Film Reviews

Are You In or Out?

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Chopper Former music-vid director Andrew Dominik makes his feature-length debut with a movie about a violent, self-righteous criminal whose published (tall) tales may or may not be the stuff of self-made myth. Eric Bana plays Mark "Chopper" Read as likable rogue, and the movie never judges; we've plenty of room to do that ourselves in a film that eschews narrative for vignettes woven together with blood and bullets and the occasional knife to the ear.

Hybrid: One Man's Passion for Corn Monteith McCollum's documentary about his grandfather Milford Beeghly's obsession with crossbreeding corn makes all other docs look flat and dull; it's the David Lynch film of the year, at least better than the real thing's willfully odd offering. McCollum's six-years-in-the-baking film, shot on 16mm black-and-white stock with old footage of his grandpa spliced in, is short on narrative but long on the beautiful and bizarre--so much so that either you love this movie, which presents corn as a living entity, or you despise it for being like nothing you've ever seen. Does make it hard to take a bite, though--all that talk of "ripened ovaries" and incest. Yuck...and, oddly, yum.

In the Bedroom First-timer Todd Field sticks close to Andre Dubus' short story "Killings" and fills in the blanks with Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and a whole lot of overwhelming grief that sticks with you days later. Spacek gives one of those performances people always talk about but rarely deliver; she says everything with her silence and red-rimmed eyes that evoke tangible pain. Wilkinson is a portrait of sedate, sad rage; his actions are unexpected, but explicable nonetheless. And this contains the second great Nick Stahl performance of the year, after his turn as the Bully who bites it.

Memento Probably the best oddball offering since Being John Malkovich, a promise yet to be fulfilled two years later by most films. Chris Nolan's bass-ackwards tale of murder, betrayal, madness and memory loss is beguiling and hysterical, a tattooed love letter to film noir; even the actors couldn't make heads or tails of it upon first viewing, though they insist it stuck close to the script (go figure). On second and third (and 11th) viewings, it holds up, precisely because it never feels the need to explain everything. OK, anything. Cameron Crowe, we're looking at you, pal.

Monsters, Inc. To those who insist Shrek is the better animated movie, give it five years, then go back and see how vapid and slight it is--and ugly, to boot, like something trimmed out of a PlayStation game. (Just see how funny that Matrix gag plays, or that Smash Mouth song.) This Pixar offering, with John Goodman as the cuddliest furball this side of Ron Jeremy and Billy Crystal as one of my Jewish uncles, is timeless, richly rendered and deeply felt--a lush fairy tale without need of being fractured.

No Man's Land Danis Tanovic's debut is the year's best (war) film, combining the dark laughs of a M*A*S*H with the chilly thrills of a Lifeboat with the guilty pangs of a Three Kings. Two Bosnian soldiers and their Serbian counterpart are caught between enemy lines (speaking of which, Owen Wilson oughta be ashamed) but never resolve their differences; an American director would have had them meeting in the middle for a cathartic hug. Funny and bleak till its sobering finale, which catches in your throat--the chuckle that turns to a sob.

Ocean's Eleven The snobs sneer at its star power; the cynics, its sheer, giddy fun. It's as though there's some kind of resentment against Steven Soderbergh for not making a "serious statement" when he just wants to round up the boys (Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Cheadle, Garcia...and Roberts) for a slick night out of gins and grins. (And these are the same naysayers who loathe Traffic, so go figure.) Also, bonus points for hiring Elliott Gould (underused since the '70s, when he had less body hair), Carl Reiner (shades of Your Show of Shows) and Bernie Mac, who talks the way Clooney looks and acts--smooooove.

The Pledge Sean Penn directs Jack Nicholson as an obsessed cop who gives in to his demons--which may or may not exist, far as anyone else can tell. For a moment, all of this seems too familiar--the retired cop who refuses to acknowledge he is past his prime and becomes determined to solve a closed case. But there's no glib resolution, no easy answer. We wonder whether Jack is motivated or mad; his brain spins with images and utterances laid out along the way like clues, if indeed there is a murderer still on the loose. And it's not hard to see why actors love working with Penn, even in the smallest roles; he lets them speak monologues even when they're saying nothing at all.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky