Thursday, July 30, 2009

TWO LOVERS (now playing at home where you'd be ecstatic to have even ONE lover)

The enigma of why--when given the choice of a lover who's a normal human being or one who's mentally unstable--we often choose the really screwed-up one, is explored in Two Lovers, a romantic drama from director James Gray. Simply put, the people we choose to inhabit our lives are a reflection of our own state of being.

When we meet Leonard Kraditor, (Joaquin Phoenix) he has just jumped into the bay near his Brighton Beach Brooklyn home. Leonard, who works in his father's dry cleaning business, is bi-polar and has tried to do himself in before. Having second thoughts, he rises to the surface and is rescued by some good Samaritans.

Things look up for Lenny from there as first he meets Sandra, (Vinessa Shaw) the daughter of his dad's potential business partner. Sandra is attractive and sweet natured. She goes for Leonard, and soon considers him to be her boyfriend. Both families are pleased, as this will be good for business. Then Leonard discovers Michelle, (Gwyneth Paltrow) his quirky neighbor, who wants to be friends. Michelle is the prototypical lost soul. She ingests a lot of "E." She is a user--not only of drugs--but of people. She's a kept woman, her apartment paid for by Ronald, (Elias Koteas) the married attorney with whom she's having an ongoing relationship. Ronald's not much to look at, but he gets better looking every time her rent comes due.

Leonard goes out clubbing with Michelle and some of her friends. He is smitten by this wild girl. WHY? Because he's a glutton for PUNISHMENT. He wants someone to lead him on--to use him for their own sick reasons, then kick him to the gutter so that he feels like a royal piece of DOG SH*T. YEAH...IT HURTS SO GOOD! Uh...don't let me get carried away. But male or female, you know you've been there.

Leonard keeps the balancing act with Sandra and Michelle going--until the stakes are raised when Michelle tells him she's leaving Ronald and skipping off to San Francisco. Michelle acknowledges that she's screwed-up. Lenny talks her into letting him come along, saying he's just as screwed-up as she is, and thus able to understand her. Then they have sex, standing upright against a wall (sure...they make it look so EASY!) Later, the moment of truth arrives, with Leonard waiting patiently for Michelle to show up for their intended getaway.

Joaquin Phoenix is convincing as a damaged but playfully good natured guy--a trait that, above all else, can help to save him from himself. And Paltrow is a totally believable space case.

As I've mentioned before, a terrific music score--or even a montage of scenes with a great piece of music underneath--carries a lot of weight with me in the final assessment of a film. In Two Lovers, it's Henry Mancini's elegant "Lujon" (which was given lyrics and re-titled "Slow Hot Wind" when Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 recorded it.) It's a dreamy piece of music that carries Leonard through the city and into his "friendly" dinner date with Michelle and Ronald.

When I was growing up, most people seemed NORMAL--now, whomever you run into is likely as not to be playing with less than a full deck. (How and why this has come about is fodder for a different discussion.) Two Lovers is an engrossing character study of some of the "functional dysfunctional" in our society of the 21st century.

In the end: (to paraphrase the Rolling Stones) You can't always get what you want...but sometimes, you get what you need.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


In Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen's demented journey through homophobia land (NO relation to Neverland) in America, Bruno Gehard (pronounced "gayhard") is a gay Austrian fashion reporter who wants to become a celebrity. Along the road to his epiphany that he will need (or thinks he needs) to become straight to be accepted and find the fame and recognition he desires, Bruno gets former presidential candidate Ron Paul into a room on the pretext of doing an interview--then drops his pants. Paul storms out calling Bruno a "queer." (Not the best pub if he ever wants to make another run at the top spot.)

Bruno sits down with a self-styled "gay converter," one of those dudes who's gonna turn you straight with a little old time religion. But we can see in his eyes--and not surprisingly--that the guy is confused about his own sexuality.

Then our hero gets some basic self-defense tips from an Alabama karate instructor--to defend himself against the gays he says are "attacking" him. Bruno plays the role of the attacker--flailing dildos as weapons--in one of the films silliest and funniest scenes.

He goes on a camping trip with some authentic redneck hunters, and tries to slip into one of their tents--naked--in the middle of the night, with the predictable "git out mah face" reaction.

The common denominator is that all of the aforementioned were blindsided--not in on the joke-- and taking this flaming caricature that Cohen has created at face value, though you wonder how some of them could be that naive. It's truly amazing how Cohen manages to initially gain the confidence and trust of these various types, and how far some of them will allow his hijinks to go before pushing the panic button.

Oh yeah, and Bruno illegally adopts an African baby (with a sarcastic aside to Brangelina and Madonna) and names him "O.J."--which he thinks is a traditional African name.

Borat--Cohen's dismantling of political correctness in America--seemed outrageous at the time, but in Bruno he has upped the ante. I was surprised at how far he was able to push the envelope and still get away with an R, and not an NC-17 rating, which is what this film probably deserves. There's full frontal in-your-face male nudity, and plenty of gross suggestiveness that leaves nothing to the imagination. And while I'm not above snickering at this kind of stuff--there's a bit of the cringe factor involved too, as I've never been a huge fan of the total gross-out brand of comedy that is Cohen's stock in trade. For one thing, any adolescent male could have come up with a lot of this stuff. On the other hand--comedy that retains a bit of subtlety and imagination requires an innate intuitiveness that not everyone possesses.

When Bruno goes to hang out at a down south swingers party, it appears that he has met his match. There's actual sex going on, (with certain body parts hazed out on the screen) and the group doesn't seem to even notice him that much until he starts acting squirrely and then they have to set him "straight" as to what their sexual preferences are.

A few of the bits in Bruno feel staged, like when this blonde dominatrix with the worst looking fake boobs I've ever seen grabs him, rips his clothes off, and gives him a nasty belt whipping.
Staged or not, it looked and sounded like it HURT...

Cohen does accomplish one thing in Bruno, and that's to show that most of us take ourselves way too seriously. The more little boxes built of prejudice and fear that we try to hide in, the easier it is for someone like Sacha Baron Cohen to come along and make us look small-minded and foolish. For that reason alone, Bruno is an important film.

GRADE: B+ if you like gross-out... C- if you don't.

Monday, July 20, 2009


A little something that proves I've got way too much time on my hands. Here are a few MOVIE TITLES I WOULD LIKE TO SEE...using real films as a starting point, and imagining that these spin-offs might be even BETTER than the originals. (You SHOULD be able to figure out which movie inspired each of these.)

Please feel free to have fun, be creative and add your own titles to this list in the comments section. Here we go...












Thursday, July 16, 2009

FROZEN RIVER (now playing at home where your freeloading uncle Louie passed out and barfed in your favorite chair)

First time director Courtney Hunt has chosen the stark setting of the Mohawk reservation bordering Canada in upstate New York for Frozen River, a tale that she penned about two women living on the edge who are driven to desperate measures to survive.

Ray (Melissa Leo) is a middle-aged mom trying to raise two kids on her own. At first glance it appears that she's a victim of circumstance--her loser husband has cleared out, and her low paying job isn't bringing in enough scratch to keep up with the bills. But look a little closer and you'll see that most of her troubles are of her own doing, and her own doing is going to be her undoing.

She's trying to upgrade her single-wide trailer to a new double-wide, but can't come up with the balloon payment to get the thing delivered. Meanwhile, she's serving popcorn and Tang to her kids every night for dinner. And why? Because she just shelled out the rest of her cash to hang onto a giant screen TV from the rent-to-own place. In other words, her priorities are out of whack. (If she'd even held onto the money she's been spending on cigarettes, she'd at least been able to upgrade her meals to macaroni and cheese!)

When Ray meets Lila Littlewolf, (Misty Upham) a member of the reservation who's involved in smuggling undocumented aliens (mostly Chinese) across the border into the U.S., the temptation of quick and easy money sucks her in. The two women settle into an uneasy alliance--Lila has the connections, and Ray provides the wheels as the illegals are stuffed into the trunk of her car and ferried across a remote, frozen section of the St. Lawrence river.

Ray is understandably nervous about what she's doing, and intends to get out as soon as she's made enough to get that new double-wide. But things get complicated. With a young Pakistani couple in her trunk, Ray gets spooked and says to her partner, "Let's hope they're not the ones that blow themselves and everyone else up!" She then proceeds to jettison the couple's backpack--for fear of what it might contain--leaving it out in the cold and snow somewhere along their route. But OOPS...the couple's BABY was inside that backpack, and Ray and Lila are sent scrambling back to try to recover it before it's too late.

I don't know if director Courtney Hunt intended for us to feel sympathetic toward Ray as a hapless victim of circumstance, but to me she comes off as callous, ignorant, and a neglectful mother. But even someone like that might opt to do the noble thing in the end.

Leo was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Frozen River. In stark contrast, Misty Upham--a relatively inexperienced actress--probably did the best she could, but was unable to bring any depth to her character. I find it distracting when there's one person in a major role who's constantly drawing attention to herself for the wrong reasons.

There's a kind of beauty in the bleak landscape of Frozen River that a longtime desert dweller such as myself can be seduced by--seeing it on film--but would get my fill of in about two hours if I were actually there. And that's why we go to the be transported to someplace new and intriguing without--in this case--having to actually don the parka and the mukluks.


Monday, July 13, 2009


Yes, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen is totally BANANAS-- but I like bananas, generally speaking. The transformers are giant shape-shifting robots that fall into two camps: The AUTOBOTS and the DECEPTICONS. Like the Democrats and the Republicans, they've been at war with each other since day one. On their home planet, Cybertron, they battled over Allspark--the energy source that gave them life. The Allspark gets shipped off the planet (Federal Express?) and ends up on Earth. That's the bare bones backstory from the first movie, and now the stage is set in Transformers 2 for the autobots--led by Optimus Prime, and the decepticons, led by Megatron--to battle it out again, this time with the fate of our planet hanging in the balance.

Hapless college student Sam Witwicky, (Shia LaBeouf) who killed Megatron in the first film, is swept up in the conflict again--along with his girlfriend Mikaela, (Megan Fox-the obligatory eye candy for teenage boys) and his parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White).

Transformers 2 is nearly non-stop action, with a few short breathers here and there--and sometimes it's hard to tell who's beating the living crap out of whom, since one big hulking robot looks pretty much like another (which wouldn't be politically correct to say on Cybertron). It's a big, ostentatious, chaotic, clang and bang fest--and I was just impressed by the sheer immensity and spectacle of it all (but then, I'm impressed by the 4-slice toaster!)

It's kind of like may not know what's going on, but you can still enjoy yourself.

My favorite scene has got to be when Sam's mother gobbles some pot brownies, totally loses it,
and then runs amuck--which I've always wanted to do in a gorilla suit. There's something endearing about a gorilla suit that makes people more forgiving of the one who's running amuck.

There's a lot of off the wall humor in Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen--surprising, and yes, refreshing--since most action/thriller flicks take themselves much more seriously.

But I suppose that, when it comes down to it, what really appeals to me about this film is the many faces of heroism--both human and otherwise. I'd like to think that we'd all step up to the plate if some crazy, two-storied, clanking hulks of scrap metal were fighting and screwing around on top of the pyramids and causing them to, like...start to crumble and stuff. Somebody already messed with the nose on the Sphinx, and I'm still annoyed about that.

And now a word about reviving "dead" characters in sequels. Ever since J.R. Ewing got shot and supposedly died in the TV finale of Dallas in 1980--then got resurrected five years later in a follow up film--TV and screen writers have been playing fast and loose with the facts of life and death in Freddy Krueger-like fashion. A character like Megatron can be killed and revived as many times as may be convenient, when millions of bucks are on the line. The special effects (or computer graphics imagery) are the real stars of these blockbuster movies, and because it takes a lot of time and and a grueling amount of work to design and animate one of these big bad boys, expect that the dead shall rise again in the inevitable third installment.


Friday, July 10, 2009

GRAN TORINO (now playing at home where grandma asked if you'd gotten a toupee--but it was just the cat sitting on your head)

In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood channels the spirit of Dirty Harry--senior citizen style. But it's like a Christmas tree with a shiny star on top and...oops...nothing else to fill out the branches.
Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a cantankerous old fart--a decorated Korean war veteran who lives next door to a Hmong family (immigrants from southeast Asia). He's an up front racist--a product of the era he grew up in and his experiences during the war. Living in close proximity with the Hmongs stirs up Walt's old prejudices-- but things gradually begin to thaw, (global warming?) and Walt's humanity begins to peep through when he takes the neighbor boy, Thao, (Bee Vang) under his wing. Thao's a good kid at heart--but he's torn between remaining that way, or getting mixed up with a local street gang.
When his hand is forced, Walt starts kickin' ass and taking names with the gang punks, and this is where Eastwood's scowling Dirty Harry persona emerges for one last hurrah. Walt sums it up when he says: WHAT THE HELL IS IT WITH KIDS, NOWADAYS? If there's any part of Gran Torino you could call satisfying, it's when the gang scum start getting their comeuppance courtesy of the Walt man.
His prized 1972 Gran Torino--which stays mainly motionless (a mistake) in the garage--serves as a symbol for all the old fashioned values (minus the racism) Walt is trying to defend. This would have been a more exciting film if Walt had taken that baby out, gunned the sucker, and chased the gang bangers all around the city while listening to some Glenn Miller music on the radio. But maybe he didn't want to mar the finish.
There's a bit of amusement when Walt attempts to teach Thao to "talk like a man." It's a quaint mixture of B.S. and bravado--the kind of raunchy trash talking guys used to do all the time (and still do when the political correctness police aren't around).
Unfortunately--and there's no other way to say this--the acting in Gran Torino is so awful that it's embarrasing at times. Yes, Eastwood (who produced and directed the film) has surrounded himself with inexperienced actors--but if I run an auto repair shop and Clint is paying me to work on his car, the fact that I may be employing unseasoned mechanics doesn't absolve me of the responsibility to get the job done right. While his fledgling cast mostly drones in monotone, Clint frequently over does it. When he sneers out the side of his mouth, he kinda looks like Popeye.
Too bad, because the screenplay--which is about the triumph of human decency over hate--had a lot of potential. This group just couldn't pull it off.
So I'm sorry to bring you the bad news, Mr. Eastwood...but there's no way in heaven or hell to save this clunker from the scrap heap.
GRADE: D- (and I'm being generous)

Monday, July 6, 2009

WENDY AND LUCY (now playing at home where you're eating on paper plates because you're too lazy to wash the dishes)

Michelle Williams stars in this low budget indie film about a young girl (Williams) and her dog, Lucy, (Lucy) who get sidetracked in a small Oregon town on their road trip from Indiana to Alaska.

Wendy's apparently rootless, and thinks she'll be able to find lucrative work in the "new frontier." But she's on a tight budget, and gets busted trying to shoplift some dog food. With Lucy tied up outside the front of the store, Wendy gets hauled off to the pokey. When she returns, Lucy has disappeared. Then, Wendy's car breaks down, and the bill to fix it is astronomical. The rest of the film follows Wendy around in her frustrating efforts to get her vehicle repaired and to reunite with Lucy. Walter Dalton does a nice job as an old dude security guard who tries to assist Wendy in whatever way he can.

Wendy and Lucy was developed from a short story, and it FEELS like a postmodern short story--with no real plot and an ending with no resolution. Ostensibly, it's a character study, but we learn next to nothing about Wendy's character or motivation--except that she's not very personable--she responds to everyone in a perfunctory sort of way, (is this a hallmark of the current 20-something generation?) and has really bad judgement, as
evidenced by her decision to embark upon a long and clouded journey with finances that would leave her no margin for error. The only glimpse we get into her past is a phone call to whatever semblance of a family she has back in Indiana--and they are just as vapid as she is.

The one thing I did like about Wendy and Lucy is when Wendy wanders upon a homeless camp, the people she encounters there don't have the gleaming, perfect looking ACTORS' TEETH--a pervasive oversight that ruins the authenticity of just about every movie where such types are portrayed. You've got these unshaven, unshowered, grimy looking homeless dudes-- and when they open their mouths, there's a small fortune of cosmetic dental work inside there! WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH HOLLYWOOD, ANYWAY? Is it just that they're so disconnected from reality that they don't remember how real people look anymore? Geez, it's easy enough to apply some of that black stuff on there so that you've got a realistic looking toothless person.
Give Wendy and Lucy kudos for being low budget enough to be using real people that obviously didn't require any alteration.

Wendy does truly SEEM to care about her canine companion, and there's some poignancy in the hopes rising-hopes falling aspect of her search for Lucy--but overall, there isn't enough here to sustain you through a jumbo size popcorn, large Coke, and box of Milk Duds. Most of us just expect more out of a feature length film.