Over the past few months I had a chance to watch many not-so-new films that sometimes surprised me - the ones, that is, that I did not expect to be as good or as bad as I found them to be. I may get around to expanding on some of the following short shrifts when and if I find the space.
Righteous Kill (2008) A rare opportunity to see Robert De Niro and Al Pacino onscreen together. Too bad they're both just marking time. Is "I did it for the money" the worst excuse or the best? You decide.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008) Compare this film with De Sica's Miracle in Milan (1951). Slumdog features the poverty and crime of Mumbai, exploited by Danny Boyle for our diversion. And this tripe swept the Oscars.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) From Eric Roth, who wrote the script for Forrest Gump, comes another fairy tale about how people who are short-changed by nature are really more alive and wiser than the rest of us. David Fincher, who did such a great job with Zodiac, Fight Club, and Seven, should have demurred.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) Stanley Kauffmann once remarked that Woody Allen creates his best work when he does not appear in his films. This film is an exception to that rule, since Woody is absent and the film is slight. Scarlett Johansson continues to fascinate Allen, despite being out-acted in every scene she is in. The Spanish locations are well-chosen and photographed (by Javier Aguirresarobe).
The Dark Knight (2008) Christopher Nolan, whose Memento and The Prestige were pretentious trash, continues to improve as a director of otherwise straightforward action films. Better than the first installment of the new Batman installment, Batman Begins, somebody made the comment at the Golden Globes that The Dark Knight is "more than just a comic book movie."
American Gangster (2007) Another American Nightmare. Strange how foreign directors enjoy rubbing salt in American wounds. Dino De Laurentiis did it with Mandingo, Alan Parker did it with Mississippi Burning, and here is Ridley Scott doing it with American Gangster. The difference is, Scott's film is superb.
In the Valley of Elah (2007) Everything about this film is utterly convincing, with one exception. I believed what the film says about soldiers in the U.S. Army, about how combat brutalizes them to the extent that they can turn to murder or suicide almost casually, and about how recruiting quotas are sometimes reached by drastic measures. I even believed in the father of a soldier hoisting the American flag upside down after learning the details of his son's murder. I did not, however, believe in Charlize Theron as a New Mexico cop. Despite her talent, she is simply too beautiful.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Like Chinese opera, visually fascinating but painful on the ear, this non-Western is a kind of oral history of the last days of the notorious American outlaw. But it is authentic to a fault - who wants to spend 2 hours and 40 minutes in the company of semi-literate rednecks? Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil (1999), which covers the same period and territory, made the dialogue elegant in its rusticity.
Valkyrie (2008) Some critics attacked this film for trying to rewrite history. Although courageous, the historical figures Von Stauffenberg, Von Tresckow, Olbricht, etc. were only good Germans who were simply trying to save Germany from destruction. They didn't care a jot for the Jews or for the rest of Europe. Bryan Singer blew his last chance to be taken seriously when he opened X-Men at Auschwitz just to introduce the character "Magneto."
...more to come