All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)




Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan)

Pretty decent once it gets past its excruciating twenty minute prologue. (Memento Guy can't stage compelling chop-socky to save his life, and why should we expect otherwise?) The direction is completely anonymous, but Nolan has two strong points in his favor. He is willing to pull in impressive talent for roles that would otherwise just lay there. (Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson and Gary Oldman offer particularly strong support.) And, unlike über-stylist Tim Burton, Nolan is prepared to play the Dark Knight Batman / Gotham-as-hellish-megalopolis angle straight. Christian Bale acquits himself quite well in a role that, at base, is Baleful Christianity. (Can I redeem humanity on my father's behalf?, etc.) But that subtext's pretty deeply embedded; slathered across the surface, so out-there that I'm not even sure what to do with it, is the Wayne legacy and its meaning for 2005 America. The benevolent liberal billionaire is slain by that very same Other Half he's out to heal, and in the end only a Dark Father can give Gotham the tough-love it needs, paradoxically fulfilling the dream of urban renewal? What's up with that? Most irritating element: Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn or whatever. Speechify on your own time.


Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)

[MILD SPOILERS] Although I seldom agree with Stephanie Zacharek, she does make a valid point with respect to Miyazaki's latest. The narrative does meander, one thing doesn't lead very clearly to another, and lots of complicated stuff is thrown at the screen, only a fraction of which is resolved in any meaningful way. Now, I am about the furthest thing from one of those script-structure hardliners (almost said "Nazis," but don't want to pull a Dick Durbin in These Sensitive Times) who demands stringent narrative economy, or even well-constructed, logical plot progression. In fact, I tend to think narrative cinema can only benefit from periodic dips into the enchanted well of the "cinema of attractions" -- look at this! Now look at this! And this!, ad infinitum. So really, my difficulty with Howl's Moving Castle, and the reason it pales alongside the earlier Spirited Away, is that in runs out of thrills, spills, and marvelous delights at about the one-hour mark. Up to then, Miyazaki was sailing smoothly into my 2005 top ten, with feats of pure visual imagination that made me laugh out loud with astonishment and glee -- Sophie's initial coping with her transformation; the Turnip Head; Calcifer the Fire Demon; and perhaps more than anything, the spatial invention of the castle's portal, with a nifty doorknob-dial allowing the user to negotiate between dimensions with an ease typically reserved for regulating your thermostat. But as the narrative inconsistencies begin to pile up (e.g., why is the droopy dog allowed to join the Howl gang if he's a spy for the bloodthirsty queen?), it got harder and harder for me to amuse myself with surface pleasures. They virtually dried up, leaving the confusing romance plot, the barely-there anti-war message, and Sophie's wavering old-age spell to fill the void. And at that point, I was just bored.


Layer Cake (Matthew Vaughn, U.K.)

[MILD SPOILERS] There is a scene toward the end of the second act of Layer Cake that doesn't draw much attention to itself, but in fact signals Vaughn's m.o. as a filmmaker, what he's striving toward as an artist. After Daniel Craig's drug dealer character obtains evidence of a doublecross, he has to quickly share it with his partners in order to save his own skin, demonstrating that he hasn't been the one doing the doublecrossing. When Craig's character first hears the evidence, we hear it all the way through; it includes carelessly cruel remarks impugning his associates, especially Gene (Colm Meaney), an older gangster fiercely loyal to his superiors. When Craig plays the recording a second time for his mates, he lets them get the gist of the betrayal, but cuts it off before they hear this needlessly hurtful material. I thought about how Vaughn's associate Guy Ritchie ("the worst director in the world," according to one friend of mine) would treat similar material, playing it first for laughs, and second for an outsized ultraviolence that the previous humiliation would somehow be expected to justify. Layer Cake has its flaws -- it sometimes lapses unconsciously back into the Cool Britannia posturing and rapid-edit, three-card-monty plot machinations that characterize Ritchie's laddish cinematic immaturity -- but for the most part it is an intelligent, sensitive, well-crafted entertainment. Its surprises tend to operate as plangent shrugs of hard-won knowledge, rather than the cheap adrenaline goosing of, say, Snatch. Much of this is accomplished through the precision of Layer Cake's ensemble cast, led by a marvelous performance by Craig as a man who ends up being such an effective gangster because he has no interest in being one -- James Bond as an exhausted urban-guerrilla conscript. In a way, his character's desire to get out and enjoy adult life on his own terms could be read as an allegory for Vaughn's own struggle to stake out a new identity and stop "playing at bein' a gangsta." One final paradox about Layer Cake: its finest setpiece is a bracing moment of violence that is astonishing not only in its formal control, but due to the fact that if you were to break it down into its base ingredients (you'll understand when you see it), you'd conclude that there is no way in hell it should work. It ought to end up another one of those embarrassing, self-satisfied Ritchie piss-takes, but instead Vaughn crafts it into visceral, skull-rattling cinema.


Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki)

[MILD SPOILERS] "Mature" Araki, as it turns out, is a lot like the young Van Sant, which represents significant improvement. I stopped following Araki's career after The Doom Generation, but harking back to the open-hearted magic realism of My Own Private Idaho and the emotional psychology of Mala Noche is a good move, not unlike Van Sant's own discovery of Tarr and Akerman. The major flaw of Mysterious Skin is its script, which too frequently veers into the declarative ("where Neil's soul should be, there's nothing but a black bottomless pit," etc.), bearing the hallmarks of a clunky fidelity to Scott Heim's pulpy prose. But in its organization and its visual imagination, Mysterious Skin seduces. What could, on paper, seem like a schematic dichotomy in terms of possible responses to early sexual abuse (arrested sexual development / hypersexual, emotionless queer hustling) actually works onscreen, due in large part to Araki's foregrounding of the dichotomy through the blackout structure and graceful cross-cutting between the two damaged lives. (Much credit is also due to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet, who ground Araki's embellished-memory poetics by underplaying.) Also noteworthy is Heim's and Araki's refusal to vilify Neil and Brian's parents, characters who might've easily been pegged as white trash in a lesser film. In contrast to much more self-satisfied films such as L.I.E. and The Woodsman, which swaggered onto the screen like treatises on a Very Important, Under-Explored Issue, there is a surprising modesty to Mysterious Skin. Araki does occasionally seem overly pleased with himself, with an over-reaching visual flourish here and there. (The early UFO sighting, for example, is thuddingly literal.) But the ones that work, like the rain of cereal, are indelible, and serve as restrained poetic imagery undergirding a small-scale character study.




Brothers (Susanne Bier, Denmark)

I'm starting to get the impression that Danish scribe Anders Thomas Jensen has one basic story (roiling familial strife, with indiscrete second-act revelation) that he just spins into infinite permutations. The argument has been put forward that all artists do this, of course, but in Jensen's case, the fact that he got it exactly right the first time (Vinterberg's The Celebration) makes this redundancy seem less like variations on a theme and more like an eternal condemnation to a unique circle of hell. Bier's warmed-over Dogme-isms don't help matters -- wobbly videography, bizarre ECUs for "effect" of some sort, all of it ladled over a film that is as direct, accessible, and subtlety-free as they come. The form, in other words, is both tired and unnecessary, like two competing sauces over the same meatloaf. On its own terms, it is certainly well acted and actually benefits from its histrionic third act. But its rather facile soap-opera machinations and leaps in logic got my hackles up. In particular, the deck is stacked against Michael the military man, placed in an unrealistic situation, forced to respond to it unrealistically, all seemingly to show us that inside he's really a coward. This sort of ham-fisted army-bashing (a kind of kneejerk liberal grandstanding, especially as applied in this film) threatens to unleash the inner conservative I keep locked way down deep inside. And that's a spectre I never appreciate having roused.


-The Fearless Freaks (Bradley Beesley)

I know this is a preposterous complaint to level at a documentary about The Flaming Lips, but Freaks is entirely too shambolic to leave any real impression. It's stranded between an open-form essay tactic and a strict linear chronology, the result ultimately coming off as a n accidental study in the elasticity of time. I mean think about it: virtually the entire first hour [yes, this for-the-fans love letter is two hours long] meanders through the Lips' early period, complete with abject poverty, gonzo pyrotechnics (it seems at one time they actually flamed), and charges of ripping off the Butthole Surfers. But we don't get things like album titles, large segments of songs, or a clear sense of purpose from the band. More attention is paid to the crazy shit on stage, but even then only in perplexing snippets designed, it seems, to signify insanity and little else. This feels like revisionism, with the now-mature Lips recasting their punkier beginnings as misdirected chaos. Watching this frequently tedious display, I couldn't help checking in with the DVD timer, thinking "Christ, we're an hour in and we're not even up to Transmissions From the Satellite Heart?" In the second hour, things just hurtle by, checking off the discography and providing minimal context or insight. Aside from some invaluable glimpses at Wayne Coyne's perpetually unfinished debut film Christmas on Mars, there's nothing really revelatory here, especially if you've ever attended a Lips live show. The final half hour seems reverse-engineered in order to accommodate Beesley's extended vérité footage of drummer Steven Drozd shooting up; the lengthy excursus on his heroin addiction and recovery is interesting enough but not of a piece with the rest of the film. I guess it might be possible to read Freaks as some sort of formal analogue to the Lips' evolution, or a particular interpretation of it -- haphazard din slowly coming into focus. Is Beesley's film an allegory about emerging from the haze of youth? Nothing about The Fearless Freaks indicates that level of intentionality, so only an apologist or an uncritical Lips devotee could really put that theory forward with Coyne 2.0 earnestness. Final note: does every band need a documentary nowadays? And how many of them, if any, function autonomously as cinema? That is, are they for anybody but the fans? This isn't a rhetorical question; in a way I'm asking for recommendations. Any post-Stop Making Sense music docs I need to check out?


My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikowski, U.K)

Much like Pawlikowski's first feature Last Resort, although to a much greater and more irksome extent, My Summer of Love is a film of facile ideas, organized around recognizable movie-types whose every "spontaneous" action is in fact as deterministically ordained as a physical reflex -- cinema as adventuresome and revelatory as a mallet to the knee. Most reviewers are not seeing this, which must mean that Pawlikowski has seduced then with his "observational" style, cruddy handheld videography that bundles his slight little psychodrama in skeins of pseudo-naturalism. It's all surface, though; prod ever so slightly at the arthouse-textbook use of landscape or the studiedly unself-conscious performances and the whole shabby spell just dissipates. A good deal of Pawlikowski's failings can be traced back to his script, wherein a young girl (Nathalie Press), her born-again older brother (Paddy Considine) and her rich new best friend (Emily Press) deliver clipped little speeches that somehow manage to both over-articulate their positions on the chessboard and leave room for breakneck leaps in character development. These seemingly contradictory strategies are united by one dominant tendency, and that's Pawlikowski's ruthlessness in getting where he wants to go. (And by the way, the conclusion is as fraudulent as it is obvious to any attentive viewer.) What's particularly frustrating about My Summer of Love is that it does in fact contain lovely grace notes, especially in the moments when Blunt and Press are hanging out in silence. When these actors aren't hamstrung by Pawlikowski's script, they provide interstitial pleasures that are the film's sole redemption. Final note: as with Palindromes and Brothers, I am getting sick of liberal films that take the cheapest of shots at conservative characters. In this case, Considine's religious convert is a thuggish hypocrite whose piety is, apparently, broad comedy for the cheap seats. (The steel cross he spends the second act welding is actually the most aesthetically advanced element of the film, a beautiful, populist version of a Richard Serra sculpture.) Don't these filmmakers know that by refusing to give everyone in the film his or her best argument, they weaken their own? It shouldn't be that difficult to create fictional individuals with recognizably human beliefs. All it takes is talent.


-National Treasure (Jon Turteltaub)

A fundamentally silly movie, one that succeeds inasmuch as it does by dint of its refusal to take itself very seriously. Its puzzle premise -- that the Founding Fathers were simultaneously leading a rebellion to establish the United States and stashing cryptic clues as to the whereabouts of a massive trove of international plunder -- is the stuff of 1940s adventure serials, and like those Saturday afternoon entertainments of my father's generation, there's a geeky boyishness that pervades National Treasure, even in spite the presence of a woman on the team. (Get out your decoder rings! What will this latest clue ultimately mean? Find out next week!) I wish I liked it a bit better, but even though there's a tasty Tootsie Roll center, a lot of what's surrounding it is poorly wrought. Nic Cage is a wee bit obnoxious here, the hot chick / George Washington enthusiast (Diane Kruger) is bland, and the goofy comic sidekick (Justin Bartha) is seven kinds of irritating. What's more, Turteltaub misstages the really big action sequences, then adds to the muddle with the sort of raw-footage-in-a-blender editing patterns clearly intended to disguise carelessness during principal photography. Still, a perfectly pleasant time-waster, and -- What could this mean in 2004? Get to work, cultural studies scholars! -- the gushiest love letter to Freemasonry since The Magic Flute.


-Vodka Lemon (Hiner Saleem, France / Italy / Switzerland / Armenia)

Having missed this one in theatres, I thought I'd check it out. (May as well acquaint myself with Saleem's critically acclaimed debut feature before encountering -- maybe -- his critically lambasted sophomore effort, Kilometre Zero, at this year's Toronto IFF.) There's nothing really wrong with Vodka Lemon, but there's nothing especially right about it either. I'm a bit baffled by those critics who claim to find an almost documentary reality here, since Saleem never once veers from the insta-rigor, festival-pleasin' International Arthouse Style. [EXCURSUS: It's possible that this is the sort of film that might've impressed me had I encountered it, say, five years ago, although I kind of doubt it. But after seeing so many films adopt the exact same approach, with minor if any alterations for cultural specificity, I find myself intuitively knowing exactly where a film like this will go. Slight character studies are tricked out with a "clear-eyed lack of sentiment" and "a deeply humanist observational stance," and how? You know the ingredients. List them along with me: a stationary camera frame; deep focus cinematography; deadpan acting; wryly amusing foreground / background interplay; lonely figures or oddly misplaced objects strikingly placed against a harsh landscape; a blocking and composition scheme cribbed from still photography, with a studiedly offhand deliberateness. What's frustrating is that the 80s and 90s masters from whom most of these moves have been cribbed have either moved on (Hou, Kiarostami) or so fully internalized these strategies that they feel like second nature, and are an organic part of the stories being told (Jarmusch, Kaurismäki). A few mavericks have actually pushed this style in radical new directions (Tsai, Gallo, and despite my qualms, Jia Zhang-ke). But most just ape the surface affectations and get duly rewarded with their slot in New Directors / New Films. Is globalization to blame for this creative malaise? Why should films from Armenia, Norway, Uruguay, Argentina, Turkey, South Korea, and Burkina Faso look almost exactly the same? Okay, end of rant.] Vodka Lemon generates a few amusing images, and its middle-aged rom-com elements do possess a low-key, shambling charm. I suppose Saleem displays a notable degree of confidence for a first-time director, but ultimatelyVodka Lemon comes up short on ideas, textures, or any real frisson of the new.




À tout de suite (Benoit Jacquot, France)

Even considering the tepid reaction this film elicited at TIFF 04 and from critics in its subsequent commercial release, it still stands as my biggest disappointment so far this year. It's never aggressively bad; in fact it is quite tepid, one of the most lifeless pictures I've seen from a major director in quite some time. The set-up -- young middle-class Lili (Isild Le Besco) falls for a Moroccan bad boy and gets pulled into his gangster world -- is clearly meant to evoke the Nouvelle Vague, especially early Godard and Truffaut. But it all just lays there, faded like an nth-generation Xerox, right down to Jacquot's flat black-and-white cinematography. Even as the cops close in and our protagonist has clearly gotten more than she bargained for, it never feels like anything's at stake. (Le Besco's droopy features and somnambu-thespianism don't help matters.) After the first hour, an unexpected plot twist allows À tout de suite to thankfully shift gears, and only then does Jacquot hit any sort of stride. In immersing itself in Lili's unmoored subjectivity and its disheveled contents, the film lurches toward the lyrical realism of the nineties work that put Jacquot on the international map. But then, as the conclusion nears, we're returned to the limp, second- and third-hand gestures that marred the majority of the film. So the momentary upswing only serves to drive home À tout de suite's regrettable holistic pointlessness.


Bunty and Babli (Shaad Ali Sahgal, India)

A perfectly tedious Bollywood slog, short on good songs, commanding performances, or any compelling reason to exist. In short, this is the sort of Yash Raj Productions hackwork I usually rent on DVD and turn off after thirty minutes. Rani Mukherjee is an ingratiating lead, signaling a game commitment to her airheaded Lucy Ricardo character. But Abhishek Bachchan is an affable doofus and little else. To make matters worse, Big B doesn't show up until just before the intermission. He threatens to liven things up, but his police chief performance is strictly phoned in. No dice. Only gripping moment: Aishwarya Rai turns up in an apropos-of-nothing cameo, dances her heart out, and promptly disappears.


Happily Ever After [Ils se marièrent et eurent beaucoup d'enfants] (Yvan Attal, France)

Revelations! Middle-aged men work out their virility issues with flashy cars. They worry that if their little boys play with toy vacuum cleaners, they'll grow up to be sissies. Feminists are ball-busters. Every woman, no matter how happily married, would like to ride Johnny Depp. And on and on, this film is just another useless iteration of the whole midlife crisis / battle of the sexes / infidelity shtick. Admittedly, Attal has gotten just a touch better with blocking and camera placement. This wasn't an outright embarrassment like the putrid paranoid fit that was My Wife is an Actress. It's just boring and predictable, and Attal thinks like a junior high mixtape. (The Charlotte Gainsbourg character's anxious meet-cute with Depp is scored to Radiohead's "Creep;" the scene where she suspects her husband [Attal] of cheating is scored to "Paranoid Android;" the scene depicting Attal's elderly parents [Claude Berri and a criminally squandered Anouk Aimée] having an uncommunicative middle-aged night out is scored to "No Surprises." Get it?) Utterly unexceptional in every way.




-Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach)

It was a depressing day and I just sort of found myself in front of it. It's not funny and is thoroughly inept in execution, but I feel no need to articulate its numerous shortcomings. I wouldn't review a three-day bender or a crying jag, I wouldn't clinically dissect my single-sitting encounter with a large bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, and I won't review this.