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Film reviews and other thoughts

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Looking Back: 2006 at the Movies

Tuesday’s Oscar nominations will begin the final round of looking back at the year just past. Possibly there is just too much of this obsessive list making and nominating and award-giving. Still, it’s not a bad thing to commemorate the lasting achievements – good and bad – among the releases of the last 12 months.

It was a brutal year. Several of the best films of 2006, including my four top favorites, are rated R for their violence. No doubt a number of despicable and awful movies were similarly rated. But these four enormously powerful movies didn’t shy away from portraying the brutality their subjects and stories called for:

United 93 – Many people seem to have avoided seeing this film. I encourage you to get over this reluctance – you won’t regret it.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Unique and wonderful, it’s getting a gratifyingly big advertising push and actually placed number 7 in this past weekend’s national box office tally, while playing at only 609 theaters.

The Departed – The biggest box-office success among my favorites, it’s bringing Martin Scorsese some much-deserved praise and awards. I recommend its source material, too, the nifty Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, which The Departed follows scene for scene.

Children of Men – Also currently filling theaters, though it’s too early to say if it will turn a profit, since it cost $75 million to produce. A terrifying premise, excitingly well crafted.

In addition, Casino Royale, the best “popcorn flick” of the year, was quite brutal for a PG-13 film. And Lady Vengeance and Curse of the Golden Flower, though more flawed than the other films I’ve mentioned, were both stunningly well directed and also hyperbolically violent.

Extraordinary documentaries have been giving many dramatic features strong competition among the best films of the last couple of years. Several of these premiered on television, but they are definitely movies, not just “TV shows,” and they should not be missed.

When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee’s look at Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, is, like United 93, a movie that many people have convinced themselves they’d rather not see. Don’t make that mistake. It’s beautiful, amazing, and yes, it will shake you profoundly.

Andy Warhol – This brilliant 4-hour biographical film about the iconic Sixties artist was shown on PBS, played briefly in a few theaters, and is now on DVD. It handles a fascinating subject superbly.

49 Up – The seventh in a series of British documentaries, following the same dozen or so individuals every 7 years since they were children. It’s utterly engrossing (watching them grow up and age before your eyes is quite an experience), and if like me you’re close to the subjects’ age, you will be moved to tears more than once. No need to have seen the previous films – they are summarized – but I recommend watching the whole series if you can.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston – moving, fascinating, completely entertaining, this is the story of an eccentric and influential musician and songwriter, whose emotional and mental illnesses have played a central role in his life and career. Barely released in theaters, this is a great “sleeper” to try if you’re looking for a good indie film to rent.

The Road to Guantanamo, a hybrid of documentary and drama, has the potential to change minds – and lives. Whatever your feelings about the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, you owe it to yourself to see this remarkable and disturbing movie.

In the category of “most overlooked” (also known as “you should rent them right now, even though you may not have heard of them”):

The Science of Sleep – not as widely seen as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I liked it better. Think of it as Truffaut’s romantic comedy Stolen Kisses with special effects that Dali might have designed.

Half Nelson – featuring two of the very best performances of the year

Friends with Money – not as good as Nicole Holofcener’s previous film, Lovely and Amazing, but still a charming, off-center comedy

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story – a funny and imaginative “non-adaptation” of the famous 18th-century English novel

The War Tapes – Unpolished but strong documentary featuring footage shot in Iraq by GIs.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple – yet another excellent documentary, scheduled to be shown on PBS in April

Most overrated movies of the year:

Little Children – Satires of suburbia are great when they work, excruciating when they misfire. And irritating when they get better reviews than they deserve.

Babel – Stars suffering glamorously. The movie deeply aches to be important – a sure-fire way to be annoying instead. A waste of great photography and editing, and a good supporting cast.

Three Times – You’ve likely never heard of this festival favorite from Taiwan, so it’s unfair of me to pick on it. Nonetheless the critical raves it received mystify me.

There is also the “not terrible, but terribly overrated” category, where I would place the charming-but-airheaded indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine and the never-before-released-in-the-US Army of Shadows, a “thriller” that failed to thrill me, although it has some well-wrought existential angst if that’s your thing.

Finally, there were three noteworthy disappointments from talented directors:

Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly,

Michael Mann’s Miami Vice,

and worst of all, Brian De Palma’sThe Black Dahlia

Not such a bad year, all in all. I hope this gives you a few items to add to your Netflix list, or even better, to go out and see in one of those endangered species, a movie theater.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Dreamgirls is an enjoyable if cheesy spectacle. The problems that weighed it down on Broadway – a mostly mediocre-or-worse score and a clumsily constructed and written roman-a-clef story based on a worthy subject (the history of black pop music in the 1960s and 1970s) – remain in the film version.

Writer-director Bill Condon, to his credit, doesn’t condescend to the material and instead meets it head-on. But while there is much visual energy and storytelling verve, especially in the first half, there is little if any discernible irony. One might hope that the brainy filmmaker who gave us Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, and who wrote the movie adaptation for the more sardonic Chicago, would approach this material the way Douglas Sirk handled soap operas in the 1950s (Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind). With a stylized use of actors as well as brilliant, double-edged visuals, Sirk allowed audiences who came for soap to wallow in it, but those who were attuned to what the director was doing could relish the irony, subtle social criticism and even parody. Instead, Condon seems really to be a fan of the original show, and he successfully translates his own enthusiasm into explosive montages of sound and image that get the audience as buzzed as any I’ve seen in a movie theater in some time.

This is not a negligible accomplishment. But it’s a hollow one. At least the first hour is fun, telling of the rise of the singing group The Dreams and the eventual dismissal of their lead singer, Effie (Jennifer Hudson), who sings “too black” and looks too unlike a fashion model for the mass success with white audiences their manager envisions. This part ends with the most famous number, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” as verbally clumsy as ever, but brilliantly performed by Hudson and smashingly filmed by Condon. But after this dramatic high point, the story has no clear place to go. The last hour of the movie gives us one dud song after another, including a couple of new ones, “Patience” and “Listen,” that are treated like masterpieces but most definitely are not. The showbiz-movie clichés pile higher. Condon tries to breeze past them but they inevitably gum up the works.

As noted elsewhere, Eddie Murphy is brilliant as singer Jimmy “Thunder” Early, and livens up both his dialogue and his musical numbers considerably. He and Jennifer Hudson, along with Anika Noni Rose as the third original Dream, add considerably to the movie’s charm. Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé Knowles, the nominal stars, are completely unsuited to the melodrama of the film’s second half. That melodrama is only half-heartedly concocted and staged, anyway – the movie might even benefit from some all-out hysteria to liven up the proceedings.

The often dazzling visuals come from a team of relative newcomers: cinematographer Tobias Schliessler and editor Virginia Katz (who have both worked with Condon before), along with Oscar-winning production designer John Myhre (Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago). They’ve done fine, audience-pleasing work here. Now we can hope that they and Bill Condon will take on better material next time, and accomplish something more lasting and more worthy of their talents.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Best of 2006

10 best features

United 93

Pan's Labyrinth

The Departed

Children of Men

Casino Royale

The Science of Sleep

Lady Vengeance

The Road to Guantanamo

Friends with Money

The Queen

5 best documentaries

When the Levees Broke

Andy Warhol

49 Up

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple

Runners-up, features:

The Prestige

Letters From Iwo Jima

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Half Nelson

Curse of the Golden Flower

V For Vendetta

Runners-up, documentaries:

The War Tapes

An Inconvenient Truth


Special mention for extraordinary comedy performances:

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada

Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat

Worst films (that I saw):

Little Children

X-Men: The Last Stand

The Notorious Bettie Page

Miami Vice

The Black Dahlia

Four Recent Films: Extraordinary Images - and Brutality

So many movies have opened in the last few weeks that it will take me a while to catch up. But I did see these four noteworthy ones between Christmas and New Year’s. Interestingly, they are all rated R for their violence (as are two others I haven’t yet seen, Apocalypto and Blood Diamond) – not light-hearted holiday fare. Several also feature extraordinary, phantasmagorical imagery – it’s been a fine year for brilliant cinematography. And more than one will be on my best-of-the-year list.

Pan’s Labyrinth
This is one of the most stunningly well directed and most daringly original of recent films – even though many of its elements and textures are direct homages to earlier films, paintings, stories and genres. A dark, scary fairy tale set in 1944 during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth has an entrancing and spellbinding narrative power. Two performances are extraordinary: Ivana Baquero as the young girl who discovers an alternate reality of fairies and monsters, and Sergi Lopez as the black-hearted villain of the piece (the evil stepfather of many a fairy tale, here also a fascist military officer). And the photography and design couldn’t be improved upon. I felt a bit let down by the conclusion, in part because the first three-quarters of the story is so strong. But this is absolutely one of the year’s best films.

The Curse of the Golden Flower
Because Miramax had delayed the release of one of them for more than a year, US filmgoers were treated to two romantic masterpieces by Zhang Yimou in 2004: Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Extravagantly and very beautifully designed, with scenes of deliberately stylized and exaggerated martial arts action, they seemed like two cousins of Ang Lee’s wonderful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Hero retold a myth about the origins of Chinese nationalism via multiple perspectives, each with a distinct (and stunning) design scheme. It was my favorite film of 2004. Not far behind was the slightly more conventional House of Flying Daggers, with extraordinary action sequences incorporated into a tale of tragic romance.

Now Zhang’s third foray into historical action fantasy has opened here. Although much less satisfying dramatically and emotionally than its predecessors, it is if anything even more astonishing to look at. A slow-simmering (and occasionally ridiculous) melodrama of court intrigue in the 10th century, it features some of the most wonderful sets and costumes ever filmed. The star power of Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat is used to full advantage in the first two-thirds of the story, involving a jaw-droppingly dysfunctional royal family. But when the extravagant battle scenes arrive at the end, they lack emotional power. One is left admiring the pretty pictures – almost never the case in Hero or Flying Daggers. So this is definitely a disappointment, but nonetheless not to be missed if you set your expectations accordingly.

Children of Men
It’s hard to think of three films less alike than Y tu mama tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Children of Men. Yet they are the three most recent works of the same director, Alfonso Cuaron, and their uniform excellence marks him as one of the most versatile and skilled filmmakers around. Children of Men is deceptively simple in its approach, and, expecting something darkly magical like the Harry Potter movie, I was puzzled at first. But the director’s technique here, without often drawing attention to itself, builds extraordinary tension and power, and by the end I was in tears.

A dystopian vision of the near future, Children of Men is based on a novel by P.D. James, best known for her superlative detective stories. The year is 2027, and all the women on earth have become infertile. In London, one of the few cities to escape destruction from unspecified war and terrorism, police state conditions exist, particularly for illegal immigrants (and apparently there are few if any legal immigrants). Our protagonist, Theo (Clive Owen), gets pulled into an underground rebellion against his will, finding out that the world’s infertility is not so complete after all – and to describe more of the plot than that would be unfair.

The style could be described as docudrama much of the time (with a few lyrical beats), and the immediacy of the brutal violence really packs a wallop. The performances are very effective, and although five screenwriters are credited, the tightly knit script doesn’t have a patchwork quality at all. Emmanuel Lubezki, the master cinematographer of Sleepy Hollow and The New World, provides exactly the right harsh, vivid look for this story. My only complaint is indicative of how well executed the whole piece is: there’s barely room to think, or breathe, during the 109-minute running time. Like me, you may find yourself wanting to turn to the novel for more background and detail. But don’t let that stop you from seeing this excellent film as soon as possible.

Letters from Iwo Jima
Told in Clint Eastwood’s signature low-key, “classical cinema” style (in some of his movies, it has seemed to me more like the lack of a style), Letters from Iwo Jima is quietly, deeply moving, a very effective meditation on the horrors of war. For an American director, particularly one associated with conservative politics and a strong, silent type of macho, telling a World War II story from the point of view of Japanese soldiers carries some significance just by doing it at all – and by doing it well, Eastwood can force viewers to reexamine their own feelings about war and patriotism. Along with its somewhat less focused and less effective companion film, Flags of Our Fathers, this movie builds a complex, thoughtful mosaic with multiple perspectives.

The performances are very good, especially Kazunari Ninomiya as the young draftee Saigo and Ken Watanabe as General Kuribayashi. The script does not always avoid the obvious and the unsubtle, especially in flashbacks to the soldiers’ lives before Iwo Jima, such as the tale of one man’s being branded a coward because he refused an order to kill a family’s pet dog. But the feeling of inevitability, of impending doom, of the tragic waste of lives, is well captured. Tom Stern’s desaturated color cinematography, closely matched to that in Flags of Our Fathers, is among the best of the year.