Seraphine – 3

I had never heard of the “naïve” artist Seraphine de Senlis, but discovering at movie’s end that she was a real person explained in large part why this film was so dramatically inert. To take but one example, Wilhelm Uhde had to flee Senlis at the outset of World War I because that actually happened, not because it moved the plot in any particular direction. The lead role was undoubtedly well acted, but that didn’t make her enjoyable to watch – and why was there a nude scene? Just to show that the film was French (or Belgian)? Uhde himself was extremely boring, and the use of name-dropping (Picasso, Rousseau) to attach importance to what we were witnessing was off-putting instead. Everything the director tried was overly obvious, and none of it worked.

The Hurt Locker – 8.5

Powerful and suspenseful, beautifully directed and acted. Together with Dexter Filkins’ amazing The Forever War, which I’m currently reading, this gives a picture of the war in Iraq that makes you wonder, over and over, what are we doing there? Who is the enemy we are fighting? It could be anyone – the man with the cell phone in the butcher shop? The boy who is hawking bootleg DVDs? How can anyone tell? What are the soldiers trying to accomplish? Dismantling bombs, to be sure; keeping alive, most of all. But effecting change in Iraq? Not bloody likely.

Don’t get me wrong. This film is far from political, and that is one its strengths. What the viewer will feel about the Iraq war is probably what he was inclined to feel going in. The film focuses instead on three men in the bomb-disposal unit: James, the gung-ho redneck who is no good with people but needs the adrenaline rush of combat; Sanborn, the practical sergeant-in-the-middle; and Will, the specialist whose nerves are shot and just wants to go home. How they work together and where they end up provides the story arc. But the story is secondary to the cascading series of bomb incidents, which are the true loves of (Oscar-worthy) director Kathryn Bigelow. And when James re-ups for another tour of duty, we are left to ponder two unrelated but similarly profound thoughts: coming home to cleaning the gutters is a huge psychological letdown for someone who has been at war; and in going back to Iraq, the bombs will still be there, almost nothing will have changed.

Incidental kudos to Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and David Morse for taking on almost-cameo roles, an interesting flip when the movie’s stars, Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie are virtual unknowns.

Whatever Works – 8

It’s funny how a movie that starts with such an extraordinarily mundane, realistic view of New York City, not to mention such a depressing view of the human condition, ends up in a total fantasy – everybody happy, everybody fulfilled, and everybody together on that most depressing night of all, New Year’s Eve. But that’s not nearly as funny as the exchanges between Larry David, playing the jaded Woody Allen character, and Evan Rachel Wood, playing the dumb blonde cheerleader from Louisiana. I can’t remember a first half-hour of a movie that I’ve enjoyed so much, or jokes that had me laughing out loud a day later. In the process of having things work out to the perfect ending we spectate Woody’s wet dream that redneck, gun-toting, Bible-waving Southerners are not just dumb but are actually repressed swingers and homosexuals, which gives the movie a feel-good final act but wipes out any possible heft it might otherwise possess. Which makes it sort of like the early Woody Allen films, which is not at all bad.

Cheri – 5

A must for lovers of Art Nouveau – dec arts and fashion – optional for the rest, this apparent synthesis of two Belle Epoque novels by Collette defines “longueur  (languor?) in the person of the title character, played by sole-eyed Rupert Friend. Now, if Michelle Pfeiffer were French, or even sounded, like the estimable Kathy Bates does, less American, the movie might have rated a 6 or 7 on looks and charm. As it is, though, one is left wondering how the Stephen Frears of My Beautiful Launderette has come to imitate  Merchant-Ivory, and so flaccidly at that.

The Hangover – 6.5

As a collection of gags, it had its high points and low points, and the best high points were pretty low, as well.  Most of the art, if it can be so called, devolved from the mixing of the different personality types. In its favor, you didn’t have to wonder how these three, or four if you count the missing groom, could have been best buds, because one was only there as the bride’s brother. Of course, you did wonder how he could have been that bride’s brother. Oh, well. And as is often the case, the setup, latent with novelty and expectations, was five times better than the movie’s second half, when the ridiculous had to be explained and resolved.