Thursday, December 27, 2007

2007 year in movies

In past years, I've posted an expanded version of my Top 10 list here because I haven't been given much room in Las Vegas Weekly. But this year I was able to say pretty much everything I wanted to say about my 10 favorite movies of the year, so for my list and my thoughts you can go here (mine's the third of the three lists). Last week I also took part in a five-day-long roundtable discussion of the year in movies, shamelessly ripped off from Slate's Movie Club, along with critics Mark Holcomb, Tony Macklin and Jeffrey M. Anderson (here's Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 and Day 5). I think at this point I have said all I could possibly say about this year's films.

But, if you love lists or just can't live without my opinion on everything, below is my first-round ballot from the Las Vegas Film Critics Society's year-end awards (actual winners are listed here). There was a limit of 10 picks in each category; aside from the Best Picture list, all are indicated in no particular order.

Best Picture
1. Zodiac
2. No Country for Old Men
3. The Lookout
4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
5. Margot at the Wedding
6. Waitress
7. Gone Baby Gone
8. Black Snake Moan
9. Bridge to Terabithia
10. Sunshine

Best Actor
Chris Cooper, Breach
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Lookout
Gordon Pinsent, Away From Her
John Cusack, 1408
Christian Bale, Rescue Dawn
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

Best Actress
Christina Ricci, Black Snake Moan
Julie Christie, Away From Her
Keri Russell, Waitress
Ashley Judd, Bug
Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart
Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose
Sienna Miller, Interview
Kate Dickie, Red Road
Ellen Page, Juno
Nicole Kidman, Margot at the Wedding

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Downey Jr., Zodiac
Jeff Daniels, The Lookout
Irfan Khan, A Mighty Heart & The Namesake
Bill Pullman, You Kill Me
Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma
Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Paul Schneider, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Margot at the Wedding
Isla Fisher, The Lookout
Sydney Poitier, Death Proof
Jennifer Garner, Juno
Cheryl Hines, Waitress
Tabu, The Namesake
Michelle Pfeiffer, Hairspray
Naomi Watts, Eastern Promises
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Maura Tierney, Diggers

Best Director
Noah Baumbach, Margot at the Wedding
Billy Ray, Breach
Craig Brewer, Black Snake Moan
David Fincher, Zodiac
Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone
Danny Boyle, Sunshine
Joe Wright, Atonement

Best Screenplay (Original or Adapted)
No Country for Old Men
The Lookout
Margot at the Wedding
Away From Her
Bridge to Terabithia
Gone Baby Gone

Best Cinematography
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
The Bourne Ultimatum
Into the Wild
Gone Baby Gone
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Best Film Editing
There Will Be Blood
The Bourne Ultimatum
Eastern Promises
Gone Baby Gone
No Country for Old Men
Michael Clayton
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Best Score
Black Snake Moan
28 Weeks Later
The Bourne Ultimatum
Eastern Promises
Michael Clayton
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

Best Song
"Way Back Into Love," from Music & Lyrics
"Pop Goes My Heart," from Music & Lyrics
"Happy Working Song," from Enchanted
"That's How You Know," from Enchanted
"Walk Hard," from Walk Hard
"Let's Duet," from Walk Hard

Best Family Film
(this category used to be confined to live action only, and for some reason I assumed it still was)
The Astronaut Farmer
Bridge to Terabithia

Best Documentary
No End in Sight
Manda Bala
Deep Water
The King of Kong
My Kid Could Paint That

Best Animated Film
Meet the Robinsons
The Simpsons Movie

Best Foreign Film
Exterminating Angels
Black Book
I Don't Want to Sleep Alone

Best Costume Design
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Eastern Promises
There Will Be Blood
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Darjeeling Limited
No Country for Old Men

Best Art Direction
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Eastern Promises
Gone Baby Gone
The Darjeeling Limited
No Country for Old Men

Best Visual Effects
Planet Terror
Spider-Man 3
28 Weeks Later
Live Free or Die Hard
Bridge to Terabithia
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Youth in Film
Jasper & Logan Polish, The Astronaut Farmer
AnnaSophia Robb, Bridge to Terabithia
Nikki Blonsky, Hairspray
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Dakota Blue Richards, The Golden Compass
Dillon Freasier, There Will Be Blood

Monday, December 24, 2007

2007 catch-up, epilogue

The deadlines have passed both for list-making and awards-voting, but I still had a few 2007 movies lying around that I wanted to watch before putting a capper on my year and finally taking some time to see movies released in the past (it's been almost two months since I saw a movie not released in 2007).

Control (Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, dir. Anton Corbijn)
Although I'm even less familiar with Ian Curtis of Joy Division than I am with Bob Dylan, I found this biopic of the goth-rock icon much more accessible than I'm Not There, probably thanks to its far more conventional narrative structure. Corbijn, a longtime rock photographer and music-video director making his feature debut, doesn't reinvent the biopic formula, but he does shy away from big melodramatic moments, and he matches the aesthetic of his film to that of the band by shooting in stark, sometimes bleak, black and white. Although Riley's performance as Curtis is impressive, the film's main problem is that it's unable to really understand Curtis, to account for his emotions or why he hanged himself in 1980 at age 23. Granted, it's likely that no one really understood Curtis, and the fact that the movie is based on Touching From a Distance, the memoir by Curtis' widow Deborah, is telling. It, too, touches Curtis only from a distance, which can often be frustrating, especially since he's in virtually every frame of the film. Given the source material, and the fact that Deborah Curtis is a producer on the movie, it's not surprising that her character (played by Samantha Morton) gets the most depth and sympathy, although at least Corbijn doesn't vilify the Belgian journalist with whom Curtis had a prolonged affair. He does sort of ignore the other band members, who barely get any lines, but this is resolutely a movie about the man first and the music second, which makes it sometimes seem incomplete. At least it has a focus, though, which is more than can be said for most biopics, and Corbijn's photographer's eye ensures that it looks fantastic.

Lust, Caution (Tang Wei, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Joan Chen, dir. Ang Lee)
Those two words could describe much of Lee's work, which is largely about repressed emotion and the way that it boils over, often disastrously. This movie got mostly unenthusiastic reviews and has been virtually ignored at awards time (aside from occasional mentions in round-ups of the best foreign-language films), but I really liked it, and would put it up there with Lee's best work. Yes, it's slow and methodical and perhaps a little too long at almost 160 minutes, but I rarely felt impatient or frustrated with the pace of the story. It's by nature a slow burn, a long-term development of feelings on the part of the characters and a winding journey toward where they end up at the finish. Wei is fantastic as the naive drama student who undergoes a startling transformation into an undercover seductress; if I had seen this movie a week and a half ago, I would have added her to my Best Actress list. The much-hyped explicit sex scenes, which don't occur until nearly two hours into the film, are less sexy than brutal and intense, but they do a great job of conveying the complex emotions of the characters. Still, the movie is much less about explicit sex and more about stolen looks and furtive expressions, which all the actors carry off expertly. It's possibly even richer and more powerful than Brokeback Mountain, and well worth checking out for patient viewers when it comes out on DVD in February.

Zoo (documentary, dir. Robinson Devor)
This is really more of a documentary-narrative hybrid, with audio interviews played over reenactments. It's about the 2005 incident in which a Seattle man bled to death after having his colon punctured while having sex with a horse. A delicate subject, certainly, and Devor takes an interesting approach by sort of over-aestheticizing the subject, staging his reenactments with artsy slo-mo, soft focus, dreamy music and oblique angles. It's an innovative solution to the dilemma of several of his interviewees (so-called "zoos," people sexually attracted to animals, who were with the man the day he died) declining to appear on camera. Devor certainly could have gone the more conventional route and interviewed psychologists and pundits and cops and elected officials, but instead he chooses to paint a very sympathetic portrait of people far on the margins of accepted behavior, to show their predilections as genuine efforts at intimacy and happiness rather than sick sexual deviance. To me, this is the far more valuable strategy, and it works more often than not. Right in the middle of the movie, Devor cuts to an extended, on-camera interview with one of his actors, which is jarring and doesn't add anything to the understanding of the story. The disconnect between the audio and the visual also sometimes creates confusion, and bits of factual and chronological details are sacrificed to the artistry. Overall, though, this movie makes what could be a distasteful and sensationalized story into something compassionate and even beautiful.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Marvel's teen spirit: New Warriors & The Loners

I was only a sporadic reader of the seminal original New Warriors series by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley (and later Evan Skolnick and Patrick Zircher) in the '90s, but got really into it in the last few years, and have since amassed just about an entire run of the 75-issue series; I also read Jay Faerber's ill-fated and short-lived 1999 relaunch, and the 2005 mini-series by Zeb Wells and Skottie Young that recast the team as reality-TV stars. I always liked how the series rescued sort of unloved teen characters from various corners of the Marvel universe and threw them all into one big pot. Over the years the original series featured a huge number of characters, and it turned into sort of general hangout for teen misfits, and a good depiction of growing up and into late adolescence. Back when I would have fantasies of being a comic-book writer, I would always imagine relaunching the New Warriors, with some of the old characters mentoring a set of outcast teen characters who'd been neglected in Marvel's recent comics.

Recently Marvel's published two comics that take the original Warriors concept in two very different directions. Kevin Grevioux's relaunch of the actual Warriors series, with art by Paco Medina, carries a fairly tenuous connection to the original series; it's a spin-off mostly of the Civil War and House of M crossovers, with the only returning member being leader Night Thrasher, now apparently revealed to be the brother of the old Night Thrasher, who was killed in Civil War (the brother was once known as Bandit and was a team member for a while during the first series). C.B. Cebulski's The Loners series (with art by Karl Moline), a spin-off of Runaways, is more along the lines of what I would have hoped for a present-day Warriors series: It moves forward from the teen-hero adventures to follow its characters as they adjust to life in their early 20s. Former Warriors Turbo and Darkhawk join other grown-up teen heroes including ex-Slinger Ricochet, Julie Power of Power Pack, the third Spider-Woman and the very obscure heroic version of the Green Goblin in trying to leave their superhero days behind and grow up.

Really, both of these approaches are potentially interesting ones for the Warriors; the team always had a tradition of embracing new members and helping young people with powers find a home and a support system. That was one of the best things about the original series. The problem with Grevioux's series is not that it is full of obscure and unfamiliar characters, or even that its connection to the Warriors' history is tenuous (and with the Night Thrasher plot thread, Grevioux indicates that he hasn't abandoned the old continuity entirely). The problem is that Grevioux can't take his new approach and make it stand on its own as an interesting story; the entire first six-issue arc has been based on the mystery of who is in the Night Thrasher costume, and who are in the other costumes, since all of the other team members are mutants who were depowered during House of M and have now taken on new superhero identities and are using technology to replace their lost powers.

Grevioux's pacing is maddeningly slow; it's ridiculous that it took until the last pages of issue six before there was even a hint at who Night Thrasher might be, and each issue has featured a basically uninteresting fight sequence (with decent but unexceptional art by Medina) and some incremental development in the investigation into who the team is by a pair of detectives and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The main character has for the most part been a former New Mutants member named Sofia, and her agonizing over whether to join the team has been the thread of the first arc. Typical team-gathering story elements, including a moment of crisis, an early loss and the introductions of all the characters to each other, have been spread out over six issues, and Grevioux's eight new team members have done little to distinguish themselves. When they all finally revealed their actual identities in the sixth issue, I could barely connect each old identity to each new one. They all basically run together, and Jubilee and Chamber are the only characters who had enough backstory before the series to give them any of the distinction that Grevioux has failed to provide. Jubilee at least was revealed early on and allowed to interact with Sofia; Chamber, who's had his own solo mini-series and a whole interesting history over a number of years, has gotten barely a handful of lines over six issues.

Teen characters in comics have always been a little tough to write, but Grevioux seems to be trying so hard to capture the attitude and vernacular of young people that his dialogue comes off as painful and forced, full of awkward uses of slang and really stilted banter. (Check out this awful line from issue six: "You got wax in your ears? Dog said he was done. Outta here like a reindeer. Hit and split like a model kit. Y'know what I'm sayin'?") Even the adult cop characters talk in this sort of overly stylized hipster-speak that's at best distracting and at worst laughable. None of them sounds like a real person, and the dialogue (even when it's sometimes meant to be humorous) doesn't illustrate any personality other than the writer's. After six issues, I don't feel like I know any of these people or what's important to them, and I can't care about whether they live or die (when one character actually did die in the fourth issue, I had no idea which one it was). The cast is too big, and the writing is too weak to keep track of them all. Nicieza sometimes had huge lineups in the old series, but each character always came from their own unique place. Not so here. If the pacing were better, I might be willing to stick around to see if the characters develop further, but at this point I imagine it'll take another six issues just for them to find any worthwhile villains to fight.

The Loners has its own pacing problems, and occasional dialogue problems, but overall it's a much stronger series, one that has the same emotional drama mixed in with superheroics that marked Nicieza's Warriors work, and one that similarly takes neglected characters and proves that interesting stories can be told about them. The main problem is that while it's a six-issue mini, Cebulski structures it like the first issues of an ongoing series, and packs in a lot more developments and changes in direction than Grevioux does in the same amount of time. Which would be great as the opening salvo of an ongoing, but for a story that's meant to have a defined beginning, middle and end (even if it leaves the potential open for more), it's a little unsatisfying. The status quo is completely shaken up by the end, and there are are dangling subplots just left hanging. It makes me eager to read the next issue, except there isn't a next issue.

Cebulski has talked many times about his grand future plans for these characters, which is great, except he may not ever get to realize them, and in the meantime he hasn't exactly offered a satisfying end to the one story he got to tell. That aside, I did enjoy this series far more than Grevioux's, and that's because Cebulski seems to care more about his characters, and is much better at making them seem real, unique and whole. Their interactions are fraught with genuine emotion, if sometimes soap-operatic, but effective soap opera is one of the greatest strengths of ongoing superhero comics, really, and one reason why I wish Jay Faerber had gotten more of a chance to keep going with his Warriors series (he does great superhero soap opera in Noble Causes). The Loners also has better action sequences (courtesy of artist Moline) that are more central to what's going on in the story, rather than just tacked on to fill a quota, as they often seem in New Warriors.

New Warriors has sold much better than The Loners, thanks no doubt to its big "The Initiative" banner on each issue, and its recognizable brand name, so it'll be continuing for the foreseeable future, even if I won't be reading it (unless they hire a new writer, that is). Despite Cebulski's tireless online campaigning, The Loners looks to be pretty much dead, aside from an appearance in last week's Marvel Holiday Special (which I neglected to pick up). If the team came back, even under another writer (as long as it wasn't Grevioux), I'd give them a shot. Honestly, though, I thought the Warriors legacy was in better hands with both Jay Faerber and Zeb Wells, and it's a shame that, at least for now, the team is locked up in a crossover, tangling with the big guns when they were always best as misfits, looking on from the sidelines.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Movies opening this week

It's a movie overload in anticipation of Christmas, and in anticipation of nothing opening for the next two weeks.

Charlie Wilson's War (Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, dir. Mike Nichols)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It's entirely possible that my positive reaction to this movie came mostly from my fatigue with overly serious Iraq-war dramas, but I think at the very least it proves that Aaron Sorkin is best when he writes overtly about politics. This is so much more entertaining than Studio 60 ever was, because Sorkin doesn't have to pretend to be interested in anything other than Washington. He eventually gets as heavy-handed as always, but Nichols keeps things lively, and at the end I would have been happy to see a new Sorkin TV series about a Charlie Wilson-esque hard-drinking, womanizing congressman who always cuts through the bullshit. I think that's a pretty good sign. Wide release

The Great Debaters (Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker, dir. Denzel Washington)
Undoubtedly the most interesting thing about this movie is that it stars Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker and a young actor named Denzel Whitaker. Otherwise, it's much like Washington's first effort as a director, Antwone Fisher, in that it's overbearing, predictable, bland and trying too hard to be inspirational. It fictionalizes the heck out of the true story of the first champion debate team from an all-black college in order to hit the requisite Hollywood beats, runs through a litany of predictable elements and is populated entirely with one-dimensional characters. This is especially disappointing given that both Washington's character, debate coach Melvin Tolson, and Denzel Whitaker's young debater James Farmer Jr. seem to have lived incredibly interesting, varied lives that are only hinted at here in the standard "what happened to these people next" title cards at the end of the movie. Also, I'm no expert on debate, but every time the team wins a match, they do so by shamelessly appealing to sentiment as the score swells in the background. I was always under the impression that the whole enterprise was about logic. Then again, when was a movie like this ever concerned with logic? Wide release, on Tuesday

Juno (Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, dir. Jason Reitman)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
There's been some pretty heated debate recently among critics about this movie, and I'm sort of burnt out on it already. As one fellow critic pointed out to me, if this was just a little indie movie released in March, there wouldn't be such attention and intense argument over its relative merits. I liked the movie overall, and I stand by my positive review, but I do think the awards attention has been a little out of proportion to the actual quality on display, and that screenwriter Diablo Cody could easily become annoying if she buys into her own hype too much and relies on her "clever" dialogue over strong storytelling. But for now, ignore the hype and the backlash, and this is a perfectly entertaining and sometimes touching little movie. Opened limited Dec. 5; wide release on Tuesday

The Kite Runner (Khalid Abdalla, Zekeria Ebrahimi, Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, Homayoun Ershadi, dir. Marc Forster)
I saw this movie a couple of months ago to prepare for the interview I did with star Abdalla, and it's already pretty much faded from memory. It's admirable that it sheds some light on an area of the world that doesn't get much attention in America, and does so with a story focused more on family than on terrorism, but strip away the multicultural veneer and it's not a particularly engaging story. The middle portion is the same immigrant narrative we've seen so many times (and was done better earlier this year in The Namesake), and the last third has some pretty silly melodrama and Dickensian coincidences. The first segment, then, with the two characters as young boys growing up in Kabul, is the best, at least when it's quiet and contemplative rather than sensationalistic (the rape scene, no matter how tasteful, is the beginning of the movie's tip into histrionics). I haven't read the book, but I imagine it handles all of this with a little more subtlety and grace, and that probably makes the story easier to buy into. Opened limited Dec. 14; in Las Vegas this week

Margot at the Wedding (Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, Zane Pais, dir. Noah Baumbach)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The reviews on this have been very mixed, with even many of the positive ones not particularly enthusiastic, but it was one of my favorite movies of the year. I liked it even more than the universally praised The Squid and the Whale, because of a lot of things that people haven't liked about it - its unlikeable characters, its pessimism, its lack of resolution. Kidman is perfect in these roles as distant, emotionally unavailable ice queens, and she's great here, as is Leigh, a severely underappreciated actress. Unlike his pal Wes Anderson, who slathers his family dramas in excessive quirkiness while blunting their emotional force, Baumbach seems to be working harder and harder to expose the raw hurt and insecurity behind so many family interactions, and to lay bare all the resentments that we'd like others never to know about, and I find it both fascinating and highly respectable. Opened limited Nov. 16; in Las Vegas this week

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, dir. Tim Burton)
Having never seen the Sondheim musical on stage, I can't speak to the success of this movie as an adaptation, but most people seem to think the transition went pretty well. And I liked it overall as a movie, even if Depp and the rest of the main cast don't exactly have strong singing voices. Burton de-emphasizes vocal theatrics and focuses on character, and the actors do a good job of conveying the dark nastiness of their roles. I still don't quite see this as Burton's best film in years, though, as many have said; to me it just seems like so much of his recent work, a decent adaptation given the Tim Burton spin, but not nearly as original or exciting as the stuff he did early in his career. Wide release

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell, dir. Jake Kasdan)
This to me is conclusive proof that critics will just give Judd Apatow a free pass on anything. This movie is better certainly than something like Epic Movie, but it's still a rather obvious, wan and repetitive parody of an easy target. The parade of cameos from comedy all-stars is occasionally amusing (the scene with Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long doing the world's worst Beatles impressions is the funniest thing in the movie), but most of them don't do much other than prove how connected Apatow is. Kasdan directs anonymously, and the movie suffers from a lack of access to the biggest strength of Apatow films: improvisation. Parodying the conventions of the biopic requires a much more rigid structure, and there's not nearly as much manic energy here as there is in other Apatow productions. The songs are often great, spot-on parodies, but what comes in between them is uneven at best. Wide release

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Veronica Mars, FBI

At the end of the final season of Veronica Mars, in a last-ditch effort to save the show, creator Rob Thomas pitched The CW on a complete reinvention, which would fast-forward several years and find Veronica a first-year FBI agent, presumably offering a fresh enough start to attract new viewers who didn't want to catch up on three seasons' worth of backstory. Ultimately, The CW passed on the idea, but before they did so Thomas & Co. produced a 12-minute presentation, a sort of mini-pilot for the potential new series, and it's been released as an extra on the Veronica Mars Season 3 DVD.

Only Kristen Bell as Veronica shows up in the presentation, although presumably other regular characters might have shown up in recurring roles as time went on (Veronica's dad, at least, seems like a given). More than just moving the character forward in time, the presentation really does change the tone of the show, less detective noir and more typical cop drama, with Veronica joining a photogenic crew of fellow young agents. Thomas says in the supplementary interviews that the network wanted a Grey's Anatomy-type show, and indeed there are hints that this could be the same mix of soapy relationship drama and procedural, with cop work replacing medicine.

Jarring as the shift is, though, it's still recognizably Veronica Mars, both the show and the character. Bell manages to make Veronica seem older and a little wiser while retaining her tough, sarcastic demeanor, and the hints of a messy break-up with a fellow trainee point to her having moved on romantically from Logan, which predictably drove some online fans nuts (and certainly would have more so if it had actually made it to air). The presentation quickly introduces a few new characters and sketches a basic plot, but it ends right about where the first commercial break might be, and skips around a bit before that. Reaction online seems to have been mostly negative, but I would have liked to see this turned into an actual series. I think it would have actually solved some of the problems inherent in seasons two and three, mainly that their efforts to build on the plot elements of the first season often paled in comparison. Since Thomas envisioned season one's plot initially as a novel, it was completely self-contained, and doing a sequel of sorts that took place years later I think would have worked better than the direct continuations of the second and third seasons.

Of course, we'll never know, but it's nice to have this little glimpse, and it does give me some faint hope for the theoretical movie and/or comic-book series that have both been rumored for a while. There's still plenty of potential in this character, and even a 12-minute teaser can show that.

[Image via]

Friday, December 14, 2007

Movies opening this week

Atonement (Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, dir. Joe Wright)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Maybe it was a product of seeing it projected digitally, but this was probably the best-looking movie I saw all year. Wright is one hell of a director, and I really wanted to love this movie, but narratively it doesn't hang together as well as it should. Still worth seeing on a big screen if you can, and the first third is pretty much flawless. I've had a DVD of Wright's Pride & Prejudice from 2005 sitting next to my TV forever, and now I definitely plan to get to it soon. Opened limited Dec. 7; in Las Vegas this week

I Am Legend (Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, dir. Francis Lawrence)
This is one of those movies that I liked a lot while I was watching it (well, except for the rushed and overly optimistic ending) and then afterward thought back on all the plot inconsistencies that didn't make sense. As most reviews have noted, the first hour is pretty damn good, surprisingly light on action and effective at conveying the desolation and loneliness of being the only man left in post-apocalyptic New York City. Smith carries the movie well on his own (along with his dog), and there are even some nicely touching moments. Then when the fellow survivors show up and the movie switches to action mode, it's a little less convincing, and as I said the ending just doesn't work. Also, I've never read the book, but from checking out the Wikipedia summary, it's obvious that this deviates significantly from Richard Matheson's story. So if you're hoping that the one film version that keeps the original title will be the one to remain faithful to the novel, you'll be out of luck. If you go in judging the movie on its own terms, though, you may be pleasantly surprised. Wide release

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

2007 catch-up, Part 4

Probably the last few I'll be able to see before my list and awards deadlines, unfortunately. Why must there be so many movies?

2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, Adam Goldberg, dir. Julie Delpy)
Although on the surface one would guess that Delpy's film has a lot in common with her two collaborations with Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, this low-key, talky dramedy is actually nearly the inverse of those films, with Delpy and Goldberg's characters wandering the streets of a picturesque European city not in the heady, intellectual throes of new love, but in the neurotic, paranoid throes of settled love falling apart. Delpy's style is more Woody Allen than Linklater, with some hilariously awkward get-togethers (a family lunch, a cocktail party) and introspective narration and random asides from Delpy's character. The ending feels a little forced, but otherwise this is an entertaining and fitfully insightful little relationship movie.

The Boss of It All (Jens Albinus, Peter Gantzler, Iben Hjelje, dir. Lars von Trier)
Von Trier offers up a voiceover at the beginning of this film asserting that it is nothing more than a comedic trifle, which naturally means it is anything but a comedic trifle. The problem is that the concept and overall plot are exactly the stuff of a middling American comedy, with a passive-aggressive CEO hiring an actor to play "the boss of it all" so he doesn't get blamed by his employees for his cold-hearted business practices. Of course, the actor encounters all sorts of awkward situations and eventually uses his position of pseudo-power to fight on behalf of the beleaguered employees. It's not hard to imagine this as a movie starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, and at times it is sort of amusing. But von Trier seems dead set on working against its breeziness, with his condescending voiceover asides at the beginning, middle and end, his weird ending that amounts to some meta-comment on the nature of acting, and most of all his irritating filmmaking tactics. He uses a technique that moves the camera around automatically, rather than employing a cinematographer, and the result is constant, random jump cuts, shots with the characters' heads out of the frame, incredibly stupid blocking and lots of inconsistent continuity. This, no doubt, is also some meta-comment on the nature of filmmaking, but really it just dresses up this semi-funny story in a whole lot of pretentious nonsense.

I'm Not There (Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, dir. Todd Haynes)
I thought I had an extensive enough familiarity with the life and career of Bob Dylan to make sense of this movie, but apparently I was wrong. I think the only thing I recognized was when he went electric and someone in the audience screamed, "Judas!" Otherwise, I was pretty lost as to how much of the events in this movie related to Dylan's life, beyond some very broad strokes. I also only knew a handful of the songs. Maybe I would have liked the movie more if I were more of a Dylan fan - as it is, I appreciate Haynes' artistry and exhaustive knowledge of pop-culture and film history, and his evocation of different cinematic styles in each of the six intertwining parts that make up this film is undeniably accomplished and impressive. In the past, I've really liked Haynes' films for the way they engage with the pop-culture of the past (Velvet Goldmine and Citizen Kane; Far From Heaven and Douglas Sirk), but here I think I'm not familiar enough with the styles he's evoking to engage with it as successfully. My other problem is that this seemed often more like a montage or a music video than a narrative film to me - which is not necessarily bad, but it's hard to ever engage with the characters when they sort of just float across the screen, and Haynes is constantly switching perspectives. As much attention as Blanchett has gotten for her performance, it didn't particularly stand out to me, although she did a perfectly good job; I thought Ledger managed the best balance of Dylan mimicry and real acting, while Bale went overboard with his bad Dylan impression. I tried hard to like this movie, and I admired a lot of what it did, but overall it just didn't work for me.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Movies opening this week

The Golden Compass (Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliott, Daniel Craig, dir. Chris Weitz)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I didn't have enough time to read this book before reviewing the movie, but I did listen to the unabridged audio, which I think is almost as good. It was reasonably entertaining at times, but full of lots of boring expositional asides, and it didn't exactly make me desperate to read the next installment. From what I've heard about the trilogy, it only gets more ponderous and philosophical as it goes on, and while I agree with author Philip Pullman's anti-religion stance, I don't necessarily need it lectured at me in a fantasy novel. I'll probably only read the second book if I need to prepare to review the movie adaptation of it. I'm not sure what the chances of that are - this movie really rushes through the first book, and takes out the point of view that made it interesting to many fans. Without that it's just a generic and confusing fantasy, and given the cost of these movies, I don't know that it'll be successful enough to warrant a sequel. Wide release

Strength and Honor (Michael Madsen, Vinnie Jones, Michael Rawley, dir. Mark Mahon)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Last week I marveled that tiny indie movie Holly somehow made it to Vegas, and this week I am once again baffled at the opening of an obscure oddity here in town - or anywhere at all, really. This movie is playing in seven theaters in Vegas! That's seven times as many as virtually all arthouse-type releases, for a movie that barely achieves the level of quality of straight-to-DVD releases. Some things about the film-distribution business I just don't understand. Limited release

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Wire, season two

With The Wire's fifth and final season set to premiere on HBO next month, I don't think I'll get caught up in time to watch it as it airs, but I'm certainly hooked on this show even though I found the second season a little less compelling than the first. My Wire-loving friend assures me that the third and fourth seasons are the best, and I'll certainly be watching them soon (the fourth season is out on DVD this week). As for the second, it seemed to me to lack at times the unified power of the first, with its focus on the drug-dealing operation of Avon Barksdale, both from the cops' and the criminals' perspectives. This season likewise splits its time between the police and the crooks, but while most of the attention is focused on a new set of law-breakers (smugglers working out of Baltimore's docks), Barksdale and his crew still have their own set of storylines, which only rarely coincide with what the rest of the characters are doing.

I also kind of lost interest in their doings once D'Angelo, to my mind the most complex and interesting of the first-season drug-dealer characters, wound up dead. The lower-level functionaries are still sort of interchangeable to me, and while Stringer gets a lot of screen time, I feel like he's a distant and aloof character who's hard to really care about on his own (this is intentional, of course, but without someone interesting to play off of, he seems somewhat adrift). By the finale, it's obvious that Barksdale's crew will once again be central to the plot next season, but otherwise they often seem like they're on an entirely different show. I would have been happy to see them less often as the police focused on a different crew, and still have them come back in at the end.

The lack of focus isn't fatal, though, and I thought the main storyline of the season was a nice contrast to the first season's while still hitting on many of the same themes (the stifling influence of bureaucracy, the often futile nature of police work, the way that economic conditions force otherwise intelligent people into lives of crime). And it showed how these issues in a lot of ways cut across racial and even class lines. There was a certain nobility to the struggle of union boss Frank Sobotka, who only wanted to provide for his employees and his family, and ended up in bed with some very bad people. And I could be wrong, but I think there was more comic relief this season, even if it was rather bittersweet (I found Ziggy completely annoying, but his fate was still heartbreaking).

It was also interesting to see the significant role for Amy Ryan, who's been having a breakout year at the movies thanks to her excellent performance in Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone. She plays a small-time port cop who gets caught up in the main characters' big investigation, and in the process gets to blossom into something close to a real detective. It's a nice arc that Ryan handles well; I was disappointed to hear that she doesn't play much of a part in future seasons. The team work of the core characters is one of this show's greatest strengths, and even though it took half the season for them all to end up working together again, it was even more satisfying when it finally came about. And our heroes' occasional small victories against smug, self-serving bureaucrats (Rawls, Burrell and especially this season's main asshole, Valchek) are always very gratifying even if they ultimately accomplish very little.

Small gratifications that accomplish very little are really what this show is all about, how the war between criminals and cops is one of inches. By this season's finale, the crew has accomplished even less than they did the previous year (when they at least got a seven-year sentence for Avon Barksdale), but they've obviously done the most good they can, and that's weirdly uplifting in a show that's about how unavoidably bleak everything is. I'm looking forward to the start of season three, coming soon to my mailbox.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Movies opening this week

Awake (Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Lena Olin, Terrence Howard, dir. Joby Harold)
For a movie that was on the shelf for a couple of years, released on one of the deadest weekends of the year and not screened for critics, this wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been. The main hook, that Christensen's character is conscious but paralyzed during open-heart surgery, is incredibly disturbing, even if a cursory look at Wikipedia indicates that Harold may have exaggerated the experience a bit. The film achieves some real moments of horror when we watch Christensen helpless on the table as the surgeons cut into his skin and saw at his ribcage. These are fairly brief, though, and even though the movie is less than 80 minutes long, the visceral horror is padded out with a dumb murder-plot storyline that's incredibly far-fetched and gets only more ridiculous as the movie goes on. This is more of a thriller than a horror movie, and while its fleeting attempts at horror are effective, it's decidedly less than thrilling. Wide release

Holly (Ron Livingston, Thuy Nguyen, Virginie Ledoyen, dir. Guy Moshe)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Sometimes these tiny movies that open in like four cities end up playing here, and I never understand why. Is there really a big audience in Vegas for morose message movies about underage prostitution? Bigger than, say, in Minneapolis, or Atlanta, or somewhere like that? I mean, I guess it's nice that small movies open here, but when we get some exclusive, it's usually boring stuff like this rather than something really innovative and different. Oh well. Opened limited Nov. 9; in Las Vegas this week

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

2007 catch-up, Part 3

Still rushing to watch as many of this year's notable/interesting releases as possible before list/awards deadlines.

Crazy Love (documentary, dir. Dan Klores)
Another of this year's acclaimed documentaries about weird human-interest stories, but this one less stylish and entertaining than The King of Kong and less thought-provoking than My Kid Could Paint That. It's likewise one of those stories where you can just get out of the way and let it tell itself, and Klores pretty much does just that. He uses a basic talking-heads-and-archival-footage format to tell the story of the rich New York lawyer who hired hitmen to blind his girlfriend with acid, spent 14 years in jail and then ended up marrying her. Just that short summary points to how nutso this story is, but Klores often makes it sort of dull, and spends too much time on mundane details in the first half-hour. The movie really picks up toward the end when the couple, previously interviewed separately, are finally seen interacting, and you get the sense of how screwed up and yet totally normal their dynamic is. Still, Klores never goes as deep as one would hope into the story, although that may be the fault of his interviewees as much as his own, and this bizarre story comes off as a little more banal than it should.

The Namesake (Kal Penn, Tabu, Irrfan Khan, dir. Mira Nair)
Compressing a novel that covers something like 30 years into a two-hour movie is a tough task, but Nair pulls it off better than the makers of Love in the Time of Cholera (and better than she herself did in Vanity Fair, which I actually sort of liked, unlike every other person who saw it). There's still a rushed feeling at times, and the sense that no scene occurs that doesn't depict a significant moment in the characters' lives (if someone goes to the hospital, it's either to die or to give birth). The story, while largely predictable, is affectionate and warm, a mostly balanced depiction of the immigrant experience over two generations. The main character's parents get as much screen time as he does, and their story is often more interesting. Penn, best known for comedic roles, does a decent job, but Tabu and Khan are excellent as his Bengali parents, aging convincingly with minimal makeup. Tabu's performance especially holds the movie together when it threatens to slip into a collection of immigrant-family cliches.

Private Property (Isabelle Huppert, Jeremie Renier, Yannick Renier, dir. Joachim Lafosse)
This Belgian domestic drama is a little aimless but has some nice character work and good performances. The tension between Huppert's divorcee and the Renier brothers as her sons, the most ungrateful children of all time, is really effective, so much so that many of the family-squabble scenes (shot often in long, static takes) are fairly uncomfortable to watch. It did bug me that this movie engaged in one of my pet peeves about indie dramas, with (spoiler alert) the tensions all coming to a head with the sudden, random death of one of the main characters. It just seems like a cheap and overused metaphor to me, a device to convey strong emotions when the writing and acting apparently aren't enough. To be fair, it's not that egregious in this movie; it's left ambiguous as to whether the character is actually dead, and the movie's final moments are rather touching. Still, it's an unnecessary and lazy bit of storytelling that annoys me whenever it arises.

Monday, November 26, 2007

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, season three

The recently concluded third season of FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is definitely the most popular, although I don't think the ratings are exactly spectacular. But after being almost entirely obscure in its first season and only slightly less so in its second (despite the presence of Danny DeVito), it's become the go-to cult comedy hit, right behind 30 Rock in blogosphere and message-board popularity (this is based entirely on anecdotal evidence and is possibly in no way accurate). FX promoted the hell out of this season, and finally released the first two seasons on DVD; although they haven't announced a fourth-season pick-up, it seems far more likely than it was in the past.

And yet this was easily the show's worst season, one in which it really seemed like they were running out of ideas, in which the already ridiculous characters each became simply exaggerations of their one defining trait, and one in which DeVito's character was revealed to be entirely useless. It was also still very funny, and more daring than just about any comedy on TV, but I can't help but think that in the network's zeal to have more of the show that everyone's talking about, they've diluted what made it worth talking about in the first place.

The seven-episode first season was basically put together by actor/writers Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day on their own, and the 10-episode second season had only two episodes with contributions from other writers. But this season's 15 episodes were penned by a variety of writers (still including the three stars), and it really seemed to me that the increased number of episodes stretched the show's creative resources too thin. The initial appeal of the show was in how it broke so many different taboos in each episode, but now that most of the obvious appalling ground has been covered, all that's left is for the plots to become more and more ridiculous, the characters less and less human. At first, they seemed to be clever exaggerations of the worst in human nature, but now Dennis' vanity, Mac's competitiveness, Dee's insecurity and Charlie's simple-mindedness have been distorted to the point of distraction. (Although admittedly I will never find Charlie's illiteracy not funny.)

Last season's development of narrative continuity was a welcome change, but this season the dynamic between DeVito's Frank and his pseudo-children Dennis and Dee was basically abandoned, and he just became another one of the gang, and thus entirely superfluous. After discovering at the end of last season that Frank wasn't their actual dad (and that he probably was Charlie's), Dennis and Dee seem to have just decided to treat him like some guy they met, and the possibility of his relationship to Charlie was never really developed. Still, there were plenty of recurring characters and nods to past storylines, most of which paid off well (the McPoyles are best in small doses, but I was happy for the returns of The Waitress, Mac's dad and Stephen Collins as Dennis and Dee's real father, the only good person ever to appear on the show).

If FX does bring the show back for another season, I hope they'll reduce the order to a more manageable number, and that the creators will find a compelling new ways for the characters to relate to each other rather than just stand around in the same place reacting to the plot of the week. The early episodes were so funny as much because of their surprising newness as anything else, but like any show whose novelty wears off over time, Sunny needs to find a way to sustain itself long-term with more than just increasingly desperate attempts at shock. From this season at least, I'm not sure if they'll make it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

2007 catch-up, Part 2

Still working on catching up on some notable and/or overlooked 2007 releases as the list-making and awards-giving deadline approaches.

Diggers (Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Maura Tierney, Ron Eldard, Josh Hamilton, dir. Katherine Dieckmann)
This simple, laid-back dramedy, written by former State member Marino, is charming and low-key, and actually more entertaining I think than the more broadly comedic recent efforts from State alums. It's not particularly original, but as a character study of thirtysomething clamdiggers in 1976 Long Island, it nicely sketches the arrested man-child persona in a believable, charming way, and unlike a lot of movies of this type, doesn't shortchange the female characters (having a female director probably helps). Tierney in particular is excellent as a woman who's just as rootless as the male main characters, and her arc is equally compelling. There's nothing revelatory here, but there are a lot of nice, satisfying moments, with an ending that's sort of predictable but still touching.

The King of Kong (documentary, dir. Seth Gordon)
There's been a bit of outcry online over the recently released Academy shortlist for the Best Documentary award, in large part because this film was left out, and I can see the validity of that (the list is also very heavily skewed toward political films, as if that's the only function of documentaries these days). It's also not surprising that Gordon has a narrative version of this film in the works, because it's got a very Hollywood hook, with the likable underdog taking on a cocky, condescending champion, in this case in the realm of competitive classic videogaming. It'd be enough for Gordon to just step back and let the story tell itself, but he manages to jazz it up a little with a few bits of visual flair and some creative editing. And he makes great use of cheesy "fight of the century" anthems from other sports-underdog movies. The movie doesn't have much to say, but it's a great character study of a weird and dedicated subculture, and incredibly entertaining.

Tears of the Black Tiger (Chartchai Ngamsan, Stella Malucchi, Arawat Ruangvuth, dir. Wisit Sasanatieng)
This weird, psychedelic Western/melodrama was made and released in Thailand seven years ago, but only made it to U.S. theaters this year, already armed with a cult following. I can't say I quite understood it - I think there are references and homages to elements of Thai pop culture with which I am completely unfamiliar - but it was entertaining in its own bizarre way. Completely, purposely fake - with exaggerated colors, obvious sets standing in for outdoor locations, and completely impossible stunts - it's a hyper-stylized parody of both macho Westerns and weepy melodramas. It's also quite macho and weepy on its own, and sort of exciting and even touching at times. The kind of movie that if it didn't exist, it would be invented as some sort of backstory in a Quentin Tarantino film.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Movies opening this week

August Rush (Freddie Highmore, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Robin Williams, dir. Kirsten Sheridan)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Various scheduling issues kept me from seeing this week's other modern fable, Enchanted, but all indications are that it gets right everything this film gets wrong. It's not easy to strike the right balance between the realistic and the fantastic in a movie like this, and while I give it credit for trying, the result is a definite failure, sappy and lifeless and unexciting. I'm happy to see Keri Russell getting more mainstream roles after the obscurity she languished in for a while post-Felicity, though. Wide release

Hitman (Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, dir. Xavier Gens)
I was glad that our video-game critic also hated this movie, since video-game fans tend to get defensive about bad reviews of video-game movies. I have nothing against video games - I haven't really played any since I was 12, but I think they're an entirely legitimate form of entertainment and even art. If you like the Hitman video game, you should probably go play it rather than seeing this movie, which is incoherent, poorly written and really very boring. It's so cheap-looking that I'm sort of surprised it didn't go direct to DVD; the story, the cast, the direction and the subject matter all scream "Blockbuster original." Wide release

The Mist (Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Toby Jones, dir. Frank Darabont)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Some reviewers have praised the bleakness of the changed ending to this film, but it really bugged me, and not just because it altered the source material (which is decent but not exactly Stephen King's best work). It just seemed like such a cheap shock tactic, and while I like movies with dark worldviews and am impressed that a major studio film can get away with such a downer of an ending, it just was so jarring that it negated a lot of the character work that went before it. Other than that, though, I think this is a good horror movie, suspenseful without being gory, and a fun bit of nostalgia for drive-in B-movies. Wide release

My Kid Could Paint That (documentary, dir. Amir Bar-Lev)
As I've said before, any documentary that is about an obscure and fascinating story rather than a political issue is okay with me, and this one certainly qualifies. Bar-Lev agonizes a little too much over the ethics of his movie when the question of whether or not his subject, a 4-year-old art prodigy, actually paints her own pictures comes up. His inserting of himself into the film is overly dramatic, and while the question is a valid one, it seems to sort of take over the last third of the film. Even so, this is a really interesting movie, and a story that demands a follow-up a few years down the line (when the girl is a teenage drug addict whining that she peaked at age 4). Opened limited Oct. 5; in Las Vegas this week

Friday, November 16, 2007

Movies opening this week

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, dir. Sidney Lumet)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I had been really looking forward to this movie, and it did not live up to my expectations. It's an okay heist thriller, but the whole jumping-around-in-time bit really breaks up the story in a bad way, and has become way overused in pseudo-hip crime pictures. The good performances make up for it a bit, but not enough. (I refrained in my review from sounding as pervy as all the lonely middle-aged male film critics and noting how good Marisa Tomei looks naked in this movie, but I'll say it here: She looks damn good naked, and she's quite naked in this movie.) Opened limited Oct. 26; in Las Vegas this week

Beowulf (Voices of Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, dir. Robert Zemeckis)
Reviews for this film have been bafflingly positive, but I thought it was pretty much a mess. Sure, the 3D technology has improved a lot over the years, but no matter how cool it looks they are still doing the exact same thing with it - "Look! The sword is coming right at us!" - and it gets old after a few instances. And motion-capture technology has improved, too, but still falls right in the uncanny valley and, furthermore, seems a little pointless to me. Making characters who look exactly like actual actors is better than using the actual actors why? I realize the sets and creatures need to be computer-generated, but when you've already got dragons and sexy seductress-monsters, why not just make it all at least a little stylized? Take advantage of the capabilities of computer animation, maybe?

Technology aside (although that's clearly what people care about here), the story just doesn't work. Making an ancient epic relatable to modern audiences is tough anyway, but the writers (Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, no hacks) take an odd route here, turning Beowulf into an arrogant jerk who never quite gets his comeuppance, and adding an overtly sexual element that doesn't make much sense and only provides for a lot of silly moments. The first half of the movie is remarkably campy, with all sorts of dumb double entendres and a completely absurd scene in which Jolie's evil sexpot seduces Beowulf, stroking his very phallic sword slowly up and down while it pulsates, and finally, when he succumbs to her womanly wiles, explodes into a stream of liquid. I mean, really. I was honestly agape at the stupidity of this scene.

That's not even to mention the fight between Beowulf and the monster Grendel, in which the hero is naked (in apparent fidelity to the source material, okay), but since this is a PG-13 movie (completely unjustifiably, incidentally) they can't show his naughty bits. So Zemeckis goes to laughable lengths to hide them behind every phallic object imaginable, recalling the bit in which Austin Powers hides his member behind bananas and so on. I will concede that the final action sequence, with Beowulf fighting a dragon, is sort of awesome. But everyone calling this the future of movies is way off the mark. At least, I really hope so. Wide release

Love in the Time of Cholera (Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Benjamin Bratt, dir. Mike Newell)
(Disclosure: This movie was produced by the people who own the company I work for.) I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel a few years ago, and it's such an immersive, otherworldly experience that this film completely fails to capture. Newell sticks fairly close to the events of the novel, but he loses so much of the spirit. Obviously, any adaptation would have to cut a lot out of the novel, and the little digressions have so much to do with creating the overall feel of the story. And it's always going to be tough to span 50 years with the same characters; Newell opts to use aging makeup, which is not particularly convincing and mostly just distracts from the story and the characters. But using different actors for different time periods would just have been distracting in a different way. Still, I can't help but feel that this ethereal, magical-realist novel might have been adapted successfully by a more inventive, magical-realist director, like maybe Julie Taymor, or Terry Gilliam, or Tim Burton. Newell is a competent journeyman, and he's made a nice little period romance here, but he hasn't even touched Marquez's genius. Wide release

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman, dir. Zach Helm)
I thought Helm's script for Stranger Than Fiction was clever, but not quite as clever as it thought it was, and Marc Forster's lively direction brought it to a higher level. Here, directing his own script, Helm shows his limitations with a story that has some cute ideas but ultimately goes nowhere. There's just no dramatic tension in the story of the Willy Wonka-esque owner of a magical toy store who decides to pass it along to his young apprentice. Portman is fine but sort of bland as the young woman who isn't sure she wants to take over the store (and definitely doesn't want her mentor to die a nebulous, G-rated death), and Hoffman is really irritating as the pointlessly oddball Mr. Magorium (he was much funnier, and much more restrained, in Stranger Than Fiction). Bateman's straitlaced accountant isn't a villain, but he doesn't really end up learning to appreciate magic, either. The whole movie sort of just sits there for a while, then ends. Kids might find all the magical toys amusing, though. Wide release

No Country for Old Men (Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
I am one of the few defenders of Intolerable Cruelty (I actually think it's one of the Coens' most entertaining films), but I don't have much good to say about The Ladykillers, and I'll at least admit that Cruelty is rather slight. No Country is, as nearly everyone has said, a powerful return to form for the brothers. I tend to prefer their dark dramas over their comedies (as much as I love The Big Lebowski), and this one ranks right up there with The Man Who Wasn't There and Miller's Crossing. It's incredibly bleak and intense, with a wonderfully creepy performance from Bardem as the psychopathic and emotionally detached villain. There are long, intricate dialogue-free sequences simply focused on the mechanics of evading someone who's chasing you, with meticulous attention to small details. There's also a surprising amount of humor, although like the rest of the movie, it's as dry as the ever-present Texas dust. The suspense is relentless until the extended coda, which at first seems a little anticlimactic but actually wraps up all the movie's themes nicely, showing how helpless all the characters really are, no matter how in control they think they might be. It's one of the Coens' most thematically rich films, a very effective genre piece and definitely one of the best movies of the year. Opened limited Nov. 9; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, November 12, 2007

TV update: returning shows

Just in time for the writers' strike to put a halt to new episodes of scripted series, my assessment of the season so far.

30 Rock (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.)
Tina Fey has said that they've consciously decided to slow the pace of the jokes on this show, and indeed this season has not been the laugh-a-second experience that the first often was. But the jokes that do get delivered are as sharp as ever, and the characters have actually developed into interesting, fully realized people. Liz's pathological loneliness, Jenna's rank insecurity, Jack's need for corporate validation - these are all genuine and recognizable emotions, and the comedy now comes as much out of those as it does out of the show's ridiculous situations. The altered pace has taken a little getting used to, but this has settled into a groove as not only the funniest show on TV, but also one of the best.

Brothers & Sisters (ABC, Sundays, 10 p.m.)
I've always been sort of measured in my enthusiasm for this show (it's great to watch while folding laundry or washing dishes), but as time has gone on there's always been something to keep me watching, and I have come to care about the characters and be interested in what happens to them. This season so far has only deepened that interest, with a lot of strong plotlines along with the occasional cheesiness that's been present since the beginning. The addition of Rob Lowe to the regular cast has provided some good material for Kitty, although I have exactly zero interest in storylines that involve Lowe away from the rest of the core characters (as we got this week). I hope they aren't setting his character up to actually win the presidential election, since that would really take the focus off the core family dynamic; I actually think it would be more interesting to see him lose and still remain a part of the cast as Kitty's husband. I've also liked the shake-ups of Sarah's and Tommy's marriages; neither feels like a quick exit for the spouse characters, and Sarah's ongoing custody battle gives the show the chance to explore another important angle on modern families. And Tommy's hot young mistress is already a way more interesting character than his wife (who looks to be returning next week) ever was. I'm still not exactly wowed by this show, but it's solid and dependable, and rarely lets me down.

Friday Night Lights (NBC, Fridays, 9 p.m.)
There's been a lot of discussion online about one particular aspect of this show's second season, and while it's a shame that it's pretty much overshadowed everything else that happens on the show, that's part of why people are talking about it and criticizing it. But I'd like to say first that other than the certain unfortunate development, everything else about this season on FNL has been fantastic. The writers really painted themselves into a corner with last year's finale, set up to serve also as a series finale if the show didn't come back. They've taken their time rearranging the pieces, and it's to their credit that they haven't just put everything back to the status quo. Coach Taylor's return to Dillon from TMU has been difficult and problematic, and still isn't quite resolved. Although it was inevitable, the writers have done a good job of making it seem organic and not rushed; Taylor made a decision that wasn't right for him, and he has to fix it. Julie's evolution into a typically snotty teen has also been portrayed realistically and with great balance. She's still the good person we knew last season, but 16-year-olds make dumb decisions sometimes, and we're seeing her do that and then deal with the consequences. I think Lyla's conversion to Christianity and Jason's search for direction in his life have also been handled with real grace and subtlety.

And then there's the murder. Although certain aspects of its fallout - Tyra and Landry's complicated romance, and Landry's relationship with his father - have been portrayed well and are consistent with the tone of the show, the simple fact of what happened sort of negates any more subdued moments that follow. I don't see how the storyline can play out in a way that's both dramatically satisfying and doesn't do permanent damage to the characters. How can these people possibly go on to participate in other plotlines with this forever hanging over their heads? Landry's moments as Matt's conscience and comic relief are completely untenable now, and this past week's episode featured some sweet interaction between Tyra and Julie that recalled their Season 1 friendship, but I just couldn't get past the fact that this was a girl with a murder on her conscience. Even only getting a few minutes' worth of screen time each week, this storyline can really bring the show down. Overall, I think all the other wonderful elements (just the interaction between Eric and Tami alone makes the entire show worth watching) make up for it, but they really shouldn't have to.

Heroes (NBC, Mondays, 9 p.m.)
Ugh. This show's sophomore season has been pretty much an unmitigated failure, with disastrously slow pacing, boring new characters and storylines that are pale rehashes of last season (which was already often a pale rehash of superhero comics). I've never been wholly on board with this show the way so many others are; it's had a handful of very good episodes but is so beholden to stale cliches of superhero comics that it would never have lasted if the majority of its audience weren't completely unfamiliar with comic books. As someone who's seen those tropes played out many times, my patience for the latest iteration is relatively short, and it doesn't help that this season doesn't even have last year's moderately interesting twists. Creator Tim Kring has actually apologized for the bungled storytelling and promises improvements when/if the show returns from the strike. I'll believe it when I see it, but I will at least keep watching for now to give them the chance to show me.

My Name Is Earl (NBC, Thursdays, 8 p.m.)
This show has been slowly losing steam since the beginning of last season, but I stick around because every so often there's an inspired bit or a laugh-out-loud moment that reminds me of how much I once enjoyed it. I'm sort of amazed that the writers have kept Earl in prison for the entire season so far and show no signs of letting him out any time soon; it really limits the kinds of stories they can tell and moves the show far away from its original premise. Earl's list has barely been mentioned this year, and in order to tell stories that encompass all the weird and funny townspeople that they've created over the years (and who constitute one of the show's greatest strengths), they've had to resort to flashbacks, fantasy sequences and a whole hour's worth of fake Cops episodes. Yet to the writers' credit, they've managed to build up some new amusing characters within the prison, including the dimwitted warden played by Craig T. Nelson and Earl's new buddy Frank (Michael Rapaport). Every week I think it's time to give up on this show, and every week there's something amusing to keep me coming back. But only barely at this point.