Sunday, March 28, 2010

Police, Adjective

Politist, Adjectiv (Police, Adjective)
Grade: N/R
Cast: Dragos Bucar, Vlad Ivanov, Irina Selescu
Director: Corneliu Poremboiu

Have you ever said that you would pay to watch your favorite actor read the dictionary? Well if you happen to be Romanian, now you can!

Not only that – the dictionary happens to be one of the more action-packed sequences of Police-Adjective. Forced to read the definition of “police” after objecting to an assignment, the detective notes that it describes a form of story with drama and suspense. Police, Adjective actively rejects that definition of “police drama,” depicting instead the tedious absurdity of a pointless stakeout directed at a few kids smoking hash. When the story threatens to veer into an action scene, the film ends.

The deflation of action and drama seems to be the cause of director Corneliu Poremboiu. His camera spends its time in drawn-out takes of people eating, sitting in a waiting room, or mainly following them down the street. As an investment in minimalism, plotlessness and existential futility, Police, Adjective takes its ennui very seriously.

The film classically pits the letter of the law against the spirit. Words are portrayed as the enemy, weapons of oppression for Romania’s lingering communist bureaucratic mentality. Its long periods of silent observation exchange the carelessness of words in favor of the purity of the image. This pure cinema simulates the phenomenologist writings of Frenchmen like Alain Robbe-Grillet, who dropped psychology and symbolism in favor of description and observation, believing the latter to be the only real way to the truth.

If you are brainy, you can come to appreciate Police, Adjective. This is good news. The only chance for this film is for the viewer to respect it. There appears to be no possibility that you will enjoy it. I watched Police, Adjective in a theater all by my lonesome. For once, I was convinced that the rest of the human race was right.

That is ultimately the disturbing thing. This past weekend, I watched a film, Inglourious Basterds,that raises weighty questions of historical depiction and historical amnesia while remaining immensely entertaining. Watching Tarantino’s film, you’re transported back a decade to when indie films simultaneously felt smart, serious, and in love with the medium.

Saddled by funding issues, indie cinema increasingly feels the need to make a virtue of its downsized obscurity. The current indie drive for verisimilitude at all cost makes for intelligent films that are hard to watch. At worst, they feel punishing to the audience. In eradicating entertainment for intellectual authenticity, Police, Adjective appears to continue the trend of suicide by purity.

The Bounty Hunter

The Bounty Hunter
Grade: D
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Gerard Butler
Director: Andy Tennant
Free Admission Granted

Are you an inventor in California? Are you looking to find the Snuggie pathway to the American Dream? I have some advice. Create a Gigli detector.

A what? A why? It’s obvious that celebrity power couples have a very hard time identifying cataclysmic vanity projects that will damage their career. While reading the script for The Bounty Hunter, did Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston not notice the creeks of the floorboards and the spooky sounds of dragging chains upstairs, forever strapped across the backs of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s career?

The reaction is unlikely to be that negative. It takes a coincidence of time, celebrity and arrogance to produce a train wreck for the ages. This is especially true of such a well-liked star as Aniston. Butler, however was a good choice for a film called The Bounty Hunter. In Hollywood he would have a hard time getting arrested. Although if “Impersonation of a Charming Leading Man” ever becomes a crime …

If any director seems destined to eventually end his career in a Gigli-like disaster, it is Andy Tennant. Aniston’s Friends episodes used to carry names like “The One Where Ross and Rachel Throw a Picnic and Get Mauled by a Bear” or such. Tennant’s romantic comedies fit those types of titles: “The One Where Will Smith Gets Kevin James a Hook-Up With a Cameron Diaz lookalike.” “The One Where Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey Fight Pirates.” Does anyone go to film school thinking, I really want to direct Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey in a movie where they fight pirates?

If there is a good point to Tennant’s films, it is the way that they are structured. To their credit, they are shaped, in ways, like classic screwball. To their discredit, they’re lousy. One doesn’t need to be a decorated film historian to tell the difference between Katherine Hepburn and Goldie Hawn.

Aniston, here, is a hotshot newspaper reporter arrested for giving an accidental butt-kicking. To a police horse. With a car. When she fails to show up in court while chasing a story, they send Butler, her bounty hunting ex-husband, to retrieve her. Watch him stuff her in the trunk of his car! Watch them make up and make out! Ooooohh, what a perfect set-up for a Battle of the Sexes! You can only imagine how many times they fasten the handcuffs to the bed posts for a weak laugh.

How many movies so quickly and efficiently announce their intention to be awful? Granted romantic comedies are supposed to aim below the waist, but The Bounty Hunter introduces itself with not one but two crotch-punches in the first five minutes or so. That’s at least one more crotch punch than there are laughs in the first hour.

And no, like most bad marriages, it doesn’t improve with time.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer
Grade: A
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Olivia Williams, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Eli Wallach, Timothy Hutton
Director: Roman Polanski
Free Admission Granted

It might occur to you after watching The Ghost Writer how little the mystery really needs to matter in a mystery. The film’s would-be stumper isn’t much of one. The solution doesn’t impress. Yet you move slowly and unstoppably into its silent unease. The Ghost Writer is, predominately, a film of mood and execution.

As such, Roman Polanski’s new film is one of my easiest top-graders and something hovering around a masterpiece. Reminiscent of Chinatown, Polanski turns the summer elite playground of (a fake) Cape Cod into a rainy pit of deception and self-deception, of femme fatales and dark humor, of paranoia and lust and dread. Homes become traps. Beaches become prisons of muddy sand. “I feel like the wife of Napoleon on St. Helena,” says one character, bluntly and bitterly.

A writer known only as “The Ghost” (Ewan McGregor) is not on vacation. He is there working. He will make a huge score to polish a British Prime Minister’s autobiography and walk away anonymously. The timing is awful. There’s a love triangle. A frustrated wife. And a political crisis over acts of torture by the Minister’s government. To top that, the first ghost writer took a mysterious and permanent plunge into the Big Drink. A man smart enough to know better, the writer starts looking into the “suicide.”

The sublime dialogue of the script – written by Polanski and the novelist Robert Harris, on whose 2007 novel the film is based – is a thing of sophistication – a mixture of English dry humor and American hardboiled lingo, delivered with gentile bite by the tragically overintelligent. When MacGregor suggests to a smoking and smoky Kim Cattrall, “Maybe you’d like to search me,” it’s the sort of line that you would imagine roll out of Humphrey Bogart’s mouth. Every word seems to carry a secret meaning – sexual or perilous, perhaps warnings of each.

As the film’s isolated hero and patsy, McGregor is silently intense, shrewd but vulnerable. He is matched and probably outdone by Olivia Williams as the Prime Minister’s Lady MacBeth, a slick, secretive steel matron losing her grip. Along with a memorable turn in An Education, it’s been a strong year for an actress who has been missing too long, As the neocon devil, Tom Wilkinson makes every polished word feel like it hides a dagger.

After Polanski’s recent arrest, it occurred to me that the key to Chinatown’s ending is the failure of Jack Nicholson’s imagination. Incest is outside the realm of Jake Gittes’ — and the audience’s – range of possibility. With The Ghost Writer, all the clues stare us in the face. but the writer only slowly comes to see past the comfort of the official stories. A mystery is supposed to restore our sense of order in the world, but the perfect frame at the end of The Ghost Writer subversively denies us that which we most want from a story – our sense of justice.

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland
Grade: D
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway
Director: Tim Burton
Free Admission Granted

Have you ever heard this apocryphal story? NASA spent millions and millions of dollars to develop a pen that would work in space. The Russians simply gave their cosmonauts a pencil.

That came to mind watching Tim Burton’s CGI cornucopia of Alice in Wonderland, in which no pixel was spared in creating the dream world. If you’re going to spend nine jillion dollars on a movie, is there some reason you can’t afford a real dog? I mean really, do you have to fake the dog? Was it too hard to work with the conditions of the canine actors union?

And so you should know they spare no expense to create the Wonderland of Alice. And still the movie never really takes us down the rabbithole. It lacks the bite of surprise. And surprise is necessary element if you are creating an unnecessary sequel.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) isn’t a young girl. She’s a teenager on the brink of an arranged Victorian marriage. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter)shouts “off with his head” with a comedy sketch glee that doesn’t endear. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) dances madly. The Cheshire Cat grins. Because that’s what Cheshire Cats do. They grin. They’re very good at grinning.

The characters might be stamped Lewis Carroll. At least I think so. I don’t really remember my children stories. I was only a kid. I wasn’t taking notes. I do know the look, the plot, the structure and the effects are standard Hollywood. I do remember Hollywood. That I see every week. That might get by, if the film had any of the trademark Burton originality. This film is all visuals and no vision.

That’s the thing about Tim Burton – his outrageous creativity always seems to be in a life or death struggle with the faint whiff of dull rot that seems to underlie his films. He peddles distraction. When distraction isn’t distracting, it’s noticeable.

Depp’s Hatter is two buck teeth and a pair of crazy eyes in search of a character. That means that he has more depth than Alice, who is a rather polite bore. Her big thing is growing tall and growing small. Because she is not a young child, there isn’t much wonder to Wonderland. Nor is there much connection to her story.

But really, who needs to connect to the person or the story when we have 3-D? Even that is not quite what it could be. By the time of this writing, I had already forgotten that it had been in 3-D. Alice suffers greatly from the extraordinary three-dimensional detail of Avatar. It seems like a step backward. It misses the wow factor, and that is the only possible reason to see the movie.

Alice in Wonderland isn’t the flop that it has been rumored to be. It doesn’t take the necessary risks to be something so interesting. It’s something quite less, a film rooted in the mediocrity of dull competence. That’s what Hollywood cash can buy these days.

Shutter Island

Shutter Island
Grade: B
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kinglsey, Michelle Williams, Max Von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson
Director: Martin Scorsese
Free Admission Granted

As he ages, Martin Scorsese appears to be making a clear turn to pulp.

I would say that some of the hesitations often expressed about The Departed stem from this change. The Academy Award winner doesn’t’ have the sense of burned-in reality of his early New York films. You also hear, incorrectly that it is shallow, a misimpression that lingers. Rather, it’s a quiet study of the relationships among violence, loyalty, and rival forms of authority.

Shutter Island takes a similar approach and will probably suffer the same accusations of shallowness. You will hear that it is just Scorsese making a piece of intriguing entertainment. While I don’t think it is Scorsese’s deepest film, I would say this description sells the film short.
Like a previous adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, Mystic River, Shutter Island is interested in violence and the way that the arrival and absence of knowledge shifts the morality of it, as well as the way that violence burdens the futures of its subjects. What is interesting about Shutter Island is the way that our investment in violence changes as our perception of the film’s “reality” changes.

Whatever its underlying meanings, Shutter Island is primarily an expert piece of popcorn, a bump-in-the-night psychological thriller enlivened by Scorsese’s child-like sense of cinematic exaggeration. It’s like Avatar for someone who grew watching 50s tough-guy B-movies.
Haunted by memories of liberating a concentration camp and his wife’s death, US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes a ride across the waves to Shutter Island, a foreboding piece of mid-Atlantic real estate that houses an asylum for the Criminally Insane. A female inmate has mysteriously disappeared without a trace.

The island institution is run by an effete doctor, played by Ben Kingsley, who believes he can reform and save his criminal patients. But he seems to have something to hide. It’s 1954, just after the War, and the presence of doctors with German accents aren’t helping his case.

Despite my recommendation, the use of the Nazi theme disturbed me. Generally speaking, I think the more we use the Holocaust as a storytelling device, the less impact the real thing has on us. Its use should be carefully chosen, but here the Holocaust is reduced to a storytelling device and ultimately a Maguffin. It could be anything, so perhaps it shouldn’t be that.
The film also too much time down t he stretch to reach what has become its obvious conclusion.

Nonetheless, it held my suspense and interest, because I wasn’t quite sure how all the details would work out. That’s true of most of this often brilliantly suspenseful film. It captures your attention, holds it, and has a little something to say. Throw in Michelle Williams, who I’m quickly becoming convinced is the best actress out there, and that’s not bad for a night out.