A roundup/recap of the current best and rest in film and DVD. In this installment: Lars and the Real Girl, Gone Baby Gone, Four Minutes (Film); The Sopranos: Season Six/The Final Episodes, I Think I Love My Wife, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (DVD).

*   *   *

Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie/2007)
As the clawless end-product, one predicts, of an afternoon spent combing the internet for a suitably weird punchline to its otherwise plainclothes account of arrested development, Lars and the Real Girl secures its muse in the form of the Real Doll™ – a “completely articulated,” silicone-rubber female effigy. As a co-worker assures schlubby Lars (fielded by indie stalwart Ryan Gosling, nighly transcending a line-up of kitsch ski sweaters and pencil moustache), “completely articulated” means that the dolls are, yes, fully functional... down there. Yet, a meditation on the potentiality of flesh-on-silicone love this is not; in fact, there’s hardly a transgressive bone in Lars’ body, and unwilling, for instance, to borrow a leaf from last year’s strikingly ribald Stay – in which the heroine’s decision to blow a dog was in no manner justified –, writer Nancy Oliver instead pillows her man-child in a fort of psychological rationale. The result is like watching a specimen trapped in glass, as, prone to a delusion for which the film saps him of all reponsibility, Lars must walk the inevitable path to recovery. Guiding him along the way, meanwhile, are a stable of infinitely-patient female beacons: From Patricia Clarkson, as the MD who, in treating the doll’s ‘mystery illness,’ gains a foothold on Lars’ damaged psyche, to an atypically dowdy Kelli Garner, whose crush on the man majestically rises above his fake-plastic hang-up. In Theatres Now.—David Levinson

Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck/2007)
Shed of Mystic River’s sobering, blue-toned austerity, the Boston of Gone Baby Gone bears a closer resemblance to the colourful, incestuous stoop communities staked out in The Wire’s Baltimore City; a milieu further qualified by the casting of two of that show’s best character actors. Patrolling the turf of author Dennis Lehane (who’s also written episodes to The Wire), Michael K. Williams (aka the indomitable Omar Little) appears briefly as a detective (!), while more significantly, Amy Ryan (Season Two’s Beadie Russell) holds down the film’s pivotal role with a toxic, carefully modulated performance, transforming into the uncouth Dorchester slut at the centre of a child abduction case. When private eyes Kenzie and Gennaro (Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan) marshal the police investigation in a series of unexpected directions, the mystery thickens and develops steadily – but never swollenly – into a morality play, ending on a final, artful note that confirms Ben Affleck’s potential as a filmmaker (as opposed to actor). Focused heavily on the hometown aesthetic – a landscape of weatherboard and midriff – the senior Affleck’s claustrophobically observed backyard, both the subject of fascination and repulsion through the lens of a leering news media, is upended ever so briefly by an incongruous sequence midpoint, where the film turns troppo and into a grisly horror movie. For the most part though, Affleck serves Lehane’s Boston ethnography and whodunit intricacies ably and with good momentum. Inconspicuously from behind the camera, his directorial debut is allowed to step forward as the quiet achiever of the year. In Theatres Now.—Tim Wong

Four Minutes (Chris Kraus/2006)
Chris Kraus’ Four Minutes left me cold, but maybe I missed something. Looking back, the important film elements were there in full glory: the production was thickly impressive, the cinematography rich and voluptuous. The atmosphere was painstakingly set; convincingly savage and icy in the unfeeling, institutional manner of a penitentiary just doing it’s job. The fictional German prison depicted was peopled by believable young female criminals and their believably detached caretakers, all of whom wore fierce faces and thick skins in the company of each other. And the lead actors bled into every corner of their characters’ skins marvellously. Monica Bleibtreu plays Frau Traude Krüger; an elderly spinster who revokes any patronising thought you might be tempted to gesture her way. Her wry, brusque manner is possibly conducive to – or alternatively, consequential of – a sixty year long career at the prison, teaching criminals of all cut and creed to play the piano. Hannah Herzsprung snarlingly, scowlingly, heaves life into convicted murderer, Jenny. Jenny wears her bruises on her sleeve and disguises them with sulk. Vulgar and sullied, perpetually teetering on a fit of violence, she is the kind of girl you want to gape in shock at. But dare not. If Kruger can prune Jenny’s wild unharnessed musical genius, and Jenny can let herself be taken under Kruger’s tutelage, both could find redemption, of sorts, at an upcoming Young Pianist Competition. So the story is a classic coach and protégé piece, where starkly opposite but bound together – first by love of the game, then by tenderness towards each other – teacher and student confront demons and make revelations about their pasts as they hurtle towards the final tournament. And it was here, I think, that the movie came unstuck. For a film with this premise to be convincingly pulled off there needs to be a staunch backstory that simmers beneath the surface, from whose pool enough bubbles up through to give credence to the characters’ otherwise impenetrable behaviour. In a thoughtfully developed story you can sense some hot and sinuous structure flexing in between the lines delivered, behind the scenes depicted. But Four Minutes lacked that. It felt like everything that the scriptwriter knew about this story, was told – baldly. And that was all there was. As though the writer wrote a world they did not personally know. Without the scaffolding a strong backstory provides, this movie’s marvellous embellishments, the cast, the production, the camerawork and so on, exist as merely that. Embellishments. It seems the thing I thought I missed wasn’t really there in the first place. Opens May 1.—Mythily Meher [Read Full Review]

*   *   *

The Sopranos:
Season Six, The Final Episodes
(Warner Bros, $79.95)
In Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson offers the modish, soothing argument encapsulated in his book’s title. Johnson cites The Sopranos. He’s right about the brilliant TV programme; it’s the exception that disproves his rule. If only more TV (daytime TV like Dr Phil is an argument for euthanasia) had the rich, complex characters, narratives and ideas of the Mob series created by David Chase. Unlike Deadwood’s excessive, childish swearing, The Sopranos’ language is cracking great. Unlike so much boorish juvenilia, The Sopranos has depth and resonance. Season Six, The Final Episodes has perfectly weighted scenes, like literature’s finest, most tense monopoly game, at Bobby Bacala’s holiday home. There’s so much in this season: from Cheney capitalism to youth suicide via The Da Vinci Code and Saint Bob. Chase talks colourfully about the series’ music with Rolling Stone’s Will Dana and Steve Van Zandt (who plays Sil, and plays in Springsteen’s band in another life). Dylan recorded a cover of Dean Martin’s Return to Me especially for the programme. A musical highlight of this series is Moltisanti playing Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb from The Departed. Like Marty, Chase has a sharp instinct for conveying emotion through music. The West Wing? Fuggedaboudit. The Sopranos is all aces, surprisingly poignant; I even felt a wee twinge of human sadness as karma caught up with that old bastard Uncle Jun (though nada for Phil Leotardo). Deliciously literate, one highlight is episode The Second Coming, where AJ discovers Yeats’ totemic poem: Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned.../And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? New to DVD. (optional English subtitles; audio commentary on four episodes; ‘The Music of the Sopranos’ documentary; ‘Making Cleaver’ featurette).—Alexander Bisley

I Think I Love My Wife (Fox/RS, $29.95)
Something is rotten in the state of contemporary romantic comedy. I Think I Love My Wife is often entertaining, genuine and sometimes insightful. It’s the third best romcom of the last, poorly twelve months, after Knocked Up and Superbad. Bizarrely, it went straight to DVD in New Zealand. Richie (Chris Rock, snazzily glassed and moustachioed) is happily married to Brenda (Gina Torres) with two kids, but he’s not getting any sex and now he’s got the wandering eye. “She’s like a painting, a painting I’d like to mount.” He only looks at women in downtown New York, not the ‘burbs. “You stare at a soccer mom too long and they’ll post your name on the internet.” Then a past friend Nikki (the gorgeous Kerry Washington) turns up. She sorely tempts Richie and gets tongues wagging disapprovingly at Pupkin & Langford (hattip to The King of Comedy), the Manhattan investment bank where he works. Rock rivals only Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble as the greatest stand-up comic working today. Often the movie material he’s given is weak. His writing, directing and acting here is generally good. Steve Buscemi portrays his player colleague George. “Friends. Come on. I’ve had friends before and they don’t fucking look like Nikki.” Rock’s passion for the project comes through on his commentary. Interesting trivia includes his hiring of Annie Hall’s editor (he loves Woody Allen), Gina “daughter of Colin” Powell as Richie’s dithering marriage therapist, and why he cast Torres. New to DVD. (optional English subtitles; audio commentary; deleted scenes; bloopers).—Alexander Bisley

Joe Strummer:
The Future is Unwritten
(Dendy/Magna, $29.95)
With Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, Julien Temple records the punk-rock warlord and his seminal band The Clash. Strummer fought the law, and Strummer won. One of Joe Strummer’s achievements is to reconvey how the man invigorated music. Strummer comes across as a bloke who was generally damn fine company. The around the campfire spirit and camaraderie is charming. Temple assembles an impressive list of artists, who have notable things to say about Strummer (bar Bono macking on pretentiously). Scorsese’s tribute is sensational. He talks about the music in Raging Bull, concluding that his devastatingly brilliant film is about The Clash. New to DVD. (audio commentary; ‘Conversations with Joe’ documentary).—Alexander Bisley