My Kid Could Paint That
dir. Amir Bar-Lev
Amir Bar-Lev's wrenching, suspenseful documentary about whether a 4-year-old named Marla Olmstead is an abstract-painting prodigy or a pawn of her parents, her dealer, and the press ends with Bob Dylan singing. "Someday," he croons, "everything is gonna be different, when I paint my masterpiece."
Everything became different for the Olmsteads. The film begins innocently, tracking Marla's rise. Her parents offhandedly put her paintings in a friend's coffee shop and people began to buy them. Things began to turn with the appearance of her art dealer, who describes the family, eerily, as "perfect" enough for "a Gap ad."
Since this is our second exposure to the 2004 media blitz the movie documents, we know what's to come, and begin straight away looking for motives. Marla sells her paintings for thousands of dollars, but why are people buying them? Why is her dealer selling them? Why does the New York Times respond with a story about an experiment it conducts on other children, testing whether they are prodigies?
We don't have to look hard for any of these motives. The father, an amateur painter who loves the limelight and the limousines, is caught on a 60 Minutes hidden camera telling Marla which color to paint. Repeated attempts to get her to paint on camera are, dispiritingly, failures. The dealer confesses that he hates abstract art and relishes the idea of revealing it as a fraud. (He is a photorealist painter.)
Finally, things go meta. The anguished reporter who first broke the story in the Olmstead's hometown of Binghamton, New York, scolds the documentarian for exploiting his already exploited subject—an argument seconded by A. O. Scott in the New York Times, who argues that this film shouldn't have been made at all.
I think he couldn't be more wrong. My Kid Could Paint That is the most honest, direct movie about the dark side of art—especially in an art-illiterate country like this one—that I've ever seen. And there is a dark side. Not everybody's in it for the love of the work, and it's not all about the elevation of the human soul. Why do you think great art has always been so argumentative? JEN GRAVES
Gone Baby Gone
dir. Ben Affleck
Like most good mystery novelists, Dennis (Mystic River) Lehane generally keeps the actual mystery on the back burner in favor of exploring what said event does to the people who experience it. What further distinguishes him, and occasionally elevates him to the level of the greats, is his gift for mapping out the lasting consequences. There are no tidy resolutions or happy fade-outs in Lehane's universe, only a dazed realization of how far the stain has spread. Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck's adaptation of the fourth installment in Lehane's celebrated Kenzie-Gennaro series, absolutely nails the dismount, keeping the book's thorny sense of morality while adding a living, breathing Boston atmosphere that most veteran directors would be proud of. It's a great movie.
Affleck and cowriter Aaron Stockard keep the basic gist of the novel—a low-rent private eye (Casey Affleck) takes on a routine missing-child case, only to step into something considerably murkier—while shearing off many of the subplots and complications. Purists may complain about the changes, but they all feel carefully considered and ultimately necessary to keep things moving. (Unfortunately, such fierce compression also means that Michelle Monaghan's character, a major player in the series, here gets unfairly demoted to second-banana love interest status.) The source material remains untarnished.
It's hard not to view this film as a particular vindication for Ben Affleck, a guy who's always seemed considerably smarter than his acting choices would indicate. (Yeah, he starred in Armageddon and Pearl Harbor and everything, but he also went out of his way to hilariously trash them in their respective DVD commentary tracks.) The way it looks now, everything else in his career might have just been a warm-up for his true calling. Well, except for Gigli. That one's still inexplicable. ANDREW WRIGHT
Lars and the Real Girl
dir. Craig Gillespie
Lars and the Real Girl has been generating a lot of fratty chitchat lately as a pervy novelty film. Like, hoo-haw! I saw on E! News that there's a movie about a sex doll! A doll! To have sex with! That is so nasty, brah! I hope it has Dane Cook! Who wants to go tanning?
But Lars and the Real Girl is very far away from all that. Quiet, sad, funny, a little precious, it's about a guy named Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling, twitchy and earnest), who lives in a snowy town and is extremely freaked out. He is terminally awkward. Hugs feel like burning. One day, Lars announces to his brother and sister-in-law that he has a "visitor" coming to stay: "She doesn't speak much English." "She's shy." "Bianca is a missionary." "Somebody stole her luggage, then they stole her wheelchair!"
Bianca, of course, is not a real person, but a Real Doll: one of those horrible fucking silicon things with dead eyes and welcoming orifices. Creepy dudes want Real Dolls because they never say no. Lars wants Bianca because she never touches him and she never asks him questions. Lars believes that Bianca is alive. He dotes, he beams, he brags: "Ooh! You should watch me chop wood, too. I'm really good at it." They sleep in separate bedrooms. Bianca is creepy and dead, and that's kind of the point.
Lars doesn't want to exploit Bianca, and Lars and the Real Girl doesn't want to exploit Lars. His family, and the whole town, and the film itself, remain affectionately respectful of his delusion. And even though there's no sex, there's also no moralizing. It's just a sweet, frank movie about lonely people and damaged people and people being good to one another. And a sex doll. But whatever. LINDY WEST
30 Days of Night
dir. David Slade
Even among the most jaded of geeks, Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith's 2002 comic series 30 Days of Night raised a seismic ruckus, thanks to a premise so ingenious that it's amazing that no one had ever thought of it before. I mean, really: vampires in Alaska? Where the sun doesn't rise for a solid month? Holy crap! Unfortunately, the creators never quite figured out how to capitalize on their initial stroke of genius. Beyond that killer idea and Templesmith's unsettlingly abstract art (no Anne Rice-ish romantic creatures of the night here, just vaguely humanoid things bursting with thickets of fangs), it comes off as a case of more sizzle than steak.
Thankfully, then, the inevitable cinematic adaptation stands as that rarity that rises above its source material, both in plot and gut-rumbling tone. Even accounting for a few logy sequences, it's the most relentless, sustained freak-out since The Descent.
Director David Slade (Hard Candy) takes an unusual amount of time setting things in motion—establishing the geography and an air of anticipatory menace before letting fly with the red stuff. He's aided in his efforts by a cast (including Danny Huston, Melissa George, and a surprisingly capable Josh Hartnett) who take things seriously, with none of the winking at the camera malarkey that's wrecked so many post-Scream horror flicks. The two-hour running time does occasionally feel excessive, but when all cylinders are firing, it generates an atmosphere that few examples of the genre can match. Impressive as the episodes of full-blown splatter are, it's the quieter moments, such as an insta-classic extended overhead tracking shot of the town under siege, that make you kind of sort of wish that they had never flicked off the theater's house lights. ANDREW WRIGHT
Things We Lost in the Fire
dir. Susanne Bier
Of all the participants in Lars von Trier's half-puritanical, half-wiseass Dogme 95 movement, Danish director Susanne Bier seemed to be the one person who took the concept seriously, with a string of fairly remarkable films (most notably 2004's Brothers) that continually toed the line between melodrama and unvarnished human emotion. Things We Lost in the Fire, Bier's first Hollywood venture, shows that even as she goes glossy, her sense of touch remains. Highlighted by a performance by Benicio Del Toro at his most magnetically bedraggled, this is a welcome rarity: a full-on heartstring yanker that doesn't leave the viewer feeling ill-used afterward.
Allan Loeb's story, long a staple on the list of great unproduced scripts, follows a shell-shocked Seattle mother (Halle Berry) who, after losing her husband to a random act of violence, turns to his childhood friend (Del Toro) for comfort, a former lawyer turned full-time heroin user. Well-meaning and occasionally incisive, Loeb's dialogue can also be awfully didactic (the meaning behind the title may as well be written on a barn door), but his scenario provides ample opportunity for Bier and her cast to get down deep.
As for that cast, everybody here feels at the top of their game. Berry, despite being saddled with a character who occasionally becomes downright unpleasant, tones down the histrionics that have made her other dramatic performances so uncomfortable to sit through, while David Duchovny, in a few short flashback scenes, makes enough of an impression that his absence creates a palpable sense of loss. Mainly though, you're going to be watching Del Toro, who somehow slinkys and random-tangents his way into a fully realized being who's never more soulful than when he's dealing with the monkey on his back. The film has yet to be made that fully does justice to Del Toro's alien transmissions, but Bier comes awfully close. ANDREW WRIGHT
The Ten Commandments
dir. Bill Boyce and John Stronach
I don't know if you know, but back in olden times, ages ago, there was a place called Egypt. The president of Egypt was named Pharaoh, and he did not like Jews at all. "These children of Israel," he said, "I don't like them. Not at all." Pharaoh started murdering all the Hebrewean boy-babies—except, um, hellooooo! LOOPHOLE!
I guess no one told Pharaoh about a little thing called a basket, and another little thing called a Nile River!!! Long story short, one baby survived.
Eventually, Moses got exiled, and met God, who told him to go back to Egypt and save the Hebrews (or "Hebes," as they're known at Pharaoh's house). Some famous stuff happened, involving boils and flies, then God killed a bunch of people (he loves you!), and Moses and the Hebrews were headed for the Promised Land. Sweet! Right, guys?
Turned out, all Jews do is complain: "What kind of trip is this?" "Are we there yet?" "Moses, we're thirsty!" "Moses, we're hungry!" "My wife's not happy, that's for certain." "In EGYPT, we had a wide variety of foods to choose from!" "Maybe we should go back." Even when God made dead quails rain from the sky ("I hope you like quail..."), the Hebrews were still partial to SLAVERY, because at least when they were being beaten to death there were cucumbers available. "Lord, these people are driving me MAD!" said Moses. Anyway, the only thing that "these people" like more than whining is money. While Moses was busy, they built a big calf out of gold, rubbed their hands together, and twirled their moustaches: "Who needs Moses and his INVISIBLE GOD?... We have our own god here! It sparkles! See how it sparkles? It's gold! Gold! GOLD!" Ka-powww!
And that's what happens, in a very literal way, in The Ten Commandments: THE MOVIE. Christian Slater is Moses. Elliott Gould is God. (Because everyone knows that kids fucking looove Elliott Gould—Justin Timber-who?) The animation fell out of 1995's butthole. All of the above quotations are real. Your children are racist now. LINDY WEST
dir. Gavin Hood
One of a number of post-9/11-themed films being released this fall, Rendition is the first to deploy its Hollywood magic in the defense of civil liberties. The title comes from the U.S. policy of "extraordinary rendition": the act of shipping terror suspects overseas, where they can be tortured with impunity. The plot finds an Egyptian-born American man (Omar Metwally) caught in the wrong race at the wrong time, his phone having allegedly received calls from a terrorist who just blew up a North African city square. Metwally is whisked away to a detention center, with CIA newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal assigned to oversee his interrogation.
The story is split between two families on either side of the torture debate, with Gyllenhaal as the unifying thread. On one side is the accused terrorist sympathizer, with his blond American wife (Reese Witherspoon) desperately exploiting all of her political contacts to find out what has happened to her husband. On the other side is the Egyptian torturer (Yigal Naor) and his rebellious daughter, who has befriended a guy with radical connections. While the American family critiques torture from the emotional side, the Egyptian family guides us through a familiar logical proposition: For every person who is tortured, the number of radicals who would avenge that act increases exponentially.
Like director Gavin Hood's Oscar-winning Tsotsi, Rendition is ultimately a story of a man coming to terms with his own innate decency. Gyllenhaal is faced with the burden of choosing between due process and the possibility of saving lives—between what he believes to be true and an inhuman government mandate. Rendition could be celebrated solely for the fact that it's a political thriller that actually has something relevant to say about politics. JEFF KIRBY
dir. Terry George
There are few absolutes in moviedom (except, maybe, to avoid like the plague any film that uses "Who Let the Dogs Out" in its trailer), but one hard and fast rule is the following: If you're going to make a movie focusing on the death of a child, you'd better make it count. Reservation Road, director Terry George's follow-up to Hotel Rwanda, certainly doesn't want for positive qualities, being extremely well acted, admirably evenhanded, and wholly respectful of a subject that could easily devolve into Lifetime-channel schmaltz. It just fails to make much of an impression.
John Burnham Schwartz's script, adapted from his best-selling novel, turns on a darkly primal hook: While driving home late one night, a downwardly mobile lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) hits a young boy by the side of the road and then proceeds to drive off in a panic. As he sweatily wavers between turning himself in or destroying the evidence, the liberal college professor father of the victim (Joaquin Phoenix) begins to withdraw from his remaining family and obsess about carrying out biblical justice.
Judged scene by scene, it's difficult to find fault with the film—Ruffalo and Phoenix (as well as costars Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino) imbue their respective characters with steadily increasing levels of exposed-nerve emotion, while George's quiet, unfussy camera makes every shot feel thought-out and designed for maximum emotional weight. And yet, it still rings mysteriously hollow, somehow lacking that final thread that connects a viewer with the screen. Whether seen as a thriller that never manages to thrill, or as a character study that balks at depth, it comes off as an honorable, well-intentioned, ultimately pulseless curio: a movie where everything holds together except the center. ANDREW WRIGHT