mondo mini movie reviews!

This is what I’ve watched in the past week or so.

Black Dynamite
A hilarious homage to the blaxploitation flicks of the ’70s, this one should not be missed. A dose of Dolemite with a dash of The Mack and Superfly, martial artist Michael Jai White plays the title character who’s out to avenge his dead brother, who was working for the CIA when a mafia drug deal went sour. It begins with him kicking an old lady through a door, and ends with him kicking ass at the White House, as his battle leads him to The Man himself. It gets a little silly in the middle when we learn what the Sinister Plot is, just in time for a homage to Enter the Dragon, but the dialogue is so moronically clever that you’ll be laughing the entire time. “If your momma was alive to see this, she’d be spinning in her grave!”

4 out of 5 fat muthafuckas wrestlin’ over pork chops ‘n greens

The Cove
If you ask the average person in Japan if they eat dolphin, they’d say no. So then why are thousands slaughtered every year in a secretive cove in Taiji? This documentary plays like a heist film as the man who trained Flipper, now turned activist, exposes the brutal and bloody secret of the dolphin industry, where hundreds are harvested for amusement parks and the rest are butchered for meat, and because the Japanese fishing industry thinks they eat too many fish. Yeah, really. This doc certainly has an agenda, but all good ones do; it takes great pains to show that the average Japanese has no idea this is going on, and this is no different than the corruption in America’s cattle industry, which keeps us from testing every animal for Mad Cow disease. You’ll never go to Sea World again after you watch this one.

4.5 out of 5 senseless slaughters

A Serious Man
The Coens weave a darkly comic tale of Larry Gopnik, a physics teacher whose life takes on the story of Joband the puzzle of Schroedinger’s Cat as his life begins to fall apart. I found it interesting, but at times deliberately difficult, and a little pretentious. It calls back to Barton Fink, and is enjoyable as a dark comedy if you don’t want to wonder if Gopnik is destined to misery because he’s angered God, is being tested, or has just made a serious of bad choices that like Schroedinger’s Cat, he can’t tell the result of without affecting it. It’s a good discussion film, but not for everyone; if you hated Synecdoche, NY you’ll probably find parts of this a little pretentious. I myself liked it, but felt some of it superfluous. The opening story of the dybbuk makes sense in retrospect, as it can be likened to Schroedinger’s cat, and then the issue of a student who may or may not be trying to bribe Gopnik for a better grade, and so on. There’s also the story of his son preparing for his bar mitzvah, which is both entertaining and nostalgic; did I mention it’s all set in the Jewish neighborhood of Minneapolis suburbs in the late 60’s? Nice touch. Much like the story of the dybbuk, it places it in the past and gives it all the feel of a parable.

4 out of 5 Larry Storches
The Hurt Locker
Wow. This is a war film, and the best depiction of the Iraq War I’ve seen, but first of all it is a character study. A study of the kind of adrenaline junkie operator who can handle the job of Explosive Ordnance Disposal- defusing bombs and IEDs in a war zone. Kathryn Bigelow has made a documentary-style masterpiece that takes the opening sequence of A Touch of Evil, where we see a bomb put in a car’s trunk and follow it, knowing it must go off, and makes it into a gripping war thriller. The movie is over 2 hours long, but felt like 90 minutes. Like the heroes of a Michael Mann film, these are men who define themselves by what they do, and there is a paucity of dialogue. Sgt. James leads a small squad after their leader is killed; they’re short timers who just want to go home, but he actually seems to love this job. And he’s incredibly good at it. The story unfolds like a memoir, with little structure, jumping from a sniper battle in the desert to an Iraqi base rat kid who James takes under his wing, to his men wondering if he’s going to get them killed. He’s a mystery; but in the end, we see his heart, and what makes him tick. It’s a brilliant character study of the kind of man it takes to do this insane job, disguised as a satisfying thriller. It is one of my favorites of the year, and it’s a toss-up to me whether it or Up in the Air is the better picture. Both make great entertainment out of prescient issues we’d rather ignore.

5 out of 5 Best Director Oscars for Kathryn Bigelow, Dammit

The Ghost Writer
Fuck you, Polanski. Come let justice be served. Stop being Noah Cross. Have you made a great movie since then anyway? You’re not getting my money until you pay your debt.

Temple Grandin
Excellent biopic of an autistic woman who revolutionized the beef industry by making slaughterhouses more humane. I read her story in the Star-Ledger years ago, and Claire Danes portrays her amazingly in what will surely be an Emmy-nominated performance. This is playing on HBO, and you should see it. It tries to give us the view of the world through her eyes, and while some of the direction is a bit indulgent and lazy- a montage set to guitar as she figures out how to get on a cattle lot that won’t let women in for example- the story itself is compelling and touching. It’s a TV movie for sure, but Danes performance, and David Strathairn as the teacher who understands her genius, make it worth your time.

3.5 out of 5 moo moo everywhere a moo moos

Dirty Ho
No, not porn! One of the better humorous kung fu flicks of the ’70s. Pita-San and I watched this and One-Armed Boxer vs. the Master of the Flying Guillotine, which has some cool fights and great kraut-rock music by Neu!; Dirty Ho is a kung fu comedy from ’79 starring Chiu hiu “Gordon” Liu, best known as Johnny Mo/Pai Mei from the Kill Bill movies. I’d recognize that bald noggin anywhere! He plays a prince with many brothers who’re trying to kill each other off for Dad’s inheritance, and he tricks a scheming thief named … Dirty Ho… to help him. Let’s face it, the name is what makes you watch this movie the first time, but it has great training sequences and fights, and plenty of laughs and slapstick. Plus a great scene where Gordon “fights” using his servant. An underappreciated classic, if you love kung fu flicks, you must find this one.

4 out of 5 dirty ho’s

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Burn After Reading – Burn After Watching?

Burn After Watching? Not quite, but not up to snuff for these gallows-humor masters.

I love the Coen Brothers, but this time they were just coasting; it’s a story very similar to their excellent Fargo, shuffled to Washington D.C. While the Coen boy grew up in Minnesota and probably played duck, duck, grey duck, they seem to know D.C. only peripherally, and both the characters and story suffer. Is it a horrible movie? I enjoyed it somewhat, but it is a forgettable and minor work in their canon. After No Country for Old Men it is certainly forgivable, but it’s sad that their comic masterpieces such as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski have been replaced with stuff like this, and other forgettables like the remake of The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty.
Burn After Reading is about a low-ranking CIA analyst who after leaving the agency not of his own volition, decides to write his memoirs. I’m sorry, his memoir. Osbourne Cox, played straight as a poison-barbed arrow by John Malkovich, is a second-generation spook with an inflated sense of worth both at his job and in his marriage. His life’s slow downward spiral into shit begins in the first scene, where he’s being demoted; for political reasons, he thinks, but a drinking problem is mentioned. His boss (David Rasche) seems to be channeling William H. Macy’s performance from Fargo, which is unfortunate, for you immediately start pining for that superior film.

Lie back and think of England

Ozzie is married to Katie (Tilda Swinton, Thumbsucker, Michael Clayton) an A personality so self-absorbed that she badgers him about not picking up artisanal cheeses and never finds out he lost his job. Oh, actually, he quit. Tilda is always excellent and she sums up her character with a snort, when Ozzie says he quit to work on his memoir. Rather like Stephen Colbert, he is insistent on Francophone pronunciation, damn the colloquialisms. At Katie’s dinner party, we meet Harry Pfarrer, played by George Clooney as a twitchy Treasury agent married to a successful children’s book author. He’s sleeping with Katie. As we’ll find out, pretty much everyone is sleeping with someone in this story, and the webs of deceit make the misunderstandings and misconceptions fall like dominoes.
Like most people who “retire” to write, Ozzie sits in the basement watching TV in his pajamas. Katie is contemplating divorce, so her lawyer tells her to get his financials ready for rifling, which eventually leads to a CD being found at Hardbodies Gym, by two endearing boneheads. Chad is that energetic idiot Brad Pitt was born to play; similar to his 12 Monkeys character but perky like Chester the dog from the Warner Brothers cartoons. He and Linda (Frances McDormand), an aging hardbody who’s obsessed with getting surgical assistance to regain former perfections, decide to find the owner of the CD, which is full of “secret shit.”
The bumbling blackmailers intersect with Ozzie’s crumbling marriage, Harry’s sex addiction, and eventually get the attention of the CIA, who have been watching unhinged Ozzie, of course. In the middle of the story, things take a surprising turn toward the violent, and it’s there that it began to lose me. I like a good dark comedy and bloodshed doesn’t bother me, but it was so unexpected that it felt forced and Shakespearean (as in, kill someone when you run out of ideas). The story doesn’t fall apart here, and there are still some great laughs- such as when Harry takes a sledgehammer to his Home Depot version of an item sold in the back of “gentleman’s magazines.”

There will be blood

What’s enjoyable here are the characters. J.K. Simmons (Juno, Spider-Man) shows up late as a CIA chief trying to figure out what the hell is going on and if he should even care; he’s got some of the best lines in the movie, but he made me wonder why I should care either. The basic premise is so close to that of Fargo that I kept thinking back to how the desperations of those ordinary people were so much more interesting. And the ending is so abrupt, and so similar to a much more effective scene in that movie, that I felt like the Brothers Coen got a little lazy.

They take an amusing poke at rom-coms

While some Coen movies like Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy took a while to sink in, some never manage to. I enjoyed The Man Who Wasn’t There, but I haven’t felt like watching it again; Burn After Reading fits into that category. Admittedly, I disliked O Brother, Where Art Thou? on first watch and it took several viewings before I looked past some of the sloppy shoe-hornings of the plot, such as jamming the legend of Robert Johnson and Baby Face Nelson into an otherwise perfect Appalachian folktale. That movie’s not perfect either, but is a lot of fun to watch and rewatch. Even dark comedies like Fargo and Blood Simple, which may not be very pleasant, lend to rewatching. They have the graveside manner of a Charles Addams or Hitchcock, something Burn After Reading never manages. Though it certainly tries.

Careful with that Axe, Osbourne

This is one time when I think Ebert’s rule that no good movie is long enough and no bad movie is short enough may not apply; this might have been a better movie if it were a bit longer. Not to wrap up the ending, but to give us more time with some well-crafted characters. I would have loved to see Clooney’s jittery sex addict and food hypochondriac flail some more; the payoff to Tilda Swinton’s “stuck-up ice cold bitch” character was too brief and clumsy. I did enjoy the fake Dermot Mulroney rom-com that Linda keeps taking her internet hook-ups to see, and watching Malkovich’s alkie Ozzie lose it was worth the build up. But maybe this one was cut too close to the bone. The Coen Brothers used to make in-joke movies that I felt like I got- The Big Lebowski was one of my favorite theater experiences, when I disagreed with the audience mutterings of “worst movie I’ve ever seen.” Those mutterings were heard this time too, and while I didn’t agree, I understood why they said it.
2.5 out of 4 stars; worth a rental