Beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Not because The Santa Clause 3 has come to town (I didn't, wouldn't, see it), but because movies have begun to pile up at such a rate as to obstruct justice. In cases, anyway, where justice might be deserved.
La Moustache, for one, demands a lengthier hearing. Denied. An absurdist existential thriller adapted from his own novel by French filmmaker Emmanuel Carrère, it's a movie made out of nothing. A man (Vincent Lindon, an everyman) shaves off his soup-strainer on a sudden whim, and stands by in deepening shades of disbelief, disappointment, dejection, annoyance, anger, and perhaps madness as no one notices -- a pliable metaphor of self-centeredness and self-consciousness. It has, for all its nothingness, a fast start and a sharp focus; it has intrigue; it has intensity (no great credit to that musical monomaniac, Philip Glass, whose Violin Concerto intrudes insistently); and it has its own evocative look: the flat, frigid, sunless illumination of ace cinematographer Patrick Blossier. It has, on the downside, an unsatisfactory third and final act (after an impulsive flight to Hong Kong), although nothing to dent the central image of a man with a different, a disjunctive, level of consciousness.
Stranger Than Fiction, the first filmed screenplay of Zach Helm, crowds in on the domain of Charlie Kaufman: a Pirandellian brainteaser about a robotic IRS auditor (Will Ferrell, constrained by catatonia) who discovers he is a character in the work-in-progress of a blocked novelist (Emma Thompson) and is slated to die at the end of it. (A new approach, there, to the standard time-travel and second-sight conundrum: can the foreordained be averted through foreknowledge?) He discovers all this when he, and he alone, starts to hear the voice of the omniscient narrator -- don't ask how or why -- accurately describing his life as he lives it, "but with a better vocabulary," and he then seeks help not from a therapist but from a literary theorist (Dustin Hoffman). The pedantry tends to get in the way of laughs, and the twisted logic sometimes trips up the plot developments (what does the author think she's narrating when her hero is dashing to a phone to dial her own number?), and the voice-over prose samples do not remotely live up to the writer's reputation. Nevertheless, the improbable romance between the inflexible tax man and a civilly disobedient, tropically tattooed baker, currently under IRS scrutiny, is oddly touching, thanks in large part to the touchingly odd line readings of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who can work wonders with an echoic little query like, "You don't like cookies?" And immediately after that, her sensuous recital of the goodies in her early culinary repertoire hovers breathlessly between sheer poetry and utter pornography: "Lemon chiffon cake with zesty peach icing," etc., etc. Directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Stay), this is not the "average Will Ferrell comedy" to which I snidely alluded last week. This is above average.
In Fast Food Nation -- a multicharacter fictionalization of Eric Schlosser's nonfiction exposé of the same name -- director Richard Linklater picks up a placard and joins the radical parade of American fictioneers from Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair and Jack London and John Steinbeck and on down. The major issues, too many to fit on one placard, are corporate corner-cutting and penny-pinching, the exploitation of undocumented workers, the brand-naming of America, the brainwashing of its citizens, and the like. Undisguisedly didactic in intent, often clunky and chunky in dialogue ("Right now I can't think of anything more patriotic than violating the Patriot Act"), it is surprisingly watchable, with its large assemblage of life-sized characters (Ashley Johnson, special mention, as a perky fast-food clerk with incipient scruples) and its smooth-flowing narrative, following two principal paths to its central arena of Cody, Colorado: the investigation by a Mickey's marketer (Greg Kinnear) into allegations of elevated fecal content in their Big One burger ("There's shit in the meat.... This could be a problem for us") and the importation of Mexican laborers (Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ana Claudia Talancón) to staff the Uni-Globe Meat Packing plant. The first path, though, trails off long before the finish, yielding to a new and unavailing path of local consciousness-raising. And the rhetorical climax on "the kill floor" is, from any angle, overkill. Particularly from the vegetarian angle.
Casino Royale, taking its title from Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel, approaches the opportunity of a new James Bond as the opportunity of a new beginning. The new Bond, Daniel Craig, is not just another pretty face, in fact is a pretty craggy face (Craiggy face, I guess that should be), and it can pretty well express itself in the bargain. Granted, noises were made about a similar rollback toward reality when Timothy Dalton came on board; and even in the midst of the reign of Pierce Brosnan, noises were made about toughening up his act. These proved to be only noises. The new noises are more. The obligatory pre-credits sequence, in black-and-white and sprinkled with flashbacks, shuns spectacle in favor of blunt brutality; and the action to follow seems to be under no compulsion to "top" all previous action. While Judi Dench reprises the role of "M," Bond himself has only just been promoted to double-0 status (a new beginning for sure) and has yet to earn his boss's trust. There is no equivalent of "Q" and his cute presentation of the gadgets du jour. There is no casual bedding of "Bond girls," and the one romantic relationship (with the enigmatic, darkly eyelined Eva Green) attains an emotional weight beyond even the all-the-way-to-the-altar affair of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The hero's lame quips and puns, meantime, have thoroughly been expunged from the script. And "I don't give a damn" is his response to the bartender's inquiry as to whether he'd like his vodka martini shaken or stirred. All these changes are definite improvements. And yet, and yet, and yet.... The action, even if somewhat scaled back under the one-time Bond director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, the beginning of the Brosnan Bonds, but scarcely a new beginning), is still more than sufficiently cartoonish. The plotting is skimpy. The whole thing runs on far too long. And then there's the fundamental question: if you want to do an alternative to James Bond, why call him James Bond? Why not put him out to pasture where at his age he belongs?
Harsh Times sanctions David Ayer to resume his self-appointed role as police watchdog, this time as director in addition to screenwriter (Training Day, Dark Blue). The man he has his eye on, a very disturbed veteran of the action in Afghanistan, is not already a policeman but soon hopes to be. When, however, he receives his letter of rejection from the LAPD, he shows his commitment to law and order by tossing at a neighboring motorist the beer bottle from which he had been guzzling while driving. His motivation, to be sure, had never been to enforce laws but only to gain greater license to violate them for personal profit. And although the LAPD screeners have red-flagged him, the Department of Homeland Security, impressed by his fluency in español, might yet wave him through. Christian Bale's español is indeed impressive; and the contradictions in the character, if often uncontrollably comical, are no barrier to belief. The extravagances of Bale's go-for-broke performance (Denzel Washington got an Oscar for Training Day, didn't he?) are another matter. Sky-high.
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, also describing itself prefatorily as "a tribute to Diane," is at pains to deflect expectations of a straight, literal, pedestrian biography of the celebrated American photographer of front-and-center freaks (or non-freaks who, so forcibly fronted and centered, merely look like freaks). In spite of the freedom of form, the repressed-Fifties-housewife stuff feels awfully stale, and the protagonist's pursuit of her inner strangeness leads her into a conventional Beauty-and-Beast relationship, with hirsute makeup handed down from Cocteau. (Director Steven Shainberg, in his first film since the S&M romance, Secretary, thus continues the pursuit of his own inner strangeness.) Some of the intermediate steps -- the arrival of a mysterious masked neighbor in the apartment upstairs, the removal of a hairball clogging the bathroom pipe -- elicit a shiver or two, and Nicole Kidman in the title role is convincingly strange (even without any outside knowledge of, for example, her off-screen choice in mates). At the very least, the film has the benefit of introducing Arbus's work to a wider audience, or at any rate introducing her name to it -- her actual work is conspicuously absent -- as well as teaching that audience how to pronounce it. Dee-ann, evidently, not Dye-ann.
A Good Year ladles out self-betterment swill to do with a cutthroat London bond trader (Russell Crowe, disconcertingly fey) who inherits from his uncle a rundown wine-growing estate in Provence, the happy stamping ground of his boyhood holidays, and who, returning there to sell the place, falls again under its spell -- and under that of a hot-as-a-pistol brunette -- and recaptures the magic of youth. Ridley Scott (who directed Crowe in Gladiator, too) extols the enchantments of bucolic tranquillity in a hectic visual style, and with a busy soundtrack, amounting to self-sabotage. For me, the only bright spots, exactly two of them, were the unexpected appearances of Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (a top-line star on the continent) as the hero's French legal advisor, a role that affords her fractionally more screen time than her blink-of-an-eye appearance in Munich, plenty long enough to emit a blast of Mediterranean soulfulness.