Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Stoller, 2008)

Obviously resting on their previous laurels, the Judd Apatow Train grinds to a standstill with this benignly amatuerish comedy about a Hollywood composer (Jason Segel) who gets dumped by his girlfriend, a devilish “It Girl” television actress named Sarah Marshall. The film has an arrogant transparency at its core that overwhelms the central themes of artistic expression and emotional honesty. The Apatow Universe is already beginning to feel tired, most notably here with the irritating performances by Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd, once strong mainstays of this particular comic trend. Put Forgetting Sarah Marshall alongside the droll laziness of Pineapple Express and you’ve got a picture of how unsuccessful 2008 has been for Apatow compared to their breakout a year before.

Some Came Running (Minnelli, 1958)

Some Came Running is a lush tapestry of color and subtext that reminds of a Hollywood long since dead and gone, one that seems as foreign now as ever. What begins as a standard melodrama, with an estranged soldier (Frank Sinatra) returning home to presumably cause trouble and scandal for his greedy older brother, slowly evolves into something else altogether – a labyrinth of secrets, uncertainties, and disappointments taking place on many different levels and classes. There’s a patience in the storytelling, equal parts direction and performance, that enables the audience to develop a rapport with the characters as they experience a kaleidoscope of emotions. Minnelli oftern holds the camera on his players, soaking in their point of view not through irony or wit, but with a genuine sense of loss (the final pan across Sinatra and Dean Martin speaks volumes). Some Came Running spends so much time documenting these relationships its hard to imagine it ending, and when it does the film reveals itself as a heartbreaking tragedy of the first order. All those sharp hues that were supposed to signified love or hope end up representing a sense of staggering regret we never knew was there.

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

Incredibly sad news this weekend with the passing of Paul Newman. While he wasn’t a personal favorite of mine, one can’t deny the importance and range of Newman’s career (especially his iconic turns in Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Nobody’s Fool). Pictured above in what for my money is his greatest performance as pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson in Robert Rossen’s masterpiece The Hustler.

The Indian Fighter (De Toth, 1955)

A far cry from the taut pacing and subtlety of The Day of the Outlaw, Andre De Toth’s The Indian Fighter glorifies a simplistic brand of machismo posing as progressive historical revisionism. The film attempts to deal with an interracial relationship between Kirk Douglas’ frontiersman and a Sioux woman (played by Italian Elsa Martinelli), but the representation of this union is forceful, trite, and masochistic. Maybe the problem lies with Douglas’ brutish performance. Like most of the characters in the film, De Toth’s direction feels intimidated by such a presence and as a result, is unable to achieve nuance or subtext. Douglas runs free, showing off his bravado for anyone willing to listen. That such an unlikable hero saves the day in the end unscathed and horny just reiterates De Toth’s jumbled Western mythology.

The Seventh Calvary (Lewis, 1956)

The Seventh Calvary peaks early, with a brilliant scene where Randolph Scott’s calvary captain returns from retrieving his new bride only to find an empty relic of Manifest Destiny, a deserted fort engulfed by forest and snow peaks. Scott’s men have been slaughtered along with Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn, leaving him outcast in the eyes of his surviving superiors as a dishonorable absentee of war. It’s a haunting moment and one of the best the genre has to offer; a long glance at “civilized” man realizing his mortality in the face an unrelenting natural solitude. Unfortunately, Lewis’ film bogs down in petty bickering and melodrama, culminating in a ridiculous, almost insulting finale. I’m still not convinced of Lewis’ stature as a major director, now having been disappointed with three of his supposed “best films.”

Bottle Rocket (Anderson, 1996)

Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s beautifully eccentric debut feature, hints at the complex connections between family, mise-en-scene, and self-worth on display in Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums. Anderson’s career trajectory seems familiar; a young filmmaker who initially alludes to his artistic obsessions through witty banter and ironic scenarios, then shifts gears (as his budgets get bigger) toward a purely cinematic vision (in this case filled with texture, color, and unspoken subtext). Some twelve years later, the pragmatic, bare bones aesthetic on display in Bottle Rocket is refreshing, reminding why lush tapestries like The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited feel so cold on the inside. It’s worrisome that Anderson’s penchant for lavish visuals is overwhelming his characters’ potential to be human.

Speed Racer (Wachowski, Wachowski, 2008)

The most fun no one had this summer can be found in The Wachowski Brothers’ movie adaptation of Speed Racer, a blatantly silly, flamboyant, and complex juxtaposition of image and sound built around the deconstruction of child-like innocence facing down corporate domination. It’s not surprising Speed Racer (which cost upwards of $150 million) failed miserably at the box office, since it doesn’t circumvent artificiality (like The Dark Knight) or pander to pop culture insignia (like Iron Man). Instead, Speed Racer revels in its pulsating hues and deafening explosions of a futuristic world defined by a visceral racing fun house and ruled by greedy conglomerates posing as policy makers. The film wears its heart firmly on its sleeve, which speaks volumes about the filmmakers intent to make a visually dynamic children’s film. For much of Speed Racer, this combination of genre and technology creates a blissful cloud of colored smoke and mirrors unworthy of the smug dismissals made by most American critics. How ironic, that in the most flimsy and fluid film of the year, some of the most genuine character interactions emerge unscathed and brimming with emotion.