In Hollywood where all the lights are low and truth’s as rare as the winter snow

The Bucket List (Rob Reiner, 2007). When I write these “catch-up reviews” posts, I present the films strictly in the order I watched them. That’s not the case with Rob Reiner’s latest, however. As I perused my list, I realized that I had neglected to write about this at the point I watched it. I offer this piece of information not because the inside details of my methodology are especially scintillating, but because it ably illustrates that this film is completely forgettable. Jack Nicholson plays his stock character: the careening, carousing, glinting little devil. Morgan Freeman plays his stock character: the sage, somber, dignified soul who dutifully narrates the film (of course he narrates it). The strangers bond when, each facing a terminal illness, they’re assigned to the same hospital room. The pledge to take advantage of convenient dual remissions to gallivant around the world, engaging in skydiving, motorcycle riding on the Great Wall of China and other dopey adventures. Reiner, a capable, clever director back in the eighties and early nineties, has seemingly given up completely. The film is lazy and flat, a wan, treacly piece of junk.

Year of the Dog (Mike White, 2007). There are clearly limits to Mike White’s unique brand of sympathetic snark. Films he’s written–like Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl–are about small, wounded people without ever settling on whether to damn or praise them. Dog marks White’s first time as a director, and it seems those prior collaborators may have been tipping him away from his harsher tendencies. Untempered, his mockery of the characters borders on vicious. Molly Shannon is solid enough as a woman who contends with the loss of a pet through an escalating commitment to other animals. In the end, I did believe in her character’s path. I wish I felt that White did, too.

1408 (Mikael Hafstrom, 2007). For the first third or so, this adaptation of a Stephen King story about a damned hotel room is actually quite fun. Hafstrom does a great job with the build-up, injecting ominous tales of the room’s terrors with fun, flinty popcorn dread. Even the first bit in the room itself, with the travel writer played by John Cusack reacting to the little worrisome problems that crop up, is nicely playful. The film gets genuinely dreadful as it progresses, though it’s worth noting that maintaining the energy of the first portion may have been a insurmountable task. If it stays too low-key all the foreshadowing makes everything feel phony, and to properly fulfill the promises of the first section, it almost needs to escalate into the pure ludicrousness. That it pushes so far past the latter option into something so excessive it’s hard to find a single word to adequately describe it is a bizarre feat.

King of the Hill (Steven Soderbergh, 1993). Four years after his breakthrough sex, lies and videotape redefined independent cinema–for better and for worse–Soderbergh’s third film is a rich, finely detailed adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s memoir of growing up during the Great Depression. Soderbergh gets at the enveloping hopelessness of the time without getting too pushy. He just tells the story with shrewd writing and elegant shot construction. The acting slips a little here and there, but in all other respects the execution matches the sterling intent. It’s not one of Soderbergh’s better known works, residing in the professional netherworld between that renowned debut and his sharp reemergence with 1998’s Out of Sight, but it’s a splendid evidence of his value and importance as a filmmaker.

Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008). I somehow heard (or, more likely, read) that Michel Gondry was displeased that Charlie Kaufman got most of the praise for the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. After all, Gondry was the director, something that usually carries more weight now that were deep into the auteur era. Also, when Kaufman is correctly identified as an Oscar-winning writer, it’s worth remembering that Gondry was standing on the stage as one of two other scribes who also earned little golden men for their efforts on the script. If that resentment is true, then it must have been especially galling to have his film Be Kind Rewind generally dismissed when it came out early in 2008, only to see Kaufman’s Synedoche, New York, with the similar theme of exploring the very nature of performing art, heaped with critical praise later in the year. While Kaufman’s film is dire and nihilistic (and pretentious as can be), Gondry’s take is joyous and buoyant. That injection of heart doesn’t make the film blindly positive. In the end, it’s tempered by bittersweet reality. Still, overall this film about video store clerks who replace damaged stock with homemade versions of well-known films is a celebration of filmmaking and the community of inspiration it requires. In this instance, I stand among the minority who far prefers Gondry’s approach to Kaufman’s. But then, you already knew that.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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