- The Fog of War (2003): Brilliant documentary chronicles the life of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. The film starts with two seemingly innocuous clips of McNamara. In the first, he prepares for a press conference, and in the second, he is talking to an interviewer in what a behind the scenes sort of moment moment. In both clips, you get the impression that you're seeing someone who is intent on controlling what is being revealed. And with the placement of those clips, you know that Errol Morris, the director, is also intent of controlling what you see by employing numerous stylish devices (Morris has mastered the Reflexive documentary techniques often discussed on this blog). The closeups of old documents, numbers, typewriters, slowly revolving tape recorders, etc... are well used and call attention to Morris as a filmmaker. The film takes us through eleven lessons from McNamara's life, but what is more striking is the questions it brings up. They aren't easy questions, and though McNamara has had to answer them during the course of his life, you aren't required to come to the same conclusions. McNamara is often blamed for the debacle of Vietnam, but Morris doesn't demonize the man (as perhaps, a lesser director would), though you're able to do so if you like... If you see the movie, keep an open mind. It's not what you'd expect. Four Stars (****)
- The Polar Express (2004): A sweet little Christmas movie, and an effective one at that. As James notes, this movie shares more than a few similarities with The Wizard of Oz, both thematically and stylistically.
As I was watching The Polar Express, I was reminded of The Wizard of Oz. The similarities are, at times, remarkable. The characters in this film are on a journey to a mythical place - not Oz, but the North Pole. And they're following train tracks, not the yellow brick road. But the four companions are all searching for something intangible. Our hero, an unnamed boy, is on a quest for faith. His companions are seeking confidence, courage, and humility. The entire story may be the figment of the main character's imagination. But at least there's no Wicked Witch or a surrogate. The Polar Express is a tale with plenty of heart and no traditional villain.It's also a little creepy, in a way that many children's movies are... Good stuff. Three stars (***)
- El Mariachi (1992): Robert Rodriguez's $7,000 action flick about a traveling mariachi getting mixed up in a drug war. The film isn't quite as interesting as the trivia surrounding it, but it is a reasonably good flick, and has held up to the test of time reasonably well (considering it's humble beginnings). Two and a half stars (**1/2)
- 21 Grams (2003): The story is somewhat mundane, but the film is elevated by exceptional performances from the three main leads and a jumpy non-linear presentation. The film demands your attention because of the erratic progression of the story, but the style ends up betraying the ending of the film. It ends with a touch of hope, but it doesn't quite feel like it. It's not a fun movie to watch because of the subject matter (almost unbearable), but it is very well done, from every aspect of the production. Three stars (***)
- City of God (2002): This film tells the story of two boys growing up in a rough neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. The narrator becomes a photographer, and the other becomes a drug dealer. The director, Fernando Meirelles, employs a stunningly effective style to tell the story and he somehow manages to infuse enough of a sense of humor in the film that you don't despair, despite the brutally violent nature of the story (which is driven by the drug dealer's rise and fall). The film is very violent, yet there is almost no bloodshed. Ironically, the ending of this film is much more bleak than 21 Grams, but it doesn't feel that way (it's still bleak, but it's not unbearable). Three and a half stars (*** 1/2)
I've seen quite a few movies lately, so I figured I'd give some capsule reviews for the better ones...