Buck with respect, even recognizing he is a washup. Blunt is a publicity agent inserted into the story just to provide Hanks with a romantic interest. Her character does not do anything. She gives her best though, and reminds me of Juliet Lewis. And that’s it. There is no real character development, just characterizations, no real story, just a snapshot of these people at a moment in time. There are parallels to Mr. Saturday Night with Billy Crystal, but that film had a strong developmental arc. The stage magic is fun here but not explained and it is not the point of the story. I rate the movie well because I am a Malkovich fan, not because it is a tight movie.

The story is actually a quasi-biography of real stage magician “The Amazing Kreskin” who did appear on Johnny Carson’s show. It is not a close biography, just a “based on.” Still, it is well worth watching to see the Amazing John Malkovich exercise his craft, which is considerable. There are some very funny lines, many quite subtle, and tons of cameo appearances, including Tom Hanks, “The Stewarts” (Jon and Martha), John Goodman, Regis Philbin, and many others, demonstrating how well-connected Malkovich is. Caricatures of dingy small-theater venues are perfect, as are the overweight, ditzy women in charge of them. It’s not LOL comedy, but a definite tickler with a poignant streak.

Dead Like Me: Grade D

Dead Like Me (2009)
Ellen Muth, Britt McKillip; Director Stephen Herek.

This is a direct to DVD movie based on a TV series (of which I was unaware) that ran in 2003-2004. A group of four “grim reapers” are dead people who are assigned the task of reaping souls at the moment of death. They mingle among the living, disguising their calling but seem otherwise normal. (One assumes there is actually a much larger contingent of reapers to handle the tens of millions who die every day.) In this tale, the reapers start slacking their duties and enjoying their immortal “life,” with the consequence that one reaper (Muth) misses a reap and a young high school football hero goes into a coma instead of dying. It turns out that his girlfriend is none other than the reaper’s sister, who is still mourning her sister’s death. So the reaper now has a conflict of interest. Does she reap the soul of the young man as she is supposed to or let him live for her sister’s sake?

The movie does not make much sense conceptually but you have to go with the flow. And, you have to believe in “life after death,” which is a contradiction in terms, because as far as we know, there is only death after death. There is a heavy presumption of spiritualism and you must also buy the concept of ghosts. Beyond all the nonsense however, the story does address important themes of grieving the death of a loved one, and on teenagers first becoming aware of their mortality. The script is pedestrian, although with some moments of good humor. It is well directed, but not well acted. Worth seeing if you are between 8 and 15.