2009 Film Reviews (Geocities site leftovers)

Whatever Works (Woody Allen, C) Even I thought this sounded like a terrific idea. It wasn’t. Larry David’s Woody Allen impression makes him even more intense and more overbearing – CYE has just the right balance, I submit – and the template Allen is working from feels as xeroxed as his continuing to project the I-had-an-affair-with-a-young-girl themes which tend to accompany the template (he takes a girl into his house and she changes his set-in-my-ways attitude). That, and the script lacks funny. (11/16)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, D) Broad, glossy and repetitious, Hood’s Wolverine tale recalls the good ol’ days when action films looked like music videos and all of their characters were merely designed to look great against a blue screen. Preposterous to the fucking last. (11/14)

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, B) About the best version of something like this one could hope for: The scenes prior to Max’s voyage have a great, bruised vision of childhood (I could have easily watched a whole film about these characters without every leaving New Jersey) and the scenes on The Island seem to drift in a haze of tension, slapstick and lesson learning – all at once, at times. This is less abrasive than storming the Seuss archives – given that he was rabidly anti-commercial – but it doesn’t displace the residue of blasphemy. A film without such a wordy script would have been the ideal, but the Eggers-Jonze team clearly fell into a strange set of very lucky circumstances. While they could stand to hear the standard “less is more” speech one more time, their cleverness aptly masks how closely they walk the line between hollowness and childlike simplicity.  (11/10)

Directed by Henry Selick
grade: B

It’s hard not to be impressed by Selick’s visual style and the overall exclusivity of the world he creates. Maltin’s hyperbolic “best 3-D movie I’ve ever seen” claim isn’t really all that far from the truth, but the trailers preceding the film bely its status as merely the tip of the iceberg: Every animated film made by a major studio between now and the end of time will likely be in 3-D. (Hint: He’ll probably upgrade his opinion in the very near future, which sort of sullies the sentiment; There really ain’t much for him to compare it to.) Kudos for the quasi-subversive nudge in the resolution of the film, wherein Coraline – subjected to parental neglect – learns to appreciate her parents and not the other way around.


Two Lovers
Directed by James Gray
grade: B+


The melody of the natural exchanges is more charming than it has any right to be – with Phoenix eccentric, but not canned eccentric – and the oddball embrace of a series of selfish, consumed decisions makes nearly every step of this film feel RIGHT. I can’t wait to see it again.


Monsters vs. Aliens
Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon
grade: C-


I can’t imagine much appeal outside the 3-D. It shuts as mundanely as it opens, with insecure character becoming secure by recognizing her own potential (albeit in a gigantic body). Andre Wescott used to say that it had all been done. His taxonomy of popular genres always listed both Monster and Alien movies. This feels like a cheap attempt to overcome convention via The Crossover. Disguised as a kids movie. Wrapped up in the Cinema of the Attractions latest pirate-proof technology. Yawn.


Directed by Tony Gilroy
grade: B


Where Michael Clayton had a straight face, Duplicity keeps its tongue firmly cheek’d, coasting on rapid-fire dialogue – much of which is a true delight to listen to – and undending twists (two or three too many for my taste, but no bother). And while the love story isn’t really palettable, the poison of their alliance – and the nth power of mistrust that follows – makes for a deeply cynical underpinning. I’m not going out on a limb here. I’m not going to say its subversive – it’s not. The real news, though, is this: Gilroy seems to be able to bend an otherwise conventional film to his will (even if he doesn’t succeed 100% of the time). To me, this is exciting. I have a soft spot for directors who can take questionable material and bring out its most interesting version. And why I’m so enamored of Denis O’Hare I couldn’t say (he played the seemingly unrelated Jaguar driver who hits a jogger in the opening reel of Michael Clayton), but he has an even larger role here and he’s dynamite (see sequence where he and Rick Worthy mock Clive Owen’s delivery of “I Own You”). The supporting cast – Wayne Duvall and Carrie Preston, in particular – is terrific, with both Tom Wilkinson aand Paul Giamatti doing SO MUCH with their very small roles, particularly in the opening sequence. Which is ecstatic and bracing all at the same time. And awesome.


Directed by Pierre Morel
grade: C+


With broad strokes and questionable ethics, Taken falls somewhere between the laughable political subtext of Rambo and I-will-kick-everyone’s-head-in verve of The Transporter in overall Vigilante Porn integrity. Generally, I made a choice early on the film to take it as a near-brazen casting choice and ride that train through the film’s plothole minefield. For the most part – and, again, we’ve made a choice here – it works gangbusters. Neeson never stops the cartoonish thuds, transforming odds like five-against-one into a series of absurdly simple tasks, all of which are gunning on the fuel of Sweet Majestic Anger. While its attitude is suspiciously (nay, overtly) conservative, its trashy STV template never gives one any great pause for activism, let alone consideration. By the time we get around to wondering about great pieces of the narrative that seem unexplained or missing, we are, instead, chuckling to ourselves for the fifteenth time: Why would anyone want to fuck with Liam Neeson?


The Girlfriend Experience
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
grade: B+


Expertly fractured, The Girlfriend Experience is straight-up Soderbergh from top to toe, exploiting the telling parallels of an escort mapping out her fiscal future amidst the dramatic economic bottom-drop ’round the 08 election. The time stamp makes the film seem more savvy than it actually is – the center ring narrative wrongheadedly relegates Chris Santos to Grand Foil while his contributions in the image sales category are left to wither down to somewhere below inconsequential. Clearly, the film was birthed on the editing deck and The Film that takes precedence has a sense of documentary-style voyeurism into an otherwise tittilating world we’re meant to recoil at. With this contradiction in tow – key scene being One For The Message Boards With (gasp) Glenn Kenny – the film seems to nod, full circle, too the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too spirit that ushered the current recession into our respective spheres of interaction. In effect, buying an experience only reveals the greater hypothetical. Its a well-honed conclusion – hence the toppish grade for a film with a glaring concern front and center – and its sold, quite effectively, by Sasha Grey. Playing the high priced call girl, she nails the smokescreen of ambition and the harrowing self denial that allows her to play the role. Having been a porn star couldn’t have hurt.


Directed by Erick Zonka
grade: B+


Never not gripping and, often, insanely tense; Zonka’s command of the medium is so full-force and Swinton’s TDF performance of, just, mass amounts of recklessness, is so deeply felt, its completely baffling to me that he hasn’t released a film in ten years and she won the Oscar two years too early. First half’s Mementoesque cuts from action to next morning bleed their frentic stylings into a second half that seems to move and sway completely apart from any other kidnap drama I’ve ever seen. Big bonus points for Saul Rubinek (who I love). Best film of the year so far.


Directed by Pete Docter
grade: B+


Most of it is, at its best, commendable (and at the very worst, merely intellectually stimulating), but Up‘s first ten minutes (i.e. – Carl’s backstory) weren’t just more samples of genuine emotional crescendo – like, for example, Ego’s first bite of the title dish in Ratatouille – but resound as the highest point yet reached by those eggheads down at the Pixar Lab. These ten precious moments of screen time not only encapsulate every tingling intangible associated with the dynamic of the sexes – in courtship, in marriage, in ambition, in mourning – they take place so early in the film, that they transcend something more profound than any second and third act could hope to convey. And while its landscape and lessons have a strangely unsophisticated bent to them (my perception may be faulty as I spent a great deal of the running time laughing at, um, self-conscious talking dogs), it hardly matters: Docter has this uncanny predilection for successfully creating warm, funny films from wacky premises that seem cobbled together of arbitrary ideas (in Monsters, Inc., for example, the town runs on the energy of children’s screams spawned from scare sessions with hired monsters who work in that warehouse with that M.C. Escher meets Rube Goldberg door system).


Summer Hours
Directed by Oliver Assayas
grade: B

It achieves in its final scene what the whole movie seems contextual fodder for, namely, The Pleasant Freedom of Youthful Abandon Feeling which no grown ups can seem to glean from THE HOUSE. That first thirty minutes left me wondering why all the worth was on things and, while the movie does little to dispel the creeping conclusions we’re drawing about these people, what follows actually seems to echo the sentiment of universal nook and cranny appreciation. I’m not sure if I credit Assayas with minor independent successes or fault him for plopping them into a decidedly minor coming-of-age tale (of which he plans to trilogize). That last scene, though, is classic example of Robert McKee’s great advice to Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation. (“Wow them in the end and you got a hit”.)


Bit of a gap ‘cuz I bought a bit of a house.


The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
grade: B


Even its great, long formless section at the start has Bigelow’s macho histrionics – she should really trademark it – and The Hurt Locker, taking a page out of United 93‘s book, is a magnificently exciting genre film. Renner’s William James casts a huge matinee idoldom-brand shadow – he’s the wild man, by the way – but seems a bit disingenuous amidst The DVD Moppet and that snarky sideplot. None of that even remotely matters if you simply imagine Black Hawk Down‘s Hoot is the main character in an action film.


In the Loop
Directed by Armando Iannucci
grade: B+


Recalls the slapdash speed and unabashed appeal I remember feeling the first time I saw The Office, only in a profane movie world of nonstop one-liners. Like The Hurt Locker, it hardly matters that its topical – it just so happens by chance to be one of the funniest movies in years.


Directed by Zak Snyder
grade: B-


Its coherence is the biggest (and best) surprise, but it was still directed by Zak Snyder. This cheapens its exhaustive take on the unmatched genius of the graphic novel with digi everything.


Directed by Greg Mottola
grade: C


Why was it such a chore to cast this film? Kristen Stewart? Ryan Reynolds? A flimsy, quintessentially indie take on The Post College Tumult? A soundtrack that almost makes it all bearable? I just can’t see any of these people trafficking in being cool, in being sexually vulnerable or, you know, in any measure of profundity.


Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann
grade: B-


Terminally flat and severely handicapped; I’m picturing Mann caving to some of his set design, costumes, etc. being shelf fresh and, quite frankly, pat. Depp continues to instill role after role with his darkly charming worldliness, itself particularly important here in both character and task, as he imbues John Dillinger with a maturity beyond both years and means.  He’s also pretty much the only thing the film doesn’t somehow taint with it’s mismatched – almost anachronistic – visual misfire. The grit and immediacy simply do not serve it.


Inglorious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
grade: A-


Out-popcorning Kill Bill, the sprawl-shot of utter insanity he spells with an “e” for some reason turns the very idea of revisionist history on its head, slip-sliding into a never-ending saga of moments grabbed from history as Tarantino sees it (that is, through the filter of cinema pur).


Ponyo[english version]
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
grade: B+


Tighter than Howl’s Moving Castle, warming kid perspective not unlike My Neighbor Totoro and an English Dub track that puts Liam Neeson’s voice to an wild-haired wizard (of sorts) who controls the balance of the universe through potions he keeps locked in his magic submarine (!). Miyazaki seldom makes films that don’t elicit a fuzzy emotional palette – activism, bittersweet connections, the wonder and danger of the universe – and Ponyo is about as good or bad as most of his films.


Directed by Lars Von Trier
grade: B-


I expect Von Trier to be fucking with us at this point pretty much as a matter of course. I was cruising along thinking it was kind of a sarcastic take on American psychological thrillers – the glossy, deliberate slow mo in the opening sequence, the hair-raising shock imagery, the preposterous dialogue – but it wound up being too damned effective (in general, as it frightentened me a little) to fit that mold. Furthermore, I wish I could be a fly on the wall in the brain of anyone who feels like the first two acts are even borderline misogynistic (a woman’s scorn needs only one act to match those of her man). I was pretty much covering my jewels by the time Defoe curls up in the foxhole. Being indefinable, though, isn’t uncharacteristic nor is it unwelcome of Von Trier. Even in a failed, er, whatever the hell this is, picture (we’ll say), its vaguely purposeful indifference only amounts to frustration. This is minor Von Trier, to be sure.


Observe and Report
Directed by Jody Hill
grade: C


Hard to imagine a more offbeat hero to risk the viewer’s eyes-a-rollin on, and Ronnie Barnhardt is certainly a universal archetype we aren’t going to be foreign to. The film makes the key mistake of creating a stuntfall’s pad-size cushion of sympathy for him. I found him – and most of the world of the film – to be almost cartoonishly mundane, each one a slipping mask of confused comic misfire. See the endless repeats of Teen-aimed Saturday Afternoon matineedom encoded in Liotta’s blowhard detective, Saris’s skanky makeup counter “dream girl”, Celia Weston’s functioning alkie mom and Pena’s two-faced partner in security (on whose backstory rests an obviously swiped gag from Wet Hot American Summer – only here, it’s not funny).  The tossed-off serendipity of Superbad, it ain’t.


The Brothers Bloom
Directed by Rian Johnson
grade: B

Where Brick was dark and heavy, The Brothers Bloom – a strange mix of Johnson’s gift with dialogue and Wes Anderson’s mise-en-scene – plays it almost floating; Rachel Weisz is the wild card, and the reason the film makes ends meet. Here’s to more obviously serviceable con man films existing entirely in the hands-up dismissal of belief and disbelief that surround every action and every (empty) promise.

Directed by Lynn Shelton
grade: B
On a familiar pedestal (pre-birth soul search) with its key players huddled quick and close to low-fi indie shakicam, Humpday dissects with such precision the idea between imagining an alternate path and actually taking the damn thing. Written with an ear for confrontation of all shapes and sizes, Shelton’s work might even cast a greater shadow as a searingly-intimate stage play. The whole thing feels like it takes place in an achingly tiny space (i.e. – everyone’s personal space) and there’s no moment when we aren’t hanging on every word, and, quite often, feeling like we’ve had these conversations – on some level – with our own sphere of influence.  Even at 94 minutes, its a great deal to take in. Grade will likely rise on repeat viewing.
Away We Go
Directed by Sam Mendes
grade: C-
Tolerable until its last three beats, all three terminally precious.  How can I forgive smugness of this magnitude (eg – the commentary structured around a money-be-damned road trip to see if any of one’s friends are remotely worth EVEN KNOWING, the changes happening at one obvious interval after another but no mention of things being ON TARGET, the unholy idea  that people have to overcome the guilt of happiness to placate everyone they know (their parents included) without such a novelty). Krasinski plays up the Halpert – his only angle, I’ve determined – and actually fuels what momentum Mendes manages to scrap together. But a film that gives Paul Schneider nothing to do? Criminal.


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