2006 Reviews

Manderlay
Directed by Lars Von Trier
grade: B+

Grace is not only played by a different actress, but she seems to have become the next progressive step within herself and, though it seems a cliche to precede this description with the term “reckless”, I’m going to very nearly do it – – Grace has become a forceful advocate for an agenda so rife with flaws, Von Trier has practically abandoned any simulcrum of understanding for her naivete (because, really, she’s already been schooled in the reversal of well-meaning societal concepts) or her position. He suggests that her interventionist liberation of a slave plantation cultivates the inconclusive lessons of two separate ideas – the protruding wrong in slavery’s foundation with its permeating gloom in modern society and the slipping mask of America’s “goodwill” involvement in Iraq – and, just as he did in Dogville, he assigns the film chapters in his essay of moral skits, each more challenging and thought provoking than the last. A great deal of gushing on my part. And let me tell you why: It’s exhilirating to see political allegory that is so dead-on: While Dogville hits us at gut level, Manderlay kicks us while we’re down, telling us even more vividly than before that, as long as we’re human beings practicing human nature, democracy can only act to suggest the apperance of itself. It’s taking a beating for being a soapbox plain and simply, because the bare stage isn’t as necessary as it was in Dogville (unless you argue that it makes a film like this possible financially) and because it shifts from literal to figurative and back again. And? All of these things are moot points: Manderlay another mouthful of particularly strong medicine.

[1: The montage of images surrounding the Civil Rights movement, et al that plays over the end credits with Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ is infinitely more powerful than the one in
    Dogville. Despite Von Trier’s misreading the song, it’s passionate nod at the gap between nationalistic assumptions works beautifully. Much improved.
2. I just re-read my Dogville review. Because many of the arguments are interchangable, I’m wondering if I should re-watch both films. Think I will.]

(1/8)


Bubble
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
grade: B+

Is this another just another art film exercise for Soderbergh (see: Full Frontal and Schizopolis), or is Bubble poised to ride the cherrypop of excitement and creative lightning one typically associates with rebirth rather than upkeep?  Relying on our instinctual, cozy recongnition of archetypes, it seems to always be begging some unexpectedly haunting rhetorical questions: Does middle American poverty delude its servants into such extreme survival tactics (stealing, overworking, killing)? Do these characters live out a desperation they’ve become so accustomed to that it is no longer even acknowledged? Do the red-staters in question really think the self-exoneration of their religious fabric is the responsible tool professed to be the moral compass of the leaders they help to elect? (One too many? Oh. Right. The Soapbox. [steps down]). Using devil-rich details, Soderbergh relays an ownership of character that, quite frankly, few American films can envision (let alone attain). And though the film almost feels like its unnaturally pushing itself towards the central tragedy of the third act, it’s still rule by the seemingly casual nature of its characters. The contrast of stylised camerawork and mundane staging (which includes the DIY narrative, by the way) speaks to this hyper-hypocritical worldview that mirrors Martha’s skull-encased religious protection; It also looks fucking fantastic. Also: Was I the only one who thought the quick uplift at close – timid, disconnected Kyle smiles lovingly at his mom, inexperienced at production but nevertheless stepping in to replace two people on the assembly line – was terribly moving?

(3/6)


Inside Man
Directed by Spike Lee
grade: A-

It’s a bright, optimistic feeling when Spike Lee is able to plop his confrontational race agendas – they’re relevant as hell which makes them potent as hell – inside a terrifically convoluted heist picture that never stops feeling like great, exhilirating 40s noir (even Spike regular Terrence Blanchard seems to notice the spartan pleasure of cops v. robbers, using very little of his Copeland flare-up and focusing rather upon suspenseful urban grandeur). And Denzel, pulling directly from his Carl Franklin gallery of good guys (despite the occasional hint de Alonzo that sneaks in), seems much more germane than he has of late, as if even he can taste the mellower, more focused Spike. It’s not just Denzel, though (or Spike, for that matter) – – Inside Man takes its cue from Memento (but in a good way), intercutting a linear story with post-robbery interviews, zigzagging through moral treatises on levels of corruption, hardwired post-9/11 slants and best of all, trudging with a level eye to precisely what sets it apart from Dog Day Afternoon (a key acknowledgement to avoid a most inappropriate “update” stamp). Inside Man has the same invisible weight of sobriety 25th Hour took so effectively into my good graces; I can’t wait to see this thing again.

(4/10)

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
grade: B+

Right, what if Ricky Gervais'”Extras” and Irma Vep had a one-off bastard child and gave it up for adoption? To Soderbergh’s Full Frontal. And after that, I laughed out loud. Repeatedly. And Steve Coogan played himself. How would that be?

(5/4)


United 93
Directed by Paul Greengrass
grade: A-

United 93 is sober enough to accept things that a more eager-to-please film might have altered (e.g. – the passengers only found themselves able to rebel because the hijackers waited too long to take the plane in the first place). Re-proves the theory I danced around posing in my review of Touching the Void: Great suspense has everything to do with detail. In both films, we already know the outcome but sit poised on the edge of our seat to see how it will be staged. Greengrass, using every piece of information at his disposal, has recreated the most bare of human universals – claustrophobia – in parallel stories of both the speculative title flight and the unfolding events in various airline and military nerve centers without so much as batting an eye of wasted space. Those on the ground aren’t following the flight as a heroic mission – they’re multitasking the grounding of all domestic commecial flights; These are independent stories about a single incident. And it assumes our knowledge, slicing life with asymetrical mundanity, as an unforgiving handheld camera sideswipes terrifically unpolished and backstory-free dialogue. Quips are nowhere to be found. Pandering to a patriotic mindset – aside from the obligatory flag shot near the beginning – is left out. Attacker and Passenger are given equal face. Even the epilogue follows suit. It gives us neutral, indisputable facts we already know, reaffirming its intention to abolish a partisan viewpoint. (At the risk of being branded gauche simply by acknowledging The Conclusion Suspense Factor, I’d liken United 93‘s last ten minutes it to the first time I saw The Blair Witch Project: I was wrapped so tight in my seat I thought I was going to have to take up smoking again.)

(5/16)


The Da Vinci Code
Directed by Ron Howard
grade: C+

Those of you hoping for a transformation of the source novel’s many weak points (a la The Godfather) should brace yourself for a condensed, moment-to-moment regurgitation (a la Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). Those of you who could care less – or have severe brain damage – should find the film easy enough to follow.

(5/27)


X-Men: The Last Stand
Directed by Brett Ratner
grade: C+

All three films have a placid, lightless texture to them, milking quips with more fluidity than any comic book I’ve ever read and ceaselessly hammering home the mutant versus human point. One of X-Men: The Last Stand‘s major strong points is the theory of unification that appears midway through the first act, when a cure for the mutant gene is discovered, and all mutants – good or bad – have to confront it. And it’s just like this misfired franchise to both mirror and confound – good and bad souls dealing with evil in the world works fine, but the whole racism thing is now a little far-fetched to parallel, methinks. But nevermind all that: Brett Ratner is in the driver’s seat. This means that all the well-meaning “fun” Singer traded X-Men‘s gloomy set-up for in installment #2 has now been transferred into a whole boardroom-programmed uber-popcorn thing (only less “fun”). Action scenes that wane on (and on), characters that seem to crave a backstory the film is blatantly devoid of (Beast and, to a lesser extent, Juggernaut) and late-movie tip offs that a fourth film (despite a subtitle like The Last Stand) may be imminent. I keep going back to the near great scenes – the prison on wheels sequence with Magneto’s pile up-ready hand, the two opening prologues, a near sex-scene between Logan and Jean Grey – and wondering if there’s any way they could exist in a better version of this thing, one that didn’t seem so all over the place (does the whole “Phoenix-fulla-power” thing make sense to you?), didn’t seem stuck full of loose ends (the Rogue flip-flop, while relevant on the peripheral, is hardly satisfying) and, for the love of God, didn’t feel so half-heartedly profit hungry?

(6/10)


Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Directed by Jonathan Demme
grade: B-

The biggest surprise is how apropos Young & Co. make the previously questionable (to my mind anyhow) “Praire Wind” material seem (it helps that its set in Nashville, I suppose). Demme doesn’t quite glean the hyper-excited sensation of live music he benchmarked in Stop Making Sense, instead carefully examining the comfort of an aging superstar and his pals as they continually channel another age. The “Harvest” stuff works pretty well, but the show goes on too long; By the end credits, its a relief that Young has shuffled off his bandmates – and the overzealous audience – to play alone on the stage.

(6/15)


Why We Fight
Directed by Eugene Jarecki
grade: B+

Possibly the most innately chilling political dissection I’ve seen. At one point in my life, I may have sneered with a cockeyed head turn, calling out “Conspiracy theorist! Conspiracy theorist!” At this point, it all rings a kind of true that begs the question of perspective: Is it all really like this, or can it all be seen like this? Like his brother’s Capturing the Friedmans, at no moment does a simulcrum of intensity feel wasted. And my wife still won’t take the damn flag in.

(6/30)


Cars
Directed by John Lasseter and Joe Ranft
grade: B

Cars is great Pixar, albeit very template-laden. Semi-moving big second act moment where all things old timey are briefly seen in retrospect caused my eyes to get dull. Ultimately, it is as predictable and obvious as A Bug’s Life or Finding Nemo, the second tier entries in the repertoir of the bouncing lamp it most closely huddles together with. I plucked this from an e-mail because it had been far too long to remember much of anything about it. Definitely not a good sign – – but I stand by the grade.

(7/8)


Army of Shadows [re-issue]
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
grade: A

Practically without limitation, Army of Shadows indulges cruelty and tragedy as sobering techniques, perhaps to keep the director in mind of his subject: It’s playful without being glossy or otherwise tastelessly stylish. It’s also the speediest two and a half hours on two feet. So confidently does Melville sculpt the episodes in the up-and-coming steps and missteps that usher in the French Resistance Movement as most people know it (prior to the volume of the Maquis), we find him using – even more aggressively than in his gangster pictures – the brilliant, spartan mise-en-scene that seems to show you everything without resorting to telling you everything. Melville’s command of the cinematic language recalls The Silents almost as a rule. Removed from the events at hand by a mere seventeen years, he aims to show things in a way that is unfettered by the implication of words or general exposition, rather, pledging itself to the in-the-moment horrors of WWII realism in the same way I remember Schindler’s List cultivating. Bizarre and disturbing  moments like the running-start execution and the quickdraw stabbing of a Gestapo guard seem to ooze with a savagery we tend not to associate with the time period. Nay, even the main characters are contrasts of observed and actual reality: With names like The Masque and Bison, these guys hardly come off as anything more than loyal, educated Frenchman who make their mission as single-minded as the Nazi credo. Melville shows both sides in gray: The Nazis torture their quarry beyond mortal rescue but pity the dying man enough not to move him (they also warn those about to be executed to smoke their cigarettes quickly, an evil-laced kindness that foreshadows a literal smokescreen) while The French Resistance hunt down and murder their own if they should be compromised. No bones are made about the questionable reality. Instead, this fiction is treated as a history lesson.

(7/21)


A Scanner Darkly
Directed by Richard Linklater
grade: B

Per usual, the Linklater dialogue is wonderfully entrancing (and probably some of the funniest since Dazed & Confused), but a mixed choice in presentation robs A Scanner Darkly of what little humanity an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story can hope to retain. His stories – at least as adapted for film – always seem to hint at some grandly-cast conspiracy and how people of the future deal with it, but they (the stories) rarely have any real or meaningful perception into the emotional trappings of these characters. What’s worse – every new writer or director who stumbles upon these tales and attempts to concoct such feelings or draw such color from their actors seems hopelessly unable to do so. It’s as if Dick has stitched some sort of gaping abscess into his lurid handfuls of paranoia and ultimate revelation, rendering them impossible to translate without making everyone seem like an automaton. A Scanner Darkly succeeds the best of the three I can call to mind, using its rotoscoping effect to stabilize an environment of surreality and uncertainty. Trouble is, if Linklater had hoped to crack the code and make an audience feel something, he never seems to put us in Keanu Reeves’ corner. As all is revealed, we have no trouble keeping an eye on the bigger picture as we’ve long since given up on rooting for our allegedly pitiable “hero”. Despite a long, semi-tense mood of impending doom that culiminates into a mere shoulder-shrug, A Scanner Darkly has some very funny, very well-written moments within its stoner-fivesome of Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane (two of whom are somewhat ironic casting). There is some discussion as to the number of gears in a supposed 18-gear bike. There is the discussion of why Reeves hasn’t banged Ryder. And of course, there is the matter of the unlocked door with an inviting note that must be settled. In the end, it makes a stand on the soapbox of hypocrisy within the nature of healing and, more topically, the notion of shock suggested in newly manifested suspicions. And it looks gorgeous. But what do I care of Fred’s Fate? Or Robert’s, for that matter?

(7/21)


Clean
Directed by Olivier Assayas
grade: B

As if a film with seven (7!) Brian Eno songs could really be bad. Unfair subjectivity. And, to be truthful, Assayas doesn’t use them all that well. “The Spider and I” and “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” seem almost random, as if inserted merely to break up his use of “Ending (An Ascent)” as the theme of sorts. This turns out to be somewhat ironic, given how homogenized “Ending” should be, having been pimped out to at least three other films (that I can call to mind). Course, the familiarity – in addition to how ideally the track goes with the imagery – really seems apropos, albeit, in a terrifically unsettling way. Because the film itself is a tale recycled into oblivion already, that Assayas uses a track already memorable in at least two of those three films can only make sense. That the song’s transcendent quality can be utilized as a reoccuring hymn, topping jumpy medium-pixel digi-cast images of Maggie Cheung experiencing a slew of awakenings in a post-heroin globetrot, gives one pause to ponder on the motive: Is Assayas doing THE mom-gets-clean film here or is this a friendlier, studioesque balance specifically arranged to distance us from the brilliant shit he was slingin’ in demonlover? Whatever’s at stake here, Clean seems comfortable pointing out things usually glossed over (especially: if drugs manufacture epiphany wouldn’t an ex-junkie still be prone to constant, uncontrollable moments of clarity?) and setting up the showcase for a deeply felt turn by Cheung, one of our very best leading ladies. One cannot deny that – though it tends in and out of greatness – there are more wonderful sequences than there are shifts in narrative; Clean is as up front and honest about its manipulation as it can be. It zings beautifully in its final thirty minutes, as Cheung and the son she abandoned are reunited unbenownst to the dying grandmother (who raised him) by Nick Nolte who, for some reason, seems to be screaming for us to believe he’s “elderly” (everyone keeps calling him old, he mumbles like he’s lost his marbles and he dresses with reading glasses and high-neck sweaters). It’s the greatest MOW-porn ever directed by a sharp French art house auteur.

(7/21)


Lady in the Water
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
grade: B-

A supernatural girl hidden below a pool is being pursued by wolves but able to be rescued by tree monkeys on her quest to fly away from the pool via eagle. The general base of it is, without question, a base. Shyamalan, in a particularly self conscious mood, spends the lion’s share of his time entering into territory that’s either ballsy or incredibly pretentious: Answering one’s own critics. In overview, the base is a mere catalyst to shed its analogy as deconstructed by a set of characters barely qualified to participate in the forward motion of the dramatic narrative they are both concocting and aware of. In fact, the main show in Lady in the Water is – as you may have guessed after gasping in disbelief at the premise – Shyamalan’s puppetry: Not only does he have the formula for the blockbuster (as he so ill advisedly put it), he seems to have the capacity to concoct an anti-blockbuster as well. My wife hit on it pretty well when she said she knew what to expect from Shyamalan’s films and anticipated a twist. She was talking textually. What sings about Lady in the Water is the way it seems to anticipate it’s audience’s comfortable twist expectation groove; Shyamalan, in effect, leaves the product and its blueprints in full view. Now: Watching the blueprints is, at times excruciating. Bob Balaban is fine in this film, but his reprehensibly antisocial, cruelly academic film critic is nothing more than a cheap firebomb aimed squarely at the same crew who has been lashing out against his repeated use of the high concept premise as a lure (as if this, in itself, had ought to do with his skill as a filmmaker). It’s kind of a miscalculation, though, to be sure: Shyamalan’s critics, after a string of Twilight Zone-esque films carved in a hand resembling the height of Spielberg’s proto-humanistic trappings, are pretty much everyone. It’s likely getting such a drubbing because it is such a drubbing. This is a line in the sand, with Paul Giamatti as the artist in his element assembling a motley crew of characters to react to the world’s evils with selflessness. Standing by is Shyamalan himself, as the writer with everything figured out. He sees himself as this whole, wild mess, a kind of Adaptation-style tearing down of the curtain to reveal the mechanics of storytelling and its ultimately reflective properties. A tad on the obvious side in spots (in spots, it feels a bit too much like a big blinking light for the masses that Shyamalan is, in fact, The Artist) but, using subtext as your primary delivery device in a film you know nearly all of your audience will miss the boat on is more ballsy than pretentious. By a hair.

(7/23)


Miami Vice
Directed by Michael Mann
grade: B

Imagine the same now-beautiful, now-ugly, now-indistinguishable, now-strangely real quality of Collateral‘s mesh of HD and 35mm photography, amped through the dancy, musical bliss of Michael Mann and lacking a single attempt at depth. Between Summer and the Imdb, I was able to glean that Miami Vice the film takes numerous cues (textually, musically, visually, etc.) from Miami Vice the TV series, but I found myself in a position of ignorance (yet again) as I’d never actually viewed the show. Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx play some strange version of all-knowing cops who carry themselves with a spartan disconnect that’s almost indifference – with occasional bursts of violence. In addition to their explosive tendencies, the drug dealing storyline gets as carried away with itself as anything in Heat, but becomes almost too complicated to bother with inside something this constantly stimulating. It’s like trying to taste the nuance in your third cup of coffee: You’re too jittery to focus on drinking the shit, let alone how many shades of hazelnut your palette can distinguish. It also contains some of the most eye widening, ear shaking moments of gunplay in recent memory.

(8/7)


Brick
Directed by Rian Johnson
grade: B+

Because I’m planning to screen this again later in the week, I’ll keep this brief: Rian Johnson’s take on Dashiell Hammett Goes to High School is, in fact, full of terrific dialogue easily worthy of Hammett and a complicated noir that blends elements of both The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. The composition is gorgeous and Joseph Gordon-Levitt obviously walks off with it, but Brick‘s greatest attribute is twofold: It’s possibly the most appropriate use of a fond high school recall I’ve seen in, well, maybe ever (Johnson sets a specific story here without sending a valentine to his own experience or appearing otherwise self-indulgent) and its far more confident than it has any right to be. I’m concerned with the connection of the jock and the actress to the main events, but am hoping I simply missed the boat. Either way: Brick is a godsend.

(8/11)


C.S.A. The Confederate States of America
Directed by Kevin Willmott
grade: C

The well-meaning meld of hypothetical historical lesson and little-has-changed social critique collapses, completely, under a worldview that seems only to deal with slavery. The occasional mention of alternate ramifications of The South’s big victory over The North keeps threatening to veer into interesting territory. It’s promptly interrupted by Saturday Night Live commerical parodies of a world where every product, service and aspect of modern American life has something to do with slavery. The whole thing is little more than a Bamboozled-esque stunt (exec-produced by Spike Lee at that) which never gels into any sort of coherent statement of genuine insight. (Not that Bamboozled was the very picture of a clear signal, but its a heck of a lot less marble-mouthed than Willmott’s film.)

(8/17)


L’Enfant (The Child)
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
grade: B

It’s hard not to take the Dardennes’ films into some sort of pre-ordained reconciliation filter that allows you to brace yourself for their Worst Social Worker Stories Ever verve. No exception, L’Enfant also continues the long ride through their wildly overrated template of unforgivable acts laced with tiny (read: real-life) size doses of redemption. There’s a great, cold central performance by Jérémie Renier, who zig-zags in and out of dire poverty and criminal focus when he’s not busy meeting the responsibility of family life – his girlfriend has just had his baby – with a deafening indifference. He’s inherantly street smart, but so small time and frivolous as to seem on the desparate side of pitiable. Constantly cashing in and cashing out (sometimes simultaneously), he’s fitted with various baggage (a baby carriage, a scooter), a visual metaphor that constantly reminds us we’re in the hands of a script, a trait I found both welcome and unsatisfying: Here are the docudrama superstars, employing far too much precalculation, leaving the only improvisational moments to Bruno (Renier) and Sonia as they embrace parenthood by chasing each other around the car and, later, battling over a horrendous decision. The Big Decision, by the way, goes a long way to cement Bruno’s reputation and character, but goes even further when we question ourselves: Maybe that was the right decision? Why are we rooting for him to score? (Do we want to see how much he scores?) Later, to repay the even worse bad guys, why are we rooting for him to harness his criminal mind to make ends meet? Finally, it becomes clear – and muddy at the same time: The circle of wrongdoing must be broken – and is – in the smallest ripple of maturity possible. Therein lies the rub: This one, like Rosetta is so much a character study, it starts to lose the strength and effectiveness of its thematic resonance. Unlike that film, a pleasant edge of storytelling undercuts the you-are-there aesthetic, leaving us to wonder how these guys would fare if they gave themselves over to it completely. (I’m sure I’d complain there, too.) Dardennes’: Always intriguing, always solid, never satisfying.

(8/20)


Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
Directed by Michel Gondry
grade: B

There’s the sense that more care is taken to art Dave Chappelle’s Block Party the fuck up. More often uniform (planning/concert/planning/concert) than intriguing, it splits its focus without a dominant, giving both Dave’s impromptu antics as he plans the block party and uncut concert footage even keel. Lopsiding the film with either one would probably divide the audience pretty squarely, but by splitting it so equitably, Gondry winds up with too much and too little of both. The Conceptually bizarre bits (the “broken angels” house, the marching band from Dave’s former High School) hit home pretty regularly, and there’s a way overblown Fugees reunion that fails outright to garner an erection, but for all of the energy it puts into setting the film apart from cheap, under-the-radar concert DVDs and television sketch comedy, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party rises and falls based almost soley on pure atmosphere. The film is a celebration of enthusiasm more than it’s a buzzy, Big Comfy Hood narcotic. Because he’s excitable, and because he’s charismatic, you walk away from the film feeling something. It’s not quite the edge you can tell the film wants you to tuck under your arm as you exit the theater, but there’s a warmth.

[ “I’m sorry but that’s just not right” award: Cody ChestnuTT only plays one song. If only The Roots had broken up and reuinted tearfully in this film like The Fugees did.]

(8/24)


Monster House
Directed by Gil Kenan
grade: B+

Without question, the best full-on digitally animated film not made by Pixar to date. Kenan’s film ebbs on the fumes of the bizarre appeal of second generation fans of The Goonies and That Summer Changed My Life movies and does it with a barrage of terrific riffs on scenes from these films. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, really: Monster House is immensely likeable; It’s akin to watching a movie’s worth of outtakes patterened after other films (as we see in the Pixar credits). I can’t wait to see it again.

(8/27)


When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Directed by Spike Lee
grade: B+In the same vein as the political spitfire of this year’s Why We Fight, but far more passionate and personal (that film was a lesson, this one a memoir), When the Levees Broke carries the same objectivist sobriety of 25th Hour, Lee’s 9/11 allegory (I stand by it). Told over four hours, Levees sprawls very thoroughly through what happened, how it was bungled as it occured, how it was bungled after it occurred and the heartbreakingly cruel aftermath of displacement and abandon. Clearly the film elicits a naked response, one nearly impossible to separate from its aesthetics: Carved of Lee’s commanding montage skills and heaping spatter of his own voice, it pulls no punches and left me drained and weeping both nights I watched it.

(8/28)


Poseidon
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
grade: CWading through a heroic collection of green screen madness, we patiently await the penultimate drowning of a main character. If Poseidon were a soft drink, it would be Diet Rite: There’s not a calorie – or an original visual concept – to be found.

(9/3)


V for Vendetta
Directed by James McTeigue
grade: B-Unusually rousing, particularly for this take-two-sequels-and-call-me-in-the-morning team, but rousing nonetheless – and so surprisingly literate, despite being damned to hell forever by its writer of origin (who, truly, can’t be that unnerved when a film like The League of Extraordianry Gentleman is still available to the film viewing public). Perpetually clandestine, Hugo Weaving’s V runs a particularly predictable course (especially while rolling in the haunted, knot-in-the-machine backstory of prison experiments) and Portman is a wee bit too cute for this gimmee of a role. The age evoked is both familiar and alien, terrifying and giddily sci-fi. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sliding on the line of being too silly to be allegorical, V for Vendetta will still make time, occasionally, to remember – visually and gorily – that, despite it’s (very warranted) heavy-handed finger pointing it is based upon a graphic novel.

(9/14)


The Black Dahlia
Directed by Brian De Palma
grade: BI was watching with this internal loyalty-to-Ellroy vs. loyalty-to-De Palma struggle which wasn’t too terrible, as the film is pretty much halved (the first section falling to Ellroy’s book, the second to De Palma’s filmmaking, for the most part). Both Eckhart and Swank surprised me, given that nothing in their careers led me to believe they were capable of playing either of those characters in a film that held a simulacrum of respect for the book (oops! Ellroy bias slipping in…) The big twisty okay-we’re-done-following-the-book moment was so classically De Palma, I gasped. The close-up of heads splattering was a nice touch (De Palma preference rising…) Mia Kirshner is particularly creepy in unearthed reels of Elizabeth Short flirting with the casting director and, later, doing much more. Obviously, there was no way a collaboration this ideal was going to satisfy one’s craving for either. Quite frustrating, that.

(9/22)


The Proposition
Directed by John Hillcoat
grade: B-Boy do I wish Nick Cave had directed this. His music sneaks across much of it and his script is pulpy, but simple, like one of this songs – – but there’s nothing of his vision and the film winds up feeling, ultimately, minimalized. While Pearce and Huston can’t seem to erect a proper tone to the strange positions they now find themselves in (Huston, in particular, seems to float back and forth between wanting to be the Col. Kurtz character and wanting to be a flat-out psychopath), Ray Winstone – as the morally blurry sheriff of a dusty, outlying town in the outback – is impeccably on-key, continues a string of terrific turns within the confines of a very gray morality (he reminds us very much of his level-headed crook in Sexy Beast). Cinematography is easily some of the best I’ve seen in a film this year.

(9/25)


Half Nelson
Directed by Ryan Fleck
grade: BSeems to really sink its teeth into the concept of a maintenance drug, but veers from the constant question of How Can He Be a Crack Addict and a Teacher? to follow the travails of his charge and their brazenly inappropriate realtionship. She sees him smoke crack, he starts being really chummy with her, as if he has to make up for – or at least justify – trouncing her innocence. Gosling owns this role, one of those turns plied of pure, unadulterated absorption: Every tick and tock of his being is invested in trying to pull off both of these lives and it becomes truly horrifying to watch them bleed into each other. Part of this is how sympathetic the film is towards him. It roots for him. It cheers him on. And it feels all too inspirational, all too familiar to watch the thing continue to flirt with all the usual suspects (his fling with the female teacher, his cat, his stark, TV-deliberate rolemodeling). I’d be surprised if he escapes an Oscar nod, and its well deserved, but the subtlety of this film could easily have thrived sans the father-daughter jauns.

(9/28)


The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig
grade: BThe downward spiral into mental chaos reminded me a bit of  (the far better) Tarnation, as we grasp people dipping in and out of lucidity, staring into a camera helplessly, as if they can acknowledge what is happening to them, but they cannot stop it.Daniel’s is a fascinating life to study, and his current state (esp. when playing live) is ultimately pitiable from a proven talent vs. modern coasting standpoint (nowhere more prevalent than in the sequence where he is visited/blown off by Matt Groening), but the contrast never feels like the focus. In point of fact, the film never openly acknowledges a pretty universal fact among sonic junkies: Johnston’s music sounds almost exponentially better in the vocal chords and worn speakers of musicians; The movie makes a great case for the impossibility of treating Daniel as a mere songwriter when, ostensibly, he lusted for the fame of a rock star.

[ I am very much considering re-renting The Devil and Daniel Johnston to hear the elusive Dean Wareham cover of Johnston’s “Some Things Last a Long Time”. It’s haunting me. ]

(9/29)


The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Directed by Cristi Puiu
grade: BThe conversational mastery sucks you in like the TV show it was influenced by (ER), and the film dabbles in a palpable sense of really terrific slash really inappropriate gallows humor but, for all its corner-and-confront gusto, it begins to feel repetitious to nary an end. Lazarescu’s humanity and the desire by all involved for us to collectively “Aww” seems in opposition to its oversold execution; By the time we get the idea, the film is still piling it on. That the exaggeration seems to be welcomed by the film as a “Surprise – it’s shockingly all true!” revelation, I can only conclude, after all, that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is like Mr. Fantastic trying to describe the size of a recently caught fish: His arms never stop expanding.

(10/3)


The Departed
Directed by Martin Scorsese
grade: B+I feel almost ridiculous adding my brand to the already heaping pile of “entertaining” accolades, but the film really does rise and fall like an entry in the filmography of Scorseses’ past: Sprawling, unapologetic, violent, lightning quick on its feet and high on the Rolling Stones. That’s not to say that Scorsese is back to making masterpiece after masterpiece – but I don’t suspect he ever will be. At least not like before. He’s streamlined his process almost to fluidity, with consistently great construction choices, and black comedy. The new Scorsese is silkier and less risky, but allows the flicks to unfold, rather than hurling them at the audience. It’s as if he’s settled into making prestige pictures, but hasn’t changed his taste for off color, uncannily violent pulp. Case in point: The breezy, “silly” Infernal Affairs couldn’t have been a film more ripe for remake, yet it could have easily become an overhaul of sleazy excess weighting a premise of genuine merit (dueling cop and crook moles are tasked by their superiors to root out themselves, unbeknownest to each other). Monahan’s script not only make sense of the whole strand, it seems to reinvent the very idea of sense, proving things movie style with a single shot or a single line of dialogue. The Departed veers beautifully from its source in so many ways. And Nicholson: Becoming a thinner, more down to earth, far more alive Brando. (Imagine Marlon’s character in The Score, unpredictably scattering pearls of wisdom and worldview.)

(10/09)


Down in the Valley
Directed by David Jacobsen
grade: B+It’s about three different films in one, but most of all it’s a wild exercise in shifting loyalties and unjustified imperfection. I was so entranced by the film’s age-mismatched love story and subsequently so flabbergasted by its sudden uproot in narrative tectonics and, by the way, so knocked out by the performances that I barely noticed Down in the Valley, curiouser and curiouser, as it sputtered out of gas just before closing its curtain. Worldview matched by a carefully chosen, scraped-out vision of The Valley, here a dually important stomping ground for Harlan, a(n unstated) schizophrenic whose childlike vulnerability is matched only by his unwavering dedication to delusion (so jarringly revealed in a scene where he suddenly and briefly steps out of character). Edward Norton’s charming slash unnerving slash devastating spin at this character I sorta wish wasn’t so easily construed as Travis Bickle’s Southwestern cousin zings and smarts, but equally fierce is David Morse’s morally gray, good hearted father. I think I like Evan Rachel Wood even more here than in Pretty Persuasion. It’s the rare film that keeps us with it even as it repeatedly turns on our comfortable grooves.

(10/10)


Curious George
Directed by Matthew O’Callaghan
grade: BNo brain commitment, pretty colors. Watch me! Watch me!

(10/14)


A Praire Home Companion
Directed by Robert Altman
grade: CWorks reasonably well in a very polished, very overwrought version of Altman’s style, best when its profiling the backstage antics, letting the characters simply blather on in character, sing duets and muse, inimitably, about the end of A Praire Home Companion, the live radio show famous towards the end of its run as an NPR staple. The major flaw is less the stating and restating of the end of the show (with little variation or genuine emotional heft), and more the fanatically bad choice to frame it around their head of security’s bizarre dealings with a nostalgic angel that only he and Garrison Keillor can see and interact with. It becomes more than a left field attempt to contrast the jubilance of PHC itself with situations the film readily interprets as “tragic” (Tommy Lee Jones’ greedily indifferent axeman, little more than a cameo to provide face to what seems like a reasonably realistic and appropriate end to a show with too few listeners to float it); I’m all for documenting and grieving something you love as it fades into the night, but for the love of cinema, make a documentary if you must: Don’t sabotage your own process with silly, narrative stuff-ins.

(10/15)


Three Times
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
grade: B-[ Be warned, grade reflects the mean of an A-, C+ and a C ]

The first segment (1969) packs a genuine, classical romantic exhiliration, blending a fluidity, an optimistic side stare at the free floating body language of flirtation and, dare I say, a palpable poetry. That it’s closest counterpart (2005) contains none of this is Hou’s point, one that is – unfortunately – more conceptual than aesthetic: If you’re willing to coldly turn out two and a quarter hours to learn that at one time people communicated with the electricity of the mind’s wonder and that now we communicate with the electricity of our evil cell phones and computers, then have at it. Joined by a bridge (1911) high on the fumes of Wharton (but, sadly, sans a pulse), the film as a whole seems so anti-omnibus (which I’d usually be backing), so poised to drive you bonkers rather than not – – I can’t help highly advising that you watch forty-five minutes and snap it shut.

(10/17)


Art School Confidential
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
grade: C-Holy bleak. A film that seems to hold with the worldview that ambition in art is foolhardy and those who truck with ambition will almost certainly do something as evil as passing off another’s paintings as their own. In the film’s only real moment of conviction, it stands by, smirking as we watch the punishment (mistaken identity gone awry! and unchallenged!) fit the crime. The rest is tired clichedom at best, lazy retread at worst, with Max Minghella seemingly adrift in a sea of knocks at a crowd that’s far too easy and far too limited among the general viewership to warrant mention. How could a duo that created a film like Ghost World possibly have veered so far from the graceful social critique, warm embrace of obsessive niche and emotional investment that made that film so damn special?

(10/19)


Edmond
Directed by Stuart Gordon
grade: BMessagewise, Edmond couldn’t be more relevant – or chilling. Separating from a very American quintessence, William H. Macy allows his ultimate fate – homosexuality in the slammer – to find him (versus the reversal, where he sought out (as Mamet vaguely infers) the faceless career, a decayed marriage and a life of order). The arc seems predicated, too often, on a need to consumate his new journey, leading to far too many encounters with failed sexual release (and, subsequently, listening to Denise Richards, Mena Suvari and Bai Ling attempt (and fail) to tongue fondle that which has become known as Mametspeak). When he finally hits the one that works, and topples the primal encounter with an even more innate human primal urge, Mamet’s dissection of our suppressed humanity – however vicious – feels alarmingly true.

(10/25)


Nacho Libre
Directed by Jared Hess
grade: B-The atmosphere doesn’t have the sincerety of Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite (more of a bitter tasting manufactured colloquialism), but as a Jack Black vehicle – it could have been much worse. I don’t care for wrestling (really, at all, in the slightest), but the wacky interaction between Black’s goofball priest-turned-ring-strongman and Héctor Jiménez’s Esqueleto (Black’s bum-turned-sidekick) is off-the-wall enough to plug this puppy to a solid ninety minute distraction.

(11/1)


The Road to Guantanamo
Directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross
grade: BThe Road to Guantanamo is disturbing to no end, but fraught with a storytelling frame that sells it very short. The real life guys are reflecting on re-enactments, taking a film that, while lived-in, seems always to be looming with an out when the savagery of U.S. torture gets too graphic or horrific. The out (that the presence of real and unreal underlines the actuality of the unreal) saps the film’s strength, too often; The ending, too, where all of the characters have learned to be better Muslims seems like an almost inappropriate point to make (remember, filmmakers can make choices), as if Winterbottom and Whitecross are buying into the idea that US policy and its underlying fear and hatred of the Islamic faith is worth even acknowledging, let alone throwing it into the collective face of such absurdity. It feels like a cheap shot in a film that unsparingly exposes hypocrisy.

(11/1)


Marie Antoinette
Directed by Sofia Coppola
grade: B+Dunst is wonderful, full of lusty asides and quick-wits, intelligent yet flawed, almost constantly sidestepping the film’s two huge flaws (dialogue as noted above and the general sense that we’re sympathizing with a figure who was smart enough to know better, but still spent all the country’s money on clothes and cake); She’s flanked by a great supporting cast, not least of which is The Great Steve Coogan (doing a turn so serious you’ll blink in disbelief) and Danny Huston as Marie’s brother, whose elephant-in-the-background sexual advice to Schwartzmann (whom I liked in the film very much) nets the film’s biggest laugh. Dialogue – while thankfully sparse – runs the gamut from Jarmuschian (“So, I hear you make keys for a hobby?”/”Yes”/”…and do you enjoy making keys?”/”Obviously”) to sour noted (“Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness”) to almost absurdly Hollywood  (“This is ridiculous”/”This, madam, is Versailles”). (Yes, luckily all the lines I wanted to use as examples were on the imdb. I scoff at those of you who are suspicious that it was the other way around.) Soundtrack is a key player, with great 80s synth: Gang of Four over the opening credits, Radio Dpt.’s lush feedbacks, The Cure’s “All Cats are Grey” over the close (so hungover blah, how utterly perfect as a coda). But all of the obvious notes that everyone’s picked on – it was filmed at Versailles, it was based on an alternate text, “it’s like watching paint dry” (P.Greg) – all seem to fade out of memory as you watch what is, essentially, a sprawling art film, cut beautifully to zip through time and photographed with a lush, soft-day blur and attention to nature. In short – It’s a gorgeous piece of eye candy with a great soundtrack. It has none of the supposed cerebral doin’s or mainstream appeal of Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’ and mirrors her best film, ‘The Virgin Suicides’, only in its relentless quest to duplicate hazy, youthful pleasure.
 

(11/3)

Thank You For Smoking
Directed by Jason Reitman
grade: CNone of it seemed all that shocking, with the Merchants of Death sequences being the most TV-soft, dated bites and low-level comedy. I found myself really sorry for Eckhart and his having to wrap his tongue around some of this really bad dialogue. The Hollywood knocks might have seemed obsolete almost ten years ago. His interaction with his son nearly saves the film; I wish more films showed parents having actual conversations with their children. Fuckin’ ironic to see something like that in a film this incredibly played.

(11/6)


The Notorious Bettie Page
Directed by Mary Harron
grade: B-There is an outlet for Gretchen Mol! Less of a performance than a transposed clunker, she manages to capture the “gee-golly, mister” star eyes of Bettie Page with what appears to be little effort. Never expected to find myself unconscionably smitten and truly moved by Bettie herself; The proceedings are pretty wan, unceremonious tours through her abused early years that lead to posing which leads to posing nude which leads to posing for bondage photos, all the while the very picture of the most naive and impressionable gal ever thrust into this world. Ends accurately, but you’ll roll your eyes.

(11/9)


The Prestige
Directed by Christopher Nolan
grade: A-

Treads in the same thematic murk as Batman Begins (and, to a lesser extent, Insomnia), but succeeds because its subject matter is glued to the chair riveting. Purporting to find the essential, underlying resonance in the matter of science versus magic, Nolan’s film is powerfully entertaining, balancing sacrifice on multiple levels, with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as magicians attempting to outdo each other. That Nolan so successfully makes these men merely delivery devices is a wonderful trick. Watch closely: It’s self-reflexive (one could say it is about the fading nature of suspending disbelief in films themselves, or the existence of G-o-d, perhaps) and so utterly profound, I found myself thinking about it for weeks on end after screening it.

(11/13)


Because I wondered if this technique could duplicate the gracious and haunting effect of Lessons of Darkness, I tried and failed to watch a little film called The Wild Blue Yonder. I enjoyed watching the people in space, but found the raving lunatic to be superficial and derivative. Fusion of the two scenarios into some sort of Eisensteinian commentary fails miserably; I’m not sure it’s even possible for me to make the leap to connect the two. Is it possible?
(11/19)

Who Killed the Electric Car?
Directed by Chris Paine
grade: B-

Ultimately uncinematic and, to be blunt, genuinely unnerving; It could have easily shifted between TV and the theater without much notice, but it packs a devastating punch, dulling my eyes at the sight of harm to the inantimate object of an electric car. Now that’s a trick!

(11/20)


Wordplay
Directed by Patrick Creadon
grade: B

Is unbelievably entertaining in spite of the repetitious deconstruction of crosswords and its blatant advertising for The NY Times Crossword Puzzle (Will Shortz, Minor Celebrity Goofball) until it takes a long, unexpected turn at observing the familial bonds of those who participate in annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, CT. It then emerges from this long, goopy montage to spotlight a nail-biter of a race, the final round of puzzle-solving for the 2005 Event. It’s an easy one, but it takes finesse to make it this fun to watch.

(11/21)


An Inconvenient Truth
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
grade: B+

A purely motivational film that melds its expansion of Gore’s presentation (to a larger venue) into autobiography, all the time in always-be-closing mode: Either it’s stroking the credibility of the man or the credibility of global warming itself. Part of its greatness, though, is its ability to do this in the same way Gore composes himself, with an honesty and diplomacy that seems acutely admirable. Even if I didn’t have strong political leanings, one cannot deny the film’s exhaustive arguments (all well-stated and detailed) and responsible spirit, as it points out how apolitical the problem of greenhouse gases is by talking about the whole planet in a way you forget an American leader can: Without condescending. The end credits scroll suggestions of personal opportunities to combat this crisis. And you feel grateful for them, as if the film isn’t just asking for your help, its expecting that you’ll stop what you are doing and take part. It’s rare to see a film this aggressive.

(11/22)


Ice Age: The Meltdown
Directed by Carlos Saldanha
grade: C

TemPlate Tectonics in full effect with even the kiddie surface-line absurdity (female mammoth believes she is possum, acts the part, generates annoyance) flopping like a dead fish. The villains are water-dwellers and are unleashed upon the heroes, a convoy of characters from the first film fleeing to uncharted territory as their legendary valley is about to be filled up (opening sequence finds the melting glaciers doubling as a groovy water park). From the start, the whole thing is merely proficient and seems, ultimately, satisfied to languish in its own mediocrity. What really gets me is the “Fear of Water” crap the Sabretooth Tiger is spouting? That kind of lessonmongering pre-dates, I think, even Aesop.

(11/25)


Wassup Rockers
Directed by Larry Clark
grade: B-

Experimenting on his Urban “Day in the Life Of…” Tales (see: the rest of his filmography excepting Another Day in Paradise), Clark finds more in fly-on-the-wall techniques here than in any sort of rounded comparisons he might pose or conclusions he might draw. The positivity of this clique’s strength is observed and spot-on felt, an ironic turn for Clark, who usually seems content in the position of a brutal realist. Here, he leads his charges around a bit more aggressively than necessary, but its a pleasure to hang around them, listening to them speak and watching them write their own stories. Notable great-ish scene: Francisco Pedrasa’s Kiko explains, in longhand, the spectrum of life in South Central, teeting between bracing and sensational imagery. He is spouting firsthand accounts, but he also uses “I’m from the Ghetto” to get into this girl’s pants. The misadventures in several Bevery Hills homes at close are problematic: Great concept, but why does the same thing happen at each house?

(12/1)


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Directed by Gore Verbinski
grade: C+

That my ten year old watches it obsessively for the dark-haired heart throbs ought to give you some approximation of the target demographic here. At any rate, I’ve stolen a few glances since I sat down and watched it the first time and, in addition to plugging in random Indiana Jones plot points when things get dull (this never lasts more than a nanosecond, I assure you), I’ve noticed that it’s just plain exhausting.

Did I say “my ten year old” a few sentences back? Okay: So I’m that fucking guy now. Nice.

[At any rate, this could have been set in any buzz-of-the-moment locale (e.g. – space, rural Russia, etc.) and the little spark of Pirate atmosphere we glimpsed in the first take of this (groan) trilogy, that spark that might make these films seem as if they’ve got blood pumping through their veins (instead of mindless, soul-crushing Summer dollar signs, that is), is all but gone, replaced by what feels like an attempt to pimp Depp’s original frenzy of scenery-chewing (an act that worked pretty much because it went in opposition to the formal gooniness of installment one’s less complex (by comparison) narrative). Unfortunately, both the suspiciously intuitive Orlando Bloom and moody bitch Keira Knightley also appear in the film. And the ending: I’m confused. And I can’t explain enough of it to bother receiving clarity.]

(12/7)


Casino Royale
Directed by Martin Campbell
grade: B-

It might just as well have not been a Bond film at all; Doing the same freshening act Batman Begins successfully pulled off last year, Casino Royale walks and talks an attitude so foreign to this franchise, its being mistaken by everyone as something like a rebirth. tain’t. It’s still mired in the plots of plod Fleming inked. (Going back to the Bond source novels only seems pertinent if atmosphere is something more than expensive-looking locales, as this one is.) Campbell’s film has the good sense to beef up the setpieces into cascading crosscuts of something like supertorture (the camera drools at Bond getting hurt in this one, no wonder it was delivered to some theaters under the pseudonymn Rough Skins), perhaps a comment on the waning series itself (if only it had been a parody – as, coincidentally (but for different ends and a different audience), the 1967 Hughes/Huston/McGrath/Parrish/Guest version was – demonstrating once and for all that camp – not sophistocation – is the preferred effect of a good Bond film). Daniel Craig is terrifically badass, a title character (also, in my opinion, in name only) who could easily have been considered an anti-hero (or, perhaps – in his blind, hardwired dedication to fighting “terrorism” – even a villian). As in nearly every Craig turn, the eyes soak up much of our gaze, though his delivery here is so consistently punk rock, he converts James Bond into Film Noir, a trick the film burns up with its unnecessarily labrynthine blatherings about money transfers with rebels and cartoonishly high stakes Texas Hold ‘Em (!) games. All this would earn it a B easily. But then pile on its double-cross coda, which ends in bittersweet, personal turmoil for a Bond whose sterile focus we’ve spend the past two hours really enjoying. Still, The footchase through the construction site that ends in the Nambian embassy is the most kinetic, inspired 007 – or otherwise – action scene in recent memory, achieving (gulp!) an actual thrill.

(12/10)


Superman Returns
Directed by Bryan Singer
grade: B-

Though its a nifty show of Warner’s expense with setpieces featuring convention-sized newsrooms-a-bustlin and a cavernous floor-shiftin’ boat, Superman Returns continually lapses itself absurdly back into Superman’s impregnating folly – a plot point I’d expected to find laughed at outright not the subject of half the darn movie. Singer has always been gangbusters at juggling a slew of simultaneous narratives in different locales (or, The GI Joe Cartoon effect), but this story – Superman identity crisis commingling with bumbling crooks stumbling upon catacalysmic weapon – is dull and overlong. What’s superlative about it is the silky look and bizarre texture, all but feeling itself through a comic book visualization/remake with nothing more than dark humor (one dog is chewing on the bones of another as Parker Posey exclaims, “Weren’t there two of them?”), Christ poses (A first: An openly gay filmmaker employing this many openly Christian undertones) and weirdo cameos (Brando’s Superman II outtakes).

(12/16)


Apocalypto
Directed by Mel Gibson
grade: C+

Odd as its maker, but also just as sloppy; Convention, and rampant, crippling implausibility turn the thing into a cartoon of sorts, (which is just the sort of label Gibson would love to have affixed to his two plus hour subtitled Mayan torture epic, I’m sure). That he’s openly marketing it as an “action” movie is fine (although, couldn’t The Passion of the Christ have been called an action film on some level, too?); That anyone gets emotionally invested in it after about the fourth time the main character takes a blow that would prove fatal to any other (non-main) character in the film is purely accidental. Also: It looks like poopy.

(12/29)


Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Directed by Adam McKay
grade: B

Strangely affecting in spots; Hopefully (shudder) this doesn’t mean McKay fancies himself a Farrelly follower. Works better than Anchorman on first viewing, probably because much of it is looser, prone more to act as a series of vignettes until it hits the distracting wall of a romance subplot in its second half. All of it is terrific fodder for Ferrell (although John C. Reilly should stick to his character schtick), particularly an absolutely hilarious sequence where he leads the family in imagining how Jesus should be envisioned when you pray to him.

(1/2)


World Trade Center
Directed by Oliver Stone
grade: B

Very much made for the people it is about (the blue collar masses, the penultimate family men, military nuts using The Attacks as a segue back into the ranks), by which I mean its emotions are worn nakedly on its sleeve, its politics sympathetic but painfully black and white and its dialogue and mise-en-scene familiar. That it pulls off terrifying, nerve racking, silly, sillier, moving, touching and self-congratulating all at once gives it the distinctive feel of The New Oliver Stone (The sputtering style over substance approach from1997’s U-Turn on in, excluding the two Fidel documentaries and Persona Non Grata, none of which I have seen). He was at once the perfect and the absolutely wrong person to tell a story like this (we can easily imagine him interested in a 9/11 film, but not now – in fifteen or twenty years, when he can add a twisting suspicion and conspiracy into it) and he seems content with merely gliding along with Andrea Berloff’s script, despite the fact that it undermines nearly every single fabric of what made interesting The Old Oliver Stone (Challenging political views mixed with personal demons and drugs that enjoyed challenging the status quo). The closest cousin to this was the fact that the film made it easy to remember a moment I’d forgotten, a moment in late September 2001, weeks after the incident, when I found myself weeping uncontrollably at the hopelessness of the situation; That I channeled it through some really obvious Kleenex-tie in sort of tear jerking is a tad on the unsettling side.

(1/4)


The Descent
Directed by Neil Marshall
grade: B-

By minute 25, the superfluous exposition and flayed backstory is revved to shrill, but don’t turn the thing off: By minute 31, you’ll be engrossed beyond distraction. Bickering more passively than not, six ladies – only one of whom looks like the extreme sports ilk – spelunk their way into a mess of uncharted caves only to find…well, if you don’t actually know what they find (as I, perpetually ignorant filmgoer, did not), you’re better off. Shifting gears suddenly and stopping only ever so briefly to slow down and pass the exposition danglers in a blur, Marshall engineers a series of horrorshow conflicts barely lit, peppered with screaming and supremely motivated by various bones (both in piles and protruding from legs). Gifted with momentum, he splits the bill between artfully vague composition and digi-aided lights that bounce from rock to rock; Atmosphere is thick and tight, drawing our gaze around each corner almost instinctively. Much has been made of the minute and a half that was lopped off (and, in a truly great example of commerce defeating art, US audiences were treated to the lesser, or “safety” version, I’m sad to report), but much more should have been made of the opening act which thuds to the ground with such a predictable death rattle, it can only be erased by something loud and savage and vicious. He comes close, but Marshall stops short of convincing us that he, too, could care less about his thrill seeking delivery device (i.e. – the characters).

[ Oh, and that which I’ve avoided mentioning above – probably because I believe the film’s value is strictly genre and barely passes its metaphoric mustard to begin with – is preposterous. Yes, there are many young women (one of whom has lost a child) marching around moist, dark caves. Yes, the only non-blind “man” acknowledged in the film is killed almost instantly. Yes, at one point, the most feral of the gals, yanks the johnson from one of “them”, thereby killing it. Got all that. Unfortunately, you have to be more than an exercise to speak in volumes. See Romero at once if you’re looking for allegory or depth. ]

(1/12)


The Devil Wears Prada
Directed by David Frankel
grade: D-

I can’t believe this lazy, superficial horseshit isn’t being called to the carpet and asked to undress and be scourged. I absolutely resent the use of “I Don’t Love Anyone” by Belle & Sebastian in a key scene and plan to petition to have it removed from the DVD and all supporters of this popularity wet dream brainwashed until they’re as practical and utilitarian as, you know, real fucking people. There is not a single, solitary moment of humanity that isn’t clouded by materialistic, accessory worship or shallow representations of “relationships”. Streep’s turn is fine, particularly when she goes into the long, in-depth moments of insight, but her cold-bitch mentoring of the completely misfired Anne Hathaway continually reminds you what you’re celebrating: Unnecessary cruelty for the sake of fame and money. Fuck this movie.

(1/16)


Children of Men
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
grade: B+

Children of Men is best when tone and atmosphere become intertwined, the political hopelessness swirling among the palpable dread of people in holding pens, eerily abandoned elementary schools and desperate, dirty forest marauders. Its bleak, arguably parallel (to one or more topical messes) worldview is consistent and driven full force by Clive Owen, who has turned into one of our most likable brooders, found here killing time until death in a low-level government career that tides him between booze and his next visit to former political cartoonist/current pothead Michael Caine (chewing up eccentricity like it were lungfuls of Strawberry Cough). By the time Julianne Moore recruits Owen to score a passport (from relative Danny Huston, living in an entirely badass workup of the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Animals”), he’s inimitably desheveled and downtrodden, but still immensely appealing – and immediately so. In a film that clumsily spurts out exposition through bursts of rote dialogue and convenience, his presence is a constant forgiveness factor, almost unconsciously playing activist in the face of compromised plausibility time and time again. The ending is distractingly assured and, while the film benefits from being overplanned (you’ll know the continuous shot when you see it – and you’ll gasp when Cuarón finally cuts), Men‘s best moments find it acting off the cuff (as in, when a main character that gets offed practically without warning, any scene with Peter Mullan and the opening coffee shop explosion that cuts to the title card). It could have used a great deal more of this impromptu rattling, but my rants are mostly superfluous: This is a terrifically entertaining film that I’m looking forward to seeing again for a bevy of reasons, least of which is to scour the corners for all the details.

[And Michael Caine’s house, I am telling you, was plucked directly from my imagination: Mark my words: I will find a way to duplicate it and live there some day. (Alright, don’t mark my words. I’m a hyperbole machine and I know it.)]

(1/21)


Hard Candy
Directed by David Slade
grade: C-

Despite the premise, Slade’s film never transcends its high concept, possibly because the dialogue melts all over itself before getting sharp (when you can predict every plot point, every disturbing story the characters tell, every “gotcha” moment – – the air leaves the balloon) and every scene not containing dialogue is, inexplicably, shot at fast speed and played back at normal speed. There is never a moment where suspicion leaves the piece and, therefore, there never seems to be a moment of sincerity. Both Patrick Wilson – as the photographer with a penchant for young girls – and Ellen Page – as the 14 year old who turns the tables on him – are in overacting mode from second one, as if it were a calculated acting style; Sandra Oh stumbles onto the thing like the quasi-high profile cameo she is. This is not the film to tackle this subject. In fact, this subject really never needs to be tackled on film again in my opinion. What more could be said?

(1/22)


Letters From Iwo Jima
Directed by Clint Eastwood
grade: B

Very solid. Easily Clint’s best film since Unforgiven (which is saying nothing, really). It very effectively and very soberly examines the contrast between patriotism and realism (self-preservation), albeit, with a very American Movie sensibility. Flash of flag raising from a distance and without a shred of weight scored it some big points (caveat: I have yet to see Flags of Our Fathers), as did my calling it to mind a day or so later with a certain old timey reflection, as if the film could’ve been made in a number of eras past. Good for you, Clint: Let’s work back towards making great films, man.

(1/24)


This Film is Not Yet Rated
Directed by Kirby Dick
grade: B

When I first watched it, I was so busy being appalled by the crooked MPAA system and the lies it successfully purported for years and years in the name of studio profits – and at the expense of artists – that I didn’t realize (until the next day) how unavoidably problematic its ironic inclusion of all the identities of the “raters” is. To include footage of, and infer the MPAA’s similarity to the McCarthy-era blacklists isn’t off base, but its wishy-washy. When stuffed in a movie where names are named, it feels a bit off color – a bit like the pot and the kettle. True: The raters aren’t going to lose their careers over it, but the somewhat hypocritcal fact remains. I loved the dissection of just how much work went into assuring an “R” rating and found the film to be cathartic, personally (as one who was restricted by it both by parents and theater clerks), especially when explaining its details to my mom (who still believes a rating system is useful and kept missing the point on purpose). The long, drawn out overview of the private investigators that Dick hires to discover the raters’ true names seems like padding and Dick himself veers further towards a territory rich in Michael Moore and poor in Nick Broomfield (sadly), but just that a film exists to blow the lid off this insane ruse warrants my attention and admiration.

(1/25)


Idiocracy
Directed by Mike Judge
grade: D+

If you can heft – and I mean LIFT – your disbelief and not pass out under the weight, you still have to get past how unfunny the thing is. But you can’t. There’s no way you can ignore the fatal flaw in its eager-to-zing premise: How could there have been a shred of organization (corporations producing the green liquid, inventories in the Costco, those credit card/food machines, public servants on the streets and in jails, judges, and on and on and on) in this future that Judge has dreamed up if everyone is, as it is immediately and clearly pointed out, dumb as a pile of rocks. Not only does it not make sense, but it also doesn’t make me laugh. Whoever relegated this to (practically) straight-to-video status: Good judgement call.

(1/31)


Sherrybaby
Directed by Laurie Collyer
grade: B

Sherrybaby works on grounds of grit procedural almost exclusively (performances are remarkable, insomuch as they are naturalistic to an end meant to satisfy the mind’s requirement that the thing be lived in); Watching the post-prison system – its holes, its rules, its surprise revelations – is fascinating. Sherry emerges from prison having expected so much, but she’s forgotten work ethic and, soon, finds herself pining for her daughter’s love (with no idea how to even begin to go about rebuilding what was never built in the first place). It’s a reasonably intelligent social drama, not quite a pitch above snuff – the all-touted Maggie Gyllenhaal performance isn’t enough to transcend some of the film’s shortcomings, namely that it feels the need to explain away Sherry’s condition at all, let alone in a split-second (all but) grope session with her papa. Would make a nice 2-pack with Half Nelson, if you want to go there.

[ By the way: I love Danny Trejo’s calmly threatening manner; His performance, though defined almost exclusively by comparative terms, was my personal favorite. Giancarlo Esposito can be a dick any time: Doesn’t impress me as much. ]

(2/3)


Pan’s Labyrinth
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
grade: B-

Del Toro is such a bore (See also: His entire filmography). He plugs in the holes in a post-Spanish Civil War melodrama about a feverishly evil Captain (an embarrassingly cartoonish Sergi López) attempting to clear the way – of his wife and stepdaughter, for example – for his namesake (and push The New Spanish Politic besides), all the while missing Maribel Verdú’s care packaging her brother and his rebels. The stepdaughter takes focal point, which is fortunate, though her fantasies don’t get nearly enough screen time, leaving a discerning audience in a situation where they’re wading and actively rushing the predictable doins’ of the “reality” in hopes that soon they’re catch a glimpse of something surreal or (gulp!) terrifying. And these sequences – of which there are only three and a half, by my count – are mesmerizing, none so plump with dread as The Pale Man sequence, itself flawed (why exactly does she ignore the very clear advice of the Pan and eat the forbidden fruit?), and transcendent (it seems to carry the weight of parallel, giving hint very palpably to the film’s mirrored structure, which eases the “Why the christ are we sitting through this dusty soap opera, anyhow?”), but most of all, utterly spine tingling: It’s the only time this year I can recall being engaged with genuine tension, stress and fear for a movie character.

(2/10)

Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles
Directed by Yimou Zhang
grade: B-Stitched, in my mind, to both Zhang’s semi-great Not One Less (Chinese beaurocracy acting as a buffer for and a pathway to a new, bracing reality) and his somewhat less thrilling film called The Road Home (intensely emotional tale that seems to exist on the fringe of reality), Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles sidesteps the easily corrupted Father-Son dynamic – that usually leads to contrived, overtly button-pushing moments – by down playing the actual, central narrative and allowing it to grow on its own, adding task after task to the already superfluous end the calmly indifferent main character pursues. The title – though taken from the opera he’s trying to videotape –  ought to give you, however, some idea of what you’re in for. While Zhang’s film eschews convention in one sense, don’t think for a minute that it won’t reach similarly grandscale hues to The Road Home, most assuredly distancing this from the great films he made in the late 80s/early 90s: It could easily have been 20 minutes shorter.

(2/13)


Akeelah and the Bee
Directed by Doug Atchison (two of whose next three films deal with teacher-student relationships)
grade: B-Perfectly serviceable and, for those of us who saw Spellbound, a kind of super-spectacular daydream of well-meaning fictional skin being placed over reality’s somewhat less tidy bones. Fishburne and Bassett play one-note tuggers to Akeelah’s sensibility, both in awe of her, both unwavering in their support (despite its wretched form at times), both too utterly perfect to be believed outside the confines of the film’s carefully structured crowd-pleasing demure. I’d be lying, though, if I wasn’t still on board by the end and – without question – it turns out to be worth being on board for. Not because its unpredictable (it isn’t) or because there’s a huge emotional payoff (there is), but because the thing has a roundness about it that I don’t often put myself into. In that way, the experience of actually watching the film is a far easier, far more pleasant thing than, say, owning up to liking the thing later on.

(2/14)


The Illusionist
Directed by Neil Burger
grade: C+The most interesting thing about it is Giamatti: No role can bring him down. His scenery chewing inspector regularly upstages Edward Norton (on autopilot, clearly) and Rufus Sewell (doing his stock evil guy). For all the fuzzy corners and gold-toned eye squint at turn of the century Europe, the straightforwardness of the thing really seems to sack, particularly its inevitably lame coda, a twist that found me the most indifferent to being fooled as is humanly possible. David Cross’s “Magic is already boring when its right out in front of you. I mean, the most you ever get, as a response is, uh, yeah, yeah that was my card. (pauses) Can I go?” heartily applies here.

(2/17)


The Science of Sleep
Directed by Michel Gondry
grade: A-More attitude and moment than film, but gleefully so – damn near a creative orgasm; Bernal reminds me, over and over and over again, of Léaud in Masculine-Feminine and Stolen Kisses, and the film itself has a sort of new wave vehicle shape to it, cooking its narrative extra soft, its color and quirk in full control of anything that occurs. There is almost too much to take in; His dreams are awesome-looking while the dialogue is hilarious and frequently brilliant, particularly in the hands of such terrific actors (particularly Alain Chabat as Guy, Stéphane’s bluntly irreverant co-worker and Charlotte Gainsborg, the object of and stumbling block to Stéphane’s affections). It envelopes you, swallowing your sensibility and osmotically turns you into a denizen of its world, as if the Gondry was proud enough of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to know he could make a (Godardian) companion piece focused almost entirely on the energy and craft.

(2/18)


The Queen
Directed by Stephen Frears
grade: BA bit too cheeky to achieve a serious tone, The Queen flits around in a couple of different tones, never becoming consistent enough to hold us. It’s deadpan and entertaining, but also so much more a history lesson than anything else. Mirren is terrific and Michael Sheen does an intriguing Tony Blair, but in the end, the whole thing seems about reading the public, whose thirst for vicarious participation in the melee of glitzy hollow that appears to be The Royal Life kept Princess Diana in the misery that she eventually succumbed to. I didn’t get the sense the film meant for me to read into that, but its still a fascinating and sober look at the various shortcomings of democracy and idealism. I found myself siding with different people in different situations (The Royal Family over the flag, Tony Blair over nearly everything else, the public over the need for a monarchy).

(2/19)


Little Miss Sunshine
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
grade: BPretty forgettable and predicatable entertainment, but it is frequently quite funny and quite endearing. Each character seems to embody a different modern filmgoing stereotype, but it seems to be the film’s conceit to transcend them (Aside from Blue Streak Grandpa who, despite having the funniest lines in the film, never gets the chance to attain a full dimensional outfleshing); Steve Correll is the best part of the film, although Paul Dano runs a close second. Little Miss Sunshine seems to stick together the heads and tails of a half dozen too-precious indie films and zap them with a quickened energy. At its height, it reaches absurdity. At its lowpoint, it’s just warm TV. Subverting the establishment never seemed like so much damn work.

(2/22)


Babel
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
grade: CThe cuts between these tragedy-happy vignettes come at great places, but they’re unnecessary; This is an omnibus film if I’ve ever seen one, connected with threads thin as fishing wire. The best moment in the film – Rinko Kikuchi’s first experience with ecstacy – is also the one that feels the least encroached by the film’s finger-waggling persepective of bleakness. It’s intent on putting big bells and whistles on every topical attitude it trots out gets way out of hand (its not enough that she didn’t have permission to take the children across the border, she also has to be an illegal immigrant). I might also suggest that the pre-shooting sequences with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett feel very much like an Antonini parody (as cool as that sounds, its full of embarrassed-smirk tedium), but the whole film feels like it veers into a self important tizzy of circumstance (yes, that  murderous moppet smashes the rifle against the rock as if to rid the world of it forever) with an uncharacteristic note of political sand in our eyes for every tic of the tale. For instance, the repeated jab of “Now, how would you feel if you lived in a world where every act of violence done to an American in another country is immediately and irrevocably labeled terrorism?” should likely be inferred, and certainly not overstated. This is – as I feared – clearly one too many cubist, faux-documentary melodramas.

(2/24)


The Painted Veil
Directed by John Curran
grade: B-The Painted Veil felt slight to me, occasionally great and engrossing (Naomi Watts and Ed Norton, sparring, cruelly, then later burning with passion), but too often it felt stock – the old sage character (Diana Rigg), the paper tiger general, that awkwardly embarrassing sequence where Norton’s Dr. Fane figures out how to get the water to the village (a series of bamboo pipes! how Swiss Family Robinson!) – and far too smitten with the source material (you find it drying up with mundanity for a good sag in the middle, there). Check out the grandness of this scenario: The too-hasty marriage, an even hastier love affair and, finally, the vicious condition with which Fane forces his bride to accompany him to an isolated village (where cholera has broken out) in the most beautiful place in China. What’s attempted in subtlety? I think Randy points out the best example in what turns out to be a very foreseeable conclusion for one of the main characters when he says “It was labored over terribly and there was no tortured grieving on camera”; The film seems to arch in buildup and smatter in execution, but that in no way gives it color or weight. Prediction: It will drift from memory with haste.

(2/28)


A Good Year
Directed by Ridley Scott
grade: DAs bad, if not worse, than your prediction. Scott wants too wide a teeter to totter on too miniscule a balance: He wants the touching slow burn of a memorial piece (where Crowe mourns – with little explanation or reason – a man he neglected to see for a decade) to ingratiate itself with a gentle – occasionally nodding very physically to farcical (the pool full of dirt) – romantic comedy for people with hearing aids who just pretend to hear everything that is said. Dialogue has that forehead-smack quality Mystery, Alaska had – but this is far worse than that. Crowe’s character in Jay Roach’s goobered hockey laffer didn’t feel like a parody of himself. In A Good Year, there’s no message being tossed about between the very black and the very white: Either Crowe will do anything for money, or he has really, really – just wildy – erratic taste.

(3/1)


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Directed by Larry Charles
grade: B+Much like I allowed my emotions to intrude on my opinion of World Trade Center, my feelings about Borat are hopelessly tainted by what turned out to be painful bouts of laughter (about 30 minutes in, we took a break to catch our breath). So, while that general memory of consistent, repeated gut laughs taints my perspective, I also found myself  – with abandon – really admiring Cohen’s irreverance, his tearing down of the establishment, and his reckless, fearless performance, wrongly ignored at this year’s Confidence Validation Pageant. Racist and sex-obsessed to such a casual, high pitched degree, the combustion of this personality and various, similarly morally skewed Americans feels almost – dare I say – important. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments that feel staged or contrived (plot points are kept to a minimum – it’s more of a road movie in concept than execution) but, irregardless, Borat‘s message is loud and clear: This country is comfortable in ignorance and intolerance.

(3/7)


The Last King of Scotland
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
grade: BIf not for its overuse of conventional mise-en-scene and rancid little bits of dialogue you wish you could just cut away, The Last King of Scotland would likely have been as disturbing and haunting as you envision its makers intending. What I find most exciting about it is how unrelenting it is as the floor slides out from under the selfless, horny Scottish Dr. Garrigan who comes to Uganda and is seduced by General Idi Amin Dada (played by Forest Whitaker as a swanky eccentric who, on the side, is the leader of the nation) and later, is hunted by him as if he were trying to leave the confidence of the mafia. Sparing no graphic detail – but leaning on all the safe corners of contrivance and nick-of brand timing – Macdonald’s film is fine, even noteworthy, particularly in the earthy color scheme, a dark shade that gives the film a foreboding, almost ominous quality. The 1970s look as they might have on film stock used in the time period; I’m imagining that Macdonald wanted to present something that looked similar to General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, as it is a widely available, conclusive capture of the same time and place represented here. Smart play: I believed most of The Last King of Scotland..

(3/8)


For Your Consideration
Directed by Christopher Guest
grade: B-For Your Consideration, while it has some really funny bits, overall, feels almost like a weird hybrid of The Guest Troupe’s usual mockumentary stylings and a distinctively unmemorable fiction film that’s sending up the film industry. In point of fact, very little about the film – save its photography – even sets it apart from the mockumentaries to any new or interesting end, giving us pause to examine the decision in the first place. Aren’t the mockumentaries written, too? In truth, given my recent over-the-cliff dose of cynicism regarding the Awards, the industry and that whole scene, one might surmise that a film like For Your Consideration would show up just in time to match my taste. No so. The whole thing seems underdrawn, overlit, and far too silly – not the same silly you’re thinking – to approach realism. Guest’s films have never really struck me as more than a passing fancy. I seldom find myself bowled over by them.

(3/9)


Invincible
Directed by Ericson Cole
grade: C-Just as it always was, is now and ever shall be, a film with a script this serviceable, shot by its own director, will inevitably look gorgeous, but be nigh unwatchable. Part of the problem is the cookie cutter script that clumsily portrays Papale as a strong, kind-but-stubborn South Philly working class boy, (the kind the film makes you feel guilty if you don’t root for) and part of the problem is Wahlberg, who plays Papale as a schizophrenic: Damn near vacant, bordering on tempermental, and occasionally, the exact opposite – flirtatious, warm and thoughtful. Why are his friends inconsistent and stereotypical? What great film was ever this loaded with stereotypes but was not a parody? Why would someone who considers himself an amateur Eagles fan be met with such violent backlash upon not liking the film? It’s not an Eagles film. It’s a Disney sports uplifter. And a damn cruddy one at that.

(3/13)


Fast Food Nation
Directed by Richard Linklater
grade: BInnately chilling from start to finish (I saw Upton Sinclar’s name volleyed about in reviews – and it seems just about right), but also admirable (there’s a character who quits because selling fast food seems so “wrong” and “fake”), compelling (the monologues read by Hawke, Willis and Kristofferson are terrific) and, deeply flawed (that fatalistic arc that you can see coming a mile away really sinks almost all of the stories).

(3/15)


Blood Diamond
Directed by Edward Zwick
grade: D-Just as Tom Cruise was so terribly wrong for The Last Samurai, both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly seem to be far too clean-cut and compromising in these roles to begin to communicate the desperation and obsession of their character’s chosen careers. It’s one of those films that thrives on the “take that!” quality of a biting or deadpan remark just before a cut. And by thrives, I mean overuses. Nearly every scene between the two actors goes this way and, after awhile, you wonder if anyone on the set ever pulled Ed Zwick aside and told him that trumpeting a cause requires some measure of realism, none of which we’re going to find when everyone is carrying on as if they are movie characters. Part of this is that the film continually wants its cake and to eat it, too: The harsh realities alone won’t do, there also has to be a staged, slow-zoom, heart rending climax to accompany. Trouble is, Zwick has no idea how to set aside emotion and be impartial (see also: every film he’s ever made), making, for example, the big reunion scene seem almost silly, like a parody. This grandstanding seqeunce, by the way, also serves as a perfect example of how the film revels in implausibility: We pan across a staggering, almost unthinkable number of people before Jennifer Connelly remarks that this is what a million people looks like. Hounsou then proceeds to find his family in, like, two minutes. And everything seems so inappropriately Hollywood for a film that aims to shed light on a social issue. The dialogue has that sour, unnatural fervor as if its been overwritten. Excessive action sequences are tossed in at will, a ghastly ingredient to mix with message mongering. It lacks focus; It attempts to multi-task its thematic reach, trying to tackle, practically all at once, child soldiers, refugee crises, conflict diamond trade, civil unrest, slavery, the accountability/role of the press, profiteering, forgiveness, selflessness, sniff, sniff, whimper, whimper. What is unforgivable is dragging Hounsou (not exempted and insanely over the top, too) into a film like this, one that makes most of the very Africans it purports to have such undying, string-laced sympathy for into faceless baddies. Bordering on laughable and absurd, Blood Diamond is only slightly less offensive than Beyond Borders (a statement, I believe, of some serious gravity).

(3/20)


The Good German
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
grade: B-I’ve done a great deal of second guessing since I saw – and reacted with more dismissal than understanding to – Soderbergh’s marginal failure of an experiment in replicating the melodrama of every aspect of 40s wartime films: He intersperses newsreel footage and does watered down riffs on acting style (not consistent enough), swooning scores (its stormy without being decadent), titles (opening and closing titles fit), subject matter (see below) and photography (occasionally done well, often the lighting seems too complicated, the picture too clear). The excitable, very passionate lover of these films in me was never going to let this film have a crack at re-creation – it was an idea that I’ve been thinking about for some time – and probably skewed things a bit. This, of course, does nothing to explain why Soderbergh chose to include all the lurid elements of a modern period piece (such swearing in the squeaky-clean past! bare breasts and animal-style deviant sex! discussion of – and flashback to – rape! blood-splattering to follow gunshot wounds!), nor does it speak to why Clooney’s performance bears little or no resemblance to anything but past Clooney performances. However: While the tale itself didn’t do much for me while I was watching it, the peripheral characters and the little details of the plot have been working their way around and around in my brain since I’ve seen the film. For instance, how great is Leland Orser as the military attorney whose blind aid to Clooney comes out of dedication to a wicked dogma: That each and every German was once – and therefore, is – a nazi. Or, take for example, the screen time dedicated to Danny Curran’s late night pimp/bartender, whom Clooney shares a warm evening of boozing ’til dawn – right smack in the middle of a busy, labrynthine narrative. And, despite the annoying contradiction that he does most of the cursing and the fucking referenced earlier, Tobey Maguire is easily the best thing in the film. Scheming without friend or foe, in every breath and every tic, sometimes becoming violent in short order and balancing his lowdown core with a downright polite, clean-cut American boy facade, the turn smacks of self-image subversion. (When he hits a mostly forgettable Cate Blanchett early in the film, its actually really startling, partly because its early enough on in the film that you’re still not sure if Soderbergh is planning to keep it code or not.)

(3/21)

Stranger Than Fiction
Directed by Marc Forster
grade: BRoughly half of Stranger Than Fiction reaches some of the same fuzzy warbles recent comedic giants have achieved by chucking the chuckles (Carrey in Man on the Moon or The Truman Show, Bill Murray in Lost in Translation). Will Ferrell is nearly as funny in deadpan loser mode as he is in hopped up supernut mode. But what I really liked about Stranger Than Fiction was how endearing a gear-jumping, typically precious “unlikely” romance it sports, giving me considerable pause to consider how likable Maggie Gyllenhaal is. There is an existential shadowplay between writer Emma Thompson and the main character in the novel she is writing, who can inexplicably hear her narration whenever he isn’t self-aware. She doesn’t put herself into the book (that is, she isn’t writing about how he can hear her narration), which seems like a huge wasted opportunity (or perhaps a Charlie Kaufman nod too many), but until the two meet, it is fascinating to consider the eerily lucid experiential point-of-view storytelling, wherein we are sensitive to the qualities of both writing and being a character in a “fiction”. Very little of it really matches though (Does she write about his trip to the psychiatrist who tells him he is schizophrenic? It’s not clear.) and, in the eventual, Dustin Hoffman is brought in to transition Ferrell into self-actualization and Thompson out of sensitivity. But no matter. Even Queen Latifah’s brief role as Thompson’s assistant, i.e. – the running exposition track (and pointlessly wacky straight woman ying to Thompson’s neurotic eccentric yang) can’t bring down a film in the throes of the spirit of genuineness embodied in a squarely standard scene like Ferrell’s wooing Gyllenhaal with the acoustic (read: vulnerable) croon of Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” before she starts kissing him as if he’s headed to his death.

(3/22)


Flushed Away
Directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell
grade: B-I don’t think my opinion a qualified one as, to begin with, I snoozed at least twice throughout, but I assert that there’s something refreshingly un-safe about a major studio setting your standard rat versus toad adventure cartoon in a sewer (or lines like “I’ve got a bum like the Japanese flag”). Though the British humour makes for some right hilarious one-liners, even the toss-off gags like the Benny Hill music popping in at a key moment or the headline “England leads in penalties” seem to do little more than establish the film as British rather than American, despite the fact that its sensibilities lie so squarely with American cartoons. Its also full-up with necessary and unnecessary slapstick (neither of which is terrifically funny) and lags into template tale autopilot after a promising first act. There’s nothing serviceable about its characters, though, particularly Ian McKellen’s wacky (slash British) The Toad and Jean Reno’s self-deprecating (slash French) The Frog. There’s also no need to sit around and overrate a film like this.

(3/23)

Happy Feet
Directed by George Miller
grade: C+Somewhat separated from each other, the background – so prevalent in Miller’s Mad Max (post-apocalyptic dust bowl) and Babe (Idyllic storybook farm and Nightmarish storybook city) films – and the foreground – Penguin family crises teach us not to judge what is different – are not even on speaking terms in this one. Often veering into the children’s film staple The Long Journey Both Toward Maturity And The Widely-Doubted Unknown, Happy Feet takes place in a mind-blowing snow world with limitless vanishing points, beautiful sun glows and savage wind blows. Unfortunately, I found myself too often falling into Shrek syndrome, where the voices of the characters speak so loudly of the obscenely famous celebrity who lent them his or her voice (e.g. – Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman and – come the fuck on with it already – (I mean, sheesh) Robin Williams). Indicative of their director, the dark edges of things are included: There’s no “Run for your life, Simba! Escape your Wicked Uncle!” here, Mumble (whose titular flappers annoy everyone for some reason) is cast out by the elders and asked to leave at a relatively young age before being zoo-ed (in a sequence of claustrophic, hopeless terror). When it opened with a Moulin Rouge-esque sequence of bombast singing, dancing and Musical-brand exposition about town, I found myself wondering (and now I’m sure): Happy Feet is a committe-driven digi cartoon that Miller was granted a few precious spins of. We fall another league in the slow n’ steady descent of animated films still being a marginally safe bet.

(3/31)

Flags of Our Fathers
Directed by Clint Eastwood
grade: BWhat I like about Flags of Our Fathers is completely different than what I liked in its companion film. I, regrettably, ended up seeing Letters from Iwo Jima first, after I started to worry that I’d be missing something outstanding, which turned out not to be the case. It was a pretty good film, nonetheless – as is Flags of Our Fathers, the first in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima dyptich (yeah! I got to use this word, too!) – but what I (and I’m sure everyone else who obsesses over the cinema) really feared I was missing was, alas, another Unforgiven. I feel the need to trot this whole Eastwood issue out, as I feel like by showing up for 8 of the last 9 films he’s made since 1992, I’ve somehow been egging on the mediocrity (the first two were pretty good, but the next seven – who lived just down the street in truecrimeville – were not). This is a strong and solid take on the trials and tours of the marines who staged their roles in the famous photograph of four marines propping the flag at Iwo Jima, causing controversy, enjoying breezy celebrity status and coping with the haunts of their military experience. This is the unique bit: It sheds light (without a real nod at parallel, thankfully) on something tickling the underbelly. In other words: An American movie that makes Patriotism seem mechanical and studied, like a zombie-voiced plea for war bond purchase or brash discussions of apathetic attitude among the troops at Iwo Jima. Stark and detailed, Flags of Our Fathers is, in its own right – particularly when taken next to the grey-washed slow burn philosophia of Letters from Iwo Jima – a decidedly American-looking period picture. With such total recall, this glimpse backwards (see also: The Good German) has the casual taste of something patterened after the art of the time (specifically films), a piece of Eastwood’s palatte that is almost as intriguing, and certainly a part with the gutteral dinge of the Old West he seemed to be filtering from his own Spaghetti Western experience in the aforementioned golden goose (Unforgiven).

[Note: After re-reading my one-off review of Letters from Iwo Jima, written about three months prior, it appears I did sort of like the same thing about both. Ah, me.]

(4/2)

Volver
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
grade: B+Wait! Wait! I know it’s April and I’m just getting around to this, but we don’t have to settle for Little Miss Sunshine or Akeelah and the Bee as the supreme crowd pleasers of last year. In the best film of Almodóvar’s I’ve seen, Penelope Cruz lends such a lightness to a tale involving such lurid elements (attempted rape, murder and constant deceit among them) that the effect becomes that of joy, a celebration of family through the strife of horror and, in the film’s best trick, a gentle set of connections, all resting on a plot point I dare not make mention of (for fear of blabbermouthing it) but that, rest assured, seems to subvert magic realism while all the while retaining its overall sense of pleasant lunacy.

(4/16/07)


Notes on a Scandal
Directed by Richard Eyre
grade: CThree cheers for trotting out this wounded, ugly worldview, a bobber at the end of a thematic string regarding the innate cravings in the aged to possess something young (to remind them of their carefree days prior to that long, permanent shift into maturity). No, wait: Make that three jeers for its overheated sensibilities. Dig that Cate Blanchett mock-crucifixion of sorts as she, howling, flings her self torso-first at a gathered swarm of the British ‘razzi (How subtle). Or, just preceeding it, gawk at  The “notes”, as read to us in Judi Dench’s dry, practically flecking voice-over. She dolls out a barrage of venomous observations: At best, she conveys her chilly demeanor as a device of exposition – as if she even speaks as an automaton of psychotic lust directly to the audience – and at worst, she sounds like generic poison pen junk, going on and on with a malice of strong forward momentum (we suspect these words will be discovered long before the deeply contrived moment where Blanchett finds co-worker/calculating stalker Dench’s title leaves and thrashes about like a wind-up toy, spurting excerpts as if she’s some strange, severed word artery). Another wreckless thing bound towards me as I watched: A stunningly recycled-sounding Philip Glass score. I’ve run into this unnerving reality a few times now and it almost strikes me as a betrayal (it still sounds good, so I can’t entirely shun it), a sort of selling out through excessive remix (see also: The Hours, Secret Window, The Illusionist). Dench is outstanding as she often is and Blanchett is lovely – despite her tendencies toward fever pitch, but both are wretched and all but celebrated, a point which I think summates my reoccuring beef with Notes on a Scandal: Despite the deeply watchable vice parade it turns out, the melodrama seems worn on its sleeve instead of inside, like watching an overcooked, underprofound spin on a Mike Leigh or a Ken Loach film.

(4/19/07)


Déjà Vu
Directed by Tony Scott
grade: B-Brian DePalma’s Laura, made over-topical – even made into a sci-fi-ish fantasy – but most of all, directed by Tony Scott, battle axe of fetishized slow-motion and the multi-shot sport feature on his camera. It would be misleading to say that I wasn’t following the film closely, but it would also be misleading to infer that it does much more than stage, a quality Scott is also – to mixed results – world-renowned for. He doesn’t quite pull off the patented sense of Remove that DePalma oozes, but he seems completely unconcerned that his film is packed wall-to-wall with routine, which almost works for him. What feels like playful intention quickly lapses into pretention, though, as we endure inferences of religious belief and headline-ripping good v evil scenarios (Jim Caveziel’s participation seems odd, given his intensely religious off-screen persona). It’s difficult to ignore the strangely haunting attach a decidedly autopilot Denzel Washington makes to Paula Patton, the pawn in a particularly heinous act of terrorism set to take place in a (constantly commented on) post-Katrina Big Easy. (See Going Overboard with Topical Issues reference in the first sentence of this notice.) Did I mention he travels through time as a result of a long explanation by a crazed Adam Goldberg, playing the token technogeek? Oh, well, he does. His interchronological adventures are patently absurd, but also a good opportunity to throw in a reasonably inspired car chase. One cannot fault Scott for what he delivers: An explosion, early in the film, incredibly well orchestrated and forgettable entertainment not unlike a slightly more urgent Frequency or a far less magnetic Primer.

(4/27/07)


Jackass Number Two
Directed by Jeff Tremaine
grade: BComes across as if it’s more comfortably stitching episodes of the show together (I have no evidence – or want of evidence – to back that up.You feels what you feels, I suppose.)

(4/30/07)


Old Joy
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
grade: A-A second viewing would likely produce a solid A; I look forward to further deciphering which pieces of me are Mark and which pieces are Kurt (instead of the easily lumped “which one are you most like” crap I saw most critics spouting). This is a film set in the coldest of cynical ‘burgs (our current world), a film that brands one character using layered guilt-talk with the wife, a Volvo, talk radio, meekness and the gradually dawning, ever-shaky spirit of responsibility while steeping the other in the hazy, aimless freedom of pursuing one’s own interests, “somewhere between a nomad and being homeless”. The film unfolds leisurely, a dramatic undercurrent made even more audible by its short running time, deliberate sense of pace and occasional lurches into improvised-sounding, suddenly edgy moments of lucidity. I could have watched these characters fumble about in shades of The Modern Liberal for days on end.

(05/6/07)


Little Children
Directed by Todd Field
grade: C+An oddly memorable yet deeply flawed, ultimately misfired stab at suburban caricature, Field’s Little Children is, essentially, We Don’t Live Here Anymore with a child molester piped in for good measure. No discredit forwarded to Jackie Earl Haley’s terrifically schizophrenic performance but, unfortunately, his particular “payoff character” seems almost unnecessarily turned from author’s crutch of convenience to out-and-out subplot (This is just one of the things Little Children seems hellbent on overdoing. The narration is another.) The film is fine at feeling the abstract strains of confusion: Kate Winslet is clearly too desirable and pitiable – but ever the unwaveringly likable gal – while Patrick Wilson is full of contradiction as a narcissist in search of idealism (although the whole “can’t pass the bar” thing almost feels like the obvious, generic objection the film tasks itself with overcoming). It falters, though, when attempting to sprinkle a tone of black comedy here and there, particularly in the aforementioned narration. I found myself thinking it had a great air of inappropriately formal presentation, a set of descriptors too dry – too God’s Eye – to be unfolding such wry, sometimes faux-shocking vernacular (It doesn’t exactly fit the melodramatic goings-on of the film, either, but I imagine that was the intended effect.) The theme all around here seems to be purposeful mismatching and, to add insult to injury, it’s far too good-looking a film (Antonio Calvache lensed) to be this busy, aesthetically. I walked away feeling empty and hollow and almost betrayed by its artistic greed.

(5/7/07)


The History Boys
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
grade: B-Translating from the stage more succintly in dialogue than staging, Hytner’s The History Boys contains some upended norms (casual homosexuality, boys tolerating their teacher’s sexual advances as flattery, open challenges to proven admissions essay methods), but mostly it seems to while in making the point – over and over and over again – that being Oxford-bound is an opportunity to destroy one’s precious, marginally unique identity. It smacks of shooting fish in a barrel, making it no more than a mild diversion rather than something of warmth or even mild profundity. The camaraderie of its subjects leaves out all the dorm-life rabble and solo character sketch; An easy swallow, certainly harder to leave out, but noticably absent, to be sure. I suspect the stage production probably fit the air of theatrical resonance the material radiates. It translates, but feels clunky. For this to work, a shallow, styrofoam exposition and build-up – which would have been laughable – would likely have been necessary. There’s no right answer here. Best illustration of the half-baked stage-to-screen ushering? The deeply awkward sea change early in the film from next-to-last to final semester that appears to take place in the space of a single cut, leaving us to scratch our head for a minute or so.

(5/14/07)


Iraq in Fragments
Directed by James Longley
grade: BAs an organic treatise on the state of an endlessly complicated country reflected through an everyday prism of its three major religious groups (Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds), Iraq in Fragments is outstanding: Beautiful imagery, thoughtful voice-over and stately observations that rarely need to be forced or explained; Somewhere, though, inside the whole myriad of chaos it profiles, the thing seems to pluck a sour note – particularly in the first episode – as it finds its common people more or less performing for the camera, a byproduct one imagines might be far more limited by the unprecedented coverage of its subjects (the director lived among them for two years while making the film). Worse still, in the first and the second episodes, the troubling subject of intervention (ostensibly the key word in nearly every angle of the current conflict there) arises as Longley’s camera trains on the equivalent of child abuse and vicious beatings (as Sadr’s followers beat and kick men selling wine at a market). There’s a case to be made for culture-clash, a sense that my own American upbringing couldn’t possibly grasp the nuance of Iraqi mentality (although, could that be part of The Grand Point?) – but there’s a larger case, methinks, for an ounce of humanitarian responsibility. The grade is probably too high for something I consider despicable (that is, standing by and allowing these things to happen), if only for the actuality that Longley probably feared that by following his instincts to step in, he might be killed. It illustrates (as the recent cell phone video of a Baghdad honor killing does) the clash between broadcasting a cause to rally the world around and simply removing yourself from the personal horror of a moment you’re caught up in by watching it through a viewfinder as you record it. Okay, I’m on a tangent. I reccomend the film.

(5/15/07)


The Fountain
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
grade: C+For some reason an iconical director with a following, Aronofsky is also ever the conductor of vast suspensening (yep, it’s made-up). The biggest disappointment here isn’t how painfully and unsubstantially proficient his film is, its how it fails – with such gorgeous cinematography and another Rhythms of Doomsday score from Clint Mansell – to generate an ounce of exit composure; I didn’t feel the urgency of my absorption, not a wit. The tri-part plotline isn’t as interesting as it sounds: A cocky doctor (Jackman’s stock “keyed-up” guy) is trying to save his wife’s life (Rachel Weisz dying of cancer adorably) by using a rare tree while she writes a book about a man trying to find a rare tree to save a nation and so on and so forth. In fact, the central bit is almost self-disposed, as it feeds – much more enjoyably – into the other two where we see: a) an uncomfortably confined visualization of ancient Mayan civilization that’s rapturous and absurd and b) Hugh Jackman floating in a bubble, eating a tree (in shots that resemble Requiem for a Dream‘s quick flash imagery) and, you know, lamenting his wife’s pleas. Indifferent, I’m now going in search of the graphic novel from the original script.

(5/22/07)


The Good Shepherd
Directed by Robert DeNiro
grade: B-Opens intriguingly – with a blur of techno speak that articulates zip – and proceeds to plod along with better intentions than expected (this is a character study, not the trailer-promised lesson entitled The CIA Story), siddling up to an obvious parallel (there used to be a dash of conservative in conservativism) and petering out, after what turns out to be a self-aware three hours, in a fit of melodrama so inane, I probably could have toned down the urgency with which I needed to verify the whole affair’s firm ground in fiction. There are a host of these films now – the ones that tell a story about real items, with severe detail and are, quite simply put, whipping by on the fumes of an audience’s self-doubt (i.e. – “Did that happen in real life? If so: Wow!”) This said, DeNiro’s stab at prestige gives him the opportunity to – in full view of Damon’s long-sustained poker face – easily yank the movie out from the automated title character, and from spaz-princess Angelina Jolie (who only seems out of place because she’s far too perfect-looking for Damon), and from Billy Crudup (trouncing to death a British accent), and from Michael Gambon (playing the Richard Griffiths’ role) and, of course, from John Turturro (who does no particular wrong). Trotting out actual acting, DeNiro does so for the first time in six years, a trick that nearly, in itself, makes the film worthwhile; In just three monologues, he seems to be an anchor for the film both as an exposition device and as the lighthearted mastermind of spydom. And structurally, the film appears to be spying on itself, unfolding the past while gradually sneaking a peek at a present, post-Bay of Pigs melee. That the CIA stuff is pretty dull isn’t exactly a detractor: It sets a nice stage for a perversely fascinating character with the wretched habit of seeming to be a bitter, seventy year old man even when he is only twentysomething (although this ultimately wears somewhat thin, too, as he repeatedly, casually dismisses – with, at times, the indifference of a psychopath – his wife and son). But somebody owes me big time over that crap at the end with his kid.

(6/13/07)


Sleeping Dogs Lie
Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
grade: BHonorably candid and with a wringer of a premise, Sleeping Dogs Lie – formerly titled Stay – posits the reality that modern relationships of a romantic kind are far too grounded in truth (down to the bare bone) and suffer greatly for it. The central storyline has a traditional ring – or at least elements of such – as it mines the horror show that is a husband-to-be’s initial encounter with his future wife’s family, a love story born of rebound and a woman’s unflinching obsession with companionship. That the catalyst for all of these events is the main character’s dog fellatio invests a level of great, exploratory absurdity that powers the whole film. Goldthwait sketches too-rigid parents, a drug addled brother, a boyfriend’s warmed-over charm and another boyfriend’s slightly less but nevertheless still warmed-over charm, delivering everything with the production values (including nearly all of its cast) of Cable TV. I kept thinking of Melvin Goes to Dinner and its deeply pretentious downpour of couples’ therapy being disguised as comedy. By contrast, Goldthwait seems almost hell-bent in attempting to reset the quintessential idie mold from the inside by using the freedom of a low budget to pull a total of zero punches – faltering only in the odor of sincerity emanating from the third act’s set of romantic closures (not the volley of Bonita Friedericy’s secret “affairs”, but the other thing), improperly laced with a great, subversive moral. Nevertheless, it’s a trick to be hilarious, hit universal themes with better than average accuracy and still be driving the whole thing with the whimsical gimmick of a sex comedy.

(6/15/07)


Dreamgirls
Directed by Bill Condon
grade: CRelegating the generic, overheated plotlines to music montages in early sequences? Great Idea. Busting into straight-up musical? Not so great idea. Casting Eddie Murphy as a go-for-broke Motown singer? Terrific idea. Casting Jaime Foxx as the wicked manager/husband/guy on cover of Black Entrepenuer Magazine? Um, nope. Doesn’t work. Too often bludgeoned by its own storyline – particularly everything involving Jennifer Hudson’s Effie White, who perpetually needs to be convinced of everything – Condon’s musical has neither the reverance of Gods and Monsters nor the benign mundanity of Kinsey. It’s certainly on its feet, with great, staged musical numbers and a handful of semi-tolerable songs, but it turns this era in musical history into plaincake lesson in human nature.

(6/26/07)


Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Directed by Tom Tykwer
grade: BAs a rule, any film that ends in an orgy has my vote, but Perfume: The Story of a Murder, with a crutch the size of Paris (we can’t smell what’s occuring onscreen and we don’t walk away feeling as though scents have been conveyed, exactly), wobbles a bit before it gets to the penultimate mass fucking. Don’t get me wrong: Tykwer’s formal composition and his unwillingness to shy away from the novel’s grisly edges (even smattering them with wry black humor sometimes) are terrific, but Perfume has a decidedly dull main character (played by Ben Whishaw, who has been Keith Richards, Bob Dylan and John Keats within a span of three years, by the way) and a distracting Dustin Hoffman performance, both of which leave the film in the hands of its atmosphere, which is only barely enough to carry it. It’s a pity, though. While I remembered very little of the book (as Kurt Cobain’s favorite book, I read it way back in 8th Grade), I certainly retained the importance of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille as a colorful horrorshow of awkwardness. Here, he’s portrayed with a measure of misunderstood genius in Mommy-Issue excuse mode that feels like an apology for his amorality. Tykwer is a director who carries the promise of progressive cinema – both Run Lola Run and Heaven are terrific exercises in speed and genre-reversal, while The Princess and the Warrior, his most underrated film, contains precisely the right interplay of fate and narrative – but his Perfume: The Story of a Murder has the tinkered dampness of a homegrown oxymoron: The American Studio Independent. Not a good sign.

(08/02/07)


Inland Empire
Directed by David Lynch
grade: BImmensely unsatisfying but acutely brilliant really, really, really often, Inland Empire is one of those you want to like more than you actually do. D’Angelo is right to say he felt like he was watching “the most aggressively avant-garde narrative feature ever made” during the second hour, but its also a really diminishing observation as not only is that the point, but Lynch is one of those filmmakers who so clearly shouts his mission statement from the rooftops; One cannot bring labels and actually expect them to stick. Each film belongs to the viewer and the interpretation is personal – if only for being indescribable. For me, the snippets acted thematically and I gleaned a variety of shades of loss and darkness from them, but couldn’t possibly begin to assess what feels like dream logic with any level of clarity or sincerity. It tatters on longer than it ought, continuing long after I was content with the experience (although, to those it matters most to, its hard to really make even that one stick) and sags to kitchen sinkism in more than one spot (the dancing gals, yes, but also its tendency to recycle the same means of shock). It also features moments of pure terror and hilarity, feelings Lynch has always marvelled at inviting to the same party (To be read in his throaty, accented voice: “Set them loose in the same mixed company and watch the magic of art!”)

(8/31/07)


Bobby
Directed by Emilio Estevez
grade: DFoolhardy in its thudding crisscross narrative ambition from the get-go, Bobby is lazily bursting with eight stories, featuring twenty-two characters who jabber themselves into 60s-caricature oblivion (it’s a toss-up what’s most embarrassing, but Ashton Kutcher’s participation is up there). While everyone really seems Perpetually Caught Up in this teleplay, Bobby darinly fails to reveal a single interesting/non-fawning thought on RFK, its peripheral centerpiece. Painfully and consistently irrelevant are the riffs on worsening racial divides, on a very black and white drug culture, on age (for some reason) and, without batting an eye, on the mechanics of an affair between – I’m not kidding – William H. Macy and Heather Graham. Further irksome is the way Estevez envisions himself as the kept husband to the waning cabaret singer (Moore, whose scenes with Sharon Stone are just laughable), nobly standing by a long past-due passion, as if he sort of gets off on watching the sparks burn out on her career. Emilio, however, is watching from a terrifically chilly ashpit. I don’t remember endorsing Rated X and I’m still curious: Why does this exist, exactly?

(9/15/07)


The Lives of Others
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
grade: BNotable, as was 2005’s chilling Downfall, for the cross-section detail of its fascinating and frightening subject: A militant, politically organized Germany. Sucking down fact after fact – most gleaned of Ulrich Mühe’s terrific melting robot – about the GDR’s state security ministry, the STASI, becomes a thrilling venture in and of itself. Equally revelatory is the cramped tightrope position of The Artist in such a State, a concept stacked almost to tipping with overkill theatrics, but peppered, beautifully, with a wiretap potboiler reasonably fit to tickle both DePalma (with his penchant for Voyeuristic Thrills) and Hitchcock (suspense woven among a character’s multiple loyalties). That it goes on about fifteen minutes too long isn’t really a black mark, per se (insomuch as it didn’t radically change the already overplotted experience); Its closing bookend is silly, and clearly defines the type of film it is: Ideal candidate for Best Foreign Language Academy Award.

(9/17/07)


Roving Mars
Directed by George Butler
grade: B+Though De-IMAXed, I don’t actually suspect I’ve missed out on much, here: Space is mind-blowing to me no matter how my field of vision is filled. It’s clearly aping the expertly photographed workaday atmosphere of Robert Richardson’s eye in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (and his assist on Mr. Death), using the Philip Glass music to try to catapult itself into the occasional ‘qatsi territory. It succeeds because of its unprecedented access and its candidness, but also because it leans on its serendipidous good fortune: The loony, kid-like principle investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, Steve Squyres, falls straight out of one of the aforementioned Errol Morris documentaries. He gestures crazily, draws wild parallels and, most importantly, is always aware of the camera. By the way: Imagine if this $820 Million program was given the $1-2 Trillion dollars that speculators believe we will have spent on the Iraq War when it is all said and done. Am I the only one that thinks Space should be our priority investment?

(9/17/07)


Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny
Directed by Liam Lynch
grade: B-Consistently funny, but also consistently sketch-level, operating in as episodic a manner as it did in the HBO-run, with a thin narrative thread – – no, wait, hold up, I’m taking too this seriously already… Delivers roughly the same charms as the TV show, with roughly the same gusto and definitely the same cartoonish production values. It’s a stand-up routine translated to the theatrical consciousness with no real urgency or necessity; Great comedy simply interpreted for another, not necessarily broader medium. Its also worth noting that this is Jack Black’s third foray into the abstracts of rock worship, and given that its haunches are pure lampoon, it remains the most pure and – unfortunately – the most limited. You don’t sponge his enthusiasm quite the way you do in School of Rock or High Fidelity; It’s giddy, headier, less nuanced and it fucking rocks.

(9/22/07)


Deliver Us From Evil
Directed by Amy Berg
grade: BA shockumentery, in part, but also overbearingly manipulative and far too flirty with an aspect of itself I’d almost branded unethical* (it explains this about midway through). Its rapid succession of accounts of child sexual abuse and unflinching (and unquestionable) dissection of the effects is so chilling, I found myself tortured and restless after watching it. But the bluntness – countless close-ups of a weeping, foreign-accented papa – is deeply transparent. The objective party in me knows that some of this is really unassuming, duh filmmaking (the wipes/fades/Mick Harvey doing the score), but the subjective side wins out because the argument is so important and has the balls to expose the following: a) the origin (in the 4th century, the Catholic church imposed celibacy in order to redirect the estates of dead priests from their eldest sons back to the church), b) the current status of the problem (rampant abuse of power continues, from CA’s network of troubles to that of the US), c) how high it goes – i.e. Pope Benedict XVI’s participation (he was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prior to his current appointment  and, apparently, that position had the influence and direct jurisdiction to address the allegations properly) and, d) the solution (which is, obviously, to end celibacy among priests). Deliver Us From Evil is preaching to the choir and raised my hyperbole/asshole meter a full ten volts. Anyone who has even peripherally glanced at the subject since I’ve seen this film has found themselves on the receiving end of an unholy earful of unholiness.

[ * – Father O’Grady carries on indifferently, with the remove of conscience shared only by a serial killer or someone with a severe mental disease. As we watch him draft a letter of apology, invite his victims to meet him for closure, univite them upon further reflection and, finally, wax poetic about The Catholic Church’s lasting residue, it seems almost inhuman to imagine filmmakers standing idly by as he walks in and among children and indirectly interacts with his victims. O’Grady, however, we learn, has done time in prison. Mental health professionals call the closure (in the letters) a good thing. A lawyer is shown exposing O’Grady to the public thoroughly and, most importantly, in his current town in Ireland. The filmmakers certainly prove that this particular situation is under control. It almost works to show how much is involved in getting it under control, giving nod to the grandness of this malady as a whole. ]

(9/23/07)

 

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