The Wolfman (2010)

★ ★ ★ ★

The Wolfman is yet another in a string of genre defining reinventions. It is to the monster genre what The Dark Knight is to the superhero genre, and Sherlock Holmes is to detective films. The critics weren't thrilled by it, but this shouldn't be surprising. There was relatively little violence for a horror film, and there is a level of complexity that most critics seem unable to comprehend.

Most monster movies have one of three problems. First, they fall into the trap of all supernatural movies. The character seems almost impervious to harm, thus reducing the immediacy of potential dangers. Second, they fail to create an compelling bond between the monster, and other human beings. This makes it hard to care about the monster. Third, and most common, they typically fail to conjure up the philosophical potential of the genre. Coppola's Dracula is an example of a film that avoided these pitfalls, though it was marred by other technical issues that prevented it from meeting its full potential. Aside from that, The Wolfman is the only film in the genre since the silent era I can think of that avoided these issues.

Far from simply meeting my criteria, Joe Johnston's film exceeded my expectations on every level. Within the first minute of the film, I knew it would be great. The cinematography was brilliant. Every shot had it's purpose. The often dizzying camera movement slowly fleshes out the surroundings, conveying a sense of vulnerability. We know there's something out there, and we know that there is nowhere to hide.

I cannot imagine a more perfect Wolfman than Benecio Del Toro. The additional facial hair almost looks natural on Del Toro, and his detached demeanor made him a natural for the role. Anthony Hopkins was solid as the elder Talbot, and Hugo Weaving was well cast as the lead detective. Much to my surprise, the stand out role was played by Emily Blunt. As The Wolfman's only connection to humanity, she is the thread that holds the film together.

The Wolfman explores the connection between trauma and social deviance. As we gradually discover tidbits from Lawrence's past, the allegory becomes evident. The Wolfman is a product of its environment. It is a dangerous creature, that can only be cured at great personal risk to others. Some will say that the only way to cure it is to release it from its burden. Perhaps this is the case. This is a revelation that has profound consequences with respect to rehabilitation, and mental illness. It is one of those possibilities that no one wants to explore. As human beings, we tend to avoid such unpleasant thoughts. The mark of a truly great film is that it challenges our prior beliefs. By this measure, The Wolfman is a major success. Don't let the critics dissuade you. Cinematic experiences of this quality are few and far between. Catch it while you still can.


Shotgun Stories (2007)

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Shotgun Stories, directed by Jeff Nichols, is one of the best debut films I have ever seen. Few directors have the courage to ignore most film conventions, and the judgement to do so without everyone noticing. This isn't a film about heroes and villains; a battle between good and evil. Rather, it is about two families embroiled in a dispute where everyone is wrong.

The film is about the two families left behind by a recently deceased man. The man's first family shows up at his funeral, and reminds his later family that he had not always been the good man they knew him as. This simple act reignited the hatred that the two families were raised to feel towards one another. Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, the dispute takes on a life of its own. The transgression in question was committed by a dead man, and the consequences are in the past. Yet, they feel compelled to maintain the feud as a matter of honour.

The story is notable more for its omissions, and false starts than for the actual events. It was far more honest than most films. Scuffles break out, but they typically fizzle out. At least one member of each family wants to end the feud, but their reticence seems to embolden the other family members. It's as though both sides wants to maintain the animosity, but neither wants to take it beyond the occasional shoving match. There is hatred between the two families, but it is not all consuming. Minor incidents lead to further conflicts, but the escalation never seems intentional. It is an untenable equilibrium, and there is a sense of inevitable tragedy.

The passivity of the conflict is underscored by the languid pace of the film. It has a pastoral feel, which is underscored by folkish score, and minimalist dialogue. The characters are painted with an essentialist brush. Whether in their personal lives, or in the feud, they act on impulse. They give little thought to their actions, though they're never in a rush to see them through. Though some viewers may find the pacing too slow, it is hard not to get caught up in the sheer beauty of the film.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

★ ★ ★ ★

Legendary director Werner Herzog has taken his career in several different directions since his glory days in the 70's. Notably, he now works almost entirely in English, and with major Hollywood actors. In Bad Lieutenant, Herzog casted Nicolas Cage to play the aptly titled main character in a wry take on the neo-noire genre. As usual, Herzog uses this film to examine the dark side of humanity, though in a more accessible manner. In marked contrast to his earlier work, Bad Lieutenant is funny, even feeling light hearted at times. The cynicism of the film is always buoyed by Nick Cage's casually vulgar performance. He makes you laugh, even when you suspect you shouldn't.

After seeing Fear and Loathing, I assumed that there was no need to ever see another drug movie. Trainspotting was the only exception that I'd found until the Bad Lieutenant. Herzog captured the casual hypocrisy of the Drug War by exploiting every imaginable stereotype about police corruption. While Cage's character was off the wall, he was never quite over the top. Somehow, it wouldn't surprise me if there were a dozen officers playing by his rules in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Despite the nonchalant attitude the film takes towards drugs and violence, it still maintains the subtlety that you would expect from a director of Herzog's stature. As the film progresses, tiny fragments of information congeal to give the seemingly aimless plot line some direction. Though it would be a stretch to call it conventional, there is a story buried beneath the rubble. Even if there wasn't, the comedy would be enough to make it worthwhile. I never thought I would say that about a Herzog film.


Shutter Island (2010)

★ ★ ★ ☆

Shutter Island was a good film that could easily have been excellent. Though the film was based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Scorsese attempted to pattern the film after Orson Welles' adaptation of The Trial. Unfortunately, the latter influence was undermined by the former. It felt as though Scorsese was attempting to stitch together two different movies.

Scorsese did an excellent job of creating a claustrophobic feeling on Shutter Island. There is only one way out, we're told, and and only by ferry. The camera was generally focused in from the characters perspective, and was always moving. It always felt like it was drawing the characters, and the audience towards some unspeakable horror. This was especially well done in the scenes inside the prison.

The oppressive grip of the island was broken in two different ways. First, there were a series of dreams that Teddy (DiCaprio) had about his dead wife, largely set within the walls of the prison. This did somewhat reduce the immediacy of the dangers lurking in the island, but did contribute to the back story. A second set of dreams went much further towards breaking the spell of the island. These dreams were centered upon dreams about Teddy's experiences in the war. These were very problematic. By transporting us through time and space, Scorsese not only slowed down the pace of the present storyline, but also eased the oppressiveness of the island. The Kafkaesque atmosphere that Scorsese ultimately fell prey to the heavy handed screenplay that is to be expected from an adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel. We were constantly given more information than we needed, and the pacing suffered.

Aside from structural issues, Shutter Island was technically sound. Excellent performances all around, and the cinematography should nab Robert Richardson an Oscar nod. With DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, and Mark Ruffalo playing major roles, it should be no surprise that the acting was spot on. Though far from perfect, Shutter Island is one of the year's first must see movies.


Crazy Heart (2009)

★ ★ 1/2

You've no doubt heard that Crazy Heart is this year's version of The Wrestler. After all, that's how it's being promoted. Watching the film, it was entirely obvious that the director had the same comparison in mind. I'll spare you the suspense: It was nowhere near as good as The Wrester. Rather than capitalizing on the success of it's model, it was a victim of it's own ambition. If you're going to pattern your movie after a great film, it has to add something in order to avoid redundancy. By that metric, it failed. That is, unless you really liked the music.

Crazy Heart never quite captured the sense of inevitable decline found in The Wrestler, nor did it achieve the stasis of a film like Sideways. It's wasn't about a man who couldn't help himself. Rather, it was about a man marred by temporary setbacks of his own creation. It was neither sad, nor funny. Scott Cooper tried to recreate The Wrestler, but ended up with a sanitized version of Leaving Las Vegas. It wasn't a bad movie. It just wasn't particularly interesting.

As much as I like Jeff Bridges, I don't think that either he or Maggie Gyllenhaal deserved Academy Award nominations. They played the roles well, but they weren't roles that required much extension. Bridges was good, but not good enough to redeem an unremarkable film. After Mickey Rourke was overlooked for his role in The Wrestler, it would be insulting if Bridges were to take home an Oscar for a cheap knock off.


Bronson (2009)

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Bronson is a film about British prisoner Michael Gordon Peterson, later dubbed Charles Bronson. Peterson was sent to prison for robbing a bank, and went on to spend the majority of his life in solitary confinement. Peterson always wanted to be famous, so he made sure to use this opportunity to build his notoriety. While he is not a household name, he has become a star to his fellow inmates, and more importantly, to himself. Bronson is a tale of the purest narcissism imaginable. Only a masterful performance could possibly make the film interesting. Fortunately, Tom Hardy delivered.

Prison films tend to be about troubled characters who are struggling to escape from their demons. Bronson is quite the opposite. Bronson has no interest in rehabilitation. It is tempting to think that he is just a masochistic lunatic. After all, right from the beginning of the film, the man invites constant physical punishment. Yet, he never seems to be malicious. Like a mischievous child, Bronson always tries to push his boundaries. He constantly provokes the guards to attack him for his own amusement. The physical punishment never seems to bother him. It seems that he is the star of his own one man show. Though his personal amusement is enough to justify his constant punishment, he relishes the notoriety that it has caused. His only use for others is as instruments. Guards, women--their only use is to further his own personal drama. This is the ultimate narcissism.

Bronson is one of the grittiest art house films around. It's repeated violent sequences are bridged together by a the main character performing a stand up routine, likely in his own mind. Though the violence is brutal, and the plot line slow, Bronson is always gripping. It's funny, yet we feel guilty about laughing. Bronson is an ascetic, or a madman. He never quite lets us into his mind, but he always reveals just enough to keep the audience wondering.


The Last Station (2009)

★ ★ ☆ ☆

There are few things more difficult than turning the life of a great novelist into a film. As such, I was not expecting much from The Last Station. Sadly, I got less than I'd bargained for. I expected it to be an interesting biopic, much life you'd see on television. Even by that metric it failed.

It is a real shame to see a film about Tolstoy fall flat. There is so much that one could do with the man's life, but instead the film focused on a copyright battle. His pacifist followers were determined to release his materials into the public domain, to attempt to build his anarchist movement. The director never ceased to remind us of just how important this was. The film begins with an explanation of how important the movement is, and how crucial the copyright issue is to it's success. Unfortunately, it is not at all convincing. While Tolstoy influenced important figures such as Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, his movement never became broadly popular. Tolstoy didn't even seem to care. Had this scenario have been used ironically, it may have been interesting. Unfortunately, director Michael Hoffman seemed to take it more seriously than the author. The plot seemed stitched together; aimless.

An even more serious problem than the plotline was the fact that they even attempted to make a film about Tolstoy in English. Frankly, it is extremely unwise to make any film with English actors playing Russians. Russians have an emotional range, and accompanying mannerisms that do not come easily to non-Russians. Attempts to emulate this usually end up looking ridiculous. Even a talented actor like James McAvoy couldn't pull it off. Christopher Plummer's role didn't quite demand the same reach, and he didn't try to provide it. I'm a huge fan of Paul Giamatti, but I couldn't help but cringe at his accent. Helen Mirren was slightly better, though a tad shrill. I don't fault any of the actors, as they are all fantastic. This just wasn't the project for any of them.

One day I hope that an interesting film about Tolstoy is released. Hopefully the next time around, it is actually made in Russian. There is an obvious temptation to make everything in English, since many people don't want to deal with subtitles. This is just another example of why it's difficult for great films to be popular. Film lovers would rather watch authentic films, made in the proper language. Casual movie goers might not. Given that this was supposed to be an art house film, I'm not quite sure why they didn't give the audience a little more credit.

Moon (2009)

★ ★ 1/2

Moon is the type of independent film that I should like. It is philosophical, resourceful, and well acted. Yet, there was something missing. It never quite reached the heights--or the depths--that it ought to have. It didn't add anything to a genre that has already been explored by great directors such as Tarkovsky and Kubrick.

As far as directorial debuts go, Moon was impressive. Duncan Jones did well to avoid the campiness of his father's space themed movies. However, the fact that it was an impressive debut, and that it was better than David Bowie movies, only gets Moon so far. Sam Rockwell has been heavily praised for his performance, though he never quite captured the solitude of his situation. It was kind of like watching a man furrowing his brows at his mothers funeral. Under some circumstances, that gesture would indicate an appropriate level of frustration. In this situation, it just isn't enough. Rockwell's performance was mopey, not sad. Kevin Spacey, as Moon's version of HAL 9000 was as detached as one might expect from a robot, though too much so for one that has allegedly attained consciousness. GERTY never displayed the malice, or the reticence of HAL 9000. In short, he was dull.

As far as the storyline goes, it is interesting. Given the subject matter, I would have expected it to be intriguing. The theme of cloning is one that has yet to be exhausted, and holds deep philosophical implications. Which Sam is the original? Does it matter? The first question wasn't adequately exploited, and the second was barely broached. In the end, the story fizzled out. Unable to properly explore the moral implications of the situation, they filled the vacuum with political nonsense. My advise is to watch the film, but ignore the hype. The film's greatest curse is the unreasonable expectations created by critics, rather than its modest budget.


Top 10 Films 2000-2009

10) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Terry Gilliam films are not for everyone. They are enigmatic, and unorthodox. Few directors would make a film about a travelling sideshow, co-starring the world's shortest man. The Imaginarium is a film about the artist's quest for immortality. While Parnassus strives for authenticity, he is tempted by the lure of popularity. Clearly, this was a very personal film for Gilliam. As a director who works far outside of the mainstream, he is constantly faced with this tradeoff. As usual, Gilliam's efforts were complicated by a production disaster. This time, it was the death of Heath Ledger. Remarkably, all of the non-CGI scenes had been shot at the time of his death, so Gilliam was able to complete the film with the help of a few prominent surrogates. Somehow, everything came together. As abbreviated as his role ended up being, this was ultimately Heath Ledger's film. His entrance into the film is the most spectacular I've ever seen, and he owned the film even after he disappeared.

9) The Orphanage (2007)

The nomenclature for the "Horror" genre might as well be changed to "kinda sorta scary stuff that makes me jump outta my seat." That's about all you will usually find. There is a difference between fear and horror. The Orphanage is one of the only recent films that is both terrifying and horrifying. South American magical realism is one of the most interesting genres alive today. I was very torn between including this, or Pan's Labyrinth to represent the genre. Though Pan's Labyrinth may have had deeper philosophical implications, The Orhpanage created far more suspense, and was much more tightly constructed. Every scene contributed to the mystery, and the film ended on precisely the type of note that the genre aspires to. The blurring of imagination and reality was masterfully crafted. The idea of salvation through imagination has rarely been so maserfully illustrated.

8) Atonement

I know, I know. Just another conventional love story right? Not even close. Sappy romances are not my thing. They are typically contrived, and formulaic. Atonement did not fall into this trap. Based on one of the best novels of the decade, Atonement had far more depth than one would expect from a popular romance. Giving the audience multiple perspectives on events gave us an unusually adept insight into the minds of the characters, and showed us just how devastating a simple missunderstanding can be. Joe Wright has an uncanny eye for perspective and detail. Some directors would would stick in a a whole scene to talk about how nervous the protagonist is about a date--or worse, use a voice over, when all Joe Wright has to do is show the flicker of a lighter to convey the same emotion. Joe Wright is the closest thing our generation has to Orson Welles.

7) The Wrestler (2008)

Darren Aronofsky is one of the most talented directors around. The Wrestler is his masterpiece. The film is about a broken down wrestler trying to make his way back to the top. The film is a model of techincal perfection. The music, the cinematography, the acting--everything conspired to bring out the overwhelming sadness of the story. Against the backdrop of New Jersey, the story was bleak. However, there always seemed to be a glimmer of hope right around the corner. Mickey Rourke played the role admirably, and it is a crime that he was deprived of the Oscar. I can only think of one better comeback role in recent memory. Speaking of comeback roles, Marissa Tomei's performance was also Oscar worthy. She may already have an Oscar, but this time she actually deserved it. At it's core, The Wrestler is an elegy for the 80s. The decade was gaudy, and self absorbed. It was the first in a series of generations composed largely of perpetual adolescents. The Wrestler is a film about what happens when that adolescence ends.

6) The Dark Knight (2008)

Simply put, The Dark Knight is the greatest action film ever made. It had a complexity that is unmatched in the genre. Christopher Nolan delved even deeper into his examination of the tension between truth and justice than any of his previous films. At it's heart, the film is deeply Straussian, and forces us to contemplate whether sometimes the truth is not good enough. Perhaps we need a noble lie to inspire us to be better than we really are.

5) JCVD (2008)

I have never been more surprised by a film than I was by JCVD. The film more effectively blurred the line between documentary and fiction than anything I've seen. This is largely due to the fact that the film mirrored Jean Claude Van Damme's real life struggles. Here we have a man who has just lost a custody battle over his daughter, and who's celebrity has faded. He has never made a film he is proud of, and he approaches an art house director to see if he can make a serious film. Van Damme proved that he is more than a man with a mean roundhouse kick. Most of his lines were unscripted, including a powerful 6 minute monologue where he shatters the fourth wall, and appeals directly to the audience. Like The Wrestler, JCVD was a cinematic redemption. Only this time, it's real.

4) Boy A (2007)

Boy A takes a brutality honest look at the possibilities, and perils of rehabilitiation. Through a series of flashbacks, we get a sense of how Jack had come to be an ex convict. I can't think of a film with a linear, coterminal flashback sequence that worked out this well. Boy A succeeded where Godfather 2 failed. The urgency of the present is matched by the urgency of the past. Andrew Garfield is likely the best young actor in Hollywood. Though his rehabilitation is quite evident, he never let's his troubled past escape us. The justice system has suceeded against all odds to rehabilitate him, but not to prepare him to deal with his own terrible legacy.

3) Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Many critics consider Synecdoche to be the best film of the decade. It is a film that delves deeply into our notions of individualism, and comes to some troubling conclusions. Maybe we aren't so special. The artist, the performer, and the man on the street are all actors in their own insignificant stories. No matter how hard we try, we all end up as disapointments. All we can do is keep on striving towards the impossible ideals with which we have been furnished. Even if you disagree with the premise, it is certainly a compelling examination of secular man's search for meaning.

2) Fateless (2005)

Based on the Nobel Prize winning Holocaust novel Fatelessness, Fateless is arguably the greatest literary adaptation of all time. I suppose it didn't hurt that the Imre Kertesz, the author of the source material, wrote the screenplay. Fateless departs from the conventions that we associate with Holocaust films. Much like Empire of the Sun, the plot unfolds from the point of a child, unaware of the seriousness of the events. The film is as apolitical as one could imagine. It wasn't about the evils of the Nazis, or the missfortunes of the Jews. Rather, it was about the banality of evil. No one involved quite understands why they are doing what they do. Everyone has their specific role. Persecutor, and persecuted are equally prisoners to their circumstances. Every single character added something. The reactions of Georgi's grandparents as his father is reporting for the camps was absolutely heartbreaking. Daniel Craig's brief appearance was easily his finest role. Bleak as it was, Fateless was never quite devoid of hopefullness. Perhaps one day the guilt of the survivors will be forgotten. Alas, that may be the greatest tragedy of all.

1) Adaptation (2002)

Adaptation is one of the most complete film experiences imaginable. It is not only Kaufman's funniest movie, it is also his most intelligent. Adaptation delves into the mind of a creative genius attempting to do the impossible: make a film about flowers. He wants to eshew all of the conventions of film. No one should fall in love. No one should change. Nothing should happen. While he is trying to adapt The Orchid Thief (an extraordinary book by Susan Orlean), his brother (and alter ego) Donald is breaking into Hollywood writing a completely non-sensical screenplay which (surprise, surprise) the production companies love. Kaufman's hopeless project takes an abrupt turn after a workshop with a writing coach, recommended to him by his brother. The irony of the film is complete when he enlists his brother to help deliver the type of film that the audience actually wants.