2003 Reviews

Directed by Glen Morgan
grade: B-

A perfect vehicle for Glover, an actor I’ve sorely missed. The opening ten minutes or so are almost Lynchian (with Glover being called without introduction by his aging – to put it lightly – mother to the duty of the basement rats), and they open into a story line that’s unfortunately not milked hard enough for its flights of fancy, instead grounding the film in the same cinematic transcendence of television that we came to expect from The X-Files (Glen Morgan was a former writer on the show). Simplistic to a fault – most notably leaving Harring with nothing to do but stand around and look gorgeous – Willard could have done with more Tim Burton/Matilda (read: arty) shocks than the obvious leaning it has towards complete and utter camp. There are genuinely disturbing moments (Glover instructing the rats to “Tear it!”, “Tear it!” in several scene is particularly chilling), and a solid, thankless performance by Ermey – whose role is closer to his role as a DI in Full Metal Jacket than he’s been in forever (or at least since he reprised it in The Frighteners). All in all, a superb choice for a Friday night at the run-down local theater, where unforgiving packs of teenagers roam free. Loudly.


The Core
Directed by Jon Amiel
grade: B

Best popcorn movie since Signs. Every character does pretty much one variation on their idiosyncracy before they predictably overcome their faults – no matter how villainous. The beauty lies in the cast – hiring Eckhart, Swank, Tucci, Lindo, Woodard, Karyo, Qualls, Greenwood and Jenkins pays off big time, allowing these actors, a number of them somewhat distinguished, to look like they’re having a good time. The feeling rubs off on the audience in ways I couldn’t have begun to expect and, in this context, can’t begin to explain. Everything scientific is so hypothetical, the special effects play as if found in a Cracker Jack box (alongside their Christian Apocalypse Thriller prototypes), and all the excitement feels so purposefully disposable, so undeniably fun, you can’t help but cheer as things get dumber and dumber as this “team” gets closer and closer to the center of the earth. If Bruckheimer’s disaster film was a Mercedes, surely Amiel’s is a Kia.

Dude. I’ll take the Kia.


Winged Migration
Directed by Jacques Perrin
grade: B

Hypnotic, often photographically superior to National Geographic by a country mile, but rarely structured with any coherence. More like a wondrous festival of raw birdy footage; Albeit, the scenario of Perrin’s filmed world is taken from the rods and cones of childrens eyes; His thrilling cinematography bears the same youngsters’ wonder felt flowing out of his 1996 masterwork Microcosmos. Here, the drama of the bird world feels a little more like a reach, with the music, though pretty, relied on to do most of the stretching. Eventually, what stays with us is the curiousity of the level shots that seem to stay parallel with the birds, and the sheer vastness, in one scene, of penguins. Too often, the photography seems to be numbing us with similarities and repetitions, as if either showing off the chops of these frames or, worse, lumping too much of the material together to discern (which results in an eventual zone out, as if your mind is sending an auto-response to the film that’s trying to interact with it).


Directed by Jeff Blitz
grade: B

So suspenseful, so funny, so full of little bits of luck, but it never taps into the spelling bee subculture it seems to be feeling around for. The xylophone/synthesizer music mix is somehow obviously beneath the film and telling these American Heartland Stories is rarely more than a mask for out-and-out hilarity at the expense (?) of the trusting subject. Still, it’s just plain gripping. It looks like mud, for some reason [explained by producer as amateur-itis], which just further enunciates the sentiment that the raw, natural drama of watching as someone scramble – in their mind – to make the pieces fit and choose the right letters is not as ho-hum as you’d expect and, Jesus, quite the contrary: Like most great documentaries, the art of it isn’t in the filmmaking or even the editing, but instead, is in the choice of subject and participants.


Dark Blue
Directed by Ron Shelton
grade: C-

I’d say it were an intriguing idea, perhaps even launch into a tyrade wherein I accuse the studio of dressing up and beating to death a terrific premise (originally penned by the almighty James Ellroy) – if only the whole thing didn’t feel like it were melded together using successful characters, themes and incidents from other, better films. (Kind of like the subplot in L.A. Confidential – the novel, mind – where the guy builds a sort of Frankenstein from little bits of dead people). Doesn’t help that Kurt Russell (every casting agent’s 5th choice after B-actors and unknowns) leads an almost universally miscast set of actors (Rhames is off the hook) and, for some reason, is directed by Ron Shelton. (I kept waiting for the L.A. Riots to become a sporty metaphor for a long dormant love, and for someone to win the big game, or burn down the biggest store, or, you know, something that would warrant the necessity of Shelton’s presence here). Patience turns out to be our primary reaction to most of this cold, cartoonish film; It continually drag its feet in cornering the actual Event and drawing from it a tangible parallel to the personal story of police corruption on the force. Mostly, though, its Russell playing Corrupt Cop/Wet Behind the Ears Cop with Dash Minock (acting as aptly as he’s named), a parlor trick that echoes far too specifically co-writer David Ayer’s previous success with Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day (This is so blatantly obvious, it’s likely even that folks who haven’t seen that film will be having L.A. deja vu). Plot pieces/themes range from spot-on concurrent with L.A. Confidential, to somewhere in the pool of The Corruptor and Snake Eyes (obsession over a massacre that’s merely the last in a string of cover-ups leading to a marginally larger conspiracy; older cop being set up and choosing redemption; the good cop being punished even after doing the right thing, respectively). When we finally get to the riots, they’re merely a wash of scattershot looting and video game-looking crooks banging on Kurt Russell’s car – which is fitting: Dark Blue is so stale that it leaves a disturbed, sick feeling in you without actually making any clear points about corruption, racism or any of the umpteen other modern, social troubles it bites off without chewing . If they were going to take such a loss on this one, perhaps MGM/UA (in association with Intermedia, the same lunkheads who brought us the vastly superior, similarly over-the-top 15 Minutes) could’ve just let Ellroy pen the script and direct the damn thing himself. At least his characters would’ve sounded somewhat cool.


Bulletproof Monk
Directed by Paul Hunter
grade: C

It’s a Jackie Chan movie without Jackie Chan (pause to let sink in); Ultimately, the American star (Sean William Scott) is leaps and bounds more charming than his Asian sensai-of-sorts (Chow Yun-Fat, whose broken English gives him a dud charge that’s – for sure – not his fault); And – sweet Jesus – it’s one of the definitive examples of why models really oughta stick to lookin’ pretty (though you gotta admit, the chick fight between sleepy-faced James King and sexy-for-pushing-forty Allison Doody doesn’t exactly require a Master’s in method acting from Juliard on either count). Still reeling that the villain had a device that could extrapolate and – via computer – analyze his prisoners’ minds. It’s something I’ve come to expect, though, in this off-shoot genre of the buddy comedy and the kung fu larf – – – though I didn’t expect that there would still be room to make the villain a Nazi whose fake secret-service henchman are scouring the earth for a scroll which has the power to grant ever lasting life. If this weren’t based upon a comic book – and if it weren’t halfway entertaining – I’d certainly begin the preceedings on an inquiry of my own: Is this an aborted script for Indiana Jones IV that somebody desperately didn’t want to see go to waste?


The Good Thief
Directed by Neil Jordan
grade: B+

A rather good heist film (prime feature is how successful it is, much like Ocean’s Eleven, at distracting the audience with sleight-of-hand); Nolte is absolutely smashing, rattling off the philosophy of gambling with smooth, world-weary charm – the kind we go to the movies to see; Supporting cast is particularly good, and Jordan’s clearly having a ball; Only complaint is that the whole thing seems to dispose of itself – a side effect, I think, of how wonderfully overboard Jordan goes to ensure that we see Nolte’s thief as good at heart (which is sabotaged by the watchful eye of morality, one that doesn’t exactly keep in the company of an assorted gallery of rogues – some cartoonish (a trans-sexual body builder), some just wierd (twin security guards), none given nearly as much judgement as Nolte, who seems to be proving his worth in every other scene (that it is disguised, mostly, with wit and vigor, is a terrific lemonade-from-life’s-lemons portrait); Ralph Fiennes’ uncredited cameo as a vicious art dealer almost exempts him from “the list” he found himself on, here in my head, after appearing in Maid in Manhattan (which – damn it – I’m going to end up seeing, if my wife has her way).


X2: X-Men United
Directed by Bryan Singer
grade: B

Characters feel more fun – the cleverness of each and every unique move or talent squeezed guiltily – yet satisfyingly – for a very quick-paced romp in Hollywood’s “safe blockbuster” garden. Film delivers its twisty formulas with the kind of crackling energy that was missing in much of the first film (on the other hand, this one never reaches the surprisingly dignified/subtle drama of the first film’s opening act). It turns out, these movies should probably have Ian McKellan’s Magneto as their main character instead of Hugh Jackman’s moody Wolverine (just to – if you’ll pardon the irony – lighten things the fuck up). Still, valiantly exasperating time at the movie house.


The Matrix Reloaded
Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski
grade: D

Remember in the first film when you could follow what was going on? Wasn’t that something? That courtesy is anything but extended here in the current installment of mega-mainstream dystopia. Set largely in the Battlefield Earth-approved caves and corroded sewers of the (machine run?!) city of Zion , The Matrix Reloaded devotes a lot of wasted time trying (in earnest) to ground the emotional connections of its popular characters, but ultimately presents the formerly badass heroes and villains as a group of clones actively failing Human Attributes 101 (Man that was corn-y; Mercy!). While it flounders in the techno-Prehistoria of the not-too-distant-future, we sit in nerve-wracking suspense, waiting with bated breath for those terrific jolts of techno-kung-fu-slow-mo-Ka-Blooey! (To little avail, alas, as endless scenes of reiteration and bewildering references to plot points both foreign and arcane are a flat-out chore to sit through, and almost entirely dominate the first couple of reels). Any true delight in these Pyrotechnical bruise sessions is fleeting; A more fitting example of the action genre’s assimilation of the video game culture into itself would be hard to find; So thoroughly does the film’s heavily digitized aggression choreography leave the viewer feeling impatient, we almost get the sensation that we’re waiting for a controller-dominant buddy to pass the joystick so we can have a go at it. To make matters worse, the filmmakers have also burrowed rather deeply into another popular cinematic parallel: The music video. Obviously, I could draw a corresponding line from the slow-motion sex/fight/dream/extended dance sequences’ snappy editing to the more fitting equivalent, i.e. the (M)TV-esque lack of direction given to the actors. The stilted, dissatisfying flavor in most of the performances is just one in an exceedingly long list of liabilities that can be written off to the twin directors, who’ve never been all that interested in their thespians – Bound included (And for the record, I said thespians). The greater issue at hand is how tedious the already established characters appear as written, constantly spewing lines of dialogue that sound nearly identical (in word and form) to those in the first film; Worse still are the characterizations which ride the same all-quippy-all-declarative-(all-laughable) vociferousness that defined Morpheous, Trinity, Neo and Agent Smith four years (and some change) ago. (The new free-minders (and mind controllers), of which there are a boatload, all seem to ape the woodenness of the principles, as if climbing on the don’t-upstage-the-expensive-slash-precious-slash-did I mention expensive?-backgrounds bandwagon). What’s unnerving about these derivative automatons is how their matched by the replacement of the formerly awe aspiring world – in classic sequel form – with a completely new environment that would qualify as anachronistic (to the first film, that is) if it weren’t so consistently bloated with alternating drab and posh settings, each with its own, independent context. So, instead of grounding itself, it becomes horribly episodic; With each sequence, you’ll grow increasingly eager for the climactic (and ironically rejuvenating) fourteen minute highway chase which provides the film’s sole fresh morsel. (I’m including the exhausting dry hump of both the “Neo vs. 100 Agent Smiths’ fight” and the “Stairwell/mixed weapons battle”, which fall under the aforementioned Playstation Burnout category). But these rather small observations are tiny, drop-in-the-bucket quibbles which barely begin to think of registering in the shadow of the film’s primary, driving defect, namely, its casual, progressively looming incoherence. Clearly structured as an epic (but released as barely half of one), The Matrix Reloaded moves very…very…slowly (to…say…the…least.) Even more discomforting is the way the Wachowski’s have arranged most of the scenes in the film in an almost arbitrary manner (I make comparison to BS Johnson’s experimental novel The Unfortunates, which comes complete with bound sections of printed material which are meant to be read in random order). By the end, I was so confused with the rambling, seemingly rule less universe that is The Matrix (and had, with such tenacity, given up trying to sort it out) that, in the end, I couldn’t help but voice an in-a-nutshell retort to the a whining audience, who were confoundingly tortured by the inevitably preposterous cliffhanger. How did they comprehend its wobbly chain of events? How could they have possibly understood enough of this film to cull even a smidgen of trepidation? I didn’t forget to study! I watched the first film just the day before!

[Ad note: It is now official. A film is no longer needed, only a marketing campaign. The Matrix Reloaded proves, without question, that a studio need not have a stellar hand as long as its poker face is intact. As ever: Over saturate, Create awareness, Saturate further, Open on a billion screens and Commence saturation. A quality experience is not necessary. Warner Bro$. in association with Village Road$how and Joel $ilver thank you for playing.]


Down With Love
Directed by Peyton Reed
grade: B

Occasionally mega-satisfying, always giddily bawdified battle-of-the-sexes type fluff; It’s often more send-up than recreation of Doris Day-recognized period larfs. Both principles utilize their maximum charm range – McGregor on an ever improving slant as far as the obligatory comparison with achingly similar roles-to-date, while Zelwegger seems to be treading just below progression; It’s Hyde Pierce who steals the show, though, creating a joltingly fresh riff on the neurotically bumbling-square-as-best-friend role, subsequently leaving the bare minimum in breathing room when he and McGregor begin volleying the rapid fire quips at one another. Big second act “revelation” notwithstanding (it seems to sit there, dead on the screen, even if you know there’s a great deal of running time remaining), Reed’s film is ultimately a triumph of clever plotting, too, alternately evoking the grand old tradition of the screwball comedy (though Down With Love‘s flat slapstick and blunt period reference sometimes ring clumbsily modern), and the ludicrously simple resolution of the most complicated of muddles which we associate with the guilty snack of the forthcoming sitcom boom. A perfect antidote to the loud, bloated zilch that’s no doubt playing in the auditoriums on both sides – and directly across – from it.


Stone Reader
Directed by Mark Moskowitz
grade: B

Effortlessly charming, if occasionally minus a speck of artistry (both aspects courtesy of Moskowitz, himself an extremely outgoing political ad director); Moskowitz’s incidental participation – unlike the forced necessity of showmen like Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore – reminded me of the casual Ross McElwee, the director of 1993’s Time Indefinite, a movie about a slightly more profound search.What I liked more than its occasionally fudged, carefully exhaustive long lost tome hunt, was the feeling that Moskowitz and his unending parade of literary critics, authors and creative writing teachers were equal to something more than their sum or their parts – that is, the genuine passion for the specific books they exhibit and their unselfish interest in promoting the fetish they so deliciously indulge themselves. Case in point (and big relief for the guy who was struggling to remember title after title, hoping to retain even one or two): The end credits contain a list of all the books discussed and (or) pictured in the film. Stone Reader never blossoms into anything more than a (sometimes too long) commercial for the benefits of a healthy reading habit, but it’s open dialogue with us – the audience – makes it far too engaging to feel condescended by (though you’ll feel poorly read to say the least); I won’t comment on the central force of the film – namely, the search for The Stones of Summer scribe Dow Mossman – because the actual journey is much like a good novel and ruining the ending is something I’ve found gets your punched in the face sometimes.


Bruce Almighty
Directed by Tom Shadyac
grade: C

When will Tom Shadyac stop the hurting? Inherently forgettable from the first frame to the last, with funny bits occasionally fudged for “momentum”. It’s an even more shamelessly crafted delivery device for Carrey’s one-man laugh-in than Liar, Liar. Bruce Almighty has the same paltry fixings at center (precious little attention or care is given to the central story line), probably wrought in an (admittedly founded) expectation that any sort of narrative would take a back seat to the movie’s obvious (and usually worthwhile) selling point: Namely, Jim Carrey’s explosive diarrhea of creative jokesterism. Because of our secure confidence that sappiness is on the way – and boy howdy it is – we are distracted from the comedy, thereby tainting the film’s sole pleasure. Even when Carrey is so unbelievably, irrevocably on (and it happens big time in his flip-out-on-live-TV scene), the movie is still never more than paradox: How are decent, hardworking cynics like ourselves supposed to howl with laughter at a film that mixes gross out humor with not-so-subtle Christian undertones? Burping and farting in church aren’t among the least funny things I’ve encountered – but they don’t rank very high if you’re over fourteen.


The Recruit
Directed by Roger Donaldson
grade: C-

While The Great Al Pacino quick pimps his grizzled bark, it’s all the steel wool eyed Farrell can do to not look embarrassed for him. Twists itself dizzy without ever leaving the ground. I think my biggest problem with it was how much effort went in to displaying the filmmakers’ research on the CIA and how little time was spent cooking up a story we’d ever – in a million years – believe. Our suspicion makes the CIA of the film seem ankle deep, leaving plenty of room for the focus to shift to a cat and mouse/tag-you’re-it/red herring/tete-a-tete/thrill-a-minute/is-it-or-isn’t-it?/con game that’s not worth the secret files its constantly sorta-but-not-really following. (So, it’s wishy-washy.) Another entry in the recent rise of CIA-themed “thrillers” (The Bourne Identity, Bad Company), all films with good meaning “dumb entertainment” value, the best of which is Spy Game (which is not a good sign). I think we had more luck with the FBI, movie dudes.


Love Liza
Directed by Todd Luiso
grade: D+

Love Liza is quintessentially idie – which is another way to say that it’s really rather bad. Laughing at a film that fails so miserably to blend its corroded bleakness-as-healing with off-the-wall, black “humor” is practically a no-brainer. An unwavering good sport, Philip Seymour Hoffman looks like he regrets being cast in this film, as if it were part of some sort of plea bargained community service. And given that, it’s a miracle that he’s actually quite good in it, too; The same cannot be said for his counterpart, Kathy Bates, who comes off of her superb turn in About Schmidt with what appears to be a heavy dose of non-direction (she’s playing what appears to be a borderline non-character, at that). Luiso doesn’t seem to know where he’s steering the film – and its a safe bet that if we asked him about that, he would tell us “that [it’s] the characters steer the film” (bad idea). But, if you were in the market for a film that, for a stretch of thirty minutes (at least), contains nothing more than Hoffman moping around his house, huffing gasoline – you’re found your match. I’m going to go back to the hunt for substance.


Finding Nemo
Directed by Andrew Stanton
grade: B

Finding Nemo opens with another Bambi-esque death which provides the foundation for a brilliant sense of self-parody, in which it appears to be mocking the very idea of grafting suburban culture onto an underwater world. Unfortunately, the long odyssey which follows gives way to a disappointingl, Pixar-for-the-course sorta vibe: No shrill surprises, no hoops of fire, just the mere presence of consistent – if monotonously unceremonious – quality. It dawns on you, as the startlingly familiar journey of two fish (on a rescue mission to boot) unfolds, that the smoothly elapsing narrative is starting – after four films – to play  more like a bunch of empty boxes carefully being filled with check marks; It retainins the recognizable elements which were successful in the past. Neither the spring-loaded, neverending charm of the Toy Story movies or the out-and-out inventiveness of Monsters, Inc. lingers on Finding Nemo, whose place in the categorically impressive features from the Disney-based animation studio stands closer to the safe, child-friendly (not child-at-heart) perkiness of A Bug’s Life – itself the weakest entry in the running. Brooks’ and Degeneres’ banter keeps the spark snapping in the sagging love-handles of about the same ten bloated minutes that should’ve been trimmed, mid-movie, from Monsters, Inc (somewhere between one too many similar bumps in the road – and the inevitable impossibility we cherish as the heroes put their strife safely behind them. Inevitably, then, we abandon hope that a new spin on the genre could be in the cards, and we start looking for the bizarre. Lo and behold, then, the best sequences take place in a dentist’s office, where the title character has been transplanted to a soothing, exotic fish aquarium, which turns out to be a segue for his real purpose: The rough gripped plastic bag, held (and shaken) by the dentist’s niece, who is known to Nemo’s tank buddies as “a fish killer”. Not bad, exactly – but you can see the wheels spinning in place far too often.


The Man Without a Past
Written and Directed by Aki Kaurismaki
grade: B

The quietest farce you may ever see; Kaurismaki’s direction is spot-on, and the film feels like a vision heavily influenced by Yasushiro Ozu, while Markku Peltola’s performance feels like a funnier, more tobacco-obsessed Takeshi Kitano. Looks more Technicolor than even Far From Heaven did, but the old-fashioned flavor doesn’t end there. We giddily watch as the main character pursues a romance with a Salvation Army worker, turns a religious band on to rockability and rediscovers his career as a welder. There’s a very relaxed simplicity to every event in the film, which we notice right away, as scenes that would ordinarily – in other films – take long set-ups and extra lines, are often cranked out through one, wordless camera angle. The Man Without a Past is clever – but mostly, it’s snare drum tight: It’s a film that eschews filler. Kaurismaki is clearly dedicated to the power of mise-en-scene – which makes it an added bonus that his dryly funny dialogue, even as subjugated by subtitles, works terrifically – better than any foreign film in recent memory.


Written and Directed by David Cronenberg
grade: B-

A Butcher Boy retread, purported to be scraped from the inside of a deranged mind but which, instead, finds its methodic schizophrenia profile usurped by its own structure, and blasted by irritatingly slight lift-the-veil storytelling. This leaves the film to play as if weighted by substance pre-packaged to be dismissed merely as a nutsy fever dream. The vastness Cronenberg and Fiennes invest in Mr. Cleg make the so-called crescendo of the piece unattainable practically by definition. I love the nuts and bolts of the potent central performance, but the exhilaration and transforming quality of it make it so overbearing, it eventually undermines its own end. (However – I defy audiences not to carry out of the theater with them the urgent need to behave with a fabricated, nervous tic). Fiennes is never anything less than completely and utterly stunning, always just south of unbearably bizarre, effortlessly eliciting pity for the most mundane of actions. It’s probably Cronenberg’s biggest success to date with an ensemble of actors; The entire cast, thick with lip smacking, cockney east end brogues – Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Lynn Redgrave and John Neville (among others) – demonstrate the exact energy of the director’s usual peculiarities, sometimes in ways that (thank God) surmount the material (“Brilliant. It couldn’t have gone anywhere else. Just brilliant,” Neville says as Fiennes carefully fits a piece into a jigsaw puzzle.) Performances recommend it, to be sure, as long as you don’t inflate your expectations with Amy Taubin’s “ten best ever” hot air.

The Life of David Gale
Directed by Alan Parker
grade: C

I take hard objection to the film’s celebration of characters whose actions are just absolutely reprehensible and completely in contempt of what I perceive to be a reasonable understanding of capital punishment, but on the other hand, few movies have the right to be this entertaining (in a slick, political thriller context, mind), and I’d be lying if I didn’t plead absolute guilt to having been thinking about the damn movie since I watched it. Guilt.

[I’ll just come right out and say it: Laura Linney killing herself to help Kevin Spacey get executed (for her murder) so he can prove to the Governor of Texas that he knows at least one innocent person who was executed could play better if it were a sick joke. Instead, the film is absolutely nothing if not entirely grave. Once more, to support abolishing the death penalty (where people are killed) by killing oneself and allowing oneself to be executed (respectively), these two down-on-their-luck, liberal whiners achieve little more than the ultimate prank: Killing themselves in the name of ceasing to kill people. This doesn’t make a lick of sense. The twisty mechanics of the storyline may keep us interested (and the strangely brutal nature to nearly every event in the film certainly keeps the film feeling like a edgy, politically charged crime drama) – – – but, honestly, we’re talking some shrill hokum, here, gang.]

[And in case you’re wondering – Yes – I’m completely and utterly against the death penalty (as the mixed-up genius who wrote this film blatantly pretends to be). I hold with Nick Broomfield: “The violence of taking a life remains the same whether it is legally sanctioned or not. It introduces murder into our vocabulary of behavior”.]

Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
grade: B

The most un-self conscious Intacto gets is when, as it begins to divulge its own unique rules, it squarely, brilliantly, eschews batting it’s eye (In other words, the exposition is all story – but its up to you to spot just how in the hell any of it could possibly (under any circumstances whatsoever) make logical sense). I feel dirty writing anything that might betray its particulars; Relishing in this exotic world’s masterful weave is pretty much all the fun – and my gosh, what fun it is (what’s especially refreshing is that this world seems ripe for a supremely dumb metaphor that it never offends us by stating). Yeah, the not-so-great idea to include the cop subplot never really washes off – but it also never sells the concept (as a whole) out. (Which is not to say that Intacto – a film of varying intellectual rigor – is merely an art project; On the contrary – the film actually seems more grounded (if we separate it into film and exercise) in the style and pace of a studio picture. But I could scarcely add insult to injury if I were to point out that none of this really matters as you’re viewing it – as long as you steel yourself to: a) read nothing about the film’s premise; b) watch it in one viewing; and c) (for the love of God) pay attention.

[Don’t read this until you’ve seen the film: Or, if you were Charles Odell, you’d put it thusly: “Pretty much coasts on its terrific premise — luck actually behaves like an RPG stat, and can be transferred between people — but fails to realize the material’s emotional potential. Screams ‘remake me’.”]


Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas
Directed by Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore
grade: C-

Instead of attempting to upstage Ray Harryhausen’s work on the three existing Sinbad pictures (with our new and improved regime of computer enhanced digital effects), Dreamworks has, instead, worked up a lame vision wherein an anachronistic, cliché spewing Sinbad is made to prove that he is good at heart, while falling for a shrill, strong willed heroine who is about as likable as the (surprisingly few) snarling beasts the title character finds himself battling. Embracing one of the true failings of Jason and the Argonauts (another Harryhausen work), Sinbad is framed around Eris, the Goddess of Chaos, whose job, seemingly, is to meddle in the affairs of mortals. In Jason and the Argonauts, the Gods and Goddesses were goofy and seemed in violation of the brazen adventuring spirit of the rest of the picture. The trouble here is that Eris’s powers are relatively inconsistent and largely undefined, as are her motives (or, more clearly, lack thereof), which remain surprisingly abstract for a movie aimed at the youth. It’s as if Eris is, for lack of a better description, following a script. Nevertheless, she can’t possibly distract us from the lack of chemistry – or interest – the two stars (Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones) bring to the film. Both seem to be hammering the same note over and over: Pitt, in a permanent state of aborted boasting; Zeta-Jones, stuck in a stubborn diva fit so befitting her, I can only doubt sheer coincidence is dictating her animated form’s similarity to her physical one. Selected set pieces retain purpose (the alluring Sirens, made of water, are nifty), and Pfeiffer’s voice work as Eris is better than anything she’s done on screen since One Fine Day (which is more of a comparative victory than anything else). A certain air of deflated energy and adventure permeates throughout. Sinbad is at least time-consuming, which does not – to state the obvious – infer that it’s by any means entertaining.


Pistol Opera
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
grade: C

Remember folks, Suzuki’s Branded to Kill was once a lowly studio script before he transformed it into a crazed, stylistic fever dream (by all accounts). A heroic accomplishment to say the least – – even if you haven’t seen that film (which I haven’t). Pistol Opera, a loose remake of Suzuki’s aforementioned first landing on the map, is the same sort of jumbled mash note, only this time it seems to be striving to be that lowly studio picture. In a move that’s no large feat, Suzuki suddenly changes gears in the third act, turning the whole mediocre fantasy into a shaky delivery device for spectacularly outlandish visual stylization. Gorgeous compositions replete with terrifically vibrant color schemes and more-complicated-than-your-first-glance-might-lead-you-to-believe staging beg a certain amount of deserved attention, if not recognition (pieces of it look fuckin’ cool). But, alas, the whole thing isn’t much more than what it seems, felt especially in the actors – who can’t seem to bring any sort of jolt to their dull characters (pawns, all of them), and who rain on Suzuki’s peripheral battle between camp and moral depth. At its center, the celluloid representation of this mental struggle is, at the very least, good for a rather long head scratch – – if that’s your thing, of course. (It isn’t.)

[And was I the only one wondering if the main character’s younger sister was, perhaps, a bit too young to be entirely naked?]


Lost in La Mancha
Directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
grade: B-

The good news is that Fulton and Pepe dispense with the sub-Monty Python animated hi-jinks approximately twenty minutes into the film. The bad news is that their film is a frustrating effort that captures a great number of people getting frustrated. Artistically, like many documentaries about other films, Lost in La Mancha itself is little more than a DVD extra – a feature length gag reel for a film called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; It might do right by itself if it were to switch titles and, in doing so, be a touch more forthright about its motives: Namely, to raise funding to finish the film that Gilliam himself  – a rabid perfectionist at one moment, an efficient do-or-die man the next – is prevented from completing by one horrible stroke of luck after another (among them weather and the health of a key player). Certainly not (by a long shot) in the same sport as films like Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse or Burden of Dreams, Lost in La Mancha is, all the same, shamelessly entertaining; Watching the nuts and bolts of a film production begins to take on a reality show flavor that occupies one end of a spectrum whose converse is some gorgeous, undeniably Gilliam footage sure to make your salivate for Quixote. Unfortunately, Lost in La Mancha‘s tale of mad genius is too much the front loaded cart: Not only do we know that Quixote won’t leave the ground, but we watch in horror as Gilliam’s First Assistant Director misses key signs such as a warning that a location may be shared with NATO jets (whose noise ruins at least two days of shooting), and training the extras in rehearsal (one more day). As the project spirals further and further from reach, Gilliam refuses to fire him – – even as the AD repeatedly takes up his cross and plays the martyr like a rejected middle school-er. (I’d almost like to see the AD’s reaction to the sequence where Gilliam and his producers discuss, quite casually, letting him go). As I watched, I felt almost completely consumed by hindsight, suggesting that the film was not made for me, or an audience, but rather for future investors, who could go on to become part of film lore.


Directed by Ang Lee
grade: C+

Much like its title pissant, the fairly modest open-and-shut tale of Bruce Banner’s transformation from repressed weenie to gimungous jade super-weenie is elongated to seemingly no end; Hulk is often too much the epic, ever-full of its own twisted humanity and constantly promising greatness while rarely delivering a fraction of such. Bana’s performance as the likeably scarred Bruce seems strangled by pretense (everyone tiptoes on glass far too long about the obvious as if it were some Big Secret) – and also by Ang Lee’s befuddling insistence on cranking up the wait-for-it suspense of the green one’s first visit (Too bad the ads already prepped us to be thoroughly disappointed). Connelly is a terrifically blank heroine, spending a great deal of her screen time being the dainty yin to military gruff papa Sam Elliot’s raging yang. Nolte is just plain creepy (but he still seems way out of place here). So while the story is of little interest and the effects are of less interest still, Digi-Hulk (who looks like a big green baby and was mockingly referred to as Shrek 2 at family gatherings) seems forever incompatible with Bruce Banner, making it difficult to swallow the two-are-one hook – which seems strange given the continual effort by the screenwriters to paint them as peas in a pod. They may have missed the boat almost entirely, but Lee still manages to provide the sole, untainted triumph of the film, telling the story using moving panels, some of which can be seen in the background when he cuts from one to the other – a masterful visual element that seems to breath with the style of a comic book like no other Marvel-approved film (Spider-Man included). Wasted revelation – the editing, I mean – and sad that it doesn’t eventually take over and, you know, make this film even remotely electrifying.


Phone Booth
Directed by Joel Schumacher
grade: B

Gives the giddy thrill of being caught up in a film stunt without actually stooping to the level a film stunt about a guy trapped in a phone booth probably would. A teenage girl-ready, pop-Dog Day Afternoon with none of the depth but twice the head games. Sutherland’s obviously separately recorded voice-over is often too book-on-tape to be believable in the same context as the kinetic shock-therapy fueling Ferrell’s mind-blowing performance. But the more plausibility issues arise, the more devil-may-care Phone Booth becomes, desperately losing its footing – trying to stay one move ahead of itself. It’s easy enough to spot exactly where the progression will lead to (hint: the film doesn’t turn into an anti-phone tirade), but harder to shake the feeling that somehow its headed there without a net. For better or worse (and there’s a fair amount of both), you’re strapped in with nearly the same intensity I recall from the singular, unbroken thrills of The Blair Witch Project. In that way – I suppose it is a stunt, after all. But it sure doesn’t feel like one.


Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Directed by Gore Verbinski
grade: C+

It sure seems like all poor Johnny Depp can do not to announce that he, himself, is pretty much the only thing keeping a late evening audience from drifting into a comparatively more realistic world placed squarely in the dreams they’ll have as they doze through perhaps the longest movie ever (alright – I’m exaggerating – but it sure feels like forever and a day when you’re watching it). No one has yet heeded my progressively loudening call to arms – obviously – as Gore Verbinski seems to still be making movies for people who fancy breaking down weekend box office results in order to find their place within the cycle that is commerce-as-art. Pirates of the Caribbean is good-hearted enough, but it seems to be jabbing us in the ribs the whole time it’s playing, as if to say, “You don’t really buy this world, do you?” (It doesn’t help that it feels as if initially birthed as a family film and, instead, awkwardly flipped into a PG-13 template; Wasn’t there a time, long ago, when a family film had the better chance of scoring at the box office?) Set ostensibly in an animatronic-sprited Disneyland version of the Caribbean, the few lighthearted nudges to the ride that inspired the title (Depp telling fellow inmates, at one point, “You can wave that bone at him forever – the dog is never going to move”) seem like precious few in the face of the henpecked story of a cursed rabble of undead pirates who seek the last of a treasure that will supposedly turn them back to mortals. Opening as every other film this summer has (with a flashback), Pirates makes a major chore of mapping out each main characters’ place in the curse; Sad to report, when he’s not on screen with Jonathan Pryce (playing the serious guy who seems perpetually apologetic for his state), Orlando Bloom is pretty much the most embarrassing, saddening thing about the film. It’s reasonably clear from the moment he steps up as a watered down Aladdin-type, that he’s not up to being the leading man, the romantic hero or, uh, anyone who’s not an elf. In his favor, Verbinski seems to take a sick pleasure in looking the other way as Bloom is constantly used him as a stepping stone for Depp’s hilarious, unruly antics – which is a good thing for all of us. Johnny Depp is one of a very few American actors who can still upstage just about everyone in the cast without making it look as if he’s doing so. Case in point: Geoffrey Rush’s failed, scenery-chewing as Barbossa, the old salt,  who just keeps – inexplicably – giving Depp chance after chance to make the character – and the actor – look significantly more hollow each time around.

[Why the C+ and not the straight C (for a movie that’s certainly deserving of the pungent odor of the latter)? Probably because, try as you may, try as you might, you can’t separate Depp’s hammy showboating from the proceedings and, gee gosh golly, he’s in it enough to make Pirates at least half entertaining. Bruckheimer theatrics aside – and a complete score that I think Bruckheimer himself has pounded out – Pirates is a hell of a throwaway, never burdening you with its memory for more than a few minutes once you’re streetside.]


Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
grade: B

Mostow returns to the successful formula previously honed in Breakdown (and inexplicably abandoned in U-571); Here, resources like the well-known characters and an obvious-headed storyline are nicely cast aside in the spirit of priming the momentum – and scrapping any and all exposition surplus, allowing it to leak out in as few lines as possible. It’s a classical model of great action filmmaking and from start to finish it never stops being, in the best way possible, utterly preposterous. It’s an incredibly expensive-looking, yet sparely written film (the narrative, as it connects to the previous installments, is as simply put and uncharacteristically unimportant as it could possibly be yet it allows for the maximum in action sequences that seem to have a new energy; Mostow was obviously born to construct death-defying thrills). And somehow all the characters – Stahl, Schwarzenegger, Danes – seem contained by the reverence Mostow and his writers have invested in the film; The Terminator films assimilated into the culture and here, it feels as if everyone involved took great pains not to leave this second sequel looking like a stray black sheep.


Laurel Canyon
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
grade: C+

Though the lifestyle and world of the title gulch is entertaining (and the film contains a whopper of a cool performance by Alessandro Nivola) – Laurel Canyon eventually starts alternating slick revelations with trashy soap-opera payoffs, giving a muddy, disappointing feel to an otherwise perfect opportunity to make with the chortle. Cholodenko is trying way too hard to make a profound mountain from a basic indie-style molehill (there seems to be a dismissively light, Lisa Holofcener touch to rather strong material). The paparazzi fanclub actors who populate this romp of thirtysomethings being tortured to death by their fidelity woes – Nivola, Kate Beckinsale, Christian Bale and Natascha McElone – all have a strange, against-type fire in their eyes, as they play, respectively, naughty, naughty, naughty and, uh, naughty. And unless you were among the rather, ahem, small but decidedly brilliant minority who held High Art out to be one of the great, modern love stories – as I did – you’ll probably have no trouble warming to Laurel Canyon‘s immediately digestible contents.


Directed by Gary Ross
grade: C

Manipulative at every turn (and holy horseshoes are there a ton of turns), I couldn’t help wondering: Is it really the right thing to do, finish the story and start another one ‘stead of rolling the end credits like you’re supposed to? Wasn’t the story of the horse’s rise from nothing to something therapeutic enough for his owner, trainer and jockey? Do we really need to watch the jockey, and the horse (each clipped at the knee) struggle, ascending back to par? Even before he becomes the stepping stone to a lump-in-the-throat (thank you, Mr. Ansen), there is something distractingly hollow about Maguire’s fiestiness, but it’s not really to do with him – the character, as written, occupies roughly half a dimension (though he’s not alone – and it’s the level of talent in the film that eventually makes it bearable in spots).The thrill of the races is exciting – but Seabiscuit seems so much more preoccupied by it’s own, ailing variation on The Hours structure (dear god don’t let this become a trend) wherein three people all have similar experiences (okay, three people and one horse) – – – only to learn from the experiences and each other and so on and so forth until the strings and horns usher us all, eight bucks lighter, into a weepy chorus of tissue puppets. (Oh wait, did I mention William H. Macy’s zany-ass cameo? Bang-up stuff, that).


Directed by Austin Chick
grade: B-

Alright, I’d watch Mark Ruffalo read the dictionary (and at one point in, in desperate search for the definition of “rife”, he does) – but this sloppy moral tale of a bare midriff magazine ad posing as a “relationship study” caters just a bit too much to the audience’s hunger for hot, fantasy sex on film to be anything close to the honesty it seems to believe it has re-discovered. The confrontation on the pier between Ruffalo and his present day girlfriend – Claire (it’s a family name) – is just about the silliest fucking thing I’ve seen on film this year. (Still, hot fantasy sex is hot fantasy sex, after all).


Bend it like Beckham
Directed by Gurinder Chadha
grade: B-

[I don’t mean to be the worst reviewer of all time, but from now on, all culture clash films not named Late Marriage are prevented from earning anything higher than a B.]

Charming enough, I suppose – and the lead actresses are both, in their own right, balls of fire – but, please, it’s just hard not to acknowledge that you’re watching the billioneth spin on an already rather rote theme.


Directed by Gaspar Noe
grade: A

Let’s start it off totally wrong here: By now, you’ve heard to-death of Irreversible‘s notorious violence (and rightfully so, as I’m sure Noe certainly guards his claim as one of the most sadistic and, uh, brilliant filmmakers of our time – or any time for that matter). Never meant to be a shock-fest merely for its content (or should I say, not merely content to be a shock-fest), instead Noe uses the camerawork and a variety of other audience-pummeling visual snares to create unapologetic extremes of suspense, and of character. He also tells the story backwards, spiraling from degradation to innocence, channeling a purity from the most compelete and utter of tragic inevitabilities. He also deconstructs these characters, showing flaws of their own – and flaws they cannot help – drawing the conclusion that there is no conclusion (time sees everything die in the end is its worldview; the more cerebral version being that of the slender thread we hang our happiness on, often completely unaware that we aren’t really in control). In the process, what emerges is an unmistakably cold, but deft and artful, attack by a director on the viewer’s natural instinct followed by an even more sinister splash of water. Cassel and Bellucci are absolutely terrific in the film (they were married when it was made); They make the casual erupt with such vitality, improvising so well that, at one point, Cassel actually covers a blunder – which is, in itself, a dazzling save. Nonchalance is a strange thing to find in such a calculating motion picture, easily the rudest, most stinging – puzzle, or otherwise – movie I’ve seen. If this one doesn’t garner a physical reaction, check your pulse. (Note: I’ve never seen Salo).

[Also, I really, really, really, really want to watch Irreversible again – but, seriously, I don’t ever want to watch Irreversible again.]


Directed by Mark Steven Johnson
grade: D+

Probably not a great idea to watch Spider-Man a night later. If anything, having seen Daredevil only made me appreciate the web slinger’s comic fluff all the more; Mark Steven Johnson removes none of the goopiness from his Simon Birch heavy-hand, giving us a bunch of characters who babble on in soap operatic tones, barely able to navigate through the half-story he’s cooked up. Only Colin Farrell’s performance seems to make a ripple (big shock there, right?), with Michael Clarke Duncan’s Kingpin far too overwrought, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil ridiculously wimpy and Jennifer Garner’s Elektra defined (sorry) by her cleavage. Throw in the homogenized likes of cred-diminishing Joe Pantaliano and Jon Favreau and you’ve got yourself a half-assed attempt at something that really, as ever, would be much less painful if it had used its whole ass.


Old School
Directed by Todd Phillips
grade: B

Powered by hyper-hilarious, improvisatory performances by Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell, let me just point out that this film is actually even a little bit better than Phillips previous gross-out opus Road Trip, mostly due to the unending thrill we get watching these two idiots’ delivery. And here’s my applause for keeping the fucker under 90 minutes.


The Hunted
Directed by William Friedkin
grade: B-

The chances it takes make it worthwhile – but its sad to be faced with a movie that, if it had gone even further with these chances, could have been something truly special. The clipped, rare dialogue is certainly of great benefit – but everytime an action scene crops up that doesn’t feature knife-happy Del Toro going  mano-a-mano with Jones, the film loses its great charm: The clumsy, strangely paced rumble of Friedkin relishing his actors, as they get into each other’s personal space. Most of it feels oddly abstract – probably because of what is left unstated. Good for it. Whenever it’s divulging its information, it seems to be firing it out as quickly as possible, as not to embarrass itself. If it had been a quiet fever dream of sorts, who knows – it might have even attained the rank of suspenseful. Alright, let’s not start saying shit we can’t exactly take back.)

[By the way, who made Tommy Lee Jones into a 97 year old man? Why did someone steal this confused old man’s bus pass? Who was behind the denial of a senior citizen’s discount?]


Directed by Jonas Åkerlund
grade: B-

Spun, with it’s 70s-emulatin’, overexposed film stock and folksy soundtrack, is at times sweepingly happy, though it’s never long before being permeated with heavy doses of melancholy (and infinite sadness). It eventually falls on its side, heavy with a vision that purports to – yes, for the thousandeth time – duplicate the mixed up world of drug addicts (this time speed freaks); Instead, Spun seems to be exploiting drug addiction as a means for all sorts of cinematic whirligigs and eye poppers. That it is never boring means that – not in vain – it actually seems to carry on with the attitude that it is somehow proud to be using a social issue as a stepping stone to excite an audience. Liked all the crazy, tripped-out imagery, the scattershot editing, the use of the opening chords of Donovan’s “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” as the film’s theme in two scenes. Like that it turns out to have been based upon three days in the life of its’ creator (who chauffered a Methamphetamine cook around in 1995). Not sure I like how it is flat-out incapable of sustaining a solid tone for more than thirty seconds; It’s scarcely able to fuse the goofy laughs with the emotional baggage its dragging along. You just have to laugh when it begs you to take it seriously – but while it’s in its’ kill-two-birds-and-get-stoned groove, Spun kicks itself into some interesting spots, and makes the past tense of its’ title seem almost foolhardy.


All the Real Girls
Directed by David Gordon Green
grade: A-

More direct in scaring up its honest tidbits, most of them found dropping from characters’ mouths as they philosophize in fits of utterly terrific improvisation; It’s often therapeutic – and uniquely universal in its own little way. Green seems to have tightened his focal point since George Washington, which is both good and (very rarely) bad. Whereas his debut was a circumnavigated homage to Terence Malick’s hazy, tone poem storytelling, All the Real Girls is far more concerned with its characters and how they communicate the emotional tumbles of their existence without the shackles of convention. The film makes marvelous use of its free flowing narrative, itself an exercise in fantastic, vital writing; Green teases information so thoroughly and so vibrantly, he astoundingly makes the film’s off-the-cuff dialogue bouts meld with its cohesive sketches of personality. Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel are both rapturous – but so is the rest of the supporting cast – from Schneider’s goofy, hollow headed cronies to Deschanel’s towheaded little brother to Schneider’s mom and uncle to the various supporting players that seem to breath and snarl with the restless aches of small-town life (like George Washington, Green and his cinematographer have no trouble finding the utmost beauty in some of the most dilapidated of vistas; I can’t remember the last time a film evoked the Autumn weather with an earthy radiance so overpowering that I could practically taste it in my nostrils). Sadly, the wondrous dialogue that all appears to have been simultaneously made up and carefully considered for inclusion, sometimes seems to leak out moments of oddly sour sap; Green so deftly handles the huge hurdle he creates for himself in the final thirty minutes, it’s almost hard not to feel a touch cheated by Schneider and Deschanel’s use of lines that feel forever hatched from the wrap-up on any given sitcom (“I can’t even talk to you anymore!” belongs nowhere near a great film like this one – – or does it?) What I’ve neglected to mention is that All the Real Girls has a ton of genuine laughs in it as well. Schneider’s friend Mustache, an over friendly, under mannered dork practically steals at least half a dozen scenes. (Watch the deleted scenes on the DVD – – this ham had a good number of his most gut busting – if entirely superfluous – scenes axed).


He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not
Directed by Laetitia Colombani
grade: B-

Not to get painfully mathematical but, honestly, without a warning one might, quite rightfully in fact, slam one’s thumb into the stop button just about anywhere in the vibrant crayola-thon of this film’s inimitably cute first act. Here’s a tip: Don’t. While the first act appears to wear a sagging label bearing the generic brand of garden variety obsessive love, the film actually turns out to be a terrific bout of filmmaking, a painstakingly mounted exercise in perspective askew and, sadly, a botched whole whose third act becomes the greedy spoil sport of its parts. Observe. Audrey Tatou plays a girl in love with a cardiologist; The part must have read to the actress as an obvious chance to keep her dimple-cheeked adorableness intact while indulging a borderline spoofy dark side. The whole twisted affair is written off to a disorder called erotomania, which I won’t bother describing (you’ll get it – – and if you don’t, there’s a pair of steel rimmed glasses with a psychologist attached to them explaining it over swoony music in the last ten). The most satisfying thing about the film is the way the second act complements the first – even when you know what’s going on, it’s still a joy to watch the film deceive your assumptions. The criticism has been enacted that the film considers the audience to be rife with dimwittedness (else how could we miss clue after clue in that simplistic shake of a first act). What’s really obvious, though, is the way it all wraps up; He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not goes way overboard with itself in the last act, giving the drive back over a severe case of the deeply implausible. If you thought ignoring your instincts was hard when they’re right, wait until you start second guessing their quite valid cry of “yeahrightsure” as the cardiologist has his “Kobayashi” moment.


The Secret Lives of Dentists
Directed by Alan Rudolph
grade: B-

The outright statement of metaphor between care of teeth and care of marriage gets it out of the way. Not having to think about it while you ingest the daily grind of a husband (Campbell Scott, in typically top form) who knows his wife (Hope Davis, also in typically top form) is cheating on him is a plus, (though trying to figure out just why these characters do what they do is impossibly overcomplicated for something so simple and, eventually, so carefully laid out: Scott doesn’t want the “hassle” of divorce). The extended sequence wherein the flu goes through this family of five is probably the least exciting part of the film, but it’s also the only set of moments that seem to flow with the rhythm of actual family life, and therefore prove a point beyond the collection of familiar “marriage” moments (I kept thinking, this movie probably works best for cinephiles who aren’t married either as a deterrent or simply because the only experience they have is with their parents or their friends marriage; This should key you in to which group you belong and, accordingly, how the film may affect you). The Secret Lives of Dentists is a better film when its not making any serious observations but is, instead, merely being funny (Denis Leary’s declaration of “The World’s Greatest Dentist” to a roomful of theater patrons is the film’s high point). Rudolph doesn’t necessarily blow it – the whole thing is proficient at worst – but he never really exceeds the original voice-over’s goal: To prove that, like good dental hygiene, marriage requires constant attention. Is it just me, or am I incapable of accepting a movie that wears its non-epiphany status on its sleeve like Dorothy Parker’s broken heart?

[Am I the only one who thought dressing the fake alter-ego Denis Leary up exactly like Tyler Durden couldn’t have been a worse idea?]


The Italian Job
Directed by F. Gary Gray
grade: B

In washing the practically grim taste of The Secret Lives of Dentists out of my mouth, I readily submit that I enjoyed The Italian Job, for the most part, as an escape from the somber weight of that film. On the opposing face of that coin, you have to admire a film that’s practically without a discernable style of its own, but nevertheless manages to stay completely straight-faced as it proceeds to pile the unreal upon the undoable, neatly stacking them among rows and rows of the absolutely impossible. Never, I mean not once during its unfolding, does The Italian Job even consider stopping long enough to examine how intricate it’s not – and how beautifully convenient it is. Edward Norton stomps around, thoroughly annoyed to have been given birth to (and, by all reports, for having to lower himself to do this contractually-bound summer throwaway) and, for once, doesn’t walk away with the film. That alone has to be worth, uh, something.. Everyone on the “team” seems to be having a grand old time – albeit, they’re not exactly larger-than-life. The heist has a simulated overkill feel to it. That pretty much defines the film’s attitude: There isn’t a spontaneous moment to be found, but you can barely see the ground from your supremely over-the-top vantage point. (Oh, and I liked that feeling, by the way.)

[Two notes of interest: Special Oscar goes to: Mark Bridges, who designed the costumes that Charlize Theron wears; Though I don’t exactly agree, I like the Imdb’s User Comment post on the front page for this film: “Ouch! The Mark Wahlberg’s acting is hurting my head!”]


The Shape of Things
Directed by Neil LaBute
grade: B-

LaBute fashioned this film (first a play with the identical cast in London) as an answer to the vile reception that befell his first film, In the Company of Men. And unlike its model, when The Shape of Things is over, you’re not suddenly overcome with disgust or prompted to think really deeply. What it fills you with – besides a great joy that LaBute has re-embraced his inner nihilist – is the sense that an issue like Our Social Preoccupation with Vanity and How The Media Doesn’t Exactly Help Matters is almost too broad and too unconquerable to be pigeonholed into this sly tale of boy-meets-grad-student, grad-student-molds-boy, audience-goes-through-the-motions-of-being-shocked. Don’t get me wrong – LaBute’s is a fine film (not far from filmed theater but fine), and one worth allowing yourself to be provoked by, noteworthy on a far more actor-oriented level than its predecessors, or than its overbearing scheme would suggest – but there’s something untimely about it, something that feels dated in the commentary on pretension among post-college aged kids, something cushioned about its coldness. I’ve said it to far too many people to count, but I stand by it: Paul Rudd deserves the praise. He’s been in the grey zone know as pre-phone book territory far too long (which gets its name from my frequent, orgasmic chant of submission that I (yes, I) would watch said actor rattle off page after page of my local yellow pages if that were the only way to see them perform).  He is hereby upgraded. Rachel Weisz, whom I neglect to mention below in my Confidence review (she’s actually got a presence here, rather than a persona cobbled together with various pieces of various femmes fatale in that film, but I digress), matches him step for step; The film’s central storyline is offset by one that’s slightly more comedic and often, much easier to believe, wherein Gretchen Mol is having second thoughts about her upcoming marriage (the kind of nuptual that could easily save time in skipping the actual ceremony and getting to the ugly divorce already) to Frederick Weller, whose uncanny reaction to a petty sculpture vandalism (standing as an act of artistic freedom or, more accurately, freeing the art) turns into the most vividly uncomfortable scene in a film that is pretty much all about escalating to a wrenching climax. This squabble over the validity in defacing a statue turns ferocious, and speaks volumes more than anything the central focus manages to cook up.


Directed by James Foley
grade: C+

I was planning on saddling up my high horse to venture out (into uncharted waters, mind) in search of an ear that could stand a long justification of Edward Burns’ seemingly lone shade of character. I don’t like the guy – but at least he’s not directing. Here, his commanding way, rendered persistent either consciously or by sheer sleepwalking automation is, for my money, right on the money. He never stops professionalizing the con game, barely able to sneak a few breaths in between scamming. Most of the rest of the cast is a blur; Too many c(r)ooks syndrome is in full force. The big deal here would obviously be if one were to consider Dustin Hoffman’s three scenes equal to a character (hint: they’re not), but there’s no cause to fret – dude’s so uncommonly bizarre (even for a guy who seems to be aiming in that general direction with each and every role of late), it’s almost fun to watch what unnecessary, “out there” thing he’ll blather on about next. The con is completely irrelevant as far as I’m concerned, and the film makes that clear from the first moment, when it begins with a thoroughly antiquated voice-over narration explaining what a con is, followed by your standard red herring wherein the hero appears to be precious seconds from being done in, only to make with the long and involved flashback detailing his route to said “done in” point. Certainly not of the fresh quality it obviously fashions itself worth brandishing. Feeling all the threads come together isn’t as satisfying as it should be because it’s entirely based upon two really obvious things. If you haven’t figured them out by the time the film “reveals” them, I feel a deep sense of pity in my heart for me if I should ever have to discuss movies with you ever again.


28 Days Later
Directed by Danny Boyle
grade: BWhat works best about 28 Days Later, a film about post apocalyptic London that you flat-out believe, is how snap tight it feels. Boyle – seemingly scarred for life by the tightrope of his Hollywood two-fer – seems to have found the trick to shooting a film on DV that most directors who tinker with it out of poverty or [sic] art’s sake have missed: Low ambition. (Nothing remotely complex going on here, old fashioned filmmaking prevailing, please send viewers). Watching a virus cleansed no man’s land that doubles as Britain’s countryside makes for a deeply simplistic on the outside, ooey-gooey moralistic what-not on the inside film; Rage infected “zombies” lunge, barely as scary as a reality on the fringe and the biggest success in 28 Days Later is Boyle’s return to a genre that’s not altogether horror – but masquerades as such. Both Shallow Grave and Trainspotting (his best films) unfolded an unchangeable reality that had suddenly turned on its inhabitants. Here, this idea of acceptance and the violence that comes with a clean slate – – the military gents, headed by Christopher Eccleston, are ready to start the human race up again – with the only two female survivors – – is at the forefront of the film, dread looming and oozing from every frame. It turns out to be less a zombie movie than a cautionary for cautionary’s sake film with the skin of a modern, low budget horror film. It’s entirely enthralling and simultaneously full of a strange sense of wonder, the kind that’s usually reserved for science fiction films. Just how would our future look like as a deserted train wreck of civilization gone empty, only a few mad stragglers bouncing around?


Mystic River
Directed by Clint Eastwood
grade: C-No better than Blood Work (stop screeching with the “year’s best” crap already), Mystic River is a particularly transparent brand of sweeping (usually the result of Eastwood’s fetish with shooting banal police procedural – 4 of ’em now – in scope) and also a ridiculously distant brand of intimate. But what irks me more about the film is that, for some reason, Eastwood equates realism with everyone looking perpetually hung over. No more spiky or cunning than anything you could tune your box to any night of the week, with banter is painfully forced and blatantly charged with important clues to file in our memory banks for later in the film, Mystic River doesn’t lack for interest, but it has the sort of heavy subject matter that consistently whines that we take all of this more seriously than could come naturally. Should I have to be working not to find the friends-since-childhood, that-was-when-everything-changed-for-Davey Boyle set-up a little preposterous? It seems to work best when it’s a police procedural, with Penn’s Jimmy (who could qualify as a split personality) under the thumb of dorky sad sack/childhood pal and his partner (Messrs.. Bacon and Fishburne, respectively). Luckily, no matter how divided the two sides of Jimmy are, Sean Penn plays both with equally cool calculation and numbness, often just short convincing us that we’ve confused devastation for villainy (and vice versa); He wouldn’t look out of place in his own The Crossing Guard, another film that expects more that it deserves in the sober gravity department (Here, the last fifteen minutes gives that films’ communal gravestone weeping a run for its money in the unofficial “silliest fucking thing I’ve ever seen” contest; At least that film didn’t occasionally employ a bafflingly unnecessary subplot wherein Kevin Bacon’s silent wife calls him and doesn’t speak). Once solved, the murder mystery seems to have baited us with the idea that it everything might add up to something of interest of value – or even surprise – when, all it really does is cast light on larger, less believable issues (Yes, issues like the far-fetched full circle wherein Sean Penn’s daughter was really killed because Penn killed the killer’s father years ago and, oh yeah, CRIME DOESN’T PAY). After spilling all its beans, Mystic River begins a period of fifteen final moments where it becomes so completely out of line, so goofy, and so unbelievably off-the-wall that it’s impossible not to wonder why anyone would wreck a highly serviceable rubix cube of morality with a left field Lady Macbeth speech, when the film suddenly – for no real reason – turns into a gangster epic (My reaction to Laura Linney’s “You could rule this town” monologue was a purposefully audible “What?”). This is followed by a sequence where the main characters all trade glances (through a noisy parade) for about five minutes. Then the obligatory shot of the names in the cement sidewalk, frozen in time, uh, and amen.

[Full disclosure: I’ve hated the film a little bit more every time I think about it. I originally gave it a C+, but my word of mouth has been more like a D-].


The School of Rock
Directed by Richard Linklater
grade: B+Probably the only movie I’ve ever seen that was as pre-conceived, obvious headed and lacking in surprise as is possible, but remained nevertheless fresh, funny and consistently pleasing. Imagine High Fidelity as a kids movie/live action cartoon with Black in the forefront and Cusack in the background and you’re close…


Whale Rider
Directed by Niki Caro
grade: B-Largely lacking in substance; Good enough film – didn’t seem to warrant a narrative; Often felt like a legend that would have been passed from person to person – but wouldn’t have been a 101 minute motion picture, you know? (I spent a good bit of it at odds with myself: If I’m going to watch this old man be a prick to this little girl there better be a towering catharsis to foot the bill; It’s a decent one – but by no means an equal on the scales…)


Alien: The Director’s Cut
Directed by Ridley Scott
grade: AAs with nearly every other reissue in existence, it’s the sound that’s king. Unfortunately, I made the dumbass mistake of seeing it blown up on 70mm which, however all-inclusive, went out of focus (big time) off and on throughout the bottom three reels. Nevertheless, I continue to scoff at you lunkheads who consider the second film to be superior. (What are you people, insane?)


Brother Bear
Directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker
grade: C+Wildly random, almost painfully inconsistent songs mix with a sudden lack of political correctness, all on a canvas meant to look like the paintings of Albert Bierstadt. And Brother Bear still feels like second tier Disney aping its more successful cousins (especially The Lion King and Tarzan). The very human first act is largely exciting – – – second and third animals-talk-as-they-trek acts are not as successful. There’s something hollow about Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas pimping their MacKenzie Bros. routine through dunderheaded moose, set up as background comic relief to a story whose moral pretty much tramples its intentions under foot until they’re barely visible through a schmaltzy, ham handed slopping-on of familiar elements (the lost youth with a dead mother is a particular forehead smacker). But, then, there’s been something rather alarming about the way Disney seems more in tune with eyeing the market than churning out great films lo’ these last dozen or so quarters, er – I mean – years. After awhile, its pretty hard to pretend you haven’t already been sick to death of learning the same boring lessons over and over. Luckily, the kids are now learning these lessons from a much more terrific set of animators. (Rhymes with Mixar) I’m starting to tire of the giddy thrill I get at being disappointed with Disney.


Directed by Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak
grade: BEssentially a valentine to mild cinephiles (encrypted with the message: “There are many worse than you”), though the only real centerpiece of the filmmaking is how thankfully short it is. Never a towering piece of work, it’s one of those fun documentaries that only lasts 80 minutes and tells you something entertaining as opposed to extraordinary. Film seems distracted, often, by the relative smallness of its subjects (I mean, how much can you possibly say after “These people go to the movies…all the time“), almost embarrassingly at one point (was there really a shot of a unrelated man in the front row zipping up his fly after a screening? Did I dream that?) Still, the specific personalities of each of the five – – two look like homeless people, the other three could double as nerdy drop-outs from philosophy grad programs – – are what keep the film from getting too terribly repetitive (Bravo, again, to the editor: The DVD boasts a spread of deleted scenes that runs almost as long as the feature). It gives you a shudder when you realize that, yes, I’ve thought about changing my bathroom habits to suit my film going obsession – and yes – seeing a print of a Godard film would take precedent over a loved one.


Blue Car
Directed by Karen Moncrieff
grade: C-Finally delivered: This year’s blueprint for generic indie filmmaking. (“But Ben, the blue car in the title means so much more than you’re giving it credit for…”)

Look – shut up; I don’t endorse films where little girls dress up like angels and collapse on alters in churches. Films where people throw their now meaningless poetry into the ocean and watch it sink below the waves. Films where people substitute a spur-of-the-moment anger doctrine for a long prepared piece of work at a Big Contest. Films where teenage daughters say to their mothers: “You had her, you raise her”. Films where the blue car has a double meaning – and both meanings are meant to make me so sad I want to curl up with a bottle of Jack Daniels in a Motel 8 whimpering for my mother. Fuck this movie, in my opinion.


Owning Mahowny
Directed by Richard Kwietniowski
grade: B+It’s a cautionary tale – but with all the annoying facets usually associated with that tag left, safely, outside the frame (In other words, it’s less a film about the addiction to gambling than it is about a gambler addicted to a double life full of such cheap irony: Trusted banker secretly rides wave of fraud into nosedive of debt. That he seems to openly realize and feed off of this – that is what makes Owning Mahowny a great film). Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to make it difficult to articulate anything remotely original sounding about him. Here, there’s a drowning feel as he quietly – and repeatedly – acknowledges to the camera how aware he is of the reality of his situation (that’s he, for all intensive purposes, only addicted to losing); Withdrawn to the point of invisibility, I’m carefully picking over his profile on the imdb as I write this, attempting not to upstage several previous hyperboles. (So, in other words, I’d like to say this is his best performance to date – but somehow I doubt anyone would find any real meaning in those words.) Kwietniowski previously helmed 1997’s Love and Death on Long Island – a film I quite liked – and invests the same incredibly rare talent for genuine understatement here. Eschewing any sort of loud, stylistic volume, he has a terrific ear for tiny, incidental dialogue and snags a wonderful set of characters (the ensemble cast – even in a film that’s as centered around a single protagonist as this one is – is magnificent) in a milieu that feels like a series of  doomed guilt vacations, experienced through advanced sleeplessness; Mahowny’s world is a self-fulfilling prophecy that skips like a broken record. Hoffman’s performance is – sorry, I just couldn’t let it go – nothing short of dazzling.


Directed by Gus Van Sant
grade: B+I’ll probably end up spilling an electronic pen’s worth of ink on this one when I watch it again (dust is presently gathering in its netflix queue spot; I’ve withheld it from my usual watch-mail-drool routine to re-experience it in one sitting, without interruption). Needless to say, the aching emptiness and almost overwhelming beauty in the landscape gave me enough pause to want to re-evaluate my initial response, which was one that pretty much glanced over the characters. Their situation, indeed, was potent and somehow almost transcendent of something much, much larger, but them, they, the Gerrys never really sold the connection between themselves and this unbelievable, unending barrage of moody imagery and reflection. But I kept feeling annoyed that I’d have to stop it (three or four times, ugh) for various reasons throughout. I’m becoming less and less bend able when it comes to inhaling these puppies in one viewing.


Friday Night
Directed by Claire Denis
grade: BMostly a workspace for moody cinematography (and an absolutely rapturous score – and you know it’s good if I stoop to using a pretentious descriptor like rapturous); The main characters meet in a traffic jam and proceed to bounce about, sometimes gazing, sometimes screwing, mostly just posing. It’s all very, very pretty for the eye – but rarely does it stay engaging long enough to sustain a sequence. Denis without gravity, though, still pretty much blows anything else that’s playing in the romance scene right off the damn table. This is marvelous visual storytelling (there are about 20 or 30 lines of dialogue in the film), and wonderfully evocative (somehow Paris looks different in every film and it looks awesome here), but it remains just shy of terrific.


Directed by Jon Favreau
grade: B-Elf starts out sharp (the North Pole is a bizarre, almost TV-Rudolph bizarre place), but degenerates right quick into character after character confronting, being annoyed by and, finally, being unconvincingly won over by Ferrell’s lovey-dovey Christmas antics. Comedy ranges from absolute genius (the vain children’s book writer Miles Finch played with maximum restraint by Peter Dinklage is a brilliant creation) to Dear God Please (you’ll kindly roll you eyes for charity in lew of watching ONE MORE GODDAMN fish-out-water set-up). It’s often very sad, as we realize that control with the cookie cutter is clearly preferred to letting Ferrell stray from what’s already set in script-stone (so successful in Old School). Big ol’ extra points to Favreau for casting himself in an absolutely meaningless role, nudging us with a possible commentary on his own participation: “Hey guys, I don’t mind letting the big bosses push me around. At least they’re not still mad about Made. Also, you’ll note that there are zero plugs for my pretentious Dinner for Five half hour.” Get ready to be right about how it ends.


Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Directed by Peter Weir
grade: B+Pure genre pleasure. Probably wouldn’t have been a peck as successful if the elements weren’t so fresh and terrific. Weir is obviously borderline obsessed with period detail (at times, to a fault, as the action sequences veer – occasionally – into some Aussie version of Tony Scott’s blur-is-better technique); Crowe is, as ever, absolutely brilliant/charming/loveably gruff; Bettany is humanity and dry wit (and the one you walk away really having enjoyed). You expect, from the first moment, that the film is far too expensive to turn a profit, which makes the whole thing seem all that more important and thrilling (because, unless it wins an Oscar, I doubt Weir, Crowe and the two studios who footed the bill are going to churn out another one). So, along with the immediacy of it, and the impossibly brilliant timing (it’s as far removed from the coming Pirate trend as it is desperately alone in a definite moment of period action doldrums), and the classical look (it’s lit like Amistad and Quills, with the lack of light and flares predominant almost to excess) – – – Master and Commander is pretty much impossible to dislike or resist. It’s entertainment from a vein that is at once recalling the past and reveling in the megabucks of the present. It’s the sort of film you want to go out and re-experience.


House of 1000 Corpses
Directed by Rob Zombie
grade: B-Not much of a movie, per se. As a funhouse of horror artistry, creepy mileaus and frightening superfluity, though – it’s a gas. Zombie obviously isn’t much of a director, but he’s clearly very passionate about horror movies themselves (it’s a B-rendering of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre teens-lost-abducted-and-butchered filmsin the same way Kill Bill is an homage to kung fu and spaghetti westerns). The debacle with the production and the release probably forbids – – and, likely, turned off – – Zombie from future productions (and the promise of his eye for freaky shit makes that a bit teary). The obvious cuts and errors in continuity that mark the film as a hacked-to-pieces studio casualty don’t make its brevity any less welcome (I whined almost to a ban, initially, about not seeing the one hundred fifty minute version; i’m glad I ended up taking the less-than-stubborn route of actually watching this version). I think if it had been clips and bits from old horror films weaved with video and scratchy 16 mm footage, we’d be talking modern horror classic.


Man on the Train
Directed by Patrice Leconte
grade: C+The inevitability of any man’s death is not measured by his occupation, what kind of life he has lead or what kind of person he is. We all simply die. In Man on the Train, Patrice Leconte foolishly attempts to make this point the central focus of the film about twenty minutes before it ends (That it’s built so steadily on a foundation of quirk transcending sincerity only makes matters worse). Rochefort is a retired French teacher who lives in a giant mansion and Hallyday is in town to rob a bank. With hotels closed in the off season, Hallyday shacks up in the aged professor’s mansion. On Saturday, the octagenarian will go for a triple bypass and the sparingly spoken Charles Bronson look-alike will knock off a bank.  Their conversations, wherein they seem to find a comfort and intimacy in the other’s identity, are completely absorbing and often, downright literary. The embarrasing finale, however, betrays this tightrope of cameraderie that makes the first two acts so carefree. Though the somewhat forced thematic weight of Man on the Train – the self-tallied bill staring one down at one’s death – practically begs a humbled subtlety, everything becomes blatant and syrupy when the time comes to pay said bill. Whereas in Leconte’s The Widow of St. Pierre, sybolism and melodrama diluted the film’s moral complexity, here everything is visualized and stated with shockingly unmistakable and self-conscious purpose; It’s the sort of boisterous and distracting conclusion that’s usually drowning in its own irony and violin strings.(For example: Is there any curiosity or confusion of motive when a car full of the hoods pressuing Hallyday to rob the bank passes a car driven by the doctor who will perform the next day’s surgery?)  The first hour is wrought with a sort of familiar smirk of opposing hierarchies of lifestyle, a pleasant meeting of worlds unknown. Rochefort and Hallyday have a terrific chemistry. There are wonderful and quiet moments shared. The ending is messy.


Love Actually
Directed by Richard Curtis
grade: B+Remember the hilariously stupid trailer where Miramax dredged up footage from Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary? The poster that read: “The Ultimate Romantic Comedy”? The cast that seemed too jaw-dropping to be true (i.e. – Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Laura Linney, Martine McCutcheon, Keira Knightley, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton and Rowan Atkinson)? Grand set-ups for a blinding misdirection, all. Instead of it being a rotating pick-n-snatch of nine different romantic comedies at once, Love Actually turns out to be one of the most darkly self-deprecating anti-romantic comedies ever made. Instead of lifting our spirits – which, artificially, it does, just to show you it can (and because it was probably contractually bound to) – Curtis’ film seems to scoff at the very idea that these romantic interludes are anything more than pandering fantasies meant to cater to a roundtable demographic. It’s obvious in the way that, a) Curtis chooses the kitchen sink route of including nine (rather than, uh, one) semi-connecting loves gained and lost riffs (they’re more like songs on a greatest hits album that’s meant to be a joke); b) the level of sugar never stops rising even long after it has hit an unusually high level (if you were thinking “Hugh Grant is the Prime Minister? Do I really buy that?” – wait until you see where it goes from there); c) The whole thing has a lovely abandon to it, as if its a locomotive that’s been set off at top speed sans attention to destination or, in fact fuel (eventually it runs out and the credits roll). I am convinced that it’s one big, long yank at the audience’s expense (an, probably, the actors).  In other words, it’s THE ULTIMATE ROMANTIC COMEDY!

[Also, I’m convinced that Rowan Atkinson could comfortably steal a movie from nearly any actor living today.]


Bad Boys II
Directed by Michael Bay
grade: DThere’s a rather tiring list of things in this film that really annoy me, but what I’m going to do, I’m going to just assume that you’ll assume that you know what’s on that list (here’s an abridged version for the unimaginative: Bay’s music video theatrics constantly overstylizing, perhaps tolerated soley to complement the film’s pre-packaged toe-tag of “fun”; Lawrence and Smith having one extended (unfunny, for the most part) conversation that’s broken up evenly between loud, rarely anything but loud, action sequences (while we’re on the subject – Lawrence’s eternal new-age healing played over a whine on top of a whine on top of a whine about the stress of his life is nauseating at best, while Smith’s now preposterously implausible hyper-cursing “bad boy” attitude slams headfirst against the image he’s spent, oh, the last several very profitable years (excepting Ali) of his life boring us with); the very moment when Bay appears in the film (as crappy car driver #1) is like a chapter heading, as seconds later, he’ll be pilphering his own film – this film – with a watered down car chase in which things fall from the back of a truck and threaten to stop our “heroes” dead in their tracks (similar to a moment thirty or so odd minutes prior when slightly larger things fell from the back of a slightly larger truck “threatening” to stop our heroes dead in their, ahem, tracks); yet another action film that uses the patriotic symbol of the US of A as its coda, in this case the backseat message that since Sept. 11 of 2001, drug smuggling has been impacted by heightened security: Apparently, that means Bruckheimer should cough up an action “epic” wherein a dinky drug Lord from Cuba (he’s bad, you see, because he chopped a man up in his mother’s house) is pummelled at the expense of taxpayers to the tune of (cough) million in damaged this and that, culminating in a sequence where – that’s right – the good Americans blow up his house and fight a Communist army that was protecting him. Veiled? No – stupid.)


How to Deal
Directed by Clare Kilner
grade: DI refuse to take seriously any film wherein a girl gets pregnant with her dead boyfriend’s baby during the summer and doesn’t realize she’s pregnant until several months into Autumn (we’re told time is passing and things are changing (and blech!) in one of those lovely, wholeheartedly embarrasing montages where leaves start to gather on a pool). I refuse to take seriously movies where characters go to the big New Year’s Eve party and I’m right (and so would you be) when I predict that a car crash will follow, changing things forever. I refuse to acknowledge Peter Gallagher’s career from this moment forward. I refuse to buy Mandy Moore as a tortured rebel who just wants to encompass the title over and over (I suspect we’re supposed to flip our eyebrows when she continually doesn’t want to fall in love because her parents are divorced.) She calls her new male “friend” and they kiss and stuff. Jedi Mind Trick references ensue (not homages, mind, but mockery). Like Serendipity, it is a romantic comedy where the actual romance is cordended off – in this case, to a musical montage – and treated as if it is taboo and uninteresting. Apparently, life issues can be solved with a wacky wedding and the wisdom of a dope smoking grandma. Also, by the way, FUCK this movie for using both “Do You Realize??” by the Flaming Lips and (gulp) “Wild World” by Cat Stevens. Let’s save the good songs for the films with a chance, shall we?


Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Directed by Peter Jackson
grade: A-It’s an odd grade to give a film that’s pretty much a bloated framework singularly reminiscent of Fellowship‘s expository urgency, but sometimes painfully herky-jerky motion. However – and this is a big however – instead of walking out of of Return of the King in blatant anticipation of relief (that is, new answers to old questions), this film, in fact, is that relief. There are places where it clearly suffers from a syndrome forced on it by two preceeding works – a terminal syndrome, unfairly laid at its feet in the form of a technicality: (What I mean is), there’s no film to catch the overflow. Luckily for us – in its tremendous battle sequences, its fateful immensity, its teary finale – Return of the King is one of the most thorough films in existence. Forget for a second that, occasionally, it feels as if it is merely listing its desperately important information; when was the last time a film with just around six hours’ worth of explanation bothered to secure precious symmetry by including a sequence wherein we see the transformation of Smiegel – decades before he would be known as Gollum – for a sole purpose: To show you the depth of his capabilities – and to confirm the wickeness of his intentions (as paraded in The Two Towers). This film is two hundred minutes long and has taken serious flack for its exclusion of Christopher Lee’s ten minute Sauroman sequence – and yet it takes the time to make sure that one of the most complex characters in the film (and, digitally, still the most exciting, by far) has a working psyche to match that of his companions (Wood and Astin, still amazing as ever). Battle scenes are excellent (not Helm’s Deep-excellent – but potent, nonetheless), seething with passion and inventive little bits (the Olyphants presence is breathtaking); Return of the King is as good as the former two films – and yet, for all its hugeness and closure and what not, it leaves us quiet. At first, I thought it was the film itself, but I realized that it was the sad void left over after the credits: Coming December ’03, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. And that’s it. (Full disclosure: Dear Hollywood: “Make The Hobbit or stop making films altogether, please”).


Directed by Martin Brest
grade: FNope, everyone was right, or, come see that which is tantamount to a car wreck as a circus attraction, with no amount of exploitation or pandering sacrificed in its inimitable quest to really just, um, be one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. Affleck kidnaps a retarded fellow and J. Lo is sent in to make sure he can handle the job. The extended monologues about nothing interesting whatsoever (delivered by two actors who make the retarded fellow seem deeply intelligent by comparison), the constant long takes of yoga posturing and mirror admiration, the constant flow of dated, unfunny jokesterism, Affleck’s strange mock-Sopranos accent, J. Lo’s inability to pull off playing a lesbian (you don’t even believe it through the next statement after “You’re not my type…because you have a penis”), the hamming cameos by Walken and Pacino, the slap-happy joyous ending – – – there’s simply nothing to make fun of that isn’t already fairly obvious. It’s like mocking a guy who just got his arm cut off and can’t seem to tie his shoes properly: Yeah, it’s kinda funny, but the guy’s in pain.


Bad Santa
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
grade: B-It almost feels like an achievement that Bad Santa can keep a consistently anti-sentimentality rule in place from start to finish, but once you’re past how awesome that is, you have no trouble recognizing the second rate repetition and half-baked plot line that are in place to sustain this remarkably cruel tone. It’s a dirty cartoon – from start to finish and I laughed an awful lot, but I did get around to asking someone if they thought it might turn out to be a yearly cult tradition and, as soon as I said it, I realized how tiresome it would be to watch it every year. Thornton is absolutely spot-on and, for awhile, the film seems almost to bridge the gap between the standard gross-out fare and a singular, sly mockery of family holiday traditions. But eventually, the framework betrays it, begging for some level of plausibility in order to go forward (i.e. – this drunk can open safes? The “kid”, he doesn’t attend school? Lauren Graham – hot as hot gets – is interested in Thornton?) Again, it is a cartoon, to some level, but eventually, it seems to ask the audience to buy into more realism-based details in order to make gags work (since anything is possible in a cartoon and this is merely a feeling I got, I have no evidence to back it up. Sorry.) I dug it. It was hilarious in spots and well-worth a viewing. The critic, however, who delegated a comparison to The Simpsons – is severely misguided.


Melvin Goes to Dinner
Directed by Bob Odenkirk
grade: CThe thirtysomethings have gathered for an idie film! And they’re going to sit at dinner and talk! Seriously, though, when Alex – the career-driven female character who sits closest to the door – starts on about how she killed a little boy by accident with her car one summer and now his ghost appears to her to apologize for all the trouble he caused – – – any semblance of entertaining fluff that existed before became like lead and my eyes, my beautiful eyes, went straight to the DVD counter to see just how much longer I was going to have to muster patience with this film and it’s “wacky”, “real-life” “characters”. It reminds me of a mid-life Breakfast Club, everyone meeting almost without meaning to and revealing every single last dirty detail they’ve had under they’re hat since the beginning of time. Unfortunately, the characters never reach a level that’s even remotely comparable to that film – or most of the other dodgy sundance-paid flicks I’ve seen of late. My reason for viewing it, sadly, was a mirage (see Director credit).


Anything Else
Directed by Woody Allen
grade: C-Is it possible that senility has come crashing in on Woody, allowing him to forget that he once made Annie Hall? (I won’t even comment on said senility affecting his casting decisions in such a way that they suddenly include Jason Biggs – although, actually, I will comment on it a bit later). Anything Else opens with Woody Allen and Jason Biggs – both comedy writers for nightclub acts – walking the streets and talking of the things that Woody Allen characters tend to talk about (philosophy/art/film/sex/sex/more sex). You see, Biggs has this girlfriend who is mega-charming (it’s not Diane Keaton) and she’s always late and takes pills and can’t seem to hop out of the neurotic turnstile (but, I’m telling you, it’s not Diane Keaton) and, get this, Biggs talks to the screen (you’ll remember a little film (rhymes with “Trannie Mall”) starring Diane Keaton where this is done). I immediately tried to put out this raging fire, suggesting that it was an homage. My wife, who tends to see through all things clouded, suggested that, if it were a legitimate genuflection at the altar of that film, it was certainly a “blasphemous” one. The film further complicates matters with intermittently funny humor and a performance by Christina Ricci that’s easily her best work since Buffalo ’66 (lost forever inside this film). Which brings me to Mr. Biggs. He’s bad anyway, but Allen’s latent obsession with finding actors to mimic him has become more of a gamble than anything (see the payoff in films like Bullets over Broadway and Sweet and Lowdown), but Biggs is perhaps just as embarrassingly obvious about aping the Wood-man as Branagh was (in Celebrity) achingly excessive. Biggs has the stuttering down, but none of the mannerisms, giving my previous comment (“Wood-man”) the sexy double meaning I never intended. I remember my older brother telling me that, after seeing this film, that if it had been released in the 1970s, it would have been loved by all and, that Allen is held to a far higher standard than other directors. Blasphemy.


Directed by Michael Polish
grade: CIn grand, terrific moments of David Lynch style oddity, Northfork zooms in on six men assigned to evacuate the remaining denizens of the title town before it is flooded, and becomes lakefront property for sale. Hanging around them is a gloom the film never quite moved me with. And this downtrodden sensibility permeates the conflicts of a wayward priest (Nick Nolte, in high grizzly mode) who finds himself watching over the final moments of an unwanted boy who, in a dreamy landscape of practical hallucination, negotiates an escape for himself and four fairy tale-esque symbol people (including the eight optic wielding Anthony Edwards, apparently exhausted by taunts of “four eyes”). Trouble is, in Northfork, every ambition is met with intimacy, every chance at sweeping fantasy met with silly designations of theme (the town, much like the lonely boy, is dying, but the lake, as well as the boy’s new surrogate family, is just a rebirth into “better” things – or something). Directed with everyone hamming in a different direction, the only bits that don’t seem completely washed out by good intentions are the exchanges of James Woods (deadpan drawl) and Michael Polish (flimsy maturity with a constant catch phrase: “It’s wrong. It’s just wrong on every level”).


Out of Time
Directed by Carl Franklin
grade: C+Washington’s mad crack-and-scramble as the slipknot second act (eventually) gets underway may have a lovely B-12 effect on the film, but it rolls back asleep with a big [sic] veil lifting ending, followed by a wacky dénouement that feels more like a dare than an epilogue. When it isn’t whored up like a third generation copy of the (near) decade-in-it’s-grave resurgence of B-noir sassafras (like The Last Seduction, Franklin’s own Devil in a Blue Dress), there’s a good thirty or forty minutes there, right smack in the middle, when Out of Time is a goofy, fun framed-cop version of the mini suspense favorite “Mom will be home any minute and the house is a great big mess!” Washington edits phone records and faxes them to himself, makes phony calls of inquiry to “if you’d like to make a call” recordings and, best of all, hangs from the side of a hotel while bitch smacking a baddie only to emerge cool and calm as he is interrogated by a homicide detective, who also happens to be his ex-wife (Whoo-whee, what a predicament that must be! How inconvenient for him!), the DEA (from whom he has recently stolen $485K) and a cheating wife (who – get this – is married to an ex-football player-turned-security guard played by – are you ready – Dean Cain!) There’s also a toady sidekick who (in three instances) shows up at the right place and exactly at the right time. (Boy, this guy must have a really good watch!) It feels like a movie whose time has past and will probably show up again twenty years down the road – when it will continue to feel as rabidly generic as it does now (I’m certain).


Freaky Friday
Directed by Mark Waters
grade: C+Freaky Friday – a film whose very framework (two characters change bodies for a day) is a constant pillar for disaster – is written with an unwelcome verve of explicitness. In a film where subtly is not on your side to begin with, its hard to imagine two more terrific performances wasted in a film wrought, for some reason, in the same patronizingly duh fashion Disney still has yet to abandon when pandering to the family market. A film about a teenager and her mother is practically geared towards (for lack of a better analogy) the baby-sat, not the baby-sitter. In the interest of draining any confusion, there is a stale artlessness to it which makes the focus of the film – the two women’s exchanged bodies – often so independent of anything else that’s going on, that dumbfounded tolerance of their babbling by other characters feels awfully played until, eventually, it just feels implausible. Again, at great expense are the actresses who really are the lifeblood of the few lighter stunts of pep, which satisfy the film’s zany, seemingly insatiable appetite for putting both mother and daughter into “interesting” situations. Intermittently, though, it is wicked entertaining.


Directed by Clark Johnson
grade: CThe constant references to the TV program will likely be lost on the generation of moviegoers it is meant to appeal to – – but S.W.A.T. feeling like your typical big budget homage to a seventies’ show (right down to its vacuum sealed crusty ol’ Police Captain) probably won’t be lost on many. That odd ring of how-to echoing in its ears, the first half of S.W.A.T. looks very much like The Recruit, another film starring Colin Farrell in the hero/together guy role (clearly, there’s no coincidence – or irony – there). Unfortunately, the rest of it looks a great deal like that film, too; Foreshadowed red herrings and turncoats – – every movie is a guessing game, you’ll remember – – take over any semblance of narrative interest that might occur. Johnson’s direction isn’t exactly mind-blowing, either; The movie moves along at a clip, but so often spins its gears with mindless, boring chatter (or, worse – – using big personalities like LL Cool J, Samuel L. Jackson and  Josh Lucas to throw around not-so-shocking outbursts of machismo and, in the case of Rodriguez, testosterone.) Pace aside, no amount of excitement or star power can distract from how uneven it feels: Why mix a bunch of far-fetched action set pieces with long researched regurgitation of method speeches by police consultants; Why make part of your movie factual to a fault and still consider airplanes landing on bridges, people being allowed to come through customs knives on them (and customs officials telling them, “It’s okay as long as you mail it home“) and detailed footage of the many entrances to a plane during a hi-jacking simulation? Why sabotage your own shit? Doesn’t matter. Best part of the movie is – as it was in the trailers (and ever shall be, world without end) – Eurotrash gangsta Oliver Martinez fuckin’ shit up old school and screaming up and down about OO-WUN UN-DRED MEE-LL-YUN DOLL-UHS!


Cold Mountain
Directed by Anthony Minghella
grade: BEngrossing – and terrifically satisfying – but is it true that Civil War-era North Carolina women had perfect teeth and wore makeup on every occasion? The endless internal debate of whether to forgive the film’s obvious vanity clause (taken advantage of by both Nicole Kidman and – inexplicably (because she plays a hillbilly) – Renee Zelwegger) is kept at bay long enough during the cut aways to Jude Law’s long journey, that the story begins to take place in a wonderful movie landscape, one we’re often rather comfortable in. It’s also the rare film that is a parade of high profile, recognizable cameos – but doesn’t make that a fault (this includes Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi and Melora Walters, all stellar – Brendan Gleeson and Jack White feel more pivotal). Jude Law proves, once again, why he’s worth employing: He upstages everyone (except a painfully out-of-place Donald Sutherland – who can’t seem to Stop…talking…like…this). Civil War scenes are as vicious and disturbing as any war footage put on screen in the last ten years. Certainly not the Miramax-tailored Oscar vehicle that it may appear – but a worthwhile melodrama for sure.


Directed by Len Wiseman
grade: C-Gap stud vampires versus dive rocker werewolves – or is it? Wiseman’s film is convoluted to the point where you begin to feel pummeled with the overelaborateness of the story, and the simplistic exposition used to hammer it home. Rarely has an actress seemed so lost in a world of comic book lore as Kate Beckinsale, whose character remains impenetrable. That drained blue look (along with a number of interesting setpieces) manages to be completely wasted, as does the stultifying setting: Why does it feel like a British movie that takes place on an American film set?


Rugrats Go Wild
Directed by John Eng and Norton Virgien
grade: D+For some reason, nearly all the characters are either completely different than usual or, worse, merely in existence to restate plot points from earlier Rugrats or Wild Thornberrys adventures. The songs sound as if written on a casio minutes before being put in the film (or, Land Before Time quality) and nearly everything that happens pretty much defies the formula that worked so far for the Rugrats gang: Nothing happens in their imagination and, therefore, carries with it a completely different sort of vibe, one that isn’t nearly thrilling enough to sustain an eighty minute movie, let alone suspend a cartoon crossover. In short: It stinks.


Big Fish
Directed by Tim Burton
grade: B-Hardly a blip – but not exactly a wash of out-and-out delight, either. The Burton touches are few and far between (Not to say that the film is required (by law) to stink of His Weirdness, but he’s obviously straining the fanciful swoops of imagination into a less playful, somehow more adult (for lack of a better term) context; toiling in the Oscar Bait mines, you might remark). When showcasing these larger-than-life tales, he never seems content to allow the characters just to be – – they all have attached an explicit modus operandi (to be fair – if it had been directed by pretty much anyone else, I probably would have found it to be much more trite, so, uh, forget nearly everything I just said.). Bottom line: Big Fish is a very eventful movie with precious little variation between said events, leaving them to stand for themselves and to, time after time, serve the same exact purpose. (Also, though we enjoy the actors in it, we are overwhelmed by their volume; an ensemble piece weighted by far too many like/gigantic personalities that can’t seem to get itself airborne). The strange Gump echo is unsettling, too, as everything is told from the bouncing knee perspective (as in, to a child on said appendage), and ends up either feeling too simple or too colorful/wholesome (“Filmed in Pleasantville-vision!”, you might say, in spots) – – or, worse, it’s the bad-things-lead-to-good-things/it-was-meant-to-be mentality over-ruling the fun out of each story.

Then, after all my nitpicking, it goes and scores the big points among films this year by (practically) erupting with the most surprisingly genuine ending. (Bastard!) Terrific: Finally, a seed of sentimentality that doesn’t feel artificially fertilized.


Directed by Patty Jenkins
grade: B-Obvious of me to state that it’s a film structured, angled and marketed around a single performance, and that this performance, on its own (as with other staggering displays in mediocre films), makes the film (grumble) worth seeing; Not so obvious of me (or not) to tell you that Monster shows up hopelessly dumbed down all over, constant rib jabbing in tow, carefully leaving nothing for the audience to glean from but Theron’s performance-as-a-train-wreck (Why the train analogies all the time, Ben? What’s that about, anyway?). For example: I’m sure Wuornos didn’t explicitly spell out, each time she was offing a john, the exact demon she was exorcising; Here, it’s as if she’s toting a list around, informing each of her victims, one-by-one, that she was: Raped at 8 (check), beaten at home (check), hates, distrusts, and loathes all men (check) and, uh, that she’s having a wee bit of trouble getting her life together (double check). Patty Jenkins – whose direction is more often merely proficient rather than interesting – seems to stop the creative train (there we go again!) at using Journey to spearhead the spirit of Wuornos (Don’t Stop Believin’ plays so prominently, there’s almost a title card that reads: Take literally). “There’s good in her” and “wounded animal” are phrases that have been kicked around in most notices – – and it’s Theron who communicates that, not the filmmaking or [sic] the script. It’s a numbing experience, just the same, watching this horrible set of circumstances unravel. It left me feeling very much as I felt watching Bully – horrible murders in Florida, unrepentant characters, white static techno booming over the conclusion – but I didn’t leave with a sense that Wuornos was a real life character or that anything that occurred in the film could have taken place on a plane outside a filmic context. It’s all raw, and extremely unpleasant – especially the moments where things seem to be going okay for the characters (because the bottom can always be seen collapsing) – but aside from the ridiculous voice-over narration (cut the line about that explains the duality of the title, I’m beggin’ ya), Monster never really plays both sides with any card but the Theron ace. In the end, we completely empathize with a main character who decided to quit hooking and start murdering instead. It’s not a question of morality so much as it is a question of painting the portrait without a whole hell of a lot of objectivity. Didn’t help that I had already seen Broomfield’s first Wuornos documentary. (Quick: Who would play Nick Broomfield if the movie went past the courtroom verdict sequence?)


House of Sand and Fog
Directed by Vadim Perelman
grade: BPeople comparing it to In the Bedroom are a bit off base, as that film would likely have picked up where this one leaves off; Also, less literary than the former, deeply naturalistic Todd Field film – House of Sand and Fog makes no bones about its essential tie to the source medium: Parallels upon unified themes upon impossibly two sided complications, underlined to invoke a sense of chaos within the viewer (or, to divide the viewers down the center; picture that car ride home for the older couple sitting next to you, one who agreed Connelly deserved her house back no matter what the cost to others, the other believing that Kingsley was the supreme victim here, and shouldn’t be penalized for the County’s wrongdoing). My biggest problem is with Ron Eldard’s character – almost too carefully placed as the foil for nearly everything that happens to everyone (which we could chalk up, partially, to the author, Andre Dubus, III, if only Eldard wasn’t so clumsy and impossibly forceful as the philandering cop). It’s being touted as Connelly’s attempt to battle the Supporting Actress Oscar curse, but the film so belongs to Kingsley from minute one. Always better when he is playing the hell out of the ambiguous side of unscrupulous, never better than when he’s playing a foreigner – – – and, par for the course, brilliant at playing a paean of unbending will (Don Logan, ten years later – – – and Iranian?). Watching it unfold is probably its strong point, as it seems to be endlessly floating towards complete and utter disaster (sometimes quite literally), but finds stock in the old adage of twisting: An audience never tires of a moving target. (Well, almost never; I’m sure there was plenty of snoring on opening day [in 1989], when Moving Targets, starring Ernest Borgnine and Linda Blair opened.)


21 Grams
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
grade: BHoly shit, for about thirty minutes, this thing was definitely the best thing I saw all year. Then, much to my dismay, everything exciting and cubist about it quickly devolves into an impossibly before-and-after structure – – – the scenes get longer, leaving the focus on the somewhat strained plot line about man consoling woman about dead family with a complex “thank you” that, then, turns completely around, offering her the chance to do the same. (The focus, I think, would have better served this viewer, were it purely on putting this whole mess of emotions together in my head as the film pretty much collage’d the story). But that heart, oh, that heart…there’s so much that depends on that heart. And so much that just seems too careful and perfect to be true. Luckily, all three performers – the consoler (Penn), the woman (Watts) with the dead family  and the ex-con (Del Toro) who accidentally killed them – are in terrific, giving performances that complement Inarritu’s (now?) trademark use of reality in a box (read: hand-held) on a surface of pure, unadulterated grain. In short – it hints at how powerful the storytelling could have been (were it fragmented) and supplements this tease-and-lack with heavy gravy. (And just for the record, I think Songs: Ohia’s “Translation” would have made a much better end credits tune than anything bellowed through Dave Matthews’ pop-gash of a throat).


Cabin Fever
Directed by Eli Roth
grade: C+Originally – in my head, at least – I graded Cabin Fever much higher but, upon recollection, I’ve realized that, uh, I…have…no…recollection. Movie is expressly divided from other teenage horror films because it appears, immediately, to be unable to take itself seriously and (dare I say) almost feels like the stuff of a great lampoon. Unfortunately, very little of it is memorable (however entertaining); Roth almost seems to be having a good time keeping his film within the current horror film-packaging laws (gore, sex, constant use of the f-word, partying, etc.), almost too good a time – which keeps everything coasting somewhere between too dumb to possibly be intentional and too bland to actually be interesting. Not nearly as bad as suggested by the long, almost thirty minute rant a co-worker of mine went on after seeing it one weekend. (Though not nearly as good as my older brother inferred – the firm believer that it’s one of the best send-ups of horror films ever made, and is truly a masterwork. Well, maybe he didn’t say masterwork…)


Buffalo Soldiers
Directed by Gregor Jordan
grade: B-Phoenix plays Elwood, who is meant to fit the mold of total badass, but never seems to spend enough time reveling in his prankster deeds – especially when they veer on terroristic during the rivalry with Glenn. It seems almost redundant, then, to make him into a rebel without a cause, and constantly observe the character cooking (sometimes with heroin) and scheming, but never, essentially, owning his destiny by the end of the day. Luckily, Buffalo Soldiers is mostly a comedy – with dark elements occasionally overstaying their already thin welcome – that wrangles an hilarious performance out of Elwood and his boss (Ed Harris, a sad sack colonel hell bent on promotion and subsequent vineyard purchase). Dimestore Dr. Strangelove with political innuendo of the same vein as Wag the Dog or The Contender, deftness falling somewhere in between the levels of those films. I can see where the U.S. military might take offense but, you know, the film doesn’t feel absurdist or over-the-top in any fashion – – – could it be that Jordan & Co. touch a nerve? (Oh, and it’s no M*A*S*H, people. Come on, now).


Capturing the Friedmans
Directed by Andrew Jarecki
grade: AThe rare documentary that is told with objectivity as a goal, but still demands that we take a side almost from the opening moments. Using home movies (whose existence can only be called miraculous), the contrast between painterly, familial bliss (on film) and the outbursts and last nights (on video) – all of it shot before any sort of documentary was conceived – makes the genuine quality of the family’s long road from happy to chaotic the most precious. Jarecki’s use of present day interviews adds another dimension to the contrast, giving us the principles, refining their words, sometimes clearly erecting a completely different picture than the video footage would bely. Patriarch Arnold and youngest son Jesse’s possible involvement in mass child molestation fronted as a computer class is uniquely disturbing, but so are the methods of the police and the seeming mass hysteria that uprooted the upper class neighborhoods of Great Neck, New York. Like the best seemingly unbiased documentaries (it reminded me of both Paradise Lost and Daughter from Danang), Capturing the Friedmans is not only compelling, but mentally pressing: You really feel like you have to choose sides to avoid getting a migraine in attempts to decipher the complexity of its actual – however illogical – outcome. Like Irreversible, it’s not really all that pleasant to watch, but you have to admire the way it confronts you.


Freddy vs. Jason
Directed by Ronny Yu
grade: D-Upgraded from an F because the chick from Ginger Snaps is topless (albeit, from an overhead angle). The rest is a complete failure of crossover and self-deprecation (it feels like its merely pretending to poke fun at itself). Watch this and Rugrats Go Wild on a double bill for a lovely evening of completely marring the originality of characters by herding them into a detention area with other somewhat original characters and, subsequently, poking them with the money stick.


Directed by Christine Jeffs
grade: C-Some of Paltrow’s most dubious sequences (particularly the lamp-staring session at close) are often merely hilarious distraction from this wholly dull reading from the book of the dummies’ guide to intellectualist highs and lows. Patently idiotic title shouldn’t allow you to believe that one second of Sylvia penetrates the character of Sylvia; Miss Plath could have gone by pretty much any name. It is a great feat watching Daniel Craig (unconvincingly) attempt to reconcile a relationship whose very inclusion seems like the very thinnest attempt at lightening up her life story. The very moment when Paltrow’s shit-sulk face catches up to her daffiness (pre-suicide lamp gazing alert!) should be the moment where the film begins. Instead of being buried in the last three minutes, I mean.


Girl With a Pearl Earring
Directed by Peter Webber
grade: C+Sets and period milieau are often exactly as I’d hoped: Dark, unclean and humble. When it abandons the inexplicably obvious digi-exteriors, Girl With a Pearl Earring is just the 17th- century world I wanted to experience. Unfortunately, it has been reached through a host story that makes the one in Gangs of New York look practically competent by comparison: Girl is maid, she maids around with a painter, he has strife, they maid without maiding, he paints her, unnecessary gasping and scandal ensue; Dialogue written, often, to cause uncontrollable mass wincing. The performances are too often diluted by contrasting attitudes (prudish and sleazy ones),  but somehow the indelible joy of seeing the wallflower blossom is still owned lock, stock and so forth by Scarlet Johanssen (a character wisely kept, often, silent). Somewhere in the background an underdeveloped raised eyebrow at both class and religious discord is completely wasted. Humming in the foreground is Alexandre Deplat’s dreamy, Oscar-nominated music – – – also one of the most obtrusive scores of this past year (a year that saw a whopping 4 James Horner credits!) Ultimately, its still a made up story about a painting: dimensionless and, uh, made up.


City of God
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
grade: A-Gets the film student in me partially excited. Sustains that part while making valid, screaming social message. Still manages to keep me excited even though, down in my heart, I know that Meirelles has studied a number of other films that most film students were (or still are) excited about (Goodfellas, Boogie Nights, etc.) It’s the rare (rather badass) trick to glean from films you know people will know you gleaned from and still make your own film every bit as good and as now as those films were in their times without looking like an out and out thief.


Swimming Pool
Directed by Francois Ozon
grade: CIt starts out promising and continues to promise – practically right up to the last five minutes. There’s some eerie bits of twist scattered throughout (Rampling’s old lady bitch demeanor as a front for a more vicious fantasy, for one), but for any moment charged with suspense, there’s about ten more that fizzle horribly (the Charles Dance character, it is barely inferred, is slimy – why exactly? If the whole thing is a commentary – on what I couldn’t really say, exactly – then why does it seem to wink as if it has pulled off some sort of artful feat? It’s kind of like Adaptation. but instead of it being a joke, it seems sort of preachy: Something in the “entertainment must be trashy or no one will like it” vein). If, underneath, it is commentary, then Swimming Pool is a sort of pretentious blunder, as I don’t feel the least bit guilty about enjoying it solely for the nudity.


The Triplets of Belleville
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
grade: A-This year’s most original work (even for animation). Lean, witty and exceptionally drawn, The Triplets of Belleville is easily the best animated film I’ve seen since Spirited Away. Its throwaway cartoon-isms and utterly bizarre Yellow Submarine edge make it feel like something so special, so unique as to be worshipped rather than seen. I’m going to stop right here before I have to clean off the keyboard.


In the Cut
Directed by Jane Campion
grade: C+So, Jane Campion is making elongated music videos, now? (As The Piano gets further and further from memory, I reflect: Let the blur technique go already, lady). In the Cut, despite itself, is recommendable on the strength of Mark Ruffalo’s mind blowing performance, his first shot at leading man-dom since You Can Count on Me. I love this guy. It’s no secret. Now, if he could just resist the temptation to hang out in films that make him the male foil to a “go-girl” vibe, reached only through strange sexual encounters (see also: xx/xy). I still enjoy the way characters in Campion’s films seem to interact as if they’re actually people, a talent she fumbles (but doesn’t drop) here, putting it – predominantly – in the hands of Meg Ryan, whose performance can only be called “brave” from the standpoint that she actually allowed them to sell this film on her full nude body (um, really, who cares?) As Ryan navigates around her slinking half sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh playing the Jennifer Jason Leigh character), a completely untrustworthy male character (Ruffalo, so aptly making lemons out of a lemonade-ish character, if I ever saw one) and the tic-y Kevin Bacon “obsessive” character (three out of every four movies, now, for Bacon). In other words, everyone but Ruffalo seems to be floating on their usual routines, which makes it such a crime that this film even exists; What a tease: A great performances constantly obstructed by a bunch of mediocre ones. And serial killer plots where characters are all calm and normal around savage murder circumstances should be retired. Seriously.


Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over [2-D version]
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
grade: C+Just like Island of Lost Dreams, the first Spy Kids sequel, Game Over starts out incredibly strong, with goofy cracks and imaginative landscapes that seem to echo the fun, hallucinatory success of the first film. And just like Island of Lost Dreams, Game Over plummets minutes into its second act. It isn’t that I mind the dimestore effects – quite the opposite, in fact: Pieces of the video game world looked uncommonly well transplanted from the video game consciousness to a virtual reality space, as if the hybrid couldn’t be envisioned as anything but a 2-D video game system where 3-D players have carte blanche; As a bonus, it looks a great deal like Attack of the Clones on acid. Unfortunately, it devolves into a series of dumb sight gags (Sly Stallone talking to his alter egos) and the inevitable teen beat Carmen trotting out the tough girl one-liners (the ones that make you wince with embarrassment for you and her). Also, don’t get me started on Ricardo Maltaban learning the true meaning of humility from his wheelchair and the usual sappy pro family message that Rodriguez seems to slap onto the ending without actually incorporating anything that came before it. Though I liked this film better than Island of Lost Dreams, they both lack the momentum to see their characteristically formula driven save-the-world narrative work as well as it did in the first film. (Salma Hayek’s in it though. That’s worth a smidgen of forgiveness, no?)


The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
Directed by Errol Morris
grade: BIt is a great big whopping deal that we hear certain “truths” from the horse’s mouth. However, as we watch McNamara spill his beans, refuse to apologize and  illustrate the terrifying quality of his character (that is, he still stands by his former role as the manager of a corporation – the USA – hell bent on murder and domination), it’s almost the very tack of self importance that seems to deflate the film; It’s obvious that Morris has something very special here, but it’s all he can do not to insert the same brilliant sense of objectivity that makes him the foremost creator of documentary films in the very same USA. This is easily Morris’ most homogenized, mainstream film; a seemingly genuine portrayal of a man whose very life is dotted with his experiences behind the scenes of  some of the most notoriously heinous acts in our history (The firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, the Cuban missile crisis and the debacle in Vietnam and, hell, he even picked out the spot where JFK was to be buried). Stylistically, The Fog of War is most easily Morris’ sole Oscar contender for a very palpable reason: It is his least wiry, least harebrained, least eccentric – and most accessible film to date. The eleven lessons are a moderate framing device (they seem to come from and extend through McNamara as a whole, but also feel like about ten too many overall). The film doesn’t have the power of Morris’ earlier films, the sort of hazy big picture at close wherein Fred Leuchter or Stephen Hawking represent some sort of terrifically unanswerable question about humanity, (or a mind-blowing catharsis like Randall Dale Adams going, uh, free). The 88 year old McNamara, a huge personality with a scratch-tastic voice that sounds as if it is speaking from beyond the grave is an easy read. And he tells us at the end what some (me included) consider him: A sunavabitch.


Masked and Anonymous
Directed by Larry Charles
grade: D+“Sometimes its not enough to know what things mean, but to know what they don’t mean as well”. How apropos. When Masked and Anonymous isn’t trotting out useless cameo after useless cameo, or setting up the ambiguity of a “civil war” taking place in the background, it’s carefully betraying itself with its star: Dylan couldn’t look more annoyed to be part of the film and, surprisingly, he couldn’t look cooler, either. Rants and raves from meatier players like Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange seem to play like endless loops of mentally unsound movie character blather, building their “characters” from their madness (to boot, every woman in the film is, ultimately, victimized). John Goodman, as Uncle Sweetheart (sloppy double takes as every other character calls him “sweetheart” may give you neck trouble), splits his time between praising the Dylan character (who seems neither mythic nor recognizable to anyone in the film), abusing Luke Wilson (who abuses himself with a porno mustache that’s constantly distracting) and drinking JD (you’ll love the scene where he tries to get devout non-drinker Penelope Cruz – yes, Penelope Cruz is in this debacle, too – to guzzle from his bottle). Dylan performs a bunch of tunes from “Time Out of Mind” (preferable to his most recent album, “Love and Theft”), while others – including a pitch perfect little girl – perform some of his older songs. When it follows the bitter, mumbling Dylan’s internalized casualness, and keeps from wedging him into the context of the film (these are rare moments, btw), Masked and Anonymous is a nifty double image of the singer-songwriter and his reclusive aura. Unfortunately, most of the film is about how much cleverspeak can be volleyed about among the celebs, and how the minuscule budget can appear more bloated by having twice as many cheap looking interior sets as are necessary or – worse – by having everyone act as if they showed up for the script and not to work with Dylan (you’ll see right through that inside five minutes).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: