Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bad Lieutenant

Harvey Keitel is a bad lieutenant.  Really, really bad.  If there are really cops like him out there, I hope they quickly find another job.  He's a New York cop, but he's also a hard drinking drug addict, snorting, shooting, or smoking throughout the movie, he's a compulsive gambler, double-or-nothing himself into oblivion, he curses at his children, he has a druggie mistress, he lustily stalks young women for minor traffic offenses for his own satisfaction, and generally abuses his power.

But he's also a Catholic, struggling with his faith.  He's not exactly devout, but when a couple of thugs vandalize the church and violently rape a nun, he's faced on the one hand with the ugliness and evil of the crime and the gentle forgiveness of the victim.  Investigating the crime, he overhears the nun's discussion with a priest, in which she tells the priest she knew the perpetrators, who were formerly students at the parish school.  She won't give them up; she has forgiven them.  She explains to the priest that she sees them as boys desperate to be loved, pleading for acceptance.  "They did not love me, but I ought to have loved them.  For Jesus loved those who reviled him, and never again shall I encounter two boys whose prayer was more poignant, more legible, more anguished."

Later, Keitel pleads with the nun to give him their names so he can take care of them, bringing them to real justice, not easy treatment in the juvenile justice system.  "How could you?  Deep down inside, don't you want them to pay for what they did to you?  Don't you want this crime avenged?" She continues to insist that she has forgiven them.  "Talk to Jesus," she says, "Pray."
Keitel doesn't quite get it.  The nun leaves him at the defaced altar, and he cries out to God.  Weeping over his own sinfulness, he begs God for forgiveness.  Jesus appears to him in bodily form.  Praying, cursing, and pleading with the silent figure, he cries out in desperate repentance: "You got something that you want to say to me? . . . What? Say something, I know you're just standing there. What am I gonna do? You gotta say something! Something! . . . Where were you?  Where the hell were you?  I... I... I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry! I'm sorry! I did so many bad things.  I'm sorry.  I tried to do... I try to do the rihgt thing, but I'm weak, I'm too f---ing weak.  I need you to help me!  Help me!  I need you to help me!  Forgive me!  Forgive me! Forgive me, please!  Forgive me, father!" 

Don't get me wrong, this is an ugly film.  This is not a Billy Graham film conversion moment.  The depths of Keitel's anguish, and his desire to follow the nun's example, show his desire to repent and change his life.  But don't show this to your Sunday school class; it earned its NC-17 rating with lots of graphic drug use, foul language, violence, and some nudity.  Keitel's terrific performance carries the movie; there are some good supporting actors, but it's pretty much a one-man show.  

If this were just a dirty cop movie, I would rate it pretty low.  But the portrayal of the contrast between God's idea of justice and a corrupt cop's idea of justice, and the apparent conversion of the corrupt cop's understanding of justice to God's perspective makes this a much more powerful film.  

(By the way, there's a Nicholas Cage movie of the same name coming out soon.  Supposedly it's not a remake, but it sounds like pretty much the same story.)

Bottom line, 3 stars, but don't say I didn't warn you about the rating.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sleuth (1972)

A while back I saw a preview for a movie called Sleuth, starring Michael Caine and Jude Law.  This is not that movie.  As it turns out, that movie was a remake of 1972's Sleuth, starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier.  These are both based on the play by Anthony Shaffer.  In 1972, Michael Caine plays Milo Tindle, the suave young man who is having an affair with the wife of Andrew Wyke, the wealthy mystery writer who is played by Laurence Olivier.  In the 2007 version, Jude Law is the young lover, and Caine is the older man.

I enjoyed this movie, but the cleverness and counter-cleverness is almost too clever for me.  Milo comes to visit Andrew's house at Andrew's invitation.  Andrew confronts him with the affair, then proposes that Milo rob Andrew (with Andrew's consent) so that Milo will be able to sell the jewels and use the money to support Andrew's wife, and Andrew can collect the insurance money.  Milo buys into the plan, but then Andrew turns the tables on him, saying that he's going to kill Milo, with the excuse that he caught Milo robbing his house.  But that is all a trick, and Milo comes back with a clever ruse of his own. 

The story is intricate and interesting, but almost too clever for its own good.  Both these actors are legendary, and their interactions are fun to watch, but it ends up dragging on a bit too long.  Soon I'll pick up the 2007 version as a comparison.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Sexual abuse of children by priests is terrible.  False accuasations of sexual abuse of children are terrible.  Deciding which is more terrible, or which is the truth in a particular case, is the subject of this movie.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the priest of a New York City parish.  Meryl Streep plays the nun who serves as principal of the parish school.  Both of these seasoned actors' performances are terrific, as is that of Amy Adams, the young nun who teaches at the school.

Doubt captures an interesting moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.  JFK was assassinated the year before, and Vatican 2 has initiated huge changes in the Church.  Father Flynn (Hoffman) is progressive, embracing the more open Church, while Sister Aloysius (Streep) is vehemently traditional, ruling the school with harsh discipline and fear.  She dislikes Father Flynn and watches him like a hawk.  When she begins to have a reason, even a slight one, to believe that he sexually abused a student, she pounces and will not relent until he is gone, no matter what the truth of the matter is.

The play on which Doubt is based won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1995.  The pace of the movie reflects its roots on the stage, as do the intense, extended scenes of dialogue.  Part of the appeal of the script is the ambiguity; the viewer never really knows whether or not Father Flynn is guilty.  This was an intriguing, enjoyable film.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa

One of my coworkers is on his way to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, and the tallest free standing mountain in the world.  I must say, I'm quite envious.  But, thanks again to the good ol' Fort Worth Library, I can travel there on the small screen.  This video was originally made for the IMAX screen, which is much more appropriate for the subject.  The film follows a group of hikers through the five climate zones up to the crater and the summit.  I wasn't aware of the fascinating plant life that thrives there at high altitudes.  The young girl on the trek compares the plants to Dr. Seuss plants.  One of the trekkers is a geologist, and discusses the unique geological process by which Kilimanjaro was forms.  He calls it a "geological paradise."

I don't know that I'll ever get a chance to go to Kilimanjaro for real.  Maybe one day.  But this short film certainly whets the appetite for mountaineering and gives a nice introduction to what it takes to make the trip.  A beautiful, informative film.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

La Grande Bouffe (The Big Feast)

If you're fed up and bored with life, one option is to eat continuously until you die.  I know, not the first thing you thought of, but the four friends in La Grande Bouffe decided to do just that.  If you think that doesn't sound like much of a basis for a movie, you're right.  This 1973 "masterpiece" by director Marco Ferreri won some critical acclaim.  It's supposed to be an existentialist commentary on the destructive hedonism of modern affluent society, and is meant to be a black comedy.  There are some funny moments, but only the kind of unfunny humor of people resigned to the pointlessness of life.  The one plus side was that one was a chef, and they did enjoy their delicacies, so some scenes were hunger-inducing.  The pate the size of a wedding cake, pictured below, did not make me long for pate, especially since the creator ate it until he passed out and died on the kitchen table.  (There, I've ruined it four you.  All four men do, indeed, die.  Now you don't have to watch the movie.)

Hmmm, three of the last four films I've posted on were in French. . . . I think I'll stick with some English language movies for a while. . . .

Bottom line on La Grande Bouffe, one star.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


I should have paid more attention to my world history class in college.  I know we talked about the French Revolution.  But Dr. Longfellow, I'm sorry, I just don't remember much about it.  I do remember reading a novel about the French Revolution for Dr. Longfellow's class that had Jacques-Louis David's painting "The Death of Marat" on the cover; of course, I don't remember the name of the novel (Found it!  The Gods Will Have Blood, by Anatole France).  Danton was a contemporary of Marat.  In Danton, there is a scene in David's studio, where Robespierre poses for a painting.  In that scene we see an unfinished "Death of Marat."

What I do know about the French Revolution makes me thankful that even though it shares some of the intellectual basis of the American Revolution, which occurred at about the same time, the American Revolution did not experience the same kind of aftermath.  In France, the tyranny of the monarchy was quickly replaced by a worse tyranny of the revolutionaries, their committees, and their reign of terror.  Danton, still a hero of the people, was deemed by the committee to be too moderate, not revolutionary enough for their tastes.  His trial, along with some like-minded partisans, was a sham.  He was convicted and sent to the guillotine.  (Ironically, those who sentenced him were, three months later, tried and executed in similar circumstances.)

In this 1983 production, Danton is portrayed by Gerard Depardieu.  Remember him in the 1990 romantic comedy Green Card?  That was his debut in American film, but he is an award-winning actor in French film.  I don't know French, but even so, I was very impressed with his performance in Danton, especially the courtroom speeches.

I am assuming Danton is faithful to the historical events.  Like I said, who am I to judge?  I do know this: I would have appreciated this film a lot more if I had a better concept of French history, not to mention the French language.  As it is, I was busy reading subtitles and marvelling at the audacity of the goofy ruffles on their shirts, dumb-looking wigs, and big feathers in their hats.  I know these are aristocrats, and I'm a peon, but couldn't they tell how silly they look?

Bottom line, I can't even rate this movie.  If you're French, probably 4 stars.  If you're me, 2 stars, but only because I'm an ignorant dolt.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Way of War

This is a movie I hesitate even to post a review of.  It's a direct-to-video loser.  It tries hard.  The production quality isn't that bad.  The acting isn't great, but it's OK.  But the overall product is a dog I would rather have missed.

David Wolfe (Cuba Gooding), an elite, highly trained soldier in a unit hunting terrorists, finds the mother lode: a terrorist called The Ace of Spades, seemingly a reference to the deck of cards listing of most wanted terrorists after 9-11.  In the course of his team's pursuit, Wolfe discovers more about the U.S. administration's role in backing the terrorists themselves than the administration wanted him to find out.  He then finds himself a target.  When his girlfriend is killed, he becomes a hunter of those responsible.  That sounds pretty promising.  If they had just made it a shoot-em-up, Stephen Segal type of revenge/action movie, they would have done OK.  But they tried to make it a philosophical, reflective story, attempting artistic, mysterious flashbacks to slowly build the story.  What we end up with is a muddled mess, not completely unwatchable, but almost.

Bottom line: 1 star.  Don't waste your time.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (À la folie... pas du tout)

I wrote a couple weeks ago here about how disappointed I was in Audrey Tautou's performance in Priceless.  I know she may never match her wonderful role in Amelie, but I thought I'd try again with He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not.  This film does shamelessly use her personality to create a character similar to Amelie: her adorable smile, winsome character, delight in simple pleasures.  But HLMHLMN twists her a bit, bringing out an unforeseen dark side.

Angelique (Tautou) is hopelessly in love with a married doctor.  She patiently waits for him to leave his pregnant wife so they can run away together.  See sends him flowers, a painting, and leaves messages on his answering machine.  Eventually, he spurns her, leading her to attempt suicide.  That's what we see from her perspective.  From that point, the film shifts back to the beginning, showing the story from his perspective.  That's when it gets interesting.

I hesitate to say more about the plot, because it does provide some interesting surprises.  Suffice it to say Angelique suffers from a disorder called erotomania, which I guess I had heard of before but had not heard that name.

This film is not as endearing as Amelie, but it's interesting in that its tone and presentation give the impression that it's a romantic drama/comedy, yet the story itself verges into suspense.  Even thought that's not the package I was expecting, I thoroughly enjoy the unwrapping.  By the way, I wondered about the title.  I don't know French, but the French title didn't seem to match the English one.  I found an interview with the writer, in which she explains that the petal-plucking he loves me he loves me not game in French goes like this: he loves me...just a little...a lot...passionately...madly...not at all.  Thus the literal translation of the French title is "Madly . . . Not At All."  Given that background, that's a much better title.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)

I haven't seent the new version of this movie, starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington, but our library had a copy of the original, so I decided to check it out.  Walter Matthau has had a tremendous career in TV and movies, but I always think of him as the coach of the Bad News Bears.  In Pelham 123, he's cleaned up his act and is a lieutenant in the New York City Transit Police.  On an otherwise quiet day in the NY subway, a group of armed men take over a subway car, including the passegers, who become hostages, and demand a million dollars for their release.

This is such a simple plan, I am surprised no one ever tried it before.  Or maybe they did, and I just don't know it.  They almost get away with it, and I have to believe that after this movie (or after the novel it's based on), subways took security up a couple of levels.  Even though the hijacking is an outrageously bold move, the movie's presentation is very believable.  The subway scenes (much of the movie, of course) are well done, conveying the tight quarters of the tunnels, subway cars, and cab (or whatever you call the little booth the drivers stand in.)

This was a fun movie, with suspense, a little humor, and a nice resolution.  Coach Buttermaker saves the day.  I look forward to seeing how Denzel Washington measures up.

Bottom line: 3 stars.