Capsules for 2008

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2008. Includes all the movies of 2008 I've seen that I did not write a full review for.

Australia
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Rating: 6/10
There is an innate appeal to Baz Luhrmann's total unabashedness, and that's largely what makes Australia so watchable, filled with big stars, broad strokes, grand visuals, and sweeping romanticism. It's an old-fashioned epic, nearly three hours long, with Gone with the Wind aspirations that it might have achieved had it not contained quantifiable weaknesses which all take away from its potential dramatic robustness. To put it bluntly, the events are a little too corny and the characters are each missing a dimension or two -- the movie is largely a two-parter (a cattle drive and a war/disaster response story), and it comes complete with a fish-out-of-water heroine (Nicole Kidman) who learns to love Australia, a tough Australian (Hugh Jackman) to fall in love with whom initially doesn't take to her, and a bad guy (David Wenham) so evil he's only missing a moustache to twirl. There's also a moral concern about the then-racist treatment (movie takes place close to beginning of WWII) of the Australian aborigines, and in particular it follows the journey of a mixed white/aborigine child (Brandon Walters). It's a bit overloaded, though I love Luhrmann's obvious enthusiasm, and perhaps similarities in theme and story to Moulin Rouge! hit my soft spot. But that's also part of the problem -- the style of Moulin Rouge! fits its genre, whereas Australia's fluff tends to counteract its attempts at heft and epic weight. I enjoyed it, but for a movie called "Australia" I felt it only left me with a glossy mythology of the country. (added 4/8/2009)

Be Kind Rewind
Director: Michel Gondry
Rating: 10/10
I love the recent Michel Gondry movies because they have mostly to do with the very primal urge to create and the creative process itself. Dave Chappelle's Block Party gave insight to comedy and stage performance while documenting the organizing of a spontaneous event, and The Science of Sleep highlighted how having a strong artistic side is equal parts joy and frustration as it tends to correlate with having a social handicap. Gondry's latest movie, Be Kind Rewind, is more direct and simple -- it's an ode to finding one's creative side and the joys of being able to share one's creations with others. The movie's story is typically, eccentrically Gondry-esque: when Jack Black gets magnetized and erases all the VHS cassettes in the video store Mos Def is tending, they decide to recreate the movies by re-enacting them themselves and recording them. To their surprise, their versions, which they say are "Sweded," turn out to be hits in their little community and soon everyone wants to be a part of the process. The movie is a fantasy, because creative enthusiasm isn't necessarily so infectious, but, with its wacky premise, it's already asking the viewer to run along with it. And if you do, you could get swept up in its scrappy, construction paper spirit. Be Kind Rewind is for all the people who have ever created their own movies, songs, books, and comics from whatever they could obtain, and it imagines a world where such creations are eagerly embraced. In this YouTube age, Gondry may be on to something, but I think it's more accurate to eschew the randomness YouTube largely exposes to understand a disciplined creative process (watch how the main characters direct their scenes, even in their nutty, desperate ways), and to revel in the concoctions that emerge. (added 7/11/2008; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Body of Lies
Director: Ridley Scott
Rating: 5/10
Perhaps it's not fair to Body of Lies, but its release timing contributed to my rather unenthusiastic reaction to it. It comes on the heels of a large number of variously preachy Iraq War movies which have all built up a sense of jadedness, such that, in order to stand out, the next film really needs to strike a few nerves. Body of Lies doesn't, borrowing Syriana's global thriller ideas, Leonardo DiCaprio's Blood Diamond performance, and Rendition's finger-wagging at the U.S.'s ignorant policy of torture to create an experience now too familiar. Ridley Scott infuses his movie with his slick, professional touch, and the proceedings are never quite boring, but certain things begin to grate, even if you largely agree with the film's politics -- the juxtaposition of Russel Crowe's boorish CIA official against Mark Strong's smart Jordanian counterpart is loud and obvious, the love story feels like the device that it becomes, and the third act comes off as more implausible the closer it hews to its spy thriller genre conventions. A certain rawness and despairing urgency is never quite achieved for the message the film wants to deliver, and so it remains a well-intentioned, well-produced, yet generally unmemorable entertainment echoing the frustrations with the policies of the G.W. Bush years. (added 3/31/2009)

Bolt
Directors: Chris Williams and Byron Howard
Rating: 7/10
What Bolt lacks in originality it makes up for in execution. Largely a mix between The Truman Show and Toy Story, the animated movie is about a dog, Bolt (voice of John Travolta), who's a TV action star but has been lead to believe all the make-believe around him is real. When a mishap accidentally lands him in New York, far away from his Hollywood home, he continues his delusion, much to the dismay of a cat, Mittens (voice of Susie Essman), whom he coerces into leading him to the lair of the "bad guys." Frankly, the movie is entirely predictable, but it carries with it a large supply of earnestness that had me involved even as I guessed the events. What helps is its lack of any overt moral lessons -- the movie is mainly concerned with Bolt's own emotional development, which implies a trust that its young target audience will understand his journey and sympathize with him out of knowing that he had been unfairly duped and he deserves to discover a life of his choosing. Bolt is a little too pat and tidy -- these animated features coming out of Disney's studio seem more and more like sub-brand products under Pixar, that is, high in quality but low in ambition. But at least this one lets the heartfelt personalities of its leads outshine its flashy exterior, best exemplified in a climax that is set up to be spectacular, only to feature a most unspectacular yet extremely effective act of heroism. (added 4/8/2009)

Changeling
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: 6/10
Changeling appears to be a straightforward period kidnapping mystery with an intriguing true story twist, where Angelina Jolie plays an Angeleno in the 1920's whose missing son is claimed to be found by the LAPD, only the kid they give back to her isn't her kid. But that's not even the half of this 140-minute movie, in which these initial events serve as a launching point to explore police corruption, the suppression of women, the emotional effectiveness of capital punishment, and various other points relating to the rights of civilians and the plight of children. In other words, it's rather meandering, which is only part of its troubles -- Changeling is also quite black-and-white in terms of character portrayals (I seriously expected at some point for the good guys and bad guys to don white and black hats) and conventionally old-fashioned in playing out many of its scenes. The movie practically begs its audience to boo and hiss at the villains while cheering for our heroes' every little triumph. In that sense, it was actually fairly entertaining, but neither did I feel I could take much of it seriously after a while. Jolie is surprisingly given little to do, since her character is really just a simple middle class working every-woman -- there's nothing about her that distinguishes her as a personality. It adds to the general shallowness of the film and its exploration of its concerns, and yet it's that shallowness that also somehow makes it watchable -- the glossy production, the classy actress, the chilling and gruesome turns, the belief in ultimate justice, and the continuing underscored tragedy. Frankly, if Clint Eastwood added some arias, this might've made a pretty good opera. (added 12/19/2008)

Chop Shop
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Rating: 8/10
Chop Shop follows the daily life of a plucky 12-year-old called "Ale" -- short for Alejandro, and played by Alejandro Polanco -- as he scraps his way to a living the only way a street orphan can in the Willets Point area of Queens, New York. When he's not selling questionably-obtained goods in the subway or on the streets, he helps out and resides at an auto-body repair shop, saving up what he earns so that when his sister Isamar, portrayed by Isamar Gonzales, arrives, the two can buy a truck from which they can set up shop vending cooked meals. Nevermind the filmmaking approach director Ramin Bahrani employs here -- a near-documentary style employing non-actors that often finds its home in independent works -- what allows Chop Shop to resonate is the level of subtle depth found in its central character. Ale may not be what you would call a classical "good kid," but he has ambition, optimism, and hopefulness, all of which contribute to a generally healthy attitude. He tries very hard to deal with others as an adult, even to the point where he feels protective of his older, teenage sister; but he can be defeated when pure lack of experience and naiveté rear their heads. Most of all, the film shows the mechanisms that grind under the hood of the American dream when that dream is held by a determined kid with very little money in a poor neighborhood. All Ale wants is the same chances as anyone else, and the right to preserve his dignity as he pursues those chances, though sometimes things don't work out that way. Chop Shop is as much a well-rounded character study as it is an exposé on a certain segment of society on the fringes of American civilization -- and Bahrani shows that living there doesn't make anyone less human. (added 3/3/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

A Christmas Tale
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Rating: 8/10
Imagine movie scenes and plot/character threads are all wrapped Christmas presents under a tree, and you eventually got to open up each one, but could only peek at their contents from the top. Rather appropriately, that's what A Christmas Tale feels like. Arnaud Desplechin's headfirst dive into the complex relationships within a middle class French family is a messy, captivating, and very much living affair, and in that regard it reminds me very much of 2008's Rachel Getting Married, while its basic premise shares traits with so many dysfunctional-family-at-the-holidays movies of the past (The Family Stone comes to mind, due to certain plot similarities). Although the idea of the arrival of another such movie would normally give one pause, Desplechin's wild take -- almost gimmicky from the variety of techniques and references thrown in -- is quite engrossing, thanks in no small part to its seasoned cast which includes Catherine Deneuve as the matriarch; her real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni playing her daughter-in-law; Jean-Paul Roussillon; Anne Consigny; and, as the lightning rod of the bunch, Mathieu Amalric as the family's requisite black sheep. Getting to know this clan, which has its fair share of spite and humor, only becomes a slightly maddening affair because of how much personal backgrounds and emotional layers are crammed into this 2 hr. 30 min. fly-by of a movie -- we get a sense of the family history, a lot of loose ends, and then are left thinking this might've made a good mini-series. In other words, it feels real -- an accurate guage of the push-pull politics of family dynamics -- and incomplete, which is a minus if we like a little more focus in our movies, and a plus because it's just like life, where the footprint of a family will always be bigger than any of us will ever have time to fully explore. (added 2/9/2009)

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Director: Andrew Adamson
Rating: 5/10
I'm becoming convinced that The Chronicles of Narnia and I don't really get along. My complaints about the first movie -- namely, that the characters serve the plot and not vice-versa, and that Aslan the Lion's role as a promoter of the powers of faith is carried out too transparently, such that he becomes an obvious lesson-doling deus ex machina -- apply here as well, only this time it's worse. The previous bad egg of the Pevensie siblings, Edmund (Skandar Keynes), having shamefully learned his lesson from the last outing, is now just a colorless supporter. Scene-stealing Lucy (Georgie Henley) only serves to illustrate the innoncence necessary for faith, while eldest Peter (William Moseley) has become rather spiteful, having been king and being forced to revert to a teenager, thus sapping his authority. Susan (Anna Popplewell) is rather cool as a Legolas impersonator (long haired archer? I kid), but otherwise what she does is indicative of the overall problem -- that is, she does little but follow along, as the siblings and a new ally, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), are swept up in a big war between the Narnians and a race of humans who are all, for some reason, of Spanish/Mediterranean ethnicity. We're treated to lots of battles and less magic this time around, but victory for the good guys might only come with a helping of divine admonishment. I won't get into it any more than that, but suffice it to say that while I suspect the production is fine enough to work for a general audience, the creakiness of the plot mechanics and the light condescension I detect don't have me looking forward to the third Narnia movie. (added 2/9/2009)

The Class
Director: Laurent Cantet
Rating: 8/10
For anyone interested in an alternative to the "inspirational teacher movie" (wherein a teacher inspires bad/uncooperative students to embrace the value of academics), director Laurent Cantet gives us The Class, a movie based on a book about the real-life teaching experiences of François Bégaudeau, who plays a version of himself in the film. Bégaudeau is Mr. Marin, a French language teacher in a middle school in a tough part of Paris; his students are mostly rebellious, distracted, disinterested, and self-absorbed. Marin is no genius at his job, either -- he does his best to facilitate the behavior of his students, allowing them to talk back and debate, even if it diverts from the subject matter at hand, but he also experiences his fair share of frustration, which challenges his protocol of keeping a fair and open mind. On the surface, The Class will be remembered and praised for its realism, for not pandering to the wishful-thinking audience who would love nothing better than to see the worst of the bad students receive a Hollywood epiphany; its style borders on documentary, with its main actor an actual teacher, and many of the students being played by actual students. It's also a great tool of sympathy for teachers in general, as it shows the faculty at every gathering looking more exhausted and frazzled. But a closer look may reveal it to be a criticism of the current classroom system, a method that becomes increasingly outdated as the students become more globalized, more internationally mixed, and ever more aware of the larger world around them, made more accessible everyday via internet-enabled devices and the media. Students now develop the idea that there's little a teacher could teach them which they couldn't easily find out for themselves; since many of them have foreign backgrounds, the teacher may also have too much of a barrier to be able to relate to some of them; and the students certainly continue to entertain the notion that exploring their own interests is more valuable to their time than learning forced curriculum. A large number of events in The Class supports these concerns -- it never makes the case that these kids are unteachable or beyond some level of control; rather, it seems to question the continued effectiveness of an old teaching approach and its ability to adapt to new problems as well as modern variations of old ones. The French title of the movie and the book is Entre les murs, meaning "Between the Walls," which explicitly calls a probing attention to the environment itself. (added 2/23/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Director: Scott Derrickson
Rating: 4/10
Even expecting that The Day The Earth Stood Still could not possibly live up to its classic 1951 predecessor, this Keanu Reeves-starring remake is pretty disappointing, mainly due to its shallowness. The original film was a film of ideas -- its climax came not from an impending catastrophe, but from wondering if the alien Klaatu would be able to deliver his message, essentially a political challenge for the people of Earth. The new movie is more than happy to show off its special effects and removes itself from the complex dilemma of a world of warring nations in favor of lumping them all together as a virulent population worth exterminating for the sake of keeping the planet habitable. In other words, it has a simplistic environmental concern, presented with sensationalist sensibilities and, perhaps worse, given an even more simplistic resolution. The movie has a gloomy Reeves, an annoying kid character played by Jaden Smith, a giant robot with more personality than the actors, intermittently passable fun value, and virtually no food for thought. It again begs the question of why studios bother remaking movies that are established classics -- they're all essentially set up to fail, and more than likely do just that. (added 3/31/2009)

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Director: Kurt Kuenne
Rating: 9/10
Dear Zachary derives its strengths from such personal territory that to criticize it for not being objective would be to aim not for the bullseye but for the wall the target hangs on. It's easy to empathize with because it deals with a subject that may be too easily encountered by any of us -- how to make sense out of senseless tragedy. The director, Kurt Kuenne, is filming a video letter to the infant son, Zachary, of a slain friend, one Dr. Andrew Bagby, so that one day he'll be able to know who his father was and how he was beloved by many. The wrinkle here is that Zachary's mother, Shirley Turner, was the one who shot Bagby to death. The whole movie turns out to be an emotional roller coaster, no better way of putting it -- after it's through, a lot will have been said about friendship, injustice, and both faith in and letdown from the legal system, along with the intriguing thought that moral fortitude provides both its own punishments and rewards. Kuenne's film is self-therapy, the reaching, groping, and lashing of a friend in search of meaning, hope, and redemption; it's controlled passion that allows itself to give in to fits of pure rage on the way to a resolution of love. And on top of all that, the story it tells is just incredible. It reminds us that although we live in a world where, relatively speaking, any one life may not matter much in the scheme of things, the search for any one life's value is not one that should ever be seen as vain or futile; that, in the end, all we have are each other and the ways we affect one another. (added 12/9/2008)

Defiance
Director: Edward Zwick
Rating: 7/10
Not much should be surprising in Defiance, a war movie about an inspirational leader and the hardships he and his followers endure to survive a hostile time, but it gets by with a solid traditional mounting and a healthy interest in the dynamics of a growing micro-community. Daniel Craig is real-life hero Tuvia Bielski, who led a group of Jewish escapees into the Belarussian forest during World War II to escape the Germans, setting up a resistance camp. He is at odds with his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) about how to resist -- Tuvia wants to hide and survive, while Zus wishes to actively fight against the enemy. Eventually, they split up and Tuvia runs an ever-expanding microcosm that experiences increasing needs, sickness, dissent, and a harsh winter. Although Edward Zwick doesn't handle anything much differently than the way he handled his previous self-consciously prestigious epics (i.e., forward and pronounced), Defiance benefits from fierce leads in Craig and Schreiber, and a story that focuses on the way potential community success is directly inversely proportional to its growth in numbers, thereby spotlighting the indispensability of cooperation (communal and political) and the absolute, unique strength its leaders must possess in order to ensure survival. Eventually, it plays out too predictably (becoming an Exodus scenario) to be a case study, but it's interesting to observe nonetheless, while its spotlighting of the existence of these resistance groups at least makes it an invigorating counter to the many more downbeat Holocaust movies out there. (added 1/13/2009)

Dong (2006; released in U.S. in 2008)
Director: Jia Zhangke
Rating: 7/10
Director Jia Zhangke's documentary Dong (literally the word for "East," although it may be referring to part of the name of its subject) follows the Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong as he travels to the Three Gorges Dam in China and then to Bangkok, Thailand. Liu is a very skilled painter who speaks of his fascination with the strength, virility, and beauty of the human body, and the persistence of these qualities even within adverse conditions. Jia follows this artist as he paints murals of demolition workers at the Three Gorges, and later a group of women in Bangkok; they also sidetrack as Liu visits the family of an onsite accident victim, and when Jia singularly follows one of Liu's female subjects as she walks to the train station. As Liu expounds upon what he seeks and what he feels the place of art is in his life, one can see how natural a subject he is for Jia, whose own style is observant of human behaviors and forms. Dong is seen as the companion piece to Still Life, as they were shot at about the same time, and both feature the Three Gorges Dam project (there are even overlapping scenes and actors), but Dong was conceived first. Seeing the dam project and its effects on the residents nearby inspired Jia to make Still Life. Dong is not without its own merits -- it has its own thoughtful, and sometimes playful, observations and cinematography -- and it strengthens what we understand of Jia and his motives. It shows the similar mindsets of artists who would travel to less familiar spaces in search of their next muse, and who would paint, shoot, and appreciate the myriad shapes and expressions of the human beings they find. (added 6/16/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Doubt
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Rating: 7/10
Two acting powerhouses do their best to bring about the thunder in the otherwise solemn and meticulous Doubt. Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, a super strict old school nun at a Catholic school who suspects the hip and more liberal priest, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn, is abusing an altar boy. She has no real evidence against him except for circumstantial clues, but she is adamant in rooting out the "truth"; meanwhile, the priest becomes increasingly frustrated by her accusations. The movie's story, based on director John Patrick Shanley's own stage play, is very consciously constructed -- it's unambiguously trying to be ambiguous -- and that conspicuousness of control is its main weakness. It's countered by great performances which are compelling to watch in and of themselves -- Amy Adams as a naive nun recruited by Sister Aloysius; Viola Davis as the altar boy's mother; but especially Hoffman and Streep, who get at least a couple of chances to solidly duel. If the movie has a skeleton which betrays its artifice and deliberateness, its actors give it real human flesh and blood. The movie can also work as a metaphor for what it takes to maintain religious faith (the flipside of doubt, of course), serving as an illustration of how personal perseverance relates to alienation, and of the inner rewards and pitfalls inherent in following such a path. (added 12/31/2008)

The Duchess
Director: Saul Dibb
Rating: 5/10
The Duchess is everything you'd expect it to be: a well-acted British period piece with lavish attention to period detail, about discontented characters in a royal family. And that's about it. It does its job in telling its story -- in this case, about the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Cavendish (Keira Knightley) -- and doesn't offer anything too much deeper beyond the surface. Its main thread about an otherwise popular woman trapped in a loveless marriage is delivered with what feels like a modern sensibility, though this was likely to make it appeal to modern audiences as opposed to being some kind of stylistic statement. It's as if we're meant to be aghast at the power imbalance between women and men of over two centuries ago, but of course this isn't news, so all that the movie can really wring from its audience is a straightforward sympathy. Otherwise, it's a decent production, not boring nor groundbreaking, and perhaps the only other point worth mentioning is that Ralph Fiennes does a nice job here of almost stealing the show as the distant and insensitive husband, the Duke of Devonshire. (added 2/9/2009)

The Edge of Heaven (2007; released in U.S. in 2008)
Director: Fatih Akin
Rating: 8/10
The Edge of Heaven is another movie about the interconnectedness of people -- in this case, a group of six, or three pairs of parent and offspring, to be exact -- who all shuttle between Germany and Turkey for different reasons. The film has already been compared (favorably, from what I can tell) to Babel, but they're not quite the same -- it isn't enough for director and writer Fatih Akin to show that we're all only a few degrees from each other across countries; rather, he's also interested in the level of connectedness, how chance sometimes leads people to deep bonds while denying them to others who may be seeking each other out. The story is a rather clever, teasing work that shows how tenuous every relationship is, between father and son or mother and daughter, between lovers, between any two people in an encounter. Death also figures in here to further emphasize the value and fragility of human connections. Akin seems to be saying that no matter how much we think we can control, life is capricious when giving us the time and opportunities to forge a lasting connection. It's a sad, lyrical work -- smoothly, creatively, and confidently written -- that sees worth in relationships we may take for granted. (added 2/9/2009)

Encounters at the End of the World
Director: Werner Herzog
Rating: 8/10
Encounters at the End of the World is the latest entry in Werner Herzog's line of investigative documentaries, wherein the filmmaker checks out people living unfamiliar and/or challenging ways of life and observes, documents, and comments upon his discoveries. These movies are often philosophical, investigating what drives people to go where they go and do what they do, especially if what they do wouldn't be perceived as "sane" or "normal" to your typical city-dwelling civilian. In this case, Herzog visits Antarctica and uncovers the special relationship the continent has to the men and women who live there. As usual, many fascinating observations can be made, such as a common thread that ties together the people who move to the icy south -- most of them don't fit well within the rules of civilization, and Antarctica becomes a kind of escape, a haven for them. For those who believe the continent has nothing but penguins, surprise comes from finding a "banal" settlement, as Herzog puts it, in the form of McMurdo Station, which has the amenities of a small town. This is contrasted with the natural wonders Herzog does indeed happen upon there; he once again makes image-gathering a priority, and here he adds to his collection of unique and alien sights and sounds. But mostly the film has a soft lament for this remote world, which is steadily losing its claim as one of the only locations on Earth that man has left little to no footprints on. While understanding what draws certain people to Antarctica, he shows how the population there, even as it consists mostly of scientists and explorers, adds to its natural evolving impermanence. Even the continent at the end of the world -- cold, remote, dangerous, and forbidding -- can not resist the erosion brought about by man's time on this planet. Seeing the movie becomes a method of understanding, of putting into perspective, our place and limited privilege on Earth. (added 7/11/2008; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Flight of the Red Balloon
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Rating: 6/10
I have not seen Albert Lamorisse's classic 1956 short film, The Red Balloon, and I am certain this has dulled my reaction to Hou Hsiao-Hsien's full-length tribute, Flight of the Red Balloon. And as a familiarity with Ozu's work certainly helps in the appreciation of Hou's Café Lumière, which is mostly a response piece to Ozu's themes, I can only assume I'm missing something in watching his first Western-language film, set in Paris. From what I've read, the original Red Balloon, a children's short, was a whimsical piece, memorable through traditional cinematic storytelling devices; Hou's film therefore can not be considered a "remake," as it is shot completely in his style, with long takes observing naturalistic acting and filled with diegetic background sound. But this time the observing is much more literal -- instead of simply the camera doing the observing, the audience has surrogate observers in the form of a Taiwanese nanny Song (Song Fang) and, occasionally, an ever-floating red balloon. Song steps in to help puppet-theater enthusiast (nods to Hou's own The Puppetmaster) and voice artist Suzanne (Juliette Binoche in another great turn) care for her young son, Simon (Simon Iteanu) -- she therefore becomes privy to a somewhat tumultuous yet very normal life of one Parisian family, where single mother works to keep her world turning and young son escapes to memories of pleasant summer days with his away-from-home sister. While the film suggests that such escapes and longing for companionship might be metaphorically translated into plots such as the one in the original Red Balloon, where a boy essentially is befriended by a seemingly sentient balloon (it's referencing even goes so far as to have Song be a budding filmmaker making her own tribute to The Red Balloon), it also illustrates the family's situation as mundane. It also doesn't feel particularly unique to Paris, either. Therefore, I have difficulty gaining any insight into what Hou may be commenting on -- modern Paris, the place of Lamorisse's film, or perhaps the universality of family dysfunction. Flight of the Red Balloon has the feel of an outsider's venture, of wading into unfamiliarity, and while Hou's cinematic techniques are as sound as ever, this time it feels as if they're being used to peer into nothing of particular, specific significance. It's an interesting slice of life, but by this point I expect to get more than that from a Hou work. (added 11/14/2008)

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Rating: 6/10
No one can seem to talk about Forgetting Sarah Marshall without mentioning that it's part of the Judd Apatow line of "bro-mantic" comedies, and so far it's one of the better-received ones as well. And any credit for its success actually belongs to its writer and main star, Jason Segel, who hides nothing in his comedy about a sensitive jilted ex-boyfriend. But for all the laughs it tries to wring from the modern formula of combining bawdiness with sweetness, and of allowing a lot of room for improv and wacky peripheral characters, the movie contains its fair share of disappointing conventions, particularly because it's not really so much about a break-up's aftermath as it is about the protagonist finding a lucky rebound and hanging on to her. Mila Kunis is that rebound and another example of what The Onion's AV Club has dubbed the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl." Boy, do I bristle increasingly at this particular story device, especially when it feels more like wishful fantasy than anything else. To be fair, Kunis's character isn't that manic -- she's mostly levelheaded -- but come on, any brokenhearted guy's troubles would leave quickly if she dropped so receptively into his lap. Still, I suppose watching Segel and Kunis's relationship develop along predictable lines isn't a terrible crime, and the movie overall is easy to get along with -- the comedy works well enough, and the lovely Hawaii setting helps. But for a film that's been lauded for its daring display of full-frontal male nudity, I got the nagging feeling that it actually played things pretty safe. (added 11/21/2008)

Frozen River
Director: Courtney Hunt
Rating: 8/10
A straghtforward drama covering topics from racial divides to economic stress, Frozen River marks an auspicious debut for writer-director Courtney Hunt. Her no-frills movie shows the lengths two mothers will go to in order to provide for their children (even as one of them doesn't actually have the child in her custody), but it also realistically depicts the relationship between the allure of criminal activity and times of desperation. Melissa Leo, shedding all vanity, plays Ray, a mother of two trying to raise the money to buy a mobile home that will allow them to escape their icy living space in northern New York, at the border of a Mohawk reservation and Canada. After a young Mohawk woman (Misty Upham) tries to steal Ray's car, she introduces Ray to the lucrative prospect of helping her smuggle illegal immigrants from Canada to the U.S. by crossing the frozen St. Lawrence River. Although these two main characters engage in this ill-advised business, with Ray steadily becoming more stubborn about continuing the more she gets used to the idea and the closer she gets to reaching her goal of obtaining enough cash, they're illustrated well enough that we sympathize with where they're coming from, and the film perhaps asks the viewers what they might do in similar situations. It may be enough to say that Frozen River is a solid combination of acting and writing, a mature work with no easy answers, about tough citizens just trying to survive, with more nuanced methods of addressing modern social issues and concerns than a great many of its louder and/or more obvious contemporaries. (added 2/18/2009)

Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
Director: Scott Hicks
Rating: 7/10
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts is exactly what the title says -- almost no more and no less. Director Scott Hicks's documentary looks at Philip Glass's life, and doesn't necessarily reveal the insight behind the composer's unique brand of music so much as display the working mode of a passionate artist so automatically devoted to his art and pursuits that the activities of a normal human being's life almost feel like a necessary distraction. To Glass, music is literally a calling -- he claims he doesn't create it, he searches for and finds it -- and yet, as a personality he isn't off-putting but rather easy-going and genial. This makes the movie quite engaging, although we never quite see what makes his own creative process so unique, except that he very much marches to the beat of his own drum (and has been influenced by very particular teachers and personalities). We can assume that, for Glass, his music would speak for itself and that would be the way he prefers it. Meanwhile, Hicks has given us a peek into the artist's world, which on the surface seems anything but spectacular -- and yet perhaps that's the way it ought to be. Art should always speak for itself, powerfully, from a source hidden from the mundane, otherwise it may have little merit as art; and that is what this film might best convey. (added 8/22/2009; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Gomorrah
Director: Matteo Garrone
Rating: 8/10
Gomorrah paints the downbeat picture of lives at the mercy of a hugely influential Italian mafia known as the Camorra in the city of Naples and its surrounding regions. What's immediately notable is how the film resists the common temptation to create a polished or thrilling portrait of mobsters and violent gangs (an issue that bothered me with City of God), instead showing life among organized crime to be grungy and insidiously terrifying, dictating a way of life that the local residents have just come to reluctantly accept with varying degrees of fear, disapproval, and complacency. The movie intertwines five stories of different individuals of varying ages and societal rungs who are all have contact, in one way or another, with the mafia, from a 13-year-old delivery boy who ingratiates himself with local gangsters to a mob-employed tailor who sells his techniques to a rival Chinese group. The film's storytelling technique reminds one of Syriana or Babel, but with less overt dramatic plotting -- everything that happens here just seems to happen unextraordinarily and inevitably, the emphasis being on realism and the idea that the kinds of events that occur here are pretty typical and perhaps neverending. A film of great social concern, it's presented as a helpless lament for the violent control the mafia has over these people. Gomorrah's weaknesses are inherent to its form -- multiple storylines always means more breadth and less depth -- but by fashioning its stories to get in as much impact as possible, mostly from the stark ugliness of their realities and their bold endings, the movie achieves a satisfying level of effectiveness. (added 3/3/2010)

The Happening
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Rating: 3/10
The Happening has a lot of problems, most of them basic to fundamental moviemaking -- the acting approaches hammy, the score tries too hard to dictate mood, the suspense sequences are self-consciously set up, the tone uncomfortably tries to marry dead serious with out-of-place weirdo goofiness, and so on. But, more than anything, what bothers me about it is a sense of cheapness that, although compounded by those other elements, centrally comes from a concept mainly built for shock value. So here's the premise -- some kind of aerial toxin induces people to stop in their tracks and then look for the most immediate way to commit suicide. Sounds scary, but unlike, say, The Birds where the lack of an explanation adds to the freakiness, The Happening all but whacks you over the head with its theories towards the end of the movie -- and once you find out what the most likely explanation is, the methodology of compelling people to kill themselves makes no sense. This is because the source would gain nothing from the dramatic effect of people killing themselves -- they'd have been better off just straight poisoning them. So why go this route? Because it's just a scary idea for a movie. And once you realize this, the dread-laden scenes of suicides start feeling really tasteless. People cavalierly stab or shoot themselves, jump off of buildings, etc. Eventually, certain suicides get more showy, and there are even a couple of tasteless homicides thrown in. If the tone of the movie suggested irony, maybe humor could be used as a defense; but it's a Shyamalan movie, ponderous and, in this case, somewhat condescending. Thematically and constructionally, it parallels Signs, with an outer threat as experienced from a family unit which has problems of its own to solve, and when the two movies are side-by-side, The Happening suffers next to its sibling's tight set pieces. Shyamalan remains a unique director who plays to his own tune, but his moralistic tales continue to become undone by making it too obvious that he's using overly fantastic set ups to force challenges of fortitude upon his characters; that he lets the set up dictate the shape of his stories; and that such a strategy runs counter to effective moralizing, which requires strong identification with the characters, who need a reasonable amount of narrative freedom to dictate their own journeys. (added 11/14/2008)

Happy-Go-Lucky
Director: Mike Leigh
Rating: 8/10
What's it like to be around someone so relentlessly cheery? Sally Hawkins is Poppy, a working class 30-year-old who doesn't seem to take anything seriously -- she's an indefatigable bundle of giggles and silly conversational ripostes, someone who'd irritate anyone who isn't tuned to her merry wavelength. As it turns out, there are those who can hang with her, and those who think she's really some kind of sad sack inside who's putting on an act to avoid reality. Happy-Go-Lucky is a direct character study, so much so that, for me, watching it was almost like viewing a nature documentary. I could imagine David Attenborough's voice: "See here this woman whose way of positively viewing life can grate on those around her; we can observe how her attitude strongly, dynamically affects her environment, acting as a driving force." In that sense, it's quite fascinating (and watching it this way helped because if I knew Poppy in real life, I'd run away from her); the social experiment even has her facing off with her polar opposite, an uptight driving instructor named Scott (Eddie Marsan). I find the movie largely successful, but hampered by an ambiguity that leaves up for debate whether or not Poppy's behavior is a compulsion, or really is a conscientious act. I prefer to see it as a compulsion; I find that more sympathetic and believable, more insightful, and Hawkins plays it much of the time like a compulsion. But I find it's also too easy to interpret her personality as a honed mechanism, and I'm not fully convinced that an undaunted positive outlook really can be honed to that degree without seeing more chinks in the armor. Or maybe I'm just the kind of person that a character like Poppy is supposed to flummox. It ends on something of a false note as Marsan's character loses a bit of credibility in his arc (no fault of the actor, though, who does a great job), and Poppy has a moment afterwards that really opens up that compulsion/mechanism debate. In any case, this might be the closest we get to a pure soul reversal of There Will Be Blood. (added 12/31/2008)

Hunger
Director: Steve McQueen
Rating: 9/10
It might sound like a contradiction to say that a tough, violent movie about a hunger strike could be so visually enrapturing, but that just may be the case with Hunger, the feature film debut of British artist Steve McQueen (no relation to the famous actor of the '60s and '70s, of course). Covering a pivotal event in recent Irish history -- the 1981 Irish hunger strike, staged by Irish Republican inmates of the Maze Prison located in Northern Ireland -- the film doesn't delve into the details of the politics; instead, it focuses on the experience of being in the prison itself, from the job of the guards to what the prisoners have to endure. In largely speechless portions, McQueen's film paints a stark vision of life within the cells, using consciously composed shots, each communicating immediacy and opening paths to a meditative experience. The same strategy holds true for the movie's bravura centerpiece, a single static shot lasting for over 16 minutes featuring prisoners' leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) discussing the motivations behind the planned hunger strike to his priest (Liam Cunningham) -- it demands attention and reflection all at once. Meanwhile, Fassbender gives new meaning to living for one's art, as he commits his body to starvation in order to properly portray Sands's days on strike. Previously sharing camera time with the other prisoners (and one prison guard (Stuart Graham) in particular), the third act belongs to Fassbender, whose character's personal journey not only fleshes out the depth of will a man is capable of when he believes in holding his moral ground, but also allows the audience to share a transcendental experience. McQueen's film is a poetic, almost abstract take on very real, tangible material -- a fitting artistic approach to a surreal, extreme experience most human beings will not have on their own. (added 3/3/2010)

In Bruges
Director: Martin McDonagh
Rating: 7/10
Writing and directing a crime movie always seems like a great way to get started in the business, and in the case of In Bruges, Martin McDonagh gets to start off with a bang. Savvy vets Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play a couple of hit men -- Ray and Ken, respectively -- who are ordered to hide out in the Belgian town of Bruges after their last job. The nervous, jabbery Ray is bored to pieces while the more thoughtful Ken takes the opportunity to see the sights. The movie's mainly a black comedy, quite British, with witty dialogue whizzing to and fro, and it has more than a few twists and turns lying ahead, especially when their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes in a very refreshing comedic turn) sends out his next orders and eventually gets directly involved. It's also an intriguing mix of situational humor and existential dread, a balancing act of light and dark, memorably executed. In Bruges undoubtedly gets mileage from being clever, though I felt it didn't quite know how to end once it got past its best scene (approximately in the middle of the movie). Otherwise, there's much to recommend about this look into how criminals' convoluted personal codes of ethics and honor get in the way of their jobs, though I think it would stand out more if this particular genre weren't already so populated with other good examples of funny, ironic storytelling. (added 1/13/2009)

JCVD
Director: Mabrouk El Mechri
Rating: 8/10
The "meta" movie, or, put another way, self-referential movie, is a tricky concept to pull off, but when it's done well it can be a lot of fun. Such is the case with JCVD, a rather out-of-nowhere film about, of all things, the waning career and celebrity wear-and-tear of Jean Claude Van Damme. He plays a version of himself, mostly based on his real life, for the purposes of soul-baring -- that is, how does he feel about the point he has come to, as a relatively successful action star who nonetheless feels rather empty on the inside? The scenario within which Van Damme comes to a point of crisis is a fairly standard crime plot -- he's one of the people held hostage when robbers decide to hold up a Brussels post office. JCVD may or may not be revealing the truth about Van Damme, and the way he feels about his life -- for all we know, it's just a big show, a put-on for our entertainment -- but what matters is that it's really quite convincing. You do want to believe this is Van Damme, especially when he delivers a fourth wall-breaking soliloquy wherein he expresses bitter sadness and many regrets; and, perhaps most surprisingly, you can be assuredly sold on his performance, recalling the famous line supposedly uttered by John Ford about John Wayne after seeing Red River: "I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!" JCVD is also quite humorous, taking the opportunity to make ample jokes referencing Van Damme's career, including a few funny cracks about John Woo and Steven Seagal, and lampooning the celebrity effect in general (the crowd that gathers outside roots for JCVD, even though the police believe he's perpetrating the crime; one of the robbers is clearly enamoured of him, talking about his movies and asking him to demonstrate some karate). All in all, the film is a good twist on a persona most of us probably thought of in two-dimensional terms; it's always refreshing to see when such a person is smarter than we think -- and is fully in on the joke as well. (added 8/27/2009; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Lakeview Terrace
Director: Neil LaBute
Rating: 5/10
Lakeview Terrace starts out with a great deal of potential, with Samuel L. Jackson playing a strict policeman and father who harbors racial grudges that are tested when his new next-door neighbors, an interracial couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), move in. It's a look at an ugly side of racism -- the kind that comes from someone who is normally the victim of racism, who becomes righteously prejudiced against the usual oppressors -- that is rarely touched upon. Make this guy a cop who seems used to the idea of abusing his power and authority, and place this in the hands of Neil LaBute, who's directed his share of misanthropic films, and Lakeview Terrace should have been a powerhouse. Alas, all of its story elements begin to feel more and more like devices, and as the movie rolls into its third act, events become more and more ridiculous in their attempts to incite genre thrills (the bachelor party scene felt particularly amateurish). By the end, Jackson has become the usual kind of monster one finds in movies like this, draining any thoughtfulness from a late scene where his character reveals what was possibly a deep-rooted frustration with himself and his prejudices, and an inability to come to terms with them. So sadly, the movie prefers to get its jollies from depicting escalating neighbor wars, which rise to the point where the subtext need not apply. It's ironic when the tactics it uses to ratchet up the suspense actually reduces the very real tension that gets communicated in its first half. (added 2/12/2009)

Leatherheads
Director: George Clooney
Rating: 6/10
Three movies in, one can see George Clooney's strengths/traits as a director. He has a very good eye for visual detail and he's interested in romanticizing media's past, mythologizing it. Good Night, and Good Luck. was given a beautiful, nostalgic look, and so now Leatherheads gets much of the same treatment, filmed in sepia-tinged colors and given a warm gloss, all to pay tribute to the lost Hollywood genre of the screwball comedy. The look turns out to be the best thing about a movie that may otherwise feel disposable -- it's meant to be a lark, with witty repartee between its two leads, Clooney himself and Renée Zellweger, playing characters playfully named Dodge Connelly and Lexie Littleton. But chemistry is as chemistry does, and the two don't exhibit quite enough. They exchange zingers with relative ease, but when it comes time for us to learn that they should fall for each other, frankly, it's just not quite believable. The story combines investigative journalism (Lexie is the reporter) with football at a time long ago, when college ball was big and pro ball was, as the opening scene indicates, a joke. Dodge, a pro player, figures the best way to draw crowds to the pro games would be to recruit a popular college star (John Krasinski), but it's that same star that Lexie wants to discredit as a recent war hero. These elements don't exactly jell together seamlessly, and where a screwball comedy should feel breakneck, Leatherheads bobs up and down with its pace. In terms of its attitudes, it's definitely a tribute to boys being boys and boys realizing when to be men (another Clooney trait); using football as its canvas, it pines for a time with no rules while acknowledging that following rules are an inevitable trade-in for being able to trade up. The movie's a handsome production through and through; in presentation and story, it advocates a place for mythology, but it mostly simply tries for fun, and for a good part of it, it delivers. But with it's jumble of elements, it doesn't allow a central one to take hold and truly fly. (added 10/15/2008)

Let the Right One In
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Rating: 8/10
The best aspect of Let the Right One In, a Swedish pre-teen love/vampire movie, is how it gradually cultivates our allegiance to the two main characters -- middle-schooler Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and his neighbor Eli (Lina Leandersson), who only appears to be about the same age -- even as they go down a path that none of us would admit is moral. It taps the primal responses to some of our most basic fears while growing up -- no, not of being attacked by a creature of the night, but of loneliness and of being bullied or harassed. Oskar is pushed around by some really mean kids at school, so that when he befriends Eli, whose kind attention to him empowers him, we lean towards seeing things her way, and we might even start excusing her slaughtering innocent civilians for their blood and her survival. Tomas Alfredson milks the alluring mystique of vampires this way, putting a twist on the fantasy of the beleaguered youth who finds a form of magical assistance to help him fend, all the while heightening the sense of isolated misanthropy one may easily develop in those precarious teen years. The story is set in a realistic snowy settlement, feeling like a horror romance Kieslowski might have made, as it explores both a tender, tentative relationship -- a connection in an otherwise dark world -- and relative morality, making its audience complicit with murder and vengeance. But oh, what beautiful, horrific vengeance. (added 1/13/2009)

Man on Wire
Director: James Marsh
Rating: 8/10
A feat like the one Philippe Petit pulled off deserves to be documented -- in 1974, the Frenchman and a small band infiltrated New York's World Trade Center and set up a tightrope between the recently built twin towers. And, yes, Petit walks the rope. I'm pretty acrophobic, so the very idea of someone even trying to pull this stunt makes me dizzy, but Man on Wire shows there are indeed people crazy enough to do this. The movie is mostly an interview documentary with certain parts re-enacted (though not the feat itself -- photographs take care of that part), but it has fun in presenting the whole deed as a caper movie. Petit, a veritable ball of life and enthusiasm, and his various cohorts describe the careful planning, rigorous training, and dedicated personnel required to complete the operation. Think of it as Ocean's Eleven where the goal is not to rob casinos but instead, as the film puts it, to commit an "artistic crime." Man on Wire is charming and entertaining, a real-life heist, and as an added bonus it's a loving tribute to the twin towers, for they perform every bit alongside Petit, and now the whole show can only ever be witnessed through the lens of history. (added 12/24/2008)

Miracle at St. Anna
Director: Spike Lee
Rating: 7/10
I do love how Spike Lee attacks his take on a World War II movie with gusto, throwing in all the things he does well and not so well, but undeniably maintaining his personality. Miracle at St. Anna can be easily seen as Lee's riposte to Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, about which he complained there was nary a black soldier to be found in it. Thus, his film pushes the point home, without subtlety, that black fighters were not only there (in this case in all-black infantry units) but were also fighting for a country that didn't even appreciate them. The agenda is obvious, but the rage feels justified, and meanwhile Lee gives us a few virtuoso touches, from the surreal early scene of the infantry crossing the river while propoganda voiced by Axis Sally is amplified to them, to the sickening carnage of the depiction of the real-life St. Anna massacre. Lee has a lot to say and a whole group of people to speak for, and if Miracle at St. Anna has a major weakness it's that its story doesn't easily lend itself to Lee's politics. A group of four black soldiers get stuck behind enemy lines in Tuscany, Italy, and they fall in with a few anti-Nazi natives while caring for an injured little kid, but throughout their minglings one can tell Lee's heart is more in expressing more personal concerns. They come through in scattered scenes, like a conversation among a few white military higher-ups at home and a flashback to an ice cream shop incident, yet they somewhat awkwardly work their ways through this larger, multi-threaded narrative construct which has, perhaps, a few too many similarities to Saving Private Ryan. I honestly feel that if Lee had a stronger story within which to frame his anger, he would've had a slam dunk on his hands. As it is, Miracle at St. Anna works well enough as an emotional piece and has within it enough human moments to make it a worthwhile viewing. (added 2/18/2009)

My Blueberry Nights (2007; released in U.S. in 2008)
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Rating: 6/10
Wong Kar Wai puts Norah Jones on a trip across America in My Blueberry Nights, his first English-language film. The resulting movie is rather endearing, but also pretty corny. Much of the reason for this comes from the character concepts, starting with Elizabeth (Jones), who's simply a green soul who needs a little life experience under her belt. That's all right, but she runs into a former romantic (Jude Law) now settled with running a cafe; a jilted man (David Strathairn) who drinks his nights away while hoping that his wife (Rachel Weisz) will see him with loving eyes again; and a poker player (Natalie Portman) who's primary self-touted strength is in being able to read people. These are little life stories, but they feel quaint, almost dusty. Wong brings as much of his trademark to the table as he can, starting with his shot selections (e.g., characters off-center looking off to the side of the screen that they're in; shots through windows; use of clocks) and a rich, saturated color-palette (surprisingly all photographed by a new cinematographer, Darius Khondji, in place of Wong's usual partner-in-crime Christopher Doyle). The visuals are luscious but also labored, especially in the overuse of stuttered slo-mo, grasping for wispiness or profundity, one or the other. Maybe it feels less smooth because this technique is being applied to an actual linear story; usually, Wong's rich imagery is enhanced by his wandering narratives, and vice-versa. A straight script loses the director's elliptical appeal. Just the same, My Blueberry Nights offers enough of Wong's signature, particularly his preoccupation with the importance of timing and chance to form weight in temporal relationships, to make it a soft, sweet viewing -- consider it Wong lite. (added 8/1/2008)

My Winnipeg
Director: Guy Maddin
Rating: 9/10
To plainly call My Winnipeg a documentary would be misleading. Although it's about the recent history and idiosyncrasies of the city of Winnipeg, it's presented as a fantasia, one man's rummaging of his own memories of growing up in his hometown. That man is Guy Maddin, a filmmaker whose movies I had not experienced until viewing this one -- and I very much enjoyed what I saw. My Winnipeg feels quite close to certain works of David Lynch -- Eraserhead, for the surreal black-and-white atmosphere juxtaposing horror and absurdity, and Blue Velvet for its probing of a city's insanities lurking under the surface of a kitschy kind of normalcy. The fun part here is choosing whether or not to believe the various points of interest Maddin, as the narrator, brings up, both about Winnipeg and his own family, consisting of several siblings and a dominating matriarch (played by Ann Savage). Maddin utilizes many creative touches to give his film a whirling flow, with images constantly moving and fading, interspliced by emotion-punctuating title cards; in the meantime, his narration sounds like someone oscillating between amateur poetry and matter-of-fact storytelling. Actors play his family and himself in conscientious re-enactments, interwoven with episodes involving the city and its active shedding of its cultural past. With his story, Maddin expresses the relatively common sentiments of tinting one's past with nostalgia while mourning present developments that relegate that past strictly to memory -- a hockey rink significant to his childhood is torn down, for instance. But the sentiments are presented with such dreamlike flourish and humor that watching the movie is extremely entertaining. Quilted together with admirable assuredness, My Winnipeg is a unique, fun, and trippy trip down an artist's memory lane. (added 11/1/2010)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2008

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