Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sex and Lucia: Grade B

Sex and Lucia (2001)
Paz Vega, Tristán Ulloa; writer and director Julio Medem. (Spanish, subtitled)

I’ve been charmed by Paz Vega ever since 10 Items or Less (2006), so I looked at this one, which was among her first half dozen roles on the big screen, at the tender age of 26. Even then she had all the mysterious, earnest, and intense looks, glances and gestures that make her so compelling. Comparisons to Penelope Cruz cannot be avoided.

This is not a great movie, serving mainly as a vehicle for writerly self-aggrandizement. It is a story about a writer who, perhaps unwittingly, is writing the story that we are watching unfold, except sometimes he is also unknowingly acting it out. In the end, it doesn’t add up, and gets so caught up in its tricky self-references that after a while the viewer just tunes out, listens to the melodic language and watches the lovely scenery, good acting, and the mesmerizing Vega.

The cinematography is beautiful, some of it stunning, where color saturation is pushed so hard clouds become pink. In some scenes the film is almost solarized to give the impression of intense heat. Locations are gorgeous, sets are interesting, especially the country house, and the costumes are good.

As for sex, well, there is considerable naked writhing, but apart from the odd nipple or buttock, there is really nothing to look at. The characters are hypersexual at times, but hey, they are young. That’s really not the point of the movie. Rather, it is the complex characters and convincing acting.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cold Souls: Grade C


Cold Souls (2009)

Paul Giamatti, David Straithairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun, Sergey Kolesnikov; Writer-Director Sophie Barthes.

Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, a depressed American actor having trouble performing in a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. He gives a humorous “bad” performance to illustrate. Even more depressed then, he decides to have his soul removed. A hi-tech New York medical company with gleaming white offices, headed by a confident and reassuring doctor (Straithairn) puts him into what looks like a giant CAT-scan machine. His soul in a jar, looks like a chickpea. It is stored safely in a vault.

The new, soulless Paul feels lighter, unburdened by “dark thoughts” but his acting in Uncle Vanya is now bizarre, flippant, way off the mark. His wife (Watson – who is wasted in this movie) thinks he is having an affair because he has become so distant. But when Paul tries to get his soul reinstalled, it is missing, having been stolen by the Russian mafia, which traffics in souls. Instead, he rents the soul of a Russian poet and gives a respectable Uncle Vanya, although still very much Paul Giamatti with all his trademark twitches and quirks. Finally, he travels to St. Petersberg to retrieve his soul from a Russian gangster (Kolesnikov in a standout performance). Then he walks on a beach and the movie is over.

The clever premise and story development is the best part of the movie, and there are some good jokes in the beginning, such as whether scientists and celebrities have souls, whether “size matters,” and so forth. But it is all just silliness. There is no exploration of what a soul is or why it matters. Nobody behaves much differently than they did before with or without a soul or with somebody else’s soul implanted. The Uncle Vanya performances were arbitrary, none of them expressing anything about souls or soullessness. The Russian woman did not start to act like Paul Giamatti when she had his soul – that would have been terrific.

So there is no intellectual or philosophical point to the movie. It begins as a comedy, then turns into a sort of thriller, then loses its way altogether. It alludes to “Being John Malkovich,” a somewhat similar film that was outrageously creative, as this one is not. And finally, I have to say, Paul Giamatti is an acquired taste. His mercurial, hammy emoting really doesn't do well in a dramatic role, and he never plays any character other than Paul Giamatti, which the movie emphasizes. The film is a great idea but a missed opportunity.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Zombieland: Grade C


Zombieland (2009)

Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, with Bill Murray; Director Reuben Fleischer.

A young man (Eisenberg) is a lone survivor in a future America where a virus has turned everyone into flesh-eating zombies. He begins a journey to see if his parents are alive. Along the way he hitches a ride from a tough-guy zombie killer (Harrelson) and they develop an uneasy friendship as they drive across country, killing zombies and searching for a Hostess Twinkie, the tough’s favorite food. They encounter two young women (Stone and Breslin) who eventually join them and so it is a road trip where paranoia gradually fades, and trust, even real affection slowly develops among the survivors. Inevitably, the women get trapped by a huge pack of zombies and have to be rescued by the men in a glorious slaughter.

The movie is really a romantic comedy that just happens to have zombies in it. As a comedy, it is similar to Shaun of the Dead, and the romantic and friendship relationships make the characters more than just cartoons. Woody Harrelson plays his Crocodile Dundee character to a T. Eisenberg has some funny, ironic lines as the “sensitive” zombie killer. Breslin is there to be cute, and does that. Stone, I thought, was directed poorly. Her character has a gothic look, not too bright or expressive, which doesn’t add much. Maybe she is just not as strong an actor as the others.

There are plenty of funny lines and visual gags. The action is kinetic, the characters interesting. Plus you have some good special effects with the zombie gore as they eat their victims. But bottom line, it is a dumb story and the comedy angle has already been done better, and how many zombie films can there be, anyway? As a me-too movie, it is amusing but not inspired. It will appeal to boys under 18.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Serious Man: Grade A


A Serious Man (2009)

Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolf, Sari Lennick; Writer-Directors Ethan and Joel Cohen.

Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor at a Midwestern university, and a 1960’s Jewish nebbish. He lives in a Levittown-like suburb (sets and costumes are absolutely nailed in this film), with his out-of-control teenage kids and wife who wants a divorce.

The wife and her paramour (Melamed) try to be “adult” about confronting the cuckolded husband by suggesting ever so kindly that he might be “more comfortable” if he moved out to the Jolly Roger Motel. The unctuous pseudo-caring of the lovers' “advice” is squirm-in-your-seat funny and a masterpiece of acting and directing.

Numerous other troubles, large and small, befall the professor, who seeks advice from rabbis and lawyers, each of whom is a brilliant parody. There is no plot, just a documentary of this Job-like man’s pathetic life.

The opening scene, which seems disconnected at first, is in retrospect, the key to this funny but dark satirical essay on Jewish existentialism. The opener says that in “the old days” God was present to us and we knew what things meant and we knew how to act. The rules were simple. Today, God does not seem present in life and nobody knows what anything means. It is a scathing commentary on modern life, not just Jewish life, but in this case, life in the Jewish tradition.

The writing is flawless. The acting is utterly gripping by just about every character, and that’s a tribute also to the directors. I was put off a bit by the main character’s extreme passivity, which was frustratingly unrealistic, but it was designed to highlight the world around him, not him as an individual, so it works. Sixties and seventies rock music (featuring Grace Slick) mixed with some lovely ceremonial cant, was excellent. It is another masterpiece from the Cohen brothers.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

American History X: Grade A


American History X (1998)

Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Stacy Keach, Elliot Gould. Director Tony Kaye.

This gem of a movie had slipped by me so I was glad I picked it up from Netflix, which is strong on backlist. Norton, one of the finest actors working today, plays a Crypto-Nazi racist in Los Angeles. But unlike most racist baboons, his character is intelligent and can articulate extremely well the fear, helplessness, and xenophobia that underlie racism. Actually there are a couple of speeches where his mouth is so full of words that we lose the sense of character. That is the writer’s fault, not his.

Intelligent and intuitive though he is, he is nevertheless a violent scumbag, and ends up serving three years in prison for killing two black guys (pretty light sentence, actually). While in the joint (where he is informed that “he is the nigger here”), his high-school aged brother (Furlong), who worships him, drifts ever deeper into the local Nazi movement, led by Keach.

After prison, Norton has a more mature, tolerant attitude. We see his transformation in beautiful black and white flashback scenes that tell a wonderful substory. He is dismayed by his young brother’s extreme attitudes and is rejected by his old crowd, which has become even more violent and crazy than before.

Directing and the script too, are extremely clunky in the first half hour, so much so that I thought the film would be unwatchable, but it is worth sticking with it because it all smoothes out. They must have had a second crew create the beginning as a separate project, because its quality is really out of line with the rest.

The film’s message is overtly preachy (“racism is bad”), and the story is only just barely believable because it does not address the facts that these skinhead types are very uneducated and living way outside of society’s economic and social structures. It takes more than “a change in attitude” to correct those problems. Still, Norton’s character's development is plausible, and his acting alone is worth the price of admission.