In Theaters

It’s been too long since we’ve had a proper comic book superhero on the screen. There’s been enough of them running around and bashing up the bad guys in a CGI-enhanced fashion, that’s for sure. But it’s hard to look at the recent cinematic incarnations of Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne and call them “superheroes;” even if they keep their identities secret and have nifty outfits. “Billionaire action figures” would be more appropriate, what with all their high-priced gadgetry and super-duper hideouts. Whatever happened to the caped heroes who kept an eye on the city’s dark alleys and took out the bad guys with nothing more than a sock to the jaw? Frank Miller’s jazzy The Spirit answers that question with a cocky wink and a grin…

The Spirit is in theaters now. You can read the full review at filmcritic.com.

In Theaters

In Darren Aronofsky’s punishing The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke looks like a thousand miles of rough road, and that’s when he’s having a good day. His face is puffy and lined with the latticework of tiny scars that are the badge of the pro wrestler (never know when you might have to cut yourself with a razor in order to get the blood flowing for the audience). Rourke’s body is a battered hulk still roped with muscle but clearly on the verge of giving way; one more serious injury and the whole thing will be quits. Tellingly, “Job” is tattooed on one finger. It’s the eyes, though, that really shine with the ruin of his wrecked life…

You might have to go back to Claude Laydu in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest to see an actor undergoing such exquisite anguish as Will Smith does in Gabriele Muccino’s Seven Pounds. There is suffering and there is suffering. And then there is the suffering evinced by Smith in this film, where he seems to not so much be a guy, apparently widowed and trying to make up for something in his past, but some sort of secular martyr, gasping and bleeding his way through the Stations of the Cross. He plays a man who could conceivably look at The Wrestler and think: Hey, his life’s not so bad…

The Wrestler and Seven Pounds are in theaters now; they’re both discussed in the current (the year’s last!) “The Screener” column at PopMatters.

In Theaters

In the calm but provocative agitprop film The End of America, author Wolf — still best-known for her 1991 college-feminist masterwork The Beauty Myth — stands on a stage before a studio audience and delivers a 10-point plan by which we shall know that democracy in America is no more. With her large wave of elaborately-permed hair, sensibly stylish suit, and colloquial manner, Wolf seems more like a particularly engaged PTA mom than the protest-marching Mother Jones-reading raconteur that her speech brings to mind. Probably that’s for the best, as the proto-fascist program enumerated by Wolf is more disturbing than just about anything dreamed up in today’s run-of-the-mill leftie documentary. Better a messenger she than Michael Moore…

The End of America is in limited release now; you can read the full review at filmcritic.com.

At the Movies

New York Film Critics Online, an organization kind enough to allow yours truly as a member, met today to vote on the best films of the year, and Slumdog Millionaire took the day — apologies to all you Dark Knight freaks out there. (It’s a fine film, and definitely awesome as far as superhero crime flicks go, but best film of the year? Really?) Danny Boyle’s brilliant, swooning Hindi Dickens melodrama won best film, director, screenplay, cinematography, and music score.

The full results are below, or you can read it in Variety.

* * *

Picture
“Slumdog Millionaire”

Director
Danny Boyle w/ Loveleen Tandan – “Slumdog Millionaire”

Actor
Sean Penn – “Milk”

Actress
Sally Hawkins – “Happy-Go-Lucky”

Supporting Actor
Heath Ledger – “The Dark Knight”

Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz – “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

Cinematography
Slumdog Millionaire – Anthony Dod Mantle

Screenplay
“Slumdog Millionaire” – Simon Beaufoy

Foreign Picture
“4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”

Documentary
“Man on Wire”

Animated Feature
“Wall-E”

Score
Slumdog Millionaire – “A.R. Rahman”

Breakout Performance
Sally Hawkins – “Happy-Go-Lucky”

Debut As Director
Martin McDonagh – “In Bruges”

Ensemble Performance
“Milk”

Pictures (alphabetical)
“Che”
“A Christmas Tale”
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
“The Dark Knight”
“Happy-Go-Lucky”
“Milk”
“Rachel Getting Married”
“Slumdog Millionaire”
“Wall-E”
“The Wrestler”

In Theaters

Director Stephen Daldry stacks the deck in The Reader in a way that’s downright unseemly. The cinematography—courtesy of the quality-cinema tag-team of Roger Deakins and Chris Menges—alternates between sere minimalism and luscious beauty. Its core moral issues are framed in a pleasingly clearheaded fashion. Ralph Fiennes lends his tight-lipped gravitas, while Bruno Ganz balances out the steadfastness with some puckish aphorisms. It’s all quite well-calibrated, too much so. But when it comes to Kate Winslet, Daldry wisely steps out of the way and allows her to take over his movie.

The Reader and Doubt are in limited release, to open wider later in the month; full reviews for both are in this week’s “The Screener” column.

In Theaters

In Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard’s perfectly palatable film of Peter Morgan’s Broadway drama about David Frost’s historic 1977 interview with ex-president Richard Nixon, the parallels to our current times are striking. From imperial executive overreach to paranoid defensiveness, cartoon-skewed media image, and a scorched-earth attitude towards enemies (real and imagined), the end of the Nixon and Bush II eras have more in common than is comfortable for the average American liberal to comprehend…

Frost/Nixon is in limited release now; you can read the full review in this week’s “The Screener” column at PopMatters.