Thank the Lord someone has finally helped take the piss out of Christmas with a pure, spitefully cynical spirit. And that person, surprisingly, is Billy Bob Thornton. The usually despicable actor is the pants-wetting, booze-swilling Man in Red crowning the sour Christmas tree that is Bad Santa. Allowing me to review this movie was one of the best Christmas gifts I could receive; it's the antithesis of a feel-good film—actually, it's a feel-shitty film that, if you love brutal humor, will warm you like spiked eggnog. (JENNIFER MAERZ) Grand Illusion, Fri-Sat 11 pm. (Continues through Dec 30.)
Free Kids' Movie Series
DVD screenings of kids' movies at the ungodly hour of 10 am. All movies screen at Columbia City Cinema. Spy Kids, Fri Dec 22 at 10 am. Spongebob Squarepants, Sat Dec 23 at 10 am. Toy Story, Tues Dec 26 at 10 am. The EverEnding Story, Wed Dec 27 at 10 am. Howl's Moving Castle, Thurs Dec 27 at 10 am. (Continues through Dec 30.)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
I am not a Hitchhiker's Guide nerd, but even I know that Ford Prefect is no American rapper, sir. Mos Def isn't the only grossly miscast actor in this adaptation of Douglas Adams's beloved novels; even the great Sam Rockwell is too much to take. The film suffers from the same problem as planet Earth: too many Americans. Still, whenever there are at least two British actors on screen—especially Martin Freeman, AKA Tim from The Office, or the film-stealing Bill Nighy—the movie version mines big, warm, absurd laughs alongside its hyper-imaginative graphics, and quasi-mystical pop metaphysicality. How ironic that this, of all movies, would suffer from not being British enough. (SEAN NELSON) Egyptian, Fri-Sat midnight.
It's a Wonderful Life
Shortly after It's a Wonderful Life's 1946 release, James Agee, the most astute and eloquent American film critic of all time, noted the film's grueling aspect. "Often," he wrote, "in its pile-driving emotional exuberance, it outrages, insults, or at least accosts without introduction, the cooler and more responsible parts of the mind." These aesthetic cautions are followed, however, by a telling addendum: "It is nevertheless recommended," Agee allowed, "and will be reviewed at length as soon as the paralyzing joys of the season permit." Paralyzing joys are the very heart of George Bailey's dilemma; they are, to borrow words from George's father, "deep in the race." The sacrifices George makes for being "the richest man in town" resonate bitterly even as they lead to the finale's effusive payoff. Those sacrifices are what make It's a Wonderful Life, in all its "Capraesque" glory, endure. (SEAN NELSON) Grand Illusion, Fri 6, 8:30 pm, Sat-Sun 1, 3:30, 6, 8:30 pm, Mon 3:30, 6, 8:30 pm, Tues-Thurs 6:30, 8:30 pm.
Keep on Walking: The Jewish Gospel Singer
A documentary about a African-American Jew from Newark who is both a Hebrew teacher and a gospel singer. Central Cinema, Thurs Dec 21 at 7 pm.
Two Front Teeth
Seattle True Independent Film Festival presents a work-in-progress screening of a holiday horror-comedy from Jamie Nash, the writer behind Eduardo (The Blair Witch Project) Sánchez's new project Altered. Central Cinema, Thurs 9:30 pm, Fri-Sat 7, 9:30 pm. (Late shows 21+.)
A monthly social/showcase, this edition featuring the work of trippy image-mixer Foxfire F/X. 911 Media Arts, Thurs Dec 21 at 7:30 pm.
Mel Gibson, by all appearances, is an arrogant, hateful man—wouldn't want him as a neighbor, wouldn't want him as a friend. But for all his lunacy, the crazed Catholic makes spectacular movies: Passion and Apocalypto are the intellectual equivalent of snuff films. Gibson takes an idea (in Passion, the suffering of Christ; in Apocalypto, the end of civilization), pushes it off a cliff, and documents, in loving detail, its long fall onto the rocks below. Then, for good measure, he pans slowly across the splattered remains. In Apocalypto, Gibson has grafted his eschatological fantasies onto the Mayans, giving him license to imagine the fall of the corrupt secular West without having to wrestle with the political implications. Whatever its spiritual symbolism, Apocalypto is fun to watch and vividly gross in that special Mel Gibson way—there are spurting head wounds, oozing sores, blood sports, decapitations, face chewing, and battle scenes featuring the finest in 15th-century bludgeon technology. It's spectacular like his last movie, except with more trees and fewer Jews to hate on—and the name Jaguar Paw is so much awesomer than Jesus Christ. (BRENDAN KILEY)
Babel is a huge, messy, sensuous film, its 142 minutes stretched over such riches as an embarrassingly intimate scene in which Cate Blanchett struggles to steady herself over a bedpan, a startlingly cheerful moment in which suburban American children are subjected to the slaughter of a chicken, and a lovely, turbulent sequence in which a deaf Japanese schoolgirl (the fascinating Rinko Kikuchi) takes Ecstasy and goes out dancing. (ANNIE WAGNER)
Normally, we should be afraid, very, of the Hollywood paradigm wherein a white movie star becomes the locus for sympathy in a topical film about calamities in the Third World. But Edward Zwick's robust, nerve-wracking voyage through West Africa is potent stuff, wary of implicit racism, craftily conceived as a post-Conradian narrative, and visually hellacious. The film can be gruesomely graphic, and sometimes bizarrely so. But it's a riveting push in the bush, passionate and grueling (so many butchered children; caveat emptor), with Leonardo DiCaprio finally legitimizing his stardom with a commanding portrait of a full-on, three-dimensional adult male, riddled with bad experience, rotten self-justification, and homicidal skill. (MICHAEL ATKINSON)
Writer-director Emilio Estevez (seriously!) conjures 20 or so commonplace dramas that, Robert Altman—style, revolve around the Ambassador Hotel on that fateful June 4, 1968. A few of the storylines—like those involving the racial dynamics of the kitchen staff and the one about the aging doorman—are engaging. But most are lackluster. (JOSH FEIT)
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
It's hairy, balls-out humor—but behind the seemingly random spray of political incorrectness, it's very carefully calibrated. Borat is a Kazakh television personality from a backwater where, supposedly, retarded brothers are stored in cages, where sisters are prostitutes and wives are enormously ugly, where pretty much everybody is related to the town rapist. On a scale of dangerous humor, riffs about a place few Americans have ever heard of, except perhaps in news reports about its self-aggrandizing dictator, are probably pretty safe. Humor about humorless feminists: relatively safe. Humor about idiot frat boys ingesting unidentifiable substances: very safe. Almost not-humor about red-state bigots: Uh, wait, aren't they most of the moviegoing public? Humor about Jews (even delivered by a Cohen): safe as Palestinian houses. There's also a reason it isn't being initially released in much of middle America. It comes down on homophobes hard, and proves, without a doubt, that Jews eat sandwiches too. (ANNIE WAGNER)
It gives me great relief to say that Casino Royale is good. Really, really good. Maybe, in fact, the best entry since 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service. What's more, this may be the first installment—courtesy of a smashing lead performance by Daniel Craig—to capture the rock-hearted, alligator-blooded nature of Ian Fleming's literary character. No offense to St. Connery is intended, but, man, Craig has it down cold. And, just like that, drinking and shooting and driving fast and screwing are cool all over again. (ANDREW WRIGHT)
Cave of the Yellow Dog
Ostensibly a feature film, Yellow Dog is more a moving-picture postcard. The plot (girl finds puppy) is simple and unimportant. The main attractions are the long, slow shots of the Mongolian countryside and its residents as they make cheese, herd animals, dismantle a yurt, etc. It also contains the following mother-daughter exchange: "Could you collect some dung for curing the meat?" "But I've never collected dung before!" "Well, you can try." (BRENDAN KILEY)
As children's entertainment goes, the hybrid live-action/computer-generated Charlotte's Web is basically faultless. There's a serene lesson about death and another about the contribution of spiders to the ecosystem; it makes learning new words seem fun and, dare I say, sophisticated; it's free from those horrible jokes designed to keep the kids twirling their cowlicks while their cynical guardians snicker (except for the cut to the plate of crackling bacon, which is taken from the book). But it's also insensitive to the things that make a movie burrow into your heart. (ANNIE WAGNER)
Children of Men
Opens Mon Dec 25. Review will be posted online Friday.
Hey, tough guy! Think nothing could possibly make Denzel Washington more awesome (besides astronaut training and laser eyes)? Well, how about the ability to TRAVEL through TIME? And how about the ability to travel through time while engaging in witty patter with hilarious Hebrew Adam Goldberg? And how about if he also has a HEART OF GOLD? Did I just kick your mind in the junk, or what? It's Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and a party ferry—loaded with crisp, white American sailors, with brides and babies in tow—blows up, to the tune of 543 casualties. With the help of a secret government "surveillance" team, Denzel tracks down the culprit: a McVeigh-style superpatriot who believes that "sometimes a little human collateral is the cost of freedom." Freedom from what? Doesn't matter! Denzel's 'boutsta travel through TIIIIIIIIIIME! It seems the U.S. government has managed to invent a time machine (though, as some brief but gut-churning Ninth Ward footage shows, it's still unable to build a fix-a-black-person's-house machine). (LINDY WEST)
Returning at last from the gold statuette wilderness, Martin Scorsese has assembled The Departed with an absolute precision that's been lacking in his work since Goodfellas. (BRADLEY STEINBACHER)
Opens Mon Dec 25. Read the web exclusive preview here.
Eragon, the first in a projected trilogy of kid-friendly fantasy epics, can barely muster enough energy to work on a cheese level. Debuting director/effects vet Stefen Fangmeier manages to pull off a few decent visual coups, particularly with a nicely animated blue-eyed dragon, but without the rich conceptual texture of the LOTR series (or, hell, even the goofy exuberance of The Beastmaster) to draw on, what remains is a load of generic mush perhaps best served as a piece of bitchin' '70s van art. (ANDREW WRIGHT)
For Your Consideration
The mockumentary formula that Christopher Guest helped invent is getting very tired. So the shiny new innovation in For Your Consideration is... there's no "umentary"! Now it's all mock. All the usual suspects do their usual shticks, but only Fred Willard (as the host of an Access Hollywood clone) lands on the sweet spot between earnest and deliriously off-kilter. Everybody else looks like they'd rather be somewhere—anywhere—else. (ANNIE WAGNER)
Darren Aronofsky's ambitious, confounding take on the Fountain of Youth is the damnedest thing: an intimate, eon-spanning love story (starring an extremely game Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz) where profound and profoundly silly are never separated by more than a subliminal thread. (ANDREW WRIGHT)
So anyway, Happy Feet is about a penguin named Mumble. He's fucking adorable. No thanks to a clumsy dad who dropped him before he hatched from his egg, though, Mumble's a little different from all the other penguins. See, all the other penguins can sing, and they rely on their talent to attract them a mate. But poor little dropped Mumble screeches like nails on a chalkboard as soon as he opens his mouth. It's so not sexy and it's so not going to find him a lady penguin to get down with. But what Mumble can do, is dance. And boy can that motherfucker's feet fly! He's like Fred Astaire on ice! With uh... feathers! And a beak! (MEGAN SELING)
The History Boys
The eight titular boys are lower-middle-class students at a school in northern England preparing for the Oxford and Cambridge exams with their teachers, Hector (the balloon-shaped, ruddy-faced, and unerringly brilliant Richard Griffiths) and Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore). Hector is an old teacher who puts his faith in truth and beauty. Irwin is a young hotshot brought in to teach the boys rhetoric and academic panache. If Hector is a lumbering Grecian, Irwin is a flashy, hollow postmodernist. That tension—and the fact that they're both closet cases—drives the story of the boys' exploration of the pleasures of mind and body. There is one woman in the film, the deadpan teacher Mrs. Lintott, who has her moment at the center: "History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket." But mostly the movie is about the boys ("How do I define history? It's just one fucking thing after another") and the men. We are, of course, partisans for the poetic and romantic Hector—as are his pupils (even though he furtively gropes them from time to time)—because he's a great teacher, and his classroom exchanges with the boys are one of the movie's thousand tiny pleasures. (BRENDAN KILEY)
Wait, I'm confused. Is Cameron Diaz supposed to be good at acting? Am I supposed to enjoy looking at her and listening to the words that come out of her stupid squishface? Hmm, that's weird, because homegirl is basically unwatchable in The Holiday, the latest seasonal life-waster from Nancy Meyers. Each scene in The Holiday is more annoying than the last. Another soliloquy about how love is complicated? Obnoxious. Cameron Diaz lip-synching to the Killers? I have an ulcer now. The best part is one minuscule aside, when Jack Black, singing a little song, says "froodely," as in, "froodely-doo," and then says it again. It's cute. (LINDY WEST)
The children in Little Children are like aliens. They may be in this world, but they are not of it. With their tiny heads and big eyes, they stare and jut their imperceptible hips and fixate passionately on such objects as plush jester's hats and light-addled moths. One of the wonderful things about the film, which is full of more ordinary virtues, is that it recognizes that children create their own worlds, and that in a story about their parents, they're just strange little visitors—adorable, perhaps, but unreachable and opaque. The kids in question belong to Sarah (a rumpled, lovely Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson), two stay-at-home parents who chance to meet at a suburban playground. Against the backdrop of their quickly feverish, sun-dappled affair, a pedophile named Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) moves back into his mother's house in town. Ronnie is pitiable, and his mother still loves him, and those paltry scraps contain all the makings of tragedy. (ANNIE WAGNER)
Inadvertently, Sofia Coppola has painted a pathetic portrait of a spoiled kitten not unlike herself, born into unlimited resources and without a thought in her pretty head, before she lost it entirely. (MICHAEL ATKINSON)
The Nativity Story
Mary is your typical Nazarene teen: gossiping with the girls by the donkey-powered mill, whipping up blocks of soggy sheep cheese, picking hay off her tunic, and avoiding the rapey gaze of King Herod's cavalry. Nazareth is kind of a shithole, but it's home. Soon after her nuptials, while wandering for no reason through a grove, Mary is visited by one glowing, tall-and-a-half angel named Gabriel, with an important announcement: "Come, you will conceive in your womb. And bear a son. And call his name Jesus." It's not just any baby, though, and not just any baby-daddy—instead, Gabriel explains, one of these nights, the old Holy Spirit's gonna sneak up her Suez Canal and plant a Messiah in there! Hot! Long story short, The Nativity Story is nothing you didn't already know. (LINDY WEST)
Night at the Museum
Robin Williams, in the guise of Teddy Roosevelt, runs amok at a natural history museum after-hours.
The central conflict in The Queen is, literally, whether Her Majesty Schoolmarm will deign to mention the unseemly death of an ex-princess—but no one in the whole supposedly accurate movie even notices that Mother Teresa has gone tits up. Nevertheless, The Queen's myopia is so complete, the performances so meticulous, that you can't help but start to care about, or pine for, or want to overthrow the British monarchy. (ANNIE WAGNER)
Shut Up & Sing
The most gripping elements of the film are not the obvious dramatic moments—such as Dallas police discussing death threats with the women prior to their return to Texas—but the confused way the Dixie Chicks, America's country sweethearts, react to the wave of conservative criticism. (HANNAH LEVIN)
Stranger Than Fiction
If you were left cold by the self-loathing machinations of Adaptation, then Stranger Than Fiction should prove to be a tamer, and less complicated, antidote. (BRADLEY STEINBACHER)
It's Home Alone! In an airport! Only the parents in this movie didn't forget their kids on accident, they fucking got rid of the little brats on purpose! (MEGAN SELING)
The post-Tarantino boom of gabby hit men and fractured timelines may have finally started to ebb, yet some stragglers remain. Unknown, director Simon Brand's occasionally clunky mashup of proven crime staples, never rises above the level of a promising calling card, but there's something refreshing about its innate sense of its own B-movieness. (ANDREW WRIGHT)
Somewhere between Alfred Hitchcock and Clare Boothe Luce, but with a campy, peppery nativity all his own, Almodóvar has emerged as the world's premier post-feminist yarn-spinner, a wizened gay devotee of all things Sirkian, candy-colored, tear-jerking, and hormonal. That said, are we running in place in San Pedro? Audiences who have attended to this year's "Viva Pedro!" traveling retro-series, and who still carry All About My Mother, Talk to Her, and Bad Education in their back-brains, may well be wearying of Almodóvar's similar plot structures and tame psychosexual playfulness. You can't be blamed for being ambivalent about Volver ("return"), even though it might be the wittiest and most emotionally coherent film he's made in years. (MICHAEL ATKINSON)