I try to watch at least one movie a day if there’s any way I can make the time.  Keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be.  So in the last fourteen days, I’ve watched almost that many movies.  A good chunk of those movies are leftovers from 2008, and a good chunk of that 2008 chunk were extremely great, in my opinion.  Good year!  Bring on 2009, I say.


Anyway, here’s the gauntlet of my moviegoing from the last couple weeks, in alphabetical order.  There’s ten flicks here, and I recommend them all, in their way.  [Any qualifications are also to follow.]



American Teen.


What separates this documentary about senior year in Warsaw, Indiana, USA, from anything you could see on MTV or any other cable reality channel?  I’m not rightly sure, since it’s been a while since I checked in with the whole reality genre.  I will say that American Teen feels fuller and deeper than most documentary profiles I can remember seeing – the main characters are five or six kids from various social groups, and none of them are lionized, none of them vilified.  Some are more likable than others, but even the ones who on first impression (and second, and third) appear to be little shits are still given the respect of a nuanced portrayal.  Depth is found. 


And though I doubt what I’m about to say was part of the filmmakers’ goal, American Teen really shows the truth in movies.  What I mean is, the reason why movies so often have archetypes [in the case of the high school movie genre, it’d be the brain, the jock, the princess, the criminal, and the basketcase] is because real life keeps producing these archetypes.  And sometimes, the craziest plot twist that one writer can imagine just might be a true anecdote from the reality of another.  As Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character says in Magnolia, “I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true… Because they really happen.”



Bigger, Stronger, Faster*.


I always get a little weirded out by purposely quirky titles and the people who insist on spelling them with the proper quirkiness – for example, as much as I love Se7en, that is the only time I ever have, or will, spell it that way.  But Bigger, Stronger, Faster* has that asterisk up there for a very specific reason, and it will be understood to be a funny joke to sports heads. 


This is a documentary, nominally about steroid use and abuse, that turns out to be about the heart and head of America at large.  To paraphrase director/star Chris Bell, it’s about the pressure to win in today’s America, how anything other than first-place landslide victory has become unacceptable.  We turn to steroids because they make us bigger, stronger, and winning-er.  Interestingly, while in no way defending steroid use, the movie provides contrasting scientific evidence that suggests that steroids are not nearly as harmful as many politicians of dubious priorities have led us to believe.  Steroids themselves aren’t the problem as much as why people are compelled to take them, the movie argues.  And let me tell you something:  Near the end, when Bigger, Stronger, Faster deploys an archived interview of Barry Bonds admonishing a prying press corps as a convincing voice of reason, you know you’re watching a documentary which is at least worth considering.





As good as the stage play, and wow I’m so much more proud of myself than I should be for being able to say that – it’s extremely rare that I get to see plays, and even rarer to see a movie mounted of a play that I did see.  But I have always liked what I know of John Patrick Shanley’s writing, so this was hardly homework.  The whole cast is good – Hoffman, expertly walking the line; Streep, perfectly cast; Amy Adams, heartbreakingly optimistic – and the production is seamless, with special mention going to the master cinematographer Roger Deakins, who knows when to make the pictures pretty and when to lower the lights and tell the story directly.  If you haven’t seen or read Doubt yet, don’t read any more reviews.  Just head over to the theater. 





How do you make a guy like me interested in a movie which is about an interview which is about politics?  First, you cut a fantastic trailer.  Second, you structure and shoot the movie itself like a boxing match.  A real narrative masterstroke.  Peter Morgan is a real good writer who’s now had the luck to see at least three solid, splendidly-acted pictures made from his scripts [The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and now this].  And Frank Langella is as good as they’re telling you, even if in that makeup he looks almost as much like Tommy Lee Jones as Nixon.  Another strong recommend on Frost/Nixon.


Oh, and to GWB – this is your Ghost Of Presidential Prestige Pictures Future.  Coming in 2039 from director Bryce Dallas HowardSeacrest/Bush.



Let The Right One In.


This is the one that makes me reconsider my favorites list.  And that’s totally, entirely, because of one shot.  Don’t get me wrong, there are very many great shots on display in this film, but one in particular is so damn worth the price of admission, even at Arclight prices.  You’ll know it when you see it.  So go see it.  If you need more than my emphatic recommendation, there are plenty of other similarly enthusiastic places to find it – I don’t want to reveal a single moment.  I’ll just say that this is one delightfully misanthropic fairy tale romance of a horror film.



Man On Wire.


If there truly is life on other planets, I hope that France is not the first country to make contact.  The French are just not like the rest of the people of earth.  Only a man born and raised in France could ever say something like this, talking about a life-threatening stunt:  If I die.. what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion.”  And only a Frenchwoman could state about that speaker, admiringly:  Every day is like a work of art for him.”


That kind of thinking is what is so fascinating and so maddening about the French.  Man On Wire is a documentary about the group of young people who snuck into the Twin Towers in New York City in 1974 so that one of them could walk a tightrope between them.  A truly thrilling, truly pointless act.  The movie bounces between modern-day interviews, archived footage, and re-enactments, staging the preparation of the stunt like a crime movie (which technically, it is), and leaving the ultimate historical context in the background, without exactly ignoring it.



Marley & Me.


What can I say?  As a date movie, this one does what it needs to do.  The dogs are cute, the leads are super-likable, there are laughs and cries.  Scott Frank’s name is on it, as one of two credited writers – I follow Scott Frank’s writing as much as it’s possible to do – and while it’s hard to tell how much authorship he has in the thing, I did notice that the movie’s direction has just enough sly humor to it.  I counted a few cinematic swipes in the shot choices, from movies as disparate as Jaws, Manhunter, even The Rules Of Attraction.  And I like how it’s an American Dream movie with a little bit of honesty to it:  You meet the girl who looks like Jennifer Aniston, get the great job, the house, the three kids, and the great dog, and suddenly it all takes a dip into horror movie territory.  Of course the movie quickly stabilizes, but I like that it takes a moment to show how nothing’s ever that perfect all the time.


I am also a big fan of Owen Wilson in movies – I think you can drop the guy and his loopy goofy stony drawliness into any genre, and you automatically have a more interesting movie than you started out with, whether it’s shlocky animal horror, big-budget unscary, huge-budget explosion fetishism, or even tropicalia.  All four of those movies happen to be ones which saddle his characters with an untimely end, but thankfully Owen Wilson does not die in Marley & Me; the dog does, and his performance in those sadder scenes is a lot more sympathetic and sensitive than he usually gets credited.


So listen, if a girl tries to get you to go to Marley & Me, don’t give her a hard time.  You could do much, much worse.





In some ways, this might just be the best movie of last year.  For sure, there isn’t an award for which it’s so far collected nominations and wins that it hasn’t deserved.  Let’s start with Sean Penn:  I am a huge admirer of the man’s work, on- and off-screen, but seriously now – I don’t think he’s had a role in which he’s given a non-malevolent smile in decades.  In Milk, he beams.  You really do forget you’re watching Sean Penn, broody acting genius, and are persuaded that you are seeing an entirely different persona.  Penn makes us care about Harvey Milk, both in his political and his personal lives.  The entire ensemble, mostly male, mostly playing gay, is of a piece with Penn’s sympathetic portrayal.  So now Milk performs the remarkable achievements of convincing its audience of Harvey Milk’s positive legacy by helping us understand him as a person; of depicting the senseless tragedy of his assassination – without in any way making a simple monster out of the pathetic, confused Dan White; and in addition to those achievements, inspires one to march right out of the theater and join the continuing struggle against discrimination and hate of all kinds. 


No one who sees Milk, other than a bigot who needs to work harder to change, will leave it wanting anything other than seeing that contemptible Proposition 8 in California repealed.  I don’t like to bring up politics in this space if I can help it, but at this point, it’s a civil rights issue.  Anyone can feel free to disagree on that, but they ought to be prepared to have their argument entirely decimated if they manage to get into it with me.  There is no good reason why gay people should not have the same rights as any other group in America – they love and lose and live and die just the same as the rest of us do – and this movie has the power to show why.



Miracle At St. Anna.


Spike Lee started a press feud with Clint Eastwood.  Somehow, that says it all.  As much as my allegiances have always been on the Eastwood side and so shall they remain, I’m also a follower of Lee’s work and this is just one reason why:  Maybe no one else in all of filmmaking has balls as massive.  Spike has got to get his thoughts out on film and say his piece, even if it sometimes has to be at the expense of his considerable cinematic gifts. Case in point:  Miracle At St. Anna.  The reason why every review of a Spike Lee movie talks more about Spike than the movie (which normally bothers me), is that there’s more than a movie here.  The World War II segments that constitute most of Miracle At St. Anna are interesting, worthwhile, and worth seeing.  Turns out Spike Lee can shoot World War II battle scenes as well as anyone outside of Spielberg, and it really is refreshing to see black protagonists in a story like this for once, also. 


But there are huge narrative problems here, which distract from the main story.  Is the extended framing device narratively unnecessary?  Couldn’t the movie just start out in wartime and skip the modern day?  Yes to both, most probably.  And it’s a major storytelling flaw to set up the main action of a movie as the flashback of one of the lead characters [Cpl. Hector Negron, played by the promising Laz Alonso], and then depict extensive events where that character wasn’t present.  And a flashback within a flashback, as happens a couple times here (just like John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars!), just ain’t right.  But Spike clearly didn’t want to cut those scenes, so while Miracle At St. Anna is fascinating and well-shot and well-acted and deserves to be seen by more people, this is far less than a masterpiece.  It’s infuriating to many critics and moviegoers, and sometimes even to me, because it could be otherwise, but I admire a guy who sticks to his guns.  I won’t ever miss a Spike Lee picture, just to see what he’s going to do next. 


For the record though:  Not quite Flags Of Our Fathers, and either way, Letters From Iwo Jima outpaces them both by a mile.  



The Spirit.


Believe it or not, I saw this one as a double-feature with Milk.  Weirdest double-feature I’ve personally done since 1990, when I saw Joe Vs. The Volcano right before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Milk/The Spirit is also probably the weirdest double-feature imaginable at this moment in time, considering the current crop of available choices.  The Spirit is the most aggressively heterosexual movie I have seen in a long time, and Milk is… not that.  The Spirit is very much a dirty old man of a movie.  Part of me was down with that – anyone who appreciates the roundly wonderful spectacle of Eva Mendes as much as I do will find something to love about this movie.  The other part of me was unnerved to be watching someone else’s fetish movie, the way I sometimes feel watching more recent Tarantino.  As a genuine fan, I would love to get to ask Frank Miller what’s up with all the swastika imagery running through his work, which reaches a pinnacle with this movie.  I don’t understand why he keeps coming back to that, and like a lot of narrative, visual, and performance elements in The Spirit, it threatens the cohesiveness of the film.  In its defense, The Spirit is certainly consistent – I sat down in my seat expecting “apeshit bananas”, and that’s what the movie delivered, for its entire running time.  It’s never boring.  The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles has a long-running Saturday late-night film series for what they refer to as “H.F.S. movies.”  I’m not going to reveal that acronym here, but I will say that I think The Spirit is a great candidate for their 2009 roster.






Dang!  That’s a lot of time in the dark with popcorn.  I’m always surprised by friends of mine who get surprised when they come up with the name of a movie I haven’t seen before.  Good and bad, there’s so much to see!  I’ve seen so much in my life, but that’s only a fraction – it’s been over a century of movies.  Plus, I need time to eat, shit, earn, write, and oh yeah, watch certain movies more than once.  Also in the last two weeks, I watched In Bruges and The Dark Knight again.  Let me say it again:  Those are two really, really good movies.