Thursday, September 27, 2007

Death Proof

I loved the Kill Bill movies and was very much looking forward to this. Now I know why it didn't do so well at the box office. Tarantino was trying to recreate the "Grindhouse" exploitation films of the 70s. There were some clever elements, the skipping film, particularly. But mostly it was boring. Lots of boring dialogue among the pretty girls. A couple of moderately intense car chase scenes. But really nothing to look forward to here. The car chase with the girl on the hood was pretty cool, but other than that, it was standard fare. If you like Tarantino, and if you like car chases, you will want to see this. Otherwise, there's not much to offer here. Bottom line, one and a half stars.


I like just about anything with Al Pacino in it. In Simone, he plays a frustrated film maker whose latest, greatest project is thwarted when a demanding diva leaves the set, and the studio refuses to let him continue. No one wants to work with him anymore. So he takes the footage and goes home. Meanwhile, a fan tracks him down. The fan happens to be a computer graphics expert who has committed his life to making a life-like, computer-generated actor. He gives his data to Pacino, who incorporates Simone (computer SIMulation ONE) into his unfinished film. The film's a hit, Simone's a star, and Pacino builds his career around his mysterious, secretive actress.

There's some pretty cute comedy with Pacino convincing the rest of the world that Simone is real. There's some obvious self-reflection by Pacino, who has to deal with what he has created and who he is. For all its formulaic elements, the movie isn't really predictable, and thoroughly enjoyable. This may not be a Pacino classic, but I liked it anyhow. Bottom line, two and a half stars.

The Number 23

Jim Carrey is a hugely talented and versatile actor, but I think his best work is the early wacky roles, like Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura. This is one of those roles in which he plays the everyman caught up in events seemingly larger than he. It reminded me of his role in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Walter Sparrow is a dog catcher and committed family man. He doesn't have much of a life outside of that. His wife picks up a novel for him that seems to echo Sparrow's life. He becomes absorbed in the book, obsessed with the parallels to his life and the significance of the number 23 in it.

This was a great, promising premise, but he gets into so much dream/fantasy that he and I were both confused about what was real and what was not real. Then his wife figures out what's going on before he does and she intervenes in some ways that are really not realistic. Yes, the film has some surprising twists. But twists for the sake of twisting aren't that effective. This was an OK movie that didn't come together and finish the job very well. Bottom line, a star and a half.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Requiem for a Dream

This is an ugly, depressing movie. I am not saying it's a bad movie, but it sure is a downer. As if the aimless young people getting involved in heroine and watching it destroy their lives wasn't enough, one of the addict's mom gets hooked on "diet pills" and it destroys her life as well! I remember going to see Pi, Aronofsky's previous work, and The Fountain, his subsequent movie. Both were a little strange, but compelling enough that I wanted to see this. A mistake. There was no one to like, no hope or redemption, nothing but darkness and despair.

One cool thing I liked in the movie: during moments of despair in a couple of scenes, the actors had a camera strapped to their chest as they ran around. That was a cool effect. Other than than, it left me feeling sick and sad and depressed. Yuck. One and half stars.

Inland Empire

Wow, what a horrid, unwatchable mess. I know David Lynch is supposed to be this brilliant director, but this film is nonsense. I can't believe people like this stuff. There were a few minutes early on when I thought this might actually gel, but then the actress, played by Laura Dern, starts drifting in and out of reality, and the movie drifts further and further into a morass of images. This is one of those movies film students and critics love, but the rest of us are left wishing we hadn't wasted our time. Yuck. No stars.

Year of the Dog

I didn't know much about this movie, but it sounded funny. And it is! It's low-key, intelligent, quirky humor, and it works in this gem. There are some pretty hilarious segments. Molly Shannon plays Peggy, the sweet, pretty, single office assistant who loves her little doggy but has somehow never found a man. She is the center of some fun office humor. When her dog dies (haha! See how funny!) she adopts a troubled dog and starts to fall for a guy who is helping her train it. But he says he can't be in a relationship because he is celibate. Why? We'll never know. . . .

Due to his influence, Peggy becomes a vegan. She finds every animal rights group around and gets involved in distributin petitions and sending them money (from her boss's bank account. . . .). She even adopts rescued farm animals as a gift to her brother's family for Christmas. Their reaction is underwhelming, of course. "There's a pig named after me on a farm somewhere. . . ."

Her sister-in-law, played by Laura Dern, is the over-protective mother of two. I have been around people like this--worried about allergies, showing the right movies, protecting little ears. Of course we all want to protect our children, but she plays the caricature perfectly.

When Peggy keeps her niece and nephew for the weekend, she takes the kids to meet the chickens named after them at the farm. They have fun, then she tells them about the chicken farm down the road. The little girl is traumatized, which makes Peggy's brother rather unhappy.

Peggy has a rough time. I want her to be happy, but she has a string of bad luck with men. There's not a lot profound in this movie, but it's certainly enjoyable. Bottom line, two and a half stars.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Leon: The Professional

OK, I have been watching these Jean Reno movies. I guess I heard somewhere that he was a terrific actor. Some of them, I don't know, but Leon is pretty good. He's a disciplined, dedicated assassin. Well, he works for a mafia don, so he's a bad guy, but he's a bad guy with principle and a good heart. When his neighbor is gunned down by his drug dealer business partners, the daughter, Mathilda, comes to Leon for help. Of course, they want her dead, too, so they come after her and now she and Leon.

But wait! It gets better! Mathilda discovers that the drug dealer parent killers were undercover DEA agents. Now she really wants revenge! She gets Leon to teach her his ways. (He calls himself a "cleaner.") Mathilda is played by 13-year-old Natalie Portman; she steals the show from Reno.

This is a fun movie, especially enjoyable if you think the War on Drugs is a travesty. You'll be rooting for Leon and you'll love the justice rendered at the end! Bottom line, a hearty three stars.

Just Visiting

Sometimes it's OK for a movie to be trite and silly. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy it! Again, for some reason I am drawn to Jean Reno. He is pretty funny in this movie as a knight who is transported to the future by a bumbling wizard. He winds up--o happy coincidence--in a museum where his descendant, who looks just like his bride, works. She confuses him with a relative of hers who has gone missing, and takes him and his servant home.

So they didn't break new ground with the out-of-time visitors learning about the exciting world of the 21st century. So what. They get sick in the car, they wash up using the toilet bowl water, they bath with their clothes on and pour Chanel no. 5 in the tub, they destroy a TV trying to get the poor people out who are trapped inside. It's pretty amusing.

The story's cute, too, and, wonder of wonders, Reno does not fall in love with Christina Applegate; they figure out that she is his descendant and she helps him find the wizard so he can go back and marry his bride. She discovers her own inner strength, and her scheming, cheating fiance also gets his due in the process.

Everyone lives happily ever after (except for the fiance) and the viewer is left with a smile on his face. Nothing wrong with that. Bottom line, two and a half stars.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

This is a pretty bizarre, maybe even sick movie, but it's an interesting idea. There is some sex and killing, but it's not as explicit or gory as you might think by its description.

Poor Jean-Baptiste has the gift/curse of having an especially sensitive sense of smell. (It reminds me of They Might Be Giants's song, "Supertaster.") Poor guy, he gets pleasure out of none of the normal things of life, only smell. He apprentices with a perfumer (Dustin Hoffman) who teaches him how to capture the essence of smell. He meets a woman, but accidentally kills her, and loses the smell. So he becomes obsessed with preserving the smells of women. Unfortunately, they have to die in the process.

The ending is the bizarre part. He sort of fulfills a legend of a perfume from an Egyptian tomb which made everyone believe they were in heaven. Is there a religious allegory here? The twelve virgins (well, 11 virgins and a prostitute) who are martyred to empower the rise of the savior figure? I don't know. Probably not.

There's some pretty good humor thrown in here, as well, almost in a Monty Python-esque vein. Jean-Baptiste's mother was a fish monger. She gives birth to him under the table at the fish market, cuts the cord with a dirty knife, leaves him in a pile of dirty blankets or something, then goes back to work as if nothing happened. When he starts crying and customers hear, they accuse her of trying to kill her baby. She is hanged for her trouble. (Sounds hilarious, doesn't it!) This starts a trend where everyone who is responsible for him is killed. She dies, the orphan-keeper who sells him dies, etc. Not much comment is made on this, it's just sort of weird.

This is close to a mainstream movie, but pretty much on the fringe. I thought it was excellent in a weird sort of way. Bottom line, three stars.


Like any based-on-true-events movies, this one left me wondering what parts were made up and what was factual. Mostly, though, I thought, couldn't they have made up a little more to bring it together? The real story has no firm resolution, so I guess they didn't want to stray too far into fiction.

The first half of the movie really grabbed me. The pieces falling into place, the awkward editorial cartoonist learning the ropes from the seasoned crime-beat reporter, the unpredictably insane killer: it all worked together in a compelling way. As the movie dragged on--really as time dragged on in the real case--it became less and less interesting. The cartoonist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, becomes obsessive about finding the killer, while his life is falling apart. I wonder if that's the case in the life of the real guy.

This is certainly a well-made and well-acted movie, with lots of interesting camera work, but in the long run, I am not all that excited about it. Bottom line, two stars.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Lives of Others

This is a GREAT movie. It won the Oscar for best foreign film this year, but that is not always a good predictor of great movies. This time, they got it right. The setting is Germany, a few years before the fall the Berlin Wall. We meet Wiesler, who is a dedicated officer in the secret police. He truly believes in the virtue of keeping tabs on citizens, and promotes and defends their surveillance tactics.

He takes charge of the surveillance of Georg Dreyman, a playwright who has shown no signs of subversion; this very fact alone seems to arouse the suspicion of Wiesler. He is surprised to learn that the minister of culture shares his suspicions.

His teams wires Dreyman's apartment, and Wiesler begins 24 hr. surveillance. He learns two things. First, he admires Dreyman, and grows to like him. He's a bit jealous of the love he and Christa-Maria Sieland, a well-known actress, share, but only in the sense that he wishes he had that kind of love; his life is so dedicated to protecting the state that he has no relationships aside from work. The second thing he learns is that the minister of culture is having an affair with Sieland. Sieland isn't really a willing participant. She feels like she has to do it to protect herself and her career. The minister ordered the surveillance of Dreyman as a fishing expedition to find an excuse to get him out of the way, so he could have Sieland to himself.

This combination, Wiesler's seeing Dreyman as a human, to be respected and admired, and his disgust and disillusionment at the minister's true motives, lead him to begin protecting Dreyman when he does, in fact, become involved in subversive activities. He falsifies his reports, creating elaborate fictions to fill in the times that Dreyman meets with co-conspirators. His interrogation of Christa-Maria was a terrific scene.

The ending is tragic, but the denouement makes it all worth the watch. This is tense, dramatic, complex storytelling at its best. You'll watch a lot of movies before you see one better than this. Bottom line, four stars.

Hot Fuzz

I checked this out expecting a farce, sort of like Reno 911 or a satire of cop movies. In some ways that's what it was, but it was actually better than I expected. I should have known this would be up my alley, since Slartibartfast and Arthur Dent were in it! (Hitchhiker's Guide fans know who I'm talking about!) I didn't recognize Timothy Dalton (James Bond in a few of those flicks).

One of the best scenes was the opening segment, in which we are introduced to the aptly (yet obviously) named Nicholas Angel, the best cop London has ever seen. He's dedicated, efficient, highly productive, and makes the rest of the force look bad. The narration and visuals are hilarious, especially the interrogation at which his superior officers inform him of his reassignment. His overachievment had earned him the scorn of his fellow officers and an assignment in the sticks. Once he arrives there, people start turning up dead, and he gets caught up in a scandalous murder ring.

The story itself is a bit outrageous, but interesting. While the plot develops, there are hilarious bits, both freestanding jokes and visual gags, as well as more complex, subtle humor that's woven into the story.

Some random examples: Angel answers the phone at night. You don't hear the other end of the conversation, only Angel exclaiming, "Decaffeinated!!" The next shot shows the heads of two victims who had been deCAPitated in a freaky auto accident (which Angel concludes is a murder.)

Angel's new boss is welcoming Angel to town, and tells of the officer Angel's replacing. "He had one thing you don't have." "What's that, sir?" "A big, bushy beard. Later, Angel stumbles across the corpse of a man with, you guessed it, a big, bushy beard. Sounds weird, but it's funny in context.

This isn't really a slasher movie, but the murders are themselves sort of funny. OK, maybe I have a sick sense of humor; just think of Monty Python or something, when people die in outrageous ways.

Toward the end, there is one of the nuttiest, wildest, most over-the-top gun fight/chase scenes ever, all the more crazy because of the change in tone from much of the rest of the movie. It's brilliant.

All in all, this may not be a great, classic movie, but it's more entertaining than most comedies out there, and it's certainly better than the funny/dramatic cop movies it pays homage to (or takes jabs at, depending on your perspective). I'll give it three stars.

Monday, September 3, 2007

God Grew Tired of Us

You may remember the news coverage of the Lost Boys of Sudan in the 1980s and 19990s. I really don't. A few years ago, when we were living in Grand Rapids, a ministry there was helping some of the Lost Boys relocate to the US. It was part of a movement to resettle several hundred of them in cities around the US. Some friends of ours volunteered with the ministry, helping them with rides, jobs, getting them situated in apartments, etc. It was amazing to meet them and to hear stories of their adjustments to Western life and culture.

So when I read a review of the book God Grew Tired Of Us: A Memoir, I was compelled to read it. It was written by Jon Bul Dau, a Lost Boy who figures prominently in this documentary. The stories he tells of survival, the conditions they lived in for years and years, and the simple fact of what they lost, or what was stolen from them, is heart-breaking.

But the story is more about the hope that the US offered these boys, giving them an opportunity to come to the US to study, work, and live. Their journey is at times humorous, but mostly reveals their tenacity and desire to better not only themselves but their country. They organized in the US and have not only sent money home to Sudan but have established foundations and begun to build schools and clinics there.

That country is still a mess, but over time, as these boys, well, men, now, continue to have an impact, Sudan will be a testimony to the resiliency of the human spirit as well as to the importance of one nation helping another. This is not your typical movie, but certainly worth watching. Bottom line, I'll go out on a limb and give it four stars.