The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009). So poorly conceived that it borders on tragic. Jackson and his regular collaborators adapt Alice Sebold’s acclaimed and beloved 2002 novel about a murdered teenage girl, demonstrating such a bizarre lack of empathy that whole film takes on an off-putting robotic sheen. The movie is senseless in every definition of the word, over-directed and utterly tone-deaf. The actors all seem to have stumbled in from other movies with Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci approaching satire in their broadly drawn roles, Rachel Weisz looking bored and Mark Wahlberg thoroughly perplexed. It is cluttered with garish afterlife landscape and crass emotional manipulation to such a degree that the previous film is most resembles is 1998’s What Dreams May Come, which is about as unkind of an observation as I can make.
Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978). Parker’s grimly effective adaptation of the prior year’s nonfiction book by Billy Hayes detailing his harrowing experience in a Turkish prison has a bracing single-mindedness to it. The script by Oliver Stone may be his first, but his penchant for bludgeoning simplicity is already in place. Luckily it works well here, perhaps because Parker has some feel for injecting some humanity and personality into the story. Brad Davis is quite good as Billy, laboring believably through one of those roles that’s about conveying the anguish and endurance of the character as much as showing flickers of inner life. There’s also nice character work by John Hurt as one of Billy’s fellow inmates. The film doesn’t have an especially surprising or engrossing arc to it, but it definitely fulfills its mission of making a Turkish prisoner seem like about the most unpleasant place on the planet.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010). Bryan Lee O’Malley’s terrifically successful series of graphic novels about a lovelorn Toronto twentysomething is taken by Edgar Wright and recalibrated into a bright, energetic and ingeniously creative film. As opposed to directors who simply slavishly recreate comic book stories, mistaking their pages for storyboards, Wright uses O’Malley’s original work as inspiration, remaining true to it while also stamping it with his own voice and ideas better suited for the medium he’s working in. The result is a thrillingly kinetic film that employs the syntax of video games, Web-based communications and anything else Wright can think of with notable deftness. It’s not so much a new way to tell a film story as it is the perfect way to tell this film story. Fortunately, all this wonderfully employed technique doesn’t cause Wright to lose sight of the simpler, equally vital parts of his film such as character and performance. The roles are fully realized, and there are especially fine supporting turns by Kieran Culkin as Scott’s roommate, Alison Pill as the perpetually dissatisfied drummer in his band, and especially Ellen Wong as the youthful girlfriend who Scott spurns when his dream woman enters the picture.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010). This documentary is credited to the famed guerilla artist, but who knows? The story of an amateur and relentless videographer named Thierry Guetta who becomes obsessed with street artists and then spontaneously becomes one himself, mounting a massive art show in Los Angeles, has generated enormous skepticism about its authenticity since its Sundance debut. That’s partially because the general hostility towards the contrivances of the art world that’s woven through the commentary of Banksy and others interviewed in the film reaches its fitting apotheosis when Terry’s exhibition of derivative and suspect works becomes a roaring success. Despite Banksy’s continued insistence that the film is completely legit, the whole closing third feels has the waft of scam about it. This isn’t especially damaging to the film’s effectiveness, however. If anything, it enhances it, drawing the film’s themes and ideas together into a tight little knot. If there is a dose of surreptitious artistic invention to the film then trying to parse the real from the fake is both engaging in and falling for the joke.
Public Speaking (Martin Scorsese, 2010). One of clearest current pleasures of my current movie attentiveness is seeing Martin Scorsese’s status in the entertainment super-structure changed from acknowledged-genius-who-struggles-to-get-his-films-made to acknowledged-genius-who-basically-gets-to-make-whatever-he-wants. That doesn’t mean that everything he stitches together represents masterful filmmaking, especially in the realm of nonfiction work. However, it’s still uniquely satisfying to watching a movie he made about Fran Lebowitz for seemingly no other reason than he thinks sitting and chatting with the caustically funny author for a few hours is a pretty good time. He’s right. It is. It’s also a perilously thin justification for a movie, despite Scorsese’s admirable efforts to mine the video record of Lebowitz’s career to add some context to her various sardonic pronouncements. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it greatly every time I could hear Scorsese cracking up off camera.