Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ratings for 2012 releases

Here’s a list of Muriel-eligible releases I’ve seen so far in 2012.  If it seems like I’m lenient with my ratings, reflect that my time is at a premium and I try to hand-pick the movies I really want to see while waiting to watch the ones about which I’m less enthusiastic until they hit Netflix.  That is, of course, unless it’s something the Offspring wants to see, in which case they generally take precedence over anything else, for good (The Avengers) or ill (Journey 2 The Mysterious Island).

Added 12/24: Numbers in /slash marks/ following the title denote the movie’s current rank in the Crix Pix poll, in which I’m a voter. Included for informational purposes.

Anyway, the ratings:

**** - Masterpiece
It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt) {now on DVD} /2/

*** 1/2 - Near MasterpieceAmour (Michael Haneke) {15 Feb @ Drexel} /4/
Cloud Atlas (The Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer) {now in theatres} /103/
Holy Motors (Leos Carax) {26 Feb on DVD} /1/
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev) {now streaming; 19 Feb on DVD} /3/
The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr) {now on DVD/streaming} /20/

*** - Must-see
Bernie (Richard Linklater) {now on DVD/streaming} /28/
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman) {now on DVD} /73/
The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo) {now on DVD} /10/
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) {now in theatres} /14/
Goon (Michael Dowse) {now on DVD/streaming} /66/
The Grey (Joe Carnahan) {now on DVD/streaming} /70/
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb) {now on DVD/streaming} /47/
The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) {now streaming; 12 Feb on DVD} /9/
Looper (Rian Johnson) {now on DVD} /17/
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) {now in theatres} /21/
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson) {now on DVD} /5/
Only the Young (Jason Tippet & Elizabeth Mims) {18 Jan at GFC}
Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier) {now on DVD/streaming} /18/
This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) {26 Feb on DVD} /7/

** 1/2 - Well worth your time
Chronicle (Josh Trank) {now on DVD} /96/
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan) {now on DVD} /82/
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies) {now on DVD/streaming} /8/
Footnote (Joseph Cedar) {now on DVD} /65/
Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve) {now on DVD/streaming} /46/
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson) {now in theatres} /139/
How to Survive a Plague (David France) [4] {now streaming; 26 Feb on DVD} /12/
I Wish (Hirokazu Kore-eda) {now on DVD/streaming} /56/
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik) {now in theatres} /86/
Life of Pi (Ang Lee) {now in theatres} /44/
Marvel’s The Avengers (Joss Whedon) {now on DVD} /64/
Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo) {now on DVD} /49/
Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho) {TBA on DVD} /15/
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) {now on DVD/streaming} /24/
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky) {12 Feb on DVD} /36/
Prometheus (Ridley Scott) {now on DVD} /121/
Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh) {29 Jan on DVD} /60/
Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton) {now on DVD} /81/

** - Pretty good
4:44 Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara) {now on DVD} /119/
Argo (Ben Affleck) {now in theatres; 19 Feb on DVD} /41/
Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari) {now on DVD/streaming} /57/
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden) {now on DVD} /137/
Brave (Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman) {now on DVD} /34/
Dark Shadows (Tim Burton) {now on DVD} /171/
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (Jay & Mark Duplass) {now on DVD/streaming}
Flight (Robert Zemeckis) {5 Feb on DVD} /133/
Frankenweenie (Tim Burton) {now on DVD} /107/
Haywire (Steven Soderbergh) {now on DVD/streaming} /55/
Last Ride (Glendyn Ivin) {now on DVD/streaming}
Lockout (Stephen Saint Leger & James Mather) {now on DVD/streaming} /101/
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath & Conrad Vernon) {now on DVD} /136/
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh) {now on DVD} /71/
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (Matthew Akers) {now on DVD} /23/
Men in Black 3 (Barry Sonnenfeld) {now on DVD} /143/
Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau) {now on DVD/streaming} /67/
ParaNorman (Sam Fell & Chris Butler) {now on DVD} /72/
Premium Rush (David Koepp) {now on DVD} /48/
The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield) {now on DVD/streaming} /45/
Red Hook Summer (Spike Lee) {now on DVD/streaming} /146/
Rise of the Guardians (Peter Ramsey) {now in theatres} /150/
Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow) {now on DVD} /154/
The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi) {now on DVD} /19/
Thin Ice (Jill Sprecher) {now on DVD} /189/
We Have a Pope (Nanni Moretti) {now on DVD/streaming} /170/

* 1/2 - Has redeeming facet
2 Days in New York (Julie Delpy) {now on DVD/streaming} /156/
Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos) {now on DVD/streaming} /142/
The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb) {now on DVD} /169/
Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki) {now on DVD} /89/
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin) {now on DVD} /100/
The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard) {now on DVD} /22/
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (Chris Renaud) {now on DVD}
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross) {now on DVD} /147/
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Jay & Mark Duplass) {now on DVD/streaming} /162/
John Carter (Andrew Stanton) {now on DVD} /141/
Kill List (Ben Wheatley) {now on DVD} /123/
Lawless (John Hillcoat) {now on DVD} /126/
Man on a Mission (Mike Woolf) {now streaming; TBA on DVD}
Les Miserables (Tom Hooper) {now in theatres} /128/
The Pirates! Band of Misfits (Peter Lord) {now on DVD} /99/
The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans) {now on DVD} /32/
A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel) {12 March on DVD}
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell) {now in theatres} /77/
Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders) {now on DVD} /180/
The Three Stooges (Peter and Bobby Farrelly) {now on DVD} /127/
Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore) {now in theatres} /62/

* - Not good
Declaration of War (Valérie Donzelli) {now on DVD/streaming} /92/
The Woman in Black (James Watkins) {now on DVD} /157/

1/2 * - Awful and/or offensive
Compliance (Craig Zobel) {now on DVD} /111/
Journey 2 The Mysterious Island (Brad Peyton) {now on DVD}
Killer Joe (William Friedkin) {now on DVD} /83/

0 * - Offensive and awful
None (so far!)

Also, here are the ones I still want to see that I haven’t gotten around to yet for some reason or other.  As with last year, the numbers in [brackets] denote how interested I am in the movie, with the prioritization as follows:
[1] – Highest priority. Like, if somebody came to me on New Year’s Day 2012 with a list of all the 2012 releases and tasked me to predict my top 10-ish list for the year, these would probably have been my choices.
[2] – High priority. When I first heard/saw something about these, I most likely said, “hey, that looks/sounds awesome.”
[3] – Moderately high priority. Strong likelihood that I’ll enjoy these.
[4] – Medium priority. When I was still averaging a film per day, I would have had plenty of time for all these, but now that I need to be choosy many of these could end up falling by the wayside.
[5] – Low priority. Most movies fall into this category, to be honest, although I only include the ones here that (a) my family will want to see, or (b) could get Oscar love. Either way, I normally wouldn’t choose to see them on my own.

And as always, if anybody has screeners they’re willing to share, I won’t say no.

Now streaming via Netflix:
A Burning Hot Summer (Philippe Garrel) [4] /124/
Head Games (Steve James) [4]
Whores’ Glory (Michael Glawogger) [4] /11/

Now available on DVD:
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg) [2] /88/
To Rome With Love (Woody Allen) [3] /153/
Detention (Joseph Kahn) [4] /25/
Detropia (Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady) [4] /35/
Farewell, My Queen (Benoit Jacquot) [4] /53/
Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore) [4] /110/
Samsara (Ron Fricke) [4] /61/

Coming soon to DVD:Fat Kid Rules the World (Matthew Lillard) [4] {22 Jan}
The Imposter (Bart Layton) [4] {22 Jan} /31/
Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs) [4] {22 Jan} /16/
Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul) [4] {22 Jan} /42/

Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman) [3] /76/
The Comedy (Rick Alverson) [4]
The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki) [4]
Middle of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay) [4]
Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold) [4] /62/

Now playing in local theatres:
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg) [2] /40/
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) [2] /6/
Skyfall (Sam Mendes) [3] /38/
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright) [4] {19 Feb on DVD} /130/
Barbara (Christian Petzold) [4] /72/
The Central Park Five (Ken Burns & David McMahon & Sarah Burns) [4] /51/
Not Fade Away (David Chase) [4] /131/
Starlet (Sean Baker) [4]
Tabu (Miguel Gomes) [4] /13/
This Is 40 (Judd Apatow) [4] /140/
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona) [5] /91/

Coming soon to Columbus (all dates tentative, obviously):
Sister (Ursula Meier) [3] {22 Feb @ Wex} /50/

Room 237 (Rodney Ascher) [3] {12 April @ GFC} /27/
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) [3] {TBA @ Drexel} /90/
The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh) [4] {TBA @ Drexel}
West of Memphis (Amy Berg) [4] {TBA @ Drexel}

No Columbus release date announced:
Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman) [2] /94/
In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo) [2] /30/
Oki’s Movie (Hong Sang-soo) [3] /39/
Bad 25 (Spike Lee) [4]
The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry) [4] /98/
Easy Money (Daniel Espinosa) [4]
New Jerusalem (Rick Alverson) [4]
Photographic Memory (Ross McElwee) [4]
The Sheik & I (Caveh Zahedi) [4]
This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino) [4] /29/

My “See Again” List:
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies) {now on DVD/streaming}

Oh, and by the way, if you’re wondering what all my [1]s would be for 2012:
Amour (Michael Haneke) [***1/2 out of 4]
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan) [**1/2 out of ****]
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) [*** out of 4]
Holy Motors (Leos Carax) [***1/2 out of 4]
I Wish (Hirokazu Kore-eda) [**1/2 out of 4]
It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt) [**** out of ****]
The Kid With the Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) [*** out of ****]
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev) [***1/2 out of 4]
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) [*** out of ****]
The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr) [***1/2 out of ****]

Friday, December 23, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay)

Of all the complaints I’ve read about We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay’s first film in nearly a decade, the most interesting to me is the idea that the film doesn’t work because Kevin (played by Ezra Miller as a teenager) is a monster more or less from the time the doctor cut his umbilical cord. And you know what? Those folks aren’t wrong- a film in which a mother looks back at the fleeting, subtle signs that her kid is going to end up shooting up his school does (on paper, anyway) sound more compelling than one in which a child reveals his evil from the get-go and seems inevitably careening toward cataclysmic violence.

Yet I don’t think that Ramsay wants to examine the genesis of a killer, so much as she wants to explore how inadequate the vast majority of us are when confronted with unfiltered evil. As I’ve come to understand in the last three-odd years, dealing with a child can be rough going even under the best of circumstances, since parenting challenges tend to arise all too often when you’ve got plenty of other things on your plate. What makes it even harder for Eva (Tilda Swinton) is that Kevin isn’t your garden variety tiny terror who has fits and rages- he’s clever and calculating even from a young age, and all of his dealings with his mother seem driven by a desire to antagonize her, even while he puts on a friendly face for his father and the rest of the world.

Making matters worse is the fact that Eva is hardly an ideal candidate for motherhood. Swinton is pretty amazing here, conveying the frustrations of a woman whose parenting skills are limited, and whose attempts to raise her son are constantly (and frustratingly) thwarted by his unwillingness to cooperate. After all, how would you feel if you had a child who not only continued to wear a diaper well into his grade-school years, but also deliberately had an “accident” right in front of you, out of pure spite? Making it even worse is that when Eva reacts to him in a way that accidentally leads to her breaking Kevin’s arm, he now has something specific with which to manipulate his mother, thereby making her feel even more inadequate.

Which brings me back to my original idea of how ill-equipped people are to handle unstoppably evil people, no matter what their age. Sure, truckloads of books have been written on children who are mentally ill or otherwise troubled, but Kevin is clearly an outlier, and there’s no way to prepare someone to deal with his actions, much less his deeper nature. In essence, Kevin functions like a funhouse mirror to Eva, reflecting her own parenting issues and anxieties back at her, only exaggerated to an abject degree.

It’s because Eva was so powerless to do anything to stop her son that the scenes in the aftermath of the shooting are so effective. The incident has made her a social pariah, as she has her property vandalized, finds herself shunned in public, and is even assaulted by a member of the community. In a more conventional take on this subject matter, Eva would look back at her son’s life and try to figure out what she did wrong, but such was Kevin’s nature that practically everything she could have done would have ended in failure. The fact that she takes the punishment underlines not only the guilt she feels about her son’s actions, but also her resignation. After all, if you had a child like Kevin, what, realistically, could you have done to stop him?

This idea that we don’t have the amount of control over the child’s fate as we’d like to think we do is a pretty despairing view of parenting, and while Kevin is obviously an extreme case, there’s an element of this idea in every parent-child relationship. What parent hasn’t at some point had to face the fact that he or she is ill-equipped to deal with his child’s unique challenges? I’m reminded of an incident I witnessed a few years back in an airport, in which a preteen boy yelled at and insulted his parents at great length. At the time I had trouble with the fact that his parents didn’t do anything to take him aside and remove him from the crowded waiting area, but what has stuck with me most since then was the defeated looks on their faces as they tried impotently to deal with him. Granted, this child was clearly mentally ill rather than flat-out monstrous, but their reaction (or lack thereof) felt to me a lot like Eva’s feelings about her son.

If We Need to Talk About Kevin is full of troubling ideas, it’s also an highly skilled piece of filmmaking. The first half-hour of the film is particularly impressive, with Ramsay forgoing old-school exposition and instead sets up the film expressionistically, bouncing back and forth in Eva’s life in a way that establishes the film’s recurring stylistic motifs. And even after the film settles down into its story, Ramsay never goes overboard with plot, allowing the images and action to drive the action. For instance, consider how she portrays the shooting- not in exhaustive detail, but simply by showing Kevin putting locks on the doors, followed by a series of shots that may or may not be Eva’s image of how it might have happened. Even critics who don’t fully support Kevin agree that Ramsay is a major talent, and that it would be a shame if she took another decade to finish her next film.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011, Bill Condon)

Ever since the first Twilight installment three years ago, I’ve complained that Kristen Stewart isn’t much of an actor, but now I don’t think the trouble here. Oh sure, she’s still pretty un-good, but then teen melodramas- and supernatural trappings aside, that’s what these movies are- have long been full of subpar performers. No, the trouble is that she’s the wrong kind of bad actor for this movie. A character arc like this requires someone capable of big emotions, as the story takes her from wedding-eve jitters to honeymoon passions to pregnancy-gone-bad illness. If your leading lady can’t manage to give a deeply felt performance, the next best thing is to get someone who can hit the high notes with panache and charisma. Unfortunately, Stewart lacks both of these traits, instead relying on over-rehearsed fussiness that’s a hallmark of actors who aim to be serious without necessarily being any good.

What’s more, her face lacks the necessary expressiveness to sell this story, in particular Bella’s chooses to sacrifice herself so that her baby can live. In the book, Stephenie Meyer was able to convey Bella’s decision-making primarily having her narrate the story, but Condon and screenwriter forego first-person narration here, relying entirely on Stewart to put it across, and she fails the test. Stewart’s performance lacks any sign of interior monologue, so when she says she’ll let her vampire baby kill her so that it may live, it feels less like a conscious choice than obligation dictated by the original novel. And that’s a violation of one of the cardinal rules of adaptation- it’s not enough to repeat the original plot, unless you can make the story work in the new medium as well. If you need a book to explain the movie, then the filmmakers have dropped the ball.

That said, I didn’t hate Breaking Dawn Part 1 as much as some people out there. Granted, the much-ballyhooed hiring of Oscar-winner Bill Condon to direct didn’t pay off as it should have, since the movie’s style is as half-assed as ever. Has there ever been a franchise this lucrative that’s felt this cut-rate? Still, I have to admit that the story is going in some strange and potentially fascinating directions, provided Condon handles Part 2 as well as the climactic childbirth scene. And I do like some of the supporting performances- not just those by legitimately solid actors like Michael Sheen (a finely-cured ham) and the franchise’s stealth hero Billy Burke, but also from youngsters like Jackson Rathbone and Ashley Greene, who are stylish enough that they show up Kristen Stewart whenever they’re onscreen. Heck, I even like Taylor Lautner, who may not be a great actor but who is at least right for this movie. At least when he gets angry, you believe it.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Happy Feet Two (2011, George Miller)

2006’s Happy Feet wasn’t a great movie by any means, but for all its cute dancing penguins what lingers in the memory is what an eccentric vision Miller placed on screen, especially by family-movie standards. Unfortunately, genuine eccentricity in cinema is hard to pull off in a way that’s charming rather than annoyingly precious, and doubly so when a filmmaker must re-create his original formula. The biggest problem with Happy Feet is how what was once endearingly off-kilter now feels focus-grouped to death. Oh sure, all the hallmarks of the original- cute penguins singing and dancing along with popular songs, impressive computer animation, zany supporting characters- are there, but now it feels like Miller and company said, “hey, that was fun the first time, so why not double it up in the sequel?” So (to cite the most egregious example) instead of just getting Robin Williams to mince around in two roles- which, I mean, ugh- you’ve also got Hank Azaria with a Swedish-chef accent and Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as a pair of krill who oh-so-wackily venture off on their own. Couple that with a story that lopes along (remember Jason Mewes’ description of Lord of the Rings in Clerks II? That’s what this feels like), and Happy Feet Two ends up being perhaps the slowest 90-odd minutes I’ve spent in a theatre all year. Until it rallies somewhat in the final real with a production number set to “Under Pressure,” there’s nothing in this movie that provides any evidence that anybody involved actually cared about making this unique and special. It’s clear that Warner Brothers knew what they had on their hands, what with opening it opposite the new Twilight movie and all.

Rating: 3 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cold Weather (2010, Aaron Katz)

Cold Weather is a treasure because it’s not ashamed to be modest of scale. To the contrary, writer/director/editor Aaron Katz relishes in the very smallness of his movie, and the movie is all the more pleasurable for it. Everything about the movie feels modest, beginning with the ambitions of its protagonist Doug (Cris Lankenau), a twentysomething who’s recently dropped out of college but might, y’know, go back, like, eventually. For now, he’s content to shack up with his slightly more career-minded big sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), work nights at the local ice factory, and hang out when he’s off the clock.

Of course, a plot eventually finds its way into the mix, but to Katz’s credit he never lets it get out of hand with the rest of the movie. Doug, who had studied forensic science before dropping out, gets caught up in some intrigue involving an ex-girlfriend, and suddenly finds it necessary to call on some of his modest expertise. I won’t go into details about the mystery element of the story here, so that any interested readers might enjoy it themselves. But I appreciated that Katz never let the mystery stuff overwhelm everything else- not only is it exactly the sort of small-scale intrigue that of which a guy like Doug might find himself in the center, but it also never loses sight of the characters and their unique personalities. Lankenau is a real find here, creating a sort of slacker-gumshoe who’s the most interesting shamus to waltz down the pipe since Bill Pullman’s sadly forgotten Darryl Zero. I loved a wonderful little bit in which Doug, an avowed Sherlock Holmes fan, goes shopping for a pipe to “help him think” (just like his hero), only to discover that the pipes worthy of Holmes are priced well out of his budget, and he has to make due with a plainer, more workaday model, which get the job done but lacks the same flair.

Strangely enough, it’s because Katz concentrates on his characters- not just Doug, but also Gail and even his coworker turned sidekick Carlos (Raul Castillo)- that the mystery manages to generate real suspense. Too many mystery movies depend on obvious techniques of setup-and-payoff that it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker who is able to generate suspense by forcing his protagonist to think his way of trouble. Katz places us squarely with Doug from the outset, so that when he finds himself in a jam, it scarcely matters that the stakes are actually fairly low- because Doug and his cohorts take it seriously, so do we.

The ending in Cold Weather comes as a surprise. That’s not to say there’s a twist ending- far from it, really- but I was sort of taken aback that Katz decided to wrap up his story before the mystery had seemingly been resolved. Most movies of this kind would have found Doug bailing out his ex, the culprits brought to justice, and everything getting back to normal, but the final scene shows that Katz wasn’t making a mystery involving Doug and his friends, but Doug and his friends stumbling into, through, and out of a mystery. Because of this, the central concern is one of character and how the people in the film change, rather than simply being cogs in a plot machine, and this makes Cold Weather one of the most pleasurable films of the year so far.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cars 2 (2011, John Lasseter)

Since its release in 2006, the original Cars has gotten a rep as being one of Pixar’s least successful releases- from a creative standpoint anyway, since Pixar and corporate overlord Disney have made enough money from grosses, DVD sales, and particularly merchandising to power the economies of countless small countries. But while sheer economics demanded a sequel, I had some hope that it wouldn’t just be a cash-in and excuse to manufacture tons of Lightning McQueen bric-a-brac. So give Lasseter some credit for building the sequel’s story not around McQueen but instead around the story’s least photogenic character, the aw-shucks tow truck Mater. After all, though Mater was one of the original’s more memorable characters, he’s not a high-performance machine, and as such doesn’t lend himself to having his miniature doppelgangers zoomed around on a playroom floor.

However, I’m sad to say that the new story focus doesn’t really work. In the original film, Mater was good for some laughs, especially in the unlikely ways he cozied up to new arrival and future best friend Lightning. Unfortunately, his increased screen time reveals that Mater isn’t a very deep character, with little more to him than backwoods befuddlement and an encyclopedic knowledge of cars that comes from a lifetime working on them, which isn’t quite enough to sustain a feature-length story. What’s more, Larry the Cable Guy’s performance, which was a nice surprise in the first film, quickly becomes overbearing here, especially in scenes that require him to be wacky in the midst of deadly serious business. And considering the film’s story drops Mater into an espionage plot (Nathan Rabin of the AV Club smartly references the 1997 Bill Murray vehicle The Man Who Knew Too Little), there are too many of these scenes to overlook.

That said, there’s still enough good stuff to recommend the movie. While the first film relied too much on small-town charm (its “slow down and appreciate the little things” theme was handled better, and more succinctly, in the Andy Griffith Show episode “The Sermon For Today”), the tone here is zippier and more action-oriented, as befitting the movie’s spy-movie influences. And as with every new Pixar release, the studio’s animation wizards continue to push the envelope visually, especially in the detail and texture of the settings- several shots in the film, especially in London, could be mistaken for actual footage if not for Mater’s presence in them. And to be fair, Mater does have some good moments, especially those involving some added features he gets to work undercover. All in all, it’s a little better than the original- no great shakes to be sure, and another of Pixar’s lesser efforts, but with a real sense of fun that makes it worth seeing.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, Rob Marshall)

I’m almost tempted not to bother writing a review for this, seeing as how the Pirates franchise has practically come to defined the expression “critic-proof.” Morever, it scarcely matters whether the audience likes these movies anymore, considering that the promise of Johnny Depp doing his Captain Jack thing puts asses in seats no matter how much the people attach to those asses complain about the movies after the fact. So let’s bring the discussion to Depp himself, whose creative well seems to be running dry, at least as far as the character is concerned. Oh sure, he does his usual thing, pulling faces, stumbling and slurring his way through the dialogue, but morphing into a man of action when backed into a corner. While his performance in the first (and best) Pirates was a subversive gem, practically de-pantsing the big-budget blockbuster that surrounded him, the sequels didn’t quite know what to do with him anymore. So big a hit was the first Pirates that the filmmakers became convinced that audiences legitimately cared about the adventures of Will and Elizabeth and the trade wars in which they had become ensnared, when in actuality they just wanted more Captain Jack. Unlike previous entries, On Stranger Tides makes Captain Jack the sole protagonist, and unfortunately Depp’s pirate shtick has become so well-worn that it’s no fun anymore.

It doesn’t help that, despite the presence of new director Marshall, Tides is just as bloated and enamored of eye candy as the last two Verbinski films. No longer is the Pirates team interested in making a silly, audience-pleasing swashbuckler- now they feel the need to churn out spectacles, separating opening-weekend crowds from $100 million or so of their money on opening weekend on their way to impressing shoppers with their eye-popping images on the latest HDTVs and Blu-Ray players on display at Best Buy. Because of this, Captain Jack more often than not feels out of place in his own movie. This wouldn’t be so damaging if the character still felt fresh- Depp’s a charismatic enough performer that when he brings his A game, he can win over the audience no matter how bad the movie. But because the movie as a whole is so second-rate, Depp is mostly a distraction, slowing down the action (which is mostly forgettable) so he can do his thing.

This isn’t to say that On Stranger Tides is without its pleasures. After all, Penelope Cruz looks mighty foxy in her pirate outfits. But the only performer who really conveys joy of performance is Geoffrey Rush, as the wizened old sea dog Barbossa. True, he hams it up just as much as Depp- even more, perhaps- but while Depp is mostly riffing by this point, Rush grounds his performance in the reality of this world, acting as slimy and gruff as the story will allow, and no more. He’s so good in this that I actually began to imagine a Pirates movie about Barbossa without Captain Jack getting in the way. Geoffrey Rush with a peg leg might not sell as many tickets as Johnny Depp in eyeliner, but the resulting movie would probably be a lot more fun.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ratings for 2011 releases

Here’s a list of Muriel-eligible releases I’ve seen so far in 2011. If it seems like I’m lenient with my ratings, reflect that my time is at a premium and I try to hand-pick the movies I really want to see while waiting to watch the ones about which I’m less enthusiastic until they hit Netflix. That is, of course, unless it’s something the Offspring wants to see, in which case they generally take precedence over anything else, for good (Rango) or ill (The Green Hornet).

Anyway, the ratings:

10 ratings
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

9 ratings
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Terri (Azazel Jacobs)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

8 ratings
Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki)
House of Tolerance / Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello)
Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)
Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz)
Rango (Gore Verbinski)
Tabloid (Errol Morris)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

7 ratings
13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)
The Arbor (Clio Barnard)
Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
Beginners (Mike Mills)
City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)
The Interrupters (Steve James)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)
The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)
Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)
Potiche (Francois Ozon)
Project Nim (James Marsh)
Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Rapt (Lucas Belvaux)
Silent Souls (Aleksei Fedorchenko)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman)
Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

6 ratings
50/50 (Jonathan Levine)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg)
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (Michael Rapaport)
A Better Life (Chris Weitz)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
Cars 2 (John Lasseter)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
The Debt (John Madden)
The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
The Guard (John Michael McDonagh)
Hanna (Joe Wright)
Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)
Leap Year (Michael Rowe)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán)
Putty Hill (Matt Porterfield)
Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)
Senna (Asif Kapadia)
Shame (Steve McQueen)
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Guy Ritchie)
Super 8 (JJ Abrams)
The Trip (Michael Winterbottom)
The Way Back (Peter Weir)
Win Win (Tom McCarthy)
Winnie the Pooh (Steve Anderson and Don Hall)

5 ratings
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)
Carnage (Roman Polanski)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
Dolphin Tale (Charles Martin Smith)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (David Yates)
The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo)
The Ides of March (George Clooney)
Insidious (James Wan)
Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)
Kaboom (Gregg Araki)
Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson)
My Week With Marilyn (Simon Curtis)
Rio (Carlos Saldanha)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
Thor (Kenneth Branagh)

4 ratings
Film: Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall)
Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (Robert Rodriguez)
The Three Musketeers: Someone Forgot to Put a Colon in the Title (Paul “Not Thomas” Anderson)
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay)
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (Bill Condon)

3 ratings
The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)
Happy Feet Two (George Miller)

2 ratings

1 ratings

0 ratings

Did not finish due to lack of interest:
Aurora (Cristi Puiu)
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (John Requa and Glen Ficarra)
The Future (Miranda July)
I Saw the Devil (Kim Jee Woon)
Rubber (Quentin Dupieux)
Special Treatment (Jeanne Labrune)

Well, obviously I didn’t see everything I wanted to before the Muriels deadline. So it goes. However, I’d still like to catch up with some movies I missed even if it’s just for my own edification. Here’s what I’d still be interested in seeing sooner or later, in rough order of preference:

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese) [1]
Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog) [1] {now at Gateway, 10 Apr on DVD}
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky) [1]

My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa) [2] {6 Mar on DVD}
Pina (Wim Wenders) [2] {now @ Gateway}
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar) [2] {6 Mar on DVD}

Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) [3]
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (Jose Padilha) [3] {now on DVD}
The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski) [3] {now on DVD and streaming}
The Muppets (James Bobin) [3] {20 Mar on DVD}
Rampart (Owen Moverman) [3] {15 May on DVD}
Shit Year (Cam Archer) [3]
Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine) [3] {3 Apr on DVD}
War Horse (Steven Spielberg) [3] {3 Apr on DVD}
Young Adult (Jason Reitman) [3] {13 Mar on DVD}

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010, Werner Herzog)

Suppose someone told you that Werner Herzog made a documentary about the cave containing the world’s oldest prehistoric paintings. If you haven’t seen this, try to imagine the finished product. Chances are you’ll be pretty close to what Herzog actually churned out. In the case of many of Herzog’s more esoteric docs, there’s the feeling that he chose the subjects primarily because he wanted to experience them firsthand, but few of them have felt more like home videos from the world’s most exclusive working vacation than this one. Naturally, the stuff in the caves is the film’s highlight- for once, the 3-D actually works in the film’s favor, the extra dimension providing depth and texture to both the paintings and the caverns as a whole, and Herzog’s government mandated use of handheld lanterns enhance the beauty of the underground shots in a way more traditional lighting otherwise could not. Unfortunately, Herzog unwisely underscores these majestic shots with an portentous score that overwhelms the visuals- a particularly egregious misstep coming so soon after a scientist beseeches the other visitors to listen to and appreciate the silence of the cave.

Likewise, the stuff above ground is largely from the standard Herzog playbook, such as a cavalcade of esoteric interview subjects encouraged by the director to show off their idiosyncrasies, including an experimental archaeologist who dresses in reindeer pelts and the master perfumer literally trying to sniff out another undiscovered cave. All in all, there are precious few surprises in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, although the out-of-left-field postscript that closes the movie almost compensates. Still, if the idea of seeing immaculately preserved cave paintings from thirty millennia ago holds any interest for you, then walk, don’t run, because considering how few people actually get the chance to visit the Chauvet caves, this will probably be your only chance to check them out. So even if Cave is a disappointing film, it’s an important one nonetheless.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Potiche (2010, Francois Ozon)

Was beginning to worry that Ozon might not have another romp like 8 Women in him, but his reunion with Catherine Deneuve has pulled him out of his rut of self-seriousness. Deneuve, partly due to her status as an icon of France (not just French cinema either), is eternally underappreciated as a film actor, but she makes it look so damn easy that Ozon can go wild with the kitsch and seventies-throwback style without spinning the film off into the stratosphere. He also surrounds her with a fine supporting cast- Karin Viard is clearly the MVP, practically thrumming with personal energy as the devoted secretary and mistress of Deneuve’s husband who flowers under Deneuve’s guidance, but Gerard Depardieu also has a lot of fun as the local politico who carries a torch for Deneuve after all these years, and I’ve become highly impressed at Jeremie Renier’s ability to switch gears from the hardscrabble of world of the Dardennes to the sort of boyish charmer he plays here. Potiche is light as a feather and largely lacking in the rich subtext that shot through 8 Women if one bothered to look, although allegedly the film’s final reel, in which Deneuve runs for political office, was inspired by the 2007 presidential race. But even for those with little knowledge of French politics (including yours truly), Potiche is a more than worthy film, and one that left me with a goofy grin on my face from beginning to end.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Monday, January 3, 2011

True Grit (2010, Joel and Ethan Coen)

I realize I’m in the minority here, but I personally found A Serious Man to be one of the Coen brothers’ lesser efforts. On one level, it was interesting to see two of American cinema’s most prominent stylists take on a project inspired by their family histories. But while most Coen brothers films inject unique touches into the framework of classical genres, they didn’t have that jumping-off point in A Serious Man. Consequently, the film feels overly fussed-over, with crises and indignities heaped upon a characteristically Coen-esque put-upon schlub. And although this character type anchored great Coen projects from Barton Fink to The Man Who Wasn’t There, without the genre framework to prop him up he’s mostly just a punching bag.

So as you might imagine, True Grit was much more my speed. Making a straight-up Western for the first time gives the Coens ample opportunities to show off their flair for visual panache and vivid supporting characters in a new venue. But while it’s easy to imagine the directors being attracted to Charles Portis’ novel for its tangy use of frontier patois, I also think they were drawn to the strength of its protagonist- no, not cantankerous marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, marvelously dissipated), but steely youngster Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld).

Much has been said about the Coens’ scorn for many of their heroes, but if one looks back at their films, there’s also a pattern of strong women who the brothers seem to genuinely admire. Most obvious among these is of course Marge Gunderson, whose folksy demeanor and unmistakable pregnancy couldn’t hide her canny police work. But stalwart women pop up again and again in their films, from leads like Abby in Blood Simple and Edwina in Raising Arizona to supporting characters like Barton Fink’s Audrey and No Country for Old Men’s Carla Jean, who even in their limited screen time provide emotional grounding for their stories.

Mattie is in this tradition, and Steinfeld is up to the task. Still in her teens, she is nonetheless able to convincingly match up with the Coens’ gifted ensemble, from heavy hitters like Bridges and Matt Damon (as the vain Texas Ranger LaBoeuf) to the directors’ requisite rogue’s gallery of supporting performers, including Dakin Matthews as the irascible Col. Stonehill, with whom Mattie shares a perfectly-realized negotiation scene. In less capable hands, Mattie Ross would have come off not only as a little girl in a tough man’s world, but as a contemporary kid playing dress-up. But Steinfeld proves herself up to the task of selling the stylized dialogue and holding her own with the grown-ups. So near the end of the film, when LaBoeuf demonstrates his respect for Mattie’s skills out on the trail, we can’t help but concur.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)

Nowadays, many cinephiles apply the word “auteur” to directors who build their movies from the ground up, writing and producing (and sometimes more than that) as well as directing. But in the formative years of auteur theory, many of the movement’s most revered figures (e.g. Hitchcock) didn’t write their own material, but instead took other people’s screenplays and make them their own in production. One of things that makes The Fighter compelling from a critical standpoint is the sensibility that David O. Russell brings to the film. It’s the first of Russell’s films to date that he didn’t write or co-write, and although the relatively pedestrian screenplay shows through in the final result, Russell finds plenty of ways to make it feel like it’s of a piece with his other work.

The most obvious example of this is the sense of barely controlled chaos in the scenes involving the family of Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg). Ward is supposed to be the hero of The Fighter, but he barely registers in scenes opposite his crack-addicted half-brother Dicky (a live-wire turn by Christian Bale), his domineering mother (Melissa Leo), and his gaggle of trashy sisters. Taken by themselves, these scenes are pretty grating- especially the sisters, who seemingly move and think as a collective. But in terms of the movie as a whole, Russell makes them work, specifically as a counterpoint to Ward’s budding relationship with local bartender Charlene (Amy Adams) who wants to help Micky get his boxing career back on track.

It’s this contrast between simplicity and chaos in Micky’s life that gives the movie a kind of screw-loose energy that distinguishes it from most underdog sports sagas. In Russell’s telling of the story, what holds Micky back as a boxer isn’t a lack of ability, or even poor management by Dicky, but the fact that he’s surrounded by noise and disorder with no means of escape. It’s only when Charlene makes her way into his life that he has an oasis, a place to find comfort and clarity amidst the hubbub. Just like the hero of I [Heart] Huckabees, it’s when he finds that clarity in his life that he’s able to move forward and accomplish his goals- in Micky’s case, to get a shot at the title.

Of course, Micky’s rise to the title bout is fairly standard as far as boxing movies go. But I did enjoy the detail with which Russell and his screenwriters explore the strategies behind boxing instead of simply showing us two fighters slugging away at each other until one of them got knocked out. However, despite the film’s obvious knowledge of boxing, it’s most interesting for the way Russell shows Micky learning to distinguish between the two contrasting sides of his life, and later on, to reconcile them. The Fighter could have been a straight-up paycheck job for its director, but because of Russell’s unwillingness to be lazy, it’s cut or two above what it might otherwise have been.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Never Let Me Go (2010, Mark Romanek)

“Everyone I know goes away in the end.” ~ Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”

When asked recently about the essential difference between his original U.K. version of The Office and its American remake, series creator/star Ricky Gervais stated that while Americans are brought up to believe in their boundless potential for success, British children are more often reminded of their social standing and limitations. I expect that this difference has quite a bit to do with the chilly reception Mark Romanek’s delicate adaptation of Never Let Me Go has found on these shores. Like The Remains of the Day, the most notable big-screen Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation, Never Let Me Go is a story about people who have been born and raised for the express purpose of serving. It’s not necessarily a theme that resonates widely in a culture that values determination and grit, but it’s a more universal idea than most people would probably care to admit.

It’s impossible for me to discuss the particulars of Never Let Me Go without spoiling the plot, so here goes.

Never Let Me Go is an almost unbearably sad story of three people- Kathy (Carey Mulligan), the film’s protagonist, and her friends Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley)- who have been bred specifically to serve as organ donors for others who have been born naturally. Like the meagerly paid Third World workers who toil in ramshackle factories to manufacture the products we take for granted, these “donors” are kept out of sight from the general population- less emotionally messy that way. From childhood, they’re sequestered in an isolated school called Hailsham, where they are taught numerous academic subjects in a way that doesn’t prepare them for the future so much as allow them to mark time before the inevitable. And these are the lucky ones- the administration of Hailsham sees itself as progressive, if you can call encouraging children to hope for the future before slamming the door on these hopes “progressive.”

What seems to turn off the film’s critics is the acceptable the characters have for their fate. However, it felt right to me. Since they were born, these children have been brought up to obey their elders and betters and not to question what they’re told about the world. They’re kept isolated from anything that might contradict what they already know, and are fed rumors about the horrors that face those who run away. All their lives, the characters in Never Let Me Go are told that their only worth is as spare parts for others, so it seems somehow right that they wouldn’t try to escape their fate for fear that they wouldn’t fulfill their appointed “purpose.”

Besides, what would people have this be? The Island, in which characters who have been raised in captivity suddenly morph into motorcycle daredevils and shoot-‘em-up action stars? Give me a break. When a person has spent his or her entire life clinging to a shred of hope, it’s the more mundane things that begin to sustain them- Lucy’s childhood dreams of owning a horse, or the art projects the students are assigned with the promise that the best will be selected to be shown in a gallery. As an adult, Kathy becomes a “carer,” tending to other donors and shepherding them through to their “completions” (even in death, donors aren’t granted full humanity). It’s a difficult responsibility, but Kathy believes she’s doing a service, bringing comfort to her fellow donors, including Tommy and Ruth. Trouble is, every donor’s got to reach completion sooner or later.

Late in the film, the characters hear a rumor that donors can be granted a few extra years if they are found to be in love. For Kathy and Tommy, who have harbored feelings for each other since their Hailsham years, this presents a new kind of hope. However, the movie never makes this possibility seem any more real than the rumors of Hailsham escapees turning up dead and mutilated. But while we don’t believe the rumor to be true- and it’s possible that Kathy doesn’t believe it very deeply either- Tommy is excited about the possibility of a delayed completion. It’s in these scenes where Garfield’s performance, the best in the film, gets especially fascinating. While Kathy and Ruth have grown up to be fairly normal (considering the circumstances), Tommy has remained more or less childlike, and so his efforts to prove he deserves to be granted an extension find him reverting to the ways he learned at Hailsham, as he draws sketch after sketch to show off his creative mind and soul. When he discovers the truth, it devastates him so much that all he can do is break down screaming as he did when he was a child. It’s a heartbreaking moment, as is his final scene, in which he meets his destiny by turning to Kathy and giving her one final sad smile.

One of the marvels of Never Let Me Go is how precisely Romanek captures the very specific tone of the novel. Ishiguro’s book is fairly light on story, so in order for the movie to work at all Romanek needed to find the right feeling, and he never missteps. Every element of the film- the performances, Rachel Portman’s score, the muted cinematography and art direction- is tightly controlled, all in the service of sustaining the mood of resigned fatalism at the heart of Ishiguro’s vision. Romanek doesn’t reach for his effects because to do so would break the movie’s spell. Like its central character, Never Let Me Go refuses to rage against the dying of the light, and while of the movie’s critics might object to that, I for one found it to be incredibly moving. By refusing to pander to the audience’s need to catharsis, Romanek has done justice to a great book.
Rating: 8 out of 10.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)

Nowadays, we’re told from childhood that we can do damn near anything, provided we’re willing to put forth the effort. And while that’s not entirely wrong, the truth is that some people have a much easier path to worldly success than others. To be born into money is a tremendous leg up for a child, since his family’s social and financial status allows them to use their money and connections to give their child an advantage over those who are less fortunate. And if David Fincher’s spellbinding The Social Network is any indication, the stratification is even more pronounced at the top. In the world envisioned by Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the Harvard students we see aren’t content to accept that they’re the cream of the crop because they attend America’s most prestigious university- they need to further stratify their society, with the truly elite winning invitation to the school’s prestigious “final clubs” while the others find themselves on the outside, looking in.

Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is one of those on the outside. Early in the film he despairs, “how do I distinguish myself when I’m surrounded by people who all got 1600 on their SATs?” He sees induction into a final club as being his ticket to greater things in life, and he pictures (fantasizes?) soirees in which Harvard’s best and brightest bus in stunning young women for all sorts of decadent activities. Meanwhile, the best Mark can manage is to get into a Jewish frat that holds kitschy “Caribbean nights.” It doesn’t help that Mark is lacking in social acumen- the movie’s first scene finds him talking circles around his girlfriend, belittling her college (“Why do you need to study? You go to BU”), and insinuating that she slept with the doorman.

Naturally, the girl in question calls Mark an asshole and breaks up with him, which prompts Mark to get drunk, post nasty remarks about her to his blog, and extrapolate his feelings about her into a resentment toward all the women around him by starting a blog called “Facemash”, which asked visitors to compare the relative hotness of Harvard’s coeds. The stunt ended up crashing Harvard’s servers and landing Mark in hot water with the school’s administration, but it also made him a celebrity on campus and attracted the attention of a trio of popular seniors, the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) and their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). The three of them approach Mark to assist them with an idea of theirs, called The Harvard Connection, which would connect Harvard men to connect with interested women, since “women want to go with guys who go to Harvard.” Mark, of course, accepts.

It’s the so-called “Winklevii” who present the movie’s strongest contrast to Mark. Whereas Mark is average in stature and appearance, the Winklevii are practically Aryan poster boys (“I’m 6’5”, 220 pounds, and there’s two of me”). Likewise, the Winklevii are rich kids, honors students, and star, Olympic-bound rowers on Harvard’s celebrated crew team. Divya appears to be formidable unto himself, but he’s practically the Winklevii’s sidekick. Perhaps most importantly, all three are longstanding members of one of Harvard’s most elite final clubs, and when they propose their idea to Mark they’re only able to take him into the club as far as “the bike room.”

So why does Mark take the Winklevii and Navendra up on their idea only to turn his back on them almost instantaneously to pursue what would eventually become Facebook? According to the Winklevii, Facebook was a ripoff of their Harvard Connection concept, but I don’t see that many similarities to be honest. On the basis of The Social Network, Mark didn’t steal the concept so much as turn it upside down. Whereas the Winklevii were two of Harvard’s golden boys, Mark was an outsider in almost every sense. He saw The Harvard Connection as reinforcing the sense of entitlement that the Winklevii and their peers felt at being rich, smart, and popular. While he and guys like him yearned to be accepted into the Winklevii’s sphere, he also resented their eagerness to trade on the irresistibility of their lifestyle, while employing someone else to do most of the leg work. All this, of course, in the guise of “rehabilitating Mark’s image”, to use the Winklevii’s condescending phrase. What they don’t realize is that Mark won’t be condescended to- not by Harvard’s chief of security, not by the Winklevii’s smug attorney, not even by the golden boys of a final club Mark wishes to join.

The Harvard Connection was basically another way for the Winklevii and those like them to confirm their awesomeness by trumpeting the irresistible allure of the Harvard name to women who were in the market for the most eligible men out there. Like so many aspects of their blessed lives, it was defined by its exclusionary nature. But although Facebook was only available at certain college in its early years, any student who attended those colleges could join. Consequently, Mark’s creation of Facebook feels like a raised middle finger to the Winklevii and their cocoon of privilege. When asked why the Winklevii filed the suit, Mark posits that “for the first time in their lives things didn’t turn out as they’d planned.” In short, they weren’t the golden boys anymore. We see the Winklevii competing in one of the world’s toniest upper-crust sporting events, the Henley Regatta, and their hard-fought loss to the Dutch crew team feels like small potatoes to them after they’re told that video from the race had already been posted on Facebook. In response, the Winklevii (who had previously tried to be honorable about the whole thing because they thought it was the Harvard way to be) show their true colors by saying, “let’s get this frickin’ nerd.”

Of course, it would be much easier to root for Mark Zuckerberg if The Social Network it was just about him beating a matching pair of Teutonic stuffed shirts at their own game. But Mark is too prickly a character for that. Fincher and Sorkin contrast Mark’s difficulties with the Winklevii with a very different lawsuit filed by his Facebook co-founder and former best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, very good). As Mark worked on the coding and design of Facebook, Eduardo supplied his business savvy, first supplying some of his own money before venturing out to find advertising revenue.

Unfortunately for Eduardo, advertising didn’t mesh well with Mark’s image for Facebook, which was “cool” precisely because it wasn’t plastered with ads. So when Napster founder Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) swooped in to hook Mark up with his venture capitalist friends, Eduardo found himself being forced out of a business he’s helped start and into which he’d poured much of his money and energy. Once again, there are some class dynamics in play- Saverin was a buttoned-down prep school graduate, whereas Parker was a self-made Silicon Valley rock star who lived fast and seemed less interested in making money than staying on the edge. The difference between Eduardo and the Winklevii is that Eduardo honestly cares about Facebook. The business with the Winklevii was just that- business- but Eduardo comes off almost like a jilted lover. In fact, during his final deposition, Eduardo can’t even bear to look Mark in the face, turning his chair around and gazing out the window with tears in his eyes.

The Social Network is the most impressive Hollywood movie I’ve seen this year, with a whip-smart screenplay, stellar filmmaking, and impeccable performances across the board. Eisenberg’s work as Zuckerberg is light years from the affable nebbishes he usually plays, and the supporting cast- yes, even Justin Timberlake- is first-rate across the board. But honestly, I think I’ve said plenty about the movie already. Not only are the film’s other pleasures articulated clearly by some of the other reviews out there, but this is such a deep film that it will take multiple viewings just for me to absorb everything it has to offer. And who knows- maybe after I revisit it, I’ll bump this rating up even higher.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Life During Wartime (2009, Todd Solondz)

You know, I think I’m pretty much done with Solondz. Happiness has its problems, particularly when Solondz feels the need to provoke, but it also makes some genuinely cogent points about the inability of its characters to relate to each other, or in some cases even try. For the most part, Storytelling and Palindromes kept the provocations while jettisoning the incisiveness, but I had some hope that Solondz might be able to pull it together for this sequel to Happiness. Alas, no such luck. Life During Wartime tones down the audience-baiting (to a point anyway), but doesn’t fill the gaps with anything interesting. It’s that rarest of creatures- a bland Todd Solondz movie.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a handful of interesting ideas on its plate. Foremost among these is Solondz’s re-casting of the entire ensemble. The most obvious impetus behind this is to suggest the passage of time and the effects the years have had on the characters. Nebbishy pedophile Bill Maplewood, formerly played by Dylan Baker, has emerged from a decade-long prison sentence as hulking, monosyllabic Ciaran Hinds. Sunny bleeding-heart Joy has morphed from Jane Adams into wet blanket Shirley Henderson. Allen, the shut-in prank caller once played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has turned into The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams, picking up additional dangerous hobbies along the way.

And so on. It would be easy to call Solondz’s re-casting a cheap formalist prank. After all, this was the guy who alternated half a dozen different actresses of different ages, body types, and colors (along with one male) in the lead role of Palindromes. But I think that Solondz recognizes that most of his audience will already be familiar with Happiness- enough that our familiarity will inform our pre-conceived notions of the characters and their lives. Consequently, he’s able to use the re-casting of the roles to comment on how greatly they’ve changed in the intervening years. For example, in the first movie Dr. Maplewood’s wife Trish, then played by Cynthia Stevenson, was something of a pushover, but a decade of raising her children alone while moving past her family’s dicey past (with help from prescription medications) has turned her into the quirkier, more imposing Alison Janney. Since we already know where she’s been, it’s interesting to see how much she’s changed.

Alas, if only the rest of the movie was so thought-provoking. Not that it doesn’t try, mind you- Solondz clearly thinks he has plenty to say on the subject of forgiveness. And maybe the film could have been a fascinating treatise on forgiveness if only he didn’t feel the need to make his characters talk about it in every other scene. The most egregious mouthpiece for Solondz’s thesis is little Timmy Maplewood (played by Dylan Riley Snyder), who at one point grills his mother and her new beau (the decidedly non-fruity Michael Lerner) about the concept of forgiveness and how far it should be taken. Timmy’s conflicted feelings about forgiveness make sense for his character- after all, this is a kid who has just discovered that his dad isn’t a dead war hero but rather an imprisoned sex offender. But Solondz just doesn’t know when to stop with Timmy. Scene after scene finds Timmy grappling with his feelings loudly and at length, until all I could do was give up on the character. It doesn’t help matters that Solondz feels the need to spout off profanities at several points, or that Snyder is less effective as a flesh-and-blood performer than an image of boyish innocence.

If Timmy is coming to grips with the past, his elders are haunted by it. In the case of Joy, this haunting is literal- she’s visited at several points by Andy (previously Jon Lovitz, now Paul Reubens), who committed suicide after she snubbed him in the first movie. During his visits, Andy appeals to Joy’s memory of their relationship (such as it was) and remembers the pain she once caused him. He also invites her to join him in death, an invitation that’s extended to her once more by Allen’s spirit after he too kills himself. The scenes with the ghosts show some promise- Solondz means to position them as the counterpoint to Timmy’s notions of forgiveness- but mostly come off as clumsy.

This clumsy execution of potentially effective ideas is a common thread that runs through Life During Wartime. There are a handful of moments that actually work as they should, notably a scene in which Charlotte Rampling plays a self-loathing woman who picks up Bill at a bar. But more scenes are like the film’s climax- in which Timmy mistakes an innocent male bonding gesture for an unwelcome sexual advance- which is so hamfisted in its setup and follow-through that most of its impact gets blunted. In the end, very little Solondz does in Life During Wartime manages to hit home. Storytelling and Palindromes didn’t work for me, but at least they were the work of a filmmaker who was trying. By contrast, Life During Wartime finds Solondz, like his characters, replaying old tapes.

Frankly, I’m getting tired of listening to these old tapes. Once again, Solondz’s worldview can be boiled down to “life sucks, and then you die.” The only thing new he can bring to the table here is that it sucks when you’re dead too. But that’s not enough to make his brand of nihilism any less cheap. I’m not averse to bleakness in my movies- I love No Country for Old Men, after all- but if that’s all you got, you don’t have much of anything. Unless I hear that Solondz suddenly has more to say, I think I’ll forego his movies from now on.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Town (2010, Ben Affleck)

One of the biggest surprises of 2007 was the discovery of Ben Affleck as a serious filmmaker. Some would argue that much of the success of Affleck’s debut feature Gone Baby Gone was due to some fine acting and strong source material by Dennis Lehane, but Affleck was to be commended for eliciting those performances from his cast and finding the right tone and style for the material. Unfortunately, he can’t replicate this success with his follow-up film The Town. There are points in the film where he seems to be chasing after the same downbeat thriller vibe, but the magic never quite happens.

Part of the problem is that the source material just isn’t as rich as Gone Baby Gone. Whereas the earlier film distinguished itself by the way it dealt with the morality behind its characters’ actions, here he’s working with little more than a boilerplate heist movie, with all the off-the-shelf elements that genre implies. Hero who wants to escape his life? Check. Tenacious cop bearing down on our hero just as he’s trying to go straight? Yup. Loose-cannon best friend who becomes more of a liability as the story progresses? You betcha. Final big job to end all big jobs? Obviously.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible for a formulaic heist movie to be good. Hell, considering all the clichés it embraces, Heat is pretty much the Love, Actually of the genre. But when the story elements are so familiar, the only way a heist movie can distinguish itself is with style and filmmaking brio. And Affleck just isn’t a strong enough filmmaker to sell this material in a way that makes it feel exciting. The characters in the film are either off-the-shelf (Jon Hamm’s all-business FBI agent, Jeremy Renner’s unstable crook, et al), or worse, unbelievable. This is especially true of Affleck’s character, a career criminal who comes off less like a hard-bitten townie than a secular saint, pining for his lost mother and forever looking for a way out of his life.
Personally, I think the romance between Affleck and Hall would have been more compelling had Affleck’s character been a more honest-to-goodness bad boy. Hall plays a bank manager whose life is shaken up when Affleck and his gang briefly take her hostage during a heist, and in the film she seems to respond primarily to Affleck’s goodness. However, I think the dynamic could have been thought-provoking if instead of showing her to be traumatized by the abduction, it could have kick-started a kind of hunger for danger that manifested itself in her going after dangerous men. It certainly would have felt less drippy than it feels in The Town, with the added bonus of not leading to the film’s almost laughable final minute.

I recently told a friend that I’ve gotten to the point in my life as a movie lover that I’d rather see a movie that people seem to either love or hate (but respond to strongly either way) than a movie about which most people seem to be fairly lukewarm. I wasn’t talking about The Town when I made this statement, but I could have been, since it’s a movie that falls resolutely into the latter category. It’s not bad, and certainly not offensive, but it’s so safe and middle-of-the-road that it doesn’t feel particularly necessary- even the climactic “big job” is underwhelming despite an intriguing setup. Most of the pleasures of The Town are borrowed pleasures, attributable more to the genre itself than anything special the film does. I never thought I’d say this a decade ago, but I honestly expected more from Ben Affleck.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wild Grass (2009, Alain Resnais)

Well, now that that’s out of the way… After the lovely and relatively straightforward Not on the Lips and Private Fears in Public Places, Resnais is back to the head-scratchers of old with his latest film, Wild Grass. I suppose that what really perplexed me about this is how little I was prepared for it. Perhaps it was the other recent Resnais works, or maybe it’s just my general experience with aged filmmakers, but I was blindsided how strange a moviegoing experience this was. What’s more, the opening minutes of the film do almost nothing to prepare one for the rest of it- the first couple of scenes, in which Resnais’ eternal flibbertigibbet-muse Sabine Azema heads to her favorite shoe boutique to buy new shoes for her oddly-shaped feet only to have her handbag swiped immediately after, could have led off any number of whimsical rom-coms.

From that point, Resnais only gradually reveals how odd things are in the film’s world, beginning with his use of voiceover narration to describe the sinister thoughts (fantasies? Memories?) of male lead Andre Dussolier. Eventually, Wild Grass reveals itself as one of the fou-est tales of l’amour to hit the screen in a long, long time. Most love stories between crazy people de-emphasize how deeply troubled they are in favor of warm-fuzzy sentiments about misunderstood loners finding each other, but Resnais isn’t interested in sentiment. Instead, he lets Dussolier’s actions become increasingly inappropriate (slashing her tires, for example) before he finally gets a tongue-lashing from the local police and goes back on good behavior. Then, all of a sudden, Azema decides she wants him too, and goes off her own deep end.

What to make of it? I’m honestly not sure. What I do know is that I want to re-visit this movie more than damn near any other I’ve seen so far this year (that it’s bloody gorgeous helps too). Maybe what was needed was for me to sit through it that initial time, to wipe away whatever expectations I might have had for the film. And now that I know better what’s coming, up through that final shift in narrative direction, I should be able to better appreciated what Resnais does. Thus, the rating below should be considered even more provisional than usual.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

The American (2010, Anton Corbijn)

Is there any archetypal character with a higher mortality rate than that of the crook doing his last job? Once you know that, The American becomes a slow trudge to an inevitable end, complete with a Rififi-style last drive. Harsh? Perhaps. But though The American aspires to be a high-toned take on a stock genre premise, it feels fairly standard-issue. Oh sure, George Clooney manages to smuggle his trademark cool into the story. However, aside from some pretty but fairly uninspired images, there doesn’t seem to be much on the mind of former music video director Corbijn. Oh sure, there’s plenty of arthouse ponderousness and hearkening back to genre classics (some Melville here, a dash of Leone there), but this is a film with almost nothing to say. And for a while, Corbijn almost manages to make it work largely because he whittles down the story to almost nothing aside from Clooney immersing himself in the job.

The American ultimately loses its way by reverting to conventional plotting, in which the nature of Clooney’s job is revealed, a possibly risky dalliance with a local prostitute turns into the hero’s best hope to escape, and so on. The most glaring example of this comes in the form of Clooney’s handler Pavel, played by Johan Leysen, who exists in the movie solely to voice what little subtext there is (“you’re losing it”) and to set the plot in motion for the dunderheads in the audience. In the end, The American is a textbook 5, meaning it’s largely a near-miss but a diverting enough one, thanks to the expected Clooney coolness and plenty of welcome nudity from the luscious Violante Placido.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Get Low (2009, Aaron Schneider)

The history of movies is filled with hermits, but few have been as precisely drawn as Felix Bush, the protagonist of Get Low. Played by Robert Duvall, Felix is a cantankerous old coot- the word “old” would seem redundant but for the agreeable rhythm it brings to the phrase- who’s holed up in his cabin for the better part of four decades, with only a mule as company. One thing I appreciated about Get Low is that it doesn’t strive too hard to make Felix seem purer or more genuine than the more sophisticated townsfolk he meets throughout the film, or to turn him into some kind of backwoods philosopher. That’s not to say Felix doesn’t have wisdom of a sort, but it’s the kind of wisdom one gains through fending for oneself for a long period of time. Four decades alone hasn’t brought Felix any closer to figuring out the meaning of life, but they’ve given him plenty of time to perfect his recipe for rabbit stew. I also enjoyed how Felix’s lifestyle has given him a distinctive speaking style that’s simultaneously colorful and no-nonsense, as if he hasn’t missed having to engage in social niceties and wouldn’t mind not having to again. Observe the way he doesn’t linger any longer than he has to in a conversation- once he’s made his point, he simply picks up and leaves.

Get Low is a film of no great ambition but plenty of small pleasures, beginning with the performances, as one would expect from a movie starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray. Duvall has played more than his share of ornery cusses, but he’s never played one quite like Felix, and it’s great to see him finding new wrinkles to a character that in other hands might have seemed like a cliché. Spacek brings an un-showy warmth to the role of a woman who has a somewhat fraught history with Felix, and Murray puts just the right spin on the slick undertaker who has no qualms about playing along with Felix’s idea to stage his own funeral while he’s still around to do it, if it means Murray gets his hands on some of Felix’s “hermit money.” Just as noteworthy, in a quieter way, is Lucas Black as Murray’s less gung-ho associate, who might come off as a textbook audience surrogate but for Black’s gift (in evidence ever since Sling Blade) for performances that are free of affectation and phoniness. And Bill Cobbs gets a nice supporting role as the one man who knows the truth about Felix’s past, the cause of much speculation among the locals.

Get Low isn’t particularly distinguished cinematically- with a cast like this, Schneider seems primarily concerned with not getting in the way. But I think the unassuming direction works in the film’s favor, since instead of ladling on the cutesy touches like so many would-be festival favorites, Get Low lets the charm flow naturally from the story and the performances. I just wish that Schneider and his screenwriters had the confidence to end the movie one scene before they did, on a perfectly lovely bit of homespun poetry involving a final guest arriving at Felix’s living funeral. But no matter- Get Low is a refreshing bit of low-key entertainment, one that’s especially welcome at the end of a summer filled with bloated spectacle. I don’t think I can put it better than my friend Craig Kennedy, who said, “it might not rock your world, but it’ll make it a nicer place to be for a couple of hours.”

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Restrepo (2010, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)

It’s a challenge for me to review a movie like Restrepo. It’s not that I think that it’s a bad movie, or even a particularly odd one. But given the film’s nature- Hetherington and Junger are journalists rather than filmmakers, and the film is almost pure reportage- that there’s almost nothing to report, positive or negative, as regards the cinematic merits of Restrepo. In other words, if you’re down with what Hetherington and Junger are doing, you’ll be down with the movie.

For me, it was kind of a wash- an admirable wash to be sure, but a wash all the same. Sure, I can appreciate the difficulty incurred by the directors in making Restrepo, being embedded for the better part of a year with soldiers in Afghanistan’s most dangerous war zone. And Lord knows I have nothing but admiration for the soldiers stationed there, risking their lives against a largely unseen enemy in an area where even the most sympathetic locals aren’t eager to have their home turned into a battleground.

But although the film does provide some vivid illustrations of what’s happening in the war in Afghanistan, I was left fairly cold by Restrepo. Part of the problem is that I’m generally cold on old-fashioned Pennebaker-style “direct cinema”, but when I think of great documentaries, I expect a little more from the filmmakers to be in the right place at the right time, camera in hand. In other words, it’s not enough to show me something. The directors must assemble their footage into something that expresses a film that stirs the mind, instead of simply trying to wow us with the footage itself.

Now, I’m not asking all documentarians to be Michael Moore (heaven forbid). But while in journalism the story itself is of paramount of importance, the most important aspect of making a film is assembling the story in a way that accentuates the themes and ideas contained therein. The biggest flaw of Restrepo is that it’s so short on actual ideas. In other words, Hetherington and Junger just don’t have a whole lot to say. And while some of the footage is indeed impressive, that’s just not enough to turn Restrepo into the great definitive document of Afghanistan that its supports insist it is.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Dogtooth (2009, Yorgos Lanthimos)

Often, when critics extol a movie for being imaginative and creative, they do so in order to praise flights of fancy that make their hearts leap with joy, such as the works of Hayao Miyazaki or the geniuses at Pixar. So what to make of a film like Dogtooth, a film that’s as imaginative as any film I’ve seen this year, but in a particularly dark vein? True, Dogtooth is set in a recognizable real-world setting- a suburban family home- but for all intensive purposes it might as well be another world.

The unnamed family at the center of Dogtooth is one founded not on love but rather an insidious sort of mindfuckery, in which the parents have barricaded their children in the house from birth and taught them to fear the outside world. The high wall that surrounds the family’s property speaks most plainly to their isolationism, but many of the parents’ manipulations are more subtle, as when the children are taught words describing the outside, only to have them (mis-)defined as objects that remind them of domestic comfort, as when they associate the word “sea” with a wooden armchair. There’s even an unseen brother character, possibly apocryphal, who is said to lurk just outside the walls, until the father deems it necessary to invent a story in which he was murdered by a house cat that infiltrated the property.

What’s going on here? It’s fairly obvious that the parents are psychotic, even before we see their more, shall we say, extreme punishments. Yet Lanthimos clearly has more on his mind than simply showing a pair of nutjobs who Fate had the sordid sense of humor to allow to meet each other and breed. No, Dogtooth is a rather pointed commentary on the destructiveness of over-parenting. Throughout the film, the parents’ methods point to a desire to shelter their children from the harshness of the world while enforcing their authority over their offspring. But by isolating their children (almost) completely from the world’s evils, they have reduced them to little more than animals themselves, prone to violence against themselves and each other.

Moreover, at a certain point it’s clear that the parents are more interested in perpetuating the experiment than they are in turning their children into well-rounded adults, as most parents would desire. The key scene in the film comes after one of the daughters attacks the son in his sleep. When the father rushes into the room, the son accuses his sister, but she turns around and blames it on a much-feared cat, who invaded the room wielding a hammer. Obviously, the father (the only one who is permitted to travel into the outside world) knows this is a lie. But to admit as much would mean puncturing the elaborate lie he and his wife have worked so hard to create, so he lets it slide. Pretty telling, I’d say.

Of course, in a family so cut off from the outside world, any external influence that is introduced would be exaggerated, and this happens when one of the father’s female employees is permitted to visit the home regularly, ostensibly to provide the son an outlet for his sexual longings. The woman also sometimes smuggles in contraband items for the girls- first a headband, then some videotapes- that she trades for sexual favors. Eventually, watching movies like Rocky and Flashdance brings out a sense of rebellion in the eldest daughter, but Lanthimos refuses to make this rebellion cathartic for the audience. Sure, the girl begins to assert her independence, but after two decades of isolation she’s ill-prepared for it, and when she decides to break free, the results are harrowing.

The same could be said for the whole of Dogtooth. With only his second film, Lanthimos has created a film so unique in tone- call it “absurdist tragedy”- that it announces him as a formidably gifted filmmaker. Not only does Lanthimos tap vividly into a deep-seated parental fear- that our efforts to shelter and protect our children may be hurting them rather than helping- but he does it with such skill that Dogtooth is an exciting work of art even when it becomes borderline unbearable to watch. It’s a major achievement, and an early front-runner for my favorite film of the year.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Kids Are All Right (2010, Lisa Cholodenko)

I honestly don’t feel like I have a lot to add to Mike D’Angelo’s spot-on assessment of Cholodenko’s latest, which might as well be titled Scenes From a Might-As-Well-Be-Called-Marriage (But For the Jackasses Who Voted For Proposition 8). The primary virtue of the film is the complexity with which its three grown-up characters are seen- Nic (Annette Bening), a serious doctor with a slight issue with alcohol; Jules (Julianne Moore), Nic’s life partner, a wishy-washy fortysomething perpetually between careers; and Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the anything-goes boho restaurant owner who, a few decades ago, donated the sperm that sired Nic and Jules’ children. Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg, along with the cast, do a fine job establishing the dynamic of the family, in which the adults grapple with everyday problems- the waxing and waning of sexual passion, the encroachment of Nic’s job into the nighttime hours, and so on. All the while, the two of them work hard to bring up well-adjusted kids, albeit of a particularly tolerant variety, and shielding them from their own issues.

Naturally, Paul’s arrival on the scene is an irritant. The kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser [!] (Josh Hutcherson), have a right to be curious about the man who provided half their DNA, but likewise do Nic and Jules have the right to be uneasy at the presence of a father figure in the children’s lives after they’ve spent years creating a solid family without one. For his part, Paul is genuinely moved by the introduction of his kids into his life, and he does his best to insinuate himself into theirs, even as it’s clear that his presence isn’t exactly required. The Kids Are All Right handles the dynamic between these five characters with such keen observance and subtlety that it’s something of a letdown when Cholodenko and Blumberg have him embark on an affair with Jules.

That’s not to say that I’m with Jeffrey Wells in his vocal objection to the film’s final marginalization of Ruffalo, since in the end, the family situation must resolve itself, and all else is secondary. Nor was I taken aback by the turn of events that leads the ostensibly girl-loving Jules into Paul’s bed- after all, all three of Cholodenko’s films to date have featured characters whose sexual leanings are rather more fluid than they’d originally thought. It’s just that an affair between Jules and Paul feels too dramatically convenient- too easy an “out”- for this story. Maybe it’s just that I’ve never been a big “plot” guy (which might explain why I never sold a screenplay back when I was trying), but I found the relationship between Nic and Jules’ family and Paul to be interesting enough that the film’s need to turn him into a force working against the family’s happiness felt like a cop out to me. When a movie creates characters as rich as The Kids Are All Right does, I’d rather just see them bounce off each other than be hemmed in by a plot.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Everyone Else (2009, Maren Ade)

A subtler take on a prickly, Cassavetes-style relationship drama, Everyone Else examines the friction-filled love affair between Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and Chris (Lars Eidinger). As the film begins, the two are left on their own in sun-drenched Sardinia, where Chris, an architect, has been hired to do some improvements on a rich man’s vacation home. But while Chris makes a few stabs at work, most of his time is spent with Gitti as they try to enjoy some time on their own.

Soon, however, their personalities get in the way of their enjoyment. To begin with, Chris discovers via phone that he’s lost a prestigious competition, then hides the bad news from Gitti for several days, allowing his unexplained disappointment to cast a pall over their holiday. Then an encounter with one of Chris’ colleagues and his wife leads to a pair of awkward dinner parties in which Chris and Gitti’s issues come to the fore.

Ade, to her credit, never puts too fine a point on the frictions that exist within the relationship. Based on their actions in Everyone Else, it’s clear that Chris takes his artistic principles very seriously, but is somewhat spineless and eternally conscious of his self-image. On the other hand, Gitti is more impulse-driven, which gives her a kind of honesty that’s bracing in some circumstances but a hindrance in social situations, in which her inability to shrug off something she finds disagreeable leads to difficulties that might otherwise have been averted.

I won’t delve too deeply into the plot of Everyone Else, which is best experienced with as little advance knowledge as possible. However, it’s fascinating to see how Ade, ably assisted by Eidinger and Minichmayr, portray in detail the relationship between Chris and Gitti. We’ve all known couples like Chris and Gitti, in which their outward affections barely mask the hostility they feel deep down. There’s some truth to the old saying that opposites attract, but at the end of the day those opposites need to be compatible, personality-wise.

In most movies about relationships, love is depicted as the end result, and they all live happily every after. But even the happiest of couples- hi, honey!- knows that it’s nowhere near that simple, and for all couples who think in the long term, the make-or-break issue becomes not whether love is shared but rather whether the partners can make the relationship work. Everyone Else is about a borderline case- two people who may like (or even love) each other, but aren’t sure whether that’s enough, or should be. On that basis alone, it’s more realistic than most movies of its kind, and better to boot.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)

There’s a certain paradox to the notion of Christopher Nolan making a “dream-film.” Nolan’s work has always been distinguished by a Swiss-watch precision and intricacy, and this springs from his writer’s need to focus on those aspects of the film that are relevant to the story. But dreams, as most anyone can tell you, aren’t so coherent. Often, the content of dreams is born less out of specific situations in one’s life than from deep-seated desires and anxieties which manifest themselves in strange ways. As a result, Nolan’s multi-level dream narrative doesn’t come off as a dive into the unconscious so much as a complex multi-player video game, in which the participants join in with an ostensibly unified purpose but are at the mercy of their own skill sets, personalities, and limitations.

But if Inception isn’t really convincing as an according-to-Hoyle dream film, it thrills on just about every other front. To begin with, Inception is a marvel of screenwriting structure, as Nolan uses the device of dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams to craft the cinematic equivalent of Russian nesting dolls. Even if the concrete goals of the story are fairly clear- the cranial crooks need to implant an idea, while team leader Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has to come to grips with his wife’s death and find a way home to his kids- Nolan’s story is complex, as Cobb’s team must burrow deeper in their mark’s mind while fending off his built-in defenses.

That the film is never confusing is fairly amazing, and a testament to Nolan’s skill as a filmmaker. Rather than rushing through to the job itself, Nolan takes plenty of time to explain the rules of the game and to establish the different dream-worlds they will inhabit. So once he has to cross-cut between the different dream levels, we’re always sure where everyone is- no mean feat when you’ve got four or more levels to deal with at once. Additionally, Nolan’s screenplay employs a device in which time expands with every further level the characters visit- ten seconds of “real world” time equating to three minutes in the first level of dreaming, an hour in the second level, and so on. This leads to a riveting use of cross-cutting in which the team must wrap up its mission while, in the highest dream level, the team’s van ever-so-slowly plunges off a bridge into a river. If they don’t finish up before they hit the water, the mission will fail.

Inception is most successful as pure spectacle. Even if they don’t feel like dreams, there are images in the film that are astonishing, some of which appear in the trailers, others of which I won’t spoil here. Inception’s effects are always convincing and often transcendent, all the more so because they’re so perfectly integrated into the worlds of the characters. And if the so-called “human interest” comes up short here- wait, Nolan’s using the dead-wife plot again?- perhaps that’s because Nolan intends them not as fully functioning characters but as someone’s “projections.” Ah, yes- but whose? (That said, Tom Hardy rules, which is something I never imagined myself saying after his performance in Star Trek: Nemesis.)

One thing is clear, Inception is a movie that I’ll need to see more than once so I can watch it freed from my initial expectations. Now that I have a better idea of what Inception is and what it isn’t, I should be able to judge it more on its considerable merits. And now that I know what to expect, perhaps now I’ll be able to better determine what exactly Nolan’s game is. Because if my experiences with his work have taught me anything, it’s that there’s always more going on than Nolan lets on the first time around. Even if there’s not- well, it’s still pretty doggone awesome. And isn’t that enough?

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Winter's Bone (2010, Debra Granik)

In many ways, the Ozarks world of Winter’s Bone harbors a way of life that seems to have changed little since the Great Depression. Oh sure, the cars and clothes are newer, and the local underground industry has switched from moonshine to crystal meth. But the mentality feels mostly the same- fierce territoriality, a strained-at-best relationship to the Law, and tenuous blood ties that only hold up to the point where they stop being useful. It’s a pocket of America that feels like a distant planet compared to the contemporary suburban sprawl, to say nothing of the big city, and it’s the kind of place where those who hail from elsewhere thank the heavens that they weren’t born, and where those who were born there rarely manage to escape.

Under the circumstances, it’s sort of amazing that Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence) turned out so well. The offspring of a largely absent, ne’er-do-well father and a mostly catatonic mother, 17-year-old Ree is shouldering the responsibility for keeping her family going. She has dropped out of school to raise her younger brother and sister, but she motivates them to do their homework and quizzes them on their math and spelling. She assembles the meals primarily from what’s on hand and what can be hunted in the nearby forest. Money being tight, she could go around asking for charity, but she lives by the wisdom, “never ask for what ought to be offered.” It would be easy for her to fall in with the meth cookers in order to earn a living, but like the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta before her, she won’t fall into the rut. And when she discovers that her family could get kicked out of their house after her dad has skipped bail, she’s not about to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

One of the wonders of Winter’s Bone, based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, is how much it reveals about both its heroine and its setting not through tiresome exposition but through action. Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rossellini don’t toss in so much as a throwaway line about Ree’s upbringing, but judging by her resourcefulness it’s clear that she had to figure most of life out for herself. In her hardscrabble way, Ree is the most heroic character I’ve seen at the movies all year, and Lawrence is a dynamo, less an up-and-comer angling for a career boost than a young performer with serious chops that were just waiting for be revealed. Lawrence isn’t playing a Hollywood hillbilly- Ree is a clever young woman whose circumstances have made her wise beyond her years, and she knows how to navigate a world that spits out weaker souls.

It’s a world that Granik portrays in such depth that Winter’s Bone never simply feels like a vehicle for its young star. The visual style of the film never falls into Southern Gothic clichés, but finely straddles the line between naturalism and noir. She then fills this world with a vivid gallery of supporting players, from the great John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle Teardrop, who reluctantly aids her on her quest, to Dale Dickey as Ree’s most intimidating obstacle, a local crime queen who has her fingers in lots of pies, all of them rotten. And throughout the film, Granik fills the frame with detail after vivid detail, from the crowds at the local cattle auction to the way a birthday party turns into a sing-along. It rang particularly true that the only option for young adults aside from crime is the military, which reels in many of its enlistees with the promise of money, travel, and the allure of potential heroism.

Winter’s Bone won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this past year. But while this award’s pedigree often suggests bland off-Hollywood fare that’s low on legitimate entertainment value (i.e. Quinceañera and Personal Velocity), Winter’s Bone is never less than riveting. A tense thriller, a study of an unforgettable character, and as lived-in a portrait of the South than any film I’ve seen since The Apostle, Granik’s film is a major achievement, and one that will, I hope, kick off long and fruitful careers for both its director and leading lady.

Rating: 9 out of 10.