First things first: My apologies for the dearth of posting
But I have a reward for all of you who have been anxiously awaiting my triumphant return to writing about the cinema of Two Thousand and Ten in the Year of our Lord: capsule reviews! Delicious, delicious capsules.
Sofia Coppola - for whom I've been a bit of a defender/apologist - attempts a minimalist (or more minimalist) aesthetic in Somewhere, and it's an experiment that, save for some truly touching moments, largely falls flat. Coppola, so often written off as a Princess who has been handed the keys to her indie kingdom, is undoubtedly a major talent, and I think her namesake prevents a more objective analysis of her work - yes, she is a rich girl, and she makes movies about rich people, but the honesty of her perspective is often overshadowed simply by her being who she is. For whatever reason, her particular method of depicting rich people seems to rub a great many people the wrong way.
Somewhere represents the first time I've understood where her detractors are coming from - while in the past I feel Coppola has humanized the rich in a meaningful way, offering us insights into a social world that many of us never have and never will know anything about, the manner in which she tries to extract sympathy for her disaffected wealthy protagonist in Somewhere is insensitive and borderline obnoxious. The film opens with a static shot of hot shot actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) driving his expensive muscle car very fast on a desolate road, and this opening image, which drags on for what feels like an eternity, pretty much sums up the problem with Coppola's film - she basically sits back and expects people who have trouble paying their God damn mortgage to feel bad for this poor, lonely, alienated little rich man. Look how boring it is to be rich! Look how dull it is to drive a really fast and expensive car, look how passe it is to sit by your swimming pool, look how "meh" it is to have an almost absurd amount of big breasted women throwing themselves at you every time you turn around. I weep for this man.
Perhaps the stripped down aesthetic is the problem - Coppola is not the most expressive of visual artists, and the use of minimalism basically necessitates that you be able to tell stories in a purely visual way. Coppola's images don't feel evocative, they feel literal, and that makes the endless static images, long passages of silence and sparse dialogue more dull than poetic. Also, Dorff is good enough, but he's not a strong or dynamic enough actor to be able to express the things that Coppola wants him to wordlessly, as Bill Murray did in Lost in Translation.
The best moments in the film depict the relationship between Marco and his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning) - essentially, this is a tale of a father reconnecting with his daughter, and the two of them have some moments together that are truly magical; especially affecting is a sequence when a tearful Cleo is leaving for camp, and Marco apologizes to her for not being more involved in her life, but his apology is drowned out by the sound of a helicopter. In spite of this, it still feels like Coppola is reaching to places she can't quite achieve through purely visual expression. Especially after the ambitious and extremely underrated Marie Antoinette, this feels like a retread to safer, more familiar territory.
An effective balance of social realist and mystery, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is a sensitive class portrait and an engaging, suspenseful neo-noir. There is a real poetry to the film, espeically in its quieter moments; Granik and her cinematographer Michael McDonough capture the sparseness and stark beauty of their Missouri backwoods, expressing both the desolation of their setting and the literal and figurative loneliness of their main character, Ree Dolly, unforgettably brought to life by Jennifer Lawrence. Dolly, whose father has been in jail for dealing drugs and whose mother has had a mental breakdown, is forced to raise her two siblings in spite of being only 17 herself when an officer comes to her home and informs her that her father has skipped bail and, since he put the house up for collateral, their house will be claimed in one week unless he turns up. Ree then essentially takes on the role of a detective, searching for the truth of what happened to her father, and being delivered standard noir warnings by the townsfolk along the way; "stay out of it", "mind your own business", and so on.
The biggest problem with Winter's Bone is the dialogue, which tries too hard to approximate Southern dialect - it lays it on more than a little thick, and the performers with the exception of Lawrence frankly aren't talented enough to sell it. It tarnishes the illusion somewhat when you're constantly reminded that you're watching actors reciting lines; indeed, the films greatest flaw is that it feels the need to oversell all its point via the script, which isn't any great shakes. Still, Winter's Bone brings enough new ideas to its genre to make it worthwhile. But it could have been so much better.
Woody Allen, while not quite "returning to form", certainly rebounds from last year's despicable Whatever Works with the surprisingly pleasant You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Though still chock-full of token Allen cynicism - everyone cheats on everyone, every relationship is doomed to failure, and so on - there is a gentle feel to what is on the plot level standard Woody boilerplate. While Whatever Works essentially condoned immorality with its titular philosophy, Allen forces his characters in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger to confront their mistakes, and the result is a moving, if imperfect film. Anchored by terrific performances from a great ensemble cast, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is one of the year's most pleasant surprises.
We are introduced to Helena (Gemma Jones) as she tells a "clairvoyant" about her recent break up with her husband (Anthony Hopkins) , who is going through a life crisis and doing the things men apparently do when they go through said crises: break up from their boring old wife, get obsessive about physical appearance, and bag a bimbo half their age (and I.Q.) whose just sleeping with them for money (literally - his new girlfriend is an ex-hooker). While this is going on, their daughter (Naomi Watts) and her husband (Josh Brolin) are having - wait for it! - marital issues of their own; Brolin is a struggling writer whose novel he's sure will be rejected by his publishers, and Watts is resentful of being forced to be the breadwinner by working in an art gallery while her husband sits on his ass waiting for the phone to ring and stares out his apartment window at a young guitar player (Freida Pinto), who apparently only owns red clothing. Their fights lead them, naturally, to grow more fond of acquaintances than one another - Brolin begins making advances towards his neighbor while Watts finds herself falling for her boss (Antonio Banderas). You can imagine where things go from there, but Allen enriches this borderline soap opera by making his characters more alone by the end than they were in the beginning - acknowledging that the answer to your problems can't be found in the warm embrace of another person, but only within yourself.
While in his previous picture Allen just shrugged his shoulder at his characters' wrongdoing, here Allen grapples with his characters callous shortsightedness. This is typified by a scene where Pinto breaks off her engagement with the man she was to marry, and tearfully apologies to her fiance and his family for her wrongdoing. It's hard to remember the last time Allen didn't merely accept infidelity as a given - that is, didn't reductively characterize it as one of those things people do to each other - and acknowledged that it is profoundly hurtful to the person who was cheated on, and this in and of itself adds a dimension to Allen's work that has been long absent. In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen does what he does best - that is, finding comedy in sadness and tragedy in the humorous.