Friday, December 31, 2010

Best DVDs of 2010

Best DVDs I saw in 2010



Find the review archived in 2010: Month/Day




Summer Hours



American History X



A Serious Man



Up in the Air



Good Hair



Bliss (Mutuluk)






Police, Adjective



The Ghost Writer



The Good, The Bad, The Weird



Winter’s Bone



The Believer



The Wedding Song



The Hangover



Sex and Lucia



The Informant



As it Is in Heaven






Bad Lieutenant






44 Inch chest



You Don’t Know Jack



High Life












Shall We Kiss?



The Killing Gene



A Prophet



$5 A Day



The Killer Inside Me



Leaves of Grass



Disappearance of Alice Creed



The Town



The Other Guys



Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Other Guys: Grade B

The Other Guys (2010)

Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Michael Keaton, Eva Mendes, Steve Coogan; Co-writer & director Adam McKay.

I am not a big fan of Will Ferrell’s loud and obvious comic style, but this movie was LOL funny for me. I’ve never seen Wahlberg in a comic role before but he has good timing and made the part a success.

The two cops are ridiculed NYPD officers assigned to desk jobs. Ferrell’s character likes doing paperwork because it is quiet and happy work and nobody shoots at you. Wahlberg craves action, but has been confined to the desk ever since he accidentally shot Derek Jeter in the leg. Jeter has a cameo for that scene. Throughout the movie Wahlberg is introduced as “the cop who shot Jeter.” A typical response is “You should have shot A-Rod!”

The jokes are often wordgames and cultural allusions, which I enjoy. And there are some just plain loopy scenes, like Ferrell's story of a band of tunas attacking a pack of lions. The writers have a worthy successor to the Leslie Nielsen brand of screwball humor. The visual and situational gags are usually silly, sometimes satirical. I especially enjoyed the Prius-related jokes and gags. The exasperated police captain (Keaton) has a second job at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

The two deskbound cops finally get out on some assignments which leads to “buddy cop” jokes reminiscent of the Lethal Weapon franchise, with a dash of Inspector Clouseau bumbling to success. I think what makes it really work, besides good writing, is Ferrell’s deadpan delivery, great face acting, and impeccable timing, traits that Wahlberg copies admirably, if not to the same degree of perfection. Coogan also shows excellent comic form in his role as a crooked financial wizard.

Music is quite good, and there are plenty of loud, colorful explosions for the kids. Samuel Jackson and Dwayne Johnson appear in a brief opening segment that is not necessary and not funny, but burnishes the film’s action credentials. You must appreciate goofy humor to like this movie, which is above average for its genre.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The A-Team: Grade D

The A-Team (2010)

Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, Jessica Biel;Co-writer and director Joe Carnahan.

This action-adventure explosion movie is apparently based on a television series I have never heard of. I thought the movie might be good because of Neeson and Biel, both actors I enjoy. However, while Biel showed some acting talent, Neeson was just hammy and blustery, completely uninteresting. Perhaps that’s what was expected from the TV role.

Four tough-guy Army Rangers are sent into Baghdad to rescue a set of engraving plates used to print counterfeit money. When they get back, their commanding officer is killed and the plates are stolen, so it looks like they absconded. They are all court-marshaled and sent to prison, but fear not, they manage to break out, bent on revenge. They are hotly pursued by CIA agent Biel, who once had a romantic relationship with one of the men but is now estranged. Needless to say, after much chasing about and a plethora of bullets and exothermic chemical reactions, the double-crosser is found, the plates are recovered, and the soldiers have their reputations restored. And also Biel’s character is reunited with her former lover, just for the sake of completion.

There are some good action sequences. The script is moderately funny at times. Production values are high and photography is sharp and clear. The sound track is composed of deafening noise. The plot is outlined in bold, black crayon so you never get confused about who is good and who is bad. Overall, the movie is nothing but recycled scenes and lines we have seen and heard dozens of times; the acting is only competent, the characters flat, and the story predictable. You have to ask, why did this movie need to be made? There is no answer for that.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Wedding Song: Grade A

The Wedding Song (2008)

Lizzie Brocheré, Olympe Borval, Najib Oudghiri; Writer-Director Karin Albou. (Arabic and French; subtitled).

The Nazis have occupied Tunisia in the early 1940’s and have begun rounding up the Jews. In Tunis, two young women have formed a deep friendship, one an Arab Muslim (Borval), the other a Sephardic Jew (Brochere). The middle class but economically stressed, French-speaking woman is betrothed to an older, wealthy physician, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Paris, but she hates him. The servant-class Arabic woman carries on a torrid sexual affair with her fiancé, but marriage is forbidden by her father until the young man gets a job, which he finally does, as a Nazi informer on the Jews. Can the girls’ friendship survive the stresses of matrimony, religion, social class, colonialism, and wartime occupation?

In addition to the compelling story of friendship, the movie is highly instructional about Tunisian Arabic and French colonial culture, especially with regard to the tribulations of female sexuality in both cultures. Naked females are starkly exposed on screen but the nudity is neither glamorized nor prurient. Rather it is used to make intimate and disturbing comments on the plight of the women and on the meaning of marriage in general.

Writing and directing (Albou) are both excellent in this zero-budget film, but the cinematography suffers from what is probably low budget technology, so many of the movie’s images are dark and muddy, to the point of being difficult to see. Nevertheless, individual scenes and sets are well-composed and photographed, when you can see them. Acting is very strong by all the players, and overall, the complex, intimate, and emotional story line will keep you glued.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Town: Grade B

The Town (2010)

Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, John Hamm; Co-writer and director Ben Affleck.

This is a tour de force for Affleck, who plays a sensitive gangster in Charlestown, the tough Bunker Hill district of Boston. He is the mastermind of a group of crooks who have done a string of successful bank and armored car holdups. The gang includes a childhood friend, now psychopath (Renner) with themes borrowed from 2003's Mystic River to suggest that they are sociological victims, trapped in Charlestown.

Affleck’s character starts a relationship with a woman the gang briefly abducted from a bank holdup (Hall), and eventually she learns the truth about his criminal ways. The dramatic question is, will she still love him anyway? The relationship story is strong, even though there is no natural chemistry between Affleck and Hall. That part of the story is well-written and both actors are extremely good.

I haven’t seen Hall since her outstanding performance in 2008’s Christina Vicky Barcelona, where she played memorably alongside Scarlett Johansson, who she slightly resembles. In this movie she delivers an authentic, convincing performance.

Affleck is a fine actor too, despite his mumbling, but his character in this movie is not believable: a career criminal who is intelligent, has a steady job and a jailbird father, but can’t resist the life of crime; a cold-blooded, violent thief and murderer who has an emotional, intuitive, sensitive relationship. It doesn’t add up and when his character does several things that seem “out of character,” you realize, you don’t really know the character.

Renner steals every scene he is in with his labile intensity. The plot is basic cops and robbers, with a sappy manufactured ending. Directing is very attuned to the actors’ talents but there are at least two long, slack segments that should have been edited out, fallout from trying to mix an action shoot-em-up with a tender relationship movie. But the plusses far outweigh the minuses for this enjoyable crime drama.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wall Street-Money Never Sleeps: Grade C

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Carey Mulligan, Frank Langella, Josh Brolin; Co-writer & Director Oliver Stone.

This sequel is a huge disappointment for anyone who enjoyed the 1987 original morality play. Back then, when Gordon Gecko (Douglas) declared, “Greed is good,” we understood exactly what he meant and who he was. He got his comeuppance when his young protégé (Charlie Sheen) got a strange attack of conscience that switched him from greed to revenge. Sheen makes a fun but meaningless cameo appearance in this movie.

Gecko is released from prison, broke and alone. His estranged daughter (Mulligan) won’t speak to him, but her fiancé (LaBeouf), a young, ambitious trader, strikes up a relationship. In this version, Brolin is the greedy powerhouse financier and there is talk (but no solid story) that he is the one who put Gecko behind bars, so he is clearly identified as “bad” and we know he has to go down by the end of the movie. But it will be because of Wall Street infighting, not because of the self-destructive self-blindness that made the original Gecko such an interesting character.

Before his fall though, Brolin destroys Langella’s company (supposed to stand for Lehmann Brothers) by front-running and shorting the stock, as if that explained the collapse of Lehmann. LaBeouf, who worked for Langella, is thus out of a job but improbably falls into the employ of the evil and hated Brolin (under not-very-believable circumstances).

There are many scenes of bigwigs sitting around huge conference tables deciding the fate of the financial world. Certain actors were obviously cast to look like Hank Paulsen and Timothy Geitner, but the financial chatter they speak is drivel. Either the writers didn’t understand the extremely dramatic personal and financial dynamics of that crisis or they despaired of explaining it and resorted to obfuscatory babble instead. It could have been so good. But that would have been a different story. But at least it would have been a story.

Instead, that theme is dropped and out of the blue, Gecko reveals to LaBeouf that he has a secret $100m trust fund set up for his daughter and all she has to do is sign it over to him and he will give it to her early. Why she would go along is not explained. Predictably he keeps all the money, invests it, and gets rich again in a few days (somehow). How this is related to the Brolin character is, …well, it’s not related. The writers simply lost their way and the story line becomes scrambled in a tremendous lost opportunity.

Acting is strong throughout, especially by Mulligan and Langella. Douglas shows his self-confidence and presence in a fine performance. But all the characters are cartoony, so there is not much acting opportunity. Music is mostly dreadful, but probably aimed at a different demographic than me. What do I know from pop music. Photography is at times striking, such as oversaturated cityscape scenes. There are a few cinematic effects like split screen telephone calls that add nothing. I enjoyed all the actors but hated the movie so the average is a middling score.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Knight and Day: Grade C

Knight and Day (2010)

Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard; Director James Mangold.

Cruise is some kind of a government spy “gone rogue” because he is trying to protect a young inventor (Dano) and his world-changing invention, basically a better D-sized battery. “The government” (FBI or NSA or CIA – it’s not clear, but does it matter?), led by Sarsgaard, and an endless supply of wide-shouldered, sunglass-wearing G-men and black SUVs, is after him, to reclaim the D-battery, and as a late afterthought, the boy genius as well.

Cruise uses a perfect stranger in an airport (Diaz) to mule the battery through security (although it is not clear why she would get it through if he couldn’t, but that’s not the point). On the plane, a half dozen passengers (all of them) turn out to be baddies and attempt to kill Cruise, but he dispatches them all, and the evil pilots of the plane too, all of this while Diaz is in the bathroom. The best part of the movie is when she comes out to an apparently peaceful plane and he must explain that he had to kill everyone and now must land the plane. She takes it as a joke (at first). Both actors lay on their best charm here, and the relationship develops.

As a relationship movie, really a romantic comedy, it works in the first third. Both actors are photogenic and Cruise really puts out a good comic performance. His acting is as good (at times) as in the overlooked 2004 film, Collateral. He really can act if a director puts the thumbscrews on him.

However, the filmmakers soon retreat from the relationship story and devolve into predictable gunfights and exploding vehicles. There are planes (both fixed wing and rotary), cars, trucks, car-carrying trucks, SUVs of course, boats, trains and motorcycles. Everything must blow up! Between explosive chases, hooded men dressed in black rappel down ropes into omnipresent deserted warehouses to face additional gunbattles (and slaughter – their bullets all miss, none of his do). It’s all cliché schlock, but I have to say the production values are high and the photography is very good. Music, of course, is very noisy.

There are structural similarities to the 2005 movie, Mr & Mrs Smith, with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. This movie has more going for it than that one ever did. Despite mind-numbing repetition, an incoherent story line, and unimaginative visuals, there is just enough wit in the relationship between the two principals to leaven mud into mudpies, and enough acting to keep you watching. For mindless pleasure, it's not that bad.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Disappearance of Alice Creed: Grade B

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)

Martin Compston, Eddie Marsan, Gemma Arterton; Writer-Director J Blakeson.

Two U.K. thugs (Marsan and Compston) kidnap the adult daughter (Arterton) of a millionaire. They chain her to a bed in an apartment they have converted to a prison by boarding up the windows and installing soundproofing and lots of locks. The father agrees to pay. The tricky part of any kidnap job is the exchange: cash for person. There’s no foolproof way to do it, and this one does not turn out as expected.

The film was apparently made with a near-zero budget, so there are only the three actors, and essentially one set, the prison apartment. That does make the presentation slightly claustrophobic and the action restricted mainly to words, but the script is so well-written and the directing so extremely tight, and acting so good, that instead of claustrophobic, one could say the presentation was just more theatrical than cinematic in tone.

The acting is quite strong by the two men, especially Compston, who has great facial gestures reminiscent of Edward Norton. The story is an inconsequential genre piece, but the writing keeps you engaged by forcing repeated reconceptualization of the characters’ relationships. There are a couple of weak spots where characters are not true to their motivation, but overall, one’s attention never flags in this solid crime drama. For three players and one set, that is a remarkable achievement.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Inception: Grade C

Inception (2010)
Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Elen Page, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger; Writer-Director Christopher Nolan.

DiCaprio is a corporate espionage thief who specializes in stealing secrets from people’s minds when they are dreaming. The technology for doing this is sketchy, involving some wires running from an aluminum attaché case to the wrists of the dreamer and the thief, along with implied training in lucid dreaming (although that term is never used). Teams of dream-thieves can wire up and dash about together in somebody’s dream, although, as in The Matrix, there is always some confusion about whether it is a dream or reality, and if a dream, whose dream it is. I was surprised that all the dream invaders could fall asleep and begin dreaming immediately upon sitting or lying down, an amazing skill.

The redemptive “final big job” for the head thief is to plant an idea in an executive’s dreaming mind, rather than steal one from it. So he hires a “dream architect” (Page) to establish the parameters of the target’s dream. That idea is nonsense, since everyone is the author of their own dreams, but this movie is full of nonsense. Lots of rules of dreaming are declared, such as, if you are killed in a dream, you wake up. If you lose your balance in reality, while dreaming, you wake up. There are dreams within dreams within dreams. And so on. And there are many assumptions that have to be accepted, such as that you remember all your dreams, that they are meaningful, and that they influence your waking life.

It is impossible to make sense out of the movie’s chaotic 2.5 hour narrative, but the point is the special effects anyway. The filmmakers can show absolutely anything and none of it has to make sense, because dreams don’t make sense. So streets turn upside down, sidewalks, buildings, and vehicles explode. Actually a lot of things explode. These characters all have very explosive dreams. Nonsense though it is, you will see things that you have never seen before on the screen.

The acting is notably poor by DiCaprio and Cotillard, but riveting by Page, who is completely compelling no matter what blither she is made to utter . Other standouts are Berenger and Murphy. The script is so banal that the actors have little to work with. You could enjoy the movie just watching the pictures with the sound off, since that is the only thing that keeps this movie afloat.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Believer: Grade A


The Believer (2001)

Ryan Gosling, Summer Phoenix; Writer and Director Henry Bean.

A Jewish boy in contemporary New York defies his Rabbi, questioning whether the teachings of the Torah are meaningful. He accuses God of being needy, moody, and selfish and defies God to strike him dead on the spot if this is not so. Fast forward to the young man in his twenties (Gosling) who has become a Nazi skinhead and spews hatred for all Jews, denies the holocaust and reveres Hitler. He and his thug buddies go around intimidating Jewish shop owners and plotting to blow up a synagogue. He becomes an articulate anti-semitic spokesman among his friends and even for a shadowy political fascist group in the city. But as each anti-semitic plot and incident develops, we see him showing thoughtful reverence, almost longing, for the Torah, for the Hebrew language, for Jewish ritual and custom, and for an integrated self. He becomes increasingly confused about his self-identity but remains oblivious to his own self-hatred. In the end, he makes a dramatic choice that is nevertheless driven more by pragmatics than by any insight or conversion of belief.

This picture is a close remake of the 1998 American History X that starred Edward Norton in the lead role, and it is just about as good. Gosling is a major acting genius and carries the role as well as Norton did his. This film is more psychologically nuanced, showing the character’s inner conflict extremely well, whereas American History X was more external and obvious. However, for this movie to work, you have to accept the almost psychotic self-hatred and identity confusion of the main character, which is a leap of imagination. The movie does not even try to explain the development of the character’s confused thinking, and the flashbacks to childhood do not help in that, so we just have to take it as it is. Once you get past that however, the acting is superb, and the script excellent – not one false note. Here is another case where I was rewarded for going into the stacks of older films when I could not find an attractive current release.