Movie Review: Drag Me To Hell

2009. Starring Alison Lohman and Justin Long. Directed by Sam Raimi. There used to be something of a moral code to horror movies. People were victimized or terrorized for a reason, earning the torment through a flaw in character. Maybe they cheated or lied and, in doing so, forfeited the audience’s sympathy. Maybe like Dr. Frankenstein, they really asked for it. That violation of morality made them a deserving victim — hell, even Janet Leigh’s character stole a stack of money before checking into the Bates Motel. Somewhere along the line — maybe it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or …

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Movie Review: F For Fake

1973. Directed by Orson Welles. Orson Welles opens and closes his final film with magic tricks, in part to show us that we can be fooled for our own enjoyment, that we welcome illusions if we willingly participate in them, but also to associate those harmless tricks with the perils of trust. After all — he reminds us at the end — at the start of the film he promised he would absolutely tell the truth for the next hour, then notes that the hour was up long before the end of the film. The question at the heart of …

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Movie Review: Sin Nombre

2009. Starring Edgar Flores and Paulina Gaitan. Directed by Cary Fukunaga. The right-wing outrage over illegal immigration — like its outrage over nearly every issue — purposefully avoids consideration of the human lives at the heart of the debate. There is even a trend to refer to illegal immigrants as “illegals,” so as to remove any reference to the humanity of the desperate people involved. Ignoring the vulnerable souls behind a painful and difficult decision must help when you want to demonize and demagogue. What Sin Nombre forces you to do, from its beginning, is to consider the circumstances of …

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Movie Review: Adventureland

2009. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart. Directed by Greg Mottola. Why do boys and girls in America have such a sad time together? (You can ask the Hold Steady, but I doubt it involves John Berryman.) I don’t think I’ll ever see a coming-of-age movie that explains why teenage love is misery. Maybe it’s not possible — I don’t know if I can lose myself in someone else’s story, like this very noble effort by writer-director Greg Mottola. The events in this movie mean a lot to him, and you just hope, as you begin to invest the time and …

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Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

2009. Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. The lady who handed me my ticket asked me, why do they call them “Inglourious Basterds”? I knew there was a 1970s movie with the same name, but I wasn’t completely sure whether this was one of those Tarantino homages — like how his film company is named A Band Apart, or how Sonny Chiba appears in Kill Bill as a past-his-prime samurai sword artisan. So I muttered, I don’t know, I haven’t seen the movie yet — maybe they’re like the Dirty Dozen? I wasn’t too far off. The …

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Movie Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

2007. Starring Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Rockwell. Directed by Andrew Dominik. A film that announces its conclusion in the title promises to cast the events through some very subjective filters. The legend of Jesse James, I’m sure, is known by most people much like it’s sung by a barroom busker (nice cameo, Nick Cave), mistakenly crediting Jesse with stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. He also gets the number of Jesse’s kids wrong. But it doesn’t matter, because legends are legends, and as John Ford taught us in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the …

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Movie Review: Gran Torino

2008. Starring Clint Eastwood, Ahney Her, Bee Vang. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood has become of those actors whom you cannot pretend is a character not named Clint Eastwood. It happened to John Wayne and Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. But a good role can overcome that curse. As Walt Kowalski, the perfectly-named working-class bigot next door, Eastwood more or less succeeds in creating a believable character through his trademark squint and a variety of grunts. Walt Kowalski lives in a modest house in a changing neighborhood that used to be his, having retired from an auto industry that …

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Movie Review: Star Trek

2009. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto. Directed by J.J. Abrams. There’s a particularly good episode of Northern Exposure — one of television’s funniest and most-thoughtful series — in which the Native American character played by Graham Greene is studying white American culture for examples of healing and instructive myths. He notes that various tribes have stories that help put the universe in perspective and help explain the often-unexplainable burden of being human. After questioning everyone in town, he finds that no one can name myths in white culture similar to those you find in Native American culture. He then stumbles …

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Movie Review: Wendy and Lucy

2008. Starring Michelle Williams. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Summer is the time of blockbusters — screen-filling spectacles of ‘splosions and sequels. The fantastic and futuristic epics that challenge the stabilizing structures of logic while we suspend our disbelief. Reinterpretation of familiar narratives and remakes of films that were better in their first iteration. But once in a while, you are reminded that there is drama in everyday life, and a story that will break your heart behind every person with a downcast face you pass on the street. That’s why we need the blockbusters and explosions. There is just too …

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Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

2008. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett. Directed by David Fincher. There are many deaths in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; that is, there are many lives lived. I say that because, if what this story tells us can be boiled down to a single point, it’s that, in order to live, you must accept that you will die. To make this point as simply and gracefully as the movie does, it shows us the life of a man born into a physically old body that becomes younger as he ages.  In all other ways, he experiences the joys and …

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