Sunday, February 20, 2011

Welcome to the Rileys: Grade A


Welcome to the Rileys (2010)

James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart, Melissa Leo; Director Jake Scott.

I never saw The Sopranos series, so I don’t have Gandolfini typecast in my mind. That’s a good thing, because in this movie he is completely believable as a middle-aged plumbing supply merchant from Indianapolis. He and his wife of thirty years (Stewart, who strongly reminds me of Patricia Clarkson, in look, acting style, and talent), are distant from each other because they lost a 15 year old daughter in a car crash. The wife blames herself because she was following the girl, and the husband tacitly agrees to that by letting her blame herself. She is traumatized and never leaves the house. At a conference in New Orleans, he calls home and says he is not coming back “for a while.”

In New Orleans, he meets a 16 year old stripper/prostitute (Leo), and informally adopts her, fixing up her derelict flat and giving fatherly advice. He claims he does not know why he is doing this but the viewer can see he is trying to resurrect his daughter. Eventually, his wife joins him in there, “mothers” the girl but has the sense to realize the situation is unhealthy. The girl finally runs from them, claiming “It is way too late for me to be anybody’s little girl.”

The writing is very strong (Ken Hixon) and true. Every line of dialog is on target. The acting is superior, especially by Gandolfini and Stewart. Stewart’s character takes a while to get going because there’s only so much acting you can do as a stunned, near-catatonic recluse. But late in the film she shows real depth. Leo has a stereotype character, really just a foil for the adults to work out their relationship, but there are several scenes in which it is clear that she has serious talent.

There are technical problems with the cinematography. Many scenes are so dark and muddy, it is impossible to make out what is going on. Sure, they are nominally night scenes, but still, memo to the cinematographer: photography requires light! In one scene, the picture actually drops in brightness by 50% as if there had been a power failure, but it is just a technical goof-up. The director pulled some terrific performances out of these players, but there are far too many “dead zone” scenes of people driving or sleeping. Seriously, how interesting is it to watch somebody sleep?

The story itself is not very original (grief over a lost child), but the main characters are so well developed and their acting is so outstanding, that despite its flaws, the movie is highly watchable anyway.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: Grade A


You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)

Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Naomi Watts, Antonio Banderas; Writer-Director Woody Allen.

An elderly married couple breaks up (Hopkins-Jones) when he realizes that his wife “has let herself get old.” He hits the gym and takes up with a young, beautiful, airhead, gold digger prostitute. Meanwhile their daughter (Watts) breaks up with her husband (Brolin), a failed writer. Each of the four is soon attracted to other potential mates. Everyone is haunted by failed relationships and struggles to start a new life.

It took me a while to get into this movie. It starts out with dreadful acting, a stilted script, noticeably mechanical directing, and a dreadful, intrusive narrator. I thought, "This is aggressively bad!" About halfway through, some real acting begins to show, although the characters never do become well developed. Finally I realized what Allen was trying to do. He did not want us to get involved with these characters. They are symbols, or archetypes for the lives in our culture, not real people we should care about. That’s why the plot line is practically nonexistent, the romantic relationships stereotypes, and the acting hollow. None of that matters. He is forcing us beyond the particular characters into universals. We are being shown the archetypes of modern, Western, sophisticated urban life, so that we might reflect on its meaning, or lack of same. Ultimately this is an existential movie that says, your life has no meaning, despite today’s passions and angst that seem so gripping. That is the human condition.

What makes this approach work is the superlative film making, especially the sets and costumes. Every detail, and I mean every one, is absolutely perfect. Colors, camera angles, framing, lighting, movement, rhythm, jewelry, hairstyle, buttons, every tiny detail is done to loving perfection, and the movie is worth seeing just for that exercise of craft. But as a bonus, you get the subtle existential message, and the pleasure of seeing some familiar faces on the big screen. You could watch this movie as a mildly interesting romantic comedy/drama, but you’d be missing the point. It is so much more if you look a little deeper.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Stone; Grade C


Stone (2010)

Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Mila Jovovich; Director John Curran.

I love Edward Norton, and he does not disappoint in this movie. He is an almost-crazy convict pleading with his parole officer (De Niro) for early release. His hyperactive delivery, just barely under control, is electrifying. It is as good a performance as he has ever given.

De Niro shows the cynical, burned out prison employee, just a month from retirement. He deftly conveys his tiredness, confusion, and vulnerability, right alongside his trademark “tough” persona. Jovovich also performs well, although her character doesn’t make much sense, so it is hard to tell what she is trying to convey. She is the wife of the prisoner and tries to seduce the parole officer to affect his decision. She only gets stereotypical lines to speak. She has aged well since I last saw her as God, in The Fifth Element. Of course she doesn’t look as good as she did then, but nobody could.

Despite the phenomenal acting by the two men, especially Norton, the movie doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no prison break, no character development, no tricky developments. It’s just talky, talky, talky. Norton wins early release, then De Niro changes his mind, but it’s too late, so la dee dah, he just retires anyway. It is difficult to understand why a major movie, with a major budget, and with such star power could not afford a couple of savior writers, or why some producer did not see the thing drifting. Hollywood is a world where common sense does not hold much weight.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

For Colored Girls: Grade B


For Colored Girls (2010)

Kimberly Elise, Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Tessa Thompson; Writer and Director Tyler Perry.

These are vignettes from the lives of nine black women living in New York. Some of the lives intersect as the movie develops. There is not much dramatic tension, either in each life-story, or overall in the movie; it is strictly a “slice of life” approach. The stories are loose representations of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 set of poems and dances, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf. The original had only seven characters, whereas this movie has nine, making the movie confusing and hard to keep track of. Passages of Shange’s work are read by actors in several scenes and their lyrical beauty leaps out at you. It is a harsh transition back to Perry’s mundane script after those segments.

Overall, the message of the movie is simple: Men (black men anyway) are immature, lying, cheating, disease-ridden, alcoholic, thieving rapists who want only one thing. They smile and sweet talk women while betraying them, murdering their children, ruining their lives. Black women, on the other hand, are gentle, sensitive, caring souls who seek love and understanding, and tragically, that need is so great it causes them to spread their legs when they shouldn’t, and blindly trust their lives to the aforementioned male ratbastards. The thematic content of the movie is so exaggerated that it verges on tragicomedy despite all the maudlin tears. And at well over two hours, repetition soon becomes boring.

But you should watch the movie anyway. Why? For the stunning acting. Most of these women give performances of Shakespearean proportions. Thandi Newton, Kerry Washington, and Kimberly Elise – wow! It’s acting like you haven’t seen in one place before. Janet Jackson acquits herself, but she’s had so much bizarre cosmetic surgery that she looks like Michael, and that’s all I could think about. Whoopi is the weakest character but she had to be included because of her role in The Color Purple. Kudos go to Perry’s directing and writing. I did not know he had this kind of thing in him, judging from his other broad, farcical, slapstick movies. This was a revelation in that regard. Good cinematography, good music, tight editing. Despite the melodrama, it’s worth seeing.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Frenemy: Grade C

Frenemy (2009)

Matthew Modine, Zach Galifianakis, Paul Adelstein, Callum Blue; Director Gregory Dark.

In this extremely low budget film, a porn video store in LA is held up and two customers (Modine and Blue) are temporarily hostage, along with the owner (Galifianakis). The chatty burglar (Adelstein) engages the hostages, in the funniest scene in the movie, in which the store owner objects to all the talk, “What is this, My Robbery With Andre?”

That is the best line in this off-beat comedy, and the allusion characterizes the rest of the film which is far less interesting and funny. The two customers are otherwise seen walking all around LA, having lunch, coffee, and parties, all the while talking about the meaning of life, love, fate, death, and so on. That dialog is very mildly amusing but not really funny or insightful. Woody Allen it is not. And the acting is mediocre, at best. However, overall, the movie is original, and well-photographed, and a respectable effort.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity : Grade B

Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity (2002)

Sandra Oh, Valerie Tian; Co-writer and director Mina Shum. (Chinese and English, subtitled).

A working class single mother in a Chinese neighborhood of Vancouver (Oh) struggles to raise her extremely cute twelve-year-old daughter, Mindy (Tian). Mindy finds a magic book and begins to practice spells that will help her mother fall in love (no clue where the missing father is ). The magical-fantasy thread of the movie is that the childish spells really do work, but because Mindy is inept, they do not seem to. When she tries creating a winning lottery number for her mother, she goofs up the spell and the butcher wins instead, but Mindy never knows what happened. There are other charming episodes of that nature, and these give us a loving and intimate portrait of life in that community. In the end, Mindy’s mother does find love, and the other characters’ stories are resolved as well, not all of them happily.

The plot is pretty weak, depending on our acceptance of the magic, but the characterizations are strong, and the acting is excellent, especially by the principals, Oh, and Tian. The writing is sharp and Oh stands out as a fine actor. Cinematography is marvelous and Vancouver never looked so good, even in winter with its bare trees and gray skies. There is practically no dramatic tension in the script. It is instead an almost documentary exploration, with magical realism and humor adding spice. It is a lightweight, but heartwarming, family story that is affecting without being melodramatic, insightful without being voyeuristic.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Howl: Grade B

Howl (2010)

Allen Ginsberg, James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn, Treat Williams, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban; Co-writers and Co-directors Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman.

Ginsberg’s long poem, Howl, was published in 1957 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The book was promptly seized by the San Francisco police, and Ferlinghetti, not Ginsberg, was arrested for obscenity. The subsequent trial, dramatized in this film, discusses aspects of the poem and the obscenity statute via trial lawyers Strathairn and Hamm, before judge Balaban. That dramatization illustrates what sorts of arguments were made in defining obscenity in literature back then. Supposedly all the dialog in this movie was really spoken by the original players. While the acting is quite good, the sequence says more about 1950’s morals than about the poem.

The courtroom drama is intercut with a documentary style interview with Ginsberg, played brilliantly by Franco, in which he explains and defends the poem and discusses his artistic process and his awakening as a homosexual. Another intercut thread is a set of faux-archival shots of Ginsberg (again Franco) reading the poem at a coffee shop, and of scenes from Ginsberg’s young life (he wrote the poem when he was 29). And finally, there is an intercut thread of surrealistic animations, mostly human figures swooping about like Tinker-Bell, streaming stardust behind them, to the soundtrack of Franco reading the poem. So all four of these threads are chopped up and re-woven so you don’t get bored just listening to the poem straight through. As a cinematic technique it is brilliant. Somebody should do the same for Eliot’s The Wasteland, and other difficult modern poems.

Yet despite the clever construction of the movie, I was often bored, because the poem itself is just plain tedious in long stretches, and the film insisted on re-reading sections of it, which only increased the pain. There are brilliant passages in the poem, to be sure, both thematically and acoustically/musically. I love “Boxcar, boxcar, boxcar” as a line, for example. It sounds great, looks great, and it is very satisfying to say, and who could think of that?

So there is no denying that the poem has its brilliance. But it is over a half-century old now, and is no longer shocking. Nobody cares any more if you are homosexual; nobody cares if you say “asshole” a lot. In its time, though, the poem was extremely radical, and still worth reading today. The movie covers the poem pretty thoroughly so it is not necessary to know it beforehand.

Ginsberg himself was not that interesting of a character, so the biography aspect of the film is not riveting. Sure, he struggled with his sexual and professional identities and with drugs, but a lot of people have done the same. So while Ginsberg was probably the most celebrated poet of the twentieth century, that doesn’t make the poem better than it is. Conclusion: great movie making, okay subject matter.