Saturday, December 27, 2014

Changing Lanes (2002) 2.5 of 4

This isn't my type of film, that is it's an unapologetic, button-pushing melodrama.  Still, I give it a marginal recommendation because it does what it sets out to do.
Ben Affleck is a hotshot Manhattan lawyer, Samuel L. Jackson is an AA member trying to get visitation rights to his kids even as their mother threatens to move them to Oregon.  When these two harried men get into an accident on the highway, it has profound repercussions for both, and as they find themselves linked and battling, both are forced to look in the mirror.

Unlike Lakeview Terrace, race is a fairly minor element here, except for one scene in which Jackson's Doyle Gipson goes off on some Madison Avenue types who've been glibly discussing Tiger Woods.  I respect the way the film sets up a dramatic situation and follows through, without getting distracted or flinching at the character flaws of these two men.  And this is very much a story about men and their challenges.
The film acknowledges American racism, but it doesn't use it as the excuse for Doyle's grave flaws as a father.  At the same time, it has some compassion for the problems of a monied, handsome, white lawyer.  Yes, Gavin Banek has had lots of advantages in life, but at the same time the film makes clear the people closest to him have him by the short ones.

** spoilers ahead **

Changing Lanes doesn't flinch, that is, until the ending, which I found unbelievable.  Maybe Gavin would confront his father-in-law with his misdeeds and demand change, but not in front of the latter's wife and daughter.  Stephen Delano (Sydney Pollack) has been portrayed as a hard-nosed, unsentimental man who does what it takes to get rich and stay that way.  Why would he suddenly let his son-in-law dominate him?  The ending just doesn't work as written, and it's unworthy of a film whose main strength is allowing its characters to suffer the blows of modern life. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) 2.5 of 4

** this review contains spoilers **

Disclosure: I've been a trekkie for about 40 years.

The thing that strikes me about this second film is that it's a lot less militaristic than the first (2008) film, causing me to wonder, is J.J. Abrams going soft?  This is his re-mix of the sabre-rattling 1982 hit Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but the real villain here isn't Khan, it's Peter Weller's Admiral Marcus, a rogue warmonger.  (Marcus is a variation on the part Weller played in Star Trek: Enterprise "Terra Prime.")

Perhaps we could say that if Abrams is the new Spielberg, Tarantino is the new Scorsese.  Both of the younger directors do lots of sampling/homage, both of them are ironic and self-referential.  Abrams is more mainstream, and inherently more conservative, but with this film he and his writers (his usual stable) seem to be resonating with the world's growing skepticism re: the war on terrorism.

Politics aside, this is an entertaining film with the expected action, spectacle, and humor.  I actually need to see it again: I watched it on amazon and wasn't able to appreciate the effects, which I suspect are thrilling given the right presentation.
I'll make two complaints, both of them from my "fanboy" perspective.  First, this film shows Kirk pushing Starfleet away from a military and toward a more exploratory role.  Even in an alternate timeline this makes little sense, since Starfleet was never purely military, and it was usually Spock or McCoy who argued the pacifist side, not Kirk and Scott as in this film.
My second gripe is more substantial.  Abrams wanted the hot actor Benedict Cumberbatch, and he wanted to do his version of Star Trek II.  Understood.  Still, why is this pale-skinned, British-accented man named "Khan"?
In the original episode "Space Seed," Khan is described as "probably a Sikh, from the Northern India area -- they make the fiercest warriors."  Fine, even today there are lots of South Asians immigrants to the U.K., and Khan is a genetically engineered superman, but nevertheless this struck a false note with me.  Someone needs to remind Abrams that not everything he touches turns to gold.

Speaking of Mr. Cumberbatch, his casting makes sense, since he and Martin Freeman are essentially playing an alternate-universe Spock and McCoy on the modern-day Sherlock.  Cumberbatch is a fine actor, but he doesn't match the manly menace of Ricardo Montalban in both "Space Seed" and Star Trek II.
What younger viewers may not realize is that Montalban had become something of a joke before the 1982 film, due to his trivial series Fantasy Island and a series of car commercials in which he repeatedly touted "rich Corinthian leather," which became a mocking catchphrase.
This makes it all the more remarkable that the actor, then 62, excelled in his return as Khan, quieting any titters with talent, force of will, and impressive pectorals.  And he had to hold his own against William Shatner, and say what you will about him as an actor, Shatner was a veteran scene-stealer.

It was never going to happen, but in retrospect, Montalban deserved an Oscar nomination for his work in Star Trek II.  Ever since, that franchise-saving film has been the model of what a Star Trek film should be, and it has only one element that no other Trek film has: Montalban.  His may be a scenery-chewing performance, but it's a great scenery-chewing performance.      

Monday, December 22, 2014

U.S. Marshals (1998) 2 of 4

Like most people, I thought The Fugitive was a great piece of commercial filmmaking, the kind that used to get called a "crackerjack thrill-ride."  And like most people, I paid much less attention to the sequel U.S. Marshals, although the film pulled a middling $57 million at the U.S. box office.

I remember questioning the wisdom of a sequel focusing on the secondary, standoffish character played by Tommy Lee Jones.  Still, through the years I'd hear good buzz on this film -- good score, better-than-you'd-think, etc. -- so I finally watched it.  My experience backed up what I've said thus far, bad and good.
This is very much from the age when movies were meant to be seen in movie theatres: it's a big, widescreen show, shot on locations in Chicago, New York, and along the Ohio River, the latter being an evocative location considering we're following a white lawman chasing a dark-skinned black man (Wesley Snipes).  It has that fine score by Jerry Goldsmith, and it also has a memorable opening involving Tommy Lee Jones in a chicken suit.

** moderate spoilers ahead **

The problem is that Jones's character, as drawn in the original film, is a human bloodhound: His job is to find and deliver people, not to investigate (thus his famous reply when Harrison Ford denies killing his wife: "I don't care!").  And so in U.S. Marshals, though we sense from the beginning that the Snipes character is being framed, there's a flabby midsection in which, despite lots of good story points, the plot stagnates (some of it's even set in a swamp).
It's too bad, because there's much here to like, but the film never overcomes this structural flaw.  It doesn't help that the resolution seems anticlimactic, blaming everything on minor characters we're not invested in anyway.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Invisible Eye (2010) 3 of 4

Beautiful Teachers, Sexual Misconduct, Part 2

There's something fascinating about a beautiful woman who can't get laid.  It seems absurd: she could throw a rock and find someone.  Then again, life always seems so much easier when it's happening to someone else.
The Invisible Eye  is a Spanish-language film set in 1980s Argentina, at a large boy's school, a drab and regimented place that is nevertheless simmering with human energy.  It's more of an art-house film than A Teacher (previous post), although both of them foreground human psychology over plot.

As the repressed teacher Miss Cornejo, Julieta Zylberberg carries the film, especially since we never find out what experiences may have caused this young beauty to excel at her career and yet be unable to bend in social situations (of course, it can't help that she sleeps in the same bed as her mother).  Zylberberg uses body language to create a hung-up woman, someone who rarely commits to being where she is, who she is.  Some part of her is faraway.

** spoilers ahead **

The lack of explanations only enhances our sense of compassion; we root for her to figure it out.  Miss Cornejo is not asexual, in fact she dares bizarre behavior for kicks: she hides out in the boy's room, ostensibly to catch smokers, and eventually masturbates while squatting in a stall.
Her sexual frustration is so palpable that several people in her life comment.  The school principal, who seems a good man, ultimately rapes her in the boy's room.  She punishes him.
And so this character study ends with a provocative ethical situation; I was impressed by this film's willingness to portray an assault that has two sides to it: it is a rape, but at the same time most viewers will sympathize with both victim and perpetrator, given the bizarre circumstances.

** end spoilers ** 

The film also draws parallels between the personal story and Argentina's political troubles, with both of these tensions breaking at the same time.  I don't know much about Argentina, but this aspect is not central to the film.  It works fine as psychological drama.     

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Teacher (2013) 3 of 4

Beautiful Teachers, Sexual Misconduct, Part 1

A Teacher is one of those low-budget, sexy-looking movies that make for a good impulse-buy on a bored and/or lonely night.
The film is set in Texas, where it follows an attractive female teacher and her affair with one of her students, a handsome football player.  I'm not a fan of the hi-def video look, but like anything else it has its uses, and this type of intimate drama is one of them, the kind of voyeuristic film that lets you be a fly-on-the-wall for some character-based drama and misbehavior.  We might say that such films correct the flaw of reality TV by supplying actors and a script.

** spoilers in remainder of review **

There are some moderately sexy moments, but this is mainly a drama and a character study.  We know from the beginning that this can't end well, but the film compensates for the foregone quality by starting with the affair already ongoing and ending just when the relationship does, when a call from the principal leaves the protagonist in wracking sobs.
A Teacher works best as a calling card for actress Lindsay Burdge -- a very effective one, judging from the half-dozen films she has in the pipeline.  As drama, it's effective, as social exploration, very conventional.  The affair is the teacher's fault, but it's also something that happens to her as opposed to the young man she's preyed on.  He's a swaggering kid, and we're sure that he'll be just fine, but as for his ex-, we see her as more victim than criminal.    

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Perfect Getaway (2009) 3 of 4

** this review contains spoilers **

This is a pretty good movie, but it's the kind of movie that's hard to enjoy these days, not because of the movie itself but because of our (I'll be nice) "information society."  When it was released, I saw a review -- I want to say on TV -- and the reviewer said that the film isn't horror but "more of a thriller with a really big twist."
As Key and Peele have pointed out, saying a movie has a "big twist" is itself a spoiler.  It ruins the movie: even if you can't guess the twist, you sit there waiting and wondering.  In this case, I'm movie-savvy enough to know that "big twist" must mean that Steve Zahn's character is himself the killer.  I've seen a lot of movies, including High Tension -- what else could it be?
The Perfect Getaway is so spoiler-prone that it's hard to see how most of its target audience could ever see the film without first having it spoiled for them.  At least it provided a working Hawaiian vacation for all concerned, which may have been more important for the actors and for writer-director David Twohy.  Come to think of it, this would've been a good reason to be more skeptical when the creators of Lost told us we'd get answers that didn't involve aliens or purgatory.
With that said, A Perfect Getaway held my attention, which is a lot, considering.  It has good acting, and the script is pretty good with some Scream-type meta-moments, without spreading it too thick.  Timothy Olyphant does most of the heavy-lifting here, setting a tone of black humor as an ex-Special Forces guy who acts as the "red snapper," as he puts it.
On a more serious note, and a sign of our anxious times, the film doesn't just establish that Zahn's character's a mad-dog killer, it establishes that Olyphant's combat vet/adrenaline junkie isn't one.  

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cop Land (1997, director's cut) 3 of 4

"Being white isn't a bullet-proof vest."
   - Ray Liotta, Cop Land

Sadly, the above line is more resonant given the wave of police shootings of black males in the U.S.  This film's plot is triggered by the cover-up of a police shooting of black men.  Although Cop Land is not specifically about racism, it's interesting that part of the problem here is cops who have little more faith in the system than do African-Americans, and so they immediately decide to foil any investigation.  

** moderate spoilers ahead **

Cop Land is set mostly in a small town in northern New Jersey that's become a haven for New York City police officers, most of them with Irish or Italian surnames.  (The end credits note that NYC cops are now required to live in-state, presumably to avoid just this type of situation).  The town is inhospitable to people of color, but that's arguably the least of the crimes engineered by the town's power-broker, veteran cop Ray Donlan, played by Harvey Keitel.

Keitel's eventual opponent is Sylvester Stallone as the town's nominal sheriff, Freddy Heflin, kept off the big-city force by partial deafness, the result of his saving a drowning man as a teen.  Robert DeNiro, in his nerdy mode of The King of Comedy and The Good Shepherd, plays the Internal Affairs cop who rouses Freddy's law-enforcing instincts.  As Stallone sets about rattling the skeletons, he loses friends but regains self-respect.

** end spoiler section **

The remarkable cast also includes Peter Berg, Robert Patrick, Michael Rappaport, Annabella Sciorra, and Cathy Moriarty. This is one of those movies you sit there watching and wonder how this wasn't a hit with multiple award nominations.  The content may have made people nervous, but sadly, the problem might have simply been the industry's now-notorious loss of interest in mid-budget films, which demand deft marketing for a relatively modest payday.  The top-drawer cast got the film made, but they couldn't force the suits to market the film.
Cop Land was released in August, which indicates it was dumped: this is not a summer action movie, but a classically filmed, socially aware crime drama, in fact you must pay close attention to follow the plot.  Some people find the ending too abrupt, and I admit the film isn't the all-time classic of the vaguely similar (but more mythic) The Place Beyond the Pines, itself a box-office casualty.  Still, Cop Land is a fine, involving film with a strong sense of place and a smart and clearly well-researched script, made with impressive craft in all areas.  Forget Grudge Match, if you want to see Stallone and Deniro together here's your film.
Cop Land was written and directed by James Mangold, known for directing Identity, Girl, Interrupted, and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma.  Mangold grew up in the New York area and attended Columbia University, and the quality of his resume leaves me intrigued by his other writing-directing efforts, Heavy and Kate and Leopold.  

Paranoiac (1963) 2.5 of 4

** this review contains only mild spoilers **

As much as any studio, Britain's Hammer Studios was known for their production values.  Their impressive craft in all areas of film production made their ordinary movies watchable, and made the good ones classics.  Maybe this fated them to specialize in horror, where maintaining a mood is so important.  A horror film need not be frightening if it instills a sense of dread, a diverting unease.

Paranoiac must have been better in the theatre, anno 1963, because it's very much a mood piece, a date movie where the viewer waits to be grasped by (or grasp) their partner.  And reduced to synopsis, it seems trifling: troubled rich family reacts to the return of their prodigal brother, assumed a suicide at age 15, as they also wait to inherit large sums of money.  Is he really the brother?  And which of them is really insane?  etc.  This is one of those movies where someone's willing to kill everyone else, but who's the killer?  (No one seems to be a "paranoiac," but I guess that's not the point, is it?)

Even on the home screen, the film works better than it has right to, thanks in part to the moody black-and-white photography, of cliffside locations and lots of looming close-ups, including those of Oliver Reed in the type of balls-out performance that would evoke giggles if it were almost anyone else (William Shatner, or maybe Jack Nicholson in The Shining).  If you laugh at Reed it will be in fascination at what a convincingly haunted bastard he creates as he downs one glass after another of fake alcohol (presumably fake) and rages, a spoiled brat in the body of a pugilist, whenever life dares defy him.  We don't sympathize with him, but he is the protagonist of this tale set in a world of deception and exploitation, peopled mostly by psychological cripples.

Like Dementia 13, The Cabinet of Caligari, and TV's The Outer Limits, Paranoiac dates from that post-Psycho era when filmmakers realized that the gothic need not be set in the past.  It's not the best of Hammer's contemporary shockers -- that would be Scream of Fear, with Susan Strasberg, per both the consensus and my own judgment -- but it's not bad for a rainy night.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Lakeview Terrace (2008) 2.5 of 4

** this review contains only mild spoilers **

I'll marginally recommend this film, but I have to feel that the subject matter deserves more than a serviceable and glossy thriller.  The film did well in theatres, where it doubtless sparked some conversations that were more potent than the film itself.
Samuel L. Jackson stars, proving again he's one of the few black stars with the balls to play a racist.  Or is he the only one who gets asked?  In any case, his Abel Turner has a burr up his ass about the new interracial couple on his UMC L.A. cul-de-sac.  If that's not bad enough for the characters played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington, their new hater-neighbor is LAPD.
Watching the first half of this movie I felt like it could have been written by a computer: "Suri, give me a rewrite of Unlawful Entry, making both the cop and the female lead African-American."  But then we learn some personal backstory that helps explain Abel's actions, and the film gains enough of a skeleton to carry it through to the violent and ironic ending.
This is one of many recent movies that feels Los Angeles is the perfect setting for the crumbling and cracking of America, with various perils as symbol or metaphor: car accidents (Grand Canyon, Crash), corruption (L.A. Confidential, Dark Blue), enemy attack (Right at your Door, Battle Los Angeles), paranoia (The End of Violence, the films of David Lynch), and here, wildfires.


Friday, December 5, 2014

Wake in Fright (1971) 2.5 of 4

** this review contains spoilers throughout **

I thought this would be a horror movie, but it's more of a melodrama.  The movie shows the Outback (the alternate title) has a negative affect on the men who live there.  Eking out their living thousands of miles from (their) civilization, the white men in this film resort to alcohol, gambling, cruelty, and violence.  It's a bit like Straw Dogs, but here the conflict is mostly internal.
I'll also compare it to The Colony: in that film, people descend to animal level from hunger and cold.  Here, it's heat and isolation that does it.
John Grant is a young schoolteacher, essentially an indentured servant until he works off his government debt for his education.  He thinks he's better than the working-class men who inhabit the Outback, but he learns he's much the same, under the right conditions.
He's on his way to Sydney for his 6-week vacation, but never gets there.  All it takes is a taste of an addictive gambling game to start him on a 6-week bender, before he limps back to the tiny community where he works.
Donald Pleasance plays an alcoholic doctor who claims to like living in the Outback because it's where he can live honestly, without pretense.  Unlike John, he seems to have retained his sexual functioning, with one of the few women we see.
The film is infamous for its scenes of kangaroos being slaughtered.  According to the extras, the filmmakers photographed one of the nightly kangaroo hunts, the meat destined for American pets.  The footage is disturbing, like the film.  
The film is striking to look at, as is almost any film photographed in the wilds of Australia.  Still, the tone is one of self-loathing: male self-loathing, Australian self-loathing, colonialist self-loathing.  It reminded me of other films that portray men as self-destructive wrecks, such as The Ice Storm, and perhaps Killer of Sheep, although that film is about an oppressed minority.
In its hopelessness and its barren views, Wake in Fright  also recalls such American films of the period as The Last Picture Show and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.