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Life of Kaufman

Synechdoche, the unruly head trip; racist Eastwood glowers

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Previews

For once, our overlords at Coming Attractions have scheduled the week’s big release to open at the mall (and only at the mall). Notorious is a Fox Searchlight biopic of slain rap star Biggie Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G., aka Christopher Wallace, and as such it should appeal to the teen-tween filmgoers to whom that venue programs. But advance critical notice seems to smile upon the film. Might be worth it just to see Anwan Glover (The Wire’s Slim Charles) in the role of ... wait for it ... Snoop Doggy Dogg! Rated R. 122 m. At The Movies.

In Defiance, Liev Schreiber and Daniel Craig, the blond Bond, play two of the three Jewish brothers who hide from Nazis in the woods around their home. Their unexpected success draws other refugees into the forest, and soon they have a community of survivors to care for. But look out — winter’s a-comin’ on. Rated R. 137 m. At the Broadway.

Looking for heartwarming? You’ve got your Hotel for Dogs, in which a precocious pair of kids, having been shipped to a foster home, have to find a place for their little doggie. And, come to that, for all the homeless little doggies in town. Voila the Hotel for Dogs. Stars a handful of adorable actors — Emma Roberts (Nancy Drew), Don Cheadle (Boogie Nights), Lisa Kudrow (Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion). Rated PG. 100 m.  At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop looks to be a funny ha-ha vehicle for Kevin James (King of Queens). He’s a sorry-ass “mall cop,” see, but then there’s a horrifying crisis at the mall and he has to step up and get the job done despite being such a sorry-ass schlub. And his name is “Paul Blart,” which is a funny name. So there you go. Rated PG. 91 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

My Bloody Valentine 3D. Note: McKinleyville and Eureka viewers will not see the coveted third dimension. A coal mining accident nearly kills a guy. The guy goes into a coma and wakes up pissed. So he waits until Valentine’s Day comes around, then goes off on a pick-axe killing spree. He gets taken out. But then he comes back as a zombie or ghost or something, looking to get revenge against the guy who caused the coal mining accident in the first place. Seems like there’s one too many plot points in there. Rated R. 91 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

— Hank Sims

Reviews

GRAN TORINO. Clint Eastwood is the grand old man of classic cinema, an icon and a prolific director who’s played with his persona a bit in the last decade or two. He also sometimes gets a bit of a critical free pass when it comes to his films. The late great Pauline Kael once wrote that male film critics tended to overrate Eastwood because secretly they wanted to be him, and she might have been right. How else to explain the inexplicable praise from most corners for his latest film Gran Torino?

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a grizzled Korean War vet and retired auto worker who lives in a Detroit neighborhood that is mainly populated by Hmong immigrants. Despite his disdain for his Hmong neighbors, he becomes involved with Thao, a Hmong teenager next door who gets caught trying to steal Kowalski’s prized 1972 Gran Torino in a gang initiation. Kowalski very reluctantly takes him under his wing. When the gang returns, Kowalski eventually humiliates them, and they retaliate, escalating the violence.

Eastwood uses his trademark scowl to comic effect, though Kowalski’s continual use of racial epithets, even after becoming friendly with Thao and his sister Sue, tend to sink a lot of the comedy, at least for me. A scene in a barbershop, where Kowalski and his barber bust each others chops through racial insults plays as a parody of tough guy macho. The ultimate respect and friendship that develops in the story between Thao’s family and Kowalski never quite rings true, despite good performances from the actors.

For the first part of the film, Eastwood’s star power helps to paper over the holes in the script, but after the revenge plot kicks in, any semblance of reality collapses. Even the ultimate confrontation with the Hmong gang, which supposedly rings a change on Eastwood’s vigilante persona, seems ultimately hollow and doesn’t evoke the emotional reaction that it intends.

Eastwood the director is at the mercy of a script that reeks of contrivance and predictability. The tonal merging of the comic and the more serious aspects of the story are a problem too: The comedy is too broad, and the gang story is too predictable. 

Eastwood has said this might be his last starring role, which is a shame. Not because the film is good, but because in films like Unforgiven, he did a much better job of deconstructing his hard-bitten persona. It’s too bad this is the note he wants to strike as his last performance. Rated R. 116 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek, Minor and Fortuna.

— Jay Herzog

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. The long-awaited directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is a mixed offering. Though stuffed with enough ideas for several films, for all its admirable nerve, ambition and intricate comic invention, it’s still a bit of a slog to sit through to the end. 

In screenplays for films like Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman showed a unique sensibility, and the themes and characters of Synecdoche, New York will be familiar to those who’ve seen Kaufman’s earlier efforts: the neurotic self-loathing protagonist, the blurring of the lines between dream and reality and a tricky self-referential narrative flow that twists and circles around itself.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theater director who wins a MacArthur genius award and uses the financial windfall to begin a theatrical project in which he can delve into the psychological depths of his own life. Ultimately the project spans over decades, and Cotard creates his own pocket reality in a huge warehouse space where people from his own life are played by actors and actresses. The line between the fiction he’s created and his actual life dissolves, and his life’s work and his life are inseparable. 

The film is comic, though also quite bitter and bleak. Caden’s emotional breakdowns and romantic confusions are sometimes funny, often pathetically so. The film is filled with memorable turns: Catherine Keener as Caden’s artist wife, who abandons him, Hope Davis as his self promoting therapist and Tom Noonan as a creepy stalker who ends up playing Caden. One brilliant casting choice is Emily Watson doubling the character played by Samantha Morton (I don’t think I’m the only one who’s occasionally mistaken these two actresses for each other). 

At times the film suggests a Woody Allen movie as scripted by Borges. The various forking paths of doubling (and tripling) characters end up in a confusing muddle by the last half hour, though, and the film sometimes cries out for the stronger directorial hand of Kaufman’s previous collaborators. Unchecked, the dreary neurosis of Caden Cotard is a bit stultifying at times, and the visual panache of a Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze (who was originally slated to direct the film) is greatly missed.

Synecdoche, New York is ultimately an unruly emotional mess, much like its main character, but for all the film’s faults it’s also undeniably a one-of-a-kind experience, though definitely not for everyone. Perhaps it rightfully needs more than one viewing to completely take in. It’s the kind of film virtually designed to garner its own cult following, and is worth seeing if you’re on its weird wavelength. Rated R. 124 m. At the Minor.

— Jay Herzog

Continuing

BEDTIME STORIES. Stories told by hotel handyman to his young relatives mysteriously start to come true. Rated PG. 99m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

BOLT. Canine TV star depends on his delusions of grandeur to make unexpected journey cross-country. Rated PG. 96m. At The Movies. 

BRIDE WARS. Catty comedy of errors — the girls booked their weddings for the same time and place! Rated PG. 94m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Alien named Klaatu arrives on earth and triggers global upheaval. Rated PG-13. 104m. At The Movies. 

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. Brad Pitt ages backward, Cate Blanchett ages forward, they enjoy blissful moments in the middle and confusion at either end. Rated PG-13. 166 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

DOUBT. Novice nun attempts to bring down suspected pedophile priest. Rated PG-13. 104 m. At the Minor. 

MARLEY AND ME. Neurotic dog teaches family in the making about what really matters in life. Rated PG. 123m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna. 

THE READER. Again with the Nazis. Sexy prewar affair between Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes gets a bit awkward when the Nuremberg trials roll around. Rated R. 123m. At the Broadway. 

SEVEN POUNDS. IRS agent with fateful secret makes journey of redemption by changing lives of seven strangers. Rated PG-13. 124m. At The Movies.

TALE OF DESPEREAUX. Brave and virtuous mouse seeks life of chivalry. Rated G. 94m. At The Movies.

TWILIGHT. Teen girl gets swept up in unorthodox romance with vampire. Rated PG-13. 122m. At The Movies. 

THE UNBORN. Ancient Nazi curse gives rise to spooky spirit that haunts members of a certain family. Rated PG-13. 87 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

VALKYRIE. Colonel uses Hitler’s own emergency plan in attempt to overthrow Nazi government from the inside. Rated PG-13. 120m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek. 

YES MAN. Man signs up for self-help program based on saying yes to everything and anything. Rated PG-13. 104m. At The Movies.

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