Monday, January 31, 2011

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: Grade B


Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)

Joan Rivers; Directors Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg.

This documentary follows Rivers for one year, her seventy-fifth, as she tries to get performance dates, performs, and frets over her career and her relationship with her daughter. She is chronically anxious about getting engagements because, she says, she needs the money, and that’s not surprising, considering how she lives. She has an enormous apartment in New York City with more square footage than my house, and it looks like a replica of the Palace at Versailles. It is truly bizarre.

She seems sharp for 75 years old, although the film is edited to give only limited access to her life. She relates a superficial autobiography revealing only the mundane: marriages, children, and showbiz gossip, trials, and tribulations. We learn about her mainly by watching her behave in this film, and what we learn is that she is an ordinary, neurotic, insecure, slightly scatterbrained person, and not a particularly interesting one, except for the way she wastes mountains of money (with no explanation). She is a great comedian though, and I would have much rather watched an hour of her performing or at least talking about how she writes. Still, you have to give respect to someone who is still doing standup after a half century.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Red: Grade A


RED (2010)

Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Karl Urban, Richard Dreyfus; Director Robert Schwentke.

This lightweight, action-comedy is an homage to genre and some well-loved movie stars, more than a well-told story. The story is that the VP of the U.S. is using a CIA hit squad (you know the type: black ski masks, machine guns) to eliminate the now-retired members of a CIA operation that in the 1980’s saw the VP massacre a village of civilians in Guatemala. Naturally, the retired folks don’t care for the current operation and set out to discover who is trying to kill them and to stop it. The story is too silly to count as a real political thriller, so it must be taken as a comedy, maybe Space Cowboys meets Ocean’s Eleven.

Willis still looks good and still has great comic timing. The stunt doubles do the hard fighting for him, but he retains his indestructible image. However, he doesn’t look that good, and Parker is far too young to be his romantic interest. The difference of thirty or forty years is off-putting and unnecessary. I’m sure there were dozens of age-appropriate women who would have agreed to work across Willis. Parker does a fine job acting her part, but the relationship is dead as a dishrag from the beginning.

The retired team effortlessly zips around the US to investigate and confront. Willis and Parker drive from Kansas City to New Orleans, then to New York, back to Florida and then to Washington, all in the blink of an eye. No time passes while they travel and they show no sign of fatigue from those trips. The emphasis is on the locations, not on the characters and their journeys. All the characters are caricatures anyway, so there is no point trying to explain who they are or what they feel. The movie works because of its witty script, good acting, and familiar faces. Who would not enjoy Helen Mirren in a white evening gown shooting a 50 caliber machine gun? Malkovich does his demented weird guy thing to hilarious effect. The actors obviously have a good time in this movie but they play it straight, not hammy (except for Dreyfus, who cannot help himself), so there are none of the sly cultural and cinematic self-references you would get in a tongue-in-cheek approach.

The movie is a lot of fun, with good directing, good cinematography, tight editing. And though it is silly Hollywood fluff, in the end it is emotionally satisfying as well.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Salt: Grade D

Salt (2010)

Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Director Phillip Noyce.

Jolie is Evelyn Salt, a CIA spy and action-figure. A random Russian “defector” waltzes into CIA headquarters (as if he could!) and claims that Salt is actually a Russian mole. Naturally, everyone believes this guy, despite absence of any evidence, so Salt does the only sensible thing, break out of CIA headquarters (piece of cake) and go on the run. Schreiber and Ejiofor pursue her for the rest of the movie.

At least there are some good foot chases instead of just the stereotype highway chases involving black SUVs, although there are plenty of those, too. But then we see Salt with the Russian bad guys and she suddenly develops a Russian accent in her English! Oh, no, she really is Russian! But wait! Maybe not! She becomes a good guy again, but then a bad guy, and then, and then… The story is hopeless.

The stunts are weird also. Jolie (who is allegedly 35 but looks much older), jumps from the roof of one high speed highway semi to another (despite being shot in the abdomen) and leaps down an elevator shaft from wall to wall and so on. Of course. These and other crazy stunts are apparently intended realistically because they are not quite ridiculous enough to be ironic or comic. She is not spider-woman, just an ordinary person with amazing athletic ability? Not even Tom Cruise would be believable here.

Acting is noticeably poor all around, even by Schrieber and Ejiofor, who we know can act, so that has to be the fault of the writer and director. Music is loud and annoying, as you would expect. The Salt character is a decent premise, and will probably be back, hopefully in a more intelligent form.

Takers: Grade D

Takers (2010)

Matt Dillon, Paul Walker, Jay Hernandez, Michael Ealy, Tip Harris, Idris Elba; Director John Leussenhop.

This is a poor man’s version of Ocean’s Eleven. A group of professional crooks who wear white shirts and ties and try to act cooler than they are, knock off, not a glamorous casino, but a grubby armored car. They do this with lots of C4, of course because every vehicle they come into contact with must eventually be blown up, as a matter of principle, even if it makes no sense.

Dillon is the cop who hunts them. I think some of them get away, I don’t remember because I lost interest after the first hour. There is nothing to distinguish this movie or justify its existence. Acting is mediocre at best, although Tip T.I. Harris is a standout. The script is derivative, the stunts ho-hum, the music stereotypical, loud “action” music and the explosions cliche. The story is seriously dumb in several parts, such as Dillon on a high speed car chase with his young daughter but not wearing seat belts, armored cars dropping 25 feed through a hole and nobody inside is injured, cops without Kevlar vests, and so on. The best that can be said about this movie is that it moves along under its own power.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Social Network: Grade B

The Social Network (2010)
Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake; Director David Fincher.

Eisenberg is Mark Zuckerman, founder of Facebook, and this is his story. In his Harvard dorm room he builds a web site showing pictures and bios of Harvard women, ostensibly for guys to rate their “hotness.” It evolves into the Facebook we know today.

Sound boring? It does, but it isn’t, because of the excellent writing (Aaron Sorkin) and acting. The drama alternates between a present-day legal hearing, in which several of Zuckerman’s classmates are suing him for stealing their idea for Facebook, and the historical unfolding, from Zuckerman’s point of view, of what actually happened. The movie is ambiguous about blame, but generally favors Zuckerman.

As the story unfolds, we see immature college antics, obsessions with sex, alcohol, getting into good social clubs, and pretentious displays of intellectual cleverness. Among these stereotypes, no one takes school seriously. The dialog is witty-smart-ass-intellectual, salted with plenty of authentic technical mumbo jumbo. Everyone speaks in zingers, so characters never say anything serious or sincere (Garfield’s character, Zuckerman’s roommate, is an exception).

There is no attempt to understand the meaning of Facebook or the motivation of people who use it, or how it has affected modern communication. The movie is essentially a bio-pic of one monumentally egocentric jerk (Zuckerman) who happened to get monumentally lucky, but there is no insight into who he is. What makes the film work is our knowledge and awe of the Facebook phenom and our fascination with it. If the movie were about the development of an industrial pump company, it would be a flop. We bring our own interest so the movie doesn’t have to generate any.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Machete: Grade A

Machete (2010)

Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Steven Segal, Don Johnson, Robert De Niro, Cheech Marin, Jeff Fahey, Lindsay Lohan; Co-writer and co-director Robert Rodriguez. (Spanish and English, with subtitles).

Trejo is Machete, a violent, machete-wielding, Mexican police officer, expert at decapitations, who was double-crossed by a drug lord (Segal). His wife is murdered before his eyes and he is beaten, stabbed, and left for dead in a burning building in Mexico. But like Bruce Willis in the Die-Hard series, Machete can’t really be killed, or even seriously injured. He survives and escapes to Texas as an illegal day laborer. There, a shady lawyer (Fahey) hires him to kill a U.S. Senator (DeNiro), but he is double-crossed on that deal too and again barely escapes with his life.

It turns out the senator is actually in the employ of the drug lord, manipulated by his chief of staff, and in cahoots with murderous border vigilantes. But Machete finds allies in “The Network,” an implausible group of legal and illegal Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who are ready for armed revolution, led by a young, attractive woman who runs a taco truck (Michelle Rodriquez), and from an equally unlikely ICE agent (Alba), working alone to track down The Network, then Machete, then the Minutemen, then the Senator’s aide, then the drug lord. After an hour and a half of nonstop knives, gore, cars, guns, and breasts, the world is made right again.

The violence is intentionally ludicrous, a comic form following Tarentino’s Kill Bill. (Rodriquez and Tarantino have collaborated in the past). This film alludes to the violent and vulgar exploitation movies of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, in the US and Australia, so there is the faux scratchy film stock and many of the same cinematic and dialogic conventions, but I don’t think this is supposed to be one of those films. This movie is very self-conscious, to the point of irony, about its violence, and even the vulgar language and gratuitous female nudity is comic-ironic. So I classify it as a comedy, despite its theme of blood and violence. The final gun battle should be proof enough of that, when a fleet of low-rider cars with jumping hydraulics attacks the bad guys’ fort. I think this movie is part of an emerging genre, the comedic, ironic slasher movie, “slashironcom”.

Besides great stunts, creative photography, and comedic violence, Machete also has a serious political message, namely that US immigration policy is ineffective, unfair, and small-minded, even though the US economically depends on illegal labor, and so immigration policy should be overhauled. It’s a message I happen to agree with, and although it is delivered with hyperbole, I’m glad to see it out there.

Casting is a notable feature of this movie. Trejo is a big, mean-looking, scar-faced tough guy, reminiscent of Mickey Rourke in some of his roles. That’s interesting. DeNiro may have been in the film for political reasons, but it is always a pleasure to see him. Alba and M. Rodriguez are easy on the eyes, but look too much alike to both be playing alpha females. Alba’s role however is courageous for her, and may be a career changer, from just another pretty face to someone with ideas and commitment. Segal is an unintentionally humorous self-parody, especially when he knife-fights Trejo. Lohan, in a tiny role, is so vacant that she evokes only sympathy. Cheech Marin is a standout as a priest who puts aside his vow of nonviolence. For viewers who are not freaked out by (fake) blood and unrelenting (fake) violence, this film is a pleasure, start to finish.