Sunday, May 30, 2010

Edge of Darkness: Grade C

Edge of Darkness (2010)
Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Bojana Novakovic ; Director Martin Campbell.

This is a smart comeback vehicle for Gibson, after screw-ups in his personal life more or less destroyed his superstar status. It is a traditional paranoid whistleblower thriller in which a woman (Novakovic) tries to report illegal government activity at a nuclear weapons site and is finally forced to “go public” with her information, and she goes public to her dad (Gibson), a Boston police detective. As he gets closer to the truth the body count mounts.

Gibson does a respectable acting job, considering the stereotypical role. He is a good actor (I’ve seen him do Hamlet), but the screen persona we want to see is the fearless action hero. Here, he is altogether too serious, sporting a contrived “pained” look throughout. Obviously, he couldn’t be a cocky, wise-cracking cop and project the humility required for his comeback.

Ray Winstone is the one who jumps out in this film though. He’s a terrific actor who’s been around forever and is only recently getting some attention (He starred in “44-inch Chest,” reviewed in this blog recently). His character, a hired killer, oozes menace, but also subtlety and complexity. A fine performance.

The movie is based on a BBC television series and that’s how it plays, like TV. The story has lots of arbitrary twists and turns, which is what happens when writers have to come up with a new thrill every week, so there isn’t much coherence to it all. There are plenty of loose ends and non-sequiturs, and so many bad guys you might need a scorecard. So it is not a satisfying thriller and its anti-government-corruption message is not anything new, and the acting is only slightly above average. Directing and cinematography are unremarkable. Still, it is nice to see Mel with an automatic pistol in his hand again.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe: Grade C

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (2009)

William Kunstler (historical footage). Directors: Emily and Sarah Kunstler.

This is an interesting biographical snapshot of a remarkable defense lawyer who was at the forefront of radical politics in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He defended gangsters, murderers and mobsters, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. He defended the inmates who revolted at Attica prison, members of the Chicago Seven, the Black Panthers, and the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee. The biography is also therefore a review of troubled times in America, a time when many of us, like Kunstler, for the first time realized that the government was not “on our side,” but bent on self preservation and crushing dissent. That was a startling realization that spawned and sustained much social unrest.

Kunstler’s two daughters obviously tried to be sure the project was not simply a paean to their father nor a sentimental memoir. They succeeded in that. It is a reasonably balanced view of the man, his times, his accomplishments and failures, although not his motivation. The filmmakers claim to struggle, even now, to understand how their father could defend some very nasty people who were clearly not innocent. However, I simply do not believe that these educated, wealthy, articulate women are confused about that. It is quite obvious that the clients’ innocence or guilt had absolutely nothing to do with Kunstler’s choices, and this is true for any good defense attorney. What they defend is the legal system itself, by making it earn its legitimacy. The daughters’ alleged confusion about that is, in my view, just a dishonest patina added to the picture to dumb down the message, and maybe to inject some artificial mystery into what otherwise is a mildly interesting report.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bliss, aka Mutluluk: Grade A


Bliss, aka Mutluluk (2007)
Özgü Namal, Talat Bulut, Murat Han; Director Abdullah Oguz. (Turkish, subtitled).

A young girl (Namal) is raped in a small village in Turkey and then is rejected by her family and village for that “crime.” She won’t say who did it. Her uncle orders her killed to restore the family honor and assigns his son (Han) to the task, but he can’t go through with it and runs away with the girl to the sea. Thugs are sent in pursuit. The mood between the son and the girl is tense, but gradually they develop a working relationship because they recognize that neither can ever go back to the village. They meet a rich, well-educated professor (Bulut) from Istanbul who takes them aboard his gorgeous wooden sailboat and they are exposed to secular life and values for the first time. They are shocked, horrified and fascinated at the same time. In the end justice is done.

It’s a beautiful film to look at, the acting outstanding, the characters engaging, but the sharply drawn theme was the highlight for me. The rigid village traditions seem ridiculous, but most people in the world live in such traditional societies and it makes you wonder why. The answer must be that without those rigid rules (including religious rules, although that aspect is not raised in this film), people would not know how to behave at all. How could you know what was right and what was wrong? Life would be chaos. The rules of traditional society tell you what a person should be, just as military training does for our soldiers and religious training does for most people. Although the result is only a person shaped for a narrowly defined world, the alternative would be a person without a compass. So you realize how necessary traditional values are.

But then you wonder, how do we get by in secular society? The answer this film offers is education. If you are educated, you can discern up from down, right from wrong. Is that correct? I’m not sure it is a complete answer. The movie also says it helps if you are rich so you don’t have to deal with the grubbiness of life. The character of the professor is a too-easy answer, not entirely convincing, but it is one answer. The final message of the movie in any case is that secularism is better than traditionalism.

The tension between traditional and secular society is at the core of modern Turkey, underlying its politics, sociology, and its struggle to join the EU. For Turks, this would be a powerful film that goes right to the heart.

You Don’t Know Jack: Grade B


You Don’t Know Jack (2010)

Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Danny Huston, Brenda Vaccaro; Director Barry Levinson.

Pacino plays Dr. Jack Kevorkian, aka Dr. Death, in this worthy HBO biopic. Kevorkian’s last years are shown, when he’s in his ‘70’s and decides to make a national issue out of doctor-assisted-suicide, to help those with terminal illness end their suffering and their lives with dignity.

This is definitely a pro-death with dignity message. Kevorkian is shown as quirky and egocentric, but compassionate and dedicated to his patients in the cause of the right to die point of view. The other side of the argument (which seems to be that “God would not approve”) is not presented except to show angry protesters shouting and carrying picket signs. I’m sure there is a reasoned argument to be made for the other side (although I don’t know what it is), and this would have been a better movie if it had not been so one-sided, because it is ultimately an “issue” movie. The biographical material about Kevorkian is sketchy and there’s no telling how accurate it is.

Pacino gives a terrific performance. It is nice to see him act again instead of just barking and hamming and mugging around. He’s still got it. Sarandon is, as always, compelling. She just is a convincing person. And it is nice to see Vaccaro on the big screen again. Cinematography has a few moments of artistry, but this is a TV show after all so the directing and photography are in your face and whap on the side of the head obvious. But the strong acting raises it above mediocrity.

It would be a good picture to show in a high school class to stimulate discussion. It’s a shame this is still a controversial issue. Kevorkian was released from prison in 2007 and we still have only two states that legally admit that “Dying is not a crime.”

Monday, May 03, 2010

Peacock: Grade C

Peacock (2010)
Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon. Co-writer & Director Michael Lander

This hard-to-find indie is worth a look because of some good acting. Murphy plays a slightly retarded man in a small Norman Rockwell town of about 1960, who suffers from multiple personality disorder, what is properly called Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID. His two personalities are John, the bank clerk, and Emma, wife of John. The personalities communicate through handwritten notes (all of them Emma to John) and other artifacts, such as groceries, clothing, etc. around the house. So the two personalities are aware of each other, yet at the same time estranged.

DID is extremely rare in real life, so much so that many psychiatrists dispute its legitimacy as a diagnosis. Among documented cases, it is even more rare for the personalities to be aware of each other. So while vaguely tracking the main features of the disorder, the movie takes considerable artistic license, as it should. It could be that John is simply a transvestite and not psychotic at all. But the movie tries hard to make us believe it is a case of DID.

The DID theme is an excellent device for interesting stories, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It gives a character the chance to do all sorts of things he would like to but wouldn't dare. But in this case, since the personalities know each other and “live together” like husband and wife, the idea is much less interesting. The backstory, that somehow John was traumatized by his mother as a child, is supposed to explain his condition, but it doesn’t, so we just have to accept it as a weird condition.

Acting by Murphy is quite good. That would have to be a challenging role for any actor, to play both genders. But the script is weak and the dialog clunky so he does not have much room to maneuver in the two characters. The different costumes, male and female, cue us into the differences between the personalities, except that Emma, even with her wig, still looks like a guy in drag. One must suspend incredulity that the townspeople are not hip to the deception and cannot see past a little eye makeup to realize it is the same guy. But oh, well.

Ellen Page does an outstanding job as a poor single mother. She really shows her acting talent and range here, as this is not just another smart-mouthed Juno-like character, but one with some real depth. Sarandon is always convincing but her role is extremely limited and she can’t do much with it.

Overall the story doesn’t make much sense, is not very interesting, and there are all kinds of flaws in its logic, and it is psychologically not believable. The pace is way too slow. After a couple of costume changes, we get the point of the DID, but there is still another hour to go. Snoozaroo! If you see the DVD around, rent it to see Page’s performance, and the rest of it is not terrible.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Crazy Heart: Grade D

Crazy Heart (2009)
Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhall, Colin Ferrill, with Robert Duvall. Co-writer & Director Scott Cooper.

Bridges won his first Oscar for his role of Bad Blake, a washed up, alcoholic country singer. It’s a decent performance, especially for him, although he is not in the same league as winners like Sean Penn, Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando. Probably the award was mainly to acknowledge his long career of competent acting.

Blake is 57 years old, broke, and happy to get a gig in a bowling alley in some southern town. A newspaper reporter (Gyllenhall, who won best supporting) interviews him and eventually they develop an unlikely and unconvincing romantic relationship. We know how this story goes, from dozens just like it. In the end, Blake must decide what he values in life so he turns a new leaf.

I confess I am not a fan of country music. I find it simplistic, repetitive and maudlin. The songs in this movie were inoffensive and unremarkable, as were Bridges’ performances. He is not much of a singer and the songs were chosen to suit his narrow range so he could bark them out as much as sing them. The story was trite and the acting only competent, even by Maggie, who gave 110% to a weak character. I’ve never been fond of Bridges. I don’t appreciate his broad gestures and blustery overacting. But if you are a fan of his, this is typical Bridges. Cinematography included a lot of stereotypical concert shots with highlighted hair from behind, fast pans through colored spotlights, etc. You know the drill. Some of the backup bands were good.

What is extremely annoying about this DVD was that fast forward was locked out, so it was impossible to skip past the boring parts, presumably because the filmmakers insist that there are no boring parts, but trust me, there are. A long shot of a car driving down a highway is boring. I know they teach you in film school to establish the scene and show time passing, and document change in locations, etc., but I’ll tell you what: it is boring. Same for people walking down hallways and people performing body functions. It’s all just deadwood. But I was forced to endure it, and that added to my overall impression that this movie is just plain boring.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

44-inch Chest: Grade B

44 Inch Chest (2009)
Ray Winstone, Tom Wilkinson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Joanne Whalley; Director Malcolm Venville.

This set-bound talking head drama features some extremely fine acting and engaging (though profane), dialog that sounds like Mamet or even Beckett. Working class, aging British losers try to convince their buddy (Winstone) to kill the young man who cuckolded him. The victim is tied to a chair with a bag over his head, just like in Reservoir Dogs, and the allusions to that film are strong.

The men discuss, rant, and digress, with the director being forced to move the pace along with interesting cuts, time-slices, and even a gratuitous insertion of a clip from the old Sampson and Delilah movie. The desperate directorial need to relieve the claustrophobia of the set reminded me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), and it doesn’t quite work in either movie, so you are left with the look and feel of a stage play.

There is a lack of action and story, a lack of character development, and an overabundance of words, but still the movie is well worth watching to enjoy the excellent acting and directing. The sound track is engaging and the set is very good. Cinematography is varied and interesting but the sepia palette gets old (a problem with having only one set). There is nothing new here, but great acting can redeem just about anything.