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Emily Watson

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Saving Private Ed.

Or The Whinnys of War, perhaps? Anyways, happy new year, everyone — I hope 2012 rang in with much joy and not too extreme of a New Year’s Day hangover. And now, since there are still a few more to go, back to the holiday season reviews! (For those few who may be wondering, the usual end-of-year movie round-up for 2011 will be up early next week, I hope, as I plan to plug a few more holes first via Netflix over the weekend.)

Next on the docket is what turned out to be my b-day film this year, Steven Spielberg’s old-fashioned weeper War Horse, a.k.a. Saving Private Ryan meets The Black Stallion. In short, despite some first act hiccups, War Horse is a solidly engaging film. True, it plays some rather easy chords in order to derive its suspense and emotional power — namely, Animals-in-Peril and People-Saying-Farewell-to-Their-Trusty-Equine-Companions. And the scenes here of World War I are considerably more stagy and less resonant than Spielberg’s re-creations of WWII in Ryan. (Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front aren’t in any danger of being upstaged here.) But, perhaps due in part to its steadfastly old-school movie traditionalism, War Horse goes to work on you after awhile. It’s a simple tale of a boy, a horse, and the Great War that came between them, elegantly told.

That being said, War Horse doesn’t really find its footing until it leaves the rather twee English countryside and heads off to the Continent for the great conflagration. In fact, the first forty minutes or so are something of a Spielbergian schmaltzfest, as a poor lad (Jeremy Irvine) tries to get his noble and spirited young horse Joey to take to the plow and save the family farm. Joey was acquired by this desperate bunch — the Narracotts by name — when the drunken pater familias (Peter Mullan), a veteran of the Boer War, overpaid for him in a moment of liquid courage bidding against the local landlord (David Thewlis). And so, to stop said landlord from exacting his revenge, young Albert Narracott must coax and train Joey to do farm work meant for a much sturdier beast — skills that may come in handy in the battlefield a few years hence.

With Thewlis twirling his moustache as Mullan and Ma Narracott Emily Watson — humble, decent folk, both — fret about losing the farm, the first act of War Horse feels like one ginormous and schmaltzy cliche, especially coming from this director. (Hey, Joey! Why the long Spielberg face?) But when Tom Hiddleston (i.e. Loki of Thor) shows up as a dashing young military man — i.e. exactly the sort of naive, well-meaning fellow who perished by the millions in WWI — and takes the reins of our stallion protagonist, War Horse begins to gather momentum.

Under the command of Benedict Cumberbatch (late of Tinker), Joey and his new rider venture off to the Great War. But — as WWI vet J.R.R.Tolkien intimates with the last ride of the Rohirrim in Return of the King (and see also Faramir’s doomed assault on Osgiliath in PJ’s film version), World War I is a conflict where old-school cavalry charges are tantamount to organized suicide. The Civil War had Gatling guns and the Franco-Prussian War mitrailleuses, but, by 1914, the Germans have enthusiastically adopted honest-to-goodness machine guns, and the battlefield is no place for a horse anymore.

And so the rest of the movie is a Red Violin-type tale where we follow Joey’s misadventures as he passes variously through English, German, and French hands over the course of an increasingly horrible and dehumanizing (dehorseizing?) bloodbath of a war. (Among those who cross Joey’s path are A Prophet‘s Niel Arestrup, The Conspirator‘s Toby Kebbel, Sherlock‘s Eddie Marsan, and soon-to-be-Davos Seaworth Liam Cunningham.) And, while the last few Gone with the Wind-laden moments struck the wrong tone with me — after the trenches, it’s a bit late in the day to make military service seem poetic — War Horse for the most part gots its hooks in me over its run. You will believe a horse can war.

Trotter, Traitor, Spaceman, Spy.

In the trailer bin of late:

Your Lonely Souls.

After Friday’s Basterds came a Saturday morning expedition to Sophie Barthes’ minor-key Cold Souls. I was sold on this film as soon as I heard about the sci-fi premise — once again there’s some weird science for sale in and around New York City — and it’s worth a rental at least, particularly if you’re a fan of Paul Giamatti. But Cold Souls also feels vaguely underwritten: The ideas it puts in play are more interesting than the execution, and it’s hard not to think of the movie as just another well-meaning but flawed act of Existential Schlub Theater, a la Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, New York.

So what’s the score here? Well, world-renowned screen thespian Paul Giamatti (Paul Giamatti) has lately been pouring his heart andsoul into a Broadway production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and it’s killing him even worse than that John Adams gig back in the day — he lies awake nights, brain and stomach churning. So, after being clued into a New Yorker story about a Roosevelt Island firm that temporarily stores souls, Paul takes the plunge. Without even telling his wife (Emily Watson, bestowing her indie imprimatur), he takes a cable car over to yonder island, listens to the sales pitch from the eminently reasonable Dr. Flintstein (David Straithairn), and gets his chickpea-sized soul (or at least 95% of it) extracted from his person.

As you might expect, this has some strange side effects — The soulless Paul, for example, is completely impervious to the charms of a cute bunny (I mean that literally, although the extremely underused Lauren Ambrose doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on him either.) He’s also now a terrible actor — Without his broken soul propelling him along a dark and agonizing path, Giamatti’s Vanya flies over Russian pathos and lands somewhere in the Borscht Belt. But, when Paul heads back to Roosevelt Island to get his soul back…well, his complication has developed a little complication. For it turns out there is a brisk black market going on in the soul business, and Giamatti’s personal chickpea has been sent via mule (Dina Korzun) to St. Petersburg, where it’s being used by a beautiful Russian soap star (Katheryn Winnick) who now believes herself in possession of Al Pacino’s actorly chops. (Al Pacino has a soul?) Meanwhile, the avuncular Dr. Flintstein suggests, perhaps Giamatti could just pick a soul out of the black market catalog…word is Russian poets are going cheap these days…

There’s a lot to admire in Barthes’ Souls — It’s nothing if not clever throughout, and there are definitely a few chuckles to be had. Every member of the cast here is pretty darned good, particularly Giamatti and Watson, who manage to make a compelling, multi-dimensional marriage come across with very few lines. And I admired that the movie had thought through some of the second-level ramifications of a soul commodities business — black markets, for example.

All that being said, Cold Souls ultimately feels like something of a non-starter. As with The Brothers Bloom, a third act in Russia feels meandering and purposeless. The glimpses we do eventually get of people’s soul-landscape — a sort of Mark Romanek afterworld of out-of-focus children and creepy oldsters — are, frankly, less interesting than the ideas that were already put into play. And there’s just not much there there. In the end, the movie is better at the set-up than the follow-through. Cold Souls is worth watching on IFC some day, but, like poor Paul Giamatti after the operation, it ends up feeling curiously hollow.

2008 in Film.

Well, now that we’re in the second month of 2009, and since I’m *mostly* caught up on last year’s prestige crop, it seems arguably the last, best time to write up the belated Best of 2008 Movie list. (I did see one more indy film of 2008 Sunday morning, but as it was after my arbitrarily-chosen 1/31 cutoff, it’ll go in next year’s list.) Compiling the reviews this year, it seems my October hunch was correct: For a combination of reasons, I went to the movies a lot less than usual in 2008. (The review count usually clocks in around 45. Last year, I only saw 30 films on the big screen.) And, looking over the release schedule, I see lots of movies I had every intention of viewing — Appaloosa, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Choke, Leatherheads — and never got around to.

At any rate, given what I did see, here’re the best of ’em. And here’s hoping the 2009 list will be more comprehensive. As always, all of the reviews can be found here. (And if a movie title doesn’t link to a full review, it means I caught it on DVD.)

Top 20 Films of 2008


1. The Dark Knight: Yes, it’s the obvious fanboy pick. And, admittedly, TDK had pacing problems — it was herky-jerky at times and the third act felt rushed. Still, in a not-particularly-good year for cinema, Christopher Nolan’s operatic reimagining of the Caped Crusader and his arch-nemesis was far and away the most enjoyable experience i had at the movies in 2008. And if Candidate Obama was America’s own white knight (metaphorically speaking) this past year, Heath Ledger’s Joker was its mischievous, amoral, and misanthropic id. If and when the economic wheels continue to come off in 2009, will stoic selflessness or gleeful anarchy be the order of the day? The battle for Gotham continues, and everybody’s nervously eyeing those detonators. Let’s hope the clown doesn’t get the last laugh.

2. Milk: What with a former community organizer turned “hopemonger” being elected president — while evangelicals, conservatives and sundry Mormons inflicted Proposition 8 on the people of California — Gus Van Sant’s vibrant recounting of the tragedy of Harvey Milk was obviously the timeliest political movie of 2008. But, in a year that saw entirely too much inert Oscar-bait on-screen in its final months, Milk — romantic, passionate, and full of conviction — was also one of the most alive. While it extends some measure of compassion even to its erstwhile villain (Josh Brolin), Milk is a civil-rights saga that harbors no illusions about the forces of intolerance still amongst us, and how far we all still have to go.

3. The Wrestler: Have you ever seen a one-trick pony in the fields so happy and free? Me neither, to be honest, but Aronofsky’s naturalistic slice-of-life about the twilight days of Randy “the Ram” Ramzinski was likely the next best thing. I don’t know if Mickey Rourke will experience a career resurrection after this performance or not. But he won this match fair and square, and nobody can take it from him.

4. Let the Right One In: As if living in public housing in the dead of a Swedish winter wasn’t depressing enough, now there’s a nosferatu to contend with… My Bodyguard by way of Ingmar Bergman and Stephen King, this creepy and unsettling tale of a very unsparkly pre-teen vampyrer will leave bitemarks long after you step out into the light.

5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days: A 2007 release that made it stateside in 2008, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days is a movie that I probably wouldn’t ever want to watch again. Still, this grim, unrelenting journey through the seedy hotels and sordid back-alleys of Ceaucescu’s Romania is another hard one to shake off. And, tho’ I caught it early on, it remained one of the very best films of the year.

6. WALL-E: If you saw one movie last year about a boy(bot) from the slums meeting — and then improbably wooing — the girl(bot) of his dreams, I really hope it was WALL-E. Hearkening back to quality seventies sci-fi like Silent Running, Andrew Stanton’s robot love story and timely eco-parable is a definite winner, and certainly another jewel in the gem-studded Pixar crown. I just wish it’d stayed in the melancholy, bittersweet key of its first hour, rather than venturing off to the hijinx-filled, interstellar fat farm. Ah well, bring on Up.

7. Iron Man: Much better than I ever anticipated, Jon Favreau’s (and Robert Downey Jr.’s) Iron Man kicked a summer of superheroes off in grand fashion. In the end, I preferred the gloomy stylings of Gotham in 2008, but there’s definitely something to be said for this rousing, upbeat entrant in the comic movie canon. It delivered on its own terms, and it was a much better tech-fetishizing, boys-and-their-toys type-film than, say, 2007’s Transformers or (I suspect) 2009’s GI Joe. Bonus points for the Dude going all Big Jeff Lebowski on us here…now quit being cheap about the sequel.

8. Man on Wire: 4:40pm: Two foreign nationals and their American abettors successfully navigate past the guard checkpoint of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Their fanatical mission: To use the WTC as a symbol to transform the world…through an act of illegal, death-defying performance art. Although it never explicitly mentions 9/11 (of course, it doesn’t need to — the towers themselves do most of the work, and reconstructing its story as a heist does the rest), the stirring documentary Man on Wire, about Phillipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope-walk between the towers, gains most of its resonance from the events of that dark day in 2001.

After seventy minutes or so, just as it seems this unspoken analogy is starting to wear thin, Petit finally steps out onto that ridiculous wire, and Man on Wire takes your breath away. Nothing is permanent, the movie suggests. Not youth, not life, not love, not even those majestic, formidable towers. But some moments — yes, the beautiful ones too — can never be forgotten. (Note: Man on Wire is currently available as a direct download on Netflix.)

9. U2 3D: One of two 2008 films (along with #16) which seemed to suggest the future of the movie-going experience, U2 3D was both a decently rousing concert performance by Dublin’s fab four, and — more importantly — an experimental film which played with an entirely new cinema syntax. Just as students look back on D.W. Griffith films of a century ago as the beginnings of 2D-movie expression, so too might future generations look at this lowly U2 concert and see, in its layering of unrelated images onto one field of vision, when the language of 3D really began to take off. At which point someone might also say, “Man, I wish they’d played ‘So Cruel’ instead of some of these tired old dogs.”

10. The Visitor: I wrote about Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor (which I saw on DVD) some in my Gran Torino review, and my criticism there stands: As with Torino, the central thrust of this story is too Bagger Vance-ish by half. Still, it’s fun to see a likable character actor like Richard Jenkins get his due in a starring role, and he’s really great here. And, if the “magical immigrant” portions of this tale defy reality to some extent, McCarthy and Jenkins’ vision of a life desiccated by years of wallowing in academic purgatory — the humdrum lectures, the recycled syllabi, the mind-numbingly banal conferences, all divorced from any real-world interaction with the issues at hand — is frighteningly plausible.

11. Synecdoche, New York: Long on ambition and short on narrative coherence, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is the There Will Be Blood of last year’s crop, in that it’s a film that I think will inspire a phalanx of ardent defenders among movie buffs, who will argue its virtues passionately against all comers. For my own part, I admired this often-bewildering movie more than I actually enjoyed it, and ultimately found it much less engaging than Kaufman’s real magnum opus, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Still, I’m glad I made the attempt, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

12. Frost/Nixon: Two man enter, one man leave! More a sports movie than a political one, Ron Howard and Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon is a decently entertaining depiction of two hungry down-and-outers locked in the debater’s version of mortal kombat. That being said, I kinda wish the stakes had seemed higher, or that the substance of the issues at hand — Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate — had been as foregrounded as the mano-a-mano mechanics of the interview. Plus, that scene where Tricky Dick sweeps the leg? That’s not kosher.

13. Snow Angels: David Gordon Green’s quiet, novelistic Snow Angels is an early-2008 film I caught on DVD only a few weeks ago, and it’s been slowly sneaking up the list ever since. Based on a 1994 book by Stewart O’Nan, the movie depicts the intertwined lives of a small New England community, and recounts the tragic circumstances that lead to two gunshots being fired therein one winter afternoon. (If it sounds like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, it’s very close in form, content, and melancholy impact.)

In a movie brimming over with quality performances — including (an ever-so-slightly-implausible) Kate Beckinsale, Nicky Katt, Amy Sedaris, and the long-forgotten Griffin Dunne — three actors stand out: Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby fall into one of the most honest, believable, and affectation-free high school romances I’ve seen in a movie in ages. And the always-watchable Sam Rockwell sneaks up on you as a perennial loser who tries to be a good guy and just keeps failing at life despite himself. At first not much more than an amiable buffoon as per his usual m.o., Rockwell’s gradual surrender to his demons — note his scenes with his daughter, or in the truck with his dog, or at the bar — gives Snow Angels a haunting resonance that sticks with you.

14. Burn After Reading: As I said in the original review, it’s not one of the all-time Coen classics or anything. But even medium-grade Coen tends to offer more delights than most films do in a given year, and the same holds true of their espionage-and-paranoia farce Burn After Reading in 2008. From John Malkovich’s foul-mouthed, (barely-)functioning alcoholic to George Clooney as a (thoroughly goofy) lactose-intolerant bondage enthusiast to, of course, Brad Pitt’s poor, dim-witted Chet, Burn introduced plenty of ridiculous new characters to the brothers’ already-stacked rogues’ gallery. This is one (unlike The Ladykillers) that I’m looking forward to seeing again.

15. Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Another catch-up DVD rental, this was Woody Allen’s good movie last year (as opposed to the woeful Cassandra’s Dream), and a smarter-than-average relationship film (as one might expect from the man behind Husbands and Wives and Annie Hall.) There’re some definitive Allen tics here that take some getting used to in the new environment of Barcelona — a very Woody-ish omniscient voiceover, some Allenesque quips emanating from Scarlett Johannson and the striking Rebecca Hall (late of Frost/Nixon and The Prestige), and, as per Match Point and Scoop, some rather outdated depictions of the class system. (Hall’s fiance, played by Chris Messina of Six Feet Under, is basically a caricature of the boring, born-entitled Ivy League grad, circa 1965.)

Still, if you can get past all that, Vicky Cristina is quite worthwhile. (And, as far as the Oscar buzz goes, I’d say Javier Bardem makes more of an impression here than does Penelope Cruz.) Whether you’re as old as Woody or as young as Vicky and Cristina, the story remains the same: love is a weird, untameable thing, and the heart wants what it wants.

16. Speed Racer: Easily the most unfairly maligned movie of 2008 (and I’m not a Wachowski apologist — I thought Matrix: Revolutions was atrocious), Speed Racer is an amped-up, hypercolorful extravaganza of the senses, and, this side of the original Matrix, one of the more interesting attempts I’ve seen at bringing anime to life. Critics derided it pretty much across the board as loud, gaudy nonsense, but, then as now, I’m not sure what they went in expecting from the film adaptation of a lousy sixties cartoon involving race cars and silly monkeys. This is where some readers might ask: “Um, are you really saying Speed Racer is a better movie than Revolutionary Road?” And I’m saying, yes, it’s much more successful at what it aimed to accomplish, and probably more entertaining to boot. Sure, Racer is a kid’s movie, but so was WALL-E. And, given most of the drek put before the youths today, it’s a darned innovative one. Plus, I’ve seen a lot of filmed laments about quiet-desperation-in-the-suburbs in my day, but for better or worse, in my 34 years of existence, I had never seen anything quite like this.

17. Gran Torino: Alas, Speed Racer, it seems, grew old, got ornery, and began fetishizing his car in the garage instead. Good thing there’re some kindly Hmong next door to pry open that rusty heart with a crowbar! Like The Visitor, Torino suffers from an excess of sentiment when it comes to its depiction of 21st-century immigrants and their salutary impact on old white folks. But, as a cautionary coda to a lifelong career glorifying vigilantism, Eastwood’s Gran Torino has that rusty heart in the right place, at least. And while Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski may be a mean old cuss, Eastwood’s performance here suggests that the old man’s got some tricks in him yet.

18. A Christmas Tale: I wrote about this movie very recently, so my thoughts on it haven’t changed all that much. A bit pretentious at times, Arnaud Desplechin’s anti-sentimental holiday film has its virtues, most notably Chiara Mastroianni eerily (and probably inadvertently) channeling her father and the elfin Mathieu Amalric wreaking havoc on his long-suffering family whenever possible. It’s a Not-So-Wonderful Life, I guess, but — however aggravating your relatives ’round christmastime — it’s still probably better than the alternative.

19. Tropic Thunder: Its pleasures were fleeting — I can’t remember very many funny lines at this point — and even somewhat scattershot. (Tom Cruise as Harvey Weinstein by way of a gigantic member was funny for the first ten minutes. Less so after half an hour.) Still, give Tropic Thunder credit. Unlike all too many comedies in recent years, it didn’t try to make us better people — it just went for the laugh, and power to it. And when the most controversial aspect of your movie turns out not to be the white guy in blackface (or, as we all euphemistically tend to put it now, “the dude disguised as another dude“), but the obvious Forrest Gump/Rain Man spoof, I guess you’ve done something right.

20. W: Nowhere near as potent as Stone’s early political forays, JFK and Nixon, W still came close to accomplishing the impossible in 2008: making the out-going president seem a sympathetic figure. I suppose several other films could’ve sat with distinction in this 20-spot — In Bruges or Benjamin Button, perhaps — but none of them would’ve afforded me the opportunity to write these lovely words once more: So long, Dubya.

Honorable Mention: It wasn’t a movie, of course. But 2008 was also the year we bid farewell to The Wire. Be sure to raise a glass, or tip a 40, in respect. (And let’s pray that — this year, despite all that’s come before — a “New Day” really is dawning.)

Most Disappointing: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Worth a Rental: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, In Bruges, Revolutionary Road, Valkyrie

Don’t Bother: Cassandra’s Dream, Cloverfield, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Doubt, Hellboy II: The Golden Age, The Incredible Hulk, Quantum of Solace, Slumdog Millionaire, Wanted

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler, Sean Penn, Milk, Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Best Actress: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In, Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight, Josh Brolin, Milk, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man, Sam Rockwell, Snow Angels
Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler, Tilda Swinton, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Unseen: Appaloosa, Australia, The Bank Job, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Body of Lies, Cadillac Records, Changeling, Choke, The Class, Defiance, Eagle Eye, The Fall, Funny Games, Hancock, Happy Go Lucky, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo, Leatherheads, I Loved You So Long, The Lucky Ones, Miracle at St. Anna, Pineapple Express, Rambo, The Reader, Redbelt, RockNRolla, The Spirit, Traitor, Waltz with Bashir

    A Good Year For:
  • Billionaire Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Iron Man)
  • Lonely Old White Guys (Gran Torino, The Visitor, The Wrestler)
  • Magical Immigrants (Gran Torino, The Visitor)
  • Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon)
  • Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Burn after Reading)
  • Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder)
  • Romance at the Junkyard (WALL-E, Slumdog Millionaire)
  • Sam Rockwell (Choke, Frost/Nixon, Snow Angels)
  • Teenage Vampirism (Let the Right One In, Twilight)
  • Tosca (Quantum of Solace, Milk)
    A Bad Year For:
  • GOP Ex-Presidents (Frost/Nixon, W)
  • Political Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Milk)
  • Pulp Heroes (The Spirit)
  • Vigilantism without Remorse (Gran Torino, The Dark Knight)
  • Would-Be Assassins (Valkyrie, Wanted)
2009: Avatar, The Box, Bruno, Coraline, Duplicity, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Knowing, The Lovely Bones, New York, I Love You, Observe and Report, Push, Sherlock Holmes, The Soloist, State of Play, Star Trek, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Terminator: Salvation, Up, Where the Wild Things Are, The Wolfman, Wolverine and, of course,


Whose Line is It, Anyway?

“People you love will turn their backs on you. You’ll lose your hair, your teeth, your knife will fall out of its sheath, but you still don’t like to leave before the end of the movie.” Couple that sentiment by Cake with a more famous passage from Shakespeare — “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” — and you’ve got a decently good starting point for approaching Charlie Kaufman’s wildly ambitious, often poignant, occasionally inscrutable, and ultimately somewhat uneven Synecdoche, New York. The film has been garnering breathless raves from some corners (Ebert is a particularly big fan), while other reputable critics have utterly loathed it. I’m closer to the positive camp — I don’t think the movie works at times, and it definitely takes some digressions that don’t cohere with everything else going on (the bizarre Hope Davis and “George C. Scott in Hardcore” tangents, for example)…but so does life, I guess, right?

At its start, we meet our protagonist, playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), near the end of the rope. He’s a struggling, mostly miserable theater director in Schenectady, New York, with an increasingly distant artist wife (Catherine Keener), a distracted. self-promoting therapist (Davis), and a rash of new and rather disturbing health problems. (In short, Hoffman is about as happy in Schenectady as he was in Buffalo.) The only bright spots in his day, basically, are his adorable, inquisitive daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and his half-hearted flirtations with Claire (Samantha Morton), the buxom girl who runs the box office, and Hazel (Michelle Williams), his lead actress in a youthful reimagining of Death of a Salesman. Depression, thoughts of (and worries about) infidelity, useless bouts of therapy, clinical hypochrondria, dwelling on mortality…If this all is starting to sound like a more expressionistic version of your standard-issue Woody Allen film so far, you’re in the right ballpark, at least for the first forty minutes or so. (And I mean that in the best way possible.)

But then, things get stranger. As Caden’s wife Adele lights off to Germany with Olive in tow, and Caden manages to lock down a MacArthur genius grant for his next project, Synecdoche begins to venture deeper into Kaufman territory. Caden relocates to NYC, manages to negotiate an impossibly-large warehouse as his new theater space, and begins work on his magnum opus, a play that — through hundreds of thespians acting out daily victories and defeats — tries to recreate, and thus comment on, every facet of our quotidian existence. But where does the play stop and life begin? Caden soon finds he needs to cast an actor (Tom Noonan) to play himself directing, as well as actresses to portray the various women in his life. (In a clever bit of casting, Emily Watson ends up playing faux-Morton, which makes perfect sense given that they’re respectively the Dylan McDermott and Dermot Mulroney of indy British cinema.) And, later, when it seems individual identities might be getting in the way of the abstract universalism of the piece, well, maybe it’s time to just recast or rewrite Caden Cotard completely, don’t you think? It’s fine with him, to be honest — He’s gotten pretty damn sick of playing himself anyway.

I’ve told you before, this is not a play about dating, it’s about death,” argues one character in Synecdoche near its conclusion. Caden demurs. “‘It is a play about dating. It’s not just a play about death. It’s about everything: dating, earth, death, life, family, all that.‘” Well, to be honest, that may be part of the ultimate problem here. Kaufman’s exquisite earlier effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is pretty much just a movie about dating (ok, and love, and loss, and memory…but bear with me here), and it’s all the more focused and moving because of it.

By contrast, Synecdoche is kinda all over the place, and gets increasingly sprawling and messy as it goes on. The film is sometimes too clever by half and sometimes needlessly maudlin, and it barely keeps one foot on the ground in any event. Still, I definitely admired the degree of difficulty here, and applaud Kaufman for even attempting to say something profound and meaningful about the human condition, when most films just want me to feel satisfied that all the Act 2 loose ends were cleared up by Act 3. (Wow, those two crazy cats who met-cute in Act 1 got back together? Who woulda thunk it?) In that regard, I’m very glad I saw this movie — even if, as with, say, Primer, I’m pretty sure a lot of what was going on eluded me the first viewing — and I find my thoughts still returning to it several weeks later. While you may find Synecdoche boring and/or bewildering, and you may even end up hating it, I’m willing to bet dollars-to-donuts you haven’t seen a movie like it in quite some time, if ever.

Once (or Twice) in a Lifetime.

“A man only gets a couple of chances in life. It won’t be long before he’s sitting around wondering how he got to be second-rate.” Lots of choice stuff in today’s trailer bin: First up, President Josh Brolin braves pretzels, Poppa Bush, and enough JD to kill a small horse in this fun extended trailer for Oliver Stone’s W. (I can’t wait.) Elsewhere, Frank Miller borrows from Robert Rodriguez, who, of course, borrowed from him, to mine Will Eisner’s back-catalog in this short new teaser for The Spirit. (I’m still not sold.)

Also up recently, Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio forsake the Titanic to suffocate in the suburbs in the first trailer for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road. (Ok, altho’ it looks Little Children-ish.) Tom Cruise leads an all-star team of character actors in a plot to kill Hitler in the second trailer for Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. And Brad Pitt moves from age to wisdom in the second trailer for David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Not as haunting as the teaser, but close.) I gotta say, it’s good to finally hit the Oscar stretch for 2008 — I haven’t seen nearly enough movies this year.

Update: One more, via LMG: Philip Seymour Hoffman puts on a play — and gets stuck waiting in the wings — in the trailer for Charlie Kaufman’s much-anticipated Synecdoche, New York, also starring Hope Davis, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, and Michelle Williams.

Update 2: Ok, what with Marky Mark, Ludacris, Bridges the Lesser, the lousy whiteboy angst-metal, and the highly Matrix-derivative gun-fu and explosions throughout, the recent trailer for John Moore’s Max Payne looks Skinemax bad. But, then again, it does have The Wire‘s Jamie Hector (Marlo) briefly playing Exposition Guy with an island accent, so that’s enough for a link. Hey, I’m easily amused.

Black Celebration.

As with the wonders of Pixar — indeed, even more so, given the amount of time and effort involved — Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is such a (literally) eye-popping stop-motion marvel that it seems churlish to quibble with its perhaps just-a-bit-too-formulaic approach. If you loved The Nightmare Before Christmas (as I did), you’ve likely already seen Corpse Bride, and probably loved it also…even if you felt that you’d already seen much of it before (and especially if you ever played Grim Fandango.) Nevertheless, even ensconced as it is in the now-slightly-creaky Burtonverse, Corpse Bride is a sumptuous 75-minute treat that’s skull-and-shoulders above most animated fare.

The story is thus: Much to the chagrin of the aristocratic (but penniless) Everglots (Albert Finney & Joanna Lumley), their daughter Victoria (Emily Watson) is soon to be betrothed to the meek, moon-eyed Victor (Johnny Depp), sire of nouveau-riche and fabulously wealthy fishmongers. Victor and Victoria seem to get on well enough — they both enjoy melancholy etudes on the Harryhausen piano, which should tell you all you need to know about their romantic viability in Tim Burton’s world. But, when Victor is prevailed upon by the local minister (Christopher Lee) to practice his vows in the nearby enchanted forest, he inadvertently awakens — and weds — the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter), who, despite being undead, is quite a looker…all pillow lips and bedroom eyes (albeit one that’s home to a Peter Lorre-like maggot.) Y’see, apparently long ago a dastardly suitor (Richard Grant) pulled a Kill Bill on the Bride here, and since then she’s been waiting for a bridegroom to free her from his curse, and die with her happily ever after…

If you don’t see where this is going from the opening reel, well, you should get out to the movies more. But that’s neither here nor there — as with life (and, in this film, death), the journey is the reward. At times, Corpse Bride seems entirely too reminiscent of Nightmare — Instead of “ma-king Christ-mas,” the denizens of the Dead are ma-king wed-dings. (Or, when the Dead Elder-fellow (Michael Gough) scratches the hole in his skull, it’s funny…but it also recalls the exact same move by Dr. Finkelstein in the earlier film.) For the most part, though, Corpse Bride is rife with its own inventive flourishes. (I particularly liked the little undead kids at right, the Elder’s raven, and the designs of the aged living.) And I’m willing to forgive sins much more grievous than the mild repetition on display here if it means Burton & co. will keep making stop-motion movies. Their gothic world may always be tinged with the same palette of nightmare and melancholy, but frankly, I’m smitten.

Blood, sweat, and dust.

In the trailer bin, Philip Seymour Hoffman channels In Cold Blood-era Truman Capote — I presume that’s how he actually sounded — in the preview for Capote, also with Catherine Keener and Chris Cooper. Elsewhere, 1880s Aussie Guy Pearce gets an offer he probably should refuse in The Proposition, written by Nick Cave and also starring Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Danny Houston, David Wenham, and Emily Watson. Finally, I should’ve posted this before, but only now found it: the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Dylan-doc No Direction Home, appearing on PBS Sept. 26th and 27th.

Dead Brides and Demonic Coeds.

In the trailer bin, The Nightmare Before Christmas meets Grim Fandango in this new look at Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. And, for non-stop-motion haunts, lawyer Laura Linney tries to ascertain priest Tom Wilkinson’s part in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, ostensibly based on a true story.

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