Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

" It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

MRQE Top Critic

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Thirty-three different movies were nominated by the 5 writers who participated in our Top Ten of 2008 polling. The 23 that didn’t make the top ten are presented here in their ranked order, starting at number 11.

The Next 23

Wall•E,

The outer space dance of two robots in love
The outer space dance of two robots in love

One of the many strengths of Pixar’s animators is their ability to turn creatures and objects into expressive, memorable characters. In Wall-E, the filmmakers have succeeded not only in bringing robot characters to life, but doing so with very little dialogue. While /Wall-E /is more serious than its predecessors, it has just as much heart, and enough cartoon wackiness to keep viewers of all ages entertained.

The movie is set in a future full of garbage. Humans have fled to a space cruiser while Wall-E robotic units are supposed to clean up the mess. After 700 years, only one Wall-E is still operational. His existence is turned upside-down when a rocket ship shows up, depositing a sleek, high-tech probe called Eve.

With the robot romance in progress, the movie starts to ponder the fate of humanity. It’s not really the humans’ fault that they’ve failed to live up to their potential. They just don’t know any better. The movie has plenty to say about the dangers of complacency and the importance of self sufficiency. Refreshingly, the movie has no true villain. Humans created the mess, but they also have the potential to fix things.

In Bruges,

Gleeson and Farrell are good blokes who went a little too far
Gleeson and Farrell are good blokes who went a little too far

This vicious black comedy is by turns hilarious, equal-opportunity offensive, and bloody violent. It’s not for the squeamish or those sensitive to all things politically correct. For everybody else, it’s quite a hoot.

Ken and Ray are two hitmen directed by their boss, to take some time off and keep a low profile in Bruges, Belgium, after botching a job in London. Ray (Colin Farrell) is a tad on edge and has no interest in being in there. Ken (Brendan Gleeson), on the other hand, is keen on checking out the sights. After all, Bruges is the most immaculately preserved medieval city in Belgium. Further cramping their style, Ken and Ray are booked into a single room with two twin beds for two weeks.

What follows is a ferocious pageant of stereotypes, misconceptions, and other biases that at least to some degree get resolved and righted in their holders’ minds by the end of the shenanigans. But, even as Ray and company grouse about different people, leaving virtually no country, nationality, race, or stature unscathed, at its core /In Bruges/ has a very simple message on its mind: appearances can be deceiving.

The Order of Myths,

The Order of Myths could have been a documentary about the oldest Mardi Gras in the United States (in Mobile, Alabama, not New Orleans!). But in the hands of Margaret Brown, it’s really a film about race in 2007.

Fifty years after "separate but equal" was ruled unconstitutional, the people of Mobile seem to have sorted themselves into amiable cliques by race. In Mobile there are two Mardi Gras. There is a white Mardi Gras and a black one. Each has its own king, queen, and royal court; its own floats; its own mystic societies (the film’s title is one of them).

Brown shows us that merging the two Mardi Gras courts into one would be an impossible task. I can’t imagine a single member of the black court feeling comfortable and having a good time at the old aristocratic, rule-bound, "proper" functions of the white court. It’s easier to imagine a white youth having fun among the modern, exuberant, flashy styles of the black court, but it’s hard to imagine the crowd not suddenly losing some of that unrestrained joy out of self-conscious awkwardness.

Synechdoche, New York,

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation) directorial debut is a lot to absorb. It’s about aging, directing, recursion, copying errors, and mistaking dreams and fiction for reality. That makes it sound like a mess, potentially. Or perhaps it’s actually a really interesting, complex work of art.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays  a theatrical director whose career is taking off just as his marriage is falling apart. He uses his genius grant to begin work on his magnum opus, which will be based on his own life. But for the opus to be true, it must contain a scene where the character receives a genius grant and begins an opus on his own life.

It sounds like a simple "Groundhog Day" scenario, but Synechdoche is not that tidy. There is a rawness to it, as though perhaps Kaufman himself lost control at some point, but forged on, heedless of not having the big picture in his head. The movie proceeds like a dream in the morning; you have enough control of your mind to keep the dream going, but not so much control that you can decide where it will go.

Kaufman’s characters keep aging, which invites you to think of Synechdoche as a metaphor for life. If you have a career, you probably keep doing the same things over and over again. You keep refining your life’s work, but you never actually finish it. It may seem frustrating at times, but you cannot escape the dream, the goal, the obsession, because that’s what life is.

O’Horten,

Odd shuffles from one quirky encounter to the next
Odd shuffles from one quirky encounter to the next

Odd Horten (Baard Owe), the title character whose abbreviated name has an Irish flair, is a passenger train engineer in Norway. After almost 40 years of service, Odd is about ready to retire and receive the illustrious Silver Train award. During the festivities, it’s made clear Odd is something of an oddball. While all the other engineers participate in trivia games and guessing the train associated with obscure soundclips, Odd stays silent.

In fact, Odd is so uncomfortable being in the spotlight or in any sort of confrontational situation, he simply resigns himself to following other people’s rules and leads. Most fatefully, he misses an “after party” at a colleague’s apartment thanks to a broken lift button. The incident leads him to climbing up scaffolding in an effort to reach the apartment, only to be derailed in the wrong place by a little boy who wants him to stay until the boy can fall sound asleep.

O’Horten is a subtle movie. As Odd shuffles from one quirky encounter to the next, it’s not entirely clear where the movie’s headed. But the movie’s ultimate destination is so sweet and heartwarming, it’s certainly worth the ride.

Let the Right One In,

In a season when straightforward crowd-pleasers like Milk and Frost/Nixon dominate “year’s best” conversations, it’s refreshing to see a truly original movie that takes a few risks and doesn’t dictate your emotions.

It’s winter in Sweden and a 12-year-old bully target fantasizes about fighting back. He meets the girl from next door, and although she’s not a tomboy, she shares her confidence and common sense to help him overcome.

Meanwhile, a string of killings haunts the town. We even see the killer in action; if he’s a vampire (did I mention it’s a vampire movie?), he’s incredibly inept, awkwardly stringing up his victims, complicating the process with unnecessary tools and gadgets.

Watching Let the Right One In will make you feel very smart. Director Tomas Alfredson gives you enough information to let you know what’s going on, but he never spells anything out for you. He is a fly on the wall, watching two awkward tweens try to grow up in a world where vampires are as normal as bullies and snow.

A Christmas Tale,

The Brothers Bloom,

Weisz' reaction to a simple compliment speaks volumes
Weisz’ reaction to a simple compliment speaks volumes

The Brothers Bloom, director Rian Johnson’s follow-on to his high-school noir indie hit Brick, is a refreshing roundup of all kinds of storytelling tricks from films of many genres: we get a round-the-world road movie served up with plenty of comic caper action, some romance, and there’s the “just-one-last-heist-and-I’m done-with-this-life” plot. It’s all wacky, good fun, and it’s mostly due to the giddily goofy script.

In their grifting routine, Steven writes the cons and deploys Bloom to carry them out; Bloom is continuously frustrated at acting out his brother’s elaborate scenarios and just wants to live “an unwritten life.” Rachel Weisz steps into the frame with all the daisylike brightness of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall or Kate Hudson in Almost Famous.

A few fine soundtrack choices from Bob Dylan, The Band, Rod Stewart, and the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens sprinkle the soundtrack and add to the Wes Anderson vibe. The brothers’ contradictory goals, the doubts about who’s scamming whom, and the screenplay’s intellectual questions about acting and free will kept me guessing where things were going right up to the melodramatic ending.

Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,

Gibney's Gonzo is solid and steadfast
Gibney’s Gonzo is solid and steadfast

Alex Gibney joins the bandwagon of directors making remembrance pieces on the late American journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. Since the Good Doctor’s suicide in early 2005, there have been dozes of tributes, biographies, and other acknowledgments devoted to his eccentric life and bizarre career. But there was one thing this project had going for it which the others didn’t; Gibney behind the wheel. Once again, the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s steadfast ability to chronicle topics with appropriate archive footage and concrete evidence in a compelling fashion is proven.

With gathered testimonies and Johnny Depp holding a gun in one hand and a book in the other to narrate, Gibney presents solid information and unbiased revelations about his subject. In a gracious style, he mixes these interviews with key figures among rare video footage of Thompson to create a highly entertaining and absorbing portrait of one of America’s greatest writers.

Iron Man,

Downey, Jr., has some big, heavy, metallic shoes to fill
Downey, Jr., has some big, heavy, metallic shoes to fill
Quibbles over narrative expediency aside, Iron Man sits with the best of the Marvel movies

Gomorrah,

Religulous,

The Vatican is an ostentatious house for the man who preached poverty and sacrifice
The Vatican is an ostentatious house for the man who preached poverty and sacrifice

Maher tries to shine a little skeptical daylight into the strange and sometimes harmful beliefs that people hold so dear.

Maher brings up the subject of Jonah and the whale. His interview subject has no problem believing it’s literally true, and eventually Maher loses it and laughs in disbelief “he lived in a fish??” Magic Mormon underwear, Scientology science fiction, and the literal belief in parables like the Jonah story may seem like easy targets; yet there’s no shortage of people who believe unbelievable things. Some even think that there’s something noble in it.

But Maher doesn’t go after only the easy targets. He looks at a full spectrum of unbelievable beliefs from the harmlessly silly, to the personally costly, to the downright dangerous.

Maher does make the mistake of tarring all “religion” as equally culpable (you shouldn’t condemn Garrison Keillor for the crimes of Osama Bin Laden, just because they both believe that a god exists). Nevertheless, Maher is right to call attention to the weird things people believe. His film is a call to action for atheists, agnostics, and non-believers to not be so darned polite when it comes to religion. He wants us to have doubt, to question beliefs not backed up by evidence, and to not let religion get away with flawed logic and bad beliefs, just because it’s religion.

Girls Rock!,

I once suggested Girls Rock! to some friends as a likely candidate for a women’s film series in Washington state. I was surprised to hear that the screener had panned it as being “too loud.” Now if that’s not a recommendation for a documentary about a camp that teaches young women how to cut loose and rock out, I don’t know what is.

Swimming against the stream of social convention that says girls are supposed to be quiet and demure, the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls encourages the attendees to find their inner rocker and then amplify her. The result may not be great art, but it’s empowering for the girls and a lot of fun for the audience.

For about two weeks the camp is filled with girls aged 8 to 18 who are mentored by professional women musicians in some rudimentary basics. They are set the task of forming their own groups who will perform before the whole camp at the end of the session. Practical matters like who plays what instrument and what to call the band are hashed out. Screaming is encouraged.

Yes this is the idealized version of anarchy, but it’s the job of the documentarians to put rosy lenses on the audience’s eyes. In this the filmmakers succeeded. Girls Rock!is a lot of fun. In the end you watch with some pride as our plucky heroines hammer out damaged chords and inaudible lyrics with a warts-and-all, take-it-or-leave-it attitude, and that I think was the purpose of this whole exercise.

The Singing Revolution,

25,000 Estonians sing for their freedom
25,000 Estonians sing for their freedom

The Singing Revolution is a grand documentary about beautiful souls wringing their country from the grasp of oppression through a display of pure will and song.

After centuries of occupation, the country finally gained its independence in 1920, only to have it stolen away again, at the hands of Hitler and Stalin. Estonia became a prized battleground for the Nazis and the Soviets, with one practically trampling over the other on Estonian soil. After World War II, the Russians returned and staked their claim to the territory. At one point there were 80,000 Russian soldiers in Estonia. That equates to one soldier for every 12 Estonians.

As the documentary notes, the Estonian hero is not the dragon slayer, but rather the cautious barn keeper, the one who waits, watches, and then acts only when the time is right. “Patience is a weapon, caution a virtue,” Linda Hunt, the narrator, comments. Surviving under decades of oppression, the Estonians waited, watched, sang, and then, when the time was right, they acted.

Cloverfield,

Let me say right up front that I’m a big fan of The Blair Witch Project, whose genius lies in its conceit of supposedly being an amateur home video. Once you see it, you say to yourself, “Of course, how obvious.” And as a true mark of genius, any attempt to repeat the same stunt merely comes off as a tawdry imitation. At the time I thought that this was going to be a hard act to follow and I was right.

The Cloverfeild filmmakers violate every cinematic rule by posing as an amateur home video ... just like Blair Witch. However in Cloverfeild, the amateur video is not the core idea as in Blair Witch but one of several tropes lashed together. Running alongside the frightened Joe Handycam are a whole studio’s worth of high-end special effects, story lines and action film conventions.

In Cloverfield, a Manhattan going-away party is interrupted by the cataclysmic arrival of a Godzilla-like monster that proceeds to flatten the city. Through it all, the cameraman who was documenting the party, keeps his camera rolling. A group of the partyers split off on a harebrained quest and run a gauntlet of calamity. The idea of a city-stomping creature is hackneyed but seeing it from the POV real-time street level is a novel approach and had the filmmakers left it at that, they might have made a very smart film. As it is, Cloverfield is merely a good film of the Godzilla School.

At the end of King Kong, someone remarks that it wasn’t bullets that killed the beast but it was beauty. I think in the case of Cloverfield it wasn’t bad filmmaking but money that killed the movie. All of the elements in the film are well done and it will put you on the edge of your seat more than once but in the end the sum of the parts is less than the whole.

Burn after Reading,

The acting is fantastic across the board
The acting is fantastic across the board

The Coen brothers remain consistent with their intelligent approach to filmmaking and prove once again that they are the masters of dark comedy. Taking a big step away from their last production, No Country For Old Men, a heavy drama which received four Oscars including best picture, the dynamic duo have come up with a web-of-life tale focusing on a group of anti-heroes and their hysterical misfortunes.

The all star cast includes John Malkovich, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Brad Pitt. Although the acting is fantastic across the board, Malkovich gives a particularly memorable performance as an ex-CIA analyst who seems to always be surrounded by “MORONS!!” He takes the quirky, cleverly written character and brings him to another level with a commanding and slightly exaggerated tone, providing the audience with an individual as inherently funny as The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in The Big Lebowski.

Wendy and Lucy,

The story is minimalist, and some viewers might be turned off once they realize that the bulk of the movie is about a young woman trying to find her dog. But director/co-writer Kelly Reichardt turns this little story into an affecting movie about one person’s struggle to keep her head above water.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) driving to Alaska, hoping to get a job in a fish cannery, when her car breaks down in Oregon. It’s all downhill from there — the mechanic has bad news; Wendy’s life savings is a shrinking pile of cash; and she and her dog, Lucy, are hungry. The two are separated when Wendy gets caught shoplifting.

The story is simple but engrossing, and in these lean economic times, it feels especially relevant. Williams gives a very good performance as a young woman sinking further into desperation and isolation.

Frost/Nixon,

Frost is a peacock but it works in his cool medium
Frost is a peacock but it works in his cool medium

Ron Howard, directing a screenplay by Peter Morgan, promotes a fight that pits heavyweight Richard M. Nixon in one corner against featherweight David Frost, fighting for History itself, in the other.

David Frost is a small-time TV talk show host. He asks to have the first interview with Richard Nixon on television after Nixon’s resignation. It can’t hurt to ask. Nixon’s handlers, meanwhile, see Frost as a lightweight that they can push around. Better yet, Frost is willing to pay handsomely for the interview.

Frost/Nixon has some great performances. In the film’s great battle of wits, Nixon has the advantages of being an elder statesman and formerly the most powerful man in the world. He even has an advantage in old-fashioned guts.

Frost’s advantages lie in his familiarity with the medium, and his partners lend him lots of support as well, particularly Rockwell’s character, who has such a genuine anger at Nixon’s crimes that he refuses to let Frost lose. At first, Frost’s home-court advantage and the support of his coaches is not enough to stand up to Nixon’s verbal pummeling. It’s not until he realizes that his reputation and his financial future are on the line that he begins to understand how serious his endeavor is, and he starts working out for the final bout.

You could say that Frost/Nixon is the best boxing movie released in 2008. Words and wits stand in for gloves and fists.

Funny Games,

Evil twins play games with the audience
Evil twins play games with the audience

One might wonder the reason behind Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s decision to create a shot-by-shot replica of his 1997 thriller, especially since the script and message are virtually the same. The one change he made, which justifies the copy, is the film’s target: the American audience. Haneke’s existential critique towards our society’s overt tolerance of brutal violence in cinema couldn’t come at a more appropriate time, especially with the current mass production of shock-horror films that savor gore and grisly death.

This tremendously disturbing picture focuses on a family who, while on a vacation at their lake house, are terrorized by two young gentlemen. They cripple the father immediately with a golf club to the kneecap, leaving his son and wife helpless against their games that wager on their lives. Throughout the torture and torment, the villains frequently break the fourth wall, smirking at or posing questions directly at the camera, like, “You think they stand a chance? Well, you’re on their side, aren’t you? Who are you betting on, hmm?” When the question is actually posed in the midst of it, this does give one pause. Are we secretly enjoying the twisted games that are being played with this family? Do we really want them to make it out alive? Haneke’s character, self-aware of his role, answers this for us when one of his victims asks why they haven’t just been killed: “You shouldn’t forget the importance of entertainment.”

In a brilliant move, the trailer misleadingly showed the film as a flamboyant and colorful thriller with an A-list Hollywood cast, including Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt. The notion that this film would be entertaining is thrown back at the unsuspecting audience as they watch endless horror and despair befall the protagonists, giving the knife an extra twist in the wound Haneke has opened in you.

The Wrestler,

Randy “The Ram” (Mickey Rourke) is a professional wrestler. He dyes his hair blond, spends hours in a tanning booth, lifts weights, and injects himself with steroids when the workouts aren’t effective enough. On the weekends, he’s a hero in the ring. He’s just about reached the limits of abuse that his body can take, but at least he can count on the cheers of the audience and some money from the promoter.

The only problem is, his glory days were 20 years ago. He’s still rocking out to Quiet Riot and Guns & Roses, while the rest of the world has moved on. When his meager earnings aren’t enough, he has to take extra shifts at the supermarket.

The backstage world of lower-tier professional wrestling is fascinating. The wrestlers work out their moves beforehand. It’s seems like a big game on stage, but their injuries are gruesomely real. Rourke gives the wrestler a soul. It’s as bruised and bloody as his body after a match, but we can’t help but root for him.

Mister Lonely,


“Michael Jackson” finds his soul in Scotland

Harmony Korine, christened “the future of American cinema” by Werner Herzog, has finally finished his third film, Mister Lonely. Our main character is Michael Jackson (Diego Luna). Well, not the real Michael Jackson, but rather an impersonator living in France who does retirement-home gigs to make ends meet. There he meets a fellow impersonator who masquerades as Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton).

Their mutual feelings about the importance of being someone else immediately bond them, and she invites him to stay at her commune in Scotland along with her husband, Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant), her daughter Sherly Temple, and about a dozen other impersonators. Their community includes such mimicked celebrities as Abraham Lincoln, James Dean, the Pope, Madonna, and the Queen of England.

At the heart of this film lies the search for identity and happiness. We watch the inner battle of our characters as they play legends. The glory of fame isn’t what they are searching for; making other people appreciate their own lives is the significance of being an impersonator.

Milk,

Acclaimed director Gus Van Sant took a break from his current string of art-house pictures to direct a passionate and inspirational biopic of America’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk. Played by the always impressive Sean Penn, the film follows the activist and politician as his career rapidly grew to make him a distinguished and important individual in 1970s San Francisco. Van Sant gives us an unflinching portrait of his achievements, struggles, relationships, and tragic death.

Although the historical lesson of a political newcomer gives the film interesting purpose, it is the personal life of Milk during his campaign which takes the cinematic experience to another degree. The man’s strong, passionate beliefs and determination trickle into his private life and those close to him. Watching the exchanges between friends, lovers, and business associates creates an awareness of how imperative and emotional his fight really was.

The unfortunate and bittersweet relevance of the film, which celebrates Milk’s accomplishments of helping advance gay rights, is its release just after the devastating pass of Proposition 8 in California. The challenges and struggles that some Americans have gone through to gain their civil rights continue today. Milk may not be up for Best Picture, but Penn will undoubtedly be a strong contender for a Best Actor Oscar.