Category Archives: 2008 Movies

The Spirit (2008)

This is the last time someone will let Frank Miller direct. Astoundingly bad, The Spirit is borderline camp for every absurd and bizarre second. It careens all over the place, never settling on a tone. So one minute it will be hard-boiled noir and the next it will break down the fourth wall and amp up the goofy slapstick to Looney Tunes levels. The story is threadbare, the characters are half-developed ideas, and each scene almost exists in its own five-minute world before Miller barrels forward. Sure the flick has some appealing visuals, but even those are derivative of the superior Sin City. As a director, Miller doesn’t cut it. He will shoot scenes with nothing but close-ups, giving no point of establishment for the audience, and he’s too prone to random diversions. Miller displays zero ability, or a complete disregard, for directing actors; they are terrible in different ways. Gabriel Macht, as the back-from-the-dead crime fighter The Spirit, sounds like Paul Rudd doing a Harrison Ford impression. Samuel L. Jackson, as the nefarious criminal/mad scientist/also semi-immortal The Octopus, overacts to a degree not even seen by Samuel L. Jackson. Scarlett Johansson, as an evil assistant, can’t even hide her disdain and boredom. This stuff just becomes unchecked lunacy, but it still manages to be boring through and through. The hero is a stiff, all the women are sex objects, and the conflicts are pointless when the combatants can’t be killed. The only thing worth mentioning is that Eva Mendes is still a gorgeous looking woman. Even Miller couldn’t fumble that one.

Nate?s Grade: D

Seven Pounds (2008)

“Do not touch the jellyfish.” Wise words to live by. Will Smith stars in this heavy-handed drama about a man trying to make amends for his role in a fatal traffic accident. Smith is an IRS man on a mysterious personal mission. He’s interviewing several glum people waiting on organ transplant lists. If you cannot connect the pieces already, don’t worry because Seven Pounds will hammer every last point with forceful melodrama. The story structure is needlessly fractured, hoping to add more style to a fairly banal redemption tale. Naturally, Smith falls for a woman (Rosario Dawson) in desperate need of a heart transplant, complicating his scheme. And yet the movie sort of works on its own syrupy terms until those final moments involving that jellyfish. It is a jaw-dropping misguided move, one that rips you right out of the film. Just as Seven Pounds reaches its climactic emotional crescendo, you’re left scratching your head and laughing at the utter absurdity. It’s like tripping face-first right before the finish line. The jellyfish-infused ending is simply astonishing. Seriously, when was the last time an invertebrate sea creature played so prominently in a high-profile movie? In what would otherwise be an overwrought and unmemorable drama, the jellyfish gives Seven Pounds a certain bizarre immortality.

Nate’s Grade: C

Max Payne (2008)

I have no idea whatsoever what the point of this movie was. Adapted from the popular video game, Max Payne follows a hardened police officer played hysterically super serious by a grumpy Mark Wahlberg. He scowls, he grumbles, he chews over laugh-out-loud “tough guy” dialogue as he searches for his wife’s killer. For whatever reason, this storyline dovetails with a super drug on the streets that makes people see hallucinations of winged demons/angels. The entire storyline has no merit except to squeeze in some semi-cool effects shots. But when you know they’re all just hallucinations, what does it matter? Can that really be scary? But then these creatures seem to interact with reality and pull people to their deaths, so what are the rules here? There’s not an ounce of fun to be had amidst this drabby neo-noir landscape. The plot is a formulaic revenge tale, where every turn is easily telegraphed and every character is a one-note stock role, complete with the video game favorite of doe-eyed pixie girl who carries huge guns (Mila Kunis, why?). Even the action sequences are dour and dull. Max Payne is a movie that was built to exist in moments and not as a whole. The most troublesome aspect of this whole sodden adventure is how much the film openly fetishizes guns. The end credits are like a reel of money shots, watching glistening CGI guns rattle off. What better way to end such a thoughtless exercise in pseudo entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: D

Waltz with Bashir (2008)

A mix between animation, documentary, and war drama, this Israeli film is something uniquely different and remarkable. Filmmaker Ari Folman interviews fellow veteran servicemen from Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon in hopes of jogging his memory. He has blocked out the painful memories of war but his mind is reawakened as he reexamines the truth about the conflict and eventual massacre of Lebanese Arabs. Folman utilizes a rotoscope style of animation, which gives it a heightened reality and an intoxicating painterly beauty. He also takes advantage of the fact that atrocities can be easier to stomach when presented through the barrier of tasteful animation. However, it will be hard to keep from being affected (a scene of dying horses got to me bad). The realms of reality, fantasy, nightmare, and memory can crash together in fascinating ways, and eventually the movie transforms outright into a full-fledged documentary that melts away any last obstacle of empathy, ending with real disturbing footage of the massacre’s aftermath. Waltz with Bashir does not come with an agenda in tow, which allows the movie to explore the ambiguities of being young, nationalistic, confused, and armed in a hostile land. Folman is trying to peel away at the unbiased truth of the matter and cleanse his curiosity and, perhaps, his conscience. His filmic journey to that elusive and painful truth is a movie that crosses cultures and redefines what a documentary can be.

Nate’s Grade: A

The House Bunny (2008)

Anna Farris (Scary Movies) is proving herself to be one of the most adept physical comedians of today. This is formulaic fish-out-of-water comedy set in the familiar territory of collegiate coeds, so you’ll be excused for thinking you’ve seen this movie before in a dozen incarnations. The nerdy outcast sorority adopts Farris as their housemother, and through no shortage of makeover montages, the girls come out of their shells and embrace their outer midriffs. However, The House Bunny doesn’t just stoop to pandering a hypocritical “believe in yourself” message tied to beauty makeovers to win over the fellas, but it almost does. Farris is the true draw for the film and she goes for broke as the daffy Playboy Bunny. She’s sweet and effervescent even at her most dimwitted; this woman knows how to sell a joke. Her comedic timing and line readings are superb. The movie isn’t anything more than a pleasing diversion, but without Farris and her comic gifts it would be something much worse. The House Bunny does what it does well enough to be disposable entertainment. She’s got the dumb blonde routine down cold, now it’s time for filmmakers to allow Farris more opportunity to hone her other comedic chops.

Nate’s Grade: B-

War Inc. (2008)

What is the point of this movie? I think I get it, at least get what they were going for. The military industrial complex is bad and can mislead countries into needless conflict just for corporate profits at the expense of human life. Sure, got that, then what the hell is with the storyline of a Eurasian popstar (Hilary Duff) who has daddy issues? War Inc. is a farce but it doesn’t have much of string to connect it all. It’s all so scattershot, from lampooning politicians and corporations to squeezing in contrived romance and peculiar and almost nonsensical flashbacks with a fast-talking Ben Kingsley who sounds like he’s doing an impression of Foghorn Leghorn. This movie feels like a collection of discarded scenes that someone pasted together. The movie’s cynicism is almost repellent, and this is coming from a self-described cynic. It isn’t the cynicism that bothers me but it’s the lack of any bigger point. The satiric targets are all cheap and easy, which would be acceptable if the movie did more with the material. War Inc. is remarkably tone deaf when it comes to satire. The Duff sequences are superfluous and are begging to be scandalous, which then undercuts the movie’s potshots about exploiting teenagers for sex. The movie just utterly collapses from the inside out by the end. The most memorable and headline-grabbing moment of War Inc. is when Duff drops a scorpion down her shorts. Does that sound like an enviable creative highpoint?

Nate’s Grade: C-

Reservation Road (2008)

This movie beguiles me. I watched it over a month ago and I am still turning it over in my brain, and not just for the fact that I get it confused with the similar sounding yet also disappointing Reservation Road. It’s another movie that presents the suburbs as a prison of bourgeoisie social moirĂ©s about how men and women are expected to live to be happy. The movie looks magnificent thanks to skilled cinematography by Roger Deakens, even if it falls back on redundant visual metaphors (look, the windows are shaped like prison bars!). The acting by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the unhappily 1950s married couple Frank and April Wheeler, is mostly impressive. Michael Shannon deservedly was nominated for an Oscar as an unhinged realtor’s son who cuts through all the troublesome and fake niceties. It is a terrific performance and jolts the movie with much-needed energy, somewhat like Renee Zellweger’s role in Cold Mountain. I think that’s where my biggest area of concern is: the movie is just kind of placidly dull. Watching people be miserable for most of a two-hour running time isn’t a deal-breaker, but the movie needs to have some life to it. Revolutionary Road feels just as morose and restrained as its assortment of doomed married couples eeking out an existence. Perhaps that is an achievement to be heralded for director Sam Mendes. Then again, perhaps it just means I felt purposely remote and directionless and just waited for the movie to expire.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Tell No One (2008)

Now this is a thriller made with surgical precision. This French film traces a doctor trying to uncover the mysterious murder of his wife, who may be alive after all. The doc needs to stay one step ahead of the police, who still think he’s responsible for his wife’s murder, and he has to also watch out for other shady figures who may be responsible for his wife’s disappearance. This engrossing thriller is character-based and while the twists and turns could induce whiplash, nothing feels totally out of place or unbelievable. This is a movie that holds up upon reflection. All the pieces fit together. Tell No One is exciting, intellectually stimulating, and it keeps you guessing, and yet the movie has a deep emotional core and resonates with palpable feeling. This is a terrific movie that should appeal to just about everybody with a pulse.

Nate’s Grade: A

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Jonathan Demme’s dark comedy is a movie at battle with its context. At heart, there is a fantastic and engrossing family dysfunction that rears its ugly head and re-opens old wounds. Watching Rachel (Rosemarrie DeWitt, who didn’t get nominated for an Oscar why?) unleash years of repressed pain upon the likes of her toxic, needy, narcissistic little sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), just fresh from drug rehab, is enthralling because of how raw and hurtful the emotions are. You can feel the sting of the words. Through the arguments, a picture emerges of this family’s tragic history and he emotional tug-of-war between the siblings. This is the great stuff, but then the setting of the movie overpowers the drama and sidelines it. Rachel Getting Married will make you feel like you are apart of this martial extravaganza, so we see about fifteen minutes of toasting from EVERY PERSON, because, really, much of this is all exposition from characters who won’t be heard from again. We also see about 15-20 minutes of eclectic musical performances, dancing, and all the rest that comes at the close of a reception. While the wedding/reception is an interesting multicultural blend, it feels like an unyielding intermission from the terrific family drama. Hathaway is as good as advertised and soaks up the troubled life of a notorious problem child defined by little else than her problems. DeWitt is outstanding as the big sister tired of being pushed aside. Demme’s handheld camerawork, and the extensive ensemble of slightly eccentric characters, made me feel like this was an Oscar-serious version of one of the Christopher Guest mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman. There is succulent family misfortune here, with great acting, but I wanted less wedding and more Rachel and friends.

Nate’s Grade: B

Gomorrah (2008)

In the Bible, God promised not to obliterate the town of Gomorrah if Abraham could find a righteous man. That didn’t work out so well. This stirring Italian crime drama explores the long-reach of the Camorra crime syndicate stationed in Naples. The oldest Italian criminal organization is larger than the mafia, and the film’s four overlapping narrative threads showcase how the Camorra has a grip on every industry. The usual criminal enterprises are there, from drug trafficking to hired murders, but the organization is also deeply involved in the fashion industry as well as toxic dumping; in a perfect metaphor for the entire film, the Camorra is profiting by burying toxic death just below the surface. The objective docu-drama style lends disturbing reality to the ordeal, though the screenwriting too often feels like a pumped-up “true crime” novel – there’s far more emphasis on the minute details than the people. The movie makes empathy nearly impossible, not that this is necessarily a stinging detriment. The movie steers away from the excitement of violence and instead the death is merciless and swift and unexpected. Gomorrah strips away all the romantic notions involved with the gangster lifestyle; the two teenage gangster wannabes who quote Tony Montana are in for a rude awakening by the established toughs. The movie can be punishing and bleak but it’s always fascinating and told with factual backing that makes it spooky. It may not be as powerful or intense as 2002’s City of God but this is certainly one movie that can be punishing and bleak but it’s always fascinating.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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