Well, it’s been a long, strange trip but we’ve finally arrived at the final month of 2011. I’m not going to wax nostalgic just yet -- plenty of time (and bandwidth) for that in the days & weeks to come -- but suffice to say, it’s been an interesting, if not necessarily great, year for movies. December has been an excellent month, though, which is to be expected since we are now deep in the throes of Oscar season. There’s been some gratuitous Oscar bait, to be sure... but there’s been some legitimately good stuff, too. Let’s take a look:
TINKER, TAILOR, SOLIDER, SPY -- Sometimes you go to the movies so you can turn your mind off for a couple of hours, relax and enjoy the ride. This is not one of those films. It is an insanely complex, but fully absorbing mystery that contains layers and layers of plot and pretty much requires you to keep your eyes open, CLOCKWORK ORANGE-style, to avoid missing some vital detail. The quick summary: At the height of the Cold War, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a disgraced British spy, is secretly brought back into action to help uncover what is feared to be a mole within the upper echelon of British intelligence. I have not (yet) read John Le Carré’s novel, but I understand that it is so densely-packed that it was difficult to adapt into a seven-hour BBC miniseries in the ‘70s -- so the fact that they’ve turned it into such a taut, compelling two-hour film is pretty remarkable. The material is skillfully directed by Tomas Alfredson, who has already proven to be a master of atmosphere with the excellent Swedish vampire flick, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. The cast is absolutely stellar, including such luminaries as Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch. But above all, this could be the career-defining performance for Gary Oldman, who has long been one of our finest character actors. His George Smiley could go down as one of the all-time great movie spies. Hard to believe he has never even been nominated for an Oscar -- I believe his time has come.
SHAME -- On one hand, the latest collaboration of writer/director Steve McQueen and star Michael Fassbender is a sad portrait of a man with a life-consuming sex addiction. On another, it's as much an allegory for New York City excess as, say, AMERICAN PSYCHO. Only instead of a rich ‘80s yuppie murdering people in his spare time, we've got Brandon, a rich present-day yuppie, fucking anyone and getting his rocks off in any way he can. But when his wayward sister (Carey Mulligan) pays him an unexpected visit, he loses what little grip he has on his world and it begins to spiral out of control. The film is controversial for its NC-17-rated sex and nudity -- Fassbender and Mulligan both go the full monty and portray a troubled brother-sister relationship that is not given much backstory, but clearly contributes to both of their issues. The devil, of course, is in the details -- see Mulligan's haunting nightclub rendition of "New York, New York," which turns a song about possibility into a lamentation of hopelessness, literally reducing Brandon to tears. Things get a shade over-the-top in the final act, which is meant to display Brandon's collapse into complete degradation. It most certainly is that, though the climactic threesome seems a bit too slick (especially compared to his encounter in a seedy, red-lit back room). But this is one minor flaw in an otherwise devastating film. Love the abrupt, open-ended, INCEPTION-style ending, too. Does he or he doesn't he? As is the case with Chris Nolan's masterpiece, your interpretation may determine your outlook on life.
SLEEPING BEAUTY -- Zack Snyder's SUCKER PUNCH, released earlier this year, was a flawed-but-fun spectacle in which Australian cutie Emily Browning starred as Baby Doll, a captive in a women's prison who uses her sexuality to tap into her own fantasy world and gain control over her male oppressors. From a certain point of view, writer/director Julia Leigh’s debut film, SLEEPING BEAUTY is a bizarre companion piece. Browning plays Lucy, a college student with a blasé attitude towards sex and life in general, who struggles to make ends meet with odd jobs. When she takes a job as a scantily-clad waitress for a super-rich men's club, she finds that it is merely the first step to a much crazier career: She eventually gets paid to let these men have their way with her while she is completely sedated. But the catch is that the men are forbidden to have to sex with her -- and even if they were allowed, in most cases, they are so old that they probably couldn't -- so in a sense, even though she is unconscious, she still wields a curious power. The film floats along lackadaisically, perhaps to parallel Lucy's own boredom, but the scenes of her at work are shockingly frank, surreal and shot in long takes that serve to magnify those feelings. Driven by a fearless performance from Browning, who spends the majority of the film buck naked, this is imperfect but fascinating art house fare.
JACK & JILL -- There is a theory that Adam Sandler purposely made a terrible movie that is reminiscent of the one of the terrible movies that were parodied in Judd Apatow’s FUNNY PEOPLE, as sort of a high-concept meta-joke. I’d like to believe that, but I just don’t have that kind of faith in Sandler anymore. And that is a shame, because throughout the ‘90s, I worshipped the ground the man walked on. Since then... my God, has his decline been painful to watch and endure. In 2011, he finally hit rock bottom with not one but TWO god-awful movies: First, a monumental train-wreck called JUST GO WITH IT, and now this jaw-dropping wretch. Yes, Sandler plays both a guy named Jack and his annoying twin sister, Jill, and yes, it is exactly as bad as it sounds. This is a film with absolutely no redeeming value whatsoever, despite Al Pacino giving a bizarre, over-the-top performance that spoofs his many over-the-top performances over the years. In another movie, that might have actually been funny... but here, it’s just sad. JUST GO WITH IT at least had a few shots of Brooklyn Decker's glistening bikini cleavage; all JACK & JILL has is whatever morbid curiosity we old-school Sandler fans might feel. On the bright side, Sandler can’t possibly sink any lower -- or can he? I’m honestly afraid to find out.
THE SITTER -- Now that Jonah Hill has lost all sorts of weight and has gotten freakishly skinny, watching this movie is akin to watching John Candy’s last film or Chris Farley’s last film. Unfortunately for Hill, his Fat Funny Man swan song is just as bad as CANADIAN BACON and ALMOST HEROES. Hill reprises his usual shtick (which, I will say, has worked more often than not) as Noah Griffith, a slacker who is tasked with babysitting some neighbor kids, including Blythe, a bratty girl who wishes she was a Kardashian; Slater, an obsessive-compulsive hypochondriac; and Rodrigo, an adopted pyromaniac. When his sort-of-girlfriend (Ari Graynor) calls and asks him to bring her some cocaine with the promise of sex, Noah takes the kids along for the ride. Hijinks, raunchy political-incorrectness and borderline child abuse ensue, but laughs are few and far between. (The best bit is the scene in which Noah speaks jive, which was shown ad nauseam in the trailers and commercials.) It’s easy to call this an “R-rated ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING,” but that would be insulting to the glory that is Elisabeth Shue -- “Don’t fuck with the babysitter,” indeed! (Fun fact: This was the 142nd movie I saw on the big screen in 2011 -- a NEW PERSONAL RECORD, which has since been broken with each subsequent movie I’ve seen. Go me!)
YOUNG ADULT -- If Jason Reitman had retired after giving us the trifecta of THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, JUNO and UP IN THE AIR, he could have happily called it a worthy career. Fortunately, it looks like he’s going to keep making movies, and that is a good thing, even if he serves up the occasional misfire. YOUNG ADULT, which reteams Reitman with JUNO scribe Diablo Cody, is not necessarily a bad film -- but it’s not nearly as funny, touching and engaging as their previous effort. Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, once a popular girl in high school in small-town Minnesota, now living large in the big city (well, Minneapolis) and authoring a Sweet Valley High-type book series. She’s not entirely happy, though -- and when she learns that her ex-boyfriend is about to become a father, she gets it into her head to return home and try to win him back. What results is a series of unfortunate, awkward, often cringe-inducing events. Mavis, stuck in the throes of extended adolescence, is unable to recapture her past glory and makes a fool of herself at every turn. Theron always seems to be at her best when she unpretties herself; here she is a train wreck of trashiness and not at all likeable. Nice work, as always, from Patrick Wilson as the hunky object of Mavis’ desires, but it’s Patton Oswalt who steals the show with a surprisingly poignant turn as a dorky former classmate with whom Mavis develops an unexpected friendship. The moral of the story? Growing up is indeed hard to do, though whether or not Mavis actually learns that lesson is questionable. All in all, the story feels uneven and nothing really sticks. But I have faith that both Reitman and Cody will bounce back strong.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL -- I’ve always considered the M:I series to be solid and enjoyable and generally underrated as far as high-profile franchises are concerned. Say what you want about Tom Cruise, but the dude is a madman, always performing his own crazy stunts and giving his all. He seems to have particular fun with the role of Ethan Hunt, and he takes things to a whole new level of badassery in this fourth installment. Directed by the great Brad Bird (who previously gave us two of the best animated films of the past two decades, THE IRON GIANT and THE INCREDIBLES -- not to mention RATATOUILLE and some classic SIMPSONS episodes), M:I-4 is a mega-spectacle of pure, relentless action, featuring some of the most mind-boggling set pieces and action sequences in recent memory. I honestly didn’t think anything this year would top TRANSFORMERS 3 in terms of sheer, unbridled insanity, but the Dubai sequence, beginning with Cruise scaling the tallest building in the world and culminating with car chase in the middle of a sandstorm, is nothing short of astonishing, especially in true IMAX (I saw it at Loews Lincoln Square, home of the gigantic 80’ x 100’ screen, which I highly recommend if you’re in NYC). Cruise is backed up by a solid story -- threat of nuclear war with Russia never gets old! -- and supporting cast, including Tom Wilkinson, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg providing the comic relief. With all due respect to TRANSFORMERS and FAST FIVE, this is easily the best pure adrenaline popcorn flick of the year.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS -- By all powers of the universe, the SHERLOCK HOLMES films should be awesome. You've got an iconic character that is tailor-made for a big-budget, big-screen romp. You've got one of the great entertainers working today, Robert Downey, Jr., and the always-solid Jude Law playing off each other with rapid-fire dialogue. You've got an interesting visual director in Guy Ritchie, great period costumes and sets, lots of action, etc., etc. And yet, despite all these elements, the first film failed to engage on any level and was forgotten almost immediately after I left the theatre. Now, I had hoped that the addition of a better villain -- Holmes' arch-nemesis Moriarty (Jared Harris) -- might make the sequel a bit more interesting. But no... it is more the same... slick but completely unmemorable. Downey & Law are good if seemingly uninspired, Ritchie's hyper-stylized direction quickly wears thin, and the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace, is wasted. At best, these films are an acceptable diversion for Downey fans between IRON MAN stints; at worst, they are a classic case of some nice ingredients not adding up to a very tasty dish.
Argh, so many more December movies to discuss, and we’re quickly running out of time! Can I finish the month before the ball drops tomorrow night? Wish me luck and stay tuned!