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.

The Road
Directors: John Hillcoat
Rating: 5/10
The term "high concept" is usually applied to simplistic commercial movies, but I might be able to use it to describe the artistically ambitious The Road. "Father and son walk across post-apocalyptic America trying to survive." The details are forsaken even by the movie itself -- "father" (Viggo Mortensen) and "son" (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are never given names, and the cause of the end of the world is never explained. It's a scenario stripped of context so as to be able to concentrate on the here-and-now, which is a dying land devoid of animals and vegetation, and dotted with abandoned, deteriorating buildings; meanwhile, gangs who have resorted to canniblism roam, looking for wandering, isolated survivors to hunt. There seems to be an appreciable reason for having the movie (based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy) set up in this way, as we learn that it's an acid test for man's morality and his capacity to retain magnanimity in the worst possible circumstance. The father does anything and everything to try and survive and protect his son, including killing people, if necessary; but the son, who was born after the apocalypse, acts as a pure conscience, willing to help struggling strangers even if those strangers represent potential harm. The father is good but his humanity wavers; his son's survival acts as his own redemption. The problem with this scenario is that it's simplistic; and, frankly, the son never quite convinces that he has good reason for acting the way he does. It just seems convenient to have him be so good because it's useful to illustrate the movie's concern -- that morality and man's ability to make benevolent choices are inherent and able to be tapped, even in the face of nothingness. Thus, the movie has an interesting thesis about morality and humanity, but lacks complexity in its approach. Meanwhile, The Road is as bleak as they come -- it's really a zombie movie with no zombies, and since zombies often provide the humor and tension release (when they get blown away) in a zombie movie, well, you can guess what this implies about The Road. Its portrait of a dead world is haunting and unrelenting -- but, at the same time, because we don't know why it happened, it doesn't have a chance to truly resonate -- there's little to fear because it is a truly hypothetical scenario. We are simply given the situation, the symbolic characters, and their moral values, which all exist because they just do. (added 6/7/2010)

The Secret of Kells
Directors: Tomm Moore
Rating: 8/10
The Secret of Kells, a traditionally animated film, takes place in ancient Ireland and plays tug-of-war with itself. The story focuses on a boy who helps to complete the illuminated manuscript known today as the Book of Kells. Both in form and content, it strives to present an artistic depiction of its tale while also trying to be accessible -- paricularly, it seems -- to potential younger viewers. So on the one hand, while much of the animation comes across as quite beautiful and stylized, once you're settled in, it looks and moves with a ring of familiarity -- bold lines, striking colors, geometrically caricatured characters, dynamic motion -- that wouldn't feel out of place among certain fare on the Cartoon Network. This is not a slam, merely an opinion that the feel is, in some aspects, derivative; but certainly it's also a high-end version of that feel, for much of the artwork here looks splendid. Similar words could be said about its narrative, which falls back on occasional goofy humor and, more regrettably, seems driven by the clichéd story of an irrepressible kid being held back by a stubborn authority figure. In this case, young Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire) wants to explore the dangerous forest outside of the under-construction walls of the safe haven (against marauding barbarians) ruled by his uncle, Abbot Cellach (voice of Brendan Gleeson), in order to find the natural inks to help complete a magical book brought in by the displaced visitor Brother Aidan (voice of Mick Lally). Thankfully, this is mainly just the set-up, as the story concludes in a wholly unpredictable way and emphasizes such lessons as the retainment of knowledge, art, and spirit as perhaps the most valuable act for any surviving society. In this tug-of-war, then, the positives do end up greatly outweighing the negatives, resulting in a movie that leaves one in appreciation of both its detailed visuals and its courage to tell a story that suggests standing up to the destructive force of violence requires not more violence but long-term acts of art and preservation instead. (added 4/5/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

A Serious Man
Directors: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Rating: 10/10
Chaos and uncertainty have always been major components of films by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Most of their work can be described as "crime gone wrong" movies, where schemes to enrich one's self with illegally obtained piles of cash get hit with unexpected events, causing all sorts of grief to the characters involved. Now, uncertainty takes center stage in A Serious Man, with no crime plot necessary to illustrate its far-reaching influences. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a normal Jewish school teacher and family man circa 1970, has so many woes suddenly befall him he could be considered a modern-day Job; and as he seeks answers, advice, solutions, and distractions from his problems, he gains neither reassurances nor sympathy. But throughout the movie, which includes a subplot about his son, a heck of a story about a dentist told by a rabbi, many crazy dream sequences, and a completely non sequitur prologue -- all colored by the Coens' blackly comic tone -- observations can be made about having the perspective to understand and accept not only the role of chaos in life, but also its true degree in affecting anyone's happiness (and this take feels wiser than the fatalistic one given in No Country for Old Men). Whether or not our protagonist learns any lesson is rather immaterial -- his story is given as an illustration, and doesn't even have a traditional three-act arc, which only accentuates the beauty of the Coens' presentation, giving appropriate form to their themes. Boldly scripted (by the directors) and impeccably shot (by Roger Deakins, of course), A Serious Man is as great a movie as the brothers have ever made, pure and unfettered by the mechanics of plot; and the more they're allowed to create artistic, offbeat, and, yes, humorous movies like this, the more I'm amazed that anyone can get away with it -- because surely no one else in the studio industry would be given this kind of latitude. And we should be thankful, because not only is this movie different, it's also about something -- the size of life in relation to one's understanding of the size of the universe. And that the Coens might even laugh at me for making such a statement makes it all the better. (added 12/7/2009; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Sherlock Holmes
Director: Guy Ritchie
Rating: 6/10
I confess I don't know much about Sherlock Holmes outside of what general cultural knowledge has brought to me, so I had no baggage to bring to director Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, by all accounts a reinvention of a character who heretofore has been popularized as a deerstalker-wearing, pipe-smoking detective whose powers of deduction often impress his assistant, Dr. Watson. Ritchie claims to be spotlighting certain lesser-known aspects that were true to Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's version of the character, e.g. his Bohemian lifestyle and his physical prowess. What we get here, though, is something more like a superhero -- Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes is both super smart and very tough, such that when he fistfights opponents, he can first predict every move and countermove they will make and respond by hitting them in anatomically vulnerable parts, then act upon his predictions with physical efficiency. It's entertaining, but it's also a bit goofy -- Holmes here is a Victorian 007, a cynical agent of justice who, in this movie, is tracking down nothing less than a megalomaniac. The plot is not really a mystery and more like your usual action-movie stop-the-villain chase, which is part of this film's problem: if you take what makes the protagonist unique out of the picture (and in this case it would be his razor intellect), this is mostly a typical light action flick that blends in with the others of its genre. The main appeal here comes in the form of the main actors' performances -- Downey Jr.'s as Holmes spars nicely with Jude Law's Dr. Watson; they're a fun pair but their character dynamics are ultimately limited because, well, frankly, they get along too well, i.e. though they may act antagonistically towards each other at times, no one really believes one would hold the other in spite. All said, I have really no major qualms about this "new" version of Sherlock Holmes, but I'm not really excited for it either, since it feels like a generic modern made-to-order franchise with a brand name attached to it. It's fun while it lasts, and it doesn't last very long afterwards. (added 5/1/2010)

Director: Robert Rodriguez
Rating: 7/10
I have to confess I watched Shorts shortly after it was released on home video, and right afterwards I checked out review blurbs for the movie. Most of them struck me as rather harsh -- Robert Rodriguez's goofy little kids' flick was being attacked by many for being stupid, disgusting, and juvenile. Personally, I found the movie quite amusing -- yes, it's definitely made for the much younger set, but it also has quite a few zany little off guard touches, resulting in genuine laughs for anyone who can appreciate the humor. I also dig wacky randomness, and in this story which is simply about a small community experiencing the havoc caused by a magical rock that grants wishes, there was plenty of room for that -- a lot of the fun comes from the ridiculousness of the what gets wished for, and how they are manifested (e.g., once the evil little girl gets a hold of it, she wishes for a rocket bike. A rocket bike?! I love it). Hence we also get upright-walking crocodiles, a telepathic baby, and tiny friendly UFO's whose pilots probably personally know "CJ7." Aside from the comedy -- which is admittedly to your tastes or not -- I appreciate how Rodriguez doesn't mistake his audience for anyone else other than who they are -- kids! Adults remain the side characters that they ought to be, and the kids, who actually talk like kids, localize their fun and experiences to whatever matters to them at the time, no matter how strange that may be to us adults. I don't see anything offensive in what's going on -- no materialistic encouragements, condescension, potty humor (ok, there's a booger monster and one poop joke, but nothing terrible) or glorification of stupidity. It might be blamed for being a bit hyper, but otherwise I can see that Rodriguez mainly wanted to deliver something fun, and for the most part succeeded. (added 12/7/2009)

Silent Light (2007; released in U.S. in 2009)
Director: Carlos Reygadas
Rating: 8/10
The strongest trait of Silent Light may be its artificiality. Despite its emotional/spiritual story and its authentic setting -- this is a tale about a Mexican Mennonite family man (Cornelio Wall) experiencing a personal crisis due to his having an affair -- very little about it feels "real." The movie and the characters in it move at a glacial pace, and I truly doubt these speakers of an obscure German-derived language actually converse this deliberately and slowly. And yet, as the film progresses, its hypnosis becomes heightened, its spell becomes entrancing. Director Carlos Reygadas embraces the long (long long) take, creating a trance of tranquility and reflection -- all the moments are quiet and contemplative, and the cinematography by Alexis Zabe is lush and full, using natural light to create moments where images emerge from shadows, or to allow shots of nature to unfold and awe. This method of storytelling allows its characters and their identifiable emotions to occupy their spaces appropriately -- their concerns become direct, focused, and overpowering -- and perhaps all would've gone well were it not for Reygadas's attempt at directly invoking Carl Th. Dreyer, clearly an influence, at the film's end. The particular moment in question, which in Dreyer's original film Ordet was one that was so well earned that it's easily one of the most powerful moments in all cinema, rings false in Silent Light -- not only does it carry the stench of deus ex machina, it's like copying a Picasso and then asking to be compared to the original, standing no chance. It's a good thing, then, that the movie otherwise works so well on its own as a unique and captivating artistic experience. (added 1/28/2010)

A Single Man
Director: Tom Ford
Rating: 8/10
Fashion designer Tom Ford's feature directorial debut, A Single Man, is a bold first step, both visually ambitious and unapologetic about its point-of-view. It's the story of one day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. George is a cautious gay man who's having serious trouble getting over the death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) less than a year ago. The movie is striking in two ways, first through its very conscientious visual scheme, which composes every shot as if it were going to be part of a magazine photo shoot. It looks beautiful, and there's a lot of slo-mo, but it goes further, changing its level of color saturation to reflect the mood and energy of its protagonist. Stricken with grief, the quiet George actually spends the day contemplating ending his own life, and most of the time the world he sees is drained of color; but when someone unexpected engages his interest (usually someone who reveals himself to be a fellow homosexual), the screen's colors bleed into fullness. Secondly, the film's approach to examining the condition of being a gay man in the '60s appears quite matter-of-fact. A Single Man is mainly about an experience of someone who faced strong and often silent prejudice, and found difficulty simply in achieving some of the most simple of life's privileges -- just meeting a potential lover was a feeling-out process wrought with careful insinuations and suggestions, and one heartbreaking flashback sees George receiving word about Jim's death and receiving the explicit directive that he won't be welcome at the funeral. The rules of George's life seem so wrong, but the movie does a good job showing how "normal" that environment was, and how much of it George had reluctantly accepted until, perhaps, this one particularly downtrodden day. But A Single Man doesn't feel like a loud statement against prejudices past and present; it stands first and foremost as the sad story of one man who cannot get over his life's most significant tragedy. As he goes about his day, we see all these unique circumstances that have governed his life. His is a world of dead ends, impending doom, and fleeting hopes. A Single Man ends up being as much a portrait of the mundane cycle of life as it is of homosexual inhibition. (added 7/18/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Sita Sings the Blues
Director: Nina Paley
Rating: 10/10
The technical details surrounding the creation and production of Sita Sings the Blues could fill pages, and, frankly, those pages have already been written, but they're worth summarizing because they're amazingly unique. Artist Nina Paley took five years to singlehandedly animate this 80-minute movie using her personal computers. The animation styles -- at least, distinctly, five of them -- actually vary depending on which part of the criss-crossing narrative is being told, with the bulk of them created using Flash software. This makes the movie sound impressive enough, but to watch it is a whole other delightful experience; it's akin to watching creativity just explode onscreen -- part abstract, part musical, part improvisation-style comedy, and, most compellingly, all inspired by real-life pain. One of the major reasons why Sita Sings the Blues can create such an impression on a viewer has less to do with its playful visuals than it does with its communication of shared, universal experiences and the call to generate empathy for them. Paley takes events from her real-life breakup with her husband and juxtaposes them with the classic Hindu epic Ramayana, particularly the episodes involving the relationship between the god-incarnate Rama and his wife, Sita. Centering on Sita, the movie focuses on her devotion to Rama, even as Rama treats her poorly toward the end of the tale (in a nice touch, three Indian shadow puppets recall the story through memory, giving it an anecdotal flavor). Meanwhile, much of their story is told through musical interludes where Sita sings about her emotions through the songs and voice of 1920's jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. The combination of these elements creates a remarkable picture of the ecstasies and cruelties associated with feminine devotion throughout the ages, as Sita's story of righteous suffering, passed down via modern oral recounting, parallels the highs and lows of loving a man as sung about by Hanshaw, which all correlate with the emotional pain of Paley, whose husband becomes disinterested in her without warning. Sita Sings the Blues is a representation of art borne through pain -- art as therapy and recovery tool, as a way of working through loss, as a means to heal by sharing an experience. As someone who disapproves of wallowing for the sake of wallowing, I love seeing this movie as evidence of what can be accomplished when one decides to create a work from ashes. Sita Sings the Blues is the female counterpart to (500) Days of Summer -- bad relationships leading to thoughtful, funny, creative art -- though Sita may be more impressive not just because it's mostly a one-woman show, but also due to its suggested scope: this is a movie for every woman across the centuries who has not only experienced the inexplicably torturous crush of devotional heartbreak but tenaciously survived it as well. (added 4/15/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Soloist
Director: Joe Wright
Rating: 6/10
I credit The Soloist for having a different ambition, for not wanting to tell a Hollywood story on which one could easily stamp "triumph of the human spirit." It's a decidedly uncomfortable tale, based on a true story, about a troubled Los Angeles Times journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) who finds a bit of purpose in helping out a gifted but now schizophrenic and homeless ex-Juilliard musician (Jamie Foxx). It shows how the act of of helping an individual, a friend, isn't and shouldn't be limited to overt solutions and practical results, and accepts the transient quality of life's relationships. It is therefore a shame that along the way, some Hollywood-ish conventions are employed anyway to fill out the drama in the movie, from the staging of certain confrontations to the depictions of characters both angelic and stupidly rude. Foxx and Downey Jr. turn in high quality performances in a film that is contradictorily both gritty and glossy, with little flourishes provided by director Joe Wright, taking a subject U-turn from his previous romances. He wants to communicate a message here, but seems to be worried that it won't be able to tell itself, so a few things get spelled out here and there, all the way up to the end when an epilogue title reminds us about all the homeless living in L.A. The story embellishments are also symptoms of that, and there emerges a struggle between those and the movie's desire to convey the dirtiness and urgency of reality. It's a trick that Wright doesn't quite manage to pull off -- The Soloist works enough within its own rules, its own container, but blunts its own real-world impact along the way. (added 5/14/2009)

Still Walking (2008; released in U.S. in 2009)
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Rating: 8/10
Hirokazu Koreeda's family drama, Still Walking, takes place over the course of one day, where a family consisting of an elderly couple and the families of their son and daughter gather at the couple's home. The occasion? The funereal anniversary of the eldest son's accidental drowning, which took place over a decade ago. Though the years had gone by, the impact of this tragic event has etched permanent marks on the relationships of the family members, which all subtly seep through during the course of their informal and level interactions. It's hardest on the remaining son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), who not only has a ghost to impossibly live up to (turns out the eldest was a noble man who was to follow in his father's medical profession) but also has made some unpopular personal choices, such as marrying a widow with a son. Koreeda's film will inevitably draw comparisons to the works of Ozu, as his movie follows similar tracks -- it contains many understated conversations in lieu of passionate blow-ups; the camera is often static; and there are observations of the activities of multiple generations (as if in a nod to Ozu, Koreeda allows a shot of a train rolling by during the title sequence). The film is a realistic slice of family dynamics, about how resentments are pent up to the point of a resigned bitterness, how long-held expectations eventually lead to little disappointments, about generation gaps, and especially about how the shadow of a death in the family never ever goes away. Though conceivably the dramas contained within any given family could produce something as intriguing, Koreeda makes it worth our while to watch these people, allowing us to dig for nuggets of information, piecing them together, and learning something about the resilience of family bonds along the way. (added 1/22/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li
Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Rating: 3/10
At first, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li evokes false hope for a Street Fighter fan, since it's at least presented as a rather straightforward martial arts action pic, instead of an embarrassing and ridiculous piece of camp like Jean-Claude Van Damme's Street Fighter from 1994. But it doesn't take long for the reality to set in that this new movie is just plain bad in its own way, beset with more traditional issues, such as a dull script full of poor dialogue, fairly uninteresting fight scenes, and across-the-board bad acting. To be fair, Neal McDonough and Robin Shou emerge relatively unscathed, but main star Kristin Kreuk, as Chun-Li, delivers voiceovers both redundant and stiff, while the rapport between Moon Bloodgood and Chris Klein feels like a contest to see who can act less convincingly while displaying absolutely no chemistry (and, frankly, the hammy Klein wins by a mile). The rest of the movie comes across as just plain listless, with a plot that isn't exciting or suspenseful, and set pieces that aren't terribly inventive. Shou is the only real martial artist in the bunch, so the fight scenes have nothing to show off but a few wire-assisted stunts. In one rather laughable sequence, the built-up face-off between Chun-Li and the supposedly lethal Vega (Taboo) lasts for all of about one anti-climactic minute. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is very much a nothing of a movie, displaying no real ambition or desire to stand out. Its only virtue is that it really isn't offensive. Street Fighter fans like me will be blissfully playing Street Fighter IV, with this movie rightfully occupying our minds as little more than a disposable curiosity. (added 7/1/2009; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Rating: 8/10
The great flaw in the peddling of the American dream, especially in the movies, involves not acknowledging what one should do when the dreams can't be achieved and the staggering ratio of the unachieved to the achieved. In Sugar, the title refers to the nickname of Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a young man who trains in a baseball camp with his fellow potential star athletes in their native Dominican Republic. Once in a while, scouts will select a handful of promising players to receive their version of a golden ticket -- the chance to play in the American minor leagues. It would be no spoiler to reveal that Sugar and several of his friends get their chance, but how far will each of them go? Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck approach their subject with solid realism while taking the opportunity to imbue their characters with some color -- it's cool to see that Sugar isn't some humble kid wishing upon a star; instead, he's a pretty cocky young guy with anger and entitlement issues. But we also realize an ego like this is only the base requisite for this career path -- first one must believe to be better than all the rest and then follow through. It is surprising, though, what kinds of obstacles appear to derail the dream, and Sugar stands apart from other sports movies by showing this. Not your usual film about chasing the American dream, Sugar gains mileage instead from a more sober brand of inspiration while imparting wisdom in the form of welcome reality checks. (added 1/25/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Summer Hours (2008; released in U.S. in 2009)
Director: Olivier Assayas
Rating: 8/10
France is disintegrating, as Olivier Assayas would have you see in his Summer Hours. Here, a family of three siblings must figure out what to do with their mother's estate, which includes a large house full of classic art and furniture. Two of the siblings don't even live in France -- Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) resides in the U.S. and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) keeps his family with his job in China -- so it falls upon the oldest brother Frédéric (Charles Berling) to attend to the practical matters of having to sell off the house and see that the art gains new keepers (like the Musée d'Orsay), something he'd rather not do because he preferred to see everything handed down. Even their mother (Edith Scob) saw this coming, and the sadness is inevitable as items and heirlooms that once imbued a home with warmth become stripped of their meaning and personal significance. If the family is meant to stand in for the citizens of its country, then Summer Hours expresses the concern of France allowing its cultural heritage to slip through the fingers of globalization and the callousness of future generations. The concern might feel a little old-fashioned -- I think people have been worrying about the depreciation of their own culture and personal histories for centuries -- but in this film it's reasonably, solemnly, and levelheadedly expressed. (added 1/12/2010)

Taking Woodstock
Director: Ang Lee
Rating: 5/10
Ang Lee dips back into the light comic side that he'd mostly left behind after he moved on from his Taiwan comedy-dramas, but the results are a little on the disappointing side with Taking Woodstock. He deserves credit for approaching the event from an angle the audience doesn't expect -- this is the story of how Elliot Tiber (played by Demetri Martin), the son of local motel owners in White Lake, New York, set up the chain of events that would lead to the Woodstock concert. It's a behind-the-scenes movie, as we see how the hippie youth descended upon the small town (many of them staging and guest-residing at Elliot's parents' motel grounds), and it follows the track of Elliot's own coming-of-age as a modest artist just helping out his parents who discovers, through the events, who he is and what he really wants to do. Oh yes, and there's no footage of the concert itself -- the film just features the stuff happening in the places around it. It's an interesting idea, but it doesn't really have much to capitalize on outside of the authentic period reproduction. Many of the people act as side characters to Elliot's story, and most of them conform to stereotypes, mainly for their comic effect; meanwhile, Elliot himself is shown as a kind of quiet guy whose personality rolls with the scene rather than pushes back. He has a cipher quality where everything happens to him and he observes or goes along; in other words, he's not very compelling, and when he makes his realizations the viewer may not feel much involvement. It's ironic that a movie about Woodstock should feel so quiet; frankly, I think the idea of it -- seeing the event through the eyes of one quiet person, and how it influenced him -- is pretty thoughtful on Lee's part, but the result feels plainly like a curiosity, something that isn't necessarily worth seeking out unless you have nostalgia for the times. (And I'm sad to say it, but this is the first time I had the urge to just shrug at one of Lee's films.) (added 12/29/2009)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Rating: 7/10
In Tetro, a young man in his late teens named Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) arrives at the Buenos Aires doorstep of his long-disappeared brother "Tetro" (Vincent Gallo) and immediately begins making waves. He wants to know why Tetro ran off and never returned for him, and what any of this may have to do with their father, whom Bennie knows little to nothing about. Tetro turns out to be extremely bitter about his past and has vowed never to have anything to do with his family again, and therefore treats Bennie rudely as an unwanted guest; meanwhile, Bennie returns the favor by snooping through Tetro's private things to find out more about what happened. This is a rather dislikable scenario and it takes a long time for Tetro to warm up. We are given hints that some horrible family secrets are being kept and are expected to find this automatically intriguing; eventually, along with Gallo's character, the movie opens up and reveals itself to be about the pains that come with being part of a creatively gifted family. Director Francis Ford Coppola has claimed this to be a personal story, having similarly come from an artistic family of Italian background, and he shows it by dressing up his film with every artsy brushstroke he knows -- the movie's in sharp black-and-white and impeccably shot (by Mihai Malaimare Jr.), with flashback scenes in lesser aspect ratio and worn-out color, and he throws in bits of ballet metaphors to help illustrate the emotional messes of his protagonists. Much of this actually makes Tetro a bit tough to get into, but credit for holding our interest should go mainly to Maribel Verdú as Tetro's live-in girlfriend, our motherly guide to the proceedings, and Gallo himself, whose character starts out as a jerk but shows an undeniably inviting presence when he's in a good mood, one that might return permanently once he relocates a place in his own family (meanwhile, Ehrenreich's main appeal comes from his uncanny resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio). The movie also has something to say about the fulfillment of art not coming from commercial success or the approval of others, but from a personal sense of completion, something we'd easily feel coming directly from Coppola, now into making these little self-produced projects (like his last one, Youth Without Youth) away from the major studios. They come off as a bit indulgent but also welcomely intimate, small yet polished alternatives to the mainstream. (added 5/17/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Twilight Saga: New Moon
Director: Chris Weitz
Rating: 4/10
Any hopes that the second installment of the "Twilight Saga" might add some juice to an already thin storyline are dashed with New Moon, which filters out almost all possible subplots in favor of exploring the second blooming relationship in a newly-developing love triangle. Here, Edward (Robert Pattinson) decides the best way to quash Bella's (Kristen Stewart) foolish desire to be converted into a vampire is to cut off all ties with her when his family decides to relocate; Bella then sulks for months before finding some renewal in the company of old friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who has, incidentally, become very beefy all of a sudden. Frankly, I don't mind this swoony stuff half as much as a I mind the depiction of the heroine. I find my main problem with the Twilight series so far is that Bella doesn't have much in the way of admirable qualities. What's her distinction? She pines a lot. This depiction is primed to give girls the message that life revolves around boys, because other than be lovesick for one or potentially drawn to another, Bella isn't motivated by anything else in New Moon. Perhaps this central infatuation is saying something about how scarily deep our affections can go for any one person -- there is truth in that -- but it's shown with the purpose of romanticizing such longing and idealizing the supposed selfless loyalty it would inspire. I suppose as far as love stories go, this is old hat, but this time it feels particularly irresponsible -- bad enough the simplistic versions of "one eternal love" prey on so many who are still developing emotionally, worse that this one features a protagonist whose life can't be defined by anything else. (added 3/24/2010)

Two Lovers (2008; released in U.S. in 2009)
Director: James Gray
Rating: 7/10
Two Lovers tells a pretty old story but gets you hooked on its atmosphere and how it embellishes the heady sensation of shedding the coldness of solitude and depression with the warmth of walking through a new romance. Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is a stalled man. Ever since his fiancée left him, he lives with and works for his parents while entertaining notions of suicide. A visit from his father's friend's family brings about a new possibility, for their daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is interested in Leonard, and she doesn't seem to be a bad prospect. But very soon after that meeting, Leonard runs into his new neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a blonde with a few irresistable bad habits, and he finds a new spark. Set in Brighton Beach, Two Lovers uses the night time and many isolated conversations -- in corridors, on rooftops, across apartment windows -- to emphasize the potency of romance against the chill and loneliness of the outside world. It needs the mileage gained from this emphasis because the story relies on characters to behave foolishly in the face of love -- Leonard's attraction to Michelle is both exciting and unwise, as Michelle is herself hopelessly hooked on a married man she's having an affair with. Michelle is unfortunately something of a stereotype, the kind of needy girl a clearheaded person becomes frustrated to see a friend fall for; but she is balanced well by Phoenix's portrayal of Leonard. This character is unique -- he doesn't feel like a movie character with his unpolished manner of speech and his somewhat charming impulsiveness, which contrasts with his seemingly quiet, "I want to be alone" disposition. Phoenix is also able to subtly show how deep the man's pain goes, and how it's dulled by the situation he's living in. It's all enough to forgive Leonard for being -- and, more importantly, to believe him as -- another sad fool in love. (added 1/25/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Uninvited
Directors: Thomas Guard and Charles Guard
Rating: 5/10
The Uninvited is an American remake of the Korean horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters. What didn't sit well with me about the Korean movie was how it lacked some bit of originality, since its atmosphere and the nature of its scares seemed to be in line with its Asian horror peers; however, it was delivered with such a confident visual style that it won me over. The Uninvited shares the weaknesses but not necessarily the strengths; this isn't to say that it has poor visual style -- it's actually shot well, but it lacks the artistry and dread that came with Sisters. It does, however, have appealing acting, featuring Emily Browning, Elizabeth Banks, and David Strathairn; overall, the production and general competence of first-time feature directors, brothers Thomas and Charles Guard, make this movie quite watchable. But overall, it suffers from a meekness -- its scares never dig deep and are more sensational than disturbing, and its storyline has been modified to something more conventional. Its ending in particular negates the impact of the frightful visions that were featured earlier. Call it horror-lite -- probably perfect for slumber parties. (added 5/7/2009)

Up in the Air
Director: Jason Reitman
Rating: 8/10
Up in the Air has a lot of good things going for it, mainly timeliness, sobriety, and George Clooney. He's at the peak of his appealing form as a man whose job it is to fly all over the U.S. and deliver bad news to various companies' employees -- when the downsizing companies are too cowardly to fire their own personnel, Clooney's Ryan Bingham will do it for them. His pride in being able to shepherd newly lost souls toward a faint glimmer of future hope is directly linked to his own personal philosophy of detachment -- he enjoys being free of the burdens of relationships and even a home, considering airports and hotels to be where he resides. But is this outlook on life a true wisdom built up from the years, or just a facade? Bingham is comfortably set in his ways, yet he is still able to be consciously influenced by the actions and words of two women: Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer who crosses paths with him enough times for the occasional tryst, and Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a co-worker who is still young enough to believe in being able to plan for true love and perfect married life. As we might expect, interacting with them might make this fellow see a different light; it's a setup that's obvious yet skillfully executed, thanks to the players involved, especially Clooney -- the movie would simply sink without the very essence of intelligence, cynicism, and charm that he sells through his screen persona. One of the movie's main concerns is transitions -- personal, professional, technological -- and the timeliness of the movie comes not only from addressing the current U.S. economic situation and its effects on the livelihoods of normal people but also in showing how current technologies and consumer choices contribute to a growing sense of individual isolationism and materialistic goals -- to the point where one can even justify such a lifestyle as sound. It's a portrait of an America becoming more disconnected as it becomes more connected virtually; but director Jason Reitman, like Bingham, offers a glimmer of future hope by suggesting the instinct to personally connect is inherent and deep-rooted. Such themes aren't necessarily original, but Up in the Air knows how to package them well, adultly, soberly, with its dependable script and performances, lacking neither humor nor darkness, to reflect upon our social natures -- vulnerable and defensive, masked in independence -- in these current times. (added 12/29/2009)

Where the Wild Things Are
Director: Spike Jonze
Rating: 7/10
The visual effects in Where the Wild Things Are are great. This is a live-action version of Maurice Sendak's illustrated children's book, and his unique creatures are brought vividly to life. They're a combination of costumes, puppets, and cg effects, and they're seamless in movement, expressing emotions and speaking. That may be all anyone was hoping for in an adaptation, but director/co-writer Spike Jonze has also made the film quite personal. His version is very much about the psychology of a mostly lonely boy, named Max (Max Records), who has a tendency to be violent and petulant when he feels he's not getting the attention he needs. When Max runs away to where the wild things are -- a place of his imagination, though never directly stated so -- he meets large creatures who each seem to represent the different emotional pieces of his persona as well as certain people from his life. It's evident that Jonze (along with co-writer Dave Eggers) interpreted this world quite liberally -- for instance, the creatures have rather regular sounding names and "normal people" voices, which is a way for Jonze to show that, while they look fantastic, they're grounded within certain bounds of Max's imagination. This world effectively allows Max to look at his own bad behavior from the outside, as his main analog creature, Carol (voice of James Gandolfini), acts out in almost the exact same way Max does. Does this film run the risk of turning a whimsical tale into a psychiatry session? There is a justified concern that the movie represents too much artistic extrapolation, complicating something originally simple, injecting a dose of underlying sadness, for the sake of padding out a feature-length running time. But it's also a heartfelt expression of the blacks, whites, and greys of childhood emotions as Jonze understands it, and he does deserve credit for presenting them with an ugly realism -- Max is no angel -- amid his fantastically rendered characters. (added 11/28/2009)

The White Ribbon
Director: Michael Haneke
Rating: 9/10
That the look of The White Ribbon could remind one of a Carl Th. Dreyer film may or may not have been intentional, but since this movie is the work of Michael Haneke, we can expect a cynical twist on the use of the style. If we take Ordet as the analogue, we have Dreyer trying to use all his cinematic power to make us ultimately believe in an event beyond our usual reality; whereas Haneke is taking a stylized presentation and hammering cold, ugly reality into it. That reality comes in the form of a small German pre-World War I village, relatively isolated and populated with flawed adults. Since their perspective is so localized, their flaws become exacerbated and the more powerful of the community -- a baron, a pastor, a doctor -- gain a poisonous righteousness. But the movie's main focus might be put this way: parents who are bad have children who are bad. The cruelties of the parents to their own children manifest themselves in various ways -- as abuse, as discipline, as stony authority -- and, as The White Ribbon posits, cruelty only begets more cruelty. Via interviews, Haneke has revealed that he meant to use this tale specifically to bring insight into how a country's populace could have become so open to the rule of fascism and Nazism in the coming decades, but the movie is so strong it could be universally applied to any similar societal situation. It's a direct and simple human lesson -- that negative reinforcement creates negative consequences. Also worth deserving mention is the film's stunning cinematograhy, as beautiful a display of black-and-white photography as there has recently been. (added 7/17/2010)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Director: Gavin Hood
Rating: 6/10
On the one hand, it's a shame that movies in the X-Men series have only come down from Bryan Singer's socially-concerned action heights, and that stuff like X-Men Origins: Wolverine will likely only aspire to be simple comic book fantasies. On the other hand, simple comic book fantasies have a place in the universe too, especially when they're propped up by good actors and gratuitous special-effects-driven displays of fun superpowers. Just as I could watch Spider-Man swinging around the New York skyscrapers all day, I can have a decent time watching superheroes be, well, super -- in Wolverine's case, each new creative use of his retractable claws for the sake of a bit of mayhem can hit the spot just right. By now, Hugh Jackman has ensured that his mug and physique are synonymous with the film character of Wolverine, the actor bringing his natural charisma and appeal to amp up those of the comic book hero. It's only a plus that opposite him is Liev Schreiber as Victor Creed (aka Sabretooth), with Danny Huston lending a strong supporting hand as the corrupt military officer Stryker. The story doesn't serve their talents well -- it's corny, plainly dopey, most likely blasphemous to die-hard comics fans, and, frankly, unnecessary; I'm beginning to think nothing spoils a good mythology like a straight-told origin story. Gavin Hood's direction is also a bit over-dramatic, but it's funny how much I'll forgive just to watch Jackman play this raging mutant again. (added 9/21/2009)

The Young Victoria
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Rating: 5/10
It isn't a good sign when, upon finishing watching The Young Victoria, I was still wondering what the story was. The movie is curiously lacking in drama or conflicts. It tells of the would-be Queen of England, Victoria (Emily Blunt), shortly before and after she was crowned. Before becoming queen, she overcomes what would prove to be a minor obstacle to her succession; afterwards, her primary concern is finding the right man to trust and perhaps fall in love with. Nothing in the course of the story proves to be too trying (and rather comically, the scariest moment comes from completely dressing up a factual occurrence), and the movie ends without having worked up too much of our emotions over anything. I suspect the intention of The Young Victoria was to fashion a portrait of a strong woman who was up to her appointed task, willing to tackle the resposibility yet also having the open possibility of being romanced. In some respects, it succeeds in this with its predictably stately production values, but somehow it was never quite convincing -- for instance, I never got comfortable with Blunt being in the role, but perhaps it was the role that failed her, since it's somewhat generic. The movie winds up being a passable depiction of what looks to be a rather unspectacular slice of history. (added 1/10/2010)

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Rating: 7/10
I'll be honest: I'm pretty tired of zombies by now. They're turning into an overused horror/comedy/action device for works ranging from books (survival guides, Jane Austen parodies) to video games to movies (I believe there was one recently about zombie Nazis that made me want to back away). So it was with some trepidation that I visited Zombieland, reportedly a good movie that had people calling it the American version of Shaun of the Dead, which was the last zombie-related entertainment I adored. The good news is that Zombieland is indeed enjoyable -- no Shaun of the Dead, but an enthusiastic comedy all its own. Perhaps much of the reason was that it was just that -- a comedy. It barely tries to be scary, relegating most of the zombie gore stuff to the prologue, and makes it pretty clear early on that we're mostly going to be laughing at the zombies, who get taken out one after the other in silly ways. And frankly, the zombies aren't much in it -- it's mostly a road movie teaming up four individuals played by Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin, gaining most of its energy from their dynamic. The movie is cleverly about the need to blow off steam -- Zombieland could represent the different ways life assaults us as we try to survive day-to-day, and our heroes respond by going to abandoned property and just smashing and shooting things up. It makes a case for escapism and is effective in communicating the benefits from such catharsis. Zombieland itself is mostly ridiculous, so it directly plays into its own philosophy of sitting back to "enjoy the little things" -- like zombies being used yet again as a horror/comedy/action device. They still have some fun potential left, it seems. (added 2/12/2010)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2009

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