Thursday, September 24, 2009

The DVDs of 2006 (And Before)

12:08 East of Bucharest (Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006)

For fans of Jim Jarmusch & Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, this oddball, deadpan Romanian political farce will be seen as a masterpiece of pared-to-the-bone elliptical filmmaking. Those seeking heartier, more universally accessible fare should probably search elsewhere. The story concerns a day in the life of three small-town, rather down-at-heel schlubs – one the owner of a barely functional TV station & the host of its local talk show, one a completely sodden high school teacher, and the other an old man whose main claim to fame seems to be that he’s played the local Santa Claus as long as anyone can recall. This particular day is the 22nd Day of December, the 16th Anniversary of the Revolution that ousted Communist President Ceauşescu from Romania in 1989. The station owner has decided to air a hard-hitting forum discussion asking whether the Revolution happened in their little village as well, or if they were just beneficiaries from the bloody insurgency by citizens of Budapest & Timisoara. His knowledgeable panel, of course, consists of the teacher, who believes he actually did march into the square before Ceauşescu fled Budapest but may have been drunk in a pub & the old Santa, who tells a meandering but slyly revelatory personal tale of how, on the eve of the revolution, Ceauşescu promised each citizen a large sum of money &  how he & his wife had planned a vacation based on the national bribe. The first part of the movie consists of these three men paying off bar tabs, picking up Christmas trees, buying a Santa suit from a Chinese dry good store, and making personal amends for the previous night’s stupor. Each small vignette sums up the characters from head to toe without resorting to any excess exposition & the second part, the actual televised forum (complete with comically vicious call-ins) is one of the funniest straight-faced comedy routines you’ll see this year. Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with the details of the rise & fall of Eastern European Communism, 12:08 East of Bucharest tells you all you need to know to wince gleefully at all the sacred cow tipping going on here. Recommended.

The Hoax (Dir. Lasse Hallstrom, 2006)

While the over-sensitive, over-serious, moral-hungry Hallstrom (Unfinished Life, The Shipping News, Something to Talk About) wouldn’t have been my pick to direct this story of consummate con man Clifford Irving who, in 1971, passed off a complete fabrication as an authorized autobiography of Howard Hughes, a man he’d never met. Hallstrom tries desperately to find meaning in Irving’s celebrated hoax – emptily connecting it to jury-rigged newsreel footage of Vietnam & the Nixon White House (although Irving would go on to play a nefarious bit part in the Watergate scandal) – instead of letting the giddy suspense of defrauding an entire nation speak for itself. Richard Gere excels here as Irving, though, and his performance makes this well worth a rental. He’s P. T. Barnum & Harold Hill set loose on a world hungry for a media circus that doesn’t involve Hyper-inflation, loss of life & limb abroad, or oil shortages. As the instigator of that he’s a man for all seasons, as germane today as he was in 1971. But Hallstrom too often goes for nitwit comedy (see the film’s burglary scene), creaky 70s nostalgia, or preachy diatribe when he should remain distanced from the subject altogether. Marcia Gay Harden & Alfred Molina turn in reliable reaction shots to Irving’s rakish ethical tap dance, but this is really Gere’s show top to bottom. If you’re interested in a more cerebral portrait of Irving, check out Orson Welles’ masterful ode to hoodwinkery, F is For Fake (1975), in which the real Irving (…or is it?...) talks with sociopathic candidness about the fine art of genial fraud. Mildly recommended. 

This is England (Dir. Shane Meadows, 2006)

One of the best films of 2006, Shane Meadows’ (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, Dead Man’s Shoes) period piece about skinheads in Thatcher’s Britain is a stylish tour de force that tosses you in amongst the disenfranchised, unemployed, often violently racist, working class youth and makes it nearly impossible to judge them as harshly as contemporary political correctness would like us to.

12-year-old Shaun (the unbelievably talented Thomas Turgoose) has lost his father in the Falklands and is being raised by his permissive mother (probably a one-time hippie). After being bullied at school for wearing flared pants, he falls in with a rather benign group of older skinheads, led by paternal but slightly spineless Woody (Joseph Gilgun), who offer the lonely kid some friendship, guidance, female companionship, and, best of all, protection. These skinheads have ethnically diverse friendships, listen to reggae & soul, and playfully vandalize deserted apartment buildings for entertainment. 

Everything is just about as blissful as a decaying urban dystopia can be when Woody’s old mate Combo returns from prison a bitter, but often eloquent & convincing, National Front racist, and Shaun must choose which band of brothers he’ll run with. The actors here are all fiercely convincing, from the thugs who orbit Combo to the punk girls that orbit Woody. Not a moment seems anachronistic & no situation is oversimplified with hindsight. Meadows puts the political & social complexities of early 80s England in play & his actors respond with powerful conviction. The bleak, wintry, ruined urban landscapes from cinematographer Danny Cohen add immeasurably to the film’s aura of oncoming tragedy & social upheaval. Wisely, though, Meadows illustrates the political points intimately, forcing us to wrestle & reckon with individual situations instead of theoretical generalities. This is England is searing and, in the end, guardedly optimistic. Highly recommended.

Paris, Je T’aime (Anthology, featuring directors Olivier Assayas, Joel & Ethan Coen, Isabel Coixet, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron, Gerard Depardieu, Christopher Doyle, Alexander Payne, Gun Van Sant, Tom Tykwer & more…, 2006)

Of these 18 short films about Paris & its denizens (natives, tourists, expatriates), seven are excellent, three oddball enchanting, four diverting enough it’s not a struggle to sit through them, and four plain dismal -- a pretty good batting average for such an ambitious project. Each of the filmmakers tackle a different arrondissement of the fabled city and, even though the quality varies from film to film, the whole is quite magical. The best of them – the Coen Brothers’ hilariously paranoid Metro nightmare with Steve Buscemi, Alexander Payne’s sad/funny tale of a Midwestern tourist writing a postcard home in broken French, Gerard Depardieu’s jazzy duet for divorcees Gena Rowlands & Ben Gazzara, and Tom Tykwer’s high-style tale of transitive young love starring Natalie Portman – marvel at the city & draw humor from its sainted mythology simultaneously. The worst – Vincenzo Natali’s CGI-heavy vampire segment starring Elijah Wood, Christopher Doyle’s beautifully-filmed but overly conceptual sales visit to a surrealistic hair salon, Wes Craven’s dodgy ghost story featuring Alexander Payne as Oscar Wilde & Emily Mortimer – show a real lack of grace, poise & poetry in the face of such a famously storied metropolis. 

Paris, Je T’aime is a completely unique film experience & it’s highly recommended, despite occasional lapses in directorial taste.

Deck the Halls (Dir. John Whitesell, 2006)

Christmas anal obsessive (I’m not sure if this neurosis actually exists, but it seems appropriate in this context) Matthew Broderick is the king of the Holidays in Cloverdale, Mass., and the whole town of batty – though strangely uninteresting -- eccentrics abide by his demands for tasteful seasonal décor. Then, who should move in next door but boorish, vulgar Danny DeVito and his booty-ful wife Kristin Chenowith (on a bad movie juggernaut with The Pink Panther, RV, Running with Scissors & this monumental turkey). DeVito is of the garish More Is Still Not Enough school of decorating & therein lies the threadbare, tiresome conflict for this seemingly endless string of very dim bulbs. Deck the Halls steals blatantly from John Avildsen’s Neighbors (1981), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation & any other marginally successful cul-de-sac warfare comedy you can think of. And it STILL can’t cough up a laugh. Dreadful.

The Wendell Baker Story (Dir. Andrew & Luke Wilson, 2005)

The Wendell Baker Story is an obvious homage to the scattershot, feisty, somewhat lazy, but always good-natured counterculture comedies of the early 1970s – Alan Myerson’s Steelyard Blues (1973) comes immediately to mind. The realistic location work (mostly Austin & environs), wry, smirking humor, reliance on iconic character actors (Harry Dean Stanton, Seymour Cassel, Kris Kristofferson, Buck Taylor, Billy Joe Shaver…), sundazed pacing, and almost anecdotal storytelling, definitely nod amicably to early 70s cinema. Wendell Baker (Luke Wilson), is a ne’er do well conman drifting through life from one ill-advised scheme to the next. When he’s caught selling counterfeit identification to Mexican illegal aliens, he does his jail time & vows to straighten up via a career in hotel management & to prove himself to his estranged girlfriend Doreen (Eva Mendes), who’s now dating a dowdy grocery store owner (Will Ferrell). As a stepping stone to this noble goal, Baker is given employment at a nursing home run by Owen Wilson, who’s robbing his eccentric boarders (Stanton, Kristofferson, Cassel…) blind. While the jokes here seem to drift in on a marijuana haze more than they hit the funny bone dead center, the film has so little ambition that it manages to chug along pleasantly on only its actors’ undeniable charm. The scenes in which geriatric horndogs Cassel & Stanton road trip into Austin with Baker are truly worth the price of admission all by themselves. Mildly recommended, but don’t expect much. 

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman (Dir. Adrian Shergold, 2005)

During his lifetime, Albert Pierrepoint presided over the hangings of at least 435 criminals as the last official chief hangman in the United Kingdom. Among these were over 200 Nazi war criminals, the celebrated murderess Ruth Ellis (on whom the 1985 Mike Newell film, Dance with a Stranger, was based), John George Haigh (“The Acid Bath Murderer”), and one of his own drinking buddies, James Corbitt. Pierrepoint was otherwise a rather unspectacular, private man who performed his duties with stubborn dignity. He kept copious record books, recording rope length, weight of the criminal’s body, etc. in order to make executions as quick, humane & muss-free as possible. For his troubles, Pierrepoint received roughly $8 per hanging, plus expenses & a hot meal. 

As Pierrepoint, director Shergold wisely cast that most extraordinarily commonplace of British actors, the great Timothy Spall (who’s done his best work in the films of Mike Leigh, including Life is Sweet, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy, and Vera Drake), a specialist in boorish, bull-headed, hopelessly middle-class men bent on concealing vast stores of either resentment or sweetness, depending on the demands of the role. Spall’s Pierrepoint takes immense pride in his work when engaged in it, but is appropriately taciturn when at home with his wife or downing a pint at the pub. 

What makes this movie tick, aside from its rare & often macabre perspective on 20th century British history, is its portrait of the banality of capital punishment, the interplay of society’s need for vengeance & the translation of that need into a bureaucratic public utility. This would have been a fine film even if the hangman had been played by an enigmatic cipher, but Spall always reveals more than you expect in a scene, and his moments of genuine despair, petty pridefulness, swallowed rage & domestic tranquility are handled with a master’s ease of expression, so much so that you nearly forget, on occasion, that death is a central character of the drama. This makes the inevitable -- the creak of the scaffold, the tugging on of the death’s hood, the crashing open of the trap door, the rope yanked straight, and Pierrepoint’s quiet satisfaction at the whole ordeal taking a mere 8 seconds -- even more bracing. Recommended.

El Cantante (Dir. Leon Ichaso, 2006)

This bio-pic of salsa superstar Hector Lavoe (played here by singer Marc Anthony), a true pioneer who melded hot jazz with merengue & samba music into a blazing new sound for the Fania label from the 60s well into mid-80s, is completely sabotaged by the presence of Jennifer Lopez. As producer and co-star, Lopez steals or derails so much of the movie that we’re barely left with a stick figure of Lavoe, whose career was eventually buried beneath an avalanche of cocaine and heroin. Anthony’s performance would be completely passable had anyone bothered to write a script that included his musical genius. Instead we get cocaine-fueled braggadocio, sulking behind dark sunglasses, and random egotistical tirades, none of which tell an audience unfamiliar with the music why they should give a damn about this petulant junkie. Worse, there’s WAY too much of Lopez and it’s all vanity. I’ve seen Lopez be a giving actress now & again (though it’s been a long haul since Steven Soderbergh’s marvelous Out of Sight), but here she really wants to run the show as Lavoe’s rather shrewish wife, Puchi & not a note of her performance rings true. For starters, she’s our point of view, yet there are dozens of scenes here she would never have been privy to. For another, she’s far too young for this role. In many of the scenes, Puchi would have been 60 or so years old but Lopez can barely pass for 40. And she just can’t find a pitch for her performance. If she isn’t weeping for the fading genius, she’s nagging him so virulently you actually begin to think she might be the impetus for his drug use. When it’s not in some kind of confused MTV hyperdrive, El Cantante is bogged down in music bio clichés so tiresome we can’t even find solace in their ritualistic familiarity.

The Hottest State (Dir. Ethan Hawke, 2006)

Though this is definitely an improvement over Hawke’s debut feature, the supremely annoying Chelsea Walls (2001), but it still basks infuriatingly in its unbridled pretensions. Almost everything here – from the dusklight of Christopher Norr’s cinematography to the tentative, elliptical improvisations of the actors -- is meant to evoke cinematic memories of great arthouse fare such as Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Antonioni’s The Passenger & even past Ethan Hawke/Richard Linklater films, Before Sunrise & Before Sunset (two films that worked well DESPITE starring the willfully mannered Hawke). Told in flashback, The Hottest State tells the story of troubled, twitchy young actor William Harding (the fact that the character’s an actor & has an outlaw’s name should not be overlooked), who falls in love with a maddeningly placid young singer named Sara (Catalina Sandino Mareno, from Maria Full of Grace). 

The problem here is that the more personal stories & monologues here often outweigh the substance of the film, leaving the whole affair completely off balance. There are great, great moments here from Laura Linney (as Harding’s mother), Sonia Braga (as Sara’s mother) and from Hawke’s stand-in here, Mark Webber, but often these moments, which seem like well-inhabited theatrical exercises, don’t seamlessly segue back into the movie proper. It’s noble that the actor/director would like to shake off his knack for precious self-involvement by creating three-dimensional characters NOT based on facets of himself, but really – unless these characters can merge into the filmic tapestry – they’re just like folks you’d meet in a bar some night. You’d hear their arresting stories of woe or triumph, but you’d never let them into your life. 

Hawke has a gift for these monologues & intimate conversations & he seems hell-bent on equaling the power of Sam Shepard’s spellbinding writing on Paris, Texas, alternating between tight-lipped cowboy minimalism & unnervingly florid spoken poetry. Problem is, Hawke is still a little wet behind the ears for the kind of masterful rhythmic control this balancing act requires. For those of you, like myself, who find most of Hawke’s work fairly flimsy, The Hottest State & his performance this year in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, may be the bumpy dirt road towards a coming revelation.

The Devil's Chair (Adam Mason, 2006)

While exploring the spooky ruins of an old mental asylum, punk rock turk Nick West (Revolver's Andrew Howard, too tough for eyebrows) & his hot, but fussy, girlfriend dose on blotter acid & he rolls around on the floor masturbating while she's eaten alive by a bone-encrusted electric chair. After spending four years in a hospital for the criminally insane for the girl's murder, Nick is pretty much ready to admit he may have hallucinated the whole thing & killed the girl himself when he's released into the custody of pony-tailed mad psychiatrist Dr. Willard (David Gant) and his team of research assistants who plan to find out the truth about this killer chair. 

The assistants, sadly including Matt Barry from BBC classics Garth Merenghi's Darkplace & The Mighty Boosh, are wisely frightened that Nick might slaughter them while they sleep, but Doc Willard seems to actually believe in this murderous furniture. It seems the old asylum was run by an equally mad psychiatrist back in the '50s who attempted to "treat" his unhinged patients by placing them in the blood-triggered chair, actually "a portal to another realm that can separate the soul from the body." One by one, of course, the assistants find reasons to sit in the devil's chair & are summarily sent to a bizarro asylum with slimey maggot phones, a skinned man in a plastic trash bag & a black-cowled demon with a horse-skull for a head, who rises from the floor in a cloud of buzzing flies.

If this all sounds patently ridiculous, have no fear. The Devil's Chair calls bullshit on itself in the last 30 minutes & goes all post-modern on us, transforming a ludicrous mash-up of Hellraiser (which it name-checks), The Legend of Hell House & Stuart Gordon's brilliant From Beyond (1986) into an equally absurd "commentary" on the horror genre. Condemning the banality of its own narrative would be cool if The Devil's Chair offered up anything of value to take its place, some reason to have indulged these blood-drenched meta-monkeyshines for so long. The last reel turnabout might have been chillingly effective if it didn't also obliterate the entire reason these characters are gathered in the evil asylum to begin with. It is a bit of a relief when all the crummy narration, random changing of camera filters, insistent freeze frames & blatant continuity errors give way to a grim, gruesome realism, but writer/director Mason is so bent on blowing our minds that he forgets to connect all the plot threads before he shouts "Voila!" & pulls the curtain back on a dodgy mess. 

When Nick finally mocks us for craving the torture porn of Saw, the grisly & moralistic mumblety-peg of slasher films & the CGI-overkill which prevents a truly visceral response to filmed horror, by quoting Johnny Rotten's famed kiss-off, "Do you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" we really, really do & that may not be quite what the filmmakers were after.


Outside Sales (Dir. Blayne Weaver, 2006)

A cast of mostly unknown comic actors have a go at an Office Space-type romantic comedy/satire with a shoe-string budget & a whole lotta sad-sack enthusiasm & damned if they don't actually wring some comic paydirt out of it. Lucas Fleischer (State of Grace) stars as Paul Wells, a cocky, successful salesman at a company selling payroll services, whose career hits the skids when he comes home to find his wife in bed with his co-worker (director Weaver). Soon the co-worker not only has his wife but gets promoted over him as sales manager, leaving Paul in the kind of slump which traditionally leads to salesmen huffing car exhaust in their two-car garages. Just ask Willie Loman. As a final insult to Paul's already shattered ego, in walks the new girl, Dagny (Tricia O'Kelley, from The New Adventures of Old Christine), with whom he's immediately smitten. Unfortunately she's there to take his job, but before they can even get through a cinematic meet-cute, they're pitted against each other in a Battle Royale in which the winner gets the brass ring & the loser doesn't even get a set of steak knives. 

Both Fleischer & O'Kelley bounce from loathing one another, to nervous attraction, to self-loathing, to head over heels in the space of a sentence & pull laughs from material we've seen many a big-name comedian mangle. The large support cast all turn in skit-worthy bits here & there just so the stakes of it all don't get too dire & they capture perfectly this world where desperation, defeat & momentary victory can all coalesce in one jittery caffeinated moment. Recommended.

Belphegor: Phantom of the Louvre (Dir. Claude Barma, 2001)

Belphegor is sacred in France. Originally it was a very popular 1927 French horror novel by Arthur Bernède, which was simultaneously made into a popular film serial by Henri Desfontaines. Bernede also created the characters of Judex, immortalized by the sainted French director, Louis Feuillade (1916) & Nouvelle Vague iconoclast Georges Franju (1963), and Vidocq, filmed no less than six times from 1911 to 2001. But what truly gives Belphegor its cache in French culture is the 1965 television series based on the story, which involves a "ghost" that roams the halls of the great museum in search of alchemical writings hidden inside the statue of the god Belphegor. The "ghost" is really a medium controlled by an evil secret society & pursued diligently by a student & his girlfriend, the daughter of the Parisian police commissioner. The series was mounted in high style, an obvious tribute to the Les Vampires & Fantomas serials of Louis Feuillade. It is one of the greatest television series ever produced, but remains widely unseen in the U.S.

This 2001 remake attempts to do with the Belphegor tale what Stephen Sommers (The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) did with the Universal Mummy horror franchise from 1999 to the present, that is, turn it into a series of puerile, CGI-heavy adventure films that would've been harmless -- even charming -- as 70s matinee fodder, but just seem cynical in today's hyper-marketed movie climate. Starring French national treasure Sophie Marceau, the ubiquitous & reliable Michel Serrault (Diabolique, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, La Cage aux folles) & (sigh) Julie Christie, Belphegor just can't get up the giddy head of steam afforded by these Mummy remakes & the overall corniness & lack of fresh action set-piece ideas really sink the film. Gone is the shadowy, but often rococo, atmosphere of the television series, replaced by confusing, haunted goings-on in the surprisingly sterile corridors of the museum & overblown reaction shots to shoddy special FX. It's pertinent to note that the actual demon Belphegor seduced people by suggesting to them novel inventions by which they could get rich quickly, unfortunately he was also the patron demon of laziness, so nothing much came of these schemes...

Belphegor: Phantom of the Movie Studio???

The Hole Story (Dir. Alex Karpovsky, 2005) 

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that no critic I read called Karpovsky’s movie a mockumentary. The critic at Stylus actually compared it to Werner Herzog’s last three documentaries, which is absurd because it’s quite obviously fiction through & through. If there’s anything resembling this in the Herzog canon, it’s Zac Penn’s mockumentary, Incident at Loch Ness (2004), in which Herzog plays himself engaged in a calamitous, obsessive & very funny search for the Loch Ness Monster. It may be that Karpovsky (a curious living reminder that Harpo & Chico really were brothers) was trying to sell a TV pilot for Provincial Puzzlers, a reality series exploring the unsolved mysteries of the American hinterlands (though the very tone of the title sounds more like an NPR humor segment), but beyond that everything here is played out -- with tepid success -- as fictional comedy. For the pilot, Alex (whose last gainful employment was ostensibly editing images together for the videos used in Karaoke parlors) journeys north to Minnesota to investigate the case of one gaping, mysterious thawed hole in the middle of an otherwise staunchly frozen lake. Trouble is, once he gets there, the entire lake is frozen. No more hole. Alex begins immediately to compromise reality in order to suit his needs & these attempts are so satirically wearisome at this point in the mockumentary genre that you’d be pardoned for ejecting this immediately & watching Ghetto Brawls for the thirtieth time. There are some moments during Karpovsky’s Minnesota Mental Breakdown & subsequent committal that brave some fresh comedy terrain & many of the Brainerd locals benefit from all of us having seen the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, but mostly this is predictable as a Just Shoot Me re-run.

Three Days of Rain (Dir. Michael Meredith, 2005)

In case you were fretting whether you’d ever see a film loosely based on Chekhov’s short stories, distributed by Wim Wenders, directed by UT Longhorn alum Michael Meredith, starring his father, Dallas Cowboy “Dandy” Don Meredith, you can now rest easy. But jokes aside, this jazzy, beautifully acted, rain-silvered nocturne has, perhaps, the most interesting cast of any indie flick this year. Don Meredith, Peter Falk, Erick Avari, Lyle Lovett, Blythe Danner, Robert Carradine, Jason Patric, Wayne Rogers, Max Perlich & Keir Dullea, all conspire to do for Chekhov what Robert Altman did for Raymond Carver in Short Cuts. The results are appreciably less stellar, but so is the budget & the stories themselves are less incendiary, so the bar is lowered a little & Three Days of Rain basically succeeds on its own limited terms. The stories weave in & out of one another without the balletic poise Altman brought to such tasks, but it doesn’t completely detract from the overall impact of the theme, which seems to be that the myriad coping mechanisms we use when confronting the people that scare us the most, be they homeless Vietnam veterans, self-serving employers, debtors, alcoholic fathers, grief-stricken strangers, etc., are just that -- coping mechanisms. These knee-jerk social reflexes require from us an almost superhuman effort in order to become true human interaction. Though many of these tales seem a little shopworn & some come off like plots for abandoned Lifetime Network movies, the jazzy mood, the underused Cleveland cityscapes, the diamond rain, and the kaleidoscope of interesting, under-used actors, make this a pleasure to watch. And “Dandy” Don Meredith? He acquits himself VERY well. Don’t be surprised if you see him in the next Steven Soderbergh movie. Recommended. 

The TV Set (Dir. Jake Kasdan, 2006)

Here’s a small, loopy little show-biz comedy that doesn’t strain too hard to out-cheek every other impudent industry satire glutting the shelves of your video store. David Duchovny plays a TV writer who finally gets a shot at making a highly personal, quirky television series but is stymied at every turn by the aggressively vapid Head of Programming, Sigourney Weaver. Duchovny does world-weary artist better than any actor under 50 (check out his Showtime series, Californication) and Weaver manages to meld “Nobody’s Home” eyes with almost instinctual wile, but it’s Fran Kranz (Training Day, The Village) who steals the show here. As the vacuous lead actor Duchovny reluctantly accepts in order to get his show aired, Kranz goofs on Pacino, De Niro & every soap opera actor you’ve ever seen. While nothing in The TV Set will win any awards for originality, there’s a low expectation charm to the movie that keeps you from judging it too harshly. It’s also great to see Justine Bateman (as Duchovny’s wife) back in action, maturity giving her some real authority on screen. Recommended.

Chalk (Dir. Mike Akel, 2006)

“Presented” by Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock, this kindly indie mockumentary doesn’t have the same unerring eye for human foibles as Christopher Guest’s similarly structured films, but there’s still a lot to like. Documenting one school year at Harrison High School from the teachers’ P.O.V., Chalk isn’t out to lambaste the myriad failings of a public school education, but instead gently pokes fun at the often ruthlessly beleaguering task of performing an absolutely invaluable service under absolutely ascetic conditions. As befits a movie about education, no character is given up on or irreparably reduced in Chalk. The hapless, socially inept history teacher, the popular, self-involved hipster who spends all year campaigning to be Teacher of the Year, the butch-but-not-lesbian P.E. instructor – all of them steady themselves shakily after ill-timed, ill-conceived pirouettes & live to teach another day. Recommended.


Civic Duty (Dir. Jeff Renfroe, 2006)

A distant, less interesting cousin to the white-collar dementia first observed in Joel Schumacher’s perplexing study of white, middle-class rage, Falling Down (1993), Civic Duty features Six Feet Under’s Peter Krause as an accountant rather quickly unraveling after losing his job in the post-9/11 “climate of fear.” With some time on his hands he barks insults at post office clerks & bank tellers, freaks out his wife (Kari Matchett from 24, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip & Wonderfalls) with uncharacteristic racist outbursts, begins spying on his Middle Eastern downstairs neighbor, and finally succumbs to the voices in his head which, tellingly, are also the voices emanating from TV news broadcasts. While all of the performances here are fine, the filmmaking is disastrous. Renfroe wants to build Hitchcock-ian Rear Window-style suspense, but we know from the get-go there’s no way on earth the Middle Eastern neighbor is actually going to be a bomb-building terrorist because that would jeopardize the movie’s liberal integrity (while also making it a far more interesting film). 

Just to further distance us from any emotional or cerebral attachment to this premise, the movie has, by far, the most annoying cinematography you’ll encounter this year. Half the time it appears as though someone smeared Vaseline along the tops & bottoms of the film frame. Throughout the color palette is so deranged that an eerie red light emanates from Peter Krause’s inner ear & both Krause & co-star Khaled Abol Naga appear to be wearing lipstick.

Day Night Day Night (Dir. Julia Loktev, 2006)

A chilling, hypnotic film about a very polite young girl who has agreed to ignite a dirty bomb in the heart of Times Square. There’s no music score & we are claustrophobically engaged with the young girl’s face & eyes, with her nervous mannerisms, breathing & heartbeat. We’re given no motive for this girl becoming a suicide bomber & only sketchy details about the masked men who’ve inducted & trained her. Luisa Williams’ performance as the nameless young girl walking around NYC with the yellow backpack full of nails & explosives is a quiet triumph & the way she’ll suddenly look right into the camera will give you goose bumps for days. Director Loktev is talented enough not to let all this get too Kafka-esque & there are moments of pitch black wit (A favorite -- Williams’ masked handlers posing her for her terrorist mugshot & dressing her for Times Square) that keep utter bleakness at bay. The scenes of her walking the streets, preparing to detonate the bomb are among the most suspenseful & terrifying I’ve seen in years. Day Night Day Night is an absolutely original film & it’s highly, highly recommended.

American Cannibal (Dir. Perry Grebin/Michael Nigro, 2006)

I’m still trying to figure out if this scattershot Mockumentary is designed to vilify “reality television” or defend its rancorous seductive power. While some controversy erupted around this film (spearheaded by the New York Times’ David Carr) due to the filmmakers’ (I think justified) disingenuousness about which parts of the work are actual verite and which parts are utter hooey. Twenty minutes into American Cannibal, if you still think they’re recounting or accounting the facts as they occurred, I’d love to sit you down with Zak Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness & watch your mouth drop open in naïve wonderment. Short form, it’s fairly obvious from the get-go that Grebin & Nigro are pulling our legs. That the two fictional partners, Gil Ripley & Dave Roberts, seem to care so much about their TV project – a Survivor-like program in which participants are starved until they cave in & devour human flesh – is what makes American Cannibal such an agreeable, diverting satire & while we’re being sucked into the stormy torrents of zeal & reluctance surrounding their show, we also become aware of how damned enticing this kind of programming can be for participants & audiences alike. How many times, after all, have you heard a devotee of Big Brother, Crank-Addled Bachelor or My Stick-Figure Nanny tell you they have no idea why they’re addicted to their show or shows of choice while evincing strangely defiant shame? It’s an almost genetic predisposition, a mysterious addiction like shoplifting, alcoholism & Donkey Kong. Even though we’re told again & again that most of the “drama” in these shows is precipitated (or outright staged) by the directors & covert writing staff, we suspend our disbelief just as we do watching space ships orbit the sun or Renee Zellweger pursued by handsome, charming men. We CHOOSE to believe these people are real & that they’re actually acting like sluts, bitches or petty jerks of their own free will. American Cannibal contains enough wild exaggerations that it’s hard to completely lose yourself in its well-mounted documentary format & it’s not as witty as This is Spinal Tap or Sam Seder’s wonderful mini-series, Pilot Season from 2004, but – and this is either a warning or a recommendation, take your pick – it’s awfully hard not to watch it all the way through once you’ve started. Recommended, I suppose.


Away From Her (Dir. Sarah Polley, 2006)

Away From Her was so universally praised by other critics that I feel a little shoddy being a naysayer. Much has been made of actress-turned-director Sarah Polley draining this story of a long-married, active, intelligent couple (Gordon Pinsent & a rather too restrained Julie Christie) dealing with the wife’s Alzheimer’s, of the usual hand-wringing bathos, and there’s something to that. Away From Her does avoid manipulative sentimentality for the most part, but the screenwriting (by Polley & the author of the short story on which the film is based, Alice Munro) and performances are so stilted & mannered, as if lifted from the printed page with no regard for the distinct power of film to capture “real” moments & “real” flavors of speech, that the whole affair feels distant & prosaic. What’s really bothersome is that there’s no real style here, none of the eye for detail that would sharpen our perceptions of this couple. They seem to have come out of nowhere & that makes each emotional revelation a little underwhelming. Although one senses their intelligence, that they’ve lived life fully with the usual forays into adultery & romantic restlessness, followed by second-act contentment, respect & friendship, I never felt like I actually knew these people. I couldn’t even find a corollary for them in my life on which to hang my emotional response to the subject matter. Usually, when adapting a story by an expert stylist like Munro, the filmmaking style is used to compensate for the absence of the beautiful, finely crafted sentences (see Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm or Tod Williams’ The Door in the Floor), but Polley has no gift for this & so we’re left with clumsy, rather arbitrary narrative continuity leaps, this hyper-literary dialogue, and flat, bloodless production values. Truth be told, Away From Her could’ve used a little hand-wringing & perhaps an orchestra swell now & again.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Dir. Larry Charles, 2006)

Da Ali G Show regular, Sacha Baron Cohen, runs amok on the big screen as crass, racist, misogynist Kazakhstani journalist, Borat. Though little of Cohen & Larry Charles’ (Seinfeld, Masked & Anonymous) pointed satire of American culture would hold up in court (Entrapment! Entrapment! Entrapment!), it is occasionally gasp-inducing to see how quickly our nation’s bugaboos – sex, race, class – come bubbling (then rushing) to the surface when prodded by an ostensibly naïve provocateur. The movie nearly trips over itself with comic momentum and – thankfully – doesn’t leave much time for viewers to weed those who are in on the joke from those poor souls hoisted on their own petards. Borat isn’t for the comedically faint-of-heart, but I’m sure it will rivet & entertain edgy hipsters for some time to come. Recommended. 

Fast Food Nation (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2006)

In attempting to adapt Eric Schlosser’s best-selling 2001 meat-industry expose into interwoven narrative strands, each representing some gloomy facet of America’s carnivorous spirit, director Linklater (Dazed & Confused, Before Sunrise, The Newton Boys) seriously miscalculates which of these strands is convincing, and which are shrill and riddled with blustery cant. The part of the story featuring Greg Kinnear (an almost impossibly reliable actor) as a marketing director for a fast food chain who’s sent to Colorado to investigate claims of fecal matter found in the chain’s hamburger patties has the feel of truth to it, and thanks to Kinnear’s honest performance, manages to be touching and human. 

The other threads here are nearly comic in their robotic obeisance to cinematic and political clichés. While there are some, um, meaty moments in the tale of illegal immigrants Wilmer Valderrama (That 70s Show) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Mary Full of Grace) who are nearly enslaved by a processing plant, this degenerates quickly into the kind of arch melodrama normally reserved for weekday afternoon matinees at failing amusement parks. Worse still is the unintentionally hilarious story of dead-end teenage fast food employees (Paul Dano, Ashley Johnson, a resoundingly awful & distracting Avril Lavigne) turned utterly ineffectual eco-terrorists. As further punishment for our meat-loving indiscretions, this section is also saddled with the always annoying Ethan Hawke, teaching the kids a little something about hipster conviction. 

In the end, even the truly horrific final scenes of the plant’s killing floor only serve to wake you from the doldrums of the movie you’ve been forced to wade through, not from your real-life complacency regarding the pressing issues at hand.

Let’s Go To Prison (Dir. Bob Odenkirk, 2006)

There’s nothing here that the Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder prison comedy Stir Crazy didn’t provide with more warmth and comic ballast, and there’s only so much Oz-level realism an otherwise good-natured comedy can handle before it goes irreparably sour. While Let’s Go to Prison does have some engaging moments, featuring stalwart comedic talent like Dax Shepard (Idiocracy, Employee of the Month), Will Arnett (Arrested Development), Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show), and a surprisingly nimble Chi McBride, there’s a nagging sense throughout that this movie would also like to teach us something about our ailing penal system and, eventually, all the statistics and pointed narration soundly defeat the enjoyably slapdash irreverent comedy. It’s still definitely worth a look, though.

Boys & Girls Guide to Getting Down (Dir. Paul Sapiano, 2006)

Wow, here was a surprise. Judging from the DVD case, I assumed this would be the sort of movie that would make me hole up in a slough of misanthropy for a month or two, like The Real Cancun or that documentary about Boondock Saints auteur Troy Duffy, Overnight. Nothing is worse than watching real people talk (or yell, fists & gang signs raised high) about how much they like to party & how hard they party & the package for Guide to Getting Down made it look like I’d be watching the staff of Vice Magazine do cocaine off one another’s tookuses for 90 minutes. Thankfully that was not the case. The movie’s actually a slightly clumsy but wildly creative, bright & energetic satire on party culture, especially in party-centric L.A. The cast is made up almost entirely of unknowns (with the exception of Saved by the Bell’s Dennis Haskins -- Mr. Belding to you), and you’ll almost certainly be hearing from most of them again. 

The movie begins as a primer/how-to guide for “getting down,” which breaks the movie into edgy-cational segments concerning getting into clubs, scoring drugs, the difference between sketchy & good drugs, the differences in male & female motivations when “getting down,” and great private party etiquette. The how-to angle is spruced up with cool graphics & the narrator’s sexy deadpan works perfectly. With each segment we get to know a circle of L.A. partiers who seem off-putting at first, but soon all their neuroses, asinine pick-up strategies & well-heeled desperation becomes pretty damn charming & a disarming, hilarious story begins to emerge. First-time director jitters & slight tonal missteps aside, this is fine fizzy indie comedy fare for die-hard hipsters & wanna-bes with flair. Recommended. 

I’m Reed Fish (Dir. Zackary Adler, 2006) 

At first the whimsy in Adler’s tiny indie, I’m Reed Fish, seemed set on stun & my resistance was up like a cast iron raincoat collar, but I have to admit the movie grew on me as it breezed along, and even had me a little teary-eyed by the end. The story takes place in the kind of filmic quirkopolis where everyone’s a darling weirdo with a little weird something that would make you strangle them & bury them in the bog outside of town if you actually met such a person. They each have one dimension & that one dimension is an eccentricity. What the director hopes is that all these one dimensional quirks will make the town, as a whole, three dimensional. Sometimes this works (see Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, Gilmore Girls & Sci-Fi Channel’s Eureka), often it doesn’t (see The Smurfs, Lidsville & Northern Exposure). 

In I’m Reed Fish, Jay Baruchel (the living equivalent of John Tenniel’s Mock Turtle from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), plays the titular character, though a real Reed Fish actually wrote & plays a bit part in the film. Fish is the kind-hearted, responsible, endlessly helpful son of a local media celebrity (a backwoods Walter Cronkite to hear the town tell it) who perished in an automobile accident along with his mother & the mother of his fiancé, played by Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel. When Fish meets an old classmate, a cheerfully troubled musician played with disarmingly winsome edge by Schuyler Fisk (American Gun, One Tree Hill), he begins to question whether he really wants to follow in his father’s footsteps as village cure-all. 

There are some jarring postmodern touches throughout as Fish shows the film we’re watching to his actual friends AND the actors we see portraying them but, in the end, they work & don’t distance the viewer from the touching sentiments at play. As the town eccentrics, Katey Sagal, Chris Parnell & Blake Clark stave off cloying preciousness, and DJ Qualls doesn’t make me wonder, as I normally do, what he’d look like running around the farmyard with his head cut off. Recommended. 

Rush to War (Dir. Robert Taicher, 2004)

I wasn’t sure how to feel about an Iraq War documentary whose first interviewee was Harry Knowles (the Austin movie pundit responsible for Ain’t It Cool News) sitting in front of the movie poster for 1975’s Rollerball. When the next interview was with cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain), I seriously had to go check IMDB & make sure there wasn’t some kind of error. It’s an awkward way to begin an otherwise respectable over-view & meditation on the war, its origins, its essential paradoxes, and the unmitigated hubris which sustains it. Not as flashy, provocative or inflammatory as most of the anti-war documentaries floating around out there, Rush to War finally settles into a coherent narrative structure & trots out the usual liberal voices of dissent, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, George McGovern, Molly Ivins, Scott Ritter & Daniel Berrigan. The anti-war argument also gets some surprising, though slightly out-of-context, support from the Rev. Jerry Falwell (who died, I guess, before he could repudiate the film’s overall message). Nothing here will surprise or shock you if you’ve been paying attention to this shameful war at all, but Rush to War’s clear-headed, educational tone might salve, for a few moments at least, your frayed nerves. Tacked on to this DVD re-issue (the film was made in 2004) is an enlightening interview with Joe Wilson about the Valerie Plame scandal. Mildly recommended. 

Steel Toes (Dir. Mark Adam, 2006)

Unfortunately, this well-meaning story of a Jewish attorney who takes on the case of a white supremacist skinhead who’s beaten a Middle Eastern cook to death never transcends its origins as a stage play (by screenwriter & co-director David Gow). The performances, the dialogue, the production design, the sets & even the lighting, all fail to open up this rather simplistic, dialogue-heavy morality tale in a way suitable to cinema. What may have had chilling weight theatrically, fails to conjure up much energy on film. In fact, once it’s all said & done, what we have here is an After School Special for ACLU interns. Recommended for people who need to congratulate themselves repeatedly about their own noble opinions.

A Few Days in September (Dir. Santiago Amigorena, 2006)

It’s amazing how fact-based thrillers, with inexorable, foregone conclusions, can still ratchet up such unbearable tension. Paul Greengrass’ brilliant United 93 is a good case in point. As an audience, we know exactly what’s to become of this airplane once its been hijacked by 9/11 terrorists, but somehow our need for a different course of events keeps us riveted to the screen, as if our rapt attention could drum up a Harrison Ford or Wesley Snipes to change textbook history. 

While Amigorena’s A Few Days in September is wholly fictional, recounting the very intimate tale of two estranged half-siblings being navigated by master spy Juliette Binoche through Europe to rendezvous with their mysterious father amidst the sinister intelligence buzz preceding the events of 9/11. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling anything if I say the few days in September 2001 that comprise this wickedly intelligent, bracing spy thriller, are the days just before the 9/11 attack. Each day is carefully underscored for us as being September 9, 2001 and so on, so I don’t think the director was trying to be coy about where the film was heading. But while we may know the broader consequences of what is transpiring among the raft of low & high level intelligence officials & spooks that cross paths in the movie, the story of these two young people – the French daughter who wants to kill her father for past sins, and the devoted American son – and their enigmatic protector Binoche (in her best role to date) will break your heart & challenge your nerves. 

As in all superior spy thrillers (Three Days of the Condor, The Manchurian Candidate, The Parallax View, Day of the Jackal) the characters & their relations are subtly-sketched metaphors of the political situation at hand but we are never forced to look outside the action by overbearing subtexts. A Few Days in September is first-rate metaphor but that never detracts from the mounting tension, the heart-breaking allegiances, and razor-sharp performances from Tom Riley & Sara Forestier (think a Gallic Natasha Lyonne) as the siblings. The only misstep here is John Turturro as a crazed, poetry-spouting spook gunning for the father, who’d once been his mentor. While Turturro’s performance is fine, we may have seen enough of the hit man-in-therapy routine in recent movies & his role often seems crudely shoe-horned into the plotline. It’s a minor quibble & doesn’t, in any way, sink this otherwise wholly original work. If the last shot, an ominous, blurred 360-degree pan doesn’t leave you breathless, your skin pocked with gooseflesh, maybe cinema just isn’t for you…

Highly, highly recommended. 

Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (Dir. Randy Olson, 2006)


Coming from Nebraska, I never really considered Kansas a state worthy of a "Duelin’ Banjos" kind of soundtrack, so I felt a little put off, maybe even insulted, by Randy Olson’s overtly hillbilly score at the beginning of the movie as he explains his Kansas roots & lays the framework for this occasionally too playful, but overall informative & entertaining, documentary about the highly politicized battle between Evolutionists & devotees of Intelligent Design. At first Olson seems like a good-old-boy bystander who got a digital video camera for Christmas & happens to know some low-wattage Kansas eccentrics. Once we’re clear on Olson’s credentials – he’s a Harvard-educated Evolutionary Ecologist with more than a glancing expertise in Embryology – the film becomes more incisive & Olson’s rather glib – without being overly haughty – tone becomes more enjoyable. For the most part he avoids mocking ignorant hicks outright, unless they’ve somehow made themselves players in the political debate by accepting monies from overtly conservative organizations & entrenching themselves in school boards & city councils across the U.S. Then, of course, they’re fair game. Instead, Olson concentrates on the, um, “intellectual” base of the Intelligent Design movement – a fairly charming & seemingly reasonable assortment of small-time scientists, somewhat misguided grassroots attorneys, and probably well-meaning politicos. Unfortunately all of these I. D. supporters are pretty much decimated by a poker table full of Harvard biologists, DNA researchers & embryologists who dismantle their arguments without being too condescending & reiterate, helpfully, the difference between metaphysics & pure science. It’s not all that cut & dried, of course, and Olson never makes as if it is, which is the film’s saving grace. The director borrows just enough from the style of Michael Moore to keep Flock of Dodos entertaining & focused (including several quests to see the big-money social strategists behind the movement) but leaves out the often thudding cynicism & vanity that have managed to sour Moore’s last few efforts. There’s actually a chance here that laypeople still up-in-the-air on this issue might make it all the way through Flock of Dodos without feeling unduly insulted & patronized. Actually, this film could have an even-handedness that might change their minds, one way or the other. Recommended.

In the Pit (Dir. Juan Carlos Rulfo, 2006)

While this is ostensibly a documentary about the laborers involved in the building of the monumental Periferico elevated freeway in Mexico City, filmmaker Rulfo introduces us to a group of workers who’d rather talk about anything else. While this may seem, at first, like an intentional strategy that will really pay off as we learn more & the various stories coalesce & cross-pollinate, it’s actually just confusing & never amounts to a portrait or commentary on contemporary Mexico, the 20 million inhabitants of the Mexico City, the insanely hubristic nature of the freeway enterprise, the humanity of laborers dwarfed by insatiable progress, or anything much else for that matter. Inane, everyday stories are repeated ad nauseam with fairly meaningless digressions apparently encouraged by Rulfo, while far more interesting stories of construction accidents (seemingly more germane to the film) & the back-breaking work at hand are clipped off mid-thought. Thankfully, the actual aerial footage of the freeway project speaks volumes & may be worth the price of a rental if you have even a passing interest in grandiose feats of engineering. Like the films of construction workers walking the hundred story girders of the Empire State Building in the late 1920s or laborers balanced atop the spans of the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s, there’s a high-wire majesty to the whole thing, generating a peculiar mix of revulsion, vertigo & humanistic pride. 

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Dir. Ken Loach, 2006)

The alarmingly British director Ken Loach began his career with Poor Cow (1967), the gritty, grim Angry Young Man/Free Cinema movement classic used to such great effect in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999), fell off cinematic radar for a bit, and returned to form in the 1990s with Riff-Raff & the IRA thriller, Hidden Agenda. After a long restless career & virtual anonymity in the U.S., Loach has finally made an undeniable masterpiece with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, though the movie’s still in danger of being a little too British or, in this case, Irish for an American audience. It assumes the audience already has a good deal of knowledge about the early years of the Irish “Troubles,” and doesn’t pander to the American uber-audience in the manner of Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father & Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins and The Crying Game

This assumption that we’re versed in the history of the Irish partition, the Irish Republican movement & Sinn Fein will make The Wind That Shakes the Barley tough going for some, but if you stick with it & don’t let the many garbled political specifics bog you down, you’ll discover a haunting, extraordinarily acted & lensed period film, one of the finest in recent memory. The Guinness-thick Irish accents don’t help matters but add to the movie’s overall feeling of authenticity. 

Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Red Eye) is awe-inspiring as Damien, a scholarly doctor who, upon witnessing several friends beaten & killed by English black and tans, cancels his residency at a famous London hospital & becomes a soldier in the ragtag Irish Republican Army circa 1920. The film follows Damien’s section of soldiers/terrorists (a shifting viewpoint that helps the film to resonate boldly) as they grapple with terrifying violence, the political ramifications of the smallest act, and the discipline & cold temper it takes to believe whole-heartedly you’re fighting a war when you’ve no uniforms, nothing but covert military hierarchies, and seat of your pants battle strategies. 

This is an altogether brilliant film cast in mud & blood-spattered shades of green, brown & grey & there are scenes in The Wind That Shakes the Barley that will stick in your head as fixedly as the most lilting, melancholy Irish ballad. Highly Recommended.


Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror (Dir. Stacy Title, 2006)

Let’s get this straight, this is NOT a good movie. In fact, it’s quite an awful one, but it’s also an unmitigated, gruesome hoot from start to finish. Every cheesy gore effect, brooding performance (I guess it’s supposed to be attitude with a majuscule “A,” but…), overly expositional rap track, and nonsensical storyline (the logic in these three tales make Asian horror films look like tech school industrial films), leads to a kind of giddy delirium the more you watch. The best of these, a sadistic Bush-era fable about a rich redneck slumlord & his spoiled girlfriend who terrorize a group of elderly Vietnam vets, is so twisted & amoral it challenges the whole nature of this kind of grisly horror omnibus (EC Comics, Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside). If you want a black horror anthology with serious subtext, definitely try Rusty Cundieff’s infinitely superior Tales from the Hood (1995), but if it’s six-pack dementia you’re after, this definitely fits the bill. Recommended, but don’t say I told you so…


Snow Cake (Dir. Marc Evans, 2006)

Dour Alan Rickman (Die Hard, the Harry Potter films) has just been released from prison for murder. He meets a purple-haired Holly Golightly (played by Emily Hampshire, aping the young Fairuza Balk) at a Canadian truck stop who begins to cheer him up a little on his long drive to Winnipeg. Not ten seconds after a wary smile begins to light up Rickman’s face, a semi truck barrels into the side of his SUV, killing the girl & leaving him without a scratch. To appease his guilt, the once-again dour Rickman moves in with the girl’s autistic mother (Sigourney Weaver) in the small, under-written town of Wawa, and helps her out arranging the girl’s funeral & doing unpleasant chores around the house. In the meantime he strikes up a relationship with the lovely, promiscuous next door neighbor, Carrie-Anne Moss (Disturbia, The Matrix) & reveals his secrets (he’s not a BAD murderer, but the good kind) with the sleepy aplomb that makes Rickman Rickman. Sigourney Weaver pitches her performance just shy of the kind of mawkish insult to mental illness we got from Rosie O’Donnell in Riding the Bus with My Sister & Juliette Lewis in The Other Sister, and she seems helpless & limited when the plot requires it & completely functional & cerebral when the whole autism thing bogs down a chance to voice overwrought platitudes. Either way, it’s an annoying performance and -- given it’s the slippery core of this sloppy confection -- it makes for a truly annoying movie as well. One nice touch, though it just reveals the cloying randomness of this stirring testament to human misery, is having Kids in the Hall’s Mark McKinney & Susan Coyne show up at the wake, still in character from their incredible Canadian TV show, Slings & Arrows. They ask one another what the hell’s going on here as Weaver spazz-dances around the room with the glittery, haloed ghost of her daughter & that’s pretty much all the Greek chorus this movie needs.

Ten ‘til Noon (Dir. Scott Storm, 2006)

Almost every actor in Scott Storm’s Ten ‘til Noon is aping a better actor’s character from a much better film. Morgan Freeman’s son, Alfonso Freeman, takes on the role of Samuel Jackson’s chatty hit man from Pulp Fiction, TV stalwart Rick D. Wasserman, as the computer wiz target of the movie’s mayhem, is a slightly sexier version of every character Aaron Sorkin-fave Josh Malina has ever played. Thomas Kopache, as the icy-eyed, bald mob functionary, is a ringer for The O.C.’s Alan Dale (Caleb), and big-wig gangster George Williams gives off pure James Caan while looking like Dick Van Patten. No mean feat, that. You try it. How’d it go? I thought so. 

You’re probably thinking, “What has listing all this rampant homage got to do with the quality or plot of the movie?” Well, it gets to the very crux of what’s wrong with this mildly involving little indie novelty. Every last twitch, every move & bit of dialogue is secondhand, and that’s giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. The movie’s gimmick is that we get the same ten minutes in one day from myriad points of view, all having to do with the hit put out on said computer genius as part of a hostile corporate takeover. It’s a fine gimmick, but it feels tired, too much like a dozen other movies from Reservoir Dogs to The Way of the Gun & these copycat performances don’t make these similarities any less glaring. It’s not a terrible movie, but there’s obviously an amateur at the helm & you could do much better.


Autumn (Dir. Ra’up McGee, 2004)

A peculiarly languorous, moody hitman/gangster-angst film from France, in which many guns are drawn but, sadly, few are ever fired. In Autumn, the gun is used more as a cinematic signpost than as a weapon. Like a pirate’s eye-patch or a well-digger’s icy rump, the guns only serve to show us why we should care about the four or five characters here who sulk around Paris & otherwise could easily be confused for, well, any four or five attractive nobodies sulking around Paris, a city filled with attractive nobodies. If they’ve got guns, they just have to be interesting. At least that’s what I used to think. I used to think if the movie had a gun, a midget or a particularly cute monkey, one could at least be promised some kind of action. If the movie had all three…well, that’s why God created those challenging AFI film lists. 

In last week’s reviews I mentioned the game bocce twice – once, because it was actually in a movie, the other as a metaphor for something or other. Strangely, a pair of gangsters in the movie actually use bocce as a kind of interrogation technique, a time-wasting/tension-ratcheting device that definitely does the former, but leaves the tension a little slack. I guess the game is catching on, onscreen at least. There are fine enigmatic performances here from Laurent Lucas (Calvaire, Lemming), Irene Jacobs (U.S. Marshalls, The Secret Garden, My Life So Far) & the elfish Russian actress, Dinara Drukarova, but it’s hard to stir up much interest in these people when director McGee so stridently avoids anything like standard plot development, character motivation, pacing & logic. Well, that’s not entirely true. The one motivation he does give for Lucas & Jacobs becoming criminal sociopaths -- and he takes the whole movie doling this out to us – is so absurdly anti-climactic, such a filmic molehill, that you’ll want to round up all those ineffectual little prop guns in the movie & use them on the director. 

What’s left is some fine rainy day cinematography from National Geographic photographer Erin Harvey, some lovely rainy day music from composer Cyril Morin & a lot of pretty, sad faces moving through Paris & the French countryside very slowly, wondering – one supposes – why they aren’t wearing eye-patches.

Believe in Me (Dir. Robert Collector, 2006)

Believe in Me is based on an Oklahoma sports hero, high school girl’s basketball coach Jim Keith, but there are enough fabrications thrown into the plot (and you’ll spot them as they come because you probably know how real life works by now), that the names of the characters & the towns they came from have been changed. The movie starts out circa 1958, with college assistant boy’s basketball coach Clay Driscoll (a wonderfully evocative cross between Gary Cooper & Ed’s Thomas Cavanagh) moving to drought-ravaged blink in the road, Middleton, to take over their winning high school boy’s basketball program. His wife (played adorably, but without noticeable strain, by Samantha Mathis) and he have purchased a home & are preparing to adjust to this small town way of life, when he’s given the take-it-or-leave-it news that he’ll coach the girl’s basketball team or be on his way. Reluctantly he takes on the ragtag batch of farmer’s-wives-to-be whose past coaches have treated them as if basketball is just another fluff unit in afternoon gym class. Many sports movie clichés ensue, but – at least for the first half of the film – period detail (including a soundtrack of songs we haven’t been bludgeoned with a billion times in other movies), emotional restraint & really fierce performances by the girls, win the day. In that first half, Believe in Me gets the details of small town life just right & radiates a simplicity & genuine conviction I haven’t seen in a sports movie since Hoosiers. 

All this makes the movie’s bathetic last hour painful as watching the game clock wind down on your favorite underdog sporting team. I mean, you know from the get-go this movie won’t be any classic, but it seemed to have all the grit & conviction that Coach Driscoll kept telling his girls they have. Then demonic head of the Middleton school board, Bruce Dern -- who also happens to own most of the town & loan papers on most of the farms -- begins twirling his metaphorical black mustache & hunching around the set like a bible belt Shylock, and Believe in Me becomes exactly the kind of mawkish mess that gives sports flicks a bad name. 

There’s a pre-tournament banquet scene that will have you cringing & wishing with all your heart for the subtle pleasures of Rudy or Radio, and a climax that will have you wishing for the subtle pleasures of Ladybugs. Sandwiched in between is a top-notch state championship girl’s basketball game that’s as exciting and tense as any sporting event I’ve seen in a movie. The director must have filmed that early on, while he still had his head in the game. Very Mildly Recommended. 

Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film (Dir. Tom Thurman, 2006)

Tom Thurman’s documentary focuses primarily on the two films made from “gonzo” journalist Thompson’s writings, 1980’s Where the Buffalo Roam, and Terry Gilliam’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas from 1998, but it’s probably as fine an all-around film biography as we’re going to see about the man. Thurman mostly interviews the Hollywood celebrity iconoclasts who were devoted to Hunter S. Thompson – some to his myth, some to the southern gentleman he revealed in more intimate moments. Narrator Nick Nolte, Johnny Depp, Harry Dean Stanton, Bill Murray, John Cusack, Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, and most deliriously, Gary Busey, all give oddball but tender, tributes to “the greatest literary wit since Mark Twain” (although I’d give some props to William S. Burroughs in that regard, as well). But lest you think this is all self-serving celebrity cadaver-groping, Thurman makes sure some more high-minded types get a word in. Noted conservative blue-blood William F. Buckley champions Thompson’s literary prowess without fanboy hyperbole, Tom Wolfe seems as if he’d like to be condescending about the gun-toting, acid-addled Wildman, but bites his tongue the way any man wearing a white suit & spats should. Also in the high-brow camp, we get rock critic/opium expert, Nick Tosches, 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley, Gary Hart, George McGovern and, um, I guess just ‘cuz, noted Benzedrine addict & celebrity frotteur, Leonard Maltin. It’s a tender documentary about the most overly mythologized literary figure since Kerouac, and while it doesn’t strive to tear the myth from the man, it remains even-handed in its praise & the anecdotes are all priceless. At first I wondered why the film opened with a rather lengthy segment featuring Gary Busey forcing Thurman and his crew to jump through the most absurd hoops in order to speak with him, but then, at the end, when one Thompson chum says, “It’s not as much fun & it’s not as interesting a world without Hunter,” it occurred to me: Hunter S. Thompson may be dead, but his wild cultural genetic material still nobly & crazily stomps the terra. Be sure to stick with this through the credits to watch Harry Dean Stanton sing “Danny Boy.” Recommended. 

Bad Blood, or Coisa Ruim (Dir. Tiago Guedes, 2006)

This Portuguese import takes a while to get going, but when it does it crawls under your skin with surprising efficiency. The Straw Dogs of spirit possession movies, Bad Blood concerns a family of upper-crust city dwellers who move to an ancestral country house the father (played with cranky, professorial warmth by Adriano Luz) has inherited. Most of the family resents being uprooted & these resentments create a rift in the family, allowing evil a crack through which to slither. Guedes slowly and methodically reveals the village, its inhabitants (some quite friendly & good-humored), its lore, and its rampant superstitions, before introducing us to the underlying specters. There are traces of the original Wicker Man here, but this is a far more accomplished & effective film. Recommended.

The Treatment (Dir. Oren Rudavsky, 2006) 

I’ll confess outright to having a man-crush on this movie’s lead actor, Chris Eigeman (Metropolitan, Last Days of Disco, Barcelona, Gilmore Girls), and to a love for his usual acting milieu, that of the upper crust, hyper-verbal, slightly flummoxed man of privilege forced by circumstances to own up to the vagaries of the social contract. His characters are normally separated from the messy mainstream of life by intellect, class & emotional reserve but are invariably, often without conscious thought, thrust into communion with the vortex of the mess itself. I am probably one of – well, one person who believed that Lorelai Gilmore belonged not with Luke, not with Max, not with Christopher, but with Eigeman’s Jason Stiles, and that it was only Eigeman’s other acting obligations that kept this from coming to fruition. I only surrendered this pipe dream late into the final season of the show. 

I’ll also confess to having a weakness for movies that still talk about Freud & psychoanalysis without eye-rolling & all-out mockery. So, on the surface, this little indie about a repressed, congenitally-tentative private school teacher (Eigeman) with all kinds of mommy/daddy issues who meets & falls for a startlingly beautiful dowager (Famke Janssen) while in the volcanic midst of intense Freudian therapy with a Venezuelan psychoanalyst (a magnificently eccentric Ian Holm), seems like just about the perfect film for yours truly. And it is, but that doesn’t mean it will mean a damn thing to you. Director Rudavsky directed only well-regarded Jewish interest documentaries before this, including A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life & Music & At the Crossroads: Jews in Eastern Europe Today, and his grip on narrative film, while occasionally deft, still needs some work if he’s to become anything but the director of TV dramas. 

There aren’t many original or challenging moments in The Treatment & my liking it only points out how dutiful I am in reacting to this kind of filmic ritual, from early Paul Mazursky to Woody Allen to Whit Stillman. I was even intrigued by the idea that Eigeman’s character in The Treatment was named Jacob Singer, also the name of the Tim Robbins’ character in Adrian Lyne’s nightmarish Jacob’s Ladder. I even thought about researching the Freudian implications of that. So, now you know what you’re dealing with here…

Recommended to me. If any of this sounds like you, then to you, too.

Big Nothing (Dir. Jean-Baptiste Andrea, 2006) 

Despite some genuinely funny moments and fine comic performances from David Schwimmer, Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Alice Eve (Stage Beauty), Big Nothing suffers & eventually expires from a kitchen-sink directorial style (did the movie really require animation sequences?) and plot contrivances so outrageous it feels as though a precocious, slightly sadistic 12 year old boy came up with them. Schwimmer plays a frustrated writer being supported by his wife (Natascha McElhone), who also happens to be the chief of police in their quaint Oregon town. When he takes a job in a computer company call center, he meets brash, impetuous con man Pegg, who’s hatched a blackmail scheme so blinkered & ill-conceived even a desperate, starving homeless person wet-brained on meth would question it. Trouble is, we’re never quite given enough biographical information about Schwimmer (whose random encyclopedic knowledge is an annoyance to all) to see him as desperate or in the least criminally inclined, especially towards a plan this ludicrous. When events do begin to unravel for Pegg, Schwimmer & Miss Teen Wyoming/Oklahoma, Eve, we’re not at all surprised by the failure of this group to extort money from a wealthy local minister & snuff film producer, though the confluence of bad luck & coincidental mayhem does weave an absurd spell on the viewer to whom strained credulity is a minor matter.

The Life & Hard Times of Guy Terrifico (Dir. Michael Mabbott, 2005)

An attempt to do for outlaw country what This is Spinal Tap did for classic rock, although I don’t recall anyone requesting that dubious honor. While the parade of shaggy talking heads giving testimony to the career of notorious heck-raiser Terrifico – Kris Kristofferson (Roughly as humorless here as he is in the Blade series), Merle Haggard (Oh, that barrel of laughs Merle Haggard!), Donnie Fritts (Fresh off double-barreled cameos in Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia & Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid!), Levon Helm (Looking like he could still get kicked out of hell on a Saturday night), and others – give the film a little heft, the jokes themselves may be lost on anyone who doesn’t frequent the Continental Club three or four nights a week. Terrifico himself is played by Matt Murphy, an uncanny hybrid of Townes Van Zandt & Gram Parsons, but he’s consistently betrayed by the film’s uneven run of creaky gags, including several lifted whole-hog from Spinal Tap. The original Terrifico songs (penned by Murphy) are actually more pastiche than parody & don’t send up the genre as much as pay fair tribute to it. If you’re a die-hard fan of Waylon, Willie, Van Zandt, Kristofferson & the like, you’ll find much to enjoy here, although I still doubt you’ll find it particularly hilarious. The bit about “humping the drums” amuses at first but is quickly run into the ground. Beyond that, The Life & Hard Times of Guy Terrifico mostly fails as “Mockumentary,” succeeding, though, as a fine means of showing off your knowledge of country music trivia.

Miss Potter (Dir. Chris Noonan, 2006)

Renee Zellweger is woefully miscast as the young Beatrix Potter, creator of the beloved Peter Rabbit tales & erstwhile conservationist. From the outset the Britishness of her performance is so belabored that each fine authentically British actor she encounters – Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Bill Paterson, Barbara Flynn – seems to flinch noticeably & then coddle her for entire passages. Watson finally just gives up & steals scene after scene rather effortlessly. 

Concentrating on the period before Potter became a cottage name (roughly 1902 -1906), Miss Potter relies, quite factually one supposes, on the usual artistic hurdles a bright, driven young woman might face at the turn of the last century – parental disapproval, doltish suitors, gender prejudice, class intolerance, and, uniquely in Potter’s case, a tendency to think of anthropomorphism as a somewhat juvenile obsession. 

The film is directed by Chris Noonan, who might know just a little about the latter plight, having helmed Babe & then dropping off the face of the earth for roughly a decade after. Noonan has a difficult time balancing whimsy (animated versions of Potter’s characters make sudden, rather alarming appearances, especially when the artist is flummoxed) and painterly Merchant/Ivory character study, so much so that often -- during these flights of filmic fancy -- Zellweger seems just the slightest bit mentally unhinged.

The Bridge (Dir. Eric Steel, 2006)

This documentary chronicling a year’s worth of jumpers (23 in all) from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge requires, perhaps, one or two more disclaimers than a self-contained work of art should, I suppose. Going in, for instance, we have to note that the filmmakers kept their cell phones on speed dial to try & save as many would-be suicides as possible, and actually foiled six attempts. Not everyone dies after the jump, in fact one survivor’s story borders on the miraculous, and one girl is saved by a passer-by who hauls her back onto the bridge by the scruff of her neck. Does this make this eerie, mesmerizing film any less a work of pornography, exploiting the darkest miseries of others? There are certainly images here you will feel queasy witnessing, that perhaps shouldn’t be witnessed at all, but the filmmakers do an amazing job of fleshing out these sad blurry forms as they crouch among the terra cotta girders of this monumental feat of engineering hubris, float dazzlingly through the fog or sparkling sunlight & plunge, desperately alone, into the darkness. 

Along with revealing interviews with family & friends, the filmmakers employ some tricky continuity lapses so we’re not really sure which interviews belong to which potential suicide walking back & forth along the bridge, summoning courage, hoping for rescue or just waiting for an opportunity. In fact, often – and this is telling -- we’re not sure whom we’re supposed to be watching, which sight-seer, businessman, young girl, jogger…

As we try to pin the stories onto the faces, try to pick those who survived from those who perished, we’re put into an elaborately compromised position, allowing us to face some really hard truths about suicide, despair, friendship, and mortality in general. It’s a supremely beautiful film that will suck the breath out of you repeatedly & catch in your throat like a forlorn sob you thought you’d bested long ago. Highly Recommended.

An Unreasonable Man (Dir. Henriette Mantel/Steve Skrovan, 2006)

Even as a meagerly informed young lad I found Ralph Nader fascinating, this gaunt man of few words who faced off against General Motors, a congress bloated with special interests, and an executive branch prone to grotesque paranoia & enemy lists. In the mid-‘60s & early ‘70s, Nader was an anti-establishment hero, like Gary Cooper with a microphone & ineluctable good sense. He didn’t want to overthrow the government, he couldn’t immediately be tagged as a “pinko,” he wore his hair short, donned a rumpled conservative business suit, and had worked his way up from urban poverty into the Ivy League -- he just wanted to save lives. That this man, who gave us seat belts & air bags, Halloween costumes that wouldn’t incinerate ten feet from a lit stove, and a greater sense of well-being around the products we use every day, should be demonized by the left & blamed for the presidency George W. Bush, is enough hot-headed controversy to fuel several documentaries. Thankfully, this one covers all the bases eloquently. There’s great history here, potent rabble-rousing, mind-boggling irrationality, rabid talking heads, and, at the core, a character so all-fire sure of himself that he shrugs off opponents with just a few dry sentences. An Unreasonable Man is certainly not an act of hero worship, in fact, to my mind, it gives a little too much credence to those who say Nader siphoned votes from Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential race, thus abetting a Bush victory. This seems abhorrently condescending to voters & against the very nature of democracy, and I’d rather have George W. as President for four more years than tell a man with a specific vision & a modicum of intelligence he can’t run for the highest office in the land because it might spoil the “game.” This is a fine, mature documentary that should be seen by anyone who knows Nader simply as that Third Party weirdo who won’t stop stepping in from the fringes just when we thought we’d made up our weary minds. Recommended.

First Snow (Dir. Mark Fergus, 2006)

A philosophical study of free will, disguised as a sun-baked Charles Willeford noir, disguised as Memento, disguised as The Dead Zone, disguised as a Mamet-ian long con, Mark Fergus’ directorial debut suffers, obviously, from wearing one mask too many, none of them adequately camouflaging the film’s most glaring flaw: pointlessness. Guy Pearce, a solid but, I think, rather unspectacular actor, seems uncomfortable as preternaturally oily flooring salesman Jimmy Starks & while Nicholas Cage may be able to openly flaunt disastrous mullet/shag hairstyle combos in hit films, Pearce just looks preposterous. His features are just too sharp & he looks like a model’s coiffed, but starving, purse dog. When Starks pays to have his fortune read by a truck stop-parking lot trailer psychic (I’m sure they exist, but I’ve never actually encountered one) who looks like a foreclosed-upon farmer just trying to make ends meet, the psychic goes into convulsions, gives the money back, and offers up this cryptic tidbit: “I saw no more roads, no more tomorrows. But you’re safe until the first snow.”

The movie meanders from there until we gradually give up on all the interesting avenues it may take. Turns out there was a crime and there’s a spooky character just released from prison who has every reason to want Starks dead or, at the very least, punished, but that turns out to be a bit of a plot dead-end as well. What we’re left with his the character study of lives in ruin & that’s just not enough to pay the bellboy, to be honest. And it doesn’t really bring us to the sort of conclusion this kind of thick, portentous ATMOSPHERE promises. What should have been keen & merciless turns out to be fluffy & directionless at the core, like a big, fat, poorly-dressed goon looming in the dark corner of a bar who suddenly stands up, kicks back his chair & lunges into the center of the room, just to give everyone a big hug.

Apocalypto (Dir. Mel Gibson, 2006)

Probably one of the greatest chase movies ever filmed, Gibson’s Apocalypto makes Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive seem downright inconsequential. The viewer is dropped headlong into the world of Jaguar Paw, a young man whose entire rainforest village has been decimated by Mayan slave traders. We’re not even given the comfort, so often afforded by historical fictions, of hearing the characters speak in the familiar halting English of movie natives, or attaching ourselves to an ensemble of larger-than-life celebrities whose heroic or sinister cinematic deeds safely armor us in filmic lore. The movie’s dialogue is in a virtually lost Yucatan dialect and the actors are all effortlessly talented non-professionals. So when the decadent, monolithic Mayan empire relentlessly pursues Jaguar Paw for most of the film, we’re as breathless, lost, exhausted & brutalized as he is. Apocalypto is a blood-soaked fever dream filled with grimly phantasmagorical images, and most likely the work of a genius madman, the kind of auteur I didn’t think existed anymore, especially in Hollywood. Watching the movie, one thinks of Von Stroheim & mid-period Herzog. This is not by way of excusing any of Gibson’s off-set behavior, but even Leni Riefenstahl made a few masterpieces in her time. Though critics have been contentious about Gibson’s accuracy in portraying the tyrannical Mayans, it’s hard to argue with the narrative efficacy of pitting our lowly hunter against such a dangerous leviathan, drunk on human sacrifice & conquest. No matter how you may feel about its director, Apocalypto thrills potently from start to finish & it’s easily one of the finest American films of the last ten years. 


Fay Grim (Dir. Hal Hartley, 2006)

Never much of a fan of Hartley’s overtly inscrutable Henry Fool to begin with, I was not as jazzed as some that he’d made a sequel. In fact, when I heard the news, I thought it was a joke, as if I’d heard that Adam Rifkin made a sequel to The Dark Backward, or Robert Downey Sr. to Hugo Pool. Well, Fay Grim is so engorged with awfulness that it almost makes me want to have another gander at Henry Fool, just because it has to look like the work of an old master compared to this bag of broken rubber bands, right? The film actually starts out rather promisingly, with Henry Fool’s wife -- played with quirks turned up to eleven by Parker Posey -- and young son living a life of enigmatic desperation in the Bronx, and her poet brother 10 years imprisoned after Henry’s disappearance. There’s some zippy, elliptical energy to the first few scenes between Posey & CIA agents Jeff Goldblum & Saffron Burrows, like a David Mamet play acted out by three Buster Keaton impersonators, but then the whole thing devolves into a wearying cat & mouse game cats & mice would have trouble staying awake for. There are times I thought maybe this was Hartley’s odd idea of a spy movie parody, but if that’s the case, I’ll take Abrahams & Zucker’s Top Secret! any day.

Free Zone (Dir. Amos Gitai, 2005)

Israeli filmmaker Gitai (Kippur, Kadosh) has the kind of personal directorial style where almost every shot is like a signature. His films get their unique energy & grace from the rhythmic interplay between claustrophobic emotional verite ala Cassavetes & long, fluid, almost dream-like shots of landscapes & people lost in the folds of that landscape. Natalie Portman, in a role none of her more mainstream roles will prepare you for, plays an American visiting Israel with her fiancée. After an argument with the fiancée & his mother, Portman goes off with the family’s driver (played with pitch-perfection by Cannes Best Actress winner, Hana Laszlo) to conduct some business with a Palestinian woman in the border region between Israel & Palestine, the titular “Free Zone.” Languid, meditative passages segue beautifully into scenes of rigorous moral, political, and racial complexity, all rendered grippingly, often raggedly, human by Gitai & Marie-Jose Sanselme’s fiercely intelligent script. A truly great film from a visionary film stylist. 

Boss of it All (Dir. Lars Von Trier, 2006)

Initially I would recommend this as a Lars Von Trier film for people who don't like Lars Von Trier, but after a few more viewings I'd say it's a much richer experience if you're a Von Trier fan, which I am (though with reservations). This story of a passive aggressive corporate head who's created a rather ornate BIG BOSS character so he won't have to be the "bad guy" to his employees touches on everything from corporate greed to the history of theatre, from Freudian father figures to odd Northern European racism ("You shitty, shitty, shitty, shit-faced Danes"), from Dogme ("It's like a Dogme film -- it's hard to hear, but that doesn't mean the words aren't important...") to sexual power strategies, and it remains light at heart, self-referential in the best of ways & in the end, pretty warm-spirited for one of the cinema's great misanthropes. Highly Recommended. 

Severance (Dir. Christopher Smith, 2006)

A corporate team-building retreat in Eastern Europe goes hellishly wrong when an army of well-armed crazed mercenaries descend on a group of pretty annoying white collar arms merchants (irony of ironies). Director Smith has no idea whatsoever which way he wants to go with this film. Is it a sly social satire or a post-modern gore-fest? He can’t even decide exactly who the killers are or what motivates them. By throwing in a bathtub full of random gags, bits of Saw, Hostel, Touristas, Descent, Trauma & Dog Soldiers, switching tones every three or four minutes, and hosing blood on the threadbare characters, the filmmakers obviously hope we’ll be too exhausted to care what the hell’s going on, but there are just enough decent scenes throughout to make the viewer long for a cohesive story in which to embed them.

Black Book (Dir. Paul Verhoeven, 2006)

This is an old-fashioned war movie in the best possible sense. Verhoeven’s not trying to up-end war movie clichés, in fact he occasionally wallows in them. Unlike recent revisionist World War II films like Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Flags of Our Fathers & Letters From Iwo Jima, Black Book revels in the cinematic iconography of war. It’s rife with spies, sexy traitors, square-jawed freedom fighters, sinister Nazis, and contrived, implausible missions to save the free world. But, of course, this is Verhoeven we’re talking about, so there are also noble square-jawed Nazis, a Jewish heroine who’s not only plucky but lasciviously promiscuous to boot, a giant vat of feces, and freedom fighters whose blatant self-interests trump their moral responsibilities. The director eschews style altogether, opting instead for the flat, conventional style of a TV movie. The action scenes are pulpy as can be, straight out of a 40s B-movie & there are preposterous contrivances at every turn, the kind of plot-holes only a very large box of popcorn can obscure. While it’s certainly noble for filmmakers like Spielberg, Malick & Eastwood to honor the grime, sacrifice & sepulchral gloom that often resides behind the myths of war, I’m glad Verhoeven has chosen to honor so lovingly a currently maligned genre, the popcorn war film. This is not to say that Black Book has no edge. As with Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, Robo-Cop & Total Recall, there’s wicked satire at play beneath the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire, the frequently displayed breasts of actress Carice van Houten, and the sound of Nazi jackboots on old world cobblestone. Recommended. 

Bug (Dir. William Friedkin, 2006)

Emotionally damaged alcoholic Ashley Judd, fresh out of an abusive relationship with Harry Connick, Jr., falls for batshit crazy Persian Gulf vet Michael Shannon (8 Mile, The Woodsman, Lucky You) in William Friedkin’s (The Exorcist, The French Connection, Sorcerer) wildly demented descent into madness, Bug. Though marketed as a horror film, Bug is actually more akin to films such as Polanski’s Repulsion, Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Marina de Van’s In My Skin & Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven – movies in which we’re forced into uncomfortably close quarters with folks coming violently unglued. Considering that most of this film takes place in one room of a dilapidated desert motel (a VERY popular film locale these days) with only two characters, there’s nothing at all stagey about Bug. Friedkin chops up time, space & dialogue with a master’s touch & elicits some harrowing performances from Judd & Shannon. Warning: This movie is not for the squeamish. If you fear dentists or insects, steer clear. Highly recommended.

The Good German (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2006)

A little homage goes a long way. I think Hitchcock said that, or should have. While it’s a given at this point that Soderbergh’s WWII spy “thriller” is a technical marvel, filmed not as if using period cameras, sets, sound recording & acting methods (the performances are stilted to the point of parody), but actually implementing the techniques & equipment used by directors like Carol Reed (The Third Man), Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), Rossellini (Open City), and Hitchcock. It’s a good parlor trick, right up there with Gus Van Sant’s “experimental” re-filming of Psycho & the Coen Brothers’ drowsy go at Wilder’s Double Indemnity, The Man Who Wasn’t There. What one might also expect from a director like Soderbergh is some sly humor, a sense of play, a postmodern wink or two here & there. And maybe that’s in the movie somewhere, but unfortunately so many parodists have taken a run at this period in film history – see Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective (1978), The Black Bird (1975), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) – there’s not much left to satirize, spoof or wink at. So Soderbergh plays it straight, which turns out to be twice as deadly in the long run, sucking the life out of the whole production, reducing The Good German to a frigid, reductionist exercise only a projectionist could love.

Letters From Iwo Jima (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2006)

Framed by sentimental letters to his family by Japanese General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe -- a kinder, gentler, new age Toshiro Mifune), whose strategic miscalculations turned what was to be a week’s worth of fighting on a volcanic island into a torrential bloodletting that lasted 40 days, Eastwood’s follow-up to last year’s Flags of Our Fathers tells us the story of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective. While I still have problems with Eastwood’s use of desaturated color, which I think brings a stultifying air of artificiality to the battle scenes, Letters is far superior to its emotionally monochromatic predecessor. Plugging successfully into the aspirations & attitudes of Japanese soldiers, Eastwood has mined the specifics for both the rich, exotic traditions at play & the disheartening similarities between foes, calling into question, just as Erich Maria Remarque did in All Quiet On the Western Front & A Time to Love & A Time to Die, simplistic notions about war & human conflict. Amid the sweeping, violent war saga, there are moments of fine, detailed intimacy like murky light catching on a diamond half-buried in ruins and blood spatter. 

Venus (Dir. Roger Michell, 2006)

In Venus, Peter O’Toole plays a famous stage & screen actor pushing 90. And he looks it, certainly, but it really is a feat of acting, since O’Toole is all of 75 & actually two years younger than a much less ossified Gene Hackman. What does that really have to do with Venus, its merits & flaws? Not much, but it’s interesting to note after the surprise felt in some quarters when O’Toole was denied an Oscar while so evidently near death’s door. While the effects of life-long alcoholism have ravaged O’Toole, one feels, upon watching Venus, that he may have a few more star-turns in him yet. It’s a small, decidedly lecherous film about a very old man striking up an, um, friendship with a colleague’s daughter’s callow & melancholy niece. If you’re expecting a platonic friendship gilded in autumnal golden light, forget about it. This film is as creepy as it sounds & the better for it. While O’Toole does manage to pass some of his life wisdom on to Jessie (an understandably want-able Jodie Whittaker), his lust for the young girl is palpable, so be warned. There are other joys here that won’t make your flesh crawl, fortunately. The banter between Leslie Phillips (as Jessie’s uncle), Vanessa Redgrave (O’Toole’s ex-wife), and the Lion in Winter, wickedly echo Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde and the deadly high-end wit of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Newcomer Whittaker keeps the whole age-haunted farce from flouncing into the ether with her crass come-ons & equally crass brush-offs. But it’s O’Toole’s show. He can’t show when he’s wounded, but we see it in the way the flesh stretches across his cheekbones just so. He can’t show when he’s elated, but we see it in his eyes as if someone suddenly opened the blinds on a dark room. He can’t show when he’s horny, but we see it in the way his movement through a room changes subtly from skeletal to damn near leonine.

The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair (Dir. Petra Epperlein/Michael Tucker, 2006)

From the makers of 2004’s remarkable documentary, Gunner’s Palace comes this equally remarkable tale of Yunis Abbas, a reasonable, articulate Baghdad-based journalist who, along with his brothers, were arrested for building a bomb to assassinate British prime minister Tony Blair. The incendiary material for the bomb turned out to be shampoo, but Abbas & his brothers were detained for interrogation for nine months, all spent in a portion of the now-infamous Abu Ghraib reserved for prisoners “of no intelligence value.” The consummate journalist, Abbas kept a journal of his detention inside pairs of underwear. Upon release, Abbas doggedly searches for answers to the seismic ironies underlying his tale & wearily confronts a Kafka-esque, jury-rigged colonial judicial system in which the U.S. and her allies appear to champion the individual dignity of Iraqis but degrade & cheapen the concept on a daily basis. The Prisoner is an intimate, personal documentary with steadily engulfing ramifications. Highly recommended.

The Astronaut Farmer (Dir. Michael Polish, 2006)

If you watch this out of one eye, you’ll see a naïf, well-mounted populist drama for young boys about the triumph of human individuality in an age of daunting ideological conformity, a whimsical tale of rocketeering hubris akin to Joe Johnston’s October Sky. If you switch eyes, you’ll see contrails of the rather jaundiced, laconic surrealism found in prior Polish Brothers (Northfork, Jackpot, Twin Falls Idaho) works. This thematic parallax makes for an uneasy viewing experience here. Billy Bob Thornton plays Charles Farmer (get it?), once an almost-astronaut, forced to return home to save his family’s farm after his father’s suicide. Farmer is building a rocket, an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned NASA rocket out of spare parts. The whole town knows Farmer’s a genius, as does his wife (Virginia Madsen), her father (Bruce Dern), and Charles’ polite, relatively-untroubled young son Shepard (Max Thieriot). The world, of course, is at odds with Farmer’s dreams & the specter of 911 & the Department of Homeland Security hang over his idealistic enterprise like the Black Sox scandal over Barry Levinson’s The Natural. One nice exchange occurs mid-film, when an FBI heavy (the naturally phlegmatic J. K. Simmons) asks Farmer, “How do we know you’re not building a Weapon of Mass Destruction?” To which our hero quips, “Because you found it.” Bruce Willis steps onscreen for a moment or two to have a beer & represent more muscular cinematic derring-do, Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother Where Art Thou) & Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite, Men in Black) have unimpressive but surprisingly welcome cameos, and Thornton can play square-jawed cornpone better than any man alive. I haven’t yet decided whether the strange juxtaposition – Norman Rockwell tableaux with David Lynch pacing back & forth just over the broad Texas horizon – works, but it’s certainly the most interesting item in the New Releases this week, so it’s recommended. 

Puccini For Beginners (Dir. Maria Maggenti, 2006)

Sweet Land (Dir. Ali Selim, 2005)

Both of these movies star TV actor Elizabeth Reaser (Grey’s Anatomy, Saved, Law & Order: The Quickening, etc.), which is where their similarities end. In Puccini For Beginners, Reaser plays Allegra (Note: You would think a few undergraduate writing classes could take care of some of the character names in this batch of films), a lesbian novelist & opera fanatic in a movie notable for its almost complete lack of Puccini music, and opera music in general. After her lover leaves her for not being able to commit & liking opera, Reaser has a sexual identity crisis & falls for a male philosophy graduate student (Weeds’ Justin Kirk) who’s read & enjoyed her one & only book. While pursuing this unlikely relationship, Allegra also meets & falls for, unbeknownst to our shell-shocked heroine, the grad student’s long-time girlfriend (an annoyingly lamby-pie Gretchen Mol). What’s to be made of such Shakespearean coincidences? Well, a lot. The characters all speak in heavy-handed Woody Allen intelligentsia-nese, but without a trace of wit, even going so far as to rip-off the device from Annie Hall in which passers-by comment cannily on the action. Director/screenwriter Maggenti scribes as though simply mentioning Kant or Puccini is enough to buoy their project into rarefied Manhattan air. So what’s good about this picture? Reaser. She’s a real find, which leads me to Sweet Land

Where it was easy to guess the audience Puccini for Beginners was aiming for – upscale, urbane women with a secret penchant for Harlequin Romances & a not-so-secret penchant for Showtime’s The L Word (though one wonders what actual lesbians make of all this hopping in to bed with men at the drop of a hat…) – Sweet Land is going to be a tougher sell, even though it’s a better movie overall. The dual framing device isn’t promising. In one bookend, we meet a middle-aged couple who’ve just inherited the rural Minnesota family farm from the man’s dead grandmother, and neither of them greet the news with much enthusiasm. As if this bookend weren’t enough to prop up the weighty ideas to come, we also get scenes from the grandfather’s funeral in which we meet Inge, a German immigrant whose lined face beautifully chronicles hand-to-mouth hardships, loss, and the fulfillment of a life well-spent. She’s conversing with an old friend, Franzen (Paul Sand, a peculiarly Jew-y presence in this bastion of Lutherans), making cryptic remarks about pie & mortality. Then comes the long mid-section of the film, a flashback to 1918, with photography as starkly gorgeous as Nestor Almendros’ in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. This is the meat of the tale, light-hearted, nostalgic & heart-breaking by turns & though it succumbs to melodrama maybe twice too often, it’s a great short film puffed up unnecessarily to feature length. Reaser plays the beautiful young immigrant, cast without documentation into the middle of this American nowhere. She knows a few inept phrases in English (“I could eat a horse”), is German at a time when nobody wants to even hear the country’s name again, and she’s a Keats-reading socialist to boot. For such a small, model-railroad miniature of a film, I was surprised at the actors that kept bobbing up from the immaculate scenery – Alan Cumming (The L Word, Emma, Eyes Wide Shut), Ned Beatty (Wise Blood, Shooter, Nashville), John Heard (Sopranos, Scorcese’s After Hours), Alex Kingston (Alpha Dog, Croupier), etc. Reaser conveys more feeling & wit with her eyes & cheeks than most actors convey with a body honed on Method chops. 

Neither of these films will shake your world, but both are recommended as primers to the craft of a rising star.

Wild Tigers I Have Known (Dir. Cam Archer, 2006)

A stylized -- to the threshold of trippy -- gay coming of age tale produced by Gus Van Sant. The film is more a series of humorous, scuzzy, expressionistic & sexy vignettes than a coherent story, though a loose-limbed, touching story does finally emerge from all the visual pyrotechnics & the purposefully elliptical arrangement of each nearly free-standing short experimental film. Malcom Stumpf plays Logan, a shaggy, openly-odd teenager with a reluctant but workmanlike mother (Fairuza Balk). He’s got a raging crush on the neighborhood stud, (ahem) Rodeo (Patrick White). While the arc of the story is simple enough, Cam Archer digresses (sometimes effectively, sometimes not) to comment on high school sexuality in general, homosexual masturbation fantasies, music, clothing styles & most of all, the feeling of impending lethal danger that comes with being a notably Different (capital D intentional) teenager, etc. Recommended, but definitely slow-going & not for every taste. If you thought Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation was brilliant, you’ll definitely take to this.

Black Snake Moan (Dir. Craig Brewer, 2006)

You might be thrown off by the presence of some respected actors in Brewer’s sophomore effort (his coming-out was 2005’s Hustle & Flow), but this is, in all actuality, a Southern Gothic exploitation classic, akin to such florid, sweat-pocked, lurid exercises in Chitlin’-sploitation as Poor White Trash (Harold Daniels, 1957), Mudhoney (Russ Meyer, 1965) & Shanty Tramp (Joseph Prieto, 1967). The best moments of his previous feature achieved the same kind of potboiler excess as Black Snake Moan, but were overwhelmed by the idea that the director, through the gritty performance of Oscar nominee Terence Howard, might actually be trying to SAY something. There’s no such subterfuge here. Brewer comes out blazing with one incendiary (or at least eyebrow-raising) image & plot turn after another.

Samuel Jackson plays former blues musician/present-day Holy Roller cuckold, Lazarus, who discovers a half-naked young girl (Christina Ricci) on the side of a country road, beaten senseless. By asking around some, Lazarus finds out Ricci is the town tramp, which in this case is attributed to a nearly pathological condition – more a kind of degenerative swamp fever than a psychological dysfunction. Lazarus, wounded to the quick by his own wife’s philandering & clutching at his religion the way he once clung to a bottle of rye & a guitar, decides to “heal” Ricci & chains her to his radiator until she can get “her mind right.” Packed with fetid, kudzu blues of the Fat Possum variety (R. L. Burnside, Black Keys, North Mississippi All-Stars, Son House), lensed in heat-saturated colors, and rife with fever-dream dialogue equal parts dementia & hokum, Black Snake Moan is a classic of Southern Exploitation & damned enjoyable from start to finish. But if you’re looking for any of the vaguely literary merit found in other inflated cornpone like Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade, Carl Franklin’s One False Move & Sam Raimi’s The Gift (ALL written by Thornton), you’re definitely barking up the wrong cypress tree here. 

And yes, judging from Alpha Dog & this, it appears Justin Timberlake can, indeed, act.

Disappearances (Dir. Jay Craven, 2006)

Though the packaging here yammers on about this film being in the “Peckinpah tradition,” it’s really more of a magical realist adventure story for young boys. And not a particularly good one. Kris Kristofferson plays an ex-bootlegger who’s returned home to “The Kingdom,” a mildly enchanted place somewhere in Vermont circa Prohibition, to tend exotic animals with his wife (Heather Rae), sister (?) (Genevieve Bujold, annoying as the backwoods Yoda), and young son, Wild Bill (played with conviction by Charlie McDermott). When a miraculous cloud-seeding incident incinerates their feed shed, Kristofferson, his hired hand (Deadwood’s William Sanderson, back in Larry from the Newhart Show mode here) and the boy attempt to get some whiskey into the U.S. from Canada. The scenery is gorgeous & the actors all try balancing whimsy & dread, but the script meanders like a shell-shocked hobo & the heady metaphors at play – disappearances, both literal & figurative, the “kingdom,” wonder as a state of grace, etc. – are so convoluted they simply destroy narrative momentum. And if Bujold doesn’t make you want to climb into the screen & stick a rolled up sock in her mouth by mid-movie, I have a fortune cookie factory I’d like to sell you…

Driving Lessons (Dir. Jeremy Brock, 2006)

Sort of Harold & Maude without the hippie beads & Nehru collars, Brock’s Driving Lessons eschews the eyebrow-raising suggestion of physical love for a more intellectual & aesthetic attachment between the young boy (Rupert Grint, perhaps overusing his deer-in-headlights befuddlement) and the older alcoholic Shakespearean actress (a pleasantly over-the-hedgerow Julie Walters) who purloins him for a road trip to some kind of small-town literary kitsch-fest that could only occur in Great Britain. Laura Linney (Breach, The Squid & The Whale) adds some necessary pathos & vulnerability to the otherwise thankless role of Grint’s (Harry Potter & All Manner of Magical Objects) domineering mother. Late-period Walters (Educating Rita, Billy Elliot) teeters hilariously, as always, between dowager frump & hysteria-prone Minerva/Medea/Electra. The whole thing’s a very British lark, of course, but a massively enjoyable one & highly recommended. 

Gray Matters (Dir. Sue Kramer, 2006)

A spunky comedy that manages to touch on incest, lesbianism & adultery in a breezy manner that will either annoy the bejesus out of you or charm your socks off, depending on where you normally stand on qualities like “spunky” and “breezy.” It’s a Neil Simon world where bad decisions often result in being able to remodel your apartment & finding love between the cushions of the old couch you’re throwing out. Heather Graham plays a frazzled advertising executive --coincidentally named Gray -- who’s mistaken, once to often, as significant other to her surgeon brother (Ed & Love Monkey’s Thomas Cavanagh, playing comedy close to the vest here). The two decide to broaden their social horizons -- he’ll find her the perfect man & she’ll find him the perfect woman. 

Turns out the perfect match for him (a luminous, but alarmingly oblivious Bridget Moynahan) may also be the perfect match for her, because – lo & behold – Gray’s a lesbian. Not only that, Gray’s friends & brother seem to have known for years she was gay & were simply biding their time ‘til she figured it out. The metaphor inherent in the name “Gray” is so stretched here that you can hear it squeaking through much of the movie, nearly obliterating whole sections of dialogue. There are some palatable surprises along the way & reliable indie-comedy go-to guy Alan Cummings shows up as a smitten, then disappointed, then platonic devotee of our heroine just to give us a little perspective on the rather belabored antics. Molly Shannon, wasted but game as Gray’s best friend, and Sissy Spacek, irritating quirks all aglow as Gray’s shrink, tag along, but this is Graham’s perk-a-thon all the way. If any of this sounds like something you’d like to watch, it probably is. 

The Aura (Dir. Fabian Bielinsky, 2005) 

A nameless, disheveled, epileptic taxidermist with a criminal bent involves himself in an armored car robbery in the late Fabian Bielinsky’s (Nine Queens) final film. The Aura keeps us at a mathematical distance from its characters, which is consistent with the protagonist’s icy worldview & while that coldness sometimes teeters precariously towards ponderousness, it’s more often fascinating & dream-like. Checco Varese’s watery, nearly pellucid cinematography helps immeasurably & the frequent forest settings add a surprising oneiric quality to what might otherwise have been standard heist fare with bits of Memento peppered throughout. 

Bobby (Dir. Emilio Estevez, 2006) 

First-time director Estevez has definitely bitten off more than he can chew here, though by recounting the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination through the singular & not-so-singular lives of the guests & staff of L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel on June 4th, 1968, he does manage to churn up some Altman-esque moments now & again. While attempting to juggle 20 or more characters & the weight of history would probably have given the old ensemble master pause, Estevez barrels ahead gamely, leaving many characters & stories woefully malnourished. Still, there are some beautiful performances (Laurence Fishburne & Freddy Rodriguez stand out) situated boldly amidst the general chaos & the final scenes will leave a nagging lump in your throat if you’re anything resembling human. 

Cinderella (Dir. Man-Dae Bong, 2006) 

Nip/Tuck meets the Brothers Grimm in this gory, loose & utterly confounding Korean horror film. It’s beautifully shot, sumptuously decorated, blood-spattered in a more melancholic way than we’re used to in Asian cinema & thinly held together by the kind of dream logic that leaves most Western audiences scratching their heads & reaching for the remote. If you can just let yourself flow with the lush, hypnotic images & baroque violence, there’s much to admire here. 

Danielson: A Family Movie (Dir. J. L. Aronson, 2006) 

J. L. Aronson’s spry documentary on Christian outsider pop sensation Daniel Smith & the Danielson Famile doesn’t quite have the mystery, pathos & rollercoaster mood swings of Jeff Feuerzeig’s The Devil & Daniel Johnston, another portrait of a dyed-in-the-wool pop iconoclast. Still, Daniel Smith is such an upbeat visionary & his music so loopy & inventive that the movie does survive a certain lack of narrative tension. Stupefied color commentary comes from Steve Albini, Kramer, Rick Moody, Sufjan Stevens & the aforementioned Daniel Johnston.

Forgiving Dr. Mengele (Dir. Bob Hercules/Cheri Pugh, 2006) 

In case you’re worried that this documentary is more of a sermon on the healing powers of forgiveness than the sort of moral & ethical push me/pull me that makes for great non-fiction filmmaking, you can put your fears to rest. Eva Kor, an Indiana real estate broker & victim of horrendous genetic experiments at the hands of Dr. Josef Mengele while a child at Auschwitz concentration camp, is an infuriatingly complicated individual. Other holocaust survivors & “Mengele twins” have written off her bull-headed need to forgive the Nazis as a vile stunt & while she seems hell-bent on hugging it out with Mengele & his minions, she has nothing but disdain for Palestinians. While some scenes in the film seem brazenly staged, Forgiving Dr. Mengele is not an easy fix and, like the best documentaries, raises more questions than it answers. 

The History Boys (Dir. Nicholas Hytner, 2006) 

While Alan Bennett’s play, featuring a core ensemble of raucous limey teenagers with superior minds, struck a chord with theatre-goers on both sides of the Atlantic, Nicholas Hytner’s film version suffers from all the mannered dialogue & stagey situations that made the play an unmitigated success. The cast is still game as hell, but the new medium brings to the fore how stridently stylized the play actually was. While David Mamet has been able to bring his expressionistic dialogue to the big screen successfully now & again, Hytner & Bennett settle for a mishmash of theatrical tropes floundering on a much less forgiving canvas.

The Last King of Scotland (Dir. Kevin MacDonald, 2006) 

More of a brightly-colored, story-for-boys adventure comic book than a history lesson, MacDonald’s film succeeds more mightily as a garish, sexy entertainment than as a study of ethics compromised by the onslaught of geo-political madness. The story of a young, idealistic doctor (James McAvoy, pitched between breathless anxiety & an odd kind of colonialist swashbuckle) who falls under the spell of the gregarious colossus Idi Amin (Forrest Whittaker in a performance that’s all everyone says it is & more), Last King of Scotland rips & roars & bursts at the seams with the kind of plot navigations usually reserved for Edgar Rice Burroughs stories. All of it’s served up in a palette of jungly greens, yellows & deep reds girded in the sheen of jet-age chromium. Amin’s atrocities aside, the movie’s actually abundantly more fun than I thought it would be. Take a look. 

Le Petit Lieutenant (Dir. Xavier Beauvois, 2005) 

The body of a bum found floating in the Seine unravels the lives of an ambitious young cop, his mostly sodden cronies, and his superior, a troubled woman of mystery with whom he’s romantically involved. This is a sturdy, introspective policier with touches reminiscent of -- but less brutal than -- Bob Swaim’s La Balance & Melville’s La Cercle Rouge

Notes on a Scandal (Dir. Richard Eyre, 2006) 

Wildly overheated battle of the wills between Kate Blanchett & a splendidly vicious Judi Dench plays out with the same delirious perversity as old Robert Aldrich crone-fests like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Killing of Sister George & Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. It’s not perfect, and the “scandal” on which the whole thing hinges isn’t much to write home about, but the performances are devilish enough to keep the viewer near seat’s edge.

Off the Black (Dir. James Ponsoldt, 2006) 

Another great, shambling performance by our most undervalued actor, Nick Nolte, sends a live-wire up the nethers of this otherwise middling indie film. Nolte plays a washed-up alcoholic umpire who becomes reluctant father-figure to a needy young player, played by Trevor Morgan (Mean Creek). How you feel about this movie will depend entirely on how much emotional manipulation you require from a gentle film of decidedly non-techtonic human transformation. Ponsoldt keeps things way low key & if you’re the sort that needs a swelling string section to get your heartstrings trembling than you’ll most certainly be out of luck here. Off the Black is more like the more sentimental work of Cassavetes, think Gloria or Love Streams

Sleeping Dogs Lie (Dir. Bob Goldthwait, 2006)

A pleasant, heart-felt romantic comedy about bestiality and its consequences from the director of Shakes the Clown, comedian Bob (“Bobcat”) Goldthwait. It’s really damned charming, well-performed by a cast of virtual unknowns & mostly uses the bestiality angle to get your attention. Which it most certainly does. 

Smokin’ Aces (Dir. Joe Carnahan, 2006) 

Wow, are there still directors dying to be Tarantino? Would being the NEXT Tarantino really mean that much now? Joe Carnahan thinks it does & plows through this fairly unfertile field like an undergraduate filmmaker whose been living on a mountaintop in Tibet for the last decade & thrilled to Pulp Fiction his first night back in the big city. Every member of the cast, including the usually quite reliable Jeremy Piven, overtalks, hyperventilates & gets potty-mouthed in extremis while bullets whiz by them willy-nilly from a thousand disembodied guns. I thought perhaps all this blind Tarantino worship would end on a relatively high note with Shane Black’s messy masterpiece, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. No such luck.


The Dead Girl (Dir. Karen Moncrieff, 2006)

Several interlacing character studies surround the brutal murder of a prostitute, played with surprising depth by Brittany Murphy (8 Mile, Little Black Book), in actress Moncrieff’s (Blue Car) sophomore feature. Toni Colette, Giovanni Ribisi, James Franco, Mary Steenburgen, Piper Laurie (reprising her patented psychotic mother routine from Carrie), Bruce Davison, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Josh Brolin and a host of others have their lives subtly, marginally, or catastrophically altered by the prostitute’s death and each tale is as intimate and slightly enigmatic as a finely honed short story. Solid to great performances and fine – if tending towards murky – direction make this a cut above the usual ensemble-connected-by-tragedy fare. 

The Fountain (Dir. Darren Aranofsky, 2006)

Three infuriatingly vague tales, taking place is three infuriatingly random time periods, all having something or other to do with a noticeably confused Hugh Jackman finding a fountain of life in order to save the love of his three lives, a similarly confounded Rachel Weisz. In one segment, Jackman plays a Spanish conquistador sent to the jungles of South America to track down said fountain. In another, Jackman the lab researcher works feverishly to cure Weisz’s brain tumor. The third, and most laughably symbolic, has Jackman floating in space next to a rotting tree, representing – we might assume – his dying lover. The conquistador segment is low-rent Herzog, the present-day tale a particularly mopey episode of ER, and the sci-fi strand comes from a left-field of narrative incoherence all its own, which may be an attraction for some Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream). To be fair, the production was seriously troubled from the get-go, and there may have been a more logically defined schemata at work in the beginning, a tale with context, momentum, zest, and dimension. The finished work, however, has none of these qualities and more than a few garish flaws that simply cannot be blamed on studio meddling. 

Pan’s Labyrinth (Dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

While I’ve been a fan of Del Toro’s work from 1993’s Cronos to Hellboy, I have some reservations about this film. But, to be honest, they’re the kind of reservations that should, in no way, bar others from enjoying this melancholy fantasy about a young girl forced into a fantasy quest by the cruel realities of 1944 Fascist Spain. The film is elegantly mounted, in much the same vein as Del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone and there are scenes of terrible, hypnotic beauty throughout. The acting is mostly serviceable (though it creaks towards comic book melodrama at times) with Ivana Baquero, as the young girl Ofelia, easily stealing the show. That said, the plot seems thin and, when inflated by the lush fantasy scenes, you start to notice the haggard plot contrivances at work here. The movie, despite Del Toro’s nationality, is a little like a Hollywood mogul’s idea of what a foreign film should be, as if this had to be made in Mexico in order to give it some artistic heft when, at heart, it’s pretty much a standard-issue American popcorn adventure with a heart-wrenching ending tacked on so it won’t be swallowed up by the mediocrity of the mainstream multiplex. It has none of the measured pacing or thoughtful attention to detail & characterization one normally either enjoys or finds exasperating in foreign films. In short, there’s a reason this is one of the most popular foreign films in recent memory. It’s because it doesn’t seem like a foreign film at all. It’s contrived, manipulative, self-satisfied, and a little tiring in the way it adheres strictly to the conventions of villainy and heroism. Depending on taste and temperament, you’ll either jump for joy at this assessment, or be more than a little depressed. 

Seraphim Falls (Dir. David Von Ancken, 2006)

This would make an excellent triple bill with John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, and Tommy Lee Jones’ Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (both from 2005), two other startlingly original revisionist westerns. Seraphim Falls takes its cinematic cues from two classic 1960s genre-busters from director Monte Hellman, Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967). Both invested simple tales of pursuit and single-minded vengeance with labyrinthine psychological ramifications, imbuing the desert landscape itself with nuanced metaphysical menace. In Seraphim Falls, a stone-faced, icy-eyed Liam Neeson pursues a guilt-ridden, but extremely resourceful ex-Civil War officer (Pierce Brosnan, adding another great and underappreciated performance to his gallery) across rugged deserts and mountains for burning his wife and children alive in the precarious days just after the end of the war. Although there’s nary a word spoken for the first twenty minutes or so, we learn eventually that Brosnan’s actions were a combination of overzealousness, inexperience, and miscommunication, not concerted malice, but this hardly matters to the juggernaut of revenge Neeson has become. This is a perfect, spare, violent and grim little film that doesn’t waste a frame. When a facial expression isn’t saying all that needs saying, the landscape is. As in Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind or Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Bill the Kid, this film’s journey uncovers nests of reliable character actors along the blood-spattered trail – Michael Wincott, Ed Lauter, Nate Mooney, Angelica Huston. Their colorful performances are like brief, scant breezes in these otherwise sweltering proceedings.

BANDIDAS (Dir. Joachim Roenning/Espen Sandberg; Written by Luc Besson, 2006)

Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz meet during a bank robbery, and team up for vengeance against wealthy U.S. bankers stealing Mexican land and destroying their families. The two bicker and tussle their way through as many clichés as the movie’s running time will allow. There are some sprightly performances here, from such indie stalwarts as Steve Zahn, Sam Shepard and Dwight Yoakam, but deadening repetition, D.O.A. dialogue, and shiftless hamminess from the two leads deep-six all good intentions.

CAVEDWELLER (Dir. Lisa Cholodenko, 2004)

Based on a novel by Dorothy Allison, this well-cast, way-above-par TV movie features Kyra Sedgewick as an LA musician returning to her hometown to confront her reptilian ex-husband (Aidan Quinn) and patch things up with her two estranged teenage daughters. Along the way we get nice bits from Kevin Bacon, Sherilyn Fenn, Regan Arnold, and Jon Langford (leader of insurgent country band, The Mekons). It’s like a less emotionally-draining version of Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia (1995), or a slicker take on Allison Anders’ Things Behind the Sun. Unlike most TV movies, the inevitable redemption here doesn’t seem forced or unearned at all. Here, here. 


How you react to this movie will depend entirely on how much patience you have for two-person stage plays, really. It’s not that Canosa leaves this Helena Bonham Carter/Aaron Eckhart vehicle stage-bound (though his often tiring use of split-screen won’t bring Brian De Palma any sleepless nights), but there’s just no way to avoid some cinematic claustrophobia in this talky rendering of a couple attempting to rediscover one another years after they’ve parted, married others, and aged with something less than grace. That said, the dialogue is sharp, the performances award-worthy, and the intentions best-of. One reviewer called this “Brian De Palma’s Before Sunset,” and that’s not far off the mark. Definitely autumn wine and cheese for the attentive cinephile. 

CRANK (Dir. Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor, 2006)

A silly, but wildly cool remake of the 1996 cult action hit, Rage, this is probably Transporter Jason Statham’s best role to date. An assassin (Statham) discovers he’s been injected with a drug (whimsically called the “Beijing Cocktail”) that will kill him if he doesn’t keep his pulse pounding like a jackhammer. Said assassin, coolly and ludicrously named Chev Chelios, cleverly uses the drug to his advantage and razes a typically hyperbolized Los Angeles seeking either vengeance or an antidote. I want to call this “D.O.A. on steroids,” but it seem so obvious and entirely beneath me. Dwight Yoakam helps; Amy Smart frets. Both with aplomb. 

FLOWER AND SNAKE II: PARI/SHIZUKO (Dir. Takashi Ishii, 2005)

Eyes Wide Shut for fans of Asian fetish films. Filmed in Paris, we are treated to figures in long robes and elaborate party masks, women in cages, simulated rape, lots of leather, shiny black hair cutting across agonized pink mouths, stylized S & M, the dour gaze of middle-aged men, etc. And it’s all set to a moody, austere musical score, and photographed like an opium dream. Have fun. 

I TRUST YOU TO KILL ME (Dir. Manu Boyer, 2006)

As far as brazen self-promotion goes, this “documentary” about Agent Jack Bauer’s (Kiefer Sutherland) record label, Ironworks Music, and that label’s first signing, Rocco DeLuca & The Burden, doesn’t rankle nearly as much as Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster. Rocco is a hippie Jack White, or a primal Jeff Buckley, depending on your perspective, and fascinating in that “Why is L.A., the alleged capitol of the music industry, such a haven for music at least two or three steps behind the curve?” kind of way. The real hero here is – and this is as it should be – Kiefer…Ahem, Bauer. Agent Jack tackles Christmas trees, indignantly haggles with bar managers, stumbles about the streets of Dublin hawking tickets, and tells anyone within earshot a thing or two about a thing or three. It’s all fairly entertaining really, though it adds up to a box of rocks and a paper napkin when considered at length. 

IDIOCRACY (Dir. Mike Judge, 2006)

So, we all know, no matter how fine or wretched the picture, that Mike Judge didn’t deserve this kind of treatment at the hands of Hollywood. His follow-up to the video sensation, Office Space, tested poorly in early screenings, was torn limb from limb by a series of industry troubleshooters, was finally released to cinema hubs like Des Moines and Denton, and produced world-wide shrugs from the press. A movie about an average joe (Luke Wilson) and a pensive street-walker (Maya Rudolph) catapulted accidentally into a future where we’ve “dumbed-down” beyond our means, Idiocracy deserves an audience, and not just an audience that feels sorry for it. It’s as if no one wants to defend the abused child unless it gets all A’s and receives early admission from Yale. 

While Idiocracy is not the inspired, sharply-honed romp Office Space was, it’s still just about the best comedy to emerge from last year. Lack of sharp focus aside, the film has tasteless gags to spare, intermittent satire so devilish you forget it’s a comedy, great deadpan performances by Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph & Dax Shepard, and a surfeit of the absolutely insoluble humanity Mike Judge exhibits weekly on his King of the Hill. Like Hank Hill, Judge mumbles his cultural/political rage under his breath, kicks at the dirt, and reconciles. In the end, it’s people he’s interested in, no matter how jackassed they’ve become or have yet to become. 

You don’t have to like Idiocracy because it’s a martyr. It’s also damn funny, damn human, and a damn sight better than most of the competing comedies on DVD. 

THE ILLUSIONIST (Dir. Neil Burger, 2006)

This is certainly the lesser of the two fin-de-siecle magic movies released in 2006. While The Prestige bore the definite stamp of a promising new director, Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia), Neil Burger’s The Illusionist is more problematic. Starting with its flesh-wounds, the director seems ill-at-ease with the time period, and doesn’t get much from his performers they’re not willing to offer up front. Edward Norton (as the illusionist, Eisenheim) sleepwalks through the film and Paul Giamatti (as a compromised chief of police) performs with the kind of fervor only being denied an Oscar for a superior performance can elicit. This inequity of performance quality deals The Illusionist a death blow. Giamatti cannot compensate for the cipher at the film’s center and the whole work flounders accordingly. Most of the film’s finer moments can be attributed to cinematographer Dick Pope’s re-creation of classic spirit photography. Worse, the world-shaking surprise that’s supposed to send Giamatti spiraling dizzily into the streets of Vienna, is telegraphed egregiously. Anyone who’s ever watched a film post-Shyamalan will see this coming like a torpedo through binoculars. 

Big kudos, though, to Rufus Sewell (Dark City, Tristan + Isolde), as Crown Prince Leopold. His final monologue – concerning the fate of Austria in the 20th Century – belongs in a far-better movie. He’s a latter day Oliver Reed, if ever there was one. 

OUR FATHERS (Dir. Dan Curtis, 2005)

Another TV docudrama that damn near gets it right. The cast (Ted Danson, Brian Dennehy, Christopher Plummer, Ellen Burstyn, Daniel Baldwin) veers uncomfortably toward eyebrow-raised, soap-opera menace (Dennehy, Plummer), and blank-jawed heroism (Danson) just when you want all hell to break loose, but that’s to be expected with a subject this delicate and inflammatory. Based on a 2002 case in which the Boston Globe uncovered that the diocese had been relocating pedophile priests to avoid scandal and litigation, Curtis’ film doesn’t have the harrowing bite of 1992’s Boys of St. Vincent, but it does have some fascinating points to make about the labyrinthine legal wrangling it takes to bring suit against an entity as sacrosanct as the Catholic church. As in Dick Wolf’s Law & Order, the procedure here is far more potent than the incendiary morality at play. 


An amateurish attempt to do for Krafft-Ebbing’s 1886 work on sexual deviancy what James Marsh did for Michael Lesy’s 1970s photographic anomaly, Wisconsin Death Trip (1999). One part glorified slide show with moving deguerrotypes and feeble attempts at silhouette animation, and the rest – regrettably –local dinner-theater grade talent offering the kind of titillation one can readily get from watching matronly women try on stockings at Woolworth’s. 

American Hardcore (Dir. Paul Rachman, 2006)

Although Rachman’s documentary blah-blah-blahs respectfully over the blurry years between London, L.A. & New York punk rock proper and the rise of U.S. hardcore, it’s really the straight-edge scene that interests him (and writer Steven Blush, on whose book the film is based). American Hardcore seems a little daunted by its own ambitions. It’s confused and chaotic (imagine that!) when tackling Black Flag and Bad Brains, and glaringly lucid when limning the D.C. scene (dominated by Minor Threat/Fugazi). Rachman has a difficult (sometimes exhausting) time pinpointing that magic moment when the ramshackle influences of just-plain-punk received regimental marching orders and gave way to hard fast rules. If you can handle a movie about punk rock that gives the finger to the Ramones, short-changes JFA, and dotes endlessly on the rather pompous Ian MacKaye, then this is your kinda punk rock movie. That disclaimed, there’s much here (probably too much) that will surprise you about the roots, nature & longevity of straight-edge punk culture & some truly eye-opening anecdotes that seem to spring out of nowhere. Definitely worth a look if you can handle the Rachman’s somewhat blinkered definition of terms. 


Going Shopping (Dir. Henry Jaglom, 2005)

Henry Jaglom, who single-handedly rendered most types of hats unwearable by anyone who’d seen even one of his “movies,” finally gives us the film he’s always wanted to make. In an interview last year for Women’s Wear Daily, Jaglom said of Going Shopping, “I wanted to finally make a film that fascinated me the way Yanni’s song titles have always fascinated me, that effected me the way non-alcoholic Rumplemintz effects me once it’s sat on a hotel balcony in Cannes for several hours and lost what’s left of its vigor…”

Here, here & congratulations. 


A Good Year (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2006)

The Provence Booster Club’s unlikely co-captains, Ridley Scott and Peter Mayle, got together over the kind of wine that turns every day to early autumn & every sun-dappled landscape to gold, lassoed famous bruiser, Russell Crowe, and A Very Long Engagement’s other beauty, Fanny Chenal, into their idyll, and brought this oenophilic egotrocity to ripe, RIPE fruition. Millionaire money-gobbler Crowe (too damned watchable here, which makes the whole thing more of a chore in the long run) holes up in Provence and finds, much to our lack of surprise or mild interest, his values and priorities are all seriously askew. Needless to say, the scenery is magnificent, but could definitely use a few haywire robots or H. R. Giger space monsters stampeding through the misty morning orchards…


Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (Dir. Dito Montiel, 2006)

Structurally, Dito Montiel’s cinematic memoir of growing up troubled in Astoria, Queens is a bridge too far over a played-out river, a weakly-linked, inchoate series of observations and memories – some quite touching, others lifeless – that, in the end, simply don’t warrant the complex engineering that brought them together. There are fine, even a few great, moments in this film, performances (Chaz Palminteri, Robert Downey, Jr.) that try mightily to weld all these jump cuts and disordered time fragments together, but, in the end, it’s just another dead-end cautionary tale for boys. If you can withstand the busy, often numbing, framing devices, there’s enough life now and again to make this a fairly compelling DVD rental. 

The Heart of the Game (Dir. Ward Serrill, 2005)

A gritty, uncompromising documentary about the University of Washington girl’s basketball team, focusing on the hardscrabble life of star player Darnellia Russell. I’m sure you’re picturing a distaff version of Hoop Dreams and feel you’ve seen and heard all this before in other documentaries, but Serrill’s Heart of the Game is a definite original, commenting on race, gender & class with a slightly more jaundiced, less eagerly cathartic, voice. Recommended. 

Journey to the End of the Night (Dir. Eric Eason, 2006)


If you were to draw the most primitive stick figures (here played by Brendan Fraser, Scott Glenn & Maria Full of Grace’s Catalina Moreno) on a piece of scratch paper, place in each stick hand a briefcase full of cocaine, then tape these rudimentary figures on a postcard from Sao Paolo, Brazil, and show this new work of yours to friends who never liked you anyway, you’ll have made better use of your time than you would watching this soiled adult diaper of a movie. Just watch Child of God or Bus 174 one more time, you’ll feel less icky and be able to hold your head up high.

Open Water 2 – Adrift (Dir. Hans Horn, 2006)

Ready to lose interest in this one really quickly? Rich champagne-glugging idiots aboard a luxury yacht jump into the middle of the ocean and forget to lower the boat’s ladder. We’ve all made this kind of mistake, I’m sure, and while the sharks circle, mocking our frantic dog-paddling and leg-kicking, we all thought, “Boy, oh, boy, do I deserve to die, or what?” Remember?

The Return (Dir. Asif Kapadia, 2006)

Director Kapadia attempts to guild this exhausted tribute to the worst aspects of Asian horror films with some arty camera work, and when the effectiveness of that wears off (somewhere near the half-hour mark), he just hits repeat or shuffle on his editing machine and lets the tape run out. I know, that’s about one too many references to obsolete technologies, but that’s how tired this movie made me & how really sad it is to watch Sarah Michelle Gellar clench her jaw and march gamely through another cinematic botch job. Please, someone, find this girl an indie project so we can see – one way or another – whether she has one damn thing to offer anyone not obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Stranger Than Fiction (Dir. Marc Forster, 2006)

A Healthy mid-point between the meta-cinema of Charlie Kaufman & Michel Gondry, and the high-concept buffoonery of Click, Liar Liar, and The Truman Show, Stranger Than Fiction offers up the warmly cerebral story of an obsessive IRS numbers cruncher (Will Ferrell) whose life is suddenly being narrated by the disembodied voice-over of author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). While all the mind-bending metaphysical jim-jams are in place, Forster offers us something extra – a humane, melancholy tone, and understated, but uniformly excellent, performances from Queen Latifah (who, for once, doesn’t barge into a scene like she’s driving a semi-truck full of soul), Dustin Hoffman, and – best of all –- Maggie Gyllenhaal. For this role, Ferrell mines the kind of effortless acting chops we admired so much from Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, but this movie is far richer in its implications and far more ambitious in execution. A real treasure from the year that was. 

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (Dir. Liam Lynch, 2006)

Let’s pretend there’s an old, deserted Edsel factory off in the woods somewhere, and stuck in amongst the conveyor belts and the buffers and the myriad gears & wheels of industry, there’s a car, a sparkling brand new Edsel automobile, and it’s accidentally disgorged from the factory one day. It’s spit out of some large, horn-shaped tube because a squirrel depressed a lever while leaping through a shattered clerestory window and out onto the branches of an elm tree. The car floats majestically in the air a bit and then plummets to the forest floor without ceremony or introduction, kicking up leaf dust and animal fur. Nice shocks. For a couple of days, it’s the most beautiful thing in the forest, so imposing that wildlife steer clear of that pearlescent finish, that hunters gently nudge the tires with their muckwaders and move on, that birds crash into the trunks of trees dazzled by a sunset reflected in the wheel rims. The longer it sits there the more the passing hunters emphasize that it’s an Edsel, the more the wildlife choose to crawl in through the grill and up through the floorboards to make what they can of its obsolete parts. Now, this car can’t dance and it can’t play guitar and it can’t mug and beg for your prolonged attention. One, because – despite being spit heroically from the bowels of a great old factory -- it sits still while the rest of the world keeps moving; Two, because, well, it’s an Edsel. 

Tideland (Dir. Terry Gilliam, 2005)

I’ll just come out with it and say, this is my favorite Terry Gilliam movie. Normally, his complete inability to film one damn thing without injecting both medieval imagery and pomposity leave me wondering why he bothered with source material, screenplays, and adaptations, at all, why he didn’t just storyboard from his own rather narrow imaginings and leave Hunter Thompson to Hunter Thompson fans, the Brothers Grimm to Brothers Grimm fanatics, and Cervantes to the surplus of rather talented Spaniards currently cluttering the salons of world cinema. Well, now that his Don Quixote adaptation went down in flames & his Brothers Grimm film bombed at the box office, it’s safe to assume that one kind of desperation or another may have fueled this comparatively economical exercise in dark, hallucinatory solipsism. In many ways I think Gilliam’s take on Alice in Wonderland is more effective and less manipulative than Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which is – for all the hubbub – Hollywood’s idea of what a foreign film should be. In Tideland, our Alice is Jaliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), who cares as best she can for her smack-addicted, nearly infantile parents, played so off-kilter by Jeff Bridges & Jennifer Tilly that the camera seems to wobble and shake when they’re onscreen. When mom suddenly dies, Bridges carts his daughter off to some godforsaken dreamscape halfway between Andrew Wyeth and Salvador Dali, and there lets the troubled, macabre visions flow like honey from the belly of a gutted bear. It’s trippy, demanding stuff, but so personal and singular that it marks, to me, the beginning of Gilliam’s career, a wholly personal vision now knotted with innocence, experience, and defeat. One of the best movies of last year, if this sort of exorcism appeals to you.

Innocence (Dir. Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2005)

German Expressionist author, Frank Wedekind (1864-1918), has been getting a lot of sidelong attention these days – Cory Einbinder’s Off-Broadway version of Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (Fox TV’s The O.C. as rendered by Edward Gorey) is being lauded even in mainstream publications like Entertainment Weekly, and the author’s Mine-HaHa, or The Physical Education of Young Girls was made into a wretched Jacqueline Bisset vehicle by British director John Irvin in 2005. But this deliberately-paced, unapologetically arty & symbolic adaptation of Mine-HaHa is the true avatar of Wedekind’s singular talent. Young girls arrive in coffins to a mysterious girl’s school deep in the woods and adapt themselves slowly to the mysterious rituals that pass as curricula there. The whole thing unfolds in lush dream logic, touched magically by the subtle delirium of these young girls’ burgeoning sexuality. If you’re up to be viewing a difficult work of art – in the vein of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (1973), and Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion -- and can flow with the film’s intentionally dilatory pacing, you’ll be amply rewarded. Highly recommended.

Hatchet (Dir. Adam Green, 2006)

Like programmatic music or architecture, Hatchet is exactly what it appears to be & adds not a single nuance or nagging mystery to the genre of the slasher film. In fact, unlike Wes Craven’s doggedly self-referential Scream series or last year’s Behind the Mask: The Leslie Vernon Story, Hatchet dispenses entirely with revisionism & postmodernity. And, while this should be refreshing, what we’re left with is the equivalent of finding a young ghoul-in-training’s sketchbook in the schoolyard. The only talent on display in Hatchet is obsessive in nature: Green can’t get enough of bodies pulled asunder & the resultant blood splatter sloshed from a bucket in slow motion against Bayou cypress trunks. And, to be fair, he has a facility for this, though it’s all committed to celluloid without an ounce of slapstick (ala Raimi’s Evil Dead series), voyeuristic pathos (Hostel, Joy Ride), mindless prurience (Saw, Devil’s Rejects) or – sadly – horror (um, ostensibly the point). 

Two college-aged Mardi Gras tourists tire of the endless parade of bared breasts & curbside alcohol purging on Bourbon Street & decide to take a colorful haunted swamp tour from an inexperienced Asian guide who leads them into a part of the bayou designated off-limits because of a series of disappearances. These are neither the most annoying young adults in slasher film history (after all, they LEFT the party & seem to be sobering up when the vivisections begin…) nor the most vile (though their insistence on turning tail before their friends are mortally dismantled is worrisome…) nor the stupidest (they do occasionally manage to act as a team, though a befuddled one), in fact they’re instantly forgettable fodder for a hulking, deformed killer whose supernatural status is never made clear. He may be a ghost (though corporeal as all hell), a zombie, or he may actually be the deformed mutant son of an alligator hunter who didn’t actually die in a fire years earlier. The monster’s back story is vague & uninteresting & he is revealed in all his gristly, tumor-glopped glory in the first few minutes of the movie. There’s nothing at all sneaky or ominous in his coming, he lurches out of shacks & bracken with shambolic vigor, tears a youth to shreds & is shot, stabbed, impaled or set afire, only to resurrect the minute the remaining victims’ backs are turned. To say there’s nothing special about Hatchet is an understatement. It doesn’t even seem cynically designed to cheat you out of your hard-earned movie-going dollar. Hatchet has no ambitions whatsoever which, I suppose, is an odd kind of achievement.

For trivia buffs, the movie does sport some familiar faces – Joel Murray (Greg’s portly best friend on TV’s Dharma & Greg plays an amateur pornographer), Richard Riehle (Donal Logue & Kevin Corrigan’s father on TV’s Grounded for Life plays the same grouchy oldster he always plays), and Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, as a Cajun alligator hunter made mincemeat in Hatchet’s ho-hum prologue.

Once (Dir. John Carney, 2006)

A heartbreakingly beautiful film about a heartbroken street musician (lead singer for Irish group The Frames, Glen Hansard) who meets an equally heartbroken muse in the form of a beautiful Czech rose vendor (a stunning Marketa Irglova) on the streets of Dublin. Given, this all sounds so precious you want to keep Hatchet on hand as an antidote, but it’s not at all. In fact, as musicals go, it’s quite gritty, really & though there are little moments of fantasia throughout just to give the story shape & keep the lump in your throat from melting away, the moments of ecstasy (mostly of the artistic variety) are hard-earned & never lead where you think they will. Considering we’ve all seen or heard or been privy to stories of rather lost artists salvaged by another person’s unmitigated confidence & love, Once masterfully skirts the minefield of clichés. It doesn’t hurt that every damn performance in the movie is pitch perfect, especially Irglova’s, who’s getting as much out of egging the street troubadour on as he is by feeding off of her energy & resolve, though what she gets in return never feels sacrificial. She’s no martyr. She needs the music, the camaraderie, the sense of purpose for her own ends. When Hansard’s Guy finally moves to London, recordings of his songs in hand, we never feel he’s deserted the girl who brought him to this essential crossroads in life. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: we wonder how on earth he’ll live without her, whether he becomes a great star or not. I’ll admit I myself wondered what I’d do without her once the curtain fell over the movie screen. At the core, Once isn’t really a love story at all, though the two characters most certainly love one another with all the depth, gratitude & affection platonic love allows, but a story about how outrageously simple and painfully complex it is to cast aside the bushel that’s been hiding one’s light. One of the best films of 2006. Highly recommended. 

Perhaps Love (Dir. Peter Chan, 2005)

If, however, you absolutely require artifice & fantasia from your movie musicals, there’s always this Chinese import, which pays handsome tribute to Jacques Demy’s French New Wave musicals, Umbrellas of Cherbourg & Young Girls of Rochefort, though no one will mistake the rather icky Asian pop tunes here for those shimmering scores by Michel Legrand. This movie within a movie concerns a celebrated director who brings his lover, a jaded international starlet (played by Beijing Bicycle’s Xun Zhou) & a brooding (borderline whiny) Hong Kong celebrity (House of Flying Daggers’ Takeshi Kaneshiro) together to make a Fellini-esque circus story that, in many ways, mirrors their own precarious love triangle. Kaneshiro is intent upon forcing Zhou to recall her less than illustrious past, spent living with him in an abandoned warehouse in Beijing, before fame & fortune apparently obliterated her more provincial memories. The circus film that’s being made looks to be quite a snooze but Chan’s use of florid visuals eventually pays off & Xun Zhou is absolutely hypnotic. Perhaps Love belongs to her entirely, a willowy, luminescent actress whose expression goes from icy to breathtakingly open in the blink of an eye. If there’s a weak link here, it’s the callow Kaneshiro, who’s shaping up to be a watery Asian Robby Benson. Mildly recommended to fans of escapist musicals. Highly recommended for fans of Xun Zhou, a rising international star at the top of her game. 

Antibodies (Dir. Christian Alvart, 2005)

This grisly German serial killer shocker has some unforgettable scenes, a star-making turn from Wotan Wilke Mohring & a truly eerie religious/metaphysical undertow, but predictability and the film’s – strangely acknowledged – debt to Silence of the Lambs prevent it from being the multi-faceted, novelistic epic to which it so grandiosely aspires. Mohring (to be fair, already a star in Germany) plays a devoutly Catholic small-town policeman involved in the investigation of a demonic child killer due to the mutilated body of a young girl having turned up in his jurisdiction. Trouble is, the serial killer Engel has an obsessive predilection for murdering & raping young boys. As Mohring tries to sort out the contradiction through a series of interviews with Engel, he falls dangerously under the criminal’s spell, ala Demme’s Lambs and, to some degree, David Fincher’s Seven. The canvas here is sprawling, trying to take in Mohring’s inner spiritual life, the claustrophobic village in which he lives & its social hierarchy, his unsteady home life, the taut mystery at hand, the history of serial murderers, and – to a lesser degree – the workings of the big city precinct responsible for capturing Engel in the first place. Though director Alvart tries valiantly to keep the shifts in tone & focus under control, it’s simply too much for him & a glaring portion of Antibodies owes too huge a debt to the serial killer movie canon. Flawed, but recommended. 

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Dir. Auraeus Solito, 2005)

A Filipino Ma Vie en Rose, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros tells the story of a flamboyantly gay 12-year-old boy, playing cook & housemaid for his doting, extended family of petty crooks. When Maximo develops a feverish crush on the neighborhood heartthrob cop, his loyalties are tested. Filmmaker Solito could probably have found a flashier visual style to go with some of the flaming teenage ostentation portrayed here, but Nathan Lopez is perfect, and he plays Maxi like a sexy feline that continually falls off the furniture or out of window sills, only to gaze around slyly to see if anyone’s taken notice. The rest of the cast, especially Maxi’s eccentric relatives, emit a perfectly pitched balance of machismo & warmth. Recommended. 

Lustre: A Film by Art Jones (Dir. Art Jones, fool, 2005)
Noted character actor Victor Argo is mostly known from his roles in Abel Ferrara films (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, Dangerous Game, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, R Xmas), but his pitted features & laconic tough-guy demeanor also lent street gravitas to more than one film by Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Paul Auster & a raft of others. Art Jones’ extremely low-budget, beat love poem to pre-9/11 NYC is practically an Argo one man show and, though terminally ill at the time (he died shortly after filming Lustre), he’s certainly up to the task. Argo plays an aging loan shark making his rounds while railing against the loss of what he and – one presumes – the filmmaker see as the city’s soul. Although there are obviously times during filming when there wasn’t a nickel to spare for luxuries like professional lighting or second takes, Argo & Jones bravely soldier on and, in the end, it adds to the rough, bold charm of the film. Like the best of early Cassavetes, Scorsese & Ferrara, Lustre gets by on muscle, guts & the necessity for self-expression, against all odds. The closing scenes atop Brooklyn Bridge are some of the most beautiful you’ll see this year. Recommended.


QUINCEANERA (Dir. Richard Glatzer/Wash Westmoreland, 2006)

Another attempt to make google-eyes at middle-class America from a fairly suspect ethnic perspective (see My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Betsy’s Wedding, The Best Man), this cloying (but still disarmingly cute now & again) frosted flan gets extra points for emphasizing character above stereotype. Although the “cute factor” gets the better of almost every character in the end, this tale of a young girl too pregnant to fit into her adolescent birthday gown makes the most of its cast of unknowns and doesn’t offer a diamond-studded tiara to every young idealist who stumbles upon its humble charms.

STREET FIGHT (Dir. Marshall Curry, 2005)

A tight, bulldog of a documentary about the current American political landscape. Charting the knock-down/drag-out bluster of a Newark, New Jersey mayoral race, Marshall Curry comes up with a true-life gem that’s every bit as coarse and sly as the Hegedus/Pennebaker classic, The War Room. Seeing this kind of bare-fisted Machiavellian campaign on a less grandiose scale actually benefits the message – the race goes to the runner who’s pocketed the most greased marbles AND we’ll still take a blowhard over “Mr. Smith” any day of the week. Excellent and highly recommended.

Our Very Own (Dir. Cameron Watson, 2005)

In this mild-mannered hybrid of Last Picture Show, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, American Graffiti & every TV Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation you’ve ever seen, 70s teens Jason Ritter (Happy Endings, Swimfan), Hilarie Burton (One Tree Hill), Autumn Reeser (The O.C., Grounded for Life), and two lesser stars-in-the-making, get excited as punch that hometown girl Sondra Locke might be returning to sleepy Shelbyville, Tennessee for the annual Walking Horse show (get out your dictionary of quaint Southern eccentricities…) & the opening of Every Which Way But Loose. Reeser may out-spunk Heather Graham here, as the young girl with bubbling star quality who just MUST meet Locke so she won’t be stuck in Shelbyville for the rest of her life. In fact, all the young “Let’s put on a show” actors here are fine, but it’s really the adults that give the movie an emotional core. Allison Janney (West Wing, Strangers with Candy), as Ritter’s put-upon mother, slowly losing hearth & home to husband Keith Carradine’s realistically up-and-down drinking problem, couldn’t be better, and both Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) & Beth Grant (Factory Girl, Little Miss Sunshine) add needed comic heft to an otherwise standard tale of small-town high school triumph over adversity. The village doldrums are vividly captured in Roberto Blasini’s simple (almost Shaker) cinematography, though – as with many indie films purporting to study the backroads (in most cases, anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line) of this great land of ours – regional quirks sometimes take precedent over regional substance. Mildly recommended, mostly for fans of cinematic regionalism.

CATCH A FIRE (Phillip Noyce, 2006)

Catch A Fire should be a great movie. It’s helmed by Phillip Noyce, who went from Australian firebrand (Dead Calm, Newsfront, Heatwave), to ambitious hack (Patriot Games, Sliver, The Saint), to conscientious indie auteur (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American) in the space of a decade. It’s written by Shawn Slovo, who also wrote the harrowing autobiographical apartheid film, A World Apart (1988). It gives us the kind of sidelong glance into South African Apartheid that should sneak up on us and resonate boldly past the time period in question. But this true story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a family man transformed by circumstance into a reluctant revolutionary for the African National Congress, and the Afrikaner policeman (a dour Tim Robbins) who’s pursuing him, just cannot get past its pat foregone conclusions. As with 2005’s pre-Castro Havana dud, The Lost City, Catch A Fire has a difficult time justifying itself via George Santayana’s rubric that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Unlike 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, and current Oscar-contender, Last King of Scotland, Catch A Fire is weary as a textbook and self-righteous as a ruler. It talks and gestures when it should sit still, and contemplates languidly when it should rage. 

September Dawn (Dir. Christopher Cain, 2006)

Rabid demon Mormons played by the diabolically bearded Terence Stamp & Jon Voight, draft some riled Native Americans & massacre 120 immigrants passing through Utah in 1857. It’s a true story we’re told & I’m sure the contrived Romeo & Juliet subplot & the hair-trigger orchestra swells are straight from the historical record. It’s always fun to watch Voight go over the top & stay there for two hours, pounding his chest & changing accents as The Method & his unhinged temper dictates, so there’s that. Beyond that? Pure historical hokum.


THE DOCTOR, THE TORNADO, AND THE KENTUCKY KID: THE SEQUEL TO “FASTER” (An “Ultimate Collector’s Edition”; Dir. Mark Neale, 2006) 

I was unable to comprehend what this movie is, exactly who made it, how it fits into my worldview, and -- to be frank -- whether it’s a movie at all, per se, from reading the back of the box, the description, and consuming tankards of things like ZOOM soda, and RPM-X Sports Drink. Apparently it concerns motorcycles that go to 11. Somewhere, someone’s flesh is melting off over this release, leaving only clacking novelty teeth and rubber eyeballs on springs.

FARCE OF THE PENGUINS (Dir. Bob Saget, 2006)

Okay, this Bob Saget revisionism? Let’s let that go. Has there ever been a career resurrection based on less evidence? I mean, his much-hyped and – ultimately -- negligible, appearance in 2005’s The Aristocrats proved he could say dirty words. His timing was wretched, he seemed ill-at-ease with his own depravity, and basically exemplified the guy who stands in the cigar shop humidor all day, waiting for someone to buy him a scotch and let him explain why both he and his wife have wooden legs. It’s not worth the eye contact, really. And neither is this. 

To make you feel worse, A-Team hipster comedians & Bruce Vilanch disciples co-mingle like star-crossed liver flukes. Lewis Black, Jon Lovitz, Whoopi Goldberg, Harvey Fierstein, Dane Cook, Jason Biggs, Tracy Morgan, Jason Alexander, James Belushi, and Samuel Jackson all contribute to make Full House look like Sullivan’s Travels by comparison.

This is pretty much the ne plus ultra of penguins kicking one another in the balls, though. So, if that’s your thing…

FLYBOYS (Dir. Tony Bill, 2006)

Admittedly, I was a little excited when I first saw the WWI bi-planes diving through the clouds over Verdun in the trailer for this CGI-heavy, exploding Graf Zeppelin of a movie. While no one had exactly been beating the railings for a World War I aerial combat film, the same could be said about Caribbean pirates, so I let the goose-bumps linger. Well, the movie looks like a video game, and the sequences in which studly, chiseled examples of American man-meat offer to save the doddering French from a lifetime of eyebrow-raising and rampant Existentialism, would’ve been better played with photographs of real combat aces mounted on popsicle sticks. 

Bits from the biography of famous French pilot, Rene Fonck, actually apply to this motion picture: 

“One book referred to Fonck as ‘a dreadful show-off, intolerable, always bragging, egotistical, ham-like, a poseur, gaudy, loud, hard to take, expressionless at times, morose, deliberately cruel, over-neat, tightly tailored, etc.’ Even his best friend, Lt. Claude Haegelen, (a 22 victory ace), was quoted as saying of Fonck:
‘He is not a truthful man. He is a tiresome braggart, and even a bore, but in the air, a slashing rapier, a steel blade tempered with unblemished courage and priceless skill ... But afterwards he can't forget how he rescued you, nor let you forget it. He can almost make you wish he hadn't helped you in the first place.’” 

THE GATHERING (Dir. Brian Gilbert, 2002)

A sleepy cast, including Christina Ricci, Stephen Dallane, and Brian Gilbert (Wilde, Tom & Viv), attempt to spook us by stylishly stitching together bits of far superior horror outings – The Omen, Sixth Sense, Stigmata – and come up wanting. All of the actors appear uncomfortable and we indulge the clues more than we’re enticed by them. Despite some decent shock effects and the requisite MTV-meets-Gormenghast production design, the film is the equivalent of letting a crib-bound infant deal your Tarot cards. You lurch about madly at the results, and leap – screaming -- through the local Cathedral’s rose window. Silly, by all standards. 

LUCKY LOUIE (Cancelled HBO TV Series, 2006)

You see the shoddy sets, the perfunctory opening credits, the lackluster cast of wanna-be meth-freaks, and you think, “Probably, this isn’t for me.” The apartment in which most of the action occurs is crap. It makes the apartment in The Honeymooners look like that Philip Johnson glass cube in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. This show is the bad taste in your mouth after eating too much suspect Chinese take-out, after being exhausted by the shrill donkey guffaws of Fox TV, after…

After the first episode, you shower (“Why does it feel as if you’ve been watching porn…?”), take a nap, reconfigure, and realize you laughed more at that episode than you have at any show since Arrested Development. It’s just funny. You don’t have to admit you broke ribs laughing at this. You don’t have to tell anybody. It’s our secret. You can still go about your business of watching Sopranos and Deadwood and Rescue Me and Veronica Mars and…

You want comedy that flashes around in your head? You want comedy that splashes around in your spleen? Louis CK’s series was always funny. Like, the first really awful crap in front of your wife as she brushes her teeth funny. I’ll miss it. But I won’t tell a soul. 

THE MARINE (Dir. John Bonito, 2006)

Robotic ex-Marine hunk, John Cena (just waiting for some beautiful future where we’ll need another Ahnold…) stomps heaven and earth to retrieve his kidnapped wife. He disobeys orders, mutters cranky, ominous non-sequiturs, makes metal explode by his iron-willed proximity, and cranks and clicks his head like a gubernatorial candidate. Rape-bait Kelly Carlson (Nip/Tuck) plays the VERY sexy Pauline-in-Peril, and Robert Patrick – following in the shoes of Under Siege’s Tommy Lee Jones & Die Hard’s Alan Rickman, chomps holes in the scenery as the psycho diamond thief to beat. Oh yeah, this has something to do with diamonds….

If you want to watch, watch for Robert Patrick.

PREY (Dir. Darrell Roodt, 2006)

“The story follows an American family in Africa on holiday that becomes lost in a labyrinthine game reserve and is stalked by savage lions. Shooting on the movie is set to start in August in South Africa. The film is described as "Jaws in the African bush”—Some Fool Who Says Things About Movies

Holy Mercy! This movie actually does its duty and does it well. If you want to see Peter Weller and – probably your reason for caring even a wee bit -- Bridget Moynahan, get their clothing torn to shreds by big cats, then you are in business, my friend. The violence is often extraordinary, the FX leans to CGI, and the chase scenes do rattle your bones. 

RED DOORS (Dir. Georgia Lee, 2002)

A quirky Asian-American King Lear, Red Doors over-extends itself to the breaking point. The movie’s candy-colored trek from the family patriarch’s melodramatic suicide attempts (so indebted to Harold & Maude) to one daughter’s upscale lesbian love affair (so indebted to Showtime’s The L Word), seems forced and soapy, without any of the erotic or social pay-offs one might expect from a decent soap opera. It’s just cute. And – in the played-out pantheon of sorta-cute/sorta-horny/sorta-ethnic/sorta-bullshit films – that doesn’t count for much. 

UNKNOWN (Dir. Simon Brand, 2006)

Once again, Pirandello’s exquisite Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922) gets its due. As in Saw One through Three, we have a bunch of easily-acted archetypes thrown into a warehouse space, questioning one another’s identities, getting homo-erotically sweaty, and transforming rather dim-witted undergraduate philosophy majors into screen-writers overnight. It’s a lazy flop, without even a cheap thrill to recommend it. Aptly titled, though. 

COCAINE COWBOYS (Dir. Billy Corben, 2006)

Despite some shoddiness of execution, this documentary about the wild and woolly halcyon days of Florida drug smuggling (1972 – 1985) succeeds on the strength of the fever-pitched, jaw-dropping anecdotes from smugglers, importers, snitches, journalists and cops who played integral roles in changing the white powder from prohibitively expensive curio to easily-attainable symbol of success and glamour. 

 GAMERZ (Dir. Robbie Fraser, 2005)

Bullied gamer geek, Ralph (Ross Finbow) finds solace and some popularity in his elaborate fantasy world, until a local hood (James Young) muscles his way into the hermetic wonderland. A very well-done exercise in nerd angst, with fine performances from Finbow, Danielle Stewart (as the goth-girl love interest), and Ross Sutherland as a metalhead theology student. 

GREATER SOUTHBRIDGE (Dir. Rod Murphy, 2003)

Rod Murphy’s sly documentary about eccentric New Englanders aims to be a northern answer to Errol Morris’ classic, Vernon, Florida, but never quite attains that film’s giddy internal logic. Instead, by focusing on mundane detail and workaday pathos, Murphy emerges with a warmer -- if slightly less engaging – work, which stresses commonality over enigma.

THE GUARDIAN (Dir. Andrew Davis, 2006)

There was a time when Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, The Package, Under Siege) was considered the great hope for intelligent American action pictures, but half an hour into this batch of moldy leftovers, one wonders what all the fuss was about. Nothing about this tale of a haunted young high school swimming champion (Ashton Kutcher) who joins the Coast Guard and learns valuable lessons from a haunted old sea salt (Kevin Costner) rings true or hasn’t been said better in a dozen made-for-TV movies. If the action had any real verve, one might forgive all the cringe-worthy plot contrivances, but Davis can’t even provide convincing rough seas for our heroes to overcome. This is truly rote stuff. 

Note to Kevin Costner: Comedy is your forte. Seriously. 

IRON JAWED ANGELS (Dir. Katja Von Garnier, 2004)

Well-mounted, well-acted television movie about the women’s suffrage movement. Hilary Swank, Frances O’Connor, Anjelica Huston and Deadwood’s Molly Parker all rise to the occasion in this innovative, rousing period piece. 

JESUS CAMP (Dir. Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, 2005)

The team behind 2005’s stellar Boys of Baraka hit pay-dirt once more, with this riveting documentary about a summer camp dedicated to turning very young children into Christian zealots. While lesser filmmakers might find ample fodder here for mockery, Ewing and Grady find a poignancy and grace in these children that often confounds the secular viewer’s need to label their conversions “brainwashing.”

LA MOUSTACHE (Dir. Emmanuel Carrere, 2005)

A man -- played marvelously by Vincent Lindon – shaves his mustache off one day and no one notices, calling into question whether he ever had a mustache at all. This is a tricky, existential film about the tenuousness of human identity and the escalating madness of the main character is harrowing, to say the least. A really nice companion piece to Jean-Pierre Limosin’s Memento-esque Novo (see below). 

THE PUFFY CHAIR (Dir. Jay Duplass, 2004)

A little indie gem, made on a shoe-string budget, that coasts along quite amiably on a surplus of charm and wit. A twenty-something, aimless ex-musician brings his girlfriend along on a quest to secure his father the titular chair as a birthday gift. One uncomfortable disappointment after another, of course, forces them to face some hard facts about themselves and their relationship. All of this plays out in the kind of witty, elliptical shorthand we expect from a good indie comedy of dysfunction. 

PURGATORY HOUSE (Dir. Cindy Baer, 2003)

This inventive supernatural teen angst-fest was written by a 14 year old girl, Celeste Davis, who also plays the film’s central character, Silver Strand, with notable intensity. The film was made on video cameras and the special effects are sub-CGI, but the tale of a troubled teen who winds up in a fantastical youth shelter rises scrappily above these humble trappings and delivers a rare, poetically honest look into the adolescent mindset. 

THE QUEEN’S SISTER (Dir. Simon Cellan Jones, 2006)

A psychologically revealing portrait of Britain’s Princess Margaret made for BBC television, it shines when dealing with the internal struggles of the renegade royal (a revelatory Lucy Cohu), but falters – sometimes disastrously – when faced with choosing a tone for the world around her. The broad comedy, jarring satire, and pathos just don’t belong in the same movie and threaten to pull Cohu in too many emotional directions at once. 

RELATIVE STRANGERS (Dir. Greg Glienna, 2006)

Simply awful comedy in the already creaky Meet the Parents/Flirting with Disaster mold – “mold” being the oh-so-appropriate word in this case. Ron Livingston, Danny De Vito, Neve Campbell and Kathy Bates all squirm pathetically through an endless series of lowest-common-denominator gags that should lead to agent-firings all around. Livingston, a successful psychiatrist with a best-selling self-help book and a pretty new fiancé (Campbell), discovers he’s adopted and sets out to find his real parents, two by-the-numbers hayseeds named – hilariously -- the Menures. His life unravels and re-ravels predictably. Stay away from this. 

ROOM (Dir. Kyle Henry, 2005)

Austin filmmaker, Kyle Henry, helms this wildly inventive Sundance favorite, concerning the nervous breakdown of a neurotic Houston-ite (Houstonian?) woman (played on a razor’s edge by Cyndi Williams). As with Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean/Shaven, the viewer has an uncomfortably close ringside seat to all the noises, voices and hallucinations that threaten to shatter the young woman’s sanity. In fact, if one comes away from this film without being at least marginally splattered by the volcanic emotions at play, I’d say a doctor’s appointment is in order. Henry touches on politics, rampant consumerism, city planning, and the supreme white noise of post-modernity without beating us over the head with any easy “message.” A really strange and original work that deserves a wide audience of intelligent film viewers. 

SAW III – UNRATED WIDESCREEN VERSION (Dir. Darren Lynn Bousman, 2006)

We at I Luv Video are not here to judge your film tastes. Really, we’re not. If you’re still riveted by this franchise’s Samuel Beckett-meets-Marquis De Sade– meets-Rube Goldberg concept, we’re behind you all the way. That said, those who feel each new installment should ratchet up the violence, blood spatter, and suspense a notch or two, might find this one lacking. It’s talky when it should be applying the thumbscrews and seems obliged to justify the whole franchise by waxing philosophical when no such justifications are really required. Fans know what they’re getting into here, and they no longer need band-aids applied to their brazen ids. In fact, it’s distracting as hell.

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