2008 Film Reviews

Paranoid Park
Directed by Gus Van Sant
grade: B+

I love the way it seems to hover in multiple moments over its disjointed chronology, freely, always appearing grounded enough that it could be taking place now or whenever. This could easily fit into Van Sant’s death trilogy with its genuinely probing scratch at adolescent erosion and its many irritants.

(3/11)

Funny Games U.S.
Directed by Michael Haneke
grade: A-

Tight as a snare drum. This completely restores my faith in cinema: This is practically a shot-for-shot remake of the original film and it’s being unleashed in multiplexes. The smidge in downgrade is on account of surprise: When you are going in fresh – it cuts much deeper.

(3/16)

Iron Man
Directed by Jon Favreau
grade: B

Though not quite as effortlessly absorbing – and marginally flashier, to boot – as Spider-Man, this has got to be the most succintly cast of the tidal wave of comic hero films since Sam Raimi’s run. The film operates around Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in the same way American Psycho runs around Christian Bale’s or There Will Be Blood runs around Daniel Day-Lewis’s: Nothing ever seems quite as satisfying as just listening to them talk. Even before seeing the film, the genre is assumed to be a stretch for Favreau, who actually seems more deft here than on either Elf or Made (or Zathura, which I didn’t see), most likely because he’s finally made a film with more than one word in the title. Its still hokum, still racked with staleness in spots (and the ending is nigh ridiculoso), but Iron Man lays out its creed pretty early on when, instead of accepting an award, Tony Stark is rolling dice at the craps table. He is Iron Man.

(5/18)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Directed by Steven Spielberg
grade: B-

All that trepidation was still building when I saw it – the grade could reflect a wild reaction based purely on whim or mood – but at this moment, things have settled. When you love a brand, you know if you can picture yourself gobbling it up in multiple viewings (as with the other three films) or whether its never going to quite feel enamorable. Here, with slick technology (literally, the state of the art, as in the other films), Indiana Jones and the KotCS doesn’t seem aware of itself enough to know that its supposed to be a 30s serial and comes off – very pungently, in spots – as most effects-driven films tend to: With all the blank starin’ lack of humanity one might find in a video game. (Which is not to say that there aren’t some doozies floating around in there: The stunt-driven action scenes are still pretty exciting.) The family dynamics are bittersweet at best, with old Harrison Ford less charming than his younger self, Shia LeBouf obviously not grasping that his character’s stereotypical rudeboy greaser bit only really works if he’s consistently cartoonish (which he isn’t) and Karen Allen’s entire role comprised of the same spat with Indiana Jones over and over again. (I’m not huge on their wedding, either. Tying Jones down seems to say: THE END.) With all my gripes, however, I found myself ensconced in the tale itself; Spielberg may not have been hugely confident, but he still seems to tap into the pulp of the material without compromise. I look forward to seeing it again sans reservations.

(5/26)

The Visitor
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
grade: B-

The specifics barely seem like the thing to echo a Loachian social comment – the drum circles and the stiff professor routine, I mean – but The Visitor works just the same. Much as he did for self-pity in The Station Agent, McCarthy’s sobering compassion lends a nurturing admiration, treating the complacency of mourning with an almost parental approach. Richard Jenkins carries the film aptly, with Haaz Sleiman nearly stealing the film from him as the djembe-loving illegal alien who restores Jenkins’ vitality (he has an assist from his visiting mother, played by Hiam Abbass).

(6/8)

Kung Fu Panda
Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
grade: B-

Pefectly enjoyable, if quite often consistently favoring an emotional heft it can’t lift to save its life. I had the same thought D’Angelo did while watching it: The style of the dream sequence in the opening scene would have made for a far more visually exciting film. I enjoy the flat splays of color, but not as much as I enjoy the frentic wildfire in the title character’s dream.

(6/21)

Be Kind Rewind
Directed by Michel Gondry
grade: B

The first seventeen minutes are like watching the equivalent of a comedic implosion, with Jack Black in more annoying mode than usual. The film breaks free, ultimately tapping the same bliss-in-ignorance vein as Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and ending on much the same I Heart My Neighborhood verve that made Dave Chappelle’s ‘Block Party’ so winning. The premise is dazzlingly sincere and, in spots, downright moving. It doesn’t hurt that it’s ultimate worship of artistic expression as true, personal expression also recalls After Life.

(6/22)

WALL•E
Directed by Andrew Stanton
grade: B+

Impressive-looking as much as it is old fashioned. Though Stanton’s vision is, at times, significantly less joyous (or, quoth Randy, “flat-out cynical”) than Finding Nemo or A Bug’s Life, it more than delivers on its main character, who is a consistent pleasure to watch.

(6/29)

In Bruges
Directed by Martin McDonagh
grade: B

You could injure your neck trying to keep up with the tonal shifts in In Bruges, a film about people cursing in thick accents over a tale of quickly shifting loyalties among the world of the very stale British Gangster set. Having been one of two scripts I’ve read in the past year or so, In Bruges is especially remarkable given that I’d already sort of judged it. In truth, it only works because it is flawlessly cast, with Ferrell in dopey jitter mode and Gleeson following suit as The Most Level-Headed Contract Killer Ever. And Ralph Fiennes. Swearing a whole lot.

(7/2)

Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs
Directed by Peter Avanzino
grade: B-

Like Bender’s Big Score, its fun to watch new episodes of Futurama, but as a film, the whole thing seems to collapse about ten or fifteen minutes before it ends; This show was never about tidiness at the finish – much like The Simpsons – and feels constricted as it tries to tie everything up all pretty-like. The generous heaping of David Cross was like a grease dispenser for the wheels of my favor.

(7/4)

Cloverfield
Directed by Matt Reeves
grade: B-

The slog of a set-up for the still less-than-credible reason a camera is always running involves a party where conversations are cribbed from 90s primetime soaps. What follows it quite impressively melds hauntingly plausible imagery with a genuine sense of dread that never leaves once it arrives. Reminded me most of The Descent, another film that’s flat and airless while laying its long, annoying narrative groundwork. And it scared Victoria half to death. Again, pointing towards its target audience without batting an eye.

(7/10)

The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
grade: B+

Its not at all vague or hidden that The Bigger Picture, as it were, is the way The Dark Knight is constructed and a somewhat lesser place is reserved for execution – the perfect example being the too-long clusterfuck at the warehouse that false closes the film – but there’s a mist of a very haunted world that is far more in line with the grandiose imagination of comic books. Unraveling unceremoniously and passably, the first hour and change is precursor to what follows: A moral muddle going on in the mourning Batman and a firestorm of anger in Harvey Dent. The film’s pitch black milieau is further complicated by the film’s befuddling topical parallels, themselves a sour parlor trick. But nevermind all that: The dominating force of Ledger’s Joker is so genuinely compelling, we’re actively awaiting his presence onscreen with impatience and trepidation. What it lacks in narrative brevity – its fucking huge, by the way – it more than makes up for in tone; Where Batman Begins was nearly straightforward compared to the epic-ness of this film, what’s special here is the attempt at a multiple perspective and, therefore, a sincerely more informed worldview. This man can do no wrong.

(7/22)

The Bank Job
Directed by Roger Donaldson
grade: B-

Oh, Bank Job, you’re just too square and too modern to lift the period recreation or the heist itself to any sort of new ground. Limey villains and bracingly embellished plot twists make the True Story tag sort of a curiousity: These events that actually happened were interesting, but the film feels more stale than it ought to, with a break-in that’s far less thrilling than it ought to be (in a film entitled The Bank Job, at any rate); Saffron Burrows steals what’s left of the show.

(7/23)

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
grade: B+

Remarkable in its sobriety, Mungiu’s film feels genuinely, achingly observational. Shot in long takes, which capture the removed headspace of Otilia (stunningly played by Anamaria Marinca), the film echoes its inferior counterpart, last year’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. While that film felt like a pushy, topical rant, 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days seems content merely turning its eye towards the emotional breadth of a tale with much more than a distinct, period flavor; Never – not once – does the film knowingly look directly at the audience and beg our acknowledgement of the predicament at hand. We’re too wrapped up in the Otilia’s desperate loyalty and the subtleties of her weighted conscience. I was completely engrossed in the unspooling details of etiquette in 1987 communist Romania.

(8/6)

Pineapple Express
Directed by David Gordon Green
grade: B-

Harmless, but way too tonally confused to be anything of great uniquity. It never approximates a pure level of the stoner genre, nor does it fully succeed in recreating the 80s action genre, although it does do some great things within the boundaries of both genres’ tenets. The film is best when its merely observing the extraordinarily funny banter of Rogen and Franco or, in their best scene (the one in the woods), recalling the whimsy and unclouded magic of youths portrayed in french new wave films. David Gordon Green appears to have taken this project merely to dissolve the seemingly functional – if not enjoyably argumentative – concept of auteur theory. His presence is scarcely felt outside the willingness to listen to his characters and the hiring of cinematographer Tim Orr, who delivers the best-looking film Judd Apatow ever remotely attached his name to.

(8/16)

Shine a Light
Directed by Martin Scorsese
grade: B

This is an enormously entertaining concert film; Scorsese’s images, his terrific editing choices and his carefully selected archival clips recall the energy and intimacy of The Last Waltz (this is a very high compliment – pause to let sink in). The Stones, defying all logic, still rock with the pep and vigor of their youth. It is their sustaining passion for the music, though, that serves their impeccable delivery. The clarity of The Rolling Stones’ stage performance may stand to – for better or worse – spotlight their age, but the real revelation is in the focus on their showmanship: The tightness of their act, grounded in acting talent and outstanding musical camaraderie. I was surprised to enjoy them in such a latter-day state, and to enjoy the film as much as I did. Way to go, preconceptions.

(8/23)

Redbelt
Directed by David Mamet
grade: B

Filmed in prestige, grandiose Martial Arts Epic Widescreen, Redbelt eeks just north of my good graces – all the Mamet dialogue still flows and there are some terrific scenes, but the thing also has the Crossing Paths of Strangers verve that keeps appearing and reappearing nowadays every time we want to emphasize the We Are All The Same point. If its anyone’s show, it’s definitely The Chiwetel Ejiofor Show; True to the genre, he could easily keep reoccuring in subsequent films about the same character (He’s that goddman good). Most of it is generally easily to swallow, with nearly every Mamet regular in a bit part; It provides the experience, is soft on the satisfaction and tugs at you to maybe watch it again next month. Then regularly after that.

(8/28)

The Counterfeiters
Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky
grade: C-

Told broadly, with cliches and contrivances, all of the compromises it posits seem to back up to a soft worldview, a kind of Holocaust of Convenience; Buried somewhere within is an interesting story not about master counterfeiter/garden variety self-hating jew/holocaust survivor Salomon Sorowitsch (whose expressive toughness Karl Markovics’ makes the clear highlight of the film), but about Wartime Economies. That the film treats us as a filmgoing audience that needs to be coddled on the subject of brutality and genocide, its little wonder that it scarcely touches on precisely how Germany was planning to topple both the British and American economies. The Oscar is further proof that any film can win – – provided it is about the Shoah.

(8/29)

Happy-Go-Lucky
Directed by Mike Leigh
grade: B

More precisely constructed and too carefully stocked with symbols, but endlessly giving; I thought I’d get tired of Poppy pretty early on, but she sidesteps an urgency to need tolerating with her tirelessly energetic patience and positivity. Sally Hawkins is a long way from her token work in Cassandra’s Dream or her small-ish roles in All or Nothing and Vera Drake, and its flat-out exhilirating in spots to see her parading around with the film on her shoulders. And while the thing is far too often the blunt instrument, the message (a la Bill Hicks) is loud and clear: “Try waking up and enjoying the life you’ve chosen”.

(9/29)

Burn After Reading
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
grade: B

Riffing itself tired, Burn After Reading presents a world of goobers, each more outrageously quirky than the last, prancing about in the great, unending circle of cynical topicality. Broaching the Coen tradition, this feels like what’s tantamount to tampering: A whole world that’s bracingly conscious of itself. Although I chuckled through the whole thing, spent the week after seeing it busting off quotations and even tried to read it as a “serious comment”. Place next to Intolerable Cruelty, which I also enjoyed in spite of, well, it.

(9/30)

Snow Angels
Directed by David Gordon Green
grade: C+

The hazy, affected misadventures of the most prominent of its protags – a recently home-broken high school student in love – are top shelf DGG; The aborted kiss, the casually filthy verbage and the flirty flirt are all staged with the delicate, otherworldly impromptu one might associate with All the Real Girls or Undertow. Stuck relentlessly in front of this reasonably pleasing tale of growing pains is the story of the teen’s former babysitter, who has separated from her drunken, dangerous, born-again husband and can’t seem to put her child in the foreground of her world. The whole thing is heavy without being transcendent, constantly tainting greatness with morosely literary (and, frankly, overplotted) scenes of disaffection and tragedy. There isn’t even an outside chance that Kate Beckinsale might somehow have even accidentally visited a place like this.

(10/1)

Speed Racer
Directed by The Wachowski Bros.
grade: C

The montage is aggressive, pretty much to a fault; It winds up resembling the longest movie trailer ever constructed. The tongue-in-cheek bits come and go (so much so that I began to wonder if they really were meant to be that way) and the acting is terrifically over-the-top, but the sensory overload still reeks of a multimedia show as a film. At a hyper indulgent, seat-squirming one hundred thirty-five minutes, it’s an interesting failure.

(10/8)

Leatherheads
Directed by George Clooney
grade: B-

Leatherheads plays it moment-to-moment, never achieving anything remotely resembling character development or narrative focus. There’s a great handful of really charming scenes between Zelwegger and Clooney, but Krasinski – so winning on “The Office” – is utterly wasted here. As a phony war hero rising to fame alongside the budding stage of professional football, he’s always either too goofy or too sour to earn the big smile he slops around in nearly every scene (it doesn’t help that he’s mixed up with the never-more-autopilot Jonathan Pryce). Clooney has the same dumbass brand on his forehead as Krasinski does, but the film seems to crave the nobility in his passion and, as such, he feels like a character who wandered in from a Coen Bros. film. NTS’ goldencrisp, sepia-tastic cinematography is bangin’ to say the least.

(10/18)

The Incredible Hulk
Directed by Louis Leterrier
grade: B-Flat, more than anything; Norton is fine, but the whole thing feels like an eventless answer-for-answer’s-sake to Lee’s overlong, equally unnecessary Hulk. Releasing it ribbon and bow with Iron Man – as if contractual obligations and a prominent studio link would somehow osmotically make this film as likable and spry as that one – feels like a misstep. Ditto Liv Tyler.
(11/1)

Recount
Directed by Jay Roach
grade: BIf Sydney Pollack had lived to direct it, I think Recount might have pranced in the shadows of politically charged, real-life outskirts pics like The Insider, Shattered Glass or even All The President’s Men. Jay Roach seems almost preoccupied with lightening the mood – which is likely a byproduct of the screenplay as much as anything – but all too often, he only succeeds in making the real-life counterparts seem awkward and false; Scenes that involve Bush and Gore, though minimalized and obviously invested with recreation (of actual conversations) rather than dialogue feel extra clunky. Between the real-life race to completely set, establish and break precedent, and the labrynthine study into the lacksadasical process of voting regulations, the content is more than enough to carry. I’d say it is nice to see Kevin Spacey alive and well, but as I don’t really watch movies so much anymore, I’m not really qualified to make a statement of that ilk. But it is.

(11/17)

Encounters at the End of the World
Directed by Werner Herzog
grade: B-While I can see why National Geographic was all over this – the under ocean shots are like a foreign landscape, for starters – its still very clearly minor Herzog. The people he finds dedicating themselves to an often psychologically traumatizing landscape (no darkness for weeks, a grating silence, an aching loneliness) are each of them somewhat mid-level eccentrics, but rarely do they transcend some greater comment about Antarctica itself – why it brings them back, why it excites them, et al – and even rarer still do they seem to have a common-ness. While this likely the point – the place attracts the right people, its not Alaska, Sr. – Herzog does himself the great disservice of not meddling, the quality I find most attractive about his doc features. After all, if we don’t have the bravura of The White Diamond – with Herzog demanding that he and his camera board the balloon that treks to the hidden canopy – we’re left with a plateau of mediocrity. (Or, Wheel of Time.)

(11/28)

Quantum of Solace
Directed by Marc Forster
grade: B-Stepping back from the fresh edge of Casino Royale, this 007 tale is warmed-over to be sure (mark your checklist: evil organization oversees things, foreign baddie who speaks with odd profundity, wacky compound that practically implodes with fire, all the sex, cars and martini fixins), but Daniel Craig continues to invest the role with the kind of confidence and steel never applied in the history of Bond. He’s really the most exciting thing about the film – – which should sound like the backhanded dig it is; Luckily, his performance makes it more than worthwhile.

(11/30)

Standard Operating Procedure
Directed by Errol Morris
grade: BHits the nail on the head, examining this incident from the mouths of its witnesses, participants and Lyndie England, who seems to be both.

(12/8)

Silent Light
Directed by Carlos Reygadas
grade: A-Beautiful in its scope, Silent Light is calm and moving, touching the same nerves as both The Straight Story and Breaking the Waves. This is a graceful, otherworldly film.

(12/27)

Frost/Nixon
Directed by Ron Howard
grade: C+Horribly top-heavy with exposition, leaning a full 54 minutes into pandersville before it strikes even a moment of pay dirt. The interview sequences are tense, and Langella casts the obligatory glow of honor towards Nixon, even as everyone involved parks it on their haunches to observe a tete-a-tete between two barely realized characters that becomes exciting simply in terms of our collective national identity. We can relate to what happens because we’re news junkies, because we know national cynicism towards Nixon is not only accepted but welcome and because Frost has been thrust at us as a second rate everything. (In other words, fish are placed into a barrel and subsequently shot.) The cards are neatly stacked and removed, unceremoniously, one at a time, until there are no more cards. I was just the positive side of even accepting this as a worthwhile film idea – even in the readily homogenized hands of Howard – mostly because it delivers on precisely what it promises, despite offering nearly nothing of depth, conclusion or even notable comment. I can’t imagine why they used a documentary-style framing device, a move that serves little purpose except the aforementioned dolling out of obvious factoids for the folks in the back row. If only Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson had been the interviewer…

(12/29)

Man on Wire
Directed by James Marsh
grade: B-Would’ve worked fine in shorter form, but as is – the great daring and wily personality of its charge, the absence of modern context and the almost Truffautian asides – Man on Wire is fine.

(12/30)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Directed by David Fincher
grade: B-Luckily, its main character and its length communicate a semi-pure sense of wonder, but this movie can’t get out of its own way. The framing device – set during Hurricane Katrina, no less – is beyond problematic.

(1/1)

The Wrestler
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
grade: BIts Rourke’s movie and, for the most part, its a terrifically gripping and capably haunting one. The heavy lifting of his father-daughter, customer-stripper melodrama isn’t within the realm of Aronofsky’s capabilities – these scenes almost feel grafted from another, much less unique film – but its no matter: The Wrestler is solid and memorable. Those scenes at the deli counter are among the year’s best.

(1/2)

The Edge of Heaven
Directed by Fatih Akin
grade: BProving apt at criss-crossing between Germany and Turkey, Akin’s The Edge of Heaven is a far more literary affair than Head-On (and, for it, a much less potent one); Its spent less time turning in my head than that film, but even the construction of it, employing a malleable and effective time-shift, only begins to explain why I was so tolerant of a movie where people’s paths cross, inexplicably, at key moments. Comparisons to Babel are not out of whack.

(1/2)

Gran Torino
Directed by Clint Eastwood
grade: BSelf serving only in its brazen contradictions, Gran Torino‘s defiance – at least for a good, solid stretch – is worth a dozen Crashes. The method isn’t necessarily bold, but the worldview sure is. Even Eastwood’s almost cartoonish performance, his undeniably broad arc and the eventual dovetail it makes come off feeling fresh merely because they seem to point at the fundamentally simple difference between sincere racism and hardwired American xenophobia. Its a revenge drama, like Falling Down, but less programmed to hit every talking point; Though set in his ways, there’s an almost warm and fuzzy appeal to his remaining rough around the edges as the obligatory melting process sets in. The whole thing has a level of preposterously bad taste that’s equal parts hilarious and manipulative. It crackles, though, topping any of Eastwood’s recent films with ease of a project more tossed-off than presented.

(1/3)

Eagle Eye
Directed by DJ Caruso
grade: C-The barrage of implausible events wouldn’t be so offending if it were so racked with cliches. Its premise, though, is just laughable: HAL-like computer controls everything through technology (traffic lights change, it could derail a train, it breaks into government storehouses) as its been programmed by the US Government who wouldn’t listen to it – the computer – when it – the computer – told them not to blow up some important terrorists. That it’s foundation has such topical ambition is almost sort of harmlessly adorable, but the steady stream of intensely sassy and overzealously “clever” movie dialogue will lodge itself somewhere beneath your skin from moment one. Lucky for Shia LaBeouf, he actually is a talented actor, blowing everyone off the screen with ease; The warmed-over stunts and Thornton’s half-assed change of heart kept putting me in mind of a ADD-addled, quick-shot attempt to update The Fugitive. And now I’m going to go be sick.

(1/7)

Milk
Directed by Gus Van Sant
grade: B+Gushy memorializing at close aside, Milk never seems the solid biopic flavor, opting instead to free-flow on contact high from Penn’s best performance – in my estimation – to date. Everything revolves around him and he’s consistently human, very close to the Harvey Milk of The Times of Harvey Milk: Stubborn, very real, very incontrevertible, very funny and very loving. My concerns about Van Sant were more closely associated with mourning – I hated to see him leave the Tarr homage factory – but Milk keeps the director out of the picture, very wisely, only resurfacing with the To Die For fragment-collage, a 360′ shot that might have fallen from Gerry and the creepy way he squeezes suspense along into a foreseen conclusion.

(1/8)

Revolutionary Road
Directed by Sam Mendes
grade: C-Revolutionary Road is the horrible car crash currently smoldering at the intersection of DiCaprio’s obsession with being taken seriously and Winslet’s obsession with playing the suburban matriarch, both of them given the lion’s share of nothing in Mendes’ overheated, distractingly blasé comment on 50s gender and societal roles. It plays out as a series of arguments which gradually tease out each character’s completely obvious inner turmoils. I kept wishing they would just be quiet and figure out where the fuck their kids were (this is another film that presupposes that we’ll buy tales of family strife yet relegates the children to cameos). Occasionally, Michael Shannon shows up as the shock therapy-drained son of their realtor (!?) and blows everyone off the screen with that severely creepy Lucid Tick he seems to have. You could spot the scenes you’ll have to slog through again at the Oscars by the dozens. Dozens.

(1/10)

Slumdog Millionaire
Directed by Danny Boyle
grade: C+The wife and I, we had Crunch Berries while we watched the film and, to me, this couldn’t have been more fitting. You see, Slumdog Millionaire has a sugary sweet corn-based crunch, too, and its the kind that features sex slavery, lads dripping in feces and a roomful of tech support staff (the outsourced sort that make your film seem topical for no particular reason). Danny Boyle’s unnerving Colonial Outsider perspective is hard to put out of your mind, especially when you’re racing to put other things out (the plausibility of a game show that allows its contestants to go to the bathroom between hearing the question and answering it, for instance). You’ll think its cute the first two or three time a question DIRECTLY RELATES TO HIS OWN LIFE, but after time number, oh, say nine, you’ll probably just be annoyed. The buoyant tone is almost entirely anchored by big, musical montages, many of which are genuinely likable – particularly the one featuring that creepy, Fagenesque dude who relieves little boys of their eyeballs (seriously!). The whole affair has a nagging mixture of arched eyebrow, state-of-the-world critique and bonafied musically-gorged melodrama. Its kind of like Moulin Rouge meets City of God. Which is kind of like Crunch meets Berries.

(1/12)

Wendy and Lucy
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
grade: B+Though its more message-focused and a bit more mannered than Old Joy – admittedly a looming achievement that no next film could live up to – Wendy and Lucy still bears that soft, flowing tone of simplicity and rough hewn documentary-style riff. Michelle Williams is all dim to the bigger picture and lost in the order of things, and the performance is terrific. The world of it is fine to get lost in, and the film’s observations – as mixed on their place in this film as I am – are not altogether a unfair assessment of the mood of many societal pockets. And, of course, there’s Will Oldham, again seeming more wild than civilized, dancing about by a fire in the woods.

(1/14)

A Christmas Tale
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
grade: B+This is a scrambling madhouse of an ensemble – with Almaric leading the pack as yet another screwloose – complete with forked plot points brimming and intertwining in a grand tradition of grim idiosyncrasy and fey jubilance. Set-up in their tallways French home, the relatives here must all give blood to find a match for the matriarch’s rare cancer, skulking about in fits of confrontation, fueling a constant state of great, nostalgic observation. Where Desplechin’s Kings and Queen pitted dueling storylines against one another (effectively allowing them to cancel each other out in a hail of ho-hum), the many threads of A Christmas Tale are endlessly endearing and, often, seem lighter on their feet. But playing fast and loose doesn’t sap the gusto: Momentum is held for an achingly long time, barely sputtering out at close and never veering into a familiar or simple set of emotional farewells. It seems reflexive as to its purpose: A comfort film of the absurd.

(1/20)

Vicky Christina Barcelona
Directed by Woody Allen
grade: BThough it has a tendency towards fluff and tantrums, Vicky Christina Barcelona makes out well when the narration is the prevailing spice and the whole thing seems a light, literary My Greatest Summer Ever sort of tale. Both Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johanssen are glamorously empty – Allen chooses to rain what little humanity he can muster onto Penelope Cruz’s flipout Art Pscyho. All of it, however, is precluded by Javier Bardem’s Juan Antonio Gonzalo, easily of Allen’s most enjoyable alter egos. Women want to be with him, men want to be him, he doesn’t wear shoes and lives in a hermetic maze of art studios. I kept feeling a canny Spain Good/America Bad verve – – but the film is so light that any speck of deep thought could cause it to implode. Rohmer’s mark is there, too, although there’s far too much scenery chewing in this film to call his specter anything more than a glance.

(1/21)

Rachel Getting Married
Directed by Jonathan Demme
grade: A-It’s the return of Jonathan Demme! I got the most lost in this film and it was so wonderful. (Yes, that’s stunned sincerity.) The performances are terrific, but the verite disassociation gives the film’s nerve-touching charms such room to breathe. In the music-packed home of a Connecticut family, The Black Sheep returns for her sister’s wedding only to find all the skeletons still lingering in the closet. On paper, it probably seems almost crass in its familiarity. No so. Make no mistake: This is one of the most effective marriages of an impeccably-realized script and a detached riff of improvisation. All those comparisons to The Celebration are warranted. I’ll stand back and let that sink in.

(1/24)

Flight of the Red Balloon
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
grade: B+Its a film about a French Puppet Troupe Singer whose son Simon is the star of Chinese Nanny’s film about a Red Balloon, most of the action taking place in the margins (and largely in their warmly cluttered, modern Paris apartment). The slice of life rhythms have a cozy feel that’s impossible not to get caught up in: We’re instantly drawn to the gentle pace of life, the bubbles of happiness, glee in everyday routines, and that sense of wonder Hou draws out of practically nothing using only mise-en-scene and a lazy piano score. Just as Mark Richardson stated that he wanted to live inside Brian Eno’s “Thursday Afternoon”, I want to live inside this film.

[Yes. That was me name dropping just then. I’m so embarrassed.]

(1/29)

Doubt
Directed by John Patrick Shanley
grade: BShanley wisely stays out of the way of the play, allowing it to do its own heavy lifting. The banter and semantics are a delight to listen to – both Hoffman and Streep have a crackling appeal – but Shanley’s probing of the truths of truth has a small scale appeal. Its subject matter feels dwarfed by the insistence on moral aligning (it’s a good thing). There’s a stickiness that’s hard to get around, of course: Set in a working class Catholic School (circa 1964), audience context in a world where the sexual misgivings of priests in the Catholic Church have been acknowledged and are openly discussed among the populuos deprives the film of the punch it should pack on a content level. The sense that steps are more vigilantly taken to prevent these abuses also helps to keep the film from working the topicality into some half-baked parallel. Instead, the film rigidly focuses on the matter of settling What is Right and From Whose Eyes. The tête-à-tête is a muted, carefully plotted affair until it isn’t, a one-upsmanship that grows with the steady stream of weather harbingers that punctuate the back and forth control within the politics of debate. Doubt is immensely engrossing, however lacking in transcendence. Because its a work of projected subjectivity – insomuch as it seems to invite the viewpoint of the viewer – the only greater sense of itself is what we bring to the proceedings. Perhaps I didn’t have much to, ahem, bring. Others may feel differently.
 

(1/31)

Defiance
Directed by Ed Zwick
grade: D-James Bond, meet Billy Elliott. Billy Elliott, James Bond. Now let’s make with the light, conventional squares amidst HORRIBLE HOLOCAUST-ERA VIOLENCE. Who will sign my petition to retire The Zwick?

(2/11)

Che
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
grade: B+Fascinating, more than anything, but aligned with Soderbergh’s typically straightforward, subtly artful filmmaking. Del Toro is in top form, marching his Communist guerillas through the jungles of Cuba and Bolivia in search of a government to replace. As a historical epic, Che‘s emphasis is on humanity, with the first part cross-cutting between The Cuban Revolution and Che’s visit to the UN to “negotiate” with dignitaries from Latin America and the second part retaining some of the ponderance Malick might have interjected as Che’s Bolivian Revolution gradually slips away from him until the Bolivian military overtakes him. Painted as a man of belief and ideals, the film attempts to endorse his spirited good intentions while acknowledging his misguided politics (to mixed results). What really strikes the viewer is the sense of time. Soderbergh pipes in titles such as “Day 156”, allowing the ellipses between these interludes to punctuate the emphasis on methodology: The movie never feels more effortless than when its simply unfolding the day to day business mechancis of guerilla warfare. The shootouts in the streets of Santa Clara have an eerie, extremely low key feel that gives the culmination – despite the celebration that follows – seem almost like a letdown for the rebel group whose every action in the past few years built to this moment: How could the reality ever live up to their penultimate goal? Soderbergh’s answer to Che’s dorm room poster/legendary hero to the ignorant status is to keep it muted and experential.

(2/12)

The Reader
Directed by Stephen Daldry
grade: B-Then this big, fat trucker stands over me and says: “Well, looks like we got ourselves a reader.” Did I step out of an intellectual closet somewhere? This is a book. I READ. There, I said it: I feel better. More to come…

(2/21)

Revanche
Directed by Goetz Spielmann
grade: BI’m still not down for a flurry of forced coincidence, but Spielmann has a number of moments that might even qualify as Egoyanesque. His balance of who takes blame, who assigns blame and what is open to interpretation gives the characters a chess piece feel, but not an unwelcome one: Its genuinely intriguing to watch them navigate about in a world of foggy moral notions. Johannes Krisch’s reserved demeanor keeps him marginally mysterious; He’s a grumpy old man already, but not a worthless one. Also: How in the bloody hell did they get the wind to do that at just the right time. (Probable answer: Wind machine.)

(2/23)
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