Avatar (3-D)

(James Cameron, 2009)

with Hilary Gietz, 86th St. Loews, 3/27/10

8


Up to now, my only experiences with 3-D moviegoing were Captain Eo at EuroDisney and the IMAX movie Wings of CourageAvatar ushers me into the much-trumpeted new era of 3-D — and I have to say, I’m not wildly impressed.

Given how much hype has surrounded the new crop of 3-D releases — Avatar especially — and given that people are willing to shell out extra money for the privilege of putting on the glasses, I was surprised at how muted the effect was.  Half the time, it’s barely noticeable.  Sometimes it looks awkward; instead of offering seamless depth, the “3-D” image seems to consist of a series of staggered flat planes, making the shot appear less dimensional than an ordinary 2-D image.  Also, when an object gets too “close” to the eye, the effect is distracting, especially if it’s near the edge of the frame.  Every once in a while, the 3-D effect adds something significant to the experience — mostly in shots where we’re high up looking down, and we get some intimation of the vertigo we might experience if we actually found ourselves in the Hallelujah Mountains.  But for the most part, the 3-D just doesn’t make that much of a difference.  It’s weird at first, and then you get used to it, and then you kind of forget about it.  And you paid extra for this?

I know that cinema has a long and storied history of cranks and fuddy-duddies carping about progress.  When synchronized sound came along in the late twenties, it was thought by some to signal the death of visual storytelling.  When color films began to predominate in the fifties, purists yearned for the elegance of the old grayscale images.  And, of course, nothing was more shocking than the arrival of the moving image itself; witness Gorky’s somewhat woeful reaction.  In the grand tradition of stodgy dissenters from every era of cinema’s brief history, I freely admit that I am emotionally resistant to the idea of 3-D.  I don’t see the need for it.  I like the old-fashioned, two-dimensional movie screen.  It has never struck me as inadequate, nor in any particular need of “improvement.”  It has given me some wonderful times.

It may also be worth noting that many of the aforementioned cranks were right.  Synchronized sound did prove a setback to film as a visual medium; in the short run, it closed down as many possibilities as it opened up.  And if you watch a color film from the fifties now, it will probably strike you as garish and dated — quite possibly more dated than a black-and-white classic like Casablanca or It’s A Wonderful Life.

But I don’t think 3-D is a revolution on the scale of sound or color.  Having seen Avatar both ways, I can confidently say that it’s exactly the same movie whether you’re wearing special glasses or not.  It’s long, it’s earnest, it’s sometimes clunky, and it’s very, very good.  I suspect it would be about equally good if you watched it in a mirror, with one eye closed and the other covered with Saran wrap.  I’m not recommending that you do that, but if you do, there will be no extra charge.

Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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My Top Ten Movies of the Last Decade

(I’m a bit late to the well on this one, but as a percentage of a decade, what’s a few months?)

Coming up with this list has been wonderful fun — hours and hours of it, if you can believe that.  I encourage anyone who’s interested to put together their own list — and if you do, please let me know!

Note: Dates listed are U.S. release dates.  That may seem provincial, but I think it’s fair; I had no opportunity to see Girl on the Bridge, for example, until 2000.

#1.  The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)

Delectably dark, perversely seductive, and fiendishly complex, The Prestige grows richer and blacker every time you think about it — and yet, like all Nolan’s films, it does have a conscience. For added pleasure, watch it again.

#2.  The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2008)

The extraordinary true story of a criminal forced to become a hero — though a fearfully compromised one.  It’s one thing to make a Holocaust film about survival; this one is about choices.

#3.  Girl on the Bridge (Patrice Leconte, 2000)

A black comedy, a carnival fantasy, a story of love and self-destruction, a fairytale, a beautiful dream.  If the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography doesn’t take your breath away, Daniel Auteuil’s charismatic and heartsick performance will.

#4.  Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2005)

Thrillingly diverse in its influences, boldly original in the way it blends them, Kung Fu Hustle is a glorious mongrel of Eastern and Western pop-cultural traditions.  It’s a kung-fun epic and a slapstick comedy; it provokes awe, laughter, and irrepressible childish grins.  (According to IMDb, Kung Fu Hustle 2 is currently in development.  Consider me first in line.)

#5.  Up (Pete Docter, 2009)

Pixar’s most stunning effort to date, packed with enough energy and imagination to fuel two or three less ambitious films.  Many of us had tears in our eyes during the first ten minutes — and the movie was, in every sense of the words, just getting started.

#6.  The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

An extraordinary movie on every level, capped off by a Heath Ledger performance so brilliantly unhinged that it threatens to swamp the film itself in its fervid lunacy.

#7.  3-Iron (Kim Ki-Duk, 2005)

A ravishing exercise in cinematic poetry and restraint, 3-Iron is a deeply strange, nearly-wordless love story that effortlessly blends the fantastic and the everyday.

#8.  The Widow of Saint-Pierre (Patrice Leconte, 2001)

Like its characters, The Widow of Saint-Pierre is deeply passionate, yet masterfully controlled — with an epic quality it never strains to achieve.  Romantic love in cinema has never felt more grand, more noble, or more real.

#9.  The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)

A brash, funny action-adventure film that simultaneously mocks and celebrates the tropes of the costumed-hero genre.  When it comes to capturing the sheer escapist magic of the superhero fantasy, no other movie can compare.

#10. Master and Commander (Peter Weir, 2003)

Suspense and camaraderie on the high seas — a tale told in a grand style by Peter Weir, featuring a first-rate Paul Bettany performance.

*

Runners-Up:

Memento

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Catch Me If You Can

Children of Men

Great Overlooked Films:

Meet the Robinsons

The Wackness

Honorable Mention for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy:

School of Rock

*     *     *

For me, it was the decade of Christopher Nolan.  I really didn’t have a favorite filmmaker until Nolan battered me into adoration with brilliant film after brilliant film.  His weakest effort to date – Insomnia – was a haunting, disciplined, beautifully executed morality tale.  His best films – Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight – are a treat for the mind and the senses.  Nolan’s films are so good, they make most other filmmakers seem like they’re not really trying.  The only reason Batman Begins doesn’t look like a great film anymore is because Nolan topped it.

Of course, it was also the decade of Pixar, who consistently produced animated films that were not only respectable, but unmissable.  Ratatouille could easily have made this list, and the first act of Wall-E is the equal of anything on it.

And then there’s Patrice Leconte.  Girl on the Bridge and The Widow of Saint-Pierre, released just a year apart, both starring Daniel Auteuil, both haunting and richly romantic, could hardly be more different in terms of style or approach.  Where Girl is fanciful and frenetic, Widow is tragic and austere; the first has the restless energy of a young filmmaker feeling his oats, while the second exudes the sensitive maturity of a seasoned artist.  That one person made both, in such rapid succession, still astonishes me.  I’ve seen and enjoyed other Leconte films (Monsieur Hire, Man on the Train, Intimate Strangers), but for me, these two stand apart.

Kung Fu Hustle and 3-Iron will always be linked in my mind, because I saw them around the same time, and because both made such a deep impression on me.  Like the two Leconte films, they’re a study in contrasts, but they share a certain joy in the possibilities of cinema, and a rigorous commitment to testing them.

For muscular old-fashioned storytelling in the grand old Hollywood tradition, we turn, naturally, to Germans and Australians.  The Counterfeiters is one of the most morally serious films in recent memory, but it’s also a supremely effective thriller; Master and Commander is a rip-roaring nautical adventure, but also a movie about friendship (with a good deal of respect for science thrown in).  They don’t make them like this anymore, except when they do, and thank God they do.

Should I be embarrassed that a handful of filmmakers seem to dominate my list?  Should it give me pause that my selections happened to pair up so neatly?  Maybe so, but I make no apologies.  I don’t claim to have any vast knowledge of cinema, nor any exceptional refinement of taste, but I know what I like.

(Incidentally, if you wish to compare this list to that of a real critic, you can check out Roger Ebert’s.  Spoiler: there’s no overlap between our respective lists, though to be fair I’ve seen only 10 of his top 20 — and only 3 of his top 10.)

Next up: the top performances of the decade!  (I’m enjoying this far too much …)

A Prophet

(Jacques Audiard, 2009)

alone, Angelika Film Center, 3/23/10

6

Tahar Rahim as Malik El Djebena in "A Prophet"

Stylish and well-acted, but overburdened with artsy conceits.  Most of A Prophet is a tough, gritty prison drama, and that part’s compelling enough, but the movie lapses frequently into lyrical interludes, which feel precious and unearned.  The protagonist, Malik El Djebena, is more or less a cipher — capable of innocent wonder in one moment, and ruthless betrayal the next.  He’s the blank-faced mystery at the core of a difficult film, and he’s undeniably intriguing, but A Prophet is too aware of its own seriousness, too self-consciously “visionary,” to really come alive as a movie.  It’s also long and difficult to follow, and the ending is as inconclusive as everything else.

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 8:39 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Ghost Writer

(Roman Polanski, 2010)

with John Tomlinson, City Cinemas (60th St.), 3/21/2010

8

Do NOT make Pierce Brosnan angry.

At their heart, all conspiracy theories are fantasies; they let us imagine a world that makes tidy sense, where bad things happen because of bad people, where causality is inexorable and random elements are coolly and efficiently dispatched.  The conspiracy at the center of The Ghost Writer is crisply imagined, audacious in its simplicity — a darkly satisfying explanation for real-world events.  In addition to providing a juicy feel-bad catharsis for liberals still suffering Bush-administration hangovers, The Ghost Writer is an elegant, economical, smartly cynical, and ruthlessly suspenseful thriller, bound to outlast its fleeting political resonance.  Polanski builds tension out of the simplest of elements: a cell phone, a car’s navigation system, a ferry, a rumor, a newspaper clipping, a dark look.  The nameless protagonist, aptly played by Ewan McGregor, is a marginal figure who finds himself dangerously close to the heart of the storm.  He’s a sardonic Everyman, jaded but not nearly jaded enough.  The ordinary-guy-in-over-his-head trope inevitably recalls Hitchcock, and The Ghost Writer does not suffer from the comparison.

Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 10:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Brothers Bloom

(Rian Johnson, 2009)

alone, Emirates Airlines flight to New York, 3/17/10

5

Umbrellas!

A light, whimsical con-man fable, full of appealing performances and a certain amiable daffiness.  The Brothers Bloom is nostalgic for a bygone era of grand, bold, operatic swindles — the kind that pretended to, and perhaps achieved, the timeless resonance of true art.  The film itself is far from a masterpiece, but it has the courage of its own offbeat convictions, and it’s difficult not to like.

Published in: on March 22, 2010 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Invention of Lying

(Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, 2009)

alone, Emirates Airlines flight to Dubai, 3/10/10

5

Oh, how I was rooting for this movie!  It’s ambitious, it’s got an intriguing premise, and it’s Ricky Gervais’s baby; I was hoping to love it.  And it starts out promisingly enough, with a series of clever jokes fleshing out the concept of a world without lying.  (Well, supposedly it’s a world without lying; it seems more like a world where people are compelled to blurt out the truth, no matter what.  Isn’t that, in effect, a world without free will?)  Then Gervais’s character makes his breakthrough, and there are more funny scenes, and we’re waiting for people to catch on to what’s he’s doing, prompting world-wide chaos and transformation.  After all, isn’t that the whole point of an invention — spreading it around?

Instead, the movie becomes a somewhat labored commentary on religion, and then takes a darker turn, as Gervais grows bitter and disillusioned, depressed by the fact that Jennifer Garner still rejects his romantic advances.  She’s concerned, apparently, that if she marries Gervais, her children will be pudgy.  That’s fair enough on a first date, but as their relationship deepens into profound mutual respect and friendship, her concern with genetics begins to seem like some kind of twisted eugenic obsession.  Also, she offers him sex as a birthday present — say what now?  Clearly, her character has much deeper problems than an inability to lie.  And even after she’s figured out that Gervais is lying — near the end of the film — she still can’t do it herself.  But why on Earth not?

There’s a lot of good stuff here — not just good jokes, but truly moving moments, like the scene where Gervais lies to his dying mother to ease her pain.  An astonishing number of famous actors and comedians make minor appearances — Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Christopher Guest, etc. — testifying to Gervais’s immense popularity among his fellow entertainers.  It’s an admiration he richly deserves, but alas, this time, his screenplay lets him down.

Published in: on March 19, 2010 at 2:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Shutter Island

(Martin Scorcese, 2010)

alone, 86th St. Loews, 3/8/10

8

Not so much scary as profoundly disturbing, Shutter Island is that rare horror movie that successfully evokes real-life horrors: guilt, loss, insanity, genocide.  Slow-building and overheated, it has a curious power all its own, as if the film itself has been steeped in madness.  Several recognizable actors have memorable one-scene appearances — Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley — which gives the movie an episodic feel.  Not a feel-good movie, but sort of deliciously bleak.

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 10:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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Invictus

(Clint Eastwood, 2009)

alone, AMC Loews 19th St. East, 3/5/10

6

Sometimes clumsy, always obvious, and a bit hamstrung by history, Invictus is nevertheless an engaging depiction of South Africa’s delicate transition out of apartheid.  The ending is anti-climactic — it’s almost all rugby montage, and it goes on for quite a while — but the acting is strong all around, and the movie does a good job of keeping its canvas broad enough that we catch the historical context, yet limited enough that we give a damn.  Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon are both quietly excellent.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

(Wes Anderson, 2009)

alone, Village East Cinemas, 3/4/2010

4

I wanted to be delighted by Fantastic Mr. Fox, but I just couldn’t manage it.   The stop-motion animation is glorious, but the movie can’t seem to settle on a tone, or a point of view.  When it comes to giving live-action footage a fairytale feeling, Wes Anderson’s visual quirks (like his obsession with symmetry) are effective; here, in a medium that needs no help in the fairytale department, they feel like tics, or indulgences.  Also, I found George Clooney’s oh-so-recognizable vocal stylings distracting; it’s hard to believe in the reality of Mr. Fox when all you can hear is Danny Ocean.  Meryl Streep’s Felicity Fox, on the other hand, is a vividly realized creation: earthy, exasperated, willful, and — yes — foxy.

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 5:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Keith’s Top Ten Movies of 2009

Who needs one of these when you have MY OPINION?

Just in time for the Oscars, here are my picks for the ten best movies of 2009.  274 feature films were eligible for this year’s Oscars; I’ve seen 52 of them.  Of those 52 movies, my ten favorites were:

#1: Up


This is the whole package: visually beautiful, relentlessly imaginative, moving, funny, epic, satisfying, and even a little profound.  When was the last time you saw a live-action movie with so much wit, ambition, and humanity?  Pixar has made some of the most impressive movies of the last two decades, but this one may be their best.

#2: Bright Star


Quiet, contained, and achingly heartfelt, Bright Star relies less on plot than on two characters so vividly realized that we can almost feel their heartbeats.  There’s an extraordinary intimacy to this film, an almost painful sense of passion restrained.  How Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish missed out on major awards is a mystery to me.

#3: Adventureland


At once nostalgic and sardonic, Adventureland captures that magical moment in adolescence when the world is full of infinite possibilities, and you’re stuck cleaning vomit off amusement-park rides.  Kristen Stewart, an unlikely star and an an unhappy tabloid darling, also happens to be a very fine actress.  Her character’s anger and self-loathing are utterly believable, but her charm shines through it all.

#4: Avatar


It now appears that James Cameron can make a record-breaking, critically adored movie any time he wantsAvatar wears its flaws on its sleeve, but beneath them its architecture is rock-solid.  Are the characters two-dimensional?  Some of them are, but Jake Sully felt like a real guy to me — a gung-ho, ultra-competent daredevil who’s smarter, and kinder, than he’s given himself credit for.

#5: The Princess and the Frog


A welcome return to form for Disney — not one of their all-time greats, perhaps, but worthy of the tradition.  Set in a fairy-tale New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog is warm, funny, and sumptuously animated — a rich, raucous celebration of life, music, love, and animation itself.  And the villain is creepy as hell.

#6: Sin Nombre


A harrowing story of redemption and sacrifice, expertly shot and sensitively acted, set on the trains that carry would-be immigrants to the U.S./Mexico border.  Despite its relatively modest budget, Sin Nombre has a convincingly epic quality — a sense of universal human strivings embedded in a single, desperate quest.

#7: Star Trek


A bit sloppy and uneven, but stirring, clever, and unabashedly entertaining.  After Avatar, this was the big-screen spectacle of the year.

#8: The Missing Person


A deeply idiosyncratic film — moving to its own slow rhythm, drawn to the oddball and the unexplained, inexorable in its progress yet inscrutable in its aims.  Somehow it all comes together in the end.  Michael Shannon, that invaluable character actor, is note-perfect in the lead — a shambling, mumbling PI with a perpetually pained expression and a heart full of secret hurt.  Noir doesn’t get much more nakedly existential than this.

#9: District 9


A deeply disturbing, strangely moving, impressively freewheeling sci-fi/horror concoction.  The blend of special effects and faux-documentary is uncannily effective; however fantastical it gets, the movie still feels tethered to the grime and grit of reality.  Wikus Van De Merwe, a self-important racist buffoon, makes for an extremely unlikely hero — but then, nearly everything about District 9 is unlikely.  That’s half the fun.

#10: Moon


An interesting companion piece to District 9 — dramatically different in setting and premise, yet sharing a certain black humor, and the deep-seated horror of a human body betraying itself.  Sam Rockwell gives not one, but two (or is it three?) sterling performances.  What a great year this was for science-fiction!


Worst Movie of the Year: The Men Who Stare at Goats

Most Overrated: Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire

Most Underrated: Surrogates


Coming up soon: my top ten movies of the last decade!  Stay tuned …