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Michelle Monaghan

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At the Bayou of Madness.

“For many fans of weird fiction, the surprising appearance of this madness-inducing play into what ostensibly appeared to be just another police procedural was a bolt of lightning. Suddenly, the tone of the show changed completely, signaling the descent into a particular brand of horror rarely (if ever) seen on television.”

In io9, Michael Hughes explores True Detective‘s many references to The King in Yellow, an 1895 collection of short stories by Robert Chambers, and a “fictional play…that brings despair, depravity, and insanity to anyone who reads it or sees it performed.”

As Molly Lambert of Grantland pointed out of HBO’s dark and addictive mini-series, “True Detective’s closest relative is Twin Peaks, which mined similarly nocturnal depths. Both shows espouse mythologies that feel extremely personal to the creators but also eerily universal, tapping into the same brain waves as paradoxical sleep.”

For his part, show creator Nic Pizzolatto recently talked about his debt to another Weird Fiction author, Thomas Ligotti. “I first heard of Ligotti maybe six years ago, when Laird Barron’s first collection alerted me to this whole world of new weird fiction that I hadn’t known existed. I started looking around for the best contemporary stuff to read, and in any discussion of that kind, the name ‘Ligotti’ comes up first…[H]is nightmare lyricism was enthralling and visionary.

On top of everything else, True Detective also has one of the more captivating credit sequences in recent years, as per below. (It apparently owes a heavy debt to the work of artist/photographer Dan Mountford.)

Groundhog Train.


If Hanna was Run Lola Run meets Bourne meets True Grit, then Duncan Jones’ enjoyable B-movie Source Code — another film that has sat in both the viewing and reviewing queues for several weeks — is Groundhog Day meets Deja Vu meets Quantum Leap. Jones’ second film is nowhere near as great or gripping as his heady sci-fi debut, Moon, but it doesn’t really aspire to be either. Instead we have an amiable and breezy popcorn flick that hits at about the level of a quality episode of Amazing Stories, and I mean that as a compliment.

The agreeable, low-key feel of Source Code matches not only its two leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan — both of whom have their usual affable guy/girl-next-door appeal about them here — but also the patron saint of the reliving-the-past-so-we-can-make-it-right genre: Scott Bakula, formerly of Quantum Leap. (He’s here not just in spirit — Bakula also has a voice cameo late in the film. Well-played, Mr. Jones.) And if you enjoyed the time-traveling do-gooderism of Dr. Sam Beckett at all back in the day, you basically know what you’re getting here — A slightly longer and more high-budge episode of the show (alas with no Dean Stockwell — although Vera Farmiga is here, doing a lot of talking to a television screen, and Jeffrey Wright has fun muttering and puttering around in the background as a mad scientist of sorts.)

If for some weird reason you’ve never seen Quantum Leap, the conceit of Source Code is this: Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) — a helicopter pilot who thought he was on duty in Afghanistan — wakes up on a train bound for Chicago, sitting across from a comely brunette (Monaghan) who seems to think he’s a teacher named Sean Fentress. Eight minutes later, before he can disentangle what’s happened to him or what’s going on, that train goes boom, killing all aboard. Then Capt. Stevens wakes again to find himself strapped within a futuristic-looking metallic pod, a la Jodie Foster at the end of Contact, with a military handler (Farmiga) trying to ping him over the radio. Most expensive training simulation evar?

Sort of. As the disoriented captain soon discovers, Stevens is actually the Army-donated guinea pig for a new time-traveling technology called (wait for it, wait for it) Source Code, which allows him to relive the last eight minutes of a dead man’s life — but only for informational purposes. In this case, his charge is, a la pretty much every season of 24, to figure out who the bomber of the train is before, in real time, he or she can strike again in downtown Chicago. And so Stevens dives back in, and in again, until he knows exactly when the coffee get spilled and where the gun on board is, all the while developing a closer rappaport with Monaghan. Is it possible he could use Source Code to change the past, rather than just learn from it, and save her life? Be a whole lot cooler if he could…

So, like I said, Quantum Leap — although there’s a lot of Groundhog Day here as well, particularly as Stevens gradually hones his eight-minute runs through trial and error (and learns how to get on the good side of some of his crustier travelmates.) More than anything, tho’, Source Code feels like an exercise in video game logic. Replace the train blowing up with “you have been eaten by a grue,” and for all intent and purposes Stevens is just playing an Infocom game here (or, for the unplugged, reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book.) And so there’s not much sense of danger here in Source Code — The pleasures to be had are less of the will-he-beat-the-ticking-time-bomb variety than of watching someone work out a “Bombing on the Orient Express”-style text-adventure puzzle.

Still, the movie is good fun, not the least since Gyllenhall (who’s already done time as [spoiler] an already-dead time traveler in Donnie Darko) moves along the story at about the pace of the audience: The script is a smart one — Once Stevens understands the ground rules, he runs with it, trying the things that you or I might try to sort his way through the situation.

Now, that being said, the movie’s ending doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. (It’s also unwittingly creepy, in a Being John Malkovich kind of way, if you take time to remember that somewhere before all this started there existed a teacher named Sean Fentriss.) But, hey, it’s a time-travel flick. More often than not, the logic is going to break down at some point regardless. Take it for its B-movie worth and Source Code is a fun, smooth, and involving ride, and a perfectly fine way to spend 90 minutes on a spring or summer day. And if you really like it, you can go ahead and relive it again — just watch out for the grues.

Groundhog Train.

In the trailer bin of late, Amtrak rider Jake Gyllenhaal is stuck in a moment he can’t get out of in our first look at Duncan Jones’ Source Code, also with Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright. Looks a bit too much like Tony Scott’s Deja Vu for my taste, but Jones has already earned the price of admission for this one with Moon.

Different Shades of Blue.

Also in the trailer bin with Never Let Me Go this week:

Fly like an Eagle | One Smoking Painting.

In the trailer bin, Shia LaBoeuf and Michelle Monaghan take orders from GLaDOS in the new trailer for D.J. Caruso’s Eagle Eye, also with Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, and Anthony Mackie. And Guy Ritchie tries to conjure up some of that old Lock Stock mojo in the trailer for the very Ritchie-esque Rocknrolla, starring Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton, Idris Elba, Jeremy Piven,and Ludacris. I’d say these are both on the Maybe list.

2007 in Film.

Happy New Year, everyone. So unlike last year, when I took an extra month on account of my travels in New Zealand, the Best of 2007 Movie list seems ready to go out on schedule, and it’s below. (If you’ve been reading all the reviews around here, I’m betting the top few choices won’t be a surprise. Still, organizing the 5-15 section was more tough than usual this year.) At any rate, 2008 should be a big orbit around the sun in any event, what with grad school winding down and it being time — at last! — to pick a new president. So a very happy new year to you and yours, and let’s hope the movies of the coming year will contain to sustain, amuse, baffle, and delight.

Top 20 Films of 2007

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006]

1. I’m Not There: “There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice.” Admittedly, it was a wonderful confluence of my interests. Nevertheless, Todd Haynes’ postmodern celebration of Bob Dylan, brimming over with wit and vitality and as stirring, resonant, and universal as a well-picked G-C-D-Em progression, was far and away my favorite film experience of the year. It seems to have slipped in a lot of critics’ end-of-year lists (although Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek also put it up top, and the Sun-Times‘ Jim Emerson has been championing it too), but so be it — You shouldn’t let other people get their kicks for you anyway. A heartfelt, multi-layered, six-sided puzzle about the many faces and voices of Dylan, l found I’m Not There both pleasingly cerebral and emotionally direct, and it’s a film I look forward to returning to in the years to come. Everybody knows he’s not a folk-singer.


2. No Country for Old Men: It probably won’t do wonders for West Texas tourism. Still, the Coens’ expertly-crafted No Country works as both a visceral exercise in dread and a sobering philosophical rumination on mortality and the nature of evil. (And in his chilling portrayal of Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem has crafted a movie villain for the ages.) People sometimes refer to Coen movies as “well-made” as a dig, as if the brothers were just soulless clinically-minded technicians. I couldn’t disagree with that assessment more. Still, No Country for Old Men seems so seamless and fully formed, so judicious and economical in its storytelling, that it reminds me of Salieri’s line in Amadeus: “Displace one note and there would be diminishment, displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” A dark journey that throbs with a jagged pulse, No Country for Old Men is very close to the best film of the year, and — along with Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski — yet another masterpiece sprung from the Coens’ elegant and twisted hive-mind. Bring on Burn After Reading.


3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Through the wonders of cinematic alchemy, Julian Schnabel took the sad real-life account of Vogue editor Jean-Do Bauby’s horrific imprisonment within his own body and made it soar. No other film this year put the “locked-in” experience of taking in a movie as inventively in service of its story (although I kinda wish Atonement had tried.) Special kudos to Mathieu Almaric for conveying so much with so little to work with, and to Max von Sydow for his haunting turn as Bauby’s invalid father. And, lest someone holds “arthouse foreign film” against it, Diving Bell is both much funnier and more uplifting than anyone might expect of a tale about hospital paralysis. Salut.


[3.] The Lives of Others: The one hold-over from 2006 on the list this year (I was pretty thorough about catching up before posting last January, although I still never did see Inland Empire), The Lives of Others is a timely and compelling parable of art, politics, surveillance, and moral awakening in the final days of the Stasi. In a way, Lives is an East German counterpart to Charlie Wilson’s War, a story about how even small political acts of individual conscience can change the world, even (or perhaps especially) in a decaying Orwellian state. With a memorable central performance by Ulrich Muhe and a languid conclusion that ends on exactly the right note, the resoundingly humanist Lives of Others is a Sonata for a Good Man in Bad Times. We could use more of its ilk.


4. Knocked Up: Judd Apatow’s sweet, good-natured take on modern love and unwanted pregnancy was probably the most purely satisfying film of the summer. As funny in its pop-culture jawing as it was well-observed in its understanding of relationship politics, Knocked Up also felt — unlike the well-meaning but overstylized Juno, the film it’ll most likely be paired with from now herein — refreshingly real. As I said in my recent review of Walk Hard, an eventual Apatow backlash seems almost inevitable given how many comedies he has on the 2008 slate. Nevertheless, we’ll always have Freaks & Geeks, and we’ll always have Knocked Up.


5. The Bourne Ultimatum: The third installment of the Bourne franchise was the best blockbuster of the year, and proved that director Paul Greengrass can churn out excellent, heart-pounding fare even when he’s basically repeating himself. Really, given how much of Ultimatum plays exactly like its two predecessors on the page — the car chase, the Company Men, the Eurotrash assassin, Julia Stiles, exotic locales and cellphone hijinx — it’s hard to fathom how good it turned out to be. But Bourne was riveting through and through…You just couldn’t take your eyes off it. I know I’ve said this several times now, but if Zack Snyder screws up Watchmen (and I’d say the odds are 50-50 at this point), the lost opportunity for a Greengrass version will rankle for years.


6. Zodiac: The best film of the spring. What at first looked to be another stylish David Fincher serial killer flick is instead a moody and haunting police procedural about the search for a seemingly unknowable truth, and the toll it exacts on the men — cops, journalists, citizens — who undertake it for years and even decades. Reveling in the daily investigatory minutiae that also comprise much of The Wire and Law and Order, and arguably boasting the best ensemble cast of the year, Zodiac is a troubling and open-ended inquiry that, until perhaps the final few moments, offers little in the way of satisfying closure for its characters or its audience. Whatever Dirty Harry may suggest to the contrary, the Zodiac remains elusive.


7. 28 Weeks Later: Sir, we appear to have lost control of the Green Zone…Shall I send in the air support? Zombie flicks have been a choice staple for political allegory since the early days of Romero, but one of the strengths of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s merciless 28 Weeks Later — perhaps the best horror sequel since James Cameron’s Aliens — is that it foregoes the 1:1 sermonizing about failed reconstructions and American hubris whenever it gets in the way of the nightmare scenario at hand. (Besides, if you wanted to see explicit muckraking about current events this year, there were options aplenty, from In the Valley of Elah to No End in Sight, although plenty of this year’s politically-minded forays — Rendition, Lions for Lambs — looked rather inert from a distance.) There’s little time for moralizing in the dark, wretched heart of 28 Weeks Later: In fact, the right thing to do is often suicide, or worse. You pretty much have only one viable option: run like hell.


8. In the Valley of Elah: Paul Haggis’ surprisingly unsentimentalized depiction of the hidden costs of war for the homefront, Elah benefits greatly from Tommy Lee Jones’ slow burn as a military father who’s lost his last son to a horrific murder. In fact, it’s hard not to think of Jones’ inspired performances here and in No Country of a piece. There was something quintessentially America-in-2007 about Jones this year. In every crease and furrow of this grizzled Texan’s visage, we can see the wounds and weariness of recent times, the mask of dignity and good humor beginning to slip in the face of tragic events and colossal stupidity. Jones is masterful in Elah, and while Daniel Day-Lewis seems to be garnering most of the accolades for There Will Be Blood and Philip Seymour Hoffman stunned in three pics this fall (all on the list below), I’d put Jones’ work here as the best of the year.


9. There Will Be Blood: Ah, the maddening There Will Be Blood. I just reviewed this one yesterday, so it’s doubtful my opinion on it has changed much. But what Anderson’s film reminds me of most at the moment (and not only for the Daniel Day-Lewis connection) is Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, a movie I reviewed at the end of 2002 and then bumped up a few spots a week later when writing the 2002 list, thinking that its flaws would diminish over time. They haven’t — if anything, they’re just as noticeable as ever. So it may well be with TWBB. Even despite its somewhat unseemly pretensions to greatness, the first hour or so of There Will Be Blood, from the Kubrickian opening to the Days in Heaven-ish burning oil rig, is as powerful and memorable as you could ever want in a film. But TWBB loses its way, and the second half is a significantly less interesting enterprise, ultimately culminating in that goofy, illogical bowling alley ending. I’d characterize Blood as a significant step forward for PTA, and there’s something to be said for getting even this close to a masterpiece. But he hasn’t struck black gold yet.


10. Hot Fuzz: While I personally still prefer Shaun of the Dead, this fish-out-of-water, buddy-cop action spectacle proved the droll British team of Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, and Edgar Wright can’t be considered one-hit-wonders (and that they’re as savvy about certain pop culture tropes as their American colleagues in the Apatow camp.) And, while I didn’t see Elizabeth II: The Golden Age, Hot Fuzz may well include the second-best Cate Blanchett performance of the year.


11. Gone Baby Gone: First-time director Ben Affleck acquits himself well with this chronicle of missing children and seedy n’er-do-wells in working-class Boston, wisely choosing to stick with a town and a leading man he knows like the back of his hand. His brother Casey holds his own, and crime author Dennis Lehane’s original source material provides some compelling twists-and-turns throughout. And, as the drug-addled, quick-to-dis Townie mom who’s lost her baby, The Wire‘s Amy Ryan gives arguably the Best Supporting Actress performance of the year (although she’ll likely get some run from Blanchett’s Jude Quinn.)


12. Michael Clayton: Clooney’s impeccable taste in projects continues with this, Tony Gilroy’s meditation on corporate malfeasance and lawyerly ethics (or lack thereof.) The bit with the horses still seems a convenient (and corny) happenstance on which to hang such a major plot point, and I found Tilda Swinton to be overly mannered and distracting for much of the film’s run. But most else about Michael Clayton, from Sidney Pollack’s Master of the Universe to Michael O’Keefe’s snide, unctuous #2 to Tom Wilkinson’s last scene to Clooney not rebounding as well to events as, say, Danny Ocean, rang true. A small film, in its way, but a worthwhile one.


13. Charlie Wilson’s War: Another one I wrote on in the past 24 hours, so I don’t have much to add. Perhaps the best thing about Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Crile’s book is that it “gets” politics like few recent Washington thrillers I can think of. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows impeccable comic timing as the gruff Gust Avrakotos, and he works very well with Hanks here, who’s gone from being overexposed a few years ago back to a guy I wouldn’t mind seeing more of, particularly if he continues along the Alec Baldwinish character actor path Wilson sometimes suggests could be his future.


14. The Savages: I actually thought about putting Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages higher on this list, and few other movie endings this year hit me in the gut quite like this one. But, there are definite problems here, such as the wheezy Gbenga Akinnagbe subplot, which compel me to keep it here in the mid-teens. Still, this comedy about an ornery lion in winter, and the battling cubs who have to come to his aid, is a worthwhile one, and particularly if you’re in the mood for some rather black humor. As Lenny the senescent and slipping paterfamilias, Philip Bosco gives a standout performance, as does Hoffman as the miserable Bertholdt Brecht scholar trapped in deepest, darkest Buffalo.


15. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Now, Before the Devil is a movie I did end up seeing twice, on account of Brooklyn friends who were looking to catch it, and the film didn’t bring much new to the table on that second viewing. Still, Sidney Lumet and Kelly Masterson’s lean family tragedy benefits from several excellent performances — most notably by Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, and Albert Finney, but also in supporting work by Amy Ryan, Michael Shannon, Brian O’Byrne, and Rosemary Harris — as well as a memorable Carter Burwell score. (Also, it’s just a coincidence that the three Hoffman movies ended up in a row like this — Still, it’s a testament to the man’s ability that he seemed unique and fully formed in each. Then again, the only time I can think of that Hoffman was actually bad in a film was Cold Mountain, which was pretty glitched up regardless.)


16. Sunshine: Along with There Will Be Blood, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s exasperating Sunshine is the other film this year that saw an amazing first hour become undone by breathtakingly poor choices on the back end. Unlike the halting, confused slide of TWBB, though, the moment where Sunshine slips the rails is clear-cut and irrefutable: It’s when what had been a heady science fiction tale about a near-impossible mission to the heart of the sun became instead an unwieldy space-slasher flick, i.e. basically an Armageddon variation on Jason X. The wreckage this subplot makes of what had been a superior hard-sci-fi film is more than a little depressing…Still, for that first hour, Sunshine is really something, perhaps the best realistically-portrayed outer space voyage we’ve seen on-screen in years.


17. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: Andrew Dominik’s sprawling psychological western about the end of the West and the early days of American celebrity-worship is every bit as ambitious and flawed as PTA’s There Will Be Blood. Still, maybe it’s the often stunning Roger Deakins cinematography, or the lively character actors (Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt) in the margins of the film, or maybe it’s even the terrible omniscient voiceover, which is every bit as distracting as the similarly ham-handed one in Little Children, and so goofy at times it verges on endearing. Whatever it is, I warmed to Jesse James more than I probably should, and for whatever reason I feel more willing to forgive it its considerable problems. If you blinked, you probably missed its theatrical run…but maybe it’ll find new life on DVD, when the 160-min running time won’t seem so off-putting.


18. I am Legend: When the film focused on Will Smith and his dog fighting blood-sucking and badly rendered CGI Infecteds (whose level of social deevolution changed back and forth solely to accommodate turns in the plot), Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend could seem pedestrian and forgettable. But, when the movie focused on Will Smith and his dog fighting interminable loneliness in an eerily abandoned New York City, which was most of the first two-thirds of the film, I am Legend was a surprisingly melancholy and resonant blockbuster. What can I say? This one hit me where, and how, I live.


19. Ratatouille: There’s no review of this one up — I actually only saw it on DVD last week. And yet, while Ratatouille is a visual marvel (and Brad Bird and the PIXAR gurus don’t seem to make bad films), I found this nowhere near as inventive or entertaining as their last collaboration, 2004’s The Incredibles. (I’d put this one at about the level of Cars.) Now, this may in part be due to the fact that I have much more interest in comic book conceits than the culinary arts. (I’d even go so far as to say that I find many foodies — particularly those who blather on endlessly about Parisian cuisine — kind of insufferable.) Still, even given my relative lack of interest in the subject matter, Ratatouille bugged me. If “anyone can cook,” as Chef Gustave proclaims, why is no one’s input ever important but the rat? If it’s bad to make money selling pre-cooked (and affordable) food to the teeming masses, as Ian Holm’s character tries to do, why is it any better to do what Remy does? (And why should we care then when he and Gustave Jr. move into a deluxe apartment in the sky? I thought this enterprise wasn’t about making money.) In short, I thought Ratatouille wanted to have it both ways, cloaking a rather elitist, even snobbish story in the trappings of democratic tolerance. And the closing monologue by Peter O’Toole’s Anton Ego, which I thought ostensibly tried to make the movie critic-proof, irked me too. But, all that aside, it does look real purty.


20. Atonement: There were several contenders for this last spot on this list, including Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Simpsons Movie, and Jason Reitman’s Juno. But in the end I went with Joe Wright’s take on Ian McEwan’s novel, partly because people I trust who haven’t read the book beforehand haven’t shared my issues with the film. If nothing else, Atonement looks ravishing, and it features breakout performances by James McAvoy, Romola Garai, and Saiorse Ronan. Still, in a year that saw No Country and Diving Bell, I wish Wright had been less conventional in its approach to the story, and found a way to do the gloomy, misanthropic ending of McEwan’s novel justice.

Most Disappointing: The Golden Compass, Grindhouse, Spiderman 3, Southland Tales

Worth a Rental: 3:10 to Yuma, Beowulf, Eastern Promises, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Juno, Live Free or Die Hard, Lust, Caution, Ocean’s 13, The Simpsons Movie, Stardust, Superbad, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Don’t Bother: 300, Across the Universe, American Gangster, The Darjeeling Limited, Interview, The Invasion, Margot at the Wedding, The Mist, Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End, Transformers, You Kill Me

Best Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah; Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Best Actress: Ellen Page, Juno
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone; Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There

    A Good Year For:
  • Casey Affleck (Assassination of Jesse James, Gone Baby Gone)
  • Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Walk Hard)
  • Josh Brolin (American Gangster, Grindhouse, In the Valley of Elah, No Country)
  • Michael Cera (Superbad, Juno)
  • Garret Dillahunt (No Country for Old Men, Assassination of Jesse James)
  • Full-Frontal Parity (Diving Bell, Eastern Promises, I’m Not There, Walk Hard)
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Savages)
  • Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah, No Country for Old Men)
  • Man’s Best Friend (I am Legend, The Savages)
  • Pregnant Hipsters (Knocked Up, Juno)
  • Seth Rogen (Knocked Up, Superbad)
  • Amy Ryan (Before the Devil, Gone Baby Gone)
  • Texans (No Country for Old Men, Charlie Wilson’s War)
  • The Western (3:10 to Yuma, Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood)
    A Bad Year For:
  • The Beatles (Across the Universe, Walk Hard)
  • Josh Brolin’s PETA standing (American Gangster, No Country for Old Men)
  • Great Cities (28 Weeks Later, I am Legend)
  • Kidman/Craig Pairings (The Invasion, The Golden Compass)
  • The Male Derriere (Charlie Wilson’s War, Margot at the Wedding)
  • Standard-Issue Music Biopics(I’m Not There, Walk Hard)
Unseen: Away from Her, Black Book, Black Snake Moan, The Brave One, Breach, Control, Elizabeth II: The Golden Age, Enchanted, Grace is Gone, The Great Debaters, Goya’s Ghosts, The Host, Into the Wild, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, The Kingdom, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, The Kite Runner, Lars and the Real Girl, La Vie En Rose, Lions for Lambs, Love in the Time of Cholera, A Mighty Heart, The Namesake, No End in Sight, Once, The Orphanage, Persepolis, Redacted, Rendition, Rescue Dawn, Reservation Road, Romance and Cigarettes, Shoot ‘Em Up, Sicko, Sweeney Todd, Talk to Me, This is England, We Own the Night, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Year of the Dog, Youth Without Youth

2008: Be Kind, Rewind, Cassandra’s Dream, Cloverfield, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Funny Games, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, In Bruges, The Incredible Hulk, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Iron Man, James Bond 22, Jumper, Leatherheads, My Blueberry Nights, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Revolutionary Road, Run, Fat Boy Run, Speed Racer, Star Trek, Valkyrie, Wall-E, Wanted, The X-Files 2…let’s see, am I missing anything…?

Welcome, 2008. I’ll see y’all on the other side.

Little Girl Lost.


Wading into the same dark, turbid, and clannish Boston waters as Mystic River (also by author and Wire contributor Dennis Lehane) Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone is another wicked-smaht tale of horrible crimes and neighborhood secrets in and around the Hub, and marks a promising debut for Affleck as a director (and another step for brother Casey, after The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, towards leading-man status.) The last act unfolds a mite too slowly, I thought, but for the most part Gone Baby Gone — for its ruminations on the meaning (and inescapability) of place as much as its attention to Beantown detail — is an intelligent and gripping crime story that’s worth catching. Affleck, Lehane, and co. are confident enough here to ask tough questions without definitive answers, and it’s those uneasy ambiguities in Gone Baby Gone, as much as the local color, that ultimately sticks with you.

As another day dawns in Dorchester (one of what could be almost any of the white working-class neighborhoods surrounding Boston), Amanda McCready, age 4, is still missing, 72 hours after disappearing from her mother’s unlocked second-floor apartment, and where she is now we can only guess. By this point, the press are having a field day with the abduction story, the police are starting to have doubts about the girl’s survival, and Amanda’s Aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) and Uncle Lionel (Titus Welliver, of Deadwood) are looking to bring flesh blood to the search, namely private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). Kenzie and Gennaro have doubts about taking the case — neither particularly wants to turn up a dead girl — but, as lifelong locals, they know they can find people and go places the badges can’t. In the manner of films immemorial, the police officer in charge of the case (Morgan Freeman) doesn’t take too kindly to these P.I. interlopers on his heels, but assigns them two ornery cop liaisons (Ed Harris and John Ashton) regardless. And, once Kenzie and Gennaro have re-interviewed Amanda’s troubled, hard-partying mom, Helene McCready (The Wire‘s Amy Ryan, giving a Best Supporting Actress-worthy performance) and checked out some of her sketchier haunts, they — sure enough — turn up some new leads in the hunt. But the trail’s growing colder by the minute, and as both P.I.’s know, few child abduction stories ever result in a happy ending — why would Amanda’s be any different?

Dennis Lehane, Amy Ryan, Michael Williams (a.k.a. Omar) appears briefly here as a cop…if I keep making connections here to The Wire, it only speaks in Gone Baby Gone‘s favor. As with that show and Bal’more, this movie relishes its urban environment — this is a Boston story through and through, and that strong sense of place brings the film to life more than anything else. Also like The Wire, Affleck’s film doesn’t refrain from acknowledging that the world is often not a storybook place. (The second act of the movie is particularly dark, and while I thought Affleck perhaps overrelied on aerial establishing shots of Boston and images of “regular” people at times throughout, his delicate handling of this potentially explosive section of the film in particular suggests his potential as a director.)

True, much of what is excellent about Gone Baby Gone must be attributed to Lehane’s book. But, there have been a lot of lousy movies made about excellent books over the years, and if nothing else, Affleck (and his co-screenwriter Aaron Stockhard) have brought Lehane’s story to the screen without sacrificing any moral complexity or narrative momentum. As I said, I think the film lags slightly in the third act (and I do have some issues with Monaghan’s character arc by the end, which I can’t really discuss without giving the film away), but the quietly haunting coda at the end redeemed a lot of those issues for me. The occasional shocks and disruptions notwithstanding, it seems, people are what they are, and life goes on as ever in the old neighborhood.

Old Gods and Little Children.

In this week’s trailer bin, 9/11 meets The Blair Witch Project (and maybe even a dash of Cthulhu?) in the cleverly low-fi teaser for J.J.Abrams’ 1-18-08, a.k.a. Cloverfield. Freddie Highmore (of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) discovers his own Pan’s Labyrinth of sorts in the new trailer for The Spiderwick Chronicles, also with Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte, and David Strathairn. And Ben Affleck directs his brother Casey in a Boston missing child case in this look at Gone Baby Gone, by the author of Mystic River and also starring Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, and The Wire‘s Amy Ryan (Beadie) and Michael Williams (Omar).

Mission Compromised.

Perhaps it wasn’t the best nightcap to Poseidon — four and a half hours of crashes and explosions tend to run together after awhile — Still, J.J. Abrams’ loud, garish Mission: Impossible III, while assuredly better than John Woo’s miserable M:I:2, doesn’t to my mind improve on Brian De Palma’s slinky, Eurotrashy original. (And I’m by no means a De Palma fan, particular after megastinkers like Mission to Mars and Femme Fatale.) I guess if you’re a huge fan of Alias, this might be your cup of tea — the film definitely plays like every episode of that show I’ve ever seen, what with the in-media-res opener, the artfully named McGuffin, double-double-agents, kick-ass femmes, and the weird, off-putting emphasis on torture. (Ok, there may be dollops of Splinter Cell and The Vanishing somewhere in there too.) Still, I found M:I:3 basically a sleek, well-designed non-starter and, in a word, missable.

It probably didn’t help that the central conceit of M:I:3 involves superspy-turned-desk-jockey Ethan Hunt’s new paramour (Michelle Monaghan), since Tom Cruise’s real love life has become both so creepy and inescapable over the past year. But, here we are (after the flash-forward opener), attending the Hunts’ resolutely normal wedding shower somewhere in suburban Virginia, and once again watching Cruise do his “This woman drives me cRaZy!” schtick. (No couch-jumping, alas.) But, domestic bliss is soon interrupted by an urgent (if oblique) call from Hunt’s new boss (Billy Crudup), and, quicker than you can say “silent birth,” Ethan has gotten the band (Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Maggie Q) back together again, who then venture off to deepest, darkest Berlin to save a compromised agent (Keri Russell) from, you guessed it, torture. There, he crosses swords with criminal mastermind Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — or at least his underlings — and the battle is joined, one that will eventually rage from the Vatican to Shanghai to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (which in this universe seems to be about a 10-15 minute drive from DC.)

If this all sounds a bit campy, well, it is…or, at least, it is at times (such as when Cruise dons priestly vestments to infiltrate the Vatican), and probably should have been for its entire run. But Abrams, in keeping with his usual Marathon Man-ish predilections, has decided to give this film his own brutal gloss, and I for one found all the wallowing in harsh interrogation scenarios a bit much. (Well, at least for this franchise…frankly, Bond could probably use more of it, at least if the Daniel Craig run will verge closer to the books. But I digress.) When you get right down to it, torture scenes not only aren’t very entertaining (by design, I guess), they’re also very close to cheating — Of course we’re going to feel for Cruise and his new ladyfriend when they’ve been put in such a situation. In short, Abrams is substituting visceral reaction for good writing — as someone on Slate noted with 21 Grams back in the day, he might as well have the bad guy kick a puppy while he’s at it.

That being said, the bad guy here, scene-stealing support by Lawrence Fishburne and Shaun of the Dead‘s Simon Pegg notwithstanding, is the highlight of the film. A million years away from his recent turn as Capote (or his prior Cruise pairing in Magnolia…ok, he’s a bit like his character in The Talented Mr. Ripley), Hoffman underplays his soulless and sadistic arms dealer as a man thoroughly bored with his ubervillain station in life, and seems all the more plausible for being nondescript and banal.

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