DVD Reviews: Faboo & Fab-Not

We watch a LOT of movies. I’m not a big movie fan, and when I want one, I’m perfectly happy to throw in a tired copy of something I love and have seen 14 times. But Dearest is always on the hunt for something new; hence, I see a LOT of movies. He often picks them, and he’ll watch anything, so I feel like I can offer an unbiased assessment of a fair range. Isn’t that nice of me?

Listed in alphabetical order, as I remember them.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Bad title — a little too reminiscent of The Devil Went Down to Georgia and banjo picking, with which it has nothing in common. The story, however, is inspired, and the acting (Philip Seymour Hoffman (is he EVER bad?), Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and Marissa Tomei) is superb. This isn’t a movie that makes you feel good or erases the strain of the day; it’s more in the vein of Igby Goes Down, a family favorite around here. But you’ll be glad you watched it, and the ending is one you’ll remember.

Before Sunrise: What is it about this movie? I’ve heard two men say it’s a favorite. Personally, I love a romance. Personally, I love a talky, hypothetical, heady film. I didn’t like this. Men generally don’t go for either, so why this one? Admittedly, Julie Delpy is gorgeous and alluring; sadly, Ethan Hawke is not. Score one for the guy audience. I can see this as a fantasy: American Boy and French Coquette meet on train, jump off together for one night in Vienna — what’s not to like? I didn’t feel the chemistry, the dialogue seemed contrived, and the editing sucked. I spent most of my time wondering what she had done with the gargantuan flannel shirt she wore tied around her waist in half the scenes, and seemed to have tossed in the other half. That thing would have clothed a horse. There were a few good lines, but not good enough to remember. I was bored.

Reason to Watch: A few nice shots of Vienna; an hour and a half of plum-lipped Julie Delpy.

Reason to Pass: Good Looking Strangers with Instant Attraction and One Night Together? How can you screw that up?

Brick. Good kid wrestles with the subculture in this movie set in a Southern California high school. The twist is the film noir aspect, excellently executed. Most pleasant surprise is the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the kidlet on Third Rock from the Sun — 100% compelling.

The plot line doesn’t fall close to your average-day-in-high-school, and I can’t say the film made it believable, but perhaps it wasn’t really meant to be. But neither does it play down to high school level; the dialogue is meaty, referential, and intelligent, albeit sprinkled with terms outside my usual frame of reference. Watching Gordon-Levitt deliver them was like watching one of those guys who juggles plates on a 10 foot pole balanced on the end of his nose, except a lot more fun.

Reason to Watch: Gordon-Levitt’s exceptional performance; Emilie de Ravin as a quick-fix for Losties; slang updates.

Reason to Pass: Expect to pay close attention and use your rewind button a bit. Closed-captioning was a must for this movie. Only a bit of violence, but gory.

Conversations with Other Women. I liked this quite a bit, both for its very attractive stars (Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter) and the witty presentation. A man and woman meet at a wedding reception and begin talking. The dialogue is effortless, honest, and sensual in the manner of those who show their emotional nakedness without fear of the consequences. The story unfolds through more conversations recounted by split screen techniques and breakaways, which some will like and some will not. I found it innovative and charming, a movie that makes you feel good about love and relationships without bearing the burden of a “romantic comedy” label, although probably more memorable for technique than the fine acting or quite healthy plot.

Reason to Watch: Love. Gutsy dialogue. Filming. Helena’s curls.

Reason to Pass: You have to like a gentle love story. And conversation. If you’re into chase scenes or macho, you’ll be bored.

Drillbit Taylor: Budget Bodyguard: Sound like a loser? Starring Owen Wilson and some well-cast young misfits, this movie is a this-close-to-disaster type pre-teen film that actually works. Much like Zoolander, it’s funny and lovable, and you’ll sleep well afterwards.

Reason to Watch: Well cast, good-enough script, funny throughout.

Reason to Pass: Not exactly Oscar material.

Fur. Well, you gotta wonder what that one’s about. My daughter and I actually rented this one solely on the fact that it has Robert Downey, Jr., including a shot of his buffness on the cover. Very, very misleading advertising, as he is covered stem to stern in eight inches of fuzzy stuff for 98% of the film. It’s actually about Dianne Arbus, credited with changing the face of American photography. I have to say that this movie was artfully made and held my interest. I do think the film could have made its point more powerfully with a less ridiculous premise.

Reason to Watch: Nicole Kidman exquisitely portrays a sheltered woman’s shy and tentative entrance into the world that she will impact rather profoundly, and she does this almost entirely without words. Brilliant.

Reason to Pass: Circus freaks? I’m sorry, but what were you thinking? An apt metaphor, yes, but over the top. WAY over the top. And yes, true to the nature of the slow awakening, the film plods.

Human Nature (2001). Well, I think Sweetie meant to order Human Nature (2007), which was billed as a Swedish Sci-Fi flick and which this decidedly was not. But hey, it was a Sunday night, so we watched it. What is was was a campy (but not quite campy enough) combo of I Heart Huckabees, Fur, and Young Frankenstein. Sadly, a little too heavy on the former. Good message; reasonable acting. Not funny enough to be a Romp with Meaning, and not sardonic enough to be A Film.

Reason to Watch: I like Rhys Ifans a lot, and love that Welsh, um, -ness. He can really make a scene. He’s been used to better advantage, but he did a good job with the Ape Becomes Cinderella.

Reason to Pass: You can get a copy of Young Frankenstein pretty cheap these days. And it’s funny.

Lars and the Real Girl: Lonely misfit male orders blow-up companion. Think you’ve heard this one before? Trust me; you haven’t. Writer Nancy Oliver (of Six Feet Under) creates a script so funny, touching, human, fantastical, ridiculous, and real that I’ll follow anything she writes from here on out. Ryan Gosling as Lars is 100% believable, despite the unbelievable circumstances. Patricia Clarkson’s physician is exceptional, but hey, even the smallest roles in this movie are exceptional. Gotta, gotta see it.

Reason to Watch: Lots of laughs and a sensational script make this one of the best-feeling feel-good movies ever.

Reason to Pass: Difficult to explain to the kids.

The Last King of Scotland. Ah, Idi Amin. Another movie I didn’t want to watch, with a cruelly misleading title. Again, I was wrong. The beauty of this film is that it traces Amin’s paranoid, tyrannical journey through the eyes of his fictional personal physician, a rich-boy-turned-mission-physician with an untested philosophy of idealism, morals based on youthful optimism rather than the wisdom of experience, and a need for fatherly attention. James McAvoy epitomizes that neophyte doctor, but could have added more to the role as his awareness progressed. Forest Whitaker is superb as Idi in his poles-apart personalities, and makes each one frighteningly believable. The point I lost somewhere while writing this paragraph is that this film succeeds so well because it sneaks us past the horror and focuses instead on the mental twistings of the man who sparked it.

Reason to Watch: Excellent acting, well-told story, and a powerful warning about how we process the people and events in our daily life.

Reason to Pass: Be prepared to cover your eyes a few times. This story couldn’t be told without horrific violence, but the point was made powerfully with a less-is-more approach.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). A German-language film with subtitles, it won won the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Best European Film of 2006 by the European Film Academy, and Best Picture as well as six other awards from the German Film Academy. I’m sorry to say I’ve never heard of it. This is the epitome of the “Movie I Would Never Select” — German, political, philosophically and situationally depressing, and little eye candy. It was magnificent and deeply inspirational in a decidely un-Hollywood-ish manner.

Reason to Watch: The triumph of the human spirit, the collapse of sterotypes. Ulrich Muhe, who acts with his eyes. Subtlety at its most powerful.

Reason to Pass: If you hate subtitles, shame on you.

Lonely Hearts: I hated this movie, and didn’t want to write about it, but then I figured that was reason enough. The true-story premise is okay (couple preys on lonely hearts, bilks, then murders them without arousing suspicion), and it could have been a good watch, but the writing and direction are odd. It has the feel of watching a comic book on the screen, with a crude, unlikeable, and mostly inept police force battling a pair of whackos. I disliked the ignorant, wooden portrayals, and I disliked the lingering blood shots, which fit in well with the comic book feel. This movie gave me nothing. John Travolta and James Gandolfini might as well have been doorknobs. In an odd twist of directing, only the killers seemed real.

Reason to Watch: Salma Hayek is chilling, far surpassing cold-bloodedness.

Reason to Pass: All of the above.

Magnolia: It’s long, it hurts, and it’s bizarre, but I have to tell you that this is very, very near the top of my Best Films Ever list. Born of the many-stories-come-together ilk, it’s fairly easy to follow and the exceptional acting (Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, and Melora Walters) goes well beyond the script in making you care passionately about the characters and the outcome. Two dying men review their lives and the choices they’ve made, interspersed with scenes of how their lives have affected those in their wake. The script, dialogue, and acting are hard-hitting and dead-on. If Boogie nights was Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on The State of Life in the 70’s and 80’s, Magnolia is his full-flowered epic on The State of Life at the Close of the Second Millennium. It will make you think twice about the state of your own. Many are turned off by this movie when it twists, and I was one of them. But it haunted me, and on the second viewing, it made perfect sense. And for those who can’t get it, John C. Reilly sums up the plot in one sentence: “What can we forgive?”

Reason to Watch: This film requires your brain and your heart. If you use them, you’ll never forget it.

Reason to Pass: This film requires your brain and your heart.

Notes on a Scandal: This movie was superb. Judi Dench is always excellent, but here she creates a character both charming and eerie, confused and controlling — no mean feat. The plot is edgy, yet believable, and the ending just right.

Reason to Watch: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, well-woven and unraveling plot.

Reason to Pass: No bullets. No car chases.

Perfume. Everything about this film is achingly beautiful . . . except the story. I have to give points for the masterful duality of filming a sordid story rife with murder and multitudinous gruesome images so . . . prettily, making it all the more disturbing.

Premonition: Crap. Sad, because I really like Sandra Bullock.

Reason to Watch: None.

Reason to Pass: Any and all.

The Savages: My daughter is currently in her Philip Seymour Hoffman craze, so they’re all on the queue at Blockbuster. I was eager to watch this, because PSH takes on meaty roles and really makes you feel them, and Laura Linney is an all-time fave. Both are excellent in this film, portraying flawless characterizations in a movie very wrongly promoted as darkly but tenderly humorous. There were a few funny moments, but by and large it was a too-true and too depressing look at emotionally struggling adult children of a man slowly losing his grasp on reality and life itself.

Reason to Watch: Good character portrayals.

Reason to Pass: Painful.

Unknown. Fabulous premise. Five men wake up in a warehouse with total temporary memory loss. One is restrained; one has been shot; one has been beaten. Each looks in the mirror at some point, wondering whose face is staring back. Who am I? Does it matter? Am I who I was yesterday, or am I whomever I choose to be today? I’m a sucker for the psychological question, but this movie manages to ask the questions and deliver a well-paced mystery that will entertain the non-heady as well. Great performances, great gritty set, artfully-eased clues. Killer! ending.

Reason to Watch: Story, pacing, ending, and well-presented characterizations by all the actors, especially James Caviezel, Barry Pepper and Greg Kinnear. The humor of “naming” amnesia victims by the only means possible: “Jean Jacket,” “Broken Nose,” “Rancher Shirt.” Gotta love it.

Reason to Pass: Hmmm, can’t think of one. Not the best movie I’ve ever seen, but well worth two hours on a slow night.