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.