Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Invention of Lying: Grade C

The Invention of Lying (2009)
Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill. With Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, and uncredited cameos by Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman (I think that was him). Co-writer and Director Ricky Gervais.

I am a huge fan of English standup Gervais, the creater of “The Office” television show. He is not only a great joke writer but a subtle face and voice actor. So I was a bit disappointed at the flatness of this romantic comedy. We are to imagine a contemporary world in which everyone tells the truth all the time and nobody has ever lied. So there are lots of funny gags along the lines of “Yes, that dress does make your butt look fat.”

However, after just a few minutes, it is obviously all the same joke, and it's not that funny because the social interactions are so far removed from what we are familiar with that all you can see is a goofy comedy sketch. Characterization is close to nil.

Then one day, a man (Gervais) discovers (not invents) lying, by telling a bank teller that he has more money in his account than he does. She naturally assumes the computer is wrong and gives him what he asks for, because lying is unknown. Soon he is rich.

The funniest bit is when he lies to his dying mother, to comfort her, by telling her there is a “man in the sky who controls everything.” The word gets out on this, and soon he is a famous prophet, with his ten rules about the man in the sky written on the back of two pizza boxes (nice product placement for Pizza Hut). But even that extremely funny and satirical scene doesn’t go anywhere. The movie is, after all, just a light vehicle for Gervais’ jokes, and not intended as a meaningful satire on religion or contemporary culture.

Everything ends up happy and normal and he gets the girl (Garner), even though her acting is abominable. Lots of good jokes, but then why not just rent a Gervais stand-up video for that.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Summer Hours: Grade A

Summer Hours (2008)
Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jeremie Renier, Edith Scob; Writer-Director Oliver Assayas. (French, subtitled).

An aristocratic matriarch (Scob) is joined at the family’s French country house by her three adult children (Binoche, Berling, Renier). It is full summer; colors are deep and the sunlight strong. The country house is a fabulous mansion. Although it is crumbling, with peeling wallpaper and crooked walls (as the best country mansions are), it is filled with museum quality furniture and valuable works of art (Corots, Redons, etc.). Grandchildren play in the meadows with carefree hearts. Dogs bark. A feast is spread on the long table outdoors and everyone eats, drinks wine, and tells stories about the family and gives presents to the mother on her 75th birthday. It has the same aching enchantment as the 1990 film, “My Father’s Glory” directed by Yves Robert.

When the matriarch dies, the siblings must deal with the estate. The heart of the story is the tension between their lifetime of fond memories at the country house, that they wish to replicate for their children, and the reality of busy, international lives that have little time for retreats in provincial France and in fact, need cash flow. Only one of the siblings lives in Paris, the others now live in New York and Beijing because of their jobs. As the country house and all its possessions are sold off, we witness the end of an era.

What makes all this more than mere sentimentality is the fine acting, insightful writing, and beautiful photography. It makes you realize that when you die, nobody cares about your lifetime of experiences and memories. Your precious mementos become just stuff that may have some cash value. The lifetime of meaning that each of us constructs is an egocentric vanity that quickly evaporates.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Hurt Locker: Grade C

The Hurt Locker (2009)
Jeremie Renner, Anthony Mackie, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse; Director Katheryn Bigelow.

This docudrama portrays combat life in Baghdad in 2004. We follow a patrol of US soldiers who disarm bombs. That is an inherently tense setup , as uncountable films and TV shows have demonstrated with timers ticking toward zero while the hero decides which wire to cut. No matter how many times we have watched that cliché, it still has some power, I don’t know why.

In this film, that scene is played out about six times in several mini-dramas with slight variations. Some bombs explode, some don’t. One scene is different, a gun battle at half a mile using long range, high powered rifles.

In between battles and bombs there are the predictable scenes of the guys in barracks, laying on their bunks, smoking cigarettes, talking about the girl back home, making macabre jokes, fighting, the usual stuff.

The lead demolition expert for most of the film (Renner) is a psychopath who scoffs at personal peril, even seeks the excitement, putting the rest of his team at risk. Other cliché characters include the young recruit who is afraid to die, the Iraqi boy who befriends a soldier, and so on. The movie reminds me of “Combat,” a WWII TV series from the sixties that had a similar episodic structure.

Sound effects/music were interesting and well engineered, although emotionally manipulative, like the rest of the film. I did not feel this was a good portrayal of a genuine experience of war in Iraq because the situations and characters were so obviously contrived, yet the film did not exploit its fictional possibilities to make any sort of political or moral statement, as Apocalypse Now did, for example. So as a war movie, it is well made and watchable, but it doesn’t add up to anything.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Moon: Grade A

Moon (2009)
Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey (voice); Co-writer and director Duncan Jones.

This is a rare bird indeed, a sci-fi movie that is intelligent, dramatic, well-acted, beautiful to look at and thought-provoking. I think it ranks right up there with Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sam Rockwell is an astronaut named Sam, working for a large corporation, alone on a lunar station, remotely managing robot “harvesters” that extract some kind of fuel from the moon that is shipped to Earth in unknown ways. The harvesters look like giant agricultural combines, which is silly, but they seem pretty convincing churning over the lunar surface. You must suspend your disbelief.

Sam's three year contract is up in only two weeks and he longs to return to Earth. When one of the harvesters malfunctions, he goes out to investigate and has an accident. He wakes up back in the moonbase infirmary, tended by the omnipotent and omniscient robot, Gerty, voiced by Spacey, and clearly inspired by Kubrick’s HAL 2000 (“Open the pod bay doors, Hal”). Despite some early autocratic tendencies, we discover that Gerty is not malevolent.

Sam recovers from his accident but discovers that everything is not as it was. The consequent psychological drama is a real mind-bender, amazingly acted and photographed, and raises all sorts of interesting social and moral issues. It also makes you think about the meaning of your own life. How many movies can do that?

Music is adequate, not memorably grand as Kubrik's use of Strauss was. There are a couple of story flaws, such as the assertion that the moon base is on the dark side of the moon, which is clearly not true, due to the lunar lighting and the communications towers (which would be useless on the dark side). But aside from a few scientific errors, it is an amazing production for a low-budget independent film. A must-see for sci-fi fans

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Hangover: Grade B

The Hangover (2009)
Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, Heather Graham, Rachel Harris; Director Todd Phillips.

Four guys go to Las Vegas for a bachelor party, rent a swank suite and drink too much. In the morning, the suite is in ruins, there is a Bengal tiger in the bathroom, a chicken in the living room, a baby in the closet, and only three of them left. The bridegroom is missing. None of the survivors can remember what happened the night before, but they have a few clues, such as, one of the guys is wearing a hospital wristband, and another is missing a front tooth. They set about trying to solve the mystery and finding their missing friend. As they make inquiries, even more bizarre clues and incidents turn up. In the end, everything is all right, more or less.

It is a sophomoric tale with silly gags, plenty of vomiting and car crashes, but the writing is very funny, the acting excellent, and the directing perfect. So stupid or not, it is a LOL comedy that rises far above the level of its genre. Acting in several supporting roles was quite outstanding, especially by Ken Jeong and Rachel Harris as the shrew girlfriend. Heather Graham didn’t do anything special. Popular music was mostly foreign to me, but interesting and appropriate.

The only serious error is the ending, in which the re-united foursome find a camera with pictures of the adventure, and they agree to look at the pictures once only. It should have ended there. But the filmmakers could not resist actually showing the photos while the credits rolled and the pictures are totally out of keeping with the spirit of the movie, showing gratuitous nudity and explicit sex. That had to be some jerk producer’s decision because the director had struck just the right notes up to that point. For a nonsense romp, this is way better than expected.