2007 Reviews

Time
Directed by Kim Ki-Duk
grade: B

It’s 2007’s first Asia-to-ebay DVD that I buy, plan to resell, but keep to watch a second time (as I never seem to do)! The fondest recall I have – and it’s been more than two months since I’ve seen it, so forgive me* – is the clarity with which it views people who are willing to make huge changes to themselves to renew interest in sed selves despite the film’s other masterstroke (read: rarely spotlighted) observation, that it happens to be human nature for passion to wane. Hardly new news and hardly much is done with the theme; The film seems to hover about this observation from start to finish, never really making a conclusive (or even progressive) point on the theme’s behalf. The tight reversal, mirror image structure (wherein the lady appears with only a mask and, later, the fella) is a bit too blatant for my taste, especially given my comfort with the Ki-Duk whose storytelling is unceremonious and unobstructing (both Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring and 3-Iron seem to poke about sans direction or symmetry), but whose tone and momentum were, frequently, breathtaking.

[ You may have noticed that in this 2 month period the film dropped from a B+ to a B. How astute of you to notice. Pat yourself on the back. And so on. The film just didn’t have the same resonance in memory that it did while I watched it. Also: I was on the verge of a really difficult stretch at the end of my career over at the ITT. ]

(1/9)


Zodiac
Directed by David Fincher
grade: B+

What makes Zodiac so ominously unassuming? Where does that tone one might dial up as suspicious – or even academic – come from? In part, its Fincher’s meticulous nature, believing in the honesty of this tale’s relative lack of hairpins and out-Law & Ordering Law & Order with superimposed dates, times and places anytime more than a single day passes (it helps that the time gaps are both believable and really satisfying to a filmgoer). There’s also an eerie sense of normalcy: A normal so normal it becomes weird of its own. Zodiac not only breathes this eerie normalcy, its built with a modern (read: short attention span) momentum. For being a sprawling eight reels, you’re never out of its grasp long enough to realize it. It left me with a strange pause; I was so used to the slow rhythm of unfolding facts, falsehoods and dead leads, I think it just kept going in my head even after the film ended. Gyllenhaal is growing on me, too, which is a good thing, as he plays a character almost more remote than the Zodiac killer himself (sparking a slew of similarities to Hitchcock – that bridge shot with the rising music is a big one – he only becomes the main character halfway through the film). Only Ruffalo seems to have a fully fleshed out distracted-male role, giving as consistently solid a turn as he’s raised since his fast burst of genius at the start of his career in You Can Count on Me. Downey, Jr. gives the best performance in the film, but he, too, seems only about half-there. And because its the central storyline, the actual detective work – done by all three characters – is so front and center, so beautifully observed, it consumes us. And we don’t really care that the characters are a little thin on being characters. Imagine if James Ellroy had written Family Plot.

[And the opening shot? Quite awesome.]

(3/10)


Grindhouse
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
grade: B+

An incredibly entertaining horse of a familiar shade, but certainly a different color, Grindhouse exists – and succeeds – in an atmosphere of almost complete and utter contradiction: There’s its modern sense of contextualizing that’s working beautifully to gaze upon these exploitation epics of sleazy vice and relentless violence with fond, almost honorable recall and then, there’s also the long-shot (and mostly successful) stab at recreating them, jumbled amidst physically stylistic hues (film breaking, constant missing frames, purposefully scratched and weathered look), a mesh of dialogue that is calculated to be inane (both in its general badness and in its conversational bubble a la Tarantino) and wildly racy plots brimming over with shady, pulp-charged characters. For the most part, it works gangbusters: Planet Terror in particularfeels like its in the right hands, allowing Rodriguez to do what he’s been doing for the grand underworld of Mexico for more than a decade now: Envisioning his world where gunfights tend to break out pretty often and, in between, everything’s kind of awkward and seedy. His culls easily the only Rose McGowan performance I’ve ever really dug, a nigh unrecognizable Josh Brolin (gravely voiced and eyes full of murder) and terrific stereotype color in Freddy Rodriguez’s mysterious hero and Michael Biehn’s perpetually agitated town sheriff. (Planet Terror also features Tarantino, who seems to be lampooning himself as a, heh, actor.) Its an amped up trajectory to Tarantino’s double-punch (and reported blueprint for an expanded version, likely to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) of road mayhem, following the terrifically schizophrenic adventures of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). What ensues features a great deal of girlish chatter (which, I’ve found, really works a great deal better once digested and rewatched – – hence the relatively stagnant grade perched above a review of mostly gushing) and a pair of culminations that seem almost unreal in their cruelty but, conversely, have a thrilling sense of prolonged danger that feels almost utterly unique to the game. (It helps that there’s no CGI, which Stuntman Mike does, inevitably, point out to one of the ladies.) Bonus points for leaving unresolved the fate of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Lee in the hands of backwoods Dodge Challenger owner – and former Vasalube recepient – Jasper (Jonathan Loughran).

(4/7)


The Lookout
Directed by Scott Frank
grade: C+

Its cold and snowy small town Indie-Heist Flick skeleton gets a skin of Memento Jr., only instead of tattoos, the main character just uses a notebook, making him smart enough to get mixed up in the reindeer games, but not bright enough to look like he knows what he’s doing. Which simply makes his handicap stick out all the more, like a gimmick. If we perhaps lose the notebook and, like, the twenty minutes of the film that center around the brain trauma, which could be replaced by a separate storyline (of Jeff Daniels, perhaps, getting his restaurant in tune – a plot point far more interesting to me than Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s head troubles), we could easily imagine the film without the handicap, but with all the same things happening. Even then, this tale of a dim crook hoodwinked by some slightly smarter crooks would still seem all too familiar and all too unremarkable. Scott Frank invests tinges of greatness, to be sure, leaving great betrayals unspoken between characters and giving Daniels an irreverence that’s great and funny even when the character itself seems like a frequent visitor to movie scripts (the wacky blind guy!). Gordon-Levitt is good, but wasted here. I think Randy was correct – and helps paint a great example of what’s wrong with The Lookout – when he noted the grace and rare quality in a scene where Matthew Goode (the slightly smarter crook) acknowledges that Isla Fisher (his moll) sees The Gun and that she, in turn, acknowledges that she knows what he will wind up having to do with it. Terrific moment, to be sure, but imagine the scene if Goode wasn’t there at all (as the camera suddenly, dramatically, pulls back to reveal him). Picture her – following that little peer into the level, Kansas distance (that precedes this scene) – finding the gun, looking at it, replacing it and going inside. Then imagine the film never shows a conversation about her finding it. We just see her steely conflict, the possibility of indifference certainly there and then her dismissal, because she’s able to live with herself. A far better scene methinks.

(4/11)


Hot Fuzz
Directed by Edgar Wright
grade: B-

A quite funny shred-up of action movie cliches, buttering its toast a bit too heavily by including a character who loves action movies, et al. It feels a bit like it has arrived a bit too late to be relevant, I’m afraid; Where Shaun of the Dead – a tighter film – seemed almost prompt, as a bevy of zombie-horror reimaginings were swirling in modern American vernacular (badly, I might add), Hot Fuzz, though ambitious as all get-out – and funny as hell, which alone makes it reccomendable – is out to mock a genre spin that seems to be almost dormant. It’s like a book report on too broad a subject done with outdated Encyclopedias. But funny.

[I said funny, right.]

(5/23)

Fay Grim
Directed by Hal Hartley
grade: B-

Unnecessary above all, but also not as good as Henry Fool, the film which I had considered the closest to a return to form for Hartley (whose last noteworthy film was 1992’s Simple Men). Fay Grim, unfortunately, is a cross pollination of the whole Amateur dry-wit spy thing and the storyline of Henry Fool (which, I’m imagining I’m not alone in believing didn’t beg a continuation, certaintly not with Fay – an deflated, humdrum Posey – as the main character). Hartley’s gleaming auteurism – with its canted angles and attentively shaded scores, its straight-faced incidental humor and theatrical acting style – is nicely on display here, despite the clumsily overplotted political thriller it crowds itself with. Neat bonus: Besides his regulars, Jeff Goldblum is a natural Hartleyian.

(6/4)


Spider-Man 3
Directed by Sam Raimi
grade: C-

Precisely the derivative, growth-hormone induced swill the first film was the antidote to.

(6/5)


Bug
Directed by William Friedkin
grade: B-

I genuinely liked the way it seemed to pave its own road – in its moment-to-moment uncertainty of unclassifiable goings-on – but found Peter to be only a minor eccentric, veering too often into oft-treaded waters that were on our minds from moment one. Michael Shannon beats one out, all Karl Childers menace and awkwardness, later embracing his inner splice-cut-speed twitch and, finally, letting the makeup artist take the wheel. The whole thing seems to be a masterwork of steam-building with only a casual destination (albeit, in one of the coolest sets I’ve seen in forever). The credence lent by Friedkin – even his proficient direction – gives the thing a shaggy, 70s appeal. We delight in watching Ashley Judd play trashy, but her character’s essential participation takes the film by the reigns a bit too forcefully and we seem to be caught up in a ploy to feel something tragic. Based on a play and nicely claustrophobic for it, Bug ultimately turns out to be nothing more than a portrait of a schizophrenic and a manic depressive, lacking the transcendence of their coupling.

(6/7)


Paris je t’aime
Directed by Bruno Podalydès/Gurinder Chadha/Gus Van Sant/Joel & Ethan Coen/Walter Salles & Daniela Thomas/Christopher Doyle/Isabel Coixet/Nobuhiro Suwa/Sylvain Chomet/Alfonso Cuarón/Olivier Assayas/Oliver Schmitz/Richard LaGravenese/Vincenzo Natali/Wes Craven/Tom Tykwer/Frédéric Auburtin & Gérard Depardieu/Alexander Payne
grade: B-

A vast and wrecklessly overloaded omnibus film that I will address in equally wreckless measure:

(Yes. I’m really doing it.)

Montmartre, Bruno Podalydès  (B)
[I’m a sucker for romantic whimsy, but why waste Monmartre on something that takes place, for the most part, inside a parked car?]
Quais de Seine, Gurinder Chadha(B-)
[Okay, it’s cool to see a guy come to a girl’s aid, but this thing goes absolutely nowhere – narrative and emotion wise. Also: Burka Jokes? So played.]
Le Marais, Gus Van Sant (C+)
[Gus Van Sant presents something self-consciously gay? Not surprising. Gus Van Sant presents a single gimmick dissolving before your very eyes to leave you with, um, nothing much at all. Kind of annoying.]
Tuileries, Joel and Ethan Coen(B+)
[One of the best of the bunch mostly because it actually appears to work as a short film. Buscemi getting dumped on seems like an easy potshot (for sure, it’s still funny); The sassy, hilariously overdressed kid and his disaffected mother? Fucking genius.]
Loin du 16e, Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas (C)
[My gosh, a trip through gimmick land that takes a starting three transportation changes. How…boring.]
Porte de Choisy, Christopher Doyle(B+)
[Frentic and gorgeous, it’s all but an abstract commercial; It works as a short film because sometimes short films are impenetrable, arty messes whose discombobulated instincts are a billion times more interesting than, say, most of the straightforward schlock in this collection.]
Bastille, Isabel Coixet (B-)
[Magic realism drowns out the smirk of the gimmick, but the voice over has the great quality of the new wave films, narrated without much compassion despite the obviously strong and meaningful things happening onscreen. To boot, Coixet’s preoccupation with death is still sort of interesting to me.]
Place des Victoires, Nobuhiro Suwa(no recollection)
Tour Eiffel, Sylvain Chomet (no recollection)
Parc Monceau, Alfonso Cuarón(no recollection)
Quartier des Enfants Rouges, Olivier Assayas (B)
[I’m predisposed to like Maggie Gyllenhaal, but its Assayas’ trademark spotlight on the arbitrary nature of life and his camerawork, which seems here, more than ever, at full attention to first person details. Not out of the realm of possibility that this is the one short that could work within the context of a feature that might be worth seeing.]
Place des fêtes, Oliver Schmitz(B-)
[Because the chronological snapback contains a really sweet-ish flashback – which shines above rather than cowering – in the face of some extremely self-conscious topical finger waggling.]
Pigalle, Richard LaGravenese (C+)
[General dialogue is, at times, clever and (or) funny, but conceptually, Pigalle is unconscionably silly to nary a satisfactory note.]
Quartier de la Madeleine, Vincenzo Natali (D+)
[Seriously, how do you fuck up vampires?]
Père-Lachaise, Wes Craven(C-)
[Shrill and impossibly one-note; Alexander Payne, why did you choose to sully yourself in this hogwash?]
Faubourg Saint-Denis, Tom Tykwer(B)
[Auteur theory aside, this one feels like a regression back to the Winter Sleepers/Run Lola Run style that I, being in the minority, feel like Tykwer level jumped beautifully in his subsequent films (Perfume excepted, as I haven’t seen it yet). Still, if you’re going to return to this sort of immediacy and pop energy, this is a magnificent place to do it and his segment – although rooted in a painfully inept misunderstanding of tone on the part of Melchior Beslon’s blind student – is a great deal of fun to watch.]
Quartier Latin, Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin (C)
[Off-kilter Cassavettes wannabe that’s kind of disturbing because it features Ben Gazzara’s corpse in a leading role.]
14e arrondissement, Alexander Payne (A-)
[The only one that felt genuinely endearing – still no small task for a short film – and easily the highlight. Margo Martindale’s rigid pronounciation, as my wife pointed out, isn’t wrong, exactly, but it seems to hint at a lack of awareness of the soft flow of the language, a speck made all the more impressive by Payne’s insistence on creating a strong, melancholy person – terrifically human, equal parts positivity and old-fashioned sage – in the confines of the forced, nakedly internalized transcendence (which, by the way, feels suitably and appropriately self-manufactured on her part). The midwest is still the focused demographic, in Paris, and it seems to ache with a transparency typically not felt in films about general colloquial idiosyncracies. As in his features, Payne seems to be one of the few American auteurs capable of balancing actual comedy and actual drama without upsetting the delicacy of either. ]

(6/10)


Knocked Up
Directed by Judd Apatow
grade: B+

Yesterday, while playing with my daughter, I suddenly broke out laughing while picturing Seth Rogen’s friends mocking his “throwing dice” dance: “It’s the only move he’s got.” Apatow puts the John Hughes genuineness into a sex comedy, even more vividly – yet still twenty minutes too long – than he did in The 40 Year Old Virgin, proving himself herewithto, possibly the only director making bankably smart comedies in the studio circuit. I still believe he’s working up to his masterpiece (running time of hypothetical masterpiece: 90 minutes) – and that his TV shows were, perhaps, his actual watershed – but Knocked Up is a consistent delivery device of gut laughs that it would be foolish not to see repeatedly.

(6/20)


Ocean’s Thirteen
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
grade: B

Rallies around a handsome, somewhat generous formula (eerily similar to the one in the first film), soaking up the color of its actors through Soderbergh’s cubist/studio hybrid filmmaking, itself the best part of the film. Also: No Julia Roberts.

(6/26)


Ratatouille
Directed by Brad Bird
grade: B-

Though his rat family seems a mite too Don Bluth for my taste – and the humans have an oddly cardboard feel to them – Remy is hilarious. Oswalt gives him a charge; I couldn’t help calling to mind his recent comedy album Werewolves and Lollipops: Same cynical voice, only clean and polished and lacking all reference to Rape Stove: The Stove that Rapes People. Clearly minor Pixar, Ratatouille has a patently absurd premise (amazing chef rat secretly controls novice chef by pulling his hair?). I graded it lower than Cars – which was, if you remember, pretty unbelievably out there in and of itself – but Bird’s film maintains a consistency of combustible momentum that has not yet faded from the bouncing lamp’s output. Great sequences dribble in – the old lady in WWI goggles destroying her house with a shotgun in pursuit of Remy, the all-night cooking lesson between Linguini and Remy, and London’s needing to go to the bathroom three times; The film has a sloshy wet grin on its face, almost smirking at how lightly it treads, barely concealing its rush to cap both of its very short-lived major conflicts, and perhaps, just a bit regretful that its lesson is so flagrantly front and center by close. (I threw that third sequence in to fool you. In fact, it stands as a biographical note, as this was London’s first experience in a movie theater since she was a snoozing baby.) With nothing forseeable on the plate, I stand before you to utter these words: The next one will rock.

(7/1)


Breach
Directed by Billy Ray
grade: C+

Trading the immensely successful absorption of career nuts and bolts that worked gangbusters in Shattered Glass, Ray looks at a similarly eccentric code of ethics (the end defeats the means in the eye of the perp) by way of a bystander who is, unfortunately, played with neither gravity nor maturity by Ryan Phillipe, thereby sacking any chance that the film could, under any circumstances, become even momentarily riveting. Chris Cooper glides along beautifully on the fumes of an aging paradox; He believes in the power of Communism, but lacks the full-on dedication to embrace its faithlessness, resulting in a messy dogma that requires him to quietly beg repentence for the very sins he’s in the process of committing. By the time he’s taken down – they tell you this in the opening moments of the film, so zip your spoiler hole – he’s acutely aware of his downward trajectory, going so far to point out that the GPS tracker implanted in his car interferes with the radio and so forth. But the film is still, unfortunately, about the betrayer (Phillipe), and about the FBI cronies putting said betrayer up to spying on “the worst spy in American History”. Its a case of miscasting – Laura Linney is particularly hammy as well – but also a bad mixture of 70s political intrigue (the locations, the taut, mindless suspense setpieces, et al) and 00s bluntness (exposition is waiting at every turn, with only Cooper at the reigns of his own words, at times). And while the eerieness of Cooper’s fascination with religion, galvanizing his dark streak at every turn, is nearly worth the price of admission, Breach is a pretty stale product: Sullied entertainment build around a great performance.

(7/2)


The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Directed by Ken Loach
grade: B+

“Don’t you get it? I’m not going to sell out,” sayeth Damien to his brother Teddy. Despite my being able to understand roughly 30-40% of the thick-accented, oddly unsubtitled dialogue, the distillation of singular thought is the slippery eel here, never more evident than in the manifestation of chaos and confusion; Loach renders Ireland’s early struggle for freedom from England (and, later, from itself) as a tug-o-war so complicit, its participants so uncertain of its exact terms, that they find themselves passionately fighting for a cause – any cause – even as they’re being pulled into the mud pit of ambiguity that stands between the two hypothetical teams of tuggers. This, of course, is what makes Damien’s assertion so sharp: He seems the only character in the film who has a clear head. This period is interesting of itself (see also: Michael Collins), but the struggle for a freedom that would so obviously be rightly deserved can find itself plied for message mongering, sprawling epics and even passion plays the like we’ll not refer to again. The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a bit more heightened than, say, Bloody Sunday, in terms of dramatic effect (the Black-and-Tans are almost cartoonish, I’ll grant you), but its bloodshirt attitude, led with a staggering greatness by Cillian Murphy (in his best role to date), seems to melt everything away into a blur, which brings me back to the start: Despite my trials with the actual language of the film, the confusion of a dialogue muddle actually seems to benefit a film which depicts, masterfully, the wobble of debate versus violence.

(7/4)


The Simpsons Movie
Directed by David Silverman
grade: B

The trick, of course, is to simultaneously be fresh (read: funny) and respectful to the series, both of which The Simpsons Movie does – but not all the way through. In classic, latter season episode-style (wherein the first 10 minutes – which might have little or nothing to do with the rest – are far more hilarious and engaging than the second 20), The Simpsons Movie bangs through 30 minutes of solid A material before introducing a narrative in a moment that’s obviously unavoidable but, nevertheless, the first step in an obvious downward spiral. Using self-deprecating ads, flexed PG-13 privelidges (cursing! more brazen nudity! paraphenalia!)  and the genuine charm of its characters (whom, miraculously, it stays true to), the film never stops being entertaining but, occasionally, begins to feel poorly translated; In precise words: It’s reach exceeds its grasp. It’s a bad idea to make a film like this, period, because any attempt cheapens the serendipidous magic of  its content of origin (in this case made worse by being the deeply nostalgic, utterly clear high point in my youth: Something I always, even when I changed as a person, was deeply loyal to). In embracing a place as a “movie”, it puts itself in the ring with a longer meditation. It’s middleground between being too absurd and not absurd enough works beautifully as short bursts of satire, but doesn’t work as well as a feature. All of that said, my first and most profound impression of the film is that it is rampantly, consistently funny and that this really trumps all because, for Christ’s sake, who could turn down anything bearing the brand of The Simpsons? (Except their later musical albums. And almost all the video games. And those awful, awful comic books.)
 

(7/30)


Rescue Dawn
Directed by Werner Herzog
grade: B+

Bale captures Dengler to a T – that arrogant, supersmart, excited kid in a grown-up’s flight suit – but Herzog is, as ever, the main character. He piles on off-kilter sequences, lingering shots of the jungle, a wobbly-weeble ending so in opposition to his style it is almost the most thrilling moment of what amounts to, I believe, a genre film; Herzog looms in every frame, observing human nature at face value, as he always does. It’s always kind of fun to watch Bale play someone who is just so together and he’s seen, here, being practically sainted (Herzog seems to see nothing but good and right in him). Even Zahn has a drone-muted zombie feel to him, a different rhythm than nearly his entire career (which, save Out of Sight, is a welcome surprise). Interactions are all jilted to sound almost naturalistic; The dialogue feels invented on the spot, the story made up after the “script” was filmed. There’s a looseness to it that feels like the style of pre-documentary-phase Herzog, and also, the endlessly addictive flavor of the bizarre.

(7/31)


The Host
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
grade: B+

Precisely the type of film to fit Bong’s jagged mood shifts and excessively sparkling cinematography. There’s slowly creeping J-horror hues, there is that unflappably off-kilter Katakuris-comedy element (when they’re all rolling on the floor crying and its hilarious) and there’s even that disconnected connection (Kore-eda?) as old and young characters intertwine. And then there’s Hollywood and Message tags (Giant Monster CGI-worship intermingling with environmental alarm). Bong is a director we should never import and a director so successful at combining and conquering a slew of genres within one film. Kang-ho Song, as the film’s unlikely hero, is wonderful. I could have watched it for days on end.

(8/8)


Once
Directed by John Carney
grade: B

Glen Hansard is immediately – and overwhelmingly – likable and a terrific, reasonably talented folk singer and Once is a very charming picture, indeed; I wish there had been more money available to its’ makers: Shooting it on scaborous HD served little to no aesthetic purpose.  I loved that it descended, thrillingly, from its love story haunches to reveal, instead, that indescribable bond between collaborating artists. Not only are modern films set in some medium of art typically missing this nuance (in favor of sexual attraction, unfounded romances, et al), but they seem to be missing out on the joy of pursuit – it’s supposed to be about the chase, not the payoff.

(07/30)


Superbad
Directed by Greg Mottola
grade: B

Mixed bag here, eliding on charm (it’s damn funny) even when its being utterly banal (scenes challenge the norm, but the general “last big, long night” shape of it is achingly familiar); I could’ve listened to Jonah Hill and Michael Cera jabber all day in their aimlessly filthily, empty vernacular, but most of the things that happen to them aren’t nearly as interesting – or entertaining – as the events which befall McLovin’ and The Officers (Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Seth Rogen, Bill Hader, respectively). There’s a cartoonish bent that doesn’t jive with its beautifully desheveled navigation of the hierarchy in a friendship triangle, but it’s consistently funny, which, as I’ve said countless times prior, is all we really ask of le cinema.

(08/06)


3:10 to Yuma
Directed by James Mangold
grade: C

Dull – more than anything – but also lost in a sea of its own clichedom. Feels much like something I’d see on cable – not HBO or Showtime, but TBS or TNT. Why anyone would hire such a conservative filmmaker to make a western in a time when we simply aren’t making great westerns (of the 7 post-Unforgiven titles included in Cinematical’s list, Dead Man is the only keeper). The vistas are supposed to rule, the people are supposed to be filthy inside and out and there must be a desirable (or risible – you have your pick) connection to the genre. This is, of course, the biggest ruling factor. The Western is a genre and the best way to mine the fuck out of a genre film until it cannot play straight is to hire an interesting director. Werner Herzog. David Cronenberg. Not: James Mangold. And then, here’s Russell Crowe, recycling Jack Aubrey, casually (as if it’s no big deal to shit on a brilliant turn like that one), with Christian Bale adrift in a deeply underdeveloped character we’ll just call Wilting Father. It’s not that Bale is bad, exactly, but he doesn’t transcend the role, either: His act of heroism barely raises an eyebrow. Gretchen Mol is typically annoying, Peter Fonda superfluous and Ben Foster channeling (badly) Owen Wilson. Only Dallas Roberts’ ever hurried, ever blunt Grayson Butterfield seems in sync (although Vinessa Shaw, ever the hot piece of business, works just fine.)

(9/22)


Offside
Directed by Jafar Panahi
grade: B-Offside, like Panahi’s 2001 film The Circle, operates on the presumption that repeating the same point, ad nauseum, for the entire length of the picture somehow really just, gets in there and makes the point SUPER pointy. He salvages great, wide pieces of the film with tighter, better orchestrated set pieces (the ill-fated trip to the restroom being the centerpiece, but the bus ride at close is also a humdinger) and a conceit that makes me salivate: The movie was wrought in and among Azadi Stadium’s 2006 Championship game between Iran (who will “riddle [opponent] with goals”) and Bahrain. Logistically, one has to tip one’s hat – it captures with a vivid, edgy verite texture the joyous worship of soccer, but also the wet-necked panic of both the put-upon guards and the forbidden ladies (who, dressed like men, are herded up behind metal barriers for the duration of the game). It still seems to be bearing witness, which I still can’t quite take seriously (the batch of Nationalism in this one is suspiciously contradictory to the pleading of its plight), and despite good performances all around, the film seems to work better in action than word.

(9/26/07)


As You Like It
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
grade: BWhile enjoyable, it occurred to me at the end of the film (when all the characters are singing and dancing around the interior of the traditional Japanese home) that Branagh could just have easily chosen at random the locale and motif, as he fails to connect the crisscross of Japanese feudal culture and British empirical meandering to Shakespeare’s tale of love being stalled until philosophies are firmly cemented. The scenes in the forest are the gems, mostly because the setting is homogeneous, leaving one to put out of one’s mind Branagh’s aim in placing This Play in This Place. I realize his goal is to freshen up these works that have been ground into audiences far and wide for more time than anyone can remember, but he still really ought to take a stab at drawing a fair parallel between the visual and textual worlds. That said, I was hanging on pretty much every word. Lacking massive onscreen deaths, it fits the mold of a comedy – and it’s pleasing and delightful to watch.

(10/07/07)


Eastern Promises
Directed by David Cronenberg
grade: BSince the turn of the millenium, Cronenberg has abandoned his penchant for bizarre, often supernatural horror tales (Crash included) in favor of overpowering lead performers (Fiennes in Spider, Mortensen in both A History of Violence and this film). Eastern Promises is rock solid and, like most Cronenberg films, does a whopper on you in your mind after you finish viewing it. Otherwise, it leans closer, and much earlier on the picture, to a traditional genre film than A History of Violence did (with the opening of that film unfolding some sort of strange, blank stare at the joyously mundane celebrations of the quintessential American small town a la David Lynch). Mortensen in impentrable hardass mode, sporting a flawless Russian accent, is very much The Big Show at hand. We never stop examining his demeanor – which is an exceedingly high compliment.  There are no “half-realized thematic observations” on violence and barely any social commentary in Eastern Promises (it touches on the sex trade). It’s A History of Violence stripped down to whatever’s below marrow in a bone.

(10/11/07)


Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie For Theaters
Directed by Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis
grade: B-My wrists still ache from the number of times I threw my hands up: Complete and utter craziness. Utterly forgettable – except for the robot who starts fucking people in the middle of a scene for no reason.

(10/11/07)


Black Book
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
grade: BLove the way sympathies are constantly shifting, being subverted or placed in unusual places; Otherwise, it’s Medal of Honor the movie. Everything seems to happen on top of itself, but it moves with an energy and a melodrama that’s infectious. It’s also clumsy and overstated. (Yes, I’m looking in your direction, scene where actual vat of shit gets dumped on protag’s head). Carice van Houten – I’ve decided her last name is to be pronounced Hot-en – works because she’s charming, but not nearly as charming as Sebastian Koch, a soft-hearted Nazi the film actually seems to mourn. He’s also quite good, playing a very different character here than in The Lives of Others which, incidentally, this film seems to be a terrific companion piece to. Both have the notion that entertainment value trumps political or historical insight and both play to their strengths. Neither of them really move us, though.

(10/15/07)


Transformers
Directed by Michael Bay
grade: CIt had to be two and a half hours because they needed more time to fill all the product placement requirements. It’s like a movie with fucking commercials. Special effects – like the narrative – are mostly muddied, it’s a lot of smoke and metal you can’t quite make out in a story where the government recruits a charming kid (LeBouf, who has such promise – being utterly wasted here) to help them back The Autobots as The Decepticons attack the earth. Both are hell-bent on recovering an extremely large glowing cube that also turns into an extremely convenient-sized glowing cube. There are concepts that work best in cartoons – and Transformers (Spielberg blessing or no Spielberg blessing) is one of them. Live-action only underscores the silliness that exists in the space between the viewer and his robot-worship.

[ Yes. I brought the toys down from the attic. Sue me. ]

(10/20/07)


The Hoax
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
grade: C+The film keeps trying to get us to believe that this is a HUGE cloak of wool he’s somehow pulled over everyone’s eyes, but actually, it’s not all that unbelievable:  Hughes lore was always easy for the masses to get caught up in and Irving also knew that Hughes’ eccentricity would make it easy to bend lies to his favor. In addition, the goodwill of people is routinely mixed with a sense of skepticism that they suppress in the name of money. The terrifically charming Clifford Irving character escapes the bear traps, routinely, rotely and far too easily, which allows the film to veer into biopic territory, sensationilizing and fictionalizing things, essentially making up things about a faker who faked stuff (which has an interesting quality). Hallstrom, however, seems to want to include every detail so badly that he makes the film move at light speed, never stopping to revel or soak. Never stopping to give us a sense of how long it took things to happen or whether anybody enjoyed it, always right there loading up the next con. A better choice might have been Richard Kwietniowski, whose similar Owning Mahoney, lingered longer and more convincingly over a financial Sword of Damacles.  Incidentally, Gere looks a great deal like Irving, so the casting seems sort of predetermined. (At any rate, he’s just fine in the film.) By the end, I simply yearned to watch ‘F’ is for Fake again.

(10/23/07)


Michael Clayton
Directed by Tony Gilroy
grade: BIt seems to take place somewhere between the casual routine of 80s wealthmongering and 90s Grisham (sic) potboilers, an unnamed time period which, in and of itself, is a curiosity tickler. The film proceeds rut-set in its worldview of lawyers keeping dirty work clean than nearly any I’ve seen. Milking big corporations while doing the horrible work of finding legal loopholes to keep them afloat is not only commonplace, bit its got its own department head: The fixer. Clooney’s Clayton exists between the lines of surface law work; His job description is summed up in three words: Put out fires. (A terrific montage finds him doing just that; His tool is the phone, his workshop a sprawling corner office and a menacing company Beamer). Alas, Michael Clayton‘s tale is as rote as they come – mirroring Erin Brockovich and The Firm somewhat openly – but the sheer bravado of its execution is what’s important. Par example: It opens with an immeasurable promise on a crazed non sequitur of a rant by Tom Wilkinson over a mash-up of locale and texture, which bleeds into Clooney playing cards intercut with Sydney Pollack asserting his lofty stature in one phone call with the press. Clooney gives a burnt out speech (with definite tones of Mametspeak) to Denis O’Hare’s uber-panicked hit and run perpetrator, speeds off in frustration, then mysteriously leaves his soon-to-explode car to more closely examine three horses. (I thought: Holy shit.) It starts getting to the point after this – with the time shifting left to sift somewhere without a solid continuity – and gradually stays just south of riveting, introducing a poisonous emotional center it simply cannot be bothered with (i.e. – all of Clooney’s familial ties). Though the scenes with his son are flat-out embarrassing, the understated Clooney performance continues unevaded; He’s a terrific sad sack carrying his moral baggage with him in one hand and his dusty, semi-forgotten conscience in the other. I probably took to its milieu far more enthusiastically than the film intended: Michael Clayton is hardly about atmosphere and barely about culture. It – like the profession it showcases – is about the payoff and the payoff is all about itself. Which seems somehow both fitting and annoying at the same time.

(10/28/07)


My Best Friend
Directed by Patrice Leconte
grade: C+Leconte can give even the most ham fisted of premises a classy, almost-repaired lining, camouflaging the bluntest of social commentaries and the most outrageous of contrivances. There’s a screwball lightness to the first third of this tale of a myopic antiques dealer (Daniel Auteuil) forced to make a friend after a drubbing by his bourgeoisie entourage, who correctly accuse him of being friendless. Tedious plot arrangements follow. He wagers an expensive vase with his partner. He happens to have a daughter with asthma. The friend he makes is the most unlikely of acquaintances (a trivia obsessed cabbie with A PAST). And so on. And so forth. Auteuil is stiff, but not quietly wretched (as in Cache). He’s a bore, but not really a conniving bore. Some protagonist. He seems silly running around in this maze of modern ambiguity: Is it him, or is it the professional world that has forced him to trust only those his business dictates? The film jams its touchy feely puzzle pieces into their places without much care, with an offputtingly forced interlocking. Then it gets all sappy-go-emotive, putting us less in mind of a wildly exaggerated wit (as with its first act farcical leanings) than a film as (gulp) straight-lipped and genuine as it appears.

(10/31/07)


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Directed by Andrew Dominik
grade: A-Simply being a solid Epic Western is significant (they’ve gone extinct, you see), but this is the sort of film you know is special without adding things up. James’ charms may actually be taller than most of the tales told about him and then – wait, who was this Ford fellow? Both Pitt and Affleck breath their opposing ambitions, the former squirmingly ominous and the latter deviant, childlike and finally, bitter with self-pity. (The epilogue to the events depicted in the film’s title has the dirty snow-splattered expansion look of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a jarringly far cry from the rest of the film’s sharp-yet-dreamy visage.) It sounds terrific, too, culling dialogue both hyper-colloquial and snappy, dolled out by an impeccable supporting cast over a haunting Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score. Langourously yet clearly, TAoJJbtCRF also employs a time disconnect that unfolds with subtle staging (longer facial hair, status of wounds) and lingering narration. The voice over is one of the best uses of such in recent memory, allowing a natural outpour – urgency of exposition be damned. The straightforward Hugh Ross-voiced ruminations on everything and nothing seem down-to-earth and straight, but the mass of the film seems to be rooted in some sort of miraculously congruent highlight reel which – while not of the sensationalist variety – scarcely uncoils with a confessional texture. Is it a definitive revisionist statement on the oft-tackled subject or another longspun yarn? Largely unimportant. It whiles in a magical place, kowtailing to our every squint of the softest cinemascope beauty; One breathtaking set-up after another. Miraculously, its scope never overtakes its intimacy, masterfully carving out cold, inside spaces and character gradation with the same precision taken to blur out one side of the screen, mimicking a scape of snowy mountains seen through imperfect frontier glass. Although it couldn’t be a more different vision than Dominik’s outstanding Chopper, this film also seems preoccupied with a bewildered fascination at romanticized villainy.

(11/1/07)


Sicko
Directed by Michael Moore
grade: C-Repeating himself like a mantra in context-less snatches of heartache and insurance company betrayal, Moore is milking it big time, jettisoning any shred of his audacious entertainment in favor of ill-conceived trips to Cuba and invasive, downright bad filmmaking. Oh, no – wait – did I say Filmmaking? I meant Afternoon Talk Show Theatrics. It’s official: He’s lazing about, gravy-training his place as the rebel who gets everyone talking, but has nothing to say himself. I walked away from Sicko thinking that America itself is contorting in the throes of a greedy downward spiral – a descent each of the profiled Countries of Supreme and Righteous Benefit probably had many hundreds of years ago. He never once acknowledges how old France or Great Britain are, nor the greased track America’s role as Supreme Leader of the Free World is. No drawbacks to socialized medicine are given the nod (Tony Wilson’s death anyone?), nor are there suggestions for how to replace our current healthcare system or what a good or likely plan might look like. Plenty of shots of Hilary as they discuss her plan’s rise and fall, though. As if Moore could influence an election (see: Farenheit 9/11 or, rather, don’t.) This is embarrassing.

(11/6/07)


The Boss of it All
Directed by Lars Von Trier
grade: B+Von Trier bookends the film, as pretentiously as the actor in the center ring of it all, by telling us that we are not to read the ensuing “comedy” in the typically intellectual terms we’d nearly trip over ourselves to apply to one of his films. No, in point of fact, he’s arrested his own control by using Automavision, a process that allows a computer to select camera angles and movements at random and apply them (the idea being, much like the concept of his Dogme films, to free art from its oversimulated shackles). The result is an aggressively obtuse visage, almost purposefully artsy – without being purposeful, of course – and nothing if not a rider, tacked on to the butt of the joke. Ostensibly making his presence known to show that he’s not only reserved the right to laugh at highbrow expectation (by making the surface, without question, “the boss of it all”), but that he, himself – Von Trier –  is still The Boss of It All simply because (just as the actor in the film) he has chosen to play that role. The “acting” is almost stilted with improvisation (some of it out-and-out hilarious), but it never seems to escape being mere fascination (or, at least curiousity). Of course, in the end, the whole thing plays to a sliver of open eyes: It’s a stunt designed to take the piss out of both convention and its defiance, leaving only those of us who get a kick out of his constant play to up the ante and refresh the medium. A point, to be sure, that he’d revel in taking offense to.

(11/9/07)


Talk to Me
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
grade: B-Unfortunately, the movie’s spirit would have been better matched to its Jester of the Airwaves’ main character, Petey Green. As it stands, this perfectly servicable, respectably solid exercise in safe mode behaves like the other protagonist: The innovative marketing man struggling to cope with the fact that his ambition has muted his blackness. (Or has it?) (Groan.)

(11/11/07)


No End in Sight
Directed by Charles Ferguson
grade: B+A superb and disturbing chronicle of All Things Iraqi Freedom, which I found particularly valuable, given that I formed an opinion at the beginning of the war and generally tuned out of its day-to-day events. No End In Sight isn’t just a fine film because it fills you in, it also examines the war as if it were something winnable and deconstructs the seemingly nonstop flood of failures by elected officials to gain control. It’s a sober affair in that way.

(11/13/07)


No County For Old Men
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
grade: A-Poised with a spareness that harmonizes with the spryness of its storytelling, Joel and Ethan Coen’s existential nightmare seems epic and small all at the same time. Carrying far less weight about it, its world dolling out information only as it must, the hyper-colloquial fetish that seems so rich and funny in most of their canon hides on the borders, allowing a tight yet formless tale – mano-a-mano across Texas over $2M with the aging sheriff on their trail – of no particular spice, to play out like a John Ford western as directed by Terence Malick. There’s no wanting for great, towering performances – all three principles are exceptional – but it is, without a doubt, the oxygen-tank brandishing bagman – Anton Chigurh – who seems to linger in memory: He is at once as terrifying a presence as the seen-from-afar Michael Myers in Halloween and as calmly, reasonably menacing as a quieter version of Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. I’m drooling, on a regular basis, to go out and experience it again. So there’s that on top of that.

(11/25/07)


Black Snake Moan
Directed by Craig Brewer
grade: BIf nothing else, prepare to be blindsided by a film whose premise concerns a black, backwoods Tennessee farmer who chains up a White Trash nympho in his home in order to tame her wildfire ways. How could this premise equal this genuinely moving portrait of confronted demons and self preservation? Ever eschewing cynicism for the throes of real, actual hope, Craig Brewer downplays otherwise wrenching or cruel realities,  preoccupying himself with feeling the pulse and rhythm of the poor and religious of the American South. Something about his voice seems to filter the grit from these worlds of depravity, unspooling big, terrifically likable antiheros. Lazarus, the drunken, greatly torn Bluesman at the center of Black Snake Moan, is a far meatier character than Jackson has allowed himself in the last ten years and its his performance – his best since Jackie Brown – that gives the film such a fiercely watchable edge.

(11/26/07)


Hairspray
Directed by Adam Shankman
grade: B-Put aside Travolta’s Edna Turnblad (who is tangibly distracting in every scene in which (s)he appears). Put aside its John Waters root. Even in the hands of Adam Shankman (of Bringing Down the House and The Pacifier fame), Hairspray‘s flirtation with camp in the presence of unabashed Broadlywooding should work, but for some reason it comes off as glossy and overwrought: A too-rounded, oversaturated work of absurdist nostalgia. Most of it seems to be an opportunity for merryment – making it a happy and unoffending affair – but does it really need to exist?
 

(12/4/07)


Ghosts of Cité Soleil
Directed by Asger Leth and Milos Loncarevic
grade: B+Never clearly supporting, decrying, sympathizing or finger wagging, Asger Leth and Milos Loncarevic are clearly caught up in the 2004 saga of brother Billy and 2Pac, inexperienced gang leaders at the head of The Chimeras, who were armed and payrolled by former President Aristide to suppress the growing dissent on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Highly influenced by American rap culture, the brothers reign supreme in a shanty ghetto called Cité Soleil (or, as the UN calls it, “the most dangerous place on earth”). Fashioned more like a documentary posing as a docudrama (they don’t just bait the camera, it’s to the point where they’re appropriating moviespeak), Ghosts of Cité Soleil has threads that make it seem like a portrait of the faceless baddies in films like Black Hawk Down (here’s how the screaming cot-addicts chucking ginormous bags of rice out of the back of a truck feel) or a non-fiction reversal of City of God. But it works more passionately as a sort of beaming message, spotlighting the existence of places like this in the very world we inhabit. And it worms its way into your head with nonstop questions: Should these men be pitied? Are they abominable? Are they a product of a system that’s abominable? Is there a peacekeeping solution? How did such unprecedented access not result in the death of the filmmakers? Why in God’s name would Lele the French Aid Worker get sexually mixed up with either of these unpredictable, insanely dangerous men in a country Michael Worobey called “the stepping stone [HIV] took when it left central Africa and started its sweep around the world”?

(12/5/07)


Halloween [unrated version]
Directed by Rob Zombie
grade: B-Fellow perpetrators of The Grand Theory of The Auteur take note – Halloween is the one where it becomes gospel that Rob Zombie has a clearly defined, markedly recognizable style of filmmaking. Whether its reveling in tense, confrontational sequences of verbal abuse or miring in subject matter that’s uncommonly disturbing, Zombie seems to be stylizing violence to play like professional sleaze. Halloween would seem to be an interesting experiment – and in some ways it is – but the picture’s spinoff tales (the pre-Michael Myers saga and a reimagining of the events near the end of his rampage) are padded with craggy, improvised muck. They would easily fit into his canon if not attached to the film’s second act (the most intriguing part of the film), a section that feels like a gushingly awestruck homage. Whether it’s casting the “muse” of Zombie’s trashy world, Sid Haig, in the minor but arcanely inclusive role as Chester Chesterfield the Gravedigger or Malcolm McDowell’s spot-on parody of Donald Pleasance’s out-of-sync, hyper-alarmed Dr. Samuel Loomis or simply that he wanted to reflect his own love for the film, this narrative bridge is easily the best work Zombie has done to date.

(12/27/07)


28 Weeks Later
Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
grade: BThe first 11 minutes are fawesome – possibly the most exhilirating thing I’ve seen all year. That crap where the mom returns and the dad seeks her out and gets infected and then goes after his kids – who, as protagonists, could put coffee to sleep – sours a film that actually seems worthy of its topical tones of lockdown and enemy identity.

(1/1/08)


Futurama: Bender’s Big Score
Directed by Dwayne Carey-Hill
grade: B-Time shift is neato and I really enjoy the family dynamic, but its about a third as funny as the show was, works awkwardly in “feature” length and seems guilty of cramming everything but the kitchen sink into a film that really ought to be straight up whimsy. (Although, there was that episode where Fry gets his dog back from the past that’s positively heartbreaking…)

(1/2/08)


I’m Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes
grade: B+A soft mush of a kaleidoscope that comes at us from all sides; The best kind of sensory overload; An experience more than a film. It would be cliche, at this point, to mention that the text encapsulates Dylan’s many-faced persona, but it does, and with such imagination and energy. If only Haynes had the benefit of such confidence/clarity of thought when he made Velvet Goldmine.

(1/10/08)


There Will Be Blood
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
grade: A-A period picture that finds so many great, exhilirating moments: The first gush of oil, the savage finale, Daniel realizing he’s been betrayed by his “brother”, Daniel’s baptism, the first 15 minutes, etc. Day-Lewis is, yet again, the eerily compelling villian at the center of a variety of turf wars; He embodies the sly grizzle of charming wrongheadedness, a man of strong codes (none of them including honesty) and a man tortured by a load bearing baggage called “family”. Its monumental in its scope, because it probes so unselfconsciously, with no call to soften or mythologize Little Boston’s Frontier fumes. It takes place in that great, bruised world of old fashioned manners and naive rubes – but it also takes place in a blossoming Corporate America where conglomeretes own the product and the means to move it, merely schnookering from a more removed, business-as-usual angle. “I look at people and I see nothing worth liking” is not merely Daniel’s drunken campfire “confessional”, but the attitude of the film, which allegorizes (by close) the most blunt – however conveniently simplified – revelations on Religion’s inseparable relationship/eternal struggle with Capitalism. Anderson’s confidence is so key to this coming off; He tells the story without an ounce of hurry, leaving it to sprawl appropriately and satisfyingly.

(1/13/08)


Syndromes and a Century
Directed by Apichatpong Weersethakul
grade: BFor my money, it fails to duplicate the magical symbiosis of Tropical Malady‘s 2 acts, a trick it’s only faulted for because, well, it’s execution is so similar; It just seems more straightforward, though, as if conceived prior to that film (its more natural segue, methinks). Which is not to say its experience is unwarranted. I watched Blissfully Yours last week and enjoyed Syndromes and a Century for the same reason, if only to maintain The Haze, my established coin for the post-film stupor Weersethakul’s films lull you into.

(1/17/08)


Joshua
Directed by George Ratliff
grade: B-Boasts an edgy, effectively ambiguous sense of dread and holds it like a pro; Even its eventual docking at precisely the port you expect (i.e. – title character’s act of murder) is forgivable. Rockwell prances around in a tired state of The Eternal Good Sport (until he doesn’t, that is) and Farmiga seems to be wearing the stale perfume of Bitch (at first, we’re unsure whether she’s the central character – a nifty trick in a film titled thusly). Ratliff gets another sharp swipe in, too. He paints the snarling Evangelical Christian grandparents in broader strokes than he presented in Hell House, giving the film its identity undertone (that, and the obsession with Egyptian art, which also underlines themes of mythology). It subverts and makes unique material rife with plot chasms, cliches and great chunks of The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby.

(1/18/08)


The Bourne Ultimatum
Directed by Paul Greengrass
grade: B-Not sure how much I care for the whip-bang shakycam here; The action sequences are beautifully orchestrated, but ineffectively executed. There’s great imagery, but too much speedcutting for the eye to decode everything while we’re watching it (as if to hide inconsistencies with confusion). The shifting loyalties of the characters (Julia Stiles, Joan Allen and Edgar Ramirez all turn coat) are what’s most terrific about it, showing that it has a depth beyond its running time, but this poses another problem altogether, as the latent sympathy we’re clearly meant to project on Bourne never feels as strong as it could be (unless you watch the other two films right before seeing this). The film relies on inane flashbackery to fill in the casual viewer, with Bourne seeming so remote as to be a supporting character in a film about the corrupt U.S. Government. Even its America-is-the-Evil-Empire bent, however, couldn’t sway me: Ultimatum is on par with Identity in being an overdramatized alternative for a generation who were waiting out Pierce Brosnan’s imminent exit as a nigh obsolete 007.

(1/29/08)


Exiled
Directed by Johnnie To
grade: B-There’s a tinge of goof to To’s openly hyperdramatized but smooth-as-silk stylizations, themselves so boldly and carefully crafted as to inspire glinting eyes and slowly gaping jaws. It plays like a Stephen Chow movie that’s attempting a parody of the modern Hong Kong gangster flick. Candy, plain and simple.

(2/3/08)


Sunshine
Directed by Danny Boyle
grade: B-Completely outlandish, despite writer Alex Garland’s (apologetic?) claim that it was a “‘love letter’ to psychologically minded science fiction”. Unlike Garland’s previous script for 28 Days Later, all of the procedural garbledegook comes out as raw exposition, its characters little more than thinly veiled archetypes unable to garner an iota of emotional pulse (except the dude that rests somewhere between human and God – he was just fucking silly). That said, Boyle’s film is visually superior to nearly all of the recent and not so recent (read: 90s) Martyrs-in-Space-Save-Earth-at-Zero-Hour films. Seeing sunlight as a universally healing glow that’s both the object of the calamity and the most beautiful thing anyone on the ship can possibly imagine, Danny Boyle creates a larger-than-life world that feels less overtly digitized, more aligned with expanding the grasp of the medium on a palatable level by hiding the computer-age tinkering in some sort of middleground between imagination and well placed shadows. There’s a thud early enough in the film – I think its the first sequence where dialogue is spoken, in point of fact – which, on the same apologetic tip mentioned earlier in the notice, makes it distinctly possible to enjoy the film as a piece of visual art, almost in the same way Johnnie To’s Exiled makes its narrative completely disposable. That’s not quite the case here, but the concept is similar.

(2/6)


The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Directed by Seth Gordon
grade: BStumbling into real life drama that’s only interesting because its characters are larger-than-life nerds, here be the same sort of colloquial heroes championed in films like Hell House and Hands on a Hardbody. Ostensibly, the rivalry betwixt Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell takes the center ring, but film attempts to encircle this strange clash over the highest Donkey Kong score on record with a broader vision (that doesn’t fare as well) about being a so-called “winner”. Where both Wiebe and Mitchell have achieved success by any nerd definition – the former a science teacher with a fine family and the latter, owner of a hot sauce empire (including a restaurant) and married to a woman with gigantic breasts – neither can let themselves rest in an arena populated by grown men obsessed with classic arcade games. The film never mocks or jabs these characters, smartly – and without snickering – letting them speak their own language and unsheath their own motives. (And, to be fair, its always entertaining to watch a jerk and Billy Mitchell is quite the asshole.)

(2/8)


Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Directed by Shekhar Kapur
grade: C-An superheated pageant that looks immensely overpolished, overthought and sounds far too spec-script. Most offensive, however, is the way it manages to reduce premier thespians like Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen and Geoffrey Rush to whispers of their former selves. Historical epics – particularly one as unceremoniously proficient as Elizabeth – don’t seem like the best place to attempt character continuation and duplication of financial success (without being totally off-the-wall a la Ocean’s Twelve, I mean). I long for installment the third, thereby flushing this out of Kapur’s system for keeps.

(2/11)


Atonement
Directed by Joe Wright
grade: BAtonement‘s uber-depressing cascade of devastation is rendered somewhere between sweeping and intimate, subverting each with a casualness that seems almost cruel.  But for all its darkness and grandeur, Robbie and Celia seem bottled up in a predetermined opera of fatalism (albeit one that I was thoroughly wrapped up in.) The narrative is immediately collapsible, which makes it tough to fault its transparency; It’s more entertaining than it has any right to be.

(2/20)

[ Briony’s tender scene with a dying soldier carefully cements her as someone to whom truth is an innate commodity in real life and she dangles on the hook in a permanent state of guilt, even weeping as an old woman. Her rendering, finally, of the title action subverts this, but gives her such a terrific dimension: While everyone else has to live with their reality, she can molest it, fictionalizing – but confessing so – and both pulling one over on her audience and achieving catharsis. She seems so despicable and then so pitiable but, finally, she turns out to be too self-serving to pity. As played by three generations of actresses (Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave – all amazing), she’s the main character in a story that finds her removed from the key events almost entirely (as a witness, as a submissive nurse and, finally, as a writer). The film also indulges in and breaks free from its Merchant Ivory spectrum: Subject matter and faux-Richard Robbins score weigh in against a director who fancies moving the camera a bit more and trotting out digital touch-up here and there. We coast through the near-audacious luxury of the homestead with its surrounding natural elements, an otherworldly tracking shot through the beach on Dunkirk and all the requisite drawing rooms, fountains, churches and graveyards. But for all its darkness and grandeur, Robbie and Celia seem bottled up in a predetermined opera of fatalism (albeit one that I was thoroughly wrapped up in.) The narrative is immediately collapsible, which makes it tough to fault its transparency: Its out – as a tale retold – is at once a cop-out and the point. Significantly better than expected, but Wright & Co. should have adapted McEwan’s “Amsterdam”, a far better tale.]


Margot at the Wedding
Directed by Noah Baumbach
grade: BIt pains me to point out a genuinely bad tonal mismatch in a film by Noah Baumbach, but Margot at the Wedding mixes the dark tones of transcending childhood abuse and muted 70s talk-a-thons (particularly those of Rohmer) into a perpetual rehash of The Squid and the Whale‘s overtly-mature-teenager-worshipping-the-writer-parent verve. The whole thing is more of a curiousity – minor Baumbach for sure – with everyone in tight-knit, improvisational mode, giving it a lived-in resolve that – while remarkable – still adds up to a central character who really isn’t nearly as interesting as a way-backseat neighborly feud between said central character’s sister/fiance and a family who guts pigs in their spare time. I love its almost creepy shell: All dark, natural light with a note of grainy bluetone that looks, firmly, like film. Baumbach’s ear for dialogue continues to be his genius; He can be the funniest writer in the business when he wants to be. Jack Black’s casting is, I think, meant to be funny.

(2/20)


American Gangster
Directed by Ridley Scott
grade: B-The title alone bleeds apathy (an American gangster film? Really? What more can be said?) and the film follows suit, for the most part. Marginally telling is the sense that acting bravura not only consistently trumps anything approaching “substance”, but that its essentially the only anomalous show in town. Details of interest are few and far between, accentuated by how insanely broad the film feels, never indulging procedural humdrum, which is where filmmaking tends to distract us from perpetual cinematic déjà vu. This said, Crowe is in dumpy Wigand mode, all potent honesty in the face of logic, carrying his physical bulk with less grace, as if to embrace imperfection, a trait that manifests itself in his thankless, pointless career chasing drug dealers. Easily the least interesting of the dovetailing plotlines, we watch through a haze of yawn as the fuzz breaks open a drug runner and then corruption on the force with an indifference that plays is TV at best, rote at worst. Washington, on the other hand, casts as steely spell, tapping the complete reversal of any villian he’s ever portrayed; Never has he exuded confidence with such quiet, with such calm and with such genuinely agreeable fervor. He has flip-out moments, but none recall Alonso, and none match the terrifying tranquility of the close-range murder of a rival on a busy street. It’s a scene that calls out to you from the annals of the genre and reverses your expectations breathlessly and shockingly. It might be the one moment in the film where Ridley Scott is less preoccupied with The Art Direction of the 70s or ensuring the film’s Prestige feel, and is, instead, genuinely focused on the darkness of the world around. Like nearly half a dozen films in the Denzel Washington canon, American Gangster is forgettably unnecessary save for his turn.

(2/21)


Juno
Directed by Jason Reitman
grade: B+Dialogue is pretty much king here, and I can’t figure out whether its merely cynicism knocked up to fetish levels or an artistic rendering of the sound of empty youth (a la The Doom Generation). Whatever the case, it sounds wonderful. Ellen Page defends her fear with a mask of unwavering cleverness and the actress is more than fit, Hard Candy and its operatics be damned. Batemen’s character – with his unending vigil to a dead career in the rock star arts – feels immensely relatable, but I must confess that it’s Michael Cera’s sensitive and tender baby daddy that truly clicked into me: It’s no small feat to inspire fond recall of easily the worst and most difficult portion of my own life. Smart plan on this one, too, Reitman: Let someone else write it.

(2/23)


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Directed by Tim Burton
grade: BCompletely and utterly tailored for Tim Burton from start to finish, but without the hollowness of the equally Burton-suited Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Everything about it feels unrelenting, as if anything could happen – the single quality lacking in Burton’s work since at least the 90s. Depp and Co. sing at least on-key, but their voices are never more than adequate, which doesn’t irk me too terribly much.

(2/24)


Charlie Wilson’s War
Directed by Mike Nichols
grade: BImmensely entertaining in a 90s-throwback-sorta wise; For my money, the grand tasteless experiment of matching step and tone of The American President to outline our covert war in Afghanistan in the late 80s is really pretty much the point – and I was taken with it (dig every scene in Afghanistan and just how ignoble and cartoonishly American-perspective driven it is). Nichols suckles at the teet of Sorkin’s charming vernacular with a more mature, but less winning sparkle than Rob Reiner (believe it or not, this film can’t seem to make a succinct case for Wilson’s Mr. Smith heroics without first considering the blowback, always nodding to how far removed we are as an audience in 2007). It has the makings of a great hybrid but, in the end, seems far too content flushing it all down the sewer with prestige and sincerity. It’ll play great in hyper-loop on cable a shockingly few number of months from now.

(2/25)


Gone Baby Gone
Directed by Ben Affleck
grade: B+Its effective reach – to divide an audience over a significant, damned-if-you-do-and-if-you-don’t moral standing – is matched only by its supreme outlandishness, made surprisingly palatable by Affleck the younger, who renders the very mechanics of struggle within archetypal detective characters who are idealistically pure (and whose seemingly selfish motives have all been red herrings). It stages this in a deeply lived-in urban landscape: A not quite poor, but definitely desperate working class Boston. Amy Ryan is terrific; Declaring, at one point to feel “like 9/11”, her thundering indifference – coupled with “a lot of coke” – become a festoon of devastation when the camera pans back to reveal the shattering weight of trusting the system. Depth be damned, though, Gone Baby Gone is immensely watchable, particularly in its crackerjack pulp novel vim (a vim the far too polished and pious Mystic River seemed to avoid like the plague for some reason). And we owe it all to one Ben Affleck – – whoever the fuck he is.

(2/26)


The Darjeeling Limited
Directed by Wes Anderson
grade: C+Brody’s backstory is tiresome from the word go, as is his disposition, which wouldn’t be such a blow if Owen Wilson weren’t so tedious to watch. This is a high grade to give for a film where Wes Anderson becomes a parody of himself and Owen Wilson feels genuinely annoying to me. Hotel Chevalier and its roots (namely, every scene with Jason Schwartzman, when he is not with his brothers) coupled with the tight (but not reductive) look of the film keeps the promise of greatness possible, even though a good peg of the running time feels like a more literal version of The Fathers theme that’s been remarkably constant and substantantial in his other, better films. Only without the father. Imagine if The Royal Tenenbaums had simply been a comedy about the tension between Chas, Margot and Richie: It would likely have been pure commonplace at best, shrill at a more likely worst. I very much expected to find the relationships between these three brothers relatable to my own sibling scenario. I was hard pressed.

(2/27)


Beowulf
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
grade: BRousing and spartan take, but the story itself is still the real prize. The motion capture is slightly more advanced here than The Polar Express, but retains the same inherant dichotomy: If this process is being used to economize on prevalent, sky’s-the-limit special effects pictures, awkward human faces are the price. Beowulf is the most successful of the three I’ve seen (Final Fantasy rounding it out), as it playfully alters everyone into either unrecognizable – but plausible – faces (e.g., Robin Wright-Penn) or beard and weight embellishments (The Blokes: Winstone, Hopkins, Malkovich and Gleeson). That it leans so heavily on Angelina Jolie’s digi-rotoscoped breasts – a strangely hypnotic fascination the film has for some reason – guarantees that whether it be chucked in the fantasy nerd bucket or the intellectual scholar bucket, Zemeckis’ film will likely not be earmarked for High School English Class consumption.

(3/1)


In the Valley of Elah
Directed by Paul Haggis
grade: B-Completely interesting and noble study of atypically complex, really stunning characters with a completely baffling/laughably tacked-on thematic parallel to the story of David and Goliath it seems content to lug around, I’m afraid. It also seems to have an interesting – or at least uncommon – political standpoint (showing the direct damage The Iraq War does on people on the homefront), but ends the film in rather treacly territory (involving a flag, I must warn).  Cliches rack its case-cracking antics, but the film is completely and utterly engrossing. I’ll settle for a schizophrenic, contradictory, can’t-get-out-of-his-own-way Paul Haggis over the Paul Haggis that made Crash any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

(3/8)


My Kid Could Paint That
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev
grade: B+Suggesting itself into a chinese box of sorts, My Kid Could Paint That at first seems enraptured by the story of Marla, a 4 year old Binghamton girl who has a brief, but profitable flare-up of success as an outsider artist. As the story could easily be encapsulated in a brief news segment, Bar-Lev winds up examining whether people feel conned by modern art, itself entirely subjective and, often, suspiciously simplistic. Then it looks at the media that turns on its subject, the film argues, in order to make the story more interesting for the documentarian, who then begins to question whether he himself believes the 4 year old is the only one making this art – a move, he ponders, that might also be concocted to further spice up the story. The reflexive nature of the piece unfolds with interest, but it doesn’t hurt that Marla’s paintings are awesome to look at and that she and her brother seem completely unaware of the situations swirling around them. The whole thing seems to court its larger subject – namely, the horrible Catch-22 of fame – with clarity and fearlessness.

(3/8)


Into the Wild
Directed by Sean Penn
grade: B-There are moments of greatness, certainly his dogma appeals to me greatly, but I doubt the interiors of the book made it onto the screen intact – despite Penn’s attempts with narration, time-jumping and screen titles. The great question I found myself discussing with friends was of whether his parents deserved to be shunned, which must have seemed more relevant than anything to do with the main character. (By the way: I say they deserved it, damn the consequences.) Unfortunately, though, Hirsh’s quest – while it may or may not have happened that way – seems as rounded as any road movie, making the requisite mother-figure stop along the way (and, surprise, she lost a son! what a fucking coincidence!), the obligatory – or, you could say, tacked the fuck on – romantic interlude and, finally, Hal Holbrook – in a sequence seemingly justified by its Oscar nomination, but which unspools in as rote and as predictably grasshopper as you could possibly imagine. The best scenes find Hirsch alone in the wilderness (per the title); These are wisely interspersed throughout instead of relegated to the last bit of the film. Penn’s films have yet to blow me away. Tossing Eddie Vedder’s voice in didn’t help, either.

(3/11)


Persepolis
Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
grade: BThe first hour has history lesson tendencies, but the animation so fluidly communicates the arc, so beautifully and comfortably renders the experiental aspects of such, that the film becomes entertaining as both an episodic tinkering of a graphic novel and a straight line narrative that mutes many of its coming-of-age cliches. After that, it loses steam, finding itself with little story left to tell but the ever-safe, ever-present embrace of a meandering personal responsibility following the rejection of both the fruits of freedom and the restrictions of oppression. Its best moments reminded me a bit of My Neighbors the Yamadas, its worst bits of every Long Journey From Third World Bleakness import ever made.

(3/12)


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Directed by David Yates
grade: B-A mess, to be sure; The wife was explaining all the big losses it took in terms of content, most of them rendering what was onscreen scant and far less effective. It’s entertaining, though, and still quite exciting to see all of these reputable British thespians lending their craft to something this inane, and watching its fantasy bubble float along without so much as a speck of substance. Oldman’s death is among the most awful experiences of the series thusfar.

(3/16)


Lust, Caution
Directed by Ang Lee
grade: CDull, more than anything; Tang Wei is fine and Tony Leung is a fine hardass, but their communicatory sex – its uniquely titillating nature notwithstanding – has little or nothing to do with little or nothing. Her theater cronies are in full-on melodrama mode from the word go and their antics become sillier and sillier (oh, and they’re supposed to be her backup in the “resistance”). The film is unfocused – or rather, it’s focused on too much that’s not all that interesting. Or, rather, should be more interesting, given that its about a spy operation during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai.

(3/16)


We Own the Night
Directed by James Gray
grade: C+Flirts with something classical – the worship of 80s urban warfare between cops and crooks as seen in the cinema – but comes up with something as heavy-handed and needlessly peppered with histrionics as Gray’s own The Yards. Its also the first Major Motion Picture I’ve seen where mumbling seems encouraged (unintelligible dialogue apparently a stamp of realism). Phoenix channels Henry Hill, with Wahlberg doing what he does most (getting pissed off and making that intense face – repeatedly). The rest of the scenery is left to be chewed by immense plot convenience and isolated, evocative set pieces (“Ambush in the Rain”, I’m looking in your direction). As Matt once said, “The poster is so cool. Way better than the film.”

(3/17)


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel
grade: BAs a tale of an already faith-challenged man tested by the most enormous of leaps – he is paralyzed with only his left eye to communicate – Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is admirably proficient, but seems to while in a place where experential POV works gangbusters, a voice over track illuminates us and a third person reverb of perspective serves, unfortunately, to confuse us. You’ll be jarred almost to annoyance the first time Schnabel cuts from inside the locked-in Bauby to a profile shot of our hero’s face. Its as if this approach – the stand-back approach – is the last strand of anticlimatic convention premeditated by Harwood’s script (which is otherwise hijacked by a wonderfully free-flowing cinema, itself essentially a sea of prose reflected in a tiny orb). Kaminski’s photography is superb, but the whole thing plays like a great big stream of consciousness art film reduced, occasionally, to a hospital doc you’d probably not return to when it went to commercial. It has worked on me, though, in my memory.

(3/27)


Bee Movie
Directed by Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith
grade: BGracefully absurd, light, overflowing with puns and rarely – although fatally – sweet. Seinfeld’s distinctive fights-fair jokeweaving makes some of it seem almost overwhelming, stuffed with background sight gags that serve as scraps left on the night table and misinterpreted the next morning. The awkward bee-Zelwegger tryst gives way to the film’s almost head-shakingly befuddlin’ centerpiece wherein a bee sues honey corporations in an actual courtroom with actual lawyers. Its not a satisfying film, really; It ends suspiciously trite, as most commonplace animated films tend to. To some degree, though, that it delivers at all on what it promises – namely, Seinfeld and lots of him – is something of a miracle.

(4/13)


You the Living
Directed by Roy Andersson
grade: A-A lighter, equally stunning Songs From the Second Floor, You the Living seems less bent on the substance of life’s absurdity than on the whimsy – a tactic that never falls flat, serving both the brilliant, continuous flow of the mise-en-scene and the characters, each more full of bittersweet humanity than the last.

(4/15)


The Golden Compass
Directed by Chris Weitz
grade: C+Thin on the poetic art of scene movement, The Golden Compass glides along on the coattails of its exposition-heavy dialogues; It’s as if the CliffsNotes of the novel are being acted out by a series of ever-disconnected readers posing as quote-unquote characters. While its digital world is, at times, pretty dazzling, it seems to shrink just about everything and everyone down to the same broad size as the Lord of the Rings films, the Harry Potter films and, especially, the Narnia film(s) (we’ll assume Prince Caspian mirrors TL,TW and TW‘s “Holy Digi!”-brand antics). And while, at heart, it has just as many insanely lazy moments as those films, it comes off more like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (or even one of the recent Star Wars films). I think the bottom line is preference. The current generation – those a bit younger than myself, but certainly old enough to have an opinion – probably doesn’t prefer the creative solutions to artistic problems exercised in the 70s, 80s and early 90s with sets, matte paintings and rubber creatures of both the animatronic and puppeteered kind. That said, Nicole Kidman’s religious vamp, seemingly yawning this off as a preamble to a future installment’s foregone transformation, all but derails any gravity the film had bubbled up in its first act. It passes by harmlessly and I barely notice as I begin to forget details.

(5/1)


I Am Legend
Directed by Francis Lawrence
grade: BIt eventually becomes pretty silly (that risk with the dog, the absurd nature of his suicide bout, that crap at the end – you now what I mean), but its procedural vision of an isolated lifestyle thrilled me to no end. Will Smith’s daily solo grind plays like Cast Away set in the urban playground of New York City. Even when the diseased are revealed, the film still remains marginally disarming. (I have romantic love for the cut just before two helicopters collide.)

(5/18)


Control
Directed by Anton Corbijn
grade: B-Such a shadow cast by 24 Hour Party People, a film that pays homage to Joy Division (and its kin) with so much less dully matter-of-fact bio notes, each one diminishing the mystery and wonder of Ian Curtis more than the last with its homogenized movie-ness. Corbijn frames the time with such a beautifully-trained eye – Control is stunning to look at, it really is – we can’t help but feel like this is a film that could only exist in a vacuum. Its little better than Wonderland is to Boogie Nights. The music is still dead-on, and there’s nothing generally wrong with it (it opens stronger than it finishes, mostly because it takes place in a span of time we’re not already bombarded with); Part of the film’s staleness lies in the fact that it caters to such a specific demographic, that its almost certainly being viewed by someone already familiar with the story its telling. Adapting Curtis’ wife’s book will certainly make for intimacy, but there’s still a bitter poison in it; Corbijn seems uninterested in perspective, leaving Deb’s voice largely intact. Its another film that makes me feel like, as a fanboy, I’m supposed to love it unconditionally.

(6/8)


Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Directed by Jake Kasdan
grade: B-

(7/5)


Cassandra’s Dream
Directed by Woody Allen
grade: B-

(7/31)

 

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