Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning: Grade C

Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin; Director Christine Jeffs.

Adams is a single mom working as a housecleaner in Albuquerque. She realizes it’s a dead-end job so she cajoles her sister (Blunt) to start a waste removal cleaning service with her, cleaning up blood and guts after crime scenes, suicides, etc. There are plenty of gross-out scenes as the ladies deal with all manner of body fluids and filth, but the main theme is the drama of Adams trying to better her station in life by doing “whatever it takes” to make good.

The best scene is when she goes to a baby shower for an old high school acquaintance and hopes to appear successful and respectable to the snooty middle-class women there. It is a tribute to the director who pulled that performance out of Adams. Lord knows how many takes it involved; the editing is not seamless. The scene stands out head and shoulders above all others in the movie, the way Virginia Madsen stood out in Sideways(2004) when she explained Pinot Noir. Adams definitely demonstrates her acting chops in this movie.

But beyond that sterling performance, there is little going for this picture. It is moderately funny in places, mildly interesting, slightly charming. Blunt and Arkin turn in good performances. But the story goes nowhere. Two girls start a company, ta-da. Nor is there any character development. So the movie adds up to zero, but Adams is the reason to take a look at it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sleep Dealer: Grade A

Sleep Dealer ( 2008 )
Luis Fernando Peña, Leonor Varela, Jacob Vargas; Co-writer and Director Alex Rivera. (Mostly Spanish, subtitled).

This low-budget, sci-fi indie gets an A for its genre, but like nearly all sci-fi movies, it is more fascinated with its technology than with human drama, so allowances must be made.

In a near-future North America, Mexican laborers “telecommute” to the U.S. by plugging their nervous systems into computers so they can remotely operate robots across the border that pick fruit, perform welding and yard work. As the manager of a telecommuting center in Tijuana notes, it gives America its foreign labor without the foreigners. The main theme is technological imperialism and human exploitation, ostensibly under the guise of anti-terrorist vigilance.

Memo, a young Mexican in Oaxaca (Pena), built his own HAM radio and while surfing picks up a police channel. He overhears police chasing then killing some offender. In his own neighborhood, drone aircraft patrol the private dam that has blocked his village’s river and ruined his father’s small farm. The drones are operated remotely by pilots in San Diego. When the San Diego corporation detects that they have been overheard by a HAM operator, they order a strike, and Memo’s family home is blown up, his father killed. The incident is reported on TV and hailed as a victory in the ongoing fight against terrorism.

Memo leaves for Tijuana to earn money for his now destitute family. He finds work as a telecommuter, operating remote construction robots in California. He must have “nodes” installed on his body to interface to the computer, and an attractive young woman (Varela) installs them for him, and they develop a relationship. The details of how Memo plugs into the computer are visually fascinating, reminiscent of scenes from Brazil (1985) and Blade Runner (1982), as well as William Gibson’s classic novel, Neuromancer. We, and Memo, discover however that “jacking in” to the computer eventually destroys your nervous system and makes you blind, so the human exploitation embodied by the system is total.

The romantic story with the girl develops in an interesting way, and so does an unlikely relationship between Memo and the pilot who killed his father (Vargas). The ending is predictable and unimaginative, but plausible and Hollywood Happy.

It is an extremely well-made film, especially considering its budget; beautifully photographed, intellectually stimulating, and dramatically interesting. I especially appreciated creative camera work, shots using mirrors, and so on. The main disappointment is the lack of an overall message. The important political and economic themes of the movie are not dealt with. Those issues are raised, shown, but abandoned. Perhaps that is the film’s message: heartless capitalistic exploitation will continue and nothing can change it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Gomorrah: Grade B

Gomorrah (2008)
Salvatore Cantalupo, Salvatore Abruzzese, others; Director Matteo Garrone. (Italian, subtitled).

The movie documents some activities of the Camorra, the crime syndicate of Naples. The American spelling of the title is arbitrary.

The camera stays mostly close up on various characters as they extort money, trade guns and drugs, commit murders, make dirty deals, and intimidate people. A postscript emphasizes that these are genuine activities of the Camorra, which is a plague on southern Italy.

The narrative skips among three threads: two airhead young men who want to be gangsters find a cache of weapons and embark on an “independent” life of crime, which is not tolerated by the mob; a high fashion tailor sells trade secrets to a competing Chinese couture house, a move the mob does not appreciate; and a group of mobsters provide a discount hazardous waste disposal service, but they just bury the stuff illegally at night.

The movie is confusing. You can vaguely discern the outlines of the three threads, but they don’t intersect and lack internal structure. None has much dramatic tension or character motivation. Unidentified people are killed for vague reasons not established. There is no unfolding drama as in The Godfather or Goodfellas. Rather, daily murder and mayhem are as mundane as going in to the office every morning. Ignorance, decay, poverty, and egocentricity are palpable and stifling. Acting and directing are so good it doesn’t seem like acting and directing. You feel you are watching a verite documentary.

There is a keen feel of reality, as if you had been inserted into Camorra operations without a clue. You would be confused and disoriented, horrified and frightened. The close camera gives that sense of presence. Sometimes I thought I was a mosquito about to buzz into someone’s ear. Even long shots are framed by a close-up detail like a window frame so you always know where you are located in the scene. The camera did not seem to be hand held, although it moved around anthropomorphically. The sense of presence given by the camera was something I had not experienced before. You could almost smell the body odor of the characters.

What makes this movie worth watching is the extremely fine cinematography. I was enraptured for the entire 90 minutes by the pictures, even though I had little idea what was going on. Every shot was stunning in color, composition, and point of view. You could turn the sound off and enjoy this movie. I have rarely seen such a confident camera. To fill the frame with a close profile and watch a man smoke a cigarette takes guts. You have to truly believe it is an excellent shot to spend a full 15 seconds on it. And in this film, there were a lot of courageous shots and they were all excellent. I often paused the DVD to take a longer look.

The movie is “presented by” Martin Scorsese. I’m not sure what that means, but his imprimatur is not wasted on this cinematography.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tyson: Grade D

Tyson (2008)
Mike Tyson; Writer-Director James Toback.

This documentary biography of boxing champion Mike Tyson is mildly interesting. Head shots of him (now in his 40’s and retired) talking about his life are interspersed with archival clips from his life, mostly from the ring, but also of weddings, press conferences, and so on.

He had a remarkable life, rising from poor, neglected street kid in Brooklyn to a multi-millionaire, international sports figure. Along the way he served prison time for rape, and famously, bit off part of the ear of one of his heavyweight opponents during a match. But no topic is pursued in detail. There is no interviewer and no hard questions are posed. Tyson simply rambles on in self-exculpatory fashion. He does reveal himself, perhaps more than he intended, as an angry and depressed, uneducated, under-socialized criminal, irresponsible and financially incompetent; a rapist and a drug addict (all this by his own admission except the rape charge, which he denies without detail). How interesting can a psychopath like that be? His moments of self-reflection produce banal conclusions. He seems not capable of providing insight into his, or any life. For crucial incidents (such as the ear-biting), he simply denies personal responsibility (“I just blacked out momentarily”). Maybe that’s so, but it illuminates nothing. The result is a superficial exercise in self-aggrandizement, of value only for dedicated fans.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yonkers Joe: Grade B

Yonkers Joe (2008)
Chaz Palminteri, Christine Lahti, Tom Guiry; Writer-Director Robert Celestino.

I am a longtime fan of Chaz Palminteri so I may be overrating this movie, but I enjoyed it despite its often sagging pace. Joe is an old gambler and hustler, an expert in cheating at cards and at dice. He bets the ponies compulsively, apparently with mixed results, and practices palming dice to relax. His comfortable life in Yonkers with his girlfriend (Lahti) is disturbed when a facility caring for his retarded son (Guiry) expels the teenager for aggressiveness. The old con man is panicked, at a loss about what to do with the child, but his girlfriend responds better to the challenge. The retarded character is extremely annoying and was a significant negative for me. It was some kind of implausible synthesis of Down Syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, nonspecific cognitive deficit, and most annoying, a sensorimotor problem that had the young man hold his jaw off to one side and speak as if he had CP. The picture is so wrong I winced every time I saw him on screen. Perhaps those less familiar with developmental disorders could accept the stereotype.

Joe must come up with a pile of money to pay for a group home to get the kid out of his house and off his back, so he decides to run a dice scam in Los Vegas, even though his buddies tell him it is impossible to beat Vegas security. But he has a plan that makes a great plot, with lots of interesting moves and good internal tension. Meanwhile, his girlfriend is increasingly ticked off at him for not stepping up to his fatherly duties with his son.The two stories come together when Joe does finally establish an emotional connection with his son just as the dice scam reaches its conclusion.

It is a sensitively written movie, part grifter-thriller, and part adult relationship drama. The relationship theme was too slow, too predictable, and not drawn sharply enough, so it always was a maddening diversion from the gambling plot, which was far more interesting. The relationship side of the story didn’t have anything to say. Many dramatic possibilities were overlooked.

Palminteri acts better than I have ever seen him, the venerable gangster stereotype even doing “sensitive” relationship scenes convincingly. Supporting characters are very strong. Directing is strong, especially in small details and gestures. Sets are perfect. It is hard to say why this independent project does not come alive on both levels, but it’s got enough going for it to be worth a look.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sin Nombre: Grade A

Sin Nombre (2009)
Paulina Gaitan, Kristian Ferrer, Édgar Flores; Writer-Director Cary Fukunaga. (Spanish, subtitled).

A father and two youths from Guatemala make the long journey north to escape the poverty and hopelessness of their lives. They walk, and boat, and travel through Mexico riding on top of freight trains, dodging the border patrol, scavenging food, shelter and water as they can. It is a well told story, very realistic, not over-sentimentalized, but sympathetic. As they cross Chiapas in southern Mexico, a young man (Flores) jumps on the train with a few fellow gangsters. They are members of one of the notorious Latino gangs similar to the mafia. They start robbing the hundreds of migrants at gunpoint, but when the mean, ugly, psychopathic gang leader attempts to molest the young girl from Guatemala (Gaitan), his fellow gang member has an attack of scruples and slashes the leader's throat with a single slice of a machete. He knows that makes him marked for death. He continues on the train north, but the gang is international and will not forget about him. The Guatemalan girl befriends him and as they jointly dodge border patrol and gangsters, they develop a relationship. The young man realizes the futility of the gang life, but it is too late for him. The girl seems oblivious to this darker side of life, but maybe not. It’s ambiguous. The ending is realistic, but definitely not Hollywood Happy.

Acting by the young people is excellent. Scenery and music are excellent. Photography is excellent. This is a compelling movie without a false note. It would have been easy to slip into melodrama, like Slumdog Millionaire did, but this picture is completely honest. It conveys a palpable sense of the reality of the Latino gangs and shows how easy it is for youngsters to get involved with them. The title means “without a name,” perhaps a reference to the nameless millions who attempt the journey to El Norte each year. There is perhaps a secondary political statement, but this is primarily a love story that illustrates a world alien to most of us.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Rudo y Cursi: Grade F

Rudo y Cursi (2008)
Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna; Writer-Director Carlos Cuarón. (Spanish, subtitled)

I like foreign films, other languages, other ethnicities; I like seeing how people live in other cultures, what they assume about life, what the world looks like to them. But this film might be just too ethnic, even for me, because I could not get a thing out of it. Granted, I am not a huge soccer fan and this movie focuses on two brothers from a poor village in southern Mexico who aspire to become professional soccer stars. They achieve their goal when an unconvincing talent scout implausibly “discovers” them in their village and whisks them off to the big leagues, though even to my untrained eye, they aren’t very good players. So they make a lot of money, get a fancy apartment, a big white SUV, are on TV, and have lots of women and champagne. Woo-woo. They visit their village as heroes but also as aliens, no longer able to relate to village life or even to their families. Finally there is the inevitable “big match” where everything is at stake, and it all comes down to a penalty kick with one brother kicking and the other the goalie. What drama!

This is all predictable, without an ounce of real tension. The acting is hammy, dialog uninteresting, story unbelievable. The relationship between the brothers is not well developed. Directing and cinematography are unremarkable. It is nice to see village life in southern Mexico, but that is only a small part of the film. I’m sure I am being culturally insensitive but for me, this wasn’t even adequate soap opera.

Triangle: Grade C

Triangle (2007)
Simon Yam, Honglei Sun, Ka Tung Lam, Kelly Lin, Yong You, others.
Directors Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, Hark Tsui; (Chinese; subtitled)

In this contemporary Hong Kong crime drama, three men discover a buried treasure worth 8 million dollars. A suspicious detective hovers about as they try to fence it, but he is also sleeping with the wife of one of the men. They lose the treasure, recover it, lose it again, recover it again, and so on, until there is a long, drawn out gun battle at the end. The story is pretty silly, and anyway, it is not clear that the men committed any crime so why were they on the run from the police?

Oh, well, never mind that, because what this movie is really about is the three directors. Each director takes a 30 minute segment, and the different styles of work is what makes the film interesting. The first third is like a typical thriller, with the men skulking about at night, then digging up the treasure, and with the theme of the unfaithful wife. The style is atmospheric and the photography is high contrast, self-consciously dramatic. The story is a bit hard to follow because it took me a while to catch on that the cop’s girlfriend was a wife of one of the diggers. Without transition, you gradually realize that you are in the second segment, because the style has changed so radically. Now it is a psychological drama with the main treasure hunter obsessed by his wife’s infidelity and becoming violent, unpredictable, even crazy as he tortures the cop. There are vignette scenes that mix his imagination with reality. It is interesting and artistically done, but disconnected thematically from the thriller format that had been developing, so the character doesn't make psychological sense. The cop gets away from his tormenter and the chase is on, and before you know it, it is a madcap chase worthy of the Keystone Cops. You realize you are now in the hands of the third director who turns the film into a farcical comedy.

Basically it is three different 30 minute movies, loosely stitched together. But none of them bothers to give a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. The result is like some experimental novel where different authors write succeeding chapters. It is neither a set of short stories, nor a coherent novel. So it is fun to see the directors’ styles, but as a movie, it is unsatisfying. A format like that used in The Driver (2001) works better, where the same short story is told in its entirety by different directors.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Goodbye Solo: Grade D

Goodbye Solo (2008)
Souleymane Sy Savane, Red West; Writer-Director Ramin Bahrani.

A pathologically cheerful Senegalese taxi driver (Savane) picks up an angry, misanthropic old man (West) in contemporary North Carolina. They agree that the driver will take him to the mountains in two weeks. They see each other several times before that and the driver realizes that the old man is depressed and possibly considering suicide. Gradually the men form the barest thread of a connection that could possibly be construed as friendship. There is no plot, no motivation, no outcome, no point to any of it. Each man denies his loneliness to himself and the other, but finds a tiny solace in caring. (I am generously attributing or imagining a theme that may not really be there.)

Acting by the two principals is very good, but without anything to hang on to, the story is just a set of unconnected scenes. At least 20% of the movie is composed of long shots of the taxi driving around, and short shots of the driver driving it. The rest of the movie is about as interesting. The relationship does not develop so much as creep along, so little is revealed about either character. Bahrani is expert at portraying the circumstances and struggles of hard-working immigrants (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart), but this project doesn’t come up to his standards, either narratively or photographically.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Big Man Japan: Grade A

Big Man Japan (2007)
Hitoshi Matsumoto. Co-writer and Director Hitoshi Matsumoto. (Japanese, subtitled)

This bizarre film can only be recommended to the adventurous. The protagonist, “Big Man Japan” (Matsumoto), is a middle aged television actor in contemporary Tokyo. His terrible, low-budget sci-fi show, on at 2am, struggles to keep sponsors. In the show, a giant (“Big Man”) as tall as the buildings of downtown Tokyo, fights evil monsters just as big. The CGI effects are purposely clunky to recall classic Japanese sci-fi of the 1950’s. The monsters are the most creative you will ever see. Forget giant ants, lizards, and moths. These monsters are direct from the id but at the same time hilarious, more so, I imagine, if you were high.

Adding complexity, the premise is that the actor is being interviewed in documentary style, so a camera crew follows him everywhere, into his crowded apartment, a restaurant (where he only eats “super-noodles”) and on a visit to his estranged wife and beloved daughter. We learn that he endures large blasts of electricity which transform him into the superhero giant. He complains that he is getting old and the electric jolts are hard to take, but he is the only one of his type left. His ageing grandfather (Big Man the Fourth) has dementia, he believes, because he took too much electricity in his youth. The realities of the actor’s life and of his superhero character are so skillfully blended that we become unsure what kind of a movie we are watching. Is he really a superhero and not an actor? Or both? What is the deal?

Then there is a third layer of meaning in which we discover that as a child the actor was abused by his father (now dead), but was saved by his grandfather. The worst monster, a sort of red devil, thus represents the actor’s inner demon, his unforgiving memory of his father. In a final scene too strange to describe, a family of justice encourages him to find peace with the past. He does overcome his demon, but in yet another twist during the credits, we discover that coming to terms with the past is not a state of bliss.

Then we start to rethink the other monsters as symbols. Are they actually complaints about life in ultra-crowded Tokyo: crushed by the sheer press of people, stepping on them and being stepped on, having no privacy from peering eyes, enduring the stink of living so close, and so on? A whole new social meaning emerges to what we have been watching. Was this story a representation of the actor’s mental state all along, the monsters actually dream symbols? What is the reality? There are also historical and cultural dimensions I have not mentioned.

While reaching to the edge of delightfully, hilariously confusing madness, the movie demonstrates how to use the medium to its maximum capacity and not waste it photographing stage plays. The colors and effects are brilliant, exciting, and extremely creative as visuals. Photography is first class. The layers of allusion are dizzying. The music is terrific. However, if you like straight Disneyesque fables, you should skip this one because it will make no sense to you.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

An American Affair: Grade C

An American Affair (2009)
Gretchen Mol, Cameron Bright, James Rebhorn, Marc Pellegrino; Director William Olsson.

The only reason to watch this picture is Gretchen Mol, whose performance is a beacon in a dim terrain. She is a wealthy artist and divorcee in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) and also one of JFK’s many mistresses. Mol’s ex-husband (Pellegrino) is CIA and he is pressured by his boss (Rebhorn) to get Mol to warn Kennedy of vague imminent danger just prior to the assassination (an allusion to the Oliver Stone thesis). We are to believe that JFK has cut off contact with the CIA so Mol is “the only remaining line of communication.” However, she wants nothing to do with that, and anyway, JFK has dumped her and she can no longer even get into the White House. Add a rich Georgetown youth next door (Bright) who is infatuated (mostly hormonally) with Mol, and steals her diary, which implausibly looks like a schoolgirl's. The CIA must have the diary, they suspect the boy has it. This is all afterthought to lend some conceptual direction to a rambling story. Characters do not change over time, and there is no plot development other than pursuit of the diary in the last 15 minutes, so the movie is plodding and uninteresting. The boy’s search for a sexual coming of age is 100% cliché. There are numerous linguistic anachronisms. Only Mol (and to a lesser extent Rebhorn and Pellegrino) keep you awake. She captures the big screen in every scene she is in. Costumes and sets for 1963 are perfect – too perfect, not a seam out of place or a lampshade deviating from level, or even the tiniest suggestion of dust or disorder. Everything looks like museum tableaux not places people inhabit. The movie is setbound and there is no attempt to recreate the Washington of a half century ago, which would be a formidable task. Instead, cliché news clips of Kennedy are shown on TV, but that is a weak convention that doesn’t convey us to another time.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Informers: Grade C

The Informers (2009)
Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Wynona Ryder, Mickey Rourke, Rhys Ifans; Director Gregor Jordan.

Four stories are about life in LA during the early ‘80s, that is, life of the rich and irresponsible, or criminal and irresponsible. The stories are intercut so we follow all four at once, but they are only tangentially related. In all of them, uneducated, undeveloped, egocentric characters drift along without self-awareness -- not very interesting.

Ifans leads a punk/rock band. Band members are enormously wealthy, stay only in luxurious hotels, smoke weed, snort coke, and engage in continuous orgiastic sex with all manner of youth, both male and female. What a life. But they are mean-spirited, cynical, bored, and clueless.

Thornton is a wealthy music producer, separated from his wife (Basinger), who is some kind of neurotic recluse who occasionally sleeps with one of the band members. BBT is having an affair with a news announcer (Ryder), who remains in mannequin mode even when not on TV. The producer is a generic self-centered bastard/asshole but we find out late in the movie that he also shoots up drugs when Basinger loans him her syringe after they attempt a reconciliation.

Rourke (pre-Wrestler) is a criminal lowlife who kidnaps a boy to make some quick cash for his heroin habit. He and his drifter girlfriend share needles too. The kidnap payoff does not go well and he has to skip town in a hurry.

The briefest story is of a young man who might have been part of the Informers or just a groupie, who inexplicably accepts an invitation to go to Hawaii with his estranged father, a conventional dimwit square. Between them is icewater that remains even in Hawaii.

The “ending,” if it can be called that, is that one of the band’s promiscuous groupies develops Kaposi’s sarcoma, a pre-AIDS condition and lays dying on a California beach in her bikini. The message seems to be wistful: ah, for the good old days, when there was unlimited sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, and nothing to worry about! AIDS was identified about 1980 and is not known to these characters. Therefore what? If only they had known about AIDS, they would have had a strong moral sense and been upright citizens? AIDS is their punishment for debauched lives? This movie doesn’t know what it is trying to say.

On the plus side I could watch Thornton, Basinger and Rourke all day. They’re great. Hard punk/rock music was beyond my taste. Otherwise, the scenes, the script, the directing, the cinematography are mechanical and cliché. Despite these serious shortcomings, the movie does give the sense of a rich, ignorant and aimless lifestyle that is interesting, and it does make you wonder how social life would have evolved without the AIDS epidemic.

Monday, September 07, 2009

State of Play: Grade B

State of Play (2009)
Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Robin Wright Penn; Director Kevin MacDonald.

Crowe and McAdams are investigative reporters at a Washington, D.C. newspaper sniffing around a congressional scandal. The story is loosely an update of All The President’s Men, although the stakes are somewhat banal in this case: scandalous behavior by a young congressman from Pennsylvania (Affleck). The story starts with grander ambition, considering the question of whether outsourcing of military security to private firms is ethical, constitutional, or even good policy. This issue is topical and has gravitas. But disappointingly, it fades away, leaving a garden variety sex scandal.

Crowe is investigating the suicide of the congressman’s assistant, and a back alley murder, when he unexpectedly finds a connection between them. There is a moment of realization every bit as good as when Robert Redford heard the Watergate burglars name a white house official in court. Times have changed since the 1970’s, especially the newspaper business, but this story pretends that newspapers and their reporters still shake the world. They don’t, so the tension feels contrived here, despite Crowe's anachronistic haircut and corduroy sports jackets.

It is a star vehicle for Crowe. He is in almost every scene, to the detriment of the other actors and characters. McAdams holds her own against him, but her cub reporter character is not as important. Mirren, the newspaper boss, is a master of exasperation, but she only has one good acting scene. Affleck’s performance is bland. Maybe that was what the character called for but it produced a placeholder not a narrative force. Wright-Penn is a pleasure to watch, although her part is small.

It is a low-key “talkie” thriller where the excitement stems from the information we (and Crowe) have and don’t have. There isn’t much action except in the opening scene. There are plenty of loose ends and internal contradictions, including a very unlikely final confession blurted out by the congressman when confronted with vague innuendos. Despite these faults, it is a relatively tight thriller with superior acting, directing, photography, editing, and music, and terrific sets.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Duplicity: Grade C

Duplicity (2009)
Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti; Writer-Director Tony Gilroy.

Just like Ocean’s Eleven, which it apes in style, this movie is coruscation without content. Owen and Roberts are easy on the eyes, no question about that, but two hours of them is more than an eyeful. They are ex-government spies now employed in corporate espionage. Wilkinson is head of a big consumer products company that has a new “game-changing” shampoo, all very hush-hush. Giamatti is his opposite number who must have the secret formula to the new product. I find it impossible to get past Giamatti, into the character. He is full of arbitrary mannerisms and manufactured intensity. His acting seems desperate, without direction, and not funny, a contrast to his performance in Shoot 'em Up. Anyway, both corporations have substantial security departments to protect their secrets. Owen works for Giamatti while Roberts works for Wilkinson. So far so good, other than the ho-hum McGuffin.

But actually, Roberts also works for Giamatti’s team. She is a mole on the other side, and Owen is her “handler.” In a series of time slices we learn that the two have a long history as competitors and lovers and each has a difficult time trusting the other. That interaction, repeated without mercy, is cute and funny the first few times. The dialog is all clever phrases and snappy comebacks, unrealistic but reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. The happy talk and pretty faces glide us over the choppy story. There are plenty of unexpected twists, lies, bluffs, and ambiguous loyalties to consider but there is no real dramatic tension because the writing depends on withholding information from the audience so you can’t really tell what’s up. The story itself has no inherent suspense. And unforgivably, it doesn’t add up. The ending is just a twisty turn for its own sake that is inconsistent with what already happened, a crash landing for a story on autopilot.

Cinematography is strong, with sets in such sumptuous detail you can almost touch them. Orange and blue filters are overdone, but the lighting is generally thoughtful and mood-setting. The acting is nondescript because the characters are only cartoons. That style can work for a caper movie, like The Thomas Crowne Affair, but in this case the writing was not up to the challenge, so we are left with a two hour fluff that is not unpleasant.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Surveillance: Grade C

Surveillance (2008)
Julia Ormond, Bill Pullman, Ryan Simkins; Co-writer and Director Jennifer Chambers Lynch.

Pullman and Ormond are FBI agents called into investigate a horrible multiple homicide on a stretch of desolate rural highway near Santa Fe (although the film was shot in Saskatchewan and looks like it.) Two lunatic highway cops make a sport out of shooting out a tire on a passing car, then cruising up to the car and sadistically tormenting its occupants. In the second episode of that game, they hassle a nice middle class family on vacation, and a couple of high druggies stumble upon the scene, then in the midst of all that, there is a traffic accident. The outcome is a high body count.

Pullman and Ormond interview the one surviving policeman, the one surviving druggie, and the only survivor of the family vacation, a little girl (Simkins). The interviewees give self-exculpatory accounts but a series of omniscient flashbacks show us what really happened, more or less. The flashbacks use the annoying and manipulative technique I call “camera suspense,” where the camera’s point of view is restricted to create artificial suspense. Unlike the Roshomon technique, the camera is not attached to a character. We see arbitrary extreme close-ups and sub-second cuts. It’s a substitute for careful writing.

David Lynch’s films usually didn’t make much sense either, so why should his daughter’s? At least there were no rabbit-headed people walking around. The film is more on the side of realism than surrealism, but not by much. You must accept a steady stream of implausibilities, such as sadistic, psychopathic cops running amok, shooting out tires on a moving car with a pistol at 500 yards, the FBI investigating a highway accident, and so on. Even the victims do not act realistically. And the ending, while a genuine surprise, is unmotivated, the kind of ending that negates everything you have seen so far, leaving you with nothing. It demonstrates contempt for the audience.

Having mentally disturbed characters excuses a writer from having to engage the human condition, because crazy people might do anything at all without obvious motivation. The technique is a hallmark of poor writing.

On the plus side, the movie is well photographed, well-directed, and very well-edited. Acting is above average, even from Pullman, a familiar character actor who shows his chops. The visual imagery is striking and memorable, with lots of gun violence and plenty of blood. Dialog is crisp. If there had been better story it would have been a real winner, but perhaps that’s asking too much from a Lynch.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Dirty Pretty Things: Grade C

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okonedo; Director Stephen Frears;

The three main characters are illegal immigrants working at a fancy London hotel. Ejiofor’s character, the desk man, discovers that black market human organs are being traded at the hotel, and worse, the surgeries are being performed there also. Destitute immigrants trade kidneys for forged British passports and money. Being illegal, Ejiofor and his colleagues cannot go to the police. Meanwhile the immigration service is on everyone’s back trying to catch them working in the country illegally. There is good tension when they raid.

This movie is of the “Ain’t it Awful!” genre. Instead of relying on the main story line of the black market organs, or developing the lives of the characters, the movie focuses instead on the plight of illegal immigrants, the humiliations they must suffer, the long hours they must work, their poverty, oppression, exploitation, yada, yada; all while they hold their heads up high, pronounce high moral principles and fierce allegiance to their ethnicity. It is all too much. I get that illegal immigrants have a tough time. However, they are illegal, so what can they expect? It’s an old story and not particularly well retold. A movie like The Visitor does the topic much better.

Meanwhile, the organ market story is not explored in detail. There is a twisty penultimate scene that is satisfying, although the final ending is a melodramatic sapsucker. And I thought the sound engineering was poor: muddy dialog throughout. Acting by the principals is excellent however. I am a huge fan of Ejiofor, and enjoyed watching him, even though this is not his best performance. And who can resist Audrey Tatou’s trembling upper lip? Okenedo is magical, and it is a mystery in itself why we do not see more of her. So good acting redeems an otherwise substandard movie.