The End of the Line

Oscar is knocking at my door. Better get in my licks… 

The Blind Side. A rich white Memphis housewife takes in a hulking homeless black teenager and teaches him about God and football. He returns the favor by becoming a first-round NFL draft pick and an inseparable member of the family. Surefire, straight-arrow inspirational sports film succeeds as family entertainment and even manages to be mildly—microscopically—critical of the privileged social elite. Sandra Bullock does the subtlest acting of her career while director John Lee Hancock (who also adapted the bestselling book) does some careful steering through choppy emotional waters.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Despite the accolades and celebrity endorsements, an enormous slog.

Late Harvest

Struggling to keep up with a busy fall, lagging a little behind as usual, the reviewer soldiers on…

An Education. Smooth piece of ‘60s nostalgia about an English schoolgirl who must choose between the steady, humdrum life her parents envision for her and the bohemian pleasures offered by an exciting but unscrupulous older man. What looks like a routine coming-of-age drama at first glance comes vividly to life under the judicious direction of Lone Scherfig (one of the original members of the Dogme 95 group, if anyone still remembers), who demonstrates an intense appreciation for what it feels like to be young and intelligent and restless and trapped. As the schoolgirl, the incandescent Carey Mulligan simulates a wide assortment of emotions with the ease of a seasoned professional.

Leftovers

Back from Thanksgiving break, and filled to bursting with new cinema experiences. With so many films backlogged in my brain, I thought I might jettison a few:

Paranormal Activity. Exhibitionist horror on a micro budget and in a realistic vein: unknown actors, digital video, a pseudodocumentary style. The premise is simple beyond belief: a twentysomething couple set out to record a ghost or demon or what-have-you that’s been disturbing the furniture and that seems to have special designs on the girlfriend. The feeble development of a deeper plot is shoved aside for a series of well-timed shock effects: a creaking door, a shadowy shape, a bedroom attack, and much worse. One shot in particular, a wide angle on the sleeping couple, has a Pavlovian conditioning effect: every time we return to this setup, something worse transpires. Hokey and harmless in retrospect, fun and gripping if viewed under the right conditions (specifically a packed theater with good sound).  
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A Christmas Carol

It seemed inevitable that Robert Zemeckis would eventually dig his meat hooks into Dickens’s 1843 novella, and that Jim Carrey would play several roles in it, including literature’s curmudgeon par excellence, Ebenezer Scrooge. The book is teeming with cinematic possibilities. One can almost picture Zemeckis, chief practitioner of the 3-D performance capture technique known as mocap, eyeing it like a Christmas goose. Mocap is one of those contentious cinematic developments that seems to divide people into various camps. One camp will explain how it allows visually creative directors to maneuver the camera however they like within an abstract space, and is therefore a useful tool, akin to the Steadicam or the greenscreen. The other camp will maintain that the process is too easy, that it makes a mockery of traditional animation, and that it can’t replicate certain movements, especially those that don’t adhere to the laws of physics. There is yet another camp that takes the moral high ground, arguing that it has an almost satanic dehumanizing effect, turning actors into weird facsimiles of human beings and stifling any meaningful drama.  
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A Serious Man

Time has allowed some introspection to creep into my (admittedly tardy) review of the Coens’ latest opus. The only thing I couldn’t seem to muster is a take on the pre-title sequence—surely one of the most audacious and baffling openings in recent history. If anyone has any theories as to the meaning of this Yiddish ghost sketch, I’d love to hear them. But more to the point:

If Joel and Ethan Coen are truly artists and not just skilled tricksters, then A Serious Man is a major work. Gutsy in its refusal to console its audience with tidy answers, it is a profoundly uncommercial work that locates spiritual anguish in a mundane Minnesota suburb, circa 1967. (The Coens were teenagers there.) There are few actors onscreen that audiences might recognize, and fewer characters for whom to cheer. The torrent of existential angst flows unchecked, and the gross interest in bodily foibles reaches a career-high peak. (It has been hotly debated whether the Coens are self-loathing of their Jewishness or merely embarrassed. How about cheerfully sardonic?)  
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Bright Star

I was so pleased with the experience of watching Bright Star at the Laemmle Monica 4 I wanted to catch it a second time before writing about it. Owing to dollars and distance, that may have to wait for DVD. For now, here are the beans on the brightest film of the still-young year:

Jane Campion’s embellishment of the real-life romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne is both light on story and conventional in treatment, but it’s so intimately observed that it becomes something rare—a romance that’s truly romantic. The chasteness of the relationship (he died at the pitiful young age of 25 before he could marry her) seems to have inspired majestic restraint in a director well known for her sexual audacity. But while there is an absence of bare bodies onscreen, there is no dropping off in attention to sensual detail. Whether invoking a roomful of multi-colored butterflies, zeroing in on hands caressing books or needles sewing thread, or overseeing some of the most delicate kissing in cinema history, Campion is a master of the felicitous detail.
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Muckrakers

As providence would have it, two films about the evils of late capitalism arrived within a week of each other. They are duly recognized here:

The Informant! is the winkingly cynical, fact-based story of Mark Whitacre, the high-ranking manager of a  lysine manufacturing plant who in the early ‘90s blew the whistle on his own company at the behest of the FBI. (The crime? Price fixing.) We are given several clues early on that Whiteacre (a paunchy, bespectacled, nerded-up Matt Damon) is shifty, unreliable, and not to be trusted, and Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay keeps us ignorant of his true character until the very last, where he is finally revealed to be (spoiler ahoy) just as guilty as the bigwigs he’s purportedly trying to take down. Directed by Steven Soderbergh in the loosey-goosey manner that is uniquely his own, the film is sarcastic and undramatic, as evidenced by the mocking, tweeting Marvin Hamlisch score and the melted cheddar cheese image. What impresses most is the director’s deft juggling of a fine stable of character actors including Tom Wilson, Clancy Brown, and, most delightfully of all, Scott Bakula.
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Suddenly, Last Summer

The first day of fall has arrived—what better opportunity to survey the summer harvest? It wasn’t the richest crop, but there’s a lot to look forward to what with a forthcoming Coen brothers comedy, a Wes Anderson animation, a Robert Zemeckis holiday extravaganza, and a shadowy Terrence Malick epic that threatens to be pushed back a year. Where I’m standing, the year is young. And that’s a good thing.

Walt & El Grupo. Excavation of an obscure corner of film history during which Walt Disney left the bosom of his flagging animation studio for the tangy nightlife of South America with respect to Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy. “El grupo” refers to the diverse team of artists who accompanied him there and came back with the rudiments for Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, two of his most vibrantly colored feature films. What Theodore Thomas’s documentary lacks in drama and tension it makes up for in clarity and organization. (Extra points for shooting in soft 35mm as opposed to digital video.) Disney buffs won’t need any further endorsement than the sight of Uncle Walt in gaucho garb riding a bucking bronco.
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Lorna's Silence

Looking back on a meager summer, the most momentous release of the season came and went with a whisper. At the widest point of its release, Lorna’s Silence played in a scant 16 theaters, a number that seems unjust and yet perfectly suited to the modesty of its makers. (In my daydreams, Lorna’s Silence outperforms Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to become the ninth highest grossing film of all time.) This is the fifth feature from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the fraternal filmmaking team responsible for some of the most potent imports of the last ten years. If there is an overarching theme in their work, it has to do with the discovery of the spirit, which has earned them a place alongside the sainted Robert Bresson.

The young lady of the title, a stony beauty played with magnificent poise by Arta Dobroshi, is involved in a sham marriage to a stranger in order to gain Belgian citizenship. Her “husband” (Dardenne regular Jeremie Renier) is a scrawny drug addict who sleeps in the living room of her apartment. His desperate cries in the night are like the pangs of her conscience, a constant reminder of her secret sin. She tries her best to be indifferent to his suffering, but his pathetic dependence on her stimulates her moral sense and sets into motion a series of events that ends in tragedy. Or is it redemption? One of the glories of this courageously subtle film is the ambiguity of its final scene.    
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Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s shockingly violent WWII fantasy, is a late summer jolt of electricity. While the director’s blatant disregard for good taste has never been more apparent, it actually for once works to his advantage. A film that features lines like, “Say goodbye to your Nazi balls” doesn’t beg to be taken seriously after all. It aims low and hits its target with precision.

Tarantino, “QT” to his friends, is a filmmaker forever to be filed under “problematic.” Like the disturbed kid who enjoys pulling the wings off butterflies (but can’t explain why), he has a cruel streak that finds vent in bravura scenes of torture and violence. He appears to be most comfortable working with primitive emotions like fear and rage, and his knack for riling audiences would be legendary if only he had an audience to speak of. (Despite the Oscar nominations, he’s still the property of a cult.) His favorite theme is revenge, or, if you want to split hairs, retribution. The conscientiously profane dialogue that litters his screenplays is often praised for its creativity, though it has always sounded very sophomoric to these ears, very junior high (scatology spiked with the “f” word). His inability or unwillingness to deal with three-dimensional people in favor of caricatures or stereotypes suggests a lack of interest in the world beyond the movie theater. (Jackie Brown is the sole exception, thanks to the humanizing performances of Pam Grier and Robert Forster.) In short, he’s immature, unprincipled, and not to be trusted. A real basterd.
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About
Nate has been reviewing movies since he was twelve, and agrees with Pauline Kael's view that the critic is the only independent source of information. (The rest is advertising.) He named his blog after a quote by the wise Alexander Solzhenitsyn.


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