December 2007 Reading/Watching/Playing Recap

New record set again! Twenty-six movies this month. I love vacation time. And having awesome libraries around. And art-house theatres. After the jump, reactions to No Country for Old Men, Cars, Rushmore, Flags of Our Fathers, Slacker, The Squid and the Whale, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Underworld: Evolution, The Black Dahlia, MirrorMask, Juno, Notes on a Scandal, Interiors, The Illusionist, Mass Effect, Gears of War, and others.

Film

No Country for Old Men
No Country for Old MenCritics around the country have been lavishing praise on the Coen brothers‘ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s novel for months now, and that praise is not undeserved. After churning out the undistinguished Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers, the Coens are back in form; No Country for Old Men is the perfect vehicle for their violent, macabre humor and stacks up well against Fargo and O Brother Where Art Thou. Llewellyn Moss, a Vietnam vet and cowboy holdover from an earlier era (a pitch-perfect Josh Brolin) finds a sackful of money left at the scene of a drug deal gone wrong and takes it, hoping to secure a better life for himself and his wife. Unfortunately for him, Anton Chigurh is also after the money. Chigurh is relentless, heartless, calculating, and creepy as all get-out, yet Javier Bardem also manages to keep him from being flat. If Bardem doesn’t get at least an Oscar nomination, something has gone even more wrong than usual down at the Academy. Tommy Lee Jones completes the cat-and-mouse triangle as the sheriff trying to track down Chigurh and protect Llewellyn. The film is unrelentingly dark, yet there are also many humorous moments, especially between Jones and his deputy–dark humor is a trademark of both the Coens and McCarthy. They’re really a perfect match for each other, and together they’ve created a beautifully made piece of cinema.
Superior
IMDb | The Frame

Half Nelson
Half NelsonA high school history teacher deals with his loneliness and isolation by staying drugged up most of the time; his one ray of hope comes in the unlikely form of one of his inner-city students struggling with her own problems. The nuanced performances by Ryan Gosling and newcomer Shareeka Epps carry the film from routine teacher-student story into something a bit more intriguing. It’s quite unassuming, which I usually consider a good thing, but Half Nelson is almost too unassuming for its own good–it nearly risks being forgettable.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Cars
CarsWhen I say that Cars is lesser Pixar, that’s not really much of put-down. It’s still a heckuvalot better than most other movies out there, especially family-friendly movies. The story of a hotshot racecar forced to put his ego aside and help out an ailing town is rather weak compared to most of Pixar’s efforts; in fact, it may the closest they’ve come so far to the typical message that drips from most kiddie fare. But they’ve surrounded it by enough clever sight gags (many of which I didn’t even catch until the second time through), automotive world celebrity cameos (my dad recognized the guys from the radio show Click and Clack; I never would have), and genuine nostalgia for Route 66 and a bygone era to capture the adult audience as well. While it fails to hit the heights of The Incredibles or Monsters Inc., it keeps up Pixar’s streak of quality output.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Disturbia
DisturbiaIf you’re going to remake Rear Window, this is at least a good direction to go. The source material is clear to anyone who’s seen Rear Window, but Disturbia has enough of its own concerns and sensibilities to keep it from feeling like a stale do-over of a what is quite possibly my favorite film of all time. That doesn’t necessarily mean Disturbia is good, but it’s not bad. It gets pretty predictable by the end, and the police officers are rather stupid, which gets annoying quickly. Still, it’s an enjoyable waste of a couple of hours. But really. See Rear Window.
Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Rushmore
RushmoreApparently sometime along the way I almost inadvertently became a Wes Anderson fan, yet I neglected to see Rushmore. Until now. And I wasn’t at all disappointed. Jason Schwartzman is a high school student at the prestigious Rushmore Academy and participates in more extracurricular activities than you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately this leaves little time for, like, studying, and he’s about to be expelled for failing everything. Meanwhile, he’s further distracted by vying for the attentions of Rushmore’s first-grade teacher (Olivia Williams) with Bill Murray. It’s defiantly unconventional, focusing as it does on a friendship between a high school student and a fifty-ish man, both of whom are in love with a thirty-something teacher. Yet it’s both sweet and edgy without ever turning sentimental or offensive. Count me in for whatever Anderson does in the future.
Well Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Flags of Our Fathers
Flags of Our FathersIt’s a fascinating idea to make a movie focused on the famous Iwo Jima photograph and the effect that it had on the morale of the country as well as on the men who were in it. I’m not sure the movie as a whole fulfilled the premise–the pacing was a bit off at times and the frame story was a bit weak. Still, every Clint Eastwood film I see, I’m more drawn to him as a director. He has a wonderful eye for composition, and can I just say how great it was to have SOME FRIGGIN’ LONG SHOTS. Sorry, momentary anger at various current directors who are so in love with close-ups they’ve forgotten how to pull back and show some scope. Eastwood is old-fashioned in the good sense of the term; he knows how to use the best of classical cinematic techniques and still keep a suitably modern sensibility. I’m looking forward to seeing Letters from Iwo Jima, as everything I’ve heard acclaims it as the better of Eastwood’s two WWII films last year.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

The Science of Sleep
The Science of SleepWhat a disappointment. After Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I was expecting great things from this Michel Gondry film. I’ve heard mixed things about it, so I suppose some people must have liked it. Might give it a second chance at some point, but after one viewing…it was just pointless, incoherent, Gael Garcia Bernal‘s fantasies didn’t relate very well to his real life, and it had NOTHING of the transcendence of Eternal Sunshine. I don’t even want to think about it any more.
Below Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Broadway Danny Rose
Broadway Danny RoseIn this lesser Woody Allen film, Danny Rose (Woody) is a theatrical agent whose clients always leave him when they start becoming successful. His current client, a has-been tenor trying to make a comeback, gives him further grief by having an affair with a young woman (Mia Farrow) with gangster connections. Not only does Danny worry about the tenor’s wife, he also gets himself in trouble with the woman’s family. Farrow is fun as she imitates a gangster moll, but there’s not really enough to the story to make the film more than mildly entertaining.
Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Slacker
SlackerI wasn’t sure what to expect from this early Richard Linklater film, which has gained a good bit of renown in indie film circles, pretty much because I simply didn’t read much about it before I watched it. There’s not a plot at all really, as Linklater simply follows a series of young Austinites (highly educated, but not highly busy) as they walk around and talk. And talk. And talk. But since Linklater is incredibly good at writing really talky scripts (cf Before Sunrise, Waking Life, etc.), it works. Also, the way he moves from character to character is really fluid, as if we, too, are just another Austinite listening in on all these meandering conversations. I actually think I’ll like it better the second time through, when I’m not distracted looking for a plot that isn’t there.
Well Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

The Squid and the Whale
The Squid and the WhaleJeff Daniels and Laura Linney are married writers/academics who finally drive each other too crazy to keep living together, sending their two adolescent sons into turmoil with them when they separate. Though the characters in the film are constantly at cross-purposes and seem to willfully misunderstand each other, everything about the film works together to create what really is one of the best films of last year. I had read that it was, but couldn’t believe that a film about a divorce could be great. I was wrong. Writer/director Noah Baumbach has crafted a highly intelligent script which is achingly witty and bitterly funny; the acting is superb all around; the music fits beautifully, and even the setting (1980s Brooklyn) is something of a character. Too bad I’ve heard much less positive things about Baumbach’s current film Margot at the Wedding.
Superior
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Day of Wrath
Watched and reviewed for the Film Bloggers Top 100 Non-English Language Films Project.
IMDb | Amazon (only available in the Carl Theodor Dreyer box set) | The Frame

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The Three Burials of Melquiades EstradaI call Tommy Lee Jones as the next Clint Eastwood-esque actor-director crossover. Jones directed and starred in this very good little contemporary western, playing a landowner who vows to return the body of one of his Mexican workers to his home after he is killed. The film looks beautiful, nearly as good as anything Eastwood or Peckinpah have done, encompassing Texan and Mexican open spaces as well as the small towns in each. A parallel and intertwining story follows a young border patrol officer and his wife (who is bored to death in the tiny town where he works); at first the film makes him out to be a total jerk and I wondered if it wouldn’t be better to make him sympathetic. However, Jones knew all along what he was doing; the film is as much about the border patrol officer’s redemption arc as it is about Jones’s loyalty to Melquiades Estrada. All in all, not as even a film as I’m Jones will eventually make with more practice, but one well worth watching.
Well Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Underworld: Evolution
Underworld EvolutionSelene the vampire deathdealer and Michael the hybrid vampire/werewolf are back, this time with more backstory about how the whole vampire vs. lycan war got started in the first place like 800 years ago. That backstory is pretty silly, as is some of the vampire mythology, and honestly, could Michael be more annoying? While we’re on the subject of annoying, what sort of accent is Bill Nighy trying to do, because it’s not good. On the other hand, Kate Beckinsale in skin-tight leather kicking ass with the same cool blue filter from the first film. And that’s really all I was expecting out of the film–Kate Beckinsale looking hot. Since I got that, I was satisfied.
Below Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

The Fallen Idol
The Fallen IdolBefore author Graham Greene and director Carol Reed teamed up for the magnificent The Third Man, they did this smaller, but still quite good, suspense film. The “idol” of the title is butler Ralph Richardson, who works for an ambassador’s family in London; the idolizer is the ambassador’s little son. Bates is the boy’s only real friend and protector from Mrs. Bates, who runs an extremely strict household. Bates would also like to get out from under Mrs. Bates’ thumb, especially since he’s fallen in love with another woman. The interesting thing about the film is that the bulk of the story is very adult, dealing with adultery, divorce, and eventually perhaps murder, but it’s told almost entirely from the boy’s perspective. He doesn’t really understand everything that’s going on (much of which he overhears in fragments through cracked doors and one-sided telephone calls), which places the audience in a position to see what is a fairly conventional story from a fresh perspective.
Well Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

The Beat That My Heart Skipped
The Beat That My Heart SkippedIn this French movie, a young guy who acts as the gangster muscle behind his father’s real estate business yearns to escape his life into that of a concert pianist (his late mother’s profession). Working with a Chinese woman recently arrived in Paris (who speaks no French), he practices for an audition that might change his life, while also dealing with the demands of his father’s business. It sounds far-fetched, but I hoped that the French sensibility might make it work. What actually happened is that I came very close to turning it off in the middle due to boredom–about as close as I’ve ever come while watching a film. Yet I’m not willing to say it’s really that bad of a movie, because I was overly tired and I probably shouldn’t have been watching anything. Honestly, I think it’s probably fairly good, just completely not what I was in the mood for, and not as good as I was hoping.
Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Lucky Number Slevin
Lucky Number SlevinOkay, now this one is just bad. The trailers made it out to be a sort of comedy action film along the lines of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. It’s true that the beginning tries to be funny, but mostly fails, and then it turns into a sadistic revenge drama with almost no redeeming features. Josh Hartnett adds another lackluster performance to his increasingly lackluster filmography, and Lucy Liu is on board, but doesn’t do anything but posture. If you’re going to have an action movie and cast Lucy Liu, why would you not give her any action sequences? For serious. The twist in the story is intriguing, but the complete lack of humanity in the denoument destroys anything interesting in the script.
Well Below Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

The Black Dahlia
The Black DahliaOne of these days I’m going to a) start trusting Netflix’s estimated star ratings for me (they guessed I’d rate this two stars) and also b) remember that Josh Hartnett usually chooses terrible movies to be in. Again, a movie about a notorious unsolved Hollywood murder sounds intriguing. Even the way the film ends up focusing on the detective and how the investigation affects him could be a good movie–after all, that’s basically what Zodiac did. But The Black Dahlia is, if anything, a third-rate imitation of Zodiac (not really, since it came out earlier), using the brutal murder merely as a jumping-off point to a perverse and stupid and overlong story. I’m starting to expect this sort of thing from Hartnett, but Hilary Swank is usually smarter than this. And director Brian DePalma always tends toward the overly violent, but this beneath him…he’s capable of much better (cf. The Untouchables).
Well Below Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

MirrorMask
MirrormaskAfter this snuck by in theatres with hardly a murmur, I was prepared for it to be really disappointing. Perhaps expectations are everything, because I found it quite a pleasure. I can understand why it wouldn’t have gained mainstream appeal, though…its story about a teenage girl who escapes into a fantasy world to help deal with the illness of her mother caused it to be marketed almost as a kids’ movie, but its flamboyant visual quality (the art is by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman) is aimed much more at adults. In fact, it’s almost as virtuosic in its visual style as Jean-Pierre Jenuet‘s City of Lost Children, which is not at all for children. Helena, the main character, doesn’t want to work with her family’s circus troop, preferring to spend her time drawing, but repents when she fears her mother’s physical collapse is her fault. Then fantasy kicks in and she ends up trapped in the world she’s drawn, her own life taken over by a doppelganger from that created world. The story itself is a simple enough fantasy, but the visuals are incredible and make up for whatever triteness the plot allows to seep in.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Juno
JunoIt’s been hailed by critics everywhere, it’s been called this year’s Little Miss Sunshine (it isn’t; it’s less calculating), Ellen Page has been acclaimed for her performance as the unexpectedly pregnant teenager Juno. What should I say except that it lived up to all I’d heard, Page impressed me even above my expectations, and the script is one of the cleverest of the year, though it does stoop to the occasional easy joke. But the show is Ellen Page’s from start to finish. Juno is smart, snarky, and independent, but a good portion of her persona masks her vulnerability and her fear of creating a doomed relationship. Subtle expressions of affected apathy and deep caring shift across Page’s face from second to second. If she doesn’t win an Oscar for something within the next five years, I’ll eat my shoe (Juno isn’t an isolated triumph for her; she was also incredible a couple of years ago in Hard Candy). Meanwhile, the pregnancy plot isn’t sugar-coated, nor is it vulgarized; it might be said that Juno is the answer to the decidedly male-centric Knocked Up, which hardly allowed Allison to be a round character at all. I pretty much agree, but I can imagine that Knocked Up‘s supporters will point out that Juno‘s teenaged father (Michael Cera) is given a bit of a short shrift here, as a father at least, if perhaps not as a potential boyfriend. He has very little say in the decisions Juno makes about the baby’s future. I will point out that of the three big unplanned pregnancy comedies this year (Waitress is the third), Juno is the only one that even acknowledges the concept of abortion. I’m not in favor of abortion, but the fact that Juno considered it and rejected it, instead choosing to find an adoptive couple, felt a lot more realistic than Waitress‘s offhanded rejection and Knocked Up‘s obliviousness of it.
Superior
IMDb | The Frame

Three Kings
Three KingsGeorge Clooney and Mark Wahlberg lead a quartet of Desert Storm soldiers who go after a cache of Kuwaiti gold once peace is declared. Not unexpectedly, everything goes wrong as their quest sparks violence between Iraqi Republic Guard and the underground resistance to Saddam Hussein’s reign. The film starts off farcical in tone, gradually moving into drama and nearly tragedy by the end, but it doesn’t feel uneven. It’s a natural and well-paced progression, raising the film above the average actioner.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Notes on a Scandal
Notes on a ScandalAny time you have actresses like Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench together in a movie, expect incredible acting and plenty of sparks, if nothing else. Blanchett is a thirty-something art teacher who becomes involved with one of her fifteen-year-old students. When Dench discovers the affair, she uses her knowledge to gain emotional control over Blanchett, trying to filfill her own illicit desire for the younger teacher. In less competent hands the story could have been merely prurient, but it isn’t…it’s an electrifying exploration of obsession. Not to mention a master course in the art of acting, as both actresses manage to make their characters simultaneously sympathetic and offputting. I actually didn’t watch the film for a long time because I didn’t think the story sounded that great, but this is truly a case where the quality of the filmmaking raises the material above itself into something special.
Well Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Watched for the Film Bloggers Top 100 Non-English Language Films Project. Review forthcoming.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

A Fistful of Dollars
A Fistful of DollarsI’ve already seen The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which is the third in the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood Man With No Name trilogy of spaghetti westerns of which A Fistful of Dollars is the first. I don’t like watching series out of order, but I don’t think it matters much in this case. Eastwood’s nameless character lopes into a small Texas town from nowhere and soon finds himself caught in the middle of an ongoing feud between the two powerful families that run the town. He seems to waver back and forth between amoral mercenary desires and noble actions–he may not be classical Hollywood’s Western hero, but he draws on that mythology, breathing new life into the genre. The film isn’t as good as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (I haven’t seen the middle entry For a Few Dollars More, but supposedly it isn’t either), but it’s a solid film.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Interiors
InteriorsIn case anyone doubted Woody Allen‘s admiration for Ingmar Bergman, he made this film to prove it (I suppose his use of Smiles of a Summer Night as basis for A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy also counts). Interiors is about the best imitation of a Bergman chamber drama you could ask for, down to the spare set design, strained family relations, and a climax involving an angry sea. Still, it is also very much Allen’s film–his first straight drama–focusing on deeply neurotic, introspective characters unable to get outside their own heads for long enough to form really true relationships. The mother in the film tries to control her interior life and that of her family in the same way that she controls her living spaces as an interior designer, from whence comes the title. Allen is a bit more didactic in the explanation of that theme than Bergman would have been, but hey. That’s why it’s an Allen film rather than a Bergman one, right?
Well Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

The Illusionist
The IllusionistWhen The Illusionist and The Prestige came out nearly at the same time last year, I set my sights on The Prestige as the one that interested me the most. After all, Christopher Nolan is a director I like a lot, Christian Bale is consistently good as well as really hot (count Hugh Jackman in for at least the latter as well), and I like Scarlett Johansson a lot more than Jessica Biel. I ended up not seeing either one in theatres, and being generally impressed though a little offput by The Prestige several months later. When I finally saw The Illusionist this month, I was really impressed. In fact, I think I actually like it better than The Prestige. It’s more conventional in one way, in the sense that it focuses on the people more than the flamboyant magic tricks. But what I really loved was the way it was shot, using a lot of low-contrast lighting, almost sepia tones, and iris filters. The overall effect is to make the film look like the photographs and films of the late 19th century. Yet the effect never feels like it’s being used its own sake, but it complements the setting and the needs of each particular shot. Also, Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti are among the best actors working right now (which I already knew), and Biel was better than I expected her to be. All in all, a nice surprise.
Well Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

The Good Shepherd
The Good ShepherdMost of what I had heard about this Robert DeNiro-directed CIA film is that it was sort of slow, but good. And that’s a fairly accurate assessment. Matt Damon is a serious Yale graduate recruited into the newly formed CIA after World War II; the film follows his career and personal life through the mid-1960s. There are a lot of good sections and moments as Damon has to decide whether to place the CIA or his family first, and experiences the consequences of those decisions. But a good strict editor would’ve helped, because it is too long–not too slow, because the pacing works most of the time. There’s simply too much film here for the story.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon | The Frame

Books

The Off-Hollywood Film Guide by Tom Wiener
The Off-Hollywood Film GuideI didn’t read every word of this, but since I managed to make it through the month of December without reading a single book completely, I figured I could at least recommend this one. In this book of film recommendations, Wiener considers anything not primarily financed by one of the major Hollywood studios. Basically, then, anything independently produced in any country or financed by any country other than the United States is fair game. This approach means that the book is very wide-ranging in scope, including absolute classic foreign films like those of Bergman, Fellini, Godard, and Kurosawa, as well as lesser-known independents. It really shows the tremendous variety that exists outside of the multiplex mainstream, so if you’d like to see what all your local multiplex doesn’t play, Wiener’s book is a good place to start. His write-ups of each film are quite well-written, and I ended up burdening my Netflix queue even further with films that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered simply because his entries intrigued me.
Above Average
Amazon | The Frame

Games

all games played on the Xbox360

Mass Effect
Mass EffectMass Effect has been near the top of my must-get-when-it-comes-out list as soon as I started hearing about it. I mean, Bioware’s three previous Xbox RPGs (Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2 and Jade Empire) are among my favorite games of all time. I’ve now played through it once and am working on the second time through, and I have a pretty solid lists of likes and dislikes established. Things I Like: The story. Is awesome. It’s roughly the year 2150, some twenty years after humanity first made contact with alien races while poking around on Mars. At that point, they discovered an intergalactic senate of sorts and started working their way into it. In the actual story of the game, you play a human military commander upon whose shoulders rides the fate of humanity (since you represent the best of human abilities and the intergalactic senate is watching you closely to see if humans should be granted a place on the governing council) and eventually the galaxy (since a previously dormant AI race is mounting an attack that would wipe out all life except itself). Making humanity the new kids on the block was a brilliant move, because you will have lots of questions about the way the world works that would seem strange if humanity wasn’t still learning how everything works. The gameplay is also really good, melding RPG-style exploration/conversation with real-time third-person combat. They’ve kept the squad idea from KOTOR, but instead of switching out to control them directly, you just give them orders (an aspect which doesn’t work as well as you might like). It is highly important, though, to choose squad members that complement your abilities. The conversation style is really innovative and I ended up liking it a lot. You’re given several options for what to say next in a conversation, but when you choose one, your character doesn’t say exactly what the text option said. It’s something like it, or something with a similar attitude, but not the same. This makes conversations really interesting, since you may not always say something you expect! Going along with that, the voice acting is really good, generally as good as most movies. The few downsides: The side missions got pretty repetitive, as did the many incidental planets you can land on and do some exploring or fighting. I love that they have all those, but after the first three or four, they were all essentially the same. Also, the game has the good/evil orientations that KOTOR pioneered, but there’s not really enough difference in the path you take depending on what you choose. I mean, you can either say nice things to people (which gives you paragon points, which are good) or mean things (giving you renegade/evil points), but the outcome in the story is often the same. I realize they probably couldn’t do full on multiple endings like they had in KOTOR (or Deus Ex) because Mass Effect is the first of a trilogy, but still. Maybe in the last game they’ll do that. Oh, and last downside: Why do your characters holster their weapons every time you get on an elevator? Annoying. Overall, a great game that I enjoyed playing (for 35 hours, if you like to know how long games are), but there are still things ripe for improvement in the sequels.
Well Above Average
Gamespot | Amazon | The Frame

Gears of War
Gears of WarI’d played most of this last year when one of my friends got his 360, but I went over to his house for New Year’s Eve and we played the entire co-op campaign overnight. Alien/creature-fighting is not my favorite pastime, so I never would’ve played it on my own, but in co-op it was a lot of fun. I didn’t pay attention to the story, but I don’t think it’s much more than “there are a ton of alien/creature things around, we’re in some sort of war with them, and we need to get to this place and set off this explosive thing to stop them, but there are several other things we need to do on the way.” Pretty standard action game stuff. The cover-using mechanics are what really makes it, since it was one of the first games, I think, to use cover so much. Basically, if you’re not in cover, you’re screwed. And the level with the krill (bat-type things that live in the dark) is pretty cool, because you have to stay in the light or you get shredded. Literally. Glad I played it all the way through just to say I have (and get an extra bunch of achievements!).
Average
Gamespot | Amazon | The Frame