Capsules for 2008

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

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
Director: Peter Sollett
Rating: 5/10
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist has what I might call a contradictory existence -- it's a film that touts indie rock credibility, but in every other way it's conventional, almost patronizing. A "one crazy night" movie focusing on the romantic pairing of two modern rock-loving teenagers, Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings), it not only lays a predictable path before us, but it does so both cutely (Nick's friends, tired of him whining about his ex, pretty much force the potential new couple to spend time together, so the goal of the story is made both plain and self-aware) and enforced by easy devices (both Nick and Norah's exes, whom they have hard times getting over, are pretty shallow and despicable, while their own personalities are written to be made for each other -- in terms of generating empathy, this is practically cheating). The movie emphasizes a sweetness made genuine mainly by the appeal of its leading pair (the two go a long way in making the movie work as much as it does), but it otherwise belies the actual hardcore nature of its backdrop; the result is watered-down indie attitude for general audiences. It also has some unnecessary scenes of disgusting/pitiful comedy centered around Norah's drunk friend (Ari Graynor), which I found none too appealing. Nick and Norah is the second film by Peter Sollett, whose first movie, Raising Victor Vargas, was the opposite of this one -- it understood its subject, was true to it, and gave its main character a large amount of respect for his dilemmas and decision-making. Here, the characters are all stuck on tracks, which might work on other occassions, but not when your underscoring music is all about refusing to follow conventional tracks. (added 10/28/2009)

Paranoid Park (2007; released in U.S. in 2008)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Rating: 8/10
Director Gus Van Sant really gets disaffected teenagers. In Paranoid Park, he follows Alex (Gabe Nevins), a quiet skateboarder who is quite tentative by nature. For reasons not known immediately to us, we find him writing an essay about his life -- his friend, their hobby, his pushy girlfriend, his separated parents, and, eventually, his possible connection to the horrific killing of a security guard at the train tracks. Being a teenager is already a personal, gawky, and often humiliating struggle, one amplified tenfold here by Alex's involvement in a terrible event. Within this space, Van Sant slowly and surely paints a recognizable and intensified portrait of quiet teen isolation, surrounded by classmates and acquaintances, yet feeling alone and without recourse. Van Sant has touched upon this weighty existence before with Elephant, which contrasted the concerns of teens against the gravity of a larger tragedy. In that movie, the tragic event lent perspective to the lives of various teens; in Paranoid Park, its own tragic event serves to amplify the personal experience of one particular kid. Through Alex's eyes, the house and the city he lives in look more mundane, the people around him seem more self-absorbed, the possibilities of the day feel more limited; and yet none of this is shouted out loud. It's all communicated in quiet moments, casual conversations, and slow-motion daydreams. In Paranoid Park, not much actually happens and yet one teenager's mind is filled with far more than enough to ponder for a long time. (added 6/23/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Pineapple Express
Director: David Gordon Green
Rating: 7/10
It's a stoner comedy; it's a Judd Apatow production; it's a "bromantic" script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the guys who penned Superbad; it's a... David Gordon Green movie? Yes, the arthouse darling who directed such films as the elliptical George Washington and this same year's depressing Snow Angels, the guy people were calling a new Terrence Malick, helms Pineapple Express, a straightforward laugh-fest. Did he just want to take a break? Well, maybe he should do it more often, since the movie turns out to be quite a riot. To be honest, it feels a lot more Apatow/Rogen than Green, where Rogen plays a dude who's on the run with his often-high dealer (a great James Franco) after accidentally witnessing a murder by a cop (Rosie Perez) and a drug kingpin (Gary Cole). The main emphasis is on bonding with your fellow man (while getting high), and the movie eventually descends into chaos like the best flicks of this genre, culminating in car chases, shootouts, and an action violence climax clearly communicating how delighted the film is with being a ridiculous stoner comedy. Green, whose specialty is in presenting lived-in, realistic milieus, as well as very natural-sounding speech and dialogue, can most likely be credited here for giving Pineapple Express some of those same qualities (he even brought along his cinematographer Tim Orr), though I can't imagine Rogen needed much coaching, and the snappy pace -- a very un-Green quality -- rather dominates. But I'm happy anyway to see that Green can wield his considerable skill in a completely different form, with the result being such a fun movie. It says a lot about his versatility, because I don't believe many other "serious" directors could've tackled this kind of project with similarly successful results. (added 1/13/2009)

Rachel Getting Married
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rating: 9/10
Rachel Getting Married feels like a whirlwind, thus becoming a perfect reflection of the madness of life. It's one tiny chapter of a very dysfunctional family -- although the movie has a "beginning" and an "ending," after it's through the family's history and future feel so fully realized that we the viewers can only claim we caught but a glimpse of these people. At its heart is Kym (Anne Hathaway), the bad seed of the family, being let out of rehab to be able to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Her self-absorbed personality and the deep wounds of her past stir the family dynamic during her visit, but it's not a simple case of one crazy relative gumming up the works, as all the family members play a part to affect the emotional ebbs and tides of the wedding preparations. Jonathan Demme's handheld, naturalistic approach increases the intimacy we feel within this group; we really get to know members of the wedding party and both sides of the couple (which turns out to be rather multi-cultural); and most of all we feel our allegiances constantly swaying as we get to know both Kym and Rachel more close up (with both Hathaway and DeWitt excellent in their parts). The family becomes a mix of unmitigated joy and hidden pains, with daggers out in private but the best faces put out when it's time for the show. The undercurrent of love fights with the overcurrent of resentment in Rachel Getting Married, a movie incredibly alive, honest, and messy about the household as the place that forges the character of America through its inevitable and punishing broil of personal relationship dramas. (added 1/13/2009)

Rambo
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Rating: 6/10
Apparently, if '80's action stars-turned-directors have their way, action movies would go back to being stock-plotted stories about revenge, survival, and/or being pushed too far. As retro as Mel Gibson's Apocalypto felt, Sylvester Stallone's Rambo (fourth in the franchise, 20 years after the last one) matches it with a plot as simple as it gets: really evil bad guys kill innocents and kidnap do-gooders, so Rambo (Stallone) and a group of mercenaries go in for the rescue. Then watch as Rambo annihilates the enemies, one-man-army style. I worry about my own desensitization, since I chuckled almost every time a new montage of carnage got going, mainly because I knew the movie was trying so hard to be over-the-top and realistically gruesome. But when you see so much killing in one second flashes, be they the slaughter of nameless victims by nameless evil soldiers, or the decimation of those same soldiers, limbs flying and heads exploding all the while, you're bound to experience some kind of numbness. What makes the movie work as well as it can is a seriousness of tone (no intentional irony here at all), good production design, a certain amount of concern in its spotlighting the inhumane bloody situation in Burma, and, frankly, its hardline stance on the idea that violence is the only solution to pure human evil. Not that anyone has to agree with that idea, but Rambo is pretty clear about making its case, what with its well-meaning but totally ineffective missionaries who get captured and/or killed, after Rambo warns them that only weapons will make a difference. I admire the film's dedication to its motive -- although its villains aren't portrayed with any real depth, the movie still acts as a reminder of the dreadful potential of inhumanity. So when Rambo mows down rows of those murderers and rapists, some sense of primal satisfaction is achieved, even if the after-effects are slight. After all, it's straightforward wish fulfillment -- imagine what crimes against humanity we could punish if we had real, indestructible Rambos. For now, though, enjoy the shallow catharsis of simple fiction. (added 10/1/2008)

The Reader
Director: Stephen Daldry
Rating: 5/10
The Reader tries to be a metaphor for how the post-WWII German generation struggles to come to terms with the tainted past of the previous generation, but it sure has a funny way of going about it. In order to create the bond a postwar teenager, Michael Berg (David Kross), has with older woman Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a contemporary of the Nazi reign, the story has them fall in love during a wild summer affair. She makes him read literature to her as foreplay, but the tryst is short-lived as Hanna ends things and disappears suddenly. A few years later, Michael is a law student and, as part of a class, attends the trial of a group of women who served as concentration camp guards. Lo and behold, one of them is Hanna. Naturally, Michael is quite conflicted. Although the movie tries its best to have us identify with Michael's state of mind, it does too much better a job making Hanna sympathetic -- she is not only eye-pleasing (she is mostly clothes-free for the beginning of the movie) but also has an authority about her, conveying human strengths and weaknesses, with one weakness being particularly crippling. Much of this is owing, of course, to Winslet, who despite utilizing a funny German accent is still able to make her a believable being. Meanwhile, Michael wrings his hands, grows up to be Ralph Fiennes, and still wrings his hands -- his prolonged indecisiveness and inaction become tiresome, and his eventual main good deed, though affecting, is still too conspicuously tempered by the story's concern for balancing the fight between its protagonist's love and scorn. The Reader's presentation as a prestige picture tries to act as a shortcut to viewer stimulus -- it's somber, well-acted, literary, and adult -- but it's also stifling. It tries for depth while holding your hand and glossing its surface; in the end, you get what you'd expect, which is a decent Holocaust-related drama, and not much more. (added 12/19/2008; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Religulous
Director: Larry Charles
Rating: 8/10
Although Bill Maher delivers Religulous as a comedy, it becomes obvious that he's dead serious about his subject. The movie is no less than a call to arms to non-believers, i.e. atheists and agnostics, asking them to not be shy about their non-belief in the face of commonly accepted (but, according to Maher, patently ridiculous) major religious beliefs. And, frankly, I can get behind that. Traditionally, non-believers don't really have a voice, and they don't usually communicate their opinions in the generally condescending or defensive way that believers often do, so Religulous is a force of drastic reaction, wherein Maher finds blind faith believers who can't necessarily back up what they believe with logic or facts and mocks them. His range of interview subjects is varied and interesting, though they may be faulted for being easy targets (no surprise it feels similar to Borat, which has the same director -- Larry Charles); still, the point is made distinctly. Maher's approach may offend some, even those he is speaking for, but the move is the equivalent of trying to make a big noise where there previously wasn't much of one. Religion is one of the only subjects where discourse is unspokenly frowned upon -- we can argue politics all day, but with religion it's either the extreme of live and let live, or kill or be killed. So I appreciate this movie -- it wants to be a wakeup call in a room where the people are willing to sleep just a little too deeply. (added 4/17/2009)

Shine a Light
Director: Martin Scorsese
Rating: 7/10
Regardless of what Shine a Light is covering -- it happens to be a recent Rolling Stones concert (part of the "A Bigger Bang" tour) -- the film is a whirlwind demo of technical proficiency. It's recommendable on camera choreography and seamless editing alone, as Martin Scorsese uses over a dozen cameras to cover all angles and every possibility of tracking. Mick Jagger effectively has nowhere to hide as we follow him up and down the stage, seeing the expressions on his face and catching every pointing-to-the-audience arm gesture he makes. The technique is utilized for conveyence of energy -- the movie aims to duplicate the considerable energy in the experience of being there at the concert, and overall it's successful. But what about the subject matter itself? Yes, the Rolling Stones are old, and, yes, they can still rock -- that much is evident. The film is an ode to their longevity, as Jagger and company dynamo their way through their set, and Scorsese intersplices old interview footage which generally serves as ironic commentary on how long the band has lasted, considering, right from the start, they've been ripe for a major disruption for decades. But other than simply being a defiant paean for the idea that old guys don't have to retire if they love what they do and have the energy for it, Shine a Light lacks the edge that should be associated with the counterculture rockers. The Rolling Stones continue to rock their back catalog and are now only concerned with putting on a good show for their audience (observant fans have noticed they've even cleaned up a few lyrics). That this is rather predictable and expected somewhat deflates the triumph in their longevity -- the Stones roll on, but now at a speed at which they're OK with gathering moss. (added 8/4/2008)

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2
Director: Sanaa Hamri
Rating: 7/10
In tone, style, and themes, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 is very much a loyal sequel to its predecessor, essentially showing that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The most one might be able to say is that the threading of the four parallel stories -- one following each member (Amber Tamblyn, Alexis Bledel, America Ferrera, Blake Lively) of the sisterhood -- is looser and more freeflowing this time, and perhaps this is the main evidence of having a new, breezier director in Sanaa Hamri, but the movie's mission remains as depicting the various ways young women mature and come of age. Some of the elements feel a bit more fantasy-fulfilling this time -- for instance, Ferrera's story involves her not even trying for a stage part and getting it -- and exactly how is it that these ladies all seem to be able to easily get buff-bodied young men to land in their laps (although, frankly, this is probably more believable than the Judd Apatow-enforced opposite idea)? In any case, just when you start to worry that the movie is going to devolve into boy-chasing, it goes back on track to being about the women's evolving psyches and the up-and-down dynamics of their friendship. The capper in Greece provides some scenic loveliness, but it's definitely background to the characters in the foreground -- this is entertainment-for-girls that any thoughtful movie watcher can get behind. (added 12/9/2008)

Snow Angels
Director: David Gordon Green
Rating: 7/10
I usually dread the indie middle-class relationship drama, if only because they're practically a dime a dozen. How many times must the miserable lives of regular people (usually with marital strains) be played out? These days, when presented with one of these, I tend to look outside the story and focus on technique and style, and thankfully David Gordon Green's Snow Angels has good examples of both. This is not a surprise for anyone who's seen his previous three films -- Green is a director who takes his time with characters, allowing their different sides to self-illustrate in naturalistic settings as he simultaneously paints their worlds. His usual cinematographer, Tim Orr, makes shots interesting, always including the environment and presented in a pleasing aesthetic somewhere in between documentary-gritty and studio-polished. All this makes the movie, set in a snowy, presumably Eastern American town, easy to watch. The story becomes more involving as a result, and Green does a very good job of weaving the multiple threads such that they compare with and contrast each other. Snow Angels concentrates on disintegrating relationships between husbands and wives, with the characters of Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell in the center; naturally, infidelities abound. This kind of thing, as I mentioned, has been covered before, but there are two things to note here -- first, Beckinsale's selfishly antagonistic character is not easy to sympathize with, which is a change of pace; and second, a sweet, budding relationship between two teenagers (Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby) is offered up as counterweight. After some tragic downward spirals occur, what are we to make of the two teens' continued path of optimism? That the youth offer hope? Or are we to take away a sense of foreboding for them, that they too may end up where their adult counterparts ended up? If the collective of these kinds of dramas is any indication, shed a tear for them, for these cycles may never end. (added 10/8/2008)

Speed Racer
Directors: Andy and Larry Wachowski
Rating: 4/10
All right, I've read quite a few reactions to Speed Racer, and I'm getting the indication that it's quite faithful to its anime source. I've never watched the old Speed Racer cartoon, so all I can say is if it was anything like this movie, I guess I wouldn't have liked it much either. This movie (and, I suppose, the whole original enterprise) is geared heavily towards little kids, but it's done in a simplistic, candy-colored, hyperactive way. This is a sure way to annoy me, and just in case that wasn't enough, there's this really annoying kid in it (Paulie Litt) who yells in panic a lot and runs around with his chimpanzee. The hero, literally named Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), is as vanilla as can be, and the plot is simply about the little guys triumphing over corporate jerks and, I think, gangsters. So Speed Racer is essentially a faithful adaptation of a kiddie diversion, which is why it's also mind-boggling that the thing is 2 hours and 15 minutes long. Meanwhile, however short the movie is on adult-appealing qualities, it is equally long on technique -- if looked at from a technical standpoint, the Wachowski Brothers' creativity and ambition in cinematic presentation can almost be seen as a saving grace. The whole thing feels like a visual experiment, and I personally just wish these ideas were applied to something that didn't feel so disposable. As it is now, the assault of colors, computer graphics, and fancy story transitions is minorly impressive -- minorly, because one could easily make a case against it by stating overkill. Editing in particular is annoying, especially during the race sequences, when we barely see any of the race -- we just cut from car to driver to announcer to audience and over and over again, ad nauseam. Such pretty racing scenes, so little to actually see. Frankly, I'd rather play F-Zero and get an aesthetically similar but much more consistently appealing experience in the realm of hyper-fast computer-generated racing. (added 11/14/2008)

Standard Operating Procedure
Director: Errol Morris
Rating: 8/10
On the surface, Standard Operating Procedure investigates the Abu Ghraib prison scandal by interviewing many of the people directly involved; wading deeper, though, the movie examines both the mystery of primitive human instincts and the nature and power of photography. Naturally, we end up asking more questions after getting some initial answers about the power structure at the prison -- how most of the malicious acts were initiated by a small group of officers in charge, and how everyone else just went along with it, uncertain yet unquestioning. What drives civilized people to these depths, and does every civilized person have this within him or her? Can this be blamed on the insanity of war, or is this simply the exhumation of inherent primitive behavior? Just how fragile, fallacious, and/or manufactured is any one human being's regard for another human being? And why oh why did the people in charge at the facility think it was perfectly all right to take photographs of everything? Did they not stop to think that it would certainly come back to bite them later? Even as certain interviewees try to dull the photographs' effects by explaining how some of them were staged to an extent, the interpretive potential of any of the pictures is devastating. It's just amazing, unbelievable, that the cameras were encouraged. It would be wrong to call Errol Morris's approach "entertaining"; certainly he applies his unique touches to the film's presentation, giving it an aura of foreboding and fascination. He makes the right moves to turn Standard Operating Procedure into an attention-holding, admirable film, but it's still a very tough watch. It may be enough to say that it does its job as documentation of an important subject in U.S. history, and at the very least it's another example of Lord of the Flies, of the thin veneer of human civility over the instinctive beast. (added 11/14/2008)

Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Director: Dave Filoni
Rating: 4/10
Star Wars: The Clone Wars is what it is: a pilot for an animated TV series, no more, no less. The main problem with it, then, is that it's no more nor less ambitious -- its elements are actually quite typical of a syndicated cartoon series, aimed mostly at the young'uns and contributing pretty much nothing to the Star Wars mythos. Taking place between Episodes II and III, it could've given longtime fans more insight into the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin, since that's supposedly a key element of the Clone Wars part of Star Wars history, and we don't really get enough of it from the movies. Instead, it chooses to create a device pretty much from nowhere, saddling Anakin with a Padawan (i.e., Jedi apprentice), a spunky (read: annoying) young female named Ahsoka. She's a really corny character, the kind who gets into trouble a lot because she won't listen to what her elders tell her to do. And yet, what will happen to her? She's not in Episode III, and apparently didn't leave enough of an emotional impact on Anakin for him to give a hint in the eventual movie that he was once her Jedi teacher. But see, none of that matters anyway because this is all just conscientious filler -- and it's not even filler for filler's sake, it's filler for the sake of a non-progressive animated television distraction. Also, in technical merits, it's a mixed bag, since your mileage may vary on the stylized wooden-puppet look of the computer animated characters; and, frankly, the voice-acting and dialogue are subpar for its television genre. Why they couldn't continue in the line of Genndy Tartakovsky's superb, dynamic, hand-drawn-styled original Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoon series is beyond me -- the existence of that short-lived series only serves to show how inferior this new one will likely end up being. (added 11/21/2008)

Step Brothers
Director: Adam McKay
Rating: 3/10
So it's come to this -- having run out of new scenarios to place the pathetic man of arrested development, the Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell comedy teams now just put him on the screen, devoid of any more context than that of pairing him up with another similar individual. In other words, no man-child as an anchorman or various sports stars anymore -- just a 40-year-old (Ferrell) still living with his mother (Mary Steenburgen) forced to live with a 40-year-old (John C. Reilly) still living with his father (Richard Jenkins, who got better treatment in Burn After Reading). And then don't bother writing any comedy, just have them both act like petulant foul-mouthed children for the whole movie. As a fan of Talladega Nights, a movie with an actual satirical angle, I found Step Brothers to be extremely disappointing, hoping to laugh a lot but instead mostly scratching my chin. Its comedy is all scattershot punchlines, ignoring Bill Cosby's rule of "dropping your pants" later only when the audience isn't going for your prepared material, and lacking even the grace and execution of a good kick to the crotch. It's one joke, already predictable, and it gets old fast. Example of a comedy bit from the movie: the step brothers, for no real reason, sleepwalk, and when they do they destroy things. I could've thought of that, and I would've thrown the idea out because it wouldn't be funny (and it isn't). Ferrell's been going steadily downhill by riding rehashes of the same idea lately, but I'm more sad to see Reilly doing this, because he was legitimately hilarious in Walk Hard, and I'd like to see him rewarded for doing actual well-prepared comedy instead of this skit-level improv jumble of unimaginative ideas. (added 1/19/2009)

Still Life (2006; released in U.S. in 2008)
Director: Jia Zhangke
Rating: 8/10
In Still Life, the background is more important than the foreground. Director Jia Zhangke has created a movie using China's massive Three Gorges Dam building project as its backdrop. A man named Han Sanming (played by, well, Han Sanming) is visiting the region looking for the wife who left him and who used to have residence there in the town of Fengjie. Later in the movie, a second protagonist appears -- a nurse (Zhao Tao) searching for her husband, who works on the site. Both journeys prove challenging as the dam building project has significantly changed the surrounding landscape, most notably by steadily raising the water levels, which will cause the towns that have existed there to be permanently flooded. How the two main characters fare on their missions is less significant than what they encounter along the way -- demolition teams deconstructing the area, workers in dangerous conditions, and families preparing themselves for displacement. They are people getting by (the Chinese name of the movie literally translates to, "The Good People of the Three Gorges"), caught between the conditions of the past and the jolting insertions of modern progress. Jia's intention does not appear aimed at enraging the viewer nor at evoking deep pity. Instead, his film is observant (there are many beautiful shots, as his camera slowly pans across the gorges, the bridges, and the old buildings) and acts as a record of the inevitability of change, even ones mandated not by nature but by the government. Yes, there is a sense of injustice given -- once in a while, TV ads are ironically shown promoting the benefits of the dam; relatives of injured workers complain about compensation -- but the feeling is one of resigned acceptance, as the project is depicted with a sense of forceful forward momentum. In showing us this situation, Still Life brings up a contrast to the Western mentality -- whereas the American way might be to rise up and make a stand for one's self, the tone here is distinctly Chinese. The people understand what they have been given, and they do everything they can with it. In this way, the story of the main characters fits in with what is observed around them -- both of them adapt to their new situations and make the best of what they now have to work with, akwardly greeting the invading future. (A companion piece, Dong, also directed by Jia, was shot alongside Still Life and also partially covers the environment of the Three Gorges Dam.) (added 6/16/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Synecdoche, New York
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Rating: 10/10
It feels appropriate that Synecdoche, New York (a pun on the actual city of Schenectady, New York) is Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut. Long known for his unique screenplays directed by hip visionaries like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, Kaufman shows he's learned a thing or two to be able to tackle his own picture, and fittingly the screenplay this time feels like his most personal so far. Familiar Kaufman themes are expanded to such an ambitiously large canvas this time that if he really isn't a writer with grand creative ambitions but a strict sense of legitimacy, a crippling sense of self-worth, and the need for meaningful validation (not to mention a humiliating complex that involves reconciling with his libido), then, well, he's awfully good at expressing this type of personality. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the neurotic writer's surrogate this time, and the movie starts out in what feels like the real world only to gradually become something that isn't, on the surface, real, but only resonates more strongly in the emotional department as it goes. It's a fantastic accomplishment, an act of cinema that replaces the literal details with visually metaphoric ones, a use of Brechtian artificiality to actually enhance and hone in identification with the protagonist. As the movie continues, Hoffman's character, a playwright, constructs a facsimile of New York on a soundstage and gets actors to play himself and the people in his life, all in the name of truthful expression, making more sense of his own life, and dealing with his past (which includes a lot of broken relationships). Curiously, he seeks no insight into his future, yet time moves punishingly forward as he struggles more with his past. The movie affected me profoundly -- it's an amazing, fearless work that deals with paranoia, inadequacy, melancholy, and what it means to be a creative person who realizes the paradox of being smart enough to be both artistically high-minded and aware of a meaningless universe. (added 4/8/2009)

Taxi to the Dark Side (2007; released in U.S. in 2008)
Director: Alex Gibney
Rating: 9/10
Alex Gibney employs his thorough, encompassing documentary-filming technique to the subject of the second Bush administration's policy of P.O.W. interrogation and torture. Using the story of wrongfully imprisoned and murdered Afghan taxi driver Dilawar as a jumping off point, Taxi to the Dark Side explores the goings-on at Bagram Air Base, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay, and the accountable actions of the people involved, all the way down and up the chain of command. And that's really about the long and short of it -- it's a comprehensive movie, an everything-you-wanted-to-know-but-were-afraid-to-ask film, engaging, paced well, informative, and professionally polished. In such a documentary, the subject being investigated speaks for itself, and the agenda is allowed to arise from it -- in this case, a burning shame that the United States, with the policies displayed here, has violated the ideals it claims to uphold. The anger exposes all the familiar traits, patterns, and concerns -- high officials covering their asses; lower ones taking falls; the instinctive favoring of base, emotional human reactions over better thought-out ones; the essential ineffectiveness of torture as an interrogation technique; and so on. By virtue of its solid production and the breadth of its overview, Taxi to the Dark Side assures itself the status of being essential viewing; it also incidentally makes a very good lead-in to another documentary, its contemporary, Standard Operating Procedure, which delves deeper into the incidents at Abu Ghraib in particular. (added 11/14/2008)

Tropic Thunder
Director: Ben Stiller
Rating: 7/10
Tropic Thunder is a high-concept comedy about actors in a jungle war movie who are dropped into an actual dangerous situation, yet still believe they are shooting a movie, possibly Blair Witch Project style. It's silly, but nonetheless it has a lot to say about movie production and the various egos that power the industry. The actors include an action hero (director Ben Stiller) trying for Oscar legitimacy, a lowbrow comedian (Jack Black) who seeks to be taken more seriously, and an art movie veteran (Robert Downey, Jr.) who takes Method acting to the extreme a la Daniel Day-Lewis -- for this movie, he even employs pigment coloration to play a black character. The director (Steve Coogan) is a first-timer who can't control his actors; and the producer is the juiciest surprise -- Tom Cruise in his most un-Cruise-like role, a Machiavellian mogul who operates only under the mode "intimidate with extreme prejudice." Stiller's parody of Hollywood opportunism and insecurities is fairly lacerating, but perhaps could've been more so had not the whole thing been played so broadly. It goes for big jokes (that don't always work) when it had the chance to drill deeper and leave a long after-sting. It's smart comedy that tries harder to be dumb, and it works as well as it does mainly because of the truths it bases its exaggerations on. Tropic Thunder doesn't necessarily go easy on its targets, but I did find myself wishing it were harder on them. (added 12/31/2008)

Twilight
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Rating: 5/10
Given its standing as a current major cultural flash among young female audiences, I wanted to like Twilight, or at least understand what it is about the story that gives it its appeal. I suppose the movie is no substitute for the book (and have been directly told so), but just the same it appears the core of the material is simply the idealistic teenage romance, wherein the girl (Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan) is smart and mostly independent-thinking, and the boy (Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen) is, well, perfect. He's good-looking, strong, heroic, yet edgy and dangerous. He's also a vampire, which explains many of those qualities (as well as certain superpowers). To explain further, he's part of a family of vampires that have sworn off sucking the blood of humans, even though their scent is extremely tempting -- thus, he proves his perfection to Bella by loving and protecting her, even though his most primal instinct would be to feed on her. Naturally, she is extremely attracted to this. It's a troubling fantasy -- I have issues with girls' stories being about boy-chasing -- but at least Bella doesn't define herself by chasing boys. But the romance angle -- presented in glorious swooniness by director Catherine Hardwicke -- is the least of its problems; Twilight mostly suffers by being a rather toothless vampire story. That Bella is in any danger of being bitten by the man she loves is never quite convincing, and indeed the whole tale mainly stands as a metaphor for sexual abstinence -- in this world, the perfect guy is the one who says no, even when the girl is hot-to-trot. And since the threat of being violated by the one you love is so miniscule here, suspense mostly must come from an external source, namely a group of other vampires who aren't so nice to humans. Twilight seems to have missed potential; for a piece about forbidden lust/love, it's not very tortured. And since it's ready to become a franchise, the first movie feels mostly like set-up, so maybe things get juicier in the next movie. It's a shame to hear, though, that Hardwicke won't be involved -- her specialty, which is conveying teenager points-of-view, works here, but the blood given to her to work with was a bit thin. (added 8/22/2009)

Valkyrie
Director: Bryan Singer
Rating: 6/10
Bryan Singer's Valkyrie is based on the true story of a plot by German officers, led by Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, to assassinate Hitler. And knowing that, unfortunately, is enough to deflate the movie a bit, since it's built up as a suspense thriller. In other words, there's no wondering about whether or not the plot succeeds; instead, we just watch the set-up and the inevitable aftermath play out. To his credit, Singer directs the movie as if we didn't know the outcome, which is rather sporting of him. Sporting, too, is the skilled cast, lead by Tom Cruise as Stuffenberg -- the two actually have a bit of resemblance -- and filled out with such names as Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, and Tom Wilkinson, who make the film very watchable. Valkyrie mainly seems to want to spread the word that not all Germans were marching in lockstep with Hitler; in extrapolating further, it's a good lesson to learn about any group of people, that they are inevitably comprised of different consciences. Also, they are of varying strengths, no matter which side they might be on -- the assissination plot fails because some are hesitant, some lack courage or true conviction, and almost everyone's main concern is to cover one's own ass. The movie proceeds to show how everything, little by little, falls out of place -- not the most thrilling of events to cover, but interesting all the same. (added 5/29/2009)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Director: Woody Allen
Rating: 7/10
It's always relaxing to see veteran filmmakers working from their muses, not beholden to any story or commercial agenda but, instead, simply pondering and exploring, working with chosen actors. Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a light, mostly plotless affair that's basically an excuse to follow around a few pretty people in the scenic cities of Barcelona and Oviedo, Spain. For the setup, two friends visiting Spain are shown as opposites: Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is the practical, safe, and secure one, while Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is the spontaneous and restless art-and-meaning seeker. They are both directly propositioned by a womanizing Spanish painter (Javier Bardem), and their individual interactions with him lead them to discover interesting and uncomfortable truths about themselves. And that's about it -- oh yeah, PenÚlope Cruz is also on hand as Bardem's character's unstable ex-wife. Not everything works, as Cruz serves to be a mostly annoying presence, and the use of a narrator often feels like a cheap shortcut, but overall the breeziness of the affair is quite inviting. The movie floats about and feels very much like Allen just dropped these characters together and watched them play themselves out -- and the results may be reinforcing a few old beliefs in that although it's ideal to be a free spirit and an artist, the price one pays include sacrificing some sanity and security. It also seems to say that no one can ever be satisfied -- as Vicky moves deeper into comformity, she becomes more uncomfortable, while Cristina lives in a rule-less relationship that ultimately lacks something for her. If the characters are perpetually searching for their meanings, then it may be reflecting Allen's own artistic restlessness. It's nice of him, though, to continue his search in such visually pleasing territory. (added 12/24/2008)

The Visitor
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Rating: 7/10
Yes, in the end, The Visitor is a message movie. It wants to call attention to the U.S.'s current immigration policy, which has become more strict and racially aware since 9/11. And in that regard, it succeeds just so, but luckily it has another major card to play -- the character study of a withdrawn, uptight professor named Walter. It's a showcase role for otherwise supporting actor Richard Jenkins, and he makes the most of it without ever being showy, always staying true to Walter's introverted nature. When he is asked to attend a New York seminar, he goes into the apartment he keeps there and is surprised to find a couple of strangers staying there. The man and woman are illegal immigrants from Sudan and Senegal respectively, but Walter gets to know them and allows himself to open up in the process. Jenkins is able to play this believably -- it never feels forced because we can sense the decency in the otherwise gruff man. The immigration concern of the story is picked up when the male of the couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), is picked up and detained, and it's rather skillfully enforced by juxtaposing Tarek's strong, energetic introductory presence with his saddening gradual absense in the movie. This is the second film directed by Thomas McCarthy, who previously gave us the thoughtful The Station Agent five years ago. That's too slow a pace for a director with humanist concerns who shows real skills in communicating them through his actors. (added 12/24/2008)

W.
Director: Oliver Stone
Rating: 6/10
Frankly, W. is rather simplistic and reductive, but something tells me Oliver Stone didn't mind it turning out that way. One might say the approach fits the material -- this is a biopic of the 43rd U.S. President George W. Bush, and one that sees the man (played by Josh Brolin) as someone who spent most of his life in the shadow of his disapproving father. The movie amounts to a none-too-deep psychoanalysis of Bush, theorizing that his rise to power was a combination of family privilege and a personality that included the pride and stubborn tendency to turn personal challenges into pissing contests, whether they be against his father, rival political candidates, or Saddam Hussein. He's presented as a screw-up who finally gets it together when he becomes a born-again Christian, yet his tendency remained to act first and think later -- or, better yet, to let others do the thinking for him. Stone's take on Bush, while on the surface empathetic, still betrays his condescension, giving the ex-President readily transparent psychology and treating scenes with his cabinet and advisors as a kind of light comedy. But there's something to expand from this presentation: the idea that, in his path, in his thinking, and in his ultimate rise and goals, Bush represents the very basic American traits of pride, stubborn determination, family obligation, and entitlement. The criticism is that it isn't acceptable to allow this kind of average person to be able to find himself one day seated in the Oval Office. Alas, W. is hard to take seriously because it's so lightweight, so amicable, but these are also reasons why the film is relatively enjoyable to watch. Adding to that is Brolin, who gives an uncanny interpretation of Bush (he's got that voice down) that at least isn't mocking him from the inside. (added 2/12/2009)

Wanted
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Rating: 4/10
Wanted is a version of The Matrix that didn't bother to construct a thoughtful mythology for its universe, and a version of Shoot 'Em Up that plays it too straight. In other words, the physics that these characters defy -- none more on display than the ability to fire guns and "curve" the bullets so that they can go around objects to hit their targets -- is neither explained by any kind of in-world credibility nor extra-world irony. Add to that its rather illogical storyline, which includes a 1000-year-old society of secret assassins who take orders from a loom, and a training sequence where the hero isn't taught anything but rather just beat up on, and the movie really challenges that ol' suspension of disbelief. It hopes to get around this by showcasing cool action sequences where cars do impossible stunts (some of them are pretty snappy) and bullets shoot other bullets as a form of ballistic swordfighting (call it "gun fu"). Judging by the reviews of others, I'm guessing the movie mostly succeeded, but for me it just wasn't working. Part of it was due to how seriously the whiny main character (played by James McAvoy) was taking his situation -- I preferred Clive Owen's smart-ass attitude which conveyed that he took his movie about as seriously as we did, and was probably having just as much fun. The movies share the same weakness wherein they lack discipline due to their if-you-can-imagine-it-then-film-it approach, but Shoot 'Em Up at least acts as if it's aware of this and plays it with a wink; Wanted's self-awareness is much more subdued, thus feeling halfhearted. The movie also has a mean undercurrent which probably made more sense in its original comic book rendition, where the society was not of heaven-dictated assassins but of supervillains who had conquered all superheroes, thus earning its sense of dark A Clockwork Orange-like mayhem. Here, in the movie, it just feels dirty, clashing with its overall glib ridiculousness. (added 2/9/2009)

Wendy and Lucy
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Rating: 6/10
Wendy and Lucy drops a surface neorealist template straight onto the United States' Pacific Northwest, as Wendy (Michelle Williams), a young drifter, finds herself "passing through" Oregon, along with her beloved dog Lucy, on the way to Alaska. Background is filled in through contextual clues -- Wendy has been driving a long way from the Midwest, with no permanent address to her name and a handful of money saved specifically to fund her trip, in the hopes of getting a job at her destination; further motive is not required to illustrate the situation of an any-person who eventually finds herself stranded in some small town, alone yet quietly determined, ultimately dependent on the actions of strangers. It's not giving anything away to say that a set of unfortunate circumstances causes her to lose Lucy and that she spends the rest of the movie trying to recover her. The film is elliptical and wants us to get to know Wendy through her plight. Williams survives the unrelenting glare of the camera just fine in the kind of central role young serious actors who want to show off the subtleties of their skills crave; but in avoiding a fuller context and/or motivations for the character, the movie's themes resist being specifically applied. Frankly, this kind of film could've been shot in any decade and in almost any country with similar small settlings of civilization and pockets of evidence of economic downturn. Wendy -- an ostensibly wandering soul, proud enough to believe in making it on her own, whose strongest emotional bond is to her dog -- is just vague enough to be universal; her situation appears less dependent on environmental factors than on her own conscious actions. Her story works on an empathetic, functional level, and it thankfully resists extreme turns of any kind, though that lack of distinction also contributes to the generalization of both her character and this particular scenario. (added 12/31/2008)

Yes Man
Director: Peyton Reed
Rating: 5/10
The best I can say about Yes Man is that it's perfectly serviceable. It's a high concept (a sad sack of a guy who normally says "no" to everything is convinced to now say "yes" to everything instead, and it changes his life for the better) tailor-made to be a comedian's vehicle (in this case, Jim Carrey's), and it faithfully follows every cliche rule at every turn. The formulas become even more obvious when the film shows its hand revealing that it's mainly a romance -- Carrey's character gets a chance at a relationship with kooky girl Zooey Deschanel. The two have enough charm to get the movie by, but in the end it's so corny that it feels inconsequential. It is very much comfort food, with Carrey's persona dialed down so as not to aggravate those who might be put off by his manic side (frankly, though, he looks weathered enough here such that he appears tired, which is kind of depressing). I found myself having a few pleasant chuckles but still frustrated at the movie for not bothering with telling a story that hasn't already been told a million times before. I'm particularly disappointed in director Peyton Reed, whose previous three movies had a little flair and/or some bit of unconventionality; here, any interesting nuances are entirely missing. (added 4/24/2009)

Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Director: Kevin Smith
Rating: 7/10
Kevin Smith has worked himself into a very particular formula, mixing the sexually frank (mostly from the dialogue) with the sentimentally sweet. Zack and Miri Make a Porno doesn't represent much movement from where Smith had placed himself with Clerks II, which means what you felt about the previous should be about the same as what you'd feel about the latest. This time, it's one of those stories where platonic friends (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) discover there might be something more between them, and it's driven by the bawdy idea of the two of them being in such dire financial straits that it leads them to the cheap and desperate idea of producing and starring in their own pornographic film. The themes that emerge and the structure of the story are familiar to the point of corny, but Smith, working the angle of "cynical idealism" (tell it like it is to disarm the audience, then hit them with ideals they secretly hold in their hearts), is able to mine the sweetness without making it sickening. The movie boasts a very effective scene that serves as a, um, climax, which is hard to discuss without spoiling it, so I'll leave it at that. Meanwhile, it also has one very disgusting scene to counterbalance it (and yes, I couldn't help myself from laughing). Rogen lends a boost to Smith's humor with his distinct comedic deliveries, and Banks is frankly too pretty in a role I assume, from the way the character is written, should've been more dorky. They're surrounded by oddballs who help them make their movie, a supportive group who once again define "family" with their warm hearts and not their misfit eccentricities. Nothing new going on here, but the whole thing works pretty well to bring a smile regardless. (added 2/12/2009)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2008

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