Audiard, Curtiz, Elliot, Polanski, Vaughn

Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009). A beautifully downbeat stop-motion animation feature about unlikely penpals on the opposite side of the Atlantic who correspond over a number of years, developing a moving, warm, fragile and occasionally fractured relationship. Despite the distance–or, arguably, because of it–they drawn strength and even courage from one another, muddling through the unique challenges of their respective lives in part because they’ve got a lifeline out there somewhere in the world, someone who may not understand them, but at least takes the time to try. Max, voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an especially wonderful creation, beaten down by his surroundings and almost entirely unable to figure out how to meet the world, a dilemma explained when he reveals he has Asperger syndrome. The movie has a pitch black sense of humor, but also abundant empathy for the characters. In every respect, it’s wonderfully made.

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010). This film is touted as a significant return to form for Polanski, who hasn’t exactly been scuffling given that he picked up a roundly celebrated Best Director Oscar for The Pianist within the last decade. Polanski joins author Robert Harris in adapting his 2007 novel about a ghost writer recruited to punch up the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister. The previous writer has just died under mysterious circumstances, and accusations of a significant international crime perpetrated by the politician are just emerging. It’s well-crafted, but also fairly pedestrian. There are intimations of sensational doings and an open acknowledgment of the thin veneer of unseemliness that comes with power, neither element disguising that the mystery at its core is purely rote, enlivened solely by the brittle and sharp performance by Olivia Williams as the prime minister’s wife. The closing shot amuses in its awkward deliberateness and embrace of arty nineteen-seventies nihilism, but it’s also a bit silly. That’s the dichotomy of the film, distilled to a few seconds of headlong narrative. Forget it Jake, it’s not Chinatown

Young Man with a Horn (Michael Curtiz, 1950). Based ever so loosely on the life of doomed jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, this film purports to wallow in the glamor and sordidness of a life at the edge of performing genius. Instead it’s drab, dull and woefully stuck in the well-worn groove that moves from hope to sadness to redemption, trailing a hundred other Hollywood movies. Purists may be upset that it discards the far more dire real-life outcome (not to mention the equally dark outcome of the novel on which its based), but the ending is phony for a slew of reasons. Kirk Douglas is mediocre as the trumpet player, seemingly biding his time until the big scenes arrive. Far better is Lauren Bacall in one of her first roles without Bogie to lean on and smolder at. She tears into her role as a sharp-tongued, quick-witted woman who marries the jazzman, and regards his descent with a sullen disregard that’s wholly appropriate. I would have loved for the movie to spin-off and just follow her, leaving the young man alone with his horn.

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009). A spectacularly ambitious film about a young man of Arab descent who is incarcerated in a French prison, and finds himself almost immediately drawn into the circle of the Corsican mobsters who run the place. Tahar Rahim is outstanding in the leading role, taking the character from the battle-scarred hesitancy to a full command of his life and himself, subtly conveying each gradual step on the journey. Director Jacques Audiard’s previously film was the excellent The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which had a quality of making a small, intense, personal story feel very epic. With A Prophet, he achieves the converse of that, constructing and conducting a story which includes multiple factions jockeying for position, intricate shifts of power and motivations that curl and singe like bacon in a pan that’s too hot. Then it’s all filtered through his devoted attention to this main character; not just his perspective on matters, but the way these things bend and shape him.

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010). The original Kick-Ass comic struck is lhme as an amusing premise that couldn’t possibly be sustained across an entire series. Turns out even a two-hour movie stretches it thin to the point of worthlessness. Aaron Johnson plays a high school student who takes his love of comic book superheroes to its logical extreme and dons his own costume to fight crime in the streets. Of course, it’s not as easy as it looks, and the film begins an aggressively frantic sprint through all manner of explosions, gunplay, and crunching fistfights that leaves faces looking like badly bruised fruit. It’s the same joke delivered over and over and over again, its numbing quality only enhanced by the jolting camerawork, crazed editing and a decibel level locked in at mindlessly loud.