Weekly meditations from your humble messenger
Accounting for Taste (Bottle Shock, 9/15/08) Having just
away after more than twenty years in Ithaca, your humble critic
expected a little readjustment. There's that period, so
natural-seeming as to be imperceptible, where that new home feels
defined only in terms of where it isn't. When the new place is that
other wine and milk-producing country, the one north of San
Francisco, the illusion is particularly unfair. Sonoma deserves
better than to be thought of as Not Ithaca...
Company (Vicky Christina Barcelona, 9/8/08) When was the
truly compelling Woody Allen movie? Did it appear during the Clinton
administration-or the term of the elder Bush? Hard to say, but
there's no doubting Allen's determination to grind on and on,
releasing features at a rate of one a year, piling disappointment
upon disappointment until the prospect of respecting Woody again
seems as unlikely as falling in love with your ex-wife...
Must Get Stoned (The Wackness and Pineapple Express,
8/25/08) If you aren't a movie superhero these days, you might as
well be wasted. From Harold & Kumar to Weeds to Seth Rogen
anything, we're up to our roach-clips in adorable stoners, and I'd
bet my stash of Strawberry Cough to bong water we're in for more. In
a way, it's understandable: since most young folks find it dull to
invest much in fighting The Man these days, lighting up is about the
only publicly acceptable form of social protest we've got...
at Brideshead (Brideshead Revisited, 8/18/08) There may be
more daunting tasks than making a movie out of Evelyn Waugh's parlor-elegy
Brideshead Revisited, but not many. As those on the wrong side
of forty may recall, there was an 11-hour miniseries version on PBS
in 1981, featuring Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, and a young unknown
named Jeremy Irons. That program offered a degree of subtlety and richness
that did full justice to Waugh's book, and was arguably one of the best
things ever put on TV. Competing with that definitive version-and doing
it in the unavoidably truncated form of a feature film-not only seems
thankless, but hopeless...
Nights (Tell No One and The Dark Knight, 8/4/08) "It's
probably been a long time since you've seen a movie like Guillaume Canet's
Tell No One. Relax, thoughit's not your fault. Based as it is
on the bestselling work of an American novelist (Harlan Coben), No
One is the kind of old-school potboiler Hollywood used to love to
make. Alas, here in the summer stupid season (we're well beyond the
"silly season," fellow space chimps...), mall movies must
"open big" to keep their screens, and there's just no time
for even a first-rate thriller to build up enough word of mouth for
grown-ups to see it..."
Spy Who Spoofed Me (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, 7/21/08)
"Pity the poor French. We Americans love to remind them how we
"bailed them out" militarily a couple of times, though without
French help in the Revolutionary War our nation would never have existed
in its current form. We call them "surrender monkeys," though
they suffered 1.4 million battlefield deaths defending their
country in WWI, while we tucked tail at a mere 50,000 dead in Vietnam.
They were 100% correct in warning us about our current debacle in Iraq,
but you'll never hear our President or many of our citizens say 'shucks
guys, you were right about that one...'"
Mongol (The Mongol, 7/14/08) "There ought to be more
movies about Genghis Khan. Minor figures like William Wallace and George
Custer have had their moments onscreen, and Caesar, Alexander, and Napoleon
have been depicted almost ad nauseam. But let's face itcompared
to the great Mongol chieftain, whose horse armies conquered an area
four times bigger than the Roman Empire, these other guys are pretty
Soul in the Trash Compactor (WALL-E, 7/7/08) "Like many
of Pixar Studios' other creations (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles),
WALL-E looks like the kind of popular and critical hit that makes
even the gentlest quibble seem petty. No argument here over whether
the cheers are deservedWALL-E is indeed that rare piece of entertainment
that will keep a child happy without tempting parents to blow their
brains out with boredom. It's imaginative, funny, and (mostly) unobjectionable.
But that doesn't mean it's the best thing since the invention of Ti-Vo..."
the Plunge (The Fall, 6/30/08) "I've often complained
in this column about the dispiriting sameness of commercial movies these
days, even among "indie" productions that end up seeming to
crave crossover success. Finding something genuinely different has become
like stumbling on some rare species of creature long thought extinct.
With Tarsem Singh's ravishing, overstuffed, yet spellbinding The Fall,
cinephiles at last get to encounter something truly unexpected. It's
the ivory-billed woodpecker of off-beat film spectacles..."
from Smashing (The Incredible Hulk, 6/23/08) "The Hulk,
the gamma-ray enhanced alter-ego of mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner
(Edward Norton), is less a superhero than a force of nature. When aroused,
he sprouts about six hundred pounds of muscle and loses all civilized
inhibitionsthough it is interesting that he never seems to hurt
anybody during his rampages. The Hulk seems more interested in racking
up property damagefactories, assorted infrastructure, and especially
vehicles. You'd think his biggest enemies would be Geico and Allstate,
not the US Army..."
Percussionist (The Visitor, 6/16/08)
"Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor is a little like its protagonist
(Richard Jenkins): quiet, easy to miss, but ultimately rewarding to
get to know. Indeed, from the faculty of socially-inept academics in
recent movies, Jenkins's Prof. Walter Vale is quite possibly the one
guy I'd like to have a coffee with at some campus java joint ... or
maybe even play some squash..."
on the Steppes (Tuya's Marriage, 6/9/08) "Tuya (Yu Nan)
is a shepherd's wife with few choices in life. Her husband Bater (Bater)
was paralyzed from the waist down in a well-digging accident. With a
spouse and two small children depending on her, Tuya must run their
household and do all the heavy work usually handled by Mongolian malesincluding
a daily twenty-mile trek to fetch water. Her cares are beginning to
show on her face, which is no longer young. More ominous, her back is
wearing out from all the hard labor. Though she still loves Bater, she
must divorce him and find an able-bodied husband before ends up a cripple,
and her family starves..."
Reason to Live (Smart People, 6/2/08) "Having spent
some time in academia, this critic can attest thaton the averagethe
people in it are about as fulfilled as folks in other professions. Yet
you'd never know it based on portrayals of academics in recent movies.
From Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages to Jeff Daniels in
The Squid and the Whale to Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine,
professors on film lead lives of thwarted ambition, indifferent or contemptuous
of their students and peers, doomed to coast along that long, sad, downward
slope to a lonely death. Or as Randy Newman put it in a song, "smart
people have no reason to live..."
Jalopy (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,
5/26/08) "Maybe we should blame it all on Indiana Jones. With many
of Hollywood's best talents now focused in reviving bits of velour-era
pop ephemera like the Hulk and the Fantastic Four, a new addition to
the Jones franchise seems as classic as a lost Homeric epic. But it's
an illusion: Indiana Jones is just the Spider Man of a previous generation,
a confection inspired by the 1930's movie serials beloved of two old
dudes named Lucas and Spielberg..."
Black Belt (Redbelt, 5/19/08) "So now we have Redbelt,
a movie reportedly inspired by Mamet's personal fascination with martial
arts. Specifically, he's into jujitsu, a Japanese-derived discipline
where a wrestler prevails by exploiting the strength of his opponent.
More inventive critics than I can no doubt rationalize Mamet's signature,
"rat-a-tat" style of dialog as a form of verbal jujitsu (though
it seems more like karate to me). Fortunate for Mamet that he gets to
exhibit his enthusiasms at multiplexes everywhere. It is, alas, not
so fortunate for us..."
Man, Nuclear Heart (Iron Man, 5/12/08) "When Jon Favreau's
Iron Man is done cleaning up at the box office, its negatives should
be sealed in a platinum time capsule. As a reflection of all that is
beguiling and all that is absurd about America's vision of herself,
circa Iraq War, the movie is worth more than a few hundred million bucks.
For future historians, it's priceless. Let us count the ways..."
and Kumar Make a Dull Comedy (Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo
Bay, 5/5/08) "Harold and Kumar, the pan-Asian stoners last
seen heading to White Castle to cure their munchies, get mistaken for
terrorists and get sent to Guantanamo Bay. The pitch for that script
must have gone pretty wellit's a funny premise. But then there's
the little matter of making a movie out of it..."
Don't Cry (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 4/28/08) "So when
has there ever been a more confusing time to be a guy? To say the masculine
mystique lies in tatters is an understatement: at the same time, people
with penises are supposed be go-gettersbut diplomatic; they're
supposed to bring home the baconbut comfortable when she makes
more money; sensitivebut not emotional; chivalrousbut not
condescending; confident in bed, but not overly experienced..."
Money for the Third Reich (The Counterfeiters, 4/21/08):
"It is May, 1945. A dark, thin, vaguely thuggish little man shows
up at Monte Carlo with a suitcase full of cash. After checking into
the best hotel, he gets a bath, a shave, and a manicureall apparently
overdue. Hitting the high-stakes poker tables, he makes a killing. This
attracts the attention of one of those observant young ladies who happen
to frequent the casinos, making the acquaintance of high rollers. Later,
in bed, she turns over and sees the numbers tattooed on his arm. "You
weren't in the camps, were you?" she asks. The man is silent..."
Dark Night of the Soul (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 4/14/08):
"Ideological enemies will read it in different ways, but few can
deny that Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is powerful
stuff. Typically, American movies won't touch the abortion debate with
a ten-foot polethe whole issue is strikingly downplayed in hits
like Knocked-Up and Juno. We therefore must turn to an
import from eastern Europe, made on a micro-budget, to portray what's
already going on among thousands of Hollywood's core customers. Make