More thoughts on the movies that the major studios and indie boutiques alike want me to see before I make my year-end list…

Saturday, November 17th

Beowulf (commercial screening…digital, but not 3D):
I've got significant qualms about motion capture; it looks too "trace"-y to me, and I find myself distracted by the mental image of a technician applying hundreds of tiny dots to some actress's cleavage, to get the pendulousness just right. And honestly, since boyhood I've had a tough time staying alert during old-school sword-and-sorcery style fantasy stories. But damned if Beowulf didn't start to work on me eventually, right around the time that Grendel's mother comforts her poor beast of a son, and the story gains an extra dimension that polarized glasses alone can't pick up. Those emotional underpinnings–largely invented by co-screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman–gave me a hook to hang onto, and I found myself moved by Hrothgar's "curse," and Beowulf's moments of weakness. Bearing in mind that I have no special attachment to the original story, I thought this movie Beowulf's expansion on the source material was thrillingly Gaiman-y, recalling his Sandman comics' preoccupation with simultaneously subverting and reinforcing popular myths. (I might even go so far as to say that Beowulf is the first time that Gaiman's authorial personality has been properly translated onto film, though who knows? The best ideas may have been Avary's.) My eyes glazed over some during the big final battle, and I chuckled at the kitschier elements, like the way Zemeckis contrives to keep us from seeing the nude Beowulf's Extra-long Coney & Tots during his wrestling match with Grendel. But by the end I was thoroughly intrigued by the movie's meditation on the varying permanence and impermanence of stories, as well as the implication that for as long as the age of heroes endures, the age of demons will as well.

Grade: B+

On the list? Not in the upper reaches, but maybe around #13 or 14, which makes it an HM candidate.

Sunday, November 18th

Crazy Love (screener DVD):
This breezy documentary raises two interesting questions, the first of which is this: At what point does "romantic" become "creepy"? When wealthy New York lawyer Burton Pugach expresses his obsession with sometime-mistress Linda Riss by having musicians play the song "Linda" whenever she walks in a room, he's on the sweet side of annoying. When he hires men to throw lye in her eyes to keep her from marrying another, well…that's a bit much. And yet, after Pugach serves a decade-plus in prison, Linda marries him, convinced that he's the only one who loves her enough to take of her in her infirmity–the infirmity he caused. Which raises the second question: What does it mean to be "a very good husband," as Linda insists repeatedly that Burt is? Is it just about putting a roof over her head and food on the table, or is it something more? I wish Crazy Love had spent more time on all these questions, rather than rehashing every minor detail of a courtship gone horribly wrong (then disturbingly right). Even though I didn't know the story before–a side effect of not living in New York, where this has been city columnist fodder for decades–I still got the "yeah, and?" itch early and often. The movie only really starts to take off in the last 20 minutes, when we finally get to see the couple together and acquire some impression of the dynamic that binds them. Then the credits roll, with nothing said about how a love affair carried out in the media spotlight has affected the principles. Watching Crazy Love felt a lot like reading a college freshman's end-of-term paper, filled with lots of safe recapitulation, and too few intuitive leaps.

Grade: C+

On the list? Nah.

Tuesday, November 20th

The Boss Of It All (screener DVD):
Always unable to leave well enough alone, Lars Von Trier sabotages this semi-amusing trifle about office politics by making it twice as long as it needs to be, filming it with a process whereby shot selection is randomly dictated by computers, and at times turning a slight story into an essay about the principles of comedy and drama (complete with Von Trier narration in which he disingenuously warns us that this movie is "not worth reflection") What's frustrating is that the seeds of a snappy comedy are strewn throughout The Boss Of It All, especially in the performances of the two leads: the timid tech firm owner played by Peter Gantzler, and Jens Albinus, the actor he hires to portray his non-existent boss. Albinus is very funny in the way he analyzes his natural reactions in terms of his "character"–after one employee lunges at him, Albinus tells Gantzler, "My character doesn't like when they hit me"–as well as in his eager attempts to understand only the bare minimum of what the boss is supposed to know. (Albinus: "Tell me what you do. I want to learn the lingo." Gantzler: "IT." Albinus: "That's impossible to grasp!") But the jokes wears thin after a while, gobbled up by extended scenes that feel like sketches with no premise.

Grade: B-

On the list? Nope…Von Trier wouldn't want it there anyway.

Away From Her (commercial DVD): This one I watched not because the movie's been drawing raves–the reviews have been respectful, but hardly hosannas–but because Julie Christie is considered a shoo-in nominee in every voting body's leading actress category…and possibly the front-runner. And I can see why. As a relatively young woman stricken with Alzheimer's, Christie avoids the clichés of the decrepit, doddering oldster. She's physically fit, intellectually curious and even sexually active. Her Alzheimer's manifests in what appears–to her husband at least–as common forgetfulness, like reaching for a word and not finding it, or losing a train of thought. She's learned how to work around her condition with a few stock phrases and a generally sunny disposition, to the extent that when her husband tours the eldercare facility she wants to enter, he can't connect the inert, grey-haired folk in incongruously colorful sweaters with the woman he married. Writer-director Sarah Polley adapts Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" with an eye and ear for its subtleties and solemnity, but she doesn't push the anger, or even the thinly veiled snobbery, quite far enough. Everything is tidy, just-so, and a fraction too abstracted. Still, Christie is as strong as advertised, and the movie reaches an emotional peak early, when she passes on a note to her husband reading, "Go now. I love you. Go now."

Grade: B

On the list? Possibly somewhere between 25 and 30…a good showing, but not in the money.

Thursday, November 22nd

The Bucket List (Academy screener):
I can't say that I was all that excited about seeing a Rob Reiner-directed feel-good melodrama about the globe-hopping adventures of terminal cancer patients, especially since the patients are played by the unapologetically cornball Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. But it's Thanksgiving, my parents are in town, and I didn't think Gone Baby Gone would go over so well. And I have to say, for what it is, The Bucket List ain't so bad. With a movie like this–featuring Nicholson as an obscenely rich old bastard and Freeman as a trivia-obsessed mechanic–there's no expectation of true surprise. We know both characters will learn a few important life lessons on their way to the grave, and we know they'll be grumbly and vulgar in calculatingly endearing ways. The trick is to punch through those presets as painlessly as possible, which for the most part The Bucket List does. I could've done without the extended hospital scenes in the early going, which mostly give Nicholson a chance to do a lot of grunting and groaning and rasping; and I found it distracting how much of the movie was obviously constructed with the two stars standing or sitting in front of bluescreen, so that the exotic locales of their world tour could be inserted later. (A couple of times, it was clearly just the actors' faces, superimposed via CGI.) And if I wanted to get pretentious, I could explore what the movie has to say about a certain kind of obnoxious upper-class privilege, and how it leads to rich jerks treating the wonders of the world as their personal amusement park, while expecting other people–dying people, no less–to conform to their idea of a good time. But why quibble excessively with a movie that only wants to make people feel slightly better over Christmas? From a filmmaking standpoint, The Bucket List is a smooth ride, with Reiner in his tasteful Stand By Me/The American President mode, keeping the pacing taut and the schmaltz as unobtrusive as he can afford to. The movie's one bit of kink is a funny final line that's not entirely uncharacteristic of the rest of the film, but still seems a strange way to end. You'll have to see it to get what I mean.

Grade: B-

On the list? Not even on my own personal Bucket List. But still…surprisingly passable.

The Brave One (Academy screener): There are two sensibilities clashing in Neil Jordan's logy revenge thriller. In one corner stands Jodie Foster, playing a philosophical public radio DJ–and recent Central Park mugging victim–with her usual clipped tones and physical tics. Foster's always been a very precise performer, and her evolution into a gun-toting, self-righteous vigilante in The Brave One follows an actor's logic, over-concerned with externalizing the internal. Meanwhile, in the opposite corner, director Neil Jordan and a trio of screenwriters work to art-up a typical urban crime drama, making it into a cautionary tale for all those who romanticize the skuzzy pre-Giuliani New York. Jordan overuses cockeyed camera angles, and gives Foster more space to explore feelings of loss, paranoia and power than the plot really needs, but he also comes up with some unexpected visual cues, like when he cuts between Foster having her clothes scissored off by ER doctors and her memories of her boyfriend stripping her. Much of The Brave One is about context, and under what circumstances it's okay to kill, humiliate, or exploit. And that "exploit" question may be the key to unlocking what The Brave One is really about. Foster's muggers film their deeds, and later she turns her own kill-spree into fodder for her increasingly popular radio show. Every crime in the movie has an ancillary use, even if it's to get people to interpret acts of violence for their own purposes. To that end, Jordan plays off Foster's iconic performance in Taxi Driver, by introducing some visual and narrative echoes. Is Foster supposed to be Taxi Driver's Iris, all grown up? Or the ghost of Travis Bickle? Or do the reflections relate to one of The Brave One's throwaway lines about how young men today often reduce their mental picture of women to a common type, familiar in pop culture? To distill what I'm saying a little better: It may be that The Brave One isn't about vigilantism in any realistic or conventional sense, but instead is about the image of the vigilante that's been burned into our heads over the past 30 years, and how we continue to revert to it. The problem with the movie is that it literalizes the esoteric too much, and turns a meditation on generic violent potboilers into an actual generic violent potboiler, too earnest and too star-driven.

Grade: B

On the list?. An interesting movie, but it doesn't crack the Top 30. I'm hoping for better things next week.

Next week: Enchanted, Gone Baby Gone, The Hoax, Hot Fuzz and Starting Out In The Evening, at least. (With fingers crossed for Sweeney Todd and There Will Be Blood screenings…time's getting short.)

Advertisement