Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Movies I saw in 2011

Best Movies I saw in 2011



Find the review archived in 2011: Month/Day







You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger



Welcome to the Rileys






Jack Goes Boating



Fair Game



The Man Who Wasn’t There



My son, my son, what have ye done



Midnight in Paris






The Beaver






The Mill and the Cross



The Turin Horse






The Social Network



Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work






Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity



For Colored Girls



The Last Circus



The Last Three Days






The Secret in their Eyes



Mock Up on Mu



Please Give



Cave of Forgotten Dreams



Rabbit Hole



The Company Men



Small Town Murder Stories






Source Code






Dream Home



Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life



Inside Job



Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Smell of Success: Grade C


The Smell of Success (2009)

Billy Bob Thornton, Tea Leone, Ed Helms, Kyle McLachlan; Co-writer and director: Michael Polish.

This is a silly trifle of a movie, but I wanted to review it because it has been so thoroughly ignored, despite having some hidden virtues. It is about a group of salesmen in Kansas, led by Thornton, who work for Rose’s Manure, and sell the stuff to farmers. Old Man Rose dies and his daughter (Leone) from New York City, takes over the company, with the aim of pumping up sales then selling it.

The film is an example of screwball comedy, a genre characterized by witty repartee, usually a romantic relationship, a satirical emphasis on social class distinctions, with farce and slapstick. It was a style of movie popular in the 1930’s during the Depression, so ordinary people could watch the upper crust get their comeuppance and have a laugh at their expense. Perhaps the filmmakers thought it was time to revive the genre during the current Great Recession.

That intuition might have been right, but they made two critical mistakes. One is that the manure theme is pitched too low to be socially or politically satirical, or even, really, very funny. Most of the gag lines are pretty obvious: “Rose’s Manure: We’re number one in number two!” And worse, much worse. I admit, some of the joke lines made me laugh anyway. When the beautiful and sophisticated Tea Leone, in frustration, calls one of her salesmen “Shit-For-Brains,” I laughed, not because it is an original epithet, but because of the way she said it. But the relentless poop jokes wear you down, and even if they do make you chuckle, you realize there isn’t going to be any artistic point to the humor.

Secondly, the relationship between Thornton and Leone just isn’t. They are the romantic leads, and they even go to bed together (just wrestling, no sex). But there is no suggestion of a romance. Why not? Even if the movie was aimed at children 5 to 8, (and I don’t think it was), that should not rule out a romance. Maybe the omission was a far-too-subtle reference to the censorship codes of the 1930’s that forbade portrayal of any kind of sex. If that was the intent, it failed.

The film does have strong redeeming virtues. The cinematography is excellent, as are costumes (the period seems to be early 1960’s). The bluesy music is attractive. The artistic direction is distinctive, with a kind of sepia palette, reminiscent of O Brother Where Art Thou, that is perfect for the surrealistic scenes. And those are fantastic. The competitors, a chemical fertilizer company, parachutes crates of their product, and themselves, into cornfields and the imagery there is stunningly surreal. A kind of World War II theme emerges, and although it is not developed, it is a very creative twist. Acting: MacLachlan and his team, dressed like Men In Black, do a fair parody of evildoers, though not arch enough. Ed Helms is an inherently funny guy. Leone, I’ll watch in any movie. Same for BBT. So this movie has plenty of virtues and deserves to be seen, by adults, even though, as an overall artistic effort, it falls short.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Melancholia: Grade A



Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Alexander Skarsgård, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling; Writer-Director Lars von Trier.

This film is perfection of the art in every respect except one: editing. Its 2 hour, 15 minute runtime is not justified by the material. Not that I was ever bored, because the visuals took a grip on my eyeballs from the opening scenes and never let go. But the first half, focused on an elaborate wedding, verged on repetitive and tedious.

In the first half, Justine (Dunst) marries Michael (A. Skarsgard) in her sister’s home, so luxurious it would make royalty blush. Throughout this long segment, Justine is withdrawn and melancholy and finds no happiness in the wedding. But she is there, after all, in the appropriate costume, so she is conflicted. She arrives 2 hours late, then during the festivities, disappears to take walks on the grounds, retires to take a nap, and even takes a bath. She finds no pleasure in the social rituals of dancing, drinking, cutting the cake, exchanging the vows. Is it because she is clinically depressed? Maybe, but it is more like she just doesn’t see the point of the ridiculous ceremony. Her mother (Rampling) is explicit about contempt for all aspects of marriage, but Justine seems ambivalent. She can’t decide if she wants to be a member of the social community, with all its stupid, contrived rituals, or whether she is an existential monad, alone in the world, finding her own meaning. Her vacillation goes on far too long. I wanted to scream at von Trier, “Okay, we get it!” But I think he was trying to make the viewer feel Justine’s conflict, the endless, intellectually empty tedium of well-worn social ritual, and attraction to fabulous costumes, bright lights, fine food, and excellent music. I felt it, though I didn’t need such a long dramatization.

In Part 2 the story focuses on Clair, Justine’s sister, married to Jack (Sutherland). Justine stays on with her sister’s family after the wedding because she alienated her new husband on the wedding night and he left in confusion. Claire is worried about a new planet, called Melancholia (get it?) hurtling toward Earth, threatening total destruction. Jack assures her that all the scientists predict it will miss, and that “Melacholia will pass us by.” In other words, Justine’s rejection of the social rituals we live by will not hurt us, and death itself will pass us by, because we are together. Justine tells Claire however, that we will all die because the Earth is evil. Her melancholic diffidence now seems like stoic acceptance of humanity’s inevitable fate.

The themes in the film are thus the most fundamental existential questions facing us, the inevitability of death, the meaning of society, the vagaries of fate, and the survival of the planet, making the movie intellectually and emotionally engaging, much more than mere eye candy. Acting by Dunst is phenomenal, and von Trier takes advantage of her beauty in some stunning, if gratuitous, shots. Acting is also very strong from the other main characters, especially Rampling. Sets, costumes: superb. CGI: perfect. Directing: flawless. It’s a masterpiece.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life: Grade B

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones; Writer-Director Joann Sfar (French, subtitled)

Serge Gainsbourg was a pop singer-songwriter in France who enjoyed enormous fame in the mid 1960’s. Though virtually unknown in America today, this biopic is worth seeing because it is a visual feast, an auditory feast, and an acting feast.

Writer-Director Joann Sfar is a creator of comic books (or “graphic novels,” as they are reverently known) and his uninhibited, surrealistic visual sensibility dominates the film, especially in the first half, which covers the childhood of Lucien Ginsberg (real name) in Nazi-occupied Paris. The boy’s alter-ego is a huge balloon with tiny arms and legs, that follows him around, mocking his self-image as an ugly kid, and his Jewishness. The anti-semitism of the Vichy regime is noted, but the story line is really about the boy’s irreverent, iconoclastic, precocious, artistic soul, as he develops his talent as a painter. At times, his alter-ego is represented by an animated figure that swoops around Paris. These early scenes get an A+ for creativity and visual attractiveness.

But it is nominally a biography, so the boy becomes a man (suddenly, without incident), a piano player and song-writer who works sleazy bars and hopes to succeed as a painter. His alter-ego is now played, wonderfully, by a costumed icon with huge nose and ears (Jones), who follows him around and seems to represent his grounding, his center, who he really is (in his mind). Gainsbourg (the adult stage name) is played brilliantly by the relatively unknown actor Elmosnino. His presentation, always through a blue cloud of Gauloises smoke, is simply eye-gripping. In his own voice he sings in the style of ‘60’s chanson, and the songs are great. He cavorts with multiple women, including Bridget Bardot, wonderfully played by Casta, a sensation in her own right. He performs a fabulous reggae version of the Marseillaise, and as he becomes a huge star, also becomes a drunken fool who loses his compass.

During the last half of the film, the visual creativity that was so stunning earlier, fades, and the movie focuses on the psychological development of the artist as he loses his center but never despairs that, though others around him do. The last half runs far too long and dwells too closely, without insight, on basically an unattractive person, diminishing the overall effectiveness of the movie. Nevertheless the film is a work of art worth seeking out.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Turin Horse: Grade A


The Turin Horse (2011)
János Derzsi, Erika Bók; Directors Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky, (Hungarian; subtitled).

I only discovered Bela Tarr in 2006 when I saw his 1988 movie, Damnation (reviewed in this blog 11/27/06). Turin Horse was his last film. Like Damnation, this one is long (2.5 hrs), extremely slow, shot in beautiful black-and-white, and ultimately about the desperation of life under totalitarian (communist) rule in Hungary. It is utterly mesmerizing, depressing, and beautiful, but only recommended for viewers who are committed to film as an art form.

A poor, elderly, and disabled country farmer in Italy, about 1900, makes a meager living carting goods, his horse an old, gray, sickly mare. He lives with his daughter in a fieldstone house in a cold, windy, treeless land where a howling gale rages for most of the movie. It’s always winter, cold, and bleak in a Bela Tarr movie, because that’s how life was under communism. The storm is the harsh and relentless politics blowing through the land, the dust making the simplest movement a challenge. The man and his daughter eat boiled potatoes, fetch water from the well, stoke the wood stove, gaze numbly out the dirty window, and sleep. She spends a lot of time dressing and undressing her father, who has a bad arm. They both spend a lot of time harnessing up and unharnessing the horse. This goes on and on, repeatedly.

Scenes are re-enacted in excruciating detail, every day. After about three cycles, I inwardly screamed, “Please, God, no! Not another boiled potato!” But yes, it was another boiled potato, and we again watched it being prepared, served, and eaten, in almost real-time. The same for all the other daily chores. Over and over with tiny, tiny variations, sometimes only in the camera movements or angles.

But this is exactly the point. The audience literally feels, viscerally, the hopelessness, the meaninglessness, the mind-numbing repetitiveness of that life. We understand experientially, in a way no narrative description could ever convey. That’s what makes the film an unforgettable artistic triumph. Yes, it takes a difficult 2.5 hours of nothingness to “get it,” but that’s a lot less than a lifetime.

A few things do happen, though. The horse gets too sick to work, and finally, the well goes dry. So they are doomed. They gaze numbly out the window into the winter storm. The final scene, of the two characters sitting at the table (over potatoes not boiled – no water), is pure visual poetry. They look somehow Christlike at that point.

The blurb for the film says that this old horse was the exact one that Nietzsche famously encountered in Turin in 1899. But that is a red herring that should be ignored. If the ads told you what the movie was really about (existential nothingness), you wouldn’t go.

The cinematography is extremely interesting and beautiful, the music hypnotic – deep bass and cello, repetitive, droning, beautiful, and soporific, in keeping with the tone. The visual images burn into your brain as you stare into the face of a human condition reduced to a mechanical numbness that strangely still retains its dignity. The portrayal is not completely realistic (e.g., who chops the firewood and cuts the hay for the horse; who maintains that stone house, etc.? Surely not the woman alone, and surely not the one-armed man). So there is a theatrical element to the storytelling, but the realism of the life somehow comes through that artifice brighter than actuality.

The Mill and the Cross: Grade A

The Mill and the Cross (2011)

Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling, Michael York; Director Lech Majewski. (Spanish; Subtitled)

This is a stunningly beautiful film by a legendary director, based on a painting by the Flemish master, Peter Bruegel, his 1564 painting, "Way to Calvary." You can see the painting online. The film is the story of how Breugel designed the work as he watched people and events in his medieval village, which had been occupied by hated Spanish mercenaries. So there is political commentary in the painting and in the film.

The painting shows Jesus carrying his own cross to Calvary, but somehow this scene takes place in Flanders in the 1500’s. The director uses a combination of CGI, green-screen, location shooting, and live actors to move seamlessly in and out of the painting, with fantastic effect.

A windmill on a towering rock is a metaphor for heaven, God as a miller, the massive wooden gears and wheels of the mill showing how heaven grinds humanity down, down, down, into flour-like dust.

Hauer plays Breugel, who explains his painting’s design to wealthy patron York. Rampling is Jesus’s mother, Mary, who keeps saying “I don’t understand,” as she watches the crucifixion. She represents a modern voice perhaps, speaking for the audience, who sees humanity of that time devoid of intellectual understanding, only passive acquiescence to senseless hardship. There were only the tasks of staying alive, until you were finally ground to dust. Nothing made any sense, not even religion, according to this painting and film. Only art might have made sense.

Dream Home: Grade B


Dream Home (2010)

Josie Ho, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Eason Chan, Hee Ching Paw, Kwok Cheung Tsang; Director Ho-Cheung Pang (Cantonese Chinese; Subtitled).

There is a movie in theaters now with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz called “Dream House.” A family becomes the target of a serial killer in that movie. I haven’t seen it.

This film is called Dream Home, and is from the point of view of a serial killer. A young woman has scrimped and saved for a lifetime to afford the perfect apartment by the sea. But alas, the building is fully occupied and nothing is for sale. Solution? Kill some occupants, creating instant vacancies.

In fairness, I need to say the victims are not just “killed,” for that sounds tidy. No, these victims are violently, bloodily slaughtered, using knives, boards, fists, and garrotes. This is an extremely violent, bloody, Hong Kong horror/slasher film. Nevertheless, I found it enjoyable.

One reason is that there is a balance between the young woman’s ordinary everydayness, at work, with her friends, with her family, versus her forays into serial murder, so you don't overdose. There is no attempt to provide psychological continuity between those two halves of herself. The movie plays it as if the gory murders were the most reasonable thing in the world for a person to do. There is no suggestion that she is a conflicted Jekyll/Hyde. So realism is out the window, but still, the story is marginally plausible.

Also, the murders are very creative, almost humorous. What I mean is that they are so gory and brutal, you can’t for a moment take them seriously. They are just real enough to make you gasp, and you will. For creative murders in the filmic art, you can’t beat these. I doubt that you have seen murder by vacuum cleaner, for example. Finally, the acting is better than not bad. So if you can get past some extreme violence and blood and guts, this is one of the better in the Hong Kong slasher/horror genre.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Drive: Grade A

Drive (2011)

Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac; Director Nicolas Winding Refn.

Gosling is a young, impoverished, ex-con Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for burglaries. He befriends a single mom neighbor (Mulligan) and maybe there is a romantic interest there too, but her husband comes home from prison and it is tense. Nevertheless, when the husband gets caught in an extortion deal, the driver agrees to drive for him on one last heist, which, predictably, goes wrong. But Gosling ends up with the money so now the mob is after him and Mulligan too. He fights to freedom in several gruesomely bloody scenes, but realizes he is “no good” for the girl and drives away into the sunset (severely wounded).

What makes the movie good is Gosling’s very quiet performance, which I attribute to excellent directing as much as excellent acting. The book is extremely terse, with not a single spare word, and that economy is transferred to the screen in spare dialog, a perfect artistic choice. Gosling has hardly any dialog, expressing his moods and thoughts through subtle facial gestures and big dramatic actions, like decapitating a guy by repeatedly stomping on his neck. Usually, it is only mature actors who have the skill and the courage to act quietly though. It is a pleasure to watch Gosling perform. Albert Brooks, who usually grates my nerves, does a completely believable job. Mulligan has a terrible, passive role, so she doesn’t have much to do but look beautiful, which she does well.

The photography is outstanding, including the difficult inside-the-car shots, and the music is tense but not too intrusive. The director keeps the action tension very high. The car chases are not too clichéd, but at times hard to follow, like how, exactly Driver got undetected to the freeway underpass to hide from the helicopter. The cars look and sound good, too, Bullet-esque for the Mustang. The main problem is the driver’s character, which unaccountably drifts from earnest, sensitive mechanic and friend, to cold-blooded psychopathic killer. In the end, he apparently realizes his own psychopathy and that’s why he leaves town, but that doesn’t explain who he was when we met him. It’s a violent, bloody movie, not for everyone, but a thoroughly entertaining action film.

Moneyball: Grade B


Moneyball (2011)

Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright. Director Bennett Miller.

Pitt plays Billy Beane, the real-life manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team in the early 2000’s. The team doesn’t have enough money to hire good players, so they rarely win. He discovers from an ex-stock broker/securities dealer (Hill), that it is possible to cheaply hire players with specific skills, rather than “all around” talent, much the way one evaluates derivative securities against specific screening criteria. Applying that formula to rebuilding the team, Beane came up with a winning A’s team, confounding all the traditionalist critics and skeptics (including field manager, Hoffman). Today, all major league teams use this method to evaluate players.

The story is told well, as a human story, not a technical one, showing how the self-doubts, risks, and courage of the characters plays out. Jonah Hill is a revelation as a serious dramatic actor. Pitt is not as good, playing his usual smart-ass Brad Pitt persona, and strangely, stuffing his mouth with junk food in almost every scene, to the point where it is disgusting, and simply not believable for a guy who still trains and looks buff.

Like junk food, this movie makes you feel good at first, but unfulfilled. There is not enough time given to the individual ballplayers and how their lives are affected by the mathematical strategy. They are hired and fired like the chattel they are, but they think of themselves as people. That’s a story in itself, but soft-pedaled here. There is surprisingly little baseball action in the movie, so it's not really a traditional baseball film. There isn’t much technical stuff either, few details on the method used to rebuild the team. It is nominally the Billy Beane story, but it is not a real biopic either. So what is left? A human drama with lots of nice pictures, nice music, good acting, dramatic scenes, but no actual nutritional value. Still, a must-see for baseball lovers.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Beaver: Grade A


The Beaver (2011)

Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence; Director Jodie Foster.

Whatever you think of Mel Gibson personally, you have to admit the guy can act. In this surreal comedy, he demonstrates that, by playing an American suburban husband who suffers from depression. He is unresponsive to his family and especially his wife (Foster). Finally she boots him out of the house and he drunkenly attempts suicide in a cheap hotel room. By chance he regains consciousness next to a beaver hand puppet that was among his personal goods (for reasons never explained). He talks to himself about his disorder by using the beaver as an alter ego. Thus his depression morphs into a dissociative disorder, which would not happen in reality, but hey, it’s a movie.

By speaking through the beaver puppet, he is able to reestablish emotional contact with his family. He tells his wife it is a new kind of therapy and she goes along with it. He regains his dynamism as CEO of a toy company, again by talking through the puppet. The employees accept the puppet device, and the company becomes more successful than ever. Eventually though, the wife becomes impatient and demands the elimination of the puppet. The ending is grim yet satisfying.

The movie is not believable in any realistic sense. Rather you have to take it as an allegory for mental illness, but even at that, it is not accurate enough to be informative or helpful. So in the end this is just a dark, goofy comedy with a mental illness theme. As such it is quite successful, mainly because it is so original. The writing is excellent and acting by Gibson and Foster make it well worth watching. Especially entertaining is Gibson’s working class English/Aussie accent (think Geico Gecko). The substory of romance between teenager Yelchin and his high school girlfriend (Lawrence) seems like a different movie. Maybe it was an ill-advised attempt to add a note of realism to the strange tale of the man with the puppet. If so, it only partially works because it is not well woven. Foster’s directing is impeccable.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bridesmaids: Grade B


Bridesmaids (2011)

Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jill Clayburgh, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Chris O'Dowd; Director Paul Feig.

This movie should be called “The Kristen Wiig Show,” because she carries the whole thing. She is in every scene and owns the screen. She also co-wrote and co-produced. The story, such as it is, is about her character (Annie) whose best friend (Rudolph) asks her and four other women to be bridesmaids at the forthcoming wedding. But Annie brings disaster wherever she goes, to the wedding shower, the rehearsal, the bachelorette party, and the wedding itself. Along the way she has a couple of disastrous romantic relationships. But in the end, all is well.

The story is an excuse for Wiig to invent and perform sketch comedy routines similar to what she does on Saturday Night Live, only with far more detail and intensity. Her brand of humor is unique. It is no trouble to identify exactly which scenes she wrote and which she didn’t. Many of them are truly memorable, largely because she is such a great physical actor. She has a rubber face to equal Jim Carrey’s and a thousand expressions to put on it. I laugh even now thinking of some of those scenes. There is one exceptionally crude and raunchy bathroom scene where the women all suffer food poisoning and compete for the toilet. The movie could have done without it, but I also know it will go down as a classic in comedy movie history.

Wiig is the star of this feature, which would be nothing without her, not even very funny, but there are some other outstanding performances, especially from the snooty rich girl (Byrne) and the coarse chubby girl (Melissa McCarthy), and her romantic interest (O’Dowd). Directing is flawless and so is editing. Wiig said on Charlie Rose she hopes the movie is a success so she could consider a career as a writer. Well, the movie is a huge success, but she will need a broader range, because while her gags are truly and deeply funny, they don't go beyond obvious situations and stereotypes and their success depends almost entirely on her own incredible performance.

Source Code: Grade B


Source Code (2011)

Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga; Director Duncan Jones.

Groundhog Day meets Matrix in this derivative sci-fi thriller. And throw in scenes, images, and ideas from Taking of Pelham 123, Unstoppable, Inception, and Apollo 13. It’s a pastiche, not original, but good looking and interesting enough to watch.

Military scientists have discovered a way to capture the brain’s brief post-mortem afterglow, and they can augment it with special software (the Source Code) into the illusion of full life for a brief time (8 minutes in this case). So Gyllenhaal does not understand that he is dead. Further, the computer reanimation can be assigned to different times and places (since it is just software, after all). Gyllenhaal is “sent back” in time, to right before he died, on a train heading into Chicago, where he lives a memory as if it were real (per Matrix, Inception, etc.). The train has a bomb on it. Can he find the bomb and the bomber? (Take a guess). He has only 8 minutes. On the train he meets Monaghan and tries to save her, but the train blows up anyway. No problem. He can be sent back again by the army scientist (Farmiga). He goes back repeatedly and blows up repeatedly, but learns a few new details each time, just as in Groundhog Day. Finally he does catch the bad guy, reports his identity to Farmiga, who arrests him in real time.

Gyllenhaal and Farmiga are a pleasure to watch. However, the CGI shots outside the train cabin are so bad they bump you completely out of the story. The explosions are explosive and the music is ordinary. The ending is highly predictable but I won’t give it away in case there are viewers new to this genre. The story is fundamentally weak nonsense, as sci-fi stories usually are. But this one is done well enough to hold frame-to-frame interest and is above average for its type.

Small Town Murder Songs: Grade B


Small Town Murder Songs (2010)

Peter Stormare, Martha Plimpton, Stephen Eric McIntyre; Writer-Director Ed Gass-Donnelly. (Some archaic Mennonite German translated in subtitles).

In a small Mennonite town in Ontario, Canada, Walter (Stormare) is chief of police. He is old, slow-moving, slow-talking, but we get the sense he is highly experienced. A dead, naked woman is found by the lake and circumstances point to lowlife Eric (McIntyre), who lives with the chief’s ex-love-interest, Sam (Plimpton).

In brief flashbacks we get the idea that they broke up because the chief had committed some extremely violent act or acts in the past. We don’t know what they were or what the context was, but he has rejoined the church and believes his temper is now under control. But when it seems like Sam is lying to him, he goes right up to the brink of violence again. So the larger story is about the ability and the determination to change one’s character.

This Canadian film is very well acted and directed. The script is original and the cinematography stands out for its thoughtfulness. The only sour note is the dreadful sound track which I gather is authentic Mennonite church music. To my ear it was quite unpleasant, and not because it was unfamiliar. I like the unfamiliar. Rather, it sounded simplistic, droning, arrhythmic, repetitive, narrow in range and tone, and incomprehensible (in German). It did not add “atmosphere” as the Okie singing did, for example, in Brother Where Art Thou. But I guess that’s a matter of taste. Othewise, the film is well-constructed and executed, worth watching.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Rango: Grade A


Rango (2011)

Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy; Director Gore Verbinski.

The animation in this feature is as good as anything out of Pixar or Dreamworks. It is done by Industrial Light and Magic and puts them in the first tier of animators. The characters are fully rounded wire-frame animals, with excellent emotional capture. ILM animators have completely mastered the computationally difficult rendering of fur, water, glass, and other supposedly impossible textures and flows. The film is a triumph of animation technology if nothing else.

But there is much else: it's a good film. The characters are desert-dwelling animals living in a run-down western town called Dirt, where the economy is based entirely on water. Their taps have gone dry and even the reservoir in the bank is desperately low. No consideration is given to rainfall or aquifers – they seem to be on city water of some kind, but never mind that.

A histrionic chameleon named Rango (Depp) wanders into town, strutting and bragging about having killed the whole Jenkins gang with a single bullet. He ineptly and luckily saves the town from a killer hawk with a tin beak. He is acclaimed and named sheriff. But the evil mayor (Beatty), who is diverting the water for his own project, hires Rattlesnake Jack (Nighy) to kill Rango. There is a showdown. Meanwhile a romantic interest develops between Rango and Beans (Fisher).

The story line is formulaic, a pastiche of dozens of westerns. There is no dramatic tension, not even the manufactured kind in Cars, for example, and the romantic relationship is unconvincing, nothing like the one in Wall-e, for example; there isn’t even cheap sentimentality, as in Finding Nemo. I don’t know if kids care about those things. For adults, though, what makes the movie great is its sheer creativity. The script is funny and the excellent voice acting (the range of Depp's vocal expression is astonishing) is a treat. Also to appreciate are the beautiful and witty animations, enjoyable music (Los Lobos), and wink-wink allusions to other movies, from Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider, to Star Wars, The Fugitive, Chinatown, and many others. Those references are enormous fun for movie lovers.

Because it lacks a good dramatic story, the movie might not catch on with kids, but because of all its other virtues, I think it will become a classic in the animation genre.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Midnight in Paris: Grade A


Midnight in Paris (2011)

Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Cathy Bates, Carla Bruni, Corey Stoll, Marion Cotillard, Adrien Brody; Writer-Director Woody Allen.

I confess, I saw this film in a cinema. No doubt It will be out on DVD later this year. It is a very traditional fairy tale, complete with a simplistic moral, “there’s no place like home,” or maybe “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” A rich American family visits Paris on business, along with the daughter’s fiancé (Wilson), an aspiring literary writer who loves the magic charm of Paris so much he wishes he could live there, preferably in the 1920’s. The shots of all the major Paris landmarks are stereotypically beautiful, stunningly so, as lovingly done as in Allen’s portraits of New York and London in his other movies.

Drunk and lost in the streets at midnight, Gil (Wilson) is invited into a 1920’s car and finds himself inexplicably at a 1920’s party, where he meets Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald while Cole Porter plays his tunes on the piano. There are some good jokes as he realizes that he has been magically transported back in time, a fact he comes quickly to accept without question. He promises Ernest Hemingway (Stoll) that he will bring his manuscript for a critical reading, but Hemingway insists that Gertrude Stein (Bates) would be a better reader.

On successive nights, Gil goes walking at Midnight and is picked up and taken back in time again. He meets Picasso, Bunuel, T.S. Eliot, Dali, and many other luminaries who populated Paris at the time, including one of Picasso’s girlfriends, Adriana (Cotillard), with whom he falls in love. During the day he returns to his hotel, becoming ever more estranged from his fiancée (McAdams) and obsessed by the possibility of living in 1920’s Paris permanently. Eventually he realizes that wouldn’t work out, but also realizes he will not marry his fiancée, leaves her, and stops the midnight time-traveling to live realistically in modern-day Paris.

Allen gets magnificent performances out of his actors. Wilson is his stand-in and has the confused, defensive stuttering and stooped posture down perfectly, but Wilson does much more than mimicry. He turns in an impressive, serious dramatic performance that I didn’t know he had in him. Cotillard is also stunning, literally unrecognizable compared to her dreadful role as Edith Piaf (La Vie en Rose, for which she inexplicably won an Oscar). Stoll as Hemingway and Bates as Stein are scene-stealers. So the performances are excellent, even if the subject matter is light and frothy silliness.

The story is a fairy tale, so does not bear scrutiny, but still, I yearned for more interior life in Wilson’s character. Surely he would doubt his sanity, just a little? He would have a few questions? He would be tempted to say interesting things to 1920’s characters about life a hundred years hence? Show a digital wristwatch maybe? The comic possibilities are endless, but Allen passes them all by. As close as we get to time-travel humor is when Wilson wonders if he could pick up a few Mondrians for 500 Francs, or when he gives a first-hand explanation of the meaning of a Picasso painting in the modern-day Louvre.

But it’s not that kind of movie. What kind is it? An airy fairy tale, no more. A trifle. A throwaway, with mesmerizing cinematography and several gripping performances, but no insight and only a light dusting of humor. But for all that, it was a very pleasant diversion on a hot Sunday afternoon when an air-conditioned theater sounded like a good idea.

Adjustment Bureau: Grade C


The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp. Co-Writer & Director George Nolfi.

Maybe there is no such thing as science fiction and that’s why there are so few good sci-fi movies. Science is about logic, and cause-and-effect, whereas fiction delves into areas that are impenetrable to science, such as love.

This is actually a love story, with a sci-fi backdrop, and it works as long as you don’t try to make sense out of the sci-fi part. Damon is a New York congressman. He briefly meets a woman (Blunt) in a hotel men’s room, in strong opening scene. But despite his wish to see her again, he can’t because he lost her phone number.

Well, he didn't really lose it, it was taken from him by thugs from the “adjustment bureau,” a group of heavies wearing felt fedoras, who are divine caseworkers sent to enforce “the plan” of human predestination. The Big Guy (known as “the Chairman”) has decided that humans can no longer be trusted with free will and every life must be completely managed. In the master plan, Damon is designed to become President someday and a romance with Blunt would throw that off track. How that could happen, if free will is nullified and life is predetermined, is one of many logical lacunae that must be overlooked. Just like the fact that, since he is a well-known congressman, it would not be much trouble for her to contact him, but never mind that either.

Anyway, he persists in trying to find her, despite warnings and threats from the angelic thugs, and he even does find her once “by chance” (whatever that is, in a predetermined world), but he is again separated from her. The movie then devolves into endless chase scenes, with Damon dragging her around the city by the hand, to prove finally that love conquers even Fate. Wow, so individual free will (which supposedly does not exist) is greater than God’s plan for all humanity? Hmmm…

Nonsense aside, the relationship story between Damon and Blunt is interesting enough to keep the movie going. Damon is more than just Jason Bourne here, he actually shows some acting chops, not as good as in The Informant, but very watchable. Blunt’s role is teary-eyed, passive-submissive but she executes well. Cinematography is crisp and the city looks good.