Recently on netflix...
The Corner. Relentless and outstanding piece of work. The creative team behind The Wire is responsible for this 2000 HBO mini-series and you can certainly see that team developing its signature style: realistic, character-driven, slowly unfolding narratives about drugs in Baltimore. But The Corner values depth over breadth. The Corner doesn't have The Wire's broad scope, instead benefiting from a more tightly focused gaze on two middle-aged heroin addicts and their teen son. Imagine The Wire if the stories all revolved around the day-to-day lives of Bubbles and Johnny Weeks and Michael's mom. Depressing stuff, but powerful too. Grade: A-
Transsiberian. Not my cup of chai. Despite a good performance from Emily Mortimer, this is a suspense film that never made me anxious. Essentially, a troubled American couple finds intrigue on a long and snowy train journey across Russia. The plot had loads of potential and I was really looking forward to what I thought would be part Hitchcock homage and part moody and cold melodrama. The story never struck me as real and, though the characterizations were interesting, I never felt all that invested in the good guys, bad guys, or morally ambiguous guys. This reminded me of a lot of the post-Fargo, mediocre, late 90s films (think "Simple Plan" with Billy Bob Thorton) about everyday folks who get caught up in crime and/or their own moral underworlds. Grade: C-
Step Brothers. Bloody awful. Only the most devoted Will Ferrell fans need apply. Grade: F
Tom Petty: Runnin' Down a Dream. I watched this documentary and "The Waiting" played in my head for about a week. Actually what was in my head was Eddie Vedder's brilliant rendition of the song, backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as heard in one of the many excellent live clips from this doc. Though cool in their own right, those live clips are bested by the film's characterization of Petty himself. The film introduces Petty in his own words as well as the words of his colleagues and peers, admirers, producers, bandmates, and even ex-bandmates. We get a view of Petty as a great songwriter and performer and also as a staunchly individualistic and ambitious (sometimes to a fault) dude. "Runnin' Down A Dream" tells some great stories: Petty fighting with his record label, attorneys, the industry at large. The stories suck us in, but so do Petty's traits. I'm not sure I'd want to be a Heartbreaker. See this great documentary and maybe you'll see what I mean. Further, this is a documentary that manages to make an argument. "Dream" (successfully) makes the case that Petty's music bucks trends but also fits nicely within unexpected genres like, say, first-wave punk. Don't be scared off by the four-hour (!) running time. Even casual music fans (admittedly, I am NOT in that camp) will appreciate the many ways "Dream" transcends "Behind the Music" cliches. Grade: A
Recently at the cinema...
Gran Torino. Loved it. I haven't seen much of this winter's Oscar bait, but so far this is my pick for best film of '08. And not just because it's set and filmed in Detroit. Clint Eastwood, director and star of "Torino," puts a subtle exclamation point on his career. The story is low-key and energizing all at once. Eastwood plays an utterly unlikable racist. See the film and notice that he never really becomes likable. It takes some real narrative restraint to tackle themes like redemption without a feel-good protagonist or a whole lot of comic relief. Imagine "The Shawshank Redemption" if the Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins characters were both pricks. There are so many things that "Gran Torino" doesn't do: tell viewers how to feel or how to think about big things (Race. The City. Catholicism.) or small things (Eastwood's character's parenting skills), fill up the soundtrack with swelling music, provide easy answers, etc. I could go on but I won't. See this. I got home and put all five Dirty Harry movies on my netflix list. Grade: A
Seven Pounds. Speaking of films that take on big themes and moral ambiguities. Here's a film in which Will Smith plays with his own unimpeachable likability (as he did in Hancock) by playing a character who makes some screwed-up choices. Like Eastwood's character in "Gran Torino," the enigmatic Will Smith character is a new kind of vigilante. I won't reveal the film's secrets but I will say that, although the film is emotionally manipulative, it resists facile readings. Are Smith's actions good? Are they bad? Ultimately do his choices benefit the common good? Do they benefit himself? You might hate this movie but if you really stop and think about these questions, you won't be able to come up with easy answers to them. Overall, this is a fair piece of work. Grade: C
Slumdog Millionaire. Thoroughly enjoyable. Definitely not the best film of the year, but I appreciated the original mode of storytelling. In fact, I love the very *idea* of telling somebody's life story by explaining how that person knows the answers to particular trivia questions. And I was captivated by the unflinching representations of poverty. The early acts of the film have an affective quality that's almost indescribable. You'll walk out of the theater remembering many of the images. Hats off to director Danny Boyle. You know those moments in Trainspotting that still take up space in your cranium? Boyle offers a whole bunch of those this go around. Grade: B+