Marie writes: my art pal Siri Arnet sent me following - and holy cow! "Japanese artist Takanori Aiba has taken bonsai trees, food packaging, and even a tiny statue of the Michelin Man and constructed miniature metropolises around these objects, thus creating real-life Bottled Cities of Kandor. Explains Aiba of his artwork:"My source of creations are my early experience of bonsai making and maze illustration. These works make use of an aerial perspective, which like the diagram for a maze shows the whole from above (the macro view) while including minute details (the micro view). If you explore any small part of my works, you find amazing stories and some unique characters." ( click to enlarge.)
Linked here are reviews in recent months for which I wrote either 4 star or 3.5 star reviews. What does Two Thumbs Up mean in this context? These films are worth going out of your way to see, or you might rent them, add them to your Netflix, Blockbuster or TiVo queues, get them by VOD, watch for them on cable, anything. Many of the older titles are already streaming on Netflix and Amazon.
"Another Year" (PG-13, 129 minutes). Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) and long and happily married. Their frequent visitor is Mary (Lesley Manville), a unhappy woman with a drinking problem who needs shoring up with their sanity. Mike Leigh's new film is one of his best, placing as he often does recognizable types with embarrassing comic and/or dramatic dilemmas. One of the year's best films. Four stars
"My Dog Tulip" (Unrated, 83 minutes). The story of a man who finds love only once in his life, for 15 perfect years. It is the love of a dog. It may be the only love he is capable of experiencing. This is an animated film combining elating visuals with a virtuoso voice performance by Christopher Plummer. Nor for children. Foe adults who will admire its beauty and profundity. Directed and animated by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. Four stars
"Inspector Bellamy" (Unrated, 110 minutes). Gerard Depardieu stars as a famous Parisian police inspector who is on holiday when a man tells him, "I committed murder...sort of." Claude Chabrol's final film, written with Depardieu in mind, is inspired in part by Simenon's Inspector Maigret, and follows Bellamy as he unwinds the strange story of the murder, while also, like Simenon, becoming fascinated by side characters, such as Bellamy's troubled half-brother. Marie Bunel is warm and supportive of her husband, and a good confidant during pillow talk about crime. Three and a half stars.
"The Illusionist" (PG, 90 minutes). A magician named Tatischeff fails in one music hall after another, and ends up in Scotland, where a young woman takes care of him and believes in him, even when he's reduced to performing in store windows. An animated film based on the final screenplay of Jacques Tati, and directed by Sylvain Chomet ("The Triplets of Belleville"). Four stars
"Barney's Version" (R, 132 minutes). Paul Giamatti stars as an unremarkable Montreal TV producer who drinks too much, smokes too many cigars, and discards two women in quick divorces before finding at last one far too good for him (Rosamund Pike). Dustin Hoffman has a smallish but particularly good role as his father. Giamatti won the 2011 Golden Globe award as best actor. Three and a half stars
"All Good Things" (R, 101 minutes). David (Ryan Gosling) is the rebellious son of a wealthy Manhattan family that owns sleazy 42nd Street real estate. He marries Katie (Kirsten Dunst), and they move to Vermont to open an organic products store. But his father (Frank Langella) pressures him to return to the family business, and he undergoes alarming changes eventually connected to two murders. Based on one of those true stories Dominick Dunne used to write about in Vanity Fair. Three and a half stars
"Blue Valentine" (R, 120 minutes). Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as Dean and Cindy in two seasons of marriage: Six years ago when love was fact, and today, when love proves unable to support the weight of real life. Director Derek Cianfrance closely observes the details as his couple fail to comprehend the larger picture. Dean thinks marriage is the station. Cindy thought it was the train. Three and a half stars
"The King's Speech" (R, 118 minutes). After the death of George V and the abdication of his brother Edward, Prince Albert (Colin Firth) becomes George IV, charged with leading Britain into World War Two. He is afflicted with a torturous stammer, and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out an unorthodox speech therapist (Lionel Logue) to treat him. Civilized and fascinating, this is the story of their unlikely relationship. (The R rating, for language, is absurd; this is an ideal film for teenagers.) Four stars
"True Grit" (PG-13, 110 minutes). An entertaining remake of the 1969 film, and more. Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn easily fills John Wayne's boots, and Hailee Steinfeld is very special as young Mattie Ross, who hires the old marshal to help her hunt down the varmit what killed her old man. Not a "Coen Brothers Film," but a flawlessly executed Western in the grand tradition. Strong support from Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper. Three and a half stars
"Somewhere" (R, 96 minutes). Johnny Marco Stephen Dorff is a movie star. He has access to sex, booze, drugs, but feels no pleasure. He sits in a Los Angeles hotel room, stuck. His 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) comes to stay for a few days, but he clearly has no feeling for fatherhood. He's given an award in Milan but hardly notices in the confusion of strangers around him in a hotel suite. He retreats to the same famous West Hollywood where John Belushi died, which for him might have been a recommendation. Sofia Coppola's film, winner of the Golden Lion at Venice, is a masterpiece of observation of hopelessness. Four stars
"Rabbit Hole" (R, 91 minutes) Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are trying their best to get on with things. This is the tricky and very observant story of how a married couple is getting along, eight months after their 4-year-old ran out into the street and was struck dead by a car. They were leveled with grief. Their sex life stopped. They lived for a time in a daze, still surrounded in the house by the possessions of the child who no longer lives there. I know all this sounds like a mournful dirge, but in fact "Rabbit Hole" is entertaining and surprisingly amusing, under the circumstances. Three and a half stars
"Black Swan" (R, 108 minutes). Natalie Portman in a bravura performance as a driven perfectionist, a young ballerina up for a starring role at Lincoln Center. Her life is shadowed by a smothering mother (Barbara Hershey), an autocratic director (Vincent Cassel) and a venomous rival (Mila Kunis) and her deposed predecessor (Winona Ryder). A full-bore melodrama, told with passionate intensity, gloriously and darkly absurd. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Three and a half stars
"Carlos" (Unrated, 332 minutes). A remarkable portrait of a despicable man, the terrorist Carlos ("the Jackyl"), who from 1975 to 1994 directed a shadowy group of violent militants that dealt in kidnapping and murder. Edgar Ramirez is powerful in the title role, as an egomaniac whose primary cause seems to be himself. With reckless boldness he eludes an international manhunt until finally even his masters grow tired of him. Unflinching, detailed, absorbing. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Three and a half stars
"White Material" (Unrated, 105 minutes). Isabella Huppert plays a French woman in Africa, managing the coffee plantation that was her ex-husband's. War stirs in the land, and she is warned to evacuate. She finds that unthinkable. This is her home, this is her farm, and she will bring in the crop. The movie doesn't sentimentalize or make a political statement; like its heroine, it doesn't have theories. A beautiful, puzzling film; the enigmatic quality of Huppert's impassivity draws us in. Three and a half stars
"I Love You Phillip Morris" (R, 98 minutes) Jim Carrey in the true life story of outrageous con man Steven Russell, who impersonated doctors, lawyers, FBI agents, and corporate executives. He convinced prison officials he had died of AIDS, successfully faked a heart attack, and escaped from jail four times (hint: always on Friday the 13th). Ewan McGregor plays his cellmate Phillip Morris, who Steven falls in love with. Thereafter his life consists of trying to get Steven out of jail, or trying to escape to be with him. Audacious. Jim Carrey's mercurial personality was almost necessary to even make this movie. Three and a half stars
"Hereafter" (PG-13, 129 minutes). Clint Eastwood considers the idea of an afterlife with tenderness, beauty and a gentle tact. Matt Damon stars as a man who believes he has a genuine psychic gift, and suffers for it. Cecile de France is a French newsreader who has a near-death experience. Frankie McLaren is a small boy seeking his dead twin. The stories converge, but in a way that respects the plausible. Not a woo-woo film but about how love makes us need for there to be an afterlife. Four stars
"Made in Deganham" (R, 113 minutes). Delightful serious comedy about the historic 1968 in Ford's British plant that ended its unequal pay for women, and began a global movement. Sally Hawkins plays Rita O'Grady, who caught the public fancy as a strike leader. Bob Hoskins is a sympathetic union organizer, and Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, the minister of labor who unexpectedly sided with the striking women. Three and a half stars
"Monsters" (R, 93 minutes). An American photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) shepherds the daughter of his boss (Whitney Able) north from Mexico though a dangerous Infected Zone occupied by an alien life form. But this isn't a "monster movie," or an exploitation film. It's an uncannily absorbing journey transformed by the fact of Beings who are fundamentally different from any life form we have imagine. Writer-director Gareth Edwards, who also created the special effects, builds toward a climax combining uncommon suspense and uncanny poetry. Three and a half stars
"Unstoppable" (PG-13, 98 minutes) A runaway train hurtles at 70mph, and the movie is as relentless as the train. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine try to stop it, and Rosario Dawson is the hard-driving dispatcher. In terms of sheer craftsmanship, this is a superb film. Directed by Tony Scott. Three and a half stars
"Morning Glory" (PG-13, 110 minutes). Rachel McAdam transforms a conventional plot into a bubbling comedy with her lovable high energy. She plays an ambitious young producer on a last-place network morning news show, who forces a reluctant TV veteran (Harrison Ford) to do the kind of TV he despises. A lot of laughs, including Diane Keaton as Ford's veteran co-anchor, Matt Malloy as a goofy weatherman and Jeff Goldblum as the boss who considers the show dead in the water. Three and a half stars
"127 Hours" (R, 93 minutes). The harrowing true story of James Franco, a rock climber whose arm was pinned to a Utah canyon wall by a boulder. In desperation he amputated his own arm to free himself. James Franco stars in Danny Boyle's film, which is gruesome but not quite too gruesome to watch. It's rather awesome what an entertaining and absorbing film Danny Boyle has made here. Yes, entertaining. Four stars
"Buried" (R, 93 minutes). Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is a truck driver working for a private contractor in Iraq. He comes to consciousness in blackness. He feels around and finds a lighter. It its flame his worst fears are realized. He has been kidnapped, buried alive, and is a hostage. Taking place entirely within the coffin, this is a superior suspense picture that's ingenious in devising plausible events inside the limited space. Three and a half stars.
"Tamara Drewe" (PG-13, 110 minutes) A mischievous British comedy, set in a rural writer's retreat where egos and libidos are in contention. When a once-homely local girl returns home with newfound fame and an improved nose, all the men perk up with unfortunate results. With Gemma Arterton, Roger Allam, Dominic Cooper, Luke Evans and Tamsin Greig. Directed by Stephen Frears. Delightful. Three and a half star
"The Social Network" (PG-13, 120 minutes). The life and times of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who created Facebook, became a billionaire in his early 20s, and now has 500 million members on the site he created. A fascinating portrait of a brilliant social misfit who intuited a way to involve humankind race in the Kevin Bacon Game. Everybody likes Facebook--it's the site that's all about you. With Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the Napster founder who introduced Zuckerberg to the Silicon Valley fast lane, Andrew Garfield as the best friend who gets dumped, and Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins, who sued Zuckerberg for stealing their idea. One of the year's best films. Four stars
"Secretariat" (PG, 116 minutes). A great film about greatness, the story of the horse and the no less brave woman who had faith in him. Diane Lane stars as Penny Chenery, who fell in love with Secretariat when he was born, and battled the all-male ring fraternity and her own family to back her faith in the champion. A lovingly crafted film, knowledgeable about racing, with great uplift. Also with John Malkovich, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Nelsan Ellis, Dylan Walsh. One of the year's best. Four stars
"Last Train Home" (Unrated, 87 minutes). Begins as a documentary about an annual New Years migration from cities to villages by 180 million Chinese, and focuses on one family; the parents have labored at low factory wages for 15 years to pay for their children's education back home, and now, as their daughter graduates high school, they may find only heartbreak as repayment. Shot over three years, it's one of those extraordinary films, like "Hoop Dreams," that tells a story the makers could not possibly have anticipated in advance. Works like stunning, grieving fiction. One of the year's best. Four stars
"Inside Job" (Unrated, 108 minutes). Exactly how Wall Street thieves eagerly sold bad mortgages, bet against them, and paid themselves millions in bonuses for bankrupting their own companies. And the Street is having another good year at our expense, because Financial Reform is as far away as ever. An angry, devastating documentary. Four stars
"Let Me In" (R, 115 minutes). A well-made retelling of the Swedish "Let the Right One In," which doesn't cheapen the original but respects it and adds some useful events. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a bullied, neglected boy, and Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz of "Kick Ass") is the girl who moves into the next apartment and has "been twelve for a very long time." The same cold, dark atmosphere of foreboding, in a doom-laden vampire drama. Not for Team Edward. Three and a half stars
"Scrappers" (Unrated, 90 minutes). A portrait of Otis and Oscar, two self-employed collectors of scrap metal, who troll the alleys in their trucks and vacant lots of Chicago for metals that can be sold. They work hard, they support families, they perform recycling on metals that might end up buried in garbage, and they like the work--its freedom, its independence. But metals dropped from $200 to $300 a ton to $20 with the economic collapse, and now their trade is desperate. See this and you'll never look at a scavenger with the same eyes. Three and a half stars
"Never Let Me Go" (R, 104 minutes). In an alternative time line, test-tube babies are created solely for the purpose of acting as Donors for body parts. Raised in seclusion, they accept their role. Are they really human, after all? In this sensitive, teary adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, three of them begin to glimpse the reality of their situation, and its tragedy. With Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins. Four stars
"Nowhere Boy" (R, 97 minutes). The Beatles are only distantly on the horizon in this deeply-felt biopic of young John Lennon growing up in Liverpool. He's at the center of a tricky relationship involving his mother, who he didn't know growing up, and his aunt, who raised him. From these years perhaps came and simultaneous elation and sadness of many of his songs. Aaron Johnson as John, Kristin Scott Thomas as his Aunt Mimi, Anne-Marie Duff as his mother Julia. Three and a half stars
"Waiting for Superman" (PG, 102 minutes). The new documentary by Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") says the American educational system is failing, and dramatizes this failure in a painfully direct way, saying what is wrong, and what is right. He points to existing magnet schools that draw their students by random lottery and virtually guarantee high school graduation and acceptance by a college. He explains why bad teachers who cannot be fired are a national scandal. The film is alarming, fascinating, and in the end hopeful. Three and a half stars
"Easy A" (PG-13, 93 minutes). Funny, star-making role for Emma Stone, as a high school girl nobody notices, until she's too embarrassed to admit she spent the weekend home alone and claims she had sex with a college boy. When word gets around, she uses her undeserved notoriety to play the role to the hilt, even wearing a Scarlet Letter. And she's able to boost the reps of some of her pals by making up reports of their process. Sounds crass. Isn't. Three and a half stars
"The American" (R, 95 minutes). George Clooney is starkly defined as a criminal as obedient and focused as a samurai. He manufactures weapons for specialized jobs. He lives and functions alone. He works for a man who might as well be a master. He used few words. Only his feelings for a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) supply an opening to his emotions. Zen in its focus. Four stars.
"Flipped" (PG-13,90 minutes) Juli (Madeleine Carroll) has adored Bryce (Callan McAuliffe) ever since he moved into the neighborhood in the second grade. Bryce has been running away from her ever since. Now they're 14 and they seem to be flipping: he more interested, she less. Rod Reiner's warm human comedy tells their stories by showing the same crucial events from both their points of view. He returns to the time of his "Stand By Me" with the same endearing insights. Rating: Four stars
"Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1" (R, 133 minutes). Continuation of the brutal life of France's most notorious criminal, who survived a 20-year series of bank robberies, kidnappings, prison breaks and murders. Vincent Cassel makes him brutal, ugly, powerful and inscrutable. Winner of French Oscars for best director and actor. Three and a half stars
"Mesrine: Killer Instinct" (R, 113 minutes) He was a ruthless killer, bank robber, kidnapper and prison break artist--and a self-promoting egomaniac who wrote books some compared to Camus. Vincent Cassel stars in a hard-boiled performance as the French criminal who killed on three continents and was in love with his image. Three and a half stars
"Salt" (PG-13, 100 minutes). A damn fine thriller. It does all the things I can't stand in bad movies, and does them in a good one. Angelina Jolie stars as a CISA agent fighting ingle-handedly to save the world from nuclear destruction. Hardly a second is believable, but so what? Superbly crafted, it's a splendid example of a genre action picture. Directed by Philip Noyce. Four stars
"Inception" (PG-13, 148 minutes). An astonishingly original and inventive thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a men who infiltrates the minds of others to steal secrets. Now he's hired to implant one. Ken Watanabe is a billionaire who wants to place at idea in the mind of his rival (Cillian Murphy). DiCaprio Assembles a team (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page) to assist him, in a dazzling achievement that rises above the thriller level and enters the realm of mind control--in the plot, and in the audience. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan ("Memento," "The Dark Knight"). Four stars
"The Kids are All Right" (R, 104 minutes). A sweet and civilized comedy, quietly satirical, about a lesbian couple, their children, and the father the kids share via sperm donation. When they meet him, they like him, he likes them, and their moms are not so sure. What happens is calmly funny, sometimes fraught, and very human. With pitch-perfect performances by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as the moms, Mark Ruffalo as the dad, and Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as the 20-something children. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Three and a half stars
"The Girl Who Played with Fire" (R, 129 minutes). Noomi Rapace, electrifying in last year's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," returns for the second film drawn from Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. Once again she's following the same crimes as journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), but they don't meet until late in the game as a murder trail leads to old family secrets. Well constructed, good cast, not quite up to the "Dragon" standard. Three and a half stars
"Restrepo" (R, 94 minutes). A documentary shot during the 15 months an American company fought under almost daily fire in Afghanistan's Korangal Valley, described as "the most dangerous place on earth." The Taliban is a constant presence; the Americans take fire three, four, five times a day; they establish the strategic Outpost Restrepo, named for the first of their number to die, and it seems to turn the tide in the Valley. The 15-month tour is hard duty, and our admiration grows for these men. The film is non-political; the men are fighting above all to simple survive. Four stars
"9500 Liberty" (Unrated, 80 minutes). A law similar to Arizona's controversial recent measure was passed and briefly enforced a few years ago in Virginia's Prince William County, and what happened there may be instructive. This documentary shows the rise and fall of a movement led by a right-wing blogger, and the groundswell of opposition (including many whites and Republicans) that ended it. The cost of the law in higher taxes, exposure to lawsuits and the city's image was startling. The doc shows the rise and fall of the county law, and centers on the American tradition of citizens speaking out in town hall meetings. Three and a half stars
"A Small Act" (Unrated, 98 minutes). A documentary about a Kenyan boy named Chris Mburu who grew up in a mud house, graduated from Harvard Law School, and is today a United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. His education was made possible by a $15-a-month gift from Hilde Back, a Swedish schoolteacher whose parents were Holocaust victims. Mburu started a foundation in her honor to grant more scholarships, and in the film they meet and she is honored by his village. To call it "Heartwarming" would be an understatement. Three and a half stars
"Cell 211" (Unrated, 111 minutes). Very effective thriller about a man's attempt to save his life by thinking quickly. A new prison guard, being given a tour, is left behind when a riot breaks out. Pretending to be a new prisoner, he improvises well enough to become a de facto leader of the riot, and develops a subtle relationship with the rock-hard leader of the prisoners. Winner of eight Goya awards, the Spanish Oscars, this year, including Best Picture. Three and a half stars
"I am Love" (R, 120 minutes). A sensuous and fascinating story about a modern family of Italian aristocrats. Tilda Swinton plays a Russian who has married the oldest son, learns her husband and their son will take over the family textile business, then suddenly finds herself in the middle of an unexpected affair. Masterfully direct by Luca Guadagnino. One of the year's best. Four stars
"Cyrus" (R, 91 minutes). Two lonely people (John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei) meet at a party and like each other. She has a 20ish son (Jonah Hill) who welcomes Reilly to their home and invites him to stay for dinner. But a comedy of social embarrassment develops when it becomes clear that the son is jealous and possessive of his mother, and perhaps to physically familiar with her. No, it's not incest; let's call it inappropriate behavior that his mom doesn't seem to discourage. Reilly is caught in an awkward position, which the film simply regards, leaving us to wince in a fascinated way. Three and a half stars
"Winter's Bone" (R, 99 minutes). Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as a 17-year-old girl who father has skipped bail and left his family threatened with homelessness. In a dirt poor area of the Ozarks, she goes seeking him among people who are suspicious, dangerous and in despair. Winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance 2010 and the screenwriting award, this film by Debra Granik is one of the year's best. Four stars
"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" (R, 84 minutes). Rivers was 75 in this film, and never tires of reminding us of that fact. She remains one of the funniest, dirtiest, most daring and transgressive of standup comics, and she hasn't missed a beat. The doc follows her for a year as she relentlessly pursues the career that her daughter, Melissa, says was like having another sister. She violates her own privacy, speaks from the heart, does not know tact, and makes us laugh a lot. If you've only seen Rivers on TV, you ain't seen nothing' yet. Three and a half stars
"The Karate Kid" (PG, 126 minutes). Faithfully follows the plot of the 1984 classic, but stands on its own feet and takes advantage of beg shot on location in China. Jackie Chan dials down convincingly as the quiet old janitor with hidden talents, and Jaden Smith (son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith) holds the screen with glowing charisma. The obligatory final fight climax is unusually well-handled. Three and a half stars
"Solitary Man" (R, 99 minutes). Michael Douglas in one of his best performances, as a once rich and famous car dealer, now in hard times but still tireless as closing the hardest sell of all--himself. He's a seducer, a cheater, a user, but running outgo of options, in a smart comedy/drama with an excellent supporting cast including Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer, Danny DeVito and Susan Sarandon. Three and a half stars
"Please Give" (R, 91 minutes). Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt play a Manhattan couple who have a daughter and run an antique store and live next to a mean-tempered old lady (Ann Morgan Guilbert) . When she dies, they can buy her apartment. The old lady has two granddaughters, played by Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet. When the couple invites everyone over for dinner, events are set in motion that are true, funny, and ruefully observant. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener is so perceptive about women whose lives are not defined by men; that's rare in the movies. Three and a half stars
"Death at a Funeral" (R, 92 minutes). The best comedy since "The Hangover." A big family home is the setting for a funeral that's just one damn thing after another. Remake of a 2007 Brit comedy, but a lot funnier. All-star cast includes Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, James Marsden, Peter Dinklage, Loretta Devine, Regina Hall, Zoe Saldana, Tracy Morgan, Luke Wilson and on and on. Three and a half stars.
"Home" (Unrated, 98 minutes) A family live in a small home in the middle of vast fields and next to the highway, which hasn't been used for ten years. Then big trucks arrive to lay down a fresh coating of asphalt, and the arrival of traffic puts unbearable pressure on a family that seems a little strange from the first. With Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet. 2008 winner of the Swiss Film Prize. Three and a half stars.
"Date Night" (PG-13, 88 minutes) Steve Carell and Tina Fey play a perfectly nice married couple from New Jersey who simply want to have a great night out together in Manhattan. Mistaken for another couple, they're spun into a nightmare involving a mob boss and an unpaid debt. Funny, because they seem halfway plausible. With Ray Liotta, Mark Wahlberg, James Franco. Directed by Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum"). Three and a half stars
"Greenberg" (R, 107 minutes). Ben Stiller in one of his best performances as a chronic malcontent who returns to L.A. to house-sit, nurture his misery, and reconnect with people who quite rightly resent him. With Greta Gerwig as an aimless but pleasant young college graduate who feels sorry for him, and Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Jason Leigh as survivors of his troublesome past. Directed by Noah Baumbach, of "The Squid and the Whale." Three and a half stars.
"Vincere" (Unrated, 128 minutes) The long-suppressed story of Mussolini's early mistress, who bore him a son and then was pushed into the shadows after he made a respectable marriage. She obsessively follows him, confronts him with their child in public, and is finally locked away by the fascists in an asylum. Giovanna Mezzogiorno's performance as Ida, the mistress, reminds me of Sophia Loren in the way she combines passion with dignity. Directed by the legendary Marco Bellocchio. Three and a half stars
"Leaves of Grass" (R, 105 minutes). Edward Norton plays a dual role as brothers: One a professor of philosophy at Brown, the other still back home in Little Dixie, Oklahoma, growing the best marijuana in the state. He may be the better philosopher. With Susan Sarandon as their mother, and Richard Dreyfuss as the state's drug kingpin. Norton gives two inspired and entirely different performances. Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, who also plays the best friend. One of the best films of 2010. Four stars
"45365" (Unrated, 90 minutes). An achingly beautiful portrait of small town America. The title is the zip code of Sidney, Ohio, and brothers Bill and Turner Ross grew up there and spent seven months on 2007 creating this portrait in sound and images of ordinary people, mostly nice, living their lives. No obvious structure, no message, just an appreciation of daily life that becomes haunting in its poetry. Winner of the Truer than Fiction Award at the 2010 Independent Spirits. Four stars (3/27/10)
"Mother" (R, 128 minutes). A mentally-deficient 27-year-old seems almost certainly guilty of murder. His mother, who has protected him all his life, is determined to prove his innocence. She is a remorseless force of nature, in a South Korean thriller that moves far beyond our expectations, into labyrinths deeper than reality. Written and diffracted by Bong Joon-ho ("The Host"). Three and a half stars
"Chloe" (Unrated, 96 minutes). A woman doctor (Julianne Moore) suspects her husband (Liam Neeson) of cheating, and hires a young call girl (Amanda Seyfried) to test how he might respond. She is fascinated by the girl's reports. Her jealousy shifts into curiosity. And the call girl? What's in this for her? Egoyan weaves a deceptive erotic web. Three and a half stars
"Waking Sleeping Beauty" (PG, 86 minutes). A privileged inside look at the Disney animation studio from 1984 to 1994, a golden age that essentially recreated feature animation in the form we know it now. From "The Little Mermaid" to "The Lion King," interviews, archives, home movies and interviews recreate a time of creative turmoil and backstage rivalries. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Three and a half stars.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (Unrated, for adults, 148 minutes). Compelling thriller with a heroine more fascinating than the story. She's Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), a 24-year-old Goth girl with body piercings and tattoos: thin, small, fierce, damaged, a genius computer hacker. She teams up with a taciturn Swedish investigator to end a serial killer's 40 years of evil. Based on the international best-seller. Intense and involving. The planned Hollywood remake will probably have to be toned down. Four stars.
"Diary of a Wimpy Kid" (PG, 92 minutes). Nimble, bright and funny comedy about the hero's first year of middle school. Zachary Gordon stars as the uncertain newcomer, and Robert Capron is his pudgy best pal, who still acts like a kid. Chloe Grace Moretz sparkles as the only student who's nice to them, and the movie amusingly remembers the tortures of early adolescence. Based on the books by Jeff Kinney. Three and a half stars.
"The Green Zone" (R, 114 minutes) Matt Damon and his two-time "Bourne" director Paul Greengrass team up for a first-rate thriller set early in the war in Iraq. Damon's chief warrant officer finds that U.S. intelligence is worthless, and his complaints lead him to discover the secret conspiracy intended to justify the American invasion. Greg Kinnear is the deceptive U.S. intelligence puppet-master, Brendan Gleeson is a grizzled old CIA hand whose agency has always doubted the stories sabot Saddam's WMD, and Amy Ryan plays a newspaper reporter who served Kinnear as a pipeline. Four stars.
"A Prophet" (R, 154 minutes). An unformed young man is imprisoned, and behind bars he terrifyingly comes of age. A remorseless consideration of the birth of a killer. With Tahar Rahim as the clueless young prisoner and Niels Arestrup as the powerful boss of the gang controlling the prison. Swept the 2010 Cesar awards ("the French Oscars"), won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes 2009, a 2010 Oscar nominee for best foreign film. Directed by Jacques Audiard. Four stars
"The Ghost Writer" (PG-13, 124 minutes). In Roman Polanski's thriller, a man without a past rattles around in the life of a man with too much of one. Ewan McGregor plays a ghost writer hired by a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), whose previous ghost has mysterious drowned. In a rain-swept house on Martha's Vineyard, McGregor meets the PM's wife (Olivia Williams) and his assistant/mistress (Kim Cattrall), as an international controversy swirls. A splendidly acted and crafted immersive story. Four stars
"Red Riding Trilogy" (Unrated, for adults, 302 minutes). An immersive experience based on the infamous Yorkshire Ripper killings and the subsequent revelations about deep corruption in the Yorkshire Police Departments. Brilliantly cast, filmed in segments each offering a distinctive look and feel, beginning with a serial killer and then tangling the investigation with deep-seated local corruption. Not so much about what happens objectively as about its surrounding miasma of greed and evil. Four stars
"The Art of the Steal" (Unrated, 101 minutes). The most valuable collection of modern and impression art in the rod, valued at $250 billion, was intended by its rich collector, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, to reside forever in the Barnes Foundation in suburban Philadelphia. He hired the best lawyers to draw up an iron-clad will to assure that would happen after his death. He specified it not go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which he felt had scorned him and his collection. This absorbing documentary tells the story of how and why his art is in that museum today, the film calls it the "art theft of the century." Three and a half stars
"Shutter Island" (R, 135 minutes). Leonardo Di Caprio and Mark Ruffalo are U.S. Marshals called to a forbidding island in Boston bay, the home of an old Civil War fort now used as a prison for the criminally insane. A child murderer has escaped her cell. Martin Scorsese relentlessly blends music, visuals, special effects and all of film noir tradition into an elegant horror film as fragmented as a nightmare. If you're blind-sided by the ending, ask yourself: How should it have ended? How could it have? Three and a half stars
"Fish Tank" (Unrated, adults, 123 minutes). The harrowing portrait of a 15-year-old girl on a reckless path toward self-destruction. Her mother, only about 30, is a drunken slut and she seems on the same path. Covers a few days of fraught experiences with sex and anger. Superbly acted by newcomer Katie Jarvis. Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes 2009. Directed by Andrea Arnold. Four stars.
For some reason I have the notion that the guy with the camera, getting the low-angle shots of Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) against that American flag that stretches across the Parthenon from sea to shining sea, is the cinematographer Paul Lohmann. Is that right?
I didn't know it at the time, but 35 years ago the course of my life was set into motion. It began, no doubt, the previous summer with Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," followed the next June by Robert Altman's "Nashville." If those two movies -- seen at the impressionable ages of 16 and 17 -- don't thoroughly transform your world, then I don't know what would. I'd always loved the arts, but from that moment on I knew for certain that movies were the art form of the century -- my century -- because never before could such vibrant, kinetic masterpieces have been born. They made me feel fortunate to have come into the world just at the moment in human history when, at long last, such miracles became possible.
Richard Schickel wrote a book review of Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff. Except that, rather than review the book, he chose to review Robert Altman's capacity for drinking and dope-smoking:
It appears that from the beginning of his career until almost its end (when illness slowed him), Robert Altman never passed an entirely sober day in his life. When he was not drinking heavily, he was smoking dope -- often doing both simultaneously. When he screened dailies on location, he insisted the cast and crew gather to view them in a party atmosphere, with the merriment rolling on into the night.
Shocking, isn't it?
Remembering Robert Altman (February 20, 1915 - November 20, 2006). This piece, revised and expanded from a Scanners post, was published in the German film magazine steadycam in a 2006 tribute issue, "Der Spieler Robert Altman: Zocker, Zyniker, Provokateur, Bluffer, Genie."
Well, we must be doing something right To last... two hundred years! -- Haven Hamilton, "200 Years"
It begins with a cheesy, hyper, K-Tel-style TV commercial for itself, segues into a libertarian political spiel by the presidential candidate for the Replacement Party, and then into a rousing Bicentennial anthem sung by a toupeed country-western singer in a white rhinestone-studded outfit.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy's early cameo appearance in "Nashville," at Lady Pearl's Old Time Picking Parlor.
Please consider this my initial contribution to Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon -- happening all weekend at No More Marriages!
View image Inside Pearl's Parlor: Red, white and bluegrass. Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward) enters from behind the flag at center.
How can two critics see (or remember) the same movie, and have such contradictory interpretations of how it works and what it means? And what better case-in-point than Robert Altman's 1975 "Nashville" -- now being remembered in the wake of Altman's death last week, and seen through the prism of Emilio Estevez's recent release about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, "Bobby"?
View image Lady Pearl: "The only time I ever went hog wild, 'round the bend, was for the Kennedy boys. But they were different."
From two reviews of "Bobby":
View image "... and the asshole got 556,577 votes."
Watching the movie, I kept thinking of "Nashville." And not just because Robert Altman's 1975 masterpiece remains the most politically and psychologically astute big-ensemble/where-America's-at movie ever made (it's got a presidential campaign and ends with a beloved public figure gunned down, too). There's a minor character in it, played by Barbara Baxley, who's a Kennedy-loving Yankee married to a country music star. In one boozy monologue, she expresses all that was both hopeful and delusional about what the dead Kennedys represented for progressive citizens. I've never forgotten that speech, while the more simplistic and diffuse "Bobby" is already starting to fade from memory.
-- Bob Strauss, LA Daily News
View image Alone at Mass.
Despite its reputation as an exuberant classic, "Nashville" knows zip and cares even less about country music or the city of Nashville (where it was shot) -- which doesn't prevent it from heaping scorn on both. It even ridicules a dowager who tearfully reminisces about John and Bobby Kennedy, and it shamelessly encourages viewers to share its contempt for the rubes. The relentless cynicism that Nashville brandishes as proof of its hipness ultimately gives way to glib, high-flown rhetoric in the climactic repeated shots of an American flag filling the screen while a nihilistic pseudocountry anthem, "It Don't Worry Me," builds to a crescendo, asserting the concert audience's unembarrassed cluelessness.
-- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
First, I want to point out the obvious: Bob Strauss is right even when he's wrong (I don't think Baxley's character is minor or a Yankee) and Jonathan Rosenbaum is wrong even when he's right (Altman admitted he wasn't interested in making a movie about the real Nashville or country music; after all, he let the actors write their own songs). Rosenbaum's preoccupation with his own perception of "hipness" (which he deems extremely uncool) appears to have obscured his view (or his memory) of what's happening on the screen in Altman's movie. As I said in a comment over at The House Next Door, using "Bobby" to bash "Nashville" makes as much sense as using "Neil Simon's California Suite" to bash "Short Cuts" -- or "The Towering Inferno" to belittle "Playtime." Yes, there are superficial similarities (as Bob points out), but in terms of ambition, complexity, vitality and sheer movieness, there's no comparison.
"Nashville" 25th reunion. (photo by Jim Emerson)
When the doctor says you're through Keep a'goin! Why, he's a human just like you -- Keep a'goin!
-- Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) in "Nashville"
View image 24 of your favorite stars.
Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally
-- Kurt Cobain, "Pennyroyal Tea"
It's true that all the men you knew were dealers who said that they were through with dealing every time you gave them shelter
-- Leonard Cohen, opening lyrics for "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"
View image "Nashville" 25th reunion. Note gigantic Oscar at right; Altman got his own, regular-sized one six years later. (photo by Jim Emerson)
"However, the cortex, which is dwarfed in most species by other brain areas, makes up a whopping 80 percent of the human brain. Compared with other animals, our huge cortex also has many more regions specialized for particular functions, such as associating words with objects or forming relationships and reflecting on them. The cortex is what makes us human."
-- John J. Ratley, M.D., "A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain"
I'm not sure what, if anything, meaningfully connects these fragments to the passing of Robert Altman -- or his films, as alive now as they ever were -- but they were all things I encountered during a day spent thinking about Altman and, to my surprise, not wanting to speak out loud about him to anyone. I talked to my mother on the phone. She asked hesitantly, "Have you heard any news today?" "Yeah," I said, and changed the subject. What can I say that isn't trivial? (Rhetorical question, please.)
In this state of grief, nothing I'm writing or thinking about Altman is adequate, or even makes much sense, in large part because a whole moviegoing lifetime of engagement with his movies (beginning at age 15) has so profoundly shaped who I am and how I experience the world. Like hundreds, thousands (millions?) of cinephiles and cinephiliacs, I found life (and, paradoxically, shelter) in Robert Altman's movies. "Nashville" is my church, to which I return again and again for joy, insight, inspiration and sustenance. (I haven't written about it for years, but I also know that I'm almost never not writing about "Nashville.")
To this day, I am in some deep but irrational sense convinced that the characters in "Nashville" (even though I know they're played by 24 of my very favorite stars!) continue to exist outside the parameters of the movie itself. I've met and interviewed, for example, Ned Beatty, but there's Ned Beatty the actor and then there's Delbert Reese, who is someone else entirely. Delbert exists, imaginatively independent of the great actor (one of my all-time favorites) who inhabited him in "Nashville." (This is most unlike the other most-influential movie in my life, Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," made just the year before "Nashville," which is as "closed" a film as "Nashville" is "open." "Chinatown" ends so definitively that, "Two Jakes" aside, any life beyond the final frame is unthinkable.)
Right now I just want to share another fantastic memory: In 2000, I heard there was going to be a 25th anniversary reunion screening of "Nashville" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. I'd moved back to Seattle by this time, but I bought tickets the moment they became available (for five bucks apiece) and went to LA for the event: My favorite movie, in a pristine print, in one of the finest movie theaters in the world, with most of those 24 favorite stars in attendance. It was... transplendent (as a Shelley Duvall character once said). I'll post an update with IDs later, but for now, see if you can identify the people onstage (taken with a now-primitive, but still beloved, Canon Digital Elph)
Pauline Kael's famous, ebullient review of "Nashville" here reminds us how exciting and innovative the movie was in 1975.
Principal population of "Nashville" after the jump:
View image The Dangerous Woman pays a final visit -- with a smile. From the ending of "A Prairie Home Companion" (2006).
I'm off this week, but I needed to personally acknowledge the death of Robert Altman, the first great director I ever met, and the filmmaker whose work (particularly "Nashville," "3 Women," "The Long Goodbye" "California Split" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" -- all of which were originally released, and encountered by me, when I was in my ultra-impressionable teens), most inspired my love of movies and my determination to devote my life to them. I first met Altman in person when I was 18 or 19, in the living-room-like lobby of the Harvard Exit Theatre in Seattle at the world premiere of "3 Women" (or, possibly, Alan Rudolph's "Welcome to L.A."). He was standing by the grand piano, by himself, and I, shaking and sweating, forced myself to go over and talk to him. He spoke back. I couldn't believe it: To me, it a "Sherlock, Jr." moment, as if I'd somehow passed through the screen and was interacting with someone on the other side. Over the next 20 years or so, I would interview him a number of times in a professional capacity, and I relished these sharp, thoughtful, intelligent, funny conversations. I don't remember much of anything about that first chat, though, except that my end of the exchange would not be described by any of the adjectives in the previous sentence. But it had a huge impact on me.
Two anecdotes: 1) Shortly before the release of "The Player," when I was working in Los Angeles, I went to interview Altman -- I think it was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, or maybe the Chateau Marmont, I'm not sure. When I arrived, Altman was on the phone with Fine Line, cussing them out about the advertising budget. I was talking to the publicist about my trip to Europe, from which I'd just returned, and saying how I found it exhilarating and liberating to be in a strange city, and to be out in public, and not understand the conversations that are taking place all around you.
The instant Altman got off the phone he practically leapt to the other side of the room: "I heard what you were saying about being in Europe and that's exactly the way I've felt! I lived in Paris for years and never learned French. You realize there's just so much extraneous bullshit you don't have to listen to if you don't know the language!"
This from the man who pioneered the multi-track Lions Gate Sound System, and whose movies are known for their almost contrapuntal background dialog (wrangled, in some of the '70s films, by assistant director Rudolph), finely tuned babble that picks up on little bits of character from the edges of the frame (or even beyond it) and makes a scene come to life as an immersive experience.
2) Years later, at a then-rare screening of "Nashville" I attended at the Walter Reade Theater in New York (yes, by the mid-to-late-1990s it was virtually impossible to find a showable 35mm print of "Nashville," one of the greatest films of all time), actor Scott Glenn (who played Pfc. Glenn Kelly) told a story about how the actors were individually miked and, in crowd scenes, often didn't even know if they were within the scope of Paul Lohman's wide-screen Panavision frame.
"How will I know if I'm on camera?" Glenn recalled someone asking.
"You won't," Altman said. "Just do something interesting and you might end up in the picture."
* * * *
Roger Ebert's Altman Home Companion: Reviews and Interviews with Robert Altman, 1969-2006
Richard T. Jameson's appreciation of Altman at MSN Movies
Dennis Cozzalio: Goodbye, Mr. Altman
Matt Zoller Seitz's 2006 Altman Blog-a-Thon, with many links here and here and here.
Keith Uhlich: Robert Altman (February 20th, 1925-November 20th, 2006)
David Hudson at GreenCine compiles Altman tributes
UPDATE: 11/22/06: A.O. Scott has the finest Altman obit I've seen in the MSM, using the ending of "California Split" as a way of discussing Altman's career: Mr. Altman thrived on the shapelessness and confusion of experience, and he came closer than any other American filmmaker to replicating it without allowing his films to succumb to chaos. His movies buzz with the dangerous thrill of collaboration — the circling cameras, the improvising actors, the jumping, swirling sound design — even as they seem to arise from a great loneliness, a natural state that reasserts itself once the picture is over. A makeshift tribe gathers to produce a film, or to watch one, and then disperses when the shared experience has run its course. Everyone is gone, and the only antidote to this letdown is another film....
But if ["A Prairie Home Companion"] was a last gathering of the troupe, after which the lights dim forever, and the audience disperses, it was also just another movie in a career like no other, and when it was over — in the ending I like to imagine — American cinema’s greatest gambler shrugged his shoulders and walked away.