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Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Woody Allen on vacation...a puff pastry, pretty to look at but unsatisfying
Textbook Woody Allen, via Barcelona. Two young American friends visit Spain for the summer: Cristina is adventurous but aimless, while high-minded Vicky holds tight to her principles but is ready to melt. After a chance meeting with a handsome local artist, who is still enraptured with his fiery ex-wife, both ladies become individually involved with the hot-blooded lover--relationships that become even more complicated when the sexy ex returns. Not the rich, sumptuous spread one might expect, this light, minor Allen effort has very little of his customary wit. The location shooting is pleasant but unremarkable, while the performances are rather colorless. Penélope Cruz won a surprising Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work, though her character (a temperamental train-wreck who thinks nothing of being intrusive) is rather a born loser. Allen's screenplay is talk-heavy with the type of relationship issues he has been mining for years (he fails to come up with anything fresh), while the scenario (deemed "seductive" and "sexy" by professional critics) is curiously muted. There's next-to-nil seducing going on, while the sex either takes place off-screen or is interrupted. ** from ****
The Final Cut (2004)
Living on after death...via memory chip
An interesting idea for a melodrama-cum-thriller that never quite gets off the ground. Robin Williams plays a "cutter" who takes the recorded life histories of deceased men and women implanted with a memory chip in the womb and pieces together a moving scrapbook of personal memories for loved ones to watch at the memorial service. His work ultimately puts him in danger when a celebrated dead executive is revealed to have a skeleton in his closet--and also by the revelation that Williams himself is carrying a memory chip, which may unlock a nightmare from his childhood. Writer-director Omar Naim has created a compelling scenario, and he's ambitious enough to layer the narrative with different bits of minutiae (such as a tattoo shop which erases memory chips and protest groups who believe in living for the here and now), but too many of these side-plots are left unfulfilled--particularly one involving Mira Sorvino as a potential love-interest for Robin. As for Williams, he's tightly controlled, grimly obsessed/focused and soft-spoken, however this rigid role doesn't do much for the actor, doesn't allow him even the slightest bit of self-effacing humor. Consequently, the movie becomes a drudge, and is extended at least 10 minutes beyond the point where the central drama has been played out. *1/2 from ****
God Said, 'Ha!' (1998)
The emptiness left behind by death...bolstered by the bonds of family
A wonderful examination of love and loss from actress-comedienne Julia Sweeney, adapting her own one-woman play into an intimate and genuinely touching one-woman film. Sweeney talks about her beloved brother's battle in 1995 with terminal cancerand her own eventual, almost-simultaneous diagnosis with cervical cancerwithout being facetious (nor is she, on the flip side, overtly sentimental or 'angry'). There are no railings against God here; Sweeney is pithy and cogent, amusing in a lightly ironic way, and very appealing (a quality that failed to come across with the material she was given to do while a member of TV's "Saturday Night Live"). While not a big cinematic event, Sweeney's warmth as a speaker coupled with her deeply-felt remembrances have the ability to touch a lot of people. It should be perfect fare for cable-television. *** from ****
Michael Clayton (2007)
A film consumed by the overwhelming sensation of deliberately-dislocating confusion...
Literate, handsomely-produced and well-acted, writer-director Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" still fails to ignite as a corporate-corruption melodrama for our times. The film has all the ingredients for the kind of prestigious insider exposé which usually wins awards, however the returns are too overtly obtuse to succeed as a delicious suspense story. George Clooney plays Michael, an attorney with personal haunts who also works as an in-house "janitor" (i.e., clean-up man) for a major New York City law-firm dealing with two baffling cases: the manic-depressive breakdown of a colleague who knows too many insider secrets and a client being sued over the effects of a carcinogenic garden spray. Gilroy loads the picture up with key-points (cancer, addiction, assassination, corporate merger) without finding a way to make his characters interesting for the audience. Viewers are tipped early they should be aesthetically turned-on by the picture's firebrand intelligence, which doubles as sort of a serious form of 'movie art', yet only Tilda Swinton's Oscar-winning performance as a desperate legal counselor manages to make an impact. Framing the narrative in flashback mode (going back four days in time after an explosive incident) is infuriating, and expectations dwindle from there. *1/2 from ****
Raising Arizona (1987)
Cartoony mayhem in a vacuum...frenetically mind-numbing
Failed modern screwball comedy from filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen involves trailer-trash couple in Arizona who kidnap a baby boy from another couple with infant quintuplets (to keep this dubious comic premise palatable, the Coens are quick to ensure that every character is an oaf--outrageous, selfish and stupid--and usually with an eccentric, violent bend). Leads Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter are both very attuned to the Coens' broad sense of humor, but only the bit players (an elderly cashier, a bank patron) come up with anything surprising. On the odd occasion when Hunter's ex-cop suddenly develops maternal instincts or (God help us) a conscience, the movie comes to a dead halt. It also stands curiously still in any two-person scene involving a great deal of dialogue. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld works creative-overtime like a man possessed, spiking individual scenes with his energy, but Joel and Ethan's screenplay is exceedingly thin--it's like hanging classic oil paintings in a rec room. *1/2 from ****
Batty soaper for female audiences of the 1960s...
Maureen O'Hara and Rossano Brazzi are glowing middle-agers in love whose romance thwarted by their respective pre-teen children: his haughty Italian daughter and her stubborn, bratty British boy and girl. Stories of kids meddling in their parents' lives are usually successful if played as comedy; here, the melodrama gets to be too much, with the grown-ups continually exasperated and the kids unlikably victorious in their immature pranks. The familial arguments which arise are probably realistic, but here they dissipate interest in the movie, particularly since the love story between the leads is much more interesting. ** from ****
Swing Kids (1993)
Nazis don't dance
The party's over for the rambunctious, carefree Berlin teenagers who love dancing the night away to American swing music once the Nazi party comes into power (seems they've banned jazzy music from the States in a WWII-era twist on "Footloose", wherein an uptight reverend banned rock & roll and youthful celebratory dancing). Two young men, best friends, find themselves on opposite sides of the fence, although it takes square-jawed, 'moral' Robert Sean Leonard an awfully long time to come around. Direction by Thomas Carter is astute and fluid, and the production is well-polished, but this earnest cast ends up just going the motions (what else can they do with the robotic dialogue?). The scenario turns out to be as artificial as the cobblestone streets and the downbeat, we're-licked-now-but-will-be-victorious finale. ** from ****
The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963)
"I don't know what it is, but I have a feeling it's out to harm us..."
Wealthy scientist out of Cape Canaveral, working on a top secret Mars project, finds himself powerless when Martians invade his vast estate, duplicating his family members. Narcotizing science-fiction from screenwriter Harry Spalding and talented director Maury Dexter, who gives this nightmare-in-the-daylight thriller a disassociated, dream-like quality, one which is substantiated by the underpopulated scenario and a seemingly low-end budget. Not an important title in the genre, but certainly an intriguing one, though the dulled-out acting (which nevertheless contributes to the film's lulling tone) is a liability. **1/2 from ****
Under the Skin (2013)
Quiet but not contemplative...disturbing and unsettling, but without enough on its mind
Alien being, disguised as a petite white female in a brunette wig, peruses the streets of Scotland in search of young, unattached males to store in her flatin sort of a gel-based quicksandbefore their innards are offered up to (one presumes) invigorate her planet. Mood piece from director Jonathan Glazer, who also co-wrote the the screenplay with Walter Campbell, from Michel Faber's novel, could be subtitled "The Girl Who Fell to Earth". Initially intriguing effort is chilly-smooth yet detached, and deliberately aloof; the arty treatment lent to the story is probably meant to fuel the narrative (which is mostly visual), but the film is so hollow--not just emotionally, but intrinsically--that it eventually shuts the viewer out. Scarlett Johansson is diminutive and fleshy in the leading role, casually seducing neighborhood men before luring them to their demise; her lair is a peculiar trap--it looks like the inside of an alien transporter--and, since there's very little dialogue, it takes a few scenes to assess the situation. I'm still not clear where Johansson's cohort fits in--a male who zips around town on a motorcycle--but it's clear that, when she develops a conscience after picking up a cranially-deformed man--her partner is there to clean up unfinished business. Filmed in both Scotland and England, the picture has a lulling, mesmerizing ambiance, and Glazer has a real talent for capturing inclement weather on film. Still, there's no spontaneity in his handling--and no humor; the movie may as well be freeze-dried. The final events in the woods are confusing and, it must be said, alienating, and one is left foraging for food for thought. ** from ****
"They fear you because you are the future."
An apartheid musical, adapted from a minor Broadway hit from 1988, and ostensibly directed at families (with Whoopi Goldberg's casting a commercial hook). South African students, led by headstrong teenager Sarafina, protest and riot when their beloved teacher, Goldberg's politically-wise Mary Masombuka, is taken to prison over arguments implementing the West Germanic Afrikaans as the school's language. Would-be inspirational effort, a pet project for Whoopi, was shot on-location in Soweto and Johannesburg, and does a fairly interesting job mixing the harsh realities of this strife-ridden city with unabashed singing and dancing (mainly used as fantasy subtext). However, the political points are made early on in Mbongeni Ngema's and William Nicholson's screenplay, so there's really no place surprising the picture can go. The impetus of the material is to teach us something through the students' passionate fervor, but director Darrell Roodt can only work up a mild head of steam, while his film quickly falls back on that old stand-by: sermonizing. Goldberg, in sedate mode, smiles serenely at the kids, nodding quietly in agreement with their protestations (she has the patience of 100 saints). Her first involvement in an early number, a musical prayer set on the school grounds, is ridiculously clumsy. The teenagers, energetic to a fault, fare somewhat better. *1/2 from ****