Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I just wanted to wish all of you out there in Blogland a happy new year! This will be my final post of the year. I'll be seeing you in 2009. My first post will be my 2008 top ten list, which will go up at 9:01 AM Jan. 1.

Until then, have a safe and happy year ahead!
A couple of weeks ago, I may have said that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had the best ending of the year, but that was mostly because of the enormous turnaround from the pedestrian second act.

While the ending of Silent Light may have been lifted almost directly from Carl Th. Dreyer's Ordet, Carlos Reygadas follows it up with what may quite possibly be the greatest closing shot of all time.


Don't believe me? Watch this clip of the film's opening, which the final shot mirrors.

It is a perfect ending to an utterly brilliant film, whose quiet grandeur seems to whisper of the human connection to the divine, or to the silent power of nature, before which human problems are nothing. Either way, it is truly unforgettable. Words can't do it justice. This is breathtaking, soul searing cinema at its best.

The Endings Blog-a-Thon

Monday, December 29, 2008

Every year, my theatre history professor assigns her Modern Theatre History class the latest Pulitzer Prize winning play as the final reading assignment of the semester. When I took the class the play was John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, and it was an experience I have never forgotten.

It is a gripping play, filled with deep, probing questions and moral ambiguities that provided quite a bit of stimulating discussion amongst the class. When I heard that there would be a film version, I hoped it would retain the same subtlety that made the play so compelling.

I was not disappointed.

Adapted for the screen and directed by the playwright himself, Doubt is a faithful translation of the play that never quite overcomes its roots on the stage, but succeeds on its own through Shanley's restrained direction and a truly staggering ensemble cast.

Meryl Streep (replacing the original Cherry Jones, who won a Tony for this role) stars as Sister Aloysius, a stern, old fashioned nun who is the principal of St. Nicholas school for boys. Sister Aloysius comes from a different time and a different way of thinking. The year is 1964, and while the rest of the world is moving ahead, Sister Aloysius spends her time decrying the decay of penmanship at the hands of ballpoint pens and the evils of Frosty the Snowman. To her, all students are up to know good and she has learned to expect the worst.

Everything is quiet and normal at St. Nicholas school, until the arrival of Walter Miller, a young boy who also happens to be the only African American in the entire school. Lonely and bullied by the other children, Walter finds himself under the caring wing of Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who goes out of his way to make sure that the boy is looked after. One day, after returning from a meeting with Father Flynn in tears, his teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams), goes to Sister Aloysius in concern, prompting the suspicious principal into an internal witch hunt, determined that Father Flynn has somehow had an inappropriate sexual relationship with the boy.

The film, like the play, keeps the accusations surrounding Father Flynn cloaked in ambiguity and doubt. The audience is never quite sure who the villain is. Is Sister Aloysius out on a mindless witch hunt because of her dislike of Flynn's more modern, secular embracing ways? Or is Father Flynn really the child molester she believes him to be? Shanley never answers those questions, nor should he. He leaves it in the hands of the audience, creating a thought provoking work that leaves lingering questions in the mind that last long beyond the film's chilling final frame. He manages to create sympathy for both characters, making each side seem plausible. The audience, in many ways, sees the film through the eyes of the innocent and naive Sister James, who is caught in the middle of the battle of wills, caught in the middle of a morally ambiguous situation where the correct answer is almost completely hidden. It is easy to see both points of view, but you know that at the end of the day only one of them can be right, and that changes everything.

I was worried by the look of the trailers that the film would portray Sister Aloysius as a stereotypical hateful nun - a villainous figure. But thankfully that was not the case. Sister Aloysius is not a bad person, she truly has the best interests of the children at heart. Streep digs deep to find the character's humanity, the soul and compassion beneath the stern veneer; while Hoffman is her mirror image as the seemingly kind hearted Flynn, who wants to give the church a more friendly reputation. The real scene stealer though, is Viola Davis as Miller's mother. In one short scene, Davis leaves a greater impression than any other character. With powerful understatement, Davis portrays a woman determined for her son to have the best possible education no matter the cost, and makes surprising and heartbreaking decisions to achieve those goals. Her character serves to further complicate Sister Aloysius' crusade, and by the time Flynn finally confronts her, it is a titanic showdown between two master actors at the very top of their game.

As the film progresses, the situation becomes more dire and more complex, the camera angles become even more skewed as the tensions mount. Roger Deakins' appropriately icy cinematography highlights the caginess of the church hallways and the ever shrinking net of suspicion and doubt that the characters have created for themselves. Shanley deftly navigates these tricky waters without ever revealing too much or leading the audience in any particular direction. We are left to decide for ourselves. It is difficult to make a film whose emotions are based mainly on insinuations, but he succeeds admirably. Doubt is the very embodiment of its title, leaving us to grapple with issues of morality and decency in a way that films seldom do. It is an acting showcase with big questions and few answers, but for those willing to take the journey, it is an experience well worth having.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

DOUBT; Directed by
John Patrick Shanley; Stars Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis; Rated PG-13 for thematic material

Sunday, December 28, 2008

I have just posted my new Best Picture poll over in the right hand bar. Last year From the Front Row readers were only one film off from correctly guessing all 5 nominees (choosing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly over Michael Clayton), let's try and beat that this year by getting all five correct.

Vote now! You have until Jan. 21 at 11:59 PM to cast your ballot.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Continuing my look back on the year 2008, here is my list of the worst films of the year. In an unextraordinary year like this, unfortunately there has been plenty to pick from. And there were quite a few stinkers that didn't quite make the list. These are the films I felt represented the worst that cinema had to offer in 2008.

PROM NIGHTThere must be an entire circle of Hell devoted to banal teen slasher flicks, and this one, a remake of a 1980 film starring Jamie Lee Curtis, is one of the worst. It's a senseless waste of time about some of the most boring, vapid teenagers imaginable.

Goofy doesn't even begin to describe this ridiculous, campy third installment of Italian director Dario Argento's horror trilogy trilogy that began in 1977 with the classic Suspiria. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Three words: heroic fighting yeti.

Perhaps proof positive that George Lucas has lost his mind, this shameless big screen marketing plug continues the trend of destroying everything we love about the original trilogy.

10,000 B.C.
Roland Emmerich's wanna-be epic about cavemen with British accents, woolly mammoths, and pyramids (yes, those 10,000 B.C.), is as dumb as movies get.

Morgan Spurlock goes from eating Big Macs to hunting for the world's most wanted terrorist in this self important doc that thinks it's asking a lot of big questions, but is really just about Spurlock tooting his own horn.

Lots of potential is completely wasted in this turgid historical epic that would be tailor made for the Academy if it weren't so ineptly directed by the guy who brought us Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Not even a fine cast can save dialogue this bad.


A train wreck of a life becomes a train wreck of a movie in this overwrought true life tale of murder and incest. At least Eddie Redmayne and Unax Ugalde make a hot couple.

Quite possibly the most unintentionally hilarious movie of the year. Yeah I know it's supposed to be scary, but I just can't take outrunning the wind (or this horrible dialogue) seriously.

BABYLON A.D.I don't remember anything about this film, do you? Didn't think so.

I could go on with dishonorable mentions, but let's just leave it at that. The less time spent on these films, the better. Leave your picks in the comments section. What were your worst cinematic experiences of the year?
FTFR DVD Pick of the Week

The Duchess is by no means a classic, but it delivers on what it sets out to achieve, and manages to rise above the constraints of its genre. And in a film like this, that is a welcome thing indeed.


The first half of the film is scattershot and messy, getting bogged down in its bogus premise and the slapdash way it is thrown together.

However, the second act is quite a bit better than the first. Caruso slows down with the lightning-paced editing and begins focusing on the characters and the source of the deadly instructions, turning the film into an allegory of sorts for the dangers of unchecked government surveillance. If his villain bears a striking resemblance to HAL of "2001: A Space Odyssey," it speaks to the unimaginative weaknesses of the film - a narrative shortcut that still leaves open many questions and stretches its credibility to the max.


Savage Grace is a poorly constructed, flaccid drama that treats complex emotional and psychological issues with all the depth of a particularly dull rock, and is an embarrassment to all involved. Rarely is such potential so blithely thrown out the window and wasted, and Savage Grace is one of the worst offenders I have seen in a long time.

After watching quite a few period pieces about the lives of historic, royal figures, you begin to feel like you've seen it all before. Already this year we've had The Other Boleyn Girl, The Duchess of Langeais, and The Last Mistress, and now Saul Dibb's The Duchess, which has the unfortunate position of coming last.

There's a definite sense of deja vu going here. The Duchess has a very familiar construct and even more familiar execution. It fits its purpose and genre to a "t," down to the elaborate costumes and period settings.

However, despite its rather conventional structure, The Duchess manages to succeed where others have failed trough excellent performances and stellar production values. It never feels turgid or forced the way many films of the kind tend to do. And it's mostly thanks to the performance of Keira Knightley in the title role of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire.

Stuck in an arranged marriage with the Duke of Devonshire (the Golden Globe nominated Ralph Fiennes), the strong willed Georgiana finds herself unable to produce the desired male heir and that her life, while surrounded by the glamor of being a popular socialite, is missing that certain spark. She becomes even more convinced of this when her best friend, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), becomes involved with the Duke, creating what is essentially a three way marriage.

Although she is distraught at first, Georgiana learns to live with the new arrangement, and begins to find her own happiness when she falls for the young political idealist, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). But once the Duke gets wind of her dalliances, and the people begin to gossip, the tide of Georgiana's life begins to turn, and she is forced to make impossible decisions to protect her future and the future of those she loves.

Unlike the cold and uninvolving The Other Boleyn Girl, The Duchess is a much more emotionally accessible film, and I think most of the credit belongs to Knightley. Although Fiennes does quite an admirable job with a difficult character, turning what is essentially a deeply unlikable man and giving him a duality that is refreshing to watch. There is a kinder nature beneath the hardened exterior, and when Fiennes allows that man to peep out, the film really opens up.

That is the problem with many period pieces, they are as stiff and closed off as the corsets that imprison their women. But Dibb never overwhelms the emotions with overwrought speeches or gaudy costumes, or boggs them down with unnecessary soap opera histrionics. He turns what would otherwise have been just another costume drama into something solid and watchable. The Duchess is by no means a classic, but it delivers on what it sets out to achieve, and manages to rise above the constraints of its genre. And in a film like this, that is a welcome thing indeed.

GRADE - (out of four)

Directed by Saul Dibb; Stars Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Simon McBurney; Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material.

Friday, December 26, 2008

It is no small wonder that Eric Roth is the same man who wrote "Forrest Gump" 14 years ago. His latest screenwriting effort, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," based on a short story by Tennessee Williams, very much follows a Gump-esque story arc.
Note to self: proofread.
Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road (opening today in NY/LA), is a searing, incisive thing; the best film of its kind to come along in many a year. Suburban marriage angst has become a hoary cliché in recent years, with Mendes right out there on the vanguard with his 1999 Oscar winning American Beauty. It would have been very easy for him to slip back into avenues he has already explored, but instead he goes straight for the jugular. This movie has teeth, and as much as I love American Beauty (it will remain one of my favorite films forever), I can't help but feel that Revolutionary Road might, just maybe, be a more assured and mature film.

Does that mean it's going to win any Oscars? Well right now it's fighting for its life on the precursor circuit, with the Golden Globes being the only ones to have really shown it any love. The film is absolutely dripping with quality and prestige, but it never comes across as preening for awards attention. It's raw, honest, and ultimately quite bleak, perhaps too dark for the Academy in what is shaping up to strike a more hopeful tone than recent ceremonies. With Slumdog Millionaire leading the pack, it's easy to see the sense of hope that voters, and indeed audiences, may be seeking in their films. Revolutionary Road pulls none of its punches and it's absolutely riveting as a result.

It's also fascinating to see Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet returning together on screen 11 years after Titanic as older, wiser, more accomplished actors, tackling deeper, more probing issues. They remind us why we fell in love with them in the first place, their chemistry is magnetic, and watching these two world class actors clash on screen is electrifying.

I'm going to hold the rest of my thoughts for a full review closer to the film's local opening, but suffice it to say I was very, very impressed.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

From The Dispatch:
There is something deeply touching about the tale of Benjamin Button, its profound universality and the idea that even in our old age, we all end up as children. The intersecting lives of Benjamin and Daisy provide the perfect backdrop for a powerful meditation on life and the nature of love, and how it can render time irrelevant. What Fincher has created is a film that succeeds on its own terms, flaws and all, leaving us with a sense that what we have seen, while not perfect, is something very special indeed.
Click here to read my full review.
The words "animated" and "documentary" are not the kind of thing one often hears used in the same sentence. But in 2008 we have seen two such films, starting back in February with Chicago 10, and now Ari Folman's haunting Waltz with Bashir, which doesn't feel like a documentary so much as a vivid dream, a recollection fading into nothingness after suddenly waking up.

Part interview, part reenactment, part surreal fantasia, Waltz with Bashir traces Folman's quest to discover the meaning of a recurring dream. A veteran of Israel's war against Lebanon in the 1980s, Folman has been plagued night after night by the same dream, an image of himself as a young man, rising naked from the water with two of his comrades, to a city besieged by fire and artillery, as civilians flee in terror. It is a searing, mesmerizing images that is repeated several times throughout the film, always present and never far from memory, becoming the film's beating heart...the image at its core that set its story in motion.

Triggered by a friend's similar dream involving attacking dogs, Folman is both intrigued and troubled by the meaning of his dream. As the film unfolds, Folman visits his old army buddies, desperate to discover what his dream means and what he was seeing. He even visits a therapist friend, who suggests that the dream may in fact be a repressed memory. Even more determined, Folman sifts through the recollections of the men he served with, and uncovers a shocking portrait of the horrors of war, and the psycholgical toll on those who fight it.

It is a legitimate question to wonder why the film is animated and not a live action film or documentary. At one point in the film, he is told by one of the men he is interviewing that he could not take pictures, but he could draw. And thus the film we see is born. Folman uses actual interview tapes with his subjects and animates over them, which gives the film its dreamlike narrative atmosphere. Through animation, Folman has achieved a greater depth of feeling and aura than he would have if he had made this in a conventional way. And what gorgeous animation it is. Not beautiful in the conventional sense, necessarily, but so exquisitely detailed that at times it's easy to forget you're watching an animated film. When coupled with Max Richter's evocative score, which mixes elements of classical and rock, the film comes to almost breathtaking life. The weeping violins that accompany Folman's dream become an elegy not just for the innocent civilians who lost their lives in a violent conflict, but to the young men who lost their souls along the way.

It is for them that Folman makes his film. And by the time the horrific source of Folman's dream is made apparent, Waltz with Bashir has turned into a surreal requiem, taking elements both absurd and tragic, and fusing them into one of the year's most endlessly fascinating and compelling films.

Folman allows to to see the conflict from multiple angles and multiple perspectives, filtered through two decades of memory. They are sometimes contradictory, sometimes shocking, and always deeply, profoundly moving. He has created some unforgettable images, as easy to burn into the mind as they were into his. He has captured the feeling of dreaming in a way that would have made the early surrealists proud. They may not be nonsensical in the sense of Luis Buñuel, but they do conjure a certain atmosphere that is associated with dreams.

By keeping the focus personal, Folman offers a rare window into the conflict that we here in the West know precious little about; one of religious intolerance and racial hatred that has faded into history. Folman, resolute from recovering his own repressed memories, does not want to allow us to forget ever again.

From the nightmarish opening to the jarring final frame, Waltz with Bashir is a powerful rumination on war's human toll, crafted with a unique and singular eye. Through his film, Folman has ensured that no one who sees it will ever forget what these men went though and the atrocities that that were committed. It stands as both a testament and a solemn warning, and proudly as one of the finest films of the year.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

WALTZ WITH BASHIR; Directed by Ari Folman; Voices of Ari Folman, Ron Ben-Yishai, Ronny Dayag, Dror Harazi, Yehezkel Lazarov, Mickey Leon; Rated R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content; In Hebrew w/English subtitles; Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

For all of his commercial successes, I have only ever regarded Ron Howard as a competent, middlebrow craftsman. His movies tend to be well made but generally unextraordinary, leaning more toward quality commercial work than works of art.

While his latest film, Frost/Nixon, may not be a work of art, it is arguably Howard's most solid and grounded work to date.

This is due in large part to his considerable source material in Peter Morgan's crackerjack screenplay, adapted from his own, Tony award winning play of the same name.

Frost/Nixon tells the story of David Frost (Michael Sheen), a British television show host who may be most closely compared to Jon Stewart in today's pop culture. Frost was struggling to keep his show and looking for a big break, which he found in Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), the disgraced and recently resigned President of the United States.

Having been out of the public eye for three years, Nixon is looking for a way to absolve himself to the people, and restore his tarnished legacy. Nixon views the interview with Frost as a softball, easy platform with which to clear his name. Frost and his associates, however, are determined to convict Nixon on national TV in the trial that he never had.

What follows is one of the most riveting meeting of the minds television has ever seen, with the lightweight newcomer Frost in one corner, and the seasoned politician Nixon in the other. Through Langella's extraordinary performance (which focuses more on capturing the essence of the man rather than mimicry), Richard Nixon comes to life with a balance of cunning and humanity that adds a disarming depth to the character. He takes a character that could have easily been portrayed as a villain, and makes him sympathetic. For all his wrongdoing and mistakes, Nixon was a man just like anyone else. In many ways, Frost/Nixon succeeds where Oliver Stone's W failed. While that film managed to paint Bush in a sympathetic light as well, Brolin's W was always more a caricature, albeit a very good one. Langella turns in a performance so compelling that it is impossible to take your eyes off him.

Not to be outdone, Michael Sheen more than holds his own as Nixon's intellectual sparring partner, David Frost. When these two finally sit down for their face to face, time almost seems to stand still. I wish Howard had not structured the film like some kind of retrospective documentary, which seems to take away from the startling immediacy of the interviews. The titanic showdown speaks for itself, without the editorial comments that the participants give along the way.

What struck me as most fascinating about the dynamic between Frost and Nixon is that despite the contentious interview process, the two never come across as enemies. Political adversaries perhaps, but never enemies. The two seem to have a grudging respect for one another, a recognition of each other's abilities that leads to a sort of strange friendship.

To his great credit, Howard explores this with the probing mind of not just a historian, but a consummate filmmaker. Much of the film outside the interviews is pure speculation and Hollywood conjecture, but it works. For all the fireworks of the interview, Howard astutely keeps the focus personal, and avoids the inherent staginess of the source material, although I do feel that the documentary framing device is superfluous.

Regardless, Frost/Nixon is a smart, crackling political drama marked by excellent performances and a finely tuned screenplay. Richard Nixon may not come away from this film exonerated, but if nothing else, it allows us to see the human inside a man whose legacy of Watergate has come to define him.

GRADE - ½ (out of four)

FROST/NIXON; Directed by Ron Howard; Stars Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones; Rated R for some language; Now playing in select cities, opens tomorrow, Dec. 25th, in theaters everywhere.
OK, raise your hands if you've heard of the Mumblecore movement. Anyone? Creepy longhaired guy in the back? You? OK, that's what I thought.

Honestly, I hadn't either until I came across the Duplass brothers' Baghead. I had probably read the term somewhere and didn't know what it was, and it didn't seem important enough to seek out. And having now seen a Mumblecore film, I'm not really that motivated to seek out any more.

Mumblecore is a movement in American independent film emphasize improvisation and a shot on the fly, do it yourself aesthetic. The movement has spawned such films as Hannah Takes the Stairs, Frownland, and In Search of a Midnight Kiss.

follows four out of work, twentysomething actors who decide to head out to a cabin in the woods for a creative retreat, to write a screenplay for their own movie to get themselves back in the game. But instead the find themselves partying and having romantic trysts, until a mysterious man with a bag over his head shows up, with a very big knife.

Yeah it all sounds rather uninspired. But giving credit where credit is due, Baghead isn't your typical slasher film. Far from it.

Part horror, part comedy, Baghead is something of an unusual hybrid. It never reaches for goofy slapstick like Scary Movie and its ilk, and the horror elements are actually quite effective. Where Baghead stumbles is in the relationships between the characters, which due to the mostly improvised dialogue, just don't exist. These have got to be the most boring twentysomethings ever. Most of their banter is dull and insipid, and quite often I found myself going "yeah right." How many straight guys are going to get all hot and bothered with a cute blond, then excuse himself to go masturbate upstairs instead? I don't care if he promised his friend he would leave her alone, it just doesn't work.

That's the biggest problem with the film - the stiff and stilted nature of the improvisation and slapdash structure. Without script or direction, the film meanders dangerously, leaving long stretches of emptiness between the more effective scare moments.

I applaud the directors for what they were trying to do. But in the end they were only partially successful. Perhaps with a little more structure, a lean little indie like Baghead would be much more successful in bucking the status quo.

GRADE - ½ (out of four)

BAGHEAD; Directed by Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass; Stars Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig, Elise Muller, Jett Garner; Rated R for language, some sexual content and nudity
Let's get this out in the open right now before we move on. I consider myself an atheist. I do not believe in a god of any kind. I did the agnostic thing for a while, but after a while saying "I don't know" gets repetitive, not when you have seen anything that could possibly pass as evidence for the existence of god. There just isn't any. So until then, as far as I know and until proven otherwise, god does not exist. So by that standard, Bill Maher's Religulous, which blatantly and sharply pokes fun at the more ridiculous tenets of organized religion, should be right up my alley.

Well, the answer is yes and no.

Is it funny? Quite often, yes it is. Bill has quite a few choice zingers for religious lunacy and their proponents. Yet, something about it just doesn't feel right. It's kind of the cinematic equivalent of taking candy away from a retarded baby. And every time Maher critisizes something like "arrogant certainty," I cringed a little, because I never escaped the feeling that while he was pointing the finger, four fingers were pointing back at him.

Larry Charles directs with the same kind of "gotcha" sensationalism that he brought to Borat, but this time, even though the subjects are more or less aware of Maher's agenda, the film seems to have less probing things to say about humanity. It is clear Maher is out to ridicule and belittle many of the people he talks to, and while I do not think that religion (and religious people) are above criticism, there is something condescending about the way Maher handles his interviews.

He makes several good points, but they seem to get lost in his belligerent stance. He spends the entire film making fun of religion and extolling the virtues of doubt and agnosticism (although I think he is more of an atheist in denial), but never offers any solid alternative. He says that the world would be better off without religion, and while I am inclined to agree, he fails to really explore the ramifications of that. Other than pointing out flaws in religious thinking, he never really explains why we shouldn't believe.

By picking out this most extreme voices possible, he has picked easy targets at which to throw his stones. He overlooks the unheard millions of decent, level headed people of faith who don't think gay people are evil, or that dinosaurs coexisted with humans 6,000 years ago. And when he does interview everyday people, it's painful to watch as they stumble under the Maher's withering wit. He has picked mismatched targets, and he knows it. By picking on his intellectual inferiors he has again picked an easy target. And when he does talk to intelligent people, he often misses the chance to say something profound to crack another sarcastic joke.

As much as it may often seem like a cosmic joke, religion is quite often very serious, especially when fundamentalism threatens other people and cultures. Don't get me wrong, I think religion is a perfect candidate for stinging satire. It needs, and often deserves, it. But Maher's brand of comedy is probably more suited to his own television show. Here, out in the open, he is rankling fur for the sake of rankling fur, throwing a rock at the hornets nest just to see them swarm. There is no intellectual backing for this kind of blanket provocation.

I would be lying if I say I didn't enjoy it to some degree. There is always some satisfaction in watching hypocrites trip on their own words, but many of his targets aren't the people he should be targeting. It's just too easy to sit in an editing room and edit in sounds of screaming suicide bombing victims while people insist that religion is peaceful. He is painting with an unnecessarily large brush that all religious people are in the same company as murderous fundamentalists, which just isn't the case. Such tactics are low and dirty and do not belong in solid intellectual discourse. Maher may be the new provocateur of nontheists, but I worry that he may be giving just as wrong an impression of people like me as the people he interviews do of people of faith. "Why can't we all just get along?" he asks at one point.

Maybe he should have turned that question back on himself.

GRADE - ½ (out of four)

RELIGULOUS; Directed by Larry Charles; Stars Bill Maher; Rated R for some language and sexual material.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

It may be a release of the theatrical wing of the Discovery Channel, but Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World is anything but your run-of-the-mill nature doc.

Of course, Herzog has never been one to do things the conventional way. Having most recently set his sights on man meeting nature in the fascinating Grizzly Man, Herzog now sets his sights on the vast, mostly unexplored frozen wilderness of Antarctica. But he isn't interested in making another "film about penguins," as he jokingly insists at one point. He has far bigger, and more probing, questions on his mind.

Penguins do, eventually, figure into the picture. But Herzog has no interest in covering ground already explored in March of the Penguins, he's more interested in asking about gay penguins, insanity, and penguin prostitution. Sometimes Herzog works in mysterious ways.

But his unusual curiosity and singular way of viewing the world are only part of this breathtaking journey into the unknown. Flying down to Antarctica with a group of scientists, Herzog lands at McMurdo station, a virtual city on the ice, home to researchers and scientists from all over. It is clear that Herzog finds an immediate connection with these people - explorers and wanderers whose dreams of something beyond their world have brought them to the bottom of the world. Free from their worldly status, these learned people drive trucks and heavy machinery, all doing their part in a frozen commune where ideas are freely shared and something new is discovered every day.

McMurdo is, in a very real sense, its own little world; its citizens becoming philosophers and dreamers who are living out a great fantasy. These are the people who populate this wondrous world that Herzog as captured with clear eyed awe. His capturing of Antarctica's natural wonders have an almost religious reverence to them, so much so that diving beneath the ice is referred to as "going down to the cathedral." And indeed, the icy ceiling feels like the Sistine Chapel of nature's glorious temple.

Herzog's camera captures they sweeping beauty of Antarctica in ways that we have never seen before. And while the musings of the few people who populate it are interesting in and off themselves, the real heart and soul of the film is nature itself. Herzog fashions them into a mesmerizing journey to the edge of the earth and beyond, and his inquisitive narration offers a unique perspective into not only human nature, but the source of life itself.

I am not a religious person myself, but one can almost feel an element of the divine in Encounters at the End of the World, inasmuch as "god" is a human projection of the awesome wonders of nature. Herzog follows creatures that seem alien on our own planet, and Antarctica is another world frozen in another time and place. He opens up a window into a new universe that is at once enthralling and humbling.

The people at McMurdo Station see humanity as just another blip on the radar of the evolution of our planet, and seeing the vast sea of creatures that share this world with is is enough to give anyone pause. We are just another link in the chain, comfortable in our own perceived dominance, while the real rulers of the planet live in beautiful caverns and seas beneath our feet. We are surrounded and outnumbered, with the comfort to know that we live amongst such great beauty. Encounters at the End of the World is a minor miracle of a movie, one that dares, even for an instant, to reach out and touch the face of god.

½ (out of four)

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD; Directed by Werner Herzog; Rated G; Now available on DVD.

Monday, December 22, 2008

China's Three Gorges Dam, the largest engineering project ever conceived, has received a lot of attention in 2008. First was the excellent documentary, Up the Yangtze, a poignant examination of displaced citizens forced to relocate by flooding caused by the dam.

Although it was filmed in 2006 (where it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival), Jia Zhang Ki's Still Life wasn't released in the United States until this year, after Up the Yangtze, which gives it a powerful immediacy it might not otherwise have had. Coming into the film with a knowledge of the history and purpose of the Three Gorges Dam, as most in China most certainly do, makes the film that much more moving, even though it's perfectly capable of standing on its own.

Zhang doesn't focus his tale so much on the people who have been displaced by the rising waters of the Yangtze, but on two people searching for their estr
anged spouses in the flood zones. Visiting from other provinces, Shen Hong (the phenomenal Tao Zhao) and Huang Mao (Zhao Lan) are visting areas of the country marked for demolition, that will soon be swallowed by the rising river. Neither has seen their spouse for years, and are looking to reunite (and in Huang's case, see his now grown daughter) before finding them becomes impossible.

While on their respective journeys, Shen and Huang explore the flood zones and get to know its citizens, living among them in the waning days before whole towns disappear in the name of progress. Their stories are not connected but are inexorably linked. Zhang draws subtle connections between the two stories, be they in the simple items they acquire along the way, or similarly framed shots, or an angelic little boy singing songs while others work...the universality of their struggle is never in question.

Like Up the Yangtze, Still Life is very much an elegy for a dying China, on
e whose history is being erased for mindless progress. There is an air of melancholy that lays over the film like a blanket. Huang finds a job while searching for his ex-wife with a demolition company, tearing down buildings in preparation for the flooding. Everywhere they turn, buildings are painted with flood lines to indicate where the water level will be at the next phase of the construction. Everywhere around them, the culture and history that makes China what it is, is being literally swallowed up by the future - progress for progress' sake at the expense of a national identity.

Zhang frames each shot with an incredible deep focus, reinforcing the beauty of the Yangtze as well as the national history that it represents. The gorges that it winds through will soon be little more than lakes, the towns and homes along its banks just a memory. He has a remarkable eye for breathtaking imagery, which only serves to make the imminent destruction more heartrending. Much of the towns they once new are already gone. When Huang takes a taxi to his wife's former home, he finds it completely underwater, lost forever - family histories, memories, and homes have all been swept away.

Through the graceful subtlety of Zhang's direction, Still Life captures a moment in time that can never be regained. It is peppered with metaphors of the new overtaking the old, and Zhang does not want us to forget. We are only who we are because of where we have been, and such utter disregard for that can only be harmful. Progress is a good thing, but not at the expense of history. The human cost is far too great. As we watch the great river boats making their "farewell tour" of the Yangtze, we are painfully reminded of how this modern marvel is affecting every day people. As the people sift through the rubble and attempt to rebuild their lives elsewhere, the waters just keep rising, a testament to a dream of Chairman Mao at the expense of the common people once so championed by the tenants of Communism. It is with that mournful construct that Zhang forms his simple, finely tuned narrative of people attempting to rebuild their pasts, and turns it into something deeply moving and instantly accessible, even to foreign eyes. Still Life is more than just a window into a disappearing world, it is a requiem for the soul of a nation.

½ (out of four)

STILL LIFE; Directed by
Jia Zhang Ki; Stars Tao Zhao, Zhao Lan, Sanming Ha, Lizhen Ma; Not Rated; In Mandarin w/English subtitles

Sunday, December 21, 2008

There is a moment in Kelly Reichardt's lovely, minuscule drama Wendy and Lucy, where Michelle Williams' Wendy, a down on her luck drifter on her way to find work in Alaska, is told by a mechanic (Will Patton) that her car is completely dead, and that it needs a replacement motor. Wendy, trying to live off a meager $500 on her cross country trip, has been suddenly presented with an insurmountable hurdle. But the magic of this scene is in Williams face. She walks in thinking that the only thing wrong with her car is a worn out belt; but when the mechanic delivers the bad news, something extraordinary transpires. In a remarkably subtle and magnetic performance, Williams allows this final blow in a day full of bad news and setbacks, to melt her spirit in one devastating moment. You can see the fear in her eyes as her mind scrambles to come up with a solution to a problem without an answer. It is a raw, deer in the headlights reaction that sums up what is best in this quietly devastating little gem.

Wendy and Lucy is, above all, about the regular people who fall through society's cracks. Wendy does not look like a stereotypical homeless person, she is neither a drug addict or a criminal and she does not come from a poor family. Her sister and her husband live a comfortable life back home in Indiana. She is just another person who has fallen on hard times, traveling across the country with her beloved dog, Lucy, for the promise of work in great frozen north.

Things begin to go awry for her, though, when she takes a rest stop in a small Oregon town, and the old maxim "when it rains it pours" comes painfully true. Arrested for shoplifting a couple of cans of dog food for Lucy, Wendy finds herself detained by a small town legal system bent on making an example against petty theft, and returns to the grocery store to find Lucy missing. Stuck in a strange town with no car and very little money, Wendy begins a desperate search to find Lucy, where her only solace is in the kindness of strangers whose help may seem small and insignificant, but offers a glimmer of hope in a world that has left her behind.

In a time of deep economic crises, Wendy and Lucy is urgently contemporary in its themes and strikingly real in its execution. Reichardt's organic direction offers a look into a rarely seen yet readily identifiable and increasingly common underbelly of American life. It is a simple film - there are no big revelations, no contrived plot twists or unnecessary accouterments, it - existing squarely in the realm of reality. Wendy could be anybody really, in any small town anywhere across the country, and the choices she makes could very easily be choices any of us could be faced with in a time of economic uncertainty.

By shouldering the entire weight of the film's dramatic power, Williams turns in an extraordinary performance. It is a heartbreaking, unassuming depiction of an woman at the end of her rope, just trying to get by, stuck in a rut she can't seem to fight her way out of, no matter how hard she tries. Even the background grocery store muzak plays the same generic tune she often hums (a barely noticeable detail Reichardt wisely underplays).

Unlike the current Seven Pounds, Wendy and Lucy refuses to sensationalize Wendy's plight or give it any unnecessary emotional pushes. Reichardt never pushes a message engages in emotional manipulations. The film and its story speak for itself, through a sparse, naturalistic screenplay by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond. It is a tiny, bare bones production, held together by Williams' astonishing performance, who provides a much needed emotional core. Wendy is a mirror held up to a struggling society that can only be judged by how it treats the least among its citizens. And while government agencies and charities care for those more obviously poverty stricken, there are tens of thousands more for whom every day is a struggle, constantly making hard decisions and sacrifices just to put food on the table. For them, Wendy and Lucy is a quiet testament to their unheard despair, and a tribute to the small gestures of human kindness that can make all the difference. It is a tragic tone poem for a modern day America, struggling to find a sense of hope in an increasingly hopeless world.

GRADE - ½ (out of four)

WENDY AND LUCY; Directed by Kelly Reichardt; Stars Michelle Williams, Walter Dalton, Will Patton, John Robinson; Rated R for language
You'll forgive me for posting another Dargis quote I'm sure, but her analysis of Clint Eastwood's surly, poignant Gran Torino has perfectly captured what makes this film so special:

These spectral figures, totems of masculinity and mementos from a heroic cinematic age, are what make this unassuming film — small in scale if not in the scope of its ideas — more than just a vendetta flick or an entertainment about a crazy coot and the exotic strangers next door. As the story unfolds and the gangbangers return and Walt reaches for his gun, the film moves from comedy into drama and then tragedy and then into something completely unexpected. We’ve seen this western before, though not quite. Because this isn’t John Wayne near the end of the 20th century, but Clint Eastwood at the start of the still-new 21st, remaking the image of the hero for one more and perhaps final time, one generation of Americans making way for the next.

That probably sounds heavier than I mean, but “Gran Torino” doesn’t go down lightly. Despite all the jokes — the scenes of Walt lighting up at female flattery and scrambling for Hmong delicacies — the film has the feel of a requiem. Melancholy is etched in every long shot of Detroit’s decimated, emptied streets and in the faces of those who remain to still walk in them. Made in the 1960s and ’70s, the Gran Torino was never a great symbol of American automotive might, which makes Walt’s love for the car more poignant. It was made by an industry that now barely makes cars, in a city that hardly works, in a country that too often has felt recently as if it can’t do anything right anymore except, every so often, make a movie like this one.

Gran Torino is a sort of throwback, and Eastwood's Walt is a kind of symbol for a bygone era in America. He's tough, prejudiced, and set in his ways, but ultimately not beyond redemption. Coming at the end of the Bush era and the still uncertain but hopeful dawn of Obama, Gran Torino represents not just potentially "fascist" (as Pauline Kael once called Dirty Harry) Hollywood iconography, but something much larger than itself, probably even more so than it realizes. It is an elegy for a country looking for atonement after losing its way in macho xenophobia. Walt's may be a dying way of life, and the gang an even more passe trapping of unbridled machismo, but it is segueing into something new, keeping traditions while stepping timidly into the 21st century.

Dirty Harry was an ideal for an America that no longer exists, and Gran Torino offers hope for a future for a country lost and looking for absolution.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis, probably the contemporary critic whose work I most respect, said this in her year end write-up about Gus Van Sant's Milk:
Mr. Van Sant’s other film, of course, is “Milk,” a touching if aesthetically unremarkable biography of Harvey Milk, the assassinated gay rights pioneer. I like “Milk,” which has a strong, showy, often moving performance from Sean Penn as Milk and one gorgeously directed and choreographed sequence — shot by the great cinematographer Harris Savides — in which Josh Brolin, oiled in flop sweat and hair grease as Milk’s killer, Dan White, walks alone through a series of grim institutional corridors that put the killer’s existential isolation and desperate journey into bold visual terms. “Milk” is undeniably moving, but it earns most of its power from its historical resonance and because it holds up a mirror to another charismatic community organizer who rose from the streets on a message of hope.
I don't think I have heard anyone put it better. Milk is a fine film, and a very moving one, but it just misses its shot at greatness by being, quite honestly, just another biopic with a great story. It is well told, and well performed, and socially relevant, but artistically unremarkable.

Her top ten list is also one of the best around:
  1. Happy-Go-Lucky
  2. Synecdoche, New York
  3. Alexandra
  4. Flight of the Red Balloon
  5. Silent Light
  6. Paranoid Park
  7. The Dark Knight
  8. Encounters at the End of the World
  9. Still Life
  10. Wendy and Lucy
Kudos to Dargis on an insightful wrap-up for the year that was 2008.
As part of my build up to the unveiling of my top ten list on January 1st, I am putting together my annual list of superlatives for 2008. Next week we'll have my worst of the year list, followed by my top ten. Feel free to agree, disagree, or add your own!

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

No other performance this year tapped into the zeitgeist and became so instantly iconic as Ledger's maniacally unhinged Joker. It is the stuff of legend, a performance for the ages, its genius made even more immediate (and poignant) by Ledger's untimely death just before the film's release.

Slumdog Millionaire

The exuberant sounds of A.R. Rahman's thumping Bollywood score are half the reason Danny Boyle's beloved film has been so successful. From the pulsing opening track "O Saya" to M.I.A.'s raucous "Paper Planes," to the jubilant finale, "Jai Ho," Slumdog Millionaire is the most infectious, lovable, and downright addictive soundtrack of the year.


Let the Right One In

Sorry Twilight, but this eerie, snow covered gothic fantasy about two 12 year olds in love - one a shy, bullied little boy, the other an ageless, androgynous vampire - takes the cake as the year's most touching undead romance. Darker, more macabre, and ultimately more touching than anything in Catherine Hardwicke's popular teen flick, Let the Right One In hits every note just right.

Rachel Getting Married

Chalk up Kym's cringe inducing "it's all about me" rehearsal dinner toast as the most painful scene of the year; and Anne Hathaway's beautifully subtle performance makes it totally believable. Aren't you glad this isn't your family?


Waltz with Bashir

OK, honestly, how often do you get to say those three words in a row? Seriously though, it's brilliant. Watch it.

Love Songs

Who needs Mamma Mia when you have the deliriously romantic French tunes of Christophe Honore's sublime Love Songs?

Mister Lonely

I was tempted to go with XXY here, but it was rightfully praised by the few people who saw it during its woefully short, week long American release. Harmony Korine's peculiar little oddity, Mister Lonely, on the other hand, completely failed to find an audience, either popular or critical. I found it to be a lovely, eccentric tale of lonely misfits who find solace in a group of people just as strange as they are. It is alternately joyous and tragic, but the ultimate feeling is one so unique and beautiful that it's hard to resist.

Pineapple Express

As much as I would like to sound sophisticated and say OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (although it's a close second), or be ironic and say The Happening, no other movie this year made me laugh my ass off like this one did.


The Fall

Breathtaking doesn't even begin to describe the gorgeous imagery of Tarsem's unhinged, flawed masterpiece, The Fall. Extra points for not using any computer effects, and for featuring two of the most stunning scene transitions I have ever seen.

Clint Eastwood, Changeling/Gran Torino

Changeling may have been flawed, but as Gran Torino more than proved, even at 78 years old, Eastwood can still knock 'em out of the park. Honorable mention to Gus Van Sant for Paranoid Park and Milk.



Yes I still love it. So sue me. But there's just something incredibly cathartic about Sylvester Stallone's ultra violent, gleefully over the top jungle adventure.


Gus Van Sant's biopic of the first openly gay man to be elected to public office would have still been a powerful film no matter when it was released, but coming right on the heels of the regrettable passing of the discriminatory Proposition 8 in California which repealed marriage rights for homosexuals, suddenly makes Harvey Milk's historic struggle against the even more insidious Prop 6 (which would have allowed the state to fire gay teachers and their supporters) seem poignantly immediate.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

You never see it coming, but when it does, you can literally feel the wind being knocked out of you. Honorable mention to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for its brilliant denouement.

Emma Thompson, Brideshead Revisited

The always reliable Thomson brought a touch of class and refinement to this otherwise turgid adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's classic novel.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

My brain is saying to go with the haunting stunner of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, or the quiet grandeur of Silent Light, or the warped tenderness of Let the Right One In, but my heart is saying go with the tragic beauty of Benjamin Button, a deeply powerful turnaround from the film's pedestrian, Forrest Gump-esque middle stretch. You'll just have to see it to understand.