At last, after a tumultuous first five months, business is really starting to pick up at your local multiplexes and art houses. June may have been the first month of 2011 in which the good outweighed the bad. Yet somehow, with 72 ticket stubs already in the books (literally -- I have albums full of’em), I am still ahead of last year’s record-breaking movie-watching pace. Go figure. Anyway... June movies... Ready? GO!
THE TREE OF LIFE -- It almost doesn’t seem right to use this small space to discuss Terrence Malick’s latest, Palm d’Or-winning effort, a film that juxtaposes one family's intimate story with nothing short of, oh, the ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE. Brad Pitt and the angelic Jessica Chastain play a father and mother whose differing parenting methods (he, harsh & disciplinary; she, warm & loving) leave an indelible mark on their son, Jack, who grows up to be a detached, reflective shell of a man in the form of Sean Penn. This family, of course, is but a tiny speck in the vastness of the cosmos, which we see develop through Malick’s customary lingering, ethereal, breathtaking visuals (we even get to see dinosaurs!). But the point of the whole thing is that this insignificant family and the creation of the universe are equally tumultuous, molded by a series of ebbs, flows, explosions, eruptions and constant flux. It's mad deep. On a more surface level, the film is gorgeous to look at and filled with fine performances. Despite its vast scope and ambition, it somehow feels more readily accessible than a typical Malick opus -- but still all-too-capable of keeping you up at night as you peel back the layers.
BEGINNERS -- Here’s a great little film that kind of came and went under the radar, and that is a shame because I loved it. It’s a story of life, love, family and identity, featuring the kind of whimsy, sincerity and underlying optimism that seriously reminded me of AMELIE -- which, as you may or may not know, is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I do not use such a comparison lightly. Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver, a lost soul who has never really had a meaningful relationship in his life. But that sad, lonely life is thrown for a loop when he meets a woman named Anna (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS’ Melanie Laurent, absolutely luminous) who at first can only communicate by writing because she has laryngitis (yes, they “meet cute” -- but even this movie’s cliches feel original and irreverent). She immediately senses that Oliver is sad (she is, too) and they connect. We also learn that several months earlier, Oliver’s father (Christopher Plummer in what should be an Oscar-worthy performance if the Academy actually sees this) died -- and a few years before that, came out of the closet shortly after Oliver’s mother died. In fact, he was always gay and married Oliver’s mother as a cover -- a fact of which she was well aware, and the discovery of which threw everyone, especially Oliver, for a loop -- especially when Hal began embracing a gay lifestyle, going to clubs and dating much younger men. These stories are told via intersecting timelines and Oliver’s own inner monologue, with occasional insightful, subtitled observations about the human condition by Oliver’s Jack Russell terrier, Arthur. So there’s a lot going on... and yet it’s all very simple: Oliver needs to find love & happiness. His father DID find love & happiness, but it took many more decades than expected. The moral of the story is that it’s never too late to get things right. A phenomenal movie featuring some phenomenal performances -- seek it out.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS -- I gotta say, I like this current revisionist history trend in which superhero movies are merged with real-life events and, like, it’s cool. TRANSFORMERS 3 did it with the moon landing... CAPTAIN AMERICA is going to do it with World War II... WATCHMEN took it to a whole other level by completely altering the course of history... and this reboot/prequel to the X-MEN series does it with the Bay of Pigs invasion and it works wonderfully. Pretty much everything else in the film works, too -- at times far better than the hit-or-miss original trilogy. In particular, the casting is spectacular -- especially Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy as the future Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. I also liked Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique -- she displays a perfect innocence that, as we know, will eventually become anything but (also, she’s a cutie). I didn’t even realize that Kevin Bacon was in the movie until I saw him on screen, but he chews the scenery with gusto. (Also, his character is named Sebastian Shaw, which, as STAR WARS fans know, is the name of the actor who played Anakin Skywalker in RETURN Of THE JEDI. What is the significance? Absolutely nothing.) Add in solid writing, stylish direction, excellent mix of mutants and powers and one hilarious surprise cameo, and the result is one of the better all-around comic book films we’ve seen recently, and certainly the best so far this summer.
SUPER 8 -- At this point, I don’t know what the heck to make of J.J. Abrams. Granted, I’ve still never seen a single episode of LOST... but I liked MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, thought CLOVERFIELD was a piece of crap, and was very pleasantly surprised by STAR TREK (even if it did blatantly rip-off STAR WARS almost beat-for-beat). Though his films have been a mixed bag, his geek cred has never been in doubt, so when I heard he was making an homage to old-school Steven Spielberg films, with the assistance of Spielberg himself, it sounded like a great idea at the time. And indeed, in this film about a group of kids who, while making their own movie, witness a horrific train crash and subsequently investigate a wave of strange, other-worldly occurrences in their sleepy suburban town. Abrams perfectly captures the tone, look and feel of ‘80s Spielberg ranging from E.T. to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS to THE GOONIES to GREMLINS... but after about an hour of blue lens flares, it occurred to me that maybe it’s the kind of thing that works better as a two-minute trailer, or simply as a concept, but not so much as a full-length film. By the time it was over, I was wishing that I actually HAD been watching E.T. It’s just... too much. But still well done, and the kid-cast is outstanding, especially Elle Fanning in a performance that should catapult her past her older sister.
GREEN LANTERN -- Another week, another movie based on a comic book that contains an extremely dense backstory, of which I had little to no prior knowledge. Fortunately, this time, the filmmakers took a novel approach: Instead of dumping us right in the middle of some crazy convoluted universe, they gave us a trailer that provided a good deal of exposition and helped ease us into it. So when it came time to see the movie, we were (more or less) prepared. Unfortunately, for a tale involving strange alien worlds and magic rings and galactic guardians and unlimited superpowers... it’s just not particularly exciting. I like Ryan Reynolds, but he’s just too RYAN REYNOLDS to play a superhero. He’s a good actor, but he doesn’t quite have the subtleties of, say, Robert Downey Jr., who was able to hone his schtick to fit the role of Tony Stark. Also, while Blake Lively remains the hottest woman alive at the moment, she is WAY out of her element here. All that being said, the scenes on the planet Oa, the vastness of space, and, really, anything but boring ol’ Earth, are pretty impressive. Wish they had focused more on that and just gone crazy with the visual effects rather than give us the same old song-and-dance origin story. Seems like there’s probably a truly epic, exciting Green Lantern story in there somewhere -- next time, everybody involved needs to do some shots or something beforehand and live a little.
THE ART OF GETTING BY -- A coming-of-age movie in two respects. First, it’s about a lonely, disaffected, too-smart-for-his-own-good student who has coasted through high school without ever having done anything of substance, only to meet a kindred spirit who fills his life with meaning. Second, it stars two former child stars who are now all growns up: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’s Freddie Highmore as George and NANCY DREW’s Emma Roberts as Sally. Both give fine performances -- a little unintentionally awkward at times, but it fits the material. Roberts, in particular, has recently proven that she is more than just Julia’s niece with excellent turns in this, IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY and even SCREAM 4. Story-wise, writer/director Gavin Wiesen is kind of all over the place and the movie is ultimately sabotaged by its own self-importance. Not to mention that, by my count, Wiesen blatantly rips off the following things: (1) Old-school Woody Allen, with the Manhattan love-letter setting and cute self-deprecation, (2) “The Catcher in the Rye,” with its stance against the establishment and phonies, (3) SAY ANYTHING, with the way George wears a trenchcoat for no apparent reason other than he’s probably imitating Lloyd Dobbler, and (4) BILLY MADISON, when George must complete an entire year’s worth of homework over three weeks in order to graduate. All in all, the movie is mildly enjoyable because the actors are endearing... but ultimately it’s a bit of a mess.
MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS -- Decent family fare about a successful Manhattan businessman/deadbeat dad (Jim Carrey) who... well, he inherits six penguins who turn his life upside-down. With their particular personalities and potent presence, the penguins turn Popper’s posh penthouse into a polar playpen. (I promise I’ll pull the plug on the P-words, pronto... perhaps.) With the penguins’ help, Popper realizes that he’s been missing out on the really important things in life -- namely, his kids and estranged wife (Carla Gugino, always a pleasure). It’s all very predictable, kind of bland, harmless and mildly enjoyable. But therein lies the biggest problem: It’s just not wacky enough. Lots of potential to really let Carrey go nuts (in a family-friendly way, of course), but he was pretty subdued for the most part. I mean, it's Jim Carrey and a flock of penguins in New York City -- turn him loose and see what happens! As it stands, there is nothing wrong with the film on a pure family level, but you definitely get a sense of the far zanier and more entertaining film that might have been. It was, however, interesting to see the landmark Central Park restaurant, Tavern on the Green, used as a plot device even though it is currently shut down. They even went so far as to recreate the restaurant as it once was -- which raises the question, was this whole movie just a veiled campaign to drum up support and bring the NYC institution back from the dead? And if it does ever reopen, will the penguins appear as a compensatory marketing tie-in? Let's hope so.
THE TRIP -- I remember seeing Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY a few years ago but not thinking much of it, but now I am pretty sure I would watch them in anything. This is one of the great road/buddy movies in recent memory. The premise is that Coogan has been asked to write restaurant reviews for the Observer, and after his girlfriend bows out of the trip, he reluctantly asks Brydon, his friend & rival, to join him. From there, the two spend the entire movie driving around, eating food, talking, bickering and trying to outdo each other's celebrity impressions. Their dueling Michael Caine voices are the stuff of legend (particularly Brydon's theory of how Caine's voice has changed after years of hard living), but I particularly love their take on the costume drama inspirational speech -- "Gentleman, to bed! For we leave at 9:30... ish." (I've been quoting that in my head for the past week.) The relentless back-and-forth is genius in itself, but throw in Coogan's self-absorption and resentment towards Brydon and you have a bit of a character study as well. Just an all-around hilarious and ridiculously entertaining film.
BAD TEACHER -- Looks like 2011 is the year that the ladies “Take Back the Raunch.” First came BRIDESMAIDS, in which Kristin Wiig & Co. proved that they could go up against the Apatow boys’ club and succeed. And now here comes Cameron Diaz as Elizabeth Halsey, a foul-mouthed, conniving, drinking, smoking, gold-digging, wildly inappropriate middle school teacher who just doesn’t care. Diaz’s most memorable comedic characters have had a certain naïve sweetness, like in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and CHARLIE’S ANGELS (even BEING JOHN MALKOVICH to an extent) -- but there is nothing sweet about the comedy in this movie. It is very filthy, very un-PC and very much earns its hard R-rating. Characters don’t even necessarily learn any lessons or go through big changes -- any good that happens (a piece of good advice to a child, say), happens in spite of itself. The comedy is just pure, unadulterated filth -- and it works. Along for the ride is a game supporting cast, including Jason Segel as a sarcastic, non-sequitur-spouting gym teacher who s determined to get Elizabeth to go out with him; Justin Timberlake as a substitute teacher who becomes the object of Elizabeth’s scheming desires when she learns that he is rich; and the very funny Lucy Punch with a scene-stealing performance as Elizabeth’s nemesis, suck-up, and all-around do-gooder Amy Squirrel. (Not to mention appearances from Thomas Lennon, John Michael Higgins, and for God’s sake, Phyllis from THE OFFICE!) If you like a good, dirty comedy with zero moral value, this is the movie to see. Also doesn’t hurt to have an appreciation for Cameron Diaz’s legs... she’s still got’em.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (EXTENDED EDITION) -- I saw this on the big screen the other day as part of Fathom Events series to promote the new Blu-Ray release (my first time seeing a LOTR film in theatres since early 2004 when I saw ROTK for the third time) and it was just as powerful, epic, astonishing and emotional as ever -- if not more so. Not sure there's much more I can say about this movie -- one of the top three greatest final installments of a trilogy ever, along with RETURN OF THE JEDI and TOY STORY 3 -- that hasn't already been said, so let's just run through some parts that were particularly awesome on the big screen: The final confrontation with Saruman (Christopher Lee's voice is made for a booming movie theatre sound system). Gandalf & Pippin's arrival at Gondor, particularly their race up the spiral pathways with Howard Shore's magnificent "Gondor theme." The majesty of the lighting of the beacons ("Gondor calls for aid!" "And Rohan will answer!"). The Battle of Pelennor Fields -- quite possibly the most awe-inspiring battle that will ever be put to celluloid. Rohan's grand arrival. Theoden's anguished-turned-valiant expressions whenever some new evil rears its head. Legolas single-handedly taking down that oylphaunt ("That still only counts as one!"). Shelob's Lair, Gollum's treachery, Sam's heroics -- you could practically feel the breathlessness of the crowd. The vast desolation of Mordor looks even more daunting on the big screen. The Mouth of Sauron, meanwhile, looks even crazier and somehow scarier. "For Frodo!" "I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you!" "The Ring is mine!" And of course, "My friends... you bow to no one!" Just the tip of the iceberg, or we'll be here all night. God, I want to watch it again right now. Let's hope that they decide to re-release these movies in theatres every few years....