Saturday, December 31, 2011

December Movie Denouement, Part 2

The rest of the December crop, and thus, the last batch of movies I saw in 2011. Read quick, because it’s almost time to pop the bubbly!

carnageCARNAGE -- Two couples (Kate Winslet & Christoph Waltz and Jodie Foster & John C. Reilly) meet to discuss a confrontation that occurred between their kids. The discussion is begrudgingly civil at first, but gradually becomes more and more heated, finally escalating into all-out verbal warfare from which they cannot seem to escape. The result is often both funny and cringe-inducing as deep-seeded personal issues are revealed and exploited. Acting is obviously outstanding -- I mean, what could be better than watching these four great actors go at each other for an hour and a half? The material certainly fits right in with Roman Polanski’s usual themes of entrapment and the darker sides of humanity (if only he wasn’t such an asshole, so I could watch his films and not hate myself afterward). But I don’t know... I found it difficult to get completely invested because the whole thing is kind of silly. In reality, as soon as shit got nasty, any sane person would just get the hell out of there. If you’re a fan of the talent involved (and why wouldn’t you be?), then it’s a worthwhile curiosity -- but in the end it feels like a pointless exercise.

we-bought-a-zooWE BOUGHT A ZOO -- This is the story of Benjamin Mee, a struggling single dad who packs up his two kids and moves to a new house to make a fresh start. The catch: They’ve actually bought a dilapidated zoo, which they now own and manage. With the help of a motley crew of zoo workers (led by a dressed-down but still-scorching hot Scarlett Johansson), the Mees attempt to rebuild the zoo as well as their lives. Contrived holiday-season sap? Oh yes. But everyone is so damn likeable that it works. Matt Damon plays Benjamin with wholesome earnestness and humor. His relationships with his kids are believable, as is his understated romance with Scarlett. (Incidentally, I’m going to need a video montage of every time Scarlett says the name “Benjamin,” for my own personal use. Get on that, Internet monkeys!) The budding friendship/romance between young Dylan Mee and a free-spirited zookeeper’s assistant is also very cute, though I think someone slipped something into Elle Fanning’s drink because she is perpetually, creepily smiley. Supporting cast, including such names as Thomas Haden Church and Carla Gallo, is eclectic and funny. At its core, it’s a movie about grand gestures, which is right up Cameron Crowe’s alley -- I particularly like (and have followed) Benjamin’s advice to Dylan that it only takes “twenty seconds of insane courage” to make something great happen. Not Crowe’s best film by any means, but effectively heartwarming in the moment.

Girl-With-the-Dragon-TattooTHE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO -- I enjoyed the Swedish versions of these films and I’m not sure an English-language remake was absolutely necessary. But thanks to David Fincher’s direction and some excellent performances, this version works exceptionally well. The cool thing about Fincher is that all of his films look & feel like they exist within the same universe. So you have Detectives Mills & Somerset tracking the serial killer John Doe, while at the same time, the Zodiac killer is on the loose, Edward Norton is being suffocated by Meat Loaf’s bitch tits, and Mark Zuckerberg is sitting in his dorm room creating Facebook. Meanwhile, in Sweden, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is recruited by reclusive millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to solve the mystery of his missing niece, who disappeared without a trace decades earlier. A labyrinthine investigation ensues and Blomkvist enlists the help of a mysterious tattooed-and-pierced computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara in a star-making turn). Lisbeth also has her own problems -- namely, an asshole of a social worker who tries to control her life & finances (among other things). The film is intense, filled with menace and occasional extreme brutality, and driven by another relentless score by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. Craig infuses a bit more humor and steel-eyed confidence into Blomkvist, and Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth, while still bad-ass and awesome, has a fragility to her that Noomi Rapace’s interpretation did not. These subtle but key differences make for an experience that may not necessarily be better than the darker, grittier Swedish version, but works in its own right and allows it to co-exist as a separate vision. Should be interesting to see what happens with the rest of the trilogy.

Albert_Nobbs_thumb1ALBERT NOBBS -- A very sad, strange little film about a very sad, strange little man... or rather, a woman (Glenn Close) who dresses as a man in order to keep a job as a butler at a well-to-do hotel in 19th century Ireland. None of her employers or co-workers have any idea of this secret -- Albert does his (her) job well and blends into the background, keeping a nest egg hidden in a floorboard with the hope of someday escaping this life of suppression. One day, a burly painter by the name of Hubert (Janet McTeer) does some work at the hotel and discovers Albert’s secret when they are forced to become bedfellows. But turns out Hubert has a secret of his own -- he is a she, too! And he has embraced his situation, gotten married to a woman and lives an exuberant life that introduces Albert to a whole new world of possibility. Albert hopes this life may be achieved with the help of a young housemaid named Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who, unfortunately is smitten with a strapping loner (Aaron Johnston). It all sounds very intriguing, but the story plods along, only displaying rare bursts of excellence when Close and McTeer are onscreen together. Close is great but blends into the background perhaps TOO much; McTeer, however, breathes much-needed life into the proceedings and if an Oscar nod is destined to come from this film, I hope it goes to her.

pariah_thumb[1]PARIAH -- Alike (Adepero Oduye) is an African-American teenager living in Brooklyn. Lee, as she prefers to be known, likes girls -- a fact that she is slowly but surely coming to embrace. She dresses like a tomboy and sneaks off to a lesbian nightclub with her outspoken best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), but she is shy and unsure how to proceed, sort of feeling her way through the process. Unfortunately, she has no help from her her parents, who have their suspicions about Lee’s lifestyle on top of their own marital troubles. Her mother, Audrey, tries desperately to force her to stay away from Laura and wear girly clothes, while her aloof father, Arthur, has convinced himself that there is no issue at all. When Audrey forces Lee to hang out with a co-worker’s daughter, it becomes a turning point that leads to new experiences, emotions and confrontations. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we have seen this kind of coming-of-age story before. But blistering performances (especially from Oduye and Walker), along with a potent script by Dee Rees (who also directed), help elevate it to something much more. A tremendously moving film, bursting with realism and heart, that should probably be required viewing for all in this day & age.

IRON-LADYTHE IRON LADY -- No actor or actress is taken more for granted than Meryl Streep. Think about it: She’s widely considered to be the greatest actress alive and has been nominated for SIXTEEN Oscars. Yet she hasn’t actually won since SOPHIE’S CHOICE in 1983. Since then, she easily could have walked home with gold every single time. When it comes to sheer acting talent, she is always head and shoulders above the competition. And yet, she never wins! My only guess is that the Academy must figure, “Eh, she’ll get it next year... let’s give someone else a shot.” Which brings us to this biopic of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Streep is, as always, at the top of her game, perfectly capturing Thatcher’s strength and tenacity, not to mention her voice and mannerisms. Unfortunately, the movie is simply not very good. Much like this year’s other big-name biopic, J. EDGAR, this one is too conventional and frustratingly shallow. I mean, say what you want about Thatcher’s ultra-conservative politics, but she WAS the first female leader in the western world -- yet the film never gives this fact proper gravitas. Instead, we get scenes of an elderly Thatcher doddering around, talking to her dead husband (Jim Broadbent) and reminiscing about her younger days. Story-wise, it’s a big yawn. Fortunately, the power of Streep makes the elderly scenes watchable (much better old-age makeup than the clown costumes in J. EDGAR, too) and the younger scenes fascinating. There’s no doubt that she will be nominated for her 17th Oscar -- but thanks to the shoddy material, she will also likely suffer her 15th defeat.

extremely-loud-incredibly-closeEXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE -- I believe there are two types of people in this world: Those who will watch this movie and succumb to the raw emotion, or those who will scoff at it for being manipulative Oscar bait. If you’ve been paying attention to this blog over the past few years, you can probably guess that I fall into the former category. Yes, it’s about 9/11 and it stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Yes, it’s schmaltzy and sentimental and tugs on one’s heartstrings with reckless abandon. Yes, it may go a little too far with fantastical shots of Hanks falling to his doom from the burning World Trade Center. But damned if it isn’t extremely effective. It’s the story of Oskar Shell (Thomas Horn), a wildly precocious and inquisitive boy whose father is killed on what Oskar calls “The Worst Day.” A year after the tragedy, Oskar gets the nerve to dig through his father’s closet, where he accidentally stumbles upon a key in an envelope marked with the name “Black.” He decides that this key must unlock a hidden message from his father and becomes determined to find it. Thus, he embarks on an epic journey through the five boroughs -- one of coping, self-discovery and a greater understanding of the world around him. The film is filled with whimsy and taps into every emotion, especially for those of us who were in NYC and watched 9/11 happen with our own eyes (pretty much everyone at my screening was a blubbering mess by the end). I actually don’t think it is anywhere near good enough of a movie to compete for Oscar gold (except maybe for Best Score -- nice work from Alexandre Desplat), but as an experience, it is incredibly moving.

a-separationA SEPARATION -- The final movie I saw in 2011 was part family drama, part mystery, part socio-religious commentary on life in contemporary Iran. Expertly crafted by writer/director Asghar Farhadi, it begins with a court proceeding that shows the apparent crumbling marriage between Nader and his wife Simin. Simin wants to leave Iran for their daughter’s sake (and, considering the way women are still treated in Iran, her own, too), Termeh, but Nader refuses because he doesn’t want to leave his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Things don’t go Simin’s way and she leaves them. Nader in turn hires a maid to help clean house and take care of his father, who is indeed in bad shape. From there, the film spirals off in a whole other direction and becomes a murder mystery of sorts that reveals the nature of Iranian culture and politics, the differences in class and religious beliefs and the fine line between truth and perception. As the mystery unfurls, it takes on a Hitchcockian feel in the sense that all of the clues are laid out -- you just need to pay attention and find them (which is easier said than done). Performances are outstanding, characters are complex and dialogue is multilayered -- you may find your sympathies changing as new information comes to light. An intense, intricate, riveting film that has gotten universal praise so far (100% on RottenTomatoes) -- if there’s a more worthy Best Foreign Film out there, I hope I get a chance to see it!

And on that note, after 155 trips to the movie theatre over the past twelve months, we can put 2011 in the books. My Top 10 and Bottom 10 lists, as well as all sorts of other year-end goodies, are coming soon, so stay tuned! Happy New Year to all -- and may the best of 2011 be the worst of 2012!

Friday, December 30, 2011

December Movie Denouement, Part 1

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:

tinkertailorsoldierspyTINKER, 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.

ShameSHAME -- 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-BeautySLEEPING 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_and_jillJACK & 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_sitterTHE 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_AdultYOUNG 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-4MISSION: 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-HolmesSHERLOCK 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!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

November Movie Nuggets, Part 2

The rest of the November crop! GO!

very-harold-kumar-christmasA VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS -- Not a whole lot to say about the third installment of the Harold & Kumar saga. Are you a fan of the previous two films? Are you high right now? If the answer to either of those two questions is “yes,” you will enjoy this movie. As the film opens, the lads have drifted apart over the past few years. Kumar is still living a bachelor’s life and smoking regularly, while Harold is married and trying to be responsible and stuff. But when a mysterious package brings them back together on Christmas Eve, hijinks immediately ensue, resulting in another crazy joyride around NYC. Everything you could possibly want from a H&K film is here: Extreme raunchiness. Stoner humor. Political incorrectness. Gratuitous nudity. And of course, Neil Patrick Harris reprising the role he was born to play. The 3D is gimmicky and fun for the most part, though it’s actually kind of awesome how well it works when the guys are smoking (Smell-O-Vision would have been a great innovation here, if ya know what I mean). A fourth installment would probably be a bit much... but then again, it’s not like I wouldn’t see it. Though I think I’d prefer a feature-length version of Neil’s Patrick Harris’ Christmas Spectacular... or better yet, a live stage version on Broadway!

the-thingTHE THING -- Yet another remake of an ‘80s favorite that is completely unnecessary but not completely awful. But this time, there’s the added twist that it is actually a prequel in disguise. I will not reveal where and how the transition from remake to prequel takes place, but suffice to say, it’s surprisingly satisfying if you are a fan of John Carpenter’s classic, which is widely considered to be one of the best sci-fi horror flicks ever. In the new version, a paleontologist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, aka Ramona Flowers from SCOTT PILGRIM, with whom I am still in lesbians) joins a team of Norwegian scientists that has discovered an extraterrestrial spacecraft buried deep in the arctic. In the ship, they find a creature that appears to be long-dead. But when they get a little too greedy with the experimentation, the creature wakes up and starts killing everyone, one-by-one, using its ability to mimic anything (and anyone) it touches. It’s fairly straightforward modern horror, lacking the paranoid tension of the original, but adding some pretty cool Thing effects. As with THE KARATE KID and FOOTLOOSE remakes, THE THING is not required viewing -- but neither will it rape your childhood. Plus, any opportunity to help Joel Edgarton continue to make a name for himself in the U.S. is a worthwhile endeavor.

hugoHUGO -- Martin Scorcese’s latest triumph is unlike any of his past triumphs. On the surface, it’s a 3D kids’ film, which is odd in itself, coming from the director of RAGING BULL and GOODFELLAS. But deep down, it is a tip of the cap to the magic of cinema and movie lovers in general, a tribe of which Scorcese himself is the supreme leader. It’s the story of a boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives alone within the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930’s. He keeps a low profile while maintaining the station’s clocks and trying to fix a broken automaton with the hope that it may contain a hidden message from his dead father. One day, Hugo has a brusque encounter with a disgruntled old shop owner, which leads to a friendship with the man’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz, who keeps getting better and better), who provides the key that helps Hugo complete the automaton, which unlocks a secret that sets the film off in an unexpected, but completely rapturous, direction. To reveal more than that would be criminal, but suffice to say, HUGO is an enchanting fantasy adventure, a heartwarming tale of family & friendship, a picture postcard of old Paris, a love letter to the art of cinema, a crash course in the history of motion pictures (particularly the films of Georges Méliès), a propaganda piece about the importance of film preservation and last but not least, a game-changer in the advancement of 3D technology. I don’t know if it completely does for 3D what THE WIZARD OF OZ did for Technicolor, but it comes closer than any movie we’ve seen thus far. Scorcese, a visual master under any circumstances, takes full advantage of the extra dimension, and for the first time, immerses us into a world in which wearing special glasses is actually NECESSARY for the full, true visual experience. (There were several moments -- for example, a scene in which an audience watches and reacts to the Lumière Bros.’ classic, “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” -- that made me wonder how the heck they could possibly work in standard 2D.) HUGO is the kind of movie that works on so many levels, taps into every emotion and should appeal to different people in different ways. For me, it was a case of cinematic love at first sight, and the more I think about it, the more I love it. A truly extraordinary film and quite possibly my favorite movie-watching experience of the year.

The-MuppetsTHE MUPPETS -- Jason Segel has already been awesome for a long time thanks to FREAKS & GEEKS, all the Judd Apatow movies and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER. But then he went and brought the Muppets back from oblivion... and now he has pretty much achieved god-like status. The first theatrical Muppet movie in 12 years may not the best of all time, but it is unquestionably the best one since before Jim Henson died, and one of the most fun, emotional and satisfying cinematic experiences of the year. Segel & Nicholas Stoller co-wrote the script with extreme care and adoration for the characters and absolutely nailed it, perfectly capturing that playful-yet-sentimental Muppet tone and all of their personalities. The plot is simple enough: The Muppets’ biggest fan, Walter, goes to Hollywood to find that the legendary Muppet Theatre has not only fallen into disrepair, but is about to be taken over & demolished by an evil oil magnate (Chris Cooper and his maniacal laugh). Walter, along with his friends Gary and Mary (Segel and the always-adorable Amy Adams), track down Kermit the Frog to convince him to reunite the old Muppet gang, all of whom have gone their separate ways. The plan? Put on the Greatest Muppet Telethon Ever to raise $10 million and buy back their beloved theatre! The film is rife with nods and references to Muppet movies of yore, and the recreation of the Muppet Show during the telethon is nothing short of breathtaking. The music is fantastic, with a great mix of new and classic songs -- if you don’t get all verklempt during “Rainbow Connection,” you may not have a soul. Jason Segel deserves unlimited credit for giving us this perfectly-realized, heartfelt, nostalgia trip -- on top of everything else, it was clear that he was having the time of his life and his joy was infectious. Mahna mahna.

A-Dangerous-MethodA DANGEROUS METHOD -- The latest collaboration of David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen (following the overrated A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and very good EASTERN PROMISES) is a solid film, if somewhat lacking. It’s a fictitious look at the early days of psychoanalysis, in which Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) at first treats, then has an affair with, a sexy-but-mentally disturbed Russian patient (Keira Knightley). It’s more of a talk-fest than we’re used to seeing from Cronenberg, but that makes sense because this is a movie about ideas and the formulation and discussion thereof. These ideas are further amplified by three outstanding lead performances, starting with Fassbender, who continues his breakout year (see also: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, JANE EYRE and SHAME, which I will write about soon). Viggo gives a larger-than-life performance as Sigmund Freud, chewing the scenery with gusto. The powerful relationship between Jung and Freud anchors the film and offers some choice back-and-forth dialogue. But surprisingly, it’s Keira Knightley who steals the show. Her Russian accent may be somewhat questionable, but holy shit, does she play one hell of a mental patient. It’s an over-the-top performance, but it’s so jarring and off-putting that it works in the context of the film. That said, the film is more methodical than dangerous and despite its provocative themes, ultimately fails to resonate as more than a mild curiosity.

Holy crap, the year is almost over! Time flies when you spend over 300 hours in movie theatres. Stay tuned for my December recap and then all sorts of year-end goodies including my hotly-anticipated (by me) TOP TEN OF 2011!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

’Tis the Season for a Double-Dose of Spielberg

Today is Steven Spielberg’s 65th birthday, so to celebrate, let’s take a look at the two newest additions to his filmography, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN and WAR HORSE -- two completely different films which are examples of two genres in which the Beard has been particularly effective throughout his illustrious career, the action-adventure serial and the emotional war drama.

This isn’t the first time Spielberg has given us two of these kinds of films in the same calendar year. Back in 2005, he gave us WAR OF THE WORLDS and MUNICH. The former has its flaws and is considered to be a misfire, but it does feature some truly chilling post-9/11 imagery. The latter, however, is one of Spielberg’s most underrated and powerful works (and one of my Top 25 Movies of the ‘00s). And then of course there was the great year of 1993, when the world was graced with a couple of classics known as JURASSIC PARK and SCHINDLER’S LIST -- perhaps the single greatest year for a director since 1939 when Victor Fleming helmed THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND.

Now, admittedly, this year’s one-two punch is not quite up to that level of mastery. But both TINTIN and WAR HORSE are both effective, entertaining and worthy additions to Spielberg’s oeuvre.

tintinTHE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is a joint venture from Spielberg and Peter Jackson, with a script co-written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish & Steve Moffat, based on a Belgian comic book that I have never read and know absolutely nothing about. Therefore I can’t comment on the film’s effectiveness as an adaptation, but as a film -- particularly one in which Spielberg harkens back to his RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK roots -- it is a ton of fun.

Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a young journalist/detective, always in pursuit of a hot story. One day he buys a model boat at the market, which turns out to be a much-coveted clue to untold treasure. Along with his faithful dog Snowy, Tintin gets kidnapped by the dastardly Sakharine (Daniel Craig), meets up with the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and gets involved in a winding plot involving pirates, treasure, mystery and journeys to exotic locales. There are some incredible swashbuckling action sequences (including one of the best pirate ship battles I’ve ever seen, and an awesome duel in which the participants use dockside cranes instead of swords), breathtaking animated cinematography and very solid use of 3-D. There’s still something about motion-captured human characters that seems... off... but the technology has certainly improved since the dead-eyed soullessness of THE POLAR EXPRESS.

Parents, if you’ve been thinking about introducing your kids to Indiana Jones for the first time, you might consider showing them TINTIN first to get them warmed up with what is essentially a kiddie version. The tone, humor and action are very much in the same vein -- hell, it feels more like an Indy film than CRYSTAL SKULL did -- and Spielberg clearly had a blast with it. Should be very interesting to see what Jackson does with the sequel.

110284_A_ENG-GB_70x100.inddShifting gears, WAR HORSE is the tale of a boy and his horse and their bond that is put to the test of separation and the tribulations of war. If it sounds like a potential schmaltz-fest... well, yes, it kind of is. But if there’s one man who knows how to push all the right buttons, it’s Spielberg. The early scenes of earnest Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and an underestimated horse named Joey on their ranch in England are pretty cringe-worthy, with some questionable acting from anyone not named Emily Watson (who plays Albert’s mum). But once Joey is sold to the British cavalry to be used as an expendable tool, the film kicks into a whole other gear. It combines the underdog horse drama of SEABISCUIT with a PRIVATE RYAN-esque depiction of World War I that is both epic and gritty (a bit of E.T. sprinkled in there, too, obviously). Spielberg does an interesting job of depicting an extremely violent and bloody war through a PG-13, family-friendly lens while retaining the harshness of the situation.

As the war moves through the sweeping French countryside and into the trenches, Joey continually escapes danger and ends up serving both sides, making new friends and enemies in the process. He develops a reputation as a “miracle horse,” all the while never forgetting his best friend. Meanwhile, Albert also goes off to war and also keeps the memory of Joey close to his heart. We know that their experiences will inevitably bring them back together, but their respective odysseys are at times quite harrowing, with a firm grip on the audience’s heartstrings.

Ultimately, the film works because it is so sincere and unpretentious. It wears its schmaltziness on its sleeve and you have to respect that. The cinematography and dialogue are such that at times it looks and feels reminiscent of an old Hollywood epic, and for that reason, it may not play as well with today’s cynical audience. But let yourself get swept up in the Spielberg-ness and it’s a satisfying journey. Oscar-worthy? No way. But then again, far less deserving films have made Oscar cry.

Of course, two new Spielberg movies also come with an added bonus: Two new John Williams scores! No complaints with either of them; TINTIN is fun and adventurous and WAR HORSE is appropriately grandiose. Neither are particularly hummable as you’re leaving the theatre, and thus will not go down among Williams’ best, but they are effective within the context of the films and it’s always a nostalgic pleasure to hear his unmistakable style.

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN opens on Dec. 21st, with WAR HORSE following on Christmas Day. There are a ton of great movies in theatres right now, including many that are more required viewing. But this holiday season, by all means see these and enjoy them for what they are: Two pretty good Steven Spielberg films. Happy holidays, indeed -- and happy birthday (and many more) to one of the all-time greats!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

November Movie Nuggets, Part 1

I know, I know. I’m not even going to bother apologizing for the severe lateness of this recap -- let us just be thankful that it’s here, because November was by far the best movie month of the year (and that includes the first half of December, but that is a story for another day). I saw a  modest 11 movies on the big screen in November, and while my year-end list is not yet finalized, at press time SEVEN of them are sitting pretty in my Top 25. Not too shabby. Here are my reviews....

take-shelterTAKE SHELTER -- Michael Shannon gives the year’s best male performance in this startling film that is part psycho-thriller, part metaphor for the mindset of America in this age of economic uncertainty. Shannon plays Curtis, a family man who has a solid job, a pretty wife (Jessica Chastain, who continues to be everywhere), good friends and a faithful dog. His daughter is deaf as a result of an accident, but it is not a hopeless situation thanks to some medical breakthroughs and a good insurance plan. But when Curtis starts having weird nightmares and ominous hallucinations, he can’t quite figure out if he’s having some kind of mental breakdown or experiencing legit, prophetic, apocalyptic visions. Knowing his family has a history of mental illness, he seeks help, but that only results in more frustration. The only thing that makes sense is to spend his savings to build an underground shelter to protect his family from whatever storm may or may not be coming. But that increases tensions with his wife, workplace and life in general, which in turn piles on the pressure. Masterfully crafted by writer/director Jeff Nichols, the film begins with a nightmare, maintains an ethereal feel as Curtis’ sanity frays, and culminates with a wallop of an ending that will stick in your gut for a long time. Shannon has been a great supporting actor for a while now (see: REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, where his few explosive minutes of screen time earned him an Oscar nod), but as of now he is my pick for Best Actor -- his performance is that powerful and haunting.

j-edgarJ. EDGAR -- The last great Clint Eastwood-directed film, on my list, is 2005’s LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (particularly when paired with its companion piece, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS). Since then... wow, has it been a precipitous decline for the old man, as CHANGELING, GRAN TORINO, INVICTUS and HEREAFTER were all bad to varying degrees. His latest, a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, is an improvement in the sense that it is not a completely terrible movie. It tells an intriguing story that doesn’t shy away from the more controversial aspects of Hoover’s life (i.e., his closeted homosexuality). It features some fine performances -- wouldn’t be surprised to see DiCaprio snag an Oscar nod, and possibly Armie Hammer, too. The problem is that it’s just so... pedestrian. The film looks drab, thanks to what is clearly a stylistic decision gone awry. Eastwood’s direction is plodding, and Dustin Lance Black’s script is ambitious but clumsy, with a narrative twist that just comes off as befuddling. Plus it uses every biopic cliché in the book: I don’t know if J. Edgar’s smothering mother (portrayed by Judi Dench) really portended that he would become “the most powerful man in the country,” but my gawd, that’s cheesy. And to top it all off, the old-age makeup is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s unfortunate, because I’m sure there is a very good movie about this complex individual in there somewhere -- makes you wonder what, say, Oliver Stone might have done with the material.

My-Week-with-MarilynMY WEEK WITH MARILYN -- This is the story of Marilyn Monroe’s infamous trip to England in 1956, where she filmed THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL with Laurence Olivier and supposedly had a brief fling with a lowly stagehand. This particular episode in movie history, in which the world’s most famous actress clashed with the world’s greatest actor, is interesting stuff. Beyond that, it is pretty straightforward, light-hearted fare -- the film doesn’t shed much new light on what even casual fans may already know about these legends. Still, it is pure entertainment at its finest, with sparkling performances that are among the year’s best. Michelle Williams is an absolute vision, reasserting herself as one of the best actresses of the day. She BECOMES Marilyn, perfectly capturing her look, mannerisms, quirks and complexities. It is really something to see. Who knows if the love affair really happened -- or at least, if it happened quite this way; feels more like someone’s embellished take on what it would have been like to have an affair with Marilyn Monroe. But regardless, it is hugely enjoyable. Kenneth Branagh may be Oscar-worthy, himself, as the grandiose Sir Laurence; Julia Ormond and Dame Judi Dench are great as Vivien Leigh and Dame Sybil Thorndike, respectively; and it’s interesting to see Emma Watson, as a lowly wardrobe girl whose relationship with Colin is disrupted by Marilyn’s presence, in her first major post-POTTER role. But really, this is Michelle Williams’ showcase through and through and will surely earn her another Oscar nod. Actually, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN reminds me of THE KING’S SPEECH in many ways: Last year’s Best Picture winner was also light-hearted, crowd-pleasing historical fare anchored by an outstanding lead performance. It’s the kind of thing that Oscar eats up... and MARILYN is way more enjoyable than SPEECH... so we’ll see what happens.

melancholiaMELANCHOLIA -- The latest vision from Lars von Trier opens with a beautiful, slow-motion prologue set to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde that sets a bizarre, dreamlike tone for what is to come. As the narrative begins, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is celebrating her wedding night at her sister & brother-in-law’s opulent mansion. But Justine is not happy. Why? It’s not entirely clear. But as her depression consumes her, in her mind the end of the world is nigh. This is paralleled by the appearance of a rogue planet called Melancholia that has entered Earth’s orbit. How is this possible? Again, not entirely clear... but while at first the phenomenon is captivating, it slowly becomes clear that the end of the world really IS nigh. At this point, Justine begins to take control of her sanity while her sister (brilliant Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) unravel around her. On one level, von Trier’s uses the end of the world as an unsubtle metaphor for depression’s destructive power. On another level, it’s an honest-to-God disaster flick, art house style, that is more devastating than anything Roland Emmerich could ever imagine, with an ending that will absolutely knock the wind out of you. (Side note: It’s been a pretty great year for shocking endings between this, TAKE SHELTER and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. Years have been taken off my life.) And above all, it is a showcase for the talents of the lovely Kirsten Dunst, a longtime crush of mine, who has risen to new heights with a tour-de-force performance that has already earned her a Best Actress win at Cannes. The girl-next-door cheerleader from BRING IT ON is all growns up and she’s growns up and she’s growns up!

The-DescendantsTHE DESCENDANTS -- The one knock against George Clooney (though not by me) has historically been that it always seems like he’s playing “GEORGE CLOONEY.” And that is not untrue -- but it’s the nuances of his performances, from the ring-a-ding-ding coolness of OCEAN’S 11 to the brooding hitman of THE AMERICAN, that have turned him into one of the top three or four actors alive today. (Besides, he just plays “GEORGE CLOONEY” so damn well.) In the latest stroke of genius from Alexander Payne, Clooney plays Matt King, a sad sack from Hawaii, who must readjust his life after his wife suffers a tragic boating accident and falls into a coma. He has to reconnect with his young daughters, decide whether to sell his family’s coveted Hawaiian land AND deal with the possibility that his wife may not have been entirely faithful. The whole time, his wife’s unconscious, slackened face looms over Matt’s life like a spectre, weighing on him while driving him forward. Clooney is playing “GEORGE CLOONEY” again, but it’s a far more grown-up version than he’s ever tried before, and of course, he knocks it out of the park. Shailene Woodley, playing his rebellious teenage daughter, also gives a lightning performance that has already been recognized by the Hollywood Foreign Press. Fantastic, offbeat supporting players, too, including a nearly-unrecognizable Matthew Lillard in a key role. The film is a funny, poignant look at the complexities of family, love and death, and Alexander Payne once again proves that he has a firm grasp of the imperfections of humanity. The man has now made a Mike Nichols-esque five great films in a row to start his directorial career (CITIZEN RUTH, ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT, SIDEWAYS and THE DESCENDANTS) -- time to start listing him among the best and most exciting filmmakers of this generation.

theartistTHE ARTIST -- A brilliant black-and-white silent film that is itself an ode to the silent era. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a superstar of the silver screen in the 1920’s. He has a classic look and oozes charisma which he is confident will sustain him through the burgeoning “talkie” fad. On the set of one of his films, he meets a backup dancer named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, who lights up the screen), and they have a bit of a thunderbolt moment. But before long, talkies are all the rage, Valentin is on the outs, and Miller suddenly becomes the next big thing. Their destinies seem to set them on opposite paths, but really, they are intertwined -- she never forgets him, both on a personal level, and because of what he has meant to cinema, and the journey that brings them back together is one of the great feel-good stories of the year. It is an absolute joy to watch, with gorgeous cinematography, an amazing score and fantastic performances -- Dujardin (who won Best Actor at Cannes) & Bejo are perfect, and the more well-known faces, including John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller, blend in nicely. Actually, Goodman seems almost tailor-made for the silent era -- but then, he always seems like the right choice for whatever role he is playing. Second-best performance by a Jack Russell Terrier in 2011, too, trailing only Arthur from BEGINNERS. THE ARTIST is a charming, funny and heartwarming love letter to old Hollywood -- in fact, the best thing I can say about it is that it inspired me to load up my Netflix queue with silent films, a genre that I had never really explored. As we enter the heart of awards season, this is one film that will not be going anywhere anytime soon.

Stay tuned for Part 2, featuring HUGO, THE MUPPETS and more!