The Guitar (2008) • USA

In the first five minutes of this film three big things happen. 1) Saffron Burrows is diagnosed with terminal cancer, given a month, two at most. 2) She's downsized out of her job and then, presumably to illustrate the impact of #2, she makes a collect phone call. Turns out the call is to her boyfriend. How weird is that? He meets with her and spews forth the most inane psychobabble nonsense about needing to find his inner child you've ever heard and says 3) he is breaking up with her. I should have given up right then and there but ... girls with guitars, ya know.

Saffron proceeds to rent a penthouse loft and furnishes it extravagantly using an endless supply of credit cards. She never goes out so she walks around naked and has sex with the UPS guy and pizza delivery girl. Saffron's acting is decent. She's capable of exposing layers of emotion. She buys a guitar. It has something to do with the flashbacks we see of her childhood, of course. At this point things become subjective. I'm a guitar snob and am not impressed seeing people fake a relationship with a guitar. Movies have for years been able to convincingly fake people playing the piano (right?) but I've never seen a good fake guitar playing performance. Granted, she is supposed to be a beginner so I shouldn't have expected much but I did anyway. I could let her slide on the fingering and strumming, given her beginner status and all, but I really needed to see an exciting relationship of her body to the guitar. I'm not expecting her to have sex with it, just show me that her body and her soul (that is the point, isn't it?) understand it, know how to move it and move with it and let it move her. Nada.

Final verdict: thumbs down. Even if you don't share my guitar snobbery I don't think the film has much to offer beyond a decent performance from Burrows. It's pretty standard (trite and fantastic) "what would you do if you were told you had only a couple months to live" stuff. If playing the guitar is something that you'd do, given that you've got only a couple months to live, the learning curve ought to be really quick. I mean, if you are going to make a movie out of it.


Nothing But the Truth [2008] • USA

This is a good film, not a great one but I'm going to call it a great film because I loved it enough for it to fall into the great film category for me. Great films are films that I will watch again and again just to spend time with the characters, performances of characters, really. It's seldom that the story or plot of a film by itself will prompt me to multiple viewings. The story here starts off like it's going to be a dramatization of the Valerie Plame affair. A newspaper reporter (Kate Beckinsale) reveals the identity of a CIA operative (Vera Farmiga). The government goes after the reporter, in the name of national security, to get her to reveal her source. The reporter refuses to cooperate, is held in contempt of court and goes to jail. Beyond that, the story veers off to create a commercial thriller with its own character backgrounds and struggles.

Part of the veering off involves some questionable, or maybe just questioning of, gender politics. Beckinsale's character is given an elementary school aged son, setting her up as not just a professional woman but also as a mother. As her time in jail grows longer, her relationship with her son grows strained and the government uses this to its advantage to try and get what they want. Her struggle, then, is split between motherhood and first amendment issues. I'm not sure this plot branch was scripted very well but there is one scene where it is driven home economically. After doing a television interview where she is berated for neglecting her son, her own lawyer is coaching her to reveal her source and informs her that the public is no longer behind her and thinks she is being selfish and a bad mother. She declares, "Oh! So the message is, you can trust your sources unless they're a mother, in which case they will crack!"

But enough about the story. Suffice to say, don't go see this in the hopes of insight or elucidation regarding the Valerie Plame affair. It's fictionalized enough to distance itself from that. It does have a few short, but not overly dramatic, preachy moments about first amendment issues but they are done fairly and the more fair they become the less pedantic it ends up. It's a pretty smart film. So let's get to the performances.

Kate Beckinsale is beautiful, even while in jail without eye make up for most of the film. No big deal. But she is also very genuine in her role here. And genuine is what makes for good performance. She plays the right combination of spunk and vulnerability which provides great detail in her dual role as mother and gender neutral professional. Same goes for Vera Farmiga. Jesus, the woman scares me. She is tasked with delivering some of the most ridiculous dialog in the film ("You are an unpatriotic little cunt who’s going to walk right off the plank into the bowels of hell, do you know that?") but doesn't lose credibility. She's that tough. It's like she's a chameleon with nerve endings on the outside of her skin. If you even look at her the wrong way she might electrocute you. She'll smile while it happens. Best to just send good vibes her way and hope she doesn't bother you. She has become one of my favorite actresses due to her acting like a really fast car that doesn't handle well. Matt Dillon on the other hand, comes with power steering. He seems bigger now, not just physically but in terms of presence. He plays the special prosecutor charged with getting the information from Beckinsale. He is pitch perfect and totally in control even though he seems to never make any progress. Very well done. I'm tired of Alan Alda's charming simplicity, but for those who are not, in many ways he steals the show as the eccentric, well-dressed lawyer who represents Beckinsale. Angela Bassett, David Schwimmer, and Noah Wyle round out the ensemble cast. All good, surprisingly or not. Noah Wyle actually creeped me out a bit, in a good way. He wasn't at all like a wounded puppy dog staring off into space. With the exception of Schwimmer, every time someone from this ensemble has a scene it becomes their film. Color me impressed.

Then there's the reveal at the end. Brilliantly provocative. Make sure you've been paying attention because it changes everything. It's unexpected and sure to stir up chatter on your way out the theater. Lame or awesome? There is no in between. I loved it just for the cahoneys.


Adrift in Tokyo (Tenten) [2007] • Japan • Satoshi Miki

"In my 8th college year, buying 3-color toothpaste I thought could spare me from my rock bottom situation."

Those are the first words of the film as spoken by Fumiya (Jô Odagiri) just before debt collector Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura) bursts into his apartment, removing his shoes at the front door as is Japanese custom, and roughs him up. The next day the debt collector offers Fumiya an opportunity to erase his debt: walk with him around Tokyo. What we get is a road movie, a very funny road movie, where the unlikely duo walk instead of drive. There's eventual male bonding, marvelous footage of Tokyo, and a smorgasbord of odd characters and situations along the way.

Writer/Director Satoshi Miki has a stable of comedic actors who work with him often and who fill out this film playing the side characters. They remind me of the North American group that came out of Second City Television we now associate with Christopher Guest movies. They share that sense of humor too, where each of the characters seem to exist in their own orbit but since they all do, they get along fine. Dialog is somewhere between non sequiturs and honest answers when you don't anticipate them. And it's all about timing and delivery. Funny people.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the hairstyles of the two main characters. Jô Odagiri, famous Average Joe Japanese actor, sports a Dylanesque jew-fro, while famous Big Bad Guy actor Tomokazu Miura's cut seems to suffer from some sort of mullet imbalance. They're an odd pair perfectly suited to this low-key oddball comedy.

A thrill for me is the appearance of Yuriko Yoshitaka as Fufumi, the niece of the debt collector's fake wife. She co-starred, at age seventeen, in one of my favorite films of all time, Noriko's Dinner Table, as the younger sister, Yuka. While that Sion Sono film was no where near a comedy, Yuriko Yoshitaka's character possessed a bit of the same surreal comportment that works for her in this film. She's tasked here with playing a loud, extremely happy, self-orientor who likes to put mayonnaise on everything, and pulls it off without being overly obnoxious. Your mileage may vary but I think she's got a bright future. She seems comfortable acting.

Quite a bit of this film can be viewed at YouTube in ten minute chunks.


Lost, Indulgence (Mi Guo) (2008) • China • Zhang Yibai

This should be the official submission from The People's Republic of China to the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film. It seems like the kind of film Oscar would like but it’s not the kind of film China likes. It’s part in-depth character study, part coming of age tale, part mystery, and it’s a fascinating portrait of a city. Independent minded films like this that show life in mainland China as it is for what it is don’t see the light of day there too often. It took director Zhang Yibai three tries to get permission from the China Film Bureau to release this to the International Film circuit.

Imagine Davenport, Iowa with a population of 31 million and covered in smog and you might have something close to Chongqing, China, the director's hometown and the setting for Lost, Indulgence. It's in the heartland of the mainland on a big river. It's dreary and foggy. And it looms heavily over the characters and their storied lives here.

The film begins with a taxi cab plunging into the Yangtze River. (Apparently there are folks who make a living fishing bodies out of the massive river. They have knowledge of the places a body is likely to end up. Relatives of the bodies bring photos and pay these people to be on the look out because life insurance monies can't be paid for two years unless there's a body.) The outcome of the crash sets the stage for the lives and relationships Zhang explores in the film as well as being the first clue to a mystery he lets percolate in the background for most of the movie. The driver of the cab is presumed dead but isn't immediately found. The passenger, a street wise bar girl played by the leggalicious Karen Mok, is rescued but badly injured. The wife of the driver feels it is her responsibility to care for the survivor. Unable to pay for hospital care she takes the woman into her home, a cramped little place accessed via a staircase at the back of some factory. The teenage son of the driver, refusing at first to accept that his father is dead, is not immediately happy sharing his space with the wheelchair bound newcomer nor is he excited by the burden of helping to care for her. But things change. Karen Mok’s fashion choice of hot pants and lace stockings soon arouses feelings of interest from the boy. The mother is both unhappy and fearful of what the budding relationship may reveal.

As the boy begins to open up to the invalid he starts to wonder about her relationship to his father, the circumstances of the accident that left his father missing are seen in a new light. Director Zhang lets the mystery unfold delicately, in the background, without becoming the focus of the film. The spotlight remains on the characters’ changing lives while the mystery remains as unsolved to us as it is unspoken among the characters. Lost Indulgence is a marvelous bit of story telling as well as an engaging slice of life. Pay attention to the photo on the wall of the father.


The Grand (2008) • USA

I laughed and laughed. This is a great vehicle for Woody Harrelson, but I could also list and applaud the umpteen other actors (from Werner Herzog to Gabe Kaplan) in this ensemble comedy. It's fast paced and smartly written. The inside jokes are there for those who know the world of Professional Poker but you don't need to be an insider to laugh at most of them. This is one of the best comedies I've seen in a long time.


Dead Girl Walking (Kaiki! Shinin shôjo) [2004] • Japan

Shot in deeply contrasted black and white, reminiscent of the silent film era (the soundtrack also conjures up that time), this forty minute short film is J-Horror as J-Horror does. Teenage Yuri appears to die of a heart attack and is pronounced dead but her body doesn't act like it. Her parents scold her for not behaving like a proper dead person and plug their noses from her decaying stench whenever she enters the room. They try to embalm and cremate her, much to her chagrin. Her body rots and limbs start falling off. She dreams it's all a dream.


M (2007) • South Korea

M is a simple story of a writer, Min-woo, in search of his muse. Director Myung-se Lee tells it with a painter's instinct and a poet's dream logic. It's meant to be observed more than diagnosed, as one would a series of paintings in a museum. The story isn't difficult to take in unless you're really anal about wanting to know, definitively and with assurance, at every given moment if what is going on is real or a dream, a hallucination, a memory, or simply muted perception. This isn't way-out-there and what-the-fuck like David Lynch even though it will likely conjure up comparisons. There is none of the creepy, challenging nastiness of Lynch whose fun and absurd stylings make appearances here but call attention to themselves gently, as they reflect and infuse the story.

M is lightly sprinkled with odd/absurd dialog throughout, but it's appropriate to the characters as they are drawn. Min-woo is an up and coming writer who can't write a word of his new novel as he suffers a massive dose of writer's block, sleepless nights, crazy editors, possible hallucinations, an oppressive sense that he is being followed—which he is—and the haunting memory of his long lost first love as she infiltrates his present reality. Yeon-hee Lee plays the long lost first love, Mimi, who doesn't seem to know anything about Min-woo except that she loves him very much. She is also being followed, in a twistedly logical sort of way, probably by Min-woo. She isn't sure, however, if it's in life or in death. Yeon-hee Lee brings a good-natured goofiness and a remarkable innocence to the film, her presence is a continuous delight.

I wanted to applaud almost every scene in this movie. Director Myung-se Lee's attention to detail in setting up shots, how they are photographed and manipulated, his use of vivid colors and their changing saturation along with a generous use of black, the camera's movement during scenes and how the movement sets up transitions to new scenes, and how harmoniously, remarkably, the soundtrack keeps up with the intricate strangeness and beauty of the visual art—all these things push the boundaries of storytelling to its limits without being overambitious. Nothing about this film feels experimental because the control of the audio/visual terrain is so clearly, to the point of obsession, masterful. This is an Art Film without pretension.


Gran Torino (2009) • USA

I tried three times and couldn't get past the first twenty minutes, or so. The setup, the writing, is so immature and clichéd I couldn't take it. No creativity, no nuance, no respect for the audience. I was thinking ... if I get past the funeral opening, where a pierced belly button is used to set the stage for generational gap, and two sons have a discussion about their father in that way people never talk except when they're characters in movie providing background on another character ... I might be good to go. Sometimes directors shove too much down your throat at the beginning of a film so they can get on with telling the story. But the hits just kept on coming.

I'm not saying this is a bad movie. To be clear, I'm saying I found the first act so insulting I couldn't go on. So, technically, I can't say.