The Best of the Noughties



Remember Y2K? Where the heck did the decade go? Well, I know I spent a few thousand hours of it watching movies. Some of those movies were terrible (2000's Battlefield Earth remains unforgettably bad, ten years on), but some of those movies were great. Herewith, some of the best of the past decade, year by year:

2000: Wonder Boys: This portrait of artists as young and old men captures the warmth and shaggy dogness, the river-like meandering narrative of James Joyce's Ulysses, particularly the penultimate chapters wherein the paths of the perambulatory Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus cross. Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), a once-acclaimed novelist in the throes of a midlife crisis, and his student and protege, James Leer (Tobey Maguire) a compulsive liar and young writer in perpetual crisis, meander through Pittsburgh, not Dublin, but the effect is similar. There's a lot going on between the lines in Wonder Boys, a deep and satisfyingly complex character drama masquerading as a deceptively breezy but dark comedy. The literate Wonder Boys (adapted from Michael Chabon's novel), though it bobs and weaves with light footed grace, turns out to be a pretty weighty odyssey.

2001: Amelie: The Paris of Amelie, as depicted by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is an enchanted, romantic place, bustling with harmless eccentrics and oddballs, and glistening with optimism. This is an only-in-the-movies Paris, the same City of Light where Gene Kelly swings from lamp posts and sloshes joyfully through puddles. But there's no singin' in the rain for Amelie -- in Jeunet's gorgeous, double-espresso-super-caffeinated Paris, shy, plucky waitresses instead *melt* into puddles, literally. The unlikely, the coincidental and the poetic are as commonplace here as rainbows harboring pots of gold are in other enchanted places.

Amelie (Audrey Tatou, on the verge of stardom) is a waitress at the Two Windmills cafe. She meddles in the lives of those around her with the best intentions and, generally, remarkable success. She meets her match, however, when she encounters -- and instantly falls in love with -- Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz) an eccentric collector of discarded photo booth portraits. Given a chance to patch up her own lonely, messy life, Amelie loses her nerve. The tentative courtship dance that follows, with Amelie leaving clues all over Paris for her would-be prince, is charmingly romantic, like everything else in Amelie.

Memento: Memento isn't a whodunit. There's a deeper mystery to this dark and dizzying brain-teaser: *why* does Leonard Shelby shoot his pal Teddy, and what's it got to do with Natalie, the mysterious woman who helps him do it? That Leonard shoots Teddy is no mystery because it's the first thing that happens in Memento, and the last thing that happens in the story -- the story and the film run backwards, a clever conceit that puts the audience in the same state of epistemic confusion and disorientation that Leonard experiences every day of his life. Leonard (Guy Pearce) has had no short-term memory, none at all. He can't create new memories, so every day he has to figure out all over again where he is and what he's doing, with the help of clues and paranoid instructions tattooed on his body ("Never answer the phone"), permanent ersatz memories in place of the real ones Leonard doesn't have. Memento is an extraordinarily original and engrossing film, one that succeeds in making every moment as riveting and bewildering for the audience as Leonard's moment-to-moment life is for him. Nolan's script is cleverly ambiguous and full of Aha! revelations that only lead to further questions. With masterful control of the narrative, Nolan turns a creepy, sordid, noirish tale of murder and revenge into an eerie and truly unpredictable puzzle, one that unexpectedly resonates with deeper meaning.

2002: Punch-Drunk Love: This is the movie where writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and star Adam Sandler both turned a corner. Sandler, who has frequently parlayed turn-on-a-dime bipolarity into comedy, or something like it, is genuinely surprising and affecting as Barry in Punch-Drunk Love. Barry is a departure from characters Sandler has played before, so much deeper, darker and more vulnerable, so much more human, that he seems an entirely other creature, a weird, mumbly loser manchild who is tentative and sorrowful, and profoundly unpredictable. Punch-Drunk Love is unpredictable too, in a woozy, unsettling, convention-defying way.

Anderson's writing and directing are light and nimble, and the film is breezily choreographed, with stylish and sparkling visual compositions that reveal his mastery of film's elusive and seductive emotive power. Both Robert Elswit's cinematography and John Brion's fantastic musical score accentuate the light and the dark, the bleak and the beautiful, the discordant and the harmonious, the manic and the depressive nature of Barry's world. There are odd slapstick moments scattered throughout the film, scary and cathartic eruptions of violence, and the kind of swoony, heel-kicking romance that hasn't been fashionable in movies since Cary Grant wooed Audrey Hepburn. Punch-Drunk Love is a little bit edgy, indie real, a little bit old-fashioned ideal, and altogether a fantastic, giddy romance in love with both the power of movies and the power of love.

2003: Lost in Translation: Writer-director Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation is a dreamy, sleepy paean to romantic possibilities and impossibilities, and a wistful appreciation of unexpected connections in the midst of cultural and emotional disconnection. Two jetlagged, sleepless Americans (Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray), ensconced in the high-tech cocoon of the luxurious Tokyo Hyatt, connect with each other. In their own worlds, they would hardly have noticed each other. Here, surrounded by bewildering customs and isolated by language, they drift together on currents of loneliness and fatigue. They drift from crazy adventures with kooky Japanese hipsters in a neon city that buzzes with life after dark, then drift into restless, all-night ponderings about life, love, happiness, and what's-it-all-about questions. Their conversations have a half-awake, sleepy pace to them, but are at the same time lean and profound -- they have both the drowsy delays of chronic insomnia and the vivid, hyperawareness and heat of flirtation, and of night-long conversations between two people who have just met.

Coppola handles the karaoke to koan transitions subtly and beautifully, and Lost in Translation is a unique and original work of appreciation both for the expansive narrative possibilities of cinema, and for the profundity of simple gestures and the comedy of the unexpected. Coppola has crafted a gorgeous and stylized ode to yearning, to the strange feeling of liberation that comes with being profoundly alone and adrift, and to feeling acutely alive in a strange place with a familiar stranger.

2004: Hellboy: Yep, I'm going to call Hellboy one of the best of the decade. It's certainly one of my favorites. Slobbering hellhounds and poignant, demon-spawn superheroes, undead Nazis and Russian psychics, fisticuffs, fishboys and firestarters, romance and laughs. That's pretty much the definition of a movie that's got it all. This one's also got director Guillermo del Toro and star Ron Perlman in an elegant adaptation of Mike Mignola's graphic novels. Hellboy achieves a level of emotional realism and poignance unprecedented in comics-based movies because del Toro and Perlman nurture the real, human aspects of Hellboy. The movie frequently evokes the classic Frankenstein (1931) and Boris Karloff's touching performance as the isolated monster. Perlman's witty, gruff, lived-in performance gives the likable Hellboy a kind of easygoing, rakish charm, but also an air of melancholy. The life of the big red dude is a lonely one, and it's in making him life-sized and vulnerable, rather than larger than life, that Hellboy stands apart. The whole movie is suffused with an aching wistfulness and yearning. It's not just the constant rain that dampens Hellboy's spirits, but his isolation, his Pinnochio-like longing to be more human.

2005: Brokeback Mountain: Working from a lean, poetic script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on E. Annie Proulx's short story, director Ang Lee creates an achingly beautiful tale of loss and longing that could have been about any two doomed people, in any time, in any place, in any circumstance. That is, to call Brokeback Mountain a "gay cowboy movie" is to dismiss it as some sort of unlikely genre movie, or message movie, which is to saddle it with something the movie doesn't need to bear. It isn't just about forbidden love and thwarted romance, but about the mystery and unpredictability and uncontrollability of love, about the way the necessity of conformity crushes dreams, the way fear snuffs out hope, the way passion burns in the heart even when body and spirit are broken.

In Brokeback Mountain, Lee packs a world of meaning and emotion into small, haunting details. The gorgeous cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto gives Brokeback Mountain the emotional expansiveness of Westerns, too, allowing the land to speak, with eloquent purity and complexity, for characters who lack words. Lee is especially masterful at using natural beauty and landscapes expressively, and the vast, big sky emptiness of the Rockies speaks wistful, rapturous volumes for two men whose words fail their hearts.

2006: The New World: Terrence Malick has directed but four feature films in a career of more than thirty years, and his work, no less than his scant output, suggests a somewhat slow, ruminative, navel-gazing approach to filmcraft. If you don't like languorous, meditative films that revel in the glories of nature, if you prefer lots of action and dialogue, you won't like Malick's work.

In The New World, Malick reconsiders and considerably romanticizes the old legend of Pocahontas and John Smith. But what he's really thinking about here are paradise and innocence lost, and the relationship between land and people. Malick, utilizing glorious cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, does here what he does best, collecting poetic, metaphoric images that, by themselves, are merely pretty pictures, but that within the context of the film taken as a whole, become mythopoeic, expressive of ideas that elude the simplifying narrative tools of words and action. The movie meanders, sometimes drifting, slowly, slowly, other times sweeping through a fast-changing, suddenly new world, but always moving in a direction that is worth following.

2007: I'm Not There: It's hard to imagine a film that gets the protean nature of the Dylan persona(e) better than Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, an utterly unconventional biopic steeped in Dylan mythology and lore, fiction and fact, invention and reinvention. Haynes is immersed in Dylanology, and there are plenty of artifacts strewn across the movie's surface, and in its subterranean levels, enough to keep Dylan devotees busy blowing the dust off their own mental shoeboxes and scrapbooks: iconic photographs, album covers, bits of films, personalities, literary refs and riffs, performances, songs, allusions, illusions. Haynes sifts through masses of secondary literature on Dylan, and piles and piles of Dylanalia, bits of scrap and chipped gems, myths, legends, apocrypha and esoterica, creating a vast, vivid collage that rejects the reduction and distillation of biographical portrait in favor of something far more creative, far messier, less linear, and more true.

I'm Not There is as changeable as its subject(s), changing film stocks and film styles, rhythms and moods, switching actors (in a stroke of genius and madness, six different actors portray six aspects of Dylan-not-Dylan), and leaping backwards and forwards in time and space like Todd Haynes' 115th Dream. It uses Dylan's life and times and music as a jumping off point for a freewheeling meditation on recent history, on celebrity, on genius, on love and theft, on modern times, on changing times, on change itself, and it's capable, like much of Dylan's work, of supporting deep interpretation and deep disagreement, and inspiring both insight and confusion. I'm Not There aspires to a high level of artistic creativity, originality and integrity, and achieves it, and demands a high level of attention and engagement in return. It is fascinating and challenging, sprawling, dizzying, indulgent and ingenious, a fanciful and unlikely tale told with brio, imagination, and passion. (A few other greats from a pretty darn good year for movies: Children of Men, No Country for Old Men, and Pan's Labyrinth)


2008: Ah, now we're getting somewhere. There Will Be Blood, and Synecdoche, New York are the two best movies of 2008, and, to my mind, the two best of the decade. I can't decide which is better, so I'm going to call it a tie.


Synecdoche, New York: There are so many flaky layers to Synecdoche, New York, so many events and incidents in this zigzagging, perambulating portrait of the artist as pretentious, possibly delusional, man-hurtling-towards-death that a mere recounting of the plot would be pointless. What you need to know is this: Synecdoche, New York is the first film directed by Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote it. Kaufman's work is about, in a nutshell, the mind -- which is an impossibly beautiful, complex, sometimes nutty thing, just like his movies. Synecdoche, New York is also about, among other things, time, love, life and death, and about how in the midst of life we are in death, etc., (you know, the really BIG stuff), and delusions (of grandeur, of immortality, of mortality, of decay), (look up Cotard delusion), (Kaufman's films are the sort to require multiple parenthetical asides, in lieu of footnotes), (Synecdoche, New York is a film that is itself like a series of parenthetical asides, many of them sneakily inserted so that you just barely notice them and have to make a vague mental note to go look something up later, like "Cotard delusion").

It's not an easy film, and Kaufman keeps dropping mental bread crumbs all over the place, little bits of ideas that you have to pick up and pocket and sort out later. The sorting-out-later is the most gratifying part of Kaufman's films, but it's the part that is probably the most alienating aspect of his work too, at least for those who, having digested their popcorn, want their movie work to be done. Kaufman works on big, serious themes, but he's also seriously, smartly funny, and all those little mental notes that keep falling out of his screenplays, all the dictionary words and visual gags and puns, they just fall like confetti all over Synecdoche, New York.

There Will Be BloodThere Will Be Blood is loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! Has there ever been a more perfect metaphor for moral corruption than sticky, black, dirty crude oil? How perfect is it that this stuff that oozes from the bowels of the earth, from the hot hell beneath our feet, has inspired so much evil? It seeps into every pore of There Will Be Blood -- it is the intoxicating blood of the earth that poisons man's blood, and causes blood to be spilled. Paul Thomas Anderson's movie ends in 1927, and has much to say about capitalism and greed (then and now), corruption and exploitation, about fathers and sons, religious zealotry and pious hypocrisy, broken trust, and revenge, and about blood -- the blood of the earth, the blood between family, the blood of the lamb. Anderson has crafted a riveting, intelligent, multi-layered, modern day *Citizen Kane* in this tale of a tycoon who (literally) pulled himself up out of the dirt. There Will Be Blood is filled with indelible images vibrating with portent and consequence, and carefully chosen words that split open like onions to reveal layers of meaning.

Daniel Plainview is the tycoon, played with fascinating complexity in a magnificent, mesmerizing, eerie performance by Day-Lewis. Even at his most monstrous, Plainview is an enigmatic and charismatic figure, and though he speaks in a authoritarian and stentorian manner, there is remarkable subtlety in Day-Lewis' performance. You can hear in that voice veiled threats, disdain, triumph, hatred, pride, and love. There's not an ounce of sloth in the hands-on, earthy mogul, but the other sins are well accounted for, seen in the hard glint of the eyes, felt in the aggressive, in-your-face body language, and heard in the long dusty road of a voice lubricated by crude oil and whisky. You can hear in that voice, through bitter, cruel words, the unexpected sound of a black heart breaking.

There Will Be Blood is a fable of American capitalism, captured at a pivotal moment of appetite and discovery. It's the kind of story that, in decades past, was the subject of heroic movies, movies in which the conquest of people and the planet were considered admirable, even if the conquerors were less than perfect specimens of humanity. In a thousand small ways, the moral of that story has changed. There Will Be Blood is premised on the idea that avarice and competitiveness are so ingrained in our national soul that it corrupts every relationship and every person, including the shifty, spooky, evangelical preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who vexes Plainview and haunts his schemes, and who is every bit as ambitious, covetous, and rapacious as the businessman. The story is set in the past, but the film is rooted in the present, informed by modern wars, land grabs, and treacheries inspired now (as then) by the lust for oil, informed by the insidious entanglements of piety, prophets, and profit, and piety for profit. Yet for all its epic and provocative themes, for all the expansiveness of a story that spans three decades, There Will Be Blood remains strikingly, captivatingly intimate, an exciting, visionary, perfect movie -- and a surprisingly, shockingly humorous movie -- told in small, bold, devastating strokes. I haven't stopped thinking about There Will Be Blood since I saw it.

2009: I'll need a few more years to reflect on 2009 (which, all in all, hasn't been a bad year at the movies), but my favorites, for now, are Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, and District 9.

28Dec2009

Up in the Air (2009)



Up in the Air is a rare and timely film that's funny and tragic, chilling and warm. It's about detachment and connection, about the unbearable lightness of having nothing and no one, and the nothingness of being free and unencumbered.

It's about Ryan Bingham, who is the kind of guy nobody wants to meet. His job is firing people, an odd specialty, but one he thinks he's pretty good at. It's the one job, ironically, that's probably always in demand. The worse the economy is for everybody else, the better business is for Ryan (George Clooney), and the company he works for. So what kind of guy spend his days traveling around the country firing people he's never met before flying off to another city to fire even more people? An efficient guy who loves to fly, and who travels light. He takes great pride in his lack of baggage -- the literal kind and the emotional kind. He's even a motivational speaker on the topic of getting rid of all the baggage that weighs people down. His audience is made up of the sort of people he'll probably be firing the next time he sees them.

So what kind of hero is that? A guy who destroys people for a living, then moves on before the blood dries. A guy who avoids emotional attachments and longterm relationships. If he had been played by anyone other than George Clooney, he might have been downright unlikable, a smooth, polished predator of the sort we're used to seeing in movies about corporate scoundrels. But Ryan is no scoundrel. An opportunist? Perhaps, but as portrayed by Clooney, he's a high flier who senses that he's slowly losing altitude. This is Clooney at his best, and he's really, really good in Up in the Air. Ryan is charming and self-assured, but also smart enough to know that his Platinum card, business class, VIP lounge, hedonistic lifestyle is financed with little bits of his soul, and he's about to be underwater on the mortgage.

Ryan's goal in life is to rack up ten million air miles, an accomplishment achieved by an elite few. That lofty aspiration is threatened when Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) talks the boss (Jason Bateman) into a more efficient way of firing people: via webcam. Ryan may spend his days at arm's length from humanity, but he appreciates the value of being face-to-face with another human when the axe falls, even when that fellow human is someone as emotionally distant and detached as he is. Besides, his true home is the transitional spaces -- airports, airplanes, hotels -- that most of us occupy only long enough to get to somewhere else, preferably home. Ryan doesn't care where he's going, as long as he keeps moving. He stops long enough to meet Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another road warrior with whom he shares a passion for casual sex and racking up frequent flier miles. Romantic complications -- involving Ryan's sister and her impending nuptials -- disturb Ryan's suddenly perturbable equilibrium. Ryan's a master at letting go -- what does he know about hanging on?

Up in the Air has a really terrific script, and dialogue that snaps, crackles, and waxes pop philosophical. The screenplay by Sheldon Turner and director Jason Reitman is based on Walter Kim's novel, and it's a grown-up drama that really burrows into one of the chief anxieties of the day -- the loss of a job, of an identity, of a way of life and sense of purpose -- in a way that feels true to the very real tragedy that plays out in workplaces every day. But it's also a surprising, stylish and snappy romantic comedy, in which love and disappointment, attachment and detachment get all tangled up when simple, uncomplicated relationships turns unexpectedly complicated. Up in the Air is smart and edgy and thoughtful, and Reitman (*Thank You For Smoking*, *Juno*) keeps the oddly matched romance, tragedy, and comedy, and the personal, professional, and economical downturns nicely meshed. But for all the ways in which Ryan Bingham embodies the complications and contradictions of modern love and work, the movie doesn't lose sight of the genuine tragedy that keeps a man like him up in the air.

28Dec2009



Avatar (2009)



James Cameron thinks big. Really big. He reportedly conceived of the story for Avatar back in the 70s, long before the technology to make it even remotely existed. Since then, he has made few films, but they include some of the most influential science fiction films (The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss) of recent decades, and one of the top grossing films of all time (Titanic). Cameron has squeaked in, here in the last weeks of the decade, with his first feature film in 12 years, and he's come back with a bang.

He also thinks expensive, and has a reputation for big budgets (Avatar's was rumored to be between 200 and 300 million dollars). The thing is, you can see where the money went when you watch one of Cameron's films. He's a film techie who specializes in creating new ways of making films, and Avatar promises to revolutionize (again) digital filmmaking. The movie lives up to its promise, with gorgeous CGI, excellent and smart use of 3-D technology, and the best use of performance capture technology to date. It also might be the first anti-war anti-imperialist tree-hugging enviromentalist cowboys-and-Indians space western. I'm pretty sure it is, in fact.

The year is 2154, and Earthlings have invaded a distant planet called Pandora, a world that has the misfortune of being a rich source of unobtainium, a valuable mineral. Even more unlucky are the Na'vi, a race of tall, blue-skinned people who live in harmony with nature, and object to the strip mining of their world. You know how humans are: what they can't take by force, they take by using more force. The Na'vi have bows and arrows; the humans have heavily armed mercenaries with machine guns, hovering gunships, and mechas.

They've also got in mind to use a little deception. They've created avatars, hybrid creatures grown from human and Na'vi DNA, who look enough like the Na'vi to almost pass for the real thing (although the avatars have five fingers to the Na'vi's four -- the film is brimming with such small details). A human controls his or her Na'vi avatar from a remote, wired pod, walking among the natives in a tall, blue body.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has a Na'vi avatar, but he's also an avatar of sorts in his own right -- he's a replacement for his identical twin brother, now dead, who was meant to "pilot" the Na'vi body. Jake, unlike the other pilots, is an ex-soldier, and a paraplegic who finds his Na'vi body liberating. It allows him to walk, and jump, and run again, and also do all the things the lithe, catlike Na'vi do well. The avatars were created by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a botanist who wants to learn about the Na'vi, and the very unusual and interesting planet they live on. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the chief of security for the mining company, has other ideas: he wants Jake to infiltrate the Na'vi, all the better to destroy them. Jake throws a wrench into the colonel's genocidal plans when he goes native.

Cameron developed a new performance capture technique to create the Na'vi. Performance capture (or motion capture) uses live actors wearing sensors that track their movements, which are then used to digitally render them as animated figures. Efforts to use the technology thus far have generally failed in two important ways: the animated people fall into the Uncanny Valley (whereby human facsimiles look almost real -- but also slightly off -- the sum total being altogether eerie and disquieting), and they have dead eyes and expressionless faces, which adds to the creepiness. (Peter Jackson has used the technology to best effect thus far in the creation of Gollum in Lord of the Rings.) Avatar gets it right: no Uncanny Valley, and the faces of the Na'vi are expressive, dynamic, and alive. The overall movements of the Na'vi bodies are pretty close to perfect (the avatars are clunkier, as might be expected), and also a great leap forward. And Pandora, the beautiful jungle world, is just gorgeous: filled with bioluminescent plants and creatures, flying dragon-like beasts, little things that look like flying jellyfish, and a few carnivorous nasties lurking about among the giant ferns and flowers -- it's a glowing, shimmery, unspoiled paradise. A paradise that will be lost and despoiled if Quaritch has his way. (And worth seeing in like-being-there 3-D, or Imax 3-D, if you can.)

Cameron wrote and directed Avatar, and it is peopled by the usual types that populate his films: heartless, mercenary military and corporate guys, a couple of nerds (Joel Moore and Dileep Rao), and a tough woman, or in this case three of them, with Weaver's Augustine, Michelle Rodriguez's fighter pilot Trudy, and Zoe Saldana's Neytiri, the Na'vi woman who mentors Jake. The Na'vi are pretty clearly meant to call to mind the aboriginal peoples of Earth, who haven't done so well by colonialists. In some ways, Avatar is a straightforward (if otherworldly) cowboys vs. Indians western, only the good guys are the Indians this time. It is also entirely possible (and no doubt intentional) that the allegorical story can support an interpretation grounded in contemporary conflicts and politics. There's also a running anti-corporate theme in Cameron's canon (also found in The Abyss and Aliens), and a seriously pro-green, anti-war tendency, which doesn't stop him from staging epic battles and blowing lots of things up. Avatar isn't just a long setup for a blow 'em up payoff in the third act: you're meant to care about what happens to Pandora and the Na'vi. Avatar invests in its characters, the good and the bad, creating an engrossing story and a world worth caring about.




James Cameron has only made one movie I didn't like (True Lies). I noticed a pattern, in thinking about all the movies he's made that I do like (which would be all the other movies he's made): all of his feature films have titles that start with the letter A or T: The Terminator, Terminator 2Aliens, True Lies, Titanic, and The Abyss (a two-fer). I have no theory about why that is, although I can't help but notice the errant L in True Lies.

Cameron's a techie at heart, someone simultaneously in love with filmmaking tools and toys, and determined to elevate the art of film, to making better films through technology (maybe all those A's and T's stand for "art" and "tools"). If that sounds like a dodgy premise, he's made it work, in part because as a storyteller, he's pretty traditional, and entirely sincere. He doesn't go for highly cerebral or quirky material: he sticks with action films with blue collar heroes, and he has a taste for melodrama (hence the action-oriented but swoonily romantic Titanic, with its blue collar hero). Cameron was also influential in two developments in recent science fiction films: kickass action, and strong female leads (and combined, strong women in action films). In Aliens (1986), he turned Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) into the embodiment of fiercely protective maternity, going head to acid-drooling head with the big bad super fertile mother alien. Fierce maternity was a theme he explored in the two Terminator films he wrote and directed too: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) wasn't just mom to a kid named John Connor -- she was the mother of mankind's future savior, the kid who would save us all from the cyborg menace to come.

I am often asked, being a film critic, what my favorite movie is. I don't have a single favorite, but The Abyss (1989) is in my top five. (I'm pretty fond of Aliens too, but I'm pretty fond of the entire Alien quadrilogy, which is distinctive in that every one of the films was directed in a completely different style by a visionary and interesting director: Ridley Scott, Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.) The Abyss is set in a bottom-of-the-sea oil drilling station -- the technical novelty of the film was that it was actually filmed underwater, much of it in a seven million gallon tank at an abandoned nuclear power plant. (Cameron is an avid diver who has spent much of the last decade making deep sea documentaries.)

The Abyss stars Ed Harris (blue collar working stiff), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (hell on heels engineer) and Michael Biehn (possibly psycho Navy SEAL) as part of a crew that makes a fantastic discovery at the very, very bottom of the sea. The Abyss is another inter-genre film, a fantastic, scary, claustrophobic, panicky underwater adventure with an otherworldly twist and a complex, moving love story. The special effects are gorgeous, the plot and action are compelling, and The Abyss contains one of the most emotionally gripping love scenes (not a sex scene, but a scene of love, sacrifice, death and rebirth) in contemporary film. The movie is long (another Cameron tendency), and was hobbled, on its theatrical release, by a truncated ending -- watch the director's cut on DVD to see the much better version.

21Dec2009

The Princess and the Frog (2009)


It should come as a surprise to no one who has not suddenly awakened from a hundred year sleep that The Princess and the Frog is the first Disney animated film to feature an African-American heroine. But the message of the film surely isn't that it's not easy being black. It's not easy being green is more like it. Tiana, the enterprising young woman at the center of The Princess and the Frog, spends most of the movie in a state of slimy green hoppyness, as a frog. And as much as a Disney fairy tale is all about the happily ever after, the suspense in this one is mostly about whether Tiana will live hoppily ever after.

The prince is a frog too. He's a feckless amphibian, a ne'er-do-well formerly human prince named Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos), from the kingdom of Maldonia. The king and queen are about to disown him, so he arrives in New Orleans with his heart set on snagging a wealthy bride, so that he might continue with his hard partying ways. The girl most likely to be snagged is Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), daughter of Big Daddy La Bouff (John Goodman). Charlotte's best buddy since childhood is Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a waitress working night and day to save enough money to open her own restaurant. That was her hard-working daddy's dream, and now it's hers. Another departure from the classic Disney canon: no dead mother in The Princess and the Frog. Tiana's mama (Oprah Winfrey) is alive and well, a seamstress whose best customer is Charlotte (who dresses like a princess, all the better to catch her Prince Charming).

Naveen is waylaid by a voodoo man named Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who turns him into a frog. Just how does Tiana, a frog-loather from way back, end up amphibianized herself? Long story short, she kisses the frog prince, just like in the fairy tale, but the smooch doesn't transform Naveen. Instead, poor Tiana is transmogrified herself. The two fractious frogs end up hopping through the bayou looking for ancient Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), reputed to be a voodoo spell undoer. They're accompanied on their journey by some local comic relief: a plump, jazz trumpet playing gator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and a dentally challenged cajun firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings).

The Princess and the Frog throws a lot of obstacles in the path of the froggy pair, but the course of true love never did run smooth. Especially not through a swamp. They are frequently sidetracked by musical numbers too, this being a musical cartoon. Randy Newman wrote the songs, which are not especially memorable, but have the musical diversity of a Big Easy gumbo, minus the spice.

This is Disney's first foray into traditional hand-drawn animation in several years, and the very first since the studio came under the command of John Lasseter (of the Pixar pedigree). The old fashioned animation in The Princess and the Frog, directed by veterans Ron Clements and John Musker (*The Little Mermaid*) is quite lovely, with rich, warm and vibrant colors, and the kind of soft, painterly lines you just don't see in crisp, shiny digital animation. It's very pleasant to look at --  not overly busy or frantic, and definitely an effort to return the Mouse House to its former animation glory. In terms of its visual artistry, The Princess and the Frog shows that Disney is still harboring some genuine pencil and brush artists amongst all the pixel-pushers.

In another homage to old school animated movies, The Princess and the Frog is 100% snark-free, a G-rated-and-they-mean-it movie that gets its laughs from newbie frogs discovering the hazards of long, sticky tongues, and the joys of whoppin' mean ol' frog hunters upside the head. My pint-sized movie companions enjoyed themselves.

  So what about that African American heroine? Tiana's got the Barbie doll figure of the classic Disney heroine (she's a skinny frog too), and despite her working class roots, she looks the part of the princess, through and through. Tiana lives in an idealized 1920s New Orleans that looks to be happily racially integrated (this is a fairy tale), where what divides her and Charlotte isn't the color of their skin, but the size of their daddies' bank accounts. It's likely Tiana's daddy (Terence Howard) didn't even have one.

What really sets them apart though -- and what separates Tiana from the swarthy but racially indeterminate Naveen (who is effectively poor but also morally bankrupt) -- is that Tiana is an entrepreneurial American Dream bootstrapper. She believes that hard work will make her dreams come true eventually. And her dreams? No castles in the air, just pretty old antediluvian New Orleans and a big ol' gumbo pot to call her own. She wouldn't be caught dead singing "some day my prince will come." And she makes a point of never dancing. No time -- she's too busy working! The most radical thing about Tiana is that she never wanted to be a princess at all.

12Dec2009

Brothers (2009)

With film release dates set months in advance, it was mere coincidence that Brothers was released in the same week that the president announced his plan to send more troops to Afghanistan. It's a sad coincidence, given the subject of the film. Even sadder is the fact that Brothers is still timely, even though it is based on a Danish film, Brødre, made five years ago, when the war in Afghanistan was already three years old. Has it really been eight years? Brothers is not a war movie, per se, and not about the Afghan conflict, per se, but is rather a movie about the effects of war on the individuals who fight, and the families who stay at home. It's about the casualties there and here, and after this week, there will, sadly, be more of both.

In the Cahill family, Sam (Tobey Maguire) is the good son, and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the ne-er-do-well. Tommy is released from prison a few days before Sam is set to be deployed to Afghanistan. Their father Hank (Sam Shepherd), a retired Marine, makes no secret of his pride in Sam, or that he can barely stand to look at Tommy. When Sam is reported killed in action, Tommy tries to straighten up and help Sam's wife Grace (Natalie Portman), and her two young daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare). That Sam is not really dead is no secret -- the movie reveals early on that he is taken prisoner by the Taliban, and tortured, and forced to do things he would not ordinarily do.

Brothers, directed by Jim Sheridan (*In the Name of the Father*) uses this war -- but it could be any war -- as a vehicle for a somber family drama with some heavy themes. There is the sibling rivalry between Sam and Tommy, and the father who clearly plays favorites, perhaps to the detriment of both sons. There are second chances and second lives, as the brothers switch roles in the aftermath of Sam's traumatic experience in Afghanistan. There is, of course, the question of Sam's mental health, and the damaging effects it has on his family, and particularly his children.

Although there is melodrama aplenty in Brothers, Sheridan has effectively stripped the movie down to its emotional bones, with little music, and little else to serve as evocative affective signposts. Instead, the film trades heavily on the tensions between characters, and the charged atmosphere that turns the Cahill home into a tinderbox. Maguire and Gyllanhaal look enough alike to pass for brothers, and they do most of the heavy lifting in Brothers. Their roles could have been interestingly swapped, with Maguire playing the reckless and feckless Tommy and Gyllenhaal as the straight arrow who gets shot down. I found Maguire a little implausible as a Marine, but his performance is effectively creepy, and Brothers wrings a fair amount of suspense out of Sam's unstable temperament. Especially noteworthy, however, is Bailee Madison as the older daughter Isabelle. Madison is only ten, but her performance in Brothers is exceptionally good. The emotionally labile Isabelle is a pivotal character, and she tends to overshadow Portman's Grace, who mostly cries, although she does so for different reasons throughout the film.

Except for Sam's time as a prisoner or war, Brothers pretty much steers clear of politics, to the point of being downright apolitical, and it really has nothing much to say on the subject of the war in Afghanistan, or the lives of ordinary Afghans, or military operations there, or US policy. It doesn't *have* to say anything, I suppose, given that any old war would do for the purposes of this film's story. But that sense of nonspecificity, a kind of generic generality, coupled with the specifically traumatizing and extraordinary events that lead to Sam's crisis, make Brothers feel like it's going to some pains to not be about what it's really about. That's too bad, because the ordinary everyday horrors of that war -- the ones experienced by too many soldiers -- are quite bad enough. The movie also ends rather abruptly, which adds to the sense that there's really much more to be said.

What it does say, it says well. Brothers avoids easy sentiment and easy resolution: it is sometimes shocking, frequently moving, and always sincere, quietly observing the noisy, frightening drama of a family trying to keep it together when the center cannot hold.

7Dec2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)





Sleek, slick, candy-colored computer animation is all well and good, but my tastes run kind of old school when it comes to animated films, I guess. Maybe it was all those Rankin & Bass Christmas specials I watched as a kid (and still watch), but I love stop motion animation, with its jerky, felty, tactile, lived-in look. Give me Wallace and Gromit, with their feet of clay, or Mr. Fox with his fantastic, coarse pelt and glass eyes over the shiny, rubbery perfection of pixels any day. The critters in Fantastic Mr. Fox look as if they came out of some toybox full of treasures like pinecones and bits of tattered cloth and very special rocks. They look pliable and playable.

Fantastic Mr. Fox wouldn't be the first film by Wes Anderson to look and feel like it was set in a dollhouse -- both The Royal Tenenbaums, with its vast, colorful, shabby brownstone, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, with its fantastic cutaway ship, call to mind miniature worlds that could be occupied by puppets. Anderson's people have something of the puppet in them too -- they move through the world tentatively and with strings attached, and they speak in hesitant pauses, the spaces between their words sometimes saying as much as the words themselves. Fantastic Mr. Fox takes all those tendencies and quirks in Anderson's films and makes them just a tiny bit less lifelike, which makes them so much more... real.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on Roald Dahl's book, and as adapted by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, it features a rascally, irresponsible, morally ambiguous hero in Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney). Fox, being a fox, was a successful chicken thief until Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), expecting their first pup, made him give up his life of crime. He settled into a quiet life as a newspaper journalist, but always longed for one final heist. He cooks up a scheme with his possum pal Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) to steal from the three biggest, meanest farmers in the area: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Bean (Michael Gambon) lives on hard cider and is "the scariest man currently living." The other two aren't any nicer. The farmers don't take kindly to fox's pilfering, setting in motion an escalating war that threatens every animal in the valley. If one were so inclined, one could read into this fable an environmental message, or a message about the futility and mutually assured destruction of war. Or, one could just see a fox trying, as always, to outwit a farmer who is armed with a gun, a backhoe and dynamite. Anyway, Fox, being a fox, isn't especially repentant about starting a war.

The animation in Fantastic Mr. Fox is terrific, full of wit and imagination, with a scruffy, cartoonish ingenuity and handmade beauty. The puppets don't look anything like real animals, and yet the characters are so richly conceived, and the voice work is so nuanced and full of life that the movie does what any good animated movie (regardless of the method) should do: it imperceptibly engages the imagination and makes you forget that you're looking at simulacra. The critters in Fantastic Mr. Fox look and act like they just *are* -- as if, even when you're not watching them, they're going about their lives, doing foxy and badgery and rabbity things. I also love the movie backgrounds and sets, which look just like storybook illustrations and scale models -- which is basically what they are. The movie fully embraces artifice, although no more so than Anderson's live action films.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is as fully realized as any of Anderson's films, and like his other works, it revels in the odd and quirky, in the idiosyncratic beauty of misfits, in the dissatisfaction and loneliness of the brilliant. It also shares Anderson's preoccupations with irresponsible, irrascible father figures and difficult, eccentric families. To that end, the main narrative about the escalating war between Fox and the farmers sometimes moves to the back burner (to simmer a while) as the movie burrows into Fox's friendships and family dynamics. Fox's son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) has an intense rivalry with his visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), who is more athletic and less quirky, and is possibly favored by Fox (who, lest there be any doubt, is not exactly a model father). Fox and the missus have a less than perfect union, and indeed, all of Fox's relationships are tested by his rash, devil-may-care ways. His lawyer and friend Badger (Bill Murray) is especially vexed by Fox's recklessness.

Fantastic Mr. Fox might vex parents too, as the movie is likely to raise a lot of questions for any youngsters who see it. I'd hazard a guess that young children aren't typically part of Anderson's fanbase (although teens surely like *Rushmore*), and despite its provenance, Fantastic Mr. Fox isn't especially more kid-friendly than Anderson's other films. Some kids will like it, if they catch on to the way the puppets embody and enact psychologically complex thoughts and feelings (just the way kids do with their own toys). Other kids won't get it at all (and might be frightened by the violent death of one character), and won't find the movie funny or charming or, for that matter, very interesting. All of which is to say that kids will react to Fantastic Mr. Fox just like anybody else will. Some will love it, some won't. I found it charming, warm, engaging, funny, and challenging, and all around fantastic.

The Blind Side (2009)




The Blind Side is based on Michael Lewis's nonfiction book *The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game*. It tells a remarkable story: a homeless, neglected, uneducated African American teenage boy is taken in by a wealthy, white Southern family. He thrives in a stable home, his latent athletic talents are released, and he goes on to a career in the NFL. That's the story of Michael Oher, now a left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. 


A left tackle -- a very rare and specialized kind of athlete -- is a kind of protector, a massive, unstoppable force, a wall between the quarterback and the opposing team. In The Blind Side, there are two left tackles: Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), who is a gentle giant, and Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), the multitasking little spitfire who takes the lad under her wing after literally finding him walking the streets. She protects him from rich snobs, redneck racists, and drug dealers. Leigh Anne's about a third the size of Michael, but with her fierce maternal instincts and larger than life personality, she can steamroller over the opposition just as effectively.


As written and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie), The Blind Side is more about Leigh Anne than Michael. Michael's a bit of a blank slate, and the movie suggests that he managed to survive a horrific childhood, and a drug addicted mother, by remaining a blank slate, and shutting out all the bad (and it was all bad) that happened around him. His past is revealed only in vague flashbacks, and a few visits back to the slums he grew up in. His personality is almost nonexistent -- he's shy and reticent, and despite his massive size, unimposing. He's a shrinking violet. Leigh Anne is a steel magnolia: loud, insistent, self-confident, and a woman who is used to getting her way, as her affably compliant husband Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw) likes to remind everyone. She's got a couple of perfect kids to go along with her perfect house: teenage daughter Collins (Lily Collins), and son S.J. (Jae Head), a talkative, spunky little sidekick -- clearly his mother's son -- for Michael. 


The Tuohys are good Christians, but what they really worship is football, and The Blind Side is part sports movie, part inspirational slums-to-suburbs, foundling-finds-family story, with an emphasis on the latter. Neither aspect of the story is especially suspenseful or surprising -- there's a kind of inevitability written into Leigh Anne's personality. There's just no doubt that she's going to get her way, that she's going to mold Michael into a functioning, successful young man and a great football player, and whip a few conservative Southerners (among whom she counts herself) into shape while she's at it. A few other good Southern women help out: Michael's tutor (Kathy Bates), and a teacher (Kim Dickens) at the private Christian academy the Tuohy kids -- including Michael -- attend. They both see that Michael, despite his poor academic performance, is no dummy.


Bullock, with her teased blond tresses and twangy accent carries the movie on her shoulders. Her performance is lively and likable, but not especially complex -- The Blind Side doesn't dig very deep into its characters, nor tell us much about them that isn't apparent on the surface. They have big lives full of big emotions and transformational events, but their inner lives are more or less neglected. We're left to imagine what traumas and misfortunes led Michael to the sorry state he was in, and what prompted a big-hearted woman to take him home, set him on his feet, and give him wings. It's not deep, but The Blind Side is quite likable, and plucks all the right heartstrings -- it's warm and funny, and uplifts with all the subtlety of a linebacker. 


23Nov2009

2012 (2009)



Before the start of 2012, I predicted that at some point early in the movie, there would be some guy holding up a sign that reads "The End Is Near." I must be psychic. You'll be comforted to know I'm not getting any tingles telling me that the end is, in fact, near. But boy, oh boy, does the world go out with a bang in 2012.


The title comes from the alleged Mayan prophecy that some kind of cosmic, planetary alignment would cause the destruction of the world in 2012. The movie doesn't do much with the prophecy -- a few cursory mentions here and there. The action starts in 2009, when a couple of scientists figure out that the earth's core is rapidly heating up as a result of solar flares, which will destabilize the earth's crust, or some very scientific thing like that. Once geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) realizes that the end is near, he alerts presidential aide Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), who is just the sort of cold-hearted politician to make the hard choices about who lives and who dies. The president (Danny Glover) isn't quite so hardhearted, and he and other world leaders cook up a plan (involving big boats, naturally), to save a few remnants of humanity from extinction. Well, Noah had to make some hard choices too, I suppose. 


Meanwhile, out in California, Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a struggling novelist, takes his kids (Liam James and Morgan Lily) camping at Yellowstone, where they run into a nutjob (Woody Harrelson) who tells them that the end is near. Jackson once wrote a worst-selling novel about the end of the world, of which, it turns out, doomsaying geologist Helmsley is a big fan. I'm sensing a pattern here.


Jackson's ex-wife (Amanda Peet) has a new husband, a successful plastic surgeon named Gordon (Tom McCarthy). Poor Jackson drives a limo to make ends meet, but he's one helluva driver, which comes in handy as he and the family escape the cataclysmic inferno/abyss/earthquake that destroys California in just the first of several close scrapes. There are also narrow escapes from disaster via small airplane, RV, big airplane, and really, really big boat. It's just one damn thing after another.


Thing is, director Roland Emmerich (who co-wrote 2012 with Harald Kloser) knows how to destroy the world. He's done it often enough (*Independence Day*, *The Day After Tomorrow*, *Godzilla*), and the terrific CG effects in 2012 enable him to rain quite convincing destruction upon the planet in the form of earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear force volcanic eruptions, crumbling skyscrapers, fireballs, clouds of ash, and city-swallowing fissures. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice... Emmerich says why not both? And why stop there?


And surprisingly, it's a pretty good time, the end of the world. Quite watchable and more entertaining than you might think. It goes on for far too long -- the movie clocks in at over two and a half hours. Granted, it takes time to destroy the world, but 2012 has too many characters and too many subplots, which makes it pretty hard to get very invested in any of them. A cute dog, a Russian oligarch, his obnoxious kids and his floozy girlfriend, a Buddhist monk and his family, the president's daughter (Thandie Newton), a couple of old jazz musicians on a cruise ship (George Segal and Blu Mankuma), geologists in India... They all come together in the end -- well, the survivors do -- but it's a butt-numbing experience. 


The only person in the whole movie who seems to be having any fun is Harrelson, who bites into his role as a long-haired, wild-eyed conspiracy theorist who's just pleased as punch to be right for a change, (although, you know, the death of billions is kind of a drag). Kind of a drag, but not so much that you can't enjoy all the mayhem. There's nothing subtle or deep or emotionally engaging about 2012 -- you know what's coming, and you can pretty much tell who's going to survive this thing (at least you can if you're psychic like me). Emmerich knows to keep the disaster front and center, and most of the death at an emotionally safe distance and free of blood and gore -- there are lots of falling bodies about which we can feel bad in principle, but then Boom! Crash! Another narrow escape! Phew! Aw man, there goes the Sistine Chapel!


16Nov2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009)



If you believe the official denials, the US military has not been engaged in paranormal research, and specifically, has not been training psychic soldiers, for decades. The program allegedly known as "Star Gate" did not begin as a response to rumors that the Soviets were also engaged in psychic military research, and did not train soldiers and civilians (including spoon-bender Uri Geller) in the ways of psychic warfare. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, this goofy history (or fiction) is uncovered by a reporter named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who tags along with a top (former) psychic supersoldier on a mysterious mission in Iraq. The supersoldier -- they call themselves Jedi warriors -- is Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), and he just might be every bit as crazy as he seems. Or not.


Cassady is a master of such paranormal techniques as "sparkle eyes" and "cloudbursting" (which are just what they sound like), as well as various highly effective martial arts moves. He leads Wilton on a rambling road trip beset by the usual travails of an extended car ride in war-torn Iraq: kidnapping, IEDs, shootings. Their mission? Not even Cassady knows. Presumably, he'll know it when he sees it, or "sees" it.


Cassady is a member of the defunct New Earth Army, a New Age-y, pantheist, experimental army unit developed by a Vietnam vet named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) with the aim of winning wars through peace, love, and understanding. Bill's recruits are zealously devoted to their guru. Lyn is Bill's star pupil. Bill's most dedicated follower is wild-eyed General Hopgood (Stephen Lang). Then there's Larry Hopper (Kevin Spacey), the snake in this new Eden.


The movie is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Ronson. "More of this is true than you would believe," announces an opening title of the movie. What you believe, or what anyone believes, is precisely the point. Or maybe it's the joke. At any rate, the movie presents everything as if it could be true, or at least, as if someone like Lyn Cassady could plausibly believe it to be true. He did, after all, once stare a goat to death. (The goat made the mistake of staring back.)


The cast plays it all more or less straight. Clooney's got an assortment of bug-eyed looks for Cassady's various psychic powers, and portrays him as a true believer, a man who has seen too much to not believe. That's not to say that Clooney plays it as straight as Bridges, who offers a variation on his acid-etched Dude character in *The Big Lebowski*. The movie's true straight man is Wilton, a desperate fellow cuckolded by his wife and trying to pick up the pieces of his life in a war zone. Tagging along with Cassady, he's more likely to be picking up pieces of his own body.


The Men Who Stare at Goats, as directed by Clooney's producing partner Grant Heslov, is a mild and somewhat scattershot spoof that is not quite as funny as its title. It gets most of its traction from its charismatic actors, all of them playing broken and desperate men in search of something -- redemption? revenge? renewal? The movie does not have much to say about war, or about soldiers, or even, really, about parapsychology -- is there a connection between blind faith in one's own higher powers and the kind of devotion to country and duty that inspires soldiers? Are these guys the real deal, or a bunch of crackpots? The Men Who Stare at Goats is noncommittal -- it looks at the whole business in a semi-skeptical-but-willing-to-be-persuaded way. It all adds up to a lot of transient wackiness and absurdity that's as fluffy, and dissipates as quickly, as those clouds Cassady likes to burst.


9Nov2009


Amelia (2009)



I didn't know all that much about Amelia Earhart before I watched Amelia. I did not know, for example, that she had been married, or that she had an affair with aviation entrepreneur Gene Vidal (Gore's pop). I *did* know that she was a pioneering feminist and aviatrix, and that she disappeared over the Pacific while attempting to fly around the world. As if there was any doubt, that she loved to fly airplanes is a point made again and again in Amelia, a biopic directed by Mira Nair from a script by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan. Earhart cared about only two things in life, judging by the number of times she says so in the movie: flying and being free. Aside from having Earhart (Hilary Swank) repeatedly reminding everyone that she loves to fly and wants to be free, the movie offers little insight into her character or personality as it follows the last nine years of her life, and her rise to international fame, in a series of flashbacks intercut with scenes from her final, ill-fated flight.


Swank, looking very much like Earhart with her sandy, cropped hair, does a decent enough impersonation, giving Earhart a Katherine Hepburn-esque voice and manner, and an enormous, flashing smile. Amelia pretty quickly failed my wardrobe test -- the clothes worn by Earhart were far more interesting than anything else in the movie, including her unusual marriage to publisher/promoter George Putnam (Richard Gere). Swank, with her lanky frame and long, androgynous face, was born to play Earhart, but this is not likely to be one of her more memorable roles. It's hardly a role at all, but more a recitation of things everybody already knew about Earhart -- She's spunky! She's courageous! She's a tomboy! She loves to fly! Amelia is a thumbnail sketch that never develops into a fully formed work of art.


The plot follows Earhart's trajectory like a highlight reel: she flies across the Atlantic, is wooed by Putnam, resists his marriage proposals, flies solo across the Atlantic, marries Putnam, flies again, etc. Biographical details get tossed in as fragments of dialogue, bullet points of marital discord between Putnam and Earhart. With its odd emphasis on Earhart's marriage, there's a lot of longing and yearning in Amelia -- Putnam romances her with as much desperation and exasperation as the calm Gere can muster, and Earhart romances the skies, yearning to be free and longing to fly. She charms the world while she's at it, although I imagine she was a lot livelier and more charming herself than the movie lets on.


Amelia is, unfortunately, a long movie that feels abbreviated, not because it moves quickly -- it doesn't -- but because it is so insubstantial and rushed, hurrying through the important biographical milestones without cultivating any genuine sense of the woman. The emotion is drained from this story -- allthough Gabriel Yared's strenuously sentimental musical score works overtime to create feeling. That the score has to do *any* work to generate emotion in a movie in which the heroine dies, leaving a grieving husband and bereft world, tells you all you need to know about Amelia.


1Nov2009