Monday, March 26, 2012

The Guard: Grade A


The Guard (2011)

Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle. Director John Michael McDonagh (With Irish English and some Gaelic: subtitles recommended)

Gleeson is a perfect small town Irish cop, somewhere near Galway. Cheadle is FBI, assigned to that town because a huge international drug smuggling deal is supposed to go down there. The stage is set for clash of culture, ethnicity, personality, and authority, but all with a humorous note. The Irish humor especially, is very subtle and dry. Cheadle mainly plays straight man, but he does have a few funny lines. Even the drug smugglers have some great lines. But this is more than a comedy. There is a serious crime story that generates plenty of dramatic tension in its own right. Directing and cinematography are good, as is the location scenery. The acting by the two principals is outstanding and the script is sharp. It’s a winner.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Carnage: Grade A


Carnage (2011)

Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz. Director Roman Polanski.

Two couples (Foster-Reilly, and Winslet-Waltz) meet in the former’s New York apartment to discuss a playground fight, in which the Foster-Reilly couple’s child was hit by the other couple’s child. Everyone is politeness and civility as they discuss the incident; apologies are tendered and accepted, but as the conversation goes on, a harsh word here, then another there, gradually provoke reactions that reveal a subterranean landscape of rage and frustration. The conversation eventually degenerates into accusation, screaming, and name-calling, though not without some squirmingly humorous notes.

All the action takes place in the apartment, so the whole film has a setbound, theatrical feel. The director must employ creative artifice to keep the characters in the room, which he does, but you must suspend your disbelief several times. Mike Nichols managed the task better the 1966 classic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to which Carnage is very similar in structure and dialog.

Acting and characterization are the draws here, not the story, as was true in “Woolf” also. Edward Albee wrote "Woolf," and Carnage comes from Yasmina Reza. In both, the characters are excellently drawn. The acting in Carnage is extremely good, especially by Winslet who stands out. I never warmed to Foster’s character, which was too brittle to seem believable, but that’s just my impression; her acting was faultless. Polanski’s direction is visible in every scene and it is brilliant. Though set in New York, the movie is technically a foreign film, shot in Paris, because Polanski is a fugitive from American justice.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Nora's Will: Grade A


Nora’s Will (2008)

Fernando Luján; Writer-Director Mariana Chenillo. (Spanish and Hebrew; subtitled)

An old retired guy (Lujan) finds his ex-wife has committed suicide, but not before setting an elaborate table for the Passover feast. The ex-husband calls his adult children and the ranking rabbi. He is a nonbeliever himself however, and is annoyed at the rabbi’s authoritarian insistence on details of the funeral, including the fact that it will have to wait four days because of the religious calendar. The body is put on ice.

The husband thinks all this is ridiculous and signs up for a Christian funeral service and burial just to get it done, and also to annoy the rabbi. Crosses, flowers, and a cross-shaped casket appear in the apartment. The rabbi is extremely annoyed, all the more when he is offered a pork, bacon and sausage pizza by the husband. But the rabbi ultimately has his way when he calls all the important Jewish cemeteries and advises them that they cannot take a suicide. So the family has a problem, reminiscent in some ways of Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying.

The acting by Lujan and several others is superb, and the script is scintillating. The humor is dry and subtle, yet at the same time, the dramatic moments are deep and poignant. That is quite a writing achievement. Costumes are perfect, and while the movie is somewhat setbound, the cinematography is excellent. A very personal, funny and moving picture that illuminates life.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Chico & Rita: Grade B


Chico & Rita (2010)

Limara Meneses, Eman Xor Oña; Directors Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, Tono Errando. (Spanish; subtitled).

This low-budget animation is the story of a Cuban pianist in 1948 who plays jazz in clubs and dreams of making it big. He meets Rita, a club singer with an extraordinary voice and convinces her to join the band. It works for a while, but Chico cannot commit and Rita becomes jealous and finally a fancy rich guy “discovers” Rita and whisks her off to New York and the fast lane. Chico pursues her but by this time she is a star and living large. The decades roll on. The structure of the story is reminiscent of “Remains of the Day.”

The characters are not well developed emotionally, so the romantic story is only sweet and affecting. The animation is old-fashioned, hand-drawn, simple and colorful, with lots of flat panels of saturated color, no textures or rounding, making it look like an artsy graphic novel (comic book). The sets and scenery are drawn in loving detail, especially those of prerevolutionary Havana.

The music is good, but not what I expected. I was waiting for hard latin jazz, maybe meringue, salsa, Tito Puente, Miami-style blaring trumpets, etc., but instead it was mostly ballads with hardly a pulse, pleasant enough but disappointing.

Oddly, the end-credits reveal that there were at least a dozen animation companies, from all over the world, involved in the production of this feature. I can’t imagine why that would be, but it does explain why the animation is so variable. For example, the main characters’ skin color kept changing . In the beginning, Rita is lightly tanned, while Chico is chocolate, but later, the reverse is true. Maybe that was on purpose, but I doubt it. On the upside, there is one brief dream sequence, maybe three minutes long, that is truly spectacular and mind-blowingly creative, unlike anything else in the movie. I have to wonder why that team was not given more input; it would have made an astonishing movie. Instead, this animated story is more charming than spectacular, and for that, worth seeing.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Osso Bucco: Grade B


Osso Bucco

Illeana Douglas, Mike Star, Christian Stolte, Antoine McKay, Aaron Roman Weiner; Directors Fred Blurton, Gary Taylor.

This delightful romance-comedy-mobster film has more of a theatrical than a cinematic feel because it is setbound and directed like a stage play. So, no car chases or explosions, although there is some (silly) gunplay and some good Chicago-accented mobster talk. The real draw is the fine acting, completely original characters and script, and precision directing. This is film as art.

Megan (Douglas) and Nick (Stolte) are waiters at an Italian roadside diner somewhere near Chicago. A huge snowstorm is moving in, so there are no customers until “Jelly,” a large, Chicago mobster (Star), and his buddy take refuge inside. A couple of police detectives who have been tailing them, also hoping get out of the storm, enter shortly after. Sealed inside the diner, the stage is set for a battle of wits between the detectives, who have a warrant for Jelly, and his vow to quit the mobster business forever.

The diners and the staff try to maintain polite decorum because they realize they are all trapped in the place together, but trouble erupts when one of the cops orders the only serving of osso bucco, a Milanese veal specialty. That just happens to be Jelly’s favorite, and as he is a regular at the diner, and good friends with the waitress (Douglas), he insists he should get it. Tensions escalate.

Despite the constant undertone threat of violence, the tone is light, as Jelly’s character tries to act the gentleman, and to express his affection for Megan (Douglas) despite the imminent threat from the policemen. The directing has just the right touch. Douglas and Star give outstanding performances, but the original and creative script is the real star. I selected this movie because I am a fan of Douglas, and though it is an inconsequential amusement, I was pleasantly surprised the film was so strong overall.