Friday, December 26, 2008

Dangerous Liaisons (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, 1959)

Our mini love affair with Jeanne Moreau continues with this French adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Rather than telling the tale in its original eighteenth-century setting, as did the American version starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich, director Roger Vadim and writer Claude Brule set this story in late-1950’s France.

This time around, Merteuil (Moreau) and Valmont (Gerard Philipe) are cast as a couple in a VERY open marriage. They actively encourage each other in their dalliances, and enjoy crowing about their conquests to one another. Outsiders view them as a little odd, and most of their acquaintances know that at least one of them is unfaithful, but no one guesses at the true depths of their degeneracy. Merteuil is slightly piqued that Court, a lover whom she had been planning to dump, has beaten her to the punch by getting engaged to a pretty, young woman named Cecile (Jeanne Valerie). Merteuil decides to get even by having Valmont seduce Cecile, thus sullying Court’s marriage bed. In a stunning Alps ski resort, Valmont sets about the relatively easy task of bedding the curious teenager, but along the way he meets a much more intriguing woman. Marianne Tourvel is not only beautiful and charming, but a virtuous wife; and Valmont has just enough heart left to be drawn to her. He tells himself and Merteuil that he is simply relishing a difficult conquest, but Merteuil senses the budding love behind his bravado, and she is jealous of it. There follows a classic storm of jealousy and deceit, leaving behind broken hearts, minds, and lives.

I have not read the novel on which this film is based. My introduction to this story was through the 1988 John Malkovich movie, and I am a huge fan of that film. Merteuil and Valmont are simply fascinating people. They put on this elaborate show of worldliness and seduction, each for an audience consisting only of the other, yet they hold each other at arm’s length. There have never been two who deserve each other more, but they express their love for each other through elaborate conquests of others. Or maybe their delight in each other’s dalliances is not love at all, but a sick form of possessiveness. Perhaps each feels that as long as the other is completely promiscuous, they will never commit true, emotional infidelity.

Laclos’s novel is said to have made waves upon its publication in 1782. The tale of French aristocrats is one of a class of people whose lifestyle has run itself to its logical conclusion. The Aristocracy is known for living lives of leisure, with an obsession with fashion, and a lack of the usual sexual mores. In Merteuil and Valmont, the Aristocracy is seen as consisting of nothing but leisure, fashion, and sexual obsession. It is a story, in a way, of the end of an era, and some say it helped hasten the end of that era. The novel’s dramatization of depraved behavior may have helped flame the fires of the rising French Revolution. Really, the guillotine is too good for Merteuil and Valmont!

This modernized version of the story did not thrill me quite as much as the Malkovich/Close film. The quality of acting and dialog in that 1988 movie conspire to make it perfect. The 1959 “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is not quite perfect, but it is still excellent. Jeanne Moreau and Gerard Philipe play their roles with charm and menace. Early on, Moreau seemed to be playing a slightly gentler version of Merteuil, but I think that was just her incredible beauty influencing me. Eventually she is seen to be crueler and more heartless than Valmont.

Jeanne Moreau is a fascinating actress. She has what I would consider to be one of the most beautiful faces in film. Her eyebrows are natural and full, on a strong, yet feminine face that, like many beautiful faces, borders on the ugly at times. With her looks and talent she could have been a traditional movie star, but she seems to have made a specialty of playing dangerous women, heartbreakers, and libertines rather than heroines. In an interview on “The Lovers” DVD, she makes it clear that she didn’t set out to play villainesses, but she was always drawn to strong female parts, and in the 1950’s and 60’s, that meant playing unsympathetic women. She plays them unapologetically.

That “Dangerous Liaisons” goes down so well in a more modern setting shows how timeless it is, and I’m sure that the right filmmaker could make a science fiction classic out of it. This story will remain relevant as long as people continue to fall in love and get jealous of each other. As for me, this film only left me more in love with Jeanne Moreau, who is quickly becoming my favorite actress.

4.5 stars

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964)

This ranks as one of the most bizarre movies I have seen. From the first line to the last, everything is sung. I don’t mean this is a musical, where there are actual songs that tell the story. It is a regular movie, with regular scenes and dialog, but the actors sing all of their lines. Try it. Get your favorite song going in your head, and then sing these words along with the music. That’s this movie! I couldn’t believe my ears for the first couple of minutes, but after a while I got used to it, and it really wasn’t too bad! Actually, the singing adds charm to what is otherwise a pretty minimalist story.

Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) are a couple of young lovebirds whose prospects are threatened by the clash between Guy’s working-class position and the aspirations of Genevieve’s scrabbling, bourgeois mother. They are devastated when Guy gets drafted, so they commemorate their last date by finally doing the big nasty. You can guess how that turns out. Guy goes to Algeria, leaving Genevieve in Cherbourg with a bun in the oven. Genevieve is determined to wait for Guy, but her mom takes the opportunity to try to pair her daughter with Roland Cassard, a wealthy diamond merchant (Marc Michel, reprising his role from another Jacques Demy movie called “Lola”). It’s actually harder than you’d expect to root for Guy at that point, because he rarely writes to Genevieve, and damn, that Roland is charming!

At the risk of spoiling the plot, I’m just going to say that nothing really dramatic happens in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” (By the way, the title comes from the fact that Genevieve and her mom run an umbrella shop.) This film is driven by vibrant, colorful sets and winsome performances from the cast, who manage to make the singing-the-lines thing work. The movie was a nice introduction to director Jacques Demy, who is apparently quite accomplished. His work has been described as the “tragedy of the everyday,” but I don’t really see “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” as tragedy. To me the film is about how life doesn’t necessarily go in the direction we think we want it to, but there are still great opportunities for love and happiness if we face forward and embrace them. The wistful final scene is tinged with regret, but it also contains a hopeful message about refusing to give in to regret over lost opportunities.

3 stars

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Graduate (1967) *****

To really get what a classic “The Graduate” is, it helps to consider that it perfectly captured the shifting societal mood of its time, but is still imminently watchable today. Prior to the late ‘60’s, movies almost always portrayed a positive outlook on America and our way of life. A few films, like “Rebel Without a Cause,” bucked that trend, but in general, Hollywood told America what it wanted to hear about itself. In westerns, the guys in white came out on top; in love stories, the guy got the girl; and in war movies (not to mention the wars themselves), America always triumphed. In the ‘60’s, people were questioning the American dream, and Hollywood started to really dip its toes into those turbulent waters with movies like “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy,” and “The Graduate.” Movies like these paved the way for what is today an almost dogmatically pessimistic view of American life among artistic films.

The standard description of “The Graduate” is that it is about a younger man, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), who has an affair with an older woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). That misses the point of the movie, though. There is an affair, of course, and as far as that goes, it is fairer to say that it is about an older woman who seduces a younger man. The affair is initiated by Mrs. Robinson as a way to restore her sexual confidence and escape her boring, affluent life and inattentive husband. Being with a younger man, of course, helps her deal with her fear of aging and her disillusionment. The affair is also meant to help her combat her fear that her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) now possesses the youth and beauty that Mrs. Robinson once had, which is why she reacts so jealously when Benjamin takes notice of Elaine’s photograph.

But “The Graduate” is mainly about Benjamin, and for him, the affair is almost incidental. He IS trapped into the “sick” affair, but in the end it is really a more or less convenient way for him to deal with his horniness while he floats aimlessly through post-college life, waiting to be struck by the desire to make something of himself. He has successfully jumped through all the hoops his parents and society have set up for him, and faced with yet another hoop, graduate school, he suddenly finds himself completely without motivation. He looks ahead to a life of suburban homes, cocktail parties, and cheating wives, and he balks.

The affair between Ben and Mrs. Robinson is, of course, a major portion of the film, but when you take a step back and look at how Ben’s life is unfolding, the affair is not really a seminal event. The movie starts with a party celebrating Ben’s college graduation, and it is apparent that his academic career has been a success. Interestingly, the party is populated entirely by friends of his parents, so the tone is set early on that Ben hasn’t yet established his own identity. Ben’s attitude toward the party can be interpreted as shyness around all those older folks, but we eventually see that Ben is feeling deeply lost. We are left to guess at when and how he turned this corner, but he seems to have succumbed to the feeling that he has spent 20 years pursuing his parents’ dreams for him. He now finds himself very empty, without anything of his own to pursue.

Elaine gives Ben something to pursue. He is initially cold to her, at the insistence of her jealous mother, but he inevitably warms to the joy of being with someone his own age. Once he gets past her shyness, Ben falls for Elaine, and it is this, not the affair, that is the seminal event in the film. Falling in love awakens Ben to himself, gives him a sense of purpose, and makes him a man.

“The Graduate” is not an entirely perfect movie. Some of the directorial choices, like the rapid flashes of nudity in one scene, look a little dated now. I also think that Anne Bancroft played Mrs. Robinson as a tad overly harsh, which is ironic, because the role was supposedly very difficult for the normally sweet-natured Bancroft. The occasional flaw really isn’t worth quibbling over, though. In its witty, artful way, “The Graduate” is truly one of the great films.

5 stars out of 5

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)

It’s a rare occasion now that I see a movie in the theater. On a whim, we decided to take our 3-year-old to see the “Madagascar” sequel. She saw the original in a hotel a while back, and she still talks about it, so she was completely stoked to see “Madagascar 2.” We would have been better off just watching “Monsters, Inc.” on DVD again.

For those without kids, just stop reading now. This is not one of those crossover animated movies that appeals to adults. “Madagascar 2” is for kids, and the adults will be lucky not to fall asleep. (My wife literally did fall asleep for a while!) Briefly, the plot is that those wacky zoo animals that were left stranded at the end of “Madagascar” finally fix up their plane and launch an effort to get back to New York. It turns out that penguins can’t navigate worth a damn, so when the plane inevitably crash lands, it is in Africa. This gives Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) a chance to re-unite with their own kind, which strains their friendship. Not that the plot matters, really. What “Madagascar 2” is really about is hyperkinetic characters zipping around the screen doing exaggerated voice acting and making winking pop-culture references.

Maybe I’m being churlish criticizing a kid’s movie, but “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” really isn’t the kind of entertainment I’m looking for for my kid. The characters, situations, and crises all feel manufactured and two-dimensional. It seems like whenever the writers got stuck, they just threw in some hip-hop and made the characters dance around. The film also slips in some clumsy slurs against hunters. Call me reactionary, but being a hunter myself I’m really not interested in having Hollywood teach my daughter that hunters are evil, thuggish, and trigger-happy. (If it sounds like I am over-reacting, I will direct you to Whit Stillman’s movie “The Last Days of Disco” for an exposition on how the depiction of hunters in “Bambi” shaped the modern environmental movement.)

If this were the best entertainment available for kids, I guess we could tolerate it, but we don’t have to! As Exhibit A, I give you “Wall-E,” which also came out this year. “Wall-E” mops the floor with the “Madagascar” movies in every way possible. This is a movie that doesn’t even have any dialog for the first 10 to 20 minutes, and yet my three-year-old daughter loved it. The robots and people in “Wall-E” have depth and subtlety to them. With a minimum of celebrity voices and no dance music, “Wall-E” manages to tell a charming story that entertains kids and adults alike. Since that is possible, we don’t have to settle for sub-par fare like “Madagascar 2”. Sure, kids like the “Madagascar” movies; kids like just about anything animated you put in front of them. We might as well put them in front of something good.

2 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

No one is more surprised than me that I actually watched this 80’s movie starring Madonna. I mean, COME ON! I remember when this movie came out, and I pegged it then as a lame vanity project to cash in on Madonna’s popularity. In fairness, I’ll say that I read up on the movie and learned that Madonna wasn’t even the first actress considered for the role. In any event, I gave it a huge skip, because I wasn’t a fan then, and I’m still not. I know, ever since the famous “Madonna discussion” in “Reservoir Dogs” it’s been okay for guys to admit they like Madonna. I’m just not one of those guys.

At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I must say I don’t get what the big deal is about Madonna. She’s a pretty lady with an okay voice who co-writes fairly catchy songs. I’m okay with people digging on her pop-py music, but for some reason the world seems determined to give her way more credit than she deserves. I bought a new pair of pants the other day, but people aren’t falling all over themselves to congratulate me on my uncanny ability to “re-invent” myself in order to “stay relevant.” I can also play the guitar a little, just like about half the people I know. When Madonna learned a few chords, though, it was “a courageous move” that “legitimized her as an artist.” I mean, really. The girl has spent the last 30 years getting paid for hanging out in studios and traveling around with a bunch of musicians. It would have been shocking if she HADN”T learned to play an instrument in all that time. As for the feat of maintaining her stardom for three decades, it’s impressive, but I consider it mostly a commentary on the world’s appetite for sparkly mediocrity. McDonald's is popular, too, folks.

Now that we’ve established that I’m not a starry-eyed Madonna fan, I’ll admit that this movie was alright. Susan (Madonna) is supposed to be a lovably incorrigible New York free spirit rocker chick. To me she looks more like a lying thief who rips off her friends and bails on them, but since she is played by Madonna, I think we are supposed to like her anyway. She steals some cash and a pair of earrings from her latest boyfriend. When the earrings turn out to be stolen Egyptian artifacts, her life takes a dangerous turn. Rosanna Arquette plays Roberta, a bored New Jersey housewife who becomes obsessed with recurring personal ads between Susan and another boyfriend named Jim. She spies on one of their meet-ups and tries to take on a little of Susan’s zany, 80’s Boho style. When she gets mistaken for Susan, then suffers an amnesia-inducing coma, she gets to live Susan’s life for a little while. Hi-jinks ensue.

This was my wife’s pick, and she insisted that is was “an art movie.” Actually, the film does have a bit of that Sundance feel of a small movie that isn’t trying to be a big one. That sense of knowing its own limits saves this from being another piece of un-watchable 80’s crud. The acting and the story aren't anything special, but they are adequate to the film’s ambitions, making it a mildly amusing diversion. I don’t see myself buying the DVD, but I’m not suing to get my two hours back either.

2.5 stars out of 5

Friday, November 28, 2008

Jules and Jim (1962)

Driven by an intense desire to see Jeanne Moreau on the screen again, I loaded our Netflix queue with her films. This classic by director Francois Truffaut is an ambitious exploration of a friendship and love triangle spanning 20 or 30 years. Jules (Oskar Werner) is an Austrian and Jim (Henri Serre) is French. The two meet and become fast friends in the Bohemian haunts of early-twentieth-century Paris. There, they drink, chase girls, and pursue their fascination with art. They become particularly taken with an ancient statue of a gently smiling female face. One day they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), whose serene, yet devilish smile matches that of the statue.

Both men are struck by her, but it is Jules who woos and eventually marries her. The three share an invigorating friendship that survives WWI, but Jim warns Jules that perhaps Catherine was never meant for just one man. The wisdom of his advice is obvious from the way Catherine flirts with Jim, and it is inevitable that they will become lovers. What is not expected is how, as she ages, Catherine’s free spirit morphs into malicious capriciousness, which respectively hardens and softens the hearts of the men she loves.

I’m torn as to whether I loved or hated this movie. It’s clear that, by the end, I mostly hated the characters for their self-indulgence, self-delusion, and self-loathing. The film itself, though, is quite thought-provoking, and it mostly succeeds in its efforts to explore the tricky landscape of love and friendship. This is considered one of Truffaut’s classics, and it is no mystery why. The tale of two friends who fall for the same girl, and the kinky love triangle that eventually engulfs them all, is thoughtfully written and beautifully filmed. It’s a bit of a downer, though, because the passions that initially drive them all wind up becoming muted and sad. Their free lifestyle turns into a prison of the soul.

What initially seems free-spirited and alive about Catherine looks more and more like narcissism as the years pass. Early on, her character has an almost feminist aura, as she seeks to have the same power and freedom as her male companions. Tragically, she winds up looking self-absorbed and destructive. As much as she annoys me though, it is Jules whom I really dislike. His need to be with Catherine is so great that he is willing to tolerate ANY behavior on her part. His weakness is a crutch that allows her weakness to worsen. Jim, the most likeable of them, is only marginally better. He can at least summon up the gumption to be jealous of Catherine, but his constant wavering between her and his steady girlfriend in Paris dooms both loves. Come to think of it, why does Jim’s girlfriend tolerate this over the years? This movie is absolutely lousy with people who have no self-respect!

Most of my impressions from this film are negative, but I didn’t completely dislike it. I’m sure there is a variety of opinion on this tale, which was based on the real-life experiences of Henri-Pierre Roche, who wrote the novel on which it is based. Those more tolerant of human frailty might celebrate these characters for breaking with convention, even if it doesn’t work out well for them. As Jim describes it, they “tried to re-invent love.” The film raises questions about the emotional laws of love. Which laws are immutable, and which are societal constructs? Jim, Jules, and Catherine try to find out by breaking them all. Catherine says, “You said, ‘I love you,’ I said, ‘Wait.’ I was going to say, ‘Take me,’ you said, ‘Go away.’” This statement captures love’s confusion and bad timing, something we have all suffered. For the first half of the film, the threesome's friendship and love are truly delightful. Alas, they can never recapture that joy of their youth, and neither does the movie. For Catherine, Jim, and Jules, as for the viewer, delight gives way to delirium and despair.

3 stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Thin Man (1934)

Having already checked out a couple of films featuring the acting duo of William Powell and Myrna Loy, I decided to watch their most famous film. The pair made six Thin Man movies about detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora. (Bonus points if you recognize these as the names from the latest movie starring Michael Cera.) These movies are famous for two things: the cute dog and the cute banter between Nick and Nora. The actual mysteries are more of a sideline.

In this first Thin Man, the main theme seems to be how much Nick and Nora drink, and I must say, they can put it away. They do engage in some cute banter, too. Somewhere in there, with the help of their dog, they manage to solve a murder.

I am inclined to say that I think this film is a bit over-rated. The mystery part is okay, but it’s extremely lightweight compared to something like Bogart in “The Big Sleep.” That’s fair enough, as this is more of a comedy than a mystery, and it certainly isn’t a noir film. On that note, the witty repartee IS pretty clever, but Myrna Loy’s aloof style is starting to grate on me. William Powell, on the other hand, is a genuine pleasure to watch. He has an un-self-conscious comedy style that allows him to slip on a banana peel and still come off looking like the coolest guy in the room.

This film does have a final grace note that really wraps it up in style. Remember that this was the 1930’s, so the scenes with Nick and Nora in their bedroom feature husband and wife in separate, twin beds. Well, the end of the movie finds them on a train, and as they prepare for bed, Nora suggests that the dog should sleep on the bottom bunk with her. Next thing you know, the dog has been tossed on the top bunk by himself, and even 30’s audiences knew what that meant.

One final mystery here: Who is the Thin Man? One would assume the title refers to Nick Charles, but William Powell had a decidedly medium build. I’ll risk a spoiler by mentioning that there is a dead body that is a thin man buried in a fat man’s clothes to throw off the police. I would suspect that that is the Thin Man, but it doesn’t explain the five Thin Man sequels.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Superbad (2007)

It took me a while to get around to seeing this movie, and even longer to write about it. That’s probably because, while “Superbad” is superfunny and supercool, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of brilliance that some other films from the Judd Apatow universe have (e.g. “The 40-year-old Virgin,” and “Knocked Up”). Produced by Judd Apatow and based on a screenplay by Evan Goldberg (who wrote some episodes of “Da Ali G Show”) and Seth Rogen (who needs no introduction), “Superbad” is directed by Greg Mottola (who directed episodes of “Arrested Development” as well as some episodes of Apatow’s “Undeclared”) That’s quite a pedigree, folks, and it produced a movie that is a hilarious good time, even if it isn’t super-deep.

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg didn’t waste a lot of creativity naming the main characters; “Superbad” follows the exploits of Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), a couple of high school omega males preparing to graduate. These dorks enjoy flirtations with a couple of improbably hot babes, and get the chance to impress said babes by providing the booze for a graduation party. The only problem is that their ticket to that booze is their skinny friend Fogell (Chris Mintz-Plasse) and his fake ID, which claims he is McLovin (no last name), a 25-year-old, Hawaiian organ donor. Hilarity and a wild night ensue. Rogen and Bill Hader appear as a pair of fun-lovin’ cops, and Joe Lo Truglio from “The State” plays a creepy sex-offender.

By the end, “Superbad” degenerates a little into some sappy bromance stuff. I know this is intended to be sensitive and all, but it treads too much into After-School-Special territory for me. Still, the trip there is a great time.

I enjoy these “wild night” movies, in the tradition of “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused.” The truth is, most of the long story arcs in our lives are too fraught with stops, starts, and overthinking to make great theater, but we can all identify with that “wild night” when anything can and does happen. That’s the part of “Superbad” that will keep me coming back for repeat viewings.

4 stars.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Somehow I got the impression that this latest outing by Wes Anderson and company wasn’t much fun, so I didn’t come into it with high hopes. Maybe this film just looks better in an atmosphere of low expectations, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. This is no “Bottle Rocket” or “Rushmore,” but “The Darjeeling Limited” has a charm of its own for those who enjoy Wes Anderson’s talky, thoughtful style. For everyone else, Natalie Portman gets naked.

The story follows the Whitman brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman), an emotionally stunted trio who join up for a train trip across India in order to reconnect, deal with their dad’s death, and find their mom. The trip doesn’t turn out as planned, but as often happens in life, the journey itself winds up having value.

This film was way more fun than I expected. Besides the naked Portman (in a short film called “Hotel Chevalier,” intended as a prelude to the movie on the DVD), there is a lot of understated humor and just some good acting. Owen Wilson overdoes it a bit, and really just plays his character from “Bottle Rocket,” but Adrien Brody makes up for that. I wouldn’t rank “The Darjeeling Limited” up there with “Rushmore,” which represents the height of Wes Anderson’s work thus far, but it’s clearly better than “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”

3 stars

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Brief Political Note

This is supposed to just be a movie journal, but the recent election is simply too historic not to say anything about it. Politically, I’m pretty mixed up. I drive around in a Prius with a concealed weapon. I’m a doctor, and I would like to hang on to my income, but (or maybe because of what I already know) I’m not that afraid of socialized health care. Fittingly, I have mixed feelings about this election. Barack Obama is certainly an inspiring speaker, and if he keeps his word on avoiding divisive politics to focus on solutions to real problems, he could be a great president. On the other hand, my default setting is to distrust the government, and that instinct has rarely been wrong. I am not thrilled about having a president and a Congress in the same party, especially the Democratic party, because let’s face it, a hard-working, well-paid, gun-toting, straight, white male has more to lose with this party in power. If Obama turns out to be just another politician and allows his party to pursue their various evil schemes, my life is going to suck.

If that happens, who will I blame? The Democrats, sure, but keep in mind that they really can’t help themselves. Those pointy heads and bleeding hearts are a handicap against rational thinking. The real villains in this election cycle are the Republicans, who were given the reins of power and didn’t just abuse them, but literally squandered them on trifles. Instead of balancing the budget, once a Republican theme, they took bribes. They talked about the sanctity of marriage, then stayed up late at night trying to keep Mark Shiavo from pulling his wife’s feeding tube, per her express wishes. Instead of protecting our liberties from big government, they tapped our phones and tortured people. Instead of working to find a balanced solution to global warming, they ignored it, and spent their time playing grab-ass in airport bathrooms. John McCain made some mistakes, the largest being Sarah Palin, but the Republicans spent the last eight years losing this election. The Republican party today is corrupt, inept, and defiled. The only Americans they represent now are fundamentalist Christians, but if Jesus were alive today he would go through the Republican convention with a cat ‘o nine tails.

Alright, I feel better now. Back to the movies.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Stardust (2007)

If you blink, you’ll miss Neil Gaiman’s name in the credits, but “Stardust” is based on his graphic novel of the same name. I struggle to understand why everyone hasn’t recognized Gaiman as one of our greatest living storytellers, but I seem to be part of a not-so-vocal minority in thinking so. Apparently, everyone didn’t flock to theaters for this one. “Stardust” grossed about $38 million at U.S. box offices, just over half of its $70 million budget. Looks like almost everybody missed a really entertaining story.
Relative newcomer Charlie Cox plays Tristan, a dreamer of a lad living in the village of Wall. The town is so named because of the wall lying just outside, which, it turns out, guards a magical world of witches, unicorns, and princesses. One night a falling star is seen to land somewhere beyond the wall, and Tristan, desperate to win the heart of the town beauty (Sienna Miller), pledges to fetch the star back for her. It turns out that on the magical side of the wall, a falling star is not a chunk of meteorite, but a beautiful babe (Claire Danes). Undaunted, Tristan gamely tries to escort the star back to Wall through a gauntlet of witches, pirates, and greedy princes.
This is fun stuff, folks! Sure, it’s a fairly tale, but one for adults. As with most fairy tales, you tend to know generally where the story is going, but it’s a fun trip getting there. There are definitely a few surprises along the way. I don’t think you will see Robert De Niro’s performance coming unless you have been warned. Michelle Pfeiffer is brilliant as a witch intent on cutting out the star’s heart for its youth-restoring qualities. “Stardust” also boasts Peter O’Toole, and even Ricky Gervais makes an appearance. It’s a heady mix of talent, and everyone is obviously having a good time.
Neil Gaiman has a funny, bitter short story about a guy trying to get a screenplay made into a film. I imagine he must have had some unsatisfying Hollywood experiences before. Still, I can’t see that he has a great deal to complain about in “Stardust.” Obviously, it doesn’t follow his narrative exactly, and the tone may have been lightened a bit, but I think this is a movie adaptation Gaiman should be proud of. This isn’t a film for young children, but for older kids and adults with some imagination, this is a well-made bit of light entertainment.

4 stars

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) ****

I love the premise of this film. A guy gets dumped. Heartbroken, he goes on vacation to ease his depression, but he chooses a spot in Hawaii where his ex-girlfriend had always wanted to go. Lo and behold, his ex and her sexy, famous boyfriend are there, and the guy has to spend his vacation repeatedly running into them. To me that’s just a classic, romantic comedy storyline. It could have been made in the 1930’s by Ernst Lubitsch, or in the 40’s with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Albert Brooks could have knocked this one out of the park in the 80’s. The key to telling this story at any point, of course, is the acting and script, and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” nails it on both counts.

Jason Segel plays the dopey doughboy Peter, who disintegrates into a crying mess after his actress girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristin Bell) kicks him to the curb. Segel also wrote the screenplay, and the seen where he gets dumped while naked is taken from his own life. (By the way, ladies, you get treated to some full-frontal in this scene, if that’s what you’re into.) Kristin Bell plays the heartbreaker without over-vamping it, and when she eventually tells Peter why she broke up with him, you can identify with her a little. Meanwhile, Mila Kunis is straight-up adorable as Peter’s new love interest.

Then there’s Aldous Snow, Sarah Marshall’s pop-singer, himbo of a new boyfriend played by British comic Russell Brand. He is, as he puts it, “…famous, mostly for my sins.” The former addict (“One drink, and by the end of the night I’ll be rimming waiters for their tip money so I can go buy a rock.”) struts around in leather pants and serenades Sarah with his hit single, “Inside of You,” but even this farcical character has some depth in Jason Segel’s thoughtfully crafted story.

A while back I read an article entitled, “Are Men the New Women?” The article cited “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” as an example of how movies and TV seem to be full of guys who are sensitive, vulnerable, needy, and cry a lot. It’s true; I don’t think Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin could even get a movie role these days. I have another observation to add to this role reversal bit. Movies these days feature more male nudity than female nudity. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” for example, features Jason Segel’s schlong in two separate scenes. The closest thing to female nudity is a grainy Polaroid of a girl who might be Mila Kunis flashing her tits. It used to be the other way around in movies, which is the way God intended it. I think I’m gonna blame this one on the queers. We know everyone in Hollywood is gay, and all this on-screen sausage fits right in with their “agenda.”

Other than seeing more of Jason Segel than I bargained for, I absolutely loved “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” It is produced by Apatow Productions, meaning that the major players are all connected to Judd Apatow, the new godfather of comedy with a heart. If you have the means, I highly suggest you pick it up.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Lovers (1958)

I rented “The Lovers” because it was so controversial in its day. Supposedly the sex scenes were considered obscene; so much so that a Cleveland theater owner got arrested for showing it. Obviously, we waited until our daughter was in bed to watch it. Didn’t want to destroy her innocence and whatnot. Trust me when I tell you that we needn’t have worried. By today’s standards, this film could be shown during prime-time. You could watch it with your parents and your pastor and feel only mildly uncomfortable. I can well imagine that there was a time when this film would have been a little racy, but it beggars the imagination that someone could have been arrested over it.

“The Lovers” is your typical, slow-moving French film focused on emotions rather than action. Directed by Louis Malle, the film stars the beautiful Jeanne Moreau as Jeanne, the bored wife of a wealthy newspaperman. Her husband is at once distant and jealous. She seeks happiness with fashionable Parisian friends and a lover who is dashing and popular, but a bit tiresome, with all his seriousness and protestations of love. Jeanne lives a life of quiet desperation.

One fateful day Jeanne’s car breaks down, and she catches a ride with a young archeologist. He is independent, self-possessed, and witty, and he does something for Jeanne that her husband and her lover never do: he makes her laugh. That laughter opens up something inside her, and she and the archeologist fall in love over the course of a passionate, beautifully filmed night.

Knowing the reputation of this film, I expected that that night would involve some graphic sex, but I should have known that I was failing to give the French the credit they are due. A French film would never emphasize the mechanics of sex over the passion. Most of the night, Jeanne and her lover walk or run about outside in their nightclothes in the cool night air, rediscovering what it feels like to be young and free. Naturally, they wind up in bed together, and the scene is pretty sexy, but nothing is shown that would get the movie more than a PG rating today.

I think that what upset the censors as much as the sex is the sense of amorality in this film. Once Jeanne gets a taste of true passion, she has no compunctions about leaving her husband and child, and the film does not pass judgment on this. Decency codes of the time reportedly required that sin be punished in a movie. This story of a woman selfishly pursuing her own happiness must have furrowed many a brow. The tale reminds me somewhat of another controversial story, Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel “The Awakening,” although it’s interesting that even in Chopin’s novel, her heroine is not allowed to live happily ever after, while “The Lovers” leaves us on a hopeful note. Even today, it’s rather rare to find a story of someone finding happiness outside of socially prescribed behaviors. Think of the flawed film “American Beauty,” whose protagonist ditches his stifling job and marriage in inspiring style, but is ultimately punished for it. Most movies today are just as much promoters of societal stability as the films of the 1950’s. They mostly feature people finding someone to marry and settle down with.

It turns out if you want to see something titillating, you’ll have to rent “9 ½ Weeks.” Despite its reputation, “The Lovers” is pretty mild. It is, however, a thoughtful, sexy, beautiful movie, and Jeanne Moreau is easy to look at for 90 minutes. As for that Cleveland theater owner, his conviction was eventually thrown out by the Supreme Court. Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote about the difficulty in defining pornography, “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

3.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ghost Town (2008)

I would pretty much watch Ricky Gervais in anything. The creator and star of the British sitcom “The Office” and HBO’s “Extras” is an absolute master of the comedy of the awkward. If Gervais ever did go on “Celebrity Big Brother,” as his character did in “Extras,” I would even watch that. I say all this to explain that I came into “Ghost Town” with some pretty high expectations. That may explain why, even though it was a pretty good movie, I’m a bit let down by it.

Ricky Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist who lives a small, depressed life in New York. He can’t even muster up the courtesy to make friendly small talk with his practice partner, let alone his patients. He is completely oblivious to the people around him. Things start to change when he dies briefly during a routine colonoscopy. He wakes up with the ability to see and talk to ghosts, who seem to be everywhere in the city. The ghosts are used to being unable to communicate with the living or directly influence the living world. Once they discover that the dentist can see them, the spirits mob him with various requests. Greg Kinnear is the most persistent of the ghosts, and he convinces the dentist to keep Kinnear’s widow (Tea Leoni) from re-marrying. You can pretty much figure out the rest from there. The dentist discovers love, learns to connect with people, and “the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day.”

“Ghost Town” is like a funnier “As Good As It Gets,” with a lighter tone, tighter structure, but fewer nuances. Everybody does their job passably well. Greg Kinnear is charming and wry, Tea Leoni is sexy and adorable, and Ricky Gervais really is quite funny. My main disappointment with “Ghost Town” is that I didn’t expect Ricky Gervais to be in something so predictable and sentimental. Looked at on its merits, “Ghost Town” isn’t bad, but it is a very typical romantic comedy. It was pretty entertaining, but I can’t really imagine making an effort to watch it again.

2.5 out of 5

Friday, October 10, 2008

Cool Hand Luke (1967) *****

People talk about the ‘60s and ‘70s as a time of great anti-establishment movies, citing films like “Easy Rider” and “M.A.S.H.” Other folks reach back a decade or two to tout “Rebel Without a Cause.” Those are great movies, but for my money, the greatest film statement against authority, hands down, is “Cool Hand Luke.”

“I ain’t heard much worth listening to. Just a bunch of fellows spouting a bunch of rules and regulations.” Of all the great lines from “Cool Hand Luke,” and this movie is choc-full of them, this line best sums up this story about the struggle of man’s free spirit against stifling authority. Luke utters these words in prison, but the bosses he deals with on the chain gang are really no different than the bosses in the army, in countless jobs, or that he has faced just walking down the street. Luke’s fate in this world is sealed because he can’t resign himself to taking orders from petty men who relish having a little power over other men.

Paul Newman, in one of his greatest roles, plays Lucas Jackson, a poor, fatherless, southern boy tossed into a prison work gang for two years for the heinous crime of getting drunk and cutting the heads off parking meters. One imagines that Luke must have had some prior convictions to get such a stiff sentence, or maybe he just wasn’t remorseful enough in front of the judge. It is quickly apparent that Luke isn’t much of one for bowing and scraping in front of his so-called superiors. Luke fits in well enough at first. He says “yes, boss” and “Captain” like he’s told, keeps his head down, and does his work. That isn’t enough for the “bosses”, though, who aren’t satisfied with obedience, but also require FEALTY. He first runs afoul of the massive Dragline, a boss of sorts among the prisoners. Dragline thinks that his superior size translates to superior intelligence. He constantly subjects his fellow prisoners to his pontifications, and he doesn’t take kindly to being contradicted. Dragline challenges Luke to a fight to put him in his place, but Luke wins the fight, and alpha-male status, simply by refusing to stay down when he is clearly beaten. The scene defines Luke’s approach to life. He doesn’t have anything to fight with, but he keeps standing back up, refusing to surrender. It’s as if he has embraced having nothing to lose as the source of his strength. As he puts it after bluffing his way through a hand of poker, “Sometimes nothing is a cool hand to have.”

As Luke’s undefeated attitude and zest for life infect the whole prison, he and the boys have some great times. Things turn serious, however, when the warden unfairly punishes Luke and blatantly ignores his humanity. Luke, who had previously seemed inclined to serve out his time peacefully, embarks on a series of escapes, culminating in a confrontation with God himself. Luke begs God to “Love me, hate me, kill me, just show me something!” and his final, good-humored accusation of The Almighty, “I guess you’re a hard case, too,” is pure Luke. One imagines that if the Christian God is real and is the petty punisher that His followers make Him out to be, then Luke is down in Hell, standing up to Satan, getting up every time he is knocked down.

5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Ice Harvest

“As Wichita falls, so falls Wichita Falls.” Only those who have been to either Wichita, Kansas or Wichita Falls, Texas, or, God forbid, both places, can grasp the bleak desperation contained in that statement. It’s the kind of desperation that would drive a divorced, mildly miserable mob lawyer like Charlie (John Cusack) to steal $2 million from his boss. He and a more hardened mobster named Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) pilfer the money quietly on Christmas Eve and figure on skipping town on Christmas. (Makes sense, because they say it’s actually easier to travel on the actual holiday.) That gives them a whole night to get into trouble and blow the whole thing wide open. Charlie tries to take one last shot at his crush, titty-bar owner Renata (Connie Nielsen), but she has her own agenda. Meanwhile, it turns out the Mafia didn’t get where they are by being stupid about money, so Charlie and Vic wind up with a hit man (Mike Starr) and the top dog himself (Randy Quaid) after them. Add in an ice storm, and hilarity and some raw violence ensue.
The thing is, this is a decent flick where nothing surprising happens. It is pretty cool when a guy locked in a trunk starts blasting away with his backup gun, but you already know that is going to happen from watching the trailer. Everything else is just what you expect in this type of noir, heist movie. It’s still pretty kick-ass, thanks to the awesome cast. Cusack, Thornton, Starr, Quaid, Oliver Platt; they all make this funny, violent movie a joy to watch. My only complaint would be the casting of Connie Nielsen, who is gorgeous as hell, but is more of a two-dimensional caricature of the “femme fatale.”
“The Ice Harvest” is about bad people fighting over money, and I don’t think there is a whole lot under the surface. The only philosophical aspect is when Charlie (Cusack) relays a story about how his alcoholic crook of an uncle and his upright, reliable father died within days of each other. This fuels his existentialist view that “it doesn’t matter what you do; the end result is the same.” By the end, as Charlie shivers in the cold, Kansas wind on the side of the road, you get the sense that he is rethinking that philosophy.

3.5 out of 5

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Love Crazy (1941)

This is another William Powell/ Myrna Loy screwball comedy. It’s a light, sweet confection pretty similar in theme to that other Powell/ Loy movie we watched, “I Love You Again.” Here, Powell’s character gets caught hanging out with an old girlfriend. His wife (Loy), files for divorce, and Powell spends the movie faking insanity to forestall the divorce long enough to win her back. Hilarity ensues. Just as in the other film, Powell does lots of physical comedy, while Myrna Loy just holds herself very straight, looking beautiful and saying sensible things. There’s nothing really special about this one, and I didn’t like it quite as much as “I Love You Again.”

2.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Wall-E (2008) ****1/2

For my first movie in the theatre in about a year, I found myself listening to crying babies and watching previews for truly awful-looking kiddie movies. (One of those previews was for a movie with dancing Chihuahuas. They pronounce it really exaggerated, Chee-Wa-Wa, so you know it’s funny.) It was all worth it, though, to see “Wall-E,” the latest charming, deceptively deep animated film from Pixar.
Wall-E is a little trash-compacting robot who is one of the last “living” things left on an earth that has been devastated by trash and pollution. He is one of an army of such robots produced by the Buy-N-Large (BNL, known for their massive superstores) corporation to try to dig earth out of its trash problems. Progress apparently wasn’t fast enough, as all the humans eventually left on BNL starships, hoping to spend a few years in space while the robots made earth livable again. Seven hundred years later, Wall-E is the only ‘bot still going. Powered by a solar cell, he happily turns trash into compact little cubes that he stacks into towering ziggurats that surround and dwarf the skyscrapers of New York. It’s a slow process, but then Wall-E has all the time in the world.
As you might imagine, Wall-E is lonely. He collects interesting human artifacts and spends his evenings watching a VCR tape of “Hello, Dolly,” pining for the companionship he sees on the screen.
Meanwhile, humans have forgotten all about earth. They live a life of sloth and obesity in their starship, reclining in floating chairs while drinking “cupcake-in-a-cup.” The starship, however, automatically sends probes to earth to check for signs of returning life. When one of those probes comes to New York, Wall-E’s world is turned upside down.
There was an article recently complaining that the depiction of future humans in this film is unfair to fat people. Supposedly obesity is genetic, and “Wall-E” is guilty of propagating the “myth” that obesity is a result of sedentary overeating. I don’t know about all that. Seems to me our genes come to us from our ancestors, and as a group, they sure weren’t as fat as we are. Whatever the case, I guess these complaints are the price Pixar pays for putting some actual ideas into their films. “Wall-E’s” messages on the environment, consumerism, and yes, the wages of sloth and gluttony will doubtless raise some hackles, but that is just a testament to the quality of this film.
I, for one, liked the subtle point that the Buy-N-Large company profited at every turn. They built gargantuan superstores to sell people a lot of cheap crap that eventually wound up getting thrown out. Then they marketed the Wall-E robots to clean up the mess. When humans finally had to abandon Earth, it was BNL that supplied the spaceships. Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but BNL cashed in while the Earth was destroyed. Of course, you won’t need many guesses to pick which gigantic discount store BNL is based on. I wonder if “Wall-E” merchandise will be sold at Wal-Mart stores.
I haven’t seen all the Pixar movies, but I suspect “Wall-E” may be their best yet. The story is complex enough to keep adults interested, but kids over two years will probably love it. (In my experience, babies may be scared by a few scenes.) The animation is beautiful, and, as with other Pixar films, the characters are more expressive and real than many human actors. (Believe me, if Keanu Reeves were drawn by Pixar, he would have won an Oscar by now.) There is some talk out there that “Wall-E” should be nominated for Best Picture, not just Best Animated Picture. That may be laying it on a bit thick, but I can see where they are coming from. This is an excellent movie worthy of multiple viewings by the whole family.
4.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Waydowntown (2000)

One thing I do miss is the Sundance Film Festival. We used to go every year when we lived in Salt Lake, and even made the trek down there the first couple of years after moving to Idaho. Now we’ve got the kid, and blah, blah, blah, excuses, excuses. I still love a good independent film, though. If you don’t know what I mean by “independent,” it means movies made outside the film studio system, generally on a low budget. “Clerks” is a classic, independent film. Kevin Smith made it for peanuts, using friends and family as actors and crew when possible. Sometimes the Sundance Festival will have movies that feature some pretty big-name actors, making you wonder what the movie is doing in an “independent film” festival. Those movies usually make up for the big stars by shooting on really grainy digital video or by showing some gay sex.

“Waydowntown” is more the classic type of independent film, with actors I’ve never seen, sketchy production values, and loads of dialog (which is cheaper to shoot than action.) It’s set in the Canadian city of Calgary, where city designers have installed tunnels and overhead walkways connecting most of the downtown buildings. That means you can go from home to work to a restaurant and back without ever going outside. Brilliant! Get yourself a Nintendo Wii, and you could live a very full life without breathing fresh air ever again!

“Waydowntown” is about a foursome of young office workers who try to do just that, wagering a month’s salary on who can stay inside the longest. The story is set on Day 24, when the rough edges are really starting to show. The movie truly captures the soul-sucking nature of working in an office building. The comedic tone is a bit darker than “Office Space,” and “Waydowntown” is by no means the classic that “Office Space” is, but it’s still a nice ode to throwing off the shackles of cubicle bondage.

The scary thing about “Waydowntown” is that it might be our future. As cities get bigger and more congested, the Calgary system of enclosed walkways connecting everything might become the standard. Cities might become like airports, with security checkpoints to pass through, and once you’re inside, you’re INSIDE. I wonder what effect that will have on people. Will we need those little soundproof booths to step into and scream at the top of our lungs? What breed of hominids will evolve in such an ant farm? I believe I’d rather go out a 20th story window than find out.

4 stars

Monday, June 09, 2008

I Love You Again (1940)

After an of-its-time disappointment like “Juno”, it made sense to dip back into the archives for something timeless. This classic comedy by W.S. Van Dyke, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, proved just the thing. It’s a delightful romp filled with physical comedy and surprising innuendo.

Powell plays Larry Martin, a tea-totalling, cheapskate, Chamber of Commerce member. He suffers a blow to the head while saving a drowning man, and he wakes up with complete amnesia for the man who was Larry Martin. Instead, he has recovered his original personality, hard-partying con-man George Carey, an identity he apparently lost following a similar concussion 9 years earlier. With the help of Doc Ryan (Frank McHugh), whom he saved from drowning, Martin/Carey decides to clean out any available “Larry Martin” bank accounts before returning to his shady, big city life.

Once on land, however, Carey discovers that Martin has a lovely wife (Myrna Loy). He relishes the opportunity for a conjugal reunion, but quickly learns that Kay, bored to death with Larry Martin, has taken up with another man and is asking for a divorce. Thus, Carey returns to Martin’s home with the twin goals of swindling some money and winning the heart of his wife.

“I Love You Again” is not one of the greatest films of all time; it is just a funny, little movie that is comfortable in its own skin. The tone and pacing are just right, and the actors have a good time with it. There is plenty of slapstick, physical comedy and some word-play that is surprisingly dirty if you have a dirty mind.

The team of W.S. Van Dyke, William Powell, and Myrna Loy was apparently something of a 30’s and 40’s staple. Powell and Loy formed a Hollywood pair on the level of Bogart and Bacall, though they were a couple on screen only. Perhaps their most famous work was in the prolific “Thin Man” series. The pair was known for excellent chemistry and banter, all of which is on display in “I Love You Again.”

4 stars

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Juno (2007)

If you haven’t seen “Juno” yet, you must be living under an even bigger rock than I am. It’s this year’s Little Miss Greek Wedding. “The little movie that could.” “Refreshing!” Surely you’ve heard the unbridled love-fest surrounding “Juno.” What it all boils down to is that a film with a small budget actually managed to find an audience. It happens at least every year or two, but somehow it always feels like the first time.

Once everybody got over the initial rush over this spunky, clever little film and it’s spunky, clever writer Diablo Cody (Isn’t that a spunky, clever name?), we all had to figure out which side of the “Juno” divide we were on. No sooner had people started to see and love the film than a “Juno” backlash started. Now, you either love it or hate it. You are either with “Juno” or with the terrorists. Myself, I went back and forth over it for a few months, loving it, then hating it, and then loving it again. I finally decided I would never be able to stop waffling unless I actually watched it.

The story is fairly straightforward. The title character, a teenaged girl named Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), does the nasty with her best male friend, track nerd Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). A few weeks later she is guzzling fruit punch to provide material for about a dozen home pregnancy tests. (Which, by the way, is what just about every mother I know has done upon getting pregnant. Isn’t one test enough? Maybe two. It’s like, “You had sex; your period’s late, and the line is pink. How much more evidence do you need?!”) She bails out on her initial plan to “nip it in the bud,” and opts for adoption. Juno thinks she has found the perfect parents in yuppies Mark and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), but…wait for it…it turns out they have some growing up of their own to do. See, you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you, just like you will know everything that is going to happen in “Juno” within about ten minutes of the opening credits. The plot is that shopworn and trite, and I find it amazing that writer Diablo Cody is such the toast of Hollywood based on this.

There is a German word, Witzelsucht, that refers to excessive attempts at humor. “Juno” is guilty of HipundCleversucht. Don’t get me wrong; there are some funny lines and catchphrases in the film; I love the term “up the spout” for pregnant. In too many scenes, though, the script is trying too hard to “crackle,” and it’s obvious the actors are reciting lines.

Many “Juno” fans aren’t even paying attention to all that, though, because they are so busy looking for the “reproductive issues” message. It’s hilarious how everyone has tried to claim this movie as a victory for their side. Right-to-Lifers celebrate Juno’s choice of adoption over abortion. Pro-Choicers celebrate the fact that she has a choice at all. Meanwhile, feminists can’t shut up about how great it is that someone made a movie about a girl. The real genius of Diablo Cody is not her screenwriting, but her marksmanship. She has managed to hit some previously unknown political sweet spot that makes all sides of the reproduction/gender issue love her film on some level, while maintaining the original political divisions.

What saves “Juno” as a movie is the acting. Page, Cera, Bateman, Garner, J.K. Simmons (as Juno’s dad), and Allison Janney (the stepmom) all deserve honors for taking this little movie up a notch. They make the movie fun and human enough that I would have to recommend the film despite my “Juno” cynicism. Ignore the hype; go into it expecting a fun, small movie, and you’ll probably have a good time.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

In case you haven’t picked up on this, most of the movies I watch come from Netflix. It’s an online DVD rental service that charges a set monthly price for which you get to have a certain number of movies checked out at any time. You keep a movie as long as you want, and when you send it back, they just send you the next movie on your list. The cool thing is that instead of wandering aimlessly through the New Releases section of the video store like I did in the old days, I get to build this list, called the queue, at my convenience. Whenever I hear or read about a good movie, I can get online and add it to the queue. The downside is that my wife and I have a pretty long queue, so a movie I add today may not get here for months.

That’s what happened with “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” and by the time it arrived, I couldn’t remember why it was on the queue. I’m sure I read about it somewhere, or maybe Netflix recommended it for us. Anyway, sometimes we have to just trust our past decisions, so we popped it in. Turns out it’s not bad. A bit melodramatic, but worth watching. Clearly it was on my queue because it’s a noir, which I dig, and because it is noteworthy for being Kirk Douglas’s first film.

The story is of a love triangle, formed by young Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) and the two boys who love her. Sam Masterson is a tough, confident boy from the wrong side of the tracks who tries to help Martha escape from the gilded cage of her rich aunt’s mansion, and whom Martha loves. Walter O’Neil is the bespectacled son of Martha’s ambitious tutor. When Martha accidentally kills her shrew of an aunt, Walter and his dad help her hide it, while Sam skips town.

The story then skips ahead twenty years, and at this point you are likely thinking that Kirk Douglas must play the grown-up version of the cool, poor kid, right? Wrong, buddy! He plays Walter, a weak, hollow soul who won Martha’s hand as the price for helping conceal her crime, but who now lives a pathetic, henpecked life in the knowledge that his wife doesn’t love him. Martha, meanwhile, has inherited her aunt’s fortune and used her own intelligence and will to multiply it, but she is tortured by her contempt for her drunk of a mate. Into this circus of domestic bliss walks Sam (Van Heflin), back in town after all those years, and genuinely just interested in looking up his old playmates. Walter and Martha, however, weighed down as they are by all their lies, assume Sam is in town to blackmail them with the truth about Martha’s aunt, steal Martha away, or both. The guilty flee when no man pursues, and thus Sam and Martha are drawn down into the darkness.

Besides having a really lame name, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” suffers from some Old Movie maladies. In the first part of the film, all the kids talk in those high-pitched movie-kid voices that they had in all those old films. That drives me nuts. The adults in that first segment are also painfully melodramatic. Once the film skips ahead, and the main actors show up, things get better, but the movie never completely shakes off the aura of melodrama. Lizabeth Scott plays a down-on-her-luck girl and love interest for Sam, and she isn’t that great. She is known as the poor-man’s Lauren Bacall, and she does look remarkably like Bacall, but if a poor man had just a few bucks, he would do better to spring for Bacall herself.

Other than that, the film has some pretty decent performances. Barbara Stanwyck keeps you guessing as to whether she is a victim or a manipulative sociopath. Van Heflin offers a charming performance as well. Kirk Douglas, however, gets the prize for this movie. His portrayal of Walter the henpecked drunkard is astoundingly nuanced; it’s worth watching the film just for him. His career was definitely going somewhere after this first movie.

Finally, I want to point out something about “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” that I have noticed in other movies made during and after WWII. That was a period when many women had gone to work because of so many men being overseas, and there was some societal duplicity about what the role of women was going to be. On the one hand, “Rosie the Riveter” signs exhorted women to work to help the war effort. On the other, I think many folks were very concerned that it should be clear that once the war was over, those women would give up their jobs to returning men and pursue the traditional female goals of marriage and family. Many movies I have seen from that era seem to be about strong, smart women who make a career on their own, then ultimately meet some terrible fate. In “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” the fate of Martha the capable industrialist is contrasted with that of Toni (Lizabeth Scott), a sweet, unambitious girl who puts her faith in a man. I suspect that Hollywood produced stories like this because they subtly promoted the traditional gender roles that an anxious America longed for.

There’s no need to break your leg rushing to rent “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” but it is worth watching if you get a chance.

3 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Once (2007)

Folks say that the Irish respect feeling more than thinking, that they are known for leading with their hearts. Watching the charming Irish film “Once” made me think there may be something to that. The songs of love and heartbreak in this film are full of complex emotion, but they never feel overly sentimental because the emotions flow so naturally from these characters.

“Once” is the story of a couple of unnamed musicians: an Irish lad (Glen Hansard) and an immigrant lass (Marketa Irglova) from some Eastern European country. The girl is impressed by the guy’s sidewalk guitar performances and plays piano for him at the music shop where she gets to play during lunchtime every day. Rather than hopping straight into bed as you might expect, they channel their chemistry to write songs together. These haunting ballads of longing and loss help them each heal their own broken heart. The songs were written by the two actors Hansard and Irglova, and one of them (“Falling Slowly”) won the Oscar for Best Original Song in a Movie. Not bad.

“Once” is not a strict musical because the actors do talk in between songs, but a lot of the story is in the music. Hansard sings about how his girlfriend’s cheating causes him to look back on all their times together with a more cynical eye, which leaves him grieving not only her loss but the loss of those good memories. Irglova sings one about how marrying and having a child young left her feeling lonely in a marriage to a man who didn’t seem to understand her. Normally this kind of emotional content would have me snoozing, but something about these songs made me care.

Audiences weaned on pop princesses and movies where the guy is guaranteed to get the girl may find “Once” hard to get into. For anyone who enjoys subtlety in music and film, this movie is a real treat.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Namesake (2006)

Quick, name a famous actor from India. Even one of Indian descent. Still thinking? Me too. My guess is that that is why Mira Nair recruited Kal Penn (Kumar from “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”) to star in the screen incarnation of the book, “The Namesake.” Maybe star isn’t the right word; sulk is more like it. Penn may have lent this film the benefit of a semi-recognizable lead, but his wooden-Indian performance sucks the life out of the story. That leaves Indian actors Irfan Khan and Tabu to do the actual acting. They do so with the grace of true professionals, but even their nuanced performances can’t justify this drag of a film.

It won’t take long to outline the plot of “The Namesake,” since there is almost no story here at all. The film follows the lives of Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) Ganguli, a couple of Bengali Indians who immigrate to New York. They have a couple of kids, buy a house in the suburbs, and struggle with being outsiders in America and missing their families in India. Their kids Gogol (Kal Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair) are American-born and typically American, but they finally come to accept their East Indian heritage. There, I just ruined the plot for you, because that is basically all that happens. There is some nonsense built up about how Gogol is named for his dad’s favorite Russian author (thus the title of the film), but when they finally reveal why the name is so important to Ashoke, it is quite anticlimactic.

This is the kind of movie that critics love, and audiences hate. Critics will describe “The Namesake” as being “a heartfelt tale of alienation and loss,” or “the truest story yet about the immigrant experience.” The problem is that as far as I am concerned there is no tale or story here. I would have settled even for some painfully naturalistic tale of woe. Instead this film just follows for a few decades the very straightforward lives of an immigrant family. The politically correct thing would be to laud this as a great artistic achievement, but the truth is that I was bored to tears. This movie seems to think it is the first to cover this ground. Here are some examples of supposedly watershed moments from “The Namesake”: Gogol’s aunt tells him to go to college and have all the fun he wants, but marry an Indian girl. Gogol has always ignored his Indian heritage, but when there is a family crisis, he learns to embrace it. Ashima and Ashoke aren’t sure what to do with themselves once their kids are out of the house. This self-congratulatory little film presents this stuff as if we have never seen it before.

If “The Namesake” sounds like your idea of a good way to spend two hours, then have at it. Just don’t come crying to me.

1 star.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas) 2000 ****1/2

Fans of “long con” movies like “The Grifters” and “The Sting” will appreciate “Nine Queens” as a respectful, perfectly crafted version of the classic theme. Those less versed in the con game will delight in the plot twists, getting treated to the taut filmmaking style of late Argentinean director Fabian Bielinsky and superb performances by stars Ricardo Darin and Gaston Pauls.
Have you ever wondered how easy it would be to con a few bucks out of a stranger? Juan (Gaston Pauls) and Marcos (Ricardo Darin) make their living out of small con jobs, cheating store clerks and old ladies out of 20, 40, or a hundred bucks. The two meet up, and the more experienced Marcos takes Juan under his wing, suggesting they merge their talents. Together they pound the pavements of Buenos Aires, working harder and making less per hour than most folks with real jobs. They are low-lifes with low aspirations, and one is led to wonder why they expend so much energy and take such risks for such small amounts. The answer, of course, is that it isn’t about the money. They do it for the thrill of putting on a little show, fooling someone else, and getting away with it.
“Nine Queens” takes its first big turn when these small timers get a shot at something big. A call from an old acquaintance of Marcos’s puts them in a position to make hundreds of thousands of dollars selling a set of counterfeit stamps called the Nine Queens to a collector. The question, as in all these grift movies, is “Who is really getting conned?”
I won’t ruin any more of the plot except to say that the payoff at the end is truly a class act. I must also take a moment to praise the outstanding acting of Darin and Pauls. Forgive me if I start to sound all giddy, but these guys are amazing! I first saw Ricardo Darin in “The Aura”, and the difference between his semi-autistic character in that film and his charmer in “Nine Queens” is a testament to Darin’s range. I think it would be fair to compare him to someone like Tom Hanks, and it is easy to see why he is a huge star in Argentina. Gaston Pauls also gives a superb performance in “Nine Queens” as a con-man hobbled by a conscience.
Writer/Director Bielensky keeps the action moving at a taut pace. As they say in the movie theatres, “Eight bucks gets you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!” I have to say again, as I did in my review of Bielensky’s “The Aura,” what a shame it is for the art that this filmmaker died after making only two films. Were he still making movies, I think he would have become a brand name in the world of Spanish-language cinema on the order of Pedro Almodovar. As for “Nine Queens,” the film has been adapted into an Americanized version called “Criminal,” starring John C. Reilly. I haven’t seen it, and I haven’t yet decided whether to check it out. Maybe I’ll just get my own copy of “Nine Queens” instead.
4.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 05, 2008

300 (2006)

If you managed not to be part of the stampede to the cinema to see this, don’t think you are home-free yet. Sooner or later your friends will pressure you to watch it on DVD. Eventually you will probably forget about all the bad reviews this movie got and cave in to the peer pressure. That’s what I did. Am I happy about it? Meh. I can’t say that I want to sue to get my two hours back, but my time would probably have been better spent re-watching “Gladiator.”

The first thing everyone will want you to know is that “300” is based on a true story. That is the case to some extent. This story does come down to us from the ancient Greeks. How much the story was embellished by the Greek historian Herodotus is anyone’s guess. Three hundred Spartan soldiers and a thousand or so other Greeks, led by the Spartan King Leonidas, supposedly held a mountain pass against a truly massive Persian army, killing thousands of the enemy before they were finally surrounded and overwhelmed. Many of the Greek forces retreated or surrendered, but the Spartans fought to the last. Theirs is truly one of the great stories of all time.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that “300” fully succeeds in giving this story the telling it deserves. I don’t deny that it is entertaining, but there are some fatal flaws. First is the abysmal voice-over narration. Voice-over works for some films (“Fight Club,” for example), but the narration in “300” is painfully pretentious and ponderous. They should have used narration to fill in the historical context where necessary and just let the action speak for itself. Another major problem is that the exclusive use of CGI for backgrounds and extras may have saved money, but it gives the film a 2-dimensional, claustrophobic feel. This is an epic story; the film should feel EPIC. Instead it looks like a movie made from a play. (In fact, this film is based on a Frank Miller graphic novel.)

I won’t harp too much on the acting. The soldiers don’t really act so much as flex their well-oiled muscles, but hell, it’s an action movie. We’ll give ‘em a pass. I expected more, and got less, from the non-combatants. As sleazy Spartan politician Theron, Dominic West OOZES smarm, and that’s all he does. As Queen Gorgo, Lena Headey does little more than clench her jaw and look really good in various filmy, Greek outfits. I will say she looks really good naked, getting pounded by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler.) The Persian Emperor Xerxes should have been the juiciest small role in “300,” but Rodrigo Santoro plays him as a pissy, S&M queen.

Many will give director Zach Snyder credit for making what turned out to be something of a blockbuster movie on a $60 million budget. I would suggest that in this case a bigger budget and a different approach might have resulted in a much better movie. The film is supposedly a frame-by-frame reproduction of the graphic novel by Frank Miller, and its great failing is that it never breaks free of those 2-dimensional origins. This approach worked for Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City,” but a war epic like “300” needs some real panoramas and on-location shots to make it pop. I happen to like comics and graphic novels; if I want to read a comic book, then I’ll just read one.

Ultimately, the best thing about the movie “300” is that it gave comedienne Sarah Silverman the chance to make this joke about how the movie got its name. “They rated how gay it is on a scale of 1 to 10.”

2 stars