Thursday, December 31, 2009


Ever since seeing Michelle Monaghan in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, I've been waiting for her to become a break-out star, to get the showcase roles she seems to deserve based on her fantastic performance in that seriously underrated movie. And since then she's certainly become more famous, and has racked up supporting roles in big movies, although she's almost always playing the girlfriend or the best friend or some such thing. Theoretically, then, Trucker ought to be that one great role than Monaghan and her fans have been waiting for since 2005: It's a serious, meaty drama with Monaghan in the lead; she's even a producer. Clearly this is a project she felt passionate about, one that she hoped would show everyone the kind of serious actor she can really be. The screener was the first one I got in the mail for the current awards season.

Too bad the movie sucks, then, and has been pretty much ignored in terms of awards and ticket sales (it never even opened in Vegas theaters). First-time writer-director James Mottern gets a few things right, starting with the gorgeous sun-dappled look of the cinematography, the right mix of grit and beauty, and the wonderfully evocative California desert locations. The movie starts out on the path to be something like another one of the last decade's most underrated films, Come Early Morning (written and directed by Trucker co-star Joey Lauren Adams), with Monaghan's gruff truck driver Diane sneaking out on a one-night stand and hauling her rig back to her modest ranch house in the desert. She drives, she drinks, she flirts with her married best friend (Nathan Fillion). Monaghan has the right mix of toughness and femininity (something that Ashley Judd balanced extremely well in Come Early Morning). The movie seems like it might shape up to be a solid, low-key character study.

And then, about 10 minutes in, the kid shows up. I knew it was coming, but it was still disappointing to watch the movie quickly devolve into a sappy reluctant-parent-bonds-with-kid movie, following every beat you expect from glossier Hollywood versions of the story. Stuck caring for the kid she gave up 10 years ago, Diane first resents him, then tolerates him, then comes to love him and, naturally, has to fight to keep him in the third act. The kid is played by the annoyingly cutesy Jimmy Bennett (star of the ultra-cloying Shorts), and his inherent phoniness consistently taints the rest of the characters. Monaghan tries way too hard to run the gamut of serious emotions, and Mottern throws in a last-minute act of violence that is cravenly manipulative and totally unforgivable. The great thing about Monaghan's performance in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was how effortlessly appealing it was; Trucker is all effort and no appeal.

Available on DVD January 5.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The alternate top 10

I really enjoyed making this list last year, so once again I present my list of the top 10 movies from other years that I saw for the first time in 2009 (my traditional top 10 is in the most recent Las Vegas Weekly).

1. After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998) Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda is a master of building emotional effects from small everyday moments, and both 2004's Nobody Knows (which was on my best-of-the-decade list) and After Life (the only two of his films I've seen so far) are just devastatingly beautiful, simultaneously celebrating life while focusing on its ever-present pain. This film may be ostensibly supernatural, taking place in an afterlife way station where the recently deceased look back on their lives to pick out one memory (and only one) to take with them into eternity, but it's really about the mundane details that add up to an entire life while we aren't looking. Kore-eda used some real people reflecting back on their lives to mix in with his actors, but the end product is seamless and heartbreaking, both as an examination of regret and a wonderful little love story along the way.

2. Cleo From 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda, 1962) The 81-year-old Varda is on a lot of year-end lists for her documentary The Beaches of Agnes, an impressionistic look back on her long career and life, and one of the main reasons she has such a celebrated body of work to look back on is this film, a pillar of the French New Wave and a striking stylistic statement from the moment it opens in vivid color with an overhead shot of tarot cards foretelling the dire fate of the main character, a seemingly vapid pop star waiting for some ominous medical-test results. In real time, she wanders the streets of Paris, surveying the emptiness of her life, and Varda resists the urge to judge, while star Corinne Marchand projects just the right mix of haughtiness and vulnerability. A bittersweet character study that mixes the stylistic audacity of the New Wave with a very human core.

3. Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962) I saw this one courtesy of a Gregory Peck box set that came across my desk at the Weekly, but Peck isn't the main draw here: It's Robert Mitchum in an absolutely stunning performance as an ex-con with a major grudge against the lawyer (Peck) who helped put him away. Mitchum is a master of low-key menace as he slowly and subtly terrorizes Peck and his family, yet manages to elude any verifiable criminal activity. Thrillers and horror movies tend to get less scary as time passes, but Mitchum's performance here is as creepy and unsettling now as it must have been nearly 50 years ago. The story is also a masterpiece of slow-boil pacing, and the supporting cast is consistently effective. I saw the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake years ago (probably when it first came out on video) and don't remember it very well, but I can't imagine even Robert De Niro giving as good a performance as Mitchum does here.

4. Trouble the Water (Carl Deal & Tia Lessin, 2008) This movie was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar last year but lost to Man on Wire, which is a good movie but not nearly as powerful. I'm generally not fond of social-issue documentaries whose sole purpose is to lecture the audience, and I tend to tune out a lot of movies that merely bombard the viewer with statistics and punditry. This movie takes on a polarizing, incendiary subject - the treatment of poor New Orleans residents during and after Hurricane Katrina - and puts a human face on it, transforming it from an abstract lesson about government policy into a story about a family's struggle to survive. Deal and Lessin are lucky to have firsthand footage of the disaster, yes, but they are also extremely skilled in the way they package it, in their ability to create the right mix of drama and education. I saw this movie at a screening at UNLV, and I'd much rather see material like this circulate college campuses than the latest harangue from Michael Moore.

5. The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan, 1997) I was fairly unimpressed with Jordan and novelist Patrick McCabe's second collaboration, Breakfast on Pluto, in 2006, and I imagine I would have been even more disappointed had I already seen this first movie they made together. What starts out as a sort of quaint, charming coming-of-age story set in Ireland in the early 1960s evolves into a dark, weird and hilarious study in the birth of a sociopath. The brilliant thing is that Jordan and McCabe maintain the same whimsical, boys-will-be-boys tone throughout the movie, as we watch young Francie Brady (an amazingly good Eamonn Owens) go from a rambunctious kid with a drunk for a father and a mentally unstable mother to a delusional young man who sees visions of the Virgin Mary and plots murderous revenge on his neighbor. The folksy narration and homey locations (small town, boarding school, seaside resort) give the movie the sense of some demented version of A Christmas Story, and Francie remains endearing even as he becomes more violent and unhinged. It's strangely uplifting.

6. Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972) I watched this movie for an online movie-discussion group in which I am a sort of lapsed participant (this was the only selection for 2009 that I managed to see), and I was a little surprised that the majority of people in the group didn't like it (some even hated it). Part of that was because many of them had seen the stage version, which I haven't, and compared the movie unfavorably to that. Obviously there are liberties taken here, and Fosse successfully does what didn't work for Rob Marshall in Nine, putting all the musical numbers in a separate setting and leaving singing out of the narrative drama. But here it flows much better, and the songs seem as much like fantasies or dream sequences as actual events. The Nazi threat is used as a reminder of the darkness always lurking behind any sort of self-indulgence, and if the movie isn't a specific history lesson, it is a more general lesson about the dangers of willful ignorance. Plus, Liza Minnelli is great, which I deserve to be reminded of as someone familiar with her mostly from boozy TV appearances and her role on Arrested Development.

7. Operation Filmmaker (Nina Davenport, 2008) Unlike Trouble the Water, this documentary pretty much flew under the radar last year and wasn't nominated for any awards; I actually saw it on PBS. But it's also an excellent human take on a big political issue, in this case the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Davenport's chronicle of good intentions gone horribly wrong, in the form of a lazy, arrogant Iraqi film student invited to work on an American film and then resented for not being a model crew member (or documentary subject), is fascinating and messy and disquieting and often funny. She manages to criticize the misguided actions of the filmmakers (led by Liev Schreiber) who bring the young man to Europe to work on Everything Is Illuminated, as well as her own intentions in continuing to film this deceitful, manipulative guy, who is alternately resentful of her attention and desperate to be noticed. She resists the urge to canonize the guy from a war-torn country, showing that even people who have endured the horrors of war can turn out to be total douchebags.

8. To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) Thanks again to the Gregory Peck box set for this one, and here Peck is definitely the star of the show. His stolid screen presence works perfectly in the part of the impossibly upstanding small-town lawyer, and this movie is a tense and nuanced depiction of racism and groupthink that doesn't pull any punches. It's also a tender coming-of-age story with strong performances from its young actors. I somehow avoided ever being assigned this book in school, so I can't say how the movie compares, but it certainly has enough complexity and genuine emotion to be comparable to a great novel.

9. Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg & Greta Gerwig, 2008) Somehow the tedious mumblecore debate rages on; meanwhile, I continue to like the movies (I had Aaron Katz's wonderful Quiet City at the top of this list last year). This is the first Swanberg movie I've seen, and maybe I'd be less impressed if I was more familiar with his other work (he's extremely prolific). But I thought this was a very insightful, realistic depiction of the way that relationships fall apart for reasons people may not even comprehend, and the way that former lovers can torment each other without meaning to. It's frank about both love and sexuality, and is another sign that Greta Gerwig deserves the big Hollywood career she seems to be building. (More in my DVD review.)

10. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, 2006) Jia is one of those many current world masters with whose films I'm not nearly familiar enough; this portrait of two lives affected by the massive Three Gorges Dam relocation project definitely makes me want to learn more. Again, this is a film that takes on the political through the personal: The massive upheaval of the dam project is a constant presence in the film, one that disrupts the lives of millions and is directly responsible for the actions of the two protagonists (who appear in separate, non-overlapping stories). It's there in the background of nearly every scene, but this is drama first and a political statement second, and it's a wonderful small-scale story about the difficulties of long-term relationships and the haunting nature of regret. Also, a building takes off and becomes a spaceship at one point, which I didn't understand but found quite poignant.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Rucka and Williams' Detective Comics

I'm a story guy. In comics, I follow writers far more than artists or even characters (which is the comic-book fanboy stereotype - "I'll read anything with Wolverine, even if it's written and drawn by monkeys!"). I've certainly stuck with comics that have bad art simply for the sake of the writing; I waited for years for J.K. Woodward's mushy art to be dropped from Fallen Angel, but I kept reading because I loved the story that Peter David was telling. And if the series comes back (and I hope it does), I'll stick with it even if Woodward never leaves.

So for me to pick up a book solely for its art is pretty rare, and even my favorite artists can't always get me to follow them to every project. (Am I buying that Sam Kieth Lobo book written by the guitarist from Anthrax that costs $6.99 an issue? No I am not.) But today I walked out of the comic book store with Detective Comics #860, after telling the clerk to take the book right off my pull list. Why? Because as sturdy (if uninspired) as Greg Rucka's writing is on the book that (for the moment) stars Batwoman, the only reason I have been reading is for the absolutely amazing art by J.H. Williams III, and 860 is his last issue.

The first Williams work I read was in Alan Moore's Promethea, where the artist's innovative approach to layouts, stellar character design and rich, immersive world-creation often saved the navel-gazing new-agey subject matter that Moore indulged in during the series' later issues. Somehow, Williams has only gotten more daring and unconventional as he's moved on to what one would think would be the most mainstream, straightforward of projects: a superhero comic starring a Batman associate. Williams followed Promethea by working with Warren Ellis (Desolation Jones) and Grant Morrison (Seven Soldiers, Batman), among others, and he clearly took the lessons of drawing for these wildly creative writers and brought them to bear on Rucka's fairly conventional vigilante stories.

Not to belittle Rucka's contributions; he's a solid craftsman with a grounding in mystery novels, and he keeps the story humming along while Williams engages in flights of artistic fantasy, especially in the first story arc, with a trippy Alice in Wonderland-inspired villain. That arc features some of Williams' most audacious work, with fractured panels and double-page spreads where the action shifts from a superimposed figure in the foreground to various background panels and back again.

It's actually the just-concluded second arc that's more impressive in certain ways, though, with Williams restraining himself for flashback sequences detailing Batwoman's origin that feature traditional panel arrangement and a simpler, more straightforward approach to linework. Those are contrasted with the insanely detailed present-day sequences, masterfully colored by Dave Stewart, whose fractured structure represents the fractured life of the main character. As the flashbacks get closer to the present, the style fills in a bit, and in issue 859, when Kate (not yet a superhero) meets Batman for the first time, the simply drawn woman reaches her hand out to the lush detail of the imposing superhero. Mortal meets god as art styles collide.

It's a shame, then, that the vagaries of the DC machine mean that Rucka and Williams are off Detective after only seven of their planned 12 Batwoman issues; the next three will be a Batwoman story drawn by Jock, and as reliable an artist as he is, he's not enough to bring me back. Rucka has indicated that he and Williams will be launching a separate Batwoman series to continue their story at some point in the future, and I'll be all over that. With Williams, these stories become sublime graphic storytelling; without him they're just passable superhero comics.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Up in the Air

As much as I admire Jason Reitman's dedication to opening credits sequences, and as much as I enjoyed Thank You for Smoking and Juno (which I will defend from even the most impassioned backlash), I didn't like Up in the Air nearly as much as I had hoped or expected to. I didn't imagine it would be the best movie of the year, as awards bodies seem to be selling it, but I'd hoped for something a little less glib and Hollywood-ish, a little tarter than the fundamentally mushy story that Reitman sells the audience in the movie's third act.

Before that turn for the worse, though, I was with this bright, spry movie in its portrayal of the same sort of amoral slickster as the one at the heart of Thank You for Smoking. George Clooney's Ryan Bingham, professional corporate downsizer, is likeably soulless, someone who's rejected the sentimental conventions of society and discovered that it works pretty well for him. Even when Ryan hooks up with a fellow air-travel aficionado (Vera Farmiga) and takes on a cocky young protege (Anna Kendrick), it only humanizes him a little bit, like seeing Aaron Eckhart with Cameron Bright as his son in Smoking. He's real enough to identify with, but he hasn't been compromised.

And then, disappointingly, he is. All the snappy dialogue and sharp acting (from all three leads) kind of goes down the drain as Ryan learns important life lessons, discovers the value of human connections, experiences heartbreak, blah blah etc. It's the same rote sentiment of any number of Hollywood movies, only Reitman delivers it with more panache and subtlety, which in a weird way makes it almost worse. He's selling a line of bullshit, and he's putting it across like it's some profound truth, and I found that very irritating. I ended up liking Ryan even less by the end of the movie, which does end with more ambiguity than your typical rom-com but doesn't really allow for the possibility of Ryan going back to his solipsistic ways. I liked that Thank You for Smoking didn't feel the need to redeem its main character, and here Reitman seems to have succumbed to that pressure.

The patina of timeliness here is also a little disingenuous, not nearly as insightful as it's been made out to be. Making this movie during a serious economic downturn is a stroke of luck, really, and Reitman can seem like he's got his finger on the pulse of something when really this movie has nothing to say about the economy or corporations or anything like that. It's the familiar story of the self-centered asshole who learns to love, and as such it succeeds in a lot of ways. Its failure, though, is in succeeding at something so disappointingly conventional.

Now playing in limited release; opens wide December 23.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Incorruptible #1

Mark Waid is building a little universe for himself over at Boom! Studios; this is the second ongoing superhero series he's launched, and it's a companion piece to Irredeemable (and certain to cause much title confusion). It's the flip side to that book, also; Irredeemable is about the world's most powerful superhero, who snaps and starts a one-man war against humanity. Incorruptible is about a supervillain (very powerful but not, I would guess from reading Irredeemable, the world's most powerful) who, after witnessing the Plutonian's descent into madness, decides to go straight. It definitely has shades of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Incognito, which was a little more morally ambiguous, but it forges its own path by being planted firmly in the world Waid is constructing.

This is an enjoyable enough first issue, although it's really just getting started by the end, but it still feels like a companion piece to Irredeemable rather than its own entity. This isn't a superhero universe where characters can kind of exist separately from each other and only interact occasionally; this is a world completely defined by the actions of one guy who killed millions of people. So anything that happens in Incorruptible is going to be a reaction to what happens in Irredeemable, and I can't imagine anyone getting much out of this book without also reading Irredeemable.

The main character here, a bad guy called Max Damage, is a bit of a cipher right now; in Irredeemable that's okay, because that book is really more about the heroes trying to stop the Plutonian than about the Plutonian himself. But here I felt like I was barely getting a glimpse of the guy by the time the issue ended. Still, I trust Waid, who's done really interesting stuff with Irredeemable, and I like that this book has a somewhat lighter, more traditional tone in comparison to the extremely grim Irredeemable (whose tone works, but doesn't need to be repeated). And the clean, crisp artwork from Jean Diaz is consistent with Peter Krause's work on Irredeemable while looking a little more straightforward. I'm skeptical about the long-term potential here, but I'll certainly keep reading to see where things go, and I like Waid's twisted take on superhero conventions.

Two Roads diverged

In my review of John Hillcoat's The Road, I didn't really go very far into how the movie differs from Cormac McCarthy's novel, and for the most part the movie sticks very close to McCarthy's template. When Hillcoat does diverge, though, it's noticeable, and I think he strikes a very effective balance between staying true to the source material while making it workable for a different medium. Slavish faithfulness is generally a recipe for disaster in adaptation, and Hillcoat manages to avoid rote translation while still retaining the spirit of McCarthy's writing.

(Spoilers follow.) I read the novel after seeing the movie, so obviously that colored my perceptions, and certainly having read the book beforehand will color others' perceptions in a different way. But overall I come down on the side of the film, if forced to choose, because it presents a more clear-eyed, immediate vision of the stark post-apocalyptic setting. McCarthy famously eschews things like quotation marks and apostrophes, and often doesn't identify which characters are speaking. This sort of impressionistic approach to writing gives the novel a dreamlike quality even when the events are fairly straightforward, and there are times when it's hard to tell whether McCarthy is writing about something that's actually occurring, or a dream, or a character's inner thoughts.

Hillcoat borrows some of McCarthy's dialogue wholesale, and other bits of his prose for use as narration. But just by virtue of seeing the people who are speaking, we're never confused as to who is talking, or whether they're really speaking at all. Likewise, McCarthy's sparse, occasionally obtuse descriptions are replaced by blunt images of devastation, visions that you can't look away from or imagine as somehow more pleasant or mitigated. It's right there, in your face, and yet it's not loud or obtrusive or pushy. It's just the way life is now for these characters, and that's heartbreaking right there.

Hillcoat also makes changes that are more about playing to movie conventions, and I think that's okay, too. He draws out certain sequences for the sake of suspense, but it never feels cheap or unearned. In the book, when the man and the boy encounter the cannibals' house with prisoners in the cellar, they run away immediately and hide in the woods. It's a quick, scary moment, but in the movie it lasts much longer. There's a stronger sense of danger for the main characters as they hide in the same house as these savages, and there's a stronger sense of catharsis, too, when they get away. That's an effect that works better in film, and Hillcoat is smart to use it.

He's smart, also, to expand the flashbacks with Charlize Theron as the boy's mother, which is one thing that a lot of fans of the book were most worried about when first hearing about the movie. The mother is a sort of spectral presence in the book, mentioned periodically, but never quite pinned down. Hillcoat makes her more real, and again it goes to his ability to make this world feel more concrete, more identifiable. There's very little sentiment in the flashbacks, and Theron doesn't play the role for pity. But the colorful, warm looks into the past give an even greater sense of what's been lost in the present.

There's also stuff that Hillcoat takes out, of course, most famously the scene (very brief already in the book) in which the man and boy pass by a camp where people were roasting a dead baby on a spit. That is a seriously fucked-up image, one that strikes you immediately, and to his credit Hillcoat insisted on including it. Then, even more to his credit, he insisted on taking it out when it was clear it didn't work on film. That to me is the sign of a successful adaptation: You are faithful to the letter of the material until that faithfulness hinders your ability to be faithful to its spirit. It's a philosophy that The Road embodies masterfully.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty

I keep wanting to write that title as The Jacksons: A Family Tragedy, which is really what this sad train wreck of a reality show amounts to. Jermaine, Marlon, Tito and Jackie Jackson take the opportunity of their brother Michael's death to grab some of the long-faded spotlight for themselves, with cameras following them as they allegedly attempt to record a comeback album and organize new live performances (none of which have materialized yet). As reality shows go, it's your typical dull series of contrivances, as the siblings bicker and make up and go through the motions of some predetermined task that they clearly have no interest in.

But Michael's death looms over the whole thing and renders it even more crass and disingenuous, as the brothers constantly complain about the media attention that drove Michael over the edge, all while they are cultivating even more attention for themselves. The show can't go two minutes without reminding the audience of Michael's connection to his brothers, whether through explicit references or through the vintage Jackson 5 music (with Michael's vocals) that plays repeatedly.

The idea of a real Jackson dynasty could be something worthwhile - we briefly see some of the many, many next-generation Jacksons, including Tito's sons, who have a successful boy band in Europe, and Jackie's son Siggy, an aspiring rapper. There's a whole legacy thing here to potentially explore, as well as the contrast between the drudgery that went into the Jackson 5's creation and the luxury that the next generation experiences. But that's not what the show's about. It's just four over-the-hill guys bickering over a bunch of inconsequential nonsense, and the only reason anyone cares is because of a dead guy who isn't on the show at all.

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on A&E.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Daytripper #1

This latest launch from Vertigo has gotten a pretty big push, and creators Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon have built strong reputations as artists thanks to their work on The Umbrella Academy and Casanova, respectively. I read one issue each of those series and decided to pass, but that was more about the writing than the artwork, and the brothers' drawing in this issue (credited to both equally) is effective and understated, suitable to the rather mundane story of a day in the life of a mopey obituary writer.

The long-term concept of this series (it's set to run 10 issues) seems to be exploring various moments in this man's life, and based on the ending of this issue I assume there's some sort of supernatural element to come. Although that ending is jarring and somewhat intriguing, everything that comes before it is dull and commonplace (a guy overshadowed by his successful father, stuck in a dead-end job), and the writing is a little choppy. I don't know if the Brazilian creators wrote this in English or had it translated (there's no translator credited), but either way there's an awkwardness to the grammar that seems to me to imply some sort of language barrier. I don't mean to copy edit the comics I read, but shifts in verb tense mid-sentence tend to throw me off.

There may very well be an amazing twist or two down the road that puts this story in a whole new light. But as a first issue, this doesn't grab my attention, nor does it make me want to buy several more issues to see the story come to fruition. These guys are solid artists, but I don't know that their storytelling skills are quite at the same level yet.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Jason Reitman and the art of the opening credits

When Thank You for Smoking came out in 2006, I got the chance to interview Jason Reitman for Las Vegas Weekly (before he became a big-time Oscar nominee), and one of the things I was most eager to ask him about was the distinctive opening-credits sequence of the film (watch it here). His answer didn't make it into the final interview, because the published piece was pretty short, and what he talked about was fairly detail-oriented. I had hoped to get him to talk a little about the value of creative opening credits, but instead he described the whole process of creating them for Smoking. Still, it's amazing how much effort went into the part of the movie that the smallest number of people are likely to appreciate:

I did the first version of those opening titles very early in pre-production. I went online, downloaded a bunch of cigarette ads and started cutting it together on Final Cut Pro on my computer at home, to that song, because I love that song so much. Once we really got cooking, I talked to these guys called Shadowplay Studio who had done short films that had played with my short films at festivals, and we’d traveled together—we’d gone to Sundance together, we’d gone to Tokyo together to a film festival, and I’d really gotten to know them. They’re just wonderful artists. I showed them what I had come up with and they loved it, and they went off and did it on their own. They ordered all these old cigarette ads off eBay. We talked about what each character meant, because each title card actually—even though they’re old cigarette ads, they also play into the roles that the characters play in the film. So Rob Lowe’s title card has an Asian influence, and Sam Elliott’s kind of has like an El Paso feel. And then also the credits that have to deal with the crew also kind of plays into the title cards. It sets the tone for the film. This is a comedy about smoking, which is a very tough thing to get across. People think of a cigarette movie, they think of The Insider. The book has a lot of whimsy in it, and I wanted to capture whimsy as much as possible in any place I could. The opening titles, they just set the table. It’s whimsical, it’s fun, it’s upbeat and lets you know you’re in for a good time.

Opening credits of any kind, whether creative or straightforward, are a lost art in American film, but Reitman continues to take them seriously and put effort into them, making them connect thematically to the story he's telling and the way in which he's telling it. In Juno, the credits (watch here) have the homemade quality of doodles in a teenager's notebook, and are a little piece of the movie itself, as Juno walks through her town from home to the drugstore to buy yet another pregnancy test. They serve a different purpose than the titles in Smoking, but they share the quality of being thematically and creatively integral to the film, of being just as carefully crafted as any other element.

Reitman is nearly alone among mainstream American filmmakers in bothering with this; when I went to see Up in the Air this week (which I found disappointing overall), I was pleased to see another stylish, well thought-out credits sequence, albeit one with a little less panache, in keeping with the more understated style of the film as a whole. It's small touches like this that allow a director to establish a personal style, to set himself apart from his peers. In Reitman's case, it's a great way to announce right away that this is one of his films, that he's going to take care to present the material in his own particular way.

I'm always immediately inclined to like a movie more when it starts with some effective opening credits, even if those often lead to a letdown. Two recent comic-book movies started with creative title sequences only to squander that energy, to varying degrees. Lots of people praised the opening titles of Zack Snyder's Watchmen (watch here), for good reason, with their tableaux of historical events from the source graphic novel, giving the audience snapshots of the movie's world without having to dump a whole lot of exposition on them. Too bad Snyder didn't apply the same kind of creativity to the rest of his approach, instead settling for slavish re-creation.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a decidedly worse film, but it too starts with a world-building montage (watch here, uh, in Spanish), showing the two main characters as they progress through various wars over the last two centuries. Again, this conveys a lot while saying very little, and puts you exactly where you need to be as the story starts (the story, unfortunately, then turns into a giant mess). These sequences represent a pure example of storytelling by showing and not telling, a practice the filmmakers don't heed as the movies progress.

Reitman's titles were all created by Shadowplay Studio, and as I was grabbing links for clips, I noticed that they also worked on another title sequence that sticks in my mind, the one for the completely forgettable post-college rom-com Post Grad (watch here). What's great about the Post Grad sequence is that it's a far better distillation of the movie's supposed themes than the movie itself. Granted, the dialogue and acting are still a little shaky, but the clutter of applications, chat windows and websites on the computer desktop effectively convey the connection/disconnection of college life, and the basic relationships that come into play in the movie get quickly established. A whole movie shot this way could be annoying, but at least it would be interesting, which is more than you can say for Post Grad. (And, I know, only a few credits actually show up in this piece. It's still a striking way to begin the movie.)

The Break-Up is another movie whose opening credits (watch here) do a better job of telling the story than the movie does. In a series of snapshots, we see the two main characters enjoying the happy times of their relationship, and without words director Peyton Reed and stars Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston convey the genuine sweetness of a romance. And then the movie starts.

Obviously it's best when the promise of the credits is fulfilled in the movie. But just by taking the time to introduce itself, any film already gets a little bit of extra credit with me. Launching abruptly into your first scene no longer seems jarring or innovative; now, it just comes off as lazy.

Thank You for Smoking and Juno images via the excellent The Art of the Title Sequence.