Capsules for 2009

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

Director: Shane Acker
Rating: 7/10
The theme/base premise of 9 isn't anything new -- men have created machines that have turned against them, and the setting is the post-apocalypse -- so enjoyment of the movie comes from paying attention to the careful visual details that director Shane Acker and his animators present to us. The story follows an unlikely group of heroes who might be called living robotic dolls, little mechanical figures clothed in stitched burlap who somehow have been given life and are now trying to solve the mystery of what exactly happened to humanity while trying to avoid getting killed by strange mechanical beasts. The artwork is inventive and the care given to the appearances of the characters is impressive; the film also executes a fair number of solid action set pieces. It's that work itself which holds the movie aloft against the criticisms that it may be too strongly influenced by similar fare that has come before -- The Matrix quickly comes to mind, and I myself was reminded more than once of the typical cinematic sequences found in video games these days. But as far as animated works go, 9 is also proudly mature -- the movie deals much with individual death as well as doomsday -- so it's a welcome work, something we might even dare to call American-style anime, since it interweaves that genre's traits of darkness, quests, action, the end of the world, techno-fetish, and sci-fi mysticism. (added 1/18/2010)

35 Shots of Rum
Director: Claire Denis
Rating: 9/10
What no one seems to mention regarding the classic Japanese directors is that while most filmmakers say they love Akira Kurosawa, the more thoughtful of them are mostly interested in following the footsteps of Yasujiro Ozu. They would rather make the next Tokyo Story than the next Seven Samurai. French director Claire Denis has now used Ozu's Late Spring as a jumping-off point for 35 Shots of Rum, in which a father (Alex Descas) lives happily with his grown daughter (Mati Diop), yet moves inevitably towards the act of letting her go to live her own life. And though the underlying driving theme is different -- Late Spring's catalyst is an adherence to the tradition of having to marry daughters off -- the overall effect of Denis's movie duplicates that unique and wonderful Ozu effect of feeling your emotions brew as you watch the movie, only to have them crush you in the end after reaching a resigned acceptance of the events that come to pass. To give Denis proper credit, no knowledge of Ozu is required to appreciate the effect her film can have on you -- it's a warm and lovely character piece centering on the father and daughter, and the relationships they have to their neighbors. It specializes in little moments, the kinds you might find yourself reflecting upon and allowing to influence certain decisions and thoughts about the people in your life; as emphasis (and a poetic touch), much of the film is communicated with spare dialogue. 35 Shots of Rum understands that every good moment and every comfortable situation is fleeting, that change is inevitable, and that the next good moment is unpredictable but potentially around the corner. But it also understands that the changes hurt, and the worst anyone can do is not to let go of that pain. Those realizations of human vulnerability at the hands of the forward momentum of time are what make Denis's film as easily affecting as a touching Ozu drama. (added 5/1/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

(500) Days of Summer
Director: Marc Webb
Rating: 9/10
At last, here's a movie that takes the wimpy, tortured, hopelessly-in-love boys from the other movies and tells them to grow up. Very simply, (500) Days of Summer is about a young man, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who falls in love with and has a relationship with a young woman, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who doesn't fully reciprocate his affections. At some point they break up (not a spoiler -- the movie skips around the 500 days of the relationship using a handy visual counter) and there is fallout, and Tom must learn to come to terms with his romantic delusion that there is one person he's fated to be with -- or, more precisely, that a relationship with someone you fall head over heels for often comes with an uneven playing field. I believe that the greatest fallacy of our civilized society's perception of love is that we believe one can make anyone else fall in love with him/herself if we just try hard enough to get the other to see one's good qualities. Of course, this is what Hollywood has been selling us since movies began -- the romantic pursuit of a love interest -- but have there really been so few movies that have dared to present a more realistic take, featuring a man who may fail and may actually learn enough to move on, that when one comes along, it feels this refreshing? (500) Days of Summer is a triumphant feature film debut for Marc Webb, who not only had two great main actors to work with in Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel, but was also able to present his tale with just the right amount of creative flair, including the use of a number of visual gimmicks and even a random choreographed music number. But none of it feels out of place as the movie's honesty anchors it. It's a story that may suggest that the woman was a "bitch" for treating the man badly, but it outright shows him to be the true fool. This movie should practically be required viewing for any guy who unhealthily obsesses over a girl -- one-way love is a trap from which too many emerge far too unnecessarily scarred. (added 11/24/2009)

Director: Greg Mottola
Rating: 7/10
It's easier to laud Adventureland as a well-executed personal project for Greg Mottola than as a standout entry in its genre. This movie is one in a long line of films about a young man coming of age, thanks in large part to his falling in love with a receptive young woman. Adventureland falls on the humorous side, though it is not strictly a comedy -- it's warm, embraces realism, and is colored with particular nostalgia for the late '80's. Jesse Eisenberg plays that perfectly empathetic character who would not be considered "cool" but is also not a hopeless nerd, either; frankly, his post-high school summer job at an amusement park surrounds him with people who would make him look "normal" by comparison. This plus the fact that in due course he attracts the attention of his two prettiest female co-workers (the main love interest being the one played by Twilight's Kristen Stewart) seem to indicate that his luck may not be as bad as he claims it to be. This "deck-stacking" is sometimes par for this course -- any young self-professed loser can't develop in a story like this unless his losing streak is denied, and that will always feel like favoritism from the writer, but there you have it. In any case, it's almost doubtless that the story is based largely on the personal experiences of writer/director Mottola, and he's done his job in making the work feel authentic, funny, and like a breeze to sit through. If you're going to share memories of those impressionable, awkward yet important and nostalgic days, this would be the way to do it. (added 2/23/2010)

Director: Mira Nair
Rating: 4/10
Something is wrong with this picture: Amelia, a movie directed by Mira Nair, is devoid of the color, spice, and passion that are trademarks of a Nair film. I'm not sure what happened, but this biopic of famed female Depression-era aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared over the ocean in her attempt at an around-the-world flight, suffers from symptoms of stiff, lifeless movie-making. The script/dialogue is fairly terrible, with stars Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, and Ewan McGregor all sounding like they're reading out of textbooks. Swank, who plays Earhart, and Gere, who plays her promoter/husband George Putman, have pretty much no chemistry. And the story moves along from one event to the next without much in the way of drama, suspense, or just general interest. Its theme about a woman who has control over her own destiny is played straight and flat. Earhart is given a voiceover to express how much she loves flying, and there are a few dreamy flying sequences, but otherwise the movie itself feels like a tomb, lending itself to a slow, quiet pace that's possibly meant to be reflective but is instead dirgelike. It's a shame -- Swank in a wig and false teeth is almost a dead ringer for Earhart (although she plays her with a forced accent) so it feels a bit like a lost opportunity. Maybe a future movie about Amelia will get it right -- the fascinating aviator deserves a far better movie treatment than this, and we get a hint of the potential of that better movie from none other than black-and-white clips of the real Amelia Earhart at the end of the film. That minute or two reveals more about her spirit than the whole rest of Amelia. (added 2/12/2010)

Director: Lars von Trier
Rating: 3/10
I don't buy Antichrist, not for a minute. From the first sequence, shot in the style of what film critic Ed Gonzalez described as a "black-and-white perfume commercial," director Lars von Trier contrives a tasteless scenario, as an unnamed couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) make love, distracting them from realizing their toddler is on his way to falling out a window to his death. This by itself isn't wholly objectionable -- it dares you to roll your eyes at it -- but then what follows just piles on the evidence that this film is built on a shallow premise designed to cheaply evoke feelings of disgust while elaborating on a simplistic theme. So it goes that the couple is composed of a prick of a husband and an unstable wife; he's a psychologist who thinks he can rationally help her through the grieving process, but who even now has no idea how emotional and irrational his wife can be. For some reason, he feels the way to help her is to make her confront her biggest fear, which happens to be of their cabin in the woods, named Eden. While there, his rational methods don't hold up to the chaos of what nature brings, while she succumbs to it, becoming more unpredictably erratic in the process (murderous gore soon follows, though it becomes hard to take seriously). So we have Eden, man vs. woman, and the failure of cohering the rational with the irrational. Frankly, the regressiveness of this set-up is insulting -- at one point, the wife claims that research she conducted while at the cabin in the past lead her to believe that women are inherently evil. Even if this was possibly part of a larger point that von Trier was trying to make, perhaps about the unnaturalness of human reasoning in the face of any kind of despair, it's too easy to interpret the story as plainly misogynistic. Antichrist is well-produced, and the actors are game (although I feel bad for what Gainsbourg has to go through), but in the end it's reductive, employing the battle of the sexes as representative of a binary battle between order and chaos, one that has no room for the complex relationship between reason and emotion, or morality and primal urges, within human beings. It's almost an appropriate irony that von Trier dedicates Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films contain layers of depth that this movie can't begin to approach. (added 3/12/2010)

Anvil: The Story of Anvil
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Rating: 7/10
When I first heard of Anvil: The Story of Anvil, I thought it was a mockumentary -- someone's attempt to update and pay homage to This Is Spinal Tap. Nope, it's actually about real-life heavy metallers Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner, together known as the band "Anvil." Formed and primed during the music genre's rise in the '80s and apparently considered a pioneer by their now-more-famous peers (Metallica, Poison, Scorpion, etc.), the Anvil duo somehow missed the fame boat -- but they've also never stopped making albums (albeit without much push from their minor record labels). Though their sound doesn't seem to have evolved, neither have they quit pursuing the idea of making a living from their artistic endeavors. Therefore, the story of Anvil is one of pursuing your dream, no matter how much you starve, how much family you may alienate, and how little audience you have to perform before. This is an underdog movie from start to finish, where the heroes are weirdly cheerworthy due to Kudlow's innate lovability (the guy just never stops believing, no matter how frustrating things get) and Reiner's rather intriguing mix of perspective and persistence. You'll learn nothing new here about chasing the dream, but this non-fiction story may convince you to make room in your heart to appreciate the combination of earnestness and doggedness that some people maintain, despite the possibility there will be no reward except fulfillment of one's own passion. (added 11/24/2009; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Director: James Cameron
Rating: 8/10
There may be little to add to what looks to be the main critical assessment of James Cameron's Avatar -- that it's a technical marvel that deserves to be seen in the 3-D format, but its story is very simple and rather corny. Cameron faced similar opinions of his Titanic, and since that went on to become the biggest moneymaking movie of all time, one can see why he might want to stick to the plan of wrapping great special effects around a cozy, familiar story. However, if we are to believe that Titanic gained repeat business because its romance spoke so directly to so many of its fans, it might be interesting to surmise that Avatar will gain its success through good word-of-mouth more for its visuals (this movie's romance is not as passionately urgent; the film's overt theme of the innate appeal of video games -- assuming new identities in fantasy worlds -- may strike the bigger chord with its audience). The work here is very impressive, mainly as it uses an advanced form of motion capture to create the blue-skinned aliens who serve as much of the significant cast. And although it looks seamless and wonderful, I'm starting to wonder how worthy it really is to use high-end computer animation to top the next movie in approximating real life. On the one hand, fantastic believable imaginary worlds can be created; but on the other hand, there's a part of you that watches and understands how unreal it is in the back of your head. This isn't as much a hindrance while watching the movie as it is afterwards, when the movie might start fading from memory. But maybe this is also just another way of showing that if your film doesn't hit that tricky mark of emotional resonance, it won't matter how fancy you made it. So to repeat what others have said, Avatar was a very fun ride and is a grand display of current visual technology, but I haven't thought about the story again too much afterwards. (added 12/29/2009)

Away We Go
Director: Sam Mendes
Rating: 6/10
Away We Go, Sam Mendes's foray into indie-flavored movies, is tripped up by its own concept before it begins. A quirky expecting couple (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) travel around the country visiting relatives and old friends in search of a place to settle and raise their family, and, wouldn't you know it, these people they see are all decidedly wacky. Because the script was written by the husband-wife team of Dave Eggars and Vendela Vida, one wouldn't think such seasoned writers would resort to the easy-target school of humor -- there's nothing like making your protagonists, even if they are goofy, feel like sane centers the audience can get behind by surrounding them with extreme personalities (plus most of them have kids and rear them radically differently, providing obvious perspective). And yet the film is made watchable by its best elements -- it's refreshing to see two usually supporting actors play the leads, and they do their jobs well, with the reserved, grounded Rudolph balancing Krasinski's more kinetic and quite funny performance. A bit of memorable support comes from Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing the wackiest of the wacky friends, who is able to pull it off because she sells the believable absurdity of her character well. The good acting provides an example of what might make this kind of formula work, but it's quite an uphill battle when one can see the scripted situations acting as comic (and, when the story needs it, heartwarming/breaking) fallbacks. (added 10/4/2009; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans
Director: Werner Herzog
Rating: 8/10
It's unfortunate Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans was named to be connected to Abel Ferrara's 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, thus creating a forced comparison -- they're really quite different beasts and, other than having protagonists who share particular traits, have little to do with each other. Ferrara's picture features Harvey Keitel in a searing, serious performance that makes you feel sleazy just to watch it; but Herzog's approach is lighter, utilizing Nicolas Cage in a manic and, yes, very entertaining performance. Cage's bad Lt. McDonagh is brash, addicted to many vices, and blatantly disregards the law even as he pursues criminals, but he's also very smart, and somewhere in that body of his are the hints of a redeemable soul. However, in the meantime, he's on the trail of a murderer, acting irresponsibly, getting into trouble that's way over his head, and hallucinating iguanas. And yet somehow this is fun -- a result of a unique synergy between Cage and Herzog, who decided his film was going to be about how a man can live carelessly and get away with it because the universe is indifferent. That's right, this time a fellow might actually benefit from cosmic randomness. What's compelling here is how Lt. McDonagh just forces his way through events without attaching meaning or morals to any of them; and yet within him are ideas of moral justice and a lingering sense of right and wrong (that he'll selectively listen to). No matter how badly he behaves, that compass is there. Herzog is investigating the mystery -- and impact -- of man's sense of morality existing in a world that clearly doesn't care about the outcome one way or the other. People are simply trying to survive through all their self-defined vices, and, in the end, 'tis not the universe that metes out justice -- we are our own rewarders, punishers, and forgivers for our behavior. (added 4/21/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Beaches of Agnčs (2008; released in U.S. in 2009)
Director: Agnčs Varda
Rating: 10/10
The Beaches of Agnčs is an autobiographical film, something I confess to seeing very little of, if at all -- but if this documentary of Agnčs Varda by Agnčs Varda is any kind of example, I would love to see more. Varda lets her imagination run, loosely adhering to a chronolgical timeline but completely open to digressions and asides, assembling the work out of archive footage, newly shot "re-enactments," plenty of interview snippets and her own storytelling, plus generally anything else that comes to mind. She allows her memory to unfold as if it were dropping puzzle pieces, then lets us sort through them and soak in what they contain; and when one thinks about how many disparate "pieces" had to be put together to create a cohesive work, one realizes how masterfully edited it is. Far from being self-indulgent, much of the film is about the many people Varda met and how she remembers them (usually fondly), from her family to the people involved in her first movie La Pointe-Courte, from her fellow French New Wave artists to, especially, her late husband, the director Jacques Demy. Demy is actually the focus for a significant portion of the film, and the tenderness expressed when Varda speaks of him comes across as quite touching. I find a project like The Beaches of Agnčs something of a treasure, not only because it's 79-year-old Varda's clearheaded reflection on herself, an acclaimed filmmaker, but also because it places the times she's lived through in a context, making the moments in those decades come alive. This film is as whimsically entertaining as Varda is personable, and that's a major bonus. We should all be so lucky to have the chance to make movies about our own lives when we're much older; and as one of the lucky ones, Varda wastes no opportunity to provide a fun, humble, and shining entry. (added 4/1/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Blind Side
Director: John Lee Hancock
Rating: 7/10
The Blind Side is the story of Michael Oher, currently an NFL player. You may wonder why his life in particular deserves a movie treatment, and the answer is simple -- his story is pretty incredible. Oher (played by Quinton Aaron), a large, laconic teenager, was effectively homeless when a wealthy couple, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy (Tim McGraw and Sandra Bullock), allowed him to stay in their home, eventually applying for his legal guardianship. Because of this, Oher was able to complete his education and work his way to becoming a high school football star. The story is incessantly positive because it's about good deeds and its ripple effects, and even if you view it with one raised brow and are looking for signs of embellishments, it's hard to argue the main point, which is that this family did a major altruistic act, which achieved much more as an act of humanity than sitting around and talking about it ever would. As for the movie itself, it doesn't strive to go against predictability; instead, it offers itself up as a sturdy feel-good tale, anchored mainly by the spectacle of watching Bullock in blonde hair wielding a Southern accent. To her credit, she acquits herself fine as a lead dramatic actress, working up enough charisma so that the audience will naturally want to get behind her. The Blind Side does stumble in a few false moments (mostly towards the end), but otherwise passes respectably as a crowdpleasing mainstream drama. (added 11/28/2009)

The Box
Director: Richard Kelly
Rating: 6/10
The Box is effectively a Twilight Zone episode overdressed by Richard Kelly to last two hours. Its premise is based on a Richard Matheson short story and was, no joke, adapted for The Twilight Zone of the late '80's; it's about a married couple being presented with a box with a button on top. The presenter (Frank Langella) tells the couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) that if they push the button, they will receive a million dollars, but a stranger will die as a result; he gives them 24 hours to decide. Moral wrestling and ethical grappling ensue, which is all any thinking viewer could ask for, but Kelly sees it more as a jumping off point to open up paths of intrigue, giving us glimpses into the other universe or dimension or wherever the forces behind this "test" come from. Kelly seems to want to make this weird sci-fi universe his hallmark, and the more he references it the more his films tend to suffer; the workings of his world (worlds?) are too insular and trapped in his mind, and since he insists on dropping only head-scratching clues about the forces that control his fictional universes (Look! Water portals!), these exercises become exasperating. Despite this, I confess I didn't hate The Box; actually, I enjoyed it more than I didn't, mainly because I can appreciate Kelly's talent for setting up an atmosphere -- for instance, taken out of context, the scene where a woman goes down a hotel's hall and all the doors behind her open one-by-one to reveal stonefaced onlookers is simply a good scene, neatly planned and visually interesting. A science fiction creepiness pervades the film, and Kelly shows us he can set up effective scenes when he has a budget and means business (this is in contrast to the mean-spirited, over-jokey idiocy of Southland Tales). Ultimately, Kelly runs The Box a little too closely to the themes of The Day the Earth Stood Still, although it does have something more cynical to say about humanity, extending the idea that while humans might actually consider doing harm to strangers for their own benefit, they unhesitantly express sacrificial altruism for the sake of immediate family; juxtaposed, the first tendency makes the second tendency look repulsive. It is this condition -- tribalism -- that I believe accounts for most of humankind's sorrows. The central family as well as, it is hinted, many other families in this movie's world are essentially punished for perpetuating this condition, a turn that, I must admit, was able to elicit a little grin from me. (added 4/1/2010)

Bright Star
Director: Jane Campion
Rating: 8/10
Jane Campion's Bright Star has a disarming quality to it, depicting a romance not as torrid waves of drama but as something that is born awkward and steadily gains its holding. This gentle film isn't interested in having us see the relationship between young English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) as one for the ages; instead, it's depicted as rather everyday, but in doing so it gives their affair a realism and the perspective that these flowers of romance each contain an individual beauty, and ought to be appreciated as such. Though not as conscientiously reflective nor as ambitious as something Terrence Malick might have made, Campion's approach reminds me of Malick's touch, letting each character's modest actions to simply play themselves out, while allowing the camera to soak in the naturalistic visuals that surround them (some of the scenes are striking -- a walk through the flowers and trees, or a room full of butterflies). Bright Star sees the story -- prematurely ended by Keats's early death -- for what it is: one quiet relationship that happened, one that created its own light that, like others, has dimmed and, if lucky, might be spoken of by those to follow. (added 1/12/2010)

Broken Embraces
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Rating: 8/10
I must be completely dazzled by Pedro Almodóvar's current skills as a filmmaker because I really enjoyed Broken Embraces even though I had several reasons not to. In style and flavor of story, it may too closely resemble Bad Education, with its mysterious plot of mysterious pasts surrounding a film director protagonist, so one wonders if Almodóvar is running out of ideas; but the biggest potential strike against it for me was that it's a vehicle for Penélope Cruz, an actress I do not particularly favor. And yet, as I've said before, Almodóvar is the only one who can make Cruz watchable for me, and it's a good thing too, since Broken Embraces is very clearly a valentine to the actress. Actually, it may be the second such -- this movie complements their previous collaboration, Volver, which was also a showcase for Cruz, and the distinction between these two movies comes from the appreciating gaze. Volver was a woman's movie, warm, earthy, and spiritual, where Cruz's character could be admired as a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a friend; while in Broken Embraces, she is treated as a man's prize, the object of affection for two male characters competing for her company, and, as such, is dressed-up and caressed by Almodóvar's camera. Now, were it up to me, I may not have chosen Cruz to dedicate such a project to, but I think if any actress were so lucky to be given this attention, she should be treated with as much reverence as Cruz is given here. Her character isn't as fleshed out as the memory of her character is as the protagonist, filmmaker Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar), now blind, recalls their story together, when he made her the star of his last picture. The movie makes the case that while past loves live legendarily within our memories, having them captured on film can make them even more strongly, solidly so. The rest of the movie is filled with Almodóvar's usual melodramatics, with so many wounded characters running around and interacting with each other, but he paints the whole thing so smoothly, confidently, and colorfully that I was actually swept up in this mystery love triangle movie that dared to idolize Penélope Cruz. (added 3/24/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Director: Larry Charles
Rating: 7/10
Sacha Baron Cohen and his director Larry Charles follow up Borat with another guerilla comedy film, Brüno, this time based on Baron Cohen's outrageously flamboyant gay Austrian fashionista. The comedy is created through similar methods, wherein the actor, under the guise of his character, interacts with real people who don't know he's acting, allowing themselves to be awkwardly ambushed into exposing their prejudices. But while Borat cut to the bone in its mocking exposure of the depth of racism, sexism, and classism within our society, Brüno has trickier territory to navigate as it specifically targets homophobia. Possibly the most primal, most vicious, and most resistant strain of bigotry found within humanity, it deserves confrontation, but when done in the manner of the movie here, it is less enlightening than it is just plain squirmingly funny. With attacking homophobia should come the notion that there is a massive double standard in the acceptable depictions of sexuality of women vs. men, and Brüno addresses this limitedly (and perhaps most effectively in the film's last big scene). However, most of the time, the movie just presents the obvious -- most people are homophobic and can be easily made to feel uncomfortable with suggestions of homosexuality; most people misunderstand homosexuality or have no intention of understanding it; and frank sexual exposure unnerves most people (much is made of the infamous scene focusing on a male's privates being shown to a focus group, but frankly that group's reaction would have been the same if those privates belonged to a female). So the shock and mock lose their potency simply and sadly because it's not surprising that homophobia is so prevalent -- you may be surprised and disguted if the nice gentleman next door is a racist, but perhaps not at all to learn that he is homophobic. So what's left? Well, the way Baron Cohen is so fearless in approaching his satire is to be appreciated. Also, Brüno's comic instincts are intact and well-honed enough to make it generally entertaining, especially if you're an open-minded individual, and even if you may not be necessarily registering something dark about your fellow American and yourself. (added 11/24/2009)

Capitalism: A Love Story
Director: Michael Moore
Rating: 8/10
Michael Moore, already a polarizing figure especially after his last decade of editorial films, might be criticized for singing the same old song with Capitalism: A Love Story. Essentially, no matter what his subject is, he has the same things in mind -- sticking up for the little guy, and looking to take down more than a few notches the big guys who take advantage of those little guys. In this latest film, he mainly targets institutions who turn blind eyes to ethics in order to squeeze out just a little more cash for themselves, eventually focusing on the banks, their involvements in the recent housing crisis in the U.S., and the ensuing bailouts. But there's something a little different this time around -- Moore, whose usually delights in showing off the sarcastic edge of a stage comedian in his movies, seems more weary now, more intent in getting his message across without as much dedicated comic relief. Yes, there are jokey moments in the movie, but they feel more like perfunctory quick breaks as Moore makes the stories of injustice he's gathered the real meat of his film; and as he tells them, he shows a continued disillusionment at the depths the powerful are willing to go to against one's fellow man just for the sake of more wealth. Thus, Capitalism acts as a culmination, an assessment point, of this long filmmaking road traveled by Moore, where he may have been preaching to the choir most of the time, but where his whole purpose has always been to stoke our outrage so that we may be moved to participate and do something about the world we live in. No matter how he argues them, he keeps the important issues topical, and that itself is a public service (and frankly, he can't be too worn-down these days -- after all, Obama did win the last election). (added 12/15/2009)

Chocolate (2008; released in U.S. in 2009)
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Rating: 6/10
With Prachya Pinkaew directing and a lady fighter (Yanin Vismistananda, aka JeeJa Yanin) in the lead, one is led to believe that Chocolate may be the female version of Ong-Bak. Well, it's not quite -- frankly, it just helps to remind us that nothing was ever like Ong-Bak, starring the Muay Thai machine that is Tony Jaa (even Pinkaew and Jaa's follow-up, The Protector, paled to it). That movie just had a raw ferocity to it, which perhaps renders Chocolate impressive if somewhat slight in comparison. It is admittedly unfair to compare Vismistananda to Jaa -- her moves come off more on the balletic than brutal side -- but she does hold her own, and her movie, after getting the half-hour or so of obligatory set-up plot out of the way, becomes a series of gang fight set pieces -- just choose a location (ice-packing plant, meat-packing plant, warehouse, etc.), let the stooges attack, and watch Vismistananda use her body and her environment to creatively smack the crap out of them. The movie builds up to a feverish series of sequences, and concludes with end credit outtakes that show just how much real pain came with the stunts. It's otherwise weighed down with a preposterous premise that actually makes a plea for sympathy for special needs children (Vismistananda's character is autistic, you see -- she actually assimilates martial arts techniques by observing them), setting up a new standard for noble futility as anyone knows we all come here just to see the girl kick serious behind. At least she does just that, and after a while Chocolate mainly and plainly feels like the exhibition that it is. (added 4/8/2009)

A Christmas Carol
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Rating: 8/10
Robert Zemeckis's third motion-captured animated film, A Christmas Carol, has no shortage of 3-D razze-dazzle. That statement is an ostensible contradiction -- visual flair isn't the first thing that comes to mind when regarding Charles Dickens's famous short story, so it's actually quite a relief to find this movie comes through in conveying the heart of the tale. A lot of this has to do with the wise decision of not modernizing the language and dialog in the movie, as well its keeping an appropriately dark tone, where the ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge maintain a fair amount of freakiness that could easily frighten younger children. Also to be credited is Jim Carrey, who plays Scrooge in voice and motion-captured face and body, giving a controlled performance of what I might call "exaggerated nuance." His Scrooge is utterly credible in expression and voice, and gives the movie an anchor to hold against that required razzle-dazzle of its presentation. That showiness manifests itself in many swooping shots, taking advantage of any moment it can to strut itself. Some of it feels appropriate -- the journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past, for instance, where Scrooge is literally whisked from one moment of his past to the next; and I would say there is only one section where it feels totally egregious (a chase scene in the last third of the film). Outside of that, there is also the artwork to marvel at -- not so much the characters, some of whom still feel like they're clawing their way out of the uncanny valley, but the backgrounds, which are exquisite. All in all, Zemeckis's retelling of A Christmas Carol is solid, most importantly letting the story itself shine through where it naturally does, when the emotions actually can overshadow the visual embellishments. (added 11/22/2010)

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Directors: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Rating: 7/10
By immediate appearances, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a zany, eye-popping comedy tailor-made for kids -- it has a refreshing "cartoony" aesthetic that doesn't try to make its characters look realistic, and its high-speed visuals are capped off by the payoff sights of prepared food falling from the sky, thanks to its story about a nerdy young inventor, Flint Lockwood (voice of Bill Hader), who finally makes a working invention that somehow gets launched into the air, turning raincloud water into instant meals. But it occurs to me that the pace and tone of the comedy is actually pretty sophisticated -- perhaps too much so for its supposed intended audience. Sure, children will most likely enjoy the visuals and the general frenzy of activity, but will they really get the jokes? Maybe it's just me, but the wordplay, the references, the absurdity, and the sheer speed with which they're delivered... let's just say I don't expect young kids would really get Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine right away either. I'm not implying that the comedy in this movie reaches high levels of brilliance; rather, I'm just observing that the movie looks like it's trying to deliver something and then bats the humor way over its audience's heads. In a world where nobody might care about this, though, Cloudy does work -- it is truly unapologetic about being a goofy, nutty ride, and it deserves points for trying to bring empathy to brainy people. Perhaps this is all that matters -- let the kids fall where they may and, when they grow up, they might be able to appreciate the movie on a whole other level. (added 1/18/2010)

The Cove
Director: Louie Psihoyos
Rating: 8/10
With a movie like The Cove comes a danger of narrow perspective -- this documentary is about exposing the slaughter of dolphins by the fisherman of Taiji, a small coastal town in Japan, responsible for most of the world's captive dolphins and dolphin meat. So why should we feel more sympathy for dolphins as opposed to all the other animals various people slaughter the world over? Maybe there's no real answer -- maybe they all deserve saving -- but The Cove makes as strong a case as any for its chosen victim species because a) very little of the population desires to eat dolphin; b) dolphin meat is mercury-poisoned anyway, due to our bad pollution habits; and c) dolphins are some of the only mammals who have given evidence of an intelligence worth studying, understanding, and revering. Adding to the film's strength is its central figure, who is akin to a modern-day vigilante superhero. Ric O'Barry raises so much dust that the International Whaling Commission has banned him, and the authorities in Taiji tail him whenever he's in town. They won't allow him to photograph the bloody massacre that takes place yearly at their cove, where dolphins are driven in and then killed en masse, so he assembles a crack team with the skills and technological know-how to sneak into the cove at night and rig hidden cameras, and all of this is documented in the movie. All O'Barry is missing is a mask and costume. At its core, The Cove is about how change can only occur through the passionate activities of individuals -- groups and governments are ridiculed for their ineffectiveness and corruption. It's not about how one person can make a difference, it's more about how one person is usually the only way to make a difference. And with The Cove, the dolphins' one person is doing everything he can to promote a just cause against what might best be described as a destructive cultural ignorance. (added 12/29/2009)

District 9
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Rating: 7/10
Science fiction is well-suited for social metaphors, and perhaps District 9 feels the strain a bit from being a bit too obvious about being one. An alien mothership hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa, apparently stranded, and the million-or-so bug-like passengers inside are given refuge within a district in the city; however, human-alien relations have been stressed to the point where the humans have become rather irritated with their presence. Before you can say "apartheid," the aliens' district has devolved into a slum, and they are now about to face a forced relocation to another potential slum further away from the city. Using dislocated aliens on earth to illustrate segregation and xenophobia looks both easy and creative; to the credit of director Neill Blomkamp, though, the film concentrates more on the fantastic nature of the story, displaying a major dose of verve. Since the metaphor itself is pretty clear, Blomkamp goes for the visceral quality of the images and situations -- the shock you might actually feel when humans rough up an alien creature, or, indeed, the disgust one feels at the potential of human cruelty once people believe they have the upper hand as the aggressor. And then there's also the excitement of the film's last third, which dives headfirst into military action. Just the same, the strain is still there -- it's too clear that, outside of having fun with their depictions, the filmmakers use the aliens just to be social illustrations; they otherwise have little internal community logic. We don't have a sense of the effects of their oppression; they don't gather or show evidence of a larger sense of injustice; they have ridiculously powerful weapons that humans can't use, yet they don't use them themselves to fight back, or see them as assets other than for trading; and only one of them seems to have a plan to return to the mothership and escape, and he's helped only by one friend and his young son. Perhaps there are background reasons for all this -- maybe they speak softly and carry big sticks -- but we're forced to speculate. Blomkamp instead focuses on his main character, a human (Sharlto Copley) who may find redemption from his own prejudicial stance against the aliens, all the while ironically steadily metamorphosising into an alien himself, after an accident. Aliens helping a human find his humanity while turning into an alien? This is how poetry operates in science fiction, after all. (added 12/7/2009)

Director: Tony Gilroy
Rating: 5/10
Duplicity writer-director Tony Gilroy has been building his reputation on espionage thrillers, having helped pen the Bourne series and making his directorial debut with Michael Clayton, so why not change up a little? His new movie is also about espionage -- corporate espionage -- but it's more a caper than a thriller, and at heart it's a romantic pas de deux between an ex-CIA agent (Julia Roberts) and an ex-MI6 agent (Clive Owen). Alas, this is also where the movie must pass the test: is the pairing engaging, sparkling, scintillating? Well, maybe only halfway so. Roberts and Owen's characters are so ingrained in spy culture that they have a lot of trouble trusting each other, even as they work out an elaborate scheme to con a couple of corporations. Yes, this is funny, but it also makes the "love" part of their relationship hard to believe. Frankly, their constant sparring and apparent backstabbing also hurts both characters' likabilities. Being able to get behind the central pair in a movie like this is crucial, but Gilroy appears to be more happy to pile on elements that demonstrate the movie's cleverness and the, yes, duplicitous nature of his leads' relationship as opposed to their romantic chemistry. At best, Duplicity shows that Gilroy continues to have no problem putting together slick, well-paced, intelligent movies, and I laud the effort to construct something complex and original. He's also able to get good supporting cast work, in this case from Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as the CEO's of competing corporations. It's a reunion of sorts, as both were in the mini-series John Adams, with Giamatti as John Adams and Wilkinson as Ben Franklin -- contentious there, it's fun to see them even more so here, and in the movie's best scene (which happens during the opening credits, alas), the two take it to the mat in slow motion at an airport tarmac. But it might be saying something that I preferred to see those two in action than the two actual leads of the film. (added 9/6/2009)

An Education
Director: Lone Scherfig
Rating: 7/10
An Education is all about the emergence of actress Carey Mulligan, for its story isn't terribly out of the ordinary. Set in London in the early '60's, it's about an Oxford-bound teenager named Jenny (Mulligan) whose thirst for culture (music, travel, the arts) is satiated when she hooks up with an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) who is willing to show her the world. Pretty soon, the expected conflicts arise -- how wrong is it to have a relationship between an apparently thirtysomething man and a teenager? Should she give up her Oxford track if all it ever promised was a plain life, while the possibilities of her potential new life beckon? Did her father (Alfred Molina) want her educated for the sake of having a good education, or did he simply want her to marry well one day? These questions are answered not very daringly, but the movie is breezy viewing thanks to the players involved. Sarsgaard is charming and kind of creepy all at once, and Molina is energetic and funny; all the better to allow Mulligan to play off them, as she dives into a meaty role to cover a range of emotions and character dimensions. She strikes that correct chord as a young woman who is smart, knows she is smart, and then believes that she may be as smart as the adults around her, yet not in an impertinent way, retaining a sense of caution and humility. She brightens what could be considered a common lesson in youth vs. maturity, and makes it one worth sharing. (added 1/10/2010)

Director: Mike Judge
Rating: 5/10
I've enjoyed Mike Judge's previous social satires, Office Space and Idiocracy, seeing as how they lampooned the ironic smugness and self-satisfaction of idiots and idiots who are in charge. However, his latest, Extract, feels like a misstep. In this movie, we go from sympathizing with the workers to sympathizing with the boss: Joel (Jason Bateman), who runs a factory that produces his personally formulated extract, and who finds his life suddenly falling apart after he receives a bid from General Mills to buy his company at the same time an employee has a major accident on the floor. Much of the problem with Extract is twofold -- first, it doesn't seem to know where its going, because Joel's problems additionally include sexual repression which leads him to trick his wife into cheating on him, while gaining an interest in a hot new employee (Mila Kunis) who happens to be a con hoping to take advantage of the injured worker's lawsuit against Joel. It's a bit overloaded, but on top of that, none of the threads leads to anything -- the story is many setups with no punchlines. What emerges is a genial situational comedy that never becomes as funny as it potentially could be, nor does it really say anything about the classes of people it's concerned with -- the workers are kind of dopey but they're not malicious; the boss is stinking rich, but he has a humble nice guy personality; and any other characters that might have seemed antagonistic are ultimately sympathetic (except for, perhaps, the annoying neighbor). Is Judge reaching for a bit of humanism here? Even if so, it would've helped to have the movie exhibit more oomph along the way. (added 1/12/2010)

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Director: Wes Anderson
Rating: 9/10
As it turns out, if given the chance, animation may be the best way to prove the auteur theory. There is no question that Fantastic Mr. Fox is undistilled Wes Anderson -- I suppose the only way it could've been more pure is if he did all the voices himself. The film is every trait from his live movies magnified, or to put it more distinctly, expressed to their most accurate degrees. Consider the way the characters are shot; the art production of the sets; the way the characters move, the way their eyes move, the way they walk into a room, the way they are mostly still and are punctuated with rapid movement, even the way they dance. Do you think Anderson could ever get his actors to dance that way? The thing about animation -- and stop-motion animation in particular -- is that "preformances" have to be precise right down to every frame; and so with Fantastic Mr. Fox, we may have the ultimate Wes Anderson movie in terms of look and feel. It's fascinating, and the movie itself is also thankfully delightful, as Anderson's sensibilities, sometimes too self-consciously twee with live actors, work extremely well in this animated format. This story of a society of wild animals living in disharmony with some nasty neighboring farmers is about the call of one's individuality, and it's quite comedically voice-acted by George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and others. Now I'm starting to wish every auteur would go and make his or her own stop-motion animated flick; what a fantastic experiment that could be. (added 12/14/2009)

Fast & Furious
Director: Justin Lin
Rating: 5/10
Fast & Furious is the fourth movie in "The Fast and The Furious" series, and it's pretty clear by now the whole thing's on auto-pilot. Absolutely nothing new happens here -- you get what you'd expect, which are cool cars, some creative racing/driving stunt scenes, and some plot dealing with illegal this or that, while the protagonist men bond. The novelty, if you can call it that, of this particular entry is the reunion of the primary cast of the first movie (and primarily Vin Diesel's return to the franchise), but it's rather anti-climactic since the characters don't really do all that much when they're not driving or mumbling. It is amusing, though, to see just how much Diesel dominates his co-star Paul Walker in their onscreen relationship -- no mistake who the alpha male is around these parts. Director Justin Lin, who also helmed the third movie, brings things back to multi-cultural Los Angeles, and it's always nice to see that he has roles ready for Asian-Americans, although now the primary concern of pigeonholing may come from the depictions of tough men and thugs -- if you've seen seen one tattooed gangster in a movie, you've seen 'em all. Yes, I'm kidding, but the general unoriginality contributes to "The Fast and the Furious" series' own issue as a "seen one, seen 'em all" series. If you don't mind seeing one again, though, Fast & Furious is a passable time-waster -- it only offers what's asked of it, and nothing more. (added 8/3/2009; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Food, Inc.
Director: Robert Kenner
Rating: 9/10
Food, Inc. is this year's An Inconvenient Truth, only this one hits you more in the gut -- literally. After all, one can choose to debate the theories of global warming, but what argument can be leveled against the truths about the products that go directly into your stomach? The spotlight is shone upon the mass production of agricultural products in the U.S., as they are controlled by only a handful of large, powerful corporations, who all take production shortcuts or ethically questionable enhancements that end up harming health and the environment. In the end, the viewer is asked to enact change through their purchasing power, but the reality that you are left with is that, when you look around, you are just surrounded by the products of these companies. It's a harsh feeling, but Food, Inc. does its job in just getting out the information that most of us probably want to ignore and shouldn't; and as a documentary, it's a testament to our general capital-driven shortsightedness. Its goal is to raise awareness, and it deserves to succeed, so if you haven't seen it, you ought to. (added 11/28/2009)

Funny People
Director: Judd Apatow
Rating: 5/10
Director Judd Apatow is moving in a progressive direction with Funny People, ironically mostly a drama with moments of comedy, but the movie shows that there are still a lot of kinks to work out. The story combines a dramatically reliable premise with the potential for odd couple dynamics: a successful comedian/movie star, George Simmons (Adam Sandler), who doesn't have any close relationships, finds out he has a rare form of leukemia; he then hires struggling stand-up comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to write jokes for him and to be his personal assistant in general, as well as someone simply to confide in. George is determinedly unsentimental, bitterly bottled-up, selfish, and something of a jerk; Ira is his total opposite, a mostly considerate guy who's outwardly emotional and open. At first their interaction is interesting as character drama, but when the last half kicks in, it becomes clear that there is a plot to work out, wherein George works up the nerve to reconnect with his now-married ex-flame (Leslie Mann). While playing out that part of the story, contrivance rears its ugly head, but even then that might have survived were it not for a layer of unpleasantness that's woven throughout the film. Sandler's character is mean; Rogen's character has mean comedian/actor friends; if this movie were to be believed, I would conclude that the last people I'd ever want to hang out with are comedians. People here are either mean or stupid, or are being mean to people who are being stupid. A lot of that is meant as comedy, but it feels uncomfortable to laugh. And the whole package has a welcome-overstaying runtime of two-and-a-half hours (it doesn't help that a lot of its padding feels self-indulgent, what with real-life comedian cameos and Apatow once more trotting out his and wife Mann's daughters for displays of cuteness). Funny People is a bit tough to sit through and, by the end, despite having intriguing moments, doesn't feel like it's gone anywhere. With some more tightness and efficiency, Apatow could get a good thing going; hopefully, this movie will just be a step to something more solid later. (added 11/30/2009)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2009

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