The Science of Sleep
dir. Michel Gondry
Much of Michel Gondry's talent derives from his being completely undisciplined as a filmmaker. Visually, he's all quirks, spinning his films into such a frenzy that they risk careening out of control. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this style matched perfectly with the chaos found in Charlie Kaufman's screenplay. In The Science of Sleep, however, Gondry's script can't quite keep up with his own inventions.
The story of a man named Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) who lives his life in a blur between dreams and reality, the film is like one giant sandbox for Gondry to play in. Every item in the physical world is under the threat of his hypermanipulation. Wads of cotton are tossed into the air and become clouds. A tiny stuffed horse is magically spurred to life. An entire skyline turns into cardboard, wobbly and shifting like an unstable child. There are so many wondrous sights to behold that you can't help but get swept up in the cacophony; Gondry's overactive imagination alone makes the film worth seeing.
It's in the quiet moments, though, that The Science of Sleep eventually stumbles. So untethered is the film from reality that it feels emotionally weightless. The plot revolves around Stéphane's overpowering love for a neighbor named, not coincidentally, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It's a relationship fraught with miscommunication, fueled by equal parts attraction and exasperation. But there's so much noise surrounding their affair that it's often hard to connect with it. Beneath all the visual trickery is a beating heart—unfortunately, Gondry is all too eager to send that heart into palpitations. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
dir. Ronny Yu
As an actor, Jet Li lacks Bruce Lee's explosive, semi-assholish charisma, or even Jackie Chan's inspired clowning. What he has in spades, and what made his first sightings such a revelation to a generation of jaded video-store clerks, is an unbelievable physical grace mixed with an appealing, deferential blankness. In his best early films, he served as a gorgeous Zen canvas on which directors could act out their wildest chop-socky fantasies. Li's modern, Americanized movies have had their intermittent charms (the scene in Cradle 2 the Grave where he uses a midget as a weapon is art of a most peculiar sort), but there's something about the actor's persona that seems best suited to the thrilling days of yesteryear. While watching him leap between flaming bamboo ladders (Once Upon a Time in China), or fight off a gaggle of flying ninjas (the delirious Swordsman II), that old cliché about poetry in motion seems a little less cornball.
Fearless, Li's much-ballyhooed farewell to the historical martial-arts genre, serves as a rousing, philosophically high-minded reminder of the actor's glory days. If the subject matter occasionally cries out for a longer length—and how many action movies can you say that about?—it still feels like an appropriate capper to a career routinely defying the laws of physics.
A semifictionalized recounting of the life of Huo Yuanjia—the Chinese folk hero responsible for unifying China's various martial-arts factions—the period setting allows the star to revisit many of his old tropes, with a newly Buddhist underlay. The presence of action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (The Matrix; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) ensures that the film has its share of dazzling choreography, most notably in a battle with human rhinoceros Nathan Jones (The Protector). But a surprising amount of the focus is on the main character's interior journey from brash powerhouse to reflective man of action. If, as Li claims, this is his final historical go-round, he's chosen an appropriate sendoff. Besides, if he really feels that it's time to pack it in, who's gonna argue with him? You? ANDREW WRIGHT
To read Andrew Wright's interview with Jet Li, click here.
All the King's Men
dir. Steven Zaillian
As Willie Stark, idealistic hick turned honorably corrupt Louisiana governor, Sean Penn rains fire and brimstone down upon anyone willing to listen. Bellowing before a crowd, his hands jerking in a sort of spastic rhythm, he commands attention every moment he's on screen. The result is the performance of the year, if not Penn's entire accolade-ridden career. One so good, in fact, that it completely outclasses the film containing it.
All the King's Men, the second big-screen stab at Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel, is square and earnest in its ambitions. Delving deep into the beautiful muck of Louisiana politics, where honesty comes with a price and everyone is for sale, the film aims to scold as harmlessly as possible—a morality tale writ Southern genteel. It also has Oscar solidly within its sights, from cinematographer Pawel Edelman's pristine photography to James Horner's outrageously overwrought score to the roundup of red-carpet-friendly actors.
But in bringing Warren's novel to the screen, writer-director Steven Zaillian makes a number of alarming missteps, most notably the casting of Jude Law, he of the pretty mug, as the film's moral conscience, Jack Burden. His Southern accent as intermittent as a faulty light bulb, Law proves to lack the shoulders to carry what turns out to be the bulk of the film. And though his support—including Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, and the always dependable Mark Ruffalo—are sturdy enough, they're given far too little to do, their various strands left adrift in Zaillian's attempt to wrangle Warren's burly novel into a single sitting.
Taken as a whole, All the King's Men is an overstuffed failure, ponderous and self-important. But one stretch in particular—a single lengthy diatribe by Penn that serves as an entire campaign run—is so breathtaking in its assemblage that it nearly makes the entire effort worthwhile. Whenever Penn is on the stump, the film manages, for a brief while, to take flight. Unfortunately, there turns out to be too much baggage weighing it down. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
dir. Tony Bill
A World War I aerial drama with a remarkably nonchalant attitude toward its many anachronisms (James Franco's frosted highlights bring just the right touch of boy-band glamour to the trenches), Flyboys is about as silly as its title suggests. Franco is given the fey name Blaine Rawlings (a character loosely based on actual Arizona ace Frank Luke). A former cattle rancher on the run from his debtors, Rawlings sets eyes on a patriotic newsreel and promptly ships out. His fellow American pilots—who serve in France's storied Lafayette Escadrille, since the U.S. hasn't yet entered the war—include Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), the stereotypical rich underachiever; Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), son of a slave and expatriate boxing champ; and Lyle Porter (Michael Jibson), a Bible reader who bellows "Onward Christian Soldiers" as he plummets to his heroic demise.
The squadron members spend much of their time hanging out in the donated chateau that serves as their barracks ("These Frenchies sure put on a nice war!"), but Rawlings soon hooks up with a petite amie named Lucienne (Jennifer Decker). The meet-cute scenario is nothing short of ludicrous: Rawlings's plane crashes outside the base and he's nursed back to health in a nearby brothel, where Lucienne, the virginal guardian of three children, just so happens to be passing through. That said, their clumsy courtship is actually sort of endearing, and there is nothing in this world so adorable as a chorus of kids cheerfully yelling "D'accord!" as they're flown out of a combat zone in a rickety aircraft.
The tiny planes are, in fact, the best thing about Flyboys. Apart from some cheesy blue-screen shots of the pilots in their open-air cockpits, the stunts and effects are credible—even mesmerizing. I'm not sure aviation, then in its infancy, was anywhere near capable of the precipitous dives and loop-de-loops that get trotted out late in the film. But they make for a spectacular show. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Frank E. Flowers
Before watching Haven—an island crime drama written and directed by 24-year-old native Caymanian Frank E. Flowers—I knew very, very little about the Cayman Islands. (They're surrounded on all sides by water? Big lizards live there?) After watching it, I now know that it's hot, and that everything is dangerous.
The point of Haven is, of course, that the Caymans are anything but—that beneath the condos and daiquiris and cozy tax shelters lies a rough, sinister underbelly (just like, oh, every other human-populated place on the planet). Flowers structures his film around a handful of storylines (like a twentysomething Traffic), which intersect indifferently, if at all, and for no other reason than that they share a 100-square-mile island. It all starts with Carl Ridley (Bill Paxton), a Miami businessman who flees to the Caymans to escape "the Feds." He's brought along his teenage daughter, Pippa (Agnes Bruckner), who falls in with a local who owes money to a ne'er-do-well who's pals with a rich kid who doesn't like his sister's boyfriend. The boyfriend is played by Orlando Bloom. "Stay the fuck away from my sister" becomes the film's central conflict.
For a 24-year-old rookie filmmaker, Haven is impressive. Despite the unnecessary structural brouhaha, overwrought dialogue ("You're my heart, and when you broke, I broke down with you"), and corny time-elapse sequences, the film packs a surprising heft. Flowers renders his home island in chaotic, washed-out detail, and the atmosphere—pretty, creepy, alien—is interesting enough to mitigate a plot stretched thin over too many characters. Flowers knows how to earn your distrust, how to keep you faintly ill at ease. And most importantly, he knows the power in the destruction of something as beautiful as Orlando Bloom's face. I still have the shivers. LINDY WEST
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
dir. Kirby Dick
Among the recent tidal wave of liberal-skewing agitdocs, Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated stands out as a near-perfect example of the genre's merits. A major shellacking of the Motion Picture Association of America—those anonymous souls who slap ratings onto films, often performing a quiet form of censorship in the process—the doc is equal parts hilarity and anger-inducing diatribe, unafraid of flirting with unfairness in the pursuit of a larger truth. Some will be turned off by what turns out to be a fairly one-sided venture; few will be able to disagree with the film's ultimate lessons.
Those lessons are not that the film ratings are inherently bad—they do serve a useful purpose for parents, if/when they choose to follow them—but that both the MPAA and the filmmakers it often stymies are damaged by an overall lack of transparency. To back up this idea, Dick delivers the expected talking heads, each equipped with their own horror stories to tell of scenes needing trims again and again, studio muscle carrying more weight with the MPAA than indie productions, violence getting a pass over sex, and, most outrageously, sex scenes being snipped because female characters are deemed as enjoying themselves too much for tasteful public consumption.
Though Dick's methods occasionally flirt with crossing the line—his hiring of private investigators to follow and eventually unmask MPAA members left a bad taste in my mouth—there's enough creative outrage on display to, if not justify his methods, at least reduce his tomfoolery to a minor quibble. Censorship isn't always blatant. This Film Is Not Yet Rated does a fine job of exposing glaring flaws in what was originally intended as artistic protection. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
dir. Debbie Isitt
A mockumentary about the kind of competition that could only attract serious kooks, Confetti is basically a Christopher Guest movie run through a mordant BBC wringer. As if this weren't already a recipe for lumpy humor, the film was also entirely improvised.
For their annual contest giveaway, the editors of the cheesy bridal magazine Confetti settle on the dubious honor of the year's "most original wedding." After the winnowing is over, three couples remain: an aging tennis pro and his large-nostriled Canadian squeeze; dumpy, tone-deaf fans of '30s Hollywood musicals; and clothing-optional "naturists."
The unscripted preparations skew slapstick at one moment (tennis guy tackles fiancée's hunky Spanish coach; gay wedding planners intervene), and toward straight-faced histrionics the next (naturist bride watches in doe-eyed shame as her groom shucks his clothes in the Confetti offices). There's a lot of lower-class shrillness that American audiences are unlikely to find funny, especially since "musicals" mom Alison Steadman tends more to Mike Leigh than Roseanne Barr.
Sarah Hadland, as Steadman's daughter, has a better idea of how to charge after laughs: A cruise-ship hussy who wants to make her choreographic debut at her sister's wedding, Jen is modeled after Baby Spice—or maybe a postpartum Britney Spears—and she's prone to tantrums befitting a really ill-mannered 4-year-old. There are some more complicated performances as well, especially from musicals groom Martin Freeman (The Office), who always looks a bit stunned at the never-ending harassment he's subjected to, and wedding planner Jason Watkins, who's actually endearing in the most clichéd role imaginable. But even the funniest moments are icing on a sadly stale cake. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. John Gulager
Nestled within the toxic reality-show haystack of cheating wives, freaky exhibitionists, and has-been musicians, the three seasons of Project Greenlight stood out as genuinely fascinating, nonkarmically staining fare. The only real thing holding it back from enshrinement on the mount, honestly, is the nagging reality that, well, the resulting movies weren't really all that good.
Despite a few moments of impressively energetic glop, Feast, the low-rent horror film devised during the final (and arguably most interesting) season of the show, sadly continues the streak of whiffs. Granted a perfunctory series of midnight screenings before next month's DVD release, it mostly fails to live up to its hellaciously entertaining backstory.
Hewing closely to the classic From Dusk Till Dawn/zombie-siege template, the plot follows the stock customers of a skeevy desert bar as they are chewed upon by a family of molting, horny, mightily pissed off critters. Give novice scripters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton some amount of credit for trying to craft a winking ur-text for the genre—the characters are all given generic titles like Heroine, Bartender, and Beer Guy—but their conceptual goals appear to far outweigh their actual writing ability. Director John Gulager does what he can with what's been brung him, injecting an unusual ferocity into the moments of random bloodshed, but fails to do much with the long, arid stretches between beheadings and eyeball pluckings. While his film occasionally wins you over by virtue of sheer dopey gratuitousness (those folks with a thing for maggots and/or lovingly detailed, spurting stumps should go home happy), far too often it commits the cardinal sin of an exploitation flick: namely, being dull. As with the other hazy byproducts of the late, great, lamented TV show, the story behind the story is the interesting one. ANDREW WRIGHT