2005 Reviews

Racing Stripes
Directed by Frederik Du Chau
grade: C-

A girl missing a parent. A farmer in debt. An evil racetrack owner. A crazy old man. A determined – but different – horse (different in that he’s a zebra). A barnyard full of talking animals. Two wisecracking flies. A lazy porch dog. A mafia goose. The former training pony who gives it one more go. The voice of reason (it’s Whoopi Goatberg.) A Fast and the Furious parody. Lines like “I can’t believe you disobeyed me”, “Care to make it interesting” and so forth.

It’s all here.

(1/17)


Tropical Malady
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
grade: B+

Probably a better bet to take a look at viewing #2; Though I was in awe of the layers of the first part, I half-dozed through the second part and much later realized I was supposed to be linking the two.

(2/24)


3-Iron
Directed by Kim Ki-Duk
grade: B+

I can barely remember what I loved about this film (the refreshed feeling, almost like a film-as-a-narcotic entry) is that is had the same ebb and flow as Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring; It lacks, unfortunately, that film’s coherence which, by the end, is almost an asset to 3-Iron. Mostly, though, it’s the happy-with-the-universe feeling I’m rewarding with that B+.

(3/1)


Robots
Directed by Chris Wedge
grade: C+

A film being released in 2005 that still relies on Robin Williams to deliver his seemingly endless gallery of rambling parodies whose comedic jazz is outdated by at least a decade (by which I mean he’s not really all that funny any more). Same straight-to-video simple plotline as in Wedge’s Ice Age (perhaps even more dimwitted this outing), but visualized with a similar fantasy-infused realism, perhaps the best thing about his films; The opening sequence, probably because it has nothing to do with film, really, and could have been its own short (a much better plan) is pure genius, as brilliant as anything Pixar has come up with. These guys need to hire better screenwriters.

(3/14)


Frank Miller’s Sin City
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
grade: B+

I’ve been dreading writing this revew, worried that I’ll not do this film justice. I salivate each time I think of the eye-popping visuals and the eyeball-scratchin’-grit; This is probably Rodriguez’s best film to date, having strayed to source material other than SPY Kids sequels or Stock Mexican Western #2, he does nothing but craft, giving his film the control of animation with the eye-popping 3-D elements of  comic book physicality. I can’t wait to see it again.

(4/7)


Kingdom of Heaven
Directed by Ridley Scott
grade: C

Battle scenes rhythmic to a fault (shoot in slow motion, play it back at normal speed, throw dirt at screen, lather, rinse repeat), a wrongfoot leading man (perhaps the very opposite of Russell Crowe on the presence meter) and the annoying speechifying that all of Ridley Scott’s characters usually do, mix in this overlong, historically muddled Crusades’ epic. Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons keep their dignity (although, ironically, all characters pale next to Baldwin IV, who wears a mask throughout the whole affair), leaving the film to fall down all around Orlando Bloom, one of the most bafflingly atrocious actors working at present.

(5/9)


Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Directed by George Lucas
grade: A-

I was so overwhelmed in the momentous opening sequence, I forgot to be sad that it was the last new Star Wars movie ever; Conversely, unlike Attack of the Clones, I was never confused by what was going on and found this film to exceed my expectations almost immediately and without a single regret (I remember really choosing to go on faith in my feelings about Attack of the Clones, genuinely fearing that it would occur to me much later that I was wrong; Turns out I was, and after four viewings, I finally decided to face up to it). Revenge of the Sith is all terrific execution, with Lucas opting not to let absence make the heart grown fonder (there’s no long-winded, high drama to suffer through as you wait for the climactic combustion): The whole damn movie is crammed tight with set pieces, leaving only a small window of doubt (I find the choreography of the light saber battles much less interesting than the environments they take place in – sue me). The story is strong, but it turns out to be so inseparable from the original films, you’re never sure if you’re simply gleaning whatever nostalgic kicks you can from these new-fangled space operas or if you honestly revere their cunning. To be sure – it’s wholly satisfying.

(5/19)


Batman Begins
Directed by Christopher Nolan
grade: B-

For a refresh effort, it bore a strikingly familiar resemblance to its better (Burton’s 1989 effort, that is), complete with untouchable villains unveiling a plot to poison Gotham City while street level criminals tremble at the name of a new crime fighter. Individual performances were slam-bang awesome (particularly Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy and Gary Oldman, who all appeared to be having a grand ol time), but the film felt as if it were trying to pull a fast one on me by unveiling a story I already knew and merely splitting the focus more evenly among the birth of a tortured hero and his dirty work. The mark of Christopher Nolan, in his insistence on telling the story with flashbacks – which I liked – and his impeccably formal widescreen composition, doesn’t seem enough to change the fact that Batman Begins is physically darker (i.e. – there’s less light), but not nearly as horrific or pervasive as Burton’s twin shots at the franchise (and we all know Begins aims to be, so I’ll spare the caveat that we shouldn’t be comparing the two). Notwithstanding all the guilty pleasures [the dual quip machines Caine and Freeman (both of whom I liked), as well as the Spider-Man-vibe “lift” ending (“Wow ’em in the end, and they’ll love you forever”), which I also liked] – Batman Begins is terrific Summer entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. (Oh, and that Bale fellow: He’s the man.)

(6/19)


The Jacket
Directed by John Maybury
grade: B-

In the end, the money sequences – that is, those that take place in 2007 – are too vaguely defined within context (Are they in his head? No, else where is the untold info. coming from. Is one merely a glimpse of an isolated character’s experience in the afterlife? Wouldn’t that be kind of, you know, random?), while the story itself, told from 1992, endures merely to serve the film’s high point, namely the love story between Persian Gulf Syndrome sufferer Brody and brooding nymph Knightley. I was thoroughly entertained by Maybury’s oft-driven montage work (although his direction of actors is either sloppy (Knightley is far too over-the-top) or just non-existant (somewhat possible, given the level most of the performers – including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kris Kristoffersen, Daniel Craig and, especially, Adrien Brody), a technique that, in other hands, might be distracting). Flash-CGI imagery starts to get old from its inception, but it usually leads to interesting things, so it becomes simple to tolerate. All in all, an easy thriller to log and forget.

(6/23)


War of the Worlds
Directed by Steven Spielberg
grade: B-

Delivers just what you’d envision it to; Namely, apocalyptic spectacle followed by suspenseful getaways bookended with more apocalyptic spectacle, giving way to more suspenseful getaways which, inevitably lead to massive apocalyptic spectacle that reaches across a rather suspenseful getaway towards, yes, another dose of that wondrous, apocalyptic spectacle. Almost a non-issue by default, Cruise’s performance would have been much more interesting if he and his children didn’t seem as alien to each other as man to the dino-looking invaders (who are unwisely shown for some reason by a director who really oughta know better). I was genuinely enthralled, at times, as great portions of it achieve a wonderment and terror tantamount to both Jaws and Jurassic Park. But – much like his recent films (even Catch Me If You Can, which I quite liked) – War of the Worlds isn’t quite put together right, as if Spielberg the businessman enterted Spielberg the filmmaker’s editing room and demanded that he disjoint the momentum of the film, occasionally, with long stretches of mucky sentimentalism (You know, for the kids). Instead of walking out of War of the Worlds looking at the skies, we’re distracted at how dumbstruck we are, thinking to ourselves how pussy Spielberg has become. (Me on my soapbox: ‘plete control of the whole stinkin’ film and tryin’ to please everybody, ‘parently, by not offin’ junior.)

(7/11)


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Directed by Tim Burton
grade: B-

Morosely, Tim Burton dares us to like his films, dressing up mediocrity as glossy camp (see: Planet of the Apes, Big Fish and this film). And its not that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is bad, really, but that it’s not bizarre (and it should be, because it’s about a boy who idolizes a grown-up boy so fixated on his youthful enthusiasm for candy that he invites children to his lair – I mean, factory – and watches as their faults are punished in ironic ways while colorfully dressed dwarfs sing energy-laced pop fables). Instead, it’s an artistic joy to behold – and a consistently funny film (Depp’s reviled take on the Wonkster made me chuckle a few times) – but a straight-faced one for some reason. While Mel Stuart’s 1971 film based on the same book had the benefit of psychadelica (and was a much colder, crueler visit to “The Moral Is…” land), Tim Burton has the benefit of digital effects, which prove (as they usually do), that their employ strangles any remaining creative urgency, making everything too literal and flat.

(7/16)


Funny Ha Ha
Directed by Andrew Bujalski
grade: B

The graven image of Eric Rohmer, if one ever existed. Funny Ha Ha is all conversation. What’s nice, though, is that Bujalski’s cast is proficient enough to make you believe the studdering and normalcy that unfolds amidst this conversation isn’t accidental; There’s a deliberate statement being made, a snapshot if you will, exposing the state of modern body language and the great conversational negotiation of romantic interest. That an act structure is never established (no resolution, either) makes Bujalski my own personal hero.

(7/17)


Constantine
Directed by Francis Lawrence
grade: C

Proves very nicely the 1:3 ratio I’ve been touting in my spare time; Namely, the first act can show promise because its all setup and setup is compelling because it promises more. Around the top of act two – when the film becomes about twin sisters (one in hell, one who’s a been-there-done-that cop) and an independent crime fighter trying to keep his soul out of the devil’s hands (Keanu, in tiresome, muted Keanu mode) – things start to get silly. But Constantine remains somewhat visually enticing, using its digital effects to show evil (a vision of a hot, sticky urban hell is pretty amazing) and cartoon (lots of wierd, cool-looking demons), faltering, finally, for the last time, in the third act, where all of the action takes place in three very long, very boring conversations between characters who should be much more interesting than they are (particulary the two conversations Keanu has between himself and the devil – played by Peter Stormare – and, later, between himself and Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel). A great deal of the first part cuts through the treadle, bursting into sequences with most of the dialogue either relegated to background noise or, ignorable. By close, all we can do is listen as the movie talks itself out of being cool.

[Also: Big points for the opening sequence: A Mexican dude gettin’ hit by a car and surviving? Way cool.]

(7/21)


The Upside of Anger
Directed by Mike Binder
grade: C+

I had some mixed feelings about it (Ostensibly, I found much of the film hard to connect with – oh, no, the jerky rich people are in trouble! – but found myself utterly floored by Kevin Costner, in a role stripped of vanity, upstaging a performance I’m sure Joan Allen stayed up conjuring until the wee hours the night before. The twist at the end was goofy – not because it too perfectly summed up the film’s general theme (being consumed by anger is not progressive, no matter much better it makes you feel in the short term) – but because it reminded me how little we actually knew about a character who set nearly all the motions of the narrative in place. (Can’t people be subpoenaed when they jump ship to Sweden with their secretaries? Or at least have papers served?) When Shep’s head exploded, however, I nearly fell off the couch.

(7/26)


Kung Fu Hustle
Directed by Stephen Chow
grade: B

When it apes Looney Tunes-gone-Kung Fu, it’s free and alive; Some of the dialogue is out and out hilarious; The story of a kid who idolizes a cruel gang and becomes more powerful through his own violent powers seems generic; The world Kung Fu Hustle is set in: A poverty-stricken tenement surrounded by hat-doffing business owners straight out of a fifties’ musical is placed squarely in the center of the Wild, Wild West of Chow’s cartoon-obsessed imagination. By the end, it gets monotonous to watch Chow, who blew his speakers out much earlier on, continue to play at full volume. However, there are much worse ways to spend your time.

(8/10)


Dallas 362
Directed by Scott Caan
grade: B

Dialogue snaps, crackles, pops and dazzles in Caan’s alternately mind-blowing and mundane Growing Up picture. Some scenes are staged so beautifully and so unconventionally, you can’t believe the same movie contains a Jewish gambler who talks like a rat and seems poised to single-handedly bring the movie down (his voice is currently being used to torture prisoners somewhere, I’m sure). The best example of Dallas 362‘s two-faced nature is the Big Robbery Sequence. Simulataneously awesome (because its crosscut with images and music from Midnight Express) and dimwitted (Mexican standoff anyone?) My favorite surprise is  that Scott Caan directed it. And it’s awfully mature. Scott Caan. Seriously. Scott. Friggin’. Caan.

(8/15)


Downfall
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
grade: B

Though impressed by Ganz’s Hitler (in performance reportedly culled from a secret recording made by a Swedish operative, which proved Der Fuhrer’s quiet side off the soapbox), I was originally kind of put off by how simplistic Downfall seems to make this history lesson (Now we see Adolf getting upset over this. Now that. Now we’re framing the thing around his secretary. For no apparent reason.) What really counts is the chilling spectrum of pro-party politics, still fiery and en vogue, as the world collapses around the remaining Nazi brass. Stubbon, confidant and loyal to the end as they off themselves one by one, the men and women who support a quiet, Parkinson’s-ravaged Hitler seem almost…human. As the cold, symmetrical layout of their bunker begins to empty out, it occurs to us very slowly: No one is going to learn their lesson here. Downfall stays with you; It haunted me pretty much all day after I viewed it.

(8/15)


Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Directed by Doug Liman
grade: C-

[I’m just reprinting my notes; I don’t have time to deconstruct this con on The Great American Paying Moviegoer]

Funny they mention foundation because the one in this film is cliched to the core; I understand that on planet earth, beautiful people can tire of each other’s perfectness, but in Mr. and Mrs. Smith – which is set in some alternate universe – every character is absurdly attractive; Initially, I thought that this was one of those movies where the surprise secret should have been left out of the marketing campaign and given as a gift to the viewer. Every scene before the veil is lifted is hollow because we already know. It would have worked much better if we were in the dark, as the beginning seems to presuppose us to be (Although kudos for a revelation at forty-six minutes rather than one hundred minutes: It’s much less embarrasing that way); Even on its own two legs, the misdirection of boredom in marriage is grating from the outset; Ugly curtains and a excitement over a low APR = forced mundanity if I’ve ever seen them; Bottom line: Contrast between domesticity and action hero bravado is insulting to the point of being painful; Double entendres bounce off the walls like flubber; In fact, the context of them being assassins with double lives makes their cartoonish marriage “spats” less interesting (because we’re not surprised by what they’re capable of – the movie never develops these characters past the immediate, let alone sets any sort of limits on them); What if, out of the blue, a tasteless exaggeration of twofold domestic abuse (a la The War of the Roses)  were to arrive, making a controversial, but valid point? What if this were a straight-faced message movie where a husband and wife just pounded the shit out of each other for two hours and it was Jonathan Rosenbaum’s favorite exercise in Neo-Marxist subtextery?; This movie was funded by liquor companies, I swear it; I’m not kidding, at one point, she wipes a tear all over her lips. Seriously: “Look at my lips. They’re so big. So full. So sexy.” Dear Lord; The hositility is supposed to be cute, but comes off as awkward. It’s like being trapped in a car with a couple who is fighting; Is this “Violence as Marriage Therapy” or, are we watching the dailies for celebrity dating? Reality television dressed up as a Summer shoot-em’-up? Which is more offensive? Neither. It’s the Magnet/Gemma Hayes cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay”, I assure you; It ends, predictably, in a hail of videogame gunfire.

[Is that the same basement from War of the Worlds?]

(8/20)

Fantastic Four
Directed by Tim Story
grade: C+

I don’t even have to look and I can tell you that everyone involved got their chops in television (Horatio Hornblower, Dark Angel, The Shield and Chris Evans, who did bit parts on Boston Public and the short lived The Fugitive: I was right). Fantastic Four eshews cinematic flavor at every turn, fashioning something appropriately family-rich, but clearly confused, and obviously postured with thought for sequels (at least half of the movie is character setup, with a demonstration of good versus evil relegated to the last thirty minutes). It’s quip-heavy, too, relying mostly on one-liners to tell the story. (As much as I know this is of somewhat comic book origins, in Fantastic Four, there are a whole slew of wince moments, too embarassing not to shake off. And while it seems comfortable playing it silly for relatively small stakes, Story’s film is lean enough and realistic not to overstep its bounds.

(8/21)

The Ballad of Jack and Rose
Directed by Rebecca Miller
grade: B

Pefectly honest: I was so taken with the mechanics of how Jack and Rose lived, that I was willing to overlook a great deal (and by a great deal, I mean the whole idea that Day-Lewis asks Catherine Keener and her two kooky sons to come live with them, thereby stirring up the hornet’s nest and forcing all of the film’s big epiphanies in one swift motion); Very much interested in Rose’s primitive existence and reactions, despite some of the things Miller cooks up to play off of them (the whole Adam & Eve directive should have been scrapped prior to draft two’s inception, methinks). Really, though, it’s kind of a blessing to watch Daniel Day-Lewis act again (despite the obvious reason for his participation). As I said in my one-off: How can I turn down something this simple?

(8/21)


Oldboy
Directed by Park Chanwook
grade: BBelongs to that Asian genre where everything is staged in a glimmer of pure originality, but lapses into a terrifically convoluted – not to mention greviously underwhelming – narrative, in this case concerning a wrong done too long ago to be remembered by our fearless main character. After being imprisoned for twoscore and a year, an understandably peeved family man sets out to unravel the who and why of his lockup, finding himself paired with a curious waiteress and a lust for revenge that echoes, constantly, that of Beatrix Kiddo (therefore, it was no coincidence, you’ll indulge me, that a cluster of peers headed by the QT himself, chose Oldboy to receive the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival) . The consistent knack Chanwook displays for wowing us is the film’s almighty strength; Never better illustrated than in the infamous scene wherein our hero (and his hammer) must navigate a long corridor, conveniently packed to the gills with a dozen or so baddies. Shot in horizontal profile (over three days), this clumsy ballet of the single-take sequence is beautifully aligned with a restless camera at odds with itself: “Dominate the left side or right side?”, it ponders, indecisively bouncing him between one or the other at the director’s whim. Invested with a dynamic measure of the character’s go-for-broke spirit and an equally potent dose of the director’s vulnerable, I-get-knocked-down/But-I-get-up-again realism, it not only encapsulates the themes of the film, but clearly asserts itself as the best fight sequence I’ve seen since the aforementioned Bill killin’ saga. And if the film makes reference to that film, it certainly doesn’t stop there, recalling Pulp Fiction‘s animated square with a dotted-line trajectory from hammer to forehead as well as an elevator nod to Being John Malkovich‘s 7 and 1/2 floor (and later, Oldboy‘s main character finds himself  in shoes very similar to the emotionally crippled Leonard’s in Memento, a fact I point out – aside from its cinema subreferencing – merely to underline Oldboy‘s seeming lack of poignancy, despite its best efforts on such a front. The moment the film settles into explanation groove – despite the behavior of our hero that follows – everything about it suddenly seems too familiar to forgive: Up to that point, it was a straight up A-; Do with that information what you will).

(8/24)


Layer Cake
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
grade: BHas balls, repeatedly swings them, occasionally coasts for long periods of time without taking a breath and, though it’s been touted that Matthew Vaughn carries the Guy Richie mantle (pre-Swept Away) into a territory fit for the smooth countertop rather than the coke being snorted off of it, I’d argue that this upscale (by comparison), by-the-numbers twister of Brit gangster proportions winds up having more in common with the studies of manipulation filtered through the privelidged bruises of the male experience seen in the recent films of Mike Hodges. Misfired as a character study, but otherwise proficiently told, the best moments are those that defy convention, and there are a great number of them. (What jumps to mind? The sex scene that never happens, Sniper follies, the curious, brain-splattering flashback.) Also: I repeat: Daniel Craig can carry a movie (Layer Cake is strictly an ensemble undertaking, so he’s not tasked with this burden, exactly).

(8/25)


Steamboy
Directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo
grade: CThe kooky political hue (not to mention the past-future insinuation) only serves to annoy you when the whiny little girl isn’t onscreen, giving everyone ear cancer as she pops mad eardrums with her moral inquisitions; Visually stunning in spots, particularly the bravura ending (that almost saves the movie), wherin a gigantic, steam-propelled mountain is dissected via the violent plights of its piloting team, a group of careless investors and the title character, a pure-hearted boy so chummy-cute you may want to try to adopt him after the feature (which is impossible, since he’s animated, by the way). Hurdling headfirst through the undending mazes of machinery within the steam mountain, our hero – Mr. Steamboy – evokes Anakin’s Episode II leaps from pod to pod, a feat that almost seems like a lateral move. (Said the world’s biggest geek.)

(8/26)


Crash
Directed by Paul Haggis
grade: D+Who do they make these films for anyway? Insanely insulting all the way through; So carefully was the race card engineered to be played every other scene, Haggis seemingly forgot to direct the dang movie, leaving every character the same dynamic: They flip over an ironic moment of goodwill that helps them forget their inherently racist tendencies. Cut to a shot two scenes later, when Haggis feels the need to show us the blanks, just in case we missed the subtle lack of a bullet wound/death of a character whose particular death – even if we only think this for a few seconds – gives any director acres of emotional participation, the ultimate smokescreen for a fairly simple, fairly safe Magnolia with an agenda. People arguing after they see it might want to consider the following first: Crash‘s worldview is so concentrated, it couldn’t possibly be mistaken for reality. Imagine Million Dollar Baby‘s coup de grâce repeated ten times. Particularly appalling was the way Haggis plays us, telling us how bad the Racist White Guy (in this case Matt Dillon) is right before showing him Angelically rescuing the Stubborn Black Lady (Thandie Newton) before emasculating the Angry Black Man (Terence Howard, taking another crack at hypnotizing us with his dreamy eyes) for the White Man to Save (Ryan Phillipe must be the only actor whose last name describes his acting style despite not being an actual word). It actually appears to aggrandize this perception sorta by accident: The depiction of the rich, white people is the most cartoonish of the bunch; It’s as if Haggis is simultaneously preaching the same hate he’s decrying. Now, I know he’s doing this to evoke a reaction in my parents. What he doesn’t realize is how much it annoys people who consider film the greatest of all religions when he caters to those of you with a mere passing interest in the medium.

[And let me get this straight: Persians are upset that people in America mistake them for Arabs. C’mon. We elected Bush. Twice. We have no idea how to distinguish between brown people.]

(9/7)


Fever Pitch
Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly
grade: CIt alternates between the fumbling, horribly rushed direction of the Brothers Farrelly and good ol’ accessible pop filmmaking at its lowest common denominator. The latter is a clear byproduct of the former, making it all the more astounding that the moments of the most sappiness and manipulation often transcend their nature and, gulp, excite me (the can’t-even-see-the-top-anymore ending, for example). I’m easy, though; You’ll probably find it plenty difficult to overlook how loopy Fever Pitch feels, feeding on the repetitive ironies of Jimmy Fallon’s deadpan delivery and Drew Barrymore’s permanent cool girl smile. It’s cruel of the Farrelly’s to leave the pair out there with far too few takes (in my opinion), which goes against that whole goodwill and empathy crap they’re usually so subtle about. However: This is still a film where the Boston Red Sox break the curse of the bambino while a lifelong fan falls in love with a girl that’s pretty far out of his league (yes, I said league). Hornby’s skeleton is strong enough to support the flimsy weight of its American  (read: commercial) translation, but uniquely unsatisfying.

(9/16)


Nobody Knows
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
grade: CThe best way to show how haywire Nobody Knows goes, by close, is to examine its three perfect closing shots, and mapping their connection to Kore-eda’s missteps. The first one depicts the exhausted slump of Akira, oldest of a foursome of neglected children. He and a rich, misunderstood girl – the one who conveniently seems to befriend the dirty, desperate leader of the pack type in films like these – finish a long night’s digging. This is the way to end a film: Dovetail the vague-by-design opening shot and leave the kids in turmoil. Kore-eda makes such a big deal of their long, steady ascent into trouble, most of the film is without the urgency that might give us an emotional portal to these characters. Instead of the third (or, actual) closing shot – a freeze-frame crescendo of the remaining three kids, still seeming innocent and happy a mere day after their sister dies – Nobody Knows would have done better epiphanizing with the grief and realization of closing shot number one, allowing an audience who has just absorbed the guilt of the blind eye for two hours and change and be sent off really feeling the burn of Akira’s panic-stricken loss of all confidence. And for pity’s sake, the reflective second to last shot – a languid landscaper of a train passing from the left side of the frame to the right – could just as easily have opened the picture as closed it, forcibly illuminating the idea that perhaps it would have worked better as an opening shot left at the same end of its chronology. In other words, Nobody Knows gets the most interesting right before it ends. Unfortunately.

(9/16)


Rock School
Directed by Don Argott
grade: B-Most of the film is Paul clearly acting for the camera, putting himself at the forefront of everything, exposing no real connection between his ranting, raving existence and the kids learning their instruments; It could be called Rock Guidance (or, Rock Abuse). The whole thing is such a vile piece of exploitation that, underneath, is nothing more than a commercial for Paul’s success and Paul’s school and it’s by no means a well-made documentary but, it seems to know its place: Watching people get enthusiastic about rock music is so intoxicating – especially in a scant 93 minutes.

(9/20)


No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Directed by Martin Scorsese
grade: B+Scorsese clearly makes the effort to give the thing some form outside of talking heads and photo zooms, intercutting throughout to the infamous 1966 Royal Albert Hall performance where Dylan was booed and called Judas for betraying the folk movement by plugging in his instruments. In the film, this era looms over Dylan finding his roots, as the man himself says one thing (present day), the facts speak another and the Dylan of the time continues to avoid giving a straight answer to any question; He is the very picture of a man so impenetrable he charmed the world into the challenge. The press conferences are particularly telling. Press, fans and detractors alike all try to read into him and he so clearly gets off on dismissing their interest that you’re almost shocked (that they’d continue trying) and impressed (that he can deflect people so damn well) at the same time. And when the film isn’t revealing Dylan with more clarity than previously imaginable (the recent interviews dwarf that godawful Q & A he slept through for “60 Minutes” about nine months ago), it’s allowing people who were marginally close to him to confirm the enigma. Scorsese comes the closest to busting Dylan wide open: He already knows the music speaks for itself, but he can’t help but indulge his own interpretive curiosity as he lets tracks rip over the thing as if tiny, reflective bursts of crystal clear exposition; You get the sense he [Scorsese] believes the music is so autobiographical as to tell the whole story, in a few cases, without much context. (What’s amazing is that he’s right, by gum, and that the music, in No Direction Home, takes on a more concise mood than it does on the albums).

(9/23)


Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride
Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson
grade: BInitially impressed that he managed to market a kids movie with a title containing that word (that lovely word), I’ve settled in the two weeks since I’ve seen it: The marriage of ornately grotesque details (harsh Victorian nuptuals, exclusive grayscale for the world of the living, a piano bearing the nameplate “Harryhausen”) and uncannily twee fits of woeful equitability don’t quite swim in the instant holiday classic vein of Burton’s previously ushered stop animation extravaganza, The Nightmare Before Christmas (currently being mined for every red cent as a soft cult hit in Disney stores everywhere). Doubling as a musical, Corpse Bride hits and misses: The laments fall pretty flat but the Cajun cabaret numbers (“Remains of the Day” and “New Arrival”) trade their flashy locale for abstraction, giving the film a momentary, manic energy; These sequences are so wild, and so alive, that they underscore the film’s lacking in full: Its characters never really inhabit their world with any vitality, so we never really feel comfortable with their places (or lack thereof) within it.

(9/25)


The Wayward Cloud
Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
grade: B-I think I’m still in the process of digesting it, but The Wayward Cloud – despite my initial emotional reaction to it – is a road burner of a departure: The kind of follow-up where a director loudly declares his former phases history. One major problem (though an obvious point): Where the frick to go from here? Allow me to explain: In The Wayward Cloud, Tsai Ming-liang seems to bitterly squeeze the last of his protracted, awe aspiring master shots while simultaneously: a) moving the camera; b) cutting often and c) staging musical numbers so bombastic as to call to the mat every single frame he has ever shot. (As in: Where has the animal in this man been hiding?) HOWEVER. The question remains: Why does he seem to delight so in curdling the innocent quirk of his What Time Is It There? characters by smudging their very trajectory with unapologetic sequences of joyless, hard-core sex? I’m past his allusions as I’m asking these questions (the film is set during a drought where the sticky nectar of watermelon threatens to replace water: In vitality’s absence, decadent pleasure will do just fine), and hoping desperately to understand why Ming-liang might embark upon such a cynical journey. His commentary on alienation next to brushes with tenderness in the main characters is well taken (pornography as a byproduct, i.e. – making The Real Thing, while it’s happening, seem like the passive intake it will become when viewed later versus the careful styling of slow, steady romances rather than a more conventional, straightforward appeal); In part, it feels like he’s laughing at his former self, especially when, later on, he plummets from the deep end, busting off a symbol laced caricature of necrophilia that seems to decry subtlety as if it were fascism. New meaning to breaking the fourth wall. Bad joke.

(9/26)


Lords of Dogtown
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
grade: B-I spent a chunk of it wishing the story itself (up and comers in the world of trick skateboarding), it’s details (the carburator story you knew would be included – – is) and its limitless dramatic potential hadn’t been laid out in all its two dimensional glory three years prior as Dogtown and Z-Boys, a documentary that only seemed cool because Sean Penn was narrating it. During the remaining chunk, I was cursing Hardwicke (not quite as doggedly as Randy, whose minute-long tirade against her made me wonder if she’d thwarted him somehow in a past life), wishing she’d been a touch less liberal with the sentimentalist floodgates (I should’ve known: I mean, I subjected myself to the guilt trip that was Thirteen of my own volition). What Lords of Dogtown has the power to capture that Z-Boys did not (I’m not writing a comparative essay – allow just this point and I’ll clam up) is the rebellious, take-no-prisoners attitude spitting like sparks off of everyone’s sense of predetermined failure: It may be a surf ghetto, but it’s still a ghetto. Watching the characters navigate like stoned, privelidged pirates through the meticulously recreated landscape of trashcan alleys and cement jungles is infectious – and nearly powerful enough to squash the constant lurch towards forced melodrama that Hardwicke’s clumsy direction seems to take. I suspect, also, that their will be two camps: One who tolerates (or not) Heath Ledger’s open channel of Val Kilmer and those who imagine an alternate universe where the Academy Awards reward him with the heavy trophy.

(9/27)


House of D
Directed by David Duchovny
grade: C+Consistently pleasing coming-of-age tale marred by bookend madness. Ironic, isn’t it, that a film so deft at sidestepping the obvious pratfall of Robin Williams playing a mentally handicapped forty-one year old would, instead, drop the ball by overmanipulating us with a mountain lookin’ molehill. Told in retrospect, the film presupposes that we’ll be bowled over by the mere fact that Duchovny the elder finally (gulp) reveals the story of when he was thirteen to his wife. Simply because it takes the time to point out that he never got around to telling her the story before. Which is the dumbest thing I think I’ve ever heard. Luckily, most of the film follows Anton Yelchin (playing Duchovny the younger) as the dramatized version of sed story, which, while servicable to the last, is often witty, sometimes clever and, without question, harmless.

(10/7)


The Interpreter
Directed by Sydney Pollack
grade: C+A mediocre thriller, neither exceeding or deepsixing our expectations (unless you were hoping for The Firm or Three Days of the Condor, in which case, it falls significantly below the mark); As Summer points out in the Too-Much-Coffee-To-Sleep Pillow Talk Sessions, the movie is host to almost nothing if not far too much exposition, with characters constantly saying things that would likely been better shown. She’s right – to an extent. Everyone does talk a whole lot, but The Interpreter is a movie about people who peddle diplomacy for a living (an interpreter who maintains that wars have been fought when words were misinterpreted, a cop trying to be fair minded to all sides, and a dictator attempting to sway a suspicious U.N. with connotation). Diplomacy, especially as read in this context, is all about talking a good game, so, rightly, there should be a helluva a lot of yakkin’. Perhaps what Summer meant to imply, or, what she uncovered (or both), is that The Interpreter is supposed to be a riveting volley of words (aside from the political thriller staples: Car chases through crowded streets, exploding buses, third world executions), and by all rights, should be (cast includes: Sean Penn, Nicole Kidman, Catherine Keener), but inevitably, isn’t. Part of the problem, it seems, is that Penn and Kidman’s gradual paradigm shift from nervy tête à  tête to late night phone tryst takes place in a head space neither of them seem to be reaching too hard to achieve. Both pull off distracted quite efficiently, but neither seem to echo any sort of deep wound. And the thing is: They should. Not only should they project something more profound than meager self-pity, but neither seems to want to take us behind-the-scenes to examine their personal afflictions and the why of their obvious charades (namely: overworking themselves and, in passing, mentioning their lost loved ones and crushing situations). You’re left with a sense that their topicality-sealed bond was never properly engineered to show the audience any sort of electric charge or confused wanting. Which, I believe, by definition, renders the bond annulled. (Interpret that.)
 

(10/8)


Broken Flowers
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
grade: BProbably once a month I tell a film – out loud – that if it were to end where I say it should end, it would be much better off than where the writer and (or) director chooses to end it. Broken Flowers ends at precisely the correct spot. The rest of it, a rather pleasant jumble of episodic Jarmuschian oddities, misdirecting road signs (every scene keeps leaning in to you, as if to say: “Here’s the big piece of this puzzle”) and, finally, inconsequential anticlimaxes (nothing of value really stacks up, save for your interpretation of Murray’s mindset at close: Does he turn a corner? It’s in your court). I found much of it to be too light to compete with the somewhat looming tonal elephant in the room; Now Jeffrey Wright is playing screwball detective, now Murray is contemplating a wasted life, now Jarmusch is making a little Neil Young reference in a throwaway scene in a flower shop, now Murray is leaping to life affirming conclusions as if he’s read the script, et cetera, et cetera. It’s clearly the best flick The Independent One has churned out since Dead Man and Murray defies our expectations by simply not re-playing his Rushmore/Lost in Translation/The Life Aquatic character, but Broken Flowers never really takes off like it should. Even with what will undoubtably be the best ending this year (or, in recent memory).

(10/13)


High Tension
Directed by Alexandre Aja
grade: C-There’s this fine theory that they made her a man because male writers couldn’t possible understand the inner sexual tensions of a woman: That horseshit doesn’t explain why they go to quite so much trouble to reverse a perfectly good piece of method horror. I’m tempted to end the review right here, especially given that my time has become sort of limited and this movie isn’t worth a speck of it, but observe: Suspenseful chase after a savage rampage makes High Tension seem all the more brilliant (skillfully handled, it manages to keep us on our toes right up to…); The changeover, which makes the one in Fight Club seem easy to swallow, takes everything High Tension has earned, spends it on a gift horse and proceeds into a twenty minute close up of said gift horse’s mouth. There’s no moment after we’re through the looking glass where you’re not adding up the cost and feeling patently ripped off. It. Flat-out. Does. Not. Work. Which is a shame. Pent-up sexuality equated with psychotic murder actually sounds interesting when framed as unrequited lesbian love. Oh well.

(10/14)


Me and You and Everyone We Know
Directed by Miranda July
grade: B-Alternates between being the positive reversal of the “quintessential” indie film and being too cutesy to latch on to. It’s not quite a complete idea, with the father of two subplot upstaged by the “two” and their antics just as the failed artist in search of companionship is so blatantly underdeveloped that it clearly should have been its own film. Big points for laughs, especially, with the greatest IM exchange on film now finally recorded (<>O<>) and, in a completely unrelated subplot, a guy who writes dirty messages on his window for local teens to gawk at. A scene with a goldfish being tossed between the tops of cars reaches the likely quasi-epiphany pitch July was attempting to sustain through the whole film (and it’s inclusion, alone, is worthwhile in a BIG way), but she never really gives us too much reason to buy the unlikely pairing of a off-kilter shoe salesman with a really obvious symbol-wound and a performance artist who drives old people around and seems to gaze, constantly, as if the world has just been through a big car wash.

(10/15)


A History of Violence
Directed by David Cronenberg
grade: BIt works a great deal better in your head, much later on; The John Ford western edge burns into the sheer curiosity of telling a story of a seemingly good man whose well-buried, vicious past is unraveled by a good deed. Mortensen is given full compassion by Cronenberg, who asks an unending stack of interesting questions by creating suggesting the rift in this moral imperative: Violence begats violence, never mind the intention. In thwarting a cafe stick-up, violence saves lives. The same violence, twenty years earlier, puts lives in jeopardy now (as one-eyed Ed Harris and his cronies tighten their circle). Violence, later, solves the whole problem. As subversive a film as is likley to come down the pike, A History of Violence finds Cronenberg making no apology for violence and its many uses, clearly painting the Rockwellian small town Mortensen and his family inhabit as something rare and lovely, the kind of place where you not only know the local sheriff by name, but he comes to your house to make sure you and your family are okay. And the wife and kids are so key here, giving Mortensen a means to navigate his tortured landscape, with Bello in every possible mode (sexy wife, selfless mother, weathered partner), children in moppet and teenager mode and sex used in multiple ways. Nothing here smacks of particular shortcoming, save the film’s final third, with a likable – however unnecessarily silly – cameo by William Hurt and tightly tied-up cincher that feels ultimately too rich in sentiment to jive with the rest of the film’s articulate portraiture of motive and instinct. And, because I didn’t say so before: Mortensen: Owns the film.

(10/18)


Land of the Dead
Directed by George A. Romero
grade: B-No surprises here. Romero lays on the usual social commentary (this one much more blatantly allegorical than the other three films), shoots himself in the foot by giving his actors (seemingly) no direction or guidance while great, superior special effects bang into our consciousness ad nauseum. For some reason, this is one of those instances where Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo and Asia Argento’s inclusion gives this a very unwelcome STV flavor.

(10/20)


Palindromes
Directed by Todd Solondz
grade: B-Far from perfect – for no real good reason, Solondz is still being sympathetic to pedophiles as if it were his mission in life; Here, it does little to serve the film – but its evocation of pro-life and pro-choice worldviews both being inherently hypocritical is well felt. Though I’m going to be examining just why he chose to point out how static identity can be in someone who is still forming by using seven different actresses/actors, I was not averse to it. Far from it. Film ticks into a lulling stasis of grim realizations (Aviva is 13, Aviva gets pregant, mom makes Aviva get abortion, Aviva shacks up sweaty truck driver) until Aviva wakes up played by Sharon Wilkins and wanders into the uber-Christian den of good intentions that is Mama Sunshine’s house. Collecting a group of disabled children – one of whom can take you to the dump where clinics discard aborted foetuses – as feel-good singers is just part of her MO: She supports her husband who, in conjunction with a Doctor Dan (a hilarious performance by character actor Richard Riehle) pays the aforementioned sweaty truck driver to off abortion doctors. The point, as it swirls around in this melting pot of contradictive ideals, is even more troubling than its portrait: Solondz finds no conclusive evidence that either side is anything but confused. Interesting as it is – and funny, too, in the same way Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness were funny – there never seems to be anything taking place right up in the present. Which brings me to the dilemna: My biggest problem with Solondz is how dated his films are starting to feel. He’s progressive, but far less progressive than he imagines himself to be. If he had made his films in the 1980s and everyone had just discovered him now, that would make much more sense to me.

[I’ve got a whole comparison contrast between his treatment of existing Welcome to the Dollhouse characters and Tsai Ming-Liang’s treatment of his stock characters in The Wayward Cloud. Less said the better.]

(10/23)


The Constant Gardener
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
grade: C+Mike Newell, originally set to direct, would have turned out something of smooth savoir-faire, easy to categorize (and, likely, easy to forget). Fernando Meirelles was brought in – we gather – to lend something of spark, of resonance and, let’s face it, he’s a ringer: Proven expertise in evocation of a guilty world conscience. So it is, then, to my own astonishment, that The Constant Gardener manages to come off far more mature than City of God, but not a fraction as effective as that film, full on lacking any hint of its raw, lyrical didacticism. Meirelles adapts his own scattershot rock n’ roll style into a full on eye massage, painting a wild excess of caught on the fly snapshots (most of the action seems to take place in the bottom right hand corner of the screen, leaving bright, beautiful colors to take hold of a majority of the canvas). Any shred, however, of this beauty’s strong connection to the vagaries of its content are left almost completely out of the picture. Nasty politicians make it possible for evil drug companies to test dangerous medicines on poor Africans; Country-hopping intrigue ensues, as well as a deeply half-baked love triangle involving a duplicitous, feather-ruffling diplomat’s wife (Weisz, quite good, but too attractive for this role), said diplomat and his back-crushing double burden of naiveté and doubt (Fiennes, playing the nice twin to his Almásy in The English Patient) and a member of the British High Commission (Danny Huston in full-on Danny Huston mode). The most grievous error, and the most disappointing, seems to be the film’s stubborn penchant for attacking the broadest possible viewpoint with a gusto of self-righteousness that would usually accompany something lost in its own details or technical jargon. Instead, The Constant Gardener shifts its concentration, constantly, keeping the focus of the picture at bay as long as it can, delaying our inevitable realization that nothing of real interest or immediacy is ever going to happen. Peppered with sequence after sequence of remarkably stock thriller set-ups, it echoes a less pleasing, less useful familiarity than, say, the tapestry of theft (which worked gangbusters) found in City of God. Meirelles tries time shifting techniques, a couple of grand dramatic stances (turns out he’s a terrific director of actors) and a great deal of showcasing (location, camerawork, music), but he never really avoids the sophomore kiss of death: The admirable failure.

(10/26)


I fell asleep watching Bewitched – which takes place in the television inverse of S1MONE‘s cliche-fueled/based/driven Hollywood world – and decided, by the grace of my own good nature, not to finish it for the sole purpose of a later, textual deconstuction. Why waste another hour of my life simply baiting a paragraph-long sound-off of anger and savagery? I didn’t like the moviegoer I was when that was my MO. (Full disclosure: It’s not as if Nicole Kidman – the most beautiful creature on the planet – was going to be disrobing or anything…)


Last Days
Directed by Gus Van Sant
grade: B+Van Sant envisions his Blake (the not-really-all-that-veiled Kurdt Cobain character) as a mumbling, introverted manboy who can’t seem to find enough hiding places from his bumbling, narrow-minded friends, occasionally living in the woods, spending his last few days on earth plotting his own permanent escape, wandering mostly, sitting down to compose brilliant songs off the cuff and, it is inferred, doing a great deal of heroin. Giving the very simply anti-narrative the same deja-vu treatment he gave the Columbine Massacre in Elephant, the (still) Bela Tarr-obsessed director dismisses the master’s objective eye-view that carried that film to such transcendent flows, opting for a viewpoint that – however deeply compassionate – wisely leaves the director’s intentions less specifically lost in a place of hopelessly sincere tributes. It seems to be what I was really hoping it might be, namely, a capper to the death trilogy (if Gerry = the nature of death: so unsubstantial it becomes substantial [environment crushes man] and Elephant = the duality in death’s freedom: anyone can cause it, no one can be be spared [man kills man]), that examines the missing piece, that is, the personal nature of death: it can be embraced or feared, but every man experiences it alone [man kills himself]. The master shots in Last Days are instrumental in giving it a character study bent, leaving Blake (an uncanny – at least from afar – Michael Pitt) to be blurred into our consciousness through camera trance. The contextual nature of this one, with far more details to latch onto – the wife screaming on the phone for Blake to get back to rehab, the private investigator (Ricky Jay, spewing monologues), the definitely recognizable/ever rotating wardrobe – allows it yet another dimension, one that just sorta sits there, fumbling around, not really serving much purpose (ditto on the barrage of unrecognizable actors: More distracting than anything). Last Days, as I imagine is obvious here, makes Gerry seem more and more like the odd man out and, through repeat half-viewings on the Sundance Channel, I’ve come to find that film the most valuable, despite my undying adoration for Elephant‘s impossibly consistent objectivity. An impressive and noble artistic side glance that holds all the more resonance, I must submit, for someone less interested in the mysterious nature of Cobain’s death than in the I Hate Myself and I Want to Die genius of his self destructive music.

(10/30)

2046
Directed by Wong Kar-wai
grade: B+

Epic romantic melodrama, teeming with Doyle/Wang’s gorgeous cinematography (he makes close-ups seem as if no one has ever shot a close-up in the history of cinema), told in equal parts first and third person narrator (Wong Kar-wai, and his filmmaking, are as much a part of the voice of the film as Tony Leung’s first person narration), 2046 mines similar territory as its predecessor, In the Mood for Love, namely, the sobering realities of bitter, unwavering romantic motives. Sad and just absurdly entertaining, it’s one grand digression after another.

[Really enjoyed the expanded version of a more articulate, actually very skillful fondling of ideas that also occured to me. This linking crap is something my betters (read: bigger nerds) took to long ago. Might as well let you know why I stopped writing about this film. Because I decided to (you dolt) start reading what others wrote instead. Ostensibly, I switch-flipped from output to input.]

(11/03)

Mysterious Skin
Directed by Gregg Araki
grade: B-

I was dreading the meat of Mysterious Skin, as it seemed like the contrast – two sexually molested boys take different paths: One becomes ajohn, the other supresses his violation by claiming to have been abducted by a UFO – had made its appearance almost immediately, leaving the movie to simply unfold in the usual way. The teary reconciliation, though, is more than worth slogging through the film, which is built around an amazing central performance by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who finds himself immersed in a by-the-numbers genre picture that becomes just confrontational enough, at close, to win us over. I was pretty sure, as I watched it, that Araki had sabotaged himself (seriously, if she stuck her arm inside that dead cow one more time, I was going to turn the damn thing off) with his usual brand of vapid, narrowly generational attitude. That he’s able to raise the bar as high as he does is commendable. That the Midnight Cowboy references are kept to a very minimum is almost a miracle.

(11/04)


Millions
Directed by Danny Boyle
grade: C

Boyle does his best to mask the hopelessly cluttered, painfully earnest trappings of Millions by practically vivisecting the screen with multimedia sunsplash every couple of minutes; It’s as if he’s trying to spice up a simple story with a bright Windows XP background, causing us to squint through countless bright green fields, moving frame transitions and time lapse digi-skies. Of course, there isn’t a simple moment to be found. Noble intentions miss the mark by a country mile, attempting to mishmash a grieving boy prone to hallucination (of saints) with a sackful of stolen money, some Ethipians in need of a well (out in left field somewhere, we imagine), the lb.-to-euro changeover, droves of the destitute spinning in and out of the story, a robber trying to reclaim his dough and the constantly looming moral weight that might as well have manifested itself as a little digital scale in the corner of the screen that rose and fell based upon the decisions made about the moolah. And what of said coin? Millions attempts to make a very sincere point in rooting the fluctuation of money’s value in perception. Trouble is, simply acknowledging this variance of perceived amounts isn’t enough (the film title, for Christ’s sake, derives from the boys’ original assumption and subsequent treatment of the oft-stated 200,000+ lbs as if it were, ahem, millions); The Williams/Elfman score (written by John Murphy) does its best to build the kind of family atmosphere you’d expect to transcend writer FC Boyce’s painfully obvious point about the difference in money’s worth from person to person (thereby underscoring its overall worthlessness) – – – it doesn’t. The idea just sits there, right up on the screen, never reaching epiphany for any of the characters. Later, it dissolves (only to return one last time in an ending as baffling and unnecessary as we’re likely to see this year), as the main character simply has a conversation with his dead mother, completely resolving a film’s worth of half-posed questions (apparently). Millions turns out to be just the sort of sloppy wet kiss of pat, emotional drivel you’d imagine it to be. (Fucker’s repetitious, too: There had to be a period of thirty minutes where the movie just spins its wheels, slamming down the same shades of the younger, more selfless kid’s character and his brother’s ironic-for-his-age, enterprising ways.)

(11/05)


Elizabethtown
Directed by Cameron Crowe
grade: B

Orlando Bloom oughta run out and sign a three picture deal with Cameron Crowe; This is the first film that hasn’t found me embarrased for him. It’s an exercise for the great director of significantly cool romantic comedies of whimsy, who pulls out every single stop from him to the kitchen sink (which, in addition to everything but, he also includes): Musical montages come more frequently (or, I’m probably closer to right if I say equally as frequently), as dialogue scenes come in most films. Clearly the best of the barrage of realized maturity being exorcised on screen (see also: Garden State and Sideways, just to name a couple) and it nails the difficulty Modern Men have in feeling happy with a much keener eye, as if it’s really paying attention. Romance stales, briefly, when Bloom and Dunst are flirting with idea of progressing away from their flirting; All this happening at once is, more often than not, too jarring not to seem like two movies mishmashed together BUT…it’s a good mishmash, teeming with the likes of My Morning Jacket and Elton John, not to mention Paul Schneider, reprieving his role as the goofy loser from his David Gordon Green twosome. And broad corporate commentary. And no less than a dozen bright, booming epiphany moments. The general freeness with which Crowe breathes, as if exhaling the dirty air of The Big Studio Picture and embracing these reasonably personal riffs on his own life, is like watching a kid run out of church as soon as the service ends, but before the choir is finished singing.

(11/7)


5 x 2
Directed by Francois Ozon
grade: C+

The film opens with a couple, eyes glazed, finalizing a divorce. Exhausted-looking. The next scene is pivotal (arguably, the one after that, because it establishes the sequence, is even more pivotal – but never mind that now): The couple undress and have sex. What initially looks like one final fling after the divorce turns out to be, cheap irony in tow, the last gurgle-splurt of a chance before signing the papers. It is at this point (just as Randy joked), fifteen minutes in, that Ozon declares his supreme moral agenda, allowing this marginally interesting choice of construction to serve not one banal purpose, but two. (The second, of course, is that events, no matter whether they precede or follow other events, carry their own context.) As the film unfolds, backwards, each sequence, despite being spurred by the previous (or, later) sequence, makes its own, nice mini-movie (a reminder as potent as any in 8 Women: In spite of scant running time, Ozon works best in shorts). The husband and wife live an impossibly duplicitious life, constantly unfolding more dimensions of cruelty and pain, even skewing their wedding night and first meeting with selfish acts o’ plenty. That Irreversible used the exact same conceptual tool to illustrate a much more universal perspective makes this film feel a bit like a safe version of that film. A safe version where the director is clearly judging his characters, leaving very little time to enjoy the scarce moments of romance and bliss, that is. Both films argue that these “moments” have nothing to do with the big picture they comprise. Irreversible acknowledges said big picture; 5 x 2 does not.

(11/11)


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Directed by Garth Jennings
grade: C+

It’s a lark for a while – all cheeky and full of “accidental” philosophy – but, after awhile, becomes more of a series of adventures than a forward, progressing narrative. Unfortunately, in its haste to clutter itself with digi-spacescapes and forgettable cameos, it forgot to chuck out the remaining semblances of dumb, lowest denominatorisms (“Is she the one?” is uttered and I finally get to see what the inside of my head looks like because my eyes have rolled backwards into my head) and, in all it’s wisdom, gives its main character (Martin Freeman, essentially, in Tim-mode) a silver platter of a redemption, despite the fact that impressing Zooey Deschanel seems pointless, here, as she’s been reduced to a vacancy sign with hypnotizing eyes. Ultimately, though, the dimwitted premise regarding a “kidnapped” President of the Galaxy (Rockwell says “Think Zap Brannigan as a fourth Wilson brother”) only further reminds everyone that this is based on a book hailed by then nerds, back in the 80s, who are now in their mid to late thirties. Animation in the actual title tome is the best part; I’d watch an entire film of this color-splashed shadow imagery that whiles in dry humor.

(11/15)


Yes
Directed by Sally Potter
grade: C+

I wanted so bad for the iambic pentameter to be enough to consistently distract me from the banal, mid-life crisis story happening somewhere in the background. Because the filmmaking is so excitable, you can almost turn it off most times; Other times, it sounds like Shakespeare narrating a fucking soap opera.

(11/15)


Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Directed by Mike Newell
grade: B-

If Yoda were to be conjured up by one of these hormonal teen-warlocks, “Showing signs of wear, to be sure, this franchise is” might be his observation and his advice. Stepping away from the celebration of storytelling that graced most of Alfonso Cauraon’s Prisoner of Azkaban, Newell explores so fervently the very reality of these characters. This reality, of course, is the very thing we’re supposed to be watching Goblet of Fire to escape from. And let me be clear: Reality, in this sense, simply means that the film makes it very clear that it’s more interested in the unfolding Hogwarts soap opera – with Harry, Ron, Hermione and three others attending their first-ever ball, a sequence that seems almost banal when compared, say, to the mano-a-mano-with-a-dragon sequence that took place just before it. Easy enough to digest, though – – If I can doze through ten minutes or so and seamlessly follow events, wondering – but not really caring, mind – why Harry was angry at Ron at one point, that’s a pretty good sign. I find it really irritating trying to review these films. They all run together, they’re all basically the same template of horrors, constantly teasing the bigger, somewhat nonsensical mystery of Harry’s parents (they’re dead…is there more?) Here: The film offers Lord Voldemort himself, played by Ralph Fiennes, attempting in vain to transcend the hokum he’s stumbled into. Also: One scene with Gary Oldman. I’m sorry, but that’s just not right.

(11/20)


Good Night, and Good Luck.
Directed by George Clooney
grade: B+

The black and white filmmaking is such a perfect choice for such a focused, single-minded, (beautiful), work of leftist propoganda. Not as tyrade worthy as others I can think of, Clooney directs his picture with glee, really enjoying the characters and their wordy trademarks as it nobly poses as a great snapshot of a moment very similar to the one in The Insider, when corporate policy suddenly dictates what is reported – and how. (Particularly relevant as an antidote for the current state of things, when news channels and news shows have become tools of the party rather than the objective reports of the state of things.) Strathahairn pretty much just pours himself into the role – a dangerous one, as its constantly put next to Actual Documentary Footage – and easily walks away with the movie, communicating, very palpaby, a man who knows his weight but makes a conscious effort not to throw it around (watch him, he uses his intelligence differently with each person). The air starts to leave it, though, even before we realize how out of place Downey, Jr. feels nowadays (among seasoned actors, that is), as it goes on for less than ninety minutes, but still seems, somehow, too long. Love the very convincing  minimalist period evocation where Scotch is king, tobacco is like oxygen and suits are still square.

(11/23)


Melinda and Melinda
Directed by Woody Allen
grade: B-

Initially I found the structure (Two independent narratives with similar plot elements: One interpreted as comedy, the other as tragedy) interesting enough to start Actually Enjoying Watching A Woody Allen Picture, a past time not indulged in since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown (for me) or 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (for many). How was he able to make this cast work and not other, more promising casts in recent years? It certainly wasn’t by conscientiously ignoring the fact that his leading man is doing a caricature of him (because, despite the high marks, he does that yet again here). Luckily, while Will Ferrell isn’t aping Woody’s mastery of the nervous Jewish joke bombadeer, Rhada Mitchell turns in possibly her most resonant performance to date (as good, anyway, as her performance in – dare I gulp and drop another of my favorite hyperbolic references – High Art). But, all for nought, as my wife (exuding far too much influence over this site of late) came in midway and pointed out that she had no trouble following what was going on, thereby completely undermining the structure’s great purpose: To mask melodrama posing, still, (sadly), as great satire. But he’s getting close: The Park Avenue types actually refer to themselves, a few times, as Park Avenue folks. In great faith, here’s me hoping that Melinda and Melinda might simply be acting as the appetizer if all the buzz about Match Point warrants any merit.

(11/27)


The White Diamond
Directed by Werner Herzog
grade: B+

Having rested fiction, predominantly, of late, Herzog’s delightfully bizarre blend of reality and his own, controlling influence over the events deflects any promise of non-fiction. It’s a beautiful limbo, this quasimodo fictional documentary middleground of his. I particularly love the long takes, carved in his typical starved-for-images grandeur, itself a quality that never seems to stop overwhelming us with mystery. Profiling one particularly Nanookian local, Herzog seems kind of shallow. Insisting to its inventor, who is haunted by his own tragic version of a similar experience, that he (Herzog) – and his camera – must be aboard for every moment (despite the inventor’s previous hopes of peace and tranquility), the umcompromising director boards a balloon-like aircraft on its journey to an inaccessible and rarely-visited rainforest canopy in Guyana. By doing this, its as if he’s creating the story as he goes.

(11/28)


Wheel of Time
Directed by Werner Herzog
grade: B-

Really, anyone could have directed most of it, with Herzog putting in his two cents every once and awhile, but never really stamping the film his own. The subject is really quite fascinating, but the film remains so by-the-numbers, you immediately wonder if this is more ironic than it seems: A film about selfless Buddhists made merely as a paycheck to fund better films (like The White Diamond and, from the sound of things, Grizzly Man).

(12/01)


Murderball
Directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
grade: B-

Either wear your heart on your sleeve or put the audience in the place of these guys – you can’t do both if you’re constantly underlining how we’re to feel with manipulative songs and a tight, reoccuring set of cry moments every ten or fifteen minutes: Our imagination is handicapped. Milking every moment for its most extreme drama, Murderball, more often than not, is less a documentary per se than an absurdly compassionate foray into the reality television pool of MTV. Characters take on harmoniously larger-than-life roles in dovetailing profiles of Learning to Cope With Your Disability and Channeling Rage Into A Competitive Deathsport as seen on TLC. Irony follows. Zupan, in particular, makes a compelling case for positive recovery – of a deeply negative personality – in a quadrapeligic state. Soares – be he a jerk or be he just really frickin’ driven – gets pretty old pretty quick as the filmmakers make the point about his stubborn beligerance in the face of adversity very quickly and very clearly – – and very repeatedly. The film is curiously well covered, a candid dinner conversation belying Soares’ arrogance literally (as he toasts Team Canada instead of his wife on his anniversary) and figuratively (Why was his anniversary dinner worth covering in the first place?), gives it something of a too-perfect shape, leaving it ripe for the wolves of my imagination (which I kept throwing it to): What if this was, instead of being played for its inspirational solemnity, was played for out-and-out laughs? Originally I was thinking of something like Christopher Guest’s conceptually front-loaded mockumentaries, but I kind of wonder, with its manipulative drawl, if it might instead play like a Farrelly Bros’ Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. God forbid.

(12/03)


Kings and Queen
Directed by Arnaud Desplachin
grade: B-

Brilliantly viewfinding moments where characters are lying to the audience about events, wonderfully stating the inconclusives behind Mathieu Amalric’s stay at a mental institution after removing him, forceably from his apartment with the same guffaw of aplomb as a later debate whether to split an inheritance with an adopted family member – – these are some of the great things Desplachin is working on in Kings and Queen, an interlocking narrative figure-eighting the Sirk-laden adventures of a woman coping with her father’s deteriorating health and the aforementioned farce in the looney bin. Trouble is, both of them, on their own, aren’t very substantial. In fact, Emmanuelle Devos gives such an atrocious performance – lip smacking every moment into a faux-sincerity – it’s almost shameful to see her conversing with the fuzzy image of her dead father, seated on a stool in front of a professional photo backdrop. A microcosm of what’s wrong with Kings and Queen, this little contrast is a terrific example of Desplachin’s ultimate downfall: Storytelling Style over any substance whatsoever.

(12/05)


The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
Directed by Andrew Adamson
grade: B

Really glad I didn’t remember a smidgen of the book (or whether I’d actually read it or merely pretended to in order to get out of re-reading it); It felt very reverant to me, somewhat less swoony than its obvious counterpart (in marketing and in terms of literary buddies), Lord of the Rings, et al. The sense of wonder from a child’s view is used very liberally, peppering the film with a sense of meaty atmosphere, the kind that (gulp!) is usually described as “carrying one away” by Larry King. That said: Holy digi! Adamson does a remarkable job considering his previous claim to fame. Tilda Swinton in danger, now, of being typecast as the villainess. Which is a good thing.

(12/09)


Syriana
Directed by Stephen Gaghan
grade: B-

Kinda torn because it does as I’ve previously instructed (remove the cushion to the layman and set us adrift in tech talk), leaving the story vague and its inferences underlined (rather than its outright statements); Emotionally decrepit, including stories of a man tortured and a little boy killed that seem as passionless and vacuous as meet after meet after meet with the well-dressed important people who can’t stop talking like movie characters do (in droplets of wisdom and more eloquently than necessary); Structured far more loosely than Traffic, but similiar enough to constantly echo its sense of unilateral perspective-as-the-tapestry film; The most emotionally rich sequence is also the most cliched: An angry worker fired as a result of an American merger learns the ways of the radical muslim and, in the eventual, suicide bombs a drilling station at the behest of his charismatic religious crony. In the end, its sucks you into its world, tantalizing you with fat, uber-worldly burnout Bob Baer – who wrote the book on which this film is largely based – as Clooney, the gentle double agent. That it’s able to suck you in at all, being so stiff and stilted and all, is the real triumph.

(12/18)


Bad News Bears
Directed by Richard Linklater
grade: C+

The real trouble isn’t necessarily that Linklater appears to have instructed Thornton to simply re-hash his Bad Santa persona (sole variation: he becomes a softie just a few reels earlier), but that this just isn’t a very strong story to even bother expending the effort to remake. I won’t mention some of the other idiocy – which sometimes, in big one-liners, leads to genuine gut laughs I will admit – but I will take it to task for using a song (that will remain nameless) also played in Linklater’s unmatched valentine to (his) youth (Dazed and Confused), an act I realize I’m a Gigantic nerd for criticizing (but, seriously, What Blasphemy! Why call my attention to that while I’m in the midst of such crass, commerical xeroxing?). These gripes aside, the film feels as hollow as we all know School of Rock was at heart. Here, he’s just not doing as great a job of masking it. I’m glad I paid to see it so Linklater could bankroll his next Waking Life or Before Sunset. Greg would be so proud.

(12/19)


The Squid and the Whale
Directed by Noah Baumbach
grade: A

It’s a pretty amazing little dissection of the ill effects of divorce, but it’s also riotously funny all the way through? Herein, Baumbach invests the same acute attention to tight editing he demonstrated in his unsung modern classic Kicking and Screaming, but tells a story so personal, you can’t help but wonder if it hurt him more than it hurt us. I mean, how could one whittle from such a life-affirming, cataclysmic event a film as succint and detailed and thorough, but keep it as slim as Salinger? In my own struggles to purge the demons of nostalgia, I popped off a 220-page eye swallower called 1993. Every attempt to keep its wily tenticles of offbeat, shaggy-dog genius [sic] out of the way of, you know, the story, seemed too steep to thwart. Which brings me to the real problem in my notice: The films that make honest use of personal subjectives – like literary elitists who split up but continue a half-assed attempt to model their divorce after the family life they could barely hold together – always end up being the ones I can’t help but spout all over (alas, I submit that there is a half-jealous side, too; I’ll spare you). It’s one of those movies where the performances are all too good to single out (although Jesse Eisenberg is a distinctly sharp actor, playing a role similar to the one in Rodger Dodger, but clearly making all the right distinctions and choices), the jokes are all too funny not to repeat ad nauseum (like when It’s “minor Dickens” later to become “minor Fitzgerald” or Daniels referring to Kafka as one his predecessors), and, in the eventual, the unique quality of its voice is too expansive and, simultaneously, minimal in a way: At the same time, its so complicit and carefully threaded but also so simple you don’t want to spoil it with overthinking.

(12/20)


King Kong
Directed by Peter Jackson
grade: B

As if the attention to size permeated every aspect, the three hour Kong is the very picture of giant-sized entertainment. The throwback-to-age quickness of the first hour (enjoyable as if it accidentally dropped right from reels shot during the time period in which its set) melds into a too-long, too-repetitious, yet somehow consistently exciting second hour full of CGI-fights as off-the-wall as the stop animation variety displayed in the original (which I’ve not seen, but can see Jackson possessing an equal reverence and thirst for up-to-the-minute visual tinkering, not unlike Lucas’s reworked Star Wars trilogy re-releases). By the time New York rolls around, though, its out of fresh variation. This section, it seems, required so much planning and so much staging that it was impossible to invest any more energy in the staling Brody/Watts romance, instead (or, directly resulting in) choosing to crank the intensity of the one-note Watts/Kong attraction, itself too moving to falter in such a condition but, nevertheless, unresolved in the same way a woman might be attracted to a zombie or a monster. Jackson better asserts his horror movie roots in the film’s most notorious (and, most seat squirming) setpiece that can be described by swiping the title of the second track on Elvis Costello’s Mighty Like a Rose: “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs are Taking Over)”.

(12/28)


Munich
Directed by Steven Spielberg
grade: B

While Worlds forfeits its purity for square-box PC touches (Dakota Fanning is a commercial for her upper class changeover, a detail that – while valuable – is often distracting) and wrongheaded characterizations (What movie is Tim Robbins planning to direct that he needed to trot out the goober stereotype with such ploddingly simple strokes?), Munich simply doesn’t realize that it’s a better film when its lost in the throes of its thriller chops, some of which are as dazzlingly methodical as anything in Catch Me If You Can, the somewhat lukewarm dramatic entry to Spielberg’s oeuvre this film more precisely parallels than the dusty dark history of Amistad or the terrifying and immediate docu-shock of Schindler’s List. Munich just doesn’t have the historical urgency it’s being pimped with. And while it is about political warfare, what really cripples it is how, while it’s alleviating the ever-increasing panic I had that it would never chuck off its viciously partisan perspective (note to self: trust the director next time), it manages to lapse into character study, showing the Israeli idealist who is tired of the fighting and the taking of sides, thereby forcing the movie into a situation where it’s merely showing an objective perspective without actually being objective itself. Nevertheless, this changeover was like a weight off of my shoulders as soon as the film took stock of the toll on unwitting terrorists, thereby blurring the line between payback and aggression, suggesting that a difference doesn’t actually exist when the freedom fighters become the, ahem, invaders. All of these terms must sound very familiar and specifically allegoric. However, in a broader sense, though both films examine the complacency of revenge, we never lose sight of Bana’s or Cruise’s plight to stay human, a battle Spielberg sees as, ultimately, a more integral part to understanding the concept of political violence as a whole. This initiates a fittingly punitive cycle for Bana, who realizes he’s either been had or has traded his security the way the terrorists traded their lives for the cause. Cruise, who also survives his own shortcomings by killing (Tim Robbins, in this case), finds himself clinging to family. In both films, the subtext echoes a sentiment actually stated in Munich: Home always costs more. Both films aren’t merely reactions, but warnings focused on behavior in the wake of terrorist attacks. War of the Worlds sees it from the common (read: working class) man’s eyes while Munich comes from the mind’s eye of the soldier.

[ Munich has the flavor commonly referred to as Hitchcockian (an overstatement of what it really is); The only nod to the Master of Suspense is the way it transforms its main character from a simple bodyguard into a field operative. Think Torn Curtain or North By Northwest. Neither film really makes its politics grave or terribly relevant. Munich‘s politics seem to spring more from national identity (or lack thereof) than any sort of retelling of history’s ongoing conflicts and their “highlights” (after all, One Day in September did shed some light, very recently, on much the same events). Love the way it unfolds, though: It unspools, for the most part, without a great deal of pontificating, and, as I said, is best when its merely following the exploits of the Israeli revengists. It’s probably a little too rounded and, on occasion, a little too handsome, but Munich is easily one of the most immersing thrillers to come down the pike in a great while, making me wish very much that Spielberg had toned down the very thing (the moral) I found to save the film. It’s a contradictory bit of praise I can’t help bestowing and taking away from the film (at the same time).]

(12/29)

Brokeback Mountain
Directed by Ang Lee
grade: B+Teasing out the universality in the best love story of the year feels almost effortless, largely due to Lee’s insistence on taking his time. While the bulk of the film is about love being hidden away in “correct” values such as wives, children and gainful employment, Brokeback Mountain is smart enough not to overdose on the heartbreak that, in other, heavier hands, might have easily soured the deeply sacred-feeling first third of the film, wherein Gyllenhal and Ledger simply and unassumingly fall for each other on the natural land mass referenced in the title. It seems like a given that both actors be phenomenol in a film like this one (and they are, particularly Ledger, raising introverted to an art form) and that the scenery be awe-aspiring (as it mixes with what sounds to me like the best score I’ve heard in forever), but its greatest triumph – for me, anyhow – is that it brings Lee back to some major Ice Storm territory.

(1/7)


Match Point
Directed by Woody Allen
grade: B+I don’t think it would be off base to suggest that greed and luck are inexorably intertwined, a statement Allen makes – very slyly, I might add – without affecting any real moral judgement upon his characters; It’s like a Hitchcock movie, for the most part, because the protagonist (in this case a very handsome, striking Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) keeps surprising us as he raises level of his defiance/evil cunning and, at the same time, brandishes a very real, very pitiful puppy-face when he realizes he’s so stepped in it: He’s like a Patrick Bateman who suddenly starts feeling. And there’s plenty to feel: He’s bangin’ the incredibly much hotter future brother-in-law’s ex-fiance…in London. Hype-laden almost to a fault, Match Point is such a departure for the Allen we’ve come to underrate, we almost feel like we have to deduct the weight of his name – not his signature, though, as, stylistically, the film is practically eponymous – from the proceedings almost unconsciously. Fortunately, the film is such a pleasure to watch, smoothly unfolding without excess of filler or moral pondering (unless, of course, you count the natural tendency the film has for equating the infidelity and murder with attaining wealth; This, to me, is a minor note that Allen’s presence casually allows us to dismiss: He’s never judged privelidge, only celebrated the faux-intellectual byproduct buried in expensive clothes and acquired opinons.)

(1/12)


Sky High
Directed by Mike Mitchell
grade: BFar more entertaining than it has any right to be, stinking its obvious crossover scent (Harry Potter meets The Incredibles) and all; The real greatness of the film is how instantly and consistently it begins defying convention, despite its cartoonish effects (which work in the same, intentionally exaggerated way Robert Rodriguez’s effects work) and its overcooked finale (the light, self parodying atmosphere is suddenly work to maintain). First and foremost, it’s a pleasure to watch, with high school kids who actually look and act their age, whiling in a comic book fantasy world somewhere between television comedy and live action animation.

(1/13)


Tony Takitani
Directed by Jun Ichikawa
grade: CIt’s hook – the creeping pan of the camera observing delicately on the fly – carries Tony Takitani the way a shrill music score beefs up (or, in some cases, doubles as) emotional resonance in other films. There’s a splinter of intrigue in Ichikawa’s ultimately dissatisfying Mourner Finds Companion Via Bizarre Circumstances riff on Haruki Murikami’s novel. And, as in this year’s Nobody Knows, it happens as an afterthought rather than a main idea, giving you an insane amount of context for very little payoff (the ratio is not quite as lopsided as in that film; Takitani is a scant seventy-five minutes long). This splinter – Bizarre Circumstances = Vertigoesque would-be doppelganger trying on Mourner’s dead wife’s clothing collection, itself an visually oddball but reasonably hammy crumb of symbolic disconnect – buys Tony Takitani‘s forgiveness simply by playing along with its barely crawling preamble; Instead of resenting this drearily proficient long bus ride of a set up, it acts like a shot in the arm, giving Audition a run for its money in the jump cut of moods department. Suddenly, the film’s sporting a healthy sliver of DePalma. Also, it took me three and half hours to finish.

[By the way: Love the shot of the kid building the ocean liner in the dirt on what we expect to be a beach, but instead turns out to be a path through an empty lot in industrial urbania, stage lit for a lovely two level evocation of detachment to reality (the world of the man varying from the world of the city or the boy’s seeming split with everything but his dirty soil sculpture.]

(1/17)


Grizzly Man
Directed by Werner Herzog
grade: A-It’s a haunting piece because it profiles everything leading up to a haunting pair of deaths, but it’s also pretty unsettling to see how the subject – Timothy Treadwell – is seen by all of his friends, even his own hand (his video camera was found after his death, as well as footage from several years of his summers spent living among grizzly bears), after succumbing to an attack as he pushed too far into a foreign society (Was he committing a slow suicide by teasing death for thirteen years?  Did this kind of life lead to his feeling of separation from traditional society?) Herzog doesn’t seem at all surprised by this, even going so far as to suggest that Treadwell could stand the primal, even violent tendencies of one society, as long as they didn’t have the profoundly crushing emotional inclinations of another (namely, ours). What follows is yet another brilliant comment by Herzog on the way imagery affects man, examined in Treadwell’s insanely self-absorbed overcoverge of his escapades (which suggest that the fodder for the film is one big long downward spiral into lunacy as an unanswered cry for help). Why were all these key moments of a life shot? They turn out to be the most generously unknowing anticipation of a feature documentary since Capturing the Friedmans. Herzog is given, essentially, the complete collection of a man’s life, drawing conclusions through the same receptor hell-bent on taking human nature at face value that forged My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski and Little Dieter Needs to Fly. His tone this time, as it happens, is eerily grave, with none of the light or goofy moments found in those films. This is the flip side to The White Diamond, with Herzog in no situation where his presence is needed to make the non-fiction more kinetic. That he made these stylistically polar opposites back to back is like a full penance for Wheel of Time. (I’m hoping this year’s Rescue Dawn will excuse 2002’s wretched Invincible. It’s going to have to be Citizen Kane 2: P.O.W. Boogaloo to even come close.)

(1/19)


The Island
Directed by Michael Bay
grade: CWhen its not showing highlight reels of its own action scenes, placing products by the double digits or doggedly refusing to pay homage to THX-1138 (the movie its clearly patterned after), The Island somehow manages to succeed on the flashiest level possible – in one hour cashing in on its protagonist’s curiosity by leaving us in the dark with him (a tactic that makes the specifications seem vague, giving us the hope that they won’t be explained to death as they typically are in these sorts of entertainments) and, in another hour, milking ethical assumptions about the audience in the most knuckle headed ways (for those of us who – outside of the overpopulation threat it implies – have no real problem with the concept of human replication, this was a reasonably moot point). The most prevalent contradiction, of course, is that The Island is a frickin’ action movie with no gripes about dutiful deaths (in frequent police chases, et al.), going so far as to tap the collective spotlight we as a country seem to have cast on preserving any and all human life (likely a byproduct of 9/11 anxiety, methinks). Luckily, all of my conspiracy theorist introspection could be done while I watched the movie – as little of value (read: Johannssen is attached to those clothes the whole time) outside Steve Buscemi being allowed to deliver The Big (tre obvious) Secret in full-on Carl Showalter-mode – and I didn’t have to waste any more of my [sic] precious time (currently being used to indulge and purport my curious interest in the theory of Singularity, which would make a far more interesting topic to frame a big, dumb action movie around.)

(1/21)


The New World
Directed by Terrence Malick
grade: ATerrence Malick’s quietly abstract tone poem strikes me on that hazy, above-the-clouds level of indescribable clarity. Taking a slightly different approach here than in The Thin Red Line (which sprawls in a way that makes Altman look tight), Malick has chosen the indelibly simple story of Pocohantas and John Smith and framed it with an absence of historical urgency. At no moment throughout The New World, are we involved in pondering the film’s accuracy or bygone recall (so much so that I found myself annoyed when anyone wanted to discuss “facts” or “how closely they followed the story”). We’re stuck in bubbles. Bubbles where our vantage point contains the inner and outer perspectives of characters (via beautifully nattering voice over), a truth that few films bother to acknowledge (no one is the same outside and in their head). The love story is a lovely one, full of passion and tragedy, all the while mirroring the effectual settling of Virginia and its reprocussions on a more natural culture (namely: The Native Americans, given the same full face the Japanese were given in The Thin Red Line). Truly, the “loss of Eden” has been ballyed around a peg in most notices. There’s a certain voice in the film, though, that seems to suggest that eden will always exist, but continue changing forms (the child running through the maze caps it off with what I would call the eden of youthful ignorance). And even if some are unclear about Malick’s intentions, the stylistic psyche massage of his filmmaking – with its slow building long takes set to Wagner and its constant parrallels to nature – could convince us of anything.

(1/22)


Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Directed by Alex Gibney
grade: B-It never really stops being a platform for talking heads to brew analogy after analogy after analogy. Has a doomsday air about it that’s pretty well-felt; I can’t imagine any documentarian being objective about such obvious and blatant disregard for ethical business practices. Now, if only I understood a whit of what these business practices actually were. Brownie points for a Simpsons clip and three (3!) Tom Waits songs from three (3!) different albums.

(1/25)


Head-On
Directed by Fatih Akin
grade: BThough his motive is unclear, the main character is such a fiery, go-for-broke nutcase that the push-pull romantic inclinations almost seem to bleed naturally from all the chaos he and his young fascade bride cause with their casually hedonistic social misgivings. They’re like a more organized, familial-wreck version of Sid and Nancy. The denoument seems lifted from a more structured, somehow less shaggy love story.

(1/30)


The Devil’s Rejects
Directed by Rob Zombie
grade: CBrimming with 70s exploitation evoc, Zombie’s second feature actually manages to be less entertaining than the already teetering House of 1000 Corpses, a film I reviewed with anticipatory perspective (make one to get your bearings), being far more tolerant of its overall mediocrity than I’d ever dream of being to The Devil’s Rejects. Actively brilliant in spots (long Skynard montages, terrifically dark cruelty for a film made in ’00s America and, um, the roughshod realism of the characters), but is cobbled together with the same brand of asinine placeholder narrative. In other words, Zombie eschewed the advice of all, abandoning the easy out and focusing more energy on filmmaking than storytelling; In horror movies, this just makes the final product a drag. (Especially in terms of dialogue: Bare bones (if that) will do it. The long, improvised banter between the killers unravels any evil dignity they might have otherwise possessed).

(2/4)


Oliver Twist
Directed by Roman Polanski
grade: B-Agonizingly well-intentioned, Polanski’s oddly safe follow-up to similarly proto-mature The Pianist (what, weird doesn’t interest him anymore?) works better when setting off caricatures in peripheral characters (the elders at the first orphanage, in particular, who look down in the camera and mumble their lines). It doesn’t seem to have the cajones to merge this darkly comedic tendency it opens with, quickly slipping into unceremonious proficience. And though it carries no real flawed or stifled qualities, it seems an opportunity for Kingsley to further slip into his newest, not altogether flattering typecast (playing bad guys with accents), giving a performance that barely vindicates him. His Fagan is so hopelessly impossible to understand, what’s necessary is for Polanski’s mise-en-scene to fill in the distant humanity and its peculiar hold on the virginally innocent Oliver (it doesn’t). While I’ve always found this part of the story to be tearjerking rubbish to begin with, its not nearly as apropos viewed here in present day, when cinema’s limits are far less restricted. Its inclusion, particularly Oliver’s weepy pity party for The Demented Fool at the film’s conclusion, makes you worry that Polanski himself has slipped into a similar haze of antediluvian existence.

[The digi-assist, by the way, makes London look like, as Summer put it, “an animated matte painting”. Why would a matte painting every need to be animated? Bad form.]

(2/6)


Wallace and Gromit in ‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’
Directed by Nick Park and Steve Box
grade: B+I’m thoroughly astonished that the very comfortable half-hour portioning of Wallace and Gromit translated into two and a half times that without filler, without belaboring a point and without losing too terribly much of their essence. They’ve always survived on their cleverness and this King Kong meets The Wolfman riff is no black mark, not by a long shot, on the original conception. The painstaking time constraints of claymation force Park and Box into a spartan creativity, leaving no moment wasted. As a contender among the long tradition of brainey animal sidekicks who inexplicably carry their bumbling masters, these two are held in a reverance I can’t help but continue to feed.

(2/9)


Eros
Directed by Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni
grade: C+The Hand (Wong): C
Borders on self-parody (it doesn’t help matters that it could easily have been the bastard cousin of one of 2046‘s swooning, heart-saturated subplots).

Equilibrium (Soderbergh): B+
A great, fresh zinger of reversible dream logic that teems with a period dialogue practically unmatched for its quickness by anyone short of Mamet (Downey, Jr. more than making up for his clunker performance in Good Night, and Good Luck.).

The Dangerous Thread of Things (Antonioni): C
A lukewarm entry bordering on flat-out bad (the translated mess of philosophical rambling seems entirely sour in this context – – although I don’t object to this much nudity, really, as a rule).

[The theme was very loosely adhered to (with the third film, I imagine, simply passing mustard in the eligibility category because it was directed by Antonioni) with none of the entries really hitting an erotic pulse.]

(2/10)


Red Eye
Directed by Wes Craven
grade: B-More interesting than the film itself are its riffs on topical themes (e.g. – the fear of terrorism comfortably blurred into the air travel experience, the untrustworthiness of the modern, romantic male entity, and the value of life in a me-or-them situation), a quality that barely conceals Craven’s watery third-generation Hitchcock suspense and hopelessly derailed ending. By the time you’ve realized it doesn’t have a map to where its headed, however, you’re hooked on secretly rooting for Cillian Murphy’s striking psychopath to drub Rachel McAdams, whose frailty is the object of so much of the film’s sympathetic focus, its almost impossible not to rebel and share the bad guy’s corner.

(2/15)


Mirrormask
Directed by Dave McKean
grade: BWorks overtime not to spoil its goodies (namely, visual extravagazas so alluring you immediately give yourself over to them), tapping Bosch and Dali via hallucinatory multimedia CG to help override its queerly base variation on the Alice in Wonderland/Wizard of Oz symbolic psychobabble that’s occasionally far too overt. Most of the time, the Journey of the Self routine is only vaguely coherent (best when rambling outright) leaving Mirrormask to politely do its job (i.e. – trippin’ you out). And the same question, over and over and over again: How did he get Jim Henson and financing for this thing?

(2/18)


The 40 Year Old Virgin
Directed by Judd Apatow
grade: BThis could easily become a platform for gripes about the extended versions on these DVD’s (Wedding Crashers is the other example), but since I’ve consistently had the choice and continue to bet the “more sex and nudity” way, I’ve really only my self to blame (although I suspect they don’t sabotage the film that much – weigh the grade more carefully on the review, in these instances – see also Land of the Dead and The Devil’s Rejects while I’m thinking about it). Everything that’s tirelessly noble about this character is exposed in the fusion of Correll and Apatow, making their choice of genre – sex comedy – all the larger a challenge. It’s incredibly funny all the way through, despite how exceedingly episodic it becomes (runoff, I’m certain, from Apatow’s television-trained genius); It starts to feel like there’s a very clear, very generic dialogue wrap-up to every event, as if tying it altogether was priority numero two. Nevertheless, it couldn’t possess a more pleasant or reverant worldview, one where the casual, don’t-think-about-it nature of sex comes crashing up against The Act’s common obsesses-until-fixated and “put on a pedastal” bent.

(2/19)


The World
Directed by Jia Zhangke
grade: CUnfocused love in a Beijing theme park where world sites (e.g. – Eiffel Tower, Manhattan, et al.) are replicated on smaller scales affords a poke at universality the film almost treats as background noise. Unfortunately, what’s happening in the foreground, for the most part, is trite and soapy, with precious little of substance or wisdom to give it motion. Some of the staging is exceptional. Most of the film is forgettable.

(2/20)


Wedding Crashers
Directed by David Dobkin
grade: CI’m game to downgrade it much more in hindsight. I don’t care about the anticipated label I’ll receive as king snob; After truly registering my disgust, I’m down to a D+ easy. I was so embarrased to laugh, however, that I didn’t actually have a good time watching the overlong, buys-it’s-own-bullshit riff on The Great Repair of Male Moral Character (groan). The last thing we want to see – after celebrating the tantalizingly immoral reversal in extended, hilarious montage (the “wedding crashin'” as it were) – is Owen Wilson’s babyface stoner character trailing such a indignant and insulting lapse into the annals of shamefully protracted whims of the film’s convenience (as if the symmetry of the big finale’s locale – a wedding – was so darling, so utterly important, that a good twenty minutes of sap tolerance was required on our part). It’s worst sin falls on the wacky combo: We never believe for a minute that these two – despite their sleepover friendship pact – would spend more than five minutes together; Wilson seems to have his ephiphany quite a long while after this character likely would and Vaughn doesn’t pull off his transition into responsible territory (read: wants to be married): They’re act like frat brothers from different fraternities who aren’t sure if they’re supposed to be accomodating each other or starting a fight. With it’s musical montages, its gross-out moments and its misfired sentimentalism within a dynamite premise, it’s like a looser Farrelly movie: If it would just veer into black comedy, it might have a fighting chance.

(2/21)

The Aristocrats
Directed by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza
grade: C+Despite how hard it is to hide behind “the joke is funny and all else does not matter” when a movie takes this long to get to the point (and goes on about an hour longer than it ought), it is pretty darn funny in spots: Sarah Silverman gets the best punchline (hands down). Where were the great comedians, by the way? If this is such a famous joke, why is there no coverage – or even press – of people like Hicks (mentioned), Cosby, Pryor or Bruce (mentioned) doing it or discussing it? Only one black comedian (Chris Rock) was allowed in on it? Where is Chevy Chase? Saget’s a filthy man but Seinfeld isn’t (wasn’t that disproven, to some extent, by Comedian and I’m Telling You for the Last Time)? If these are all their friends – – – well, um, actually, that’s a lot of friends. Documentary that seem great conceptually not always great in action. Said the blind salesman. As he picked up the hammer and took an eyeful.

(2/25)


Capote
Directed by Bennett Miller
grade: B-What appears to be a complicit dissection of a great irony (the eventual manipulation of Truman Capote by killer Perry) only serves to plug its tradional prestige with a far too calculated reversal (Gay, funny-talking journalist’s amoral gloryhounding is initially sexy but later turns on him). That it lacks a certain genuineness hardly matters, though. Miller grabs late 50s NYC and rural Kansas with both hands and recoils at their sensational social definitions: The wrongheaded confidence of Big City Meddler butting heads with the Desperate Cocksureness of Regretful Drifter. What’s left unblinking, thankfully (we need fewer obvious cues in these sorts of films, methinks), is Capote nearly realizing that he’s exorcising his own demons and instead empathizing. That this makes a bigger impact (he never finished another book and died an alcoholic in 1984) doesn’t necessarily explain why he was so drained by the experience, why it hit him on such a gut level and, truly, why Capote chose this case as his writing material in the first place. If leaving out the motive seems like a grevious error, look at it this way: It unites Capote and Perry on a more fate-driven level: Perry has as little motive for killing the family as Truman Capote has for choosing to write about him. Hoffman’s performance, though sure to win an Oscar, seemed far more calculated than necessary, but nevertheless reasonably engaging  (I confess that I did find myself lost in him for about an hour afterwards). As for Bennett Miller: Are we sure this guy made The Cruise? Is that even possible?

(2/26)


Walk the Line
Directed by James Mangold
grade: B-There’s no new zest in the genre – in fact, as biopics go, this one’s rather stale – but darnit if the foot-stompin’ mood of Folsom prison at the very start of it doesn’t permeate through, giving Walk the Line a passionate musical radiance that serves to forgive much of the many-splendored halitosis of drug addiction and broken marriage that seems to aid in swelling the running time of these singsong whimperers (see also, the following subchapters: The uncannily similar Ray, How to Score an Oscar, and Methodology: Template vs. Reality). What’s almost ecstatic about Mangold’s film is how competently the actors seem to bring to life the film’s songs. Both performers are veritable triumphs, at once in awe of playing these characters and, subsequently, very much at home in them; Witherspoon’s June Carter has an almost maternal sincerity (and it’s truly distressing – at first – to watch her helplessly flirt it away) while Phoenix’s persitent, distracted idol grimble grumbles every ego-soaked line with simple-minded self-derision (read: grumpy and selfish, but talented – and with a fine heart, after all). They actually remind me a great deal of Homer and Marge Simpson. Best line in the film (Cash is unsure whether to take drugs with his friends: “Hey-c’mon, Elvis takes ’em!”).

(2/28)


Jarhead
Directed by Sam Mendes
grade: C+Has a hard time not seeming like every other film that’s ever tackled the same subject…right up until Peter Saarsgard has a fit because he can’t be the one to experience legal murder (i.e. – killing an Iraqi officer from hundreds of yards away). Really, just a hopelessly beaten-to-the-punch film; Any remote topicality or 90s definition feels Three Kings, with The Transformation/Haunting of a Grunt done better more recently in Tigerland, which also wallowed in the shadow of Full Metal Jacket, itself likely one of Kubrick’s least “Great” films but, by comparison, light years more solid.  In Jarhead‘s otherwordly visions of desert warfare, its allusions that these soldiers are facing an enemy they never see (more of a force, really) and are tasked with keeping their minds together and remaining dutiful as a team makes Jarhead‘s most valiant point: The Core is a fine place for people who lack a conscience and need the structure it takes to supress their urges to kill among their fellow civilians. (End of commerical.) More than anything, you wish the film was about the current situation; Without right-now urgency, Mendes is forced to rely on his actors – to mixed results: Gyllenhal is mostly intense – his quiet scenes seem almost redundant after Brokeback Mountain – and finds himself out acted by nearly all of the supporting cast, most of whom feel too peripheral (especially Saarsgard, who we can’t help but imagine would have made a much better subject for the film; And, despite being in only two scenes, Chris Cooper promptly walks away with the thing.)

(3/7)


Caché
Directed by Michael Haneke
grade: A-Produces tremendous suspense and – in a violent jump moment – refuses to release it; Only in the closing shot do head-scratching audience members see a glance of confirmed suspicion. Underlying, Haneke’s film is a treatise on French racism, colonialism and intellectualism – an allegory strung to its puzzle film roots. I was pretty much completely shaken by it and found its every corner thrilling. More to come when I stop sounding like a frickin’ fanboy

(3/10)


Rent
Directed by Chris Columbus
grade: B-Pussies out, as so many musicals do, when it comes to singing every line. This film does it sometimes – and not others. As melodramatic entertainment, a vision of the AIDS epidemic and its deadline effect on late 80s/early 90s NYC art bums and a great, passionate reaction to the author’s own (now lost) battle with the disease, Rent spares nary a moment to think of much else but its lovestruck Carpe Diem message. As a musical, it suffers its slings and arrows in a now assuredly more conservative market; As a phenomenon, the whole thing still seems baffling: Are these the children of the Les Miserables fanatics?

(3/11)


Where the Truth Lies
Directed by Atom Egoyan
grade: B-Compelling, despite being chock full of journalistic voice-over (the kind, as in Goodfellas, that lets you know the interviewee is dumbing it down for the layman) and revised flashbacks, both of whose tactics are displayed in their broadest, least exciting flavor. Also: A period piece? Technology barely winked at? A-List actors in material this picked over? Clear cut case of Egoyan’s name being worth much more than his filmmaking which, despite being perpetually overshadowed by Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, has probably never seemed this American to date. I’m not issuing a compliment, by the way. It’s proficient, but: The man made fucking The Sweet Hereafter. C’mon.

[ Seems redundant to mention it, but I can’t help myself: This is the single worst title of the year. ]

(3/12)


Madagascar
Directed by Ernie Darnell and Tom McGrath
grade: BGrounded with far less at stake than the typical animated feature (at any rate, in the flight from one paradise to another kind of paradise, it sure feels that way), Madagascar is rarely weighted with anything more than moods (the zebra is bummed because he’s 10 and hasn’t seen the wild, the lion is grumpy, later, because he misses his home), except in one masterstroke of a plot divergence, when environment stokes the coals of the lion’s savage nature, turning him against nearly every other character in the film, and forcing a self-exile behind strategically placed sharp reeds (self-imposed captivity that bests that of his original digs (man-imposed captivity), performing for children at a posh NYC park/zoo; although, If they were so smart, why can’t they remember past the beginning of the movie?). Vocally, Chris Rock’s ubertame PG zebra makes a much warmer foil for the occasional Zoolander infusion I found it hard to overlook in Ben Stiller’s lion; Alternately, parts for David Schwimmer, Cedric the Entertainer and Andy Richter all feel like grand fun, with the voices being bent and exaggerated in grand form. (Pinkett-Smith, unfortuantely, has thankless token written all over her.) Shorter on the obligatory moments of cuddle than I’d anticipated, Madagascar‘s on-the-fly temperment – and oft-successful digressions – seem harmonious to its bright, fantastical color scheme. Further adventures of the Noah’s Ark gang and all that.

(3/25)


Junebug
Directed by Phil Morrison
grade: B-Morrison seems under the impression that he’ll show the rift between the big city art dealer (Embeth Davidtz) and her new husband’s spirited/cruel-then-charming Southern family by minimalizing the very thing that connects them (namely, the husband – a terribly bored Alessandro Nivola) and making the film the wife’s story. Oddly enough, he distracts himself from this with an attention-getting burst of enthusiastic feminine overhospitality in Amy Adams’ pregnant sister-in-law (The Big South as Julia Roberts on speed). More interesting than his focal tennis match are the little familiar observations, particularly in the perpetually angry brother, who seems happier at work than at home (people who spend more time slavin’ than family’in generally make that sacrifice of mood). I’m pretty cynical about all this, but it may be because I’m lashing out: I geniunely believed the art deal with the crazy old cook who painted famous civil war battles emblazoned with bible verses (and giant penises) was far more important than waiting with the family while a stranger – the sister-in-law – gives birth. Call me callous: I think the film was made for the people who would find the Davidtz’s decision abominable.

(3/28)


Howl’s Moving Castle
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
grade: BEasily the busiest riff to date on Miyazaki’s standard purely innocent girl in dire circumstance is assisted/charmed/literally charmed by untouchable guy with bizarre animalistic tics while swirling all around are anti-war/pro-eco sentiments. My sarcasm is pretty unwelcome though; There’s some truly amazing stuff going on amidst the chaos: The moving castle itself, containing a portal door and a talking fire, the main character’s immediate notion that her old self just fits better (he says, having been called an “old man” – again –  just this morning), and the presence – the mere presence – of a semblance of imagination that never seems to stop producing great characters (here, a turnip-headed scarecrow who never speaks is the most intriguing in my opinion). Though it’s pretty soft, still and without real forward direction, Miyazaki’s movie has the great honor of giving me pause: In recent days (Syriana, Junebug and this, to name a few) I’ve noticed the very things I look for in a movie delivered. So why am I not happy? Why are narrative deviations, rambling essay pieces and vague, inferential staging not pleasing me the way I always thought – very few and far between – that they did? I think I have the answer. It still has to be done well, even if it’s got the right idea. Howl’s Moving Castle has a bevy of great, interesting ideas – and its wrapped up in this too-complicated patchwork quilt of a tale – but because it isn’t even the least bit episodic, nothing ever really happens or stops happening (if you follow).

(4/2)


Memoirs of a Geisha
Directed by Rob Marshall
grade: C-Bursting open over black with a doozy of a trailer-made line (“A story like mine is never meant to be told”) and closing just nearly speaking its title, template prestige whore Memoirs of a Geisha is pretty high on its overtly sympathetic broadening of culture that seems cause to exclude any scene that isn’t expressly defining What It Really Means To Be a Geisha. Staged (rather than directed, that is) in every way – note perfect sets, too symmetrically busy crowd scenes, choreographed breathing – it’s practically Kyoto (sans the songs of course); And not being a musical is probably the least of its disconnect with communication: See famous quote about “doing a martial-arts movie in English [and how it] would be like John Wayne speaking Chinese in a Western”. I realize this point of view has room for argument, but the film’s dialogue is not meant to repeatedly sound unintentionally hilarious as Chinese and Malaysian actresses do Japanese accents while speaking a third language: English. Realizing the necessary evils of a film like Geisha taking the commercial route (but not respecting its decision to do so, mind), I couldn’t help but notice that the producers – one of whom is former attachee Steven Spielberg – made the film the safest it could possibly be. On the plus side, both Ziyi Zhang (polar opposite of her 2046 character) and Gong Li are ideal casting – Zhang in pureheart mode, Li as superbitch – both transcending nicely the violently melodramatic machinations of the tale itself. In the end it turns out to be just the guadily-programmed tearjerker it purports to be.

[Wondering if I was alone in my belief that a film so culturally specific really does suffer under it’s English Language happy-mask, I had to resort to reading the notices of for-the-masses tools like Berardinelli and Ebert because none of the snooty net nerds I read bothered to venture out and see the damn thing. Berardinelli takes note of it while Ebert barely even mentions the film. (He does, however, point out the irony of Gong Li being dumped on by her older sister-wife in Raise the Red Lantern and being The Senior Dumper in Geisha. Berardinelli out-steams him by recalling that Ziyi Zhang usurped the aging Gong Li’s spot in director Yimou Zhang’s bed.)]

[And despite having been dismissive and superior about my statement that being in English was a big part of how poorly Geisha plays – – Randy is right about one thing: Geishas are fucking boring.]

(4/3)


The Brothers Grimm
Directed by Terry Gilliam
grade: C+Dearly unsatisfying all around – effects interesting but obvious (read: cheap), story suited for wacky comedy rather than light period horror, Gilliam on autopilot – but ultimately not bad, per se, as brainless entertainment and visual imagination (Newton Thomas Siegel gives a real painterly scope to the forest, despite the constant use of filters and CG). Damon and Ledger are clearly miscast (Damon isn’t powerful enough to play big brother and Ledger probably ought not be used as the romantic lead, the brainy weakling and the passionate folklore enthusiast) and are left flitting about in lazily slapped together fairy tales coating a simple Scooby Doo-goes-legit premise. By the end, I was actively tired of it, but I was still following it – mostly to see what bizarre locale would arise next; The writer likely envisioned our personal investment somewhere closer to emotion rather than surprise, but no matter: My biggest fear [sic] was that they wouldn’t realize, after participating in every fairy tale you can possibly think of, that they could write them down and become the less fictional title duo. (Fear realized, I’m afraid.)

(4/6)


Cinderella Man
Directed by Ron Howard
grade: B+I smiled so much, my face was sore. Crowe continues his reign as our best Movie Star, unevaded, as the film melts my cynicism almost immediately. Is it a conscious decision to cast him in films that will rise or fall depending upon whether or not we’re turned into putty? (If so: Good call.)

(4/10)


Flightplan
Directed by Robert Schwentke
grade: B-Aboard a double-decker airplane that would have made Howard Hughes gasp, Foster appears to lose her daughter (while the film plays heavily, and smartly, on our post-Sixth Sense suspicions) but, instead, finds herself the target of a wildly implausible terrorist plot. While, for the most part, the film makes no bones about this (the insane girth of the plane itself is a dead giveaway that we’re in fantasy land but, then, so are the constant references back to Foster’s job as a propulsion engineer), its difficult to remember anything I’ve seen in the recent past that so clearly delivered two different films – one with a very grave, ominous ovtone and the other that just plops itself on the screen, calling attention to itself. At this point, its almost impossible not to observe the care taken in films about fear and air travel (even prior to the henpecked terrorist plot) to operate as thermometers in the post-9/11 Friendly skies, sketching with every breath the alertness, the immediate panic and the new pace in the view through the looking glass. Despite its specific references – a compulsory “Arab harassing” scene, Foster’s reference to new FAA guidelines, a quick camera pan to the posted regulation above the cockpit door – Flightplan‘s worldview seems to play up the tension of airline travel without considering any other perspective. No other course of assumption could possibly be suggested; Panic is like oxygen and, despite the space being as maximized as possible (you’ll ask yourself, repeatedly, does a plane this big exist in real life?), its still finite. It still seems brave – however effective – for a modern feature film to unload upon a mass market audience (at Christmas time, no less) what appears to be an hour of a greiving, possibly deranged widow milking the unavoidable sense terror airline travel now carries with it. At one point, she sneaks off into the hold to open her dead husband’s coffin and ask his help. Unfortunately, for all the visually driven order, precision and newness, a film this tirelessly urgent will inevitably shit or get off the pot; One can’t help but be in awe that a major motion picture goes on this long without shooting itself in the foot with a dimwitted long shot of contrived, too-quickly paced genre garbage. The rest of the film, in other words, is not worth discussing.

(4/12)

The Weather Man
Directed by Gore Verbinski
grade: BAnother one I can’t believe got a release. Little – if any – narrative thrust going on here; Most of what’s taking place is a face value reflection of personal defeat despite professional glory. Nic Cage nails these roles so effortlessly (see also: The Family Man). Bizarrely, his appearance in both of them as a rich man called to the mat for shameless self absorption and taken over the barrel by the nature and pedastal of family (in modern society) gives otherwise from-the-limo directors some kind of real push. In this film, because it is so episodic, you can pretty much dismiss the silly bits – the archery, the stock child molester, his ex-wife’s lame-o boyfriend – and relish how perfectly it nails a man constantly taking stock of himself. Voice-over both random and relevant permeates a great deal of the film. I suspect I’m not alone in seeing that the film feels very much like my own brainspace: Overthinking, assessment and self pity. Surprisingly unrelenting and refreshingly spare in the act-to-act department.

(4/13)


Hustle & Flow
Directed by Craig Brewer
grade: BHustle & Flow goes on a mighty long time without batting so much as an eye while Terrence Howard’s mumbly diplomat of a pimp plies his wares, peddles weed and makes a blue collar complaint of nearly everything in his rampantly immoral day-to-day hustler lifestyle. This casual – but not damning – acknowledgment of Howard’s career becomes so important as the zoomed-in focus on every detail of his musical talent begins to unfold (with contrasting religious buddy producing the tunes (Anderson) and work-a-day lug (Qualls) engineering em’). The film leads us toward the fall from grace as effortlessly as a donkey being led with a carrot. Howard is a villain by definition, but an ambitious artist by perception; We’re not sure if we’re disturbed by the inevitable downfall we’re expecting or because the film goes on so much longer than we expect without punishing this man for his crimes. Howard’s performance has been rightfully praised, particularly riding side saddle to a film like Crash, where he played a black man conforming to white wishes (while practically allergic to his own skin). Here, with a deep south mutter and the body language of bloated confidence, he takes pleasure in confessionals, talking just about any game necessary; His charisma in one sequence – where he ingratiates himself with local boy-turned-rap-star Skinny Black – is so overwhelming, I gasped a “Wow”. (Usually, I make it a practice not to speak in “wows”.) Though an unnecessary ripped-from-the-headlines epilogue follows this, and some over-the-top characterizations weigh in down in spots (Parker’s Lexus is practically a cartoon skank), that Hustle & Flow bothers to point out how trying it can be in the world for, ahem, a pimp, turns out to be a surprisingly well-made and unflinching point.

(4/15)


In Her Shoes
Directed by Curtis Hanson
grade: B-Hanson works overtime to cover up the sensationalist bestseller that constantly threatens to rear its ignoble head. Smoothly attempting to shift the focus from familial tension to psychological deterioration, Hanson really only half succeeds (both Diaz and Collette still remain patently unconvincing characters, despite the cozy casting), observing the spillover neuroses in both women (their mother was clinically nuts) while simultaneously tarting up their respective curves to and from responsibility. In the end, there’s no real excuse for courting conventionality (one could make the case that the source material left him little choice), but In Her Shoes is so unnecessarily maddening, flipping from instances of greatness to moments of sour sap without so much as a lengthy apology.

(4/20)


Mrs. Henderson Presents
Directed by Stephen Frears
grade: C+Moving at a breakneck speed not felt in prior Britcoms – there’s no residue of Frears, by the way, before you think to ask – Mrs. Henderson Presents is rounded to show up Dench and Hoskins, both largely too good for these roles. The real problem is stature: Both characters – the reckless widow who buys a theater and the stubborn man she hires to run it – lack the air of intelligence these actors require to perform well. As a result, their banter seems undercooked, while the narrative simply seems light, as if operating only out of the necessity to give these two something to talk about. Doesn’t help that the words “Based on a true story” seem to waft like a nasty odor.

(4/24)


Breakfast on Pluto
Directed by Neil Jordan
grade: CAs a rule, I dislike films about characters who really like to say their name. Also: Why melt at the foot of glam rock and then pipe in such a stale compilation of it? Cillian Murphy is terrific in the role (despite the aforementioned preoccupation with whispering his moniker to every person he meets (sometimes more than once); He at once belies a sense of naivete that’s reasonably charming and innocent without being a weepy victim about it. Jordan tells the story in chapters (as nearly thirty screen titles), attempting to highlight the fragmentation of the thing. To what end, though? Instead of suggesting that Breakfast in Pluto is a serialesque faux biography the likes of which might be playfully precluded by a title like The Misadventures Of…, it unfortunately makes a right obvious spectacle of how much time it feels like its spending on tangent after tangent.

(4/29)


The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
grade: DIs as bad as it looks (Summer’s brief summation a la Spalding Gray – she describes it as “a slow, hot burner”). You know at a theme park when they come up with a story to accompany those specatacle/ride/motion simulators (e.g. – Body Wars)? The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl feels like one of those that somebody decided should be thrust upon an unsuspecting theatrical audience. I understand that perhaps this was a ploy to use 3-D and by not watching it in 3-D, I may have missed out. But I really doubt it.

[ The child acting in this film – in general, I’m saying – is like a forest of felled trees. Think about it. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by my cleverness.]

(5/5)


The Intruder
Directed by Claire Denis
grade: C+Surrounds itself confidantly – damn near defiantly – with incoherence and disconnect, such that you play silly self doubt games while you watch a story you’re actively – or, frequently – gap-plugging to make sense of. On the other hand, there’s some considerably great stuff here: Powerful ideas that communicate without context, a beautifully composed and paced tone, another bangin’ music score by Stuart Staples of the Tindersticks (described ideally by one critic as “shamanic”). It’s also easily one of last year’s most professionally artful looking films; Even at 130 minutes, we can marginally forgive the plague of uncertainty in our sense that the director would likely have to debrief us for several hours in order that we don’t misconceive the precious ambiguities (I’m being sarcastic here and it stems from my frustration with yet again being confronted by a film that does what I usually beg the conventional pictures to do, but lets me down just the same.) It is suggested by a thirty page novel, inferring by its take-liberty-ready slimness that this is more of a director’s exercise than anything. Hence, The Intruder rises and falls based on how highly you value (or regard) Claire Denis and her hazily constructed films separated from any exposition whatsoever. Almost reminds me of my experience with Dumont’s Twentynine Palms and feeling divided between my weakness for advocating obscure films and ignoring projected self-definition implied in calling it out as rubbish. Risk always seems to exist that I’ll just be branded too dense to penetrate it. Why do I care? Why do I feel guilty about liking or not liking a movie? Probably because it has less to do with that than with laziness – and with putting off the inevitable: Personal deconstruction of the subjective kind. Am I rambling? Can anyone ever stop me once I start?

[ This rendering ranks among my favorite one-offs (under Sunday, the 12th, about halfway down the page).]

(5/5)

Domino
Directed by Tony Scott
grade: B- = Natural Born Killers × (Michael Bay + Guy Ritchie)
   consistent tone, occasionally clever dialogue, general crispness[ Scott actually uses the musical theme from Man on Fire, giving Domino – with its reality television mirror where celebrities play themselves playing themselves – a sense of recycled culture that’s so vivid, its almost suspiciously boring: Is there more going on here than meets the eye? Somehow I doubt it. Although I can’t possibly endorse a film this busy or chaotic (in the first five minutes, I could be quoted as saying “I’m getting a seizure” for the second time) that parades its emotion deepening scenes with the utmost of isolation (scenes where anyone feels anything feel stilted and alien, although that may be the point). A bunch of unknowns, really. A great example of how the film makes with the cool, but can’t avoid flashing its Big Studio Strings is the reversed sequences (an event takes place, but is subsequently shown in reverse because, actually, it didn’t really take place), as voiced through the ol’ unreliable narrator (Domino Harvey) as she plays Ususal Suspects debriefing with a catty Lucy Liu. Keira Knightley is inspired casting, – despite her one-note reliance on her accent to do all the acting for her; She sounds like Sarah Nixey of Black Box Recorder singing the infamous “Child Psychology”. Stuffed tight with cliches, Domino tells a cartoonishly violent story that culminates in a Mexican standoff sequence that’s so reminiscent of nearly every other Tony Scott film I can call to mind (save the exceptions that I’m intentionally not thinking of), its inclusion almost makes you wonder if Scott isn’t simply parodying himself at this point. The prospect sounds so harmless, I feel nearly drawn to dissect it.

(5/11)


The White Countess
Directed by James Ivory
grade: CWildest, most insanely bad miscasting since The Last Samurai. Why not just cast an actual blind American? How does one explain the horrible slip of such a great thespian? Oversculpted, horribly vague story with all the scenes I totally expected: Blind Todd being lost in a sea of people without a guide or a cane, Mother and Daughter split up in the mad dash to leave Shanghai and, of course, Todd taking a rage-filled swing at a guy who is hitting on The White Countess herself (Richardson, milking that accent almost as cartoonishly as Fiennes’ American accent which – more than once, mind – reminded me of Apu in the “Proposition 24” episode as he’s faking an American accent in order to appear more naturalized).

(5/25)


The Ice Harvest
Directed by Harold Ramis
grade: B-A tad smaller than it probably expected itself to be, The Ice Harvest‘s best moments are the incidental ones that don’t have very much to do with crime (i.e. – Oliver Platt’s priceless turn as John Cusack’s drunk friend who stole Cusack’s wife and failed at the marriage besides – but its okay, they’re cool). Too much emphasis on another generic slimeball performance by Billy Bob Thornton (each one makes me want to go back and rewatch One False Move), too much bluntness in the bumbling cops and a femme fatale subplot that barely surfaces (I was in the minority, but I’m going on record to say that Connie Nielsen is uglified to no real end here). The air of stale Coen lingers in a belabored double cross. (But there is a visual pun involving a trunk not fitting in a trunk. Depth.)

(5/28)


Memories of Murder
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
grade: BI saw someone refer to Memories of Murder as moody. They meant it literally, by my count; Bong’s film changes moods repeatedly and, sometimes, without warning: One minute a parody of investigation dramas, one minute a kooky slapstick number with bumbling local cops brawling like drunken masters, next a viscerally cruel challenge as a man with down’s syndrome is tortured for days, then a bittersweet memoir but, above all, a treatise on frustration with natural, uncontrollable, every day chaos. There are a ton of really great things going on here – in the end, its really a collection of setpieces overruled by a (probably) too ambitious flashback frame (likely the closest connection with the real life case that exists in the film) – but there are also way too many flying leap kicks and bar fights.

(5/30)


Casanova
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
grade: B-I liked it insomuch as it carries an air of lightness about it such that even scenes brimming with faux-suspense – e.g., when the two principals were about to be hanged (but not really because its an American film) – are so openly predetermined, so very much in the spirit of the film, that Hallstrom genuinely seems only to be embracing, unpretentiously, a lark. A very clear, metonymical example of this warmth and whimsy is Oliver Platt’s wonderfully calculated, over-the-top candor. So replete with an inappropriate, cartoonish demure during a similar time period in Venice in Dangerous Beauty, it’s as if he’s dragging that same breezy caricature into a more apropos affair, hilariously, as penance. Watching him flaunt it with just the right measure of hulking dimness is not only a great pleasure, but defines the atmosphere of the film, surprisingly, for the better. That said, Casanova is certainly not a great film by any stretch of the imagination (because it’s wildly predictable, contains far too much digi and, for pity’s sake, because it purports to openly allow Jeremy Irons to parody himself). Ranks #3 out of #4 in the unofficial Best Heath Ledger Performances of 2005 Poll being taken by my “metrosexual” (wink, wink) brothers.

(6/1)


Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic
Directed by Liam Lynch
grade: B-When she’s making jokes, she’s very funny. When the taboos are being broken without witty verbage, she’s merely hot. The songs and the broken third wall framing device thingey are only intermittently chuckle-worthy. If that. Did I by any chance mention how fucking hot she is? Oh, right. I did. Hot.

(6/8)


Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Directed by Shane Black
grade: B+Fascinating conundrum of a film: At once incredibly free-flowing and and at ease with itself, yet intricately woven not to merely flow into itself with doublespeak and plotline figure-eights, but to both lovingly evoke noir at its pulpiest while simultaneously sending up 80s noir at its dingiest. Downey, Jr. and Kilmer are both entirely game with Black’s spit-shot dialogue that, for the first half-hour, plays like a His Girl Friday routine set in the world of collapsable narrative.

(6/14)


The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
grade: BBlack comedy that raises the stakes from Alfredo Garcia’s head to Melquiades Estrada’s body? Complex tale of redemption with constant religious overtones? John Ford by way of Inarritu starring Sling Blade‘s Karl as The Exterminating Angel? A leftist argument against the death penalty? To be sure – however tonally confused – it is all of these things. There are far more interesting moments than maddening ones, but the best thing seems to overrule the lot: Three Burials is a film that preaches, in a roundabout way, a whole heap of hope. In the perpetually cynical moviegoing atmosphere, something this sincere – despite its often hairbrained conceit involving an overland trek with a rotting corpse – seems almost welcome. Commence with the comments about how cornball I am. Just go ahead and commence.

(6/26)


Pride & Prejudice
Directed by Joe Wright
grade: BP & P is extraordinarily loose on its feet, largely due to a blend of the constantly moving, pleasantly fluid camerawork and its genuine handle on the goofy verbage. Joe Wright’s take on Austen’s penultimate social satire of frustrated love and freewheelin’ women makes all the same connections Clueless did, keeping the whole affair nearly as light and airy as that film.

(6/29)


The Matador
Directed by Richard Shepard
grade: B-Indulges every whim – be it rock n’ roll indexing (as Brosnan shows Kinnear How Best To Kill), tender domestic scenes, even what feels like latent parody (or at least an FU in the direction of Brosnan’s now elapsed 007 persona) – which makes for a great deal of short attention span theater pieces (its a very easy movie to watch), but very little in the way of substance or character depth. I’d go so far as to peg it somewhere near how Claire Denis justified The Intruder, in so much as both films are generic, simple genre tales we’ve seen in some capacity before, spinning their wheels on stylistic riffs and fragmented storytelling. Kinnear and Brosnan take great pleasure in their respective schlubs: The former wearing his sensitivity on his sleeve, the latter revealing his in perhaps in the film’s most glaring of ironies, as he forces his unpeeled layers of loneliness on Kinnear, explaining that he’d never even heard of being “burnt out”. Brosnan also milks an unpredictability which, in the film’s strongest measure, continues to give him the upper hand over everyone, even as he’s heaped in a corner, bawling his eyes out. The vision itself feels mildly focused, but mostly on itself: The Matador knows its a movie from start to finish.  The edgy Right Fucking Now tone seems to both anticipate doom (in Brosnan’s quandry) and look back at doom (in Kinnear’s loss), but Shepard is distracted with the moment (to the tune of bacchanal quick cuts in a sex club, a preoccupation with bright colors and open space (everyone feels small in this big world), the gigantic-font intertitles and varied music selections (from The Cramps to Asia); Consequently, we feel the whole affair changing gears, but we never really arrive anywhere.

(7/9)


 

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