Monday, November 9, 2009

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Ballast (2008) ****½ There isn’t much talk and not a drop of cynicism in this film, Lance Hammer’s austerely elegant, emotionally unadorned riff on life and death in the Mississippi Delta. Shot with a sure hand and a cast of unknowns, the film doesn’t so much tell a story as develop a tone and root around a place that, despite the intimate camerawork, remains shrouded in ambiguity. Mr. Hammer puts in the time, but never asserts that he knows this world and his black characters from the inside out, a wise choice for a white boy playing the blues. Grade: A

The Merry Gentleman (2009) ****½ The first shot in this film, an austere, nearly pitch-perfect character study of two mismatched yet ideally matched souls, is of its director, the actor Michael Keaton, sitting on a park bench. Still as stone, he stares ahead in profile, sphinxlike. He doesn’t say a thing, but the scene overflows with meaning, from the ringing church bells to the somber wintry light and the shallow focus that has turned the world around him into an undifferentiated blur. He seems less lonely than simply and bluntly alone. This man, you learn within minutes, seems entirely at ease shooting another human being to death. He is Frank Logan, who when not wielding a gun is sitting at a sewing table in a men’s custom clothing shop. He’s a question mark of a character, a question that remains as unanswered at the end of this satisfying film as at the start. Much like the straightforward visual style he has adopted for this film, his first as a director, Mr. Keaton plays Frank without any attention-grabbing, important moments. Though he can be an extremely animated performer with a gunning motormouth, he plays the character with such physical reserve that, while Frank might not be dead, you feel he’s almost certainly already buried. Grade: A

Spread (2009) **½ When Nikki (Ashton Kutcher), a lanky, arrogant Hollywood stud, confides his secrets of seduction to the camera early in Spread, you wonder if this might be the breakthrough movie in which a male hustler is not required to pay for his sins. We’re in the 21st century, after all. And Nikki, and the women on whom he preys (he has no home or car) operate on a level playing field where the combatants are buffeted without suffering mortal wounds or moral disgrace. The rules of the game are roughly the same as those in Entourage and Californication. Casual opportunistic sex practiced by beautiful people of both sexes is an easy-come, easy-go transaction. Each month, Nikki estimates, 30,000 hot young things arrive in Hollywood prepared for battle. Mr. Kutcher, who sprawls around half-naked through much of the movie, exudes a goofy, rakish charm, but Spread, directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam) from a screenplay by Jason Dean Hall, doesn’t attach to him a coherent story. Grade: C

The Ugly Truth (2009) * That tap-tap-tapping sound you hear is another nail being driven into the coffin of the romantic comedy. Over the years this sturdy if supple genre has survived extraordinary cultural and social changes, most notably the suffragist movement in the early part of the last century and women’s rights toward the latter. Liberated women, along with the pill, quickie divorces, swinging couples, blended families and various wars both abroad and at home might have dinged the genre, but it has endured and adapted, even when the story now hinges on boy meets boy meets boy (as in Shortbus) or pops up on the small screen (Sex and the City). When it comes to the old straight-boy-meets-straight-girl configuration with big-studio production values, however, you might as well forget it, at least if you’re a woman. Which leads to The Ugly Truth, a cynical, clumsy, aptly titled attempt to cross the female-oriented romantic comedy with the male-oriented gross-out comedy that is interesting on several levels, none having to do with cinema. Grade: D

Up (2009) ***½ In its opening stretch this Pixar movie flies high, borne aloft by a sense of creative flight and a flawlessly realized love story. Its on-screen and unlikely escape artist is Carl Fredricksen, a widower and former balloon salesman with a square head and a round nose that looks ready for honking. Voiced with appreciable impatience by Ed Asner, Carl isn’t your typical American animated hero. He’s 78, for starters, and the years have taken their toll on his lugubrious body and spirit, both of which seem solidly tethered to the ground. Even the two corners of his mouth point straight down. It’s as if he were sagging into the earth. Eventually a bouquet of balloons sends Carl and his house soaring into the sky, where they go up, up and away and off to an adventure in South America with a portly child, some talking (and snarling and gourmet-cooking) dogs and an unexpected villain. Though the initial images of flight are wonderfully rendered — the house shudders and creaks and splinters and groans as it’s ripped from its foundation by the balloons — the movie remains bound by convention, despite even its modest 3-D depth. This has become the Pixar way. Passages of glorious imagination are invariably matched by stock characters and banal story choices, as each new movie becomes another manifestation of the movie-industry divide between art and the bottom line. Grade: B+

A Woman in Berlin (2009) ***** Somewhere in the middle of this film, the anonymous title character (Nina Hoss) runs into an old friend. It is 1945, the German capital has recently fallen to the Soviet Army, and the two women exchange what is apparently a common greeting at that time and place: "How often?" The unspoken, self-evident meaning of this question is "How many Russian soldiers have raped you?" That such horrific information can be exchanged so matter-of-factly, even with rueful, stoical humor, can stand as a concise summary of the insights offered by Max Färberböck’s sprawling, difficult, powerful film. Grade: A+

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