Most hep publications are rounding up their brief reviews under a catchy heading like “Short Takes” or “Tracking Shots”, and since “Shooting To Kill” has already been taken by Milk magazine and Christine Vachon, here are some

Half-Assed Assessments

Intolerable Cruelty: Love ‘em or hate ‘em; at least you can say this about the Coen Brothers—they don’t make the same film over and over again. After the somber, arty, humbling The Man Who Wasn’t There (their best film next to Fargo), they’ve made a mean-spirited, explicitly wacky, intentionally ridiculous big budget, big star screwball comedy. And though it’s hit-and-miss, even by scattered Coen standards, it’s a fun, fizzy romp that’s far from a flop. Leads George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones make a fine, snarling pair; Geoffrey Rush and Billy Bob Thornton leave delightful impressions in smaller roles; Cedric The Entertainer could almost spin off his vulgar tabloid cameraman into his own movie; and what’s not to like in the return of Julia Duffy, updating her gloriously decadent character from Newhart for a new decade and coast? I’ll no doubt see better (and more profound) films this year, but as for live-action cartoons, not a chance.

Mystic River: Clint Eastwood has made a successful, almost lyrical adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Boston-set murder mystery, and so much hinges on unraveling it that in this lone case I wish I hadn’t read the book beforehand. Knowing the outcome of this one definitely takes something away from it, and for all its power and grace, I can see why this didn’t get top prize at Cannes. Come Oscar time, Tim Robbins will undoubtedly get a long-deserved acting nomination. Method acting as it may be, his performance is so haunted and real that I nearly overlooked Sean Penn’s Mafioso histrionics. And where Laura Linney barely registers and her single climactic scene is all-too-brief, Marcia Gay Harden bests her award-winning Lee Krasner (from Pollock) as Robbins’ quietly scared, dangerously assuming wife. Still, for all its flaws, I’ll be happier to see this as an Oscar frontrunner than something like Master and Commander.

Bubba Ho-tep: Elvis (Bruce Campbell) never died and is living in an East Texas nursing home. With a black man (Ossie Davis) who hilariously thinks he’s JFK, he battles soul-sucking zombies derived from a revived ancient mummy. Any questions? This is unapologetically a b-movie (from the director of Beastmaster, no less), and although ridiculous, also strangely reverent and occasionally side-splitting. Campbell and Davis make this one fly, if not exactly soar, and it’s a much “better” film than most Troma trash (not to mention probably The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake).

Raising Victor Vargas: Peter Sollett’s stirring indie is hands down the best film of its kind since Our Song. Working with non-professional Dominican actors on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Sollett reinvents the typical coming-of-age tale. The title character starts off a kid, drenched in braggadocio, and ends up in a very different place; not quite a man, not even someone who has necessarily gone through a life altering experience, but someone whose perceptions of family, desire, love and friendship have been changed and redefined. It’s always a pleasure to view a film that, although plotless by Hollywood standards, is really about something, illuminating the spaces between people, with intentions, emotions, and misunderstandings messily colliding as they do in real life. And, there’s nary a false note in its depiction thereof.

28 Days Later: If you gave up on Danny Boyle after The Beach, here is his attempt to come back with a vengeance, and while it’s no Trainspotting, this eerie, apocalyptic zombie movie is worth seeing. The quieter, more drawn out moments are way more effective than what I guess you could call the battle scenes (which take over the film’s choppy final third), but for the most part, this is a good example of scaring your audience most effectively through subtle implications rather than gross physical tactics (although the film certainly does not lack the former.) Expect great things from star Cillian Murphy in the future.

Carnage: I’m definitely planning on seeing this one again; a second viewing will really help me to get a better idea of what this complex, clever, beautiful film is all about. Director Delphine Gleize’s first film is the most imaginative, promising directorial debut I’ve seen in ages, and her command of narrative weaving, production design and atmospheric touches is impressive. At times, she may be showing off, but what she’s showing off compels and excites so much that I find it all much easier to swallow than, say, Tarantino (whose Kill Bill Vol. 1 is nonetheless high on my to-see list).