Thursday, September 16, 2010

Solitary Man: Grade D


Solitary Man (2009)

Michael Douglas , Susan Sarandon, Danny Devito, Mary Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer; Writer and co-director Brian Koppleman.

Douglas is a former car dealer in New York who was apparently once super successful and wealthy from a chain of dealerships (this is all told to us as backstory) but he committed some unspecified fraud and spent everything he had staying out of jail. Now he is near destitute and tries to get a new start, but alas, he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder that makes him obnoxious. He sleeps with women and girls of any (legal) age, although it is not credible that an 18 year old college student would agree to sleep with a 70 year old geezer, especially if he is her mother’s current boyfriend. Everyone rejects him on general sleazeball principles, even the bank, and he can’t get a restart. DeVito, an old college pal, gives him advice he ignores. He is irresponsible to his grandkids, and an all around, immature jerk. Supposedly we watch him degenerate into self-destruction but in fact, he is just plain unlikeable, and has a police record. He doesn’t do drugs or drink, gamble, or contemplate suicide. He’s just an ordinary baboon and it is difficult to feel sorry for him or to even be interested in him. At the end, he conveniently tells his ex-wife (Sarandon), that he is afraid to die and that is why he is a jerk. Right. That explains everything.

Granted, Douglas is a powerful screen presence, and Sarandon does more acting with one eyebrow than a dozen other people, but that’s not enough to redeem this dead weight of a movie. Directing is significantly terrible, with good actors just woodenly announcing their lines. Everything about the film is bland and familiar and uninteresting. The script is so incredibly boring, it stands as an example of what happens when a writer-director has too much control with no pushback. A lot of talent is wasted in this project.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Good, The Bad, The Weird: Grade A


The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Kang-ho Song, Byung-hun Lee, Woo-sung Jung; Co-writer and Director Ji-woon Kim. (Korean, Japanese, and Chinese: subtitled).

This violent and bloody Korean action movie is also a comedy. There is an ancient treasure map that several parties want. There is no compelling evidence that it is a real treasure map, but it is the “McGuffin,” as Hitchcock would say, that motivates all the frenetic chasing about. Late in the movie, there is a hint at another layer of meaning when it is suggested that it is really a political map for use in organizing a rebellion against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (the movie is set in the 1930s). However, the political theme was either not developed or was edited out, leaving only a violent, bloody, yet madcap comedy. A shame, that.

Nevertheless, the humor, mostly visual, is effective, from broad farce to subtle parody. The acting is hard to evaluate because the characters and the story line are so offbeat that there are few standards to judge against, but in general, I would say it is quite above average.

However, what makes this movie a real standout is the fantastic cinematography. The pictures are stunning, and in many cases I wondered how they even got them. The narrative descriptive shots are best, for example very long dolly shots through narrow, twisting alleys that seem impossible. The sets and scenes are exquisite, and only enhance the fine camera work. I thought the action shots were less good, on the whole, because they were done with hand-helds, so the camera is jerking all around and the action is blurry, and the shots are in very close and the editing is so short that you can’t see anything, so you come away with only a sense of “action” that is not satisfying. There were some martial arts acrobatics that tried to capture the wit and grace of Jackie Chan’s work but fell short. And there were some wonderful surrealistic action shots reminiscent of Batman or maybe Matrix. It does say "weird" in the title.

The stunt work in this movie was phenomenal. Characterization was extremely creative. I especially liked the Johnny Depp-like evil killer in a pressed white collar. Many shots and the music too, harkened back to the spaghetti westerns, as the title clearly acknowledges. In fact this movie’s overall mood and tone is reminiscent of another weird Asian ersatz spaghetti, Sukiyaki Western Django (2008) which had the Tarantino imprimateur.

The silly, disjointed story line and the absence of offsetting character development are serious flaws, but because of creativity and sheer enthusiasm, I have to give this movie an A.

Harry Brown: Grade C


Harry Brown (2009)

Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer. Director Daniel Barber.

This is a close remake of the Charles Bronson vigilante movie Death Wish (1974). Caine is a pensioner living in “the projects” in south London, where he and his chess playing buddy are constantly harassed by lawless, drug-dealing, youthful hooligans. When they kill the chess buddy, Caine goes on the rampage, hunting them down and killing them. The police become aware that they have a vigilante on the loose and gradually sniff out Caine. The investigator played by Mortimer is sure it his him, but nothing can be proved. In the end all hell breaks loose.

Acting by Caine is very good. He has always been one of my favorite B-grade stars. Mortimer is actually a better actor, but this is not much of a role for her. I like the vigilante theme, and Caine executes it with aplomb, but the directing is only so-so and the villains are so completely clichéd that it is humorous. Likewise the inept police. The first 10 minutes of the film dealing with the vigilante’s dead wife could be excised with no loss at all. When the predictable ending begins – the big gunfight and big explosions, the movie is basically over. So there is about one hour of good material in the middle that makes the film worth watching.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Killer Inside Me: Grade B


The Killer Inside Me (2010)

Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty; Director Michael Winterbottom.

Casey Affleck is a revelation in this crime drama set in the 1950’s. His superb acting animates the main character, Lou, a psychopathic small town sheriff in the south, a well-worn cliché, to be sure, but he breathes life into it. The story gets off to a shaky start when he is ordered to run a prostitute (Alba) out of town, but decides to kill her instead, by beating her to death with his fists. (There is plenty of bloody brutality in the movie, especially directed toward women – another tired cliché we don’t need repeated). Why does he do that? There is some sketchy backstory about how a certain guy in town may or may not have facilitated the death of his brother years ago, in a construction incident that may or may not have been an accident. So when this other guy shows up at the prostitute’s place as arranged, Lou shoots him with her gun then places the gun in her hand, thus achieving revenge. But a detective from out of town is not satisfied with the evidence and relentlessly sniffs around until the predictable revelation and conflagration at the end.

So if this movie is just one predictable cliché after another, why give it such a positive rating? Acting is the main reason. It is riveting throughout, especially Affleck’s version of a calm, polite, friendly, cold-blooded psychopath. Directing is excellent. Sets and scenes are perfect. Cinematography is perfect. Costumes are perfect. The old cars are lovely. And the music is fantastic, mostly authentic period country, like Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, etc., but also with some very fine operatic interludes (Puccini, I think). This movie is so well constructed that you just have to give it a break and overlook the dreadful misogyny and clichéd story.