“I checked the list of people I trust and your name ain’t on it.” — Matthew McConaughey as Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer
|The Piano Teacher (2001, France)
A tense, dark, disturbing movie about a repressed woman with sexual needs she doesn’t know how to satisfy. Hoo boy, this is an uncomfortable movie to watch. I’m glad I endured the squirming; Isabelle Huppert is so convincing as the tortured Professor Kohut that I had to stick around to see what happened. It’s a demanding watch, and you’d better be prepared for some shocking scenes, including some snippets of uncensored X-rated pornography during one of Professor K’s sex shop visits. Her fantasies, which fortunately are overheard rather than seen, will probably give me nightmares for weeks to come. And there is a brief scene of self-mutilation, also profoundly disturbing. This one ain’t for wussies, and I’d be careful who I watched it with because chances are they’ll think you’re a pervert too. Just ask my wife!
|Cracks (2009, UK)
An entertaining but not terribly original English girls’ boarding school drama, modernized to make the sapphic tensions more obvious for today’s stupider & hornier audiences. The actors who play the girls are uniformly great, but I thought Eva Green, who played Miss G, laid it on a bit thick. You know right away something terrible is going to happen, and it does in predictable fashion. Chekhov once said “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” That goes double for asthma inhalers.
|Paul (2011, USA)
A very enjoyable comedy stuffed to bursting with clever inside jokes about the space alien movie genre and hip homages to Steven Spielberg. It will remind you of MST3K, too — light-hearted all around, with plenty of bawdy humor. Normally I don’t like movies with CGI characters, because they’re just fucking creepy. I make an exception for this one, and I think you will too.
|Everything Must Go (2010, USA)
I very much enjoyed Will Ferrell’s acting in this mostly-serious movie about being down and out. Normally I turn away from movies about alcoholics because they’re just too depressing, but Ferrell’s character Nick drew me in and I’m glad I stayed to see what happened … although in truth not much did happen, at least as far as a resolution to Nick’s self-imposed troubles. Still, Nick seemed to be developing self-awareness and determination at the end, leaving me with a small sense of uplift. Just one question, and I only ask it because the movie went into so much detail otherwise: where did Nick go when he had to take a dump?
|Winter in Wartime (2008, Netherlands)
If you were to catch only a few minutes of this movie here and there, you might think it a quiet story about wartime domestic life in Nazi-occupied Holland. But this is a war story, and a hell of a war story at that. A 13-year-old Dutch boy learns that local resistance fighters are trying to help a downed RAF flyer hiding in nearby woods. As soon as he learns of the plot, though, the Nazis round up the resistance fighters and the boy decides to help the British aviator on his own, not knowing who among his friends, family, or neighbors he can trust. The Germans are everywhere, and they have many collaborators. Tight and suspenseful, full of surprises, this is a strikingly good film, one that will stay with you for a long time.
|Limitless (2011, USA)
There’s an interesting sci-fi angle to this movie, and it’s used to set the stage for everything that follows. What follows is entertaining and interesting. It’s suspenseful, it’s stylish, it has a great soundtrack, and the cinematography — especially the representation of accelerated time experienced by the main character — is brilliant. Only two objections: one, an intriguing part of the story was simply dropped halfway through (the murder of a woman on a night the main character can’t remember); two, the usual Hollywood ending, with everyone reconciled and all problems solved (but what about that murdered woman?). Those points aside, this is a very watchable movie, and I might even rent it and watch it again a few years from now to see if it has aged well.
|In a Better World (2010, Denmark)
This is an enormously good and moving film — it’s easy to see why it won an Oscar. It’s about family, growing up, grief, friendship, revenge, love, responsibility, and forgiveness, and if I’ve left anything out please excuse me. It’s almost a Danish Huckleberry Finn, minus Mark Twain’s earthy humor (which is more than made up for by the director’s feeling for, and insight into, her characters). I watched it with two family members, and while we rarely agree on movies, this one had us all enthralled. Why don’t we have more movies like this? It would be a better world if we did.
|The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, USA)
If you’re worried this might be another dull courtroom drama, don’t be — it has spills, thrills, and chills galore. Only a little of it takes place in court, and even that part is pretty exciting. The hook is the classic one: a defense lawyer working with a client he knows is guilty, and through that case, realizes that a prior client he had talked into pleading guilty for a reduced sentence is actually innocent. McConaughey is terrific in this role, with just the right combination of sleaze and vestigial integrity. This movie is as good as any of the ones based on John Grisham novels — entertaining from beginning to end.
|Cell 211 (2009, Spain)
I was impressed with this Spanish prison drama. It’s suspenseful, tense, and interesting. A new guard being shown around the prison by other guards winds up abandoned in an empty cell as an inmate riot breaks out. Trapped inside the sealed-off block, he successfully passes himself off as a fellow prisoner. Of course he’s in the special detention block, so his new friends are the worst of the worst. As the riot progresses and the situation deteriorates, he’s forced to do all the things the other inmates do — up to and including murder. The unfolding drama outside the cell block, as prison and government officials scramble to rescue not only the trapped guard but a group of Basque prisoners the Spanish government doesn’t want harmed (lest a new wave of terrorism be unleashed on Spain) is equally tense and suspenseful, and there are plenty of surprises toward the end as informers and turncoats are revealed. It’s a great story. There are some awfully brutal scenes, and while you may avert your gaze from time to time, you won’t be able to tear yourself away from the movie.
|It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010, USA)
A pampered little rich shit feels sorry for himself and convinces a doctor to put him in the psych ward to keep him from committing suicide. While there he meets the most wonderful people and has a lot of fun. This movie makes depression and mental illness look not so bad really and maybe even a bit of a lark … until you think about it for a minute and realize just how ungrounded the story line actually is. If you go along with the movie’s premise, you’ll enjoy it. If you think about what it’s really like on a psychiatric ward, you’ll be offended. I vacillated between the two reactions. Now that it’s over, I’m leaning toward the latter.
New: Paul’s DVD Hall of Shame
|Ironclad (2011, UK)
I turned it off during the first fight scene, which featured spurting blood and reminded me, simultaneously, of TV wrestling, kung fu movies, and bad porn. Paul Giamatti, really?
|Blitz (2011, UK)
More splatterporn, this time with a made-for-TV feel. Absolute rubbish. When did British films get so awful?