Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tetro: Grade B


Tetro (2009)

Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel VerdĂș; Writer and Director Francis Ford Coppola. (English, Spanish, French; subtitled).

A young Italian man working on a cruise ship (Ehernreich) looks up his long-lost brother in Buenos Aires (Gallo), but finds a self-centered, embittered person who does not take kindly to him. Nevertheless, the young brother is invited by the girlfriend (Verdu) to stay with them and several conversations and reminiscences ensue. It is very slow moving by normal American movie standards. Nothing much happens but people talking.

However, the cinematography is stunningly gorgeous, 95% of it black and white, but even the few color scenes are extremely well shot. And Coppola’s eye is present throughout, such as when the brothers sit at a sidewalk cafĂ©. The shot is from above, not quite vertical, as if you were watching from a high window on the other side of the street, the exact angle that was used when Marlon Brando got shot in The Godfather. This is no Godfather, though. There is no crime and no guns. This is just a couple of brothers talking.

Every shot in this movie could be framed and put in an art gallery, it’s that beautiful. A second highlight is the story’s focus on the obsessions of family, another theme from the Godfather, and from Italian families in general. Except here, the ins and out of family relationships are taken to a ludicrous extreme, and even dramatized by inserted scenes from Italian operas, to emphasize the point that this family obsession is really over the top. The final denoument reveals the “dark secret” of the brothers’ relationship. It’s highly improbable, even silly, perhaps an autobiographical self-parody by Coppola. But the images stick in your brain for days afterward, and that is the mark of a great movie.

On the down side, the acting is only average, and the music is interesting but unremarkable. For all the terrific cinematography, it is true that the lighting schemes get pretty monotonous. The favorite is strong light from 12 noon plus bright diffuse light from the side, often in situations where that would be literally impossible. The picture looks good unless you stop to think about how lighting like that could occur, and you realize it couldn’t, so that pops you out of the scene to admire the technical craft. That’s fun the first few times, but the lighting director on this picture was a one-trick pony. Overall though, this movie is worth seeing as an example of Coppola’s talent.

The Green Zone: Grade D

The Green Zone (2010)

Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear; Director Paul Greengrass.

Damon is a US Army officer in charge of finding Iraqi WMDs just after the invasion of Baghdad. He keeps coming up empty and begins to suspect that the intelligence he is being given is bad. He whines to the CIA, which acknowledges something is wrong with the intel, and hires him to look into it. Some unlikely coincidental events occur that lead to the bent politician (Kinnear) to be in pursuit of Damon so he does not uncover the coverup that there are no WMDs. In this, the story vaguely follows the structure of Three Days of the Condor a great 1975 film with the government out to silence one of its own people for some political advantage. But this film is not great. It tries to make up in aggressive sound engineering what it lacks in dramatic tension. Loud crowd noises, featuring people yelling “Hurry,” squealing tires, gunshots, and obnoxious trombones attempt to convince you that you are feeling something. The pace of the story is slow, the acting is terrible, the editing is so cut up you can’t see anything, and the story line itself is just too jumpy to be coherent. If you did not know the real history of the WMD deception you would be hard pressed to make head or tail out of this project. That's too bad because it is an inherently interesting historical drama.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Shinjuku Incident: Grade C


Shinjuku Incident (2009)

Jackie Chan, Naoto Takenaka, Daniel Wu; Co-writer and Director Tung-Shing Yee. (Chinese, subtitled or dubbed).

Jackie Chan is a simple farmer in China when his wife (or girlfriend, I wasn't clear), goes off to Japan on some errand and does not return. He goes to Japan, where, as a way to survive as an illegal immigrant, he falls in with ethnic Chinese gangsters in Tokyo. Because of his cunning, wit, and fighting skill, he is soon the head of the gang, which bumps against the Japanese yakuza (Mafia). He’s a good gang leader, but being formerly a country farmer, remains innocent of the darker currents moving around him. His innocence is further challenged when he does find his wife.

Chan is still a great martial arts choreographer as he demonstrates with a few of his signature graceful and witty street fights, but this is not primarily a martial arts film. Rather it is an odd blend of gritty, urban Hong Kong crime drama (set in Tokyo), martial arts, and a character-driven drama of one man’s journey. Chan, and the rest of the cast, demonstrate some serious acting. The scenes and sets in Tokyo are great (especially those in the underground Shinjuku train station, my favorite city-within-a-city). Cinematography and directing are noticeably good. The conventions of the Hong Kong genre are followed, so much of the narrative is predictable, but this is an interesting variation on a theme, worth seeing.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pontypool: Grade B

Pontypool (2008)

Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak; Director Bruce McDonald.

Like many people, I have had it up to here with zombie movies, but this one is different because nearly all the suspense and horror is implied, not explicit. Sure there is a bloody-mouthed zombie who smashes herself repeatedly against a window, smearing up the glass with some nice gore, but we do not have to endure the stereotypical armies of stiff-legged zombies biting people’s necks open and so forth.

The main scene (and almost the only set) is inside a tiny radio station in a small town, Pontypool, Ontario. The new announcer (McHattie) tries to “build an audience” by provoking listeners with controversial statements. The producer (Houle) wants him to cool it and just read the schools’ snow closure list. The assistant (Reilly, in a standout performance for a small role), hears a police radio report of a riot downtown and feeds it to the announcer. As bits and pieces of the riot story dribble in, it begins to appear that large mobs of people are inexplicably on the rampage, killing other people. It turns out to be a zombie infestation, but our heroes don’t realize that at first, and wouldn’t believe it anyway.

The camera hardly leaves the tiny set of the radio studio, and except for the three principals, there are few other players, making the story quite setbound. That made it cheap to produce no doubt, making it a good choice for amateur thespians in years to come. The directing, cinematography and overall art direction are excellent however, so while I noticed the static set, I was not bored or put off by it. The fine acting combined with very good editing kept the visuals varied, and the pace never sagged, even for what is basically little more than talking heads.

The story line is extremely clever, the idea that a person “goes” zombie when they are infected by certain highly emotional English words. The idea of a mimetic virus has some basis in speculative philosophy, and the writers have some fun with it, such as the observation that everyone knows talk radio is highly infectious anyway, and dangerous too. There are also a few good jibes at French Vs. English biases in Canadian culture. But while the script has plenty of wit, this is not a comedy or a social satire, but a straight-ahead zombie picture, with no overarching message, which was a bit of a disappointment to me -- the possibilities were bountiful.

The ending is conceptually foggy but overall, this movie is extremely well made, especially since the threat develops slowly and plausibly (or just barely so), and the threat is mostly implied, not in your face (or neck). It is really unusual for such a crude genre to treat the audience with such respect. This small, Canadian Indie is well worth looking for.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

High Life: Grade B

High Life (2009)
Timothy Olyphant, Stephen Eric McIntyre, Rossif Sutherland, Joe Anderson. Co-writer and director Gary Yates.

Four Canadian junkies rob a bank in 1983. Needless to say they are all grossly incompetent, immature, and irrational. It is not exactly a comedy, but the tone is light and that’s what makes the movie interesting, since it contrasts sharply against the drug addiction-crime theme which is so heavy. The characters are fairly well defined or at least easily distinguishable.

When the robbery goes bad and there is a big shootemup, that was a disappointment, because up to that point, we were getting invested in the characters’ personalities. A gun battle is just another gun battle, so who cares, and some people get shot and some or all who survive go to prison. The ending is not spelled out. You are just to understand, “disaster.”

But what raises this movie above the typical loser-junkie-crime movie is extremely good acting, excellent directing, and outstanding cinematography, especially in the lighting department, great sets and scens, good costumes. The script is also very good, not stereotypical and always interesting. So this film is worth watching to get a look at some fine young actors who have a great future ahead of them, and some very competent filmmaking.

Invictus: Grade D

Invictus (2009)
Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon; Director Clint Eastwood.

The historical basis for the story is that immediately post-apartheid, the South African rugby team (mostly white players), the Springboks, was seen as the creation of, darling of, and symbol of, the oppressive Afrikaner regime. At international matches, the whites would cheer the Springboks, but all the blacks would cheer the visiting team.

When Nelson Mandela became president (Freeman), he understood that to unite the country and prevent civil war, he had to get everybody cheering for the same team. So he urged the captain of the Springboks (Damon) to try really, really hard to win the 1995 World Cup. Using sheer determination, inspired to win one for the Gipper, Damon leads the impossible underdog team to victory. Who could’ve seen that coming?

Acting is unbelievably bad, the script obvious and predictable, and directing klunky. Freeman does a fair job imitating Mandela, and only he would have the stature to do it, but still, he is crippled by the awful script. “So what you’re saying then, is that it is very important that we beat the Australian team?” “Yes sir, very important.” Hey, what a dramatic setup! Other characters are equally stilted and stereotyped, reduced to spreading their lines between thick slices of ham. Rugby scenes go on and on, repetitively and interminably, without structure or drama, action for the sake of meaningless action.

Cinematography is above average however. There are some very fine speeches by Mandela/Freeman, and those may have been taken right from the historical record because they stand out so sharply against the rest of the sludge, but beyond that, this is a real snoozer and a missed opportunity to tell a historically important story of Mandela’s efforts to unite the country.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Messenger: Grade C

The Messenger (2009)
Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, Steve Buscemi; Co-writer & Director Oren Moverman.

Two army soldiers (Harrelson and Foster) have the job of informing NOKs (Next of Kin, in military acronym-speak) when a soldier has died. They knock on the door and recite a bland script conveying the Secretary of the Army’s regrets. The interest comes in the family’s reaction. But how many times can you show the same drama and keep it interesting? There are only so many ways it can go. Nobody is going to be happy to hear the news; everyone is going to be upset, emotional. Poignant as the scene is, after four or six episodes of the same routine, the viewer is ready to quit. Thus, the thin premise cannot bear the burden of a feature-length story.

Harrelson’s acting is the main reason to stay on. He does a first-rate job, with considerable range, the best acting I have ever seen from him. The story does develop a bit, with Foster’s character establishing a friendly relationship with one of the NOKs (Morton), but not much happens there. Foster’s acting is also strong. He looks like he has been studying Edward Norton. Samantha Morton has always been an excellent actor. She was blimped out and almost unrecognizable since I last saw her, but still giving a very good performance.

In one sense, the film is more honest about war and death than a movie like Hurt Locker, which was a cartoon full of explosions and cardboard people. This movie, where ordinary people confront the hard fact that their loved ones have been taken in the cause of war, is much more real and true. But the filmmakers did not exploit that angle dramatically, as they could have, by developing questions about patriotism, service, costs versus values, calling, and son on, so the story is just not very interesting, even though the acting is worth seeing.