Redacted, Brian De Palma (2007)

Wow, this is absolutely terrible. It professes to be a docudrama, but the script is so utterly programmatic and cliche that it fails as a docu-, and the form is so utterly incoherent that it can’t work as a drama. Instead, it’s the worst of both worlds. I mean, seriously, horribly, unwatchably bad.

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Brass Target, John Hough (1978)

Thank God for Turner Classic Movies and American Movie Classics. They ain’t no Cinémathèque Française (and Robert Osborne sure ain’t no Henri Langlois), but they’re as close as this country’s going to come, and I’m grateful.

Is Brass Target a great movie? No, it is not. Is it worth renting on Netflix? Nope. But if you’ve been doing yard work all morning and you just want to sit in a dark room and eat watermelon and watch the likes of John Cassavetes, Sophia Loren, and Max von Sydow bat around a nice little post-war thriller about stolen Nazi gold, double-crosses, and the murky circumstances of General George S. Patton’s death? AMC and TCM are there for you.

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis (2007)

Forgive me, Tommy Lee Jones. I said I’d had enough of you, and I was wrong.

Jones is the father and Susan Sarandon the mother of a good American kid who joins the Army and goes to Iraq. When his unit returns to the states at the end of his tour, he goes missing. Jones gets in the pickup to go find him. We’re thinking, at this point, that this is going to be a story of heroism. The son’s in trouble, and the father’s going to rescue him. But in reality, Jones finds himself in a position more like that of George C. Scott in Hardcore. He sets off with the sense that the world is divided into good and evil, and comes to discover that there is indeed good, and there is indeed evil, but they are not as divided from each other as we’d like to think.

Sorry. I’m being circuitous because it’s actually pretty important for this one that I not explain too much of the plot. It’s not that the plot’s particularly complex or surprising. It’s that the plot of the movie constantly changes its rules of engagement with the viewer.

Haggis’s last film, Crash, pretended to force the viewer into difficult moral quandaries, but all the while made very clear what the right answers were. This outing is far more successful because it’s far more ambiguous, perhaps because it’s in the position of having to honor the complexities of the true story it’s based upon. There are mawkish moments, didactic moments, predictable moments. But on the whole this is a genuinely and crushingly sad film precisely because it allows its hero to move from a position of certainty to a position of uncertainty. And that, un-coincidentally, is exactly what my country’s foreign policy needs right now. To stop pretending that complex situations are simple, and to approach them with humility instead of a hammer.

The Illusionist, Neil Burger (2006)

Sort of a Things Change meets Immortal Beloved. Engaging if somewhat breathy romance, set in decadent fin de siècle Vienna, about a upstairs/downstairs romance between a duchess set to marry a mean prince and a cabinet maker’s son turned famous magician. The art direction and cinematography are cloying (acres of red velvet draperies, gallons of honey-colored light from the gas lamps, dozens of grainy faux-antique shots and transitions), the acting is dull (though I must say, I’ve been asking people for a long time who the heck Jessica Biel is, and now I know), but the script has some tricks up its sleeve (heh heh). Also, the film is quite educational. We learn that the First World War could have been avoided if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been tricked into committing suicide by Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg and her magician boyfriend, thereby depriving Gavrilo Princip of the opportunity to assassinate him. We also learn that the Chinese are inscrutable and move like cats, and that Austrians speak with an English accent.

Sex and the City, Michael Patrick King (2008)

Oh, whatever. Good enough for a blazing June afternoon when you have to get into someplace dark. The messages of purportedly women-driven cultural products are a source of endless confusion to me. These women are supposedly icons of self-determination, but, um, each of them define themselves entirely through men, whether husbands, lovers, or clothing designers. Am I missing something?