Friday, September 25, 2009

DVDs of 2007

The Tracey Fragments (Dir. Bruce McDonald, 2007)

It's nice to hear Juno's Ellen Page sounding like a real girl instead of machine-gunning Diablo Cody's uber-precocious fantasy slang. But this unique experimental exercise is likely to seriously polarize viewers. Page plays Tracey Berkowitz, a well-read, creative, consistently bullied teenager who's hypnotized her little brother into thinking he's a dog. While the two are out playing in the snow, Tracey gets distracted by the object of her disproportionate high school desire, loses her virginity without so much as a caress from the bastard and -- still reeling from the cruel sexual encounter -- finds her brother's disappeared. The movie mainly consists of her searching Toronto for the little boy & all of the action is fragmented with split screens showing multiple angles & expressionistic/poetic corollary images.

Director McDonald (Degrassi: The Next Generation, Queer as Folk) is like a cokehead Brian DePalma & his approach can be exhausting, especially on the small screen. But there's bleak magic at work in the film & it really gets under your skin as the story unfolds. Like a ghost story without a ghost, a teen issue movie without a burning issue & magical realism so matter-of-fact you'll miss it if you blink, The Tracey Fragments is a challenging, haunting & mordantly funny jigsaw puzzle of a movie that actually benefits from stylistically placing the audience at arm's length. Recommended.

This Kiss (Dir. Kylie Eddy, 2007)

Incompetent, nearly unwatchable Australian lesbian film that seems to have been filmed on a 1985 home video camera, edited by Helen Wiggin & acted by local dinner theater thespians. I can't believe this was so widely distributed on DVD. Avoid at all costs.

Bonneville (Dir. Christopher N. Rowley, 2007)

Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen take to the road in the titular vehicle to deliver Lange's sainted husband's ashes into the hands of his venomous sister (an unusually austere Christine Baranski) in this trite, half-baked, wet dumpling of a movie. To watch such usually brazen actresses playing Utah spinsters & weary widows, balking at cuss words and handing out the Book of Mormon to hitchhikers, is bad enough, but there isn't enough conflict in this movie to power a Sunday afternoon checkers match, no less a feature film. The humor -- what little there is of it -- is almost exclusively derived from watching actresses you know to be ferocious and profane get all bashful when the word "shit" is uttered and go loopy as hatters over "accidental" double entendre. As for the paper-thin lessons about female comraderie, I'm pretty sure there are fortune cookies with more pith and wit and those, at least, come with a fortifying meal.

Charlie Bartlett (Dir. Jon Poll, 2007)

Here's yet another thinly-veiled attempt to shoe-horn a bargain basement Harold and Maude into the indie zeitgeist in hopes of creating another darkly comic generational touchstone. Young indie film directors these days seem utterly obsessed with giving the emo generation another perennial like The Graduate or Harold and Maude, just as younger writers seem to be beating their scruffy heads against the tomes of Salinger, Roth and Pynchon. Charlie Bartlett has all the basic ingredients -- troubled privileged teenager dissatisfied with the stultifying rigors of private school, out-of-touch parents and authority figures, rebellion against wealth that could only be accomplished by the wealthy, and a quirky, nonconformist ingenue with a heart of gold. Jon Poll's debut film even goes so far as to steal a Cat Stevens song from Harold and Maude, the whole private-school-jacket -worn-to-public-school schtick from Rushmore, and the disenchanted, stubbled, borderline headcase teacher from Election

That said, Charlie Bartlett is enjoyable enough, though its contrivances eventually get the best of it. Alpha Dog and Fierce People 's Anton Yelchin plays Charlie, a precocious go-getter who often dabbles in crime as a shortcut to popularity. After having been expelled from a number of private schools, his pill-popping -- but good-hearted -- mother (a vacuous, benign Hope Davis) enrolls him in a dingy public school where he sets up a lucrative and often quite therapeutic psychiatry practice in the boy's restroom, complete with pharmaceuticals he's either copped from his mother or conned from his own bevy of therapists. As a drug-pushing guru, Charlie is able to unite the punks and the jocks, the cheerleaders and the drama club girls, etc. and, for a time, it seems the only thing standing in the way of his being crowned rightful king of youth culture, is the alcoholic, suicidal principal (played with knowing bravado by Robert Downey, Jr.). Of course, there must be comeuppance for all this, and it comes with a startling lack of subtlety and pretty much derails the whole film, turning what once seemed a delicate -- but sustainabl -- balance of real-life and potent fantasy into all-out fable, a disposable message movie. 

While the abrupt changes in tone and the reliance on teenage stereotypes don't necessarily hamper Charlie Bartlett 's likability (the movie is as eager to be liked and popular as its main character, in fact), they make the film's frequent nods to cherished pop-culture icons seem pretty damn glib.

Persepolis (Dir. Vincent Paronnaud/Marjane Satrapi, 2007)
A truly unique animated film based on a French autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is not only one of the finest animated films of the last decade -- using expressionistic, defiantly two-dimensional, black & white animation instead of trapsing uselessly into the Uncanny Valley -- but simply one of the best coming-of-age stories ever made. As a graphic novel Persepolis was treated with the same kind of respect accorded to Art Spiegelman's ground-breaking holocaust memoir, Maus (which was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize), and is published in America by Pantheon Books. The memoir begins during the first stages of the Iranian revolution which deposed the comparatively liberal Shah in favor of a repressive Islamic theocracy. The young Marjane's family are educated, westernized members of an Iranian middle class that will soon disappear altogether & as the stranglehold of Islamic fanaticism forces her family further & further into the shadows, Marjane is shipped off to Vienna for high school, where she becomes a punk rock girl, falls in love, has her heart broken & eventually returns to Tehran, attending college in the restrictive atmosphere of Islamic zealotry. 
The story is an incredibly personal & heartbreaking one. The scene where Marjane is reluctantly shipped off to Austria by her nearly defeated parents caused a lump in my throat the size of a pomegranate. Voiced by a legion of fine French actors, including Catherine Deneuve (Marjane's mother) & Deneuve & Marcello Mastroianni's real-life daugfhter, Chiara Mastroianni (Marjane), the characterizations are all flawless. Of course, such a subtle animated epic was bound to get lost in the parade of pasta-cooking rats, franchise ogres, surfing penguins & neurotic bumblebees, and sure enough, it did. Sad part is, despite the often heavy subject matter, the politics, expatriation, religious issues & other important issues in Persepolis all take a back seat to Satrapi's unique, irreverent & altogether entertaining worldview. And the animation swirls one image into another with such forward momentum & grace that Persepolis is every bit as rollicking as Ratatouille or Meet the Robinsons & ten times as valuable for being indisputably human & tragically alone in this year's animated film offerings. A great film, highly recommended.

Sex and Death 101 (Dir. Daniel Waters)
Wriggling uncomfortably in the guise of a romantic comedy, Sex & Death 101 has a pitch black undertow that almost makes up for it overstaying its welcome by about half an hour. To say the least, the film is an ambitious wreck on the gender wars highway, masquerading as the kind of winking, innuendo-strewn male bonding comedy most women would think of any excuse to avoid seeing, Sex & Death actually manages to perfectly portray the eventual anomie & ennui of the serial womanizer & tackle some fairly heady questions about fate & the nature of true love along the way. Hunky Simon Baker (who would probably play James Bond if Bond were a TV series) plays Roderick Blank (hey, I said the movie was ambitious, but it only lives up the ambitions about 3/4 of the time), the owner of a boutique fast food franchise called Swallows (leaving room for a neat gag where an employee's nametag reads, "Linda Swallows"), who is accidentally e-mailed a list of all the women he has & ever will sleep with in his life by a rogue supercomputer. This mysterious supercomputer is supervised by three enigmatic functionaries named Alpha, Beta & Fred (comedian Patton Oswalt), who inform Blank that he was the only e-mail recipient to get such a list, the other hundred or so recipients receiving the exact dates of their deaths. Needless to say, Blank feels lucky. He shouldn't, of course.

Blank quickly dumps his fiance & makes a mad dash through the list, eager to meet the next prospect. That is until he finds out that the last name on the list is a, comatizer called Death Nell (a surprisingly buxom Winona Ryder) by the tabloids & her feminist acolytes. Death Nell sleeps with all manner of date rapists, peeping toms, hounds & simple street corner sleazebags & then injects them with a substance that causes them to slip into a coma. As luminous as Ryder is in this film, it's a sure bet they slipped into the engulfing darkness quite happily. 

Unable to back-pedal at this late date & with no further sexual prospects on the list, Blank barricades himself into his house & tries vainly to stave off the inevitable, which comes in a genuinely surprising fashion. Sex and Death 101 veers giddily from the salacious to the profound & it has some trouble holding its focus, or even nailing down an appropriate tone. It wants to be vile slapstick, satiric farce & melancholy food for thought all at once and -- unless you happen to be French -- that's a hard row to hoe. Still, Waters (who wrote the screenplays for both Heathers & Hudson Hawk), keeps throwing curveballs & the movie is anything but boring, what with its copious nudity, game supporting cast (Scrubs' Neil Flynn, Talladega Nights' Leslie Bibb, TV staple Frances Fisher and, of course, the always agreeable Oswalt), sudden necrophilia tangents, castration threats, whirlwind narrative inventions & that aforementioned ambition.

I'd have to say I recommend Death and Dying 101, but you'll have to stay with it or it won't do you a lick of good & you'll hate me for even mentioning it. Finish it though, and you may wind up a fan. 

Shotgun Stories (Dir. Jeff Nichols)

With this feature, first-time director Jeff Nichols joins the ranks of great cinematic regionalists such as fellow Arkansan David Gordon Green (George Washington, Undertow), Floridian Victor Nunez (Ruby in Paradise, Ulee's Gold) & Texan Eagle Pennell (Last Night at the Alamo). Nichols has an unerring eye for down-at-heel southern small-town life, for characters whose eccentricities grow on them naturally, like unconscious barnacles, setting them apart as individuals, but also making them ill-disposed for successful living. But where many regionalists meander with glum resolve through the simple tasks or diversions of the people they portray, Nichols knows how to mount a helluva tale. At rock-bottom, Shotgun Stories is a classic movie Western about two sets of brothers whose paths violently collide when their mutual father passes away. Michael Shannon (the berserk force of nature in William Friedkin's incredible Bug from 2006) plays Son Hayes, the unmotivated, but innately perceptive, elder brother of the clan the alcoholic bastard left on the wrong side of the tracks. When his wife leaves him for gambling away a month's salary, he takes in his two brothers, one who's been living in a tent in his backyard & another whose been living in a custom van down by the river. While we don't get to see as many privileged moments with the other Hayes family, the one sired after the father stopped drinking & found Jesus, we can see easily that they're more well-adjusted. The younger boys are college-bound & the older boys are rough-hewn, but successful, farmers.

As the violence escalates, our cinematic sympathies (often so different from our real-life sympathies) are definitely with the more colorful poor white trash, though -- upon closer examination -- both sides have their reasons & both sides act with Old Testament clarity when the feud turns deadly. The small-town atmosphere -- boarded up main street, sterile highway Dairy Queen, rusty railroad bridges, endless fields of cash crop, small crackerbox houses with creaking broken screen doors -- weighs heavy on these characters & Nichols takes the time to show us the nooks & corners, meandering with subtle humor for a good half an hour before Shotgun Stories takes its dire turn into sad, inevitable violence. It's a really astonishing debut feature & one that sticks to you, the way small-town ghosts are wont to do. Highly Recommended.

Chop Shop (Dir. Ramin Bahrani, 2007)

In this rusted-out Horatio Alger tale, Alejandro Polanco (an absolute natural, in his first movie role) plays Ale, a 12-year-old Latino money-making dervish who as good as manages a Queens, New York chop-shop when he's not hustling DVDs on the streets, candy on the subways & wheel rims among the labyrinth of barbed wire & warehouses that barely contain the squalid sprawl of his world. Saving for a brokedown food truck that will be he & his older sister Isamar's ticket to the middle class, Ale seems to have life pretty much dicked. At the very least he's got focus & drive to spare & a tin can full of money to prove it. But when he finds out his sister is hooking on the side, Ale begins to melt down, alienating his friends, engaging in increasingly criminal enterprises & becoming deeply paranoid. It's never explained why Isamar feels she has to prostitute herself with such a devoted bread-winner looking out for her, but one can imagine that's she's grown weary of counting on her little brother for everything & just doesn't have his disciplined eye for the prize. 

Director Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart) never strikes a false note, visually or narratively in Chop-Shop. His Queens is populated with authentic faces merged with gritty locations & the story never preaches or reaches for easy sympathy. Watching Ale "parent" Isamar, with all the psychological pitfalls inherent in that, is, by turns, funny & heart-breaking. Bahrani never spoonfeeds the viewer emotional cues & often Ale's strategies are a little mysterious, illuminating the character entirely through his actions & shrewd, gradual shifts in his behavior. Chop-Shop demands a little more attention than most American movies & its neo-realist sensibilities make it seem a little squalid at times, but it's refreshing to watch such a fine story arc develop without the standard bludgeoning of sentimental cinema, in a film that actually, for once, mirrors the unmediated America in which real people strive to make a buck. Highly Recommended.


My Blueberry Nights (Dir. Wong Kar Wai, 2007)

Maverick Chinese director Wong Kar Wai's (Fallen Angels, Chungking Express, 2046) first film in English, My Blueberry Nights feels a lot like the recent work of Wim Wenders, especially Million Dollar Hotel & The End of Violence, though it's not as amorphous & stylistically off-putting as those movies. A series of intertwining vignettes -- each unfolding like finely-honed short stories about various forms of addiction - are grafted together by Jude Law as the cheerfully lonely owner of an upscale NYC diner & Norah Jones (likable, but bordering on vacuous) as the love-battered sadsack he tends to, emotionally & gastronomically, in the wee, wee neon-smeared hours between midnight & six. The movie tries for an overly-stylized, jazzy, nocturnal feel, often veering into the kind of shorthand noir you'd likely find in a music video attempting to mimic genre tropes with a few glib gestures. It does add some much-needed grit that hard-boiled mystery novelist Lawrence Block, an expert on alcoholic fringe-dwellers, co-wrote the script, however & his tonal authority often gets the blood flowing in these often predictable tales.

Trying to get over an unfaithful lover, Jones' Elizabeth spends several curative nights consuming blueberry pie & beer at the diner before finally hitting the road to find herself & lick her wounds. I've never been a big fan of food as a metaphor for the human condition, so I was relieved to find all the nights in the film were not blueberry. On her odyssey she encounters alcoholic cop David Strathaim (a Lawrence Block character if ever there was one), drinking off estranged wife Rachel Weisz, brassy poker shark Natalie Portman (with alarming beauty-shop hair & equally alarming cleavage) & a colorful stratum of hustlers, insomniacs & walking wounded. Meanwhile Law collects her postcards back at the diner & tries in vain to contact her as she meanders her way south by southwest. And boy does My Blueberry Nights meander. Unlike the quickly & brashly sketched vignettes that often comprise Wai's Asian films, the various threads of this seem overlong by half & often the pat outcome of the stories make their unbridled length pretty infuriating. This, paired with the often trite & stagey artifice of the visuals (the film cries out for Wai's usual cinematographer, Christopher Doyle), can make the movie a chore. Still, there are moments of genuine poetry here & the performances are uniformly interesting, if not always stellar. Considering that Wai's past films have been nearly revolutionary however, it would be difficult to count My Blueberry Nights as anything but a disappointment, or at least another odd breakdown in East/West communication.


Pleasure Factory (Dir. Ekachai Uekrongtham, 2007)

Though filed under documentaries at the store, this Singaporean/Thai import is most definitely a fictional narrative. Filmed, with documentary realism, in Geylang, the infamous red-light district of the city & cast with mostly non-professionals, there's certainly a verite feel to Pleasure Factory & the open-endedness of the intertwining plots definitely subvert ordinary storytelling in favor of arrhythmic slices-of-life. The form of the film most closely resembles Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery, a strange curio from 1957 in which a few real actors enact a thin, simple plot while engaging the Bowery & its unkempt populace on its own terms. The "real" actors in Pleasure Factory -- Taiwanese actress Yang Kuei-mei from Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman, Asian horror regular Ananda Everingham -- catalyze the sketches & the non-professionals just do what they, um, do in reality -- give & receive pleasure in the whore houses of Singapore. 

Considering the stories don't really amount to more than a cursory outline, the movie is pretty engaging & erotic without in any way glorifying the lifestyles up for exhibit. In one, a virgin & his army buddy seek the proper working girl for his all-important first time & in another a teenage virgin is summoned to a hotel room where an older prostitute & a fat man attempt to negotiate a deflowering. The set-ups are simple as can be, but the exotic atmosphere, the interesting takes on race & gender, the psychological coping mechanisms of the prostitutes & johns & the unobtrusive fly-on-the-wall perspective lend Pleasure Factory an utterly unique momentum.

The Counterfeiters (Stephan Ruzowitzky, 2007)

The true story of Operation Berhard, in which a team of incarcerated counterfeiters were "employed" by the Third Reich for the purpose of devaluing British & U.S. currency by flooding the market with fake pounds & dollars, The Counterfeiter centers on the life of Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Austrian actor Karl Markovics), a Jewish gangster & loan shark, who was also known to be the finest counterfeiter in all of Europe. Of course Sorowitsch's days as Berlin underworld kingpin are numbered at the film's outset & in short order he's arrested. At first, it's his counterfeiting that's the issue & Sally reconciles himself to years in prison, sketching his Schiele-like portraits at the window of his cell. As the German penal system adapts itself to new, insidious purposes, Sally is packed off to a series of camps in which he often receives inordinate privileges for his skill -- first, as a portrait artist for camp commandants & their families, then for his most marketable skill, counterfeiting. 

For the duration of The Counterfeiters, Sally rarely encounters the full brunt of the Final Solution. There are sudden bursts of gunfire on the other side of walls, piles of clothing & passports, the rare glimpse of sunken eyes from a skeletal face, but to him & the others involved in the project, the true horrors are mostly a rumor. Although the threat of extermination is always possible & these fears are never allayed by camp commanders, the counterfeiters are well-fed, clean (although one shower scene is harrowing), allowed to sleep on feather beds, supplied with cigarettes & dressed warmly. 
Still, all this relative comfort allows them clearer heads & more time to consider the role they're playing in the Nazi war machine. While Sally falls on the side of survival being the best revenge, his colleague Zilinski spends his days sabotaging the plates used to make the currency. The friction between these two camps, and the truly narrow-minded souls who don't want to work with Jews or criminals at all, provide the film with palpable tension.

Karl Markovics turns in a marvel of a performance in the movie. Just when you begin to detest his opportunism, the coyote wile that keeps him alive, those sharp, angular features, he reverts to his artistic side & his face transforms, illuminates subtly from the inside, softens. Unlike Zilinski, Sally knows enough to wait for an opportunity & he's just optimistic enough to know the opportunity WILL come. This from a character who probably spent the better part of a day in his youth on the station platforms of Weimar Berlin, waiting for just one traveler's wallet to be budged just so from his coat pocket. Of course he also knows that if the opportunity never presents itself, he's damned for all time. 
It's a devil of a performance & it really gets under your skin, giving the bookends of the story -- Sally gambling away a fortune at casinos along a strangely wintry French Riviera -- a haunting, existential resonance. The Counterfeiters is a darkly comic, fiercely ironic, deftly tense & precisely human film. Most Highly Recommended.

Assembly (Dir. Xiaogang Feng, 2007)

It's strange & really enlightening to watch a war movie where you're not sure which side you're supposed to be on from the get-go. I mean, while I think I have some grasp of modern history, I admit that, if choosing sides between the People's Liberation Army & the Nationalist Army in the 1948 Chinese Civil War, I'd probably side with the Nationalist Army, assuming the victory of the PLA led to the Totalitarian miseries of late-20th Century China. Still, in movie land, you go with the perspective you're given & while it took about 20 minutes of confusion, abetted substantially by the surfeit of flying body parts & head-shot blood splatters which hung suspended in the air just a moment too long (like jagged strokes from Jackson Pollock), to suss out characters with whom to empathize, once the cultural disorientation passed, Assembly turned out to be a rewarding & masterful war story, with the moral compass & high-tech mayhem of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan & the go-for-broke trench pathos of Sam Fuller's war films (Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets!).

Assembly follows several weeks in the lives of the Ninth Company during the notoriously bloody Huaihai Campaign of 1948. The unit is commanded by the sturdy, obedient Captain Guzidi (beautifully controlled desperation from actor Hanyu Zhang), one of those rare soldiers who has the total trust of his men & of the generals. The Ninth Company has been whittled down from 200 men to just over 40 & are still deployed for ever-more dangerous missions, with lethally depleted reserves of men, food, ammunition & cannon. Guzidi's orders are to fight on until he hears The Assembly, a bugle call used to call an end to a particular battle. While what's left of his soldiers assure him they've heard the bugle call & Gu desperately wants to believe them, he continues to fight to defend the mouth of a valuable coal mine until nearly all of his men are dead or wounded, entombed in the mine so they won't be picked over by carrion. Gu, like a warrior Lear, wanders half-mad from guilt (Did he simply miss the Assembly call?), right into the enemy trenches & his miraculously spared, only to be interrogated remorselessly by post-war bureaucrats who can find no evidence of the Ninth Company's last stand.

While Gu's attempts to find the bodies buried in the mine & ascertain whether or not the Assembly had been blown are obviously less riveting than the gut-wrenchingly violent & intimate battle sequences, the last half of the film gets by on the strangeness of watching Gu quite carefully navigate impervious Communist bureaucracy to prove the Ninth Company's bravery & sacrifice. While an American movie would allow plenty of time for long, glorious speeches on behalf of Gu & his unit, there is a sleepwalking subtlety to Gu's quest here, because he knows that renegade individuality is not a trait The Party cherishes. When the Captain finally finds out the truth about the bugle call, the scene is subdued by western standards & Gu's reaction is an internalized maelstrom, a tour-de-force performance from Zhang. Highly Recommended. 

Boxboarders (Dir. Rob Hedden, 2007)

Bored O.C. surfers James James (American Zombie's Austin Basis) & Ty Neptune (frequent TV actor James Immekus), low on girls, popularity & scholastic wherewithal, strap a cardboard box to the top of a skateboard & go downhill, fast. This being the O.C., the stunt catches on & pretty soon it's a trend. Only problem is, the popular bullies would like to claim they invented it & the popular girls want a piece of the action, especially when MTV takes notice.

Boxboarders is a total surprise, a great, very funny youth cult film that doesn't try too hard to be THE META-TEEN COMEDY & arrives on DVD joyfully under the radar. Director Hedden has his own off-kilter vision which doesn't borrow too heavily from the ones who came before & a leisurely, sunny pacing that gets the audience where it's obviously going without forcing the issue. There are no blatant John Hughes or Revenge of the Nerds rips & one gets the feeling this could have been released 20 years ago & run neck & neck with the teen classics of the 1980s, before the term "post-modern" could be applied to boob & fart jokes. It doesn't hurt that the supporting cast is made up of venerables like "Downtown" Julie Brown, Stephen Tobolowsky (Memento, Wild Hogs), and that oddball Brit, Ezra Buzzington (The Prestige, The Hills Have Eyes, Art School Confidential). So what if boxboarding is basically soap box derby with smaller wheels. Highly Recommended. 

Crows Zero (Dir. Takashi Miike, 2007)
A strangely tame manga adaptation from the most stylistically impulsive Japanese director since Seijun Suzuki, Crows Zero is still a pretty kick-ass Asian J.D. film.
A yakuza boss' son is told to take over Suzuran High School to show his mettle. Unfortunately another student has similar ideas & the two would-be delinquent kingpins fight their way through assorted bullies, numbskulls & unprepared High School Caesars until a showdown is inevitable. This is, by far, the most linear Miike film I've ever seen & even the violence seems controlled & less perverse than in his previous work. This is not to say that Crows Zero isn't a nutcruncher when it has to be, but all of the fights have a purpose & they actually advance the admittedly single-minded plot & contribute to the suspense, instead of relieving the trajectory of its momentum by heightening the gore or resorting to genre satire or slapstick.

If you don't think you like Miike you may be surprised by the enjoyability of Crows Zero, which shows off the filmmaker's innate intelligence & his flare for classic storytelling without squirting breastmilk all over the lens or allowing a talking vagina to narrate the tale. All in all, a pretty cool teenage Yakuza flick directed by a master who knows that even unpredictability can become predictable in time. Recommended.

The Secret (Dir. Vincent Perez, 2007)

Ever wonder what Disney's Freaky Friday might have been like had it been directed by M. Night Shyamalan? Well, this is it. Instead helmed by French arthouse actor Vincent Perez, The Secret stars David Duchovny (HBO's Californication, Things We Lost in the Fire) as Benjamin Marris, a deliriously happy eye doctor married to deliriously happy, but slightly out-to-lunch Hannah (Lili Taylor - Factotum, The Notorious Bettie Page), who both show deliriously unreasonable patience for their glum goth sexpot daughter Sam (Juno's Olivia Thirlby). When Hannah & Sam are hospitalized following a car crash that occurs mercifully during a rather tedious mother-daughter spat, Mom awakens momentarily, flatlines & finally dies, while the daughter gradually recovers. Here's the rub, though: while it's undeniably Thirlby's vivacious body that survives, it's Lili Taylor hidden inside. 

Dr. Marris & Hannah agree that she should go on living the daughter's life, just in case she's inside there somewhere too, maybe tucked behind the left lung or in a ventricle of her hard teenage heart. Surprise! Hannah finds out things about Sam she never knew, for instance, her daughter was a promiscuous complainer who liked to drink & do drugs. Turns out there's a little of that in Mom, too, because she fall into Sam's routine without much of resistance, leaving Dr. Marris pretty lonely & at wit's end.

There's a moment here when Sam's body puts the moves on Pops, declaring that most men his age would give anything to have their wives suddenly inherit the nubile body of a teenager & the whole thing threatens to become rather, um, French, in that queasy kind of way. I breathed a sigh of relief when Marris turned out to be a relatively normal guy who didn't want to bed down his daughter, even with his wife inside her, but then I realized that was about the only tension to be had from this tame, glacially-paced meditation on something or other. Suddenly I so wanted The Secret to at least live up to his creepy premise, but it was too late & blandness had already won out. Even the Rewind function on my remote control couldn't fix that. Damn.

Hell on Wheels (Bob Ray, 2007)
Austin filmmaker Bob Ray's documentary about the shaky ascent of this city's nationally-emulated Roller Derby teams isn't nearly as exploitative as the A & E cable network's popular reality show Rollergirls (2006), which covers similar territory & features many of the same players, but it's not as much fun either. Hell on Wheels sums up the history of the sport from 1936 to its cultural fade-out in the mid-1970s with a short fake newsreel & then homes in on Austin where, in 2001, Tulsa emigrant, ballsy uberflake Dan Policarpo assembled four lovely tattooed punk hellions at Casino El Camino on 6th Street and, by all accounts, birthed a new wild & woolly brand of roller derby. It didn't take long for the four ambitious, but woefully inexperienced, girls to slough off Policarpo -- whose vision of the league included "bears on fire on unicycles & clowns stabbing each other" -- and form Bad Girl Good Woman Productions which set off a revolution amongst similarly-inclined punk rock Amazons across the country.

But whereas conflicts in A & E's Rollergirls were presented mostly as semi-orchestrated catfights, the trials & tribulations on display in Hell on Wheels are all too real & as heart-breaking as any bittersweet love story. As a microcosmic view of U.S. labor struggles & corporate wrangling, it would be hard to find a more succinct object lesson in blind ambition, labor inequity & unrest, the hubris of management & power in numbers without consulting classic docs like Barbara Kopple's Harlan County U.S.A (1976). & American Dream (1990), films notoriously devoid of tattooed sex kittens pummeling one another into submission while rollerskating. As the schism widens between the original four founders, who refuse to surrender any real power to the rank & file, and the majority of the atheletes, who express valid concerns over safety issues & the way in which the league's profits are spent, Hell on Wheels becomes absolutely riveting. Hearing terms like "transitional leadership" casually bandied about & watching the bloodless coup unfold with almost historical inevitability is downright chilling, especially amongst people who've probably never studied Marx or Machiavelli. By comparison, the footage of actual Roller Derby bouts seems a little uninvolving. Like NASCAR, perhaps, Roller Derby just doesn't translate well to short snippets of film; it needs to be experienced live where the energy of the crowd, the effect of Lone Star beer, the pounding of the skates on the roller rink floor (or banked wooden track) & the garage rock'n'roll create bruising, utterly hypnotic pop culture mayhem.

Although the split which created the two rival Austin leagues (banked-track team, Lonestar Rollergirls & flat-track team, Texas Rollergirls -- both still thriving) wasn't the end of the world, in the narrative arc of the documentary something seems irreparably compromised, if not lost, by film's end -- the belief that sisterhood trumps economics possibly, youthful idealism certainly. As a sports documentary, Hell on Wheels may fall short, but as a bracing cautionary tale, it's hard to beat. 

The Memory Keeper's Daughter (Mick Jackson, 2007)

Drearily filmed on video in Hallmark Hall of Fame soft focus, this turgid soap opera makes most Lifetime network movies seem like Douglas Sirk films by comparison. Happy couple Dermot Mulroney & Gretchen Mol give birth to two giant babies smeared with strawberry Smucker's one stormy winter night. When one is born with Down Syndrome, Bone Doctor Mulroney (not a euphemism) insists Nurse Emily Watson take the child to a Dickensian home for the infirm on the edge of town & he tells Mother Mol the baby died. This gothic orphanage is actually fairly interesting filmically, so Nurse Watson flees with the baby immediately only to be stranded in the blizzard on a deserted rural road. After watching Joy Ride 2, I just assume the trucker who rescues her is a psychotic killer, but, unfortunately, it's not that kind of movie. Instead she falls in love with the guy, who whisks she & the child off to Pittsburgh.

There's a moment just after Mol gives birth where I was hoping the Bone Doctor was going to gaslight her, fill her full of drugs post-partum & tell her she actually mis-remembered how many children she had. But it isn't, unfortunately, that kind of movie either. Because Bone Doctor Mulroney saw how the death of a child destroyed his mother long ago, he justifies his lie by telling himself the child won't live long. He warns Nurse Watson that "No one raises Mongoloids on their own." Of course, in trying not to devastate Mother Mol he actually turns their marriage into one long, guilty funeral. It doesn't help that Nurse Watson keeps sending him Polaroids of the child growing up. The couple become distant from one another (I think, at one point, they say they haven't had sex in six years...) & Bone Doc Mulroney's shame spiral becomes a living heck. Oh secrets -- you can't live with 'em & you can't mount a crap movie without them. Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Nurse Watson has become a Down Syndrome rights advocate & grandstands in courtrooms & grocery store aisles all over the rust belt.

Though The Memory Keeper's Daughter is a period piece, it's hard to tell exactly what period we're in. Some time between 1950 & 1972 I'd imagine, but there's not a lot of directorial or production design conviction where dates are concerned. It's a shoddy & manipulative movie, to say the least, and the score is enough to put you off piano & cello for life. Truly unwatchable.


Normal (Carl Bessai, 2007)

Normal is yet another study of intertwining characters dealing with grave personal loss, only this one foregos piano & cello for synthesizers & video soft-focus for medium-budget production values. Carrie-Ann Moss (Disturbia, The Matrix) is the focal point here, as Catherine, a woman who willfully refuses to go on with life after the death of her sports hero son, Nick, in a drunk driving accident. Moss has been driven to polishing off a couple of bottles of red wine a day, incessant cleaning, vegetarianism & collecting enough canned goods for the coming endtimes. She has nothing but cranky disregard for her other son & barely concealed loathing for her husband, who's chosen to go on living the best he can. Others caught in the vortex of this tragedy include creative writing teacher Walt (Battlestar Galactica's Callum Keith Rennie), the drunk driver who killed Nick, Nick's autistic/agoraphobic brother Tim (indie staple Benjamin Ratner) who was in the car at the time & Jordie (Jane Austen Book Club's Kevin Zegers), Nick's best friend who was just released from a reformatory for stealing the car in which the boy was killed. As the movie opens, Walt's wife leaves him & he dives headfirst into his mid-life crisis, bedding a comely TV weather girl who also happens to be one of his students. Jordie, fresh from the reformatory with a One Tree Hill-size chip on his shoulder, comes home to find his father married to a friend of his older sister's. 
The sexual tension between Jordie & his stepmother is immediate & he sits at his desk masturbating to a Union Jack commemorative plate to relieve the stress. Tim spends his days writing letters to female convicts & memorizing TV weather reports delivered by...guess who? Yes, we're all mysteriously linked. Hollywood likes to tell us that. In fact, Hollywood won't rest until we all know how connected we are to everyone else, how one person's grief is tantamount to our own, how one person's happiness should be muted by the misery of others. Hollywood wants us to know that if one person is damaged, we're all damaged. Go Hollywood. The problem is, aside from the creative writing teacher's wife (who has the good sense to flee this miasma) & Jordie the Innocent, most of these folks are deeply unlikable terminal cases & we're forced into close proximity with them for so long that their little stabs at redemption seem like so much hogwash. Moss' Catherine is a completely unreasonable woman, constantly criticizing her husband for wanting to move forward, angrily refusing to eat any of the food at what seems like a perfectly friendly backyard barbecue and, in what passes for a redemptive moment at the end of the movie, telling her other son Brady (Juno's Cameron Bright), "You're all I've got now." Thanks, mom.

There's a sour sameness to the adult male characters here. Bessai is known for directing films that feature complicated, often difficult, women (Lola, Unnatrual & Accidental) & he has a real feel for them, but it took me well into the movie to realize that the same scruffy, graying, Teutonic middle-aged man wasn't playing at least three separate parts. The men just seem to be sleepwalking which, I suppose, is the point, but it doesn't make these characterizations stick with you.

All in all, this is depressing, drowsy stuff, occasionally invigorated by steamy sex scenes, one of which is so bizarre & disturbing you'll probably need to turn off the movie & take a quick bath to recover your sense of decency. And boy does Normal drag. Even at the hour mark you'll feel as if someone's been slapping you in the face for several days straight. This is a world where no one gets over anything, all physical love is misguided & where blind rage is always percolating beneath the surface of human interaction, where, if you're already damaged, chances are you'll only become moreso as time passes. In other words it's a lot like real life & that, ladies & gentlemen, is why National Treasure: Book of Secrets raked in $124 million in its first 10 days.

Ripple Effect (Philippe Caland, 2007) 

Yet MORE lives intersecting at the crossroads of misery & tragedy! In this case they're not intertwining or intersecting though, they're, um, rippling. Here's a movie so averse to action that the pivotal car accident is only heard beneath the opening credits. Fasion designer Amer Atrash (Director Philippe Caland), who's wearing Nicholas Cage's Bruckheimer hair, is gearing up for a huge partnership between his small boutique company & a huge conglomerate that will allow his exotic, middle-eastern line to be distributed worldwide. 

When the deal falls through, Atrash's life, understandably, unravels & while he frantically attempts to salvage his life's work his needy, tranquilized wife Sherry (a really out-of-it Virginia Madsen) takes his child & leaves him. She's real philosophical about it though, so it doesn't appear as if she's being a selfish, self-involved ass, which she is. Where the audience is concerned it's all for the best, though -- no more laudanum-slow shots of Amer & Sherry padding about their Turkish rugshop of a mansion in long flowing robes like the wan ghosts of Mick Jagger & Anita Pallenberg in Nicholas Roeg's Performance (1970).

Probably because he's gone quite mad, Amer decides mid-film that the reason for his current run of bad luck must be the hit & run he perpetrated years earlier. While driving around a swamp, for reasons known only to Philippe Caland, the screenwriter, Amer hit a black man who leaped in front of his car. For fear of being deported, the designer crouched in the bushes, made sure the injured party was taken care of & fled the scene. Now, Amer reasons unreasonably, if he faces up to his actions, he can reclaim his career, wife, child & his rug shop of a mansion. Amer soon finds his paraplegic victim Philip (Forest Whitaker) at a bar where he's listening to his grammatically challenged folksinger wife Kitty (Minnie Driver, singing lines like "into the void where we begun..."). Because Whitaker doesn't have much going on south of the border, the two are in an open marriage & Kitty immediately wants to jump in the sack with Amen while Philip reads New Age philosophy books in the next room. Amen declines. Apparently there are limits to all this intersecting.

Since being paralyzed, Philip has become a kind of New Age guru, preaching the unique belief that, subconsciously, mothers cause their children to die of SIDS. Simply put, through worrying their child may die of SIDS, they subconsciously cause the child's demise. So that's why bad things happen to good people. The second half of the film is just Whitaker spouting rheumy platitudes (think Dr. Phil without the humor) while Amer looks up at him gratefully, tears rolling down his face. I'm fairly sure there's some kind of pseudo-religious agenda at work here, something specific & a little creepy, but I'll be damned if I can figure out which Topanga Canyon cult sponsored The Ripple Effect. I looked inside the DVD case for a helpful pamphlet, maybe something featuring a swastika with a peace sign in the middle or a dove perched on each of its stern right angles, but obviously some curiosity seeker had removed it. Maybe I'm just paranoid, but I think there's something afoul with this movie & it's not just the scene where Driver, enraged at Philip's kindness to Amer, unleashes her wifely venom, changing accents every other word. At least that was entertaining. 


The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, 2007)

Not the informative menstrual documentary I hoped it would be, Thomas McCarthy's (The Station Agent) movie is actually a well-done post 9/11 character study. And while it does constitute a trifecta here in the lives intertwined by misery sweepstakes, it's heads & tails above The Ripple Effect & Normal. Which is good, because I was about to make a hasty proclamation that any movie without a gun, a midget or both,would not see the inside of my DVD player.
Starring the always great Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, Burn After Reading), The Visitor is the story of emotionally shut-down college economics professor & widower, Walter Vale, whose life goes pleasantly haywire when he finds a couple living in his spare New York City apartment. The young couple, a proper Senegalese muslim woman, Zainab (Ghost Town's Danai Gurira), and a Syrian Afro-beat drummer, Terek (Haaz Sleiman of TV's 24), are victims of a sublet scam & have nowhere else to go. Walter's every word & mannerism are carefully designed to curtail actual discussion & Jenkins registers both permission & reluctance, preference & distaste, with either an insincere rictus of a smile, or a dour, funereal countenance. It's with a combination of these two expressions that he agrees to let the couple stay with him for a few days. Walter isn't a lost cause by any means & that keeps The Visitor from becoming too morose. He's actually trying, he simply doesn't have the knack for it yet. Perhaps because his wife was a classical pianist, Walter has some idea that music may be the salve he requires, and he's transfixed by the sight of Terek playing his African drums. When Terek informs Walter that the key to playing the drums is to "stop thinking," the button-down professor knows it's the instrument for him. The two become friends, though Zainab remains wary of Walter's intentions.

Then, while attempting to squeeze his drum through a subway turnstile, it appears Terek didn't pay his token & the police descend on him. Really the token isn't he issue, his race is. Terek is taken into custody & it's discovered that he's an illegal immigrant. By now Walter is neck-deep in the lives around him & way out of his comfort zone. While Terek is "detained" in a huge anonymous beige warehouse in Queens, Walter finds him a lawyer, visits him daily with letters from Zainab, practices drumming & eventually takes in Terek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), with whom he develops a romantic relationship. Jenkins is just terrific here. The way he politely turns his head while holding Terek's personal letters up to the glass in the visiting room, the way his kindness & sadness seem to come from the same well, the way he peers over his glasses a little too long when he's at a loss for words or actions -- it's a great performance & the rest of the cast rises effortlessly to the occasion, especially Gurira whose hilariously reactions to Walter's social ineptitude enliven many of the scenes.  

The Visitor thrives on clashing tones -- the jazz bar vs. the stultifying economics conference, Fela Kuti fading into Chopin on the soundtrack, the colorful outdoor market where Zainab sells her jewelry & the antiseptic lobby of the detention center -- and these contrasts keep it from ever becoming dull. Without overselling the misery, this movie brilliantly captures the isolationist tenor of our times. Highly Recommended.

The Bourne Ultimatum (Dir. Paul Greengrass, 2007)

Though Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series was a construct of the 1980s and the beginnings of the Cold War thaw, the movie Bourne (The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy & this) is strictly a product of Post-9/11 geo-political malaise. It’s interesting to compare the paranoid hyper-drive of Greengrass’ films to the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s – The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, Capricorn One, Parallax View, Winter Kills. While those films demanded close attention to cinematic detail, Bourne Ultimatum never descends into philosophical or political murkiness, instead delighting in techno gleam while castigating it; grooving on the public’s short attention span, while condemning our obliviousness to the sinister instruments of surveillance all around us; and manipulating the viewer shamelessly at every turn, while pontificating grimly on the evils of manipulation. The world isn’t simply awash in post-modernity, it IS post-modern. We’re expected, as Americans, to believe two contradictory ideas at once. In fact, if we don’t have this talent, we’re liable to go insane. It may be the actual definition of being American in this day & age. And we wonder why we’re frustrating to the rest of the world. 

The polemic out of the way, The Bourne Ultimatum is a glorious whiz bang entertainment. At times even the camera seems unable to keep up with all the leaping (and driving) from rooftop to rooftop, the frenetic hand-to-hand jujitsu, and the myriad screens that repeat & modify each action via security cameras, CIA computer monitors, and other high-tech doodads. Not every action sequence is riveting & the movie is really just one long chase interrupted by fisticuffs & gunplay, but the whole affair moves at such a breakneck speed it’s hard not to be impressed. A chase through London’s Waterloo Station early in the film serves as such a purely adrenalized thesis statement that the movie never quite recovers, all the other set pieces seeming a little tame by comparison.

This is surely THE action franchise to beat in this dental drill of a decade, and Matt Damon’s Bourne is certainly more interesting than the last two James Bonds (not including Daniel Craig, who may drag that creaky franchise into the 21st Century yet), but there’s something sinister in the lack of historical subtext, the lack of mediating intelligence & “intelligence”, the lack of breathing room in the Bourne films, but that may just be a valid reflection of the times in which we live. After watching these movies, though, I have a really hard time finding friends’ houses on Google Earth without getting the willies. Recommended.


Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix (Dir. David Yates, 2007)

So there’s this rather frail, bullied young boy who lives in an English suburb populated by lumpen grotesques on leave from Monty Python & Benny Hill sketches, Jean-Pierre Jeunet movies, and George Grosz sketches, and to escape his miserable existence, he imagines himself a wizard-in-training who attends a gothic private school for other magically-inclined boys & girls, called -- rather unassumingly for such a rarefied place -- Hogwarts Academy. It’s very much like the last episode of the television show, St. Elsewhere, in which we learn that the entire medical series has been the daydream of a 7-year-old autistic boy staring into the hospital’s souvenir snow globe. The fantasist in this case, one Harry Potter, dreams up all sorts of characters to keep him company between meals (colorless sausages atop beds of lumpy potato mash) and beatings, including centaurs, giants who look like middle-aged, corpulent Alfred E. Newmans, flying lizard horses, sentient owls, beneficent elder wizards concocted from what he’s gleaned reading Tolkein & T. H. White, and a quartet of attractive schoolgirls – the headstrong Hermione, looking for all the world like a young Leni Riefenstahl; an eager, but treacherous geisha, Cho Chang; the self-explanatorily named Nymphadora Tonks; and the other-worldly space-case, Luna Lovegood. Of course there’s evil in this escape fantasy, an evil far more grandiose than the banal kind that muck up young Potter’s days in the bleak culs-de-sac of Privet Drive in Surrey, England. This evil comes in the form of a rhinoplastic disaster, cosmetic surgery gone so hideously awry that the entire populace of Harry Potter’s fantasy world cryptically refuses to acknowledge it, except when they do, which is almost always. In fact they quite often say “He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken” and “He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken”’s name, Lord Voldemort, in the same conversation. But this is childhood whimsy so no one is taken to task for inconsistencies. It’s really quite a sad tale, because unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Potter really doesn’t have everything he needs back on Privet Drive & must construct a fantasy kingdom so baroque & labyrinthine that he can spend the rest of his days rocking back & forth in a corner of the gloomy flat, until he is taken away to one of Surrey’s fine Dickensian madhouses. Starring everyone who’s anyone in the British thespian community. Recommended. 

Interview (Dir. Steve Buscemi, 2007)

Well-performed, but pretty vacant & inevitably stagy, two-person bitchfest between alcoholic journalist Steve Buscemi & alcoholic, cokehead model-turned-actress Sienna Miller. In the course of an evening these two eminently disagreeable people insult, seduce, browbeat & one-up one another in a verbal cat-and-mouse game that’s not going to make you forget about Edward Albee. When Interview isn’t going for ugly it’s just unlikely. Both characters share rather trumped-up gothic horror tales about their lives & most of their sporadic, violent physical attraction to one another (well, let’s face it, especially Miller’s to Buscemi) is just part of the game they’re playing. 

Though we become privy to the lies & manipulations – Buscemi’s gruesome tales of being a war correspondent are mostly concocted, Miller’s bleak, faux-poetic worldview is a scripted put-on – there’s no deeper stories to replace the fabrications, no real revelations with which to grapple once the exaggerations & deceits are skimmed away. What we’re left with is anomie of the worst sort – unsexy, jaundiced, pseudo-hip & over-indulgent. Nothing -- not even the barrage of lies -- rings true. 

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Dir. Gore Verbinski, 2007)

Strange that the more messy the films in this series become, the more enjoyable they are. Unlike, say, the Spider-Man franchise. As Vulcan manager Joe pointed out so accurately, “This film was directed by 8-year-old boys on a meth bender.” But Christ if Verbinski doesn’t know exactly from whence I hail. I’m not sure if kids today are as jazzed by the Kraken, Davy Jones’ Locker, crypto-zoology, Opium warlords, mysterious junks in shadowy Shanghai ports, peg legs & exotic monkeys, as we were in the mid-1960s, but Pirates of Caribbean: At World’s End plugs directly into the socket where Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Boy’s Life magazine, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu & Robert E. Howard have been languishing, destitute amongst the other litter in my pop culture addled mind. While the first Pirates movie didn’t do much for me (roughly pondering the nature of STORIES FOR BOYS, without actually delivering one), the second, Dead Man’s Chest, absolutely floored me. Once Kraken was mentioned, Verbinski had me licking the rum from his rusty hook like a starving cabin boy. 

Now comes At World’s End, and by stars, it’s even better, a more glorious, cacophonous, ramshackle, unmoored, unscrupulous, over-stuffed vessel than the last. Special effects, actors, costumes, design & entendre-loaded script, all set sail with the same end in mind – the utter derangement of a young boy’s senses. Sadly, I had to remember that this was what I’d been waiting 35 years for. But once I collected my 8-year-old self into my current, not-so-8-year-old self, we were both overjoyed. Yes, not everything here is stellar, but hell, what isn’t lasts the blink of an eye at most. All the great elements – Depp’s flouncing Jack Sparrow, Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, Bill Nighy’s amazing Davy Jones, Stellan Skarsgard’s ‘Bootstrap’ Bill, Chow Yun-Fat’s Shanghai warlord Sao Feng, Keith Richard’s Captain Teague, Keira Knightley’s brutally determined Elizabeth Swann – swim, kick, flail & dive headlong into this maelstrom of maritime exaggeration & excess. Completely recommended. Oh, for girls, too.

Superbad (Dir. Greg Mottola, 2007)

So, this Judd Apatow collective pretty much rules the world right now, huh? Makes me wish I could think of a single bad thing to say about The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, or this classic teen movie, but I just can’t. Seth Rogan, Apatow, Mottola & the other semi-free floating comedians who join the party seemingly at will, have dragged comedy kicking & screaming into the 21st Century, a century that seems to demand the warm sentiments of John Hughes movies, Real Genius & Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the off-the-charts crass quotient of the brothers Farrelly, and the cerebral hipsterism of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm & Arrested Development. They’ve managed to do what The Simpsons used to do, which is reduce an entire roomful of people – all of different backgrounds, tastes, economic strata, and IQ – to the same infantile gigglefits. 

It’s a rare kind of populism, linking us all by our funny bones. I mean, it congratulates the metrosexual for getting one joke while it simultaneously craps on him to get a knee-slap out of Buck, the radio antenna repair guy who raises chickens in his garage. If this is the face of contemporary comedy, I’m in. It takes true genius to run this kind of circus seamlessly, to balance the scatological, the whimsical & the sentimental without giving one or the other short shrift. When you tell someone who hasn’t seen this (and oddly, they’re out there) the plot of Superbad, they immediately balk. Really? Three semi-marginalized teenaged boys attempt to procure alcohol for a party so they can score with girls before graduating high school? Really? Usually the response is, “Um, I think I’ve seen that one before…” as they stare quizzically up at the Run Lola Run poster above the counter, featuring the tantalizing New York Times blurb, “Hot, Fast & Post-Human.” But Superbad is, as they say on the coasts, character-driven. It’s the voices that count, the mannerisms, the nervous energy, the splendidly prurient vernacular. 

Superbad’s star, Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Juno), is a breath-taking actor, draining away all the glibness Ben Stiller has allowed to infiltrate human discomfort until you wince when he winces, instead of hiding your eyes for protection. Jonah Hill, who looks so much like a young version of Superbad scribe Seth Rogan that you’d swear time travel was involved, is naïve irresponsibility incarnate, the kind of ambitious schlub who engages with the world one clumsy misfortune at a time, until his humanity & his hormones sync up. One finely-tuned comic set up after another mesh together like a stack of bright yellow bean bag chairs until you’ve no choice but join the dogpile. Truly inspired comedy & highly, highly recommended.

Captivity (Dir. Roland Joffe, 2007)

Drugs? Alcoholism? Head Trauma? Asperger Syndrome? I don’t have at hand a recent bio for director Roland Joffe, so I can only guess what kind of sordid Hollywood hard luck tale led him from helming prestige Oscar bait like The Killing Fields (1984) & The Mission (1986) to spewing junk like Super Mario Brothers (1993) and this completely generic Saw knock-off. Lovely Elisha Cuthbert (Old School, House of Wax) plays a lonely, emotionally vapid supermodel named Jennifer Tree who’s drugged in a dance club & awakens in one of those crude, oil-smudged, tricked-out dungeons only a precocious Production Designer could construct. At first it looked like a pretty ghastly place to be held prisoner, but by the end I sorta wanted to rent it. Cuthbert is forced to wear clothing she doesn’t like, watch herself on television (which I’m sure is painful for a supermodel), and drugged whenever she acts like a brat. In short, if this keeps up, she might come out acting like a real human being. Eventually she discovers another prisoner on the other side of a panel of painted glass & it turns out to be pretty boy Daniel Gillies (Spider-Man 2). After some more mind games (none of them remotely ingenious) courtesy of their hooded captor, and some ostensibly heroic (but completely ineffective) derring-do from the boy toy, they fall in love & have some sex while the psycho watches. Then comes a series of surprises I won’t ruin for you because Joffe ruins them enough for everyone by telegraphing them well in advance & insulting our intelligence pretty much whenever the murky cinematography clears enough to see what’s actually going on. Unfortunately, the most jolting shocker of all is the late-in-the-movie appearance of Pruitt Taylor Vince (Heavy, Nobody’s Fool, Deadwood), a fine actor slumming miserably & giving the film’s title cruel, cruel gravity. Avoid. Check out the surprisingly effective Hostel 2 instead.

In the Land of Women (Dir. Jon Kasdan, 2007)

After he’s jilted by his model girlfriend, young Hollywood pornographer Adam Brody (Seth Cohen from TV’s The O.C.) exiles himself to the Michigan suburbs to live with his grandmother, played by Olympia Dukakis, one of those movie crones whose senility may just be wisdom turned inside out (and if that aphorism charms you in the least, this movie’s most certainly for you). While nursing his wounds in that peculiarly Adam Brody way (hangdog coffee jitters, maybe?), he stumbles almost inadvertently into romantic affairs with an older, fussy, romantically wounded next door neighbor recently diagnosed with breast cancer, Meg Ryan (her lips Botoxed to bursting), and Ryan’s rangy teenage daughter, Kristen Stewart (Zathura, Into the Wild). Judging from the title, I think this movie was trying to say something profound about men who suddenly find themselves exclusively at the mercy of womenfolk, but I’ll be damned if I can see anything more meaningful here than male wish fulfillment. As a cure for a break-up one could do worse than to have Meg Ryan & Kristen Stewart (whose slump-shouldered tom-boy air & wary cat eyes really set her apart from other teen actresses) hot for your attention. Not to mention the worshipful gaze of Ryan’s youngest daughter, a smart little comic buzzbomb played by Makenzie Vega. Still, there’s something about In the Land of Women that struck me as genuine & it made me laugh with alarming regularity. Perhaps it was the male wish fulfillment deal, something as simple as “Yeah, I wish I were Adam Brody right now...,” or maybe it was the way it made me uncomfortable & a little titillated all at once, but did it in such a good-natured, unassuming way that I didn’t experience anything like shame. I enjoyed the cast immensely, especially Brody & Stewart, and there’s an autumnal elegance to the movie that kept its often labored clichés from becoming too annoying. A movie this tailor-made for date night should really suggest a wine pairing on the main menu. Recommended, though not for die-hard cynics.

License to Wed (Dir. Ken Kwapis, 2007)

If you simply trace the plotline of this Robin Williams debacle you’d probably have a knock-out Scandinavian dogme film – a young engaged couple (Mandy Moore & The Office’s John Krasinski) for whom white bread seems too ethnic begin pre-nuptial consultations with a mysteriously non-denominational & sadistically demented clergyman whose only companion is a young boy. Through abject cruelty, sleep deprivation, outright violence, and creepy bedroom surveillance, the Reverend Frank (Williams, never worse) prepare the two lovebirds for what will undoubtedly be a long lifetime of nervous tics, crying jags & holding one another after wholly legitimate night terrors. Even two charmers like Moore & Krasinski can’t bring a sense of good cheer to this abysmal horror show, and they finally just surrender to the onslaught of Williams & an unnervingly terrible Josh Flitter, as Reverend Frank’s odious sidekick & let the script march them around like bloody Punch & Judy marionettes until a completely unwarranted happy ending saves them & us from further humiliation. Not even remotely recommended. 

Spider-Man 3 (Dir. Sam Raimi, 2007)

If you got a group of 20 or so comic book geeks together for dinner & asked them what 50 things they’d most like to see in a Spider-Man movie, the list would easily be as long as the list of things that actually happen in Spider-Man 3, but I’m guessing maybe only two or three specific items would appear in both. So, while Spider-Man 3 is certainly jam-packed, it’s jam-packed with nearly all the wrong things. We get four major Spider-Man villains (Venom, Sandman, Goblin, and the space virus that turns Spider-Man into a jerk), a romantic subplot with Rance Howard’s granddaughter, Bryce Dallas Howard (that creepy swimming pool nymph from M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water), myriad action sequences that become increasingly monotonous as the film goes on, and the sort of confusing leaps in narrative logic one can expect from trying to keep way too many balls juggling at once. Spider-Man 3 is not exactly disastrous – there’s still great chemistry between Kirsten Dunst & Tobey Maguire, and, at a cost of $300 million, there are effects here & there that will suck the breath out of you -- but it becomes a right chore by the hour and a half mark, and seriously mind-numbing when it limps ponderously over two hours. A real disappointment after the simple, wildly entertaining & well-crafted charms of Spidey 2.

Talk to Me (Dir. Kasi Lemmons, 2007)

There are enough great scenes scattered throughout Kasi Lemmons’ (a TV actress who also directed 1997’s Eve’s Bayou) bio-pic about 60s D.C. radio celebrity/enfant terrible Ralph “Petey” Green to warrant a recommendation, but it comes with some real reservations about the film’s structure. Don Cheadle plays Green with all the verve one expects from that actor and, in perfect Cheadle fashion, gives the man’s more unpleasant characteristics as much weight as his heroic tendencies, allowing for a remarkable three-dimensional rendering. If only the film movie had similar depth & nuance. As it stands, watching Cheadle rant, rave & pitch attitude through an often cartoonishly-presented approximation of 60s U.S. race relations (Uncle Tom vs. Ghetto Hipster, Stuffed Shirt White Liberal vs. Ghetto Hipster, etc.) is a little like watching Marlon Brando stalk the stage at a grade school Thanksgiving pageant, bursting through the crudely-painted stage flats & assaulting a 9-year-old Pocahontas with the rubber turkey. 

Talk to Me is actually the story of two men, the straight-laced, uptight black radio executive Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor from Inside Man, Children of Men & most recently, American Gangster), who sarcastically offers Green an on-air radio job after hearing him DJ at a prison where Hughes’ brother is serving a life sentence, and the profanely eloquent street prophet who takes him seriously, marching into the studio when he’s released, cocksure as hell & ready to start work. Most of this section of the movie plays like comedy – Good Morning Vietnam simmered & spiced with Blaxploitation cool. Feeling off-hand funky, colorfully costumed & jittery with slang & profanity, this portion of the film basically works. Cheadle does some great routines here, even though we’ve pretty much heard his “hassled by the man” diatribes in a trillion movies before. The mood is righteously abetted by strong work from Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson as Green’s bombshell girlfriend, and Vondie Curtis-Hall.

The tone, however, seriously re-charts its course once the radio station receives news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. Watching Cheadle almost single-handedly stop the ensuing D.C. riots is chilling stuff & before you can really wonder about the veracity of this heroic act of crowd control, we get a scene in which Green, wasted on drugs & booze, still manages to charm the pants off the tense crowd at a James Brown MLK tribute concert. 

From here on in the film has a fairly predictable arc. Green is idolized by the black community, becomes a stand-up comic & a local television personality & wastes himself on drugs & alcohol, leading to his refusal to do his stand-up routine for a never-aired appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. And this is when the film gives up on Petey Green’s story. To Lemmons, it seems, this boozed-up Carson disaster was the end of him. Unfortunately, that’s also the view of Dewey Hughes, to whom failure on Carson was some unpardonable show business sin. For a good portion of a movie ostensibly about Cheadle’s character we’re left following the fairly uninteresting media career rise of Hughes & given only a cursory review of Green’s later life. It’s alarming to see the film side so completely with Hughes’ view of things, though it’s actually written by the man’s actual son, Michael Genet, so I suppose it was to be expected. There’s a reasonably touching reconciliation scene between the two men at the film’s end, but it seems a cheat. I really wanted to see what post-Carson life had in store for Green, even if it was just more womanizing, more drugs, and more of that wildly obscene, wildly entertaining gift of gab.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (Dir. Dennis Dugan, 2007)

In the Making Of extras on the DVD of this fiercely unfunny Adam Sandler/Kevin James homo-idiotic buddy pic, there’s a telling scene in which Sandler & James are actually rolling on the ground over the rough dailies of a hideously obese man rolling down a flight of stairs to escape a fire, landing on Sandler & farting in his face. While the two stars are incapacitated by laughter we have time to glance around the room at the rest of the film crew, all of whom looking as if they’d just had a day’s worth of painful dental surgery. James & Sandler play straight, loutish NYC firemen who must marry in order to ensure that James’ kids will receive his fire department benefits. Steve Buscemi is the eagle-eyed fraud investigator who has his doubts about the couple’s romantic sincerity & Jessica Biel is the trusting lawyer defending them. 

You’ll immediately think of ten or twenty thousand ways James could remedy his situation that wouldn’t involve buying Barbra Streisand CDs or marching in gay pride parades, but this movie is banking on the sort of suspension of disbelief that drains the bank accounts of countless lonely senior citizens every day. If the movie told us that Sandler & James had to be married so our nation could avoid an attack by space aliens, it would actually make more sense. I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry digs itself so deeply into a morass of ludicrous plot development & mean-spirited homophobia that it doesn’t stand a chance of earning its weak, tacked-on, feel-good ending in which foppish nightclub gays & burly straight firemen prance together in peace & harmony, the sexual order restored.


Ratatouille (Dir. Brad Bird/Jan Pinkava, 2007)

Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Iron Giant) continues his unique run of utterly captivating animated features that don’t have to be schizophrenic to appeal to viewers of all ages. Bird seamlessly entertains everyone by assuming there’s an intelligent median to which you can ask an audience to aspire and, if the images & script beckon attractively, they’ll meet you there, gratefully. This story of a rat with a rare & refined sense of taste & smell who salvages a once-legendary Parisian restaurant from corporate greed & generic compromise, has a lot to say about art, food, rodents, the French, and symbiosis, and manages to say it all in grand style, never once forcing an issue or glibly reducing the opulence & complexity of the milieu for a chronically underestimated children’s audience. The animation is first rate, the script by turns hilarious & touchingly literate, and the voice talent – Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Peter O’Toole, Will Arnett, Janeane Garofalo – interesting & mildly cultish enough to attract reluctant animation cynics. Also, be sure to check out the informative & raucously funny animated history of the rat extra on the DVD. Highly recommended.

La Vie en Rose (Dir. Olivier Dahan, 2007)

Her life reads like an absurdly exaggerated French novel. She was born to a circus acrobat, raised in a brothel, made blind & deaf by a bevy of childhood diseases, miraculously cured, and forced to sing on the sidewalks by her father, whose acrobatics were no longer paying the bills. Her first agent was shot dead by her pimp, she drank incessantly & required 10 shots of morphine a day. She stood four feet, eight inches tall & was one of the most famous singers of the last century. This was Edith Piaf & both her remarkable legend & perhaps more remarkable reality mingle gorgeously in Olivier Dahan’s brilliant filmed biography, La Vie en Rose

Marion Cotillard plays Piaf as a kind of diminutive light source. The performance is a miracle of restraint & tortured grace that stays true to the singer’s perhaps congenital world-weariness & manages to span decades without Cotillard becoming some make-up artist’s latex nightmare. The often tragic life experiences recounted in La Vie en Rose seem to transform Cotillard quite naturally. 

Dahan (La Vie Promise) breaks up chronology in a risky manner, jumping across the years based on refined, crafted streams of consciousness. It almost seems as if he’s finding the patterns in Piaf’s life at the same moment we are & that’s actually quite exhilarating. Of course this often blurs the factual matter, the dates, the cities, the lovers, the bars, the concerts, but it does much more justice to the energy & pulse & spirit of Piaf’s life than a strict biographical timeline. La Vie en Rose is a great film, filled with haunting music, gaslight shadows, and shimmering with Cotillard’s luminescent artistry.


Ocean’s Thirteen (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2007)

There’s really no reason I should have been so entirely lost in the first half hour of this in-jokey moving fashion advertisement, but lost I was. In fact I had to rewind the movie three or four times & most of the heist details are still pretty murky. Finally I just gave in to the flashy glamour of it all & let Ocean’s Thirteen do for me the only thing this vapid franchise is capable of doing to a person – make me long to be a celebrity. To envy the Armani & Versace suits, the Patek Philippe wrist watches, the Pierotucci leather seats in the private aircraft…

On that level, Ocean’s Thirteen still manages to charm. It’s somehow engaging to see how in love with one another & with celebrity these celebrities are. Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner & Elliott Gould have more onscreen chemistry than any romantic comedy filmed in the last decade, so much so that they’ve completely dispensed with a love interest in Ocean’s Thirteen. There’s just enough Ellen Barkin cleavage to reassure you that you’re not watching gay porn with the naughty bits excised, but otherwise this is a pure act of macho male star-bonding. Damn if the exhibitionistic wealth & carefree demeanor of men who have absolutely nothing in this world to fret over doesn’t carry this movie though. 

Oh, and there’s some kind of casino heist using the drill that carved out the Chunnel, Barkin’s a cougar, Al Pacino looks as though he needs Pitt & Clooney to help him shop for suits, and Elliott Gould spends most of the movie comatose on a very large bed. Recommended, but I’ll be damned if I know why.

Crazy Love (Dir. Dan Klores/Fisher Stevens, 2007)

In the 1950s Burt Pugach was a New York City legal eagle who fell hard & fast for Bronx bombshell Linda Riss. He whisked her up in the Manhattan social whirl, blinding her to the fact that he was a married man with a disabled daughter. Eventually discovering the truth, Riss disentangled herself from Pugach, as any good girl would. Obsessed as only an elite attorney can be, Pugach hired some thugs to disfigure Riss with lye, leaving her all but blind. 

This sordid, erotically-charged, twisted, scandalous and absolutely marvelous documentary by Dan Klores & TV actor Fisher Stevens (Early Edition), is a labyrinthine edifice to the mystery of human desire & if there’s a twist in this tale that doesn’t leave your jaw dropped to the carpet it’s probably because you’ve romantically obsessed well beyond logic & reason yourself. The kicker here is that after Pugach served his 14-year prison sentence, he married Riss. That’s right. And get this, they talk so openly about their Crazy Love that you’ll feel ashamed, titillated, and as ambivalently guilty as if you’d been the one who introduced the two strange lovebirds all those years ago. An absolutely essential “Yikes!” of a documentary. Highly Recommended. 

Havoc 2: Normal Adolescent Behavior (Dir. Beth Schacter, 2007)

I’m going to assume this is a sequel to Barbara Kopple’s rare departure from the documentaries (Harlan County U.S.A., American Dream, Wild Man Blues), Havoc, an irritating little film about suburban girls who get in over their heads with a Latino gang, and not the paint ballers stalked by schizo Vietnam vet movie from last year. Havoc 2 doesn’t really resemble either of these movies & would have been better off dropping the association altogether. Beth Schacter’s strange little debut film can certainly pass muster on its own merits. 

Concerning an insulated group of beautiful, sexually active, well above-average teenagers only Ayn Rand could love, H2 explores the cultish nature of tightly-knit high school cliques, the vagaries of adolescent hook-ups, burgeoning feminism (including the age-old question, “What does a girl want?”) & anything else Schacter stumbles across while pondering McMansion mini-orgies, Peanuts-style hands-off parenting, and High School hallway squabbles. There’s an instinct here towards the kind of voyeuristic leering usually reserved for Larry Clark films, but Schacter lenses all the sex scenes in soft focus & makes us think we’re seeing much more than we actually are. But we’re pulled into these scenes nonetheless & I get the feeling Schacter wanted to make the orgies more graphic. Or maybe I just wanted the orgies to be more graphic.

The young cast – including Amber Tamblyn (Joan of Arcadia, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), Kelli Garner (Lars & The Real Girl, Thumbsucker), Hilarie Burton (One Tree Hill), and Ashton Holmes (History of Violence, Peaceful Warrior) – all turn in fine performances & do well with a wordy, but definitely eloquent, script (also by Schacter). This is definitely the girls’ moment to shine, though. The boys in the clique are sketched out like stick figures & don’t even seem particularly active in the sex scenes. They wait for the girls to be ready & then lay there, seemingly drugged, while the girls get off. Ashton Holmes, as Tamblyn’s outsider love interest is the only boy in the film who seems, um, “hot for it.” 

This isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s well crafted, many of the long-ish monologues contain beautiful writing & the cast treats the words & situations with serious respect. Recommended.

A Mighty Heart (Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2007)

What might have played out like a glorified television movie of the week is given a gritty, visceral documentary-style treatment by director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs, Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story) & it really pays off, making this vanity project/labor of love from Hollywood’s most photographed couple Brad Pitt (producer) and Angelina Jolie (lead actress) far more than the sum of its parts. A Mighty Heart tells the true story of Mariane Pearl, wife of kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (played here with the appropriate blend of compassion & American hubris by Dan Futterman), who was murdered by Jihadists in 2002. Jolie’s performance is beautifully measured, managing to segue from rage to sorrow to cultural awakening without ever succumbing to Oscar-bait hysterics. There are moments of high-tension international intrigue here melding seamlessly with the more intimate story of this couple ripped apart by violent political machinations. Aside from Pearl’s reporter colleagues & some officious state department officials, the cast is made up mostly of Middle Eastern actors who, through sheer numbers, manage to valiantly buck some pretty damning stereotypes without having to resort to politically correct sermons on cultural diversity. Recommended. 

The Reaping (Dir. Stephen Hopkins, 2007)

I’m going to admit to having a 100 plus degree fever when I watched this movie so that if you find it as unwatchable as I found it trippy & atmospheric, there’s a third party (my virus) to blame for the wildly disparate opinions. As far as I can tell after ten minutes of research, not another soul on earth liked this movie, so I’ll most likely need a scapegoat. 

Hillary Swank, slumming like no actor’s slummed since Michael Caine in Jaws 4: The Revenge, plays a college professor bent on debunking all the world’s weeping Virgin Mary statues, healing fonts & mud-hut miracles. When the swamp near a backwoods bayou town turns to blood, frogs rain from the sky, locusts swarm, etc., the townsfolk believe killing a particularly witchy young girl will end these inexplicably isolated plagues. The town sheriff, played with admirably restrained southern charm by Basic Instinct 2’s (another must-see when ill) David Morrissey, enlists the help of Swank & her Christian true believer sidekick, Idris Elba (28 Weeks Later) to solve these strange goings-on. Elba’s performance is strangely three-dimensional in this world of grimly put-upon cartoon characters, and he gives this crazed, completely illogical film some heft & soul. Stephen Rea, as Swank’s former priest, literally calls in his performance & tries to add some metaphysical & historical mumbo-jumbo to this already over-crowded pot of gumbo. 

So what’s to like? Well, the bayou atmosphere is well-conceived & the bloody swamp water shadowed over with cypress knees & kudzu is pretty chilling. In fact all of the dire plagues are handled spookily without resorting to jarring CGI effects. Oh, and the little girl is really creepy. It was probably just my love of Catholic religio-kitsch, Southern Gothic novels & films, and the aforementioned fever making The Reaping seem hypnotic & dream-like, instead of incompetent & nonsensical, but I’m going to recommend it, especially to anyone under the weather. 

Transformers (Dir. Michael Bay, 2007)

My favorite trailer of last year turns out to be – probably unsurprisingly – a so-so movie. Bay (The Hitcher, The Island, Armageddon) starts out on the right lead foot, making all these giant robots falling from the sky seem like real sinister business. In fact, there’s such a dramatic, convincing set-up – the mysterious crash landings, the war machine in hyper-drive, the back-stories of Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia, Holes) & his sexy new girlfriend Megan Fox (Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen) – that I forgot we were dealing with a toy franchise-turned-cartoon here. After all the high-stakes mecha-joltage of the first half an hour, the hokey comedy bits showing the Transformer Autobots as lovable cartoon characters are like being splashed in the face with a bucket of lukewarm sugar water. I suppose the movie has some responsibility to the Transformers’ lore & its fans, but it’s unfortunate how exhilarating this film is before all the juvenile gags & pre-adolescent pandering begins. Once the numbing wackiness subsides & the Decepticons & Autobots get down to business, leveling the city in order to save it, we’re sorta back in business, but it’s way too little, too late. I am looking forward, though, to Transformers II: Rise of the Emoticons, soundtrack by Bright Eyes & Dashboard Confessional. I hear Renny Harlin’s set to direct…

28 Weeks Later (Dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007)

This doesn’t hold a candle to Danny Boyle’s wonderfully spastic revisionist original, 28 Days Later, but it has enough visceral shocks to work as a diverting zombie picture, if not as gut-churning, high-minded political allegory. Where Boyle could make us comprehend all the stupid choices horror movie characters make (Hell, make us empathize with them) by creating believable, palpably tragic dilemmas, Fresnadillo trundles out the usual tropes: characters inexplicably wonder where they shouldn’t, venal choices lead to grisly death, effect always trumps narrative logic, etc. Then he patches up the holes with gore & explosions. Once you see characters outrunning the ball of fire unleashed in a tunnel, you know 28 Weeks Later is just another pretty good reason to eat popcorn in the dark. 

The film is elevated somewhat by an interesting cast. Robert Carlyle (Full Monty, Ravenous) plays Thomas Harris, a father who turns tail & runs while his wife, Alice (Catherine McCormack from Braveheart & Shadow of the Vampire) is being devoured by the viral undead, only to find, later in the film, that she’s still alive & uninfected by the zombie plague. Awkward, to say the least. Jeremy Renner (excellent in Dahmer), Harold Perrineau (Michael Dawson on TV’s Lost), and Rose Byrne (Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, The Dead Girl, Marie Antoinette) play more compassionate members of the American force occupying London & try their damnedest to make these characters three dimensional against a script & direction that just won’t give them time to breathe. 

The two Harris children are more problematic. There’s an icy edge to them that seems incongruous to their roles, making you think they harbor some deadly secret, or that the seeds for ten thousand zombies are tucked into their chubby rubicund cheeks. They’re distant cousins to the petulant English schoolchildren in Village of the Damned & it really makes it hard to feel for them as they almost single-handedly rejuvenate the dormant zombie virus. Still, if you’re just looking for some frantically gnawed intestines & an elaborate cliffhanger or two, there are worse ways to spend 90 minutes. 

Allegro (Dir. Christoffer Boe, 2007)

Director Christoffer Boe is one of those Danish filmmakers who lead with a rather didactic manifesto and THEN show us their work. This creates the kind of buzz you won’t get in the pages of Variety. No “Danish Dogme Darling Disses Directors” for Boe. No, the gimmick here is pedantic anti-auteurism. Boe believes – as I think most movie folk do, though they rarely put the idea into the form of a manifesto -- that film is a group effort & signs his works “Hr. Boe & Company.” Problem is, he only helmed one film before this, 2003’s puzzling Reconstruction, so it was difficult to see if all his high-minded, scholarly rabble-rousing amounted to much. If Allegro is any indication, it certainly doesn’t. An overly stylized fable about the relationship between art & memory, Boe bogs down the simplest of messages (um, art thrives on memories, both good & bad) in a barrage of perfume advertisement images & dull, repetitive sci-fi/fantasy devices (jarring bits of random animation, doorways into forbidden zones, gravely symbolic portents from gravely symbolic avatars, etc.). 

Ulrich Thomsen (amazing in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration) plays Zetterstrom (which, I think, means Man With One Raised Eyebrow in Danish), a concert pianist whose memories are locked away under an impermeable bubble in the middle of Copenhagen after his girlfriend’s death. Needless to say his playing becomes technically brilliant, but emotionally stolid & he’s forced to penetrate The Zone & retrieve all the painful memories. Both Ulrich & fellow-Celebration star, Henning Moritzen look like they want to be having more fun & occasionally, with mutual effort, they attempt to enliven scenes that are tragically D.O.A. 

This movie is the reason the general film viewer hates intellectuals, which is unfortunate, because there’s very little intellect involved here, just the thin, cold-to-the-touch veneer of post-modern glibness. There’s a reason most fables are a page or so long; they express simple ideas with economy & humane judiciousness -- two traits godawfully foreign to Hr. Boe & Company. 

Evan Almighty (Dir. Tom Shadyac, 2007)

Wow, God has an interesting set of priorities. Worldwide famine, natural disaster, genocide & disease & He chooses to announce himself to nebbish newscaster turned congressman Steve Carell in order to put the kibosh on a bill that would portion off acres of National Forest for use by private concerns. I guess it’s true, God must actually hate everyone but middle class white Americans. Shadyac’s sequel to Bruce Almighty plays out like one of those Disney comedies starring Kurt Russell, Dean Jones & Keenan Wynn, only the relatively trifling conflict here is resolved rather distastefully by a suddenly hands-on God (an insouciant, snap-dancing Morgan Freeman). 

Freeman appears to Carell during his first week as freshman congressman & tells him to build an ark (which, by the way, stands for “acts of random kindness.” Who knew?). God performs some Godly parlor tricks & Carell begins to build his ark, much to the chagrin of the tragically cast Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) as his wife & the equally degraded John Michael Higgins (For Your Consideration, Arrested Development) & Wanda Sykes (My Super Ex-Girlfriend) as his congressional staff. John Goodman, who actually shines in broad-stroke comic crap like this, plays the villainous Congressman Chuck Long, sponsor of the ecologically inconvenient bill, and he heaves that face paunch around the way other villains twirl mustaches or wring their skeletal hands with maniacal glee. 

Not only must Carell build an ark using the arcane hardware of antediluvian times, but he must – for no reason other than comic desperation – also LOOK like Noah. He must grow a long white beard, carry a long staff & wear the ratty robes only suggested for Sunday School educational convenience by illustrations in the Children’s Living Bible. Also the result of comic desperation, no one believes in his sacred vocation, even though he grows a long beard in about 8 hours, constructs a boat the size of the Titanic in three days with wooden mallets & hamster-wheel pulleys, and is trailed at all times by paired-off wildlife not exactly indigenous to Virginia. 

But all this would be marginally forgivable if there were three or four funny jokes in this haven for white-bread mediocrity & there just aren’t. I knew I should have turned the movie off early on when, driving by their suburban one-plex (do these even exist? Of course they don’t…) in their newly-purchased tractor-wheel Humvee, the family spots this marquee: “The 40 Year Old Virgin Mary.” Yes, they even screw up the sense of good will engendered by the presence of Steve Carell. Good job. A truly awful film that makes Oh God and even Oh God, Book II, look like The Last Temptation of Christ.

Reign Over Me (Dir. Mike Binder, 2007)

Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler, looking for all the world like mid-period Bob Dylan), lost his family in 9/11 & has reverted from successful dentist to flakey, emotionally stunted child-man, riding his scooter around town & playing drums with random speed metal bands. One day, gently pussy-whipped dentist Don Cheadle sees him riding his scooter & recognizes him as his old college roommate. That Cheadle leaves his car in rush hour traffic & wanders down the street to catch up with Sandler is just the sort of melodramatic overreaching that eventually sours the noble ambitions of Reign Over Me, a movie that has no idea whether it wants to be a comedy of manners or a heart-tugging monument to the power of unconditional love & acceptance. Not that these two types of movies should have to be mutually exclusive. Cameron Crowe can usually do both without breaking a sweat. But Reign Over Me labors over the comedy, wallows in the bathos & ties itself in Gordian knots making sure every character not only gets a plate to eat from, but perfect crème brulee to boot. 

The best & most tenderly observed moments concern Cheadle’s need to have some life of his own, beyond his family & responsibilities. His need to have a cohort, someone to do boy things with, isn’t presented as reckless or dysfunctional. The worst he does when hanging out with his damaged chum is come home in the wee hours of the morning after seeing a Mel Brooks marathon. Cheadle plays these mid-life frustrations without a hint of resentment or malice. He doesn’t want to leave or neglect his family, he simply needs a little male bonding. Of course, because he’s such a noble guy, he almost effortlessly saves Sandler from himself. And Sandler’s performance is more problematic. It’s not bad, but it’s mannered as all hell, like channeling the manic hot-blooded energy & occasional shrillness of Al Pacino through the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart or, um, Adam Sandler – the vessel just doesn’t have the capacity for what’s being funneled into it. Slightly recommended for Cheadle’s performance, and the film’s overall watchability. 

Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (Dir. Joe Lynch, 2007)

Some gore effects here that’ll have you biting your couch pillows & it’s a good ten minutes of fun to watch Henry Rollins pretend he’s R. Lee Ermey, but otherwise, really? Wrong Turn 2: Electric Boo…I mean, Dead End? Really? I think the title tells you so much more than a detailed review ever could. Recommended to fans of Black Flag & people who like to watch Saw trailers at work.

Death Proof (Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2007)

The average customer/clerk exchange these days at ILV goes something like this: 

“Do you have Grindhouse?”
“Well, we have Death Proof.”
“What’s Death Proof?”
“It’s the Tarantino portion of Grindhouse.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there were two movies in Grindhouse…”
“No, I just want the movie Grindhouse…”
“Well, Grindhouse is actually two movies…”
“I’d like the one released last year, the one with Kurt Russell.”
“Yeah, that’s Death Proof.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s called Grindhouse…”

Once that’s been sorted out, there’s that moment when the customer looks as though we’re to blame for this whole fiasco, for splitting the double feature called Grindhouse into two separate DVD releases & for not putting the separated twins into video stores at the same time for those who might -- reasonably -- want to re-conjoin Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. For this is the way these two projects were originally meant to be seen, as a grindhouse double feature separated by truly hilarious fake trailers by the likes of Eli Roth, Rob Zombie & Edgar Wright. 

While Rodriguez’s Planet Terror surely has its moments (Rose McGowan’s machine gun leg is exploitation delirium at its finest), Tarantino’s Death Proof is the surefire classic, a bitchy, speed-freak, muscle-car fever dream featuring one of the most insane car crashes ever filmed & a climactic chase that’ll make your eyes sweat. Kurt Russell plays Stuntman Mike who roams the country killing girls in his reinforced 1970 Dodge Challenger with a skull painted on the hood. Considering this seems to be his only reason for existing, he’s pretty damn charming about it and, like most Tarantino characters, he can sure talk a blue streak about the history of movies & rock music. 

The first half-hour of Death Proof consists of a clutch of party girls discoursing at length on movies, music, sex, cars & booze & while some viewers have had a problem with all that talk, I thought it was in keeping with exploitation fare from the late 60s & early 70s. While the slow first halves of drive-in & grindhouse movies were never this self-referential or brazenly hip, they usually took a bit of time getting to the mother lode of nudity & mayhem. Once Death Proof stops talking & floors it, though, you’ll be glad you had a little time to breathe. The DVD of Death Proof adds about half an hour of footage to the theatrical version, which makes the movie less tight & several of the extra scenes pile on more gimmicks & in-jokes than the film can really handle. Recommended.

Lucky You (Dir. Curtis Hanson, 2007)

An odd director, this Curtis Hanson fellow. After a spate of interesting, but hardly revelatory, potboiler thrillers from 1973 to 1993 (The Arousers, Bedroom Window, Bad Influence, Hand That Rocks the Cradle), he helmed L.A. Confidential & Wonder Boys and it looked as though he was set to become an A-List director of prestige projects. But Hanson’s creative restlessness prevailed & he took on more oddball projects like the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile & the tepid chick flick In Her Shoes. Now we have Lucky You, a dismal gambling fable featuring Eric Bana (Troy, Munich, Black Hawk Down) as a degenerate poker player & Drew Barrymore as a wretched casino lounge singer in a town chock full of wretched lounge singers. Bana & Barrymore have less chemistry than oysters & pancake syrup & their line readings are so amateurish they’d be drummed out of a junior high production of Blithe Spirit. Things occasionally become watchable when Robert Duvall (as Bana’s big-time poker champ father) and a gaggle of real cardsharps get around the poker table, but it hardly makes up for the creative vacancy at the film’s mawkish core. I’m not sure what Hanson was thinking when he took on Lucky You but, watching this, one could be forgiven for believing he just stayed in his trailer & let the movie direct itself.

Evening (Dir. Lajos Koltai, 2007)

There’s maybe a touch too much star power in this adaptation of Susan Minot’s elegiac novel about a dying woman regretting the loss of a past love. What should probably have been a smaller, quieter film threatens to capsize from the weighty burden of having Claire Danes, Toni Collette, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenn Close & Meryl Streep’s daughter, Mamie Gummer, aboard, all vying gamely for Oscars. To make matters worse, Jan Kaczmarek’s music score uses string swells the way 70s rock used cowbells. The violins & cellos are the equivalent of another character, and not a very likable one at that. She runs through the rooms crying a lot & bursts into hysterics whenever a little tea is spilled on a linen doily. While many of the actresses, especially Gummer (Here’s to hoping she’ll find a proper stage name soon…), find some room to breathe in this over-crowded elevator of a movie & turn in moments of fine nuance & subtlety, there’s entirely too much emotional hubbub here for such a thin, obvious premise.

Knocked Up (Dir. Judd Apatow, 2007)

Just as Mel Brooks’ movie parodies (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein) were rendered quaint by the film parodies of Zucker & Abrahams (Airplane!, Top Secret!, Naked Gun), Judd Apatow & company have relegated the once-edgy scatological romantic comedies of the Brothers Farrelly to that lackluster limbo where gags are met with a wry grin of appreciation instead of a full-on audience spit-take. It’s difficult to appraise how Apatow (Freaks & Geeks, 40 Year Old Virgin) and his cohorts Seth Rogan & Paul Rudd have raised the stakes on irreverent, crude comic romances. Both 40 Year Old Virgin & Knocked Up seem more cerebral than Farrelly comedies somehow but it’s hard to quantify that when you’re dealing with jokes this lowbrow & tasteless. 

Regardless, Apatow is finding new ways to palatably merge the most depraved bodily function humor with a warm & fuzzy humanism & Knocked Up, the story of a chubby lovable loser who impregnates an alpha fox during a drunken one-night stand, is a monumentally funny mess. By juggling a wide variety of comedic styles – crotch kicks share time with perceptive comic badinage while ramping up to a sight gag – often within one scene, Apatow & Co. leave no audience member behind & his movies have a strangely epic sweep thanks to his populist generosity. It doesn’t hurt that the cast (Rogan, Rudd, Grey’s Anatomy’s Katherine Heigl, Leslie Mann…everyone really) can act as well as they mug & swear. Highly recommended. 

Next (Dir. Lee Tamahori, 2007)

Nicholas Cage plays ludicrously coiffed Las Vegas lounge magician Frank Cadillac who’s cursed by being able to see two minutes into the future. Well, except when he’s around Jessica Biel, whom he hasn’t met yet. When he’s around her (in the future) he can see as far into the future as the movie’s preposterous plot requires. Terrorists have stolen a nuclear device & they plan to use it to blow up Los Angeles. Instead of using computers, intelligence, informants, or any of the other avenues open to law enforcement, FBI agent Julianne Moore chooses to hunt down Cage, though we have no idea how she’s come to discover his abilities or to know he even exists. 

It’s one of those movies where you give up trying to comprehend motivation, plot points or the film’s internal logic, in the first ten minutes. And once you surrender & completely disengage your eyes & ears from your brain, Next is actually pretty fun to watch. When -- mid-way through the movie -- down & out Vegas magician Frank Cadillac becomes a martial arts expert & handily kicks the ass of every terrorist in sight, you know there’s no escaping the gravitational pull of such ecstatic nonsense. Ever so slightly recommended if you have a few beers handy.

Delta Farce (Dir. C. B. Harding, 2007)

Larry the Cable Guy, his Blue Collar TV cohort, Bill Engvall, and DJ Qualls (whom I’d had about enough of after his debut in 2000’s Road Trip) dunder their way from beer-swilling weekend warriors to active military service through a series of mishaps mostly derived from their inability to utter cogent sentences, walk upright & dress themselves. Just so you know, I can sit through brain-dead comedies. I really can. I’ve sat with nary a complaint through two Ace Venturas, a Dumb & Dumber, Kickin’ It Old Skool & Dr. Otto & The Riddle of the Gloom Beam (starring Jim Varney) & laughed just enough to keep my jaw from locking up into a rictus of rage. But this Neanderthal re-telling of the Stripes story from the viewpoint of Cruiser really should not be tolerated by anyone who doesn’t wonder aloud why astronauts don’t wear bib overalls in space. Not at all recommended.

Georgia Rule (Dir. Garry Marshall, 2007)

Wow, for all the gritty life lessons & taboo issues being addressed in Georgia Rule, not a minute of it feels real & even the normally reliable Felicity Huffman can’t burst through the movie’s glib pastel exoskeleton. You’ve got your alcoholism, incest, child abuse, nymphomania, drug addiction…you name it, and still you couldn’t get a smudge of scum off the baseboards with a bone-white glove. Now, that would be fine if this were, say, a black comedy, but instead it’s a rather grotesque swing at the female bonding melodrama and, as such, makes you feel like you’ve just guzzled a quart of sour milk from Donna Reed’s refrigerator.

You couldn’t ask for a more odious combination of actresses than Jane Fonda, Sally Fields & Diane Keaton, and though only Fonda is in Georgia Rule, it feels as if all three are here in spirit. In fact, the trio of women here are Fonda, Felicity Huffman & Lindsay Lohan, who play three generations of dysfunctional stereotypes – Fonda the passive aggressive, order-obsessed grandmother, Huffman the alcoholic daughter married to Cary Elwes’ tainted millions, and Lohan Huffman’s spoiled, crank-addicted slut daughter who may or may not have had torrid relations with Elwes when she was 12 years old. One can only imagine how fun it is to watch these three come to terms with their issues & hug it out over a histrionic weekend Sigmund Freud would overdose on morphine to avoid. If this were a John Cassavetes film, one could struggle through the grime for art’s sake, but director Garry Marshall covers the whole ghastly mess in chicken wire & pink crepe paper & sends it out into the world like a Rose Bowl float.

But the question that has probably got you glued to the edge of your ergonomic computer chair is, How does teen miscreant Lohan acquit herself in Georgia Rule? Well, to be honest, I just couldn’t tell if it was the script making her seem shrill and unpleasant, or if she honestly had lost every ounce of the charm she showed in Mean Girls, Freaky Friday & Herbie Fully Loaded.

Wind Chill (Dir. Gregory Jacobs, 2007)

While this tale of “difficult” college girl (aren’t they all?), Emily Blunt (Devil Wears Prada), stranded on a particularly haunted stretch of East Coast winter road with slightly creepy campus ride board companion Ashton Holmes (History of Violence, Boston Legal), degenerates into one of those ghost hitchhiker/Phantom 309 campfire stories in the last 45 minutes, the icy atmosphere & solid, under-played performances by the two leads (who virtually carry the entire film), make it well worth a look. I swear that while I was watching this, the temperature in the house dropped to a frosty 20 below & my bones even rattled noticeably. Now that’s atmosphere. A slumming Martin Donovan (Showtime’s Weeds & numerous Hal Hartley movies) plays a psycho cop & Ned Bellamy (The Ice Harvest, Saw) plays a Samaritan snow plow driver. Recommended.

3:10 to Yuma (Dir. James Mangold, 2007)

Those looking for cosmic revisionist westerns in the style of Seraphim Falls (David Von Ancken, 2006) or The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005) probably won’t be altogether satisfied with the old-fashioned charms of Mangold’s retooling of Delmer Daves’ 1957 classic. This is more in the vein of recent superior – but virtually unheralded – genre comfort zones like Walter Hill’s Broken Trail (2006) and Kevin Costner’s Open Range (2003). Which isn’t to say that Mangold doesn’t bring some added psychological depth to the tale of a lame, busted rancher (Christian Bale) who, out of desperation, agrees to escort a sly, cold-blooded outlaw (Russell Crowe) to justice for a $200. The set-up is appropriately terrifying and Mangold, thankfully, doesn’t overheat the plot any, leaving the long shadow of Peckinpah alone & going instead for the simmering tension between two men who have some innate empathy for one another without either one knowing why. 

Mangold keeps the atmosphere to a minimum & instead concentrates on each face, each character & cleanly limns what they have at stake & what they’re willing to do to protect it. Not a director I normally feel much sympathy for, Mangold (Heavy, Cop Land, Kate & Leopold) may be just the talented hack to helm a western like this. He sticks with Elmore Leonard’s tough, iconic script & doesn’t give an inch when the choices get tough. After all, this is a movie where Bale’s son – a wary & watery Logan Lerman (Hoot, Number 23) – has to learn to respect his father while in the presence of notoriously charming killer Russell Crowe. 

When the shooting starts, when guts & wills start spilling across the Arizona high country, 3:10 to Yuma could easily turn into sap, but the director avoids easy sympathy all the way, so when Crowe actually begins helping his captor get him on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison it feels genuine, rough, earned. Unlike a lot of modern westerns, which meditate on the genre, 3:10 to Yuma gets right in there & bounces the eerily succinct violence off the terse dialogue like there’s a pro at hand. Abetted by actors as evocative as Peter Fonda, Luce Rains, and the masterfully controlled Ben Foster, Mangold & company turn in a blockbuster western. While it’s not as complex as Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven or as kick-ass fun as Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado, 3:10 to Yuma once again clears the palate & brings the genre’s themes of tense camaraderie, sacrifice & almost arbitrary moral codes, into sharp focus. Best of all, the movie manages not to be discouraging. It’s a western. 

Highly Recommended.

Death Sentence (Dir. James Wan, 2007)

Malaysian director James Wan would, obviously, like to make a great exploitation movie. As the mastermind behind the Saw franchise, he’s already made more money off jump-in-my-lap, date-night frightfare than Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter & George Romero combined. But Wan has ambitions. Wan would like to make exploitation movies with subtext – gritty, torrid, off-kilter shotgun romps like Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), Michael Winner (Death Wish), Phil Carlson (Walking Tall), and (Yikes) Paul Schrader. Well, it’ll come as no surprise to fans of brutal exploitation cinema that Wan has no gift for this at all.

Death Sentence features Kevin Bacon as an upscale suburban father whose prize son is shot to death during a gang initiation at some ethnically-neutered gas station in that poorly lit, infernal part of town through which every soccer mom’s Range Rover must pass to attain enlightenment. Wan’s film is clearly aiming for Death Wish, for some statement on revenge & its moral implications, or for a nihilistic knock on the noggin for a new generation of parent-haters. 

But Wan can’t pull that together, so what we get is muddled beyond subtext, beyond fun, beyond the kick of violent, middle class comeuppance. Wan can’t even pull off the crazy quilt bad vibes of Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. Instead of really hitting the streets & letting Bacon try to defend himself from a real gang, Wan sets up artificiality all around. He gives us two childishly-painted hot rods, a brooding inner city arms dealer (John Goodman…who may want to change agents), an ethnically diverse bunch of completely inept street kids & very little else. 

When the shooting starts, when sawed-off shotgun holes are blown into tenement walls as Bacon rushes by, this movie almost makes some exploitation headway, but for the most part Death Sentence is too patently ludicrous to be taken seriously & too damn serious to be a good time. 

Dragon Wars: D-War (Dir. Hyung-Rae Shim, 2007)

There’s a nearly pathological ridiculousness to this Korean import about medieval Japanese dragons magically incarnated in modern Los Angeles. This is the kind of awful movie I thought they’d stopped making, a movie so alarmingly inept that you actually get more excited & entranced as it goes on from one delirious highlight to the next. When the always likable (but peculiarly unambitious) American actor, Robert Forster (Medium Cool, Jackie Brown) spends a good ten to fifteen minutes of screen time explaining to a young boy the overly elaborate Korean legend of the Imoogi (bad dragon), the reincarnated prince & princess that must fight it, and all the other tired fantasy tropes the filmmakers liberally lifted from George Lucas, Tolkien & anime, the boy looks up at the wizened antique dealer & asks, palpable desperation distorting his features, “WHAT are you TALKING about?” It’s the only reasonable moment in Dragon Wars

From then on, the movie operates completely on dream logic. And not the high-end dream logic we associate with surrealism, but the dream logic of a young child with ADD who’s been raised in a roomful of Hummel figurines, glass unicorns & pewter Dungeons & Dragons game pieces by parents with severe dissociative disorders. This is a world where Imoogi’s minions make donkey noises when slain, where dream sequences have comic relief (in one, an old lady runs smack into a fence & falls over after seeing a ghostly wizard pass right through it…), where the lives of Domino’s Pizza delivery boys are sacrificed for the common good, where thousand foot dragons can rampage through Silver Lake while hipsters still chow away in upscale bistros, where there are only a thousand Sara’s in the Los Angeles phone book, where a reporter can wear a heavy, quite unfashionable, jade amulet around his neck for 25 years without once wondering where he’d gotten it or what it was for, where…well, you get the picture. 

To Dragon Wars’ credit however, once the two dragons finally get their monster on in downtown L.A., the movie really does take off & even mildly exhilarates. It made me realize how long it had been since I watched a giant lizard crush buildings & flatten cars & tanks, and how much I’ve missed it. Aside from Forster, a few other interesting actors are caught up in this maelstrom of mystical monkeyshines, most notably Chris Mulkey (Twin Peaks, Friday Night Lights, Radio), Craig Robinson (The Office, Knocked Up) & an old buddy of mine from Nebraska, Craig Anton (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mad TV, Phil of the Future), who told me it took four days to film a five minute scene in which he morphs into Forster. 

Recommended for anyone who can go from yelling “Come the @$%@ on!!!!” to “That was @%#@-ing AWESOME!!!” in the blink of an eye without sustaining injuries from emotional whiplash.

Eagle Vs. Shark (Dir. Taika Cohen, 2007)

Too precious by half, this indie quirkathon from New Zealand featuring Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement as the boorish, quick-tempered & quite unlikely object of adorable wool-gatherer Loren Horsley’s affections, tries for some darker undercurrents here & there but just can’t stop being irrepressibly cute long enough to turn this grist into anything but more fluff. Punctuating each mildly uncomfortable scene with stop motion animation of anthropomorphic apples & flowers doesn’t help matters any. That said, Eagle vs. Shark’s performances are all first-rate & it’s fitfully hilarious. Plus, not recommending it would be like kicking a puppy to death for having big, needy, sad puppy eyes, and even a cynical fussbag like me has his limits. 

Joshua (Dir. George Ratliff, 2007)

After a tedious, jumbled start, George Ratliff’s (whose last film was the excellent documentary Hell House in 2001) unsettling psychological horror story corrects course & emerges as a fine, unheralded gem of 2007. Slyly borrowing from classic devil child films like Rosemary’s Baby (the hot pink Victorian pram here is a great touch) & The Omen, Joshua has wit, style & nerve to spare. Avatars of upper middle class prosperity, Brad & Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell & Vera Farmiga) have a nearly perfect life – plenty of money, a spacious apartment overlooking Central Park, and a piano prodigy son named Joshua (Jacob Kogan), who wears suits for all occasions, has the haircut of a young neo-con & cocks his head like a curious bird whenever anyone shows undue emotion. 

When Abby brings home a little sister for Joshua, the Cairn idyll comes to an abrupt end, with Joshua basically doing anything he can to destroy the family & the infant usurper. While all this sounds like pretty familiar cinematic turf, Ratliff’s tone & editing veer wildly from obvious satire to melodrama to horror, from jagged hand-held camera work & home movie footage to more elegant, formalized set-ups. All these shifts make the first 45 minutes of the film pretty clunky, to be sure, but I think that may serve to keep the viewer from ritualizing the proceedings, from being lulled into comforting horror film clichés. 

When Rockwell begins to seriously fight back against his evil progeny, it completely takes us & the boy off guard. And this is where Joshua becomes horrific, in the best possible way & if some of the climactic scenes don’t have you staring in wide-eyed, slack-jawed amazement at the goings on, then you were obviously raised in a rougher household than I was. Recommended. 

Smiley Face (Dir. Gregg Araki, 2007)

Unregenerate pothead & struggling actress Anna Faris accidentally eats a whole plate of pot cupcakes while smoking a bunch of pot she purchased on credit from dread-locked pot dealer Adam Brody. Completely unhinged, she stumbles around Los Angeles attempting to fulfill her daily obligations, which include going to an audition, scaring up some money to pay her bills & keep Brody from repossessing her brand new Ikea bed & other sundry tasks that would seem like Italian Neo-realist tedium were it not for the fact that Faris is so very stoned on pot, so stoned on pot in fact that been reduced to a lump of Jell-o with a mouth through which she incessantly intones the words, “I’m soooo stoned” to a variety of other characters who have no reason at all to care, feel sympathy or coddle her while she jiggles about the city helplessly.  

Smiley Face is directed by Gregg Araki, a filmmaker known for more edgy, gay-themed fare like The Living End (1992), The Doom Generation (1995) & Mysterious Skin (2004), and it’s anybody’s guess why he’d tackle this logy, slightly desperate Harold & Kumar homage. After all, there are no buff shirtless males wielding handguns in this movie, though it certainly could’ve used a few. There are things to enjoy about Smiley FaceThe Office’s John Krasinski manages to score some laughs (mostly by not trying too hard), Brian Posehn’s face is always funny, Marion Ross adds some nostalgic good will & both That 70s Show’s Danny Masterson & Brody seem game, despite the sledgehammer script conceits. 

Also, there’s some discernible venom pulsing through the marijuana-gorged bloodstream of Smiley Face. Unlike other films whose sole focus is the copious consumption of drugs – Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke, The Stoned Age – here, Araki really seems to hate his characters. I mean, it would be difficult to like Faris’ slumped urban troglodyte under any circumstances, but it’s a little unnerving how few moments of real humanity she’s allowed here. There are early intimations that she may be well-educated, but that’s never evident, even before she gobbles up that plate of drug-laced cupcakes. This undercurrent of directorial hostility makes Smiley Face even less enjoyable & makes empathy damn near impossible. 

Sunshine (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2007)

British director Danny Boyle has, for over a decade now, slowly been building up a formidably singular creative resume & though I could never have pegged any of the movies as a Boyle film had I not seen his name in the credits, I was never surprised upon leaving the theater which, I think, denotes –perhaps back-handedly – an auteurist signature. While I couldn’t, for the life of me, tell you what filmic or thematic atoms cluster in the works of this director, I do know that he’s much more than simply a gifted tradesman (like, say, Phillip Noyce, or Wolfgang Petersen) & that Boyle’s films radiate a certain something that is quite indelibly his own. Most likely it’s the heady combination of influences at work, from the ragtag & inherently cynical social awareness (if not quite consciousness) of British directors such as Stephen Frears, Mike Hodges and, to some degree, Ken Loach & Peter Watkins, to the ground-breaking structuralism of illustrious forebears Kubrick, Tony Richardson, Richard Lester & Nicholas Roeg. This rigorous humanity served up with equally rigorous formal exuberance is an essential aspect of the Boyle catalogue. In any given film these forces are re-prioritized. While Frears & Loach are the household spirits which govern Shallow Grave (1994), The Beach (2000) & Millions (2004), Kubrick & Roeg take precedence for the social treatise masquerading as genre exercise, 28 Days Later & the Pynchon-esque visual blow-outs such as Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary & the film at hand, Sunshine

A glorious nod to the trippy, mystical, meditative sci-fi films of the late 60s/early 70s (Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, etc.), Sunshine is a visually arresting, philosophically vague (but not pretentious) & sonically labyrinthine masterpiece in which a team of astronauts is sent to reignite the dying sun with a number of nuclear weapons, on the heels of a previously disastrous mission to do the same. 

As in Kubrick’s 2001, much of Sunshine is spent in quiet awe & reverence for the mysteries of bent time & unspeakably endless space, but as the film progresses the tone becomes more sinister & each creak of the ship’s fuselage, each computer voice juxtaposed against the frail tones of human anxiety & fear, each minor technical malfunction, transforms the sleek aerodynamic curves & vainly mimetic gadgetry of the space schooner Icarus into a gothic haunted house. Haunted by the doomed former mission, haunted by the flaming, increasingly diabolical dying sun, haunted by space hubris, cabin fever & the curious, pornographic human need for an apocalyptic end to our own enterprises. Because if there’s social satire & critique at play in Sunshine it’s in the person of the ghostly sun-disfigured half-God, Pinbacker, who rails, in the film’s last section, against the prideful life-regenerating mission of the Icarus, who champions the end of all things & apocalypse as our one & only destiny. Here, Boyle presents religious zealotry at its most frightening. Framed against a bloated, angry, dying sun (which often seems so vividly near in this movie that you could reach out, touch it…) & physically maimed by its fury, this other space traveler preaches this to what’s left of the ship’s crew: 

“I am Pinbacker, commander of the Icarus One. We have abandoned our mission. Our star is dying! All our hopes, our dreams are foolish in the face of this. We are dust, nothing more. When truth is dust, we will return. When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God.”

Sunshine is a dazzling film (though it will lose a great deal of its power on a small screen), with a mind-bending score by the British electronic duo Underworld, a cast – especially Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis – who know how to convey layers of personality without mussing up the eerie yawning void of deep space & mesmerizing visuals that never cop out to an orgy of CGI. It’s also a multi-level allegory that never forgets to be a movie. Highly recommended.

The Last Mimzy (Dir. Robert Shaye, 2007)

Two precocious siblings (convincingly played by Chris O’Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) find a box floating in the ocean & inside find a selectively telepathic stuffed bunny, glowing plaque, a seashell that allows them to talk to animals, a green glob of something or other, and some stones that float in the air. These items give the two super-human intelligence & a bevy of powers they can’t quite control. After the boy’s newfound gifts lead to a city-wide blackout, FBI agent Michael Clarke Duncan (Talladega Nights, The Green Mile) is called in to sort things out. Unfortunately Duncan can’t sort out what the film’s screenwriters, Toby Emmerich & Bruce Joel Rubin, have also failed to sort out. While the two young leads are fine, character actors like Rainn Wilson (TV’s The Office) & Kathryn Hahn (The Holiday, Anchorman) add some welcome comedy, and the film’s initial mysteries do pique our curiosity, the last hour detours violently AWAY from resolution & leaves us stranded in so much gobbledygook we wish to heaven we hadn’t wandered into this movie in the first place. Based on a classic sci-fi story by Lewis Padgett, “Mimsy Were the Borogroves,” The Last Mimzy tries to splatter day-glow green over the parts of Padgett’s tale deemed to complicated for multiplex kids, thus annihilating any need for the film at all. After seeing this, shouldn’t I at least be able to define “mimzy” for you? Well, I can’t.

Dead Silence (Dir. James Wan, 2007)

A welcome, spooky departure from Wan’s tiresome cycle of Saw films. Ryan Kwanten (Flicka) plays a young newlywed whose wife is gruesomely murdered after a ventriloquist dummy is left on their doorstep. Being trailed by a cop (Donnie Wahlberg, patiently slumming) who, of course, suspects him of the murder, Kwanten sets out in search of the creepy dummy’s origins, his old hometown legend of a murderous ventriloquist (Is there any other kind?), Mary Shaw. Wan didn’t trust the long history of cinematic ventriloquist dolls from 1945’s Dead of Night, through 1964’s Devil Doll, to Richard Attenborough’s Magic in 1978, so his dummy is a little TOO designed for its own good. The look of almost any garden-variety ventriloquist doll, manufactured ostensibly for entertainment, unmanned, slumped in a chair in a shadowy corner, mouth agape, does not need much assistance appearing sinister. Dead Silence runs a little long and, cut to an hour, would have been one of the best of that execrable batch of Masters of Horror programs. As it is, it’s a big step up into more mature frighteners for Wan & marginally recommended for horror fans with some time to kill. 

Pride (Dir. Sunu Gonera, 2007)

Lazy marketing really failed this subtle, remarkable sports movie. Based on the story of real, live human, Jim Ellis, who started a swim team for at-risk kids in Philadelphia during the 70s, Pride has a more nuanced, less melodramatic, approach to race relations than, say, last year’s show-off-y Gridiron Gang. Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow, Idlewild) plays Ellis with just the right mix of wraparound ego & compassion, but it’s the ensemble that shines here, including Bernie Mac (cranky comic relief), Brandon Fobbs (hunky, conflicted resolve) & Tom Arnold (If there were a “Great Against All Odds” Oscar he’d have at least ten…). Nothing in the plotline will defy your expectations, but the film’s overall intelligence probably will. Recommended.


Shooter (Dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2007)

Considering how few good, non-comic-book-related action flicks there were last year, it’s surprising Shooter didn’t fare better with critics & at the box office. Mark Wahlberg plays world-class sniper – ahem – Bobby Lee Swagger, who feels responsible for his buddy’s death while on a clandestine mission in Ethiopia. Guilt-ridden, Swagger (hey, he didn’t name himself!) predictably becomes a backwoods hessian recluse with a ridiculous pony-tail & the kind of chip on his shoulder only a formidable, ominous military officer like Danny Glover can effortlessly brush away. When Glover & a portentous gaggle of goons (led ably by Elias Koteas & 24’s Rade Serbedzija) show up at Swagger’s mountain cabin suggesting he set up a model assassination of the president so they know just how a potential assassination threat might go off, we’re pretty sure our hero’s being set up, but it’s endless fun to watch as the wild conspiracy unfurls.

Almost every performance here exceeds expectations. Michael Pena, as the hapless but observant FBI agent who sides with Swagger, really seems to be struggling between his need to please higher-ups & his nagging doubts. He’s no hero at the outset & he doesn’t become superhuman just to meet the demands of the action genre. Glover & Koteas are chummy sadists who relish their positions well-outside the dictates of the U.S. Constitution & law and order in general. Ned Beatty gets points for just showing up & boldly preaching the bad news that money is power & vice versa. But the most outrageously entertaining turn comes from that old drummer for The Band, Levon Helm, as some kind of gun-nut guru with a hand fetish & a truly unique worldview. 

We even catch the occasional knee-smacking moment of wit from Wahlberg, flashing endearingly from inside his sturdy Bronson-ian non-expression. Fuqua’s direction is suitably brutal, with moments of giddy, gratuitous violence that will certainly give the movie a lasting shelf-life among B-Movie enthusiasts. Shooter’s a guilty pleasure to be sure, but an outright pleasure nonetheless. Recommended.

Bridge to Terabithia (Dir. Gabor Csupo, 2007)

Thanks to a cynical, manipulative advertising campaign & wildly misleading preview trailers, this Disney adaptation of Katharine Paterson’s Newbery-Award winning children’s novel looked like a low-rent knock-off of Chronicles of Narnia & the Harry Potter series. In fact this is one of the most intelligent & subtle family films in recent memory & has more in common with films like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Secret Garden & even Heavenly Creatures than with those CGI-gorged franchises. 

Josh Hutcherson (Zathura, R.V.) and Anna Sophia Robb (Because of Winn-Dixie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) play young artists – he’s a painter, she’s a fledgling writer – who find much-needed escape from school bullies & familial neglect in an imaginary world they create in the woods. While there are a few CGI effects scattered throughout, they’re used sparingly & are about a thousand times more effective for it.  For the most part, we’re forced to imagine the contours of their fantasy landscape just as they are. 

Robb & Hutcherson capture the guarded vulnerability of wounded children perfectly & the adults in the film – notably Zooey Deschanel (The Good Girl, Almost Famous) and Robert Patrick (Walk the Line, Flags of Our Fathers) – give nuanced performances that never steer our focus from the world as these creative young people perceive it. Recommended. 

Fire Serpent (Dir. John Terlesky, 2007)

Aliens made of fire possess unwitting & witless humans & allow them to shoot flames from their eyes, which might be cool had the Sci-Fi Channel spent some money on that effect instead of letting cornball director Terlesky (who also helmed another network clunker, Cerberus) blow up things whenever the plot begins to slog through the checklist of clichés that somehow became a shooting script. I’ll save you some trouble on this one – the government’s to blame & the crazy guy’s the only one who knows the truth. Oh, and the aliens are really lizard-like creatures with fire for fur. Or something. Not remotely recommended.

Reno 911 – Miami (Dir. Robert Ben Garant, 2007)

In case you’ve taken to your bed, depressed that there might never be a Police Academy VII, you can finally put on some skin-tight shorts, a floral shirt & some comfortable loafers, massage some aloe on those bedsores & rejoin the culture at large. This big screen version of the Comedy Central series is a carpet-bombing of bad taste gags & it’s almost witty in its primordial witlessness. Almost. Unlike South Park & Beavis & Butthead – intelligent shows about cretinous behavior – Reno 911 is a concoction by, for & about idiots, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least when you’re relating to the unfathomably grotesque behavior of these officers, you know there’s not some cocky wizard behind the curtain laughing at you. So guzzle a six pack, scratch yourself, pass some particularly gruesome gas, ogle the neighbor girl, and run a comb through that Village Person mustache of yours: It’s party time.

Blood & Chocolate (Dir. Katja von Garnier, 2007)

“Loups-Garou” (that’s werewolves to you & I) on the loose in scenic modern-day Bucharest, brooding over their cursed plight without the benefit of even passable special effects, nudity, or the kind of throat mauling that might grab your attention. Pretty bad, even for those looking for a low-rent version of Underworld or a movie in which attractive teenagers change into dogs in a flash of white light. 

The Breach (Dir. Billy Ray, 2007)

Once you get over the fact that it took the CIA & FBI 22 years to come up with a fellow Catholic computer wiz (Ryan Phillipe) to befriend & capture intelligence mole extraordinaire Robert Hanssen (a spot-on Chris Cooper), this is a fairly gripping spy yarn, told in the same spare, no-nonsense style as director Ray’s other foray into the mind of a button-down sociopath, Shattered Glass

For two decades and change, Robert Hanssen sold secrets to the Soviets, disastrously compromising domestic security programs & leading to the death or disappearance of some 50 U.S. intelligence operatives abroad. For a time Hanssen was even in charge of finding the traitor. While Ray was able to adequately pick the mind of New Republic’s serial plagiarist Steven Glass, Chris Cooper’s (American Beauty, The Bourne Identity) Hanssen remains a pouting cipher throughout The Breach. Did he do it for money? He could’ve banked far more with less labor. Did he do it because he felt scorned by the “gun-culture” of the FBI for being too cerebral? Probably, but considering the damage done, childish petulance doesn’t really satisfy a film viewer’s curiosity. 

Cooper plays out Hanssen’s wasp nest of contradictions (a jingoistic cold war patriot selling secrets to the Reds, a die-hard Catholic addicted to pornography, etc.) with admirably subtle shifts in facial tension, his beady eyes darting from within the folds & stress fractures of that long, perpetually disappointed face. Phillipe (Way of the Gun, Gosford Park), as the young, less severe Catholic sent to befriend & catch Hanssen in the act, keeps up with this fascinating performance simply by not trying to hard. Recommended. 

Ghost Rider (Dir. Mark Steven Johnson, 2007)

The only thing left of this troubled, dark comic book hero after Johnson (Daredevil) gets through with him is the bad aftertaste of dispirited CGI. Nicholas Cage, sporting Christian Bale’s hair like a scalp taken in battle, plays Johnny Blaze, the motorcycle stunt hero who sells his soul to the devil (played as an irksome old pothead by Peter Fonda), and he gets that pouty lower lip out there so far three or four white mice could use it as a lawn chair. But really he’s just a wig head onto which the filmmakers can apply their soulless FX wizardry. And they gob it on, so not an inkling of the human is left. Even the great Sam Elliott (The Contender, Big Lebowski) is made to look silly, and while an actor with his crusty authority can probably handle it, should he have to?

Stomp the Yard (Dir. Sylvain White, 2007)

Another film in which the answer to the lion’s share of life’s dilemmas hinge on a singular talent – gymnastics, drumline choreography, cheerleading, dancing, rapping, etc. Whether the main character has game, has been served, sticks it, steps up, brings it on, or does whatever Jessica Alba supposedly does in 2003’s Honey, the story is pretty much the same. Here, Columbus Short (You Got Served) plays a street-hardened dancer who’s shuffled off to college after his brother dies in, um, a dancing accident (code, I'd imagine, for being found ice cold in a public restroom with your underwear around your neck & a congressman's gerbil up your ass). At Truth University, our hero runs afoul of some sinister fratboys and gives them a peculiar comeuppance by becoming a member of the college’s step-squad and showing his adversaries what’s what in this game we call step. The college milieu and resultant class issues give this movie a little height over the glut of similar concoctions, the dance sequences are wall-to-wall energy, and there are some scenes that actually seem the work of a serious-minded filmmaker, but in the end formula wins the day.

Illegal Tender (Dir. Franc. Reyes, 2007)
Touted as “a tribute to gangster movies like Scarface” on the back of the DVD case, Illegal Tender is purely amateur night from a Latina director who may actually LOVE great mob movies, but has no clue how to make one. From the parboiled performances to the outrageously unlikely story this movie wants to be epic but can barely leave the suburban Connecticut house where Millie DeLeon (Wanda De Jesus) has come to raise her son (Rick Gonzalez) in peace after her husband is gunned down by a duo of hottie Latina killers during a drug deal gone awry. Every time Illegal Tender gets ambitious, reaches for inter-generational tragedy, it loses its bearings entirely, bending to any ludicrous plot whim Reyes (Empire) fancies. If it looks cool or radiates Attitude, the director films it, logic be damned. Even by wee-hour Cinemax standards, this is pretty low-grade stuff. 

The Simpsons Movie (Dir. David Silverman, 2007)

All I really required of this movie is that it be funnier than the last five seasons of the hallowed, but now toothless, Fox television show. And it is. I can’t really say it’s a return to form, though, because there are still half-hour episodes of the series’ best seasons I would’ve actually paid money to view at a Cineplex & I -- wisely, I think -- chose to wait for this to be released on DVD. It’s really a shame this wasn’t released when the TV show was in better shape, because the jokes that fizzle in The Simpsons Movie seem somehow more cringe-worthy now & the howlers seem, well, a little desperate, like lucky bull’s eyes instead of talent & energy running roughshod over decorum & propriety, the rule during the show’s finest decade. The thread of plot that ties together this charm bracelet of familiar characters (and they’re all here, for the most part) concerns an ecological disaster in Springfield exacerbated by Homer dumping a silo of pig offal into Lake Springfield requiring a giant dome be placed over the town by President Schwarzenegger & the E.P.A. The celebrity guest voices are nothing to write home about – Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Tom Hanks, Albert Brooks – but Brooks’ E.P.A. head is a stand-out. In fact it’s probably the funniest he’s been since Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998). All in all, this is the best Simpsons episode of the last ten years, so even if it doesn’t mark a creative turnaround for the franchise, it’s a welcome reminder of what was. Recommended.

Stardust (Dir. Matthew Vaughn, 2007)

What a surprise this is! Just when I was one unicorn & a fairy princess shy of writing off fantasy films for good (hell, I even disliked the majority of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy…), along comes this absolutely engaging, fast-paced, hilarious & lushly-mounted grown-up fairy tale that kids might dig as well, if that rug-munching, overly catered-to, demographic concerns you at all. Admittedly there was some visceral resistance to the film in the first twenty minutes when wicked sorceress Michelle Pfeiffer, cheeks sharpened to bone awls, sets out in her tiny chariot being pulled by even tinier goats to find an amulet that will stop her from aging ten years every time she casts a spell. 

This kind of thing usually causes an attack of shpilkes only ten hours of Vietnam War documentaries can quell. But once I divined that director Vaughn’s tongue was firmly planted in cheek, and that the result of that wouldn’t be intolerable whimsy, I was hooked. The plot concerns an eminently likable lad named Tristan (Charlie Cox from 2005’s Casanova, 2004’s Merchant of Venice) who, through some enchantment or another, manages to bring a star (the celestial kind) crashing to earth in the luminous form of saucer-eyed, tempestuous Claire Danes – sparking, glowing & ACTING more convincingly here than I’ve ever thought her capable. Danes often seems emotionally leaden, or merely petulant, to me, but here she has an alluring vulnerability. 

The star is a gift for his spoiled, unfaithful love, Sienna Miller & Tristan drags this celestial body through all manner of supernatural peril to get her across a mystical wall separating enchanted England & the Third World England we’re all familiar with. Peril comes in the form of Pfeiffer & her two sisters, a quartet of princely & not so princely heirs apparent (some now ghosts thanks to courtly intrigue) & sundry other denizens of magical kingdoms the world over, all in pursuit of the jewel lustering amidst Danes’ lovely décolletage. 

At various points throughout Stardust there were worries this whole enterprise might derail rather unfabulously. The first sight of Robert De Niro made me hold my breath, terrified he might adopt a cosmically inept British accent, but instead his relaxed comic turn as a closeted gay cloud captain (fishing for lightning), is an unmitigated hoot. Seeing him flounce around the captain’s quarters in a corset & feathered boa to the Galop from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld is high camp in excelsis. A scene in which De Niro faces off with Ricky Gervais (The Office, Extras) proves their comic chemistry in a recent episode of Extras was no fluke. They should be teamed as frequently as possible. A buddy cop movie, maybe? Midnight Run, Part Two?

Stardust reminds me of the colorful, supernaturally-themed family movies directed by Robert Stevenson in the 50s, 60s & 70s – Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), Darby O’Gill & the Little People (1959), The Gnome-Mobile (1967), Island at the Top of the World (1974), Bedknobs & Brooksticks (1971), etc. – though the form’s matured some & the wit’s a bit slyer. It’s a truly enchanting film, and nobody – I mean, NOBODY – likes being enchanted less than I do. 

Look out for some nice cameos by Peter O’Toole, Rupert Everett, and Dexter Fletcher (Layer Cake, Topsy-Turvy). Here’s a line from Danes that really hit home for me: “There are shop boys & there are boys that just happen to work in shops for the time-being.” Recommended, for that alone.

Blades of Glory (Dir. Josh Gordon/Will Speck, 2007)

The Will Farrell sports comedy juggernaut continues into the world of professional figure skating, leaving only dwarf-tossing & bocce left for future madcap skewerings. The jokes are a little less conceptual here than in Talladega Nights or Anchorman, in fact the whole film feels pretty tossed-off, but damn it if Will Farrell (with solid assists from Arrested Development’s Will Arnett, SNL’s Amy Poehler, The Office’s Jenna Fischer, The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry & network cancellation fodder, Andy Richter) doesn’t wrestle enough laughs out of the material to make you glad you watched it. Farrell plays Chazz Michael Michaels, a kind of Kid Rock on skates, whose main rival in the rink is a foppish blonde sparkle pony played unevenly by Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder. After a public brawl during a championship match, both are barred from further individual competition but, thanks to the kind of loophole that’s comedy’s best chum, are allowed to compete as a pair. Heder has a difficult time keeping up with the unhinged mania around him, but the movie needs a little heart, and he’s game. Arnett & Poehler kink it up beautifully as a beloved brother & sister team barely concealing their incestuous yearning for one another & Jenna Fischer’s puppy eyes & uneasy smile make you think you actually care about the romantic sub-plot. Crowning all the effortless mugging & the barrage of quick, lazy one-liners, is one solid, bit of genius. Just when you think Blades of Glory has degenerated into the average chase scene/denouement & you’re just waiting for the usual set of comeuppances & victory laps, Arnett & Farrell pull out all the stops for a wickedly funny chase through the malls & plazas of Montreal, wearing ice skates. It’s absurd, mighty physical comedy that makes the most of every pratfall. Recommended. 

Kickin’ It Old Skool (Dir. Harvey Glazer, 2007)

Jamie Kennedy, nearly as creepy here as Martin Short in Clifford, plays a teenage break dancer who falls on his head during a talent show in 1987 and wakes up from the resulting coma 20 years later. Because Kickin’ It doesn’t know whether it wants to be a fish-out-of-water spoof on cultural changes since the late ‘80s or a straight-up comedy of excruciation in the Ben Stiller/Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen vein (they miss that vein & the arm entirely…), it steals liberally from more formulaic fare, like The Blues Brothers & Kevin Smith’s Mallrats. Of course, it still comes up woefully short of being anything like funny. The only cast member who doesn’t look like he’d rather be tap dancing for table scraps at a Peoria dinner theater is Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville’s Lex Luther) as the villainous TV dance contest emcee. He’s probably just aping Michael Rooker in Mallrats, but he makes it his own & fires off a few lines that don’t make you want to core your head like an apple. Aside from a general feeling you’re being regurgitated on as you watch, the movie does have some more specific troubles. First off, when we first see Jamie Kennedy as a teenager, he’s rather suave in a shy, nice kid sorta way (played by a sorta suave nice kid who isn’t Jamie Kennedy) and when he comes out of his coma he’s, well, Jamie Kennedy. It hurts a little, because you actually liked that teenager and wish he’d come back & finish what he started. Second, when the movie can’t generate any chuckles from its stale plot, it simply gets mean-spirited & calls every Asian in the cast something clever like “rice-eater,” or mocks the homeless, or takes cheap, random shots at the mentally-challenged. And when those don’t get a rise, it’s time to piss or puke on someone. Never have I wanted the main characters in a movie to be so miserable in their imaginary lives after the end credits roll. I didn’t want any of them to keep the girls, the money, or even a modicum of self-respect. 

Year of the Dog (Dir. Mike White, 2007)
The Dog Problem (Dir. Scott Caan, 2006)

Here are two VERY interesting, VERY different films about dog love, and not the kind of dog love on display in last year’s Bob Goldthwait-directed romantic comedy about bestiality, Sleeping Dogs Lie. Year of the Dog marks the directorial debut of Chuck & Buck/The Good Girl/Orange County/School of Rock scribe Mike White, and, while it veers towards the comedy of cruelty & discomfort now & again (doing it well, I might add), the overall story arc is surprisingly redemptive. 

Molly Shannon plays Peggy, a lonely, isolated, socially anxious secretary whose life is turned upside down one evening when her beloved dog is accidentally poisoned. Shannon is exquisite here and she holds her own & then some aside a powerhouse cast, including Laura Dern, John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard, and the Gilmore Girls’ Liza Weil. The performance should definitely garner Shannon an Oscar nomination (along with Laura Dern for Supporting Actress as Shannon’s frightfully middle class sister-in-law), but the movie was released & distributed with an unfortunate lack of conviction. Year of the Dog quite pleasurably zigs when you expect it to zag & still finds its way to an ingeniously satisfying destination.

Scott Caan (yes, son of James) takes a more acerbic route to a slightly more downbeat, but still hopeful, conclusion, in his sophomore effort, The Dog Problem. In the movie’s first half-hour the circular faux Mamet-style tough-guy dialogue, spiced liberally with f-bombs to replace more descriptive nouns, verbs & adjectives, becomes wearisome, and the whole affair feels overly-stylized, like a so-so play reduced to the sum of its weaknesses once opened up into a film (like, say, Hurlyburly, or The House of Yes). Giovanni Ribisi plays Solo, a writer who’s lost all the money he made on his first popular (but awful) novel to expensive therapy with psychiatrist Don Cheadle, and now has to tend to his own batch of debilitating neuroses. Cheadle’s last suggestion to Solo is taken to heart: Perhaps he should buy a pet. 

After purchasing Jimmy the Dog (the same dog from Year of the Dog, by the way), Solo finds he has no idea how, nor the financial wherewithal to, care for the animal. Once the dog enters the picture, the movie calms down a little and lets the characters and situations develop in a more naturalistic way, although it’s hard to call a movie containing characters like Mena Suvari’s spoiled Beverly Hills dognapper, Kevin Corrigan’s rather ineffective loan shark, Scott Caan’s charming part-time pornographer, and Lynn Collins’ stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold, naturalistic. 

But the movie does begin to grow on you (at about the same pace the dog grows on Solo) if you give it a chance & the plot becomes an entertaining loop-de-loop of missed connections, fateful digressions & comic bluster. Ribisi toughens up during the long, exhausting night that comprises most of the movie, and by the end his performance is confident & it starts to mine some real comedy gold. It’s funny how the rest of the cast rises to the challenge. They all – Corrigan, love-interest Collins, and especially Caan -- seem to get better as Ribisi relaxes. It’s a pretty lovable little indie, all in all. So come love it. 

Year of the Dog: Highly Recommended/The Dog Problem: Recommended, warts & all. 

The Brothers Solomon (Dir. Bob Odenkirk, 2007)

After a disappointing feature directorial debut with 2006’s labored (but still pretty watchable) Let’s Go to Prison, Mr. Show alum Odenkirk descends into the comedy sub-basement for The Brothers Solomon, a plodding, desperately unfunny fish-out-of-water tale that should stop David Cross from returning his phone calls once & for all. 

Will Arnett (Blades of Glory, Arrested Development) & Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte (who also scribbled this mess onto paper) star as two brothers raised & home-schooled in the Arctic Circle by their nutjob father, played with noticeable effort by the likable Lee Majors. When Majors lapses into a coma, muttering something about dying before he has grandchildren, the two brothers must scour the world for a woman idiotic or mercenary enough to bear them children. Being raised without social graces of any kind gives Arnett & Forte feeble excuse for mean-spirited slapstick, headache-inducing mugging & glib one-liners that should elicit howls from the film’s obvious intended audience, children raised by wolves. 

By the film’s middle, all the actors look exhausted & slumped, as if they’d like to slink off the set if the damn camera weren’t rolling.

Eastern Promises (Dir. David Cronenberg, 2007)

After the icy inevitability of the somewhat overrated History of Violence (2005), Cronenberg tackles a less hermetic moral universe in Eastern Promises, grimly wide-canvassing racism, modern urban alienation, exile, tradition, mob loyalty & birthright in the story of a London midwife (Naomi Watts) who attempts to find family for a child whose mother died during childbirth. Her search leads her to a copiously tattooed Russian mafia chauffeur, played with a terrifying stillness by Viggo Mortenson, and to a bevy of very unpleasant underworld types, most notably Armin Mueller-Stahl, as a charming sex-trafficker & his psychotic son, played by Vincent Cassel. The cast is at the top its game here & they’re forced into some wickedly nasty scenes by Cronenberg & scripter Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things). Eastern Promises is easily Cronenberg’s best film since Crash from 1996 & scene after claustrophobic scene shock, inform & reveal in tantalizingly equal portions. Highly recommended.

The Heartbreak Kid (Dir. Bobby & Peter Farrelly, 2007)

Well, I’ll try to forget for a moment that the original Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972) is one of my favorite films of all time & judge this loud, madcap retread with at least some objectivity. This Farrelly Brothers version has been drained of all the class & race satire, but hey, that’s okay, because money & racial tensions have been all but eradicated in the last 35 years, so any movie that handled them trenchantly would probably seem quaint. And Ben Stiller plays discomfort in big bold strokes, gnashing teeth, pulling hair & falling over things to prove how utterly discombobulated he is, so modern movie-goers won’t be forced to look at Charles Grodin’s deadpan & wonder, “Hey, I wonder what the hell that guy’s thinking?” which, as we all know, takes time away from mindlessly guffawing over actors falling over furniture. Oh, and instead of feeling some sympathy for the jilted wife (Cameron Diaz) in the face of Stiller’s ill-timed honeymoon trepidation, we’re made to hate her, which makes identification with our bumbling lead actor so much more convenient & less awkward. Michelle Monaghan, as the object of Stiller’s adulterous affections, is grace unbound, of course, not at all the self-involved shiksa princess played by Cybill Shepherd in the original. All this makes Stiller’s roving eye & heart so much easier to process, so much less indicative of the troubled times from which movies help us escape completely. Still something is holding me back from recommending this most recent Heartbreak Kid, maybe it’s the presence of Carlos Mencia as a thieving mariachi. Never could stand that guy.

Shoot ‘Em Up (Dir. Michael Davis, 2007)

Quality actors Clive Owen & Paul Giamatti go crazy post-modern for this wearisome attempt to mount one hyper-driven action set piece after another without any plot context or story arc whatsoever. Clive Owen sits at a bus stop, gnawing on a carrot, when a young hysterical pregnant girl comes running by, pursued by thugs. He sighs, gives chase & then spends the rest of the movie shooting it up with hissing bad guy Giamatti over rights to the baby, whose mother dies in the first of about two billion shootouts. Probably this is a parody of Tarantino movies, or an homage to the great set pieces from Hong Kong action flicks, or an attempt to re-make several of the more violent Warner Brothers Chuck Jones/Tex Avery cartoons using real actors. And some of these set pieces are fun – in fact the first, say, four are damn near brilliant – marred only by dull, witless one-liners scattered about so the script isn’t ALL in parenthetical stage directions. It does, however, get tiresome quickly & then it just feels like you could probably take a plank to the face without blinking, which is not the most pleasant way to leave a theater, even a home one. 

Bratz (Dir. Sean McNamara, 2007)

Since I found this prolonged squeak of a movie tediously pitched at a frequency only 13-year-old girls can hear, not to mention borderline racist, I’ll let a more studiously populist critic have his say. Ladies & gentlemen, I give you Adam Schubak of TV Guide:

“Based on the hugely popular line of sassy dolls that have been giving Barbie a run for her money, the Bratz — already animated cartoon stars — have finally been brought to big-screen life by director Sean McNamara. McNamara, previously responsible for directing tween-sensation Hilary Duff in RAISE YOUR VOICE (2004), teamed with screenwriter Susan Estelle Jansen (2003's THE LIZZIE MCGUIRE MOVIE) for an innocuous entertainment aimed squarely at the HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL crowd.
Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos), Jade (Janel Parrish), Sasha (Logan Browning) and Chloe (Skyler Shaye) are BFF (that's "best friends forever" for those not down with the tween lingo) about to enter their freshman year of high school. The girls are super-excited to go through the experience together, but aren’t quite prepared for the obstacle that stands in their way: Class president and principal's daughter Meredith Baxter Dimly (Chelsea Staub) and her team of minions refuse to let the girls stick together as a group and are determined to separate them into social cliques that match up with each girl’s personality. Will the cruel social politics of high school tear the Bratz apart, or will they break the system down and unite the school into one massive clique using their brattitude? 

Although the film at times seems more a showcase for the trendy clothes specifically tailored for each character’s unique personality, it does convey a positive message about loyalty and friendship. And while Jansen's script relies heavily on trends and lingo popular with the tween crowd, there’s something in it for parents as well: Thanks to the smart casting of Jon Voight as the school’s principal and Lainie Kazan as Yasmin’s beloved Bubbie, the two-hour run time won't be a complete bore for adults. It may even shed some light on all those abbreviated phrases the kids toss around.”

If you can wear that grape Kool-Aid mustache around with impunity, here’s to you.

I Know Who Killed Me (Dir. Chris Sivertson, 2007) 

Unlike her pleasantly convincing dual role in the 1998 remake of Disney classic The Parent Trap, as both the prissy Londoner Annie James AND Valley Girl whatevuh, Hallie, Lindsay Lohan is not even remotely believable as either the blankly normal music prodigy, Aubrey, or the jaded nympho stripper, Dakota Moss, in Chris Sivertson’s (Toolbox Murders: As It Was, All Cheerleaders Die) god-awful I Know Who Killed Me. This leaves the movie in somewhat of a quandary. In order to compensate for or, more accurately, wallow in, the absolute absurdity of the central performance, the movie has caked on the kind of stylistic flourishes normally reserved for episodes of Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries. Well, in the hands of potboiler sleaze-maestros like King or -- God save us -- De Palma or Verhoeven, all the blue motifs & red trim, the histrionic plot devices performed by cardboard actors set against violently florid backdrops, might have stubbornly given way to bargain basement subtextuality, like a grindhouse version of Peter Howitt’s Sliding Doors (1998). 

After being abducted & tortured by a serial killer, Aubrey escapes her captor & comes to in a hospital insisting she’s really the brazen, brassy stripper girl, Dakota. This is taken by all to be just a rather baroque symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder & Aubrey/Dakota is coddled to the point where she’s allowed to screw the living spurs off her previously frustrated boyfriend, We Are Marshall’s Brian Geraghty while mom listens patiently to the headboard banging from downstairs. But is this identity shift really part of a more ghastly conspiracy? I dare you to care.

Hannibal Rising (Dir. Peter Webber, 2007)

Wow, what could possibly make us truly care, I mean, really, really empathize with the formative years of a murderous cannibal sociopath? I mean, we know how this young Hannibal turns out, we know he’s caught, escapes, is caught, escapes & lives well into his 60s, so there’s not much suspense here, not that director Webber has any gift for tension & chills anyway. But what strategy could we use to attempt to give us pause in our condemnation of Mr. Lecter? How’s about this: Hannibal Lecter’s family was murdered & bullied by, get this, Nazis. They killed six million Jews & now all the odious crimes of Hannibal Lecter are laid at their jackbooted feet as well. Apparently Lecter grew up in a castle in Lithuania. Did you feel, from watching Silence of the Lambs & Manhunter, that Lecter grew up in a castle? Not sure what I pictured, but not that. Mackinac Island perhaps, or a dreary mansion in upstate New York, but not that. Well, back in Lithuania, a bomb kills off young Hannibal’s mother, leaving he and his sister at the mercy of marauding bands of Nazis & Russians. Lecter survives all this & a childhood fraught with bullies & sadistic, Dickensian schoolmasters (Schoolmaster quote to live by: “You do not honor the human pecking order. You’re always hurting the bullies.”) through his mounting psychosis, sometimes all a young Lithuanian boy has in this world. He’s taught to use a samurai sword by a very flirty Gong Li, and eventually becomes a sword-wielding Simon Wiesenthal on the trail of the Nazi thugs who violated his once-idyllic Lithuanian childhood. I’d like to go on, to recount incident upon incident from this ludicrous film, just because it’s awfully fun to describe, if not to watch, but that would take all the fun out of you renting it & rolling your eyes at me two days later when you flick it into the dropbox.

Messengers (Dir. Oxide Pang Chun/Danny Pang, 2007)

Watching American actors plod through the elegant, but stubbornly illogical, bad dreams that are Asian horror films is like watching an Amish family navigate the slots area of a major Las Vegas casino in search of a public restroom. In Messengers, the cast – John Corbett, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller – begin the film gamely enough, trying to stake out individual, sensible identities in the face of ever-mounting illogic. But inevitably they’re lost in translation. They keep futzing about as if there’s sense to make of the movie, as if they’re individual characters with an active role to play in the ghostly proceedings. 

In Asian horror nothing could be further from the truth. They are second-string to one or two viable chills & that is all. These movies are all ritual, and to defy the ritual is to run contrary to the film itself, rob it of its giddy grace. The noted art critic John Berger accused Americans of “hysterical individuality” and nothing, NOTHING rests his case like seeing our actors squirm around in remakes & rehashes of Asian horror films. American actors just can’t keep up with the delirium and, navigating this casino of arbitrary horrors, they can’t find the toilet, the exits, or a waitress who’ll give them the time of day. If you’re not harnessed up to the loose slots, blurry-eyed & delusional, you’d be better off invisible.

Norbit (Dir. Brian Robbins, 2007)

One wonders what Entourage’s acid-tongued Ari Gold would make of representation that sets up a client for an Oscar-worthy turn in Dreamgirls & follows it up with one miserable fat-suit gag that lasts 102 minutes. Now I understand that Murphy may have been previously contracted to waddle through this gruesome piece of sub-Vaudeville hokum, but surely there must have been an instinctual feeling that Dreamgirls was a prestige project & this was, well, this. Sure, it was released by Dreamworks, so ditching the contract would be like crapping in Steven Spielberg’s morning latte, but wouldn’t the rest of Hollywood respect Murphy’s need for a respectable resuscitation of his oft-squandered talents? Is there no way this could have been stopped? Ari Gold could’ve stopped it. We’ll deal with Thandie Newton’s presence here at a later date. And Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Deion Hughes? Don’t get me started…