Sunday, November 22, 2009

Lady Vengeance: Grade A

Lady Vengeance (2005)
Yeong-ae Lee, Min-sik Choi; Co-writer and Director Chan-wook Park. (Korean, subtitled).

This is the third and final film in director Park’s revenge trilogy. I have seen and reviewed recently Old Boy, the second in the series. In this one, a young woman (Lee) is unjustly imprisoned for the kidnapping and murder of a child. In intercut scenes we see her as a model prisoner, kind to all, and yet managing to make a prison murder look like an accident, so we know she has two faces. Upon her release, she is intent on revenge against the man who set her up (Choi), and she engages other ex-cons to help her. The final revenge involves torture and buckets of blood (this is a Tartan films release), but unlike Old Boy, the torture is not explicit and that makes those scenes watchable. So revenge is had. Or is it?

I don’t think Park really has captured the full phenomenology of revenge, either in this film or the last. When you have a psychotic serial killer, death or even torture, is not sufficient because he will never feel remorse. You can cause physical pain, but revenge is about dealing with the victim’s psychological pain, which is not satisfied by blood. In Lady Vengeance, this is acknowledged, because despite the ultimate torture and murder of the perp, the focus is on the families of the murdered boys. They get their pound of flesh, but are they satisfied? The perfect revenge movie has yet to be made.

However, Lady Vengeance is well worth watching because it is beautifully shot and creative, well-acted and masterfully directed. The music is wonderful, classical notes setting a calm tone that only heightens the story’s mood of desperation. There was also a stunningly beautiful vocal piece in there that may have been from Orfeo and Euridice, the opera. My main complaints are that the narrative was jumbled by aggressive time slicing, making it often confusing, and that there are at least two anti-climactic endings, the final one being especially superfluous (although beautiful to look at). So overall, this is a beautifully made film that also makes you think.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Lone Star: Grade B

Lone Star (1996)

Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Ron Canada; Writer-Director John Sayles.

It’s not a western, although it is set in a small Texas border town and the major players wear cowboy hats and guns strapped to their hip. Deeds (Cooper) is the town’s sheriff, the third in a line of bigger-than-life figures to hold that office. His father was a legendary sheriff in the 1950's who succeeded the evil Charlie Wade (Kristofferson), a corrupt racist who stole thousands from the town pension fund and absconded without a trace. But when a skeleton with a sheriff’s star is dug up in the desert, Deeds wonders who it was. As he unravels the mystery, he learns more about who his father was, and who he is. There are several compelling subplots that run parallel to that main theme. I saw the surprise ending coming, but even so, it was interesting and reasonable.

About the only thing wrong with this movie is its 2:15 length, which is due to a slow pace and perhaps too many subplots. Sayles’ writing and directing make the characters rounded and believable, except Kristofferson’s. That character, who shoots Mexicans and blacks on sight if they do not pay extortion, is over the top. He stands as an unrealistic personification of evil that the other characters can work against. However, sets and cinematography are perfect. Costumes are excellent. But the characterizations are the best part.

Cooper’s performance in particular creates a genuine character, with spot on accent and speech timing, but he was a bit too taciturn, too remote to be fully engaging. I like a little more personality in my brooding sheriffs. Tommy Lee Jones captured the character in Electric Mist (2009), which may have been an attempt at a remake, although it was a terrible movie. It’s not so easy to imitate John Sayles. His artistry makes this film a completely engrossing experience.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123: Grade C

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

Denzel Washington, John Travolta, Luis Guzman, John Turturro, James Gandolfini; Director Tony Scott.

I never saw the 1974 original, so I took this remake on its own terms. Hijackers (Travolta and Guzman) take over a NYC subway car and hold 17 hostages, demanding 10 million dollars. Washington is the train dispatcher who becomes default hostage negotiator, a role he has played before. Turturro is the “official” hostage negotiator who tries to muscle in on Washington, but Travolta won’t have it. Gandolfini is hizzoner, who must come up with the money. The money is transferred, most of the hostages are saved, the bad guys almost get away, but not quite.

The story is extremely weak, with innumerable non sequiturs, absurdities, loose ends and contradictions. The basic plot, as described above, is basically boring. The obvious attraction of the movie is the spectacular special effects and great photography of New York City. The sound engineers obviously had collected tons of authentic train sounds, and they make sure you hear them. Pseudo-dramatic music, and traffic are equally deafening, triple the level of the dialog. This is a very noisy movie. You will need your mute button. The visuals are very good, for the most part, although some shots near the end plainly look like models. The stunts/special effects are the usual car crashes in the city with taxicabs flipping end over end. Happens all the time in New York, I’m sure.

Travolta plays an excellent psychopathic bad guy, enjoyable to watch despite the stereotype. Washington plays himself. Gandolfini turns in a sincere, believable, non-hammy performance. That’s the good part.

But the plot is so implausible, it is very difficult to stay interested. If Travolta is actually doing a stock market manipulation, what does he need the hostage money for? If he didn’t already have the money, how did he make the stock market bet on gold? Why does the money car coming from the federal reserve have a police escort? It is obviously useless for anything but bright lights, loud engines, and sirens, since the convoy has three spectacular fatal accidents on its short trip. Couldn’t the police have just turned all the lights red? How do the police identify two random-looking men on the street as bad guys and proceed to shoot them to death? Did they have “Bad Guy” stenciled on their foreheads? And so on.

The movie is obviously about car crashes and sparks flying from the wheels of trains, not plot development, not character exploration. It will be successful among children and child-like minds as yet another immature action movie. Just what we need.

Friday, November 13, 2009

French Film: Grade B

French Film (2008)

Hugh Bonneville, Eric Cantona, Anne-Marie Duff, Victoria Hamilton, Douglass Henshall; Director Jackie Oudney.

This light romantic comedy is remarkably witty, very well-acted, and nicely directed. Two couples in contemporary London are all friends. Jed and Cheryl (Bonneville and Hamilton) have been living together for ten years but the relationship is stale, even though Jed insists that it “works.” They begin to see a couples counselor. Their friends Marcus and Sophie (Henshall and Duff) are in a seemingly ideal romantic relationship.

Blanketing all the couples’ chit-chat are intercut scenes from a supposed documentary interview of a “major” French film director (Cantona), who self-importantly explains what love is, how it works, and how to recognize it. He illustrates his points with clips from his own films. These clips are melodramatic black and white relationship scenes that look like they could be from the French New Wave of the early ‘60’s, actually attractive in their own right. Cantona’s pontifications are hilariously pompous, with his bearded visage and thick French accent, waving a cigarette in one hand with satirical gravity. He serves as something like the Greek Chorus, commenting indirectly on the romantic relationships developing in the main part of the movie.

So Marcus falls in love with another woman (real love this time, though, he insists), and the couples counseling goes south. Everything falls apart but there is a predictable happy ending (as the French film director had already explained: “Ze ending ees found in ze beginning”).

The acting is first rate in this film and that’s good enough reason to enjoy it. The humor is terrific, although it is very British humor, not American farce. Cantona’s performance is the highlight. The film reminds me of early Woody Allen films like Manhattan, couples walking about and sitting in cafes saying clever things. It is all just talking heads where nothing is discovered, but a delight nevertheless.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Adoration: Grade B

Adoration (2008)

Devon Bostick, Scott Speedman, Arsinée Khanjian. Writer-Director Adam Ergoyan.

A high school student (Bostick) writes a short story for his French class about how his father was a Muslim terrorist who attempted to smuggle a bomb onto an Israeli airline to blow up his mother (pregnant with himself) and everyone else. The teacher (Khanjihan) likes it and since she also teaches drama, encourages him to develop the story into a dramatic monolog, which he does, and he tries it out on his friends, on the internet, as a true tale. They believe him and he does not disabuse them of the ruse. We find out later that his parents were killed in a car crash, which is why he lives with his uncle (Speedman).

So is that the whole movie? -- Boy plays practical joke on his classmates? That’s just about it. But by intercutting dramatizations from the parents’ imagined past and their real past, Ergoyan manages to create some confusion about the truth, even though it is just obfuscation. Also there is an interesting relationship between the teacher and the uncle, who are both concerned about the boy’s developing sense of personal identity, not having known his parents. So overall, it is a pretty lame story. Incidental mentions of terrorism, Muslim extremism, racism, and other political themes are just gratuitous comments, adding nothing.

But what makes the movie strong are the magnificent visuals and the interesting dialog. Cinematography is stunningly beautiful (although the lighting is overdone in some indoor scenes, such as in the violin shop). Many shots involve striking symbolic imagery that you want to stop and examine in detail. The dialog has an extremely spare quality about it, not exactly realistic, but not exactly artificial either. It has a Mametesque quality in its minimalism and use of ambiguity, but it is not an imitation. There is an “Ergoyan” style of dialog, I would say, and I like it. Music is quite pleasant (violins, since a violin features in the story), but is not distinguished. Acting is very strong by the three principals. Overall then, the story is not successful but good acting and good visuals raise the quality to above average.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Maiden Heist: Grade B

The Maiden Heist (2009)

Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, William H. Macy, Marcia Gay Harden. Director Peter Hewitt

The three men are long time security guards at a Boston art museum and each has a favorite work of art that has become an obsession. When all three of those pieces are to be traded to a museum in Denmark, they are devastated, and decide to steal them, replacing them with fakes. They do that, and that’s the movie. Along the way there are complications of course, but what makes the film enjoyable is the great performances by seasoned actors, and some witty writing. Macy especially hams it up to hilarious effect. Walken is his usual droll self. He is much funnier in some of the deleted and blooper scenes, but the director kept him dialed down. Freeman is just fun to watch. Harden, as Walken’s character’s wife, has fun with a stereotypical ditzy wife, very enjoyable to watch. This is a lightweight, really, throw-away caper movie, with visual and narrative elements from Space Cowboys, The Thomas Crowne Affair, Entrapment, The Italian Job, and others. It is not a satire of the heist genre, just a silly romp worth an hour and a half for fun.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Whatever Works: Grade F


Whatever Works (2009)

Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begely Jr.; Writer-Director Woody Allen.

And whatever does not work should not be foisted off. This movie is close to completely unwatchable, that’s how painfully bad it is, and that is remarkable for a long-time Woody Allen fan to say. An elderly New York misanthrope (David) rants without mercy about how he is a misunderstood genius but the rest of humanity is scum. This might have been funny in high school, but for an adult movie it is extremely lame.

David’s performance is amazingly stiff and you can actually see him glance at the script on occasion. All the actors chronically suffer from having their mouths too full of words to deliver any meaningful lines. Patricia Clarkson is by far the strongest, although Wood does as well as she can with a miserable role.

The overarching theme of the film is that one should not be constrained by society’s traditional ideas of what a “normal” relationship is. Old guys and young foxes are ok (David-Wood), homosexuality is fine, and if ménage a trois works for you then go for it. This is not exactly a mind-bending concept. The movie does not even bother to showcase Manhattan as so many other Woody Allen movies have. Allen “breaks the fourth wall” as they say, by having David address the camera and the audience directly, and in the beginning, even gives a longish soliloquy in second person voice, an impressive writer’s tour de force. But alas, even that speech is stultifying in its banality. High schoolers and younger might find something to like in this movie, but to any normal adult, I am sorry to report it is a disaster.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Old Boy: Grade B

Old Boy (2003)
Min-sik Choi, Hye-jeong Kang, Ji-tae Yu; Director Chan-wook Park. (Korean, subtitled)

A middle aged man (Choi) is imprisoned in a windowless hotel room and he does not know why. Food appears under the door, and each day the room is filled with gas that puts him to sleep while the staff cleans the room. Predictably, he goes nuts, but he recovers (more or less) upon release without explanation or context after fifteen years.

He meets a sympathetic waitress (Kang) and develops a relationship with her, but he is consumed by desire to know what happened and for revenge on his captor (Yu), who he discovers through careful research. There are many twists and turns and a surprising ending.

The film is beautifully photographed, well directed, and the music is outstanding. The picture is extremely stylish and good-looking. It is also drenched in blood. Tartan Films (Tarantino’s outfit) “presents” the movie, so you should know what to expect. I just fast forwarded past the most violent scenes.

Acting is outstanding by Choi and Kang and it is fun to get a glimpse into Korean culture. A sense of modern, urban, existential alienation comes through although the ultimate theme of the story is fairly pedestrian, not as shocking to an American audience as the actors’ reactions suggest. I recommend it on the basis of excellent filmmaking.

Not Quite Hollywood: Grade C

Not Quite Hollywood (2008)
Writer-Director Mark Hartley.

This is a documentary of Australian action and horror films of the 1970’s and 1980’s, few of which are known to a wide audience. Mel Gibson’s Mad Max is probably the best known example. They featured buckets of blood, naked breasts, and above all, high speed land and sea vehicles that ultimately explode.

Dozens of films are briefly reviewed with short clips and commentaries from the actors who appeared in them, their producers and directors, film critics, and Quentin Tarantino, who presents himself as some kind of an expert on the genre and who seems to want to elevate it to the level of the Spaghetti Western.

The films are interesting, especially in the first hour, but Tarantino’s comments are inane and obnoxious, telling us over and over how great these films were and how much he loves them. That is just not informative or helpful. However, the comments of the aging actors who appeared in them are often insightful. They include a few well-known actors such as Dennis Hopper, Jamie Lee Curtis, and George Lazenby, but mostly are unknown (to me) Aussies.

There are some worthwhile insights about the development of the Australian movie industry in general. After about an hour though, the whole project becomes repetitive and boring. How many exploding cars can you watch? It becomes apparent why the genre never transcended its roots.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

American Violet: Grade C

American Violet (2008)
Nicole Beharie, Alfre Woodard, Will Patton; Director Tim Disney.

A young African-American single mother (Beharie) with four kids is wrongfully arrested on drug charges in a small town in Texas. The police “drug task force” had her name on a list of pushers provided by a mentally incompetent informant under duress. She is offered 6 years as a plea bargain, against 25 years if adjudicated guilty. The local DA is the stereotypical racist “lock ‘em up” bastard. The ACLU intervenes and persuades the mother to sue the DA for racism, an almost impossible charge to prove.

Based on a true story, the movie highlights many legal problems, not just in Texas but all over the country: racial profiling, disproportionate numbers of blacks in prison, use of dubious police informants, the problems inherent in the plea bargaining system, and of course, racist DA’s. These are all important issues, so the movie gets points for didacticism. Acting is strong, particularly by newcomer Beharie and by a sensitively played ACLU local counsel, Patton. Directing is undistinguished, cinematography is television cliché, and so is the writing. The pace is far too slow to sustain what little legal tension there is in the script. It will do fine on TV.