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David Edelstein

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The House that Egon Built.

“‘He’s the least changed by success of anyone I know in terms of sense of humor, of humility, sense of self,'[said] the late Second City founder Bernie Sahlins…’He’s the same Harold he was 30 years ago. He’s had enormous success relatively, but none of it has gone to his head in any way.'”

Actor, writer, and director Harold Ramis, 19442014. Whether it’s Groundhog Day Ghostbusters, Stripes, Animal House, Caddyshack or some other film in his roster, at some point he probably made you laugh.

“These comedies have several things in common. They attack the smugness of institutional life, trashing the fraternity system, country clubs, the Army — even local weathermen — with an impish good will that is unmistakably American. Will Rogers would have made films like these, if Will Rogers had lived through Vietnam and Watergate and decided that the only logical course of action was getting wasted or getting laid or — better — both.”

Related from The New Yorker, 2004: Why Ramis’s comedies are still funny today. “The voice that Ramis originated — a defanged sixties rebelliousness that doesn’t so much seek to oust the powerful as to embolden the powerless — remains the dominant mode in comedy today.”

Update: “The ones who cultivate an inner calm while others are dropping around them might well have the tougher job. He was a straight man on and off the screen. But oh, what timing.” David Edelstein on Ramis.

God Help the Beasts in Us.

Take one low-rent apartment on the wrong side of London. Add the two most woefully underused actors in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Throw them together with the two most libertine Americans in Paris, circa 1784. Then add a sizable dollop of (Big Gay) Al Swearingen and what do you get? Why, enough bottled-up testosterone to kill a small horse, naturally.

Well, that and Malcolm Venville’s very theatrical-seeming 44 Inch Chest, a play-like disquisition on primal, wounded masculinity-in-early-winter brought to you by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the writers of Sexy Beast. (In fact, by the transitive property of fandom, I could’ve opened this review instead with 2/3rds of Beast + 2/3rds of Paris, 1784 + a very ornery Winston Smith, most definitely post-Julia, and the math still works out.) Put in brief, this film was aptly summed up by David Edelstein in one sentence: “It starts to feel less like a thriller than an actors’ workshop.” That’s very true, but, ah, what actors they are.

Edelstein is entirely correct that 44 Inch Chest is mostly all dressed up with no place to go. More than anything, this film just tries to convey a mood of wallowing in the wounded male id for 90 minutes, and the movie ultimately has so little to do that it eventually starts adding random, ill-thought-out dream sequences and clips from the 1944 version of Samson & Delilah just to pad the running time. Still, much like The Men Who Stare at Goats, I’m inclined to forgive a movie some serious flaws if I enjoy the company of the actors involved. And, in that sense, I’ll concede to having a better time at 44 Inch Chest than it probably deserved.

The story here is very simple: Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) is a broken man. His beloved wife of 21 years (Joanne Whalley) has not only fallen out of love with him, but betrayed him with a handsome French waiter (Melvil Poupaud, who took the same situation much more sanguinely in A Christmas Story.) And now he’s a weeping, blubbering, suicidal, homicidal mess. So much so that his four best mates — amiable Archie (Tom Wilkinson), suave Mal (Stephen Dillane), the happily out Meredith (Ian McShane), and the vindictive Old Man Peanut (John Hurt) — decide to take drastic action.

They capture “Loverboy,” throw him in a wardrobe in the aforementioned rundown flat, and wait around for Colin to exact his revenge. And if he won’t “man up” enough to get the dirty deed done, well, somebody else will have to step in to do it. Because, in this day and age, and men being what they are, cuckoldry is a crime against nature that simply cannot go unavenged. As this crew tell us time and time and time again, usually using even more colorful language, “you just don’t f**k another man’s wife.” But, to paraphrase the inimitable Lloyd Dobler, if these guys know so much about women, how come it’s 3am at the London equivalent of the Gas-and-Sip, and there are absolutely no females around?

If this all sounds like a Harold Pintery, foul-mouthed cockney version of those egregiously mook “men under the gun” Superbowl ads we were regaled with last weekend, well, maybe we’re sorta in the same ballpark. But I would qualify that. First off, just as NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine or, say, (500) Days of Summer capture some of this angst on the young-man side, 44 Inch Chest is really less about misogyny as a dubious lifestyle choice and more just about Men of a Certain Age being burned alive in the horrible flames of thwarted love. Put another way, this movie is a pretty exact cinematic equivalent of Tom Waits’ towering “Make it Rain” or Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me” — which, as you know if you have one, is “restless by day, and by night, rants and rages at the stars…(God help the Beast in Me.)

And speaking of the Beasts in Us, the Sexy Beast influence is pretty strongly felt throughout this movie, and not just because Winstone, McShane, and countless iterations of the C-word are back. Most obviously, John Hurt is now in the over-the-top Ben Kingsley role (also appropriated by Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges), and he has a good deal of fun with it. But other elements of Sexy Beast also came to mind throughout Chest — the dream sequences (better executed in Beast), the men-writhing-underwater bank heist (surely a good visual metaphor for the delving into the male id here), and, maybe most notably, Gal’s memorable profession of love over the phone from London: “I love you like a rose loves rainwater, like a leopard loves its partner in the jungle, like…I don’t know what like.” (And, come to think of it, Sexy Beast has a cuckolding subplot too, with Aitch, Don, and Jackie.)

To be clear, Sexy Beast is, by all accounts, a much better and more interesting film. (It made #29 on my Decade top 100.) But, even though this movie doesn’t really work on its own, I enjoyed 44-Inch Chest as sort of an extended, actors-studio riffing on the same themes. For all the posturing machismo in both movies, Chest and Beast are really both about closet romantics bottling up their feelings behind a tough guy veneer, and the awful consequences that arise when those feelings finally, irrevocably spill out. (In addition, both films feature crimes of passion, and here Winstone is even more tortured by his horrible deed as he is his initial predicament.) To put it another way, 44-Inch Chest is Sexy Beast with its leg caught in a coyote trap, gibbering and howling into the wind in primal misery.

Now, if you haven’t seen Sexy Beast, and don’t much feel like dwelling at length about the similarities, I’ll leave it at this: 44 Inch Chest is basically a filmed play about manliness-gone-sour that’s far too meandering after awhile, and it completely loses the thread in its last half-hour. Still, to my mind, there are worse ways to pass the time than seeing Ray Winstone sweat out several choice monologues, a snarling John Hurt getting to chew the scenery for once, Ian McShane deadpanning a few choice quips, and Stephen Dillane stealing several scenes just by his very presence. (Wilkinson, for his part, should’ve been given more to do.)

This, by the way, is the same trick Dillane often pulled on poor Paul Giamatti in John Adams. Give Mr. Jefferson his due — he might just be operating at a Tony Leung threshold of cool right now. The guy needs more parts and stat…and he’d make a great Doctor when Matt Smith retires the police box

You know, for kids!

So, last night, after deciding on a whim to go catch the midnight IMAX showing of the Wachowskis’ hyperkinetic, candy-coated Speed Racer, I had a bit of a Gob Bluth moment. (As in, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”) For, after the ticket had been purchased, Metacritic informed me that Racer is currently rocking a lowly 35, and some critics are really hating on it. (See, for example, wry film-snob Anthony Lane, who calls it “pop fascism” and ridicules the anti-corporate message as “faux-leftish paranoia.” And even critics I tend to agree with, like Stephanie Zacharek and David Edelstein, seem to have loathed it.) And once i got to Lincoln Square, matters looked worse: As compared to every other midnight showing I’ve ever been to, the crowd was sparse to the point of non-existent. Did, I wonder, the Wachowskis have a Matrix: Revolutions-level bomb on their hands?

Maybe, maybe not, but Speed Racer really doesn’t merit all the contempt being heaped upon it this morning. Mind you, Racer is definitely a movie for children, but that in and of itself shouldn’t argue against it. (I’ve sat through considerably worse kids’ movies in my day.) Basically, Racer is a preteen-friendly, maybe slightly overlong, summer pop confection, and it’s no better or worse, narratively-speaking, than the Spy Kids flicks (all three of which did significantly better with critics.) And, in terms of eye candy, it pushes the envelope and showed me things I’d never seen before in a film, and at breakneck speed to boot. What, exactly, were all these critics expecting? Did they miss that this movie was based on a 1960’s Japanese cartoon, and that one of the characters was a chimp wearing overalls? Speaking of which, I have even less fondness for Racer as a pop-culture product than I did Iron Man — I wasn’t born when the cartoon aired, I was living overseas at the age when I would have enjoyed it, and found it kitschy, dated, and dumb when MTV brought it back in 1993. So, this isn’t the “nerdstalgia” talking: If I was between the ages of 5 and 11, I’d probably think this movie was just about the coolest thing I’d seen since…well, since Iron Man, I guess, but I still would’ve dug it. And, as a 33-year-old, there were more enough splendidly weird wipes, flashbacks, and fades to keep me interested through the rough spots.

If you’ve never seen the cartoon before, the gist is this: Boy drives fast, family applauds, monkey does something funny.

Oh, you want more? Ok, well, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, eventually), the second son of a car-crazy family (conveniently named the Racers), spends his school hours day-dreaming of the track and hanging with his pixie-cute (girl)friend, Trixie. (Christina Ricci, eventually.) But Speed’s life takes a tragic and Kennedyesque turn when his older brother Rex (Scott Porter) is vaporized in an ugly car accident, some time after he’d left home angry with Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon). As such, Speed grows up to inherit the family racing mantle instead, and, as it turns out, he’s pretty darn good at it, so much so that the ruthless head of an obviously evil corporate conglomerate (Roger Allam of V for Vendetta, still looking exactly like Chris Hitchens) wants Speed to race for his well-funded team. But, when Speed decides to stick with the mom-and-pop outfit instead, he incurs the wrath of the insidious Bad Guys, who now set out to destroy him. But, with the help of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox…I think that’s his jawline), the racing scion Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop star Rain…shouldn’t this be Stephen Colbert?), and, of course, his loving family (also including little brother Spritle, handyman Sparky, and monkey Chim-Chim), Speed sets out to beat the odds regardless. And, hey, maybe he’ll learn a few things about racing — and life — in the process.

And that’s about it, folks…Like, I said, it’s a kids’ film. (And while maybe Speed Racer and his friends versus the Big Bad Oligarchy isn’t nuanced enough for the likes of Anthony Lane, I’m guessing it’ll resonate well enough for eight-year-olds.) Helping things along are a bevy of solid performances: Hirsch is a bit of a cipher as Speed, but it’s hard to see how it could’ve been otherwise. Better are John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as the Racers. Both are excellent actors in their own right, of course, but it’s good to see neither suffer from the Portmanitis that has afflicted other otherwise-respectable thespians in heavy-green-screen productions. And then there’s Matthew Fox as Racer X, which is funny for several reasons. Not only is it absurdly perfect casting — Fox looks and sounds exactly like the cartoon character — but the sight of Fox intoning blandly (and occasionally bringing the kung-fu) in his leather Racer X outfit almost seems like it has to be a self-deprecating knock by the Wachowskis on their earlier franchise. (Well, at least I hope they’re in on the joke. The Neo-isms of the final act are way over the top, and a lot of the secondary performances, from Speed’s teacher to the goons dressed like From Hell extras to the fellow playing Inspector Detector, often seem like Eurotrash rejects from the heady days of Zion raving too.)

All that being said, you’re not going to walk out of Speed Racer talking about the performances. The real star of the show is the hypersaturated, zippity-quick look of the whole enterprise. And, while I easily see how people could feel overstimulated to the point of nausea by it (or that it might very well be less captivating on a non-IMAX-sized screen), I was consistently diverted by the look of Speed Racer, and particularly when the brothers Wachowski experiment with some all-new tricks. The cartoonishly-integrated flashback wipes, while perhaps overused, are definitely a neat effect, as are the squiggly-enhanced kung-fu/romance scenes and the “radio” zooms. And the whole movie just has a bizarre wonder to it: Note the sequence just before the start of the desert race, for example — It’s like something out of a fever dream, The Sheltering Sky by way of mescaline-laced Skittles.

So, after all this, am I recommending the film? Well, it really depends on how much you [a] prize visual invention over everything else and [b] can hang with a story pretty clearly pitched at pre-teens. (Having played and enjoyed F-Zero, Wipeout, or SSX will help too, I’d wager.) As I said above, however cotton-candy-thin and dumbed down the plot, I’d never seen a movie that looked like Speed Racer before, and that counts for something in my book. Whatever its faults as a film, I feel I saw something…quite new…last night, and as such I’m willing to forgive Speed Racer probably having too many notes. In any case, it’s definitely not as uniformly terrible as the press is making it out to be.

Understand Your Man.

While there’s no one hard and fast rule to a good artist biopic (and, indeed, last week’s Capote belies to some extent what I’m about to say), it should capture what’s innovative and idiosyncratic about its subject, and help to explain why we should care about their artistry. And, while James Mangold’s reasonably entertaining Walk the Line has its moments, and Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are both excellent, I ultimately found this movie somewhat frustrating. For, except for occasional flashes, the movie, I think, misses the chance to do Johnny Cash justice — you never really get a sense of what was so unique and extraordinary about him. And, even considered solely as the romance of the Man in Black and his long-suffering muse, June Carter (of the fabled Carter Family,) Walk the Line stumbles ever so slightly. If you came into this film knowing nothing about Johnny Cash or June Carter Cash, I’m not sure this movie makes their case. Too often, it follows a standard Behind the Music “rise, drug-addled-fall, and rise again” structure, which makes it feel like it could be about, well, anybody.

To its credit, the film starts off well — We begin on a chilly day outside Folsom Prison in 1968, as a guard nervously listens to an ominous throb emanating from and through the high, grey walls. Slowly, it resolves into a readily identifiable Cash backbeat, and we go inside to find the Man in Black’s band waiting for him to take the jailhouse stage. But Cash is lost in reverie, struck by the sight of a buzzsaw blade in the prison shop room. For a soon-to-be-obvious reason, it takes him back to his boyhood days picking cotton in rural Arkansas, where the sounds of trains going someplace else are always in the distance, and the only respite from the sweltering heat is the voice of young June Carter on the radio. Ok, so far, so good…Mangold has shown that he’s not afraid to keep everything a little impressionistic, to color his palette with iconographic Cash-isms and help the man’s music breathe through the picture.

Unfortunately, though, most of the film thereafter feels depressingly literal. After apprising us of a childhood tragedy, the film takes us through Cash’s early days in the Air Force, his increasingly loveless first marriage to Vivian Liberto (Ginnifer Goodwin, looking like Audrey from Twin Peaks and feeling like a stock biopic trope), his rise to fame, his subsequent addiction to Go Pills, and his ultimate redemption thanks to a good-hearted woman, always there to help out a good-timin’ man in his hour(s) of need. This is all capably handled, I guess, but too often it feels rote, in an Insert-Rock-Star-Here kinda way. Worse, aside from one discerning monologue by rock-n-roll impresario Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) at Cash’s first audition, the film never really gets to the bottom of the singer’s appeal. We see Cash on his all-star Sun Records tours — and thus get impersonations of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Carl Phillips, among others — but the film never explains what was unique about Cash among Phillips’ impressive stable of talent. (No Dylan here later on, though…but Cash’s close friendship with Bob is explicitly referenced several times, including a timely cover of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and a lively use of “Highway 61“‘s police whistle intro.)

In fact, allow me to digress — one of the many fascinating aspects of the Dylan-Cash camaraderie (also briefly featured in one of the most memorable moments of the recent No Direction Home) is that, aside from a shared affinity for murder ballads and mind-altering substances, they were a study in contrasts, at least in the Sixties. Often, the young Dylan seems impetuous and invincible. Keenly aware of injustice, he nevertheless remains unfazed. He’s unrepentant in his anger — To paraphrase Herbert Croly‘s colorful description of Theodore Roosevelt, the early Dylan wields righteousness like a hammer, throwing the sins, taunts, and ridicule of this world right back from whence they came. Or, at many of his best moments, he turns his back on it all. Instead, he illuminates our experience by imagining the world anew, conjuring a landscape (what Greil Marcus has called the “invisible republic”) that renders both grievous sins and exalted sacraments to be often socially conditional, if not absurd and irrelevant.

But Cash — Cash can’t escape his critics, because his worst critic is himself. Nor can he either simply condemn or intricately reimagine Evil, because he has been Evil’s instrument. He’s a man of our world — In fact, he’s the Last Man, the Fallen Man. (“But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back, Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.”) Forget righteousness: Cash’s characters are just as cognizant of injustice as Dylan’s, but they also know they’ve done wrongs that can’t and never will be forgiven. They’ve been living desperate for so long they’ve become resigned to it. They walk the line, because they know what it’s like to stray far off the path, and they’ve paid the price in spades. And their adherence to their creed — be it a woman, the Savior, or something else, depending on the song — is all the more heartfelt and admirable because it has been tested, and even broken. In short, Cash has suffered grave consequences, and persevered in spite of them. He’s been through the Ring of Fire and out the other side, and his gravelly-delivered tales of guilt and penitence have set the stage for any number of later artists, including Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and, by no coincidence at all, the older Bob Dylan.

Well, that’s my take on Cash, and there are many others (For example, Ed Champion had a nice read on him last week contrasting Cash with Franz Ferdinand.) But, back to the movie — I barely got any sense of a Cash critique at all in Walk the Line. At best, it assumes you already have an opinion and appreciation of the man coming in, which may be true but still seems like lazy writing. (Or, alternatively, I guess you could say that it attempts to explode the Cash myth — “He wasn’t really a jailbird!” — but that gets us back into staid Behind the Music territory again.) That being said, the fault with the film is not Joaquin Phoenix’s by any means. Admittedly, his singing voice is off — although, whether it be to his getting better or my brain sorting out the cognitive dissonance — he improves as the film goes along. But, otherwise, Phoenix goes for it, and despite often seeming physically and vocally far afield from Cash, he delivers a powerful performance from the inside-out. As Dave Edelstein noted, it’s hard to watch him wrestle with drug abuse and the memory of his dead brother here and not think of River Phoenix. (If anything, I was reminded of Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which is another brilliant performance, although arguably one that doesn’t suggest Tricky Dick to anyone who remembers him.)

Reese Witherspoon is also superb (indeed, award-worthy) as June Carter, who, as in life, I suppose, was both a vivacious stage presence and a model of forbearance. (It’s also great to hear a genuine, unaffected southern accent onscreen. Too often, they sound actorly and are off by hundreds of miles — I’m looking at you, Cold Mountain.) But, the romance at the heart of the film is missing that certain je-ne-sais-quoi. From what little I know about it, Johnny and June Carter Cash are one of those love stories for the ages. She was his angel, his ray of light in the dark (images which the film does try to bring to life.) But, here, and I’m not quite sure exactly who’s at fault, Johnny Cash just comes off as a disciple of the mega-creepy Anakin Skywalker school of courting — i.e., act like a stalker for long enough and eventually she’ll come ’round. Again, I don’t really blame the actors. They do what they can with what they’ve got (although perhaps memories of Phoenix’s turn as Gladiator‘s Commodus are partially at fault.) But, to my mind, if the movie tried harder to sell us on Cash’s unique artistry, perhaps we’d have a better sense of what June, daughter of an estimable clan of folkies, saw in him. As it is, he just seems like an extremely lucky, albeit talented, amphetamine junkie.

And, to close an overextended review, that’s the basic problem with Walk the Line. The parts are all here, but, aside from the occasional flicker of life, the soul of Cash is mostly absent. Perhaps it’d be impossible to do right by him, to capture all the mystique of his music and his persona on celluloid. But, that doesn’t make this film any less frustrating. Try as Walk the Line might, the elusive and unforgettable Johnny Cash remains a ghost rider in the sky.

Unsound Methods.

Given the very favorable (and somewhat spoilerish) reviews that David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence has been getting, I went in expecting a great film from this auteur of the disturbing (albeit one without the throbbing, fleshy, pulsating chunks of gristle usually associated with Cronenberg’s oeuvre.) But, while Violence is a good film with some excellent performances — most notably by Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello — it is not ultimately a great one. In fact, I found it something of a letdown after all the hype. [Be warned: I don’t want to give everything away, but it’s a hard movie to talk about without delving into some very heavy spoilers, including the film’s conclusion.]

I’ve never read the source graphic novel, so I can’t vouch for the deviations in the tale, but it basically goes as follows: Viggo Mortensen is Tom Stall, a hard-working, Midwestern fella who runs the local diner in Smalltown USA. He is loved by his adoring, alluring wife (Bello, exquisite as usual), admired by his two children, respected by the community, and generally living the American dream, as long exemplified in Norman Rockwell paintings and The Saturday Evening Post. (A lot of this corn-fed small-town-America set-up — a little girl’s nightmare, a run-in with a high-school bully — comes off as completely flat and stilted, but I think there’s method in Cronenberg’s madness. What he’s doing is akin to the Naomi Watts/Nancy Drew stuff in the first half of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive — he’s lulling us in with mundanity to knock us off-kilter later on.)

Anyway, Tom’s picture-perfect life goes awry after he becomes an unwitting “American Hero” media sensation by killing two Bad Men in his diner one evening. (We know they’re Bad Men because one of them blows away a little girl in the first five minutes, which seems like exceedingly cheap and lazy character development.) Soon, scraggly-looking n’er-do-wells like Ed Harris come-a-knockin’, convinced that Tom Stall is not Tom Stall at all, but rather…Aragorn of the Dunedain, Isildur’s Heir and a trained, lethal adversary. Ok, not quite…nevertheless, this case of mistaken identity eventually forces Stall to forego being a man of peace and come to grips with his violent tendencies. And, in true Cronenberg fashion, this violence soon seems to infect Stall’s world like a particularly dangerous viral meme, and threatens to transform forever the lives of he and his family.

Along the way, A History of Violence comments on many significant tropes in the history of violence — “justified” violence, parental violence, marital and sexual violence — culminating in a replay of the original Biblical murder (one which loses much of its force due to William Hurt being an insufferable hambone — Perhaps he and Harris should’ve switched roles.) And, to its credit, it leaves many of these setpieces tantalizingly ambiguous. Was Viggo’s kid right to smash up the bully? How should we feel about the incident on the stairwell? But, for all that, I’m with Edelstein — The larger arc of the story seems cartoonishly black-and-white. Yes, the last scene of the film is an undeniably powerful one, but, really, the Stalls get off easy. If violence, once unleashed, spreads like a wildfire, then how come only Bad People (or at the vey least Deserving People, like the bully) end up on its brunt end? True, Cronenberg shows us the gory consequences of murder (Throbbing Gristle sighting!), but never upon any character that we happen to like.

I can see the argument that the story had to end the way it did — with the Stalls perhaps physically unharmed but in spiritual turmoil — as a commentary on either the standard narrative of the Western (covered similarly in Unforgiven) or on Dubya’s foreign policy, which Cronenberg says is an analogy he and Viggo had in mind. Still, as it is, I think the story’s conclusion subverts the movie’s message. By leaving the white hats shaken, not stirred and the black hats pushing up daisies, A History of Violence ends up suggesting that violence is actually a rather effective way of dealing with Bad People, although it may cost you (sniff) a few tears. All in all, A History of Violence is a much-better-than-average movie and it’s one well worth seeing, but, in the end, I don’t think it quite holds up.

2004 in Film.

Happy New Year, everyone. Inauspiciously for 2005, it looks like I’m starting the year a day late on the end-of-2004 movie roundup…but better late than never. As you probably already guessed, this year’s film list will be the first in four years without a Peter Jackson Tolkien adaptation in the #1 spot (although I’m still keeping it warm for The Hobbit in 2008.) Nevertheless, my top choice this year was an easy one, and those of y’all who come ’round here often can probably figure it out.

Top 20 Films of 2004:

1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The one true classic of 2004, Eternal Sunshine has only grown in my estimation since its initial release in March. (David Edelstein’s take on it as one of Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell‘s remarriage comedies is well worth reading.) A heartfelt examination of love, loss, and memory, Eternal Sunshine was also a strikingly adult take on romance and relationships, the kind you usually don’t get from Hollywood. With great performances from a caged Jim Carrey and an electric Kate Winslet, the film managed to be both an earnest, passionate love story and a wistful paean to those person-shaped holes we all carry in our hearts and memories. Along with Annie Hall and High Fidelity, it goes down as one of my all-time favorite films about the mysteries of love. (Why even bother? We need the eggs.)

2) Garden State. Writer-director Zach Braff’s “anti-Graduate” debut was a small but touching ode to home that, along with reviving Natalie Portman as an actress and offering the best soundtrack of the year, delivered exactly what it promised. A bit hokey at times, sure, but Garden State wore its heart on its sleeve and, for the most part, got away with it. It was a witty and eloquent voyage to the Jersey burbs and a testament to the proposition that as Paul Weller put it, it’s never too late to make a brand new start.

3) The Incredibles. Pixar has been delivering well-constructed eye-popping wonders since Toy Story, and The Incredibles is the best of the lot. I figured it might be awhile before a movie topped Spiderman 2 as a sheer comic book spectacle, but, as it turned out, The Incredibles did it only a few months later. One of the best comic book films ever made, The Incredibles was two hours of unmitigated fanboy fun. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably also the best Fantastic Four film we’re ever going to see.

4) Sideways. Like a fine 1961 Cheval Blanc, Alexander Payne’s elegiac toast to California wine country and the regrets and indignities of middle-age has a tendency to linger in the senses. Paul Giamatti must tire of playing depressive, barely sociable losers, but he’s great at it here…Sideways isn’t as funny as Election, but it is a memorable trip.

5) Spiderman 2. A definite improvement on the first adventure of your friendly neighborhood wallcraller, Spiderman 2 was a perfectly made summer film that stayed true to the spirit of Peter Parker. Along with X2, this is the gold standard for comic book-to-film adaptations right now…let’s hope Batman Begins is up to snuff.

6) Shaun of the Dead. Although it lost its footing shambling to its conclusion, Shaun of the Dead was great fun for the first two-thirds of its run, and it’s now probably my favorite zombie movie (everyone should have one.) A much-needed dry British humor fix to tide us over until Hitchhiker’s Guide.

7) The Aviator. A bit on the long side, Scorsese’s life of Howard Hughes is most fun when it stays away from the airfields and lounges about Old Hollywood. Two very clean thumbs up.

8) The Assassination of Richard Nixon. A dark, unflinching 90-minute descent into violent futility. I originally had this before The Aviator, then figured the degree of difficulty on Scorsese’s flick was much, much higher. Nevertheless, this funereal biopic for non-billionaire crazies, while grim and not much fun, was well-made and well-performed, and I expect it’ll stay with me for awhile.

9) The Bourne Supremacy. Perhaps a bit too much like its predecessor, Bourne II was still a better Bond than anything we’ve seen in the past 20 years. Paul Greengrass’ shakicam work here bodes well for Rorshach in The Watchmen.

10) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban. It’d be hard to make a better film of Harry Potter’s adventures at Hogwarts than Alfonso Cuaron did here — Azkhaban managed to capture the dry wit and subversive spirit of the books that’s so missing in the Chris Columbus movies. That being said, Azkaban also made it clear that much of the fun of Rowling’s tomes is uncapturable on film. What was great fun to read on the page ended up seeming like Back to the Future II on the screen. With that in mind, Year 6 begins on 7/16.

11) Ocean’s 12. Two swollen hours of Soderberghian glamour and inside baseball. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but I found it an agreeable improvement on Ocean’s 11. (Don Cheadle’s accent is still terrible, tho’.)

12) Touching the Void. Snap! Aigh! Crunch! Aigh! It’d be hard to forget anything as memorable as Shattered Femur Theater. Well worth seeing, if you can stand the pain.

13) Fahrenheit 9/11. Hmmm…perhaps this should be higher. I definitely left the theater in an angry froth (not that it takes much)…unfortunately, apparently so did all the freepers.

14) My Architect. An excellent documentary on Louis Kahn, brilliant architect and terrible family man. Alas, it’s also a less-excellent documentary on Kahn’s son, and his Oprah-like quest for self-acceptance.

15) Kinsey. Take that, red staters.

16) Hero. A memorable meditation on love, power, and kick-ass kung-fu, until its train-wreck derailing in the last half-hour.

17) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. As I said yesterday, Aquatic was a jaunty Wes Anderson joyride that nevertheless gets a little lost in its terminal cuteness. When you care more about the leaving-behind of Cody the three-legged dog than you do the death of a major character, there’s a problem.

18) I Heart Huckabees. Huckabees had its heart in the right place, and made for a decently appealing night at the movies…but it also had a terminal-cute problem.

19) Collateral. If the movie had maintained the promise of its first hour throughout, Michael Mann’s Collateral would have been a top ten contender. Alas, it all falls apart once Tom Cruise goes bugnut psycho in da club.

20) Kill Bill, Vol. 2. There was probably one really good movie somewhere in the two Kill Bills. The second half was closer to it than the first.

Not Seen: Bad Education, Before Sunset, Finding Neverland, Friday Night Lights, Harold and Kumar, Hotel Rwanda, Maria Full of Grace, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, Spanglish

Worst Movies of the Year: Van Helsing, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Village, Code 46, Closer, Alexander, 21 Grams (2003)

Biggest Disappointment: The Ladykillers

Ho-Hum: Team America: World Police, The Alamo, House of Flying Daggers, Troy, King Arthur, Anchorman, Blade: Trinity, Shrek 2

Worth a Rental: Mean Girls, The Manchurian Candidate,
Hellboy, The Machinist, City of God (2003)

Best Actor: Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine; Paul Giamatti, Sideways; Sean Penn, The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
Best Actress: Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine.

Best Supporting Actor: Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator; Virginia Madsen, Sideways.

2005: On paper, it’s looking like a better year for film, fanboy and otherwise, than 2004. The slate includes Star Wars Episode III, Batman Begins, The Chronicles of Narnia, All the King’s Men, PJ’s King Kong, Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, Polanski’s Oliver Twist, Malick’s The New World, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Constantine, Sin City, Fantastic Four, and my own most-anticipated project, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So here’s to the new year!

Masters of Puppets.

So, just before the Sox took George Steinbrenner down a peg this past Wednesday, I got to witness an ornery Kim Jong Il marionette suffer a similar fate at the hands of Team America: World Police. Going in to said puppet show, I was expecting a gut-bustingly funny film a la the South Park movie (and most South Park episodes), despite David Edelstein’s warning about sloppy satire. Well, unfortunately, Edelstein was right: While Team America does have some really hilarious moments (the cyanide hammer, Kim’s attack panthers, Matt Damon, the Michael Bay song), as a whole it doesn’t really hold together.

I should say first off that, the humor notwithstanding, this is probably one of the most amazing (non-stop-motion) puppet shows ever put to film. There are a few extended sequences — Paris, the Panama Canal — where the scale and execution of this puppet world is breathtaking. But, sadly, this ambition and devotion to detail doesn’t carry over to the script. For the first two-thirds or so, Team America is a spot-on imitation of pretty much any Jerry Bruckheimer film…but, unfortunately, it lampoons the genre so closely that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a parody. Instead, half the time I felt like I’d stumbled onto one of the New Classics on TNT.

Then, the final third of the movie swings too far in the other direction, and ends up relying way too heavily on puppet entrails and cussing dolls to generate laughs. As for the politics of the piece, I just don’t get how the South Park guys, who usually craft some of the most devastating satire around, couldn’t mine anything more substantive out of the War on Terror than the notion that left-wing Hollywood activists coddle tyrants by speaking their mind. (And, Trey & Matt, if we’re not supposed to care what the likes of Tim Robbins and Alec Baldwin think, then why in Hell should we listen to you two?) In short, the puppetry in Team America is inspired, but the comedy is often lazy. Funny at times, sure, but I expected more than just an intermittently amusing anti-Hollywood screed from the creators of Cartman & co.

A Good man, and thorough.

“The Coens turned down requests to be interviewed about the cult of ‘The Big Lebowski,’ which is frankly infuriating: I did not watch my buddies die facedown in the muck to be blown off by too-cool, insular, press-shunning elitists.” Via All About George, David Edelstein checks in on The Dude, in anticipation of this weekend’s Lebowskifest. Edelstein, you are entering a world of pain.

Double Billed.

Well, I’ll say this much for Kill Bill, Vol. 2…it’s a vast improvement over the atrocious Vol. 1. Perhaps because, one kinetic trailer park catfight notwithstanding, Tarantino isn’t trying to be an action director this time around, the second half of this revenge tale hangs together much better than the opening act. There’s actually time devoted to character beats here, which, as QT should know, is ultimately his forte as a writer and director. As such, Michael Madsen and David Carradine in particular get a chance to bring some much-needed complexity to the wafer-thin plot around which these films are constructed.

Still, like its predecessor, Kill Bill Vol. 2 has the whiff of a vanity project. It’s obvious Quentin had the time of his life making these two films, and they definitely seem to work as a love letter to a certain subset of grindhouse and chop-socky film fans (a group which includes David Edelstein, Roger Ebert, and Elvis Mitchell.) But, frankly, I thought a lot of Vol. 2 felt sloppy and derivative. I still don’t see why this project had to be two films, particularly as, once again, there’s so many drawn-out, redundant, or unnecessary episodes on display here. What’s up with the Uma car intro? Bud’s boss? Daryl Hannah’s googlesearch notes? Bill’s ridiculously QT-like riff on Superman? The tremendously stupid pregnancy test faceoff? As I noted about the first half of Kill Bill, Jackie Brown moves languidly, but with purpose. For much of these KB flicks, which often feel more like some sub-Tarantino outing (Killing Zoe, for example) than they do Jackie or Pulp Fiction, I was just bored.

Ultimately, there’s a difference between paying fleeting homage to some film influence and constructing a four and a half hour movie that just moves lazily from homage to homage. The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly, some Wu-Tang flick, Oh, look, The Vanishing. I’m sure that I recognized less than 10% of the movies Tarantino was referencing here, and I’m sure that probably invalidates my opinion of the film in many people’s eyes. And, if QT wants to show off his film-geek cred so blatantly and the film-geeks eat it up like candy, who am I to complain? Still, I very much hope that Tarantino had to get this orgy of excess out of his system, and that he’ll now settle down and focus his considerable talents a little more narrowly, instead of jumping all over the map as he does here.

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