dir. Martin McDonagh
In 1994, a 24-year-old Irishman living in London quit his job at the Department of Trade and Industry and dedicated his mornings to writing plays and his afternoons to watching soap operas. Seven months later, Martin McDonagh had written nine nasty, brutish comedies, mostly about hicks, retards, and lunatics in rural Ireland. Three years later, McDonagh was a theater star, with four plays running simultaneously in London.
His plays are described as a hybrid of J. M. Synge and Quentin Tarantino: In The Lonesome West, a son kills his father for insulting his hair. In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a spinster beats her mother to death with a poker. In The Lieutenant of Inishmore—about an enforcer for the Irish National Liberation Army and the assassination of his cat—the theater used six gallons of stage blood every night.
McDonagh's violence is grotesque, but not gratuitous; he has more of Flannery O'Connor than Tarantino about him. His writing is artfully visceral—people at a London performance of Leenane actually shouted "don't do it!" while the spinster burned her mother with boiling oil. Yet, somehow, his scenes are never far from comedy.
Knowing McDonagh's love of gore, one might expect his first feature film to be a bloodbath. Two Irish hit men (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, both excellent) are ordered to hide out in Bruges, Belgium, after Farrell's character assassinates a priest. Things are not what they seem, loyalties are tested, blah blah blah, and soon Irish gangsters are running around trying to kill each other. But In Bruges is less violent than McDonagh's plays. It's also less dark and less funny—less of everything, really, perhaps because the pacing of movies doesn't suit McDonagh's gifts. The horrible, gothic comedy he can build over a 20-minute scene is thinned out in the quick jumps of film. But the comparisons to Tarantino are finally apt—In Bruges has cocaine, a dwarf, and exciting chase scenes and, despite its shortcomings, it is still smarter and richer than any gangster film you're likely to see. BRENDAN KILEY
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
dir. Cristian Mungiu
Pretty, dark-haired Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is pregnant, but in the waning years of Ceausescu's Communist Romania, she lacks the determination to control her fate. So she doesn't get to be the protagonist. Instead, we get Otilia (the incredible Anamaria Marinca), a pragmatic blonde who's expert at locating orange Tic Tacs and Kent cigarettes on the black market. For a college student, she's certainly savvy, but procuring an illegal abortion for Gabita requires something more.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is about loyalty, cowardice, coercion, annoying social obligations, tragic personal sacrifices, and—above all—almost unbearable tension. Dread is stretched taut over this plot like skin over a pregnant belly. The most elegant piece of cinema I've seen in months shows Otilia sitting still, facing an immobile camera. She's attending a birthday party for her boyfriend's mother, and his bourgeois family is crowded around the table, pressuring her to eat, only pretending to overlook her inadequate table manners, and all but scoffing outright at her class background. Her boyfriend can't wait to get her upstairs to his tiny room, but Otilia is obsessed with the phone. She'd given Gabita the number in case anything went wrong. Now it's ringing. Can she leave the table without being excused?
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days almost qualifies as a horror film, where the monster is at once diffuse (the repressive government, mandatory ID checks) and sickeningly specific (the freelance abortionist). But the most terrifying moments are completely mundane. Will Otilia risk offending her hosts in order to check on her friend? And if not, does she deserve our sympathy or our scorn? Ultimately, this film isn't about abortion, any more than Juno was. It's about ethics; and it is riveting. ANNIE WAGNER
The Rape of Europa
dir. Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, Nicole Newnham
Some people ask why the Warsaw Royal Castle was rebuilt after being demolished by the Nazis. "The same reason it was destroyed," answers a current docent. "The Poles could not live without the castle." The crushing of souls is nothing compared to mass murder. But some crimes—unlike murder—can be reversed. The Rape of Europa, a towering new documentary based on the book by Lynn H. Nicholas, is the Nuremberg trials for what might be considered the misdemeanors of the Nazi regime: the theft and destruction of art and monuments across Europe. These may only be objects, but for many people, there is life in these objects, too.
Like the saga of the Holocaust, the plunder of Europe is made even more chilling by the organization with which it was carried out. Before invading, Hitler would write lists of the artworks he wanted, from Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine in Warsaw to Rembrandts, Raphaels, and Vermeers in France, Russia, and Italy. At the end of the war, 49 train-car loads of stolen art and artifacts were carried out of Hitler's hiding place at the Neuschwanstein Castle.
On the other side was an equally determined army, made up of people determined to keep art out of criminal hands. This included museum staffers (some of whom died in the freezing cellar of the Hermitage); the little-known American "Monuments Men," who worked for the military but were often at odds with its attack plans; and mousy little Rose Valland, a French spy. Some of the footage is eye-popping—more than 6,000 paintings held hostage inside a mine, the Winged Victory of Samothrace rolling treacherously down stairs as the Louvre is evacuated. Since new Nazi restitution claims are constantly coming to light, the film is timely; still, the idea that art might matter to invaders already seems quaint. JEN GRAVES
Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show
dir. Ari Sandel
In 2005, actor Vince Vaughn decided to spend a month on the road with four up-and-coming comedians and a small collection of famous friends, determined to bring a smashing night of comedy and improv to sections of the U.S. typically deprived of such luxuries. Hitting 30 towns in 30 days, Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show presented the actor's handpicked comedians—Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst, and Sebastian Maniscalco—along with "improv" bits from the movie star himself.
Now there's Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show, the documentary of the tour, which brings Vaughn's hike through the heartland to the silver screen. When focused on standup, the film is exactly as successful as the comedian onstage (each of the comics has his moments, but freaky little Caparulo leaves the others in the dust). But when the film ventures behind the scenes, things get dicey. For every revelation—the group's visit to a post-Katrina refugee camp, Ahmed's return to the Nevada jail where he was detained after 9/11—there are a half-dozen happenings that go nowhere. Unlike Jerry Seinfeld's Comedian, Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show lacks a critical perspective—the cameraman is just another chum along for the ride, and in place of unguarded insights, we get self-satisfied comics making soulful pronouncements like, "I'm a comedian, man. It's what I do."
Most confusing is the film's fixation on Vince Vaughn, American Superstar™. From trotting out old costars to read favorite scenes from Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers to extensively and emotionally praising Notre Dame as "the place where it all started for me, with Rudy," Vaughn surfs through the proceedings on a wave of self-regard that's baffling. When did midcareer movie stars become entitled to victory-lap documentaries like those of ex-presidents? DAVID SCHMADER
dir. Andy Tennant
Grating and desperate, Fool's Gold is as thin as you'd expect a vehicle designed to keep Matthew McConaughey separated from his shirt to be. He plays Ben "Finn" Finnegan, an oh-so-relaxed treasure hunter who, along with his wife, Tess (Kate Hudson), has spent years combing the Caribbean for a mythical stash of Spanish loot known as the "Queen's Dowry." Newly divorced, the couple is on the verge of parting ways forever when a new discovery reunites them for one last try for the gold—if a villainous hiphop mogul (no, really) named Bigg Bunny (again: no, really) doesn't kill Finn first.
Further befouling this wheezy setup is the expected gaggle of quip-heavy supporting characters, all of whom—from the gay chefs to the bumbling henchmen to the ditzy heiress—are given their special moment to shine. Worse still is Andy Tennant's direction, which leans blandly on Caribbean locations in the hopes of distracting from the idiotic script. McConaughey and Hudson have some spark between them (and they both look good in bathing suits), but no amount of chemistry (or cheesecake) can make up for what is essentially Romancing the Stone minus wit, intelligence, and, well, romance. BRADLEY STEINBACHER