2004 Reviews

Spartan
Directed by David Mamet
grade: B+

No one is as skillful at authoring lean misdirection with seamless flow as Mamet, here proving himself capable of turning on its ear even the most cringe worthy of premises – the kidnapping of the President’s bitchy daughter. Kilmer warms to the lingo and the lack of wasted space –  – – or, maybe warm isn’t the term, exactly; He seems to fill the emotional vacuum required of him without particular matinee idol allure or evidence of foggy naiveté (I guess Mamet broke him down or was able to explain just why the pauses are there and how to follow the plot points). Previous mention of zero fat policy should not go unnoticed: It surfaces quite potently on several occasions as I felt myself effortlessly floating in the master’s hands, giddy smile forming on my face. Most stellar are the crop of red herring tricks, narrative forward momentum with the snapback of a car crash (i.e. – no one is safe from whatever just happened, even if they happen to be a main character) and the unwavering sense of necessity Mamet seems to allow his characters whenever they smell a side glanced detail. (That is, when they’re not looking badass.) Could all (or, more, anyhow) thrillers be this smart, please?

(3/13)


The Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson
grade: C

Forget the life-imitates-art irony that Icon Productions cooked up to market this film (pitting two religions against each other, just as in The Passion of the Christ). Forget the murmurs among your peers that the violence in the most widely seen subtitled movie ever is overwhelming (it’s nothing if not numbing, in my opinion – “We get it, we get it, the dude got beaten up“). And whether it happened, didn’t happen, it’s historically accurate, or less so – all of it is completely irrelevant; The suspected anti-Semitism is a gray area at best – or, more articulately, it’s a kind of risky hazard. The film is obviously meant to be the unfurled narrative of one faith’s intolerance of another faith. That the persecutors are Jewish doesn’t seem to be highlighted or used maliciously. The quote at the beginning obviously means us to appreciate what Jesus has done – if you believe in that sort of thing – which sets up two more irks: 1) it marks a target audience (believers) making this a borderline exclusive prize for pop culture Christians, and 2) it gives the appearance that Gibson wants to push – I’ll just come out and say it – guilt (as, say, a Catholic might). I’m not particularly intimidated by the movie’s secular politics, but it stands to reason that perhaps Christians deserve a better film for their controversy (The Last Temptation of Christ, maybe?). But anyhow. The story has been told to tatters and it’s a decidedly open-and-shut case (the only surprises are the silly deviations or reimaginings). The Passion of the Christ gets plugged up in literal translation – even when it’s being boring, as in the long, sagging “road to calvary” sequence wherein the same thing seems to be happening over and over again (for thirty minutes of screen time). The violence is used in the same way hand-held photography is used: To express an asymmetrical, scruffy realism. If the result is meant to be one where suffering transcends love, why did I feel like I’d been pummeled by the film rather than enlightened by it? Caveziel’s is an interesting Jesus – as was Willem DeFoe’s; I think there’s probably only bad or interesting. I’m not sure I could call the portrayal of perhaps the most widely interpreted character in the world’s history good or, you know, accurate. The use of a bald, pale satan – on the other hand – is clumsy at best; His presence seems to be the catalyst for most of the Nine Inch Nails’ video images [maggots crawling from noses, ghoul-spirits jumping out suddenly and, oh yes, that baby satan that turns out to be a mini-me-esque satan midget instead (I’m not kidding).] Gibson’s mise-en-scene for dummies suits the melodrama of this tale (rudimentary overuse of slow-motion and Mel’s trademark figure moving among a muted crowd shot seem almost insultingly lazy, though). The last shots (I’m really not spoiling anything, you know what happens) of the boulder being moved and a squeaky clean JC moving into the frame, displaying the holes in his hands – – these shots are probably the goofiest thing about the movie: At once new age-y and characteristic of an ajar sequel door, they were the only thing that topped the slow motion bag of coins being tossed to Judas as moments where I stifled a deviously inappropriate laugh. A less profound movie riding a crest of loud word-of-mouth (where ever I go, I have to hear about this movie, you see) I couldn’t imagine; A better title might have been The Beating of the Christ.

[And was it just me, or is “We don’t have all day” a more modern saying? It’s uttered in the film twice, by different Roman guards who, incidentally, are not wearing wristwatches.]

(3/14)


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Directed by Michael Gondry
grade: A-

Presumably, Gondry’s film is a cinematic simulation of Alzheimer’s as seen through the brightly colored filter of a cartoon fable; Kaufman’s is a (natch) labyrinthine allegory, channeling the cruelly fluctuating perspective of a newly broken-up couple through the radical procedure of mental erasure – – as envisioned through the shamelessly irresponsible practice that is Lacuna, Inc. (whose role is assumed, not advertised – a wise move clearly meant to distance it from Being John Malkovich‘s JM, Inc.); Winslet’s film is clearly a re-launching of her talent, easily her best performance to date; Carrey’s is essentially a role usurped by the narrative – which makes it all the more stunning that we are so easily made vulnerable to his suffering (This is his most satisfying balance of straight and funny yet attempted; the mind fuck and manipulation he receives recalls a worst version of the one in Memento or, even the con in Matchstick Men). I feel like I’m accepting an award: Everything about the movie is amazing. Ruffalo, Dunst, Wood and Wilkinson – all playing Lacuna’s crack staff – seem to revel in their tawdry work; The performances are fine, but the characters are exceptionally twisted – each one a more strangely casual monster than the next. (They’re also quite funny.) Love the way the concept is displayed, find it ever more intimidating (by which I mean mind blowing) that Kaufman is able to conjure these premises and, still, wiggle around in them – using his own rules. There’s a moment of realization in the film that, I’ll admit, made me really want to turn to the wife and say, “Did you see that? Can you believe that?” (And you know me – I’m not easy or anything.) I’m pants-pissing excited for a second viewing and doubtful I’ll see anything that absorbed me quite as amiably as Eternal Sunshine did this year.

(3/27)


Kill Bill: Vol. 2
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
grade: B+

It’s hard to nail a grade to this film as an independent piece; The bulk of what’s great about it is the promise that, tacked to the first film, an epic of unimaginable interest and excitement will be born. This one foots the real transition of character for both The Bride and the title character (here, we first meet Bill, get acquainted, then follow his trajectory to an obligatory comeuppance). It’s real clear, for instance, that the movie was divided in two for marketing – and possible comfort – reasons (though some of use don’t mind being exhausted by a film – and despise being pandered to by a studio). There’s a falsely stilted flavor (i.e. – we’re watching the second half of a film and it feels like the second half of a feature) that is almost distracting sometimes. But enough of the rant. What’s actually encased in the deux moniker is awesome: The Bride’s training with smart ass kung-fu master Pei Me, her brutal confrontations with the remaining DiVAS (a down-and-out Michael Madsen and spunky, nearsighted – literally and figuratively – Daryl Hannah), and her eventual return for the big finale all contain blood hopping set pieces and long, dialogue heavy sequences of Tarantinospeak that (thankfully) drips with his own brand of super cool. And above all, it’s the final confirmation that this is, in every sense, Uma’s movie. While tirelessly single-minded and brutally successful at her one woman revenge streak in Vol. 1, more dimensional melted shades abound in this outing: Sensitive, vulnerable, and incredibly self-contained, Vol. 2‘s most wonderful surprise is how full figured the full figured Thurman’s full circle really is. Even though the film itself seems undermined by existing in quasimodo form – – Uma seems to benefit from having her performance bisected. Here, she’s believable as the mommy and as the warrior (and it makes perfect sense that the Twin Pines Massacre was left out of Vol. 1, but opens – and sets the stage – for Vol. 2); And overall, she’s believable as a creature of truth – the perfect heroine for a campy kicker epic. So, on one front, I’m sticking up for the volume structure and, on another, I’m daming it. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just sit on one side or the other?

(4/16)


Dogville
Directed by Lars Von Trier
grade: A-

Von Trier is an astute moralist – and an exciting filmmaker. The expectation can never be for the sugar-coated or the easy to digest, and Dogville is no deviation. This is a sharply critical film rooted in human nature (aside from the recent cry of anti-American sentiment, but I’ll get to that later); The astonishing universality which practically erupts, is matched only by the ferocity of Von Trier’s risks – – and his rousing success with the aesthetic (namely, the bare stage, but also some of the framing devices: the curtain over the apple truck, the sundial effect, etc.) I love the idea that things are either black or white (just as the backgrounds which stand for night and day), that the sensibility of experimentation with society – even of the amateur sort Tom performs with the people of Dogville – is as dangerous as leaving the society to exist without such provacation, and the double meanings to everything which, we see, is a reflexive technique: Von Trier seeks to have his audience expose their own fears and desires to themselves; Just as in Irreversible, the natural urge to see justice done is met with an even stronger pull in the other direction when we finally realize that justice is as appalling as the crimes being avenged (none of the characters in the film do the right thing – but whether there is a “right thing” to do is the much larger and more relevant question the film is asking). And it is just this potent lack that not only seems to reject the intentions of the (clearly) last minute photo montage – and obvious song choice – as pandering to an unnecessary hot button atmosphere, but it seems almost like a contradiction to indicate that the film is meant to be a knock at Americans in specific. Land of the free, poverty amidst wealth and current state of things aside (as the film was written before the Bush Administration by the way), Dogville works as a strong medicine; This is a film that critiques all of mankind, not necessarily those who live in America.

(5/8)


Japanese Story
Directed by Sue Brooks
grade: B-

From the get-go, Japanese Story feels like it has a gloomy date with destiny. Something about it feels innately – and bluntly – pre-ordained. It’s most nauseating feature is how it seems to play on the audience’s expectations of this something, to a fault. The first act bounces through genre tags – fish-out-of-water/odd couple/working girl’s inconvenient bump in the road of contentment  – and plays with the viewer on more than one level (i.e. – there’s foreshadowing about [plot point withheld], but there’s also the feeling that you’ve sat down to watch, um, this generic crap). Then the second act – whose twist you’d have to be blind to miss – comes along, practically saving the movie by moving it from a survival sequence (using characters who are at each other’s throats) into an offbeat love story. It’s the third act that’s the humdinger – and the one that’s, at heart, both absolutely stunning and unconscionably problematic. Toni Collette and Gotaro Tsunashima are both terrific; She’s a good sport about playing such a strangely familiar, yet obtuse character and his melting stereotypes are quite well-honed – although I’m not sure why there are so many scenes of the two of them acting like stoned teenagers, running their hands along each other’s skin as if it were made of carpet. Saving the film, to be sure, are the small details – both the practical and throwaway ones (I want to spoil about ten of them, but I just can’t bring myself to). There’s a performance, by Collette’s partner (at the [sic] geology firm), that will make you cringe repeatedly. We’ll talk more after you’ve seen it. Christ, I hate spoiler warnings and that I have to bother with them.

(5/13)


Shrek 2
Directed by Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon.
grade: C+

It seems to glide more on the oddity of its characters than its predecessor (it helps that its about proving true love instead of finding it and being accepted as different while simultaneously finding out you’re the same on a goddamn technicality); But that doesn’t let it off the hook for: a) miring in same focus group-approved comedy as it so cretinously “delighted” us with in the first film, b) employing fucking Smash Mouth (again), and c) ending the film with all the characters on a stage singing ‘La Vida Loca’ (seriously). I was able to enjoy it more from moment to moment, possibly because it didn’t feel as adamently designed to tickle adults as possible (it felt more story-driven to me, even though it turns into a quest-for-the-lost-something-or-other movie for about thirty minutes). I didn’t necessarily laugh too much more, but I wasn’t bitter at the end either (at least, not until I realized the horrible Ricky Martin tune was tattooed to my brain, that is). Note to the writers, though: In Shrek 3, let’s make Banderas’ Puss in Boots character the center of attention. (Also, big extra points for the pirate piano player who plays both ‘A Little Drop of Poison’ by Tom Waits and ‘People Ain’t No Good’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In a film full of crappy music (and anachronistic – does pop music in medieval times bother anyone else?), this was a welcome antidote to the ear cancer).

(5/24)

Miracle
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
grade: B-

Kurt Russell’s hardass-with-a-heart-of-gold hockey coach is probably the best reason to see Miracle, a movie that moves in so predictably Disney a way, (It is as if it’s hammering points home for the blind using blinking lights; Exposition for the extraordinarily dull-minded.) I will wholeheartedly admit to enjoying it – even the long stretch where scene after scene is intense hockey training followed by INTENSE MIND GAMES followed by more intense hockey training; Even a two hour plus movie centered entirely around a single game – whose outcome we already know – can still be exciting and somewhat suspenseful. It falls into a category with a handful of films whose stories are true and certainly worth telling but, could do without a straight-up commercial artist – and his corporate dictators – at the helm. (In short, treat it as a Russell vehicle. Everything else has been assured, determined and pre-arranged for your comfort.)

(5/25)


Troy
Directed by Wolfgang Peterson
grade: C-

There’s an oddly bleak odor to watching warmongers, in any way shape or form. Rarely seen engaging in real life, the characters in Troy seem to have instead engaged in a bet to see which of them could become grand warmonger. Since there doesn’t seem to be any shade between shouting demands, redfaced, and declaring love, face absolutely purple, no one ever emerges as anything like larger-than-life ought really to be. Bana comes the closest, etching the briefest of sparks of character (or, at the very least, demonstrating his ability to change his expression). While Pitt employs his usual ego-budgeted Hollywood schtick (boring man-hunk groan tethered to his cute-as-a-lisp crackball delivery), Bloom is busy proving himself right out of a career (Pirates of the Caribbean was no fluke!), Gleeson, Bean and Miss Burrows are relegated to background banter and, the beloved entertaining, Brian Cox, actively lobbying for a Raspberry Award (with a side of great big ham). The story feels clipped and arranged from frame one; Gladiator is the obvious model, but Troy isn’t sure if its passing its second rate sets and washed out look off as camp, or, um, what? Worse than its identity confusion is its ham-fisted dialogue (“Don’t take my lands”, one general says; “But I like your lands,” the bully general answers) Benioff – so strong with 25th Hour – can’t seem to tell an interesting story. (Though in Troy, just as in 25th Hour, the political parallels seem accidentally relevant – – though it really is just a coincidence after all). He can, however, remind you in every one of Pecs’ scenes that he wants his name to echo through eternity. Just like that Maximus fellow…

[I look forward to another Summer where I’ll be punished for not being able to have “fun” at the movies; And this from people who’ve forgotten what the opposite of fun is, anyway..]

(5/30)


Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer
Directed by Nick Broomfield
grade: B

If Broomfield’s original documentary drove the point home that Aileen couldn’t receive a fair trial because of the media brand “first female serial killer”, and Monster drove home the point (quite erroneously, in fact) that she was exorcising demons all in the confines of self defense, then Life and Death of a Serial Killer acts as an articulation agreement of these points, underlining most eloquently the permanent reverberation of her endlessly cruel childhood, the fragility of her mind in her last year (prior to an October, 2002 execution) and, thankfully, the exact meaning of the “seven joint ride”. Not quite the pile of damning-the-death-penalty evidence I’d hoped arm myself with (on the soapbox, that is), but it certainly presents a head-cracker of a dilemna: A woman who openly wants to die – but whose mental state seems to dictate further review on the subject.

(6/2)


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
grade: B

It’s a B, mind, but it’s certainly not the same sort of B I’d stamped Chamber of Secrets two Novembers ago (a grade since regretted following multiple half viewings half seen as my halfling watched them out of half her eye in my half house living room…); Azkaban has enough great cinema to make you truly want to forget the first two uber-dry installments ever existed (Albeit, it has its share of momentum-guzzling pointer scenes and an ending as rushed and compressed as Columbus’ pair). The flavor Cuaron invests his storytelling with is darker and so much more interesting to follow; the film washes over – rather than floods – your chambers. A new director makes the characters almost seem new, with Radcliffe finally stepping out of the cartoonish, obvious line readings and nearly inhabits the title character’s range (or, as nearly as we’re likely to get, at any rate). It’s also the best cast yet, with Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis and (pause for salivation) Gary Oldman who, sadly, is given much less to do than his nearly two-hour buildup would suggest; Ironically, Hagrid’s gigantic pet’s plight turns out to be much more moving than the one referred to after Harry Potter and

(6/7)


The Day After Tomorrow
Directed by Roland Emmerich
grade: C

Most films that skew facts do so in a way that suggests that they’re merely fudging reality rather than obviously and utterly fictionalizing it for the sake of keeping comfortable a good story. The Day After Tomorrow – another broadsiding from the demon of digi-truth, Roland Emmerich – flagrantantly sensationlizes, repeatedly, without ever going to the awful trouble to spin a slightly intriguing yarn. The effects are eye-popping (some of the ambitions of this dimwitted tale – particularly the magnitude of things – pay off well in that respect); Gyllenhal isn’t, though – – somehow, he continues to avoid being mocked outright by critics and audiences alike (his sister stole the talent in their genes, clearly). I was particularly overjoyed to see Emmerich has brought back the same constant cutaways to incidental, isolated characters, whose presence is entertained soley to comment in expository terms and get killed instantly, as if to squeeze the lightest bit of sentimental goo out of their very existence; Really, I had hoped The Patriot was a better step towards harmless popcorn entertainment than it was (he said, with the sour taste of Independence Day and Godzilla lingering like old feces on his gums). Even the audience I watched with seemed to be chastising the film; How cruel, I thought, as I watched the world feel the perilous freezing temperatures, a seeming result of Dennis Quaid’s (coincidental) that-day Global warming-warning – – and then watched some more, as the world was, subsequently saved because, ostensibly, Dennis Quaid skied from Philly to the New York City Public Library to be with/save/make up for lost time with his son. His wife wanted to be there, but she was busy caring her darndest for bald cancer patients in Mexico or, as it’s seen in this film, the country we’ll overtake (nicely and ironically) when the U.S. popsicle-izes. Did I mention that a Russian cargo liner floats into Downtown New York City, stopping long enough to showcase the showdown between love-lorn Jakey, his cronies and two vicious, man-eating wolves? Oh, well, that happens too.

(6/10)


Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring
Directed by Kim Ki-Duk
grade: A-

[I hated the review I wrote. Then I rewrote it. And I hated that one. Now, I’ve edited down to just the essentials, because I can’t stand looking at it any more.]

Absolutely enthralling mini-masterpiece…Uniting the four (or five, depending on perspective) title seasons is the floating monastery itself…Melding quiet comfort of Eastern religion into a dreamy haze of greens and browns…Cinematagrophy looks almost naturally occuring…It’s the kind of film you see and then walk around stuck in, like a spacey bubble, for the next few hours…Third best thing I’ve seen thusfar in o-four.

[I usually don’t write anything of much more value than this anyway; At least it’s somewhat lean.]

(6/12)


Farenheit 9/11
Directed by Michael Moore
grade: B-

[I tried very hard to write this without showing my favored hand.]

It’s a paradox, to be sure: A sometimes great, always exhaustive work of propoganda without a hint of profundity. I had no trouble following Moore’s politics this time around, but he has yet to leave the goofball tactics of a ringleader on the sidelines; At this point, doing so would be a major statement of how serious he is – – and no movie would benefit from that as the sure-to-be revered and reviled pop-conspiracy theory bundle of opinons that is Farenheit 9/11. (At least he stays out of the frame more). Actually, to be fair, at least the last 2/3 of Farenheit 9/11almost spotlessly unfold in a flurry of found footage and narration that seems to be no longer joking with its audience as if the two of them – Moore and the audience – were seated in a bar somewhere near his ever-referenced hometown of Flint, Michigan. It’s this portion of the film that seems to contain the most moments that make you want to stand up and get angry, get rowdy and buy a bumper sticker. It also makes me wish – along with Jeff Gibbs’ quasi-Phillip Glass drone score – that Errol Morris had made this film instead of one dissecting events of a foggier, times past-war. Profiling the bloodshed of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians in the current Iraq war, Moore seems to find his inner human interest reporter (occasionally bleeding a moment until it is so dry it begins to fleck, too, mind). Unlike the strong emotional reaction I had to Bowling for Columbine where I instantly gave the film an A- before it settled (to a B+, then later a B, you’ll recall), this one made me feel social and mobilized. The audience I was with (who gave the film a standing ovation – a rarity in the multiplex these days) were hushed and completely rapt, defying the full house gamble: Either it’s going to be a circus of talkers and noisemakers or a shocked, silent bunch. (I wondered, though, what it would be like to view a film this full of contempt for one administration (or, mostly, one man) with a more balanced, less middle-class twentysomething audience.) I also predicted that the least I’d get out of it would be to see that political filmmaking can be popular when a nation isn’t floating in the status quo, which underlines the value of the medium (something that eases the constant, nagging feeling of worthlessness I feel sitting through so much mediocrity). I could’ve made out real good selling “Fuck Bush” T-shirts on the way out of the theater – – but isn’t it irresponsible to program people to hate the thing you accuse of trying to program us? Is making a film that sidesteps slander by claiming patriotism – in other words, riding the rebirth of the very nationalism you’re blaming one man for drumming up – really sort of, well, underhanded? Can a film that has received this much attention – negative or otherwise – ever receive a fair shake? That the film inspires a great number of interesting and important questions by its existence alone – not so much for the content (however informative) within – does that irony ruin the experience? Not really.

(6/26)


Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber
grade: C

At odds with the fact that I obviously laughed a number of times – and that I enjoy watching Vince Vaughn in this sort of role – but found the material and its presentation so lacking, so unbelievably forgettable, that I almost felt guilty for the brief moments of genuine pleasure I got out of the film. If Ben Stiller continues to play this over-the-top, I think it is my patriotic duty to continue bringing Zoolander – and its parade of complete and utter suckiness – to his attention. Not that I think his playing straight necessarily works all the time either (Meet the Parents is mediocre drivel, and you’re all wrong) – – but he clearly felt he had stake in this
debacle (producer credit, wife playing main character, scenery chewing role from start to finish). The subtitle “A True Underdog Story” only calls more attention to how bare the bones of the losers-come-from-behind plot really feels (all the extra chances everyone gets at the end make the characters and the sport seem almost unfit for entertainment). Trashy summer comedy at a limp-dick clip (I would say that Rip Torn’s participation clinches it), showcasing yet again the audience still has to care if the “underdogs” win for this to be an actual “movie”.

[7/3: On the can this morning, reading Lisa Schwarzbaum’s approach to the material (she calls parody, clearly). Just wanted to acknowledge that yes I get it and yes I understand and no, the film does not succeed as a satire on any level.]

(6/27)


Spider-Man 2
Directed by Sam Raimi
grade: B

Fusing the melodrama and the action together doesn’t seem all that seamless (And why so many scenes of Peter Parker, you know, weeping?) This is also something I said about installment #1, until viewing it two more times in its entirety and several more in parts thanks to an unprecedented show of good taste in my daughter. You may be the film’s most vocal champion, but it would be impossible to deny that its ambitious sprawl, tackling far too many subplots to float is the inevitable spur in it’s boot. Spider Man 2 does a good bit of recap – which seems strange (was there anyone on earth besides Randy who didn’t see Spider-Man?), however, all the recap seems to feed Spider-Man 2‘s ultimate hunger: Revelation. At one point, it’s not even a stretch to suspect that the screenwriters just left Spidey’s mask off because they ran out of reasons it could possible come off. The bigggest revelations come at the very end, both of which seem to serve a purpose I’ve just realized surpasses revelation: Sequel. Don’t mean to carry on like Mr. Cranky, though; The greatest part of Spider-Man 2 is a very sharp deviation from the peppy schematics of the first film: The action scenes. Not only do we actually begin to anticipate them with excitement, but they pretty much deliver – – and there’s more of them! (I’m entirely google-eyed for the speed-laced thrills of Spider-Man battling the fierce and cleverly-hatched Doc Ock ). There’s a ton of really nice touches: Parker’s (sort of) dialtone confessional to MJ, the continued comic security of J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson and Bruce Campbell as the morphing cameo (here, he’s a snooty theater usher), the Graduate-in-reverse bit at close (good point, Prigge, it is nice to see love that’s not unrequited every once and a while) and – in the very best moment in the film – a practical commentary on the discomfort of a super-hero’s costume in an awkward elevator exchange.

[Are the countless critics who are overpraising this thing lost in its Superman 2 nostalgia (good thing Summer’s seen that film, like, eighty-six times, so she could point it out), or are they using this as happy medication to ease the Farenheit 911 blues? – – – You decide. I’ve kinda lost interest, here.]

(7/4)


Starsky & Hutch
Directed by Todd Phillips
grade: B

Obviously the writers have spent many a wide-eyed-till-dawn note taking session in meticulous preparation to ape the television show and capitalize on a real duh idea. (This is me nodding to the  research, but also noting that it was just a matter of time before this film was made). They – along with rabidly successful gross-out comedy director Todd Phillips – have crafted this rather funny film that, despite the consistent use of its stars’ established personas, smoothly welcomes viewers both familiar and unfamiliar with the show (I fall, I must submit, in the latter category). Vaughn makes a terrific villian, and Snoop Dogg a very funny informant (though he’s clearly out to upstage everyone, as per his own persona), but the funniest thing about the film is how the sleepy-eyed murmur of Owen Wilson and the schmucky seriousness of Ben Stiller – though obviously reminiscent of every role they’ve ever played to date – don’t topple the satire’s balance. It’s almost a testament (to miracles, I’d say) that I’d reward a movie for infusing modern sensibilities (to the point of anachronism) into a 1970s template when this very idea – the updating of popular television shows for a new wave of cinemagoers in the pursuit of box office chu-ching – seems to be, by all rights, pure evil. Though the scene itself almost goes overboard into self-parody, our heroes’ final, inevitable exchange with the original S & H actors almost lumps the film into a bin of stale tv-turned-cinema genre entries.

(7/22)


The Big Bounce
Directed by George Armitage
grade: B

Adapted from Elmore Leanord’s novel (you could tell blindfolded, I assure you) by Sebastian Gutierrez using mostly one-liners and, you know, a couple of twists, The Big Bounce delivers on its poster jingle (“A comedy about taking a chance on paradise”), but miraculously supercedes the calm, easygoing entertainment such a dimwitted tagline implies. All the performed elements seem to be floating around sans tether – even supporters like Gary Sinise, Vinnie Jones and Charlie Sheen feel more obligatory than necessary – leaving Owen Wilson to wisely grab this opportunity by its lei-shackled horns and give – easily – his most valuable performance to date (inside a script, that is). In point of fact, the film is so apt at wringing out the wonderfully stoney-sweet pleasantries of Mr. Wilson, I might dare call his first legitimate vehicle. I’m not sure what else I’d call it; It bears none of it’s director’s offbeat whimsy (so sharp in Miami Blues and Grosse Point Blank). Quite curiously, though, The Big Bounce makes up for it’s absent Armitage mileau in sheer smoothness; There’s no thinking whatsoever involved. If you doubt me, consider this: Shots of surfers in between nearly every scene wash over you as if Armitage knows that this one – one of the least complicated meant-to-be-complicated-looking con artist films to mosey down the path in awhile – might benefit from giving the viewers a chill-out period to mull over what little information is dispensed.

[Morgan Freeman’s in it too, but he no longer acts so much as he campaigns to subvert his earlier, more well-known strong-and-serious persona.]

(7/23)


Before Sunset
Directed by Richard Linklater
grade: A

Alright, with totally dull eyes by the end – and a subjective hang-up that downgrades any critical liscense I may have possessed to class DA (decided amateur) – I submit that, in the shower earlier, I stamped my foot while reflecting on this film: “Mmm…It’s so damn good!” And since I usually have a boatload of trouble writing A reviews (you may have noticed that most are brief), this one comes four long days late. Here are my wretched excuses: The film is so experential (like nearly all of Linklater’s ouevre), it almost makes you want to pretend that instead of buying a ticket to watch it, you bought a ticket to experience it. Also, even though few read this, I’m still planning on hiding behind the spoiler alert in order to avoid dwelling on specifics. For sure, though, it’s: a) as good – if not better than – its predecessor; b) the kind of cinema that – for me – acts like most of Eric Rohmer’s work (Ben, you like Eric Rohmer?), in that I felt as if I were spending time with down-to-earth friends rather than watching two actors discuss their lives; c) maybe the first time in a modern film where I’ve seen two people un-self consciously become obsessed with an event in their lives without being made to appear wrong or sick for doing it; d) the second time this year when I’ve been genuinely upset – and almost angry – to see a film end.

[I could write a real review, but I don’t wanna.]

(7/24)


Secret Window
Directed by David Koepp
grade: C+

Since I can usually control myself, I decided not to bother this time around, in fact, I did turn to my wife and say (directly preceeding the opening credits): “There’s no possible way that any part of this film can possibly be as good as this intro sequence”. She wasn’t home when I finished it, but I would’a exercised even less control in blurting out: “There’s no possible way I can like this film when it ends the way it does”. (Which might have sounded ironic and possibly cool because the Depp character spends so much time hassling himself about the ending to the title story.) Nevertheless, what starts out as an easy throwaway complete with goofy, Dean Corsoesque one-liners, ends up sliding downward far too quickly into the snap-surprise revelation, laced with flashbacks that ruin – yes, ruin – the random genius of the aforementioned pre-title happenings. Secret Window has all the trappings of a thriller we might otherwise find easy to be indifferent about, but they all lead, sadly, to a thriller that ends by employing split personality syndrome (as if it didn’t quite know how to end on its own, and used this overused twist – quite appropriately – as a laxative). Why do I seem to be the only one who’s thoroughly annoyed that about this gimmick, now so out of control, it’s the first thing we think of rather than the last? If a thriller ends and the main character has not hallucinated once during the film – – save that one, it’s a keeper. The rest: nothing over a C+.

[I’m aware the novella was written prior to the ball-rolling The Sixth Sense – even the other big guilty one, The Usual Suspects – but someone still decided to make it knowing that reason would prove popular.]

(7/28)

Hellboy
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
grade: BThere’s so many characters quoting things (to make it more literary, perhaps?), so much background lore that’s obviously too complicated to bother explaining to the masses, and – yeah – Hellboy’s (Ron Perlman opening a weekend!) one-liner’s are often rather lame. Try to find another comic book film invested with this much obvious fanboy love and excitement that’s also nimble enough to keep its corporate leash invisible. (Hint: It doesn’t start with an X.) Beyond its sometimes visionary (yet simultaneously head scratching) digi-landscape, a plot thread about opening a portal for some reason becomes a terrific excuse to wander dark corridors and visualize the superhero as Weekly World News fodder (thereby distancing himself from Spider-Man, as they both seem to feel it’s their duty to do what they do – but while Spidey has an alter ego – Hellboy is locked into his mutanoid physique for the long haul). The seamless wonder of digital characters never ceases: The David Hyde Pierce voiced Abe (a fishman who can see the past and future by touching objects and who, for all intensive purposes, could have been the main character without issue from myself), Selma Blair’s anger triggered ball of flame, monsters with tentacles and gooey mouths, and on and on and on. Finally, Del Toro seems to have found his niche. (Sequel, please).

(7/30)

The Dreamers
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
grade: CThe trouble with my starting this notice “If you can get past the fact that people like Theo and Isabelle would never welcome into their world anyone as uptight and rigidly American as Matthew” is that, well, you’ll also have to get past how Theo and Isabelle have ambiguously leaning parents (they’re too vague, and a key scene finds us wondering exactly what their reaction really was), why their love for the cinema would make them want to join the impossibly nondescript revolution going on outside and, for pity’s sake, why in the hell Matthew would even deign to stick around anyone who believes that Chaplin is superior to Keaton. The excessive film clips become a bit bothersome after awhile (more for me, as I begin to realize my mistake in believing 1993 could be the film I wrote it to be); The very idea that these are film buffs seems to take a real quick backseat. Sure, they’re all trying to live their lives as if it were cinema – – but it seems like after the opening sequence they just flat-out stop going to the cinema. (Real cinephiles struggle because they can’t stop seeing films.) I found the wierd brother/sister bond as flimsy as their choice in friends. Luckily – as brother and sister – both Theo and Isabelle are incredibly exciting to watch, nearly thwarting the obvious contradiction between how carefully crafted everything is and, alternately, how Bohemian Bertolucci wants it to be. Another terrific set, though; The cavernous apartment – with hallways like tunnels between foxholes – is the silent star of the film. (Every time I find myself saying this, I sigh louder and louder.)

(8/1)


The Village
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
grade: B+The first twist feels much like Shyamalan delivering his norm (which is why – besides its incredible appeal to this viewer – the second twist is so valuable). It’s the kind of big, enthralling film you almost don’t want to spoil with reality after inhalation; But in between things I could nit pick to death, Shyamalan continues to grow as an artist (this being his most mature film to date without question), and continues to invest sickeningly talented casts into hilariously bizarre details that – while funny – don’t necessarily offset the graveness he’s also become rather good at sustaining. I dunno, it’s just the feeling pulsing about, the feeling that non-descript monsters (who are attracted to red) could invade a small, eighteenth century village – and all the bending and interpretation of that obviously wrong-headed logline – that makes his films so worthwhile. As in last year’s crackerjack prize Signs, I found myself becoming addicted to the sensory buzz of swimming in the haze of uncertainty; The consistent delivery of surprise over and over again.  He tells a story from a point-of-view that’s very pro-audience (he’s guessing the way you’ll see things – – ) and, at the same time, very independent-minded ( – – and, having tricked us again, has guessed right!), but he’s always sold as this “master of the thriller”. Master of the Thriller? No. Shyamalan is now the reigning champion of cinema as The Twilight Zone. Honestly, have you ever seen an episode you weren’t, at the very least, amused by?

(8/2)


13 Going on 30
Directed by Gary Winick
grade: B(I know, I know, you gotta be in the mood for these things, but here goes…) An aptly titled burrow into the collective nostalgia of those hovering near the latter title age, 13 Going on 30, resoundingly, feels like a remarkable shot at following the cookie cutter of its hook. It’s genuinely appealing hook, as I call it, is all things 80s – especially its premise, a veritable (and suitably cornball) “what if” scenario chronicling the sudden burst of maturity to a thirteen year old mourning her own slow metabolism. When it runs with the consequences (i.e. – a thirteen year old in a thirty year old’s body,  acting almost obscenely goofy) – – we’re revisiting the bleakness on the flipside of twee eighties’ movies that just couldn’t take the hint. When our heroine – played with unequivocal spunk by Jennifer Garner – finds herself living her dream life (fancy apartment/car service), working her dream job (highrise office/classic 80s gay boss) and hanging out with people who, at first, seem to actually like her (unlike the flashback sequences, where she’s unwittingly rooked by a nose-in-the-air cool-girl clique into a counterfeit game of seven minutes in heaven), the film cheerfully calls to mind the New York City fantasy of nearly any film set in the apple between the decade folds. It also has a curious sense of rapidly elapsing resolution (in that it chooses to – much like The Wedding Planner – downplay confrontation and relegate scenes of payback to flashes); All told – it’s nothing short of miraculous as a genre piece (and a complete surprise, to boot). I’ll be touting it, believe you me, next time I’m cornered into revealing a worthwhile love story. Probably the closest a NYC romance has come to bowling my ass over since the personal prize: One Fine Day (1996).

[Oh yeah, and Mark Ruffalo’s in it, too. I forget, do I like him?]

(8/4)


Hidalgo
Directed by Joe Johnston
grade: B-Everything is staged big with no real or actual scope. Mortensen is almost too perfectly cast and rarely does he stop milking the sensitive side long enough to be interesting. The movie itself, as a times-past adventure story, is square and simple, often anticlimactic (the race interests us more than its’ politics – but is often set aside); As it repeatedly gives the underdog his time to shine (almost to complete and utter redundancy, but nevertheless), the film becomes – much like Johnston’s Jurassic Park 3 or Jumanji – the perfect afternoon escape, reflecting the robust, stripped-down pleasures of 80s Spielberg pics.

(8/7)


Collateral
Directed by Michael Mann
grade: BBoth lead performers are flat-out remarkable (which is good, as all the supporting performances feel achingly perfunctory); The movie’s jet-fueled hook – that it all takes place in one night – turns it into the kind of film where the characters talk so big and scheme so out of the realm of reality that, eventually, they become these mythical movie titans, much more fun for viewers to revel in than the wedged, perception-based “who’s really evil” debate that might otherwise await them as they leave the theater (All the psychologically contrasting mumbo jumbo between Foxx and Cruise isn’t all that resonant, exactly). To go around, there are plenty of classic-in-the-making scenes – some of them nothing more than brilliantly staged moments (the briefcase bump at open being my favorite), many feeding off the uncanny ability for both Cruise and Foxx to think slam-bang on their feet without fear that their actions will render the film’s events implausible (from minute one, disbelief is being suspended); Why Mann chose to muddy the film with the HD Digital usually reserved for television, however, is beyond me (It is as if he promises viewers that his immediately recognizable uber-wide photography will look infinitely better on DVD, even though its shape, scope and size beg a theaterical viewing.) Nevertheless, he delivers none other than the intimate yin to obvious companion piece Heat‘s sprawling yang and he does it beautifully. YES, it’s another radiantly competent valentine to L.A. YES, L.A. looks dingey and otherworldly, like graveyard for Christmas lights. YES, Digital still sucks.

[And YES, the best news is that Mann will follow up his cops n’ robbers genre entry with a foray into his best habitat: The world of movies-based-upon-news-articles (Arms and Men, slated for ’05).]

(8/8)


Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen
Directed by Sara Sugarman
grade: D+There’s an almost unnerving irony in the naive way Lohan keeps posing as the poster teenie-whore for Disney and the way her character in Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen is an unlikeable, borderline rabid little twerp (despite the movie’s best efforts to peddle her to us as the legendary Girl With A Dream). The deliberately negative milieau (to accentuate the positive, perhaps?) produces little respite. A minor touch worth noting, though: The lead singer of the Dream Band’s presence seems to soothe the movie, as Lohan’s character is finally – in a brief aside – acknowledging her genuinely phony existence. But this clearly packaged attempt to piggyback prior success (Freaky Friday) also doesn’t have anything remotely legitimate to set it apart, either (like Mean Girls being written by Tina Fey, for example).

(8/15)


Taking Lives
Directed by DJ Caruso
grade: D[For those who guessed I was trying to garner attention in accusing Taking Lives of ripping off Seven – an extended back-patting session is your prize. This comparison, I decided later, actively insults Fincher’s film. Also, I realized I’d have to spoil – and therefore *recall* – plot points in order to prove my method: And so I cheerfully withdraw the comment. My confession should, in no way, detract from my declaration that Taking Lives really just, um, blows.]

Whether it’s the repeated violation of its own, rather promising opening sequence, the nth generation thinning of cop banter, the comforting, obligatory appearance (or shameless gratuity, depending on your perspective) of Jolie’s breasts, the forced wierdness of Jolie’s Profiler (imagine if every episode of The X-Files used Scully as a catalyst and pretended, blatantly, that she was a progatonist), the rote, forgettable serial killer movie greatest-hits collection (my favorite being the mere seconds that pass before the identity of an exhumed twin is vehemently proved to be – you guessed it – not the twin) and the painfully silly “all along” conclusion that pretends to double-back when merely doubling over. Where Caruso’s The Salton Sea decided to become confusing rather than interesting, Taking Lives goes the opposite route, remaining deceptively simplistic all along while, I swear, it assumes we’ll mistake it for something complex or absorbing. What’s worse, the film’s sole surprise is not plot-related at all. It’s that sudden moment when Ethan Hawke is called upon to demonstrate his range and wisely showboats, chewing the scenery as if hoping to single-handedly steer the film into self-parody waters. His ex-wife’s aptly titled Paycheck is, for sure, the better Canada-filmed throwaway.

(8/21)


Greendale
Directed by Bernard Shakey
grade: CThe most alarming thing about the film is how it manages to squander the perfectly captured days-past imperfections that come with typical family-shot Super 8 film. Instead of seeing the world of Greendale through avante garde (or cheap) filters, Young (Shakey is a pseudonym) seems to have genuinely instilled in the film a quality of visualization comprable to his own Grandfather of Grunge image. Unfortunately, the power of the shoestring ends right there, leaving the film to teeter on disingenuous (it’s not concise or powerful enough to sell it’s homemade craftsmanship). Despite the fact that its source music is one of the best albums in recent memory, Young never seems to be interested enough in spinning his fuzzy tale, hoping the extremely broad themes of enviornmental urgency, violent social shifting and media frenzy will somehow seep through the muddle. It’s true that I’m not objective in the least (I could pretty much pick up anywhere and rehash the lyrics verbatim), but it’s also true that when the vocals indicate a character’s dialogue, that character lip syncs (yikes) toYoung’s voice on the soundtrack. Instead of being a pleasing string of music videos dreamily interconnected with some sort of acceptable ambiguity, the whole thing plays like an unpolished stage production turned big screen art project. As the allegory runs away with the narrative, the music seems to separate itself from the images. One couldn’t exist without the other, obviously, but neither seems to require each other, making it nearly impossible to get anything whatsoever out of either. Bernard’s last name is very apropos.

(8/30)


Hero
Directed by Zhang Yimou
grade: BAt first, I was ready to demand proof that the great Zhang Yimou actually made this film. Though the emotional heft of his 80s and 90s masterpieces (to which this film bears almost no resemblance whatsoever) is sorely missing here – and would certainly be the breaking point of inevitable (and warranted) Crouching Tiger comparisons – Yimou’s sense of forced emotional magnitude (while overbearing in a film as intimate as his 2001 offering The Road Home) is right at home in a martial arts film of such pure scope (and by right at home, I mean utterly disposable). Hero is clearly awesome from the get-go: It’s one of the most beautifully shot films in recent memory, with one terrific setpiece after another. It’s also a triumph of exceptionally lean filmmaking all around (the sound and vision in particular) despite the sly – if (mostly) misfired – attempt to dress up a history lesson as a kung fu flick. It’s being sold as a Jet Li film (almost two years after being purchased over at the ‘max), but Hero doesn’t really belong to any of its stars (all four recognizable from previous mainstream imports); More than anything, it seems to be about its craft: Exploiting the themes of assassins and kings and lovers on a base scale, a semi-skeleton to support what has to be the most consistent collection of breathtaking duel set-ups I think I’ve ever seen; Had I seen it on a rainy Saturday afternoon, it would have been an easy A-.

(9/3)


Open Water
Directed by Chris Kentis
grade: C+The premise is pure gold (two divers left in the middle of the ocean), but Kentis has no idea how to mine it, attempting a grab bag of vacation-from-hell tones, low budget horror shocks and – to laughable results – shades of existential dread. Open Water is a maddening mess of a film: Ugly as sin to watch (the DV lends nothing to the aeshetic, in my opinion), it’s consistently riveting for awhile – – until it dawns on you how little variation is delivered as it unfolds. Some will praise it – I suspect – on the strength that nothing it preaches seems implausible; This argument may work (provided that you’re willing to follow through with it), but it’s hardly the point. (Spoilers imminent) Both the best and worst thing about Kentis’ film is the way he paints his main characters as selfish louts and seems to take pleasure in watching their despicable undoing – all the way up to and including the finale (which is about the freshest ending to a mediocre-at-best romp I’ve seen in forever). Kentis’s contempt for these characters is nothing if not forthright, trapping the film in a fatal contradiction: Because we could care less about them, when they bite the big one, we’re secretly pleased. While I applaud the film for ending the way it does (with the characters defying our expectations and, you know, dying), I can’t really endorse a vision that’s this apathetic about their fate. Has he killed them off merely to make me feel like a heel for not caring? Where’s the motivation beyond mere circumstance? Or – if that’s the point – why is that the point?

(9/3)


Touching the Void
Directed by Kevin MacDonald
grade: B+[It’s not as if I can suddenly grow some sort of objectivity so, instead, I’ll address things of immediate value and – insanely – extraneous depth which I gleaned wholesale from some of the first necessary DVD extras of all time (“What Happened Next” and “Return to Siula Grande”).]

After completing the film – in which I had gasped with genuine disbelief more times than I care to count – I was pretty much floored by the uncanny symbiosis between the staged reenactments and the dry, two decades removed interviews with the principles. As the story unfolded, it was almost an afterthought that these two were even able to talk about it, much less that the film was operating from a level of suspense usually reserved for films where the ending is still unknown. By the time they assume each other to be dead (and Joe begins a feat of human endurance I couldn’t begin to scratch the surface in attempting to recount), Macdonald has us wrapped so tightly, it’s almost unthinkable that he could falter (although he does, stretching Joe’s path of pain out just a hair too long, and thereby seeming just this side of manipulative). The emotion surrounding it, however, takes a decided back seat to the detailed, technical prowess: It barely occurs to you that part of the thing was shot thousands of miles from where it took place. It’s the sleight of hand mastery that moves us – – not necessarily the human aspect. Which brings me to…

…the extras. In “What Happened Next”, we learn that it was several weeks and several hundred miles before Joe was able to get any sort of worthwhile care (in England, where he was driven from the airport to the hospital by angry parents). To me, this seemed as dire – if not more dire – than the expedition itself; Ratty and undernourished, this guy was forced to endure a further trek across Peru, where only hard currency guaranteed, well, anything. Also, we find out that Simon, Joe’s partner, was ostracized by the climbing community for an act that the film nearly forces us to swallow as appropriate (to it’s credit, there’s fair argument on both sides). Later still (twenty years), Joe Simpson really dislikes having to come back to Siula Grande, a point made and remade in “Return to Siula Grande”. While this short documentary wanes on and on, showing Joe curse up a blue streak on his personal video diary, showing Simon and Joe looking indifferent – Simon because he is and Joe because he’s afraid everything will think him a pussy if he doesn’t – the whole scary, man versus nature rumble of the climb seems slighted in favor of human interest (a tactic that, however practical, is just beneath the level of quality displayed in Touching the Void). It doesn’t help matters that both characters admit being coerced with money into returning. And, as if that weren’t enough, these two pieces of information – that Joe had still more suffering and that, basically, he’s a pompous, bitter ass about the whole thing – give a more rounded, less triumphant flavor to those of us who missed in the theater. They deepen our understanding of the situation, but lessen the victorious tone the film strives to leave with us.

(9/3)


Young Adam
Directed by David Mackenzie
grade: C+The evocative mood of Young Adam – a dour, grave palette – is a whole lot more interesting (strangely) that what happens in it (as what happens in it is, mostly: Joe likes sex. With anyone. Quick sex in the bushes, quick sex under vehicles, quick sex on a barge, quick sex in alleys. Joe sure likes to stick it in!). This is yet another instance where I can’t prove, but will solemnly speculate without reservation, that the source material is mostly cerebral and that Mackenzie had hoped to translate the interior monologues into a parade of simplistic visual metaphors that, luckily, are rather nice to look at. But alas, no matter the film, the mediums must stay divided (cinema to images as novels to words). Young Adam is one haunted canal ride after another, a backstory emerging as a non-specific flashback that deceives us into appearing linear for no particular reason.  The protagonist, Joe, is played with an sickeningly rigid, utterly humorless gait by Ewan MacGregor, who almost creates a competitor for the canal in the chip on his shoulder.  Though an interesting, somewhat refreshingly level-headed attitude of moral indifference drives the picture, it soon lapses into a strange confrontation between Joe and his conscience, one that seems patently unnecessary (the flashbacks render him equally indifferent before The Big Incident, making us wonder why – all of the sudden – he gives a shit). Strangely, David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) lends his largely forgettable skills as the composer (the makers would have done better to hire fellow countrymen Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap; Their elegiac music matches the tone almost to a T). Also, no one in the film is named Adam. (Better movie about the trials of love on a floating barge? Jean Vigo’s 1934 masterpiece, L’Atalante.)

[Greatish scene that feels like it fell out of another movie entirely: Joe has spent the day idle in his apartment save for a custard he made. When girlfriend Emily Mortimer comes home and rags on him for not being productive, he hurls the custard at her – like Pollack with a bucket of paint – before dumping all the remaining condiments in the house onto her body. Then he fucks her. Then he leaves.]

(9/15)


Man on Fire
Directed by Tony Scott
grade: B-Tony Scott could shave at least thirty minutes off of each film if he were to sit down with his screenwriter and decide who is going to accentuate which point. Instead, we get the usual one-two punch of complete and utter clarity – to the sound of an MTV-style, fifty cuts-per-minute montage. First Helgeland makes the point, then Scott. Sometimes Scott even steps in and makes a point two or three times. Or four. In fact, Man on Fire is so determined to wear on its sleeve what it is (the quintessential big, dumb revenge epic) that it scores points: It’s as forthright as Scott’s last picture (Spy Game) about what it is: Nothing but popcorn explosions and uber-convenient detective work unraveling amidst forced strains of (heavily) music-enhanced emotion. In short: Pure fun. It’s also proof that no matter how lousy or far-fetched the premise (this one falls somewhere between the outlandish John Q. and the more procedural Out of Time), adding Denzel Washington makes it instantly forgiveable, AND, once more, compulsively watchable. The arc on Washington’s relationship with Fanning is absurdly back-loaded, his quest for justice met with zero resistance (or retaliation) and the details sped over like harmless bumps in the road. But it works like gangbusters. Washington’s scenes with Fanning are warm, guilty pleasures; His scenes of (intrinsically hypocritical) torture and brutality to the men who (you saw the trailer) kidnap her are teeth-gritting guilty pleasures. And though the one-man fighting machine’s single-minded bait-and-snatch game played out to recue the stolen girl is reminiscent of January’s Spartan (a far superior film you should have rented long before now, in my opinion), it’s the polar opposite: While Mamet’s film has a political subtext and a symmetrical framework, Man on Fire is cookie-cutter entertainment occasionally murmuring its social message. And hammy, self-parodying Christopher Walken gets to say lines like “his art is death and, right now, he’s painting his masterpiece”. How can one not look the other way?

[ Fargo alert! For some reason the titles at the end infer that two of the film’s characters were real people. A quick zip to the time-honored disclaimer at the end of the credits (“to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental”)  remedies such misleading pap.]

(9/16)


Baadasssss!
Directed by Mario Van Peebles
grade: B-One could argue that Mario Van Peebles is either the best or the worst person to tell the story of his father’s (Melvin Van Peebles) struggle to usher blaxploitation movies (specifically Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song) into mainstream cinema; I’m going to argue that while he’s obviously the most knowledgable, he’s also the most prone to bias, an inclination he spends nearly the entire running time of Baadasssss! indulging. (I believe one critic called it “jerking his dad off for two hours”, which is harsh but close). Thing is, with Van Peebles The Younger playing his strong-willed father – the an interesting flip-flop to appearing, at 11, in a Sweetback sex scene – he’s able to capture the fury and frustration of a moviemaker better than nearly any other actor could. He knows Melvin’s idiosyncracies partially because they’re part of him (osmotically, that is). Mario’s performance is engrossing – – and something of a shot in the arm for the film (except when he is forced to lay on the histrionics of his Dad’s half-assed/hard-assed parenting; Is he exorcising demons – or do these scenes just sink because they’re hopelessly, vase-throwing generic?). Particularly when staging the ridiculous sequence where he outclimbs a financier or the long, obvious-headed build-up before the film finds its audience, Baadasssss! lapses into an overtly gratifying stupor, exposing the limits of Peebles the Younger’s range as a director; He’s neither as creative or as innovative as his father – but at least I didn’t turn it off as I did Sweetback, many years ago (in it’s defense, I was far too young and naive to get it). It becomes confusing which Peebles is more of a sensationlist: The one who milked a movement that, in effect, demoralized his race, or the one whose film – while unique in some ways – looks like it was funded by (small screen cable “limit pusher”) Showtime. In fact, for a film that’s such a particular homage, the most striking thing about it is its’ love of filmmaking, a pulsing sensation that’s evident, warmly, throughout the whole film (blow the car up, wait for the real fire trucks, then we don’t have to pay them for the shot). The interview segments show us characters – playing real movie moguls and actors and such – who are genuinely fond of the process. A less agenda-heavy film might have soaked this up with a bit more vigor. Nevertheless, a worthwhile experiment of sorts and often more entertaining than it has any right to be.

(9/17)


Mean Girls
Directed by Mark Waters
grade: BI had a great deal to say while I was watching it, but most of that has flown out of my head (Hint: Don’t wait almost a week to write about things.) My generic line, in e-mails and things, has been thusly: Part SNL-esque comedy, part so-scathing-but-so-obviously-true-to-life expose (i.e. – I know some of these bitches), part The Wild Thornberrys meets Heathers clique dissection (Only without the murder and not animated) and, with that horribly pat ending – which derails the movie almost insalvageably – part product.

(9/22)


Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Directed by Kerry Conran
grade: B+Conran’s is a movie that’s high on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars fumes in tonal rhythm as well as fun factor; The whole thing’s clearly a blast – the kind of movie that thrives on making us forget ourselves (i.e. – the best kind). Jude Law proves there’s no limit to his genius as an actor, this time playing Harrison Ford, Jr. – – the swashbuckling wiseass, thoroughly resourceful (slash blonde) gal – a glowing Paltrow – at his side. Tight little cameos by overshadowed nerd-techie Giovanni Ribisi, strong, respectful woman (complete with fake British accent, again) Angelina Jolie and much touted – and wryly minimal – transmission from the afterlife by Laurence Olivier. The alotted experience of losing oneself in at least one film per year (if we’re lucky) is almost too much to take anymore and Sky Captain happens to deliver without the usual catch (it’s rare that I’ll also preserve the mood by depriving myself of tunes on the car ride home – though, fair point, it wasn’t more than a five minute ride). There was never a moment when I doubted its confidence or it’s skill. Typically a movie comprised of nothing more than visual effects, matte paintings and animated worlds might seem look-at-me and nothing else (Spy Kids 3-D, for example) or Playstation-influenced (The Mummy Returns, for instance), but Sky Captain is nothing short of pure imagination in the most delectable sense, with its worlds less a pure feast for the eyes than a plotted seamlessness for the characters to flit around in (These characters, by the way, are front and center from start to finish). Action scenes are choreographed rather than scattershot (or, absurdly confusing – – Lord of the Rings, I’m looking in your direction) and never veer into the mentality assumed by gamers. The script is certainly a dedicated homage (probably more to the serial film or comic books rather than features, leaving a sense of expository repetition to cap the end of a setpiece and return seconds later to introduce a new scene); But it’s also popping with twists, a feature that seems symbiotic with the whole aesthetic of hiring more than ten FX houses to produce your film. I’m breathlessly anticipating Conran’s next film, no matter how bad Sky Captain bombs.

(9/27)


Super Size Me
Directed by Morgan Spurlock
grade: BYou can’t help, while watching, but compare Spurlock’s strategy of directive dialogue to that of Michael Moore. Trouble is, for all of Moore’s good intentions, he either comes off entirely unfocused (Bowling for Columbine) or just playfully desperate (Farenheit 9/11). Spurlock’s strong points are all in line, the big two trumping Moore on all counts (the thing is meticulously researched, with a wide variety of dissenting nutritional opinion as well as vocal backup for the other side, i.e. – the people); His focus is spearheaded by a single experiment (all McDonald’s diet for 1 month) instead of a bunch of half-assed ones, and his personality – while cautious – is also humble and everyman-ish. This is a propoganda yarn – true – but with more easily obvious results (and, to be honest, more palpable and relevant ones – at least to the cross-section of America), but it’s also entertaining without pandering or sinking to carnival barking. In short, Elbow grease (or burger grease, in this case) pays off: This is one the smartest uses of the new wave of reality-TV ushered documentaries to land to date and is – so far – the best documentary of the year.

(9/29)


Shaun of the Dead
Directed by Edgar Wright
grade: B-Great when its taking apart the slackerdom of late 20s Brits – – if, for no other reason, because it feels comfy and worldly (i.e. – the rest of the world contains people as spun out and ambition-starved as we ‘mericans); Less great when it follows its own path (mostly the confront-everyone’s-deepest-fears brand third act, itself a gargantuan letdown). Part of the major problem here is that, much like the Scary Movie series, Shaun of the Dead is a parody of a parody (Dawn of the Dead, it’s prequel and its sequel were not necessarily meant to be taken seriously: Romero was a gifted jester); Occasionally, it seems to veer into territory that’s so silly, it should be relegated to television or a more concise, up-front brand of strung sketch posing as a narrative. But these are all quibbles, and possible sourness at its flat ending. The first part will likely garner comparisons to The Office (reason being – besides the participation of two common actors – that it’s British culture marketed to Yanks), and I laughed a whole bunch, I must say. Perceptions of a large population being sedate to the point of zombification (if that’s a word) come off lighter and more playful, even as the film begins to trample gore territory; Social critique, however, is (properly) nowhere to be found. Shaun of the Dead surely knows its place, even if it grows tiresome after a mere hour.

(10/3)


Coffee and Cigarettes
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
grade: C+[Decided to hit it play-by-play style since (it’s pretty clear) the whole thing never even comes close to giving the vignettes a 1 + 1 = 3 advantage; Also, before you ask, YES, I assigned numbers to each grade, tallied them and shit out the average, thereby topping myself in the category usually reserved for the absurdly shameless.]

  • Strange to Meet You (D+): Utterly stagnant; The acting is completely stilted, as if using a language barrier to some end (only said end never comes); It’s a shame to waste two such talented actors (Steven Wright, Roberto Benigni).
  • Twins (B-): The Lees are funny and I quite enjoyed Buscemi but the big complaint all around, as ever, is that Jarmusch seems to be making the point over and over again that these unhealthy meetings go nowhere in particular, yet retain their interest based upon dialogue alone. For some reason, however, he’s made the ones where this is particularly evident nearly too repetitious to bear.
  • Somewhere in California (B): A definite goldmine, this; The actors transcend the hokey forgone conclusion that the title vices walk hand in hand with vacant occupation; There’s something positively fraternal about their banter, mostly because of Waits’ fake-ish, somewhat overzealous older brother demeanor. Who knew Iggy Pop could stay in character for five minutes?
  • Those Things’ll Kill Ya (C-): A one joke segment. And the joke’s not funny.
  • Renee (C): A one-hook segment blessed with extreme brevity. (Also, the hook is a chuckle once, not four times.)
  • No Problem (F): Brothers get together and find that one is disappointed that the other has nothing juicy to tell him and the other is annoyed that – wait, um, who fuckin’ cares? (Like Waiting for Godot if it consisted to only two lines of dialogue repeated over and over again).
  • Cousins (B+): This is the best segment, primarily because of the satisfying clarity with which Blanchett’s range is on display. That we believe something as done-to-death as an actor addressing his or herself as two, separate characters (using slight of hand photography) is a feat. Watching Cate Blanchett do it – and be astonishing on both sides without question – is even better.
  • Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil (B-): An obvious play at exploiting the quirkiness of the Whites, this one only half works because, as in Those Things’ll Kill Ya, there’s only one real wave and it subsides without making a ripple, really. (Although using the “red wagon” to evoke The White Stripes’ childhood bent was a guilty pleasure, I’ll grant you).
  • Cousins? (B): The only one that seems to have a beginning, middle and end structure which is a welcome refresher (despite the seeming religious pride Jarmusch takes in his structureless outbursts of avante-gardism). The cult and arrogance of celebrity is particularly well etched, even more so here than in Somewhere in California (in which, as in several of the films, the actors play themselves). Would be extremely funny to find out that in real life Molina was actually the nose-in-the-air prick and Coogan was the well-meaning tolerator: The performers sell the opposite just that well.
  • Delirium (B-): Though the dialogue is snappy, this one seems to milk the gimmick (namely, that RZA and GZA don’t drink coffee and that Bill Murray drinks it out of a pot) in aid of the obvious draw: Bill Murray is sharing a frame with members of The Wu-Tang Clan. Also, by the time you get to this one (foolishly following the great Cousins?), seeing well known celebrities in black and white indie films is no longer even slightly thrilling.
  • Champagne (B-): Taylor Mead’s’ and Bill Rice’s voices wrap around the dialogue like old tobacco leaves (by which I mean, their old man melody is catchy), but this one is dead in the water from the start. I never stopped asking: Why the hell are they in an armory?

[Decidedly middling quality was especially disappointing given that Jarmusch’s other two black and white ventures – Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Dead Man (1995) – are what I’d call his masterworks. Oh well.]

(10/9)

The Five Obstructions
Directed by Jørgen Leth & Lars von Trier
grade: B+Lars von Trier is a sadistic bastard and, in The Five Obstructions, he unleashes a bruising set of Dogme-esque restrictions on Jørgen Leth, who gleefully accepts a challenge: Remake his 1967 short The Perfect Human at von Trier’s mercy. The film itself has such an air of pretension, you’ll scarcely believe it’s eventual, significantly purer motive, i.e. – the triumph of art for art’s sake. Watching Leth return to von Trier with his films is a burst of real suspense (and the films are a hoot of sparky reimagining); Watching von Trier wrestle with his desire to challenge this man he obviously admires becomes great fun, too. Leth squirms as he continually realizes he’s baited his own trap, leaking information that von Trier promptly uses against him. It’s like a courtroom drama where art is the very thing on trial and it’s Leth’s job to get it acquitted (this theory works, too, because von Trier obviously loves the cinema but, in the interest of clarity, doesn’t mind risking its credibility to strengthen it). The fifth obstruction carries its weight with a clumsy limp, suggesting at the beginning a better way to do it (to have The Five Obstructions, ultimately, be the fifth obstruction), but instead opts for a diatribe worthy of modern Godard (that is to say: crappy). Nevertheless, if there were a living, breathing shorthand for those still not sold on the value of von Trier’s Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity, The Five Obstructions is certainly it.

(10/9)


Van Helsing
Directed by Stephen Sommers
grade: D-Stephen Sommers stages scene after scene of discussions being held between characters who would not be having said discussions if not for our benefit (as in, “You know, Van Helsing, we’ve counted on you for many years. As you know, we’re a secret Vatican society. And you must certainly be aware that we’re all very sorry that you’ve lost your memory.”) The constant use of dialogue in the “as you know” context, even if those words aren’t uttered, is a great way to show an audience that you’re completely uninterested in delivering a compelling or remotely artful story but, rather, that you’re willing to encapsulate all the important info, relegate it to the first fifteen and gradually tease out the important stuff between your real agenda: Big CGI displays of loud, gangly clusterfuck. This should have already been obvious, though, from Sommers’ use of MASSIVE, the same technology that rendered the Lord of the Rings Trilogy into a sort of digitally organic mishmash, with very little real or tangible in the foreground for scale. (Yes, I realize a description like “digitally organic” is completely redundant. In some quarters, that would be viewed as the point.) The whole debacle seems to reek of too many cooks spoiling the pot syndrome (i.e. – the sloppy way Frankenstein, Dracula, Dracula’s Brides, The Wolfman, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Igor and the Dwergers are all mixed into the story). By turning this into a monster mash or sorts, Sommers waters down each of the respective characters: Eschewing development of any kind, he gives them such specific roles in his simpleton plot, they seem to awkwardly stand around waiting to utter their one-liners. Generally, this contributes to the general theme of the picture, namely that more is better and, worse, that Sommers is interested – but not committed to – camping it up. (For instance, the townspeople all seem to be of a campy nature, but the main characters are utterly sincere; For camp to work, you’ll remember, one has to be consistent throughout. Choosing out of convenience is a luxury that spoils the whole show. For a really good example of this, see Sommers get much closer to pulling it off in the only one of his films I don’t actively wish I could unsee: The Mummy).  And while fumbling that whole camp thing and keeping to his credo of more is better, Sommers the director is busy trying to out suck Sommers the writer; It’s a real toss-up who wins (or loses, I guess I mean). What’s especially irritating about this – besides the fact that he allows this charade to top two hours, thereby dragging an already epic moan of pain into an extended death rattle of sorts – is that most of the “more” I refer to in the previous sentence is familiar at best, almost disturbingly comfortable at worst; These commerce for art’s sake/Summer (or, in this case, pre Summer) movies are beginning to blur together with an even stronger disdain for anything more than what makes a good trailer. In guiding this mess, Sommers manages to repeatedly reduce Hugh Jackman to the same flat, wise guy reading of every line. He seems to be riffing on his most visible performance to date (as Wolverine in the X-Men films), but to distance it, he’s left out what was interesting (namely, the angry, bitter edge). It might appear to look like breaking even except that Jackman plays a character who has everything in the world to be bitter and angry about. A similar fuzz hangs on Kate Beckinsale’s discomfiting skills as an action hero (playing a similar character trafficking in similar plot territory to that of her almost good by comparison vampires vs. werewolves epic Underworld last year). Imdb states that Sommers considered the fact that the two roles were exceedingly similar but offered her the part anyway. In the tradition of bad judgment, he does nothing to hide how terrifically she swoons and how poorly she enacts her defiant girl strength (which is, for some reason, an underlying theme in both films). And perhaps his most dubious mistake is misplaying Richard Roxborough’s Dracula as a riff on Oldman’s masterful version of the count in the otherwise crappy Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the inspiration for this greatly altered – since 1993, when it was announced – sequel of sorts). He’s flailing, played at exactly the same pitch we’d expect: The flaky, goofy megalomaniac who, like Van Helsing (the character and the film), has – and I’m fudging it here – one mannerism. Whoever is worse – Sommers the director or Sommers the writer – it will tough to out suck this one.

(10/20)


The Return
Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev
grade: C+The Return consistently carries the one-easy-moral aesthetic of a short film, but drags itself out, attempting a tone of a somewhat commonly quiet brand. By stocking unknowns at every corner – most of which, I’m cheated to report, stay unknown – the movie continues to beckon us on it’s fishing trip turned stubbornness pissing contest between two adolescents and their recently returned father (where he came from or why he was out of the picture for twelve Christmases is, initially, the film’s biggest unknown). As the thing alternates between a kill-or-cure bonding ritual and a mysterious prod for the truth, it comes clear, at long last, that the whole thing is a set of symbols and metaphors, none of it really meant to play literally. The problem with this – and I usually like films that pull this off – is that the film never seems interested in making the this-for-that cues clear until its final moments. “Why not”, I wondered? The boys suffer greatly, the father is obviously traumatized – or at least ailing in some way – but the film itself seems helpless to define abstraction – – so much so that it seems to hide behind a facade of literalness. Part of its great strength is how gorgeously it’s shot, image after image of perfectly composed frames. Its crispness betrays it. The Return winds up having a double meaning. By the time we reach that point, we’re not at Blue Car-sized annoyance, but we’re damn close.

(10/23)


Shark Tale
Directed by Vicky Jensen, Bibi Bergeron and Rob Letterman.
grade: CA solid proof, if ever there were one, that Dreamworks is a second rate animation studio toiling with rickety flashlights in the gaping shadow of Pixar. Surface gags – pop culture throwaways, ocean puns and human life grafted to the underwater – barely swing this long lesson about the value of being yourself. (There’s an obvious play that could be made for anti bourgeoisie sentiment, but Shark Tale nicely relegates that to a few minor quips from our hero’s would-be girlfriend, voiced by – of all people – Renee Zelwegger). Lest I forget that Martin Scorcese riffs on his speed talk for a few moments before utterly humiliating himself as the sleazy owner of a car wash turned agent, let so easily off the hook at close (although he’s not alone), I could barely fit my dropped jaw through the aisle. Will Smith is measurably likable in the lead (voice) role, while De Niro lampoons himself much more safely than Scorcese and other, various bit roles that hit (including Doug E. Doug and Ziggy Marley as Rastafarian henchman) and miss (Angelina Jolie as a drippingly sexy (?!) fish). Not to say that Shark Tale isn’t passable as a mere diversion. Not in the least. But after having been spoiled for so long by animated features that cater to both sides of the equation (that’s parents and kids), it’s almost a sour burp to watch one that tries desperately to pull it off – – and fails so miserably. The Love Conquers All ending is probably not an especially safe bet, given that in real life sharks that pretend to be human gangsters would have murdered – without reproach – a large school of fish pretending to be happy capitalists. The stretch here, one that was easily avoided through better writing (not to mention the actual, contrasting existence of humans) in Finding Nemo, isn’t the only blatant similarity. Shark Tale is the result of executives, I’m sure, that fondle the same genitals as the rival Alexander pics, the rival Columbus pics and the rival Joan of Arc pics. Aren’t there enough ideas in the sea?

(10/23)


I Heart Huckabees
Directed by David O. Russell
grade: B-Russell’s film deserves, probably, a whole lot more admiration and commendability than it does active enjoyment. The audacious nature of its very existence (to say nothing of its place in multiplexes) is enough for me to recommend it to everyone I know, hoping to ape P. Greg’s somewhat ill clarified law: “I don’t really want to see that film, but I’d gladly give it my money so the director can make more films”. There are certainly moments of inspired zaniness – even comic brilliance – but Russell makes a terrible mistake: He weighs down his expertly staged screwballism and firebrand absurdity with long, tedious rants of philosophical doublespeak that spin by us so fast, we can’t possibly digest it in time, leaving each scene to build a foggier, less solid foundation than the last (until, eventually, our focus collapses and we begin to enjoy it moment to moment – – which is clearly not the director’s intention). The promise, though, is such that I’d gladly sit through it again, even freeze the frame on DVD to sit and think about ideas before proceeding (at least until I’m semi clear on them; I’ll admit, I’m not the brightest of bulbs in the econo-watt stash). What’s really extraordinary about I Heart Huckabees – besides the uniformly terrific cast (Tomlin, Hoffman, Law, Schwarzbaum, Wahlberg, Watts and Huppert are all spectacular) – is how dissimilar it is to the rest of Russell’s oeuvre. While Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster were cut of the same cloth – then-this-happened taboo smashing comedy – and Three Kings (his best film) covered more ground in its first act than most films do in three sequels, I Heart Huckabees is a menagerie of anti genre attitudes and art house gimmickry. The use of CGI in ordinary scenes (squares, as on the poster, begin to move in the frame) and in the wild fantasies of our hero (Schwarzbaum, mostly imagining horrific images of Law succeeding) is unique enough, but the terrifically playful Jon Brion score and the relatively loose structure of the film (Russell repeatedly invites seemingly incidental characters to share equal weight with the main story as if he’s expanding our consciousness) make I Heart Huckabees the prime candidate for a repeat viewing. I’m not saying I’m going to watch it again so that I can justify liking the thing. There’s major problems here (the last bit of the film – the way it wraps up, particularly – is a bit of a plateau) and significant gloss (viewing it without the vanity of its incomparably rare qualities may derail the thing entirely), but also a certain enticement to buy into it – – even if the only thing you’re buying is complete and utter illusion.

(10/24)


Intermission
Directed by John Crowley
grade: CWonderland goes to Ireland, only with a much less stable – and confidant – filmmaker. Veering on cartoonish in spots, bordering on nihilistic in others and sappy ass convenience to plague it’s “everybody’s connected” riff, Intermission is only as charming as television (and that’s to say not too charming). Ferrell, though indulging a role that’s both antithetical to his whole “I love Ireland” message (that he seems to spew at any interviewer that creeps within five paces) and an unwitting conundrum (vicious murderer or charming rapscallion?), still manages to set himself apart from most of the rest of the cast (although, to be fair, Cillian Murphy from 28 Days Later and Shirley Henderson from 24 Hour Party People are each spiffy and it was nice to see Trainspotting‘s Kelly MacDonald again; Why Colm Meaney bothered, though, is beyond me). Less a film than a reunion of decent-ish actors from the British Isles willing to participate in the most mundane, wrap-every-loose-end-up-extra-tight indie film anyone could dream up for them.

(10/24)


Dawn of the Dead
Directed by Zach Snyder
grade: CSensibilities uncannily err on the side of modern (read: familiar, formulaic, disappointing) horror films rather than: a) a re-imagining of already successful material; b) a social critique first, a horror film second; c) an entertaining film. Even without the inevitable comparisons it will warrant to its source material, Dawn of the Dead is a pretty uninspired entry in the unusually long list of remakes being shat onto the screen this year. Key flaw is how it chooses to attack the template its been given; The original film wouldn’t have been all that interesting or worthwhile if it hadn’t been a scathing commentary on consumerist culture. Snyder’s remake sidesteps this idea – which, taken as a director’s choice, is not a problem (I’ll return to what is the problem) – but casually inserts key lines from the original, referencing it specifically at every corner (great example: a cameo finds the actor who played Peter in the original film speaking the same line he spouted in the first one), as if connecting the two (which confuses the viewer). To be fair, the direction a filmmaker takes must be his own (especially when he’s got to live up to a contemporary “classic”). However, if you abandon the value of the concept – namely, the underlying subtext that greed is innate and that chaos, instead of giving us pause to reexamine our compulsions, appears to underline and even, for a time, strengthen our impulses (before completely turning on us) – all you’re left with is an action film about people holed up in a mall (where, conveniently, resources are plentiful) who must decide whether or not to stay put and wait for help or confront the destructive power (in this case zombies) outside the mall as they seek asylum and peace. While the latter story may have held up sans its politics in the genuinely quirky, reasonably talented hands of George Romero, in the hands of Zach Snyder – and his Universal coattails – it turns into an opportunity to be gratuitous at every turn, about every detail. And what’s worse, it reduces my review to scattershot observations of minor sequences that have promise and work independent of the film itself, despite their dependence on its context:

  • Even though it was aired in the trailer (and on the USA Network, apparently), the opening sequence has a terrific power – that creepy girl in the background, the long pauses between attacks, a sudden realization that her block is now a war zone – a power the rest of the film can’t seem to match in vitality, even though the zombies are now on six pounds of speed (it seems) as opposed to their traditional hulking.
  • To bookend, the closing sequence – perhaps the most telling end credits footage since Wild Things – is an unexpected deviation from the film’s otherwise obvious collection of dimwitted horror clichés; The information divulged not only provides a conclusion, but retains the film’s terminally pessimistic edge.
  • The image of aluminum siding and barbed wire encrusted shuttles plowing through a sea of zombies. It looks like paddywagons breaking up a brawl of the un-dead. (That is to say, badass).
  • To contradict my previous comment w/r/t gratuity: Sarah Polley in the shower was, in fact, a high point. (Though she and Ving Rhames pretty much escape unscathed, it’s pretty obvious that both have been chosen for much broader reasons than their genuine talent; Rhames is a large, intimidating black man, Polley is a spunky, intelligent blonde with large breasts.)
  • Opening montage of news footage set to Johnny Cash’s ‘When the Man Comes Around’. You have to be a pretty hardcore cynic to frown upon something that simple. It’s a wonder I liked it.
(10/26)


Control Room
Directed by Jehane Noujaim
grade: BWhile initially I thought the key flaw in Control Room was it’s tendency towards advertising Al-Jazeera as something more fair and balanced than, say, the Fox News Network, I’d sort of abandoned that critique by the time the film openly acknowledges that the two are pretty much occupying the opposing ends of the spectrum in the realm of sensationalist, side-taking news. What it really probes deeply – and well – is the struggle for foreign correspondents of every kind to have an opinion and report the news without showing their hand (many seem to actively fail and could care less). At one point, one of the Al-Jazeerites waxes poetic about the possibility that objectivity is merely a mirage – perhaps the truest statement of all (and, for some reason, the one no one seems to confront in their quest to hold TV news to a standard like impartiality).

(10/28)


A Home at the End of the World
Directed by Michael Mayer
grade: C-It’s most offensive flaw isn’t that it builds a framework with one set of characters and then expects us to believe their transformation (when they, for all intensive purposes, have become new characters altogether), nor is it the Robin Wright Penn character who seems to exist only to throw the definitive question of Ferrell’s sexuality repearedly into the ring (apparently, his “that was back when we were kids” answer to former lover Jonathan’s proposition wasn’t enough to establish this) and to give this crazy, unconventional brood a baby to take care of (Actual tagline: “Family can be what you want it to be”). No, the most horribly wrong thing A Home at the End of the World manages to do is reduce Colin Ferrell to a strange, reverse-effect pawn in his own character’s evolution, a mere shadow of his 9 year old self  (played by Andrew Chalmers) as well as his 16 year old self (the indelible Erik Smith). It isn’t just that the movie takes Ferrell’s Bobby away from him by dramatically reducing the bursting Hippie spirit he spreads around as a youth, it’s that it fails to show us WHY he’s suddenly so shy and so awkward when it flashes forward 8 years in the span of one dissolve. First time director Michael Mayer seems so hell bent on keeping the film tight and open-minded that clarity keeps riding shotgun to blunt, expository outbursts; It doesn’t help that Michael Cunningham is the source writer and the screenwriter, shrinking his tale of unusually passionate people getting sucked into providing comfort and therapy for those less fortunate into pie-baking metaphors and clumsy, muted trauma. And my wife, my poor wife, denied her precious money shot. So sad…


Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism
Directed by Robert Greenawald
grade: B-Left wing propoganda, to be sure – – but also, black and white factual proof that The Fox News Channel is, obviously, a GOP tool that may have swayed the election. It’s one of those docs that stands a small height (77 minutes) but gets bloated by the constant pausing (to register shock or, if you’re watching it with a large group of people, to share your displeasing stories and data). Greenawald populates Outfoxed with far too many talking heads, nearly all of which are too far left to make a valid, objective point. A single contributor finally puts his best foot forward (making the summation point to end all summation points): What they are doing wouldn’t be so wrong if they didn’t sell it as “fair and balanced”. Obviously slapped together but certainly nearly as valuable as Control Room. (Although I’m not sure exactly who in this country believes Bill O’Reilly is anything but a cocksucker-motherfucker.)

(11/5)


The Ladykillers
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
grade: C+After much deliberation – and even some combative practices such as quoting and reflecting – I’ve come to the conclusion that The Ladykillers proves, once and for all, that the successful formula to the Coen Bros. oeuvre is much deeper than the unique stylings of environment and character. They were able to fuse these things to a sympathetic (and often deeply funny) world view in previous collaborations; Their latest vision full-on lacks this. Part of the difficulty is forgivable: The source material was, at heart, fatally flawed; The first two thirds of Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 film of the same name struck me as an anticlimactic build-up to a very brief, somewhat insubstantial robbery, followed by a much more interesting cover-up. The cover-up is, in both films, at best, an entertaining tête a tête between public equals who happen to be moral opposites (the well spoken dandy and the old lady being on a level playing field, socially, in my book for some reason), but, predominantly, at its worst, the whole concept becomes almost too cartoonish to bother carrying over from the more successful first slice of the film. What the Coen Bros. clearly excel at, here, is drawing credible – even natural – extensions of their actors previous non-Coen persona: Hanks’ smart talking Southern academic, Irma P. Hall’s churchgoing busybody, Marlon Wayans’ foul-mouthed miscreant, J.K. Simmons’ uncharacteristically polite (and socially inept) demolition expert, etc. What they clearly don’t excel at is veiling – or even lifting – this story out of its fairly one-dimensional shackles, leaving a sea of hit (The Bob Jones University references) -or-miss (“Mountain Girl”‘s very presence) gags and one-liners in its wake. After 10 features – none of which earned less than a B, many earning higher than a B+ – delivering a film that sinks or swims based upon which jokes work and which do not is just not a step forward. Luckily, Irma P. Hall’s performance complements the embarrassing inclusion of wall-to-wall gospel music – a technique serving two very clear purposes: 1) to remind the audience, repeatedly, that an already pious character is a faithful churchgoer and, 2) to duplicate the soundtrack sales of the roots revivial/Homer’s Odyssey splash that is O, Brother Where Art Thou?.

[Also – when I popped off a temporary post a few days prior, I stated that Ms. Hall was dead. Apparently, I was wrong: She’s still alive and kicking. My bad.]

(11/12)


The Incredibles
Directed by Brad Bird
grade: A-While I’m simultaneously applauding Pixar for yet another terrific entry in their seemingly unwavering list of modern classics, I’m also at a loss to do much more than build on my past opinions. Really. All of their films seem to follow the same formula, one that seems – miraculously – undiscovered, and yet they refuse to falter. So to, really, contradict all that, I submit that The Incredibles is arguably their best work since the Toy Story films, but I stress the term arguably: I don’t think there’s one particular film of theirs that I’d be inclined to badmouth. As per usual, their grasp of mise-en-scene and its uses, their use of pop culture as a reference point (rather than an explicit framework a la Shark Tale), their absolute and complete GRIP over the audience, the “spring loaded, never-ending charm”, the “out-and-out inventiveness”, the use of “one absolutely riveting sequence after another” – all of these things I’m now pulling from past Pixar reviews: They’re all true. Emasculating it’s hero – as they did with Woody, Flik, Scully and Marlin – into a less showy existence, Bird combines his past successes (as an executive consultant on the family values parody that is The Simpsons and a writer director of the war machine turned child’s plaything sleeper, The Iron Giant) into one lump sum, the story of husband and wife super hero team (with super hero kids) who face a feeble sidekick with more hang-ups than one could possibly count in a reasonable amount of time. It’s worthwhile, though, because the metaphoric working class drones Bird reduces his super heros to (Mr. Incredible gets sued and is forced into retirement) is a point made about how everyday people (especially parents) are just different kinds of super heroes, a point that will probably affect not only its target audience (kids, who will glean the literal) but the countless ambitious folks who barely scrape by. It’s a really sly, almost appallingly obvious hook – and they make it work with such Pixar panache, such a superlative sense of confidence that animated films about human beings are worthwhile, that it’s almost overwhelming.

(11/13)


Dig!
Directed by Ondi Timoner
grade: BWhile the driving complaint of most notices seems to be the lack of music played in whole, song length form, I’d argue just the opposite: The movie works as a bangin’ intro to both bands, one whose music is a sappy pop pretending to be indie and one who is pretty much the rebirth of a druggier (is this possible?) Rolling Stones. Courtney, our humble narrator – who belongs to the Dandy Warhols, popular in Europe because a cell phone company attached a song of theirs to it’s commercial – spends most of the movie in doublespeak, brandishing an obsession with The Brian Jonestown Massacre (the cool band) while simultaneously critiquing (not always outwardly) their trouble prone front man Anton Newcombe. What’s incredibly successful about Dig! is the way it seems to interpret Courtney’s sincere narration as a self parody, (as if his silly self praising and testimonials about responsibility in a rock band could be taken any other way). Watching The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s sporadically insane antics lets us follow a grand tradition of penultimate self-destruction as a means to great art. It’s also – in a kind of guilty pleasure sort of way – great fun; Rockers behaving badly have always been an exciting thing to watch on screen, but Dig! seems to multiply that fun almost exponentially by pitting The Brian Jonestown Massacre against The Dandy Warhols, riding another grand tradition – it’s better to be unappreciated and cool than to sell out and suck ass – all the way to a similar bank. Seeing all of this happening in the recent past (within the last 5 years) helps to erase the slummy, general sense that Corporate Rock has rendered the game all backwards and what not. Even when The Brian Jonestown Massacre get signed, they seem to make it an inevitable goal to completely and utterly muck it up. It’s not that the film enters them-against-us territory, it’s that it seems to underline the key difference between these the naturally opposing entities (corporate rock versus indie rock): Those who take themselves seriously and those who are too talented to bother.

(11/14)


The Saddest Music in the World
Directed by Guy Maddin
grade: BI have the same exact complaint I had with Archangel, Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. Maddin should either shit (make silent films) or get off the pot (make sound films). Not only could he be the only one making silent films, but he’s also a good filmmaker (i.e. – you can tell, each time you groan at his dubbed, staccato dialogue that, without it, he would still be a major talent). The actors – his first recognizable ones to date (aside from Shelly Duvall in Twilight) – tackle his weird brand of 20th Century flavor and construction with little difficulty. Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney and Maria de Medeiros fall square into Maddin’s old school mold, McKinney proving without question that there’s life after Kids in the Hall (but, really, I miss it). Solid, entertaining work. Frustrating repeat offender.

(11/17)


The Spongebob Squarepants Movie
Directed by Stephen Hillenburg
grade: B-Always seemed to me to be the kinder, gentler second cousin to Ren & Stimpy; TSSM needlessly proves for umpteenmillioneth time why expanding concepts which
work gangbusters over 5-7 minutes into 90 minute films is, generally, impossible (transposing the sensibility of a universe that exists in short, nothing-at-stake form into a more complicated, multifacted narrative should not be mixed with marketing execs, either, by the way). There are some extremely inspired bits (the pirates all going to the movies in the beginning counts, I think, because it’s so audacious), most of them working on a level that hardly begs a feature film (i.e. – the cheese-on-the-burger dream sequence) and, occasionally, are lessened or undermined by said feature film’s stretch marks. The “I’m a Goofy Goober Nut” song will stay with you like a bad hoagie; Luckily, there’s songs by Wilco and The Flaming Lips to take you out of the theater.

(11/22)


Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman
Directed by Takeshi Kitano
grade: C+Possibly because the music (a rhythm of onscreen objects, some straightforward, others not so much) accompanying the film – and it’s samurai fight scenes (delivering Takeshi Kitano as the badass per his contractual agreement with audiences everywhere) – are not enough to forgive what feels like three false endings (the real ending, by the way, is as wacky and random as the movie attempts to be at times). There’s a bunch of promises it can’t keep (For instance: Could this have been all-out musical theater?), but its major flaw is how quickly it seems to blow its load. I’ve spent more time trying to get a grip on what staggered in front of the screen first, obstructing my view: The chicken (my typecast view of Kitano as a cold, calculating anti-Yakuza of Sonatine or Fireworks) or the egg (the relatively instinctual sense I get that Zatoichi is simply an unfocused menagerie of gutteral samurai delights and base narrative rehash). My general feeling, though I enjoyed watching the film, is that Kitano is simply out of his league here (though I think I need some backup, perhaps in the form of Kikujiro or Kids Return, supposedly lighter “Beat” fare).

[Am I within my rights to be personally offended by digi-blood and digi-sword movements? Is there something in the original, 24-part (give or take) series that vindicates the use of digi-blood and digi-sword movements? Can anyone explain to Kitano (not me, I don’t want to get beaten half to death) – a filmmaker I’d call a veritable genius at shock cinema (until the mess that was Brother in 2001, that is) – why blood that looks like “flowers blossoming on the screen” would soften the blow for an audience seeing a samurai movie? Will anyone really be surprised by visceral, gut-churning violence in a movie advertised with the subtitle “The Blind Swordsman”? I can’t get past this.]

(11/22)


The Terminal
Directed by Steven Spielberg
grade: D+As in films within films, an overarching sentimentality – not the usual, subtle brand Spielberg has made his fame with – seems to rule over everything from scene to scene mechanics (there is no actual sense of time) all the way up to the big, somewhat capricious secret of the Planters peanut can. The Terminal is not a film within a film, though, and trying to separate the serious tone from its screwball rhythm is at once maddening and exhausting. The good things that could grow from its silly heart never seem more than variations on a formula: The love struck janitor, the bleeding heart second-in-command, the faceless mass rooting for the hero at all costs. At first, I was hoping Tucci would prove the kind of oddball lightweight that’s only in charge by default, but instead, he seems a pawn to either, a) ape the laugh-at-our-troubles riff on La Vie a Bella (i.e. – confront a serious moral crisis – lackadaisical airport security – with the instincts of physical comedy) or, to disappear into a statement about the frivolous nature of bureaucracy, sort of like the one that trapped Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth in the rehabilitation maze of Gridlock’d. What Tucci amounts to, sadly, is the warden in a strange prison movie that (thankfully), is lofty enough to treat its fish-out-of-water antics as a strange daydream of science fiction, a place meant to seem so alien – yet so familiar – as to exist only as a cartoonish last resort in the land of genre invention. And even this doesn’t last. Spielberg ends up setting this one in his own, personal happy place (i.e. – the Hollywood of unnecessary crane shots and even more unnecessary phone call exposition) and finds himself blind sided by a disastrous vein that features Catherine Zeta-Jones martyring her romance for Tom Hanks to get him out of the holding cell. That Hanks, wearing his accent competently (if “successfully” aping Benigni by way of Chaplin), goes to John McTiernan’s English-in-minutes seminar at one point (comparing a Foder’s guide in English to that of his native, made-up country), confirms The Terminal‘s unabashedly ironic title: From the first moment, it is too heavy to remain airborne, begging so much of our imagination in suspending our disbelief, that it never really transcends its own sense of value.

(11/26)


Sideways
Directed by Alexander Payne
grade: B-In which, realism = downers and incongruities; Again, thanks for the welcome mat, but Payne’s comfortable buddy atmosphere never seems to mingle just right with his acerbic relationship humor. Of course, after almost six months, I re-watched About Schmidt and was able to glean only the juices from the Nicholson performance, thereby going against the grain of my above characterization theory. I don’t see myself watching this again on the strength of Paul Giamatti’s performance (though it is quite good), mostly because the rest of the movie feels like such overused and disgustingly metaphor-ridden territory (On sale soon, a spin-off book: “101 reasons love is like a good bottle of vino”). The lingo of wine tasters on everyone’s tongue, in addition to some genuinely funny dialogue (the straight man/funny man routine, though, gets old after about two reels) saves Sideways, a comedy where much less is at stake than Payne might have us believe.

(11/26)


Secret Things
Directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau
grade: C+I’m still wrestling with this in my head. For sure, it’s Rohmer with sex. Unfortunately, until the hairpin turns start their demonlover-lite-meets-Eyes Wide Shut verve, it plays too much like French skin-o-max. I can see, though, why some might swear by it. (Especially if they’ve indulged a second viewing.)

(11/28)


Twentynine Palms
Directed by Bruno Dumont
grade: C+8:32 p.m.: Maddeningly indecipherable, but encoded – quite cleverly – with the sense that it cannot be written off too easily, cannot be ignored and, as I said, cannot be read. I took a look at the director’s statement. I understand quite clearly the idea that static shots put the burden on the audience (and yes, I feel thoroughly overburdened, before you ask). I’m aware of the chemistry set dynamic in a sudden burst of violence late in the film. I’m just not sure any of it – Dumont’s philosophical noodling-as-filmmaking, the general statement of it all and, certainly, the disposable content – really adds up to anything. At all. In fact, I’m angry more than I’m shocked and feel more swindled than enlightened. It’s almost as if Dumont was presenting the meditative ideal of his own statement and decided to throw the whole thing into a tailspin with an ending guaranteed to keep people locked in discussion (“Perhaps forever!” I picture him saying). It’s the kind of film I feel like theorizing about, thinking about and, really, just writing the fuck off… (grade: C-)

…however (8:57 p.m.), when you pause to contemplate that it’s not really about its characters – though it leads you to the conclusion, early on, that their deaths will be more interesting than their lives, a sign that at least Dumont acknowledges that they are characters – you must also put into play the effect, as the slow rhythm of it (though it prohibits subsequent viewings, in my opinion) is uncommonly valuable in and of itself. I’m thinking of the Grey Gardens buzz: Turn it off and watch it work on you; As soon as it ends, the drug kicks in… (grade: B)

…(12:34 a.m.) The lengthy acts one and two seem to believe they are meditative filmmaking with every step, while the third act is largely unsuccessful (though a narcotic transference takes place). It confirms that Dumont has his own devices working, devices which visualize in uncomfortable close-up the very line between love and hate, removing dignity from his characters with the same indifference he grants it to them with (i.e. – Dumont = God). It certainly has an overwhelming – if anticlimactic – bent. We know from frame one that Dumont will likely pull the rug out from the characters some way or another, but he seems to be protecting his hand as long as possible to pop the audience’s breakers rather than have us appreciate the disturbing hangover the movie leaves us with simply through our experiencing the film. Because he’s so hell-bent on making sure we grasp his cynical world view, he flubs the slow, gnawing brilliance of the couple’s very complicated descent by shortening their fuse. Considerably. By suddenly abandoning the abstraction of the film (i.e. – it’s strength), he seems arrogant. The meditative filmmaking isn’t as important as his message. How can you tell? He seems to be answering more questions than he’s posing, clearly illustrating things that should be suggested (the final frame, especially, is a huge mistake, if you ask me), and – worst of all – he makes “finite” a word in Twentynine Palms‘ vocabulary. (C+)

(12/4)


The Bourne Supremacy
Directed by Paul Greengrass
grade: CWhen I complained that Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity had a “standard subplot” in the CIA making Bourne – played, with less boyishness this time around, by Matt Damon – it was because that which was interesting about the film (the transformation from amnesia to enlightened in seven hostile confrontations) seemed less important to the filmmakers than the hooey of Government intrigue. Perhaps a difference of opinion? In installment two – its title, The Bourne Surpemacy, already leaning away from its main character – the “standard subplot” (as I so cheerfully continue to dub it) now stands full center as a convoluted plot to unravel the connection between a Russian oil baron and the CIA, complete with career savvy Joan Allen taking charge with exactly one dimension, Brian Cox chewing the scenery to juicy shreds, button cute former secretary Julia Stiles repeatedly saying the right thing at the right time and lots and lots of really familiar “but we thought no one would ever find out” hokum. It abandons what ought to be a character study (just as in Identity, where his crisis was driving, but not exactly paying attention to the road) by shifting focus to badass Eastern European assassin stylings and, subsequently, the whole thing unravels almost immediately despite the unprecedented franchise style offing of a main character in an early sequence. In fact, the best thing about Supremacy is that it works in scenes – and not just the crunchy, bravura car chase, but the random moments of actual humanity that seem completely and utterly disconnected from the film proper (particularly the brilliant moment, about five minutes before close, when Bourne apologizes to the daughter of a husband and wife he murdered as an agent). There’s disheartening pall cast over these films; Excitement consistently being drained by the sense that Ludlum’s series has inevitably begin its run as shakily as the Bond series currently feels. As films are no longer meant to be entertaining or even interesting, just to be seen on opening weekend and, subsequently (and repeatedly) forgotten on cable, it’s probably not even worth pointing out that both Bournes suffer greatly in a demographic that barely remembers the cold war (let alone the byproduct of befuddling, quasi-propoganda cinema that painted both Communism and – inexplicably – the CIA as freedom hating villains). There’s a fine film lurking somewhere inside both of these entries. I imagine.

(12/8)


Maria Full of Grace
Directed by Joshua Marston
grade: BGlides beautifully on the spunk of its lead actress. It’s certainly on the problematic side if you’re watching the shells too closely: While Maria seems to perservere despite any hardship (preganancy, drug smuggler’s stress, constant and unrepentant lying), the message is loud, clear and generic: People in poor countries have to make more difficult choices than we do. Not that it’s a point that’s not worth making, but the El Norte stylings of the journey – interesting as they may be (here’s how you swallow, here’s how you don’t get caught, here’s how you deficate) – don’t benefit from the length and weariness of strife as they did in that film. Encapsulating all the stubbornness and danger of Maria’s predicament into it’s bombastic first hour, it ends up whiling in immigrant squabbles by the end of the film, leading to tre obvious closing frame and the second guessing sense that what came before wasn’t nearly as riveting as you once thought it to be. Luckily, Catalina Sandino Moreno is spot-on, carrying the movie better than any performer I’ve seen this year.

(12/9)


We Don’t Live Here Anymore
Directed by John Curran
grade: C-Made with all the blunt, ineffective-by-its-very-existence force of a PSA against, (roll eyes) adultery. There’s pangs of greatness: The performances, for instance (particularly Ruffalo and Krause, each offering a variation on the doomed male ego); the playful edit-to-the-music the film practically abandons after the first two reels; the lived-in worlds of married couples offer instant comfort to be disrupted (despite obvious discrepancies like both couples having the most well behaved  kids on the planet, the gigantic houses they both inhabit despite the fact that the wives don’t work and the husbands are teachers and, oh yeah, ANYONE in their right mind marrying a character as haggard and cunty as Laura Dern, despite the goofy-go-happy flashbacks). Which brings me to wild adventures in miscasting #45: Laura Dern’s soapbox posturing, looking quite hilarious against the seamless naturalism of the rest of the doomed cast; They’ve inhabited their personas,  reducing speeches to natural clicks and stops while she’s angling for an Academy Award with every gesture and breath. And to say I was not fond of the constant, obvious symbols (clearly proving Todd Field as a great director for not going that route in In the Bedroom) would be an understatement of tragic proportions (I can’t imagine look as awkward on Dubus’ page; Seriously, if Ruffalo  looked, introspectively, at that bridge one more time, I was going to turn the thing off). Even the big turnaround at the end of the second act (that sparks the incredibly dopey third act) feels forced; I’ve got better things to do than watch movie characters, safely sheltered by the Studio Indie Sector (in this case, Warner Independent), flit around in unmistakable fits of silly, wife swapping melodrama. Lesson learned. Not going to cop out and say maybe these movies work better for single or unhappy people; We Don’t Live Here Anymore too self-important to work for anyone.
 

(12/15)


I, Robot
Directed by Alex Proyas
grade: C+Proyas wasn’t a terrible choice, here, except he blows so much more of his movie than need be in developing Spoon’s befuddled paranoia (complete with the Dredged Up Secret and multiple Red Herrings). He’s not all that gifted with actors, either (as evinced in the visionary but silly The Crow and the visionary but forgiveable Dark City); Here, he leads Will Smith, an actor purposefully either left to his own devices or instructed to simplify the character for no discernable reason. Riding a note of aggressive, single-minded stubbornness as if it were some sort of substitute for any kind of genuine madness or (gulp) anti-heroics, he makes it rather clear from the get-go that we’re on our own as far as guides go. The overzealous trailer promised all sorts of spectacle and, I’ll admit, the good stuff is good (however stranded) and eventually, it really does gets a little better than good, which is all the more surprising and all the more short-lived as the encroaching, twenty minute downer of a coda gives Will Smith a couple of zinger emotions he flat-out cannot make work without a viable character. The action is inventive and, often, pretty exciting (especially in a movie I had tuned out of nearly two reels before it developed this pulse): Ro-bits ‘tackin’ other ro-bits’n shit blow’in up with good old fashioned super-animated CGI whirring in the middleground (in other words, silly, but visionary). Dumbstruck to find something not unlike fun buried in a crass collection of otherwise watery, faux-Frankenstein moral crises, I was pretty pissed when that rock-em-sock-em climax flops over and rejoins the pasty happenings of the first two acts. The sour taste of sub-par bores into the buds as you leave the theater. (“I imagine”, says he who watched the thing on his couch.)

(12/16)


Ocean’s Twelve
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
grade: B+What I like here is how Soderbergh is so cheerfully celebrating the movie as a movie: Crackling, almost distractingly entertaining film dialogue, stylish mise-en-scene, music and titles reminiscent of a 70s movie junkie, a camaraderie that, in acknowledging the cameraderie behind-the-scenes, the camaraderie in the film seems that much more believeable. I actually think I like this one – with more effort towards avante garde than its predecessor – better: Practically twitching with charm, Ocean’s Twelve feels like it was invested with the kind of unspoken (and otherwise) dialogue you have as an audience member with a director who is totally on your wavelength.

[I’m tempted to enstate a Feild alert everytime Mr. Feild disagrees so vehemently with me, but that would just be idiotic.]

(12/17)


House of Flying Daggers
Directed by Zhang Yimou
grade: B-Almost distractingly operatic, it’s a little bit simpler and more single-narrative driven than Hero (although, like that movie, it delights in befuddling the audience); While I found myself nauseated beyond words to be calling to mind Yimou’s The Road Home, the colors, the sound and the staged ballet of violence washed over it like the best trance ever.

(12/19)


The Door in the Floor
Directed by Tod Williams
grade: B-The disjoined nature of it (tone shifts are tantamount to someone jumping out at you from behind a corner), along with Bridges’ mid life crisis a la Lebowski, gives us a wonderfully subdued eccentricity. The movie works overtime to be unique, but occasionally you remember that John Irving wrote the source novel. Which, in this case, isn’t a great idea.

(12/20)


Napoleon Dynamite
Directed by Jared Hess
grade: BOf all the great pleasures of the deliriously detail-obsessed Napoleon Dynamite – one of the few worthwhile films to come out of the Wes Anderson rip-off school of filmmaking – is that Hess has a terrific set of characters to make fun of and, instead, he bestows upon them complete and utter empathy. Reminded me a bit of Hell House in that way: I was all set to make fun of them along with the director and found myself eerily rooting for them instead.

(12/21)


The Manchurian Candidate
Directed by Jonathan Demme
grade: C+A political thriller that’s meant to be timely but doesn’t feel timely in the least; Demme nails the tone almost exactly in every scene, but fails to add the whole thing up to any real snuff, casually dismissing substance for – I guess – the concept that simply by our not finding any of this disturbing (I’d challenge you to, by the way) is, in itself, disturbing. Communicated through Liev Schreiber, Denzel Washington, Jeffrey Wright and Meryl Streep, at least The Manchurian Candidate isn’t horribly miscast (see The Truth About Charlie for details). I’m not exactly sure how this film could serve any useful purpose (the sad, inescapable fact about remakes, I’m afraid), other that to indoctrinate new viewers. It’s not topical. It’s not great filmmaking. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a huge mistake*: It polarizes any audience member who hasn’t seen and (or) enjoyed the far superior 1962 adaptation of the same novel.

[* – Unless, of course, you’re a rabid Jonathan Demme fan.]

(12/22)


The Aviator
Directed by Martin Scorsese
grade: B-Though the Hell’s Angels bit is excellent, it’s the extent of the steam in Logan’s easy-does-it script, which presents so many challenges to Scorsese, it’s a wonder the film is watchable at all. (It is, though, mostly for Leonardo DiCaprio, whose performance as Howard Hughes – the eccentric to end all eccentrics – is a whole lot more interesting than anything else happening in front or behind the camera.) Because much of what happens either feels too padded by fiction or too cumbersome to be entertaining, its insistence on Scorsese’s obsessive detail blind sides it:  The Aviator is a sensational recreation of a past era where all that is exciting is rendered tiresome by about ten too many hands in the soup. Scorsese isn’t allowed to properly display his chops, leaving DiCaprio to pick up the slack, but by the end of countless random tangents and oversimplified pointer scenes, even he seems to get caught up in the decadent, look-at-this-nut spirit of this decisively repetitive film. Busily making the point that Hughes is an obsessive compulsive over and over again, they barely stretch his quirks to any sort of building transcendence, ostensibly leaving the character not only underdeveloped but – by dumb luck – strategically stubborn and true to himself. (It’s clearly not intentional, but it works just the same.) The Aviator isn’t a terrible film – it’s par to say the least; The most disillusioning thing, for me, is that it seems to be engineered to be conservative, precious little of it bearing the stamp of Scorsese in any state. Kudos for the downbeat ending, boyos.

(12/31)

Riding Giants
Directed by Stacy Peralta
grade: BNot much more than great surfing footage and validation to my dream of becoming a surfer one day (no, really). Though the gap between efforts only evinces a single minus as proof, Peralta has vastly improved since helming Dogtown and Z-Boys, a film I found more comfortable in small doses (or, played ad nauseum on Sundance). Perhaps it’s the simple fact that surfing six story waves is an awe aspiring defiance of nature and skateboarding is just a great way to skin one’s knees. Nevertheless, celebrating a sport with great passion and joy, Riding Giants stays out of your way while you watch, never overdelivering on the technical prowess or oversimplifying itself.

(1/06)


Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Directed by Adam McKay
grade: CThere are some funny bits, but so few of them belong to Ferrell, it’s almost depressing to watch him sink back towards the Elf depths (and away from the mighty genius of small roles, a trick made to seem so palpable in Old School). Steve Correll and Paul Rudd pick up slack, as much of the cast does, in just how unbelievably far they stretch their roles. Thing is, none of the actual satirizing adds up to much; The whole needling-the-new-anchor falls so flat from so early on, there’s little else we can do from our stranded position but wait for someone to cross the line (big time). By the time it’s all over, it earns one of my least favorite three word reviews: “This movie’s stupid”.

(1/07)


Code 46
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
grade: B-Code 46 is worth seeing. Pretty hard to go wrong with Alwin Kuchler shooting the thing; It’s a watered down In the Mood For Love meets “Brave New World” (with tinges of Brief Encounter and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Robbins is pretty docile and Winterbottom doesn’t balance the thing properly, leaving the love story and the futuristic society thriller trappings to cancel each other out. I’d mute the thing a few minutes before close (otherwise, you’re going to hear a horribly sappy Coldplay song). Morton, as usual, is spectacular.

[This is a one-off e-mailed response that took well under thirty seconds to tap out. It’s verbatim.]

(1/09)


The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Directed by Wes Anderson
grade: B+The whole spirit in which The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is made has a sad, beautiful charm that radiates good taste, the driving theme – besides father figures and brilliant musical montages – in Anderson’s oeuvre. It’s also a less precocious mixed-up-young-man/man-realizes-his-age tale than something like About Schmidt or, in a number of ways, either of Anderson’s other schematically symmetrical twenty-fifth-hour-dad tales (I’m exempting Bottle Rocket, I submit, because the father figure link in that one would almost, I think, poke fun at my theory.) Because the main character is the father (more unequivocally than in Tenenbaums and certainly more resolute than the one in Rushmore), The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou seems to be the first of Anderson’s films to openly acknowledge that its motive is to move you. That said, the emotion creeps comfortably up on you (that submarine scene where Zissou finally sees the Jaguar Shark is a major contributor), bearing a more subtle ring, I think, because the film seems to find its only jubilant notes towards the end of the film. There’s a great deal of assistance from a near-total Bowie soundtrack and from Murray’s performance which, though a lot less broad than his turn in Lost in Translation, is another of his great, really funny (but decidedly not comedic) wise old sages. Owen Wilson’s much maligned accent fumble seems deliberate (is it?) Then there’s Anjelica Huston’s scuzzy Aqua lady, DeFoe’s faithful dog (to Captain Zissou), Goldblum’s gooney half gay arch nemesis, Blanchett’s confused preggo reporter, Bud Cort’s bond company stooge and so on and so on; He mounts another of his wily, spot-on casts, finding the strangest chemistry in the strangest of melting pots: The kid like eye candy of the sea. Rendered through pitch perfect, cutaway sets and Henry Selick’s colorful animatics, this world is a strangely playful zig to the zag of the film’s gray skies malaise (a moody tone that Anderson allows to linger, bringing the muted – but deeply felt – conclusion to an amazing, jubilant head). The dialogue is sharper than it has been to date, with Kicking and Screaming‘s Noah Baumbach contributing his genius for offbeat phrasing and even more offbeat timing. I’m almost tempted to accuse him [Anderson] of transcending the funny nerd in himself and becoming (gulp), an indisposable valuable modern American filmmaker (one of quite a very few). Certainly worth more salt than the current champion of critical mass (Alexander Payne). Really, where does everyone get off ignoring this as the coming-to-grips-with-disappointment anthem for something as run of the mill and off-center as Sideways? (I mean (snort), really.)

(1/13)


Friday Night Lights
Directed by Peter Berg
grade: BThe polarizing technique – wherein not a single note of non-football context is established – doesn’t really work (we get tired of it driving the point home – that all life is football in this small Texas town – after about twenty minutes, which doesn’t deter it from making this point all the way up to the end); But Friday Night Lights has a much more valuable agenda: Entertainment. Like a much more worthwhile version of Any Given Sunday (set in a world that feels more focused, to boot), music flows over the whole thing, little more than a sea of montages, all of it pretty much adding up to brilliant escapism. All of you touting its realism and life-affirming nature can check back in with reality afterwards. Friday Night Lights is a gas.

(1/20)


Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
grade: CPerhaps I’m confusing a big, dumb irony (hard metal group in gushy-teared therapy) for some unnamed, pointlessly belabored epiphany about egos, the music business and the strength of bonds. Since I have great trouble taking Metallica seriously – and value the documentarians that created Paradise Lost much more than this MTV-gets-deep expose – I had trouble drawing much of transcendence or power from it. Some Kind of Monster either wanted to go more interesting directions – i.e. the cult of celebrity, the antithetical effects of sobriety on an anger-fueled money-making machine – or it was intent on burying its obvious tendencies towards marketing Metallica’s so-called comeback album (“St. Anger”) under long, tedious sequences of  footage that feels more prodded than naturally occuring. What’s worse is that the film constantly proves my point about its forgettable entertainment trappings, leaving the best bits of the nearly nine hour documentary
(okay, just over two, but certainly feeling like nine) to be merely the quirky ones: The ramblings of drummer Lars’ Middle Earthen father, former member Dave Mustaine pouring his heart out during a psychology session, and a final, hopeful search for a new bassist. Originally planned as a 6 part series for VH-1. Not surprising

(1/28)


Vanity Fair
Directed by Mira Nair
grade: CIf I were willing to sit through another hour of this, I say “Yeah, expand these characters”. But I’m not. The characters are sad wrecks, flitting at both extremes of their capabilities, often without transition. Gabriel Byrne is probably the most abrupt (he’d be a surprise if everyone else weren’t doing it), but Reese Witherspoon’s is the most disappointing. It seems as if proving cliched adages is the only ammunition necessary to rain on her parade. It’s a moral smackdown and Nair seems to take such pleasure in it. (At least Witherspoon doesn’t embarass herself as in The Importance of Being Earnest).

(2/2)


Ray
Directed by Taylor Hackford
grade: D-If this had been a how-to documentary on Oscar Baiting, it couldn’t have been any more obvious than Hackford’s Ray.

(2/5)


The Forgotten
Directed by Joseph Ruben
grade: B-Glides on eerie tone, lots of anticipation, and gobs of witheld information. It helps that Julianne Moore is a great actress. Effectively revealed as trash when it ceases being satisfying and turns flat at close. I’m not too big to admit I ran up the stairs after I turned the lights out for the evening. (And hopefully, you’re too humble to send mocking e-mails…)

(2/7)


With God On Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America
Directed by Calvin Skaggs and David Van Taylor
grade: B-It’s sly because it seems to be made with all the stamps and approval of the Right itself, despite proving without a doubt that the hypocrisy of the Moral Majority is a dangerous thing when in the hands of political figures. As a documentary, it seems to change its tune too drastically when it arrives at our current leader in its closing forty minutes. (It doesn’t help that I’m terminally biased and have very specific opinions about both politics and religion.)

(2/8)


The Motorcycle Diaries
Directed by Walter Salles
grade: BThe best part about The Motorcycle Diaries – a road trip to enlightenment that takes place when Che Guevara was still called Ernesto (for a while, anyhow) – has got to be the principles’; Both Gael García Bernal and Rodrigo De la Serna marvelously embody the recklessness of adventure and emotion as the aimlessness of youth disappears into the direction of maturity. The rub is in the film’s constant use of cliches, employing nary a style of more than conventionality (most times) to bring their trek to a head. The gorgeous location photography all over South America is, well, gorgeous – but what repeatedly sings about the film is the whole concept of realizing one wants to give oneself to something larger than oneself. I’m almost ashamed to overpraise the triumphant spirit of the film in light of the greviously unsanctimonious conformity evinced in its cheap gags and obvious constuction. Nevertheless, I walked away from it in a mood to “think about stuff”.

(2/16)


Goodbye Dragon Inn
Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang
grade: BTsai’s films have more in common with photography than film, commanding your patience with long, docile master shots that look like they took about a day each to frame. As such, he finds a genuine warmth in celebrating the rainy last night of moviegoing at a movie house made mostly of cold concrete. A movie plays for specters of its characters, who bump around with the few film fans as the lonesome, methodical manager of the theater tracks down hallways and climbs stairs. If you look too close, it can become rhythmic with static energy – but the purpose seems more likely to lie in the viewers’ meditation on their own experience that accompanies having so much darn time to think while you watch (As a consolation prize, the film does better in your mind.) This cinema-as-excuse-for-occasion -to-ponder technique is a genre (see watermarks like 2001 and Gerry), and within that genre Goodbye Dragon Inn sits somewhere in the middle. Tsai always attracts me, but his films never seem to live up to my expectations while i’m watching them.

(2/20)

Million Dollar Baby
Directed by Clint Eastwood
grade: C+[I’m tired of hearing about the spoiler alert crap associated with this thing and am not going to use one. I pretty much assume that people are like me and don’t read about a movie until they’ve seen it. Maybe that’s far-fetched. I don’t know.]

There’s lots of silhouettes, lots of pointer scenes and tons of grab-you-by-the-throat emoting; The film is cut from a tradionalist cloth of the underdog’s victory, but ends up a mixed bag of misfires and greatness. Depiction of aging intelligence feels more Space Cowboys than Blood Work: Lotsa breeze shooting ‘tween the cantankerous eye-narrower (Eastwood, indulging himself more than he ought to) and the film’s most interesting character, a retired fighter with holes in his socks (Freeman, whose voice-over narration is the smoothest thing about the film). If the garbled banter of geriatrics isn’t your speed, there’s Swank’s distracting double-wide accent, a detail that should have been enough to dispense with the introduction of her pathetic family, who belong to one of the most cartoonish evocations of a stereotype – white trash, in this case – I’ve seen in forever. Idealy, the movie could have operated without them: Though her big tell-off-mom scene points out a valuable irony (the strength in being defenseless), it obstructs the genuinely positive spirit of Maggie, a force that, occasionally, feels too strong to spoil with nagging cynicism (think Bess in Breaking the Waves, only much less moving).  The second-act euthanasia conference – both the pleading and the refusal – feel like they fall from a different film altogether. The twenty-ton ending is more of an emotional creschendo than Million Dollar Baby can swing. (In fact, the please-talk-about-me ending feels especially garish when you recall how seamlessly a similar turning point flowed out of a film like Bringing out the Dead just five years prior.) Despite its shortcomings as a somewhat superficial manipulator, Eastwood’s film, while it lasts, is the least regrettable film he’s made since The Bridges of Madison County. It’s nice to see a film about boxing that genuinely celebrates the aesthetic beauty of the sport without lurching into overt analogy. It’s nice to see a film told with sad recounting rather than fond recollection. Subplots are obvious and abruptly developed, but because the story is layered (told through Freeman using Swank to tell the story of Eastwood), we don’t really notice all that much. That might be the most sophisticated thing Million Dollary Baby pulls off. That, and impressing so many people I once trusted.

(2/25)


Finding Neverland
Directed by Marc Forster
grade: B-The overarching sentimentality feels as perfunctory as the pleasures we get watching Depp romp with the kids. The movie never really shifts gears – spinning its wheels with nearly every plot point – but it remains effortlessly pleasing. It helps that Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet work so well together. Note to Forster: Give Rhada Mitchell something to do (what are you, crazy?)

(2/26)


Closer
Directed by Mike Nichols
grade: B+The manipulative tricks reduce everyone to bare, animal instinct – and it’s fun to listen as it happens; These actors make a film of nothing but dialogue as intense and biting as a high glamour version of In the Company of Men.

(2/27)


Hotel Rwanda
Directed by Terry George
grade: B+The rare and admirable by-the-numbers execution of a historical event that makes you wish so very badly that you could offer something more than anger. Similar to Black Hawk Down (but done better), Hotel Rwanda deconstucts the complex machinations of a situation that goes horribly wrong too quickly to react to. I feel ulnerable giving myself over to a film that’s often awfully conventional. Sometimes you just decide that it doesn’t matter.

(2/27)


King Arthur
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
grade: DThe gratuituous Gladiator-worship that went into this film could be commended as meticulous and borderline-obsessesive if it weren’t written by one of that film’s creators (David Franzoni). It becomes tough to follow a film so depleted of originality while simultaneously feeling rooked by Bruckheimer’s stab at the historical hero epic. Clive Owen broods more often not, seemingly busting off another one for them; It’s been utterly oddington – and a good indicator of his strengths – watching him three times in six days: I wish I’d started with this one because it was such a pile of rubbish (and It would’ve been out of the way), but also because the transition works better: If I’d opened with this one, he would have gone from the brooding conformist to the quieter, more calculating sexual predator in Closer and finally, emerge with his quietly focused sense of “right” a la I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. (Or, loudest, somewhat loud to quiet.)

This tangent should also advertise the lack of time I’m interested in dedicating to this messy, exacting tripe.

(2/28)


Garden State
Directed by Zach Braff
grade: B-Breakfast Club-style confessionals stacked six deep: The kind of excessive resolution whose intentions are better than its outcome. Luckily, characters are stronger than its story deserves, its dialogue more enjoyable than its message or its visual evocation. It’s somehow sharp enough to borrow (read: steal) Wes Anderson’s fire outright, but treats its more as homage than xerox. If I’d seen this when I was pressed to back up the short-lived “Wes Anderson School of Filmmaking” theory, I may have been clearer and less lost in left field. Nevertheless, Braff makes a fine main character: He’s the poor man’s John Cusack: The lanky doofus whose delivery of just the right combination of nervous energy and sly charm is terrifically paired with Portman’s self-consciously confident eccentricity (she’s also quite charming, and awfully freakin’ cute). All in all, it’s the quintessential independent film of the year, with all the good and bad attributes such an inference carries with it.

(3/3)


I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
Directed by Mike Hodges
grade: BAll connections between the characters in this film are vague. Ordinarily, this is a complaint of mine (mostly because it’s here and there, rather than consistent). But I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is also something of a existential hood picture. The focus never seems to be on crime or the life of these British hooligans, instead staring down at the sort of men they are, shaping the characters even when they flit around in a standard setup. It then turns out to be the Best Standard Setup ever, when you realize what motivates the viscious fate of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (in the best spin on his arrogant-teen-in-grown-man’s-body to date).

(3/3)


In Good Company
Directed by Paul Weitz
grade: B-As vehicles go, The Big Bounce : Owen C. Wilson as In Good Company : Topher Grace. (Okay, and everybody was right: Scarlett Johanssen is just plain smokin’.)

(3/9)


Saw
Directed by James Wan
grade: C+Too trashy to be anything of substance, too sincere and ambitious to be great trash. I wish DePalma had directed it. Or a stage director. As it is, Saw is the type of film whose passing interest in the puzzle genre is squashed by its unbridled excitement at showing a man saw through his own leg. I always felt like it could go to the appropriate extremes a third generation Seven-ripoff might go, but it keeps everything on the somewhat tired side of the B-genre. More than anything, I wanted it to confine itself to the room where the protagonists awake – probably the only remotely unique thing about the film.

(3/12)

The Reckoning
Directed by Paul McGuigan
grade: CThe setting is pretty amazing – and the cinematography is among the best of the year – but the morality play it centers around (its blind attempt at “The Mousetrap”, we’ll say) never transcends its melodramatic trappings. DeFoe’s, um, “accent” is nothing if not distracting; Brian Cox does some seriously broad scenery chewing in a move that feels like a huge step backward for this brilliant actor. Bettany manages to eek across the finish line without tarnishing himself. After Gangster No. 1, it just seems like a drab, almost offensive move for a McGuigan to make something this base.

(3/13)


Alfie
Directed by Charles Shyer
grade: C-Wow. Here’s a movie that expects you to believe its main character is sleazy while, on the surface, Jude Law seems to have been instructed to do just the opposite. By the time he starts learning lessons, you’re almost shocked at how dumb he really is (the word definition page-a-day calendar starts this ball rolling): It’s as if he’s been muscled into maturing beyond his womanizing tendencies rather than gradually understanding the error of his ways. Nothing of any value aside from the sleek, surface values, most of them just Jude Law and beautiful women interacting (which, despite the banality of their actual interactions, is hard to decry completely).
 

(3/18)


Wimbledon
Directed by Richard Loncraine
grade: B-I’m probably being mighty subjective here (my gut says C+), but this was escapist entertainment in just the right dose at just the right moment. Sure, it’s basically a youth-set Britcom with all the trimmings that come with it – but it also made me smile unconsciously more than once. And I acknowldege it.

(3/23)


Red Lights
Directed by Cedric Kahn
grade: B-The great, dreamy atmosphere is often marred by the film’s obsession with serendipity, and the morality of its characters: It bites off so much more than it can chew, that if it only put its mood at the front of its consciousness, it would probably have been the best film of the year. The sequence where he’s on the phone, unraveling the previous night’s activities, is probably the best piece in the film. Constructionwise, the whole thing is much less interesting than it seems (it all adds up to blind instinct but, really, not saying much more than coincidence, coincidence, coincidence).

(3/23)


Distant
Directed by NB Ceylan
grade: BRandy’s right about it containing a lot of great shots of “people smoking in the snow”. Rarely has a title been this dead-on about its tone, which sort of underlines problem: Anything dealing with actual text or character interaction is in direct opposition to how bare and brilliant the aesthetic is. Environment is a pretty big part of the thing (despite Ebert’s claim that it’s universal, I think the film rises and falls by its travelogue trappings); I enjoyed the characterization, but found a number of Ceylan’s plot points too quirky and sentimentalized. It had that wan lining that foreign films do, begging a clarity to the vague ponderance: “Is it me or just the translation?” I’d sit through it again, though, just to be sure…

(3/28)


Vera Drake
Directed by Mike Leigh
grade: BPortrayal of life in postwar Great Britain is much more interesting than the treatise on abortion; Probably my least favorite of Leigh’s films, it makes the fatal mistake of sliding its entire second half on a downhill slant of crying close-ups and sober flashes of reality. The great, bracing transition (when the cops show up at the engagement dinner) that was meant to link the two halves is the last breath of anything remotely Leigh-esque. Even though All or Nothing felt somewhat stalled, the promise of greatness again is all the more sour when diminished by a naked expose on Being True to Yourself. The Imelda Staunton performance, much like Jaime Foxx’s, is more bells and whistles than great acting (for my money). The relatively high grade, in the face such complaints, is a marker of just how freshly a film cut of a different cloth falls in your lap – warts and all.

(4/2)


Being Julia
Directed by Istvan Szabo
grade: BSzabo has this uncanny way of catering to our hungry-for-justice side without being utterly obvious about it; As in Taking Sides, we’re pretty much enthralled to watch evildoers get theirs (in this case, a no talent-hack actress and a manipulative kept man she stole from the 40ish primadonna). Annette Bening is just as good as her “status” nod (she the only nomination for this film) might imply. In fact, despite how corny is sounds, her naked embodiment of a fortysomething (it’s never left for pondering minds to uncover that she’s aging) is probably as dead-on as you’d imagine, were you a believer that the Academy Awards had ‘ought to do with merit. That said, the film never takes its dryness to any place more colorful, really, maintaining a pretty modest tone from tip to top.

(4/3)

The Corporation
Directed by Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar
grade: B-It’s length and a hope-will-find-away ending punch large holes in a film that needs to give the appearance of credibility in order to work, in my opinion. There are some great causes listed, you get angry and then the movie heals you – as if it’s rounding a symmetrical narrative curve rather than summating the general, worldwide problem of corporate corruption.

(4/9)


Infernal Affairs
Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak
grade: B-It’s so silly, and so lame, and so Japanese Hollywood – so why did I dig it so damn much? Probably the logistics of the cat and mouse game – more specifically, the fact that the film even bothered to underline the similiar positions of the undercover cop and the mole, but the way it didn’t seem to care that it was acting as if no one had ever done it before. It’s one of those films you can’t believe is par for the people who made it, despite the fact that you actually enjoy watching it. (Great chance, by the way, for the remake to be better here: Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson being helmed by Martin Scorcese; i.e. – The Departed).

(4/11)


Primer
Directed Shane Carruth
grade: B+Before it grabs at you with both claws, sucking you into the twisted, convoluted machinations of greed and time travel, Primer is a curious thing in itself: A terrifically photographed breeze through the kind of thick, technical wherewithall as it is spouted by guys you obviously believe are really engineers who happen to be making a film instead of the pursuing the creation of their own time machine. As they construct their machines and yammer about things you couldn’t possibly understand, it dawns on you: Shane Carruth really, really wants you to believe that his explanation of time travel would be relayed in formulas and equations rather than  stories about bumping one’s head on one’s toilet and dreaming of flux capacitors. I’m not sure I can even approximate whether I’d hit the mark in understanding the second half’s unending and supremely convoluted game of switcheroo between past and present. It’s puzzle tendencies serve to make a good thing even better, selling us very successfully an edge of genuine realism (oxymoron anyone?) and then showing us the staggering dimension of these characters. Also: I can’t wait to see the thing again.

(4/21)


Birth
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
grade: C+There’s some great long takes, great camerawork (and Kidman is spot-on), but there’s nothing in all of its one hundred forty-seven minutes that manages to transcend the borderline self-parody of its premise: A ten-year old thinks he is the dead husband of the well-to-do, soon-to-be-remarried widower. The only parts I believe are that he’s ten years old and that she’s a widower. All the stuff in between, where the joints tend to connect, is distracting in its hilarity. I really thought, after being floored by the open shot, that Glazer was going to stay as stylish and literate as he did in Sexy Beast. The music video director in him is an obnoxious foreground in Birth).

(4/24)


Undertow
Directed by David Gordon Green
grade: B+Dialogue is wifty as all get out, but watching Green expand the thrill of the accidental death sequence in George Washington into a feature length spin on The Night of the Hunter is the primary reason I really dug Undertow. The story is ridiculous beyond belief, but the filmmaking (that earns forgiveness with a Philip Glass score as co-pilot) is so gosh darn crisp (semi-indulgent zooms and great transitions without sound, continuing poetic construction); Undertow has the strangely ironic prestige of being more character/environment focused like George Washington, but possessing none of the sincerity or consistent quirk of All the Real Girls. In short: It fits right into his repertoir without much hesitation or question (particularly as Malick – or D.G. Green, Sr. for short – ponied up an executive producer credit), poising him for a masterpiece soon (I ‘magine).

(4/28)


Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’
Directed by Brad Silberling
grade: C+I’d have had a much better time enjoying the often-funny antics of Jim Carrey and the stunning art direction if only the story didn’t feel grafted from something much larger that made much more sense. Imagine a Harry Potter film where everyone around him kept alluding to his parents in hushed tones but we never find out what has happened to them or why and you’re close. Though the ending is anti-climactic to a fault, I couldn’t help enjoying the way the film balanced its flaw against a fortysomething man marrying a fourteen year old, a Justice of the Peace being hornswaggled into doing it and the peril of a young boy hanging from the side of an old house. Memo to everyone involved: Aside from making a separate film about Olaf’s acting troupe (which I’d gladly watch), perhaps give Luis Guzman something to say now and again. He’s pretty good.

(4/30)


The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Directed by Niels Mueller
grade: CIt could have been made years ago (and fit into the Indie circuit very easily), but it seems to strive for renewal of the devastating pathos of Taxi Driver, a film I feel very uncomfortable even mentioning in the same breath as this one. There exists a great deal of that heavy tone that comes with a film that wants to dump the emotional burden in the audience’s lap. The Assassination of Richard Nixon doesn’t quite dump it – it strives for sympathy or, at the very least, pity – instead transferring the naive Bicke’s neurotic ambition (emphasis on the -tic) to us; By simply absorbing Penn’s frustrated jitter, you can tell that he’s firing on all cylinders while the film is firing on roughly half that amount. Overshooting the mark in a turn both technically and literally reminiscent of his whiny I Am Sam extravaganza, everything he does seems to echo into a void, leaving a very pretty looking film (I have a non-sexual crush on Emmanuel Lubezki) to fall almost entirely flat on its face. That a Sean Penn performance, even one that gets under our skin (in more ways than one), could seem familiar (or pat), makes an already depressing affair downright miserable. The voice-over (read to Leonard Bernstein, in a detail too eccentric to bother explaining, I suppose), is just right for a piece this transparent: Even great scenes like Penn screaming at a television “It’s about money, Dick!” is somehow inextricably tied to the film’s embarrassingly obvious display of symbolism. It acts as if this is the first time anyone came up with the concept of killing the president to make a point about something.

[Nice to see Michael Wincott working again – if only in one scene.]

(5/2)


Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’
Directed by Joel Schumacher
grade: C-Reacting with my nose (at first) – the film stinks of cheese from the moment you realize its deviations make it stand out even more boldly as non-cinema than it naturally might have – I tossed around a slew of theorums on why Joel Schumacher’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Last Ditch Effort to Squeeze Cash Out Of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, a musical I quite liked when I saw it, feels like even if it had followed the musical to the letter, using the original cast, it would probably still have fallen flat. First and foremost, I think it suffers from crap timing: The musical’s popularity peaked and fell long ago, but it has yet to enter that stage where a revival might seem like a pleasant notion (or, for that matter, a good idea). And despite my plea that even its voices of origin would have sunk the thing (with blatant caveat that I don’t really know what I’m talking about), Schumacher’s version employs a raspy, sloppy (but not good sloppy) Phantom and a Christina who can’t hit the Brightman notes (and seems to be on take two, rather than four or five most of the time). (To it’s credit, Raoul is quite good and there’s even a nifty Minnie Driver performance – subverting my expectation that she’d be sore thumbing it hardcore.) It gets to be so badly staged, that by the end, when Christina is supposed to be choosing between her lovers – in a scene that’s supposed to be wrenching – we’re laughing hysterically at the melodrama, slinging sarcastic contempt to the left and right of us. All of this is take-it-or-leave-it for audiences (I suppose), but you can’t get past how unbendable the aesthetic of sitting in a opera-style theater while you watch the story unfold live before you is when compared to simply watching the story for what it is (i.e. – it relies on the narrative to carry the piece instead of the awe that comes with experiencing the invisible line between the setting in the world of the musical and your actual physical setting, exposing how slim and absurdly goofy the story really is).

(5/4)


The Merchant of Venice
Directed by Michael Radford
grade: B+I’ve spent about half of the pondering time (of which I often allow myself) debating how this film gets around being blatantly anti-Semitic (two reasons come to mind: A) it’s a snapshot of a time period when people were casually and guiltlessly oppressive of Jewish people and, B) the characters must be that way in order that Shakespeare successfully portrays his leads as flawed men who believe they are merciful – but are, in fact, sadistic to one another). I spent the other half relishing Shakespeare’s dialogue, particularly that of Shylock, whose obsessive ramblings about his “bond” show, again, an ironclad link between the Bard and David Mamet. As a sort of afterthought, The Merchant of Venice, where many recent productions find actors unable to properly render old English and directors unwilling to stay true to it (or updating it), Radford falters only in the borderline apologetic opening lead-in (explaining the politics of 1544 Venice as if he was personally responsible for them); Later on, he more than redeems himself, performing one of the best balancing acts in recent memory, blending difficult bedfellows airy, comedic flirtation and upsetting moral upheaval just perfectly. Also: Lynn Collins? Grown on an island in Indonesia.

(5/20)


Tarnation
Directed by Jonathan Caouette
grade: B+The best parts of Tarnation have more in common with music than cinema, clearly favoring the preference called out by many a seasoned listener: It sounds better as a whole album than in separate songs. Despite bookends that often juxtapose what feel like staged moments with the camera, Caouette manages to pour a lifetime’s worth of dark tides into a creative outlet that all but bores a hole right through you. Alternately disturbing (outright frightening in spots) and bittersweet, a variety of personal, found footage (in Super-8, VHS, answering machine messages, photographs and recordings) is manipulated, embellishing its discoloration, subverting its rhythm, and generally positing its nature to mimic that of a schizophrenic fever dream. Imagine the foresight and unexpected depth of character in Capturing the Friedmans dipped in the well of Underground cinema, given to forcing lucidity in contrast to the naturally unfocused bent of Caouette’s shock treatment and drug scarred mother, all poured without a filter of shame (to boot: It cleverly sidesteps narration, opting to guide us with matter of fact titles that we have to digest in our own, internal voice); Caouette’s clearly touched a very specific nerve in me (that is, the desire to sculpt and craft, for universal viewing, the emotion recalled by our malleable home movies – a near impossible task given their subjective nature). There is an effortless vulnerability that comes only from the so-called Student Film (a label Tarnation also wears, wisely, without shame); Hyperbole alert! This may be the strongest strain I’ve witnessed to date.

(5/24)


Kinsey
Directed by Bill Condon
grade: B-The air of mundanity seems engineered to disable the melodrama, which it barely does; The worst thing, though, is how impotent it makes major turning points in Kinsey’s life seem. Neeson is a terrific performer, now able to capably walk off with a movie; The best scenes find him passionately slogging away at his twin books on the male and female sexual experience. Condon is barely able to fuse these discoveries of academia to the discoveries of the flesh, making Kinsey’s team seem like incidental swingers, casually giving themselves license to explore the nature of sex’s impact on emotion simply because they spend all day being rigid and clinical. Though Saarsgard makes an impression and Linney sculpts a very palpable version of a deeply loyal woman (even when she’s sleeping with Saarsgard, mind), the film blows its credibility with near-parody performances by Oliver Platt, Chris O’Donnell and especially (reprising his role as the oppressive preacher in Footloose), John Lithgow. In short: It seems to aim for the same territory as Condon’s wildly brilliant Gods and Monsters, but divvies the focus too liberally to pull it off.

(5/27)


Time of the Wolf
Directed by Michael Haneke
grade: B-Despite trappings that highly resemble the slow burn of Funny Games, Time of the Wolf  becomes less and less interesting as it proceeds, delving into a fairly elementary study of social clashes between survivors of a recent cataclysmic event. Huppert’s triumph (this time as a mother of two) seems just as wasted as it was in The Piano Teacher; She’s all wild fluctuation between strong wits and helpless vulnerability, existing in Haneke’s lukewarm world of predicatable tension posing in artfully vague non-specifics. But mostly, Haneke’s a tease. The first twenty-five or thirty minutes (or, until they reach the train depot) feature some great beginnings (a classic Haneke jump moment, a scary sequence lit only by burning hay), but the rest feels unfocused, as if Haneke was unsure which direction to take and never resolved his uncertainty. Also: Three scenes of Oliver Gourmet’s shady “leader” character? Huge demerits.)

(6/6)


Team America: World Police
Directed by Trey Parker
grade: BTeam America benefits, in part, from extreme underestimation; I, for one, couldn’t believe I’d even rented it – let alone watched the damn thing. (I took it off of my netflix queue at one point, but was forced to put it back on when my younger brother’s iPod demostration included a brilliant song from this film entitled “Montage”.) The surprise isn’t necessarily that it’s funny (humor was in the realm of possibility, you see) but, in point of fact, in how absolutely dead-on it was as both a send-up of action films and as a powerfully refreshing shot in the arm of un-PC, bipartisan ribjabbing. (In other words: Fuck you Bruckheimer, Fuck you America, Fuck You Michael Moore and so on and so on and so on.) The puppets work, as both an symbolic choice and a cheap way to manipulate every facet of the modern American action movie experience (explosions and gunplay are overdramatized up the wazoo); The puppet sex, though an attention-getting boast at the top of the order, seems almost moot by the time it happens, a trend that shoots the film in the foot with the same ammunition that cut down Not Another Teen Movie: At some point, you feel the movie buying into the narrative it created to make fun of. It works better than the other three films they’ve made.

(6/15)


The Machinist
Directed by Brad Anderson
grade: B-I’ll admit that The Machinist has done better in my mind, where I can forget that it tells such a whiny, overtold Is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex? tale. What’s especially important about the film is not the skeleton flesh of Bale’s one hundred twenty pound half-frame, but the decaying atmosphere of severe disturbance in a world of modern sterility and night time shadows. Moody as all get out, it matters so little when the film’s ultimate revelation turns out to be exactly the one you predicted five minutes into it, directly following a sequence where blood oozes out of a refrigirator and it’s exactly what it should be. Realizing I’ve tossed around the forgivable narrative excuse quite a bit lately, I’ll submit this much: The Machinist is easy to follow, but its real pleasures reside right on the surface.

(6/21)


A Very Long Engagement
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
grade: BIf you’d never seen Amelie, the argument could be made that these two films are interchangable; I probably wouldn’t support the argument, though. Though it was comforting to read, somewhere, that even Jeunet got confused by the whole thing as he was making it, A Very Long Engagement aptly overstays its own welcome, cramming three movies’ worth of information into just one (but not as deftly as Amelie did, unfortunately). Working better if you interpret it as something along the lines of a series of short films, Jeunet’s tale of a long-obsessed war widow unraveling the fate of her beau is simultaneously mind-blowing, gorgeous, disturbing, greengoldandbrown, sexually charged, historically electrifying (France at the turn of the century!), and all of the things you’d expect from Jean-Pierre. Audrey Tatou continues to be one of the most talented (and beautiful) actresses working today.

(7/25)


Alexander (Director’s Cut)
Directed by Oliver Stone
grade: C+The thesis is so confused and Alexander celebrated less for his achievements (argued here to be invasions as well as mercy missions), than defined by his parents and the people he chose to truck with. Ferrell is fine, with Leto as his life-long lover, Kilmer as his now-wicked, now wise father and Angelina Jolie, in a performance so miscalculated, you’ll wonder if Stone simply instructed her to continue the trajectory from Girl, Interupted, only several years later (but not too many – she doesn’t look like his mother even in a pinch). Battle and sex scenes trump the thing as a whole, with a trippy fight to take India bathed in the glow of red-tinged acid (fire magic in your head, man). In short: Stone is better at crafting these long, winding epics when they’re about dead presidents, not dead conquerers.

(8/12)


The Brown Bunny
Directed by Vincent Gallo
grade: B+Initially, I pegged it to the meditative film category (which it is, I suppose, to a certain extent); It’s third act, however, which hoists a long, lonesome reserve of sorrow I previously suspected might go sans vindication, is a marvel of envelope pushing, ego celebrating, and confused moral wherewithal. Gallo plays Bud Clay, a motorcycle racer so sad, he can’t seem to connect with anyone but his own windshield (and the bug remnants which adorn it). Driving across the country, he gets quite the notion that whatever is bothering him can be solved simply by plunging himself into Gordon Lightfoot songs and random encounters with ladies (at rest stops, on corners, in convenience stores). At one point he stops at the salt flats to stage picturesque frames that make Gerry look conservative by comparison. (Which is not to say that this moment is wrong, exactly – quite the contrary; I was simply curious as to why Gallo switches back and forth between unbroken takes, often framed as if caught on the fly, and formally composed motion paintings pre dreamed to the most minute of minute details.) When he finally hits his destination and finds himself engulfed in “the scene”, a couple of things happen. The truth that’s revealed is shocking and overwhelming – but fitting (which is what’s important). His pecker (or “penis”) and it’s appearance on the screen (as it’s worked by Chloe Sevigny, a good sport in a deeply thankless – bordering on masochistic – role) pretty much immediately announces itself as a disturbance, given its place in context (it belongs to the flippin’ director, an unwritten faux pas tantamount to a cinematographer editing his own footage), sending the scene into an unnecessary tailspin of sudden, uncontrollable self worship. In short: Gallo stops an otherwise moving scene to show you how big his cock is. Is The Brown Bunny still a good film? Absolutely. Following this blip, it picks up directly where it left off, and ends in a head space so far from our original impression, it’s all we can do to remind ourselves how damned depressing the thing is in order to prevent ourselves from starting it over and rewatching the long, sad journey of a very well endowed film director/producer/actor/editor/composer.

[Or, as P. Greg put it, when my younger brother had planned to watch it with is then girlfriend: “[It’s] the best date movie ever”. He’s also right when he points out that following Buffalo ’66, The Brown Bunny is a 180′ turn in the other direction.]

(8/17)

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