Monday, August 30, 2010

The Ghost Writer: Grade A


The Ghost Writer

Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson; Co-writer and Director Roman Polanski.

This is a well-made political thriller, as you would expect from a big name like Polanski, but it is the strong acting and cinematography that carry it. It is not an edge of your seat thriller and the dramatic tension is never very high.

McGregor does an amazing job portraying a ghost writer hired to re-write the memoir of a former British Prime Minister, who has a retreat on an island off Massachusetts. The ghost writer is the second to try, as the first was found dead in mysterious circumstances. McGregor plays the part of “the ghost” extremely well. His character has no family, no political ax to grind, no strong emotions, no strong motivation of any kind. Yet he has enough curiosity to dig in and uncover the truth about the ex-PM that explains why he acted like the U.S. president’s poodle during his tenure at Number 10.

The plot has more tension if you care about such recent politics. As written, it is hard to care about the story on its own merits. As it happens, I do care about politics so I found the story quite enjoyable, though not everyone would.

The acting is so good, though, and the sets and scenery are photographed so well, that my attention never flagged over the two hour film. Besides the lightweight plot, the only other serious flaw was the annoying music, unnecessary and twice as loud as the dialog, usually high pitched, repetitive violins designed to suggest high tension when there really wasn’t any. I would rather have listened to the rain pounding on the ground.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

$5 A Day: Grade B


$5 A Day (2008)

Christopher Walken, Alessandro Nivola, Sharon Stone, Amanda Peet, Peter Coyote; Director Nigel Cole.

This is a silly, sentimental road movie about an old guy (Walken) who has a terminal brain tumor and wants to reconnect with his adult son (Nivola), ostensibly to be driven from Atlantic City to Mexico for treatment, but actually because he wants some love before he dies. The father is a harmless hustler and a con man who gets his morning coffee from a nearby hotel’s lobby service for guests, his free breakfasts at IHOP, where he shows one of his many driver’s licenses “proving” it is his birthday, and drives a PT Cruiser wrapped in pink Sweet N Low advertising (company provided). He ingeniously lives in America for only $5 a day and the movie is ingeniously well-financed with product placements.

His son is an ex-con trying to go straight who is alternately horrified, disgusted, angered, and compassionate with the old man. As on any road trip, situations develop, complications arise, and secrets are revealed. The sentimentality is well leavened by the witty dialog and clever story to make the movie an enjoyable comedy rather than a maudlin family drama. But the bottom line is that Walken is a surprisingly subtle actor who is incapable of uttering a line that does not make you at least smile, and in this movie, usually laugh out loud. That’s not because he “tells jokes” but because he is fundamentally a funny person, with impeccable timing and tone. The movie is well worth seeing just for him, but all the major players (even Stone) do fine work here.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Prophet: Grade B


A Prophet (2009)

Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Hichem Yacoubi; Co-writer and Director Jacques Audiard. (French and Arabic; subtitled).

A young North African Arab (Rahim) is sent to prison in Marseilles, for what I can’t remember, and begins his prison career as a naïve innocent, subject to the brutality and racial gangs that are endemic. The Islamic gang is ineffective and unable to protect him but an older Corsican gangster (Arestrup) admires his strength and independence and offers Corsican protection if he will kill a troublesome foe in the prison. The youth agrees and becomes a sort of mascot to the Corsican gang.

As a model prisoner he is eventually let out for a day a week on a work-release parole, during which time he accomplishes various gangster tasks for the Corsican mobster, including drug trafficking and murder, but always, it seems, working first and foremost for himself. After nearly 2.5 hours (!), he has become the “Godfather” of all the gangs in Marseilles by the time his prison term is up.

The plot is a little too complicated at times to keep the players and their mutual grievances straight, but that’s not too important because they are just gangsters acting gangstery anyway. This is not Coppola’s Godfather as blurbed on the video box, where characters were well developed. These are not. But the acting is terrific by these non-professional actors and the viewer gets a palpable sense of gritty, violent, amoral prison society, an exotic and alien society that exists invisibly within our mainstream one. For all that, it is a worthwhile film.

The Killing Gene: Grade B


The Killing Gene (2007)

Stellan Skarsgård, Barbara Adair; Director Tom Shankland.

This British crime drama is violent, bloody, and brutal. There is torture, mutilation, rape, and lots of blood. I generally dislike gory violence and especially, torture, because it is almost invariably gratuitous – blood for the sake of blood. Pure sensationalism. But not in this film.

The idea is that a rape and mutilation victim who recovered and survived into adulthood wants revenge on the police detective and several others who failed to capture her tormentor. But the interesting thing about revenge is that it does not work. Let’s say you track down and kill the person who did you wrong. The perpetrator gets little or no satisfaction from that, and the victim of revenge typically feels anger but not remorse. Nobody is satisfied, nobody learns anything, and the project is a failure.

What if you just beat up and mutilate your tormenter? Same thing: It does not make you whole, and it is not a situation in which the tormenter has an inclination to remorse. Again it fails. I had thought that the perfect revenge movie could not be made therefore, but this one comes close.

The vengeant woman’s strategy is to capture her victim and, somebody that person loves. Then she tortures that person until they agree to kill the person they love to end the pain. That’s her revenge, to watch her tormenter suffer both physical and emotional pain the way she did. That might work, psychologically.

In this movie, she kills the victim after the victim kills the loved one, whereas it seems it might be better to let that person live with the psychological pain of what they did. That would be better revenge. And she not only kills them but mutilates them by carving messages into their flesh (before or after the torture is not clear). What sense does that make in the context of the revenge theory? Not much, so that mutilation aspect borders on the gratuitous.

Nevertheless, there is an overlaid story that she is or was a mad scientist of some sort who had studied the genetics of altruism and was interested in finding out if the genetic predisposition to care for your loved ones can be overcome by torture. That is a pretty weak experimental question, and in the final scenes, the victim and the loved one are not even genetically related. So overall the story does not make a lot of sense, but it is well acted, well photographed, thought-provoking, and I liked its new theory of revenge, so I give it a paradoxical B even though I dislike blood and guts movies as a rule.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Police, Adjective: Grade A


Police, Adjective (2009)
Dragos Bucur; Writer & Director Corneliu Porumboiu. (Romanian, subtitled)

A police detective (Bucur) in a small town in Romania tracks a teenager who occasionally smokes pot, hoping to find his supplier. Actually, he does not hope that because he thinks the whole investigation is stupid, but he has been assigned to the case by the police chief. He reminds the chief that nobody in Europe gets busted for smoking a joint but the chief tells him that it is the law, and asks him, “Are you above the law?” The theme of the movie is really not about drugs, but about morality, the nature of authoritarian power, the tedium of everyday life, and Romanian politics. (Consider examples of how the word "police" is used as an adjective, to appreciate the subtlety of the political commentary). In illuminating these values, it succeeds completely.

It also succeeds as a masterpiece of cinematography. Every shot is visually perfect, even though it is obvious in many scenes that a building has been painted a certain way for the shot or a post has been whitewashed to bring brightness to the drab, wet, autumnal scene. The camera often lingers, unmoving for long minutes, so we can absorb the stillness of time in that town, in that country, in that character’s life. Several interior shots are through doorways and having the shot framed by the door jamb gives a startling sense of intimacy.

Caution, however: This not an American style film. It is extremely slow, even by European standards, and absolutely nothing happens. There are no guns, no car chases, no naked women, no drug deals, no violence of any kind. There is nothing going on but a detective walking the grubby streets, smoking, talking in the office. The beauty and the mastery of the picture is entirely “inner.” If you are not an inner person, there is nothing here for you. But if you liked Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), you’ll understand what this one is about.

Fraulein: Grade A


Fraulein (2006)
Mirjana Karanovic, Marija Skaricic; Director Andrea Staka. (Serbian & German, subtitled).

A young woman (Karanovic) who lived through the Bosnian war, makes her way from Sarajevo to Zurich to seek her fortune. She gets a job at a tiny restaurant/cafeteria run by an older woman(Skaricic) who migrated from Belgrade. The young, happy-go-lucky woman gradually softens the gruff and unemotional older one until they eventually form a close friendship. There is a tragic theme that brings sharp drama to the story, but basically it is about the friendship, set against the background of the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia and the fact that technically, the two women were on opposing sides of one of the nastier struggles. But you don’t really have to know that history to appreciate how beautifully and lovingly this film portrays these characters and their friendship.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Grade D


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

Michael Nyqvist, Noomie Rapace; Director Niels Arden Oplev. (Swedish, subtitled)

I have not read the international blockbuster bestseller, but that’s OK because a movie has to stand on its own two feet, but this one barely can kneel. A disgraced newspaper reporter (Nyqvist) hires out as a detective to solve a 40 year old cold case, the murder of a young childcare nanny who, as it turns out was his own caretaker. Working for a wealthy industrialist, head of a large wealthy clan of families, he sniffs around until he gets a few clues.

Meanwhile, the eponymous “Girl,” a sort of hip goth type, (Rapace) helps him out with data she has hacked, although they don’t know each other and we don’t know her motive for helping. We learn that she lives on a trust fund but must beg (and worse) for her allowance from an evil executor (who gets a grisly comeuppance at her hand eventually). She does have a fabulous dragon tattoo on her back however, for reasons unknown, but that is quite irrelevant to the story. Her little drama with the fund administrator has nothing to do with the decades-old murder mystery, but it is actually the interesting part of the movie.

The murder mystery rambles on and on with various twists and turns, all of which seem manufactured and not integral to the plot. The “evidence,” such as it is, is mostly pictures of pictures: photographs, newspapers, and computer screens, all of which we see repeatedly, in case we are losing the thread of the story, which is easy to do. That is poor directing, poor basic storytelling even, but consistent with the equally weak technique of telling the audience the story with line after line of endless dialog instead of showing the story by having characters react to conflict. You really have to be a fast reader and can hardly take your eyes off the subtitles to watch the movie, because the whole screenplay is so incredibly wordy.

In the end, the bad guy is caught and his/her motive is utterly lame, but that is consistent with the quality of the rest of the screenplay. Some fairly good acting, especially by Rapace, redeems the film from complete failure.