Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Best Film of 2007

1) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - I would love to sit here and write a wonderful paragraph about this transparently first-class masterpiece. But I tried writing eight or nine previously, and found the experience wholly inadequate to the task. I don't plan to repeat that mistake by trying that hard again. All I'll say is that no other film so dominated my imagination. No film so shepherded me to so distinct a place. No film felt so passionate and relentless in expressing its point of view. No film made me so wonder how they filmed that moment, time and time and time again. No film so this, no film so that as Andrew Dominik's brilliant Western epic. The fact that people consider this relatively straightforward narrative "strange" or "offbeat" shows how far our collective film tastes have turned to the spoonfed. Which of course means that we're deeply in need of this great, great, great film. And more like it.

1) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
2) Zodiac
3) No Country for Old Men
4) The Namesake
5) Once
6) I'm Not There
7) Control
T-8) There Will Be Blood
T-8) Michael Clayton
10) 28 Weeks Later

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Best Films of 2007, Part Three

4) The Namesake - The immigrant film is one of the least-discussed but most consistently successful genres in American film. Why? Because in viewing our struggles through the newcomers' eyes, we untangle who we are as a people. Mira Nair's story of an Indian family's decades-long odyssey is a moving example. Few films so exactly dissect the baffling contradictions and the unlikely, enduring promise of our country. Contains two of the year's most overlooked performances, from Irfan Kahn and Bollywood star Tabu.

3) No Country for Old Men - I once told a date that the best Westerns are Greek plays on horseback. (Now that's attractive!). Although short on saddle sores, this modern Western, revolving around the Classical topic of vanity in the face of death, truly gets what I'm saying (not that the Coen Brothers' job is to make me look good on a date). It also seems to be a re-working of The Seventh Seal, with Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) as the Grim Reaper, trading cloak-and-baldness and chess for a creepy, medieval haircut and a flip of a coin. No film this year has inspired as much debate. In fact, I grew to more greatly admire it as I vanished blissfully further into the conversations.

2) Zodiac - On my last viewing of Zodiac, I discovered another little gem about this David Fincher film. This serial-killer script, penned by James Vanderbilt, is secretly one of the wittiest of the year. (Really, Diablo Cody would do well to take notes.) I say "another little gem," because this story about the burden of obsession has inspired in its admirers an unhealthy fixation with the rewind button. This police procedural slowly turns into a reflection on the modern dislocation of masculinity, the nature of knowledge, and the subjective construction of reality. It's a little disconcerting, but I think I actually know what I mean when I say all that. Although you're free to disagree.

2) Zodiac
3) No Country for Old Men
4) The Namesake
5) Once
6) I'm Not There
7) Control
T-8) There Will Be Blood
T-8) Michael Clayton
10) 28 Weeks Later

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Best FIlms of 2007, Part Two

7) Control - Relentless newcomer Sam Riley walks into stardom (at least of the critical kind) in Control, the first of two films that smashed the guitar of the conventional musical biopic. The story of suicidal Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis offers no easy solace, no easy relief, no confidence in the power of love and music to redeem. Martin Ruhe and director Anton Corbijn re-create 1970s Manchester in a delicious black-and-white that magnifies both the beauty and the despair.

6) I'm Not There - From Todd Haynes' overactive mind comes this at-times-unwatchable, at-times-unforgettable biopic of Bob Dylan. Six actors (including one actress) play the Minnesota folk singer, each at a different stage of his life and career. Cate Blanchett takes on some of the best young actors of this generation (Christian Bale, Heath Ledger) and beats their pants off while playing a man. A very loopy take on the complexity of identity and the nature of storytelling.

5) Once - There are few musicals that so thoroughly erupt with the communal spirit of music. The songs come from the mind of Frames singer Glen Hansard, playing a lovesick sidewalk singer and strummer. But they belong as easily to immigrant flower girl Marketa Irglova, too. And to those lucky, hip few who viewed this intimate, infectious masterpiece in the theater. (If you ever tell me critics don't recommend crowd-pleasing movies, I'm holding this film's meager box office receipts against you.) Hey, baby, they're playing our song.

5) Once
6) I'm Not There
7) Control
T-8) There Will Be Blood
T-8) Michael Clayton
10) 28 Weeks Later

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Ten Best Films of 2007, Part One

As we move through my list of the ten best films of 2007, I will become increasingly at a loss for words. That's a good thing. While I have exact explanations for my appreciation of films nearer to number 10, my feelings for my favorite films are not as easy to express. They lie in the impressionistic murk beyond words, somewhere in that special, ineffable province of film.

10. 28 Weeks Later - Last year at this time, Children of Men couldn't pee without hitting an enthusiastic review. This year, a substantially similar film, but one dressed in apocalyptic zombie flick clothing, is being overlooked. Producer Danny Boyle and director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo might as well have sat around Starbucks brainstorming with Children of Men director Alfonso Cuaron. But they reached radically opposed conclusions about children and human nature. Like Whitney Houston, Cuaron's film believes that children are our future. Expressed through its popcorn symbolism, 28 Weeks sees through Cuaron's romantic assertion, finding in children the continuation of social maladies rather than their cure. It isn't comforting to say, but isn't the pessimism of 28 Weeks Later closer to the mark?

T-8) Michael Clayton - If Michael Clayton had been directed by an established French auteur, everyone would be marveling about a wonderful, semi-farcical lament for our death by capitalism. Since it's directed by someone named Tony Gilroy, it only gets that respect grudgingly. But at least it gets it. This sharply written corporate thriller captures our most vital office-desk struggle - the way that carnivorous corporatism is wiping away our traditional ideas of ethics, particularly among the weaklings actually burying the knives. In the future, this could well be remembered as the high-water performance of the George Clooney heartthrob-burnout phase, in which he somehow combines Hitchcock-era Cary Grant with 70s-era, politically mindful Jack Lemmon. For all its potboiler excesses, no film captures the sad erosion of our increasingly distant sense of propriety and community.

T-8) There Will Be Blood - The point of discussion between Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood is whether power corrupts or power attracts. Does our economic system force good guys to do bad things, or does it beckon those pre-disposed to solitude and ruthlessness? I suppose the answer depends partly on how you feel about your boss. Whatever the answer, Paul Thomas Anderson is our most adventurous and grasping filmmaker. Or at least the most adventurous and grasping who can command a real budget.

T-8) There Will Be Blood
T-8) Michael Clayton
10) 28 Weeks Later

Tomorrow: picks 5-7

The Bhutto Assassination and Charlie Wilson's War

With the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, I ask the question, what does Universal do, if anything, with Charlie Wilson's War? Particularly with a certain line in the film?

What do I mean? Bhutto's father was assassinated by the Pakistani military in 1977, allegedly traced back to General Zia Ul-Haq, who took power.

In the battle to supply arms to the Afghan rebels, Zia was a strong U.S. ally before his own mysterious death in 1988. In doing so, he became an ally of Congressman Charlie Wilson, played by Tom Hanks in the film. Joanne Herring (played by Julia Roberts) turned her ceremonial consular appointment from Pakistan into a platform for supporting the Afghans, and she became a strong ally and personal friend of the Islamist Zia.

A film with an assassin of Bhutto as a hero would be loaded enough today. But one of the laugh lines of the film is Herring's reality-shaky declaration to a political luncheon that "Zia did not kill Bhutto." (It's hard to convey the humor of the line in this short space. You need the whole background.) So there's a heavily advertised movie out there at the moment that's likely to leave an unpleasant bit of reality in its audience's mouths.

So will Universal do anything? Or leave as is? And what should they do?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Blood and oil

There Will Be Blood [R]
Grade: B

I would sum up the difference between Michael Clayton and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood with the following dinner-party questions.

Does power corrupt, or does power attract? Does our capitalist system, with the aggression needed to grease the wheel, force moral men into bad deeds? Or does the system smile upon the misanthrope's cunning energy? Does our way of life mandate the rise of men of wicked strength to bend the elements to their will?

There Will Be Blood, as the title might suggest, sees the latter. It locates said cunning energy in Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). We spend the first 20 minutes with him in almost complete silence, as in 1898 he works an Arizona silver mine that's really a glorified hole in the ground. There is sun, and wind, and pain. This isn't work for the people person.

Soon he has his silver, and he goes looking for his gold. Black gold. Texas T. Oil, that is. After building a small oil empire, word comes to him of a county of dirt farms in California where oil virtually bubbles out of the ground. The residents need an expert's help. With his young son and "business partner" in tow, Plainview will travel to California to bring in his biggest, oiliest catch.

As oil comes, misfortune follows. Obstacles. Accidents. Deaths. A young man named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who wants to build his fire-and-brimstone ministry. With a fervent believer and a powerful, unscrupulous loner, the men will soon clash.

Many already see Plainview as a shadow of the cinema’s great American megalomaniac, Charles Foster Kane. Both are men with an itch they can’t find, much less scratch. They pursue power to fill the hollow reaches inside. For both men, the need to control is the only form of love. Blood even ends inside a giant pleasureland mansion, one that is both crisply new and in ruin.

However, Plainview is just as much a shadow of Faulkner. Like Thomas Sutpen in "Absalom, Absalom." A man of admirable ambition and drive, but sapped by his rapacious appetite. In fact, this is a very traditional American story, based on an Upton Sinclair novel, twisted by Anderson into something that at least occasionally surprises.

Whatever else you say about There Will Be Blood, this is gigantic filmmaking. Cinematographer Robert Elswit's best moment comes amid the swirling torch of an oil well fire, captured in hypnotic long takes. Only one, if I was counting right. The bleak finale, which plays like "The Dude" Lebowski's worst acid trip, is one of the most original visions that you’ll see from Hollywood. There are things that made me drift. For instance, a subplot about a long-lost brother might be necessary. But necessary doesn't mean gripping. Still, among the film's many exotic sights, the best is seeing Anderson back on top of the game.

The "Juno Generation," the Final Word

Juno is like an episode of "The Wonder Years" set at Ridgemont High, in which Fred Savage tries to get Spiccoli to ditch surfing for a day and join him for a peace march, telling him it will be "totally rad."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The "Juno Generation," Part II

Here is an AP story on Diablo Cody, the much talked-about screenwriter of Juno. The article explains that the film comes from personal experience, that Juno is a fairly autobiographical character, and the teen pregnancy plot comes from a high school acquaintance.

This is effective evidence supporting one position that I have about Juno - that it's a film about a late-wave Generation X teen-ager veiled in the slang and accoutrements of the young people of today. A comedy about teen pregnancy involving a hip teenager who namedrops Iggy Pop and whose goal is to play in an indie band seems much more suited for 1994 or so. That happens to be the year that the 29-year-old Brook Busey-Hunt (aka Diablo Cody) was 16 years old. This is like a Baby Boomer penning a script in 1986 about a deeply moralistic and politically concerned teen-ager raising the social consciousness of her classmates and getting them to participate in a world peace march. I seem to vaguely recall some plots like that floating around the culture of the time.

That doesn't make it a bad movie. It does make it a memoir.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [R]
Grade: B

Sweeney Todd is a muscial awash in the usual things you expect in a singalong - blood, revenge, and cannibalism. Which is to say that it's the Stephen Sondheim musical version of Carrie, Point Blank, and Soylent Green. Johnny Depp plays the Demon Barber of Fleet Street as a taciturn, gray-streaked psychopath out to settle a grievance with a razor in his hand and a song in his little deranged heart. The real star isn't Depp, but Tim Burton's coal-eyed London, an outpost of dark, cobblestone grimness and no justice beyond what you can slice out on your own. Burton has been slipping for years, but his macabre sensibility and twisted humor settle in nicely. There isn't a standout musical number, but the film doesn't really need it. The point of the tunes are humor and storytelling. Each of which it has plenty of. In between the throat-slashings, of course.

Roger Ebert's Top 10

According to David Poland's end of year critics poll, this is Roger Ebert's top ten list for the year ....

1. Juno
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
4. Atonement
5. The Kite Runner
6. Away from Her
7. Across the Universe
8. La Vie en Rose
9. The Great Debaters
10. Into the Wild

I love the guy. When others attack him, and I point out what a fantastic writer he is, how beautifully and effectively he merges high and low styles. But there are mothers hugging their children after reading this list. And, yes, there are films that I will have stuff on my own list that will be different. And, no, there is nothing on the list that just shouldn't be on a top ten list.

But there's a group of about six or seven films in there that, in a year of great filmmaking, should produce one or two members at most. The Kite Runner is a better film than Zodiac or There Will Be Blood? C'mon. And I've said enough about Juno so that I just don't want to pile on at this point. Sure, even if I personally think it's a pretty average indie comedy, it's a justifiable top 10 pick based on other's reactions. But the best film of the year?

I'm sorry, Roger, for singling you out. But if you're going to be America's critic, the most trusted critic in the country, you should expect higher scrutiny.

Scarface and Christmas

So I did last minute Christmas shopping today. My father, upon arrival home, shoved a couple of gift cards in my hand for Mervyn's, the Food Lion of mall department stores. So I took them and bought a bunch of solid anonymous stuff for my family. If you have any question about what kind of shopping season this is economically, note that this place was already selling at after-Christmas prices. Who knows what they're going to do Wednesday.

The thing is, one item I noticed was a matching pyjama top and bottom set with the motif of, curiously, Scarface. Because nothing says the birth of the Savior of Mankind like a violent movie that was nearly rated X at the time of release. I'm perplexed by the continuing interest in this movie. How? Why? Not so much wondering whether it's good or not. Just wondering what it is about the movie that equates to making theme PJs 25 years after its release. Any insight would be appreciated.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Men and The Devil Wears Prada

I've been listening to the daily radio show hosted by the old ESPN anchor, Dan Patrick. It's male confession day. Several guys are confessing their girly-film watching sins, the most popular being The Devil Wears Prada. Of course, the guys say something of a catch-phrase among men nowadays - "I watched The Devil Wears Prada, and it's really not that bad." I'm betting that you know some guy who has swallowed his manhood and said the same thing.

I mentioned here why I think that film will have longer legs through the years than a number of more highly praised movies of last year. These statements reflect one reason - it's a female-centric film that men actually find entertaining. Another reason is simply that it's a female oriented film in a male-film oriented era, and nearly every female movie fan you know has seen it. On top of that, it looks like it will launch a couple careers for Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt, as well as one of the few impressive turns by Meryl Streep that caught the public fancy.

My other theory about the film is that it's Top Gun for women. Each movie is set in a glamor industry for the targeted sex. Hathaway is Maverick, the talented outsider who has to tame her instincts in order to succeed in her profession. Streep is Jester, the somewhat distant figure judging her success. Blunt is Iceman. That makes Stanley Tucci Goose. or .... anyway.

Walk Hard - and Proud

Walk Hard [PG-13]
Grade: B

Do people appreciate what we have in John C. Reilly?

He sings. He dances. He does P.T. Anderson-level auteur drama. He yucks it up in Will Ferrell comedies. He’s a performer of the utmost variety and effectiveness. And he makes it look easy. Or at least enjoyable.

What he hasn’t done a lot of lately is star, as he thankfully does so in the consistently funny send-up Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The Judd Apatow-penned farce lampoons roughly every single thing you can think to lampoon in Walk the Line and other trendy musical biopics. So complete is its sarcastic targeting that it even makes fun of the eccentric, recently released Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. This may be the first spoof to mock another movie that was in the chute at the same time. It isn’t satisfied with available toes. It seeks out new ones to step on.

Frankly, it’s a movie that I’ve been waiting for – one that hits the high note and shatters the glass between musical biopics and their deserved mockery. Every time a worked-up Dewey rips a sink from the wall – something of an Olympic sport in this one – it feels like a moment of cinematic liberation.

We start with Dewey as a young Alabama boy who accidentally kills his brother in a bizarre barnyard machete accident. Run out of his small town for playing the devil’s music, Cox plays small clubs until his big break. Once he’s discovered, he lands a hit with the Cash-like title song. From there, Dewey’s life runs humorously through the predictable ups and downs of drugs, multiple wives, roughly 300 children, and the cruel life of being an aging star.

The story is accompanied by a fleet of creative songs that, while very funny at times, are just dang hummable. The energetic title song is matched by the double-entendre-laced “Let’s Duet.” There are few, if any, voracious laughs in Walk Hard (unless you’re unusually into machete humor). But the pretty funny stuff has a nice beat and you can really dance to it.

So will this role be enough to break out Reilly from well-known, pug-faced supporting actor? I don’t know. But he leaps into the fray with gusto, tempo, and era-sensitive hair. Given his steady work in big films over the years, there are few supporting actors whom I would rather give their time in the spotlight.

Charlie Wilson’s Bore

Charlie Wilson’s War [PG-13]
Grade: D

In his book Charlie Wilson’s War, the author George Crile introduces Congressman Charlie Wilson while he relaxes in a hot tub at a Vegas hotel, stark naked. He has two friends with him. The former Miss Georgia. Also naked. And a bit of cocaine. The moment becomes the book’s first action scene, as the feds bust in as he sticks his little white friend up his nose.

The film version of Charlie Wilson’s War starts in the same place. Sure, the lovelies are there, naked, but Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) has his eye on Dan Rather. And sure, the boob-job brigade is snorting coke. But not Charlie. Which is about as believable as Bill Clinton saying he didn’t inhale (which, in fact, became Charlie Wilson’s real-life legal defense ).

I don’t believe a film should follow a book to the letter. And I don’t hold a film to a strictly faithful presentation of history. But the All-Americanization of Charlie Wilson does something more disruptive. It makes the story boring. None of the missing debauchery would matter, except that it’s kind of the point.

Wilson was an instrumental figure in funding, through the CIA, the Afghan revolt against the 1979 Soviet invasion of their country. The Muslim insurgency struck a major blow to the Soviet empire and hastened the end of the Cold War. It also provided startup funding to groups of murderous holy warriors who would come back to haunt America. In effect, Charlie Wilson stood in between the laudable ending of one war and the accidental launch of another.

The real Wilson, captured in Crile’s breezy reporting, was the hard-drinking, coke-snorting, law-skirting, skirt-chasing Congressman that no one wants representing them. Although in truth a skilled politician, he carved an image of the larger-than-life of the party. The kick of the book comes from the fact that such a scandalous figure could summon the skill, gumption and commitment to help end a struggle that experts expected to last forever. The book proves the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. The film proves the same point, but only by being fiction that fails to be strange enough.

So why does the movie play down his alcoholism, erase his drug use, give him about 62 fewer girlfriends, and make him almost presentable for dinner? I suspect that it starts with Hanks, who showed the wisdom to buy the book’s rights but failed to see he was unwilling to do what was needed for the role. More than likely, he was more interested in streamlining Wilson with his All-American image than damaging it by offending the audience. Likewise, how much fun would it be to see Julia Roberts, as far-right Texas heiress Joanne Herring, dressed in cammos, ducking in the bushes, doing guerilla warfare drills out in the sticks? More fun for us than her image handlers, I suspect.

The challenge facing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (the former “West Wing” guru) is converting the labyrinth of Congressional obscurities into something digestible and exciting for the viewer. Sorkin proves a wizard at it. In fact, he’s too good at it. The film brings an enormous amount of clarity to the actions of Wilson, Herring, and explosive CIA agent Gust Avrakatos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).Yet the film feels more interested, as we suspect Sorkin is, in politics than partying.

Director Mike Nichols does create some reasonably good comic exchanges – bits of dialogue, and a nicely drawn-out in-door-out-door comedy routine. Hoffman’s glass-shattering introduction lays out his character’s humor and scariness. Roberts has an ear and eye for the details of Steel Magnolias.

I would complain about the film’s period detail, if I saw much evidence of its existence. Never have I seen a film more in need of a Rubik’s Cube or Donkey Kong in my life. It also assumes a level of Cold War knowledge that I wouldn’t expect from today’s teenager, who likely thinks a “defection” is something that would send you to the toilet or the emergency room.

The film is trying to avoid the quicksand fate of other recent “sand” movies, which have been shot up as badly as Baghdad. Like a skilled politician, this one emphasizes the upbeat buddy humor and avoids at all costs giving the impression of a lecture. It wants to inform as it entertains. It’s effective to an extent. But it should be much more.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dark seekers and the television age

While watching television ads for I Am Legend, something occurred to me about the much-maligned CGI "dark seekers," the film's nocturnal mutant humanoids. While watching onscreen, they instantly seem cartoonish and break you out of the film's carefully crafted spell. But on television, for those few moments, they seem quick and exciting. That's vital, because the film is being sold as an exciting apocalyptic action-adventure, while the film itself is far less action-packed and even a bit of a - shhhhhhhh! - character study. So, the question I have is, to what degree was the choice made based on what would work theatrically, and to what degree was it based on what would work in advertisements?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Five most underrated movies of 2007

After my five most overrated last week, it only makes sense to print my most underrated this week.

28 Weeks Later – Well reviewed, but somewhat lost in the year-end shuffle of films this year has been the sequel to 28 Days Later, a film proving enormously influential, as proven by this weekend’s box office success of I Am Legend. The modern zombie movie is powerful War on Terror metaphor, and this film’s leaps from reality should be viewed as nightmare logic and judged for their metaphorical power. Weeks is most profitably viewed as an answer to last year’s Children of Men, The two films have the same basic idea, but Weeks takes a more cynical, and perhaps more realistic view of childhood, with the youth seen as the carrier of the disease (metaphorically, cultural hatred) rather than the cure.

Bridge to Terebithia – I’m not a big children’s movie fan, but this classic child lit tearjerker had me weeping just a bit. A great supporting performance from Robert Patrick, the T-1000 turns tough but loving farm dad.

The Invasion – This much-delayed, much-maligned, much-fiddled-with late summer release arrived with the indignity of re-shoots and a pounding from critics. But while some viewed it as an update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it’s more of a weird ode to Stanley Kubrick, particularly to A Clockwork Orange. With the First Lady of Scientology, Nicole Kidman, presiding as a psychiatrist, The Invasion quietly explores a Kubrick-ian subject – the conflict of human instincts, even the worst ones, in the interest of society. During one tense dinner scene, it does something audaciously daft by making the breakout of world peace seem alien. A film for the Age of Ritalin, and a deeply flawed masterwork.

The Namesake – I didn’t think this film was underrated until I started seeing how absent it has been from year-end lists. But who knew. Great performances from Irfan Khan and Tabu as the Indian couple moving to the United States. A truly touching portrait of the baffling contradictions of my country.

Ocean’s 13 – I had the considerable good fortune to re-watch the John Boorman-Lee Marvin masterpiece Point Blank a few weeks before watching the third movie in the. Stephen Soderbergh assisted in the DVD commentary, so I was in the right frame of mind to appreciate this film on another level. Soderbergh borrows a basic conflict – a master criminal from a different age comes up against the modern world. In fact, George Clooney’s nostalgic little speech in front of one mega-hotel’s fountains is a bit of soul in the midst of all the splash. A fun movie on top of that, but with a bit of a weak ending.

The Diving Bell and James Bond

After watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly last night, I have a theory about the identity of the next main Bond girl for the upcoming Daniel Craig James Bond follow-up. It wouldn't surprise me if one of the women that so dominate the camera in Diving Bell will end up as the choice, i.e. as the Bond girl who has to act. Assuming that there is an Eva Green-style Bond girl who has to act.

Diving Bell's star Mathieu Amalric has just signed onto the project as the villain, (and possibly as a presumably re-booted Blofeld, if you listen to Max Von Sydow). So obviously someone in the Broccoli empire has seen and admired Diving Bell. So it's not a bad place to start theorizing.

Which might mean (and this is a pure namer-thrower-outer) that Marie-Josee Croze could fill the role. The Naomi Watts doppelganger is terrific in Diving Bell as Almaric's speech therapist. She has one other leg up, though. If you buy the "everybody works with Daniel Craig more than once" theory, she's eligible. In Munich, she had a small but memorable role as an elegant Dutch assassin. Craig shares at least one scene with her, the one in which Craig and Eric Bana break onto her boat to finish her. In which she appears frontally nude, no less. So Craig won't be seeing anything that he hasn't seen before.

I think sometimes people get carried away with wanting to cast people who have worked together previously. I mean, nobody ever says, hey, I think this will be the choice because they've never worked together before. That doesn't exactly raise the veil of authority. But this idea makes some sense to me.

Of course, Marina Hands (a small role as one of Amarlic's girlfriends, who takes him on a visit to Lourdes) is an award-winning French actress set to appear in a film with Casino Royale baddie Mads Mikkelsen. Her father is British, according to IMDB, so I would guess she speaks English. And she's quite the looker. That's a theory, too.

Monday, December 17, 2007

DFWFCA year-end awards

Hey, the film critics association with whom I may or may not still be a member, the Dallas Fort Worth Film Critics Association has posted its year-end poll.

I didn't vote this year. Because I left the newspaper world and moved online recently, my membership is in a bit of a gray area, but one I expect to be resolved positively in the near future. The DFWFCA is a relatively strict organization when it comes to membership qualifications (and good for it).

Of course, it's not strict enough, judging by this year's voting. At least I can say in a year of multiple potential masterpieces, I played no role in the perfectly OK Juno sneaking into second place. (I really hate feeling like I have something against a film that I kinda liked, but the level of praise baffles me.) Meanwhile, The Kite Runner outpolls Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Grrrrrrrrrrr.

My mild acquaintance Josh Tyler over at CinemaBlend has his own thoughts on the blandness of our organization's selections. How can you resist an article that begins, "Dallas Film Critics have announced their year-end awards, and like critics everywhere else, they like boring, inaccessible movies that they saw no more than five minutes ago."

How conventional wisdom are the DFWFCA picks? Last year, The LA Times' The Envelope determined that the DFWFCA choice for Best Picture has been the most consistent indicator of the Academy Award Best Picture winner in recent years (At least until our United 93 choice last year). If that's the case, fans of No Country for Old Men should be elated. In fact, if that top five were the list of nominees, no one would blink.

Best Films
1. No Country for Old Men
2. Juno
3. There Will Be Blood
4. Atonement
5. Michael Clayton
6. Into the Wild
7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
8. The Kite Runner
9.The Assassination of Jesse James
10. Charlie Wilson's War

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress: Julie Christie

Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem

Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton

Best Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Poland's good work

David Poland has started his annual compilation of film critic's top ten lists. Love Poland or hate him, this is one of the best things that his site does, giving you a very good snapshot of what critics liked and didn't like over the course of the year. My guess is that if you take the top 12 or so in this thing in a few weeks, pare down the ones that obviously aren't the Academy's thing, and I suspect you'll have at least four of the Best Picture contenders. That's my contribution to the Oscar blog thing.

What interests me is that the great Zodiac is the No. 2 film in the early going, yet it has been virtually absent from the year-end critic polls so far. That seems awfully strange to me. You can count on it being high on my list, if that's any consolation. Looking at the list again, Once is the third film, and it falls in the same boat. If this holds up, then you would expect these films to be doing better with the year-end critic groups than they are. Of course, maybe the votes of all the Dublin critics got in early.

So why are these films not getting the votes? Do critics vote based on their expectations of what's really in the running, rather than going with their heart?


Man, I am just not into writing today.

I'll try to fry something up and get it up before the end of the night.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Juno Generation?

David Edelstein of New York Magazine has taken it upon himself to welcome the Juno Generation. My question is, really?

Does Juno represent the teen-ager of today? I'm genuinely asking the question, and would appreciate any genuine answers.

I’m skeptical. I see Edelstein's point about teen-agers living without a zone of privacy and existing in their own film. Perhaps I too easily dismiss kids these days as technology-addicted gamers and robotic pop princesses, more like Juno’s cheerleader friend than Juno herself. But perhaps that impression is a couple years out of date.

While film critic Luke Y. Thompson, posting on Hollywood-Elsewhere, wonders about the movie’s shortfall of cell phones, I wonder, do sixteen year olds nowadays regularly drop the names of Iggy Pop and the Stooges and Dario Argento? Or is that more the province of bloggers with screenwriting aspirations, like Diablo Cody? Do they, as I've experienced when mentioning other pop culture names, dismiss them as unnecessary old news? Juno and her aspirations – hipness, being in an underground band, etc. - strike me as coming from the mid-nineties, and from someone more college-aged.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure teen-agers like Juno exist. There may well be at least four of them across the continent. I find her plausible, which is the standard. I’m more just distressed by the stadium-seat sociology that seems set to accompany the film.

Update on header photo ...

Well, I think I got my header worked out. No thanks to Blogger, as far as I can tell. The Help section is one long list of people with the same problem being left to fend for themselves. Fortunately, American ingenuity pulled through.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fly a Kite

The Kite Runner
Grade: C
When director Marc Forster’s name appears in connection with a film, you know what to expect. Warmth. Decency. Nice performances. Out-of-focus shots. A sad resignation that this kind of mediocrity passes for adult filmmaking. A level of different-ness. A level of familiarity. Nothing too adventurous. Juuuuuuust right. The third little bear of filmmaking. The Kite Runner finds him in pre-Soviet invasion Afghanistan among its relatively modern Western elite studying the friendship of two boys, the son of a wealthy businessman and the son of his father’s servant. A despicable event divides them. As an adult, the grown businessman’s son return undercover to Taliban-run Afghanistan to make amends. Very Watchable. Fairly forgettable.

Juno: no goddess, no devil

Juno [PG-13]
Grade: C

What’s all the rage in Hollywood today? At least the legal and moral one?

Trying to find the next Little Miss Sunshine.

That highly amusing and highly profitable Little Indie Comedy That Could is the type of film that can make a career. For that reason, the nets are cast high and wide. This week, Juno is the one that they’re reeling in.

There’s just one problem with this particular catch. This teen-age pregnancy comedy is not nearly as funny as last year’s yellow VW sensation. Nor is it quite as original as it thinks. However, it is admittedly warm and modestly entertaining.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody’s much praised dialogue is freshly youthful, as well as bluntly and humorously sexual, at least to the ears of fogeys unaware that the term “pork sword” had come into existence. But for a while, every character seems dipped head first in the same vernacular. A little too often, Cody comes across as the person trying to name-drop bands into an exalted state of hipness. The effect resembles one of Heath Ledger’s memorable lines in I’m Not There, the more they tried to be youthful, the less youthful it seemed.

The film lightens up, straightens out, and begins to give its characters their own shapes, albeit never leaving familiar territory. We get a quirkily smartass performance from a wise-beyond-years Ellen Page as the preggers teen-ager, looking to dump her little accident on an anxious, infertile yuppie (Jennifer Garner) and her henpecked musician husband (Jason Bateman). It also gives J.K. Simmons, everyone’s favorite Hollywood bureaucrat, some room to be funny and likable. Theirs is one of a group of honest, perceptive relationships laid out in the film.

I have trouble buying the relationship that develops between Juno and Bateman’s emotionally buried husband. Or maybe not so much trouble buying it as thinking that it would be emotionally richer if it had gone another way. It seems a way to create a melodramatic consequence of teen-age pregnancy, while the movie dances around more likely ones. As teen-age pregnancies go, this one is awfully clean.

Between this film and Knocked Up, you have to wonder if any writer today has the ability to write a complete pregnancy comedy. Judd Apatow managed to create the only example that seems interested in everyone but the mother. A young woman still seems a source of mystery to his Inner Geek. Cody naturally nails that part, but the needs of the men seem exaggerated or misunderstood. If you could atom smash these movies together, they might make an explosive result. But I can live with the modest delights that they each bring.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Legend in its own time

I Am Legend [PG-13]
Grade: B

Did anyone think when it sneaked into theaters in 2002, 28 Days Later would completely re-wire the world of science-fiction?

With apocalyptic zombie movies consistently eating their way into theaters, I Am Legend marks the greatest evidence of this lo-fi victory. Here’s Will Smith, the star of all those late-nineties special-effects behemoths like Independence Day, doing the stripped-down drill.

It would be easy to pass off these films as increasingly derivative, recycling storylines and narrative ideas. I would suggest that these films are having a subtle, relevant conversation about human nature, using similar cinematic language and small differences in approach. Take 28 Weeks Later and Children of Men. The two films essentially share a plot but come to radically different conclusions, disagreeing on the hope we invest in children and, consequently, the prospects for the future. Children of Men views children as a seed of positive possibility. Yet where children go in 28 Weeks Later, death follows. The movie twists the natural human desire to protect them.

There’s a film studies thesis in here somewhere. And it will take I Am Legend into account. It’s the eerie, Christian-themed horror film that M. Night Shyamalan would like to make. Its other message is the danger of drowning in the spilled milk of a tragedy. The heroic act in I Am Legend is letting go.

The proverbial spilled milk runs from a vial of cancer-killing medication, a cure that ends up killing more than the disease. Three years after its introduction, New York collapses into a muddy, weedy ghost town, with deer and other things loping through streets of abandoned cars and billboards. Small bands of pale, feral human leftovers rule the night.

The last (immune) man on this earth is Robert Neville, an army virologist who lost his wife and child during an evacuation of the city. During the early stages of the virus, he was seen as the best hope to stop the spread. Now, he hunts deer with a dog and a fast car, sleeps in a bathtub for protection, and makes humorous daily visits to a music store, one filled with mannequins that are his last vestige of conversation.

Not the type of man to leave his post, Neville remains behind the desk of dead silence of New York, thinking he can fix what has already been done. In a makeshift lab, he continues his experiments on lab rats in hopes of reversing the disease. Even three years later, he’s fighting a battle that seems already lost.

Using convincing CGI effects, director Francis Lawrence creates a satisfying vision of loneliness and desperation. Yet when you create such a realistic sense of isolated dread, it must pain a director to be so poorly served by unconvincing cartoons like these roving, cannibalistic ex-friends and neighbors. The second they appear, you swing out of the film's spell. The only people they should please sit on the ratings board – even when all other human instinct is lost, they still wear clothes around their privates.

Also removing you from the action are a couple of Will Smith moments, when he cheerfully does something geared for the audience and not the story. Otherwise, he uses his considerable screen charisma and gives a haunting performance. Meanwhile, his dog Sam is a revelation, the best onscreen pet in a long while. She’s probably signing a deal to star in the Lassie origin story as we speak.

I’m not a big fan of the co-screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man). I Am Legend slips into his usual faults. First, over-explaining the obvious. At one point, after watching more than an hour of depopulated cityscape, Smith vocalizes that a virus has eliminated most of the human race. The only reasonable response is, “No shit.” Second, the sappy soft landing. No disappearance of human civilization is so bad that we can’t be reminded of the special magic of children.

Yet while imperfectly rendered in many ways, the film touches on a current American dilemma – scarred by a tragedy, in a nation still manning its station, when is the appropriate time to look to the future and let go? For that, I find it’s not a lost cause.

If you're wondering what happened with my header ...

it's apparently a bug that's getting fixed. Mine is not the only blog.

Reviews of I Am Legend, Juno, brief on Kite Runner going up today.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Most overrated films of 2007

I still have some movies to see in the next week or so before I feel comfortable issuing a top 10 list. So I’ll start my year-end lists with a less vital but enjoyable topic: my five most overrated films of the year.

American Gangster – You can read my objections here. But I would emphasize my biggest objection – that it fails to do a single thing new within the gangland genre. There's a difference between being derivative and using similar cinematic language to discuss a topic or theme. This is just derivative.

The Bourne Ultimatum – The Bourne series helped awaken the action movie from its late nineties, early oughts CGI slumber, returning gritty fistfights and a more character-driven plotline. Yet it’s clear from this entry that it’s been overtaken by Batman and James Bond. Bourne does not share the same level of ethical complexity; the moral environment tilts so wildly to his side, with the faintest of lip service to its opposite. Essentially, Bourne can do no wrong. Additionally, the set pieces are repetitive individually and collectively. And when Marlon Brando wakes sweating in his bed clothes, I just assume he’s been dreaming of a Matt Damon-Julia Stiles pairing.

Eastern PromisesEastern Promises wastes a charismatic performance from Naomi Watts, whose role fractures and diminishes as the movie progresses. David Cronenberg is always fascinating, but sometimes his studious sensibility leads to a certain theoretical coldness in his films. I got over that feeling while watching A History of Violence. Not here.

Knocked-Up – There’s a simple reason that Judd Apatow movies are so popular. They pay off. People shelling out $20 on a date don’t have to worry about failing to be entertained. He’s an insurance policy with a word processor. But when I watch a Wes Anderson film, good or bad, I think, what a wonderful ode to the French cinema. When I watch Apatow’s films, I try to remember what obscure sitcom he wrote for. Its admirers feel the need to make labored arguments about its deep human understanding. I would rather they just appreciate it for what it is.

Spiderman 3 – Here’s a film that I panned, and I still feel like I was generous to it. The film is so calculatedly teen-age to be almost unwatchable without uncontrollably texting to distract yourself. In what movie does a villain (Sandman) go from trying to pound the hero into nothing to apologizing for all his sins in the space of a few minutes? And then Spidey just forgives him and lets him blow out to the wind. That example places the film’s mentality as at the level of a Friday-afternoon filmstrip. in a genre that’s getting more mature and sophisticated. How it got a positive rating Tomato Meter rating, I’ll never know.

The War on Christmas

Each day, on top of swimming, I go for a long walk for exercise. With it being winter, I do my walk indoors, at a well-heeled Dallas-area mall, loaded with fashionable housewives.

There's something going on here this season that's rather alarming. The department store Santa display has a commercial tie-in. It's the movie Fred Claus. There are advertisements on the red rug near Santa, and a giant snow globe that kids can enter, where they can be "entertained " by the movie.

You fill in the blank on that one. Yes, Christmas is a commercial holiday. I get that. And I don't mind it in a way, because said commercialism brings a lot of happiness into the world. As an adult, some of your fondest memories are of opening toys on Christmas. Yet to reduce Santa Claus to corporate servitude is hard to accept, if not hard to fathom.

London Critics Circle --

We had to go to London, but finally we find a group of critics who really know what they're watching. Of course, I'm only saying that because they agree with me.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sock Is Crap (aka, Oscar Picks), by Hannibal Lecter: First answer

I'm going to start revealing my Oscar Picks with the category that I think is most definite, that won't have any last second reconsiderations on my part. That would be

Best Cinematography

A King’s Red Ore; O, Do Sassy Bras Jaw John’s Ear, Orbit For a Time, Trade The Essence
Hit! Ream! Run!; Corn Lot
Driver’s Ash, Sir; CIA Zod
A King’s Red Ore; No One Fry Colt Round Me
Brews Lite Rot, Her Billed Web Tool

Unscrambled that is:
Roger Deakins; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Martin Ruhe; Control
Harris Savides; Zodiac
Roger Deakins; No Country for Old Men
Robert Elswit; There Will Be Blood

A King’s Red Ore; O, Do Sassy Bras Jaw John’s Ear, Orbit For a Time, Trade The Essence
Driver’s Ash, Sir; CIA Zod
A King’s Red Ore; No One Fry Colt Round Me
Gave SEC Summary; Eat Not Men
Brews Lite Rot; Her Billed Web Tool

Unscrambled that is:
Roger Deakins; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Harris Savides; Zodiac
Roger Deakins; No Country for Old Men
Seamus McGarvey; Atonement
Robert Elswit; There Will Be Blood

For the sake of variety, here is a link to the Dallas Morning News running Oscar page. The fact that I actively dislike two of their choices (American Gangster, Eastern Promises), and have mixed feelings about a third(Atonement), should not impede your click.

Do Critics Know Anything?

The answer to Richard Corliss’ question, historically speaking, has been: Not much.

OK, that’s not totally true. And while critics overlook certain eventual classics, it’s also the critics who supply the intellectual firepower to explain their resurgence.

Still, what do Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Searchers, and Blade Runner have in common? You would find at least one on most critics’ lists of the greatest American films. And all of them took abuse from critics at the time of their release (Admittedly with Kane, that was coming from the Hearst press).

Take a look at 1982, a year that the folks over at www. famously deemed as the greatest year in the history of science fiction earlier this year. Here are Siskel and Ebert’s top 10 lists.

Gene Siskel: Moonlighting, Tootsie, E.T., Diva, Mephisto, Lola, Personal Best, Three Brothers, Das Boot, An Officer and a Gentleman.

Roger Ebert: Sophie’s Choice, Diva, E.T., Fitzcarraldo, Personal Best, Das Boot, Mephisto, Moonlighting, The Verdict, The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time.

It’s true that the bald guy and the fat guy made some choices with legs – E.T.. Fitzcarraldo, Mephisto, Das Boot, Tootsie, to a lesser extent Personal Best and The Verdict. But the first question that comes to mind looking at the list is, what the heck is Moonlighting? I’m not saying it’s not an outstanding film. I’m just saying until I looked at the list, I’d never heard of it. Sophie’s Choice is the quintessence of Meryl Streep’s 1980s output – a tender, dignified piece of mature filmmaking that no one really watches anymore.

The Best Picture nominees were Gandhi, Missing, E.T., Tootsie, and The Verdict.

Who watches Gandhi anymore?

But what films have really taken off since 1982? Blade Runner may be the youngest member of The Canon, in a battle with Metropolis for most influential science fiction film of all time. Yet it was panned and was a box office mega-bomb at the time. To be fair, the themes of human identity and our relationship to technology wouldn’t be so obvious or resonant in an America still getting used to its microwave ovens. And its flaws wouldn’t be corrected until 1992’s superior Director’s Cut. But it’s one of the essential examples of a classic slipping through the cracks.

Some 1982 releases whose reputations have risen with time: Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The Thing. Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn. Maybe Tron, to an extent, as a precursor to The Matrix.

I mean, what critic in their right mind at the time thought The Wrath of Kahn would gain currency while Gandhi would lose it?

On the other hand, 1983 was a year where critical opinion won out in one very important case – Phillip Kauffman’s The Right Stuff. Critically lauded and expected to be a huge hit, it laid an egg on release. But it gained a new life on cable, in particular, and has maintained its reputation.

Take last year. Of its nominees for the big prize, I doubt critics favorite Babel and The Queen, will have much legs (Babel, especially). Meanwhile, I expect movies like Casino Royale and The Devil Wears Prada to be entertaining people for decades. Think about it – The Devil Wears Prada may be one of the few lasting performances for Streep, who has been a consistent loser in this game.

I also expect this decades’ wave of zombie movies to gain in reputation as the years go by.

This is not to say that critics aren’t usually right about a high-quality film. Far more often than not, they are. It’s just that the things that make a film intelligent, thought-provoking, etc. are not always the things that make a film a classic, and vice versa. And it’s hard to know what that classic-making quality is in real time.

I Pity the Fool

Oh. My. Word.

Apparently television's greatest four-man mercenary band will be getting their own movie. Strangely, even after two decades, authorities still haven't been able to spot a muscle-bound man with a mohawk, with his friends 0loaded into a black van with a distinctive red stripe, known for breaking into the same mental asylum every week to free the same patient.

Have mercy on our souls.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

San Francisco treat

The San Francisco Film Critics Circle have announced their year-end awards. I for one say, Hats Off. Although, maybe it's more a case of, Pants Off. In a city known for denizens showing their cajones in public, the critics publicly displayed theirs by naming the year's most clear masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as their Best Picture. In the next week or two, I plan to oh so evilly slowly reveal my Top 10 list, and you should expect that film to be near the top. A great, great film that was even better the second time I saw it than the first.

The Dark Knight trailer

I went to a screening last night of I Am Legend. That film opens this weekend, and my review should appear at that time. But that's not what we're talking about here.

What we're talking about here is the trailer for The Dark Knight, the second film in Christopher Nolan's re-booted Batman series. Needless to say there was applause at the end. So it seemed to go over well. I'm pleased with that, because honestly, it's been a while since there was a summer blockbuster that the entire public seemed ready to jump on this far out.

While the film is allegedly about Batman's exploits, the trailer is very much about the Joker (a worrying trend in my book - you don't want a series to turn too far into a Love Boat for villains.). Heath Ledger's Joker seems far less self-amused than Jack Nicholson's, as you would expect given the film's darker tone. Through his Joe Picasso makeup job, he comes across more as someone who would find humor in knifing you rather than cracking a joke.

The trailer is more focused on introducing the actors and personal rivalries than discussing plot. There's a scene with the Batmobile in firey action, the Joker walking down the street firing a machine gun, authority figures trying to figure out what exactly they're dealing with with the Joker. Christian Bale shows up occasionally, distressingly little, in my book. But I like the scope of the film.

I should say that I had a strongly negative reaction when I saw Batman Begins. I remember thinking it was the worst film I had seen that year. Poorly shot. Horrendously edited. Fight scenes shot way too close in. Sound mixing problems.I left the theater thinking it was going to bomb. I'll stand by all of that. Yet I softened somewhat afterwards when I thought about the gritty style and the re-imagination of its creative space. Even if I didn't enjoy the film, I felt I needed to respect the way it reeled the Batman movies back in from Tim Burton's imagination.

Still, I'm a little surprised about my own anticipation. I suppose I'm hopeful because I think Nolan is a talented director, because The Prestige worked very well, and because I expect him to improve technically from his first real action film. But time will tell.

Monday, December 10, 2007

New York FIlm Critics Circle

The New York Film Critics' Circle goes with No Country for Old Men for Best Picture.

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Best Actress: Julie Christie, Away from Her
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan, Gone, Baby, Gone
Best Director: The Coen Brothers, No Country for Old Men

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Midnight with Deckard and Batty

I went to a midnight screening of Blade Runner: The Final Cut last evening (this early morning?). For anyone out there who's seen it, what changes did you notice, if any, to the 1993 director's cut? They seem few. I count one and maybe a second.

1) The shot with the go-go dancers wearing hockey masks at Taffy Lewis' place. That was included in one of the small maze of minor cuts, but never in one of the larger releases.

2) The death of Tyrell seems more prolonged and graphic. Or at least I seemed to wince longer than usual.

Any others? The film still looks amazing.

Copping Out

Who says you can’t find a good cop these days?

Well, I do.

At least not on movie screens. Many of this year’s biggest films are built around the dramatically convenient ineptitude of policemen, who all appear to be bumbling through their first investigations. There is an epidemic of incompetent police work running through the contemporary movie world that would, if it were taking place in the real world, ignite a public inquiry. I, for one, am rooting for a good internal affairs housecleaning.

The central crime in Atonement, for which James McAvoy’s housekeeper’s son is sent to prison, is the perfect example. I’ve been engaged in an Internet debate about the nature of Briony Tallis’ suffering and her “atonement” for, as an overly imaginative 13-year-old girl, wrongly sending potential brother-in-law Robbie Turner to prison. However, maybe she could have been spared all that emotional turmoil had a minimally competent police investigation tossed her a bone.

Now I’m not blind to the fact that real-life police are not perfect, and that innocent men have gone to prison. But with a reporting background, I've heard horror stories. But I also have spent my share of time around police investigators, and generally think they make good judgments. To buy Robbie’s arrest and conviction, you would have to believe that an experienced investigator (and you’re not sending a novice to a wealthy estate) would build a case solely around a fleeting, pitch-dark observation of a flighty 13-year-old girl. This is particularly difficult to buy when she didn’t get a long look. Particularly when the men present all wore similar clothing. Particularly when her older sister describes her as “fanciful.” Particularly when there are presumably past instances where her imagination got the best of her. Frankly, you wouldn’t need to be an investigator to feel suspicions about her story. You would just need to have raised a child.

And I would expect the police to … oh, I don’t know … visit the crime scene and search for physical evidence. Wacky thought, that. I mean, I realize this is 1935. I don’t expect CSI or anything. But would a presumably experienced investigator fail to do the minimal Sherlock Holmes stuff? Maybe a piece of clothing stuck on a branch? A footprint left in the mud? Anything?

I realize actual competent police work would impinge on the class prejudice angle of the story. But the lack of it also damages its plausibility. I personally think a critical point of the story crosses the line into implausibility.

My pet example, though, comes in the deservedly little-seen Reservation Road. About that film, I said its police are better stocked with “common decency than common sense.” And I have a better sense of that evidence than they apparently have of theirs.

Mark Ruffalo has accidentally struck and killed a child with his car and left the scene. Police are knocking on the doors of people who own vehicles meeting the description. This is roughly how that doorstep interview went:

Knock, knock.

Officer: Good afternoon, sir. Are you Mr. such-and-such?

Ruffalo: Yes, that’s me.

Officer: Sir, is that a rental car in your driveway?

Ruffalo: Yes, it is, officer.

Officer: Do you not own (car-make-and-model)?

Ruffalo: Yes, yes I did. but I just gave it away to charity a week ago. I’m getting a new car, and I’m driving the rental in the meantime.

Now, if you’re a police officer and hear this do you:

1) Notice an owner of a vehicle matching the description of one used in a crime seems to have suspiciously gotten rid of his vehicle in haste, or

2) give a nice, hearty farewell and thank you for your cooperation?

You know the answer.

Of course it doesn’t stop there. In In the Valley of Elah, Tommy Lee Jones, a long-retired military policeman (not even a detective), shows up at small-town police department that is investigating his son’s death and promptly learns the local-yokel police lunkheads a thing or two ‘bout ‘vestigatin’. At least in No Country for Old Men, Jones is guilty of willful neglect, not ineptitude. Although if a killer were on a spree of that magnitude across Texas, do you really think his pursuit would be left to a couple of underfinanced rural Sheriff’s departments? I would hope that’s why my tax dollars go to DPS and Texas Rangers. I may not like American Gangster much, but at least Russell Crowe knows how to do his job.

That raises the question, whatever happened to the ace police investigator? I suppose the trend away from him stems partly from our discomfort with the rising presence of authority in our lives. In a world in which our identity precedes us – in business circles, in government file cabinets, online – we are being monitored even if we think we aren’t, and worry that it’s going to come back to haunt us in some Kafka-esque manner. Does that sort of environment encourage “You have the wrong man” stories? My guess is probably.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Due South

The Golden Compass [PG-13]
Grade: D

If nothing else, The Golden Compass brings its viewers into its own little CGI universe.

Talking polar bears rule the arctic. Fleets of witches rule the skies. Some golden glitter called dust runs through the universe. Each human owns a supernatural animal companion called a daemon, which allegedly represents the soul.

There are unwashed types known as Gyptians, an oppressive religious order known as the Magisterium, and a batch of child thieves called … oh, something. And Sam Elliott shows off what he does when he’s not hanging around a bowling alley.

If all of this confuses you, you’re in luck. If you choose to watch this LOTR, Harry Potter-ish CGI epic, the characters will explain this to you again. And again. And again. Every time a new figure shows up, they will spout some long-winded backstory. Even the talking polar bears get in on the act. Otherwise, why would they need to talk? Watching The Golden Compass is a little like being a kid sitting around the living room as parents and grandparents relive the old times.

Some of that is merely an inelegant necessity, born of a desire to fertilize a box-office hit out of Philip Pullman’s controversial His Dark Materials book series. For a film generating so much heat in the news, with Christian groups denouncing it as an atheistic attack on traditional religion, it doesn’t generate the same heat on screen. The Golden Compass is roughly one crafty girl and one cool polar bear fight from pointing due south.

That’s not the fault of Daniel Craig, who in his too short screen time shows the screen command that made him James Bond. As Lord Asrial, a university professor in this strange, theocratic world, his free-thinking ways attract the attention of the nefarious Magisterium. As Asrial heads north to examine a strange phenomenon with religious implications, the ice storm that is Lady Coulter (Nicole Kidman) seduces his scrappy kid niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) into her circle. The Magisterium sends forces to stop the professor.

Soon, Lyra wiggles out of Coulter’s clutches, befriends a band of Gyptians and a defrocked polar bear king, and moves north to save her uncle. She carries a golden compass that tells the truth about the past, present, and future. She’s the only one in the entire universe who knows how to read it.

When I watch a film like this, I don’t think much about the CGI. With the dollars invested, you should expect it to be solid. The first thing I consider is what I call the “Harry Potter” rule. Does the lead character show pluck? Or does that person wait for other people or luck to solve the problems? Lyra’s resourcefulness is the best element of the film. I mean, naturally excluding bear-on-bear combat.

The second question is whether the film has anything particularly interesting or original to say to children. I don’t think so. It encourages children to question authority. A well, good, and necessary part of growing up, to be sure. But the story is missing a great deal of the richness of the human fabric.

The reason is that the playing field is so slanted. The strength of creating a fantasy world is that you get to unmask the real one. The weakness is that you risk tilting things too far to your point of view. The Golden Compass has not the nuaced delicacy of the world I inhabit, but rather too much of the flat paranoia of its creator. For that reason, I think it’s pointed in the wrong direction.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Unpardonable Sins

Atonement [R]
Grade: C

I hate the ending of Atonement.

Let me repeat that. I hate the ending of Atonement.

Probably not for the reason that you might hate it. I picture whole theater’s worth of average moviegoers agog – some with delight, some with terror. Personally, I have no problem with its unorthodox nature. I prefer to be original in my cinematic displeasures.

Shortly put, the atonement isn’t that. After all, atonement is supposed to be a selfless act of contrition. Letting yourself off the hook isn’t selfless. It’s quite the opposite. And the act comes from a character who, even years down the road, never quite grasps that it isn’t all about her.

The ending descends into a writer’s occupational hazard – the flabby self-regard for the redemptive power of words. As if writing about something amounts to an adequate apology for doing it. If that’s what artists need to get out of bed in the morning, great. But please don’t expect me to automatically buy it. And please don’t send in the string section to kneecap me if I don’t.

Of course, prettying things up is kind of what this movie does. Director Joe Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey over-flavor the magic-hour compositions of an English estate and the French countryside. Even the mud at Dunkirk Beach looks beautiful; one imagines a million interns pouring water into the sand until the gray shade fit the vision. Wright’s ecstatic glow rightly illuminated Pride and Prejudice, decked as it was in swoony romantic ardor. But here, it seems as if the film is deeply afraid of getting its hands too dirty.

Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there is room for ambiguity in the finale. Perhaps the beauty of the scenery equates to the emotional sweetening of a memory, of psychological beautification, of a person straining to tell a story as a desperate stab at unachievable peace. Perhaps I get what the violin boys do not.

If so, that would fit perfectly with this post-modern story of multiple perspectives, adapted from the 2002 Ian McEwan novel. Mistaken impressions shape the understanding of reality. The power of storytelling plays on minds. At its center is the way a fanciful 13-year-old girl and her fragile grasp on adult reality ruin the lives of two she loves.

The girl is Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a precocious child with mustard-colored hair and a mayonnaise-thick imagination, living with her family on a brilliant English estate in 1935. She has just finished typing up her first naive play, one that she treats with the seriousness of Ibsen. Out a window she will observe something she doesn’t understand, an exchange between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper’s handsome son Robbie (James McAvoy).

There’s an unrealized sexual potential between them, one that’s hidden from the young girl’s comprehension, drunk as it is with adolescent melodrama. Small details will lead Briony to conclude Robbie is a rapacious sex fiend. By the end of the night – with an assist from the year’s epidemic of conveniently inept cinematic police work – she wrongly will finger him for a crime.

As war approaches, Robbie will join the army to gain release from prison, wander lost and scared through the French countryside, and drag his thirsting body onto a Heavenly. Hellish vision of Dunkirk. There, in a single shot as memorable as it is overblown, the English desperately shoot their horses, play on an abandoned pommel horse and drift above the surface on a looming Ferris wheel. Knightley will choose love over family, and become a penniless wartime nurse in London, waiting for the return of her love. A grown Briony (Romola Garai) realizes her mistake and, also coming to London to nurse war-thrashed soldiers, seeks some method of forgiveness.

There is a sly foreboding to the acting, a sense of something lying underneath Knightley’s posh coolness, Ronan’s flighty intelligence, McAvoy’s casual charm that evolves with fate and war. For McAvoy and Knightley, the film’s able romantic tinge holds the potential of legitimate box office stardom. In a year of fine films with scant epic romantic sweep, this film sticks out, making it an Oscar front-runner.

Yet the real conflict in the movie is not a war from sixty years ago, nor the struggles of torn lovers, nor a guilt-racked soul. It’s a battle between being a classic Hollywood star-crossed weepy and the edgy post-modern novel from which it extends. Even if it does pretty well with the elements individually, it still creates a movie that splits the difference, which is its unpardonable sin.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

National Board of Review selections ...

The National Board of Review, what or whoever they are, makes their year-end selections.

Best Picture: No Country for Old Men
Best Actor: George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Best Actress: Julie Christie, Away from Her
Best Supporting Actor: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Best Director: Tim Burton, Sweeney Todd

Even in a strong film year, with a lot of legitimate candidates for year-end awards, I expect to see No Country win a lot of them. It's probably the one that everybody most agrees on.
Thrilled to see Casey Affleck, who's spectacular, even if I would tend to think of his role as the lead. That's debatable, though.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sock Is Crap (aka Oscar Picks), by Hannibal Lecter

Your anagrams are showing, Doctor.

Rather than do another dreary Oscar prediction post exactly the same as everyone else’s, I decided to do it a little differently. I’ve turned all my choices into anagrams, i.e. rearranging the letters to make new words. That way it takes a little bit of de-coding effort on your part, and it can help evaporate your day while you pretend to be busy at the office.

They are grouped in fives. Each category has two groups of five. Each group of five is labeled either “Me” or “Them.” See the code below for the difference. I’ve mixed the categories up and stripped them of their labels. Don’t worry. I’m sure the two Best Picture groups should be obvious, and you can take it from there.

Semicolons separate the person and the movie title. I added some commas here and there to make it sound halfway readable. My advice …. Start with the easy ones and work from there. Like you were planning another course.

Disclaimer: No word or phrase is intended to describe the person or film. They are jumbles that are meant to be amusing, not insulting.

Me= What I would choose based on what I have seen so far.
Them= My guess at what the nominations will be in the end, based on what I’ve seen and projections based on “buzz,” whatever that is.

O, Do Sassy Bras Jaw John’s Ear, Orbit For a Time, Trade The Essence
Hens Make Tea
Hermit Note
No One Fry Colt Round Me

A No-Halt Mill Cycle
Eat Not Men
No One Fry Colt Round Me
Her Billed Web Tool
Dost Ewe Deny

Jane Mulin; Puked Conk
Been Sorry; Hens in U.S.
Tag, Move Air Lark; Cone
It Dials In Town; A No-Halt Mill Cycle
So As Nine Roar; Eat Not Men

Can’t Chat, Belt; Hermit Note
It Dials In Town; A No-Halt Mill Cycle
I Am A Rise, Tom; Owned! You Braked For The Evil Deeds
Real Job is Out; He Swills On Raw Air
So As Nine Roar; Eat Not Men

A King’s Red Ore; O, Do Sassy Bras Jaw John’s Ear, Orbit For a Time, Trade The Essence
Hit! Ream! Run!; Corn Lot
Driver’s Ash, Sir; CIA Zod
A King’s Red Ore; No One Fry Colt Round Me
Brews Lite Rot, Her Billed Web Tool

A King’s Red Ore; O, Do Sassy Bras Jaw John’s Ear, Orbit For a Time, Trade The Essence
Driver’s Ash, Sir; CIA Zod
A King’s Red Ore; No One Fry Colt Round Me
Gave SEC Summary; Eat Not Men
Brews Lite Rot; Her Billed Web Tool

Jerry Bowed To One; CIA Zod
Coors Cipher; Be Arch
Britt Pad; O, Do Sassy Bras Jaw John’s Ear, Orbit For a Time, Trade The Essence
Rob Hallhook; It Held in Tow
Brave Dime Jar; No One Fry Colt Round Me

Brave Dime Jar; No One Fry Colt Round Me
Monk Wins Toil; A No-Halt Mill Cycle
Rob Hallhook; It Held in Tow
Undo A Lap; Her Billed Web Tool
A Pill Of My Four Shy, Hip Men; He Swills On Raw Air

Early Is Me; Corn Lot
Aye! Flaky Feces; O, Do Sassy Bras Jaw John’s Ear, Orbit For a Time, Trade The Essence
O My Semen Jolt; No One Fry Colt Round Me
Gone Cool Grey; A No-Halt Mill Cycle
Easy, Dallied Win; Her Billed Web Tool

Gone Cool Grey; A No-Halt Mill Cycle
Hens Zinged To Lawns; I Can Arrange Gas, Tim
O My Semen Jolt; No One Fry Colt Round Me
Easy, Dallied Win; Her Billed Web Tool
Jenny Po, Phd.; Dost Ewe Deny

Did More Wankin; O, Do Sassy Bras Jaw John’s Ear, Orbit For a Time, Trade The Essence
Jan Doe, The Conal Net; No One Fry Colt Round Me
Diver Chin Fad; CIA Zod
Then Soy Dad, Hermit Note
Loan-out Pander Shams, Her Billed Web Tool

Burn It, Tom; Dost Ewe Deny
Loan-out Pander Shams; Her Billed Web Tool
Hi, Jot Grew; Eat Not Men
Jan Doe, The Conal Net; No One Fry Colt Round Me
Sly Tit D├ęcor; I Can Arrange Gas, Tim

Omits A Want; Poems Rest In Ears
Abut; Hens Make Tea
Wingate; Usual Tin Cot
Can’t Chat, Belt; Hermit Note
A Right Kinky Eel, I; Eat Not Men

Just Here, L’ici; Who Are For May
I Am Torn, Ol’ Radical; Erase No Liver
Can’t Chat, Belt; The Glazed Hoe Beat In Leg
A Right Kinky Eel, I; Eat Not Men
A Rent-A-Home Blancher; Dost Ewe Deny

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Heaven and Hell

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead [R]
Grade: B

Watching Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a little like playing a high-stakes game of cards.

We know things the characters don’t know. They know things we don’t know. They know things that the other characters don’t know. No one knows everything that’s going on. Watching the film isn’t so much ingesting images as laying cards on the table. So you’ll be excused if you wear your Ray-Bans into the theater.

This New York family heist caper, directed by octogenarian Sidney Lumet, shows both modern and classic impulses. With its bumbling loser crooks, its twisting narrative and dazzling charade of editing and storytelling, this may be the first ode to the peak of 1990s indie filmmaking.

But in Lumet’s hands it also becomes a compendium of New York filmmaking, paying homage to older cinematic visions of the city. It’s like something out of the forties and fifties – a New York of petty criminals, family jewelry stores, and street-level bustle. Often, filmmakers are seduced by the Big Apple’s biggest apples. Lumet is still in love with the smaller secrets.

At the core of the story are two brothers, Andy and Hank Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke), each one a bit of a nincompoop. Andy has worked his way up to a payroll executive to grasp a little bit of success. Daniel, on the other hand, struggles for every dollar to pay rent and child support. Both men have money issues that are about to eat them alive.

To get out of the situation, Andy thinks up an airtight plan. They (or at least his brother) will knock off a jewelry store, and, for a certain reason I won’t reveal, the two men will never be suspected. Naturally, the airtight plan goes the way of most cinematic airtight plans. Things break down. Someone ends up dead. The fallout opens old and new family wounds. Soon, the brothers are just trying to keep their lives.

Others have filmed New York, but few so openly and lovingly as Lumet, with his sense for symmetry and space on the broadest streets and the tightest shops. The film practically leaks fine performances, with Hawke’s hapless loser, Tomei’s m ix of quiet suffering and longing, and the way Albert Finney’s eyes seem like they’re about to boil out of the lids. Hoffman takes the cake with his unscrupulous and secretive moneyhandler, who isn’t quite as far ahead of everyone else as he thinks.

While it’s strong in style, place, and character, the film somewhat lacks in substance. While it presents some basic moral dilemmas and has a hammer-headed approach, it doesn’t have much to say. It’s not really a film about anything. Still, the sharpness of the performances, the skilled of the direction, and the daring of the script make it more than pleasant to watch.