Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 29, 2010

2009 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

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Zombieland: Zombieland runs screaming in terror over some familiar post-apocalyptic territory, but it's good, gory fun. The most innovative thing is the "rules" for zombie survival narrated by our hero "Columbus" (Jesse Eisenberg) that then flash up on screen throughout the film. "Columbus," is a young man whose overly-cautious to paranoid nature helped him survive the zombie outbreak. He later connects with "Tallahassee" (Woody Harrelson), a redneck with a talent for killing zombies and a hankering for that elusive manna from heaven, a twinkie. Later on, they run into two young grifter sisters, "Witchita" (Emma Stone) and "Little Rock" (Abigail Breslin, in quite a departure). The human survivors call each other by the cities they're from, so that they don't get too attached in case they get infected and need to kill each other. "Witchita" also has some serious trust issues, which doesn't make anything easier for the shy "Columbus," who becomes smitten with her. "Witchita"'s distrust strains credulity at times, and I have to question the wisdom of visiting certain locations at night in a country overrun by zombies. However, this is a fun horror comedy for those who can take a little gore. It's also surprisingly touching in a few scenes, and boasts one of the funnier celebrity cameos of recent memory.

Crazy Heart: Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is an aging former country star on the downside of his career. He tells the head of a local backup band, "Son, I've played sick, drunk, divorced, and on the run. Bad Blake hasn't missed a goddamn show in his whole fucking life." For all that, he comes pretty close, and the years of self-abuse are catching up. (As Indy said, "It's not the years, it's the mileage.") Blake is interviewed by local reporter Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and some chemistry quickly develops. Bad needs money desperately, so despite his misgivings he agrees to open for his former protégé, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a music heartthrob who's doing very well now. There's a competitive edge between the two men, but for all that, Tommy really does seem to be trying to throw Bad a bone. But Tommy's success seems to humiliate Bad, and the animosity is really all from his side. Tommy can't promise the joint album Bad wants, but does offer to buy some songs if Bad can write some good ones, because nobody does it better. Bad gets in a rough accident shortly thereafter, and calls up Jean. He recuperates at her place, romance blooms, and Bad gets much closer with her young son Buddy, to whom she's devoted. Jean asks him not to drink in front of Buddy, and trusts Bad more and more with him. Bad starts song-writing again.

Based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, Crazy Heart features some of my favorite actors, good performances, and some good music. The problem is, if it feels you've seen it before, it's because you have. The difference between a cliché and a classic may be its sincerity, its freshness and its execution. You can see Bad's screw-ups – one in particular - coming a mile away. Mickey Rourke as Randy in The Wrestler was similar to Bad, but somehow Randy's lack of self-awareness made his slides more poignant. Bad has his sweet side, but he's also a reckless hedonist – or to be more charitable, a sadly predictable alcoholic. Oddly enough, while we get flashes of the song Bad's writing, "The Weary Kind," throughout the film, we never really get to hear Bad Blake play it out fully, throwing himself into it. It might have made a good touchstone. Robert Duvall has a minor role playing the Robert Duvall part, Wayne, a religious former drunk who's running a bar. Crazy Heart is a decent flick, and has its redemptive elements without becoming too pat. It's a promising start by writer-director Scott Cooper. I just hoped it would be a bit more original.

(Here's Jeff Bridges on The Treatment and Scott Cooper on The Business. Here's music director T-Bone Burnett on Fresh Air and with Ryan Bingham on the writing of "The Weary Kind.")

The Road: A pretty faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's episodic, poetic novel, The Road centers on an unnamed father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. We never know quite what happened, although it's probably some sort of nuclear holocaust – the sky is dark, and the plant and animal life is all but dead. The man and boy travel south and to the sea, carrying their belongings in backpacks and a battered shopping cart. Along the way, they have to be very wary of other travelers – many of the remaining humans are cannibals. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as usual as the man, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is quite good as the boy. Robert Duvall is predictably wonderful in a small role. Director John Hilcoat, who directed the dark, violent Aussie western The Proposition, makes a good fit with the material. Be warned this is awfully bleak stuff, and the humanity the main actors give the story make the horror elements more disturbing. The man has a pistol, but with only a few bullets left, so they need to be saved. At one point, the man shows the boy how he has to position the gun in his mouth to kill himself, should things come to that. As dark as the scene is, given their circumstances, and the savagery of the cannibal gangs, it is also completely understandable. That it is so understandable is extremely sobering. There are a few lighter moments, mostly with the man remembering his lovely wife, played by Charlize Theron in flashbacks. I read the novel shortly before seeing the film, which may have been a mistake, having it too fresh in my mind. The film is quite loyal to the spirit of the book, although I thought it miffed two key moments – one involving finding an old Coke can, and the other some key advice from the man to the boy near the very end. In the former case, I think the filmmakers chose to make it a more light scene, which the film probably needed. For the latter – I thought it was the most moving scene in the book, and I'm not convinced the filmmakers' adaptation of it works. Had it been played as written, I think it would have been powerful – and Mortensen could have sold it, as he sells everything else in the film. The Road is worth checking out, as long as you know going in that despite some redemptive elements, it's very dour.

(Here's Viggo Mortensen on The Treatment.)

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: The title ain't kidding – Police Detective Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) is one bad lieutenant. If you want a likable hero, this one ain't for you. Terence isn't just a shady cop who does occasionally catch bad guys; he's a junkie with a prostitute girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes, who's very good). He doesn't just bend the rules and abuse his power a little; he uses his power for any advantage in that moment, in a series of strange, disturbing and sometimes absurd incidents. (One shady character says little more than "Whoa!" and "Hey!" in a threatening way.) His drug habit isn't entirely his fault – years ago, he did a good deed and injured himself, and he's trying to manage chronic pain. And as bad as Terence is, most of his comrades in the corrupt New Orleans police force are - frighteningly enough - even worse. Nicholas Cage and director Werner Herzog teaming up feels like a madmen match made in heaven (or somewhere else). Say what you will about The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, it's never boring, as we watch Terence perform a high-wire act of breaking the law, being reckless, and running afoul of a number of powerful and dangerous people along the way. How long can he keep it going? When will it all catch up with him? Can he pull it all off? Is this the stunt that finally gets him killed? And what exactly is his angle, since he may not be as bad as he often appears? Will Frankie's efforts to go clean help him toward redemption, too, or leave him more alone than ever? My favorite line from Terence, who has some wild hallucinations, is probably "Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing." It sums up his crazy, reckless nature and the often absurd, dark comedy of the film – especially when you see why he says it.

This film isn't a sequel or remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 film The Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel – one of Herzog's producers owned the rights to the name and wanted to try to make a franchise. The New Orleans location was pitched to Herzog based on tax breaks and other good deals, but Herzog also thought the atmosphere would work wonderfully, and it does. Again, I wouldn't recommend this one for everybody, but if you're a fan of Herzog, Cage, and morally compromised characters, check it out.

(Here's Werner Herzog on The Treatment.)

The Hangover: The main virtue of The Hangover is that it's actually funny. Doug (Justin Bartha) is getting married, so his buddies take him to Vegas for one last wild romp. Unfortunately, cocky player Phil (Bradley Cooper) and whipped dentist Stu (Ed Helms) also need to bring along Doug's future brother-in-law, the awkward and sometimes creepy Alan (Zach Galifianakis). After a wild night they don't remember, Doug is missing, and they need to use a series of clues – Stu's missing tooth, a hospital bracelet, a parking receipt, a baby and a friggin' tiger in the bathroom – to retrace their steps. Doug's getting married later that day, and it's a race against the clock. The Hangover becomes a raunchy, episodic comedy whodunit. I saw this in a packed theater, and the audience loved it – particularly the end credit sequence, which is designed to be (humorously) cringe-inducing. The Hangover isn't for everybody. This is a bawdy guy's comedy, and it often tries and generally succeeds on the shock value front. Other times, it doesn't work as well. Early on, Alan says something that suggests he's a pedophile or at least pretty disturbed. It's more creepy than funny, alleviated only by his obvious ineptness at doing anything dastardly. Still, it's a bit alarming to see later that he's the one with the baby in the carrier. Meanwhile, the female characters are slightly and poorly drawn. Sasha Barrese as Doug's fiancée Tracy has little to do but get upset over his absence and the impending wedding. That's sorta to be expected. However, while it's nice to see Heather Graham again, her character Jade is pretty much that fantastical sweet stripper with a heart of gold. Finally, Rachael Harris as Melissa, Stu's girlfriend, gives even shrews and harpies a bad name. Harris has shown she can be quite funny, but Melissa is even more one-dimensional that Bradley Cooper was as the dick boyfriend in Wedding Crashers. These elements detracted from the film for me, even though the main focus should be and is on the guys. The Hangover is more about male camaraderie and competition than imparting relationship wisdom, though. Just know what you're getting going in.

(Here's Ed Helms on Fresh Air.)

A Serious Man: A Serious Man might have been titled "The Schlemiel and The Dybbuk." While A Serious Man may be a lesser Coen Brothers movie, it's still the Coen Brothers and thus often entertaining, provocative and memorable, even if it is uneven. The Coens quipped that they were forced to go to Hebrew school as kids, and this film is their revenge. Despite this, and some pretty dark moments, much of the film has a nostalgic feel. We start with a rather creepy sequence with a married Jewish couple in old Europe. The husband has run into an older man who helped him on his way home late at night, and he's invited him over for soup as thanks. But the wife has heard that the same man had died – so she is convinced he must be a dybbuk, an evil spirit. Then comes a knock on the door. (I won't say any more on this scene.)

We move forwad to the present, 1960s Minnesota, where physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is getting a physical from his doctor, and trying his best to live a good life. Basically, the Coens throw a series of misfortunes onto Larry, and he plays exasperated straight man to an absurd world. It's kind of the Book of Job as dark comedy. Larry's up for tenure, a failing student tries to bribe him, and someone's writing nasty letters about him to the tenure committee. His goy neighbor is a hostile gun-toter, his children don't respect him, his brother is living with him and draining his cyst in the living room, and his wife is leaving him for another man. The other man, Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), has a silky baritone and is outwardly kind - even intrusively affectionate - with Larry over the affair, but there's a thick layer of slime and self-interest in all his dealings. Nor are the series of rabbis Larry sees much help – Larry definitely feels God's ways are mysterious, but if God exists at all, why does God allow such bad things to happen? On top of all this, Larry has a series of startling daydreams (mostly about his sexy but expressionless neighbor) and alarming nightmares. It might give Larry some peace of mind if his son Danny could ace his Bar Mitzvah, but Danny's propensity for getting stoned imperils this as well. Along the way, the Coens give us their usual joyful digressions, such as the story about "the goy's teeth." Many of the scenes are funny and memorable, some are disturbing, and a few are touching. The cast does well presenting the offbeat comedy world of the Coens. Stuhlbarg, primarily a theater actor, is a particular standout as Larry Gopnik, who in one of the best scenes lashes out at the absurdity of his universe with the tools of his trade – physics and a piece of chalk. The very end of the movie and the precise timing of events – a decision by Larry, some important news, a scene centering on his son – suggests an answer to Larry's questions about morality, God and the nature of the universe. However, it can be a mistake to take the Coens more seriously than they take themselves, and I'll have to see this one again at some point.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus:
Tony: Where are we?

Percy: Geographically, in the Northern Hemisphere; socially, on the margins; narratively, with some way to go.

Terry Gilliam regains some of his form with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It's not as good as his best, but the flashes of real Gilliam are savory. Centuries ago, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) made a deal with the Devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), and they've made a series of wagers since. Unfortunately, a big one is coming due – Parnassus, who now leads a vagabond theater troupe, will have to give Mr. Nick his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). But then the players rescue a man who's hanging from a bridge (Heath Ledger) – although he can't remember how he got there, or much else – and things become more complicated. Who is this man, whom they dub Tony? Why is Mr. Nick so interested in him? What's his angle – or truthfully, angles? Who are the thugs chasing Tony, and why? Will jealous troupe member Anton (Andrew Garfield) succeed in wooing Valentina, who seems taken with Tony? And just what is the Imaginarium, and what will it reveal about the dreams and nightmares of this or that person? Will stories, dreams and love win out over hedonism and indolence?

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was Heath Ledger's last film, and it's a salvage job. Ledger died during filming, and Gilliam had to stop production for a couple of months and re-write the script. Stepping in for Ledger are Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell (it works, you'll see), who donated their fees to Ledger's daughter. (A key producer died, too. There's a great deal of love behind the scenes in this film.) The biggest problem with Imaginarium... is the character of Tony, because we only learn a bit about him, suddenly he knows all about the Imaginarium, and we're given several rapid revelations about him at the end. Also, whenever Parnassus starts telling a great story, normally about a wager between him and the Devil, he seems to get cut off (Valentina complains about this, actually) – so we don't get to know him as well as we might, either. It's hard to fault Gilliam too much given the circumstances, but the film feels disjointed, especially near the end. All the actors are good, with little person Percy (Verne Troyer) getting many of the best lines. Gilliam continues to use interesting casting, in small and large roles. Lily Cole is pretty, but in an unusual way, with elfin features on a moon face. Tom Waits makes a fantastic Devil. And just as Gilliam transformed New York City into a fantastical landscape in The Fisher King, in Imaginarium... he makes us believe that a little bit of ancient magic can flower on the margins of modern London.

(Here's Terry Gilliam on Fresh Air.)

State of Play: A political thriller and love letter to newspapers, State of Play starts when Sonia Baker, a young political aide in Washington, D.C., is killed in the subway. The news provokes a strong reaction from Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), which makes the media sniff out his affair with her. Old school, shoe leather newspaper reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is an old pal, and has a history with both Stephen and his wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn). And was Sonia's death a horrible accident, or murder? Two other people emerge with evidence, only to show up dead shortly thereafter. Stephen has been taking on some big corporations, and Cal keeps on discovering new clues, not all of which add up. Cal's editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) is no foe to quality reporting, but is all for tabloid material if it'll keep the paper afloat. She has a great little speech about all the stories they can get from running an explosive but not entirely confirmed rumor. She also pushes Cal to take on blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) to help him, because "she's hungry, she's cheap and she churns up copy every hour." Affleck's a bit wooden as usual, but it sort of works for the part, and everyone else is very good, including Jason Bateman, wryly slimy as the shady Dominic Foy.

I'm a fan of the original 2003 British miniseries, and this adaptation captures the spirit of the original. In some cases, it actually improves on it – Dominic Foy's part isn't as padded or annoying, the triangle between Cal and Stephen and Anne is more clear, and the very end is better. However, it's also necessarily less complicated, Anne is a much smaller character, and the plot twists in the final stretch are too compressed. Helen Mirren is good but not as brilliant as Bill Nighy is in the original series, but I'd put that down to less screen time. While this remake isn't entirely successful, it was also underrated and overlooked. At its best, it's filmmaking for adults, with some well-written, well-acted scenes. (And DC denizens will have a good laugh at the teleport from Adams Morgan to the Rosslyn station.)

SLIGHT SPOILERS: The original miniseries focuses more on Cal at the end, and I preferred him sharing the focus with Della in this version, because it's been a team effort. (In the miniseries, the whole office has been key.) Cal giving her the top byline was also a nice touch. Was it generosity, because it'll do more for her? Was it guilt, because he strayed from his ethics? I think it's both of these, but mostly it's because he recognizes that she's shown she's a real journalist.

(State of Play is discussed here on The Business.)

Duplicity: Ray Kovil (Clive Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) meet abroad and have a one-night stand. They seem to hit it off wonderfully, but Ray is MI6, Claire is CIA, they're both after the same item and both can't win. Years later, they meet again and the sparks that fly aren't all friendly. The game this round is corporate espionage, as Richard Garsick (Paul Giamatti) and Howard Tully (Tom Wilkerson) are engaged in a vicious battle of egos and profit margins, seeking any competitive edge. Claire and Ray infiltrate both companies and try to figure out all the angles and the way to make the optimal haul. Meanwhile, their respective corporate espionage teams are investigating their new members as well as trying to outwit their opponents. It becomes a dizzying dance of feints, bluffs, false flags and quadruple-dealing. What makes Duplicity most interesting is the tension between Ray and Claire – can they trust each other on a professional level, or even more importantly, on a personal one? Claire's more manipulative on the personal front, but trust is a major issue for both of them. Duplicity is a sort of a romantic comedy heist flick. It treads some of the same territory as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but does it better - or at least in a less cartoonish manner. The espionage plot works fine on its own, but also makes a nice springboard into an often funny exploration of couples and the struggle for intimacy and trust. Owen and Roberts worked together before in Closer, and while I'd rate Owen as more charismatic and an better actor, Julia Roberts is pretty good here. I found the ending both somewhat predictable and implausible, which is unfortunate, because most of the film is great fun. I think writer-director Tony Gilroy overcomplicated things and made some of the gambits too far-fetched even for these characters. He also can't quite live up to his first directorial effort, Michael Collins, but then, this is lighter fare. I'd say it's a near-miss but still worth a look, and I look forward to Gilroy's next effort. I'd love to see Hollywood try to make more films with this much energy.

(Here's Tony Gilroy on The Treatment.)

Invictus: Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) has just been elected president of South Africa. But during a rugby match, he notices that the whites all root for the South African team the Springboks, and the blacks root for the opposing team. South Africa is hosting the upcoming 1995 rugby world cup, and Mandela sees an opportunity to bring the country together. He approaches team captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon) – and asks him to win it all. Pienaar must rally his underperforming team, and Mandela has a much harder task, running the country. I found the film most interesting as a glimpse at South Africa at that time, and as a portrait of Mandela. There's not much direct talk of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, but plenty in the film demonstrates Mandela's dedication to that approach for healing the nation. The shifting relationship between the security guards – some white, some black – is one of the more intriguing subplots in the movie. They start with great distrust of each other, but there's a certain professional pride there, and camaraderie grows despite some cultural divides. The title comes from a famous poem about conquering adversity that Mandela said to himself while a prisoner on Robben Island. Invictus is a good film, but not quite a great one. The story's interesting, but at a certain point we're just marking time until the big final match – which is strangely not that captivating. Director Clint Eastwood gets good performances as always, and it's worth a look, but I was hoping for a bit more.

(Here's Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman on Fresh Air.)

Sherlock Holmes : Sherlock Holmes benefits from some splendid casting and chemistry. Robert Downey shows the wit and playfulness to make an excellent Holmes, casually brilliant, but more studious and conniving than he first appears. He's also a thinking man's pugilist, and in some good fight scenes that seem to owe a debt to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Holmes approaches fisticuffs with a chess master's calculation and a surgeon's precision. Jude Law makes for an exasperated but loyal Watson. Thankfully, he's not a dimwit in this version (they give that job to Eddie Marsan as Lestrade), but instead a smart and tough fellow addicted to adventure and easily swayed by Holmes to ignore his better judgment. Downey and Law are great together, and it's as a buddy film that Sherlock Holmes works the best. Rachel McAdams is normally a good actress, but she's a bit disappointing as Holmes' great love, Irene Adler. She's gorgeous and shows some of Adler's panache, but her vocal work is surprisingly weak. Mark Strong is suitably sinister as Lord Blackwood. The plot's fairly involved, and for a long time the audience may wonder – did Lord Blackwood actually rise from the dead, as he claims? Is this basically Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula? (Not a bad concept.) Or are there logical explanations for all these seemingly magical tricks? The script handles this dance fairly well, and it all makes for fine atmosphere, but the final gambit/master plot is really pretty preposterous. There's also a scene late in the film that's sold as a huuuuge event – but a few scenes later, it apparently had little consequence (the docks). While this is Action Sherlock Holmes versus the PBS Mystery version, Downey and Law are having so much fun it's an enjoyable ride for the most part, until the excessive silliness of the end. The film sets up a sequel, so let's hope for a less grand evil genius plan and more focus on the characters.

(Here's director Guy Ritchie on The Treatment.)

Brüno: Borat was uneven but had some absolutely hilarious sections, while Sacha Baron Cohen's latest's effort, Brüno, is more scattershot and less funny overall. Brüno the character is a dimwitted, self-obsessed, gay fashionista from Austria, and the film's at its best when it's satirizing the excesses of the fashion world and the narcissism of celebrities and wannabes. Other than that, it's basically Brüno thrusting his semi-naked body onto people and watching them recoil. Cohen had a lot of guts to enter into some situations, including interviewing a terrorist in the Middle East. Interviews with the ambitious stage parents of child actors are scary, and his visit to a swinger's party is likewise something you probably don't see everyday. I just thought it was much less funny, revealing and engaging than Borat.

(Here's Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles on Fresh Air.)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine: Director Gavin Hood goes to an overhead shot of someone howling at the heavens in the opening sequence, and dips into the same well two to three times after that. It played as overwrought cliché and had me laughing. The action sequences are decent, and Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber class up the proceedings. Danny Huston as Stryker can ooze sleaze in his sleep, and Lynn Collins isn't bad as Logan/Wolverine's true love, Silverfox. It's only natural that the studios would try to adapt the origin story of one of the most popular comic book characters ever. Still, it's all pretty underwhelming, and cheeseball without being much fun. Perhaps the stupidest moment comes when super-hero #25 Gambit interrupts Man A from killing Man B who Gambit wants dead, allowing Man B to escape. There's no explanation (other than weak writing) - Gambit just stares blankly like an imbecilic Teen Beat cover model (dirtbag edition). While I wasn't expecting The Dark Knight, this is a step down from the three X-Men movies.

Terminator: Salvation: It's yet another attempt by the machines to kill John Connor! I imagine many viewers went to see this one mainly because, well, they'd seen the others, so why not see the series through? Alas, the trailers and ads gave away the biggest plot point, so it's a bit pointless to meticulously avoid spoilers. The movie's fairly well cast for the genre: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Michael Ironside. The resistance has some neat tricks, like a mobile headquarters (you'll see). However, some of the previous continuity seems out the window, with terminators like transformers, and the humans often seem badly outclassed. The machines' plot also seems unnecessarily complicated and unnecessarily vulnerable. No fail-safes? Why let key targets go? Meanwhile, this future apocalypse's warrior women should be made of sterner stuff. Everyone knows that cover model looks improve fighting skills, but falling for someone and being willing to betray the entire human race in less than two days is fickle even for a Hollywood actress. The original Terminator remains the tightest script in the series, but T2 was solid and a good blockbuster. The third film, while not great, still had a pretty good ending and some inventive moments. Terminator: Salvation has a handful of decent scenes, but this 4th installment just feels like a contrivance-laden, cobbled-together attempt to cash in on the franchise name.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: David Yates, the director for the previous installment Order of the Phoenix and the final two films in the series, does a capable and sometimes touching job with this entry. The storyline continues to grow darker. The villainous Death-Eaters are growing bolder in their attacks on those of the wizarding world, and civilians as well. Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is hunting down essential clues to take down the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and has asked Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) to help him. Most of all, Harry needs to wheedle information out of the newly-appointed Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who is withholding secrets about his former student Tom Riddle/Voldemort. Radcliffe and the other young actors look noticeably older now, and they've become more assured in their performances. Michael Gambon, one of my favorite actors, juggles urgency and tenderness nicely – if one's read The Deathly Hollows, some of his choices have extra significance. Alan Rickman as Snape is suitably inscrutable and menacing, and there's new dimension to the Malfoy family. I thought this was a solid entry, and the climatic scenes were well done. If you've read the books or seen the other films, you've likely seen this already. It's wise that they broke the final book into two films, and I hope they deliver the goods.

Inglourious Basterds: It's alternative history, as a U.S. military unit nicknamed "the basterds" terrorizes Nazis and German soldiers in Europe by scalping them, and seeks to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Quentin Tarantino regains most of his form after the self-indulgent (and often boring) Deathproof. Tarantino cribs from Sergio Leone and others as usual, but this time, the result's far more engaging. The great strength of the film is its unhurried pace. Tarantino gets some good actors, sets up interesting scenarios, and lets the scenes play out at length. This allows Nazi "Jew-Hunter" Colonel Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz), a very smooth, methodical and slow operator, to spin his elaborate webs and then move in. Waltz is superb, the best thing about the film, and the tension and suspense in Basterds comes from trying to gauge how much Landa knows, where a particular machination is leading, and from the threat of sudden violence at any moment. He shares some of Chirgurh's menace in No Country for Old Men, but Landa is more rational and very polite, and his "civilized" veneer is both a self-conceit and a weapon. Mélanie Laurent is very good as Shosanna Dreyfus, a Jewish woman who survived one of Landa's plots as a child, and who now runs a cinema in France. Her life is made more complicated when film lover and German hero soldier Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) tries to romance her. Brad Pitt has fun swaggering as the basterds' leader, Lt. Aldo Raine, and Diane Kruger and the rest of the cast are generally quite good. However, most of the film is actually on Landa and Dreyfus, and we don't really get to know the basterds that well. Credit Tarantino with staying on who's the most interesting, but it's a bit odd that his focus isn't really on the title characters. There are other misfires – the use of a David Bowie song is jarring, anachronistic even if it is an alternative history, and there's a huge build-up to "the Bear Jew" with a rather underwhelming payoff. I also didn't buy a key part of ending, because I didn't buy that a certain character would be so trusting when simple precaution would be effective. It's aesthetically justified, I guess, but I didn't feel it was psychologically. Still, while Tarantino isn't a genius, at his best he offers entertaining, film-literate flicks with memorable scenes and performances. That's nothing to sneeze at, and Inglourious Basterds largely succeeds on the front.

(Here's Quentin Tarantino on The Treatment and on Fresh Air.)

Me and Orson Welles: It's New York City, 1937, and young Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is bored with high school. By chance, he happens to nab a small but crucial acting role – in Orson Welles' production of Julius Caesar. (It's a famous production, and an American Experience episode covers it briefly.) Richard becomes dazzled by the bold, charismatic Welles (Christian McKay) and smitten with the company ingénue, Sonja (Claire Danes), who wants to act in movies. Some of the other members of the company look out for Richard, notably Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and clown Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill). Richard also befriends a young aspiring writer, Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan). McKay is fantastic as Welles, capturing his brilliant, mercurial nature, his charisma and arrogance, and his towering rages. Welles is constantly re-thinking the production and changing things on the fly, sending his cast, crew and producer (Eddie Marsan as John Houseman) into fits. The more experienced players, like Cotton, roll with it all in good cheer. But Richard's twin affections clash when Orson Welles makes a play for Sonja.

Me and Orson Welles portrays the period well, and if you're a fan of Welles, Shakespeare, theater and film, you're likely to like this subject matter. The film has a nostalgic tone, but director Richard Linklater also does a great job of capturing the energy of Welles and this production, making them feel present, daring and innovative (much like the Romeo and Juliet scenes at the end of Shakespeare in Love). The thing is, Efron's kinda weak, and his character Richard is rather naïve, even given the needs of the script. For a kid who wants to be an actor, he's awfully shocked by the insecurities, vanities, flattery and sexual mores of the theater world. It's not as if he's a purist obsessed with the art and craft of acting and the theater, either, an angle that could work. He's initially impressed but often surprisingly nonchalant about his first real gig, and with a famous director no less. Perhaps a better-written part and better actor would have helped, but as it is, Welles is just so much more interesting. At one point he yells, "I am Orson Welles! And every single person standing in this theater is an adjunct to my vision!" The thing is, he's right. That's the gig. He's the mad, demanding and often self-absorbed genius – and he's what we're there to see. Me and Orson Welles is still worth a look, but it's hurt by the marquee casting.

The Men Who Stare at Goats: The Men Who Stare at Goats is a pitch but not a movie, a great non-fiction article or short story, but an almost plot-less feature. It's only 94 minutes, but feels padded for all that, which isn't a good sign. Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is a reporter whose marriage has fallen apart. Desperate for a good story while in Iraq, he stumbles upon Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former member of a 'psychic Jedi' squad trained by the army. Wilton tags along, and tries to learn more. Supposedly based loosely on true events, parts of it aren't that far-fetched, given that the CIA once hired psychics and the Pentagon boasts both paranoia and a spend-happy mentality. The Men Who Stare at Goats does have some great scenes, with most of the humor coming from military men trying crazy, New Age stunts with deadly seriousness – or the deadpan Cassady telling the alternately credulous and skeptical Wilton about the same. The good cast includes Jeff Bridges as a hippie officer and Kevin Spacey as a conniving psychic in the unit. But at some point, the film has to deliver – Where is the story going? What is this all building to? Do these guys have powers or not? If so, how extensive are they? The "real life" angle eventually smacks directly against suspension of disbelief, and I don't think the film really solves this dilemma. This would probably be fine as rental for fans of the absurd, but I was disappointed. I think Confessions of a Dangerous Mind treads some of the same territory, but more successfully.

(Here's writer/director Grant Heslov on The Business (18 min in). Here's the Wiki entry on the original book, the site for author Jon Ronson, and a This American Life episode on one of his other conspiracy stories.)

Public Enemies: It's tough when a director has to compete with himself, but Michael Mann's latest crime flick has nothing approaching the energy, inventiveness and soul of Heat, or even Collateral. It just feels like we've seen this all before, and better. Johnny Depp captures outlaw John Dillinger's charm with ease; he's a scoundrel with some honor, telling one customer, "We're here for the bank's money, not yours. Put it away." Marion Cotillard makes girlfriend Billie Frechette a sexy woman who loves her Johnny, but also knows how the world works. Christian Bale as steely lawman Melvin Purvis has few illusions, either, least of all that he and his boss J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) are that morally superior than Dillinger. They just have a much bigger, more respectable gang. Mann revels in Dillinger's audacity, skill, and loyalty to his pals, but plays this against some brutal violence. Dillinger recognizes the nasty consequences of his lifestyle, yet he's stubborn about adapting to new advances – one of his former colleagues points out he can make more money running his phone room bookie joint than Dillinger can ever make robbing banks. These elements, and the moral gray of the cops versus the robbers, are the best things about Public Enemies. But something's missing. When he's trying to pick Billie up, Dillinger says, "I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn't know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you... what else you need to know?" It's a great bit, but somehow, we do need a little more. Dillinger and his crew are never as compelling as the outlaws in Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Public Enemies is a decent flick, but underwhelming given its price tag and team. The mix of film and video worked pretty well in Collateral, but it’s extremely jarring here, especially in an escape sequence and a climatic scene. Public Enemies also has one of the most atrocious sound mixes I've heard in a major film in a long while (and from past stories I've heard, I'd blame that on Mann, not the sound team).

Funny People: Writer-director Judd Apatow teams up with his former roommate Adam Sandler to delve into the peculiar stew that is the comedian's mind. Sandler plays George Simmons, a stand-up comic with a Sandler-like career in successful (and really stupid) comedies. When George is diagnosed with a rare illness with a high fatality rate, he starts to re-evaluate his life. He hires struggling stand-up Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to write jokes for him, and gradually begins to rely on and confide in Ira more and more. George's mentoring is often abrasive but occasionally on point, not to mention funny. With the gig, Ira's world and perspective begins to open up. A shy guy, Ira struggles to make his move on a female comedian, Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), and deals with his competitive and sometimes insufferable comedian roommates, Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman). Mark's continually smug about his starring role on a horrible sitcom, Yo Teach! The biggest strength of Funny People is that it's pretty damn funny. It could've dialed back the dick jokes for more variety, but the funny scenes keep coming, and many famous comedians make brief and sometimes hilarious cameos (a Ray Romano-Eminem scene is priceless).

Unlike some critics, I sorta liked the third act of the film, as George tries to revamp his entire existence by pursuing the great love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann), who's now married with kids. I liked the idea of this section and many moments in it, because like Jack in The Fisher King, George has faced something powerful and had a taste of redemption, but he's still a dick at heart and struggles to really change. However, the section goes on waaay too long, and since Mann is Apatow's wife and their kids play Laura's kids, it does feel like, as David Ehrenstein put it, "A $75 million dollar frame for a home video of Judd Apatow's daughter singing "Memories" from Cats. TWICE!" Funny People is uneven and overly long, but it is funny, and students of comedy will want to check it out.

(Here's Judd Apatow on The Treatment and on Fresh Air. The film uses a number of fake movie clips, and Apatow created several fakes sites, including a George Simmons site, a Yo Teach! site, and a Laugh Your Dick Off site.)

Observe and Report: There's a scene in the film where someone says something like, 'I thought this would be funny, but instead it's just sad.' That kind of sums up Observe and Report, which strives for shock effect, and sometimes achieves that, but without many laughs. Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is the head of a local mall's security and has delusions of grandeur. He hopes to impress Brandi (Anna Faris) by catching a flasher who traumatizes her. He also wants to become a real cop, but Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) first toys with him, and then just becomes outright abusive (although he has a point about Ronnie being dumb). Writer-Director Jody Hill aims for transgressive comedy, but mostly it's just nasty. He occasionally succeeds. Ronnie's scenes with his alcoholic mom are pretty funny, because she does love him and tries to say the right things, but fails miserably. The insult war between the bigoted Ronnie and Saddamn (Aziz Ansari of Parks and Recreation) produces some memorable lines, as does Ronnie's ridiculous sense of self-importance with his fellow guards - and the rest of humanity. But the film's also violent and mean, and Ronnie is mostly a self-delusional asshole with some small chances at sympathy and redemption that the filmmakers choose to have him squander. It leaves the audience with really no one to root for. Unlike The Invention of Lying, Observe and Report doesn't transgress social norms in original, funny and thought-provoking ways. Unlike There's Something About Mary, it crosses the line but without much humor or warmth for the characters. Consider this more a warning than a spoiler: The worst scene involves a date between Ronnie and Brandi that ends up with them both hopelessly drunk and in bed. I felt it went alarmingly right up to the edge of date rape, while Lindsey Bernstein thought it went over. (New York magazine online also did several pieces on the scene and the film.) The scene's supposed to be shocking and it is, but I can't give it credit for that. It's more a reinforcement of the worst frat boy attitudes than it is taboo-breaking – and it ain't funny. The clips I've seen of Hill's Eastbound and Down are rude and appalling but actually funny, unlike most of Observe and Report. Meanwhile, Seth Rogen can be great, but really needs to stay with better material (stick with Apatow).

The English Surgeon: This documentary played at some festivals and later appeared on PBS. (I wrote about it earlier here.) English brain surgeon Henry Marsh volunteers some of his time every year to perform difficult brain surgeries in the Ukraine, where his counterpart Igor Kurilets struggles to provide health care for his patients despite a lack of funds and equipment. It appalls Henry that not everyone has health care, and he feels honor-bound to do what he can. Henry's a very good surgeon, but the inherent risk is high, and sometimes doing nothing is an agonizing but better choice. Henry observes, "When push comes to shove we can afford to lose an arm or a leg, but I am operating on people's thoughts and feelings... and if something goes wrong I can destroy that person's character... forever." Henry's a driven and compassionate man, and these qualities peek and sometimes spill over his reticent, reserved front (probably a mix of personal nature, his profession and being English).

The core of the film centers on a difficult, risky surgery to remove a tumor from a man who will die without the procedure. That's gripping enough, and this film isn't for the squeamish. However, it's some of the peripheral scenes that have stuck most with me. In one scene, Henry and Igor look at a young Ukrainian woman's brain scan while she sits there. She looks perfectly healthy, but she has a tumor (or a set of them) that have spread too extensively to remove. It's terminal, she'll die before she's 30, and she'll go blind first. She doesn't speak English, so Henry and Igor discuss her case right there and what to say. Henry's at a loss and doesn't want to break the news – as he remarks, how can you tell someone something like that? They finally decide to tell her to bring in her mother (who lives a few towns away) and then they'll tell her. That way, she won't be alone. Meanwhile, throughout the film, Henry talks about working on a young Ukrainian girl named Tanya on an earlier visit, and there's some video footage of her before and after the surgery. Henry regrets doing the surgery because it made Tanya worse, and she still died. But the family was so desperate, it was a young kid, and he wanted to do something. Tanya's mother Katya still keeps in touch with Henry, and at the end of the film he and Igor go to visit Katya and her extended family, who put out quite the feast. Henry's embarrassed by it all, his reticence faced with this Slavic hospitality and effusiveness. The thing is, although Henry still feels guilty, and Tanya became worse and died, Katya and the rest of the family are so very grateful to him. At least he tried. He gave a damn. I'm not sure Henry Marsh can fully internalize this – but he'll keep working, trying to heal bodies and save lives.

(Here's director Geoffrey Smith on The Treatment. The film's official site has many more links to interviews with Smith and Henry Marsh.)

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