Monday, August 31, 2009

Melinda & Melinda

Two playwrights disagree on the point of view with which to view life. Is it comedy or tragedy? The film unfolds as they each tell the same story from their point of view. Unfortunately, this idea of telling two stories simultaneously has been done (see Sliding Doors) and has been done well. In this case, the concept is old and the implementation is bad. Each story plays like actors reading their lines, not acting. Can you imagine a bad soap opera? Full Disclosure: This review only refers to the first hour of the film, since I could not bear to finish it.
1 star (out of 5)

Gran Torino

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) can string together a racist, invective-laced tirade like no other. Actually, tirade is not really correct since there is rarely anger involved, but instead is his "manly banter" with friends. It is just his way of life, and we all accept that a 70-something Korean War vet is not going to change. Eastwood pulls it off. I think I liked this better the second time around, but you can see my original thoughts here.
4-stars (out of 5)

Mostly Martha

Some films need to be watched, and watched again. This 2001 German film (which was later the basis for the U.S. No Reservations) is one of the best food movies around. See the original, not the re-make. We have Martha (a chef) who inherits her niece Lina after a tragic accident. Lina gets integrated into the life of the kitchen catalyzes a relationship between said Martha and her temporary assistant chef Mario. While the development of the relationships between Martha/Lina, Martha/Mario and Mario/Lina is the primary driving story, the film is written so that this primacy is somehow subtley secondary to the kitchen and the food. This is perhaps best observed in the opening scene with Martha on the couch talking to her psychologist. And the talk is a deeply intimate description of the preparation of a particular meal. An excellent film - go see it.
5-stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Son the Fanatic

A Pakistani man and his family (wife and son) are immigrants in England, where the man drives a taxi. Through his work, he encounters many from the "seedy" neighborhoods and befriends on young woman in particular. He works hard to support his family, send his son to school and money back to his wife's family in Pakistan. Money is what he seeks and how he identifies value, but personal honor and respectability are important to him. When he finds out his son is entering the world of religious fundamentalism, he discovers for himself how incomprehensible this is. He is able to explore his own values against those being displayed by the other characters in his life: his son, his wife, his prostitute friend and a German businessman who has become a regular customer. It is an interesting look at what happens when children become more conservative than their parents. It is an interesting morality tale, yet I am sure that a variety of viewers will each see a different moral truth. It is this last piece that makes for a complex and interesting world.
4 stars (out of 5)

Seven Pounds

The problem with writing about movies like Seven Pounds is that the movie does not really lend itself to being written about. The story unfolds through a series of interactions and flashbacks that is a bit confusing at first, but then develops into an interesting whole. So giving a summary of the "interesting whole" ruins a lot of the viewing pleasure of the unfolding. So without telling much about the story, we can say that Will Smith is struggling with his current life situation, and is finding a unique way of making his life seem meaningful. The way his story plays out could be interpreted as somewhat Messianic in nature, and if one puts this with his other recent films like I Am Legend and The Pursuit of Happyness, then one wonders if Smith is moving into a life stage where he wants to be bigger than life. We will probably have to wait a few years for hindsight to answer that for us. As to Seven Pounds, Smith shows his ability to be quirky, charming and full of angst. It is this last emotion that brings him to an acting level that necessarily different than the Fresh Prince. Overall, I liked this film. I liked Smith's sincerity, and I liked how full the story felt while being told in small (seemingly) discrete segments. And yet, by the end I can only say it was "all-right".
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Duck Season

I am not sure why this came onto my netflix queue. Reading the dust cover makes it sound like... well, judge for yourself.
What begins as another ordinary, quiet Sunday spirals into a chaotic adventure for two teens left home alone. Equipped with their usual video games, best friends Flama and Moko settle in for a pleasant, if predictable, afternoon. But an unexpected encounter with an alluring adolescent neighbor and the intrusion of an idiosyncratic pizza deliveryman conspire to make the day a memorable occasion.

Ok, so does that just scream PORN? But of course since it was in my queue, and therefore my home, I had no choice but to watch it. And was pleasantly surprised. This 2004 Mexican film spends a Sunday with a couple of 14 year old boys living in the projects. In the 9 hours of the afternoon, we get a remarkably deep look at adolescence, the struggles of fitting in, sexuality, finding meaning in life, the importance of history, the pain of family and comfort of friends. One of the impressive pieces here is the use of silence and boredom (part of any adolescent life) and filming it in a way that captures the interest of the viewer. This is a solid movie and whoever put it in my queue should be commended.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Paper Heart

Charlyne Yi sets out to make a documentary about love. She does not love and does not think she will ever love. She wonders if it is even possible for her to love. Enter Michael Cera as the love interest. The doc cameras follow everyone around and we see a budding romance unfold, interspersed with Yi's interviews of all kinds of experts on love. I found myself laughing at some of the bits, the puppetry is a lot of fun and Cera is right on target with his bumbling persona. But this is clearly a mix of documentary and scripted drama, and I was left wondering at the end how much was scripted. Were the interviews real, or part of the drama? Somehow, this affects my appreciation of the film. Somehow, while I enjoyed watching, I didn't come out saying "Great Film".
3 stars (out of 5)

The Straight Story

This may give you a sense of my humor, but what follows is one of the great sequences in film.
Alvin: Are you hungry?
Hitchhiker girl: Whaddya got?
Alvin: Wieners.
Alvin Straight is an old geezer with bad hips and bad eyes who has decided he needs to go see his brother who has just had a stroke. Since he can't drive, and hates to let others drive for him, he decides to cruise over on his riding lawnmower. What's 400 miles to a John Deere after all? Along the way, we get a sense for life on the plains, through the alone time we have with Alvin, through the people we meet and the sweeping views as we drive by at 4 mph. Director David Lynch lets us enjoy the simple things by letting us watch a lightning storm and draws us into the snails pace of the adventure as a group of bicyclists race past Alvin, both surprising and entertaining him. Follow all of this up with a quality, yet simple, ending and we've got a movie worth seeing.
4 stars (out of 5)

District 9

Fabulous. I have been waiting to see this film since I first saw the preview about 6 months ago. Usually that is an indication of over-hype and ends up with a disappointing viewing. Not in this case. The premise goes something like this: An alien space ship came to earth sometime in the 80's and stopped over Johannesburg, the aliens came to settle (be settled) in a slum directly below their ship, humans are trying to relocate the aliens (now over a million of them) to the outskirts of the city, the director of relocation has an accident and we begin to see a different side of the aliens. The filming is a mixture of flashback documentary and live action which helps us piece together what is going on and it is done well. Perhaps one thing that is exciting about this film is the fact that it is original science fiction. Not based on a prior story, cartoon, film, etc. Some of the brilliance is in how it deals matter of factly with the alien presence. There are no universal translators. Instead, since the aliens have been on earth for 20 years, some humans can understand the language, albeit in bits and pieces. The nods to current events (Nigerians are running a scam in the camp) and the irony (comparisons to apartheid are subtle but real) make this fun to watch. Granted, it is not for everybody since there is lots of blood and killing. On the other hand, most of the killing involves instantaneous explosion of entire bodies, so you do not have detailed visuals. Even so, I will take a stand and say that the 4 month old that was sitting with her mother next to me, and the 5 year old a few rows behind were not necessarily the right audience. But I was the right audience and I may even need to see this again to catch the fun pieces I am sure I missed.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 10, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

I don't think film critics should be allowed to watch these kinds of movies. Or at least, they should not be allowed to comment on them. This is a classic summer action film with a plot that goes something like this: Evil bad guys develop plan to take over the world, Good guys discover the plan and work to defeat it, Evil bad guys lose this round but the door is left open for round two. Actually, the plot goes exactly like that. Throw in the cool toys, the horribly inaccurate science (more on this in a second) and personal connections/grudges between bad/good guys and good fun is surely on its way. Every critique of this film I have heard/read says this is a poorly acted film, the costumes are too confusing, the script doesn't allow the full range of the ability of actors to show through, the script has lots of holes in it that "just don't make sense", the flashbacks as a storytelling mechanism is a sure sign of lazy writing, etc. Well, yes. And who cares. For a summer action film, I expect to see a holey script. I do not expect any Academy Award nominations for acting. I expect that CGI will be a major component. And I expect bad science. Of the bad science, there is so much. And not just the "Oh, a real sonic force gun could never produce that much damage from a small pistol sized hand held unit" variety. It is the non-science-fiction bad science that makes these movies. Perhaps my favorite (and I had many to choose from) was the ultimate fate of the undersea headquarters located under the polar ice cap. This ice cap (which is FLOATING above it) gets blown up, and the now smaller chunks of ice CAN NO LONGER FLOAT. Every margarita drinking movie fan knows that it doesn't matter if you order rocks or blended, the ice still floats. So if you are a summer action junkie, this film will do exactly what it was made for. If you are already looking for films to fill out the extra five Academy slots for Best Picture, try one of these instead.
3-stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Saints and Soldiers

Four US soldiers survive a massacre in France in WWII and find themselves trapped on the German side of the front. When they come across a British pilot who just bailed from his plane, and find out that he has important information about a German offensive, they began to make their way through the countryside to find a friendly unit and relay the info to the allies. The film is shot in the winter in France and the imagery is stark and beautiful, the silence of a snow covered forest rudely interrupted by rifles that insist on their own primacy. We also see the landscape of the soldiers psyche from five distinct perspectives as each of them deals with the ridiculous nature of war and what they learn about themselves, each other and the enemy.
4-stars (out of 5)

Cold Souls

Paul Giamatti playing Paul Giamatti. Or at least a caricature of Paul Giamatti. I think actors have fun when they get a chance to play themselves and it generally shows on screen. Giamatti gets to be the struggling, mid-level actor working off-Broadway as a means of showing he is serious. But when he has trouble getting into the part (Chekhov's Uncle Vanya), he takes advantage of a soul extraction and storage service. The thought is that without his soul, he will be free of the weight of being only a mid-level star and be able to fully embrace the role. Unfortunately, he is completely unable to tap into any sort of emotion or gravitas needed to play Vanya. And unfortunately, this is where the film falls short. Instead of capitalizing on an opportunity to really show what it means to be soul-less (and later to have another soul within him) through acting, we are forced to get the point through dialogue. Giamatti basically has to tell us what he is experiencing because we can't see any difference otherwise. But maybe that is a bit too much seriousness to ask for such a light hearted stab at one of the deepest questions that exists. In fact, the soul extraction salesman even states explicitly that they don't know how anything works, they just know how to extract and reinsert. Overall, we get fun little tidbits about the soul, hints at how it might work, and a little bit of metaphysical keystone cops to make this enjoyable. And Giamatti does a pretty good job with himself...
3-stars (out of 5)

Julie & Julia

This film is based on the story of Julie Powell, a 30 yr old woman working in New York for a 9/11 survivor help desk organization. Julie is not happy with her life or status, and is challenged by her husband to cook through Julia Childs cookbook in a year, and to blog about it. This is half of the movie, with the other half telling the story of Julia Childs developing her cookbook. With Amy Adams as Julie and Meryl Streep as Julia, we jump back an forth between the two stories, each woman struggling with her life but never failing to love food. While the Julia story is the much more engaging of the two, the Julie story holds its own and I found myself enjoying the back and forth that is offered. I laughed and enjoyed. What more can you ask for?
4-stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Contract Killers

I guess after three good movies, I was destined for a bad one. All I can say about Contract Killers is that in following the action/spy thriller formula, it fails to bring anything new or interesting to the table. In fact, the formula it follows must be a special condition where the boundary conditions are limited in range, so as not to surprise the viewer. The story goes like this: Jane is a CIA contract assassin. She discovers that her handler is involved in some illegal scheme and tries to have her killed. She escapes, discovers the plot, holds the essential piece of the puzzle that blocks the nefarious scheme, and uses that as a bargaining chip to go her own way. Perhaps the only novelty is in casting a woman in this role, but Jane (Frida Farrell) is not very convincing. So...
2-stars (out of 5)

Postscript: In the guilty pleasure category (and coincidentally with the name of Jane), I discovered Painkiller Jane, a 2007 TV series that lasted only one season. It is a cross between Dark Angel and Heroes. Not award winning by any means, but a fun diversion.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Funny People

Is it an unwritten movie-goer assumption that a movie titled Funny People should be laugh-out-loud funny? Fortunately I had seen a couple of reviews before going and knew that this was not intended to be a comedy, but a movie about comedy... sort of. Adam Sandler plays George, a comic diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia. Seth Rogan is Ira, his newly acquired assistant/joke writer/punching bag. The nearly two and a half hours we spend with these two comics reveals the price of fame for George (loneliness) and its recognition by aspiring famous person Ira. Ira is a true bumbler, fully described by his first joke ("I'm not good looking, and I'm not ugly. If had a personality, I might be able to get girls... but I don't"). Ira is the hero/friend, and writer/director Apatow never resorts to a taking off the glasses, letting the hair down transformation into hero. We just have to (and Ira must as well) accept that he can only be who he is. So we see him trying to be friend, balancing work, not showing quite the compassion in sickness that we might like to see, and being awkward with the girls. My only complaint with the film is the length. In a film where the main character endures a long struggle, I am never sure if it is good film making or lazy film making if I also feel like I in in a long struggle. Sure, I identify with the character, etc. But wouldn't truly genius film making allow me to enter that empathetic state without pushing me toward an apathetic one?
3 stars (out of 5)

Lorna's Silence

A well crafted Belgian film. Albanian immigrants to Belgium, Lorna and her boyfriend Sokol are interested in setting up a little cafe, but need money and citizenship to make it happen. Sokol becomes and industrial migrant worker across Europe to earn his share while Lorna earns her cash through a "marriage for paperwork" scheme. The details of the story are revealed slowly throughout the film as the business arrangement between Lorna and her husband Claudy becomes an actual relationship. What I like about this film is how the initial goals (pursuit of success and happiness) are derailed because the goal becomes so important that it supersedes any other morality. The tension is built when Lorna realizes that her morals have been reordered by her own action and inaction, and we see one possible future result.
While this is not an explicit attack on capitalism or the west, it is definitely a cautionary tale about pursuit of a single goal at all cost, no matter how right or good that goal may be. And while we have recently seen in this country that such pursuit can have professional ramifications for those business-persons involved, Lorna's Silence is a vivid reminder of the deeply personal and emotional impact of "business" decisions we make.
5-stars (out of 5)

In the Mood for Love

I don't know why I watch movies late on a Friday. This is summer, and Friday shouldn't be any different than any other day. But I still find myself tired on Friday, and last night was no different. So I saw about two-thirds of this film, and Annika told me about the rest of it. With that note, I must say that this is a fascinating film. Primarily for the filming. Set in Hong Kong, two separate couples (the Chan's and the Chow's) sublet rooms in adjacent apartments. They both happen to move in the same day and we get an immediate sense of the density of life in Hong Kong. The genius of this film is that the population density is very clear, even though there are never more than 3 or 4 people on camera at any time. Every shot is filmed around a corner, through a doorway, through a window, or over the shoulder of someone. You feel close. And since the film is set in the 60's, the decor is quintessential east. For the story, the two protagonists (Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow) find their spouses are having an affair with each other. They become good friends and explore the friendship/tension that develops based on their spouses "secret" liaison. In the end (and I rely on Annika for this assessment), the film is a Chinese version of The Bridges of Madison County, both in story line and in its ability to highlight the character of the locale. This is not a great movie, but it is beautiful.
4-stars (out of 5)