Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Mute Witness" - Lookin' for a good thriller?

Billy, a mute make-up artist, is with an American movie crew in Moscow. One night, she's locked inside the studio they've rented. She soon finds a small, active film set, and blushes: they're filming porn! Yet Billy sees horror in an actress' eyes as her co-star plays rough, then draws a knife. Billy's sure that she saw a real murder, and that she's in danger - she can't scream, but she can still make noise.

Long ago, I'd jump on any excuse to visit the Angelika, an arthouse theater in the Village. The trailers for this movie seemed exciting and tense, playing nicely with the sound design. So began my happy little relationship with this small-budget piece. What a pleasant surprise!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"The Center of the World" Review

Trailers for "The Center of the World" promised a compelling film from director Wayne Wang ("The Joy Luck Club"). It's about an odd, alluring encounter between two people, played by Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker : a nice techie convinces a complicated, beautiful stripper to be his paid date for an event in vegas.

Are they truly drawn to each other, despite her no-sex rule and his awkwardness? What do we make of a woman whose in-the-mirror pep-talks sound like phone sex dialogue? Or a guy naive enough to foster romance with cash? Will fantasy turn into reality? In the end, "tCotW" failed its promise.

After "tJLC," neither Wayne Wang's skills nor choices were in doubt. It's surprising, then, how often he's helmed poorly-received films. To my surprise, I remember very little of "tJLC," but recall being impressed by "Smoke." Its impromptu followup, "Blue in the Face," was ill-advised, but it was an artistic "fancy." Those tend to be great or awful.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Ponyo" Review - For once, Hayao Miyazaki stumbles

I love every thing I've seen from Hayao Miyazaki. So I'm sad to say that his latest film, "Ponyo," was disappointing. In short, it was made for young children, and my enjoyment of Studio Ghibli's effort was killed by expectations and age.

"Ponyo" begins underwater. We see an astounding array of sea life, tended by a man who must have magical powers. One little creature with a fish body and a sorta-human face is a bit too inquisitive. It sneaks out and is dragged off by a current, drawn to the beach. It's cute as all get-out.

A young boy living by a cliff sees it when it's gotten in trouble and saves it. After this, strange things begin to happen - the growing creature makes home life entertaining, but the waters outside seem troubled. Childlike wonder and roaring tides follow. Also, insane weather phenomena.

Were I young enough to like it, my wholelife would be ahead of me 

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Indiana Jones - my accidental essay on the series

Oh, Indiana Jones. "Raiders" is movie magic. I tested an idea & on the series, then wrote out my thoughts. It got out of hand, and led to this massive post. I don't blame you for skipping around, but you'll find my theory in the last 3 paragraphs.

In the Beginning, there was a handsome man with a bullwhip, and it was good.
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is the perfect action film, the only Indy pic to receive near-unanimous praise on release. Charismatic actors play their parts perfectly, the action is exceptional. It also has some of the tightest dialogue and characterization I've ever seen. As such, it beats its own inspiration: old B movies and 30's/40's serials that kids saw at matinees. Imagine going to the theater 15 times to get one story!

I dimly remember seeing "Raiders" in 1981, in the theater with my family. We went back 6 more times, and loved every minute. We never stood a chance - beautiful scenery, vivid characters, brilliant plot. My favorites: the fight by the plane; the mirror on the ship; "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage;" Ford's face at Karen Allen's derisive, "see ya around, Indiana Jones."

Monday, August 3, 2009

"Zero Effect" Review - (insert ironic comment here)

"Zero Effect" is wonderful and funny. It's also an absurd take on a modern Sherlock Holmes - one who can barely carry a conversation or leave his home. I love this little movie so much I haven't seen it in nearly 10 years; the review was always in my heart. The movie begins with Bill Pullman's lead, singing awful folk songs.

Darryl Zero is an amazing detective - he solved an impenetrable government case by phone, in one hour. Yet between jobs, he's a neurotic and scared shut-in. Darryl never meets his clients; his assistant is a lawyer, a front-man. From the background, Zero pursues a case for a blackmailed businessman (Ryan O'Neal as Stark). What he finds is a mystery both simple and complex, a deep connection with another person, and a wake-up call.

There are so many reasons to believe that Jake Kasdan directed a gem in "ZE." The movie has brains, but isn't a show-off. It has passion, depth, and a willingness to proceed slowly. Its pacing and feel either echo the quiet fervor of love-making or an annoying day at the office. The intensity, whether in character or plot, is carefully underplayed. Even the abundant humor is kinda quiet - but it's some of the funniest dry humor ever filmed. And the indie-style soundtrack - far rarer in 1998 - is thoughtfully used. [but that Nick Cave song is totally over-played now]

Pullman gives his best performance as the wounded genius. He's solid at anything, especially comedy and functional neuroses. Impressively, his voice-overs work. As a part-time trainwreck, Darryl Zero is a fun and layered role complete with that old detectives' staple: "Sam Spade" monologues, memoir-style. They're a highlight, yet the savvy confidence heard in his voice contrasts starkly with the man we see - an idiot savant who's either smooth or broken. (Like Holmes, he's a part-time user)

Ben Stiller is a bittersweet blast, here. The megahit "There's Something About Mary" ushered him into mainstream films and blander comedies. Since, only "Tropic Thunder" measures up (I never saw "Tenunbaums"). As Steve Arlo, Darryl's assistant, he's firmly in Stiller's nice-but-dickish niche. Arlo and Zero act like brothers at times, but often exchange the role of elder sibling. Why? On the one hand, Steve is neither boss nor genius; on the other, Darryl has no common sense and can act autistic.

The small cast is very effective. As Gloria, I can't take my eyes off Kim Dickens ("Lost," "Deadwood,"? and "FNL"?); she's slender and raspy (could be typecast as a junkie), but gives off a great vibe. She could also give lessons on how to use one's eyes. As Stark, I'm sure Ryan O'Neal played the part exactly as intended; unfortunately, that means "unlikeable" and "forgettable."

"Zero Effect" is a nice pick for dates, a laugh with friends, a quiet night at home... It's the sort of movie that delightfully entertains most of the people I know. I'll post an update next time I watch it, in case my feelings change.