The return (or, "Where the hell have you been?")

Sick_in_bed

(Warning: Unusually long blog post ahead)

I'm back on the job after a doctor-ordered month-long leave. I spent most of that time in bed, due to the heavy-duty meds I was taking. I attended my first screening in more than a month on Saturday, when I saw Star Trek, which is lots of fun (it's the first Trek movie that didn't bore me at some point or another).

But I did watch an average of two DVDs a day while I was out, so I have a month's worth of old and relatively new movies swimming around inside my head I need to purge.

For example, I haven't been able to stop thinking about Martyrs, director Pascal Laugier's horrifically violent French-language thriller, which caused a few disgusted walkouts when it screened at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Laugier shows up to introduce the film on the DVD, and he seems to be a sane and amiable fellow. But although he warns the viewer that some people may hate the movie they are about to see, he doesn't tell you it might make you puke, too.

Martyrs_box_art_2d Making even the worst moments in Hostel and Saw seem like an episode of Teletubbies, Martyrs is one of the most viscerally punishing films I've ever seen - enough that I actually had to look away from the screen a few times, and I have a high tolerance for gory flicks.

What kept me watching to the end was not the violence, which would have become boring and tiresome in and of itself, but the film's intriguing and unpredictable structure, which pulls the rug out from under you in a major way five minutes in, then repeats the trick an hour later. Laugier is obviously talented (the film is exceedingly well-shot), but he overestimates the viewer's tolerance for brutality, and he overreaches in trying to invest that brutality with meaning.

There is an interminable sequence in the film, lasting 10 or 15 minutes, that consists of nothing else but the systematic abuse and torture of a young woman. As it turns out, there's a "reason" why so much screen time is devoted to her suffering, but it's not enough to justify having to sit through it. Martyrs is part of the ongoing French new wave of horror films (and may well top them all in terms of graphic violence), but unlike most of its counterparts, which aim to do nothing other than scare you, this one aspires to a profundity that is far beyond its reach. The only thing worse than a bad horror picture is a pretentious one.

Tellnoone Another French thriller that fares infinitely better is Tell No One (Ne le dis a personne), which I missed during its brief theatrical run last summer, but which would have certainly made my year-end top ten if I had seen it. The term "Hitchcockian" gets thrown around a bit too easily by critics sometimes, but this one genuinely deserves the compliment. French actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet preserves the fiendishly tricky twists and turns of Harlan Coben's source novel without once ever making you think "Oh, come on..." 

The potential for preposterousness was great in this story of a doctor (Francois Cluzet) who discovers that his wife, who was murdered eight years earlier by a serial killer, may still be alive. But although the complicated plot wobbles a bit in retrospect, there isn't a moment while you're watching the movie when you're not utterly engrossed. A Hollywood remake is already in the works, but there's no need to wait for that when the original is available now. The Blu-ray edition boasts a fantastic transfer, along with an excellent hour-long documentary not found on the regular DVD.

I was a big fan of Danish director Ole Bornedal's Nightwatch when it was shown at the Miami Film Festival in 1994, and I even enjoyed the neutered Hollywood remake he directed himself in 1997. But I had forgotten all about Bornedal in the ensuing 10 years, so I was pleased to find not one but two movies directed by him in my always-towering To Watch pile of DVDs.

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The first one, 2007's The Substitute, is a horror movie made for children, or at least family audiences, although just because kids are the target demographic doesn't make this one any less intriguing. Aided considerably by Paprika Steen's lead performance as the sixth-grade substitute who may be - OK, is - an alien from another planet, The Substitute is terrific, fantastic fun, with enough dark wit to render the obvious comparisons to The Faculty pointless.

The movie was obviously a low-budget affair, since it appears the filmmakers ran out of money while shooting the climax (there are some noticeably choppy edits and missing bits of continuity during the last five minutes). But those flaws are not enough to detract from the film entire, which features the kind of completely believable kid actors too often missing from Hollywood pictures.

JALS_KLF_poster The other Bernadel film I saw was 2007's Just Another Love Story, which just hit DVD this week (the front of the DVD jacket uses a photo that contains a gigantic spoiler; they should have gone with the original poster art, shown at left). Kind of like Vertigo in reverse, the movie centers on a forensic photographer (Anders W. Berthelsen) who becomes obsessed with a woman (Rebecka Hamse) involved in a car accident he inadvertently caused.

Rendered amnesiac and nearly blind by the accident, the woman is easy prey for the lovestruck photographer, who passes himself off as her boyfriend in order to get closer to her. Bernadel tricks out the movie with lots of stylistic tricks and ingenious cross-cutting between unrelated scenes to amp up the suspense, and the ending is as inevitable as it is satisfying. In film noir territory, happily-ever-after endings are a rarity. 

After watching No Country For Old Men again in the new two-disc "Special Edition" Blu-ray that recently came out, I was inspired to revisit the Coen brothers' canon - specifically the movies I didn't like the first time around - and see if time had changed anything.

1235359051_518rhyp79rl Maybe it's just that some movies work better on video when you're watching them from your couch at 2 a.m., but I've completely turned around on The Man Who Wasn't There, which I found tedious and monotonous when I reviewed it eight years ago, but which I now consider to be one of the Coens' best efforts.

I was particularly impressed by Billy Bob Thornton's lead performance as the cuckolded barber: Rarely has an actor conveyed so much while doing so little. Roger Deakins' cinematography adds immeasurably to the film (he deserved an Oscar just for the way he played with shadows in the prison scenes). The movie is so beautifully shot, you could watch it with the sound turned off and still be entranced.

The-ladykillers-poster I also warmed up to The Ladykillers, arguably the slightest and least memorable of all the Coens' movies, but a lot funnier when viewed with lowered expectations. It helps, too, to watch the DVD with the subtitles turned on, so you can understand everything Tom Hanks' ostentatiously verbose thief is saying. The movie is ultimately too mild for its own good, but there are a couple of priceless sequences in it, and I appreciated the way the Coens make sure every subplot and character thread pays off by the end.

I discovered I still don't like Barton Fink (too hermetic and self-consciously odd) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (too precious and erratically paced). The Man Who Wasn't There left me in a film noir mood, so I watched Sunset Blvd. again for the first time in more than 20 years and came away unsure whether or not it qualifies as a true noir. The story elements are all there, and it certainly looks like noir. But the fatalistic mood that is a requisite of the genre isn't there, and Norma Desmond isn't so much a femme fatale as she is a kind of decaying Hollywood gorgon. This is probably still the best movie ever made about the film industry, though.

Killers46 

Qualifying as a textbook example of noir was 1946's The Killers, which encapsulates every distinctive element of the genre into an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short story. Director Robert Siodmak does some radical things with his use of light and shadow (that first shot of the killers outside the diner is a stunner) and Ava Gardner's maneating schemer is one of the most formidable villainesses ever, in part because she seems to do so little for so much of the film.

36_box_348x490 The folks at the Criterion Collection recently started releasing their films on the Blu-ray format, and one of their first titles happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time. Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 masterpiece The Wages of Fear (La Saliare de la Peur), about four men driving nitroglycerine-laden trucks through the jungle, is so suspenseful it still makes me gasp every time I watch it (the bridge sequence in particular makes me squirm).

The transfer on the Blu-ray is fantastic, with the movie looking sharper and more detailed than ever before. The film is accompanied by an informative host of extras, including a detailed list of all the supposedly anti-American content that was cut out of the movie during its original U.S. theatrical run. The only thing that would have made this disc better is if they had been able to include William Friedkin's infamous 1977 remake Sorcerer, which I am now jonesing to see.

469_box_348x490 Another of Criterion's Blu-ray releases, 1976's In the Realm of the Senses, was new to me. Highly controversial in its time (and still banned in its native Japan), I was expecting the hoopla to be much ado about nothing, the way decades-old controversies usually are. But this one definitely lived up to its billing - and then some.

It took me a little while to get used to the graphic nature of the film's sex scenes, but once I did, I was able to focus on what director Nagisa Oshima is doing, which is to use those scenes to chart the destructive relationship between his two lead characters. Here, finally, is a film in which the sex and nudity really are an integral part of the story (hell, the sex is the story). The eyepopping transfer on the Blu-ray boasts some startling colors, although this probably won't be a disc you'll reach for when showing off your home theater to company.

Outsiders 

I finally caught up with The Outsiders: The Complete Novel, in which Francis Ford Coppola reinstates more than 20 minutes of footage he was forced to chop out by the studio the first time around. I first read The Outsiders in the seventh grade and remembered the movie fondly, but had always wondered why Coppola had left so much stuff out.

The reinstated footage does make The Outsiders a lot more faithful to the book, although I didn't care for Coppola's decision to replace much of his father Carmine's lush score with period rock-and-roll tunes. The new music dramatically changes the tone of some of the movie's critical scenes, and it also diminishes the larger-than-life, Gone With the Wind-sized dimension the movie was designed to have. Coppola's widescreen compositions remain awe-inspiring, though: This is a beautiful-looking movie.

Prince I tried watching Sidney Lumet's 1981 drama Prince of the City eons ago, when I bought my first VCR and was renting VHS tapes like mad. But I remember not understanding it and pulling the plug after 10 or so minutes. This time around, I was able to follow the plot, but just barely: This is one dense, complex policier, a precursor to the storytelling style used in TV shows like The Wire and The Shield. The movie itself, a fact-based story on a New York City police corruption scandal, is OK, but it's got nothing on Lumet's Serpico, maybe because Treat Williams is no Al Pacino.

I could go on, but I think I'll stop here. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make it out to the theater very much, which means I still haven't seen Watchmen. It's still playing at one theater in Hialeah: Maybe I'll head over there and check it out Thursday after I slog sit through a screening of Angels and Demons.

Making "Valkyrie"

Valkyriemoviephoto Here's a link to my story on the making of Valkyrie that ran in today's paper. I had interviewed director Bryan Singer for the piece along with Tom Cruise and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. But none of Singer's quotes made it into the story, because McQuarrie just happened to be more eloquent and quotable about the film's production.

I was a big fan of Singer's Superman Returns, so at the end of our conversation, I asked him if he's going to be involved with the new Superman movie rumored to be making the rounds at Warner Bros. He politely declined to comment, but he didn't sound like it was completely out of the question, so I'm taking it as a big "maybe."

Viewing log

Girlposter1 My Best Friend's Girl (2008): Does Dane Cook pick bad scripts on purpose or what? One of the crummiest directing jobs I've ever seen in a mainstream film (by Howard Deutch, who appears to have forgotten how to shoot a simple scene of two people talking), which doesn't help. Still, there was enough funny (and surprisingly raunchy) stuff in it to keep me watching to the end. The bit with the eyebrows is actually hilarious.

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Bangkok Bangkok Dangerous (2008): I found it: The worst movie of 2008. Even worse than An American Carol.

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Tom Cruise talks Kubrick

Tomcruise I spoke via telephone today with Tom Cruise about Valkyrie, which opens Christmas Day. It was my first time interviewing him one-on-one and he was in such good spirits that we ended up yakking way past my allotted 15 minutes.

Because I am such a Kubrick nut, I couldn't resist asking Cruise to look back on Eyes Wide Shut and tell me what he remembered nearly a decade later about the making of the film and its legendary two-year shooting schedule. Here is some of what he said:

"Stanley was very generous with me. He spent a lot of time going back over all the films he made - even as far back as his photography - and why he used the lenses that he used. People talk a lot about the huge number of takes he would do, but he just had his own rhythm of working. He'd say "In the theater, they do hundreds of performances and you see how the character deepens over time." He was brilliant, but he was just like all of us, constantly searching for the moment and the magic in every scene.

Stanley_kubrick20 I've never been the guy who hangs out in his trailer between scenes. Even on Taps, I would hang out with Sean [Penn] or Tim [Hutton] or Harold Becker or the wardrobe guys. I love the whole experience of making a film. So to then be able to sit down with Kubrick was like taking a master class. When you first start making movies, you realize very early on you don't know what you're doing and you're going on raw instinct. But working with Stanley gave me confidence and knowledge as a filmmaker.

Stanley was actually going to do interviews for Eyes Wide Shut. He was going to get on a boat and we were going to go to Cannes. It would have been great to hear him talk about that movie. I do the best I can to put a film into context, but it's hard, because sometimes I could tell people weren't all that interested in what we were trying to do. They were just waiting for me to shut up so they could ask me how [his children] Conor and Bella liked spending so much time in England. Or they just wanted to know what shoes I was wearing."

Viewing log

Monday Dec. 16

Deathrace_2  Death Race (2008): A lot better than I expected. Plus, Joan Allen gets the single best line of dialogue I've heard all year. If you've seen the movie, you know which line I'm talking about.

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Tuesday Dec. 17

Yes Man (2008)

 

Hugh Jackman to host next year's Oscars

Hugh_jackman Wolverine himself will preside over the 81st annual Academy Awards on Feb. 22, 2009. I'm disappointed Ricky Gervais, who was once rumored to be in the running, didn't get the gig.

Viewing log (catch-up edition)

I'm like two weeks behind and have forgotten when I saw what, so I'm just gonna list all the movies I've watched since the last log entry. Busybusybusy.

Che (2008)

Gran Torino (2008)

Europa (1991)

*Romeo is Bleeding (1993): I love this movie.

The Furies (1950)

Pale Rider (1985)

* Mamma Mia (2008): For DVD review purposes only. I swear.

White Dog (1982): Sam Fuller was a crazy bad-ass.

* Heartbreak Ridge (1986): Thematic precursor to Gran Torino.

* The Shawshank Redemption (1994): I still don't get why people love this movie so much.

* Blue Velvet (1986)

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)

* Wall*E (2008)

Revolutionary Road (2008): Like watching your parents fight for two hours. If your parents looked like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

*Gran Torino (2008): Even better the second time around.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Best movie of the year.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): First hour is OK, if a bit Forrest Gump-ish. But the second hour and 40 minutes: Whoa. David Fincher can make grown men cry.

Valkyrie (2008)

The return of Mickey Rourke

Wrestler2sm I skipped tonight's screening of the much-anticipated Twilight (which, judging by the trailers, looks terrible; sorry!) in order to catch a screening of The Wrestler, in which Mickey Rourke makes a triumphant comeback as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an aging pro wrestler on the indie circuit whose life fell apart long ago - and whose body is now following suit.

Darren Aronofsky, who directed The Wrestler, has set aside all the extreme style he brought to Pi and Requiem For a Dream, as well as the twisting narrative of The Fountain, in order to tell a straightforward, linear story anchored by two sensational performances.

Just as crucial to the success of the film is Marisa Tomei as a single mother who moonlights as a stripper and is the closest thing to a romantic partner as The Ram has in his life. Tomei is fantastic in the part, bringing poignancy, dignity and emotional complexity to a role that could have easily come off as a cliche.

D_aronoksfy__the_wrestler_low_3 But this is Rourke's show through and through - the kind of pairing of actor and role so ideal, it usually comes along only once in a career. Despite the gaudy brutishness of his profession, The Ram is something of a teddy bear - a good-hearted, achingly lonely man scrambling to fill the void that has consumed his life now that he's no longer a wrestling superstar. And despite Rourke's tough-guy screen persona, he's at his best when playing gentle, misunderstood giants.

I'll be writing more about The Wrestler closer to its release (it's not scheduled to open in South Florida until Jan. 16). Tomorrow I'm interviewing Aronofsky and Tomei, who are in town and showed up at tonight's screening at the Regal South Beach to do a Q&A with the audience after the film. Below is a crappy picture I took with my cellphone, but they're so tiny in it the photo is useless.

2 Aronofsky said it was cool to be showing the movie on Lincoln Road, since he first met with Rourke to discuss the role at an Italian restaurant across the street. He said he was drawn to Robert D. Siegel's screenplay because unlike boxers, "no one's ever told a story about a wrestler and no one's seen it before."

The filmmaker also said he purposely shot the film in a plain, near-documentary style because "I wanted to do something very different than I had done before. You have to change and reinvent yourself and keep growing."

Aronofsky also said that Rourke wished he could have been there tonight and "sends his love to everyone in Miami," but that he was stuck in New York doing interviews for the film. So what are we, chopped liver? I hope I get some phone time with him for my story.

Viewing log

Tuesday Nov. 18

Poster Four Christmases (2008): Even though it only runs 75 minutes (without credits), this one still felt like Fourteen Christmases.

The Wrestler (2008)

Michael Chiklis and Shawn Ryan talk about "The Shield" finale

Now that The Road won't be out until 2009, there's only one movie coming out this year I am anticipating more than the series finale of The Shield, which airs Nov. 25 (coincidentally, the very same day I am seeing said movie).

Here's an interview with Michael Chiklis and series creator Shawn Ryan talking to The Hollywood Reporter about The End. It sounds like Vic Mackey is in store for some major karmic comeuppance.

Viewing log

Saturday Nov. 15

Bolt (2008): Cute.

Sunday Nov. 16

Madhouse Madhouse (aka There Was A Little Girl...) (1981): One of the lesser known entries in the list of 74 "video nasties," or movies banned in the U.K. in the 1980s for inappropriate content. The story of a woman terrorized by her evil twin sister, who has a nasty skin rash and a man-eating Rottweiler, the movie is receiving its first-ever DVD release in the U.S. courtesy of Dark Sky Films. As is sometimes the case with films on the list, it's hard to understand why it was banned, unless the British censors wanted to shield the public from some hilarious sequences involving an incredibly fake-looking rubber dog that made me think of Triumph finally losing his temper and going on a rampage.

Thesentinel The Sentinel (2006): Sat through this one primarily for completion's sake, and also because director Clark Johnson played a recurring role in the last season of The Wire (and directed the series finale, along with several episodes of The Shield). Rote and by-the-numbers, although I find Michael Douglas to be the kind of actor (like Gene Hackman or Michael Caine) who can make any movie watchable simply by being in it.

Get a Blu-ray player on the super cheap

CNN reports Wal-Mart will be offering a Magnavox Blu-ray player on Black Friday for a measly $128, a price that should push a lot of people who have been contemplating jumping into the format over the edge.

Braveheart460 The player is only Profile 1.1 compliant, which means that you won't be able to connect to the Internet and partake of the BD-Live online features some discs offer. But most people will never use those anyway. So it's really just a matter of braving those Black Friday crowds, which can be pretty intimidating.

Viewing log

Friday Nov. 14

Longtemps_jetaime_poster_thumbnail I've Loved You So Long (2008): When I saw Frozen River in August, I figured there was no way anyone could beat Melissa Leo for the Best Actress Oscar. Now, I'm 100 percent certain Kristin Scott Thomas has the award in the bag for her performance as a woman readjusting to the outside world after a long stint in prison. Elsa Zylberstein, who plays her sister, is also guaranteed a Supporting Actress nomination. They're both fantastic. (Opens Nov. 21).

Poster_seven_pounds_2 Seven Pounds (2008): Sony Pictures has done an exemplary job of selling this one without spoiling the entire story, which is good, because the movie is built around the same mystery as the trailer, which is: Why is Will Smith helping seven strangers, and what, exactly, is he going to do for them? This is a full-bore, dead-serious (and heavy) drama, with only a few fleeting moments of levity that allow Smith to trade on his familiar persona. Serious tear-jerking action ensues in the final half-hour, but I felt more manipulated than moved throughout, at least up until the very last scene, which isn't as obvious as everything that had preceded it. Also: The title finally makes sense, but there's no way to explain what it means without ruining the movie. (Opens Dec. 19).

The REAL Batman sues director Christopher Nolan

Absolutedk740302 From the stranger than fiction files: Huseyin Kalkan, the mayor of the southeast Turkey town Batman, is preparing to file a lawsuit against The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan and distributor Warner Bros.for using the Batman name without permission.

"There is only one Batman in the world," Kalkan told the British newspaper The Guardian. "The American producers used the name of our city without informing us."

Kalkan also claims the success of the blockbuster film contributed to a series of unsolved murders and a high suicide rate among females within the town.

No word yet whether other communities are planning to follow suit.

Viewing log

Monday Nov. 10

Milk (2008): Eerily relevant to the here and now, in ways that the filmmakers couldn't have envisioned while they were making it. Sean Penn: Your second Oscar is waiting.

Frost/Nixon (2008): I did not see the stage version, so maybe something got lost in translation. But try as I might, I cannot come up with one reason why this movie exists.

"Captain America" movie gets a director

Captain20america Joe Johnston has signed on to direct the big-screen adaptation of Marvel Comics' Captain America, which is due in theaters on May 6, 2011. Out of all the heroes in the Marvel universe, Captain America will be the hardest one to turn into a cool live-action character, since he's essentially a guy who runs around with a shield. The last time they tried, they ended up with this.

But the release of the film will pave the way for an Avengers movie, assuming that Kenneth Branagh doesn't screw up Thor too badly. So I'm all for it.

Viewing log

Sunday Nov. 2

Gospel Hill (2008): Review here.

Strength and Honour (2008): Review here.

Monday Nov. 3

Fling (2008): Review here.

I Do and I Don't (2008): Review here.

Wednesday Nov. 5

Sukiyaki Western Django (2006): Review here.

* Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008): I think I may like this one more than The Dark Knight. Review of the DVD here.

Thursday Nov. 6

Synecdochenyposterbig Synecdoche, New York (2008): Charlie Kaufman writes and directs this time, and the result is too much for puny mortals to digest, at least in one sitting. I didn't enjoy the actual act of watching it, but I haven't stopped thinking about it since, which must mean something. (Opens Friday).

Marley and Me (2008): Opens Christmas Day. Bring Kleenex. Like an entire box.

Sunday Nov. 9

The Seven-Ups (1973): The plot is a little underbaked, but the car chase lives up to its billing as one of the greatest of all time. It is insane. Also: You know you're getting older when cars from the early 1970s suddenly look cool. 

Viewing log

Thursday Oct. 23

Ashes Ashes of Time Redux (2008): Even when Wong Kar Wai is making a martial arts fantasy, it still turns out to be a meditation on heartache and loss. This restored and retooled version of the 1994 film has some garishly amped-up colors and a plot that practically defies you to digest it. As usual for Kar Wai, though, just basking in the image and sound alone is pleasure enough. (Opens Friday).

Saturday Oct. 25

Hellride_2  Hell Ride (2008): Compulsively watchable, even if all the posing gets old before the opening credits and the dialogue is so self-conscious that every line sounds like it was accompanied by an asterisk in the script. The storyline's chronology has been jumbled and reshuffled like bad Tarantino, but that is probably a good thing, since the movie would seem unbearably stupid if it played out in linear fashion. I had never heard of writer-director Larry Bishop before, and I can't say I now have any desire to seek out his earlier work. But every time I reached out to hit the stop button on the DVD player, another scene came along that kept me watching.

Sunday Oct. 26

No movies today. Did this instead (I'm the one wielding the bullhorn around the 9:45 mark).

Monday Oct. 27

Pajamas The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008): Essentially a Holocaust film for mature 13 year-olds, although that description feels too limiting and insulting to what writer-director Mark Herman has achieved in adapting John Boyne's seemingly unfilmable novel. You're constantly aware of the movie's failings, but the story refuses to allow you to pull away from it. The ending is like all of Schindler's List compacted into five minutes, accompanied by the most beautiful/horrifying score James Horner has ever composed. When the credits rolled, I had to sit in my seat for a bit and take a breath. (Opens Nov. 7).

Jolie_2 Changeling (2008): A lot of critics have grumbled that Clint Eastwood's latest is too broad and obvious. What, like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby weren't? Goes into darker territory than Eastwood has ever ventured into before, which says a lot. Perhaps overly ambitious in scope - as an epic look at 1920s Los Angeles, it falls way short - but there wasn't a moment in all of its 140 minutes when my attention drifted. Yes, it's occasionally manipulative - OK, more than occasionally - but if you want subtle, go watch Rohmer or something. (Opens Friday).

The return of The Viewing Log

I'm reviving this previously recurring feature, even though I failed miserably to keep it going for a full calendar year last time. I promise to maintain it this time, even during my occasional blogging blackouts (which will never happen again anyway, so it's a moot point). An asterisk preceding the film's title indicates a repeat viewing.

Friday Oct. 17

449_box_348x490 *Missing (1982): There are parts of Costa-Gavras' controversial, fact-based drama, about the U.S. government's involvement in the disappearance of an American (played by John Shea) during the Pinochet coup in 1973 Chile, that haven't aged very well. But the movie still grips me the way it did the first time I saw it, when I was a wide-eyed teenager, aghast at the role my country might have played in an unconscionable crime. Jack Lemmon's performance seems more artificial each time I watch the film, but Sissy Spacek comes off better and better with every viewing. The Criterion disc has some great extras about the real-life case.

Saturday Oct. 18

Carrie *Carrie (1976): Has anyone ever directed a more suspenseful sequence than the one leading up to the bucket of blood overturning? If so, I can't think of it. Every time I watch this one, I find myself hoping someone will manage to prevent Nancy Allen and John Travolta from carrying out their dastardly plan. Alas, it never happens. When Brian De Palma was firing on all cylinders, he was The Man. It's been a while, though. Sissy Spacek as Carrie White = Most Heartbreaking Teen Outcast Ever. Also, I doubt Hollywood would dare to portray a hardline Christian today with the same ferocity Piper Laurie plays Carrie's mom here.

Sunday Oct. 19

Them_ver2_poster Them (Ils) (2006): First scary movie in ages that got my pulse racing: The five-minute prologue actually made me get up and make sure my front door was locked (I'm not exaggerating). I refuse to believe Bryan Bertino did not consciously rip off this one when he was writing and directing The Strangers, right down to the "based on a true story" business. Home invasions are scary. The ending manages to straddle the line between that fanciful, wholly unbelievable territory so many French horror films navigate in and the grimly realistic turf of Straw Dogs and old-school Wes Craven. Refreshing, too, to watch a horror flick that doesn't overstay its welcome. This one runs a brief hour and 15 minutes, and that's exactly the right length.

Monday Oct. 20

20070405080809bd_omen666_large The Omen (2006): Better than I expected, although the fact that I started watching it at 1 a.m. during a bout of insomnia may have had something to do with it. Some hugely effective shocks (including the best movie decapitation ever) make up for the redundancy of this remake, which sticks to the original so closely, it makes you wonder why they even bothered. OK, never mind. The DVD includes an alternate ending that is infinitely better than the one they used in the final cut, although there is no explanation provided as to why they went with the wimpier version. Also, Mia Farrow needs to play more demonic nannies. She's really good at it.

Tuesday Oct. 21

Quantum_of_solace_ver3 Quantum of Solace (2008): Some sensational action sequences can't make up for the overall indifference I feel toward the entire James Bond series. Shrug. Expertly made and (especially) edited, although I kept thinking throughout that if it hadn't been for the Jason Bourne trilogy, 007 would still be operating in that ridiculous fantasyland where he drives invisible cars. Daniel Craig is a total badass, though. I'm interviewing him today at the Mandarin Oriental.

The film world suffers another loss

It's eerie how celebrity deaths tend to come in threes. Yesterday it was Ingmar Bergman and Tom Snyder. Now there's word that the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni has passed away at age 94.

Antonioni Best known by American audiences for the 1966 arthouse hit Blowup (the most enduring of all cinematic artifacts of the swinging 60s), Antonioni specialized in cerebral, difficult films that relied on visuals and open-ended narratives to contemplate existential alienation.

His three most revered movies - L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse - were all meditations on a similar theme: Profound loneliness and estrangement in the presence of other people.

With the exception of Blowup, Antonioni's movies were far too slow and esoteric for mainstream audiences. But their influence can be seen in the work of contemporary filmmakers as disparate as Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater and Wong Kar-Wai. Much like Bergman, Antonioni's impact on movies far transcends box office receipts and audience popularity.

Viewing log (catch-up edition)

Monday July 30

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Sunday July 29

Hot Fuzz (2007)

* Shaun of the Dead (2005)

Army of Shadows (1969)

Saturday July 28

If... (1968)

* Streets of Fire (1984)

Thursday July 26

Oldboy* Oldboy (2003): Fourth viewing; still gets better every time I watch it.

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Tuesday July 24

The Simpsons Movie (2007) Review here.

Monday July 23

Rescue Dawn (2007)

Wednesday July 18

Sunshine (2007): Review here.

So bad they're awesome

A film buff named Schulte Fiaja with exceedingly refined taste in crappy movies has put together a hilarious reel of some of the worst scenes ever committed to film, including "Worst Death Scene," "Most Random Line Ever" and "Worst CGI." If that last one doesn't make you laugh out loud, then you are impossible to amuse.

Viewing log

Friday July 13

Tindrum The Tin Drum (1979): I can see why it is so acclaimed, won the Oscar and Palme D'Or, etc. But man, is this movie irritating - and not in a good way, either. Every time that kid started banging on that drum, I wanted to smash it over his little gnomish head. Also, in terms of gross-out factor, the eel-eating scene tops the live-octopus munching in Oldboy.

Thursday July 12

Hairspray (2007)

Tuesday July 10

Joshua (2007): Review here.

You Kill Me (2007): Review here.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The plot finally thickens in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, or at least builds up enough momentum to pull off the most amazing magic yet for the wildly popular franchise: It is genuinely engrossing.

Devoted readers of the J.K. Rowling novels may disagree, but this is the first installment in the soon-to-be series-of-seven that doesn't seem like just another spinoff capitalizing on the money-minting Harry Potter brand name. Instead, Phoenix feels like a real movie, albeit a chapter in a larger narrative that is only now starting to develop into something interesting and substantial.

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That's not to say a lot actually happens. Yes, a major character dies, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) gets his first kiss and wise old Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) pulls a Yoda and finally picks up his lightsaber wand. But Phoenix is still light on major incident, a recurring problem with the four previous films, which have seemed much too long for their bite-sized plots.

The hardcover version of the novel ran 896 pages, but judging from the movie (at 138 minutes, the shortest Potter yet), either the publisher used a giant font or Rowling has made like Stephen King and done away with the editing process altogether.

Or maybe screenwriter Michael Goldenberg and director David Yates (previously best known for his work in British TV), both newcomers to the series, knew what to cut, condensing what must have been a horribly padded tale into its trimmest, tightest form possible.

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As it stands, Phoenix now centers on Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the new professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts at the Hogwarts school. She is an officious busybody with a sing-song voice and fascist style who imposes her will on students and faculty, and she quickly takes charge of the school and everyone in it.

Meanwhile, Harry suffers from nightmares involving the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) -- dreams implying that the link between the two enemies, who are destined to square off by series' end, may be stronger than anyone had imagined.

The roster of characters in the Potter universe has grown with each installment, and Phoenix introduces a couple new ones, including an intriguing new student, Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), who forms an immediate bond with Harry over their mutual dark pasts, and a new witch in Voldemort's camp, played with wonderfully unhinged glee by Helena Bonham Carter.

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But it's the familiar faces that help make Phoenix the best Potter movie yet. Director Yates, who is expected to return for the next installment, continues the shift away from set design and toward performance that Alfonso CuarĂ³n started in the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Radcliffe, originally cast for his striking similarity to the character as illustrated in the books, has proven himself more than worthy of the role, giving Harry's growing angst and unease a surprisingly painful, vivid edge that typifies the picture's general mood. This is the darkest Potter film to date, and not just because so much of it takes place in shadows.

And even if the script doesn't provide Radcliffe much time to play off co-stars Rupert Grint and Emma Watson (as Harry's best pals Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger), the actors have grown comfortable enough with the roles -- and each other -- that their interplay carries the likable aura of warm banter among old friends.

That's important, because if the tone of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is any indication, there are dark days ahead for Harry and his gang. It's too bad Rowling is releasing the seventh and final book July 21, since knowing how the saga ends will rob the remaining two films of a lot of their magic. But at least for now, Phoenix does the trick.

Viewing log

Monday July 9

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Sunday July 8

* John Grisham's The Rainmaker (1997)

Dead Silence (2007)

Making trouble

The New York Times ran a story yesterday about critics printing their film reviews before the movie's opening day, which always drives studios crazy. I am quoted in the story talking about my blog item on The Departed I published last fall when I saw the movie at the Toronto Film Festival. Yes, I am a rebel.

Bugliosi In other news, Variety reports that HBO is going to adapt Vincent Bugliosi's epic-length book Reclaiming History into a 10-part miniseries to be produced by Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton. This is great news, since I am in the process of wading through the massive (1,600 pages!) but fascinating tome, which aims to definitively rebuke all the conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination. I should be done reading just as the show starts to air sometime next year. I'm kidding - kinda.

Viewing log

Monday July 2

Harsh Harsh Times (2006): Starts out like a dramatic, R-rated version of Dude, Where's My Car? but builds up genuine power by the end, due mostly to strong performances by Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez as the two ne'er-do-well buddies. Helpful, too, was the wise decision by writer-director David Ayer to gradually reduce the number of times the actors say "Dude!" to each other. In a small role as Rodriguez' girlfriend, Eva Longoria is surprisingly good, or at least much better than her work on the first season of Desperate Housewives. By the way, in case anyone is still wondering, HD-DVDs are awesome.

 
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