Sunday, May 25, 2008

Movie Review - Before the Rains

India is a country of endless fascination, so it was a pleasure to find it captured so beautifully by director/cinematographer Santosh Sivan in this exquisitely photographed movie. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the slightly soap opera tinged storyline and under developed characters who appear to be little more than stand-ins for the symbolism of white British subjugation in southern India during the 1930s. Linus Roache stars as Henry Moores, a British spice baron whose latest project is building a road through mountainous territory with the assistance of the local tribes. Henry's loyal and devoted Indian partner in this endeavor, the ill fated T.K. (played by Rahul Bose) straddles the two worlds of his own native customs and those of his white employer. Complicating the lives of both men is Henry's illicit affair with his Indian housekeeper, Sajani (the lovely Nandita Das) which risks the very lives of all involved (including T.K. who must keep the secret). When two local boys spot the lovers everything falls apart with tragic consequences.

Billed as a "Merchant Ivory" production, there's an authentic period feel and look to the movie that is reminiscent of that great Merchant Ivory tradition, but the romance between Henry and Sajani is given short shrift here without the benefit of establishing any real history or detail about their relationship. Sivan does a good job of presenting the cultural divide and keeps his characters true to themselves. Linus Roache, a good actor, does what he can with the role of Henry, but the character is somewhat of a cipher and didn't generate much sympathy or interest for me. Jennifer Ehle and Leopold Benedict are effective as Henry's visiting wife and son, although they too aren't very well developed in the story. T.K. is perhaps the best written character with his growing desperation to balance two incompatible cultures while witnessing the worst of both. Still, there was something missing for me, although I can't define just what.

Things to love about this movie: Exquisite scenes of India (filmed in Kerala); a beautiful rendezvous between Henry and Sajani by a waterfall; Sajani's explanation to Henry's son about the souls of those who die being transferred to dragonflies; Henry's gorgeous home; the wonderful faces of the Indian actors who have been perfectly cast by the director
Things to hate about this movie: A strangely indefinable lack of passion; a less than satisfying ending
Pleasant surprises: A tribal council trial that somehow works to give the audience insight into the local customs; a great elephant who actually works alongside the locals to help build the road
Unpleasant surprises: Henry's character is too cold to arouse much sympathy for his plight; not enough screen time devoted to the tragic Sajani

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Movie Review - Iron Man

Another Saturday, another comic book movie, another attempt to see a favorite performer at any cost. That's my situation for "Iron Man", the latest "super hero" action flick that happens to star one of my favorite actors, Robert Downey Jr. So I once again find myself sitting through a big budget clunker, heavy on special f/x, head banger soundtrack and cartoon characters who manage to keep me mildly entertained while wondering if this is the true future of film. Yikes. The good news is this isn't just any old action hero we're talking about. Downey has somewhat of a character to play as rich playboy Tony Stark living large as head of a weapons manufacturing company with a loyal assistant Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow), a loyal personal military pilot Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and a not so loyal second-in-command Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) to keep life humming along. Things change in a big way after Stark becomes a prisoner of war while visiting Afghanistan. Held captive by a group who plan to force him to build a weapon for them, Stark must use his considerable electronic skills to fashion an iron man suit of armor in order to escape from his captors. He returns to the States a transformed man, announcing, to the chagrin of Stane, that he is divesting his company of weapons. Of course he now secretly sets out to recreate a much more sophisticated, state of the art version of the crude iron suit to become the avenging "Iron Man", literally flying to spots around the world in order to destroy the weapons manufactured by his own company. At least the movie's heart is in the right place.

It's always a pleasure to watch Robert Downey Jr. and this movie is no exception. He's looking great, in top form and never disappoints me with his own brand of screen charisma. There's an excellent supporting cast as well, all of whom acquit themselves admirably. I especially liked the chemistry and dry, witty repartee between Downey and Paltrow. Also fun seeing Jeff Bridges again (it's been too long), almost unrecognizable with a bald head and white beard as the evil Stane, and Terrence Howard does a nice job with a somewhat throwaway character. Shaun Toub makes an impression in a small role as a man who assists Stark with the original iron suit during his captivity. Directed by Jon Favreau, the film strikes me as good of kind, but unfortunately it just isn't my kind. Judging from the boffo box office this movie has been generating there are many people who get a thrill watching a guy in an iron suit doing wheelies over the skies of Los Angeles. I'm just not one of them.

Things to love about this movie: Relationship and hint of romance between Downey & Paltrow
Things to hate about this movie: Why hide the fabulous face and form of a gifted actor behind a big old iron suit? Why is an American cheeseburger the only thing anyone seems to want after being held hostage?
Pleasant surprises: Favreau rewards the die hards (like me) who sit through all the end credits with a sequel teaser featuring Samuel L. Jackson
Unpleasant surprises: The heart saving hook-up Stark wears throughout most of the movie

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Movie Review - Speed Racer

A candy colored, roller coaster ride of a movie, "Speed Racer" is surprisingly entertaining in a kitschy way, with the formidable Wachowski Brothers keeping the action going and offering up a cool Japanese anime style that gives some badly needed kick to a very tired type of story. We have the "Racer" family: father Pops (John Goodman), Mom (Susan Sarandon), Speed (Emile Hirsch), Rex (Scott Porter), Spritle (Paulie Litt) and even a chimp named Chim Chim. Honorary family member Sparky (Kick Gurry) is a mechanic who works with Pops and wouldn't you know, the family business is race cars. Of course these aren't just any race cars. I was expecting endless NASCAR events, but the cars in this movie are more like one big video game. They can turn sideways, leap over other cars, shoot out weapons of destruction and operate on spinning loops of track that seem to go on forever. Even as a young boy Speed is obsessed with racing, idolizing his older brother Rex (who's already a racer) and shunning schoolwork for fantasies of taking to the track. When Rex is killed in a tragic race accident, the family is left stunned. Still, Speed is even more determined to compete, and win, the same race that killed his brother. The sleazy CEO of a big money, corporate race car company (Roger Allam, really hamming it up in a fun way) is equally determined to steal Speed away from his family's independent car operation so he can take advantage of the boy's racing talent. The appearance of a mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) complicates things for Speed as well. Is Racer X really his late brother Rex in disguise?

Although the movie goes on far too long, and has nothing to offer in the way of any surprises, character development or story originality, its style and marvelous cast make it work. It's hard for me to completely enjoy a movie in a theater full of kids, but I managed to go along for the ride just enough to feel my $6.75 bargain matinee money wasn't completely wasted. And I got my Emile Hirsch fix, albeit as a guilty pleasure.

Things to love about this movie: Its bold colors, exciting video game style and great cast
Things to hate about this movie: A few too many car races; a bit too long; too much of a kiddie movie with very simplistic story and even a big, blatant, literal message at the end
Pleasant surprises: There are very few surprises here, but I did like a scene showing several "bad guys" munching on meat and rubbing their faces in fur (a nice change of pace to a PETA supporter like myself)
Unpleasant surprises: Are you kidding? Of course not.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Movie Review - The Counterfeiters

Based on the true story of a Nazi counterfeiting operation (Operation Bernhard) run out of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp during WWII, this Oscar winning German film, like many Holocaust stories, is a devastating experience but ultimately a very rewarding one. Karl Markovics stars as Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch, a top notch Jewish counterfeiter operating in Berlin who finds himself suddenly struggling to survive as a prisoner of the Nazis. Sorowitsch is quickly transferred to the Sachsenhausen camp to oversee a covert counterfeiting scheme by which the Nazis hope to wreck havoc on the financial stability of the allies. A small group of prisoners, chosen for their specific skills relating to the task at hand, are charged with turning out counterfeit pounds and dollars in exchange for better living conditions (including "softer" beds, occasional showers and even a ping pong table). Among the group is idealistic Adolf Burger (played by August Diehl), Kolya Karloff, a sweet young Russian from Odessa (Sebastian Urzendowsky) and the caring but powerless Dr. Klinger (August Zirner). When Burger decides to resist his role in aiding and abetting the success of the Nazis by deliberately sabotaging the counterfeiting operation, the group of prisoners begins to implode with a deadline of four weeks in which to come up with a reliable counterfeit U.S. dollar or face execution.

It's easy to see why this film was awarded Best Foreign Film of 2007 by the Academy. Although we've seen many Holocaust stories, there are several moral dilemmas addressed here for which easy answers cannot be found. Is it more important to resist complicity with evil at the risk of death, to save those individuals you can, or to simply survive at any cost? The characters slowly reveal themselves with many conflicted ideals and approaches to their situation, giving the audience a very personal view of the Holocaust's terrible toll. Performances and casting are excellent all around, including Devid Striesow as Herzog, a Nazi commander who believes he is doing his best to give these prisoners more "humane" treatment and Markovics in the lead role.

Things to love about this movie: No easy answers; subtle approach to the horrors of concentration camp life; a real sense of anger; outstanding performances
Things to hate about this movie: The fact that it's true is almost incomprehensible
Pleasant surprises: Many provocative issues that are not always included in Holocaust movies are raised here; a couple of cool scenes at Monte Carlo to begin and end the film
Unpleasant surprises: The cruel and senseless way in which one of the characters is disposed of by a Nazi solder

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Movie Review - Deception

This entertaining little mini-noir won't win any awards, but it managed to keep me interested and diverted from a rather nasty day so I'm not really complaining too much about its somewhat predictable plot and not-so-mysterious twists and turns. An appealing trio of top notch actors bring us the tale of nose-to-the-grindstone accountant Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) who inadvertently stumbles onto an exclusive sex club through his passing acquaintance with slick lawyer Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman). What follows is a series of encounters with high powered women (Natasha Henstridge, Maggie Q and Charlotte Rampling among them) who set up anonymous hotel trysts with the eager Jonathan. These ladies aren't prostitutes, and there are strict rules for the club members: no names, no conversation, no complications. When Jonathan spots the alluring Michelle Williams, first at a subway station and then as a surprise sex club contact, the 'no complications' rule goes right out the window. Although the smitten accountant knows only the first letter of his lady love's name ("S"), he falls more and more under her spell with disastrous results. They begin meeting at cozy dinners in Chinatown, gazing into each others' eyes and exchanging sweet little gifts. Then "S" goes missing from a hotel room, leaving a trace of blood on the bed and setting Jonathan on a desperate course of action to locate and save her before it's too late.

The movie doesn't quite know whether it wants to be a true noir thriller or a routine movie-of-the-week. It winds up being a little less than the first option and a little more than the second. It's obvious from the beginning that Bose is not what he seems, McQuarry is doomed as a gullible fool and "S" is bait for a rather convoluted set-up of McQuarry. What makes the story work, though, is good acting (for the most part) and the intriguing idea of the sex club. Watching the other predictable elements of the story made me wish the filmmakers had punched up the noir and toned down the false identities. McGregor seems a little miscast as the bumbling accountant, but Williams does an amazing job with her mesmerizing, slightly offbeat take on the classic femme fatale. Lisa Gay Hamilton offers an excellent performance as a detective and Charlotte Rampling brings a delightful wry amusement to her cameo appearance. The usually fabulous Jackman didn't quite work for me in the role of the wicked Bose, but I'll still watch him any day just because he's so gorgeous. Although there's nothing particularly original or even surprising about this movie, I enjoyed it for some reason. It's like a concoction that turns out to be a little more than the sum of its parts, tastier than expected and strangely satisfying despite its faults.

Things to love about this movie: Some cool scenes set in lovely Madrid and funky Chinatown; just enough noir to overcome its derivative plot; a couple of good twists that worked even if I did see them coming
Things to hate about this movie: A few too many VERY obvious clues
Pleasant surprises: Michelle Williams really rocks the classic, noir femme fatale; a brief song from the melodiously gifted Jackman
Unpleasant surprises: The usually charismatic Jackman could use a bit more pop in his performance