You can outrun cold, earthquakes AND volcanos

Roland Emmerich keeps making Independence Day over and over, shittier every time like a badly replicated clone. 2012 is his latest poopturd, which posits that the Mayan calendar predicted a 640,000 year cycle of destruction caused by solar flares which overheat the Earth’s core and make the crust slosh around like the flaky top of your chicken pot pie after you’ve mashed it with a fork.

“I’m Roland Emmerich. I make poop.”

What annoyed me about 2012 was the utter lack of empathy for the billions of dead. Emmerich’s CG set pieces have gotten crueler than when huge attack ships roasted entire cities; now 400 foot tsunami aren’t bad enough, they have to heave aircraft carriers onto the White House lawn. People praying in Vatican City get steamrolled by the dome of the St. Peter’s basilica. All rendered in slow motion, so we can see it all. The earthquakes are hilarious, with cracks in the asphalt that seem to chase people and split couples apart neatly. The big ones cause fissures a mile deep, but are sure to leave recognizable wreckage so we know what city was just leveled. It’s rather like watching a Final Destination film, except you get hapless gaggles of humanity dying at Fate’s cruel hand instead of annoying teenagers who were asking for it by starring in a horror movie.
This one might as well have been called The Year After the Day After Tomorrow, because essentially it’s that same nutless disaster porn with a vague message rehashed. This time it’s bleakly cynical. Our hero is John Cusack playing a science fiction writer, who is of course divorced and has two kids who don’t like him, even though he seems to love them more than anything in the world; he’s just sort of an unsuccessful doofus whose wife left him for a plastic surgeon with a Porsche. Of course they love him by the end of the movie, because he saves 1/3 of humanity, despite having put them in the predicament in the first place. Anyway, he’s John Cusack playing a grown up Lloyd Dobbler that is hard to dislike. Rather than re-hash the plot, let’s just say he takes his kids camping, makes them walk on Old Faithful’s little bro, and instead of them all being boiled alive, they are captured by sneaky government types led by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Back off man, he’s a scientist.
He’s a pretty naive scientist. Having warned the President of the Earth’s impending doom, he just sort of assumes everyone will be warned, and we’ll have a fair lottery to see who gets on the stupendous arks they hired the Chinese to make. Of course not, the tickets cost a billion dollars, so next to the pairs of elephants, giraffes, and rhinos we get to see extras dressed as Paris Hiltons, the Queen of England, and a bunch of sheiks. A few leaders choose to perish with their people, and oddly enough you don’t see Olympic athletes, engineers and Nobel prize winners getting envelopes in the mail saying “come to the ass end of China to receive an award, and be quiet about it.” When it comes down to it, only Chewie and Cusack seem to have any morals, and Ejiofor only gets it after an unlikely phone call from his Indian scientist pal who didn’t get a golden ticket, and is staring at a 1500 meter tsunami heading his way.
Now I know you don’t go to a blockbuster like this for the cerebral involvement. This makes Avatar look like 2001. But wouldn’t it have been a lot cooler, and more plausible- or at least less bullshitastic- if scientists and athletes and other genetic lottery winners started disappearing, while the Earth begins spiraling into disaster? I know I’m asking for subtlety from a guy who names a kid Noah in a movie with a flood and arks in it. I’m not saying it should be like the masterful apocalypse film Last Night (full review) and really confront us with what we’d do on our last night on earth, but when faced with the extinction of humanity, should you really make me care whether some rich twat’s lap dog survives? It was too easy to forget the billions who were dying in the background, and too much excitement was generated for the arks, and the joy of mankind starting anew without the fetters of all those hungry mouths to feed. Like the craziest of the eco-terrorists who secretly wish the Earth would shake off 99% of humanity like so many fleas so they could live in a hunter-gatherer paradise, 2012 wants me to think like Stalin- a single death (like the Porsche dude porking Cusack’s wife) is a tragedy, but billions are a summer blockbuster. I think it appeals to our basest nature, because we all think we’d be on the ark. It’s sort of like assuming that that Jesus is going to return in your lifetime. What makes you so special?
I liked Woody Harrelson playing a conspiracy blogger so wacky that he was daring Emmerich to keep him in the film. I thought the CG rendition of the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera was amazing to watch. I liked that while New York is shown, we’re spared seeing its destruction for the umpteenth time. I liked Chiwetel Ejiofor (Redbelt, Serenity) on board as the voice of reason and humanity, Thandie Newton in a rather wasted role as the First daughter. The bad guy in the film is named Anheuser, which is kind of cute. Thanks to Mr. Ebert for pointing me at that one. John Cusack did a good job and I hope the cash helps him fund more personal projects like High Fidelity. Roland Emmerich said this will be his last disaster film; let’s hope it’s the last one that is a disaster. Get it?

1.5 out of 5 Mayan poopquakes

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

movie compactor

To conserve paper, I have reviewed 5 recent movies in one post. With one week to the Oscars I still haven’t seen a few. I’m hoping to see The White Ribbon this weekend. Gonna skip Crazy Heart, as much as I like Jeff Bridges, because I saw Tender Mercies. But these are worth seeing:

Big Fan
Patton Oswalt as “that guy,” the face-painting home team obsessed freako who lives in mom’s basement and stays up late to rant on the local AM sports talk radio show. Oswalt once again shows his enormous range (you thought I was gonna say ass, didn’t you?) by totally becoming this role. Written and directed by the screenwriter of The Wrestler, we know to expect him to be a busted up shell of a man filling a hole in himself with his fanaticism. He sees his team’s quarterback one night and he and his buddy follow him to a strip club, and work up the guts to approach him. Things happen and he gets assaulted, and must decide just how much he’ll suffer for his home team. It’s a bit weak in the third act and ending, but as a character study it’s pretty gripping. This is one of the better films of last year that was sadly overlooked, and a fine first directorial effort for Onion alumnus Robert D. Siegel.

4 face-painters out of 5

Big Fan on Netflix

The Blind Side
This movie’s getting a lot of hate. Straight up: I enjoyed it. I think we’ve become accustomed to discounting uplifting fare as inherently shallow, and while it may be a stretch to nominate this for Best Picture, if Avatar is up there this has every right to be. The Hollywood take on Michael Oher’s rise to football stardom, this is a sports story with a deeply human element that is unafraid to tell us what we’re supposed to mean when we say “Christian charity.” The Tuohy family is rich; Mr. Tuohy is a former basketball superstar who now runs a gaggle of fast food franchises. The film obliquely points the finger at our millionaire sports heroes to perhaps give a little back, as Mrs. Tuohy- played with organic brilliance by Sandra Bullock, in what will hopefully be a controversial Oscar-winning performance that will bump Marisa Tomei’s win for My Cousin Vinny as the film snobs’ “least deserved award” category- decides to do the right thing and bring the practically-orphaned “Big Mike” Oher under her wing. This is old-school Hollywood storymaking, not unlike Slumdog Millionaire without Danny Boyle’s directorial strength. John Lee Hancock does a workmanlike job. He also wrote the screenplay, which to the real Michael Oher’s chagrin, makes him a sort of football oaf to begin with, when he was rather skilled by the time the Tuohys helped him. The real story is how they overcome their fear and saw Michael as a person, and shared their abundance of both the material and the emotional to make him part of their family. So what if it’s couched in a tale written for the demographic where both sexes love football from birth? It’s uplifting without being smarmy, and isn’t as simple as its critics claim it to be.

4 out of 5 ladies who lunch but also give back to their community

The Blind Side on Netflix

The Road
Adapting Cormac McCarthy is difficult but obviously possible; No Country for Old Men, anyone? This one’s not so easy, as much of the story is internalized. The screenplay veers from the source at times, to give us a female character to please the bean counters; I felt this was a distracting mistake. The story is simple- an unknown disaster has cut the shackles of civilization and returned man to his more bestial state, and a father resolves to protect his son from the ravages of cannibals and nature, so he may “carry the fire” of humanity, and bring hope to the bleak future. How does the world end? In this version we know it’s a bang, when it was left ambiguous before. Does it matter if it’s a whimper, or fire or ice? Not really, in the grand scheme of things. Humanity is consuming itself, literally. What the movie gets right is showing how the father- Viggo Mortensen- loses hope. How can he carry the fire when it has gone out inside him? Like Frank Darabont’s similar take with The Mist, the father’s protective drive has corrupted him. I found this a little too spoonfed, and I didn’t care for the flashbacks to the mother, though I see the parallels and contrasts director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) was making. My suggestion: see this first if you haven’t read the book yet, and let the book expand on it.

4 out of 5 long pig banquets

The Road on Netflix

Everybody’s Fine
Robert DeNiro plays a retired widower, who Harry Chapin was singing about in “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” He drove his children to be ambitious and worked hard while his wife handled family matters, and now that she’s gone, no one has time to visit. It surprised me by shifting alliances, showing the old man’s own flaws and how past wounds run deep. This one rises above the standard tearjerker, but never goes much further. Bobby is always endearing and is perhaps the perfect image of that sort of hard working family man who was always too tired to really give to his family, but I never really felt his sadness, like Jack Nicholson managed in the similar film About Schmidt. This was based on an Italian classic from the 90’s entitled Stanno tutti bene, starring the unequaled Marcello Mastroianni, and the new script has some nice touches. Bobby made PVC casing for telephone wires, and only talks on land lines (rather like Paulie from Goodfellas); his children are well played by Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale. At first they seem like the usual busy, ungrateful kids but bloom into real people. It’ll do well on cable.

3.5 out of 5 million miles of wire

Everybody’s Fine on Netflix

Food, Inc.
Are you eating? Might want to read this later. This should be for the modern food industry what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was for turn of the century sausage factories, but I doubt many people saw it. Like the lackluster dramatization Fast Food Nation, this documentary exposes the industrialized network of factory farms and how it accepts disease and death among us, its customers, to serve its bottom line. I bet you expect the FDA to protect you from this, but the fact is they were created to promote and protect “farmers” and “cattlemen,” who are now mostly large corporate conglomerates benefiting from government-sponsored local monopolies. We see the victims of E. coli poisoning from “undercooked” beef- which would be perfectly safe if it wasn’t contaminated with, you know, shit- and E. coli tainted vegetables infected from manure runoff, since these county-sized slaughterhouse operations can’t dispose of the cow shit, which could probably fill one of the Great Lakes. Don’t criticize them too loudly, for they are protected by Federal Law (just ask Oprah, who was prosecuted for saying she wouldn’t eat beef until we tested all our cattle for Mad Cow disease, which we still don’t).

Genetically Modified foods are explored as well; they concentrate on Monsanto, not for abstract fear of “frankenfood” as some call it, but for how they have patented life, cornered the market on soybeans, and made it illegal for farmers who purchase their seed to … plant the seeds that were naturally produced. Plants produce seeds; but you can only plant the ones you buy from Monsanto. Your food now comes with a service agreement. It’s an eye-opening documentary, and while I found The Cove important, this is more so. If you wonder why a McMuffin costs less than a head of broccoli, rent this and find out. And wash and cook your food thoroughly. To quote Fast Food Nation, “everybody has to eat a little shit sometime.” Dig in.

5 out of 5 grass-fed free range organic strip steaks, hold the E. coli

Food, Inc. on Netflix

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

mondo mini movie reviews!

This is what I’ve watched in the past week or so.

Black Dynamite
A hilarious homage to the blaxploitation flicks of the ’70s, this one should not be missed. A dose of Dolemite with a dash of The Mack and Superfly, martial artist Michael Jai White plays the title character who’s out to avenge his dead brother, who was working for the CIA when a mafia drug deal went sour. It begins with him kicking an old lady through a door, and ends with him kicking ass at the White House, as his battle leads him to The Man himself. It gets a little silly in the middle when we learn what the Sinister Plot is, just in time for a homage to Enter the Dragon, but the dialogue is so moronically clever that you’ll be laughing the entire time. “If your momma was alive to see this, she’d be spinning in her grave!”

4 out of 5 fat muthafuckas wrestlin’ over pork chops ‘n greens

The Cove
If you ask the average person in Japan if they eat dolphin, they’d say no. So then why are thousands slaughtered every year in a secretive cove in Taiji? This documentary plays like a heist film as the man who trained Flipper, now turned activist, exposes the brutal and bloody secret of the dolphin industry, where hundreds are harvested for amusement parks and the rest are butchered for meat, and because the Japanese fishing industry thinks they eat too many fish. Yeah, really. This doc certainly has an agenda, but all good ones do; it takes great pains to show that the average Japanese has no idea this is going on, and this is no different than the corruption in America’s cattle industry, which keeps us from testing every animal for Mad Cow disease. You’ll never go to Sea World again after you watch this one.

4.5 out of 5 senseless slaughters

A Serious Man
The Coens weave a darkly comic tale of Larry Gopnik, a physics teacher whose life takes on the story of Joband the puzzle of Schroedinger’s Cat as his life begins to fall apart. I found it interesting, but at times deliberately difficult, and a little pretentious. It calls back to Barton Fink, and is enjoyable as a dark comedy if you don’t want to wonder if Gopnik is destined to misery because he’s angered God, is being tested, or has just made a serious of bad choices that like Schroedinger’s Cat, he can’t tell the result of without affecting it. It’s a good discussion film, but not for everyone; if you hated Synecdoche, NY you’ll probably find parts of this a little pretentious. I myself liked it, but felt some of it superfluous. The opening story of the dybbuk makes sense in retrospect, as it can be likened to Schroedinger’s cat, and then the issue of a student who may or may not be trying to bribe Gopnik for a better grade, and so on. There’s also the story of his son preparing for his bar mitzvah, which is both entertaining and nostalgic; did I mention it’s all set in the Jewish neighborhood of Minneapolis suburbs in the late 60’s? Nice touch. Much like the story of the dybbuk, it places it in the past and gives it all the feel of a parable.

4 out of 5 Larry Storches
The Hurt Locker
Wow. This is a war film, and the best depiction of the Iraq War I’ve seen, but first of all it is a character study. A study of the kind of adrenaline junkie operator who can handle the job of Explosive Ordnance Disposal- defusing bombs and IEDs in a war zone. Kathryn Bigelow has made a documentary-style masterpiece that takes the opening sequence of A Touch of Evil, where we see a bomb put in a car’s trunk and follow it, knowing it must go off, and makes it into a gripping war thriller. The movie is over 2 hours long, but felt like 90 minutes. Like the heroes of a Michael Mann film, these are men who define themselves by what they do, and there is a paucity of dialogue. Sgt. James leads a small squad after their leader is killed; they’re short timers who just want to go home, but he actually seems to love this job. And he’s incredibly good at it. The story unfolds like a memoir, with little structure, jumping from a sniper battle in the desert to an Iraqi base rat kid who James takes under his wing, to his men wondering if he’s going to get them killed. He’s a mystery; but in the end, we see his heart, and what makes him tick. It’s a brilliant character study of the kind of man it takes to do this insane job, disguised as a satisfying thriller. It is one of my favorites of the year, and it’s a toss-up to me whether it or Up in the Air is the better picture. Both make great entertainment out of prescient issues we’d rather ignore.

5 out of 5 Best Director Oscars for Kathryn Bigelow, Dammit

The Ghost Writer
Fuck you, Polanski. Come let justice be served. Stop being Noah Cross. Have you made a great movie since then anyway? You’re not getting my money until you pay your debt.

Temple Grandin
Excellent biopic of an autistic woman who revolutionized the beef industry by making slaughterhouses more humane. I read her story in the Star-Ledger years ago, and Claire Danes portrays her amazingly in what will surely be an Emmy-nominated performance. This is playing on HBO, and you should see it. It tries to give us the view of the world through her eyes, and while some of the direction is a bit indulgent and lazy- a montage set to guitar as she figures out how to get on a cattle lot that won’t let women in for example- the story itself is compelling and touching. It’s a TV movie for sure, but Danes performance, and David Strathairn as the teacher who understands her genius, make it worth your time.

3.5 out of 5 moo moo everywhere a moo moos

Dirty Ho
No, not porn! One of the better humorous kung fu flicks of the ’70s. Pita-San and I watched this and One-Armed Boxer vs. the Master of the Flying Guillotine, which has some cool fights and great kraut-rock music by Neu!; Dirty Ho is a kung fu comedy from ’79 starring Chiu hiu “Gordon” Liu, best known as Johnny Mo/Pai Mei from the Kill Bill movies. I’d recognize that bald noggin anywhere! He plays a prince with many brothers who’re trying to kill each other off for Dad’s inheritance, and he tricks a scheming thief named … Dirty Ho… to help him. Let’s face it, the name is what makes you watch this movie the first time, but it has great training sequences and fights, and plenty of laughs and slapstick. Plus a great scene where Gordon “fights” using his servant. An underappreciated classic, if you love kung fu flicks, you must find this one.

4 out of 5 dirty ho’s

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

I may be dead, but at least I’m not in macrame class

The Lovely Bones

Another disappointment from Jackson, which can either make The Hobbit not come fast enough, or make me worry about it being made at all. At least Guillermo del Toro is on board, exponentially increasing their chunky bearded nerd power. Maybe they’ll smash together like Station! from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and make one giant supernerd. The lovely Bones has a lot going for it- excellent performances by Stanley Tucci as the creepy serial murderer, and Saoirse Ronan as Suzie Salmon, his young victim, and our narrator. She’s the one to watch here; she was stunning as young Briony in Atonement, and wows yet again as the believable, freckled ’70s teen who watches her family deal with her disappearance from the afterlife.
The concept is intriguing, but the film lacks focus and was rather shockingly marketed to a young audience- which freaked the shit out of Roger Ebert- and rightly so. But I’m not going to be as harsh as he was. The film’s crime is its length and meandering. Suzie’s ghost brushes a young goth girl as she passes to the other side, and she can sense her, but very little happens with it. Her family is in anguish, except for Susan Sarandon as drinky grandma who seems totally out of place in this story, despite giving an amusing performance. We know Suzie is murdered, so as her last day drags on, we aren’t in suspense, but dread. As her murder goes unsolved, it simmers into angst, and as she peers down as a vengeful ghost wishing death upon the monster who murdered her, we are given some very mixed cues. Her father- Mark Wahlberg- becomes obsessed with solving her disappearance, but it’s made almost comical. Wrong tone. Her younger, bratty sister matures and catches the eye of her neighbor, while Suzie dances through CG heaven with his other victims.
In the end, it just feels wrong. Like Ebert, my first feeling was “boy, I wanna be raped and murdered by a creepy pedophile, so I can go to Where Dreams May Come!” It’s a grave mistake for a story where the brutal lack of justice in the world puts us so on edge that the lack of satisfaction might make us take up torches and pitchforks, and look up our neighborhood sex offenders, or worse yet give youths the idea that the afterlife is a bitchin’ place to be. Personally I like the Sumerian concept of the afterlife, where you stumble around with a mouthful of dirt; nothing like a clod of soil on your tongue to make you appreciate life, eh?

It turns out heaven is a lot like a default Windows background.

Firecracker didn’t like it much either, and she’s read the book. Is the movie worth seeing? I’d at most catch a matinee or better yet, rent it. You’ll miss some of the beautiful visuals, but to be honest, Where Dreams May Come was more memorable in that regard. That movie had problems too, but its unforgettable images of heaven and hell will outlast even Tucci’s lauded performance, which seems more like a reward for tackling so unpleasant a role.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 dead kids

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

playing catch-up

I missed a lot of movies in 2009 and I’m playing catch-up. Here are some worth seeing:

Moon
Milky brought this one over; I’d wanted to see it, but he got it first. This is perhaps one of the best science fiction films of the last decade. Written and directed by Duncan Jones, it tells the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell, Choke) an astronaut who works for Lunar Corp, managing their mining operations on the lunar surface. It of course recalls 2001 but also the ’70s cult classic Silent Running, because he is alone with his robot Gerty on the barren moon. The movie has a fantastic tone of solitude and agoraphobia; Sam has a 3 year contract, but seems to be going a little stir crazy. He starts seeing things; or does he? Is the man on the moon not alone? It’s a great story, and I won’t spoil it for you. This one’s a winner, and Rockwell deserves a nomination for his role. Milky and I both give it:

5 bare-assed moons out of 5.

Julie & Julia
Nora Ephron is hit or miss with me; I loved When Harry Met Sally… but much of her recent work has felt formulaic, so I skipped Julie & Julia in theaters last year when reviews felt that one half of the film was lackluster. And it is, but only compared to the other half. As a whole, the film is quite enjoyable and doesn’t feel 2 hours long. As a food blogger, I should have given this movie more respect. Amy Adams plays the food blogger, who decides to cook every recipe in Julia’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking to bring some meaning to her life. She works for the 9/11 recovery office, and feels helpless as she tries to assist people whose lives were thrown asunder by the attacks. Thankfully, the story is intertwined with Julia Child’s life in France, where after working as a file clerk for the O.S.S. in WW2, she feels empty returning to home life. But she loves French cooking, so she learns how to cook- a decidedly male profession at the time- and then decides she has to introduce America to it. We know her story is a success, but the script manages to convey just how unlikely that was.

Much has been said of Streep’s excellent portrayal, which goes beyond impersonation and makes a lively character of the younger Julia Child based on her memoirs. She says things we would never expect, comparing a hot cannelloni to a stiff cock. (Remind me to read her memoirs –ed.) Stanley Tucci is also perfect as her loving and supportive husband, showing the man’s true range- he’s getting a lot of respect for playing a twisted murderer in The Lovely Bones, but this role shouldn’t be overlooked. Contrast him with Julie’s husband, who seems to be suffering her obsession with cooking. What the film lacks is a love of food, and a bit too much time spent on the mundane and self-absorbed act of blogging. It might be fun to read, but if you watched me type this stuff or fiddle with layouts, you’d rather watch paint dry; and we’re subjected to too much of it, even if it’s only a little. Amy Adams does what she can with the Julie character, but there’s not enough there; it was brave, positioning herself across from Meryl Streep, but unfortunately, she’s not ready yet. If this had been all about Julia Child, it could have been fantastic.

3.5 slabs of butter out of 5

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Andersen does it again. I’m not his biggest fan, but I admire his work, and he makes a wonderful story for both children and adults here. As much as I liked Where the Wild Things Are (full review) I think this is even better. It’s not as wacky as a Wallace & Gromit cartoon, but the stop-motion fuzzy figures are easily as emotive and endearing. And the story works for kids and adults, generating chuckles and grins from all directions, without trying too hard. I had a blast, and Firecracker did too. Like Andersen’s live action films, every moment has little details, the characters all have their little motivations and issues, but it’s all kept lively and fun.

5 Fox Force 5’s out of 5.

Sherlock Holmes
I had reservations about Guy Ritchie turning the world’s most famous detective into an action hero, but if you put expectations aside, this is a blast. Sure, it’s more like Young Sherlock Holmes– complete with cultists operating in the middle of London- but it grabs you early on, introducing Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes the bare-knuckle pugilist. He’s excellent as usual, toning down his twitchy mannerisms and slipping into Sherlock’s pipe and muttonchops with ease. Jude Law is Watson, Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky) has a delightful role as the harried police chief who needs the duo’s deductive powers, and the plot- revolving around an Aleister Crowley-esque magician with plans for Parliament- has twists and turns, but in the end, unravels to rational deduction, as it should. The weak spot is Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, who just doesn’t seem wily enough to be the only person to outwit Holmes. There’s plenty of good fun with set pieces in a shipyard, and a hulking giant that the duo bests with cattle prods and ju jitsu. Looking forward to the inevitable sequel, hoping someone says “no shit, Sherlock.”

4 deductions out of 5

A Single Man
Saw this with Firecracker because it is a rare starring role for Colin Firth in a film of substance, when he’s languished a bit lately. Set in the early ’60s, he plays a British college professor in California, suffering the loss of his lover of 16 years. During a time of red-baiting and nuclear paranoia, he contemplates suicide after losing the love of his life, because nothing else seems to matter. He sees minute details, like his students’ eyes glazing over; he feels like he is drowning, in a repetitive art-house sequence where he flails underwater naked in a back-lit swimming pool. Directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, the film looks beautiful, with stunning sets and some spectacular shots, making 1963 feel even more real and alive than a “Mad Men” episode. However, the story lacks focus and the film rests on the shoulders of Firth’s excellent performance. When a recognizable actor disappears into a role without extensive make-up, it is worthy of note. Also memorable is Julianne Moore as his friend Charlie, looking a bit haggard but also building a fully fleshed character with motives of her own. I felt the ending was a bit of a cop-out, perhaps cautionary, but it’s an enjoyable if morose character study of an invisible man suffering the loss of a love that at the time, still dared not speak its name. Expect an Oscar nom for Firth.

3.5 Calvin Klein commercials out of 5

short but sweet

Here are some short reviews of movies I liked this year, but missed reviewing.
District 9
This one lived up to expectations as a surprisingly good science fiction story that incorporated some real-world issues. But let’s face it, we’re watching to see the “prawns” tear people’s arms off, mecha power suits fire explosive rounds into Nigerian warlord’s skulls, and fire energy weapons that make people burst into goo. I wish it had lingered a bit longer on how we first stereotype races as cute ‘n cuddly and needing our help, and then hate them when we feel burdened by them requiring our help longer than we like; it was a little too black and white, because the meat of the story begins long after we hate them. I enjoyed the movie immensely, and liked the “Christopher Johnson” alien character quite a bit- he has some depth. It’s not a groundbreaking film, but it came out of nowhere and is satisfying as both an action picture and a science fiction tale. The quasi-documentary style and sequel setup, along with its bleak and cynical view of corporate and government power, make it both compelling and just plain fun.
Star Trek
Now I liked this one, and felt they successfully rebooted the franchise, but to be honest it’s really just space opera fare now. The original series tried to tackle some issues and that’s what made it groundbreaking, but all we remember is Kirk without his shirt fighting some guy with a bug mask on his head and getting it on with sexy green ladies. And wouldn’t you know it, we get the sexy green lady. This one’s a crowd-pleaser and doesn’t take any chances, ret-conning like crazy with dubious explanations so they can reboot and still satisfy the nerdy purists. I had a good time, but there’s very little depth here except for the excellent Zachary Quinto as Spock. It looks and feels like every other J.J. Abrams project, with his forced, fast character introductions that make Michael Bay’s look well thought out. But there’s enough cool and explody stuff to distract you, just as in Cloverfield. This isn’t something I’d watch again, but he got me interested in seeing the inevitable next movie.
The Brothers Bloom
This one was a great surprise; it feels like David Mamet meets Wes Andersen. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, who’d previously done the refreshing high-school noir Brick, this one’s about the two best con men in the world, brothers played by Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo. They want one last con against a rich heiress (Rachel Weisz) who spends her time in an aging estate, learning how to juggle, fence, unicycle and so on, at her whim. The brothers and their silent explosives expert, Bang-Bang (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel and Survive Style 5+) begin setting up the long con and the convolutions of who’s conning who unravel layer after layer, but you’re never distracted by the plot. The characters are amusing and fun, and the comic timing is impeccable. This one’s a lesser known gem of 2008, and worth hunting down.
An Education
This swingin’ London of the ’60s sleeper hit has some excellent performances- Carey Mulligan as the precocious teen who has an unlikely romance with slick Peter Sarsgaard, and Albert Molina as her worried father. Emma Thompson gets a nice change of pace as the stern school principal. This movie was good fun with emotional punch, a fine period piece and coming of age story that brings ’60s London to life without camp or exaggeration, and never strays too far from reality. Mulligan’s first starring role is a smash, and we’ll be seeing a lot more of her soon, I imagine. The third act is a bit rushed, but it ends as it should. The screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on Lynn Barber’s memoir, is sharp and witty, but full of humanity. It’s a refreshing tale where lessons are learned, but it’s far from cautionary. A real surprise.

Paranormal Activity

I had high hopes for Paranormal Activity, partly because of all the hype, and partly because when I was a kid, I happened upon a book of demonology and witchcraft that spoke of these manifestations, and it scared the hell out of me. But it also had lots of nude photos of witches performing Wiccan rituals, so I couldn’t just throw it away! I was 12. That stuff was gold, before the internet. In the end, the movie was disappointing, squandering some great build-up and a compelling premise with a muddled ending where it finally gets derivative and unoriginal. The alternate ending- what I imagine was the original- is much better, and I suggest you watch it first. I sure wish I had!
This is another “found footage” film like The Blair Witch Project, but this time the plot centers around a young couple- Katie and Micah- living in their new house. Creepy things happen at night, so Micah buys a video camera to see what’s really going on. Katie tells him she has felt this presence since she was 8 years old, when their house burned down, and it comes and goes. Micah wants to confront it- suggesting the good ol’ Ouija board- though a psychic Katie calls suggests against it. He says she’s not haunted by a ghost, a human spirit- but a demon.

We had another demon movie this year, Drag Me to Hell (full review)– and that’s the better one. Sure, it’s campy and more of a gross-out Tales of the Crypt type story than a scare-fest, but the writing is much better. On the other hand, this was made for $15,000 in 10 days by first time writer-director Oren Peli, and it’s quite impressive for that. And it’s certainly better than bigger budget horror like the pathetic The Haunting in Connecticut (full review) that I endured last year. It works best when it is creepy, and makes us wonder just what this spirit tormenting Katie is up to, and if it exists at all. Ending stories is often the most difficult part, and that’s where it falters. It builds up great tension- with the demon smashing a photo of Micah, making its intentions quite clear- but the changed ending, according to IMDb trivia it came at the suggestion of Steven Spielberg no less- is a cop-out.
After 90 minutes of clever creepy scares, and clues leading us toward what we can only hope is a revelation as to the nature of the invisible beast, we get a jump-scare and a hackneyed crawling “creepy walk” that reminded me of The Ring. I felt cheated. The story hints at a demonologist who can help with the problem, but he never shows up; I didn’t want to spoon-fed, but something more than “it’s completely random!” would have been appreciated. It’s worth seeing if you like horror, but don’t expect a lot. Trick ‘r Treat (full review) was much more rewarding.