Movie Diary 11/29/2008

sidestreetSide Street (Anthony Mann, 1949). Stunning filmed-on-location shots of Manhattan, arranged around the uncompelling Farley Granger. Comedown from Mann’s string of noirs leading up to it, but a good sense of momentum.

King & Country (Joseph Losey, 1964). Military court-martial in the trenches of World War I, superbly directed by Losey even if the material is a little cut-and-dried. Dirk Bogarde is the defense counsel, Tom Courtenay the deserter on trial.

Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison, 1923). Interesting golden-age German silent with lots of business about shadow puppets and magic lanterns, plus an excellent twist and a bristling supporting performance by Alexander Granach. The main characters, spoiled aristocrats, all seem to be under Caligari’s spell.

Breakfast with Bourgeois (Weekly Links)

louiseMore reviews for the Herald.

Breakfast with Scot.

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress, and the Tangerine.

Frontrunners. (Dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

Stuyvesant High School in New York City takes only the top 3% of applicants, which makes it one of the elite schools in the country. We are told, in the movie “Frontrunners,” that Stuyvesant regularly produces important politicians and business leaders, as well as the occasional Nobel Prize-winner. Maybe that’s why filmmaker Caroline Suh figured a documentary about the annual campaign for Stuyvesant student body president would make for a good true-life version of Alexander Payne’s modern classic, “Election.”

Actually, the kids at Stuyvesant don’t seem a whole lot different from the students at your average public high school. Same roster of nerds, class clowns, and drama queens. Well, maybe fewer jocks. But the anxieties are pretty similar to those seen in the summer’s “American Teen.” The presidential candidate runs in tandem with a vice-president hopeful, and three teams distinguish themselves in the film’s chronicle. Mike, an early favorite in the prognosticating, is often described as a little too cocky for his own good, a characterization that might turn out to be a problem in the election. George is the movie’s equivalent of the Reese Witherspoon from “Election,” a weirdly wonky organizer who has pinned a lot of hopes on this contest. The son of Greek immigrants, he’s got the over-achieving drive of a first-generation American. He’s also got a habit of talking in inscrutable, airy riddles, and the funniest moments of the film show him sitting next to his vice-presidential candidate as she rolls her eyes at his bloviating.

The other campaigner is Hannah, an actress who has appeared in a Todd Solondz movie and must weigh her commitment to the theater program against her desire to be president. She appears to be the most normal of the bunch. These kids don’t resemble future political operatives; at best, George could be a behind-the-scenes organizer. Nobody suggests the sleazy level of Stuyvesant grad Dick Morris, the political advisor/news analyst who is quoted at the beginning of the movie.

The suspense device of the election works reasonably well, as it does in so many “contest” documentaries, such as “Wordplay.” But “Frontrunners” is an underwhelming experience, maybe because we don’t get enough of the larger context of Stuyvesant to know why this setting should be worth our interest. And since the issues themselves are vapid (will there be a bigger budget for the prom?), the movie floats off into nothing.

Transporting Australia Milk (Weekly Links)

transporterA few mid-week reviews from the Herald. More Friday.

Milk.

Australia. (Dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

Well, the title doesn’t cheat. “Australia” boasts two of Down Under’s biggest stars, is directed by the zaniest film stylist in Oz, and makes maximum use of the continent’s vast resources. In fact, the movie’s sweeping ambitions eventually trip it up. It aims big, and it falls far.

Set in the waning months of the 1930s, “Australia” begins with a scenario so old you can see dust flying off it. Straight-laced English lady Nicole Kidman comes to the Australian outback in order to arrange the sale of her husband’s cattle ranch. A rough-hewn Aussie cowboy, played by Hugh Jackman, is her guide. In some 1940s movie, these roles would be played by Greer Garson and Clark Gable, though that imaginary film would no doubt be less overblown than this one.

However, for a while, “Australia” is fun precisely because it’s overblown. Director Baz Luhrmann, who began his career with the lovely “Strictly Ballroom” and quickly got crazy with “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge,” plays everything in broad brushstrokes, staging entire sequences in campy quotation marks. Jackman plays the untamable renegade who’s just ripe for settling down; Kidman is a snob who will inevitably prove herself in the saddle. This is all going to go by the numbers, so Lurhmann assumes you’ll be willing to settle in and enjoy the 165-minute-long spectacle.

First, there’s the business of gettin’ the cattle from ranch to port, in defiance of the sabotaging efforts of a cattle rival (Bryan Brown) and his unbelievably loathsome henchman (David Wenham, who scored in “Return of the King” and “300”). Wenham’s role seems to be conceived on the principle that Billy Zane’s villain in “Titanic” was just a little too subtle. After dispatching the cattle-drive section in reasonably enjoyable fashion, the film ranges across a domestic interlude and the prelude to World War II. Just when you think the action might be wrapping up, the Japanese attack.

Luhrmann’s goal is to cram as much as he can into one picture, like a kangaroo stuffing its pouch. He takes on racism against Aboriginal people, and he’s got virtually every recognizable Australian character actor popping up, sometimes just for a moment: Jack Thompson, Bruce Spence, David Gulpilil. There’s also a running theme involving “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which is not one of Luhrmann’s better ideas. But when anything goes, well, everything goes.

Kidman  plays it in an agreeably 1940s style, and Jackman takes his shirt off a lot. But whatever movie-star oomph they summon isn’t enough to save this goofy throwback, a movie made for an audience that no longer exists.

Transporter 3. (Dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

According to the behind-the-scenes information on “Transporter 3,” the crew wore T-shirts reading “Less Talk, More Action.” If only they could have eliminated the dialogue altogether.

People talking is the main stumbling block for the latest sequel in Luc Besson’s automotive franchise, a series that began with a bang but fell off badly in its second outing. This one again puts ace driver Frank Martin (Jason Statham) behind the wheel of a very durable car. This time Martin is being forced to make a delivery in Eastern Europe, at the behest of a villain (Robert Knepper, from “Prison Break”) who spends most of his time barking into a cell phone. The gimmick is a good one: Frank has an explosive bracelet locked around one wrist; if he gets more than 75 feet away from the vehicle, boom goes the jewelry.

There is a live package in the car, for mysterious reasons. This is Valentina (Natalya Rudakova), a heavily-freckled Ukrainian party girl. This is Rudakova’s first acting job—a hairdresser, she was discovered by Besson walking across a Manhattan street. She’s got more spunk than acting ability, but that’s all that’s needed here.

Statham handles the fighting scenes in crisp order, fending off a seemingly endless parade of bad guys. Veteran fight choreographer Cory Yuen provides the moves, some of which are truly wild. The director is Olivier Megaton, who took his last name from the fact that he was born on the anniversary of the atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima. That level of taste will give you some idea of what you’re in for with the film, which ricochets from one unbelievable situation to the next.

Megaton certainly has a tin ear for English dialogue, written by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. The love scenes, if that’s the right term, are especially clunky. But nobody’s going to this movie for the love scenes, or to hear Shakespearian dialogue. Look, there’s a good bike chase, a car plummeting on top of a moving train, and a scene where Frank drives a car on one set of wheels between two giant trucks. Now stuff cotton in your ears and enjoy.

Four Christmases. (Dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

A few funny sequences, a shelf’s worth of Oscars, and the glorious improvising of Vince Vaughn are not enough to save “Four Christmases,” a fatally labored comedy on the holidays.

Even the clock doesn’t seem right in this one. Young unmarried couple Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) hit four different holiday parties in the course of one epic Christmas day…which seems to last about 36 hours. Brad and Kate mean to fly off to Fiji that morning, specifically to avoid visiting the homes of their four sets of divorced parents. But fog has socked in the San Francisco airport, and they’re stuck.

Among the many improbable elements of the script is the fact that even though all the homes are within easy driving distance of each other and Brad and Kate have been involved for four years, neither has ever met the other’s families. Doesn’t sound quite right. Each of the parents is played by an Oscar-winning actor, which must be some kind of new standard in over-qualified Hollywood employment. Robert Duvall, a great actor who regularly takes dumb paychecks, is Brad’s father; his other sons are brutes (including Vaughn’s regular sparring partner, Jon Favreau). Brad’s mom is played by Sissy Spacek. The amusing twist there is that she’s now dating a much-younger childhood friend of her son’s, a joke that was fairly funny the first dozen times I saw the trailer, but had lost some of its luster by the time I actually watched the movie.

The longest bit comes at the home of Kate’s mother (Mary Steenburgen), which veers off into a visit to a “megachurch” where her new beau (Dwight Yoakum) is pastor. Vaughn creates some fine moments when pressed into service as a Nativity pageant performer. And the row of Academy Award winners is filled out by Jon Voight, in his customary weepy mode as Kate’s father. By the time we get to his place, the movie has come to some extremely predictable conclusions about Brad and Kate’s future.

Director Seth Gordon did the wonderful documentary “The King of Kong,” so maybe he got the decent jokes in, although much of the comic energy comes from Vince Vaughn’s energetic riffing. Alas, Reese Witherspoon spins her wheels. After “Fred Claus,” this might be a good time for Vaughn to retire from the mantle of Hollywood’s Santa. You don’t want him to ever get too respectable, and these movies are far too square for his rounded talents.

Movie Diary 11/25/2008

Frontrunners (Caroline Suh, 2008). Documentary on the race for student body president at New York’s elite Stuyvesant High School, a place for gifted kids. Given the evidence, the future Nobel Prize winners are apparently not in the competition this year. (full review 11/28)

Movie Diary 11/24/2008

burningsoil3Der Brennende Acker, aka Burning Soil (F.W. Murnau, 1922). Did Paul Thomas Anderson watch this before making There Will be Blood? Because aside from the spectre of an oil derrick in the middle of the “Devil’s Field,” there are some powerful shots of people dominating screen space that might have come straight out of PTA’s latterday opus.

Lake City (Hunter Hill, Perry Moore, 2008). Rebecca Romijn as a small-town cop, Dave Matthews as a hardass drug runner. One could be forgiven for anticipating the arrival of Leslie Nielsen at any given moment. (full review 12/12)

Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains (Gonzalo Arijon, 2007). Turns out one more version of the Uruguayan footballers and their grisly survival is not overkill. (full review 12/5)

Movie Diary 11/23/2008

Tartuffe (F.W. Murnau, 1925). A condensed version of the Moliere play, with Emil Jannings as Tartuffe, is presented as a film-within-a-film premise. Jannings is a massive dark shape, moving around in the frame like an unwelcome cloud; Murnau uses him in a near-supernatural way, as he uses Max Schreck in Nosferatu, except that Tartuffe is fat and dark and the vampire is slim and pale. I suppose coming between The Last Laugh and Faust in Murnau’s career, this one can’t help but feel minor — still, you always have the sense of a director making an impeccable decision about how each shot should land.

Madame DuBarry (aka Passion, Ernst Lubitsch, 1919). Court intrigue and star power (Jannings is Louis XV, Pola Negri is Madame DuBarry) make a useful combination in Lubitsch’s first big international success.

Movie Diary 11/21/2008

quiller4The Quiller Memorandum (Michael Anderson, 1966). A Cold War movie in which almost nothing happens, scripted by Harold Pinter, with George Segal, Senta Berger and Alec Guinness. There were other bitter spy movies that reduced things way, way down (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Kremlin Letter, for two), but this is minimalist to a fault. John Barry did the music. I am officially curious about director Anderson, who did The Dam Busters and Logan’s Run and some famous flops, and who still seems to be working. He’s 89 in January. (And he should not be confused with Robert Stevenson, director of Mary Poppins, even though I half did that the first time I posted this — thank you RTJ.)

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008). I couldn’t quite go along with Old Joy, try as I might. But this movie’s got it. (full review 1/23)

Dark Streets (Rachel Samuels, 2008). Stay tuned. (full review 12/12)

A Slumdog Twilight Tale (Weekly Links)

Movies I reviewed this week for the Herald. Kind of a strange moment when I find myself favoring a teenybopper vampire movie over an anointed Danny Boyle darling, and a Jean-Claude Van Damme picture is really interesting.

xmastale1Twilight.

Slumdog Millionaire.

Bolt.

JCVD.

A Christmas Tale.

Days and Clouds.

Obscene.

Fuel.

And I talk to KUOW-FM’s Jeannie Yandel about Twilight and Slumdog; the movie part begins at 31:00: here.

Movie Diary 11/20/2008

Defiance (Edward Zwick, 2008). Casting Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell as brothers is an automatic point of interest. A photographic challenge: how to vary the feel of a movie that takes place almost entirely in the same forest. (full review 1/16)

Transporter 3 (Olivier Megaton, 2008). Another unbeatable concept, more undeliverable dialogue. (full review 11/26)

Movie Diary 11/19/2008

Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008). One thing missing, but it’s key: Nixon’s self-pitying laugh. (full review 12/12)

Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008). It’s a Baz Lurhmann movie. (full review 11/26)

Four Christmases (Seth Gordon, 2008). You may say that nothing could be as bad as this movie’s trailer, which I have surely seen 17 times now. You would be right. (full review 11/26)

Obscene (Daniel O’Connor, Neil Ortenberg, 2007). The ups and down of Grove Press publisher and First Amendment champ Barney Rossett, with archive footage that includes the occasional truly zany nugget, like Lenny Bruce reading from Tropic of Cancer. (full review 11/21)