Capsules for 2006

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2006. Includes all the movies of 2006 I've seen that I did not write a full review for.

Goal! The Dream Begins (2005; released in U.S. in 2006)
Director: Danny Cannon
Rating: 4/10
Illegal immigration has been a hot topic lately, especially here in Southern California where I live. This makes the arrival of Goal! The Dream Begins look rather timely, as it is about a young man, Santiago Munez (Kuno Becker), from an illegal immigrant family, who has desires to become a great soccer -- pardon me, football -- player. Alas, the movie doesn't explore this territory much; in fact, it goes off in an unexpected direction as Santiago, after being spotted by an ex-sports scout, flies to England to try out for a team there. So let's see: a Mexican who insists he's from Los Angeles spending the majority of the movie in Great Britain. Has potential. Unfortunately, it only gets less interesting from there, gathering cliches more and more quickly the faster it rolls downhill. At the end of its nearly two-hour runtime, you'll be buried by that big ball of cliches, wondering how the movie squandered its potential, its viewers' faith in the story, and all of its credibility. Goal! didn't do anything outlandishly foolish, and, frankly, just a handful of corny turns might've been forgivable, but when it decided to start stringing them from end-to-end, I didn't believe in it anymore and began to wonder how much longer it would go on (the fact that the movie felt like it was coming to an end several times didn't help either). It's a kindhearted movie, believing in a world where people of good faith exist, and even admitting that chasing a dream can be hard work despite having a boost from natural talent; but plot contrivances and fallback manipulative devices can only wreck the messages it might be conveying, thus making it, like so many other similar movies before it, disposable. (added 5/11/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Good German
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Rating: 6/10
The "retro movie" -- wherein filmmakers try to reproduce in meticulous detail a movie style of the past while injecting a few modernizations in content -- probably deserves its own genre now. After being thrilled by both Far from Heaven and Down with Love, I must now be getting fatigued by the idea, for I ended up shrugging at Steven Soderbergh's The Good German; either that, or it just didn't live up to its potential. It's a bit hard to tell what Soderbergh was going for -- a true-to-the-spirit '40's era romantic postwar noir, or a commentary on how romanticized they were in the first place, since the movie sprinkles in so much to make it less romantic, more gritty. It does this mainly by breaking the Hays Code, which, during that era of filmmaking, would've prevented foul language and bloody violence; but also its story about the race between the U.S. and the Russians to find a missing man in wartorn Berlin, thus creating relationship complications between an American military journalist (George Clooney) and the missing man's wife (Cate Blanchett), is cynical without that light of idealism shining behind it, which is essential for driving a romance. If cynicism was supposed to be the name of Soderbergh's game, then his end-of-movie homage to Casablanca is out of place -- it feels about as awkward as if The Third Man, which this film owes much to, ended with Joseph Cotten delivering Casablanca's "hill of beans" speech to Alida Valli. What The Good German gets right are all the technical details, from the lighting to even the manner of acting (although Tobey Maguire pours it on a bit too thick, while Blanchett probably shouldn't have gone for what feels like a Greta Garbo impersonation). Even the film was made to look like it once required restorative work. Technically, it's a marvel, but as a soulful viewing experience, it's a muddle -- there were often unplanned reasons for how the classics became the classics, and this movie couldn't quite corner any of them. (added 12/14/2006)

The Good Shepherd
Director: Robert De Niro
Rating: 6/10
Any movie casting Angelina Jolie as the neglected housewife loses some credibility in my book. All joking aside, The Good Shepherd is a serious take on a serious subject -- the formation of the CIA as a secret society that rose to a position of high power, and the void of morality inherent within it. However, the film lacks pull, so much so that its punches to the gut in the third act feel like jabs, primarily because the protagonist, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), is envisioned as both lacking in the control of his own fate and rather dispassionate in self-conduct. The frustrating thing here is that this kind of character is necessary for the thesis of the movie to work -- that this quiet, intelligent, and paranoid well-bred WASP is exactly the perfect recruit to become part of the U.S. counter-intelligence machine; he accepts what he's given and deals with situations calmly, and his demographic background is approvable by the controlling privileged. Hence, the movie adopts his personality -- detached, observant, unwilling to display emotion. When Edward loses bits of his humanity, he deals with it by showing as little emotion as possible, and the movie poker-faces right along with him. If The Good Shepherd is anything, it's a model of consistency -- it's able to maintain this unvarying tone for a runtime of 2 hours and 45 minutes, with Damon (who curiously looks the same even as he ages 20 years within the story) continuing to give his expressionless stare to every character that flits in and out of the picture. The movie remains only academically involving although it sometimes reaches for horrifying, and certainly one of the bigger horrors it wants to express is that such a powerful office of the U.S. government exists at the expense of its members' souls, but it's a bit tough to lament for a lost soul we aren't allowed much of a connection to in the first place. (added 11/9/2006)

A Good Year
Director: Ridley Scott
Rating: 5/10
A Good Year is about a Russell Crowe character going on vacation, which is appropriate since that's what it feels like he and director Ridley Scott have done. That the two last collaborated on the popular action-and-violence spectacle Gladiator is hardly in evidence here in this trifle of a movie. It has a simple plot -- Crowe's unscrupulous trading shark inherits a French vineyard, goes there, gets stuck, and learns a thing or two from the country folk -- and it's presented glibly, seemingly preoccupied with two concerns: slick cinematic delivery (fancy camera moves and angles, quick editing, even fast-motion for some comedy bits) and very light humor that goes for chuckles and smiles. It's as if the movie demands to be viewed as inconsequential -- and coming from Scott, one of cinema's heavy-hitters, we have to wonder what in the world made him decide to take this detour? About the only thing that distinguishes it from other similar films is how Crowe's character (named Max Skinner -- subtle, no?) holds out by being a jerk for as long as he can before finally fully succumbing to warm feelings. Overall, the movie gives a distinctly macho take on the story, though I don't know if that's necessarily more appealing or off-putting. The scenery sure is pretty, though -- pretty countryside, pretty estate, pretty people. One could do worse than to please one's eyes with the pictures here, but that may be as far as any stimulation goes. (added 11/9/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Ground Truth
Director: Patricia Foulkrod
Rating: 8/10
This is a documentary about a subject that should get more attention than it does -- veterans who've come home from the War in Iraq and are now facing problems in assimilating back into civilian life. Its revelation is that our wounded vets -- with special attention paid to those who are psychologically wounded -- aren't getting the treatment they deserve from the government that employed, trained, and damaged them, as their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are ignored and their financial benefits and medical treatment are withheld. As filmmaking goes, the movie's about as spare and direct as can be, and I've often said I'm not particularly fond of the find-fascinating-subject-and-just-shoot-it style of documentary, but here the subject is as strong as it gets, creating an exposé every concerned U.S. citizen should see. Ultimately, on a more indirect level, it could become raw evidence of our times; I admit my mind actually wandered towards thinking about how differently wars have been fought, how ancient wars were unlimited in their barbarity, and how in contrast the modern age can watch a soldier traumatize himself based on guilt from conscientious acts of savagery (e.g., killing an unarmed woman or child). It actually says something concrete about the instilling of moral values in this kind of society and the depths of its effects on ordinary people. The movie, even as a simple appeal to compassion, can thus become a study of relative humanism. Its existence, then, can somehow make us feel lucky for living in this civilization where a plea to the conscience can even be a rational idea at all. (added 9/14/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Half Nelson
Director: Ryan Fleck
Rating: 8/10
As a drug addiction movie, Half Nelson works because it's raw and unromantic. Unlike similar movies of the past that have used cinematic pyrotechnics (e.g., Requiem for a Dream), this portrait of an inner-city school teacher (Ryan Gosling) with a crack problem doesn't ever highlight the trip -- it just revisits him as he slowly and casually continues his habit. It's believable because attention isn't drawn to it -- the habit is just presented very matter-of-factly. Don't get me wrong, I've liked the flashier movies; Half Nelson just gains a distinction for daring to take this opposite approach. It's just one part of a bigger theme here, though, about human beings as walking contradictions. The teacher is intelligent, well-read, and is knowledgeable of history; he cares about the welfare of his students and coaches a girls' basketball team. But though his ideals are strong, his experiences seem to have caused part of him to give up, and as his will is tested about having any hopes for the future of those ideals, he succumbs to his habit. The movie's actually about two characters -- the other one is one of his students, a smart black girl (Shareeka Epps) who knows his secret, befriends him, and faces a few ideal-forming challenges of her own. Meanwhile, the film dresses its central struggles with asides about the conflicts of opposing forces and the recognition of turning points, highlighting just how epic any struggle between new ideals and status quo behavior can be. On the whole, it's pretty tough to sit through -- the handheld camera seems to be held by string, and drug movies in general have the same problem as war movies to me (they're all about the same thing: war/drugs are bad) -- but this one gets points for its uniqueness of angle and for operating almost entirely in shades of grey. (added 10/13/2006)

Hard Candy
Director: David Slade
Rating: 7/10
Strong one-on-one acting elevates this table-turning horror show, where a potential pedophile (Patrick Wilson) lures a young teenage girl (Ellen Page) to his pad after meeting her on the internet, only to get knocked out, tied up, and threatened with major bodily harm by the would-be victim. The first half of the movie sets up an intriguing moral quandary -- the man hadn't done anything apparently wrong and hasn't been proven to be much more than someone with possibly repugnant sexual fetishes, but does that mean he deserves to be punished in the way the girl plans? The girl herself seems a bit too angrily lustful for pre-emptive justice -- just how much does a world where the perverts prey on the innocent justify her indignation? Unfortunately, after the main central sequence, the movie's internal logic becomes shakier and it eventually finds a way to cop out of its moral vagueness. The whole thing's shot with a washed-out music video slickness that communicates a sense of superficiality, which is somewhat bothersome, but the delivery of that style, plus the commitment of Wilson and Page to performing a riveting two-person play, shows how the movie is certain of the force with which it will grab your attention. Overall, it's a confident little thriller, and I just wished it addressed its subject of online predators with a little more depth. (added 11/8/2006)

Heart of the Game
Director: Ward Serrill
Rating: 9/10
I recognized that The Heart of the Game wasn't a particularly special documentary in the way it was put together, nor even in the specific vision of its storytelling, but I admit I fell for it anyway. I'm a big basketball fan, and the story here about the trials of a girls' high school basketball team -- Seattle's Roosevelt Rough Riders -- spoke directly to me. It primarily focuses on the tenure of the blessed-with-perspective coach, Bill Resler, and the story of his would-be star player, Darnellia Russell. Russell's struggles end up illuminating the great discrepancies faced by women athletes, and indeed, if the The Heart of the Game offers anything beyond a great sports narrative, it would be this spotlight on how much tougher it is for women athletes to succeed, thanks mainly to outdated discrimnatory attitudes. Meanwhile, that sports narrative turns out to be a stroke of good luck, as Serrill is able to capture a recent real-life several-seasons-long story to rival anything movie screenwriters could've come up with. Without fiction's embellishments, the documentary gains that much more immediacy. The movie is thus a true sports lover's delight. (added 12/30/2006)

Home of the Brave
Director: Irwin Winkler
Rating: 4/10
If I hadn't already known Home of the Brave was directed by Irwin Winkler, I would've guessed it was directed by someone who was new to the job with no previous experience. That's how astonishingly amateurish this movie feels. It's somewhat of an updated, Iraq War version of The Best Years of Our Lives (complete with its own amputee), about returning soldiers who don't fit back into civil society, but everything about this production feels like a cheap TV movie. Perhaps most laughable is the script, which includes plenty of awkward dialogue that tries to shoehorn in topical bits, from a conversation between two vets who complain in straight rehearsal line-reading style that no one at home understands them, to a veteran father chastising his teenage son, who is unsympathetic to the U.S. policy and their soldiers, with the old "I was there!" lecture. No one comes off untainted here, from the usually reliable Samuel L. Jackson to Jessica Biel, given a challenging role but sadly obstructed by terrible lines and poor direction. The only part that really has any punch is the beginning of the movie, which features an ambush in an Iraqi city; after that, the movie goes to the homefront with good intentions, but, alas, you know what they say about the road to hell and all that. It's a noble effort that nonetheless results in the kind of movie words like "wallow" were made for; sitting through it is a drag, and frankly you're better off watching this year's documentary The Ground Truth, which covers much of the same subject. (added 12/14/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Ice Age: The Meltdown
Director: Carlos Saldanha
Rating: 5/10
The main problem with Ice Age: The Meltdown is that, like many movie sequels, it has no non-commercial reason to exist. The first Ice Age wasn't good enough to warrant a part two in the first place, and this one has nothing to add to it -- its story is corny (featuring another road trip-like journey, a trite romance, and some annoying new characters), its old characters aren't given anything interesting to do (my favorite one, Diego the sabertooth, was given a generic face-your-fear subplot and otherwise cracks wise and spits asides), and all of that gets upstaged by the only character anyone wanted to see return, namely the acorn-chasing prehistoric squirrel Scrat. And yet the whole venture isn't a total loss -- if there's any reason to watch it, it would be its technical merits. The graphics work here is very impressive -- I don't remember the first Ice Age looking this good, but here the movement of the characters are fluid and believable while retaining essential cartoon physics, and the fur looks so good that a sequence where a few of the mammals get wet becomes a major highlight. If the animation studio Blue Sky has proven anything so far (they also did Robots), it's that they're big league visual artists, but frankly pedestrian when it comes to stories. Get a good writer in there and I'll honestly look forward to their future creative endeavors. (added 12/3/2006)

Idiocracy
Director: Mike Judge
Rating: 8/10
As someone who deplores anti-intellectualism, I find Idiocracy right up my alley. Mike Judge's straightforward satire concerns an average man (Luke Wilson) and an average woman (Maya Rudolph) who, thanks to a government project gone wrong, wake up 500 years in the future to find that they're now the smartest people on the planet. Judge envisions a world where the populace can barely contain their primal urges for food and sex; almost no one can speak coherently and when they do, they string together sentences of nonsensical yet insulting slang and cussing (even the advertising slogans are like this); water has been replaced by a Gatorade-like sports drink called "Brawndo"; consumerism has become the reason for living; and so on. The comedy is presented as relentlessly crude, although this also has a purpose -- even if some of the gags about dumb people start becoming tiresome, it's linked to a sensation of discomfort that should make us legitimately worry about the direction we're headed in, in our own world of corporations, junk media, and unrestrained internet flames. The movie's not subtle, and not without its weaknesses (its uniform view defies variance for the sake of hammerhead comedy) and lapses in logic (if the world is so stupid, how could anyone still be manufacturing high-tech devices?), yet it works well enough if one translates its approach as a desperate and earnest conviction in delivering its premise. In the end, it's getting us to not only to mock stupidity, but to also feel dirty about it, even disgusted by it, and that's a worthy effort. (added 8/18/2008)

The Illusionist
Director: Neil Burger
Rating: 8/10
Many other reviews and comments about The illusionist have employed the term "old-fashioned" to describe it, and I can't help but to concur with the appropriateness of its usage. The movie is entertaining in the most elementary of ways -- it just wants to spin a good yarn, and, in the way it lushly presents its world of turn-of-the-century Vienna and bases its tale on character motives surrounding a romance and a mystery, watching it feels like you're listening to a skillful storyteller in an intimate setting. The visuals are all earth and sepia tones, a flashback is given the look of an old nickelodeon silent, and the score is another classically lulling work of arpeggio waves by Philip Glass. One might say it casts a spell, which is fitting for a movie about a magician (Edward Norton) with unparalleled skill whose story involves a love interest (Jessica Biel), a police inspector (Paul Giamatti), and a villain (Rufus Sewell) who all but twirls his moustache. In the end, you can forgive it if it feels a bit slight because it's a movie simply about the magic of presentation, and this carries through both in its execution and in its subject. (added 10/20/2006)

An Inconvenient Truth
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Rating: 8/10
It seems somewhat pointless to judge the artistic merits of what is essentially a filmed version of a classroom lecture. An Inconvenient Truth is exactly what it is: a public service video essay, delivered impeccably, with warmth, humor, and approachability, by former U.S. vice-president Al Gore. Interspersed throughout his presentation on the dangers and warning signs of global warming are personal reminiscenses that add a little background to his grave concern; beyond that, the movie is the message, and it's worth seeing. Whether or not you have a difficult time believing and accepting the urgency and factualness of this environmental issue seems beyond the point to me; personally, I don't see the downside of making a conscious effort to do our individual parts to address environmental concerns. In any case, the documentary is designed at least to heighten awareness on global warming, and at the very least to make us remember that we have a responsibility to understand the environmental consequences of the collective routine actions we engage in as we inhabit our planet. (added 6/24/2006)

Infamous
Director: Douglas McGrath
Rating: 7/10
We know by now that Infamous covers the exact same story as Capote -- the story of how Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood is apparently such a good story that two movies had to be made of it concurrently. What's interesting to me, though, is how Infamous actually fixes what I didn't like about Capote, yet goes in a direction different from the one I did like in the other film. When I wrote my review for Capote, I complained that its portrait of the author was denigrating; to be more specific, it gave us little insight into what might've made this man charming or successful, and, at worst, felt like a character assassination. In Infamous, Toby Jones plays a version of Capote that is adorable, and we can see exactly what it is that made this man a fascinating society figure. Jones makes the writer warmer than Philip Seymour Hoffman did, though Hoffman's version served a different purpose. It's that purpose that is lacking in Infamous, as Capote's relationship with murderer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig) is delivered more straightforwardly as a true connection story, exposing a sympathetic vulnerability the author tries hard to hide, whereas Capote used it to play out a dark moral and ethical dilemma, exploring a deep and shameful side of the human experience. If only the two movies were combined somehow to form a story in the middle -- one with Capote as a complex man who is a genuine charmer and whose huge ego ends up dominating in his journey with Perry on the way to writing his novel. As it is, I can't really pick one over the other, and personally I think they should have their names switched -- Infamous is much more sympathetic to its subject, while Capote shows him acting in ways that would lead up to the negative connotations associated with the word "infamous." (added 10/15/2006)

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004; released in U.S. in 2006)
Director: Lu Chuan
Rating: 8/10
I'll never understand how any group of people can hunt an animal close to extinction and be able to sleep at night. If you're anything like me, then you should find Kekexili appealing. The story follows a patrol of vigilante rangers who roam the high desert plains of Tibet in search of machine gun-toting antelope poachers. Much is made of the difficulty of the task -- the group is self-funded, poorly equipped, low in number of members, and has to face an environment that regularly challenges human survival. But they persevere under the leadership of Ri Tai (Duo Bujie), a determined, monomaniacal roughneck hell-bent on capturing the criminals. This is Moby Dick with a progressive spin -- as Ri Tai's dogged pursuit leads his men into more and more danger, he redefines what it means to be a pure preservationalist, one whose sense of justice leads him to obsession. In presentation, the film is scenic, contemplative, and downbeat, and its main character seems both stoic and mad. Both movie and protagonist create a distancing effect which could be viewed as either meditative or alienating, in awe of the hopelessness of the task at hand. At the film's end, it reiterates its noble purpose of raising awareness for its subject, and we may conclude that it equates the will to preserve the environment to self-sacrifice -- in other words, that's the kind of effort it might take to save the endangered from the opportunistic, and to get your cause noticed by the rest of the world (and, perhaps consequently, to get made into a movie like this). (added 10/13/2006)

Lady Vengeance (2005; released in U.S. in 2006)
Director: Park Chanwook
Rating: 7/10
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (the title got truncated to Lady Vengeance for U.S. distribution) rounds out Park Chanwook's "revenge trilogy," which began with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and continued with Oldboy. Frankly, by the third movie, the theme of how all-around bad revenge is starts to wear a little thin, although whereas the first two films were about the endless, destructive cyclical nature of it, this one's more about how dissatisfying it is once it's been achieved. Here, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) is released from over a decade in women's prison and immediately puts the gears in motion to exact vengeance on the criminal who put her there. There's plenty of room here for Park's trademark carefully composed visuals and instances of sick, blackly humorous violence. It feels a little showy now, and, as usual, a bit too clinically neat -- and, curiously enough, not particularly feminine -- I usually find the cold, efficient angel of death to be a male fantasy concept (for comparison, I thought Quentin Tarantino did a better job of dancing around that pigeonhole in Kill Bill). But there's always a perverse delight in just watching how a Park movie is executed, and this one also answers an old curious question of mine -- what would happen if a criminal were allowed to be punished by his direct victims or his victims' families? Park is able to milk that scenario for an appropriate amount of moral ambiguity. (added 12/3/2006)

Lassie (2005; released in U.S. in 2006)
Director: Charles Sturridge
Rating: 7/10
This is Lassie? I admit I'm not familiar with any of the beloved collie's previous shows and movies, and all I ever really knew about her was that she often got some kid named Timmy out of scrapes. I suppose, then, that this recent movie directed by Charles Sturridge is not based much on those old productions, which is probably a good thing. His film is a gentle tribute to the people of Great Britain, and Lassie's adventures here, which involve her being reluctantly sold to a new owner, getting shipped to Scotland, and then escaping to find her way home, is practically set up as a tour of the land. Her ordeal parallels the pre-WWII times the story is set in -- as she is forced to be sent away from home due to poor economic conditions, so too does the world climate take fathers away from their households and even force children to go off to boarding school. Her journey is therefore an ode to the beleaguered people who face hardships, physical and emotional, with hopeful optimism. Lassie goes from her working class home to the arms of an empathetic rich girl, and then moves across the Scottish countryside, past Loch Ness and into the company of a traveling performing little man (Peter Dinklage). The movie is sweet without being compromising, and its main weaknesses may come from its patronization to child psychology -- it contains a few slapstick antics, a cartoonishly drawn villain, and much too convenient a wrap-up. But it definitely deserves notice for being a unique Lassie with something to say. (NOTE: I have learned some time later that the movie is a remake of Lassie Come Home (1943), the very first screen incarnation of "Lassie.") (added 12/30/2006)

Last Holiday
Director: Wayne Wang
Rating: 6/10
Last Holiday's story is an old one by now -- heck, it was probably an old story when the original 1950 Alec Guinness movie came out -- so this movie isn't out to surprise anyone and, in order for it to succeed, it's going to have to rely on its star to carry the load. Queen Latifah proves to be quite up for the task, turning in a warm and glowing performance that makes you easily sympathize with her character, even as you're aware of the plot's utter contrivance. The movie's a crowdpleaser with no other ambitions, and it gets away with it for the most part mainly due to Latifah's charisma (weighing it down are the supporting characters, most of whom are drawn quite two-dimensionally). It just makes me wish harder, though, that Latifah would find her way into a more challenging film -- she's got heat to burn and her recent string of unoffensive trifles aren't doing her potential any justice. (added 1/26/2006)

The Last King of Scotland
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Rating: 8/10
I dare say few films this year have been as suspenseful as The Last King of Scotland, which is due in large part to the tour de force performance of Forest Whitaker as the mad 1970's Ugandan President Idi Amin. He is convincingly scary, fleshing out the dimensions of his real-life character to the point where, although we can recognize the man as human, we're not sure what part of him isn't unpredictably insane. The movie itself is an examination of his personality and deadly legacy through the experience of a fictional young Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy). This character arrives with no knowledge of the Ugandan situation and eventually falls for Amin's charms, only to slowly realize what kind of person he really is -- in this way, he acts as the surrogate for both the viewing audience and the historical contemporary public. And although it's an effective device, the outside-looking-in perspective is once again unfortunately employed to simulate a white man's viewpoint of Africa. In other words, Amin and his subjects are viewed as the other -- to be pitied, exploited, or feared -- though the movie partially acquits itself in the end by admonishing just such a perspective through crucial lines delivered by Whitaker. In something of a sub-theme, the movie also dishes out a stern warning against cocky young hotshots who pay more attention to what's below their waist instead of what's above it. Kevin Macdonald has chosen to depict this story, adapted from a novel, by diving face first into it -- his camera dances, his characters spark, and his depictions of gruesome horrors are designed to weed out the faint of heart. His best shot may be Amin's intro, which starts as a behind-the-back teaser, setting the expectation of a slow pan to the face; how he actually first shows the face immediately delivers the impact of the man's forceful persona. (added 9/26/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Little Children
Director: Todd Field
Rating: 7/10
There's something about the frustrations of middle class citizens trapped in suburbia that seems both profound and profoundly trivial, and that's reflected in the tone of Todd Field's sophomore effort, Little Children. There's so much of it that feels like it should be called American Beauty 2, with doses of cynical, mean humor holding hands with nuanced "quiet desperation" character portrayals. This partial glibness, though, assisted by the strange device of a God-like voiceover narrator who wryly reveals the thoughts of the characters the way a book would, created an effect on me that didn't allow me to take the work seriously enough. There's too clean a separation of primary, conflicted characters (three protagonists: a dissatisfied mother (Kate Winslet) from one family, a dissatisfied father (Patrick Wilson) from a different family, and a neighborhood sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley)) from their more narrow-minded or less conflicted supporting counterparts; overall the work feels smug as it's asking for sympathy. It's worth seeing, though, thanks mainly to the performaces of Winslet and Haley, and for its ambition of tying together multiple storylines about people with children who haven't exactly become real adults themselves. The ending, which I found a little too overstated and a bit hard to believe, at least attests to the idea that these people's problems start with themselves and are only made bigger through the inability to address them in a mature way. (added 10/6/2006)

The Lives of Others
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Rating: 8/10
For being about the 1980's East German police state, where the Stasi survey the citizens and lock them away for even thinking subversive thoughts, this movie is actually one of the most optimistic stories I've watched in a long while. We mainly follow agent Wiesler (the late Ulrich Mühe) as he spies on an artistic couple, writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), looking for any evidence that Dreyman might be conspiring with underground activist movements. The tale seems pretty straightforward, but a wrinkle occurs, and it leads one to wonder -- just what is it that may cause someone to have a sincere change of heart? The Lives of Others deals with governments vs. free thinking, oppression vs. artists, and is very detailed in its depiction of surveillance, amping viewer paranoia, but what it displays most is faith in the existence and strength of our own morality, and the possibilities in drawing them out. Why does the character take the chosen path? We can guess reasons, but the movie seems to say it's important to understand that it can happen. Whether this is naive or hopeful is determined by the film's dedication to realistic drama and the conviction with which it pulls it off. Like another recent, highly-praised German entry, Downfall, The Lives of Others is a serious confrontation with the ghosts of the German past. (added 8/24/2007)

Man Push Cart
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Rating: 7/10
"Neo-realist" is perhaps the best word to describe Ramin Bahrani's feature film debut, Man Push Cart, in which a Pakistani immigrant, Ahman (Ahmad Razvi), struggles to make a living by selling food from a pushcart on the streets of New York. The details of his life are presented almost as a mystery in which hints and pieces are revealed to us little by little, but his background (one of the first things we learn is that he used to be a star singer in his home country) and how he got here isn't as important as what he's now doing just to get by. The movie is a snapshot of one immigrant's downtrodden attempt at making an honest living in America and of his right to pursue the one he sees fit for himself. Along the way he meets a patronizing benefactor and a potential romantic interest, but neither can significantly change his path. Man Push Cart is a stark and honest film, a noble attempt to give us a look at one of the regular people who populate our civilization, one of the guys we may see everyday but would be otherwise totally unfamiliar with. Though sympathetically humanist, this film also seems withering in a way, since Ahman is presented as quite a sad sack, and any veteran film watcher surely wouldn't expect the fellow's situation to improve by the end of the movie. Bahrani would next tackle pretty much the same material with a shifted locale and a much younger naive protagonist in Chop Shop, which I feel is the better movie because it gets across a similar message, but with more vivacity. (added 7/1/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Marie Antoinette
Director: Sofia Coppola
Rating: 8/10
Sofia Coppola wasn't making a biopic about Marie Antoinette; she was continuing her exploration of young girls in alienating, disaffecting situations and found the French queen to be a perfect vessel for it. Her resulting movie is a visually splendid cinematic poem, part speculation of Antoinette's mindset, part fantasy dress-up indulgence, and all expression of a kindred spirit shared by young women across the centuries. Coppola's creative choices enforce this notion, as the period piece, lavish in its costumes, art design, and location, is delivered with contemporary sensibilities via manner of dialogue, facial expressions, reactions, and soundtrack -- a mix of classical and current music. It's history with a modern personality, a mapping of what we understand of past social conditions (particularly of youth) to their parallel sensibilities today. For most of the movie, this bold idea works extremely well, as the first half to two-thirds of the movie covers a distinct span of Antoinette's (Kirsten Dunst) years at Versailles; it wobbles after that, as it's already made its points about the character of the queen and quickly flips through her later years to find an appropriate place to end. Noticeably at that point, the style sheds its modern overcoat -- and, along with it, further development of the consequences of feminine unrest -- and becomes a more regular period piece with awkward pacing. But along the way, the portrait has been painted, and Marie Antoinette becomes a heartfelt defense of the queen and the misfortune of her circumstance; the film suggests that she likely had the relatively normal personality of a privileged young woman and, given her unique situation, the eventual outcome could only be a natural extrapolation of that personality within that environment. Coppola continues to fascinate by giving professional creative voice to all the girly-girls in the world, ever arguing that they're a major subset of society that would be foolish to offhandedly dismiss. As in the queen's case, they have the potential to touch history and are therefore not to be trifled with. (added 10/21/2006)

Miss Potter
Director: Chris Noonan
Rating: 7/10
After directing 1995's wonderful Babe, Chris Noonan disappeared until this year's Miss Potter, which shares much of his previous movie's sweet sensibilities. This biopic about the creator of the "Peter Rabbit" children's books, Beatrix Potter (played by Renée Zellweger, who isn't an ideal casting choice in my opinion, but eventually settles into the character), is delightfully modest, choosing to show the path Potter takes to finding success without introducing too much in the way of melodramatics. Potter finds an obstacle in her class-conscious mother (Barbara Flynn) and support from her newbie publisher Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor, bringing instant life and charisma to the screen in all of his scenes). Meanwhile, flashbacks inform us of her childhood, when she proved adept at drawing and telling stories, and occasionally her illustrated characters, whom she converses with, will cutely animate to life before her. You watch and wonder if anything really dramatic will happen, and when something does, it manages not to detract from the humbleness of the whole piece -- the movie still retains an easy, warm spirit. As a result, this isn't a very compelling film; instead, it stands as a loving tribute to Potter and demands to be seen as nothing more nor less. The story is about an artist who finds success and independence through her talents, and eventually uses her wealth to do good deeds. The innocence and idealism inherent here is so apparent that it feels Scrooge-like to think any less of it for not daring to climb to higher cinematically artistic aspirations. (added 12/28/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Monster House
Director: Gil Kenan
Rating: 7/10
Monster House doesn't give specifics about when it takes place, but I swear it must be the '80's. Everything about it feels '80's -- its suburban environment, the technology present (here people are always on cordless phones and one guy has a pager), and especially the feeling it gives that's close to those '80's movies with similar stories and themes -- The Goonies, Joe Dante films (Explorers, Gremlins, The 'Burbs), and early Tim Burton stuff. It's a totally unexpected throwback, complete with a trio of puberty-crossing kids who like trick-or-treating, sell candy door-to-door, use telescopes to spy on their suspicious neighbors, and find themselves on their own in a world of jerk teenagers and disbelieving adults. This tinge of nostalgia -- for me, anyway -- gave it just enough of an enjoyment factor to lift it above its negatives, especially an over-the-top climax that nevertheless found ways to reference yet more '80's movies like The Terminator and Aliens. For a 3-D animated kids' flick, it's decidedly different, driven by the purity of pre-adolescent curiosity with, for the most part, a detectably relative modesty. Well no surprise, then, that Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis are listed as executive producers. (added 12/3/2006)

My Super Ex-Girlfriend
Director: Ivan Reitman
Rating: 7/10
My Super Ex-Girlfriend doesn't hold a lot of surprises -- it's as funny as it looks, it's nice and short, and fulfills a light evening of entertainment. It's more fun, still, to look closer at the source of its comedy and see that emasculation paranoia is alive and well. The movie is full of male shootdown moments -- girls actually recognizing when a guy's a jerk and saying "no"; knee-jerk accusations of sexual harassment; the woman taking control in bed; and, of course, the woman not only being able to protect herself just fine, but also being around to save the guy plenty of times (or, to turn it around, threaten him). It could almost be seen as a chauvinist's complete surrender to the inevitability of gender equality; the part that makes it questionable is when Uma Thurman's superheroine, Jenny aka G-Girl, becomes the titular ex-girlfriend. She displays what the dating male might perceive as the most fearful, irrational traits of a woman, amped up, of course, for the sake of hilarity. It's indeed sexist comedy, but would it be much different if a woman wrote the story (the screenwriter in this case is Don Payne)? I actually know women who are quite fond of stories of break-up revenge fantasies who might get a kick out of this. A female writer, though, wouldn't make G-Girl as borderline psychotic as she is here (although Thurman really seems to delight in getting into her part); also, Luke Wilson's boyfriend might've been more liable for his faults. The gender perspective imbalance evident here is the difference between what might've made this an elighteningly funny flick and what makes this a trivially fun one. (added 7/20/2006)

Nacho Libre
Director: Jared Hess
Rating: 6/10
This is one of the silliest movies I've seen, but I mean that in a good way. One thing's for sure -- Napolean Dynamite director Jared Hess does enjoy fixating on the world away from the pretty people, where the simpletons and freaks roam. The fascination with these types of characters is akin to the YouTube phenomenon, where the videos that get the most play often feature the strangest, most absurd glimpses of civilization. We're invited to gawk, but in Napolean Dynamite, it felt like gawking was all there was to it. The difference in Nacho Libre is with Jack Black, playing the simple-minded Ignacio aka Nacho with a sincere dream (he wants to be a luchadore -- a masked Mexican wrestler), undiluted intentions, and nobility as expressed through his devotion to the orphans of the Mexican monastery he resides in. That's about where the sobriety ends, though, as the movie revels in one deadpan absurdity after another (Hess is apparently a firm believer in the strategy that if you stare at it long enough, it looks even funnier than it did to begin with). Potentially offensive and bothersome with its reliance on "Speedy Gonzalez" accents for comic underpinning, it's strengths are the performances of both Black and his co-star, Héctor Jiménez. Eventually, the build-up of ridiculousness just got to me -- I think I lost it when the corn-on-the-cob-on-a-stick got used as a weapon, resulting in an image so incongruous with reality that its comedy potential exploded exponentially. Meanwhile, Wes Anderson better lock all his doors at night; I think Hess is breaking in and stealing his style. (added 6/17/2006)

The Nativity Story
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Rating: 5/10
Catherine Hardwicke's rendition of The Nativity Story is so straight-laced that there's really little one can say about it. It takes a very well-known tale, adds a little bit more story detail before the journey to Bethlehem, and tells it in the safest way possible. In other words, you'll get what you expect, no more, no less. Although this probably suits the converted just fine, it doesn't otherwise justify its production very strongly. Frankly, anyone could have made this movie in the particular way it's presented. It's mostly somber and fairly dull, and when it needs to inspire awe in the last act, it doesn't try very hard; it falls back on the knowledge that everyone in the audience knows what to expect, so it just gives it to them. In subject matter, it invites some comparison to The Passion of the Christ, which is a good filmmaking counterexample -- whatever one thought of that movie, it was infused with an attitude and a distinct, maybe even dangerous, point-of-view. Here, Hardwicke, whose specialty is in accurately conveying the varied moods of the modern teenager, doesn't have anything to add to the story of a pious and resolute Mary and her good husband Joseph except, perhaps, some anachronistic teenage pouting early in the story. Ultimately, for a story deemed "the greatest ever told," but has had the divinity beaten out of it via countless retellings and re-enactments, shouldn't a feature film version of it be able to reinfuse some of that divinity? (added 11/7/2009)

Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rating: 9/10
I knew nearly nothing about Neil Young before I watched this movie. Afterwards, I feel like I knew very much about him -- not the facts of his life but the contours of the man's soul -- no easy feat considering this was a straightforward concert movie, a string of complete song performances, one after another (a group of stage-setting interviews with his band and backup singers starts the film, and then we're off). Young's music, coupled with a few anecdotes he'd recite before kicking off certain songs, told his story, reflecting on the life he's lived -- the reliance on memories of simple encounters, his appreciation of family, friends, and guitars, and the urge to put these all in a place after a recent aneurysm. Director Jonathan Demme understands the simplicity and intimacy of this show -- his filmmaking here contains no frills and is consummately professional; he lets Young do the talking and focuses on his face for what feels like 75 percent of the movie. The results are astonishingly effective -- watching this concert film of a performer whom I'd originally only heard about two songs from, I was moved to tears. Nothing to do with sob stories or melodrama, either -- just someone, experienced through his years on earth, opening up the feelings those experiences created, expressing them through music. It's a potent brew of humanity, empathy, and dignity -- a rare and valuable find on any occasion. (added 6/17/2006)

Notes on a Scandal
Director: Richard Eyre
Rating: 7/10
Judi Dench landed herself quite the juicy role in Notes on a Scandal. In it, she plays Barbara, a tough school teacher who's seen it all, filling in the audience with her cynical observations on the students and the faculty around her as the story begins. Dench delivers the bite of the written dialogue with a particularly nasty zing; just listening to her voiceover alone can put you under a spell of wicked glee. Barbara soon focuses her attention on a new teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett), and though she condescends to the unassuming newcomer's bourgeois manners and outlook on life, she nonetheless feels that she can make a "useful" friend out of her. Complications ensure, however, when the married Sheba shows a potential romantic interest in an object unsuitable for her age. Notes on a Scandal is a piece to be savored for as long as one can, before it starts to run out of flavor towards the end. The movie is enjoyable while it retains a certain tension between its two main characters, but the resloution has them both unable to fully control the outcome, which is understandable in the case of the annoying Sheba (she's a rather pathetic victim through and through) but more disappointing with regards to Barbara, especially after Dench has given us such a delectable villainess. It's all the more of a shame because Dench has skillfully made her character relatable, but the ending is written in a way that means to sacrifice that relatability. Thus, the build-up in this movie is actually too good for its ending, but that's also no reason to skip out on a wonderful turn from Dench. (added 12/24/2006)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2006

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