December 31, 2007

MOVIES: There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Unlike anything Anderson has ever done before, this sprawling epic about greed and corruption has its flaws (at 2 1/2 hours, it's in need of editing, for one thing), but features a riveting performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, spectacular cinematography by Robert Elswit, and a marvelous score by Jonny Greenwood.

Day-Lewis, who is in every scene of the movie, plays California oilman Daniel Plainview. We meet him at the turn of the century -- 19th to 20th, that is -- when he is a struggling silver miner; in the 15-minute wordless sequence that opens the movie, we see just how determined Daniel is to succeed, and we're present for his first discovery of oil. By the 1920s, Daniel is a dominant force in the California oil industry, and now has a young son (whose mother, we are told, died in childbirth).

That son, H.W. (played very nicely by Dillon Freasier, making his film debut), is essential to Daniel's success, humanizing his father in a way that Daniel desperately needs; for all of his charm and persuasive ability, Daniel is a cold, misanthropic man, and much of the movie is devoted to showing us how Daniel deliberately sets out to destroy every relationship in his life.

Daniel's principal antagonist is the preacher in the village that springs up around one of his major oilfields, a smooth talker -- one might even call him oily -- named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, as verbal here as he was silent in Little Miss Sunshine). He is, in a way, Daniel's doppelganger. Just as Daniel insinuates his way into people's trust with promises of wealth, Eli promises salvation; both men are far more interested in their own personal welfare than that of anyone else, though. The confrontations between Eli and Daniel are among the movie's best scenes; they include a baptism that is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.

Day-Lewis seems to have deliberately adopted the voice and delivery of John Huston for this role, which is a bit jarring at first, but it's effective; everything Daniel says feels like a speech, with every inflection and word choice precisely calculated for its effect on the listeners.

Jonny Greenwood's score is not the lush orchestral period piece you might expect; it's a dissonant score dominated by strings and percussion. There are wailing clusters reminiscent of Penderecki's Threnody and clattering woodblocks that go in and out of phase like something from early Steve Reich; it's a perfect aural counterpart to the harshness of the California landscape.

The movie is longer than it needs to be, and I think Day-Lewis goes wildly over the top in the final scene, ranting and growling in a way that feels out of character for Daniel. But it's immensely ambitious in a way that few movies are these days, and that alone makes me willing to forgive its flaws. It's a big movie, and there are images and scenes that I'll carry with me for weeks.

December 30, 2007

MOVIES: Grace Is Gone (James C. Strouse, 2007)

John Cusack stars as Stanley Phillips, who has just learned that his wife Grace has been killed while serving in Iraq. Unable to face the task of telling their daughters that their mother is dead, he instead takes them on an impromptu roadtrip to a Disney-esque theme park.

Stanley is not the usual Cusack character; he's no smooth talker, and doesn't have Cusack's usual jittery energy. He is something of a schlump; he shuffles from place to place, constantly readjusting his glasses. Cusack seems heavier than usual, and every bit of speech is an effort for Stanley.

Unfortunately, doing less doesn't come naturally to Cusack, and I was aware at every moment of how hard he was working; I don't think I've ever seen an actor work so hard to do so little. Every shuffle and mutter and adjustment is a deliberate and painfully obvious actorly choice. "Look, Ma, I'm ACTING!," the performance screams.

The actresses playing Stanley's daughters are another matter entirely. Shelan O'Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk, as 12-year-old Heidi and 8-year-old Dawn, are natural, spontaneous, and entirely convincing as sisters. Heidi senses that there's something their father isn't telling them, though she never figures out exactly what (perhaps because no child would ever suspect that her father would be so cruel as to lie to her about something so important), and O'Keefe captures Heidi's growing awareness that something is wrong, looking at Cusack with ever more suspicion.

The other name of note attached to this movie is that of Clint Eastwood; this is the first time he has composed the score for another director's movie. His music here is tastefully restrained to the point that it fades from memory even as you listen to it.

The movie also makes its political points in heavy-handed fashion. Alessandro Nivola has a few brief scenes as Stanley's brother, John, whose anti-war statements are so clumsy and leaden that we're clearly meant to loathe him and his politics.

Despite the fine performances by the two young actresses, the movie as a whole isn't worth your time.

MOVIES: Charlie Wilson's War (2007, Mike Nichols)

When we meet Rep. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), he's surrounded by strippers, lounging in a Vegas hot tub; there's booze and cocaine everywhere (though Charlie does abstain from the latter). His office staff is made up exclusively of lovely, busty young women; as one of them explains, "Charlie always says: You can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em to grow tits."

Clearly, Charlie isn't your average member of Congress. He does, however, sit on a few key subcommittees involved in funding covert military operations, so when he realizes that the US is doing next to nothing to help the Afghan rebels who are fighting the Soviet occupation, he does have the clout to change that. He has help from Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a fabulously wealthy Houston socialite, and from Gust Avrokotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a disgruntled CIA agent who runs the Afghan desk.

Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is crisp and zippy, with lots of clever dialogue. The problem is that some political issues cannot be turned into occasions for witty banter without coming across as glib and callous about the actual human suffering involved. War is certainly such an issue, and the tonal and emotional disconnect between the movie's subject matter and its style occasionally makes it difficult to enjoy the punchlines.

That's not to say it's a bad movie; the principal performances are good. It's nice to see Hanks wallowing in sleaze and dissolution for a change, and Hoffman plays cranky impatience and long-suffering frustration very well. Roberts, barely recognizable beneath a Texas accent and a series of atrocious helmet hairdos, is somewhat wasted, and it still feels odd to see her playing matronly types.

The movie ends with the Afghan victory over the Russians, and the absolute lack of Congressional interest (despite Charlie Wilson's urging) in providing any funding for recovery or reconstruction. Nichols and Sorkin do not directly spell out the connection between that failure and the eventual rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but their ending certainly invites us to make that connection, and it's refreshing to see a movie that assumes its audience is smart enough to get the point.

December 28, 2007

MOVIES: The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007)

Thirty years ago, Laura (Belen Rueda) spent some years at the Good Shepherd Orphanage, which closed shortly after she was adopted. Now, she's returned with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their 7-year-old son, Simon (Roger Princep), planning to turn the building into a small group home for children with special needs. (One wonders what kind of childhood Laura had that left her nostalgic above all for her orphanage...)

Laura and Carlos haven't yet told Simon that he himself is adopted, nor that he is HIV-positive; he accidentally discovers both after a disturbing visit from an elderly social worker (Montserrat Carulla), who Laura later finds wandering around the grounds in the middle of the night. This only adds to Simon's discomfort with his new home, and before long, he's talking to a whole group of new imaginary friends, and playing convoluted games with them, involving the hiding and disappearance of household objects.

And then Simon himself disappears. There are hints as to what might have happened, but they only make sense if you're willing -- as Laura increasingly is -- to accept that Simon's imaginary friends might not be so imaginary after all.

This is a very creepy movie, which gets its chills not from gore or monsters, but from old-fashioned storytelling, beautifully edited and impeccably paced. There are almost no noticable special effects shots in the movie; the one that does come to mind is the movie's most violent moment, and it is very brief. (It is also, as it happens, just about the least supernatural event in the movie.)

Belen Rueda is very often on screen alone in this movie, and she's riveting; her increasing desperation to find her son, and her willingness to turn to more extreme measures, are painful to watch. There's also a lovely cameo from Geraldine Chaplin as a medium who is brought in to give her impressions of the house; we watch her wander through the corridors in creepy green night-vision.

Great fun, and marvelously thrilling.

MOVIES: Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

Animated adaptation of Satrapi's series of graphic novel memoirs about growing up in Iran in the late 70s and early 80s. This is France's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, and will almost certainly be one of the nominees; it's also a likely nominee in the Best Animated Film category, and could well win both.

With the exception of a few short framing scenes, the animation is entirely in black and white; the style is a wild mix of Herge's Tintin, Peter Max, Japanese woodprints, and the 1950s animation work of the UPA studio. It's visually stunning, and gorgeous to watch.

The movie begins with the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic; 8-year-old Marjane begins to develop an awareness of politics when her father gently informs her that the Shah was not, in fact, selected by God. By her teen years, her parents are worried that their rebellious daughter will get into trouble, so they send her off to school in Vienna. She returns to Iran as a young adult, only to find that she cannot adapt to so repressive a culture.

The voice work is fine, particularly from the three central women -- Chiara Mastroianni as the teen/adult Marjane, Catherine Deneuve as her mother (she is also Mastroianni's real-life mother), and Danielle Darrieux as her grandmother. The latter is the movie's most memorable character, a tough old broad with more smarts and common sense than her culture would approve of.

As bleak a period of history as this was, the movie's not without humor. There's a marvelous sequence in which we get two views of one of Marjane's boyfriends, first through her love-besotted eyes, second after she catches him with another woman; the transformation is hilarious.

A minor frustration is that the movie is in black and white, with white subtitles; if there were ever a movie that cried out for yellow titles (or any other color, really), this is it. But that shouldn't keep you from seeing the movie, which is a fine achievement.

December 27, 2007

MOVIES: No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)

There are going to be plot spoilers here, but the movie's nearly two months old at this point; if you haven't already heard what happens, you haven't been paying attention.

Anyway, Josh Brolin finds $2 million, the leftovers of a drug deal gone bad, and runs off with it. This turns out to be a bad idea, because the money belongs to unstoppable killing machine Javier Bardem, who chases Brolin all across Texas, shooting everyone he meets with a pneumatic cattle-slaughtering device that looks kinda like a bazooka attached to a scuba tank. Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones chases after Bardem, desperately hoping to get to him before he bazookas Brolin in the head. But no such luck, and by the end of the movie, pretty much everyone is dead -- Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, assorted random passersby -- and Sheriff Tommy Lee only survives because he retires and gives up the chase.

I feel sorry for Javier Bardem in this movie. Not only is he saddled with the worst haircut of the movie year, he has been handed the horrible task of playing a Meaningful Symbol instead of a person. Bardem's Anton Chigurh is the walking embodiment of Evil, you see. Oh yes, there is Evil in the world -- implacable, unfathomable, unstoppable Evil. And there is not a damned thing that you can do about it but stay the hell out of its way and hope that it doesn't decide to fuck with you, for if it does, you are toast.

There are no tragic fates in this movie. No one dies because of anything they did or didn't do (well, OK, it was pretty stupid for Brolin to steal $2 million in drug money), or because of any particular flaw in their character. They suffer and die because they crossed paths with Evil. Period.

Now if that strikes you as a profound or surprising message, then you may well find No Country for Old Men to be a deep and meaningful movie. I found it to be a waste of a lot of fine acting (Brolin is especially good, as is Macdonald -- you'd never guess that she was actually Scottish -- and there's a lovely single scene from Barry Corbin) and some gorgeous photography, all in the service of bleak grad-school existentialism: The world sucks and there ain't nuthin' you can do about it. Gee, that was worth spending $12 and 2 hours on.

MOVIES: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan, 2007)

The best part of this musical biopic parody is the music. The jokes? Well, they're not bad, but they're mild chuckles, not belly laughs.

In the tradition of Ray, Walk the Line, and La Vie en Rose, Walk Hard gives us the tragic life story of a famous musician. This time, it's Dewey Cox (a rare starring role for perennial second banana John C. Reilly). And if you've seen any of those other movies, you know the broad outlines of the story -- distant father, tragic death of a young sibling, early success, early unhappy marriage, drugs, divorce, redemption at the hands of beautiful second wife, late-career comeback.

We get all of those points here, played for laughs. Dewey's younger brother dies, for instance, when Dewey accidentally slices him in half with a machete ("You're gonna make it, Nate!" "I dunno, Dewey; I been sliced in half pretty bad here."), and Pa Cox spends the rest of the movie muttering "the wrong kid died."

There are a host of cameo appearances -- Frankie Muniz as Buddy Holly; Jack White as Elvis; Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long, and Jason Schwarzman as the Beatles -- and some nice supporting turns from Kristin Wiig, Jenna Fischer (as wives #1 and #2, respectively), and Tim Meadows as the drummer whose "stay away from these drugs, Dewey" warnings always turn out to be more enticing than threatening.

Best of all are the songs. All of Dewey's music is newly written for the movie, and the large crew of songwriters has done a fine job of creating songs that sound like authentic relics of their eras. Reilly does a reasonably good job of singing them. (He has, in a sense, the opposite problem from Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd, in that he has a voice too well-trained to be a really convincing pop singer.) His mumbling-Dylan impression is funny, and he does a surprisingly strong evocation of Roy Orbison in a lovely song called "A Life Without You."

When it's all over, though, Walk Hard is a mild amusement and not much more. I can't recommend that you rush out to see it in the theaters; it'll play just fine on DVD or cable TV.

MOVIES: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)

I confess that I was not optimistic as I walked into the theater. Sweeney Todd is not an easy musical, and with most of the key roles filled with non-singers, I dreaded the outcome. But I was pleasantly surprised (with one glaring exception, which we'll get to); the movie turned out reasonably well.

In the title role, Johnny Depp doesn't have a large, theatrical voice, but movies allow for a more intimate sound than live theater, and Depp's voice is adequate to the task. He's also a good enough actor to make up for his vocal shortcomings with a marvelously intense performance. It's a bit one-note -- Burton has chosen to give us a Sweeney who is maniacally obsessed with revenge and anger, and nothing else -- but Depp pulls it off.

You can say much the same for Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall, who play the Judge and the Beadle -- the singing isn't great, but it's redeemed by the acting. The unknowns are generally better singers; Jamie Campbell Bower as Anthony and Edward Sanders as Toby have fine voices (though still movie-sized, not theater-sized). Jayne Wisener as Johanna has a chirpy, pinched, Sarah Brightman-esque soprano; it's a type of voice that I can't stand, though it seems to be increasingly popular these days.

But then there's Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, and it's here that the movie falls painfully short. She's badly cast to begin with; I think Mrs. Lovett should be at least 10-15 years older than Todd. That makes her more credible as the sort of neighborhood gossip/busybody who would know every detail of what had happened to his wife and daughter 15 years ago, and it lends a crucial element of the pathetic (and of comic relief, which is desperately needed in this musical) to her conviction that she and Todd are going to be a happy romantic couple. (Without that element of the pathetic, "By the Sea" isn't nearly as interesting a number.)

But even if you like the idea of a younger Mrs. Lovett, Bonham Carter simply can't sing the role. Her voice is small, even by the more intimate standards of this movie; much of what she sings can't be heard over the orchestra, and it's not just a matter of bad sound mixing. When you can hear her, it's not a pretty voice; it's thin and whiny, and her enunciation is horribly bad. The lyrics of "The Worst Pies in London" vanish in a blur.

The movie looks marvelous. Burton gives us a dank and gloomy London of dark blue and gray; at times, you feel like you're watching a black-and-white movie. The most prominent bursts of color come from the blood of Sweeney's victims, which gushes forth in copious amounts. I found the blood to be so over the top, both in quantity and in brightness, that it almost immediately stopped being disturbing and became a cartoonish special effect, but I suspect that some will it find it too intensely gory.

Sondheim's music sounds marvelous played by a full orchestra (orchestrations are by longtime Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick), and while I did miss hearing "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," I can understand why it would be less effective in a movie version, and it does serve as a terrific underscore to much of the action.

It's a shame, really; this could have been a great Sweeney Todd, but Helena Bonham Carter is so woefully inadequate that it's only a good one.

December 26, 2007

TV: Best of 2007

Over at Modern Fabulousity, Gabriel has begun a week-long series of "Best of 2007" posts focusing on the year's finest artistic achievements. I was delighted and honored to be invited to join his television jury, and you'll find our collective wisdom here.

Gabriel asked each of us to submit lists of ten programs and five performances that we thought were the year's best. It took some mental gear-shifting to think in terms of calendar year, when I'm so used to analyzing TV by September-thru-May seasons, but these were the lists I turned in:

1. Pushing Daisies -- It's the most dazzling high-wire act on TV, with every actor, writer, and stagehand working on exactly the same wavelength. Every week I find myself thinking that they can't possibly pull it off again, and every week -- miraculously -- they do.
2. Mad Men -- Dialogue bordering on song, and a cast that knows how to sing. Jon Hamm was the find of the year, and Don's sales pitch monologues took my breath away.
3. Slings and Arrows -- Another impeccable ensemble cast, joined for the King Lear season by the superb William Hutt. And it was that rare show that knows how to tie up loose ends in a series finale without answering every question.
4. Project Runway -- Still the best reality competition on TV, thanks to clever challenges, impeccable casting, and the fabulousness of Tim and Heidi. Well, OK, mostly Tim.
5. John from Cincinnati -- I don't even pretend to understand this show, but I was always enthralled by it. John's sermon in the hotel courtyard was the best scene TV gave us this year.
6. Battlestar Galactica -- A lot of people (Emmy voters among them, sad to say) assume that because it's SF, it can't be anything more than meaningless entertainment. Oh, what fools they be!
7. How I Met Your Mother -- The best sitcom ensemble currently working, in a show that plays clever variations on the format, juggling multiple timeframes and plots with spectacular dexterity.
8. The Big Bang Theory -- Part of this year's mini-trend of geek chic. Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons have the kind of chemistry and timing that normally takes years to develop.
9. The Daily Show / The Colbert Report -- Because Jon and Steven are about the only thing keeping me sane these days.
10. Chuck -- A good old-fashioned escapist comic drama, maybe the best since Magnum P.I.

1. Chi McBride, Pushing Daisies -- Every time the show is in danger of becoming just too damned sweet, along comes Emerson -- cranky, skeptical, curmudgeonly, lovable Emerson -- to bring it back down to earth. McBride's done fine TV work for years, but he's never been as perfectly cast as he is here.
2. Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory -- Sheldon was a brilliant creation from week one, but I think Parsons was just getting started when the strike cut off the supply of new episodes. Parsons and the writers were starting to explore the ways in which Sheldon isn't just nerdy, but really annoying, and I'm eager to see how the character develops.
3. the women of Mad Men -- The men got most of the attention (and they were fine indeed), but Christina Hendricks, January Jones, and Elisabeth Moss gave us three spectacular portraits of womanhood in 1960. Any of the three could get a belly laugh and break your heart in the same episode, sometimes in the same scene.
4. Melinda Doolittle, American Idol -- For thirteen weeks, Melinda put on a masterclass in singing. Even Sanjaya didn't seem so horrible when you knew Melinda was coming up next.
5. Jesse Tyler Ferguson & Heather Goldenhersh, The Class -- The most unfairly neglected sitcom of the 2006-07 season gave us the year's best love story -- funny, romantic, poignant. The fact that it featured a pair of socially awkward misfits only made it better, and Ferguson and Goldenhersh were an irresistible couple.

December 25, 2007

MOVIES: Protagonist (Jessica Yu, 2007)

Filmmaker Jessica Yu was commissioned to make a documentary about Euripides, which would seem a rather arcane topic, and not an easy one to make interesting to contemporary audiences. Her approach in Protagonist is to illustrate the ways in which Euripides' themes -- the dangers of obsession and over-certainty -- continue to play out in modern lives.

Four men tell their stories, and the outline of each is similar: A man finds a way to deal with the frustration and challenges of daily life; at first, his new life seems ideal. Eventually, though, he realizes that he has thrown himself so deeply into his obsession that he's ignored the ways in which it is horribly wrong, which has made him someone he never wanted to be.

In an attempt to recreate the rush he felt when he finally stood up to his abusive father, Joe Loya turned to bank robbery. Mark Pierpont knew he was gay at an early age, and attempted to bury those feelings in religion, becoming a prominent "ex-gay" evangelist preacher. Hans-Joachim Klein's involvement in Germany's radical student political movements of the late 1960s and 1970s led him into terrorism. And high-school outcast Mark Salzman thought he'd finally found a home at a local martial arts school, until he realized that the instructor was a drunken sadist. (If Salzman's story sounds somewhat less compelling and dramatic than the others, it is; Salzman makes up for it by being the best storyteller of the four. He also happens to be Jessica Yu's husband.)

The four stories are divided into chapters, each headed by a key phrase from the dramatic structure of Euripides -- Crisis, Turning Point, Catharsis, Fever -- and introduced by an excerpt from his plays, performed (in ancient Greek, no less) by wooden-rod puppets; the puppets also appear occasionally to act out moments from the men's stories. This structural device does give a certain predictability to the proceedings; if one man starts talking about "the day everything changed," you can be pretty sure that the other three will follow. Despite that element of predictability, though, the parallel storytelling works quite well, and the four stories are compelling even when there's not much suspense about the outcome.

I was reminded somewhat of Errol Morris's Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, another documentary in which we are invited to draw comparisons and find the connections among the lives of four men. Protagonist isn't as complex or sophisticated a movie, and the connections are a lot more obvious, but it's entertaining, nevertheless, and worth looking for on DVD or cable.

December 24, 2007

MOVIES: Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007)

Margot (Nicole Kidman) is -- and there's no polite way to say this -- a fucking mess. She's self-absorbed, manipulative, dishonest, and cruel. She is toxic, bringing out the worst in everyone she knows. On some level, she understands this, and she hates herself for it. That's why she's meanest to her family; they must be punished, after all, for being so stupid as to love her.

Margot hasn't spoken to her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in several years -- we're never told exactly why -- but has decided to bury the hatchet by returning to the family's seaside home for Pauline's wedding. Of course, when Margot buries a hatchet, she buries it in someone's back, and no sooner has she arrived than she's criticizing Pauline's wedding plans and telling her that Malcolm (Jack Black) isn't nearly good enough for her ("he's like boys we rejected when we were 16," she says).

Pauline isn't quite as unpleasant as Margot, but Margot's presence raises the level of tension to the point where she begins to snap at Malcolm and at her daughter, Ingrid (Flora Cross); even Malcolm, a fairly mellow guy and certainly the sanest character in the movie, begins to crack under the pressure.

The irony is that these are all people who ought to have some insight into the human condition, or at least into their own personalities and interactions. Pauline is a teacher; Malcolm a musician and amateur critic; Margot is a writer of short stories who is "very famous to a very few people." But there's no insight here, just an endless festival of cruelty.

It's well performed, and Kidman in particular deserves credit for her lack of emotional vanity; she never attempts to soften Margot's edges or make her likable in any way. Leigh doesn't get to play the more normal partner in any relationship very often, and she does fine work in this rare sympathetic role. Jack Black is out of his league in their company, and tends to fall back on the broad comic shtick that works in his usual roles; it's not very effective here. In his first film, Zane Pais makes a strong impression as Margot's son, Claude; he's just on the edge of puberty, and in one of her most vicious moments, Margot delivers a lengthy critique of the way his body has changed, and Pais underplays the scene nicely.

But for all of the good acting, Margot at the Wedding isn't very pleasant to watch. It's ninety minutes of vicious nastiness, and Baumbach hasn't leavened the story with much humor at all (the key difference, I think, between this and his previous film, The Squid and the Whale).

December 23, 2007

I didn't watch Clash of the Choirs last week, but after seeing this performance from Nick Lachey's choir, I wish I had. It's a spectacular bit of singing, especially for a group that had only been together for five or six weeks.

MOVIES: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

The Romanian film that won at Cannes this year is having a one-week Oscar qualifying run here in Los Angeles; it opens for real (if you're in a large enough city to get foreign-language movies at all) in February.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is set in 1987; Communism hasn't completely collapsed yet, but it's on the verge. Bribery and black markets are a routine part of life; petty bureaucrats and minor officials revel in abusing the tiny powers that have been allotted to them. And on this particular day, college student Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is helping her roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) obtain an illegal abortion.

The abortion takes place in a cheap hotel room, and we spend a fair amount of time worried that something will go horribly wrong, but 4 Months isn't that kind of movie. It's not even a movie about abortion, really; it's more about the dehumanizing effects of living in so utterly corrupt a society. The hellish challenges involved in arranging an abortion come to feel like just another day of life as usual in Romania; bribe this one, suck up to that one, make these semi-legal plans and schemes.

The performances are superb. Anamaria Marinca plays a lot of scenes without speaking, and her face communicates every flicker of emotion. There's a long scene, for instance, where she's at a miserable dinner party with her boyfriend's family (while Gabita lies in that hotel room); for close to five minutes, her silent face holds the screen and tells us more than all of the foolish small talk going on around her.

Vlad Ivanov, as the abortionist Bebe, is also excellent, hiding his fury and vicious rage behind a facade of pleasantries and polite instruction.

It's a very intense movie, and some may find it difficult to watch, but it's remarkably good movie making, and I recommend it highly.

MOVIES: Romance & Cigarettes (John Turturro, 2005)

Romance & Cigarettes is John Turturro's all-star musical, finally making it to theaters after a long run on the festival circuit.

Susan Sarandon has caught hubby James Gandolfini having an affair with Kate Winslet; daughters Mandy Moore, Mary Louise Parker, and Aida Turturro are caught in the crossfire (with casting like that, we're already clearly in a surreal world). Also on hand are Christopher Walken as Sarandon's brother (his number set to Tom Jones's "Delilah" is a highlight of the movie) and Eddie Izzard as the choir director at the local church; Elaine Stritch steals her single scene as Gandolfini's mother.

The musical numbers are done by having the actors sing along with classic pop records (in the style of this fall's TV flop Viva Laughlin, but much better done); Turturro has deliberately chosen songs and singers with oversized, melodramatic, borderline campy levels of emotion -- Engelbert Humperdinck, Dusty Springfield, Vikki Carr, Connie Francis -- in an attempt to maintain the concentrated burst of emotion that you get in a great 3-minute pop song for the length of a 2-hour movie.

Most of the actors don't consistently maintain the overheated level Turturro is aiming for, and against the backdrops of those songs, the flat moments feel even flatter. Kate Winslet, though, is fabulous as Tula; she's impossibly crude and wildly vulgar, and it's a hilarious, bravura performance. Romance & Cigarettes isn't always successful, but even in its weakest moments, it's more interesting than most of the movies that make it to the theater.

December 22, 2007

MOVIES: American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are talented, charismatic actors. You'd think that pairing them in a crime drama would make for an exciting movie, but American Gangster never gets any higher than craftsmanlike workmanship.

Washington is Frank Lucas, who rules the criminal underworld of Harlem in the late 60s and early 70s. He comes up with a clever scheme to take over the heroin market, which was then controlled by the Mafia, by importing his product directly from the producers in southeast Asia (he smuggles it into the country in the coffins of American soldiers returning from Vietnam). This allows him to offer "a product twice as good for half the price," and before long, he's living in a fabulous mansion and enjoying ringside seats at the Ali-Frazier fight.

Crowe is Richie Roberts, a Boy Scout of a cop (and loathed by his fellow officers for it) who takes a job on a federal drug task force. It takes a while for Richie to realize that Frank is the guy he's after, because none of the cops can quite believe that a black man has beaten the Mafia at its own game.

Both actors are oddly muted here, with their natural charisma turned way down. This makes some sense for Crowe, I suppose, who's playing a schlub from New Jersey, but Frank Lucas really should be a more charming character than Washington gives us; it's a little hard to understand how he inspires such loyalty (or such fear, for that matter, as Washington doesn't really crank up the menace, either). Perhaps director Ridley Scott feared that Washington would, if given free rein, wipe Crowe's low-key performance off the screen; in any event, it's hard to care much about either character.

The supporting cast is uneven. Armand Assante overacts terribly as a Mafia boss trying to make a deal with Frank, but Josh Brolin is effectively sleazy as a corrupt New York cop, and Ruby Dee is quite good as Frank's mother. (The Supporting Actress hype she's getting, though, is overblown; the role is a standard Noble Black Mama part, and while she's good, she's not award-worthy. She's being singled out for praise because (a) she's a lot better than the movie, and (b) she's a good choice for a "Career Achievement/We're Sorry We Never Honored You Before" award.)

Assante aside, there's not really anything that you can point to here and say it's bad or ineffective; but the movie never becomes more than the sum of its competent parts. There's not a single moment that excited me or made me sit up in my seat. It's a disappointing movie.

December 18, 2007

TV: Duel (ABC)

This year's week-long game-show stunt started its run last night. The game itself isn't awful, but the show's pacing and its leaden host make it unlikely, I think, that Duel will catch on in the way that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Deal or No Deal did.

The game is played in head-to-head duels, each of which eliminates one of the show's 24 players. Each player starts a duel with ten chips, worth $5,000 apiece, and is presented with a series of multiple-choice questions (asked of both players simultaneously). Each player marks his answers with chips; if unsure of the correct answer, a player may mark 2, 3, or even all 4 answers, but any chip placed on an incorrect answer will be lost (and that $5,000 added to the weeklong jackpot for which the players are competing).

Get an answer wrong, and you lose the duel and are eliminated from the competition; if both players get the same question wrong, there's a sudden-death playoff. The winner of each duel keeps the money represented by whatever chips he has left and faces a new opponent in the next duel. The four players who have been the most successful during the week (it's unclear whether that means most duels won or most money) will face off in the final rounds on Sunday night.

The questions are well written; they're things that you feel like you ought to know but don't: What color are President Bush's eyes? Which bill has the White House on the back? And the game play is fun to watch, as each player considers whether he's sure enough of this answer to place only one or two chips, or whether to accept a loss of three chips and mark all of the answers.

But the show's pacing is deadly. It's now common for primetime game shows to be filled with annoying "...and we'll find out the answer...(pause pause pause)...when we come back!" moments, but Duel takes that practice to new levels. It feels like there are a lot of commercials, and a lot of dramatic hostly pauses.

Even worse, host Mike Greenberg (he's a sports guy from ESPN) is ill suited to the job. He displays no sense of humor, and he doesn't seem to be having fun, which is the key requirement of any game show host. He sucks the energy out of the show, making it feel even slower than it is.

With a new host and a tempo boost, Duel might catch on, but as is, even an audience desperate for new programming during the writers' strike won't put up with this for very long.

December 16, 2007

MOVIES: Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007)

It's been a year of unplanned pregnancy at the movies. There was Waitress and Knocked Up; the indie Stephanie Daley (which had only a short art-house run, and which I just received from Netflix this week); and the Romanian film that won at Cannes, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (which opens in Los Angeles next weekend). And now there's Juno.

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is our mother-to-be this time, after a single sexual fling with her sort-of boyfriend Paulie (Michael Cera). She considers abortion, but can't bring herself to go through with it, as much because the clinic is a creepy place as because of any moral considerations. Juno decides instead to find a couple in need of a child and arrange to have them adopt her baby. An ad in the local PennySaver leads her to Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), who appear to be the perfect yuppie couple -- financially secure, devoted to one another, desperate for a child. At least, that's how they appear through Juno's 16-year-old eyes; their relationship is more complicated than it initially seems (as are Vanessa's and Mark's individual relationships with Juno).

This is one of the year's best movies. Diablo Cody's screenplay is sharp and funny, but it doesn't make the mistake of being just a punchline machine (though I was a bit worried for the first ten minutes or so); there's actually some emotional depth and character development behind the jokes.

The cast is ideal. Ellen Page, who was at the top of my Best Actress list last year for her ferocious work in Hard Candy, is just as good here, in a wildly different role. Juno talks fast and smart, but isn't quite as worldly wise as she pretends to be, and Page gets both the bravado and the confusion just right. Jennifer Garner is always best when she gets to play against her tightly-wound, impeccably presented surface -- in the "who can I trust" paranoia of Alias, for instance, or when she gets to be a kid again in 13 Going on 30 -- and this, I think, is the best work she's ever done. Vanessa is the one character in the movie who's notably not a fast talking, pop-culture referencing, smoothie, and her fear that she'll lose this opportunity if she can't find a way to connect with Juno is heartbreaking. The rest of the supporting players -- Bateman, Cera, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney as Juno's parents, Olivia Thirlby as her best friend -- are every bit as good.

Happily recommended.

MOVIES: The Savages (Tamara Jenkins, 2007)

This movie has some of the most misleading advertising and trailers in recent memory. From the ads, you go in expecting a dark comedy about lovably grumpy relatives -- something in the Wes Anderson school, perhaps -- and what you get instead is a rather bleak drama about unhappy people and the indignities of aging in America.

Jon and Wendy Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) have not been in close contact with their father for many years, and both had quietly been hoping that he would simply leave their lives by dying peacefully. No such luck, though; Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) has begun slipping into dementia after the death of his longtime girlfriend, and Jon and Wendy are forced to bring him home from Arizona to New York and find an institution in which he can live out his life.

Lenny was -- at least as Jon and Wendy tell the stories to one another -- an abusive father, and they've responded to their childhood very differently. Jon tries to avoid any emotional engagement; his Polish girlfriend is about to leave the country (her visa has expired), and he refuses to try to help her, or even to acknowledge that he will miss her. Wendy has managed to convince herself that she's reasonably happy, mostly by keeping herself busy with temp jobs, unfulfilling affairs, and endless grant applications in support of the "subversive, autobiographical" plays she wants to write.

It's also clear, though, that as terrible a parent as Lenny may have been, Jon and Wendy have been no great shakes as children, either. They are cruel to their father, regarding his presence as an intrusive nuisance; they argue about him as if he weren't in the room.

Linney, Hoffman, and Bosco are three marvelous actors, and the performances here are first-rate. There are some sharp moments in Jenkins' screenplay, and great care has been taken with the physical details of the characters' homes and of the assorted hospitals and institutions (all of which look depressingly the same). I very much liked the fact that the details of Lenny's abuse are never spelled out, and it is, in fact, entirely possible that Jon and Wendy are simply exaggerating the worst aspects of a perfectly normal childhood. They are, after all, both obsessed with drama, figuratively and literally; she's a would-be playwright, and he's a theater professor, specializing in Brecht.

But there's also an unpleasant condescension towards the older characters in the movie, especially in the opening Sun City sequence; the opening credits play out as a group of elderly women in pseudo-Rockette costumes dance to a creepy Peggy Lee recording of "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard," which sexualizes them in a grotesquely inappropriate fashion and infantilizes them at the same time.

The ending suggests that Jon and Wendy are moving on with their lives, finally escaping the need to wallow in their childhood trauma, but that optimism didn't feel earned to me; I hadn't seen any sign that either of them had learned anything or changed in any significant way.

The Savages isn't a completely satisfying movie, but the three central performances are strong enough that I think it's worth seeing.

December 12, 2007

I know, I know, I've been a very bad blogger. But I promise, I'll be caught up by the end of the weekend, with comments on The Savages (liked it), Juno (loved it), and a buncha other stuff.