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Working Class Respect
22 March 2009
I quite liked the film. I would watch Amy Adams stare at grass and Emily Blunt is always top notch. One thing that stuck out for me about the film was that it offers a look at real working-class people doing real work, and does so in a respectful manner. Rose tries to put a positive spin on her post-mortem cleanup work to gathered yuppies in an awkward social setting and is clearly defensive. But you can see her coming to value the work for the good it does. There is nothing wrong with adventure thrillers about high crimes and misdemeanors, about the far-too-well-to-do, and about easy lives, but it is heartening to see hard-scrabble work valued, not just as a barrier to be overcome but as a thing that has intrinsic value and that does real good. Rose and Nora take on work that the yuppie ladies would never dream of tackling, and do real good for real people. This is a film that does not dazzle us with fireworks or glitter, but it has heart. We like that.
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Minority Report on Majority Favorite
10 February 2008
No Country for Old Men was an engaging and interesting film, but I was not as taken with it as most seem to have been.

Plot-wise, it is primarily a chase film. Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) having made off with found drug money flees; psycho-killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) chases him; Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) chases Anton; Carson Wells, (Woody Harrelson) in the employ of the money side of the drug deal, chases the money; drug dealers chase Llewellyn. Can Moss get away with the money? He concocts a devious scheme for hiding the cash, but is not clever enough to figure out soon enough how Anton can find him so easily. He is smart enough to know his wife will need protecting but then sends her to a place where she is certain to be found.

Anton is a bad-hair boogie-man, in the mold of Jason, Freddie or Michael Meyers, maniacally intent on retrieving his money, determined to kill any who have wronged him or even to have gotten in his way, and willing to lay waste any unfortunate enough to be nearby. Doesn't he catch up with Llewellyn rather quicker than seems likely for anyone not blessed with symbolic DNA? Isn't it at least a little suspicious that he knows exactly what medication to take from the pharmacy, and is able to deliver exact dosages? And how about his reaction when faced with a compound fracture at the end? Grits his teeth, wraps the sucker up and walks off into the distance like any good boogie-man might. Yet he cloaks his actions under the guise of having "a code." This "code" seems to impress some of those around him. Carson Wells and the sheriff both refer to it. A code that allows a madman to kill based on a coin toss is crying out for a rewrite. That Anton takes sadistic pleasure in bullying those to whom he offers the coin only reinforces that he is a nut-job. Does fate take pleasure in our demise? Not likely. Adding personality to Anton makes him less a symbol and more of a monster. The scene in which Carla Jean refuses to play, insisting that Anton was responsible for his actions and was not merely an instrument of fate, reinforces this. (A switch from the book, by the way. She accepts and loses in the novel.) So is Anton a symbol for fate or just a crazy guy? Both maybe, but if so, that muddies the issues.

McCarthy's an adherent to the "Life's a bitch and then you die" school, with a career-long focus on violence in human existence. He sees things getting progressively worse. The violence here is more mindless than in his prior work. The message comes across that things have changed for the worse within the last generation. That probably references the disrespect for authority that grew out of the 1960s, the growth in the drug trade that happened in the 1970s, and by implication the spectacular growth of private gun use. To see where he is going with this, I suggest reading his award winning The Road, an incredible book about a post-apocalyptic America.

The Coens offer snippets of their very welcome humor. Llewellyn appearing at the border crossing in a bathrobe was wonderful as was the scene in which he appears in the same outfit at a clothing store and the clerk asks in a deadpan how the boots were working out. Woody Harrelson gets a few nice comedic lines as does Josh Brolin. While no one gets to say "I think I'm gonna barf," there are enough small yucks to lighten the overall emotional load.

Could either Llewellyn or Anton bleed as much as they had and not go into shock? I don't know, but it certainly was impressive seeing them self-medicate.

I liked the cinematography, the beautiful opening serenity that would play host to the high body count to come, the claustrophobia of the hotels, some very nice in-town shots looking down at the streets and storefronts.

Acting-wise, Josh Brolin was perfect as the everyman who sees his opportunity and takes it, then trying to cope with the results. I would have liked to have seen him get a nomination. TLJ played, well, TLJ. It seemed to me that this is the same role he has played in many, many films. Of course, I really like TLJ, so I do not know if this is a bad thing. Kelly McDonald (Carla Jean Moss) earned her money for her scene with Javier Bardem. Riveting. Harrelson was fun. But I do not get what all the excitement is for Bardem. Yes, he was effective in portraying a nut-job. Should Ah-nold have gotten an Oscar nomination for his homicidal robot? That was effective too. Bardem is arguably one of the brightest acting lights of our generation. Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside show his unmistakable genius. But the role as written is confusing. Is he a symbol or a person? The role does not really offer all that much range, in my humble opinion. Yes, he is scary. He uses silence effectively. And...

So what are we to take from this movie? Life is ultra-violent and tough noogies? When your number is up, your number is up? Cormac needs to get out more. One need not go along with McCarthy's dark view of life to enjoy the film, and I did enjoy it quite a bit. I am a fan of the Coens. I love their sense of humor, particularly. But I do not believe that this film is their best work. Nor do I believe that it merits a best picture nomination. I know this puts me in a minority. It is an interesting film, dark yet amusing, and I would recommend it. But somehow it is not, to my mind, at the top tier.
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Grace Is Gone (2007)
A Graceful Journey
17 December 2007
I found the film to be a very sensitive, low-key portrayal of a father having to learn to communicate with his children after his soldier wife is killed in Iraq. It is not political. Cusack's character is an uncritical believer in authority, while his opposite number is shown as an immature oppositionist, lacking grounding in the real world. In their political discussion, both make valid points but neither view is the focus of the film. This is a family tale, with the twist that it is a guy having to cope with losing a soldier spouse, not a woman. Coping here means telling his children that their mother is gone, and his struggle is not exactly new ground. Kramer vs Kramer is the obvious example of a father learning how to cope with fatherhood. Grace, however, shows a pretty decently coping Dad from the git-go. His struggle is more focused. Unable to bear telling his daughters the bad news, and unable to face it himself, he takes them on a fantasy trip to a Disneyworld stand-in, driving from Minnesota to Florida. As with most road trips this is a journey of discovery for him and particularly for his older, 12-year-old daughter. Ultimately, he finds the voice in which to speak the painful words. Cusack is masterful in his portrayal of the struggling widower. The young actresses playing his daughters are completely convincing. One thing that stands out is the minimalist Clint Eastwood score. It supports the sorrowful tale and seems almost to be trying to sooth the grieving father. This is not a cheery, feel good flick in which everyone goes home with a smile on, but it is a satisfying film that offers a realistic portrayal of regular people coping with a very harsh reality.
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The Savages (2007)
Compelling performances in a less-than-compelling film
6 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I found The Savages interesting but not compelling. It centers on a brother and sister, both clearly socially challenged. Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is a 39-year-old writer who lives in New York City, works temp to pay the bills, and is trying to get grant money with which to complete a play. She is in a passionless affair with a 52-year-old married man, Larry, (Peter Friedman) with no prospect of a real relationship in sight. Jon Savage (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a professor of literature at a Buffalo college, writing a book about humor in Brecht. His Polish girlfriend, Kasia, (Cara Seymour) is returning home as her visa has expired, yet he does not seem at all touched by this. In a faux-idyllic Sun City, Arizona, their father, Lenny, (Phillip Bosco in a compelling performance) is living with his girlfriend in her home in the retirement community. He has begun experiencing symptoms of dementia. When his girlfriend dies, her kids kick him out and force the Savage sibs to cope.

Frequent mention is made of what a bad father Lenny had been, but we are given little detail. Occasional mention is made of their mother abandoning them. They did not become dysfunctional without some help. What to do with dad, who suffers from dementia and bouts of rage? They place him in a depressing nursing home. Wendy dreams of a nicer place for him, but when he is brought there for an interview it is clear that he is not functional enough to meet their requirements. And it is not clear how Wendy and Jon would be able to pay for it in any case.

This movie is a character study of the sibs with a look at how Americans deal with aging and death. Jon gives a speech in which he holds forth on how the whole nursing home presentation of beauty and comfort is nothing more than an attempt to prey on the guilt of the families of the elderly. Inside they are all the same, he says, places of death. The sibs argue over the care of their father, at times with him present. You can see dad giving up all desire to persist. There are some lovely moments. Wendy befriends one of her father's caretakers, Jimmy (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and lets her hair down to him. He shows much-needed appreciation for her work and teaches her about a key thing that happens to all patients who are about to die. Wendy's cat stays at the nursing home with dad for a bit, and is there when his toes curl. There are occasional uncomfortable laughs. Jon's diatribe about nursing homes being places of death is overheard by a passerby in a wheel-chair. Lenny's choice of classic film leads to a very uncomfortable exit for the sibs. But, while laughs are few and far between here, The Savages has a much more upbeat ending than one might suspect, as the characters all show growth. Wendy has learned to nurture and is moving forward in her work; Jon is taking an active role in his relationship with Kasia. Even Lenny decides to stop bitching and move on.

Linney might get an Oscar nomination for her work here. She is completely convincing as a socially challenged middle-ager who has been fending off reality and responsibility for a long time. Her portrayal rings very, very true. Phillip Bosco is riveting as the demented Lenny.

As an aside, I quite enjoyed the soundtrack, which effectively underscored the goings on.

Beyond that, re content, I did get the sense that there were levels to this film that I was missing, Neanderthal that I am, and am looking forward to the brighter lights here to illuminate them.
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Hitman (I) (2007)
Game Over
30 November 2007
I never played the game on which "Hitman" was based, so saw it purely as a film and not as an adaptation. The fun of noting game-film commonalities was lost to me. There were, however, elements of the film that I found creative and intriguing; the school for assassins, cloning in various forms, the grainy cinematography, current affairs in the former Soviet state. But instead of lifting the film above the genre, they reminded me of what a better film this might have been. Instead of a thoughtful look at technology, politics and humanity, with lots of kaboom, the best parts of this film served as window dressing to an adolescent blood-fest. I trust the gamers to comment on the range of weapons on display here. There were too many for me to track. I did not maintain a body count, but it was definitely way up there. And the mindless, Cylon-like military/police forces were such easy pickings for our hero that it was clear they were nothing more than point-of-view targets.

We are supposed to feel some sort of affinity with the hero of a film. What guy did not see himself in fantasies as Bond, James Bond? But I found it hard to link up with 47. He was just too willing to wipe out whoever was in his gun-sights. Are we supposed to feel sympathy with him because he has no comfort level with the ladies? Grow up.

If you like to see lots of weapons being used on lots of people, a wealth of things that go boom in the night, a bit of creative, Saw-like torture, and a near complete absence of real humanity, "Hitman" is the film for you.
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Fred Claus (2007)
It is what it is
25 November 2007
Every Christmas eve I make my kids endure yet another showing of It's A Wonderful Life. I also thoroughly enjoyed Bad Santa. So sue me. I admit it. I like cheesy, schmaltzy movies. I like excellent, intelligent ones too, but as with so many things, variety is a good thing. What would the Christmas season be without the annual cinematic ka-ching ka-ching of Santa in all his guises, from Edmund Gwenn to Billy Bob Thornton? Fred Claus will make no one forget Bedford Falls, but I do not believe a Christmas film should have to reach iconic stature to succeed. "Fred" is a perfectly OK holiday movie, with enough humor for the adults and sufficient charm for the kids. My wife and I laughed a lot, even if most of the humor was obvious and Vince was just being Vince. Paul Giamatti was a top-notch Santa, which helped a lot. Not a great flick, and unlikely to become must-viewing for anyone's annual Christmas traditions. But my wife and daughter and I enjoyed it for what it was, holiday schmaltz with a small dash of spice. There's nothing wrong with that.
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25 November 2007
I am a great admirer of Redford, both as an actor and even more as a director. Tom Cruise, whatever one may think of his personal tics, is a very gifted actor. And Meryl Streep is synonymous with excellence. I came to this film with very high expectations. I left disappointed.

I am sympathetic with the views the film takes, about the corruptibility of the media, the ego of leaders in air-conditioned rooms sending young soldiers into harm's way for their personal gain, the need for passion to be expressed in actions as well as words, whether that means joining the military as a way to make a difference or devoting oneself to some other positive approach to helping address the problems of this world. But I felt that the material was presented in such a way that it turned into a lecture.

The performances were excellent, as one would expect, with Cruise, in particular, presenting a very effective, scary portrayal of a neo-con militant. But the pieces never formed a solid enough mass to actually move me. I have thought about the issues presented here. I do think about them. I do not need to be instructed to do so. And people who have not and do not think about them are not, I expect, likely to park their fannies in the theater to see this. I can go to Church if I want to hear a sermon. I was in the choir once. I need much more than that from such a talented crew.
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Less than the sum of its pieces
24 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
The casting was most appealing and raised hopes far beyond what was actually delivered. I found that watching this film was a bit like listening to American Pie back in the day, trying to figure out the reference point for each line. Maybe one can ask, "how many dictators can dance on the point of a needle?" The Reagan references were pretty obvious, the tarot cards (Ron and Nancy relied on an astrologer), Max calling his wife "Mommy," also a known Reaganism. I don't think I want to know what the basis was, if any, for the perverse private practices of Max and spouse. Presenting Max in the opening sequence in a silly hat may have made him laughable, a possible reference to the malapropisms of 43, but once his dark core was revealed such lightness was merely annoying. There is clearly considerable content here about the nature of liberty and power, and how and when one should act when faced with immoral leadership. References abound, but I felt as if it were almost more of a parlor game for the makers of the film than a serious querying of human responsibility or a wise, satirical look at power and politics. The references to Iran and to extremists of both the right and left substituted a blunt instrument for a sharp one. I was waiting for them to quote the Who on the character of bosses. Is all power really the same? Are all who attempt to lead so inherently flawed? Are all who achieve leadership evil or wrong-headed? Surely there are some who are better than that. Ultimately, the film offers a well-educated cynicism, which seems a waste of a good education.
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Six Shooter (2004)
Grand Guignol in Green
25 February 2006
A bit of fun for the black-hearted, very black-hearted. Death becomes them, all of them it seems, in one way or another. I am a fan of dark humor myself--Sweeney Todd and League of Gentlemen come to mind--but despite having a reasonably strong stomach, this film made me uncomfortable. Make no mistake, it is wonderfully crafted, with outstanding performances, top-notch production values, and a glorious punch line, but it might be a trial to keep your eyes on the screen until the final payoff.

I caught this dainty in a showing of all the Oscar-nominated shorts, animated and live action. (and not, sadly, documentary) It is a shame that so few get to see quality short films of this sort. It might be a worthy enterprise for some bright person to market a DVD product line with sets of each year's nominees. Or work something out with Apple to make them down-loadable to digital devices of various sorts. It is a sad thing that we must endure advertisements prior to seeing features. Substituting short films of modest duration would add reel value to seeing films in a theatrical venue. Lord knows, it would be a good thing to provide a bit more justification for the hefty ticket prices.
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