Reign Over Me (Binder, 2007)

Mike Binder’s The Upside of Anger was the true surprise of 2005, a brilliantly witty and honest film sporting layered characters dealing with a life crisis. Reign Over Me, Binder’s new film about a 9/11 widower played by Adam Sandler living in denial of his family’s death, lacks the resonance of his previous film even though it attempts to deal with more profound material. Dr. Johnson (Don Cheadle), a high end dentist in New York City, spots his old college roommate Charlie Fineman (Sandler) on the street, a man suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has all but forgotten his murdered family. As Johnson begins to understand the gravity of Charlie’s condition, the film goes through the suspected process of redemption and salvation. Lawyers, shrinks, and judges (Donald Sutherland in a great cameo) weigh in on Charlie’s cracking demeanor, leaving the film’s crisis a mosaic of institutional decisions. Binder’s writing often saves otherwise dull scenes between tertiary characters, though when Sandler’s on-screen the film becomes magnetic, the cast often overwhelmed by his conflicted persona. One particular scene stands tall – Charlie tearfully trying to recreate images and memories of his family, a devastating and intimate description of the life he lost so tragically. That’s really the only moment where Reign Over Me won me over, one genuine confession in a sea of well meaning mediocrity.

Broken English (Cassavettes, 2007)

It’s hard to know what other people are thinking, especially concerning romance. A bat of an eye, a shy glance, or even a misconstrued word can spell triumph or heartache when looking for love. Nora Wilder (Parker Posey), the charming heroine of Zoe Cassavettes wonderful romantic drama Broken English, works a boring hotel job while all of her friends sit married and supposedly happy. Life for Nora is standing still, a hodgepodge of self-pity and genuine worry. Throughout Broken English, Nora stumbles into many “romantic” encounters with different sorts of men, all inevitably fouled up by a failure of expectation, communication, or just plain chance. Posey’s performance and Cassavettes delicate pacing raises Broken English above the typical Hollywood romance picture, however the film does play by the genres’ rules – there’s the female and married best friend (Drea de Matteo) who’s just as unhappy as Nora, the wise old mother (Gena Rowlands), and the new French love interest (Melvil Poupad) seeping with appeal. But convention melts away as we get to see Nora panic, hope, dream, and cry for someone to not only to love, but to share her life with. Posey’s performance humanizes a cliche, taking the uncomfortable, loveless wench and churning her into a modern and complex woman searching for a connection in all the right places, yet striking out for reasons she doesn’t want to admit. There aren’t any easy answers to Nora’s situation, and it’s refreshing to experience her plight without a judgmental eye. After all the sturdy work Posey’s done over the years, I can’t say I’m surprised, but delighted does come to mind.

The TV Set (Kasdan, 2007)

Over-the-top at times (people can’t be this stupid can they?), but Jake Kasdan’s satire The TV Set showcases a biting banality of flat lights and artificial back drops that feels menacing and deceptive. When a veteran writer/producer (David Duchovny) attempts to sell and make his passion project for network television, we get a sneak peak at the artistic compromise, maddening corporate interference, and utter spinelessness of the entertainment business as the show purposefully (for the sake of ratings) morphs from “serious” to shamelessly “funny.” None of the characters really get fleshed out beyond cliche, but the sadness stemming from Duchovny’s disappointments and gasps of horror from seeing his labor of love shredded into the dumbest fodder imaginable becomes downright scary. The TV Set is a timely portrait of an artist coming to grips with his own lack of power in today’s entertainment business, but come on, what cynic didn’t know that?

In the Valley of Elah (Haggis, 2007)

While reviewing In the Valley of Elah on Ebert and Roeper At the Movies, Village Voice Media critic Robert Wilonsky reasoned he didn’t care for Paul Haggis’ film because it didn’t reveal anything new about the “soldier returning home” scenario. Maybe so, but since global powers continue to push soldiers into unjust, immoral war time situations and these men return home to consistent heartache, breaking minds, and guilt, doesn’t that make this “tired” scenario more important than ever? If In the Valley of Elah reminds of films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Coming Home in psychology and situation, it makes the film damn important indeed, especially considering how well it’s made. Haggis got his equal share of praise and flack for his last film, the Oscar winning film Crash (which I still find interesting), but where that story revolves around a convoluted mosaic, In the Valley of Elah sticks closely to one gruesome and destructive police procedural. The case involves Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker), a missing soldier just home from a tour in Iraq, whose Vietnam veteran father Hank (the brilliant Tommy Lee Jones) comes to investigate his disappearance. Aided by Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), Hank pieces together a troubling chain of events surrounding his missing son and a group of soldiers from his unit. Haggis pays close attention to the ineptitude of the Military Police and local law enforcement when faced with jurisdictional conflicts, both getting showed up by Hank (he used to be an MP) often and without remorse. Slowly, and with disturbing effect, Haggis reveals clues to Mike’s case through the use of cell phone video footage taken in Iraq, painting a picture Hank never wanted to see. While the material does feel familiar, the film produces a freshness surrounding the advent of media to capture moments and events often sequestered by the military. Haggis also avoids much of the preaching and sap which many found acidic in Crash, using the stoic and chiseled face of Jones as an emissary of pain and redemption through silent close-ups while on the phone with his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), resulting in the best scenes of the film. But this is a father/son story, one drenched in haunting regret and sadness, Hank fighting the guilt and honor of a man who’s lost both of his son’s to war. Hank’s journey is a personal reckoning and In the Valley of Elah a requiem on the consequences of a country immersed in war, a nest of stinging failures felt both at home and abroad. Tragically familiar material.

1408 (Hafstrom, 2007)

Stephen King loves injecting evil into everyday objects, whether it be the car Christine, the dog Cujo, or in the case of 1408, an entire room. Mikael Hafstrom’s film version of the King short story is rail thin in terms of character, but the plot setup and execution are so solid one forgives it quite easily. John Cusack’s gothic novelist Mike Enslin writes books about haunted spots, debunking their sordid histories by doing a sort of travelogue expose on the lack of paranormal activity. So when Mike makes up his mind to stay in the famous death room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in NYC (managed by the great Samuel L. Jackson), we know he’s due for a comeuppance. The visuals are first rate, Hafstrom and Cusack using mood and performance to exhibit a sense of doubt moprhing into dread with increasing effectiveness. Walls turn to ice, blood oozes from walls, and a tiny radio wreaks some serious mental havoc. While the scares don’t have much guts (that is gore), they resonate with Mike’s guilt, the past memories of a dying daughter manifesting quite clearly and painfully . I wish Mike’s cracked psychology could have retained a little more grit, since the room’s horror feels a bit much compared to Mike’s past sins. However, 1408 is all about overcoming wasted talent, a fine theme for a film about a room which fleshes your past regrets and fears into the forefront over and over again, forcing you to “get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Bridge to Terabithia (Csupo, 2007)

Every once in a while someone (usually my girlfriend) convinces me to watch a film I normally would never consider seeing. Bridge to Terabithia, a sometimes affecting and always well meaning fantasy film for kids, falls into this viewing category. The CGI effects are used sparingly and it’s a good thing since the film obviously had no budget. The real discoveries here are the two young stars who save the film from becoming just another annoying kiddy flick. They are Josh Hutchinson who plays Jess, a quiet and refreshingly lonely boy with a skill for drawing, and AnnaSophia Robb as Leslie Burke, the girl who brings out his greatest emotions and imaginings. When these two are on screen, the film takes on a certain resonance of kids at play, learning about their own imaginations with gusto instead of fear. However, the film is directed so blandly the story ends up suffering as well. The great “open your mind” theme rings loud and clear with this writer.

Miami Blues (Armitage, 1990)

Sometimes off-the-wall crime films, those blending comedy with dangerous and murderous characters, succeed in bridging the contrasting styles of genre. Sonnefeld’s Get Shorty or Demme’s Something Wild represent successful examples. But Miami Blues takes the formula to the extreme side of obtuse. Alec Baldwin’s con-man Junior remains an enigma throughout, his past history blank and motivations continuously and deviously muddled. Fred Ward’s bumbling Det. Mosely, the hero of Charles Willeford’s literary series, is the only developing entity in the whole film, an old wise-ass cop with too much to prove and no one to listen. The only reason I watched this was on a recommendation from my favorite critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, when he compared the “humor and pizzazz” of the film to Godard’s Breathless. I’m not sure about that, but at least Godard had fascinating ideas behind the structure of his film, more than I can say for this unfunny and monotonous dud.