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Jack Nicholson

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Tears of a Clown.

“Let me be the way I’m not in interviews. I’m furious. I’m furious…They never asked me about a sequel with the Joker. I know how to do that! Nobody ever asked me.” Strangely enough, apparently Jack Nicholson wanted another run at the Joker for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. “Well, the Joker comes from my childhood. That’s how I got involved with it in the first place. It’s a part I always thought I should play.” Well, maybe so, but even back in 1989 Nicholson seemed like stunt casting, and his performance hasn’t aged well. Here’s to a new take on the character.

2006 (Finally) in Film.

Well, there are still a number of flicks I haven’t yet seen — David Lynch’s Inland Empire, for example, which I hope to hit up this weekend. But as the Oscar nods were announced today, and as the few remaining forlorn Christmas trees are finally being picked up off the sidewalk, now seems the last appropriate time to crank out my much belated end-of-2006 film list (originally put off to give me time to make up for my New Zealand sojourn.) To be honest, I might’ve written this list a few weeks earlier, had it not happened that I ended up seeing the best film of 2005 in mid-January of last year, thus rendering the 2005 list almost immediately obsolescent. But, we’ll get to that — As it stands, 2006 was a decent year in movies (in fact a better year in film than it was in life, the midterms notwithstanding), with a crop of memorable genre flicks and a few surprisingly worthy comebacks. And, for what it’s worth, I thought the best film released in 2006 was…

Top 20 Films of 2006


1. United 93: A movie I originally had no interest in seeing, Paul Greengrass’s harrowing docudrama of the fourth flight on September 11 captured the visceral shock of that dark day without once veering into exploitation or sentimentality (the latter the curse of Oliver Stone’s much inferior World Trade Center.) While 9/11 films of the future might offer more perspective on the origins and politics of those horrible hours, it’s hard to imagine a more gripping or humane film emerging anytime soon about the day’s immediate events. A tragic triumph, United 93 is an unforgettable piece of filmmaking.

[1.] The New World (2005): A movie which seemed to divide audiences strongly, Terence Malick’s The New World was, to my mind, a masterpiece. I found it transporting in ways films seldom are these days, and Jamestown a much richer canvas for Malick’s unique gifts than, say, Guadalcanal. As the director’s best reimagining yet of the fall of Eden, The New World marvelously captured the stark beauty and sublime strangeness of two worlds — be they empires, enemies, or lovers — colliding, before any middle ground can be established. For its languid images of Virginia woodlands as much as moments like Wes Studi awestruck by the rigid dominion over nature inherent in English gardens, The New World goes down as a much-overlooked cinematic marvel, and (sorry, Syriana) the best film of 2005.

2. Letters from Iwo Jima: Having thought less of Flags of our Fathers and the woeful Million Dollar Baby than most people, I was almost completely thrown by the dismal grandeur and relentless gloom of Eastwood’s work here. To some extent the Unforgiven of war movies, Iwo Jima is a bleakly rendered siege film that trafficks in few of the usual tropes of the genre. (Don’t worry — I suspect we’ll get those in spades in two months in 300.) Instead of glorious Alamo-style platitudes, we’re left only with the sight of young men — all avowed enemies of America, no less — swallowed up and crushed in the maelstrom of modern combat. From Ken Watanabe’s commanding performance as a captain going down with the ship to Eastwood’s melancholy score, Letters works to reveal one fundamental, haunting truth: Tyrants may be toppled, nations may be liberated, and Pvt. Ryans may be saved, but even “good wars” are ultimately Hell on earth for those expected to do the fighting.

3. Children of Men: In the weeks since I first saw this film, my irritation with the last fifteen minutes or so has diminished, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men has emerged for what it is — one of the most resonant “near-future” dystopias to come down the pike in a very long while, perhaps since (the still significantly better) Brazil. Crammed with excellent performances by Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and others, Children is perhaps a loosely-connected grab bag of contemporary anxieties and afflictions (terrorism, detainment camps, pharmaceutical ads, celebrity culture). But it’s assuredly an effective one, with some of the most memorable and naturalistic combat footage seen in several years to boot. I just wished they’d called that ship something else…

4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: True, the frighteningly talented Sasha Baron Cohen spends a lot of time in this movie shooting fish in a barrel, and I wish he’d spent a little more time eviscerating subtler flaws in the American character than just knuckle-dragging racists and fratboy sexists. Still, the journeys of Borat Sagdiyev through the Bible Buckle and beyond made for far and away the funniest movie of the year. Verry nice.

5. The Prestige: I originally had this in Children of Men‘s spot, as there are few films I enjoyed as much this year as Christopher Nolan’s sinister sleight-of hand. But, even after bouncing Children up for degree of difficulty, that should take nothing away from The Prestige, a seamlessly made genre film about the rivalries and perils of turn-of-the-century prestidigitation. (There seems to be a back-and-forth between fans of this film and The Illusionist, which I sorta saw on a plane in December. Without sound (which, obviously, is no way to see a movie), Illusionist seemed like an implausible love story set to a tempo of anguished Paul Giamatti reaction shots. In any case, I prefer my magic shows dark and with a twist.) Throw in extended cameos by David Bowie and Andy Serkis — both of which help to mitigate the Johansson factor — and The Prestige was the purest cinematic treat this year for the fanboy nation. Christian Bale in particular does top-notch work here, and I’m very much looking forward to he and Nolan’s run-in with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.

6. The Fountain: Darren Aronofsky’s elegiac ode to mortality and devotion was perhaps the most unfairly maligned movie of the year. (In a perfect world, roughly half of the extravagant praise going to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth would have been lavished on this film.) Clearly a heartfelt and deeply personal labor of love, The Fountain — admittedly clunky in his first half hour — was a visually memorable tone poem that reminds us that all things — perhaps especially the most beautiful — are finite, so treasure them while you can.

7. The Queen: A movie I shied away from when it first came out, The Queen is a canny look at contemporary politics anchored by Helen Mirren’s sterling performance as the fastidious, reserved, and ever-so-slightly downcast monarch in question. (Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair is no slouch either.) In fact, The Queen is the type of movie I wish we saw more often: a small, tightly focused film about a very specific moment in recent history. Indeed, between this and United 93, 2006 proved to be a good year for smart and affecting depictions of the very recent past — let’s hope the trend continues through the rest of the oughts.

8. Inside Man: The needless Jodie Foster subplot notwithstanding, Spike Lee’s Inside Man was a fun, expertly-made crime procedural, as good in its own way as the much more heavily-touted Departed. It was also, without wearing it on its sleeve, the film Crash should have been — a savvy look at contemporary race relations that showed there are many more varied and interesting interactions between people of different ethnicities than simply “crashing” into each other. (But perhaps that’s how y’all roll over in car-culture LA.) At any rate, Inside Man is a rousing New York-centric cops-and-robbers pic in the manner of Dog Day Afternoon or The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three, and it’s definitely one of the more enjoyable movie experiences of the year.

9. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party: Speaking of enjoyable New York-centric movie experiences, Dave Chappelle and Michel Gondry’s block party last year felt like a breath of pure spring air after a long, cold, lonely winter — time to kick off the sweaters and parkas and get to groovin’ with your neighbors. With performances by some of the most innovative and inspired players in current hip-hop (Kanye, Mos Def, The Roots, The Fugees, Erykah Badu), and presided over by the impish, unsinkable Chappelle, Block Party was one of the best concert films in recent memory, and simply more fun than you can shake a stick at.

10. Casino Royale: Bond is back! Thanks to Daniel Craig’s portrayal of 007 as a blunt, glitched-up human being rather than a Casanova Superspy, and a script that eschewed the UV laser pens and time-release exploding cufflinks of Bonds past for more hard-boiled and gritty fodder, Casino Royale felt straight from the pen of Ian Fleming, and newer and more exciting than any 007 movie in decades.

11. The Departed: A very good movie brimming over with quality acting (notably Damon and Di Caprio) and support work — from Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, and others — Scorsese’s The Departed also felt a bit too derivative of its splendid source material, Infernal Affairs, to merit the top ten. And then there’s the Jack problem: An egregiously over-the-top Nicholson chews so much scenery here that it’s a wonder there’s any of downtown Boston left standing. But, despite these flaws, The Departed is well worth seeing, and if it finally gets Scorsese his Best Director Oscar (despite Greengrass deserving it), it won’t be too much of an outrage.

[11.] Toto The Hero (1991): Also sidelined out of this top twenty on account of its release date, Jaco Von Dormael’s Toto the Hero — Terry Gilliam’s choice of screening for an IFC Movie Night early in October — is definitely one for the Netflix queue, particularly if you’re a fan of Gilliam’s oeuvre. It’s a bizarre coming-of-age/going-of-age tale that includes thoughts of envy, murder, incest, and despair, all the while remaining somehow whimsical and fantastical at its core. (And, trust me: As with Ary Borroso’s “Brazil“, you’ll be left humming Charles Trenet’s “Boum” to yourself long after the movie is over.)

12. Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: I guess this is where I should be writing something brief and scintillating about Michael Winterbottom’s metanarrative version of Laurence Sterne’s famous novel, one which gives Steve Coogan — and the less well-known Rob Brydon — a superlative chance to work their unique brand of comedic mojo. But I’m growing distracted and Berk has that pleading “I-want-to-go-out, are-you-done-yet” look and Kevin’s still only on Number 12 of a list that, for all intent and purposes, is three weeks late and will be read by all of eight people anyway. (But don’t tell him that — In fact, I shouldn’t even talk about him behind his back.) So, perhaps we’ll come back to this later…it’s definitely a review worth writing (again), if I could just figure out how to start.

13. Miami Vice: Michael Mann’s moody reimagining of the TV show that made him famous isn’t necessarily his best work, but it was one of the more unique and absorbing movies of the summer, and one that lingers in the memory long after much of the year’s fluffier and more traditional films have evaporated. Dr. Johnson (and Hunter Thompson) once wrote that “He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” I guess that’s what Crockett and Tubbs are going for with the nightclubs and needle boats.

14. CSA: The Confederate States of America: I wish I were in the land of cotton…or have we been there all along? Kevin Wilmott’s alternate history of a victorious Confederate America is a savvy and hilarious send-up of history documentaries and a sharp-witted, sharp-elbowed piece of satire with truths to tell about the shadow of slavery in our past. With any luck, CSA will rise again on the DVD circuit.

15. The Science of Sleep: Not as good or as universally applicable as his Eternal Sunshine (the best film of 2004), Michel Gondry’s dreamlike, unabashedly romantic The Science of Sleep is still a worthy inquiry into matters of the (broken) heart. What is it about new love that is so intoxicating? And why do the significant others in our mind continue to haunt us so, even when they bear such little relation to the people they initially represented? Science doesn’t answer these crucial questions (how can it?), but it does acutely diagnose the condition. When it comes to relationships, Sleep suggests, all we have to do — sometimes all we can do, despite ourselves — is dream.

16. Rocky Balboa: Rocky! Rocky! Rocky! I’m as surprised as anyone that Sly’s sixth outing as Philadelphia’s prized pugilist made the top twenty. But, as formulaic as it is, Rocky Balboa delivered the goods like a Ivan Drago right cross. Ultimately not quite as enjoyable as Bond’s return to the service, Rocky Balboa still made for a commendable final round for the Italian Stallion. And, if nothing else, he went down fighting.

17. Pan’s Labyrinth: A fantasy-horror flick occurring simultaneously within a Spanish Civil War film, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth ultimately felt to me like less than the sum of its parts. But if the plaudits it’s receiving help to mainstream other genre movies in critics’ eyes in the future, I’m all for it. It’s an ok movie, no doubt, but if you’re looking for to see one quality supernatural-historical tale of twentieth-century Spain, rent del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone instead.

18. Little Miss Sunshine: Another film which I think is being way overpraised, Little Miss Sunshine is still a moderately enjoyable evening at the movies. It felt overscripted and television-ish to me, and I wish it was as way over yonder in the minor key as it pretends to be, but Sunshine is nevertheless a cute little IFC-style family film, and one that does have a pretty funny payoff at the end.

19. The Last King of Scotland: I just wrote on this one yesterday, so my impressions haven’t changed much. Still, Forrest Whitaker’s jovial and fearsome Idi Amin, and an almost-equally-good performance by James McAvoy as the dissolute young Scot who unwittingly becomes his minion, makes The Last King of Scotland worth seeing, if you can bear its grisly third act.

20. Thank You for Smoking: It showed flashes of promise, and it was all there on paper, in the form of Chris Buckley’s book. But Smoking, alas, never really lives up to its potential. What Smoking needed was the misanthropic jolt and sense of purpose of 2005’s Lord of War, a much more successful muckraking satire, to my mind. But Smoking, like its protagonist, just wants to be liked, and never truly commits to its agenda. Still, pleasant enough, if you don’t consider the opportunity cost.

Most Disappointing: All the King’s Men, X3: The Last Stand — Both, unfortunately, terrible.

Worth a Rental: A Scanner Darkly, Brick, Cache, Cars, Curse of the Golden Flower, Glory Road, The History Boys, Marie Antoinette, Match Point (2005), V for Vendetta, Why We Fight

Don’t Bother: Bobby, Crash (2005), The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, Mission: Impossible: III, Night Watch (2004), Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Men’s Chest, Poseidon, Scoop, Superman Returns, The Wicker Man, World Trade Center

Best Actor: Clive Owen, Children of Men; Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland; Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima
Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen; Q’Orianka Kilcher, The New World
Best Supporting Actor: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed; Michael Caine, Children of Men/The Prestige
Best Supporting Actress: Pam Farris, Children of Men; Vera Farmiga, The Departed; Maribel Verdu, Pan’s Labyrinth

Unseen: Apocalypto, Babel, Blood Diamond, Catch a Fire, Clerks II, The Descent, The Devil Wears Prada, Dreamgirls, Fast Food Nation, Hollywoodland, An Inconvenient Truth, Infamous, Inland Empire, Jackass Number Two, Jet Li’s Fearless, Lassie, Little Children, Notes from a Scandal, The Notorious Betty Page, A Prairie Home Companion, The Pursuit of Happyness, Running With Scissors, Sherrybaby, Shortbus, Stranger than Fiction, Tideland, Venus, Volver, Wordplay

2007: The list isn’t looking all that great, to be honest. But, perhaps we’ll find some gems in here…: 300, 3:10 To Yuma, Beowulf, Black Snake Moan, The Bourne Ultimatum, FF2, The Golden Age: Elizabeth II, The Golden Compass, Grindhouse, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hot Fuzz, I Am Legend, Live Free or Die Hard, Ocean’s Thirteen, PotC3, The Simpsons Movie, Smokin’ Aces, Spiderman 3, Stardust, The Transformers, Zodiac.

Bumpy Departure.

As far as remakes go, The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, overstuffed Boston-area reinterpretation of Andy Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs, is by no means an embarrassment. Packed with likable actors delivering quality performances (another hambone turn by Jack Nicholson notwithstanding), it’s a breezy and enjoyable two and a half hours of cinema, and it hits most of the beats of the original decently well. (Maybe too well. A little more deviation from IA might’ve helped in the suspense department.) Still, I left the theater somewhat disappointed, and am a bit surprised by the critical acclaim Departed is getting. For all the sleek direction, actorly firepower, and Mamet-ish wit on display here can’t disguise the fact that Infernal Affairs was a clearly better film — leaner and more nuanced, more elegiac and resonant. Lacking the emotional power of the original, The Departed basically just feels like a well-crafted but hollow genre exercise (that is, when it doesn’t feel like a Nicholson stunt.) And, as far as well-crafted genre exercises go, I think I might’ve preferred Inside Man.

The central plot of both films is at once delightfully simple — cop plays robber, robber plays cop — and devilishly complicated. Here, two Southie graduates of the Massachusetts State Police Academy go to work for opposite sides of the law: Bright young overachiever Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) takes a gig in a top police investigation unit aimed at taking down nefarious crime kingpin Frank Costello (a.k.a. Whitey Bulger a.k.a. The Joker), while troubled screw-up Billy Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) finds himself, after a stint in the joint, hired muscle in Costello’s organization. But all is not as it seems: As it turns out, Sullivan the cop — bought off by a bag of groceries a few decades earlier — actually works for Costello as a mole on the force, while Costigan the robber has gone deep undercover at the behest of BPD detectives Queenan (Martin Sheen, avuncular and presidential) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg, aggro and amusing). As it becomes patently clear to both sides of the game that each has a rat in the house, Sullivan and Costello work to flush out their opposite before they get busted (or, in Costello’s case, dismembered.) And, complicating the situation even further (and in a departure from Infernal Affairs), these two nemeses also unknowingly share the love of the same woman, an alluring police shrink (Vera Farmiga) who tends to make really poor life decisions.

All of this is executed competently enough. Scorsese keeps the wheels turning and the tension up throughout, and The Departed benefits from many excellent performances around the margins: Both Wahlberg (easily the most comfortable with the Boston accent, for obvious reasons) and particularly Alec Baldwin (as a grizzled police detective, one-half his character in Glengarry Glen Ross, one-half Sgt. Jay Landsman) are laugh-out loud funny at times, while David O’Hara and Sexy Beast‘s Ray Winstone add sinister depths to Costello’s criminal outfit. And, while most of Mystic River felt more plausible to me, the Boston locale gives The Departed some strong local color that feels fresh and different from the Hong Kong of Internal Affairs. (I particularly liked some of the Irish witticisms. I’d never heard the Freud quote: “This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.” And I enjoyed Sullivan’s warning to his psychiatrist girlfriend late in the film, something along the lines of “If this isn’t working, you need to get out. I’m Irish. Something could be wrong, and I’d spend the rest of my life just dealing with it.“)

Both Leonardo di Caprio and Matt Damon do high-quality work too, but here some of my issues with the film emerge. As played by the charismatic Tony Leung of Hero, In the Mood for Love, and 2046, the undercover cop character in Internal Affairs is a resigned, world-weary sort, a guy who seems to carry reservoirs of inexpressible sorrow with him everywhere he goes. But, here, di Caprio is basically a pill-popping panic attack for two hours, cringing and sweating his way through every scene. Fine, that’s a stylistic choice: More problematic is Damon’s character, who’s become considerably less interesting than the conflicted cop played by Andy Lau (of House of Flying Daggers) in the original. For some reason, he’s been stripped down and rendered a much more conventional villain. Damon does what he can, but I preferred the subtler, more pained motivations of Lau’s mole than I do the unctuous, take-no-prisoners careerism they’ve saddled Damon with here.

And then there’s Jack. Nicholson has put in some extraordinary performances in his time, but, as someone put it in another comment thread, he’s been coasting like Pacino for a couple of decades now. And, for some ungodly reason, Scorsese gave Nicholson free rein here to act as crazy as he wants. (Yep, the dildo idea was his.) As a result, Nicholson can’t stop leering and preening to the point of distraction. Whether it be making rat faces, covering his arms in splatterhouse gore, coking out with two prostitutes in the Red Room from Twin Peaks, or generally just acting like he’s seated courtside at the Staples Center rather than running a crime operation, Nicholson just doesn’t work here. Wildly over the top throughout, he’s like a refugee from a sillier, stupider film, and he too often makes The Departed feel little more than a Marty-directs-Jack! casting stunt.

Ye men of blood.

Online of late is the new trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (a.k.a. the remake of Infernal Affairs, with Tony Leung and Andy Lau), starring Leonardo diCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin. I liked the original quite a bit, but I get the sense from this preview that this version may be marred somewhat by the usual late-era Nicholson grandstanding.

Here’s Johnny.

In today’s trailer bin, struggling writer Jack Nicholson learns a little something about love, life, and family at the Overlook Hotel in the must-see heartwarming comedy of the year, Shining. (Via Lots of Co & Freakgirl.)

Boo Hiss.

Y’know, after RotK‘s commanding sweep last year, I’d almost forgotten about Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, The English Patient, and all the myriad ways Oscar tends to be generally lame. But today’s nominations brought it all roaring back.

No Eternal Sunshine for best picture? That’s the most egregious snub since Three Kings, Being John Malkovich and Fight Club were all overlooked in favor of the much-overhyped American Beauty (to say nothing of ghastly drek like The Cider House Rules and The Green Mile.) Neither Jim Carrey nor Paul Giamatti for Best Actor? Giamatti’s snub is particularly cruel, given that both Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen were nominated. Clive Owen and Natalie Portman? I think highly of them both, but as I said of the Globes, Closer was a lousy, over-the-top flick that confused explicit talk for serious purpose, and has no business being up for anything. (The same might be said of Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland — Depp rarely gives a bad performance, but, from what I gather, Neverland is a rote, by-the-numbers biopic. I haven’t seen it, though.)

To be honest, these choices generate zero excitement on this end (even if there’s a very outside chance I win a Soctopus that evening.) But, for tradition’s sake…

Best Picture: It’ll come down to The Aviator or Sideways, and my bet is this is the year the Academy honors Scorsese (partly for making Old Hollywood look so glamorous.)

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, The Aviator. See above. It’s Scorsese’s year…and that’ll be the lead for the evening.

Best Actor: Leonardo di Caprio, The Aviator. I could see Don Cheadle winning here, but, when in doubt, pick the actor playing the crazy and/or mentally deficient guy. (Jack Nicholson/As Good as it Gets, Geoffrey Rush/Shine, Tom Hanks/Forrest Gump, Anthony Hopkins/Silence of the Lambs, Dustin Hoffman/Rain Man, etc. etc.) I need to see the blueprints…

Best Actress: Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine. Besides being an Oscar darling, she’s helped by the fact that the movie got screwed in all the other categories. (Kinda like how the Moulin Rouge enthusiasts put Jim Broadbent over-the-top for Iris.)

Best Supporting Actor: Alan Alda, The Aviator. (This could just as easily have Alec Baldwin in the same film.) You could make a strong case for Jamie Foxx in Collateral, but I’m guessing his vote splits between here and Ray. Plus, Alda best fits the elder statesman role that generally wins these (Michael Caine/The Cider House Rules, James Coburn/Affliction, Martin Landau/Ed Wood, Gene Hackman/Unforgiven, Jack Palance/City Slickers.)

Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator. This category can surprise, and Virginia Madsen and Natalie Portman are her closest competitors. But I figure the gist will be that Madsen should be happy to be nominated and Portman was a good performance in a bad film. (That being said, Portman’s role as a stripper is exactly the type of thing that often wins in this category — see: Kim Basinger/L.A. Confidential, Mira Sorvino/Mighty Aphrodite.)

Best Original Screenplay: Eternal Sunshine. The fan-favorite movie that the Academy feels bad for not quite “getting” generally goes here (Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Lost in Translation), and Eternal Sunshine will be no exception.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Sideways. I could see Before Sunset winning here, possibly. Still, I’ll say Sideways as recompense for the Giamatti snub.

Best Animated Feature: The Incredibles. No contest.

Life and How to Live It.

Since my cable connection has been spotty over the past day and a half, and as I needed a break from orals reading, I threw another catch-up movie marathon here at Casa Berkeley. Not sure what the underlying subtext of this quadruple billing is…biopics, perhaps (Schmidt, Kahlo, Crane, Wilson)? Or, rather, fanboy villains in the arthouse (Nicholson, Molina, DeFoe, Serkis)? At any rate, here’s what I thought, in the order I watched them:

About Schmidt: I dunno…I’m normally a big fan of Alexander Payne’s movies, and particularly Election, but think I saw this film on the wrong end of the hype machine. Schmidt was mildly enjoyable, but it also dragged in parts and spent too much of its time deriving humor from goofy Midwestern antics (most notably the couple in the Winnebago park and Dermot Mulroney as the son-in-law to be…pyramid schemes and Why Bad Things Happen to Good People? Come on.) While aiming to be a rumination on retirement, time wasted, and the myths surrounding a life lived well, I suppose, I thought the entire film basically revolved around stunt casting – watching Jack play the anti-Jack. Speaking of which, Nicholson was quite good as the befuddled, world-weary Schmidt, but without him playing against type, there doesn’t seem to be much here. Something of a disappointment.

Frida: Perhaps this biopic focuses too much on the Diego Rivera-Frida Kahlo romance, but I enjoyed it, and particularly the narrative lapses into Kahlo’s artistic world (for example, the Day of the Dead hospital sequence by the Brothers Quay). There’s some grotesque miscasting in here – Ashley Judd trips all over her Spanish accent, Geoffrey Rush is oddly hammy as Leon Trotsky, and Nelson Rockefeller is entirely too Nortonesque – but Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina are quite good as the emotional center of the film, and all in all this picture works. After traveling around in the winnebago with Warren Schmidt for two hours, it was nice to spend some time with people who embrace life along with their pain.

Auto Focus: Greg Kinnear is very good as Bob Crane in this Paul Schrader flick, but unfortunately Auto Focus, while very watchable, comes off as a by-the-numbers addiction movie. Between the Angelo Badalamenti score and all the retro-dressed beauties stalking Col. Hogan in various dens of iniquity, this pic seems set in Mulholland Drive Hollywood from the get-go, which ends up being one of the main problems. Other than a shrewish Rita Wilson on his back, it’s hard to understand from this picture what drives Crane into this sordid life. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare these movies to each other, but oh well – When Frida Kahlo has an affair with Josephine Baker or Diego Rivera sleeps with basically everybody in Frida, at least they look like they’re having a good time. The sex scenes in Auto Focus are all filmed like something out of a Bosch triptych – dark, muddled, and hellish. Ok, I know the film is about sex addiction, but still – better movies on addiction (such as The Basketball Diaries) at least give a sense of what the draw was in the first place. As such, Auto Focus, while easy to watch, ends up feeling cold and puritanical. Too bad, really, because the performances are all generally good.

24-Hour Party People: I get the sense this movie would be inscrutable to anyone who didn’t already know the contours of the story, and insufferable to anyone who doesn’t care about Joy Division and such, but I found 24-Hour Party People the most fun of the foursome. Shot in a cinema verite style with real concert footage thrown in [along with postmodern narrative asides by Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan)], 24HPP is an informative and irreverent trip into the history of the Manchester rave, and one that seems to capture the spirit of the post-punk era without wallowing in Studio 24-type nostalgia. If I had my druthers, I would have spent more time on the rise of New Order (or for that matter, the Smiths and Stone Roses) and much less on the Happy Mondays, but oh well. As I said, I’d think this film might be immensely confusing – or just plain boring – if you don’t already know who Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and the Buzzcocks are, but if you do, Party People is rollicking good fun, a movie that manages to take its subject seriously by not taking it seriously, if you know what I mean.

So that’s that, then. I still have Human Nature and The Grey Zone to watch, which should make for one bizarre double feature.

Another Movie Night.

After having fun with last week’s triple feature, I threw another movie catch-up-a-thon last night. (I should do this more often…I’ve been neglecting the joys of renting lately.) I still vividly recall one night in the summer after high school, when I was working at Blockbuster and could partake of 10 free movies a week, that I was staggered by Reservoir Dogs, Glengarry Glen Ross, One False Move, and A Midnight Clear, all seen for the first time. That’s the kind of evening you hope for, but, suffice to say, last night didn’t quite measure up.

Full Frontal: Although it shows (very)-occasional flashes of promise and gets better as it goes along, this film about film was sadly chaotic, self-indulgent, and boring. I found the first forty minutes or so to be almost unwatchable, particularly the scenes of Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts struggling with their quasi-improv Rendezvous. As the various plot strands come together, the movie finally establishes some momentum (and the film v. life message gets ever more heavy-handed), but too little too late. As far as actors go, the standouts were David Hyde Pierce as a depressed cuckold and Nicky Katt as Hitler in The Sound and the Fuhrer. In fact, the best scenes of the movie were of Hitler (a) breaking up with Eva Braun (“I’m just really into my work right now”) and (b) checking his pager (“#%$@ Goebbels again…Thinks it’s a toy. ‘Getting a haircut’…what an asshole.”) And I would have liked to see more of blonde Julia – her scene with the assistant had more life in it than the rest of her performance combined. But, all-in-all, this film is a pretentious waste of time. After Out of Sight, Traffic, and The Limey, Stephen Soderbergh took a big step backward with this bad boy.

Femme Fatale: Oh Lordy, this flick is terrible. Can’t say I’m a huge Brian DePalma fan, but I rented this ’cause I’ve heard from a number of people that it was a return to form for him. And I suppose it is, if by return-to-form you mean Mission to Mars and Snake Eyes. (Ebert gave this movie four stars, suggesting once again that the man might be on crack.) The first fifteen minutes or so, involving a Cannes jewel heist replete with illicit sex, surveillance cameras, and anorexic supermodels (De Palma clearly has a David Kelley problem when it comes to women) comes off as the type of well-made, trashy, and self-derivative suspense flick I expected from De Palma. But, almost immediately thereafter, it runs off the rails, and ends up [[Spoilers, not that it really matters] being his nonsensical version of Vanilla Sky. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is a trooper about it all, I suppose, but there’s nothing she can really do…this film is bloody awful. To paraphrase Marcy Playground, I smell sex and cameras…but mama, it surely was a dream.

Jackass: If you’ve seen the ads, you probably already know whether or not this film will appeal to you: You’re either going to find it hilarious or repellent (or probably both). I was sickened and disgusted, and there were times I was laughing so hard that Berkeley thought there was something wrong with me. Although I generally thought the Knoxville stuff was funnier than Steve-O’s fratboyisms, Alligator Tightrope may just be the dumbest, most nightmarish and cringe-funny thing I’ve seen all year. (I also thought they made a tactical mistake going to Tokyo, since I’d assume Japanese television audiences are even more attuned to bizarre stunts than we are.) Truly sick, twisted, and depraved, but, I have to say, it redeemed the evening.

Anger Management: (I saw this this morning.) Whatever Jackass‘s many many faults, at least Knoxville & Co. go for it. Much like the equally disappointing Old School (and, I suspect, Bruce Almighty), Anger Management takes a potentially hilarious premise and completely ruins it by trying to be an all things to all people feel-good film. I still think Happy Gilmore is a truly funny movie, but at this point I’ve gotten kinda sick of Sandler’s nice-guy-in-an-angry-body (or vice versa) schtick. Jack Nicholson brings nothing to the table, most of the cameos are groan-worthy, and the prodigious comedic talents of Luis Guzman and John Turturro are completely wasted by lousy writing. And then there’s the resolution, which was so sickeningly saccharine that I thought I’d need anger management myself by the end. Yet another watered-down mainstream Hollywood comedy in what now seems like an endless string of ’em. Memo to the studio heads: When it comes to the funny business, don’t try to make me a better person. Just make me laugh.

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