Children of Men (U.K., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Alfonso Cuaron
One of the best dystopian thrillers I've seen (that's not saying that much--there are a lot of terrible ones), Cuaron's director's baravado is the real star of this film, with his extremely long handheld takes that bring a riveting immediacy to almost every scene. It's been decades since the last child was born, and as terrorism and riots have descended upon the rest of the world, the U.K. has been transformed into a police state, rounding up illegal immigrants and locking them in cages. Clive Owen plays a jaded beaurocrat who, after running into an old girlfriend (Julianne Moore) who's now working for a terrorist group, unexpectedly finds himself the protector of a miraculously pregnant woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey)--attempting to hide her pregnancy long enough to get her into the hands of a possibly-mythical human rights organization outside of England. The action is intense enough to put you in a thick, cold sweat, but Cuaron also has a knack for finding moments of incredible beauty, as in the memorable final shot.
Curse of the Golden Flower (China, 2006) * * * *
D: Zhang Yimou
The third in what might be a trilogy for the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou (after Hero and House of Flying Daggers), it's received less critical acclaim in the States and disappeared quickly from theaters. Undoubtedly it's because of the unusual style and structure of the film. The first half, in which Yimou finally reunites with his once-favored star, Gong Li, plays like one of their older films--a little bit Ju Dou, a little bit Raise the Red Lantern. With typically gorgeous cinematography and vivid, almost blinding colors, they guide us through the winding passages of the Forbidden City. Li plays Empress Phoenix, who is in love with her step-son, and is slowly being poisoned by her husband, Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat). There are other complications and conspiracies involving her other two sons, too complex to recount in a capsule review, but suffice it to say that King Lear seems to be a chief inspiration. The second half is an action spectacular that builds upon the technology and epic battle scenes of The Lord of the Rings to put them to a slightly different use: as giant armies clash, moving as of one mind, it's like we're seeing a Romance of the Three Kingdoms legend re-enacted in the vivid imagination of a young child.
The Departed (U.S., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Martin Scorsese
Scorsese's remake of Infernal Affairs--a superb Hong Kong thriller which has already spawned a sequel and a prequel--follows the original closely, while adding a completely different flavor. A Boston crime boss, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), watches as his prodigy, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), rises through the ranks of the Massachusetts state police while working as Costello's informant. Meanwhile, Billy Costigan (Leonardo diCaprio) another rising through the ranks, is forced into going deep undercover, first thrown in prison, then gradually involving himself with Costello's affairs. Only the captain (Martin Sheen) and his right-hand man (Mark Wahlberg) know that Costigan is an undercover cop, and Costigan, who spends each day living a life he'd wanted desperately to avoid, grows suicidal. The pace picks up when Costello learns there's a mole in his ranks, and the police learn there's one in theirs, too; soon Sullivan and Costigan are on each other's trail, in a chess game that grows more and more bloody. Nicholson's performance is way over the top, and distracts, but for the most part this is the same kind of hyper-intelligent thriller that Spike Lee made with Inside Man and David Mamet made with Spartan, and kind of makes you wish more of our great directors would try to reinvent the thriller genre.
Flags of Our Fathers (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: Clint Eastwood
The first in Eastwood's two-volume rumination on the battle of Iwo Jima, this one's told from the American point of view, in particular those who raised the flag in the famous photograph. They quickly become heroes on the homefront, but they feel randomly plucked for fame, and undeserving; haunted by the horrific memories of the battle on the Japanese island, their lives begin to fracture. Particularly devastated is Ira (Adam Beach), a Native American soldier who detests the public relations duties, and rapidly descends into alcoholism. The strongest scenes in Eastwood's film come at the very beginning, as we see the battleships filling the horizon as they gather for the assault on Iwo Jima, and the grunts turn to card games, jazz music (hosted by DJ Tokyo Rose), and mild hazing to cool their nerves. All of that seems authentic, as do the hellish scenes of battle, but whenever the film tells its central story--that of the three soldiers relentlessly exploited by the government and the media when they return home--the film is deflated and lethargic. You get the point early on, and you wait while Eastwood hammers it home again and again. Still, the strengths are greater than the weaknesses, and it's a film worth seeing, particularly on a double bill with the follow-up, Letters from Iwo Jima.
Ghost Rider (U.S., 2007) * *
D: Mark Steven Johnson
Nicholas Cage fulfills his longtime dream of bringing his favorite comic book (anti-)hero to the screen, but unfortunately Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil) is in the director's chair. Johnson isn't as bad a director as Uwe Boll, but he seems almost as clueless. At least this film is a couple notches above his last effort, and it's kind of a thrill to see the big flaming skull zip up his leather jacket, convert his stunt motorcycle into a tripped-out skull-and-flames affair, and whip his chain over his head. A fairly faithful adaptation of the comic, with CGI that's hot (as with the Ghost Rider) and cold (as with the demons he fights), it tells the story of Johnny Blaze, a stunt rider of colossal fame (Cage plays him as an eccentric Elvis type), unwittingly selling his soul to the devil (Peter Fonda!) and becoming his cycle-riding "bounty hunter." Eva Mendes is quite terrible as his romantic interest, as is Wes Bentley as the demonic villain, but Sam Elliott is a lot of fun as his gravedigger mentor. Campy entertainment that occasionally has the sense to serve up intentional laughs, as with Blaze's inexplicable Carpenters fixation.
Idiocracy (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: Mike Judge
A military experiment in cryogenics sends two subjects--an everyman (Luke Wilson) and a prostitute (Maya Rudolph)--spiralling into the future, where society has degenerated into such a state of ineptitude that a Gatorade-like energy drink has replaced drinking water (because it has electrolytes) and the President of the United States is part hip hop artist, part wrestling champion. If you use big words, you're a "fag," and the current Hollywood blockbuster is "Ass," which is one long shot of a man's nude, flatulent ass. Wilson's character is deemed the smartest man on Earth and quickly becomes an advisor to the president. Satire is pretty tricky to pull off, but Mike Judge succeeds by combining his sharp wit with a genuine, passionate anger against the dumbing-down of society. It's almost reminiscent of Monty Python's Life of Brian in how it streamlines its satire into a coherent narrative, but most of all it's refreshing to see a comedy that knows how to deliver a smart joke--my favorite being the slide projector gag at the beginning. Although Judge's last film, Office Space, has been a lucrative cult hit, his follow-up was dumped in theaters with no advertising (reportedly, it played in a couple cities as "Untitled Mike Judge Film") by a studio (Fox) that didn't know how to cut a trailer for it. They instead settled on the idea that it would gain a cult following on DVD--overlooking the fact that no one will rent a comedy they've never heard of. Essentially, the studio was as moronic as the culture Judge is parodying. It's not a classic by any means, but it is consistently funny, which is rare enough.
Lady Vengeance (South Korea, 2005) * *
D: Park Chan-wook
The third in Park Chan-wook's "vengeance trilogy" after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003), this ultra-stylish noir follows a beautiful woman falsely accused of kidnapping and murder, who, upon release from prison, sets out to kill the man who framed her. Her elaborate plan is only gradually revealed--as we meet a pack of characters too thick to sort through--leading to a very ugly, messy reckoning. Oldboy received buckets of acclaim, and though I had some reservations about that film, it's superior to this follow-up, which has less to say on the same subject. Often the film is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino, with its fractured narrative devices and visual techniques that draw attention to the editing and camera-work. But there is less here than meets the eye, and little actually happens in the film that sustains one's interest. It's a thriller without thrills, and a mystery without a mystery. There's much to admire in its technique and visual invention, but it's a self-satisfied film that offers nothing substantive for the audience.
Letters from Iwo Jima (U.S., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Clint Eastwood
The immediate follow-up to Flags of Our Fathers is more compelling and powerful. Unlike Flags, almost all of Letters is set on Iwo Jima, as we see the Japanese commanders and soldiers turn the desolate, rocky island into a stronghold, even while learning that, no matter what they do, they are ultimately doomed to defeat and death. Based on the book Picture Letters from Commander-in-Chief, it's a tightly focused recounting of the battle from the point of view of several participants; they write letters to their families at home, form friendships and jealousies, and occasionally recount moments from their past. Actually, much of this plays pretty flatly, with little psychological depth, but moments of stark emotional resonance break through. The most remarkable aspect of this war film is how long, desperate, and despairing the battle is. The Japanese are pushed further and further back, some committing suicide by grenade (in one devastating sequence), others plotting desertion. Because we know the ending to this story, and spend so long contemplating that outcome with its participants, it's one of the darkest war films ever made.
Pan's Labyrinth (Laberinto del Fauno) (Mexico, 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Guillermo del Toro
It looks like it will finally be the year of Guillermo del Toro, the astoundingly imaginative Mexican director of The Devil's Backbone and Hellboy. His taste has always been somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft and Lewis Carroll, and Pan's Labyrinth finally makes that clear, reconciling the two worlds into a vision that's both breathtakingly wondrous and utterly grotesque. As with The Devil's Backbone, to which this seems to be a companion piece, the story is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War--or, in this case, in the immediate aftermath, as Franco's regime holds Spain in an oppressive grip. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is taken to a fort held by the brutal Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who has just married Ofelia's mother, and who's hunting down guerrilla forces in the neighboring woods. It's within these woods that Ofelia discovers the ruins of a labyrinth, in the center of which is a faun who tells her that she's destined to be restored to the throne of a mystical kingdom, if only she can perform certain tasks. As Ofelia sets about on her quest, guided by fairies and pursued by monsters, a real-life horror is enacted around her, as the captain coldly executes any opposed to Franco's regime. The most fascinating aspect of del Toro's widely acclaimed film is how the escapist fantasy proves to be anything but escapist: the faun, growing ever youthful as Ofelia completes her tasks, also becomes more sinister--and the tasks themselves are as bloody, visceral, and disturbing as Grimm's original fairy tales. An uncompromising, adult fantasy.
Princess Raccoon (Japan, 2005) * *
D: Seijun Suzuki
Suzuki's acid trip of a musical adapts an old Japanese legend involving a raccoon princess (Ziyi Zhang, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers) falling in love with a prince (Jo Odagiri), while battling an evil sorceress. Enacted almost entirely on studio sets (which are supposed to look like studio sets), and filled with moments of utter insanity and confusion, the film is Suzuki's attempt to make a new kind of musical, a pure, and senseless, entertainment. Suzuki is a legendary Japanese film director, and he's in his eighties, which you wouldn't know by glancing at this film, which is exuberantly youthful--childish, even. It dwells at the point where a sugar high breaks through into spiralling nausea. Scatalogical humor, as well as many cultural jokes that don't translate at all (but which seem pretty adolescent, anyway), dominate the proceedings. Helpfully, the closing number spells out who were the racoons and who weren't. I could have used that at the beginning, but never mind.
The Queen (U.K., 2006) * * 1/2
D: Stephen Frears
Helen Mirren accepts the mantle of our new Judi Dench, although there's no coronation ceremony in this movie. Frankly, I think one Judi Dench was enough, but Mirren is still quite good as the Queen of England who, when she learns of Princess Diana's death, faces a public relations nightmare when she refuses to serve her respects publicly. But the real delight of the film is Michael Sheen, a dead ringer for Tony Blair who also captures the man's spirit. He serves as the surrogate for the audience, as we're introduced to the interior world of the royal family. It's fascinating to see the everyday life of the extremely priveleged and severely cloistered--to a point--but Frears handles the subject with little subtlety, and there's a great big dumb metaphor walking around in the film in the form of a prize stag, as though writer Peter Morgan just took Creative Writing 101. Prince Philip (James Cromwell) wants to take the boys out to hunt it, but when the Queen finds its decapitated body on a neighboring estate, she finally is able to grieve. Uh-huh. An inelegant film with modest pleasures, that is unsurprisingly reaping the benefits of awards season--at the expense of more worthy films (see above and below!).
Volver (Spain, 2006) * * * *
D: Pedro Almodovar
"Volver" is Spanish for "to return," and the one who returns is the supposedly dead mother (Carmen Maura) of two sisters, Sole (Lola Duenas) and Raimunda (Penelope Cruz). Sole keeps the mother's presence secret from Raimunda, although she also puts her to work in her salon (you can't just have a ghost hanging around the apartment all day). Raimunda, meanwhile, has her hands full: her adolescent daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), has just killed her father in self-defense during an attempted sexual assault. Raimunda hides the body in a freezer in the restaurant next door, and appoints herself the restaurant's new owner when the real one asks her to sell it. Over the past ten years Almodovar has become one of the greatest living directors, while consistently releasing the very best films for and about women. Volver is one of his best, combining his usual harrowing subject matter (in this case, there's a very dark secret revealed late in the film, which casts all the events in a new light) while applying a touch of Fellini.