Sunday, June 27, 2010

TV on DVD: Dexter (The Complete Second Season)

Creator: James Manos, Jr.
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz, Jennifer Carpenter, Erik King, C.S. Lee, Lauren Velez, James Remar, David Zayas, Keith Carradine, Jaime Murray
Original Airdate: 2007

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Frequently referred to as the "best show on television," I caught my first glimpse of Showtime's Dexter when an edited version of its first season aired on CBS two years ago. After discovering that moniker wasn't far off the mark, more time passed than I'd like before I was finally able to catch up with the second. But boy was it worth the wait as this is one of those rare instances where a sophomore season is not only superior to the first, but superior by a decent margin, taking everything that worked so perfectly before and raising the stakes. It helps that it's built around a premise that's basically a lightning rod for suspense, putting the audience in the brutally uncomfortable position of viewing a serial killer as a functional member of society with rational thoughts and feelings who (at least by his standards) abides by a strict moral code. His name is Dexter Morgan and he's a forensic blood spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police department who only kills other killers, though you could argue his true victims are his friends in the family who remain in the dark about his secret life.

The actor responsible for making this show such a thrilling experience is Emmy Award winner Michael C. Hall, who plays Dexter with a mixture of humor, sympathy and rage. Dexter's meticulous approach to both his real job and secret one, make him an expert at covering his tracks, but this is the season where he starts to starts to get sloppy. So sloppy and stupid that for the first time he's in legitimate danger of being uncovered and you wonder episode by episode how he can possibly get himself out of the enormous mess he's made. The hunter now becomes the hunted as Dexter's walls start to close in on him. The first season introduced us to this character's double life, but this is the season when they actually collide.

With Dexter still torn up with regret over murdering the one person he thought truly understood him (his biological brother a.k.a "The Ice Truck Killer") in order to save his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), he starts the season a shell of his former self, seemingly unable to kill again. As expected, that attack of conscience doesn't last long as his department starts uncovering the dismembered bodies of murderers he's been throwing in the bay in trash bags and he has to deflect their investigation and the evidence away from himself. Now dubbed (none too flatteringly) the "Bay Harbor Butcher," Dexter is still wrestling with inner demons, like his complicated relationship with his late foster father, Harry (James Remar, seen in flashbacks) and his desire to be solid provider for loyal girlfriend, Rita (Julie Benz) and her two children. At her urging and to curb suspicion of his true addiction, he enters a 12-step narcotics anonymous program where he strikes up a dangerous relationship with his sponsor, the flirtatious but psychologically unstable Lila (guest star Jaime Murray). This and the Butcher investigation led by FBI Special Agent Frank Lundy (guest star Keith Carradine) is the driving force behind all the action this season.

The moral question of Dexter killing only killers (more to fulfill an insatiable appetite than provide a public service) was grazed upon in the inaugural season but here every facet of that dilemma is exploited to its fullest potential. Hall is an expert at conveying this conflict, betraying neither end of the character's complicated emotional spectrum and subtly conveying dry humor with his observant, deadpan voiceovers sprinkled throughout the show. As the authorities inch closer to linking Dexter to the crimes we finally get to see the public reaction and fallout to what he's done, which ranges from full fledged disgust to hero worship (directly alluded to in the episode, "The Dark Defender" where Dexter imagines himself as a masked superhero). Of course, the irony of that image is that by leading this double life he's hurting those closest to him, who like himself are in law enforcement to stop the kind of vigilante justice he's dishing out by playing judge, jury and executioner. That his colleagues Lt. Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and only true "friend" Det. Angel Batista (David Zayas) now know the crimes and are rapidly closing in on a suspect, wrecks havoc on Dexter's psyche, in addition to escalating his long-standing feud with the perpetually pissed off and suspicious Sgt. James Doakes (Erik King), the man who's come closest to discovering his secret.

Nearly all the supporting characters are given much more to do this season as a result of the case being intrinsically tied to Dex's crimes and the actors playing more than rise to the occasion. I gained a greater appreciation for what Benz brings to the table as Rita, a role that can initially come off as just the dry, dutiful girlfriend but as the stakes raise and Dexter's two worlds clash you realize it's her sweet, innocent portrayal that's separating them and causing much of the show's tension throughout the season. As viewers, we can handle Dexter being found out for his crimes, if not for what it would do to her and the kids. Not to mention it would end the series. Similarly, Carpenter does her best work in the series so far as Deb, still psychologically reeling from the events of last season but given a really well thought-out sub-plot that follows up on that vulnerability. It's developed so fluidly that you don't realize how well the seeds were planted for her storyline by the writers all along.

In their guest starring turns, Murray's very pale and very British Lila is deviously entertaining and the perfect female counterpart to the "dark side" of Dexter, but it's Carradine as Agent Lundy who steals the spotlight as the kind of smartly written authority figure that's increasingly hard to come by in serialized crime dramas. Someone who's simply great at their job, wanting to lead in the calmest, most efficient way possible instead of just blowing smoke and barking orders. Carradine makes the wise choice of playing him as a regular guy, who just so happens to be in charge of a manhunt for a serial killer. There's a good chance not even Dexter has the tactical skills necessary to out maneuver him.

If there's a drawback to the season it's that it's so suspenseful and builds so much momentum that by the time we reach the finale it's almost impossible to deliver a payoff that could clear the ridiculously high bar the series' creators set for themselves. As a result, the action peaks slightly too early and much of the last episode is spent trying to tie up loose ends. But that's a small complaint as it concludes pretty much the only way it can when you consider the show still has to continue after this. As revelatory as Hall's demented Jekyll and Hyde performance is in the title role, an overlooked star is the show's musical score (composed by Rolfe Kent) and opening title sequence, which in a few short shots brilliantly encapsulates the protagonist's lifestyle.

It's somewhat ironic that the premiere season based entirely on Jeff Lindsay's 2004 novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter isn't as strong as this one which veers from the source material, taking only the inspiration from the Dexter novels to craft an original season-long storyline arc. Its first season was perfect but this is better and it'll be extremely difficult for the writers to top it (though I've heard Season 4, featuring John Lithgow's Emmy-winning performance, comes close). Given the current state of movies it's no wonder actors are lining up to appear on something like Dexter, which is smarter and more gripping than most of what you'll see in theaters.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Dear John

Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Starring: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas, Scott Porter

Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

When Dear John was released this past February and broke Avatar's seven week stranglehold on the box office, I rolled my eyes, pitying guys across the country who were undoubtedly dragged to the chick flick tearjerker by their girlfriends in exchange for having to sit through the Super Bowl. It seemed like a fair enough trade, until you consider that the possibly more painful Valentine's Day was set to be released the following week. Now that's officially crossing the line. So much so that it could take as many as three Jason Statham movies and whatever Megan Fox has in pre-production for us to eventually even the score.

As someone who never minded "taking one for the team" for the sake of an enlightening review and find these kinds of films unintentionally hilarious, I'm happy to report that Dear John could have actually been a lot worse. At times, parts of it come close to working. It's just unfortunate that from the early going the script has trouble conveying this supposed life-transforming romance in a realistic way. Pivotal early scenes fail to connect like they need to and when the movie does eventually start to find its bearings, it drags on and on, wondering what to do and ending about five times (excluding the unused alternate one) before just fading away. When even the film isn't sure whether it wants the two main characters to be together, how can it expect us to be? But it does earn points for trying. Autism, 9/11, cancer, disabled veterans, Habitat for Humanity and obsessive coin collecting fight for screen time at various points in a screenplay overstuffed with enough drama and hardship to make Precious jealous.

While on leave in Charleston, S.C., Special Forces soldier John Tyree (Channing Tatum) meets angelic college student Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) after retrieving her purse off the side of a pier. In just a matter of days they fall in love and Savannah introduces her to her family, as well as her friend and neighbor, Tim (Henry Thomas--Elliott from E.T.!) whose autistic son, Alan (Braeden Reed) thinks the world of her. Much more hesitant is John to bring her home to meet his reclusive father (Richard Jenkins), an avid coin collector who may also be "mildly" autistic. This is according to an unqualified (but likely accurate) diagnosis from Savannah. The whole presentation of this sub-plot is strange, intending to create a false crisis in the relationship early on. But the real crisis arrives when John re-enlists following 9/11 and their feelings are tested long-distance through the mail in the "Dear John" letters of the film's title.

The first quarter of the picture spends more time talking about autism than it does exploring the actual relationship between these two which isn't exactly presented in the most mature way possible, especially when you consider it mostly revolves around games of hide and seek and frolicking in rain storms. That it feels more like a case of pre-teen puppy love than two young adults in a meaningful relationship is a nagging flaw that taints most of the film. Had the early scenes contained more substance and the writing been stronger, the separation that comes later would mean more. Instead, the characterizations of Savannah and John are lazily phoned in to meet the functional needs of the script. She's the saint and he's the bad boy with a quick temper. That's the full extent of it.

Tatum's been accused of being too wooden, but his approach is appropriate for this kind of role and I appreciate him not playing it as a lovelorn wimp. His character was at least strong and no-nonsense and now in his third starring role as a soldier (following Stop-Loss and G.I. Joe), he's believable in the war scenes, which are surprisingly well-handled. He'll never be accused of being the most charismatic actor around and while the chief motivation behind his casting was to attract female moviegoers, what he does in this works as well as it can given the limitations imposed on him by the writing. That statement holds doubly true for Richard Jenkins work as Mr. Tyree. Autism may be used as a cheap emotional ploy in the screenplay but he does everything possible to avoid us noticing that with a subtle, believable portrayal of someone who could be suffering from the disease. The sub-plot involving his history with John and the coin collecting was more compelling than anything having to do with the romance. Some may question what an accomplished Academy Award nominated actor is doing in a movie like this I commend him for taking a thankless role and trying to make something of it. Like everyone else though, his best efforts are undercut by dumb screenwriting decisions.

Seyfried once again rises above mediocre material and is at least given a little more support from Tatum than she was from Megan Fox in the lifeless Jennifer's Body. Possessing a natural charisma and luminous likability that commands the screen, she almost sells the ridiculous, out of left field decisions Savannah makes in the final third of the film. When an actress has headlines two big hits the size of this and Mamma Mia! and even comes out of bad movies gaining more respect for being the best thing in them, you could possibly consider it a coincidence. But I don't get that impression with her. She's obviously worked hard to transcend her TV roots and bring substance to flimsy parts like this that are often undeserving of her efforts.

The story oddly gains some traction when the two are separated but then proceeds to squander that brief flash of potential as it enters its bizarre third act, employing a "YEARS LATER" flash forward gimmick that yields silly results. A key twist involving how Savannah has moved on since his deployment is especially ridiculous and will have many scratching their heads in disbelief. I know I was. This was right around the same time I lost patience with all the false endings that deny viewers exactly what they came to see. Even when the script finally decides what direction to take, it's too late. If you're going to commit to making a sappy chick flick at least know to finish it right and send audiences home happy.

It's a shame the picture feels like it was manufactured on an assembly line because it looks good and the performers were trying. But when a movie is supposed to be a romance and the central relationship doesn't work, that's a major fail. Having obviously not read the Nicholas Sparks' novel on which this is based, I don't know how far the movie's many start-and-stop endings in the last twenty minutes veer from the source material. The final onscreen product indicates something decided on by a bickering studio committee that couldn't get on the same page for a conclusion. It really misses the mark in attaining the same guilty pleasure cheesiness of other Sparks adaptations like The Notebook and A Walk to Remember. Instead, it only serves to remind us that Amanda Seyfried is a talented actress who can now look forward to starring in movies substantially better than Dear John.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Shutter Island

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Max Von Syndow, Jackie Earle Haley, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Patricia Clarkson

Running Time: 137 min.

Rating: R


★★★ (out of ★★★★)

If nothing else, Martin Scorsese's much anticipated and long delayed Shutter Island makes a great case for how important it is for a film to finish strong. Unfortunately, that finish was partially spoiled for me beforehand so there's little way of knowing my reaction had I been left completely in the dark. As far as big twists go, this one won't be accused of being terribly original but what's impressive about it is how Scorsese bothers to stick around and explore every facet of it after the reveal. You'd figure an approach like that would result in an anti-climactic fiasco not seen since the psychologist's silly speech at the end of Psycho, but instead, the explanations make the film look better in hindsight and imply that maybe there was more to the story than just a "gotcha" ending. The movie itself almost seems interested in how it arrived there, and as a result, so was I.

Of course, the running joke since the its release early this year was that Scorsese's "slumming it" with a cheesy thriller. He is, but faint praise as this may be, it's no worse than some of the lesser entries in his catalog like Bringing Out the Dead, The Aviator and Gangs of New York and it's definitely a lot more fun. And it's probably the only thing he's directed that's my kind of movie, as even his best films seem to invoke respectful admiration from me and nothing more. So as someone who doesn't hold his work on the gold pedestal everyone else does, my expectations were fully met, even if I'm unsure my reaction would be the same after another viewing.

At its center is an investigation taking place in 1954 that brings Federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to Ashcliffe Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane located on the mysterious Shutter Island. They're looking into the disappearance of prisoner/patient Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a woman institutionalized for drowning her three children, but instead Teddy suspects he's accidentally unearthed a massive conspiracy involving mind control orchestrated by the hospital's chief psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). As Teddy's tormented by hallucinatory flashbacks of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams) who died in a tragic fire a few years earlier, escaping the island with his mind intact soon takes precedence over cracking the Solando case. And it's a good thing it does because the investigation itself isn't interesting aside from the memorably bizarre supporting performances that include Max Von Syndow as a crazed evil doctor, John Carrol Lynch as the Deputy Warden, an unrecognizable Elias Koteas as the man Teddy believes killed his wife and could be locked up in the dangerous "Ward C," and Jackie Earle Haley, who's most impressive of all as the deranged patient harboring important information. Patricia Clarkson (whose pivotal role can't really be discussed) tears it up in a scene at the midway point that re-energizes the story, taking it in an entirely new direction. It's only when Teddy and Chuck attempt to escape the island that everything picks up and its non-stop tension until the finale.

At the risk of possibly giving away too much it is worth examining the nature of this big twist, which bares more than a passing similarity to the one that closed my favorite thriller, 1997's The Game, (fittingly that film's director, David Fincher, was originally attached to this project). It goes without saying this suffers in comparison, as anything would. With nearly identical motivations, this twist calls into question the nature of everything that came before and has you re-think the story's purpose, with the key difference being that The Game was grounded in reality. Whereas that film earned its final catharsis through a carefully constructed series of events, here we have certain things occurring only inside the protagonist's head, others really happening and it's difficult to draw the line between what's real and what isn't. So when the big reveal comes the only thing lacking is genuine emotion because we don't trust it. The script (based on Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel) isn't cheating, but it isn't exactly playing totally fair either. The strength it does share with that film is its willingness to stick around after the reveal to truly explore its ramifications, right up until literally the final line of dialogue.

The exciting and skillful last third of the picture is filled to the rim with disturbing images and it's mostly here where it becomes apparent Scorsese is the director, not some hack trying to make a schlocky potboiler (even if this does still kind of qualify as that). DiCaprio is solid, if unspectacular, until this portion of the film where he has to go all out emotionally and you gain a greater appreciation for what he was going for earlier in the procedural scenes. While I can't say I jumped with anticipation at the prospect of a fourth collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio, or they necessarily bring out the absolute best in one another each time out, their partnership is always creatively solid and interesting. No exception here. The dependable Ruffalo delivers as always while Kingsley admirably performs the difficult task of having to explain some pretty insane stuff late in the picture.

I've heard many say the film needs a few viewings to be fully absorbed and appreciated, but I'm conflicted whether it's even that deep. On one hand, I can easily see the film aging well with the twist holding the story up for further interpretation, but it's equally possible this could end up being the kind of routine thriller that exits your mind a week after you've seen it, never to be considered again. I'm still debating which. Anyone claiming Scorsese sold out by making a mainstream genre picture would be just as off base as loyalists claiming it's some kind of overlooked masterpiece because his name hovers above the credits. But when judged exactly for what it is, it's tough to argue that Shutter Island isn't skillfully made and a lot of fun.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Messenger

Director: Oren Moverman
Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Yaya DaCosta, Steve Buscemi
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The Messenger presents itself as a film exploring the war in Iraq without a political agenda and from a completely objective viewpoint. It even takes a similar character-driven approach as The Hurt Locker in choosing to narrow its focus. Whereas The Hurt Locker followed a bomb diffusion unit into the line of duty, this film trails two men assigned to the Army's Casualty Notification service at home, given the thankless task of alerting soldiers' families of their deaths. It's obvious this scenario greatly increases the chance for emotional button pushing and there's no mistaking that The Messenger very clearly has an agenda, no matter how well hidden (and it's pretty well hidden).

Can an impartial film ever be released on this topic? Doesn't just deciding to bring a project like this to the screen imply that that some kind of stance has already been taken? Possibly, but this one did as good a job as possible in making me not think about that because I was so absorbed in each of the notification scenarios, as difficult as they were to sit through. These scenes of family members reacting (each so differently) to the news and witnessing the circumstances surrounding them is compulsively watchable in a fascinating, yet disturbing way. It's at least an aspect of the war we haven't seen depicted yet and had the entire film focused just on those it would have been perfect, but unfortunately the script loses its way a little in the third act by trying to pile too much on. Still, thanks to mostly good writing and two excellent performances, it's one of the the stronger efforts dealing with the effects of war at home.

The "Messenger" of the title is Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who after returning home injured from Iraq, is partnered with the abrasive Captain Tony Stone (Best Supporting Actor Nominee Woody Harrelson) and must learn the ropes of this thankless task. Angry and traumatized from his experiences in Iraq, Will doesn't jump out as the ideal candidate to be informing families that their loved one died in combat but it's actually for that reason that he's the ideal candidate. The most fascinating aspect of the job is how it takes a certain level of emotional detachment and strength of character to deliver the news, as well as handle the inevitably unpredictable reaction to it. There's a specific protocol that has to be followed that seems cold and contradicts everything you'd want to do in that situation, but in hindsight may be the most effective method of relaying the tragic information. The very qualities we'd expect would make someone good at this (like sensitivity) are actually a recipe for disaster and a few of those disasters are narrowly avoided during Will's initiation. We find out what happens when the "N.O.K." (next of kin) isn't home but someone else is, why it matters where the messengers park their car and that using the words "died" or "killed" is mandatory.

These scenes are the ultimate test for an actors playing the next of kin, as well as for Foster and Harrelson. If you really think about, what scenario could possibly be a bigger acting challenge than this? As a father who has the exact nightmare of a reaction we've been fearing since the start of the film, the great Steve Buscemi reaffirms why he's one of the best actors around today in a span of barely three minutes. But it's widow Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) who ends up being the most difficult recipient to watch, mainly because she almost appears to be taking the news well (or as well as can be) compared to everyone else. Of course, "well" only means differently and that's what initially draws Will to her. At least, we think. One of the smartest aspects of the script is how we're not given a clear-cut explanation for the attraction and are left to ponder for ourselves why these two damaged people have forged such a connection and whether it's morally right that they have. It helps that Morton has never been better than in this, with her casting an against-type choice you wish studios would have the guts to make more often. The relationship really doesn't go anywhere and maybe the whole point of it is that it can't. Still, it doesn't generate much excitement and results in long takes that give the film a familiarly self-concious "indie" feel.

As the running time wore on I was never bored but found myself wishing the whole film centered on just the notification scenes. Everything involving Tony's alcoholism and womanizing and Will's emotional scarring from the war just isn't as interesting or truthful as what came before. The acting and writing is way too strong for it to play as cliche but it doesn't get to that real, raw place the earlier scenes did. In showing how victims' families react to the news I gained insight I didn't have but when the focus shifted to Will and Tony it almost felt like the script was forcing insight on me I had already gotten (sometimes poorly in other films) and didn't need any more of. A sub-plot involving the distance that grows between Will and his engaged ex-girlfriend, Kelly (Jena Malone) could have been more of that but isn't because Malone is an actress capable of doing a lot with minimal screen time and it results in the film's most unintentionally truthful (if totally sensationalistic) scene involving a laughable toast by her clueless fiancee.

Foster has already proven in films like Alpha Dog that he can command the screen with ferocity but now he shows us he can do the exact opposite and give a muted, more quietly intense performance in a character driven drama and still hold the audience's attention with just as much precision. This performance seals his standing as one of his generation's most promising actors and had it not been such a competitive year in the lead actor category he would have definitely found himself among the five nominees. Harrelson (strangely resembling and sometimes channeling a young Robert Duvall) is just as strong in the most fully realized dramatic role of his career and an impressive close to a year that also saw him give a great comedic turn in Zombieland. Another less-skilled actor could have easily made this character a walking stereotype.

First-time director Oren Moverman's script may have issues but the two actors share such great chemistry that there are long stretches where you hardly notice. Ironically, had it taken a procedural approach in focusing on the notifications all the way through (much like The Hurt Locker did with bomb diffusion) and developed the drama organically from it, the film would have played even better. But wanting to like the movie more than I did isn't exactly a backhanded compliment. It's at least intelligently written and performed, showing a needed restraint that's been lacking in some of the awful, heavy-handed issue pieces this genre has produced the past few years. That this, The Hurt Locker and Brothers were all released in the same year and each took a different take on the war without resorting to the usual shameless tactics can only be seen as an encouraging sign. The Messenger would easily rank second best among them.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Nine, An Education, A Serious Man

Sometimes it can be worthwhile seeing and reviewing movies you have very little interest in, as is the case with the three titles below. If nothing else, the disappointment factor is gone. Two of these were (somewhat inexplicably) nominated for Best Picture while the third WAS a contender that justifiably crashed and burned during awards season. I've been really backed up lately so that's why I'm trying to get these out of the way by jamming them into a single post. One of these days I'll get to a 2010 release...I promise.


Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cottilard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Fergie, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

, or my latest excuse for disliking musicals, is loaded with big-name, A-list talents (plus Fergie) whose skills are all squandered in a plodding 2-hour fragrance commercial. Is it safe to say you know your movie's bad when Kate Hudson is one of the best things in it? Maybe I was just grateful that her screen time was limited or relieved to see her attempt something (anything!) that could be considered a stretch of some sort. In Rob Marshall's defense, the film was no worse than I expected and I'm clearly not in the target audience, but shouldn't you aim to have everyone in the target audience for a star-studded, award baiting project like this? Shouldn't it at least be enjoyable?

It's a remake of Fellini's 8 1/2 and centers around filmmaker, Guido Contini (Daniel Day Lewis) who's working through severe writer's block and suffering a mid-life crisis, if you want to call a "crisis" having to choose between five (okay, maybe three) beautiful women seducing you. There's his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard); mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz); film star, Claudia (Nicole Kidman); fashion journalist, Stephanie (Hudson) and prostitute, Saraghina (Fergie). Yet somehow the film manages to make this boring as the protagonist mopes from scene to scene as musical numbers are randomly penciled in to cover for it. Blame Marshall's dreary direction, not Day-Lewis, who plays the part as written and infuses whatever he can into a thankless role.

Most of the actresses aquit themselves fine but each have such limited limited screen time and thin characterizations that it's just one musical number after the next with the women as scripted background (Dench and Loren are especially wasted in nothing roles). Hudson is given the most entertaining cameo with "Cinema Italiano," which is at least energetic in a train wreck kind of way, with her voice and moves way better than expected. Fergie's "Be Italian" was the only other number that didn't put me to sleep and wisely seemed tailored to mask her deficiencies as a screen performer. Not surprisingly, Kidman has actually been undervalued in terms of her criminally limited contribution here, believable as a major movie star (not that it's too big a stretch). Conveying the most class and elegance of everyone, Cotillard does seem to be most at home with the material and the singing as Luisa so it's easy to see why many have been raving about her. But again, she just isn't given enough screen time to make the necessary impact and her Oscar-nominated song, "Take it All" is a real snoozer, despite how well she sings it.

Cruz is the lone disaster, inexplicably recognized in Oscar's supporting category for gyrating onstage in various positions and fondling herself non-stop. It's easily the dumbest nomination of the year, with voters thinking with an organ other than their brains, though I'd argue even that other organ isn't working properly if they found her irritating antics "sexy." From a technical standpoint, the film definitely looks great with the cinematography, production and costume design all top notch, but even as the ingredients were all there for it to work, too much is jammed in with none of it amounting to anything. It's a long slog making it all the way through, whether you're a fan of this genre or not.

An Education

Director: Lone Scherfig

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Emma Thompson, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike

Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Fluffier and more underwhelming than I expected considering it's (mostly under the radar) status as one of 2009's ten Best Picture nominees. Look up the word "cute" or "adorable" in the dictionary and, while you won't find a photo, you'll still read a definition and that definition would perfectly describe Carey Mulligan's character, Jenny Millar in An Education. As a prim and proper schoolgirl in 1960's England who abandons her plans to study English at Oxford to embark on a relationship with a worldly older man (exceptionally played by Peter Sarsgaard) you almost get the feeling the word could extend to the actress herself and she could be just be coasting on that adorableness (at least here). The role doesn't seem to present that big a challenge, nor does it require her to go anywhere particularly deep, but she carries it all with a confidence absent in most actresses her age. There's no doubt she's going going places and probably in parts with more substance than this.

Nick Hornby's screenplay from first frame and the plot doesn't contain any more depth than a typical CW teen drama, and if you'll forgive the late '90's reference, there's a real Joey Potter-like quality to Jenny. The acting and intelligence with which the whole situation is presented elevates the film to the point where it feels slightly more important than it actually is. It's obvious from the start this relationship can't end well but the little details shine through, like Alfred Molina's hypocritical but hilariously blunt father who's strict enough to preach the value of his daughter's education, but sees no problem abandoning that philosophy when her (illegal?) relationship presents itself as a quicker opportunity for higher social and financial standing.

The film's message is clear as day but there's an authenticity in being taken to a very specific time and place by director Lone Scherfig where these questions were actually still discussed. It's nicely book ended with a zippy, creative opening title sequence and one of those closing voice-over narrations that's really well written for a change. If it hadn't been released with all this independent, artsy-fartsy pedigree behind it, it wouldn't have gotten all this praise, but Mulligan makes the whole endeavor far more enjoyable than it has any right being.

A Serious Man

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

A Serious Man probably needs another viewing, but that's difficult when you're talking about a picture that gets it's kicks showing a series of terrible things befalling a good man who's trying to make the right decisions. If you hate the Coen brothers, you'll hate this. And even if you like them you could still hate it because this really might be their most smug film yet. It's one of those intensely personal projects that the filmmakers clearly made only for them and a narrow niche audience who might appreciate their black humor. I still haven't made up my mind whether I'm in that select group or not. Your tolerance of Jefferson Airplanes' "Somebody to Love" (played about 75 times during the film) will also likely play a big role in that.

It is oddly hilarious at times, as well as exhausting, watching this story (based on the Book of Job) about Larry Gopnick (an unknown but great Michael Stuhlberg), a Jewish college physics professor in 1960's Minnesota wrestle with his son's (Aaron Woolf) pot habit, his daughter's (Jessica McManus) desire for a nose job, his brother (Richard Kind) crashing on his coach, a student blackmailing him and a sultry new neighbor (Amy Landecker) who's husband "travels a lot." On top of that is the collapse of his marriage, as his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick) announces her plans to inexplicably leave him for family friend, Sy Abeleman (Fred Melamed). The strange character of Sy and how brilliantly Melamed plays him is really what makes this entire movie click. Without him I'm not sure there even would be a movie as his approach to basically destroying this guy's life is so matter-of-fact and logical that it robs viewers the right to see him as any kind of villain. As the "serious man" of the title, Sy provides the key to what's rapidly become Larry's failure of a life and in the process joins what's already a long list of memorably loopy Coen characters. Or at least he provides as much of a key to Larry's story as the fake Yiddish folk tale that opens the film.

Many more questions are offered than answers (for the protagonist and us), to the frustrating point that A Serious Man could be thought of as the full-length version of the speech Tommy Lee Jones' gave at the end of No Country For Old Men. Anyone who couldn't stand that movie's blatant open-endedness will feel as if they've been slapped across the face again, but this time maybe even harder. There's a uncanny eye and feel for the midwest in the 60's even if there are times where you wonder whether the Coens have any genuine affection for it. A warm picture this isn't. But it is a more deserving Best Picture nominee than An Education, if only because it aims higher and takes real risks, attempting to examine the importance of finding understanding in the world. The more I think back on it, the better it looks, but how much praise can you give a film you're not sure you'd want to sit through again?