These are capsule reviews of DVD’s I received from publicists in connection with the NYFCO awards meeting that took place earlier this month. They exclude four movies that I found outstanding and have reviewed at length:
Also are excluded are a batch of movies from Magnolia Productions that ranged from very good to outstanding. They are reviewed as a group here.
I have divided the movies into two main groups, watchable and unwatchable. For those who question my right to condemn a movie without sitting through to the conclusion, I can only say that I don’t do this for a living. If I were paid to sit through Clint Eastwood’s latest piece of crap, it would be another story entirely. Also, I exercise the same type of judgment when it comes to other art forms. I don’t have to listen to an entire Kenny G. tune to know that I am listening to garbage, etc. Some of the movies are now playing in movie theaters everywhere, others are already available on Netflix. I will so indicate.
Watchable, in order of preference:
The Visitor (Netflix)
This movie focuses on the friendship between Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a jaded middle-aged economics professor, and Tarek, an undocumented musician from Syria and his Senegalese girlfriend who have been squatting in Vale’s fancy apartment near NYU. Normally he is at his equally fancy home on the Connecticut college campus where he is marking time. He has gone to the city for a conference at NYU dealing ironically enough with globalization and underdevelopment, the very problems that have driven the couple to the U.S. In the musician’s case, there is an additional complication: the Syrians have targeted his family as political opponents. Taking some liberties with the likely behavior of a senior economics professor, the screenplay has him allowing the couple to continue living in the apartment. Eventually the two men bond over drumming. After hearing Tarek rehearsing in the bedroom, Vale is instantly hooked. He wants to learn to play the drums himself. The first part of the movie traces the two men as they go to gigs in modest nightclubs or jam sessions in Central Park. This New York City is far more appealing than the one in “Sex and the City” reviewed below. The second part of the movie deals with Vale trying to come to Tarek’s rescue after he gets caught in Homeland Security’s immigration web. To the movie’s credit, the official website has some links to worthwhile links on immigration issues.
Burn After Reading (Netflix)
This is the latest from the Coen brothers. I was all set to hate this after enduring “No Country for Old Men” but was pleasantly surprised. This is a satire on the CIA that features John Malkovich as a laid off spook who begins writing his memoir. A CD backup copy is discovered by dimwitted health club employees Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, who basically reprises her “Fargo” role but with more of an emphasis on the character’s stupidity. The movie is not so much about conventional gags but more about the patented absurdist sensibility of the Coen brothers. One typical scene has Pitt and McDormand trying to hawk the CD to the Russian embassy, not quite understanding that the Communists are no longer in charge.
Last Chance Harvey
Not the kind of movie that I expected to like. Basically a date movie that combines late to early middle-aged characters in romance, namely Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) and Kate Walker (Emma Thompson). Shine, a composer of advertising tunes, is in London to attend the wedding of his daughter who keeps him at arm’s length. Shine is a schlemiel, a kind of character that Dustin Hoffman has played well in the past. We first meet Kate Walker as she goes on a blind date that ends typically in failure. As accustomed as she is to failure, she holds Harvey at arm’s length as well. The movie is about him trying to get her to trust him. An altogether conventional movie, but written with some panache and acted brilliantly.
Sex and the City (Netflix)
I was a huge fan of the HBO series despite its flagrant disregard for Marxist principles. I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoyed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. While the producers of the TV show understood that people (women, particularly) in East Jesus, Nebraska who might never get to N.Y. might tune in to become vicarious Park Avenue co-op owners feasting on $40 per entrées, the main appeal was comic. The characters were always getting into absurd situations arising from sexual or hygienic taboos. For example, in one show a newly married Charlotte has to explain to her husband, a Jewish divorce lawyer, that when he goes around the apartment naked, he leaves “skid marks” on the sofa and elsewhere. The movie leaves that sort of thing out entirely and dwells on the love life of Carrie Bradshaw, the main character, and Mr. Big-a Donald Trump type character. When Mr. Big decides at the last minute not to go through with their wedding, Carrie’s heart is broken and the rest of the movie involves her and her friends going to Acapulco to help her drown her sorrows in tequila. Rock Hudson and Doris Day were much better at this sort of thing.
The Dark Knight (Netflix)
I sat through this milling, nonstop procession of car chases with the same degree of interest as watching a well-stocked tropical fish tank. Lots of colors (and sounds) but amounting to not much of anything. Critics seem mesmerized by Heath Ledger’s performance as the joker. I found it mostly to be a joke. What this movie lacks is the sly humor of the Tim Burton Batman’s. Here’s David Walsh’s slashing attack on the movie.l
A documentary about bullfighting, as you might have guessed from the title. It is mostly about the ritual inside and outside the ring featuring a monumental bore of a subject, David Fandila. There is a morbid fascination in the initial bullfighting scene but after the second or third, you feel a mixture of boredom and disgust. The documentary alludes to the burgeoning animal rights movement in Spain, which dogs Fandila everywhere he goes but there is no serious attempt to understand their point of view. There might be an interesting story about the bullfighting tradition being linked to Spain’s continuing feudal legacy but the director has much more interest in watching Fandila put on his sequined costume, an almost homoerotic spectacle.
A big disappointment. To begin with, why couldn’t they have found a gay actor to play Harvey Milk? I have too many associations with Sean Penn in macho roles to accept him as Harvey Milk. It is like watching Robert DeNiro trying to play Harry Hay in a biopic. More to the point, the script is a dud. Written by Dustin Lance Black, a gay who grew up in a Mormon family, it fails to do justice to Harvey Milk who comes across as an object of worship rather than a real person. If you want the real story on Milk, you are better off renting the 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk”. If you enjoy biopics like “Gandhi”, you’ll probably go for “Milk”.
If Mike Leigh’s latest movie was welcomed by critics as a break from his characteristically depressed affairs, I advocate going back to depression. Its main character is a kind of Pollyanna who meets her match in a saturnine driving instructor, who for me is by far the more interesting character. Victoria Alexander, a fellow critic on Rotten Tomatoes, started her review on this note: “I kept hoping Miss Happy-Go-Lucky would get cancer.”
Unwatchable, in order of offensiveness
Sorry, even though I do admire Mickey Rourke’s acting skills, I simply could not get interested in the problems of a professional wrestler.
Nothing But the Truth
A very strange flick based loosely on the Valerie Plame affair. After an assassination attempt on the president of the U.S. by a Venezuelan operative, a reporter discovers from a source in the CIA that the Venezuelans were patsies. After she refuses to give the name of her source, she goes to jail. This is all played as family drama and a rivalry between the two women. What the movie is utterly lacking is politics. What makes the Valerie Plame/Judith Miller story interesting is the connection to the war in Iraq. “Nothing But the Truth” is not interested in Venezuela or any aspect of foreign policy. A waste of time even bigger than “The Wrestler”.
What Doesn’t Kill You
I had high hopes for this since the lead characters are small time hoodlums from Boston. The opening scenes in the movie make you think that you are about to watch an Irish version of “Goodfellas”, but it really goes nowhere.
Based on the stage play by John Patrick Shanley, it involves a duel between a truly repulsive nun played by Meryl Streep and a priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who may or may not be molesting their parochial school’s first African-American student. Someday they might make a compelling movie about the crimes of the Catholic Church but this is not it. Although I am no fan of Anthony Lane, the film critic of the New Yorker magazine, I think he did a nice job summing up this movie:
This film, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who adapted it from his own play, unfolds in 1964, at a Catholic school in the Bronx. A jovial priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is accused by the principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), of interfering with an altar boy. He denies it, she yearns to believe it, and we don’t care. Collectors of large narrative signposts will spend a happy couple of hours at Shanley’s movie, enjoying the window-rattling thunderstorms that he uses to indicate spiritual crisis, and the grimness with which Sister Aloysius, narrowing her red-rimmed eyes, delivers the line “So, it’s happened.” I didn’t know you could hiss, groan, and murmur at the same time, but Streep can do anything. She is, of course, wasted on this elephantine fable; if only “Doubt” had been made in 1964, shot by Roger Corman over a long weekend, and retitled “Spawn of the Devil Witch” or “Blood Wimple,” all would have been forgiven.
A truly misbegotten affair based on the story of the Bielski partisans, Jews who organized a guerrilla resistance to the Nazis in WWII. Since I obviously have a keen interest in such a topic, I tried to stick with the movie for as long as I could. I finally had to shut it down because it was simply awful. Where do I start? To begin with, how in god’s name do you cast Daniel Craig, the star of the last two James Bond movies, as a Jew? On top of that, Craig and all the other characters deliver their lines in a kind of Boris and Natasha Russian accent. If it had been up to me, I would have cast somebody like Larry David rather than Daniel Craig and would have had him speak in a Yiddish accent. I suppose I could have lived without these enhancements if the movie was not so stupid. Here’s an excerpt from the review of Edward Douglas, a NYFCO colleague:
Even after all the Holocaust and WWII movies released this season, it’s hard to be completely cynical when talking about movies that handle such a serious subject matter, and yet somehow Edward Zwick’s attempt at telling one such story relies so much on filmmaking formulas and genre clichés, it’s equally hard not to sneer snidely at the epic failure that has resulted. The Bielski brothers are essentially criminals who did a good deed by setting up a makeshift camp where Jewish survivors of the Nazi invasion could be protected, and one major difference from other Holocaust movies is that it makes a big deal about showing how some Jews fought back rather than just complaining or going meekly into the gas chambers. And yet, most of the time in the forest, we watch as the survivors kibbitz and kvetch about their situation, as the three brothers squabble and get into fistfights about how to run the camp before Liev Schreiber goes off to join the Revolution and get more directly involved in the fight against the Germans, and Craig’s character starts running the camp in a tyrannical fashion that foreshadows the coming Communism.
All I can say is thank god I didn’t keep this movie on long enough to see “Craig’s character…running the camp in a tyrannical fashion that foreshadows the coming Communism.” That would have been enough for me to organize guerrilla warfare against the studio responsible for this crap.
I already called this one “Crash 2”. A preachy, liberal Hollywood movie about the need for people of different ethnic backgrounds to “understand” and tolerate each other. This genre goes back to “The Defiant Ones” and includes Sidney Poitier 9 out of 10 times. In this version directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Nick Schenk (he also has “BodogFight”, “I Shot Myself”, “Factory Accident Sex” and “Let’s Bowl” to his credit), Walt Kowalski (played by Eastwood) is a retired auto worker who can be described as a combination of Dirty Harry and Archie Bunker. He is either chasing kids off his lawn or shooting those that are not fast enough getting off. After a Hmong family moves in next door, Kowalski gets involved in their lives and all for the better. This is what David Edelstein, the New York Magazine film critic, had to say about “Gran Torino”:
The problem is that for all Eastwood’s twilight-of-life ambivalence about his own mythical persona, his is still a paranoid universe of predators and the preyed-upon, so there’s never a need for distracting shades of gray or the kind of every-man-has-his-reasons drama in every episode of The Wire. These are simpleminded moral dilemmas, and the scenes with the Asian gang are almost as crude as anything in Sudden Impact. To think Gran Torino is a masterpiece, you have to accept the contrived setups and sledgehammer melodrama. You have to grade the movie on that same meathead-vigilante curve. As Harry once said, “Man’s got to know his limitations,” and Eastwood has a gift for making his look like brave artistic choices.