Monday, September 29, 2008

Movie Review - The Duchess

This period potboiler, featuring gorgeous costumes and settings, an excellent cast and events "based on a true story" is entertaining as a somewhat guilty pleasure. The story revolves around Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley), a Princess Diana type of figure trapped in a loveless marriage but adored by the public due to her style and social graces. While many points are made about the terribly powerless position in which the women of that time found themselves, the real entertainment of watching this movie is in the visuals and soap opera plot line of indiscretions, manipulations and child custody with some amazing hats and beautiful castles thrown in for good measure. Georgiana starts off as a fun loving young woman but is soon married off to the wealthy Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) who proves to be an uptight, controlling horror of a husband. Add a live-in mistress for the Duke (the wonderful Hayley Atwell from "Brideshead Revisited") plus relentless pressure to give birth to a son and the Duchess' life quickly becomes a nightmare, saved only by handsome young aspiring prime minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Even the attraction between the doomed Duchess and the aspiring politician, however, comes with a high price. Although the Duchess turns to her mother (Charlotte Rampling) for advice and comfort, it's clear she is expected to fulfill her wifely duties despite her unbearable predicament.

Although Keira Knightley is not one of my favorite actresses, she's fine here, with a few too many weepy moments and an uncanny knack for carrying enormous hairpieces and hats atop her skinny neck. Ralph Fiennes manages to bring a vague sense of humanity to his heinous character as we become aware that the Duke is trapped in the same stifling social system that makes his wife miserable. There's good chemistry between Knightley and Cooper, but things became a little tiresome for me when the beleagured Duchess suffers one blow after another. An actress of more skill might have brought in other aspects of this character's plight while Knightley seems to rely on switching between tears and a stony faced stoicism that doesn't make the Duchess interesting enough to sustain her considerable screen time. Atwell does a much better job with the lesser role of the Duke's mistress, who comes off as a truly compromised and ambitious yet warm, strong person.

Things to love about this movie: The complicated relationship between the Duchess and the Duke's mistress; those dresses! those hats! those castles!
Things to hate about this movie: A little too much drama; the typical ending where we're told exactly what happened to each character further down the road
Pleasant surprises: The Duchess' hair actually catches on fire in one scene (it's sad and funny all at once); Fiennes plays a priggish jerk to perfection (complete with paunch and an annoying ducklike walk)
Unpleasant surprises: Would have liked to see the men (Cooper and Fiennes) given more screen time

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Movie Review - Towelhead

Writer/director Alan Ball (of "American Beauty" and "Six Feet Under" fame) has never been my cup of tea and his new movie "Towelhead" has, unfortunately, reinforced my opinion. I was actually unaware that he was the creator of this interesting, uneven but ultimately unsatisfying exploration of the cultural divide as experienced by a young Middle Eastern girl living in Houston, Texas. It was not what I'd expected from viewing the trailer, which doesn't necessarily need to be a bad thing but in this case turned out to be just that. The film's relentless emphasis on this teenage girl's budding sexuality and the middle aged men who find it irresistably fascinating took center stage, rather than an exploration of racial and cultural themes. When Ball's name came up on the credits as the writer/director, the mystery was solved. This movie, for me, was almost like "American Beauty" with a Texas accent. Yikes.

Beautiful Jasira (wonderfully played by Summer Bishil) is a 13-year-old who looks older (and sexier) than her years. When her mother (Maria Bello) outsts her from the house due to an inappropriate interaction with the mother's boyfriend, Jasira finds herself in Houston with her strict, traditional Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi in a terrific performance). Surrounded by tract housing, suburban whitebread neighbors and racist classmates the upset girl struggles to adjust while becoming acutely aware of her awakening adolescent sexuality. Next door neighbor Aaron Eckhart, a married, good old boy reservist, complicates life when he becomes attracted to Jasira. The always excellent Toni Collette rounds out the cast as a somewhat meddling but well meaning neighbor who tries to protect Jasira from the many harmful influences in her life. There's also a thoughtful boyfriend (Eugene Jones) in the picture for this popular young girl who seems to attract every male within range. The Gulf War acts as a convenient backdrop for some of the cultural conflicts experienced by both Jasira and her father.

As in "American Beauty", Ball emphasizes the irresponsible behavior of the adults and the sexual behavior of the teenagers. My problem with "Towelhead" is its almost prurient fascination with Jasira's sexuality. Perhaps this film merely suffers in comparison with another earlier, similarly themed movie, the brilliant "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (from Todd Solondz) which, for me, is the gold standard of portraying female adolescent hell. Ball's characters never really catch fire, acting more as representations of themes than actual living, breathing people.

Things to love about this movie: Some excellent, biting comments on cultural disparities; good performances across the board (especially by Macdissi and Bishil)
Things to hate about this movie: The birth of a baby ends the movie on what's obviously supposed to be an inspiring note (ho-hum, how trite); an animal bites the dust (which always bothers me when it's used for an inconsequential reason); Ball's obsession with sexy young girls and middle aged guys (a la Spacey and Suvari from "American Beauty" and now this movie)
Pleasant surprises: Eckhart makes a really good creep
Unpleasant surprises: Way too many scenes involving the shaving of Jasira's pubic hair (yes, you heard me right)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Movie Review - Burn After Reading

Call it Coen Brothers lite, but their latest offering is not only a big departure from Oscar winning "No Country for Old Men" it's tons of silly fun. These guys love movies and it shows. That signature black humor at which the brothers excel is in fine form here, especially when paired with a stellar cast (including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton) and lots of lame brain characters who manage to keep us entertained while we're laughing at their sheer stupidity. The rather wacky plot revolves around a disk containing the memoirs of former CIA operative Osborne Cox (Malkovich) and the determination of Linda Litzke (McDormand) to obtain the funds for several cosmetic surgeries she believes are vital to her job and piece of mind. When the disk is found at HardBodies, a gym where Litzke and her partner in crime Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) work, a ridiculous series of events is put into play. Feldheimer is convinced that the owner of the disk will gladly offer a reward for its return while Litzke is after higher stakes in order to cover the cost of her surgeries. This lame tag team proceeds to create all sorts of trouble for themselves and others as they contact everyone from Cox himself to the Russian consulate in a bumbling effort to cash in on the disk.

In addition to the disk plot there's a convoluted illicit sex triangle involving Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), an impossibly paranoid federal marshall, Cox and Cox's cold blooded wife Katie (Swinton) that veers from keystone cops to darkly sinister. Although Pitt is a stand out in the cast, everyone seems to be energized by working for the Coens and there's not a disappointing performance in the lot. As usual, even the smaller roles are outstanding, especially Richard Jenkins as a HardBodies co-worker and J.K. Simmons as a CIA Superior Officer who blithely orders bodies burned and money spent while trying to keep track of the whole crazy mess. While this isn't one of the truly "out there" Coen movies, it's got enough lunatic characters, twists and events to keep the audience not only laughing but waiting for the next wild twist in the road.

Things to love about this movie: Brad Pitt's hilarious performance as Chad is a highlight of the movie; typically outstanding Coen Brothers script; some great fun is poked at online dating
Things to hate about this movie: It went on a little long and lagged a bit towards the end
Pleasant surprises: John Malkovich proves to be an excellent comic actor; Harry's invention/contraption in the basement
Unpleasant surprises: A major character is unexpectedly killed part way through the movie

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Movie Review - Traitor

If you like your thrillers to be thought provoking, unpredictable and well acted, this movie is worth checking out. Though there's plenty of action, "Traitor" includes consideration of moral choices, religious beliefs and even an FBI agent who majored in Arabic studies. The amazing Don Cheadle stars as Samir Horn, a devout Muslin who may or may not be working both sides of the fence as a Special Operations agent for the U.S. government and an explosives expert assisting a terrorist cell with a series of international bombings. Horn, who grew up in Sudan, witnessed his father killed by a car bombing as a child, setting up a conflict between what he does for a living and the ethical ambiguities he feels as a Muslim. FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) track Horn's mysterious activities in an attempt to apprehend him or the group of terrorists with which he has become involved before additional bombings can be carried out. It's a typical plot line, but what makes "Traitor" a bit more interesting is its main character. We see Horn becoming increasingly conscience stricken by the results of his actions, some of which are unintentional but nevertheless highly disturbing to this surprisingly ethical man. Clayton is also more complicated than your average FBI agent. He not only reads Arabic and knows the Koran but espouses a more humane approach towards interrogation of prisoners. At one point he reveals his interest in Arabic studies to fellow agent Archer, along with the fact that he comes from a line of ministers. As the pressure intensifies with a major terrorist operation planned for the U.S., agents and terrorists alike hurtle towards a showdown.

Acting is first rate with Cheadle and Pearce both bringing much more to their characters than the customary action film usually provides. Said Taghmaoui does a good job as Omar, Horn's co-conspirator and friend, with Jeff Daniels and Archie Punjabi contributing more excellent performances. The beginning of the film was a little confusing for me, but once things got rolling this unlikely mix of thriller and character study proved to be very entertaining.

Things to love about this movie: A few nifty surprises; an international setting with scenes in Marsielles, London and Morocco; unusually nuanced writing for an action movie; good performances by Cheadle and Pearce; potent message about the responsibility of one's actions
Things to hate about this movie: A few cookie cutter terrorist operatives
Pleasant surprises: Car chases and shoot-outs kept to a minimum; getting to know FBI agent Clayton more than expected (and Pearce nails a subtle Southern accent)
Unpleasant surprises: A somewhat vague, drop off ending

Friday, September 5, 2008

Movie Review - Vicky Cristina Barcelona

It's Barcelona, it's Javier Bardem, it's....Woody Allen? Yes, the angstmeister has switched locales again with a rather typical Allen film that happens to be set in Spain this time. It appears his London period has already ended. The good news is that beautiful Barcelona perfectly suits Allen's tale of two American tourists (Scarlett Johansson as Cristina and Rebecca Hall as Vicky) who get tangled up with artist Juan Antonio (Bardem) and his crazy ex-wife Maria Elena(Penelope Cruz). The bad news is the movie is just as talky and relationship-driven as most of Allen's other movies. If those are the things you like about Woody Allen movies, dig in and enjoy. If, like me, those are the things that have always bugged you about Woody Allen movies, concentrate on the wonderful performers he's gathered for this film. Though I was bothered by the endless discussions , it's hard to be too restless when you have four fascinating actors to watch.

Best friends Vicky and Cristina arrive in Barcelona for a summer's stay with a friend (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband (Kevin Dunn). The marked differences between the friends are immediately apparent as more traditional Vicky takes calls from her fiancee back in the States while free spirit Cristina happily accepts Juan Antonio's invitation to join him for a few days of fun in the town of Oviedo. Vicky, despite initial skepticism about taking off to an unknown place with a man she's just met, is persuaded to accompany Cristina and Juan Antonio. The getaway proves to be a turning point for all involved. A tricky menage a trois of sorts develops and is later further complicated by the reappearance of Maria Elena in Juan Antonio's life following a botched suicide attempt. Cruz makes the neurotic Maria Elena a vibrant focal point as she moves in with Juan Antonio and Cristina, creating an interesting, provocative chemistry that somehow balances all three of these restless characters. Vicky, meanwhile, marries her fiancee but harbors a secret longing for the love she felt for Juan Antonio.

I found Allen's examination of conventional versus alternative relationships and commitment versus passion appealing, but the Vicky character was a bit too whiny for me to warm up to, especially when paired with her thoroughly boring fiancee (Chris Messina). There's an entertaining sophistication to the movie that allows the audience to become involved with these self obsessed people despite their many flaws. Not as much fun as MATCH POINT, not as dreadful as SCOOP, I guess VCB falls into the category of Woody Allen movies I like in spite of myself.

Things to love about this movie: Cool glimpses of Barcelona; Javier Bardem ('nuff said); Cristina's marvelous photography
Things to hate about this movie: The terribly annoying narration (it's not the words I objected to but the actual voice of the narrator); a silly scene of a stormy plane ride
Pleasant surprises: The much discussed love scene between Scarlett and Penelope is barely a blip on the radar; customary Allen character gestures and speech patterns were kept to a minimum
Unpleasant surprises: Would have liked a little more Javier (not only in the love scenes but in the film in general)