Capsules for 2009

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2009. Includes all the movies of 2009 I've seen that I did not write a full review for.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Director: Stephen Sommers
Rating: 5/10
Comparisons between G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Michael Bay's Transformers movies are inevitable -- as many kids of the '80's are aware of, G.I. Joe and The Transformers formed the weekday afternoon Marvel-produced syndicated one-two punch of half-hour animated shows based on Hasbro toys. From my perspective, The Transformers gained more lasting popularity and, as a result, had the bigger and more hyped live-action movies, but not only were those movies fairly ugly, Bay didn't give a lick about his subject's cultural footprint and its place in the hearts of its fans, nor did he understand the most basic idea of what made it appealing in the first place. In that regard, Stephen Sommers's G.I. Joe movie, while quite dopey on its own, is superior to Bay's films in that it at least retains the basics -- an elite government military team vs. an elite terrorist organization, both with access to powerful and fanciful military technology and weaponry -- and makes winking nods to its past incarnations as a comic book and cartoon (they actually slip in the line, "knowing is half the battle," and I had to laugh). Unfortunately, it sinks itself with a multitude of weaknesses -- the acting is distractingly inconsistent (Channing Tatum is a brick; Dennis Quaid moves about as if he's constipated; Marlon Wayans actually locks into the tone correctly, while Sienna Miller tries her best to get by; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt hams it up way too much); the story is convoluted where it concerns its characters, creating unnecessary relationships between its principles in order to generate twists; and at no point does any of it contain enough weight so that it might better involve the viewer. It's light entertainment with little to call memorable, save for perhaps a fun sequence in Paris; but at least therein exists some detectable evidence that the filmmakers had a soft spot for G.I. Joe and simply wanted to deliver its essence -- its hodgepodge of techno-weapons, military fetishism, team comraderie, and ninjas -- to the screen. (added 11/7/2009)

Gentlemen Broncos
Director: Jared Hess
Rating: 3/10
What bugged me about Jared Hess's first film, Napolean Dynamite, is the way it made fun of its subject without adding anything else to it. In Hess's second movie, Nacho Libre, he tempered his tendency to ridicule by making his main character easier to sympathize with. However, in Gentlemen Broncos he's stepped back into just making fun of these poor weirdos and anything they hope to accomplish. One gets the feeling the reins have been loosened on the director, as not only are the movie's characters blissfully unaware they are easy to laugh at, even their creative endeavors are made ripe for mockery, from the protagonist, an introverted teen named Benjamin (Michael Angarano) and his science fiction stories (played out as a movie-within-a-movie on the screen) to his mother (Jennifer Coolidge) and her self-designed line of clothing. The supposed sweet side here is that some of these creations are marked for success within the world of the movie, but out here, in the audience, we're still ultimately asked to laugh at their absurdity. This also tempers the movie's most-potential-filled theme -- that creative works are precious to the creators, no matter how bad they actually are. The film is about a successful sci-fi author (Jemaine Clement, genuinely funny playing his part) stealing Benjamin's story for his next book; meanwhile, sub-plots abound regarding various ways in which the works of various artists are disrespected. In the end, however, we're meant to see that the art was bad and worth having some laughs at. Is Hess sympathizing with bad artists and showing a soft spot for bad art? He makes the best case for this with his own bad movie, which contains pathetic, pitiless caricatures of characters and a weird predilection for gross-out jokes. It's possible Hess thinks he's sticking up for these little guys, their little dreams, and their limited potential, but his depiction of them comes across as simply too mean spirited. You can't root for them while laughing at the work they hold dear -- it just doesn't go both ways. (added 3/12/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Girlfriend Experience
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Rating: 7/10
Steven Soderbergh, who continues to bounce around his eclectic directorial spectrum, lands on his artistic indie side with The Girlfriend Experience. This film seems to be based on the notion that it would be interesting to follow around a female escort in New York during the deep recession days of 2008, right before the U.S. presidential election. "Chelsea" (real-life porn actress Sasha Grey) is paid by very rich clients to accompany them in whatever way they please, although many of them appear just to need company in the face of the bad economy. Meanwhile, Chelsea also has a boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer aggressively seeking more business with various avenues of income. There's a level of coldness depicted here, where all of the characters are exposed as searching for their basic needs -- money, companionship (sexual or otherwise) --when times get tough, and they are determined not to give up lifestyles they may have grown accustomed to. Chelsea herself is no angel -- her line of work affords her the luxury of being mostly independent-minded and even selfish in pursuing her own personal desires; it also forces her to create distances between herself and the people she interacts with. Soderbergh likes to put the magnifying glass on human behavior as a sort of uncontrollable, instinctive set of compulsions, all of which are heavily shaped by environment (see also: Bubble). Chelsea may believe she has control over her life, but her actions feel inevitable; it reminds me a bit of Nana in Godard's My Life to Live. Grey isn't Anna Karina, though; she does just enough to get by, and Soderbergh's visual compositions do the rest. The Girlfriend Experience ends up as a curious snapshot of urban America during a particular pressured time; it doesn't have a generally nice view of people, but a frankness about the film's subject drives it -- when the chips are down, it's all about business. (added 10/13/2009; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Goodbye Solo
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Rating: 8/10
The relative futility and fulfillment gained from human interaction, from friendships forced, forged, or invited, is of main concern in Goodbye Solo. It's a movie about a relationship stripped down to its most essential components, with little gimmick -- in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a cab driver named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), originally from Senegal, finds himself with a mysterious passenger, William (Red West), who has offered him a thousand bucks to drive him to the cliffs of Blowing Rock on a not-too-far later date, with no return pickup necessary. William has also moved out of his place and into a motel, and Solo suspects the worst. Friendly, generous, and garrulous by nature, Solo spends the rest of the movie appealing to the older Southerner William, who appears bitter and defeated, and who would rather be left alone. Although Goodbye Solo has the makings of a cheap sentimental movie that might have Solo reintroducing William to the joys of life, it thankfully doesn't go in that direction -- we learn about these everyday characters and get to know them purely through their actions and interactions (and, all right, also through a little bit of snooping on Solo's part), and we also come to appreciate the indelible imprints left on us through shared experiences with others. The movie is realistic about the way people operate -- we are more immovable than we would care to admit -- but is also hopeful about the rewards that can be mined from the broadening of perspective that comes with getting to know someone outside of your usual social zone. It's also interesting to note that the film shares thematic territory with another "solo" movie, The Soloist, but covers it without external agenda or restrictions placed upon it by its premise concepts. (added 1/28/2010)

The Hangover
Director: Todd Phillips
Rating: 7/10
I won't deny that I found much of The Hangover to be very funny, but it does occur to me that the movie might be a candidate for "the ultimate guy movie," and as such its appeal and longevity may be somewhat instantly limited. Let's just say I can see it being hilarious for one half of the population, and I can't see the other half having anything to do with it (case in point: it has essentially three major women characters, and they're pretty poorly written). Still, for the half that would appreciate it, it's quite entertaining as an entry in this tried-and-true genre of "guys going on a inadvertent wacky adventure," and I like how this one is set up as a kind of mystery, where the characters piece the events together to solve a puzzle. I swear I know guys exactly like Bradley Cooper's Phil (who would also be exactly the kind of guy enjoying the heck out of this movie). But the prize for the most uncannily identifiable character would have to go to Zach Galifianakis's Alan. He's the token weirdo of the group of three groomsmen who somehow lose the groom during his midnight bachelor party in Las Vegas, and most of the time these weirdo characters feel fictitiously psycho; but Galifianakis plays Alan in that perfect space between being aware and yet not totally aware of who he is in relation to the rest of the guys. If I could explain it better than that, I would. Mainly, I thought the main characters were written and played so close to a plane of believability that it was easy to get into the craziness of their situations. But can anyone who isn't necessarily on this guy wavelength also be able to appreciate The Hangover? (added 12/29/2009)

The Headless Woman (2008; released in U.S. in 2009)
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Rating: 7/10
The Headless Woman is largely a marvel of technique at the expense of almost anything else -- whatever story exists is secondary in nature to the very experience of watching the film. This experience is simply set up as follows: in Argentina, a woman, Verónica (María Onetto), sporting a blonde dye, job drives her car and, momentarily distracted by her ringing cell phone, runs over something... or someone. Not bothering to get out of the car to look, she drives on, but then later, as a result of possibly trauma associated with lingering guilt, she becomes extremely disoriented -- and so does the viewer. Director Lucrecia Martel uses all methods available to convey to us what it might feel like to be Verónica -- not really listening to anyone, wandering about as if in a fog, barely registering anytime someone speaks to her -- by using distorted focus, half-full shots of people, seemingly incomplete scenes of questionable purpose, and a parade of characters that we are never quite formally introduced to. But to what end? The movie does not appear to be a tool of empathy -- rather, it seems to be a criticism of the affluent class of Argentinians who take the lives of the surrounding lower class citizens for granted; after all, the movie hints that Verónica may have run over a boy from that lower class. Meanwhile, as her guilt causes her to suggest to family and friends that she "may have killed someone," they all gloss over it ("It was probably just a dog"), and indeed it seems someone is pulling strings for her, making the evidence of her accident go away. We don't necessarily feel sorry for Verónica, so why are we in her head (or her headlessness)? But even as we feel lost about The Headless Woman, we can appreciate how it makes us feel so lost -- and maybe feeling lost, to emphasize the ignorant aimlessness of the bourgeoisie, is exactly the aim of the exercise. (added 1/28/2010)

The Hurt Locker (2008; released in U.S. in 2009)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rating: 9/10
Is it possible that though we've had numerous movies about the Iraq War, so few of them have been directly about the soldiers' experiences in the field? Most of them have had storylines involving people outside and around the war, or soldiers who come home and suffer post-traumatic stress; and almost all of them carried a political agenda. The Hurt Locker, straightforward in its approach about the adventures of a bomb defusing team in Iraq, is therefore weirdly refreshing. Thankfully, director Kathryn Bigelow and her team don't drop the ball here, and the result is thrilling, suspenseful, involving, and probing. It also makes no excuses about being that philosophical oxymoron, an "exciting war movie" -- this contradiction is actually a part of its central theme, showing how the danger of the battleground experience is so unique and fearsome, it is actually perversely appealing in some way. The main character, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), has somehow become numb to his job to the point of recklessness, much to the chagrin of his main comrades, the pragmatic Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the more nervous Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). We aren't asked to pity James or even necessarily to sympathize with him -- we simply watch him and drop our jaws at the kind of creature he's become, at the combination of his cold expertise and his almost psychotic intuitions. Bigelow has rigged together a tough war movie that puts into perspective the awesome incongruence of the experience of this modern war with any other known modern experience. In doing so, she may have finally given the Iraq War its definitive identifying film. (added 12/15/2009)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Director: Terry Gilliam
Rating: 5/10
The fact that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is Heath Ledger's last film casts an unavoidable spell over the proceedings -- I couldn't help being conscious of this fact the whole time I was watching. For one thing, it made me expect him to be the main protagonist, but this was not the case -- that honor belonged to Christopher Plummer's Doctor Parnassus, a former monk who has made a deal with the devil (played delectably by Tom Waits) to become immortal. Parnassus and the devil, who goes by Mr. Nick, have an ongoing contest to "collect" souls -- Parnassus believes people truly crave stories and imagination, while Mr. Nick says they'd prefer petty desires. But as Parnassus has lived for 1,000 years, he finds himself losing the battle as he travels with his theater troupe to entertain people, beckoning them to enter a magic mirror that leads into the "Imaginarium," where they are offered one or the other form of bliss. From this we gather the director, Terry Gilliam, is telling a tale of great concern to him, where the trade of the artist/storyteller is losing out to flashy and ephemeral entertainment. Now where does Ledger's character Tony fit into all this? Having seen the movie, I still find it hard to explain -- he's a stranger the troupe finds hanging by his neck under a bridge, yet was able to survive. He's lost some of his memory, but they soon find he has a gift for showmanship, which helps their cause. But apparently he also harbors a dark secret. It's at this point where my sentiments become muddled. I found myself allying with Ledger's character for the sake of real-life sympathy, and frankly his character has a rough charm and outsizes all the other characters. He competes for the affections of Parnassus's daughter (Lily Cole) against her colleague Anton (Andrew Garfield), who shows himself to be petulant. But while racing towards the finish, Gilliam wants to make us switch allegiances, which is somewhat difficult to do, especially since Ledger's work had to be completed by other high profile charismatic actors -- namely Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell -- which works because when he steps through the mirror, he becomes physically transformed. Depp in particular is quite fun to watch, even though his part is very short; he adds to the desire to root for the character. Perhaps Gilliam's point is to beware of the false charmers, but considering Tony worked most of the time to help Parnassus succeed, the warning doesn't easily fit in with the movie's concern for storytellers (it doesn't help that what eventually happens with Tony feels forced and out-of-nowhere). Along the way, the movie features fun, cartoony visuals and plenty of, yes, imagination, with a good dose of appealing acting; but it's overplotted and the film ends up as a head-scratcher -- we're supposed to sympathize with Parnassus, but the case just isn't strongly made. (added 5/12/2010)

In the Loop
Director: Armando Iannucci
Rating: 9/10
Every once in a while I need to be reminded that British humor is very funny, and that some of the best comedy out there came from the United Kingdom, from Monty Python to the Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg films. In the Loop is a movie spinoff from Armando Iannucci's TV series, The Thick of It, which satirizes politicians and the media covering them. The movie is obscenely merciless, skewering policy-makers in both the British and U.S. governments for the game-playing, spin-doctoring, self-serving entities they are. The ones who gain some kind of livelihood from it are essentially competing for manhood -- and this includes the women -- while those who might have some bit of conscience about the whole thing are pushed around as spineless wimps in a pit bull's world. In this case, no less than the starting of a war is at stake, which only magnifies the lunacy of this playground of one-uppers wielding verbal technicalities as their weapons. In the Loop operates as a modern-day satire does, mixing very mean characters with very stupid or confused ones, with zingers, profanity, and quotable lines flying about so fast you'd get whipped in the eye if you were standing in the way. In fact, my only complaint about the movie might be that it feels like it's following a foolproof formula used by certain current comedies -- but that's hardly a complaint when the comedy works so well, right? (added 1/10/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Informant!
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Rating: 7/10
The Informant! starts out as a true-life whistleblower movie, wherein Mark Whitacre, played by Matt Damon, cooperates with the FBI to expose his agribusiness company's involvement in price-fixing, but then turns into something unexpected when more of Whitacre's character is revealed. However, the story itself doesn't particularly characterize this movie -- it's director Steven Soderbergh's comedic approach that gives the film its personality. While going about his business, both mundane and extraordinary, Whitacre is prone to giving us his random thoughts in voiceover, thoughts that would seem to be recollections of trivial stories, never appearing to matter to whatever is happening at hand, and almost always with some kind of wry or goofy punchline. I have to admit I was laughing readily at the very oddity of this presentation and the comedy in general, and it also helps quite a bit that Damon does a fantastic job playing this strange character, a combination of contradictory moods, impulses, and motivations that nonetheless feels believable. Now, normally, I don't really like Soderbergh's sarcastic side, and this movie is full of that, all punched up with cute music and titles updating the settings; but it works well enough here because it contributes to the oddness of the whole tale, one constantly finding a new way to catch the viewer off guard, accentuating the absurdity of Whitacre's situations. The movie does a good job of matching its mood and tone to Whitacre's state of mind -- the further it goes, the more nervous everything gets, including Whitacre. As a film, The Informant! should be considered part of a certain genre, yet to even state what that genre is would be akin to offering up a spoiler -- but it becomes evident by the time the movie moves closer to its climax. The films of that genre are generally dramas, so this humorous approach is very tricky, but Soderbergh and Damon pull it off with aplomb. (added 11/28/2009; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Inglourious Basterds
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Rating: 8/10
One might say all of Quentin Tarantino's movies are ultimately about movies -- the impact of the cultural medium itself as it shapes our perceptions, our memories, and our entertainment. If this is the case, then Inglourious Basterds might be the strongest expression of Tarantino's pet theme yet. This is a World War II movie purportedly built like a Spaghetti-Western; not only is it loaded with the standard plethora of Tarantino's film geek references, film -- and the knowledge and exhibition of it -- is essential to the plot. It involves the desire of Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, here seen more in his movie-producing capacity than anything else, to premiere a new patriotic film in a cinema in Nazi-occupied France; the theater's owner (Mélanie Laurent) sees it as a chance to trap the Nazi high-ranking officers attending it by locking them in and burning it down. The agent she plans to use to ignite? Highly flammable film stock, of course. Meanwhile, other involved characters all seem well-versed in film knowledge at the time, discussing subjects from the movies of G.W. Pabst to the racism expressed in King Kong. The events are essentially set in motion by a soldier (Daniel Brühl) whose heroics will certainly have more resonance when they get shown as a movie (with the soldier turning actor, playing himself). The titular characters, a group of American soldiers (lead by Brad Pitt) sent into France to hunt down and scalp Nazis in order to spread terror, don't even seem to figure in all that much (and wind up being the film's weakest link) except when they partake in a parallel plan largely engineered by, of course, an actress (Diane Kruger). But most of the movie consists of masterful interrogation scenes, where an expert Nazi detective (Christoph Waltz), as he prefers to refer to himself, corners subjects hiding information and proceeds to make them -- and us, the audience -- sweat. Those scenes are examples of bravura cinematic execution, a definite nod to the suspense masters of the past; but with the rest of the movie, Tarantino shows how indispensible film was, and still is, as mainstream cultural exhibition and historian. Yes, historian -- it suffices to say the director plays fast and loose with actual history here, and in doing so shows how most of us turn to film for both fantasy escape and an avenue to make the abstract past tangible, enough to even possibly, and powerfully, replace actual history. Here, film is the best revenge in more ways than one -- not only does the face on the screen in the French theater cackle in delight, the movie itself, the one we're watching, rewrites events to give us vengeful, cathartic satisfaction. Dictators won't have the ultimate power in the end -- the filmmakers will. (added 12/22/2009)

The International
Director: Tom Tykwer
Rating: 5/10
The International is certainly a loaded title, since it refers not only to the evil worldwide bank that our heroes, played by Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, are trying to bring down, but also to the very nature of the current popular idea of modern-day villainy -- that there are no secret organizations or corrupt governments trying to take over the world, but rather it's capital/corporate institutions taking advantage of worldwide conflict and trying to profit at all costs. As Owen's Interpol agent Salinger learns, the bad guys are a conglomeration of cooperative, endlessly replaceable personnel, all working for the benefit of a malicious faceless entity, whose business entangles several countries. The problem with the film is that it tries to build up to this realization, playing itself as a mystery/thriller with something profound to say at the end, when we've pretty much heard a lot of this already; in other words, it's the continuation of a trend, epitomized when The Manchurian Candidate remake replaced the Communists with a corporation and most recently spotlighted by the 007 movie Quantum of Solace, where SPECTRE, a megalomaniac's terrorist org, has been replaced by QUANTUM, a mysterious far-reaching group one middleman agent confesses to having "people everywhere." Even shows like 24 have gotten into the act, wherein the hero can't bring down the whole system so much as just hack at it a piece at a time. For most of The International, the unfolding of its mystery is slow, meticulous, and not very urgent; it only kicks into another gear with its much-lauded shootout in The Guggenheim, a grand and exciting set piece that, at the same time, feels a bit out of place and, frankly, counter-logical to what had been happening in the rest of the movie. The film is hampered by a self-seriousness that halfheartedly caves in to movie contrivances (the bad guys are a bit too assassination-happy) and generates nominal suspense while not trying hard enough to create real movie excitement. (added 6/16/2009)

It's Complicated
Director: Nancy Meyers
Rating: 6/10
There's no getting away from the observation that It's Complicated is middle-class adult moviegoer's comfort food, and has no aspirations beyond being that. It has good star power in Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin, in a story about a 10-years divorced couple (Streep and Baldwin) who suddenly find themselves awkwardly drifting towards each other again, threatening to turn their hard re-established normal lives (actually, they're both very well-off, thus adding to the fantasies of the middle-class) topsy-turvy. It's a subject that could easily be presented as a grueling drama, or even a soapy melodrama, but instead director Nancy Meyers applies her light comedic touch. And after all is said and done, that was probably the correct approach. It's Complicated doesn't have more wisdom to impart about post-divorce relationships other than, well, they can be complicated, so what it wants is to have its actors deliver relatability with a side of laughs. On that front, the movie succeeds, lead by Streep who gives us that rare movie character, the older woman who's normal and well-balanced, and is just facing new issues. Baldwin, though, is the main surprise here -- his character is the kind that is usually portrayed as irredeemable, as he's the one who had the affair to end his first marriage, and now he's longing to leave his affair-partner-turned-wife. Baldwin manages to make this foolish man somewhat sympathetic, which adds a needed character depth to the story. Martin rounds things off in an unchallenging role -- he's the sweet other guy that Streep's character is just getting into -- but manages to work in his appeal effectively. So while it may be complicated for the characters, it's a simple formula for light movie entertainment. (added 6/7/2010)

Jennifer's Body
Director: Karyn Kusama
Rating: 4/10
I usually don't like to focus on an actor or an actress whenever one does a bad job, but with Jennifer's Body it can't be helped. Megan Fox is top billed here, playing the titular Jennifer, who, although she is not the protagonist -- that role would be reserved for her best friend "Needy," played by Amanda Seyfried -- is nevertheless of central concern. The trouble with Jennifer, a high school cheerleader, is that she's been turned into some kind of demon who prefers to feast on her male classmates, all the while continuing a rather dominant-submissive relationship with the less-overtly-hot Needy, who steadily realizes she must do something about her friend's rampage. The two interact by trading quips by screenwriter Diablo Cody, whose hipster lines signal that the movie's a wink-wink comedy that doubles as an ironic horror movie. The problem is none of these elements really come together, each one of them torpedoing the production from a different angle. The movie is too self-consciously aware, attempting to awkwardly inject some thematic weight (about the dynamics of high school girl friendships and teenage feminism) into a premise that seems to work independently of them; director Karyn Kusama can't get much momentum out of either of the film's competing tones; and, in terms of acting range, pairing Seyfried with Fox just ends up making Fox look bad. Part of the problem is that the Jennifer character is also not written well -- she's a device, and her relationship with the main character isn't really established well so that, from beginning to end, they always feel like they've had a shallow friendship. Seen through the eyes of Needy, Jennifer's something of a blank; and Fox, adopting mostly a singular evil-grin expression and delivering Cody's clever lines with a singular high-pitched tone, can't add anything to the characterization. Jennifer's Body's parts aren't working, so in its bid to become a clever cult movie, it ends up looking like it's trying too hard. (added 1/18/2010)

Julie & Julia
Director: Nora Ephron
Rating: 6/10
Director Nora Ephron has been overthinking things with her last two movies. Previous to Julie & Julia, she made Bewitched, which convoluted a premise that would've worked great in straighforward fashion with meaningless meta-weirdness. Now with Julie & Julia, she could've made a rather charming straight biopic of Julia Child, with a dream star in Meryl Streep to play her, no less; but no, instead it's a parallel-track movie, bouncing back and forth between the lives of Child in the 1950's and blogger Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams) in 2002. They both face similar dilemmas: having been relocated to a new home, Child and Powell turn to cooking to preoccupy themselves, and find the great joy within the activity, not only in doing it but also in writing about it -- for Powell, a blog, and for Child, the cookbook that would eventually be Mastering the Art of French Cooking. They're further intertwined by the fact that Powell's challenge is to cook every recipe from that very book within a year. As a premise, this is cute and interesting, but perhaps more overloaded than it needs to be, for it doesn't seem to lend much insight other than what it must be like to discover how cooking and writing about it can be a timeless elixir for those looking for a fulfilling activity in their lives. That's pretty light stuff, and the movie's only goal seems to be to convey that fluffiness, as both lives are milked for generally positive comic and romantic moments (both women have supportive husbands). A harmless and easygoing film overall, it can boast of Streep's grand performance (does she have any other kind?) and show what it's like when Adams receives what I can only imagine as this specific direction from Ephron: "Be more like Meg Ryan!" (added 12/14/2009)

The Last Station
Director: Michael Hoffman
Rating: 5/10
As a technical production, The Last Station is fine. It has good-looking scenery and can boast about high pedigree acting, with Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy, Helen Mirren as Sofya Tolstoy, and Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy in supporting roles. And for what it tries to achieve, it works well enough -- personally, though, I don't agree with what it tries to achieve. In the movie, we meet Mr. Tolstoy near the end of his life, by which point he's become a celebrity, a founder of a movement for an alternate approach to life, no less. But his most ardent followers may have warped his ideals for themselves, and in any case they're now asking for Tolstoy to sign his works to the public domain. Up against this is his wife, Sofya, who longs to keep those rights in order to continue supporting their family. Tolstoy's preference would be to renounce all property, so his wife has the uphill battle. There's an interesting struggle here about the practicality of one's adherence to one's ideals, as well as the possibility of exploring the practicality of any idealistic societal philosophy, but instead The Last Station is more interested in what it considers a trump card: love. It appears bound in a romantic hippie notion that no matter what manner of living one chooses to pursue, the only thing that really matters in the end is love. To further this angle, Mr. Tolstoy is given a newly arrived follower (played by McAvoy) to learn this lesson firsthand, as he starts out as a strict "Tolstoyan," but eventually melts in the arms of a beautiful young rule-bending woman (Kerry Condon). There is, of course, a lot of drama before the film reaches its conclusion -- Sophia is borderline hysterical, prone to fits and acts of passion (credit Mirren for being able to make this unlikable-on-paper character into someone we can understand as a human being), and provides much of the push and pull -- but in due course its rather mushy sentiment tends to trivialize the life of Tolstoy, to suggest that after everything he's written and philosophized about, his view of how to live always had boiled down to one easy formula: to see the world with love. It feels akin to using Tolstoy's life to write a greeting card. (added 7/8/2010)

The Lovely Bones
Director: Peter Jackson
Rating: 5/10
While watching The Lovely Bones, it struck me that it must read better as a book than it plays as a movie. Peter Jackson's film is indeed based on a novel by Alice Sebold, one which I have not read but am lead to believe makes fair use of the imagination -- after all, much of the story takes place in an afterlife world. The main character, Susie (Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year-old girl, is trapped and murdered by a neighbor (Stanley Tucci, looking as different as I've ever seen him); thereafter, her spirit resides in a kind of purgatory world that acts as the gateway to heaven, and narrates the story from there. From here, the elements of the movie are all mixed rather poorly. Susie watches her family, who grieves over a number of years, but in sharing time with the rest of the story we don't get a strong enough impression of the impact; Susie's father (Mark Wahlberg) becomes obsessed with solving the murder, which then leads viewers down the road of wondering whether or not he'll succeed; but mainly Susie observes and reflects upon the aftereffects of her death while she's stuck in an afterlife made up of garish CG images. Jackson, who is usually great with creating unsettling ethereal visuals, seems to have fallen asleep at the wheel here; his pre-heaven universe, which might have benefitted from the hauntedness provided by the washed-out color filters he's used in previous films, instead utilizes rainbow-bright colors and images that would be suitable in decorating a child's room. Actually, the whole movie can be criticized for soft-pedaling its subject -- we're dealing with a sickening murder and we don't feel that sick, since the victim is in some new age playverse and the family's trials drop in and out of the flow. The production and the acting are fine, which makes the mistake here one of approach, and I find it hard to believe that Jackson, who has dealt with all manner of death and mayhem with a healthy sense of twistedness and/or morbidness in his filmography, decided to soften up this time. And yet, here we have it, The Lovely Bones. (added 1/10/2010)

Mary and Max
Director: Adam Elliot
Rating: 8/10
I'm tempted to call Mary and Max the Precious of animated films, even though in story Adam Elliot's stop-motion feature is hardly similar to Lee Daniels's urban drama. The connection I can make, though, is that they both are about certain kinds of people -- everyday people, the ones in the background -- folks the movies are almost never about. They're the ones who are forced to live lives within the confined spaces of the environments they're placed in, stuck with bad parents, victims of TV and junk food, and subject to all variations of reinforced neuroses, fears, insecurities, and simple dreams. Both movies are also extremely depressing. Mary and Max, however, is also quite humorous -- it works in a good amount of both dark and observational comedy, and it would be funnier if the world it creates (or reflects, really) wasn't so sad. It's the story (narrated by Barry Humphries) of two very unlikely pen-pals: Mary (voiced as a child by Bethany Whitmore, as an adult by Toni Collette), a young lonely girl in the Melbourne suburbs of Australia, and Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman), an overweight, nervous middle-aged man in New York. They are both downtrodden individuals, though neither may be conscientiously aware of this state as they both go through life trying to avoid complications, doing their best to feel their way through dilemmas, and trying to enjoy the little things they enjoy out of life. The friendship they form, though, provides a light neither of them had before, a light at once beneficial and challenging to maintain and understand. While Mary and Max gets a lot of things right, I think it gets the dynamics of friendship more right than everything else. Not a straighforward story about how one friendship illuminates two lives in some shiny "BFF" way, it presents their relationship as complicated -- it strains to breaking points at least twice, and the movie shows how more fragile and interdependent a friendship becomes as the friends gain more closeness and trust. Despite its ample lighter moments, Mary and Max is not easy to sit through -- even its visuals are oppressive, with its rather grotesquely portrayed characters and strict color scheme (Australia is all brown tones, New York is in a soul-sucking black-and-white, red occasionally dots both colorscapes, but almost never green or blue). But it is a humane work, one that recognizes that what we call "the human condition" is everpresent, though most people wouldn't be able to tell you what it is -- they're too busy trying to make the most of their own sad lives. (added 9/13/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Me and Orson Welles
Director: Richard Linklater
Rating: 9/10

To show people from history who move with real energy and personality -- to show them coming truly to life -- is one of the great strengths of the cinematic form, and director Richard Linklater takes every advantage of it with Me and Orson Welles, featuring a wonderful performance by Christian McKay as Welles. The time is 1937, as Welles and his troupe are readying to open the Mercury Theatre in New York with their production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The story is seen through the perspective of a teenager, Richard (Zac Efron), who lucks into getting cast as Lucius. As he learns about Welles, so do we -- his legend precedes him, but the presence of the very man himself serves to dwarf the legend. McKay plays him as larger-than-life, an outsized being who makes the world revolve around him wherever he goes. He's charming, inspiring, very intelligent and critical, but he's also pompous, arrogant, ill-tempered, and impulsive. Above all else, he is theatrical, as for him all the world's a stage and he's always in its spotlight. And he makes things happen. It's a marvelous portrayal, one that doesn't shy away from the man's less savory side (witness his rampant infidelity and lust for women), and yet manages to make him so charismatic that you, too, might want to stand in his shadow. It's enough to turn the film's main story -- primarily about Richard's coming-of-age and the lessons he learns about life and love via his interactions with a lovely production assistant (Claire Danes) and his relationship to Welles -- into the lesser attraction, but worth can be found there, too. The "kid who learns about life by being thrust into the real world" comes across as a reliable story, and it fits with Linklater's own penchant for showing that life is meant to be experienced rather than read about in a classroom. And what better education would there have been than to find yourself orbiting, even temporarily, around Welles? Thanks to Linklater and McKay, we get a rendition of Welles that gives vital pulse to the man, the myth, the legend. (added 9/25/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Messenger
Director: Oren Moverman
Rating: 7/10
The Messenger valiantly brings all wars to their ultimate endpoint: death and its effects on the fallen's loved ones. Ben Foster plays Army Staff Sergeant Montgomery and Woody Harrelson is his superior, Capt. Stone. They're assigned to Casualty Notification duty, which is just as it sounds -- they notify the next-of-kin of unbearable news. The scenes that dramatize these moments are raw, powerful, and unpredictable, and are as bare a reminder as possible that no matter what any war is about, these are the only results that have true, unavoidable meaning. The film must have a plot, of course, so it focuses on Sgt. Montgomery, whose tour in Iraq had left him a hero, though he does not agree. Angry, bitter, and emotionally isolated, Montgomery's new duties slowly lead him to relocate his repressed humanity. Along the way, Capt. Stone also opens up. The film starts out strongly, with the scenes of the officers doing their job and Stone showing his charge the ropes; and intriguingly, as Montgomery starts to follow -- and fall for -- the one next-of-kin (Samantha Morton) who takes the news in a relatively gracious manner. However, The Messenger wanders as it reaches the end, becoming similar to other films showing the traumatic effects of war on those who have returned to the homefront. The story is ultimately personal, though I find that simply having this presentation of war equaling death and grief hits home much harder than anything else in the movie. (added 12/29/2009; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Michael Jackson's This Is It
Director: Kenny Ortega
Rating: 7/10
Michael Jackson's This Is It is a celebration, a tribute, a valentine -- but more than anything it's a eulogy. This is the documentary director Kenny Ortega cobbled together from the rehearsal footage of what was to be Michael Jackson's big final comeback concert; it was not meant to be, of course, due to his untimely demise. But from the looks of the preparations, it was going to be one heck of a show, practically a summation of Jackson's greatest moments and musical memories. To be included were a tribute to his Jackson 5 hits, an all-out costumed-performers-filled production of "Thriller," a performance of "Beat It" with the same dance moves from the video, and a "Smooth Criminal" set featuring Jackson back in the familiar ol' white gangster suit. But with it all comes an unavoidable sadness -- this is only rehearsal footage, after all, and Jackson only half sings his parts some of the time, so all we're really seeing is unfulfilled potential, and it will leave the fans wishing for something that will now never be. As it so happens, because the show was designed to be a nostalgic wrap-up of the highlights of his career, This Is It works very appropriately as a eulogy; it's a reminder of the great moments of entertainment this gifted performer had brought us. Because the performances here aren't fully formed, it isn't the same as seeing those original great moments again -- though it makes up for this by giving us a glimpse of the preparation process, and insight into Jackson's professional artistic intuition. He was a born showman, and This Is It is his warm sendoff. (added 1/29/2010)

Moon
Director: Duncan Jones
Rating: 10/10
How appropriate that Moon, the directorial debut of Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, could be considered a "Space Oddity." I'm probably not the first one to make that joke, but in all seriousness it might be fitting, since Bowie's classic song evoked a sense of weightless solitude that was shared by its film contemporary, 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as by other science fiction films of that mold, particularly Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris -- and the feelings of those quiet, contemplative films are exactly what Jones is paying homage to. Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell, a lone employee who has spent three years on the moon monitoring and overseeing the automated mining activities of a large energy company. During one of his investigations, an accident occurs, and the following events are strange and surreal indeed. Moon both follows in the footsteps of its predecessors by examining human responses to unusual imagined futuristic circumstances and delves into that old science fiction standby theme of investigating the nature of humanity itself. However, it also has room to criticize the current direction of humanity with the cynical observation that even with supposedly noble interests and armed with inventive solutions, humans will still find ways to cut ethical corners and damage their fellow man for the sake of economic efficiency. This film is a lusciously slow trip, recalling familiar old tones while also adding its own unique touches (e.g., it subverts the "evil computer" stereotype with Sam's computer assistant, "GERTY," voiced by Kevin Spacey). Considering how the optimism that both fueled and was engendered by the space program of the '60s/'70s -- and its surrounding artistic responses -- has been squandered in the decades since, Moon's concerns reflect the current pessimism. Still, by endeavoring to be thoughtful science fiction, the movie urges us to return to ideals that once appealed to the public so strongly. (added 1/21/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Director: Werner Herzog
Rating: 6/10

In the same year that gave us Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, the eccentric director also unveiled My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, centering on a man's descent into an insanity that would lead him to kill his mother with a sword. As an entry into Herzog's oeuvre, this film is decidedly minor, a character piece as quiet as its central figure, one Brad McCullum, played by Michael Shannon. The version of madness displayed by Brad is not typically dramatic; it's mostly just strange, and dances the line bordering on goofiness. This is a guy who recites the words off of his coffee cup, sees the face of God on a container of oatmeal, and interrupts the instruction of his theater director (Udo Kier) with basketball stories. Frankly, it's absurd to the point where we can't really tell if Herzog means Brad to be menacing or funny -- and I would call this a weakness for the film, because even if Herzog means it to be both, the entirety of it plays off as somewhat contrived and mostly inconsequential. Perhaps Herzog wants to demonstrate once again how there are no rules that truly govern human behavior -- man's potential for madness is unpredictable and reveals all our societal boundaries as arbitrary -- but he's shown this better in other films. Still, there are pieces to smile at here, from Brad Dourif's crazy old bigoted uncle part to Michael Peña's police detective getting constantly thwarted in his desires to see the hostage situation he's in develop more excitingly, like it does in other movies. Grace Zabriskie as the slain mother (most of the movie is flashbacks) gives us a tangible link to one of the film's executive producers, David Lynch (Zabriskie appeared in Inland Empire), and her very presence -- her face, her voice, her manners -- unnerves me in a very Lynchian way. To be honest, I think Lynch could've taken this material and really made it creepy; but this is Herzog, who does more strange than creepy, and his brand of absurdity often has a lot of amusement attached to it. Alas, amusement might be the strongest emotion My Son, My Son can squeeze out of us. (added 9/25/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Nine
Director: Rob Marshall
Rating: 4/10
Nine is the film adaptation of a stage musical of the same name from the 1980's, which is itself based on a classic (non-musical) movie from the 1960's: Federico Fellini's . Based on this new film by Rob Marshall, it would seem the adaptation of Fellini's work left a lot to be desired. Yes, it's a tough work to tackle -- is a rich, fantastic, occasionally comic, and mostly autobiographical depiction of a film director struggling to create his next film amidst personal problems and plenty of distractions. It is admittedly complex, but Nine's simplification of its story and themes is so drastic it borders on criminal. It contains the same premise in that a director named Guido (here played by Daniel Day-Lewis) is suffering from block and can't concentrate on his next film, even going so far as to keep the setting in Italy. But it makes the story much more about the director's tendency to womanize, ultimately hurting a long-suffering wife. The immediate effect of this is on audience sympathy -- frankly, Guido, originally a surrogate for Fellini empathetically fleshed out to display all the messiness within one's individual psychology, is simply unlikable here, someone who seems flatly irresponsible. But Nine simplifies the story further by compartmentalizing its other characters -- the women in Guido's life are presented as separate influences, each given a singular musical number to perform (only his wife, played by Marion Cotillard, gets two) in his "fantasy" thoughts. The story then suffers because it's easily reducible to only three characters that matter: Guido, his wife, and his mistress (Penélope Cruz), with the issue about infidelity and guilt stifling creativity becoming the only real concern. It comes across as a very unimaginative re-working, a shallow interpretation. Too bad, because the movie has an amazing cast that also includes Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, and Kate Hudson, and it gets squandered -- the only memorable number, "Be Italian," is something of a comic toss-off performed gamely by Fergie. It's as if the movie had class forced upon it, but no amount of it can save material that's been stripped of any of its original artistic ambition. (added 5/12/2010)

Ong Bak 2 (2008; released in U.S. in 2009)
Directors: Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai
Rating: 5/10
Although Tony Jaa's exhibition of martial arts mastery isn't wearing thin just yet, he has set his bar unusually high -- and now the tough part might be the attempt to clear it himself. Ong Bak 2 is the "sequel" to Jaa's stunning international debut, Ong-Bak, and his third international outing after the entertaining The Protector, but it contains only a fraction of the previous two's joyful invention. Part of the problem may be the setting and story -- Ong Bak 2 really doesn't have anything to do with Ong-Bak and is set in Thailand's medieval past, and the lack of contemporary setting means less easy variety for props and fighting locations. Still, this could've been overcome, but it seems the movie also takes its story pretty seriously too, where the young son of a slain loyal general grows up with a band of outlaws and learns fighting skills that will help him get revenge against the government rebels who killed his family. The film's pervading somberness fills up the space, which is considerable, between the handful of fight scenes. Those scenes themselves aren't terribly memorable, especially after seeing the mind-blowing stunts of those first two movies; this time, they are mostly one-man-vs.-gang fights with a bloodier edge, as more sharp weapons are used instead of fists -- a downgrade in the entertainment value, if you ask me. The climax features a glimpse of the fun gimmickry I hoped for more of, as Jaa takes on an opponent atop an elephant. An argument could be made in support of the filmmakers' attempts to tell a more serious story, since most of the time the stories in these movies are trivial -- and since Jaa is the co-director here (alongside Panna Rittikrai), it may signal a seriousness of artistic intent on his part. But until those storytelling skills are refined, we shouldn't cease to expect the level of creativity that has helped propel any good martial arts flick to cult/legendary status, especially for a film featuring Tony Jaa. (added 2/23/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Paranormal Activity
Director: Oren Peli
Rating: 9/10
Ten years after the release of The Blair Witch Project, its real sequel emerges and it's called Paranormal Activity. Of course, that's a loaded statement, since opinions of Blair Witch ranged from rapturous love to outright hate, which means we should expect the same for its current spiritual cousin. Count me on the side of the fans -- for one thing, both films worked pretty well on me, though with Paranormal Activity, I wasn't expecting it to and became pleasantly surprised to find myself hiding more and more behind my hands as the movie climbed to its climax. Mainly, though, my admiration for the movie comes from its low budget success in the face of the overblown horror projects of Hollywood. Scary movies mostly don't work on me, and it's no wonder -- most studio-produced horror is corny, loaded with forgettable surface scares, or too concerned with torture or cruelty these days. But here director Oren Peli and two main actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, armed with one camera (and only $11,000! -- $15,000 if you count the extra thrown in by the distributor to re-shoot the ending), put together an effective little thriller that simply plays on your basic fears of not knowing what's going on while being relatively alone in the dark. Seriously, I'd rank being stuck in a big quiet house at night as one of life's most easily unnerving experiences, and this movie capitalizes on it. It's a triumph of technique, ingenuity (some of the special effects are pretty fun and cool for a low budget), and storytelling (I love how it's broken down into moments of downtime each leading to the next "punchline" moment -- good pacing and buildup); it even has a bit of insight on modern-day couple dynamics. And the fact that it had a weekend at number one in the face of certain other horror competition during Halloween season shows that sometimes the right people win after all. (added 1/10/2010)

Police, Adjective
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Rating: 8/10
For most of the Romanian film Police, Adjective, nothing really happens. We follow Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a police detective, as he tails three teenagers, one of whom is suspected of supplying drugs to the other two -- not selling, just offering to share. Under Romanian law, this is punishable by imprisonment, but Cristi knows the law is about to change in the more lenient direction soon, and is reluctant to enact a sting; he'd rather investigate further to see who is actually selling the drugs to the offering teen in the first place. So for about 80% of the movie, we watch him watch the teens, then go to headquarters to file reports and ask for information from other departments, then go home and eat and chat with his wife. Not much of this is intriguing, but some of it is amusing -- Cristi's conversations with his wife, for instance, are often about language and semantics -- a grammatical error in one of his reports, or why a certain song's lyrics are written the way they are. There is a point to all this, though -- Cristi has a conscience, and his chief concern of how the life of a young man who doesn't know he exists could be strongly and negatively impacted by his work is placed in stark contrast to the mundanity of the job, the picky exactitude of the language of the law, and the instantaneous decisions by impatient desk-jockeying police chiefs that could lead up to this arrest. Police, Adjective is not for the impatient to sit through (and, frankly, after having sat through it, there may be no pressing need to do it again), but it is courageous, determined, and actually dryly humorous in the way it makes its points, criticizing the law enforcement system while offering sympathies to those who have the scruples to sense when they should be more than just a thoughtless cog. (added 2/12/2010)

Ponyo (2008; released in U.S. in 2009)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Rating: 8/10
The quality of the animated works of director Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli are every bit as reliable as the works of Pixar, and if Miyazaki's latest film, Ponyo, doesn't satisfy quite as fully, it's only because it's relatively lightweight compared to what he's given us before. Ponyo is Miyazaki's spin on the story of "The Little Mermaid"; in this case, a little sea creature (she keeps getting mistaken as a "goldfish") with a magical background encounters a young human boy named Sosuke (he names her "Ponyo") and assuredly decides she wants to be his human playmate from now on. The conflict here is simple -- she runs into the disapproval of her father, an ex-human who now uses magic elixirs to bring more life to the sea; however, this conflict is not particularly central to the story, as it mostly plays the part of a minor obstacle. Also, the movie's emotional crisis theme of choice -- the threat of a child losing his or her parents -- is not as strongly pronounced. Ponyo doesn't commit itself to mining our deeper feelings, and as such it feels much more geared to younger viewers; but with that comes dazzling displays of drawn and painted visuals, full of color, life, and that edge of fantastic strangeness that comes with all of Miyazaki's works. The gist of the movie comes down to its suggestion that humans are capable of ugly things, like pollution and ignorance of ecology and environment, yet they are not hopeless, as they're also reserves of great kindness and love. We see evidence of the waste in the sea, yet Ponyo and Sosuke run into all sorts of goodhearted people in their adventure. No one else shows this loving, giving side of people as well as Miyazaki can; his movies give the message that we have good in us, and we can always be even more selfless. (added 3/12/2010)

Precious (Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire)
Director: Lee Daniels
Rating: 8/10
It may be a challenge to not think about which buttons of yours are getting pressed by Precious, which tells the story of a poor, overweight black teen in Harlem and her quiet determination to find a better life for herself, despite being pregnant for the second time and taking abuse from her hateful mother. The film does intend to shock, but it doesn't sensationalize; it presents the hardships experienced by Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe, in her terrific debut) in a straight, matter-of-fact way, adopting the personality of the protagonist who narrates the story and allows us to glimpse into her coping, wishful escape fantasies. This is a unique character, not self-pitying and sad, but rather stubborn and forward-looking in angry, almost narrow fortitude -- she doesn't plan far ahead, but does what she needs to get done, and this makes it easy to get behind her. Thus, even as the tough situations are piled on, the viewer is given a clear avenue to empathy that feels honest, and it becomes apparent that the greatest value of the movie comes from having us get to know people we may not think much about, that we may even look away from, and to understand one of the many paths of life that strongly defies conforming to straight lines. Much of the power of Precious comes from the main actors -- Sidibe feels as if she was pulled right off the street to play this part, and matching her toe-to-toe as her mother is Mo'Nique, whom I may never have believed could pull off this role if I hadn't seen it for myself. Her portrayal of the character could be remembered as one of the great villains of film, a monster that feels all too likely that she could be living right next door. Director Lee Daniels must really know what he's doing, since he also pulls a credible against-type performance from Mariah Carey as a social worker. Lenny Kravitz is in this too, so Precious should deserve praise for having not the apparent stunt casting linger in the mind after watching it, but the memories of an individual's tough push through life, one of undoubtedly many. (added 12/29/2009)

The Princess and the Frog
Directors: John Musker and Ron Clements
Rating: 8/10
It seems impossible to talk about The Princess and the Frog without bringing up the subject of race -- after all, Walt Disney Animation Studios made 48 features before finally offering an African-American protagonist, having gone through Chinese, Native American, Middle Eastern, and Indian first. And yet I think they took the correct approach to this by generally playing it down, avoiding both negative stereotyping and conscientious nods to political correctness. The heroine, Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose), is simply herself -- a young, ambitious woman who dreams of fulfilling the wishes of her late father by opening a restaurant in her home of New Orleans. Since the movie's commercials immediately give the main plot catalyst away, it's no spoiler to say that, by kissing a prince (voice of Bruce Campos) who's been turned into a frog, she becomes a frog too. Some have complained that this regrettably takes attention away from her ethnicity -- now she's green, not "black" -- but I think viewers young and old are smarter than that and won't be confused about who they're rooting for. It's more fun, then, to focus on how directors Ron Clements and John Musker turn their movie into a celebration of the good ol' bright Disney musical animated features of the '90s. For those of us who loved those movies, The Princess and the Frog is a heady dose of nostalgia, and the question left in our heads after seeing it is, "why did they ever stop making these?" This movie is entertaining from head to toe, suffering nothing from being traditionally animated as opposed to being computer animated; rather, the traditional animation enhances it, as I don't believe it could achieve its particular sense of style and atmosphere without its very look, from the charming simplified art of the "Almost There" number to the memorably caricatural appearance of the sinister Doctor Facilier (voice of Keith David) and his evil army of shadows. I also thought the writing was particularly strong, amending the classic "wish upon a star" theme with some welcome practicality and wrapping up the ending with particular sentiment and cleverness. If the movie has any major weakness, it would be that it can't escape feeling self-consciously referential -- everything about it is a reflection of or a reaction to the more beloved and successful of Disney's past animated features, whether the subject be style, formula, comedy, or audience expectation. This makes the film feel more concocted, less organic; but behind it is a recognition of the kind of work this studio can do well and, hopefully, an understanding that what you do with the format and not the format per se is what fuels a wondrous movie. (added 3/24/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Proposal
Director: Anne Fletcher
Rating: 5/10
The Proposal is a pretty shameless high-concept romantic comedy, so there's no need to attack it for what it proudly is, which is specifically a Sandra Bullock vehicle that caters to her status as a now not-as-young comedic actress (and I like her, so I say that sincerely with all due respect). For what it's worth, the acting ingredients are in place for it to succeed on its own terms -- Bullock stars as a terrorizing boss and up-and-comer Ryan Reynolds plays her beleaguered assistant; naturally they start off as antagonists, but if they display enough good chemistry we'll be cheering for their eventual union, no matter how absurd the plot is (in this case, she blackmails him into marrying her to avoid deportation to Canada; they somehow end up spending the weekend together at his parents' lovely Alaskan home where the family believes they are lovingly engaged). But while Bullock is still adept at displaying earnest, goofy charm, and Reynolds shows surprisingly good comic delivery, the script reveals itself to be mostly a weak series of obvious comic pieces, predictable dramatic revelations, and, worst of all, meatless attempts to convince us that these two can and will fall in love. Bullock's character essentially earns pity from herself and from Reynolds's character, and if you can detect something deeper than that then more power to you. Bullock is totally at home in this territory, and she remains fun to watch, but I do wish she would get stronger, possibly more original comedic material. (Maybe I should wish harder -- let's just say I don't plan to watch her other comedy of 2009, All About Steve. The commercials make her role look embarrassing, and I don't think I could handle it.) (added 10/20/2009)

Public Enemies
Director: Michael Mann
Rating: 5/10
Public Enemies feels like experimental filmmaking and never seems to transcend that to something more profound or awe-inspiring. Michael Mann is still in digital video mode, combining it with handheld techniques to film a 1930's gangster pic. Though the images are never less than interesting, they also tended to annoy me most of the time. Simply put, the obviousness of the digital video (which mostly comes from odd lighting effects and moments of digital grain) are an automatic signifier to me that the visual should correspond to modern times; therefore, I kept getting knocked out of the illusion that I was watching something that was supposed to take place decades ago. It made me aware that I was watching actors in costumes running around on sets. It also didn't help that Public Enemies felt like one of the least developed scripts ever directed by Mann. It's about John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), but reveals very little that's interesting about him; it obviously leans towards sympathizing with him, but his actions made no case for what I took to be a lawless, murderous, and at times densely foolish man. A panoply of actors (most notably Marion Cotillard as the girl and Christian Bale as the nemesis lawman) appear in the film, but characterizations were few and far in between. And Mann's themes (of men who live their lives in the moment, reeking of masculinity, ruled by violence, inextricably drawn to beautiful women) seemed so rotely presented here, it felt like he made the movie in his sleep. He can still compose a shot and put together a shootout with the best of them -- and this film feels like a string of shootouts with little story in between -- but along the way, Public Enemies ceases being an idea with interesting potential to something drawn out that I was eager to move on from. (added 12/14/2009)

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