Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Payback Straight Up: The Director's Cut (2006) ****1/2

The theatrical version of “Payback” came out in 1999, and while I enjoyed the movie, I wasn't completely satisfied. The film is loosely based on the Richard Stark book “The Hunter,” and loosely is the operative word. I'm a big fan of the book, and while the movie is a decent action/crime flick, it forsakes the noirish, amoral tone of the book in favor of a more audience-friendly, heroic story.

It turns out director Brian Helgeland did make a movie with the stark tone of the book, but Mel Gibson and the studio didn't think it would sell. Helgeland was fired, new writers were brought in, and an entirely new third act was shot, with the overall effect being a movie more like the Lethal Weapon movies, with explosions, one-liners, and a sympathetic hero.

In 2006, Brian Helgeland was given the opportunity to use the original footage of “Payback” to put together a director's cut, and man, is it awesome! Not only did Helgeland do away with the cheesy, blue film wash of the theatrical version, he stripped out all the lowest-common-denominator stuff that was put in to ensure that Porter, the protagonist, would be the kind of consistently sympathetic outlaw that audiences expected of Mel Gibson in 1999. What's fascinating is that Helgeland has put together, out of old footage, a movie that is perfect for modern-day, tarnished Mel Gibson. The drunk-driving, anti-semite, mug-shot, divorcee Gibson is finally free to play this character as Richard Stark wrote him, amoral and ruthless.

The story starts with Porter, in rumpled clothes, entering New York City on foot. Through a series of small rip-offs, he gets himself some cash, some clothes, and a weapon, and starts to hunt down the people who betrayed him. It turns out Porter is a heist artist. He plans and executes robberies. On his last job his partner and his wife double-crossed him, shooting him in the back and leaving him for dead. He sets out to even the score and get his money back, and not even the power of the Mob can stop him.

The attraction of Porter (known as Parker in the book series) is that in any given situation, he can be counted on to do what makes sense. Surrounded by sadistic sociopaths, druggies, and egomaniacs, he is always cool-headed and rational. A character like this has a pleasant, moderating effect on the plot of any story he appears in. He keeps the author or screenwriter honest. And yet, in order for there to be a story at all, we have to accept that in the big picture Porter may do something irrational when a principle is involved. Else why go up against the Mob for a mere $70,000?

Porter lives by a code. Someone betrays him; he gets even. Compromise isn't part of his DNA. Director Brian Helgeland apparently has a code as well. In 1999 he wasn't able to make the compromises that would please the movie studio, so in 2006 he was able to put together a crime movie of integrity, one that is destined to be a cult classic.

4.5 stars out of 5

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Lunchbox (2013) ****

In Mumbai, there is a lunchbox delivery service called the dabawallas. These men pick up hot lunches either from customers' homes or from restaurants, and deliver them to workers at lunchtime. Then they pick up the empties and haul them back home. It's a fascinating system that utilizes bicycles, trains, and men on foot. Many of the workers are illiterate, so a system of colors and codes is used on the boxes to get them where they belong. Mistakes are supposedly rare.

“The Lunchbox” is the story of one such mistake and how it changes two people's lives. The lovely Nimrat Kaur plays Ila, a lonely housewife who hopes to win back her husband's love by cooking him delicious lunches, which she sends to him at work via dabawalla. With advice from her upstairs neighbor, she prepares the most beautiful food I have seen on-screen since “Eat Drink Man Woman.” It's entirely possible these meals could cure her husband's wandering eye, but unfortunately he never gets to eat them. The dabawallas mistakenly deliver his lunches to Saajan (Irfan Khan), a dour, lonely widower in a government office. Saajan simply thinks that the restaurant that usually provides his meals has suddenly experienced a dramatic improvement in quality. On the other end, Ila quickly figures out the mistake when she gets no reaction from her husband regarding his lunch.

The obvious thing to do would be to tell her husband that a mistake was made and get things sorted out with the dabbawallas. For Ila, however, feeding her husband is an intensely intimate act, and she feels betrayed that he “ate someone else's food and didn't even notice.” Indeed, it feels like a corresponding act of infidelity when Ila continues to send lunches to Saajan, along with little notes. Saajan starts sending his own notes back in the empty lunchbox, and the two gradually get to know each other.

I'll tell you right now that there are no sex scenes in this film. No one gets shot or blown up either, and yet a great deal happens. Ila finds the courage to leave her loveless marriage, a very difficult act in a culture where un-married women are not valued. Saajan, meanwhile, finds himself at a crossroads, where he will either quietly fade into retirement and old age or find the energy to jump back into life.

“The Lunchbox” is incredibly rich in cultural detail, and it's fascinating to watch these people live out their personal crises amidst the throngs of Mumbai. Without hitting you over the head with it, the film makes you think about how, even in a city of millions, each individual is living his own story, and how easy it is to be lonely among the masses. Khan and Kaur provide understated performances of incredible depth, and the food is a performance all its own. The acting and the food combine with the sight, sounds, and practically the smells of Mumbai to make “The Lunchbox” a satisfying meal.

4 stars out of 5

Friday, September 19, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing (2012) ***

This hybrid Shakespeare update is a low-budget, black-and-white project directed by Joss Whedon that proves once again that you don't need to spend a lot of money to make great art. I call it a hybrid, because while the film features a modern, California setting and modern dress, the actors use the original Shakespearean lines. The effect is unsettling at first, and the language is hard to follow (as you may recall from high school), but the acting is so good that you very quickly get used to it.

The action in this classic comedy centers around two couples. Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) already fancy each other, and while they are young and shy, it is light work for their families and friends to bring them together and arrange a marriage. Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), on the other hand, seem on the surface to despise one another, and constantly trade clever barbs. Their animosity seems to stem at least in part from a one-night-stand that ended awkwardly, which we see at the beginning of the film. We being a wise audience, however, it is obvious to us that their animosity masks a powerful chemistry, and that their oaths of single-hood are doomed to end in marriage.

The fly in the ointment is the bastard John (Sean Maher), half-brother of Don Pedro (Reed Diamond.) The Don is bosom-buddies with Leonato (Clark Gregg), who is Hero's father and Beatrice's uncle. The Don, therefore, is overjoyed to see both these ladies betrothed to his friends Claudio and Benedick, which makes his scheming brother John determined to upset the nuptials.

I won't give away anything further, but you can rest assured of a happy ending. As anyone who has studied Shakespeare knows, he only made two kinds of plays: tragedies, in which the protagonist always dies, and comedies, in which things always work out as they should, despite the obstacles. “Much Ado About Nothing” is one of the comedies, and aptly named in that nothing of any weight really happens. Characters get upset and fly off the handle over the slightest of misunderstandings. Nonetheless, it's a charming and funny tale.

I would call this little film-making experiment a success. The use of modern dress for the characters knocks the dust off of Shakespeare's dense comedy and lets its sexiness shine. The cast is chock full of excellent character actors, many of whom you will recognize from other Joss Whedon projects like “Firefly.” Nathan Fillian is particularly good as a bumbling, self-important policeman. Sean Maher, who played the doctor on “Firefly,” is delightfully wicked as the evil John. I had only seen Alexis Denisof before as the cheesy news anchor Sandy Rivers on “How I Met Your Mother.” It's fun to see him here as the clever rogue Benedick.

At the end of the day, Whedon's “Much Ado About Nothing” is a fun piece of fluff. This will not live as the definitive version of the play, but then again, it was filmed for almost nothing at Joss Whedon's house, with no budget for costumes and presumably friends-and-family salaries for the actors. This isn't for everyone, but for those who love the Bard and Joss Whedon, it's a fun couple of hours.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, September 18, 2014

No (2012) **1/2

As rare as democracy is in human history, it is even more rare when it is achieved peacefully.  Tyrants are loathe to give up their power, and even in places that hold nominal elections, the rule tends to be that the party in power cheats in order to stay in power.  This is why it was such a miracle of history when George Washington handed over the Presidency to John Adams, and why it is still a miracle each time a political party wrests the reigns of government from its opposition through the peaceful means of an election.

Former Chilean President Pinochet never had any intention of giving up his hold on power, but he and his junta did eventually craft a constitution that created the illusion of democracy and rule of law.  Under it, the junta would nominate a candidate for President, and the people would simply vote “Si” or “No.” The nomination, of course, went to Pinochet, so in 1988, the Chilean people were allowed to vote on the question of whether he should remain in power.  With control of the polls and the media, Pinochet and his government clearly held the advantage, but they did grant the opposition a 15 minute television spot each night to make their case for the “No” vote.  Surprisingly, the “No” ticket prevailed, and Pinochet, with the world watching, was forced to gradually hand over power to a democratically elected leader.

The Oscar-nominated, Spanish-language film “No” is a fictionalized account of the advertising campaign that helped make that result possible.  Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene, an advertising guy whose work experience involves selling soda.  As the leaders of the “No” campaign prepare to focus on the torture, disappearances, and other abuses of the Pinochet regime, Rene convinces them to try a more optimistic, marketing-based approach.  People will be turned off by all the negative imagery, he tells them, so you have to give them a catchy jingle, positive images, and promote the idea that voting “No” is really voting “Yes” to a better Chile.

Like all historical movies, and perhaps more than many, “No” sacrifices authenticity and complexity in the name of narrative.  Rene Saavedra never existed.  He probably represents an amalgam of the marketing whizzes who created the “No” campaign. The film also oversimplifies the election, crediting the victory to the slick ad campaign, while downplaying the nationwide grassroots efforts that also played a role.

 My complaint about films based on historical events and people is that the power of the story comes from the idea that it actually happened.  The more we become aware that artistic license has been taken to make the narrative better, the less power the story has.  For viewers who aren’t aware of the oversimplifications, the situation is even worse, because they come away from the movie thinking they have just seen history.  That is not only unjust, but dangerous, as people may be trained by such entertainment to view the world through a simplistic, black-and-white filter.

Filmmakers aren’t about to stop, however.  History is full of too many compelling stories.  As movies based on history go, “No” is just alright.  The characters are underdeveloped, and the story feels small compared to the events on which it is based.  I can’t help thinking that the Oscar nomination was more about the subject matter than the quality of the film itself.

2.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) **

If you only see one smart-alecky, sci-fi, action movie this year, it should be 2013's “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” Or you could just watch the movie “Serenity” again, or maybe “The Empire Strikes Back.” “Guardians of the Galaxy” shoots for the combination of heart, memorable characters, snappy dialogue, and irreverence that those films have, but it fails to pull it off.

Expectations were high for this one. It's the surprise hit of the summer, and most reviews I have seen are positive. Everyone seems to love Chris Pratt's performance, love the raccoon, love the tree thing, and think that this rag-tag bunch of reluctant heroes is the perfect antidote to the typical comic-book movie. I found the movie to be largely targeted at 13-year-olds, with lots of cuteness, way to much sentimentality, and so-so acting.

The sentimentality starts right away, with a young boy (the future Starlord) watching his mom die of cancer in a very over-wrought scene. Then the kid gets abducted by aliens, and the movie gets fun for a while. We meet the grown-up Starlord (Chris Pratt), a handsome rogue of a smuggler who likes to listen to his mom's old mix-tape on the Sony Walkman she gave him. He picks up some type of powerful orb from an abandoned planet, and immediately finds himself the subject of pursuit. The orb is coveted by a psychopathic terrorist named Ronan, who plans to trade it to a Titan named Thanos in exchange for destroying a planet. Ronan sends the green assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) after the orb, but it turns out she has plans to double-cross the terrorist. Meanwhile, Starlord's old partner, Yondu (Michael Rooker, playing the exact same Merle character he plays in “The Walking Dead”) puts out a bounty on him, which puts him in the sights of bounty-hunters Rocket (a genetically-modified, talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (a walking, talking tree whose only words are “I am Groot.”) Later, this motley crew meets Drax the Destroyer, a hunk of muscle played by professional wrestler Dave Bautista. These guys wind up teaming up to stop Ronan, of course.

There's no reason this setup couldn't be plenty of fun, and for 20 minutes or so it is. The misanthropic raccoon is hilarious, and Starlord shows some Han Solo-esque potential. Then the movie takes a sappy turn and never looks back. Where Han Solo was a reluctant hero and lover, Starlord signs on for both roles with little resistance. (In fairness, I suppose you could point out that the raccoon is really the Han Solo character, and Starlord is more like Luke Skywalker, but the plot still sucks.) Gamora, who was never really impressive as an assassin anyway, spends the rest of the film whining to her adopted sister to join her and “not let all those people die.” Even the raccoon turns sentimental. It seems the screenwriters got too lazy to create a plot in which the characters would have semi-credible motivations for teaming up, so they made “friendship” the motivation for guarding the galaxy.

Ironically, we went to this movie thinking I would love it, and my wife would just tolerate it. Turns out that while I was bored, she thought it was delightful. She liked the soft-hearted Groot and the lost-70's soundtrack, and she didn't think it was too sentimental at all. She isn't alone. This film is a massive hit, and my grumpy opinion is definitely in the minority. But hell, there were people who liked “Return of the Jedi” better than “The Empire Strikes Back,” too.

2 stars out of 5

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos, 2011) **1/2

It's 2014, and we have spent the last few years fighting a zombie invasion. They are in our books, at the cineplex, and on our TV screens. All of us survivors now know the basic tropes of zombie fighting: They hunger for flesh. They are mostly slow, but sometimes fast. You kill them by destroying the brain. Finally, zombie-ism is spread by a bite or scratch, like rabies.

The horror of having our loved ones rise from the dead to devour us has become a cliché, and it's time we retire the genre, but not before we talk about “Juan of the Dead.”

Much like 2004's “Shaun of the Dead,” the hilarious Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy, “Juan of the Dead” riffs on the original of the genre, George Romero's 1978 “Dawn of the Dead.” “Dawn” is a pretty easy word to rhyme, and one could imagine this going on indefinitely: “Levonne of the Dead” (blacksploitation), “Don of the Dead” (a Mad-Men-themed version), “Lebron of the Dead” (zombie basketball) and so on.

Juan, a thief and general layabout, considers himself a survivor. He has persisted through poverty, prison, and the ups and downs of Cuban life. Thus, when the neighbors start rising from the dead as bloody biting machines, Juan takes it all with an insouciance that is at once fatalistic and pragmatic. While other Cubans flee the island in droves, Juan enlists his fellow shady characters to start a business. For cash, they clear people's houses of zombies. They are raking it in for a while, but eventually it becomes clear that the zombie outbreak is not a self-limited infection. The entire island is being overtaken, and the only intelligent option is to build a raft and flee.

As a comedy, “Juan of the Dead” mostly misses the mark. There are moments of humor, but the jokes are mostly broad. Where the movie succeeds is in its commentary on Cuban history, turning the zombie invasion into a metaphor for life in Cuba. Looking down from a rooftop as zombies attack the living on the street, Juan's daughter points out that “You can't tell the good ones from the bad ones.” Juan replies, “Things in Cuba haven't changed.” Later, after a night of zombie-fighting, Juan and his crew wait at a bus stop, because “No matter how bad things get in Cuba, public transportation runs, no matter what.” As things get worse and worse, more people flee on makeshift rafts, but Juan stays, figuring that sticking with his home is better than trying to build a new life elsewhere. Whether he is a hero or a fool depends on your point of view, and I imagine Cubans would give you a variety of answers to that question.

2.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 13, 2014

I Don't Want To Be A Man (Ich Mochte Kein Mann Sein, 1918) ***1/2

This is the kinkiest, most twisted movie I have seen in a while, and I loved it! The great German director Ernst Lubitsch was known for imbuing his films with a cheeky, sexual humor, and his “Lubitsch Touch” is fully displayed in this short, silent film, one of his earliest productions.

In this strikingly feminist piece, Lubitsch presents Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), a tomboyish, rebellious girl who drives her uncle and governess crazy by gambling, smoking, drinking, and flirting with men. When her uncle travels out of town, leaving her in the care of a handsome, younger new guardian, Ossi figures it is party time. The new guardian, however, turns out to be even stricter than Ossi's uncle. Ossi decides that the only way to achieve any freedom is to pose as a man, so she has a suit tailored, and after bed one evening sneaks out on the town. As a man, Ossi get attention from women and feels exhilaratingly free, but she soon finds that men have it tougher than she thought. On a train she is forced to give up her seat to a woman, and when her foot is stepped on, she is told not to cry about it, to “be a man.” At a dance hall, Ossi runs into none other than her new guardian, who doesn't recognize her in her man's garb. After almost getting in a fight, the two become drinking buddies, then progress to some very un-buddy-like kissing.

I call the movie feminist, because the point of the story seems to be that Ossi doesn't want to be a man, she just wants to enjoy the freedom and independence that would be hers if she were a man. Some have described the movie as ahead of its time, but in fact there was a robust feminist movement in Germany at the time. Much as in the U.S., many of the gains made by the women's movement were undermined by the worldwide Great Depression, (and in Germany by the Nazis). Before the Depression (and the Hays Code), however, many films featured strong-willed women.

Many films from this period also featured scenes of cross-dressing and implied homosexuality. In “I Don't Want to be a Man,” the guardian's actions are not technically gay, since he is making out with a woman, but he sure does think that Ossi is a man when he is kissing her. There's also a scene where the guardian wakes in Ossi's room, wearing her sleeping cap, suggesting that the cross-dressing goes both ways. Perhaps the title, “I Don't Want to be a Man” can also be interpreted as a plea from the guardian. Maybe it is he, not Ossi, who is struggling with gender-identity issues.

3.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Bad Words (2013) **

“Bad Words” has almost all of the elements of an interesting story. There's a unique premise. There's a flawed character, and at the end he has changed a little bit. What's missing is the part in between where he faces some crisis and has an epiphany that explains the change in him. The story arc of this film is like a bridge that has collapsed in the middle.

Jason Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a wounded man-child who is nursing some kind of grudge that drives him, at the age of 40, to enter the Spelling Bee circuit. Because he dropped out of school in eighth grade, he technically qualifies for the tournament, so the outraged parents and Bee officials are forced to let him compete. Kathryn Hahn plays a reporter who sponsors Trilby and tries to pry some of his motivations out of him for her story. At the National Bee, Guy is befriended by a big-eyed, adorable, little Indian kid (Rohan Chand), who turns out to be his biggest competition.

Bateman does achieve the feat of being unlikeable in this film, which I wouldn't have thought possible. His Guy is the sort of misanthropic jerk whose antics might be amusing if he weren't directing his slurs and dirty tricks at little kids. The film attempts to capture some of that hilarious one-upmanship that worked so well between Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray in “Rushmore,” but here it falls flat and is ultimately aborted. What we keep waiting for is that moment where Guy is forced to examine himself and change. Instead, Guy simply changes his behavior right at the end. We never know whether this was his plan all along, or if he changed his plan, and why. Ultimately, the characters and the relationships between them are never developed properly, and one wonders if the rest of the movie didn't get lost in some editing accident.

It's a shame, because this film has a great premise and excellent actors. Rohan Chand isn't the most inspiring child actor, but he is serviceable, and really, Jason Bateman and Kathryn Hahn should have been able to carry this film by themselves. I think the fault lies with the director, who, as it happens, is Jason Bateman. This is his first film to direct, and while I enjoy him as an actor, he doesn't show much promise here as an auteur.

2 stars out of 5