Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Kite Runner (2007, Marc Forster)

The more Forster films I see, the more I think that the best he can manage anymore is workmanlike proficiency. None of his movies is poorly made, but they're just kind of bland and uninspired. It's for this reason that when he takes on respectable subject matter, the results are invariably labeled "Oscar-bait"- they're so middle-of-the-road that if the material does it for you, you're bound to respond favorably to the movie. Problem is, I'm not sure he's the right filmmaker for The Kite Runner. It may have seemed so at the time, as it's based on a respected bestseller, but this really needed a director willing to really dig into the more emotional aspects of the story. After all, we're dealing with lifelong guilt and shame born from fear of emasculation, both real and imagined. Sure, the Forster version might elicit approval from critics who respect his restraint and treat melodrama as a four-letter word, but seeing the tepid result makes me wonder how much better a Sergio Leone version would have been (were he alive, that is). The Kite Runner is prosaic through and through, and so when the big narrative reveals come in the story, nothing registers. For example, the scene where the adult Amir finds out the truth about his childhood friend Hassan falls flat because Forster is afraid to really embrace the melodramatic nature of the moment. In this way, Khalid Abdulla is the ideal lead actor for Forster's telling of the story- his performance is perfectly serviceable, but reveals almost nothing about the character. And let's face it, we're not talking about the hero of a Jean-Pierre Melville protagonist here- we're supposed to feel the weight of this guy's emotional struggles, and we never do. Too bad... this could've been pretty darn good. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Savages (2007, Tamara Jenkins)

If nothing else, The Savages should be considered a success because it acknowledges something that the syrupy romantic tragedy Away From Her did not- that the elderly are not simply wise and brave and saintly, but complicated humans whose bodies are beginning to fail them and whose proximity to death can be frightening. That Jenkins refuses to sanctify the "golden years" the way many films do is the most noteworthy aspect of The Savages. Beyond that, this is a pretty good movie that works largely by virtue of its modest charms. For one thing, Jenkins never tries to make this a universal story about siblings reuniting to care for a dying parent. The characters- schlubby professor John (Philip Seymour Hoffman), neurotic would-be playwright Wendy (Laura Linney), and father Lenny (Philip Bosco)- are too specific for that. Thus, freed from the need to make a larger statement with her story, Jenkins considers these three people, placed into this awkward situation. The Savages is never the stuff of heightened melodrama- there are no medical procedures, no third-act confessions, no tearful bedside farewells. In fact, Lenny is kept offscreen altogether for most of the film. Instead, the main crux of the story is the contentious relationship between John and Wendy, whose troubles and resentments can't be put on hold while their father's condition worsens. I can't quite embrace The Savages wholeheartedly- the film's too low-key to really be more than pretty good- but it's definitely worth a look. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007, Jake Kasdan)

Since Freaks and Geeks, I've been pretty predisposed to cutting the Apatow comedy factory a lot of slack. But the truth is that Walk Hard finds them sort of coasting. Don't get me wrong, Walk Hard is pretty funny, but there are also some pretty long dry patches in between the laughs. What's more, the running gags are extremely repetitive. Of course, that's part of the joke, the predictability of the story arcs in straight musical biopics being held up to scorn, but around the fourth time we saw Dewey hit rock bottom and tear apart a bathroom, it stopped being funny. In addition, the cameos are starting to get ridiculous. It's one thing to throw the Beatles into the storyline, but when the Beatles are played by Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long, and Jason Schwartzman affecting bad Liverpudlian accents, it's more distracting than humorous. To say nothing of Jack White as Elvis, Frankie Muniz as Buddy Holly, and many more. That said, I laughed a good amount in Walk Hard, and I was doubled over with laughter more than once. The original spoof songs are a hoot ("Let Me Hold You (Little Man)" may be the funniest song I've heard since "My Stepdad's Not Mean, He's Just Adjusting"), and the way the film lampoons the various musical periods Cox travels through during his career is sometimes priceless, especially when he shuts himself in the studio for months on end recording a SMiLE-esque opus. And John C. Reilly is just about perfect as Cox, throwing himself into even the most outrageous comic scenes and showing off the musical chops he first exhibited in Chicago. Walk Hard is no Superbad in the laughs department, that's for sure. But as far as spoofs of the musical biopic go, the genre has it coming, and I think we can all be thankful that it was Kasdan and Apatow- rather than the dudes who made Date Movie- who made this. And if you see this, be sure to stay until the end of the credits. It's definitely worth it. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Charlie Wilson's War (2007, Mike Nichols)

At the height of a highly divisive overseas war, two of Hollywood's biggest stars, along with one of his most respected character actors, teams up with a leading director and a big-ticket screenwriter to make a movie that more or less celebrates interventionism. Now, I'm not totally opposed to American intervention overseas- it's a tricky issue to be sure, but both sides of the argument make valid points. But I'm not sure that in our current climate it really behooves us to be approaching the issue by telling a fairly cut-and-dried story in such a toothless manner. Sorkin's script, reportedly much softened in its transition to the big screen, basically celebrates the cleverness with which its heroes facilitated the defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan and helped bring about the fall of the Communist Soviet Union, a story that's recent enough that much of the audience will still feel that old anti-Soviet feeling. But how many cases of U.S. interventionism are this simple? Precious few, I'd wager. Late-reel stabs at problematizing our involvement in the war only make this more frustrating, since while they vaguely hint at darker times to come due to our withdrawing our support once the Soviets had turned tail, but also because for all the unease they're trying to stir up they're the most blatantly pro-intervention scenes of all, because they argue that we didn't go far enough. At no point in the film does it occur to a character of any substance that making our presence felt in the Afghanistan/Soviet war might not be an idea touched by unqualified awesomeness. What, was there no devil's advocate character worth mentioning? None of this would bug me so much if the movie was more entertaining, but it's neither as sharp or as funny as it wants to be. For a star-driven vehicle, the superstars leading the cast don't make much of an impression. Little wonder that Philip Seymour Hoffman waltzes away with the movie- he's the only one of the three who's well-cast for his role. Hanks conveys Wilson's integrity- after all, he's Tom Hanks- but he never convinced me of his less savory side. The boozing and womanizing and good ol' boy hellraising just don't wash with the forthright way Hanks approaches the role. Julia Roberts fares worse, as she projects far too much self-regard and composure to pull off such a passionate character- I weep to think of what a younger Jane Fonda or Jessica Lange might have done in the role. Oh, and how many mediocre movies has Nichols made in the last two decades since his ex-comedy partner Elaine May tanked with Ishtar? Come on, Hollywood- she can't be THAT big of a pain in the ass, can she? Give her another chance in my opinion. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007, Tim Burton)

Unlike most people, I approached Tim Burton's big-screen take on Steven Sondheim's Broadway classic with some trepidation. Perhaps that's because of my mixed feelings toward Burton's career. Burton has become Hollywood's Prince of Darkness, but I've always found his work to be sort of juvenile, though sometimes in fascinating ways. In the past, his best films have worked primarily as magic realism, with misunderstood man-children and baby-doll women, and chock full of lovely, off-kilter imagery. But his vision is rarely as dark as his fans insist it is- at his heart, Burton isn't a nihilistic soul but a goth romantic who grew up Fangoria and Vincent Price. Which makes him the right director for Batman and Sleepy Hollow, certainly, but Sweeney Todd is much harsher stuff. Could he manage it? Turns out I needn't have worried. Sweeney is easily the bleakest film in Burton's oeuvre, not shying away from the more unpleasant undercurrents of Sondheim's original version. Occasional trips into the more comfortable climes of Burton-land were initially distracting, but after a while I realized that Burton was actually complicating his beloved, almost schticky style. In this regard, Sweeney Todd is Burton's most self-aware film. The world inhabited by Sweeney (Johnny Depp) and Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) is an unforgiving one, figuratively putting people through the meat grinder even before the protagonists make the metaphor literal. So whenever the film escapes into the familiar Burton look, it's always a signal of the innocence and hope that Sweeney has long since lost. Such trifles are for the young and foolish in Sondheim's world, and Burton underlines this in the fantasy number when Mrs. Lovett dons an outfit that makes her look uncannily like Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. But even in this fantasy, Sweeney will have none of this. Much like Hamlet, his thoughts be bloody, and Burton obliges them with plenty of throat-slashings and arterial splatter (Sweeney Todd might be a musical, but leave the kids at home). But Burton isn't simply indulging the gorehounds in the crowd- he's exorcising his more sinister demons, the ones that are often glossed over in his work but occasionally peek their heads out, as in Batman Returns. The key moment in the film comes near the end, when Sweeney has discovered his disguised daughter hiding in his flat, and when called away on urgent business, he (not knowing who she is) tells her to forget his face. Time will tell if this is the case, but I interpreted this as Burton's way of telling those who love him for his more cuddly work to turn back and remember him for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands. But rather than staying with the girl, the movie follows Sweeney to the terrible, inevitable end. Sweeney Todd isn't perfect- HBC's singing voice would have been dubbed had she not been married to the director- but it's riveting throughout. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007, Jon Turteltaub)

Pretty good fun, truth be told, mostly because the movie wholeheartedly embraces its ridiculousness. In fact, Book of Secrets is actually more enjoyable than its predecessor. It's certainly more outrageous, as the mystery takes the cast to some of the world's biggest landmarks- Buckingham Palace, The Library of Congress, Mounts Vernon and Rushmore- as well as taking on some pretty big game, like a conspiracy to kill Lincoln and a super-duper MacGuffin called the President's Book of Secrets. In my review of the original I derisively referred to it as "The Da Vinci Clone," but comparing Book to The Da Vinci Code movie makes for a study in contrasts. Think about it- if you're making an adventure/puzzle movie in which the heroes are trying to uncover ancient mysteries while jetting around the world, would you want it to be dour and humorless or light and fun? Book works where Code didn't because Da Vinci played the shadowy intrigues deadly seriously, whereas Book makes the right choice and kids them. Also, Cage has more fun this time around, whereas last time he was squarely in action hero mode and let sidekick Justin "Is This the Baywatch?" Bartha tell all the jokes. Sadly, Diane Kruger still mostly a wet blanket, although at least Helen Mirren and Ed Harris are along for the ride, to varying returns. And of course, best not to pay the story too much mind, especially not the weird thematic inconsistencies- OK, so it's fine for Cage to chuck a wooden artifact into the Thames to get the baddies off his tail, but not so much for Harris to burn a letter from Queen Victoria? But I did have a pretty good time, I must admit. Book of Secrets will never be mistaken for great cinema, but it'll certainly make a passable rental next spring. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend (2007, Francis Lawrence)

As a longtime writer for TV and the movies, Richard Matheson's work even in novel form lends itself to a cinematic feel, and as long as filmmakers who adapt his work remain fairly close to the intent of the originals, the stories are hard to mess up. I had some reservations these last few months about this, the third big-screen adaptation of Matheson's I Am Legend, fearing that star Will Smith and director Francis Lawrence (of the putrid Constantine) would turn this into an action thriller. Thankfully, Lawrence and his screenwriters realized that much of the novel's power lies in its starkness, its portrait of a man who represents the last outpost of humanity fending off the monsters, set against a metropolis-turned-ghost town. It's a lonely life, with Smith hunting and gathering and experimenting to find a cure during the day and barricading himself in his home by night, with only his dog to keep him company. There's something uncanny about a city that has been emptied of all other human life, not least when Smith finds himself in deep trouble with no one to bail him out. But even the more mundane details of city life are gone, especially the din of human noise that one learns to tune out after living in the city long enough (this is why the flashback scenes, which would under most circumstances feel perfunctory, make sense here, as they're a flurry of human activity that contrasts with Smith's present-day life). I was so impressed with how well Lawrence captures this undercurrent in Matheson's story- much better, it must be said, than The Omega Man, which stupidly turned the non-speaking monsters into Communist hippie Druid dudes who never shut up- that I was a little disappointed when the film became a more conventional humans-vs.-monsters thriller once a few more people arrived on the scene, although I did appreciate how ill-prepared mentally Smith was for their arrival. Nonetheless, I Am Legend is surprisingly satisfying for a big-budget SF thriller, with Smith at his most restrained in ages (no "aw hell nos", for one thing) and some impressive production design of NYC in ruins. Last Man on Earth is still the best adaptation of the story, but as a remake, this will do quite nicely. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Margot at the Wedding (2007, Noah Baumbach)

After 2005's The Squid and the Whale and now Margot, Baumbach has become a kind of poet laureate of domestic dysfunction, crafting precisely-written tales of epically strained families that exist that elicit just enough uneasy laughter to qualify as comedies. In many ways, Margot is even better than Squid, although its problems are also more pronounced. But first, the good stuff. As expected, the cast shines, from the great performance by Nicole Kidman on down. Even Jack Black, who seems like the oddball in the bunch, rises to the occasion- as Malcolm, the layabout fiancée of Margot's sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Black channels his manic presence into a role so convincingly that for the first time I could imagine him stepping outside the kuh-razy Jack Black persona in future projects. In addition, the family dynamic, especially between Margot and Pauline, rings uncannily true, with the two sisters feeling completely free to pummel one another with put-downs and snide remarks because they know each other so well- and indeed are so similar- that they know exactly how far they can go with each other. The stuff within the family- what with Margot and Pauline, and Malcolm, and Margot's distant husband and the writer she's sleeping with, plus the preteen children of Pauline and Margot, who are about as well-adjusted as kids could be under the circumstances- is so good that there's a near-masterpiece hiding inside Margot at the Wedding. So it's more than a little disappointing when Baumbach leaves the nest for even weirder pastures. Was the stuff with crazy neighbors the Voglers really necessary? I don't think so. Likewise, the business with an old family tree feels too on-the-nose symbolic for the movie, especially when it comes to when, and where, and how it comes crashing down. Still, Margot at the Wedding is sort of stunning when it's in its element, which thankfully is most of its running time. I'd gladly sit through the more iffy material again and again for moments like the one where Pauline, in mid-argument, addresses her older sister as "dude."

Also, FYI, since I saw her in The Squid and the Whale I've had a gigantic crush on Halley Feiffer, and with Margot at the Wedding it continues unabated. Just in case you were wondering.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sleuth (2007, Kenneth Branagh)

I count myself as a fan of the original 1972 version of Sleuth, but I wouldn't presume to say that the story couldn't be told again in a different style. But not this- anything but this. As if to willfully distance themselves from the film's predecessor, Branagh and (slumming) screenwriter Harold Pinter play a kind of mind game with the original's fans by keeping little other than the premise and the character names. What's more, Branagh attempts to allay the stagebound setup by tricking up his direction practically beyond comprehensibility. Branagh fills the screen with surveillance cameras and tight closeups of his actors, and the set, which in the Mankiewicz version was overflowing with the ornate toys and games with which Andrew Wyke amused himself, now feels like nothing so much as a challenge to the production designer to dress the set entire from the Sharper Image catalog. In addition, Branagh and Pinter lose the class envy that was so integral to the 1972 version. Whereas the original Andrew Wyke (played deliciously by Sir Laurence Olivier) was the son of a noble family who resented the low-class upstart Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) horning in on his woman, here Wyke (Caine again) is merely a rich guy who doesn't want to give his wife up to Tindle (Jude Law) without a fight. As a result, much of the character's motivation is lost- when Olivier's Wyke plays mind games with Tindle, it's because he's entitled- no, duty-bound- by his position to do so, in order to put him squarely in his place. Without the class issues in play, the characters' gamesmanship becomes little more than dick-measuring, which is borne out in numerous distracting exchanges between the two ("Is that your car?" "Which one?" "The little one." "Yes." "Mine's the big one."). Likewise, the scenes with the inspector are seriously bobbled. SPOILER: While Mankiewicz was content to show the characters mostly in long shots, which accentuated the stagebound setup, Branagh pushes all the way in on his actors' faces, which causes the inspector's secret to have the exact opposite effect as it should. Mankiewicz's theatricality was ideal, underlining the nature of the inspector as a theatrical device. By comparison, Branagh's closeups on his face don't so much defy us figure out what's going on as they clue us by their very insistence that this guy who isn't listed in the opening credits and who we've never seen before now might not in fact be who he seems. It's a colossal miscalculation on the film's part, and consequently it never recovers. In the final reels, Branagh and Pinter tack on an additional act that delves into darker thematic territory, but it's both gratuitous and sort of ugly, with an unfortunate attempt to sway the audience's sympathies towards one of the two men, when part of the deliciousness of the original was how these guys, for all their differences, were kindred spirits in gamesmanship. So, for the second time in as many days, I find myself taking a movie to task for taking itself too damned seriously. And shouldn't Sleuth, of all movies, be fun? Rating: 3 out of 10.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Golden Compass (2007, Chris Weitz)

This one's got visual spectacle and invention out the wazoo, but it's curiously inert and joyless. A lot of that has to do with the nature of fantasy on film- more than any other genre, fantasy has a certain out-there element that tends to come off as goofy in the wrong hands, even with the best of source material. The key to doing fantasy well is to acknowledge the goofier aspects of the film, rather than trying to play them off with a straight face. Consider the difference between the infectiously cornball original Star Wars trilogy, with its gee-whiz hero and puppety oddball creatures, and the dour sequels, bogged down by galactic politics and thin-ass characters who Lucas tried to fob off as Shakespearean. So it goes with The Golden Compass, a perfectly serviceable fantasy movie that is rarely much fun. Oh sure, it's a treat for the eyes, with effects that don't aim for photorealism so much as a painterly beauty, and the sets and contraptions have a degree of wonder. But even from the beginning, the storytelling is so portentous that it becomes suffering. After all, we're talking about a movie in which the characters' souls manifest themselves externally as animals- surely you could have a little fun with this. There are a few moments in which the goofy stuff is played at the right pitch- the ursine battle only needed the Channel 4 News Team to become a bear fight for the ages- but not enough to make the movie enjoyable. Likewise, the only cast member who appears to be enjoying himself is Sam Elliott- Daniel Craig and Eva Green have almost nothing to do, and Nicole Kidman is perfectly OK in the as Mrs. Coulter, but although she's pretty and cold, a little comedic haughtiness would have served the role well. Also, Alexandre Desplat's score sometimes sounds a lot like the song "Somewhere Out There" from An American Tail, which got a bit distracting, as I doubt it was the filmmakers' intention to make me think of Feivel during the climactic ice battle. Still, hardly the worst post-Rings fantasy around, I suppose. Rating: 5 out of 10.

My Kid Could Paint That (2007, Amir Bar-Lev)

I'm not as effusive about this as a lot of people, but there's a lot to respect and enjoy about it. Frankly, I didn't find the Bar-Lev's portrayal of art-world fickleness to be half as interesting as the larger story it tells, a real-life distillation of the principle put forth by Freddy Riedenschneider's old pal Heisenberg. What begins as a happy little girl who enjoys painting gets pulled every which way- by art dealers with dollar signs in their eyes, by art-world tastemakers ready to jump on a hot new talent, by journalists who first smell a story, only to change the story once the original well has run dry. Most compellingly, Bar-Lev isn't immune from this level of interference, although he doesn't realize it until too late. He comes into the Olmsteads' lives in the interest of telling the truth and quickly ingratiates himself into the family, but in the end even he has an artistic agenda he's working, and to his credit he keeps that in the film. But amid the storm, the still center is Marla herself, who is able to ride it out mostly because she's oblivious to what's going on. Yes, she's carted around to openings and TV interviews, but she's young enough that she doesn't seem to realize that there's anything strange about the things happening around her. Lucky her. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Mist (2007, Frank Darabont)

There's a lot to like about The Mist, which if nothing else is one of the bleakest big-budget genre movies released by a studio in years. The effects are surprisingly good, the acting solid, and if nothing else I can take away the image of Toby Jones, badass. And it's nihilistic as hell- not only does a character actually utter the line, "put more than two of us in a room and we'll start figuring out ways to kill each other. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?", but the film actually shows his insight to be well-founded. So why did I come out of this feeling vaguely disappointed? Three reasons: (1) it's not nearly as claustrophobic as it ought to be. I wasn't expecting the director of The Shawshank Redemption to be particularly adept at bringing the scares, but for all he does right here, most of the mistakes he makes as a director would be fairly easy to fix if he'd only keep the damn camera inside the store. The secret to making a great film like this is to make the claustrophobia palpable. Keep us with the characters and don't show us anything they don't see. Romero knew this when he made Night of the Living Dead, and Carpenter when he made Assault on Precinct 13 and the like. Every time Darabont cuts to a needless shot outside the store, the tension is defused, which is never a good idea. (2) The Marcia Gay Harden stuff is too broadly played. As the fire and brimstone Bible thumper who uses every misfortune vested upon the people in the story to win converts for the Lord, Harden doesn't necessarily give a bad performance, but the character seems too convenient a villain. I have no doubt that given a big enough crowd in this situation, someone would emerge spewing bile in His name, but the film makes it too easy for us to boo and hiss at her from the audience. A better film might not be able to make her sympathetic, but it might at least allow us to understand what it is about her that wins over her followers, beyond the demands of the plot. And finally, there's the little matter of (3) the ending. A perfect ending for this story might have allowed me not necessarily to overlook the film's flaws, but to forgive them. And for a minute there, the film has that perfect dark ending in its grasp. But just when it appears that Darabont will have the balls to fade to black at just the right time, the delicious irony ends up giving way to a cheaper, sub-Rod Serling brand of irony that leaves a bad taste in the mouth as the end credits roll. Seriously, Darabont- you had it. Why did you have to keep going? Rating: 6 out of 10.

Enchanted (2007, Kevin Lima)

So here it is, a Disney Princess™ movie for a post-feminist generation, in which the little girls still love their princesses but mom and dad want positive female role models for their daughters. What is an international multimedia conglomerate to do? "It's only a movie!" they say. "It's just for fun, so sit back and enjoy the ride!" But setting aside the fact that there may potentially BE an Enchanted ride in Disney's future, there's something sticking in my craw about the movie. Yes, it's kind of entertaining in its way, with the wide-eyed charm of Amy Adams and lively supporting work from James Marsden (so much more fun to watch now that he's embraced the square-jawed goofball within) and the ever-reliable Timothy Spall. But in an attempt to appeal to the princess-loving girls and appease their parents, the message at the heart of Enchanted becomes so muddled that it's hard not to doubt its sincerity. The filmmakers are at great pains to paint Princess Giselle as a strong young woman, even picking up a sword at the end to help save the day and ensure a happy ending, but the truth is that this is still the story of a girl who just wants to find true love and falls (1) at the drop of a hat for a prince that just so happens to catch her as she falls from a tree, and (2) for the first guy in New York City who shows any kindness whatsoever, who just happens to be a single dad played by hunky Patrick Dempsey. On top of that, there's an insidious undercurrent of little-girl wish fulfillment here, in which problems can be solved by singing a happy song, or worse, by stealing daddy's credit card and shopping 'til you drop (spend the pain away, girls!). There's an early scene in the film in which Dempsey gives a book about accomplished women throughout history to his clearly uninterested daughter- the same little girl who falls for Giselle soon thereafter. The camera lingers on the photographs in the book- Rosa Parks, Marie Curie- clearly underlining how old and plain-looking they are. Is Disney trying to teach children that the only women worth admiring are young and pretty? Also, the evil queen Narissa spends almost all her time decked out in a vampy black getup- when she isn't disguised as an old hag or transformed into a dragon. But you get the idea- feminism this ain't, no matter how hard it tries to tell us otherwise. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Beowulf: The IMAX Experience (2007, Robert Zemeckis)

I don't know about you folks, but I thought this was pretty awesome. Admittedly, a lot of it has to do with the spectacle, especially when you catch it with all of the 3D IMAX trappings. But while I'm a little uneasy judging this movie by a different technological yardstick than most movies which I'm content to see in a conventional theatre or on DVD, the truth is that Zemeckis pretty made this for IMAX, and it uses the format so well that I find the idea of watching this in any other format kind of unappealing. But sweet jeebus is this thing beautiful just to look at- the humanoid character designs are still a bit off (though they're certainly a vast improvement over The Polar Express) but the settings and especially the monsters are sort of breathtaking. But beyond the eye-candy aspect of Beowulf, I also enjoyed how screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary dove into the ideologies of story's setting- namely, a pagan kingdom on the verge of being taken over by Christianity. The hedonism and dick-measuring, ¿quien es mas macho? monologues that the heroes freely indulge in during the early scenes later give way to a more measured, morally-questioning mentality as Christianity takes over. Beowulf himself even admits that this is happening as he approaches middle age, remarking that people often seem to be more interested in being martyrs than heroes. Somewhat miraculously, the film is fairly consistent in this regard- compare to the muddled ideologies of 300, which claimed to advocate freedom for all while glorifying a proto-fascist culture. Some of the unironic testosterone-spouting (and Austin Powers-style genital-covering in the Beowulf vs. Grendel fight) comes off as silly, but while I admit that I laughed at these moments I like to think that I was laughing WITH the movie. In his best films, Zemeckis has taken effects-heavy projects and somehow made them lots of fun- harder than it sounds, I'm guessing- and he does the same with Beowulf. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007, Sidney Lumet)

OK dudes, I don't get it. What are you seeing in this movie that gets you all excited? Maybe it was the incestuous crime story and the Carter Burwell score, but for at least the final hour of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead I kept flashing back to Fargo, a movie that does a story like this RIGHT. A lot of it comes down to directorial style, or in Lumet's case a lack thereof- in Fargo, everything was in the service of a specific Coen brothers worldview, albeit one that's darker than usual. By contrast, Lumet has never been one to impose himself too heavily on a film, which often means that Lumet's work succeeds or fails based on two things- script and performances. Sadly, the script here comes across less as a finished, ready-to-film work than a first draft waiting to be ironed out by a John Sayles special spit'n'polish. As a result, the snazzy chronology doesn't work as well as it should, since too often it feels like if the story was told in a straightforward manner the reviews would probably be mediocre instead of the cavalcade of raves I've read thusfar. In addition, the characterizations are for the most part sketchy, which means that the talented cast has to shoulder the burden of answering our question, "who are these people?" Alas, few of them do. The women come off worst- Rosemary Harris has almost nothing to do, Amy Ryan doesn't have a single significant line of dialogue that doesn't revolve around wheedling ex-husband Ethan Hawke for money he doesn't have, and Marisa Tomei (who is so hot here, BTW) ends up playing the unsatisfied wife role. Even actors in more significant roles tend to go overboard on the tics- Hawke appears to be on constant anxiety mode, while the usually-dependable Albert Finney screws up his face and stumbles around like he's drunk on grief. There are two exceptions. Philip Seymour Hoffman actually makes the lead role work, but seeing as how he's playing an amoral sucker who gets himself in over his head and isn't expected to endear himself to the audience, some of that is just that he was the right guy for the job. But best of all is Michael Shannon, last seen in William Friedkin's Bug, who displays the same unhinged intensity here in a mere two scenes that cut through the actorly bullshit and chronological dicking around in a way that made me briefly sit up and pay full attention. But these two aside, I was left with thinking, in the words of Matt Damon, "qui gives a shit?" And more importantly, why should I? Is it a case of Imminent Death Syndrome? Because that would place us all in an awkward position.

And remember kids, crime doesn't pay.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Control (2007, Anton Corbijn)

There's very little a filmmaker can do to transcend formula, once he's committed himself to a fairly straightforward retelling of a famous musician's life. Which is another way of saying that Corbijn can't quite break out of the musical biopic template with his account of the rise and fall of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, although it's to his credit that I thought he might after a while. For most of the film, I was struck by how Corbijn transcended the clichés largely through directorial choices. There are many bleak offerings in the genre, but none so consistently downbeat as this. The black and white 'scope (mmmmmmmmm... b/w 'scope) goes a long way, removing a lot of the happiness from the images, but I also appreciated that for over an hour, Corbijn mostly sticks to diagetic music, either from the band's performances or from the radio. In doing this, he successfully avoids "Walk the Line" style pitfalls, in which the songs the characters sing parallel their lives or vice versa. Sadly, this doesn't last- once Debbie finds out Ian's been cheating, Corbijn holds on her while "Love Will Tear Us Apart" plays on the soundtrack. Pity, really- I'd though Corbijn might've known better. Nonetheless, well worth seeing, with Morton awesome as usual and Sam Riley uncannily embodying Riley throughout the film. And it's hard to argue with the songs themselves, innit? Rating: 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No Country For Old Men (2007, Coen brothers)

I'll do my damnedest not to spoil this for everybody, but sweet mother of tears is this thing BLEAK. It doesn't start out that way- for most of its running time, Country is a superior crime thriller, with Lewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) being pursued by "ultimate badass" killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, scary as fuck), while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) follows at a distance and tries to make sense of it all. Make no mistake about it, these scenes become almost painfully suspenseful, not least for the way many of them elide dialogue almost entirely. But about twenty minutes before the end (I'll tread lightly), the film undergoes a shift in gears as profound and fascinating as anything I've seen onscreen since Lars cued up the Bowie at the end of Dogville. Rather than showing us the showdown the story has been working up to, the Coens back away and let us see the aftermath through the eyes of Sheriff Bell. At that point, it becomes fairly clear that Chigurh is meant to be something beyond a simple psychopath, perhaps even the very embodiment of Evil (strange then, how specific Bardem makes him, all the more chilling for the small touches he brings). It's here that Bell's presence in the story comes into focus, as a witness to the encroachment of evil into the world he thought he knew, not only in the form of Chigurh, but also the teenage boy he speaks of at the beginning, the California senior-citizen killers, and so on. "You can't stop WHAT's coming," as a character says, since after all he's talking more than just a human being. The end of No Country is almost bereft of hope, imagining a future in which Evil becomes a tangible part of everyone's lives, taking their souls as a matter of principle, never so sinister as when offering people a slight glimmer of hope that they'll make it out alive. You can fight, you can run, or you can bury your head in the sand, or you can accept that evil is coming for you- in the end, it won't make a lick of difference. But at the same time, it's too simple to chalk it up to a "fear the future" mindset- Evil has always been around, says the film, and the only reason Sheriff Bell is around to fear its coming is because it hasn't yet come for him. At the screening I attended, the crowd seemed genuinely disturbed and kind of annoyed by the film, due in no small part by its refusal to play nice. But for those of us who are actually willing to listen to what the Coens are actually saying, No Country For Old Men is a masterpiece. Rating: 10 out of 10.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

American Gangster (2007, Ridley Scott)

Every movie has its own optimal duration, and in the best cases the movie that makes it to the screen is exactly as long as it needs to be. Both Satantango and The Heart of the World are sort of unimaginable at any length besides the ones they so fortunately ended up with. American Gangster isn't one of those cases. At a shade over 2 1/2 hours, it's long enough to announce that it means to be taken seriously, but not long enough to really delve into the details it needed to show us. I can imagine this story playing out at 100 minutes as a tense, gritty crime story, or at 3 1/2 to 4 hours, or even at miniseries length, getting down to the nitty gritty of the case. But the rule here is to judge the movie on the screen, and in that respect it's pretty good- a thoroughly professional job, but hardly revelatory. Washington gets the showier of the two principal roles, and while he's fine in the role, it's really not much of a stretch for him, even when he's lighting a man on fire and then shooting him. He's all steely intensity here, occasionally allowing a wide smile to play across his face for any number of reasons, but concentrating much of his performance into his darting, ever-calculating eyes. However, unlike most reviews so far, I was actually more interested in Russell Crowe's storyline, especially in the way his dogged band of do-gooder drug dicks solved the case not necessarily by being smarter or craftier than the crooks, but by catching lucky breaks and flying by the seats of their pants (look at the way one of his team, played by RZA, improvises during a bust). Also, Josh Brolin continues to surprise- he was one of the few bright spots of Planet Terror, and by all accounts he's great in No Country for Old Men. So nice to see that there are still some man's man actors around, eh? Rating: 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lights in the Dusk (2006, Aki Kaurismäki)

I would be tempted to call this “minor Kaurismäki” but for the fact that that sounds almost redundant. The “minor-ness” Kaurismäki’s work in general is the source of much of its charm- it’s not so much love-it-or-hate-it as it is be-on-his-wavelength-or-just-shrug-him-off. His work is fascinating in its low-key way, and even his best movies (like his masterpiece Drifting Clouds) aren’t great due do their ambition but rather because the usual Kaurismäki ingredients have combined to make something particularly tasty. Lights in the Dusk, by comparison, is minor even by Kaurismäki standards, possessing most of his trademarks- sad-faced put-upon heroes, offscreen violence, jukebox classics, and the like. Plus it’s gorgeous in the usual Timo Salminen way (although I always imagine Aki’s lighting directions sounding like “OK Timo, let’s light this scene like we did on The Match Factory Girl, OK?”). But I missed the other stuff that distinguishes his best work from the rest. For one thing, where is his usual stock company? The film’s hero seems too young and unformed to have arrived at that patented Kaurismäki worldview. Meanwhile, the great Kati Outinen is relegated to a bit part, and guys like Sakari Kuosmanen and Markku Peltola are nowhere to be found. In addition, the inspired offhands bits of business are relatively sparse. The hero’s response to the question “what was [prison] like?” is a strong contender for the year’s best line, but nothing else quite equals the scene in Juha where a gunshot rings out and none of the extras seem to notice (since it’s a silent movie and all), or the drinking scenes in Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana. Also, I miss Matti Pellonpää. Just wanted to get that out there. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl (2007, Dan Gillespie)

Sure-footed execution triumphs over dicey subject matter in Lars and the Real Girl, a surprisingly affecting indie about a young man, his realistic sex-doll girlfriend, and the community that rallies around them. It's important that the film takes place in a small town- this is a close-knit community that protects its own, and it's inconceivable that the story would play the same way in a big city. I think the tone is key here, since while it's pitched as a light comedy, it never becomes smutty and rarely dabbles in irony, which makes the occasional points where it does stick out all the more (like the throwaway joke where we find out that "Bianca" has gotten elected to public office). I believe these two points go hand in hand- the portrayal of a small town is less Napoleon Dynamite than All the Real Girls, and it can't be accidental that Gillespie cast two of the film's stars, Patricia Clarkson and Paul Schneider, in significant roles here. Gillespie also takes the central premise seriously, which becomes clear in the directing choices he makes throughout the film, shooting Bianca as a flesh-and-blood character, even giving her the occasional reaction shot. But that the laughs the film gets are almost all of the "good" variety is as much as tribute to the actors, beginning with Ryan Gosling as Lars. Gosling doesn't play Lars as crazy or a yokel, but as a gentle, painfully withdrawn young man who latches on to his delusion. Surprisingly, he doesn't use Bianca for sex, but role-plays with her much the same way a child does with a favorite doll or stuffed animal, projecting his own somewhat arrested ideas of what it means to be a boyfriend and to care for/about a woman. And the supporting cast- Clarkson, Schneider, Emily Mortimer, Kelli Garner- is just as assured, putting over a storyline that might seem simultaneously icky and quirky and making it surprisingly affecting. There were times when I had a hard time buying how completely the town embraced Lars and Bianca, but the film works surprisingly well, which under the circumstances was no mean feat. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Things We Lost in the Fire (2007, Susanne Bier)

Yeesh, would someone please cheer Susanne Bier up already? A veteran of the Dogma 95 movement, Bier has become to grief what Von Trier once was to martyrdom, although without his experimental tendencies or bad-little-boy sense of humor. With her American debut, Bier examines the fallout from the death of Brian (David Duchovny), in particular the effect it has on his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) and his heroin-addicted best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro). It would be affecting stuff if it didn't feel so programmatic- Audrey resents Jerry but has him move in, he stops taking drugs, he endears himself to her kids, she kicks him out, he falls off the wagon, she rescues him, and so on. In addition, Bier overdoes the extreme-closeups- eyes, hands, ears, mouths, and the like. These shots become too insistent in a story that's already plenty melodramatic. The same might be said of Berry's performance, which is pretty good in her lower-key moments but descends into histrionics whenever the grief hits her. Much better is Del Toro, who is as good here as he's been in anything since Traffic. There's a scene where Jerry tries to kiss Audrey, perhaps out of gratitude, but she recoils, and Del Toro throws in a small gesture in which he places two fingers over his lips. It's an inspired touch, and I don't doubt that it was Del Toro's idea. I also liked his scenes with John Carroll Lynch, as a neighbor and friend of Audrey's who's facing his own private hell, a loveless marriage. Del Toro is one of Hollywood's best and most inspired performers, but gets precious few chances to show it, although I'm grateful that he hasn't taken to making schlock like Nicolas Cage, a similarly inspired actor who too often spins his wheels. Del Toro never steps wrong here, and any flaws this movie has are counterbalanced by his performance. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Dan in Real Life (2007, Peter Hedges)

I don't know what it is, but I sort of balked at this when I saw how ridiculously happy this extended family was. To me, the portrait of a resolutely upper-class family that gets together at grandma and grandpa's fashionably rustic beach house and plays charades and has boys-vs.-girls crosswords competitions and runs a family talent show sort of makes me balk. It's not that I doubt families this happy exist- more that I can't help but shake the feeling that Hedges makes everything feel so warm and friendly so he won't complicate the main storyline. I mean, come on- there's not even really a scene of someone making derogatory remarks behind someone else's back, and no matter how happy a family is, there's ALWAYS bound to be some of that. But I think this is emblematic of something I resist in both of the films Hedges has directed to date- a tendency to freeze out the messy background stuff, the better to focus on the often contrived setups. Dan in Real Life isn't as annoyingly contrived as Pieces of April (really, how could it be?), but the writing of the film feels unnecessarily writer-ly. Even setting aside the setup- Dan (Steve Carell) meets the perfect woman (Juliette Binoche), who turns out to be his brother's girlfriend- everything in this movie feels like setup-and-payoff, and as a result nothing really breathes. Consider the blind date Dan's parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest) set him up on with a local girl- before she shows up, Dan's brothers give Dan a hard time about what the girl looked like when she was younger, in particular an unflattering nickname she had, "Pigface." Soon, they sit down at the piano and improvise a song around the nickname, and keep on going until she knocks on the door and reveals herself to be... Emily Blunt. Ho, ho! Surprise, everybody! Also, Binoche is so obviously perfect for Carell that the plot mostly becomes a game of waiting for them to overcome the stuff that gets thrown at them and make the leap. That said, once you get past the contrivances and Hedges' occasional tendency to shoot his goodwill in the ass, the movie does have a certain charm, owing largely to Carell and Binoche, who are relaxed and engaging individually and have real chemistry together. Ebert is spot-on when he compares Carell to a young Jack Lemmon- he can do the fussy and the neurotic stuff (I'd love to see him and, say, John C. Reilly or even Seth Rogen do The Odd Couple onstage) but he brings a real humanity to all of the performances I've seen. Even Dane Cook is surprisingly watchable here, when the massive self-involvement he always projects isn't getting in the way. For a movie that was always coming thiiiiiiiiis close to annoying me, I enjoyed Dan in Real Life more than I expected. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Early Oscar™-bait Roundup

Into the Wild (2007, Sean Penn)- it's illustrative to see this movie the same weekend as The Darjeeling Limited, as the two movies so clearly illuminate the differences between spiritual tourists and honest-to-goodness seekers. Anderson's heroes see India as a kind of quick fix for their troubled souls, making a whirlwind tour of the most "spiritual" stops situated along the route of their train before ending up confronting the mother who ran out on them, all in an attempt to confront their troubles. But Into the Wild realizes that it's not as simple as that. Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) had his share of demons to be sure, but then so did his sister, and she didn't take to the road. The film shows us that while some people turn their backs on the past and make a new life outside the mainstream, it's got just as much to do with their psychological wiring as it does with the circumstances they seek to escape. But even more importantly, it also says that the seeker's tendency- be it wanderlust or spiritual unrest- is something that can never quite be quenched. I'm not sure about some of Penn's aesthetic choices here- the onscreen text, the occasional chronological jumbling- but there's no denying that this is his most assured film as a director, due in no small part to his kinship with McCandless, being something of a seeker himself. Rating: 7 out of 10.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)- first, the obvious: this movie is completely bleedin' gorgeous. The only movie I've seen recently that can rival this for sheer visual pleasure is Silent Light- it's that beautiful. But it would all just be eye candy if not for the compelling story at its center. Many critics have remarked about the way James' mystique presages our modern-day celebrity culture. But this wouldn't work half so well if Jesse himself wasn't so aware of it. Even in the eyes of his own men James is a towering figure, which goes a long way to explain his power over them- they drop everything to do his bidding, and when he comes around they're justifiably nervous. Jesse is completely mindful of his legend, which made his untimely end sort of inevitable, not least in his own eyes. Being the notorious Jesse James, the only death that would have made sense would have come from the barrel of a gun, and as the idea starts to consume his thinking, he figures why not just offer the chance to someone who's aching to do it? As such, the film becomes a dance of death in its second half, involving the increasingly paranoid and death-minded James and Bob Ford, whose obsessive man-crush (less sexual fixation than childish hero worship) has become bitter and resentful. But for me, the movie really cements its awesomeness in the final reel, following James' death, when it examines the fallout of the killing in the lives of Ford and others. The celebrity that Ford was afforded for a short time after the killing soon gave way to a lonely existence, as James' mystique only grew from being gunned down before his time. Suddenly a cold-blooded killer became a legend of the lawless west, and the man who effectively ended his killing spree was an unloved coward. Shooting Jesse James in the back was simultaneously the best and worst thing that Robert Ford could have done for himself, with his story culminating in one of the most lonely and senseless deaths I've seen onscreen in a long time. I hope to see this again in the near future, and urge all of you (especially you Muriel Awards voters looking for a prospective winner in the Best Cinematography category) to do the same. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Lust, Caution (2007, Ang Lee)- maybe it's just that I was so bowled over by Black Book earlier this year (scroll down to May for review), but while I respected Lee's Occupation drama, it didn't really do much for me. For the most part, Lee's style feels very middle-of-the-road: the visuals are handsome but not lush, the period feel is convincing but never immersive, the story is involving but rarely compelling. Like much of Lee's oeuvre, it's about repressed desire, which this time finds an outlet in the much-ballyhooed NC-17 sex scenes (acrobatic but rarely erotic). But given the relatively tepid approach Lee takes to the majority of the film- sex scenes and protracted stabbing scene aside- I longed to see what a more expressionistic filmmaker like Wong Kar-wai, or a more poetic one like Hou Hsiao-hsien, might have made of this story. Another problem is that despite being more than 2 1/2 hours long, it very much feels like an expanded short story, with a somewhat bloated narrative through-line and some vagueness around the edges. What, for example, were we to make of Yee's wife, played by Joan Chen? We mostly see her playing mahjongg or going shopping, but what is her relationship with her husband (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) like? The film doesn't seem to know, and Chen projects almost no inner life for the character. Clearly the resistance fighters would see her largely as an obstacle to getting to her husband, but there's got to be more to her than that. Also, Tang Wen is pretty and more than willing to get naked, but I wasn't all that taken with her as an actress. She seemed too opaque to successfully sell the role- not opaque in the repressing-her-feelings-for-the-cause way needed for the character, but more in the not-particularly-expressive way. Nice nipples though. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Gone Baby Gone (2007, Ben Affleck) [8]

Well, dress me up in a Santa Claus suit, because I'm just giving 8s away! But I honestly wouldn't be if I didn't think the movies deserved them, and this one is no exception. Like fellow actor-turned-director Clint Eastwood did four years ago with Mystic River, Affleck has turned a Dennis Lehane novel into potent cinema. But although Affleck isn't nearly the director Clint is, I actually think that works to the film's advantage. Eastwood's direction of Mystic River was moody and portentous from get-go, signaling that we weren't just watching another urban murder mystery, but Affleck's more meat-and-potatoes filmmaking actually gears the audience up for a fairly conventional, though well-told, whodunit, all the better the spring the serious stuff on us unawares. Gone Baby Gone is the rare Hollywood movie that actually gets better as it goes along, revealing more interesting shadings. The key to this movie isn't the solving of the mystery or the finding of the little girl, but the moral debate at its center, a conflict between absolutism and relativism. Interestingly, Lehane flips the usual pattern of these films by making the private investigator the story's primary proponent for black-and-white morality. SPOILER: It's because of this that the film's final reel, which will no doubt prove to be a point of contention for many audiences and critics, worked wonderfully for me. Time and again in the film, the line of morality isn't drawn between cops and civilians, but the older and younger characters. Patrick (Casey Affleck) has never really gotten his hands dirty, so he isn't sympathetic to the moral code of the older cops (Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris) who are willing to bend morality to serve the greater good (someone should book a double bill of this and Hot Fuzz in my opinion). In many ways, Patrick is still thinking in the mindset handed down to him by his childhood priest- "clever as snakes, innocent as doves." Yet by the end of the movie, he begins to come around to their way of thinking. He fulfills his moral obligation to return the little girl to her skanky, unfit mother, but while he knows he did the right thing, he finds himself sharing the older men's compulsion to do right by the girl above all else. So he takes it upon himself to keep an eye on her. What else is there left for him to do? END SPOILER. Now, I'm not advocating that Ben turn all of his attention to directing- the jury's still out on how much talent he has in that area. But he's smart enough to stay out of Lehane's way, and in this case that's more than enough.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Michael Clayton (2007, Tony Gilroy) [8]

Over the last few years, more filmmakers have been gravitating toward minor-key films in a style closer to that of 70s-era filmmakers, before the studios decided movies needed to be for everyone. Michael Clayton, much like We Own the Night last night, is a superlative example of this kind of movie, moving at a leisurely pace yet containing almost no wasted brush strokes. It's key that almost every important character, save Michael's young son, is over 40- Michael Clayton isn't a film about youngsters on the make, but about grown adults who have sacrificed a lot to live the lives they lead, and who stand to lose even more. But while the film has the trappings of a legal thriller, it's at its heart a character study, a blinkered story about a blinkered man. Michael doesn't have much of a life- he's always traveling between assignments for his job as a law firm's "fixer," and in between he picks up his kid, occasionally plays in a backroom poker tournament, and worries about the debt he's incurred on his failed restaurant. He almost never smiles, and I don't think we ever see him at home. He's always being sent somewhere or other on business. Clooney is perfect for the role, a well-dressed professional with no small amount of skill but who feels no love for what he does. And the rest of the cast is just as good- Tom Wilkinson somehow pulls off crazy without resorting to histrionics, and Tilda Swinton plays her cool-customer corporate counsel while suggesting the great sacrifices that she's had to make along the way in tiny but indelible touches (the no-nonsense suits, the on-the-fly makeup job, etc.). Like a con artist has to be more convincing than the people he's trying to imitate, so she has to be even more on her game than the men surrounding her in the boardroom boys' club. Michael Clayton is that rarest of things, an entertainment designed specifically for adults, and it's even more impressive for being Gilroy's first film behind the camera. Many screenwriters-turned-directors can't strike the right mix between screenplay and direction, but Gilroy is a natural.

Monday, October 8, 2007

We Own the Night (2007, James Gray) [8]

One of the charms of James Gray's films is his unabashed love for classical style. Gray has never been one to rely on narrative tricks or show-offy direction, grooving instead on sturdy, unhurried storytelling, handsome cinematography, and atmosphere to burn. So it is with his finest film yet, which falls under the Howard Hawks rule for a successful film- three great scenes, no bad scenes. I'll leave the pleasures of the three scenes for you to discover, except to say that I find it admirable that Gray, who can shoot a crackerjack scene of action and suspense as well as practically any filmmaker currently working, doesn't allow the film to get bogged down in action. We Own the Night is at heart a drama about family- the somewhat dysfunctional family at its center, the police who protect their own, the Russian mafia who welcomes a trusted surrogate son as long as he's not a risk. It's also a world of men in the old-fashioned sense, men who keep their own counsel, who bottle up their emotions even at the most difficult of times, who recognize the value of duty and loyalty and keeping your mouth shut and ears open. There are few stars of the younger generation who can pull off characters like this, and it's a credit to Mark Wahlberg that he manages to pull it off from the get-go, and to Joaquin Phoenix that he can convincingly and seamlessly show his character changing from a hard-partying, independent-minded youth into something resembling Gray's concept of the old-school "man." I wasn't quite buying his character's naiveté in being blind to the club owner's mob connections, but that's a minor quibble. Gray keeps most of the film at a simmer, but when he turns up the heat, We Own the Night cooks. The film's title was taken from the NYPD's motto in the late 1980s, which is when the film is set, and Gray perfectly captures the gray, dingy New York of the period, back before it got a fresh new coat of PR paint. In addition, the tension between law enforcement and the crime element at the dawn of the War on Drugs is surprisingly palpable. Gray isn't interested in a neon-colored VH1-style nostalgia trip dress-up party, but in portraying a time and place where people actually lived.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Week of October 1-7, 2007

The Heartbreak Kid (2007, Peter and Bobby Farelly) [4]- it's sort of bracing to see a big-budget comedy that's this brazenly caustic nowadays, unafraid of giving the audience a weaselly protagonist who lies and cheats on his wife and acts like an all-around assbag. In addition, there's the Farellys' usual body-panic issues, plus a lot of anti-romantic, male-centric thoughts on modern marriage that no doubt will alienate any unsuspecting women in the audience. But just because it's interesting doesn't make it especially good. The film has ideas, but they don't mesh especially well, nor does the movie really do a whole lot with them. Instead, the story eventually settles into a predictable, almost lazy rhythm, with Ben Stiller skipping out on his honeymoon with his convalescing, hot-psycho wife Malin Akerman to spend time with the adorable Michelle Monaghan, another in a long line of super-cool Farelly dream babes, who can swear and drink and play with the boys but still be, y'know, hot. Hell, there's even one of those scenes where Stiller and Monaghan try to have an important conversation but aren't actually talking about the same thing- what's the Ebert's Movie Glossary name for that again? Glad to see the story take a darker turn at the very end, but unfortunately the film just kind of throws it out there before the credits. And I won't even start comparing it to the Elaine May version of the film, not just because it's been years since I saw that one, but also because this film has enough problems without comparing it to its betters.

The Kingdom (2007, Peter Berg) [4]- another film that feels a little schizo in its execution, and not necessarily in a good way. After an opening-credits rundown of American history in Saudi Arabia and a double act of terrorism in an American compound near Riyadh, the movie is mostly content to be an procedural thriller, closer to network television than big-screen cinema. In fact, aside from the costumes and the heavy artillery, this could easily be a story about a serial killer or mad bomber on U.S. soil. Supercool FBI agent Jamie Foxx assembles a crack, motley crew to investigate the case, and with help from the Saudi military, headed by a west-sympathetic family-man officer, they hunt down the terrorists responsible for the attacks. For most of its duration, the film is clearly for U.S. involvement in the investigation- there's even a face-off between action-minded bureau chief Richard Jenkins and wishy-washy cabinet member Danny Huston ("interventionism: not a funny matter"). And then when the team is attacked, there's no choice left but to strike back. But in a movie that practically ignores the geopolitical implications of its storyline, the final scenes feel like a last-minute stab at topicality. Without them, one might half expect a fade-out followed by a sneak peek at next week's episode. There's certainly a place for something in the style of CSI or 24 against the backdrop of the Middle East, but if you're going to do it, fer chrissakes commit to it.

Rocket Science (2007, Jeffrey Blitz) [7]- as a former high school policy debater, I was grateful to see that for once a movie got the world right. Real-life policy debate is a far cry from the common image of two polished speakers standing at podiums and oratorically delivering prepared speeches. Instead, it's standing at a table, evidence at hand, and aggressively barreling through as much as you can in 8 minutes (the technical name is "spreading"). But this but one of the many ways in which the film defies expectation. The film sets up conflicts and situations but resolutely refuses to resolve them in a conventional manner, often just letting them simmer through the very end of the movie or just die away. Nothing is ever quite solved in Rocket Science, and the film ends up becoming not about how we overcome our problems but rather how we eventually learn to resign ourselves to them and move on. But even this doesn't quite happen for our hero, in large part because he's too young to know better. But by the final scene, he's well on his way.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007, Seth Gordon) [7]

Not being a gamer myself, I had a hard time believing the hype about this crowd-pleasing documentary. However, I was quickly won over, largely because the characters are so engaging. There surely must be some editing-room magic at work in making Billy Mitchell into the manipulative villain here, but no matter- the film works best as a contrast between cunning gamer-world "insider" Billy and straight-shooting outsider Steve Wiebe. Steve doesn't fit the gamer stereotype, but more important he's completely guileless, challenging Mitchell to a mano-a-mano to break the Donkey Kong record in the spirit of healthy competition. For his part, Mitchell shirks from the challenge, covering his anxiety with mindfucks and manipulating the system, run largely by his cronies. In a way, gaming needs guys like Mitchell, charismatic lifelong gamers who have built a mystique through decades of long-standing records. But what the film shows us in the end is that gaming also needs someone like Wiebe, who can claim the record as his own and give hope to all others who would try, and do so in the most sportsmanlike manner.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)

I've seen this before, but the older you get, the more it hits home. I really liked the way the filmmakers didn't really disguise the film's theatrical roots, but at the same time added some subtle touches to make it work as cinema. Of particular interest are the occasional bits of behavior that might involve a character walking offstage, doing something, and then returning to the main action, but here Nichols holds on these people for just a moment, not just as a concession to the new medium, but also because that's where the really interesting stuff is happening. And make no mistake, this works like gangbusters as cinema. Despite the theatrical acting and the talkiness of the script, the end result is a movie instead of simply a filmed play (hard to believe it was Nichols' first feature). On top of that, this is one of the few movies that actually benefits from the very public relationship between its stars. Rather than distracting us, the film assumes that the audience knows all about its principal performers, and it builds on this knowledge only to shoot it right in the ass. Liz gets the really showy moments, and she sells them wonderfully, but it's Burton who really kills here. Instead of simply indulging in histrionics, he gives a magnificent, completely lived-in performance that's a wonder to behold. Oh, that voice! Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

Zoo (2007, Robinson Devor)

While I certainly applaud Devor's avoidance of sensationalism in addressing "zoo culture" in general and the late Enumclaw horsefucker specifically, but I'm not sure this is a satisfactory alternative. So committed to making non-exploitative art is he that his film is gorgeous but has nothing to say. Devor speaks with everyone except those who might have made the film complex and interesting- no interviews with the deceased's ex-wife, no ER doctor or coroner, but hey, they found time for one of the actors in the re-enactment. Another problem is the idea of "bad laughs"- sure, I understand that with such a touchy subject you can't tear your hair out about the parts that will elicit nervous titters in audience members, but certain parts of this movie (like the bit with the miniature horse) were just a bad idea. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Brand Upon the Brain! (2006, Guy Maddin)

As clever as anything Maddin has done, but doesn't quite satisfy otherwise. Maybe it's just that it's too long- all the frenzied imagination wears me out after a while, while Cowards kept it brief at a little over an hour. Pure unadulterated Maddin can be wearying, at least for me, and around the 80 minute mark it just got to be a little much. Still, if that's the worst I can say about it then maybe I'm underrating it after all... Rating: 6 out of 10.

3:10 to Yuma (2007, James Mangold)

Fair to middling oater for most of its running time, but rallies in the final reel with an exciting final gun battle. Nice to see Crowe playing his role with a light touch for a change, and Bale's just as good here. Biggest complaint is that Ben Foster as Crowe's lieutenant is too self-conscious to work in the context of the film. Mangold is mostly an anonymous hack, but at least he's smart enough to stay out of the way until he's needed. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Angel-A (2005, Luc Besson)

Dopey, semi-worthless cinema du look version of It's a Wonderful Life, with a statuesque blonde angel coming to Earth to pull shlumpy loser Jamel Debbouze out of his rut despite the fact that he's one of the least appealing onscreen heroes I've seen in ages (not his appearance necessarily, but the fact that the character is such a cartoonish, uncomplicated loser). Notable only for the black-and-white 'Scope views of Paris, and for the super-foxy Rie Rasmussen- previously featured as the slow-motion legs in Femme Fatale- as the angel. Not that she's very good in the movie (or has much to work with) but she's extremely easy on the eyes, and this film made them eager to latch onto anything worth looking at. Rating: 3 out of 10.

2 Days in Paris (2007, Julie Delpy)

Unlike many films set in Paris, both good and bad, this one doesn't romanticize it, and it's this warts'n'all portrayal of the city that really makes the film feel lived-in. I also like that the central relationship story never quite goes where one would expect it to go- yes, he's jealous and neurotic, but she's no prize either, and if they decide there's going to be a happy ending then it's going to be a hard road to get there. Also, Adam Goldberg gets more comedic mileage with his sotto voce kvetching asides than anyone since Woody Allen in his heyday. The ending is a botch, but it's still well worth seeing. Rating: 6 out 0f 10.

Half Moon (2006, Bahman Ghobadi)

Starts off promisingly, as Ghobadi's direction feels more expressionistic than usual, and his story contains quite a bit of humor. However, the spirit of the early scenes eventually gives way to Ghobadi's usual miserablist portrayal of modern Kurdish life. And while I know that life isn't easy for the Kurds, Ghobadi's insistence on turning every film of his into a tragedy makes it feel like he's making his films solely for Western festival audiences grooving on liberal guilt. Put it another way- if Kurdish life was as consistently bleak as Ghobadi shows it to be, how could they possibly live? Rating: 5 out of 10.

Halloween (2007, Rob Zombie)

Sure, it's an uneasy mix of the original's narrative and Zombie's frenzied imagination, but it's pretty fascinating stuff. And despite all the references to the original series and to other old-school B-movies, Zombie mostly takes his story seriously. My favorite scene finds the grown-up Michael Myers killing a mental hospital orderly played by Danny Trejo. As Myers drowns his victim in a sink, Trejo can only whimper and cry out, "but I was good to you!" It says so much about Trejo's character that he would be nice to this monster and that he believed his kindness would be returned, and so much about Michael that he could find no place for gratitude or sentimentality. Also, great art direction- as in The Devil's Rejects, Zombie takes sets that are atmospheric as hell and makes them look grimy and lived-in instead of simply dressed the morning of the shoot. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Eastern Promises (2007, David Cronenberg)

Pretty good genre film, but little more. Could have done without the plot device of the newborn baby, for one- Naomi Watts gives a solid performance, but I'm not sure an audience surrogate was altogether necessary here. Much more interesting is Cronenberg's portrayal of the cutthroat underworld of the Vory v zakone, ruled over by the sinister yet avuncular Semyon (the great Armin Mueller-Stahl), and the rise of driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) in the Vory's ranks. Here's where the film's fascination lies, and whenever we step outside that world the interest flags. Likewise, I'm not sure I liked the plot revelations that occurred near the end of the film, but after the already famous naked fight scene I was willing to forgive quite a bit. Worth seeing, but something of a disappointment from Cronenberg. Rating: 6 out of 10.

In the Valley of Elah (2007, Paul Haggis)

Yes, you read that right- I preferred the new Paul Haggis movie to the new David Cronenberg. Maybe Crash was a movie Haggis needed to get out of his system, as if the film's success allowed him to make a movie that wasn't trying nearly as hard to impress people. Or maybe it's just that the murder mystery story of Elah hews more closely to Haggis' background in episodic television, giving him a clean narrative through line rather than the tortured contrivances of the previous film. Wisely, Haggis lets his actors shoulder much of the emotional weight of the film, and Tommy Lee Jones is more than up to the task, giving perhaps the best performance of his career. Hank Deerfield is a hard, emotionally withdrawn veteran, and Jones gives a performance with no wasted gestures or actorly mannerisms. Look at the way he trembles during the fateful phone call to his wife, or the un-softened manner with which he tells the story of David and Goliath to Charlize Theron's young son. In the Valley of Elah is surprisingly apolitical in his approach to the War in Iraq, as Haggis doesn't lay the blame at the feet of the government or the armed forces, but merely questions and despairs at the logic of our country sacrificing its young on the battlefield. Much to my surprise, I was actually thinking Elah might be one of the best films of the year, but then I saw the final few minutes of the film, in which we first see the characters underscored by a baldly heartrending ballad, after which Haggis feels the need to go and Haggis up an otherwise fine film with a positively groan-worthy final shot. Why, Haggis? I was with you right up until the end, pal- why did you have to piss it away? Rating: 7 out of 10.

The Matador (2005, Richard Shepherd)

As expected it's even better the second time. The funny stuff is just as funny, the emotional stuff hits even harder, and my misgivings about the ending melted away. Julian and Danny are more than just an odd couple- they're yin and yang, and that's the key to their friendship. They don't need to spend all their time together, but each needs the other in the world, and they both acknowledge this without having to come out and say it. It's there in the way Danny runs to answer the door to his hotel room when the drunk, sobbing Julian comes knocking, and it's there in the way Julian makes his final exit at the end of the film. Also, if there was ever a director who was born to adapt Hunter S. Thompson, it's Richard Shepard. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Killer of Sheep (1977, Charles Burnett)

After I saw this for the second time in two days, I was leaving the theatre and the two douchebags leaving behind me complained about how it sucked because "it didn't have a plot." Yes, and? Killer of Sheep isn't a plot movie, but that's why it's a masterpiece, I think. It's a portrait of lives from which there is no escape- with a plot there has to be resolution, and resolution would magically clear up the troubles from which Burnett's characters suffer. It's the difference between the games the kids in the film play and the lives of their parents. When something happens to a kid, he'll walk away, cry it out, and then continue like nothing happened- problem resolved. But the problems facing the adults linger. The gangsters who try to bring Stan in on a crime will eventually be replaced by other gangsters, the white woman who runs the liquor store will keep trying to sweet-talk him into working for her (and screwing her on the side). And Stan's bone-deep weariness won't subside, despite his wife's hopes that it will. I didn't get a good look at the naysaying cheesedicks behind me, but when they complained that Killer of Sheep "didn't have any redeeming value," I quickly pegged them as spoiled rich kids. Anyone who has ever worked paycheck to paycheck, or has despaired that life seems like nothing but a long string of jobs interrupted occasionally by sleep, or has simply gazed at a loved one and wanted to cheer him but had no idea how, will find something in Killer of Sheep that speaks to them, no matter what color he is. And all that aside, Burnett gives us one small, perfect moment after another. Like Stan's daughter singing along with Earth Wind and Fire's "Reasons" and stumbling through the words until she gets to the "la la la" interlude, which she sings with the utmost confidence. Or Bracy berating Eugene in rhyme for getting a flat during a road trip to the track, but running out of words to rhyme: "you need to have a spare/but you's a square/that's why you ain't got no spare." Or the rare instance of Stan smiling in the film, when he jokingly explains to his daughter why it rains, and his wife beams back at him, as though she's finally seen the sun break through the clouds.

Also, having come to Killer of Sheep through George Washington- a film I love, mind you- I couldn't help but think of something John Lennon once said in an interview. When a reporter asked him what he thought of kids imitating the band by wearing Beatle wigs, he responded, "they aren't imitating us because we don't wear Beatle wigs." It was a joke, but it says a lot about the nature of homage. Whereas David Gordon Green paid homage to Killer of Sheep as a deliberate, affected style, Burnett simply made his film that way because it was the best way to tell his story under the circumstances. It was born of necessity, but it worked. Someone also needs to take a look at the influence of Killer of Sheep on Stranger Than Paradise. Jarmusch's film is more self-conscious to be sure, but it's also a similarly low-key, black and white portrait of go-nowhere city life. Even when Jarmusch's heroes take to the road, they don't really go anywhere in a deeper sense. Rating: 10 out of 10.

Across the Universe (2007, Julie Taymor)

There's a good reason why Beatles songs are covered again and again- aside from the band's enduring popularity, the songs are compulsively singable. However, most people can't resist the temptation to over-sing- whereas the Beatles themselves generally sang the songs pretty straightforwardly, most who cover them feel the need to squeeze every drop of emotion from the lyrics, tricking them up in order to make them their own. This is one of my big issues with Taymor's film as well- she just can't stay out of the way of the songs. She lavishes layers of visual pageantry on songs that don't really need the extra goosing. For the most part, the numbers that are most effective are the ones that are fairly straightforward- the dual-funeral "Let It Be," "Because" in nine-part harmony, and especially Martin Luther McCoy's take on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Meanwhile, the big production numbers are mostly labored, none more so than the Army-induction number that funds a group of new draftees carrying the Statue of Liberty on their backs while singing "She's So Heavy." The screenplay doesn't help matters- the format is little more than the miniseries The 60s but with all-Beatles music, and too often the transitions between the songs and the dramatic scenes are forced and obvious, as when a lovesick girl named Prudence locks herself in a closet. Gee, wonder what song her friends will sing to cheer her up? Might have been more interesting- if not necessarily better- had Taymor ditched the spoken dialogue altogether and made the movie all Beatles, all the time. There was a dust-up earlier this year between Taymor and studio head Joe Roth when Roth tried to pare down this movie. Now, I don't condone studio intrusion on an artist's vision, but on the basis of the three films she's made to date, Taymor could really use someone to keep her more indulgent side in check. Not studio meddling, mind you, but friendly constructive criticism. Someone to tell her, say, that the Eddie Izzard version of "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" serves no purpose in the film, shoots the pacing all to hell, and is incredibly annoying to boot. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Monday, September 3, 2007

September 2007 mini-reviews

9/29- Feast of Love (2007, Robert Benton) [w/o] {Now that I'm paying to watch movies, you'll probably see more of these than before. Between Freeman on autopilot, Kinnear as the world's most oblivious man, and the vapid kids, I found absolutely nothing to latch on to here. I bailed just after Fred Ward threatened his son's girlfriend with a knife. No compelling reason to stick around- even the musical choices are lazy. I hope I never hear the Jeff Buckley cover of "Hallelujah" again in my life, and the Frames song just made me wish I was watching Once instead.}

9/23- Inferno (1980, Dario Argento) [***] {Bugfuck and nonsensical, but not in a bad way. Definitely suffers with home viewing (I saw it dubbed onto VHS from a DVD), will need to catch this on the big screen. Only real quibble is how dated the Keith Emerson (of ...Lake, and Palmer fame) score is, although it also contributes to the crazy otherworldliness of it all. And the scene with Kazanian and the rats is pretty goddamn incredible.}

9/23- Phantom Lady (1944, Robert Siodmak) [***1/2] {What she said, basically. Ella Raines- whoa. Raines aside, what really makes this cook is that it's a scruffy, seedy noir, but it's also at its heart a love story. Raines isn't a goody-goody, but she's not a femme fatale. She's a smart, resourceful woman who will do whatever it takes to free the man she loves. In a genre full of double-crosses and friends who are really users, this kind of unconditional devotion is rare and special.}

9/16- The Crying Game (1992, Neil Jordan) [***1/2] {What more can be said? Jordan's knack for switching gears both tone-wise and narratively is uncanny here. Jaye Davidson gives one of the great one-off performances in cinema history, but it never feels like a stunt. And Stephen Rea is of course a treasure.}

9/15- No End in Sight (2007, Charles Ferguson) [7] {The perfect film to pair with Redacted for your why-Iraq-is-a-clusterfuck double feature. Still mainly a talking-heads-and-stock-footage affair, but the talking heads are so well-chosen and insightful that I didn't really mind.}

9/14- The Italian Job (1969, Peter Collinson) [***] {It's illustrative to compare this to the 2003 version, which added a revenge plotline and the father issue, while subtracting the very specific British humor and setting the main heist in L.A. instead of Turin. Also, I like Wahlberg, but he can't match Caine at his most caddish, plus there's no Noel Coward or Benny Hill ("I like 'em biiiiiiiiiig!") equivalent. I think the chase is actually more exciting in the original, and certainly more intentive. Also, LOVE the ending.}

9/12- Wojaczek (1999, Lech Majewski) [**1/2] {If Aki Kaurismaki made a biopic, it'd probably look something like this. Worth seeing, but lacks the rigor of Van Sant's Last Days and doesn't give much insight into what made the title character a compelling poet. But then, that may be the point- he drank and screwed, he threw himself out of windows, he finally OD'd on pills, but before that he wrote some poems. It's almost an afterthought.}

9/6-9/11- Toronto International Film Festival

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953, Max Ophuls)

Look in the dictionary next to "elegance" and "sophistication" and it'll say "see The Earrings of Madame De...". But if this was all about making a movie look pretty and moving the camera like a champ, this wouldn't be a classic. What sets it apart is that it successfully overcomes the biggest trap for films about the privileged classes- the thing most of these movies get wrong but what nearly all the best ones (Barry Lyndon aside) get very right. Its characters transcend their social class and are engaging and sympathetic, and Ophüls makes us forget that they were all born with loads of money and are passing around earrings that are probably worth more than most people's cars. And that's no mean feat. People never tire of quoting Rules of the Game in reviews when they say, "everybody has his reasons," but they almost never quote the whole line, which begins, "the great tragedy of life is this." By the time Madame de..., approaching death, staggers up the hill to the place where her husband and lover are dueling, this idea is unmistakable in Ophüls' film as well. Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

Les Enfants Terribles (1950, Jean-Pierre Melville)

I wasn't sure what to expect from a Melville/Cocteau collaboration, but their styles fit together surprisingly well. It's not as fanciful as one of Cocteau's own directorial efforts- compare the snowball fight here with the one in Blood of a Poet- but Melville is able to stylize this in his own way. The biggest kinship I see between the two filmmakers is that their best works deal with death, although they diverge there, and instead of the blurred line between the living and dead common to Cocteau's work, Melville imbues the story with a sense of gloom, like a fog that settles in over the action. Watching it, I never quite felt like I was watching events play out- rather that they'd been filtered through the prism of memory. But whose? Cocteau's, I dare say. I can definitely see the debt The Dreamers owes to this film, and Dreamers writer Gilbert Adair freely admits it, to his credit. Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Paul Greengrass)

The most exciting Bourne adventure yet, all the more surprising from being crafted seemingly from thin air. Bourne may be impeccably played by Matt Damon, but he's still defined largely by his momentum, not unlike Walker in Point Blank. His motivation never changes- he wants to find out who he was before he lost his memory, and will barrel through anyone who tries to stop him. While this has been called a "thinking man's action movie," that has less to do with any substance than with the chilly, Jean-Pierre Melville-esque tone that's maintained throughout. Truth be told, the Bourne movies have always been more setpiece-dominated than most action movies, and this has three of the series' best- the Waterloo Station sequence, the three-way pursuit in Tangier, and the New York switcheroo followed by a car chase that's simultaneously ridiculous and grounded in real-world physics. And even more than the other Bourne films, this is wonderfully cast- even Julia Stiles seems more at ease now that she's more than a surveillance functionary behind a desk. Sure, it's all motion, but when you're watching you'll be too wrung out to complain. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Talk to Me (2007, Kasi Lemmons)

Solid entertainment, and occasionally more than that. Don Cheadle's performance as Petey Greene has been getting most of the press, and it's nice to see him really dig into a showy lead role- he sells the funny stuff but also the more serious moments, especially when Petey takes to the airwaves on the night of Dr. King's murder. But Chiwetel Ejiofor is just as good, taking an upright Sidney Poitier type and showing both the careerist hunger that drives him and the difficulties he has as a minority in a white-driven world. Dewey may be an exec at a station catering to an urban audience, but aside from the on-air talent and the receptionist he's the only black face in the office, which obviously weighs on him. I appreciated that the film doesn't shy away from the racial issues at play, not only in Dewey's life, but in his relationship with Petey as well, which play out nicely in an early game of pool and take off from there. Ultimately, despite the historical backdrop, the film works primarily as a story of their friendship, which causes both of them to grow. This is why I think the film's final half-hour is necessary- rather than finishing up at the high point of Petey's professional career, Lemmons shows us how their rather unlikely friendship plays out over the years. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Red Desert (1964, Michelangelo Antonioni)

Visually, as gorgeous as anything Antonioni has ever done, but as wonderful as the images are, they're never comforting or reassuring. As with L'Avventura and later Blow-Up, Antonioni places his protagonist in a situation from which she'll never emerge, but unlike those films she's already there when the film begins. Having sustained minor injuries in what was by all accounts a small car crash, Giulietta (Monica Vitti) has become deeply wounded psychologically. Those around her can't relate to her troubles, and the only one who tries is her husband's friend Zeller (Richard Harris). But despite his attempts to get to the bottom of her condition, nothing changes. It's a deeply existential problem from which she suffers, and one can't help but wonder if she's been predisposed to her mental illness all her life and the accident merely set it off. But Antonioni isn't about analysis, nor does he even try to answer the question, and good on him for that. As expected, there are a handful of magnificent setpieces, like the extended party/aborted group sex experiment at a boathouse, as well as a strange fairly tale Giulietta tells her ailing son during his temporary paralysis (when he recovers, it's almost as though he's mocking his mother's lingering malaise). The film lacks the kind of bravura ending usually associated with Antonioni's work, but the film was so deeply rewarding that I didn't really miss it. Two more thoughts: (1) I need to see this on a big screen, like, yesterday, and (2) maybe it's just me, and I know this is kind of heretical, but Monica Vitti was actually foxier with dark hair. Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

Bamako (2006, Abderramane Sissako)

My reaction as the credits rolled: "if the trial scenes weren't real, they should have been; if the non-trial scenes were't fake, they could have been." In many ways, Bamako is a unique achievement- an unapologetically political statement about the World Bank and the pragmatic side of international humanitarianism in which the African people, usually presented only as smiling children or miserable adults in charity ads, have a say about their plight. It's talky as hell, but all the better for it, and the trial scenes are so fascinating that they give didacticism- a word often connoted as negative- a good name. I could've watched 90 minutes of these scenes, frankly. The scenes not devoted to debate are more uneven, sadly- Sissako too often resorts to uninspired setup-and-payoff, most egregiously in the subplot involving some business over a gun. Some of this seeps into the trial as well, when the man not permitted to speak in the early scene finally leaps up during the final arguments and pours out his heart in song (I was kind of troubled by the lack of subtitles here- if it was the filmmakers' idea, it strikes me as a clumsy way to portray a pure, un-Westernized bit of African culture; if it was the subtitlers' doing, what gives?). Fortunately, the good stuff far outpaces the dodgy stuff, and Bamako proves far superior to Sissako's last film, the inexplicably-lauded snoozer Waiting for Happiness. Also, while I'm not as high on Bamako as this guy is, I'm with him on what the final shot should have been. Don't you hate it when directors have a perfect finish in their grasp but can't manage to stop there? Rating: 7 out of 10.