Sunday, October 9, 2011

September Movie Sustenance, Part 1

*sigh*... yes, I am late with my monthly movie recap once again. What are ya gonna do? September was a very busy month at the cinema: I saw a total of 15 movies (that’s a lot) -- including my 100th movie of 2011 on Sept. 13th, by far the earliest I’ve ever reached the magical century mark. Clearly, I managed to overcome whatever mini-swoon I had in August and put myself back on potentially record-breaking pace. Go me! Here’s what I saw:

the-debtTHE DEBT -- The latest entry in the much-heralded “ass-kicking Jews” sub-genre. Directed by John Madden, it’s an espionage thriller that spans four decades: In 1966, a team of Mossad agents (Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas and breakout star of the year Jessica Chastain) embark on a mission to capture an insidious Nazi war criminal. Things do not go as planned, but their mission is accomplished nonetheless... or so the world is led to believe. But decades later, just as a book on the subject is about to be released, the aging heroes (now portrayed by Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds and Helen Mirren) are presented with startling revelations that put their reputations -- and history itself -- at risk. The film builds tension nicely as it shifts between time periods and performances are excellent across the board. Unfortunately, the plot goes a little overboard in the final act and loses much of its potency. That being said, there has not yet been a bad “ass-kicking Jews” movie, and while this installment is not in the same stratosphere as such films as MUNICH and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, it is still worth watching.

apollo-18APOLLO 18 -- In space, no one can hear you scream, “THIS SUCKS.” Sorry, couldn’t resist. Yeah... I think we can all agree that the “found footage” faux-documentary has been, at best, a mixed bag over the years. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was the reigning king for a long time, though this year’s amazing TROLLHUNTER may very well have stolen that title. Personally, I’ve also enjoyed the hell out of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films and am psyched for #3. But there have been far more misses than hits, and this dismally dull dreck may be the worst of the lot. The footage supposedly shows us why we never sent man back to the Moon after the last official mission, Apollo 17, in 1972. Seems that a year later, a secret mission was commissioned by the Department of Defense to investigate some strange business on the lunar surface. The astronauts brought along a handicam and hijinks ensued, involving abandoned Soviet spacecraft, inexplicable footprints, creepy-crawlies and space madness. It’s terribly plotted, terribly acted, and worst of all, terribly boring and feels terribly long even at a mere 86 minutes. An unfortunate waste of what actually could have been a good idea if done right.

a_good_old_fashioned_orgyA GOOD OLD FASHIONED ORGY -- Jason Sudekis stars as Eric, a thirtysomething guy, known for throwing epic parties at his parents’ house with his group of friends who have known each other since high school. When they learn that Eric’s dad is selling the house, they decide to have one last sendoff... in the form of a full-fledged naked sex orgy! Now, for you readers who don’t know me personally: I’m a thirtysomething guy. For years, I threw epic parties at my parents’ house (first known as HANDS ACROSS BEN’S GRANDFATHER’S BASEMENT, a music fest for local acts, headlined by my own band; and later BEN’S BACKYARD BIRTHDAY BASH, a binge-drinking extravaganza featuring multiple tables of Beer Pong). And I’ve had the same primary group of friends since high school. Sooo... make of that what you will. Seriously, though, this is a funny movie, featuring lots of raunchy humor and starring lots of funny people. The build-up is great with lots of “will they or won’t they?” tension as the characters attempt to psych themselves up for the big day. Then, in the final act... well, there is, in fact, an orgy and it is funny and ridiculous and awkward. This is not a classic comedy by any means, but if you, too, are a thirtysomething guy (or gal) caught in the throes of the aging process, it might just hit the spot.

Higher-GroundHIGHER GROUND -- I’ve been a fan of Vera Farmiga for a while now -- most notably her Oscar-nominated performance in UP IN THE AIR, in which she also provided that year’s hottest on-screen presence. But it turns out that she is also pretty talented behind the camera and pulls double-duty with this fantastic little film that explores one woman’s relationship with organized religion. Vera is outstanding as Corinne, a woman who has struggled to figure out her own spirituality since childhood. Over the course of her life, she experiences ebbs and flows of devoutness and doubt in her faith, often directly related to specific events and relationships with family and friends -- but the story (based on the memoir of Carolyn S. Briggs, who co-wrote the screenplay) never serves to judge the religious experience one way or the other. As a result, it can be interpreted in a number of ways depending upon your own views. Acting-wise, Vera is amazing and surrounds herself with a solid supporting cast, particularly Dagmara Dominczyk as her saucy best friend. It’s a well-crafted, heartfelt, thought-provoking film -- in a perfect world, Vera Farmiga would become the first woman ever to snag Oscar nods for both Best Actress AND Director. Here’s hoping it doesn’t fall too far under the radar when the time comes.

warriorWARRIOR -- I don’t give a damn about Mixed Martial Arts, but somehow this movie managed to draw me in. It’s not exactly what you’d call “good,” but it resonates on a crowd-pleasing, emotional level in spite of its flaws, which include a cliché-ridden plot, generic dialogue and stock characters. But there’s also a heartfelt focus on family, the plight of the underdog, far more intense fights than any real-life MMA match I’ve ever seen, gratuitous patriotism, surprisingly-compelling drama and strong lead performances. Joel Edgarton (Owen Lars in the STAR WARS prequels) and Tom Hardy (The Forger in INCEPTION) are Brendon and Tommy, estranged brothers who took very different paths after their family fell apart due to their alcoholic father (Nick Nolte, who is terrible and perfect at the same time): Brendon dabbled in MMA and went on to become a schoolteacher; Tommy joined the Marines and experienced some heavy shit. A series of unfortunate life events bring them together as competitors at the world’s biggest MMA tournament in Atlantic City -- Brendon as a feel-good underdog and Tommy as an unstoppable force -- which, naturally, sets them (and dear old dad) on a collision course both in and out of the octagon. Sappy and melodramatic? You betcha. But it works. Edgarton is especially good and will hopefully get his due after this. Also worth mentioning that A.C. looked pretty good on the big screen for a change -- lots of sweeping shots of the Boardwalk and the casinos and beaches. As a frequent visitor, it was nice to see!

contagionCONTAGION -- Steven Soderbergh gives us a compelling and downright frightening look at what might happen if a superflu threatened to wipe out a good chunk of humanity. Comparisons to Stephen King’s THE STAND immediately come to mind, but that was a story about good vs. evil and had a supernatural element, whereas this one is grounded in reality and focuses primarily on the scientists and government officials who race to find a cure and prevent worldwide panic. The pace is fast and furious and terrifying -- at times it feels like an action movie, but with science. The cast is the stuff that dreams are made of: Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston... the list goes on. (Even Gwyneth Paltrow gives one of her most memorable performances ever, though it doesn’t hurt that she dies 10 minutes into the film.) Interestingly, with a fairly short run time and lots of intertwining storylines, most characters aren’t really given a whole lot of time to develop -- but because they are portrayed by some of the best actors on the planet, it adds a sense of gravitas that might not otherwise exist. Smart move on Soderbergh’s part. In the end, it’s a slick, effective film that suggests beyond a shadow of a doubt that if such a catastrophe ever struck in real life, we’d be fucked.

love-crimeLOVE CRIME -- This French noir thriller pits the great Kristen Scott Thomas against the delectable Ludivine Sagnier in a game of corporate cat-and-mouse with increasingly costly consequences. Christine (Thomas) is a ruthless executive who takes pleasure in taking advantage of her protégé, Isabelle (Sagnier), toying with her naiveté and exploiting her skills under the pretense of teaching life lessons. But when Christine steals Isabelle’s ideas and passes them off as her own, she unwittingly awakens a hidden beast. The title actually refers to the film’s two distinct halves: “Love” deals with the rise & fall of Christine & Isabelle’s relationship and is intense and titillating; “Crime” deals with Isabelle’s quest for vengeance and that’s where the plot goes off the rails a bit. Co-written and directed by the late Alain Corneau, it strives to be Hitchcockian with its many twists and turns, but is a mostly laborious character study that feels much longer than its two-hour run time. Performances are excellent, though; this is probably Sagnier’s best work since the great SWIMMING POOL, though, honestly, she could sit there and read the Paris phone book for two hours and I’d walk out of the theatre a happy man. (Fun fact: This was my 100th movie of 2011. Random choice!)

Lots more September Movie Silliness to come -- stay tuned for Part 2!

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