VIZ. ARTS
Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

No Accounting for Taste (Bottle Shock, 9/15/08) Having just moved 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...
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Three's Company (Vicky Christina Barcelona, 9/8/08) When was the last 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...
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Everybody 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 in 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...
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Overstaying 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...
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Dark 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..."
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The 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...'"
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Unorthodox 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 small fry..."
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The 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..."
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Worth 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..."
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Far 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 inhibitions—though it is interesting that he never seems to hurt anybody during his rampages. The Hulk seems more interested in racking up property damage—factories, assorted infrastructure, and especially vehicles. You'd think his biggest enemies would be Geico and Allstate, not the US Army..."
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Professor, 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..."
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Sex 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 males—including 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..."
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No Reason to Live (Smart People, 6/2/08) "Having spent some time in academia, this critic can attest that—on the average—the 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..."
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Jones's 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..."
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No 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..."
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Tin 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..."
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Harold 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 well—it's a funny premise. But then there's the little matter of making a movie out of it..."
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Boys 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-getters—but diplomatic; they're supposed to bring home the bacon—but comfortable when she makes more money; sensitive—but not emotional; chivalrous—but not condescending; confident in bed, but not overly experienced..."
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Making 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 manicure—all 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..."
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Mother's 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 pole—the 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 sense?"
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