Friday, July 30, 2010

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee: Grade C

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)

Robin Wright Penn, Alan Arkin, Wynona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Julianne Moore; Writer-Director Rebecca Miller.

Robin Wright’s acting is the star of this little domestic drama. She is married to a much older man (Arkin) and moves to a retirement community with him, where she is somewhat lost. She sleepwalks, takes speed and takes a pottery class. Her husband has an affair. She has an affair. Her daughter becomes a photojournalist. The dog gets hit by a car. Everyone eats cake.

There is absolutely no plot, and as far as I can tell, not much of a story either. It is just a bunch of rich people bumping around, acting stupidly, lacking insight, motivation, or purpose. Wright’s performance is truly stunning, but the character she plays is so dirt-boring that it is even hard to appreciate the great acting. Reeves and Ryder also give excellent performances, and Moore, in a smaller role, is riveting as always. Arkin acts like Arkin, nothing new there but still enjoyable. So the movie is an opportunity to see some first class acting, if you can stay awake through the brain-dead script.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Greenberg: Grade C


Greenberg (2009)
Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans. Co-writer and director Noah Baumbach.

Stiller is newly arrived in LA from a New York mental institution to housesit for his brother. He develops a relationship with a younger household assistant (Gerwig). She is passive and a dim bulb, so she more or less accepts Stiller’s hyper-neurotic obsessions and they form a friendly, sexually bumbling relationship that lacks the interpersonal intimacy that neither of them is capable of. And that’s it. Nothing happens of any consequence and there is no character development.

The strength of the film is the compelling dialog and extremely good acting, especially by Stiller. He really is a good dramatic actor, even though his part is still nominally comic in this story. Gerwig is a good actor but her character is so bland that she can’t do much. Ifans, as an old friend of Stiller’s is a standout. There are some subtle but not very funny jokes about LA, about dogs, about age anxiety, and so on. The script is extremely authentic, not clichéd, but clever as it is, it only concerns banalities. Nothing of import or interest is actually said. There is no story and no ending, so the movie just meanders pointlessly on. I didn’t get bored though because of the strong acting and sharp dialog, and it is worth seeing for those features, but I have to say this is a slow moving film.

The music direction and sound engineering are intrusive and destructive, with featureless tunes slowly cranked up in volume until you have to hit the mute button to protect your brain. There’s no point to that. It is not even dramatic music. It’s just noise for the sake of noise, maybe in a desperate attempt to introduce some excitement into an otherwise flat picture.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Single Man: Grade D


A Single Man (2009)
Colin Firth, Julianne Moore. Co-writer and director Tom Ford.

The stars are two of my favorite actors, which is why I selected this movie, and indeed they both give extremely fine performances, Firth’s perhaps the best I’ve ever seen from him. However the story/screenplay has zero forward momentum, plotwise or characterwise, so fundamentally this picture is extremely boring.

A gay college professor in 1962 Los Angeles (Firth) is grieving the loss of his longtime partner. He does this by walking slowly, as if in a trance, and by gazing into middle distance a lot. He visits his old buddy (Moore) for consolation they have a few drinks and dance in her apartment. He carries a gun in his briefcase, in case he decides to do himself in, you never know (but of course he doesn't, for that would constitute a story line). He ogles some of the young men on the campus to show he still has libido, even in his grief. He wears heavy black plastic eyeglass frames like they did back then so you know he is in 1962. And that’s about it.

There is just nothing going on in this movie except some pretty pictures. What keeps it from complete failure are the extremely good performances by Firth and Moore, and the excellent cinematography and directing. But without either character development or story line, it just does not add up as a movie. It amounts to no more than a random collection of mildly interesting scenes.

Nine: Grade F

Nine (2009)

Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson; Director Rob Marshall.

Usually it is not worth the time or effort to review movies that I consider failures (and there are plenty of those absent from this blog), but this musical received four 2009 academy award nominations so it seems possible that other people saw it differently than I.

It is, in large part, an homage to Fellini’s 1963 film, 8 ½. A famous Italian director (Day-Lewis) has trouble getting his movie made, and even his script written. As he imagines or stages parts of the show, we get frequent loud, colorful, feathery song and dance numbers, which are the heart of this film. Intercut are b&w scenes that look like they are taken right from 8 ½ although my memory is not detailed enough to say for sure. The analogy is self-flattery at best anyway, for “Nine” has none of the creativity of the original.

For my tastes, this film is recycled cliché (if that is possible), a lot of it taken from the dreadful 2002 musical, Chicago, by the same director. It has a similar set, similar Fosse-style choreography, and similar music. Then it tries to add Fellini-esque moves but gets those wrong. For example, there is a number with Cruz wiggling around, showing her butt like a pole dancer, but if that’s supposed to invoke earthy Fellini sensuality, it is quite wide of the mark. How much talent can a butt have, even Penelope’s? Other dance numbers involve women writhing around pseudo-erotically on wooden chairs with their knees spread as if it meant something. The dance numbers have none of Fosse’s aggressive eroticism and none Fellini’s lyricism. It is just cliché action for the sake of action, apparently with the idea that the feathers and bustiers will make up for what’s missing in musical and choreographic integrity.

Cinematography is not bad, lighting is often good, but the dance numbers are all so setbound that there isn’t much to look at. When we do get off the multiply arched Coliseum-like set (similar to that used in Chicago), the shots are stereotypes, using strong color filters, high contrast lighting, odd angles, etc. without discernible purpose.

Kidman can sort of sing, and she acquits herself without disgrace, but all the songs, to my ear, amount to little more than braying. There is zero dramatic tension, the dialog lacks any originality, and the acting is almost self-parody (especially by Day-Lewis). Even the costumes are stereotypes. All of that could be excused in a musical if the songs and dances were compelling, but here they are just noisy exercises in shouting and random wiggling. I could not find any redeeming virtue. Others did, apparently, so my conclusion must be simply that this film was not to my taste.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Shall We Kiss? Grade B

Shall We Kiss?
Virginie Ledoyen, Emmanuel Mouret, Michaël Cohen, Frédérique Bel, Stefano Accorsi; Writer & Director Emmanuel Mouret. (French, subtitled)

This is a very lightweight romantic comedy, but the excellent acting, directing, music, and cinematography more than make up for its silly story, though it must be said even the silly story is well-told. A young man (Mouret, who also wrote and directed) becomes super horny, as young men are wont to do, although in French, it is nothing so vulgar, but rather, a “lack of complicity with women.” Oh, dear.

He confides this to his long time best friend (Ledoyen) who is very understanding and suggests a prostitute. But after a few minutes of overly precious and coy conversation, the inevitable happens and she “services” him, out of friendship. Some time (months years?) later they meet again, now both committed in relationships to others, and agree that they should do it again, to remove the romantic mystique of that first incident. There is no meat in the sex scenes, but plenty of charming (“cute”) dialog and some very wry acting. Inevitably the two realize they are in love and must find ways to get rid of their other relationships, which they do with some complications and more wry humor.

It is quite interesting that this entire story is told (and shown) as a history by another woman (Bel), who has casually met a man in Paris who gave her a ride. They end up drinking together and eventually in her hotel room, but they are exquisitely polite while she tells the story. She won’t allow even a kiss because “One never knows beforehand if a kiss will be a small kiss or a great kiss” so one just shouldn’t. Even though the story of those two is just a framing device for the other story, it is almost as compelling as the historical drama she tells, so really, we get two stories for the price of one.

All this would only merit an “average” rating but the directing is outstanding, the sets, costumes, and scenes are gorgeous, the language is beautiful, and the music (Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and Chopin) is fabulous. Plus, as I said, the acting is above average, so add it all up and this piece of comedic fluff rises to being a very enjoyable diversion.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Book of Eli: Grade C

The Book of Eli (2010)
Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis; Directors Allen Hughes & Albert Hughes.

Stellar acting by Denzel pulls this movie up to average. Without his performance, it would be seriously sub-par. He is a solitary traveler (Eli) in a post-apocalyptic America, a sun-burnt wasteland that looks like the aftermath of nuclear war (few buildings left). He walks from town to town for no special purpose, reading his Bible when he can. Highway robbers of all sorts try to attack him for reasons unknown (they are presumably just mean) but fortunately he has deadly martial arts skills, a big knife and a short-handled shotgun, so he is in no real danger. And he apparently skipped right over that part in the Bible about not killing.

Eventually an evil gangleader (Oldman) discovers that Eli has a Bible and will do anything to get it. Why? So he can rule the world with its ideas. Hmmm. There isn’t much to rule, really, nor even much for his gang to do, but never mind. So it is cat and mouse focused around the Bible for a while. Meanwhile, a young woman (Kunis) who used to belong to the gangleader, runs away to travel with Eli, perhaps because he keeps saving her from the danger she chronically falls into.

It’s all silly nonsense. Water is a rare commodity in the future world but petrol is still plentiful, so the bad guys can race around in giant SUVs and motorcycles, all of them in remarkably good shape, implying not only a petroleum refining and distribution industry but also a thriving machine parts industry somewhere. Eli has to shoot pigeons with a bow and arrow for food, even though everyone in the picture is quite well fed. Oldman’s gang collects books for him but he just burns them because all he wants is a Bible. This overlooks the fact that the Bible is, and always has been, the most frequently printed book in history, so statistically, you would expect to find more Bibles than any other book. Oh well.

There is a Mad Max allusion with all the choppers screaming around a dusty green environment (why the atmosphere in the future is green is unexplained). And there is a significant allusion to the Sergio Leone spaghettis in the beginning.

Besides Denzels’ strong performance, the cinematography is attractive. Many of the shots are stereotypes, but quite a few are beautiful and creative. That’s worth seeing. Overall however, the acting is clunky, directing undistinguished, story laughable, dialog obvious and stilted.

Unthinkable: Grade B

Unthinkable (2010)

Samuel L. Jackson, Carrie-Ann Moss, Michael Sheen. Director Gregor Jordan.

I give this movie a weak B because it has the courage to address a difficult issue: American use of torture to interrogate terrorists. Is it wrong or necessary? The terrorist is domestic, an American Muslim (naturally) who has planted three nuclear bombs in three American cities. They will all go off in six days unless the US Government agrees to withdraw from “all Muslim countries” immediately. (Why that demand, and how it could be satisfied in time are glossed over). He is quickly captured. Apparently he wanted to be captured, but his reasons are unclear. “To make a point” is the best we can surmise.

Jackson is “H.”, some kind of ex-government black ops guy who specializes in torture. He is called in to do the dirty deed, and he does it with flair, in a great acting performance. His emotions are extremely well played as he alternately cuts off fingers then despairs for his decency. Moss is an FBI officer who is brought in for reasons unexplained by the story, but her character serves the purpose of expressing the average person's conscience. She is outraged and objects to the treatment given the prisoner, but she doesn’t do anything about it, because, well, those bombs are ticking.

So the simpleminded drama is a variation on the Dick Cheney formula: if there is a 1% chance of a terrorist attack like this, they you must take it 100% seriously and do everything possible, including (judging from history), ignoring your principles, values, and humanity to engage in torture. Moss’s character makes the liberal arguments: torture doesn’t work, the subject will tell you anything, it is dehumanizing, it is illegal, etc., etc. “H.” says only, “We have three hours left. What do you propose instead?”

It is a shame that the movie ends without resolving this conundrum. We are left to wonder: were the bombs found in time? Was the prisoner telling the truth? Does torture work? It seems like the filmmakers were too chicken to take a stand, or maybe they decided that the question is unanswerable, but I found the ending weak, unimaginative, and disappointing.

Only Jackson’s acting is worth watching. All the other actors are wooden, speaking predictable lines with predictable expressions, none of them convincing. Jackson however creates a true persona on the screen, creepy, but in a human way that the audience can connect to. It’s not a great movie, but it raises an important question that makes it worth seeing.