The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Date: May 30, 2008
Location: Clifton Living Room

This is a film I avoided for awhile because it fell into the “want to have seen it” category. So now that I’ve seen it, I’m glad I did, but I wouldn’t choose to ever see it again.

Director Julian Schnabel does a wonderful job of putting the audience in the body (and mind) of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French Elle editor who suffered a stroke and became almost completely paralyzed. Bauby’s only means of communication is through blinking his one good eye (take that, Christy Brown!) and with the help of his saintly, beautiful speech therapist, he is able to not only communicate but write a best-selling memoir.

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Walk Hard

Date: May 12, 2008
Location: Clifton Living Room

Yet another Apatow production… this one co-written by Judd with Jake Kasdan (who directed). A parody of musical biopics, Walk Hard is many steps above the Scary Movie see-what-sticks approach, opting for more nuance. Don’t get me wrong, though… there are huge laughs here, and some truly absurd moments (such as when young Dewey Cox accidentally cuts his brother in half with a machete and the severed boy shouts out “You halved me!”).

The film is mostly a take-off on Walk the Line, following the Johnny Cash template precisely, including the doubting first wife, flirtation with a good-old-girl (played by the very sexy Jenna Fischer), prison term, descent into drug addiction, rehab and ultimate redemption. But I was more amused by the musical tangents, like Cox’s meditation session with The Beatles (hilariously played by Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long) or his stint as a Dylan-esque folk singer (the spot-on Dylan parody song gave me my biggest laugh in the whole movie).

Overall, the film (necessarily) lacks the spark of truth that makes Apatow’s best films so special. But it’s a lot of fun, and there’s certainly something to be said for that.

The Mist

Date: April 18, 2008
Location: Clifton Living Room

Ladies and gentlemen, the feel-good movie of the year!

Now I’m not one to get bothered by dark, depressing movies… I’ve enjoyed and appreciated plenty of films with disturbing or “sad” endings. I subscribe to Roger Ebert’s maxim that good movies aren’t depressing (no matter their subject matter) so long as they’re good.

So maybe the problem is that The Mist isn’t a good movie — because, Jesus, is it ever depressing! I’m going to give a massive SPOILER ALERT here and discuss the ending in detail. Nobody who reads this blog has any interest in this movie, I’m guessing, and if you did, you will thank me for revealing the ending and saving you the grief. That said, if you do want to see it for yourself, stop reading now.

OK. So there’s this mist.
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I Am Legend

Date: April 15, 2008
Location: Clifton Living Room

Lots to say about this one, most of it positive. For starters, I don’t think there is another actor in Hollywood who could have played this role as effectively. The film is similar to Cast Away in that most of its running time features a single actor (a dog stands in for the volleyball), and Will Smith pulls off all the ‘lonely man slowly going mad’ stuff with aplomb. But it’s also a tense action thriller, and he brings a physicality and tactical intelligence to the role that sells its most heart-pounding moments. There’s a reason Smith is the biggest movie star in the world right now.

Legend is a blend of creepy, cerebral sci-fi and edge-of-your-seat horror film, and it does both very well. I prefer the former, and it is those parts that elevate the film for me. The creepazoid killer zombies are most frightening when you hear but don’t see them… I watched about 15 minutes of this thing through my hand. Once they crash the party, they’re still creepy but also cliché.

I would have loved for the movie to be about 20 minutes longer and focus more on Smith’s life as the planet’s sole normal occupant and his efforts to save what’s left of humanity. I found the ending abrupt and not entirely satisfying. But overall I was impressed.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Date: April 3, 2008
Location: Clifton Living Room

As much a horror movie as a musical, Sweeney Todd is exceptionally graphic — I don’t think I’ve seen this many throats slashed in such a short time before in my life. And that bizarre mish-mash of genres is one of the best things the film has going for it, despite the queasiness it inspires. This ain’t Oklahoma.

Sondheim’s music is wonderful, and the actors are up to the task of singing the complicated tunes. The standouts for me were Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman’s duet on Pretty Women and a little boy (who probably has the best voice in the entire cast) singing Not While I’m Around. Those gorgeous melodies are enhanced by the melodrama surrounding them.

The story itself is a little thin — a typical revenge tale that relies much more on atmosphere than character. Depp is wonderful as always, and there isn’t a weak link in the cast. The grim subject matter and pervasive violence keep it from being the sort of thing I’d revisit often, but I’m very glad I saw it.

Into the Wild

Date: March 28
Location: Clifton Living Room

There is so much working for this movie, and one big thing working against it. First the positives. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Emile Hirsch delivering a haunting performance that should have been recognized by the Academy — he is alternately charming, obnoxious and desperate, and pulls off one of those DeNiro-esque body transformations that makes the film’s last scenes particularly distubing. Hal Holbrook, Vince Vaughn and Catherine Keener (among others) flesh out their supporting roles superbly, painting a portrait of American life outside the spotlight and making McCandless’ fate even more poignant. The photography is lovely, especially in long shots of the Alaskan wilderness that drive home just how far this young man went to escape civilization. Eddie Vedder’s original songs are lovely, and were wrongly overlooked by the Academy.

So what’s the negative? Sean Penn, simultaneously the film’s biggest asset and it’s fatal flaw. Penn does a wonderful job shaping the story, putting us in McCandless’ shoes (or bare feet), telling a sad story without losing sight of the spirit behind the young man’s journey. But he wields his camera like a blunt object. I really appreciate cinematic masterminds like Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers when I see a showy director fall flat. Penn throws in every trick in the book — freeze frames, slow- and fast-motion, jump cuts, you name it. But why? The story is most effective when he just settles in and shows us two people talking, or delivers a breathtaking overhead shot of a small bus lost in a sea of mountains. The show-offy stuff distracts and detracts from an otherwise special movie.

My Kid Could Paint That

Date: March 14, 2008
Location: Clifton Living Room

As if we needed more proof that the Oscar documentary selection committee has its collective head up it ass! This extraordinary film is not just the best documentary released last year, it’s easily one of the best films overall. It starts out as a puff piece on a 4-year-old girl who paints abstract works that sell to serious collectors for tens of thousands of dollars. It ends up as a powerful, sad and provocative exploration of art, the media and parenting.

Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev walks the finest line imagineable, inserting himself into his film at a key turning point without losing focus on the true subjects. He manages to make a statement about the creative roles not just of the little girl and her parents, but of a documentary filmmaker, a print journalist, a TV journalist, and the masses who are so quick to both celebrate and tear down those who fascinate us. I watched this on DVD this morning but didn’t put it back in the mail to NetFlix because I already want to watch it again.