Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 29, 2010

2009 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

An Education: It's 1960s London, and 16-year old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is sophisticated beyond her years. Her parents are determined that she study relentlessly so she can get into Oxford, but then she meets an older man in his 30s, David (Peter Sarsgaard), who seems to appreciate culture as much as she does. David and his friends Danny and Helen live a much more glamorous life than do Jenny's parents, and getting an education for a woman seems to only open up opportunities to teach or work in the civil service. Like Juno, Jenny winds up trying to 'deal with things far above her maturity level.' However, she is actually much more mature than David, and occasionally more clear-eyed than her parents, who become as charmed by David as she is. For all that, she's not as worldly as she thinks she is – she tells her headmistress (Emma Thompson) "You probably think I'm a fallen woman" to which the headmistress snaps, "You're not a woman." At one point, David comes out with some dirty secrets to Jenny, and she decides to stick around. She probably thinks she has his measure, and her other opportunities don't look very promising, and certainly not fun. Her parents, particularly her dad Jack (Alfred Molina) seem thrilled to marry her off rather than sending her to Oxford, leading her to angrily ask what the point was of all that studying. An Education is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, and Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay. It's a fairly tight affair, running just 95 minutes, and Danish director Lone Scherfig packs a great deal in. The main reasons to see An Education are the performances. Some of the smaller roles by Olivia Williams, Rosamund Pike and Emma Thompson are funny or touching. Alfred Molina gives a lovely performance as Jenny's dad, concerned with status and often preposterous, but with a deeper affection for his daughter underneath all his insistent foolishness. Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan is simply fantastic. She's convincing and captivating at every stage of Jenny's development. Jenny thinks she knows herself, the world and those around her, but she doesn't, and her perspective radically shifts throughout the course of the film. I only hope Carey Mulligan gets more roles this good in the future.

(Here's Nick Hornby on Fresh Air and The Business.)

A Single Man: It's November 1962, and Englishman George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a literature professor in Los Angeles. His lover of 16 years Jim (Matthew Goode) is killed in a car accident. George is understandably devastated, and it doesn't help that Jim's family won't even let him attend the funeral. His goal is simply to, as he says, "Get through the goddam day." It's not the easiest task, because George, transfixed by memories and small details of interactions, finds himself lost in thought and feeling. He contemplates suicide. It's not an era of easy acceptance for a gay man, and George is by nature private and a bit stuffy – it was Jim who coaxed him out of his shell. There's an underground gay culture, and director Tom Ford is good at capturing the little glances and exchanges of subtext and coded communication in both the gay and straight worlds (even if he overdoes it a bit). But George is awfully isolated. One of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult – who was the kid in About a Boy!) keeps pursuing him and pushing him for a more personal connection, but George of course worries about propriety, as well as his own privacy. George's friend and former girlfriend Charlotte (Julianne Moore) is some solace, but she still pines for him on some level and thinks his sexuality is some phase. Meanwhile, some of his neighbors are more hostile, even if it generally comes beneath a veener of civility.

This is fashion designer Tom Ford's first feature film, and is an adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel. I think Ford overdoes the lingering shots and the surges of color, but sometimes it's quite effective. The film's handsomely shot, and it's not the easiest thing to make a good film out of a pretty internal story. Ford employs music throughout, and the film achieves a poetic, elegiac feel (no mean feat). However, the core of all this is Colin Firth's strong performance, which may be his best to date, and may have been the best of the year. Firth has always excelled at dry wit, but here there's a great deal of grief churning just below the surface. George lets it out in some private moments, but sometimes not even then, and this gives his forays into the public world an inherent emotional tension as he tries to "get through the goddam day."

(Here's Tom Ford on The Treatment and Fresh Air. Here's Colin Firth on The Treatment and Fresh Air.)

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos): Writer-director Pedro Almodóvar's latest film centers on Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), the pen name of a successful blind writer who also still manages to be quite successful with the ladies. Harry's cared for by a nurse, his agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas). One day Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano) shows up pitching a screenplay, and its plot unnerves Harry. The story's about Ray's father - Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), a rich and powerful man who's just died, and had a history with Harry. Eventually, Diego coaxes Harry to tell him what happened, and much of the film is told in flashback. Harry's real name is Mateo Blanco, and he was once a noted filmmaker. But then he crossed paths with Ernesto and his gorgeous wife, Lena (Penélope Cruz), who he cast in his new film. Mateo falls for her hard, but Ernesto is jealous and controlling. I won't say any more, but Almodóvar makes it look easy, weaving together funny scenes with poignant ones, throwing in his usual explorations of the cinematic medium itself, and doing it all with a subtle lyricism. I'm not that fond of Penélope Cruz in English language films, but she's quite good in Almodóvar's movies. Everyone else is solid (and often charming) as well. This story about a blind filmmaker coming to terms with his past, and his past art, is very affecting by the end. There's a shot near the end – hands and a screen is all I'll say – that's moving on its own terms, but also has a symbolic weight that gives it even greater power. Producing something like that takes real artistry, and it reminds me how many other Almodóvar films I still need to see.

The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte): Hmm, ya think a black-and-white German film about the roots of Nazism will feature a theme of alienation? The film takes place in a small village where most of the populace works for the local Baron in his fields or factory. But a series of "accidents" – actually deliberate assaults by anonymous perpetrators, in almost every case – start occurring. Who's responsible? The local doctor has some mysteries in his past. The Baron's not much liked. And the gang of kids roaming the town are a bit creepy, led by the Pastor's oldest daughter Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus). Klara's reminiscent of ringleader Abigail Williams in The Crucible, but never breaks out the crazy in the same way. This atmosphere of potential menace is lightened by the budding love story between the local school teacher (Christian Friedel) and Eva, a young nanny (Leonie Benesch). There's a real charm and natural feel to their eager, fumbling, self-conscious flirtations. (The story is narrated by the school teacher, looking back on these past events as an older man.)

The film takes place just before the outbreak of WWI (although we only learn the exact time later on). But rather than those events shattering society, The White Ribbon shows us a community that's already full of tensions. We learn more about the town's authoritarian leaders as we go along. Some have sordid secrets, and others show a bizarre value system. The Pastor (Burghart Klaußner), for instance, views minor transgressions by his children as horrible offenses, and punishes them accordingly, but basically turns a blind eye to actual violence (including his own, of course). He ties white ribbons to his two eldest children to remind them to be good (hence the title) – but the focus for the Pastor and others is on these outward shows of propriety. He and the other community leaders seem shocked and ill-equipped to deal with the displaced (and properly placed) anger that boils over. They respond with denial and the assertion of power. Perhaps they're displacing their own rage and fear (and in one case, self-loathing). Contrasting the fairly sweet young love story, we also see another pair's vicious breakup. (In general, the women come off much better than the men in this film.)

The White Ribbon doesn't show us everything directly. It's all about rage and brutality simmering below the surface. (The Baroness has a great speech about this.) Occasionally we see the savagery itself, but more often we see its effects after the fact, and sometimes only hear about it. Director Peter Haneke deliberately uses off-camera space throughout. We may know the Pastor is beating his children in the dining room for misbehavior, and may even hear a few yelps, but Haneke keeps his camera lingering on the closed door. It's an effective technique for a film sold as a mystery, drawing the viewer in to learn what's going on and why. But Haneke is grappling with the roots of Nazism, and while he gives hints and flashes, he also doesn't want to give us easy answers or a full picture. Haneke thus leaves some things open-ended and builds uncertainty throughout. Some viewers will find this frustrating and unsatisfying – and this is intentional. (Likely you know already if this film isn't for you.) Personally, I thought the uncertain, unsettling nature of the film was mostly a strength. Haneke isn't giving a statement as much as he is asking questions, exploring psychological and social dynamics, and starting a conversation. And while Haneke leaves several things open-ended, he also delivers some striking, strong scenes. Whatever else The White Ribbon is, it's memorable and will stay with you.

Un prophète (A Prophet): Young French Arab Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) has turned 19, so it's off from a juvenile facility to adult prison for him. Apparently he assaulted some police officers – we never get many details – and he's slotted to do a six-year stretch. The prison's fairly segregated, and Corsican crime boss César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) is probably the biggest player there. An important witness is transferred to the prison, and César gets word to kill him – but the witness is being held in the Arab wing in solitary, and hard to get to. César and his gang grab Malik, and order him to do the deed, or else they'll kill him. Malik may be a criminal, but he's no murderer, and he tries everything he can to avoid doing the deed. He struggles to learn the trick they show him of hiding a razor blade in his cheek and where to cut on his victim's neck. On top of that, while his target Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) has propositioned him, he also urges the illiterate Malik to learn to read and get an education while he's in prison. The murder attempt is unglamorous, agonizingly clumsy, and extremely bloody – but now Malik is in with César, and under his protection.

Malik doesn't have many skills at first, but he's a quick study. He does speak Arabic and French, and his cultural identity – often the subject of insults from the Corsican crew – does give him some freedom of movement in the prison, all the more so after César uses his influence on the guards to promote Malik to porter. When most of the Corsicans are moved to another prison, César's power base shrinks, and the Arab population continues to grow. César starts to rely more and more on Malik, although he's still extremely abusive toward him at times. When Malik becomes eligible for day trips, César insists that he run criminal errands for him in the outside world. But Malik begins to set up his own deals and network as well, most importantly with Ryad, an Arab friend he made in prison who's served his time and is now out. Malik becomes more and more crafty and powerful. While he's not a saint, he's admirably resourceful and practical, and somewhat sympathetic due to the abuse and bigotry he endures. Throughout the later parts of the film, visions of the murdered Reyeb occasionally appear to Malik, sometimes as a nightmare, and sometimes as more of a casual, odd companion. Occasionally, ghost/hallucination Reyeb will predict what will happen to Malik, or Malik will catch a glimpse of it in a dream – which eventually leads to the nickname "the prophet" among some new associates. This has been described as a French Godfather, and it's not a bad comparison. Malik isn't as reluctant to ascend as Michael Corleone is, but would he have done things differently had he been dealt a better hand? Among other things, the film chronicles cultural shifts in France. The entire film is shot in a documentary style, and that and the naturalistic performances give it a feel of realism and immediacy. It runs about 2.5 hours, but rarely feels like it's dragging. If you like good gangster films, this is worth checking out.

The Informant!: Based on a true story, The Informant! plays as a corporate espionage comedy. It tells the tale of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a company man who reports a case of corporate blackmail to his boss, who tells him to talk to the FBI. Soon, Mark is an FBI informant over a case of illegal price-fixing between corporations. Mark's position in upper management at ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) gives him access to certain information and meetings. Mark narrates stream-of-consciousness internal monologues that often take bizarre turns. At first, he seems like a self-delusional dolt, but one with a good heart. However, as the plot progresses, the corporate dealings become more tangled, and our picture of Mark gradually changes as well. His FBI handlers (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) grow increasingly exasperated by some of his moves, decisions, and withholding (or disclosing) of important information. He's their star witness, but how much can they rely on him? Even his loyal wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey, also in Up in the Air) can't follow everything that's happening at times. Director Steven Soderbergh stacks the cast with comic actors who play everything pretty straight. The story's fairly entertaining, but the film's most interesting as a character study of Mark Whitacre. Damon's really good here (better than in Invictus, for which he snagged an Oscar nomination, but here he's in the lead role). This one should get more interesting on a second viewing.

(Here's Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon on Fresh Air.)

The Soloist: Based on a true story but taking some liberties, The Soloist follows LA Times columnist Steve Lopez (the film makes him single, childless and a bit self-absorbed). He meets a talented homeless musician, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx). Lopez (Robert Downey) becomes intrigued when Nathaniel, who isn't always coherent, mentions something about going to Julliard. This would make a great column, thinks Lopez – and he investigates. It turns out to be true, and Lopez begins to learn more about Nathaniel. He was in Julliard as a cellist, but was afflicted by schizophrenia and had to drop out. He and his mother were devoted to each other, but after she died, he moved out to Los Angeles, and his sister lost touch with him. Lopez begins to get closer to Nathaniel, but it's not always easy, because Nathaniel can get violent. And, as Lopez' ex-wife and editor Mary Weston (Catherine Keener) chides him, he's not a big one for commitment. While the story has a very inspirational side, The Soloist deserves credit for giving a portrait of homelessness and mental illness that often isn't pretty. At the Lamp center on skid row Lopez visits, the staff are doing what they can, but there's only such much they can do. Nathaniel's situation is at best an ongoing struggle versus something to be cured. I was concerned director Joe Wright (Atonement) would be elegant but too cold, or that Foxx's performance might be too schticky, but the performances are all solid here. The film also does one of the better jobs I've seen of capturing the joy and freedom that comes with exploring a good piece of music, or delving into the other arts.

(Here's Steve Lopez discussing the real story on Fresh Air.)

Moon: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the lone crewmember manning a mining station on the moon. He's nearing the end of his three-year stint, and it's a good thing, because he's showing some signs of cabin fever. His only companion is the computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Videos from home from his wife Tess and young daughter Eve help, but also make the separation pangs hit. Plus, they're delayed due to some transmission issues or something. One day, a problem with one of the mining machines develops, and Sam goes out to investigate. And something goes wrong.

You'll probably be a few steps ahead of Sam most times, and occasionally he seems frustratingly slow. But what makes Moon such a good film is that, like Groundhog Day and Invention of Lying (both mentioned above), it really takes its premises and fully explores them. In good sci-fi tradition, it also uses unusual situations to explore the human condition. Sam Rockwell's always been a great actor, and he's put through his paces here. It's impossible not to think of HAL 9000 in some of Sam's interactions with GERTY, but the filmmakers play with our expectations on that front, and in other areas throughout the film. The film's intellectually engaging, but Rockwell gives it an important warmth, and as Sam Bell he's often funny and sometimes poignant. Some viewers might find Moon a bit creepy for their tastes, but I think most will find it engaging and satisfying.

District 9: Aliens, nicknamed "prawns," by humans, live in a squalid shantytown in South Africa below the floating spaceship that brought them to Earth. They're refugees, and seem unable to use most of their advanced biotechnology. The film's told in mockumentary style, with people interviewed about the fateful events that unfolded when the government chose to relocate the aliens, and what befell Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who was put in charge of the effort. Wikus an odd fellow, a cheerful bureaucrat who's hard to peg at first – is he a doltish Eichmann, or more humane than his fellows? In any case, Wikus is exposed to an alien substance, and it begins to induce... unusual symptoms in him (later ads revealed some of them). Corporation Multi-National United is interested in studying Wikus, and not that concerned about his welfare. They're especially keen on any clue to operating the alien weaponry they've confiscated. Wikus is soon on the lam, it's hard to contact his fiancée, and he must seek aid from two smart prawns in the shantytown.

District 9 has been described as an allegory about apartheid, and that's one way it can be viewed. However, it's a bit annoying that sci-fi is often viewed solely through a reductive lens, as if X stood for Y in strict translation. If that were the case, why not merely make a film about actual apartheid? Transposing the story might make some elements more clear, a sort of narrative reductio ad absurdum. There's a long tradition of that in sci-fi, including on racial matters. However, not all sci-fi is allegorical or solely allegorical, and viewing it only as such necessitates ignoring a piece's many other qualities. Obviously, black South Africans were not refugee aliens from another world with advanced bio-weaponry. District 9 does what much good sci-fi has always done – speculated about the consequences of some fantastical premise. What would happen if refugee extraterrestrials came to Earth? How would we treat them? What if they were advanced in some ways, but not (to human eyes) in others? As intelligent beings, it's reasonable they'd be afforded some level of humane treatment – but what if they were much more physically powerful, and potentially dangerous as well? Like Moon above, District 9 also uses unusual situations to explore the human condition. Its greatest triumph is that as we follow Wikus, he begins to change, and with him we begin to change our views of the aliens. The prawns have a disturbing appearance, and act menacing early on, but we gradually we get to know one adult prawn in particular much better. We also see mounting evidence of cruelty from the humans. As the film progresses, the prawns occasionally look much more humane in comparison. This shift in perspective is gradual and accomplished well. District 9 was made for a surprisingly low budget, and proves that engaging, thoughtful sci-fi can be commercially successful as well. This is an impressive feature debut from writer-director Neill Blomkamp. (Be warned that District 9 is at times very violent, with plenty of exploding bodies and limbs.)

Avatar: James Cameron's latest gigantic epic succeeds when taken on its own terms. If you've seen the trailer, you can guess the basic plot before going in. Disabled marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is asked to control his deceased twin brother's avatar – an alien body he can control with his mind. The avatar has been grown to match the form of the Na'vi, the 10-foot tall blue humanoid aliens who populate the moon of Pandora. Jake works with the scientists, led by Grace (Sigourney Weaver), but he's recruited by steely-eyed, ex-military man Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) as a secret spy. Miles is there to serve the needs of a corporation on Pandora to mine "unobtainium," and neither Miles nor company point man Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) care much if the natives are in the way. If Jake helps the Colonel, the Colonel will get him a new set of legs. Jake starts spending more and more time with the Na'vi, who are intrigued that Jake of "the tribe Jarhead" is a warrior, unlike the other humans who have visited them. They decide to teach him their ways, and Jake grows ever closer with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a female warrior and daughter of the chief, who has been charged with mentoring him. She's none too thrilled about the assignment at first.

Avatar certainly has its flaws, and detractors. The "Dances with Smurfs" jokes came pretty quickly after Avatar's release, and it would be hard not to recognize the basic plotline of the white guy getting to know the 'noble savages' - and himself – and fighting for their values against the rapacious, invading culture. Likewise, it wasn't hard to notice the ethnicity of the actors Cameron used for the key Na'vi (although they all do a good job). Cameron's secondary characters in The Terminator and Aliens are more memorable and possess far more dimension than most in Avatar. (Parker isn't nearly as slick or interesting as Paul Reiser as corporate weasel Carter Burke.) The plot is sometimes pretty forced. Okay, Jake's required to be a bit of chucklehead to start, but does he really have to be that much a dolt? And would the Na'vi really never consider the potential for betrayal? And okay, Jake's special to the planet goddess Ewa and all that, but that special? Furthermore, like George Lucas, James Cameron often has a tin ear for dialogue. Still – still – like Lucas, he does have a good sense of story, and boy, can he deliver a spectacle. Somehow, Avatar works for all its silliness, if one choose to go along for the ride.

Cameron put a great deal of time and love into this movie, and much of the landscape, especially the first night on Pandora, is genuinely beautiful. Some of the flight scenes are exhilarating, and the fight scenes, while somewhat predictable in their general strokes, are still well staged. In terms of movie technology, it's probably the biggest advance in CG performance since Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, with Zoe Saldana's feral and sensitive performance as Neytiri a particular standout. Colonel Miles Quaritch and Parker Selfridge may be stock characters, the bomb-'em-all military man and the greedy corporatist, but they're sure as hell plausible (especially given events of the past decade, or centuries). The Na'vi are in tune with nature, but they're not truly primitive, as some critics have charged – as a few folks have pointed out, in some ways the Na'vi use extremely advanced biotech. (And apart from some really idiotic zealots, is anyone seriously contending that respecting a planet rather than recklessly plundering it is a bad thing?) It's not that easy to create an entire new world, and many viewers found Pandora pretty convincing and captivating. As silly and predictable as Cameron's film can be, he executes his tale well, and I found I actually cared about the main characters, particularly Neytiri, Jake and Grace. I was sold on the camraderie, the joyful discovery of community, and the peril of a sacred place being attacked. I understand why the elements I mentioned above soured Avatar for some viewers, but I also see why so many others found it appealing. (The obtuse political critics are in a whole other category.) Yet again, Cameron took a huge risk and won, making one of the most successful films ever. Going to Avatar became a cinematic event, and it certainly succeeds as spectacle. Avatar's innovations are in its storytelling technology, not the story elements themselves, but it would be a mistake to call it artless. It ain't Citizen Kane, but hey, if we're going to have ridiculously huge blockbusters, it's nice to have a little skill, thoughtfulness and substance going into them.

(I covered some of the questions of Cameron's possible influences – uncredited - here, before I saw the film, and other folks weigh in in the comment thread. I think Cameron does owe a debt to some of those pieces, but Avatar is still suitably original. Here's James Cameron on The Treatment and Fresh Air. Here's him discussed on The Business, and an entertaining post about his response to climate change deniers. The film's also inspired some other political activism. KCRW radio show To the Point has a few sharp guests discussing Avatar, and less of the obtuse analysis.)

Star Trek: If every franchise summer blockbuster were this good, Hollywood would be in much better shape. Writer-director J. J. Abrams really overdoes the lens flare, some of his plot contrivances are pretty silly, and I wasn't crazy about a second-rate villain casually eradicating most of the existing continuity. Still, if you're going to "reboot" the Star Trek franchise, you could do far worse. Star Trek is actually entertaining, with a strong young cast, good character-driven dramatic scenes, solid action sequences, and some of the goofy fun of the various Star Trek series. Comedians Simon Pegg and John Cho give a burst of energy as Scotty and Sulu respectively, and Chris Pine as James T. Kirk makes a good franchise star, showing a great feel for both comic and dramatic scenes. I haven't been a big fan of Zachary Quinto on TV show Heroes, so I had trepidations about him as Spock, but I thought he was pretty good. Zoe Saldana flashes passion and brains as Uhura, and had a banner year between this film and Avatar. Bruce Greenwood delivers a steady performance as the paternal Captain Pike, helping highlight those daddy issues that perennially play out in Abrams pieces. I understand some Trek fans were dismayed, but I thought barring the continuity issue – admittedly a huge one – Abrams delivered a film that was true to the spirit of the series and genuinely enjoyable. This held up well on a second viewing, and I hope the inevitable sequels build on this promising reboot.

Watchmen: Based on the landmark graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen will delight most fanboys and fangirls, while the rest of the population will split on it. Some reviewers, such as Roger Ebert, were enthralled, while others felt something essential was apparently lost in translation. The year is 1985, and Nixon is still president. Costumed heroes, or "masks," once fought the Axis powers in WWII and patrolled the streets, but they were made illegal by the Keene Act of the 1970s. One of the few renegade heroes is Rorschach, a right-wing vigilante who sees the world in black and white terms. He discovers that one of their number, the Comedian, was murdered, and becomes convinced that someone is seeking to "kill masks." He goes to warn his former comrades, and as he follows clues, he starts to uncover a conspiracy that goes further than he would dare imagine.

It's hard to discuss the film Watchmen without discussing its source material, which was one of a handful of revolutionary works in comic books. The film works pretty well as a companion to the original, but can't supplant it – nor is it intended to. I wrote much more about some early clips here and an early screening here. The original comic book miniseries was remarkable for many reasons, most of all its more mature, adult tone. It asked, what if super-heroes really existed? What would motivate them, and how "good" would they really be? What if most of them were costumed heroes without powers? What if one of them really did have super-powers? How would that change the world? Each of the major characters viewed the world very differently, and each was sympathetic in his or her way. Meanwhile, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons crafted an astonishingly complex narrative structure, full of interweaving storylines, multiple layers of meaning, expert "editing" from panel to panel, and small details placed in the background. This meant one could read the series for the basic story, but go back and pick up on many more elements each time. Everything was deliberate and intentional. Obviously, much of that can't be translated or compressed into a film. Some critics have said director Zack Snyder shouldn't have even tried, and I was apprehensive myself.

Some of the adaptations choices are brilliant. The opening credits, basically stills with slight motion, bring us from WWII to the present day of 1985, and introduce many key details about our heroes and this world of alternative history. The Dr. Manhattan segment on his origins is also excellent, as it flashes from the present to the past, well accompanied by Philip Glass' score from Koyaanisqatsi. It introduces us to a key player in the story, and while he's an extremely cerebral character, his terror, hopes and regrets in the segment (as portrayed by actor Billy Crudup) make him quite sympathetic. The simplification of the big finale is also inspired, because it preserves the key dynamics of the original while ditching an elaborate setup. Zack Snyder loves to use slo-mo, and overdoes it at times here, but the technique is appropriate for many segments. Be warned if you're squeamish that Snyder amps up the violence considerably, and while some of that's the translation to film, there are dismemberments, maimings and a sexual assault scene that are designed to disturb. Watchmen is not a cheery, child-friendly Saturday morning cartoon. Snyder said something to the effect of, 'People thought The Dark Knight was dark. That's not dark! Having to dress up in spandex and go beat up people to get it up, that's dark!'

The film has its flaws. It was wise to set it in 1985 versus trying to update it with terrorism (as an earlier draft did), but we simply don't live in Cold War terror as once we did, and it's hard to relate to that feeling of inevitable peril. (Also, some of the prosthetic work, notably on "Nixon," is pretty distracting.) The acting is uneven in quality and the score's not very good. I think the biggest drag on Watchmen is that Zack Snyder isn't much of an actor's director and, well, sometimes just needs better taste. Some of Alan Moore's verbatim dialogue sounds clunky spoken aloud ("What happened to the American Dream?"), but the most clumsy scenes, with the worst dialogue – such as a late scene between Laurie (Silk Spectre II) and her mother Sally – are original to the script. How could they pass muster? As for the performances, Night Owl II should have been doughier, but Patrick Wilson is quite good playing him. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian and Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan are also solid. While the raspy voice thing can get old (and does), Jackie Earle Haley is fantastic as Rorschach, and is riveting, frightening, and even moving in some key moments. I normally love Carla Gugino, but I thought she played Sally Jupiter too grandly. And I thought both Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt and Malin Ackerman as Laurie/Silk Spectre II were pretty weak in key roles, and this really hurt the film. Goode plays Veidt with a fey touch – okay - but his vocal delivery is languid, with absolutely horrible diction. Veidt is a precise, controlled, self-made man and exercise nut, not a opiate-addicted, dilettante Roman emperor. Ackerman's pretty, and there are moments she's decent, even if she sounds like Drew Barrymore playing superhero. But I think she fails to sell a key moment between her and Jon/Dr. Manhattan on Mars – and her exchanges with her mom also feel awkward and cheesy. Frankly, I think she was cast for her looks, although there are plenty of attractive actresses with much better acting chops. I don't think it's entirely Ackerman's fault, because Snyder compresses things so much, and wants to keep things moving but fit all the good stuff from the series in, he basically rushes past several moments of key revelation and decision by the characters. Fans of the original material know what those moments are, and so a cursory invocation of them isn't as crippling - but non-fans can be left in the cold. I think Watchmen's virtues outweigh its flaws, but bemoan its unforced errors, and it's not for everybody.

(My two earlier posts on the film are linked above. Here's Rob Vaux's review and his interviews with Morgan and Haley, and Wilson and Ackerman. Here's composer Tyler Bates on Morning Becomes Eclectic.)

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire: An almost illiterate inner city black teenager already has one kid from being raped by her father, and her mother is extremely abusive and a welfare cheat. But she gets an invitation to attend a new, special school. Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) has a very bleak, grinding existence. She occasionally escapes into a fantasy world where she's rich and popular. Sidibe's remarkable at selling both personas, as well as Precious' gradual transformation under the mentorship of her teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) and with the support of her classmates. Precious' mother Mary (Mo'Nique) is monstrous toward her, but she also has a vulnerable, show-stopping speech near the end that makes her not quite sympathetic, but pitiable. Mariah Carey is surprisingly good as skeptical social worker Mrs. Weiss. Patton's a more familiar type, the inspiring teacher, but she's sharp and believable in the role. Precious' classmates are likewise very natural.

Precious has been sold as a triumph over adversity - and the film really piles on the adversity. Some critics have questioned how realistic some elements of that adversity are (see the links below). It might be perilous to view Precious as a documentary, but as a narrative film it's often emotionally gripping. The performances are striking and memorable, particularly from Sidibe and Mo'Nique. There seem to be some nice shout-outs, too – a mirror scene seems to reference Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (I don’t know if it's the novel Push), and Ms. Rain has a poster of Ntozake Shange's great play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Precious is often grueling rather than easy viewing, but its compelling performances make it worth consideration.

(Here's director Lee Daniels on The Treatment and on Fresh Air. I find Daniels prone to hyperbole, and he gives away a major plot point, but he gets some great performances in the film. Here's writer Geoffrey Fletcher on The Treatment. Website The Root had a number of posts on Precious, including one chiding the Oprah hype but praising the film nonetheless.)

Capitalism: A Love Story: Like most of Michael Moore's movies, Capitalism is uneven and sometimes meanders, but also delivers some great satire and keen insight. Sicko was better structured and more focused in comparison. I don't always agree with Moore or some of his bits, but when he's on, he's on. He shows the plight of many people screwed over by our current system, and in some cases the presence of his camera makes people in power behave a bit more humanely. Many Americans who have worked hard all their lives have lost their homes and jobs, and they just want a break. Moore captures this very well. Among his good interviewees are professor and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, former regulator William Black, and pro-citizen Representative Marcy Kaptur. He also interviews some sharp Wall Street players, and has some effective sections reminiscing about the America of his youth (good union wages and benefits for his dad, the rich prosperous despite high taxes) and how the dynamics radically changed under Reagan. His treatment of Wall Street as a crime scene is a deserved crowd-pleaser, while the funniest section may be his re-dubbing of Jesus into an ardent, soulless capitalist. While Moore accurately points out many of the flaws of our current system, he's not entirely clear about what precisely he favors. Is the problem capitalism itself, or a lack of regulation, enforcement and oversight? (He's elaborated more in other appearances.) I think the great value of Moore is that he asks important questions, he challenges those in power, and he starts a conversation. Moore might not have all the answers, but he deserves credit for presenting some complex ideas in an entertaining way, and being thought-provoking (infuriating for some) by raising questions in the first place.

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