Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 29, 2010

2009 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(Here's the latest Film Roundup, a pre-blog tradition, and something I put up after the Oscars. I'm posting this one much later than I'd like, but it's not the tardiest it's ever been! Per usual, it can be read starting here and scrolling down through the other posts. Previous installments are here.)

Many of the best films of 2009 took some effort to find and didn't last long in theaters, but there was a solid crop of well-above-average films with wider exposure throughout the year. 2009's set of blockbusters delivered stunning spectacle and some genuine entertainment. It was an unusually strong year for science fiction and fantasy, with Avatar, Star Trek, District 9, Moon, Watchmen, The Invention of Lying and that film about the boy wizard, what's-his-name. (The Road isn't "genre" sci-fi, but as a post-apocalyptic piece also qualifies.) It'd be nice if indie films and foreign language movies could get wider exposure, because it can be hard to see them even in Los Angeles. Still, the trend continues toward 3-D extravaganzas in the theaters, and a second and often more robust life for other films in rentals and sales. The Hurt Locker is an interesting case in point – as of this writing, DVD sales have earned almost as much (13 million) as the U.S. theatrical gross of the film's limited run (14.7 million). However, with its Best Picture win, The Hurt Locker's extended re-release may double its theatrical haul, and the win will surely increase rentals and DVD sales as well. (Meanwhile, Avatar currently has a 2.68 billion worldwide haul from its theatrical run.)

If you're going to do with two hosts for the Oscars, you could do far worse than Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, who worked well together. Their video segments were funny and clever, and their on-stage banter was sharp. Overall, the ceremony seemed to move more quickly than some other years (but Tivo helps for that).

Where's Jack? It used to be a staple of Oscar telecasts to cut to the King of Los Angeles, Jack Nicholson, but he's been absent for three years running now. Apparently the new rule is that, when in doubt, cut to George Clooney or make a joke about Meryl Streep. (The line about her Hitler memorabilia was one of the weirdest and funniest jokes of the night.)

Neil Patrick Harris is a talented guy, but I felt we were having an Emmys flashback when he came out to start the show. Steve Martin's a good song and dance man, too, so why not just use him? Was Alec Baldwin less solid? Harris did a fine job with some biting lyrics, but starting with him and then transitioning to Martin and Baldwin felt odd to me. (Apparently, the theme was famous comedic couples, and I've since learned Harris was originally slotted to perform with Martin Short, who was sick.)

On the music front, I didn't mind the montage of Best Song Nominees versus a performance of all of them, but it might be better to decide this on a year to year basis. On the one hand, with a montage you lose the chance at a few great live performances, such as Swell Season performing "Falling Slowly" from Once or Annie Lennox's Scottish soul explosion on "Into the West." On the other hand, so many years some nominees are thoroughly mediocre and forgettable. Meanwhile, even the decent songs often would be better showcased with film clips ("That's How You Know" and "Happy Working Song" from Enchanted). I was happy to see Ryan Bingham's "The Weary Kind" (from Crazy Heart) win this year. The song's similar in tone to Springsteen's song for The Wrestler from last year, which wasn't nominated and should have won, although Peter Gabriel's "Down to Earth" and the winner "Jai Ho" were excellent, so it wasn't a travesty. (In a weird coincidence, George Clooney's character in Up in the Air is named Ryan Bingham, too.) Meanwhile, I like the trend of a live performance during the memorial section – Queen Latifah was fantastic last year, and James Taylor did a lovely job this time.

The Pilobolus silhouettes a couple of years back were clever and fun, but this year the Oscars returned to their WTF tradition for dancing. The dancers were talented, as they usually are – that's seldom an issue. But just as Savion Glover tap-dancing for the Holocaust movie was a bizarre, absurd spectacle "honoring" 1998 films, it's unclear what the hell doing "the robot" has to do with Up (WALL-E was last year, guys). Still, since I enjoy train wrecks at the Oscars, I can't fully complain. True, it's hard to top the infamous Rob Lowe-Snow White number from the 80s, but supposedly talented people having atrocious taste sorta epitomizes Hollywood and the Oscars.

The big drama was whether Avatar or The Hurt Locker would win Best Picture. I was happy to see The Hurt Locker win, because I thought it was the better film overall, and for two years running now, the Academy has actually given Best Picture to a film that deserved it, or was at least a worthy contender. (There was some confusion with Hurt Locker's Best Picture win, apparently because a producer was banned and the rest of the team hadn't worked out who would accept.) Still, it was even better to see Kathryn Bigelow win for Best Director for her best work to date. Some of her previous films feature memorable scenes but also can be uneven, overblown or cheesy. However, The Hurt Locker features strong performances and some very taut, well-constructed sequences. I thought it was more cool than disappointing to see a woman win for an action-thriller. We'll see if the field opens up – female directors are more common in TV and documentaries, and female directors have won Oscars before, but in the documentary category (Barbara Kopple has won twice). The lag is in big studio narrative feature films. Meanwhile, there's the issue of genre bias – it's rare for comedies to win Best Picture, and sci-fi/fantasy have traditionally faced an uphill battle as well.

The John Hughes tribute was welcome at the Oscar party I attended, because all of us grew up with those films. The Breakfast Club remains one of the best teen films ever, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off is iconic. Matthew Broderick's anecdote about getting asked every day, "Hey, Ferris, is this your day off?" is proof of Hughes' impact. It's easy to take teen flicks for granted, especially when they focus on comedy or angst. But Hughes really "got" teenagers and never condescended to them. His films were a cut above for their genre, and he delivered an impressive streak. He also had a great eye for young talent and launched many a career. (Judd Nelson's Oscar grooming did not get a favorable review, though.)

On the presentation front, Ben Stiller coming out as a Na'vi from Avatar was funny, but just as in past years, he milked the gag for too long. (The original version of the gag, with Sacha Baron Cohen as well, would have been even funnier.) The Kanye West rush-the-stage moment for Short Doc winner Music By Prudence was bizarre (and is explained here). Everyone agreed Miley Cyrus needs not to slouch. I'm not a fan of the best actor/actresses tributes. I'd rather see clips of their work. At least they cut the tributes from the supporting actor awards. With a few exceptions, the tributes were too long, too gushing, and too serious. On the other hand, Gabourey Sidibe getting a tribute from Oprah clearly made her night.

The best presentation by far was Tina Fey and Robert Downey for writing (video here):

Fey: Great movies begin with great writing.

Downey: What does an actor look for in a script? Specificity. Emotional honesty. Catharsis.

Fey: And what does a writer look for in an actor? Memorizing. Not paraphrasing. Fear of ad-libbing.

Downey: Actors want scripts with social relevance, warm weather locations, phone call scenes that can be shot separately from that insane actress that I hate, and long dense columns of uninterrupted monologue, turning the page, and for instance seeing the phrase, "Tony Stark, continued."

Fey: And we writers dream of a future where actors are mostly computer-generated and their performances can be adjusted by us, on a laptop, alone.

Downey: It's a collaboration, a collaboration between handsome, gifted people and sickly little mole people.

I would have given Best Adapted Screenplay to In the Loop and probably Best Original Screenplay to the un-nominated The Invention of Lying, but the winners, Precious and The Hurt Locker respectively, were both worthy recipients. (Geoffrey Fletcher also became the first African-American to win a screenwriting Oscar.)

Christoph Waltz was a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor, and deserved it, since he was the best thing about Inglourious Basterds and the core of the film. I would have given the slight edge to Colin Firth for the Best Actor performance of the year, and think Jeff Bridges was better in The Fisher King, The Big Lebowski and the (little seen, underrated) A Door in the Floor. Still, Bridges is a fantastic actor and one of my favorites, so it was cool to see him win, give an exuberant speech and slip a bit into "the Dude." The Blind Side was the one Best Picture nominee I didn't see, so I can't judge Bullock's performance. She does get style points for accepting her Razzie for worst performance of the year (for All About Steve) in person, though, not long before the Oscars. I believe that's a first for an actor, winning a Razzie and an Oscar in the same year. (Halle Berry won a Razzie for Catwoman the year after her Oscar win for Monster's Ball, and gamely cried at the Razzies, while writer Brian Helgeland won a Oscar and Razzie in the same year for L.A. Confidential and The Postman, respectively.) Bullock's speech was one of the best of the night, detailing how her deceased mom constantly pushed her, and praising her fellow nominees. It was all the better for her getting teary while starting to move off-stage and thanking her "lover, Meryl Streep." I think Samantha Morton should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and both the Up in Air nominees were fantastic (Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick), but Mo'Nique's big scene in Precious was a stunner. She gave an inspired speech, and her Hattie McDaniel homage was nice. As for the other Oscar speeches, the best of the night was composer Michael Giacchino's one about having a support system, and assuring young creative types that what they're doing is not a waste of time.

I assume the Oscars are rotating genre salutes, since this year they did a horror film montage. The salute felt a bit random, but the segment was well put together. Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman did a nice bit in a taped segment explaining the difference between sound editing and mixing. The brief clips of previous short winners talking about what it meant to them was neat. I'd still like to see more promotion of the three short categories, perhaps with the Academy posting all of them on the web (with the directors' approval) and viewer voting. Many of the shorts are online, but not in an official capacity. The voting wouldn't need to be binding, but could engage viewers and actually have them rooting for categories many ignore. Overall, the biggest problem with the Oscars this year was the lack of suspense in major categories (beyond Best Picture, although The Hurt Locker looked more inevitable as the night progressed). Still, there was a good mix of worthy winners and head-scratching ceremony moments.

L.A. NPR show The Business did a good show on producing the Oscar telecast. Meanwhile, as usual, NPR did a nice job explaining the less covered awards in pieces on sound mixing, special effects, and the "other Oscars." Here's a good segment from The Business on composer Michael Giacchino, who also does the music for Lost and produces it a furious pace.

2009 was a fine year for Woody Harrelson, excellent in both the silly, gory fun of Zombieland and the more somber drama of The Messenger. It was a breakout year for Zoe Saldana, Chris Pine and Carey Mulligan, and not too shabby for Stephen Lang and Aziz Ansari among others. Robert Downey wasn't complaining, either.

French director Eric Rohmer died in January; I have a post on him here. Meanwhile, this year is the centennial of Akira Kurosawa's birth. I linked it last year, but I have a more extensive post on a Kurosawa exhibit here.

In terms of movie-going this past year, I found much less talking during films, but far more people gazing-at-that-bright-smart-phone-screen-for-minutes-at-a-stretch-and-not-giving-a-damn. (I'd think going to see a Terry Gilliam film would self-select such behavior out.) I'd also like to see 3-D glasses that properly fit people who wear glasses, especially given the new onslaught of 3-D films, and considering how many older patrons go to the movies. (And you damn kids get off my lawn.)

On to the reviews. Per usual, I've tried to avoid potential spoilers and label those at the end of a given review if there are any. I figure if you'd know it from watching the trailer, it's not a spoiler. The three tiers are rough divisions, and for several films I can see the case for moving them up or down one. I've also included the usual links, mostly to radio interviews.

2009 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Six

The Hurt Locker: Director Kathryn Bigelow delivers a taut thriller set in Iraq in 2004, as a three-man bomb squad faces one tense situation after another. (The title is trooper slang for being stuck in physical or mental pain.) Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is an adrenaline junkie and cowboy who's exceptional at his job defusing bombs, but also take gutsiness far into recklessness. The youngest member of the team, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), mostly idolizes him, but Sergeant J.T. Sandborn (Anthony Mackie) clashes with him over protocol and basic safety. The situations they face are often so challenging, though, that total mental stability may take a necessary backseat to survival. It's no surprise if they're all wound up far too tight; they do what they need to cope, and it's hard to blame them. Bigelow captures this dynamic and the tension extremely well, and also uses the bigger names in her cast (generally in small roles) very cleverly.

Like Michael (Robert DeNiro's character) in The Deer Hunter, James is someone who thrives in a war environment, and is much less sure on how to operate in a civilian life stateside (more so than most returning soldiers). One of best (and justly celebrated) shots in the movie comes in a grocery store stateside. Different viewers have characterized The Hurt Locker as glorifying war or anti-war. I'd say most of the great war films are pro-soldier, anti-war – sympathetic to the troopers fighting, but portraying war as horrible, something to be done only when necessary. (I also feel that's a pretty common sense stance.) I didn't see The Hurt Locker as a recruitment film, although viewers will of course have their own reactions. I felt it was very sympathetic to the pressures troopers face in a combat zone, and certainly didn't present those as pleasant.

I'd recommend The Hurt Locker with two major caveats. One is that is that it barely portrays the Iraqi perspective at all. With a few exceptions, the Iraqis are presented as the mysterious, dangerous Other, every one a potential danger. The other caveat is that many of the key details, some crucial for plot points, are apparently inaccurate, most of all that the bomb squad would have far more support and not be so isolated (more in the links below). I felt both these were artistic choices to increase the paranoia and tension, and effective at doing so. As long as The Hurt Locker is viewed more as portraying an emotional/psychological truth than a literal one, I would think it's fine. Thinking it's got documentary-level realism would be a mistake, though. The reaction to the film from military personnel has been split, with some veterans praising the film and others feeling its inaccuracies outweigh its other merits (links below).

SLIGHT SPOILERS: James clearly has the adrenaline bug bad if he's considering leaving Evangeline Lilly. (Plus, there's plenty of action on a certain island...)

(Here's director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal on Fresh Air, Jeremy Renner on Fresh Air and Mark Boal onThe Business. The issue of accuracy and Oscar maneuvering is covered by Movieline (read the second comment, too), the NY Times, the LA Times, Newsweek and True/Slant. You'll have to backtrack through some links, but those cover most of the criticism, and some of the praise.)

The Messenger: Pairing well with The Hurt Locker, The Messenger follows two soldiers as they deliver death notices to the next of kin stateside. Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is near the end of his tour of duty. He was injured in Iraq, and is considered a hero soldier, but doesn't feel like one. He comes home without many connections. His ex-girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone) gives him some welcome-home sex out of some affection and probably guilt, but she's pretty serious with her current boyfriend. The unit commander Colonel Stuart Dorsett (Eamon Walker) gives Will his assignment, and grills him about whether he can do it – it's a sacred duty, tough soldiers often become a tongue-tied mess, and it's hard for him to keep good people. Will is assigned to work with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who's very forceful about how important their notification job is, how they have to do things by the book, and why that's essential. Will also needs to keep a beeper on him at all times. The first half of the film is mostly Will and Tony delivering death notices. It's wrenching stuff. Everyone reacts a bit differently, but as Tony says, there's "no such thing as a satisfied customer." And while it's grueling for Tony and Will – we can see the cracks despite their tough demeanors – for those they notify, it's most likely the worst day of their lives. Apparently, writer-director Oren Moverman had Foster and Harrelson go in blind on some of the notification scenes, improvising in character, staying to their notification scripts. It gives some of the notification scenes a painful awkwardness and immediacy.

Things shift for Will after they notify Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), who handles the news with startling grace. She fascinates Will, and he starts coming round to help her with chores and with her young son, who's acting out. There's some mutual attraction, but it's an inherently awkward situation. Will continues to feel isolated. Kelly calls to ask him not to come to her wedding – she invited him, but her fiancé isn't happy about it. One of the better scenes in the movie shows Will watching a welcome-home party for another trooper – the guy gets up to tell a funny story, and accidentally lets too much truth slip in, silencing the crowd. As Will says, coming stateside is like coming home from another planet.

Will does grow closer with Tony, who all but orders him out to go out at night, and they engage in some joint self-medication, drinking at the local bar and trying to pick up women. It's hard to fault Will and Tony too much, given their gig, and the stories they eventually tell. But unfortunately, sometimes they go past self-abuse and recklessness into being real assholes, and not just to each other. All the performances in The Messenger are superb. Woody Harrelson deserved his Oscar nomination, and it's probably his best serious work. I've always loved Samantha Morton, but she gives a very nuanced, touching performance here. Both she and Ben Foster deserved more recognition for their performances. Jena Malone and Steve Buscemi (as one of the notified parents) are also excellent. The Messenger avoids any political commentary on the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Like The Best Years of Our Lives and a few other films, it shows the aftermath of war and its effects very well. I do wish that every chickenhawk saw this film and The Fog of War, though, because while going to war in this or that instance can be honestly debated, there's no excuse for not treating war as the matter of deadly consequence it is. I've been told that death notifications, at least in some branches of the service, are never a regular, long-standing detail. However, from what I've read, the Marines and Army handle the notification and follow-up a bit differently (more below).

(Here's Oren Moverman on The Treatment and Woody Harrelson on Fresh Air and on playing the role. Here's Lieutenant Colonel Paul Sinor, former chief of the army's Killed in Action branch and an advisor on the film. Here's a Fresh Air episode with Colonel Steve Beck, who does casualty notification for the Marines. And here's a piece on casualty notification written by a Marine who did it in the Vietnam era.)

Up in the Air: Jason Reitman's on a roll, going from Thank You for Smoking to Juno to Up in the Air. All three have been smart comedies with substance and memorable characters. Up in the Air is witty, sharp and good in its own right, but with its focus on layoffs, it also really captures the zeitgeist. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) flies around the country, firing people for bosses too gutless to do it themselves. Ryan's doing a dirty job, but like Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking, he's a self-aware scoundrel with some style, so somehow we don't hold it too much against him. He also fires people with some measure of grace and respect. Ryan likes the predictability and anonymity of his air travel lifestyle, and has it down to a science. He says, "All the things you probably hate about travelling - the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi - are warm reminders that I'm home." He's also pursuing the elusive goal of logging ten million miles in the air. Trouble brews, though, when his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) wants to move to a cheaper model of firing people - over the computer. It's an innovation from overly confidant recent graduate Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who Ryan challenges and unbalances. Naturally, Craig assigns Ryan to train Natalie and show her the ropes. Ryan's not thrilled about it, but it does allow him to expound his worldly, cynical, practical approach to life. (Natalie: "Can you stop condescending for one second or is that one of the principles of your bullshit philosophy?") Along the way, Ryan, wary of marriage or emotional attachments, connects with his female double, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), and they start a steamy affair, coordinating their schedules and layovers. (Alex reassures him: "Think of me as you, but with a vagina.") Natalie soon falls apart, and Ryan and Alex try to mentor her – but Ryan begins to discover he's less sure of his own worldview, too.

Up in the Air loses some steam in the final act as Ryan goes home to attend his sister's wedding. There's still good stuff there, but the pacing slows and there's less comedy – it's the sober morning after the party. I also didn't quite buy that Alex would withhold certain information – but I loved her character overall, and it was nice to see an adult, assured female character on screen. Farmiga and Clooney have fantastic chemistry and banter wittily, and Anna Kendrick shows a nice comic feel, especially when Ryan and Alex take Natalie out on the town. Reitman makes it look easy, but this is confidant, skilled filmmaking with a tight script, strong performances, and a good feel for both comedy and drama. The opening montage is sharp, and the final scenes are good in a different way. More like this, please.

(Here's writer-director Jason Reitman on The Treatment and on Fresh Air. Here's the book's author Walter Kirn praising the adaptation and on Fresh Air. Here's some of the real fired employees from the film discussing it.)

Up: Cranky old man Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) doesn't just want everyone to get off his lawn, he wants to get his own house off his lawn - by tying hundreds of balloons to his home. He travels south through the sky in search of adventure, honoring an old promise to the great love of his life, his now dead wife, Ellie. He accidentally picks up a stowaway, Junior Scout Russell. Along the way he runs into his old idol, explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a talking dog, and a giant bird. Pixar just continues to make wonderful films. The premise is fantastical, but we gladly buy it and it all works somehow. WALL-E used many silent film techniques, and Up continues that. The early montage of young Carl and Ellie marrying and their life together is a beautiful little film in its own right, more affecting than most entire features, and the best 10+ minutes of cinema the entire year. Forced to take care of Russell, and faced with a wondrous new world, Carl's crotchety shell gradually starts to crack, and he begins to re-evaluate his life. Pixar spends about four years to produce each feature, but the bulk of the time is on the story and script. While Up has a wonderful set of gags throughout (the old man fight, the dogs), it's all in service of character and story. It's a fun, entertaining film, but also moving at times. (The short film preceding it, "Partly Cloudy," is great, too.) If you haven't seen Up yet, seek it out.

(Here's director Pete Docter on The Treatment and The Business.)

In the Loop:
"We don't need any more facts! In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is king." – Linton Barwick

""Climbing the mountain of conflict"? You sounded like a Nazi Julie Andrews!" –Malcolm Tucker

Take the run-up to the Iraq War and turn it into a satire with complicated maneuvering and a screwball comedy's extremely snappy patter. Oh, and add ruthless bureaucrats, bumbling officials, cocky aides and swearing Scotsmen. Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is a British official with a talent for screwing up official statements and talking when he should shut up. When asked about the possibility of war on TV, he offers a convoluted answer that's heavily scrutinized, and seized upon by both the pro-war and anti-war factions in the U.S. Government (shades of Chauncey Gardener in Being There). The anti-war crew are battling the bullying tactics of the imperious, pro-war Secretary of Defense, Linton Barwick (David Rasche). The British contingent heads over to America, where they're generally treated as a junior partner. Competing interests in both governments maneuver for position ruthlessly and ineptly in a complicated dance that's often damn funny. The entire cast is superb, but Peter Capaldi as the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker is a standout.

In the Loop's understated tone can hide exactly how bold its core idea is. It's original and creative, and I'm interested in seeing how it holds up in a few years. It's sort of like The West Wing with the comedy dialed up, the sensibility of British humor and the style of The Office. It's both funny and frightening to realize how accurate its portrayal of lying, conniving and behind-the-scenes maneuvering is. Director Armando Iannucci didn't want to tie the film too exactly to real events, preferring that audiences could think of the run-up to the Iraq War, but also think, "This could be happening now." To a degree, I think first-time viewers may be better off not knowing that a given character was based on this or that real person. In the Loop is based partially on reality, but it's still fiction and the filmmakers create their own world and characters, so trying to do a straight de-code can be misleading and confusing. Likewise, the maneuvering in the film gets awfully convoluted at times, and the bureaucratic in-fighting may lose some viewers. However, I think most people will get the office politics angle, which is more important than the actual policies. Meanwhile, if you don't like creatively abusive profanity delivered in a thick Scottish accent, this ain't the film for you. (But your loss.)

I suspect, like Waiting for Guffman and other understated, nuanced comedies, In the Loop will get better with age and repeated viewings. Guffman is funny on its own, but even better if you've done any theater (particularly community theater) because of that joy and pain of recognition. In the Loop is much the same for political junkies or anyone familiar with office political warfare.

(Here's Armando Iannucci on The Treatment, Fresh Air and Democracy Now. Here's a swearing tirade by Malcolm, another one from the crossest man in Scotland, the "You're a legend" bit, "How to Swear," "Alastair Campbell Watches In the Loop" and Anna Chlumsky on the film.)

The Invention of Lying: Not since Groundhog Day has a comedy started with such a good "high concept" and fully explored it. (As Jon Stewart told Ricky Gervais, "Why didn't I think of that?") Ricky Gervais writes, directs and stars in The Invention of Lying, which takes place in a world where not only people always tell the truth, they're harshly candid about it. We start with Mark Bellison (Gervais) going out on a date with Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner), who matter-of-factly informs of his physical shortcomings and the remote chance of them having sex. She's not trying to be cruel, but in this world, there's no internal censor and few social niceties. It takes a deft comic touch to get the feel for this right – Anna demonstrates a sort of friendly, oblivious cruelty, but with a touch of sweetness as well, so it's hard to completely dislike her. Meanwhile, it's difficult not to sympathize with Mark as he amiably bears his own degradation. The opening date may be the best part of the film, but the rest is pretty good, too. A sort of mean Social Darwinism rules in most of Mark's interactions. He's extremely put-upon, in danger of losing his job and apartment, and one day at the bank, he just snaps – and claims he's owed more money than he possesses. The teller apologizes and gives more money to him. Mark is alarmed, and scared of getting caught – but soon starts to experiment with this new and potentially dangerous power.

One of the more fascinating elements of the film is that Mark often lies to help people out, such as bucking up the spirits of his suicidal neighbor Frank (Jonah Hill). Honesty may be the best policy, but the utter frankness of Mark's world has left no consideration for anyone's feelings. When Mark visits his mother Martha (Fionnula Flanagan) in the hospital, she's not predicted to last the night, and she's absolutely terrified of dying. To assuage her, Mark starts to tell her of a wonderful afterlife - and basically invents religion. But the doctors and nurses overhear him, and want to know more about this afterlife and this "Man in the Sky" Mark's described, and he's soon mobbed for more details – and everything snowballs. Needless to say, this plotline has not been popular in some quarters. Meanwhile, Mark continues to try to woo Anna, who likes him but is scared of having ugly, unsuccessful children, and is thus susceptible to the advances of handsome scumbag Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe).

It was entirely predictable that some people would find The Invention of Lying heretical, although one could say it portrays some other world and not ours. I found The Invention of Lying to be original, creative, funny, thoughtful and thought-provoking. The endearing thing about Mark is that, while he sometimes lies for his own gain, at key points he restrains himself – especially from lying to Anna. There are times he could easily get what he wants, but he knows it wouldn't count. On some matters, people need to choose for themselves. The Invention of Lying features a ton of great comedians in small roles or cameos, has a funny, sweet performance by Gervais, and it's probably the best performance by Garner since Juno. Perhaps I'll be less charmed by The Invention of Lying on subsequent viewings, but honestly, it was one of the most funny, entertaining, thought-provoking and surprisingly moving films I saw all year.

(Here's Ricky Gervais on Fresh Air.)

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.

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

(Click any image for a larger view.)

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.)