Tell No One (Canet, 2006)

Tell No One, a sometimes exciting but ultimately muddled French thriller, contains far too much plot and not enough character. It claims to be an edge of your seat thriller brimming with smart twists and turns. Wrong on both counts. The premise is enticing enough – a tormented man receives a web video with his deceased spouse very much alive, eight years after her supposed brutal murder. Yet the intriguing first act turns into a mess of vague characters, convoluted narrative devices, and a lame-duck hero attempting to think outside the box. By the end of this shifty and unsatisfying story, all roads lead to redemption.

The problem lies in the fact that the hero, nor the heroine, never needed redeeming in the first place. The story doesn’t begin with a tragic inaction or guilt-ridden moment, so the ensuing conflict really originates completely for one-dimensional plot points, making the melodramatic ending even more inconsequential. Tell No One technically was released in the U.S. in 2008 and made a bundle at the box office, proving yet again American audiences prefer “familiar” foreign films, those imports that share many inept qualities with the dime a dozen homegrown thrillers gracing our silver screens each month.

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Ashes of Time Redux (Wong, 1994/2008)

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Wong Kar-Wai takes his time revealing the thematic motivations and concerns within Ashes of Time Redux, a gorgeous remastering of his 1994 Martial arts film. But as Wong’s trademark ruminations on love, honor, and guilt finally connect with the often violent and mystical Samurai narrative, the film achieves a devastating melancholy worthy of its genre. No other director addresses the haunting theme of lost love with such clarity and honesty, and Ashes of Time Redux, while disjointed and sloppy at times, provides many fateful moments drenched in heartache. The film stars a who’s who of Hong Kong stars doing their best at tragedy, and Wong guides each longing face into a realm of suffering that never quite feels permanent, yet remains impacting and genuine.

Watchmen (Snyder, 2009)

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Watchmen, the masterful graphic novel created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the mid-1980’s, envisions a world where masked heroes are outlawed, nuclear war is imminent, and American history becomes a complicated river of deception, murder, and greed, producing a hurricane of pertinent subtext, political commentary, and dense mise-en-scene throughout 12 blood-drenched chapters. Zach Snyder’s ambitious but ultimately flimsy screen version imitates the graphic novel’s menacing and shifting visual aesthetic, yet completely hollows out everything that made the original so important. Snyder’s Watchmen starts out brilliantly with a brutal re-visioning of The Comedian’s death, then one of the best credit sequences I’ve seen, charting the Watchmen’s origins and involvement with 20th century wars, assassinations, and political unrest, all to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Without dialogue, Snyder captures the vitality of the story’s historiography and brings his own visual flourishes to the table, often tilting the image to simulate a photograph being snapped and recorded. However, Snyder never elaborates on the connections between the original Watchmen and their tormented predecessors, something that made the original so damning. Call it a casualty of screen adaptation, trimming down the excess fat for the meatier action and sex scenes. But the scars of such absences are unmistakable throughout, leaving dramatic scenes without much background, instead dwelling on the amazing visuals to carry the plot. Also, aside from the ingenious casting of Jackie Earle Haily as the ideologically immovable Rorschach and Jeffery Dean Morgan as the psychotic The Comedian, Snyder’s choice for actors, from Billy Crudup’s lifeless Dr. Manhattan to Matthew Goode’s preening Ozymandias, are uninspired caricatures of the originals. The film never gives the performers enough nuance to bring these conflicted anti-super heroes to life. And so goes Watchmen, a grand visual spectacle with moments of greatness swirling around in a mass of Hollywood melodrama and super hero expectations –  a near miss not nearly as complex as it should be, problematic in all the wrong ways.

Marley and Me (Frankel, 2008)

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There’s something magical about owning a dog. Their presence inevitably places worth on the smallest endeavors and the simplest moments. No matter the age, dogs can bring out the best in people, even during the worst of times, and David Frankel’s Marley and Me captures this particular dynamic beautifully. Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston play a young couple recently married who move to the sunny confines of Miami to pursue careers as journalists, and in an attempt to stave off the responsibility of having a child, man buys woman a puppy. Of course such a simple decision turns into a large, decade-long responsibility paralleling the couple’s highs (family, job success) and lows (miss-communication, guilt). For a Hollywood film with big stars and large box office expectations, Marley and Me surprisingly never manipulates the natural sentiment on display, using an excellent script by Scott Frank and Don Roos to ground the characters in real life, three-dimensional situations with pitch-perfect dialogue and pertinent thematic motifs. Marley and Me contains all the doggy sight gags promised in the trailer, but offers so much more in terms of honest vulnerability and compassion.

The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, 1940)

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What to say about this pictorial, breath-taking call to arms that hasn’t already been said? Tom Joad’s penchant for brutal violence stands out more than anything else after this most recent viewing, and the evolution of his physicality, beginning with the meaningless drunken brawl/murder that gets him imprisoned, which transitions to his meaningful lethal blow in defense of Casey, seems to be a key point. The sudden violence first stems from Joad’s weakness to liquor, then his own realization about the injustices of unfair wages and labor tactics, a different kind of Kool Aid that produces just as fiery an outcome. As Joad escapes in the final scene, Ford shows his hero in extreme-long shot, a faceless shadow framed by an endless mountainside, a semi-religious icon of perseverance and morality striving forward to preach the gospel of leftist politics. Too bad he’s had to kill twice to find the lord. It’s an interesting dichotomy that complicates Joad’s role as a pure hero of the working man.

La Strada (Fellini, 1954)

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I’ve always preferred Fellini’s early, lyrical films over the outlandish and fragmented later ones. Masterpieces Nights of Cabiria and La Strada remain essential, even transcendent films obsessed with bridging the most potent aspects of Neorealism with Fellini’s unique brand of comical tragedy. It’s no coincidence both star the amazing Giulietta Masina (also Fellini’s wife of some 50 years), whose melancholy and whimsy define the resonant themes of each story. Specifically in La Strada, Gelsomina’s(Masina) smile, her tears, even her trumpet engage post WWII Italy in ways seldom seen since, tearing the heart out of an angst-ridden nation unable to grapple with her naiveté and child-like innocence. It’s simply impossible not to be moved by the final musical notes whispering on the ocean wind as Zampano (Anthony Quinn), realizing his brutishness has been a meager mask for his inadequacy, crumbles to the sand destroyed with regret. Gets me every time.

Gardens of the Night (Harris, 2008)

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Gardens of the Night tackles the unimaginable, and in many ways the unfilmable nightmare of a child abducted, then raised under the devastating guise of her kidnappers. In an attempt to complicate and in many ways re-focus the attention on character and away from the intrinsically awful scenario, director Damian Harris injects a sense of magical realism into the narrative, momentary glimpses of imagination, light, and color amidst a consisntelty dark and foreboding mise-en-scene, aesthetic choices that illuminate the childhood innocence surrounded by evil.

At times, the film is too much to bare, especially in the first half where young Leslie, who’s been manuipulated into thinking her parents have abandoned her by Alex (Tom Arnold), begins to look inward to avoid the obscene and horrifying reality around her. A young boy named Donnie, also a hostage of Alex, becomes Leslie’s key ally, a relationship that connects a flash forward of eight years, the children now homeless teens depending on each other for survival. Their kidnappers are long gone, but Leslie and Donnie still drift through life with the presence of abuse draped around their sagging shoulders.

Harris uses cyclical victimization as the film’s most potent thematic structure, pitting Leslie against a local pimp who asks her to lure an unsuspecting girl out of a homeless shelter for his own gain. The film consistently struggles with the idea that once taken, a person can never truly go back to their previous reality, a stark and sometimes overly depressing idea. However, as the last shot conveys, Leslie chooses the life she knows and depends on over one last fleeting attempt to please someone else.