Sunday, April 20, 2008

Movie Review - My Blueberry Nights

A new movie by master director Wong Kar Wai is always cause for celebration, so his first English language film, "My Blueberry Nights", went to the top of my list as must-see viewing. A stellar cast (Jude Law, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn and singer/novice actress Norah Jones), exquisite cinematography and that fabulous Wong Kar Wai style make for a delicious treat for the viewer. Jones stars as Elizabeth, who's left broken hearted by a boyfriend's desertion but can't seem to let go and winds up hanging out each night at a small cafe in Manhattan run by Jeremy (played by Law). She's left her keys in Law's possession so that he might return them to her errant boyfriend if he ever comes back in for a meal. Checking frequently to see if he's shown up (he hasn't), Elizabeth winds up staying for the blueberry pie and conversations with Jeremy. When she suddenly takes off and hits the road on a journey of self discovery, the two keep in touch via postcards as Elizabeth takes jobs as waitress, bartender and casino cocktail server from Memphis to Vegas. Along the way she meets a variety of characters, including an alcoholic policeman (a heart breaking performance by the always amazing David Strathairn) and his wayward wife (Rachel Weisz) as well as a tough, high rolling gambler (Natalie Portman).

It's difficult to describe the intoxicating spell that is cast by a Wong Kar Wai film. He has captured the motion, night colors and isolation of city life with breathtaking effect in such extraordinary movies as "Chung King Express" and "Fallen Angels" and now adds a new talent to his repertoire: Americana. I've always loved his slightly misshapen, uncommunicative characters, but here he's also mastered the flavor of a seedy Memphis bar along with a sweet, long distance romance. Cinematographer extraordinaire, Darius Khondji, is a perfect compliment to the writer/director's style, making everything from the overhead railway to the desert vistas shine with vibrance. Even the smaller, supporting roles are perfectly cast (including Frankie Faison as Travis the Memphis bartender and Katya Blumenberg as Jeremy's ex-girlfriend). Jones does an impressive job in her first acting assignment, plus singing a terrific song ("The Story") over the movie's credits. Many critics have been less than impressed by this movie. Yes, it's rhythms are slightly off, its characters not quite comprehensible, its arty visuals a little precious. Call me crazy, but I love this movie for those very reasons and so many more.

Things to love about this movie: Writer/director Wong Kar Wai, a great cast, wonderful cinematography, mood and style to burn
Things to hate about this movie: (This line left blank on purpose.)
Pleasant surprises: Norah Jones' performance isn't too shabby for a first timer; Wong Kar Wai manages to make an "American" movie without sacrificing his own style; real live female characters who even like to eat (what a concept); a romantic, upside down kiss that puts "Spiderman" to shame
Unpleasant surprises: I'm amazed that more critics haven't liked this movie (is it just me?)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Movie Review - Street Kings

In order to satisfy my serious Keanu Reeves addiction, I went to see "Street Kings" even though it isn't really my type of movie. (Note to Keanu: Please stop making so many action movies!) There's plenty of hard core, James Ellroy L.A. edge here (he's one of the screen writers) with Keanu playing Tom Ludlow, an alcoholic, out of control cop who blows away the "bad guys" without reading them their Miranda rights. His boss Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), a mover and shaker in the department with political aspirations, covers up Ludlow's unprofessional actions while trying to ride herd on his rough and ready group of cops (including Jay Mohr and John Corbett). It seems that every police officer in the City of Angels is above the law in this story, which isn't too surprising and may even be realistic, but it becomes tiresome as one layer of corruption after another is peeled away. Typical of its action genre, there's little in the way of character development. Ludlow struggles to handle the death of his wife two years earlier, drinks almost constantly and has a girlfriend who's a nurse (a throwaway role played well enough by Martha Higareda). A bitter feud with his ex-partner Det. Washington (Terry Crews) isn't ever sufficiently explained but becomes a major part of the action when a shootout in a convenience store leaves Ludlow as a suspect in contributing to Washington's death. Capt. Biggs from Internal Affairs (Hugh Laurie) begins questioning Ludlow about the shootout and things escalate for Wander's whole crew of renegade cops.

The cast is excellent, director David Ayers makes good use of the seedier side of L.A., the noir feel of the movie allows the somewhat traditional action sequences to become a bit more enjoyable than usual. Still, I was confused by some of the developments and never really got into the characters or action.

Things to love about this movie: Lots of edge with some of that excellent Ellroy story telling keeping things fun; good sense of the L.A. fringes
Things to hate about this movie: Way too many shoot outs; story gets a bit too complicated with the usual detailed explanation at the end
Pleasant surprises: Mesmerizing supporting role by rapper The Game and an excellent performance by Chris Evans as Det. Diskant; Keanu gets to play a rather nasty character
Unpleasant surprises: The script continually refers to Reeves as racist "white boy" although he clearly is part Asian; so much police corruption throughout the film causes the ending to lose most of its punch

Monday, April 7, 2008

Movie Review: 21

A handful of brilliant MIT students are counting cards on weekend trips to Vegas, while I'm counting the improbabilities and predictabilities of this slick, stylish and facile film. Who'll get to 21 first? This story claims to be "fact based", but I'm left wondering how many "facts" remain, and not having read the book from which the movie is taken ("Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich) it's pure guess work on my part. Still, while things may add up to 21 at the gambling tables they don't add up for the audience. It's an engaging enough entertainment with a good feel for Vegas, an interesting young cast with a couple of reliable, veteran actors thrown in (Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne) and a promising premise. Ben Campbell (British actor Jim Sturgess) is a gifted, modest MIT student with a dream of attending Harvard Medical School but no money to back it up. His part time, $8 an hour job in a mens clothing store won't earn him the $300,000 he needs to fulfill that dream, and there are 67 applicants for the scholarship that could make the difference. What's a boy to do? Enter Micky Rosa (Spacey), one of Ben's math professors who happens to have a secret sideline: He trains a select group of MIT students to count cards, earning big bucks on weekend jaunts to Vegas. Before you know it, Ben is throwing over his two nerd best friends for glamorous hotel suites and fancy suits as well as hooking up with the "hottest girl in school" (a vapid Kate Bosworth).

There's very little in "21" that we haven't seen before, and the action is predictable right down to the final scene. With paper thin characters who seem to live for cheap thrills, we're left with no involvement in the story, plus there are some big implausibilities here. It's hard to believe, for instance, that casino security boss Fishburne would actually take a college boy into the basement and beat the crap out of him simply for counting cards (which isn't even illegal). Equally difficult to buy is the rapid transformation of the main character, Ben, from dorky science geek to slick Vegas stud. Gimme a break. Not to fault any of the actors, who do what they can with these silly characters. The exception is Bosworth, who's such a boring actress she manages to make her role into a complete zero. The charismatic Aaron Yoo, playing Choi (a kleptomaniac member of the group), is a joy to watch but under-used with not nearly enough screen time. Director Robert Luketic doesn't do a great job here either. Although the gambling group is supposed to be moving from casino to casino in order to avoid detection, they always seemed to be in the same place with no sense of varying casino settings. And those hand signals the students use for indicating which tables are hot, when to get out, etc. are laughably obvious. Worst of all, there's a nasty message implicit in the movie. It's OK to treat your best friends badly, lie to your mother and trick people in order to get ahead because, hey, everyone forgives you and it's all good. The very idea that the coveted scholarship to Harvard Medical is basically given to someone who jumps off the page, as opposed to someone of merit, is scary. All I know is, I sure don't want Dr. Ben Campbell doing any surgery on me.

Things to love about this movie: The delightful performance by Aaron Yoo; a terrific soundtrack
Things to hate about this movie: Bad values; that terribly unsubtle signaling at the gambling tables; Kate Bosworth's lousy performance; one of the stupidest endings in recent memory
Pleasant surprises: Can't think of a single one
Unpleasant surprises: Even I was able to guess what the final scene would be while the first scene was taking place (and I'm notoriously bad at guessing anything)