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.

Monday, June 20, 2011

My son, my son, what have ye done: Grade A


My son, my son, what have ye done (2010)

Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon , Chloe Sevigny; Grace Zabriski; Co-writer and director: Werner Herzog.

This very non-traditional, and very Herzoggian film is not for those who insist on a conventional story. It is a collection of creative scenes and stunning cinematography, loosely held together by the story of a police hostage situation in San Diego. And I emphasize “loosely.” But for Herzog fans, and David Lynch fans, this movie is exciting and challenging.

Shannon plays an insane stage actor who kills his mother (Zabriski) with a sword, then retreats into his house with hostages. Dafoe is the police detective who tries to talk him out, but eventually calls in the SWAT. But that story is just a framing device for other characters to fill in the background with flashbacks, as the detective interviews them. Sevigny is the killer’s fiancé and does most of the talking. She reveals that the suspect became “strange” after he returned from a trip to Peru, and after that he was disruptive in the play rehearsals (the classical Greek Tragedy, Electra, in which a man kills his mother) that they were both in (the fiancé playing the part of the mother).

We in the audience see immediately that the man has gone schizophrenic, hearing voices and speaking madness, but the fiancé must have never taken a psychology class, because she tolerates him. But this movie is not about realism. It’s about creative filmmaking. The so-called “story” is just an excuse to shoot fantastic scenes, such as a stampede at an ostrich farm, and an extremely good Greek chorus singing in the Electra play. There are too many other non-sequitur scenes to mention, but each of them is challenging, and thrillingly creative. Herzog channels Lynch, who was an executive producer but apparently did not have a hands-on role.

It’s not a perfect movie. The acting is wooden and the speeches contrived. The characters are symbols, not people. There is no dramatic tension, because we don’t care about the hostage situation or any of the characters. There are some obvious and distracting green-screen shots.

But the music is wonderful, some kind of Spanish language singing, and the scenery and sets are perfect. I tried to find the meaning of the San Diego matricide within the ancient Electra story, but the parallel is no more than a loose analogy. A study of insanity, it isn’t: Guy goes nuts, the end. A cop show, it isn’t. Good storytelling, it isn’t. The movie is only about exploring the creative boundaries of filmic, visual language, and by that criterion, it is an artistic triumph. But not for everybody.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Company Men: Grade B


The Company Men (2010)

Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Tommy Lee Jones, Craig T. Nelson; Writer-Director John Wells.

In Boston, a big shipbuilding company downsizes radically. Affleck, a senior sales executive, is unexpectedly fired. He expects to be in the “corporate relocation center” for only a few days, but after three months the Porsche is gone, the golf club has ejected him, the million-dollar house is foreclosed and the family moves into his parents’ basement. He takes a construction job with his brother-in-law (Costner). The story of his humiliation is a little overripe, but somewhat interesting for showing the trauma in a serious, dramatic way, not the tongue-in-cheek view taken by Up In The Air with George Clooney.

The idea that physical labor is somehow more honest, more noble, than being a sales manager is a melodramatic cliché, and the movie is rife with those. Affleck’s boss, TL Jones, represents "conscience" and is wracked with not-believable anxiety. After a while he loses his job too, but with stock options, he retains his wealth and social status.

Chris Cooper, a colleague of Affleck’s, also gets the axe and his reaction is to drink, curse, throw rocks, and eventually do the Willy Loman thing (from Death of a Salesman). His character adds only cheesy melodrama to the story told by Affleck’s character. But Cooper gives a fine performance. The CEO (Nelson) spouts big boss slogans about share price and mergers. Several times it is noted that his compensation is 17 times that of workers, although in fact, CEO compensation in America is closer to 400 times that of workers, so filmmaker Wells softened that harsh reality for some nefarious reason. So how does it all turn out? Ridiculously. A quick and implausible “happy ending” is tacked on just to bring the story to a close. Affleck has lost his high-flying lifestyle but has rediscovered the love of his wife and son. Aaaawwww!

What makes the movie work is not the screenplay, which is mediocre at best, clichéd at worst. It is the fine performances given by all the male leads, especially Costner, who in a smallish part, is far, far better than in any of his leading man roles. Affleck is strong but stays within himself, opening no new territory. Jones can speak any line well, but his character is not well developed and not believable. The women in the movie are all airhead placeholders. The music is terrible, intrusive and distracting. The theme hits a sympathetic chord but is larded with morality lessons and fails to address the substantive issues it raises, such as the enormous pay disparities, treating people as "human resources," and the need to separate personal from work identity. But on the plus side, besides strong acting among the male leads, the cinematography is thoughtful and noticeably good, and the set designs are perfect in every detail, making the film a little better than average.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

True Grit: Grade C


True Grit (2010)

Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld; Co-writers and co-directors: Joel and Ethan Coen.

This remake of the iconic 1969 western starring John Wayne is actually better than that original. I was never a fan of Wayne, nor am I fond of Jeff Bridges. Even so, you have to respect an actor who would attempt a redo of such an iconic role, and Bridges does pull it off. I was always aware that I was watching Jeff Bridges (same reason I didn’t like Wayne), but his character, a whiskey-sodden US Marshall, was strong and almost believable, so he gets away with it.

Fourteen year-old Steinfeld plays a well-educated and articulate (and well-dressed) girl on the Oklahoma frontier who would avenge her father’s killing, so she hires lawman Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to track down the villain with her. Her stylized language is formal and slightly Shakespearean. She uses no contractions and sprinkles her speeches with Latin phrases and legal terminology. It’s not a believable character, but it’s fun. Damon is a bounty hunter also after the killer, played by Brolin, and the two hunters argue and fret over who is responsible for the girl. The Marshal, despite his crude gruffness, develops some affection for the girl, but while the characters are entertaining, none is actually convincing.

I was surprised and disappointed with this movie. I expect a Coen brothers film to be quirky, edgy, and above all to raise sharp existential themes, but this was a straight ahead dusty western with no tricks. And it wasn’t even very dusty. All the sets, props, and costumes were brand new and spotlessly clean, even the train that goes through town in an opening scene. Everyone is in robust health, even the horses. So just like the characters, the settings and scenes are meticulously crafted, but never convincing. So it’s hard to determine what the intent of this movie was. Was it a remake just for the sake of remake?

The cinematography is so incredibly bad in the beginning scenes that I was ready to give up. I knew I just couldn’t endure a movie that bad. Improbable lighting, orange filters, and cameras swooping and panning like a cheap television drama. On top of that was a mind-numbing, content-free voiceover, and an insipid piano track reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary. I’m glad I stuck it out because after 20 minutes, the filmmaking turned competent, and the narrator and the piano disappeared, as did the strange lighting and camera work. All that nonsense reappears momentarily in the closing scene however, so I now believe that those bookends were shot after the main part of the film and tacked on later. Why? Were they a Coen brothers joke? Those two are known to be tricksters. Or maybe somebody thought the film was “too dark”– literally dark, not metaphorically, with many scenes shot at night or on dim interior sets. But whatever the reason for the opening and closing sequences, they are horrible, horrible. The movie overall is not horrible though, just average.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Rabbit Hole: Grade B


Rabbit Hole (2010)

Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Miles Teller, Sandra Oh; Director John Cameron Mitchell.

Kidman and Eckhart play an affluent suburban couple trying to deal with the death of their 8 year-old son in a car accident. They react differently to the loss, Eckhart seeking comfort in group therapy, Kidman with solitary anger and bitterness, then finally by striking up a relationship with the teenager who drove the lethal car (Teller).

It is easy to imagine that loss of a child could put enormous stresses on a marriage, as it does in this case, but despite all the shouting and gazing blankly into middle distance, I did not feel the pain. Maybe that’s just me, but there was nothing interesting said or shown. The characters react in the ordinary way that you would expect people to react, and say and do things ordinary people would, so in all, the story line of the movie is hackneyed, fundamentally boring and plays to cheap melodrama.

But it’s not all bad. The acting is superb, especially Kidman, and Wiest who plays her mother. Kidman lives up to her reputation as an extraordinary actor, and with guts too, appearing without makeup in several scenes. Despite all the work she’s had done, she is aging well. Eckhart turns in a better performance than I’ve ever seen before and is mostly convincing. Sandra Oh, a friend “at group,” is always a pleasure to watch. I wish she were in more features. But the real surprise was Teller, the kid who drove the car that accidentally killed the child. He has an intensity that reminds me of young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. I hope he follows a similar acting trajectory.

The script is also spot on, with dialog that rings true and is often subtly, darkly funny.The casting was creative and a real strength. Sets and costumes are perfect. Music is inoffensive. Except for the overly sentimental, dead-end story premise, this is a film well worth watching.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Man Who Wasn't There: Grade A


The Man Who Wasn’t There (2002)

Billy Bob Thornton, Francis McDormand, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins, Tony Shaloub; Writers and Directors Joel and Ethan Coen.

This movie came within a hair’s breadth of qualifying as one of the most perfect movies ever made, right up there with Casablanca, North By Northwest, and Citizen Kane. Only the bloated, dithering ending spoiled it. If it had ended when BBT’s wife (McDormand) died, it would have been perfect, but that would have been too “noir” apparently, so an entirely new theme was introduced at the 11th hour, which seems to be from a different movie, in order to engineer a morally “pat” ending. Too bad.

BBT is a small town barber in 1949 California. We see him cut hair, but it is in the voiceover narration that we understand his character. He is laconic, a man of few words, reminiscent of the narrator in Camus’ Novel, The Stranger. Normally I don’t like voiceover but it works in this case because it is not a substitute for good, filmic storytelling. BBT meets a fly-by-night entrepreneur who needs a $10K investment to establish an innovative new business, “dry-cleaning.” To get the money, BBT commits a crime and the rest of the story is about the consequences of that act. The pace is slow, but not saggy, and the humor is sardonic.

The film is shot in glorious black-and-white, with sharp high-contrast, and loads of creative lighting and camera angles. You really do get the sense of time and place, although I think that sense is derived from watching old Bogart movies, not because the era actually looked like that. Still, it is wonderful. The mystery tale is well-told and the characters are convincing. McDormand gives a very fine performance, but Thornton is mesmerizing. That guy really knows how to smoke a cigarette! Gandolfini (before he blimped out), looks good and acts competently. Johansson is extremely cute but her role is just eye candy. The score is mostly excerpts from Beethoven piano sonatas, especially numbers 8 and 32, which give me the chills. So this stylistic thriller is completely successful as an homage, yet at the same time original, but comes up just shy of perfect.

Inside Job: Grade I

I (Incomplete)

Inside Job (2010)

Matt Damon (narrator); Co-writer and director, Charles Ferguson.

I had to give this documentary of the U.S. Financial collapse a rare “Incomplete” grade because I couldn’t finish watching it – not because of any fault of the film. It is excellent. But the material is still too fresh, too raw, for me to consider without getting seriously upset.

What I did see was measured, balanced and facts-based, but it told a very familiar, tragic story. Greedy, sociopathic big bankers raked in mountains of money through deception, lies, and criminal behavior, ruining the lives of many millions of Americans. They were aided and abetted by corrupt and stupid government officials, who, like the bankers, walked away free and fat, while everyone else suffered. I can’t bear to re-live that American tragedy yet. Maybe later.

Too Big to Fail: Grade D


Too Big To Fail (2011)

William Hurt, James Woods, Billy Crudup, Paul Giamatti, others. Director Curtis Hanson.

This HBO adaptation of journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin’s nonfiction account of the Wall Street meltdown is lifeless. Despite all the big name actors, they all just speak their lines without emotion. Giamatti is made to look a bit like Ben Bernanke, but aside from that, you would need subtitles to tell which actor is supposed to be which real-world player, because without that information, there is no drama. It is just a bunch of stuffed shirts announcing their cryptic lines.

The story centers on Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (Hurt) and his efforts to save Lehman Brothers and then AIG from bankruptcy. But while Hurt, and most of the other players, are fine actors, they have a terrible script, which captures neither the human drama, nor conveys much information. The result is, paradoxically, that one of the most dramatic cataclysms in world financial history comes across as deadly boring.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Accidents Happen: Grade C


Accidents Happen (2009)

Geena Davis, Harrison Gilbertson, Harry Cook. Director Andrew Lancaster.

This is supposed to be a comic tale about a suburban family in the 1950’s who suffers from exceptionally bad luck. A tragicomedy then. The film opens with an elderly neighbor man accidentally setting himself on fire at his barbeque and lunging into the family’s lawn sprinkler in desperation, but no good, he burns up. The voice-over narrator makes ironic remarks. This prolog tells us everything we need to know about the movie: it is neither comic nor tragic, has nothing to do with being unlucky, only tangentially involves the main characters of the family, and is badly written (voice-over is used when a screenwriter is unable to tell the story properly).

Next there is a horrible car crash (well-filmed) in which the family loses the father and a daughter and one of the sons goes into an irrecoverable coma, leaving only the mother (Davis) and her two teenage sons. The mother becomes depressed, bitter and foul-mouthed, and Davis’s electrifying performance of that character is the only reason to watch this movie. Her lines are mostly vulgar and insulting, not that funny, but she delivers them with such deadpan aplomb and perfect timing, you can’t help laughing. She is a great actor, and although no longer the stunning beauty she once was, she has aged well. Every scene she is in is a treat.

Alas, the rest of the film is painfully lifeless. The two teenage sons become distant and irresponsible, one a druggie and alcoholic, the other a chronic prankster with a neighbor kid. Their antics give Davis something to curse about, but other than that, are meaningless. There is no story and no ending. Sets are interesting, but weird. It looks like 1950’s suburbia, but not convincingly. So the movie is overall a failure, or would be, except for Davis’s performance, which is so strong, it is reason enough to watch.

Micmacs: Grade C

Micmacs (2009)
Dany Boon, André Dussollier, Nicolas Marié, Yolande Moreau; Co-writer & Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. (French, subtitled).

This is a very strange film and probably worth seeing for that reason. A bomb squad member is blown up by a land mine, and his son notes the manufacturer of the weapon. As an adult, the man (Boon) is accidentally shot in the head by a handgun but survives. He becomes childlike and goofy (if he was not already), a homeless beggar and street performer. He finds his way to a family of trashpickers living in a scrap metal dump. They’re all as goofily eccentric as he is. When he decides to attack the weapons manufacturer (conveniently located nearby), he enlists their aid and they mount a sort of Mission Impossible set of tricks and operations to wreak havoc. The revenge story is somewhat fun because the team uses gizmos they found or made from their scrapyard pile, and their unique talents (they have a former circus performer who was a human cannonball and a woman contortionist who can fit herself inside a small box, etc.).

There isn’t much dialog and most of the humor is visual, giving the film a flavor of the old silent movies, like Charlie Chaplin or Keystone Cops. There are other visual allusions to film history as well. There is a slight, but trite political theme: Weapons manufacturers are evil. Sets are amazingly complex and clever, and cinematography is inventive – perhaps distractingly so. The characters are eccentric and aggressively whimsical. In fact the whole movie adds up to whimsy for the sake of whimsy. Neither the characters nor the story are coherent enough to engage the viewer so you are left with just sheer goofiness, which is not LOL funny, but you say to yourself, “that’s cute,” or “that’s charming.” But overall it’s like eating birthday cake: there is no food value.