Saturday, March 26, 2011

Mock Up on Mu: Grade B


Mock Up on Mu (2008)

Stoney Burke, Damon Packard, Michelle Silva; Writer- Director Craig Baldwin

This experimental film is a collage of clips of films from the 1950’s mostly, and mostly from bad sci-fi films of that era, but also including a few good ones. Gort, the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still appears briefly. There are also clips from dusty westerns of the period, and some dramas as well, such as Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. These hundreds, if not thousands of short clips are arranged into thirteen loose categories, such as westerns, sci-fi, scenes shot in the Sonoran desert, cave scenes, rocket launches, press conferences, and so on. Mixed in are some of live shots with about four actors in ironically bad scenes, who provide a small amount of narrative cohesion for the collages.

The result is amusing and entertaining, sort of a cross between What’s Up Tiger Lily and Mystery Science Theater 3000. I think it would be especially enjoyable if one were stoned. I watched the film twice, the second time without the sound, and I enjoyed it more the second time. With the sound on, the overall themes seem to be that humans should be mining resources, reprocessing nuclear waste, and generating energy on the moon, should not be spending tons of money developing military weapons, and finally, that L. Ron Hubbard, sci-fi writer in the 1950’s and founder of Scientology, and his closest friends, were mad and/or evil.

None of that makes much sense, and it’s not very funny, so the film is just as interesting (and a lot less noisy) with the sound off. This is a very creative effort, well edited, with some good humor. With better writing, this collage approach to film could be significant.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Jack Goes Boating: Grade A


Jack Goes Boating (2010)

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, Daphne Rubin-Vega, John Ortiz; Director Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Jack (Hoffman) and Clyde (Ortiz) are a couple of 40 year old limo drivers in New York City who like reggae music. Clyde fixes Jack up with Connie (Ryan), a woman who works as a telemarketer with his wife, Lucy (Rubin-Vega). The date goes well, a relationship evolves, and Jack makes two promises, to take Connie boating next summer, and to cook a dinner next month at Clyde’s apartment (because Jack lives in his parents’ basement and has only a hotplate). Jack learns how to cook, and also how to swim, in preparation. The dinner party goes well at first, then turns to disaster when the food is burned and a fierce argument erupts between Clyde and Lucy. Jack and Connie make a hasty retreat and presumably will go boating next summer. That’s it. Eighty four minutes.

Now, why isn’t that the most boring movie you've ever heard of? One reason is the excellent writing. The dialog is completely original, interesting, witty, natural, and flows from the wellsprings of the human condition. (The story is from an off-Broadway play by Robert Glaudini that Hoffman starred in.) Add to that, remarkable, riveting, heartfelt acting, especially by Hoffman and Ryan. Hoffman never ceases to amaze me with his courage. He can do embarrassed vulnerability like no other actor. Ryan does vulnerability almost as well, but her character is more psychologically complex, so she adds a touch of fearful paranoia, which works extremely well. Ortiz and Rubin-Vega (also from the original stage performance) give fine performances, if not quite as nuanced. Ortiz’s voice and diction sound so much like Denzel Washington that it is distracting at first.

Then you have to consider the excellent directing, by Hoffman also. It is his directorial debut and clearly he has the knack. The overall feel is kind of stagey and a bit claustrophobic, but so are the characters’ lives, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The tone is Woody-Allenesque – nothing terribly original there, but the way Hoffman gets the camera right into the faces of his performers, including himself, is just as courageous as his own acting is. Finally, add in a first rate job on other elements of the movie, from the infectious reggae and Bill Evans soundtrack to pitch-perfect costumes and sets. It all adds up to a tour de force and a mesmerizing adult relationship drama that has not a minute of slack.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Fighter: Grade D


The Fighter (2010)

Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale , Amy Adams. Director David O. Russell.

A couple of brothers, Micky and Dicky, are young Irish boxers in Lowell, MA (Wahlberg and Bale). Mostly they are losers. Micky got beat and can’t seem to recover his momentum. Dicky also had a high point but then turned to drugs and alcohol. Dicky acts as Micky’s trainer, their mother is their manager, and they all have delusionally optimistic hopes of winning “the big fight” someday. The theme is Rocky, and the setting is low-class suburban squalor.

I tried hard, but could not find anything to like about this film, with the exception of Amy Adams, who, even in a stereotypical role, manages to shine. Otherwise, everything in this movie, from the casting to the costumes is the most brain-dead cliché you can imagine. Even the makeup is cliché and that's hard to do! Needless to say, so is the dialog and the cinematography.

The boxing scenes are utterly unconvincing. At no time did I believe Christian Bale’s character, a skinny little smart-ass runt, was a boxer. Wahlberg has big muscles, but does not move like a boxer. The story line is loosely connected scenes of blatant melodrama mixed with even more clichéd sets. Any dramatic tension that might be identified is completely contrived.

To my astonishment, Bale won Best Supporting for his over the top, hammy parody of a real person. His performance is so bad, I would say it is unintentionally humorous. That just shows what I know! USA Today called this “One of the year’s best films.” Maybe here on Earth it was, but on Mars, where I live, we are still trying to get the smell out of our living pods.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Secret In Their Eyes: Grade B


The Secret In Their Eyes (2009)

Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil ,Pablo Rago, Javier Godino; Co-writer and director Juan José Campanella. (Spanish, subtitled).

This academy-award winning Argentine film is a beautiful, thoughtful mystery story that doesn’t know when to end. A retired federal agent (Darín) is writing a mystery novel based on a case he ran 25 years ago. He discusses the manuscript with his boss (Villamil) who was his boss back then too. The movie cuts away to dramatize what happened in the past.

It was a rape-homicide and by examining the victim’s photograph albums, the detective has the intuition that one creepy guy (Godino) who appears in numerous pictures with the dead girl, is a prime suspect. But a nasty superior just wants the case closed so arrests a couple of street thugs and closes the case. Nevertheless, the detective persists and does capture the real bad guy. But the nasty superior lets him go, and worse, puts him on the payroll as a street informer. Meanwhile, everybody but the detective himself realizes that he is falling in love with his boss.

The story goes on and on, with several more endings beyond the two mentioned above. The romantic story, maybe the most compelling of the several strands, gets short shrift. Nobody, not even a detective, could be that dumb about women. But another interesting theme, rather subtle, at least for Americans, is allusion to Argentina’s “Dirty Wars” of the 1970’s. The nasty superior who jails two innocents and hires the killer on his staff represents the corrupt Peron government and the sense of helplessness that ordinary people feel in the face of such abuse of power is palpable. The multiple endings may also reflect that theme.

The acting is very strong, especially by the two romantic leads, and the directing and writing are excellent, especially, again, in the scenes with romantic connections. Cinematography is beautiful and costumes are outstanding. Despite its over-long runtime, this is a consistently engaging film.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Conviction: Grade B

Conviction (2010)

Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Juliet Lewis; Director Tony Goldwyn.

Rockwell plays an impulsive, perhaps psychopathic, ne’er-do-well, working class guy in rural Massachusetts. When a woman is found stabbed to death, the police pick him up because he has a record and is one of the “usual suspects.” But when his wife and a girlfriend both testify that he confessed that he did it, he unexpectedly goes to prison for life.

His sister (Swank) is desperate, convinced that he is innocent, but she has no resources to help him. All appeals are lost. So she goes to law school, struggles, alienates her husband, and eventually becomes a lawyer, along with her buddy, Minnie Driver, who is an eyeball magnet. As a lawyer, she discovers that DNA evidence could exonerate her brother (this is set in the 1980’s-early 1990’s when DNA evidence was just coming into use in the law). A long, drawn-out scramble follows while she tries to locate the 15 year old bloodstain evidence from the case, but eventually her brother is freed.

At 2.5 hours, this movie needed some serious editing. As with most fictionalizations of a true story, the filmmakers cannot decide if they are doing a documentary or a piece of fiction, so they do both, to the detriment of both. There are tons of irrelevant and saggy scenes that needed to go.

It is an inspirational story of one woman’s tenacity fighting an uncaring, flawed, legal system. The acting is very good, but I confess that I am not a huge fan of Swank. She is good, yes, but she just does not have the emotional range of, say, Juliet Lewis or Minnie Driver. She is either “on” or “off.” Those seem to be her only two emotions. But that is not to say she is bad – she is a good actor, just noticeably limited, and I did not get involved in her character. Juliet Lewis, now, there is a fabulous actor. In her two brief scenes, she is just electrifying. Sam Rockwell is convincing and consistent, and conveys the emotions extremely well. So despite the bloated and overly sentimentalized nature of this picture (don’t get me started on the sappy piano music –barf!), the strong acting makes it a worthwhile see.

The Next Three Days: Grade B

The Next Three Days (2010)

Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks. Writer-director Paul Haggis.

Banks is riveting as an ordinary office worker who is unexpectedly accused of murdering her boss. The evidence is pretty shaky but good enough for the movies. Her fingerprints are on the blunt object, although an omniscient cutaway shows us that she just moved it out of her way in the parking garage. And oh, yeah, it had some victim’s blood on it which she managed to pick up as well. That's a life sentence in Hollywood.

She goes to prison, all appeals are lost. Her husband, Crowe, is an ordinary college professor who doesn’t have the money for high priced lawyers but believes in his wife’s innocence. He is frustrated and helpless. Being a bookish kind of guy, he researches the heck out of how to accomplish a prison break. Then he carefully executes his very detailed and tricky plan, and that is the fun part of the movie.

What makes this extremely implausible story worth watching is the fine acting from the two principals. Crowe is capable of a lot more than swishing a sword around. He really can act and this is among his best performances, well worth the price of admission. He does not step out of his seething, mumbling, slit-eyed, laconic persona – he is still Russell Crowe, (nor does he go very long without the aviator sunglasses), but still, he is a compelling screen presence. Against Banks, the acting makes this thriller for ordinary people seem more reasonable than it is.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Last Circus: Grade B

The Last Circus (Balada Triste de Trompeta) (2010)

Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, Carolina Bang; Writer-director Álex de la Iglesia.(Spanish, subtitled).

This is one of the strangest movies I have seen in a long time; a dark, violent, horror movie; a bloody splatter picture; also a farce, a cutting political satire, and a sweet romantic comedy. It is so mind-blowingly, creatively original that I have to give it high marks. Its 107 minutes grind on too long however and the story degenerates into meaningless chaos as it comes to its prolonged, tragic finale, so it gets graded down for that.

Set in the 1930’s and the Spanish civil war, a group of circus performers is forcibly drafted into Franco’s army, but the head clown refuses and ridicules the nasty officer. For his efforts he is imprisoned, tortured, and killed, but not before he advises his confused young son to be a sad clown, not a happy clown, because life is no longer happy. The son grows up and joins a circus as an incredibly incompetent sad clown. He is so bad that he actually makes people laugh. Ironically, the circus’s happy clown is actually a psychotic woman-beater who lords it over him just as the fascist soldier humiliated his father. The pathetic, dumpy and weak sad clown naively falls in love with the happy clown’s girl, the beautiful trapeze artist, and is consequently beaten to a pulp. Retaliating, he attacks the happy clown, ripping his face apart with a farrier’s hook, in one of several extremely violent, bloody scenes, that are yet somehow squirmingly comedic because of the costumes and sets.

The sad clown escapes the police by running into the forest and living naked in a cave like an animal. A hunter finds him and takes him home as a curiosity, and you’ll never guess, the hunter is the very army officer who killed his father. The sad clown plots his revenge, but first he improvises a fantastic clown costume out of draperies and props suggestive of papal garb.

But suddenly the happy clown reappears, not dead after all, but horribly disfigured, in a fantastic makeup job. Further tragicomic-horror clown battles ensue, including a chase up a church steeple reminiscent of the chase up Mount Rushmore in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. There are also visual allusions to Picasso’s Guernica, Puccini’s Pagliacci, and to other historical and cinematic landmarks.

The original title, A Sad Trumpet Ballad, may have some significance that escapes me, but is otherwise just the name of the musical sound track. The cinematography, and especially the lighting, are exceptionally striking throughout the movie. Costumes and makeup are unbelievably creative, as is the writing itself. Directing is excellent and well paced, until the last act. Violence and sexuality are integrated into the allegorical civil war theme and used well. Ultimately, the movie does not present a single, easy to grasp political message, or comedic tone, or horror theme, but is a dizzying pastiche of many of those, engaging the viewer on multiple levels of relentless creative turmoil.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Revolucion: Grade A


Revolucion (2010)

Unknown (to me) Mexican actors; Unknown (to me) Mexican directors. (Spanish, subtitled).

You will have to search for this DVD, but it is well worth looking. Netflix claims to have it. It was shown last fall at the New York Film Festival and I caught it at the 2011 Portland (OR) film festival.

The government of Mexico, through its National Mexican Institute of Cinematography, commissioned ten well-established directors to produce short films for the centennial of the Mexican Revolution. The ten shorts are not directly about that revolution in the sense that they do not attempt to document what happened. Rather, they are works of art, about the theme of revolution in general, and Mexican experience in particular.

So for example, the first one shows a small town brass band rehearsing a welcoming tune for some big forthcoming arrival, unspecified, in the manner of Waiting for Godot. The music is amateur and terrible, but the players mean well. The film focuses with compassion and humor on the tribulations of the tuba player as he prepares for the big event, but in the end, Godot never arrives. It’s a terrific piece of film in its own right, but under the umbrella concept it is also a strong political comment: “Revolution? What revolution? We are still waiting for the revolution.”

The other nine are equally beautiful, well-crafted, moving, and thought-provoking. Some comment on the futility of violence in general, some on its absurdity, some on the meaninglessness of political revolutions where nothing really changes. Two took up the theme of how the memory and “celebration” of the revolution only trivialize the suffering and passion of those who took part in it. There are as many ideas about revolution as there were directors. Every one of the pieces is a gem of filmmaking.