Juno (Jason Reitman). Almost as tough to swallow as Hard Candy, that faux-feminist bile that set a precedent for the precociousness Ellen Page belligerently spews here, though less sketchy than Little Miss Sunshine, last year’s pageant of Indiewood quirkitude. I get why Comic Book Guys dig Page—she can outwit them, but she would also let them bone her (at least she tells them she would)—but I would rather be trapped in a room with a hungry, face-munching rat than watch the egomaniacal Juno weave one of her ungodly snark quilts. Also, by the time that song about the dog wanting to be the cat and the cat wanting to be the mouse came on the soundtrack, my survival instinct kicked in and I was ready to chew my arm off, but I settled for making Arrested Development cracks until the last act, which was lovely, yes, because of the moral clarity and consistency Juno shows, but also because the film had finally run out of seasons to animate on the screen.
Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck). Ben Affeck’s directorial debut plays like Mystic River for Lifetime, from its bland bid for moral engagement from its audience to a look at working-class life in Boston that never transcends kitsch. Given the film’s pedigree, it seemed wrong that I was able to call the preposterous ending a mile away, but there it was—every bit as absurd as the last film Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman or Bruce Beresford made together. The casting of Trudi Goodman as a coke-snorting pedophile felt particularly inhumane, though not as mind-boggling as the beeline Michelle Monaghan made for the exit at the end of the film (those who’ve read the book tell me her character has been considerably dumbed down), leaving Casey Affleck sitting on a couch wondering if kindergarten-cop duty is just punishment for the ethical exactitude he showed earlier.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sydney Lumet). Run Lola Run for the Lincoln Plaza sect, but with less pop and significance. Mostly an overactor’s showcase, this nihilistic cheapie allows the one and only Philip Seymour Hoffman to make frequent and dubious use of the word faggot. The script is obviously responsible for the architectural design of the thing, but Lumet, who revealed during the film’s NYFF press conference that he didn’t know whether Kelly Masterson is a man or a woman, has gotten all the credit.
Starting Out in the Evening (Andrew Wagner). Treks familiar ground—call it NYC lit porn, with half the incisiveness of Husbands and Wives, but also none of its misanthropy—though you wouldn’t know it from Frank Langella’s conviction. Like Benicio del Toro in How Our Pupils Dilated When the Things in Our Garage Caught Fire, he trusts, inhabits, and redefines a stock type—here a has-been author sheltered from the world and struggling to push out a new creation—making an ordinary film seem less so.
Redacted (Brian De Palma). Ugly. Naïve. Shrill. Hateful. What’s more tragic: That this marks the lowpoint of De Palma’s career or that Bill O’Reilly, the worst person in the world, more or less nailed it without even seeing it?
Beowulf (Robert Zemeckis). More so than George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis hides behind technology to cheat us of human experience and feeling. Like 300, Beowulf is at once luridly sexed up and homo-wary, a Shrek film for Playboy subscribers, but put me in the chorus that’s praising the epic dragon showdown in the second half. Also, until I saw There Will Be Blood last week, the year’s best score belonged to Alan Silvestri, if only for the sinister crescendo that signals all of Angelina Jolie’s comings and goings.
The Savages (Tamara Jenkins). When Laura Linney finally wins an Oscar, will it be for having made a career out of playing the same character over and over again with the staunch, actorly conviction that she wasn’t? Because Tamara Jenkins contrives lame, shopworn scenarios to force two estranged siblings to give a little heart and soul, I imagine the story’s snooty lit-circle aura is accountable for the film’s histrionic plaudits. We like what we know, and the Sideways Fan Club is naturally fawning over this one, but you’d think more people would be shooing Jenkins’s Solondzian self-referentiality. “You didn’t think it was some middle-class whining?” Umm, yeah. “You didn’t think it’s self-important and bourgeois?” Completely. Been there, never want to again. One caveat: Philip Seymour Hoffman may be a more arrogant performer than Linney, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he deflects, almost humanely, the Wendy character’s cruel and presumptuous behavior.
Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy). Scarcely nuanced moral quandaries, a typically hammy performance from Tom Wilkinson, preposterously symbolic use of fillies, and a middlebrow aesthetic no doubt intended as a gesture of good will toward producers Steven Soderbergh, Anthony Minghella, and Syndney Pollock, the film has the energy of a particularly weak AM transmission and is capped with a shot more vainglorious than the whole of 300.
3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold). After all the annoying postmodern dithering of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it was a relief to see a western uninterested in condescending to the genre. I’ve stepped in deeper puddles of water, but the filmmaking is agreeably old-fashioned and the performances—except for Ben Foster, who appears to have already reached his expiration date—are equally sturdy, with Russell Crowe redeeming himself, retroactively in my case, after the abomination that is Ridley Scott’s witless American Gangster.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.