Sunday, March 24, 2013

Layer Cake (2004) **

You might think that a complex crime thriller starring Daniel Craig would be a sure hit.  Unfortunately, while “Layer Cake” is not a complete miss, it never managed to score a solid hit with me.
Craig plays an unnamed cocaine dealer in London (literally listed as XXXX in the credits, the director is so coy).  He is ultra-smooth and ultra-cautious, never using his product and never working with people who are too showy or unreliable.  Managing his money intelligently, he has saved up enough to retire in style, but on the eve of that secretly-planned retirement, his boss gives him a couple of assignments that break all of his rules.  He is to make a deal for a huge load of Ecstasy with a flashy turd of a gangster named Duke (Jamie Foreman).  He is also supposed to find his boss’s friend’s daughter, who has disappeared into the drug underworld.  His next couple of days are a whirlwind of violence, double-crosses, and revelations, as XXXX’s world gets turned upside down.
“Layer Cake” wants to be “Snatch,” but it fails on every level.  The film is populated by some interesting characters, but the script just doesn’t develop them enough or give them enough to do.  I never really found myself rooting that hard for the “good guys” or hating the bad guys all that much.  After all, these guys are all drug dealers and thugs, and the film never managed to get me beyond that.  For a smart guy, XXXX does a lot of stupid things, including taking these two assignments in the first place.  I find it frustrating when a plot requires a character repeatedly to do things that are out of character.  They also manufacture a love interest (Sienna Miller, the most generic hottie in film), which feels completely arbitrary and gratuitous.  The final nail in the coffin for a film like this:  it’s a bit slow and boring.
If you keep your expectations low, “Layer Cake” is mildly entertaining.  You could watch it on cable in a hotel room some time.  I like crime movies as much as the next guy, but this one left me feeling robbed.

2 stars out of 5

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lost In Translation (2003) *****

In retrospect, it’s clear that “Lost in Translation” is the career pinnacle to which Bill Murray was building all along.  Watching some of his quirkier, earlier films like “Quick Change” and “Groundhog Day,” you can see glimmers of the world weary soul that would become the Bob Harris character.  In “Lost in Translation,” Harris is a fading actor who travels to Tokyo to turn his fame into some cash by doing a Japanese whiskey commercial.  He is also escaping his life, which is populated by children to whom he is not close, and a wife who tolerates but doesn’t respect him.  But of course he cannot escape himself.  Enter Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman in Tokyo with her photographer husband, feeling neglected while he pals around with movie stars.  Japan is supposed to be a great adventure for Charlotte, but she winds up feeling lonely and disappointed in the experience.
As dissatisfied fellow travelers, Bob and Charlotte hit it off immediately when they meet in a hotel bar.  They wind up enjoying Tokyo together, and spending a lot of time talking about life.  Both feel that sense of relief you get upon meeting someone who sees the world as you do, who seems to understand you, but the difference in their ages and the fact that both are married makes their few days together bittersweet.
I think “Lost in Translation” is one of those films that should be re-visited every decade or so.  Re-watching it recently, I was struck by how I got different things out of it this time around.  On my first viewing, I found Scarlett Johansson to be not exactly chubby, but un-toned.  Now, as an older man, I can appreciate how beautifully lush, soft, and feminine the 19-year-old actress was in this movie.  The first time around I thought that Bob should have just gone for it; slept with Charlotte and maybe left his wife for her.  Now, as a father myself, I appreciate how complicated Bob’s feelings for Charlotte are, with attraction mixed with a paternal desire to protect her, and sadness, because he recognizes that, like himself, Charlotte is destined never to be completely happy.
Much has been made about the final scene, where Bob whispers something in Charlotte’s ear.  Everyone wants to know what he says to her.  The point, of course, is not to know what one actor actually said to another in the scene, but to fill in the blanks ourselves.  Knowing the characters as we do, and knowing how they have connected in just a few days, what would we say, and what would we want to hear?
For those who haven’t seen it, this sounds like it could be a slow, boring, talk-fest, but in fact it is quite hilarious.  I haven’t yet mentioned all the physical comedy, including Bob’s interactions with the Japanese entertainment world and his bizarre introduction to the world of Japanese prostitution.  Anna Faris is also hilarious as a chatty, self-absorbed movie star.  My favorite funny line of the film, however, has to be Charlotte’s comment that her husband is “using some sort of hair products,” which somehow sums up her entire state of disaffection.
Still, it is the movie’s heart, not its laughs, that have made it stand the test of time.  The theme behind all this comedy and drama is contained in the title of the film.  Every human being is isolated in a world of our own thoughts and feelings, and our efforts to share those with others are always fraught.  Whether the barrier is a language difference, a culture clash, or a couple of decades’ difference in age, every message in a bottle we send out there runs the risk of being lost in translation.

5 stars out of 5

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) **½

It’s hard making movies about the mentally ill.  While there are plenty of “fun-crazy” or “scary-crazy” characters in movies who are quite entertaining, it turns out that real mental illness is a real downer, so the more realistic a movie is on the subject, the harder it is to watch.  The fix most filmmakers turn to is that whenever the mood needs lightening or the script demands it, the character simply stops being crazy and starts being romantic, or heroic, or whatever the plot calls for.  This is the trap “Silver Linings Playbook” falls into and never escapes.
Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a bipolar patient fresh out of a mental hospital.   He is manic as hell, brimming with unrealistic ideas about getting his old job and wife back, and he goes running every day, wearing a garbage bag to make him sweat.  Friends introduce him to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a depressed, young widow whose main pathology is that she screws anyone who will pay her a little attention.  They become friends, and she convinces Pat to help her compete in a ballroom-dance contest.  Together, gradually, the two help each other become slightly less crazy.
Overall, the movie works, but what starts as a pretty honest portrayal of mental illness devolves into pretty standard romantic comedy fare.  Robert De Niro plays Pat’s father, chewing scenery and making faces like he always does.  Cooper and Lawrence, however, are both outstanding, with great on-screen chemistry.  I’m not convinced, however, that Lawrence really deserved a Best Actress Oscar for it, and the film definitely didn’t deserve a Best Picture Nomination.  Maybe it just reflects a relatively weak year for this type of movie.  In any event, “Silver Linings Playbook” is enjoyable enough to watch, but I wasn’t crazy about it.

2.5 stars out of 5