Sunday, April 24, 2011

Please Give: Grade B


Please Give (2010)

Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Sarah Steele, Ann Morgan Guilbert; Writer-Director Nicole Holofcener.

This film is almost a remake of Holofcener’s “Friends With Money,” another talky-comedy, which was set in LA. This one takes place in Manhattan and has a Woody-Allen feel. Two families are neighbors in a condo. The Keener-Platt couple (and their daughter Steele) have bought the neighboring apartment but allow the old lady living there (Guilbert) to remain as a tenant until she dies. She is tended to by her daughters Hall and Peet.

So what happens? Nothing. In the end, the old lady dies and the Keener-Platts take possession of her apartment as expected. There is no dramatic story line running through this film. Instead, it is about the characters, but they do not develop much over the course of the film. So what that leaves you is a set of little portraits or vignettes. But these characters are ordinary, white, affluent, moderately educated, generally uninteresting people. So this seems like a setup for an extremely boring movie, except that the acting is stellar and the script is moderately witty.

All these actors are so strong that you don’t really care that there is basically no story, no dramatic tension. Little quotidian things do happen, such as the two sisters, Hall and Peet bickering, Platt cheating on Keener, the daughter Steele wanting expensive jeans her mother won’t buy, the anxiety of how much money one should give street people. None of it builds story or character, and none of it contributes to a contemporary theme you could name. But again, the writing is sharp and the acting mesmerizing, and that’s enough to carry the picture.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fair Game: Grade A


Fair Game (2010)

Sean Penn, Naomi Watts. Director Doug Liman.

I give this movie high marks because I am a sucker for political thrillers, and this one is not bad, although somewhat disappointing. Penn is Joe Wilson, the ex-ambassador to African countries who investigated the White House claim that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium from Niger. Wilson found that not to be true, but George W. Bush went ahead and gave it as a justification for invading Iraq, in his State of the Union of 2001.

Outraged by the lie, Wilson wrote an op-ed in the NY Times explaining what he had NOT found in Niger. In retaliation, the White House “outed” his wife, undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame (Watts), in clear violation of the law. Her career was ruined, their lives were ruined, and the marriage went on the rocks. Should they fight back? How can you fight the White house?

The film clings closely to documentary form, careful to show actual television broadcasts featuring Bush, Cheney, Rice, and “Scooter” Libby, all hewing to party line and basically lying through their teeth. A sub-drama is that when Plame is fired, her operation of rescuing informants in Baghdad is abandoned, leaving all her personal promises to those people broken and their lives in peril. Just another hardball day at the CIA.

Watts gives a scintillating performance; best I’ve ever seen her, and the movie is worth watching for that alone. Plus, she looks a lot like Valerie Plame, which adds realism. Penn has a few moments, but the brilliant actor we know he is, cannot be seen. I gather he was interested in putting his name and reputation behind this polemical movie, but not much interested in acting. He’s good: He’s Sean Penn, after all, but he is mostly a placeholder here. This is a Watts vehicle and she fills it.

The directing and overall storytelling are slightly disappointing. The movie sticks to the historical facts, but unless you are well informed on American political infighting, it will not come across as a suspenseful tale. There is little personal peril, and little drama, as there was in All The President’s Men, for example, or in the fictional Absolute Power. The story is strictly focused on political machinations. The relationship between Wilson and Plame is mildly interesting, but mundane, and clearly secondary to the political story. For me, the political story was gut-wrenching, and it was very unpleasant to re-live the nightmare of that time. But I think for most people, the story will seem flat, not a “thriller” at all.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I Love You Phillip Morris: Grade C


I Love You Phillip Morris (2010)

Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor. Co-writer and director Glenn Ficarra.

Carrey is Russell, a Texas family man who suddenly comes out of the closet and moves to Florida where he can be openly and flamboyantly gay. He discovers that “being gay is really expensive,” so he resorts to identity theft and other scams. He ends up in prison where he meets Phillip (McGregor) and they fall in love.

Upon release, Russell vows to spring Phillip so they can be together, which he does, by implausibly changing some documents to win early release for Phillip. For finances, Russell turns to conning again, this time using unlikely impersonations along the line of Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. That movie, like this one, was “based” on a true story, but that does not make either one of them believable. Russell is busted again, but escapes from jail, in yet another unconvincing impersonation, and that con-bust-escape cycle repeats about four more times until the movie just runs out of steam and ends, with Russell in jail.

On the plus side, Carrey is an enjoyable, if predictable actor. We’ve seen all his rubber face mug shots before, but they’re still funny. He has aged well. The dialog has a few really funny moments, but mostly the script is broad farce and gags. The movie helps normalize gay relationships, for example, by showing the two men dancing together romantically and hugging in bed. On the other hand, the romance between the men was never convincing, as it was in Brokeback Mountain, for example, so all you’re left with is some scenes of men touching, hugging, and kissing. That just does not add up to romance, so if the movie is trying to normalize gay relationships, it falls short.

There are some funny situations and lines, and Carrey is genetically funny, but the movie isn’t. It’s all predictable gags and implausible skits. Nor does the movie work as a drama, because the jailbreaks are not believable (whether they actually happened or not is irrelevant), and neither of the characters shows change, nuance, or development. McGregor gives a sensitive and courageous performance, but the character is so flat that we don’t care about him. Directing is good, costumes and sets outstanding. The music is very well selected, and cinematography is bright and clear. So the movie is worth watching, but ultimately not very entertaining.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Casino Jack: Grade C


Casino Jack (2010)

Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, John Lovitz, Rachelle Lefevre, Kelly Preston, Graham Greene. Director George Hickenlooper.

Spacey is Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist convicted in 2006 of fraud, conspiracy, and corruption. He was recently released from prison, after serving only half of his six year sentence (how does that work?). The movie wants to be a biopic of Abramoff, perhaps with the goal of humanizing a figure who, to many, is little more than an amoral, money-grubbing beast. That goal is mostly realized, thanks to Spacey’s trademark intelligent, smiling mendacity. His performance carries this otherwise weak movie. His right-hand man (Pepper), and his hired front man (Lovitz), are humorous and enjoyable cartoon characters that cannot be taken seriously, although those actors give a hundred percent.

The movie is a tragically missed opportunity. The really interesting part of the Abramoff story is not the guy’s personal life and character. There is nothing distinctive or interesting about him as a person. He is an ordinary, megalomaniacal parasite who doesn’t understand why “the law” singles him out for arbitrary punishment. We’ve seen that character in the movies a hundred times, and the dialog here is accordingly stale, cliched, and deadening.

The really interesting story is not how Abramoff brushes his teeth or likes to quote Michael Corleone, but the culture of Washington corruption and big bucks lobbying. The movie makes a few allusions, showing Abramoff’s close relationship with Tom Delay (without mentioning that Delay is now in prison for corruption and money laundering), and it takes a few vague potshots at John McCain. There is nothing at all about his numerous meetings with George W. Bush, the conviction of several White House staffers for bribery and corruption, and few details about the fraud he perpetrated on several Indian tribes.

You cannot see in this movie any actual crimes being committed, investigated, charged, or prosecuted. So in the end, the viewer is just as mystified as poor Jack about why he is in jail. That’s bad writing, and it’s a shame, because this story could have been as gripping as All The President’s Men, or any other political thriller. To get a more comprehensive view of the Abramoff scandal, one would be better off with Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a nonfiction documentary and a better movie.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Tourist: Grade C


The Tourist (2010)

Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell; Writer-Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Good acting by Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany save this movie from total disaster, but it is pretty bad. Jolie is “statuesque” and well-costumed, but her face is painful to look at. I guess she is considered beautiful, but I see her distorted face as frighteningly grotesque. Depp plays a straight, for-real character in the first half, a real treat, before he goes into his trademark ironic shtick near the end.

Jolie is some kind of undercover agent (it’s not clear what kind) in Venice and she is pursued by bad guys, from her point of view, although they later turn out to be cops, including Bettany. Why? Because they want her elusive husband for tax evasion. She attaches herself to a simple math teacher from Wisconsin, a tourist on a train (Depp), so the baddies will think that’s her husband. Convincing? Not for an instant. From then on there are interminable and unconvincing boat chases through the canals of Venice. There are some crude CGI shots of Venice, which makes me doubt the film was even made there. There are a few funny lines (far too few) and some of the sets are done up in sensuous detail.

Gunshots are fired, but they all magically miss so nobody is hurt. In the end, there is a hidden safe, and missing money, and I can’t even remember what all. Basically, nothing was ever at stake in this movie. It was just Keystone Cops. And unforgivably, the ridiculous ending, which anybody could see coming a mile away, undercut and contradicted everything you have seen so far, making the viewer a sucker for watching it.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

All Good Things: Grade D


All Good Things (2010)

Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella; Director Andrew Jarecki.

This movie gets an A for acting. It is outstanding, really quite riveting, by all three principals and also by Kristen Wiig, who plays a small, unnecessary part. However, the movie is a failure in all other aspects: screenplay, script, directing, music, costumes, sets, and even sound engineering (volume unaccountably varies by at least a factor of three). What a waste of superior acting talent. I do acknowledge that makeup was done well.

The most obvious reason for the failure is a familiar one: the story is based on an actual unsolved mystery that took place in New York in the 1970’s, so the filmmakers could not decide whether to do a documentary or a work of fiction, so they did both, badly. And when you think about it, how dramatic a story can an unsolved mystery make? It is unsolved!

Gosling plays a rebellious son in an obscenely rich New York City business family headed by his dad, Langella. Gosling rejects the family business, smokes a lot of weed, and takes up with a “commoner” (Dunst), to open a health food shop in Vermont. That part of the movie seems to work fairly well, but it doesn’t last. Shortly after, the son suddenly decides he needs a lot of money to survive, and goes back to the city to join the family business. We peasants manage to make our way in the world without a wealthy family, but that was apparently not an option for this guy. In shades of The Godfather II and III, the wife is neglected and becomes extremely unhappy in the city. The couple becomes estranged.

At the midpoint of the movie, the husband goes borderline psychotic, becoming incommunicative, almost catatonic, and generally creepy. No explanation for the change in behavior from the first half of the movie is given. It is implied that he has been traumatized by having seen his mother die when he was young, but I guess he only remembered that trauma halfway through the movie? Then the wife inexplicably disappears, and remains missing for the rest of the movie. No foul play is indicated and no one is charged with any crime. Is that a great ending, or what?

Despite the film’s title, there are Hardly Any Good Things in this movie.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Never Let Me Go: Grade D


Never Let Me Go (2010)

Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield; Director Mark Romanek.

This film represents a failure of execution, not story, because the novel is a subtle and powerful exploration of unfulfilled love. Author Ishigura’s deeply interior work can be successfully filmed, as demonstrated in The Remains of the Day. But in this case, the director and screenwriter could not find the cinematic language to express the story (despite Ishigura himself being an executive producer). We can only imagine what went wrong.

Three children are raised with dozens of others in a bucolic English boarding school, in an opening section that could easily have been edited to half its length. When they are preteen, the children are informed that they are clones, not real humans, and their purpose is to donate their organs upon maturity. For reasons unknown, they accept this fate.

As the three friends reach young adulthood they begin to fulfill their mission. They seem intelligent, well-educated and articulate, but inexplicably, never question their self-sacrificial mission, nor do they discuss what it means to be a clone “rather than” a human.

The worthy sci-fi theme of the story then is, would a clone have a soul? But this theme is not explored, hardly touched upon. Instead the focus is on the love triangle among the threesome. That could have been a good story, but the pace is so slow and the dialog so deadening that we just don’t believe in it. A final theme arises from the threesome’s belated self-awareness that they are ambivalent about their mission. That could have been a great story also. But despite their doubts, the characters unaccountably plod on.

Even if a decent editor had trimmed the prodigious deadwood out of the movie, I don’t think the remaining scenes would be sufficient: the story is just not well told. The cringeworthy maudlin music is unable to disguise the movie's lack of dramatic tension.

Keira Knightly, in a ridiculous jet-black wig (which the marketing people obviously tried to tone down on the DVD cover) is inert. She does not live up to her acting reputation. That is inexcusably bad directing. Mulligan (who was fantastic in An Education) has such an expressive face that she fills the screen even when she has no lines. Garfield (buddy to Zuckerman in The Social Network) turns in an admirable performance. Those acting virtues (barely) save this movie from the tragic failure it need not have been.