Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Brothers Bloom: Grade C

The Brothers Bloom
Adrian Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, Rinko Kikuchi; Writer-Director Rian Johnson.

Brody and Ruffalo are brothers and con men in New Jersey. Brody wants out, but Ruffalo talks him into one last job, a complex hustle of a rich heiress (Weisz) that takes the trio to Paris, Prague (if I recall), someplace in Mexico, and other places. The McGuffin is a rare medieval book worth millions. Predictably, Brody falls in love with the mark and the job goes bad. Or does it? Maybe that was all part of the con. Maybe Brody is being played by Ruffalo. Or maybe Weisz is actually not the mark but is in on the con. By the end of the movie it is impossible to tell what is real and what is the con, which is how Brody’s character feels. So I guess that is tricky. What put me off though (besides Brody’s excruciatingly stiff acting), is the wacky screenwriting. Why was it necessary to have Weisz’s character demonstrate that she could juggle chain saws while riding a unicycle? Is that funny? It has nothing to do with anything. There are many such campy, tongue in cheek scenes that don’t make any sense and disrupt the story. Maybe I’m too old to understand the humor. Ruffalo gives a good performance, and Weisz is beautiful. Locations are attractive, but overall, the story was lacking in tension, not believable, and unnecessarily complex. Characters were less than two-dimensional, if that is possible. They were actually caricatures of characters. The movie is worth a mindless kill of two hours if your expectations are low.

Crossing Over: Grade C

Crossing Over (2009)
Harrison Ford, Ashley Judd, Ray Liotta, Jim Sturgess, Alice Shepard; Writer-Director Wayne Kramer.

Good plotting saves this familiar story of illegal immigrants trying to make a life in southern California. We’ve seen it all before: the immigrants are hard-working family people, but the nasty ICE keeps snooping around, deporting people, separating mothers from children, breaking up families, ruining lives, etc., etc. This edition of the story has a few variations that make it better than a mere rehash. Liotta is a crooked immigration bureaucrat who exchanges sex with a cute Aussie illegal (Shepard) for a green card; Ford is a way-past-retirement street officer who takes the trouble to return the child of a deported mom to the grandparents in Tijuana, and he also manages to solve a murder case involving an illegal muslim family. The film tries to represent the immigration authorities sympathetically. They are not uncaring bigots but sensitive officials and ordinary human beings just doing their jobs. It also tries to air brush the fact that the vast majority of immigrants to the US are Mexican. It does this by presenting a (non-random) “sample” of immigration stories including an Israeli, an Aussie, a Kenyan, a Korean family, and several Iranians, along with one Mexican family. However, Mexican immigrants constitute about 25% of all immigrants, while the next closest ethnic group is Chinese, at 5%. Why the film would attempt to distort these facts is unknown. Perhaps it was simply to introduce variety for entertainment value, but the political agenda of the movie suggests otherwise. Overall then, the film is mildly interesting with a bland but confused political message, some familiar actors but only mediocre acting and directing, and stereotypical characters. However clever mini-plots keep you just connected enough for its two-hour anthology of cases to be shown.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Merry Gentleman: Grade C

The Merry Gentleman (2008)
Michael Keaton, Kelly MacDonald, Tom Bastounes. Director Michael Keaton

Keaton is a Chicago hit man who chances to meet a young woman (MacDonald) who is hiding from an abusive husband. They develop a tenuous relationship that grows into friendship, although neither knows the other’s secret until a detective (Batounes) investigating one of the murders starts sniffing around. He questions the woman, who got a glimpse of the perp escaping and decides to ask her out, but he is coarse while she is polite and proper so they don’t hit it off. However, he finds out she is seeing Keaton and as much out of jealousy as professional duty, tails him for a while until his police instincts make him suspicious. He conveys his suspicions to the woman, who then becomes suspicious also. The end.

A movie can get away without a plot as long as the character studies are compelling, but in this case, we learn nothing about the characters, who are all stereotypes. The hit man shoots people, but we don’t see him in any context or have a clue about his motivation or background. Except for the fact that he is a cold blooded killer, he seems like a nice guy, albeit with a depressive streak. The woman has an extremely cute working class Scottish accent, but otherwise is a cipher. The hard-bitten detective is the best motivated character but that’s not saying much. So without plot, without character, what do you have? Some very good acting. Keaton especially gives a knockout performance, possibly his best ever. His supreme confidence nails the role. MacDonald is a rising star, for good reason, and newcomer Bastounes reminds me of Joe Mantegna. So this picture is worth seeing for the excellent acting and to see Keaton's very respectable debut as a director.

Savage Grace: Grade C

Savage Grace (2007)
Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Barney Clark, Eddie Redmayne; Director Tom Kalin.

If you like sumptuous costumes and sets, this docudrama is for you. The story spans 1946 to 1972, following the wife of an infinitely wealthy European (Brook Baekeland, heir of the inventor of Bakelite, an early form of plastic). Moore is the wife and she swoops around Europe in stunning outfits, visiting stunning villas and stunning restaurants, all lovingly photographed. It is a feast for the eyes.

Moore gives a riveting performance as the wealthy, foul-mouthed, gold-digger wife who married for money and cares nothing for her husband but dotes on her son (Clark and Redmayne). There is no plot. She and her son just appear in various places around Europe acting rich and fabulous, but as they do, we become aware that the relationship between mother and son is disturbingly more than just close, and that she is mentally unstable. In the end, we learn that the son is mentally incompetent too, although there was little forewarning of that fact, a weakness in the narrative. There is no throughput to the narrative however; it is just scene after unconnected scene until the tragic end. Characters are “based on” actual people, but we do not see any psychological development over the 25 year period, so there is nothing there. The residual is Moore’s excellent acting and the stunning photography of the costumes and sets, which is enough to make you sit and enjoy the whole thing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Escapist: Grade B

The Escapist (2008)
Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Damien Lewis, Seu Jorge, Liam Cunningham; Co-writer and director Rupert Wyatt.

It’s definitely “a guy thing” and maybe just a married guy fantasy, but I love prison escape movies, and this low budget drama is one of the best ever. Brian Cox heads the team of lifers who breaks out of a prison somewhere in Britain. The sense of place and time are deliberately foggy perhaps because they are lifers, and you can focus on the characters. On display are the prerequisite whispering plan in the cafeteria, bareknuckle fistfights, and plenty of digging, of course. There are long journeys through pipes, sewers (why is it always the sewers?) and subway tunnels. But these features simply define the genre. What the film is really about is the inner character of Frank Perry (Cox), and how that is expressed in his fine acting. Cox has been around forever, playing secondary roles since the 1960’s but he only came to my attention in 2004 when he stood out in The Bourne Supremacy as the only person who could act. This is his first starring role and it is well-deserved. Supporting performances are all very strong, a tribute to the director. Photography is excellent and the music, featuring cellos and other strings, is extremely good (although far too loud: three times the level of the dialog, according to my on-screen indicator). Actually, there is not much dialog in the whole movie. It is a visual story, which I like. Admittedly this film is not great art, but for its genre, it is sure to be a classic.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Inheritance: Grade A

The Inheritance (2003)
Ulrich Thomsen, Lisa Werlinder; Co-writer and director Per Fly (Swedish and French, subtitled)

Christoffer (Thomsen) is the son of a wealthy steel tycoon in Sweden. He has left the family firm to pursue his dream of building a restaurant business in Stockholm. He has the support and love of his actor-girlfriend Maria (Werlinder). But when his father dies, his mother urges him to take the lead at the steel company, as a crucial merger with a French firm is in the works. The mother insists that the younger brother, Ulric, is not competent to lead. Against his better judgment, and against the wishes of Maria, Christoffer takes the helm. He quickly finds that the company is in dire straits and that severe action is needed, like massive layoffs. He is required to become cold-blooded, which he does, but Maria leaves him. It’s the story of the human cost of modern capitalism.

The internal structure of the story has much in common with The Godfather, I thought, including the betrayal by the younger brother, the “whacking” of close associates, and so forth. (No actual whacking. This is a character study, not a mobster tale, but many of the moves are similar). Christoffer’s ambitious mother takes the Vito Corleone role, while Werlinder plays Diane Keaton’s part. Not to make too much of that analogy, because this is a completely different film, but the family dynamics are just as dramatic. Acting is uniformly strong, sets are excellent, directing is deft (although a little slow for my preference), and photography is compelling. Plus, as a bonus, it makes you think. How much is business success worth? Your whole life? Maybe so, if you have nothing else going for you.

The Future of Food (2004): Grade C

The Future of Food (2004)
Writer-Director Deborah Koons.

This obviously heartfelt documentary shows how large agricultural companies like Monsanto are force-feeding unlabelled, genetically modified food down our throats. They create special seeds through genetic engineering, patent them, then sue the socks off of any farmer who has any crops with their genetic signature, no matter if those seeds came onto the farm in the wind or by bird droppings. The agribusinesses own the farmer’s crops and it is against the law for the farmers to re-plant their own seeds once their fields are contaminated with GMO seeds. The film also documents government collusion in this takeover of American farming by giant seed and chemical companies, by stacking executive agencies like the EPA and the judiciary with “business-friendly” leaders. This sad story is well-told, but it is not a new story. Shows like this have been on TV for a long time (PBS at least). There is little or no new information here. The film is well-photographed, with good production values, but like a PBS-NOVA presentation, which it emulates, the material quickly becomes repetitive and boring. A feeble call to action is presented at the end: eat organic and buy local. Would that help? Maybe if you are rich. Organic produce usually costs at least double and often is of inferior quality. Maybe it is worth it though, to prevent Monsanto from taking over the world. But this documentary never does gen up a really rallying cry. It is strictly an “ain’t it awful?” presentation. Yeah, it’s awful, tragically awful, but Americans don’t seem to care. Maybe more call to action would have leavened the heavy fact-based presentation to better effect.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Return: Grade B

The Return (2003)
Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko; Director Andrei Zvyagintsev (Russian, subtitled)

In this lyrical visual poem, two teenage boys (Garin and Dobronravov) must come to terms with their taciturn father (Lavronenko) who appears unexpectedly after a twelve year absence. They know him only from a single picture their mother kept. The father (who has no name in the movie) takes them on a road trip to a remote seashore, and then in a small dingy to a mysterious island some distance out. All the while the boys talk about the father, argue about him, wonder. He treats them very sternly but also with respect. There is no plot. Oddly, there is a quasi-McGuffin, a buried treasure the father digs up on the island, but we never learn what is in the box or why he wants it, even though it apparently is what motivated the journey. We never learn why the father was absent or where he has been. The story is all about the relationships among the three, and it explores them masterfully. It’s a quiet movie, mostly visual, with little dialog and very little music. The cinematography is thoughtful and beautiful. There is always a palpable sense of mystery, even foreboding, even though ultimately nothing happens. Objectively, the pace is extremely slow since there is no story deveopment, but in fact I was totally engaged for the whole ninety minutes with the visuals, the extremely fine minimalist acting, and the emotional tension. The movie has that mysterious and unforgettable sense of time, place and character, such as in Le Chateau de ma Mere (1990).

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Waltz With Bashir: Grade B

Waltz With Bashir (2008)
Ron Ben-Yishai, Ronny Dayag, Ari Folman (voices); Writer and Director Ari Folman.

This hand-drawn animated documentary is stunningly beautiful. The sets and characters are drawn with such care that it is sometimes worthwhile to stop the DVD and examine details in the background. Colors are mesmerizing. Motion animation is only perfunctory, so the feel is that of a graphic novel, not a Dreamworks project. The illustrations are there to help the documentary along, not to create a whole alternate world.

And the story is tough. It is about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the early 80’s, the horrors of war, and ultimately about a massacre of civilians committed by the Israelis. The main character is a soldier who allegedly does not remember what he did in the war, so he goes around interviewing his old war buddies and gradually his memory comes back. This is a neat device for telling the story and allegorically, it also reflects the psychological and emotional conflict this story presents to modern Israelis, who do not want to admit that they committed such a massacre. It is apparently a very sensitive, political topic even today, and this film presents a radical breakthrough in public discourse in that respect. An animation also lets an Israeli audience maintain some emotional distance from reality even as they learn what happened.

The story is very sympathetic to the Israeli soldiers, not necessarily justifying the killing or the war, but it is from their point of view, showing how they were just ordinary soldiers suffering the privations and confusion of being in battle, not monsters, not killing machines, not committers of war crimes. The actual massacre is only touched upon lightly at the end, as if it were too “hot” even for this movie. So I don’t think it is as brave a picture as it pretends to be, but I am not Israeli and not a historian. Politics aside, just as an appreciator of film, I’d say it is engaging, a good-looking piece of work, worth seeing.

The Man Who Came Back: Grade F

The Man Who Came Back (2008)
Eric Braeden, James Patrick Stuart, George Kennedy, Armand Assante; Co-writer and Director Glen Pitre.

I don’t normally take the trouble to review movies that I don’t feel have anything to offer, but this one fails in so many interesting ways that it might be worth talking about. In the 1860’s right after the Civil War a plantation supervisor (Braeden) speaks to the plantation boss (Kennedy) about how his arrogant son (Stuart) apparently has not received the memo that the slaves are free, and has been treating them cruelly. The boss fires the super on the spot for being an abject nigger lover and puts the arrogant son in charge instead.

In fact, the old cowboy is then accused of killing one of the black men in a sort of Crossbow Incident scene. The accusation is a fabrication, but everybody backs up the evil boss and his son. To make things about as mean as they could be, the evil son cages the super and makes him watch as he and his men rape his wife and throw his young boy down a well. That would make anybody mad, for sure. The old cowboy escapes from territorial prison, after several direct visual quotations from Cool Hand Luke, and goes back to town for revenge, killing at least half a dozen of the ordinary townsfolk who falsely spoke against him and of course the plantation owner and his son.

I love a revenge story and I enjoy a good western so I had hoped this would be along the lines of the terrific Steve McQueen film, Nevada Smith (1966). And maybe it is vaguely like that in structure, but there is no drama here. The lead cowboy, Braeden, has only one look, a stoneface gaze with head tipped down, eyes staring from under furrowed brow. It’s a good look, but it’s his only one. Also he rides a horse well, I’ll give him that. Despite being in his 60’s the character can absorb a severe beating without consequence and punch out a man half his age, not too believably however.

Kennedy gives an admirable performance with the stereotype part he has, but that’s not enough to hold up the whole picture. Assante has the perfect look of a sonofabitch cowboy, almost like Lee Van Cleef, but without the acting ability.

It takes an hour to get to the revenge part of the story but the prelude is so over the top it is ridiculous. A ten minute scene would have motivated the revenge. In the last half, Braeden casually walks up to each citizen and kills him. He is not tricky or stealthy. There is no tension, no hunt, no mystery. He doesn’t give a speech, the victims don’t plead. The townspeople seem disinterested. It’s just boring. Wow. How could a story like that be boring? That is aggressively bad writing and worse directing.

The costumes are ludicrous. All are spotless, new, perfectly stitched, pressed and starched, a stupid error, but also they are very fancy fine clothes, with many topcoats in identical shades of implausible purple. How could something like that happen? Was nobody in charge? Props are shiny museum pieces. Anachronisms abound. Slaves speak modern English. Buildings are built with modern lumber. The whore has tons of modern makeup, professional hair color and lingerie from Victoria’s Secret. Was this supposed to be a historical drama or not? The visuals are unimaginative, grainy, set-bound, and give no sense of time and place. Sound is muddy.

Oh well, that’s enough. There is nothing good about the movie, but oddly, it seems like it was a sincere attempt. I wonder how a movie like this gets made.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Adam Resurrected: Grade A

Adam Resurrected (2008)
Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Ayelet Zurer; Director Paul Schrader.

Is it better to accept an unjust death with dignity or at least defiance, or would you completely humiliate yourself to purchase continued life? That is the dilemma faced by Adam (Goldblum), a Jew from Berlin during World War II. The psychopathic Nazi commandant (Dafoe) allows Adam to survive and maybe his wife and daughter too, if he agrees to live like a dog, literally, on all fours, barking, eating from the floor, sleeping outside in the cage with the dogs. A more abject degradation can hardly be imagined. It is a compact metaphor for the subhuman status of the concentration camp inmates, without cataloging yet again the individual horrors they suffered.

Prior to the war, Adam was a famous vaudevillian and stage magician, and even in captivity he can force a funny face or play a tune on the violin to amuse the commandant. After the war, in Tel Aviv, he is a patient in a psychiatric institute for holocaust survivors. He uses sharp wit, clever remarks, practical jokes, and alcohol to avoid engagement with his therapist and as defense against his mental dislocation. The movie effectively intercuts his postwar struggle with his wartime experiences (in black and white), to tell this psychological story.

Goldblum’s acting is phenomenal, way beyond his usual mad scientist role. Photography is excellent, especially the sepia-toned scenes. The rich story raises questions about life, fate, God, grief and loss, human nature, and the accidents of history. When I was young there were lots of Holocaust survivors about but I was only dimly aware of them and had little feeling for their experience. Now they are virtually all gone and the Holocaust story is becoming social mythology and historical symbology. This movie reconnects us with a personal story.

On the down side, the start is slow, and directing is crude and obvious throughout, pitched for melodrama rather than drama. Adam swans about the hospital cracking jokes, spouting Yiddish phrases; making lame allusions to the Nazis. It is a poor introduction to the character, not amusing or believable. Other patients and the hospital staff are two-dimensional. Ridiculous German accents persist, but we overcome all that and finally connect with Adam. The implausible introduction of a feral child adds symbolic interest to the story but comes out of left field. The recurring element of magical realism is distracting. Though the directing is big and heavy, there are some moving moments. Despite these flaws, the multi-layered story and great performance by Goldblum make the movie worth seeing.