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The Man from Earth (2007)
A great couple hours of talking
If you can't handle people talking, you probably don't want to watch this film. On the other hand, if you're brain isn't so damaged or dysfunctional that you require constant car crashes, explosions, chase scenes or gunfights in order to stay awake and alert, then you might really like this movie.
I preface my brief review that way because as interesting, complex, smart, funny, tense and intriguing as this movie is... it also is nothing more than a roomful of people talking the whole time. There are no convenient flashbacks or cutaways to illustrate some of the issues they discuss. You get to use your -- wait for it, wait... -- imagination for that part. Plus, it's necessary to the plot for you to remain in uncertainty.
This is a great piece of science fiction, and a fun ride through a thought-experiment-made-real for this character's group of friends. Give it a try, if you're capable.
Clunky, chunky, cliché... I had to turn it off
I didn't begin watching "Invictus" with any hopes of seeing something unique, edgy or original -- after all, a bare sketch of the plot tells you this is another of the "Can-the-sports-team-make-it-against-the-odds? Oh-it-will-be-tough-but-in-the-end they'll-all-be-better-people-because-of-the-struggle" genre.
I had hopes that with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, it might rise above the cliché formula. No, it didn't. They are both OK, but not nearly OK enough to save this clunker.
The level of Hollywood formula is off the charts. Every camera angle, every scene, you can predict with startling accuracy. That doesn't necessarily have to doom a movie (although for me, it pretty much does, because I hate nothing so much as predictability, especially scene by scene), but here it's just so pat you wonder if Clint Eastwood was sleeping through the whole thing.
What really sunk this film for me, though -- I mean, I rarely ever turn off a movie, and I could only handle this one for 20 minutes, after which I used FF and skimmed a few scenes along the way to see it through to the 'exciting' conclusion -- was the incredibly awful dialogue. Awful. Stilted. Ham-fisted. Sounded like a bad Hallmark afterschool special writer had come up with it. Really really bad.
I like Morgan Freeman a lot. In fact, in the past, I had jokingly said to friends that I could listen to him read the telephone book because I like the way he delivers lines. I am reconsidering that joke. "We must (pause) work together (pause) if we are (pause) going to (pause) rebuild our country." Repeat that line about 80 times in the first 15 minutes. With the same awkward pauses. Maybe this was Freeman capturing Mandela really well -- I don't know. What I do know is it was awful to try to watch.
In any case, let me submit for your consideration that you save your time. If you read the plot synopsis and look at the poster, you'll already have as full an experience as this movie is capable of delivering.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
A popcorn action flick pretending to be an intelligent human drama
Going into "The Hurt Locker," I was expecting an Oscar-worthy couple hours. Sadly, I was disappointed. This is a somewhat enjoyable film, but only if you remove the lenses of reality and treat it as a popcorn action movie that desperately wants to be more than it is.
At first, I liked the treatment of the Iraq war in a neutral way -- showing the gritty awfulness of war without descending into the political maelstrom surrounding the U.S. invasion. But with time, it just became more and more problematic for me. The Iraq war isn't neutral, and much of the reality was lost with the superficial stereotyping of both sides in an attempt to steer clear of controversy.
The bigger problem for me, though, was the ridiculousness of the squad's behavior. I have no military experience or family or friends, but this just looked all wrong right from the beginning. Reading many of the comments on here, it seems actual military folks agree. No bomb squad works this way, and most of the "tense" scenes were terrifically unrealistic. They also had zero suspense for me, as the filmmakers telegraphed what was going to happen every time.
Where I thought the movie worked was as an abstract piece of human drama. Jeremy Renner gives a great performance, as do his co-stars. And if you let all the realism problems go and watch the movie for what it appears the filmmakers were trying to say -- that the ugliness of war creates both an adrenaline need and a fatalism that allows increasingly dangerous risk-taking -- the movie is kind of enjoyable.
I find that theme fairly flaccid as a real commentary on war, though -- and especially impotent as a portrayal of the Iraq war, of all things.
There are great war movies that reveal the horror and human drama of war while being realistic, acknowledging the truth and lies in foreign policy and still avoiding polemics. This is not one of those films.
Engaging, atmospheric twisted tale
Just want to write a quick note to combat the other comments on here a bit. First, this movie isn't TRYING to be "American Beauty" or "Donnie Darko" -- and it certainly isn't trying to be David Lynch. To compare this to any David Lynch film shows you don't understand Lynch at all.
This is an atmospheric thriller. No, the plot isn't ridiculously tangled and doesn't have countless twists, like many Hollywood thrillers that seem to feel obligated to throw dozens of red herrings at the audience so that they feel sufficiently fishy when they leave the theater.
But neither is this movie trying to be an over-the-top freakfest like a Lynch film. I love David Lynch's style and the effect his films have on me, but this is quite different.
This movie was slow and calculated, with plenty of scenes to build atmosphere -- and thereby deepen the sense of character and environment. No, every scene does not advance the plot. Yes, you can tell most of what's going to happen in advance.
But for a strange story about a demented youth for whom everything goes terribly wrong, I thought this was wonderful. All the actors are top-notch, and the cinematography is delightful.
A more accurate frame of reference than the above-mentioned movies would be "Heavenly Creatures," Peter Jackson's tale of the disturbed fantasy life of two girls that explodes into violence. I felt shades of that story throughout "Beautiful." If you want a fast-moving, keep-you-guessing thriller, don't look here. You'll be disappointed. But if you want to see a nicely shot, atmospheric tale that slowly spins out of control, this is well worth your time.
Children of God (2008)
Nice, understated approach to a tough subject
As this movie began to unfold, I was fearful. Homeless kids scavenging for change and food on the grounds of a Hindu temple on the banks of the Baghmati River in Nepal -- this isn't going to suddenly get happy.
And it doesn't, but the filmmakers' light touch with the subject matter allows for glimpses of the joys in these children's lives as well as their suffering. Bits of upbeat humanity are strewn throughout the film, so that the viewer isn't left with the sense that all is hopeless, just that something needs to be done. There are moments of laughter, and outrage, and desperation, and hope.
Next to the temple is a medical clinic, and the filmmakers spend some time there, as well, so that we get a more complete picture of the hardships of being poor in Nepal and a fuller sense of the circle of life and death. Seeing the boys hunting for food alongside tales of families who are watching their sick loved ones gives the film a bit of plotting and moves the action along.
All in all, a delightful film that deserves a wider audience.
The Informers (2008)
Classic, delicious Bret Easton Ellis
"The Informers" is vacant, isolated and angst-ridden. Much like the '80s, it has lots of placid exteriors, broken interiors, hot bodies, vast wealth and the search for meaning.
As is usual for Ellis characters, though, no one has the equipment to find any meaning. From the beginning, it's obvious the hunt will be fruitless. These people have been so badly socialized by their alienating culture of wealth that they often can't even find an emotional response to their inability to properly feel.
Also par for the course is the easily placed blame. Parents so wrapped up in themselves that their children's existence barely registers are hardly fit to bestow morals or wisdom or emotions or anything else. Privilege has its costs. When anything is attainable, meaning evaporates. Everyone is adrift, and it's everyone's fault.
This is a movie that will likely anger, disgust or bore those not familiar with Ellis' milieu, although many of us who lived through the '80s know what he's on about. It doesn't lead anywhere, just like the characters' internal compasses. A couple of times the dialogue felt like it was trying too hard to get the point across, where if you weren't getting it, you're too stupid to be worth telling. I don't remember the book banging you on the head that way, but maybe it did.
This is not a pleasant movie, so don't make it a date night. It is a lovely, enchanting cultural study of detachment and amorality. But again, it also is everyone's fault. Self-indulgence isn't attractive and doesn't engender pity. When Graham pleads, "I need someone to tell me what is good, OK? And I need someone to tell me what's bad," you can't feel anything for him.
He's lost, they're all lost, there's no hope.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Touching and true and strange and compelling
Like others writing about this film, I find it difficult to explain fully the ways I was affected by Kaufman's work. He showed us truth, without the boundaries of reality, by exposing what we are and how we live it, in a vision of real life unencumbered by the artifice of narrative linearity. Sort of.
This is a tale of how life is, of what we are all doing in this ridiculous dance, of how shared the experience is, of how beautiful the pain is, of where we find ourselves at the end, which is also the middle and the beginning.
Told through the disjunctive story of a theater director who thinks he's dying (but then he is, as we are all, no?) and out of ideas, the film goes on a bendy, twisty, story-in-story path -- similar in some ways to a David Lynch film, except here there IS easily gleanable meaning in the twists -- that lets us see an entire life, many entire lives as they interweave and affect each other.
A short speech by a preacher at a funeral late in the movie sums up much of what the point is; I won't ruin it except to say that our lives can only be one thing, even though many opportunities present themselves, and it isn't worth sitting around and waiting.
Most importantly, I was so deeply moved by this story... that I don't know what more to say. It makes me want to contact everyone I know and unburden myself to them, tell them how much I love them, etc. Which I won't do, because doing that after a moving film is like drunk-dialing an ex. But it will help me live more fully and honestly. It showed me something real, and goddamnit, that's art.
It's not ordinary storytelling, but it's also not as much work as a Peter Greenaway -- so I recommend this to everyone, if they'll suspend their disbelief a little and leave their hearts open.
A difficult, intelligent, sharp sci-fi thriller with depth
I've watched "Primer" twice and am eagerly anticipating the next viewing. I still haven't figured it all out, especially the ending. I think I know what happened when and where that led, but maybe I have it wrong.
After all, with a time machine, anything seems possible. Who knows what could happen when. Or if it could be undone later -- or would that be earlier? Those ideas are the basic plot mechanics of "Primer," a dense and provocative thinker of a thriller. And I don't much like using 'provocative' unless I mean it.
The movie, however, isn't about time machines. It's about morality and friendship and personal histories. But those threads are so tightly woven into the plot via the increasingly crazed structure that it can be difficult to tell which part is about what.
For me, that was the joy. I was stunned that a movie could be this watchable and still be so thick. Unlike some David Lynch films, my mind didn't wander away for a second.
I was riveted to the story, AND trying to unravel the plot at the same time I was struggling with the characters' dilemmas. That must be the definition of good film-making.
Beautifully filmed, intensely psychotic and a lot of fun -- as long as you're one of those people who enjoys working for it.
A pretty good Hollywood epic romance
This is certainly a sweeping, aiming-for-grand tale of a man's life and times. The script brings together romance, heartbreak, humanity, the small touches of drama in everyday life that make it so affecting. Ultimately, though, it gets a bit treacly and predictable, and other than Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett's performances, I don't get the award buzz.
Brad Pitt really does deserve credit here: He doesn't mug and he doesn't preen, even when it would be so easy to do so. His affectations, especially when he's young of age and old of body, are nearly perfect. Kate Blanchett likewise pulls off a lifetime of nice moments, even if the dying woman seemed a bit forced at times.
In some ways, this movie reminded me of "Atonement." Broad, sweeping, romantic, human... and then, predictable, melodramatic and sappy. Both had wonderful production values; costumes, settings, props, sound, all were top-notch.
Both also had hunky actors and lovely ladies, though I did find myself torn about whether I would have preferred James McAvoy to Brad Pitt: McAvoy has those dreamy blue eyes, but I suspect this part required the fullness as a man and an actor that Pitt has.
As far as treacly, I really did not need the story-telling framework of the two characters in the hospital. It added a layer that felt forced and cheap -- without character development, I did not care about the daughter.
This movie would be a wonderful choice for those in need of a good cry. It is appropriately bittersweet and loving. And I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it -- it was much much better than "Atonement," which I felt cheated for having sat through, ultimately.
This film was worth seeing, and it definitely made me want to read the short story. But it was just so... usual.
The Wrestler (2008)
A wonderful study in desperation
First, let me join the chorus and say Mickey Rourke is a treat here. Wow does he look different, and it helps him fully inhabit this character: A run-down, washed-up, mostly broken former pro wrestling star. Marisa Tomei plays a similarly past-her-prime stripper, also carrying some baggage.
Together, these two characters inhabit a beautifully grim world, painted by Darren Aronofsky in the pallid tones of desperation he used so perfectly in "Requiem for A Dream." There is no redemption here, just the fumbling about of people destined to the second-tier heap of humanity.
If I make it sound too much of a downer, rest assured the script doesn't let it become depressing. A light touch and bits of humor (playing a wrestling video game against Rourke, a pre-teen neighborhood boy cracks you up when he utters under his breath, "This game's so OLD") keep the story engaging and entertaining.
I almost ended up rooting for these people, if only because they seem to be trying so hard. In the end, though, this movie packed nearly the same punch as "Requiem": When you're on the wrong side of your fate, there might be some fading glory, but there is no way out.