In the Valley of Elah

dir. Paul Haggis

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After Crash performed its stunning sneak attack on the Best Picture Oscar, director Paul Haggis became the target of a serious backlash, with critics and moviegoers alike decrying his creation's lack of subtlety, one-note characterizations, and sub–after-school-special message. Blown office pools aside, what was perhaps most frustrating about the film's success was the feeling that there was a smaller, worthier movie buried somewhere within all of the bombast. Based on his back catalog (including the scripts for Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, and the superb short-lived TV series EZ Streets), Haggis comes off as a filmmaker with a genuine knack with actors, a taste for big significant themes, and a near-to-total inability to figure out when to say when.

Unfortunately, Haggis's shelf of awards hasn't exactly inspired him to curb his more excessive tendencies. In the Valley of Elah, the writer/director's Oscar-bait follow-up to Crash, boasts an honorable, provocative premise and a towering no-bullshit performance by Tommy Lee Jones. It just doesn't know when to quit. Based on a true incident, Haggis's script follows a retired military policeman (Jones) spurred into action when his son is reported AWOL soon after his return from Iraq. Aided by a sympathetic detective (Charlize Theron), he soon uncovers evidence that calls into question his impressions of his son, and his beloved country as well.

This central story packs an undeniable punch, but the film's plodding, overstated style comes off as both needlessly busy—the central mystery feels unnecessarily drawn out, with new clues introduced at strategic intervals—and dumbed-down preachy. But then there's Jones, whose resolutely nonlovable performance as a man increasingly adrift does what it can to transform the rampant sentimentality into honest sentiment. He can't single-handedly save this frustrating film from its overly earnest impulses, but when he's onscreen, at least the hokum burns cleaner. ANDREW WRIGHT

Eastern Promises

dir. David Cronenberg

A new Godfather trilogy may be in the works as director David Cronenberg brings his unique touch (including a full-on naked bathhouse brawl, Viggo Mortensen's flopping appendage included) to the familiar themes of family, duty, and honor with Eastern Promises.

The film opens with a man's throat being sawed open: blood squirts, there's a gurgle, then death. This is one of two demises launching a story guided not only by death, but more importantly, by birth. Anna (Naomi Watts) is a hospital midwife who helps give birth to a young Russian girl, whose mother dies during the delivery. In an attempt to find the child's family, the mother's diary soon leads Anna to the seedy underworld of the Russian mafia, a world Anna has only heard of but must now rely on if she is to achieve her goal.

The understated lead of the story, if you can call him that, is Nikolai, a lowly driver for the Russian crime ring played capably by Mortensen. On the outside looking in, Nikolai is just one example of how the story remains mysterious and never seems to offer up as much information as it possibly could until just the right moment.

Great acting on all fronts aside, Eastern Promises delivers on one end and fails on another. While the main plot thread is resolved, it seems as if there is more to be told as the credits begin to roll. At 96 minutes, the film feels as if there is an entire reel missing, and while it may leave the audience wanting more, I think it was a mistake not to give it to them. BRAD BREVET

The Brave One

dir. Neil Jordan

An ungodly mash of revenge fantasy, 9/11 paranoia, and abysmal storytelling, The Brave One is only remarkable for the caliber of talent failing so spectacularly before your eyes.

Jodie Foster stars as Erica, a breathy (of course) public-radio personality who reports on the wonders of New York City street life. One evening, while out walking the dog in Central Park, she and her dreamy fiancé (Naveen Andrews) are viciously attacked by a group of thugs. She survives. He does not. Erica is so shattered by the catastrophe that, feeling terrified of her own city and abandoned by the police, she purchases a gun from a shady Chinatown dealer and sets out to administer justice on her own.

What follows this sturdy, if decidedly retro, setup is an unfocused mess swinging wildly between B-grade revenge flicks, gallows humor, and high-minded musings on the meaning of fear. Not even the presence of the great Terrence Howard, as a detective who both befriends and (unknowingly) investigates Erica, can rescue what is essentially a low-rent exploitation tale gussied up with Oscar-caliber talent. Director Neil Jordan tries hard to lend heft to all the violence, but the film's tone remains far too erratic, especially during a climax that asks the audience to make a leap on par with Evel Knievel's shot over Snake River Canyon. By the time Foster shrieks "Who's the bitch now?!?!?" after gunning down a goon, unintentional hilarity is unavoidable. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Silk

dir. François Girard

Alessandro Baricco's novella Silk is the kind of schlocky doomed romance that melts the hearts and vaginas of middle-aged book clubs. It's interesting, then, that François Girard's film adaptation of Silk doesn't take the three-hanky approach. Instead, it's a movie made for nobody: a 19th-century period piece about Japan featuring uninspired cinematography, a character sketch about uninteresting people, and a charmless romance without a pulse.

At the behest of a silk mill owner named Baldabiou (an underutilized Alfred Molina), young Herve Joncour (Michael Pitt, doing the same pretty, empty pout that dragged him through The Dreamers) must make frequent trips to Japan to collect silkworm eggs. Joncour leaves his beloved wife, Hélène (Keira Knightley, doing the same squinchy-faced pweciousness that's earned her a bajillion dollars), behind on these business trips, and he first falls in love with Japan, and then, predictably, he falls for a beautiful—yet inscrutable—Japanese woman (Sei Ashina, identified in the credits as "Japanese Girl").

Silk tries to be a slow-paced, thoughtful period epic, but is instead ponderous, way too long, and sloppily hung on a never-ending string of clichés. It's the kind of movie where a female character suddenly faints and is quickly killed by an unnamed disease whose only symptom involves the actress looking very tired for about half a scene. The kind of movie where people say things like "I thought you were dead!" and "This is not your war!" and "I thought love would always be that easy." The kind of movie where a whiny man on a business trip falls for the idea of exotic nooky, and then spends two long hours trying to make it sound more noble than that.

It's all about as creepy as those white guys who only date tiny Japanese girls, and even more boring. PAUL CONSTANT

Chalk

dir. Mike Akel

More than 50 percent of new teachers quit within the first three years of teaching. This incriminating statistic figures heavily in Chalk, Mike Akel's faux documentary tracking a batch of high-school teachers besieged by challenges that might feasibly make a new teacher quit within the first three years.

In press materials, Chalk's makers acknowledge the film's debt to The Office and the films of Christopher Guest. Like these fake-doc all-stars, Chalk presents itself as comedy, via the requisite shaky documentary footage and itchy interviews with oblivious comedic types; in Chalk we get the misunderstood female gym coach, the narcissistic Teacher of the Year, the clueless newbie in way over his head.

Unfortunately, Chalk rarely if ever stumbles upon the deep, rich, seemingly accidental hilarity that Guest and The Office have convinced the world is faux documentary's natural by-product. Instead, we get comedy-shaped scenarios that go next to nowhere, featuring actors indulging in the bland naturalism of faux documentary subjects to no clear end, adding up to a would-be squirm comedy that's neither squirm inducing nor very funny.

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If this sounds confusing, it is. Further reflection only muddies the water. After however many years of accepting The Office, posing the question "Who's making this would-be documentary?" seems almost unfair. Still, Chalk all but rubs our faces in its muddledness. Of course there's the standard "documentary" footage shot by an unseen cameraman, but judging from the violent shakiness of much of his work, this unseen cameraman suffers from Parkinson's or epilepsy or both; the matter is never addressed. And how helpful that the teachers all keep home-video diaries!

As a tool in cultivating empathy for our nation's underpaid, undervalued, and occasionally pistol-whipped teachers, Chalk has its heart in the right place. As a comic documentary, it flunks. DAVID SCHMADER

Dedication

dir. Justin Theroux

Actor Justin Theroux has carved a niche for himself as one of indie film's quirky leading men—that's him brooding handsomely through Inland Empire, Mulholland Dr., and The Baxter, among many others. With Dedication, Theroux makes his maiden voyage behind the camera, directing David Bromberg's tale of love, ambition, and mental illness with an idiosyncratic assurance that initially led me to presume the script was Theroux's own.

The story: In New York City, a pair of mentally unstable, harmoniously codependent men find success writing and illustrating children's books. When the elder of the pair (Tom Wilkinson) abruptly expires, his younger and more aggressively fucked-up partner (Billy Crudup) must carry on. His salvation comes in the form of Lucy (Mandy Moore), a fledgling illustrator with a promising portfolio and troubles of her own.

This loopy duo's clashes, collaboration, and eventual courtship fill the majority of Dedication, which seems to grow more conventional by the frame. By the final kiss, we've landed in Cameron Crowe territory, which sucks, because the first half of the film is something of its own, capturing the messy terrain of functional mental illness more artfully than any film I've seen.

The majority of Dedication's characters lead aggressively fractured lives, which they stagger and march through with varying degrees of resilience. At one end of the spectrum is Crudup's Henry, who labors daily against incapacitating anger and OCD; at the other is Dianne Wiest as Lucy's mother, a Manhattan realtor sporadically sideswiped by flashes of insanity. In between are the people who love and depend on them, which is crazy in its own right, and I watched in quiet dread as Dedication deserted its rich character study for a far more prosaic Tale of Love and Redemption. Still, a promising debut for Theroux, whom I wish better luck next time. DAVID SCHMADER

The Hottest State

dir. Ethan Hawke

Directed by Ethan Hawke, screenplay by Ethan Hawke, costarring Ethan Hawke, based on the novel by Ethan Hawke, no doubt inspired by the real-life Ethan Hawke... There's more than enough self-administered proctology going on in The Hottest State, a thin, often bogglingly bad tale of young love and incessant whining.

Mark Webber stars as Hawke proxy William, a dopey actor drifting through hipster New York awaiting major heartbreak. It arrives in the form of would-be singer Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno), whose breezy manner and refusal to swiftly consummate their blossoming relationship sends William into an extended tizzy. When Sarah dumps him after a sex-fueled trip to Mexico, William plummets into self-absorption, stalking his ex, seeking guidance from parents both present (Laura Linney) and missing (Hawke), and generally behaving like a wounded animal in need of putting down.

Directing for the second time, Hawke manages a handful of semipoignant moments, but they're lost in all the unrelenting emoting. Visually The Hottest State is casual, even aloof; Hawke is adept at finding interesting angles, be it of a sheet springing free from its corner during sex, or a young couple kissing behind a fogged window. But verbally the film is tiresome, its characters—and filmmaker—so obsessed with their own navels that you want to throttle all those involved. Hawke may have set out to capture a bout of his own heartbreak, but all he's managed to do is crush any and all romance with the mighty hammer of self-absorption. Crawling deep inside your own ass always seems like a neat trick—until you perform it in front of an audience. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Exiled

dir. Johnny To

As the two-gun, gazillion-bullet balletic style of Hong Kong cinema becomes increasingly assimilated into mainstream Hollywood (see Shoot 'Em Up for an example) it can be hard to remember what a blast it was when this stuff first turned up on the bootleg circuit. Awesome as the carnage whipped up by John Woo and Tsui Hark was, just as important to their films—and the element that their copycats often botch—was their delirious, unashamed romanticism, featuring stone-faced killers who could only express their deepest feelings through the firing of a few thousand rounds.

Exiled, the 44th (!) film from director Johnny To, serves as a brilliant reminder of the glory days of Heroic Bloodshed, an era when Asian men in bad suits and cheap sunglasses were the coolest dudes in the entire universe. Some of this may be the adrenaline afterglow talking, but I think I really, really love this movie.

Beginning with a scene that explicitly recalls the great languid opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, the plot follows a hit team (led by HK stalwart Anthony Wong) dispatched to Macau to take out a former ally. After getting reacquainted via a friendly little gunfight, the gang decides to accompany him on one last mission in order to provide for his wife and newborn son. Their sadistic boss is not amused. To, a filmmaker whose biggest successes have been with more realistic gangster dramas like the recent Triad Election, here drifts into surrealism, with glorious results. (Whenever a bullet finds its mark, as they frequently do, the result is a gorgeous little abstract puff of red mist.) Call it a flashback, a comeback, or the end of an era; all I know is that I want to see it again. ANDREW WRIGHT

Mr. Woodcock

dir. Craig Gillespie

So you hated your gym teacher. Who fucking cares. Wait, what? He used to punch you in the stomach until you fell down and then stand on your face? He beat you in the genital region with any number of blunt objects? Every day? Wow. Well, that must have been really satisfying for you when your gym teacher WENT TO JAIL FOR FUCKING CHILD ABUSE. End of story!

No? Beginning of story? Fuck me.

Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton), evil gym teacher, didn't go to jail for child abuse. Instead, he went on to crush the genitals and exacerbate the asthma of many, many more innocent babies. John Farley (Seann William Scott), childhood fatso, survived Woodcock's disfiguring cruelty, and went on to found a self-help empire for victims and pussies the world over ("When you make a blame sandwich, you've got to be prepared to eat yourself"). When Farley returns to his Nebraska town to accept the "Corn Cob Key" at their annual "Cornival" ("Corngratulations!"), he discovers his widowed mommy on the receiving end of none other than Mr. "RHETORICAL QUESTION, ASSWIPE" Woodcock. Oops!

Okay. So Farley wants to break up the relationship. It seems like a simple, "Hey mom? You know that guy you're dating? When I was a child, he repeatedly hit my penis with a wooden baseball bat" would do the job. Instead, he opts for Plan B: a whole bunch of stupid, boring shit.

This is one of those boys'-club comedies where every lady in the thing (I should say "both ladies") is just a pink, passive bag of feelings. But the real problem here (besides the fact that this movie was already a flawless Freaks and Geeks episode) is that I enthusiastically side with the villain. Farley is a complete douche. Mr. Woodcock rules—thanks to Billy Bob Thornton, whose hair plugs, comic timing, and alarmingly convincing sadistic glee manage to make child abuse hilarious again. Finally! LINDY WEST

Rawstock Short Film Festival

Various directors

Twenty shorts by small-time filmmakers for $15—the intentions are noble, so I'm sorry I can't recommend most of the movies. There are shitty action movies, shitty hostage crises, shitty fantasias about tooth faeries, and a truly shitty movie about making movies in which an awful director sits in a cafe, trying to pitch dumb projects to an awful actor who says things like: "I want to have my Citizen Kane. I want my Silence of the Lambs. I want my Rain Man."

Barf.

The music videos aren't offensively bad. There's always something redemptive about them, be it a pretty guitar line or a nice voice. In fact, I propose a film festival of all small-time music videos. Bad music is always more entertaining than bad dialogue. And the short film of the gypsy band playing while the guy goes through his morning routine—showering, eating toast, scratching himself—isn't bad.

The best of the bunch appears to have been made by kids in high school. There's a kid, his girlfriend tells him he's ugly, and he decides to go for plastic surgery conducted by his friend, who learned to plastic surger on the internet. It's funny, sad, and cute—the best movie that will ever be made by a high schooler. (Confidential to whoever made that movie: I couldn't get your name because my DVD screener froze up and quit three times while I was trying to rewind to the opening credits, but if you are actually in high school, way to go. You're funny and smart and should keep making movies.)

So, Rawstock—noble, sometimes not terrible, but not worth $15. Sorry. BRENDAN KILEY

The Hunting Party

dir. Richard Shepard

Writer/director Richard Shepard struck modest gold a few years back with The Matador, a sly, just this side of broad comedy that took one of cinema's moldiest tropes (an aging hit man, for chrissakes) and turned it into something kinda undemandingly wonderful. The Hunting Party, Shepard's ambitious serio-satirical follow-up about predatory war journalists, has a few moments of Hunter Thompsonish comic inspiration, but its vibe feels more untethered by the minute.

Loosely based on a 2000 Esquire article by Scott Anderson, Shepard's script follows three newsmen—washed-up correspondent (Richard Gere), devoted cameraman (Terrence Howard), and novice producer (Jesse Eisenberg)—as they travel through the bombed-out Bosnian countryside in search of an interview with an elusive Serb warlord known as the Fox. The closer they get to their destination, the muddier their already questionable moral stance becomes.

To his credit, Shepard certainly keeps things zipping along, incorporating some striking location shooting, a number of supporting performances, and a few exchanges of Catch-22-worthy doublespeak (the more the three deny being part of a CIA kill squad in search of the Fox's $5 million bounty, the more everyone in the vicinity believes it) at a ferocious clip. As it gets closer to its destination, though, the wobbliness of the tone becomes increasingly trying, with the more comedic moments coexisting uneasily with scenes of ripped-from-the-headlines carnage. Ultimately, the film's ramblingly indulgent tendencies begin to chafe, particularly in the cases of Gere and Howard, two fine actors with a tendency to preen when left unchecked. The end result is a movie with a number of decent parts (James Brolin's cameo as a dunderheaded anchorman is pretty priceless), which never really jell into anything substantive. As the opening caption states, "Only the most ridiculous parts are true." It's the other stuff that needs some work. ANDREW WRIGHT

Brad Brevet appears courtesy of Seattle-based movie website RopeofSilicon.com

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