Sunday, April 13, 2008

Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna)

Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna) is a film about a young boy's quest to be reunited with his mother. Carlito, played by Adrian Alonso, lives well with his grandmother in Mexico while his mother (Kate del Castillo) labors in Los Angeles. In a brief scene early in the film, we are given a glimpse of the path not taken: Carlito has a friend who lives in abject poverty, peddles gum on the street for cash, and wishes that he "had a mama who sends him money for new shoes."

Politics and economics set the stage, but they are not the story in this film. The story is Carlito's journey to find his way to his mother after his grandmother's death, and like every little-boy-lost in literature, he encounters the best and the worst of humanity along the way. The characters and the performances are what makes the film well worth its 106 minutes of run time. We learn quickly with Carlito that it is very difficult to tell a helpful person from a bad guy, especially when the choices are limited. We experience the sweetness of small kindnesses in a large, uncaring world.

Some critics have complained about the sentimentality of the film, or fussed about the politics. It's a sentimental subject -- a nine year old and his single mom? -- and the political situation is merely the setting. It may be that it will change some minds about immigration, but I doubt it. The truths in this film have more to do with truths about the human spirit than with ideology or politics.

The final beauty of this little film is the ending: it ends at precisely the right moment.

Thumb's up.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Young @ Heart

Young@Heart is a documentary about a group of singers who cover classic rock tunes and whose average age is 80. They are charming, charismatic, brave and reasonably in tune most of the time. Their director, Bob Cilman, is earnest and professional. The bunch of them are cuter than a basket full of kittens.

It's a shame, then, that producer Sally George and director Stephen Walker don't let the story tell itself, but instead choose to go the route of sentimentality and manipulation in telling the story, wringing the last drops of suspense and pathos out of the final illnesses of two cast members. Some very bad news is broken to the choir with the cameras present and rolling, and Walker presses close with pedestrian and patronizing questions at a vulnerable moment. Tellingly, when it is time to deliver bad news a second time, the assistant to the choir's director first dismisses the filmmakers, asking them to stand outside. Apparently she didn't appreciate their ham-handed presence any more than I did.

The movie is still well-worth seeing, and the music and its makers are a lot of fun. Walker's narration and his behavior and choices in making the film make me quite sure, though, that if he and the Young@Heart chorus ever turn up on my doorstep, I'll make the same choice: invite the chorus in, and leave him on the doorstep.

A tentative Thumb's Up for Young@Heart.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Lucky You

I love gambling. I love card games. But the worst time I ever had in gambling was not in my playing life. It was watching my father play my brother at the dining room table. The blood would ooze from the cards, it was so cutthroat. Dad took my brother each and every time. And somewhere in there, “a lesson” was supposedly taught. It was, but the wrong lesson was learned.

The screenwriter for Lucky You must’ve been sitting at my family’s dining room table. I swear the dialogue is the same, the angst is the same. The results are mostly the same.

Eric Bana is the son, and tough old Robert Duvall is the father who taught him everything he knows about how to gamble. And Bana is a great poker player. Except that he, like everyone else, loses eventually, which happens to be every other day since that’s all he does. And except, of course, when he plays his father.

There are other people in this drama, but let’s face it: it’s Bana and Duvall, down to the last hand.

I enjoyed this movie, enjoyed the poker playing. The characters step aside when the cards are on the table, as poker takes center stage here. Great old players, characters themselves, are shown at the tables. And there’s a wonderful sequence in a coffee shop where Duvall shows Bana how he lost a large hand, and wonders what went wrong.

It’s just hard to watch people you love go at it where someone's humiliated, and someone has to lose. Perfect for a father-son rivalry. Oedipus and Freud would've loved this movie. Pass the popcorn, Siggy.

Thumbs up.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Bank Job

Fact: in 1971, the biggest bank robbery in British history took place in London, while the police searched frantically for it, having been tipped off by a ham radio operator who heard the radio conversations among the robbers. They didn't figure out which bank, however, until the following Monday morning, when the safe deposit vault of the Lloyd's branch at Baker and Marylebone was discovered looted.

Fact: four days after the robbery, it completely and abruptly dropped out of the newspapers.

Now tell me, don't you want to know the rest of the story?

The Bank Job is a fictionalized retelling of the tale of the "Walkie-Talkie Robbery," and it is a thriller from the first frame to the last. At its heart is Martine, a beautiful woman with a secret (Saffron Burrows) who persuades some old pals from her working-class youth that she has information that will allow them to carry out a perfect bank job. Chief among these old pals is Terry Leather (Jason Statham), a bloke who is losing his business to thugs after he borrows money from the wrong people. There is sexual tension between these two that is not resolved until the end of the film, and that tension adds to the tension that builds in every aspect of the story.

Terry is the alpha male in a little gang of buddies who have a past as small time crooks. Martine has become involved, thanks to a drug deal gone wrong, with a much spiffier bunch of big time spooks from MI5. Tangled in the resulting mess are a porn king, a black activist/pimp, a bunch of cops gone bad, and an assortment of British bluebloods who have been very, very naughty but don't want to pay the piper.

It's also a snapshot of London in 1971: the economic woes of the nearly desperate working class collide with the ennui of the gentry and their little foibles. This is England before Iron Lady Thatcher, before Princess Di, the England of empire past and inedible cuisine. It feels utterly authentic, all the details exactly right, from the reel-to-reel tape recorder to the "Free Angela Davis" poster decaying on a wall. Tawdry and gritty in almost every way (and I will not spoil it by explaining the qualifier "almost") the story has been done justice by the filmmakers.

The screenplay was written by Dick Clement and Ian LeFrenais, a British screenwriting duo not well known to American audiences, and the film was directed by Roger Donaldson.

Thumb's up -- it's a great ride.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Chaplin (1992)

I watched Chaplin on DVD tonight, after my plans to see another movie in a theater went awry. I remember thinking on Oscar night in 1993 that Robert Downey, Jr. was robbed of what should have been his Oscar. After 15+ years, I still think so. It is a wonderful, almost eerie performance, although it is nearly spoiled by the makeup used to age him for the scenes at the end of his life: it is grotesque. Amazingly, Downey manages to transcend the prostheses and pancake and use his eyes to tell the story his face is too immobilized to tell. When he portrays the younger Chaplin, his body language and his facility with the physical mannerisms of both Chaplin and the Tramp are quite amazing. He also makes a gradual, subtle shift throughout the film from the accent of a British street urchin to the tones of a cultured gentleman from nowhere-in-particular living in Switzerland. He and the script let us see the thinking and practice that went into that shift, critical if he is to be taken seriously as an artist, but by letting us see the work behind his accent, offer a window on the relentless work that his art required.

I've loved Charlie Chaplin's films all my life, and this film does an artful job of showing us origins for many of the tropes so memorable in his performances, without making a big deal of it. The Tramp and his friends walk straight out of the streets of Edwardian London, where Chaplin was once himself a Kid. The film glosses over some of the darker aspects of his story, showing us a string of child brides but not looking too deeply into the matter, excusing that part of his story as a search for a lost love. It looks more closely at his political troubles, the xenophobic attitudes of Americans (we are if nothing else consistent) and the Red Scare of the 1950's. The writers portray Chaplin as a man who deeply loved the United States, but they never explain why he never applied for citizenship, even though they raise the question in a lawyer's speech.

The film's great strengths are Downey's performance and the way the film makes us look at the old films with new eyes. There are wonderful small performances from actors who have since become much better known to movie audiences: David Duchovny, Moira Kelley, Marisa Tomei, and a very young Milla Jovovich. Geraldine Chaplin gives a moving performance as Hannah Chaplin, her own grandmother. Kevin Klein is so much fun as Douglas Fairbanks that he makes me want to run out and find copies of all of Fairbanks' films.

Normally I don't notice film makeup, which leads me to think that when I notice it at all, something is terribly wrong. Not only is the aging makeup for Downey awkward and fake-looking, the makeup for many of the women were "off" for the period, as if the artists felt that a 1992 audience would simply not accept period-accurate maquillage. It is a lone sour note in an otherwise quite wonderful film, well worth putting on the Netflix queue.

Thumbs up!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

John Adams (HBO)

Wikipedia entry on "John Adams": John Adams, Jr. (October 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826) was the second President of the United States (1797–1801). He also served as America's first Vice President (1789–1797).

That's all I knew about John Adams. His face never appeared on a U.S. bill. His image does not appear as a part of Mount Rushmore. As important as he seemed to be in the establishment of the young United States of America, most of us attending public school haven't a clue about who he was.

HBO is filling in the details for us. And now we have an idea about why Adams doesn't have legends built around him, or $5 bills with his picture engraved on them. He was stubby, bald, and very stubborn, not, perhaps, what legends are made of. In comparison with General George Washington or even his cousin, Sam Adams, he wasn't charismatic. Or tall. He was easy to overlook, even in history.

This seven-part HBO miniseries consumes some 15 hours of screentime. In high-definition with no commercials, it's easy to watch, but still I thought I'd be bored. I'm more excited than bored. And eagerly awaiting the next chapter in what is a mystery of American history.

The vistas are gorgeous, from the snow-covered hills of Virginia, where his horse plods slowly towards town, to the gold-covered halls of Versailles. It seems that HBO spared no expense in this production, and it is, indeed, beautiful to watch. However, this story is all in the details, not its eye-catching surroundings. We see a great deal of Adams' family life, his close relationship with his wife, Abigail, who seems to be as wise as Adams. We also see his not always tranquil relationships with his children. And we get long glimpses of his battles with those political heroes we've all read about, some his foes and some his friends. With all of them -- from the reticent Thomas Jefferson to the wise-cracking Benjamin Franklin -- he argues. And the texture of these portrayals is rich and sumptuous.

Here is just an example of the details given to us: when the Continental Congress comes together in 1776, it's June. There's no air conditioning in the 18th century. So all the men are sitting there sweating. Many take their wigs off, and, as they're speaking, they wipe the perspiration off their heads. Then place the wigs back on. (Thank God when the States broke away from England, they stopped wearing wigs!)

Paul Giamatti hasn't found a character more worthy of his talents. It really is hard for me to remember that I'm watching an actor. And Laura Linney can add Abigail Adams to her long list of accomplishments. It's fascinating to see how a forward-thinking woman dealt with what role she was given to play back then.

At this point, I've seen over half of the mini-series. I can't wait for my DVR to find the episode each Sunday so that I can visit the 1800's once more and learn about the details of our American past.

Thumb's up.