Sunday, April 25, 2010

An Education: Grade C

An Education (2009)
Cary Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson; Director Lone Sherfig.

Mulligan is a teenager in London in the early sixties who is studying hard to get admitted to Oxford to “read” English. She meets and falls for an older playboy (Sarsgaard) who has plenty of money and a fancy car. He takes her to night clubs, jazz concerts, and even to Paris, and she is swept off her feet.

The contrast between the excitement and passion of this “good life” and the tedium of studying Latin verbs is sharply drawn. That contrast is also drawn, more importantly, between the promise of an alive, exciting future, and the crushingly cramped and dull lives her middle-class, suburban parents lead. Of course she chooses life in the large.

But when her boyfriend turns out to be not all that he seemed, she has the predictable epiphany about the short term pleasures of the senses and the long term value of an educated mind. It’s a predictable and well-worn story, but the acting by Mulligan and Sarsgaard is extremely good. (And Molina and Thompson, in small roles, perform brilliantly as you would expect). Mulligan clearly has enormous talent, and a poise and control that will make her a big star (this was her movie debut). Nevertheless there wasn’t much believable chemistry between the two leads, which I put down to weak directing. I never felt the love or passion that was supposed to be developing between them.

The script was snappy throughout and the photography and sets were good (especially the fine old cars and shots of London and Place Pigalle in Paris of a half-century ago). So there is plenty to keep a viewer interested, and even though, as an educator myself, I am a sucker for movies that glorify education, this is just not a very compelling movie overall.

Broken Embraces: Grade C

Broken Embraces (2009)
Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar. Writer & Director Pedro Almodovar. (Spanish, subtitled)

The combination of Almodvar and Cruz is usually a winner, but not this time, and it is the director who did not hold up his end of the deal.

The main character (Homar) is an aging blind writer who must come to terms with his past (shown in time cuts), when he was a sighted film director. Working on his last film, he had a passionate affair with his leading lady (Cruz) who was two-timing her rich but gerontological husband. As we learn later, children of indefinite paternity follow.

But it is a soap-opera story full of clich├ęd melodrama that produces no dramatic tension and little interest. Instead the only things to keep a viewer interested are Cruz’s acting and Almodovar’s directing. Cruz is a fine actor and does an impressive job with the weak material, but the main thing about her in this movie is how she looks. The director has her in dozens of costumes and wigs, with all kinds of makeup and sometimes no makeup, which is a bit shocking, to see her as an ordinary woman. If Almodovar wants to burst the movie bubble and show her as just a woman, fine, but what’s the point? We knew that. We go to the movies for the fantasy.

As for the directing itself, it is interesting and colorful, as you would expect from Almodovar. Having the camera pan back and forth between actors having a conversation was like watching a tennis match, but it was interesting, and it did work, and a technical marvel, as the focus stayed completely sharp. But despite these and other creative innovations, you have to ask, what is the point? There was no significant story driving it all, and only very mundane dialog. I felt like I was watching a daytime soap on Univision. So there is enough interest here to make the film worth a look, but that’s all.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Endgame: Grade B

Endgame (2009)

William Hurt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Johnny Lee Miller, Clark Peters. Director Pete Travis.

I have often wondered how, exactly, the apartheid regime in South Africa fell without civil war. I have the same question about the fall of the Soviet Union. When the dominant group has all the political power, all the money, all the jobs, all the guns, what motivates them to yield to change?

If I were not so lazy I could read the history books and find out. But this docudrama answers the question for South Africa to my satisfaction. There were secret talks held between the two sides, Afrikans professor Will Esterhuyse (Hurt) who secretly was working for government intelligence, and Thabo Mbeki of the ANC (Ejiofor). The personal relationship that develops between those two men goes a long way to explaining what happened.

There are political facts too, of course. F.W. de Klerk decided to pursue reconciliation soon after taking office (for reasons not made clear in this movie), and for that, rightfully shared the 1993 Nobel peace prize with Nelson Mandela. There is not much action in this movie beyond newsreel footage of riots in the streets. Instead the drama is entirely “inner,” psychological.

Unfortunately, you do have to know a bit about recent South African history to appreciate the full depth of that drama, and even to keep the characters straight, so this would be an excellent film to show in a college classroom, but maybe not so enjoyable for someone who does not have a clue about the fall of the apartheid regime.

The acting is good, especially by Ejiofor, and the cinematography compelling. Location sets are interesting. The sound directing is so bad it almost spoils the entire picture unfortunately. Little sounds are way overmiked, volumes are far too variable, and obnoxious, irrelevant music is a poke in the ears. Beyond that however, the film is extremely worthwhile.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Grade B

Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans (2009)
Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer. Director Werner Herzog.

This remake of the 1992 picture starring Harvey Keitel is almost as good, thanks to extraordinary acting by Cage. He has genuinely acted before in movies, but when he gets into those long spells of Disney things, one tends to forget what real talent he has. His acting in this story is fantastic, especially in the second half after the movie finds its feet.

Cage is a dirty N.O. cop with a spinal injury that leaves him constantly in pain, so he becomes addicted to painkillers, and to cocaine, although to my knowledge, coke does not help at all with pain, might even make it worse. Pharmacology aside, Cage does a convincing job of walking, standing, and moving like a man in pain.

That would be achievement enough. But he also manages to convey vividly the sense of a man constantly on the edge of flipping out; someone who is just barely under control in the social context. He delivers his lines in the same way, dripping with inner torment. It is an amazing performance, well worth seeing.

That aside, however, there is not much to recommend the movie. He is a typical bad cop, similar to every other gritty, urban bad cop movie you have ever seen. He steals dope from the property room, shakes down club-goers for their dope, bullies suspects, abuses his badge and authority to get sex, and all the rest. In the Keitel original, the character was more believable as a burned out, borderline psychopath who was in the end redeemed (partially), by showing a spark of conscience and sense of justice. It was a worthwhile human drama.

Cage’s cop is cartoony and does not hold together well. His gambling habit does not really fit with his character and is not well-integrated into the story. It seems to be there just because it was a there in the original. His romantic relationship with Mendez is flat. And the ending is just stupid, where suddenly in the last 5 minutes he wins enough to cancel all his gambling debts, the mobsters lay off, charges are dropped, he is promoted to captain, his back pain is apparently gone, he has a smile on his face, a happy family, and he and his girl and his father too, have all gone through rehab and celebrate by drinking San Pellegrino. Right. That is Hollywood showing its most cynical contempt for audiences, and it just ruins whatever story they had going. I’m surprised that a big name director like Herzog could not prevent such atrocity.

Unless it was supposed to be ironic, a drug-induced delusion of Cage’s character. There are a couple of surrealist scenes in the movie involving singing iguanas and a dancing dead man which are complete non-sequiturs and can only be interpreted as representing drug-induced hallucination even though that is not consistent with the character's state. That is a generous interpretation of the bizarre ending.

Val Kilmer doesn’t do anything in this movie, but he has lost weight, so that’s something. And the title suffix “Port of Call-New Orleans” is meaningless. The story is nominally set in New Orleans but you would never know it from the cinematography, and there is no nautical theme in the movie, and the location it is not important to the story anyway. However, in sum, you have to see both versions, the original with Keitel for his acting and for the tight story with meaningful character arc; and this remake just because of Cage’s amazing acting.