The 11th Hour
dir. Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners
Leonardo DiCaprio produced and narrates this documentary about environmental collapse. You're forgiven for assuming it's the sort of abject offering an acolyte would make to his sage—you know, an expensive token offered in exchange for Al Gore having referred to him as "my friend Leo" from a number of prominent daises.
But never mind that. Leo shows up in a couple of quick shots, looking pudgy and worried, and then he makes way for the experts. The 11th Hour is dedicated not to Al Gore or to any other prophet, but to information—loads of it. I don't know what the average shot length is here, but I'd hazard a guess that it's half that of a normal documentary. Cascades of disturbing images (oil fires, exhaust, floods, famine-hollowed people, forest fires) pump up your adrenaline, and then you're dumped into the laps of such eminent scholars as Stephen Hawking and such best-selling authors as Bill McKibben. There is the occasional spurt of New Age nonsense, but the film moves so fast you won't be irritated for long. And though this method may sound ADD, some of the sound bites are essays unto themselves.
Structured as a history of human civilization, the film takes evolution for granted (no small blessing in this era of tight-lipped IMAX pseudoscience) and tracks the population explosion through the industrial revolution to today. Quickly dismantling conservative efforts to downplay global warming, The 11th Hour moves on to more specialized topics, like the threat of ocean stagnation and the relative merits of energy alternatives. The concrete and warring policy proposals that crowd the end of the film are exactly what you were thirsting for at the end of An Inconvenient Truth. This isn't just a good movie; it's a smart one. And that's about the highest praise I can give. ANNIE WAGNER
2 Days in Paris
dir. Julie Delpy
Romantic comedies have become so routine, so processed, so horribly unfunny, that Julie Delpy's hilarious and astute 2 Days in Paris carries a jolt of surprise. The movie follows Franco-American couple Marion (Delpy, the most unaffected of pretty French actresses) and Jack (Adam Goldberg, in a major comic performance) on a stopover in Marion's hometown. Those who think it's another Julie-Delpy-and-scruffy-American-in-Europe-walk-and-talkathon, à la Before Sunrise/set, are wrong. Here, the writer-director-star is more interested in dissecting the specific ways cultural and linguistic differences trip up relationships than she is in playing up wistful romance or City of Lights nostalgia. The Paris that Marion and Jack encounter isn't that of moonlit strolls along the Seine (amen!); it's a real city, teeming with noise, tension, music, strange food, assholes on the metro—and, to Jack's dismay, many of Marion's exes, as well as her eccentric family.
2 Days in Paris is about how Jack reacts to this whirlwind tour of his girlfriend's past, and how Marion navigates the collision of her two worlds. It may sound modest, but the movie catapults itself into another class thanks to a lived-in quality (the writer-director-star is herself a Paris native who has been stateside for 15 years) and a furious comic rhythm. Delpy, finding cores of truth in clichés about Ugly Americans and temperamental Frenchies, writes dialogue that's a delirious blend of bawdy French farce and Woody Allenish neurosis. As for she and Goldberg, who apparently used to be an item, they just might be the prickliest, most luscious screen couple we've had in ages. And so what if the writer-director-star indulges in a few cutesy Amélie-esque flourishes? Delpy has made something rare: a romantic comedy that feels spontaneous and handcrafted, rather than shat out by a studio and a couple of stars. JON FROSCH
Resurrecting the Champ
dir. Rod Lurie
Blatantly uplifting in intent, Resurrecting the Champ is rescued from bland melodrama oblivion thanks to sharp performances from Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett. Jackson plays "Champ," a one-time contender whose path post-fighting ended on the streets of downtown Denver. Long forgotten and assumed dead, Champ—who fought under the name "Battling" Bob Satterfield—is unearthed by reporter Erik Kernan (Hartnett), whose unimaginative copy ("A lot of typing, not much writing...") has kept him sequestered in the back of the sports pages of the Denver Times. Believing Champ's hard-knocks story will be his big break, Kernan pitches a long profile above his pay grade, pens the article of his career, and is launched into the limelight. Then things turn ugly.
For a flick saddled with all the usual "based on a true story" trappings, Resurrecting the Champ turns out to be surprisingly effective. Director Rod Lurie (The Contender) occasionally relies on too many Raging Bull–inspired popping flashbulbs, and his blocking inside the ring could use work, but for the most part he keeps his direction low-key and unobtrusive, allowing his actors to breathe substantial life into their characters. It helps that Jackson keeps his usual bombast well in check, and his play with Hartnett—whose performance in Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia was one of the film's few highlights—is natural and smartly understated. Mix in support from Alan Alda, Kathryn Morris, and an unrecognizable Peter Coyote, and it all adds up to a feel-good drama that won't make you feel overly manipulated for caring. Resurrecting the Champ proves that square, earnest movies not only survive, they can still hit all the right spots. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
dir. Christopher Cain
The most blatant piece of anti-Mormon propaganda since Napoleon Dynamite (gotcha!), September Dawn is a soap-operatized account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a horrific 1857 event in which one early Mormon settlement trickily murdered an entire wagon train for no reason. In a meaningless coincidence referred to as "ironic" by many dumbasses, the massacre occurred on September 11. The movie contends that Brigham Young himself (Terence Stamp, sporting a beard of pleasant ringlets) ordered the killings. Modern-day Mormons take the opposite position. Mitt Romney is deeply annoyed.
But don't worry, Mittzles! The aggressive absurdity of September Dawn discredits the shit out of all your mean Latter Day haters. First of all, it's narrated by a BABY (a literal infant!) who, admittedly, doesn't remember much: "But I remember feelings!" Um, 'kay. Worst writing ever. Then there's Jon Voight, as a crazy person, who—when he's not busy bloviatin'—rides around in his Mormon buggy (OF DEATH) and cries about dead old Joseph Smith.
Next we have Smith, played (in flashbacks) by that raven-haired cherub of the Sci Fi Channel, Dean "This is a joke, right?" Cain (son of director Christopher Cain).
Speaking of Napoleon Dynamite, September Dawn also stars, weirdly, UNCLE FUCKING RICO, whom I love but cannot take seriously. And I've never laughed harder than during the final massacre montage, when Jon Voight's huge red face, shiny with righteous rage, is superimposed over an endlessly repeating loop of babies being stabbed in the head. There's also a really stupid love story, a horse-whisperin' Morm ("I think that boy does speak horse!"), and the most clichéd death scene in the history of death.
Aaaanyway, long story embarrassing, these filmmakers earnestly believe that their movie makes a statement about modern-day religious extremism. Whatever. Only a very special film could reap hilarity from hitting a baby with a sword. September Dawn wins. You lose. LINDY WEST
The Nanny Diaries
dir. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Like the ridiculously successful The Devil Wears Prada, the chick flick The Nanny Diaries assumes, first, that you want to see how the upper sliver of society lives, and second, that you hunger to see its corrupt morals torn to shreds. What looks like explosive class hatred turns, inevitably, into a pathetic defense of bourgeois values. Big surprise, I know. But The Nanny Diaries is from the filmmakers of the craggy American Splendor; it stars Scarlett Johansson and Laura Linney. I had hoped for something interesting.
Johansson plays the luscious Annie Braddock, a recent college grad from New Jersey who's trying to avoid landing a job in finance. She'd prefer to work as an anthropologist, and in a cutesy but harmless effect, the people she encounters on the streets of Manhattan are zapped into natural-history dioramas. One day, while walking in Central Park, she saves a little boy from imminent death and is rewarded with a job as a live-in nanny for a rich, heartless bitch named Mrs. X (Laura Linney).
Life in the X household is awful! The kid is the worst, Annie isn't allowed to date the hot Harvard grad from upstairs, and her mounting lifestyle lust is making it difficult for her to relate to her token black best friend (Alicia Keys). Soon enough, however, Annie falls in love with the adorable kid and begins to sympathize with Mrs. X, who is being cuckqueaned (the antiquated female equivalent of being cuckolded—I'm trying to bring it back) at every turn. Complicated feelings ensue, but nothing, in the end, can erase the fact that the rich are criminally negligent, kids suffer under the care of temporary nannies, and if you don't spend at least half the day coddling your child and teaching him French, you're a bad mother. ANNIE WAGNER