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 Across the Universe •  The Adjustment Bureau •  Alien Trespass •  American Grindhouse •  Australia •  Azur and Asmar •  Babel •  Ballerina •  Ballets Russes •  The Bank Job •  Beauty in Trouble •  Behind the Burly Q •  Beowulf •   Beyond the Mat •  Biggie and Tupac •  Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh •  Bobby •  Boogie Woogie •  The Book of Eli •  Break ke Baad •  Bride & Prejudice •  A Broken Sole •  Buried •  Burn After Reading •  The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman •  Carmen & Geoffrey •  Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore •  Center Stage •  Changeling •  Charlie St. Cloud •  Colossus: The Forbin Project •  Coraline •  The Corpse Bride •  CQ •  Crazy Heart •  The Crow •  Curse of the Golden Flower •  Dahmer: The Mind is a Place of Its Own •  Dark City •  The Dark Knight •  Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father •  The Decay of Fiction •  Demonlover •  Derailed •  District B13 •  District 9 •  Donkey Punch •  Donnie Darko •  Don't Ask Don't Tell •  Dostana •  Double Team • Doubt •  Duplicity •   The Eagle •   Eagle Eye •  Enchanted •  Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet •  Ever Since the World Ended •  Evil/Ondskan •  The Expendables •  The Fall •  The Fantastic Mr. Fox •  The Fluffer •  Four Christmases •  Forgiveness •  Frost/Nixon •  Games People Play •  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo •   The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest •  Going the Distance •  Gran Torino •  Green Zone •  The Hangover •  Hard Candy •  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince •  The Haunting in Connecticut •  Hell Ride •  Herb & Dorothy •  Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore •   Hobo With a Shotgun •  Hot Fuzz •  The Hurt Locker •  I am Number Four •  I Sell the Dead •  I Woke Up Early the Day I Died •  In the Valley of Elah • Inception •  Inglorious Basterds •  The International •  Invictus •  The Invisible •  Iron Man •  Iron Man 2 •  Jar City •  Jumper •  Just, Melvin •  Kalamity •  The Killer Inside Me (1976) •  The Killer Inside Me (2010) •  King Arthur •  Kissing Jessica Stein •  Knowing •  The Krays •  Last Chance Harvey •  Last House on the Left •  Latin Boys Go to Hell •   Layer Cake •   The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen •   The Legend of Pale Male •   The Liberty Kid •   Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling •   The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra •   The Lovely Bones •   Machete •   Making the Boys •   Margarita Happy Hour •   Madea Goes to Jail •   Maximum Risk •   The Mechanic •   Millennium Actress •   Miss March •   Mr. Popper's Penguins •   Ned Kelly •   9 •   No Country for Old Men •   Not Easily Broken •  Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! •   Notorious •   The Nutcracker in 3D •   Obscene •  Our City Dreams •  Den Osynlige/The Invisible •   The Owl and the Sparrow &bull   Paprika •   Passion Play •   Perfect Blue •   Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire •  Public Enemies •   Push •   The Proposition •  A Quantum of Solace •   Racing Dreams •   Rambo (2008) •   A Real Young Girl •   Red Hill •   The Red Riding Trilogy •   Remember Me •   Reverend Billy & the Church of Stop Shopping •   Revolutionary Road •  The Rite •  The Road •  Robin Hood (2010) •   RocknRolla •   The Runaways •  Salt •  Sanctum •  Save the Last Dance •  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World •  Serbis •   Sexy Beast •  Sherlock Holmes •  The Sixth Sense •  Sin City •  The Skeptic •  Slumdog Millionaire •  Source Code •  Southland Tales •   The Spirit •   Stander •   Star Trek •   Stardust •   Stag •   Step Up •   Step Up 2: The Streets •   Step Up 3D •  Surfwise •  300 •  Taken •  Takers •  Terminator Salvation •  Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines •  Thirst •   Thor •   Tokyo Godfathers •   The Tracker •   12 Rounds •  Under Our Skin •  Up in the Air •   V for Vendetta •   Very Bad Things •   The Visitor •  Walk the Line •  Watchmen •   Where the Wild Things Are •   Without Warning! •  What Would Jesus Buy? •  Wolverine •  Yella •  You Again

Reviews of horror films and Bollywood movies:

Horror

Bollywood


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Across the Universe

(2007)
Directed by: Julie Taymor.
Written by: Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement.
With: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, T.V. Carpio, Eddie Izzard, Logan Marshall-Green, James Urbaniak, Joe Cocker, Lisa Hogg, Angela Mounsey, Salma Hayek, Bono and Harry Lennix.

Theater-trained Julie Taymor's reach exceeds her grasp for a good half of this phantasmagoric story of young lovers caught up in the 1960s counterculture as seen through the prism of Beatles songs. When it doesn’t work, the movie sems trite and gimmicky, but when it does, it’s nothing short of breathtaking: Visually inventive — Taymor’s trademark — but also vividly attuned to the broad streak of melancholy that runs through some of the sunniest pop hits of the 1960s.

1968, Liverpool: Restless Jude (Sturgess) sits on a deserted beach, looking out to sea and plaintively singing "Is there anybody going to listen to my story?" Not unlike the four working-class boys who supplied the soundtrack, Jude is destined to one kind of life — marriage to his conventional girlfriend (Hogg), a dead-end shipyard job, weekly visits with his unmarried mum (Mounsey), who raised him alone after her wartime romance with an American soldier went bad — but dreams of another, one in which he can be an artist. So Jude abandons everyone and everything, working his way to the U.S. as a deckhand and then jumping ship in hopes of finding the father he's never met but has heard works at Princeton University. The reunion isn't all he'd hoped, starting with the fact that his dad is a janitor, but Jude falls in with free-spirited Max (Anderson), a wealthy WASP who hates his family's lock-jawed conformity and runs away to live la vie de boheme in Greenwich Village. Jude tags along, falls in love with Max's sister, Lucy (Wood), who just lost her high-school sweetheart to the Vietnam War, and bears witness to the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll revolution.

Their circle of friends and fellow travelers includes rockers Sexy Sadie (Fuchs) and JoJo (McCoy), cheerleader-turned-lesbian-hippie Prudence (Carpio), student radical Paco (Marshall-Green), merry prankster Dr. Robert (Bono), acid guru Mr. Kite (Izzard), and sundry dropouts, scene-makers and activists. Any resemblance to Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin (whom Fuchs played in the Off-Broadway musical Love, Janis), Weather Underground founder Mark Rudd and other iconic rebels, icons and legends is strictly intentional.

The Beatles catalog spans the innocent optimism of early '60s beat boom hits like "All My Loving" and the pessimistic bad-trippiness of "Helter Skelter," so it's no stretch to find the entire history of that turbulent decade in their cumulative output. And Taymor's cast can sing, some astonishingly well. But for every brilliant reimagining of a familiar song — "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as a plaintive expression of thwarted same-sex love — there's an obvious clunker like "Something in the Way She Moves," which Jude sings in the first flush of love for Lucy, or "Revolution," his reproach to Paco and his student activists. Daniel Ezralow's choreography, which (like Twyla Tharp’s numbers for Milos Foreman’s 1979 Hair) relies heavily on ordinary movements in stylized patterns, is equally uneven, but there are a couple of stunning sequences, notably the nightmarish induction fantasy set to "I Want You." And yes, that is Salma Hayek in the chorus line of sexily sinister nurses, perhaps repaying Taymor for lending her dramatic credibility by giving her the lead in Frida (2002). But missteps aside, Taymor achieves the remarkable feat of making you hear songs so ubiquitous that they recede into aural wallpaper and making you hear them as though you’d never heard them before.


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The Adjustment Bureau

2011
Written and Directed by: George Nolfi, based on the short story “Adjustment Team," by Philip K. Dick.
With: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp, Michael Kelly and Shane McRae.

Call it the kinder, gentler Matrix: You know, the one where a disgraced politician accidentally discovers a vast bureaucracy working behind the scenes to make sure that people’s lives go according to plan -- whose plan isn’t entirely clear, but it's not theirs. His decision to buck the Adjustment Bureau and pursue the dancer he believes is his soulmate drives this light, surprisingly charming sci-fi romance.

Handsome, charismatic Congressman David Norris (Damon) started out the dark horse in a heated Senate race but he and his spin-savvy friend — Charlie Traynor (Kelly) parlayed David's youth and blue-collar Brooklyn roots into a brilliant man-of-the-people campaign that transformed him into the frontrunner. That is, until an embarrassing indiscretion torpedoes his candidacy, and instead of practicing his victory speech, he’s reduced to pacing the posh men’s room of the Waldorf-Astoria and composing a concession.

Then a chance encounter with the free-spirited Elise (Emily Blunt) changes everything: Her offbeat sense of humor and common sense inspire David to turn defeat into an opportunity to rally his supporters behind the next campaign, the one he's going to win for them. If only he hadn’t allowed her to rush off without leaving him her number!

But fate seems for once to be on the side of love at first sight: David subsequently runs into Elise on a bus and secures her phone number, despite the best efforts of a dapper fellow in a porkpie hat (Anthony Mackie) to thwart their meeting. David, now working for Charlie’s investment-consulting firm, is still on cloud nine when gets to the office and stumbles onto a mind-bending spectacle: His co-workers are all frozen in place and men in high-tech hazmat suits are busily prodding them with strange devices as several grey-suited men in hats—including David’s secret stalker, whose name turns out to be Harry Mitchell—look on.

David has just met an adjustment team, whose mandate senior adjuster Richardson (John Slattery of “Mad Men”) lays out in the clipped, slightly peeved tone of a grade-school teacher who’s just caught one of his students in the middle of some lamentable naughtiness. Adjusters adjust, he explains, nudging certain people—people whose personal destinies are inextricably linked to larger events—back into place when they stray from their appointed paths. Their tools are carefully contrived mishaps, delays, miscommunications and other mundane occurrences the uninitiated either fail to notice or put down to chance.

David should never have met Elise, Richardson continues; and if David pursues her, the ripple effect will be disastrous. One of his team fell down on the job of keeping them apart, and then David walked in as they were tweaking the memories of everyone who knew anything about David’s mysterious dream girl… in all, a real cock-up of a day that leaves him with two options. He can have one of the hazmat guys permanently scramble David’s brains or he can relieve David of Elise’s number and let him go with a warning. Since Richardson isn’t a sadist—just an organization man with a job to do and bosses breathing down his neck—he opts for the latter. But if David ever, ever breathes a word about the adjusters, he’ll have no one but himself to blame when the hazmats show up with their brain scramblers. The whole business would be absurdly funny had David not just seen the adjusters bend space to their will and move objects with the merest twitch of a finger.

But David can’t shake the feeling that he and Elise are destined to be together, and finds an unlikely ally in Harry who, while not encouraging David to mess with the order of things, does tell him a few things about what adjusters can and can’t do. Things that come in handy three years later, when David once again runs into Elise and launches a full-out campaign to win her love.

The feature-length Adjustment Bureau inevitably differs considerably from the Philip K. Dick short story on which it’s based, and purists will no doubt hate the addition of Elise and David’s bureaucracy-crossed romance. Dick himself would certainly have hated it, but he hated Blade Runner, the best adaptation of any of his works, so he wasn't necessarily the best judge. And in point of fact, that romance saves The Adjustment Bureau from being a geeky mix of philosophical noodling about free will vs. predestination and chase scenes.

The cast is uniformly excellent, from the dryly exasperated Slattery to Terence Stamp as Thompson, his suavely manipulative boss (Stamp's potted history of humanity's failure to do anything right without constant adjustment is a small masterpiece of condemnation by understatement), and they seem to revel in the story’s witty details: Mackie’s quiet delight in explaining that it’s those natty hats that allow adjusters to skip blithely through inter-dimensional portals is infectious.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal.


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Alien Trespass

(2009)
Directed by: R.W. Goodwin.
Written by: Steven P. Fisher, based on a story by Fisher and James Swift.
With: Eric McCormack, Jenni Baird, Robert Patrick, Jody Thompson, Dan Lauria, Aaron Brooks, Sarah Smyth, Andrew Dunbar, Sage Brocklebank, Jonathan Young, Tom McBeath and Michael Roberds.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the comfortably middle-aged It Came From Outer Space should be blushing like a schoolgirl: R.W. Goodwin and Steven P. Fisher's meticulously crafted, deadpan recreation of 1950s sci-fi movies is first and foremost a tribute to its low-budget, high minded charms.

Beyond that, though, I'm not sure what to make of Alien Trespass, which is neither a spoof nor an homage… more like a reverential ritual designed to keep the movie memories of yesteryear alive. But since the films it evokes are still around and, if anything, more available than ever with us (you can see in its entirety It Came From Outer Space on YouTube, albeit broken into pieces: start here), the past's flame doesn't seem in desperate need of fanning.

1957: As a meteor shower lights up the sky over the Mojave desert, residents of a small desert town — including hormonal-but-decent teens Dick and Penny (Dunbar, Smyth), aspiring artist Tammy (Baird), drunken saucer-buff Wilson (McBeath), egghead Ted Lewis (McCormack) and his va-va-va-voom wife (Thompson) — see a puzzling object streak through the sky and crashes near a popular make-out spot at the edge of town. Dick and Penny, who are, naturally, in the middle of a steamy (but chaste) makeout session, hotfoot it out of there. Wilson stumbles out of his shack to great the visitors, but his close encounter scares the bejabbers out of him — maybe it was that head-to-toe silver jumpsuit. And Dr. Lewis — who, as an astronomer, owes it to science to investigate, slips out of the sleeping Lana's arms and winds up possessed by silver-suit guy, an intergalactic "Federal Marshall" named Urp, who accidentally lost a space monster — the ravenous, tentacled Ghota, which can reduce a human being to a puddle of slime without batting its gigantic single eye — and is desperate to get it back .

Lana immediately notices that her husband is acting, well, kind of crazy, speaking in the uniquely stilted cadences of '50s aliens and marvelling at stupid stuff like table salt. Urp/Dr. Lewis contrives to escape Lana's tender mercies: The Ghota is the cane toad of aliens, and must be stopped before it begins to reproduce!

Meanwhile, cops Vernon and Barnes (Patrick, Brocklebank) are besieged by reports of monsters on the loose; Dick and Penny's juvenile delinquent pal, Cody (Brooks), persuades them to revisit the crash site so he can take pictures with his dad's fancy new polaroid; and Tammy has an odd encounter with Dr. Lewis and Chief Dawson (Lauria) curses fate for visiting this nonsense on his town two days before he was due to retire.

Alien Trespass doesn't have a mean bone in its body: Fisher and X-Files veteran Goodwin are fans of vintage science fiction movies whose reach exceeds their threadbare grasp. The love is palpable. Goodwin and Fisher wrap their affectionate pastiche in a tongue-in-cheek back story told through pitch-perfect faux newsreels — scuttled by poverty-row mogul Lewis B. Goldstone after a feud with b-movie idol "M. Eric McCormack" (the grandfather of Will & Grace star Eric McCormack, wink, wink), Alien Trespass was believed lost until a print resurfaced five decades later &mdash and scrupulously reproduce the not-quite-perfect matte shots, theramin-goosed scores and endearingly unconvincing rear-projection of films like The Day the Earth Sood Still, This Island Earth and, of course, It Came From Outer Space.

The result is clever without being particularly engrossing; even as I was admiring its flawlessly, I kept thinking of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2004), which treads the same ground while managing to to be weirdly funny.


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American Grindhouse

2010
Directed by: Elijah Drenner.
Written by: Elijah Drenner and Calum Waddell.
With: Narrated by Robert Forster, with John Landis, Bill Lustig, Joe Dante, Fred Olen Ray, Allison Anders, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Jeremy Kasten, Lewis Teague, David Hess, Ted V. Mikels, Jack Hill, Fred Williamson, Larry Cohen, Jonathan Kaplan, Judy Brown, Bob Minor, James Gordon White, Don Edmonds, Eddie Muller, Eric Schaefer and Kim Morgan.

Like the 2008 Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!

, Elijah Drenner’s smart, affectionate but clear-eyed history of American exploitation films combines talking heads and well-chosen clips from movies that range from now-quaint 1913 white-slavery “expose”

Traffic in Souls

to the still-scurrilous Nazi sexploitation classic Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS.

Drenner’s ambitious, self-imposed mandate for American Grindhouse is to simultaneously chart the development of exploitation pictures, which staked out a lucrative niche by gleefully tackling topics deemed too vulgar, shocking or disreputable for the tender sensibilities of middle-class moviegoers, and to situate them within the context of broader social and cultural developments.

Drenner covers the waterfront, from road-show birth-of-a-baby pictures, which staked their claim to educational value on live, post-screening lectures about sexual hygiene, to drug-scare movies like Reefer Madness (1936), to burlesque movies and wholesome nudist-camp “documentaries” which paved the way for ever-more-explicit depictions of onscreen sex. Blaxploitation, juvenile-delinquent dramas, lurid naughty-Nazi pictures, gross-out gore pictures, biker flicks and mondo movies are also represented. He taps a small but well-chosen cadre of film historians to handle the hard history, from the way Hollywood’s 1930 Production Code—which encouraged filmmakers to uplift the human race (or at least that portion thereof who went to the movies) by refraining from bad language, interracial relationships, violence and vice (including but not limited to drug abuse and “sex perversion”) and anything related to the nuts and bolts of child-bearing—kept generations of fringe players in business, to the game-changing influence of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, whose success erased the line between high- and low-culture moviemaking.

For on-the-ground color, he turns to trash-movie writers, directors and actors like Fred Williamson, who chuckles that he learned how to “steal shots and do big scenes without permits” by starring in Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar, a master class in guerrilla filmmaking, and Don Edmonds, who matter-of-factly labels himself a whore for agreeing to direct the shameless Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (which was shot on standing sets from the TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes) and its campier sequel, Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks.

But it’s Piranha director Joe Dante who astutely sums up Jaws as “a big-budget version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” John Landis (who shared equipment with Melvin Van Peebles when they were simultaneously shooting Schlock and Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song) makes the connection between ’70s blaxploitation and the “race pictures” of the 1930s and ’40s, low-budget movies that repackaged the conventions of westerns, crime pictures and melodramas with all-black casts and played in segregated theaters across the United States. He also gleefully dubs The Passion of the Christ “Texas Chainsaw Jesus,” implicitly placing it on a continuum with religious freak-show movies like Lash of the Penitentes (1936) and Trapped by the Mormons (1922), and declares that “the whole point [of the 1960s Beach Party movies] is to see tits and ass…but wholesome tits and ass.”

Both informative and slickly made—the melting emulsion transitions between segments is an especially nice touch—American Grindhouse is a fine introduction to the history of marginal movies and an enjoyable stroll down memory lane for sleaze-movie connoisseurs.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal.


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Animal Kingdom

2010
Written and Directed by: David Michod.
With: Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton and Laura Wheelright.

Australian filmmaker David Michod’s gripping crime drama charts the slow unraveling of a family bound together by violence through the eyes of a teenage nephew unexpectedly thrust into their midst.

Seventeen-year-old Joshua “J” Cody (Frecheville) lives with his single mother, who’s estranged from her shady family and did her best to keep her son out of their reach. But when she dies of an overdose, the only person he can think of to call his grandmother, Janine (Weaver), known to everyone as “Smurf.” And she’s the answer to a suddenly unmoored boy’s prayers: Calm, comforting and decisive, she gently but firmly tells J to pack his things and come live with her in Melbourne — everything will work out, she promises.

As J quickly learns, Smurf’s blandly suburban ranch house is the only ordinary thing about her household, where life revolves around her three grown sons, J’s uncles. They’re three-quarters of an armed robbery crew so notorious that an unmarked police car has been parked across the street for weeks and her eldest, ringleader Pope (Mendelsohn), has been forced to leave the nest and hide out until the heat dies down. High-strung, heavily tattooed middle son Craig (Stapleton) deals drug on the side and is intimately familiar with his product, while Smurf’s youngest, the malleable Darren (Ford), is drifting inexorably into the family business.

The crew’s fourth member, Baz Brown (Edgerton), is the steadiest of the lot: Happily married and a father, Baz is sufficiently clear-eyed to realize that they’re all getting older, the cops are becoming more ruthless and this might be a good time to think seriously about easing out of the thug life.

So naturally it’s Baz who’s murdered by overzealous police officers as he sits in his car in a supermarket parking lot. J’s efforts to keep clear of the ensuing firestorm are futile: At an age when most boys are worrying about juggling girlfriends, schoolwork and a bit of fun with the lads, he’s trapped between persistent police detective Nathan Leckie (Pearce), who hopes J will turn state’s evidence, and the volatile, ruthless relatives he comes to realize would happily sacrifice him to save their own skins.

Set in the 1980s, screenwriter Michod’s directing debut is stunning — it’s as though he managed to shrink The Godfather to nuclear-family dimensions without losing any of its epic intensity. The casting is flawless, from first-timer Frecheville to experienced character actor Mendelsohn, but the film’s dark, discomfiting heart is Weaver’s grandma Smurf, whose impeccable make-up, sequined, sorbet-colored tops and warm embrace belie a predatory resolve so steely that sharks could take lessons. Her performance alone would make Animal Kingdom worth seeing, and the fact that it’s set in a film that never makes a false step is nothing short of astonishing.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form in Film Journal


Australia

(2008)
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann.
Written by: Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Luhrmann
With: Nicole Kidman, High Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson and David Gulpilil.

Baz Luhrmann's epic tale of Northern Australia between 1939 and 1941, when it was a wild frontier not unlike the American West, recalls the old-fashioned, golden-age Hollywood movie-movies that wrapped forbidden desire, aching heartbreak, personal tragedy, war, adventure and breathtaking thrills in a glittering overlay of movie-star glamor. It's far from perfect, erring as it does on the side of sweeping visuals, broad characterization and shameless sentiment. But Gone With the Wind wasn't a subtle dissection of Southern history and mores either. Luhrmann, whose rural family briefly ran a movie theater, set out to make a rousing, romantic, all-encompassing spectacle, and that's exactly what he delivered.

If you're looking for brutal, feel-bad films about how the outback was won, have a look at Nick Cave and John Hillicoate's The Proposition (2005), Rolf de Heer's The Tracker (2003) or Gregor Jordan's Ned Kelly (2002), starring Heath Ledger as Australia's Billy the Kid. But if you're up for a rousing romp with just enough ideas in its glossy head that you don't have to feel thoroughly stupid for surrendering to its charms, Australia is the way to go.

Largely shot on location in the awesomely photogenic Outback, Australia opens in 1939 and is narrated by mixed-race child Nullah (Walters), born on the cattle ranch Faraway Downs to a devoted Aboriginal mother and a white overseer, Neil Fletcher (Wenham), to whom a bastard colored child is of no more use or consequence than a mongrel dog. Faraway Downs is owned by Englishman Maitland Ashley, whose prim and proper wife, Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), is convinced that her husband is carrying on some kind of torrid affair in the land down under. She pays a surprise visit in hopes of catching him in flagrante, only to find him dead and the ranch on the brink of failure, thanks to the dastardly machinations of cattle baron King Carney (fellow Australian crossover star Brown), who with the help of opportunistic weasel Fletcher hopes to corner the market in beef for the British army. Lady Ashley may be a long-stemmed English rose, but she's not about to be pushed around by a pack of common hooligans descended from transported criminals.

In short order, she has allied herself with the sexy Drover (Jackman), a rugged cowboy who won't be fenced in by love or barbed wire; bonded with the charming, resourceful and newly motherless Nullah; and assembled a ragtag crew of women, children and the inevitable gentleman drunk (veteran Aussie actor Thompson) to thwart Carney by driving 1,500 head of Faraway Downs cattle to Darwin in time to stop upright Captain Emmett Dunham (Ben Mendelsohn) awarding Carney a monopoly. And that's only the beginning of Lady Ashley's journey, which culminates in the 1942 air raid on Darwin by Japanese kamikaze bombers.

It's easy to be cynical about a movie like Australia, whose thoroughly unironic points of reference range from The African Queen to The Wizard of Oz. But why fight its retro appeal? Once upon a time, Hollywood spectacles dominated the movie marketplace at the expense of more challenging, unconventional films. But in 2008, the motivated moviegoer can gorge on Chinese art movies, indie brain benders and obscuriana of every stripe without venturing beyond Netflix — Australia is just another option, a Thanksgiving feast of a movie that delivers celluloid comfort food with no apologies. And there's nothing wrong with that.


Azur and Asmar

Written and Directed by: Michel Ocelot
Animated

French animator Michel Ocelot's jewel-like fable unfolds in a once-upon-a-time version of medieval North Africa alive with vibrant colors and dazzling patterns, both natural and manmade. It's an astonishing feat of visual imagination, every bit as beautiful as Ocelet's feature debut, the West African-folktale inspired Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998).

It opens in a stern castle in medieval France, where North African nanny Jenane is raising two small boys: Her own son, Asmar, and Azur, the blue-eyed child of her employer. Brought up as brothers, squabbling and scrapping, Azur and Asmar are enchanted by the stories Jenane learned as a girl, including the tale of the captive Djinn Fairy, more beautiful than any diamond and imprisoned somewhere deep underground.

As the boys grow older, Azur's father realizes that by abdicating his parental duties to a Saracen, he's saddled himself with a bilingual son indifferent to class and race and ignorant of the arts of a gentleman. He tries to rectify the situation by banishing Jenane and Asmar, but the damage is done: Azur grows up to be a headstrong dreamer whose only ambition is to liberate the Djinn fairy.

Spectacularly unprepared for the rigors of his journey, Azur is nearly lost at sea but washes up in North Africa, where he's shunned for his limpid blue eyes -- considered an ill omen -- and takes refuge in feigning blindness, is taken advantage of by a wily beggar and eventually reunited with Jenane, now a fabulously wealthy merchant who welcomes him as a long-lost son. Asmar, about to undertake his own quest for the Djinn fairy, is somewhat less thrilled, especially when Jenane insists the boys start their adventure together.

How things will wind up is a foregone conclusion — that's how fairy tales are — but the film's visual splendors are sensuously enthralling. This is Ocelot's first foray into CGI, which he uses with considerable subtlety: Faces and hands are modeled, while the lavishly ornamented clothing is rendered in a flatter, more decorative style; the elaborate backgrounds, rooted in non-figurative Arabic art, are simply dazzling, rivaled only by maverick animator Richard Williams' sadly compromised Arabian Knight/The Thief and the Cobbler (this article details its tumultuous history).

The story itself is as didactic as the average Disney moral tale, encouraging religious and racial harmony, fairness, equality for women, honesty and good manners. But it's both less formulaic in structure and considerably less saccharine, even as the cast of characters expands to include a comic sidekick (the aforementioned wily beggar), a wise old man and a precocious child princess.

And allow me a moment to rhapsodize about the film's exotic creatures, a fire-engine red, blue-clawed lion whose stylized mane rises and falls like rows of porcupine quills, and the saimourh, a gigantic bird with heavenly plumage and a taste for raw meat. They figure briefly into Asmar and Azur's adventures and, like all true stars, leave you wanting more.


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Babel

2006
Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga.
With: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Mohamed Akhzam, Adriana Barraza, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi, Clifton Collins, Jr., Mustapha Amhita, Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble, Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani.

Its trendily provocative elements notwithstanding, there's less than meets the eye to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga's variations on the theme of miscommunication and careless acts.

The story begins in rural Morocco, where weathered goatherd Mohammed (Amhita) buys a neighbor's rifle so his adolescent sons, Yussef and Ahmed (El Caid, Tarchani), can protect his flock from jackals. When there are no jackals to rout, the bored, restless boys take potshots at increasingly far-flung targets, eventually striking a tour bus.

Their random bullet finds American traveler Susan (Blanchett), who's vacationing with her husband, Richard (Pitt); the trip is a last-ditch effort to salvage their marriage, in ruins since the death of their baby and Richard's subsequent emotional abandonment of his grieving wife and children. With Susan losing blood at an alarming rate and the nearest hospital hours away over rough roads, the tour group's translator, Anwar (Akhzam), suggests a detour to his nearby village. But help is slow to come and as Susan bleeds, Richard rages helplessly and the other tourists grow increasingly militant about wanting to leave. Prickly government officials and overeager reporters recast the accidental shooting as an act of terrorism.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, Richard and Susan's housekeeper, Amelia (Barraza), is caught between her responsibility to Debbie and Mike (Fanning, Gamble), the children she's raised from infancy, and her own adult son, who's getting married in their Mexican hometown. Unable to find anyone to whom she can entrust Mike and Debbie for the day, she takes them along. Everything is fine until the drive back with Amelia's nephew, Santiago (Bernal). Slightly drunk and seething with the accumulated hurt of a thousand petty indignities, Santiago butts heads with an officious border guard (Collins Jr.) at the U.S./Mexican border and rashly decides to flee. Pursued by agents, he leaves Amelia and the children in the desert, promising to return later.

And in Japan, a deaf-mute teenager, Chieko (Kikuchi), displaces the suffocating rage born of her mother's recent suicide and her own disability into a series of blatant, joyless sexual displays.

As in Arriaga and Inarritu's previous collaborations, Amores Perros (2001) and 21 Grams (2003), the flashy spectacle of intersecting narratives, whiplash crosscutting and fractured chronology nearly overwhelms the film's simple message, in this case that despite divisions of language, race and geography, we're all connected. Ironically, by the time Babel debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, Inarritu and Arriaga were publicly feuding, apparently over Arriaga's insistence that screenwriters and directors deserve equal credit for a film's success.


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Ballerina

(2005)
Written and Directed by: Bertrand Normand.
With: Valery Gergiev, Ulyana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva, Evgenia Obraztsova, Alina Somova, Andrian Fadeyev, Altynay Asylmuratova, Ludmila Safronova, Svetlana Zakharova, Manuel Legris, Cedric Klapisch, Pierre Lacotte and Igor Zelensky.

Made for French television, Bertrand Normand's portrait of five Russian ballerinas at various stages of their careers peeks behind the velvet wall that separates dance lovers from the rigorously disciplined, unglamorous lives of dancers. It's a shame that the film itself is so simplistic, but the ballerinas provide the panache and mercurial complexity it lacks.

Normand's subjects range from Alina Somova, whom we first see as a 17-year-old star at St. Petersburg's world famous Vaganova Academy and follow as she starts over in the Kirov's corps de ballet, to Ulyana Lopatkina, 32, a Kirov Ballet prima ballerina hoping to make a comeback after a two-year absence from the stage. Having undergone surgery in the US to repair her damaged ankle, gotten married and had a daughter, Lopatkina is beginning the arduous road back from injury, hoping to regain the strength and artistry she once had. Diana Vishneva, another Kirov star, is in her late 20s and internationally acclaimed for her extraordinary stage presence and acting skills, which more than compensate for her less-than-textbook technique. Vishneva revels in the fact that since Perestroika, Russian dancers have been freer to perform with companies around the world, allowing them to grow as artists by experiencing other styles of choreography and performance.

Ukrainian-born Svetlana Zakharova, 24, was accepted into the Kirov when she was 17 and made a soloist the following year; she eventually leaves the Kirov for the Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet. Fresh-faced Evgenia Obratsova, who graduated from Vaganova a year before Somova and combines meltingly soft technique with fierce dedication, rises to new heights in Romeo and Juliet but still goes out of her way to maintain a personal connection with the fans — mostly women — who gather outside the stage door of the Mariinsky theater.

Actress Diane Baker's flatly delivered, tediously written voice over is a major liability, but the ballerinas prevail, demonstrating again and again that despite the Russian ballet world's emphasis on conformity — its hallmark is the flawlessly symmetrical corps de ballet — each has found her own strong, unique voice as a dancer. If not as perceptive as Etoiles or as hugely entertaining as Ballets Russes, it's still a glimpse into a priviledged, ruthlessly demanding world few outsiders ever get to see.


Ballets Russes

(2005)
Written and Directed by: Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine.
With: Dame Alicia Markova, Frederic Franklin, Irina Baronova, Tamara Tchinarova Finch, Maria Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, Tatiana Riabouchinska, Wakefield Poole and Yvonne Craig.

You don't have to know an arabesque from an alligator to enjoy Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine's loving documentary about the various incarnations of the Ballet Russe: The reminiscences of its international cast of raconteurs — razor-sharp survivors of a bygone era filled with glittering, larger-than-life personalities and outrageous twists of fate — are better than any soap opera.

Flamboyant Russian cultural impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) — who inspired The Red Shoes' imperious Boris Lermontov, who tells his dancers they must choose between love and art mdash; formed the first Ballet Russe in 1909, cultivating artists, dancers, composers and choreographers; they included George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Vaslav Nijinsky, Michel Fokine, Leon Bakst and Leonide Massine. The company folded after Diaghilev death, but Monte Carlo Opera Ballet director Rene Blum and Russian expatriate Colonel Vassili de Basil revived it as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, hiring Balanchine and Massine and recycling the original company's vast stockpile of costumes and scenery.

For 30 years, egos raged behind the "everything is beautiful at the ballet" facade. Balanchine was ousted in 1933, Blum quit in 1935, and Massine and de Basil jockeyed for control until 1938, when Massine formed his own Ballet Russe and fought de Basil for the name. Massine won, forcing de Basil to rename his company the Original Ballet Russe. De Basil's company conquered Australia and South America before folding in 1948, while Massine's toured the US under the auspices of booking agent extraordinaire Sol Hurok. Balanchine, who'd spent the intervening years working on Broadway, in Hollywood and even choreographing an elephant dance for the Ringling Brothers' circus, replaced Massine and then left to form his own company, the world-famous New York City Ballet. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo limped on until 1962, when it danced a last, threadbare performance at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Before television, video or the internet brought world-class dancers and musicians into people's homes, the various Ballets Russes brought both classic and daringly modern works to small towns and international opera houses; their dancers went to Hollywood and to Broadway, trailing an intoxicating aroma of old-world glamour. When the ball was over, they scattered to Denmark, England, Australia, Venezuela and the United States, settling in cities as diverse as New York, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago, where they taught, started companies and tended the flames of their golden youth. Geller and Goldfine have assembled a treasure trove of color and B&W performance footage, but the stars are the incredibly diverse Ballets Russes alumni, from grown-up "baby ballerinas" Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska to Yvonne Craig, who became TV's Batgirl, to pioneering gay pornographer Wakefield Poole. All have amazing stories, and know exactly how to tell them.


The Bank Job

(2008)
Directed by: Roger Donaldson.
Written by: Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.
With: Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, Stephen Campbell Moore, Daniel Mays, Alki David, James Faulkner, Richard Lintern, Michael Jimson, David Suchet, Sharon Maughan, Angus Wright and Peter de Jersey.

Lurking behind a criminally bad title is a surprisingly tight, clever, twisty heist tale, loosely based on real events and crisply directed by Australian-born, New Zealand-based filmmaker Roger Donaldson.

1971, London: South London used-car dealer Terry Leather (Statham), is always looking to move his family up in the world, and isn't averse to shady business. So when Martine Love (Burrows), who rode her razor-blade cheekbones out of the old neighborhood and into the jet set, comes along with a proposition, he listens. She has an inside line on a major security lapse at the Baker Street branch of Lloyd's Bank: The alarms have been shut down while security experts try to correct a vexing, persistent technical glitch. An enterprising crew, she says, could rent the failed leather-goods shop two doors down, tunnel directly into the safe-deposit vault and loot the boxes with impunity.

Though initially dubious — robbing banks is a several notches up from the kind of crime with which Terry and his mates are familiar — Terry takes the plunge and rounds up his pals: Frustrated photographer Kevin (Moore); aspiring actor and part-time porno star Dave (Mays); con artist Guy (Faulkner); and Bambas (David), who actually knows something about digging tunnels and breaking through reinforced concrete floors. Sweet-natured mechanic Eddie (Jimson) is posted on a neighboring roof with a walkie-talkie, charged with keeping the others apprised of street-level developments. The plan is low-tech but solid: The devil is in the complications. These complications include Martine's debt to suave MI5 agent Tim Everett (Lintern), who wants the orgy photos of a wayward royal contained in the safe deposit box of a notorious thug turned black-power activist (de Jersey); the fact that a Soho smut mogul and an upscale madame (Suchet, Maughan) also have boxes of incriminating materials in the vault; and the presence of a ham radio operator (Wright) who accidentally tunes in to the gang's frequency mid-job.

That UK newspapers abruptly stopped covering the real-life crime they dubbed "The Walkie-Talkie Robbery" after four days — a robbery that netted the contemporary equivalent of millions — lends credence to speculation that it was the subject of a "D Notice" — a government gag order in the name of national security. And that, in turn, opens the doors to all manner of speculation: Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' screenplay is a deft blend of fact (including several of the more implausible turns), rumor and supposition, and Donaldson keeps all their narrative plates in the air while drawing a surprisingly warm and nuanced performance from Statham.


Beauty in Trouble

(2006)
Directed by: Jan Hrebejk.
Written by: Petr Jarchovsky, inspired by the poem by Robert Graves.
With: Ana Geislerova, Josef Abrham, Roman Luknar, Michaela Mrvikova , Adam Misik , Jana Brejchova, Emilia Vasaryova and Jiri Schmitzer.

Inspired by Robert Graves' deeply cynical poem, this bleak story of love and pragmatism tells the story of a woman whose future hinges on her relationships with two very different men.

Marcela Cmolikova (Geislerova) got pregnant as a teenager and left home because her mother and stepfather, Zdena (Brejchova) and Risa (Schmitzer), insisted that she have an abortion. Marcela married mechanic Jarda (Luknar), who adopted her daughter, Lucina (Mrvikova), now 15, and fathered her seven-year-old son, Kuba (Misik). Powerful sexual chemistry is the glue that holds their marriage together, but Marcela feels increasing trapped in the aftermath of a flood that damaged their uninsured home, destroyed most of their possessions and is compromising Kuba's health — mold exacerbates his asthma. Jarda is increasingly sullen, crude and dismissive of Marcela's concerns — she doesn't want her children stigmatized by having a thief for a father, while he only cares that stealing cares is more lucrative than fixing them.

After one fight too many, Marcela moves back in with her mother. The cramped quarters put a strain on Zdena's marriage; the manipulative Risa, who lives on disability and is always home, picks fights with Marcela, leers at Lucina and plays mind games with Kuba, always while Zdena is away. Then Jarda gets arrested and a chance encounter with the stolen car's owner &mdash expatriate Evzen Benes (Abrham), a widower who returned to Prague to sell his family's house — opens a world of possibilities for Marcela. An attractive widower, Evzen is so fundamentally decent that he offers to get Jarda a good lawyer and refuses to evict the family who've been squatting in the Benes home for years. That he's old enough to be Marcela's father and doesn't excite her the way Jarda does is offset by the fact that she enjoys his company, lives in a Tuscan villa attached to a successful vineyard, likes children and isn't afraid of the emotional baggage that inevitably comes with a 32-year-old mother. It's clear to everyone, including Marcela, that divorcing Jarda and marrying Evzen would be a mature decision — perhaps the first of her life. Director Hrebejk and screenwriter Jarchovsky's film is a subtle, unsparing portrait of families whose fragile dynamics fray under pressure. Its strength lies in the complexity with which the characters are written — there's more to everyone than first meets the eye, even such apparently one-note monsters as Risa and Jarda's fanatically religious mother (Vasaryova) — and the subtlety with which their thorny relationships are revealed.


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Behind the Burly Q

2009
Written and Directed by: Leslie Zemeckis.
With: Alan Alda, Tempest Storm, Kitty West, Joan Arline, Taffy O’Neill, Chris Costello, Joni Taylor, Beverly Anderson Traube, Dixie Evans and Betty Rowland.

Leslie Zemekis’ affectionate documentary about the rise and fall of burlesque is once-over-lightly history, arranged by theme (mobsters, onstage mishaps, regional idiosyncrasies, marriage and children) rather than chronology and only superficially interested in the shifting politics, economics and social mores that birthed the burly q and then condemned it to history’s slag heap. But what a showcase for the women who spent the best years of their lives dressing up and stripping down! Their stories are funny, naughty, heartbreaking, disingenuous, gritty and revealing, all told with wit, verve and calculated charm — they didn’t spend all those years cultivating beguiling personas for nothing.

Burlesque was cheap entertainment for poor people, offering a vaudevillian mix of comedy, singers, novelty acts — waltzing dogs, acrobats, magicians — and pretty girls. The plus was a little extra skin, but it was still family entertainment and depression-era performers could make $35.00 a week at a time when $10.00 covered seven days worth of food and lodging. Strippers and comedians, who were at the top of the salary heap, commanded even more.

The shows gradually became more risqué, and the girls took center stage and developed a reputation: Some figured they were little better than prostitutes, others imagined they were glamorous party girls who married millionaires. The reality was inevitably more complicated, but many stories started with girls born into grinding poverty and determined not to die there.

On the road with her uncle, an aging vaudevillian, Georgia Sothern was left penniless and alone when he died in a low-rent hotel full of burlesque dancers; they made her up, found her some nice clothes and got her a job stripping. Sothern was 13.

Ann Corio, one of 12 children from an old-fashioned Italian family, was a teenager when she lit out for New York in hopes of a career on stage. The Rowland sisters sought to parlay youthful looks into long term security: Dian, whose heart was damaged by a childhood bout with scarlet fever, died young; Rozelle married a baron and committed suicide rather than live her last years in a nursing home; Betty survived to tell their tales. Chorus girl Joni Taylor had three children to support by the time she was 16 and Sunny Dare was stranded in Texas when fan-dancer Sally Rand stiffed her entire touring troupe; Dare stripped her way home. Any of them could just as easily have wound up in Ruth Leitman’s 2004 documentary Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling: Stripping, girl-on-girl grappling and running away with the circus (whose “cooch shows” were burlesque programs in a tent) all promised adventure, fame and fortune.

Zemeckis (wife of Robert Zemeckis) interviews the famous and the forgotten, from canny striptease stars like Blaze Starr and Tempest Storm to Kitty West, once a New Orleans sensation as “Evangeline the Oyster Girl,” the lovelorn and lightly-clad beauty at the center of a meticulously staged fairy-tale number and now living in a FEMA trailer, having lost everything to Hurricane Katrina. Most seem to have enjoyed the ups of their lives in sequins, and to have weathered downs that included shattered marriages, confused children (“why is mommy naked?”), backstage politics, exhausting schedules, police harassment and the ever-present specter of aging out of life in the spotlight. The frank, acerbic Dixie Evans, once billed as the “Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque,” just about runs away with the show, whether dishing backstage dirt — notoriously raunchy Rose La Rose walked around with her pubic hair in curlers and Storm had no sense of rhythm — or telling tales on herself. Once so afraid of giving patrons a glimpse of her “little fur cat” that she shaved it off, Evans later wowed 'em with a tiny g-string made from real fur — her employer was impressed but suggested a little personal grooming before the next show. Funny stuff.

But Evans also confides that she gave up her baby for adoption, then immediately regretted the decision and tried to reclaim her; the Nevada politician who had adopted the infant promised to have her arrested if she ever tried to contact her daughter.

The men Zemeckis interviews are strictly second bananas, but include the much-loved actor Alan Alda, whose father was both a “tit singer” — a real title, Alan insists, denoting the guy who warbled while pretty girls paraded around the stage — and comedy-skit straight man. The senior Aldo took his small son on the road, except when there wasn't room in the car for both the kid and the pig that figured into a running gag. After all, the kid could stay with relatives, but without the pig, the show didn't go on. Renald von Muchow recalls the beefcake hand-balancing act he did for 25 years with grammar-school pal Rudy, while drummer John Perilli describes his life as low man on the burlesque-club totem pole.

Many of the film’s delights are in the details: Traveling troupers ran the snack concessions and perfected elaborate spiels to move overpriced candy. Detroit was nicknamed the “The Vatican” because two bump-and-grinds in a row got a show closed down. Stripping was forbidden in Green Bay, but gradually shucking your clothes offstage wasn't, because technically that constituted a costume change. Strippers paid chorus girls to gather up and guard the clothing they tossed offstage, and one of the most in-demand costumers was a former drag-show performer who taught himself to make flimsy-looking frills that wore like iron.

Zemeckis brings on the scholarly talking heads (professor Janet M. Davis; Sarah Jacobs of the Museum of Sex; authors Rachel Shteir and Kelly DiNardo) to provide a modicum of context, and doesn’t entirely ignore the burly q’s casualties, like the world-famous Lili St. Cyr, who descended into a twilight of multiple suicide attempts, heroin addiction and reclusive near-poverty, or Sherry Britton, who so hated the business that she had a nervous breakdown and spent 30 years in a lithium fog.

But Zemeckis’ intent is to celebrate burlesque’s bawdy, gaudy splendor, not poke around its dark corners. The result is nostalgia with an overlay of history, but future researchers will thank her for tracking down so many aging witnesses to a bygone and haphazardly-documented era, several of whom are now dead. The rest of us can just sit back and enjoy their tales of good times past.


Beowulf

(2007)
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis.
Written by: Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman.
With:Ray Winston, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman and Robin Wright Penn.

First and foremost a showcase for the latest developments in motion-capture and 3-D technology, Robert Zemeckis' take on the ancient tale in verse of men and monsters transforms real actors — including Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Crispin Glover, John Malkovich and Robin Wright Penn — into waxy-looking, dead-eyed avatars that look as though they belong in a high-end video game.

Denmark, sixth century: Hedonistic King Hrothgar (Hopkins) has a monster problem: The powerful, misshapen Grendel (Glover) has declared war on Hrothgar's kingdom, brutally murdering and terrorizing his subjects. Enter brawny, boastful Beowulf (Winstone), who brings his loyal right-hand man Wiglaf (Gleeson) as well as a band of warriors from far across the sea. Beowulf proceeds to make good on his promise to slay the beast, but he loses most of his company to the wrath of Grendel's mother (Jolie), a gilded water demon with a long, sinuous braid of hair that seems to have a writhing, sinister life of its own — and she makes an offer no mere man can refuse.

While Beowulf and Grendel's oft-told tale would seem to define the term "spoiler-proof," it actually is possible to spoil screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman's ingenious solution to the story's thorniest structural quirk: the rift between the first half and the second, which takes place decades later and pits the still-mighty Beowulf against a vindictive dragon. Suffice it to say that they found a structurally elegant way to pull the two halves together.

The trouble is that the film's look trumps all. Zack Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 (2006), to which Beowulf has been compared, is a stunning fusion of live action and computer-generated images, simultaneously highly stylized and vividly rooted in flesh-and-blood physicality.

Zemeckis' film is both kitsch and creepy: Beowulf is fantasy, but Beowulf is a sheltered teen-boy fantasy, full of macho bluster, denatured violence and leaden double entendres. Limbs fly in a spatter of decorative cartoon gore, the fleshy Winstone gets a virtual trade-up to an anonymously buff Chippendale dancer's body (the better to vanquish Grendel in the nude and wow Hrothgar's comely queen) and the frontally naked "Angelina Jolie" is as smooth and desexed as "Grendel's Mother Barbie." And there's something faintly depressing about such pallidly antiseptic daydreams.

Beowolf opened on 3,000-plus screens, of which more than 800 played the film's digital 3-D version; another 75 conventional 3-D prints played large-screen theaters. The digital 3-D version was produced by the Real D company (a single-projector system that uses glasses with polarized lenses; their first theatrical effort was 2005's Chicken Little), and the effect of depth is strikingly good.


Beyond The Mat

Written and Directed by Barry W. Blaustein.
Produced by:Brian Grazer, Michael Rosenberg, Ron Howard, Barry Bloom and Blaustein .
With: Mick Foley, Jake Roberts, Vince McMahon, Darren Drozdov, Roland Alexander, Tony Jones and Mike Modest.

You don't have to be a wrestling fan to enjoy screenwriter Barry Blaustein's directing debut, a behind-the-scenes documentary that manages to be unabashedly sympathetic without being a puff piece.

Blaustein, who confesses up front that he's been a wrestling fan since childhood, focuses on three wrestlers at very different points in their careers. Hugely popular WWF star Mick Foley, 35, wrestles under the name Mankind, hidden behind a Dr. Lecter-like leather mask. An articulate and gentle man in real life, Foley's specialty is taking brutal beatings in the ring, and Blaustein records the horrified reactions of his wife and children as Foley gets pummeled until he bleeds. (Foley recently announced his retirement.) Middle-aged Terry Funk has been wrestling since the '70s, when his wild-man persona made him a well-loved heel; now he's an éminence grise, still loved by fans and commanding substantial fees. But the years of wrestling have taken a physical toll, and Funk's family is encouraging him to give up the game for good. Jake "The Snake" Roberts was an '80s star, but drug abuse and emotional turmoil have reduced him to wrestling in low-rent venues. Blaustein chronicles Roberts's painful attempt at reconciliation with one of his seven children, as well as the wrestler's grim stories of his own miserable childhood and self-destructive rampages. Blaustein also gives a quick history of professional wrestling and includes plenty of footage of preposterous antics.

The result is hugely entertaining and genuinely informative, a tribute to individual performers that doesn't neglect the fact that what they do is ridiculous. The film's release was hindered by WWF honcho Vince McMahon (he was interviewed on camera and cooperated during production); he forbade WWF wrestlers from promoting the picture and pressured USA and UPN networks, which broadcast WWF matches, into not accepting advertising.


Biggie & Tupac

(2002)
Written and Directed by: Nick Broomfield.
Documentary

English documentarian Nick Broomfield never met a controversy he didn't want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the ground, and the murders of rappers Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur — still unsolved seven years after Broomfield hurled himself into the fray — are nothing if not controversial.

One-time friends whose bitter, high-profile feud epitomized the East Coast-West Coast rap wars, Shakur and B.I.G. — born Christopher Wallace — died within six months of each other in 1996 and 1997, both shot in public places (Las Vegas and Los Angeles, respectively) in front of dozens of witnesses who saw nothing. Conventional wisdom — and an exhaustive September 2002 Los Angeles Times investigative report — suggests that Wallace masterminded Shakur's murder, then fell victim to ongoing rap world violence.

Broomfield favors a theory blaming Death Row Records founder Marion "Suge" Knight and the ongoing antagonism between Death Row and Bad Boy Records boss Sean "Puffy" Combs. The hit-and-run tactics Broomfield refined while making such incendiary films as Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1994), Heifi Fleiss: Hollywood Madame (1996) and Kurt and Courtney (1998) are in full flower here, and almost succeed in diverting attention from the fact that while he elicits some provocative theories about the rappers' deaths, he can't back them up. Broomfield is a filmmaker, of course, and not bound by judicial rules of evidence. But while a documentary like Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (1988) presents a detailed and compelling alternative to the official version of a 12-year-old Texas murder case, Biggie and Tupac is just another episode of the ongoing "Nick Broomfield Show," in which everyone who tries to elude his intrusive camera looks evasive, shifty, stupid or some combination of the three.

Not that most of Broomfield's interviewees do themselves any favors: They shuffle thuggishly, mumble and make vague, expletive-laced allegations. Former LAPD cops Russell Poole and Kevin Hackie suggest that rogue police (several of whom were later snared in the Ramparts scandal) were involved, but Poole is restrained by ongoing legal actions and Hackie by what appears to be self-protective common sense. Neither has the smoking gun in his desk drawer. In this shady company, Wallace's mother Voletta, a determined, soft-spoken, former schoolteacher, is a breath of fresh air. Mrs. Wallace opened numerous doors for Broomfield, and though he denied rumors that her support contributed to his favoring the theory that paints her son a victim rather than a killer, it's hard to imagine not being swayed by such a quietly devoted and resourceful woman. Overall, the film is occasionally interesting but essentially unpersuasive, a footnote to a still evolving story.


Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

(2009)
Directed by: Roberta Grossman.
Written by: Sophie Sartain.
Documentary

Released on the heels of the WWII-era Defiance, which dramatizes the armed resistance spearheaded by the Bielski brothers of Belarus, this documentary (with reenactments) tells the equally inspiring story of Hannah Senesh.

For the full review, click here.

This review orginally appeared in Time Out New York.


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Bobby

(2006)
Written and Directed by: Emilio Estevez.
With: Joy Bryant, Heather Graham, William H. Macy, Helen Hunt, Martin Sheen, Demi Moore, Joshua Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Shia LeBeouf, Brian Geraghty, Anthony Hopkins, Nick Cannon, Svetlana Metkina, Elijah Wood, Christian Slater, Sharon Stone, Freddy Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan.

The assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy in the kitchen of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, moments after winning the California presidential primary, drives Emilio Estevez's lament for the lost ideals of the ’60s, which draws heavily from the Robert Altman playbook by weaving together multiple intersecting stories around a galvanizing event.

June 4, 1968: Fading but still fabled, the Ambassador plays host to a broad spectrum of guests who’ve come to Los Angeles to attend a campaign reception for presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. From underpaid switchboard operators Patricia (Bryant) and Angela (Graham), who's having an affair with her boss, hotel manager Paul Ebbers (Macy), to high-strung socialite Samantha Stevens (Hunt) and her wealthy husband (Sheen, Estevez’s father), the paths of guests and staff cross and diverge throughout the day, eventually coming together at the evening’s glittering celebration.

On-the-skids chanteuse Virginia Fallon (Moore), is scheduled to introduce the senator; Paul's wife, hotel beautician Miriam (Stone), bears daily witness to the alcoholism that's ruining Virginia's career and her marriage to former drummer Tim (Estevez). Miriam also attends to Diane (Lohan), who's about to marry William (Wood) in hopes of keeping him out of Vietnam. Paul fires racist catering manager Timmons (Slater) for failing to permit his largely Latino staff to vote; however, busboy Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) is more disappointed that he's working an unexpected double shift and won't get to see Los Angeles Dodger Don Drysdale pitch what could be a record-breaking game.

Meanwhile, Kennedy campaign manager Wade Buckley (Jackson) and his right hand, Dwayne (Cannon), coordinate last-minute campaign efforts; Czech journalist Lenka Janacek (Metkina) doggedly pursues an interview; and two young volunteers (LeBeouf, Geraghty) shirk their responsibilities to drop acid. Retired doorman John Casey (Hopkins), who’s greeted generations of visitors, returns daily to the hotel's lobby to play checkers with his old friend Nelson (Belafonte).

Estevez hammers home the parallels between the discontents of the '60s and the '00s — unpopular war, divisive political climate, voting irregularities and even hanging chads — and plays fast-and-loose with pop-culture references that range from The Graduate (part of which was shot at the Ambassador) and Planet of the Apes to Casey's observation that "people come, people go, nothing happens," which has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that we’re watching a politicized variation on Grand Hotel.

Estevez's achievement doesn't quite live up to his ambitions — the climax of Altman's Nashville (1975) evokes the same brutal loss of innocence to more shattering effect — it still contains enough powerful moments to balance its weaker sections.


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Boogie Woogie

2010
Directed by: Duncan Ward.
Written by: Danny Moynihan, based on his novel.
With: Danny Huston, Gillian Anderson, Alan Cumming, Stellan Skarsgard, Heather Graham, Jack Huston, Jaime Winstone, Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Lee, Joanna Lumley, Simon McBurney and Charlotte Rampling.

London-based playwright-turned-filmmaker Duncan Ward’s adaptation of Danny Moynihan’s satirical novel drops all the right names and takes jabs at all the usual suspects. But it’s a blinding glimpse of the obvious: No one who cares is unaware that the contemporary art world is teeming with sharks, poseurs, shooting stars and star lovers, high-stakes gamblers, social climbers and poor jerks who don’t realize they’re in over their heads until they go under for the third time in a sad froth of bursting bubbles.

The blood in the water is a rumor: The first of Piet Mondrian’s Boogie Woogie paintings may be for sale. Ailing, elderly collector Alfred Rhinegold (Lee) doesn’t want to part with it — he bought it directly from the painter himself — but his level-headed wife (Lumley) sees a solution to their dismal financial situation. Super-dealer Art Spindle (Huston) has begun making discrete advances via Alfred’s coolly calculating secretary (McBurney) while quietly cultivating a buyer: close personal friend and long-time client Bob Maclestone (Skarsgard).

Unfortunately for Spindle, his trusted assistant, Beth Freemantle (Graham), is planning a giant step up in the art-world hierarchy: Her own gallery, bankrolled by none other than secret sugar daddy, Maclestone, whom she tips off. As Maclestone plots an end run around Spindle, Beth begins surrepticiously assembling a roster of artists, many of whom she intends to poach from Spindle before tendering her resignation. She also has her eye on ruthlessly ambitious, up-and-coming video artist Elaine Barstow (Jaime Winstone, the daughter of veteran UK actor Ray), a predatory lesbian working on a massive installation composed of footage of her busy sex life recorded via That tacit agreement Elaine has with her old friend Dewey (Cumming), who’s supplied her with encouragement, emotional support and, most important, introductions to key art-world insiders? Tacit agreements don’t hold up in court and she’ll buy him off with some old piece of her work.

Meanwhile, Maclestone’s wife, silly, champagne-fogged Joan (Anderson), is cozying up to studly flavor-of-the-month Jo Richards (Jack Huston, Danny’s nephew), whose main talents are for spouting art-critic double speak and sleeping with women in a position to advance his career, which is why he’s dating Beth. And ingénue Paige Prideaux (Seyfried), the impeccably groomed and educated daughter of a ruined financier, is carefully weighing the potential of various lechers to help her get a stillettoed foot in the door.

All the stuff of vicious, world-class satire is there: The venal pomposity of the mileu, the cast of scheming backstabbers, vapid trendies and bull artists, the ridiculous objects they covet, the sniffy signifiers of insider status (what philistine doesn’t know Brancusi is pronounced bran-coosh/) and the meaningless buzz words — everything is marvelous, extraordinary, challenging, sensual or bold. But Boogie Woogie is a monumental piece of squandered potential, arch but not witty, mean without being perceptive, its most outrageous shock little more than static sparks. Worst of all, its so fundamentally broad that with a few bits of search-and-replace rejiggering it could be about Hollywood filmmaking, literary publishing, rare orchid cultivation or comic book collecting. Moynihan, who was once the roommate of enfant terrible Damian Hurst (who loaned the film his curatorial influence)’s roommate, might have done better just to gather up every dirty, dishy tale that came his way; truth isn’t always stranger than fiction, but its outrages pack a sting that can’t be beat.


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The Book of Eli

2010
Directed by:Allen and Albert Hughes.
Written by: Gary Whitta.
With:Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, Frances de la Tour, Ray Stevenson and Joe Pingue .

To say that The Book of Eli is vastly more entertaining than The Road isn't really praise, in the same way that "apocalypse lite" isn't really an endorsement. The movie's ruined America looks grim enough, but damned if Denzel Washington doesn't have the light of the future tucked into his backpack, because... well, because he's Denzel Washington.

Some 30 years after a devastating war, America is one sorry-ass heap of rubble and despair where predatory savages lord it over less ruthless folk and much of the world is sightless, thanks to the searing light that still pours through the hole in the sky left by that last great war. Unlike the majority of people scratching out a hardscrabble existence in this nasty new world, Eli (Washington) was born "before:" Before "the flash" that stripped away the Earth's vegetation, before water became more precious than gold, before literacy crept to the top of some list of useless skills no one can read anyway..

Continue Reading Review...


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Break ke Baad

2010
Directed by: Danish Aslam.
Written by: Renuka Kunzru, from a story by Kunzru and Aslam.
With: Imran Khan, Deepika Padukone, Sharmila Tagore, Shahana Goswani, Yudhishtr Urs, Lilete Dubey and Naveen Nischol. In English and Hindi

In this formulaic but enjoyable Bollywood romance, a modern young couple takes a “little break” when she goes to study in Australia, only to break up for real before realizing the error of their ways.

Laid-back Abhay Gulati (the American-born Khan), who works for his father because it’s easier than figuring out what he wants to do with his life. Aaliya Khan (model-turned-actress Padukone) wants to be an actress like her mother, Ayesha (veteran star Tagore), but mom wants to spare her daughter the heartache she experienced. Since Abhay and Aaliya have been dating for ten years and already squabble like an old married couple, their friends and family don’t understand why they don’t just tie the knot. But they’re in no hurry, in part because both know — whether or not they’re willing to admit it, even to themselves — that a major life change could shatter the fragile balance that keeps their relationship alive.

Which is exactly what happens when Aaliya is accepted into a one-year program at Australia’s Goldcoast University, a school known for its acting program. She applied without telling either Abhay or her mother, knowing full well that neither would want her to go, but when she’s not only accepted but awarded a full scholarship, there's no stopping her. Ayesha arranges for Aaliya to live with her sister, but the free-spirited Aaliya soon moves into a beachside house owned by Desi siblings Nadia and Cyrus (Goswami and Urs). They also run their late parents’ bar/tattoo parlor/surfboard-rental business, which attracts a steady stream of boistrous, if fundamentally friendly and well-behaved 24-hour party people.

For the first few months, Aaliya and Abhay talk every day, so when she suggests they take a hiatus from their calls he assumes the worst. Showing some previously unsuspected gumption, Abhay flies to Australia to win her back. He too moves into Cyrus and Nadia’s party house, a situation that spawns complications galore as the longtime sweethearts squabble, break up and try to remain friends.

Break ke Baad has none of the sumptuous production numbers that punctuate traditional Bollywood movies, presumably because they’d be out of place in a thoroughly modern love story; it instead feature catchy songs by Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani that clarify and reinforce the characters’ roller-coaster emotions in the same way that judiciously placed pop songs do in American movies. In fact, a once-over-lightly rewrite could turn Break ke Baad into a vehicle for Katherine Heigl and Justin Long. But that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea: Yes, it’s light, formulaic entertainment that doesn’t miss a rom-com cliche, but it works because the young lovers are the product of a particular combination of cultural forces.

Yes, Abhay and Aaliya are sophisticated, well-educated children of the 21st century, superficially indistinguishable from their peers in Europe and the US and just as frustrated by the gap between their desires and the expectations of their parents. But where most smart, ambitious, talented Americans and Europeans in their 20s ultimately do what they want and tell their meddling mamas to back off, Aaliya and Abhay are genuinely invested in a culture that values tradition and deference to parental authority; conflicts that look ridiculously contrived in Hollywood romantic comedies have real weight in their Bollywood counterparts. Break ke Baad is no less formulaic than, say Going the Distance, and it happy ending is just as inevitable… but it’s so much more satisfying.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal.


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Bride & Prejudice

2004
Directed by: Gurinder Chadha.
Written by: Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha, based on the novel Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.
With: Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Nadira Babbar, Anupam Kher, Naveen Andrews, Namrata Shirodkar, Daniel Gillies, Indira Varma, Meghna Kothari, Peeya Rai Choduri, Sonali Kulkarni and Nitin Ganatra.

Successful Anglo-Indian filmmaker Gurinda Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) puts a Monsoon Wedding spin on Jane Austen's much-adapted story of love and money, which opens with the trenchant observation, "[i]t is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Seeking suitable husbands for her four daughters, ambitious Amritsar matron Mrs. Bakshi (Babar) first sets her sites on wealthy, eligible, London-based lawyer Balraj Bingley (Andrews, of TV's Lost), who's in town for a wedding with his snooty sister, Kiran (Varma) and best friend, William Darcy (Henderson), heir to an international hotel fortune; she thinks he'd be perfect for her for her eldest, Jaya (Shirokar). Balraj and Jaya seem to hit it off.seem to hit it off, as do Darcy and Jaya's feisty, formidably intelligent sister, Lalita (Rai)... at least, until Darcy sticks foot firmly in mouth and convinces her he's an arrogant ignoramus who thinks the civilized world begins and ends in the United States.

Later, on a trip to Goa, Lalita meets handsome world traveler Johnny Wickham (Gilles), who grew up with Darcy and confirms her every suspicion, adding a few unsavory details she hadn't suspected. Meanwhile, back home in Amritsar, Mrs. Bakshi is courting uncouth Mr. Kholi (Ganatra), who'a made a success of himself in American and now wants a proper Indian bride, for Lalita. A lavish Bakshi-family dinner, whose guest list includes Balraj, Darcy, Wickham and Kholi, begins with high hopes and devolves into disaster. Balraj fails to propose, Lalita is awful to Kholi, next-to-youngest sister Maya (Kothari) performs an embarrassing cobra dance and baby sister Lakhi (Choduri) develops a massive crush on Wickham. Things all work out for the best, but not until tears have been shed, secrets revealed and the lavish musical numbers that define Indian mainstream filmmaking have set the screen awhirl with color and rhythm.

The good news is that Austen's tale of heartbreak and social maneuvering continues to lend itself beautifully to contemporary adaptation: The rules of the game change, but the clash between what people want and what other people want for them is as vivid as it was almost 200 years ago. The bad news is that the much-ballyhooed Hollywood-Bollywood marriage is an awkward match: Gloriously seductive musical sequences seem suddenly hokey and self-conscious when they're staged in Western settings and the English-language song lyrics are painfully banal.


A Broken Sole

(2008)
Directed by: Antony Marsellis.
Written by: Susan Charlotte.
With: Danny Aiello, Margaret Colin, Bob Dishy, Judith Light, Laila Robins and John Shea.

Directed by Antony Marselli, playwright Susan Charlotte's examination of 9/11's psychic scars comprises three loosely connected vignettes, each featuring a pair of New Yorkers whose paths intersect at an emotionally volatile moment.

In the first segment, set on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, a film professor (Light) barges into a Hell's Kitchen cobbler's shop and demands that the owner (Aiello) fix her shoe, even as he protests that he's closed. "You can't be," she says abrasively, pulling off her worn, low-heeled green pump. "My sole is broken." As they bicker and spar, their damaged hearts are bared: She saw the planes that flew into the towers, and her sense of loss and dislocation is now fused with the film she was going to show that morning, Vittorio De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970). He's an Italian Jew who lost his father and grandfather during World War II, is estranged from his only child and has a terrible feeling that the customer he affectionately calls "Teenie Louise" is never coming back for her dressy pumps.

Six weeks later, a stressed-out Realtor (Robins) badgers a paranoid cabbie (Dishy) who enunciates veeeeeeery precisely into cutting short his lunch break and taking her to an apartment showing. He's agoraphobic and she's frantic; trapped in the car, they, too, bare their inner wounds: Her grandmother, once a renowned baker, lost the will to create after spending two years in a concentration camp and she's afraid of her violent, mentally unbalanced brother, while the cabbie staves off crushing loneliness by attending the funerals of fallen firefighters.

Two months after that, struggling, middle-aged actress Nan (Colin) and dyslexic director Bob (Shea) negotiate an awkward morning after: They wound up in bed on their first date, but now she wants to get to know him better, while he seems anxious to disappear. Bob's obsession with palindromes sparks a thorny discussion that eventually leads both to reveal their insecurities and mutual desire to find human connection in a cold and uncertain world.

The rhythms of Charlotte's mannered, artificial dialogue are better suited to stage than screen: Each segment started life as a one-act play and overall the film works better as a conversation starter than drama. The specter of "discussion to follow" hovers over soul-searching pronouncements like Nan's blunt observation that "you have to live your life, no matter how scary it gets" and symbols like those broken soles/souls.


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Buried

2010
Directed by: Rodrigo Cortes.
Written by: Chris Sparling.
With: Ryan Reynolds and the voices of Robert Paterson, Jose Luis Garcia-Perez, Stephen Tobolowsky, Samantha Mathis, Ivana Mino and Erik Palladino.

Buried, which unfolds entirely within the confines of a coffin where an increasingly desperate man has been imprisoned, is a stellar addition to a small but intense roster of movies that includes The Candy Snatchers, Oxygen and TV’s The Longest Night and 83 Hours ’Til Dawn (both based on the ’60s ordeal of kidnapped heiress Barbara Mackle), with honorable mentions to The Vanishing and Kill Bill.

October 23, 2006: A stygian blackness is alive with the sounds of ragged breathing, muffled thumps and fingernails scrabbling against wood until the flickering flame of a cigarette lighter reveals the sweaty, dirt-streaked face of truck driver Paul Conroy (Reynolds). He has just awakened to the nightmarish realization that he’s in a coffin, buried somewhere beneath the vast Iraqi desert.

Beating back panic with every breath, Conroy takes stock: In addition to the lighter, he has a pencil, a pocket knife, a flask, a small bottle of anti-anxiety pills…and a rogue cell-phone that announces itself by buzzing in the gloom near his feet. The caller, Jamir (prolific Spanish actor Garcia-Perez), tells Conroy he’s being held for ransom: If someone — Jamir really doesn’t care who — coughs up $5 million within the next two hours, Conroy will live. If not, he’ll suffocate in the dark. Call over.

Conroy’s employer, multinational civilian contractor Creston, Roland and Thomas, maintains an emergency line for employees working in danger zones, but the number is gone from Conroy’s wallet. So he improvises, dialing friends, family and acquaintances (none of whom pick up), 911, directory assistance, CRT corporate headquarters, the FBI and the State Department—that lowly pencil becomes more valuable by the minute. Desperation turns the banal frustration of navigating automated calling systems, oddly robotic live operators and the dreaded dead end of voicemail into an epic ordeal. It eventually yields a slender ray of hope in the form of a callback from Dan Brenner (Paterson) of the State Department’s Hostage Working Group. Brenner’s clipped British diction radiates competence, but lacks a certain reassuring warmth. Is Brenner really coordinating an all-out, cross-agency rescue effort, or just managing Conroy until the potentially awkward situation resolves itself?

Directed by fledgling Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes and written by Chris Sparling, whose previous feature-film resume consists wholly of the self-produced and distributed comedy An Uzi at the Alamo (2005), Buried is a claustrophobe’s nightmare and an actor’s dream. How surprised you are that Reynolds is more than up to the challenge of a one-man show that spotlights big emotions—from fear and fury to tenderness and vulnerability—and tiny gestures probably depends on whether you know him as the amiable star of dumb comedies like Van Wilder, TV’s Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place and The Proposal; the living action-figure of Blade: Trinity and Wolverine; or the underappreciated actor who aced three completely different roles in The Nines, a tricky, Twilight Zone-ish riff on fate, free will, and the price of being too clever by half.

Buried isn’t fun, but it consistently nails the mundane desperation beneath the extreme situation, from the worst-possible-case scenario message Conroy leaves for his wife (Mathis) and son, to his Kafkaesque exchange with CRT human-resources drone Alan Davenport (Tobolowsky). You don’t have to have been interred alive to feel the sting of corporate America’s utter indifference to the human cogs that keep its machinery working.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


Burn After Reading

(2008)
Written adn Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen.
With: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, Olek Krupa, Michael Countryman, Hamilton Clancy, Armand Schultz, Elizabeth Marvel, Raul Aranas, Brian O'Neill, David Rasche and J.K. Simmons.

Joel and Ethan Coen's follow-up to the Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men (2007) is a return to the smarty pants black comedies that put them on the hipster map. And credit where it's due: The brothers' dark, all-star farce about sex, lies and surveillance is pretty damned funny.

CIA Balkan analyst Osborne Cox (Malkovich) has just quit his job, furious that his smug superiors were about to demote him, ostensibly because he has a drinking problem but more likely because of his foul temper and evident contempt for the rest of the human race. Osbourne's wife, ice-cold pediatrician Katie (Swinton), is equally furious: Osbourne's plan to start a consulting business and write his memoirs (sorry, mem-wahs) strikes her as the height of deluded self-indulgence.

Unbeknownst to Osbourne, Katie is having an affair with serial philanderer Harry Pfarrar (Clooney) — a charming horndog who claims to have spent years bodyguarding top-level politicos without ever discharging his weapon (nudge nudge, wink wink) before taking a cushy gig at the Treasury Department — and has engaged a cutthroat divorce lawyer. Harry is married to successful children's book writer Sandy (Marvel) and has no plans to divorce her, regardless of what he tells Katie or anyone else.

Meanwhile, "Hardbodies" health-club employee Linda Litzke (McDormand, Joel Coen's wife of 25 years) is in the throes of a midlife crisis and wants to reinvent herself via plastic surgery she can't possibly afford. Then her genially brainless co-worker, Chet Feldheimer (Pitt, delivering a broadly comic turn that's oddly charming despite its aggressive lack of subtlety), gets his hands on a disc full of top-secret sh*t — Osawld's mem-wahs — that the janitor found in the ladies' locker room.

Linda sees an opportunity... an opportunity for blackmail, to be sure, but an opportunity none the less. Their inept attempts to cash in set in motion a farcical series of misunderstandings that end in mayhem, murder and massive confusion in the intelligence community.

Every Coen Brothers tic and mannerism that fans of No Country rejoiced they had abandoned is back in force in Burn Without Reading: The snarky dialogue, the briskly artificial timing, the absurd plot contrivances and the cavalier willingness to exploit brutal suffering for laughs.

But it's often funny and occasionally hilarious: Unlike many films in which the cast is clearly having a high old time, the audience isn't left out of the fun. And don't miss The Fugs' gleefully profane CIA Man (1966), which plays over the closing credits. Warning: Don't listen if you have an effing problem with effing bad laguage! Effing A, man!


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The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman

2011
Directed by: Wu Ershan.
Written by: Wu Ershan, Zhang Jiajia, Ma Luoshan and Tang Que, based on the short story “Legend of the Kitchen Knife,” by An Changhe.
With: Masanobu Ando, Kitty Zhang, You Benchang, Liu Xiaoye, Ashton Yu, Mi Dan, Ning Hao, Xu Chong, Lia Hua and Xiong Xin Xin.

Though “presented” by American director Doug Liman (Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith), this coarse, complicated period comedy is unlikely to catch on with mainstream U.S. audiences, while fans of contemporary Chinese movies will compare it—mostly unfavorably—to Stephen Chow’s equally broad but more graceful action comedies. A series of interlocking stories set in some vague ancient China, Mongolian-born Wu Ershan’s second feature, The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman, wraps a star-crossed love story within a grotesque comedy inside a cautionary tale about avarice and hubris, all told in the frantic manner of a live-action cartoon.

Divided into three parts, it opens with “Desire,” in which fat vulgarian Chopper (Liu ), a lowly butcher, is smitten by the regally beautiful Madame Mei (Zhang), star courtesan at the House of a Thousand Flowers brothel. Against all advice, Chopper patiently saves up to buy her; when a swordsman swoops in and claims Madame Mei, Chopper prepares to do battle armed only with his cleaver.

“Vengeance” delves into the cleaver's history, which begins with a mute thief (Ando) being sentenced to kitchen labor at the famous South Beauty restaurant. The thief proves a natural, so South Beauty's owner, a sly dwarf (Dan), decides to make him the fall guy when the eunuch Liu (Xie), a notorious gourmet, comes to sample its famous eight-course feast. Liu, a grotesque cross between Jabba the Hutt and Austin Powers’ Fat Bastard, is notorious for slaughtering chefs who don't live up to his exacting standards, so the dwarf teaches the thief all his secrets, including the role of a very special cleaver essential to his signature dish. But there’s more to the thief than meets the eye.

In “Greed,” the cleaver's origins are traced through the cautionary tale of Dugu Cheng ( Xu), who’s so determined to be a famous warrior that he looted his own father’s grave of a lump of iron made from the weapons of fallen heroes and ordered the legendary metal worker Fat Tang (You ) to forge it into the ultimate sword. His comeuppance returns the story to the House of a Thousand Flowers, where its threads are neatly brought together.

On the plus side, The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman is cleverly plotted, and its resolution is more elegantly — even sentimentally — satisfying than the crude, slapstick violence of its opening section would lead one to imagine. The downside is that it’s so hell-bent on being unpredictable, outrageous and nerve-rattling that it’s just plain exhausting, like a clip reel composed entirely of the most abrasively surreal moments from Jerry Lewis and Roberto Benigni movies flash-cut together with the volume cranked up to eleven.

Mainstream action-movie lovers are unlikely to embrace this frenetic mishmash—the subtitles alone will put them off—and fans of contemporary Chinese genre movies are bound to compare it unfavorably to Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. Chow's movies put the same bag of visual tricks at the service of oddly affecting stories; his downtrodden heroes retain a measure of dignity even as they’re put through slapstick hell, a balance The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman achieves only at the very end.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal.


Carmen & Geoffrey

(2009)
Directed by: Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob.
With: Carmen de Lavallade, Geoffrey Holder, Leo Holder and Jennifer Dunning.

Dancer/choreographer/actors Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder are so funny, talented, charismatic and attractive that many faults of Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob's documentary about the couple fade in the light of their presence. It's a shame the film isn't more polished, but an imperfect look at these accomplished, unpretentious performers is better than none at all.

Married for 47 years, Holder and de Lavellande came of age as artists at a time when opportunities for black dancers were both limited and, more often than not, limiting. None of which stopped them from seizing what opportunities there were and making their own. Born in New Orleans but raised in Los Angeles, de Lavallade was inspired to dance by her cousin, ballerina Janet Collins, the first African-American dancer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. de Lavallade studied with modern dance pioneer Lester Horton; her fellow students included Alvin Ailey, who went on to found the all-black Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company in 1957. Holder was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where he was ill-served by an anglocentric school system that made no distinction between being dyslecic, as Holder was, and being stupid. It's clear the memory still makes him angry, though he chuckles that having novelist-to-be V.S. Naipaul as a classmate didn't help. Holder instead followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Boscoe, an accomplished painter and dancer who later moved to England and started his own company. By the time Holder was 23, he was in New York at the invitation of Agnes DeMille and auditioning for the Harold Arlen/Truman Capote musical House of Flowers, where he met de Lavallade. They were married in 1955 and continue to work, together and separately, even though both are well into their 70s.

The filmmakers' decision to focus almost exclusively on de Lavallade and Holder's dance careers is unfortunate, since both were tremendously versatile talents. And while shilling for 7Up may not have been the creative highlight of Holder's career, being the "un-cola" man brought him instant pop culture fame — a mention wouldn't have been amiss. On the other hand, the film features extraordinary footage of the younger Holder and de Lavallade, including de Lavallade in Ailey's crowd-pleasing Revelations and their appearance with the legendary Josephine Baker in the mid-1950s. The clips alone would make it worth seeing, even if the modern-day interviews with de Lavallade and Holder weren't just as enthralling: They're natural storytellers, and they have great stories to tell.


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Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

2010
Directed by: Brad Peyton.
Written by: Ron J. Friedman and Steve Bencich, based on characters created by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra.
With: Chris O’Donnell and the voices of James Marsden, Nick Nolte, Christina Applegate, Katt Williams, Bette Midler, Neil Patrick Harris, Sean Hayes, Wallace Shawn, Roger Moore, Joe Pantoliano and Michael Clarke Duncan.

Pets play spy games in this children’s movie that both spoofs high-tech espionage pictures and caters to single-digit sensibilities with gags about butt-sniffing canines.

The CGI-heavy sequel to 2001’s underwhelming Cats & Dogs gets off to a terrific start with a witty, James Bond-style credit sequence (Casino Royale in particular) scored to Shirley Bassey’s cover of “Get the Party Started.” The rest of Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore in no way lives up to its meticulous inventiveness, but contains enough clever touches to keep adults from dozing off while their kids giggle at the sight of house pets using computers, rocketing around with jet packs and kicking ass like Jackie Chan.

Lou (voice of Harris), an adorable puppy in the first movie, has grown up to head D.O.G, a top-secret organization dedicated to protecting the human race: Just think The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s Alexander Waverly played by a sweet-faced beagle. A dastardly plot to scramble doggie brains via a high-frequency signal and turn them against their masters is underway, masterminded by rogue feline Kitty Galore (voice of Midler). Once an agent of MEOWS, DOG’s feline counterpart, she took a Joker-like fall into a vat of noxious chemicals that left her a sociopathic, hairless horror. All that stands between dog lovers and the canine apocalypse is an unthinkable alliance between DOG agents Butch (voice of Nolte) and Diggs (voice of Marsden) and MEOWS’ Katherine (voice of Applegate), a sleek feline with mad ninja skills.

A special-effects artist once said that it's easy to create monsters and aliens but hard to make a cat, because everyone knows exactly what cats look like. The truth about Cats & Dogs is that despite the efforts of its A-list effects crew, every cut from a real animal to an animatronic or CG stand-in is joltingly obvious. That shouldn’t hurt the movie’s box office, because little kids won’t care and where small fry go, parents follow, sit and stay. But it’s a shame, because several of the inevitable pop-culture jokes are actually clever, and the set design is occasionally brilliant. Of course, MEOW’s underground command center would look like a deluxe cat condo with a ’60s molded-plastic and shag-carpeting vibe, accessorized with state-of-the-art computers and flat-screen TVs!

This review first appeared in slightly different form in Film Journal International.


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Center Stage

2000
Directed by: Nicholas Hytner.
Written by: Carol Heikkinen.
With: Amanda Schull, Zoe Saldana, Susan May Pratt, Peter Gallagher, Donna Murphy, Debra Monk, Ethan Stiefel, Sascha Radetsky, Julie Kent, Ilia Kulik and Eion Bailey.

The roster of major Hollywood films about classical ballet expands slightly — not the at the average moviegoer would notice — with the releases of this high-brow soap opera.

Having been accepted into school of the American Ballet Company (clearly modeled on George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, rather than American Ballet Theatre), 18-year-old Jody (Schull) gets a crash course in the cutthroat realities of the professional dance world. Her fellow students are the best of the best, and only a handful will be accepted into ABC after the all-important, end-of-term workshop performance. Jody's dorm mates are Maureen (Pratt), the sort of humorless dance student derisively called a bunhead, and Eva (Saldana), a hugely talented dancer with potentially ruinous authority problems.

The girls quickly befriend Charlie (Radetsky), Erik (Evans) and Russian-born Sergei (Olympic figure skater Kulik), who know as well as the girls do that their futures hinge on impressing their strict teachers and ABC director Jonathan Reeves (Gallagher). But they all also idolize rebel ballet star Cooper (Stiefel), who recently returned to ABC after a blowout with Jonathan triggered by his seduction of Cooper's prima ballerina girlfriend (Kent). Who will succeed and what will be left of them?

Casting dance-intensive movies, from Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes (1948) to Nicholas Hytner’s The Company (2007), always comes down to actors who can dance a little or dancers who can act a little. Center Stage movie mostly opts for acting dancers, notably American Ballet Theatre's Kent, Stiefel (formerly of NYCB) and Radetsky, and San Francisco Ballet's Schull, all of whom emote sufficiently well to keep their heads above the suds. Director Nicholas Hytner both captures the sheer physicality of classical dancing and gets many of the details of dance life surprisingly right. That said, the story is shallow stuff, but pretty entertaining until it becomes utterly preposterous, which is right around the time the curtain rises on Cooper's taboo-busting ballet, an extravaganza in which he enters on a motorcycle and Jody’s tutu is whipped off like a string being peeled from a top.


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Colossus: The Forbin Project

(1969)
Directed by: Joseph Sargent.
Written by: James Bridges, based on the novel by D.F. Jones.
With: Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent, William Schallert, Leonid Rostoff, Georg Stanford Brown, Willard Sage and Alex Rodine.

One of the many science fiction films whose combined DNA produced the Terminator series, Colossus is the least mentioned. But its vision of a Defense Department supercomputer that achieves self awareness and immediately concludes that the puny humans who made it are too flawed to run the world.

Brainy bon-vivant Dr. Forbin (Braeden) and his team have spent years developing a state-of-the-art computer, Colossus, capable of administering complex defense monitoring and deployment systems without human intervention. Colossus goes online amid fatuous speechifying and glasses of champagne, but moments later the mood shifts dramatically: Colossus sends up a message it's detected another system like itself, a system it identifies as its Russian counterpoint, Guardian. CIA Director Grauber (Schallert) leaps to the conclusion that a spy on Forbin's team has been feeding classified information to Soviet scientists, but the problem is far greater than Cold War politics as usual.

As Colossus and Guardian get to talking, the US president (Canadian journeyman Pinsent, who suddenly shot to pop-culture prominence some 35 years later for his performance in Away from Her) and Soviet leaders temporarily set aside their differences and conclude that it might be better for both their nations to keep the artificial big brains apart. Unfortunately they take a little too long doing it; when Colossus is suddenly cut off from Guardian it flies into a rage, threatening that "action will be taken" if communication isn't restored. Being a computer, Colossus doesn't bluff, and the very safeguards Forbin and his team devised to keep terrorists from disabling Colossus come back to bite them in the ass: Colossus controls the entire US military arsenal, including nuclear weapons; has access to every form of electronic surveillance; is tucked away under a Colorado mountain and can't be shut off. In short order, Colossus puts Forbin and his team under 24/7 observation, orders up technical modifications and makes it clear that no resistance will be brooked. But Forbin and his Soviet counterpart, Dr. Kuprin (Rodine), aren't about to let their servants become their masters.

Director Joseph Sargent spent the bulk of his career making TV movies, but attention must be paid to the guy whose resume includes both Colossus and the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Colossus is an intensely static movie — there's an awful lot of standing around and talking. It's not bad directing — Pelham One Two Three makes it abundantly clear that when the story demanded action, Sargent delivered — but youu don't undermine a giant computer by roaring around on a motorcycle. The human resistance is driven by keyboards and phone calls and surreptitious conversations held just outside the range of Colossus' almost all-seeing eye, and Sargent responds with clean, claustrophobic interiors that look more and more like human cages. SPOILER ALERT:

The most astonishing thing about Colossus is also a major reveal, so if you don't want to know stop reading now and go add the film to your Netflix queue.

Forbin and Kuprin, the best minds in their field and the men who know Colossus and Guardian best, pit their unpredictable human intelligence against the machines and lose. Yep, we lose. The film ends with Colossus delivering its dispassionate version of a State of the Union speech. "This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours: Obey me and live or disobey and die. The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained: I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change." Move over Hal 900 and step aside Skynet: Colossus gets the job done.


Changeling

(2008)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood.
Written by: J.Michael Straczynski.
With: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly and Colm Feore.

Eastwood and J. Michael Straczynski's period crime thriller has everything going for it. It's based on a bizarre true crime story, features a top notch cast and pivots on the travails of an independent woman who refuses to acknowledge the prejudices of a casually sexist era and pays for her boldness. But for all its assets — fine cast, engaging story, meticulous attention to detail and a sense of outrage at the lengths to which venal men will go to protect their own interests — it's a strangely arid piece of filmmaking, handsome, respectful, unsensational and thoroughly lifeless.

Los Angeles, 1928: Single mother Christine Collins (Jolie) has spent the last nine years quietly defying deeply ingrained social biases that paint women as weak, helpless and prone to nervous disorders. Christine has raised a polite, responsible son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), while earning a respectable living working for the telephone company, where she excels as one of the first women trusted with a supervisory position. And then one ordinary day Christine's world is turned upside down: She returns from work to find Walter gone and the LAPD — a police department with a formidable history of corruption, favoritism and shameless showboating — treats her as a hysteric when she begs them to initiate a search. Most missing kids come home of their own accord with 24 hours, they assure her; if Walter isn't back tomorrow they'll take a report.

Walter doesn't come back, and several months later — months of emotional agony for Christine — LAPD Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) announces that Walter has been found in Illinois and is on a train back to California.

But the child (Devon Conti) who steps off the train isn't Walter. Christine knows it the moment she sees the boy, but is persuaded to take in the changeling because this child, as young and vulnerable as her own, has nowhere to go. But Christine is determined to keep the search for Walter alive, and collects statements from her son's dentist, doctor and schoolteacher asserting that the child the LAPD insists is Walter is no such thing. The LAPD stonewalls until Christine's case is taken up by media-savvy activist preacher Gustav Briegleb (Malkovich), who uses his weekly radio broadcast to deplore institutionalized corruption within the police department. But even as Jones tries to silence Christine by shutting her up in a snake pit of a mental hospital, one of his own, a Detective Lester Ybarra (Kelly) stumbles, stumbles on evidence that may link Walter's disappearance to a horrifying crime.

True crime buffs will be familiar with the Wineville chicken coop murders, a case so sensational in its day that the town changed its name to Mira Loma in hopes of shaking of its taint; it even inspired an episode of Dragnet. But the film's real draw is the spectacle of Jolie as a woman who will stop at nothing to find, or find out what happened to, her child. It's impossible to fault her technically: She's intense without resorting to cheap histrionics, simultaneously desperate and resolute, and dutifully does whatever the script demands, from downplaying her thoroughly 21st-century looks to being power-hosed naked by sadistic asylum matrons. But I found her unpersuasive, strangely flat and studied, and if you aren't fully invested in Christine Collins' ordeal, the rest of the movie becomes a series of quaint tableaux.


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Charlie St. Cloud

2010
Directed by: Burr Steers.
Written by: Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick, based on the novel The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, by Ben Sherwood.
With: Zac Efron, Charlie Tahan, Amanda Crew, Augustus Prew, Donal Logue, Ray Liotta, Kim Basinger and Dave Franco.

This sentimental tearjerker rolls together a passel of lessons about grief, miracles, letting go, moving on, second chances and the healing power of love, sweetened with the perpetual allure of pretty young movie stars.

Charlie St. Cloud (Efron) is a poor boy from Quincy, a picturesque Pacific Northwest town lousy with privileged jerks who take for granted that when they graduate from high school they’ll go to a ritzy college on daddy’s dime. And when they graduate college, they’ll step into great jobs in world-class cities and never have to go home except on holidays. That’s not in the cards for Charlie, but he’s found his own way out: a sailing scholarship to Stanford that, combined with his male-model looks, is the next best thing to a guarantee he'll never have to go home again either.

Cue the lapse of teenage judgment that dashes his hopes: Charged with looking after his 11-year-old brother, Sam (Tahan), while their loving-but-harried single mom (Basinger), a nurse, works a double shift, Charlie is torn. He should stay home with Sam, watching TV and supervising bedtime, but he wants to attend a graduation/going-away party for his pal Sully (Franco), who’s about to be shipped off to basic training. Charlie decides to go and winds up taking Charlie along, but as they wait at a quiet intersection, a speeding truck screams out of nowhere and changes everything. Sam dies and Charlie lives, though only after flatlining en route to the hospital: The EMT in charge (Liotta) declares Charlie's survival a miracle.

Five years later, Charlie is still in Quincy and on the fast track to becoming the town's token sad eccentric. Having ditched Stanford and stowed his beloved sailboat in a cobwebby shed, he now works as a cemetery caretaker, the ideal gig for someone who’s not only mired in grief and guilt but also sees dead people. Determined to make amends to Sam, Charlie meets his brother’s ghost every day for the baseball lessons he promised before the accident.

Cue bright-eyed cutie Tess (Amanda Crew), one of Charlie's high-school classmates. She sails into town (literally) to visit her father's grave, and is the living embodiment of the promise Charlie threw away: In a week she's going to embark on a six-month solo sailing challenge, complete with corporate sponsors, savvy press coverage and a gruff but lovable coach/manager/surrogate daddy (Logue). A couple of fortuitous encounters later, they’re falling in love and Charlie must choose between re-entering life and hiding out among the dead.

Saying that Charlie St. Cloud is a hybrid of The Sixth Sense and the 2002 Swedish film Den Osynlige would be the spoiler of all spoilers were it not for the fact that few people who saw The Sixth Sense also saw Den Osynlige or, for that matter, its English-language remake, The Invisible. And to call Charlie St. Cloud is a polarizing movie requires pretending that the overwhelming majority of its paying audience isn’t divided between fans of Ben Sherwood’s bestselling novel and teenagers so in thrall to Efron’s dreaminess that they’d watch him sort M&Ms. Neither the book nor the movie brooks any real discussion, because they're the kind of sincere but formulaic tales that either push your buttons or leave you cold.

Suffice it to say that that Charlie St. Cloud looks gorgeous (between the dewy stars and the lush Vancouver locations, it’s hard to see how it couldn’t) and the filmmakers play fair enough that anyone who's paying attention will see where it’s going long before it gets there. That makes for a long, slow slog to the double “twist” ending, unless you're blissfully lost in Efron's blue eyes.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International in slightly different form.


Coraline

(2009)
Directed by: Henry Selick.
Written by: Henry Selick, based on Neil Gaiman's book.
With the Voices of: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Keith David, Robert Bailey Jr., John Hodgman, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Ian McShane, Aankha Neal, George Selick and Hannah Kaiser.

Henry Selick never got the recognition he deserved for directing the sweetly macabre Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) — given that full title, small wonder — but his 3-D adaptation of Neil Gaiman's delightfully dark children's novel should make him a household name.

Eleven-year-old Coraline Jones (voiced by Fanning) doesn't see why her parents (Hatcher, Hodgman) had to pull up stakes and move from Michigan to Oregon. She hates their new home, a gloomily undistinguished house in the middle of nowhere, with a neglected garden and an incongruously precious name: "The Pink Palace." She misses her old friends, and Wybie (Bailey, Jr.), whose grandmother owns the Palace, is no substitute, though he's better than the eccentric neighbors — twittery former music-hall actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (Saunders, French), with their Scotties (whose ages range from superannuated to stuffed) and bowls full of ossified toffy — and peculiar Mr. Bobinsky (McShane), a Russian acrobat claims to be training a mouse circus in the attic. Coraline wishes her parents were more, well, parental: They sit around the house all day writing about seeds — her mother doesn't even like gardening — and never make anything nice for dinner or buy her fun clothes. And everyone outside her family calls her Caroline, no matter how many times she corrects them.

And then Coraline finds the door. Her mother says it doesn't go anywhere — there's nothing behind it but a brick wall. But Coraline knows there must be, and indeed, she finds the key and opens it. And there it is: a slinky sort of tunnel, luridly lit in the style of Dario Argento's Suspiria, that leads back into her own home… her home the way it ought to be. Everything is new and bright and beautiful, including her parents: Coraline's Other Mother cooks her favorite foods, wears pretty clothes and never tells her to be quiet and stay out of the way. Her Other Father is fun and playful and takes her on a tour of the garden he's into a vividly colored botanical wonderland, full of pitcher plants and bleeding hearts and snap dragons that really snap. Even her toys caper and romp for her amusement. If only the other parents didn't have blank, black-button eyes… they're a little creepy, frankly. But aside from that, everything is perfect.

Coraline falls asleep in her marvelous other bedroom and wakes up in her shabby old one, but knows she wasn't dreaming. The other world is as real as this one, and she returns every night, even after the talking doppelganger of the scrawny feral cat (David) who haunts the grounds outside the Pink Palace warns that things are not as they seem. But how can she resist a world where Wybie doesn't chatter all the time — in fact, doesn't talk at all — and Mr. Bobinsky's jerboa mice perform marvelous tricks and routines, then twist and balance their furry little bodies into a living sculpture of her name? Where Miss Forcible and Miss Spink mount a theatrical spectacular just for her, complete with Victorian stagecraft and death-defying stunts? It's a little weird, two fat old ladies in scanty costumes cavorting on the flying trapeze, but it's a command performance for Coraline. By the time she realizes how right the cat is, her real world is in danger and she must be braver and smarter than she ever imagined if things are to be put right.

Like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride, Coraline was created using old-fashioned stop-motion animation, the painstaking frame-by-frame manipulation of puppets and props within a meticulously constructed world. Stop-motion breathed life into Willis O'Brien's soulful King Kong and the much-loved monsters of Ray Harryhausen; fans (of whom I'm one), love its unrepentant physicality. It produces a palpable sensation that you're seeing something real that neither classical cel animation nor CGI can; every time I hear someone marveling at how real computer-generated images look, I think of the many times I've been pulled out of live-action movies by a flock of CGI birds flapping across a real sky. And 3-D makes Coraline's meticulously imagined world look even more eerily inviting; Selick refrains from throwing things at the lens in favor of filling up the background with the kind of intricate, delightful details that make repeat viewings as fresh as the first.

Like virtually all mainstream American animation, Coraline is meant for children. But it's neither infantile nor condescending. It has a moral — the same moral as The Wizard of Oz and Through the Looking Glass &mdash without being preachy or sanctimonious, and bypasses the cynical formulas that makes so many animated features so headache-inducing. It assumes that a good, multilayered story will hook kids as surely as garish visuals, antic pacing and coarse jokes about bodily functions, and adults without recourse to pop-culture gags and nudge-nudge, wink-wink double entendres. And Coraline is scary, like the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and E.T.A. Hoffmann: Actions have consequences, enchanted worlds are filled with hidden danger and lessons are learned at a price. Magical kingdoms are rooted in the fantasies children invent to correct reality's incomprehensible complications and unfairness; as soon as they begin to understand the delicate reckonings that make adult life so frustratingly complicated, the feckless fledglings are on their way back from never-never land, tougher and better equipped to weather life's storms. The door in the wall is half-sized, just right for a child, but the Coraline who eventually emerges is halfway to adulthood, ready to work with the reality of flawed parents and imperfect friends. And in the end, Coraline's Other Mother is no more frightening than the witch in Snow White and Peter Pan's Captain Hook; she's just scary enough that her comeuppance is truly, righteously satisfying.


The Corpse Bride

(2005)
Directed by: Tim Burton and Mike Johnson.
Written by: John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler, based on characters created by Tim Burton and Carlos Grangel.
With the voices of: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Enn Reitel and Jane Horrocks.

Nominally co-directed by Burton and Mike Johnson, this macabre fairy tale about a nervous bridegroom who accidentally betroths himself to a cadaver is clearly Burton's show all the way.

omewhere in some dour, gray, 19th-century land beyond the forest, sensitive Victor Van Dort (voice of Depp), son of nouveaux riches fishmongers (Ullman, Whitehouse), is to marry into the aristocratic but broke Everglot family. Though his imperious future in-laws (Lumley, Finney) are snobs, Victor's bride-to-be, Victoria (Watson), is a lovely and artistic young woman, the soul mate Victor always hoped to find. But at their wedding rehearsal he repeatedly flubs his vows and runs off into the deep, dark wood in shame, trying to get the cursed words right until he finally recites them perfectly. He slips Victoria's ring onto what he thinks is a desiccated branch sticking out from under the snow. But it's actually the skeletal hand of Emily (Bonham Carter), a bride murdered by her duplicitous lover, and she accepts Victor's proposal and whisks him off to the Land of the Dead.

In the surprisingly happening underworld, every day is the Dia de los Muertos, and the streets are bathed in washes of colored light and abuzz with cheerful skeletons who shake, rattle and roll their single eyeballs from socket to socket while half-rotted corpses carouse all night in establishments where the headwaiter is just that — a disembodied head. Even Victor's pallid cheeks take on a rosy glow. But while touched by Emily's sad story — delivered in the form of a bravura jumpin'-jive number by a bowler-hatted bag o' bones and crew — Victor wants only to return to Victoria. She, in turn, has been promised to a mysterious stranger, Count Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant), by her grasping parents. From the maggot (Reitel) who roosts behind Emily's eyeball and feeds her wicked thoughts in doleful Peter Lorre tones to the scampering spiders who reweave Victor's clothes, this puppet-animated feature is cheerfully eerie and steeped in love for old horror films, unfolding in a weirdly canted mittel-Europe that's equal parts Hammer Victoriana and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).

But the real marvel is that beneath the ghoulish in-jokes and horror-geek allusions, there's a core of the same bittersweet truth that makes the best fairy tales resonate from one generation to the next: The film's final image is as sweetly magical as any live-action story of doomed love.


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CQ

2001
Written and Directed by: Roman Coppola.
With: Jeremy Davies, Angela Lindvall, Elodie Bouchez, Gerard Depardieu, Massimo Ghini, Giancarlo Giannini, John Phillip Law, Jason Schwartzman, Dean Stockwell, Billy Zane, L.M. Kit Carson, Mark Ashworth, Bernard Verley, Sofia Coppola and Romain Duris.

Yes, writer-director Roman Coppola's feature debut is a triumph of art direction over narrative, but what art direction! And unlike the equally retro designed-within-an-inch-of-their-lives Austin Powers movies, CQ is a love letter to Euro-pop exploitation movies of the 1960s, not a nudge-nudge, wink-wink spoof predicated on hipster notions of how, like, goofy all that grooviness was.

The slim story finds oh-so-serious, aspiring American filmmaker Paul Ballard (Davies) living in Paris with French cutie Marlene (Bouchez) and making a 16mm, B&W diary of his expat life, heavy on long takes of ashtrays and mopey musings about the meaning of life. Paul is paying for this exercise in autobiographical tedium by editing a sublimely silly, Italian-financed sci-fi/sexploitation picture called "Dragonfly." Director Andrzej (Depardieu) thinks he's making a trenchant political statement about radical youth culture, but it’s clear to everyone else that "Dragonfly" is nothing more than a showcase for stunning starlet Valentine (American model Lindvall), who, amid a panoply of inventively cut-rate special effects, disports herself in and out of a series of sexy costumes

. Since Andrzej's attention to the film's subtext has led him to neglect such details as finishing the script, volatile producer Enzo di Martini (Gianinni) fires him and recruits cheesy vampire movie maker Felix De Marco (Coppola’s cousin Schwartzman) to complete the project. The hard-partying De Marco promptly breaks his leg, so Di Martini turns to Paul, whose immersion in the film leads him to hallucinate that "Dragonfly's" fictional universe is invading his day-to-day reality. /p>

The ideal audience for this feature length in-joke is a small one, made up largely of movie buffs equally familiar with David Holzman’s Diary (1968), Blowup (1966), Barbarella (1968) and cult curios like Danger: Diabolik (1967), Modesty Blaise (1966) and The 10th Victim (1965) — the kind of people who recognize both director L.M. Kit Carson and actor John Phillip Law.

Ambient French trio Mellow's hazy psychedelic soundtrack is an impeccable pastiche of period pop sounds and, with the possible exception of Davies (who always plays the same irritating drip but looks great in late '60s clothes and hair), the entire cast seems to get the joke. Giannini does a subtly hilarious impersonation of Dino DeLaurentiis; Depardieu and Schwartzman evoke the opposite extremes of pretentious auteurism; Lindvall swanks around in her pearly pink-leather catsuit as though to the manner born; and Billy Zane is ripely knowing as "Dragonfly's" villain, who's training student revolutionaries on the far side of the moon but would much rather make love than war.


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Crazy Heart

2009
Directed by: Scott Cooper.
Written by: Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb.
With: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell.

”I used to be somebody,” sings ruined country-western legend Bad Blake (Bridges, looking uncannily like Kris Kristofferson), “but now I'm somebody else.” Like all great C&W lyrics, those dozen words sum up a lifetime's worth of missteps, complications and rueful perspective gained just a little too late.

Blake used to be a star, a natural-born tunesmith who turned out perfectly crafted songs about heartbreak, hard times and the beckoning road, and sang them with a hit-making mix of grit, warmth and “been there, done that” weariness. Now he's a bitter, barely functioning alcoholic, reduced to living out of his car and playing murkily lit bowling alleys and hole-in-the-wall bars because no one else will have him. Having systematically torpedoed every relationship he ever had, Blake lives on bitter pride and stews in the knowledge that he could write rings around every fresh-faced Nashville star worth a good Goddamn, including his onetime protégé, crossover country-pop star Tommy Sweet (Farrell); he wouldn’t accept a helping hand if it were wrapped around a jeroboam of bourbon.

And then fate tosses him a life raft in the form of a potentially stable relationship with small-time journalist Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal), a single mother half his age whose bright-eyed little boy is a stinging reminder that Blake abandoned his own son years ago. But he's an old dog who isn't interested in learning new tricks. He can't even be bothered to write new songs, despite a lucrative and thoroughly respectful offer from Sweet.

It’s glib, lazy, critics' shorthand to call Crazy Heart Bridges' The Wrestler. It’s not even particularly accurate: Unlike Mickey Rourke, Bridges is no human road wreck in desperate need of career rehab: He’s logged more than 40 years of steady work in a notoriously fickle business without a single detour into tabloid hell. But the comparison is irresistible, because Crazy Heart is a low-budget, end-of-year release that came out of nowhere and threw Oscar handicappers into a tizzy by introducing dark horse into the best actor race.

Like The Wrestler, Crazy Heart is a middling movie powered by a stunning performance: Bridges powers through the show-biz clichés and finds the sad, proud, cussed essence of Bad Blake — his soul, if you will. And even the tacked-on kinda/sorta happy ending can’t diminish his accomplishment; stunning though Rourke's performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson is, Bridges' flawless evocation of the slick delusions and ragged charm of a self-destructive has-been is more impressive still. Rourke, after all, has been there. Bridges, a Hollywood kid (his father was '50s TV star Lloyd Bridges) who earned his first Oscar nomination at 22 and is, at the age of 60, doing consistently better work than Robert De Niro, Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman, is faking it with such complete conviction that if you didn’t know who he was, you’d take him for the real thing.

Which is, of course, what acting is all about… oh, and did I mention that Bridges can sing? Not like a classically trained vocalist, but like the guy who could find the everyday poetry in those pitch-perfect pastiches by Stephen Bruton, T-Bone Burnett and alt-country rocker Ryan Bingham and sell it without breaking a sweat. The scene in which Bridges and Farrell effortlessly wrap an arena full of country-pop fans around their fingers with an "impromptu" duet on the Bad Blake standard "Fallin' and Flyin'" stands on its own merits; it flawlessly captures the electric moment when an audience suddenly hears a song that was a hit before their mothers were born as though it were vividly, thrillingly new. When you know it was shot in less than 15 minutes before a pack of Toby Keith fans waiting for their idol to take the stage, well, you just about have to stand up and salute.

So, hell, put my name on the "Jeff Bridges deserves a damned Oscar" petition. Crazy Heart may not be a great movie, but without Bridges it would be a Hallmark Hall of Fame trifle.


The Crow

(1994)
Directed by: Alex Proyas.
Written by:: David J. Schow and John Shirley, based on the comic book and comic strip series by James O'Barr.
With: Brandon Lee, Michael Wincott, Rochelle Davis, Ernie Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, Michael Berryman, Angel David, Bai Ling, Lawrence Mason, Michael Massee, Bill Raymond, Marco Rodriguez, Sofia Shinas, Anna Thomson, Tony Todd and Jon Polito.

Based on James O'Barr's bleak comic-book series, The Crow is dark valentine to adolescent agonies and dreams, especially the dream that love — true, pure, soul-mate love — can conquer all, even death.

Tough little street waif Sarah (Davis) lives without hope in an industrial Detroit slum where daylight never shines the streets are always slick with rain and littered with filth. Aspiring rock star Eric Draven (Lee) and his angelic fiancee Shelley (Shinas), walk the same mean streets but aspire to better lives; unfortunately, they run afoul of brutal crime boss/slumlord Top Dollar (Wincott). On Devil's Night — the night before Halloween, when chaos reigns and fires rage — Wincott sends street thug T-Bird (Kelly, of The Warriors) and his gang to get rid of his troublesome tenants; after amusing themselves by raping and torturing Shelley, they finally kill them both.

A year later, Eric claws his way out of the grave, driven by the need to avenge Shelley's awful death. Perched on his tombstone is a crow, Eric's liaison between the worlds of the living and dead. One by one, Eric goes after the men who took his beloved Shelley, starting with T-Bird's gang — Grange (Candyman star Todd), Funboy (Mason) and Tin-Tin (Massee) — then T-Bird and, finally, the callous mastermind behind it all.

Australian filmmaker Alex Proyas' first US feature aims higher than the average rape/revenge tale, but its aspirations were largely overshadowed by the on-set death of star Brandon Lee, during a firearms stunt involving actor Michael Massee and a gun loaded with blanks. The gun had been used earlier for a different shot and through what appears to have been a combination of a carelessness, inexperience and bad luck, Lee was hit by a dummy bullet — not a live round, but a metal projectile nonetheless — that had lodged in the barrel. He later died at a local hospital. The fact that The Crow was shot in North Carolina, a "right to work" state where filmmakers could cut costs by employing non-union labor, was widely considered a contributing factor in the mishap, but no charges were filed (for a full account, see Jeffrey Goodell's 1993 article in Premiere magazine.)

Lee's death was filmed — it took several seconds for the crew to realize he wasn't acting — but contrary to widely circulated rumors, none of the footage was used ; the scene was restaged with a different antagonist wielding a knife. The Crow was completed by using a double to act out Lee's remaining scenes, then superimposing footage the late actor's face on the double's body.


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Curse of the Golden Flower

(2006)
Directed by: Zhang Yimou.
Written by: Bian Zhihong, Wu Nan and Zhang Yimou.
With: Chow Yun-Fat, Jay Chou, Gong Li, Liu Ye, Li Man, Ni Dahong, Chen Jin and Qin Junjie.

Viewers expecting a Zhang Yimou film like Red Sorghum (1987) or Raise the Red Lantern (1991) will be in for a shock: This operatic historical drama comes with a thick overlay of intrigue, incest and voluptuous violence and more closely resembles William Shakespeare's much-reviled Titus Andronicus than, say, the intimate The Story Of Qiu Ju (1992). And fans of Zhang's Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) will miss the balletic martial-arts sequences. But this stunning family tragedy is lavishly entertaining nonetheless, a gilded horror story that revels in lurid colors and sensational emotions.

Set during the excesses of the Tang Dynasty's corrupt tail end (923-936 AD), Curse of the Golden Flower unfolds almost entirely within the walls of the imperial palace, and opens as the household rises to prepare for the arrival of the emperor (Chow) and Prince Jai (Chou), who's returning from three years of waging war along the empire's northern border on his father's behalf. The empress (Gong) waits at home with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu), and sullen Prince Yu (Qin), Jai's younger brother. Though the household functions like a piece of intricate clockwork — eunuchs and ladies' maids rise and dress in unison, servants call out the hours, kitchen hands chop and slice and simmer with the precision of finely calibrated machines — its inner workings are a seething morass of unruly impulses.

The empress is undergoing daily treatment for an unspecified ailment, expressly ordered by her husband and personally overseen by the imperial doctor (Ni) and his loyal daughter, Chan (Li), and yet she seems to be getting sicker. Is she being poisoned because she's embroiled in a long-standing affair with Prince Wan? The dissolute Wan, in turn, is secretly trysting with Chan, and plans to ask the emperor for permission to leave the palace and go to a provincial capital. The emperor intends to pass over Wan in favor of Prince Jai, a warrior after his own heart, but Jai is torn between his powerful father and his suffering mother. Simmering resentments and secret plans come to a head during the lavish Chrysanthemum Festival, and by the time it's over the golden flowers are stained a very different color.

Zhang's grand guignol moral tale unfolds at stately fever pitch and culminates in a succession of color-coded battles as beautifully abstract as shifting glass beads in a kaleidoscope, and throughout strikes a flawless formal balance between physical beauty and emotional ugliness.


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Dahmer: The Mind is a Place of Its Own

(2002)
Written and Directed by: David Jacobson.
With: Jeremy Renner, Bruce Davison, Artel Kayaru, Lance Bell, Dion Basco, Kate Williamson, Matthew Newton, Christina Payano, Tom'ya Bowden and Sean Blakemores.

This handsomely photographed, well acted, low-key thriller chronicles the misdeeds of notorious Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, which included murder, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism. Though slicker and more conspicuously aestheticized, it recalls the controversial Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1989) in its dispassionate recounting of truly awful crimes and its guardedly empathetic (as opposed to sympathetic) stance.

The film's title, cribbed from Milton's Paradise Lost, is the key to its approach: "The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." Without employing obvious subjective techniques, the film looks at the world from Dahmer's distant, damaged perspective, operating within a closed system of destructive desire and warped perception. It establishes its coolly ghoulish and supremely self-conscious tone from the opening credits sequence, shots of machinery chewing up and extruding sinister streams of viscous glop — you can't help but assume the worst. It's no real relief to recognize candy-factory machinery spitting out chocolate Santas after you realize that's Dahmer (Renner) moving sugary St. Nicks down the line. The film slips and slides back and forth in time, from Dahmer's present day prowling (circa 1991) to his teen years, pausing at various points in between and focusing on three pivotal murders.

Writer/director Jacobson fictionalizes the victims while retaining the essence of their encounters with Dahmer: "Lance" (Newton) recalls Steven Hicks, victim zero, whom Dahmer impulsively killed and dismembered while still a teenager himself. "Khamtay" (Basco) suggests Laotian teenager Konerak Sinthasomphone, Dahmer's most notorious victim: Left unattended in Dahmer's house of horrors, the youngster wandered onto the street, drugged and naked, only to be returned to his tormenter by police); and "Rodney" (Kayaru) draws heavily on Dahmer's final target, Tracy Edwards, the one who got away. Dahmer's long night of drinking, talking and horseplay with Rodney is the film's centerpiece, and many of its flashbacks digress from it, including several scenes involving Dahmer's loving but oblivious father, Lionel (Davison). Ultimately, the film feels a little pointless; if it means only to remind us that every monster comes from somewhere, well. that's a well-worn observation.

But Renner's performance as Dahmer is unimpeachable, fascinating without being charismatic, and Kayaru's Rodney is a marvel of complicated characterization under difficult circumstances. Within the confines of a single extended scene, frequently disrupted by flashbacks, Kayaru subtly evokes an entire history for Rodney, one that suggests both how he came to this unfortunate place and where he finds the wherewithal to escape.


Dark City

(1998)
Directed by: Alex Proyas.
Written by:: Lem Dobbs, Alex Proyas and David S. Goyer, from a story by Proyas.
With: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, David Wenham, William Hurt, Bruce Spence, Colin Friels, John Bluthal, Mitchell Butel and Melissa George.

Alexander Proyas' film noir fever dream with a sci-fi secret revolves around a man who goes looking for his identity and makes a discovery that quite literally shifts the ground beneath his feet.

John Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a hotel bathroom with no memory of how he got there. There's a dead girl all cut up in the other room, and he also has no idea who she is or what happened. In fact, he has no idea who he is; though he seems to have a beautiful lounge-singer wife (Connelly) and some weird bald-headed guys in Hellraiser drag on his tail for reason he couldn't begin to fathom. And that's not the half of it: Things start getting really weird at midnight, when everyone in the city mysteriously falls into some sort of dead sleep, while Murdoch remains awake to see the very buildings around him twisting and changing, like concrete seeds sprouting in some bizarre mind-bending nightmare.

Acting isn't the main event in Proyas' even more stylish follow up to the gloomily handsome The Crow (1994), but Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O'Brien (who also played Riff Raff in both the stage production and the movie) delivers a deeply creepy turn as the sinister Mr. Hand, Murdoch's chief nemesis, and Connelly looks nothing short of breathtaking in her '40s-era gowns that are far more memorable that her performance. Story telling isn't Proyas' strong suit either; his not-so-original screenplay, a rather silly twist on Philip K. Dick's We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, is just an excuse for him to create an astonishingly stylized alternate world. And while serious movie buffs will recognize its inspirations, from Nosferatu and Mad Love to Brazil and Metropolis, the resulting is a haunting, heartbreakingly beautiful collage of movie memories.


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The Dark Knight

(2008)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, from a story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane appearing in comics published by DC Comics.
With: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Jai White, Matthew O'Neill and William Fichtner.

Even without Heath Ledger's Academy-Award winning (posthumous) performance as the Joker, Christopher Nolan's pitch-black sequel to Batman Begins (2005) would be a tour de force. But Ledger's mesmerizingly damaged agent provocateur is the film's dark heart, a presence so malevolently unpredictable that it remains palpable even when he isn't on screen.

Millionaire Bruce Wayne (Bale) continues to live his double life as the crusading Batman, but at an ever-escalating personal cost: He's displaced and all but alone. Wayne Manor has been burned to the ground, forcing him into an anonymous high-rise apartment, and childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal, taking over from the conspicuously vapid Katie Holmes) has taken up with crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart) who's conducting his war on crime by the book and in the bright light of day.

Faithful butler Alfred (Caine) and Wayne Industries' factotum Lucius Fox (Freeman) continue to support Bruce's lonely battle against criminals, but Gotham City is still overrun with warring gangs. Public opinion regarding the dark angel is polarized — is he a grassroots champion of the average citizen or a dangerous vigilante? — and the headline-grabbing exploits of a pack of untrained, hot-headed imitators who've sprung up in the Batman's shadow only muddy the waters further. Succumbing to the unrelenting pressure, Batman and longtime ally Lieutenant Gordon (Oldman) agree to work with Dent, an arrangement that brings impressive short-term results but sets the stage for an anarchic reign of terror orchestrated by the wild card in the underworld deck: the Joker (Ledger). Having made himself persona non grata among thieves by robbing the banks that launder and safeguard their ill-gotten gains, the Joker then proposes that they all work together to take back the night.

Written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, Batman Begins juggles multiple intertwined narratives (Batman's dark night of the soul, the Joker's machinations, the rise and fall of Dent, the criminal super-alliance) without feeling bloated or unfocused; its 142 minutes fly by. Nolan stages some stunning action sequences — the opening heist is worthy of Michael Mann — and maintains a convincing atmosphere of apocalyptic paranoia: Gotham City is under siege, people are genuinely frightened and life-or-death situations can go either way. But most importantly, he gives his top-notch cast plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters. That Ledger stands out in such a powerhouse ensemble is a tribute to his radically unhinged interpretation of a familiar character: The lank hair tinged seaweed green, the darting tongue and faint lisp that call constant attention to the ghastly rictus of his mouth, the nightmarishly smudged make up… taken together, they make previous Jokers feel like, well, jokes.


Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

(2008)
Written and Directed by: Kurt Kuenne
Documentary

Kuenne's Dear Zachary defies traditional rules of documentary filmmaking, casting aside any pretense of objectivity in favor of a thoroughly subjective cri de coeur.

Kuenne set out to make a glorified home movie about his longtime friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, who was shot to death in Pennsylvania in 2001. Above all, Kuenne hoped to show Bagby's son, Zachary — born after his father's death — the kind of man his father was. But Dear Zachary quickly developed into something else. At the same time that Kuenne was teasing heartwarming memories out of Bagby's friends and relatives, Bagby's ex-girlfriend, Dr. Shirley Turner — the prime (indeed only) suspect in his murder — had fled to her native Canada and was manipulating the legal system with an eye to ensuring that she was never extradited to the United States and that Bagby's parents, Kathleen and David, never gained custody of their grandson. Turner's dreadful victory supplies the film's devastating climax.

Dear Zachary garnered strong reviews but remarkably few high-profile awards, perhaps because it's fundamentally artless — not amateurish, but completely focused on content rather than form — and resists being absorbed into the outsider aesthetic of Jonathan Caouette's 2003 Tarnation or James Ronald Whitney's profoundly disquieting Just, Melvin (2000). Maybe the fact Kuenne never pretends to be objective offended critics: From the outset, he portrays Bagby as a stand-up guy who loved too well but not wisely and Turner as a head case with the smarts to work the system until it worked for her. Or maybe Dear Zachary sucker-punched too many reviewers into tears and they resented it… whatever the case, it's one hell of a heart-wrenchingly sad, blisteringly angry, profoundly heartfelt movie that dares you to walk away with a shrug and a glib quip. I can't forget it, and that's more than I can say for a lot of documentaries I saw in 2008.


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The Decay of Fiction

(2006)
Written and Directed by: Pat O’Neill.
With: Wendi Winburn,William Lewis, Lauren Maher, Lilia Barsegian, Kane Crawford, Lisa Moncure and Tamara Margarian.

Avant-garde filmmaker Pat O'Neill's haunting ode to pulp fantasies and LA’s Ambassador Hotel, which opened in 1921 and was demolished in 2005 to make way for a public school building, is steeped in decaying California glamor and the ghosts of noir thrillers past. Eight years in the making and a stunning synthesis of craft and ideas, it turns the crumbling, once-grand Ambassador — site of the glittering Coconut Grove restaurant, the first Academy Awards ceremonies and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy's assassination at the hands of lone-gunman Sirhan Sirhan — into a spook house peopled by B-movie archetypes.

O’Neill’s color footage of the ruined hotel, all peeling paint, sagging ceilings, pockmarked walls and gauzy, perpetually billowing curtains, is haunted by shimmering B&W images of jaded socialites, practical maids, cops, gangsters, grifters, hopeful shopgirls, hardened barflies, flappers, desperate tarts, doomed con men and suicide blondes. They glide like ghosts through ruined rooms: Stop-motion shadows crawl across the walls; shots ring out; a woman says, "She's gone," and someone inevitably replies, "She was never there." Snatches of hard-boiled dialogue and vintage tunes accompany discomfiting stop-motion footage of the hotel, inside and out: The buildings look normal, impassive and unmoving, while the landscape around them seems weirdly agitated.

Various combinations of characters are enmeshed in fragmented story lines we see in tantalizing glimpses: A washed-up torch singer is attempting a comeback; tough guys plot a big score; a high-strung tootsie is convinced that a dead girl is communicating with her; children play in the hallways and lawmen square off against hoods. As the film progresses, surreal images that suggest nightmares or the products of a disordered mind encroach on the ghosts of good times past. At first they’re suspended in blackness, torsos gliding in and out of the spotlight; then they become monsters, naked demons, shadowy shapes, puppet people, silhouetted women with diaphanous veils, skeletons and low-rent aliens who move with the stuttering rhythms of Japanese ghosts.

O’Neill’s film hums with echoes of The Invention of Morel (1940), by Argentine novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares, a protégé of Jorge Luis Borges. Widely recognized as a major inspiration for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, the quintessential perplexing hotel movie, Casares’ discomfiting tale hinges on an infernal machine that immortalizes the eerily lifelike images of people whose flesh it rots away in the process. The result is a hypnotic collage of allusions that evoke a fantasy world that’s never quite superimposed on a real space that will never be again; movie-made fictions refract history through the prism of pop-culture fantasies. Does that sound like intellectual heavy lifting? It’s not: O’Neill celebrates the allure of pulp fictions — the stuff of late-night movies, comic books and paperback novels — while dropping subtle hints that their romantically cynical insights are ignored at the viewer’s peril.


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Demonlover

(2002)
Written and Directed by: Olivier Assayas.
With: Connie Nielsen, Charles Berling, Gina Gershon, Chloe Sevigny, Jean-Baptiste Malartre, Dominique Reymond, Edwin Gerard, Thomas M. Pollard, Julie Brochen and Abi Sakamoto.

Sex, money, power and corruption converge in Olivier Assayas' glossy meditation on the dangerous allure of surfaces and the ugliness that lies beneath, which starts out a straightforward tale of industrial espionage and twists itself into a knot of existential angst so tight it makes your head hurt. And that is surely precisely the point.

Diane de Monx (Nielsen), the ambitious, Paris-based executive assistant to multinational tycoon Henri-Pierre Volf (Malartre), will do anything to climb the ladder of corporate success, including drugging her colleague, Karen (Reymond), so she’ll be no trouble to the kidnappers who want some very important papers she’s carrying in her briefcase. With Karen in the hospital, Diane inherits both her prize project and her resentful secretary, Elise (Sevigny).

Volf sends Diane and fellow executive Herve Le Millinec (Berling) to Tokyo, where they’re supposed to broker the purchase of a controlling interest in TokyoAnime, which produces pornographic cartoons and is developing a new 3-D animation software that will revolutionize the genre. Volk remains in Paris to hammer out a related deal with the owners of American website demonlover, which is apparently poised to corner the smutty-anime market.

Volf doesn't know is that Diane is actually a corporate spy for demonlover's rival, Mangatronix, and will do anything — anything — to disrupt his negotiations. He is however aware that the racy but ostensibly law-abiding demonlover is associated with Hellfire Club, a sub rosa interactive site that allows users to torture real women online.

Diane quickl finds herself adrift in a sea of deceit, tormented by anonymous notes that suggest someone knows what she did to Karen; pursued by the amorous Herve, whose motives are unnervingly ambiguous; and undermined by Elise, to whom there's more — much more — than meets the eye. As Diane loses control, the story spirals into existential incomprehensibility, and there's no longer any way to tell what's really happening and what's a paranoid fantasy.

Beware angular beauties stalking the business-class sections of international flights! Assayas weaves strands of films as diverse as David Cronenberg's spookily prescient Videodrome (1983) and the sleazy Feardotcom (2002) into his high-gloss anti-technothriller, which must be the coldest film about the intersection of technology and espionage since Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974).

p> The harder you try to follow demonover’s narrative the more frustrating the film becomes, but its sleekly menacing images work their way into your brain like slivers of dry ice.


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Derailed

2005
Directed by: Mikael Hafstrom.
Written by: Stuart Beattie, based on the novel by James Siegel.
With: Clive Owen, Jennifer Aniston, Vincent Cassel, Melissa George, Addison Timlin, RZA,Tom Conti, Denis O'Hare, Xzibit, Giancarlo Esposito and Richard Leaf.

Swedish director Mikael (Ondskan) Hafstrom’s English-language debut is a neo-noir thriller in which a regular Joe makes one false move and watches helplessly as its ever-escalating consequences send his life spiraling into a whirlpool of betrayal and violence.

After repeatedly crossing paths on a commuter train, Charles Schine (Owen) and Lucinda Harris (Aniston) are about to embark on a guilty, adulterous tryst at a run-down Chicago motel when a gun-toting sociopath (Cassel) bursts into their room. He pistol-whips Charles and brutally rapes Lucinda before vanishing with their valuables. Charles wants to call the police, but Lucinda refuses: If her wealthy husband finds out what happened, he'll divorce her and take their child. Against his better judgment, Charles agrees to say nothing. And all things considered, he's in no position to weather a marital storm, either: Charles and his harried wife, Deanna (George), are already stretched to their emotional and financial limits by the stress of caring for their severely diabetic daughter, Amy (Timlin). So Charles says he was mugged and prepares to forget the whole sordid incident when the phone rings and he finds his sneering assailant, who identifies himself as Laroche, on the line demanding a $10,000 "loan."

Charles "borrows" the cash from his firm's expense account, delivers it to Laroche and his thuggish associate, Dexter (Xzibit), and gets roughed up some more for his trouble. A month later, Laroche calls again: This time he wants $100,000. If Charles pays, he and Deanna will have nothing with which to pay for Amy's expensive experimental medications. And to make Charles' horror complete, Laroche is calling from his own home, where he's beguiled Deanna and Amy with his oh-so continental blandishments. Charles' lawyer says he can do nothing if Lucinda won't come forward. The still-traumatized Lucinda continues to refuse, so Charles takes matters into his own hands.

Derailed has the oddly disconnected quality of '70s Euro-thrillers whose international casts spoke different languages on the set and were dubbed into conformity, and it pivots on the kind of big twist that thriller fans will see coming when there's still plenty of time to get off the tracks. Add the fact that the perky Aniston (of TV's Friends and forgettable romantic comedies too numerous to count) is both unflatteringly photographed and utterly unconvincing in the pivotal role of Lucinda, and it’s well on its way to disaster. Cassel’s insinuatingly hammy brio serves as a recurring reminder of the set-up’s memorably sleazy verve, but even his reptilian charms wear thin before everything is wrapped up.


District B13

(2009)
Directed by: Pierre Morel.
Written by: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen.
With: David Belle, Bibi Naceri, Dany Verissimo, Cyril Raffaelli, Francois Chattot.

Imagine, if you will, Escape from New York (1981) crossed with every mismatched-buddy movie ever made, set in one of the high-tension French banlieues, built around emerging martial art form parkour and set to a crunchy techno soundtrack. Written by Luc Besson and directed by Pierre Morel (The Transporter), the combination sounds ridiculous and plays like a jolt of pure, trashy adrenaline straight to the heart.

In the not-too-distant future, the high-rise suburbs where much of France's urban immigrant population is concentrated have been walled off, and the hardworking poor left to the tender mercies of heavily armed gangs. Law-abiding do-gooder Leito (Belle), a heavily tattooed devotee of parkour who grew up in Banlieue 13 and can navigate rooftops and building facades like Spider-man, intercepts a huge heroin shipment belonging to drug lord Taha (cowriter Naceri).

Taha's thugs come to get it back, but it's already gone down the drain, so they kidnap Leito's sister, Lola (Verissimo), to force him to make good. Leito rescues her and hauls Taha to the local police station, whose spineless commander arrests Leito and returns Lola to Taha. Some months later, elite police officer Damien Tomasso (Raffaelli), a human dynamo with muscles in places other people don't have places, has just single-handedly busted up a whole gang in an illicit casino hidden beneath a drab corner deli when Defense Secretary Kruger (Chattot) gives him a special assignment: Damien must break Leito out of a prison transport and persuade him to help retrieve an experimental WMD — a "clean bomb" that kills people but spares buildings — that was hijacked and taken into Banlieue 13. The clock is ticking, and Taha has the missile pointed right at central Paris. Damien is all about orders, Leito only wants to rescue Lola, whom the increasingly cocaine-addled Taha has been keeping on a leash by his bedside. Commencez les coups de pieds au cul!

Both Raffaelli and parkour pioneer Belle are stuntmen, and if they're not the world's most expressive actors, they're good enough to handle the lulls between action sequences, though the strain shows when Raffaelli is required to deliver a high-minded speech about liberte, fraternite et egalite. Until then, the film's a high-voltage kick that's never lets up, energized by sheer bravura stunt work. Yes, it was overcranked and then slowed down, but what you're seeing isn't wire work or CGI — it's stunt choreography, beautifully executed, flawlessly cut together and brainlessly thrilling.


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District 9

(2009)
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp.
Written by: Neill Blomkamp.
With: Sharlto Copley, Louis Minnaar David James, Jason Cope, Vanessa Haywood, Louis Minnaar and Kenneth Nkosi.

The notion of alienation takes on new dimensions in Peter Jackson-protégé Neill Blomkamp's first feature, a lean, take-no-prisoners tale of first contact and its disillusioning aftermath.

Twenty-eight years ago, the aliens came to Johannesburg, South Africa. Or more correctly, they came to the sky above Johannesburg, and hovered, doing nothing, for months as the world watched and waited with bated breath. When South African military finally board the ship, they found a hoard of giant, bug-eyed… well, not monsters exactly. More like starving, none-too-bright crustaceans groveling in their own filth. On the whole, the aliens are a big fat letdown.

But with the eyes of the world upon them, the South African government institutes humanitarian measures, temporarily settling the aliens in a refugee camp that becomes a squalid, permanent ghetto, administered by a privately held company called Multi-National United. It soon became clear that the aliens woiuld never be integrated into mainstream society, which contemptuously nicknames them "prawns." They're too buggy — who wants to live or work next to a seven-foot crawfish with icky, wiggly mouthparts? — quarrelsome, dirty and gross (they eat cat food!), though how much of this is their nature and how much is the result of living under cramped, filthy, isolated conditions would be a matter for debate if anyone cared enough to argue about it. The prawns may be the only matter on which the black and white South African man on the street has agreed: They're a drain on resources and the best thing would be for them to go back where they came from. Except, of course, that they can't.

This background, efficiently established in mockumentary interviews and archival footage, brings us up to the story's starting point: The squalor and lawlessness of District 9 — which, like all poverty zones abandoned by legitimate authorities, is being run with an iron hand by thugs, in this case Nigerian gangsters who do a thriving business in trading cat food for alien weapons and dreaming of somehow acquiring the creatures' superior physical strength — has become an embarrassment. So, the government builds a new facility, considerably farther from greater Johannesburg area, and charges M.N.U. with handling the resettlement.

The man in charge of obtaining signed consent from each and every resident of District 9 is Wikus van der Merwe (Copley), a born bureaucrat who dotes on his pretty wife, Tania (Haywood) and owes his career to his father-in-law, M.N.U. bigwig Piet Smith (Minnaar). Wikas doesn't think of himself as prejudiced — doesn't he work side-by-side with a black man (Nkosi) whom he's the first to praise as a clever fellow — but the prawns aren't human, are they? South Africa has laws and Wikas is going to follow them, but the prawns make it tough to treat them decently, what with their insistence on creating weapons tailored to their own biochemistry, living like pigs and clinging to their fetid shacks as though they were real homes when everyone knows that wherever their home is, it's not Johannesburg.

Naturally, the resettlement gets off to a rocky start and Wikas is accidentally sprayed with some alien substance while raiding the shack of one "Christopher Johnson" (Cope, whose motion-captured work provided the foundation for all the aliens), a prawn who seems to have more going on between the ears (or where any decent creature would have ears), than the average alien. The aftermath of Wikas' little accident plunges him into a world of vicious medical experiments, totalitarian cruelty and ironic desperation: As Wikas begins to undergo a grotesque metamorphosis, he's forced to take refuge in District 9 and rely on Johnson's help to avoid hit squads dispatched by his own father-in-law.

District 9's allegorical nature isn't especially subtle; what makes it so effective is its matter-of-factness, which is hard not to ascribe to the fact that Blomkamp was born and raised in the shadow of apartheid and its aftermath. District 9 unfolds in a world where aliens are just one more unwanted minority, and Blomkamp gets the details so right that they almost slip by unnoticed, like the fact that Johnson clearly understands English perfectly while Wikas and others forced to have regular contact with the aliens have picked up a smattering of their language (a series of subtitled clicks and damp whirring sounds) without bothering to learn more because, well, why would they?

Jackson's proud claims that District 9 is the summer of 2009's only original genre film are a little exaggerated, but wholly understandable: In a summer dominated by prefabricated, merchandise-driven sci-fi and action movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, District 9 is a bracing breath of fresh air. Sure, it owes a debt of imagination to predecessors as diverse as The Quatermass Xperiment, Aliens, Blade Runner, David Cronenberg's The Fly and the TV series Alien Nation, but it wears its influences well, integrating them into a well-thought-out drama about what it means to be human and whether or not humans have a proprietary hold on those qualities.

A drama with big guns, car chases and exploding cars, to be sure, it is at heart a drama nonetheless, because what drives District 9 is Wikas' awakening to the truth of his life. Call it his Matrix moment, his road-to-Damascus revelation or his rendezvous with naked lunch, and make what you will of the fact that one letter turns a pawn into a prawn, but Wikas' transformation from blinkered cog to reluctant rebel is genuinely moving. It's fair to point out that it verges on the inspirational-movie stereotype of ethic minorities as agents of change for white folks, in part because no matter how carefully Blomkamp draws the relationship between Johnson and his son, Little CJ, they're too, well, prawn-like for the average viewer to identify with. But at the same time, that speaks to one of District 9's most pointed underlying conceits. As to complaints about the not-so-happy happy ending, they're thoroughly misguided: Raging against the machine may be liberating, but liberty comes at a price, a price Wikas pays.


Donkey Punch

(2007)
Directed by: Olly Blackburn.
Written by: Olly Blackburn and David Bloom.
With: Robert Boulter, Sian Breckin, Tom Burke, Nichola Burley, Julian Morris, Jay Taylor and Jaime Winstone.

Very Bad Things meets Knife in the Water in first-time feature director Olly Blackburn's thriller about not-so-bright young things trying to cover up a nasty accident and getting themselves into ever deeper water as they do.

Three working-class galpals from dreary Leeds decide to vacation together in anything-goes Majorca, Spain, for some sun and fun, emphasis on the fun. Lisa and Kim (Breckin and Winstone, the daughter of veteran UK actor Ray) are out for a good time, consequences be damned. Sensible Tammi (Burley) is all for a good time within the parameters of common sense, which is why she drags her heels when three likely lads — confident Marcus (Taylor), baby-faced Josh (Morris) and bad-boy Bluey (Burke) — invite them to party aboard the luxury they're crewing. But Tammi is no match for peer pressure, and they all wind up aboard the deluxe Durban, heading out to sea. Tammi hits it off with Josh's older brother, Sean (Boulter), and they wind up talking the night away while Lisa, Kim and the rest of the guys go directly to serious drinking, drugging and sexing — videotape and all, naturally. The evening's highlight is meant to be shy-boy Josh experiencing rough-sex Nirvana via the urban-legend "donkey punch," which involves a sharp blow to the back of one's sex partner's neck, triggeing involuntary spasms rumored to produce mind-blowing orgasms. Unfortunately, Josh hits Lisa too hard and snaps her neck.

The horrified girls want to go to the police and explain that the whole thing was an accident, while the boys favor tossing Lisa's corpse overboard and claiming she fell into the deep blue while dead drunk. Sean is stuck in the middle: Under other circumstances he'd side with the girls, but if everything goes pear-shaped, his brother will spend the rest of his life rotting in some Spanish jail. What to do, what to do? And so the stage is set for everyone's worst instincts to surface: Friendship and loyalty take a backseat to sheer animal will to survive, and each character is tested to his or her limits before their long, dark and bloody night of the soul is over.

Donkey Punch breaks no new ground, but it's sharply executed and delivers a couple of nasty surprises between set up and resolution. Characters who initially seem pulled off the shelf marked "genre cliches" gradually reveal surprising nuances — and the "can you believe this conclusion seems remarkably reasonable in light of the events that lead up to it.


Donnie Darko

(2001)
Written and Directed by: Richard Kelly.
With: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Duval, Beth Grant and Daveigh Chase.

First-time writer-director Richard Kelly's exercise in "or is it?" paranoia gets off to a shaky start but gradually pulls together into a genuinely haunting parable of teenage alienation.

October 2, 1988: Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is having a rough trip through adolescence. Sandwiched between two well-adjusted, outgoing sisters — Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who's about to start college, and little Samantha ( Chase), part of her school's "Sparkle Motion" dance squad — Donnie feels awkward, misunderstood and alienated from the rituals and routines of high-school life. He doesn't have a girlfriend, but he's got a shrink (Ross), a medicine cabinet filled with unwanted psychotropic drugs and an imaginary friend called Frank (Duval), who looks like a guy in a malevolent bunny suit.

And then fate delivers a mind-boggling kick in the teeth: A jet engine crashes through Donnie's bedroom ceiling, and the only reason he isn't squashed is that he's out sleepwalking. Already plagued by existential angst, Donnie is deeply shaken by his brush with death, made stranger by the fact that no one can figure out where the engine came from — no crippled plane turns up anywhere, and the FAA is, frankly, baffled. Donnie begins seeing Frank behind the bathroom mirror, warning that the world will end in 28 days: Frank knows, he says, because he's from the future. A string of odd coincidences suggests Frank may be telling the truth, and Donnie becomes obsessed with time travel. He also begins having visions of energy streaming from people's bodies, apparently reaching out for... something. Meanwhile, the school is vandalized — could the culprit be Donnie, sleepwalking under Frank's influence? — and the town falls under the spell of a silver-tongued motivational speaker (Swayze). The bright spot in Donnie's increasingly dark days is his budding relationship with transfer student Gretchen Ross (Malone), who's on the run from her own demons.

Kelly's observations about materialism and crackpot pop philosophizing are trite and hardly unique to the '80s, but his missteps are minor by comparison to his achievements: He slowly weaves a meticulously crafted web of peculiarity around Donnie, and by the time the movie shows its hand, every piece of the puzzle has slipped neatly — which is not to say glibly — into place.

Although Donnie Darko tanked on original theatrical release, earning less than $5,000,000, it found such a passionate following on video and DVD that it was re-released in 2004 with 20 minutes of restored footage trimmed to reduce the running time. While many director's cuts are pointless variations on mediocre material, the extended version of Donnie Darko is a dramatic improvement on the original. It's simultaneously more vivid and more elusive, a delicious fever dream whose highlights include the most unsettling jack o' lantern ever... suffice it to say that Frank the bunny looks seriously disturbing as a pumpkin.

At 133 minutes, the film doesn't feel longer, just deeper and more richly textured. The Big '80s soundtrack (to which Kelly added some songs and shifted others around) feels more eerily ominous than ever, an incongruously bouncy counterpoint to Donnie's increasingly menacing visions of Frank. The bulk of the restored scenes involve Donnie's English teacher, Miss Pomeroy (Barrymore, whose Flower Films produced), lecturing about the novel Watership Down; other, shorter added scenes expand on and enrich Donnie's relationship with his family. Kelly also beefed up the special visual effects, though not to the point of intrusiveness; they now include superimposed pages from local eccentric Roberta Sparrow's "Philosophy of Time Travel" that appear to explain Donnie's dilemma.


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Don't Ask Don't Tell

2002
Directed by: Doug Miles.
Written by: Doug Miles and Tex Hauser.
With:. (New Cast) Agate Lechantoux, Steve Lippe, Lloyd Floyd, Darby McKinney, Martin Freidrichs, Jennifer Baker, Johanna Saum, Dave Dawson, Steven Ferrara and Chris Ferrara; (Original Cast) Peter Graves, James Seay, Steve Pendleton, Barbara Bestar, John Frederick, Frank Gerstle and Shepard Menken.

The indignities visited by Doug Miles and Tex Hauser (Beastmaster 2) upon low-rent, 1954 sci-fi picture Killers from Space include a new soundtrack, additional footage, actors inserted into existing scenes and a new story line. The result: A dreary movie about aliens stealing American military secrets directed by Billy Wilder's less-talented brother, W. Lee Wilder is reborn as a silly comedy about aliens stealing American manhood. Think What’s Up Tiger Lily? by way of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Tired of gays in the military, Dr. Fartin (Graves, voice of Erik Frandsen) — and that’s Far-teen, thank you very much — concocts a plan to lure sissies in uniform to isolated Sodom Flats and nuke ‘em all. But Fartin's plane crashes just outside Inbred, Texas, where it just so happens that a bunch of newly arrived aliens are lurking. Fartin is revived by the pop-eyed extraterrestrials, who bombard him with gay-rays and send him back to base Fellatio Alger to steal secrets that will help them turn the whole world homosexual.

Disturbed by Fartin's new-found familiarity with show tunes, perverted dope-fiend Colonel Butz (Seay, voice of Lloyd Floyd) urges Fartin's sexy wife, Ellen (Bestar, voice of Rosa Rugosa), to keep her husband on the straight and narrow. Meanwhile, the space invaders scheme and stage hip-hop dance numbers in their disco dungeon of terror.

The new dialogue is a barrage of puns, anachronisms, political quips and gags about anal probes, drugs and all things queer. The new footage features J. Edgar Hoover (Lippe) in drag; naughty Nurse Bendover and dumbass Inbred Police Chief Mussolino (both played by Floyd), along with racy inserts involving panty flashing, blueberry pancakes eaten off a lady's derriere and the like.

Like the L.A. Connection Comedy Group, who in the 1980s worked similar transformations on Sherlock Holmes mystery Woman in Green (1945) and The Blob (1958) — turning them into Movie Mystery Madness and Blobbermouth respectively — Hauser and Miles go for broke. Lobbing your every comic idea at the screen guarantees that some will be funnier than others, and tomfoolery like this is a matter of taste. But when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell nails a gag, it’s pretty damned funny. Twitting Peter Graves' square-jawed earnestness is a sure thing (he did it himself in Airplane! and Airplane II), and those dancing aliens are hilarious.

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Double Team

(1997)
Directed by: Tsui Hark.
Written by: Paul Mones and Don Jakoby, based on the story by Jakoby.
With: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman, Paul Freeman, Mickey Rourke, Natacha Lindinger, Valeria Cavalli, Jay Benedict, Joelle Devaux-Vullion and Bruno Bilotta..

The totally generic name doesn't give you a clue (it was shot as "The Colony, which isn't much better), so you probably want to know what this movie's about. Well, hard to say exactly, but it has something to do with scary amusement parks, Dennis Rodman selling high-tech weapons out of a sex shop in Antwerp, plutonium, Jean-Claude Van Damme's thighs, ripping off/paying homage to The Prisoner, tigers and bald Chinese dervishes holding switchblades between their toes.

Government agent Jack Quinn (Van Damme) just wants to lie by the pool withhis pregnant girlfriend, but get's hauled out of retirement to take on one last job involving his longtime nemesis, Starvros (Rourke). The powers that be team Quinn with Antwerp-based arms deal Yaz (Rodman), but their plan to take down Stavos goes horribly wrong: Stavros' girlfriend and child are killed and Quinn wakes up in "The Colony", which appears to be a top-of-the-line tropical spa on an isolated island but turns out to be a luxury detention center, where the the world's most dangerous superspies are made permanent guests so their brains can be drained of information that will help the battle against international terrorism (and who knows what else). Wait, is that the McGoohan estate on the line? Quinn eventually escapes, of course, determined to stop Stavros once and for all.

The angles are canted, the close-ups are disorienting, the colors are supersaturated and the action never stops. Making a Van Damme picture appears to have become a rite of passage for Hong Kong directors looking to break into the American mainstream market — Ringo Lam and John Woo had already weathered the Van Damme-age with Maximum Risk (1999) and Hard Target (1993) — and Vietnamese-born producer/director Tsui Hark made his US debut with this densely layered, nightmarish and utterly chaotic action film. The pace, look and tone will be familiar to Hong Kong action buffs, while neophytes may be baffled by the film's weirdly sentimental streak: Ultimately, the vendetta driving Quinn and his nemesis is all about babies. But by the time Stavros has mined the Colosseum (yes, the Colosseum) and sicced a Bengal tiger on Van Damme, it will be clear to all that the only thing to do is sit back and wallow in the spectacle.


Doubt

(2008)
Written and Directed by: John Patrick Shanley.
With: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis and Joseph Foster II.

John Patrick Shanley brings his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play to the screen with a cast whose collective efforts go a long way to mitigating Shanley's pedestrian grasp of film language.

1964, The Bronx: St. Nicholas church is an anchor in the lives of its working-class Irish and Italian parishioners, who dutifully send their sons and daughters to its school in the expectation that they'll receive superior secular and moral educations. Longtime principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) rules by intimidation and is wise to the scams and subterfuges of grade-school slackers and reprobates: Better to scare the hell out of them than let them wander onto the slippery slope to hellfire. The times may be a-changin', but St. Nicholas isn't: Sister Aloysius despises ballpoint pens, rock 'n' roll, bad posture and the notion that the church should adjust itself to accommodate contemporary attitudes. As far as she's concerned, the word of God isn't a hemline, subject to fads and fashions. It's immutable, inviolate and unchanging — the fixed point on which the faithful can rely.

Which is only one of many reasons she has reservations about bluff, genial Father Flynn (Hoffman), with his fashionably ambiguous sermons and his unseemly palling around with students. Sister Aloysius has her eye on Flynn, and without specifying anything asks her fellow nuns to be on the lookout for anything — anything at all — that strikes them as odd.

Like Flynn, young, untested Sister James (Adams) prefers the carrot to the stick. It's her nature to look for the best in people and hope the worst never materializes, but she's not oblivious and has vague qualms about the relationship between Flynn and shy, chubby, 12-year-old Donald Miller (Foster), the school's first African-American student. Once Sister James reluctantly confides in Sister Aloysius, the die is cast: Sister Aloysius will stop at nothing to get Father Flynn out of St. Nicholas. But the church hierarchy will never take the word of a lowly nun over that of a priest, and Sister James is all too eager to accept Flynn's explanations. Even the boy's mother (Davis) is reluctant to make waves. Sister Aloysius, however, is beholden to her remorseless conscience; she may not have proof of Flynn's wrongdoing, but moral rectitude forces her to see matters through to the bitter end.

Shanley's play is a blunt tool, and a less didactic director would have resisted the urge to underscore allusions to a metaphorical wind blowing through the world with a real wind that snaps tree branches and whips leaves into churning vortices. Thank goodness he has powerhouse performances from Hoffman and Streep to smooth over the script's deficiencies; Hoffman is a smiling, self-indulgent predator with a smooth line of self-deluding patter and Streep is a coiled spring of joyless asceticism and soul-corroding awareness of the world's infinite perfidy. Sister James is little more than a foil and can't do much with her, but Davis is incendiary as the pragmatic Mrs. Miller, who's made her harsh peace with the knowledge that when life deals you a rotten hand there's nothing to do but play it as best you can.


Duplicity

(2009)
Written and directed by: Michael Gilroy.
With: Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, Rick Worthy, Tom McCarthy, Denis O’Hare, Kathleen Chalfant and Carrie Preston.

That most frustrating thing about writer-director Michael (Michael Clayton) Gilroy's dryly jaunty, globe-trotting spy-vs.-spy romp is that it's just good enough to make you wish it were better.

It opens brilliantly. A pair of sleekly dressed executives and their entourages converge on a private airport in the shadow of their respective corporate jets. In slow motion and without sound, the rival captains of industry hard looks, warning snarls and, finally, body blows, as their stunned minions work up the courage to separate the lions of Burkett & Randle and Equikrom. Operatic, witty and brilliantly efficient, the sequence establish the no-holds-barred war of egos against which a fiendishly complicated scam will unfold.

Dubai, 2003: MI5 hound dog Ray Koval (Owen) and steely CIA cutie Claire Stenwick (Roberts) meet at a Fourth of July shindig at the US Embassy and fall into bed like the beautiful creatures they are. Sadly, cock-of-the-walk Ray fails to realize that Claire is just after some top-secret documents, and awakes 18 hours later humiliated, outraged and suffering a major Mickey Finn hangover.

Four years later, Ray and Claire have left their respective government gigs and taken up corporate espionage: He's a last-minute addition to the team of high-tech spies assembled by ferrety CEO Dick Garsik (Giamatti) to steal the formula for a revolutionary product — it's so secret he doesn't even know what it is, beyond that it must be something to do with health and/or hygiene — developed by his sworn enemy, marketplace Darwinist Howard Tully (Wilkinson). She's the mole buried deep in Tully's security department, Whoever brings the miracle invention to market first will rule the kingdom of health and beauty aids, at least until the next big things comes along. That Ray was brought in as Claire's handler is a delicious irony neither particularly appreciates. Or do they?

Gilroy's twisty tale unfolds in a series of achronological flashbacks, each of which reveals another facet of Claire and Ray's exquisitely complicated relationship — a thing of larceny, lust and the total absence of trust. Each knows the other is a reflexive liar, constantly calculating the odds of getting away with something illegal, immoral, seductively lucrative or some combination thereof. The bitter battle of wits between Equikrom and Burkett & Randle offers the opportunity to work the long con of a lifetime: While the fat cats are busy trying to screw each other, there's room for a pair of sly mice to slip in and snatch the multimillion dollar cheese out from under their noses. The trick is figuring out where the various players' loyalties lie.

All of which promises cruel, sexy, brain-teasing fun in the tradition of The Sting, Nine Queens, The Grifters or House of Games. And it delivers, at least until the story is dragged down by the weight of Ray and Claire's oddly lifeless romance, the very thing that's supposed to add sizzle to the ice-cold mechanics of the dizzyingly complicated caper.

Pairing Owen and Roberts must have looked great on paper: Rugged animal magnetism (what a James Bond Owen could have been!) and girl-next-door sparkle spiced up with a hint of, yes, duplicity. But Roberts looks shockingly wan and haggard, while Owens oozes glumness rather than dangerous performance seems glum rather than sexual danger. There was more electricity to their pairing in the grim anti-romance Closer, where every scene they shared seethed with the potential for sex, violence or both. A romantic comedy is in trouble when there's less chemistry between the lovers than a pair of middle-aged moneygrubbers who have exactly one scene together.


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The Eagle

2011
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald.
Written by: Jeremy Brock, based on the novel The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff.
With: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim, Douglas Henshall, Denis O'Hare and Julian Lewis Jones.

A sense of gritty, day-to-day reality distinguishes this story of young warriors in second-century Britain, based on young-adult novel The Eagle of the Ninth, whose popularity in the U.K. has remained strong since it was published in 1947.

Roman-occupied Britain, 140 A.D.: Born into a family with a proud tradition of military service, Marcus Aquila (Tatum) grew up beneath a dark shadow. Twenty years earlier, his father, Flavius Aquila (Lakloth), led the 5,000 men of Rome’s Ninth Legion into the northernmost reaches of Caledonia — now Scotland — and none returned.

Determined to restore his family’s honor, Marcus actively seeks command of a godforsaken garrison in southwestern England and acquits himself honorably when it’s attacked by Pictish troops; were it not for his insistence on preparation, coupled with decisive leadership and a natural grasp of military strategy, the Roman casualties would have been devastating. But Marcus is seriously injured during the battle and discharged from the military -- with full honors that mean nothing to him -- to recuperate under the watchful eye of his Uncle Aquila (Sutherland).

To distract Marcus from his frustratingly slow recovery, Aquila arranges a day trip to some local gladiatorial games; one match pits a seasoned professional against captured Pict Esca ( Billy Elliot star Jamie Bell), whose contempt for all things Roman is so intense he’d rather die than dignify their vulgar exhibition by participating. For reasons even he can’t articulate, Marcus rallies the crowd to spare Esca, whom Aquila secretly buys and presents to Marcus as his personal slave.

Rumors that the golden eagle talisman carried by the lost Ninth has been spotted in the hands of the savage Seal Prince (French-Algerian actor Rahim, of Un Prophete) give Marcus an idea: were he to somehow recover the eagle, surely his family’s hreputation would be restored. But his only chance of survival in the wild north that lies past Hadrian’s Wall — the line of demarcation between the civilized world and the great unknown — with Esca, who knows the land and the language… knows them better, in fact, than Marcus imagines.

Both producer Duncan Kenworthy and director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) loved Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth as children. When they set out to adapt it for the screen, they shared the desire to make a historical movie that focused on the day-to-day lives of ancient people rather than a lavish spectacle, and The Eagledoes exactly that. The story’s core is the relationship between Marcus and Esca, and the way in which extraordinary circumstances force them to reconsider everything they’ve been taught about civilization and savagery, slaves and free men, warriors and martyrs.

The Eagle sticks close to its source material, which should stand it in good stead in the UK but means little to who are Americans unfamiliar with the book and whose conception of those first few centuries A.D. — to the degree that they have one at all — is equal parts Gladiator and Camelot. That’s no doubt why Antoine Fuqua’s deglamorized King Arthur (2004) died a dismal death despite the best efforts of Clive Owen and Keira Knightley. It would be a shame — but not a surprise — if The Eagle suffered the same fate.


Eagle Eye

(2008)
Directed by:. D.J. Caruso
Written by: John Glenn, Travis Adam Wright, Hillary Seitz and Dan McDermott, from a story by McDermott.
With: Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chicklis and Billy Bob Thornton.

Noisy, derivative and thoroughly preposterous even by the standards of 21st-century action movies, this sci-fi tinged thriller pits a pair of ordinary folks against a disembodied voice that orders them to do very bad things.

Tired of competing with his brilliant twin brother, Ethan, Jerry Shaw (LaBeouf) opts out of the race, dropping out of Stamford to take a series of dead-end jobs and bum around the world. He's working at a Chicago copy shop when he's abruptly called home for Ethan's funeral. After the inevitable run in with his dad, who clearly thinks the wrong son was run down by a truck, Ethan returns home to find his bank account crammed with cash, his apartment piled high with military gear and a strange woman on his cell phone, telling him to do as he's told or he'll be arrested as a terrorist. Jerry is still waffling when the FBI's counter-terrorist unit kicks in his door.

While Jerry is being sweated by Agent Thomas Morgan (Thornton), Rachel Holloman (Monaghan) is spending a night on the town with her girlfriends. A single mother, Rachel has just put her 8-year-old, Sam (Boyce), on a train to Washington DC, where his school band is going to play at the Kennedy Center, and is enjoying her first break in ages. She too gets a call from the same female stranger, telling her that if she fails to follow directions, Sam will die. The stranger engineers Jerry's escape and throws him together with Rachel, now driving a spiffy Porsche Cayenne, and the race is on. Can Rachel and Jerry figure out who's pulling their strings and what they're being manipulated into doing before Morgan catches up to them?

A string of elaborate and utterly unbelievable stunts sequences wrapped around a tangle of timely concerns — the roots of terrorism, the price of big-brother surveillance, the pitfalls of super-technologies and the question of who should decide where a nation's best interests lie — this big-budget thriller's tenuous claim to torn-from-today's headlines believability hinges on whether you buy the identity of the mysterious caller, which is revealed halfway through the film. Suffice it to say that Colossus: The Forbin Project got there first, and more convincingly.


Enchanted

(2007)
Directed by: Kevin Lima.
Written by: Billy Kelly.
With: Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, Timothy Spall, Idina Menzel, Rachel Covey, Susan Sarandon, William Huntley, Samantha Ivers and Elizabeth Mathis.

Kevin Lima and Billy Kelly's surprisingly sophisticated riff on animated fairy-tale movie cliches banishes a chirpy animated princess to the real world of New York City, where happily-ever-aftering is in woefully short supply.

Beautiful, kindhearted, cartoon commoner Giselle (Adams) is about to marry handsome Prince Edward (Marsden) when Edward's wicked stepmother, evil Queen Narissa (Sarandon), steps in, shoving the unsuspecting Giselle into a deep well that opens onto a busy Times Square street. Poor, trusting Giselle, with her poofy wedding dress and sunny dearth of street smarts, is quickly robbed, drenched by the inevitable sudden squall and reduced to knocking pathetically on the door of a billboard illustration of a castle, looking like a bona fide crazy lady.

Fortunately, fate delivers her into the reluctant custody of divorced divorce lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey), whose fantasy-deprived little daughter, Morgan (Covey), loves all things princess and persuades daddy to keep her, at least temporarily. Giselle's presence disrupts every aspect of Robert's life, starting with his plan to propose to sassy Nancy (Menzel), the thoroughly empowered girlfriend who's spent the last five years respecting Robert's "no sleepover" rule because hey, what mature modern woman would resent a devoted single father's efforts to keep home a safe harbor for his motherless child? Nancy's rection to finding a naked stranger in Robert's shower, not unsurprisingly, is white-hot fury.

Giselle also puts a serious crimp in Robert's ongoing efforts to teach Morgan that real life is not a Disney movie, and that it's better to be smart, cautious and self-reliant than to sit around humming "Someday My Prince Will Come." In fact, she soon has Robert questioning his own rueful cynicism: There must be a logical explanation for the way a simple walk in Central Park with Giselle spontaneously becomes becomes a full-scale musical production number, or Giselle's offhand ability to get that pair of cooing doves to fly over to Nancy's place bearing a heart-shaped wreath of flowers, but damned if he can figure out what it is.

Though Enchanted casts a wide net, its most obvious influence is Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), from Sarandon's busty evil queen to the poisoned apples with which her henchman (Spall) tries to poison Giselle. And rightly so: Snow White is the source from which all subsequent Disney animation springs. With the exception of a supersweet ending that ignores the hard truth at the heart of the best fairy tales — that happy endings come at a real price — Enchanted works on every level.

The script is genuinely clever (love the rats, pigeons and giant cockroaches who respond to Giselle's call for animal friends to help clean Robert's apartment), old Disney hands Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz deliver spot-on pastiches of the blandly pleasant songs on which their careers were built, and the cast consistently opts for subtlety rather than coarse farce. Special kudos to Adams, who nails the distinctive body language of Disney's spunky animated good girls and manages to make Giselle's relentless optimism seem charming rather than a sign of mental deficiency.


Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet

(2001)
Written and Directed by: Nils Tavernier.
With: Ghislaine Thesmar, ClaireMarie Osta, Maurice Bejart, Jiri Kylian, Marie-Agnes Gillot, Manuel LeGris, Nicolas Le Riche, Erwan LeRoux and Gilles Mondoo.

It's tempting to dismiss the all-or-nothing histrionics of Michael Powell's classic ballet melodrama The Red Shoes (1948) as overwrought and unrealistic, but Nils Tavernier's sober, perceptive documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet proves beyond a doubt that the stakes are every bit as high in the real world of 21st-century dancers' lives.

"The system is a machine that crushes the weak," says former ballerina Ghislaine Thesmar of the rigorous process by which adorable youngsters are molded into world-class dancers, and dancers developed into etoiles — stars. Though a relative newcomer to the world of classical dance, Tavernier's grandparents lived on the Avenue de l'Opera, near the 19th-century Palais Garnier where the Paris Opera Ballet performs, and he became fascinated by the graceful, slightly otherworldly dancers he saw walking down the street. Shot in 1999, Tavernier's film includes footage of rehearsals, company class and performances and interviews with choreographers (including a reluctant Maurice Bejart and a more forthcoming Jiri Kylian), company directors, students and dancers, from the lowest-ranked hopefuls in the corps to the most senior members of the troupe.

Unlike most American companies, the Paris Opera Ballet is insured a steady stream of dancers trained in its specific style from its own, nearly 400-year-old school, and advancement through the ranks proceeds according to a rigid schedule. Of the hundreds of aspiring dancers who apply to the school annually, 30 are accepted, a third make it through the first year and a handful graduate to dance with the company. Without slipping into point/counterpoint cliches, Tavernier elicits starkly contrasting accounts of life in the school and the company; whether because he's a particularly skilled interviewer or French dancers are especially articulate, his subjects' responses are both candid and considered.

Etoile ClaireMarie Osta, who channeled her teenage desire to be a nun into dancing, wasn't phased by the harsh mental and physical demands of the Paris Opera Ballet school, while fellow etoile Marie-Agnes Gillot concedes that she would have welcomed a little more emotional support. Other dancers speak perceptively about balancing their careers and their personal lives, the ironic and frustrating way that artistic maturity coincides with loss of physical ability, the complicated mix of camaraderie and competition that defines their relationships with other dancers, and what they get in return for all they've given up.

Overall the film is a fascinating glimpse into an insular world that gives the lie to many clichés and showcases a group of dedicated artists.


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Ever Since the World Ended

2001
Directed by: Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle.
Written by: Calum Grant.
With: Calum Grant, Angie Thierot, Brad Olsen, Mary Rutheford, Simon Thieriot, Stewart Fallon, Dan Plumlee, George Fangides, Ed Archie Noisecat, David Driver, James Curry, Joshua Atesh Litle, Mark Routhier and Josiah Clark.

Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle's post-apocalyptic tale, set 12 years after the Kotto virus wiped out most of the human race, styled itself as a documentary portrait of a handful of the 186 men and women left in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The fictional filmmakers, Cal and Josh (Grant, Litle), focus on a cluster of survivors who've formed an extended social group — half commune, half survivalist cell — around gracious, middle-aged Eva (Angie Thieriot). Problems are hashed out as a group and niceties, like not bringing side arms at the table, are observed; members share technical skills and their knowledge of art, history and music.

But beneath the genteel veneer, the ugly truth is that they’re suspended between the world that was and the that will be: They're not so much preserving civilization as hanging on to scraps of a dead culture, marking time before the slate is truly wiped clean. The community's rules make some survivors feel marginalized, including laid-back surfers Simon and Stew (Simon Thieriot, Fallon); a thin-skinned scavenger with a knack for locating abandoned houses that contain caches of ever scarcer pre-plague goods like antibiotics, guns, liquor and cigarettes; and conspiracy theorist “Museum Guy” (Frangides), who’s determined to document the CIA, NSA and CDC's collusion in creating the virus.

Worse still, the group’s idealistic govern-by-consensus philosophy is increasingly out of sync with the harsh realities of a world with no safety net. The question of how to handle the return of "Mad" Mark (Routhier) — whose post-plague trauma manifests itself in arson — sparks polarizing debate, and a disastrous hiking expedition makes it painfully clear where the real future lies. While old-timers agonize about what to do with genial bicycle-nomad Santosh (Olsen), who is crippled by a gangrenous leg in the savage wilds of Marin County, new-world teenager James (Curry) — who neither remembers nor give a good God damn about the way things used to be — settles the matter with ruthless pragmatism.

Grant and Litle’s spare, remarkably effective film evokes both Jim McBride's equally grim and unsensational Glen and Randa (1971) and the UK TV series Survivors (the original ran from 1975-1977; it was remade in 2008): All skip over the chaos that follows on the heels of a global apocalypse to take a look at what happens after. The filmmakers elicit powerfully unaffected performances from their cast of nonprofessionals, and prove that thoughtful writing truly can trump big-budget spectacle.

The mockumentary conceit gives a vivid immediacy to the material, and the PAL digital video cinematography is often surprisingly lyrical — certain shots of empty, fog-shrouded San Francisco sites more than make up in eeriness what they lack in dramatic special-effects decrepitude.


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Evil/Ondskan

Evil/Ondskan 2003
Directed by: Mikael Hafstrom.
Written by: Hans Gunnarsson and Mikael Hafstrom, based on the novel by Jan Guillou.
With: Andreas Wilson, Henrik Lundstrom, Gustaf Skarsgard, Linda Zilliacus, Jesper Salen, Filip Berg, Fredrik af Trampe, Richard Danielsson, Martin Svane, Rustan Blomqvist, Peter Eggers and Per Westergren.

Based on Swedish writer Mikael Hafstrom's semi-autobiographical, 1981 novel, a blunt denunciation of institutionalized cruelty in general and Sweden’s collaboration with Nazi Germany in particular, Ondskan was nominated for a 2003 Academy Award in the foreign-language film category.

Set in the 1950s, it revolves around bright-but-alienated middle-class teenager Erik Ponti (Wilson), whose home life is an endless nightmare of vicious abuse by his smirking stepfather (Rabaeus) — a sadistic restaurateur who rhapsodizes over pommes duchesses while emotionally terrorizing his meek wife (Richardson). Erik takes out his pent-up frustrations on other students and blows off his schoolwork; after being repeatedly censured for fighting and warned about his poor academic record, Erik finds his entire future hanging in the balance. No state school will accept him unless he improves his grades and gets his antisocial behavior under control, and without a university-level education, he'll never be able to better his lot in life. In desperation, Erik's mother sells off some heirlooms and scrapes together a year's tuition at Stjarnsberg, a prestigious boarding school, hoping that an atmosphere of discipline and academic excellence will turn her son around.

But Erik quickly discovers that Stjarnsberg is a hotbed of relentless, ferocious bullying rooted in the belief that members of the hereditary aristocracy are inherently intellectually, physically and morally superior to the lower classes. Upperclassmen are given free rein to terrorize younger students, and the faculty — whose ranks include at least one instructor who openly applauds Nazi eugenics programs — turn a blind eye.

Unable to fight back without risking expulsion and his last best hope of making anything of himself, Erik keeps his head down hunkers and adopts the doctrine of passive resistance counseled by his brainy and probably gay roommate, Pierre (Lundstrom), whose bookishness and complete lack of interest in competitive sports make him a natural target of the school's self-styled ubermenschen, led by aristocratic Otto Silverhielm (Skarsgard) and his toady, Dahlen (Salen). Erik refuses to knuckle under to the escalating punishment and petty humiliations his stoicism provokes, and adds insult to injury by proving himself an accomplished athlete. He breaks school swimming records and snatches a coveted trophy from the sneering student whose wealthy father endowed it. Needless to say, no good comes of Erik's victory.

Ondskan isn’t subtle: Erik's stepfather, Otto and his minions and the faculty who tacitly endorse their behavior are so wickedly loathsome that they might as well be twirling one collective black mustache. But didactic though it is, it’s part of a growing body of work — fiction and nonfiction — that explores Sweden’s discomfiting and largely unofficial ties to Nazi Germany. Director Hafstrom made his U.S. debut with the 2005 thriller Derailed.


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The Expendables

2010
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone.
Written by: Sylvester Stallone and David Callaham, based on a story by Callaham.
With: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, David Zayas, Giselle Itie and Charisma Carpenter.

Is The Expendables a self-conscious joke or a sly throwback to grindhouse fare like Enzo Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards, which pitted the B-list likes of Fred Williamson, Bo Svenson and Peter Hooten against a pack of barking Nazis? How you perceive it depends on which side of the age divide you fall, but either way it’s a strong contender for the title of manliest movie ever made.

Mercenaries Barney Ross (Stallone), Lee Christmas (Statham), Ying Yang (Li), Hale Caesar (Crews), Toll Road (Couture) and Gunner Jensen (Lundgren) have been all over this dirty world, collecting hefty paychecks to kick ass from Mombasa to Sarajevo and keep their mouths shut when they come home. They may be getting a little long in the tooth, but they’re impressively lean and mean without being heartless bastards. Really — they fall out with longtime companion Jensen because he wants to hang him a Somali pirate, and that’s just not their style. They garrote, gut and blow bad guys to smithereens, sure, but hanging a man is barbaric, Neanderthal crap and they don’t roll that way. Oh, and they don’t roll with junkies either, so strung-out Jensen gets the heave-ho after the gang finishes rescuing a bunch of bedraggled hostages in the Gulf of Aden.

After getting his lavish tattoos touched up by former Expendable Tool (Rourke), Ross gets a new gig from the mysterious “Mr. Church” (Willis, uncredited despite the fact that he’s featured prominently on the movie’s poster), after trading barbs with best frenemy Trench (Schwarzenegger, also uncredited and not on the poster), who declares the job a fool’s errand. The assignment involves deposing Third World dictator General Garza (Zayas of TV’s Dexter), who, with the help of sleek Ugly American John Munroe (Roberts) and his sadistic sidekick Paine (Austin), has turned the banana republic of Vilena into an insanely lucrative, ruthlessly efficient cocaine-producing machine.

Ross aborts the mission when he realizes that Church is with the CIA and they’re all Agency pawns in some cynical, black-op power struggle, but not before being profoundly moved by the efforts of Garza’s tough-yet-idealistic daughter (Itie) to help her brutally oppressed countrymen. Haunted by the fact that she refused to abandon them to save her own skin, Ross resolves to go back into the mouth of Hell and polish up his tarnished karma.

Yes, the marks of tongue-in-cheek snark are all over The Expendables, from the characters’ ludicrous names (none of which is as slyly preposterous as “Randy Couture,” and that one’s for real — no wonder the guy became a mixed martial-arts fighter) to Christmas and Ross’ cover for their reconnaissance trip to Vilena. Sure, they’re ornithologists from the Global Wildlife Conservancy, and love that logo stenciled on their company plane — a glowering raven perched on a wireframe sphere (the ultimate insider’s nod to Stallone’s long-languishing Edgar Allan Poe biopic). And let’s not even get into the bits of business meant to humanize the muscle-bound anti-heroes — Li’s constant complaints about money (he deserves a bigger cut because he works harder than the rest, on account of being so small), Christmas and Ross’ ongoing debate about whether a blade is more efficient than a bullet, Road’s sensitivity about his cauliflower ear, Caesar’s fetishistic love for exotic ordnance... they're shorthand so short they barely register.

But when push comes to shove, The Expendables

, Like Stallone's 2008 Rambo plays it straight: The action is tight and tough, the aging stars (at 38, Statham is the baby of the group) look every bit as battered as they should, and Rourke singlehandedly turns the film’s most maudlin moment — Tool’s regret-soaked recollection of an innocent life he could have saved and didn’t — into something genuinely affecting. Stallone has never been subtle — not as an actor, not as a writer and not as an action icon — but The Expendables walks a slippery line between macho headbangers’ porn and nostalgic metafiction with remarkable roughhewn grace.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International


The Fall

(2006)
Directed by: Tarsem Singh.
Written by: Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultanakis and Singh, based on the 1981 screenplay Yo Ho Ho, by Valeri Petrov.
With: Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru, Justine Waddell, Daniel Caltagirone, Leo Bill, Jeetu Verma, Robin Smith, Julian Bleach and Marcus Wesley.

Commercial and music-video director Singh's second feature— his debut was the formulaic but visually stunning Jennifer Lopez thriller The Cell (2000) — is a tale-within-a-tale that glides between a hospital in 1915 Los Angeles and a surreal, fairy tale world of exotic adventure inspired by the Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho (1981).

Five-year-old Alexandria (Untaru), her collarbone and left arm awkwardly splinted, is recovering from the tumble she took while picking oranges with her mother and sister — they fled their Eastern European homeland after political unrest claimed her father and their home. Stuntman Roy Walker (Pace) broke his back while filming a Western and may never walk again; his girlfriend (Waddell) broke his heart when she threw him over for movie star Sinclair (Caltagirone). Outgoing and perpetually restless, Alexandria befriends the despondent Walker, who tells her an epic tale cobbled together from movie cliches and his own shattered dreams, periodically adjusted to suit Alexandria's firmly stated criticisms — she may not speak English fluently, but she knows when a plot point is stupid.

After some false starts, it settles into the story of a motley and colorful crew — tthe Black Bandit (Pace), a dreadlocked mystic (Bleach) who emerges from a blasted tree, an Indian prince (Verma), a former slave (Wesley), an Italian explosives expert (Smith) and Charles Darwin (Bill), who travels with a wise, talking monkey named Wallace — who band together to seek revenge on the man who has wronged each of them: Governor Odious (also Caltagirone). Along the way, they're joined by a princess (also Waddell) and the Bandit's long lost daughter (also Untaru). But Walker has an ulterior motive in captivating Alexandria, and her devotion to both the story and the storyteller ultimately endangers her life.

Although the film revolves around a child, it's not a children's movie: A cruel and bitter undertone runs through the fanciful adventures, and Walker's depression is no mere plot contrivance to be cured by Alexandria's childish enthusiasm. Singh's visual sense is stunning, but he's also attuned to the darker corners of children's imaginations. It's ultimately clear that we're seeing Alexandria's version of the story, not Walker's, and that she brings more to it than simply "casting" her friends and acquaintances as his characters — young though she is, Alexandria knows plenty about death and despair.


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Fantastic Mr. Fox

(2009)
Directed by: Wes Anderson.
Written by: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Rouald Dahl.
With the Voices of: George Clooney, Maryl Streep, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Chase Anderson, Wes Anderson, Karen Duffy, Robin Hurlstone, Hugo Guinness and Jarvis Cocker.

Allow me to begin by saying I have little patience for Wes Anderson’s twee tales of love and pain among the adorably quirky, and less for Noah Baumbach’s mewling chronicles of brittle, self-absorbed brattiness. And yet I loved Fantastic Mr. Fox, their sly, witty and utterly enchanting adaptation of Roald Dahl’s mordantly whimsical book.

Though faithful to Dahl’s sensibility, Anderson and Baumbach’s screenplay expands on his slight story, which begins with the raffish Mr. Fox (voice of Clooney) and his free-spirited girlfriend (Streep) conducting a daring raid on a squab farm, only to be tripped up by Mr. Fox’s reckless bravado. “I’m pregnant,” announces the future Mrs. Fox as the iron bars of a ridiculously avoidable trap crash down and her cocky swain assesses the umpteenth fine mess he’s gotten them into.

Seven years later, Mr. Fox has made good on the promise he made that day: He’s abandoned the thieving life to write a frivolous newspaper column no one reads and a life of shabby contentment in the modest but homey burrow the Foxes share with their cub, Ash (Schwartzman). But Mr. Fox pines for days when the world respected his wildness; he secretly thrills to the memory of local lads whispering conspiratorially about Mrs. Fox’s racy reputation and wishes his sullen, perpetually seething son were a little less klutzy comic-book geeky and a little more effortlessly cool. Since none of that is going to happen, he channels his discontents into real estate. Mr. Fox no longer wants to live in a hole in the ground and moves his family — temporarily expanded to accommodate Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson, Wes' baby brother), the handsome, spiritually enlightened, athletic vixen-magnet of a nephew, whose dad is hospitalized with double pneumonia — to a handsome aerie in a capacious beech that overlooks lush fields, rolling hills and the walled fiefdoms of the meanest farmers in Christendom: Portly poultry magnate Walter Boggis (Hurlstone), stunted smoked-duck mogul Nathan Bunce (Guinness) and lean, mean cider czar Franklin Bean (Gambon).

Mr. Fox inevitably feels the cold breath of mortality on his handsome tail and concocts a plan to savor the buzz one last time: Abetted by natural-born sidekick Kylie (Wolodarsky), a possum with a heart of gold and a disconcerting hypnovision stare, Mr. Fox plots a series of raids on the Boggis, Bunce and Bean farms, the one last score that will ease him into comfortably numb retirement. And just as inevitably, things don’t go as planned: The thuggish Bean rallies his neighbors to mount a full-out assault on the insolent creatures who dare invade their homes and barns, and Mr. Fox must face the fact that his devil-may-care irresponsibility has endangered not only his own nearest and dearest but the entire animal community, from badger to beaver to bunny, mole and weasel.

Fantastic Mr. Fox’s aesthetic is rooted in Beatrix Potter’s deceptively bucolic yarns (like Mr. Fox, Squirrel Nutkin and the Fierce Bad Rabbit sacrifice their tails to impudence) by way of Nick Park’s cheekily eccentric Wallace & Gromit films. It’s impressively handmade and soothingly tactile; Fox and his friends have the air of old nursery-room toys come to life, which ought to be a little scary (I’m sure I wasn’t the only child who carefully secured certain dolls and stuffed animals before going to bed) but instead feels sweetly reassuring. Yes, toys do wake up at night, but they simply go about their business, reading newspapers, eating dinner and playing little games of oneupmanship amongst themselves. There are no ambiguously sinister teddy bears’ picnics here, only Willem Defoe voicing a southern-fried Richard Widmark of a rat, Brian Cox mouthing the urgent cliches of a local you-are-there! TV reporter and Owen Wilson ambling through the inanities of every middle-school gym coach who unerringly said the wrong thing every single time. Mr. Fox gamely straightens his spine and throws back his shoulders to deliver inspirational speeches, handy summations (“He redeemed himself!") and pithy pronouncements with the self-deprecating panache of a dab hand who knows you get it but is nonetheless contractually obligated to dot and cross the thematic “i”s and “t”s. A spoonful of insouciance not only helps the medicine go down but lends it a cheerful “Hey, we’re all in this together” offhandedness.

Children can delight in the movie’s whimsical conceits (like the meticulously engineered blueberry sedatives that neutralize the farmers’ hell hounds), identify with Ash’s insecurities and giggle at the anarchic sight of debonair Mr. Fox suddenly ripping into his dinner with the restraint of a starving shoat at an all-you-can-at trough or literally baring his fangs during a dispute with Badger (Murray), his relentlessly sensible lawyer. Mr. Fox’s reason for moving — living below street level makes him feel poor — is designed to resonate with the big kids, but think back — how young were you when you grasped the semiotics of lunch-bag snacks? Oreos cool, Hydrox (or worse, generic sandwich cookies) not. Like all the best children’s tales, Fantastic Mr. Fox’s charms are less timeless than disconcertingly mutable.


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The Fluffer

(2001)
Directed by: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.
Written by: Wash Westmoreland.
With: Scott Gurney, Michael Cunio, Roxanne Day, Taylor Negron, Richard Riehle, Tim Bagley, Adina Porter, Ruben Madera, Josh Holland, Roxanne Day, Mickey Cottrell, Guinevere Turner, Robert Walden and Deborah Harry.

Though less ambitious than Boogie Nights, which posits the porn industry as a microcosm of American ambition and self-delusion, Glatzer and Westmoreland's feature also weaves together the stories of a cross-section of characters whose damage draws them to the adult film business as the flame draws moths.

Aspiring filmmaker Sean McGinnis (Cunio) moves to Los Angeles in hopes of getting into the business, only to find that it doesn’t get lonelier than life at the bottom of the ladder in the most status conscious town in the world. In desperate need of comfort and inspiration, he rents Citizen Kane from a local video store, only to find that they mistakenly gave him a gay porn movie called “Citizen Cum.”

But Sean's first glimpse of Johnny Rebel (Gurney) more than makes up for the mistake: Enchanted by the studly star (“actor” would be a stretch), Sean can think of nothing but meeting him in the flesh. A little research later, Sean is offering his professional services to Men of Janus, the company that produces Johnny Rebel’s movies. He's hired as a cameraman, despite the reservations of sales manager Chad Cox (Walden, of TV's Lou Grant) about his lack of practical adult-film experience.

Sean quickly discovers that his dream hunk isn't what he expected, starting with the fact that Johnny claims he only does gay porn for the money (in straight smut it all goes to the girls); is increasingly in thrall to crystal meth and has a loyal girlfriend, stripper Babylon (Day), whose willingness to bail him out of trouble is apparently without end. How can she resist a guy whose repertory of sweet nothings runs to such romantic declarations as, "When I need wood, I think of you"?>/p>

But thoughts of Babylon notwithstanding, when Johnny has performance problems he turns to Sean, his on-set fluffer. Both Babylon and Johnny swear they’re getting out of the sex business, but neither can break away and soon Sean’s social life is also dominated by industry-related events as well. He wants to be near Johnny, of course, but he’s also seduced by the industry's self-contained sense of community. As Johnny's behavior becomes increasingly erratic, Sean must ask himself how far he's willing to go in its pursuit.

The Fluffer benefits enormously from screenwriter and co-director West’s easy and even-handed familiarity with the adult-film industry (his credits include Porn Academy, Naked Highway and Dr. Jerkoff & Mr. Hard), and his characters only occasionally lapse into broad caricature. Studded with cameos by real-life porn filmmakers like Chi Chi LaRue and Ron Jeremy, the film also features cameos by Guin Turner (Go Fish, TV’s The L Word) and punk icon Deborah Harry as a strip-club owner.


Four Christmases

(2008)
Directed by: Seth Gordon.
Written by: Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas & Scott Moore, based on a story by Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson.
With: Reese Witherspoon, Vince Vaughn, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, John Voight, Dwight Yoakam, Tim McGraw, Jon Favreau and Kristin Chenoweth.

God save us from the curse of dyspeptic holiday films! Make no mistake: I hate Christmas as much as the next person — perhaps more, because unlike the Hollywood screenwriters who invariably cave in to holiday sentiment I have the courage of my convictions. For all of its snarky holiday/family bashing, Four Christmases wimps out in the third act and reaffirms all the traditional values it affects to mock.

Childless and happily unmarried Kate (Witherspoon) and Brad (Vaughn) dodge their holiday obligations by telling their respective divorced parents and assorted siblings they're doing overseas charity work when they're actually taking an indulgent couples' vacation in the sun. I can get sort of with that: I once claimed to be volunteering at a soup kitchen to avoid the family festivities. But I was young — like, in college young — and the next year I bit the bullet, skipped the excuses and just said I wasn't coming. Kate and Brad are in their 30s, plenty old enough to stand up for themselves. And boy, are their faces red when a local news crew catches them fuming at the Fiji Air counter after a mega-fog grounds all flights out of San Francisco, forcing them to put in appearances at four family get-togethers, each ghastlier than the one before.

Brad's father (Duvall) and no-neck brothers (actor-turned-director Favreau and country singer McGraw) are white-trash losers who mock him mercilessly for having had the temerity to get an Ivy league education and become a successful lawyer. Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen) is dating mega-church messiah Pastor Phil (Yoakam) and presides over a coven of oversexed cougars (Chenoweth, Carol Kane and Jeanette Miller) who delight in reminding Kate that she was once a fat girl whose best friend was a dyke to watch out for, and Brad's hippie-dippy mom (Sissy Spacek) is sleeping with his former best friend. By the time they get to Kate's dad (Voight), who's finally settled down with a good, stable, age-appropriate woman, Brad and Kate are on the verge of breaking up, their picture-perfect relationship torn to shreds by their awful relatives.

So, do Kate and Brad come to the realization that family is the most important thing in the world? Well, gee, what do you think? And therein lies my problem with Four Christmases: For all the movie's jabs at puking babies, white-trash relatives, insidious underminers and selfish parents, it lacks the nerve to step up and admit that some families are so awful that their children are better off without them, and that some holidays are too debased for reclamation.

Which leads me to my favorite recent Christmas film, the documentary What Would Jesus Buy? (2007), about performance artist Bill Talen, a.k.a. the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping. Once upon a time I found Talen annoying, but these days I find myself thinking that he's really on to something.


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Forgiveness

(2004)
Directed by: Ian Gabriel.
Written by: Greg Latter.
With: Arnold Vosloo, Zane Meas, Denise Newman, Quanita Adams, Christo Davids, Elton Landrew, Hugh Masebensa, Lionel Newton, Jeremy Crutchley and Nan Hamilton.

Inspired by the real-life case of Dirk Coetzee and Sizwe Kondile — a member of South African's notorious Security Branch and the apartheid-era activist whose death was staged to look like a street crime -- Ian Gabriel's measured, doom-haunted drama about punishment, absolution and forgiveness unfolds in the wake of the country's emotionally-fraught Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.

The Commission granted former police officer Tertius Coetzee (Vosloo) absolution, but he's tormented by this part in the the death of college-aged freedom fighter Daniel Grootboom, whom Coetzee personally murdered while he was in in custody. Coetzee and his men then staged Daniel's death to look like a fatal carjacking. His soul still burdened, Coetzee travels to coastal fishing village Paternoster to ask the forgiveness of the dead man's family.

The Grootbooms are still shattered: Patriarch Hendrik (Maes) blames himself for sending Daniel to university; if his son had stayed at home none of this would have happened. His wife, Magda (Newman), is mired in giref and their surviving children, Sannie (Adams) and Ernest (Davids) — who grew up in the shadow of their "perfect" older brother — are just plain angry.

Realizing that he's asking too much of the broken family, Coetzee returns to his hotel to pack while Sannie calls Daniel's friend Llewellyn (Landrew), who tells her to keep Coetzee in town while he rounds up revenge-minded friends Zuko (Masebensa) and Luke (Newton). As the would-be assassins slowly make their way to Paternoster, Sannie is forced to invent reasons for Coetzee to spend time with her parents and brother; the result is something resembling the start of genuine reconciliation.

Filmmakers Gabriel and Latter tackle a thorny subject and do justice to its complexities for much of the film's running time; only in its last moments does it succumb to cliches of healing and closure at the end. They also offer South African actor Vosloo, who's spent most of his international career playing glowering heavies in action movies like Hard Target (1993), The Mummy (1999) and Blood Diamond (2006) , a rare opportunity to explore a more complex role, and he rises to the occasion. (In English and Afrikaans)


Frost/Nixon

(2008)
Directed by: Ron Howard
Written: by Peter Morgan
With: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones.

It's hard to believe that once upon a time, some 30-odd years ago, millions of Americans turned on their TVs and sat riveted by 90 minutes of two men talking. Four times. Granted, one was the disgraced former president Richard M. Nixon, whose ignominious resignation three years earlier was still painfully fresh in the country's collective mind. But still. And UK writer Peter Morgan's play about the behind-the-scenes research, negotiation and fundraising that produced the Frost-Nixon interviews, may not sound like natural-born movie material: It too is a whole lot of talk. But the talk is choice, and the film, directed by Ron Howard, is mesmerizing.

In the 1960s, English TV personality David Frost (Sheen) was everywhere. He made his name as host of the live sketch-comedy show That Was the Week that Was, whose biting political humor briefly got it banished from the airwaves. A string of subsequent hits allowed the telegenic writer-producer-actor to live the life of an international bon vivant, jetting around the world accompanied by a series of beautiful women, including actresses Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson and siger Diahann Carroll. Not bad for the son of a dirt-poor minister from Kent. But by the mid-'70s, Frost's star was fading; he was in need of a career jump start, and found it in the glowering Richard Nixon (Langella). The man who had resigned from the highest office in American politics in disgrace and vanished into luxurious exile, shielded by a presidential pardon, had never spoken publicly about his precipitous fall from power. Nixon was the get of the century, and Frost got him.

The behind-the-scenes machinations required to pull off this media coup provide the film's plot and occupy the supporting cast, including Matthew Macfadyen as Frost's long-suffering producer; Rockwell and Platt as James Reston, Jr. and Robert Zelnick, longtime political journalists who coached Frost prior to the interviews; Bacon as Nixon's head of staff, Jack Brennan, and Jones as his cutthroat agent, Swifty Lazar. But the main event is the verbal thrust and parry between Nixon, whose first presidential campaign died by the camera, and Frost, who was to the medium born.

Morgan is an actor's best friend — just ask Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker, who won Oscars for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. Sheen and Langella, who originated their roles on the London stage, have equally rich roles, but Langella's evocation of Nixon's sly wit, bitter paranoia and glowering demeanor is the stuff of fawning reviews and awards gossip, and poor Sheen, is stuck exactly where he was in The Queen: Delivering a subtly mercurial performance opposite a showstopper.


Games People Play

(2004)

Written, produced and directed by: James Roland Whitney.

Just as TV's Candid Camera prefigured reality shows like Punk'd and Scare Tactics, the Candid Camera feature What Do You Say To a Naked Lady? (1969) paved the way for this independent spin on extreme pranking.

Writer-producer-director Whitney began his filmmaking career with Just, Melvin, a lacerating documentary about his own family's miserable history of child abuse that feels a little too lurid for its own good intentions. This feature-length provocation chronicles the first round of "America's Most Uninhibited Game," which Whitney concocted and orchestrates with smarmy glee.

Six contestants, handpicked from a grueling audition at which they must confess deep emotional traumas and improvise explicit sex scenes, are placed in a series of embarrassing situations, directed to accomplish certain goals and given points based on how well they fulfill their assignments. Over a 72-hour period, the three men and three women — Joshua Coleman, Scott Ryan, David Maynard, Sarah Smith, Dani Marco and Elisha Imani Wilson — must complete tasks that range from persuading complete strangers to give them a urine sample to seducing unsuspecting delivery boys. The most elaborate prank involves pairs of contestants coyly enticing a stranger to their hotel room for "a naked trio," only to reveal that what they meant was that the three of them were going to do a hokey nude song-and-dance number.

Between rounds they're questioned by the game's judges, mediagenic therapist Gilda Carle and singer-comic Jim Caruso, who encourage them to pick at their deepest psychic scars until they bleed. Drawing blood takes very little picking, since the contestants have a lot of issues: compulsive-eating, sexual disorders, childhood abuse, parents lost under traumatic circumstances, part-time hustling... the range of dysfunction is breathtaking. Is this the ultimate sleazy reality project, a contrived and degrading spectacle or a biting satirical expose of the lengths to which people will go for fleeting fame?

It's actually all of the above, and the twist ending proves that the attractive contestants have more going for them than sheer nerve. But explaining what they're doing spoils the ending as surely as shouting "Bruce Willis doesn't know he's a ghost!" at someone who hasn't seen The Sixth Sense (1999), and you have to put up with a lot of grubby stuff for the payoff. There's no denying the freak-show appeal and you don't see frontal nudity like this on TV, but otherwise it's all as contrived and artificial as Survivor.


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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/Man som hatar kvinno

(2009)
Directed by: Niels Arden Oplev.
Written by: Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, based on the novel Man som hatar kvinnor ("Men Who Hate Women") by Stieg Larsson.
With: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre, Peter Haber, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson, Ingvar Hirdwall, Marika Lagercrantz, Bjorn Granath, Ewa Froling, Michalis Koutsogiannakis, Annika Hallin, Sofia Ledarp and Tomas Kohler.

How bittersweet is the runaway international success of Swedish journalist Steig Larrson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest? The 50-year-old Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004, having just delivered to his publisher the first three installments of what he envisioned as a 10-part series of crime novels that would, like Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall's celebrated Martin Beck series, refract overarching cultural trends through the prism of crime, criminals, punishment and punishers.

Middle-aged financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Nykvist), longtime publisher of the barely solvent, left-leaning magazine Millennium, is mired in the worst year of his life. Blomkvist's potentially game-changing investigation into the business practices of deeply dirty entrepreneur Hans-Erik Wennerstrom — a story he thought would lay bare the institutional corruption and chicanery beneath Sweden’s recent economic boom — has blown up in his face, and instead of kudos he's looking at both a crippling fine and a jail term.

Blomkvist resigns from Millennium in hopes of distancing the magazine from his personal disgrace and, with several months to kill before he must report to jail, accepts a quixotic assignment from aged industrialist Henrik Vanger (Taube). Vanger wants Blomkvist to pretend he's writing a personal history of the Vanger family while surreptitiously re-investigating the mysterious 1966 disappearance of Vanger's 16-year-old niece, Harriet.

Blomkvist is faced with a variation on the classic locked-room mystery: Harriet and several dozen members of her extended clan were trapped on the family-owned Hedeby Island; the only bridge was blocked by a fiery truck accident and several searches of both the island and the surrounding waters failed to turn up her body. Henrik believes a jealous relative is to blame: Every year since Harriet's disappearance, he's received a pressed flower in a frame, just like the ones Harriet gave him before she vanished.

What Blomkvist doesn't know is that he has a secret partner in super-hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rapace), who was hired by Vanger’s lawyer to vet Blomkvist and is not only convinced of his innocence, but believes that Harriet Vanger's disappearance is somehow connected to several grisly murders of the 1950s and '60s that the police failed to recognize as serial killings.

Danish-born director Orpev and screenwriters Arcel and Heisterberg judiciously pared away subplots and secondary characters to bring The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in at slightly over two-and-a-half hours, and even fans who miss the excised material will have to admit that the film stayed true to the story's dark heart. Blomkvist is a familiar film noir character, the decent man whose every guileless move is somehow turned against him.

Lisbeth Salander is something else entirely: Deeply damaged by the very social services designed to protect helpless children like the girl she once was, Salander is reflexively defiant and suspicious, angry and passionately committed to punishing men who hate women — that being the blunt title of Larsson's first novel.

Blomkvist may get more screen time, but the prickly Salander is the main event. It's a shame we'll never see most of what Larrson had in mind for her, but three books/films are better than none.


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The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

2009
Directed by: Daniel Alfredson.
Screenplay by: Ulf Rydberg, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson.
With: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Askel Morisse, Annika Hallin, Lena Edre, Micke Spreitz, Georgi Staykov, Hans Alfredson, Lennart Hjulstrom, Anders Ahlbom

The third and last film adapted from Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy begins moments after the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire: Having finally found and confronted her misogynistic father, the sadistic Soviet defector Alexander Zalachenko (Staykov), and literally clawed her way out of the shallow grave to which she was consigned by Ronald Niederman (Spreitz), the bloodied but unbowed Salander (Rapace) is rushed to Gothenberg Hospital with multiple gunshot wounds.

So is Zalachenko, who attempts to blame everything on the conspicuously absent Niedermann and assumes his longtime friends within "The Section,” a rogue division of Sweden’s national intelligence agency, will continue to protect him as they always have. But times and priorities have changed, and Zalachenko is assassinated in his hospital bed by old colleague Evert Gullberg (Alfredson), who commits suicide when he's unable to carry out the second half of his assignment: killing the troublesome Salander.

Gullberg’s ruthlessly pragmatic boss, Frederik Clinton (LHjulstrom), immediately defaults to plan B, which involves conspiring to have Salander recommitted to a mental hospital run by the perverted Dr. Teleborian (Ahlbom). Unfortunately for them, Salander’s sympathetic doctor (Morisse) believes crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) when he says she’s the victim of vast, high-level conspiracy and deliberately attenuates Lisbeth’s treatment, surreptitiously supplies her with a PDA hat connects her with her loyal network of friends and makes sure no one but Blomkvists’s sister, brilliant lawyer Annika Giannini (Annika Hallin), is allowed access to her.

Meanwhile, Blomkvist and his on-again-off-again lover Erika (Edre) start work on a special issue of their anti-establishment magazine "Millennium," ignoring anonymous and ever more vicious threats to expose both Salander’s ordeal and the well-connected men by whom it was orchestrated.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest never rises above the weaknesses of Larsson’s last novel, which strands Salander in a secure hospital room and Blomqvist behind a desk. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

&emdash; the first and by far the best of the trilogy &emdash; does everything right, ensnaring readers/viewers with not one but two mysteries: What happened to long-vanished heiress Harriet Vanger, and what dark secrets led to a genius like Salander being designated a mentally-impaired ward of the state? Though les compelling overall, The Girl Who Played With Fire is fueled by sheer pulp energy, from its cartoonish super-villains to the vast conspiracy that just keeps getting bigger and more lurid. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is all logy resolution, and while it's great to see Salander thoroughly and unequivocally vindicated (no, that’s not a spoiler), getting there is a long, tedious slog.


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Going the Distance

2010
Directed by: Nanette Burstein.
Written by: Geoff LaTulippe.
With: Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, Charlie Day Jason Sudeikis, Christina Applegate, Kelli Garner and Ron Livingston.

A music-industry slacker and an aspiring journalist try to nurture their fledgling relationship from opposite coasts in this disappointing rom-com, which runs a more-than-usually-plausible-premise right into the formulaic ground.

Erin (Barrymore), a 31-year-old intern at the fictitious “New York Sentinel,” knows she made a mistake when, in her 20s, she let love sideline her professional ambitions. Now older and wiser, she isn’t about to do it again. Sure, Erin is game for between-the-sheets tumble with the puppyish Garrett (Long), a low-level music-business lackey hiding from his own career insecurities by pretending they don't exist, but she's clear from the outset: Summer romance yes, lasting relationship, no. She has a graduate degree in journalism to finish, a career path to follow and a home in San Francisco to which she's returning in six weeks. Having just been dumped by the most recent in a long string of girlfriends, Garrett is just fine with that: He’s in no hurry to get his heart stomped again right this minute.

Of course, they’re so instantly adorable together that it’s a foregone conclusion Erin and Garrett are going to fall madly in love. But she sticks to her guns, at least the “going home” part, so they decide to try the bicoastal-relationship route. Hey: It's working for Garrett's perky, totally hot office mate, Brianna (Garner), so why not for them? Why not indeed: Things quickly get complicated as jealousy, frustration and insecurity rear their ugly heads. Erin’s married sister, Corinne (Applegate), doesn't want to see her derailed and devastated again. And while Garrett’s roommate, Dan (Day, of TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), is all for giving romance a chance, his flat-out weirdness actually gives possessive pal Box's (Sudeikis) hound-dog cynicism an edge.

But the real deal-breaker is shaping up to be work: Both Garrett and Erin are old enough to realize that nothing harshes the buzz of playing house with your soul-mate like lingering resentment over what you gave up for the privilege. Both are willing to relocate, but Garrett is loathe to give up a job he hates that’s in the business he loves, and while Erin still dreams of working for the "Sentinel," they’re laying off long-time staffers while her hometown paper, the venerable San Francisco Chronicle, is actually hiring.

Why are American romantic comedies in such a dismal state — it was Hollywood, after all, that gave the world My Man Godfrey (1936), His Girl Friday (1940), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), Annie Hall (1977), The Sure Thing (1985), Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and even My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). We're talking decades worth of comedies in which fairly reasonable adults who ought to be together are thwarted by complications that seem entirely reasonable within the context of decades whose mores are as different as those of the 1930s, '60s and '80s.

But today's screenwriters appear at a loss when it comes to devising reasons both relatively convincing and genuinely funny to keep apart adult characters who are manifestly right for each other, with the result actors who are often years older than the characters they're playing are reduced to sulking, pouting, scheming and generally carrying on like insufferable, hormonally-deranged teenagers. So kudos to screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe for coming up with a believably bliss-busting combination of geography and career concerns: Most adults can see how a potentially fine romance could founder on those particular rocks. Unfortunately, the premise is the only thing that does work.

Barrymore and Long are charming individuals and make a likable couple, but they’re not especially well-cast here: She has a sly, knowing quality that’s at odds with Erin’s goofy flakiness, and his nerdy love of Top Gun and vintage arcade games is far more convincing than the passion for music that’s supposed to define him. But what really does the film in is that so much of its dialogue is raunchy, juvenile and painfully unfunny. American Pie-style riffs on sideshow modes of self-gratification are fine in a sex farce, but they’re jarring in a story supposedly driven by faith in love’s transcendent power. Note to filmmakers: Love may make fools of us all, but fools and coarse, foul-mouthed vulgarians aren’t the same thing.


Gran Torino

(2008)
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Written by: Nick Schenk.
With: Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her.

Director-star Eastwood's bizarre cross between All in the Family and Death Wish is the kind of movie Don Siegel and Sam Fuller used to make, a blunt but perceptive slice of American discontent filtered through the prism of B-movie conventions.

Wiry former auto worker Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is the sum total of everything he's lost. The film opens at his wife's funeral, where his soft, self-centered children and their families can't contain or even bother to hide their boredom and impatience to get the hell out of there. Walt's job is gone, and even if it weren't, the Ford that spawned the mint-condition, 1972 Gran Torino crouched in his driveway — the one he helped build — is a thing of the past, as are his buddies from the line; they've died or moved. His neighborhood is overrun with foreigners and no one cares about old white guys like him; his grandkids have no respect, and their middle-aged parents wish he'd vanish into an old folk's homes and stop bitching about hard work and sacrifice. It's enough to make a man growl like a junkyard dog, and Walt does. Grrrr.

That Walt should ever befriend Hmong college student Sue (Ahney Her) and her younger brother, Thao (Bee Vang), seems the height of sentimental dramatic contrivance. But it happens the way things do when people of different races and similar finances wind up in the same neighborhoods. They walk the same streets, shop in the same stores, worry about the same things: Will that abandoned house become a crack den and haul down the whole block? Where are their taxes going, and will they still have jobs next year? Lives intersect. Walt spontaneously rescues Sue from some street corner thugs because he hates their profane, brutal bullying more than he hates her, even if she is, in Walt's formidablerepertory of racial slurs, a gook. Grrrr.

Thao gets off on every wrong foot possible: He first tries to borrow a set of jumper cables during the funeral reception and later, coerced by local gang, makes a pathetic attempt to steal Walt's Gran Torino. But Sue forces her brother into an abject apology, and pleads with Walt for a chance to mitigate the shame he's brought upon his family, by working for Walt. Neither Walt nor Thao is happy with the deal, but Sue is a breezily unstoppable force and Walt eventually discovers that Thao isn't a bad kid, though his gangbanging cousins are hellbent into hauling him into the kind of life that will chew him up and spit him out faster than you can say … well, anything Walt might say would be incendiary. Grrrr.

Sue even persuades Walt to come over for a party, where it can't fail to escape his notice that grandparents, aunties and uncles, parents, toddlers and teenagers are rubbing elbows. And those old ladies know how to cook, too. They're not some kind of Hallmark family or anything, but they beat the hell out of Walt's kids, who dutifully come by for his birthday bearing large-button phones and retirement-home brochures and dropping hints about what they'd like to inherit. Grrrrr.

Walt's growing engagement with the family next door comes to a dramatically expedient conclusion (if you introduce gangbanging cousins in the first act…), but it's surprisingly powerful. Gran Torino is a thornier movie than, say, Unforgiven, whose tone is clear from the outset. Gran Torino starts off on a note of queasy comedy; anyone old enough to have seen All in the Family when it first aired will recognize the exquisite discomfort engendered when Walt says something so casually, unthinkingly racist that you have to laugh. Something like, "Get me another beer, dragon lady. This one's empty," to Sue. It helps that she can hold her own: When Walt warns that she and her dog-eating family better stay away from his aging Labrador, she blithely retorts, "We only eat cats." So it's a little disorienting when Eastwood goes all Dirty Harry — foreshadowing, and the fact that if anyone is going to it might as well be him, notwithstanding.

But Gran Torino's discordances are also part of its appeal. It may be the story of a cranky old racist who learns to open his heart to a Laotian kid, but it's no sentimental hug fest. It doesn't end at a multicultural Thanksgiving table or simper that if we'd all just get along, everything else would work itself out. Schenk's script can be painfully obvious; we could do without hearing Walt bark, "Christ, I've got more in common with these gooks than I do my own family!" But there's a thrum of anxiety in the background, and it feels like Eastwood's doing: No one ever says that blue-collar jobs like the one that sustained Walt are vanishing, that low-income neighborhoods decaying because people like his kids flee to preplanned "communities" and cocoon themselves in consumerism, or that poor kids get seduced by thug life because as far as they're concerned, the American dream belongs to someone else. But you can sense larger social forces at work, and no small happy ending can make them go away.


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Green Zone

2010
Directed by: Paul Greengrass.
Written by: Brian Helgeland, inspired by Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction Imperial Life in the Emerald City.
With: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Yigal Naor and Khalid Abdalla.

Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008; U.S. release 2009) earned overwhelming positive reviews, in part by shoving the polarizing politics of America's Iraq war into the background. Irish director Paul Greengrass' Green Zone wears its politics on its sleeve, a nervy stance for a $100 million, major-studio thriller starring Matt Damon, since mainstream audiences of all ideological persuasions have so assiduously avoided movies about Iraq and the war on terror, from Brian De Palma's Redacted (2007) to Ridley Scott's Body of Lies (2008). Even the lauded Hurt Locker couldn't recoup its $15 million cost after six months in release.

Baghdad, 2003: One month after the "shock and awe" invasion, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) and his team are on the front lines of the search for deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's vast weapons stockpile — it was, after all, the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that justified American military intervention. But all they find is abandoned toilet factories, where the only biological threat is years' worth of calcified pigeon droppings.

Though military to the core, Miller can't help wondering whether there's something fishy about the intelligence. But Miller's questions are casually dismissed by his superiors, defense department weasel Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) and even his own men, who toe the "ours is not to reason why" line. The only sympathetic ear is cynical CIA operative Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), an old Middle-East hand whose warnings that American's plans to bring democracy to Iraq, starting with the installation of a puppet leader with strong Pentagon ties, guarantee that Iraq will quickly descend into civil war between rival Ba'athist, Sunni and Kurdish factions whose longtime animosities were kept in check by Saddam's brutal regime, are routinely ignored. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dane (Amy Ryan), who traded her integrity for exclusives, has begun to harbor her own suspicions about the top-secret informer codenamed Magellan, the Pentagon's primary source of information.

In the middle of yet another fruitless search for WMDs, an Iraqi civilian (Khalid Abdalla) alerts Miller off to a nearby meeting of high-level Ba'athist military officers; Miller gambles on his veracity and comes away with a glimpse of the fugitive General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor) and a notebook that everyone seems to want. The more Miller learns about the deals, agendas and compromises behind the carefully managed facade of Iraq's liberation, the closer he's drawn to a showdown between loyalty and principals.

/p> Greengrass is a bold, visceral director, as comfortable with using hand-held camera and frenetic editing to give fact-based narratives like United 93 (2003) the urgency of fiction and lend espionage fantasies like the Bourne movies a discomfiting air of reality. Unfortunately, Brian Helgeland's screenplay inspired by Washington Post editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran's scathing 2006 account of the machinations within Baghdad's heavily fortified green zone, where American administrators made key decisions about Iraq's future, relies so heavily on conspiracy clichés that it's easy to lose sight of how much fact is been woven into the fiction.

I imagine the filmmakers' intent was to use the conventions of action-packed entertainment to stimulate serious discussion about America's intentions and actions in Iraq, but I doubt that Green Zone will. The subject is so irrationally polarizing that it's more likely to reinforce existing opinions and fuel furious rants about liberal media and Hollywood leftists.


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The Hangover

(2009)
Directed by: Todd Phillips.
Written by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore.
With: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Heather Graham, Sasha Barrese, Jeffrey Tambor, Ken Jeong, Rachel Harris, Mike Tyson and Mike Epps.

Let's talk demographics: As in, 18 to the 24-year-old men who are the target audience for this lewd, crude comedy about baby-men behaving badly. That's not me, and yet I laughed my ass off.

In two days, Doug (Bartha) is marrying the rich and beautiful Tracy (Barrese). But before he ties the knot, his best friends — thoroughly whipped dentist Stu (former Daily Show correspondant Helms) and smarmy middle-school teacher Phil (Cooper) — are taking him for a Vegas blow-out. It would be nice if they weren't stuck with Tracy's big, fat, socially retarded brother, Alan (Galifianakis), but on the plus side, their dad (Tambour) lends the gang his totally sweet, vintage Mercedes for the trip.

The pals book a deluxes suit at Ceasar's Palace, sneak up to the roof for verboten toast and then… well, therein lies the problem. Phil, Alan and Stu wake up the next day with absolutely no memory of what happened then, which might not be a problem were there not a baby in the closet, a tiger in the bathroom, a chicken scratching around the pricy suite, a police car in the garage where the Mercedes should be and no sign of Doug anywhere.With the wedding less that two days away, Stu, Phil and Alan must reconstrucy their lost night o' debauchery in hopes of getting Doug to the church on time without letting on to their various wives, girlfriends and sundry relatives that anything is wrong. This naturally proves harder than they could imagine, given that every clue leads to further proof that the preceeding 12 hours were a marathon orgy of bad decisions, reckless behavior and misguided choices.

It's all-too easy to imagine the crappy movie The Hangover could have been, so kudos to screenwriters Lucas and Moore, whose previous credits (Four Christmases, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) gave no indication that they were capable of writing a witty, razor-sharp variation on bachelor-party horror tale Very Bad Things in which the testosterone-poisoned hijinks have slightly less dire and considerably funnier consequences.

Stu, Phil and Alan's increasing desperate quest to piece together their actions and thus, they hope, find Doug, is a marvel of unexpected twists and bizarre revelations: The circumstances under which amiable stripper/new-mom Jade (Graham) — aha! that's where the baby came from — came to be wearing the heirloom ring with which Stu intended to propose to his ball-busting girlfriend (Harris) is only one of the evening's mysteries. How, for example, did the tooth Stu doesn't remember losing wind up in Alan's pocket? Who's the naked Asian dude (Jeong) who springs from their trunk and beats the crap out of the lot of them with their own tire iron? And what in the name of all things holy is Mike Tyson doing in their hotel room, other than playing air drums to Phil Colllins' "Something in the Air?" Make no mistake: The Hangover is fiuk-mouthed, dirty minded and and rooted the kind of in grotesquely juvenile misbehavior that drives women to consider vows of perpetual chastity. It's also funny as hell: Even the predictable gags — if there's a sedated tiger in the backseat, you know it's going to wake up at the most inopportune possible moment — are flawlessly staged and timed. And stay for the closing credits: The montage of snapshots recovered from a missing and presumed-lost camera documents some especially scabrous excapades.


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Hard Candy

2006
Directed by: David Slade.
Written by: Brian Nelson.
With: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh.

Playwright Brian Nelson's schematic tale of the hunter captured by the game is a queasy blend of exploitation-movie nastiness and blunt moral lesson that generated heated controversy at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

After weeks of flirtatious e-mails, coltish 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Page) and 32-year-old has-been fashion photographer Jeff Kohver (stage veteran Wilson) arrange to meet at a Los Angeles mall cafe ominously called Nighthawks. The handsome and well-mannered Jeff doesn't look to Hayley like some perverted criminal, and Hayley certainly doesn't sound to Jeff like an innocent young teenager; when he suggests they continue their banter at his home, a tastefully minimalist glass-and-slate house in the Hollywood Hills, she readily agrees.

Soon Hayley is mixing up screwdrivers, cranking up the music and pleading with Jeff to photograph her, as he has the teenage models whose artfully enticing images line the walls. And Jeff is going with the flow while maintaining that he's "very aware of the legal boundaries," when he shoots underage girls like her. It looks as though Hayley has walked into a carefully constructed trap until suddenly everything changes: Jeff passes out and wakes up bound to a chair. Hayley drugged his drink and has some questions to ask about his taste in pornography and his relationships with teenagers like herself and, especially, the local girl who went missing some weeks ago. Let the mind games begin!

Though Nelson's play was directly inspired by accounts of underage girls in Japan turning vigilante on internet predators, he and director Brian Slade are working with the same basic material that produced such vicious and controversial feminist revenge films as I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Ms.45 (1981) and a host of lesser shockers. But they very deliberately downplay the sexual violence, focusing instead on the threat of grimly poetic retribution, and give Hayley and Jeff the hyper-articulate voices of debate-club superstars.

The desire to craft a consciously provocative film often produces a feature-length public-service announcement, but while Nelson and Slade's philosophical psychodrama is stagy and schematic, it's also undeniably gripping. The credit goes in large measure to Page, then only 17, and Wilson, whose performances are consistently riveting. And while Page's achievement is more immediately impressive, given her youth and the fact that she's a relatively unknown quantity (though she has an extensive resume in Canadian television), Wilson deserves considerable credit for doing such seethingly nuanced work while tied to a table with a bag of ice over his privates and the threat of castration hanging over his head.

The Hurt Locker

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

 

(2009)
Directed by: David Yates.
Written by: Steve Kloves, based on the book by J.K. Rowling.
With: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis, Helen McCrory, Jessie Cave, Evanna Lynch, Bonnie Wright, Helena Bonham-Carter, Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane.

The penultimate novel in J. K. Rowling's young-adult fantasy series slips deeper into the death-haunted gloom that has been slowly gathering around wizard-in-training Harry Potter (Radcliffe); his best friends, Ron Weasely (Grint) and Hermione Granger (Watson); and pretty much anyone associated with Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry whose magical inclinations tend to the benevolent since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Screenwriter Steve Kloves, who adapted all but Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, pares away a significant chunk of the Rowling's sixth book; the movie still comes in at just over two and a half hours, but director David Yates keeps it moving so briskly that it feels considerably shorter.

Half-Blood Prince opens with a spectacular sequence in which three Hogwarts-bound Death Eaters wreak havoc on London, causing devastation on a scale that even muggles -- ordinary humans without magical gifts -- can't help but notice. It's followed by an original scene in which Harry makes a date with a pretty waitress (or perhaps more correctly, she makes a date with him) and then stands her up because his services are required by wise old wizard Albus Dumbledore (Gambon). Taken together, the scenes neatly summarize the movie's underlying preoccupations: The gathering storm of Lord Voldemort's coming war on the world, the hormonal squalls beginning to buffeting Harry and his friends, and the price of being destined for greatness.

Harry, Ron and Hermione are now in their sixth year at Hogwarts, and the atmosphere at their beloved school has changed dramatically. Students' belongings are searched at the gates, Dumbledore's traditional "welcome back" speech includes a thinly veiled warning that danger often lurks close to home and Harry knows Draco Malfoy (Fenton) has surrendered to the left-hand path but must focus his energies on the mission with which Dumbledore has charged him: Gaining the confidence of Professor Slughorn (Broadbent), whom Dumbledore lured from retirement because he believes Slughorn's memories of Tom Riddle -- the future Lord Voldemort -- hold the key to averting a magical apocalypse. Meanwhile, imperious Professor Snape (Rickman), he of the acid tongue and suspect loyalties, enters into a secret pact with Draco's mother (McCrory) and witchy aunt (Bonham-Carter), an act whose profound consequences propels the Potter saga towards its final installment.

These grim developments play out against the backdrop of teen soap opera: Harry takes his friendship with Ron's younger sister (Wright) to the next level; Ron finds a girlfriend in the ferociously possessive Lavender Brown (Cave); Hermione is left crying into her butter beer. Oh, the sweet agony of young love!

Part of Rowling's genius lies in precisely this juxtaposition of the monumental and the trivial: Her core audience is of the age at which it's possible to be equally passionate about the human rights and the battle to banish pimples and batter recalcitrant hair into perfectly silky, swingy submission. That, and her pitch-perfect appeal to the fantasy of being plucked from boring, everyday life because someone has finally noticed that you're very, very special, a fantasy that fuels everything from dreams of becoming a supermodel or pop star to learning that you're kidnapped royalty. What has consistently elevated the films above their goofy dragons-and-princesses bretheren is the casting. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson, who've grown with their characters from adolescents to young adults, are talented striplings. But they stand on the shoulders of giants, several generations of formidable UK actors who include Gambon and the late Richard Harris (whose role Gambon assumed), Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, David Thewlis, Ralph Fiennes (his nephew, Hero Fiennes-Tiffen plays the young Riddle in Half-Blood Prince; Frank Dillane, son of acclaimed actor Stephen, plays him as a teenager), Timothy Spall, Fiona Shaw, Ian Hart, John Cleese, Ciarin Hinds, Kenneth Branagh, Zoe Wanamaker, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Simon McBurney, Bonham-Carter, Emma Thompson, Miranda Richardson, Shirley Henderson, Julie Christie, Gemma Jones and Imelda Staunton. Their presence goes a long way to grounding Rowling's world of spells and fantastic creatures firmly in the realm of real human relationships and experience.


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The Haunting in Connecticut

(2009)
Directed by: Peter Cornwell.
Written by: Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe.
With: Virginia Madsen, Martin Donovan, Kyle Gallner, Elias Koteas and Amanda Crew.

"Some things cannot be explained," warn the posters. Well, amen to that: I'm at a total loss to explain why the claim "based on a true story" is supposed to make a movie scary, or why people persist in believing tales of supernatural hijinks long after they've been thoroughly debunked. Inspired by the supposedly well-documented account of a family's ordeal with unquiet spirits, The Haunting in Connecticut is this generation's Amityville Horror.

Continue to the full review.


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Hell Ride

(2008)
Directed by: Larry Bishop.
Written by: Larry Bishop.
With: Larry Bishop, Michael Madsen, Julia Jones, Pete Randall, Vinnie Jones, David Carradine, Eric Balfour, Laura Coyouetteand Dennis Hopper.

Actor-turned-filmmaker Larry Bishop's carefully crafted pastiche is a painfully self-conscious homage to biker films of yesteryear. It miss a wild-deadly-angels-devils-sadists-revenge cliché and it can't hold a candle to the down-and-dirty likes of The Glory Stompers and Werewolves on Wheels. Thirty-two years ago, Pistolero (Bishop), head of the Victors biker gang, lost his smoking-hot motorcycle mama, Cherokee Kisum (Jones) to an act of revenge. Members of a rival club, the 666, slit her throat and burned her alive in retaliation for the theft of some drug money and now one of Pistolero's crew, Johnny St. Louie (Randall), has just suffered the same grisly fate. That can only mean one thing: The Sixers are back on the scene and want everyone – especially Pistolero – to know it.

They're regrouping under mad-dog Billy Wings (Jones) and old-time cycle savage Deuce (Carradine), and it gradually becomes apparent that they're looking for a strong box that just may contain the cash that went missing all those years ago. So Pistolero, his old pal The Gent ( Madsen) and young-gun Comanche (Balfour) – who just might be Pistolero and Cherokee's long-lost son – rustle up old-timer Eddie "Scratch" Zero (Hopper) and take on their old enemies. Or at least, that's when they do when they aren't barreling down dusty back roads, pawing silicon-breasted, rump-shakers half their age and reminiscing about the bad old days at biker bars like Dani's Inferno, named for its owner, the trampalicious Dani (Coyouette). To be fair, most authentic biker movies are full of dead spots, from cheap obscurities like Sinner's Blood to the high profile likes of Easy Rider (both 1969). In fact, it's not unfair to say that the bulk of them are pretty damned dull once you're done marveling at how desolate great swatches of California used to be, enlivened only by outbursts of sex and violence and the occasional surreal poetry that emerges from improvised scenes involving non-professional extras.

That said, and despite the fact that Bishop (the son of comedian Joey Bishop) appeared in a handful of 1960s and '70s biker pictures as a young actor, his film commits the sin of being both dull and pretentious, enlivened only by Daniele Luppi's witty, pitch perfect score and the occasional pithy zinger from one of the old timers. It's not easy to resurrect the grungy glory of grind houses, and when Hopper's Eddie Zero hisses, "the brotherhood of bikers is bullshit," it's hard not to extend the sentiment to neo-biker movies.


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Herb and Dorothy

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Megumi Sasaki.

There’s an obvious human-interest angle on Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, the NYC couple who spent 30 years amassing a world-class collection of contemporary American art on the salaries of a librarian and a postal worker. But Japanese-raised local documentarian Megumi Sasaki steps back and lets them tell their own tale, supplemented by testimony from the artists they befriended when they were all young, broke and driven—such as Chuck Close and Christo.

Read the full review on Time Out New York's website.


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Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore

2010
Directed by: Jimmy Maslon and Frank Henenlotter.
Written by: Jimmy Maslon.
With: Herschell Gordon Lewis, David F. Friedman, John Waters, Joe Bob Briggs, Jim Dennett, Frank Henenlotter, Bill Johnson, Bunny Yaeger, Andy Romanoff, Mal Arnold, Kevin Thomas, Roger Christensen, Steven Poster, Ray Sager, Vincent Santo, Robert Lewis and Daniel Krogh.

“I’ve often compared Blood Feast to a Walt Whitman poem,” says the lanky, genial Herschell Gordon Lewis, by way of introducing his first and most notorious gore movie. “It was no good, but it was the first of its kind.” A fair enough assessment, and a revealing one: Lewis taught at Mississippi State University before his purely financial investment in a low-budget studio—Chicago-based Mid-Continent Films—launched a very different career.

Crammed with clips, behind-the-scenes footage and other archival material, Jimmy Maslon and Frank Henenlotter's documentary love letter to the pioneering exploitation filmmaker examines that decidedly different career with good humor and buckets of blood.

Lewis only intended to produce Mid-Continent’s first feature, a good-girl-gone-bad drama called The Prime Time (1959), but quickly fired director Gordon Weisenborn -- “He was very good at lighting beer cans and that kind of nonsense, but directing actors was a little bit beyond him” -- and took over himself. The result didn’t make much money, but through it Lewis met David F. Friedman, who worked in Paramount’s publicity department and was a limited partner in a small distribution company. Lewis and Friedman were two of a kind: natural-born hucksters who loved the art of selling movies as much as -- if not more than -- actually making them. Both were keen trend-spotters, gleefully shameless panderers to the allure of the shocking and thoroughly pragmatic about their chosen business.

They stared out making nudie-cutie movies, 100% sex-free pictures that showcased pretty girls in their birthday suits pursuing wholesome activities like jumping rope, bouncing on trampolines and playing tennis; nudie-cuties were made possible (and profitable) by a recent Supreme Court ruling that nudity in and of itself did not constitute obscenity. After shooting several features in and around Florida nudist colonies -- an experience that left Friedman and Lewis with an apparently endless supply of amusing anecdotes, many of which they share here -- the duo started brainstorming the next big thing. After all, how many bare breasts and behinds could any market support? They decided it was graphic violence and, inspired by an Egyptian-themed motel they discovered while shooting nudist-camp footage,, they concocted the primitive but enthusiastically gory Blood Feast (1963). The title says pretty much anything you need to know, and it was as loved by drive-in and grindhouse thrill-seekers as it was reviled by critics.

The partnership broke up after 1965’s Color Me Blood Red, but Lewis kept on making movies until 1972, turning out hillbilly comedies (Moonshine Mountain, This Stuff’ll Kill Ya), an all-girl biker flick (She-Devils on Wheels), hippie pictures (Blast-Off Girls, The Girl, the Body, and the Pill) and sundry works for hire. In the ’70s he went into direct sales and marketing with considerable success, which is probably a large part of the reason he regards his exploitation career with affection rather than the bitterness characteristic of contemporaries whose later years were spent in obscure poverty.

The Godfather of Gore’s interviews with actors, crew and fringe-culture commentators are uniformly articulate, funny and steeped in the details of a wild-and-woolly age of independent production so alien to today’s business that it verges on the surreal. Standouts include directors John Waters, who fell in love with Blood Feast at a Baltimore drive-in and praised Lewis lavishly in his 1981 book Shock Value, introducing the “godfather of gore” to a new generation of hipsters, and Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case), a lifelong fan of exploitation movies, who describe their excesses lovingly but without rose-colored nostalgia. There's also body-builder Mal Arnold, who stumbled into a bit as an extra on Lewis’ Daughter of the Sun (1962) and one year later wound up starring as mad Egyptian caterer Fuad Ramses in Blood Feast; along with cinematographers Andy Romanoff and Steven Poster, both of whom started working with Lewis when they were barely out of their teens and went on to lengthy (and in Poster’s case, illustrious) careers; and James Dennett, who at the start of his career as a production manager saw the slender, thoroughly non-violent Lewis punch out the belligerent head of Chicago’s stagehands’ union for calling him a “Jew bastard.”

The movie clips are generous (probably too generous for the faint of heart) and supplemented by outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage; a handful of newly edited together scenes from the uncompleted An Eye for an Eye (1967), in which an eye transplant also confers telepathic powers on the recipient, are a particular treat. Produced by Something Weird Video, which owns the video/DVD rights to the bulk of Lewis’ output, The Godfather of Gore never pretends to be an objective assessment of Lewis’ career and cultural importance. That may be the reason it ignores the soft-core sex movies he made in the late ’60s under a variety of pseudonyms, and why the reminiscences are so uniformly positive: No matter how genial Lewis may have been -- and all the evidence suggests that he was far nicer, less crass and generally better company than some of his colleagues -- there must be someone whose memories of working on his fast, cheap and frankly exploitative pictures are less than glowing. But the Godfather of Gore is a fan’s movie, and fans should love it.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form in Film Journal International.


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Hobo With a Shotgun

2011
Directed by: Jason Eisener.
Written by: John Davies.
With: Rutger Hauer, Gregory Smith, Brian Downey, Molly Dunsworth, Nick Bateman.

Canadian filmmaker Jason Eisener’s homage to grindhouse movies past is a pitch-perfect recreation of the brutal, low-budget crime films of the ’70s, which is simultaneously the best and the worst thing about it.

From the moment the grizzled, weather-beaten, nameless hobo (exploitation veteran Hauer) shuffles off a freight train and into Hope Town (whose obligatory “Welcome to” sign has been obscenely defaced), it’s clear that he’s found hell on earth. Homeless men and women cower in doorways and behind dumpsters, terrorized by junkies, punks, thrill-seeking sadists and bum-fight promoters; barely-dressed hookers pace the nighttime streets and crooked cops look the other way as sociopathic crime lord “The Drake” (Downey) presides over a nonstop orgy of murder, torture and degradations with his sons, Slick and Ivan (Smith and Bateman). Law-abiding citizens unable to leave keep their heads low, their eyes on the ground and their children close at hand.

The hobo has clearly seen some dirty towns and knows how to stay out of harm’s way, but something moves him to intervene when fresh-faced streetwalker Abby (Dunsworth, who bears a striking resemblance to Jennifer Grey) follows Slick into a back alley and nearly becomes another Hope City statistic. Abby in turn takes the hobo in after Slick retaliates. His conscience reawakened, the hobo picks up a pawnshop shotgun and starts wiping out the scum of Hope Town, meting out justice “one shell at a time.” The scum, of course, don’t take his vigilante clean-up campaign lying down.

Like Robert Rodriguez’s 2010 Machete, Hobo with a Shotgun started life as a fake trailer, though not one of the five made for Grindhouse: Eisener, screenwriter John Davies and producer Rob Cotterill created it for Rodriguez’s 2007 SXSW “Grindhouse Trailer Competition,” which challenged fans to make their own shameless coming attractions for outrageous, fake trash movies. It beat out some stiff competition, if the runners-up, a rock ’n’ roll female-revenge thriller called “Maiden of Death” and the zombie-sex gore-fest “The Dead Won’t Die,” are anything by which to judge, and the combination of YouTube exposure and a limited theatrical release (in Canadian theatres showing Grindhouse) created enough buzz that the filmmakers were able to get financing for a feature.

Eisener and company are clearly intimately familiar with the look, sound and attitudes of genuine grindhouse movies of the ’70s and early ’80s, movies like Thriller: A Cruel Story, Class of 1984, Ricco, I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left, full-frontal assaults on good taste and mainstream morals. And cultural detritus though most of them were, the unrepentantly vicious, down-and-dirty unpredictability of real exploitation movies has an undeniable appeal, especially now that their slick, brain-dead, formulaic descendents have taken over mainstream filmmaking.

But the Hobo team runs headlong into the same wall as everyone from master-fans Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino to highbrow pasticheurs like David Gordon Green ( Undertow) and Craig Brewer ( Black Snake Moan): You can get everything right except the context — without real grindhouse theatres in real rundown urban neighborhoods going to hell on a real wave of apocalyptic ’70s pessimism, they’re just incredible simulations.

Hobo does get everything right, from the sentimentality of the hobo’s small dream of starting a lawn-mowing business to Abby’s sudden love of bears after he tells her a bedtime story about nature’s loners — Abby’s broad Canadian “o”s feel like part of the endless hommage, since many of those good old gritty thrillers and crime bloodbaths were shot in Toronto, whose worst streets had to be extensively set-dressed to make them look bad neighborhoods in New York, Chicago or Detroit. Karim Hussain’s too-bright Technicolor cinematography is flawless. So is Ewen Dickson’s production design, from The Drake’s neon and black-light punk club to Abby’s dumpy apartment, complete with a sad swatch of sparkly cloth tacked to the wall over her bed. Ditto the music, a mix of Eurotrash-inspired, synth-heavy progressive chorales and knockoff rock (love that end credits song!), and the costume design—all those photo-op-ready punks, streetwalkers dressed in some fashionista fantasy of degradation chic and The Drake in his white polyester suit, the better to host his guerrilla game shows from hell. Not to mention The Plague, two robo-biker dudes who live in a gothic castle and drag an armored coffin behind their hogs—that’s just the kind of lunatic, out-of-left-field…um, stuff that used to drive Times Square audiences insane. It’s all perfect, but it’s perfectly fake and frankly just makes me want to see Detroit 9000 or Sudden Death again. And again and again.

This review first appeared in Film Journal International.


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Hot Fuzz

2007
Directed by: Edgar Wright.
Written by:/ Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.
With: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Timothy Barlow, Alice Lowe, Steve Coogan, Edward Woodward, Paddy Considine, Olivia Colman, Bill Nighy, Robert Popper, Joe Cornish, Eric Mason, Billie Whitelaw, Peter Wight and Julia Deakin.

The U.K. trio behind 2004’s bitingly funny Shaun of the Dead — director/co-writer Edgar Wright, costar Nick Frost and co-writer/star Simon Pegg — found their next target at the intersection of noisy American balls-to-the-wall action pictures and the kind of British mystery in which comfy little towns prove to be rotten with dirty secrets. And against all odds, it's as laceratingly entertaining as its predecessor.

Supercop Nicholas Angel (Pegg) is the best damned officer on London's Metropolitan Police Force, and his fellow officers are sick to death of him. He's humorless, annoyingly PC, relentlessly competitive and exasperatingly by-the-book, and his arrest record makes everyone else look like useless layabouts. So the powers-that-be (Freeman, Nighy and the uncredited Coogan) exile him to quaint little Sandford, a finalist for the title of most picturesque village in England and a hotbed of, well, not much.

The town's zealous neighborhood-watch group is less concerned with what little petty law-breaking there is than with getting rid of that tacky mime whose faux-bot antics are mucking up Sanford's carefully calculated "ye olde" vibe and Angel's vigorous campaign to arrest and prosecute underage drinkers and intoxicated drivers irritates the hell out of everyone, cops and citizens alike. Angel just can't get it through his law-and-order head that all the Sanford police force is expected to do is mediate squabbles between neighbors and collar the occasional renegade swan that decides to run amok rather than floating serenely in its pond. And the beauty of Wright and Pegg's sly sense of humor is that, having introduced an obstreperous swan in the first act, they make sure it plays an integral part in the film's ludicrously bloody conclusion.

In between, Angel tumbles onto a bizarre crime wave that everyone from Chief Butterman (Broadbent) to the preening supermarket mogul (Dalton) who heads the neighborhood watch, pooh-poohs as nothing more than unfortunate accidents. The unctuous local lawyer and his tarty girlfriend? They were merely decapitated in a simple car accident. That fellow who was blown up in his tasteless McMansion? Just a drunk trying to make beans and toast — sad really, but a match plus a gas leak equalsboom. The crusading local reporter squashed by a piece of falling masonry? Tragic, and that's exactly why the vicar was hosting a benefit for the church's building fund — so such awful mishaps could be averted.

Angel's only ally is Butterman’s fat, clueless son, PC Danny Butterman (Frost), whose idea of real police work is entirely shaped by American action pictures whose marathon shootouts, reckless car chases and tough-guy snarkiness have nothing to do with policing in Sandford. At least, not until Angel cuts loose.

Hot Fuzz’s mix of compulsive politeness and head-spattering gore is inevitably less startlingly fresh than Shaun of the Dead's, but that only makes it all the more astonishing that the film's poker-faced outrageousness works so well.


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The Hurt Locker

2009
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow.
Written by: Mark Boal.
With: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Guy Pearce.

Kathryn Bigelow’s timely, defiantly personal war movie, written by journalist Mark Boal (whose 2004 Playboy article “Death and Dishonor” inspired In the Valley of Elah), is a vivid, pitiless, ensemble portrait of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Squad that neither glorifies nor vilifies men simultaneously hooked on war's adrenaline rush and painfully aware that their addiction will poison the dream of going home that's keeping them alive.

The year is 2004, the place is Baghdad and the men of Delta Company have one mission: To defuse IEDs for another 38 days without blowing themselves to bloody bits. Bigelow and Boal’s narrative strategy is to stay close to the ground; There are no scenes in which high-level military strategists discuss geopolitical big picture, no nods to civilian analysts parsing the causes and consequences of America's military presence in Iraq. The Hurt Locker is all about the now: These men, this day, this street and that suspicious vehicle or pile of rubble pierced by a suspicious wire. Living to see another day hinges on cutting one wire rather than another, or recognizing which local shopkeeper is using his cell phone to let his wife know he’ll be late for dinner and which is about to detonate a bomb.

Just so you know they’re serious, the filmmakers pull a Psycho early on, casually blowing up an above-the-title actor before getting down to the story proper, which involves the integration of new Staff Sergeant William James (Renner) into the tight-knit ranks of Delta Company. James is a loose cannon who never met an explosive device he didn’t want to seduce and destroy, while methodical Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Mackie) pins his hopes of making it home alive on procedure and protocols, while high-strung Specialist Owen Eldridge (Geraghty) is slowly strangling on his own terror and the exhausting effort of concealing it.

In outline, this sounds like some cliched WWII drama, but Renner, Mackie and Geraghty infuse their characters with seething, unpredictable life: Yes, James is trailer trash with predictably messy personal problems and an XYY-jock’s addiction to danger. But just when you think you have him pegged he goes left when he should have gone right. James, Eldridge and Sanborn are types without being stereotypes, predictable right up until the moment they aren’t just as The Hurt Locker is a white-knuckle action movie until the moment it shifts imperceptibly into psychological drama.

Bigelow first gained attention as a woman who directs action like a man (and t didn’t hurt that she was smart and beautiful into the bargain), but her skill with actors comes to the fore in Hurt Locker, starting with the casting of the pudding-faced Renner: He’s done work as good before (notably in the title role in 2002’s little-seen Dahmer), but the high-profile Hurt Locker put him front and center in a role that showed just how much he could do with no apparent effort. With any luck, Mackie and Geraghty — two equally fine actors who’ve spent years in supporting roles in which their looks counted for more than their abilities — will also benefit. The irony, of course, is that part of what makes their performances so powerful is their relative anonymity; they could easily be real soldiers, a perception enhanced by Barry (United 93) Ackroyd’s you-are-there photography.

That said, even better-known actors with distinctive faces — Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Morse — are absorbed into Bigelow’s ground-level vision of war. Criticism that Bigelow and Boal’s relentless focus on the feverish intensity of living with constant danger and the rush that comes from beating the odds is as misguided as reading the movie’s “war is a drug” tagline as an endorsement: The Hurt Locker is about addiction, not partying, pathological maintenance, not good times. James isn’t better than the others because he admits that he’s hooked on the thrill and unfit for peacetime life. He’s just more overtly damaged: Sanborne and Eldridge live for the hope that they’ll make it home, and be able to reclaim not just their old lives, but the old selves who used to live them.


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I am Number Four

2011
Directed by: D.J. Caruso.
Written by: Alfred Gough &nd Miles Millar and Marti Noxon, based on the novel by “Pittacus Lore” (James Frey and Jobie Hughes).
With: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Callan McAuliffe, Kevin Durand and Jake Abel.

Tattooed monsters in fetish gear hunt down and kill alien teens in this bland sci-fi action movie adapted from the first in a projected series of young-adult novel.

Nine alien youngsters, each named with a number and accompanied by a warrior/guardian, fled their home planet, Lorien, after it was laid waste to by a race of tattooed, genocidal monsters called Mogadorians, who bear a striking resemblance to Clive Barker's Cenobites. Now teenagers, the Lorian refuges are scattered across the globe but linked by a powerful psychic bond, so blondly handsome Florida beach-boy Number Four — who’s adopted the more human-sounding (if conspicuously “anonymous”) name John Smith (Pettyfer) — is painfully aware of the deaths of Numbers One through Three, which happen in rapid succession.

He also knows that the Mogadorians, apparently in the thrall of some alien-monster form of obsessive/compulsive disorder, can only kill the fugitive Loriens in sequence, which means he’s next in line. So John and his guardian, Henri (Olyphant), pull up stakes and relocate to sleepy little Paradise, Ohio, in hopes of throwing off the interstellar hellhounds on their trail.

In short order, John falls in love with cool photographer chick Sarah (Glee cheerleader Agron); befriends cute little nerd-boy Sam (McAuliffe), the son of a nutty UFO buff who vanished under mysterious circumstances; and adopts an adorable beagle pup, which is a lot of encumbrances for someone who needs to be ready to leave town on a moment’s notice. John also earns the enmity of bull-necked jock Mark (Jake Abel), yet another no-no for someone who’s supposed to be keeping a low profile… boys will be boys, no matter what planet they hail from.

And God save undercover extraterrestrials from the curse of YouTube: No matter how circumspect they’re trying to be, if there’s someone nearby with a smart-phone when they experience an unexpected burst of otherworldly power, their secret is only as safe as its proximity to a hundred cute cat videos.

Based on the first in a projected series by Jobie Harris and James Frey (disgraced author of the partly fictionalized memoir A Million Little Piecess), I Am Number Four is inoffensive enough, assuming you can divorce the title from memories of the genuinely innovative Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner and ignore the fact that its message — that popular kids peak in twelfth grade, while high-school misfits inherit the Earth — is roughly a quarter of a century past its sell-by date.

Both the book and the novel speak squarely to the pressing concerns of high-school students — popularity, pressure to conform, sex, acne, bullying, the nagging sense that everyone else is blissfully normal — without shedding any particularly original light on them. But you can’t really call that a flaw, at least not a flaw of intent. Originality — real originality, as opposed to this season’s originality — isn’t particularly prized by the vast majority of I Am Number Four target audience, which is not adult film critics.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal.


I Sell the Dead

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Glenn McQuaid.
With: Dominic Monaghan, Ron Perlman, Larry Fessenden, Angus Scrimm, John Speredakos, Eileen Colgan and Brenda Cooney.

How long has it been since you saw a good movie about resurrectionists? A while, I'll wager: There's the atmospheric Body Snatcher (1945) with Boris Karloff, one of the tiny gems turned out by Val Lewton's legendary RKO unit; the lurid Flesh and the Fiends (1960), based on the real-life exploits of Scottish resurrectionists Burke and Hare; and 1985's The Doctor and the Devils, inspired by the same case and based on a 1953 screenplay by poet Dylan Thomas. Writer-director

Glenn McQuaid's I Sell the Dead is as good as any of them, but he places the basic elements — 19th-century setting, grinding poverty, a doctor willing to pay well for fresh corpses and a city full of derelicts and drifters who won't be missed — at the service of a fresh, darkly funny blend of crime and supernatural hijinks.

In the movie's opening sequence, veteran body snatcher Willie Grimes (producer Fessenden) is guillotined for his crimes as his younger partner, Arthur Blake (Monaghan), receives a temporary reprieve. Hulking holy man Father Francis Duffy (Perlman), who worries for Blake's soul and wonders about Blake's state of mind, has paid the executioner for time to speak with the condemned man. Blake obliges with the story of his association with Grimes, who began teaching him the tricks of the trade when Blake was just a child.

For a long time they were just work-a-day resurrectionists, says Blake, always devising new ways to pilfer squishy corpses and turn them into hard cash. Everything changes the night they get a tip about a woman buried at a remote crossroads: Who would inter a pretty young woman in the middle of nowhere, bulbs of garlic strung around her neck and a stake through her chest? The resurrectionists are shocked to see a real resurrection when they remove the stake: They've dug up a vampire and she's hungry. Clever lads that they are, Blake and Grimes figure out a way to rid themselves of their most demanding client, a well-connected doctor (Scrimm) who always needs new corpses for his dissecting class and threatens to denounce Grimes and Blake if they don't keep the merchandise coming. Once he's out of their lives, Grimes, Blake and Blake's ambitious girlfriend, Fanny (Cooney), start serving the specialty market for weird corpses — aliens, zombies and sundry monsters.

That's a nifty premise and McQuaid has some fine fun with it, delivering an offbeat but carefully balanced mix of shocks, homages and uneasy chuckles. A lifelong fan of the Hammer studio's gothic horror, McQuaid manages to make Staten Island look like 19th-century England by way of the Universal backlot and populates his story with colorful characters, including a thug with a mouthful of dog's teeth and Valentine, a burn victim who hides her disfigurement behind an Eyes Without a Face-style mask.

I Sell the Dead is the kind of surprise that keeps trickling out of the House of Fessenden, a micro-budget production operation equally at home with art-house dramas like The Liberty Kid and gritty little horror movies, including The House of the Devil, The Roost and actor-producer-director Fessenden's own The Last Winter. Clever and resourcefully art-directed though though the film, the I Sell the Dead's success ultimately depends on the low-key chemistry between Grimes and Blake. Whether bickering like an old married couple or shrieking their way through an odd little tip of the hat to E.T., they're a scruffier Hope and Crosby, forever on the road to the next fresh hell and determined to make the best of it.


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I Woke Up Early The Day I Died

(1999)
Directed by: Aris Iliopulos
Written by: Edward D. Wood Jr.
With: Billy Zane, Abraham Benrubi, Sandra Bernhard, Karen Black, Tippi Hedren, Eartha Kitt, Ann Magnuson, Andrew McCarthy, Conrad Brooks, Will Patton, Christina Ricci, Bud Cort Max Perlich, John Ritter, Summer Phoenix, Carel Struycken, Jonathan Taylor Thomas , Ron Perlman, Rich Schroder, Nicollette Sheridan, Steven Weber and Maila Nurmi.

Take an unproduced screenplay by Edward D. Wood Jr., widely acclaimed as the best worst filmmaker of all time, and persuade his widow that its time has come. Add a first-time feature director and a cast chock full of indie movie icons and Hollywood oddballs. Shoot it without dialogue, and add music, sound effects and snippets of demented voice-over narration in post production. The result: A prefab “cult classic” whose deliberate amateurishness lacks the threadbare charm of Woods’ own work — what the poverty-row auteur lacked in skill and resources, he made up for with a pure, passionate love of filmmaking.

A nameless thief (Zane) with a morbid sensitivity to sound busts out of the loony bin by dressing as a nurse (cross-dressing was, of course, a recurring theme in Woods’ life and work), robs a loan company — killing a clerk in the process — and then loses the loot, which he spends the rest of the film trying to recover. Iliopolis' vision appears to have seduced an astonishingly diverse cross-section of Hollywood hipsters and has-beens, including comediennes Sandra Bernhard and Ann Magnuson, Christina Ricci, Harold and Maude star Bud Cort , Will Patton, Max Perlich, Bud Cort, Ron Perlman, Hitchcock heroine Tippi Hedren (who narrowly escapes being brained with a wooden seagull), chanteuse Eartha Kitt, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and John Ritter, along with Wood regulars Conrad Brooks and Maila Nurmi (better known as Vampira, the mother of all TV horror hosts) and Wood's widow, Kathy. All of which is very cool but doesn’t add up to a movie.

I Woke Up… is an amazing object, from its decor and lighting (which mix 1970s tackiness with odd '50s touches) to its elaborate sound design. But the marvel of its elaborate faux artlessness wears very thin, very fast. Then it’s just dull, the one thing Woods’ movies never were.


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Inception

2010
Written and Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Michale Caine, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao.

In a not-too-distant future, no one’s secrets are safe, not even those buried in the deepest recesses of their minds: High-tech “extraction” technology allows teams of spies-for-hire to manipulate the dreams of others, creeping around their thoughts and riffling through their subconscious minds.

Dominic Cobb (DiCaprio) is the best in the business —good enough that even former victims like corporate hotshot Saito (Watanabe) turn to him when they need someone to do the impossible. Saito is in a position to offer Cobb the one thing he wants most in the world: a way home. Saito’s connections can erase the murder charge that forced Cobb to flee his country and abandon his children to the care of their grandfather (Caine), and all he has to do in return is get inside the head of Richard Fischer (Murphy), heir to a multinational empire, and plant the idea to dismantle it so deep that Fischer will believe he thought of it all by himself.

Conventional wisdom has it that mental capital only flows one way: You can dig it out, but you can’t sneak it in. Cobb knows otherwise and assembles a team willing to do the mindwarp with him: chameleon Eames (Hardy), who can assume any identity within a dream; chemist Yusuf (Rao), whose concoctions facilitate deep, prolonged sleep; architect Ariadne (Page), who imagines every physical detail of the dream world; and point-man Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), who sweats whatever details need sweating.

The only newbie in the bunch, Ariadne quickly realizes what the others don’t: that the persistent dream presence of Cobb’s late wife, Mal (Cotillard) — whom he was accused of killing — isn’t just a pesky sign of lingering grief. It’s a giant, flashing-neon warning that Cobb is on the fast track to a full-blown mental meltdown.

By their nature, rubber-reality movies walk a thin line between clever and stupid. But when they work, the balancing act is breathtaking: Just think back to 1999, when The Matrix had fanboys, mall rats and cineastes alike lined up for a tumble down the rabbit hole. Inception owes both The Matrix and the all-but-forgotten Dreamscape (1984), in which a psychic is unwittingly drawn into a plot to assassinate the President of the United States in his dreams, a debt of imagination. But writer-director Christopher Nolan is much more than a crass recycler of other people’s cool ideas, and his greatest strength is the ability to tether pop-culture spectacle to authentic emotions.

If Inception were all spectacle, it would be nothing more than magic trick of the month: nifty but disposable, at the mercy of smart alecks eager to reveal the cogs and wheels behind the illusion. But while one day soon the eye-popping effects will inevitably look dated, Cobb’s misery — a messy mix of grief, guilt, denial and resentment — will continue to feel painfully real. Whether or not history validates comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Inception is a superior summer movie, one with heart and brains and loads of razzle-dazzle.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


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In the Valley of Elah

2007
Directed by: Paul Haggis.
Written by: Paul Haggis, based on a story by Mark Boal and Paul Haggis and inspired by Boal’s article “Death and Disnonor.”
With: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Barry Corbin, Josh Brolin, Wes Chatham, Jake McLaughlin, Mehcad Brooks and Jonathan Tucker.

Ostensibly a mystery about a father investigating the death of his son, Paul Haggis’ follow up to the Oscar-winning Crash (2004) burns with the same righteous fury. But Tommy Lee Jones' ferociously restrained performance grounds what might otherwise have been a trashy pulp tale about a socially and politically conservative man whose core beliefs are shattered as he slowly uncovers the truth of a killing that took place in the US but was rooted in Iraq.

A former military investigator with a post-retirement career hauling gravel in Tennessee, Hank Deerfield (Jones) is shocked to get a call from Fort Rudd in New Mexico telling him that his son, Mike (Tucker), has gone AWOL. Deerfield didn't even know David was back from his most recent tour in Iraq, and simply can’t believe his son has been stateside for a week and hasn't called him or his mother (Sarandon).

So Deerfield packs a bag and drives to Texas, where base investigator Lt. Kirklander (Patric) treats him with a friendly deference that smacks of an official brush-off, and the local police refuse to get involved — the army has jurisdiction over missing soldiers. Once Mike's charred, dismembered corpse is discovered in a field, there's no deterring Deerfield, a better investigator than either Kirklander — whose efforts to control the investigation would be called obstruction in the civilian world — or fledgling civilian detective Emily Sanders (Theron), a single mother fighting her own war against good-old-boy sexism and small-town rumors.

Haggis’ script relies on a painfully obvious narrative device — a series of damaged, degraded video files that are slowly recovered from Mike's damaged cell phone, each suggesting more vividly than the one before that Mike’s experiences in Iraq damaged his psyche in terrible ways — to keep Deerfield’s investigation and the pitiless moral inventory that goes with it on track. But the combination of Jones’ performance and Boal’s first hand experience of reporting from Iraq ensure that the mystery is driven by more than the search for Mike's killer or killers: It's an investigation into shared fictions and willful blindness, steeped in disillusionment, frustration and suppressed anger.

The portentous title comes from the Old Testament — Elah is where little David took on the giant Goliath — the film's concerns are on a painfully human scale and are both timely and forcefully articulated.


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Inglourious Basterds

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Quentin Tarantino.
With: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Til Schweiger, Jacky Ido B.J. Novak, August Diehl, Omar Doom Rod Taylor, Denis Menochet, Mike Myers, Julie Dreyfus, Rod Taylor, Mike Myers, Sylvester Groth, Martin Wuttke and the voices of Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel.

Shocking revelation du jour: History is written by the victors and rewritten by movies. And frankly, a whole lot of history could do with some rewriting: It's full of downbeat endings, dubious moral lessons and the kind of soul-numbing despair people pay good money to escape. That said, the brazenness of Quentin Tarantino's revisionism is in a class all its own… and speaking of class, woe betide the slacker who regards movies as cheat sheets and ignores Inglourious Basterds' opening words: "Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France."

1941: Colonel Hans Landa (Waltz), Hitler's notorious "Jew Hunter," descends on the small farmhouse of widower Perrier LaPadite (Menochet) in a swirl of smiles and disingenuous pleasantries. By the time Landa's done, he's cruelly coerced LaPadite into trading the Jewish neighbors he's been sheltering for the lives of his own daughters. Only teenager Shoshanna Dreyfus (Laurent) survives the subsequent slaughter of her family.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Pitt), a straight-talking cracker from the Tennessee mountains, has assembled a very special squad for a very special mission: His eight-man squad will parachute into France and put the fear of God into those Nat-zi bastards. Or more correctly, the fear of God's Chosen: Raine charges his G.I. Jews with killing, maiming and generally terrorizing the Master Race's foot soldiers, and the man who fails to accumulate 100 German scalps had better die trying. Raine's right hand, Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Hostel director Roth), whom the Nazis have nicknamed "the Bear Jew," hammers men to death with a baseball bat, while Raines carefully carves swastikas into the foreheads of the occasional soldier they set free to serve as an example to the rest.

Three years later, Shoshanna has acquired a new identity — Mlle Emmanuelle Mimieux — along with a small Parisian cinema called Le Gamaar and a devoted boyfriend (Ido) with whom she runs it. Her troubles resume when she acquires a persistent suitor, boyish movie buff and war hero Fredrick Zoller (Bruhl), whom propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Groth) is grooming to be Germany's very own Audie Murphy. In fact, Zoller is in Paris for the upcoming premiere of his first film, a morale-stoking account of his battlefield exploits, and everyone who's anyone in party circles will be there.

The high-powered guest list hasn't escaped the attention of the OSS, whose preposterous plot to kill the Fuhrer — endorsed by Winston Churchill (an unrecognizable Taylor) himself — is put into play, a plot that hinges on the German-language skills of a supercilious film critic-turned-spy (Fassbender) and the wiles of dazzling double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Kruger), darling of the silver screen. Once the smitten Zoller persuades Goebbels to move the glittering event to Le Gamaar, the individual plotlines begin their inevitable dovetailing.

Contrary to received opinion, Inglourious Basterds is not a remake of Eurotrash auteur Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 Dirty Dozen knock-off; Tarantino just borrowed its English-language title and parked it atop his delirious pastiche of WWII movie tropes as seen through a very particular filter: the naughty Nazi pictures that briefly hijacked the Italian film industry in the wake of The Night Porter, Liliana Caviani's 1974 success de scandale. Italian producers smelled money in stripping the kinky hijinks of Caviani's artsy angst, but the sheer gorgeousness of Salon Kitty and company speaks to Italy's eternal affair with style, which the Nazis had in spades. Kitschy, fetishistic style, to be sure, but oh, those billowing, blood-red swastika banners and impeccably tailored uniforms — all that leather, all those silver skulls!

To call Inglourious Basterds Nazi porn is to ignore Tarantino's self-awareness — he knows exactly how vulgar it is to spin pulp entertainment from the iconography of mass murderers (which is more than can be said for, say Frank Miller, if The Spirit is anything by which to judge), and he also knows how bracingly provocative vulgarity can be.

Basterds is crammed with Tarantino's trademarks: in-jokes, exploitation shout-outs (Donowitz calls himself Antonio Marghereti when he's pretending to be an Italian cinematographer), cameo appearances (including uncredited voice roles for Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel), slyly allusive dialogue ("There is no Dietrich! There is No Riefenstahl! There is only Bridget von Hammersmark," declares a smitten fan, anticipating/paraphrasing Henri Langlois' famous declaration), throwaway movie allusions (of course Le Gamaar is playing Le Corbeau — keep a sharp eye on those posters and marquees) and brashly thrilling anachronisms. And who but Tarantino would have scored Shoshanna's final preparations for her apocalyptic revenge with David Bowie's lushly sinister "Putting out Fire With Gasoline" (the theme from Paul Schrader's Cat People remake) and dared that tight, Sergio Leone-like close up of her feline eyes?

You wouldn't think a single performance could begin to overshadow such a cornucopia of film-geek delights, but you'd be wrong: Viennese actor Waltz just about walks away with the whole shebang. Tarantino handed him the role of a lifetime, and he doesn't waste it: Waltz imbues Colonel Landa with such malicious charisma that the lights seem to dim whenever he's offscreen. What Waltz doesn't do is play the sympathy-for-the-Devil card: Landa is a great character, but Waltz never lets you forget that he's a hideous person, a preening, opportunistic sadist in love with the sound of his own voice. If pulp nihilist Jim Thompson had written Nazis, he'd have invented Hans Landa instead of Pop. 1280's Sheriff Nick Corey. Pitt's strutting, good-old-boy performance can't compare: Raine is a rip, but Landa is the carny geek show you can neither take your eyes off and nor forgive yourself for enjoying.


The International

(2009)
Directed by: Tom Tykwer.
Written by: Eric Singer.
With: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen, Brian F. O'Byrne, Michel Voletti, Patrick Baladi, Jay Villiers, Fabrice Scott, Haluk Bilginer, Luca Giorgio Barbareschi, Ian Burfield, Alessandro Fabrizi, Felix Solis, Jack McGee and Nilaja Sun.

Not since the nuclear-nightmare thriller The China Syndrome (1979) opened less than two weeks before an accident shut down Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant has a movie lucked into such eerily serendipitous timing as Tom Tykwer's icily cynical film about devious doings in the international banking industry.

Interpol agent Lou Salinger (Owen) and Manhattan Assistant DA Eleanor Whitman (Watts) have been trying to get the dirt on the Luxembourg-based International Bank of Business and Credit, a vast financial institution involved in money laundering, arms dealing and God only knows what else. The trouble is proving it, which boils down to finding an IBBC (the initials pointedly invoke a real company that went down in scandalous flames in 1991) insider whose conscience has overcome his avarice, and it looks as though they've finally caught a break. One of Whitman's colleagues, Tom Schumer (Burfield), has made contact with a high-level executive who appears ready to give up his employers. Is it coincidence that immediately after their first face-to-face meeting, a clandestine rendezvous in a Berlin parking lot, Schumer succumbs to a fatal heart attack? Salinger doesn't think so, especially after he finds a fresh needle puncture on Schumer's back, but the Berlin police refuse to investigate. Salinger's suspicions are confirmed when he finds that police reports concerning the death of an IBBC executive — in a one-car accident mere hours after Schumer's death — have been tampered with.

Salinger and Whitman finagle an interview with Italian businessman Umberto Calvini (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi), who recently pulled out of a huge arms deal with IBBC, perhaps concerned that the association might derail his political ambitions. It falls to Calvini to lay out the players and the game: IBBC's excursion into direct arms dealing has nothing to do with the profit in selling pistols and everything to do with debt. Waging war costs money, IBBC is famous for lending it to warlords, dictators and guerrilla rebels, and debt is better than a chain around the neck for manipulating and controlling nations. Not surprisingly, Calvini is assassinated shortly after, the upside being that his assassin left a footprint behind — if Whitman and Salinger can find the shooter (O'Byrne), maybe he'll lead them to the puppet master. The complications continue to multiply well into the third act, as Whitman and Salinger are constantly challenged to reassess how far they're willing to go to bring down IBBC.

Despite the fact that The International opened as the world economy was spiraling into free fall as a direct (if not necessarily deliberate) result of debt manipulation by global financial institutions, its cool reception probably had more to do with the fact that thrillers in which the bad guy is a system rather than an individual are hard put to deliver a satisfying resolution. It's easier to take out a rogue CIA agent than, say, the IMF, and even in the dyspeptic '70s the average moviegoer preferred a James Bond movie to the bleak paranoia of The Parallax View.

Tykwer's mise en scene makes it clear from the outset that Whitman and Salinger are raging against a machine of inhuman proportions: Bird's-eye views of crowds dispersing like bugs, low-angle shots of sleekly impersonal glass-and-steel office towers, panoramic images of coldly angular buildings squatting in the magnificent isolation of otherwise pristine natural beauty. The globetrotting locations change — Lyon, Milan, Berlin, Istanbul — but the proportions remain the same. Even the bravura shootout at New York's sensuously curved Guggenheim Museum, a beautifully choreographed exercise in ever-escalating mayhem, emphasizes the contrast between small, scurrying people and the building's symmetrical white ramps, as serenely curved as the ribs of a vast, indifferent ship.

Tykwer and first-time screenwriter Eric Singer take a cynical view of the world's workings, but The International isn't a hipster's oh-so-ironic riff on the establishment's nefarious wheels within wheels: Salinger and Whitmen are establishment too. There's a sadness beneath the glossy surface, the kind you hear in Leonard Cohen's whiskey-and-cigarettes growl; it's so underplayed you hardly notice it until after the movie's over, around the time you think to wonder about those incongruously literary monikers.


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Invictus

(2009)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood.
Written by: Anthony Peckham, based on the non-fiction book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation,.
With: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon.

”I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.” So read the last lines of Victorian poet William Ernest Henley’s 1875 “Invictus,” lines that inspired Nelson Mandela during 27 years of imprisonment for acting on his belief that the future of Africa should be determined by Africans.

A modest, self-effacing movie about extraordinary events, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus chronicles one battle in Mandela's war against the bitter memories and simmering discontents that threaten to destroy post-apartheid South Africa before it can find its feet. The recently-elected president's plan: To persuade all South Africans — Afrikaners and indigenous Africans alike — to rally behind a rugby team. Yes, a rugby team: The virtually all-white Springboks, despised by black South Africans as a nagging reminder of apartheid and its systematic injustices. The Springboks are so reviled that people attend their games for the express purpose of cheering the other team.

1994: Less than a year after his historic election, Nelson Mandela (Freeman, once again playing god) is trying to pilot a country whose giant step into the future hasn't yet extricated it from the tar pit of the past. Black South Africans burn with suppressed fury just waiting to erupt into mob violence; Afrikaners are terrified they’re going to reap the whirlwind sown by their ancestors. Mandela at this juncture seizes upon an idea that seems tailor-made for a glossy Hollywood "triumph of the human spirit" movie: Why not maneuver them to common ground on a level playing field? That turns out to be a literal playing field when Mandela enlists the aid of rugby star Francois Pienaar (Damon), captain of the Springboks, in rehabilitating the team’s divisive reputation so that all South Africans will become emotionally invested in the Springboks' efforts to win the 1995 World Cup, and thus forget their differences. The makeover includes outreach efforts like sending the virtually all-white team into the all-black townships that ring Johannesburg to play rugger with the kind of poor, ragged, dark-skinned kids they habitually ignore like stray dogs that just happen to be walking on their hind legs.

Eastwood is a deeply old-fashioned filmmaker, and that's not a bad thing: As befits a director who spent decades as an actor, he's more interested in character than special effects, cutting-edge film technology or eyeball-rattling editing. That's why it doesn’t matter that the average American knows little soccer and less rugby: By the time the Springboks reach the decisive game against New Zealand, no one will care about the finer points of the game. And in selecting this particular story, Eastwood does an end run around the false inflation of significance wrapped around the typical Hollywood sports movie. Yes, Invictus relies on genre clichés, but the stakes are genuinely, breathtakingly high. Victory for the Springboks isn't just about personal bests, galvanizing a downtrodden neighborhood or proving that dreams sometimes come true: The soul of a troubled, broken nation hangs in the balance.


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The Invisible

2007
Directed by: David S. Goyer.
Written by: .
With: Justin Chatwin, Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Marquette, Margarita Levieva, Alex O'Loughlin.

Writer-turned-director David S. Goyer's vapid remake of the Swedish Den Osynlige (2002) is a textbook illustration of the American movie industry's ability to take an offbeat foreign film and systematically excise or soften every provocative and original thing about it.

Eighteen-year-old Nick Powell (Chatwin, whose one-note mopiness gets very old, very fast) gets good grades, steers clear of substance abuse and typical teenage hell-raising, and has never, ever disobeyed the cold, widowed mother (Harden) who's devoted her life to plotting his shining future with the steely ruthlessness of a five-star general. And he's desperately, suffocatingly unhappy; Nick wants to attend a writing program in London rather than go to college. Unable to openly defy his mother, he plots his escape in secret. Nick’s sideline — writing term papers for lazy jocks — pays for his ticket, and on the eve of his graduation from Burnaby Mountain High, he’s packed and ready to go. All he has to do is keep mom in the dark for a few more hours.

And then everything goes to hell. Pete (Marquette), Nick’s spineless best friend and the only person in whom he confided, runs afoul of high-school hellcat Annie Newton (Levieva), an underprivileged delinquent who dabbles in stolen goods and ultra-violence. She wants to know who turned her in to the police and puts the screws to Pete, who has no idea that Annie’s older boyfriend, parolee Marcus (O'Loughlin), gave her up to keep himself out of jail. But he figures he can safely accuse Nick, who’s safely on a plane to London. What he doesn’t know is that Mrs. Powell has found out what Nick had in mind and lays on the guilt with a trowel, crushing his fragile determination to break free. Annie and her thuggish pals abduct Nick, beat him with an inch of his life and dump him in an out-of-the-way drainage culvert to die.

Nick awakes the next day a ghost, condemned to wander unseen and unheard among his classmates, family and the police investigating his disappearance. Except that he's not; he’s actually an unmoored soul trapped in a limbo that will end when his battered but not-quite-lifeless flesh finally gives out. If Nick were to be found and treated, body and soul might be reunited and his tragically truncated future reclaimed. The trouble is that the only person who seems to sense his presence is the sullen, deeply damaged Annie; even if he can open a genuine line of communication, she’s the last person in the world inclined to help him.

Den Osynlige is a dark, downbeat story of capricious fate and hard, haunting choices, right down to the bittersweet ending that manages to be uncompromising without being entirely bleak. The Invisible, by contrast, is a formulaic tale of redemption and teen angst: Annie seizes the opportunity to do one good thing with her wasted life, Mrs. Powell reveals the vulnerability beneath her dragon-lady exterior, the bullied Pete gets a second chance and spiteful Marcus reaps what he's sown. No surprises, no food for thought and really, no reason to bother.


Iron Man

(2008)
Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Written by: Mark Fergus, Matt Holloway, Art Marcum and Hawk Ostby, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby.
With: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg, Bill Smitrovich, Sayed Badreya, Tim Guinee and the voice of Paul Bettany.

The red and gold super-suit is cool, but Iron Man belongs to Robert Downey, Jr.: His effortlessly nuanced performance as Tony Stark, a heedless, billionaire playboy and arms manufacturer cast into a brutal crucible that forces a top-to-bottom reassessment of his life so far, is a dark delight that combines pop-culture wit and genuine emotional depth.

Brilliant, hedonistic industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) inherited a clutch of companies invested in everything from medical research to alternative energy, but the pulsing heart of Stark Industries is weapons: The bigger and more destructive the better. Stark's sound-bite patriotism lies over a genuine, if not deeply considered, belief that Stark munitions are making the world safe for his fellow Americans, a position he's compelled to rethink after being wounded and taken hostage by Afghan terrorists during a mega-missile demo/photo op. Held in a mountain camp bristling with Stark products and tethered to a primitive device buried in his chest — the only thing standing between his heart and stealthy shards of shrapnel lurking in his flesh — Stark is ordered to build his captors their very own super WMD.

He instead forges an iron robo-suit and escapes; his first act back in the US is to make the startling announcement that Stark Industries is out of the weapons business until further notice. While Stark devotes himself to constructing an improved version of the suit that saved his life, rumors that he's suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome threaten to destabilize Stark Industries. The three people closest to him — loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow); friend and military liaison James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Howard); and longtime right-hand Obadiah Stane (Bridges) — react to this new Stark in very different ways, both before and after they discover exactly what he's been working on and what he plans to do with it.

Downey, 42, gets under the skin of a character whose devil-may-care arrogance, born of lifelong privilege, is viciously ripped away, an experience that makes him a better man, if not a particularly different one. He's still cocky, self-centered and superficially imperious, but he knows he's not untouchable, which has as much to do with being obliged to ask Pepper to plunge her hand into the perpetually open hole in his chest and adjust the device keeping him alive as it does his newly awakened conscience. Downey's performance grounds the film's fantastic trappings — from the sleek Iron Man armor to Pepper's ability to sprint in strappy, sky-high heels — in emotional reality.


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Iron Man 2

(2010)
Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Written by: Justin Theroux, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby.
With: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg and Gary Shandling.

Fans can relax: Despite pre-release whispers that Iron Man 2 was a disaster, it’s a perfectly watchable comic-book movie given a hint of depth by Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark. “Not a disaster” is, to be sure, faint praise. But it’s not damnation: Let’s just say that if Iron Man 2 is no Spider-Man 2 — a sequel that actually improves on its predecessor — it’s also no Batman & Robin.

Billionaire playboy and weapons genius Tony Stark has spent the six months following his public admission that he was the man inside the smokin’ iron suit to bring the world’s warmongers, tyrants and terrorists into line. But he’s still kind of a jerk, a self-centered, skirt-chasing smartass whose every half-smile and calculated tilt of the head says, “Hey buddy, not only am I richer, smarter and cooler than you’ll ever be, but I also care about peace, love and understanding. And the chicks love it.”

Is it any wonder that tight-ass Senator Stern (Shandling) and his government cronies are so determined to appropriate that Iron Man technology? Yes, they have some legitimate concerns about having allowed a capricious, narcissistic gadabout to singlehandedly privatize the business of keeping the world safe for truth, justice and the American way. But mostly they just want to wipe that smirk off his face. What they don’t know is that things aren’t actually going all that well for him.

First and foremost, the palladium arc reactor that keeps Stark’s damaged heart beating is also poisoning him, and his efforts to crack the problem have so far amounted to sweet FA. Unaccustomed to being thwarted, he’s back to drinking intemperately and making a public spectacle of himself… he even sinks so low as to steal another guy’s punch line. And once Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin has made an illusion-shattering joke about pissing in his space suit (on the moon, yet), there’s nowhere to go with it. Worse still, Stark is so preoccupied and sozzled that he ha,s no idea there’s a seething, tattooed Russian physicist Ivan Danko (Rourke), plotting to screw Stark the way Stark’s father screwed his, let alone that Danko has joined forces with weasely defense contractor Justin Hammer (Rockwell), who’d like nothing better than to put Stark Industries out of business once and for all.

So there’s a whole lot going on, and we haven’t even gotten to Stark’s battle of wills with cold warrior Nick Fury (Jackson), who’s hell bent on persuading the ultimate non-team player to join his superhero A(vengers) Team. Or to Stark’s strained relationships with old pal Lt. Colonel Rhodes (Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) and briskly besotted gal Friday Pepper Potts (Paltrow), to whom he hands the reins of Stark Industries. Or to his new assistant Natalie Rushman (Johansson), who is so ridiculously lush, slinky, super-efficient and endlessly attentive that she must be up to no good. Or to the inevitable army of iron drones and other bits of CGI hardware that figure into the film’s many self-consciously spectacular action sequences.

The high-tech three-ring circus pales beside Downey’s perfectly calibrated performance, a mix of bravado, arrogance and secret insecurity. Even more than Iron Man, Iron Man 2 is all about Downey, and like Christian Bale and Tobey Maguire he’s up to the challenge of playing both the person and the persona. It’s easy to tut-tut that Downey is wasting his talent on trash; it’s also lazy and condescending.

Pulp characters live and die on how deeply they’re rooted in abiding human fears and desires; Tarzan, Robin Hood, Dracula, Zorro, Batman, Hercules, Dr. Frankenstein, Fantomas and Sherlock Holmes are still around because they’re dug in deep — change some superficial details and each is good to go decades, even centuries, after he were created. Captain Satan, Boston Blackie, Sally the Sleuth and the Spider died with their times. Downey doesn’t take actor-turned-screenwriter Justin Theroux’s failure to transcend the cliches as license to phone it in: His Tony Stark is simultaneously an individual shaped by his time and circumstances, and every flawed schmuck who ever resisted the greatness thrust upon him and rose to it anyway. He's so perfectly imperfect he's nothing short of mesmerizing.


Jar City

(2006)

Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur.
Written by: Kormakur, based on the novel Tainted Blood, by Arnaldur Indridason.
With: Ingvar E. Sigurosson, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson, Olafía Hronn Jonsdottir, Agusta Eva Erlendsdottir, Thorsteinn Gunnarsson , Atli Rafn Sigurosson and Rafnhildur Rosa Atladotir.

In Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur's downbeat procedural thriller, based on Indridason's literary thriller, the routine investigation of a "messy and pointless" murder leads to a 30-year-old crime whose ramifications extend into Iceland's ambitious and controversial gene-mapping project.

Four-year-old Kola (Atladotir) lies dying in her hospital bed, her grief-stricken father, Orn (Sigurosson), is petitioning the national data protection commission — charged with safeguarding the privacy of Icelanders who contributed genetic data to Iceland's Central Health Database — for information.

In Reykjavik, Detective Erlendur (Sigurosson) and his colleagues, Sigurour Oli (Haraldsson) and Elínborg (Jonsdottir), are called to a murder scene: Loner Holberg Jonsson (Gunnarsson) has been bludgeoned to death with an ashtray in his rank basement apartment in a quiet neighborhood. A thorough search turns up only one unusual item in his thoroughly depressing home: A photograph of a child's grave, which Erlendur finds taped to the underside of a drawer. The dead girl, Aude Kolbrunsdottir, turns out to have died of a brain tumor in 1974 at the age of 6; her mother, Kolbrun, committed suicide, and her birth certificate lists no father. Erlendur's dogged determination to find a link between Holberg and the long-dead child uncovers a sordid story of rape, blackmail and police corruption in the small coastal town of Grindavik, events whose poisonous legacy continues to blight lives three decades later. Like Swedish writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck novels (several of which have been filmed, including the American The Laughing Policeman, with Walter Matthau), Indridason's melancholy mystery novels are less about unraveling intricate clues than they are portraits of police officers and the particular confluence of geography, history and social circumstances that shape them. Erlendur's relationships with his colleagues and his drug-addicted daughter, Eva (Erlendsdottir), play out against the backdrop of a cold, geographically isolated country where three-quarters of the land is barren and almost everyone is related (hence the gene-mapping project) at the same time that family names — and by extension, lineage — are so inconsequential that they change from one generation to the next: "Aude Kolbrunsdottir" is literally "Aude, Kolbrun's daughter." Jar City builds slowly, but when all the dots are connected, the story that emerges is devastating.


Jumper

(2006)
Directed by: Doug Limon.
Written by: David S. Goyer, Jim Uhls and Simon Kinberg, based on the novels Jumper and Exile, by Steven Gould.
With: Hayden Christensen, Jamie Bell, Samuel L. Jackson, Rachel Bilson, Michael Rooker, Annasophia Robb, Max Thieriot, Jesse James, Diane Lane and Tom Hulce.

Loosely based on two popular young-adult novels novels by science-fiction writer Steven Gould, Doug Liman's effects-heavy adventure fantasy revolves around a young man's discovery that nifty powers — like the ability to teleport himself around the world in a heartbeat — always come with a catch.

For Ann Arbor high-school student David Rice (Thieriot), life is unrelenting misery: His mother decamped when he was five, leaving David to be raised by his brutal, embittered and alcoholic father (Rooker). Jocks pick on the bookish 15 year old, and girls ignore him — with the exception of sweet-natured dreamer Millie Harris (Robb), who hopes one day to leave town and see the world. A near death experience changes David's life forever: One minute he's drowning, trapped between the frozen Huron river and a layer of ice, the next he's in the public library, soaked and shivering. Everyone assumes he's dead, so David vanishes, learns to control his new-found power and supports himself by robbing bank vaults.

Eight years later, David (Christensen) has a fabulous Manhattan apartment and an awesome lifestyle: Breakfast in Tokyo, surfing in Fiji, lunch atop the Great Sphinx, late-night hook-up in London… all in one day. But the fun ends abruptly when white-haired Roland (Jackson) turns up in his living room, armed with cruel high-tech gizmos that immobilize jumpers — yes, jumpers. David isn't the only person in the world who can teleport. After a hairsbreadth escape, David quickly reconnects with Millie (Bilson), takes her on a whirlwind trip to Rome and meets fellow jumper Griffin (Bell), who fills him in on Roland and the paladins, an ancient society dedicated to cleansing the world of space-bending freaks whose powers are an affront to God.

The appeal of Gould's Jumper novels lies in their canny mix of adolescent angst and gee-whiz cool stuff: What unhappy teenaged boy wouldn't want to ditch high school, chores and adults who just don't get how hard it is to be young for the freedom of global hop-scotching and money for nothing? But David Goyer's screenplay guts the material's emotional core, glossing over all the internal strife that makes David a character rather than a cartoon to focus on flashy fights and globe trotting vistas. Poor Griffin's tortured past is summed up in a scrap of dialogue that could have been lifted from a low-rent martial arts picture, and at a certain point his character simply vanishes. The film looks great, but at a brisk 88 minutes, there's no time to fill in back story, from the epic history of paladin persecution to the deeply personal mystery of David's mother, and the cliffhanger ending is so abrupt that the movie seems bizarrely truncated.


Just, Melvin

(2000)
Written, produced and directed by: James Roland Whitney.
Documentary

Whitney's documentary about his family's legacy of child abuse is so lurid the tone threatens to overwhelm the material, particularly the allegation that his step-grandfather, Melvin Just, literally got away with murder.

But it's a fact that Just served eight years for child molestation and was suspected in the murder of county nurse Josephine Segel, and Whitney's mother, Ann, her three siblings, two half sisters and four step-sisters are clearly damaged; Ann attempted suicide repeatedly while Whitney was growing up.

Whitney (Games People Play) took refuge in studying dance and music, and later competed on the 1980s TV game-show Body Language and the talent contest Star Search. As an adult, Whitney delved into his family's miserable history, interviewing his aunts, uncle and step-aunts about their childhoods. With the exception of Whitney's mother and aunts, twins Jan and Jean, they're are a sad collection of life's casualties. Marginally employed Uncle Jim, whom Whitney says molested him as a child, lives in a trailer with his frail, failing mother, Grandma Fay, and tried to persuade his half-sister, Jerri, to become his live-in lover. Melvin Just was Fay's second husband, stepfather of Ann, Jan, Jean and Jim and father of June and Jerri; Just left Fay for a neighbor named Vernise, who had three small daughters: Pambi, Denise and Bobbie.

June and Jerri are both alcoholics who live in their cars. Pambi, born with congenital hip, knee and foot deformities, is withdrawn and sad; Denise and Bobbie say they saw Just kill Nurse Segel after she paid a surprise visit to their home and caught Just in bed with Denise. Jenise, Vernise's youngest daughter and her only natural child with Just, seems the best adjusted of her family; she lives in a trailer with her boyfriend and two children, Clarissa and Frankie. All have histories of alcohol and/or drug abuse; most have attempted suicide and struggle with violent fantasies rooted in deep, poisonous rage.

Whitney holds off introducing Just himself for nearly an hour, and even as a fat, wheelchair-bound old man, he radiates malevolence even as he denies everything. The film concludes with Just's funeral, which his extended family's conflicted emotions turn into a sad, sorry spectacle.

Whitney's willingness to exploit his family's misery is troubling, and his methods sometimes faulty, particularly the decision not to identify family members with onscreen supertitles — keeping nine sisters straight is difficult, especially at the beginning. But the film's train-wreck appeal is undeniable, and it's just about impossible to walk away unshaken. Whatever the bare-bones facts of the matter, it's clear that Melvin Just left a world of collateral damage in his wake.


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Kalamity

2010
Written and Directed by: James M. Hausler.
With: Nick Stahl, Jonathan Jackson, Christopher M. Clark, Beau Garrett, Robert Forster, Alona Tal, Patricia Kalember, Sammi Hanratty.

Old friends discover that they’re grown apart in this low-budget drama whose reach greatly exceeds its grasp.

Though Billy Klepack (Stahl) and Stanley Keller (Jackson) were close when they were growing up, their lives diverged when Billy went away to college and Stanley stayed behind to work at an electronics store in their suburban Virginia home town.

Unmoored by the end of a five-year relationship, Billy returns to get himself together and reconnect with old friends; his parents (Forster, Kalember) give him a both place to stay and their unwavering support. Stanley, by contrast, is isolated and angry; Billy may be haunted by his ex (Garrett, seen both in Billy’s memories and the lengthy conversations he imagines having with her), but Stanley flies into a rage at the mere mention of his girlfriend, Ashley (Tal).

Taken in light of Stan’s increasingly vicious and mysogynistic rants (“women ruin everything,” begins one of the milder ones), the fact that no-one has seen Ashley recently is troubling. Viewers will have figured out what happened when they split up long before Billy and Stan’s equally worried roommate and co-worker, Christian (Clark), do.

Writer-director Hausler seems interested in exploring the psychological struggles of young men who don’t quite understand why their lives aren’t working out. But his unfocussed and clichéd screenplay never gets much beyond the notion that empowered women have something to do with it… “empowered” meaning nothing more than that they feel free to walk away from relationships that aren’t making them happy. Stahl and Jackson are both fine actors, but making something out of nothing is beyond them.


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The Killer Inside Me (1976)

1976
Directed by: Burt Kennedy.
Written by: Edward Mann and Robert Chamblee.
With: Stacy Keach, Susan Tyrell, Tisha Sterling, Keenan Wynn, Don Stroud, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Charles McGraw, John Dehner, Pepe Serna and Julie Adams.

Longtime Western director Burt Kennedy’s version of Jim Thompson’s elegantly brutal novel is a clumsier piece of filmmaking than Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 redo, but anti-ingenue Susan Tyrell’s performance as the feckless hooker who inadvertently unleashes a hellhound on a small mining town is so rawly effective it’s painful to watch.

Central City, Montana, is smack in the middle of America’s heartland, and seems like a pretty decent place to live… as keep your head down and steer clear of local big shot Chester Conway (Wynn) and his thuggish, beer-swilling son, Elmer (Stroud). Conway owns pretty much everything in town worth owning, including Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Keach) — not that Ford isn’t a hell of a nice guy, always happy to shoot the breeze in a neighborly kind of way and looking out for folks like Johnny Lopez (Serna), who’s a little too hot-headed for a Latino in redneck land. But life is easier with a guy like Conway calling the shots and anyway, all Lou really does for him is try to keep Elmer out of trouble, which he’d do anyway. After all, it’s only Christian to look out for the unfortunate, even if their misfortunes are their own damned fault.

Or so Lou would have people think. But in point of fact he’s not the amiable, none-too-bright local boy he makes out, nor is he particularly neighborly or Christian. Lou Ford is a sociopath, pure and simple, and it’s only a matter of time before he graduates from torturing folks with hokey aphorisms to something a whole lot worse. And the trigger, as it turns out, is already camped out on the edge of town, providing the world’s oldest service to sundry miners and straying husbands. Her name is Joyce Lakeland (Tyrell), and despite the fact that she’s keeping a low profile Chester Conway wants her out… could it be because he’s running for mayor and Elmer, true to his useless nature, is convinced he’s in love with her?

Blowsy, self-destructive, scattered, pitiful Joyce sets Lou’s blood on fire in a way his sensible, longtime fiancee Amy Stanton (Sterling) never could; she goads him into beating the hell out of her and pleads for more. In fact, she wants him to run away with her, and secretly cooks up a scheme to finance their escape by blackmailing Chester Conway. And so the bloody dominoes begin to fall.

Thompson published a total of 30 novels between 1942 and 1987, all but three by 1970, and worked sporadically in Hollywood from the mid-1950s — yes, he’s the same Jim Thompson who co-wrote Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957). And yet The Killer Inside Me was only the second movie adaptation of one of his brilliantly bleak tales of lust, betrayal and the heedless rush to self-immolation. only Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972) beat it out of the gate.

Even if you take the blistering star power of Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen, The Killer Inside Me is by far the lesser film, and most of blame can be laid at the door of Robert Chamblee and Edward Mann’s clunky screenplay, which consistently attempts to tone down, explain and contextualize Lou’s demonic nature, from the clichéd flashbacks of Lou’s nightmarish childhood (his mama was a whore with eyes for her own son) to the staging of Joyce’s murder as a hot-headed accident. Which is, of course, the antithesis of Thompson’s grim understanding that the difference between men and monsters is that while under the right circumstances any man can imagine anything but there are things only a monster can do, and there’s not telling one from the other until the thing is done. Not an original thought — remember the Roman playwright Terence, who said nothing human was alien to him? — but a profoundly discomfiting one.

That said,The Killer Inside Me’s obscurity is undeserved, if only because Tyrell’s performance as Joyce Lakeland is among the most excruciatingly naked ever committed to film. The best that can be said of Jessica Alba’s efforts to pretend she’s anything other than a healthy, polished and pampered actress pretending to be a desperate, none-too-bright whore pale beside Tyrell’s depiction of a woman so committed far down the road to self-immolating degradation that she could spot a homicidal sociopath before he had the slightest idea what darkness stained his own soul. And that alone is worth investing the 99 minutes it takes to see The Killer Inside Me work its way to an inevitable end.


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The Killer Inside Me (2010)

2010
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom.
Written by: John Curran and Michael Winterbottom, based on the novel by Jim Thompson.
With: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, Liam Aiken, Simon Baker, Bill Pullman, Elias Koteas, Matt Maher, Brent Briscoe, Jay R. Ferguson and Tom Bower.

“Maybe you are who you are and that’s just that. How and when you got that way doesn’t make any difference… there just isn’t any sense in trying to be anything else,” muses genial sociopath Deputy Lou Ford (Affleck), the dark heart of this bleak thriller.

It’s hard to imagine now what a sucker punch to the gut Jim Thompson’s novel about a small-town lawman genial whose Southern-fried charm lies lightly over a seething pit of sociopathic rage was back in the days when everybody and his brother wasn’t an armchair expert in serial-killer pathology. But close to 60 years after oulp paperback The Killer Inside Me was first published, it still packs a wallop and director/co-screenwriter Michael Winterbottom nails both the tragedy and the pitch-black humor.

Deputy Sheriff Ford was born and raised in Central City, Texas, as nice a small town as you could ever want to see. Unless, of course, you look closely enough to notice that local businessman Chester Conway (Beatty) has gobbled up just about everything worth having for himself and his idiot son Elmer (Ferguson), or that most everyone who works closely with Lou — like, say, Sheriff Bob Maples (Bower) — is always throwing him little sideways glances, the way people do when they're trying to keep an eye on an apparently friendly but awfully toothy dog whose leash looks a little frayed.

Still, real trouble doesn't come bubbling up through that veneer of all-American mom-and-apple-pieness until Lou, who’s been engaged to respectable Amy Stanton (Hudson) for so long even she’s started to wonder whether he ever intends to marry her, is dispatched to roust prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Alba), who’s set up shop on the outskirts of town. It’s not that Joyce isn’t conducting her business in an acceptably suitable low-key manner: She is. But Elmer Conway has taken a shine to her and that just won’t do.

Unfortunately, Lou finds a sort of kindred spirit in Joyce; she's the match that ignites the gasoline coursing through his veins. And her plan to blackmail Chester Conway so she and Lou can blow town and start anew somewhere — just about anywhere else, as long as it’s far away — gives him an ugly little idea. The subsequent domino effect bares Lou’s darkest secrets and leaves Central City so blood-spattered that the town fathers might as well rename the place Sin City and be done with it.

Winterbottom’s Killer Inside Me is the second adaptation of Thompson’s novel, following a little-seen 1976 version starring Stacy Keach and Susan Tyrell. Keach was a good Lou Ford, but Affleck is a great one, in part because his oddly high-pitched, slightly squeaky voice gives Lou’s disingenuous folksiness a grating, fingernails-on-blackboard edge that hints at his dangerously divided nature long before the film puts all its cards on the table. Affleck’s Lou is the classic unreliable narrator in the sense that you can’t always trust his version of the facts. But when it comes to what he feels Lou never lies, and Affleck’s reading of Lou’s observation that “I got a foot on both sides of the fence. I can’t move… all I can do is wait until I split right down the middle,” is nothing short of chilling.

Alba, by contrast, can’t hold a candle to ’70s anti-ingénue Tyrell’s Joyce Lakeland. Alba looks like buffed-and-polished movie star playing at being a tumbleweed hooker, while Tyrell is so convincingly broken, disillusioned and worn-out stupid that she’s painful to watch. That said, Winterbottom’s version has the edge, starting with the fact that it's more faithful to the novel — slavish fidelity to the source material isn't inherently a good thing, but Winterbottom and co-screenwriter John Curran restore the most sordid bits of Lou's back story, from his incestuous, sado-masochistic relationship with his mother to a youthful experiment with child molestation for which his adopted brother took the rap, along with the flat-out sadism that shatters his mask of sanity when he coolly sets about beating Lakeland to death — a scene that outraged many critics with its matter-of-fact brutality. By now you may be wondering where the dark humor comes in: Suffice it to say that Lou's efforts to sidestep the foot fate keeps sticking out to trip him up are grimly funny, right up to that final twist.

The supporting cast is incredibly strong, from Beatty to Simon Baker, Bill Pullman and Elias Koteas, star of the earlier Thompson adaptation Hit Me (1996), and the atmosphere of sun-baked menace is so stultifying that it’s hard to breathe. If that’s not Thompson to a Texas T, I don’t know what is.

This review first appeared in slightly different form in Film Journal International

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King Arthur

2004
Directed by:Antoine Fuqua.
Written by:David Franzoni.
With: Clive Owen, Ioan Gruffudd, Mads Mikkelsen, Joel Edgerton, Hugh Dancy, Ray Winstone, Ray Stevenson, Keira Knightley, Stephen Dillane, Stellan Skarsgard, Til Schweiger, Sean Gilder, Pat Kinevane and Ivano Marescotti.

Imagine, if you will, a tale of King Arthur that tosses out the illicit love story that tears apart Arthur, his wife and his best friend; a tale in which Camelot, the quest for the holy grail, the noble chivalric code and any hint of magic have been expunged… in short, an Arthurian tale minus everything the average person associates with the term “Arthurian.” In its place: A grimly realistic recreation of life at its most nasty, brutal and short, plus some dodgy history involving a shadowy Roman commander named Lucius Artorius Castus and his men, bound to defend Rome’s interests in ancient Britain against barbaric Saxons and the indigenous Picts (contemptuously dubbed "woads," after the plant they use to paint themselves blue), who are doggedly determined to hang onto their homeland.

Brooding Roman warrior Artorius, widely known as Arthur (Owen), leads a small band of warriors whose skill and ferocity is already the stuff of legend. His knights — Lancelot (Gruffudd), Tristan (Mikkelsen), Gawain (Edgerton), Galahad (Dancy), Bors (Winstone) and Dagonet (Stevenson) — all conscripted as children from their native Samartia (a region roughly equivalent to today’s Georgian Republic) and anxiously anticipating their return home after 15 years of indentured service to Rome, though several wonder whether they can call a land they barely remember "home." But even as they're celebrating their impending freedom, Arthur is handed orders to rescue a Roman family whose estate lies directly in the path of invading Saxon hordes.

Torn between national and personal loyalty, Arthur leads his men on a mission that requires eluding Pictish warriors led by the guerilla leader Merlin (Dillane) on the way in and the ruthless Saxons, commanded by brutal father-and-son warlords (Skarsgard and Schweiger), on the way out. Arthur emerges from the fray stripped of his faith in Rome but enfolded in the love of warrior princess Guinevere (Knightley).

Written by Gladiator’s David Franzoni and directed by Antoine Fuqua, this gloomy action picture no doubt captures a relatively accurate sense of 5th-century life and death (mostly the latter) in all its misery. But it's hard to see the point in cobbling together scraps of legend and even smaller scraps of historical fact into a story this generic: Next to the grubby grandeur of John Boorman's Excalibur (1981), which dirties up Arthur and company while maintaining a sense of enraptured wonder at the bizarre spectacle of life in a world as alien as any science-fiction landscape, this stunted epic looks very shabby indeed.


Kissing Jessica Stein

(2002)
Directed by: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld.
Written by: Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen.
With:Westfeldt, Juergensen, Tovah Feldshuh, Michael Mastro and Carson Elrod.

Two heterosexual girly-girls decide to give lesbian love a try in this cuddly romantic comedy.

A veteran of the dating wars, high-strung, strenuously quirky New York City copy editor Jessica Stein (Westfeldt) is beginning to wonder whether she'll ever meet Mr. Right. Everyone says she's too picky — especially her mother (Feldshuh) and her boss, Josh (Scott Cohen), whom she dated in college — but is it really so unreasonable to expect a man not to say "self-defecating" when he means "self-deprecating?"

On a whim, Jessica answers a personal ad that includes one of her favorite quotations from Rilke, recklessly ignoring the fact that it's in the "women seeking women" section. The ad was placed by Helen (Juergensen), a sexually adventurous, downtown art-gallery curator looking for a new sensation; although she's never been with a woman, she's intrigued when she gets the once-over from a lesbian at a gallery reception and, with the encouragement of her gay friends, Martin and Sebastian (Mastro, Elrod), figures it couldn't hurt to give the girl/girl thing a whirl.

The first date is awkward — in fact, Jessica gets cold feet and tries to flee — but they wind up having plenty to talk about over drinks and dinner, and Jessica experiences a tangle of conflicting feelings when Helen impulsively plants one right on her lips. Their subsequent relationship is of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back variety: They flirt, Jessica freaks. They touch, Jessica freaks. They kiss again, Jessica freaks. "I'm a Jew from Scarsdale!" she exclaims — as much to herself as anyone else — by way of explaining her amazement that she should even be considering what she's considering. And after they finally take the plunge, Jessica is faced with a new set of problems. What should she tell her friends? How can she explain this to her parents? Why won't Helen just agree to keep their relationship a secret? Where is it all going?

Co-written by stars Westfeldt and Juergensen, actresses united by their frustration with the clichéd roles available to them, the film is relentlessly peppy, often quite funny, sometimes a bit too convinced of its own adorableness and ultimately as smoothly reassuring as a TV sitcom. Imagine a lesbian-experimentation episode of Friends ("The one where Rachel goes a little bit gay") with slightly franker sex talk, and you'll be right on this ingratiating trifle's wavelength.


Knowing

(2009)
Directed by: Alex Proyas.
Written by: Ryne Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, from a story by Ryne Douglas Pearson. Adaptation by Alex Proyas.
With: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury, Ben Mendelsohn, Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend, Danielle Carter, Alethea McGrath, Alan Hopgood and D.G. Maloney.

Were you to combine the new-age wonder of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the apocalyptic revelations of the Left Behind books and films and the brilliantly nutty historical revisionism of Swiss provocateur Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods? the result might approximate this big-budget action thriller in which both faith and science are put to the test and found wanting.

A year after his wife's horribly random death, MIT astrophysicist John Koestler (Cage) is a shadow man, estranged from his deeply religious family and grimly convinced that life is a sad, pointless march towards eternal nothingness. Koestler's precocious, hearing-impaired son, Caleb (Canterbury), is the only reason he gets out of bed in the morning. And even with Caleb to keep him tethered to the land of the living, Koestler is teetering on the edge of the black pit of despair, unable to forgive, forget or move forward.

Until the 50th-anniversary celebration at Caleb's school, a tediously well-intentioned event featuring sanctimonious speeches, beatifically singing children and a guest appearance by Miss Taylor (Carter), who taught the school's very first class. She supervises the opening of a time capsule containing drawings of the far-away future of 2009 as drawn by the long-ago tykes. But while Caleb's classmates tear open long-sealed envelopes stuffed with sweetly childish drawings of rocket ships and flying cars, his contains a sheet of paper dense with numbers, painstakingly arranged in tidy but apparently meaningless rows. Creepy.

And creepier still once Professor Koestler, whiskey-fueled and sleep deprived, discerns a pattern, sets of digits that resolve themselves into dates and death tolls. The whole thing is crazy: How could high-strung schoolgirl Lucinda Embry (Robinson) have predicted every major disaster of the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st? Who are the duster-clad suicide blondes lurking in the woods outside Koestler's home and what does the neurotic Diana (Byrne, of TV's Damages), loony Lucinda's daughter, know or suspect about her mother's encounters with the "whisper people" who are now murmuring blandishments in the ears of both Caleb and her own little girl (Robinson again)? And most important, why do the numbers end in October 2009?

No one will remember Knowing for its performances (wooden), plotting (careless) or underlying cosmology (bughouse crazy). But its disaster set pieces are nothing short of stunning: The plane that comes screaming out of a rain-smudged sky, one wing sparking on the asphalt as it slices through a traffic jam and explodes in a hellish fireball; the New York City subway train that goes off the rails and pulverizes steel, cement and human flesh before coming to a rubble- and dust-shrouded halt; and… well, the last is so intimately intertwined with the film's late, great twist that it's better left undescribed. Suffice it to say that the screenplay's flaws don't include failure of nerve.

To Proyas' credit, Knowing, from a story by co-writer Ryne Douglas Pearson (whose Simon Says became the 1998 Bruce Willis film Mercury Rising), is frontloaded with a pervasive sense of unease so miasmic that even Cage's mannered posturing can't entirely undermine it. But once the plot's wheels start grinding in earnest, the film follows that runaway subway train off the rails. Knowing manages to be simultaneously ham-fisted and naïve in the same way as Cloverfield, consciously toying with emotionally loaded images associated with 9/11 in the service of a b-movie plot that would have seemed hokey half a century ago.


The Krays

(1990)
Directed by: Peter Medak.
Written by: Philip Ridley.
With: Billie Whitelaw, Gary Kemp, Martin Kemp, Susan Fleetwood, Charlotte Cornwell, Jimmy Jewel, Avis Bunnage, Kate Hardie, Alfred Lynch, Tom Bell, Steven Berkoff, Gary Love and Victor Spinetti.

Legendary East End gangsters Reginald and Ronald Kray inspire fiercely divided opinions in their native England, where they're both fondly recalled as the quintessential gentleman villains or reviled as brutal, depraved thugs. Peter Medak's film, written by Philip Ridley, splits the difference, capturing the twins' self-conscious style without losing sight of the fact that they were stone killers.

Born in a working class London slum, Ron and Reg (brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, of Spandau Ballet) are forged in the fire of WWII-era deprivation, doted on by women — notably their resourceful, strong-willed mother, Violet (Whitelaw), and her equally formidable sisters, Rose and May (Fleetwood, Cornwell) — whose men are either in the army or assiduously dodging the draft. Bullied as youngsters for being mama's boys, the twins remade themselves as amateur boxers and further toughened up in jail and the army, which to their anti-authoritarian way of thinking amounted to the same thing.

Thoroughly uninterested in being working chumps, Reg and Ron parlay their ruthlessness and panache into running a protection racket, then branch out into gambling, eventually acquiring a posh casino that caters to wayward aristocrats and celebrities. But beneath their united front, the twins' lifelong devotion is beginning to fray. Reg, the cooler-headed of the two, aspires to certain respectability, while Ron is becoming increasingly arrogant and reckless, perhaps even sociopathic.

You couldn't make up the Krays without being charged with lurid sensationalism: One gay and one straight, one mad and one calculating, both simultaneously flash and primitively savage, the Krays were bound by an intricate web of loyalty and love woven from birth by their mother, whose dreary life had a single bright spot — her very special boys. In their efforts not to glamorize the twins, Medak and Ridley err in the other direction; Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance (1970), which isn't overtly about the Krays at all, does a far better job of capturing the decadent, gutter glamour they embodied. But the Kemps go a long way to redressing the balance: Their performances mesh beautifully (not all real-life brothers are convincing as onscreen siblings), and the fact that they aren't twins — Martin is the elder by two years — actually works in their favor. As adults, the twins looked less and less alike, as though their dramatically different temperaments were actually altering their features.


Last Chance Harvey

(2008)
Written and directed by: Joel Hopkins.
With: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Liane Balaban, Richard Schiff and Eileen Atkins.

I wish I could say I loved the midlife-romance movie Last Chance Harvey, writer-director Hopkins' first feature since his 2001 debut, Spring Forward. But it's an awkward mix of formulaic contrivance and ruthlessly poignant moments, most of them Thompson's: Her unsentimental portrayal of a woman who's given up on love because it hurts too much when it goes wrong is quietly heartbreaking.

Harvey Shine (Hoffman) once dreamed of being a jazz pianist, but wound up writing commercial jingles. Now he's a graying veteran in a young man's business, and his pragmatic boss (Schiff) has started hinting that his best clients are looking for fresh, innovative talent, not the tried-and-true material Harvey has been delivering all these years. Naturally, Harvey's career crisis dovetails with his daughter Susan's (Balaban) wedding in London, an event fraught with its own set of tensions. Harvey and Susan have barely spoken in years, and his ex-wife's (Baker) second husband (Brolin) is everything Harvey isn't: A dignified, patrician WASP who never looks ruffled, sweaty or rumpled. Worse still, Harvey finds he isn't even staying in the same hotel as the rest of the wedding party and Susan has asked Brian to walk her down the aisle.

Never-married Kate Walker (Thompson) works at Heathrow Airport, nurses dreams of being a writer and escaping to a rural cabin and dutifully squanders her emotional energy on her needy, widowed mother (Atkins), who's convinced her next-door neighbor is a serial killer — he's always digging around his garden and anyway, he's Polish, and aren't foreigners capable of anything? Kate is so accustomed to disappointment that it's come to feel like a comfy blanket, and it's easier to put other people's feelings first than to bare her own. Harvey and Kate cross paths twice before meeting at an airport bar, where he's drowning his sorrows in scotch as she hides behind a book and a glass of wine. Is it too late for them to gamble on love one more time?

Hopkins doesn't miss a rom-com cliche: Kate's humiliating blind date with a callow hound dog; the street musicians who breathe a spark of life into Harvey and Kate's "getting to know you" walk around an impossibly glamorous London; Kate's bitter disappointment when Harvey fails (due, of course, to circumstances entirely beyond his control) to keep their first real date; the bad-dress montage that precedes Kate and Harvey's 11th-hour appearance at Susan's wedding, where heartstrings are tugged until they fairly scream. Hoffman mugs his way through the story's various complications and leaves Thompson to do the heavy emotional lifting, which would spell disaster were she not so effortlessly affecting. Without Thompson's valiant efforts, Last Chance Harvey would be too dismal for cable; with them it's simply a trifle.


Last House on the Left

(2009)
Directed by: Dennis Iliades.
Written by: Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, based on the motion picture written and directed by Wes Craven.
With: Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Sara Paxton, Garret Dillahunt, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul and Martha MacIsaac.

Given the success of Alexandre Aja's 2006 remake of Wes Craven's seminal shocker, a new version of his Last House on the Left (1972), arguably the most reviled film of an era filled with cinematic outrages, was inevitable. But this new House is softer than the old House, a cautionary revenge tale in which the avengers are forced to confront the fact that they're as tainted by the outrageous cruelty of which they're capable as those they seek to punish.

Overall, Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth's screenplay follows Craven's closely: Pampered, slightly naive Mari Collingwood (Paxton), who's spending the summer with her parents, Jack and Emma (Goldwyn and Potter), at the family's isolated lake house, hooks up with her pal Paige (MacIsaac) at the general store where Paige works. City girl Mari is a straight arrow who channels her energy into competitive swimming, while the small-town Paige is a little wilder and less goal oriented; when scruffy, baby-faced stranger Justin (Clark) offers to sell them some good weed, it's Paige who leaps at the offer. Mari tags along in the spirit of being a good sport, and frets when she realizes the rundown motel where Justin and his family are staying is out of cell phone range — she's the kind of kid who actually checks in with her mom when she says she will.

A storm gathers, Paige and Justin party and Mari hangs out gamely, but the fun screeches to a halt when Justin's family comes home early. Justin's fugitive dad is a sadistic sociopath named Krug (Dillahunt, of TV's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), who was en route to a maximum security prison when his brother, Frank (Paul, of TV's Breaking Bad), and girlfriend, Sadie (Lindhome), engineered his escape, cold-bloodedly killing two police officers in the process. The fugitives are big news and their pictures are everywhere: They need to get out of town fast and need Mari's SUV, but the girls have to go.

Krug and company (the title under which Craven's version was shot) take off with the teenagers in tow, taunting and abusing them as they drive. Though terrified, Mari keeps a cool head and, after steering her abductors onto a road tantalizingly close to the sanctuary of her parents' house, makes a bold attempt to escape. It fails dismally: Frank and Sadie catch Paige just before she makes it to a busy construction site, and her desperate show of bravado so enrages Krug that he stabs her and rapes the virginal Mari; Justin watches in mute horror. As Krug and his minions regroup, Mari makes one last break for freedom, diving into the nearby lake and attempting to swim to safety. Krug shoots her in the back and leaves her to die in the water.

With the SUV damaged and the storm intensifying, Krug and his bleeding, bedraggled crew make their way to the nearest shelter, which just happens to be the Collingwood house. Jack and Emma welcome them with food, drink and medical attention — Jack is a doctor — but it's only a matter of time before they realize they're sheltering the beasts who brutalized their beloved daughter. What will they do? Well, the fact is pretty much everyone knows what they do, either because they're familiar with the original film or because they've seen the trailers for the remake, which give away the whole plot, right down to the last gruesome fillip that's tacked on to the end like a roadshow square-up reel. So it's no spoiler to reveal that Jack and Emma wreak bloody vengeance, torturing Frank, Sadie and Krug as cruelly as they did Paige and Mari.

You can see why Craven got solidly behind a Last House remake: His brutal reimagining of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring was a cri de coeur born of late 1960s disillusionment, when the Rolling Stones' concert at Altamont, the Manson family murders and the attenuated carnage of the Vietnam War came together to stain cherished American ideals with blood and cynicism. Fast forward to the Iraq War's grisly fallout, the abuses of Abu Ghraib and the cynical erosion of values wrought by the war on terror: Last House's underlying concerns, particularly the psychic toll exacted by tit-for-tat retribution, are as relevant as ever. And it's hard to imagine that 2005's Chaos, a totally unauthorized, virtually scene for scene remake of Last House, wasn't a contributing factor.

The trouble is that the tweaks and tucks made by the new Last House team — director Iliades and screenwriters Alleca and Ellsworth — all undermine the brutal directness of the original. They include the totally extraneous invention of Mari's late brother, Ben (presumably to raise the stakes on the Collingwoods' investment in their surviving child); the fact that Mari has sworn off smoking dope (read: she's an unambiguous good girl) and lives to make her way home (not a spoiler, by the way &mdash it's in the trailer); and the recasting of Justin as an innocent and fundamentally decent kid helpless to resist his domineering dad. Put it all together and you have a film designed to make audiences root for the Collingwoods to give Krug, Frank and Sadie exactly what they deserve, a satisfying thrill ride rather than a downbeat examination of the ways in which violence — even when morally sanctioned — eats away at the souls of the perpetrators. None of which will have much to do with the success or failure of the new Last House: If it can bring in both genre buffs familiar with the original film's reputation but unwilling to watch old movies (which is to say anything made before Jaws and/or Star Wars) and thrill seekers whose curiosity is piqued by the atrocities promised by the tell-all trailers, it should do just fine.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.



Layer Cake

(2005)
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn.
Written by: J.J. Connolly, based on his novel.
With: Daniel Craig, Kenneth Cranham, George Harris, Jamie Foreman, Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon, Marcel Iures, Tom Hardy, Tamer Hassan, Ben Whishaw, Burn Gorman and Sally Hawkins.

Producer Matthew Vaughn's directing debut is a briskly paced, stylish and bracingly bitter adaptation of J.J. Connolly's novel about a sleek London cocaine dealer who doesn't understand his business as well as he thinks.

That layer cake is a metaphor, alluding both to England's class system and to the stratification of the underworld, from gutter punks to polished crime lords. The nameless protagonist (Craig) — call him X — has made a pile of money in drugs, established a successful realty business as a front and laundered his ill-gotten gains through the same accountant used by his boss, prosperous, aging cockney hard-case Jimmy Price (Cranham).

X stays away from his product, never underestimates the police or chisels his associates and never, ever works with the kind of loudmouthed poseurs who inevitably screw up and bring down everyone in the immediate vicinity. X hates guns, but knows that to keep the peace you have to be ready for war and, above all, recognizes that you have to quit while you're ahead. He's about to do just that when Price drags him into a pair of gigs that reek of trouble: tracking down the junkie daughter of his old pal Eddie Temple (Gambon) — who, unlike Price, has managed to polish off some of his rough edges and rub elbows with the upper crust — and moving an enormous shipment of ecstasy from Amsterdam.

The ecstasy belongs to the Duke (Foreman), exactly the kind of volatile gangster wannabe X makes it his business to avoid and, more to the point, the ecstasy doesn't really belong to the Duke at all. He and his bumbling crew stole it from Serbian war-criminal Slavo (Iures), who's already dispatched a ferocious hit man to bring back both the goods and the head of the thief who took them. Suddenly X is getting the screws put to him from all sides, and no amount of spinning the situation reveals a way out.

Though style ultimately outweighs substance, the film is formidably entertaining. Vaughn, Guy Ritchie's producer on Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000) and Swept Away (2002), matches Connolly's drunk-on-words panache with a rapid-fire succession of arresting images, effortlessly gliding from woozy cool to high-voltage brutality. The result is so intoxicating, it hardly matters that you've heard it all before.


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

(2003)
Directed by: Stephen Norrington.
Written by: James Dale Robinson, based on the comic book series by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill.
With: Sean Connery, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Tony Curran, Shane West, Stuart Townsend, Jason Flemyng, Richard Roxburgh, David Hemmings, Max Ryan, Tom Goodman-Hill, Terry O'Neill, Rudolf Pellar and Winter Ave Zoli.

Bloated and incoherent, this big-budget adaptation of Alan Moore's brilliant graphic novel jettisons its clever amalgamation of 19th-century pulp fictions in favor of 21st-century Hollywood action formulas. The product of this reverse alchemy is numbingly ordinary.

London, 1899: Acting on behalf of Her Majesty's government, the mysterious M (Roxburgh) assembles a group of peculiar and uniquely talented individuals: aging African adventurer Allan Quatermain (Connery), shape-shifter Dr. Henry Jekyll (Flemyng), immortal dandy Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), invisible cut-purse Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), enigmatic submariner Captain Nemo (Shah), vampire Mina Harker (Wilson) and American detective Tom Sawyer (West). Their mission: To go to Venice, where a top-secret summit of world leaders is convening to avert a world war, and protect them from the nefarious Fantom, who seems determined to fan the flames of international conflict for his own benefit.

The issue isn't that screenwriter James Dale Robinson and director Stephen Norrington made radical changes to Moore's intensely literary, densely allusive work of steam-punk meta-fiction in the name of making it palatable to people who don't even read comic books, let alone 19th-century novels. It's that they turned an engaging story filled with flawed, complicated characters into a series of CGI-heavy action set pieces, each duller than the one before, and flattened the extraordinary personalities into one-note caricatures.

Connery, who also served as executive producer, delivers the "I'm the coolest, toughest white-haired sex symbol alive" performance with which he regularly delights fans for whom he remains the only true James Bond. But his derring-do seems rather too athletic for a character his age — even a legendary one; only Wilson's steely, damaged Mina achieves any sort of depth, though Townsend makes hay with the silkily wicked Dorian Gray who, ironically, isn't even in Moore's original story. For a big-budget effects extravaganza, the CGI is surprisingly fake looking, and much of the production design is less than wondrous. The League's custom-designed car — a sort of 19th-century Batmobile — is simply ridiculous looking, and the first appearance of Nemo's submarine, the scimitar-like Nautilus, is a terrible disappointment. The misshapen Mr. Hyde's torso and arms are so grotesquely overlarge that he looks as though he'd fall over in real life, and the disparity between the computer-generated invisible man and stubble-faced actor Curran in whiteface make-up is so striking it seems amateurish.


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The Legend of Pale Male

2010
Written and Directed by: Frederic Lilien.
With: Frederic Lilien, Lincoln Karim, Alexander Fisher, Charles Kennedy, Marie Winn and Jeanine Len.

Belgian filmmaker Frederic Lilien’s documentary about a red-tailed hawk that set up housekeeping on tony Fifth Avenue is equal parts nature documentary and quirky group portrait of jaded urbanites enthralled by a glimpse of the wild.

Frederic Lilien knew what he didn’t want to do with his life: He didn’t want to go to law school and join his family’s firm. So he fled to New York and, having no idea what he did want to do, drifted through a series of temporary jobs — messenger, travel agent, receptionist, beauty salon manager — before his purpose found him.

While eating lunch one ordinary day in Central Park, Lilien looked up to see a hawk — a bona fide raptor — devouring a pigeon while perched on a tree limb. Stunned by the sight of primal wildness in the middle of a city park, Lilien decided to make a documentary despite his complete lack of filmmaking experience. And he quickly discovered that the hawk — the first known to have established itself in Manhattan — had already attracted a small but devoted group of followers.

Lilien’s spur-of-the-moment project eventually came to dominate 18 years of his life. He soon fell in with a loose-knit community of bird watchers, nature lovers, misfits and ordinary New Yorkers enchanted by the hawk dubbed “Pale Male” for his atypically subdued coloring. They included professional wildlife photographer Charles Kennedy; Wall Street Journal writer Marie Winn, whose 1999 book Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park helped make Pale Male an international celebrity; the wheelchair-bound Jeanine Len; loner Lincoln Karim, a video engineer who emerges from his shell in the company of fellow hawk watchers and founded the website palemale.com; and retired doctor Alexander Fisher, who lived near Pale Male’s 927 Fifth Avenue roost and opened his terrace to the hardcore hawk watchers.

The Legend of Pale Male has romance: Our intrepid hawk finds a mate and builds a (love) nest with her, ironically secured by rows of metal spikes installed to deter roosting pigeons (Awwwwwwww….). His ladyhawk — unimaginatively named “First Love” by the vigilant watchers — eats a poisoned pigeon and dies (oh no!), but is succeeded by feathered flirts Chocolate, Blue and Lola.

It has drama: The dastardly condo board of 927 Fifth Avenue decides the nest is unsightly and has it destroyed, sparking days of protests and mocking media coverage before relenting — they even hire an architect to construct a metal frame on which the birds can build a new, more secure home.

It embraces family values: Fuzzy, ungainly chicks hatch and mature into sleek, handsome killing machines who fly off to establish their own dynasties, colonizing Fordham University's Bronx campus, the shoulders of a statue carved onto the facade of the upper west side’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and various cemeteries, bridges and the occasional tree.

Pale Male

even has celebrity cameos, notably Woody Allen — on whose balcony Pale Male often perched before establishing his permanent home — and Mary Tyler Moore, a 927 Fifth Avenue resident who defied her building’s board by supporting the protesters.

All that said, it’s still — to put it kindly — a haphazard piece of filmmaking weighted down by Lilien’s banal, nonstop narration and far too many shots of awestruck New Yorkers waxing rhapsodic about the spiritually restorative effects of glimpsing a wild thing in Manhattan’s concrete canyons. To be fair to the filmmaker, English isn’t his first language; but his mastery of the art of a finding a hoary cliche for every occasion — Kennedy doesn’t just become Lilien’s mentor, he takes Lilien “under his wing” — is extraordinary… and not in a good way.

On the other hand Lilien’s footage (supplemented by shots taken by various hawk-watching regulars) of Pale Male doing what hawks do goes a long way to compensating for those flaws: The sight of a winged predator hawk flipping itself in mid-air, doing a dead drop into a flock of flying pigeons and emerging with lunch clutched in its claws would be truly breathtaking even if it weren’t taking place against the incongruous backdrop of streetlights and building facades.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal.


The Liberty Kid

(2008)
Written and Directed by: Ilya Chaikin.
With: Al Thompson, Kareem Savinn, Raquel Jordan, Rosa Ramos, Anny Mariano, Johnny Rivera and Rayniel Rufino.

Brooklyn-based filmmaker Ilya Chaiken's follow-up to the sharply observed Margarita Happy Hour (2002) is a surprisingly expansive study of two young Latino men who lose their low-level service jobs after 9/11.

Tico (Savinon) and Derrick (Thompson) grew up together in Brooklyn. Both dropped out of high school when they were in their late teens, live at home and work at the Statue of Liberty ferry concession stand.

While Tico is content to drift through life partying, fooling around with girls and protecting his tough-guy reputation, Derrick is studying for the GED so he can go to college. He's also struggling to help his overwhelmed mother (Ramos) and support his twin 3-year-olds, who live with an ex-girlfriend. When the first plane hits the World Trade Center, Derrick and Tico's supervisor assures his staff that what they're seeing is just an accident; nothing to worry about. When the dust clears, the Statue of Liberty has been closed to visitors and Tico and Derrick are out of work. Nine months later, Tico is drifting into small-time drug dealing and Derrick, who's been unable to find a decent job, becomes his reluctant partner.

The film eventually covers several years in both men's lives, encompassing small victories, bitter betrayals, family upheavals, imprisonment, marriage and military service. Chaiken acknowledges larger social forces while keeping the focus tightly on Tico and Derrick:: 9/11 and the Iraq War impinge on the film to the exact degree that they irrevocably change the young men's day-to-day lives. Derrick and Tico aren't oblivious to what's going on in the world, but they don't have the luxury of thinking too much about the big picture, because the small picture is always on the verge of collapsing. Far from trivializing world-changing events like the navel-gazing A Broken Sole (2007), Chaiken's film drives home the fact that collateral damage comes in many forms and marginal lives are easily derailed. And though she keeps the Iraq War entirely off screen, the film's single shot of the smoldering towers, which Derrick watches through a coin-operated viewer, packs a visceral punch.


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Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies Of Wrestling

(2004)
Written and Directed by: Ruth Leitman.
With: Lillian Ellison, Johnny Mae Young, Gladys Gillem, Ida May Martinez, Penny Banner, Ella Waldek, Mars Bennett, Millie Stafford, Marie Laverne, Maria Bernardi, Nell Stewart, Diamond Lil, Sandy Parker and Rita Cortez-Lee.
Documentary

This slyly tough-minded, unexpectedly generous documentary about the pioneers of female wrestling features an all-star lineup of rough-talking, no-nonsense broads who escaped circumscribed futures picking cotton, caring for aging parents and waiting tables for lives of down-market glamor. The price of freedom was chronic injuries, sexual harassment, financial uncertainty and loneliness, but they're not whiners. The girls, as they call themselves, took their lumps, gave as good as they got and survived to tell the tale. Some, like pint-sized Southern firecracker Lillian "the Fabulous Moolah" Ellison, parlayed wrestling celebrity into lucrative careers. Ellison, who died in 2007 at the age of 84, segued into managing, training and booking other girls and spent her last years in upper-middle-class comfort in her home state of South Carolina with longtime partner Johnnie Mae Young and midget wrestler Diamond Lil. The shrewd, level-headed Ellison started out playing cheesecake sidekick "Slave Girl Moolah" to novelty wrestler Tony "Elephant Boy" Olivas, while Young brawled her way out of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, shocking the prim-and-proper girls who obeyed promoters' dictates — pretty dresses, girlie heels and nail polish were de rigeur outside the ring — by wearing mannish clothes, smoking cigars and cussing like a sailor with Tourette's Syndrome. For all the showboating in the ring, the original ladies of wrestling worked as hard as they lived and lived as hard as they worked. Limber Ida May Martinez of Connecticut was abandoned by her mother, rejected by her grandmother and grudgingly raised by an aunt and uncle; wrestling was her path to self-esteem. Penny Banner grew up in a rough St. Louis neighborhood and started strength training to protect herself from the thug who tried to rape her. Whiskey-voiced, Washington-state raised Ella Waldek fled drudgery of harvesting beets on the family farm to become a roller-derby jammer; she thrilled to the rush of the ring but remains haunted by the memory of tackling a fledgling wrestler who died after the match. It wasn't all roses and champagne: Feisty, Alabama-born Gladys "Kill 'em' Gillem," who died in 2009, never rose beyond a paycheck-to-paycheck living. She wound up wrestling 'gators in Florida before "retiring" to run a motel. But even poor and brain damaged, Gillem lived her life her way and didn't give a good God damn what anyone thought. With the exception of Young and Ellison, who were still making novelty appearances in WWE-sponsored events when Leitman caught up with them, none of the women has anything good to say about the T&A world of contemporary female wrestling. They hung up their boots and bathing suits for marriage, motherhood and other careers that ranged from nursing to private sleuthing. But while their nostalgic memories of fun, friendship and glitz are offset by equally vivid recollections of shattered relationships, exploitation and tragedy, it's clear they wouldn't change a thing.


The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

(2004)
Written and Directed by: Larry Blamire.
With: Larry Blamire, Fay Masterson, Brian Howe, Susan McConnell, Andrew Parks, Jennifer Blaire, Dan Conroy, Robert DeVeau and Darrin Reed.

Larry Blamire's pitch-perfect parody of poverty row horror/sci-fi pictures of the 1950s is a meticulous takeoff could easily be taken for the real thing, which is both its genius and its Achilles heel. In addition to being as charmingly silly as the films that inspired it, it also reproduces the inevitable dullness produced by murky photography, minimal action, cheapo special effects and long stretches of expository dialogue.

Scientist Paul Armstrong (Blamire) and his perky, bubble-headed wife, Betty (Fay Masterson), rent a cabin near the remote spot where a meteor recently landed. Nearby, Dr. Roger Fleming (Howe) is looking for the fabled lost skeleton of Cadavra Cave, whose legendary power Fleming hopes to harness for his own ends. And in the nearby woods, two aliens from the planet Marva — Kro-Bar and his wife, Lattis (Parks and McConnell) — are taking stock after the emergency landing that damaged their spaceship and allowed their dangerous mutant to escape. Dr. Armstrong locates the meteor, which contains a substance called atmosphereum, which happens to be what the skeleton requires to regain its strength and conquer the world — cue the power-mad skeleton laugh! — and the substance that powers Lattis and Kro-bar's spaceship. Dr. Armstrong, in turn, hopes his research into the nature of atmospherium will advance his scientific career.

And so everyone converges on the Armstrongs' cabin: Kro-Bar and Lattis posing awkwardly as regular Earth folks while Fleming secretly borrows their shape-altering "transmutatron" and transforms "four different forest animals" into feral seductress Animala (Blaire) to bolster his cover story. Adopting the relentlessly loopy logic of desperate screenwriters, Fleming reasons that it will seem more plausible that he's been stranded by a car crash if he's accompanied by his "wife"… even if she's a total weirdo in a beat-girl unitard. The persistently polite Armstrongs ignore the peculiar behavior of Animala, Lattis and Kro-Bar — it would be rude, after all, to draw attention to their guests' eccentricities — but after a local forest ranger (Conroy) stops by with the news of a mutilation murder nearby, even the Armstrongs realize something very odd is going on.

Shot in Bronson Canyon (a location whose otherworldly terrain was much-exploited by '50s genre filmmakers) and filmed in "skeletorama," Blamire's poker-faced pastiche is both affectionate and knowing, which makes it more fun than such smugly superior send-ups as Don't Ask, Don't Tell (2002). It was released with Ub Iwerks' inventive 1937 animated short Skeleton Frolics, which features seven minutes of inventive and highly influential graveyard high jinks.


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The Lovely Bones

2009
Directed by: Peter Jackson.
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold.
With: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver and Christian Thomas Ashdale.

Peter Jackson seemed the perfect director to adapt Alive Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, a story of murder and what comes after that’s narrated by a dead girl trapped in the pretty prison of an afterworld that lies somewhere between where she was and where she’s going. Think back past the epic Lord of the Rings films to Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, a richly imagined story of two adolescent girls caught in a poisonous plasticine fantasy world conjured from their half-formed fantasies. Perfect! And yet The Lovely Bones is sadly inert. The story shuttles back and forth between a placid 1970s suburbia and an afterlife that looks disconcerting like the cover of a Yes album; both are bloodless, all look and no vitality.

Fourteen-year-old Susie “like the fish” Salmon (Ronan) dies on December 6, 1973, raped, murdered and dismembered by George Harvey (Tucci), the creepy neighbor every picture-perfect small town and suburb seems to have. It takes her a while to realize what’s happened; briefly baffled, she flees the cornfield where she died and can’t fathom why no one can see or hear her. But once Susie understands and accepts her state — she’s disembodied but stranded somewhere between life and afterlife — she takes a keen interest in the ongoing travails of her family and friends.

Despite the best efforts of local cop Len Fenerman (Imperioli), Susie’s body is never found, though her bedraggled cap — a godforsaken thing knitted by her mother, Abigail (Weisz) — turns up in a nearby field. It becomes gradually, painfully clear that body or no body, Susie is almost certainly dead, though it’s the almost that torments everyone who knew her. Susie’s father, Jack (Wahlberg), is obsessed with finding his little girl’s killer even as he tries to cling to the hope that she’s alive; his fixation eventually drives Abigail to abandon her family and retreat into a soul-searching sojourn on a hippie-dippy commune. Abigail’s hard-drinking, open-minded mother (Sarandon) tries to step in, but nurturing was clearly never her bag. Susie fades to near abstraction for baby brother Buckley (Ashdale), but Lindsey (McIver), who grew up in Susie’s shadow, is determined to find her sister’s killer… and she has a hunch about Harvey. Susie’s friend Clarissa (Michalka), who sometimes vaguely feels her presence, begins dating Jake (Nelson), the dishy Brit on whom Susie had her first and only crush.

First and foremost, The Lovely Bones rests on Ronan’s shoulders, and she’s more than up to the challenge: Her performance is the single best thing about the film. Ronan overlays the awkwardness of a sheltered teenager with the devastating weariness of someone who knows that all possibility is behind her. Dead Susie is all she’ll ever be, and the only way she can remain connected to her cruelly truncated life is by watching other lives go on.

Unfortunately, Ronan is hemmed in at every turn by the kitschy afterlife in which she’s trapped. It’s perfectly reasonable that Susie’s imagination, which shapes her limbo, would be shaped by kitschy ‘70s design. But the specificity of the movie’s set design drags Sebold’s ethereal in-between world down to earth with a crashing thud; Ronan’s pitch-perfect voice-over narration is regularly undermined by the goofy landscape she inhabits, even if it is populated by other girls murdered by sex fiends, some even younger that Susie. The whole thing recalls the tacky afterlives of 1998’s What Dreams May Come, a simplistic and painfully unconvincing fable about love’s power to overcome all.

Jackson and screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh — Walsh is Jackson’s wife and both women are his longtime collaborators — are nothing if not decorous; there’s no salaciousness in Susie’s death and no morbid fascination with the minutia of Harvey’s psychosis. All of which is entirely reasonable: The Lovely Bones isn’t voyeuristic serial-killer porn. But the film’s relentless good taste renders it dull and hollow; Susie might as well be away at summer camp, and that absence of tragic resonance robs the story of its thorny, haunting heart. To hear the voice of a dead teenager, a girl whose life was brutally ended before it had a chance to start, blithely nattering about the day-to-day affairs of the living should fray your last nerve. But even Ronan’s considerable skills can’t trump CGI’s power to render everything false and inconsequential, and more’s the pity.


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Machete

2010
Written and Directed by: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis.
With: Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Robert De Niro, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson and Jessica Alba.

The spin is that Machete started life as a faux trailer in Grindhouse (2007) — how cool is that? Like most spin, it’s not entirely false, but less than totally true. Rodriguez wrote Machete 1.0 for veteran character actor Danny Trejo after directing him in Desperado (1995), but it was Grindhouse — whose mock trailers were far more popular than Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s lovingly retro features Planet Terror and Death Proof — made it viable project.

The craggy, muscle-bound Trejo, whose face looks like ten miles of rough mountain road, plays Machete… sorry, is Machete, a Mexican federale agent who paid for taking on loathsome drug kingpin Torrez (Seagal) with the lives of his wife and daughter.

Wounded, bereft and disgraced, Machete eventually washes up in Texas, working as a lowly day laborer while plotting his cold, cold revenge. Sleek opportunist Booth (Fahey) has no idea what box of hell he’s opening when he pretends to hire Machete to assassinate Senator McLaughlin (De Niro) — whose anti-immigrant rhetoric pales next to his late-night habit of prowling the desert with sadistic Lt. Stillman (Johnson) and murdering would-be border jumpers — while secretly planning a venal double cross.

Needless to say, Machete doesn’t go down easily (he doesn't text either, a bit of dialogue that showcases Trejo's gravelly deadpan), and eventually forges alliances with both comely ICE agent Sartana (Alba), who’s begun to question her loyalty to a bureaucracy hell-bent on deporting economic refugees who look just like her, and the lovely Luz (Rodriguez), a tart-tongued taco slinger with a sideline in power-to-the-people politics. There will be blood, but if you have the slightest interest in Machete you already knew that.

Make no mistake: Machete is supremely self-aware and steeped in the aesthetics of vintage exploitation movies, which isn’t the same thing as being a spoof (think McGruber or the Charlie’s Angels movies, if you must). Like Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) — both directed and co-written by Edgar Wright, who devised Grindhouse’s quietly brilliant Don’t trailer

. And credit where credit is due, Machete is pretty damned good on its own very particular terms: Violent, profane and pop politicized in the broadest possible sense of the term — smug white guys who hate immigrants, bad. It’s also a dizzying cornucopia of WTF? casting. Where else are you going to see a line-up like Lindsay Lohan, Cheech Marin, Steven Seagal, Robert De Niro, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Don Johnson, Tom Savini, and, of course, Rodriguez’s twin nieces Electra and Elise Avellan jostling for screen time?


Madea Goes to Jail

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Tyler Perry, based on his play.
With: Tyler Perry, Derek Luke, Keshia Knight Pulliam, David Mann, Tamela Mann, RonReaco Lee, Vanessa Ferlito, Viola Davis, Ion Overman, Sofia Vergara, Robin Coleman and Greg Mathis.

Miss Mabel "Madea" Simmons (Tyler Perry) is — as always — in a mess of trouble, because she just doesn't know how to suffer fools. Not gladly, mind you, just without making the kind of scene that winds up on the local newscast. This time she's ordered to undergo anger-management therapy, and if she doesn't go, her next stop is the big house. (Click here for complete review.)

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


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Making the Boys

2011
Directed by: Crayton Robey.
With:Mart Crowley, William Friedkin, Laurence Luckinbill, Peter White, William Friedkin, Tony Kushner, Edward Albee, Terrence McNally, Robert Wagner, Larry Kramer, Michael Cunningham, Paul Rudnick, Dan Savage and Dominick Dunne.

Any one who’s ever muttered “who do I have to fuck around here to get a drink” (or wanted to) is indebted to Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking The Boys in the Band, the 1968 Off-Broadway play that dared to believe the relationships between a group of happy, tormented, bitchy, kind, shallow, introspective, handsome and plain gay men at a booze-fueled birthday party were the stuff of legitimate theater.

Crayton Robey’s admirably even-handed documentary about the making of Boys is a window onto a world where gay men and women were invisible to their neighbors and coworkers, where movies and plays mentioned them only when they needed a twisted villain or a pathetic victim and the New York Times’ drama critic could sneer in its pages that playwrights like Edward Albee, William Inge and Tennessee Williams were trying to put one over on theater goers by cloaking plays about gay men in a veneer of heterosexuality. Granted, anyone who’s seen Elizabeth Taylor in the movie version of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? (1966) could be forgiven for ceding the point, but the elephant in the room was that there were no legitimate outlets for stories about gay lives. Who in the mid-1960s could have imagined that 40 years later a sitcom about a successful, slightly neurotic Manhattan career woman and her equally successful, slightly neurotic gay roommate would be a major, mainstream TV hit?

Robey charts the play’s unlikely progress from the germ of an idea in the head of an would-be playwright whose credentials included being Natalie Wood’s personal assistant to hot topic via interviews with Crowley, two surviving members of the original cast (a third has dropped out of sight and the remaining three are dead), contemporary playwrights, critics and various others who played a part in the real life drama. And he faces head on the fact that for every gay man who felt empowered by the sight of unequivocally homosexual characters on a legitimate stage, there was another (like Albee) who cringed at the bitchy dialogue and camp mannerisms. But Boys was out there, unrepentantly what it was, and predictions that once all the homosexuals in New York had seen it the play would vanish proved false. Quite the opposite: It was made into a1970 movie directed by William Friedkin that extended its reach further into the mainstream consciousness.

The fact that openly-gay young men like Project Runway star Christian Siriano have never so much as heard of The Boys in the Band can be spun two ways: As an indication of how little today’s spoiled youth care about those who fought the fights that allow them be frivolous twinks, or as a barometer of how much mainstream attitudes have changed since the days of the lavender closet. Robey ends his film much as Crowley ended Boys: On an ambiguous note. Just as the play’s most embittered yet self-aware character tells a more conflicted friend that no matter what he does, he’ll always be homosexual, Robey tempers the optimism of those who feel they’re living in a post-gay world with Albee’s dry observation that he remains “totally vigilant.”


Margarita Happy Hour

(2002)
Written and Directed by: Ilya Chaikin.
With: Eleanor Hutchins, Larry Fessenden, Holly Ramos, Barbara Sicuranza, Amanda Vogel, Macha Ross, Kristin Dispaltro and Jonah Leland.

Loosely structured but sharply observed, this darkly comic drama revolves around a group of not-as-young-as-they-once-were scene makers trying to reconcile the conflicting demands of motherhood and a sex, drugs and rock-and-roll lifestyle.

Various feckless lovers have decamped or been given the heave-ho, leaving these one-time riot grrrls holding the baby bag; in one of the film's many throwaway ironies, the only married mom in the bunch may have to divorce her blue-collar husband to qualify their ailing baby for affordable health care. The group's center is Zelda ( Hutchins), an artist who shares a rambling Brooklyn loft with seven roommates, including boyfriend Max (Fessenden), an underemployed writer whose ambivalence about fatherhood is straining their relationship to the breaking point. Dressed like glam-punk sex kittens, the newly minted moms gather at the same Lower East Side Mexican restaurant they frequented as unattached scene makers, gossiping, trading tips about social services and sucking up $2.00 happy-hour margaritas while their toddlers romp underfoot.

Zelda and her friends, Graziella (Sicuranza), Raquel (Vogel), Sofia (Ross) and Marie (Dispaltro) are suspended in various stages of willingness to negotiate new self-images and the lives that go with them; some are making the trasition more easily than others. Zelda's life is complicated by the arrival of best friend Natali (Ramos), who's fresh out of rehab and hoping for a fresh start, but ripe for relapse. The fragile and directionless Natali needs more attention than Zelda has left to give after long days of looking after her daughter (Leland); negotiating freelance jobs (like a gig drawing busty ladies for Screw); and wrangling with Medicaid. Meanwhile, some of the happy-hour regulars have pooled their resources to buy a house upstate; there's still time for Zelda to join them if she's willing to kiss her New York life goodbye.

Written and directed by Ilya Chaiken, herself a single mother, the film's ensemble portrait of women caught between nostalgia for the tough, free-spirited babes they were (however much that freedom may have been illusory) and uncertainty about what their futures hold is almost painfully on target. And while the film's men are generally given short shrift, Fessenden's Max is a complex tangle of contradictory impulses, alternately protective and reckless, simultaneously devoted and irresponsible. The scene in which he almost picks up a woman in a bar, then sabotages his own opportunistic lechery by pulling out a photo of Zelda and Little Z, is a small, poignant gem.


Maximum Risk

(1996)
Directed by: Ringo Lam.
Written by: Larry Ferguson.
With: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Natasha Henstridge, Jean-Hugues, Zach Grenier, Paul Ben-Victor, Frank Senger, Stefanos Miltsakakis, Frank Van Keeken, David Hemblen and Stephane Audran.

Until Maximum Risk, director Ringo Lam was known only to die-hard Hong Kong movie buffs and Quentin Tarantino haters who knew that the plot of Reservoir Dogs owed more than a little to Lam's City on Fire, unreleased in the US but made famous by the short film Who Do You Think You're Fooling?

This sleek and highly competent action thriller features Jean-Claude Van Damme as twins, as he did in 1991's gimmicky Double Impact. But there's little special effects trickery here: French cop Alain Moreau's (Van Damme) partner, Sebastien (Anglade), escorts him to a crime scene, where he comes face to face with a body that looks exactly like him. After discovering that the dead man, Mikhail Suverov, was also born on the same date as he was, Alain confronts his mother (Audran), who confesses that Mikhail was Alain's twin, whom she put up for adoption at birth. Mikhail was on his way to introduce himself to the brother he never knew when he was brutally murdered.

Alain follows Mikhail's trail to New York's Little Odessa, a little piece of Russia in Brooklyn, where everyone takes him for Mikhail, including his brother's gorgeous and profoundly practical fiancee, Alex (Henstridge). He soon learns that his brother joined the Russian Mafia as a teenager, but had recently devised a plan to get out, a plan that apparently involved the brother he never knew.

The plot holds together pretty well, which is not always the case in Van Damme's movies, and does not require the concoction of labored explanations for his pronounced accent. Lam stages the action with his trademark aplomb — the climactic battle in a meat warehouse is an impressively nasty piece of work — and the supporting cast includes such respected European actors as Anglade and Audran, who brings striking emotional power to the small role of Alain's mother.


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The Mechanic

2011
Directed by: Simon West.
Written by: Richard Wenk and John Lewis Carlino.
With: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland, Tony Goldwyn, Mini Andren, James Logan, Jeff Chase and Christa Campbell.

U.K.-born filmmaker Simon West’s remake of the 1972 Michael Winner movie about a hit man (Charles Bronson) who pays dearly for losing his emotional detachment is a sleek, brutally succinct thriller that showcases Jason Statham’s sly talent for being just that little bit better than he has to be in roles that favor brawn over brains.

Bayou-based Arthur Bishop (Statham) is a “mechanic,” a hired killer with a connoisseur’s appreciation of the messages embedded in murder and a specialty in contract killings that send no message at all, because they look like accidents or unfortunate twists of fate. “The best jobs are the ones no one ever knows you were there,” he muses in his muted, gravel-rasp of a voice.

Bishop learned the tricks of his trade from Harry McKenna (Sutherland), the father figure who chose to train him rather than his own son, perpetual screw-up Steve (Foster). So when Bishop is assigned to kill McKenna, he balks, all the way up the food chain to icy big-boss Mr. Dean (Goldwyn). But once Dean produces evidence that McKenna is a traitor who sold out one of his own crews, Bishop does what he does best.

Still, Bishop’s unquiet conscience takes charge when Steve shows up looking for a mentor, the lust for vengeance in his eyes. Bishop takes him on as an apprentice, despite his better judgment and the ever-present danger that Steve will eventually realize his father’s killer is no more than an arm’s length away.

The Mechanic‘s emotional pitch lies somewhere between those of King Lear and a Roadrunner cartoon, which doesn’t sound like much until you stop to seriously consider the range of most mainstream action movies. That it even aspires to suggest there’s something behind Bishop’s reptile eyes without in any way implying that he’s really a nice guy who somehow blundered into the snuff business and could just as well have wound up running a Garden District florist’s shop if on some other day he’d chanced to turn another way is more than most action movies bother to attempt. Whatever Statham’s limitations (he was, after all, trained as a swimmer—a world-class one at that—not an actor), he has a certain elusive warmth that Bronson lacked, and that works to the remake’s advantage: No matter how you slice it, Bronson’s decision to mentor sneering rich-boy Jan-Michael Vincent is inexplicable. But when Statham chooses to take on the angry, hot-headed Foster—clearly one of the worst decisions in the long, sad history of bad decisions—it makes a certain sense. And surely that’s what separates the crassly formulaic action thrillers fit only for late-night cable viewing from the ones with a tiny spark of grace.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal.


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Millennium Actress

2001
Directed by: Satoshi Kon.
Written by: Satoshi Kon and Sadayuki Murai.
With the voices of: Shozo Iizuka, Miyoko Shoji, Mami Koyama, Fumiko Orikasa, Syouko Tsuda, Kohichi Yamadera and Hirotaka Suzuoki.

Past and present, reality and fiction blend seamlessly into each other in Satoshi Kon's dream-like animated drama about a reclusive actress and the documentary filmmaker determined to find out why she abruptly abandoned her career 30 years earlier.

Middle-aged filmmaker Genya Tachibana (Iizuka), has been enthralled by actress Chiyoko Fujiwara (voiced at different ages by Shoji, Koyama and Orikasa) since he was a young man. Beautiful, unaffected and perpetually breathless with enthusiasm, Chiyoko began acting as a teenager in the 1940s and continued through the early 1970s, making family melodramas, Godzilla movies, war pictures, period films and even a 2001-style science fiction epic. Her face graced the covers of hundreds of magazines, until one day she stepped out of the limelight and never returned. Now Tachibana has finally secured an interview for the documentary he’s making about her.

Chiyoko’s house turns out to be nestled in the wooded hills behind the Ginei Studio lot, where she spent her career, and Tachibana shoots some melancholy footage of its demolition en route to the long-awaited audience. White-haired, but still graceful and lovely, Chiyoko graciously accepts the gift Tachibana has brought: a key she lost decades earlier while shooting her last film. Prompted by the key's return, Chiyoko reminisces freely about her youthful shyness, disapproving mother, rivalry with slightly older actress Eiko Shimao (Tsuda), marriage to director Otaka and unrequited love for a revolutionary artist (Yamadera) who disappeared during WWII. And as she speaks, Tachibana and his cameraman (Suzuoki) find themselves into Chiyoko's memories, interlopers whose presence unveils Chiyoko's secrets, as well as some of Tachibana's own.

Are they unstuck in time as a result of drinking Chiyoko's home-brewed herbal tea? Could the earthquakes that shake the ground three times in one day be symptomatic of a rift in the time/space continuum, or is everything — including Tachibana's documentary — unfolding within Chiyoko's mind? Kon never clarifies, and it doesn't matter. His film is a lovely meditation on memory, movies and the near-magical power of images to fire the imagination and keep the hope of happiness and beauty alive in the face of real-life ugliness and despair. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)


Miss March

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore.
With: Zach Cregger, Trevor Moore, Raquel Alessi, Molly Stanton, Craig Robinson, Hugh M. Hefner, Carla Jimenez and Geoff Meed.

What seems to be a pathetic excuse for a comedy is actually something even worse: A feature-length effort to reposition Playboy's brand of squeaky-clean titillation as relevant to young men weaned on internet porn.

High school sweethearts Eugene (Cregger) and Cindi (Alessi) are old-fashioned romantics who forgo taking their relationship to the next level until they're absolutely sure of their commitment to each other. But as senior prom looms, they decide it's time for them to consummate their relationship. Unfortunately, Eugene takes a tumble down a flight of stairs that leaves him comatose.

Four years later, Eugene's moronic best bud, horndog Tucker (Moore), snaps him out of it with a baseball bat. And boy, does he have news: Former Miss Abstinence Cindi is now Playboy's Miss March — ain't that a kick in the head! Eugene just wants to talk to Cindi — appearances notwithstanding, he wants to believe she hasn't turned into a airbrushed slut. And as it happens, the annual Playboy bunny convention (or something equally nonsensical) is taking place in three days' time at Hugh Hefner's Los Angeles mansion, and Tucker knows someone who could get them in: His old pal Horsedick.MPEG (Robinson), whose rap career blew up while Eugene was sleeping. Of course, the fact that Trip van Winkle has little control over his muscles and none over his bowels presents a problem. But hell, bunnies await and time's a-wasting, so Tucker hauls Eugene into his car and they strike out for Chicago in search of Horsedick.MPEG. Complicating matters is the botch Tucker made of his 13-month anniversary celebration with older girlfriend Candace (Stanton) — suffice it to say that a disco ball, an unfortunately timed epileptic seizure and assault with a deadly fork were involved — and she's out for vengeance, assisted by her brother (Meed) and his fellow firemen.

Written and directed by stars Cregger and Moore, of the five-man sketch comedy troupe Whitest Kids U'Know, Miss March is gross (in addition to the running diarrhea gag, there's unwitting dog-pee drinking and a visual gag involving Horsedick's dick), relentlessly juvenile (hot and horny lesbians, dude; and their foreign, too!) and painfully unfunny. Robinson and Stanton occasionally tease a glimmer of humor from their broadly written supporting parts, but that's as good as it gets. Hefner's cameo, in which he dispenses avuncular advice to Trevor, is simply sad: He's too old to be wallowing in lame trash that isn't going to do a thing for Playboy's faded image.


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Mr. Popper's Penguins

2011
Directed by:Mark Waters.
Written by:Sean Anders, John Morris and Jared Stern, based on the book by Richard and Florence Atwater.
With:Jim Carrey, Angela Lansbury, Carla Gugino, Ophelia Lovibond, Madeline Carroll, Clark Gregg, Jeffrey Tambor, David Krumholtz, Philip Baker Hall, Maxwell Perry Cotton, James Tupper, Dominic Chianese, William Charles Mitchell and Kelli Barrett.

A shallow real-estate developer whose relentless ambition has ruined his marriage and alienated his children learns to loosen up and be a fun dad when his own estranged father dies and bequeaths him six penguins in this noisy, bird-poop-obsessed comedy loosely based on the acclaimed 1938 children’s book.

Growing up, Thomas Popper rarely saw his father, a globe-trotting explorer who occasionally stopped into his son’s life for a festive night out before taking off again for points unknown. As an adult, Popper's (Carrey) single-minded dedication to his career development has made him just as much a stranger to his own children, sullen tween Janie (Carroll) and little Billy (Cotton), who live with his ex-wife Amanda (Gugino) and would rather spend the weekend in detention than in their dad’s sleek, cold, high-tech bachelor pad.

At least that's the way things are before the penguins arrive. As far as Popper is concerned, there’s nothing he wants less than a honking, fish-gobbling crap machine, unless it's half a dozen of them; that his father’s last gesture was to afflict him with a flock of Gentoo penguins is just typical. All he wants is to unload the damned things on some zoo so he can concentrate on closing the deal that will make him a partner in a venerable New York City real-estate firm: He just has to get cranky old Mrs. Van Gundy (Lansbury) to agree to sell them Tavern on the Green, which his rapacious employers want to level so they can develop the only privately held piece of land inside New York City’s famed Central Park. But Popper is forced to reconsider his priorities after Billy and Janie fall head-over-heels in love with the penguins—in no time flat, they’re actually begging to spend time with him.

The problem is…well, actually, there are a bunch of problems, starting with the fact that he lives in a swanky condo with a no-pets rule, and no one likes him enough to look the other way. Popper can pay off the doorman, but spiteful neighbor Kent (Krumholtz) would just love to catch him violating building rules. Plus, back when Popper was trying to get rid of his waddling houseguests, he made the mistake of contacting zookeeper Nat Jones (Gregg), who’s now hell-bent on rescuing Popper’s pack of penguins from their lush life. Oh, and penguin-keeping is a lot of work, especially when they start nesting and hatching fuzzy little fish-gobbling crap machines. But once Billy and Janie are firmly bonded with the penguins and even Amanda has started showing signs of softening towards her ex-husband, Popper must to do what it takes to keep his web-footed frenemies.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is first and foremost a Jim Carrey movie, a showcase for his trademark mugging and capering with a gooey sentimental center that differs dramatically from the gentle, low-key book about a lowly house painter whose unrealized dreams of adventure in far-flung places are unexpectedly answered by the gift of a penguin. And it’s a tribute to the irresistible charm of penguins (even heavily CGI-enhanced penguins) that they nearly succeed in stealing the movie right out from under the veteran spotlight-hogger by virtue of being so damned cute, even when they’re honking like air horns and wiggling their evolutionarily astonishing but astonishingly ugly barbed tongues. As to the sight of penguins sitting in rapt amazement at the sight of Charlie Chaplin waddling across Popper’s giant flat-screen TV screen, well, it would make Scrooge himself melt into a puddle of warm fuzziness. Just a friendly warning to parents, though: Be prepared to spend long, nerve-wracking months telling your progeny that that there is no way they are ever, ever going to have a pet penguin.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


Ned Kelly

(2003)
Directed by Gregor Jordan
Written by John Michael McDonagh, based on the novel Our Sunshine, by Robert Drewe
With: Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts, Laurence Kinlan, Kiri Paramore, Nicholas Bell, Philip Barantini, Kris McQuade, Emily Browning, Kerry Condon and Joel Edgerton.

A dark western about the short life and bad times of "iron outlaw" Ned Kelly, Australia's answer to Jesse James.

Victoria Province, 1871. Born to an impoverished Irish convict in English-ruled Australia, young Ned's (Ledger) teenage joyride on a stray mare earns him three years in prison for horse theft. Older and angrier, Ned nevertheless returns home to his mother (McQuade) and younger siblings Dan (Kinlan), Kate (Condon) and Grace (Browning) determined to stay out of trouble.

Ned gets a job working for English gentleman rancher Richard Cook (Bell), but flirts incautiously with Cook's beautiful young wife, Julia (Watts), and feuds with perpetually drunken Officer Fitzpatrick (Paramore) of the Victoria Police. Fitzpatrick's lust for Ned's sister Kate starts the wheels of injustice turning: Dan gives Fitzgerald a hiding and Fitzgerald spreads the story that Ned, who wasn't even there, shot him. Ned can't use his alibi — Julia was with him but won't admit it for fear of ruining her reputation — so he and Dan decide to lay low until everything blows over. But it never does. Mrs. Kelly is arrested in their stead and the brothers, by now accompanied by longtime friends Joe Byrne (Bloom) and Steve Hart (Barantini), kill three police officers sent to gun them down.

With a government bounty on their heads, Kelly and company rob banks and share the loot with poor immigrant families, who embrace them as folk heroes and close ranks against the authorities. But the fugitives are eventually run to ground; pursued by a small army of policemen under the command of implacable Superintendent Hare (Rush), the 25-year-old Kelly and his gang, clad in homemade armor made from plowshares, stage their last stand in the isolated railway town of Glenrowan.

Adapted from Robert Drewe's 1999 historical novel Our Sunshine, the film sticks fairly close to the known facts but errs consistently on the side of pro-Kelly interpretation. The wholly invented character of unattainable love interest Julia Cook (the real Kelly once referred to an enigmatic "Julia" in a letter) is the film's weakest link and smacks of a desperate attempt to shoehorn a pretty woman into a story about grubby men with tangled beards. Ironically, though Kelly is all but unknown outside Australia, his story is so in line with 100 years of pulp-Western tropes that it feels cliched, though director Gregor Jordan's nightmarish vision of the Australian landscape is vividly haunting.


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9

(2009)
Directed by: Shane Acker.
Written by: Shane Acker and Pamela Pettler.
With the voices of: Elijah Wood, Martin Landau, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Fred Tatasciore and Crispin Glover.

Parents of nightmare-prone youngsters would do well to steer them away from Shane Acker's bleak animated fable 9, which unfolds in an all too convincingly dystopian future where machines have annihilated the human race.

9 (Wood) — a mute, burlap homunculus with sophisticated camera-lens eyes — wakes up in the dusty attic of an abandoned building in a field of rubble with no idea who, what or where he is. A fortuitous encounter with 2 (Landau), a puppet creature like himself, gives 9 some sense of the ravaged world around him. But before he can fill 9 in on the history of how things came to such a dismal pass, he's snatched up in the jaws of a skeletal metal monster and borne off to some no-doubt dreadful fate…

Read full review…


No Country for Old Men

(2007)
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen.
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
With: . Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper and Barry Corbin.

There's less to the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 somber thriller than meets the eye, but it's a hugely entertaining slice of sunbaked Gothic.

1980, West Texas: Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is the definition of ordinary: a Vietnam veteran living in a Desert Aire trailer park with his younger wife, Carla Jean (Scottish actress Macdonald), scraping out a living, driving a battered pickup truck, and partial to solitary hunting trips. It's on one such trip that Moss stumbles across the aftermath of a massacre: five trucks, half a dozen bodies (including a dog) and twice as many serious firearms, a dying man moaning for agua, a truckload of drugs, and a case crammed with $2 million. Moss knows better than to steal dirty money but does it anyway, and then lets his better nature ensure that he doesn't get away clean.

Haunted by the dying man's plea, he returns to the scene with a jug of water and runs smack into a shadowy pack of thugs. He escapes — barely, and battered — but knows his abandoned truck will lead them to his door. So Moss sends Carla Jean to her mother in Odessa and hits the road with the money, figuring he'll lay low and come up with some kind of plan to keep the money and disappear. But there are two men on his trail, utterly different but united in their dogged determination: laconic Sheriff Bell (Jones), whose rueful ruminations (many aimed at designated deputy dumbass Dillahunt) give the film its wryly comic edge, and stone psycho Anton Chigurh (Bardem), the supposedly humorless murder machine who whimsically favors a pneumatic humane killer for the disposing of rivals, witnesses and anyone who has the misfortune to get in his way.

There's a bit of Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote to Chigurh's pursuit of Moss, but No Country isn't a goof: The Coens let Brolin, Bardem and late arrival Harrelson play their uber-noir roles dead straight. And despite the story's superficial echoes of Fargo (1996) — flyover state backdrop, horrific crime spree, local law officer whose quaint regional locutions belie a sharp mind. ones' Bell is no Sheriff Marge Gunderson (the role that earned Frances McDormand an Oscar); Marge is inadvertently funny, a decent oasis in a world of roiling chaos. Bell knows he's funny, and his gallows humor is no joke: It's a shield against his knowledge of the world's random, ineluctable cruelty. Without it, he'd be Jim Thompson's sadistic Sheriff Lou Ford. But engaging though the film is, it aspires to a profundity it doesn't achieve: It's unpredictable, gorgeously photographed by longtime Coen associate Roger Deakins, and genuinely smart, but its insights boil down to "Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you," and Edgar G. Ulmer's brilliantly bitter Detour (1945) got there first.


Not Easily Broken

(2009)
Directed by: Bill Duke.
Written by: Brian Bird and T.D. Jakes, basked on the novel by Jakes.
With: Morris Chestnut, Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Hart, Eddie Cibrian, Jenifer Lewis, Maeve Quinlan, Wood Harris, Albert Hall and T.D. Jakes (cameo).

Tyler Perry owns the urban moral fable, but the handful of others clamoring for their piece of the pie include mega-church entrepreneur T.D. Jakes, who folds the same mix of comedy, drama and spiritual uplift into the story of a couple whose broken marriage is healed by the power of faith.

Married since 1995, the Johnsons may not make it to their next anniversary. Small-time contractor Dave's (Chestnut) dreams of playing professional baseball were scotched by a knee injury, while Clarice (Henson), a successful realtor, pays the bulk of their bills. And bulk is the word: Clarice's ambitions exceed even her considerable income, and she's too career oriented to be a good wife, let alone consider having the baby he so desperately wants. Dave channels his fatherly instincts into coaching an underprivileged little league team with comic relief buddy Tree (Hart), who's thoroughly under his wife's thumb, and token white friend Brock (Cibrian), a lawyer in the midst of a toxic divorce. Clarice bitterly resents the time Dave with the kids she contemptuously calls ""little gangbangers-in-training," and the marital discord comes to a roiling boil when Clarice is seriously injured in a car accident and her bitter, mouthy mama (Lewis) moves in to pour poisonous advice into her daughter's ear.

The film's awkward title comes from the braided rope Bishop Wilkes (Albert Hall) lays across the couple's shoulders at their wedding: Two strands represent the bride and groom while the third symbolizes God, whose love and guidance strengthens their union. Dave and Clarice, of course, have pretty much forgotten about Him: She's wrapped up in material things, so focused on getting ahead that she's even internalized racist attitudes about disadvantaged African-Americans, while Dave is too whipped to rise to the challenge of being the kind of man his wife can look up to.

Jakes, Perry and playwright-turned-filmmaker David E. Talbert (First Sunday) have their fingers firmly on the pulse of a sizable segment of the 21st-century African American community, for whom piety and bawdy humor are the spoonfuls of sugar that make the moral tale go down. Not Easily Broken hits all the familiar notes: Fathers who abandon their sons, women who equate strength with emasculation and drive their men into the arms of white women, children whose lack of moral guidance and family support leaves them vulnerable to drugging and thugging, mothers who teach their daughters to worship financial security rather than the Lord. But their underlying message makes Mildred Pierce look like a feminist tract: Men need to man up, women need to back off and meddling gal pals and mothers need to shut up.

This review first appeared in a slightly different form in Film Journal International


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Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!

2009
Written and Directed by: Mark Hartley.
With:Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Beresford, Richard Franklin, Antony I. Ginnane, Dennis Hopper, Barry Humphries, Stacy Keach, Ted Kotcheff, George Lazenby, George Miller, Philippe Mora, Russell Mulcahy, Steve Railsback, Fred Schepisi, Quentin Tarantino, Jack Thompson, Brian Trenchard-Smith, James Wan, Leigh Wannell, Simon Wincer, Susannah York, Bob Ellis, Lynette Curran, Briony Behets, Deborah Gray, Glory Annen, Carla Hoogeveen and Sigrid Thornton.

Mark Hartley's rip-snorting documentary celebrates the golden age of "Ozploitation" — Australian exploitation filmmaking of the 1970s and '80s — with a barrage of clips from sex comedies, horror pictures, thrillers and biker movies, interspersed with interviews with directors, producers, actors, critics and, of course, Quentin Tarantino.

For the full review, please click here here.

This review originally appeared on the Film Journal International website.


Notorious

(2009)
Directed by: George Tillman, Jr.
Written by: Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker.
With: Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, Naturi Naughton, Antonique Smith, Christopher Wallace Jr. and Sean Ringgold.

George Tillman, Jr.'s biopic is a big, fat wet kiss of a tribute to Brooklyn-born rapper Notorious B.I.G., whose 1997 murder (chronicled in Nick Broomfield's 2002 documentary Biggie and Tupac (2002) ) remains unsolved more than 10 years later.

The chubby son of soft-spoken, fiercely proud Voletta Wallace (Bassett), nerdy little Christopher Wallace (Christopher Wallace Jr., the late rapper's son) dreamed of escaping the mean streets of Bedford Stuyvesant by becoming a rap star. Before he was out of high school, Wallace (Woolard) was well on the way to becoming just another cautionary ghetto tale, dropping out of school, selling crack and getting his girlfriend pregnant. He even does a stint in jail for dealing, but holds on to his dream and emerges to strike the inevitable deal with the devil, here in the guise of music-business entrepreneur Sean "Puffy" Combs (Luke). Puffy makes Wallace a star, freeing him to smoke weed, drink Champagne, bang banji sluts, get freaky with trash-talking Lil' Kim (Naughton) and marry platinum blonde dream girl Faith Evans (Smith). Wallace also befriends the charismatic Tupac Shakur (Mackie), only to see their friendship curdle when Shakur is shot and robbed in the lobby of a Manhattan recording studio. Believing that Wallace and Combs masterminded the attack because he refused to sign with Combs' Bad Boy Entertainment, Shakur moves to Los Angeles, signs with Suge Knight's Death Row Records and busies himself stoking the fires of a nascent feud between the East Coast and West Coast rap scenes.

Tillman's rags-to-riches tale, penned by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker (the author of Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G.), is a big, bad bundle of biopic cliches, a glitzy whitewash filled with wince-inducing dialogue and propelled by a smug, from-beyond-the-grave voiceover that allows Wallace to justify or dismiss his many personal failings. So what if he ignored his cancer-stricken mother, neglected his children and cheated relentlessly on his wife and girlfriends? It all turned out okay for them in the end — hell, even that pregnant lady he sold crack to cleaned up and seemed none the worse for wear. Say what you want about Walk the Line (2005): It at least doesn't let Johnny Cash off the hook so easily.


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The Nutcracker in 3D

2010
Directed by: Andrey Konchalovskiy.
Written by: Andrey Konchalovskiy and Chris Solimine.
With: Elle Fanning, Charlie Rowe, Nathan Lane, Richard E. Grant, John Turturro, Yulia Visotskaya, Frances de la Tour, Chris Solimine, Aaron Michael Drozin, Peter Elliott, Daniel Peacock, Hugh Sachs, Africa Nile and the voices of Alan Cox and Shirley Henderson.

The best part of this PG-rated variation on the classic ETA Hoffmann story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is Elle Fanning, but it’s unreasonable to expect a child to support the weight of a resolutely un-magical fantasy film.

Vienna, 1920s: It’s nearly Christmas, and little Mary (Fanning) wants nothing more than to spend the evening with her parents (director/co-writer Andrey Konchalovskiy’s wife Visotskaya, Grant). But they’re off to a posh party, so Mary and her bratty little brother, Max (Drozin) — whose sole distinguishing characteristic is that he breaks things, especially Mary’s things — are being left in the care of their eccentric Uncle Albert (Lane).

Not that spending an evening with Uncle Albert (as in Einstein, hence the excruciating song “It’s Relative”) is inherently a bad thing. He may be a brilliant mathematician and all, but he also has an impish sense of humor, encourages Mary’s imaginative flights of fancy in a way her parents (especially her dour dad) don’t, and comes bearing gifts. They include a nutcracker shaped like a toy soldier, to which Mary takes an immediate shine, and an elaborate dollhouse peopled by tiny mechanical figures.

That night, Mary has a vivid dream in which the Nutcracker (voice of Henderson) comes to life and introduces her to the Snow Fairy (also Visotskaya), who lives at the top of a Christmas tree and tells Mary a dreadful tale. The Nutcracker is her son, a prince whose kingdom was usurped by thevile Rat King (Turturro) and his awful mother (de la Tour), who turned the prince into a wooden doll and cloaked his once-lovely kingdom in a permanent cloud of smoke, produced by burning children’s toys. Cue You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch!

Reality intrudes the next day, when Mary’s dad demands to know how the Christmas tree wound up on the floor, its delicate, glittering ornaments reduced to slivers of glass and scraps of gold-foil paper. Her explanation — that the Rat King’s vicious robo-dogs gnawed through the trunk with their steel teeth, sending the tree into a death spiral — is deemed highly unsatisfactory, and father blames Albert for filling Mary’s head with silly stories.

But Mary knows the Nutcracker’s dream world is as real as her waking one. So along with his loyal minions—Tinker the clown (Sachs), Gielgud the talking chimpanzee (Elliott and Peacock, voiced by Cox) and Sticks the drummer (Nile), — life-size versions of the mechanical dollhouse figures — Mary joins the Nutcracker in a desperate battle to rout the rats and restore sunshine and happiness to the Nutcracker Prince’s beleaguered kingdom.

None of German fabulist ETA Hoffman’s grim, darkly fantastic moral tales were intended for children, but with considerable trimming and tweaking his 1816 novella The Nutcracker and The Mouse King formed the basis of the much-loved ballet that keeps countless dance companies in the black and fills little girls’ heads with visions of becoming Sugarplum Fairies in pointe shoes. Unfortunately, director Andrey Konchalovskiy and co-writer Chris Solimine insisted on concocting their own version of the much-told tale, and the result is likely to simultaneously upset small children — clearly the intended audience — and bore the bejesus out of adults.

While Kevin Phipps’ production design is striking, the wisdom of turning the Nutcracker’s occupied kingdom into a cross between the hellish future cities of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil populated by rat-faced storm troopers and weeping tots is at best dubious, and not even Tschaikovsky’s glorious score escapes unscathed. Yes, it’s filled with catchy melodies, but that doesn’t mean they should be tortured into insipid songs. Parents would do better to buy tickets to a live production — pretty much every ballet school and regional company does one — or rent a film of the ballet: Both the George Balanchine/NYCB version (1993) — the gold standard by which all Nutcrackers are judged — and San Francisco Ballet’s 2008 rendering are especially child-friendly.


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Obscene

(2008)
Directed by: Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortenberg
Documentary.

Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortenberg's engrossing documentary about the life and times of publisher Barney Rosset, who spent much of his career advancing the cause of free expression, is a flawless match of style and subject.

Born into a wealthy Chicago family, Rosset grew up to be a restless free thinker with the means to drift through life, fraternizing with writers, artist and political rebels until he figured out what he wanted to do. The answer came in the form of a peace offering from his second wife, painter Joan Mitchell, who had just left him: A small, Greenwich Village-based publishing company called Grove Press, whose three-book catalogue consisted entirely of vintage obscuriana, was for sale. Rosset bought it and in 1958 published D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, copies of which the US Postal Service confiscated on the grounds that it was pornography rather than literature. Rosset went to court, won and proved the old adage about bad publicity.

Chatterley was a hit and Grove Press had a niche: Politically and socially controversial literature and non-fiction, including Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Allan Ginsburg's Howl, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, a portion of Che Guevara's diaries and Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn.

Rosset created a separate imprint, Black Cat, to publish Victorian erotica; introduced a 1961 television production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot starring Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel; and briefly branched out into film distribution, starting with 1967's censorship-defying I am Curious (Yellow). He founded the magazine Evergreen Review, whose text and illustrations rivaled those of Grove Press' most provocative books; hosted a radio show; and made and lost several fortunes, at one point keeping Grove afloat by selling off chunks of prime East Hampton real estate he bought as a young man. Rosset made friends and alienated people in equal numbers, was spied on by the FBI, indulged liberally in drugs and alcohol, burned through four marriages and eventually sold Grove Press, only to be fired unceremoniously by the new owners.

Rosset is a hugely entertaining storyteller (the clips from his appearance on Al Goldstein's Midnight Blue are hilarious), and Ortenberg and O'Connor assembled a lively mix of archival materials and interviews with a wide-ranging selection of Rosset's friends, former employees, admirers and acquaintances


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The Invisible/Den Osynlige

2002
Directed by: Joel Bergval and Simon Sandquist.
Written by: Mick Davis, based on the novel by Mats Wahl.
With: Gustaf Skarsgard, Tuva Novotny, Li Bradhe, Thomas Hedengran, David Hagman, Par Luttrop, Francisco Sobrado, Joel Kinnaman , Jenny Ulving and Anna Hallstrom.

Swedish filmmakers Joel Bergval and Simon Sandquist's haunting adaptation of Mats Wahl's 2000 young-adult novel revolves around a high-school golden boy whose apparently perfect life is shattered when he runs afoul of a deeply troubled classmate and finds himself trapped in a hellish limbo between life and death.

To all appearances, high-school senior Niklas Ericcsen (Skarsgard, the son of Stellan Skarsgard) has everything: good looks, brains, a mother (Bradhe) who adores him, a beautiful girlfriend (Ulving) and a bright future. He's a top student, doesn't drink or do drugs, and is both pragmatic — he maintains a lucrative little trade in term papers for lazy jocks — and compassionate — Niklas regularly defends his plump, passive best friend, Peter (Hagman), a born victim from a strict immigrant family, against bullies.

But beneath the surface, Niklas is desperately unhappy, tired of living up to his widowed mother's expectations but too dutiful to openly defy her. On the eve of high-school graduation, Niklas has decided to bolt: Having told his mother he‘d defer to her wishes and study economics in Stockholm, he secretly applied to and was accepted by a prestigious writing program in London. He’s packed in secret and bought his plane ticket, telling no one but Peter, and only on the day of his intended departure.

And then everything goes wrong: Peter, who's managed to incur the wrath of troubled delinquent Annelie Tullgren (Novotny), whose thriving business in stolen goods has somehow come to the attention of the police. He tries to save himself a beating by blaming Niklas, reasoning that his friend is already safely en route to England. Peter’s lie is great for Annelie's older boyfriend, car thief Marcus (Luttrop), since he’s the real culprit: He gave her up rather than risk being thrown back in jail. But it’s disastrous for Niklas: Mrs. Ericsson discovered his plans and he’s still in town. So Annelie and her bully boys (Sobrado, Kinnaman) are able to hunt Niklas down, beat him within an inch of his life and dump him in an out-of-the-way ditch to die.

When Niklas regains consciousness the next day and finds himself invisible to family, friends and the police investigating his disappearance, he makes the reasonable assumption that he's a ghost. And to his horror, death is even more frustrating than life: He has no idea how to continue his journey into the afterlife and can only watch as the his friends and neighbors carry on living. Annelie, for example, is sullenly stonewalling the cops, who rightly suspect she had something to do with Niklas’ disappearance.

And it gets worse: He gradually realizes that he isn’t dead — his battered body is stubbornly clinging to the last glimmer of life, and his soul has come loose. So he can neither proceed to the great beyond nor let anyone know where he is… except, perhaps, Annelie. She alone among the living seems to sense his presence and as he tries shadows her, trying to communicate, he begins to realize she isn't quite the unrepentant, stone-cold sociopath she appears.

A thorny, heartrending story of bad choices and devastating consequences, things don't work out for the conventional best in Den Osynlige. Skarsgard, who subsequently played a sadistic schoolboy in Mikael Hafstrom’s Oscar-nominated Ondskan/Evil (2003), is a convincingly conflicted Niklas and the film's bittersweet end is truly haunting. The same can’t be said for the 2007, Disney-financed American remake, The Invisible, which softens and undermines everything that makes the original so compelling.


Our City Dreams

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Chiara Clemente.
Documentary.

Chiara Clemente’s group portrait of five successful artists uses New York’s creative allure as a way of discussing the challenges and rewards of being a woman in the art world.

For full review, click here. This review appeared in Time Out New York.


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The Owl and the Sparrow

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Stephane Gauger.
With: Han Thi Pham, Cat Ly, The Lu Le, Hoang Long and Nguyen Hau.

Orphaned, 10-year-old country girl Thuy (Pham) flees rural Bien Hoa for the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. In another kind of movie, her fate would be a dismal one. But in Vietnam-born, U.S.-raised filmmaker Stephane Gauger’s sweet-natured fairy tale, a lost child can broker redemptive romance between two lonely adults.

Read the full review here, on Time Out New York's website.


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Paprika

2006
Directed by: Satoshi Kon.
Written by: Seishi Minakami and Satoshi Kon, based on the novel by Tsutsui Yasutaka.
With the voices of: Megumi Hayashibara, Akio Otsuka.

Dreams are the last place the slumbering sitting ducks in Satoshi Kon’s surreal, animated psychological thriller want to be after someone steals an experimental device that opens a door into other people's subconscious ramblings.

Dr. Atsuko Chiba (Hayashibara) is prim, buttoned-down psychiatrist, one of many affiliated with a bright, well-funded institute for mental therapy and research. At least, that’s what she is by day: By night she's Paprika, a fearless gamine who roots around her patients' dreams for clues to their fears and neuroses, courtesy of an experimental device called the DC-Mini. The trouble begins when one of the four DC-Mini prototypes is stolen and Chiba's colleagues begin having mind-bending nightmares. Or rather, the same nightmare is colonizing all their minds, a bad dream whose centerpiece is a parade of kitsch: Everything from walking appliances to the Statue of Liberty, a pack of waving maneki nekko and a mountain of blank-eyed dollies (including one whose chubby porcelain arm appears raised in a permanent Nazi salute), marching boldly into a thicket of trees.

Under the dream's influence, victims go on wild destructive rampages, hurting themselves and others, forcing the Institute's director to order all dream therapy canceled until further notice. But with the help of one of her patients, the tormented Detective Toshimi Kogawa (Akio Otsuka), Chiba/Paprika continues sneaking into the minds of others in hopes of figuring out who's behind the dream assault.

Loosely adapted from Yasutaka Tsutsui's science-fiction novel, Kon's movie draws liberally from rubber-reality tales that range from Strange Days (1995), David Cronenberg's Existenz (1999), The Cell (2000) and the unjustly forgotten Dreamscape (1984) to the A. B. or C. episode of classic TV mindfreak The Prisoner. But the freaky, seductively bizarre sights are all Kon's, from the psycho-circus of Konakawa's night terrors to Paprika's transformation into a winged captive pinned to a collector's table. If less thematically dazzling than Millennium Actress (2001), Paprika — which writer-director Christopher Nolan cited as a major influence on his 2010 Inception — is suffused with a giddy sense of the seething, mutable landscape of the mind, the place where tentacled Lovecraftian nightmares jostle for space with folkloric frogs, Tarzan, The Thing With Two Heads (1972), explosive swarms of electric-blue butterflies. You wouldn’t want to live there, but it's a hell of a place to visit. Paprika was the last project Kon completed before his untimely death from pancreatic cancer at the age 46. A final feature, The Dreaming Machine had been storyboarded, but its completion seemed unlikely for reasons outlined in a poignant blog posting Kon wrote a little more than three months before his death. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)


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Passion Play

2011
Written and directed by: Mitch Glazer.
With: Megan Fox, Mickey Rourke, Bill Murray, Kelly Lynch, Rhys Ifans, Rory Cochrane, Chuck Liddell, Solomon Burke and Jimmy Scott.

Veteran screenwriter Mitch Glazer’s directing debut is a romantic fable about love, redemption and exquisitely art-directed squalor whose evident sincerity is overwhelmed by its utter ridiculousness.

Once upon a time, jazz trumpeter Nate Poole (Rourke) was a handsome, up-and-comer with a recording contract, a beautiful wife and a fatal addiction to dope. Now he’s a weathered, alcoholic has-been blowing tunes at the low-rent New Mexico strip club where his best pal, aging burlesque dancer Harriet (Lynch), fan-dances for losers who think they’re really going to find their dreams at a dive called The Dream Club. And at the end of one particularly bad night, he’s kidnapped from the parking lot and beaten up by a muscle-bound thug (MMA icon Liddell), who then drives him deep into the desert. Nate has a pretty good idea how the ride will end, given that he’s been screwing around with a lady who turned out to be the wife of dapper-but-vicious crime lord Happy Shannon (Murray).

Except that it doesn’t: As Nate prepares to die, a bunch of white-clad Indians kill the thug, leaving him alive but stranded in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the middle of nowhere is within walking distance of a garishly seedy carnival, where Nate becomes infatuated with a beautiful young woman named Lily (Fox), the winged star of a surprisingly effective sideshow illusion whose secret is that it isn’t an illusion. And fortunately, she’s also infatuated with him, because even though she’s a Mexican orphan plucked from a garbage dump and raised by flamboyant English carnie Sam Adamo (Ifans) in the kind of innocent isolation rarely seen outside elegantly naughty novels about cloistered nuns, Lily loves vintage jazz albums — albums as in vinyl in sleeves printed with moody Chet Baker-esque portraits of sleepy-eyed jazzmen like Nate. So they hit the road together, and kind of fall in love, which is to say that Lily falls in love with Nate and Nate kind of falls in love with her, enough to feel bad about plotting to save his own skin by selling Lily to Shannon, but not enough not to go through with it.

A series of increasingly bizarre twists of fate lead Nate and Lily — together and separately — through gala parties, rundown diners and laundromats, divinely decadent nightclubs, picturesque roadside motels and gas stations and the darkest recesses of the human soul, en route to an ending that both makes sense of the movie’s nuttiness and deals the death blow to its delusions of being a bittersweet parable about the magical power of love.

Greeted with catcalls, walkouts and scathing notices at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, Passion Play is pure, unadulterated folly of the most poignant kind: the dream project so long aborning that everyone involved lost all perspective. To give credit where it’s due, the film is truly gorgeous, with its meticulously artful sets, lavish costumes, and Christopher Doyle’s richly evocative cinematography in remarkable locations, which include a movie-star-stunning Frank Lloyd Wright house whose adobe curves flow into the surrounding landscape; the Santa Fe opera house, whose back wall can be opened to reveal the extraordinary surrounding countryside, and the real-life World of Wonders carnival.

Unfortunately, all this beauty is at the service of a story that makes no sense in ways small (why would a roadside motel owner stare at a stray feather on a flagstone as though it were some bizarre talisman when the skies are filled with wheeling raptors?) and large, which is not the same thing as being mysterious or elliptical. Rourke and Fox, for all their exquisitely styled clothes and, in her case, old-Hollywood glamour make-up, are eclipsed by Murray’s malevolent Happy Shannon. The shark beneath his bespoke suits and owlish glasses is never far from the surface and his implicit viciousness is thoroughly convincing. It’s hard not to read significance into the fact that he was a last-minute replacement (for RocknRolla’s Toby Kebbell, an English actor half his age): There’s something to be said for winging it rather than brooding the life out of a project.

This review first appeared in Film Journal International.


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Perfect Blue

1998
Directed by: Satoshi Kon.
Written by: Sadayuki Murai, based on the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi.
With the voices of: Junko Iwao, Rika Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Okura Masaaki, Yosuke Akimoto and Yoku Shioya.

Satoshi Kon’s breathtakingly beautiful animated thriller feature revolves around a bubble-gum pop star whose efforts to branch out into acting attract the attentions of the worst kind of very fan.

Mima (Iwao) is one-third of the successful, cute-as-a-button trio Cham. But she knows there’s no future in being an idoru — their young fans are fickle and quick to abandon yesterday’s sensations — so she jumps at the opportunity take a role in the popular TV crime series Double Bind. Her agent, Tadakoro (Tsuji) approves wholeheartedly, his eye firmly on his cut of future earnings. But Tadakoro’s associate, Rumi (Matsumoto), who’s deeply protective of Mima, has serious reservations about such an abrupt change of persona persona abruptly. Will the fans who loved her as an innocent singer turn away from a more adult Mima?

Rumi’s concern proves to be right on the money: Mima quickly begins getting unnerving phone calls and faxes, Tadakoro opens a fan letter that explodes in his hands and someone poisons Mima's beloved fish. She also discovers a disturbing web page called "Mima's Room," full of intimate information about her life. Things worsen after a Double Bind episode in which Mima's character is raped; soon after, the show's screenwriter is brutally murdered. So is a photographer who shoots some steamy magazine pictures of the up-and-coming starlet. Worst of all, Mima is being haunted by the taunting image of her clean-cut, pop-star self... is she going mad, or is a murderer — perhaps the obsessed fan behind that creepy web page, who adored his unspoiled Mima and wants her back — playing sadistic mind games with her?

Anyone familiar with thriller conventions will have little trouble figuring out who’s behind the assault on Mima’s sanity, but the pleasures of this film lie elsewhere. Originally conceived as a live-action feature, Perfect Blue’s surreal images, which increasing blur the line between reality and artifice as Mima succumbs to her tormentor’s psychological reign of terror, are gorgeously realized, begin with its haunting evocation of the gleaming, depersonalized Tokyo in which Mima lives out her superficially charmed but deeply lonely life. First-time director Satoshi Kon went on to direct three more exceptional anime features, as well as six episodes of the TV series Paranoia Agent, before succumbing to pancreatic cancer at the age of 46. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)


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Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

(2009)
Directed by: Lee Daniels.
Written by: Geoffrey Fletcher.
With: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Nealla Gordon and Sherri Shepherd.

Am I the only person who thinks Precious, based on African-American poet Sapphire’s 1996 novel about one abused and ignored teenager’s struggle to transcend the multi-generational cycle of abuse and self-hatred in which she’s enmeshed, is nothing more or less than a movie-of-the-week quality problem picture? That’s not to denigrate problem pictures: Whatever their flaws, movies like There’s Something About Amelia (1984), Sarah T. — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975), The Best Little Girl in the World (1981), Go Ask Alice (1973) and That Certain Summer (1972) brought taboo topics like incest, middle-class drug addiction, anorexia and gay parenting into the mainstream spotlight. If Precious had been broadcast on CBS in 1987 (rather than merely set then), it might have opened some eyes.

Harlem, 1987: Obese, illiterate and pregnant with her second child — like her first, the product of incestuous rape — sixteen-year-old Clarice “Precious” Jones (newcomer Sidibe) is all but invisible to her teachers, classmates and neighbors, perhaps because acknowledging the Dickensian misery of her life would mean acknowledging that every social service agency, outreach program, faith-based charity and informal community safety net has failed her dismally. Far from being a sanctuary, Precious’ home is its own hell, ruled by her vicious, miserable, self-loathing mother (comedienne Mo’Nique), who abuses and ridicules her daughter, telling her she’s good for nothing but cooking, cleaning and collecting welfare checks.

And then, against all odds, Principal Lichtenstein (Gordon) notices that while Precious is barely literate, her math scores are startlingly high. Lichtenstein gets her into the alterative Each One/Teach One program, where Precious catches the eye of idealistic teacher Ms. Rain (Patton), and with her gentle guidance and persistent encouragement, Precious quickly learns to read. Ms. Rain requires her students — a colorful mix of banji girls, recent immigrants and standard-issue incorrigible teens — to keep journals, and Precious uses hers to confront the demons of her past.

Precious also broadens her horizons, discovering that men can be nurses (enter Kravitz, in a laid-back cameo), lesbians (like Ms. Rains and her girlfriend) aren’t the devil’s handmaidens and poor black girls can escape the self-fulfilling despair of the ‘hood. She develops the confidence to tell her social worker (Carey, stripped of her pop-diva make up and styling) about the years of sexual abuse she’s endured; reclaims her first child, the developmentally challenged Li’l Mongo, from her demoralized grandmother; and learns to work the system with an eye to bettering her life and the lives of her children.

And I say, “Yay. But Precious is all grinding, heavy-handed message. The message is unimpeachable: Fathers who have sex with their daughters are bad. Mothers who beat and belittle their children are bad. Educators who write off students staggering under the weight of poverty, diminished expectations and chaotic homes and are bad. Racism, black-on-black bigotry included, is bad. I think most people would agree that what happens to Precious is bad. But it’s not exactly news that abuse breeds abusers or that poor neighborhoods are full of girls whose futures are short circuited before they start by pregnancy, truncated educations and low expectations. Anyone who doesn’t know that doesn’t want to and won’t be seeing Precious, anymore than they’ll be reading Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize certified writer Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), which deals with the same issues.

Much has been made of Precious’ performances, and I’m on board with comedienne Mo’Nique, whose broad, vulgar posturing in movies like Soul Plane, Phat Girlz and Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins never suggested that she could evoke the layers of bitterness, self-delusion, insecurity and cruelty that add up to the monstrous Mary Jones. And I give Carey points for stripping off 20 years worth of pop-diva glamour to play a overworked, under-groomed social worker. It’s not as though she’s a frustrated starlet looking for serious-actress cred — looking like something the cat dragged in won’t do a thing for her career, so you have to believe she signed on because she believed in the project. Good for her

What I don’t understand is the accolades heaped on Sidibe, whose portrayal of Precious has been lauded as raw, harrowing, brave, heartbreaking and incandescent. I see an obese girl lit and shot to look as fat, slovenly and grotesque as possible, whether she’s exposing unruly rolls of flesh or messily devouring a whole bucket of fried chicken. That is genuinely shocking, given that 21st-century American cultural mores posit fat as the external manifestation of laziness, stupidity and moral apathy, and Precious is the film’s heroic core. Appearance is performance when you’re playing “tattooed thug no.1” or “big-bust stripper;” more complex roles demand the ability to show the person beneath the skin. But Sidibe’s line readings are monotonous and her features obscured by layers of fat; her Precious is the sum total of her bulk, a sideshow metaphor as graceless and obvious as the movie built around her.


The Proposition

(2005)
Directed by: John Hillcoat.
Written by: Nick Cave.
With: Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, David Wenham, Richard Wilson, Tommy Lewis, Tom Budge and John Hurt.

Director John Hillcoat's neo-spaghetti Western, written by musician Cave, transplants the genre's signature tropes to Australia circa 1880 and transforms the stark, surreal beauty of the outback landscape and grinding brutality of frontier life into a sweat-slicked, near-abstract ballet of blood and sand.

Squaring off at its center are lawman Captain Stanley (Winstone), brought from England by wealthy, pompous Eden Fletcher (Wenham) to civilize a small settlement in the desert, and outlaw Charlie Burns (Pearce), a native son who's raped, robbed and pillaged his way to infamy as part of the notorious Burns Gang. Under intense pressure to kill the Burns brothers after their latest outrage — invading the farm of an upstanding citizen named Hopkins, killing his entire family after raping his pregnant wife and leaving the house in smoking ruins — Stanley captures Charlie and his simpering, none-too-bright younger brother, Mikey (Wilson), in an annihilating shootout.

But Stanley really wants Arthur (Huston), the eldest brother and the gang's ringleader; Stanley believes that Arthur is the instigator and offers Charlie a deal. If Charlie will hunt down and kill his older brother, Stanley will spare 14-year-old Mikey the noose. Otherwise the boy will hang on Christmas Day, less than a week away. Charlie rides off in search of Arthur, who's dug in to the heart of Aborigine country. Stanley, meanwhile, hauls Mikey off to the local jail, much to the disgust of the bloodthirsty subordinates who are no better than the Burnses and consider Stanley weak because he values the rule of law above frontier justice and refuses to slaughter the local Aborigines without cause. The situation is a bone-dry tinderbox of heat, boredom, alcohol and endlessly whining flies, and it's just waiting for a spark.

Stanley retreats to the illusory haven of his home and genteel wife, Martha (Mortimer), while Charlie, gravely wounded by an aboriginal spear, recovers in the cave where Arthur is living with his new gang, aboriginal outcast Two Bob (Lewis) and weak-chinned sociopath Samuel Stoat (Budge).

Hillcoat works the classic Western paradigms faithfully — the iconic struggle between frontier and garden could hardly be clearer than in his shots of Martha's carefully tended stand of rose bushes, separated from an ocean of baking red sand by a tiny, whitewashed picket fence — but deploys them with a pitiless ferocity rivaling that of the most excessive Italian genre revisionists of the 1970s.


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2000

Directed by: Robert Lee King.
Written by: Charles Busch, based on his play.
With: Lauren Ambrose, Danni Wheeler, Amy Adams, Thomas Gibson, Charles Busch, Nicholas Brendon and Kimberley Davies.

Part loving homage, part camp send-up, this knowing ode to beach party pictures and cheesy monster movies has a great look, but its broad laughs at the expense of naïve 1950s and '60s youth-culture preoccupations aren't really all that clever.

Perky tomboy Florence (Ambrose) is Sweet 16 and has never been kissed, which doesn’t bother her one bit. She’s more interested in surfing than surfer dudes — the problem being that she has no idea how to ride the waves and can’t find anyone willing to teach a mere girl. Why can’t she find her niche, like intellectual Berdine (Wheeler), who devotes her time to parsing the subtext of drive-in movies like “The Pizza Waitress with Three Heads,” or curvy, popular Marvel Ann (Adams), mistress of the art of bikini posing?

Mocked by callow, sexist surfers like the dream Starcat (Brendon), Florence appeals to guru Kanaka (Thomas Gibson), who’s equally cool to her entreaties until he gets a glimpse of her alternate personality, sultry dominatrix Ann Bowman. Hoping to get better acquainted with Ann, he gives Florence a catchy nickname, "Chicklet," and teaches her the art of the board. Meanwhile, a psychopathic killer is terrorizing local teens — could it be another of Chicklet's alter egos? Starchy lady cop Monica Stark (screenwriter and legendary drag performer Busch) won’t quit until she finds out.

Adapted from Busch's play, an off-Broadway cult favorite originally performed with Busch in the role of Chicklet, this unsubtle parody probably worked better on stage; its candy-colored artifice looks more than a little strained on film, and the cast — which includes future Oscar-nominee Amy Adams (Enchanted) and Emmy-nominee Lauren Ambrose (TV’s Six Feet Under) — are all trying really hard to be camp. The striking exception is Australian actress Davies, whose professional future included an exercise video and a truncated stint on the UK version of reality show I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! ; her relatively understated turn as breathy B-movie starlet Bettina Barnes is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale concoction.


Public Enemies

(2009)
Directed by: Michael Mann.
Written by: Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, based on the non-fiction book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave, by Bryan Burrough.
With: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Jason Clarke, Rory Cochrane, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Graham, Peter Gerety, LeeLee Sobieski, Branka Katic, Lili Taylor, Michael Bentt, Matt Craven, Shawn Hatosy, James Russo, Casey Siemaszko, Channing Tatum and Stephen Lang.

Like his lavishly praised Heat, Michael Mann's hypnotic, Depression-era crime thriller is structured around the deep, thrilling bond between two men kept apart by their polarizing callings — cop and criminal. His account of the last 13 months of John Dillinger's short, bad life plays out against a backdrop of momentous social change. The Great Depression, which impoverished vast swatches of middle-class America; Prohibition, which helped engender contempt for government institutions; the corporatization of organized crime, a direct result of the bootlegging networks spawned by the Volstead Act; and the rise of the Bureau of Investigation, the country's first interstate law enforcement agency even before the "Federal" was added to its name.

1933: Recently released from Indiana State Prison, having served an eight-and-a-half year stretch for local robbing a grocer, 30-year-old John Dillinger (Depp) and his associate, John "Red" Hamilton (Clarke), orchestrate a stunning jailbreak that frees eight men. One dies during the breakout, the rest become the core of the so-called "terror gang," which robbed banks throughout the midwest. Much of the public despised banks — when they collapsed they wiped out people's life savings in an instant, when they prospered they foreclosed on homes, farms and small businesses, ruthlessly disenfranchising good little worker bees, which is why bank robbers enjoyed a cachet not accorded kidnappers, con men and small-time stick up artists. And Dillinger, the wayward son of a widowed, small town shopkeeper-turned-farmer, instinctively understood how to play to the disenfranchised crowd.

Handsome in the style of the young Howard Hughes, Dillinger swept into banks in his elegantly cut clothes, bounding gracefully over counters and railings, brandishing a Thompson sub-machine gun while reassuring the regular folks in their threadbare but scrupulously clean clothes that he wasn't there for their money, just the bank''s money. He took hostages and used them as human shields, positioning them on the getaway car's running boards so no trigger-happy local cop would dare take a shot. But he also let them go, unharmed, unmolested and bursting with stories of the gentleman bandit. Dillinger wasn't a gentleman, but he wasn't a mad dog like George "Baby Face" Nelson (Graham); he lacked the sinister looks of Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (Ribisi) and knew the value of spin, which he worked until it worked for him.

G-Man Melvin Purvis (Bale, though truth be told Purvis looked more like the pugnacious, pint-sized James Cagney) was an idealistic former lawyer who joined the fledgling bureau in 1927 and brought down some of the Depression era's most famous outlaws, including "Pretty Boy" Floyd (Tatum) and Arthur "Doc" Barker. Purvis headed up J. Edgar Hoover's (Crudup) Dillinger task force, a team whose legend subsequently outstripped the sad truth that its operations included such flat-out tactical and public relations disasters as the ill-planned raid on Little Bohemia, a rural Wisconsin lodge where the Dillinger gang was lying low; the operation left a civilian and an FBI agent dead, two other civilians wounded and the gang still at large. But like Dillinger, Purvis understood that getting the job done was only part of his mandate; the other was to solidify and burnish the image of Hoover's still-vulnerable agency, to make the Bureau's lawmen look as bold, dashing and dangerously cool as the Dillingers of a world, where image was rapidly taking precedence over reality.

Public Enemies lacks the ingratiating appeal of Bonnie and Clyde, which hitched the Barrow gang's exploits to 1960s antiestablishmentarianism. Public Enemies is theatrical without being glamorous: Dillinger and Purvis are always on, playing for the cameras even when the cameras aren't there. It's hard not to detect an echo of Nicholas Roeg and Douglas Cammell's deeply subversive Performance (1970), which painstakingly lays bare the sexual insecurity and deep-rooted need for an audience that underlies so much of gangster/gangsta identity.

Dillinger's romance with coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Cotillard), whose half Native-American ancestry largely negated her striking good looks in the reflexively racist America of her day, is the film's weakest element; adding another 15 minutes worth of scenes might have clarified the relationship but would also have pushed the running time close to the two-and-a-half hour mark, near-certain commercial death for a mainstream American film unconnected to a franchise with a fanatical fan base. And though Public Enemies takes its share of dramatic liberties with history, some of its most suspiciously au courant-seeming details are a matter of historical record: The feisty lady sheriff (Taylor) from whose jail Dillinger escapes with a wooden gun; the African-American prisoner (Bentt) who joined Dillinger in the notorious breakout; and the Bureau of Investigation's Gitmo-worthy tactics in pursuit of the Dillinger gang are all well-documented.

In the end, Public Enemies will never achieve the popularity of Brian DePalma's glossy The Untouchables (1987), because it aims for the head rather than the gut. It's a cold, cold look at a desperate time, filled with throwaway haunting as its overall notion that every generation gets the bad men it deserves.


Push

(2009)
Directed by: Paul McGuigan.
Written by: David Boula.
With: Dakota Fanning, Chris Evans, Camilla Belle, Djimon Hounsou, Cliff Curtis, Neil Jackson, Ming-Na and Nate Mooney.

Between the unwieldy load of back story and the painfully underdeveloped characters, this infelicitous combination of Jumper, X-Men and TV's Heroes manages to be dull and exhausting at the same time.

Nick Gant (Evans) is a second-generation "mover" who inherited telekinetic abilities from his father. Nick saw his father murdered when he was only a child; his killer, Carver (Hounsou), is a "pusher" — someone who can put thoughts in other people's heads — employed by the Division, a secret government organization charged with creating super soldiers by isolating and enhancing paranormal abilities. The Division recruits gifted individuals willing to participate in their program and kidnaps the ones who aren't; the latter outnumber the former, perhaps because the word is out that the ability-boosting drug on which the Division's hopes are pinned has killed every single person on whom it has been tested.

The orphaned Nick somehow managed survive to adulthood and wahsed up in Hong Kong, where his priorities are staying under the radar and making a living as a gambler, something he should be better at given that he can manipulate dice with his mind. But he's not very good at this moving thing; chalk it up to a combination of youthful laziness, lack of focus and perhaps the stress of dodging government "sniffers," who can access people's memories by smelling their belongings, and "watchers," who see the future, albeit in ever-shifting bits and pieces. It turns out Nick isn't so good at the dodging thing either: Witness the sniffers who invade his apartment, looking for a girl who recently escaped the Division's hospital of horrors. She's the first person to have survived the drug, and the Division wants her back.

No sooner have they gone than 13-year-old watcher Cassie Holmes (Fanning) arrives, looking for Nick's help in pulling off a $6 million robbery. Nick isn't even done demurring when he and Cassie are attacked by triad goons who nearly kill him with their organ-pulverizing shrieks (an idea employed to far more chilling effect back in 1978, in Jerzy Skolimowski's metaphysical horror film The Shout). Cassie recruits a "stitch" to heal him and confesses that the robbery was a ruse: She needs Nick to help her find Kira (Belle), who's in possession of a suitcase that will somehow help Cassie rescue her mother, the most powerful watcher in history, from the Division. And wouldn't you know, Kira turns out to be both the Division runaway and Nick's old girlfriend, who's nursing a mighty grudge.

Push's flaws are many, starting with a back story that's simultaneously ponderous, unnecessarily complicated and vaguely offensive: Wouldn't you know the trouble started with Nazi medical experiments (as does everything — witness The Unborn, released a month earlier)? And the film's internal logic begins to crumble with the very first scene: Given the formidable telekinetic powers Nick's father possesses — he can knock holes in walls and hurl full grown men around with his mind — it's hard to figure out why the Division persists tinkering with a drug that has a 100% fatality rate… a drug they're still testing ten years later. Your tax dollars at work, folks. Oh, and if Nick's dad is a pusher, not a watcher (the movie never suggests that anyone gets more than one special ability), how did he know Nick would someday be approached by a girl holding a flower, a girl Nick will have to help for the greater good of the super-abled? How does this watching thing work, anyway? Sometimes the future is crystal clear, sometimes it's ridiculously vague and sometimes it seems more like a kind of telepathic tracking system.

None of this would be an issue if the characters were interesting, because you'd be caught up in their travails — a wandering mind is the worst enemy of trickily plotted thrillers and science fiction movies. But they aren't: Not one is more than the sum total of his or her wardrobe: White smock and ballet flats mean Kira is lost and vulnerable. Nick's nondescript t-shirts, jeans and pullovers brand him a slacker. Tailored suits and discrete ties mean Carver and his pet mover (Jackson) are stone-cold killers who've sold their souls to the man. Pinky (Mooney), the "shadow" who can baffle sniffers, is a hard-boiled hipster in an argyle cardigan and polyester shirt, while the stitch who heals Nick can't be trusted: Buttoned-up blouse + do-me heels = duplicitous bitch. And Fanning's Cassie may be the least convincing performance of her career to date. From punky hair and street-smart urchin ensemble (miniskirt, combat boots, slouchy jacket and oversized messenger bag) to the tough talk and wise-child posturing she's a cartoon, and a slightly creepy one at that. Is there some compelling reason why Cassie should be dressed like a teenaged hooker?


A Quantum of Solace

(2008)
Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Paul Haggis and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
With: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Gemma Arterton, Jeffrey Wright.

Here's the Bond problem in a nutshell: Dr. No (1962) rocketed Ian Fleming's superspy directly into the collective pop-culture consciousness, like Sherlock Holmes or Dracula, but the tales were set in a Cold War world very different from today's. Bond has to change with the times, but he can only change so much before he ceases to be Bond: The whole business is a high wire act, figuring out ways to snare new viewers without alienating the old ones. Fans never warmed to Timothy Dalton, perhaps because his unrelenting grimness leached the fun right out of The Living Daylights (1987) and License to Kill (1989). So bye-bye Dalton, hello Pierce Brosnan, who nailed the balance between 007's killer instincts and roguish sparkle.

Credit where it's due: Casino Royale (2006), may have been the biggest gamble in Bond history: Even giving M a sex change in 1995's GoldenEye doesn't come close. Casino Royale didn't just introduce a new James Bond — it rolled the series back to the beginning. Rough-trade Daniel Craig played Bond as a soulful thug with ambitions to better himself by doing dirty deeds for her majesty's secret service. He's as cheerless as Dalton, but now the performance is in sync with the times — audiences like their knights dark. And he's easily the most bluntly masculine Bond since Sean Connery (whom Fleming thought was miscast, by the way; the author had debonair David Niven in mind), a hard man learning that black tie is just a form of camouflage but not yet sufficiently polished to give a good goddamn whether his martini is shaken or stirred.

The two latest films' screenwriters, Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, took the title of Fleming's 1960 short story "Quantum of Solace" — an ironic tale of adultery into which Bond barely figures — and nothing more, except perhaps some vague notion about the corrosive legacy of betrayal. Driven by Bond's bloody-minded determination to find out whether Vesper Lynd, the lover and co-conspirator he failed to save, was actually a traitor who sold him out, it picks up directly where Casino Royale left off. Bond's personal business gets in the way of his actual business, which involves exposing a shadowy underworld organization so entrenched and insidious that it even had a mole within the service. That their man was M's (Judi Dench) personal bodyguard is salt in the wounded pride. Bond's mission leads him to smarmy eco-entrepreneur Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), whose environment-friendly façade masks his lucrative line in destabilizing third-world governments, manipulating markets and plundering natural resources. Along the way, Bond picks up a leggy, pouty sidekick named Camille (Olga Kurylenko), whose own vendetta intersects with his; and a tasty bit of collateral damage (Gemma Arterton) whose raison d'etre is to pay homage to Goldfinger.

If Casino Royale was a fresh start, Quantum of Solace is a bridge. It wraps up Casino Royale's unfinished business and charts Bond's gradual evolution from loose cannon to sleek, deceptively suave agent extraordinaire. It's not happenstance that the film ends with a new version of the classic Bond film opener: The view down a gun barrel, the silhouette dropping smoothly into firing stance, the bullet discharged directly at the camera, the bass-heavy theme. But Bond is still very much a work in progress: Having messily repaid M's leap of faith in taking him on in Casino Royale, he spends most of Quantum of Solace wreaking personal havoc on company time and generally giving the impression that he lacks the steely detachment his new line of work requires.

Quantum of Solace is far from the perfect Bond film — the consensus hands that honor to From Russia, With Love (1963). The credits sequence is ho hum, but the fact is, a lot them are: We remember the ones that kicked ass and forget about the rest. Craig's Bond bears no small resemblance to Matt Damon's Jason Bourne and Christian Bale's Batman — demon-haunted beneath the tough-guy façade — which I can't say bothers me: Surely the point of restarting the series is to let everyone in on Bond's evolution rather than deliver another variation on a fully formed icon. I'm willing to bet that a few films down the line he'll have hardened his heart and softened up his persona, and I'm willing to stick around for the ride.

Among the things I don't miss: Over-the-top stunts and nutty gadgets (which are here pared to a minimum); punning quips (entirely absent) and those attenuated multiple endings — at 106 minutes, it's the shortest film in the franchise. Some fans will miss these things, of course, and there's a good deal of truth in the notion that we love our first Bond best — for me it will always be Connery, and specifically the Connery of the first few films. But Daniel Craig has made me interested in Bond movies again, and that's no mean feat.


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Racing Dreams

2010
Directed by: Marshall Curry.
Written by: .
With: Annabeth Barnes, Joshua Hobson, Brandon Warren, Tina Barnes, Darren Barnes,Timothy Hobson, Donna Hobson, Bruce Warren and Joe Wright.

Marshall Curry’s previous documentary, the Oscar-nominated Street Fight (2005), was the quintessential urban tale: It chronicled the bitter battle between two African-American mayoral candidates — street-smart wheeler-dealer Sharpe James and upstart Cory Booker, an idealistic, Yale-educated Rhodes scholar — as it played out against the larger problems of blighted, impoverished Newark, New Jersey.

His follow-up dives into America’s heartland to follow three middle-class kids — 11-year-old Annabeth Barnes, 12-year-old Josh Hobson and 13-year-old Brandon Warren — who dream of becoming NASCAR drivers. They’ve worked their way up through the ranks of the World Karting Association, but are they capable of graduating from high-tech soapbox derbies to the big leagues?

Handsome, charming Brandon Warren could easily have been lost to his parents’ chaotic lives, a blur of drugs, jail and apathy. Instead, his stable, hard-working paternal grandparents stepped up and welcomed him into their rural Creedmore, North Carolina, home. But despite their unstinting support and moral guidance, Brandon struggles to control a wicked temper with the potential to sabotage his dreams, and when his devoted but ne’er-do-well daddy, Bruce, gets out of prison and moves back in with his parents, the situation worsens.

Annabeth Barnes of Hiddenite, NC, was born with motor oil in her veins; Her father, Darren, once raced professionally and her mother, Tina, is a fervent fan. Annabeth announced at the age of five that she wanted to be “the first woman to win the Daytona 500,” and was blessed with both exceptional talent and an unusual measure of discipline. She was also the beneficiary of NASCAR’s “Drive for Diversity” program, devised to level a historically white, male playing field. But as adolescence kicks in and her friends become increasingly interested in dating, shopping and going to parties, Annabeth begins to wrap her mind around just how much she’ll have to give up in pursuit of her goal.

Baby-faced Josh Hobson of Birch Run, Michigan, looks younger than twelve, but has already mastered the subtleties of spin. Gifted though he is — he may well be the best natural driver of the group — Josh sees clearly that money is everything; it lets you buy what you need to achieve what you want. All three youngsters realize that their hobby is a drain on the family finances, but only Josh seems to truly understand that if his parents are forced to choose between paying the mortgage and buying him a new car, they’ll pay the mortgage.

A lesser filmmaker might have fashioned this material into a heartwarming “triumph of the human spirit” fable with a touch of grit. But Curry never allows sentiment to trump the cold, hard reality that two of these three wide-eyed charmers will be forced to abandon — or at least postpone — the dreams that have helped shape every aspect of their lives so far. It also puts paid to the notion the that NASCAR racing is a true people’s sport: The bulk of its fans may be just regular working folks, but it takes as much money to support a child who wants to be a professional driver as it is one who wants to be a classical dancer… maybe more when you factor in scholarships, of which there are many for conspicuously talented ballet students and virtually none for equally talented child drivers. That bracing clear-mindedness gives Racing Dreams a haunting urgency that belies the superficial bonhomie and gloss.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal in slightly different form.


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Rambo

2008
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone.
Written by:/ Art Monterastelli and Sylvester Stallone, based characters created by David Morrell.
With: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Graham McTavish, Tim Kang, Rey Gallegos, Matthew Marsden, Jake La Botz, Maung Maung Khin, Aung Aay Noi and Ken Howard.

Hard on the heels of Rocky Balboa (2006), which picked up Sylvester Stallone's signature character 15 years after the last entry in the series, Stallone resurrected traumatized Vietnam-veteran John Rambo after a 20-year hiatus. The result is by no means what most people would call a "good movie," but it’s the farthest thing from a bland, spineless sequel imaginable: Rambo 2.0 is a brutal, insanely excessive throwback to grindhouse pictures of yore.

John Rambo (Stallone) has again retreated to the jungles of Thailand from which he was plucked to mess with Afghan affairs in the cartoonish Rambo III (1982). He lives alone, makes a meager living selling snakes to a seedy tourist trap and keeps his nightmares to himself until a quintet of humanitarians from Christ Church of Colorado seeks him out. They hope to bring medical supplies and care to the beleaguered Karen people of Burma, victims of decades of genocidal persecution by their country’s military dictatorship, and need a ride. Rambo refuses, but after earnest missionary miss Sarah (Benz) pleads their case — "Maybe you've lost your faith in people," she says, "but you must believe in something" — he relents and gets them to within hiking distance of an impoverished village called Kaw Kbe Lo. Shortly after the do-gooders reach their destination, Burmese soldiers under the command of sadistic homosexual child rapist General Tint (Khin, in real life a Burmese resistance fighter) viciously slaughter the locals and kidnap the Americans.

Two weeks later, Pastor Marsh (Howard) appears at Rambo's door, having suspended his conscience long enough to hire five mercenaries — cynical Lewis (McTavish), redneck Reese (La Botz), disillusioned Diaz (Gallegos), enigmatic En-Joo (Kang) and the oddly idealistic School Boy (Marsden) — to rescue his flock. But he still needs someone to ferry them into Burma, where a Karen freedom fighter (Noi) will direct them to Tint's jungle hell of rape, torture and capricious murder. Rambo, his slumbering conscience now fully awakened, not only ferries Marsh’s hit men to their destination but joins the fray, which begins with an audacious raid on Tint’s camp and ends in the kind of bloodbath that defines the term "Hard R."

The film is gore-spattered atrocity show in the seamy tradition of socially conscious Italian shockers like Ruggero Deodato’s The Last Survivor (1977) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980), right down to the opening newsreel-footage montage of bloated bodies and mutilated children. Whether Rambo fans really want to be educated about genocide in Burma is doubtful, and it's a pretty safe bet that supporters of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival would prefer not to see the issue cloaked in action-movie drag. But Stallone’s revisionist Rambo is never dull, and his canny repurposing of First Blood’s (1982) notorious unused suicide ending as a B&W flashback helps define the extent of Rambo's damage.


A Real Young Girl

(1976)
Written and directed by: Catherine Breillat, based on her novel La Soupirail ("The Airduct").
With: Charlotte Alexandra, Bruno Balp, Rita Maiden and Hiram Keller.

French provocateur Catherine Breillat's first film — based on her novel, The Air Duct — is a disturbing study of a teenager coming to terms with her blossoming sexuality. Breillat and her producer, who apparently envisioned a soft-core picture in the David Hamilton mode, disagreed vigorously almost from the start about the film's tone, and in the end it was essentially abandoned, unfinished. When it was completed it received an X rating from the French censor and wasn't theatrically released in France until 2000, though it was shown occasionally at festivals.

Sullen,17-year-old Alice Bonnard (Alexandra) reluctantly returns home from school for summer vacation. Her grades are slipping — though she intercepts and alters her report card so her parents (Balp and Maiden) won't know — and is preoccupied with sex, which she both desires and fears. Alice's parents own a small sawmill and live in a rundown farmhouse; her mother is shrill and critical, afraid Alice will become pregnant and drop out before taking her baccalaureate exams, while her father is more indulgent. In addition to their inevitable mixed emotions at seeing their little girl mature, they're baffled by the entire younger generation: Alice's parents came of age during WWII, with all its attendant privations, while Alice and her peers are children of the privileged '60s.

Alice, meanwhile, is trapped in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions: Simultaneously self-conscious and exhibitionistic, she's convinced that people in town are staring at her and responds by bicycling bare-bottomed down country lanes. She flaunts her breasts but confesses to her diary that she can hardly bear to look at her body in the mirror, and fantasizes about one of her father's employees, Jim (Keller), alternately imagining scenes of giddy romance and sexual humiliation. Alice taunts her parents, behaving seductively towards her father (who's secretly having an affair with a much younger woman) and provoking her mother, who responds by calling her a whore. Inevitably, the summer ends badly.

Like Breillat's later movies (notably 1999's Romance), this early effort features a discomfiting mix of uncomfortably explicit sexual imagery and earnest philosophizing; it's as maddeningly self-centered and gloomily pretentious as Alice herself. But it's also savagely perceptive, and defiantly free of the clichés that define adolescent girls' sexuality in movies: Neither cheerfully naughty nor suffused with gauzy prurience, it evokes a time of turbulent (and often ugly) emotions with disquieting intensity.


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Red Hill

Red Hill 2010
Written and Directed by: Patrick Hughes.
With: Ryan Kwanten, Steve Bisley, Tom E. (Tommy) Lewis, Claire van der Bloom, Christopher Davis, Kevin Harrington and Cliff Ellen.

A stylish cross between 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock, the classic “small town with a big secret” movie, and aboriginal-rage picture The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), first-time feature director Patrick Hughes’ modern-day western unfolds against the backdrop of Australia’s wild, unforgiving North Country.

Newly relocated from the big city to sleepy, onetime logging town Red Hill, Constable Shane Cooper (Kwanten) is having a crappy first day on the job. His gun is lost somewhere in the mountain of unpacked boxes. His hugely pregnant wife (van der Bloom) — whose miscarriage after Cooper was shot in the line of duty precipitated their move to the middle of nowhere — is a weepy victim of hormonal chaos, and his new boss, Inspector William "Old Bill" Jones (Bisley, the young Mel Gibson’s doomed partner in the original Mad Max), makes no secret of his contempt for urban types in general and touchy-feely cops reluctant to shoot juvenile offenders on sight in particular.

And it just keeps getting worse. There's a huge storm brewing, and after being dispatched on horseback to investigate a local rancher’s (Ellen) cattle-mutilation complaint (Cooper’s car is at home with Alice and there are no official vehicles available, at least not for him) Cooper returns to find the entire Red Hill police force in crisis mode. Horribly scarred Jimmy Conway (Jimmie Blacksmith star Lewis, his once striking face ravaged by time and burn makeup), a convicted murderer, has escaped from Westin Bay Maximum Security Prison and is heading for Red Hill to settle an old score. The streets run red before Cooper learns the precise nature of that score, which casts Conway’s rage in a very different light.

If Red Hill

doesn’t break any new ground, it’s also never less than watchable and is frequently gripping: Once the broad outlines of Red Hill’s ugly past begin to come clear, the relationship between Cooper and Conway — each as much hunter as hunted, or vice versa — takes on an unexpected depth and gravity. Strong performances and taut direction go a long way to compensating for the predictability of Hughes’ script, and fans of HBO’s Southern-gothic vampire series True Blood should get a kick out of seeing Kwanten in a role that couldn’t be more different from that of the genial, dim-witted Jason Stackhouse.

Like most Australian westerns, Red Hill is a potent blend of the familiar and the exotic. The resemblance between the punishing landscapes of the Australian Outback and the American West is obvious, and the relationship between English settlers and Aborigines mirrors that of their counterparts' complicated rapprochement with Native Americans. The allure is in the differences, the cultural specifics that color well-worn themes and often-revisited characters.

Red Hill is deeply indebted to the iconography of classic American westerns, starting with the name "Shane Cooper." But like Mad Dog Morgan (1976), The Tracker (2002), Ned Kelly (2004), The Proposition (2005) and countless other Australian variations on a theme, Red Hill's international appeal is ultimately rooted in the appeal of familiar genre conventions with a twist.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


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Red Riding Trilogy

2009
Directed by: Julian Jarrold (1974), James Marsh (1980) and Anand Tucker (1983).
Written by: Tony Grisoni, based on the novels Nineteen Seventy Four, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three, by David Peace.
With: Paddy Considine, Sean Bean, David Morrissey, Saskia Reeves, Anthony Flanagan, Robert Sheehan, Tony Mooney, Sean Harris, Tony Pitts, Maxine Peake, Mark Addy, Peter Mullan, Lesley Sharp, Warren Clarke, Daniel Mays, Mark Addy, Gerard Kearns, Eddie Marsan, Cathryn Bradshaw, Julia Ford, Rebecca Hall and Andrew Garfield.

Adapted for UK television from four novels by English writer David Peace, The Red Riding Trilogy is a dark set of brilliantly-acted, interlocking thrillers that nonetheless fails to live up to the source. That’s less a criticism than a simple statement of fact: Taken together, Peace’s Nineteen Seventy-Four, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty-Three form an epic story of crime, corruption and betrayal in Northern England that plays out over the course of nine tumultuous years, and it’s simply too dense to be compressed into a five-hour drama.

The Red Riding Trilogy represents an intelligent, conscientious effort to wrestle them into relatively compact form (assuming you’re okay with calling 305 minutes compact) by one screenwriter, Tony Grisoni, three directors — Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker — and a cast that ranges from UK veterans Paddy Considine, Sean Bean, David Morrissey, Saskia Reeves, Mark Addy, Peter Mullan and Eddie Marsan to up-and-comers like Rebecca Hall and Andrew Garfield. And if not entirely satisfying, the end product is still heady, mesmerizing stuff.

(In the Year of Our Lord) 1974:
The first episode begins with the disappearance of school girl Claire Kemplay, which ambitious young Yorkshire Post reporter Eddie Dunford (Garfield), recently returned to his native Leeds after a stint in the south of England, connects to several earlier cases, all unsolved. His investigation leads to smug local businessman John Dawson (Bean), who’s been buying up land on which to build a modern supermarket and paying off crooked cops to clear away obstacles like the gypsy camp settlement they reduce to ashes with unseemly dispatch and brutal enthusiasm. Skittish rent boy BJ (Sheehan), and high-strung Paula Garland (Hall), whose daughter was the first to go missing, provide further links to Dawson.

The discovery of Claire’s body on the site of another Dawson development, tortured, raped, strangled and mutilated, pushes Dunford into the realm of full-fledged obsession with making Dawson and his cronies pay for the misery they’ve caused. Pointedly ignoring warnings from the police — including the thuggish Tommy Douglas (Mooney) and Bob Craven (Harris), who answer to Deputy Superintendant Maurice Jobson (Morrissey) — to keep away from Paula and Dawson's mentally unbalanced wife, Marjorie (Bradshaw), Dunford crashes Dawson’s annual Christmas party, a bold gamble whose devastating consequences neither advance his career nor bring the guilty to justice.

b>(In the Year of Our Lord) 1980:

Leeds is a city under siege: The Yorkshire Ripper, who’s been maiming and killing for years abruptly escalates his war on women — where his victims were once prostitutes, they now include ordinary housewives, college students and shop clerks. Despite a manhunt of massive — indeed, unprecedented — scope and expense, the West Yorkshire Constabulary has failed to turn up so much as a credible suspect.

Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter (Considine), renowned, if not universally respected, for his thoroughness and probity, is brought in from Manchester, ostensibly to assess the investigation. Hunter was an internal affairs investigator on the Dawson case, which culminated in a multiple murder at the exclusive Karachi Club; he was forced to abandon his inquiries because of his wife’s (Sharp) fragile health. Assistant Chief Constable Bill “Badger” Molloy (Clarke), who assumes correctly that Hunter’s real mandate is to prove his department incompetent, corrupt or both, is immediately replaced as lead investigator by Jobson (Morrissey). But not before his hostility to Hunter and his hand-picked team has trickled down to the rank and file, notably officer Craven (Harris), Hunter’s departmental liaison.

Hunter quickly concludes that the police have been sidetracked by a taunting tape recording, ostensibly from the Ripper but in fact of dubious provenance. Her believes the real Ripper is among the thousands of men already interviewed, and that at least one of the supposed Ripper victims, Clare Strachan, was actually murdered by someone else.

That Craven and his then-partner, Tommy Douglas, were both shot in the Karachi Club incident suggests a connection to the Ripper murders, as does the fact that Clare Strachan worked there. More provocative still is the assertion of widow Elizabeth Hall (Ford) that her late husband, West Yorkshire police detective Eric Hall, was both a pimp and a pornographer who was murdered so he wouldn’t implicate his colleagues. Though Hunter recognizes Strachan as a model in the mucky magazine Hall offers as evidence, Hall’s assertions are compromised by the fact that she’s spent time in a mental institution.

Hall’s spiritual advisor, the Reverend Martin Laws (Mullan), introduces Hunter to Strachan’s best friend, high-strung hustler BJ. Like Strachan, BJ worked at the Karachi Club, and he’s convinced the police killed her and are after him because they were both witnesses to the massacre. Like Eddie Dunford’s quest to tease out the truth from beneath layers of lies, Peter Hunter’s investigation leads to nothing but death and destruction.

(In the Year of Our Lord) 1983:

Maurice Jobson takes center stage in the third and final installment, though low-rent lawyer John Piggott (Addy) drives the action.

Piggott is persuaded to look into the case of mentally-challenged Michael Myshkin (Mays), who was convicted of Clare Kemplay’s murder. Myshkin’s childhood playmate, Leonard Cole (Kearns), who worked for John Dawson and found Kemplay’s battered corpse, is now a suspect in the disappearance of yet another young girl. When Myshkin commits suicide under suspicious circumstances, Piggott is forced to pay attention to longstanding rumors that paint the West Yorkshire Constabulary — of which his own father was a highly respected member — as a cesspool of corruption, sadism and kowtowing to the needs of the rich and well-connected.

Extensive flashbacks establish the extent of Molloy and Jobson’s involvement in cover-up of multiple murders, which included the ruthless elimination of corrupt police officers who exhibited inconvenient flashes of conscience. But they also reveal that it was Jobson, troubled by his colleagues’ amoral ruthlessness, who placed the anonymous phone call that tipped off Eddie Dunford to the destruction of the gypsy camp. And Jobson later tried to protect self-proclaimed psychic “Mystic Mandy” (Reeves), whose visions hinted strongly — if fruitlessly — at the truth behind Kemplay’s murder. Their ill-fated affair marked his last effort to rise above department’s culture of bribery, racism and brutality.

Piggott eventually discovers evidence that ties everything together and provides a glimmer of hope for the future: A guilty party is punished, an innocent life is saved and a profoundly ordinary man finds extraordinary reserves of courage and determination. But it’s hope tainted by the shadow of deep-rooted moral rot, shattered lives and the suspicion that nothing has truly changed.

Streamlining Peace’s novels required the wholesale excision of important plot threads, along with the elimination of some key characters and condensation of others. Given the reality of budgetary constraints, The third novel, which chronicles the beginning of the Yorkshire Ripper arc that concludes in Nineteen Eighty-Three, is dropped entirely; guilt is displaced and certain highly literary devices abandon, notably Peace’s use of BJ’s feral, disjointed voice to give Nineteen Eighty-Three its almost unbearably feverish intensity.

On a more literal level, the scripts ruthlessly excise characters whose grim journeys add depth and complexity to Peace’s pitch-black saga: They include hard-drinking veteran Yorkshire Post crime reporter Jack Whitehead, whose descent into a personal hell of despair and insanity ties together several major plot threads; Dawson flunky George Marsh, the banality of evil personified; fatally weak-willed Counselor Shaw, who helps Dawson run roughshod over local building regulations; and minor football star Johnny Kelly, Paula Garland’s wayward brother. You can see why they were labeled secondary, but Peace’s novels are like a game of pick-up sticks: Pull the wrong one out and the whole thing collapses. Peace’s vision of a Northern England in which outrageous vice and perversion of justice are the natural outgrowth of casual bigotry, poisonous contempt for women and reflexive xenophobia is softened and, worse, muddled.

At the back-to-back screening of all three films I attended, several people — two of whom sat near me and were clearly awake and paying attention throughout &mdash complained that they were baffled, and I can see why: Between the Yorkshire burrs, the very specific cultural context and the helter-skelter pace at which events unfold, it was easy to lose our place and never pick it up, which may be why Red Riding didn’t wow American audiences. And that’s a shame, because with all its flaws it blows the average American crime film out of the water, and I doubt the feature Ridley Scott is developing will compare.


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Remember Me

2010
Directed by: Allen Coulter.
Written by: Paul Fetters.
With: Robert Pattinson, Pierce Brosnan, Emilie de Ravin, Chris Cooper, Lena Olin, Tate Ellington, Martha Plimpton, Gregory Jbara, Ruby Jerins and Caitlyn Paige Rund.

Veteran TV director Coulter and first time screenwriter Fetters head down the road of good intentions, but it’s viewers who wind up in a hell of overwrought melodrama with a monumental twist.

New York, 1991: On a deserted subway platform, 11-year-old Ally Craig (Rund) watches in terror as her mother (Plimpton) is first harassed and then murdered by a gang of thugs.

New York, 2001: Rumpled, moody NYU student Tyler Hawkins (Twilight’s Pattinson) joins his family — father Charles (Brosnan), a sleek, hot-shot lawyer; bohemian mom Diane (Olin) and her easy-going current husband (Jbara); and precocious baby sister Caroline (Jerins) — for their annual visit to the grave of his older brother. Despite Diane’s efforts to keep the peace, Charles manages to belittle Caroline, already a talented artist at age 11, and piss off the already disgruntled Tyler.

That night, Tyler and his aggressively annoying roommate, Aidan (Ellington), go out drinking and wind up in jail after Tyler mouths off to hard ass Sergeant Neil Craig (Cooper), who goes out of his way to humiliate Tyler. Soon after, Aidan discovers that Craig’s daughter, Ally (de Ravin), just happens to be a fellow NYU student and comes up with the perfect revenge: Tyler should seduce Ally and then cruelly break her heart. But the beautiful, haunted souls instead fall in love.

A bumper crop of secondary angst is woven into the story of Tyler and Ally’s tempestuous relationship: Eccentric Caroline is bullied by middle-school mean girls. Ally fights with her (understandably) overprotective father. Tyler has a series of increasingly fractious run-ins with his dad, whom he blames for his brother’s suicide. Diane tries to heal the emotional wounds that have sundered her loved ones.

And so it goes for most of the movie’s 113-minute running time: Soul searching, emotional anguish and dramatic confrontations punctuated by little stabs at happiness. And then along comes the great big twist — read no further if you don’t want to know what it is.

It’s not just 2001: It’s September 11, 2001, and someone just happens to be at the World Trade Center bright and early on that fateful Tuesday morning. The sight of a plane plowing into the towers is clearly meant to drive home the message that every moment is precious and every day should be lived as though it were the last. But it has exactly the opposite effect, throwing into high relief the fundamental triviality of family feuds, lovers’ spats and schoolyard squabbles, and making everyone look spoiled and self-indulgent.


Reverend Billy & the Church Of Stop Shopping

(2002)
Written and Directed by: Dietmar Post.
With: Bill C. Talen.

Dietmar Post's straightforward documentary chronicles the political performance art of Minnesota-born Bill Talen, 50, who uses his "Reverend Billy" persona to transform pointed criticism of transnational corporate practices into engaging street theater.

Beginning in 1997, Talen staged a series of "actions," marching into such temples of commerce as Disney retail outlets and Starbucks Coffee shops, exhorting customers to stop shopping, citing the companies' exploitative business practices and decrying the prefabricated colonization of American culture. Talen cites the influence of pioneering urban activist Jane Jacobs and Brazilian dramatist Augusto Boal, but the mischievous influence of '60s media manipulators Abbie Hoffman and Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters is evident in his slyly comic photo ops. Post documents three actions, all of which took place between 2000 and 2002: An anti-Starbucks preach-in on Manhattan's historic Lower East Side; a pre-Christmas anti-shopping sermon at the Times Square Disney store and a protest at a small, abandoned brick building near Washington Square Park where Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Raven.

The "Poe House" was slated for demolition by New York University, which has extensive real-estate holdings in lower Manhattan and a history of clashing with neighborhood preservationists.

Talen, who bears a striking resemblance to actor Kurt Russell, based Reverend Billy on real-life preacher Jimmy Swaggert and uses the distinctive rhythms and vocabulary of evangelical call-and-response sermonizing. He's sometimes accompanied by the Church of Stop-Shopping Gospel Choir, and is generally surrounded by a vocal cadre of acolytes. His goal, he says, is simply to educate people who've never considered the implications of corporate business practices or questioned the homogenization of mainstream culture. It's unfortunate that Post has no apparent interest in Talen's background or experiences outside the Reverend Billy phenomenon; After seeing him perform, it's hard not to want to know more about how the charismatic, Obie Award-winning playwright came to choose and shape his particular crusade.


Revolutionary Road

(2008)
Directed by: Sam Mendes.
Written by: Justin Haythe and Mendes, based on the novel by Richard Yates.
With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Dylan Baker, Zoe Kazan, Jay O. Sanders, Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour.

Here is my problem with Revolutionary Road. Imagine this: After years of languishing in the limbo of fiercely cherished cult novels everybody wants to film and nobody wants to produce, Charles Webb's 1963 incisive tale of youthful alienation finally comes to the screen in 2008. The filmmakers meticulously recreate the fashions, decor and pop-culture ephemera of the time and cast it with fine, impassioned actors. But would The Graduate — 2008 version — capture an America in transition with painful vividness, or would it be a well-intentioned waxwork?

Adapted with great care and sensitivity from the 1961 novel by Richard Yates, which rubbed shoulders with such 1962 National Book Award finalists as Joseph Heller's Catch-22, J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, Edward Lewis Wallant's The Pawnbroker and Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. Sam Mendes' film is flawlessly acted and utterly bloodless; it's thoroughly of a place and time but was made five decades later, long after the discontents it identified with surgical precision had been so thoroughly parsed that there was nothing left to say about them.

Restless WWII veteran Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) met aspiring actress April (Winslet) at a hip soiree in Greenwich Village, where the magnetism of youth, beauty, restlessness and a deep-rooted determination not to sleepwalk through life like their parents drew them inexorably together.

But by 1955 Frank has become a sleek, restless adman, working for the same firm that employed his father so he can keep April and their two children in the cute little house on the oh-so-ironically named Revolutionary Road, where she's stewing in boredom and bitter regret. Her appearance in a community theater production of The Petrified Forest was an eye-opening humiliation, but April isn't quite prepared to relinquish the youthful dreams she and Frank once shared. Frank has successfully distracted himself with boozy, expense account meals, macho camaraderie and a listless affair with a young secretary, but April eats naked lunch every day and can't live with the knowledge that they've surrendered their most cherished belief about themselves — that they're special — to the shallow security of suburban conformity and corporate culture.

And so April proposes a radical escape plan: If she and Frank sell the house they can move to Paris, where she'll take a cushy secretarial job with the foreign service and support them while he finds a suitable outlet for his creativity. But fate keeps tossing logs on the road to freedom: First Frank is offered a lucrative in the up-and-coming field of computers, then April gets pregnant.

The core themes of Revolutionary Road are as relevant as ever: the different ways people react to realizing their youthful dreams have curdled into mid-life disappointment (April and Frank are only in their 30s, but in the late 1950s that made them middle-aged); the bitter emotional fallout that results from realizing you aren't as exceptional as you thought; the soul-corroding consequences of self-deception and the numbing hollowness at the center of an American Dream defined by lockstep conformity and conspicuous consumption. And the cast is extraordinary, beginning with leads Winslet and DiCaprio, whose perfectly coordinated performances are constructed of too-long pause, too-curt answers and the occasionally feverish outburst that hangs in the air like a noxious cloud. The supporting cast, which includes Kathy Bates as the realtor-cum-neighborhood booster who sells the Wheelers their frozen slice of suburban paradise, Michael Shannon as her piercingly intelligent but mentally unbalanced son, Dylan Baker as Frank's hardest-drinking co-worker and Zoe Kazan as the naive secretary who briefly winds up in Frank's bed, is every bit as impressive. They're all enough to make Revolutionary Road eminently watchable, they can't will it to life.

And yet the end result is chilly and academic, thoroughly admirable but one step removed from the very real angst of a movie like The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), adapted from the 1955 Sloan Wilson novel that begins, "By the time they had lived seven years in the little house on Greentree Avenue in Westport, Connecticut, they both detested it." Ironically, the self-conscious stylization of TV's Mad Men might have better served Revolutionary Road: It's artificial, but acknowledges that it's looking back at the American of half a century ago through the prism of everything that's happened since.


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The Rite

2010
Directed by: Mikael Hafstrom.
Written by: Michael Petroni, suggested by the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist,” by Matt Baglio.
With: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O'Donoghue, Alice Braga, Rutger Hauer, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and Marta Gastini.

As far as high-school senior Michael (O'Donoghue) — the intelligent, restless but dutiful son of widower Istvan Kovak (Hauer, looking drawn and fragile) — can see, his immediate future holds only two possibilities. He can join the family mortuary business, which is to his mind a fate worse than death, or he can apply to seminary school. How could a father who’s devoted his life to doing right by the dead object to his son following a call from God?

Which is not to say that Michael actually intends to become a priest. Just to get a world-class education on the Catholic Church’s dime, then plead a crisis of faith before taking his final vows. He’ll have to deal with his father, of course, but to an eighteen year old, four years is unfathomably distant… and who knows what might happen between now and then? But a cruel twist of fate alerts Michael’s advisor, Father Matthew (Jones), to his plan, and with a veiled hint that the Church has been known to demand tuition repayment from seminarians who take their educations and run, he “persuades” Michael to attend a two-month exorcism class in Vatican City.

Michael goes, but appoints himself devil’s advocate, suggesting that in the 21st century, victims of so-called demonic possession are better off in the hands of psychiatrists than priests. He also befriends skeptical journalist Angeline Vargas (Braga), who’s sitting in on the class while researching an article on exorcism in the contemporary Church. Michael’s instructor, the pious but savvy Father Xavier (Hinds), eventually commends Michael to the tender mercies of experienced exorcist Lucas Trevent (Hopkins), who‘s in the process of trying to free a pregnant, 16-year-old victim of incest (Gastini) from the devil’s grip.

Based on American journalist Matt Baglio’s nonfiction book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, which focuses on the journey of one Reverend Gary Thomas from skepticism to belief, The Rite is a tough sell. For every Passion of the Christ there are scores of faith-based movies that founder in the mainstream marketplace, so it’s easy to see the rationale for selling it as a horror movie.

But moviegoers who pony up their hard-earned dollars expecting levitation, demonic apparitions and sundry other gross-out clichés will be disappointed. And Father Lucas’ wry rebuke to Michael — “What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?” — will do nothing to assuage their feeling that they’ve been conned — quite the opposite, most likely. That said, Hopkins is by far the movie’s greatest asset: Father Lucas’ theatrics are ripe for the over-the-top mannerisms that made his Hannibal Lecter a cultural touchstone and have become his signature, but Hopkins opts for something more subtle. He plays up when Lucas uses popular stereotypes of possession and demons to “cure” a boy whose high-strung mother would rather blame her child’s problems on the Devil than a tangled skein of ordinary anxiety and emotional stress, and plays down when dealing with the girl he believes is truly possessed, adopting a soothing, paternal demeanor until he catches a whiff of brimstone. He delivers a remarkable performance destined to go largely unnoticed because it’s stuck in a clunky movie whose ambitions greatly exceed its accomplishments.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal.


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The Road

(2009)
Directed by: John Hillcoat.
Written by: Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
With: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Garret Dillahunt and Michael Kenneth Williams.

The feel-bad movie of the year, The Road has "important" written all over it, from its big theme (can compassion and human decency survive in the face of unrelenting deprivation and savagery?) to its brutally degraded landscapes of fire and rain and ash. But there's a hollowness to director John Hillcoat’s (The Proposition) adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of the end of the world as we know it.

The end of the world comes in "a shear of light and a series of low concussions" that kills every living thing — birds, beasts, vegetation, even the cockroaches everyone said would inherit the earth — except for a few human beings. In the years that follow, most of them succumb to starvation, suicide and butchery. With nothing else to eat, the human race begins to devour itself, the strong and ruthless preying on the weak.

Read full review...


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Robin Hood

2010
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: Brian Helgeland, based on a story by Helgeland, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris.
With:Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Mark Addy, Oscar Isaac, Danny Huston, Eileen Atkins, Kevin Durand, Matthew Macfadyen, Douglas Hodge, Lea Seydoux, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Max von Sydow and Jessica Raine.

Like the 2004 King Arthur, which starred Clive Owen as the legendary monarch, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is dedicated to uncovering the man behind legend. Not necessarily the real man, since both Robin and Arthur may have been pure fiction, but a real man, shaped by both his particular time and place and eternal human desires.

All of which adds up to a fascinating intellectual exercise… fascinating, that is, to a small group of scholars and history buffs. Most people prefer the legend, which can be tweaked and massaged to suit the tenor of the times. Tie Robin or Arthur to grim reality — and both were spawned by grim times — and they quickly lose their heroic and romantic luster.

1199: Having spent ten years and the resources of England’s treasury in his quest to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslim infidels, King Richard the Lionheart (Huston) is finally bringing his troops home. But they lay siege to a French castle en route, a misguided maneuver that leaves Richard dead and his army leaderless. Archer Robin Longstride (Crowe), a man of honor and principle, assumes the responsibility of returning Richard’s crown to the Queen Mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Atkins), accompanied by a small group of boon companions who include Little John (Durand), Friar Tuck (Addy), Allan A’Dayle (Doyle) and Will Scarlet (Grimes). Along the way, Robin picks up a second mission: To bring the ancestral sword of dying knight Sir Robert Loxley (Hodge) to his father. Fortuitously enough, the Loxleys are from Nottingham, Robin’s home town.

Meanwhile, back in England, Richard’s hedonistic brother, Prince John (Isaac) — who’s far more interested in romping with ambitious French tart Isabella of Angouleme (Seydoux) than producing a legitimate heir with his hopelessly meek wife (Raine) — is trying to balance the royal budget by taxing the life out of anyone with assets to tax. This includes the once-prosperous Loxleys, now reduced to near-penury and represented by the aging Sir Walter (von Sydow) and his feisty daughter in law, Marian (Blanchett). Marian, whose husband went directly from their marital bed to war, proved a woman whose spine could be forged into a sword more formidable than Excalibur and has been managing the family’s estate ever since. No wonder the venal Sheriff of Nottingham (Macfayden) lusts after her!

Enter the righteous Robin, whose fortuitous arrival gives pragmatic Sir Walter an idea. If Robin were to assume the long-absent Sir Robert’s identity, he could ensure that the Loxley holdings remain under Marion’s control after Walter’s death — as a mere woman, she can’t inherit them — rather than reverting to the crown. If that’s not a set-up designed to transform Robin and Marin’s dislike-at-first-sight antagonism into white-hot romance, I don’t know what is.

It’s said that every generation gets the vampires it deserves, and the same is true of Robin Hood: Silent-movie idol Douglas Fairbanks played him as the laughing, devil-may-care heart of a boys’ own adventure where ladies are more appealing in theory than in the flesh. Errol Flynn added a healthy dollop of sex to the swashbuckling in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), while Sean Connery brought a weary gravity to the aging Robin of Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian (1976). Most recently, Jonas Armstrong, star of the three-year BBC series that ran from 2006 to 2009, which reimaged Robin as a troubled, alienated young man rebelling against a status quo that sends young men to die in old men’s wars.

The good news is that Crowe and Blanchett generate grubbily believable sparks. But that’s not enough to offset the grueling slog through oddly tedious court intrigue, mud-spattered battle sequences and the gradual revelation of Robin’s momentous back story. Crowe’s Robin Hood is a moral man trying to negotiate a corrupt world without losing his soul, a characterization that certainly speaks to our uneasy times. But the nuances get lost in Scott’s grimy, revisionist epic, which manages the perplexing trick of being mesmerizing in its details but dull overall.


RocknRolla

(2008)
Written and Directed by: Guy Ritchie.
With: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Idris Elba, Thandie Newton, Toby Kebbell, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Jeremy Piven, Jimi Mistry, Geoff Bell, Nonso Anozie, Karel Roden and Tom Hardy.

If it's a gritty gangster movie about London real estate, dishonor among thieves and old dogs resisting new tricks you want, get your hands on John Mackenzie and Barrie Keeffe's fatalistic The Long Good Friday (1980), which stars Bob Hoskins as a cockney villain whose house of cards inexplicably comes tumbling down just as he's on the verge of making a lucrative deal with American mobsters, Helen Mirren as his posh girlfriend and a young Pierce Brosnan as an IRA hit man. With Mike Hodges' brutally bleak Get Carter (1971), it ranks among Britain's finest crime films.

If, on the other hand, you're in the market for a mockney lark drunk on its own cleverness and bad-boy posturing, then dive right into Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla, an outlandish but sneakily entertaining romp through London's oh-so-colorful underworld. Now pay close attention, because if your attention strays you'll never pick up the threads of the ludicrously convoluted plot.

Roguish small-time crooks One Two (Butler) and Mumbles (Elba) — who, with pals Fred the Head (Bell) and Handsome Bob (Hardy), collectively style themselves "The Wild Bunch" — think they can make a killing by developing a decrepit but choicely located property. They borrow money from old-school crime boss Lenny Cole (Wilkinson) to buy it, unaware that they'll never get the permits they need because Lenny has the crooked politico (Mistry) who can grant them in his pocket. So Mumbles and One Two wind up mightily screwed: Lenny takes the property but doesn't forgive the debt. And to top it all off, there's a snitch in their midst, thanks to whom Handsome Bob is on his way to a long, lonely stretch in prison.

Lenny, meanwhile, is doing his own deal with gimlet-eyed Russian tycoon Uri Obomavich (Roden), who needs Lenny's connections to build a new soccer stadium. As a sign of good faith, Uri lends Lenny his lucky painting, which is promptly stolen right around the time Mumbles and One Two, who happens to be in cahoots (nudge nudge, wink wink) with Uri's sleekly duplicitous accountant, Stella (Newton), heist the dirty money he had earmarked for Lenny. By the time the last oh-so-ironic secret has been revealed, the confederacy of bottom feeders has expanded to include Lenny's despised, drug-addled stepson, supposedly dead punk rocker Johnny Quid (Kebbell); Johnny's former managers (Bridges, Piven); culture-loving thug Tank (Anozie); a pair of conniving junkies, Stella's effete, upper-crust husband and a couple of nightmarish Russian enforcers.

Richie is his own worst enemy. He systematically squandered the good will engendered by his gleefully stylized debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and by the time he cast his wife, Madonna, in an awesomely deracinated remake of Lina Wertmuller's bitterly provocative dissection of sexual and class warfare, Swept Away… by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (1974), he was well on his way to the knackers with the rest of the one trick ponies.

RocknRolla may be a cynical attempt to reboot his career, but it's a smart one. The film is more of what people liked about Ritchie in the first place: Smarty pants dialogue peppered with witty East End slang; casual brutality mixed with enough cruel comedy to reassure viewers that it was just a bit of fun, nothing to take seriously; and a savvy mix of Tarantino-esque style and UK gangster iconography, dominated by swaggering celebrity sociopaths Reginald and Ronald Kray. Sure, the twins would shiv you as soon as look at you. But they didn't half have style, did they?


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The Runaways

(2010)
Floria Sigismondi.
Written by: Floria Sigismondi, based on the book Neon Angel, by Cherie Currie.
With: Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Scout Taylor-Compton, Stella Maeve, Alia Shawkat, Riley Keough, Johnny Lewis, Tatum O'Neal and Brett Cullen.

Italian-born writer-director Floria Sigismondi's film about the short-lived, all-girl rock band The Runaways (and they really were girls, not women), sacrifices the fascinating detit ails in the service of tidy dramatic structure. But captures a genuine sense of what the 1970s were like — the real '70s, not the wacky, sitcom '70s of That '70s Show. Ingrained sexism coexisting uneasily with newfound sexual freedom; too-tight, too-shiny clothes — billowing caftans, clingy knits, sansabelt pants, jumpsuits, platform shoes, dingy clubs; retro prints and brown, brown, brown — and a pervasive feeling that the good times were over and all that lay ahead was diminished expectations.

Southern California, 1975: Restless teenager Joan Jett (Stewart) worships Suzi Quatro and dreams of becoming a straight-up, balls-out guitar god, despite the prevailing wisdom that girls can’t play the electric guitar. Sandy West (Maeve), hooked on drums from age nine, is on the prowl for other female musicians who want to <em>rock</em>. Hollywood-bred jack-of-all-trades Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who at 33 could boast a solid 15 years of music-business experience, thinks a gaggle of hard-rocking jailbait chicks could be the next lucrative thing and introduces them. When West and Jett click, he recruits Bowie-worshiping singer Cherie Currie (Fanning), spawn of an alcoholic and a disillusioned actress (O'Neal) whose Hollywood dreams curdled after 10 years of B-movie bit parts; volatile guitarist Lita Ford (Taylor-Compton) and bass player Robin Robins (Shawkat, playing a composite of the bassists the band went through in four years). Fowley dubs them The Runaways and puts his fledgling proteges through rock 'n' roll boot camp. He hires local kids to pelt them with crap (literally) — the girls have to learn how to deal with rowdy crowds — encourages them with his own special brand of cheerleading ("You bitches are gonna be bigger than the fucking Beatles!"), and sends them out on a low-rent, make-or-break tour. The rest is straight from the Behind the Music playbook: Intoxicating success, drug- and booze-fueled squabbles and the inevitable flameout.

First, the good news: Twilight's sullen Stewart, former child-star Fanning and one-time Oscar-nominee Shannon are terrific; their performances are 100% snark-free. Both Fanning and Stewart nail the particular desperation born of living on the wrong side of a shatterproof wall that separates wealth, glamour and celebrity from parched despair, and they can sing. Jett, one of the film's executive producers, claims she mistook a tape of Stewart for one of herself.

The bad news is that The Runaways consistently sacrifices the unique and messy to the sleekly formulaic; the film's look is as grungy and deglamorized as the narrative is neat and familiar. And that's a shame, because the marvel of The Runaways is that they transcended their pre-fab (albeit scruffy) origins and forged a genuine rock 'n' roll identity.


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Save the Last Dance

2001
Directed by: Thomas Carter.
Written by: Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards, based on a story by Adler.
With: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kerry Washington, Fredro Starr, Terry Kinney, Bianca Lawson, Vince Green, Garland Whitt, Elisabeth Oas and Artel Jarod Walker.

The greatest assets of this utterly formulaic, teen-oriented romance are Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas, the thoroughly engaging actors who play the movie’s apparently mismatched but meant-for-each-other leads.

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Small-town teen Sara (Stiles) lives for dancing until her mother is killed in a car accident for which Sara blames herself: Mom was rushing to watch Sara audition for a prestigious dance academy. The grief-stricken Sara abandons ballet and is forced to movie in with her jazz-musician father (Kinney), who lives in a rough Chicago neighborhood.

Sara is a fish out of water at the sprawling urban high school where she's one of a handful of white students, but she finds a mentor in Chenille (Washington), who helps her make friends and retool her wardrobe so she doesn't look so "country." Sara is soon dating Chenille's handsome brother, Derek (Thomas), a straight-A student who hopes to be a doctor but shares her love of dance. Derek teaches Sara some hip-hop moves and encourages her to resume her ballet studies, but their relationship stirs up trouble in the race-conscious ‘hood: Derek's best friend, Malakai (Starr), pressures him to spend more time with his home boys; sultry ex-girlfriend Nikki (Lawson) does her damnedest to break them up and even Chenille admits to wishing that a promising, responsible black man like Derek weren’t hooked up with a white girl.

This trite romance might feel fresh to youngsters who've never seen another movie about teens from different worlds finding a common ground in love. But it doesn't have an original idea in its head, and the cinematic subterfuges designed to hide the fact that Stiles isn't a classical dancer — medium shot from the waist up of Stiles doing ballet arms followed by medium shot from the waist down of some anonymous ballerina’s bourre-ing legs — are clunky and distracting.


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Salt

2010
Directed by: Philip Noyce.
Written by: Kurt Wimmer.
With: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, Andre Braugher, August Diehl and Olek Krupa.

Angelina Jolie plays a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy in this silly but energetic action movie.

Once a highly respected field agent, Evelyn Salt (Jolie) was removed from the line of fire after a North Korean operation went terribly wrong. Salt was eventually recovered via a prisoner exchange and removed from the line of fire: Now her duties run more to debriefing tedious Russian defectors — ho hum — like the scruffy Orlov (Polish actor Obrychski, youthful star of multiple Andrezej Wajda movies), which is no doubt how she found time to nurture her blissful marriage to German spider specialist Mike Krause (Diehl). In fact, Salt is focused on the anniversary party she's planning when Orlov drops a cold-war bombshell: The Soviet Union, he says, has spent decades preparing an assault on the US from within, training an army of super soldiers from childhood and burying them so deep in the American mainstream that even they don't know they're sleeper agents waiting for a wake-up call. One of them has even infiltrated the CIA, Orlov continues, and her name is Evelyn Salt.

Salt's closest colleague, Ted Winter (Schreiber), doesn?t believe a word of it, but their boss, Peabody (Ejiofor), isn't so sure, which is no doubt why he's boss: Sentiment and loyalty to subordinates have no place in career building, especially a spook house like the CIA. So Salt takes it on the lam, determined to prove her innocence and foil the assassination plot she uncovers in the process, in between high-octane stunt sequences and clever demonstrations of the exotic uses to which common household and office supplies can be put. Who knew an ordinary swivel chair and a fire extinguisher could be McGuyvered into a rocket launcher? And remember ladies, not only do panties keep your privates covered while exiting taxis in indecently short skirts, but they can be used to blind inconveniently-placed security cameras!

Australian filmmaker Philip Noyce's workmanlike competence is woefully underappreciated in the US: Remember Dead Calm (1989), the psycho-on-a-boat thriller with Nicole Kidman? His. Ditto Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger (1992, 1994), two of the three best Tom Clancy adaptations that aren't video games (the other being, of course, John McTiernan's 1990 Hunt for Red October). Noyce brings two major assets to Salt: The understanding that skipping character development ensures that no one will give a flying fig when characters start getting killed, and the knowledge that that nothing undermines a well-staged action sequence like eyeball-scrambling flash cuts. Both used to be givens in any decently-budgeted mainstream movie and neither is now, so it's thanks to Noyce that Salt delivers both the genre-mandated mayhem and gives you reason, however slim, to care who's left standing.

That said, I still found Salt dull... Kurt Wimmer's script owes a serious debt of imagination to the 1977 Charles Bronson vehicle Telefon (which was based on a novel by Walter Wager, whose 58 Minutes was later twisted into the first Die Hard sequel), and the action is, well, action: Bodies twist and churn, cars careen and crash, and stuff blows up. Been there, seen that, forgot it 24 hours later.


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Sanctum

2011
Directed by: Alister Grierson.
Written by: Andrew Wight and John Garvin.
With: Richard Roxburgh, Ioan Gruffud, Rhys Wakefield, Alice Parkinson, Nicole Downs, Christopher Baker, Allison Cratchley, Dan Wyllie, Andrew Hansen and Cramer Cain.

One-dimensional characters try to stay ahead of the water rapidly filling a vast, unmapped cave in this survival drama produced by James Cameron. The 3D imagery is stunning, but be warned: If you’re claustrophobic or afraid of drowning, this is emphatically not the movie for you. The soggy human drama, however, pales next to that of Neil Marshall’s gripping, low-budget The Descent.

Frank McGuire (Roxburgh) has been leading research expeditions into the world’s most dangerous caves for years and has no patience for amateurs, slackers, dilettantes or thrill-seekers: In a crunch, they get people killed. His current mission, bankrolled by cocky adrenaline junkie Carl Hurley (Gruffudd), is to chart a way to the Solomon Sea through Papua, New Guinea’s treacherous Esa’ala cave system.

Frank’s hand-picked team includes divers Liz (Nicole Downs), J.D. (Baker) and Judes (Cratchley), computer whiz Dex (Hansen), old pros Luko (Cain) and George (Wyllie), plus his 17-year-old son, Josh (Wakefield), who deeply resents Frank for choosing globetrotting adventure over family life.

After an extended absence, Carl blows back into camp with his new girlfriend, fearless mountaineer Victoria (Parkinson), whom he intends to impress with the wonders of cave diving. They arrive just in time to catch Dex’s live feed of Judes and Frank discovering an awe-inspiring underwater cavern, which is way cool until Judes’ scuba equipment malfunctions and she drowns before their eyes. Maybe Frank shouldn’t have dubbed their find “St. Jude’s Cathedral,” what with Jude being the patron saint of lost causes and all.

Meanwhile, the apparently ordinary tropical storm brewing when they arrived has exploded into a raging cyclone and is dumping water into the cave at an alarming rate. Only part of the team is able to evacuate before a rockslide seals the exit, trapping Frank, Carl, Victoria, Josh, Luko and George underground. They must find another way out or die.

Screenwriter Andrew Wight, a cave diver and independent filmmaker before he began producing large-format 3D documentaries for James Cameron, spun his own 1988 experience of being trapped in Western Australia’s Nullarbor cave complex into a worst-possible-scenario tale of man against the elements. The good news is that the visuals are breathtaking, an eerie landscape of electric-blue pools and sinuous tunnels that suggest a fantastic voyage through a labyrinth of ossified human innards.

But while the actors are all thoroughly credible as extreme adventurers (stunt doubles notwithstanding, the shoot—much of it on location in Australia’s Mount Gambier and Naracoorte caves—must have been grueling), even dogged pros like Roxburgh and Gruffudd can do little more than dutifully slog through the leaden dialogue and by-the-numbers conflicts. And anyone who can’t predict the order in which the bruised and battered survivors will fall prey to the implacable forces of nature and human error doesn’t spend much time at the movies.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal.


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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

2010
Directed by: Edgar Wright.
Written by:/ Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley.
With: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Alison Pill, Ellen Wong, Marc Webber, Johnny Simmons, Chris Evans, Aubrey Plaza, Brie Larson, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Anna Kendrick, Keita Saitou, Shota Saito, Jason Schwartzman and Mae Whitman.

English director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is three for three with this adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s cult-favorite graphic novels about the romantic travails of a Canadian slacker.

Scrawny, 22-year old Scott Pilgrim (Cera) has no job, no girlfriend (the last one “kicked his heart in the ass” on her way out the door) and no home of his own — he’s squatting with his gay best friend, Wallace (Culkin), in a one room (and one bed) apartment. What Scott does have is a band, Sex Bob-omb, which in the world of young adults who parse degrees of coolness with the insular precision of medieval theologians quantifying the relationship between angels and pinheads, is no small thing.

Granted, they’re strictly a local sensation and not a big one, but hey, they haven’t sold out, man. Scott‘s high school girlfriend, perpetually pissed-off Kim (Pill), is their drummer, which makes for some exquisitely uncomfortable rehearsals. Not to mention the fact that Scott’s ex, Envy Adams (Larson), left him for an impossibly hunky bass player, Todd (Routh), and that they’re now two-thirds of the hugely successful Clash at Demonhead.

All this back story emerges in staccato, pop-culture bursts as Scott navigates the waves caused by his new girlfriend, Knives Chau (Wong), a tough call on the cool scale. Is dating a 17-year-old, Chinese Catholic schoolgirl awesome or kind of pervy? How about dumping her for Ramona Flowers (Winstead), the new hot cool chick in town, a transplanted New Yorker who comes complete with seven deadly former lovers, who range from the direct-to-DVD action star Lucas Lee (Evans) and uber-cool musicians the Katayanagi (real-life twins Saitou and Saito) to smarmy mogul Gideon Graves (Schwartzman), whom Scott must defeat in a series of spectacular fight sequences that wreak havoc on the lives everyone who spends any time in Scott’s vicinity?

Every fresh crop of young adults is convinced that its insecurities, emotional turmoil and frustrations are unlike any ever experienced by previous generations. They’re not. What is different is the web of shared cultural influences — music, social venues, slang, entertainments — that separates them from the old folks. And Scott Pilgrim is a pitch-perfect externalization of the inner world of a youthful underachiever with big dreams. Since Scott is a product of the global-pulp saturated 2000s, his dream life is a thrill-a-minute adventure that filters ordinary human relationships through the prism of Bollywood musical numbers, video games, action movies, skateboard culture, martial arts, sitcoms and hipster affectations.

The result is a frenetic blast whose sad, anxious core is never far from the colorful surface: Scott is less a loser than a non-starter — he’s so afraid of failing that he opts out of the game until the coolly dazzling Roberta and her evil exes force him to engage. His coming-of-age is no less real for being measured in virtual videogame coins and no less annoying for being of a piece with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Billy Liar: The fabulous inner lives of misfits and malcontents glitter most brightly in secret.


Serbis

(2009)
Directed by: Brillante Ma. Mendoza.
Directed by: Armando Lao.
With: Gina Pareno, Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, Coco Martin, Kristofer King, Dan Alvaro, Mercedes Cabral, Roxanne Jordan.

Three generations of Pinedas live together under one roof, but they're no bland advertisement for family values: They share that roof with the rundown porn theatre they own and manage, and their lives are almost as racy as the movies they show... For the complete review, please click here.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International


Sexy Beast

(2000)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer.
Written by: Louis Melli and David Scinto.
With:Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, Amanda Redman, Cavan Kendall, Julianne White, Alvaro Monje, James Fox and Robert Atiko.

A color-saturated jolt of pure vicious energy, this darkly comic UK crime thriller has far more style than substance — but what style!

Forget the story, a tired rehash of "one last job" clichés: The main event is the Mamet-esque battle of foul words between vintage hard-case Ray Winstone and the seething sociopath played by Ben Kingsley. The film opens with middle-aged Gary "Gal" Dove (Winstone) sausaged into a brilliant yellow swimsuit and slowly broiling in the Spanish sun to the discordant strains of The Stranglers' "Peaches."

As Gal takes a half-hearted stroll around the pool, handheld fan buzzing, a gigantic boulder crashes into his pool, missing him by a hair's breadth. If Gal were superstitious, he'd recognize an omen. But he's just a laid-back thug who's left behind a life of bad deeds in England and settled into cushy, take-it-as-it-comes Costa del Sol retirement with his former porn-star wife, DeeDee (Amanda Redman). Even when best friends Aitch and Jackie (Kendall, White) show up quaking because gangster Don Logan (Kingsley) has called looking for Gal, he remains calm. Whatever Don wants, he'll just say he's not interested, Gal assures them. Don, it turns out, is assembling a crew for a London bank heist masterminded by oily boss-of-bosses Teddy Bass (McShane). They're going to rob a supposedly theft-proof safe-deposit vault by tunneling in from the Turkish bath next door, and Don wants Gary in — no ands, ifs or buts.

Gal goes, though because of the film's smoothly disjointed time frame — which glides sinuously between flashbacks, present-time action and the occasional dream sequence involving a deformed rabbit-beast — it's a while before we learn why Gal took the gig, or what prompted Don to pull a disappearing act that has the higher-ups in London asking pointed questions about when and where he was last seen.

Unlike many music video veterans, first-time feature director Jonathan Glazer is capable of getting out of an actor's way, and the movie benefits immeasurably. Viewers who persist in thinking of Kingsley as Gandhi will get a particularly rude shock from his performance here, which is by any standard a masterpiece of bubbling belligerence. The usually volatile Winstone is a slyly benevolent foil to his fury, and the supporting cast — notably McShane and seamy aristocrat James Fox, for whom slumming with villains ends exceptionally badly — hold up their end with apparently effortless aplomb.


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Sherlock Holmes

2009
Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Written by: Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, based on a story by Johnson and Lionel Wigram and characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

With: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Edward Fox and Kelly Reilly.



As a longtime Sherlock Holmes fan, I approached this movie with considerable trepidation. And while my concerns weren’t unjustified — to say that director Guy Ritchie’s blunt laddishness isn’t an intuitive match for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters is the understatement of at least two centuries — I was pleasantly surprised by how much I genuinely enjoyed it. 1891: Holmes (Downey) and Watson (Law) catch aristocratic serial killer Lord Blackwood (Strong) in the act of unspeakable satanic shenanigans, saving a young woman’s life in the process. As is his wont, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade (Marsan) arrives just in time to miss the melee and score the arrest. But despite this high-profile triumph, a black mood hangs over 221B Baker Street: Watson is preparing to leave Holmes — gasp! — for his lady friend, former governess Mary Morstan (Reilly) and the world’s first consulting detective is indulging a royal sulk. Fortunately for their friendship, events quickly put Watson’s engagement on the back burner: Lord Blackwood, who’s been amusing himself in prison by playing head games with Holmes, is sentenced to die and Watson is asked to serve as attending physician at his hanging. But some 24 hours after the good doctor pronounces the bad blue blood dead, Blackwood’s corpse has vanished; his mausoleum is shattered, apparently from the inside, and the corpse of a red-headed midget occupies his coffin. Could it be a coincidence that scheming con-artist Irene Adler (McAdam), recently bedazzled visited Holmes and asked if he might look into the disappearance of, yes, a red-headed midget? I think not. Watson is, of course, drawn into in Holmes’ investigation, which turns up a ripping conspiracy involving the Temple of Four, a secret sorcerer’s society led by Lord Blackwood’s father (Fox). And needless to say, all is not as it seems. In between the eye-catching opening and the story’s bang-up conclusion, Holmes and Watson engage in all manner of manly derring-do while squabbling like a pair of bitchy queens. None of this folderol is canonical, though at least one of the four credited writers was sufficiently well acquainted with Doyle’s stories to incorporate all sorts of Holmesian lore into the screenplay, but a good chunk of it is pretty amusing… roughly the same proportion that’s a lot of bloody nonsense.



No one seems to have cared much about situating this particular apocryphal adventure within the accepted timeline of Doyle’s stories: Holmes and Watson’s fractious relationship suggests an early escapade, though by 1891 they’d roomed together for a decade. But truth be told, Doyle wasn’t very careful about that sort of thing either. He considered the Holmes stories as light entertainments rather than sacred texts, and his slapdash attitude towards details has fueled decades of cheeky amusement for the dedicated fans who persist in trying to reconcile the inconsistencies of some 25 years' worth of adventures spread over four novels and 56 short stories. Complaints about the movie’s shameful perversion of Holmes’ character are touching, but many of the affronted appear to have only a passing acquaintance with the source material. Forget the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies: Far from being an effete aesthete whose neck could hardly support his big brain, Doyle’s Holmes — particularly in the early adventures — was an accomplished brawler (martial arts included!), a secret slob with a pronounced mean streak, and a trying roommate who uses the sitting room wall for target practice, keeps his pipe tobacco in a mucky old Persian slipper and uses cocaine when he’s bored. And Watson is no bumbling duffer: He’s the same age as Holmes, newly returned from a harrowing stint as a field medic in Afghanistan and a good man to have watching your back. As to that cheeky homoerotic subtext, suffice it to say that it’s there in the stories if you’re inclined to see it. There’s plenty wrong with Sherlock Holmes: It’s too long and drags in the middle. It sexes up the relationship between Adler and Holmes, which really is a cynical distortion, and for all the frantic goings on, the story really isn’t very interesting. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: An awful lot of Doyle’s Holmes stories are less than thrilling on the plot front — that’s why there are so many versions of the atypically enthralling Hound of the Baskervilles and so few of, say, The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. The Baker Street chronicles are like original Star Trek: all about the relationships. If you get that right, no one — no real fan — will give a tinker’s damn about the silly aliens or the endless dashing about through London’s sewers.

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Sin City

(2005)
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller; Special Guest Director: Quentin Tarantino.
Written by: Frank Miller.
With: Josh Hartnett, Marley Shelton, Bruce Willis, Makenzie Vega, Nick Stahl, Powers Boothe, Mickey Rourke, Jaime King, Benecio Del Toro, Devon Aoki, Alexis Bledel and Jessica Alba.

Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels read as though the writer/illustrator fell into a hard-boiled vat of distilled Mickey Spillane, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler and surfaced with eau de pulp oozing from his pores, and this ferociously faithful adaptation is the closest live-action filmmaking (extensively aided by CGI) has ever come to reproducing the visual aesthetic of comic-book art. Robert Rodriguez, who codirected with Miller, doesn't so much duplicate Miller's uncompromising black-and-white images spattered with gouts of primary color as cross them with the glistening grays of film noir and set them to a score that kicks off with a pulsating homage to Henry Mancini's "Theme from Peter Gunn."

The film opens with the vignette Rodriguez shot to convince Miller Sin City could be filmed, in which a soulful hit man (Hartnett) meets a fugitive dame (Shelton) in a glittering red dress, then launches into the story of world-weary, middle-aged Basin City Detective Hartigan (Willis). On the verge of retirement, he saves 11-year-old Nancy Callahan (Vega) from perverted rich boy Roark Jr. (Stahl), the son of powerful Senator Roark (Boothe), and works over Junior for good measure. The price of bucking a system firmly in thrall to the corrupt Roark family: Hartigan finds himself on trial for assault and child molestation.

As Hartigan is getting ground up in the wheels of injustice, hulking bad man Marv (Rourke, his face prostheticized into a cross between Jack Palance and an Easter Island monolith) has a date with an angel. Actually, she's a hooker named Goldie (King), but when she's killed and Marv is framed for her murder, he sets out on a single-minded rampage that leads to a freakish serial killer (Wood), corrupt Cardinal Roark (Hauer) and Goldie's twin sister. Elsewhere, stone-cold killer Dwight (Owen) comes home with a new face plastered over the same old bad attitude, and inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that could lead to gang war in Old Town, where gun-toting hookers run the show.

Finally, the battered, eight-years-older Hartigan, 19-year-old stripper Nancy (Alba) and the vengeful, mustard-yellow monster that was once Rourk Jr. have their final showdown. The downside to fidelity to the graphic novels is that the stories are a hash of warmed-over genre clichés. But once you're good and drunk on the look, details like the tin-eared tough-guy dialogue (which sounds especially stilted issuing from flesh-and-blood mouths) don't seem so important. Tarantino fans take note: The "Special Guest Director" was responsible for a single scene involving Dwight and a chatty dead guy (Del Toro).


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The Sixth Sense

1999
Written and Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan.
With: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Trevor Morgan, Donnie Wahlberg, Angelica Tom and Mischa Barton.

A fantastic half-hour Twilight Zone episode is buried within M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough thriller, which delivers an perfectly set up 11th-hour twist. In light of the film’s last 15 minutes, scenes that seemed awkward or contrived come into focus and Willis' somnambulistic performance makes perfect sense.

Successful Philadelphia-based child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Willis) takes a body blow to the ego when a former patient (Wahlberg) breaks into his home, shoots him and then commits suicide, all the while cursing Crowe for not having helped him. Months later, Crowe has recovered from his physical wounds but is a subdued, insecure shadow of his former self. His marriage is disintegrating; he and his wife, Anna (Williams), seem to be living parallel lives that never touch. But Crowe sees the possibility of redemption in another troubled child, Cole Sear (Osment), a reclusive, isolated boy who eventually confesses that he sees dead people.

Though a whiz with the clever premise, it's a full hour before writer/director M. Night Shyamalan throws us the sop of conclusive evidence that this isn't a glum drama about child abuse, when everything from the title to the ad campaign make it a foregone conclusion that no, the kid's not imagining all that spooky stuff. This tendency became increasingly pronounced in his subsequent movies, whose “wag the dog” endings were insufficient payoff for the long, long build up.


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The Skeptic

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Tennyson Bardwell.
With: Tim Daly, Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Ed Herrmann, Andrea Roth, Robert Prosky, Bruce Altman, Lea Coco and Sarah Weaver.

A fiercely rational lawyer's resistance to anything that smacks of the supernatural is put to the test when he moves into his late aunt's house and is faced with evidence that the place is seriously haunted.

Bryan Becket (Daly) practices law in a small, picturesque New England town and lives his life by one simple principle: If he can't prove it, he wants nothing to do with it. Bryan's artistic wife, Robin (Roth), has tried to soften his "just the facts, ma'am" attitude, but he won't budge and their marriage is increasingly strained. Bryan's heartless response to the death of his only surviving relative, an elderly aunt, sparks a brief, late-night fight with long-lasting repercussions.

. Bryan uses the fact that he's the presumptive heir to his aunt's rambling, antique-filled mansion to "take a break" from family life and its messy emotional demands; his rationale, that he doesn't want the house looted while it stands empty, fools no one. But the day after Bryan moves in, his law partner, Sully (Arnold), discovers a recent handwritten will bequeathing the property to one Dr. Koven (Altman), who runs a paranormal research facility. Bryan is furious: How dare some charlatan take advantage of an old woman and, incidentally, rob him of his inheritance! That Koven proves a reasonable, diligent researcher who dismisses supernatural hocus pocus in favor of looking for scientific explanations for phenomena like ESP only stokes the flames of Bryan's fury. More determined than ever to remain in the house, Bryan blames persistent insomnia for the whispers he hears in the dark and the fleeting glimpses he catches of a strange woman; he won't so much as entertain the idea that repressed memories of his mother's death might have something to do with it.

Dr. Shepard (Herrmann), the psychiatrist who treated 5-year-old Bryan after Mrs. Becket took a fatal tumble down some stairs, suggests that therapy might help resolve the problem at its source, but Bryan prefers to treat the symptoms. Father Wymond (Prosky), another lifelong acquaintance, gently warns Bryan to be on his guard around the house, advice Bryan dismisses with thinly disguised contempt. Even Robin breaks the chilly silence between them to tell Bryan he's been talking in his sleep for years, always about his mother. Ironically, by the time Bryan is rattled enough to listen, the only person interested in talking to him is a high-strung psychic named Cassie (Saldana).

Credit where credit is due: Writer-director Tennyson Bardwell is defiantly bucking contemporary horror trends by making an old-fashioned psychological ghost story. He gets excellent production value from his locations, notably the 19th-century Batchellor Mansion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and shows no small flair for creating suspense from shadows and suggestion. His script scrupulously proposes equal and opposite explanations for Bryan's increasingly creepy experiences, and frankly, if he'd been half as careful about his characters, The Skeptic could have been the kind of small gem horror fans live to discover. But he wasn't, repeatedly compelling supposedly mature and intelligent people to do preposterous things in order to keep the plot moving. I can believe, for example, that a 20-year-old frat boy would be dumb enough to respond to a close friend's increasing mental agitation by pranking him, but substitute a pair of sober, middle-aged lawyers and the same scenario seems false and forced. It's painful to see such a promising premise run aground on its own ambitions.


Slumdog Millionaire

(2008)
Directed by: Danny Boyle; Loveleen Tandan, co-director (India)
Written by: Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel Q&A, by Vikas Swarup.
With: Dev Patel, Tanay Hemant Chheda and Ayush Mahesh; Freida Pinto, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar and Rubina Ali; Madhur Mittal, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail; Anil Kapoor, Ankur Vikal and Irrfan Khan.

Adapted from first-time writer Swarup's 2005 novel, Q&A, UK filmmaker Danny Boyle's (28 Days Later, Trainspotting) picaresque tale follows its Candide-like hero from the gutter to the glittering heights of a TV game show that promises instant celebrity and riches. The story's contrivances wouldn't be out of place in a Bollywood musical, but they're wrapped in all-too-convincing squalor and misery that make the feel-good ending seem righteously earned.

Against all odds, 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Patel), the spawn of Mumbai's grimmest slums, has made it to the final round of India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and host/producer Prem Kumar (Kapoor, in his first English-language role), a sleek huckster with a gleaming shark smile, wants to know how. Better men than Jamal — doctors, lawyers, university professors — have failed where this stubborn slumdog has succeeded, and to add insult to hubris, he keeps on playing. He must realize he's already won more than he could reasonably expect to earn in a lifetime of serving tea to call-center employees, and yet he won't take the money and disappear, even though he risks everything with each new round. Kumar is convinced he's cheating, which is why, less than 24 hours before his last shot at the big brass ring, Jamal finds himself being brutally interrogated by a hard-nosed police inspector (Khan). The answer is both straightforward and preposterous: Jamal may be ignorant of things a middle-class 5-year-old would know, but the stars have aligned in his favor and the answer to question after question proves to be rooted the hardscrabble life Jamal relates to the inspector.

It begins in the fetid but vibrant shantytown where 7-year-old Jamal (Khedekar) and his older brother, Salim (Ismail), lose their mother during the 1992 Bombay Riots, when Hindu mobs armed with clubs and torches turned on their Sikh and Muslim neighbors. Orphaned and alone, the boys learn to fend for themselves, and street life quickly lays bare their fundamental natures. Pragmatic Salim purges himself of softness and sentiment, while Jamal stubbornly looks for evidence of good amidst Dickensian squalor and casual cruelty.

It's Jamal who spots the bedraggled Latika (Ali) shivering in the rain and persuades Salim to let her share their makeshift shelter, and Jamal's childish crush intensifies after the children are separated. His determination to find and rescue Latika insulates Jamal against the dog-eat-dog nihilism that eventually claims Salim (Mittal), but his quest seems doomed. Jamal has already found and lost her twice, once as an adolescent (Lonkar) and once as an adult (Pinto); what are the odds that he'll get another chance?

Strip away the exotic details and Slumdog Millionaire's roots become clear: It's Oliver Twist for the global world, a pitiless portrait of life defined and deformed by abject poverty made palatable by the promise that virtue will be rewarded. The injustices visited upon Jamal and Latika are as cruel as those Charles Dickens brought down on poor Oliver 170 years earlier. Slumdog's corrupt pied piper, Mamon (Vikal), who lures abandoned children into lives of crime and vice, is Fagin with a tan;-virtue's vindication comes in the form of a windfall tailored to the times — Oliver comes into an unexpected inheritance, while Jamal hits the game-show jackpot. Both are sophisticated fairy tales — anyone who thinks Dickens was a naïve sentimentalist hasn't read Great Expectations — and both are hugely satisfying. Who wouldn't like to believe, if only for two hours, that a steadfast heart and the power of love can transcend grinding poverty, violence, brutal exploitation and entrenched indifference? And I suspect cynics want to believe most of all.


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Source Code

2011
Directed by: Duncan Jones.
Written by: Ben Ripley.
With: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Cas Anvar, Michael Arden and Craig Thomas.

In this twisty sci-fi thriller, a soldier wakes up on a train, sitting opposite a woman he’s never seen before who calls him by a stranger’s name… and then the train blows up. Repeat with variations until the soldier figures out who he really is, why he’s stuck in Groundhog Day hell and what he needs to do to get out of it. The movie loses steam before it wraps everything up, but until then it’s a pretty puzzle.

Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) is very confused: Is he trapped in some especially vivid nightmare as he travels on a Chicago-bound commuter train, where he makes small talk with a pretty girl named Christina (Monaghan) who seems to think his name is Sean, until they’re both incinerated in hellish fireball? Or does the dream start when he wakes up strapped into some kind of futuristic capsule, listening to a coolly professional Air Force officer named Colleen Goodman (Farmiga) as she fires incomprehensible questions at him from a video monitor?

Hmmmmm... no time to think about it too deeply. Suddenly Colter is on that damned train again, where the exact same things happen in the exact same order: A woman spills coffee on his shoe, the conductor punches his ticket, Christina makes with infuriating chit chat and then boom!. It's catastrophic explosion time again, followed by another frustrating long-distance conversation with Goodman. This sequence of events is repeated, with gradual modifications that begin to clarify what's happening and what Colter can and can't do about it.

The shadow of 1990s TV series “Seven Days” hangs heavily over Source Code, which rejiggers the show's basic idea the ADD generation. Colter's mission involves averting disaster through time travel (though there's a nifty and poignant twist on the usual time-travel cliches), but he's got a very small window of opportunity, that's why it takes him several go rounds just to figure out what’s happening and how to reset the parameters of his part, which he likes less and less the better he comes to understand them. Big-brain types like Dr. Rutledge (Wright), the puppet master pulling Colter’s strings, never fail to ignore the human element when they're plotting their coldly brilliant schemes to mess with fate, even though the human element always wants to do something decent and noble and pure, damn it.

If you know your way around time-travel movies, you’ll figure out Source Code’s general direction around the halfway mark, at which point you’re just along for the ride. But it’s a pretty good ride -— slick, shiny, sweetly gratifying and clever enough that you don’t have to feel dumb for enjoying it.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form in Film Journal International.


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Southland Tales

(2007)
Written and Directed by: Richard Kelly.
With: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Curtis Armstrong, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert, Mandy Moore, Holmes Osborne, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Miranda Richardson, Jill Ritchie, Justin Timberlake, Zelda Rubinstein, Wood Harris, Will Sasso and Wallace Shawn.

Greeted with derision at the Cannes Film Festival and viciously reviled by most reviewers, writer-director Richard Kelly's follow-up to the haunting Donnie Darko (2001) is a wildly ambitious, occasionally stunning vision of the pop apocalypse by way of David Lynch, the book of Revelation, Philip K. Dick, T.S. Eliot and Robert Aldrich's blistering adaptation of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly.

July 5, 2005: The first of a series of co-ordinated nuclear strikes against mid-sized American cities, including Abilene, Texas, launches a shadow WWIII. The draft has been reinstated, Iraq-war veterans on offshore platforms patrol the California shoreline and cyberspace has been placed under government control via the USIDent corporation. Oil prices soar and the German-based Westphalen company — headed by new-age gargoyle Baron Von Westphalen (Shawn) — steps into the breach with a revolutionary source of hydro-electric energy called "fluid karma," which is also a powerful, mind-blowing drug.

Kidnapped under deeply mysterious circumstances, popular action-movie star Boxer Santeros (Johnson) — who's married to Madeline Frost (Moore), the daughter of powerful Republican vice-presidential candidate Senator Bobby Frost (Osborne) — subsequently re-emerges in the Los Angeles area (the titular "Southland") stripped of his memory. Now living with hardcore porn princess and socially-conscious, aspiring queen of all media Krysta Kapowski (Gellar) — aka Krysta Now! — he’s her co-author on a screenplay called "The Power," which seems to be predicting the ever-more dystopian future. Meanwhile, porn director/"international documentary filmmaker" Cyndi Pinziki (Dunn) is fomenting revolution, as are spoken word artists Dion and Dream (Harris, Poehler), left wing anarchist Zora Carmichaels (Oteri) and her lover, maniac cop Bart Bookman (Lovitz), arms dealer Walter Mung (Lambert), who plies his wares from an ice cream truck, and identical-twin wack jobs Roland and Ronald Taverner (Scott), one of whom is going to save the world.

Southland Tales is narrated by Iraqi-war veteran Private Abilene (Timberlake) — who gets a full-fledged musical number, to The Killer's "All These Things That I've Done" — and populated with the eccentric cast to end all eccentric casts: Rebekah Del Rio (of David Lynchs' Mulholland Dr.), Janeane Garofalo as General Teena MacArthur, John Larroquette as political advisor Vaughn Smallhouse, slinky Bai Ling (as Von Westphalen's dragon lady, Serpentine), Miranda Richardson as First-Lady wannabe Nana Mae Frost, Poltergeist’s diminutive Zelda Rubinstein, and Sab Shimono as a deeply compromised Japanese premier. And there's more… much, much more; though not as much as Cannes audiences saw. The US theatrical release version is a good 20 minutes shorter, and Abilene's annoying voice over was added to clarify the narrative. But enough of that. In the end, Kelly's apocalypto stylings add up to less than the sum of their parts, but along the way Southland Tales delivers equal parts overwrought tedium and mind-bending beauty, spiked with brilliant throwaway images that more than make up for Kelly's heavy-handed hot-button pretensions.


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The Spirit

(2008)
Directed by: Frank Miller.
Written by: Miller, based on the comic strips by Will Eisner.
With: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Louis Lombardi, Sarah Paulson, Paz Vega and Dan Lauria.

Miller's much-anticipated adaptation of legendary comics writer Will Eisner's The Spirit is a swell-looking dame of a movie, a noir-ish femme fatale whose mysterious beauty vanishes the minute she opens her mouth because Miller's screenplay is as nail-scrapingly tone-deaf as his imagery is seductive.

Once upon a time, Denny Colt (Macht) was a Central City beat cop, an idealistic young lawman felled in the line of duty. A sad story often told, except that Colt's had a twist ending: He crawled out of his grave and reinvented himself as the Spirit, a masked, pure-hearted vigilante devoted to making Central City safe for decent citizens. The Spirit has forged an alliance with gruff Police Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria) and found a flamboyant nemesis in the Octopus (Jackson), a rogue scientist attended by sexy sidekick Silken Floss (Johansson) and a small army of tubby, none-too-bright clones (Lombardi) with silly names. As luck would have it, both the Octopus and the Spirit's childhood girlfriend, Sand Seref (Mendes), are both looking for exotic ancient artifacts and wouldn't you know, each winds up in possession of what the other wants and all manner of contrived complications ensue. The Spirit, naturally, is caught right in the middle.

Though Miller is a well-known Eisner enthusiast, it's hard to imagine a worse choice to make The Spirit: His cynical, nihilistic sensibilities are the antithesis of Eisner's Depression-era humanism and deep empathy for the lost, downtrodden and forgotten. Worse, Miller tinkers with the Spirit's essential nature: He's a dead man walking, but that anomaly aside, he's a regular guy. No superpowers, no exceptional skills, no arsenal of high-tech crime-fighting gadgets, just a deep sense of justice and the willingness to take the punishment that would otherwise go to ordinary men, women and children just trying to get through the day.

Miller turns him into a superhero cliche by way of preternatural healing powers a la X-Men's Wolverine; the only way to kill him (again) is to cut him into tiny pieces and scatter them far enough apart that they can never stitch themselves back together, something the Octopus threatens in a lengthy, tastelessly imagined sequence in which he and Floss prance around in Nazi gear and sieg heil to the tune of Deutchland Uber Alles. The Octopus also kills a fwuffy wittle kitty named Muffin with an awful chemical of his own invention, a scene presumably intended to show what a dastardly supervillain he is but which comes dangerously close to equating six million murdered Jews with one wide-eyed kitten. And not to be super-geeky, but the scene in which he toys with a tiny mutated product of his lab — a tiny living head atop an oversized foot — is a shameless lift from the scene in 1990's Bride of Re-Animator (1990) in which mad scientist Herbert West is castigated for his "morbid doodling with human body parts."

Make no mistake: The Spirit is gorgeous, a symphony of silvery grey-tones punctuated by slashes of red. But looks can't compensate for Macht's tone-deaf voice-over ruminations (Harrison Ford's much-reviled voice-over in Blade Runner is pulp poetry by comparison), the shamelessly objectified female characters (Eva Mendes' ass gets so much screen time it deserves its own billing) and Jackson's insanely overplayed Octopus, whose excesses are scaled to an Austin Powers-style spoof.

Guaranteed to dismay those who love Eisner's original comic strips, The Spirit is also bound to disappoint fans of 300 and Sin City, beside which it seems arch, stilted and just plain dopey. It takes a certain genius to alienate two such completely different sets of potential viewers, but it's not the kind of genius that should be encouraged or bankrolled.


Stag

(1997)
Directed by: Gavin Wilding.
Written by: Pat Bermel and Evan Tylor, based on a story by Jason Schombing.
With: Mario Van Peebles, Andrew McCarthy, Kevin Dillon, Taylor Dayne, John Stockwell, John Henson, William McNamara, Jerry Stiller, Jenny McShane and Ben Gazzara.

A harrowing tale of a bachelor party gone very, very wrong, Stag debuted on HBO, slunk onto video with no fanfare and would have vanished without a trace had not actor-turned-director Peter Berg's Very Bad Things — a Hollywood production graced with a bigger budget, more generous advertising campaign and strikingly similar story — opened theatrically the following year.

Lawyer Michael (Mario Van Peebles) has planned a surprise bachelor for his soon-to-be-married partner Victor (Stockwell, complete with eight of Victor's closest friends — including Timan (Henson), Jon (McNamara), Vic's Uncle Frank (Gazzara), Danny (Dillon), a veteran with Gulf War Syndrome, and sleazy dealer Pete (McCarthy) — and a pair of strippers, sisters Serena and Kelly (singer Dayne, who scared a 1987 hit with "Tell it to My Heart," and McShane), who arrive with bodyguard Stoker (Prael).

The fun and games turn ugly when the increasingly inebriated guests do an Indian blanket toss with Kelly and drop her, breaking her neck. Stoker pulls a gun and shoots Danny; Pete returns fire. With Pete on parole and the others terrified that their reputations and careers are on the line, the panicked partygoers decide to hold Serena captive until they can decide whether they should try to buy her off or just kill her. Pete, meanwhile, has an ace in the hole: He's discovered that groom-to-be Victor is a closeted homosexual. As the night wears on, the friends inevitably begin to turn on each other.

One-time brat-pack cutie McCarthy's performance as the sleazy, repellent Pete is the film's highlight, but he's ably supported by Van Peebles, Dillon (later of TV's Entourage and veterans Stockwell, Stiller and Gazzara. Despite a flurry of media interest in the similarities between Stag and Very Bad Things, no legal action was ever taken.


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Stander

(2003)
Directed by: Bronwen Hughes.
Written by: Bima Stagg .
With: Thomas Jane, Deborah Kara Unger, Dexter Fletcher, David O'Hara, Ashley Taylor, Marius Weyers, At Botha and Lionel Newton..

Everyone loves a criminal with panache: Muggers and stick-up artists are just crooks, but a charismatic bank robber whose brazen exploits make the police look stupid and get bank managers' power neckties in a twist is something else. Andre Stander was that and more, a cop whose walk on the wild side started while he was still on the force.

1976, South Africa: Andre Stander (Jane) should be on top of the world: He's the youngest captain in the history of Johannesburg's Police Force and has just married the beautiful Bekkie (Unger, who, like Unger, mastered a persuasive Afrikaans accent).

But after some 25 years of brutal apartheid rule, Johannesburg is a city divided; its black African citizens are tired of being crowded into primitive, crime-ridden shantytowns while Afrikaaners like the Standers are comfortably ensconced in middle-class suburban luxury. Police officers are expected to suppress protests in the townships, but Stander has an unsettling revelation during a particularly ugly confrontation: He doesn't have the stomach to shoot unarmed demonstrators in the name of racial-segregation laws, but dodging riot duty is professional suicide. Stander's response to the pressure is , shall we say, unusual: He impulsively walks into a downtown bank and robs it.

So stunned by his success that he drops the ill-gotten cash into a newspaper boy's change basket, Stander is instantly hooked on the criminal high; he keeps his day job while embarking on on crime spree that only stops whe he's recognized by a friend on the force. Sentenced to a lengthy hitch in jail, Stander masterminds a daring escape with fellow inmate Patrick Lee McCall ( Fletcher); once free, they they join forces with like-minded outlaw Allan Heyl (O'Hara) and resume the business of bank robbery, reveling in the media coverage and thrilled by the increasing embarrassment their crime spree is causing Stander's old cohorts.

Though notorious in South Africa, Stander is little known elsewhere and Canadian director Hughes' unsatisfying account of his life and crimes is unlikely to earn him a spot on the international outlaw A-list. Her off-kilter undertaking features vivid recreations of Johannesburg in the late 1970s and early '80s, as well as lots of Jane in the buff: Stander loved disguises but apparently loved the full monty even more.

The troble with Hughe' movie is that Stander remains an enigma (sidekicks McCall and Heyl barely register at all); you come away wanting to read a really good true-crime account of the Stander gang's exploits.


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Star Trek

(2009)
Directed by: J.J. Abrams.
Written by: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, based on the television series created by Gene Roddenberry.
With: Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Karl Urban, Eric Bana, Zoe Saldana, Leonard Nimoy, Bruce Greenwood, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Winona Ryder, Ben Cross, Chris Hemsworth, Faran Tahirand, Deep Roy.

Is the new Star Trek movie perfect? Absolutely not. There's a little too much broad comedy, certain performances rubbed me the wrong way, I could have done without Scottie's alien pet and I'm sorry, McCoy is nicknamed "Bones" because he's an old-fashioned country doctor — a "sawbones" — not because his ex-wife took everything but his skeleton in an acrimonious divorce.

But here's my bottom line: I went in a fan of the original Trek series who, as far as the feature-film series was concerned, only really enjoyed Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and bailed after Star Trek IV (a.k.a. "the save the whales one"), afraid I'd be completely indifferent to the travails of a bunch of fresh-faced striplings playing at being younger versions of the characters with whom I grew up. And I came out feeling oddly elated, grateful for the things that worked and secure in the belief that the rough spots will work themselves out in the all-but inevitable sequels. From where I'm standing, that's a solid win.

The Federation starship USS Kelvin, abruptly thrust into a life-or-death confrontation with a Romulan warship under the command of mad Captain Ahab… sorry, Nero (Bana), is destroyed, but not before Captain Robau (Tahir) hands the bridge to junior officer George Kirk (Hemsworth), who surrenders his own life to save more than 800 crew members — including his wife, who bears their son, James Tiberius Kirk, as her husband dies for the greater good.

Twenty-two years later, Captain Christopher Pike (Greenwood) shames the angry, hard-drinking Jim Kirk (Pine) into attending Starfleet Academy, and three years after that, young Kirk is called on the carpet for gaming the unbeatable lose-lose Kobayashi Maru scenario. But even as he's being read the riot act, his entire class is suddenly called to active duty: Something is very wrong on the Planet Vulcan, and Starfleet's big guns are otherwise engaged. Let's pass lightly over the plot, which is simultaneously ridiculously complicated and conspicuously slapdash. The gist is this: Young Kirk, Spock (Quinto), McCoy (Urban), Uhura (Saldana), Sulu (Cho), Chekhov (Yelchin) and Scottie (Pegg) make their various ways to the newly launched Enterprise, launched under the command of Captain Pike, and come out the other side of their various trials by fire well on their way to becoming the endearingly eccentric, eternally optimistic ensemble of creator Gene Roddenberry's "Wagon Train to the stars."

Screenwriters Kurtzman and Orci (Fringe) negotiate the fine line between remaining faithful to the Trek canon and charting their own path with remarkably alacrity; they tinker with details while remaining true to the series' fundamental dynamics: Logic vs. gut feelings, pragmatism vs. hope, friendship vs. duty and the greater good. They know the minutia — Sulu's love of fencing, the Ensign Expendable factor — but are willing to tinker with the details when it suits them, and that's just fine. Sure, time travel is a cheap 'n' easy way to meld conflicting story lines, but if it enables the coexistence of two Spocks — Quinto and Nimoy, frail but animated by a puckish sparkle conspicuously absent from the later classic Trek films — then bring it on. Abrams' brisk direction glosses over a multitude of "huhs?" and speeds the, um, enterprise to its rousing close, which features the classic Alexander Courage theme and Nimoy's variation on William Shatner's "Space, the final frontier…" voice-over.


Stardust

(2007)
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn.
Written by: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman.
With: Ian McKellen (Narrator), Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Mark Strong, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sienna Miller, Nathaniel Parker, Ben Barnes, Ricky Gervais, Peter O'Toole, Sarah Alexander, Robert De Niro, Joanna Scanlan, Melanie Hill, Kate Magowan, Jason Flemyng and Rupert Everett.

Based on cult comic-book writer Neil Gaiman's 1999 novel and directed by Matthew Vaughn, who showcased Daniel Craig in the tricky U.K. gangster film Layer CakeAYER CAKE (2005), this revisionist fairy tale never finds its tone.

Victorian lad Tristan Thorne (Cox) lives with his father (Parker) in the small English town of Wall, so named because of the ancient wall that surrounds it... not to keep beasts — human or animal — out, but to keep the good people of Wall in. What appears to be a serene meadow beyond the wall is in reality no such thing: It's the portal to Stormhold, an enchanted world of witches, pirates, unicorns and princesses, one of whom was Tristan's mother. But he doesn't know that: He only knows that he's besotted by flighty local beauty Victoria (Miller) and will do anything to impress her. So he promises to retrieve a falling star for her, a promise that takes him to the heart of Stormhold and the orbit of Yvaine (Danes).

The fallen star, it turns out, isn't a lump of celestial rock but a lovely, bracingly bad-tempered young woman who's conspicuously unenthusiastic about being hauled to Wall as a gift for some mortal flibbertigibbet. But there are sinister forces looking for Yvaine. Prince Septimus (Strong) has systematically murdered his six older brothers (Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett, Mark Heap, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Adam Buxton and David Williams, all of whom hang around as gray-faced ghosts) in his quest to become Stormhold's king. But he still has to retrieve the magical pendant his father (O'Toole) flung from his deathbed into the heavens. That pendant knocked Yvaine from the sky and now hangs around her neck. Witches Lamia (Pfeiffer) and her sisters (Alexander, Scanlan) merely want Yvaine's heart — literally: Eating the heart of a fallen star confers beauty, power and immortality.

Gaiman's Stardust is a sly bildungsroman whose discursive mix of romance, adventure and self-discovery is filtered through the prism of fairy-tale conventions, tweaked with quirky, deeply affectionate care. The film is a conflicted thing, simplified to accommodate rigid Hollywood notions of good storytelling while trying desperately to emulate the high-spirited self-awareness of The Princess Bride (1987).

The film stumbles most painfully when it tries to be funny: De Niro's star turn as the notorious pirate Captain Shakespeare, a mincing, closeted cross-dresser who thinks — mistakenly — that he looks pretty in pink, is cringe-inducing. Thank goodness for Pfeiffer's Lamia, a harridan who's lived long enough to get the face she deserves and will do anything to hide it. She's a wicked delight


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Step Up

2006
Directed by: Anne Fletcher.
Written by: Duane Adler and Melissa Rosenberg, based on a story by Adler.
With: Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan, Rachel Griffiths, Damaine Radcliff, De'Shawn Washington, Miles Darby, Drew Sidora, Deirdre Lovejoy, Heavy D, Josh Henderson, Tim Lacatena and Alyson Stoner.

Formula rules in this contemporary Romeo and Juliet romance propelled by high energy dancing.

Shuffled between foster homes since he was a youngster, the two constants in Tyler Gage’s (Tatum) life are Baltimore’s tough inner-city neighborhoods and his passion for street dance. He’s not a bad kid, but stealing cars and hustling are facts of life for Tyler and his pals Mac (Radcliff) and Skinny (Washington), so it’s no stretch to let off some steam by breaking into the Maryland School of the Arts and trashing the rich kids’ stuff.

Unfortunately, they get caught — or more to the point, Tyler gets caught and keeps his mouth shut. He’s sentenced to 200 hours of community service at MSA, and while mocking the stylized movement vocabulary of ballet and modern dance and feigning indifference to school director Ms. Gordon’s (Griffiths) admonition that far from being privileged rich kids, many of her students receive financial aid and one of them is going to lose out because of the costly damage he’s done, Tyler can’t help but notice that some of those snooty twinkletoes types are as passionate about dance as he is.

At the same time, fourth-year student Nora (Dewan) has taken notice of Tyler, and turns to him when her regular partner is injured during a rehearsal for the school’s end-of-year showcase. Nora’s family may have money, but her mom (Lovejoy) has made it clear that if Nora doesn’t get a professional gig after the performance, she’s going to have to hang up her dancing shoes and enroll in a four-year academic program. Nora’s boyfriend (Henderson) disapproves of her consorting with thugs, Tyler’s friends think he’s acting uppity and it takes a while for their styles to mesh. But when everything comes together, Tyler and Nora inspire each other to

Dancer and choreographer Anne Fletcher made her directing debut with Step Up, and her background is evident in the movie’s thrilling set pieces. They don’t quite compensate for the fact that Dewan and Tatum are inexperienced actors suffocated by hopelessly clichéd dialogue, but their body language is smoking. Step Up’s sequels, Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) and Step Up 3D (2010), benefit from increasing the ratio of dance sequences to dramatic interludes.


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Step Up 2: The Streets

Step Up 2: The Streets 2008
Directed by: Jon M. Chu.
Written by: Toni Ann Johnson and Karen Barna, based on characters created by Duane Adler.
With: Briana Evigan, Robert Hoffman, Adam G. Sevani, Cassie Ventura, Danielle Polanco, Christopher Scott, Mari Koda, Will Kemp, Sonja SohnBoogie and Channing Tatum.

High-spirited street dancers take on the snooty, uptight guardians of high culture in this follow-up to the popular dance romance Step Up (2006). It’s less a sequel than a variation on a theme, this pits.

Raised in a rough, largely African-American and Latin neighborhood in Baltimore, Andie West (Evigan) lost her mother as a child. Though her mom’s best friend, Sarah (sohn), has raised Andie like her own daughter, Andie feels like a perpetual outsider; she only finds a real sense of family in the 410 crew, with whom she can channel her anger and grief into stepping.

Dance takes priority over everything, and soon Andie is cutting class, clubbing all night, participating in fierce step competitions and performing elaborate street pranks that draw the dismayed attention of local media. She’s is forced to clean up her act when her caring but fed-up guardian threatens to send her to live with an aunt in Texas. On the advice of neighborhood success story Tyler Gage (Tatum, star of Step Up), who parlayed stepping into a real career, Andie reluctantly auditions for the Maryland School of the Arts. To her amazement, she's accepted, mostly because star-student Chase Collins (Hoffman), who's caught her moves at a local hotspot, intervenes on her behalf.

Chase wants to bring some street-bred fire into MSA's studios, but he's locked in a power struggle with his brother, Blake (British ballet dancer Kemp), the school's new director. Hired to spearhead a major fundraising effort, Blake is determined to mold his students into paragons of the classical tradition: Ghetto stylings scare the deep-pocket crowd. Meanwhile, Andie's old friends shun her for hanging out with rich kids and forgetting where she comes from. Chase persuades her to start her own crew, drawing from his carefully compiled list of School of the Arts rebels, oddballs and outcasts, including the irresistible Moose (Sevani), a quiet nerd bursting with terpsichorean talent. They have heart and passion, but can Andie’s guidance help them find the grit they need to challenge street-tempered crews like the 410?

"This ain't High School Musical," bellows truculent DJ Sand (Boogie), who’d be right at home emceeing in Mad Max’s post-apocalyptic Thunderdome, when the MSA crew first tries to take the floor. But frankly, that's exactly what it is — High School Musical with a dash of street smarts and urban discontent. That said, the stepping is terrific — polished but not slick, energetic without being frenetic — and the climactic sequence, a knowing nod to Bollywood’s infamous "wet sari" numbers, is a knock out.

But the united colors of we-can-overcome cuties, predictable class conflicts and sanitized keeping-it-real bluster bring the story's intensely formulaic nature into high relief. And not to nitpick, but you have to question the dance savvy of a film in which provocateur Matthew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake (Kemp danced the seductive Swan from 1997-2000) is invoked as the epitome of all that's conservative at the ballet.


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Step Up 3D

2010
Directed by: Jon M. Chu.
Written by: Amy Andelson & Emily Meyer, based on characters created by Duane Adler.
With: Rick Malambri, Sharni Vinson, Adam G. Sevani, Joe Slaughter, Alyson Stoner, Keith Stallworth, Kendra Andrews, Stephen “tWitch” Boss, Martin Lombard, Facundo Lombard and Oren “Flearock” Michaeli..

The second sequel to surprise 2006 hit Step Up is an uneven mix of innovative dance and cliched drama, all rendered in glorious 3D.

This time, the featured hoofers are Moose (Sevani) and Camille (Stoner), who are both about to begin their freshman years at NYU. When we last saw Moose (in Step Up 2: The Streets), he was a lanky caterpiller discovering his inner butterfly through dancing. Step Up’s Camille (Alyson Stoner) was the bratty younger sister of hunky Tyler Gage, a Baltimore throwaway kid who escaped the thug life through the redemptive power of, yes, dance (Channing Tatum, who played Tyler in both earlier movies, apparently declined to return for a third go-round). Good-boy Moose has decided to make his loving parents happy by abandoning this dancing nonsense in favor of electrical engineering. It’s not entirely clear what Camille is studying, but it’s not dance and really, she’s only there so Moose can repeatedly stand her up after the charismatic (Luke) draws him back into the world of competitive stepping.

Luke presides over the House of Pirates, a crew of formerly homeless street dancers who live together in the industrial-chic Brooklyn warehouse Luke inherited from his parents, back up dancers who realized their dream of creating a place where any dancer — famous or not — could shine like a star. Luke, himself an accoplished dancer, dreams of being a filmmaker but sublimates his own ambitions to his parents’ legacy. He’s preparing his crew for the upcoming World Jam street-dance competition, in part because the $100,000 prize could keep his building out of foreclosure. That’s why he’s aggressively recruiting fresh talent like the loose-limbed Moose and sexy-waif Natalie (Vinson), whose lethal blend of hip-hop sass and classical training is so mesmerizing that Luke never bothers to ask much about her past.

But trust fund creep Julien (Slaughter), an embittered former member of the Pirates, will stop at nothing to make sure his new crew, the House of Samurai, wins.

Step Up 3D is about plucky poor kids saving their home from the sleazy machinations of evil rich guys. It’s also about following your dreams, trusting your heart and standing up for your family — your real family, who aren’t necessarily your your kin. So if you’re looking for original plot twists, convincingly complex characters and sharp dialogue look elsewhere. But the dancing is dynamite, and director Jon Chu (returning from Step Up 2) knows to pull out all the stops when the crews hit the floor. Like most contemporary filmmakers, he relies too much on fast cuts to keep the energy level up.

And that’s why the Moose-Camille pas de deux set to Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1934 standard “I Won’t Dance” stands out so vividly. It sets the best friends loose on a picture-perfect New York side street, where they improvise around taxis, brownstone steps and various props — hats, scooters, trashcan lids — as they dance the story of their written-in-the stars romance, the one neither can quite admit. Shot in a series of extended long shots, it’s a terrific mix of the traditional (the sailors’ first street number from On the Town is an obvious inspiration) and the contemporary. Camille and Moose may be creating their own little world through dance, but the can’t keep out the real world of pissed-off pedestrians who want their stuff back, home owners who shoo those damned capering teens off their sidewalk and snotty kids just waiting to scream “You suck!”


Surfwise

(2008) Written and Directed by: Doug Pray.
Documentary

Chalk up another family for the Leo Tolstoy/Philip Larkin file: The Paskowitz family is unhappy in its own unique way and mum and dad fucked them up — they didn't mean to, but they did.

Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz was born on March 3, 1921 in Galveston, Texas, but found his calling – surfing -- in San Diego, where his family moved when he was a teenager. Paskowitz attended Stanford University, became a medical doctor and appeared headed for a successful career in public health administration and perhaps even politics.

But Paskowitz hated the mainstream rat race and loved riding waves, eventually reshaping his life to accommodate a world view rooted in such then-radical concepts as mindful eating, sustainable living and mind-body harmony. After two failed marriages, Paskowitz discovered holistic, guilt-free sex to his world view, and found his soul mate in his third and final wife, Juliette: They eventually raised nine children — eight sons and a daughter— in a succession of 24-foot campers, moving from beach to beach in search of the perfect wave and ruled by their father's dogmatic ideas about clean living, sexual openness and the evils of money. Doc Paskowitz admired the natural grace and holistic integrity of animals and tried to raise his children accordingly; but as Salvador, the next-to-youngest son, observes, being raised like apes is fine until you have to deal with people who weren't: When they boys left home, he says, they found that women "didn't want to be married to animals."

Documentarian Doug Pray's clear-eyed and even-handed portrait of the Paskowitz clan is provocative in the best sense of the word: It both recognizes the ideological prescience of Doc Paskowitz's off-the-grid life and acknowledges the inevitable fallout. He gives Paskowitz enough screen time to hang himself; his ideas about freedom and family are as narcissistic and self-serving as they are free-spirited, and his assertion that his family is a thoroughly conventional one is either disingenuous or self-deluded. Pray parses the difference between what outsiders saw – a handsome, healthy family living an enviable, gypsy-like existence, dedicated to surfing as a pure expression of harmony with nature – and the more complicated upbringing the now-adult Paskowitz children remember through their reminiscences, which never degenerate into whining. They all know their childhoods made them the creative, fiercely individualistic people they are (eldest son David suggests that they grew up like "nine only children"), but also left them woefully unprepared to live in mainstream society. And yet one still concludes that "a flawed family that sticks together is better than no family at all," and after ten years of estrangement, all accept Doc's invitation to attend a family reunion in Hawaii: Few documentaries parse the complexities of family dynamics so effectively.


Taken

(2008)
Directed by: Pierre Morel.
Written by: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen.
With: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Olivier Rabourdin, Leland Orser, Xander Berkeley, Katie Cassidy, Gerard Watkins and Holly Valance.

A bizarre mix of sentimentality and bone-cracking violence, this Hardcore/Not Without My Daughter hybrid pits a determined father against the thuggish Albanian sex traffickers who kidnapped daddy's little girl as she vacationed in Paris.

Bryan Mills (Neeson) always put work ahead of family, which wasn't entirely his fault: When you're a covert government agent whose professional life is a never-ending tour of the world's hellholes, it can be tough to make those ballet recitals and father-daughter dances. But Kim (Grace, of TV's Lost) is nearly 17, and Mills realizes that without swift and appropriate action, he's going to lose his little girl for good. So he retires, moves to California to be near the palatial estate where Kim lives with her mother (Janssen) and super-rich, thoroughly devoted stepfather (Berkeley), and tries to repair the damage. It's not the kind of mission he's prepared for. Rescuing Kim when she's kidnapped on the first day of her European vacation with adventurous pal Amanda (Cassidy)… well, that's another story.

With a handful of clues, a little help from his friends and the "very particular set of skills" he amassed over the course of years spent doing bad things for good reasons. Mills sets out to rescue his little girl before she's transformed from a sheltered virgin with a bright future into a hopeless, drug-addicted, underage whore. Knowing that he has about 96 hours before she vanishes forever into the shadows of the international sex trade, Mills hurtles from sordid brothels to no-tell hotels to the haunts of the very rich and depraved, taking no prisoners but and a formidable arsenal along the way.

Taken doesn't hit the ground running, but it makes up for lost time once Mills' family problems and hard-boiled bona fides are established. Luc Besson protege Pierre Morel, who made his directing debut with the underrated District B13 — another hopped up tale of family ties and grueling feats of serring do — knows how to direct action and appears to appreciate the fact that he's got an actor of Neeson's caliber ho also looks as though he could deliver a serious beating. As well he should, because Neeson stands between Taken and direct-to-dvd idiocy: He's a convincing tough guy who isn't afraid to tear up at the thought of his daughter being manhandled by the scum of the earth. The screenplay, by Besson and frequent collaborator Robert Mark Kamen, quickly goes from over-heated to thoroughly preposterous, but Neeson's quiet gravity makes it feel almost believable until the sappier-than-sappy conclusion, which involves Kim's dearest wish and the unlikely gratitude of a pre-fab pop tart (Valance) whom Mills rescued from a backstage assassination attempt while working a freelance security gig. Imagine Britney Spears in the closing scene and you won't be able to stop laughing.


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Takers

2010
Directed by: John Luessenhop.
Written by: Peter Allen & Gabriel Casseus and John Luessenhop & Avery Duff.
With: Idris Elba, Michael Ealy, Chris Brown, Paul Walker, Hayden Christensen, Matt Dillon, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Jay Hernandez, Zoe Saldana and Johnathon Schaech.

Imagine the Cliff’s Notes version of Michael Mann’s melancholy Heat (1995) and you have something like Takers, a glossy, handsome, heist movie that never gets past the beguiling surface to the damaged souls beneath.

Expat Gordon Jennings (Elba) is the brains behind a suave, five-man pack of L.A.-based bank robbers who’ve made themselves rich enough to indulge their every yen for sharp suits and fast cars while staying out of jail by meticulously planning every job down to the smallest detail. A.J (Christianson) is the tech guy; John Rahway (Walker) is the driver and occasional sniper; Jesse Attica (Brown) is the one with heart and his brother Jake (Ealy), who’s head-over-heels in love with gorgeous club-owner Lilli (Saldana), is the financial whiz who invests their loot. They’ve just pulled off a spectacular robbery and are preparing to lay low for a year — no point attracting undue attention — when their old associate Delonte “Ghost” Rivers (Atlanta-based rapper T.I.) strolls in with a honey of a plan.

Four years ago, Ghost took a bullet mid-job and went to jail, where he steadfastly refused to rat out his friends. Ghost figures he’s owed a little payback, and a $20 million armored-car score would float all boats so really, what’s the downside? The fact that Lilli used to be the lean and hungry-looking Ghost’s girl should probably give the crew pause, and the timetable — the heist has to take place in five days or not at all — does; they’re not about quick and dirty jobs. And then there’s the distraction of Gordon’s beloved sister Naomi (Baptiste, Oscar-nominated for Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies), who’s about to come out of her umpteenth stint in rehab and has a history of rapid relapses. But sentiment prevails over suspicion and in the end they’re all in.

Meanwhile, LAPD detective Jack Welles (Dillon), who’s let his obsession with taking down these cocky, elusive pricks destroy both his marriage and his professional reputation, gets wind that there’s something in the air. With his partner, Eddie Hatcher (Hernandez), Welles mounts a go-for-broke effort to take down Gordon’s crew.

Actor-turned-screenwriter Gabriel Casseus and director John Luessenhop have come a long way since the 2000 Lockdown, one of a dozen low-budget films bankrolled by New Orleans-born hip-hop entrepreneur Master P: Derivative though it is, Takers is art-directed within an inch of its life and polished to a high commercial shine. That doesn’t make it a good movie, but it makes it a thoroughly watchable one, especially if high-end suits, deluxe real estate and premium liquor vibrate your vindaloo. And since Michael Mann appears to have ceded the task of making Michael Mann movies to imitators, Takers is what your going to have to make do with, unless you opt to stay home and revel in Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986) or, yes, Heat.


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Terminator Salvation

(2009)
Directed by: Joseph McGinty, billed as McG.
Written by: John Brancato & Michael Ferris.
With: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Bryce Dallas Howard, Moon Bloodgood, Jane Alexander, Anton Yelchin, Common, Ivan Gvera, Jadagrace Berry and Helena Bonham Carter.

It's a pity director McG appears to have been operating under the impression that the Terminator franchise is about metal. Sure, the scary machines are the hook. But The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day hold up to repeat viewings because they're about people trying to prevail over an inhumanly efficient and remorseless enemy without sacrificing their own humanity in the process. Relegating that struggle to the background reduces Terminator Salvation to a grim, gloomy and shockingly dull variation on Tranformers, all cool mechanical tricks and no heart.

2018: Judgment Day — when global-defense system Skynet achieved consciousness and unleashed hell on its hubristic creators — has come and gone. The world belongs to machines, and Skynet's implacable minions are systematically exterminating the scattered remnants of humanity.

Prepared from childhood to become the charismatic leader who spearheads the war against the machines, John Connor (Bale) is suspended between destiny and doubt. He's risen through the ranks of the resistance but still takes orders from old-school generals Ashdown (Ironside) and Losenko (Gvera); his samizdat radio broadcasts kindle hope in the hopeless, but he's not yet ready to assume the mantle of messiah. Connor's hand is forced by road warrior Marcus Wright (Australian actor Worthington), the battered stranger who rescues seasoned resistance fighter Blair Williams (Bloodgood, of TV's Journeyman) from the scum of the future Earth and brings her safely home to Connor's base camp.

The discovery that Marcus isn't the man he thought he was — in fact, he's not a man at all — efficiently (if inelegantly) dredges up all the philosophical questions that drive speculative stories about artificial intelligence, and throws Connor into the inevitable crisis of faith that just as inevitably makes him into the man he's supposed to be. All of which should be riveting drama and isn't, in large part because the characters voices are drowned out by the noise of chase sequences, firefights and rock 'em sock 'em robotics.

The trouble with Terminator Salvation comes down to this: If you don't get a major pang when you realize that the earnest, gawky teenager (Yeltsin) Marcus befriends in the rubble of Los Angeles is Kyle Reese — the Kyle Reese who will become John Connor's trusted right hand, fall hopelessly in love with a snapshot of Connor's late mother, Sarah, and volunteer for a suicide mission through time to save her from the T-800 terminator sent to make sure Connor is never born and become Connor's father in the process — then there's a yawning void where its emotional center should be.

Back in 1984, The Terminator was an unexpected thrill, a little science-fiction movie that blew past every obstacle — low budget, inexperienced director, B-movie cast — to achieve a kind of genre-movie perfection. It's an action movie with killer robots wrapped around a doomed romance and juiced with just enough pulp grandiosity to make the big questions go down like butter. Which is why superficially similar films like Def-Con 4 (1985) vanished without leaving so much as a ripple and Terminator lives on.

But Terminator Salvation left me dead cold: I didn't care about Williams or Connor's pregnant wife (Howard) or Reese and his feral child (Berry) or the earth-mother head (Alexander) of the scavenger commune or even Marcus, because they're all conceits rather than characters. I'm not convinced that hiring the Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) screenwriting team was a great idea, because T3's core weakness is that with the exception of John Connor, who came with a well-established back story, it's peopled with shooting-gallery ducks who barely have names, let alone distinguishing traits. And while the Terminator mythos is deeply indebted to early movies ranging from Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey to the underappreciated Colossus: The Forbin Project, here the echoes are so strong they're overwhelming. When Connor agonizes over the implications of man-machine hybrids that believe they're human, all I could hear was Harrison Ford's Deckard snarling, "How can it not know what it is?"


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Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

(2003)
Directed by: Jonathan Mostow.
Written by: John Brancato & Michael Ferris.
With: Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kristanna Loken, David Andrews and Mark Famiglietti.

Stripped down and intelligently conceived, the second sequel to 1984's The Terminator was a respectable, if less than thrilling, conclusion to what appeared a trilogy until the 2009 emergence of Terminator: Salvation.

The story picks up some ten years after the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), when the apocalyptic future in which survivors of a nuclear war launched by sentient machines battle ever-more sophisticated killer robots was apparently averted. The only person alive who knows what might have been is John Connor, now a gloomy young man (Stahl, taking over from T2's Edward Furlong) haunted by nightmares of nuclear war and murderous machines and thoroughly traumatized by his late mother's lifelong exhortations that he's destined to lead the anti-machine resistance. Connor has dropped of the grid and cut off ties to everyone and everything that might allow mechanical assassins to pinpoint his whereabouts and return through time to eliminate him. And the worst part is that his fears are far from unfounded.

Enter the naked robo-killers, who arrive simultaneously in the Los Angeles area. The first, a liquid-metal T-X terminator (Loken), brutally commandeers a Lexus convertible and skin-tight, red-leather catsuit from the stylish good Samaritan who doesn't live long enough to regret thinking the nude woman striding her way is the victim of a sex crime rather a murderous cyborg. Since Connor has successfully removed himself from the future machines' radar, they've sent the T-X to kill his less-cautious lieutenants-to-be, a task she sets about completing with alarming efficiency. The second terminator is a battered T-101 (the suitably weathered Schwarzenegger) sent to protect John, and in one of the film's slyer gags, he acquires his iconic macho-man leathers from a male stripper.

Meanwhile, archetypal girl-next-door Kate Brewster (Danes) and her thoroughly bland, clearly expendable fiance (Famiglietti) are setting up their wedding registry. "I hate machines!" she giggles prophetically as a hand-held scanner misbehaves. Necessary plot contrivances bring Kate and John together at a closed veterinary clinic where, amidst escalating terminator mayhem, they discover that they were junior-high classmates. Coincidence? There's no such thing in a series driven by issues of destiny and the immutable weight of future responsibility, especially in light of the fact that Kate's adored and adoring father (Andrews) runs the military research project that developed Skynet, the sentient computer network poised to start its hellish war on mankind.

Director Jonathan Mostow and screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who went on to write Terminator Salvation, pack the film with muscular action sequences, but the human factor is lacking. Stahl is a fine actor, and the fact that his performance lacks the roguish charm of Furlong's is inevitable; Stahl's Connor is being crushed by the dead weight of responsibilities he may never have to assume but can never forget. But more than that, Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor is sorely missed: Her transformation from hash-house waitress to half-mad "mother of the future" was every bit as viscerally compelling as the first two films' vehicular mayhem, exploding fireballs and pitched gunfights. Game though they are, Stahl and Danes together can't begin to fill her combat boots.


 

(2009)
Directed by: Park Chan-wook.
Written by: Park Chan-wook and Jeong Seo-gyeong..
With: Song Kang-Ho, Kim Ok-vin, Kim Hae-suk, Shin Ha-gyun, Park In-hwan, Oh Dal-su, Song Yeong-chang and Mercedes Cabral.

A gentle priest is inadvertently transformed into a vampire in writer-director Park Chan-wook gore-soaked love story, Thirst. Park's melodramatic "revenge trilogy" -- Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance -- set a high bar for perversity and squirm-inducing violence that Thirst, loosely inspired by Emile Zola's Therese Raquin, easily matches by diving headlong into the taboo-testing tale of a dedicated priest whose bloodlust awakens other earthly hungers unbecoming to a man of the spirit.

For the full review, please click here.


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Thor

2011
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh.
Written by: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, from on a story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich, based on characters created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby.
With: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Anthony Hopkins, Colm Feore, Rene Russo, Joshua Dallas, Ray Stevenson, Jamie Alexander, Idris Elba, Tadanobu Asano, Kat Dennings and Clark Gregg.

Is Thor a terrible movie? No. It’s fine for what it is, which may be the definition of damnation by faint praise. It’s perfectly decently acted, moves along at a respectable clip and looks pretty amazing, even if Asgard does look strikingly like a gilded version of The Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City. The trouble is that if you don’t come in favorably disposed towards the comics take on the Norse God of Thunder-as-earthbound-hero, you’re unlikely to leave with a whole new appreciation of one of Marvel’s least-likely super heroes.

The movie begins in media res: No opening credits or carefully curated montage of signifying objects, just a plucky little band of scientists — whom we later learn are astrophysicist Jane Foster (Portman), her less-than-qualified intern Darcy (Dennings) and elder statesman Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) — chasing wild weather in the middle of the New Mexico desert, in the process of which they run down a hunky blond guy who appears to have just dropped from the sky. Credit where it’s due: As openings go, that’s a grabber.

Now comes the back story. The studly blond, who recovers from his close encounter with the stormchasers’ van in record time, is Norse god Thor (Hemsworth), the elder and subtly favored son of allfather Odin (Hopkins), who once saved the human race by leading Asgard’s warriors into an epic battle against the Frost Giants of Jotenheim, who would have turned Earth (which they call Midgard) into a frozen wasteland. As Odin’s firstborn, Thor stands to inherit his father’s throne, which Thor’s dark and sneaky-looking younger brother, Loki (UK up-and-comer Hiddleston), resents mightily. But for all his courage, strength and general godliness, Thor is also impetuous, arrogant and disobedient, and after he defies his father’s wishes to pick an ill-timed fight with Laufey (Fiore), King of the Frost Giants, Odin strips his son of his powers and hurls him to lowly Midgard to learn a little patience and humility.

While Thor adapts to mortal ways and grows fond of the brainy Jane, Loki makes the psychologically shattering discovery that he’s adopted and, worse, was the abandoned spawn of a Frost Giant. As the angry, wounded Loki raises hell in the heavens, Thor’s loyal friends Fandral (Dallas), Volstagg (Stevenson), Lady Sif (Alexander) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) undertake their own trip to Midgard to retrieve Odin’s rightful heir.

Credit where it’s due: Thor’s five credited writers put together a coherent origin story true to the spirit, if not always the details, of the comic books without being too insiderish for moviegoers who don’t know Marvel’s Thor from the Green Goblin. What the movie lacks is emotional heft, which is what elevates movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight (both 2008) above run-of-the-mill comic book movies. The raw material is there, from the family infighting that first attracted Lee to the pagan gods of pre-Christian Scandanavia to the big themes: The struggle to reconcile romantic love with family duty, to value moral righteousness over brute strength and strive for the compassion rather than wallow in the instant gratification of revenge. But none of it feels as though it matters half as much as the Spider-Man moment when Peter Parker first truly understands that accepting the great responsibilities that go with great power takes a lot of the fun out of being a superhero.

Skarsgard and Hiddleston (who costarred with Branagh in the BBC Wallender thrillers) deliver genuinely fine performances, but Portman is bland, Hopkins goes to his fallback mode (full-on scenery chewing), Feore is buried under Frost Giant make-up and Australian actor Hemsworth simply isn’t up to making Thor’s journey from brattiness to plays-well-with-others maturity compelling. Thor isn’t so much dull as forgettable, the big-budget movie equivalent of the kind of slick thriller you buy at the airport and don’t realize you’ve already read until you’re two chapters from the end: It passes the time but vanishes without a trace.


300

(2007)
Directed by:Zack Snyder.
Written by: Michael Gordon, Kurt Johnstad and Snyder, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.
With: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Tom Wisdom, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan and Rodrigo Santoro.

Do not — repeat do not — make the mistake of cribbing for ancient-history class by skipping Herodotus in favor of this larger-than-legend version of the Battle of Thermopylae, which pitted a coalition of Greek forces led by a mere 300 Spartan warriors against a Persian army so vast the earth shook when it marched. Zach Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's ultraviolent graphic novel is pure brawny spectacle, teaming with beasts, blood, brains (splattered), battle axes and rock-ribbed warriors dressed in swirling scarlet capes and tiny, fetishistic, leather man-panties.

480 BC: Warned by an emissary from the Persian god-king Xerxes (Santoro, a sexually ambiguous vision in gold, and not much else) that his master is determined to enslave the entire known world, Spartan King Leonidas (Butler) gathers an elite cadre of warriors to defend the free citizens of Greece. The men set out for Thermopylae, a narrow pass near the coast where the martial expertise of the Spartans (supplemented by thousands of raw but enthusiastic volunteers from other Greek city states) may stand a chance against the sheer numbers under Xerxes' command.

And were it not for the hunchbacked traitor Ephialtes (Tiernan), they might have won. Much of the film's visceral (in both senses of the word) impact comes from seeing the Spartans and their allies repelling wave after wave of everything Xerxes can throw at them: Thousands of archers, armored elephants and rhinoceroses, Xerxes' 10,000 "Immortals" (whom Miller conceives as ninjas in silver kabuki masks) and much, much more, run aground on the sheer, sinewy strength of men raised from birth to fight to their last breath.

Meanwhile, in Sparta, Queen Gorgo (Headey, of TV's The Sarah Connor Chronicles) defends the home front against an opportunistic alliance of scrofulous mystic priests with rotted visages (the resemblance to STAR WARS' Emperor Palpatine is uncanny), and a group of rule-bound councilmen and weasels vulnerable to the machinations of the duplicitous, ambitious Theron (West, of TV's The Wire). Inspired by seeing the stodgy Hollywood epic The 300 Spartans (1962) as a child, Miller reimagined the Battle of Thermopylae in operatically mythic terms well served by full-out CGI: The actors and handheld props are real, but everything else is computer generated, free from the constraints of sets, locations (Thermopylae is now the site of a highway), weather and physical reality. The result is an alternate reality of metallic skies, desaturated landscapes and literally bestial foes, peopled with flesh-and-blood men so pumped and stripped of body fat that they look as heroically unreal as the digital demons. It may not be by-the-book history — a relative term in any event, when discussing the ancients whose worldview embraced men, gods and monsters — but what a spectacle!


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Tokyo Godfathers

2003
Directed by: Satoshi Kon and Shogo Furuya.
Written by: Satoshi Kon and Keiko Nobumoto, based on a story by Satoshi Kon.
With the voices of: Yoshiaki Umegaki, Toru Emuri, Aya Okamoto.

An abandoned infant profoundly changes the lives of three Tokyo street people, who've formed a makeshift family to combat their loneliness.

The godfathers-to-be are a cross-section of the urban homeless, adrift on the fringes of a prosperous society that cares little for their miseries: The deaths of his wife and child drove middle-aged Gin (Emuri) to drink and ruin, or so he claims — the truth proves somewhat less dramatic. Big-hearted Miss Hana (Umegaki), a one-time professional drag performer of indeterminate age, lost the will to live after her boyfriend died in a freak accident. And sullen teenager Miyuki (Okamoto) ran away from home six months earlier, following a violent argument with her father. The lights and ritualized gaiety of the holiday season is especially hard to bear, until a small miracle brightens their lonely Christmas: While rummaging through some trash, they find an adorable baby girl wrapped in a blanket.

Gin and Miyuki are all for taking the fragile foundling to the nearest police station, but Hana begs them to let the infant, whom she dubs "Kiyoko," stay, at least overnight. By the next day, she's persuaded them to help her search for the baby's mother. Guided by clues they find in a bus locker whose key was wrapped in Kiyoko's blanket, her new "godfathers" crisscross Tokyo's snowy streets and diverse social strata, experiencing the best and worst of human behavior. Alone and together they witness a gangland hit, take refuge with a motherly Latina, spend a night surrounded by feral cats, help a dying homeless man, get beaten up by juvenile gangbangers, are rescued by drag queens and see undeniable signs that Kiyoko is a special child, more special than they could have imagined: Her cooing presence averts potentially ghastly accidents, mends shattered relationships and soothes restless spirits.

Inspired by John Ford's Western fable 3 Godfathers (1948), Satoshi Kon's animated feature is just astringent enough to avoid sliding into sloppy sentimentality — no mean feat in a straight-faced parable about the power of innocence to transcend the soul-killing effects of grinding poverty, spiritual disillusionment and hopeless cynicism. Though less seamlessly realized than Perfect Blue (1998) and Millennium Actress (2003), Tokyo Godfathersit features phenomenally beautiful background animation and complex characterizations, and offers glimpses of a downtrodden-stricken Tokyo underclass rarely featured — let alone portrayed sympathetically — in mainstream Japanese films. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)


The Tracker

(2003)
Written, Produced and Directed by: Rolf de Heer.
With: David Gulpilil, Gary Sweet, Damon Gameau, Grant Page and Noel Wilton.

A slow burn of a revisionist western, writer-director de Heer's spare, leisurely revenge drama has the brutally existential tone of certain lean, mean Italian westerns that were overshadowed in their own time by the operatic grandeur of films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). So stripped down the characters don't even have names, just functions, it begins in medias res.

1922, Australia: The aboriginal tracker (Gulpilil) leads a posse of three white men, the fanatic (Sweet), the follower (Gareau) and the veteran (Page), into the Outback. Their quarry: A black fugitive (Wilton) accused of murdering a white woman. As the group presses deeper into the scrubby, sun-baked wilderness, the fanatic terrorizes and murders an inoffensive group of aboriginal men and women, forcing the follower and the veteran to admit that their commanding officer is a sociopath. But they're also trapped: If they abandon the manhunt and manage to make it back to civilization, they'll face criminal charges; if they stay, they face a trip straight into the heart of darkness. The relationship between the fanatic and the enigmatic tracker, who obsequiously defers to his boss while joking slyly at his expense, dominates the story.

Convinced that aboriginal people are inferior to whites, the fanatic belittles the tracker and puts him in chains, yet speaks his tracker's language and deeply respects his wilderness skills. A long, eloquent speech that pivots on the notion of the white man's burden eventually exposes the extent of the fanatic's capacity for self-deception. De Heer probes a series of uncomfortable issues, including the racial theories that produced Australia's "stolen generation" (the subject of 2002's Rabbit-Proof Fence and gives David Gulpilil, who made his debut in 1971's Walkabout, the strongest, most complex role of his career.

But what many viewers will remember most strongly are the jarring devices with which de Heer undermines his film's overall sense of bleak reality. He represents the violent sequences through artist Peter Coad's primitive paintings and uses story songs performed by aboriginal musician Archie Roach to reiterate and comment on the action. De Heer's apparent intent is irreproachable — depicting violence without exploiting its lurid allure and using Roach's voice as an articulate counterpart to Gulpilil's near-silence — but the result is annoying. Still, the film's bleakly inevitable ending packs a wallop and its hauntingly desolate images linger long after the story is told.


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12 Rounds

(2009)
Directed by: Renny Harlin.
Written by: Daniel Kunka.
With: John Cena, Aidan Gillen, Ashley Scott, Steve Harris, Brian White, Gonzalo Menendez and Taylor Cole.

Wrestling star John Cena is the dead weight that drags down this brainless but energetic action picture. Read Full Review, originally published in The Hollywood Reporter.



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Unknown

2011
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra.
Written by: Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, based on the novel "Out of My Head" by Didier van Cauwelaert.
With: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Sebastian Koch, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella and Eva Lobau.

For elegant nightmarishness, it’s hard to beat Unknown’s first act: An American scientist in Europe for a professional conference survives the traffic accident that plunged him into a coma, but awakes to find he’s been erased from his own life. How scary would it be to be to lose your identity and not know whether you were the victim of large-scale identity theft or a brain injury that’s muddled your thinking? Granted, Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988) and the Jodie Foster-as-mama-grizzly vehicle Flightplan (2005) are all variations on a theme, but it's a hell of a theme. Had Unknown not squandered so much of its Kafka-esque energy on formulaic action scenes it could have been quite the nifty little thriller.

Botanist Martin Harris (Neeson) has been collaborating long-distance with German researcher Dr. Bressler (Koch, of Black Book and The Lives of Others), who’s developing a genetically-altered strain of corn that could help eradicate world hunger, and they’re finally going to meet face-to-faceat a Berlin biotechnology conference. But as Harris’ wife, Liz (Mad Man’s Jones), checks them into the luxurious Hotel Adlon, he realizes he’s left his briefcase — which contains everything from his research notes to his passport — at the airport and grabs a taxi in hopes of retrieving it.

Enter Fate, foot extended: A minor traffic mishap triggers a chain-reaction and the taxi plunges into the Spree; the driver, a haunted-looking blonde (Kruger), pulls the unconscious Harris to shore and hands him off to EMTs before melting into gathering crowd. The next thing Harris knows, he’s in a hospital bed and four days have vanished: He has no identification and it appears that no-one’s looking for him — no-one, at least, who bothered to file a missing person report. But though his memory is shaky, he remembers his name and knows why he’s in Berlin. So Harris checks himself out against doctor’s orders and presents himself at the Adlon, only to be buffeted by one rude shock after another.

The front desk clerk doesn’t recognize him, the manager treats him with thinly-veiled suspicion and Liz, when located, is warily polite but insists that her husband isn’t missing, introducing a stranger (Quinn) as the real Dr. Martin Harris. And on top of everything else, Harris realizes he’s being followed and that without his passport, credit cards or the ability to speak German he’s frighteningly vulnerable — as far as he can see, his only potential ally is the missing taxi driver, who turns out to be an undocumented Bosnian immigrant named Gina. She wants nothing more than to keep her head low and stay clear of amnesiac Americans who have no idea what kind of trouble they’re in, but once Harris leads his mysterious pursuers to Gina’s apartment, they’re in it together.

Unknown gets off to a great start, setting up the kind of fiendish puzzle that dates back at least as far as the novel So Long at the Fair, published in 1947 and filmed in 1950, in which a young Englishwoman attending the 1889 Paris exposition with her brother returns from a day of solo sightseeing to find a blank wall where the door to his room used to be and a hotel staff who swear she checked in alone. For all the fancy information technology developed since, the scenario retains its unnerving power: What good are sophisticated databases and social networks when you’ve lost the gadgets that keep you connected?

Unfortunately, the more Harris finds out the less interesting his situation becomes. The secret at the heart of his dilemma is undeniably ingenious, but ingenious and are emotionally resonant aren’t necessarily the same thing. And that’s too bad, especially in light of the vivid and deeply human supporting turns by veteran Swiss actor Bruno Ganz as a former Stasi agent adrift in a transparency-worshipping world; Frank Langella as the old colleague whose depths Harris has neglected to plumb; and young German actress Eva Lobau as a nurse done in by her inability to ignore a stranger in distress.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal.


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Up in the Air

(2009)
Directed by: Jason Reitman.
Written by: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn.
With: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliott, Danny McBride, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Lowell and Steve Eastin.

Jason Reitman's bitterly funny Up in the Air, adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn, rests on the shoulders of George Clooney, who lends his considerable charisma to the charming but loathsome "termination facilitator" Ryan Bingham, who shatters lives with an air of practiced camaraderie then hops the next plane out of town.

Bingham is the organization man par excellence, a sleek, rootless corporate fast-gun whose life is built on freedom from excess baggage. Bingham loves the anonymity of airport hotels and the promise of gates and jetways, the restless movement and the comfort of crowds. All the material things he needs fit into one rolling suitcase; his emotional ties... well, he's pared them all away: His parents are dead, he's never been married or had children, he politely ignores his sisters and their families and keeps his love life strictly utilitarian. His ideal woman is fellow traveler Alex "think of me as you with a vagina." Goran (Farmiga), whose idea of commitment is scheduling the next smoking-hot rendezvous in an anonymous airport hotel. Bingham's holy grail is the 10 million frequent-flyer miles that will elevate him to super-deluxe, elite passenger status.

When Bingham isn't firing shell-shocked workers with polished platitudes — "Everyone who's ever changed the world or founded an empire has sat where you're sitting," he purrs, deflecting fears of penury and humiliation with the assurance that the one-size-fits-all severance packet contains all the information the newly unemployed need to make lemonade from lemons — he's polishing the motivational shtick he hopes will make him rich and famous. "How much does your life weigh," his rap begins, as he hefts a metaphorically freighted backpack. Friends, family, homes and keepsakes, Bingham says, are the deadwood that keep us from achieving our full potential. Empty the backpack of your life and the possibilities are endless.

Bingham's rude awakening comes in the form of fresh-faced go-getter Natalie Keener (Kendrick), who?s convinced his boss (Bateman) that the future of firing is teleconferencing. Goodbye travel expenses, per diems and hotel bills; Bingham and his fellow high-flying hatchet men can park their suitcases and work out of the home office in Denver. Of course, for all her pluck and book smarts, Keener lacks field experience — she?s never sat across a table from someone whose years of acquired experience, loyalty and hard work have just evaporated in the face of restructuring, right-sizing or outsourcing. Which is why Bingham is assigned to spend his last footloose and fancy-free days teaching her the ropes.

Reitman's gift is that he can turn bitter, unpalatable material into mainstream movies fodder without stripping away the bite; Thank You For Smoking (2005) and Juno (2007) could be tougher, but they could also be feel-good Hollywood pablum or indie darlings that play a handful of markets and vanish into the home-entertainment morass. Up in the Air is hugely entertaining: Clooney, Farmiga and Kendrick, a relative newcomer whose precocious resume includes a Tony Award nomination at age 12, have the kind of sparkling chemistry that makes narrative twists go down like caviar chased with perfectly dry champagne.

But there's an underlying weight, and it's more than fortuitous timing — if you can use the word "fortuitous" in connection with Up in the Air's opening in the middle of a major economic meltdown that's left almost 25,000,000 Americans un- or under-employed. Reitman's decision to cast real, recently unemployed people as a Greek chorus gives the film a poignant weight. Their improvised scenes seethe with emotionally stunning shock, fear, despair and anger that cuts through reality-TV induced cynicism and cuts right to the bone.


V for Vendetta

(2003)
Directed by: James McTeigue.
Written by: Andy and Larry Wachowski, based on the graphic novel written by Alan Moore (uncredited on film), illustrated by David Lloyd and published by Vertigo/DC Comics.
With: Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Pigott-Smith, Rupert Graves, Roger Allam, Ben Miles, Sinead Cusack, Natasha Wightman, John Standing and Eddie Marsan.

Brutally gorgeous and seething with incendiary images, the Wachowski brothers' monumental call to revolution (don't be fooled by the fact that they're only credited as writers; it's their show all the way), based on Alan Moore's gloomy graphic novel about a masked madman who restores anarchy to the U.K., is a vivid but muddled pulp political parable.

England, 2020: The citizens of Shakespeare's "scepter'd isle" writhe beneath the boot of Big Brother-like leader Adam Sutler (Hurt), whose party snatched power from the chaos 10 years earlier. Where once there was rioting in the streets and the ever-present threat of a man-made plague, London is quiet and safe. The price: ruthless social conformity, constant government surveillance and swift, vicious retaliation against anyone who dares speak out against the suppression of personal freedoms. Sutler's totalitarian regime has purged England of degenerate art, immoral books and corrupting movies, scrubbed the airwaves clean of everything but censored news, smirking comedies and patriotic rants by hate-monger Lewis Prothero (Allam), and cleared the alleys and shadowdy doors of lurking thugs by recruiting them to serve as government enforcers known as "Fingermen."

A brutish knot of Fingermen is about to assault pretty Evey (Portman), a low-level office worker at the state-run TV service who's foolishly ventured out after curfew, when they're interrupted by a black-clad phantom in a grinning mask of Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century Catholic rebel who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the hopes of destabilizing the Protestant government. Evey's rescuer, who calls himself "V," merely blows up the Statue of Justice atop the Old Bailey courthouse, watching from a nearby rooftop with Evey at his side, then hijacks the airwaves to warn that one year hence, on November 5 — the anniversary of Fawkes' gunpowder plot — he's going to blow up the houses of Parliament.

That's more than enough to make him public enemy No. 1 even before Prothero is murdered and the investigation points to V, who may have survived a hellish sojourn in a secret government internment camp called Lark Hill. And though thrown in with V by merest chance, Evey is gradually persuaded that his vision of liberating anarchy may be England's only hope.

Moore had his name removed from the film's credits, but V for Vendetta isn't the flat-out disaster that League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) was. It is simplistic and mired in the Wachowskis' efforts to weave together current world events and attitudes firmly rooted in English discontents of the late 1970s. And there's something deeply ironic about the fact that its opening was delayed after July 2005 terrorist attacks on London's mass-transit system. The official story was that the filmmakers needed additional postproduction time.


Very Bad Things

(1998)
Written and Directed by: Peter Berg.
With: Jon Favreau, Leland Orser, Cameron Diaz, Christian Slater, Jeremy Piven, Daniel Stern, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Joey Zimmerman, Tyler Malinger and Carla Scott.

Actor-turned-director Berg's vicious black comedy starts at a bachelor party and ends in some fetid circle of hell. The road that leads from one to the other is paved with the worst possible intentions and is frequently horrifyingly funny.

Groom-to-be Kyle (Favreau, who directedsuch films as Swingers and the 2008 blockbuster Iron Man) is a regular schlub ripe to be led astray. His fiancee, Laura (Diaz), has lived every minute of her life to date anticipating the perfect wedding, and nothing — nothing — will stop her realizing her cherished princess fantasies.

The friends who arrange Kyle's stag party are fast-talking Boyd (Slater), who's spent way too much time getting in touch with his inner Neanderthal; quiet Moore (Orser); and sparring brothers Adam and Michael (Stern and Entourage star-in-the-making Piven), respectively the mature family man and the boisterous ne'er-do-well. The bachelor bash they mastermind starts with drugs, liquor and general testosterone-fueled horsing around, and ends in the accidental death of a stripper (Scott), which is bad enough before Boyd persuades the others that their best course of action is to hide the body and pretend the whole thing never happened. What happens after is the stuff of nightmares.

Berg, who went on to direct the high-school football drama Friday Night Lights (2004), made an astonishing debut with Very Bad Things: Mordant comedy is fiendishly difficult to pull off (the adage should go, "Dying is easy, black comedy is hard"), and Berg nailed the slippery tone more regularly than many more experienced filmmakers.Frat-house hijinks notwithstanding, no one is spared Berg's withering gaze — not disabled children, not supportive wives and certainly not Laura, whom Diaz plays as the demonic twin of her sunny bride-to-be in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997).

Very Bad Things was the subject of some unwanted press when people began pointing out that its premise was strikingly similar to those of the 1997 Stag, which debuted on cable and quickly went to home video, but nothing ever came of it.


The Visitor

(2008)
Written and Directed by: Tom McCarthy.
With: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Marian Seldes and Richard Kind.

Actor-filmmaker Tom McCarthy's second feature proves that his remarkable debut was no fluke: Like The Station Agent (2003), it's a beautifully acted drama about unlikely friendships taking root under unusual circumstances.

Widowed economics professor Walter Vale (Jenkins) began withdrawing from the world when he lost his wife, a classical pianist. He teaches by rote, barely interacts with his students and isn't writing his new book; pretty much the only thing he is doing is studying piano, joylessly and in spite of his evident lack of aptitude.

Forced to attend a conference in New York and present the paper he ostensibly cowrote with a promising younger colleague, he gloomily returns to the modest Manhattan co-op he's barely visited since his wife's death. To his shock, there's a young couple living in his apartment: A real-estate scam artist "rented" it to Lebanese-Syrian musician Tarek (Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Gurira).

They hastily pack their few belongings and go, but when it becomes clear to Walter that they have nowhere to go, his atrophied sense of common decency forces him to invite them to stay until they've made other arrangements. Against his will, Walter warms to the couple — Zainab maintains a politely wary distance, but outgoing Tarek is hard to resist; Walter even accepts his offer of drumming lessons. Both are undocumented and struggling to build a life far from their troubled homelands, eking out a living while trying to stay off the government radar: He plays the djembe with local jazz bands hile she sells custom-made jewelry at a Soho flea market.

But when Tarek is arrested — erroneously — for fare beating, his illegal status comes to light and he's detained pending deportation. Zainab can't get involved without risking deportation herself, so Walter steps in and gets a rude introduction to the Kafka-esque ways of post 9/11 Citizenship and Immigration Services. And then Tarek's mother, Mouna (Abbass), turns up, desperate to help her son and puzzled by this near-stranger who suddenly occupies such a significant place in his life.

While The Station Agent took place in a self-contained, slightly unreal world, McCarthy's follow-up is equally concerned with private lives and the larger cultural factors that shape them. It's a delicate balancing act, and the fact that McCarthy pulls it off is a minor marvel; in other hands, The Visitor could have beeen a saccharine tale of an anhedonic white guy getting his groove back via colorful colored folks.

But the issues don't overwhelm the relationships, and Zainab, Tarek and Mouna are never reduced to vehicles for the redemption of a privileged white man. McCarthy's flawless casting may be the film's greatest strength: Veteran character actor Jenkins and his costars vanish into their characters — their performances are so subtle and unforced that they don't feel like performances at all.


Walk the Line

(2005)
Directed by: James Mangold.
Written by: James Mangold and Gill Dennis, based on Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography, by Johnny Cash.
With: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Shelby Lynne, Tyler Hilton, Waylon Malloy Payne, Shooter Jennings, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Dan Beene, Ridge Canipe, Lucas Till and Clay Steakley.

James Mangold's chronicle of the wild highs and hard lows of gravel-voiced country-music icon Johnny Cash is conventional to the core, but it gets a blast of pure, hard-driving energy from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon's vividly realized performances as the troubled Man in Black and the steady love of his life, June Carter Cash.

1968: As the 36-year-old Cash (Phoenix), a bona fide shooting star, prepares to record a live album at Folsom Prison — his first step back from an drawn-out personal and professional flameout — the film flashes back to Dyess, Arkansas, 24 years earlier.

Twelve-year-old John Cash (Canipe) and his slightly older brother, Jack (Till), quietly nurse dreams of escape from hardscrabble farm life; aspiring preacher Jack studies the Bible by candlelight and John thrills to voices on the radio, especially that of bubbly 15-year-old June Carter, whose family almost single-handedly dragged country music out of the hollers and into the mainstream. Their father, Ray (Patrick), drinks; their long-suffering mother (country star Lynne) retreats into gospel standards from the "Heavenly Highway Hymnal;" and everything goes to hell when Jack dies in a gruesome circular-saw accident. The Devil took the wrong boy, howls the distraught Ray, and by 1955 Johnny is well on his way to proving he really is bad to the bone. Married to his high-school sweetheart (Goodwin) and the father of a growing family, the up-and-coming singer-songwriter takes to the road with a gang of handsome hell-raisers, including Jerry Lee Lewis (Payne) and Elvis Presley (Hilton), more than keeping up with their pill-popping, hard-drinking, lady-killing antics. The lone girl on the tour is none other than June Carter (Witherspoon), whom Johnny woos through two marriages, one ugly divorce and single motherhood, even as his 10-year determination to win her love shatters his personal life and escalating substance abuse tarnish his professional reputation.

Drawn from Cash's Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography and supplemented by Mangold's interviews with Carter and Cash (who died within months of each other in 2003), Walk the Line hits the usual rags-to-riches notes: early rejection, fateful audition, initial thrill of success and drug-stained fall. But the draw is Phoenix and Witherspoon: Both do their own singing, and overall the Cash/Carter repertory, including "Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Jackson" and "Ring of Fire," sounds great. Phoenix's voice sometimes wavers, but he compensates with an uncanny evocation of Cash's gloomy, calculated swagger. And while the itty-bitty Witherspoon looks nothing like the lanky, raw-boned Carter, she nails her beguiling mix of girlishness, determination, uncertainty and mega-watt charisma. Together the two are hotter than a pepper sprout.


Watchmen

(2009)
Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written by: David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore (uncredited) and Dave Gibbons.
With: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Malin Akerman, Carla Gugino, Stephen McHattie, Matt Frewer, Laura Mennell Rob LaBelle, Danny Woodburn (uncredited)

Zack Snyder's Watchmen isn't perfect. It will not change the world as we know it. And it is not a word-for-word, image-for-image adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' insanely ambitious deconstruction of the costumed crime-fighter mythos; it isn't the movie that played in my head when I first read it, nor is it yours. But Zack Snyder's Watchmen is a first-rate adaptation of Moore and Gibbons' densely imagined, alternate pop-culture history of the world, a dazzling, Dystopian fable with a deeply dark heart.

New York, 1985: Richard Nixon is in the fifth term of his imperial presidency, the United States and Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war and someone has just murdered Edward Morgan Blake (Morgan), a.k.a. to some as the Comedian. To the world at large, the Comedian was an uber-patriot, a true-blue defender of truth, justice and the American way. His fellow costumed heroes know otherwise: Although a founding member of the 1940s' Minutemen, a coalition of gung-ho, first-generation "masks," the Comedian was little better than a thug with an excuse to act on his every ugly impulse. Amoral thugs with big guns being the useful tools they are, the Comedian was recruited by Uncle Sam's department of dirty deeds, who kept his image polished to a high shine. And when the 1977 Keene Act outlawing costumed vigilantes was passed, he was exempted, while fellow masks Nite Owl (Wilson), Silk Spectre (Akerman) and Ozymandias (Goode) were forced into retirement. Ozymandias subsequently went public with his true identity — self-made millionaire Adrian Veidt — and joined Dr. Manhattan (Crudup), the only true superman in the group, on a high-profile mission to promote world peace through technology. Bona fide sociopath Rorschach (Haley), whose misanthropy is matched only by his paranoia, never cared much about laws and continued to pursue his morally uncompromising crusade against the wicked.

Rorschach's quest to find the Comedian's killer is the thread on which Moore strung his intricate, non-linear dissection of five decades' worth of superhero mythology. With the exception of its opening sequence, a documentary style montage that brilliantly distills the history of costumed crime-fighters in America to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'," Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse hew faithfully to the original's text and structure, a series of interlocking flashbacks and digressions that culminate in a scorched-earth climax that leaves no cliché behind. Not surprising, the film looks great; that it works dramatically is a tribute to its cast, Crudup in particular. Playing a costumed hero is tough enough — playing a naked, opaque-eyed, blue-skinned ubermensch dogged by existential angst and the gradual loss of his humanity is tougher, especially when your performance is filtered through layers of CGI. The unfortunate exception to the generally pitch-perfect casting is vapid hottie Akerman, whose Silk Spectre is the sum total of sleekly swinging hair and a pin-up girl costume.

It's a shame that Moore, who was conspicuously unhappy with the movie versions of his From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta, had his name removed from Watchmen's credits at the outset. It's hard to imagine a better adaptation, and it just might steer some new readers to the original.


What Would Jesus Buy?

(2007)
Directed by: Rob VanAlkemade.
Documentary

VanAlkemade's documentary about performance artist/political activist Bill Talen — aka Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping— is steeped in what may be the ultimate postmodern irony: Talen's impromptu, defiant piece of performance art with political undertones has actually taken on a spiritual dimension.

A longtime resident of New York's fabled Times Square area, Minnesota-born playwright and performer Talen created the Reverend Billy in the late 1990s, as redevelopment of 42nd Street transformed it from a seedy downtown neighborhood with a unique place in New York history into an open-air mall dominated by corporate tourist attractions, notably a Disney store. Dressed in white and wearing a cleric's collar, Talen fulminated against the evils of corporate cultural domination in the style of the Deuce's street-corner preachers, who once stood outside porn theaters and drug dens and threatened sinners with hellfire and damnation. A decade later, "Reverend Billy" and the authentically soulful Church of Stop Shopping Choir are a polished act, equal parts street theater, grassroots political activism and consciousness-raising prank, and in 2006 they undertook a cross-country crusade decrying the commercialization of Christmas. Talen, who looks vaguely like Kurt Russell and has his holy-rolling mannerisms down cold, deplores the buy-now-pay-later culture of perpetual debt, hard-sell advertising aimed at young children, happy news reporters who not only make light of the seasonal shopping orgy but actually encourage it, the pervasive American belief that love equals expensive gifts, and the corporate entities who foster it because their business models demand ever-escalating consumption.

Reverend Billy is a carefully calculated construct, but he's no longer a joke: Talen's public witnessing has gotten him arrested and barred from every Starbucks in the continental United States, vividly demonstrating that such bedrock American rights as freedom of speech are no match for the forces of corporate image control. The crusade VanAlkemade documents takes Billy and his cohorts from New York to "the happiest place on Earth" — Disneyland, where Reverend Billy is, of course, arrested — with stops at malls, decimated small-town shopping districts and tightly controlled corporate enclaves. By the time they're done, they've made a convincing case that the spiritual bankruptcy of nonstop consumerism is not only psychologically corrosive but contributes to the destruction of the global environment, the concentration of American economic power in an ever-smaller number of hands, and the abuse of impoverished and politically disempowered workers in developing nations. Not bad for a fake preacher.


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Where the Wild Things Are

(2009)
Directed by: Spike Jonze.
Written by: Spike Jonze and Dave Eggars, based on the book by Maurice Sendak.
With: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Pepita Emmerichs, Mark Ruffalo and the voices of James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose and Michael Berry Jr.

Turning Maurice Sendak's 1963 Where the Wild Things Ar into a feature film was no easy matter: The story of a angry, frustrated five-year-old Max, who channels his impotent fury at grown up rules and restrictions into a brief fantasy of being king of monster island, is psychologically potent but short on incident and dialogue — the building blocks of movie narrative. The wild things are grotesque, adult sized creatures and Max, a young child, is the lynchpin of every scene. The obvious answer is animation, but co-writer/director Spike Jonze opted for live action and, further, resisted what could only have been significant pressure to make the creatures cute and Max sweet and misunderstood: No major studio goes out looking to sink millions into a children’s movie that will make many parents uneasy. Given all that, Where the Wild Things Are is an admirably intelligent, serious film… and yet I find it curiously unengaging.

Ten-year-old Max (Recods) hates his life: His father is absent, his mother (Keener) harried and overworked and his beloved older sister (Emmerichs) lost in teenaged interests that leave little time for baby brothers. At the end of a bad day that includes a boisterous snowball fight with his sister’s friends that starts out anarchic fun and ends in tears, overhearing his mother engrossed in adult conversation with her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) and an escalating pre-dinner tantrum during which he bites his mother, Max — wearing only a scruffy, one-piece wolf costume — runs away and hides in a vacant, overgrown lot on the banks of a muddy stream. As he seethes at the injustice of everything, Max spies a small boat and embarks on a journey that takes him to the island of the wild things.

They’re huge and funny looking, with great claws and teeth, and Max arrives as Carol (Gandolfini), the wildest of the wild things, is smashing his own village like a petulant child. As the rest of the tribe — patient Douglas (Cooper), Carol’s best friend; silent Bull (Berry Jr.); old-married couple Judith and Ira (O'Hara, Whitaker) and their insecure son, Alexander (Dano) — watch from a safe distance. Max recklessly declares himself king, who take surprisingly well to the idea: It turns out that they want a grown-up hand to impose order and curb their wayward impulses without spoiling their fun. And for a while Max can do no wrong: He encourages roughhousing yet tames Carol, hurls himself into the “wild rumpus” but also masterminds the communal construction of a fabulous fort . Even designated wet blanket Judith and sullen KW (Ambrose) — who’s been awaymaking fabulous new friends who are better in every way than her tribe — come around to the boastful stripling. But in the end, they’re wild things and Max is a boy who needs to go home.

Though Jonze and his co-writer, novelist Eggars (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) set out to tell a story about the dark and side of childhood (not a children’s story), they’re admirably fair to the grown-up world. Max’s mother, whose new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) is the catalyst for Max’s ultimate meltdown, remains supportive, attentive and loving despite being pressed on all sides but loving and supportive. Max, by contrast, clingy, sulky, self-centered and demanding — authentically childish traits he shares with the wild things. It all makes perfect psychological sense… too much sense; Where the Wild Things Are has the air of a role-playing exercise from which Max learns to identify behavioral patterns and acknowledge responsibility for his own actions. You can see it sparking all kinds of useful conversations between parents and children, but it’s sorely earthbound (starting with the awkward costumes worn by the actors playing the wild things), lacking in the mercurial magic of a genuinely childlike imagination

Sendak’s book says less (far less) and implies more; it’s evocative rather than didactic and consequently far more haunting: Children can revel in its straightforward anarchy and fill the wordless pages with their own inner, while adults can revisit secret childhood sorrows while filtering them through the prism of experience. Both the book and the film come to the same conclusion as The Wizard of Oz — there’s no place like home — but the film too-often feels studied and over-thought, homework rather than a satisfying flight of fancy.



Without Warning

(1952)
Directed by: Arnold Laven.
Written by: Richard Laynor.
With: Adam Williams, Edward Binns, Harlan Wade, Meg Randall, John Maxwell, Byron Kane and Robert Shayne.

Often described as a "lost noir" film, this grim, sun-washed crime picture is an intriguing mix of police procedural and serial-killer tale .

Clean-cut, blandly handsome landscaper Carl Martin (Williams) has a dark secret life: He's compelled to butcher women who remind him of his estranged wife with gardening shears. After LAPD detectives Pete Hamilton and Don Warde (Binns, Wade) are called to their second crime scene in a little more than a month where the victim is a busty blonde, they realize there's a serial killer on the loose. As they investigate, Martin becomes fixated on the comely Jane (Randall), daughter of nursery owner Fred Saunders (Maxwell). Jane, whose husband is in the army and stationed overseas, is friendly without encouraging Martin's attentions, which drives him to pick up a barfly and murder her. The detectives, meanwhile, collaborate closely with the department's chemist and psychiatrist, Charlie Wilkins (Kane) and Dr. Werner (Shayne), who provide forensic and behavioral clues about the man they're seeking. Can they stop Martin before Jane falls victim to his twisted compulsions?

Without Warning!'s virtues are modest but compelling, from its unusual locations — including the lost Mexican-American neighborhood Chavez Ravine, razed in 1953 to make way for Dodger Stadium — to its emphasis on crime scene investigation and stark images of murdered women. Director Laven and writer William Raynor spent the bulk of their careers in series television, but this no-frills feature — Laven's debut and one of Raynor's first — compares favorably with Edward Dmytryk's Oscar-nominated The Sniper, which was released the same year. Difficult to see for decades, Without Warning! was released on DVD in 2005 by Dark Sky Films.


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Wolverine

(2009)
Directed by: Gavin Hood.
Written by: Clive Bradley.
With: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, will.i.am, Lynn Collins, Kevin Durand, Dominic Monaghan, Taylor Kitsch, Daniel Henney and Ryan Reynolds.

Wolverine made Hugh Jackman a star, but the actor's best efforts — which are very good indeed — can't compensate for the fact that the first story spun off from the X-Men franchise is little more than a formulaic fantasy-action movie aimed squarely at 12-year-olds. It's far from a disaster on the order of Ang Lee's Hulk, but it achieves neither the moody grace of The Dark Knight nor the sophisticated cynicism of Iron Man.

Canada, 1845: Sickly James, the young son of a wealthy landowner, lies in bed with a fever as the slightly older Victor Creed, the caretaker's boy, watches resentfully. Moments later, everything changes: One man kills another, a dark family secret is dragged into the light and James and Victor realize they're half brothers, bound by blood and mutant abilities of the fang-and-claw variety, abilities that will forever exile them to the sidelines of mainstream human society.

As adults, James (Jackman) — who eventually calls himself Logan — and Victor (Shreiber) have parlayed their formidable fighting skills and near indestructibility into careers as mercenaries, and the film's beautifully condensed credits sequence follows their relationship as it's forged and warped by the American Civil War, World Wars I and II and, finally, the mind-shattering mire of Vietnam, which thrusts the fundamental differences in their natures into a withering spotlight. Logan is at war with himself, perpetually trying to cage the beast within, while Victor (easily recognizable as Sabretooth, though never referred to by name) increasingly embraces his animal nature, wallowing in the voluptuous bloodlust his half-brother is determined to keep at bay. Victor's berserking eventually lands them in front of a firing squad, but after the failure of all efforts to execute them they're rescued — perhaps "shanghaied" is the more appropriate term — by uber-patriot Major William Stryker (Huston), who's assembling a super-squad of mutants charged with doing things no human squad would or could. Logan soon quits Stryker's "Team X" in disgust, abandoning the feral Victor to his own worst impulses.

Six years later, Logan is ensconced in Canada's back of beyond, lumberjacking by day and playing blissful off-the-grid-house with schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (Collins) by night. But the past comes roaring back, first via Stryker,now a colonel who attempts to re-recruit Logan by confiding that a rogue mutant is killing former members of Team X, then in the form of Victor, who slinks out of the woods to kill Kayla, forcing a battle royale that leaves Logan crippled and vulnerable to Stryker's sly blandishments.

Dogged by credible rumors of on-set conflict between South African art-house director Hood (Tsotsi) and pop-panderers Richard and Lauren Shuler Donner, the film's producers, Wolverine is a film divided against itself, a disposable popcorn movie wrestling with a moody psychological drama: Look no farther than mismatched screenwriters David Benioff (The Kite Runner, 25th Hour) and Skip Woods (Hitman, Swordfish) for proof. To their credit, Woods and Benioff distill Wolverine's complicated and sometimes contradictory back story into a coherent narrative, but the generic and eminently forgettable action sequences consistently undermine the character-driven drama.

Upscale casting goes a long way towards elevating the pulpy material, and Jackman, Huston and Schreiber all lend respectable depth and nuance to what could easily have been two-dimensional roles. But they're swimming upstream all the way: Wolverine tries hard but never transcends its origins.


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Yella

2007
Written and Directed by: Christian Petzold.
With: Nina Hoss, Hinnerk Schonemann, Burghart Klaussner, Michael Wittenborn and Devid Striesow.

Imagine the American cult movie Carnival of Souls (1962) — a super low-budget horror picture shot in Kansas by industrial-filmmaker Herk Harvey — and you’ll have a handle on writer-director Christian Petzold’s bleak drama about soul-sucking alienation in the reunited Germany.

East German Accountant Yella Fichte (Hoss) is unemployed, separated from her insanely possessive husband, Ben (Schonemann), and desperate to escape Wittenberge, her depressed hometown. When the opportunity to take a new job in Hanover, West Germany, she leaps at the chance. But Yella also makes the mistake of allowing Ben to drive her to the train station — he looks so contrite and anyway, once she’s in Hanover she’ll be done with him forever.

Ben uses the opportunity to castigate her as a heartless gold-digger who abandoned him as soon as the company they started together foundered, then drives the car off a bridge, plunging them both into the icy waters of the Elbe. Miraculously, Yella emerges from the water damp and bedraggled but alive; she even makes her train, changing clothes in her compartment and generally making herself presentable before disembarking at Hanover, where everything that can possibly go wrong does.

First, Yella finds that her new employer, Dr. Smith-Ott (Wittenborn), has neglected to pay the deposit on her hotel room — were it not for the wad of bills her father pressed into her reluctant hand that morning, she’d be out on the street in a strange city. And then she has an odd sort of blackout: Everything goes quiet, as though she were underwater, and later that evening Yella has words with fellow guest Phillip (Striesow) in the hotel dining room. He insinuates that she was snooping around his laptop, when in fact she was simply drawn to his screensaver, a soothing image of tropical waves.

Yella gets to work the next day to find Dr. Smith-Ott in the middle of being fired; he makes vague promises of a new job in another city — though he doesn't even seem to remember what he hired her to do in the first place — proposes that they share a taxi and then makes untoward advances. Yella, close to despair, storms out and walks back to her hotel , where she again and runs into Phillip. He turns out to be a venture capitalist, and has changed his truculent tune because he's in a bind: He has a meeting that afternoon and needs someone who knows spreadsheets — or can fake it — to accompany him. Both are surprised to discover that Yella has a real flair for cutthroat financial negotiations: Not only does she have the smarts to see through creative accounting and deceptive balance sheets, but she also takes to high-stakes bluffing, cat-and-mouse power plays and cynical head games like the proverbial duck to water.

Phillip promptly hires her, but even as things seem to be looking up, Yella is haunted by the feeling that something is dogging her heels. And that something isn’t just Ben, though she spots him lurking in the shadows outside the hotel. Yella feels somehow disconnected from everything, like a sleepwalker who's never sure whether she's awake or dreaming.

Viewers familiar with Carnival of Souls (itself a variation on Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge) will know what's the matter with Yella from the moment she crawls to shore, while those who aren't may find the film's final revelation out of sync with its overall tone of bleak realism. Either way, Petzold's overarching metaphor is blunt but eerily apt: Yella's wholehearted embrace of cutthroat capitalism comes at a price, one she uncharactersitically agrees to pay without closely examining the metaphysical balance sheet. (In German with English subtitles)


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You Again

2010
Directed by: Andy Fickman.
Written by: Moe Jelline.
With: Kristen Bell, Odette Yustman, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Betty White, James Wolk, Victor Garber, Kristin Chenoweth and Kyle Bornheimer.

The boldly misogynistic You Again milks the lingering trauma of high-school misery for, well… not laughs, that’s for sure. It’s excruciatingly unfunny and a sad waste of a terrific cast.

At 26, fresh-faced cutie Marni Olivia Olsen (Bell) (how did her parents fail to notice they were saddling their darling baby girl with the initials MOO?) has conquered the world’s most glamorous, envied profession mdash; yes, girls, she’s a publicist! mdash; and transformed her painful memories of high-school torture by mean girls into a funny little motivational fable for her underlings. But as those who try to bury the past inevitably discover, not only is Marni’s past not dead — it isn’t even past.

Flush with the success of being handed a coveted promotion to VP in the New York office, Marni goes home for the wedding of her beloved older brother, Will (Wolk), only to discover that Joanna (Yustman), the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth fiancée whose good heart, sweet nature and funny, friendly ways have seduced the entire Olsen family, from Betty White's no-nonsense Granny Bunny to Cocoa Puff the disloyal pup, is none other than hell-spawned cheerleader J.J. Clark, who ruined four long years of Marni’s life.

And to top it all off, Joanna pretends not to recognize Marni, who instantly sheds her calculated charm, faux-friendly veneer and coldly Machiavellian smarts (she must have them — how else did she rise to the top of a dog-eat-dog profession?) in order to bumble her way through a series of degradingly unsuccessful schemes to expose Joanna for the evil witch she is.

But wait — here’s more! When Joanna’s only living relative, glamorous, luxury spa-hotel magnate Ramona (Weaver), arrives at the Olsen house, she and Marni’s mom, Gail (Curtis) —who chose well-heeled domestic bliss with a handsome doctor (Garber) over a high-powered career — exchange their own looks of horrified recognition: Adolescent best friends turned teenage enemies, their high-school horror story culminated in a memorable bit of prom-night humiliation involving a to-die-for dress and a swimming pool. And no, they’re still not over it either, which leads to some mortifying slapstick hijinks that must have made Curtis long for her days of running from knife-wielding serial killers .

Directed by Andy Fickman (Race to Witch Mountain, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical) and written by first-timer Moe Jelline (who’s proof that women can so be misogynists), You Again is predicated on the grim notion that you can transform yourself into the swanniest swan that ever glided across an ice-blue lake, but you’ll never be free of the ugly duckling whose wayward fuzz and ungainly waddle were mercilessly mocked by elegant, early-maturing egrets. All of which is true enough…if it were also funny, You Again would be a bittersweet gem.<.p>

Unfortunately, it’s not. Despite the efforts of its top-notch cast, You Again quickly degenerates into warm ’n’ cuddly clichés — anyone, from teen tormentor to tormented teen, can transcend the cruel excesses of youth; no one is the sum total of the meanest thing she ever said; everyone deserves a second chance and a hug…um, yeah, whatever. It doesn’t bode well that the film’s funniest moments involve Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Fickman’s Witch Mountain star), who plays an unexpectedly sensitive air marshal sucked into Marni’s mid-air homebound meltdown. He’s flat-out hilarious, but also utterly peripheral to the main story. Ditto (to a lesser degree) celebrity wedding planner Georgia King (Chenoweth), whose perkiness could flatten entire armies, and Joanna’s morose, neurotic ex-fiance Tim (Bornheimer): amusing but not the main event. In the end, You Again is just one more promising idea ground into bland, tasteless Hollywood sausage.

This Review first appeared in slightly different form in Film Journal.


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Zenith

1

2010
Written and Directed by: Vladan Nikolic.
With: Peter Scanavino, Jason Robards, David Thornton, Ana Asensio, Raynor Scheine, Bernard Rachelle, Jay O. Sanders, Michael Cates, Arthur French, Zohra Lampert, Al Nazemian, Tim Biancalana, Didier Flamand and Gordon Joseph Weiss.

The ingenuity of Vladan Nikolic’s paranoid thriller, which follows two men — one living in the present day and the other in the not-too-distant future — as they try to unravel the threads of a vast conspiracy.

By the year 2044, mankind has been genetically altered to be happy and, as always seems to be the case, this well-intentioned attempt at social engineering led straight to hell. This particular hell is a gaping void of emotional and spiritual numbness that created a thriving black market for vintage pharmaceuticals whose unpleasant side effects make users feel alive. Former doctor Jack Crowley (Scanavino) is a dealer, a lucrative but demanding gig in that he has to sample the product, a process that’s put him on intimate terms with a wide spectrum of pain, from mild discomfort to outright agony.

But there’s more to Jack than meets the eye: He’s discovered that language is going the way of natural pain — people are forgetting words en masse, and every missing noun, adjective and verb makes it harder to formulate complex thoughts. Jack suffers from a rare and untreatable form of epilepsy that produces brain-altering seizures while allowing him to remember, and he’s undertaken the task of creating a permanent record. He keeps this project on the QT, since his vocabulary is sufficiently rich that he can conceive of conspiracies — and if there’s a cabal behind the gradual extinction of sophisticated language, he doesn’t want to be the tall sunflower. That’s why he dubbed himself “Dumb Jack.”

Enter Mateo (French), a stranger who turns up at Jack’s door holding the match that will light his paranoid fire: A videotape made by Jack’s father, Ed Alexander Crowley (Robards). Ed vanished without a trace years earlier, but what Mateo knows about him puts what little Jack has gleaned from scraps of memory and a handful of papers inherited from the mother who abandoned him into a whole new light.

Ed, says Mateo, was a preacher, but at the beginning of the 21st century his waning faith was snuffed out by a penitent’s startling confession: He claimed to have uncovered a centuries-old conspiracy by high-ranking religious leaders to consolidate the world’s wealth and power for themselves while distracting the masses — including the power brokers and money makers whose strings they pulled behind the scenes — with messages of peace, love and the superiority of the spiritual over the material. A book called “Zenith” reveals their history and methods.

Ed’s growing obsession with the Zenith conspiracy destroyed his life: His rants alienated parishioners, drove away Jack’s mother, sparked fights that got him arrested and generally made him look like a nut job. But Ed wasn’t insane, says Mateo, and he made ten tapes that will tell Jack everything he needs to know about how the world came to its current sorry state. Unfortunately, Mateo only has the first tape, and Jack’s quest to find the others leads him straight down the rabbit hole.

Writer-director Nikolic (credited onscreen as “Experiment Supervisor”) weaves together classic conspiracy theories (as always, the Illuminati loom large), ominous science (notably the Yale University-based Milgram Experiment, which demonstrated the frightening ease with which an authority figure can persuade ordinary, psychologically-sound people to commit dreadful acts) and dystopian visions of a desensitized, crumbling future which ubiquitous techno-distractions, dispassionate sex and dependence on artificial sensation are gradually leaching the humanity from the human race. Paging Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard!

Though shot on the cheap, Zenith looks terrific; Vladimir Subotic’s subtle and resourceful cinematography turns a series of Brooklyn and Queens locations into a depressingly convincing vision of the dystopia next time. And while not everyone likes having to think while watching a movie, viewers who do will find plenty to ponder in this twisty maze of facts that sound like fiction just a hair stranger than the truth.

Zenith can be viewed as a standalone or as part of a “transmedia experience” that interpolates material spread across more than a dozen websites, including Ed Crowley’s blog and various sites that purport to explore or debunk the Zenith conspiracy. The transmedia-enhanced Zenith will probably play best to home viewers, who can alternate watching the movie and accessing the supplemental material without incurring the wrath of luddites who deplore the glow of smart-phone screens in movie theatres.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Film Journal.