The fall movie season is off to a shaky start. Anticipated films like the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading, Clark Gregg’s Choke, Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna and Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness have left critics (and most audiences) wanting.
Even the relatively well received Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist has its detractors (like me) — if you're hanging your entire premise on being knowing and hip, you'd better be knowing and hip, which N&N doesn't quite pull off. It's like a meld of 200 Cigarettes and Empire Records (come to think of it, that might sound good to some people) — glossy imitations of the real thing. N&N is much too conventional, which is somewhat surprising considering director Peter Sollett was the guy who gave us the perceptive teenage romance Raising Victor Vargas.
(Michael Cera and Kat Demmings contemplate what might have been in Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist.)
Add this week’s two biggies — The Duchess and Body of Lies — to the list of disappointments. While each has its charms, neither is entirely satisfying. (See reviews below.)
Lucky for us, we have other options. The Contemporary Arts Center begins its “Historical/Horror Film Series” on Monday night (Oct. 13) with a double feature of John Huston’s Let There Be Light at 6:30 p.m. and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr at 7:40 p.m.
Finally, and most curiously, the Esquire Theatre will present a Paul Newman Tribute with rotating screenings of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Verdict beginning today through Oct. 16. Go to www.esquiretheatre.com for times.
On to a complete list of this week's theatrical releases. As usual, several didn't screen for critics in advance, which means I'll have reviews up for them later this weekend.
Opening films (Oct. 17):
BODY OF LIES — While Ridley Scott's film strips away much of the fat from David Ignatius’ source novel, it also winds up frustratingly superficial. Body of Lies is a nuts-and-bolts action drama putting on the undercover persona of something with a message. Still, it's fairly successful as an action drama. (Read review here.) (Rated R.) Grade: C plus
CITY OF EMBER — Upstart British director Gil Kenan’s latest family-friendly fantasy finds an elaborate underground city in peril as its once powerful generator begins to fail. It’s up to a pair of teenagers (Soairse Ronan, so strong in Atonement, and Harry Treadway) to save the residents of Ember — including its curiously upbeat mayor (Bill Murray) — before it’s too late. The massive cast includes Tim Robbins, Mary Kay Place, Toby Jones and Martin Landau. (Rated PG.) Grade: Review coming soon
THE DUCHESS — Saul Dibb’s costume drama captures the look and feel of the period exquisitely but lacks the daring to provide greater context for its titular character's political activism. Stars Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. (Read review here.) (Rated PG-13.) Grade: C plus
THE EXPRESS —Dennis Quaid has a thing for sports flicks. The trend continues in this true-life story of Syracuse running back Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. Quaid plays Ben Schwartzwalder, Davis' inspirational — and revolutionary — coach. Gary Fleder, the guy who once upon a time gave us the stylish, corrosive crime thriller Things Denver to Do in Denver When You're Dead, directs what looks to be yet another uplifting sports drama. (Rated PG.) Grade: Review coming soon
QUARANTINE — Quarantine might be a remake of Jaume Balaguero’s Spanish thriller [Rec], but, if the trailer is any indication, John Erick Dowdle’s big feature splash looks to suckle the creative teat of last year’s surprise success, Cloverfield. The plot centers on a television reporter (Jennifer Carpenter) and her cameraman (Steve Harris) who battle a mysterious adversary while trapped in an apartment building. (Rated R.) Grade: Review coming soon
Oliver Stone has been out of sorts ever since he gave people an aneurysm with the over-the-top, frenetic football extravaganza Any Given Sunday (1999).
Now that I think about it, U-Turn (1997) blew, too. In fact, it’s been since the underrated (and under-seen) Nixon (1995) that Stone had me fully engaged.
Recent years have been especially tough on the onetime provocateur: World Trade Center (2006) seemed a naked attempt to prove he could make a standard studio picture after the unqualified disaster that was the bloated, thoroughly disjointed Alexander (2004). How far had Stone fallen? I didn’t even bother to catch World Trade Center or Alexander during their theatrical run — an unthinkable occurrence back when even his less successful films were at least intriguing in their mix of testosterone-laden spectacle, pungent dialogue and formal dexterity.
All that said, I can’t wait to see what Stone does with W., his take on the presidency of George W. Bush (as played by what looks to be an inspired Josh Brolin).
The movie opens Oct. 17
Here are a few trailers to tide you over.
Longtime film critic/historian Jonathan Rosenbaum has been staying busy since his departure/retirement from the Chicago Reader. In addition to his ongoing DVD column for CinemaScope, Rosenbaum recently wrote a lengthy piece on 100-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira (yes, he’s still making movies!) for Film Comment, he took part in a “Criticism in Crisis” panel at the New York Film Festival and unveiled his new Web site, JonathanRosenbaum.com.
Presented essentially in blog format, the site features many of his archived Reader reviews (with more coming every week) as well as new musings on myriad film topics, including an essay on cinema trends during the George W. Bush years entitled “Bushwacked.”
Incisive on a number of the levels, the piece — originally written for the latest edition of the Time Out Film Guide — discusses how our rapidly fracturing cultural sphere has impacted movies (and moviegoing) before moving into an investigation of how this development parallels President Bush’s own bubble mentality. (It’s a dismaying turn of events I like to call the Death of Context.)
Of course, Rosenbaum’s diagnosis is often dire, effectively linking Bush’s blissfully ignorant governing techniques with the rapidly changing landscape of serious film culture. Fittingly, he also writes about the various Iraq War-based films that have sprung up in recent years, most of which have garnered disinterest from the public at large while nevertheless providing a vital history the mainstream media has either glossed over or ignored altogether.
And, ever the contrarian, Rosenbaum couldn't help but get in another dig at No Country for Old Men, which he considers the most overrated film of 2007.
That last opinion aside, “Bushwacked” is essential reading.