For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Midnight In Paris


★★★½/★★★★

Woody Allen's ode to the most beautiful, romantic and elegant city on the planet is a blissful Parisian reverie. In its opening pictorial, establishing cityscapes populated with bikers, baguettes and berets sumptuously fill the frame. The sequence seems to go on too long and then it becomes clear that a day has passed, and morning has turned to night. The Eiffel Tower now stands alone, illuminated with shimmering fluorescents, against the night sky. With the quintessential romantic twang of a guitariste as its score, Midnight In Paris's wordless prologue is a short film all its own.

Gorging himself on French culture, Allen may consider himself an intellectual -- though some might call him a "pseudo-intellectual"-- here he's more of a starry-eyed fantasist than anything else. The film's protagonist is a self-proclaimed hack screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson) who's enraptured with Paris's beauty, but he longs for its romantic golden age of the 1920's. He's visiting the City of Lights with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents. When we first meet the couple they're standing on a bridge over a pond -- the very pond Monet painted his impressionist masterpiece, A Bridge Over A Pond Of Water Lilies. The two look as if they were harmoniously painted into the canvass by Allen's careful composition. The superimposition of art and its admirer is the key to Allen's whimsey. On a lonely Paris sidewalk at midnight, a mysterious Model T picks Gil up and drops him off in the roaring twenties. Jazz, flappers, the charleston: Gil is absorbed into a lost milieu. Paris, then a mecca of artists, writers and avant garde filmmakers, has Gil rubbing elbows with lost generation novelists like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He visits Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and sits in on a studio session with Pablo Picasso. In no time he's having drinks with Dali and Bunuel, inspiring melting clocks and The Exterminating Angel. With the artists come their muse, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a french delicacy materializing out of an ad for "french cool" with her cigarette holder, flapper slip and curly take on Louise Brooks' mop top. Gil and Adriana connect based on their shared love of the past -- Adriana calls the twenties dull and dreams of the 1890's, Paris's "real golden age".

Midnight In Paris is a refreshing slice of sophisto-com cinema for a few important reasons. First of all, it finds Allen shaking the crotchety nihilism that has marked so much of his recent work. 2005's Match Point had its shocking, murderous pleasures and 2008's Vicky, Christina Barcelona had classy as well as filthy eroticism; but both were rife with grumpy cynicism and arc-less characterizations. Midnight In Paris perfumes romantic fancy and childlike wonder. It has the pristine, ecstatic perspective of a newborn culture-connoisseur discovering art, literature, music and romance for the first time. Yet it also rewards the literate with its intertexuality. (You'll enjoy it more if you can pick Josephine Baker out of a crowd than if you can't). Wilson's expression has both qualities: star-struck disbelief and kid-in-a-candystore elation combined. Like a kid at Disney Land who can't believe he just saw Mickey Mouse ("I've only seen you on TV"), Gil gushes over T.S. Eliot ("The Wasteland is like my mantra!") with the same elan and enthusiasm.

Allen understands that Paris can have that kind of magic -- due to the palpable timelessness of its cobblestone streets and medieval architecture. And because Allen plays so loosely with the "rules" of his time-warp conceit, the whole film becomes a dreamy, grown-up fantasy about meeting the long lost idols of our most ethereal English class day-dreams. Is Gil really in the 1920's? Or is he in his own ideation of its hypothetical awesomeness? -- a time before Zelda Fitzgerald went nuts and Ernest Hemingway drank himself to death. There's a delectable flavor and airiness about Allen's hilariously transportive new comedy. It's a giddy plaisir for the "pseudo-intellectual" in us all. Midnight In Paris has a unique ability, it can make educated adults feel a little like kids at Disney Land.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bridesmaids


★★★/★★★★

Annie Walker, who's played by SNL headliner Kristen Wiig, wins our sympathy within the first few moments of the new femme-raunch comedy Bridesmaids. After a night of what might be the most strangely awkward and rhythmless onscreen lovemaking since the puppets from Team America, Annie, in a stunt of pitiful desperation, dolls herself up and sneaks back into bed at sunrise so her partner, a carpet-chested, perma-grinning douche named Ted (John Hamm), will think she's a stunner even early in the morning. The sad attempt is fruitless since man-slut Ted promptly and passively gives her the boot. But the message is clear: Annie will go to great lengths to avoid being alone.

Wiig, who's SNL characters have shown great versatility and manic irreverence without being genuinely likable, portrays Annie with many of the same goofy mannerisms, twisted face shapes and quickened speech patterns that can be seen weekly on NBC. But where she departs, and succeeds, here is in gifting Annie with that indispensable pathos that all great comedians (from Chaplin to Murray) must have to infuse the laughter with candid human qualities. As consequence, Annie becomes a goofball worth caring about.

Even as she's clowning her way through all the pre-bridal imperatives pinned on her as her best friend Lillian's (Maya Rudolph) maid of honor, the resulting shenanigans -- like food poisoning at a dress fitting, mile-high drunken escapades and bridal shower full-on meltdowns -- aren't the product of spite or jealousy, but of good intentions gone awry. Yet because Annie is living in fear of being an old maid, her actions, on some level, reflect the anxiety of losing her best friend and being the only single gal left out in the cold, alone.

The quirky jumble of personalities that complete the rest of the bridal party don't make it any easier. Rose Byrne (Jackie Q from Get Him To The Greek) plays Lillian's haughty new friend Helen -- a glamorous, trophy-wife pretty enough to make even attractive Annie look plain and intrusive enough to subjugate her at every turn, constantly outdoing her sentimental gestures with luxurious ones the money-starved Annie can't possibly equal. Ellie Kemper (The Office) and Wendi McLendon-Covey play opposites: the former's a prissy, naive newly-wed and the latter's a tired veteran with three hell raising boys at home. The scene-steeler is Melissa McCarthy as Megan, the rotund Zach Galifianackis-type outcast who, in this case, carries wisdom to go with her weird obsession with air marshals and adorable puppy party favors.

All these characters play their part in making Bridesmaids, easily, the funniest movie of the year so far. But, in the end, it all goes back to Kristen Wiig whose bit parts in MacGruber and Knocked Up gained her deserved recognition. And now, in her first leading role, she is a revelation. The film's one glaring flaw, however, is structural. The low period, the one in which the protagonist has hit rock bottom and must evolve before the climax and resolution, is just too long. The narrative loses steam as it wallows, leaving the viewer impatient as it languorously lurches toward the denouement we know is coming. Other than that... Bridesmaids is a winner -- bent on deconstructing the supposed feminine camaraderie of wedding planning and twisting the trite, passive-aggressive, cattiness and wholesome romanticism of female targeted romantic comedies into a film of more liberating puerility and, paradoxically, complexity. And Wiig leads the way. I've always known she was funny, but she has now grown from an irreverent three-minute-skit virtuoso to a genuinely lovable screen actress.

The Double Hour


★★/★★★★

In movies, as in all storytelling, a mystery is only worth our interest if it involves a juicy question worth answering. That question can be as juvenile as, who killed Mr. Body? Or as metaphysical as, what is the meaning of life? In either case, someone -- maybe Renee Descartes, maybe Scooby Doo -- is eagerly attempting to find the answer and we, the audience, are simply along for the ride. Problems arise when a story devolves into mystery for mystery's sake, and the audience is no longer vicariously following a crusader into the abyss, but kept coldly alone and in the dark, struggling for a reason to care.

This is precisely the problem with the Italian romantic-thriller, The Double Hour. It begins promisingly as a tall, pretty maid named Sonia (Kseniya Rappaport) is ushered into a hotel room by its young female inhabitant. As Sonia cleans the bathroom, the young lady, without warning or reason, falls (or leaps? Or is pushed?) from the window and lies dead on a rooftop below. Why? That's a good question, and one worth answering. But The Double Hour jumps ship in a heartbeat and we find Sonia, now, relaying through sleazy creepos at a speed dating get-together. She meets Guido (Filippo Timmi) -- a gruff, unshaven behemoth of smoldering sexuality. He's the only bearable suitor, she's a melancholic sulker with low standards -- so they hit it off. Guido takes her to his country mansion/sound-studio and a gang of masked, gun-toting burglars shoot Guido and leave Sonia for dead. When she comes to in the hospital, her world has become a haunted, unnatural place.

The subsequent Rubik's Cube of a storyline -- involving hallucinations, criminal histories, leering priests and double crosses -- evoked Sherlock Holmes in its intrigue, The Double Life of Veronique in its Euro-art incoherence, Repulsion in its psychosis and even that 2001, B-movie, teen-ghoster Soul Survivors. But The Double Hour isn't a pop mystery like Holmes or even an abstract piece of European identity-loop impressionism like Veronique; it's an oddball hybrid, bleeding the lines of logic and dream, not in a fun, thrifty way, but in an indecisive kind of way. As director Giuseppe Capotondi second guesses himself again and again, his film loses its structure and its control, climaxing just passed the half-way point and leaving the audience in an insufferable 40 minute denouement. The finished film is disjointed and, when twists designed to shift our sympathies instead leave them stranded, we're left wandering the caverns of confusion alone, with no reason to care.

Incendies


★★/★★★★

Incendies is a film of great many layers -- one of clashing forms, genres, protagonists and hidden messages. The French Canadian, Best Foreign Language Film nominee is actually a smorgasbord of the candid, the mysterious, the horrific, the heartfelt, and the deranged all fighting to take hold of the confounded viewer, pressed back in his seat by the startling nature of what's presented. Although, as fascinating as the film is, I can't say that its heavy stream of disparate elements was held together seamlessly. In fact, the result is a rather untidy package.

It would take a master to blend a mystery, a cross-continental identity search, a Greek tragedy, a war film and a political allegory into a polished, unwavering product of consummate power; but director Denis Villeneuve doesn't quite have the craft to keep up with his ambitions. Based on the novel Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies tells two parallel stories in a non-linear narrative. The first is the story of Jeanne and Simon, twins from Quebec, who, in accordance with their mother's dying wishes, must track down their long lost father and brother in Lebanon. The second is the story of their mother, Nawal, and her journey from disgraced Lebanese villager to POW in a religious war to quiet single mother living in Quebec.

For the first half of the movie's run-time, we follow Jeanne in search of her father. As the film cuts between Jeanne's journey and Nawal's forty years before, the same cross, that hangs around both women's necks, is both a clever match-cut tool as well as a meaningful motif linking mother and daughter and marking Jeanne's investigation as something of a religious pilgrimage. The Lebanese civil war that Nawal gets caught up in, circa 1970, is religious, and her christianity is by turns her condemnation and her saving grace depending on which war party she runs across. In its somber, taciturn way, Incendies compels most in its first half as Jeanne retraces her mother's steps, traveling down the same dirt roads, talking to the same people, inhabiting the same houses and rooms. Like a great mystery, the trail runs hot and cold, clues lead to people of interest, some will talk and some won't. The procedural aspect hides a more personal adventure as well: in her odyssey to learn her father's identity, she learns more about her mother than she ever knew, and even more, about herself, her own roots and all the blood, violence and hate that led to her own conception. It's searing the way the film contemplates the possible darkness hiding behind a person's origins.

The rest of the film is a fractured, sometimes feckless, patchwork of different components. Non-sequitors involving child soldiers have purpose, but are placed inharmoniously within the story and without context or proper transition. Nawal's long stint in a tiger-cage of a political prison is wrought with confusing structural fallacies and a discombobulated sense of time lapse. It's not intended, believe me -- when specific actions occur is very important to the film's logic and especially its wallop of a climaxing plot twist. (You might want to read up on your Sophocles). And the underlying political agenda is a sleepy allegory about the suffering incurred on those attempting to overcome regional religious intolerance. All those layers can make for a heady filmic experience when done right, but Incendies isn't as incisive and important as it is busy and crudely fragmented.

Thor


★★/★★★★

Kenneth Branagh, who directs, has been Hollywood's resident Shakespeare afficionado since Larry Olivier got too old to adorn tights and puffy collars or stand waving skulls, spouting the Bard's sing-songy iambic pentameter. With that in mind, it's not difficult to see what attracted Branagh to the story of Thor. It's got many of the playwright's integral tropes: power struggles among the aristocratic elite, sinister familial betrayals and a prodigal son's banishment, and eventual return. Of course Norse mythology predates England's Renaissance theater scene by some distance, Thor included. As the Herculean-type son of Odin and prince of Asgard, Thor is a hammer-wielding, meathead whose name (if you believe it or not) helped derive the term Thursday (Thor's Day). Jump to the Sixties, the golden age of Marvel comics, and that's when Stan Lee, the Shakespeare of mutant vigilantes, first penned the comic book version of this Norse, hammer-happy deity.

Branagh's film is (surprise, surprise) based mostly on Lee's comic book. Thor is played by Chris Hemsworth, a Kiwi, who looks as if he'd be throwing chairs at Stone Cold Steve Austin if it weren't for his rugged, outback-y handsomeness and smoldering, slitty-blue gaze. Thor is a cocksure punk prince first in line to be king, but his bloated ego and childish bravado land him on his father's (Anthony Hopkins) shit-list. Odin wants peace with a red-eyed tribe of Ice Giants and Thor wants war without any comprehension of war's dire consequences. To teach his son a lesson, Odin banishes him to that oh-so-horrible realm called Earth, and more specifically somewhere in sandy New Mexico probably a mile away from Area 51.

The simple joys of Thor, for me, came not from its CGI heavy panoramas of the ornate Asgard or the frenzied melees between cannon-fodder ice giants and Thor's entourage of Norse warriors, but from the absurdist hilarity of watching the Michelangelo sculpted, golden do'd, celestial gladiator order more food at a truck-stop diner by slamming his mug on the linoleum floor. "That was delicious! More, I say!" He cries with splendid brutishness. His human hosts: storm-chasing, physicist Jane (Natalie Portman), her mentor Erik (Stellan Skarsgaard) and grad-student Darcy (Kat Dennings) look in awe at a man never frightened by his fish-out-of-water situation, but innately heedless about it. Like how Enchanted's Giselle never loses her fairy tale princess qualities despite being stuck in New York's urban cesspool, Thor, in heaven or on earth, is still Thor in all his self-promoting glory. These two characters never compromised their identities in their new surroundings but simply adapted to them -- and for the better.

And while Thor's on his journey of self-improvement, his once-meek and jealous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is back in Asgard claiming the throne and wreaking havoc. What ensues is a race against time, a la Little Nicky, to save a deteriorating paternal monarch and the kingdom that goes with him. And, of course, for Thor to get home in time he'll have to become a better guy first. As passion blossoms between the Byron-esque demigod and the girl-next-door Jane -- the combination of Portman's thin, angled, Cleopatra-esque brows with her hazel eyes, petite frame and seductive whine give her a unique ambrosial nobility -- the Danielle Steele cover art begins to take shape and, predictably, love foments change.

It's a sweet message, but Thor ends up a rather untidy film. Its plot points don't run congruent or seamless to one another. The Men In Black show up at Thor's dusty landing sight and declare it a hot zone merely so our hero can break down the walls in a fruitless attempt to recapture his beloved hammer. The same government suits confiscate a truck load of Jane's "very important" scientific junk -- junk that has little significance within the plot's limited boundaries. And Branagh, the great dramatist, never misses a chance for a canted angle, swirling vista, or slow-mo closeup of Hamlet, errr a Thor, covered in sweat and tears. Audiences are sure to love the 3-D visual feast of this Norse extravaganza, but with Branagh's penchant for the stage still in mind, I would've enjoyed more of oafish Bottom slamming goblets than of the Danish Prince holding skulls.

The Lincoln Lawyer


★★★/★★★★

For some reason boxing movies and courtroom dramas never go out of style. The Lincoln Lawyer has its fair share of left-hooks, but one can easily tell from the title that it's a member of the latter genre. Matthew McConaughey is Micky Haller, a morally bankrupt defense attorney with a Lincoln Town Car (hence the title) as an office and a laundry list of reprehensible cliental. His newest, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe), is a rich kid facing 20 years for attempted rape and murder. He plays innocent really, really well, but is he? Or is he just a savage predator with "I'd like to thank the Academy" acting chops? Of course the real question is: would it matter to bottom feeding Micky Haller either way?

It should, right? Director Otto Preminger and star James Stewart tackled that quandary in their excellent 1959 ethical drama, Anatomy of a Murder. The Lincoln Lawyer is a similar moralist tale that never lets that all-important question simmer and soak the way Preminger's film did so effectively. Maybe, the movie's lack of thematic focus derives from its expansive supporting cast diffusing the protagonist's arc. The film is based on a novel by Michael Connelly that I'm sure balanced and sufficiently utilized a plethora of characters that includes: an ex-wife (Marissa Tomei), a PI (William H. Macy), several prosecutors, DA's, old clients, new clients, snitches, judges, police officers and witnesses. Let's just say, The Lincoln Lawyer adaptation bites off a little more than it can chew.

Yet despite itself, the movie works. Probably because Matthew McConaughey is so sly and in control that he makes playing devil's advocate look cool. Rolling up in his Lincoln with his sunglasses on or displaying courtroom pyrotechnics of the most audacious variety, McConaughey's Micky Haller is a legal leech you can get behind. Watch how he plays both sides of the litigating coin simultaneously in the climax. (Such a bravura display of lawyering deserves a standing O). Like I said, there is something about the courtroom that makes it a hotbed for drama: the lives at stake, the chess match between prosecution and defense, the sweating witnesses grilled on the stand, and everything guided by the authoritative hand of civilization. (Guilty or not, everyone has a right to a trial). For all these reasons, The Lincoln Lawyer is proof that as long as there are courts, there will be courtroom movies.

Rango


★★½/★★★★

Rango, director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp's new animated, slithery, sand-and-sun opera, has a lot of things going for it. To be begin with, Depp proves he needs neither Captain Jack's wild extremities nor his buggy, shadowy peepers to play a riotously amusing and curiously screwy underdog hero. The eponymous Rango, voiced by Depp, is an hawaiian shirted chameleon who crashes (quite literally) out of his glass box existence while speeding down a desert highway with his owners. Lost and stranded in a Nevada wasteland, Rango wanders from the "real world" and stumbles very unequivocally into a Spaghetti Western populated by other scaly creatures, vermin and birds. Adorned in the traditional garb of a Leone flick, the citizens of Dirt (the town our hero happens upon) are in a sad state since their water supply was cut. Rango, their reptilian Shane, steps in with tall tales of one-bullet-killing-sprees and rattlesnake half-brothers and quickly gains respectful notoriety -- before long he's Sheriff Rango and it's high noon.

Depp is impressive as Rango for willingly immersing himself. The part seems all but written for him, and he reciprocates with whole-hearted enthusiasm. Early on when a cartoon Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo sped passed the green gunslinger in their red convertible I knew immediately which Depp alter-ego Rango reminded me of most. And it's not just the shirt, but the rambling speech and pseudo-sophistication -- the renegade esprit following something unbeknownst even to the men themselves. Duke was chugging forward at light speed trying to go backwards (to the 60's), and Rango, well, he's not trying to recapture his destiny, but simply figure it out.

As it happens, that destiny was to be dropped tail first into an animated landscape so visually arresting it just about dusts the theater seats. Director Verbinski brings an elegant desert poetry to the film: sunflowers cup themselves in the heat, Rango is carried on a rollypolly mattress across the sun-drenched sand. The action scenes are equally impressive as our hero outruns a swarm of bats in a frenzied canyon chase or takes on a scene-stealing serpent named Rattlesnake Jake (with a Lee Von Cleef stash) who's got a gatling-gun rattle.

Though it's nice to see such detail and imagination put in service of adulate homage (name your Western plus a Noah Cross turtle proclaiming, "Whoever has the water controls everything!", and even a dive bombing hawk who may as well have been crop dusting Cary Grant) it's nicer to see them put in service of a great story. Rango gasps for air. Push aside all the gorgeously contrasty saloons and sun-baked dunes and all you've got is a mediocre Western. 2008's Kung Fu Panda was superior for prioritizing itself as a first-class Kung Fu film first and a CGI extravaganza second. Rango can only aspire to the lofty melange of genre and tech that Panda reached rather effortlessly. Despite its qualities and its showcasing, Rango remains slightly under conceived. The thin story felt like an afterthought. Still, I was left amusingly bemused by the ever-zany Johnny Depp whose voice talents brought Rango and his picaresque to life just as he did with another well-known, equally animated lune, Captain Jack Sparrow.

Water For Elephants


★★/★★★★

Water For Elephants has a mouth-watering cast: Twilight's vampy, up-and-comer Robert Pattinson, on hiatus from that Stephanie Meyer monsters-and-melancholia phenomenon, has taken another shot at serious drama since last year's misfire Remember Me was remembered by pretty much nobody. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) is the other strike-when-the-irons-hot casting choice -- as he's still polishing the Oscar he received for Quentin Tarantino's WWII yarn. Rounding out the trio is another award winner: the charming Reese Witherspoon. So how could this trifecta of fertile talent be upstaged so imperiously by an African elephant named Rosy? That's all I'd really like to know.

It's not surprising that a gargantuan, grandstanding Dumbo would be the main attraction at the 1931 traveling circus that Pattinson's Jacob Jankowski runs away to. Depression era folks may not have been able to buy food, but they could spare a cent to see a beast of such exotic grandeur. The circus, like the cinema, was escapist diversion to the suffering poor. As Jacob says, "They created heaven in less than a day, took it down over night, and moved on." A former veterinary student at Cornell, Jacob comes on to care for the circus' animalia. But he doesn't expect to fall in love with star performer, Marlena (Witherspoon).

Waltz plays Marlena's ringmaster husband, Auguste, a ruthless, domineering sadist who controls his wife like he does his circus -- with fear and abuse. (He delights in whipping animals and throwing people off moving trains). With the villain in place and the love triangle a juicy one, this handsomely produced, old-fashioned, big-top-saga should be bursting with compelling drama. Yet somehow it isn't. The narrative is framed by a wandering geriatrich (Hal Holbrook) telling the story to a modern day circus director forecasting a big, third-act calamity we can surely look forward to. And still, there is no reason to care.

Why? Because the film fails to invest our emotions in any character other than Rosy the elephant. We're as horrified when Auguste whips her mercilessly as we are delighted when she mischeviously removes her shackles for a crisp sip of lemonade. Shouldn't we respond with the same passion when Jacob and Marlena (the human characters) finally make their getaway? We should but we don't.

Adapted from a book by Sara Gruen, Water For Elephants spends its mid-section cooling its heels instead fanning the romantic flames. The couple's relationship ends up stagnant and ambiguous as we wait for it to begin. When it finally does it's too late. Pattinson is a handsome guy, but he's not a particularly interesting actor. He's most intriguing to watch when bruised, broken and sopping wet. But besides the makeup team's expert cuts and scrapes, Pattinson is bloodless. Witherspoon, toothy and Marylin curled, lacks the theatricality to convince as the circus's starring act. Even more, her performance felt decidedly modern. She never evokes the time or place -- like if How Do You Know's Lisa was mistakenly dropped off at a carnival circa 1930. And because director Francis Lawrence chooses to highlight his actors with tight frames and close-ups, every mistake is coldly accentuated.

Water For Elephants isn't the first instance of an animal out-performing its human costars, but it's one of the most depressing. This literary adaptation has all the right pieces (including world class performers) but can't shape them into a product of true form or genuine emotion. Luckily we have Rosy the elephant to provide enough grace and empathetic stimulation to recall Bresson's donkey Balthazar.

Hanna


★★½/★★★★

Oh Hanna, what big eyes you have. Hanna (Soairse Ronan) may be a mini-me version of Evelyn Salt, but she's just as ruthless. In the opening scene of the film our adolescent assassin stalks and skewers an elk in the snow before methodically removing its entrails. (Dinner time!). She lives in the frigid Scandinavian woods with her father (Eric Bana) who puts her through his own brand of "home schooling": sneak up attacks, target practice, hand to hand combat. (You know, the usual). Hanna and her Papa are something like HitGirl and BigDaddy if you removed the sense of humor and rubber suits. But Papa is training her for something important. And when the CIA come looking for this blonde badass we're glad he did because the eponymous heroine ends up alone on a cross-continental picaresque.

Of course Hanna isn't all kung fu and gun play. A teenage girl, she still takes a moment, after butchering that elk, to lovingly pat two German Shepherds with dear affection. And when she makes friends with a chippy Brit named Sophie we learn that even those raised to kill possess hearts somewhere deep inside. And that's just the contrast that director Joe Wright (Atonement) utilizes to humanize Hanna. It nearly works. But Wright's main contribution is pumping this fugitive-on-the-run thriller with so much juice I could see sparks. The base pumping, rock score (by The Chemical Brothers), numerous shock/jump cuts and adrenaline charged chase scenes provide a visceral panoply for a plot that gets increasingly, well ... preposterous.

I won't get into Hanna's abnormal genetic makeup; or her family history; or why a murderess CIA operative with a southern draw named Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) wants Hanna dead, or alive (or whatever) because, frankly, most of it didn't make any sense. But I will admit, while I watched, such things didn't much cross my mind. Two reasons: Wright's direction is edgy and electric (even if it does sacrifice substance for style) and Saoirse Ronan, who has riveted me in every film in which she's appeared, manages to tell Hanna's whole tumultuous story with merely her eyes. In sparse moments of childlike levity they pop and glow, and when she moves in for the kill they roll over white with the hunting ferocity of a shark.

Yet Hanna's creators aren't too interested in such fascinating duplicity. (At least not anymore than they are in genetic engineering, the ethics that go with them, or any of the other half-dozen themes they graze but never explore). The movie, instead, spends most of its mid-section playing with fish-out-of-water comedy bits, like when Hanna choke holds some Spanish lover-boy on date night. And the denouement tidies up with a fairly clever Grimm analogy with Hanna as an ass-kicking red riding hood confronting Marissa's Wiegler's pistol-packing big bad wolf. Hanna may be far from perfect, but through Ronan's protean gaze it will certainly be the best ultra-violent, mutant fairy tale of 2011.

Vampyr (1931)


★★★★/★★★★

How to describe Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr: It's the cinematic equivalent of wandering alone in a graveyard at midnight. Allan Grey, a supernatural afficionado, stumbles on an eerie Inn in the Scandanavian countryside. It's there a vampire is feeding on the blood of children and enslaving townfolk to do his dark bidding. One such slave is the town quack -- an Einstein-looking, blood-lusting angel of death, forcing transfusions and treating ailing vamp-victim Leone with the dreaded vile marked with skull and crossbones. Dreyer was a visual genius, and he creates a universe of such chilling lucidity and atmosphere you might get dizzy mid-viewing. His camera lurches down dark corridors, scaling a wall of waltzing, shadowy ghosts locking the viewer in a maze of disorienting motion and menace. Shadows are now spiritual beacons bouncing around the flower-checkered walls and off of ghoulish, foggy ponds with no discernable tie to the figures that, we assume, originated them. They become perplexing, silhouetted characters all their own. Then actors get so under-exposed we can't tell the difference anymore. It's a nightmarish out-of-body-experience.

Made in 1931, Vampyr is a melange of sound and silence. Aural bites are sparse but they rattle and shake the Inn walls, perfectly timed and effectively reserved: the cries of children, maniacal laughter, a knock on the door from an unwelcome visitor, the rare and mysterious line of dialogue. "She must not die!" says Allan Grey's midnight guest before he scribbles a message on a strange package: TO BE OPENED AFTER MY DEATH. (I bet you can guess what happens next.)

There's an unsettling sense of know-how about Dreyer's demented vision. He has mastered what scares us: In a hallucinatory dream state, our hero wanders into a cottage and watches as he is buried alive. We are immediately placed in the body's subjectivity as the coffin lid comes down over the camera. A small glass window, conveniently placed over the victim's face, allows us to watch, from our backs, as twisted tree limbs and cloudy skies pass overhead. Heaven, or perhaps hell, smiles back, as the damned are carted off. The looming storm clouds and specks of sun constantly do battle over Dreyer's hellish country Inn (the first Overlook Hotel, Bates Motel, or even Hostel), where he stages his seminal horror masterpiece.

Scream 4


★½/★★★★

Let me begin by saying that 1996's Scream is, maybe, my favorite movie of all time. Not because it's the best movie or the scariest one, but simply because it was my virginal experience in adult horror. I was not but an impressionable nine-year-old when I first set eyes on a panic-stricken, sobbing Drew Barrymore clutching her cordless phone like a vice grip, forced to recall horror movie icons on a whim as her boyfriend sat tied up outside and at the mercy of the original Ghostface killer. I gazed with horror and awe at the brutality and the audacity of such a convincing splatter set piece. What grew out of that single viewing experience was love, not only for a genre, but for a medium.

The ironic thing is: my experience was not necessarily the one scribe Kevin Williamson had intended (at least consciously). The original Scream was developed as pure slasher metafiction -- "a horror film about the horror film audience." It was blood-soaked, masked-maniac banality that knew exactly what it was, and through means of complete self-awareness, transcended that banality to reinvigorate the slasher genre. Psycho invented it, Halloween perfected it, but Scream made it new again. While the movie was so cliched it was brilliant to established horror fans, to a naif like me those cliches might as well have been brand new. And that is why it is near and dear to my heart.

Scream 4, the third sequel in this popular franchise, is just plain trite. And worse than that, it's wildly out of control. When the long awaited series reboot was announced a while back, I thought Williamson and (director) Wes Craven better have some good ideas in store to bring the decade dormant Ghostface killer out of hiding. During the screening I kept thinking: OK who the hell thought this was a good idea? By the end I was amazed by the creator's miraculous feat of making Scream 4 both under-cooked and over-concieved at the same time. And I was just plain sad that the beautiful and dramatic Neve Campbell is still stuck playing sulky survivor Sydney Prescott after all these years.

Of course she's not the only one back. David Arquette's clownish deputy-Dewey-boy is now sheriff of Woodsboro (the town from the first film). Muck-raker Gale Weathers (played by Courtney Cox, no hyphen Arquette, thank you very much), who during three previous films went from vile bitch to marriage-material bitch, is now back to the former. She's married to Dewey. Sydney comes back to town to promote some self-help book. And right off the bat two teenage tweeters are sliced and diced igniting a fresh Ghostface stab-a-thon. Williamson also adds a whole new crop of teen victims that includes Sydney's cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), her friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), and movie nerd Charlie (Rory Culkin), among others.

They're all sarcastic film buffs and free-range cannon fodder. That's about it. The original Scream film had more layers. The murders, the investigation, and the publicity surrounding them were taken seriously. The pre-Columbine media circus now feels hauntingly prophetic. 1996's Sydney was mourning the death of her mother and dealing with her subsequent intimacy issues. The genre skewing cheekiness was merely one of those layers. Scream 4 shoots so hard for cleverness -- in the wake of the tech revolution -- that it comes off as snippy, snarky and too savvy for its own good. Discussions of reboots, remakes and references hog the dialogue and crowd out any substance or character. Should we care that Gale is struggling to write a new book or that Sydney sees too much of herself in Jill? Cause we don't. If Craven and Williamson don't care enough to put those conflicts before the sardonic banter, why should we?

The rest is academic: The murders are repetitious and ineffective. (Scream was a horror movie foremost ya know?). Too many characters are introduced only to be slain unimaginatively. And that ending: is it predictable? No. Was it a good idea? Don't get me started. To give Scream 4 some credit, it does move quickly, the opening is cute, and laughs come fast. (Whether or not they were intended I couldn't say). But the whole enterprise devolves too quickly into overt self-parody. Watching it is like dating somebody who can't stop ripping on themselves. Who wants to do that? I was disappointed the fadeout didn't reveal the Wayans Brothers on a couch watching their rough cut for Scary Movie 8. That would have made a lot more sense.

Still, I cherish the Scream series like a keepsake. If they make a Scream 5, I'll see that one too. I owe that much to Kevin Williamson who, in an interview, called Halloween the movie that sparked his love of film. He may have intended Scream for cliche-tired veterans, but he helped birth at least one new cinephile in the process. I'm forever grateful for that.

Uncle Boomee Who Can Recall HIs Past Lives


★★★/★★★★

It's well known that peoples of the far east feel a closer connection to the afterlife than us westerners. As a result much of their cinematic output plays looser with ancestral or supernatural elements, and their ghost stories are easier to label as magic realism. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a thai film written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It won the Palm D'or at last years Cannes Film Festival, and despite its languid pacing and contemplative approach it is, above all else, a pretty juicy ghost story.

Uncle Boonmee is a bee keeper on dialysis living on a farm in the middle of the Thai jungle. His sister-in-law Jen and her nephew Tong come to visit their ailing relative, and discover that the jungle has an otherworldly mysticism. Yet when Huay, Boonmee's dead wife, materializes out of thin air during dinner, nobody makes too big of a fuss. And when Boonmee's long lost son, Boonsong, makes a surprise visit transformed into an ape like figure called a "Monkey Ghost", there is hardly a raised eyebrow.

How the film trivializes the extraordinary in such ways is what makes it such fascinating viewing. In me it recalled Mizoguchi's masterpiece Ugetsu -- another piece of far east film poetry about spirits and their rather opaque connection to the living. To easterners like Mizoguchi and Weerasethakul there is no "other side." The living and the dead aren't separate, but float in and out of each other's communal space like mist moving through a darkened jungle canopy. The jungle of "Uncle Boonmee" is a character in itself, one that knows not time of day nor man from beast. The director's camera lingers on haunting imagery turning the creature filled rainforest surrounding Boonmee's enchanted estate into the Western Woods of Sleepy Hollow. Out of the ever-dark landscape appear the red eyes of the ubiquitous Monkey Ghosts who stalk the land and keep watch.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a pensive and visionary work of high art filmmaking. Those turned off by Tarkovsky style editing and camera work -- the kind that savors every image and detail so observantly that every frame becomes a challenging still photograph -- should steer clear. And viewers longing to be intellectually stimulated should bring their A-game because this is a puzzling, existential soul-search about life, death, and those pesky, red-eyed Monkey Ghosts guarding the space between.

Source Code


★★★/★★★★

It seems in the past year or so Hollywood sci-fi films have given up on logic and coherence in the name of sheer audacity. What exactly were the rules of Christopher Nolan's dream-within-a-dream realm of subconscious in Inception? I don't think anyone is quite one-hundred percent sure. Even Nolan himself. Still, that big four layer kick in the climax was just about the awesomest cinematic moment of 2010. And I don't know if I ever bought The Adjustment Bureau's declaration that said suits existence encouraged the building of the Roman Empire (or whatever), but watching Matt Damon and Emily Blunt magically travel through doorway portals and onto the field at Yankee Stadium or the shores Liberty Island was, for lack of a better word, sweet. Source Code is a close relative to these other goose-pimple inducing head-scratchers.

And believe you me, your head will be scratched. Of course that is part of the fun as our hero, Air Force pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), wakes up mysteriously on a Chicago bound train in the first few moments of Source Code. What's weird about being on a train? I know. What's weird is that the last thing Stevens remembers is flying a combat mission in Afghanistan. He's as confused as we are and it only gets worse. The passenger across from him is an adorable young woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) who keeps calling him Sean, and minutes later the whole train explodes and everyone is engulfed in a huge inferno. But that's not the end. Oh no. Stevens wakes up again in some kind of Tarkovsky-esque, metal cocoon and a military garbed Sgt. Goodwin (Vera Farmiga with piercing green eyes) appears over a monitor to send him back to the same eight minutes again. His mission: find the bomb and the bomber.

It's a task easier said than done, especially in small eight minute time frames. The same can be said regarding Source Code's filmmakers who have an equally grueling task on their hands: make each eight minutes a clever play on repetition as well as a device for divulging vital new info. Who is Colter Stevens? Who's this guy Sean? What the hell is the "source code"? To say that the film answers all the questions it poses would be a lie, especially when it reaches into Stephen Hawking territory (parallel universes, neurological chemistry, quantum physics, YIKES!).

Lets just say the film succeeds best when it remains here on earth. Screenwriter Ben Ripley, gratefully, brings enough humanity to his story (between calculus lessons) to make his characters worth caring about. Things like Christina's naive warmth and Stevens' struggle for reconciliation even through the prison-like planes of identity and dimension are the true wonders in a film that packs more density of human spirit than scientific intrigue.

It also doesn't hurt that director Duncan Jones keeps his train paced smoothly and gets real emotion from Mr. Gyllenhaal and real charisma from Ms. Monaghan along the way. And from the suspenseful heavy strings of Chris Bacon's score over the opening credits I could tell Jones had his Hitchcock hat on. The political paranoia, the race against the clock, "strangers on a train": Hitch's touch graced so many moments of the film that I loved.

I can't necessarily say the same for the ice-cream headache I got trying to decipher Source Code's slightly impenetrable final minutes. Like Inception and The Adjustment Bureau before it, Jones' film raises more questions than it can answer, but head-scratching aside, this thriller is as compelling as it is audacious.

The Adjustment Bureau


★★/★★★★

God is named "The Chairman" and angels run around in old-school CIA suits and fedoras making sure everyone's "plan" runs its course. Matt Damon is a senatorial candidate disallusioned by his regimented and pre-ordained lifestyle - it takes statisticians to decide what ties he can wear. Yes, yes politicians are phonies run by a team of experts and handlers, but in The Adjustment Bureau we all share that fate. Free will is a myth and for Damon to be with the girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt) he'll have to divert from his "plan" and take The Bureau head on.

There's some romance, some chases, some mysteries and a whole lot of silly mythology - apparently free will caused the Dark Ages and The Holocaust. Damon and Blunt keep this one afloat with charming chemistry, but writer/director George Nolfi's screenplay is hardly the exploration of predestination, political deceit and corporate omnipresence that he thinks it is. What remains is plenty of cornball romanticism and a myriad of boring plot explanations.

The Illusionist


★★★/★★★★

Famous French filmmaker Jacques Tati has been dead for twenty-eight years. His last film was the 1978 short, Forza Bastia. Yet like many enduring artists, he doesn't feel gone. Maybe because his masterpieces, My Uncle and Playtime haven't aged a bit since their 1958 and 1967 releases. Perhaps because his directing style is so unique and exciting it can still be enjoyed by every new generation. (And his famous character Mr. Hulot is chilling with Chaplin's The Little Tramp and Harpo Marx in the elite gang of legendary cinematic pantomimes). Whatever the case, Tati has been resurrected in 2010 -- at least in likeness and spirit -- for the wonderful French animated film, The Illusionist.

Directed by Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) and based on an original screenplay by Tati himself, The Illusionist tells the melancholic tale of a slight-of-hand magician named Tatischeff. He lives in 1959 Paris and times are changing. The demand for vaudeville entertainers, and especially magicians, is dwindling in the modern age of high fashion, rock and roll, and television. With France a dry well of opportunities, Tatischeff -- poor and workless -- hits the road in search of greener pastures. He ends up in the breathtaking mountains and lochs of Scotland. The protagonist Tatischeff is clearly an animated version of Tati's alter ego, Mr. Hulot -- he has Hulot's tall frame and perfect posture and dresses in his usual grey suit, trench coat, and fedora. He walks with Hulot's signature long strides and polished sense of purpose. Like Chaplin, Hulot's whole persona seemed to emit a kind of goofball pride or clownish elegance. (Both the Little Tramp and Hulot wanted to be bigger than they were, dressed like it, and were oblivious to their sad realities).

Of course any Tati fan knows that his films are typically light on plot and heavy on gorgeously constructed mis-en-scene. The small Scottish village where Tatischeff performs for peanuts is a beautiful, fog-filled island dreamscape, only accessible by boat. The Inn where he stays sits snug between rolling green hills of a mystical and otherworldly beauty. The residents are a drunken and frolicking lot of celtics who marvel more at the magic of a simple lightbulb than Tatischeff's illusions, but he is -- in the spirit of Hulot -- mild mannered and courteous to everyone he meets. And when a teenage servant girl named Alice latches onto him, the magician kindly brings her along to his next gig in Edinburgh. Though sadly, Edinburgh is a major modern city with no place for old-timers like Tatischeff, and his hotel, a place called The Big Joe Hotel, is rife with other misplaced clowns, ventriloquists, and acrobats also searching for purpose. These other vaudevillians give the story a sense of whimsey as well as a cold sense of dissociation. Of course Tati did begin his showbiz career as a vaudeville comedian and perhaps witnessed the plight of his contemporaries in the post-war era.

A little like Ozu's Tokyo Story or Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, Tati's original story was about a culture in transition -- an emerging contemporary society welcoming the young while it casts out the old. Alice, that country girl and tag-along, gets absorbed rather easily into this trendy and fashion-obsessed milieu. She coaxes a pair of high-heeled shoes and a blue dress out of her penniless companion. So is Alice manipulative and advantageous of Tatischeff's kindness? Or is she just naive? In any case, the film's finale and its message are grievously harsh toward the humble Tatischeff, in an unusually dour turn for anything with Tati's name on it.

The movie's tone severely contrasts the legendary director's lifetime oeuvre. Playtime examines similar themes as Hulot wanders mischievously through a world of modern medal and glass. In its first act, Playtime contemplates the prison-like minimalism of modern architecture and its grim lack of texture and personality. However, by the end the film explodes into vivid life as a busy roundabout in downtown Paris becomes a three ring circus of color and activity. As a possible companion piece, The Illusionist feels like a downer, hung up on the victims of Europe's sinister metamorphosis.

But such a flaw is minuscule in the scheme of such splendid visual eloquence. Chotem and his crew of animators produce a color palette so marvelous its hard to describe. The backgrounds seemed watercolored with modest strokes while everything else was detailed with exquisite precision. The reflections of the illusionist in mirrors or on the lochs gave the film an enchanting new dimension to marvel at while the use of light, either turning Edinburgh from night to day or day to night instantaneously, only added extraordinary natural dynamics to the film's already ravishing animated tableau. And when the animation is timed precisely with the film's intoxicating Parisian score (composed by Chotem himself) this cartoon reaches a level of poetic lyricism I've never seen in an animated film. The sheer greatness of The Illusionists' look and feel is worthy of Tati's own visual genius.

Even more, to think the whole story is told with barely a single coherent word or phrase is truly amazing. Most of Tati's work transcended language or nationality. They played very well as silent films and The Illusionist is no different. This animated feature is unlike any other released this year. As animated pictorial, it has panache to burn. As Jacques Tati tribute it rises above its sadder themes with some hilarious gags and a few breathtakingly well executed allusions: Tatischeff stumbles into an old theater playing Tati's own My Uncle in actual footage on the big screen. For a fleeting, but perfectly pitched moment the illusionist gazes up in awe at himself on the screen. It's a sublime homage to the master-mime, as well as to the generations of filmgoers that flocked cinemas to enjoy him.

The Company Men


★★/★★★★

When Up In The Air came out in 2009, Jason Reitman became the first director to tackle the financial crisis head on with a brutally honest study of one man as a symbol of our increasingly dour zeitgeist. George Clooney's Ryan Bingham -- a professional firer about to get fired -- was both the corporate world's greatest terminator and its greatest victim. In a challenge to popular opinion on topics like the recession and massive layoffs, Reitman's film explored some poignant moralism and fascinating duplicity. The Company Men shares similar DNA -- it's a timely story about a money hungry corporation and the family men it feeds to the wolves in the wake of stock inflation. Yet while The Company Men finds drama in the desperation of guys stripped of their jobs and manhood, it has no heart and affords its "men" little redemption.

Ben Affleck -- fresh off writing, directing, and starring in The Town -- is the shark-suited "company man" at the movie's core. Laid off from the get-go and placed in a work relocation center, Affleck's Bobby Walker finds the going tough without Porsches, country clubs, and a five figure salary. But we do feel bad for him, especially when we learn his company GTX purged half its employees so the CEO (Craig T. Nelson) could increase his share values to half a billion dollars and build brand new headquarters. (Nice, huh.) GTX's only voice of reason is the heavy hearted, adulterer and VP Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). Chris Cooper, as fellow job-hunter Phil Woodward, is the film's proverbial chopped liver and the character and Cooper's tremendous talents are criminally thrown to the wayside.

On top of feeling tired and distended, The Company Men seemed to fall from a promising start into a glum malaise of woebegone pondering and near-insights. No matter how wise Jones looks and sounds he carries no remedy for a perpetually bummed out Ben Affleck who just can't do devastation. (If the part called for nothing but smiles he would have been tops.) Writer/Director John Wells' script is filled with financial jargon and Kodak moments -- especially between Walker and his you-can-do-it wife Maggie (Rosemary Dewitt) -- which give the film an aura of credibility, but Wells comes to no great conclusions and contemplates nothing beyond the suck-fest of losing one's job.

And it does suck that Walker has to sell his Porsche and start doing carpentry work with his blue collar brother-in-law (Kevin Costner). But in the battle between CEOs and paper pushers it's never as simple as good vs. evil. Reitman's Up In The Air succeeded by making both part of the same societal persona. The Company Men is way to black and white to enlighten, or entertain.

Cyrus


★★★/★★★★

Can a needy guy share a beautiful woman with her equally needy grown up son? Well, it's gonna be tough; especially if those two vying screwballs are John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill; and that woman is the voluptuous and alluring Marisa Tomei.

Of course from trailers and synopses, Cyrus looks like an Appatow-esque raunch-fest starring an idyllic pairing of two curly haired hell raisers in Reilly (Dewey Cox) and Hill (Superbad). And the premise itself could be a Step Brothers semi-sequel. (Stepson, perhaps.) But this Inde, realist psycho-dramedy only masqueraded as frat boy, lamebrain, cannon-fodder to fill seats, though that is hardly what sells the movie.

The casting of Inde princess Tomei should have been a dead give away that this flick had more on its mind than testicles, drum sets, and amateur bunk bed building. (All the activities!) From the get-go we're introduced to a relationship wounded, self-proclaimed "Shrek" named John (Reilly) who falls for the only girl at a party who gives him the time of day, Molly (Tomei). Before long he meets her creepy-kind, twenty-one-year-old son Cyrus (Hill) who lives at home.

Hill still recalls a live action Eric Cartman, except this time it's not his usual foul mouth that triggers the match, but his manipulative disposition. Cyrus wants mama to himself and moves most passively at breaking up the courtship. (A disappearing pair of Nikes here, an off-hand comment there.) Moreover, the film's sense-of-humor is part of that same design -- odd and absurd as opposed to belly laughs. (If you're the kind of dude that finds Hill standing in a sleeper T-shirt with a glazed over look and a butcher knife funny, then soups on.)

I don't know maybe I'm alone on that. Though the movie's most interesting aspect is its rather insightful meditation on the nature of dependence. We have the son afraid to grow up and the lonely man looking for a reason to be. Molly provides the crutch for both of these emotional cripples, and either would be lost without her. Brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (who wrote and directed) succeed far better with the duo's psycho-analytical duel than they would have with an actual one on the front lawn with rakes and golf clubs (ahem, Will Ferrel).

Cyrus is less for lovers of comedy mania than lovers of comedy that cares. The convenient pairing of Hill and Reilly isn't for raising hell, but winning hearts. Unlike most of its kind, there is a humanist idea at the heart of this comedy partnership.

Buried


★★★/★★★★

Buried opens with fifteen seconds of pitch black silence. Then, out of the dark, come the sounds of muffled groans and fidgeting movement. Wherever we are, we're not alone. A Zippo lighter flips open and the grating of steel on flint produces a flame, illuminating a panicked face -- covered in dirt, sweat, and blood -- in an amber half light. Whoever this guy is, he lies gagged and bound, and as he surveys his new scene the nightmarish truth begins to dawn: he has been stuffed in a wooden coffin and buried. From the look on his face alone, we can tell we're in trouble. This guy's boxed up and going nowhere.

Our prisoner's name is Paul Conroy and he's played with real sand by Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds is that Canadian fella best known for playing douche bags (Waiting...) and romcom leading men (The Proposal). He goes for terrified and vulnerable in Buried, and nails it with verisimilitude and conviction. Of course Buried is for all intents and purposes 90 minutes in a coffin with Ryan Reynolds. So, before you pay your hard earned dough to see this one-man-coffin-show you should consider your tolerance levels for both, and decide accordingly.

This critic finds Reynolds a charmer, and as far as coffins go, well, I'm open to the possibility that an entire film shot inside one could be more than just an ambitious and painstaking creative exercise. Buried's director, spaniard Rodrigo Cortes, finds his groove as a certified nerve-jangler echoing the old masters, Alfred Hitchcock and Henry Georges Clouzot. (Something tells me the guys who made Rope and Wages of Fear would find this task a giddy pleasure.) Cortes shows that he has done his homework by crafting an excellent Hitchcockian thriller out this high-concept experiment in inhibition.

It's true the stale and dusty air filling this coffin reverberates with lessons from the Hitchcock handbook. Conroy discovers a working BlackBerry (not there by accident) and while frantically making calls for help reveals his role as a contract truck driver in Iraq -- he was attacked and taken hostage. So is Conroy a political prisoner? All of a sudden, Buried becomes the first political-thriller from inside a box. (Even Hitch would be impressed.) And Cortes never misses an opportunity to up the ante with big-time claustrophobia and cold-sweat inducing predicaments. (Uh, snake plus coffin equals change-o-underwear.) All the while Conroy's air is running short with every panicked breath and the battery-life on his phone-a-friend is depleting with every call. This flick had me on pins and needles.

Cortes must be credited with the film's overwhelming chill. He never lets us breathe -- employing a toolbox worth of aesthetic techniques. The lighting design is impeccable, developing unease from a protean display of sources: from the amber glowing flame to the cool neon blue of the cell phone's main menu. Cinematographer Eduard Grau explores every inch of space in that tight container -- the nooks and the crannies -- imparting intense atmospherics.

Buried is a nail-biter that preys on our most primal fears: the fear of being trapped, the fear death, and the fear of complete and utter helplessness. But the exhilaration comes from the synergy of director Cortes tightening the noose and star Reynolds reacting with painful and altruistic vigor. (Some actors know how to suffer for their art.) It's not until the final minutes that Buried overplays its hand, adding insult to injury with superfluous political and corporate callousness. (Really?!) If only the screenwriters knew they had our full attention at "buried alive." Never-the-less, everyone involved deserves all the credit in the world for making the minimalism of a box seem creatively limitless.

Rabbit Hole


★★★½/★★★★

Rabbit Hole is an excellent actor's showcase for Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, who play middle-class, suburbanites consumed by grief. Their 4-year-old son was killed by a car after running into the street outside their home. The story comes from a Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Lindsay-Abair (who also penned the screenplay) and the combination of his perceptive words and the excellent actors who speak them lifts this melodrama out of the ordinary and into the realm of deeply profound.

It's 8 months after the fact and neither Becca (Kidman) nor Howie (Eckhart) have put the pieces back together. Weekly group therapy sessions only aggravate Becca further - too much "God-talk.". Consequently, she spends the course of the film looking for her own way to cope with her despair, not resolve it, but cope with it. Abair's excellent screenplay suggests that there are certain tragedies in life that are beyond resolution. Becca's mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest) lost Becca's younger brother to a drug overdose and compares her grief to a brick in her pocket that may get lighter, but it never goes away.

Kidman does some of the finest acting of her career as the tortured Becca. Children's faces seem to flood her eye-line in grocery stores and parks, on school buses, and everywhere else she seems to look. Even her bratty sister gets pregnant from another woman's boyfriend. Becca's pain reaches a pinnacle. The house she shares with husband Howie becomes a prison, symbolic of her son's perpetual absence: his toys, pictures and clothes everywhere. She sees his fingerprints on the walls and his drawings remain up on the refrigerator as a constant reminder of what was and is now gone forever. She's suffocated by his memory, but unable to let go of him.

In a gasp for any sort of understanding, Becca finds herself going straight to the source - the driver on that fateful day. In this case, he isn't a drunk stewing in the slammer or some middle-aged buffoon who fell asleep at the wheel, but a sweet and artistic high school kid named Jason, who happened to be driving down the wrong street at the wrong time. He's equally traumatized and the two have occasional park rendezvous to converse on the everyday.

The strength of Rabbit Hole is the way it avoids easy answers and simple solutions. This level of grief can only be understood by people who've experienced it and Abair makes no attempt to rationalize or resolve it with copout sentimentality. Moreover, the way the script examines despair from different perspectives is especially astute. Nat looks to god. Eckhart has never been better as Howie, who deals with his anguish by clinging to the memories with a firm grip. He keeps a camera phone video of his son playing and watches it alone in the dark. The story gets a bit contrived when he cozies up to a fellow support group member, Gaby (Sandra Oh), but the film barely scrapes this tired cliche and finishes on a melancholic and strong note.

The direction by John Cameron Mitchell is stagey, but accommodating for the top-notch performances of Kidman, Eckhart, and Wiest. One scene depicting an argument between man and wife over their feelings of insurmountable guilt, shakes the theater with the passion on display. Rabbit Hole is an exquisitely written and acted film about a personal hell that's all too real in the world. The spoken words are fabricated by Abair, but they echo true through the voices of these world-class performers.

Blue Valentine


★★½/★★★★

Love stories have been told many different ways in Hollywood. First time director Derek Cianfrance puts an interesting spin on the genre in his new drama, Blue Valentine. With talented stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams on board, the director ambitiously attempts to show a couple's puppy-love beginning and heartbreaking end simultaneously. It's an interesting concept however, his unconventional storytelling method of non-linear crosscuts and switchbacks gave the film a feeling of undernourished incompleteness.

Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) are a couple on the skids. Gosling's Dean is a man-child, wiseacre with a receding hairline and Raoul Duke sunglasses. He's a loving husband and father, but a schlub and an underachiever. (He's constantly got a cigarette glued to his lip and a beer in his hand). Even in the film's earliest moments as Cindy prepares breakfast for Dean and their daughter it's evident that the distant between the pair is ever-growing. Michelle Williams as Cindy is the film's heavy-lifter, acting with her sour puss and tired eyes as opposed to Gosling who plays Dean with a childish charm. Cindy is a hardworking medical assistant who's clearly aggravated with her husband's lack of ambition as well as her own failed aspirations and poor choices. The movie depicts 24 hours in the life of Dean and Cindy including their last gasp attempt to reconnect at a sleazy lover's motel.

Of course director Cianfrance (who also co-wrote the screenplay) has higher ambitions for his film than that. The story is frequently interrupted with flashbacks explaining how Dean and Cindy first met. Dean was a mover in those days and had a full head of hair, a courageous charm, and a romantic's spirit. Cindy was only a student with a lugubrious home life and a desire to find a guy who would show her the decency her mother never got. This Dean-and-Cindy are only five years younger, but freedom and hope pervade them. Gosling and Williams' chemistry is most enchanting in this delightful early courtship. An early scene on a bus has Gosling winning hearts with cutesy humor and smooth talking. Williams reciprocates moments later with an adorable tap-dance to Dean's ukulele Elvis rendition. The film captures the purity and excitement of that first connection with moving clarity.

Yet Cianfrance's film is less concerned with feelings of warmth as with the bitter chills that replace them. The kind filling the air at that tacky motel where we find Dean and Cindy today. It's a loveless and suffocating place -- especially since the cinematography is spookily Casavettes-style with extreme close ups and grainy film. (The screen feels caked with so much grit you could scrape it off with your finger). The chasm forming between man and wife is most palpable in that motel room -- not as anger or aggression, but as a kind of cold intimacy exacerbated by that claustrophobic aesthetic. An awkward lovemaking scene erupts on the filthy floor -- cheesy futuristic themed decor is visible on the bed and the walls around them -- and Cindy goes limp with apathy. "I don't want your body," Dean shouts with disgust, "I want you." The moment is symbolic of a relationship fallen fatally lifeless. This is a couple spiraling toward complete dissociation. And Gosling and Williams' extraordinary performances attain biting realism from these love-sick-souls grown weary.

But despite it all, Blue Valentine ends up as divided as its two protagonists -- almost like a bisected now-and-then chronology with only intimations connecting the dots. How Dean and Cindy ever went from sweet and idealistic kids to miserable and life-hardened trailer trash is beyond me. With no explanation in the narrative, Cianfrance's trendy back-and-forths begin to resonant superficially -- like party tricks as opposed to carefully constructed storytelling devices. On top of that, his Cinema Verite approach plays out so rawly -- with enough dead dogs, dads on oxygen, and overly-explicit sexuality to evoke a come on already -- that it turns Dean and Cindy into little more than pitiable victims.

Maybe they were victims, of life, and of each other. But truly stimulating cinematic experiences come when the viewer is able to empathize with and embrace a film's characters with a true personal investment. The sharp and heartfelt performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams encouraged that response, but the over-ambitious pyrotechnics of Cianfrance's direction made their plight something of a charity case. With so many missing pieces and broken connections in Dean and Cindy's journey I was kept at a cold distance instead assured in by a warm embrace.

Somewhere


★★★/★★★★

In 2010 we've been put through the wringer: mind-bending dream puzzles, hikers who saw their arms off, ozark's girls who saw dead peoples arms off, and ballerinas that turn into psychotic swans. Awards season has been a bit of an endurance test to say the least. But writer/director Sofia Coppola is here to remind us that fall contenders needn't be meaty and rigorous affairs. There is a place for the gentle in the realm of respected cinema. There is a place for little stories about fathers and daughters - a place for Ms. Coppola, and her film, Somewhere.

But Somewhere isn't for everyone. It moves at an introspective dawdle - savoring moments with brave intensity - as it examines the everyday life of rutted movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). And I mean everyday: like driving his Ferrari in circles, enduring languid makeup tests, and sitting around blase - a bit unfazed by the world around him. Marco's malaise is a bit reminiscent of actor Bob Harris' in Coppola's own Lost In Translation and his day-to-day is something like Entourage if you take away all the gloss, over-dramatics, and obnoxious self-satisfaction. At any rate, with his ex-wife away, down-in-the-dumps Marco gets shackled with his sweet-as-can-be prepubescent daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). A few days together and Marco starts to reassess his priorities - his daughter is a symbol of the normality and fervid essence that so eludes him in his rolling-stone/hedonistic lifestyle.

The screenplay is written straight from Coppola's own roots. She grew up a Hollywood princess after all, the daughter of Francis Ford. But Coppola's insider Hollywood scoop is neither straight indictment nor glorification. With camera trained on the mundane, Tinseltown becomes a moody limbo where the extravagant is bereft and the ordinary transcendent: Guitar Hero, room service, sunbathing. Not that Marco and Cleo don't get star treatment, only it's perfunctory. So what's Coppola's angle? Her films often concern lonely and confused individuals in an equally confusing world. But when stripped down, Somewhere is a sweet and simple sonnet about a daughter who would love her father if he had a million dollars or five, drove a Ferrari or a Taurus, was a star or a busboy. And only after he understands that can he really be free. And typically, Coppola's sentiment is delicately stroked in, stone dry of sap. (A welcome change of pace). Maybe if she avoided the indulgences (five minutes of innocuous pole-dancing, anyone?) and if her lead wasn't buckling under the weight of his role, then her spotlight-as-microscope, A-lister-ode could've been more than just good. But it does get bonus points; no limbs were grotesquely sawed off.

How Do You Know?


★½/★★★★

Pro-softballer Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) gets cut from the olympic team and her world is rattled. Love's the answer (I guess) but how can she decide between a narcisstic, womanizing, major leaguer (Owen Wilson) and a boyish, lost-puppy, corporate scapegoat (Paul Rudd)? (Hhhmmm, that's a toughy). But how do you know when your in love? That is the titular question that this rambling, murky, and inconsequential film attempts to contemplate.

If you think that sounds corny, it is. Witherspoon - Ms. Adorable with pitch-perfect reactions - gives the mopey and mixed up Lisa her all. But James L. Brooks directs and pens this romcom like a wannabe self-help guru, imparting inane life-lessons of the Jerry-Springer-final-thought variety. Lisa's bathroom mirror is strewn with Postit-notes that read cheesy, go-getter, imperatives: "You see obstacles only after losing sight of your goals." Write that down.

Rudd is the nice-guy to Wilson's jock-jerk. Lisa strings both men along, hopsctoching between them. She's a sulker and stalks off frequently; like when she discovers that Wilson's Matty has sleep-over-clothes for one-night-stands or later when she realizes he's not monogamous (big shock that the guys a pompous ass). Rudd's George is being investigated for shadey deals involving his papa's company. He's innocent, but catches the wrath anyway and is hung out to dry by his associates. A hormonal and pregnant secretary (Kathryn Hahn) stays loyal, but even she can't help him out of his funk. That problem's saved for the magical remedies of love. Can George and Lisa really save each other?

Just like all its predecessors, How Do You Know thrives on awkward exchanges. Unlike spring's When In Rome or Leap Year, were not subject to grating, scewball-physicality, but instead the numskullery is related in pretensious, pointless conversations. These characters open their mouths, but nothing of substance comes out. The film's best scene might be Lisa and George's first date when the discomfort level reaches a pinnacle and both decide to sustain silence then on. It said more than most of Brooks' therapy-talk put together.

To be fair, How Do You Know is basically watchable, and benign. The cast is talented and doing their best, especially Jack Nicholson who steels scenes as George's crooked, shark-suited father. Nicholson makes the most of the character's sleezy cowardice, getting some laughs in-tow. But the script is boring, the pacing arduous, and the situations so inorganic and spurious that these characters seem to float away in some lovesick and lofty artifice: problems history, self-improvement unnecessary. It's ironic because Brooks thinks he'll rescue the lovelorn with his expert insights. But Witherspoon and co. aren't avatars into the nuts-and-bolts aspects of relationships, they're as alien as the inhabitants of district 9. (Sigh). This film really could have been so much better.

How Do You Know serves up the cornball romanticism with artificial sugar. If that's your cup of tea then bottoms up. But this tea's also laced with sedative. Sleep tight.