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.

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.