Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Proposal (2009)

This piece of fluff is about a bossy book publisher (Sandra Bullock) who gets her assistant (Ryan Reynolds) to marry her in order to avoid being deported to Canada. Hilarious, right? Not really. The problem isn’t that this ground was covered quite well in the 1990 film “Green Card,” starring Gerard Depardieu and Andy MacDowell. Movies borrow from older movies all the time. The problem is that “The Proposal” seems to have taken a long, hard look at the classic “Green Card,” and just given up, turning to a hackneyed story line full of romantic-comedy clichés and lacking in any real humor. The result is a film full of good actors (including Betty White) who have absolutely nothing funny to do or say.

The plot, such as it is, is that the Sandra Bullock character, Margaret, violates her visa and, facing exile in Canada and loss of her job, bullies her assistant, Andrew, into agreeing to marry her. To prove to the INS agent how in love they are, they travel to Andy’s home in Sitka, Alaska, making this one of those fish-out-of-water movies. Ho, ho, ho, you are probably chortling, in anticipation of all the rich humor to be mined from a New York city slicker visiting Alaska. The TV show “Northern Exposure” certainly proved that there is some fun to be had with the concept. “The Proposal” manages to have almost no fun with it whatsoever. In one scene, the women in Andy’s family take Margaret to see a stripper, generating one of the only funny lines in the movie. “Ramone is the only exotic dancer on the island. We’re really lucky to have him!” This scene ought to be the height of physical comedy, but none of the actors seems to be able to summon the energy to make it work. I would swear that Sandra Bullock’s slightly bored, disgusted expression as Ramone (The Office’s Oscar Nunez) gyrates around her represents not her character’s reaction to Ramone, but the actress’s reaction to this lame movie.

Come to think of it, everyone in this film seems slightly bored, as if they are just waiting for the movie to work its way through all the clichés and be over. In that sense, this is a film where the audience can truly identify with the actors.

1 star

Saturday, November 28, 2009

An Education (2009) ****

It’s autumn again, the season for good movies. No more lame, big-budget video game movies or rom-com re-treads. From now to the New Year, we are guaranteed some worthwhile movies, big and small. “An Education” is one of the small ones, and very charming. The movie is taken from the memoirs of journalist Lynn Barber, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”.) In the movie, Barber’s name is changed to Jenny, a brilliant 16-year-old who is secretly bored to tears with being a straight-A student at her all-girls school. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) seems like she isn’t even fully aware how bored she is until a flirtatious older man named David (Peter Saarsgard) introduces her to the possibilities of life in the big city. Inexplicably, Jenny’s parents allow David to court her quite inappropriately, until she figures out that there is more to David than meets the eye, most of it unsavory. What did she expect, you might wonder, of a grown man who picks up a high-school girl?

The first big question raised by this story is framed pretty well by Jenny in her tearful challenge to her parents, “Young girls are always getting seduced by older men, but what were you two thinking?” Indeed, Jenny’s parents are so ridiculously impressed by David’s good looks, fine clothes, fancy car, and fictitious Oxford education that he manipulates them even more easily than he does Jenny. I think this is partly because Jenny’s family is so nouveau bourgeois. Having managed some middle-class success, they aspire to more for their daughter, but they aren’t completely clear on what they are hoping for, or exactly why. They put her in a good school and push her to excel and aspire to Oxford, but when they are presented with a seemingly simpler prize in the form of David, who presents himself as a successful, young(ish) man who could take good care of their daughter, these parents turn out to have pretty provincial priorities.

This brings up the major theme of the film, which is, “What is the purpose of an education?” Jenny’s parents were seemingly going through the motions in encouraging her to go to college. At the end of the day, their main goal seems to have been to put her in a position to meet the right sort of fellow. While her parents are busy offering her up like a lamb to a wolf, Jenny herself seriously questions the value of a college degree in a world where the only career option for a woman seems to be teaching. There’s nothing wrong with teaching, of course, but if that is literally the only post that an educated woman can aspire to, then the whole process does seem a little bleak.

I am making it sound like the movie is a downer, but “An Education” is actually much more comedy than tragedy, with wit in even the most serious scenes. Carey Mulligan, who has the most charming face, is quite convincing as a schoolgirl; and Peter Saarsgard’s David is genuinely charming enough to pull off the seduction. Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour are cheerfully clueless as the parents, and I’ll be damned if Cara Seymour doesn’t look like she could actually be Carey Mulligan’s mother, matching dimples and all.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Away We Go (2009)

This was a movie my wife read about. I went in with basically no expectations, which probably wound up making it more enjoyable. “Away We Go” is directed by Sam Mendes, director of “American Beauty,” which I consider to be a crappy film with really good direction and some good acting, so I didn’t know what to expect.

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play a couple with a bun 6 months in the oven. She is an orphan, and his parents decide to move to Belgium right before the baby is due. Since they both work from home, they find themselves suddenly without any reason to continue living in their crappy trailer in a place they hate. They hit the road to visit friends and family in a few locations across the continent, in hopes of finding a better place to start over and raise their child. They start out thinking that their life is really kind of screwed up, but along the way they come to realize how lucky they really are, and blah, blah, blah. The premise is really a bit trite, but somehow “Away We Go” transcends the sentimentality to be a genuinely funny, entertaining little film. Krasinki and Rudolph turn in very likable, genuine performances, and Catherine O’Hara, Allison Janney, and Maggie Gyllenhaal bring the funny with some hilariously over-the-top craziness in small roles.

“Away We Go” plays like a Sundance movie, and it mostly works because it doesn’t overreach, which is a surprise coming from the guy who directed the intense “Road to Perdition“ and the too-big-for-its-britches “American Beauty.” I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to see “Away We Go,” but it’s a funny, entertaining little film that will make you smile.

2.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Religulous (2008)

You know the traditional prohibition against discussing politics and religion in polite company? The wisdom of that rule is demonstrated by the movie “Religulous,” a movie so polarizing it makes “Fahrenheit 9/11” look like a nature documentary. I’m not sure what the original purpose of this documentary by Bill Maher was, but the finished product is pretty much a one-man screed against all religion, everywhere.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some fun to be had here, even if some of it is mean-spirited. Basically, Maher interviews a series of religious people of different faiths, asking them the pointed, full-frontal questions that the rest of us have long wanted to ask them. “How can you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?” “How can you believe that the earth is only 5,000 years old?” “How can you claim to espouse love while preaching hatred of gays?” He doesn’t just go after Christians. Muslims get their fair share, including an interview with a radical Islamic English rapper who is terrorism‘s answer to gangsta rap. Maher asks him, “How can you expect people to tolerate your lyrics when you and other Muslims can’t be tolerant of someone like Salman Rushdie?” Scientologists and Mormons get some attention as well. Even though most religious people will find something to hate in this film, they will find a lot to love as well, since Maher makes fun of all the other religions, too. There is genuine vicarious pleasure in seeing these questions posed so bluntly, but many of Maher’s interviewees simply aren’t up to the intellectual task of defending their beliefs. Most (not all) of them are in positions of religious leadership, so I really shouldn’t feel sorry for them, but still, the effect is sometimes like watching bunnies get stomped. Maher concludes with a no-holds-barred manifesto in which he openly declares that religion is the source of great evil and that mankind will not progress or survive unless we put aside this relic of our superstitious past.

Even as I often cringed at the blunt, heavy-handed interviews, I had to admire, just a little, the sheer balls of this popular entertainer coming out and saying, without mincing words, that he thinks religion is crap, and that mankind would be better off without it. The thing is, Maher’s message lacks maturity. He has chutzpah and is often funny, but at the end of the day, he has something of the feel of a newly agnostic college sophomore. It is childish to lay so much blame at the feet of faith. From what I can tell, humans managed to slaughter and enslave each other before the advent of modern religions. Granted, it is easy to lose sight of that when what we see of religion is mostly protesters screaming obscenities at gay people, intellectual midgets trying to dumb down science texts, and suicide bombers murdering children. At the end of the day, though, I think that these are failings of human nature, and that religion is sometimes just a convenient outlet for our darker side. Just as much evil has been done in the name of a charismatic leader (Hitler) or a political ideal (Communism) as has been done in the name of God.

I am torn as to whether or not to recommend “Religulous” for mass viewing. It’s a no-brainer that the skeptics out there will enjoy this. I truly think that the film could be thought-provoking for religious folks as well, but you need to go into it knowing that if you are a member of any fundamentalist creed, this film will say things that disrespect what you believe in. If you cannot tolerate that, then stay away. While the movie may not be for everyone, I think the final message of “Religulous” is something everyone needs to hear: “The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong.”

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Reader (2008)

Every year, five (soon to be ten) movies are nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and I always think I should try to see them. The problem is that so many of them look really unappealing. These nominees tend to be more than just art films (I LIKE art films.); they are Big Subject movies, and they tend to be preachy. These movies are about Race, Greed, Evil Republicans, or America’s Obsession with Violence. Then there’s the recurring favorite topic: The Holocaust. How many more movies about the Holocaust are we going to be subjected to? Well, I can’t believe I’m doing it, but I am here to recommend that you watch one more.

The Best Picture nominees for 2008 were “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Milk,” “Frost/Nixon,” and “The Reader.” I watched and liked the first two, and I’d be up for watching the second two on the list. As for “The Reader,” I had zero interest in watching, and I just got sucked into it because I truly had nothing better to do. It turns out the movie is way, way better than I expected!

“The Reader” tells the story of a young man, Michael (played young by David Kross and older by Ralph Fiennes), who, at the age of 15, has an affair with an older woman, Hanna (Kate Winslet.) They have some hot times, but Hanna has something of a wall around her, and seems to carry a deep sadness and loneliness. The two manage to make something of an emotional connection, however, and in a moment of playfulness, Hanna gets Michael to read one of his books to her. Soon they are working their way through Michael’s library, Hanna listening rapt as he reads the classics to her.

When Hanna abruptly vanishes from his life, Michael is, of course, devastated. A few years later, as a law student, Michael re-discovers Hanna when she is brought to trial for, of all things, having been a Nazi concentration camp guard. Michael’s handling of the situation as a young man and years later, when he forces himself to re-visit the issue, makes an amazing and heartbreaking story.

The reason I was able to get into yet another Holocaust movie is that “The Reader” is only peripherally about The Holocaust. It is really about the thorny issue of how modern Germany deals with the guilt of the Nazi era. As the last of those who lived through that time die off, this will become less and less of an issue, but for recent history it must have been quite an elephant in the room for Germans. Meanwhile, knowing this history doesn’t seem to stop people in the rest of the world from repeating it. It seems that 20, 30, or 40 years down the line we are always going to be dealing with this thorny question of how to pass modern-day judgments on past crimes.

Caught smack in the midst of this question is Hanna. “The Reader” does not excuse Hanna for her crimes, but it carefully raises the question of how much of her trial is just scapegoating. If almost all Germans knew something of what went on in the camps, and if most kept silent, and many approved, then how much of that guilt belongs to any one camp guard? This film doesn’t answer the question any more than I could, but it does a good job making us aware that the question exists.

None of this necessarily sounds like good entertainment, but somehow “The Reader” kept me on the edge of my seat. Hanna’s situation and Michael’s journey as he reaches out to her are somehow transfixing. This is the kind of movie that people tell you you should see, and you know what? You really should see it!

4.5 stars

Monday, August 03, 2009

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Everyone thinks that the best makeup job of 2008 was transforming Robert Downey, Jr. into a black guy in “Tropic Thunder,” and I have to admit that the effect is impressive. Honorable Mention, however, has to go to whomever turned Tom Cruise into the slightly bloated, bald, foul-mouthed movie producer Les Grossman. The movie was halfway over before I realized that was Tom Cruise. Maybe it’s just that I couldn’t see well through all the tears of laughter. “Tropic Thunder” is hilarious from the first shot, and your face WILL hurt from laughing by the end.

The movie is about the attempt to make a movie called “Tropic Thunder,” an effects-driven, blood-soaked cliché of a Vietnam movie. The would-be drama features an ensemble of self-absorbed actors: fading action star Tug Speedman (Ben Stiller), fart-joke comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon Jackson), unknown Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), and serious method-actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr. in incredibly convincing blackface.) The production is plagued with accidents and budget overruns, Apocalypse-Now-style, partly because of the diva behavior of its stars. Desperate to make a realistic movie, the director decides to plant his actors deep in the jungle with nothing but a map and blank-firing weapons, and film them guerilla-style. Unfortunately, the jungle is full of actual guerillas, heroin producers who add a great deal of realism to the experience.

Robert Downey, Jr. can’t possibly get enough credit for this role, playing Kirk Lazarus, a white guy who undergoes “a controversial skin-darkening procedure” in order to play a black character. He starts out extremely convincing, but the more he is ridiculed and challenged by Alpa Chino (actually black), the thinner his charade grows, until finally he is reduced to quoting the Jefferson’s theme song (“Movin’ on Up”) as a source of wisdom. He stubbornly stays in character even when it becomes apparent that they are no longer filming a movie and just need to get out of the jungle alive. As Lazarus puts it, “I don’t break character until the DVD commentary is done.” This was obviously a risky career move for Downey. I don’t think anyone has worn blackface since 1986, when C. Thomas Howell darkened up to get a Harvard scholarship in “Soul Man.” Downey plays the whole thing perfectly, giving Kirk Lazarus just enough of the ridiculous.

Speaking of ridiculous, Ben Stiller’s Tug is pitch-perfect as well. He is a Vin Diesel-esque action star with a fading franchise and a misplaced desire to be a serious actor. He wants to adopt a southeast Asian orphan, but says “It seems like all the good ones are taken.”

The best way to sum up “Tropic Thunder” is Over-The-Top, but in this case I mean that in a good way. The film starts out with a gargantuan level of hilarity and manages to maintain that level to the hilarious end. I strongly recommend it, and I strongly recommend emptying your bladder before watching.

4.5 stars

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pineapple Express (2008)

The Judd Apatow universe continues to grow and change. In the beginning, everything was written and directed by Judd Apatow (“The 40 Year Old Virgin”, “Knocked Up”) More and more now, the actors that Apatow has used repeatedly in his TV shows and films are taking over the creative role in Apatow Productions. The results are sometimes brilliant, as with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” written by star Jason Segel. Other efforts, like “Superbad,” have been mostly great, definitely hilarious, but not quite at genius level. “Pineapple Express” fits into the second group. The toker bromance features Seth Rogen as a pothead process server and James Franco as his pot dealer. When Rogen’s character witnesses a drug murder, the two go on the run from the guilty drug lord and a crooked cop. Hilarity and some seriously violent action ensue.

I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like this film. There is some truly funny stuff here. I did find, however, that the movie had something of an odd tone. It’s clearly a comedy, and a farce at that, yet the mood turns quite dark at times. There are some scenes of brutal violence that seemed a bit off. Also, I did get tired of the man-love, crying buddies stuff. I don’t know why, but this seems to be a motif of Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg. These guys wrote “Superbad,” another funny movie slightly tainted by scenes of two guys hugging each other and promising to be best friends forever.

This is still a 90% hilarious film. Manage your expectations appropriately, and you are bound to have a good time with it.

3.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Up (2009) ****

Pixar just keeps knocking them out of the park. The animation powerhouse’s latest offering, “Up,” may not be quite as much of a kid-pleaser as “Monsters, Inc.” or “Wall-E,” but it sets a new benchmark in the world of animation for quality storytelling.

Ed Asner is at his grumpy best giving voice to Carl, an elderly man who, after losing his wife, decides to belatedly pursue their shared dream of exploring the hidden wilds of South America. He launches his entire house into flight with hundreds of hot air balloons, but once aloft, he discovers Russell, an eight-year-old stowaway. The two have a fantastic adventure that leads to a great friendship and opens Carl’s eyes to the possibilities that still await him.

The whole thing sounds like it could be trite, but Pixar pulls it off. The difference between genuine emotional content and nauseating sentimentality is usually in the execution, and “Up” tells this story with subtlety and grace. Asner is the perfect voice actor for this role; he never uses words where an expressive grunt will do. There is also a heartbreaking, dialog-free montage showing Carl and his love Ellie getting married and living out their lives together that is just stunning. The sequence puts to shame just about anything I have seen in an animated film.

“Up” is also action-packed, admittedly with some poetic license taken in the physics department. Some of the action was too intense, in fact, for my three-year-old daughter. I’m glad I didn’t know that ahead of time, though. I might have missed one of the best movies of the year.

4 stars out of 5

Thursday, July 16, 2009

There Will Be Blood (2007)

You would think that an Academy Award or two would be some kind of guarantee that a film has at least some degree of entertainment value. Obviously, Oscar doesn’t always get it right, but even “Crash,” which everyone now agrees should not have won Best Picture, had something going for it. “There Will Be Blood” won Oscars for Cinematography and Best Actor, and for a while everyone was talking about the “milkshake” line at the end. I finally decided to see what the fuss was about. For such an esteemed film, “There Will Be Blood” is the biggest waste of 2 ½ hours I have encountered.

Daniel Day-Lewis won his Oscar as Daniel Plainview, a hard-rock silver prospector who strikes oil and works his way up through the oil business to become a tycoon. He takes no joy in anything save grasping for more, and once he has achieved all he can, he is swallowed up by his deep hatred for himself and others. He makes stumbling efforts, through the years, to be a loving father to his adopted son, but it seems that the part of the brain that allows most people to love is, in Plainview’s skull, given over to scheming and drilling.

I’m not here to argue that either of the Oscars that this film won was undeserved. The cinematography really is stunning, and Daniel Day-Lewis is as brilliant as always (although it has been pointed out that his character bears a strong resemblance to Victor Newman from “The Young and the Restless.”) I just feel that all that talent was wasted on a mean, pointless story about a mean, bitter man. The movie is based on the book “Oil,” by Upton Sinclair. Doubtless the book is another of Sinclair’s screeds against capitalist excess, but the film is only loosely based on it, and focuses more on the personality of Daniel Plainview. Such a bitter story does not bear telling.

As for that “milkshake” line, I’m going to save you 2 ½ hours. It’s simply a metaphor for how you can drain the oil under one plot of land by drilling and pumping oil from adjoining land. Plainview explains, “If you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw that goes all the way across the room to you, I drink your milkshake. I drink it up!” The analogy is borrowed from a 1920’s speech by New Mexico Senator Albert Falls.

1 star.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

Somehow I had the impression that this movie was a lot cooler than it actually is. I can’t say exactly what I was expecting. Maybe some sort of epic, “Dazed and Confused” kind of music extravaganza with a talkie, Whit Stillman influence. “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” does have some of those elements, but it is really more of a sweet, funny, but typical coming-of-age teen romance. Having said that, it’s a good movie as long as one’s expectations are appropriate.

Michael Cera (Nick) and Kat Dennings (Norah) are appropriately adorable as a couple of smart, hip teens who spend a night in New York City looking for an underground rock show and wind up finding love. At first I was put off by the unlikelihood of a high-schooler who looks like Michael Cera having dated one gorgeous girl (Alexis Dziena, as Nick’s ex-girl Tris ) and then hooking up with a babe like Kat Dennings, but it turns out that Nick plays in a band, so it makes more sense. (Note to teenage guys: Get into a band; seriously.) Nick is still hung up on that ex-girlfriend, who is frenemies with Norah. For her part, Norah feels she knows Nick a little from listening to the mix-cds he made for Tris. Norah is a stone fox, but she hangs out with pretty, shallow blondes, so she lacks confidence. It takes the pair all of a night out in NYC to work through all this.

From this movie and from a few snippets of “Gossip Girl,” I gather that New York City is full of orphans. (Actually, Nick and Norah seem to be from New Jersey. No parents there, either, apparently.) Call me sheltered if you will, but when I was a high-school senior I didn’t get to hop into a van with a couple of gay guys to go spend all night in a big city. I’m just sayin’. It’s fun watching these teens run around NYC having adventures with their friends and bandmates, but it‘s hard to identify.

Given this is a movie about people getting together over their shared musical taste, I was disappointed that “Nick and Norah” wasn’t more about the music. The soundtrack is full of cool, quirky, indy music, but it all just fades into the background of beautiful, funky people enjoying the beautiful, funky city. Compared to films like “Dazed and Confused” and “Empire Records,” “Nick and Norah” let me down in the music department.

Michael Cera is in no danger of losing his status as my go-to guy for smart comedy. The guy is really an amazing actor. He almost always has the same, blank expression on his face, but with just minute changes he is able to express volumes. I loved Kat Dennings in “The 40-year-old Virgin” and she acquits herself well here, showing that she can carry a leading role. Kudos also go to Ari Graynor, who plays a drunk girl perfectly and has a nice ass.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek hit television screens in 1966. Forty-three years later, it still isn’t safe to go down to a planet’s surface wearing red. The eleventh and latest movie based on the franchise hit theaters in May, and while it isn’t the best of the bunch (Objectively, that honor goes to Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.), it definitely isn’t the worst.

When I first heard that a Star Trek film depicting younger versions of Kirk, Spock, and crew was in the works, I groaned. The idea smacked of those lame attempts to revamp dying Saturday morning cartoons by making a series about baby versions of the characters. On the other hand, I’m always prepared to give Star Trek the benefit of the doubt. When I saw the trailer for the new film several months ago, I knew I would be giving this one a chance.

The story surrounds a malignant Romulan who travels back in time to threaten the very origins of the Star Trek universe. Sound familiar? Star Trek: First Contact had a similar theme, only that time it was Borg going back in time to prevent contact between humans and vulcans. This time, a rogue Romulan named Nero passes through a worm-hole seeking revenge against the aged Ambassador Spock. He goes back a hundred years or so and encounters Jim Kirk’s father and expecting mother. Twenty-five years later, a brash, rebellious, young James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) accepts a dare to join Starfleet, where he meets other good-looking young people like Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and, well, you get the idea. Kirk is still a cadet when everybody gets called up to help out with a disaster on the planet Vulcan. It turns out Nero is still wandering the galaxy with, you guessed it, a Diabolical Plan.

Tinkering with the origins of the beloved Enterprise crew is risky business, indeed, given the fans’ obsession with parsing every detail of this franchise. That’s where the genius of this film comes in. Kirk’s dad is killed in the initial battle with Nero, so by traveling back in time and leaving James Kirk fatherless, Nero creates an alternate universe, which explains away any discrepancies between this film and the rest of the franchise. Brilliant! This device also essentially sets up a whole new franchise, and I hear that future New Trek films are planned.

Am I happy about all this? Yeah, more or less. I like Star Trek, but I’m not a real Trekkie, so I don’t have anything serious invested in the franchise. The new movie is not Amazingly Good, like the “Lord of the Rings” movies were, but it is plenty of fun. As one Facebook friend put it, I was “sufficiently Trekked.”

3.5 stars

Friday, May 22, 2009

La Truite (The Trout, 1982)

We rented this for two reasons: Jeanne Moreau is in it, and the DVD case said it was a “sex comedy.” Ha! “La Truite” has neither sex nor comedy, nor anything remotely interesting to say, for that matter. The main character, Frederique (Isabelle Huppert), is supposed to be “The Trout” I suppose, in that she is slippery and constantly wriggling out of men’s clutches. She supposedly vowed as a teenager to use her sexuality to get whatever she could out of men, while giving them as little as possible in return. (Sounds more like what the filmmaker did to me.) Rather than making an interesting tale of that, or even a bit of soft-porn fun, the film presents a dour, tepid take on sexual politics that is as unbearable as it is long. Really, the only thing funny about the film is that I sat through the whole thing, thinking that surely a point would appear somewhere. The joke was on me!

Jeanne Moreau is excellent, as always, but she is wasted in this farce. The rest of the cast either cannot act or were as disgusted by the script as I was and couldn’t fake it. For the love of God, leave this one on the shelf!

0 stars.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Down By Law (1986)

“Have you seen ‘Down By Law?’” This is a question that you might get asked at practically any moment if you spend enough time hanging out with folks on the artsier end of the spectrum, as I do. You should give serious consideration to making the answer to that question a “Yes.” This is one of those films that defines cult classic. Just being able to discuss it will give you significant street cred in certain crowds, and it’s a good movie, too.

“Down by Law” is written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, who described this black-and-white film as a “neo-Beat noir comedy.” The story concerns three men who are imprisoned together in Louisiana. Zach (Tom Waits), a down-on-his-luck DJ; Jack (John Lurie), a down-on-his-luck pimp; and Bob (Roberto Benigni), an Italian tourist imprisoned for manslaughter spend much of the film entertaining themselves in their tiny cell. Zach and Jack tend to grate on each other, but Bob’s childlike charm is irresistible. In one memorable scene, the three stomp around the cell chanting “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” Interestingly, it is Bob who comes up with an escape plan, which lands them all in the Louisiana swamp enjoying the same dynamic they had in their cell.

Early on, I figured this movie would be about unjust imprisonment, but it isn’t, even though all three guys got something of a raw deal. This is just a story of three guys interacting as they deal with the extreme boredom of prison and the extreme stress of escaping. It is interesting that the swamp proves to be just as isolating as their tiny cell was. The wilderness forces them to stay together just as their cell did, so their relationships are unchanged. It is not until they have the option of separating that they feel themselves truly “escaped,” and it is then that their relationships evolve. The one difference seen in the swamp is that it becomes much more apparent that Bob is quite intelligent, and that it is merely his limited English that makes him appear the buffoon.

This film is extremely slow-paced, and filmed single-camera style in black and white. It’s really hilarious, but the humor is slow-moving and subtle. Audiences reared on a strict diet of big-budget popcorn movies will find “Down by Law” hard to digest. If, however, you have developed a taste for movies that require a little more patience, then I highly recommend it.

4 stars

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Once you know the central conceit of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”- Benjamin (Brad Pitt) ages in reverse - you have a pretty good handle on everything that happens in the film. Benjamin is born as a normal-sized baby (a detail I had wondered about), but he is horribly aged and monstrous. He develops into a crippled little boy with the face of an elderly man. As the years pass, however, rather than dying as his family expects, he slowly gets healthier and younger-looking. His life is by definition rather lonely, but he has a good heart that wins him a few friends despite his bizarre appearance as an aged child. One of them is Daisy (Cate Blanchett), a girl of roughly his age. Over the years their lives separate and re-connect repeatedly. They are clearly each others’ great love, but the reality of Benjamin’s reverse aging, as well as all the more ordinary things like pride and youthful folly, keep cropping up to separate them.

There’s an oft-repeated saying that “Youth is wasted on the young,” meaning that by the time we have enough experience and wisdom to appreciate all that life has to offer, our bodies won’t let us do it. In light of that, you might think that Benjamin’s reverse aging is actually a gift. The film does an excellent job showing that this “gift” tends to separate Benjamin acutely from those he loves or could love. On the other hand, the film suggests that whether we get older or younger over the years is not really the point. As Daisy says, “We all wind up in diapers eventually.” Benjamin’s uniqueness makes him a lonely soul, but he experiences all the usual things like love and loss. The one thing about his progressive youthfulness is that it puts him in a good position to understand the central theme of the film, which is that it is never too late to live your life or to change it.

“Benjamin Button” is inspired by a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which can currently be read online at http://www.readbookonline.net/read/690/10628/. The film was written by Eric Roth (“Forest Gump”, “Munich”) and directed by David Fincher (“Fight Club”). I would describe this as a gentle movie. There are no great shocks to the system, and it might be difficult to mark the dramatic climax. It’s as if the storytellers set up the initial condition of Benjamin’s reverse aging, then just allowed his life to play itself out on screen, with no contrived plot twists or major revelations. (Deistic filmmaking.) Folks expecting an explanation for Benjamin’s condition, or a science-fictionesque exploration of the process will be disappointed. It’s really a nicely paced movie, beautifully filmed in New Orleans. The story is told through the device of an elderly Daisy having her daughter read Benjamin’s diary to her. This shop-worn device feels a bit “Titanic,” but it doesn’t go over too badly. The film’s only weakness may be that it is so gently paced that you may start to wonder if anything Big is going to happen. Hopefully by the end you realize that the biggest thing of all has happened: a life has been lived. Benjamin may age in an unconventional manner, but when all is said and done he gets the same thing that we all get, a lifetime.

4 stars

Monday, February 23, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

“Slumdog Millionaire” represents the future of movies in an ever-shrinking world. It’s in two languages, English and Hindi. It’s filmed in India, with Indian actors, but directed by an Englishman, Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting"). The music is a mix of traditional Indian sounds and hip-hop. None of the actors is famous in the West, but with Boyle directing, this can hardly be called low-budget Independent fare. It isn’t Hollywood, either, or Bollywood. “Slumdog Millionaire” is part of a new movement of multi-national, multi-lingual films that will eventually make the Academy Award category for “Foreign Films” obsolete. These movies may make Hollywood, Bollywood, and other centers of filmmaking power obsolete as well.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is only partly about a young man winning millions of rupees on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” The film is really about that boy’s life as an untouchable in the slums of Mumbai. His family and neighbors live a life of physical squalor that still has spots of dignity and community, but they are constant prey for criminals, police, and vicious religious pogroms. In this world, the only hope for advancement for a boy seems to be crime; for a girl – prostitution. Jamal Malik, his brother Salim, and their friend Latika come of age as orphans in this world, eventually becoming separated, as Salim and Latika get sucked into the criminal underworld. Jamal, meanwhile, makes an honorable, if undistinguished life for himself in the new India, with a job as a gofer for phone operators in a call center.

Jamal lucks into the opportunity to play on the “Millionaire” show, where a lifetime of being observant pays off with one correct answer after another. In India, where many still seem to believe that your caste says everything there is to know about you, Jamal’s success leads the police to assume he has cheated. They torture and question him about how he got the answers, and it is through his explanations that his heartbreaking life story is revealed.

Some movie critics seem determined to sneer at “Slumdog Millionaire,” while grudgingly conceding that it is a story well-told. They call it a fairy tale, and it IS a fairy tale, complete with a happy ending. I think that all of us who have seen it were aware that we were watching a fictional movie, but these reviewers seem to feel it is important to remind us that it is unrealistic that a boy from the slums could win a quiz show. I think they are the victims of their own liberal snobbery. They doubtless approve of a film that shows the deplorable conditions of a third-world slum, but they can’t enjoy a happy ending that does not involve the government re-distributing wealth to save the slumdogs.

“Slumdog Millionaire” shows a heartbreaking side of India, and it helps put some things about America in perspective. We in the U.S. widely believe that our country provides opportunity for everyone, and that we are less obsessed with class than many other countries. “Slumdog Millionaire” made me realize that we Americans are absolutely right about that. Modern naysayers love to run America down, and one way they do it is by pointing out that classism exists here more than we admit. That may be true, but in “Slumdog Millionaire,” the game-show host teases Jamal repeatedly about being a “chai wallah” (tea waiter) from the slums, to the audience’s delight. Can you imagine a waiter or janitor being teased that way on American TV? Say what you want about America, but here we at least give lip-service to the idea of equal-treatment, respect, and opportunity for all.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is an optimistic movie in a time when we need the encouragement. In these troubled economic times, there are some cynics who have no room for optimism. I think that most of us, however, will enjoy a beautifully told story about how doing the right thing can pay off. Personally, I wouldn’t care to live in a world where people don’t believe in that possibility.

4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Seventh Seal (1957) *****

There are certain movies that loom like Everest, foreboding and unattainable. “The Seventh Seal” is one of those. It’s in black & white; it’s by Ingmar Bergman; it’s in Swedish; it tackles huge issues like death and religion. All the things that make it one of the great films also tend to drive you to watch “Spiderman 3” instead. As a film buff, you know you are supposed to see “The Seventh Seal,” but it tends to sit there like a dreaded homework assignment, put off for another day.

My advice is to get over it and throw that bad boy in the DVD player. “The Seventh Seal” is an amazing movie, and once you get into it, it is not hard to watch. The first few minutes look like some bizarre, art-house schlock, but that is just because all the art-house schlock since 1957 has been trying to look like “The Seventh Seal.”

There are probably endless interpretations of this film, and mine is bound to be unsophisticated. I am holding off on delving into any of the scholarship surrounding this movie until I get my own thoughts down. The story surrounds Antonius Black, a knight (Max von Sydow) returning from 10 years in the Crusades with his squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand). They return, soul-sick and disillusioned by meaningless conflict, to a Europe devastated by the Plague. One morning, Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes to claim Antonius. Faced with the end, Antonius stalls for time by challenging Death to a game of chess. The game takes place over several days of travel, during which Antonius tries desperately to regain his lost faith in the existence of God, while his squire tackles life with a pragmatic, agnostic wisdom. Along the way they befriend a number of people in various stages of joy or unhappiness, but none of them give Antonius the answers he craves.

“The Seventh Seal” is filmed in a stark black & white that displays landscapes harshly, but flatters many of the actors, particularly the lovely Bibi Andersson, who plays a member of an acting troupe. This is a serious film, but there is a lot of humor mixed in. My favorite character is the Squire, a very cool, confident dude. While Antonius agonizes over questions of God and Eternity, his Squire seems content in his atheism. Instead, he spends his energy enjoying life and committing acts of true chivalry. Here are a couple of his quotes that sum up his style quite well: “Our crusade was such madness that only a real idealist could have thought it up.” “Do you have any brandy? I've had nothing but water. It's made me as thirsty as a camel in the desert.” Antonius is a dryer, more earnest character who represents the part in all of us that burns with existential angst when he says, “I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.”

I will resist the urge to go into a long-winded discussion of everything I think “The Seventh Seal” means. It would give away too much, and besides, this film deserves to be mulled over, in small pieces, over time. “The Seventh Seal” is not for everyone, but for those willing to invest in a more artsy kind of movie, this is one of the greats. By the time the credits roll on a movie like “Spiderman,” you will already have thought everything worth thinking about the movie, but I suspect I will be mulling over “The Seventh Seal” for years.

5 stars.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hors de Prix (“Priceless,” 2006)

My wife says the romantic comedy is dead; they just don’t make good ones anymore. On reflection, of course, it’s clear that that is an overstatement. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” came out just last year, and it was charming and hilarious. It is true, though that the genre is dominated by trite, disposable crap. The formula is pretty standard. Two people meet in some cute circumstance. They have obvious chemistry, and eventually they give in to it and hook up. Then there is some sort of misunderstanding that drives them apart. Then, triggered by obvious clues from the soundtrack, they realize that they were truly meant for each other and re-unite. Bring on the swelling score, the embrace, and the pull-back shot of the lovers in some romantic location, and everyone gets to go home and wait for their check. Hollywood just switches out actors and a few details and cranks these things out, and most of them suck.

Now to be fair to the romantic-comedy genre, I must point out that the same could be said of all Hollywood genres. Hollywood is not about making movies as much as they are about making money. Mostly they make crap, and they serve it up as fast as they can to a public desperate for the next distraction. By its nature, filmmaking requires the collaboration of so many artists and financiers that it is no wonder that most films are such a watered-down mediocrity, pandering to the lowest common denominator in the audience, that I can’t bear to watch. That’s why it is such a huge relief to me when I see something that doesn’t suck.

“Hors de Prix” is a sweet, funny Audrey Tautou movie in French that doesn’t suck. It doesn’t fail-to-suck in an epic, stirring way, the way “Lord of the Rings” didn’t suck. It fails-to-suck in the compact, straightforward way of well-done small films. Tautou plays Irene, a talented gold-digger who is one step short of being a prostitute. She lives glamorously off the largess of the older men she seduces, but she has nothing of her own and is always a day away from poverty. In quiet desperation, she works towards the goal of marrying one of these billionaires.

When Irene meets Jean (Gad Elmaleh), a hotel bartender, she gets the mistaken impression that he is one of the hotel’s wealthy guests. They hook up, but when Irene learns the truth, the pragmatic hussy leaves Jean without even looking back. Jean, meanwhile, is smitten, as Irene is a beauty beyond his wildest dreams. He follows her like a lost puppy, and in order to stay close to her, he becomes a gigolo. Sharing the same profession now, the two finally develop a real connection, and, well, you’ve probably seen enough of these movies to figure out the rest.

“Hors de Prix” never strays from the classic formula; it just executes that formula with grace. This romantic comedy delivers comedy that is understated and unforced, and romance that is actually romantic rather than trite. Now THAT is beyond price.

4.5 stars out of 5

Monday, January 12, 2009

Laura (1944)

I’ve been trying to figure out what I didn’t like about “Laura,” and I think it comes down to the movie trying to pack too many noir mystery staples into one film. The title character is played by Gene Tierney, who is one swell-looking doll. The movie starts with detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigating Laura’s murder. He finds no shortage of suspects, including Laura’s fiancé Shelby (Vincent Price), Laura’s aunt, who is keen on Shelby, Shelby’s girl-on-the-side, and Laura’s aged admirer Waldo (Clifton Webb). The movie takes us through the usual rigamarole in which we suspect each person in turn. It also throws in plenty of twists that will be familiar to noir-lovers.

I’m not sure what place “Laura” is supposed to hold in the world of noir. I get the impression it is considered something of a classic, but I never got that magical feeling that is the hallmark of a classic. For example, one major plot device is that detective McPherson finds himself falling in love with Laura as he learns more about her and repeatedly sees her picture. This side of the story may be better developed in the novel, but in the film his morbid attraction is handled in a fairly perfunctory manner. “Laura” is entertaining, but it lacks the distinction of a true classic like “Double Indemnity,” which came out the same year.

2.5 stars out of 5

Friday, January 09, 2009

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, 1958)

One thing I love about certain old, noir movies is how moralistic they are. They may revel in murder, adultery, and all forms of vice, but in the end, the message is, “No matter how perfectly executed the crime, justice will find you.” In “Elevator to the Gallows,” the crime goes off almost without a hitch. Julien (Maurice Ronet), embroiled in an affair with his boss’s wife Florence (Jeanne Moreau), plots with his lover to kill her husband. He kills his employer in his office, staging it to look like a suicide. He makes only one mistake, but he recognizes it before it is too late, and zips back up in the elevator to fix things. Unfortunately for him, the power gets cut, leaving him trapped in the elevator with his boss’s dead body upstairs. He spends the night trying to figure out an escape, while Florence wanders the streets all night wondering what went wrong with their plan.

In a discussion of another noir movie, “The Third Man,” I believe, I commented that many noir films seem to have as a theme a basically good person who gets put into seedy circumstances in which he may or may not turn bad. Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows” inserts us into the story a little farther along than that. Julien and Florence have already turned bad, and the theme here is another noir favorite, “Will they get away with it?” As in most of these older films, the answer is “No,” but along the way we get treated to the vicarious pleasure of rooting for the bad guys.

With this film, Jeanne Moreau continues her habit of playing bad girls, with this being one of her darkest roles, yet. In other of her films that I have seen, her characters are torn by complex motivations, and they are not completely evil. In “Elevator to the Gallows,” she is really just a murdering adulteress, and probably a gold-digger. A lesser actress might have overplayed an “evil seductress” role like this, but Jeanne Moreau plays it with self-contained grace. The reason she is so good at these roles is that she plays them without shame. She never asks the audience to forgive her or tries to remind us that she is just playing a character. In watching a Jeanne Moreau performance, the audience is confronted with a strong, female character of dubious morality, and we are not allowed to stereotype or pigeonhole her. Moreau brings all the complexity of a real woman to these roles. We may not love her characters, but we are never able to dismiss them.

4.5 stars out of 5

Friday, January 02, 2009

Bad news for my wife

It turns out I have terrible taste in women. The first time I saw Jeanne Moreau on the screen, my reaction was that she was gorgeous, and I still think she is one of the most beautiful women I have seen in a movie. I would place her in the same pantheon as Liz Taylor and Angelina Jolie. Once I started reading about Jeanne Moreau, though, I discovered that she is widely considered to be a talented actress of marginal looks. Even in her film “Jules and Jim” one of the characters mentions that she has appeal, but she is not really beautiful. Really?

I don’t know what is wrong with my eyes. I look at Jeanne Moreau’s strong features, full lips, and natural eyebrows, and I think she is a goddess, and an amazing actress to boot.