Wednesday, January 07, 2009

More Quick Movie Reviews

Still making my way through the stack of award screeners. I wish I could say I have found lots of movies to love, but my feeling is most of the critically acclaimed movies made in 2008 will be quickly lost to cinematic history. One can hope anyway.

Let's jump in...


Short Changed-ling

Directed by Clint Eastwood, written by J. Michael Straczinski, starring Angelina Jolie and that cute guy from Burn Notice, Jeffrey Donovan

Storyline: Every parent's nightmare. The eight year old son of a single mother vanishes from their home. A year later, the police return the boy to his mother...only, it's a different kid, but the police won't hear any of that. Turns out the corrupt LAPD wanted the matter to go away and so they refuse to listen when the mother denies the child is hers. They actually put her in an insane asylum for awhile. Eventually, it comes out that her son was one of several dozen who were kidnapped and murdered by a late term abortionist....also known as a child serial killer.

So, if you are thinking that is a truly truly weird story, you have registered about half the weird emotions of watching the movie. To be frank, I found the story so truly incredible that I almost couldn't focus on the emotion of the child's kidnapping and murder. I kept thinking, "Why would the cops think that a mother would accept another kid as a substitute for her own?" I get that this is supposed to be based on true events. I just couldn't make myself believe it while watching.

Theme: As with any Eastwood movie, the theme is always lost somewhere amidst the very nice mise en scene. I'm not exactly sure what the universal take away from this project was supposed to be. Maybe some variation on a mother's love will withstand great obstacle or suffering? (I mean, once the mother has birthed the child and decided that he or she is wanted.....gotta love the post Roe v. Wade world, eh?) Following my thesis that a good theme is one that can be argued, I think The Changeling fails in this area as I can't come up with what the other hand here would be.

In the end, I wasn't sure what to make of this project. I didn't know what the filmmaker wanted to say by it, and so it left me nonplussed.

Production design: Very good. The movie is mainly about a glimpse of 1920's Los Angeles. In many respects it felt a lot like Chinatown to me.

No standouts here either in terms of awfulness or excellence. I tend to like Angelina Jolie but there wasn't really much to do here for her but stand around and look horrified. Donovan is fun to watch, but it isn't a reason to see this movie.

My friend and I were actually bored during this movie, which is shocking considering its subject matter. We were talking over the movie as it dragged along. There was very little urgency in the storytelling. This does prove that it really doesn't matter how shocking your story material is. If you don't know how to tell a story, it won't work no matter what you've got.

And Clint Eastwood is really a very dreadful storyteller. I'm never really sure what any of his movies are about at the end. They always seem riddled with self-contradictions as opposed to paradox. This one was less egregious then some of his others - most notably the stunningly self-contradictory Million Dollar Baby, with a close second in Flags of Our Fathers. Eastwood's characteristic confusion in theme really always has me thinking somewhere in his movies, "He really doesn't know what this movie is about."

Anyway, Changeling isn't self-contradictory in theme. It just doesn't have one. Not sure that is a step forward. It isn't edifying or illuminating or inspiring or beautiful. It isn't clever or wonderful or profound or disturbing in that good prophetic way. Pass.


Burn Before Viewing

(That's my advice to anyone who is tempted to by this DVD.)

Directed and written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand

Storyline:  Uh, I'm not even going to try.  Suffice it to say, as with all Coen films, it is about people who try and dabble in a little evil and then are swamped in the consequences.

Theme:  Well, I think Joel and Ethan Coen must be reading this blog. For their last several movies, I have gleefully sneered at the way they are stuck on one theme: "Crime doesn't pay." So now, in a fit of clear adolescent pique, their latest movie tries bravely to stake the claim, "Actually, crime does pay!" But alas, in the end, the film pretty much is a reiteration of their same old same old, because the two characters who "get away with it" here end up being totally insane and paranoid. Nobody wants to be them.

Burn After Reading a classily produced, stylish-looking and well-acted film.  Which added together means it is able to powerfully depict a kind of human life that is so debased and vile that I really couldn't make myself laugh at it.  The characters in the movie are all pretty much stupid narcissists or amoral bureaucrats.  There was one moral character in the film, played by RIchard Jenkins, but eventually, he too goes the way of the stupid criminal and pays for it with a brutal Coen-esque death.

Everyone in this movie is committing adultery. Ick. It wasn't funny to me. Just kind of a depressing commentary on an entertainment culture in which sex is no big deal.

The movie is full of hard hits at the U.S. government. Fair enough, I guess. Just seemed like an easy target. Like little kids making fun of the fat boy on the ball field wadding around the bases. Easy.

There are a lot of hits at Hollywood style vanity and emphasis on outer beauty to the total exclusion of any interest on inner beauty. But that kind of message seemed very condescending being delivered as it was by George Clooney and Brad Pitt....

Screenplay: Just wasn't funny enough. Now, I grant that the Coen movies are never funny enough and they get away with it by putting in brutal murders so that they can say they are making "dark comedies" so they don't have to be funny like regular old comedies. But you know, it also could be that they just aren't funny enough guys. I didn't find the story clever. The characters were intentionally caricatures, but I'm not sure what it was all serving by way of message.

It was an unedifying movie. And not funny enough to justify all the sordid human sin it depicts. I say PASS.


Got Nausea?

So, three guesses as to what this movie is REALLY about....

Directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Dustin Lance Black, starring Sean Penn and James Franco

Ugggggggggggggggggggggggggh. I mean, ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww to the 87th power.

Somewhere after the first awful hour of Milk my very kind friend who doesn't happen to work in the movie business, looked over at me and said, "This is a really, really bad movie."

And she didn't just mean because it was a smarmy piece of pandering nonsense. She meant because it was just plain old bad storytelling. The funny thing is, there actually is a story in the life of Harvey Milk, but for propaganda reasons, the film makers didn't want to tell that story. So, what you have here is a lot of mis en scene featuring half dressed and hippie-looking homosexuals acting obdurate and offended in San Francisco in the 1970's, and that's all folks.

I'm not even going to write what the storyline of this movie is, because I wouldn't want any of you to think that has too much to do with the actual true story of the seriously tragic and macabre character who was Harvey Milk. The movie story might have gone into the twisted soul who over the course of his life drove four of his five lovers to commit suicide. I mean come on - THAT'S A STORY! (The only other man in history whom I have ever heard of who had that many suicides in his close inner circle was Hitler....I'm just saying...)

The film fails basically because there just isn't any material in the biography to convincingly transform the radically narcissist, sex-obsessed community organizer, Milk into Ghandi. They had to work so hard to sanitize this creepy dude, that they ended up stripping the movie of any potential interest. It's a bore.

But it's a bore the way Triumph of the Will is ultimately a bore. (Although, Leni Reifenstahl was a much more talented film maker than Van Sant.) Propaganda is always a bore because it is innately insulting to the intelligence.

Theme: Homosexuality is a tragic and disordered behavior that retards human maturity and spiritual development. (Cough...Yeah, just kidding....) Can't say what the theme is. It is the nearly irresistible downfall of biopic makers to disregard the need to establish a universal theme. They always think the person they are in love with at the center of the story will be fascinating enough. But valentines are tedious to anyone but the person to whom they are intended. And so, in Milk the audience doesn't care.

Contrary to what every critic is blathering, I thought this was some of Penn's most banal work. He played a homosexual man with a New York Jewish accent using every cliche about all those descriptors that one could have. What makes a great performance is not the ability to imitate glaring traits like the limp-wristed gay flourish or the harsh Brooklyn slur, but rather subtle contradictions in character. There was none of that here. Penn's Milk is all one note - wide-eyed and full of self-righteous passion with moments of giddiness bordering on silly.

James Franco just looked awkward and embarrassed. I read an interview in which he said Penn had to pressure him into having extended kisses and love scenes. No doubt.

Other notes: This one is just icky. The sodomy-as-love scenes are creepy in the way that they always must be. You can tell us that they are the same as heterosexual love scenes, but they're not.

And in some ways, the film makers here were just having too much fun in depicting the homosexual scene in the pre-AIDs 1970's. It is riddled with cliches, but also makes the homosexuals look the way they do in gay pride parades - like fourteen year old boys nervously playing with grownup toys. I thought to myself at one point in the movie, "If I was gay, I'd be offended." There are a lot of lies in Milk - mainly sins of omission, but many other downright distortions. The movie will fade and die a quick death once it has served its new purpose to be a forum over which Hollywood people can decry Prop 8 during awards season.

PASS the Milk.


Benefits of Doubt

Written and Directed by John Patrick Shanley, starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman

God, I love Meryl Streep. Honestly, I enjoy watching her so much because she always manages to delight. She raises every project she's in whether it's The Devil Wears Prada or even Mamma Mia. (In the former case, Devil, she took what would have been a forgettable B movie, and made it something that will probably last. Doubt gives Streep yet another vehicle to make us all wonder at the woman's range. She turns a movie that would have been an uber-conventional stageplay adaptation, and raises it into something that makes you have to pause. I know it's all the rage to diss and diminish Streep, but it's just bunk. She is the greatest actress of our generation.

Having said that, while I do think that Doubt has some things to recommend it, I don't see the movie as ever raising itself above its theatrical roots. The four core performances are all excellent, but, in the end, this piece was meant to be something mainly verbal and intellectual. It isn't cinematic in the way that Man for All Seasons transcended its play roots and became a visual story. The move dragged a bit as it used the pedestrian trick of trying to make the play feel like a movie by expanding the cast and putting in wider shots of the arena. That isn't what makes a project cinematic as Hitchcock noted in offering Rear Window as a counterpoint to the epic movies of the late 1950's. Cinema is about forcing the audience to see things in a new way. Doubt the movie might have created some lyrical visual imagery, but the director and writer was, sadly, the original playwright. He was too steeped in his original art form, I think.

Also, in not adding any real additional visual choices, the extra shots of scenery and characters just make the piece feel clunkier.

Storyline: Uh, well that's the problem isn't it? Doubt is about something that may or may not have happened. So, the movie is already saddled with the problem of soft beats - that is, beats that are primarily emotional/psychological. That's very little to see.... So, anyway, with no evidence except a sense of people, a nun becomes convinced that the parish priest has molested a child. She applies pressure to the priest until he resigns and moves on to another post.

Theme: Doubt is not the absence of evidence but the presence of a disturbing conviction. (Which, by my theme standard is a very cool and estimable theme.)

First rate. Really the whole thing here. (Somebody help me out here, is Amy Adams getting any sleep at all these days?! She's everywhere. And without reproach, in my book.)

In the end, I think the movie suffers from the same problems of the play. I though when I finished reading the play that it was missing a few scenes. The playwright doesn't have a strong enough point of view. It leaves you wanting a bit more of an opinion as to the consequences of the characters' choices. I also felt that given the timing of the play - flush in the wake of the priest sex abuse scandal, the whole thing feels a bit manipulative in its lack of insight. I wondered why he set out to write the play, beyond the fact that fixating on sex abuse in the priesthood is the car crash of the decade. But it isn't at all a hit piece on the Catholic Church.

As a former nun, I admit I got a surge of sadistic thrill out of watching the self-sacrificing nuns prevail over the cigarette smoking, self-indulgent, priest. I had a bellyfull of patriarchy in my convent days. It's truly one of the proofs of sanctity in the Church that the women religious put up with so much petty arrogance from so many priests for so long. (NOT ALL! But there is definitely an old boys club in the Church that is infuriating if you are a woman with half a brain.) I was also intrigued by how the priest/forces of renewal in the Church ended up being the bad guy in the movie. Take that you Spirit of Vatican IIers!

It isn't a great movie unless one is grading 2008 on a curve, but it is solid. There are some nice lines. And there are some moments of insight. And the actors are great. In fact, if the movie lasts it will be as part of the Streep canon. I enjoyed it more than my non-writer friend who thought it was creepy and slow. I'm going to recommend it....and put it on my sidebar list of best movies of the year.

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