Man, I can't believe we've already completed the first month of 2011. Somehow, I have seen 10 movies on the big screen this month, keeping up my record-breaking pace from last year. Yet this has been a crappy movie month even by January standards. I don't know how I do it... or why... but that's probably a question for my therapist to answer a few years down the road. For now, let's take a look at what I've seen recently....
COUNTRY STRONG -- This movie already had two strikes against it because (1) Country music blows, and (2) Gwyneth Paltrow blows. It did manage to work the count full by featuring uber-hot Leighton Meester in her first major movie role. Fouled off a few pitches after that, and then actually drew a walk as the movie managed to hold my interest despite a barrage of pretty much every country music cliche you could possibly think of (solid performance from TRON: LEGACY's Garrett Hedlund, too). It stole second when Leighton appeared in sexy lingerie, but ultimately faltered big-time in the third act, got caught in a rundown and thrown out at third to end the inning. Sorry, Gwyneth, you still blow.
SEASON OF THE WITCH -- Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman as knights who turn their back on the Crusades and get caught up in a mission involving a woman suspected of being a witch who may be the source of the Black Plague... sounds like it could be one of the best worst movies ever, right? Well, unfortunately, the movie's biggest problem is that it isn't bad ENOUGH. Cage & Perlman play it too straight -- sure, there are lots of anachronistic wisecracks, cheesy visuals, Christopher Lee in a bizarre cameo as a dying king, etc., but if they had gone crazy with this thing and really hammed it up, it could have been a work of mad genius. As it stands, it's a prime example of why January is considered a cinematic dumping ground.
THE DILEMMA -- Oh, Vince Vaughn, what the hell are we going to do with you? You've been running your SWINGERS persona into the ground for the past 15+ years but only very rarely have you even come close to that movie's greatness. This schlock is no exception -- it's unfunny, plodding and generally a mess. Kevin James continues to be pretty much useless. Winona Ryder is fine, I guess, and Jennifer Connelly is her usual super-hot self, but they are beside the point. Frankly, seeing Ron Howard direct a movie of this craptitude does not fill me with confidence over the upcoming DARK TOWER adaptations -- unless perhaps this was his way of getting the mediocrity out of his system before tackling that epic project? Let's hope so.
THE GREEN HORNET -- At last, a pleasant surprise! At first, I was skeptical when they decided to dump a superhero franchise film in the dregs of January. Plus Seth Rogen's shtick has been slowly but surely wearing thin on me. But while this movie is certainly no IRON MAN or SPIDER-MAN 2, it actually kept me entertained. It starts slow, but really picks up in the second half, and the final act is like a balls-out orgy of craziness. I do wish that the great director Michel Gondry had been able to infuse more of his unique visual style, rather than being hamstrung by the studio and Rogen himself -- but the rare moments in which his stuff shines through are among the movie's best (in particular, a funky thought sequence in which Rogen tries to piece together what's going on). Fine supporting turns by Jay Chou as Kato and Christoph Waltz hamming it up as a supervillain with an inferiority complex (keep an eye out, also, for an Edward Furlong sighting... weird). Still not sure how long Rogen can keep up this shtick of his, but here he gets a temporary reprieve. (Also, for the record, I did NOT see this movie in 3-D, and I did not miss it one bit.)
BARNEY'S VERSION -- Here we have an outstanding, funny, politically incorrect and surprisingly poignant film starring Paul Giamatti as a schlump who is loveable in spite of himself -- in other words, the typical Giamatti role, but I mean that in a good way because it always makes for a great performance. The film reflects on the life of Barney Panofsky through three marriages and a variety of misadventures and relationships with friends and family. The heart of the story is Barney's relationship with Miriam (the luminous Rosamund Pike), whom he meets for the first time at his second wedding. It's the thunderbolt, clear and true, and despite the fact that he just got married, Barney runs with it. She rebuffs him but he doesn't give up even as the years go by -- reminded me a lot of LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, which I love. The movie later takes an unexpected, earth-shattering turn that serves as proof that it's often a good thing to not know too much about a movie before seeing it. Really good stuff -- Giamatti won a Golden Globe for his performance and I’m surprised Oscar didn’t come calling, too. (You could make a Supporting Actor case for Dustin Hoffman's scene-stealing turn as Barney's rascally father, too.)
THE WAY BACK -- The latest from Peter Weir, director of such classic films as WITNESS, THE TRUMAN SHOW and CARS THAT EAT PEOPLE. Set during WWII, this epic tells the story of a group of prisoners who escape from a Siberian gulag and endure a 4,000 mile trek to freedom. It’s a remarkable story (regardless of whether or not it’s 100% true), highlighted by great performances and some breathtaking cinematography that really drives home the scope of their travels, the vastness of the terrain, the harshness of the elements. Unfortunately, it’s hard to really get emotionally attached to the characters -- the sweeping spectacle is front and center, visually, while the actual people are almost an afterthought. That said, Ed Harris is such an awesome presence -- he really needs to be in more movies. Saoirse Ronan, meanwhile, is outstanding as a runaway that the men meet along the way and provides further evidence that she is the best child actor out there right now (can’t wait to see her kick ass in the upcoming HANNA). Also worth noting that, with this movie, I have now seen all the Oscar nominees for Best Makeup. Go me!
THE RITE -- Ho-hum, another year, another exorcism movie or three. This one (“based on actual events”) stars the great Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas Trevant, a Vatican priest who must make show the ropes to a young apprentice who is having his own crisis of faith. The young whippersnapper thinks that psychiatry could solve most of these cases; Father Lucas, with his icy stare, unorthodox ways and thousands of exorcisms under his belt, begs to differ. The film plods along uneventfully for a while -- a possessed pregnant woman here, cameos by respected actors there (Toby Jones and CIARAN HINDS!) -- but it’s the final act that gives you your money’s worth. I don’t want to give too much away, but it involves Anthony Hopkins, demonic possession and extreme overacting the likes of which I don’t think I’ve seen from a legendary actor since Pacino in THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE. Okay... maybe it’s still not worth sitting through the whole movie (I love THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, and this, my friends, is no THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE), but eventually these climactic scenes will be on YouTube and then they will be a must-see!
ANNIE HALL / MANHATTAN -- As you should know by now, I consider myself quite the connoisseur of the NYC movie-going experience... and this past weekend, I made a great discovery. Every Sunday night, the luxurious Tribeca Grand Hotel hosts special movie screenings in its Grand Screening Room. These screenings are 100% FREE to the public. You get FREE popcorn. You settle into a cozy seat and watch classic movies in an intimate setting. You can even bring in drinks from the swanky hotel bar, the Church Lounge (also a fine spot to hang out for a pre-movie beverage). Judging by the sparse crowd, I think I may have stumbled upon one of NYC’s great hidden gems -- and now I am passing along the info to you dear readers. Here is the upcoming screening schedule -- please use this information wisely and if you see me there, say hi! By the way, ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN? Big screen double-features don’t get much better than that. Still two of the greatest, funniest, truest movies about relationships and most heartfelt love letters to New York that have ever been made, and the reason why I, for one, will always give Woody Allen the benefit of the doubt.