Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best DVDs of 2009

Best DVDs I saw in 2009



Find the review archived in 2009: Month/Day

Hamlet 2



Pride and Glory



Frozen River



The Lucky Ones






Rachel Getting Married






I’ve Loved You So Long



Frost Nixon



The Wrestler



Just Another Love Story



Saturday Night Fever



Another Woman






Big Man Japan



Sin Nombre



Sleep Dealer



Adam Resurrected



The Inheritance



Lady Vengeance



Brief Interviews With Hideous Men



Ghost Town



Chris Rock-Kill The Messenger






Vicky Cristina Barcelona






Body of Lies






Nobel Son






The Great Buck Howard



Kill Shot



The Unknown Woman



The Last Hit Man






State of Play



Yonkers Joe






Waltz with Bashir



The Return



The Escapist



Old Boy



Maiden Heist






French Film



Lone Star






Bon Cop, Bad Cop



Inglourious Basterds



Julie & Julia



District 9



Wednesday, December 30, 2009

District 9: Grade B

District 9 (2009)

Sharlto Copley; Co-writer and director Neill Blomkamp. (English and Alien; subtitled).

An enormous space ship hovers motionlessly over modern Johannesburg. A million weak and sickly aliens emerge. We never do learn what was wrong with them or why they came. They are (as is usual with aliens) extremely humanoid, with upright, bipedal locomotion, frontal eyes, opposable “thumbs” and in general, looking like a very humanoid morphology. The main thing that makes them alien-looking is an insect-like scaley skin (which they really don’t need since they obviously have endoskeletons), and an insect-like face with creepy-looking tentacles that don’t do anything, and some gratuitous antennae.

The aliens are quarantined to an area called District 9, which over the years becomes a sprawling slum just like Soweto under the apartheid regime. Aliens are held in contempt by mainstream society (black and white). There are alien riots and confrontations with the police, all reported in a pseudo-documentary style by scientists and news coverage. The apartheid analogy is played for over an hour so that even the most dim-witted viewers cannot miss it. Neverthless, there is no point; no new insight or twist. Apartheid happened, we knew that. Okay, blacks seemed like space aliens to the white culture maybe, got that. But what is the point of on and on and on with the allegory? After the initial novelty of the setup, boredom quickly sets in.

About half way through, the lead white detective is contaminated with some secret alien fluid (which is also space ship fuel, it turns out), and he begins to change into an alien himself, growing an alien claw-like hand. The special effects are pretty good there. He is on the run then from the police. The head alien-chemist promises to stop and reverse his conversion in exchange for the secret fluid. But the police intervene and there is a gun battle, and a melodramatic ending involving what seems to be the only juvenile alien in the population.

So the story is just barely interesting. Acting is negligible. Directing is good. Special effects are uneven. The aliens are more silly than creative or scary, but their language is interesting. High concept is the main attraction, supported by some though-provoking details. Sci-fi films as a genre are inferior in quality to most, for unknown reasons (with notable exceptions, such as Kubrick’s), so an “above average” rating for this one should be taken relative to the genre. It gets points for thoughtfulness and competent execution.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Wrong Turn at Tahoe: Grade C

Wrong Turn at Tahoe (2009)
Cuba Gooding, Jr., Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Keitel; Director Franck Khalfoun.

This is a nice, average gangster movie, well photographed, well-paced, tightly directed, with dialog that is direct and free of most clichés. Gooding collects debts for a violent and psychopathic drug lord (Ferrer), who kills (beats to death with a baseball bat) a lieutenant of an opposing drug lord who is even more lordly (Keitel). So the war is on. Plenty of gun battles and a high body count are in the offing.

Keitel gives a good portrayal of decadent, still vicious, but slightly burned out elder gangster, but there is little trace of the intensity we enjoyed in Pulp Fiction or Cop Town. He is 75 years old now, so we should be happy he is still working. Gooding is maturing nicely, both physically and as an actor. His character has a tiny bit of depth.

It’s an unimaginative, typical crime drama, but remarkable for avoiding the usual stupidities, such as gratuitous car chases and building explosions. The sets are well done, especially the pseudo-opulence of Keitel’s palace, which is humorous in its own right for its ironic specification of an owner who has more money than taste. Music is inoffensive. In fact the whole movie, despite the blood and violence, could be described as inoffensive.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: Grade A

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (2009)

Julianne Nicholson, Timothy Hutton, Bobby Cannavale, John Krazinski; Co-writer and Director John Krazinski.

Nicholson is Sara, a graduate student doing anthropological research by interviewing on film a sample of young men (20 to 40 years old) about their attitudes toward women. We see short clips of her conducting the interviews and parts of the interviews themselves. The men are uniformly self-centered, mendacious, un-self-aware misogynists. That makes their statements humorously ironic, so we get the message that this movie is a postmodern comedy. Taken in that spirit, it is indeed funny, although not LOL hilarious. But postmodern humor never is.

Sara is played straight, not ironically, and she is horrified to discover the truth about the alien species called men. When her own boyfriend (Krazinski) cheats on her then comes back with a compelling, heartfelt apology and explanation, she is loathe to believe a word of it, since she now knows men are all lying, manipulative bastards. But could this be different?

The story line of the movie is thus slight, and there is neither deep psychological insight nor outright laughter. The entertainment value is in the subtle, postmodern, ironic rib-tickling. Acting by some of the interviewed men is outstanding, but Nicholson’s performance is unremarkable, and I can’t get past “Jim” in The Office when I see Krazinski. He is a competent actor but he never steps outside the range of expression that is so familiar from that TV series.

But what makes the film terrific is Krazinski’s directing. He has found his calling there, even though the movie is not well-integrated overall. The interview clips are starkly edited; lots of jumpy cuts make each interview a collage rather than a real soliloquy, but that’s why they are so interesting. There is not a microsecond of slack. They are 100% very good acting, even though some segments might be only a single gesture or a single phrase lasting no more than 5 seconds. That’s an innovative and very effective technique for producing outstanding scenes of superior acting, and an educated visual sensibility easily accepts the format. The director has a gifted eye for micro-acting.

There are several other directorial innovations, or at least interesting choices and embellishments, many reminiscent of Woody Allen, such as when one character tells a story of a girl stood up at the airport by her boyfriend, and the storyteller appears in the scene along with the girl. Very effective. The anthropological interviews are against a stark brick wall background. Elsewhere in the movie, one character gives a great speech to a closed door. There are experiments with color and movement and many other directorial gestures that make this movie an excellent exploitation of the medium of film. Krazinski the director is a revelation and the story line is amusing in its own right, so overall a big success for this one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Shrink: Grade C

Shrink (2009)

Kevin Spacey, Keke Palmer, Mark Webber; Director Jonas Pate.

Spacey is an L.A. psychiatrist to celebrities, but he is suffering from depression, possible alcoholism, and, it seems, drug addiction, although we only see him smoking marijuana, which does not make you depressed, and we only see him drinking occasional wine and beer, so the addiction story is not convincing. His real problem is that he is grieving over the recent suicide of his wife, although we do not see him go through much actual grieving. Mainly he just stares into space as if depressed, and makes angry, sarcastic remarks to everyone, which is not consistent with depression. So it is not clear what is up with him except he is burned out on life in a monumentally self-centered way.

One of his clients is a high school student (Palmer) who is also grieving, over her mother’s suicide. We never learn much about that situation, but over the course of the movie, each character yields enough self-defensive anger to become sort-of friends in a way reminiscent of Good Will Hunting. (Actually, Robin Williams appears as an alcoholic patient in an uncredited role, and Spacey’s dope dealer looks like Matt Damon – probably not accidents).

There is no story really, it is just various characters adrift, confused by life, searching for something. In the end, everybody conveniently finds some kind of salvation to wrap it up on a relatively happy note. Without a story and without believable characters, there is really nothing going on in this movie, but Spacey is always a joy to watch, and Keke Palmer is extremely interesting. I wanted to see a lot more of her character, and a lot less of the other deadbeat characters.

Photography has some noticeably good moments but sets and scenes are nondescript or clichéd. Music is appallingly bad, designed to evoke sentimental feelings, but had me reaching for the mute button. Directing is obtrusively trite. The script is terrible. No therapist could survive a week in business with the skills of Spacey’s character. So all you have left is some enjoyable acting, especially by Spacey and Palmer.

In The Loop: Grade C

In the Loop (2009)

Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McKee, Mimi Kennedy, James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Anna Chlumsky; Director Armando Iannucci.

This British comedy is like The Office set in Number 10 Downing Street instead of in a commercial establishment . Maybe a cross between The Office and the BBC series, Yes, Minister is a good description. Clueless mid-level managers frenetically strut their self-importance, vie for ephemeral recognition, lord it over their staff, who are by turn ambitious, idealistic, naive, and cynical. No characters are developed. The style is not the mockumentary style of The Office but the sitcom feel is unmistakable. It is a movie adaptation of a television series (which I’ve never seen), and that’s how it plays.

The basic story is that the U.S. President and the British Prime Minister are set on invading Iraq, and within the government staff on both sides of the Atlantic there are factions supportive of that decision and those ardently opposed. Facts are manipulated, reports are doctored, committee meetings are held in secret, and other shenanigans are executed as each faction tries to facilitate or obstruct the political trend. That’s all good political fodder, but this is a comedy, not a serious movie about the decision to go to war.

As a comedy, it is successful, especially if you like British humor. However, any sitcom is only amusing for 20 minutes, so 90 minutes of clever one-liners, creative profanity, snappy comebacks, snide remarks, and witty zingers wears you down. Real people are not that funny, so the verbal deluge of wit is a writerly conceit that gets in the way of the story, except the story is only perfunctory, and I lost track of it, characters’ motivations, and even their names. Despite the film's failings however, there are laughs to be had.

Julie & Julia: Grade B

Julie & Julia (2009)

Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina; Co-writer and director Nora Ephron.

Streep is Julia Child, the famous cookbook author and prominent television chef over several decades. In postwar Paris she is drifting without purpose to be with her diplomatic attaché husband (Tucci). She takes the Cordon Bleu course, and after many years of effort manages to get her book published, the iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The television show hardly features in the movie.

This is not a very interesting story but Meryl Streep is mesmerizing. Her impersonation of Child is perfect, not just the falsetto voice, but the gait, gestures, attitudes, diction: all perfect. Channeling counts as acting, and even if you don’t know Julia Child, you would find the character interesting and its expression masterful. However, as a biography, there isn’t much content there. It’s all about the acting.

Meanwhile, Adams is Julie Powell, a depressed young cubicle worker in modern New York, living in a flat over a pizza place in Queens. Like Child’s character in Paris of 60 years ago, she takes up cooking just for something to do, and she decides, for no obvious reason, to cook every recipe in Child’s book within a year, and blog about that experience. She does that, with predictable tribulations. The scene of putting live lobsters into boiling water is unashamedly lifted right from Annie Hall, and most of the other cooking, serving, and eating scenes are equally unimaginative. This character is not very interesting and neither is her story. However, Amy Adams is brilliant, even within this restricted role. As with Streep, even though you don’t care about her character, you do care about her superb acting.

So those two stories alternate in time slices and that’s it. Julia and Julie never meet, but they both accomplish their goals. As a piece of storytelling, you are left with the thought, “Who cares?” But the acting by the principals makes the film worthwhile. The cinematography is also above average – extremely sensual pictures of food. The movie will make you hungry for sure. The directing is expert but pointed at sentimentality over psychological or narrative substance, which for my taste, is a defect.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Grade B


Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger. Writer-Director Quentin Tarantino. (English, German, and French – Subtitled)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie is the marketing. The trailer, played endlessly on TV, shows Brad Pitt as a WWII officer barking out his unit’s “mission” to his band of men: to kill, maim, and mutilate Nazis. So we expect an action picture with plenty of death, mayhem, and blood from the director of the blood-soaked Kill Bill.

But the trailer is misleading. The movie is mostly about a Jewish cinema owner (Laurent) in occupied France who is forced to have a special showing of a German war film for all the German bigwigs, including Hitler. It is also about British and American spies among the Nazis. Pitt and his “Basterds” play only a small role in the story. A few Nazis are multilated as promised, but that is a sideshow.

The main story is not strong either. The Nazis watching the special movie are ultimately locked into the theater while it burns, but there is no real suspense or narrative drive. The picture is more like a series of loosely connected scenes that don’t add up to much.

But what scenes they are! They demonstrate Tarantino’s brilliance as a director. The opening scene, in which the nasty, but effusively polite and multilingual Nazi commander (Waltz) interrogates a French farmer about hiding Jews, has nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat tension, created entirely by the director. The German officer is polite and urbane, and there is no violence until the very last moment when machine guns shoot through the floorboards. Yet the precision with which the Captain unscrews his pen, writes in his ominous book, asks his questions, are rife with emotion. The farmer’s reactions are equally calibrated to create a very high tension scene in which nothing is going on but an inane conversation. That scene alone demonstrates Tarantino’s genius. And it is not the only one like that. There are dozens of scenes of equally stunning directorial mastery, including even an excellent barroom gunfight. That’s why you want to see this movie, for the directing.

Acting is very engaging by Pitt and Waltz, and the dialog is snappy, alternating between comedy and tragedy. Production values are first class, photography is faultless. But if a movie is suposed to be a vehicle for telling a story, this one falls flat. The characters are all two-dimensional so we don’t know or care anything about them. The war is way in the background and there are no new insights on that. Nazis are evil, as always. Human relationships are perfunctory. The narrative lacks suspense and forward momentum. The ending is trite. This is a failed exercise in storytelling, but as a director’s showcase, it is a winner.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bon Cop, Bad Cop: Grade B

Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006)

Colme Feore, Patrick Huard. Director Erik Canuel. (English and French, subtitled).

This Canadian comedy involves an English speaking cop from Ontario partnered with a French-speaking cop from Quebec. Actually they are both completely bilingual but the purpose of the setup is to allow each to make fun of the other’s language and culture, invoking many cultural stereotypes. The jokes and jibes are extremely funny if you know a little French and if you are familiar with Quebec. Having lived in Montreal, I was laughing until I had tears in my eyes, but I have to admit it is not a great movie overall.

There is a serial killer on the loose who targets hockey players and owners (hockey rivalry of course being a huge source of competitive pride between the two provinces). When a victim is found literally on the border, the two cops are forced by their superiors to become partners on the case. They investigate leads and get into fist fights on both sides of the border, enabling each to make fun of the other on his home turf. The plot gets confusing and there are lots of loose ends, so even though the killer is finally caught, the story doesn’t add up, but that’s not the point. It’s a comedy.

You have to be a fast reader if you don’t know French because the dialog is dense and sophisticated. Photography is good (although overusing green filters for some reason, which really gives a picture a dreary look. Why do cinematographers love green filters? ). Music is undistinguished except by its overloud volume. Direction is spotty, a gratuitous car chase, for example, inserted just for an arbitrary pacing change. Acting is very good by the two principals. I’m rating the film a bit higher than it deserves because I had such a good time, but I recognize it is not for everyone.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fulltime Killer: Grade C

Fulltime Killer (2001)

Andy Lau, Takashi Sorimachi, Kelly Lin; Co-directors: Johnnie To, Ka-Fai Wai (also co-wrote). (Chinese and Japanese, subtitled).

This is a classic Hong-Kong action thriller in the style of Johnnie To. A new, brash, and flamboyant hit man (Sorimachi) is in town, challenging the hegemony of the king of assassins (Lau). They also compete over the girl (Lin). There is a high body count, as you would expect, and a plodding police detective after both young men. The acting is above average, music is excellent, and Hong Kong is displayed in all its glory. Although this is a typical shoot-em-up, the good story, acting and photography are strong enough to keep you engaged. I have probably overrated this film because I am a fan of the genre, but it is pretty good on its merits.

Monday, December 14, 2009

3-Iron: Grade B

3-Iron (2004)

Seung-yeon Lee, Hyun-kyoon Lee, Hyuk-ho Kwon; Writer and director Ki-duk Kim. (Korean, subtitled).

A young man (S. Lee) breaks into empty houses in a Korean city and makes himself comfortable for a few days. The owners are away (which he learns from their answering machine message) so he eats their food, sleeps there, watches TV, fixes their broken appliances, waters their plants, does their laundry, then leaves. It’s a neat premise. In one house however, there is a battered woman (H. Lee) who watches him, then confronts him wordlessly. In fact, neither character says a word to each other in the whole movie. (The woman says five words at the very end, but it is ambiguous whom she is addressing). So the movie is almost a silent film, giving it a dreamlike quality.

The young man saves her from another beating by her mean husband who comes home, and she runs off with the young man and joins him in his house-breaking enterprise. Inevitably they get caught when the family comes home unexpectedly. In one case, it is not clear how that problem was resolved, but in another, the young man ends up in jail and the woman is returned to her husband. The ending is not really a proper resolution but is emotionally satisfying. Photography is good, directing is good, and sets are excellent. It’s a beautiful, quiet, romantic story worth seeing. Only the lightweight (even silly) plot detracts from its overall quality.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Public Enemies: Grade D

Public Enemies (2009)

Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard; Co-writer and Director Michael Mann.

It’s gangsters in 1930’s Chicago doing gangstery things. Have we not seen this before? Street battles with tommy guns, bank robberies, lovely cars and costumes, art deco interiors, tough guy talk, prison breaks, the incorruptible FBI agent in obsessive pursuit, and every other period gangster cliché you can think of – it’s all here. There is absolutely nothing new.

Depp is John Dillinger, notorious bank robber and Bale is his FBI nemesis with a bizarre, ludicrous, and totally unnecessary southern accent. I thought, with all these big stars, what could go wrong? Bad script, that’s what. It is so wooden and unimaginative that the actors have no chance of bringing it to life. Story? What story? FBI pursues bank robber, shoots him dead. There is no suspense whatsoever and the characters are two-dimensional cutouts.

The film’s 2:20 running time is unconscionable, especially since the first hour could be eliminated with no loss. Sure, you would miss a shoot-em-up bank robbery, but there are two others, almost identical to look at later. The only thing that keeps this movie from complete failure is the fine photography of excellent, detailed sets. The pictures are crisp and creatively shot, compelling to watch. The sepia colors are overdone, but pleasant and moody, some even fading to black and white to remind you that this is a quasi-biography “based on” Dillinger’s life (even though we learn nothing about him). When the colors are not sepia, they are through a green filter, which is less attractive, but still interesting. There is some good period music, Billie Holiday and the like, but some of it seems anachronistically modern and unconnected. That’s not much to recommend a film with so much resource behind it, but that’s all there is behind the muzzle flash.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Star Trek: Grade C

Star Trek (2009)
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldano, John Cho, with Leonard Nimoy; Director J.J. Abrams.

This is a competently made explosion film that will amuse boys 8 to 14 years old, and is watchable by others because of nostalgia value. It treats the original (1966) Star Trek television series with respect but imagines the beginning of the story as a prequel. Captain Kirk’s father is killed off by evil others (I never have been clear on the difference between evil Romulans and evil Klingons, but whatever), and his successor, Captain Pike is captured, leaving Spock (Quinto) commanding the Enterprise.

But Spock shows emotion when he punches out Kirk The Younger (Pine) for insulting his mother, so he resigns his position, putting Kirk in the captain’s chair. (This development overlooks the fact that Spock had previously been kissing Lieutenant Uhuru (Saldana), but apparently, not with any emotion – a guy thing, I guess).

Meanwhile, Spock as his future self (Nimoy) arrives from the future to give counsel to both Kirk and Spock the younger. It was great to see Nimoy in the pointy ears again. What a hoot that must have been for him. He looks like his 80 years of age, but the voice still says “Spock.”

Ninety percent of the movie is taken up with ballooning exothermic chemical reactions and swooping spacecraft, which is more Star Wars than Star Trek, which tended to the cerebral (and, like the original, ignored the fact that there is no fire in space because no oxygen, and no sound because no medium to carry it).

Also, they didn’t quite “get” the character of Captain Kirk, who was not simply a wild rule-breaker, as portrayed, but was a master strategist, able to change the grounds of engagement to his favor. Subtlety is not a feature of this movie. It is actually quite unimaginative, relying on spectacular effects and ear-splitting noise and music for excitement. Obnoxious (and unnecessary) as it was, the music was actually complex and interesting. The pace was good, and acting competent if hammy. The "human" relationships were compelling but the "scientific" side of the tale was pure nonsense. Kids won't know the difference.

It was satisfying that the script managed to include nearly all the nostalgic clichés. Scotty frets over the engines, Kirk recites into the captain’s log, and Spock says “Live long and prosper.” I missed only “Phasers on stun,” and the whoosh of the accelerating starship. In a final nod to nostalgia, Nimoy read the preamble (“These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise…”) at the end of the movie, only very slightly updated for modern times. It would have been better with Shatner, but he apparently is done with that phase of life.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Limits of Control: Grade C

The Limits of Control (2009)
Isaach De Bankolé, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt; Writer & Director Jim Jarmusch. (English, Spanish, and French with subtitles)

This movie has no story; it is like a student’s exercise in filming the same scene in several different ways. Scenes are well staged, excellently photographed, directed, and acted.

A tall, bow-legged black man (De Bankolé) walks around Madrid, Seville, and other cities in Spain in a shiny suit, carrying a duffel bag (an amazing duffel bag that holds at least two other nicely pressed shiny suits). In each city or district of a city, he waits for a couple of days in some apartment. We watch him wait: he lies on the bed, looks out the window, does Tai Chi exercises. Pretty exciting stuff. Mercifully we do not have to watch him brush his teeth.

Then he goes to a café and waits some more. A stranger appears and gives him a small box of wooden matches. He exchanges it for his own box of matches. The stranger gives a cryptic speech but the protagonist remains silent. The stranger departs. The protagonist opens the new box of matches, reads a matrix of numbers and letters on a slip of paper, and eats the paper. Then he goes to the next appointment and the entire sequence is repeated, at least six times, maybe as many as ten times. There are small variations on the sequence, but that’s about it for the movie. He does manage to strangle Bill Murray at the very end, for no reason at all.

The big name stars each appear in one of these small scenes, so that’s no excuse to seek out the movie. Music is good, especially the Flamenco. The film could be a satire on the international espionage genre, but lacking satirical force. It is a comedy without humor, a drama without drama. There are some allusions to the Sergio Leone Spaghettis with the facial close-ups. The repetition does create a sense of time slowed down.

The movie is like a writer’s notebook or an artist’s sketchpad. Variations on a scene are played out to see what they look like. Some of the scenes are visually memorable, but it all adds up to nothing. It will be of interest to film students, but not a wider audience.