Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro) (2004)

The Sea Inside, the 2004 Spanish film starring Javier Bardem as a quadriplegic who pleads his right to die, is a piece of cinematic poetry.

The film covers the last few years of Ramon Sampedro’s life, a fictionalized account of a true story of a man who, in 1998, did succeed in his final task, employing several friends whose complicity in the task could never be proven.

Ramon was paralyzed from the neck down when he dove into shallow water, but was saved by friends just before drowning. That scene plays over and over, so much so that, after you witness Ramon’s life thereafter, you wonder why God or the fates just didn’t let him die then.

We see life as Ramon lives it, in the same bed for the last 26 years, able to talk on the phone or write his own letters or listen to music, but constantly wishing to fly out the window to be with the sea. And to die.

We see the people surrounding him. The sister-in-law who lovingly takes care of him. The nephew who provides all the gadgets he requires when Ramon designs them. His brother, who hates the fact that Ramon’s disability tore him from his life at the sea, and can’t tolerate the idea of his brother dying in his house.

And there’s also Rosa, who heard about Ramon’s plight on T.V., and on impulse comes over to visit him. And his lawyer, Julia, who is also suffering from a denegerative disease and who takes up his legal battles. Ramon tells them, those who love me will help me die. Some can deal with that, and some cannot.

It’s not a film with a preaching attitude, or a happy-ending kind of feeling. This guy is seriously unhappy, and it shows sometimes in his dealings with friends and family. But in the gentle and capable hands of actor Bardem, he has a smile for everyone, even when he’s feeling powerless.

The movie invites us to form our own opinions about assisted suicide, about issues around quality of life. Regardless of your opinion, The Sea Inside speaks beautifully of a man at the end of his life, the choices he makes, and the choices his family and friends allow him to make when the courts fail him.

The Sea Inside won the 2005 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Thumb’s up.

Two for the Money (2005)

I have to get something out of the way: If you're an Al Pacino fan, you have to see this movie. He is terrific in this movie, acting up a storm but not at the detriment of the story or the players around him. And if you're a Matthew McConaughey fan, yep, you've got to see this movie, as he portrays himself (or what we believe to be the outgoing, ultra charming McConaughey) better in this film than any other. And, yes, if you're a Rene Russo fan, you should see this film, as she plays someone we've never seen before.

But if you bet on sports, you probably don't want to see this movie. It'll make you cringe every time you see someone, yourself maybe, take the chump bet and raise the stakes, throwing good money after bad, time after time. If you've ever been tempted to bet on sports, get involved with the "big boys," this movie might make you turn your little Honda around and drive away from Vegas.

McConaughey's character is a two-bit 900 operator who sells things from a script when he is suddenly plopped onto a sports advice line. But this is the little money. He is discovered by bigger operator Al Pacino, who sees McConaughey as the guy who can accurately pick 75% of college and pro football wins, over and under.

It's a great introduction to the $2 billion business of the sports bet: Pacino's operation is shown as a multi-level stone building where the operators take $25 bets on the first floor, rising finally to the big bets on top. He sets up McConaughey in his own rent-free apartment in the building, and, watching his apprentice soar, decides to build him into a cable T.V. personality to go for the big money. And you can predict the trend here, as trends always come and go in betting: you win some, you lose some. The highs are incredibly high, and lows are down, down, down. And this film shows that well, perhaps losing the feel-good that some might think should come with a story about the mental and emotional side of gambling.

Two for the Money is based on a real-life odds-maker. He swears in the extra on the DVD that he never bet on sports, as does the McConaughey character, as that would erase his objectivity. We don't really know about the truth in all of this, but the fictionalized version of his story is fascinating, especially when you throw two scene eaters in like Pacino and McConaughey.

Thumb's up.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Scoop is the latest Woody Allen film, again filmed in London (like Match Point, his last film) and again starring Scarlett Johansson. Word is that Woody wrote the screenplay for Johansson after directing her in Match Point.

A student journalist (Johansson), visiting friends in London, gets the scoop of a lifetime about a serial killer from a most unusual source. The clues lead to a British aristocrat (Hugh Jackman), and she finds herself getting in deeper and deeper with the help of a magician (Woody Allen), and maybe even falling in love with the possible killer.

The movie starts out slowly, builds to a crawling pace in the middle, and ends rather suddenly. In other words, it's a real snore. And the end is totally unsatisfying.

I can't presume the reason such stalwart talents as Johansson and Jackman would appear in something like this. I'm guessing that the reason was because it's a Woody Allen film, and that they signed on before they read the script.

While Allen may have written it for Scarlett, he wrote 'way under her talent. Her student journalist has no complexity at all, and at times she's just the straight man for Woody Allen. Unfortunately, Woody's character isn't funny or even necessary. And the same could be said about Jackman's character: he's two-dimensional, if even that.

Unless you are a real Woody Allen fan and have to see everything he's in, or you need a good afternoon's sleep, here's a scoop for you: Don't see this film.

Thumb's down.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Munich (2005)

After you get over the shock of seeing The Hulk in a political drama, you get quite used to seeing Eric Bana as a young Israeli analyst in "Munich." There are other shocks to the senses in this controversial film.

In the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympics tragedy, in which 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered by a Palestinian group known as Black September, the Israeli government deploys a team of agents to assassinate those terrorist leaders involved, one by one.

By its own admission, “Munich” is a “fictionalized account.” That means, we can only guess, that its source material is spotty and certainly controversial. The book that it’s based on is certainly that, and we understand its latest edition has a lengthy argument in defense of its story.

So, all of that being said, it’s awfully hard to judge this story. And if true, we have a lot of unanswered questions.

Bana plays “Avner,” an analyst and by no means a trained assassin who is suddenly thrust into such a role by the country’s prime minister (in a small but very effective scene where Golda Meir defends the idea of vengeance), a scene that at once brings up the vital and relevant question, what rules and ethical standards should be broken to defend your country. Bana plays Avner tentatively at first, as a sensitive man who tries to only affect those targeted while quickly realizing he cannot. He is, of course, you or me if we were put into such a vicious job, ripped away from your family for months, perhaps years, leaning only on the members of your group, strangers bent on the same purpose. And it’s through Avner’s eyes, his innocent soul, through which we witness the barbarity of these acts. While the film shows all the action such a task would require, it allows equal time to Avner's personal life, and to his struggle to remain human.

It’s an interesting group of actors as well as characters. Daniel Craig (the future 007) as Steve, the only one who seems to have no problem with the brutality necessary; Carl, the pipe-smoking Israeli (Ciaran Hinds); the antique dealer, Hans (Hanns Zischler); the smallish toy maker who doubles as an explosives expert, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz). You get to know them, respect them, like them, and wonder why on earth they’re there.

I had no problem following the action. I did, however, have problems believing that the Israelis would put up such a ne’er-do-well force to follow these targets around Europe and dispatch them with expediency. There is no expediency, and not much expertise. Every step of the way we expect calamity as Avner shows pointedly why he’s an analyst and not a professional killer.

The actual events of the Munich Olympics are shown in flashback fashion, piecemeal, throughout the film, serving to show us the catalyst for the action in the film as well as the substance of the nightmare. Still, at the end, I wondered at Black September’s purpose; there was no answer, indeed, no supposition as to why.

There are other questions. In fact, this is a very talky film where, every time “Israel” is mentioned, there’s a statement about identity or a question about Jewish survival, a constant reminder as to what the stakes are for the Jewish nation.

At the end of this longish film we have more questions than answers. It’s the one Spielberg movie I think I’ve ever seen where he doesn’t milk every human emotion for what it’s worth, and allows us to think about what we’ve seen and the price that’s been paid.

Thumb’s up.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


This is a Crash-type movie consisting of four stories intertwined. A poor Moroccan acquires a rifle and gives it to his sons to defend their flock of goats. An American couple is crossing the desert when she is shot through the window of their tour bus. The couple's two kids are taken by their nanny to Mexico to attend her son's wedding. And a businessman in Japan is unable to communicate with his teen daughter. The inability to communicate plays a key role in each story.

Babel is edgy, and fascinating each and every minute. One reason for its pull is that I learned very quickly to care for all of these people. In many cases, particularly the American couple, we're not given a lot to work with, but are plunged into the emergency with just a little background dialogue. But another reason is that I could predict tragedy along the way, and actually was astonished when it didn't dog each character. When the two kids picked up the gun, you could sense bad things were coming. When the nanny's nephew offered to drive her and the kids back across the border despite his drunkenness, you could smell it. These pieces of the story were natural progressions of the storylines; some predictability was built in, but not totally. The stories were very believable.

In truth, the connection of some of the characters to each other was rather tenuous and not terribly believable. The Japanese father, for instance, was barely connected at all to the violence in Morocco, yet his --and his daughter's -- story was the most compelling of all.

What's interesting to me is that the two actors I knew the most -- Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett -- interested me the least. I thought their performances were very good, but their stories rather bland. There were two other characters about which I felt I had to know the outcome. The young woman who played a deaf teen, actress Rinko Kikuchi, was spellbinding. Her portrayal of aloneness, of reaching out, acting out inappropriately -- well, it's simply amazing. I understand that this 26-year-old auditioned for a year before director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu selected her. And the actress who played the kids' nanny, Adriana Barraza, was also compelling.

And the fact that we never find out the fate of some of the other characters, I found, was very disturbing, a sign that the movie affected me deeply.

There are some movies when you feel manipulated into emotion, told what to feel. Babel didn't need any cheap tricks to bring me there. Babel is going to be lauded at one of 2006's best. Thumb's up.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Dreamgirls: Ruth's take

When we started this blog, we had visions of the two of us arguing over the movies we see, just as we do every time we leave the theater together. Mostly it hasn't worked out that way, since we live in different cities and seldom see the same movies.

I decided not to read Cat's take on Dreamgirls and give you my own. You, dear reader, can decide how much or how little we agree.

To my absolute surprise, Dreamgirls made me think. I never saw the stage show, but I expected a big noisy fun musical with a lot of sequins and flash. Certainly, it is all that, but there is a quieter side, a darker side to Dreamgirls that makes it fun to think about afterwards.

The one person in the movie who never wore any sequins ran away with the show: Jamie Foxx, as Curtis Taylor, Jr., gave a bravura performance as a complex character, a supremely successful salesman who winds up being the king of the sell-out. Watching and listening to Curtis, I took a visceral trip through the process that made Motown: what it took to put African American musicians on the mainstream stage. I got it that none of the marvelous musicians he managed had an ice cube's chance of national success until he softened the edges, tailored the women's sex appeal to white tastes, and softened the sexuality of the black male performers.

Along the way, performers who can't fit the formula are cast aside: Effie, whose big voice is matched by a too-big body, and James "Thunder" Early, who is nobody's eunuch. Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy give performances of a lifetime in those two roles: trying to fit, then going off like shooting stars. Murphy, particularly, reminded me that the flip side of comedy is tragedy: he can do them both.

Beyonce Knowles, the third big star in this show, did a satisfying disappearing act into the role of Deena, the Dreamgirl with star power.

Finally, kudos to the person who decided to do something new and different with the credits at the end, not only showing us who played who but also who did what: a taste of what a cinematographer does, what the editor does, etc. That was fun, and kept us in our seats to watch as well as listen.

Dreamgirls was a fun evening, and a great conversation afterwards. Thumbs up!