Thursday, January 31, 2008


I saw this at the Chlotrudis movie night on Tuesday; apparently only four of us from that group were up for it, although there were others making their presense felt. Scot wound up standing to shush them, and they mostly quieted down. I have to admit, though, that when he did it, I was thinking that if you're going to have people talking during a movie, this is the sort where its most tolerable. I think it would be a lot of fun in a packed house - I smile thinking of the "OOOHHHHHH!" that would be let out by the male portion of the audience at the first bit of mayhem. Hopefully the Boston Sci-fi Marathon will dig it up next year. Or even this year; it'll probably be out of theaters in three weeks.

I hope good things are ahead for the star, Jess Weixler. She's pretty, but also funny; she makes me laugh just with facial expressions and has the knack for making her character likable even when she's a little ridiculous.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

Every site I've seen that tags movies by genres lists Teeth as a horror movie, but I'm not sure that's really the best description. Sure, if you're a guy, the very concept of vagina dentata is scary as hell, but this film isn't exactly told from a man's perspective in the first place. If this is a horror movie, then it's likely one of the few that teenage girls will like more than their boyfriends.

After a brief prologue that establishes that Dawn (Jess Weixler) had a little extra anatomy downstairs even as a little girl, it fast-forwards to her high school years, where she's a big abstinance proponent, wearing a red promise ring and speaking to other kids about why they should wait. She's got more reason to be afraid of the dangers of unprotected sex than others, of course, though she doesn't know that, and she still has all the urges of any teenager, especially when a cute new boy (Hale Appleman) joins the abstinence club.

What Lichtenstein is up to in Teeth is far from subtle - he's not making any attempt to hide the themes of female sexual empowerment and sex education being far less dangerous than ignorance - but I'm impressed with how he manages to avoid giving unnecessary offense. Dawn's abstinence rallies don't have any specific religious connotations to them, although a biology class used to introduce the concept of mutation goes out of its way to avoid antagonizing creationists. It's necessary for the plot - Dawn has to be unaware of her difference at the start of the film - but it's done in such a way that she doesn't look like a fool.

It's important that we don't look down on Dawn too much, because Weixler is in nearly every scene. She's fun to watch; Dawn's emotions are painted in broad strokes on her face, and Weixler does a fine job of making Dawn's early naïveté charming. Later on, she's able to bring some bone-dry wit and determination when the film calls for her to be more active, and her sadness, guilt, fear, and confusion are always just the right note in between. Weixler's got the knack for making Dawn genuine and earnest despite the crazy things going on around her.

Although I wouldn't necessarily call Teeth a horror movie, Lichtenstein certainly knows how to use the genre's style, though often for humor. It's almost quaint how a gigantic nuclear plant looms over the town, taking up something like three quarters of the screen whenever an establishing shot of Dawn's house is called for and explaining her mutation as well as her mother's cancer. That's as fifties as the monster movie clips that show up occasionally, although the plot owes more to Cronenberg-style body horror. It's also not afraid to throw out some blood and severed body parts.

Mostly, though, it's funny and smart. It doesn't go for the really big laughs as much, but gets a steady stream of smaller ones. Impressively, the biggest ones come at the end, when it's a little harder to chuckle at how Dawn's good-girl behavior contrasts with all the other teenagers. And as much as Dawn's story arc and the points the film is trying to make are clear, Lichtenstein resists his urges to get up on a soapbox.

Getting more overtly political is one of the many ways that Teeth could have become a disaster; Lichtenstein and Weixler do fine jobs of side-stepping them. Indeed, they manage something pretty impressive: A dark comedy that's fun to watch, managing to avoid the mean-spiritedness that can sometimes make that sort of movie a chore to watch.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with two other reviews

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


I wonder how professional critics schedule their reviews. Right now, I'm running a couple weeks behind, so my thoughts on Atonement reflect the couple extra weeks I've had to think about it, and it's settled well for me. If I'd written this right after coming out, though, it would have been a more negative review; I fidgeted more than usual during this movie, thought the big tracking shot on the beach was more than a little too showy, and didn't immediately grasp that the end explained some of my dissatisfaction with the middle.

Some spoiler-y stuff after the HBS/EFC review.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2008 at AMC Harvard Square #9 (first-run)

Atonement is a prestige picture with a little bit of everything - class as a barrier to romance, exquisite period detail, scenes of war that are awe-inspiringly horrible, beautiful photography, and narrative cleverness. A bit too much of the latter, actually; it threatens to make the film's emotional payoff little more than an intellectual exercise.

In our opening act, we meet the residents and guests at the Tallis country estate. Thirteen-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a serious child, always working at her typewriter, today working on a play to be put on at the party older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is throwing for their returning brother. Her cast will be visiting cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and her twin brothers Pierrot and Jackson (Felix and Charlie von Simson). Leon Tallis (Patrick Kennedy) has school friend Danny Hardman (Alfie Allen) in tow, figuring him to be a good match for Cecilia. A better match might be the cook's son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), whom the family has put through college. Briony has something of a crush on him herself.

Briony has not been exposed to what a modern girl her age sees, though, leading her to make a terrible accusation which tears Cecilia and Robbie apart. The story then picks up some five years later, with Robbie fighting the war in France, Cecilia having broken from her family and volunteering as a nurse in London, and Briony passing on Cambridge to follow in her sister's footsteps, trying to directly or indirectly make up for what she'd done as a child.

The best part of Atonement is its first act; though we've seen many of this story's elements before, seeing so much of it from a child's perspective gives it a different feel than usual. That's not to say that the filmmakers play coy with what's happening, but they frequently will show things from Briony's point of view before revisiting the scene with her as a minor presence. Ronan plays Briony as a somewhat dour, self-centered kid; the kind other children don't really want much to do with and whom adults indulge. We learn enough about her that her actions at the end of the sequence can't be simply marked up to spite, ignorance, or the notorious unreliability of eyewitness testimony alone, while also picking up enough information to understand what is actually happening.

We also spend some time seeing Cecilia and Robbie recognize their attraction, and that's a nice subplot, but it doesn't really have enough weight to it that we necessarily buy into Cecilia trusting Robbie over her own sister, or for their later meeting and pining for each other to have the necessary intensity to carry much of the movie. The middle section is beautifully staged, but it suffers from the characters from the start spending too much time separated. McAvoy is pretty good in this segment, and he's got the best supporting cast and characterization of the bunch - his fellow soldiers take him for upper-class when he's all too well aware that the gentry abandoned him when it really counted - but his scenes with Knightley fall flat. Romola Garai is a good physical match for Ronan, but her Briony is less interesting than the younger edition: As much as writers and actors love characters who are motivated by guilt, they're pretty simple, in that they'll try to do the right thing and never feel it's enough.

As relatively bland as the middle section of the film is, it's necessary for the revelations of the epilogue, though it doesn't quite build to them the way the first act does. It's an interesting ending, which raises interesting ideas about the writer's urge to control stories, both within their manuscripts and in real life. It's a side of Briony we've seen from the very start of the film (a pan across toys which have been precisely placed rather than played with) and the way she chooses to exercise that control in the end is at least interesting for managing to be both terribly hypocritical and terribly earnest. It's an interesting idea, and benefits greatly from having Vanessa Redgrave lay the facts out, but it's something that has to be talked through rather than shown, and renders some of what we've previously seen moot.

I think the biggest issue with making the movie work as a whole is that we never get to see Briony be as smart as we're told she is. The reviews I've seen of McEwan's book describe it as much more about writing than the film is, which I think is necessary for the last act to resonate. Unfortunately, the only example of Briony's writing we get to see directly is giggle-worthy, an example of a child determined to use her entire large vocabulary (which absolutely fits her character at the time). What's shown of her later work doesn't really come across as brilliant, although that may be the point.

As uneven as the execution sometimes is, Atonement has a couple good ideas. It wisely saves the its best for the end, so there's something to talk about afterward. I'm still not sure whether that serves to disguise that Atonement is an average period piece or pull it together as more than the sum of its parts.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with nine other reviews

Spoilers Below!

I really don't think the middle works, but I wonder if it's not supposed to work fully. I figure that the Vanessa Redgrave version of Briony is doing something akin to what the Emma Thompson character does in Stranger than Fiction - she deliberately compromises her work as literature because she personally wants it to end differently. Thompson's Karen Eiffel really doesn't have any choice - she can't put killing Will Farrell's character on her conscience. Briony is doing something even more metaphysical; she's creating a world where her sister and her lover get to live happily ever after.

I like this idea, a lot, but Atonement doesn't give Briony as a writer nearly as much attention as Stranger than Fiction did, so the idea that she's creating this world, and is capable of doing so, doesn't come across. Deliberately making part of the story less than it could be is a pretty dangerous game, anyway, and I'm not quite convinced that's what the filmmakers were trying to do. For all I know, the World War II segments were supposed to be brilliant, not just a good movie but an illustration of what a great writer Briony is.

Either way, I don't think it quite works. But it's a nifty idea. It's worth watching Stranger than Fiction to see it handled better.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

I Know Who Killed Me

I almost missed this at the Brattle because I would have been the only one to see the Saturday midnight show, and there's no point in running a film just for one guy who wasn't actually going to pay money for it (usher-level members don't pay for each ticket. Sound good? Join The Brattle yourself!). Luckily, I guess, someone else decided he wanted to see it at the last minute.

We each bought some candy and soda, so the theater didn't have to run the movie for just seven dollars and fifty cents of return, but they must have taken a bath on it, despite the write-up in the program saying what a gloriously trashy, ridiculous movie it is. Sadly, I think they were overselling it.

I Know Who Killed Me

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 January 2008 at The Brattle Theater ("Recent Raves"/Best of 2007. Seriously)

There's a part of me that would like it if I Know Who Killed Me ended Lindsay Lohan's career. That's not scadenfreude or any dislike of her as an actor talking; I actually like her enough to wish she'd be in better movies. But if a career that started with a better-than-expected remake of The Parent Trap is going to crash and burn, well, this is exactly the movie that should form the other bookend.

In it, Lohan plays Aubrey Fleming, an honor student in a prosperous suburb who vanishes one night, apparently the latest victim of the limb-severing serial killer who is apparently the community's only blight (especially if you have an attractive and intelligent daughter). But wait! She seems to have survived and escaped, somehow, though not before losing an arm and a leg. And, apparently, her marbles - when she wakes up in the hospital, she claims to be someone else entirely, a stripper by the name of Dakota Moss, which understandably upsets her parents (Neal McDonough and Julia Ormand), the psychiatrist assigned to help her recover (Gregory Itzin), and the FBI agents investigating the case (Garcelle Beauvais and Spence Garrett). Not so much her boyfriend (Brian Geraghty), what with Dakota being willing to put out and all.

As with its main character, the film seems to have a split personality. At times it feels like it wants to be a murder mystery, or a psychological thriller. So we spend a lot of time before the abduction watching Aubrey's life for something suspicious, paying attention to the seemingly inconsequential scenes that the film lingers over because it might contain clues that will be important in the end. After she's taken, there's a great deal of earnest procedural work, puzzling over the short stories Aubrey wrote about Dakota earlier, and trying to figure out just how to crack through Dakota's resistance to find the necessary clues. This, quite honestly, isn't much fun. Writer Jeff Hammond and director Chris Sivertson don't really have what it takes to tell a good mystery story; they can't tell the difference between boring filler and legitimate red herrings. They also don't give us much in the way of interesting characters; Dakota may be a figment of Aubrey's imagination, but she's still the richest and most entertaining person on-screen.

They probably could have cut a lot of that first part out, because the film's other personality - the one that's completely insane - is where everything really seems to be going on. This is the part that gives Dakota prosthetic limbs so advanced as to be science fictional. It's lurid in every way it can be, from soap-opera storylines to serving up heaping scoops of limbs being severed on-camera, broken bones, and blood. Sadly, it never manages to make such things exciting; at moments when overacting, obvious music, flying cameras, and cheap shocks would be exactly what the movie needs, everything is restrained and terribly serious. And then there's the final twist, on the opposite end of the speculative-fiction spectrum from "robot hands" - though I have to give Hammond credit on it: While most last-act revelations in bad movies make no sense of any kind, this one actually ties things up in a way that almost makes sense. It's an insane, twisted sort of logic that requires mammoth suspension of disbelief to accept the central premise (Art Bell is appealed to as an authority), but it sort of hangs together.

Still, that sort of basic competence isn't necessarily found where it could do the most good. Sivertson, who has mostly done tiny films with the Austin-based Mo-Freak collective, seems unsure what to do with a big studio's resources, and doesn't seem to get a lot of help from his editor in terms of cutting out what's not necessary. He does spend a lot of effort in making sure that Aubrey favors blues and Dakota favors reds, so he's trying, but he really doesn't seem to be ready for the major leagues.

What's sad is that his main cast is dragged down by that. I'm not sure why Lindsay Lohan chose this script, but she's probably better than it deserves. She's got a fun moment in the middle, looking in Aubrey's mirror as Dakota, where she mockingly pretends to be this perfect beloved girl and rolls her eyes at the absurdity of it that actually makes us like this character who has spent almost all her screen time being unpleasant a little, which is no mean feat. McDonough and Ormand, sadly, don't even have that much chance to make an impression, and it just gets worse after that.

Its own story is a mess, but as part of the Lindsay Lohan narrative? Almost perfect; she's almost back where she started, still able to make use believe in two separate characters, but with all the promise replaced by juvenile attempts to seem adult, griminess, and dysfunction. Sad, really, especially since it seems so unaware of what a mess it is.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with six other reviews

The Warriors

Hopefully today will be productive, in terms of more reviews written than movies seen, as it's Red Sox Ticket Virtual Waiting Room Day, which now comes twice a year! And more often if you get a chance to buy Yankee, Monster, Right Field Roof, or Opening Day tickets! Hopefully the wait for Tokyo Tickets won't be so crazy, if I decide to go for that.

Anyway, about The Warriors... I've only been to New York a few times, but it tickles me that the subways being confusing is mentioned. It drives me nuts, especially compared to the relatively simple MBTA.

The Warriors

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 January 2008 in Jay's Living Room (HD-DVD rental)

It's kind of a shame that the present "Ultimate Director's Cut" of The Warriors feels the need to underline its mythic and comic book influences so plainly. When you don't point that sort of thing out, you have an action movie that reminds people of an epic quest despite its modest scale, rather than just trying to claim that sort of title.

It is, as the prologue tells us, the quest to return home. Coney Island street gang The Warriors has come to the Bronx along with representatives from every other gang in New York to listen to a speech by Cyrus (Roger Hill), leader of the city's most powerful gang, the Riffs. He proposes that if they work together, they could control the city - after all, they outnumber the police, the mafia, and anyone else. It sounds good, but Cyrus is assassinated by Luther (David Patrick Kelly), leader of the Rogues, who lay the blame at the feet of the Warriors. They flee, separated from their own leader (Dorsey Wright), but no place in the city other than their home turf is safe, since the radio has gotten the word out that the Warriors broke the truce and it's now open season on them.

One of the opening credits sets The Warriors in "The Future", although there aren't any ray guns or flying cars to be found. Instead, there's a vaguely dystopian feel, with what had been gangs have evolved into something closer to tribes. Skin color doesn't seem to be a major factor in their identity; the Warriors are integrated and none of the taunting between gangs or strife within goes to race. It's an unreal environment, familiar enough to feel possible but just fanciful enough to be a sort of alternate reality (at least, thirty years later).

Part of what makes the film such a world of its own is Bobbie Mannix's costumes for the Warriors and the other gangs they encounter. Each gang looks like a group of a Batman villain's henchmen which has lost its leader, from the leather-vested Warriors to the Baseball Furies in grey pinstriped uniforms and facepaint. As imaginative as some of these are, Mannix and company resist the temptation to make them too fancy; not even Cyrus's outfit is that far away from the ratty clothes worn by the low-level Orphans; they are street gangs, after all, not supervillains or superheroes.

The cast does a fine job of not making their characters into either. Dorsey Wright and Roger Hill certainly project charisma as Cleon and Cyrus, but not in a way that makes them fundamentally different than the young men they're leading. Michael Beck is less sure of himself as the gang's "war leader"; he's blessed with more sense than the rest but doesn't quite have what it takes to make people listen to it. He butts heads with James Remar's Ajax a lot; Remar's the one to remind us that even our protagonists aren't necessarily great guys, and he seems to have a great time playing the thug. David Patrick Kelly is maniacally over-the-top as Luther; Deborah Van Valkenburgh is all attitude as the girl who falls in with the Warriors, first as a hostage and then more willingly.

As much as Walter Hill may have been a little too keen to show off his influences in the new edition (and the animated transitions really don't work; both the art style and the way he pans between comic-book panels feel out of sync with the film's late-seventies style), most of what he did in '78 is tight. There aren't very many minutes wasted in the film, and when circumstances divide the gang up into smaller groups, he does a fine job of splitting time between them. The action scenes are pretty well-done, with much better hand-to-hand fight choreography than is typical of American movies of that time, and Hill manages to add a lot of style without having it take over the film.

The Warriors isn't a classic, but it certainly holds up after thirty years, which is a pretty nice feat in and of itself.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with four other reviews

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Two-Lane Blacktop

Wow, this is probably the easiest a review has come to me in a while, going from start to end in a couple hours with the TV on for half of it. My usual method is grabbing an hour or two on the bus rides to and from work, so just sitting down and writing one is a novelty.

Of course, it's probably easier to ramble on about what you figure a film's philosophy is rather than actually break down whether or not it's actually a good film and why. But I figure movies like Two-Lane Blacktop resist that anyway; it's uninterested in plot or really a whole lot of character development. Director Monte Hellman just needs to keep things interesting enough to keep the audience's attention, and he does a fine job with that.

Two-Lane Blacktop

(out of four)
Seen 7 January 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Staff Picks)

Two-Lane Blacktop is an oddity, no question about it. It stars two musicians in their only acting roles, playing characters without names or much in the way of dialog. It's a strange, abstract experience - and art-house picture disguised as a grindhouse flick.

In California, there's a pair of car lovers drag-racing in their custom 1955 Chevrolet. The driver (James Taylor) and mechanic (Dennis Wilson) know it inside out, and are able to win races in part because their fifteen-year-old ride doesn't look like much. They opt to head east, getting on the bad side of a middle-aged man in his new Pontiac GTO (Warren Oates), whom they decide to race cross-country to Washington DC with their pink slips as stakes. They also pick up a teenage girl (Laurie Bird) who, as any girl introduced in this situation is wont to do, will throw the balance of these two men off.

Like many films set on the open road, Two-Lane Blacktop is as much about the idea of freedom that it represents as it is about its characters - in this case, probably more so. The history of The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl, and "GTO" aren't important; in fact, if they were individuals it might undermine the film's message: To be truly free, you have to be willing to let go of everything. Not just material possessions, but attachments to other people, and to your own history.

GTO doesn't have much trouble with the latter part. Every time he meets a new person, he spins a different version of his life story. Maybe the first is true, but he contradicts it right away, refining it or changing it wholesale with bits he picks up from the environment - while throwing one male hitchhiker out of the car for getting a little too close, he drops little bits of innuendo with the next. Oates manages the right combination of bluster and patheticness; he puts a lot of pride in his car and likes to speak authoritatively, but underneath he feels a need to be accepted. He won't change his persona once he's introduced himself to someone, and his attempts to win over the Girl, young enough to be his daughter, are kind of sad.

He's doomed, of course, because The Girl knows how to be unattached from the very start. We first see her walking out of a camper and settling into the Chevy without introduction, and she eventually moves between the Mechanic and Driver with ease. She's chattier than they are, but just passing the time. It's a shame that Laurie Bird would only appear in two other films before quitting acting; she is nigh-perfect as The Girl, playing her as not especially knowledgeable or wise, but nevertheless the embodiment of the film's idea of freedom.

The Driver and The Mechanic are a perfectly matched pair to start out; The Driver at one point states "you can never go fast enough" and The Mechanic knows every inch of their custom car by heart. They work together seamlessly whether in a race or at a service station, barely seeming to confer even when there's a complicated scheme coming up. Jealousy and envy rear their ugly heads when The Girl is introduced into the equation; for all their talk of just going where the road takes them, they each have a little trouble with the other having The Girl or The Girl having the other, depending on the moment. Taylor plays The Driver as quicker-tempered, while Wilson's Mechanic is more detail-oriented. Despite neither apparently having other acting experience, they still make for compelling characters.

Somehow, director Monte Hellman knew what to do to get just the right notes out of his three first-time actors (Oates was a frequent collaborator); they all give matching natural performances. He also has a real knack for photographing the back roads of America and staging the drag races so that they're fast and exciting, but also dirty and far from glamorous. He edits his own film, and paces things so that the silence from his leads never seems oppressive or unnatural.

He's also clever with the ending; although it may seem that the film just stops without reaching the previously agreed-upon endpoint, the important lesson has already been given five or ten minutes earlier, and while the end of the film may frustrate some, the message is that you've got to let go of everything - including expectations.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with one other review

No Country for Old Men

This past weekend (on the nineteenth, to be precise), I attended the nominating committee meeting for The Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film, where one of the longer discussions was over where Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem fit in the award categories - are they lead actors or supporting cast? The group eventually decided on all three being leads; my initial urges were that Brolin was the lead and Jones and Bardem were supporting. I can see the argument, though.

It leads me to wonder why leading and supporting cast members are separated in terms of awards. Is it really a different job; that is, when an actor or actress is hired for a role, does he or she do anything different based upon the prominence of the role? I honestly don't know.

It's also strange to see the Chlotrudis nominees so closely paralleling the Academy nominees. A good thing, generally - when a group of industry people and an analytic group hit the same target, something has probably gone right.

No Country for Old Men

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2008 at AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run)

Ah, the suitcase full of money. It's pure temptation, opportunity without responsibility, so long as you can get away with it. Of course, as anyone who has ever seen a movie will tell you, it's almost impossible to do that. Hundreds of movies have likely been made based on the premise of a man finding one but having a hard time spending it before someone else finds them; No Country for Old Men is one of the best.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds the suitcase while out hunting for game; it's at the site of a drug deal that has gone wrong and left everyone on both sides dead. Looking for him is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a sociopath whose weapon of choice is the cattle gun, a compressed air tank that makes the victim appear to have been shot by an invisible bullet. Cautiously tracking down both is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a veteran lawman who finds he doesn't like where the chase is leading him.

There are complications to the plot, of course - the almost-legitimate by comparison mob hires another man (Woody Harrelson) to track down Moss and Chigurh, mostly with the intent of stopping Chigurh before his rampage brings every cop in Texas onto their heads, and he's not the only extra factor in the chase. The title of the film refers not to the main cat and mouse game but to Sheriff Bell, who finds himself too disturbed and repulsed by the sort of crime he's seeing in 1980 to be able to combat it effectively. This complexity makes No Country a rich film that gives the audience plenty to chew on afterward, when it certainly could have just been a generic chase movie.

But make no mistake - this is, at its heart, a chase movie, perfectly executed. Moss is a wily Vietnam vet whom we first see making an attempt to live off the land, and he's able to transplant that survival instinct to progressively more urban settings. He was probably recon in the army while Chigurh is a tank, at least in temperament. He crashes through Texas without much in the way of finesse, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. There are several great set pieces as Chigurh and the other pursuers close in on Moss, and the Coen brothers have almost perfect judgment on when to use the threat of violence and when to follow through in bloody fashion.

The Coens' films are almost always originals, but adapting Cormac McCarthy's novel seems to bring a bit of a change to their approach. They've told plenty of crime stories in their career, but they've always had a certain awareness of how unlikely or ridiculous their characters and situations are. If that's the case here, they're not showing it; maybe they feel it wouldn't be proper to treat someone else's creations the way they treat their own. They still make something that is identifiably theirs, but even if it is one of their most precisely crafted films, there's no distancing feeling that they know how clever they are.

Even Chigurh, the character it would be easiest to treat as a bit of a joke, is played perfectly straight. Javier Bardem plays the killer as absolutely relentless; he never seems relaxed (the limp makes sure you we this is taking some effort), but he's always just short of keyed up enough to make any kind of mistake. He's a man of few words, but those words mark him as a sociopath with an all-purpose chip on his shoulder. Josh Brolin, on the other hand, does look nervous as Moss, tough not quite afraid. We always get the sense that Moss knows what he's capable of, and knows that Chigurh is right on the border of what he can handle. He and the Coens let us be a little unsure about Moss, who certainly doesn't seem to be the nicest guy in the world. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand, does make us comfortable as Bell. Even when he's expressing doubt, it's somewhat reassuring, because that's what weathered-looking sheriffs are supposed to do.

There are a lot of elements to No Country that play as familiar, and even the combination of elements (guy with bag of money + relentless killer + lawman who wishes things were as simple as they were in the old days) has probably been done a lot. It's seldom been handled nearly as well as this, though - even the small parts, like Kelly Macdonald's portrayal of Llewelyn's wife who really can't comprehend what's going on, are note-perfect.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with six other reviews

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Savages

Every once in a while, either online or in real life, I get in a conversation that involves someone mentioning how they don't go to the movies any more, or didn't enjoy their last cinematic experience, because kids just don't know how to behave in a movie theater. "Kids", of course, can refer to actual small children, teenagers, college-aged people, folks in their twenties, or, depending upon how old the curmudgeon in question is, folks in their mid-thirties like myself. I think the most recent one was online, in response to A.O. Scott's article about how it's sometimes good for children to be brought to PG-13 or R-rated movies.

Anyway, I'd just like to mention that the people talking too much during the screening of The Savages that I attended were all in their forties and fifties, with maybe one or two older than that. The lesson, obviously, is that no matter what your age, race, class, or creed, nobody else in the theater knows how to act properly.

The Savages

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2008 at AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run)

I suppose that those of us who don't connect fully with The Savages should count ourselves as lucky; it means in part that we have yet to go through the trials that come with the looming ends of our parents' lives. Even without the personal experience to back it up, that part of the film is still effective; it's the title characters who are maybe a bit too much.

Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) works as a temp in Manhattan while applying for grants to finish her play about her screwed-up family; brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) teaches theater in Buffalo. A call from Sun City, Arizona informs them that father Lenny (Philip Bosco) is now their problem after the death of his long-time girlfriend. So they find him a nursing home near Jon's house and try to do right by him even though he seldom did right by them, resulting in their screwed-up state.

Movies like The Savages have to be at least a little mean, but writer/director Tamara Jenkins's venom frequently seems to be at least a little misdirected. The opening half-hour or so, especially, has a few sequences that seem calculated to make senior citizens look foolish, and while that works when we see Wendy and Jon having less than generous reactions, there has to be a better way to get across that caring for Lenny is going to be a hassle for which his children are not prepared than making all old people look ridiculous. There's also a few bits of Wendy working out to an exercise tape which makes her look silly, but to no real end - most people look silly in that situation, and that Wendy does doesn't say anything about her.

The idea is that title family has difficulty forming connections with other people, which is reflected in their other relationships: Jon can't bring himself to marry his girlfriend Kasia (Cara Seymour) despite them having been together for years and her impending deportation back to Poland; Wendy has trysts with a married man (Peter Friendman) but seems more enthusiastic about his dog. Wendy and Jon even have problems with each other, although not much worse than the normal tendency of siblings to bicker.

Since they're playing flawed characters, it's natural to have some reservations about the performances. Laura Linney is sometimes a little too much as Wendy, and not necessarily just in terms of how she's supposed to be a little off-putting. She's so closed-off most of the time that when she perks up when the subject of meds to put one's mind at ease comes up, it seems incongruous, especially since they don't seem to change her behavior very much. Hoffman is his usual reliable self as the somewhat more functional Jon. Bosco mainly has to be a hostile old guy, but gets a lot of credit for making Lenny's dementia feel much more real than just being a few tics.

My complaint with The Savages isn't that its characters aren't likable - Jon and Wendy generally come off better than my description, as they are at least trying to do right - but that Jenkins doesn't use their lesser qualities to interesting ends. Screwed-up people can be compelling, but Jon and Wendy just don't have enough charisma, positive or negative, to really grab this audience member's interest.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with three other reviews

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

There Will Be Blood

I stay for the credits of a movie. It annoys people sometimes - the people I've come with, the people who just want to clean the theater before letting people in for the next show, the people trying to get out who have to climb over me. Heck, it annoys me, when I'm held prisoner by this force of habit but know it could be the difference between getting home and waiting twenty minutes in the cold, rain, and/or snow for the next bus.

It's useful, though. $8.50 for a matinee seems a little less unreasonable when you see the sheer mass of people required to make even a small, bad movie. And it gives you a couple minutes more where you're not necessarily in the movie's world, but at least in its orbit. You don't yet have to take your mind off of the story and characters and focus it on parking or the MBTA or what you're doing next.

You can just process what you've just seen, which is especially helpful with a movie like There Will Be Blood, whose ending is both abrupt and perfect. Leave right as the credits start to roll, and you might be thinking "well, that was pretty good, until it went off the rails at the end." Take a couple minutes, and you might decide it needed to go off the rails.

Oh, and pick up your garbage afterwards. It's not like it takes that much effort.

There Will Be Blood

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 5 January 2008 at Cooldge Corner Theater #1 (first-run)

It's the music in There Will Be Blood that gets me first, even before Daniel Day-Lewis's fantastic performance. Jonny Greenwood's score is something of a blunt instrument, using practically subsonic bass to underscore the ever-present darkness in the main character's soul and frequent crashes to suggest the labor used to feed the man's greed. Not subtle, but effective.

As the movie starts, the music is carrying a lot of the load, as Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) is prospecting alone and not one to waste words when there's no-one there to hear them. He could perhaps use a partner, as the process leaves him injured and near dead by the time he strikes oil. He builds up a small company, but allows no-one close to him until a worker dies, leaving behind a baby that Daniel takes as his own. He calls the boy H.W., and ten years later is introducing H.W. as his partner and son. H.W. (Dillon Freasier) is there when Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) sells them the location of a field with oil seeping right through the surface. The owner of that field, Paul's father Abel (David Willis), has another son, Eli (Dano again), a preacher who wants more than money from Daniel. The Plainviews do strike oil, but it comes at a terrible price. Word of Daniel's success also attracts a ne'er-do-well brother (Kevin J. O'Connor) who he hasn't had contact with in years.

Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't show his face on a movie set for anything less than a fantastic, award-worthy part these days, and Plainview is a corker. He's a beast, of course, displaying a cold ruthlessness in his business dealings and a practiced formality in his dealings with others until the time comes for his rage to break through. He's self-aware without winking at the audience, and Day-Lewis not only delivers lines about how Plainview hates most people instinctively in a way that's matter-of-fact but not confessional; he's not ashamed of it, just canny enough to realize that it's detrimental to let most people know this. Day-Lewis takes this confession to heart, and it's part of almost every scene he plays - he's either holding back his disdain or loosening the reigns on his anger.

And yet, despite all that, Day-Lewis and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson give us a character who is captivating beyond being a monster. I suspect even people far more religious than I will find themselves surreptitiously cheering Plainview as he deals with the hypocrisy and greed of his bible-thumping neighbor: There's a sequence where Eli impresses upon Plainview how the community might appreciate it if Eli delivered a dedication when the town's first rig was opened, and Plainview finds a way to deliver him a lesson in humility. He enjoys it too much, and it likely makes him an enemy for life, but it's hard not to share some of his satisfaction. His relationship with H.W. is also fascinating; there's ample suggestion that the boy is just a way to humanize Daniel to prospective partners, and it's clear that Daniel doesn't really know how to love H.W. as a father should, but there is still his own flawed way.

Naturally, being Daniel Plainview's son will make a kid a bit odd, and Dillon Freasier does a pretty fantastic job of capturing that without making H.W. into something not recognizable as a human child like many other child actors might. There's unconditional love there, but he's also unconsciously absorbed the father's habit of not wearing one's heart on one's sleeve. The other noteworthy performance is Paul Dano, who makes Eli something of a cipher of his own - is he a devout man who is corrupted by pride and envy, or someone who sees the church as the only thing that can build him up to Daniel's level in the community? He makes a fantastic antagonist for Daniel, unctuous piousness contrasted with honest greed and hate.

Anderson uses every tool at his disposal to bring us into this dark place. The sky is never anything but overcast; the whole world of the film is a muddy brown. He contrasts the great wooden derricks Plainview builds (more impressive than the later steel variety, because they combine inhuman sclae with comprehensible technique) with the almost ostentatious modesty of having him sleep on the floor. As much as this is very much a character piece, it's also grand. The length of the film and the wideness of the screen allows Plainview to isolate himself. The music, which I've mentioned, is relentlessly foreboding. Even after we've seen some of the nastiest expressions of human nature, it holds out the promise of worse, right up to the last sequence.

And that end... It's masterful, but not right away. Quite frankly, it initially seems like Anderson has lost his marbles, nastily throwing out many of the shades of gray he'd so carefully built, and in a way that makes it seem like he's treating the whole thing as a joke. After a bit, though, it becomes a thing of beauty: This is a movie about drilling for oil, after all, and what is that but building and digging in hopes that a gusher of the blackest material imaginable will come spewing out? It's been held in a long time, but now it's going to explode faster than we're ready for.

That's a kind of greatness - after two and a half hours, I thought I'd seen it all, but there was still something I wasn't prepared for.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with six other reviews

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Ah, crap. My free trial of Blockbuster Online ended ten minutes ago. Maybe I'll keep it up for a month before switching to NetFlix; for as much as I'll grudgingly admit I can use this, getting to the HD-DVD and foreign stuff was too hard.


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 January 2008 in Jay's Living Room (HD-DVD rented from Blockbuster Online)

Action movies, sci-fi action movies in particular, are often given low marks from critics for being stupid, or bloated, but a little bit of thought suggests that neither of those adjectives applies to Next. Aside from being short, it's frequently quite clever in how it makes use of its gimmick. The trouble is that as near as I can tell, nothing whatsoever happens in this movie for any discernible reason. Maybe all those details were sacrificed at the altar of the ninety-minute running time, but it would have been nice to know just why anyone in this movie does anything.

We don't know why Vegas magician Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage) can see two minutes into the future. Well, except for the bit about meeting Liz Cooper (Jessica Biel) in a certain diner; he's known that would happen at a certain time for months, though he didn't know the date. No reason given for why she's an exception. We don't know why Department of Homeland Security Agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) known about him and thinks his unique abilities could be key to stopping a terrorist attack. Heck, we don't know why a bunch of generically-aliased European terrorists want to set a nuclear bomb off in Los Angeles in the first place.

I suppose director Lee Tamahori and writers Gary Goldman, Paul Bernbaum, and Jonathan Hensleigh might be doing this on purpose - after all, if Johnson's thing is seeing the immediate future, maybe keeping the audience in the dark about the bigger picture is a deliberate and sensible choice. For that to work, though, I think they'd have to stick to the two-minute rule more faithfully, and there's too many unexplained exceptions. Yes, Liz is a common element to many of them, but why? She's attractive and nice and all, but her what makes this pretty hostage so special? At first I thought that maybe she and Cris might have the same power - she's kind of got the same golden skin tone that the filmmakers give Cage, but nothing ever comes of that.

(This is what comes of paying too much attention to the credits. You see that the film is based upon a Philip K. Dick store named "The Golden Man" and then try and find importance in what may just be Cage and Biel having a suntan.)

Anyway, whether by design or by a studio ordering cuts to squeeze an extra showing a day out of a dud, the end result is a movie that has less story tying its set pieces together than the average martial arts picture. So how do those set pieces fare? They're not bad, but "kind of clever" is the best that can be done in actually complimenting them. Two minutes isn't a lot of time in everyday terms, but it's a lot of time in an action sequence. So Tamahori and company have a bit of fun with the idea that the hair's-breadth escapes one might otherwise scoff at are something Cris can ensure, even in a pair of car chases. There are, of course, a couple scenes that rewind to emphasize that Cris doesn't want to do that, but the niftiest use of Cris's power, at least visually, comes toward the end when Tamahori shows multiple Crises branching off to indicate that he doesn't just see "the" future, but all possible futures. As clever as the idea is, it does sort of kill any immediate peril that Cris Johnson is in, and since we've spent the first two-thirds of the movie watching him try to evade the DHS, we're not exactly invested in their survival. The other big action sequence, a run down a hill dodging large pieces of debris, is hobbled by CGI that falls just short of being completely convincing.

The cast is good, but wasted. I like Nicolas Cage, and he's got a really nice knack for making silly throwaway one-liners and bits amusing, but he's got little else to work with here. Julianne Moore and Jessica Biel have even less, slotted into fairly generic hardass and designated hostage roles. I hope they got paid enough to do something cool for scale later on. Thomas Kretschmann doesn't even really have a character; his villain is barely even there.

Next's best bits are pretty nice; just not enough to hang a movie off of on their own. What's disappointing is that the filmmakers don't even seem to try.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with four other reviews

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

I nearly ordered this on video before seeing it, as one of the greatest long-term sales was ending with 2007 - Amazon's 10% off for people who bought into HD during 2006. For whatever reason, the discount wasn't registering, so there was no particular need to pre-order in four-plus months in advance.

I'll definitely be picking it up, though - it's a pure delight. Just a matter of deciding on the format.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2008 at the The Somerville Theatre #2 (first/second-run)

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead knows every trick in the book. It flashes forward and back, shows us different sides to several scenes, and builds tension up for small things so well that the big things catch the audience almost completely off guard. The quick description of the story may not sound like much, but the execution is close to dead-perfect.

That story has two brothers - Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) - hatching a plan to rob their parents' jewelry store. The way they figure it, everything is insured and having worked there as teenagers, they know the place so well that they can control the situation and nobody will get hurt. Things don't go as planned, though, and the aftermath creates all sorts of tensions among the family, even if nobody knows the whole story.

The robbery is the second scene in the movie before we jump back in time a few days to see how Hank and Andy each arrived at that point. It's hard to really know at what point the decision the point to tell the story out of chronological order was made just by watching the film, but writer Kelly Masterson and veteran director Sidney Lumet certainly make it feel like this is the only way it could be done. It's a bit of a gimmick, of course, but the point of the device is seldom to hide information or make the audience re-examine the same moment with new information. That happens, of course, but just as often revisiting a scene mainly seems to be to allow the audience to fix events in the film's timeline. The greatest benefit, though, is in how it allows us to concentrate on Andy, Hank, or their father Charles (Albert Finney) individually; we get a good look at what each is doing or thinking without having to cut away because what someone else is up to at that moment is also important.

For all that Lumet is cutting the film together a bit unconventionally on the large scale, he's fairly old-school within any given segment. The robbery segment, for instance, is a great little mini-movie on its own: It gives us just enough time to get familiar with the geography of the store and parking lot without doing anything so obvious as a guided tour, works some tension with the clash of the masked robber and the old woman (Rosemary Harris), and ends on a nice, decisive bit of action. There's a clear point to each segment, and very little wasted time during any. Even the opening of the film, which might just seem like an excuse for some nice skin, does a nice job of establishing that these characters have known happiness and are trying to get back there.

What's especially impressive is how the film stays on target despite the many different directions Masterson and Lumet potentially have to go off on tangents. There's drug dealers, whether or not to take someone off life support, an audit of the real estate company where Andy and Hank work, and other things that could have potentially wound up dominating the film. Everything winds up tying back into the basic story of how the aftermath of the robbery ripping the family apart. It's a tight little thriller even though a lot is going on.

The filmmakers have a very nice cast working for them. Philip Seymour Hoffman is icy as Andy, but he's also desperate, and it's a blast to watch how the latter starts to take over as the film goes along. Hoffman somehow manages to keep Andy from becoming a simple villain, despite making him pretty scummy. Ethan Hawke can barely compete as the mostly sad-sack brother, although that's partly the point: Hank's just as desperate, and it's why Andy can lead him around. Albert Finney makes Charles a destroyed bear of a man, not quite brimming with rage but with no shortage, either. Marisa Tomei gives what may be her best performance in years as Andy's wife; she makes her beauty intimidating without being overtly demanding.

The best recommendation I can give for this movie as a thriller, though, is that there's always the sense that it can go in any direction. I'm not talking about twists, just saying that Masterson and Lumet present us with situations where their characters could be pushed in several directions, and keep doing so almost non-stop for two hours.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with four other reviews

Monday, January 07, 2008

Sweeney Todd

Movie-blogging resolution #4 for the new year: When I find myself sitting down, trying to squeeze the next paragraph out, cut my losses and just write it as a capsule review. I would have done it with this one, but it seems like everyone else liked it and... Well, I didn't. I didn't actively hate it, but I was bored. I kind of wanted my two-star review on HBS/EFC to balance out the raves.

I think Fantasia '07 ruined Sweeney Todd for me. I saw four musicals there, three in Korean and one in Japanese. Putting aside Dasepo Naughty Girls, which treated its songs as karaoke and basically used them as one more item in its "everything and the kitchen sink" way of trying to get a reaction, each of them had something that made me a little less impressed with Tim Burton's film.

For one, I've already seen something very much like a Tim Burton musical in Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater. I had a sort of middling reaction to it, but I'm remembering it a bit more fondly now. It was a midnight showing at the end of a five-movie day, and I was having trouble keeping awake. But director Jeon Gye-su appropriates a lot of Tim Burton-esque trappings, making them feel fresh and beautiful. Maybe that's because he's not actually Tim Burton and I don't know what to expect, but the swoop over the miniature city and the elaborate decrepitude don't feel nearly as obligatory as they do in Todd.

Then there was The Fox Family, which was as mad and occasionally gruesome as Sweeney Todd, with a storyline involving fox spirits planning to eat human livers in order to stay human. It's got beauty in its strangeness.

And, of course, Memories of Matsuko, probably the best film I saw all year. It manages to milk more tragedy out of its single lost life than Burton ges from his bloody massacres, it's got great songs, and it knows how to use those songs to twist the knife a little more, to wrest more raw emotion out of a perhaps unbelievable story. I've often said that a musical has no room for error, that there are great musicals and terrible musicals but very few mediocre ones. Memories of Matsuko is a great musical (won't somebody pick this up for US distribution?), but Sweeney Todd winds up being just short of terrible, even if no individual bit is off by very much.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2008 at the AMC Harvard Square #5 (first-run)

It's an odd thing to say in reference to a musical about a serial killer featuring cannabilism, but Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street seems to make the safe, predictable choice at almost every junction, and the movie winds up somehow feeling bland as a result. Which I'm pretty sure is the one thing this movie shouldn't be.

Tim Burton directs; it's tough to think of a director who would fit the material better, but maybe he winds up being a little too on the nose. Once you've got Burton on board, the visuals suddenly seem predictable - stark blacks and whites during some sequences, clashing but muted stripes during the more colorful bits, overhead views of a city that proudly looks like exaggeratedly pointy dollhouses. Oh, and he's given Johnny Depp a goofy haircut, and bucked no trends by casting Helena Bonham Carter as a walking, talking Living Dead Doll. There's bugs and grime and silliness disguised as nastiness. It's all exactly what you'd expect from Tim Burton making this movie and thus none of it is shocking at all.

And shouldn't a story like this feel at least a little transgressive? Even if you know the play by heart and have seen every film the director has made, shouldn't there be at least a little thrill of inappropriate excitement as Sweeney (Depp) takes his first victim, or Mrs. Lovett (Carter) proposes disposing of the bodies by baking them into pies? That's strangely absent, though; too much of the story just seems to be going through the motions. The film never bothers to explain what crime Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) framed Benjamin Barker for in hopes of stealing his wife, leading to Barker's return as Sweeney Todd. That the sailor who rescued Sweeney, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) should fall in love with Barker's daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener), whom Turpin has been raising as his own, turns out to be a flat coincidence, not an ironic twist of fate. It's nothing more than convenient.

Frankly, I wasn't much impressed with it as a musical. I understand that several songs were removed from the play and sung dialog has been replaced with spoken lines. What's left is overwhelmingly somber, with the livelier songs almost incomprehensible by their overlapping lines. The singing is serviceable, although none of the performances are especially memorable in and of themselves. Though nobody in the cast is especially known for their singing ability, they all do fairly well.

Story-wise, the script is a bit of a mess, too. The young lovers seem terribly bland compared to the monsters their meant to compliment, and the end is frustrating. A situation that's been the source of immediate tension basically gets shoved to the side and forgotten, and the big revelation in the end has no real build-up, happening just because London is apparently a very, very small town where everybody knows and is connected to each other in ironic ways.

They do just about what you'd expect for the rest of their performances, although none keeps their character interesting throughout the entire movie. Depp does a nice job in his first song of showing the rage hiding just beneath the surface, but for much of the rest of the movie Sweeney seems more eccentric than mad. The moments toward the end when Carter's Lovett finds herself torn between her group's amorality and her desire for some sort of family life are well-done, but she hasn't been interesting enough to earn our sympathy. Timothy Spall and Sacha Baron Cohen play smaller roles, but exactly the ones you'd want them playing. Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower do fine, although they tend to get outshone by the grander, more familiar co-stars. Alan Rickman is perhaps the most disappointing; he's one of the greatest screen villains of all time, but between not being able to establish Judge Turpin's bona fides as a baddie early on and the flat performance, what could be a grand, deservedly operatic enmity between Turpin and Todd is just not nearly as vital as it needs to be.

It's a funny thing. Here's a film and a concept that casts aside subtlety and yet still seems to be playing it safe when that's the last thing it should be.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with eight other reviews

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Margot at the Wedding

Movie-blogging resolution #3 for the new year: No more Noah Baumbach. I'm kind of shocked that I gave The Squid and the Whale three stars a couple years ago. Time has caused me to stop thinking of it as an individual, amusing experience but rather as part of the blur of movies about unpleasant, privileged families who act as though their issues are somehow special.

Granted, that's an easy resolution to keep because he apparently won't have anything new out in 2008, although '09 threatens him co-writing an animated adaptation of a Roald Dahl book with Wes Anderson, featuring voices of George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, and Bill Murray. Hopefully that will be a bit of a bounce-back for Anderson, because The Darjeeling Limited sadly fell into the same category of tedious films about privileged whiners.

Margot at the Wedding

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2007 at the Arlington Capitol #6 (second-run)

Someone once said that happy families are all the same, but that the others are unique in their misery. I don't think that's true, but even if it were, that wouldn't make every unhappy family interesting. This one certainly isn't.

We start with Manhattanite Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her son Claude (Zane Pais) taking a train and then a ferry back to Margot's childhood home, where Margot's sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is to marry Malcolm (Jack Black) under the old tree the next weekend. Margot doesn't think much of her sister's fiancé, but then Margot's a snob who hasn't spoken to her sister in years; the trip to the shore is also a way to avoid her husband Jim (John Turturro) and see her lover Dick (Ciaran Hinds).

This family's particular dysfunction - which nobody suffers from worse than Margot - is the inability to shut up. The sisters cannot be with another person for more than a few minutes without saying something nasty, no matter how much better they'd be served by silence. It's not particularly witty, revealing, or entertaining nastiness, either - as near as I can tell, several of these characters are just mean and thoughtless, and what's gained from watching that be served up? Realism, I guess, but is that enough reason on its own to sit through a movie this dingy and morose?

Writer/director Noah Baumbach clearly thinks so; Margot at the Wedding shares an obvious kinship with his previous film, The Squid and the Whale. Both can be described as pitch-black comedies, are told from the point of view of a teenager watching his family of writers and academics collapse, and don't flinch from the dysfunction they exhibit. I've admittedly cooled on The Squid and the Whale since I first saw it, but at least that had someone like Jeff Daniels's Bernard, who was as ridiculous and repulsive as anybody in this movie but also seemed complex and human enough to at least be interesting. I wouldn't be surprised if Margot was nearly as drawn from Baumbach's life as Squid was said to be, although the process of making the characters less obvious stand-ins for real people seems to have sapped something from them, making them feel less real and specific.

The really sad thing is, the details and depth that might have made these characters interesting as well as believable probably exists somewhere in the heads of the filmmaker and actors. The performances never hit a false note, and there is obviously history between the characters. Kidman and Leigh are especially good as sisters; there's familiarity, disdain, and begrudging affection between them. Kidman in particular deserves to be in a better movie, displaying several facets to her character, selling us on her being fond of her family members even though she often doesn't know how to deal with them. Jack Black has had his usual manic energy toned down, but he does a good job of playing Malcolm as an outsider a bit out of his league but not unbelievably naïve (he has been seeing Pauline for a year, after all). Zane Pais, Flora Cross as Pauline's daughter Ingrid, and Halley Feiffer as the neighbor's daughter represent the younger generation well, awkward and a little messed up without seeming too clever to believe.

Films like this sometimes feel like they would make perfect sense to the people making it because they've been living with the characters for months and when they see the end result, they see all the context and backstory that makes it feel like a well-rounded film. The rest of us, though, just see what's on the screen. Sometimes, that's a movie that, while it doesn't present all the details, still speaks to something in the audience because it lets us in on enough that we feel a kinship. And maybe, if you've got a Margot in your family, this movie is like that, something a little too true for complete comfort but cathartic in how it shows others dealing with the same issues.

But if you don't, they're just Baumbach's characters' issues, and he never manages to convince us that they are either universal or interesting enough for outside attention.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with two other reviews

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Movie-blogging resolution #1 for the new year: Don't go a month between postings. Aside from having at least a couple friends looking at it occasionally, I like to spout off about the subject and a bunch of things - holiday stuff, mainly - have kept me from having the time to sit down and knock out a full review in a day or two. That's slowed down and now I can get back to this.

Movie-blogging resolution #2 for the new year: Write the review, then do the star rating. It seems obvious, but I've tended to start by scribbling the basic information down on a pad or in a spreadsheet on my phone - name, theater, rating, how many reviews it has on HBS/EFC and the average rating - the idea being to prioritize films that have not yet been reviewed or where my opinion is sharply different from the ones there.

It's a bit of a trap, though - at a certain point I find myself writing to match the single number I decided on before getting a chance to flesh out my thoughts. So now I'm just keeping the last few weeks' worth of movie tickets in my wallet, writing about the ones that interest me the most when I've got an hour on the bus.

Charlie Wilson's War

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2007 at Regal Fenway #13 (first-run)

Writer Aaron Sorkin hasn't had a film credit since 1995's An American President, but he has been busy, with writing credits for nearly every episode of SportsNight, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and the first four years of The West Wing. From those series (and the trouble with cocaine that saw him removed from The West Wing), it's hardly surprising that he'd be drawn to Rep. Charles Wilson, D-Texas: He probably sees more than a little of himself in this man whose appetites are only exceeded by his love for his work.

As the film opens in 1980, Wilson (Tom Hanks) is deciding to make his work the liberation of Afghanistan from its Soviet invaders. He's in a good position to do it; he serves on the House Intelligence committee and because his wealthy district asks little more of him than defending the Second Amendment, more people owe him favors that vice versa. His sexual peccadilloes and constant drinking also disguise a mind that graduated from Annapolis and sees the importance of Afghanistan when few others do. Those others include Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a wealthy former beauty queen who can be even brasher than Charlie, and Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an insubordinate CIA analyst.

History can be a dry subject when reduced to lists of names, numbers, and events - there's a section of the film that does just that, and even the visuals of planes, helicopters, and tanks blowing up can only do so much to keep screenfuls of statistic on how many planes, helicopters, and tanks were blown up during a given month interesting. What Sorkin, director Mike Nichols, and the cast tap into is the larger-than-life personalities of the people who are able to make history. Charlie, Joanne, and Gust are all arrogant and difficult to deal with in their own ways, but not so much so that they're unpleasant to watch. They're entertaining, characters who would be fun to watch in a fictional, lighter story. The first time Gust visits Charlie's office plays like a bedroom farce, as Charlie regularly shoos him from the room to check with his staff about his potential implication in an ethics scandal. But as much as the filmmakers work to make the story entertaining, they don't allow the form of a feature to overpower the feel of history. There's no standard-issue romantic subplot shoehorned in, no matter what the poster implies; various plot threads don't complement each other in a neatly parallel fashion. This is interesting material which Nichols and Sorkin trust to be interesting.

The cast does their part, mostly giving performances that seem effortless because they know how to take advantage of their movie-star status. Even Amy Adams, who arguably isn't a movie star - yet - has enough of a history of playing underappreciated girls-next-door that we get who and what Charlie's put-upon assistant Bonnie Bach is at first sight. Charlie Wilson is a scoundrel from the first time we see him, but in the back of our mind we know that someone played by Tom Hanks can't be all or even mostly bad. That just covers making sure the first impression isn't too far in one direction or the other, though; Hanks gives a stealthily fine performance the rest of the way, convincing the audience of Charlie's intelligence and passion while only showing occasional cracks in his easygoing exterior. Julia Roberts gives a character with relatively little screen time more stature than she might otherwise have while making her more likable than an heiress dabbling in international politics probably should be. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives Gust a dry wit to offset his pushiness.

The movie is all about gently showing us how things that run counter to our intuitive sense of how they should can wind up working out. It is, after all, about a secret war funded by the CIA and a Congressman who is gleefully amoral in his personal life - whose end result was arguably the brutal Taliban regime gaining power - stuff that would be the plot of a villainous conspiracy in many films. Here, Nichols and Sorkin present it as a valuable and necessary opportunity taken, and Charlie Wilson's excesses as basically harmless. There's a certain innocence to the film's corruption, in part because we don't see our main characters acting to benefit themselves and in part because we're given just enough look at the effects of not doing anything to convince us that something had to be done without feeling like we're being preached at too much. The film also has a nice way of showing us the nuts and bolts of how politics works and how secret deals are made without becoming too procedural.

Charlie Wilson's War is so slick that one can actually ignore just how slick it is - even the bits that pointedly don't seem Hollywood-perfect are flawless in how they avoid perfection. The film is a highly entertaining bit of history, which can be a bit jarring if you don't expect history to be entertaining.

Also at eFilmCritic (along with four other guys' opinions)