Friday, March 30, 2007

Movies opening this week

Blades of Glory (Will Ferrell, Jon Heder, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, Jenna Fischer, dir. Josh Gordon & Will Speck)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really do like Will Ferrell and think he's usually funny, but I also think it's a dangerous situation for him to put himself in already, just repeating the same performance over and over again. I mean, it obviously works for Adam Sandler, but Ferrell has always struck me as someone with more talent and higher standards, and his dramatic work in Stranger Than Fiction, as well as his more childlike comedic role in Elf, showed that he has genuine range. I hope he continues to show that. Wide release

The Lookout (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Goode, Jeff Daniels, Isla Fisher, dir. Scott Frank)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think I had heard just enough positive buzz on this movie for my interest to be piqued, without raising expectations unreasonably high. And I don't want to oversell it, either, but it's a very good movie that's both an entertaining genre piece and a really well-thought-out character drama. It's got good acting and stellar writing, and yet it's not pretentious or overly ambitious, so it sort of sneaks up on you with how well-constructed it is. With Blades of Glory sure to hog all the box office attention this week, I hope this movie at least manages to sneak up on a few people. Wide release

Meet the Robinsons (Voices of Daniel Hansen, Jordan Fry, Wesley Singerman, Stephen Anderson, dir. Stephen Anderson)
Although the super hi-tech Disney Digital 3-D glasses sort of hurt my eyes (thanks to nerd-cred vision problems), I thought the 3-D in this movie was quite well-integrated and not at all gimmicky, with very few obvious "OMG that thing is coming out of the screen at me!" moments. Instead, it just gave the film an extra visual depth that wasn't distracting at all. Narratively, this is a rather forgettable but still fun kids' movie, with a zippy retro-futurist visual style and a barrage of occasionally amusing jokes. It's pretty superficial, but as kids' movies go, it gets the job done. Wide release

Monday, March 26, 2007

The best movies of 2007

After seeing The Lookout last week (it opens this Friday), I was struck again by how good a year for movies this is shaping up to be. In only three months, I have seen at least six movies that are as good as most of what I had on my top ten list for 2006, and even many movies I haven't liked have had something interesting going on (I didn't care for 300, but it certainly has generated plenty of interesting conversations). I've always been a little wary of the seemingly arbitrary division of calendar years for ranking movies (or anything, really), especially since movies get delayed, or are released some places in one year and other places in the next, and so on. But whether it's a fluke of scheduling or luck or whatever, this year has started off incredibly strong. Noel Murray at the AV Club has the same idea, and he's mainly excited about what's to come. I'm looking forward to most of what he mentions as well. Even if the rest of the year levels off, it's still been exciting to see so much good stuff in such a traditionally dead season. In the spirit of positivity and all that, then, here are my insanely premature awards for the best in film in 2007, just to show you how much good stuff is out there right now:

Best Picture: Zodiac
Best Director: David Fincher, Zodiac
Best Actor: Chris Cooper, Breach
Best Actress: Christina Ricci, Black Snake Moan
Best Supporting Actor: Robert Downey Jr., Zodiac (Jeff Daniels in The Lookout would be a strong runner-up.)
Best Supporting Actress: Laura Linney, Breach (Okay, so this is a weak one; Linney's always good, but this is a rather rote performance from her. That just means one category is wide open for the rest of the year.)
Best Screenplay: Scott Frank, The Lookout
Best Original Score: Scott Bomar, Black Snake Moan
Best Original Song: "Way Back Into Love," from Music and Lyrics (Say what you will about the movie, it's a damn good song, and an integral part of the story.)
I'd probably give more technical awards like cinematography, editing and production design to Zodiac as well, but it's kind of overkill on that one already. Seraphim Falls and The Astronaut Farmer both have excellent cinematography, though, and Breach has great production design.

The Six Best Movies of 2007
1. Zodiac
2. The Lookout
3. Breach
4. Black Snake Moan
5. The Astronaut Farmer
6. Seraphim Falls

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Movies opening this week

Quite a busy week...there are actually 12 movies opening in Vegas this weekend.

Colour Me Kubrick (John Malkovich, dir. Brian Cook)
As another reviewer noted, there's really no point in listing anyone but Malkovich in the cast of this film, as every other character is merely incidental, and no one else shows up in more than a handful of scenes. Based on the true story of a con man who impersonated Stanley Kubrick in the mid-'90s despite looking nothing like the director nor being familiar with his movies, this ought to be a fascinating story. But what must have made for a great magazine article doesn't make for much of a movie, and Cook and screenwriter Anthony Frewin (both longtime Kubrick associates) seem not to have bothered to delve below even the most surface details of the faux-Kubrick saga. Malkovich hams it up with outrageous accents and silly costumes, but his character has no depth, no motivation, and the movie is episodic and repetitive. Better to stick to the magazine article. Limited release this week; on DVD on Tuesday

The Host (Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung, Park hae-il, Bae Du-na, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
I think the hype may have ruined this one for me a bit. Although I did like a lot of things about it, it seemed to me too long and poorly paced, and I thought the mix of slapstick-y humor and horror (which is what so many reviews have praised) was awkward. There were quite a few exciting scenes, and much of the depiction of the family coming together to save the little girl was effective. The monster looked menacing and was integrated well - the only time the CGI distracted me was at the very end. But overall I wasn't as engaged as I had hoped, and even though I thought it was a cool little monster movie, I'm not sure I can get on-board with all the breathless praise from seemingly every other critic in America. Opened limited Mar. 9; in Las Vegas this week

Reign Over Me (Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Liv Tyler, Jada Pinkett Smith, dir. Mike Binder)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I admit that I went into this movie expecting - planning, really - to hate it, which is not fair. I fairly detested The Upside of Anger, Binder's last film to make it to theaters (he had a movie go straight to video last year), and I've come to realize that I can't stand Sandler in anything, no matter what kind of role (this is the fifth Sandler movie I've reviewed, all of them negatively). So even though I didn't think this movie quite worked, I will say that it was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Binder still has some serious problems with women, and Sandler is still a one (annoying) note actor, but this movie has some nice portrayals of male friendship, and a serious (if sort of maudlin) take on grief. I probably liked it as much as I could have, considering. Wide release

Shooter (Mark Wahlberg, Michael Pena, Danny Glover, Kate Mara, dir. Antoine Fuqua)
Watching this movie was like experiencing a flashback to the heyday of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Seagal and Van Damme. All of whom I loved back in junior high, but whose films haven't generally aged well. Wahlberg glowers and slaughters as the main character, and at first there are some exciting action scenes and even interesting ideas, but the movie gets so preposterous as it goes on that I just gave up on it. It wants to have this cynical, nihilistic political tone that is actually sort of interesting, but it undermines that by allowing Wahlberg's character to still live out the "one man changes the world by killing everyone" fantasy. In the end, it can't commit to anything, and it's just too silly and over the top (yet simultaneously deadly serious) to be satisfying. Wide release

TMNT (Voices of James Arnold Taylor, Nolan North, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Chris Evans, Patrick Stewart, Mako, dir. Kevin Munroe)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really did love the Ninja Turtles when I was a kid, watch the cartoon all the time, own the toys, see the first two live-action movies multiple times. I even loved the awful/awesome Vanilla Ice "Ninja Rap" song from the second movie. But I doubt I'd find it all nearly as entertaining if I went back and watched it now (ironically given my love of comics, I've never read any Turtles comic books, which are considered the characters' best incarnations). So I didn't want to give this movie too much credit for its nostalgia value, but I also didn't want to overcompensate by being too hard on it. It was a mediocre movie, so it was fairly easy to balance my opinion right in the middle. Wide release

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Goodbye, Premiere

The final issue of Premiere magazine arrived in my mailbox the other day, not that you would be able to tell from flipping through it. The (forgive the pun) premier mainstream movie magazine in America is ending in its print form, living on in a website that barely even acknowledges there ever was a magazine. This news seems to have been treated with a relative shrug by both media reporters (yawn, another print pub down the drain) and movie lovers, which probably speaks to the declining relevance of the magazine over the last several years. For the nuts and bolts history, the LA Times has a very thorough obit.

(Most hilariously or just sadly, a few days before the final issue I got a breathless letter from the Premiere subscriptions department entreating me to renew my subscription with copy obviously penned some time around 1993. Not only does it promise "special suprises in store in the months to come," but it also touts "reviews of the best releases on video and laser disc.")

Although it sounds like I am about to lament the lack of outcry over Premiere's demise, the truth is that I only started reading the magazine a few months ago, thanks to a free subscription offer I found online. I've been aware of Premiere for years, of course, and at one time it seemed like it had quite the reputation, and I always meant to pick up an issue but never did. It always struck me as odd that there wasn't the equivalent of a magazine like Rolling Stone or Spin or Alternative Press focused on film, one with real reporting and a breadth of subject matter covering both the mainstream and the alternative, along with genuine criticism (I realize I may be overrating these music magazines here, but you get the idea). Instead there were highbrow journals like Film Comment, and celebrity fluff like People, and little in between.

After reading about Premiere's impending demise, I paid closer attention to the last few issues, and there was a little evidence that it could have been (and maybe once was) that smart middle ground. Yes, there were plenty of fluffy interviews with celebrities who had movies out that month, and superfluously cheery previews of upcoming releases. But the penultimate issue had two interesting, well-reported pieces: one on the rise of straight-to-video sequels, and another on Peter Jackson's feud with New Line. Both were smart and insightful and not at all fluffy, but clearly pitched to the mainstream. A month or two before, there was a lengthy and satisfying profile of Sylvester Stallone. Nothing here was groundbreaking, but it was still filling a niche that, to me, is pretty much empty.

But print is slowly dying off anyway, so they say, and many mentions of the end of Premiere noted that Entertainment Weekly has taken up much of its slack. In terms of criticism, Glenn Kenny, the magazine's main movie reviewer, remains on staff at the website, and has a decent blog. One of the problems with writing movie reviews for a monthly publication, of course, is ending up often horribly out of date, so the web is probably a better place for him. It's where most film writing is headed anyway, it seems, but the quiet passing of Premiere is still the end of a (mostly forgotten) era.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Movies opening this week

The Dead Girl (Toni Collette, Brittany Murphy, Kerry Washington, Marcia Gay Harden, dir. Karen Moncrieff)
I saw this movie at least three months ago, on an awards screener (it's pretty obscure, but was actually nominated for a few Spirit Awards), and absolutely hated it, putting it on my list of the worst movies of 2006. It's yet another glum "intersecting stories show the interconnectedness of life" indie drama, pivoting on the titular corpse (Murphy) and how her death affects the lives of a large number of people. It could be an unconventional murder mystery, but instead it’s a pretentious and heavy-handed mess, with a talented cast trying way too hard to show off their serious acting chops, and a script that strains for grandiose meaning and ends up simply histrionic. Can't we just agree to retire this irritating and played-out genre? Opened limited Dec. 29; in Las Vegas this week

Dead Silence (Ryan Kwanten, Donnie Wahlberg, Amber Valletta, dir. James Wan)
One thing I will say about the second feature from Wan and his co-writer, Leigh Whannell, is that at least they try and do something different from their first movie, Saw. They've let other people take over that franchise and moved on to this movie, which is still horror but is much more old-fashioned, a ghost story with minimal gore that's more focused on suspense than gross-outs. But the truth is that Wan is not all that good at atmosphere or foreboding, and after its somewhat exciting opening the movie turns tedious and nonsensical. Also, the pure creep-out factor of ventriloquists' dummies is never used to its full potential, and Wahlberg seriously misses the mark on all the comic-relief bits. Really, this is just another mediocre-to-bad horror movie, which wouldn't be getting any notice at all if it weren't from the creators of Saw. Hardcore torture fans will be disappointed here, and so will anyone else. Wide release

I Think I Love My Wife (Chris Rock, Gina Torres, Kerry Washington, dir. Chris Rock)
I didn't see this movie, but it wasn't for lack of trying. The screening I was supposed to attend was cancelled because of technical difficulties, but in anticipation of writing a review of the film, I had the day before watched Eric Rohmer's 1972 movie Chloe in the Afternoon, of which this is a (presumably rather loose) remake. Chloe is the last in Rohmer's Six Moral Tales series, an alternately tense and playful story about a married man's temptations to cheat on his rather lovely, understanding and devoted wife with a volatile, sexually capricious woman from his past. Aside from its remarkable fixation on turtlenecks, the best thing about Rohmer's film is the character of Chloe, a sort of nihilistic free spirit who doesn't seem to believe in love or marriage or family or much of anything, but is incredibly alluring in her indifference to the world. From what I've read, Rock's version of Chloe (played by Kerry Washington) is not nearly as complex, and that's too bad. Wide release

Sweet Land (Elizabeth Reaser, Tim Guinee, Alan Cumming, John Heard, dir. Ali Selim)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This movie is actually not opening in Vegas this week, despite how it might appear. Scheduled to be part of the CineVegas Arthouse Series, it has been postponed as that series unexpectedly moves venues. The Tropicana Cinemas, which had been housing the series, has closed its doors, so CineVegas has moved to the the Galaxy Neonopolis, starting next week (details here). This means that the movies scheduled for this week will be pushed. Whenever Sweet Land does open, it's worth seeing for its great prairie vistas and a nice, understated story, although it's a little slow and not as affecting as I had hoped from reading some early reviews. Opened limited Dec. 1

Monday, March 12, 2007

Brothers & Sisters

Neither a critical darling nor a ratings sensation, ABC's Brothers & Sisters (Sundays, 10 p.m.) has become the sleeper hit of the season. It regularly gets solid ratings and holds onto much of the audience from its popular lead-in, Desperate Housewives. It was picked up early on for a full season, and seems like a safe bet to get renewed for next year. Yet critics rarely talk about it, and it's not watercooler fodder like Ugly Betty or Heroes, two other big hits of the season. Maybe that's because it doesn't have an outlandish presence or a densely plotted serialized story. Instead, it's just a solid, well-crafted family drama, completely straightforward but more than often effective.

B&S is far from my favorite show; it's not one I would get up on my tiny little soapbox and demand everyone watch (those shows, if you care, are Friday Night Lights, 30 Rock and Veronica Mars). But it's something I tune in to every week, and that I bother recording even now that it's on against a show I like a lot more, Battlestar Galactica. When the 2006-2007 fall schedule was first announced, B&S was one of the shows I was most eagerly anticipating; although I love high-concept serials as much as the next guy (possibly more), I also love character-driven relationship dramas, something that the network TV landscape has been sorely lacking in recent years (the odious Grey's Anatomy aside). But word of behind-the-scenes turmoil, including two turnovers of showrunners and some recasting, made me wary of the end result. And the show started out a bit unevenly, if not as poorly as all the retooling would have suggested.

But it's improved over time into a rich, if sometimes a little predictable and unimaginative, drama, thanks mostly to the excellent cast (including the two last-minute replacements). Sally Field is very good as family matriarch Nora, and she's well-supported by all five actors playing her grown children, especially Matthew Rhys (like Field, a change from the original pilot) and Rachel Griffiths. And I know that people hate Calista Flockhart, but I was a huge fan of Ally McBeal in its first season, and I think she can be very appealing when playing to her strengths. Here, she does just that, embodying another neurotic single woman who nevertheless has a distinct existence separate from Ally. I don't find Flockhart's presence distracting; rather, she's a nice contrast to the more regal, composed Griffiths.

The plotting is a little less accomplished, although the actors and writers have sold these characters well enough as people that I am invested in whatever happens to them, however contrived it may be. I still can't get behind Patricia Wettig's Holly, the longtime mistress of the family's late patriarch, and everything she does seems like a forced way to keep her involved with the rest of the characters. But the recently added Emily VanCamp as illegitimate daughter Rebecca has brought some spark in her brief appearances, so maybe she'll justify Holly's presence. She was a regular on the acclaimed Everwood, the last series from current showrunner Greg Berlanti, which had its own passionate following (and which I've got somewhere in my Netflix queue).

I doubt I'll ever be blown away by a B&S episode, but I'm glad to have it around as a dependable comfort, and an antidote to having to keep a million different plot points straight in my head. It's perfect for Sunday nights, as a sort of palate cleanser to the TV week ahead.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Movies opening this week

300 (Gerard Butler, David Wenham, Lena Headey, Dominic West, dir. Zack Snyder)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I find the reaction to this film very interesting. It's been rabidly anticipated by the hardcore fanboys online for what seems like over a year. For at least six months, it's been predetermined as the greatest movie ever. And, I admit, I was pretty excited, too. Not at the level of the uber-geeks, but I would definitely say I was looking forward to the film, and anticipating enjoying it. But even before most of the reviews started coming in this week, there were signs that the fanboy enthusiasm had turned into a sort of nasty groupthink. When Cinematical's Erik Davis posted a negative review of the film from the Berlin Film Festival, and mentioned that it had received boos from the audience, the fanboys attacked. For a while, though, it seemed like he was a lone voice in the wilderness; as recently as last week, I think, the Rotten Tomatoes rating was 100% (although with very few reviews).

But pity anyone who gives the movie a bad review, especially when there were only a few reviews posted. Check out the copious vicious and misogynistic comments left about the review by Christy Lemire of the Associated Press, the first critic to post a negative review. It's disgusting, but it's also exactly the sort of attitude this movie promotes: Women are weak, disagreement is intolerable, the only solution to any problem is swift, unflinching attack. I wouldn't throw around the accusation of fascism lightly, but there's no doubt that this is a movie celebrating fascism. And what's most disturbing about it is the way that people are cheering it, eating it up. They leave the theater ready to attack (at least verbally, online). I think the specific parallels to current political events are a little tenuous, but as a general endorsement of a broad philosophy of militarism, intolerance and, yes, hatred, it's unmistakable. And it's going to make a ton of money, and garner a hugely dedicated following (mostly of self-described geeks who consider themselves intelligent), and that honestly makes me sad. Wide release

The Italian (Kolya Spiridonov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Olga Shuvalova, dir. Andrei Kravchuk)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
In a week in which all my energy is used up pounding away at a monolithic mainstream film, this slight but charming Russian movie gets very little attention. It was pleasant, although maybe too pleasant considering its subject matter. Some impressive naturalistic performances from the child actors, and an interesting look at working-class life in Russia, but nothing spectacular. Opened limited Jan. 19; in Las Vegas this week

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The state of Brian K. Vaughan

I know this makes it sound like I am about to give the guy a medical exam, but with last week's ending of both his Doctor Strange mini-series and his run on Runaways, plus his move to the writing staff of Lost and the impending conclusion of Y the Last Man, it seemed like a good time for a little Brian K. Vaughan assessment. In addition to all those farewells, he also wrote two of the most acclaimed works of 2006, the graphic novel Pride of Baghdad (from DC/Vertigo) and the Dark Horse mini-series The Escapists, a sort of sequel to every comics geek's favorite hipster novel, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And since I finally got around to reading both of those, I have to paradoxically say that while Vaughan is probably my favorite writer working in comics today, he's also gotten a little overrated.

While The Escapists was a perfectly nice little story about aspiring comics creators, isn't every other indie comic a perfectly nice little story about aspiring creators of something? It started promisingly enough, with some fun character interaction and a more low-key, slice-of-life approach from Vaughan, who usually goes for the more fast-paced and suspenseful. But then Vaughan's penchant for cliffhangers (which he's very good at) came into play, and it turned into a half-assed suspense story about whether the heroes would get caught staging their little promotional stunts for their revival of long-dormant character the Escapist (created by Kavalier and Clay), complete with an evil corporation trying to steal their work. And the scenes representing the new Escapist comic never really integrated into the story well, or offered the insight they were meant to. It definitely felt like Vaughan coasted toward the end, or that slice-of-life stories just aren't his thing.

The acclaim for The Escapists was nothing compared to that for Pride of Baghdad, which was glowingly reviewed all over mainstream outlets in addition to the comics press. And certainly it's a much stronger work, not least for being an original graphic novel and thus eschewing any episodic cliffhangers. It does have a quiet power to it, and some gorgeous artwork by Niko Henrichon. But let me say this (spoiler alert if you haven't read it): A great deal of the emotional impact comes from the ending, and it doesn't take any talent to wring sadness and horror out of having a bunch of adorable and likeable animals senselessly slaughtered by unfeeling humans. Sure, they may be more well-rounded characters than your average cartoon animals, but it's still a knee-jerk reaction that any hack could elicit. I did like the way the animal perspective sort of sidestepped politics and boiled down the conflict to basic, visceral elements, and just because the ending was easy doesn't mean it wasn't well-executed. But for all its praise, this didn't come close to the masterpiece of animals in comics, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's We3.

Lest it seem like I am all down on Vaughan these days, I'll point out that Y is still going strong, and has a renewed energy after the disappointing arc that explained the origins of the plague. I have every confidence that it'll end in just as fascinating, entertaining and unexpected a fashion as it started. Unfortunately, it may be a while before that happens, as Vaughan's new workload on Lost means that the final six issues are going to be parceled out bi-monthly. The one ongoing series that he'll have left, Ex Machina, is also still going strong, reaching its halfway point while continuing to improve. I still don't think it's as exciting as Y, or that it will have the same kind of impact over time. But it's gotten richer and more engrossing as it's gone on, and it tackles politics in much the same cut-through-the-bullshit way as Pride of Baghdad, while effectively using the patented Vaughan cliffhanger. Once it's my only Vaughan fix every month (which it looks like it will be shortly), I don't think it'll seem inadequate.

And that brings us back to last week's endings. The Doctor Strange series, which has also been widely praised, was to me a fun throwaway superhero story and little else. I'm not a longtime Strange fan, so I haven't endured the years of shitty stories that seem to have made this series such a relief for many. I came for Vaughan, and he delivered, but you can also see why he's said that it (and his long-delayed Wolverine mini with Eduardo Risso, due out later this year) will represent his swan song on company-owned characters. There just isn't the same feeling of investment from him. Of course, the opposite is true for Runaways, which is also company-owned, but created by Vaughan and clearly very close to his heart, as he often refers to the characters as his legacy in the Marvel universe. His (and artist Adrian Alphona's) final issue offered closure to their last storyline as well as a measure of same to many of the overarching plot elements of their entire run, including the fates of Alex Wilder and the Gibborim. It also opened new doors for upcoming writer Joss Whedon, and really did feel like Vaughan wanted to sort of set the characters free, trusting other writers to treat them well. I'm certain Whedon, at least, will be up to the task.

Although I'm glad that Vaughan is being embraced by Hollywood, working on screenplays for the Y and Ex Machina films in addition to joining the Lost staff, despite his protestations to the contrary it really does feel like he's leaving comics behind (other than the Wolverine series, which I'm pretty sure was written a while ago, he has no new projects on the horizon). He's a master of the longform episodic story, and short of creating and showrunning his own TV series, comics are the only way he's really going to get to showcase that talent. I have no doubt that he's got some terrific ideas to unleash, and all I can hope is that after being the one to completely untangle and invigorate Lost's muddled mythology (one can dream, right?), he'll be back at Vertigo or somewhere similar to showcase them all for his eager readers.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


If you are among my four or five regular readers, you've no doubt noticed that I've been posting a little less frequently in the last few weeks. This is partly because of a heavy workload and other non-work activities taking up my time, and partly, I think, because my self-imposed schematic posting structure has started to frustrate me. Thus, in order to shake things up a bit and hopefully post some more varied content of greater interest both to me and to the four or five of you reading this, I'm doing away with the weekly comics post, and will instead be posting (ideally) longer pieces focusing on one or two series or releases that cover multiple issues in a more in-depth fashion. In general, I'd like to achieve a greater balance between round-up-style posts with short blurbs, and longer, more focused posts. We'll see how that works out. In the meantime, I promise some non-trivial content in the next day or two.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Movies opening this week

Black Snake Moan (Christina Ricci, Samuel L. Jackson, Justin Timberlake, dir. Craig Brewer)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Is this movie brilliant or is it bullshit? Honestly, I'm still not sure, but the fact that I am still pondering that makes me pretty certain it's a movie worth seeing. It is obviously a bit sexist, and it remains stubbornly ignorant of any racial subtext, but at the same time that's sort of the point - this is a lurid, stylized and ultimately fake parable about a condition that certainly does not exist, at least in the form it's portrayed in the movie, and actions that no real person should ever engage in. Yet that's precisely what's fascinating about it, that it takes all that and then dives in anyway, daring you to challenge the totally fucked-up world it's created. Can't we just agree that it's brilliant bullshit? Wide release

The Secret Life of Words (Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins, Javier Camara, dir. Isabel Coixet)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This one, though, is just straight bullshit. Annoyingly pretentious, with characters existing to impart heavy-handed lessons, and scenes ending with fades to black that scream at the audience to think about all the deep stuff they've just witnessed. Polley is a great actress, but I think she takes on too many of these solemn, good-for-you roles, and doesn't lend her talents enough to bigger, more entertaining films (Dawn of the Dead notwithstanding). I'd love to see her in a Hollywood period epic, or at least in a movie where she could crack a smile. Opened limited Dec. 15; in Las Vegas this week

Zodiac (Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., dir. David Fincher)
I had high expectations for this movie, given my great admiration for Fincher's past work and the intriguing premise and promising trailers. But it exceeded even those expectations, and is not only the best movie of 2007 so far (in a two-month period in which I have seen a surprising number of excellent films), but also better than any movie I saw in 2006. Fincher's control over his material is remarkable (although maybe not surprising, given that he reportedly shoots up to 70 takes of certain scenes), and the movie is an engulfing, claustrophobic look at the daunting nature of criminal investigation and reporting. It is not, as some people might hope, a serial-killer thriller; the real Zodiac was never caught and was confirmed to have killed only five people, and Fincher meticulously sticks to the documented facts of the case. He reigns in most of his flashier visual tendencies to instead focus just as proficiently on getting every little period detail and case detail correct, and when he occasionally does resort to a visually distracting device (an aerial shot of a cab moving around town like a dot on a map, a CGI time-lapse of a building going up), it's noticeable and jarring, serving to underline whatever point he's trying to make (the route was simple and exact; so much time has passed investigating this case that the whole cityscape has been altered).

Although it's hard to call this a character-driven movie, I want to say that it's a plot-driven movie in which the focus is on how the plot drives the characters, if that makes any sense. The facts of the Zodiac case determine how almost all of the characters live their lives, in one way or another, and become such a huge and unstoppable force that they drive those people to extreme, unnatural ways of living. The movie, too, is as obsessed with facts and documents as the characters are, pulling the viewer in to the overwhelming world, dangling false leads and false hope in front of you and thwarting them in the same way the real investigators were thwarted. Rather than an unsatisfying movie, as some viewers and some critics are saying, it's a movie about dissatisfaction, about the way that things like this linger until either they consume you or you move on. This movie so impressed me that I'm not sure I can quite articulate what's so great about it, so I will also point to cogent reviews by Walter Chaw, Nathan Lee, Manohla Dargis, Nick Schager, Sean Burns and Scott Foundas, all fine critics who perhaps better elucidate why this is such a valuable film. Wide release