Friday, February 29, 2008

Beyond Belief

Look at the last post and the next one, and you might get the idea that the 16th was a busy day for me, movie-wise. Yeah, it was, and I still haven't written a review for Jumper yet. (For those wondering about the order - The Spiderwick Chronicles and Jumper at Boston Common, to Coolidge Corner for the Oscar shorts, and then the the MFA just in time for Beyond Belief. Then I went to a 24-hour movie marathon the next day. That was a lot of movies.

I was glad to get to see Beyond Belief, though - aside from it being cool to be offered a comp ticket because of this blog (yes, my attention can be bought cheaply, if not necessarily my approval), it's a pretty good movie, and there were a ton of filmmakers and subjects there, most of whom actually had something interesting to say. I hope I haven't said that the movie references things that I remember from the Q&A.

Anyway, pretty good doc. Beyond Belief formally opens at the MFA tomorow (1 March 2008), and will screen sporadically during March and April.

Beyond Belief

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2008 at the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (preview screening)

Humanity is still around as a species because most of its members are basically good. They need to be, because one person giving into his or her more destructive impulses can create damage that require the actions of dozens to counter. Beyond Belief focuses on two of the people trying to make the world a better place.

Patti Quigley and Susan Retik came together because of their similar stories. Both women were stay-at-home mothers in the Boston area, both had husbands on the jets that were crashed into the World Trade Center, both were pregnant at the time. That's not a terribly uncommon story; it's what they did afterward that is notable: They started a foundation (Beyond the Eleventh) dedicated to raising money to assist widows in Afghanistan.

It's a noble gesture and the movie spends a fair amount of time showing us why it's a needed one. There are plenty of interesting facts handed out to us, both as numbers - the number of widows in Afghanistan, for instance - and facts about the culture - we learn that few widows remarry in large part because tradition dictates that the father's family would claim their children if they did so. The filmmakers spent some time shooting in Afghanistan, and we see first hand how devastated it is from decades of near-constant war, and how while the Taliban is no longer in control of the government, many of the rigid doctrines they enforced are still very much in place. Several widows are interviewed, so that we get to know them before seeing the relief efforts.

(Not in the movie, but worth noting: During a Q&A session after the screening, director Beth Murphy noted that they likely could not show this film on Afghani television, as the candid women interviewed sans burqa might face reprisals.)

That's a well-appreciated move on Ms. Murphy's part, as it does allow us to see the Afghan widows as strong women in their own right, as opposed to simply recipients of Americans' charity. The time we spend following Patti and Susan as they work to set up the foundation shows that they are committed to helping these women become self-sufficient as opposed to just distributing money in the short term. We're given just enough of a look at how their organization works to see what's going on, and also see the risks involved when they are glued to the news because a woman they met with earlier in the film is kidnapped.

It's not just about the foundation; Murphy also spends a fair amount of time highlighting these women as individuals and focusing on how they handle their grief aside from their charitable work. Patti seems especially uncomfortable with people not just identifying her as a widow, but as a 9/11 widow, even though she knows that's what keeps the charity visible. There's an amusing bit about how wearying it is, even years on - Susan says she still feels so lonely, Patti that there are people there for her, and Susan says, yeah, but they won't have sex with me. It's a nice little moment that illustrates the grieving process nicely - some things will always hurt, but life does go on.

What's most notable about Beyond Belief is that it integrates all three of these threads remarkably well - many a well-meaning documentary has fallen down by leaning too hard on outrage or admiration for its subjects, and while those factors are clearly present, they never overwhelm the need to show the audience interesting and useful things. Murphy and her crew manage to do a good job of both collecting raw material and putting it together, and resist the urge to over-dramatize events.

Which makes for a pretty good documentary. There are likely others about the same subject which push harder, but aren't necessarily more convincing.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lightning round: February 2008

Stuff has started falling out the back of my brain, so it's time to do some capsules and then see which ones expand themselves into full reviews. President's Day weekend was kind of a cruncher - something like 11 films at the sci-fi marathon, the Academy Award shorts, and three other features. My brain just can't store that many details about that many movies.

Evil Dead 2

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2008 in Jay's Living Room (Blu-ray Disc)

At last count, I think I've purchased something like four copies of this movie - one on VHS, two on DVD, and this one on Blu-ray Disc. I knew from reading reviews of the disc that it probably doesn't look as great as it could, so there's a good chance that copy #5 could be in the future when Anchor Bay inevitably issues another edition. It doesn't look bad - far from it! - but the quality of the transfer is a bit wonky. There are some sections which look too bright, with the result that it looks more like a set than a real place. Not that I'll likely go back to the DVD very often, but it's a tad disappointing.

I'll probably watch it again sometime in the next few months because watching it again reminded me that this is a really weird movie. Army of Darkness, the musical, the comics that have played up the comedy, and the whole Monty Python-ish cult that has sprung up around this movie makes one tend to think of it as funny, but the first half hour to forty-five minutes plays the absurdity as much as a descent into madness as slapstick, especially considering how it is, for the most part, just Bruce Campbell in the cabin. The parallel universe version of this film is Ash as a murderous, hallucinating madman, and you wouldn't have to change the first half of the movie very much at all to get it.

The rest of the movie is more straight-ahead, and it's amazing to see how good Sam Raimi was at action and comedy, and how to mix the two without either of them suffering, so early in his career. It really is amazing how many different styles and approaches Raimi used in this movie, and it's the mark of a fine, under-appreciated director that he fuses them into his own style rather than making it feel like a jumbled mess.

Let's Get Lost

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

I suspect a biopic with Nick Nolte playing Chet Baker would be a huge hit in Europe. This documentary does a lot of the basics - the humble beginnings, the testimonials from fellow musicians, the stories of drug abuse and infidelity. What makes it unusual, I think, is the way it so baldly portrays the tremendous, sometimes humiliating loyalty that genius inspires in people.

Because there's no redemptive portion here. Baker's death came soon after Let's Get Lost was shot, but more than that, there's a gut punch about a half an hour or so into the film, when a former mistress talks for a while about Chet, clearly still very fond of him, and then finishes it off by flatly saying what a selfish bastard he is. Then there's the ex-wife, a former English beauty queen, living in Baker's native Oklahoma with their kids, blithely acting like Baker will be back someday.

Then there's Baker himself, his face and body imploded from years of indulgence and self-destruction. He still has admirers and talent, but there's not much else of him left. Even the music chosen to score the film is lonely, as he switches between trumpet and raspy vocals.

And yet, the women in his life still pine for him, despite everything.

Night Moves

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2008 at the Harvard Film Archive (Arthur Penn in person)

I first heard of Night Moves in GAMES magazine, which used it to introduce a chess puzzle similar to the game that Gene Hackman's Harry Moseby studies at various points in the film. He's looking at it as being about missed opportunities and not being able to see what's in front of one's own face as his marriage falls apart and the full facts of the case he's working on are often just out of reach.

Night Moves is a nifty little crime story with a few extra things going on. Part of what's really neat about it is the way it shifts back and forth between detection and drama. We follow a trail with Moseby as he tracks down a missing girl, but then we watch them for a bit as the crime story simmers in the background before it bursts back into the foreground. During the discussion, director Arthur Penn mentioned how proud he was of the finale, which eschews exposition for showing the audience the answers visually, and it is a very welcome change.

The movie also has a fantastic cast - Gene Hackman had a number of great roles during the seventies, and this is right up there. Jennifer Warren is similarly terrific as the mystery woman he meets while looking for a missing girl. We also get early roles from Melanie Griffith and James Woods, which is extra fun, in part because of how James Woods has always been James Woods; even back in his mid-twenties, he had the sort of scuzzy, sarcastic persona figured out.

Mickey One

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2008 at the Harvard Film Archive (Arthur Penn in person)

Mickey One was the second part of the Archive's Arthur Penn double feature, and it was... different. Warren Beatty plays a Detroit comedian who runs afoul of the mob, escapes to Chicago, but finds himself unable to resist getting back on stage, even though that leads to fears of the Detroit mob finding him again...

It's an interesting movie, sort of avant-garde, and Beatty and Alexandra Stewart are both pretty good in it. It does get kind of jumpy in the second half, blurring the line between what's actually happening and Mickey's fears, and the illogic of Mickey's dilemma is hard to escape. Beautiful black and white cinematography, though.

Also on the program: A short film from the 1972 Olympics ("The Hightest", part of Visions of Eight) about pole-vaulting. You never know, until you've seen it in slow motion, just how specific and non-transferable to anything else pole-vaulting skills are.

The Pursuit of Happyness

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental Blu-ray Disc)

If Will Smith ever runs for President, I'll probably vote for him. I don't think he has yet taken on a project he couldn't handle - even his bad movies are generally bad in spite of him, rather than because of him - even when people are underestimating him. It's a quality that serves him well in Pursuit of Happyness as he drops his cool and cocky personas to play a father trying to hold it together for his son without much in the way of resources. The film wears its aspirations to inspiration on its sleeve, but Smith's a guy with the knack for making the audience believe in him, so it's pretty easy to believe in what we're seeing.

27 Dresses

* * (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2008 at Regal Fenway #13 (first-run)

... or "what I hadn't seen the night of the Super Bowl".

I like Katherine Heigl. She's built herself a solid on-screen persona; ever since Roswell she's been playing smart, excessively organized young women who are still fun to be around, and her role in 27 Dresses fits that to a tee. It's got a clever hook for a story, decent-enough actors in the supporting roles, and a fun opening sequence.

What it doesn't have, sadly, is much in the way of jokes. It's not a heavy movie, by any means, but that's not really enough to qualify as a really good romantic comedy; such a movie should probably make me laugh a lot more often than it did. And I'm not trying to pull "it's called romantic comedy" the way others pull "it's called science fiction"; having the characters make us laugh would make us root for them to end up together more.

Brothers Sklandowsky (aka A Trick of the Light)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2008 at the Harvard Film Archive (VES free screenings)

This one was a feature presentation to go with a bunch of early silents, all of them screened on DVD, which was kind of disappointing. You'd think the HFA would have a copy of something like "Une Voyage dans la Lune", at the very least, but apparently those don't get broken out for what are basically classroom screenings to which the general public is invited.

I did rather love Wim Wenders's story of a German clan who built a motion picture camera at around the same time Edison and the Lumiere did. He and his students take plenty of liberties with the story at times, and note that they've done so, but this is really a joyous little film - the silent film pastiche is a great deal of fun, and the interview with the nonagenarian daughter of one of the brothers is one of those awe-inspiring bits where you realize just how much happened in the course of the twentieth century, over the course of just one human life. There's a kind of melancholy to it, too, as one realizes how the stories she tells will just become facts and history after she passes, rather than an experience that shaped a person and that she cherishes.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental DVD/Chlotrudis "Buried Treasure" nominee)

More buried than treasure, I think. It's not a bad movie by any means, and it's one where I hope i'm not falling into the common documentary trap of judging a film by the importance of its subject matter rather than its own merit when I dismiss it. It is, after all, a very small film, focusing mainly on one mariachi playing for tips in San Francisco. And it does a nice enough job of that, giving voice to him and his partner in music, teaching us things we may not have known.

It doesn't take it to that next level, though, where we the audience get emotionally invested in their lives. Things that are good and bad for them are interesting, but there's never the reaction that something is particularly unjust or fortunate or surprising. Things are just how they are.

Of course, I may not have given it the fairest shake; I watched it kind of late on a Sunday evening and felt myself drifting off at times. It was also pretty clearly shot on either video or lesser film stock, and one of my first clear indications that while my Toshiba HD-A1 can make a good looking DVD look pretty decent on my HDTV, it won't do much to help a bad-looking one, and might even aggravate the situation.

Body Heat

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2008 at the Coolidge Corner #1 (Science on Screen)

Let met tell you, there's nothing that sets the stage for an erotic thriller quite like a lecture on ferret sexuality. I kid, a little; the lecture that accompanied the film as part of the Coolidge's Science on Screen series was interesting in its own right and didn't have me looking at what was going on too clinically.

The movie itself is a pretty good one; it's good old-fashioned noir set in the sweltering Florida sun. Kathleen Turner reeks of sex as the femme fatale whose body temperature runs a degree or two hotter than normal, while William Hurt hits all the right notes as the guy whose weak moral compass is completely thrown off by her. The folks in the supporting roles (notably Richard Crenna and a pre-CheersTed Danson) are also good. The plot is the sort where the audience knows what will and must happen, but the exact details are a fun surprise and likely still trashy fun even after the first viewing.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2008 at AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run)

The purpose behind this one was simple - it was the movie that I knew Paramount was attaching a trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to; I'd later get lucky and see it again with Jumper and Definitely Maybe, but I wanted to be sure.

There are worse ways to spend an afternoon, especially if you've got a kid in tow. It was a little disconcerting for me to see Freddie Highmore speaking with an American accent, but that's my problem more than the film's. The story is the usual for a kids' fantasy: Kid from broken home discovers a hidden world where he gets to be strong and important, and he ultimately gets to show his family that he's not just a crazy troublemaker. The filmmakers do it well, and they've got some better-than-expected talent tagging along in the persons of David Strathairn and Nick Nolte. Some of the fantasy settings are unexpectedly beautiful, while others are enjoyable cartoony. I have to admit, I was happily taken aback to how Seth Rogen's hobgoblin fit into the final sequence.

Good fun. And Indiana Jones is back, too.

2007 Oscar-Animated Shorts

Seen 16 February 2008 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (special engagement)

On the one hand, I kind of miss when the Coolidge's "We've Got Oscar's Shorts!" program was a big, special deal; on the other, it's cool more people are getting the opportunity to see these. What I really miss are the nominated documentary feature screenings that don't seem to be happening anywhere in Boston any more.

The individual shorts:

"My Love (Moya Lyubov)" - A very pretty painted piece from Russia. It's kind of long and full of people thinking of doing things rather than actually acting for an animated piece, but very nice to look at.

"Même les Pigeons vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven)" - I'm pretty sure I saw this somewhere else last year, but it's one I like: A CGI short that looks like stop-motion about a con man selling an old man a tip to heaven.

"I Met the Walrus" - Cute; it's at fun idea to illustrate a rambling conversation with John Lennon this way, and although the visuals are sometimes a little on-the-nose, it's a nicely active piece that doesn't wear out its welcome.

"Madame Tutli-Putli" - One of my favorites among the bunch, a dialogue-free horror piece that has a woman confronting various freaky occurances on a train. The stop-motion animation is quite nice, and the atmosphere of lurking nastiness out to get our heroine doesn't prevent some nicely comic bits.

"Peter & The Wolf" - A deserving winner, packed with drama, comedy, and thrills, along with some terrific animation and music. It's also the rare film where another animal surpasses the duck in terms of being the charmer (I loved the blue jay).

The Draughtsman's Contract

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2008 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

I might be tempted to bump this one up to three stars on a second viewing; I generally liked what I was seeing and Peter Greenaway has an absurdist sense of humor that can be a lot of fun. It was kind of a log day, though, and my mind was kind of wandering toward the end, and I really had no idea what was going on as it finished. That's probably more on me than the film.

A Zed and Two Noughts

* * (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2008 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

But don't give that rating too much credence; I was tired by the time this started, and Greenaway demands alertness. That said, I don't think this would be my thing even under the best of circumstances. As a friend put it the other day, there's "quirky", and there's "random", and this thing is definitely random. It didn't even wind up being fun random for me, just unpleasant for the most part.

Whew. That just leaves a backlog of six plus a post for the marathon. Eminently doable, I think.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Eastern Europe

I didn't really set out to see a clump of movies about the fall of communism or life under those regimes; I was just skimming through the HD offerings on Blockbuster, then sticking buried treasure nominees in the queue as well, and stuff just happened to land this way.

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental Blu-ray Disc)

The people I know who like movies but not quite enough to be much more than first-weekenders were shocked when The Lives of Others won the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film over Pan's Labyrinth. After all, they'd heard of Pan's Labyrinth, maybe even seen it, and the logic is that if it could play theaters before being nominated despite having subtitles, it must be superior. That's not always the case; The Lives of Others needed a visibility boost in America not because it wasn't good enough, but because what makes it so good is tied up with it being foreign to us.

Some would argue that what initially seemed foreign is now becoming familiar. The film opens with Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an officer in East Germany's internal security force (the Stasi) interrogating a subject and then lecturing a class on how to read the subject's responses. Afterward, his friend and colleague Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) comes to him with a new project - a popular playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Georg has avoided upsetting the government, despite having activist friends; Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) mainly wants him out of the way so that he can have their mutual lover (Martina Gedeck) to himself.

While the jackbooted thugs and dictators are the most visible threats in a totalitarian regime, it's the men like Gerd who hold it together. Gerd is a small, gray man who is very good at his jobs of surveillance and interrogation because he doesn't get emotionally attached to anything. The Gerd Weislers of the world function as cogs in a machine, and we see that in Mühe's early scenes. We're not sure just what it is that makes this time different for him. It doesn't seem to be ideology, not even that of a true believer disgusted by Hempf's using him for personal benefit. For whatever reason, Gerd gets attached, and Mühe is interesting to watch. Gerd only briefly comes out of his shell, and Mühe is careful not to portray finding people he cares about as a liberating experience - he remains the same small, gray man he was at the start, even if he's a little wiser.

Are Anton and Christa-Marie fascinating enough to create this sort of change in a veteran Stasi agent? Maybe. Koch and Gedeck don't overdo it with the charisma, but there is a subdued warmth to the pair that is appealing. Part of why the film works is that even though their characters are artists and intellectuals who could be given larger-than-life personalities, and they have to be remarkable people to attract the government's attention, they feel very relatable, not so big and loud as to push Gerd into a defensive position. On the other side, Thieme and Tukur are a bit larger than life while also being all too familiar as people whose ambition has pushed them past Gerd despite his being better at his job.

Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has something of Gerd's meticulousness to him. There's a section in the middle of the film where Anton is trying to smuggle an article on how there are officially no suicides in the DDR to the west, and it's a genuine delight to look at how the filmmaker orchestrates it: Anton and his friends carefully test to make sure they aren't being observed, but Gerd's unknown loyalty to him causes them to do things that may very well get them caught, and Gerd must then attempt to set things right in a way that tips neither side to his activities. It's a delicate three-sided dance, and von Donnersmarck never slips up even when his characters do.

He also makes sure to include plenty of the nuts and bolts stuff about how the Stasi spied on their people and how the subjects would attempt to evade detection. It's quality "how things work" material, and I love how invasive it feels - while today's bugging technology is ultra-miniaturized and wireless, what Gerd uses permeates Anton's apartment, turning his home against him and literally tethering Gerd to the place when he's wearing his headphones. Cinematographer Hagen Bagdanski appears to use a fisheye lens, adding a slight distortion to the edges of the picture that reinforces the voyeurism that's going on.

The Stasi's historic effectiveness suggests that there weren't very many who grew a conscience (if that's even what happens with Gerd). Even if it seldom happened, or couldn't have happened, it's still a fascinating story about the need for connection and how paranoia can thwart it.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with one other review

4 Luni, 3 Saptamani si 2 Zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2008 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days manages something tricky: It handles its touchy subject matter in a way that is dispassionate but not cold. It likely won't make very many people change their opinions on abortion; I'm not even sure whether it would tend to push someone toward moderation or extremism. What's interesting about the film is less the activity at its center than the way filmmaker Christian Mungiu tells his story and what can be deduced about its participants.

Though Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is the university student looking to terminate her pregnancy, we mainly follow Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), the friend and roommate who seems to be handling the arrangements. As the film opens, we see her making the rounds of their dorm, borrowing money and collecting items from the thriving black market . Then it's downtown to book the hotel room - no easy trick in 1980s Romania - and meet Domnu' Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the "doctor", who seizes on the unusual way Otilia and Gabita are handling things to demand more and different payment. Meanwhile, Otilia is trying to keep a dinner date with her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean) at his mother's birthday party.

What makes 4 Weeks extraordinary is how Mungiu does such a good job giving each moment of his film equal weight. There are no music cues used to tell the audience that something is important, and the cinematography consists almost entirely of extended medium shots of Otilia; we follow her closely but don't zoom in to examine her face at specific moments. Indeed, the only time we spend much time away from her is during a scene that we might weight too heavily if we had a front-row seat. Whatever the filmmaker thinks about what's going on, he's taking great care not to impress that on the audience. He and we are just observing.

Just because he's not using a lot of cinematic tricks to highlight the drama doesn't mean that the film proceeds from start to finish with a completely level tone. It is, in its matter-of-fact way, one of the most tension-filled movies in recent memory; we're reminded early on that abortion is illegal and punished harshly in this time and place (thus the need for it to take place in a hotel room, rather than a hospital or clinic). Mungiu finds several different ways to make the audience nervous. There's the meeting between Otilia, Gabita, and Domnu' where each knows they have the ability to ruin the other, though Domnu' quickly grabs the upper hand; there's the Otilia walking around the city at night, where the audience can't help but think what a disaster it would be to get caught; there's Otilia trapped at Adi's dinner table while a phone nobody answers rings, perhaps with news from Gabita. That scene in particular is fantastic in how it tortures the audience with seemingly benign activity.

That's also the scene where we really get the full measure of what a fine performance Anamaria Marinca is turning in. We've already seen Otilia get serious after being introduced to her as cheerful and seemingly casual about things; in this scene, we see her trying to put up a cheerful, polite front even though she's clearly worried about Gabita. It's also where we learn about her, though, saying she's from the country and studying "tech" in part because she doesn't particularly want to stay there, so on top of everything else we see her getting uncomfortable at the somewhat condescending attitude Adi's educated, prosperous family has. The way the movie is shot doesn't give Marinca any place to be other than excellent, but she handles the challenge with aplomb.

Laura Vasiliu's role is smaller, though central, and her performance is interesting too. Gabita is timid, deferring to Otilia, and we're inclined to feel sorry for her; after all, she's in a rough position with no easy way out that she doesn't seem equipped to handle. Vasilu remembers that helpless isn't always cute, though, and there are times we feel as though Gabita is abusing the privilege of having a friend as good as Otilia - the weak half of the relationship controlling the strong one. Other times she seems justifiably bitter and angry at Otilia.

It's not a perfect friendship, but it's not the one-sided one it may seem like; Otilia needs someone to trust her nearly as much as Gabita needs someone to lean on. In the end, that's what this movie is really about - not abortion or communism, but the universal need for someone to help you through them.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with four other reviews

A fost sau n-a fost? (12:08 East of Bucharest)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental DVD/Chlotrudis buried treasure)

Corneliu Porumboiu has an interesting question or two to ask in 12:08 East of Bucharest. He's got a nice cast playing interesting characters. What he doesn't really have is a story. You can do without, but ninety minutes is a lot of time for atmosphere and setup without a real payoff.

It's the sixteenth anniversery of the fall of communism in Romania, and Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) wants to discuss his town's part in that on his televised panel show. He's having trouble finding people interested in participating, though - the revolution just isn't something that many modern day Romanians give much thought to. He winds up settling for Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a college professor who was among the first protesting in the town square that day but now concerns himself with a massive bar tab among other debts, and Emanoli Piscoli (Mircea Andreescu), the old man known for playing Santa Claus at the school every Christmas. They wind up blindsided by the question Jderescu asks - was there a revolution in their town, or did they just come out until after everything had been done?

That's a hugely loaded question, one which potentially indicts the entire community for their passivity. The twenty minutes or so after Jderescu poses that question are a real-time single shot of his talk show, held through the commercial breaks so that we can see Jderescu and Manescu fight over how the latter is being treated. It's a nicely staged bit of tension, with Manescu feeling blindsided, Jderescu realizing that he has kicked over a hornets' nest, and Piscoli affably trying to smooth things over but demonstrating that age doesn't necessarily bring wisdom or expertise. The scene is contentious, but also funny - Andreescu almost always has a sort of goofy look on his face, and the poor camera work emphasizes what a small-time operation Jderescu's station is, pointing out that for all the passion Manescu and Jderescu and their callers invest, it doesn't really matter to more than a handful of people.

As clever a set piece as that show is, the movie does kind of peter out afterward. It's written like a friendship-destroying confrontation, but the beginning of the movie doesn't establish much connection between the characters. They each have their own little stories that establish who they are, but their stories are separate, intersecting mainly in how they're annoyed by children setting off fireworks. It establishes that in some ways, the town isn't very different than it was under the communists - there's still not enough to go around - but it doesn't tell us anything particularly interesting about our lead trio. It almost feels like padding. Not quite - there are some nice bits in there - but I wouldn't be shocked if Porumboiu had started from the TV broadcast and filled in around that.

It's a shame, really. There's the start of a really clever movie (or something else) in what happens once the action reaches the TV station, but the stuff Porumboiu surrounds it with isn't quite up to the same standard.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Orphanage

A few friends and I were talking about this blog a month or so ago, and one asked me how I could do this - we liked the same stuff, but when he saw a movie, he just sees a movie, while I do, well, this. My glib answer was "practice", both in terms of seeing a lot of movies, maybe seeing odd ones that I wouldn't appreciate until later, and writing stuff down. Look at some of the early entries here. They're pretty short and probably more superficial.

There are a few things I've picked up and recognized I was learning at the time. The earliest I can remember is the Time magazine review of Terminator 2, where the writer points out that it suffers a bit because all the really good, thematically rich stuff comes early, while the end is "just" a fight in what Roger Ebert would later call a steam-and-heat factory. One of the best, and the shattered T2 reforming was close to the coolest damn thing ever at the time, but it wasn't as good as the start. Which would have been fine, he said, if this was a book - people remember the opening lines of books. But people remember the ends of movies.

So that's something I keep in mind - did I dislike the whole movie, or did it just make a bad last impression? The Orphanage, I think, is definitely a case of the latter. I started out writing about what a disappointment it was, but since you can't write much about the ending, I wound up writing about all the things I liked, and realizing that there were a lot of them. When it comes right down to it, I do think the good things outweigh how the director lets the end get away from him, but it just goes to show how much impact the end of a movie really does have.

El Orfanato (The Orphanage)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 January 2008 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run)

This was going to be a negative review; I came out deflated, and if I'd written this right away, that probably would have been the theme. There is a great deal about this film that's good, though, and it's worth remembering that - the film did provide ninety-odd minutes of solid entertainment, even if the other ten stand out later on.

In the prologue, we see a young girl by the name of Laura being adopted from the orphanage of the title; she seems to be the healthiest child there, with many others being sickly or crippled. Thirty years later, the now-grown Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have purchased the property, moving there with adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) to re-open it as a facility for sick children. That Simón finds a new set of invisible friends initially concerns Carlos, but Laura is more concerned by elderly and nosy social worker Benigna (Montserrat Carulla), who makes a fine suspect when Simón vanishes during the facility's first open house.

The filmmakers do a lot very well. They found and created a great ghost-story location, as this orphanage has everything you could want - a large house in need of renovation, an enticing beach, caves, outbuildings, and even a lighthouse. The ugly secrets Laura and Carlos find out about the orphanage are shockingly nasty without resorting to simple gross-outs. Indeed, director J.A. Bayona does well by the "less is more" approach, not hitting the audience with much in the way of special effects for the first half; the simple sack with eyeholes over a child's head manages to be creepier than a creepy makeup or animation effect likely would be. When he does decide to go for the big jolts, they don't feel cheap at all, even if they do come from out of left field or are well-practiced.

Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez also do a nice job of giving themselves the paranormal option early on - and indeed, making that the most likely explanation - but leaving themselves room for more conventional explanations. A scene with paranormal investigators and mediums is one of the most fair I've seen in this type of movie (fair in that, for story purposes, it doesn't make either the believer or skeptic characters look foolish). It's important, because much of the film is about Laura becoming obsessed and distraught over her missing child, and having "normal" concerns feel smaller and less important than the mystical ones would hurt it. Similarly, the single most important event in the movie has nothing to do with the supernatural, and could otherwise feel like Bayona and Sánchez had played a trick on the audience in a not-fun way.

Belén Rueda is given the job of anchoring the movie, and does a fine job. I love the way she relates to Roger Príncep as Simón; Laura clearly adores him above all else, but she's not perfect or one-note in her love. She gets irritated and angry at him, and even after we've learned that Simón is HIV-positive, her occasional frustration doesn't seem mean. By the second half of the movie, she's getting obsessed and desperate, and even though we're pretty sure that this is a ghost story by then, it still comes across as something approaching madness rather than her being the only sane person in the film.

It's not quite a one-woman show, but everyone else is clearly supporting her. Cayo gets "skeptical spouse" duties, but does a fine job of making Carlos as torn up as Laura even if he doesn't grasp at the supernatural explanation. Príncep maybe lays the cute on a bit thick as Simón, but it's not crippling. And Carulla makes Benigna menacing despite her advanced years.

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for otherwise good movies to have trouble at the end, especially ghost stories, and The Orphanage falls prey to the "too many endings" problem. What's worse is that unlike movies that flail around, trying to find something that works or squeeze one more shock in, this movie hits the jackpot on the first try, finding the cruelest and most devastating revelation possible. What comes after does a good job of playing to the film's larger themes, true, but also softens the blow. And then, there's one last coda that tries to correct it in the other direction, to the point where the previous gut punch has been thoroughly muted.

And I've got to admit, that hurt the movie for me. If it had ended five minutes earlier, it's one of my favorite ghost stories ever. Instead, it's pretty good, worth checking out for what it does well, but well below its potential.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with four other reviews

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rentals: The Fly and Home of the Brave

Or just The Fly. The less said about Home of the Brave, the better.

Also, Fox's Blu-ray Disc prices suck. I'll probably add The Fly to my collection eventually, but the $28 it costs at Amazon is more than I'm willing to pay right now. Sadly, we're likely to see fewer sales on BDs now that they're less focused on beating HD DVD.

The Fly (1986)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental Blu-ray disc)

One of my first thoughts after watching David Cronenberg's version of The Fly was that it is a horror movie for adults. Not just because the stars can't exactly pass for teenagers or college kids or because the science in its science-fiction is particularly good - it isn't. The thing that elevates it above many other horror films is how introspective it is.

If The Fly were being remade today (and, for all I know, there probably is something being worked on), there would be more characters, and the human fly of the title would be killing them off, sucking their blood after he did so. That's not where Cronenberg is interested in going, though - he's more interested in examining the effect Seth Brundle's metamorphosis has on the man himself rather than painting targets on people's backs.

Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a physicist who has been working in relative solitude on teleportation for years, and has managed to transport inanimate objects, but living things get turned inside out by the process. He brags about it to Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), a pretty science journalist as a means to get her back to his warehouse which serves as both lab and living space. She's fascinated, both by the science and the scientist, but when her editor and former lover (John Getz) tries to publish before she is ready and insert himself back into her life, a drunken Brundle uses himself as a test subject, and though it appears he's fixed the inversion problem, a fly that accidentally entered his teleportation pod has been fused with him at a genetic level, and as time goes on, Brundle begins to exhibit more and more insect-like traits.

Since the movie is only focusing on two or three characters, it's important that we don't get sick of them. None of the characters in The Fly are terribly complex, but they play to the performers' strengths and keep us interested. Seth Brundle is the quintessential Jeff Goldblum character - smart, but more than a bit peculiar; he's the kind of guy who'll get engrossed by a problem and not recognize that it's well past time to be concerned for his own well-being or the world around him. His jealousy of Veronica plays as coming from the same personality traits that make him a successful scientist: He sees all questions as problems to investigate and solve, which is a sure route to madness in a relationship. His positing that he is no longer Seth Brundle, but some hybrid offspring he calls "Brundlefly" means that his curiosity rather than problem-solving instincts are engaged even as the other characters react in horror at what is happening to him.

Geena Davis and John Getz aren't quite that complicated, but they do their jobs very well: Davis's Veronica is sane and beautiful enough to serve as sharp contrast to Brundle's eccentricities, but she's also got the sort of interest in the unusual to be drawn to Brundle and hold off taking action until things get really strange. Getz plays Brundle's opposite, a guy who is basically a jerk and more interested in the practical than the amazing.

The story is good and the performances are pretty decent, and that gives the film an unsettling atmosphere. That might be good enough, but Cronenberg and his special effects team (notably Brundlefly designer Chris Walas) take that air of uncertainty and make it pay off with some top-quality gore. Bones get exposed when Brundle doesn't know his own strength, and its a tough call as to whether his shedding of human characteristics or the addition of insectoid ones are more gleefully disgusting. Even some of the effects which don't stand up as well at least succeed in being unsettling for a moment or two before the urge to laugh kicks in.

The script by Cronenberg and Charles Edward Pogue is smart enough to not be about any one specific thing, as science fiction stories are often wont to be. There's bits about scientific hubris, abortion, stunted emotional development; Brundle's transformation can be seen as disease, aging, or the delusion that he can handle things life throws at us. Cronenberg, Goldblum, and Davis do a pretty fantastic job in making sure that we can see bits of ourselves in Seth and Veronica, but the shift to a nail-biting finale doesn't seem artificial.

Cronenberg's The Fly is one of the great horror movies, not just because it can be accurately described as "more" and smarter than most horror flicks, but because it can do all that and still be eminently watchable when the goal is quality mutilation and gore.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with one other review

Home of the Brave (1986)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental Blu-ray disc)

Home of the Brave was probably never going to be the first great Iraq war veteran film; it's far too eager to address that subject directly. Even if it was never going to be definitive, it would have been nice for it to at least be an average movie. Sadly, its unable to even manage those standards, no matter how good its intentions may be.

Director Irvin Winkler and his screenwriter Mark Friedman are trying to make the point that making war is often easier than handling it afterward, but probably didn't expect the quality of their film to illustrate the point. Home of the Brave opens with a fairly well-accomplished sequence where a group of Army reserve soldiers serving in Iraq are introduced and then ambushed on one of their last missions before being sent home: Characters are sketched out efficiently, the action is well-photographed, the sound adds to the tension, and the procedural details seem accurate without being confusing to those without the appropriate knowledge. Then the survivors are sent home.

And then things start to fall apart. For the characters, that's the point - P.E. teacher Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel) is not only self-conscious of and hindered by her prosthetic hand, but no longer feels any connection to her boyfriend. Tommy Yates (Brian Presley) lost his best friend in Iraq and his job at home; none of the work he can find feels like it matters. Jamal Aiken (50 Cent) is angry without an outlet. And Dr. Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson) is drinking when he's not clashing with his son (Sam Jones III), who has taken up an anti-war position in large part to spite his father.

That's not a terrible start, but Winkler and Friedman don't really send them anywhere from there. They've basically got these four characters, in somewhat different situations, and we cycle through them, watching Vanessa feel awkward, Tommy feel lost, Jamal feel angry, and Will feel conflicted. None of their individual stories do much to make them interesting characters rather than just avatars of how people come back from war damaged. When their paths cross, they rarely do much more than talk.

Now, they shouldn't all melt down the way one character does, but their conversations often come across as simplistic lectures to the audience. Tommy and Jamal go to a support group to hear Vietnam vets talk about how it never goes away. There's a scene where Vanessa and Tommy meet and find common ground, and as well as Biel and Presley play it, it's still all about talking to us, rather than revealing anything about them.

Sad, because it might be the best-acted scene of the movie. The rest is mostly adequate, but occasionally it gets embarrassing. A sequence with a drunk Will, for instance, allows Samuel L. Jackson to indulge his worst tendencies toward overacting. Most of the cast isn't given much to do - 50 Cent in particular - and wind up giving fairly flat performances.

I feel bad for Winkler and Friedman, as I suspect this is something they felt strongly about. But strong feelings and good intentions aren't nearly enough to make a good movie.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with two other reviews

Friday, February 08, 2008

Double feature: Cassandra's Dream & Persepolis

Am I writing up anything Japanese soon? No.

Then I guess this is as good a place to grumble about how I have no idea if I can get tickets to the Sox & A's games in Japan at the end of March. It's all overseas stuff, right? I'd really like to, but I can't find an English language site that makes it easy, or a Japanese site I can translate.

-- sigh --

Cassandra's Dream

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

Woody Allen is a bitter old man, and has been for a while. As a young man, he looked at the world around him and laughed at the absurdity, but for the past decade or two his movies have all seemed to be about people being slapped down for daring to dream above their station. It's a bleak world-view, and Cassandra's Dream is the latest expression of it.

This year's poor fools are brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell); as the film opens, they're buying a boat that stretches their budget. Ian is smart but stuck managing the business of their father's restaurant due to Dad's ill health; Terry is a mechanic with a gambling problem. A run of good luck for Terry pays for the boat, but soon his luck changes. Ian, meanwhile, is misrepresenting himself to a pretty actress (Hayley Atwell). How can Terry get out of debt and Ian invest in the California resort he's planning? Well, they do have a rich uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), who just happens to need a favor: If Martin Burns (Philip Davis) testifies in an investigation into Howard's business dealings, he'll be ruined. If only some desperate men could remove him.

That's not a bad story, and Cassandra's Dream isn't a bad movie. It's also not a very active movie; it spends a long first act setting up a situation where Ian and Terry need money and much of the rest on hand-wringing. A good chunk of the film's second half is Terry saying he doesn't feel good about this and Ian replying they have no choice, getting progressively louder and more insistent as the film continues. The mechanics of the story are rather straightforward, making for a rather mild thriller.

It does work better as a character piece. None of the characters are exactly complicated, but the cast pours everything they can into their roles. Colin Farrell makes for a likable working stiff; his Terry is a flawed character who manages to avoid becoming too much an object of pity or disdain. McGregor doesn't get to play quite so broad a range of emotions, but does convey the feeling of being trapped, if often in a box of his own making. Wilkinson's Howard is a more desperate devil than usually makes these deals, but he's pretty good; we believe he's vulnerable to Burns's accusations but also powerful enough to have Terry and Ian cowed. Hayley Atwell and Sally Hawkins are nice complements as Kate and Angela, the women in their lives. John Benfield and Clare Higgins are an appropriately abrasive team as their parents, who strongly disagree on the subject of Howard.

That's all to be expected; if Woody Allen has had one consistent skill over the years, it's getting good performances out of his cast. It's the writing that comes up short here. A trailer for this movie comes very close to telling the whole story, and as good as the cast is at making the characters feel like real people, they're real people whose trajectories are all too predictable. The details we see often aren't that interesting, either - when we see Terry lose at poker or Ian grow jealous of Angela, it's just what they do, rather than a case where the way they do it gives us some insight into their particular characters. And maybe I've grown too sensitive to (and not fond of) Allen's recently-recurrent theme of being happy with what you have and where you are, but he hammers it pretty incessantly.

None of this really makes Cassandra's Dream a bad movie, but it's far from an exceptional one. Woody Allen is in a rut, and I really wish he could get out of it.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with three other reviews


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

In recent years, Persepolis has been sliding into the spot that Maus used to occupy: The socially-relevant graphic novel that makes inroads into the mainstream and is used as an example of how the medium is good for more than just adolescent fantasies. Creator Majrane Satrapi has been given the chance to do the same thing with animation, and she's done quite the job of it.

The film is a memoir of Marjane's early life. She was a small child in Iran when the Shah was deposed, and although her liberal, intellectual family is initially optimistic when some political prisoners are released, things soon get worse under the Islamic government than they had been before. Eventually, her parents send Marjane to school in Europe, but she has trouble there, too. Eventually she returns to Iran, and though she mostly stays out of trouble, she still feels penned in by the limits on a woman's freedom there.

Fans of graphic fiction have long grumbled about how movie studios continually made things more difficult on themselves than necessary when they choose to adapt these works - why make so many changes when you can buy a complete set of storyboards for twenty bucks at the bookstore? Persepolis is a compelling argument in favor of that argument; this movie's images come straight from the printed page with Satrapi's clean, simple character designs intact. Though she shares screenplay and directorial credit with Vincent Paronnaud, it's a remarkably unfiltered adaptation.

It is an adaptation; part of what makes Persepolis such an enjoyable movie is how Satrapi and Paronnaud use movement so well. As a child, Marjane is a bundle of energy who loves Bruce Lee, and she zips about the screen, her eyes in motion even when the rest of her is standing still. The older Marjane is often stiff and slumped, moving slowly and in a straight line as she buckles under the pressure to conform. As much as the film's roots as a comic are obvious in its design, episodic structure, and frequent use of narration to span gaps in the narrative, it feels like a movie.

I adore the way Satrapi presents her child-self; even as the film contrasts the serious, dire doings in the adult world with her innocence, Marjane's not a cutesy, idealized kid. She's kind of a brat, actually, and just because she doesn't know the significance of what's going on around her doesn't mean she doesn't occasionally absorb the worst of it. Marjane starts out as a great cartoon character, with a great voice (provided by Gabrielle Lopes Benites) to match; that Satrapi and Paronnaud manage to adroitly grow her into more, while occasionally still finding a way for that impishness to emerge from the more elegant teenager and adult voiced by Chiara Mastroianni.

The movie divides clearly into three acts - childhood in Iran, adolescence in Europe, and womanhood back in Iran. I must admit to preferring the two in Iran; Marjane's father, mother, grandmother, and uncle Anouche are all delightful characters, and it's fascinating and tragic to watch them deal with life under the Shi'ite regime, expected to become different people practically overnight and forced to hide who they are. The European middle of the film does an interesting job of pointing out how the Western world can be not so much different as a mirror image - Marjane will feel compelled to discount her Persian identity and present herself as French, and the supposedly more sophisticated and intellectual people there will fail Marjane just as much as the zealots at home will - but it does lack any supporting characters who linger in our minds when they pass out of Marjane's life. In some ways, though, that just does a better job of making Marjane a stranger in a strange land, whether she's at home or abroad.

Persepolis probably could have been adapted as live action, but I'm glad it hasn't been. Satrapi can inject whimsy into a terrible situation because she and her partners can control every single thing we see on the screen. That kind of ability to handle every detail pays off in spades.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with two other reviews

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


I should have used my free Regal movie pass on Cloverfield this Sunday night, but noooo, I have to try and use it on something I haven't already seen, and I wind up seeing 27 Dresses, which is sort of a nothing movie. It's been a while since I really felt enthused to see a movie for the second time while it was still playing the first-run places, but this is one that kept gettin better in my mind while I was writing the review.

I also want to hear the music at the end again, but it unfortunately only appears to be available on iTunes, and since I lost my iPod Shuffle a year or so ago, I haven't touched it. I really would like a soundtrack, or at least an easy download. I am also eager to see this on HD DVD. It'll be a ton of fun to spot all the little details there.

Also? There was a Star Trek teaser, which was fun to see. I'm glad the Bad Robot crew working on that. They've generally done pretty well, even if I lost interest in Lost after about a year. The details and easter eggs in their work are a ton of fun, and I'm looking forward to Star Trek being fun again (although, to be fair, the last year of Enterprise had some fun going on).


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 January 2008 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run)

So how many of you saw The Host last year? You should have; it was a thoroughly fun giant monster movie out of South Korea with the neat hook of being told from the perspective of the people who normally are seen getting squashed or running away. Cloverfield takes that idea and runs with it, literally putting the camera in the hands of its characters.

We start at a going-away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who is about to start a new job in Tokyo. Which, generally, is where you'd expect a giant monster to show up, rather than Manhattan. Rough luck there. An evacuation of the island is ordered, but Rob gets a call from best friend Beth (Odette Yustman) - she's pinned in her apartment. So Rob, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Jason's fiancee Lily (Jessica Lucas), Lily's friend Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), and Rob's friend Hud (T.J. Miller) start trekking across town. Hud was videotaping the party; now he's recording things he can't believe.

Cloverfield is presented as the contents of a camera that the Department of Defense found in the area "formerly designated as Central Park", which may cause some to groan from Blair Witch Project flashbacks. The entire movie is shot with handheld cameras that shake when Hud runs and pan wildly when something outside the frame catches his attention; the viewer might often wonder why he doesn't toss the camera aside or at least turn it off when something could benefit from his full attention. Director Matt Reeves and T.J. Miller make it believable, though - Hud's a guy who would keep shooting in order to feel useful and to impress Marlena, and unlike in Blair Witch, there's not much confessional direct address of the camera.

The found-footage gimmick that Reeves and writer Drew Goddard do use to good effect is the occasional use of what was on the tape before Jason and Hud used it to record the party - month-old recordings from a month earlier, capturing the day after Rob and Beth spent the night together, before everything became awkward. There's a great little metaphor in how what is happening now is destroying Rob's record and memory of when things were better, and it's a great way to add depth to comments on how Rob and Beth have been perfect for each other forever but afraid to act on it without getting into long speeches or momentum-killing flashbacks. In fact, they actually serve to heighten the suspense, because when they show up, it means that something has happened to the camera or cameraman, and the seconds used to build the love story serve as a miniature cliffhanger.

Happily, as much as Cloverfield can be viewed as basically being a love story with the kaiju stuff serving as an obstacle, it doesn't skimp on the monster-movie fun. The Cloverfield monster itself will probably never be as iconic as the likes of Gojira or King Kong, but it is enjoyably alien, in a way that could imply extraterrestrial or undersea origins, and has a nasty surprise or two up its sleeve to go with the landmark-leveling brute force. Reeves stages his action scenes very well, putting the danger back into things that audiences might take for granted by giving us an average-guy's view of them. He and his effects crew do a nice job creating the fantastic parts of the film's world, getting extra mileage from how even though the audience knows what they're getting into, most of us don't really expect to see good creature effects or a devastated New York in homemade digital video; we expect cheap and are surprised by elaborate. The style also lets terrible things happen with no warning, forcing us to process the sudden death of characters we like without the tools we've grown to expect from our action movies.

The young cast is pretty good. None of them fall into action movie clichés, other than perhaps T.J. Miller as Hud, who as the story's biggest geek gets most of the best lines. Michael Stahl-David is pretty solid as Rob; I like the casual familiarity he and Mike Vogel have as brothers, along with the way Vogel and Jessica Lucas don't feel the need to telegraph that they're dating in every scene they share early on, although it comes through later on when headcount is reduced. Odette Yustman is off the screen for much of the movie, but does a nice enough job of hooking the audience in her flashback scenes. Lizzy Caplan's Marlena doesn't do quite so good a job at that; she grew on me a bit, but mostly seemed around to even out the boys and the girls.

That's a pretty small complaint, though, considering all the fun that Cloverfield fits into its 75-odd minutes of recovered footage. My biggest complaint may be that there's no way to logically fit Michael Giacchino's "Roar! (Cloverfield Overture)" into the film proper - but the upside to that is that even the closing credits are filled with giant-monster goodness.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with eight other reviews

Monday, February 04, 2008

Good, if slow.

I'm starting to fall behind here, so I'll just capsule a couple that are beginning to fall out the back of my brain. I feel kind of lame doing it, since there isn't any review for I Don't Want to Sleep Alone on eFilmCritic and it's always an interesting challenge to do a good one for something so far outside the mainstream.

It's also the mood I'm in;

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2008 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

There's much to admire about this movie, no question. Maybe about half an hour too much, really; it's one of those films where what's going on is very clear early on, but it keeps going on and on to make sure the audience really gets it. And then it keeps going, driving home the point of how Jesse James was perceived differently from Ford all the way to Ford's death.

The buzz on this movie has mostly been about Casey Affleck's performance as Robert Ford, and it's very good, but I think it caused people to unfairly overlook just how great Brad Pitt is. Affleck's Ford is starry-eyed and ingratiating, but it's a performance where one can really see the acting; it loudly proclaims itself to be a performance. Pitt's James takes a little more effort to crack; we get glimpses of the charismatic figure who became a folk hero despite being a murderer and a thief, but Pitt and writer/director Andrew Dominik get to chip away at that. James is nuts, killing off the gang from is last robbery one by one, and that's engrossing: His paranoia is exerting more and more power over him, but he continues to act as though he's being perfectly reasonable.

What really made this movie feel longer than it is, though, was Sam Shepard, or more precisely, the lack thereof. It's just borderline cruel to introduce a character who is as much fun to watch as his Frank James and then shuffle him off for the vast majority of the movie, other than a wordless and brief reappearance midway through. Similarly, Zooey Deschanel is underused at the end.

Hei yan quan (I Don't Want to Sleep Alone)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2008 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

It's a real shame art house films like this don't get released on the HD formats yet. This is a tremendously good-looking movie, but few will be able to see it in theaters, and Tsai Ming-liang's compositions may wind up getting clobbered at DVD resolution. He likes wide shots, putting the character we're supposed to pay attention to in the background, and forcing us to look closely, to really engage our attention even though not much seems to be happening.

Like the other films of his I've seen, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is a record of people who manage to be isolated despite having no place of their own. The stories are small, but heartfelt - an illegal worker nursing a man beaten nearly to death back to health, and a young woman who later encounters that second man when she's not caring for a comatose relative. The connections between them are pretty straightforward, but since the story is not the primary concern, the simplicity isn't much of a problem.