Friday, December 31, 2010

Best DVDs of 2010

Best DVDs I saw in 2010



Find the review archived in 2010: Month/Day




Summer Hours



American History X



A Serious Man



Up in the Air



Good Hair



Bliss (Mutuluk)






Police, Adjective



The Ghost Writer



The Good, The Bad, The Weird



Winter’s Bone



The Believer



The Wedding Song



The Hangover



Sex and Lucia



The Informant



As it Is in Heaven






Bad Lieutenant






44 Inch chest



You Don’t Know Jack



High Life












Shall We Kiss?



The Killing Gene



A Prophet



$5 A Day



The Killer Inside Me



Leaves of Grass



Disappearance of Alice Creed



The Town



The Other Guys



Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Other Guys: Grade B

The Other Guys (2010)

Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Michael Keaton, Eva Mendes, Steve Coogan; Co-writer & director Adam McKay.

I am not a big fan of Will Ferrell’s loud and obvious comic style, but this movie was LOL funny for me. I’ve never seen Wahlberg in a comic role before but he has good timing and made the part a success.

The two cops are ridiculed NYPD officers assigned to desk jobs. Ferrell’s character likes doing paperwork because it is quiet and happy work and nobody shoots at you. Wahlberg craves action, but has been confined to the desk ever since he accidentally shot Derek Jeter in the leg. Jeter has a cameo for that scene. Throughout the movie Wahlberg is introduced as “the cop who shot Jeter.” A typical response is “You should have shot A-Rod!”

The jokes are often wordgames and cultural allusions, which I enjoy. And there are some just plain loopy scenes, like Ferrell's story of a band of tunas attacking a pack of lions. The writers have a worthy successor to the Leslie Nielsen brand of screwball humor. The visual and situational gags are usually silly, sometimes satirical. I especially enjoyed the Prius-related jokes and gags. The exasperated police captain (Keaton) has a second job at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

The two deskbound cops finally get out on some assignments which leads to “buddy cop” jokes reminiscent of the Lethal Weapon franchise, with a dash of Inspector Clouseau bumbling to success. I think what makes it really work, besides good writing, is Ferrell’s deadpan delivery, great face acting, and impeccable timing, traits that Wahlberg copies admirably, if not to the same degree of perfection. Coogan also shows excellent comic form in his role as a crooked financial wizard.

Music is quite good, and there are plenty of loud, colorful explosions for the kids. Samuel Jackson and Dwayne Johnson appear in a brief opening segment that is not necessary and not funny, but burnishes the film’s action credentials. You must appreciate goofy humor to like this movie, which is above average for its genre.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The A-Team: Grade D

The A-Team (2010)

Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, Jessica Biel;Co-writer and director Joe Carnahan.

This action-adventure explosion movie is apparently based on a television series I have never heard of. I thought the movie might be good because of Neeson and Biel, both actors I enjoy. However, while Biel showed some acting talent, Neeson was just hammy and blustery, completely uninteresting. Perhaps that’s what was expected from the TV role.

Four tough-guy Army Rangers are sent into Baghdad to rescue a set of engraving plates used to print counterfeit money. When they get back, their commanding officer is killed and the plates are stolen, so it looks like they absconded. They are all court-marshaled and sent to prison, but fear not, they manage to break out, bent on revenge. They are hotly pursued by CIA agent Biel, who once had a romantic relationship with one of the men but is now estranged. Needless to say, after much chasing about and a plethora of bullets and exothermic chemical reactions, the double-crosser is found, the plates are recovered, and the soldiers have their reputations restored. And also Biel’s character is reunited with her former lover, just for the sake of completion.

There are some good action sequences. The script is moderately funny at times. Production values are high and photography is sharp and clear. The sound track is composed of deafening noise. The plot is outlined in bold, black crayon so you never get confused about who is good and who is bad. Overall, the movie is nothing but recycled scenes and lines we have seen and heard dozens of times; the acting is only competent, the characters flat, and the story predictable. You have to ask, why did this movie need to be made? There is no answer for that.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Wedding Song: Grade A

The Wedding Song (2008)

Lizzie Brocheré, Olympe Borval, Najib Oudghiri; Writer-Director Karin Albou. (Arabic and French; subtitled).

The Nazis have occupied Tunisia in the early 1940’s and have begun rounding up the Jews. In Tunis, two young women have formed a deep friendship, one an Arab Muslim (Borval), the other a Sephardic Jew (Brochere). The middle class but economically stressed, French-speaking woman is betrothed to an older, wealthy physician, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Paris, but she hates him. The servant-class Arabic woman carries on a torrid sexual affair with her fiancé, but marriage is forbidden by her father until the young man gets a job, which he finally does, as a Nazi informer on the Jews. Can the girls’ friendship survive the stresses of matrimony, religion, social class, colonialism, and wartime occupation?

In addition to the compelling story of friendship, the movie is highly instructional about Tunisian Arabic and French colonial culture, especially with regard to the tribulations of female sexuality in both cultures. Naked females are starkly exposed on screen but the nudity is neither glamorized nor prurient. Rather it is used to make intimate and disturbing comments on the plight of the women and on the meaning of marriage in general.

Writing and directing (Albou) are both excellent in this zero-budget film, but the cinematography suffers from what is probably low budget technology, so many of the movie’s images are dark and muddy, to the point of being difficult to see. Nevertheless, individual scenes and sets are well-composed and photographed, when you can see them. Acting is very strong by all the players, and overall, the complex, intimate, and emotional story line will keep you glued.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Town: Grade B

The Town (2010)

Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, John Hamm; Co-writer and director Ben Affleck.

This is a tour de force for Affleck, who plays a sensitive gangster in Charlestown, the tough Bunker Hill district of Boston. He is the mastermind of a group of crooks who have done a string of successful bank and armored car holdups. The gang includes a childhood friend, now psychopath (Renner) with themes borrowed from 2003's Mystic River to suggest that they are sociological victims, trapped in Charlestown.

Affleck’s character starts a relationship with a woman the gang briefly abducted from a bank holdup (Hall), and eventually she learns the truth about his criminal ways. The dramatic question is, will she still love him anyway? The relationship story is strong, even though there is no natural chemistry between Affleck and Hall. That part of the story is well-written and both actors are extremely good.

I haven’t seen Hall since her outstanding performance in 2008’s Christina Vicky Barcelona, where she played memorably alongside Scarlett Johansson, who she slightly resembles. In this movie she delivers an authentic, convincing performance.

Affleck is a fine actor too, despite his mumbling, but his character in this movie is not believable: a career criminal who is intelligent, has a steady job and a jailbird father, but can’t resist the life of crime; a cold-blooded, violent thief and murderer who has an emotional, intuitive, sensitive relationship. It doesn’t add up and when his character does several things that seem “out of character,” you realize, you don’t really know the character.

Renner steals every scene he is in with his labile intensity. The plot is basic cops and robbers, with a sappy manufactured ending. Directing is very attuned to the actors’ talents but there are at least two long, slack segments that should have been edited out, fallout from trying to mix an action shoot-em-up with a tender relationship movie. But the plusses far outweigh the minuses for this enjoyable crime drama.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wall Street-Money Never Sleeps: Grade C

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Carey Mulligan, Frank Langella, Josh Brolin; Co-writer & Director Oliver Stone.

This sequel is a huge disappointment for anyone who enjoyed the 1987 original morality play. Back then, when Gordon Gecko (Douglas) declared, “Greed is good,” we understood exactly what he meant and who he was. He got his comeuppance when his young protégé (Charlie Sheen) got a strange attack of conscience that switched him from greed to revenge. Sheen makes a fun but meaningless cameo appearance in this movie.

Gecko is released from prison, broke and alone. His estranged daughter (Mulligan) won’t speak to him, but her fiancé (LaBeouf), a young, ambitious trader, strikes up a relationship. In this version, Brolin is the greedy powerhouse financier and there is talk (but no solid story) that he is the one who put Gecko behind bars, so he is clearly identified as “bad” and we know he has to go down by the end of the movie. But it will be because of Wall Street infighting, not because of the self-destructive self-blindness that made the original Gecko such an interesting character.

Before his fall though, Brolin destroys Langella’s company (supposed to stand for Lehmann Brothers) by front-running and shorting the stock, as if that explained the collapse of Lehmann. LaBeouf, who worked for Langella, is thus out of a job but improbably falls into the employ of the evil and hated Brolin (under not-very-believable circumstances).

There are many scenes of bigwigs sitting around huge conference tables deciding the fate of the financial world. Certain actors were obviously cast to look like Hank Paulsen and Timothy Geitner, but the financial chatter they speak is drivel. Either the writers didn’t understand the extremely dramatic personal and financial dynamics of that crisis or they despaired of explaining it and resorted to obfuscatory babble instead. It could have been so good. But that would have been a different story. But at least it would have been a story.

Instead, that theme is dropped and out of the blue, Gecko reveals to LaBeouf that he has a secret $100m trust fund set up for his daughter and all she has to do is sign it over to him and he will give it to her early. Why she would go along is not explained. Predictably he keeps all the money, invests it, and gets rich again in a few days (somehow). How this is related to the Brolin character is, …well, it’s not related. The writers simply lost their way and the story line becomes scrambled in a tremendous lost opportunity.

Acting is strong throughout, especially by Mulligan and Langella. Douglas shows his self-confidence and presence in a fine performance. But all the characters are cartoony, so there is not much acting opportunity. Music is mostly dreadful, but probably aimed at a different demographic than me. What do I know from pop music. Photography is at times striking, such as oversaturated cityscape scenes. There are a few cinematic effects like split screen telephone calls that add nothing. I enjoyed all the actors but hated the movie so the average is a middling score.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Knight and Day: Grade C

Knight and Day (2010)

Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard; Director James Mangold.

Cruise is some kind of a government spy “gone rogue” because he is trying to protect a young inventor (Dano) and his world-changing invention, basically a better D-sized battery. “The government” (FBI or NSA or CIA – it’s not clear, but does it matter?), led by Sarsgaard, and an endless supply of wide-shouldered, sunglass-wearing G-men and black SUVs, is after him, to reclaim the D-battery, and as a late afterthought, the boy genius as well.

Cruise uses a perfect stranger in an airport (Diaz) to mule the battery through security (although it is not clear why she would get it through if he couldn’t, but that’s not the point). On the plane, a half dozen passengers (all of them) turn out to be baddies and attempt to kill Cruise, but he dispatches them all, and the evil pilots of the plane too, all of this while Diaz is in the bathroom. The best part of the movie is when she comes out to an apparently peaceful plane and he must explain that he had to kill everyone and now must land the plane. She takes it as a joke (at first). Both actors lay on their best charm here, and the relationship develops.

As a relationship movie, really a romantic comedy, it works in the first third. Both actors are photogenic and Cruise really puts out a good comic performance. His acting is as good (at times) as in the overlooked 2004 film, Collateral. He really can act if a director puts the thumbscrews on him.

However, the filmmakers soon retreat from the relationship story and devolve into predictable gunfights and exploding vehicles. There are planes (both fixed wing and rotary), cars, trucks, car-carrying trucks, SUVs of course, boats, trains and motorcycles. Everything must blow up! Between explosive chases, hooded men dressed in black rappel down ropes into omnipresent deserted warehouses to face additional gunbattles (and slaughter – their bullets all miss, none of his do). It’s all cliché schlock, but I have to say the production values are high and the photography is very good. Music, of course, is very noisy.

There are structural similarities to the 2005 movie, Mr & Mrs Smith, with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. This movie has more going for it than that one ever did. Despite mind-numbing repetition, an incoherent story line, and unimaginative visuals, there is just enough wit in the relationship between the two principals to leaven mud into mudpies, and enough acting to keep you watching. For mindless pleasure, it's not that bad.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Disappearance of Alice Creed: Grade B

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)

Martin Compston, Eddie Marsan, Gemma Arterton; Writer-Director J Blakeson.

Two U.K. thugs (Marsan and Compston) kidnap the adult daughter (Arterton) of a millionaire. They chain her to a bed in an apartment they have converted to a prison by boarding up the windows and installing soundproofing and lots of locks. The father agrees to pay. The tricky part of any kidnap job is the exchange: cash for person. There’s no foolproof way to do it, and this one does not turn out as expected.

The film was apparently made with a near-zero budget, so there are only the three actors, and essentially one set, the prison apartment. That does make the presentation slightly claustrophobic and the action restricted mainly to words, but the script is so well-written and the directing so extremely tight, and acting so good, that instead of claustrophobic, one could say the presentation was just more theatrical than cinematic in tone.

The acting is quite strong by the two men, especially Compston, who has great facial gestures reminiscent of Edward Norton. The story is an inconsequential genre piece, but the writing keeps you engaged by forcing repeated reconceptualization of the characters’ relationships. There are a couple of weak spots where characters are not true to their motivation, but overall, one’s attention never flags in this solid crime drama. For three players and one set, that is a remarkable achievement.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Inception: Grade C

Inception (2010)
Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Elen Page, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger; Writer-Director Christopher Nolan.

DiCaprio is a corporate espionage thief who specializes in stealing secrets from people’s minds when they are dreaming. The technology for doing this is sketchy, involving some wires running from an aluminum attaché case to the wrists of the dreamer and the thief, along with implied training in lucid dreaming (although that term is never used). Teams of dream-thieves can wire up and dash about together in somebody’s dream, although, as in The Matrix, there is always some confusion about whether it is a dream or reality, and if a dream, whose dream it is. I was surprised that all the dream invaders could fall asleep and begin dreaming immediately upon sitting or lying down, an amazing skill.

The redemptive “final big job” for the head thief is to plant an idea in an executive’s dreaming mind, rather than steal one from it. So he hires a “dream architect” (Page) to establish the parameters of the target’s dream. That idea is nonsense, since everyone is the author of their own dreams, but this movie is full of nonsense. Lots of rules of dreaming are declared, such as, if you are killed in a dream, you wake up. If you lose your balance in reality, while dreaming, you wake up. There are dreams within dreams within dreams. And so on. And there are many assumptions that have to be accepted, such as that you remember all your dreams, that they are meaningful, and that they influence your waking life.

It is impossible to make sense out of the movie’s chaotic 2.5 hour narrative, but the point is the special effects anyway. The filmmakers can show absolutely anything and none of it has to make sense, because dreams don’t make sense. So streets turn upside down, sidewalks, buildings, and vehicles explode. Actually a lot of things explode. These characters all have very explosive dreams. Nonsense though it is, you will see things that you have never seen before on the screen.

The acting is notably poor by DiCaprio and Cotillard, but riveting by Page, who is completely compelling no matter what blither she is made to utter . Other standouts are Berenger and Murphy. The script is so banal that the actors have little to work with. You could enjoy the movie just watching the pictures with the sound off, since that is the only thing that keeps this movie afloat.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Believer: Grade A


The Believer (2001)

Ryan Gosling, Summer Phoenix; Writer and Director Henry Bean.

A Jewish boy in contemporary New York defies his Rabbi, questioning whether the teachings of the Torah are meaningful. He accuses God of being needy, moody, and selfish and defies God to strike him dead on the spot if this is not so. Fast forward to the young man in his twenties (Gosling) who has become a Nazi skinhead and spews hatred for all Jews, denies the holocaust and reveres Hitler. He and his thug buddies go around intimidating Jewish shop owners and plotting to blow up a synagogue. He becomes an articulate anti-semitic spokesman among his friends and even for a shadowy political fascist group in the city. But as each anti-semitic plot and incident develops, we see him showing thoughtful reverence, almost longing, for the Torah, for the Hebrew language, for Jewish ritual and custom, and for an integrated self. He becomes increasingly confused about his self-identity but remains oblivious to his own self-hatred. In the end, he makes a dramatic choice that is nevertheless driven more by pragmatics than by any insight or conversion of belief.

This picture is a close remake of the 1998 American History X that starred Edward Norton in the lead role, and it is just about as good. Gosling is a major acting genius and carries the role as well as Norton did his. This film is more psychologically nuanced, showing the character’s inner conflict extremely well, whereas American History X was more external and obvious. However, for this movie to work, you have to accept the almost psychotic self-hatred and identity confusion of the main character, which is a leap of imagination. The movie does not even try to explain the development of the character’s confused thinking, and the flashbacks to childhood do not help in that, so we just have to take it as it is. Once you get past that however, the acting is superb, and the script excellent – not one false note. Here is another case where I was rewarded for going into the stacks of older films when I could not find an attractive current release.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Winter's Bone: Grade A


Winter’s Bone (2010)

Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garrett Dillahunt; Co-writer and Director Debra Granik.

This is a dark, depressing story of a seventeen-year-old woman (Lawrence) living in abject poverty in the Ozarks. Her mother is mentally ill, on meds, so the girl tries to raise her two young siblings.

The father has been arrested on a drugs charge. The sheriff (Dillahunt) tells her the father put the property up to make bail, and if he doesn’t appear in court next week, they will lose the house. She vows to find him before that happens, but everywhere she goes, hostile neighbors and relatives tell her to butt out.

Her scrawny, coke-snorting older brother (Hawkes) reluctantly investigates and reports that their father is dead. But unless she can produce the body, there is no proof and the house will be lost anyway. She asks everyone, but only succeeds in getting herself beat up.

Acting is very strong by these unknown (to me) players, and the movie is well-made and well-directed. The basic story line is not tremendously compelling (save the farm), but that weakness is more than compensated by the strong sense of place.

Scenery, sets, and costumes are on pitch, and we feel the cold dirt, the grime, the hunger, poverty, ignorance, and hopelessness of the people. Actually the sets are overdone. In their zeal to project squalor, the set designers overexaggerated. Unpainted wooden houses are in ill-repair, outbuildings are in ruins, roofs collapsing, mildew covering the walls. The winter trees are bare, the ground is frozen, the air is blue, and every house has a rubbish fire burning in a steel barrel, sending dirty smoke onto pathetically worn clothing hanging on a line. Every house has empty or partly empty five-gallon plastic buckets lying around multiple derelict vehicles.

It is all too much. These cliches are interesting at first, but strain credulity with repetition. Grungy costumes have the same effect: they’re good, but relentless.

But these are minor flaws. Despite the weak and slow-paced story, strong acting and interesting visuals make this movie linger in your mind for days.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire: Grade C


The Girl Who Played Who Played With Fire (2009)

Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist , Lena Endre; Director Daniel Alfredson. (Swedish, subtitled).

Rapace still has her dragon tattoo in this cinematic installment of the wildly popular Stieg Larsson series of novels. She is Lisbeth, a young gothic woman recently released from a mental institution, where she was held for setting her father on fire. Lisbeth is wealthy, living off a trust fund, and she is an expert computer hacker. And oh, yeah, a master kick boxer too. She seems to be on the lam in Stockholm, doing what, we do not know.

But the story begins elsewhere, when Nyqvist, a reporter and publisher, is about to expose a government sex scandal. His informants are murdered and Lisbeths’ fingerprints are on the murder weapon. Suddenly she is hunted by the police (which she learns about by seeing a poster tacked to a phone pole. Maybe that’s what they do in Sweden). Nyqvist does not believe she did it, because of his relationship with her going back to Dragon Tattoo, but I can’t remember what that was. So the race is on: can he find and exonerate Lisbeth before the police get to her? (Yes, of course).

The character of Lisbeth is much stronger than the acting by Rapace, but she fills the role adequately with her chain smoking, furrowed brows, and multiple nose rings. Not much else, though. None of the acting is strong in this movie. The plot is always on the verge of confusion, but can be followed. Lisbeth doesn’t actually play with fire, and the shot on the DVD cover does not occur in the movie. That must be a trait that was in the book (which I haven’t read) that did not make it to the film.

Characters are cartoony, not realistically motivated, but you kind of expect that in a thriller. Scenery, sets, and costumes are excellent. It’s nice to see several views of Stockholm, a gem of a city I have visited only once. You see the stunning beauty of the area around the old town, but also some of the gritty neighborhoods. The directing / cinematography has the deadening syntax of television. The pace is slow, as most European movies are for Americans. If you edited out all shots of people getting in and out of motor vehicles and driving them around, the movie would be shorter by 10 minutes. Cut all shots of people walking on sidewalks, down hallways and across fields, and you have saved another 5 minutes. Save 10 more minutes by cutting out shots of people staring into computer screens and watching data scroll past. In the end, I didn’t care about the story or the characters, but overall, the film was mildly interesting and easy to look at.

Awake: Grade C


Awake (2007)

Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Terence Howard, Lena Olin. Writer-Director Joby Harold.

Christensen is a young business tycoon with an international, multi-billion dollar empire, but a defective heart. He needs a heart transplant. While he waits for a donor, he falls in love with the domestic help, his mother’s secretary (Alba). Mom (Olin) does not approve, but what can you do. The donor heart comes through and the young tycoon (way too young to be even close to believable in that role) goes under the knife of transplant surgeon Howard, the only one in this movie who is a good actor. For reasons unknown and unexplained, the patient experiences a rare (actually disputed) condition called anaesthetic awareness, in which his body is immobilized but he retains full consciousness during surgery. He hears everything that is said in the operating room, much to his own surprise and panic. What he hears is a plot against his life. Improbably, he is saved at the last minute and the bad guys get their due.

Reported cases of anaesthetic awareness are rare in the medical literature, mostly anecdotal and not well documented, and strongly denied by both anaesthesiologists I happen to know. In the most credible reports, patients have post-surgery memory of snippets of conversation, from which we can deduce they were, at least partially, awake. Full waking consciousness during anaesthesia has never been documented, to my knowledge. That the patient could do crime-solving problem-analysis under anaesthesia is not believable. Other facts depicted, such as the idea that the patient feels pain or might cry, are virtually impossible. But hey, it’s a movie.

The crime story is just barely believable but it hangs together better than the central biological premise. What makes the movie worth watching is that it is well made. The open heart shots are very good, very realistic. When the patient is supposed to be awake, we see him walking, running, and hovering around the hospital corridors like a ghost, trying, in vain of course, to convince other players to save him. That was a creative approach. Alba does a reasonable acting job, but I couldn’t stop wondering about all the cosmetic surgery she has obviously had, at such a young age. Hollywood is extremely harsh on women. Unfortunately, Christensen, playing the main character, was the weakest actor. Music was inoffensive, editing notably good, directing competent. Worth watching on DVD or on TV.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Women in Trouble: Grade C


Women in Trouble (2009)

Carla Gugino, Adrianne Palicki, other relative unknowns; Writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez.

Ten women in LA are chronicled for one day. Some of them know each other, some lives intersect spontaneously, but there is no organic narrative connection among most of them, only the movie itself. So this actually boils down to six or eight vignettes, ruthlessly intercut. All these women are obsessed with sex and speak of little else. Two are hookers, two pornographers, two adulterers, one masseuse, and so on. These women talk about cocks, pussies, oral sex, anal sex, and just about every imaginable body function and body fluid.

Nothing much of interest happens however. One woman learns she is pregnant. One learns her husband is cheating, two are stuck together in an elevator for a couple of hours, and so on. The women spend an incredible amount of time prancing around in their underwear, but there is no nudity in the film, and no sex. A few men appear in the film for brief supporting parts.

The dialog and the story are intended to be comedic, and mostly the movie is a comedy, except for the last 45 minutes when everything inexplicably goes emotional, teary, sentimental and maudlin. As a comedy, the movie is pitched to an adolescent taste, not necessarily a bad thing, but this is all girl-talk, lots of reminiscing and telling, no action, and with no character development. For an adult male it is pretty lame, with some exceptions. There was just enough witty writing to keep me engaged, such as, “No I’ve never been to Canada, but I like the food.” There are not enough really funny lines or situations, which is a shame because the writer clearly has the capacity for a better grade of humor.

A serious problem is that all the women look more or less the same: light hair with dark roots, big lips, symmetrical face, strong chin, slim bodies, big boobs; white skin and large, perfect, too-white teeth, all speaking unaccented English with the same level of diction. There are minor variations, but basically they are cookie-cutter Hollywood actors, and with only a few exceptions, were difficult to tell apart. The only interesting casting was a teenage girl, the daughter of one of the women. Despite all their sameness however, they are very good actors, a fact that raises this film above drudge.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Leaves of Grass: Grade B


Leaves of Grass (2009)

Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon. Writer-Director Tim Blake Nelson.

Edward Norton displays his remarkable talent by playing twin brothers, one a professor of philosophy at a Northern university, the other a pot-growing redneck in Oklahoma. The professor escaped his steamy southern hometown and his eccentric (if not crazy) brother and mother (Sarandon) years ago, and has made a name for himself, when he is tricked by a false report of his brother’s death into returning to “Daisyville” or whatever the town’s name was. But his brother is alive and wants the prof to show himself to the locals to provide an alibi while he, the pot-grower is in Tulsa dealing with a problematic drug lord (Dreyfuss). Needless to say, the plan does not go well and disaster ensues.

The story is not believable, and the characters unconvincing. For example, the redneck brother convinces the professor to suck on a bong, his first day there, and he agrees. Believable? Not to me. Likewise the prof agrees to the wacky impersonation scheme because, well, because I don’t know why. Then he falls in love, and who wouldn't, with an enigmatic teacher (Russell) because she quotes Walt Whitman. Then a random orthodontist suddenly turns sleuth, discovers the impersonation, and buys a gun to threaten the brothers, for reasons never made clear. Right: an orthodontist would do that. It’s just bad writing.

The dialog is stilted and unimaginative ( “I can’t believe I’m doing this”). There are some redeeming story virtues, such as having the two brothers use distinct vocabularies and grammatical constructions (and accents, too, of course). There are some really funny lines, though far too few, and all the performances are strong, despite the weak material.

Cinematography is traditional and unobtrusive. Music is twangy Okie tunes, presumably genuine, but they drove me up the wall, forcing emergency >>FF. Pacing is unreliable, with lots of sagging dead space, such as cars and trucks driving around (so the dreadful songs could play).

Despite these serious flaws, I recommend the movie just because Norton is so unbelievably good.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Solitary Man: Grade D


Solitary Man (2009)

Michael Douglas , Susan Sarandon, Danny Devito, Mary Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer; Writer and co-director Brian Koppleman.

Douglas is a former car dealer in New York who was apparently once super successful and wealthy from a chain of dealerships (this is all told to us as backstory) but he committed some unspecified fraud and spent everything he had staying out of jail. Now he is near destitute and tries to get a new start, but alas, he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder that makes him obnoxious. He sleeps with women and girls of any (legal) age, although it is not credible that an 18 year old college student would agree to sleep with a 70 year old geezer, especially if he is her mother’s current boyfriend. Everyone rejects him on general sleazeball principles, even the bank, and he can’t get a restart. DeVito, an old college pal, gives him advice he ignores. He is irresponsible to his grandkids, and an all around, immature jerk. Supposedly we watch him degenerate into self-destruction but in fact, he is just plain unlikeable, and has a police record. He doesn’t do drugs or drink, gamble, or contemplate suicide. He’s just an ordinary baboon and it is difficult to feel sorry for him or to even be interested in him. At the end, he conveniently tells his ex-wife (Sarandon), that he is afraid to die and that is why he is a jerk. Right. That explains everything.

Granted, Douglas is a powerful screen presence, and Sarandon does more acting with one eyebrow than a dozen other people, but that’s not enough to redeem this dead weight of a movie. Directing is significantly terrible, with good actors just woodenly announcing their lines. Everything about the film is bland and familiar and uninteresting. The script is so incredibly boring, it stands as an example of what happens when a writer-director has too much control with no pushback. A lot of talent is wasted in this project.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Good, The Bad, The Weird: Grade A


The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Kang-ho Song, Byung-hun Lee, Woo-sung Jung; Co-writer and Director Ji-woon Kim. (Korean, Japanese, and Chinese: subtitled).

This violent and bloody Korean action movie is also a comedy. There is an ancient treasure map that several parties want. There is no compelling evidence that it is a real treasure map, but it is the “McGuffin,” as Hitchcock would say, that motivates all the frenetic chasing about. Late in the movie, there is a hint at another layer of meaning when it is suggested that it is really a political map for use in organizing a rebellion against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (the movie is set in the 1930s). However, the political theme was either not developed or was edited out, leaving only a violent, bloody, yet madcap comedy. A shame, that.

Nevertheless, the humor, mostly visual, is effective, from broad farce to subtle parody. The acting is hard to evaluate because the characters and the story line are so offbeat that there are few standards to judge against, but in general, I would say it is quite above average.

However, what makes this movie a real standout is the fantastic cinematography. The pictures are stunning, and in many cases I wondered how they even got them. The narrative descriptive shots are best, for example very long dolly shots through narrow, twisting alleys that seem impossible. The sets and scenes are exquisite, and only enhance the fine camera work. I thought the action shots were less good, on the whole, because they were done with hand-helds, so the camera is jerking all around and the action is blurry, and the shots are in very close and the editing is so short that you can’t see anything, so you come away with only a sense of “action” that is not satisfying. There were some martial arts acrobatics that tried to capture the wit and grace of Jackie Chan’s work but fell short. And there were some wonderful surrealistic action shots reminiscent of Batman or maybe Matrix. It does say "weird" in the title.

The stunt work in this movie was phenomenal. Characterization was extremely creative. I especially liked the Johnny Depp-like evil killer in a pressed white collar. Many shots and the music too, harkened back to the spaghetti westerns, as the title clearly acknowledges. In fact this movie’s overall mood and tone is reminiscent of another weird Asian ersatz spaghetti, Sukiyaki Western Django (2008) which had the Tarantino imprimateur.

The silly, disjointed story line and the absence of offsetting character development are serious flaws, but because of creativity and sheer enthusiasm, I have to give this movie an A.

Harry Brown: Grade C


Harry Brown (2009)

Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer. Director Daniel Barber.

This is a close remake of the Charles Bronson vigilante movie Death Wish (1974). Caine is a pensioner living in “the projects” in south London, where he and his chess playing buddy are constantly harassed by lawless, drug-dealing, youthful hooligans. When they kill the chess buddy, Caine goes on the rampage, hunting them down and killing them. The police become aware that they have a vigilante on the loose and gradually sniff out Caine. The investigator played by Mortimer is sure it his him, but nothing can be proved. In the end all hell breaks loose.

Acting by Caine is very good. He has always been one of my favorite B-grade stars. Mortimer is actually a better actor, but this is not much of a role for her. I like the vigilante theme, and Caine executes it with aplomb, but the directing is only so-so and the villains are so completely clichéd that it is humorous. Likewise the inept police. The first 10 minutes of the film dealing with the vigilante’s dead wife could be excised with no loss at all. When the predictable ending begins – the big gunfight and big explosions, the movie is basically over. So there is about one hour of good material in the middle that makes the film worth watching.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Killer Inside Me: Grade B


The Killer Inside Me (2010)

Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty; Director Michael Winterbottom.

Casey Affleck is a revelation in this crime drama set in the 1950’s. His superb acting animates the main character, Lou, a psychopathic small town sheriff in the south, a well-worn cliché, to be sure, but he breathes life into it. The story gets off to a shaky start when he is ordered to run a prostitute (Alba) out of town, but decides to kill her instead, by beating her to death with his fists. (There is plenty of bloody brutality in the movie, especially directed toward women – another tired cliché we don’t need repeated). Why does he do that? There is some sketchy backstory about how a certain guy in town may or may not have facilitated the death of his brother years ago, in a construction incident that may or may not have been an accident. So when this other guy shows up at the prostitute’s place as arranged, Lou shoots him with her gun then places the gun in her hand, thus achieving revenge. But a detective from out of town is not satisfied with the evidence and relentlessly sniffs around until the predictable revelation and conflagration at the end.

So if this movie is just one predictable cliché after another, why give it such a positive rating? Acting is the main reason. It is riveting throughout, especially Affleck’s version of a calm, polite, friendly, cold-blooded psychopath. Directing is excellent. Sets and scenes are perfect. Cinematography is perfect. Costumes are perfect. The old cars are lovely. And the music is fantastic, mostly authentic period country, like Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, etc., but also with some very fine operatic interludes (Puccini, I think). This movie is so well constructed that you just have to give it a break and overlook the dreadful misogyny and clichéd story.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Ghost Writer: Grade A


The Ghost Writer

Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson; Co-writer and Director Roman Polanski.

This is a well-made political thriller, as you would expect from a big name like Polanski, but it is the strong acting and cinematography that carry it. It is not an edge of your seat thriller and the dramatic tension is never very high.

McGregor does an amazing job portraying a ghost writer hired to re-write the memoir of a former British Prime Minister, who has a retreat on an island off Massachusetts. The ghost writer is the second to try, as the first was found dead in mysterious circumstances. McGregor plays the part of “the ghost” extremely well. His character has no family, no political ax to grind, no strong emotions, no strong motivation of any kind. Yet he has enough curiosity to dig in and uncover the truth about the ex-PM that explains why he acted like the U.S. president’s poodle during his tenure at Number 10.

The plot has more tension if you care about such recent politics. As written, it is hard to care about the story on its own merits. As it happens, I do care about politics so I found the story quite enjoyable, though not everyone would.

The acting is so good, though, and the sets and scenery are photographed so well, that my attention never flagged over the two hour film. Besides the lightweight plot, the only other serious flaw was the annoying music, unnecessary and twice as loud as the dialog, usually high pitched, repetitive violins designed to suggest high tension when there really wasn’t any. I would rather have listened to the rain pounding on the ground.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

$5 A Day: Grade B


$5 A Day (2008)

Christopher Walken, Alessandro Nivola, Sharon Stone, Amanda Peet, Peter Coyote; Director Nigel Cole.

This is a silly, sentimental road movie about an old guy (Walken) who has a terminal brain tumor and wants to reconnect with his adult son (Nivola), ostensibly to be driven from Atlantic City to Mexico for treatment, but actually because he wants some love before he dies. The father is a harmless hustler and a con man who gets his morning coffee from a nearby hotel’s lobby service for guests, his free breakfasts at IHOP, where he shows one of his many driver’s licenses “proving” it is his birthday, and drives a PT Cruiser wrapped in pink Sweet N Low advertising (company provided). He ingeniously lives in America for only $5 a day and the movie is ingeniously well-financed with product placements.

His son is an ex-con trying to go straight who is alternately horrified, disgusted, angered, and compassionate with the old man. As on any road trip, situations develop, complications arise, and secrets are revealed. The sentimentality is well leavened by the witty dialog and clever story to make the movie an enjoyable comedy rather than a maudlin family drama. But the bottom line is that Walken is a surprisingly subtle actor who is incapable of uttering a line that does not make you at least smile, and in this movie, usually laugh out loud. That’s not because he “tells jokes” but because he is fundamentally a funny person, with impeccable timing and tone. The movie is well worth seeing just for him, but all the major players (even Stone) do fine work here.