Well, I have seen so many movies since the last time I wrote... I think I'm just going to go ahead and get it out in one big burst. That will clear the decks for me to start thinking about my next piece, about "Weeds" Season Three (recently out on DVD and viewed by me for the first time) and Season Four (four episodes in on Showtime). See, now that I have it written here, I have to do it, right?
In no particular order:
Night at the Museum Not entirely sure why I decided to tape this, but I'm glad I did. It doesn't transcend the kids' movie genre at all and even for a fantasy the logical holes are colossal, but it won me over with a message you don't see too often in Hollywood movies. The hero solves the conflict by studying history!
The Negotiator Since its theatrical run, I've always kind of wanted to see this movie, but didn't get around to it for whatever reason. It was about as I expected, pretty standard cop action-drama stuff with a rote double-cross storyline and a nagging question at the end -- whether or not Sam Jackson's character was innocent of the original crime he was accused of, doesn't he still have to answer for holding a bunch of people hostage? That's still a crime, right? Weird. Anyway, the city of Chicago looks really good in this one.
United 93 Not at all difficult to watch, for me at the very least. Director/writer Paul Greengrass very clearly did a massive amount of homework. Not every passenger on the doomed flight gets a character moment, but it's resonant and laudatory how Greengrass manages to pay tribute to the lives of so many even while telling a complicated story. He also shows uncommon sensitivity to the characters of the terrorists. You can find yourself sympathizing with them, amazingly. I also like how Greengrass used many of the real air traffic controllers and military officers to play themselves. You can imagine watching the film what a challenging, therapeutic experience it must have been. You should really see this movie. For me it proved a reminder of hope and human goodness in the midst of incalculable evil.
Semi-Pro Pretty terrible. This movie tampers unnecessarily with the Will Ferrell sports-movie formula and the grungy feel does not suit the jokes at all. It's like trying to light a match in a vacuum. The major inspiration seemed to be the flawed classic Slap Shot, a movie with a very different sense of humor. Ferrell's comic characters are always too moronic to be believable, and grafting his Jackie Moon's stupid antics to what I think is supposed to be a more or less serious love story between Woody Harrelson and Maura Tierney makes neither work. Anchorman and Talladega Nights took place in candy-colored sitcom fantasy worlds; it was OK to laugh at all the idiocy because nothing was at stake. But Semi-Pro tries to go for realism, sort of, and the result is an out-and-out flop.
Atonement Not bad, but not at a Best Picture level. The movie takes an eternity to get going, and by the time the twist you know is coming arrives, you lose all feeling for where it's headed. Then it meanders for a little while and out of nowhere has a very badly handled surprise ending. The disingenuous structure sort of takes the spotlight from some very good performances from James McAvoy and Keira Knightley (both devastatingly sexy) and all three actresses who play the third major character at different ages. I think I might enjoy it a lot more if I saw it a second time, since the thing that really stuck with me was how badly the script bungled the ending.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford I love westerns, and I have a bit of a man-crush on Brad Pitt (who doesn't), but I hadn't read enough about this movie to know it was a full-fledged art film. How can you tell? Well, it's almost three hours long, that ought to be a dead giveaway. I didn't get bored at any point, but I did keep wondering whether all of the padding was really necessary. It doesn't help the momentum of the main story that members of the gang involved in James' last heist keep dropping in and out of view for hours at a time. That said, the interplay between Casey Affleck as Ford (who's fantastic) and Pitt as James is charged and tense for the whole run and in contrast to some of the other films I've watched recently, the ending is just right both in terms of giving the audience all the information it still wants to know and nailing the film's overall theme down. Westerns are always made to comment on their own times and not those in which they're set, but Jesse James has kind of an unusual modern relevance for a cowboy picture. It's about the idea that fame and glory are something that can be passed on or even stolen, which to me makes me think about reality television and the modern cult of celebrity. Can't finish without mentioning "Deadwood"'s massively talented chameleon Garrett Dillahunt, who has a role different than any I've seen him in before and is so good it took me half the movie to realize it was he. No makeup or prosthetics -- just by slacking his face and draining the intelligence out of his eyes, he becomes an entirely different man. This guy will win an Oscar one day, given half a chance. Maybe if somebody cast him in something besides a western.