Friday, November 28, 2014

Casino Royale (2006) 3 of 4

** no major Spoilers in this review**

The first film in the grittier, Daniel Craig-starring cycle of James Bond films.  Not being a Bond fan, I would've liked still more grit, but this film has the goods, and there's a surprising and impressive depth to the love story.  Without giving it all away for those who haven't seen it, the film shows how Bond's avoidance of commitment went from disposition to way of life.
Yes, it's the origin story: asked whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred, a testy Bond asks "Do I look like I give a damn?"  It's only toward the end that he introduces himself in the traditional fashion: "Bond.  James Bond."  And like most superheroes, this Bond is an orphan.
You have the essentials for a good Bond film: the flashy action set pieces; the brash, brassy score that evokes romantic, globe-trotting adventure (no time for the imperial guilt of a Jason Bourne film); and the colorful villains who speak with an accent and are undone by their own hubris in combination with the awesome skills of superspy Bond, a.k.a. 007.
Daniel Craig's Bond is a badass, a man determined to act as the perfect "blunt instrument" of his government.  He is the spy as machine, until he's temporarily distracted by the hypnotic, inimitable Eva Green.  You can believe this Bond in an extended foot chase, unlike Roger Moore, and he's just as believable trading punches and enduring torture as he is at the high-stakes poker game.  When his girl gives him the traditional compliment in this type of narrative -- that he's more man than anyone she's known -- it's not just a line.
We can also believe Bond falling for the sultry, velvety Green, who has the kind of eyes that are shaped less like almonds and more like -- legumes?  Papayas?  (We need a name for this.)  Her character has the kind of name that gets my brain working: Vesper Lynd.  Vespers means evening (service), so it evokes endings.  Vesper also evokes breathing (whisper, rasp, exasperate): she becomes life itself for Bond.  Lynd evokes heritage: line, lien, land.  However, Bond is also so in love, so wined and dined, that he's inclined to be blind to Lynd's flaws.
Casino Royale climaxes with an underwater sequence, so common in recent films.  Yes, submarine scenes are cinematic, but I believe there is profound cultural meaning in these matching sequences in dozens of films: Alien: ResurrectionThe Butterfly Effect, Dark WaterInception, The Grey,

My reading, in line with my article in Senses of Cinema, is that the world is in transition away from white-male domination, but rebirth requires a death, so we get scenes that (attempt to) combine drowning with a baptism.  Underwater also represents the unconscious, the part of us that must change if the world is truly going to change.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Departed (2006) 3 of 4

**this review contains only mild spoilers**

The Departed wants to be in the league of Heat, another epic-length cops-and-robbers opera with huge stars making homoerotic love through violence.  Still, every movie has to be taken in context, and The Departed suffers from arriving late, seeming like a season of an HBO series that for some reason has been cut down to feature length.
I'll enjoy this film more if I watch it again, because I'll be ready for its monotonous pacing. A fast film can be monotonous, too, and this one is all exposition and plot points, with never a chance to exhale.  As it wound up with a number of twists, I was reminded of the tongue-in-cheek neo-noir Wild Things, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, although I doubt it's what the filmmakers had in mind.

It's set in South Boston, like Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and the overrated Boondock Saints.  It's nice to see my distant cousins get a top-flight gangster movie, even if Scorsese is past his peak and groping to find the honor among thieves.  At this point, I think his heart is with more lovely fare like Hugo.
If cops are criminals and vice versa, as Jack Nicholson's character says "What's the difference?"
The Departed is a film of moments, for the top-notch cast of Nicholson, DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Alex Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga.  Scorsese assembled them in Boston to trade punches, bullets, and lines like "20 years after a fucking Irishman couldn't get a job, we had the presidency, may he rest in peace" (Nicholson), "Marriage is an important part of getting ahead ... they figure at least someone can stand the son-of-a-bitch" (Baldwin), and "Fuck you, cocksucker" (everyone).

The moment that sticks with me is when police trainee Damon responds to a rugby loss to a team of fire trainees by suggesting they "go save a kitten, ya homo's."  This kind of line is designed for the collective laughter of a theatre.  Watching the film at home, I found the line vaguely sad, a gesture from cinema guys trying to show us there are some things that TV still can't do.  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Law Abiding Citizen (2009) 2.5 of 4

**Spoiler section marked**

The reviews I've seen for Law Abiding Citizen focus on its implausible plot, and they're correct, but I think they miss the point.
This film is best described by noting two major deviations from what we might expect.  The first is the racial (ethnic) reversal, with a white man being the victim of the U.S. criminal justice system, and a black lawyer (Jamie Foxx) representing that imperfect system, a system based in the cutting of deals.  Although race is never mentioned (IIRC), the film can't help but reflect the unease of a transforming society.  And although he works for the NSA, Gerard Butler's character is basically a very gifted blue-collar tinkerer, and his first name, Clyde, has a Southern ring.

**moderate SPOILERS ahead**
The other twist is that this is a vigilante film that goes so far as to also be a sympathetic serial-killer movie, being even more brutal than The Brave One.  This shocked me, and I almost gave up on the film as simply a nasty piece of work.
The reason I recommend the film is that I realized it has something interesting to say amidst the far-fetched violence and vengeance.  By giving a frustrated crime victim the skills of an NSA contractor, the film asks: what if we judged domestic criminals by the same standards that we use for international terrorists?
**end SPOILERS**

Why do we treat murderers so differently, based on where and how and who they kill?  And as long as we do, should we be surprised when victims sometimes turn into perpetrators?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Dead Girl (2006) 2 of 4

**entire review contains SPOILERS**

The Dead Girl begins with Toni Collette discovering the corpse of the title, and should not be confused with Dead Girl, in which two teens discover a corpse in an underground room, let alone Gone Girl, Jennifer's Body, Warm Bodies,
The film was written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, who admits in the extras that most of the characters originated in separate screenplays, and perhaps this is why the film never really comes together.  Still, it's sincere and well-crafted, sharing characteristics with a lot of indie dramas: an impressive cast playing variously damaged characters, distressed locations in the S.W. United States, transience, poverty, family dysfunction, feminist themes, social commentary,
My rating begs the question of why I liked the last film, Chloe (with its similar plot), so much better than this one.  I think the main reason is that unlike Krista in The Dead Girl, we see Chloe in her innocence, before her dreams are shattered.  And while it's permissible for filmmakers to make a film without a traditional arc, when they do so they've set themselves a harder task.
The Dead Girl was inspired partly by a murder trial for which Moncrieff was a juror, and it skips around in both time and space to show the ripple affect of the murder of young runaway.  Collette is Arden, a timid homebody who's been damaged by the abuse of her now-elderly mother (Piper Laurie, who played a similar role in the original Carrie).  The old hag blames her daughter for finding the corpse and for the resulting media attention, but for Arden this is the last straw, and she summons the courage to let a grocery store clerk (Giovanni Ribisi) make love to her, and then to leave home for good.
Next up: Rose Byrne as Leah, college student and sister of a runaway.  This section may be the saddest, because unlike many of the characters Leah still has a chance at a great life.  She's jubilant at the news of the corpse's discovery because she believes it's her long-gone sister, and if so it would end her mother's relentless obsession with locating the sister.  It's not, so it's back to antidepressants for poor Leah.
Mary Beth Hurt plays the pathetic, co-dependent wife of a quiet man who tends to disappear without warning.  She thinks he's a cheat, but then she discovers a storage locker with mementos of missing girls.  She gets as far as the police station, then returns home and burns all the evidence rather than be left alone.
Marcia Gay Harden plays the actual mother of the murdered girl.  Reconstructing her daughter's final months, she finds Theresa (Kerry Washington), her daughter's former roommate and lover, a fellow drug-user and prostitute.  Harden is naive but kind, and she finds and literally buys her granddaughter and even offers a place to Theresa.
Skipping back in time, we finally meet Krista (Brittany Murphy) herself, a drug-addled mess with a tough-guy boyfriend (Josh Brolin), but capable of great courage and passion, risking her life to defends those she loves.  She's traveling to her daughter's birthday when her bike runs out of gas, and she accepts a ride from the presumed killer, bringing us full circle.
There's a short interview with Brittany Murphy on the disc, possibly sadder than anything in the movie.  Only while watching this did I realize just how big Murphy's eyes were.  She shows poise and radiates love and goodness as she sits like an angel wearing a tiny cross on a chain.  Knowing that she od'd, I have to wonder to what degree this "angel" was another part she was playing.  After all that success so young, I wonder if Brittany herself knew that it's ok to be broken, to ask for help, to start over.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Chloe (1996) 4 out of 4

**entire review contains mild SPOILERS**

Chloe was made for French TV, but it's as good as most theatrical films.  It's a cautionary tale about the beautiful, emotional title character (Marion Cotillard in her breakthrough role), a 15 year old whose youthful impulsiveness leads to tragedy.
Tired of mom controlling her, Chloe runs away to an unnamed city in France.  Lonely, she thinks about returning home but misses the last train, so she curls up on a train station bench.  This is where Jean-Michel finds her.  A handsome rogue in a leather jacket, Jean-Michel charms the young girl, offering her a place to stay and even waiting a few days before having sex with her.
Chloe is a bright girl and has decent self-esteem, but she's simply too young to understand the big, bad world.  She ends up used and abused, the plaything of a stream of men with the cash for entrance to a dingy flat.
In order to preserve the film's impact, I won't give the details about how Jean-Michel and his friends fool Chloe, however it is fascinating, and as specific as the procedure vampires use to turn their victims.  (Vampires are a metaphor for exploitation, anyway.)
The cast is superb.  Cotillard is an immediate star, commanding the screen with her beauty, charisma, and talent.  Anna Karina plays her friend Katia, a lonely woman who runs a nightclub.  Chloe doesn't want to end up like Katia, but that is exactly why she should listen to her.
I'm giving this film my highest score, not because it's one of the best films ever made, but because there's nothing I would change about it.  The filmmakers went a little heavy on the sepia tone (judging from the amazon print I saw), but they're giving the film a smooth glamour to drive home that this could happen to any girl, even the girls in the romantic, dreamy movies we've seen.  Lies and tragedy don't always come with neon signs, and sometimes a pimp might be a Gallic James Dean.
(On the other hand, it reminds me of a film that took the gritty, low-budget approach: What Alice Saw.  Also worth seeing: House of Pleasures.)
If I had a daughter, I'd give her this film to see.  It's an effective, involving drama with superb actors and production values, all of which makes it powerful as a cautionary tale.     

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Funny Games (2007) 3 of 4

** Entire review contains SPOILERS**

This is a home-invasion movie with a pedigree: it's Michael Haneke's own remake of his Austrian film of 1997.  Haneke is a world-renowned, confrontational director known for such films as The Piano Teacher, Cache, and The White Ribbon.
In this U.S. version, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Ann and George, a well-off couple embarking on a lakeside holiday with their young son.  The vacation turns into a nightmare, when their home is invaded by two nihilistic, sadistic, white-gloved bastards calling themselves Peter and Paul.  As the two nominal villains destroy the lives of this family, the film indicts the audience for watching, even breaking the fourth wall at times.
This may sound sophomoric in description, but it's done with so much craft and conviction that it's tough to dismiss the film (if you're the type of person who'd sit down to watch in the first place).  I was most reminded of Natural Born Killers, but I think it's more effective: NBK game me a headache, while Funny Games makes its points because it's enjoyable.  And while there have now been a number of movies that examine why we watch horror and violence (Videodrome, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Scream), well -- we keep watching violent movies, don't we?

The sequence I'll spotlight is Ann's forced disrobing.  Naomi Watts is an attractive woman, and when the captors work the conversation around to her figure, I felt warm anticipation (in my defense, noone had been killed at this point).  I wondered how far this would go, how hot it would get.  Would she show her tits?  I hope they show her getting undressed.  I'm glad the kid has a bag over his head so we can concentrate on the sexy stuff for a while.
Well, it wasn't sexy.  We don't see her strip, and although she spends much of the film in bra and panties, I wasn't titillated, in fact it was pretty awful to see her victimized.  The filmmakers effectively pull the rug here: for example, the panties are boyish and functional,a kind no one would describe as "lingerie."  It's simply pathetic.
Before I get too self-congratulatory, I do recommend this film about two pricks who beat, maim, and slaughter an innocent family.
If nothing else, it's a conversation starter.  The killers repeatedly break the fourth wall, asking our opinion of the events, and there's even a scene when Ann gets the upper hand, only for one of the criminals to pick up the remote and rewind the entire scene so it can play out differently.

The scene on the boat is even more confusing, but I think the two are talking about themselves as if they are fictional characters.  Funny Games isn't as densely packed as Donnie Darko, but like that film it plays with fiction vs. reality.
As for the gloves, we're reminded of mimes or waiters, but a few days later I made an association more fitting, considering Haneke's an Americaphobe: Mickey Mouse.
To me, the meaning of the film is there in the first scene as the family drives into the mountains, playing trivia concerning classical music.  Suddenly the music changes to punk as the title pops onto the screen in big red letters: "FUNNY GAMES."  This is what you paid for!  You came for mayhem, not to see a nice family doing nice things.
I believe it's also asking why: Why do these people have beautiful lives while others are starving or being tortured or wanting for medical care in other parts of the world?  There's an element of random chance that they are in these circumstances and not those, and given that fact, chance can also put them suddenly into hell, and it does.  The boy killers mockingly claim childhood abuse to "explain" their actions, but it's more likely they've spent too much time pondering the unfairness of life and have jumped off an ethical cliff.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Moon (2009) 2 of 4

**Spoiler section marked**

I'm 50 years old, and for me the golden of s.f. movies was the 1980s.  This helps to explain why I'm not too excited by most of the newer s.f. movies, although Tom Cruise has been making some good ones, and I like many of the viral horror films, with their s.f. elements.
As for Moon, I can only class it with other recent, tersely-titled films with protagonists stuck somewhere near the Earth, forced to break out of their stupor if they're going to get back to and/or save the day: Wall-E, Gravity, Elysium, Oblivion,  These movies are OK if you don't mind the science fiction serving as frame for the old message about letting life be an adventure or you'll sink in a rut etc.

** SPOILER Section **

Moon is quieter than those films, with little action, instead leaning of the wan charm of  Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, a corporate caretaker of an otherwise-automated mining base (which looks a lot like Moonbase Alpha of Space: 1999).  The film is well-titled, because sad Sam spends most of the film mooning and moping around, yearning to get back to his wife and daughter on Earth.  What he learns as the plot unfolds is that it's later than he thinks: he's a clone, his wife is dead and the company has hundreds of other Sam clones in storage.  Sam's a spare part.
Ultimately, the only person Sam has to talk to is a newer version of himself. The newer Sam can't avoid the truth that he's a clone, which makes him more of a hard-ass.  This sets up an "odd couple" dynamic.  There's also GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), the station's robot, surprisingly helpful to Sam as he defends his rights.

** END Spoiler Section**

The names underline this is Sam's wake-up call: Bell runs the Sarang station.  Fine, but the whole thing seems undernourished to me, without much edge for a story about an existential crisis.  Also, I'm not buying this shuffling non-conformist in charge of a high-value moon station.  Reportedly, the character is partly inspired by the Bruce Dern's character in Silent Running (who's also referenced by a clip in the recent Mama, another tale of loneliness and exploitation), but that film is set farther into the future, so it's more believable that space technology might be left in the hands of a grumpy oddball.
But also: have you seen  Silent Running?  Like Elysium, it's a film that got applause for its message. (As movies, yech.)
As for Moon, it's not so bad, but from the positive reviews I expected more.  We're in an age of lowered expectations for science fiction movies, which probably makes sense with space exploration stalled, warfare grinding on as we try to sort the impact of the Internet and globalization: we have less patience for visions of different futures.  The best we can do is tales of working stiffs in spacesuits, trying to get home.