***/**** starring Vince Colosimo, Maria Theodorakis, Judi Farr, Nicholas Bishop screenplay by Roger Monk directed by Tony Ayres
by Bill Chambers Last year's admirable ode to grief Moonlight Mile was given an injection of freshness by the cruelly luminous Ellen Pompeo, but in the end, the chaos the film depicted seemed too straightforwardly resolved. Australia's Walking on Water, which likewise explores the aftermath of an untimely death (thus finding itself plum in a new niche market with Moonlight Mile and the cable phenom "Six Feet Under"), isn't as entertaining as Moonlight Mile, but nobody in it can say one thing that will fix everything, and, boy, is it well observed. The picture is little more than--yet sufficiently--a medley of grief gestures (as screenwriter Roger Monk has remarked, "No two people react [to the death of a loved one] in the same way"): some joshing (praying for reincarnation to spare the departed from coming back as a "poof"), others piercing (kicking a mourner out of the wake for crying too loud), all coalescing into a gripping and mildly devastating viewing experience.
ZERO STARS/**** Image D+ Sound B- Extras D+ starring Lewis Black, Wilmer Valderrama, Tyler James Williams, Dyllan Christopher screenplay by Jacob Meszaros & Mya Stark directed by Paul Feig
by Walter Chaw The bare bones of it--misfit kids stranded, The Breakfast Club-like, in a relationship pressure-cooker--seems tailor-made for "Freaks and Geeks" co-creator Paul Feig, but the fact that it plays out in a series of deadening, eternally-unspooling pratfalls and Catskills set-ups and payoffs proves that it's possible for good artists to produce bad art. Feig getting work at all (ditto erstwhile partner-in-crime Judd Apatow, who's sadly already used up a good bit of good will) in Hollywood suggests that the same blindness that finds consistent employment for Michael Bay and Brett Ratner will sometimes smile on good, smart people like Feig. That being said, Unaccompanied Minors is appalling. If it's not offensive in any substantive sense, it's bad by almost every measure of quality. People defending things like this children-running-amuck slapstick piece--which demonstrates precious little in the way of focus or restraint (think Baby's Day Out or any Home Alone sequel, but without the depth)--because their children like it would have their kids taken away from them were they to apply this rationale to food, toys, friends, schools, car seats, and so on. The reason we don't let youngsters vote and sign contracts is that their judgment is for shit, and if we want to keep them from setting themselves on fire we ought to be protecting them from this stuff, too, not indulging their affinity for it.
**½/**** Image A Sound B Extras C starring James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo written and directed Steven Soderbergh
by Walter Chaw Appearing in 1989 at the very end of the blockbuster decade and on the cusp of a digital revolution, Steven Soderbergh's micro-budgeted sex, lies, and videotape heralded a doomed renaissance in independent film that would find it melded, ultimately and inseparably, with mainstream concerns. It posits that people only tell the truth when they're captured on celluloid--that when the video camera starts running, the assumption of roles begins. By the end of the '90s, precisely a decade later with American Beauty, there's another character with a video camera, but in that one, everything has turned: the lies are on film, and the truth is digital. (See also: Michael Almereyda's endlessly rewarding Hamlet (2000) and the still-incomparable The Blair Witch Project (1999).)
***/**** starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Benicio Del Toro written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman directed by James Gunn
by Walter Chaw After years of looking for a Star Wars for my son (too little for Lord of the Rings; nothing to attach to in Pacific Rim), here's James Gunn's awesome Guardians of the Galaxy to fit the bill. It's science-fiction in exactly the same way that Star Wars is science-fiction--essentially a serial western, with Chris Pratt as both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, green Zoe Saldana as Princess Leia, and a raccoon and a tree subbing for Wookiee and droid. It has a secret history for our hero, a scary baddie in a black cloak, and an entire universe of wonders it treats like an amusement park. It's also fun in the same way Star Wars was fun, and fresh in the same way, too: heedlessly, carefree, even bratty, which explains the post-credits cut-scene that's easily the best of them. Furthermore, it has a soundtrack packed with AM Gold that lends the picture camp and hipster cred simultaneously. Heavy on exposition at times, squandering a few opportunities to demonstrate a better team action dynamic, and not about anything at the end of the day, Guardians of the Galaxy's sword and shield is that its irreverence and self-awareness land as self-deprecating and warm. Doesn't hurt that it's a blast.
***½/**** starring Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jamie Foxx screenplay by Michael Markowitz and John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein directed by Seth Gordon
by Ian Pugh A straight-white-male fantasy of the most ridiculous order, Horrible Bosses begins with a trio of working shmoes who are, ironically, comfortable enough to go drinking every night and bemoan how their bosses are making their lives a living hell. Office jockey Nick (Jason Bateman, in his best performance in ages) has been passed up for a promotion by the sadistic Harken (Kevin Spacey); dental assistant Dale (Charlie Day) works under constant sexual harassment from Julia Harris, DDS (Jennifer Aniston, hilarious for a change); and chemical-plant employee Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) is suddenly thrust into the dominion of middle-aged frat boy Bobby Pellit (Colin Farrell, perfection). They can't just quit their jobs because the economy's in the toilet, so the only sane solution is for them to band together and kill their employers. The joke that propels the film is that their poorly-conceived plans amount to little more than one of those online "kill your boss" simulators, and Horrible Bosses occasionally seems to acknowledge its plot as a grossly oversimplified game. A recon mission yields no intel that would be useful to these would-be hitmen, while Kurt puts Pellit's toothbrush up his ass and Dale plays "Angry Birds" on his iPhone to work off an accidental coke binge.
****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A+ starring Danny Aiello, Spike Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn written and directed by Spike Lee
by Vincent Suarez SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I was one of the few Caucasians who defied the tabloid pundits and ventured into a New York City theatre to see Do the Right Thing in the summer of 1989. Seated beside me were not rioters, but a tiny African-American child very much like the sidewalk artist appearing both in the film and on its posters. Her mother and I got a kick out of her enthusiastic dancing to the strains of the Public Enemy tune that drives the credit sequence, and she spent the next two hours bobbing in her seat, softly singing "fight the power" whenever Radio Raheem's box would blare its anthem.
COFFEE AND CIGARETTES ***½/**** starring Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD ***/**** starring Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros, Ross McMillan screenplay by Guy Maddin & George Toles, based on a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro directed by Guy Maddin
by Walter Chaw Philosopher-scientist Nikola Tesla (of coil fame) once suggested that the universe winding down vibrated to a sympathetic rhythm; art, at its best, puts a tuning fork to it. The words that we use to describe tapping that fricative synergy (archetype, the sublime, the ineffable) are also the words that we use, to borrow a phrase from Frank Zappa, to dance about architecture--to describe what's indescribable about the collective experience, the existential electricity that ranks music above painting above poetry above literature (and film the twentieth century stepchild that falls somehow north and south of each). It is the unique privilege of the cinema to be all things at its best and less than nothing at its worst: to be sculpture for Matthew Barney; photography for Stanley Kubrick; ad art for Roy Andersson; poetry for Jean-Luc Godard; hymn for Abbas Kiarostami; and music for Sergio Leone. For Jim Jarmusch, it's the Romanticist sensibility distilled deliriously through the Nouvelle Vague, while for Guy Maddin, it's perhaps the critical instinct at its most self-loathing, arch, and unpleasant.
EVERYBODY'S ALL-AMERICAN *½/**** Image B Sound B Extras C starring Jessica Lange, Dennis Quaid, Timothy Hutton, John Goodman screenplay by Tom Rickman, based on the book by Frank Deford directed by Taylor Hackford
THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON **/**** Image C+ Sound C+ starring Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach, Robert Mitchum, Martin Sheen written and directed by Jason Miller
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Taylor Hackford's Raging Bull, the episodic pigskin melodrama Everybody's All-American boasts a trio of fantastic performances at the service of a picture that's all sturm and no drang, a weightless thing packed to the rafters with heaving moments over the course of a twenty-five year span that somehow fail to add up to an affecting whole. It comes at the tail end of the prolific Dennis Quaid's most prolific era, rounding up unqualified successes like The Big Easy and Innerspace (and unqualified miscues like D.O.A.) and serving as a handy career summary for Hackford, who hit it big with the revered cheese classic An Officer and a Gentleman, which he's been dutifully remaking in one form or another ever since. Success is an unforgiving mistress--so is lack of range and imagination.
MIRACLE **/**** Image A Sound A Extras A- starring Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich, Eddie Cahill screenplay by Eric Guggenheim directed by Gavin O'Connor
Broken Lizard's Club Dread **/**** Image A Sound A- Extras C+ starring Brittany Daniel, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Jordan Ladd screenplay by Broken Lizard directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
by Bill Chambers That it's well-cast, well-shot, and well-edited leads one to conclude that Miracle is, in fact, well-directed (by Tumbleweeds' Gavin O'Connor). It's therefore invaluable, really, as proof that nothing can save a hackneyed screenplay. The film, which recreates a rink-bound pissing contest between the U.S. and Soviet hockey teams at the 1980 Olympics that retroactively came to stand for a Seabiscuit-like national uplift, is so self-critiquing that watching it is purely a formality and only an occasional joy, not for its underdog intrigue, but for its technical proficiency and the ever-dependable Kurt Russell. (If there are better actors than Russell, there certainly aren't better movie stars.) Surmounting a number of aesthetic obstacles, including a moptop that looks scalped from his character in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Russell skillfully essays real-life coach Herb Brooks, a failed puck-slinger looking to live vicariously through a gold medal line-up.
WINTER SOLSTICE *½/**** starring Anthony LaPaglia, Aaron Stanford, Mark Webber, Allison Janney written and directed by Josh Sternfeld
FALLING ANGELS */**** starring Miranda Richardson, Callum Keith Rennie, Katharine Isabelle, Kristin Adams screenplay by Esta Spalding, based on the novel by Barbara Gowdy directed by Scott Smith
by Walter Chaw So reserved that it's almost invisible, Josh Sternfeld's Winter Solstice is an illustration of what it's like to be completely incapable of accessing one's emotions. It's a response, I can only guess, to over-scripted and maudlin independent pictures--and as a finger-wagged, consider it a point-taken. Still, if I have to sit through another family dysfunction picture (ironically what most people think of when they think of an indie "genre" film), I'd prefer to watch one that provides some kind of insight into my life or, failing that, resolution for the lives of the characters in limbo. It's not that I abhor ambiguity, understand, it's that Winter Solstice is more absent than ambiguous--almost a Warholian exercise in nothing happening whatsoever for a really long time. Maybe it's a mirror held up to our own disconnection with our emotions; and maybe that mirror would be better served held underneath the film's nose.
*/**** Image C+ Sound B Extras B- starring Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen screenplay by John Fusco directed by Christopher Cain
by Bill Chambers I know a thing or two about Billy the Kid, having written a thoroughly researched, if thoroughly awful, 240-page screenplay about him. It was just after finishing this magnum opus that I discovered Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and realized that everything I'd tried to say had already been said much more poetically, thus exiling "For What It's Worth: The Life of Billy the Kid" permanently to the bottom drawer. But at the time, I only wanted to outdo Young Guns and Young Guns II--a mission more challenging than you might think, given the films' infamy as second-generation Brat Pack fodder. John Fusco's scripts for both pictures are historically accurate, action-packed, and have a good ear for the vernacular of not only the Old West, but also the western genre. Yet the original Young Guns, especially, is miscast, directed by Christopher Cain (The Principal) like an episode of "Best of the West", and fails to either humanize Billy the Kid or justify his lore. As played by Emilio Estevez, you get the feeling that Billy's unhinged because he's running low on mousse.
****/**** starring Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Harriet Anderson, Lauren Bacall written and directed by Lars von Trier
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Movie pop art is enjoying a renaissance (cf Elephant, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), of which Lars von Trier's savagely cathartic Dogville is the consummate centrepiece. This despite--and partly because of--outward appearances belying its status as a movie at all: Chalk outlines stand in for traditional sets, designating walls, fences, rosebushes, even the dog, Moses, of the titular locale, a pious community (is there any other kind in von Trierland?) situated in the Rocky Mountains circa Prohibition. A void surrounds the rectangle of pavement that constitutes Dogville--it turns white to indicate day and black to indicate night. One could be forgiven for momentarily mistaking Dogville for that fourth-wall-breaking production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town that aired on HBO last year; as Dogville's narrator, John Hurt is as thorough and intrusive a commentator as Our Town's own Stage Manager.
INSIDE MAN ***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer screenplay by Russell Gewirtz directed by Spike Lee
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING ***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B starring Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Adam Brody, Sam Elliott screenplay by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley directed by Jason Reitman
by Walter Chaw You make mistakes as a film critic sometimes and, unlike a lot of professions, when you flub, you do it for the record. I underestimated Spike Lee's 25th Hour badly upon its release a few years ago, misunderstanding it, fearing it, seeing it as a mediocre film when, in fact, subsequent viewings have revealed it as possibly Lee's tonal masterpiece. My inclination, then, is to overcompensate with Inside Man by offering it every benefit of the doubt beforehand, during, and now--by trying hard to overlook the first bad Jodie Foster performance I can remember as well as a mishandled denouement that stretches the picture past the point of recoil. But even with a jaundiced eye, Inside Man cements Lee as one of the few filmmakers with the brass ones to comment on the race schism, and to shoot (with assistance from ace cinematographer Matthew Libatique) a post-9/11 New York with the gravity of a heart attack. In his individualism, though, that almost-shrill dedication to pumping fists up familiar channels, Lee raises a few eyebrows (and elicits a couple of grins) for posing his Nazi villain in various desktop-photo tableaux with other twentieth century, profiteering, conservative ogres like George and Barbara Bush and Margaret Thatcher. It's an interesting companion piece to V for Vendetta in that way, at once a melodramatic throwback and a progressive scalpel. It's blaxploitation, Seventies paranoia, and the latest Spike Lee Joint from Ground Zero.
GREY'S ANATOMY: SEASON ONE Image A Sound B Extras C "A Hard Day's Night," "The First Cut Is the Deepest," "Winning a Battle, Losing the War," "No Man's Land," "Shake Your Groove Thing," "If Tomorrow Never Comes," "The Self Destruct Button," "Save Me," "Who's Zoomin' Who?"
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: SEASON TWO Image A Sound B+ Extras B "The One Where Michael Leaves," "The One Where They Build a House," "Amigos," "Good Grief!," "Sad Sack," "Afternoon Delight," "Switch Hitter," "Queen for a Day," "Burning Love," "Ready, Aim, Marry Me," "Out on a Limb," "My Hand to God," "Motherboy XXX," "The Immaculate Election," "The Sword of Destiny," "Meet the Veals," "Spring Breakout," "Righteous Brothers"
by Walter Chaw A show so odious, so repugnant, that it's impossible not to have predicted its newly-minted role as the most popular program in the land, Shonda Rhimes's "Grey's Anatomy" has the singular distinction of transforming the adorable Ellen Pompeo into a shallow, whorish version of Doogie Howser, practiced in the art of interspersing extraordinary, near-savant leaps of medical intuition with rolling in the hay with her boss, the hipster-dubbed Dr. McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey). When Dr. Meredith Grey meets a new patient, lay you even money that his/her pain and suffering will be used to augment Meredith's face-swallowing, thirtysomething pout, which is one thing--making her brilliant ex-doctor mother a victim of prime time soap opera Alzheimer's for the same ends is something else altogether. Other alternatives include Dr. Meredith babysitting a severed penis in a Coleman cooler and, better, her lingerie model-turned-MD cohort intervening on behalf of a man undergoing erection-threatening prostate surgery. What better way to end the season, then, but to do a whole episode about a syphilis epidemic sleazing like wildfire through the show's Seattle Grace Hospital?
½*/**** Image B Sound B- starring Lolita Davidovich, Timothy Olyphant, Christina Ricci, Tom Todoroff written and directed by Marius Balchunas
by Walter Chaw You watch No Vacancy the same way you watch a triathlon, in that it's not an enjoyable viewing experience by any conventional standards, but you find the participants' dedication in completing what experiential evidence suggests is an odious, exceedingly unpleasant task stimulating just the same. As a normal person would quit five minutes in, it's the pluck that fascinates, that willingness to say and do fabulously stupid things during the audition process or the production itself to honour the craft of acting, even if the project that houses it dishonours the craft of filmmaking.