Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises
Grade: B
Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Michael Cane, Morgan Freeman
Director: Christopher Nolan
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If Inception found Christopher Nolan debating whether to surrender, Tarkovsky-like, the real world for the deepest levels of imagination, The Dark Knight Rises finds Nolan already having taken the plunge.

Where would you rather be, as a musclebound cross between Darth Vader and Lord Humongous, Warrior of the Wasteland sinks Gotham into a nuclear-tipped French Revolution? When peasant kangaroo courts manned by maniacs belt out ice-water justice to balding stockbrokers? Is there a better place than under the covers in the shadows of Wayne Manor (where we find Bruce Wayne in Howard Hughes-like seclusion)? With the gloomy worldview expressed in The Dark Knight Rises, we might well look for Chris Nolan to be peeing in mason jars right there next to him.

If The Dark Knight Rises is indeed a mirror on the times, then it reveals the director’s misgivings about the current wave of populism biting into the world. In their Batman trilogy, the Nolan Brothers – director Christopher and screenwriter Jonathan – have found “the public” untrustworthy, insufficiently thoughtful, too open to manipulation by disinformation. The villainous Bane, leading the people in a reign of terror against Gotham’s wealthy, replaces a civilization based on stabilizing lies with lies of his own. The film makes an overt reference to the French Revolution, Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities. But it plays a little like Animal Farm.

Why does Bruce Wayne love Gotham, anyway? Why is this wretched hive of scum and villainy worth saving? It seems like a lot of trouble, a classic co-dependency. Gotham is the bachelor billionaire’s crazy girlfriend, constantly skinnydipping with the enemy, never able to turn his rubberized head without her slipping back into anarchy. The people of Gotham are worth saving, Batman seems convinced, but perhaps only in theory, only so far as to soothe his need to be the hero. Every martyr needs an audience to save.

How should we react when Gotham (and allegorically, our world) turns upside down once again? What would Nolan have us do? It’s obviously not to follow a strongman like Bane, the brutal trickster, and his illusion of imprisoned “liberation.” It isn’t the aloof out-for-herself Catwoman (a foxy Anne Hathaway, at the top of her considerable talent), disconnected from the world around her. As a hero, Batman offers stability and good intentions. What does Batman deliver but noblesse oblige, restoration of a dysfunctional status quo, and a delay until the next relapse?

As an action movie, The Dark Knight Rises is quite successful, involving in the moment, although not quite as memorable or darkly humorous as the best of its predecessor, The Dark Knight. The scale and the drive are consuming (even if Hans Zimmer’s score goes too far). The story is thick, layered but understandable. I might have cut a couple of characters (Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s beat cop comes to mind), but it doesn’t detract too much from the proceedings. Bloated and pompous, true, but The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately rewarding. Disguised as entertainment, its best moments feel like a foreboding prophecy of the present.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Grade: N/R
Cast: Quvenshane Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director: Benh Zeitlin

I probably shouldn’t write about Beasts of the Southern Wild since I walked out in the middle of it. I didn’t really expect to write anything about it at all. But here I am.

In fairness, my departure had more to do with an early morning doctor appointment than disgust. That said, the greatly hyped Sundance winner – the story of a girl and an isolated community dealing with the flooded aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – did leave a pretty thick layer of disappointment.

Walking into Beasts of the Southern Wild, I was mindful of the fact that this was a story of impoverished country people in the Louisiana delta conceived by a private school graduate from the East Coast. What I felt I walked out with was a movie about impoverished country people in the Louisiana delta conceived by a private school graduate from the East Coast.

That origin is not insurmountable. Affluent artists have always written about the poor, some very successfully. This is moviemaking, after all, where they make movies about the underclass on soundstages in Hollywood. Still, it is a real obstacle. And it’s an obstacle that debut director Benh Zeitlin doesn’t quite figure out how to deal with effectively. While I wouldn’t call it phony, it is wanky, and the film never quite reaches the illusion of authenticity.

One path would be with a fairy tale style, and sometimes Beasts makes that departure. Browsing his biography, Zeitlin’s parents are folklorists, and Beasts contains elements of folklore. It has a child who cooks dinner by blasting the stove with a propane flame, for goodness sakes. But the film never quite makes a necessary choice between realism and lyricism. Visually, this film bathed in mythological elements is grounded by techniques built to enforce reality. It goes so far as to use a shaky cam style, the sort of thing designed to convince us of the gritty realness of an alien invasion. Beasts is a little like a Zora Neale Hurston story filmed as if it were District 9.

For these reasons, Beasts of the Southern Wild reminds me a little of Alejandro Gonzalez Inniritu’s Babel. After the splendid success of Amores Perros, director Gonzalez Inirritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga ultimately split in different directions. In Babel, Inniritu’s realism/hyperrealism ended up in a different place than Arriaga’s Fassbender-like melodrama. There comes a time in Babel where you feel the script working against the direction, and you can feel the film’s loose stylistic ends. I felt the same way here.

So what do I have to say about it, finally? Chin up. The willingness to make a story about small places and delicate lives is encouraging. Zeitlin is a different voice, and I suspect it will eventually find its range.


Grade: B
Cast: Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connally, Julie Walters
Director: Mark Andrews
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If you were a Scottish princess, wouldn’t using a spell to turn your mother the queen into a bear be considered an act of insurrection?

It’s hard to imagine that in real life Merida – the red-headstrong princess in Disney Pixar’s Brave – would avoid the tower for very long. In fact, consorting with a witch would be pretty risky – burning at the stake and all. Not to mention Scottish royalty has a particularly discouraging tradition of leaving life with one less head than they entered it with.

Ah, but that’s the thing about teenagers. You’re pretty much contractually obligated to forgive them. So is there any risk that Brave would turn into anything but a touching mother-daughter movie? The princess learns a little about life. The queen learns a little about love.

Life and love told amid a slight bedtime story. The queen wants to marry off her daughter in a proper manner. The tomboy daughter, who prefers archery to riding sidesaddle, has other matrimonial ideas. There’s something to be said for wedding for political alliances, but of course this isn’t the film that would say it. This is the modern age and we marry for love. There’s a wild king with a peg leg, rowdy clansmen in kilts, and a trio of mischievous brothers to keep the castle on its toes.

Even among Pixar’s successes, Brave stands out in the visual realm. Pixar’s genius is that it creates movies that look like they were filmed on location on a computer-generated planet and brought here. There’s not a “hey I’m watching a movie!” sense. It’s like visiting a real world. The dark hollows and fresh greens of Brave’s fictional Scotland are breathtaking and unique.

By the way, Brave extends the bow-firing trend among young female heroines. For parents already fretting the “should we buy our daughters a deadly weapon for Christmas?” decision, this is another arrow in the quiver.

I’d love to sit here and tell you a million interesting things about Brave. I think there are maybe 11 or 12, and I’ve said them all. It’s a particularly lovely round of craftsmanship, and it never loses your attention.

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages
Grade: C
Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Russell Brand, Bryan Cranston, Mary J. Blige
Director: Adam Shankman
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Rock of Ages, this week’s hair metal spandex singalong, asks a basic question about the musical – what’s the point of a musical?

More specifically it asks a pair of underlying questions about musicals: Is enjoyment a worthy artistic goal? Is sentimental simplification acceptable in the name of fantasy and fun?

On one level Rock of Ages does to the metal years of the late 1980s no more or less than what Singin in the Rain does to the twenties or Grease does to the fifties or Moulin Rouge does to Golden Age Paris. Accusing these films of ignoring the racism, violence or barbaric dentistry of their era would be a little like marking off Peyton Manning’s greatness because he isn’t a very good tackler. It’s true, but it misses the point.

On the other hand, how do you take the most hedonistic, polyamourous, and misogynistic era of pop music and turn it into a musical with a female lead about multiple couples pursuing that one true love? And how do you create an atmosphere of self-destructive decadence in a movie in which no one even smokes? There’s a fly in this zeitgeist somewhere.

Rock of Ages casts sunny-eyed Millenials as broken-homed Gen Xers. Accusations of being American Idol: Metal Night are, sadly, fairly accurate. Aspiring baby-faced metalhead Diego Boneta doesn’t exactly conjure memories of Axl Rose. Playing an Oklahoma Snow White who escapes to the bright lights of Los Angeles, Julianne Hough seems more like a girl who would listen to Madonna or Debbie Gibson, or Amy Grant and Stryper. In real life, she ‘s Ryan Secrest’s girlfriend. She looks it. She feels it. And she sings like it. Of the younger set, only Malin Akerman (Watchmen), as the Rolling Stone journalist Constance Sack, comes across as a natural candidate to be spread across the front hood of a Camaro.

What saves the film, and ultimately makes it worth the view, is the great supporting cast. Russell Brand is either a choice so perfect that it’s obvious or a choice so obvious that it’s perfect. He’s teamed successfully with a camp Alec Baldwin as the owner of a Sunset Strip club on the tight rope of bankruptcy. .It’s topped by Tom Cruise having an enormous amount of fun as rock legend Stacee Jaxx, an 80s action star playing himself as an 80s rock star. On a practical level, how do you hire leads that are so miscast but a supporting cast that’s right down to the last sprinkle of hairspray?

Is the music good? A better question … was the music good then? An even better question .. is the music fun? On the last point, I’ll go with more yes than no. A cheeky busride rendition of Night Ranger’s Sister Christian sets the tone, giving you a good taste of director Adam Shankman flair for amusing camp. When it hits that point, it makes up for clunky editing and the blah story. Rock of Ages isn’t a film I particularly respect. But I did enjoy it.


Grade: B
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba
Director: Ridley Scott

Named for a deep-space vessel on a mission to discover the interplanetary creators of mankind, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is on another unenviable origin mission – the near-impossibility of recapturing the shock and dread of the original 1979Alien.

So much of the original is surprising and unexpected. Sequels, prequels and whateverquels (we’ll call this a companion film) are burdened by knowledge and expectation. Despite the best efforts of Noomi Rapace’s awesome shag haircut – floating in space since the Disco era – that 1979 magic is lost in the interstellar vastness. When an alien finally bursts from an unfortunate astronaut’s stomach, it’s not a scare or shock but the re-emergence of a brand. In space no one can hear you scream. That's OK when we’re meant to cheer.

That said, don’t take that to mean that Prometheus is some sort of doughy, follow-the formula failure. Actually it’s a sharp, follow-the formula success. Scott shakes the box of familiar elements (abandoned spaceships, flamethrowers, double-dealing androids, symbols of disturbed motherhood, fears of sex and being eaten) and out pops a summer freak-out that should leave audiences satisfied.

It’s appropriate that the android in Prometheus is obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia, as this is Scott’s leanest movie in years. Absent – or at least unnoticed – are the multiple cameras and restless editing that have marred the director’s recent films. Michael Fassbender is the android who not only wants to be human (a seeming AI reference) but wants to be Peter O’Toole. He is assigned by the Weyland Corporation to a deep space exploration aboard a ship seeking aliens who might be the creators of human life.

Two things emerged from John Hurt’s stomach in 1979. One was the phallic-headed alien. The other was the stardom of Sigourney Weaver. Prometheus affords Rapace (You’ll always be my Lisbeth Salander) a similar opportunity. Certainly she’s helped by Prometheus’ intense centerpiece – a self-performed C-section that nails the coded fears of sex and violence that the Alien series does best.

Prometheus ‘ main deficit is either some of the dialogue or some of the acting. It’s a little hard to identify alien and egg. Is Charlize Theron’s corporate master too cold, or is she just burdened with too much dialogue that consists of yelping? (Did they write down specific yelp noises, or did they leave the yelp content to the inspiration of the actress?) But the story is nimble and confident, and the visual effects are first-rate.

Magic Mike

Magic Mike
Grade: B
Cast: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn
Director: Steven Soderbergh
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Hamstrung by protein-level decisions made during the first Nixon Administration, I can’t fully enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper drama Magic Mike. That’s what DNA gets you. But I did enjoy it as best as my hormones permit.

If your wife has planned some mysterious me-time this weekend, be aware where she’s going. She’s probably figuring out ways to smuggle kiwitinis in her purse as we speak. And she’ll enjoy it. Soderbergh sexualizes the male bodies of Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer and Matthew McConaughey much like the women’s bodies of Gina Carano in Haywire or Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. The mercurial Ocean’s series director has become one of the last American filmmakers who believes in the carnal potential of cinema.

By casting the ultimate fighting champ Carano, Soderbergh rang in the year by crossing gender roles on the action film in Haywire. Conversely, Magic Mike places Tatum in the traditionally female role of a stripper with a heart of gold. The muscular heartthrob becomes something rare for a male lead – a sexual object. Like Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut, the film even begins with a butt shot of Tatum.

…. Now ladies, sit doww … you promised! …. please notice the film is more than its ripe bottom. Soderbergh’s recent films have been situated at the crossroads of work, performance, and identity. Mike is a sex worker with normal worries and dreams of a furniture business. He thinks he leaves it at work, but it’s not that easy. And a disagreement with a bank loan officer brings home Soderbergh’s point – the idea that capitalism depends on self-exploitation in which everyone participates. Just some ways are sexier than others.

Soderbergh can be a little like the edgy songwriter who stirs provocative images but doesn’t know quite where to go with them. At times, the film grips conventional plotlines for buoyancy – a will-they-won’t-they-of-course-they-will romance and a younger stripper’s ascent to stardom and descent into hedonism. Fortunately, the performances and tone are sharp and the detriment minimal.

Magic Mike is strangely the (loosely) real life story of its star Tatum, a male exotic dancer before his film career, but the fantasy of McConaughey – who as the club’s folksy owner nearly steals the show. But it’s Tatum’s sense of cool that holds the film together. He’s the owner of that unmistakable indefinable. It’s there in scene like when he casually backflips off a bridge into water, with no sweat or hesitation. I can’t quite define it, but I can see it, and it’s something I can’t quite forget.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom
Grade: A
Cast: Jared Gilman, Kara Heyward, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton
Director: Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is not only a story of the power of first love but also the way that children create the mythology of adulthood through the fabric of stories. The world approaches us first wrapped as tales, and we handle its mysteries with imagination. The largest part of reality, even as we age, remains a contradictory act of abstraction.

This has been a quietly placed theme in the films of Terrence Malick, including last year’s Cannes winner The Tree of Life. The children first imagine death as Sleeping Beauty laying in a glass coffin in the woods. They learn of time, property and death from a story about a rabbit in a garden. Even earlier, an infant learns the animals with a small toy Noah’s Ark – the first taste of a wider reality is an act of representation.

Speaking of Noah, it’s been an unexpectedly good year for him at the movies, with his presense felt throughout Moonrise. Robed and in sandals, he might as well sail into Cannes’ red carpet (where Moonrise debuted in competition). Of course when you think about it, Noah’s Ark is our first love story, with perhaps the first glimpses of sexuality that we see as children.

The love story in Wes Anderson’s brilliant young adult fantasy begins at a church performance of the Benjamin Britten musical Noye’s Fludde. Sam is an unpopular Khaki Scout with precocity, defiance and good camping skills. Suzie is the daughter of a pair of loveless lawyers; she lives in a storybook lighthouse on the isolated New England island of New Penzance. Her role in the play is the raven, that most tempestuous of birds, though a red-headed outburst will soon see her demoted to a blue jay.

The couple meets in a field one year later to elope to a beach – him with an airgun, a coonskin hat, and a corncob pipe; her with a blue suitcase, a record player, sci-fi books, a kitten and dreams of adventure. Don’t be thrown by the age – they are every bit as passionate, sincere and liberated as Jean-Paul Belomondo and Ana Karina in Pierrot Le Fou, using the radical edge of love to escape the docility that surrounds them. They are both experiencing love as a fiction and love on its purest level.

Tracing them are a flock of kind but broken adults – the sadsack parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), a lone pokey policeman (Bruce Willis), a teacher who wishes he could be a scout master every day (Ed Norton). There is also a social services worker, dressed in electric blue, who has been so consumed by adulthood that she no longer has a name. 

This pair of lovestruck tweens are rushing into adulthood, and the adults are longing for childhood. Anderson has been playing with this idea since at least Rushmore, and it is a predominant inspiration for the film. In relocating that feeling of first love, as well as the nostalgia for that feeling, Moonrise Kingdom brings it home with humor and elegance.

That’s all I would say if it were not for the extraordinary craft, which cannot go without a mention. Anderson’s love of widescreen compositions (from cinematographer), detailed art direction, and perpendicular filming of actors and activity are at their prime in Moonrise Kingdom. His reputation has made him a spaz to some detractors, but here it is at its most inspiring effect. The script that he and Roman Coppola have composed is a gem of brains, humor and heart.

The Avengers

The Avengers
Grade: F
Cast: Robert Downey, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston
Director: Joss Whedon

Have you ever seen Ruby in Paradise, the 1993 North Florida indie that brought Ashley Judd to prominence?

There’s a scene where the uncomplicated runaway Ruby drags her pretentious bookstore boyfriend to an alien invasion movie. He storms out of the screening. How can you watch this junk, he demands.
I’m convinced they were watching The Avengers. Linear time be damned.

In his rave, Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers calls The Avengers everything that he thought it would be. I share this analysis but stagger toward the opposite conclusion. This is a film that does exactly everything you think it would do – and that’s the problem. There is not an unexpected moment in Joss Whedon’s very plastic superhero collision, sticking slavishly to its good-guy-bad-guy yay-team! template. Not only is The Avengers a 3-D return to the heavily corporate good-evil special effects distractions of yesteryear. It’s proud of it.

Six Marvel Comics superheroes – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow – assemble in the face of an alien invasion led by Thor’s evil brother, Loki. This leads to more than two hours of superheroes shaking hands, planning, bickering, duking it out in predictable misunderstandings, planning, bickering, and then taking off and landing, and taking off and landing again, and taking off and landing again, which the camera documents with a Lucasfilm -like obsession. There is also a ridiculous amount of ridiculous foreshadowing. And the score overpowers with volume rather than skill or elegance.

The plot involves a struggle to gain control of a blue interdimensional cube called the Tesseract. This leads to the squabbling superheroes uniting to fight an alien invasion in a prolonged final battle across the skies of a pixilated Manhattan. This unity is achieved on the intellectual cheap. The heroes come together not out of ideology or moral principle but because  -- dammit – it doesn’t look like much fun to be ruled by ugly aliens on space motorcycles.

But what if the invaders weren’t ugly aliens on space motorcycles, but well-dressed Mitt Romneys gently cruising to Earth in space Lexuses?  Christopher Nolan’s Batman series raised the stakes on comic book movies by introducing a moral dimension. The release of The Dark Knight Rises trailer this week makes the third entry in that series look like a sprawling crime saga more than a kiddie matinee. The Avengers gleefully reverses the trend toward smarter blockbusters and heads back in the opposite direction.  

The Avengers was always at risk of becoming Iron Man and Friends, with Robert Downey Jr. riding roughshod over a cast largely devoid of his star power. That’s essentially what happens. The others make occasional marks. Scarlett Johansson fights evil with the cool diffidence of a forties B-movie star – perhaps she should fight crime by rejecting the aliens’ passes. There is a great deal of praise headed in Mark Ruffalo’s way for Dr. Bruce Banner who transforms into The Incredible, who likes to smash.  But like most of these characters, and the film itself, it’s ultimately a one-trick show.  

The Five Year Engagement

The Five Year Engagement
Grade: B
Cast: Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, Allison Brie, Rhys Ifans
Director: Nicholas Stoller

When Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel introduced Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2008, it represented the low point for the Apatow Factory, during the phase when it produced any old comedy premise that could fit on the back of a bank receipt. The filmmakers probably didn’t go in thinking, “We’re going to make a stalker fantasy laughfest,” but that’s what came out the other side.

That’s why it’s so encouraging to see the same group produce The Five-Year Engagement – easily the most balanced of the Apatow battle-of-the-sexes comedies. The fairer sex does not get off the hook, but a stronger female side creates a sharper give-and-take between man and woman. This advantage is heightened by casting one of the most gifted comedic stars of her generation – Emily Blunt – rather than the hot TV star of the moment.

The result is a comedy with real-ish characters that feels like it comes from someplace true rather than wild exaggeration. When the film finally ends in a wacky Hollywood fantasy wedding, it feels less like a cynical conclusion than a bit of earned whimsy, like the end of a Fellini film (no, it’s not that good).

The gags relate to the difficulties of engagement, particularly one that lasts forever, and the winter blues of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tom and Violet meet in San Francisco, fall in love in San Francisco, get engaged in San Francisco, and end up moving to A-Squared when she gets a post-doctorate assignment. The couple delays marriage again and again. Violet's academic career thrives under a zap-haired professor. Tom gives up his chance to be a great chef, grows a Grizzly Adams beard, takes up crossbow hunting, and sinks into misery. (While some critics gripe about the Grizzly Adams phase being too far afield, you can be assured that Tom is not the first person to grow a mountain man beard in Ann Arbor.)

While many of the criticisms directed at the film – too long, weird digressions, tone shifts from reality to exaggeration – are not without merit, The Five Year Engagement earns clemency by coming from a real place and being consistently smart and funny. While some of the comedy set-ups are unoriginal lifts from other films, it doesn’t feel that way, because there’s a plausible relationship with real chemistry underlying it.

The Five Year Engagement profits from that relationship between Segel and Blunt, who share a loose, playful chemistry. They seem remarkably at ease. They’re matched nicely by her sister and his best friend, Allison Brie and Chris Pratt, respectively, who relive the plot of Knocked Up as a counterweight. They are the couple forced into a marriage by pregnancy. They make it work despite the difficulty of the situation solely because they want it to.

That’s why The Five-Year Engagement sees the Apatow romantic comedy finally getting into the ballpark of the thirties films that they always seem to aim for but usually fall short of. The Five-Year Engagement works as comedy. The Five-Year Engagement works as romance. What are you waiting for? Go.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Grade: B
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland.
Director: Gary Ross

The Hunger Games will sap up comparisons to science fiction. That’s what happens with stories about futuristic dystopias and freaky hovercraft. The better comparison is to Roman or Biblical epics of the fifties. Its story – of the youth of 12 outlying provinces exploited for the bloodsport of a wealthy and perverse capital – is reminiscent of Ben Hur or Spartacus. It even has a grand chariot parade, with crowds adoring Katniss Everdeen, a firelit, coal-haired Cleopatra.

These are essentially stories of the risks of opulence, how wealthy societies are built on this sort of cruelty and exploitation. Violent spectacle is seen as the dark payment for a vital but oppressive society. The suggestion is that civilization is little more than a sophisticated decoration of the primitive instinct.

Science fiction typically presents itself as the future, when really it is the present in disguise. But the Hunger Games begins by looking into the past. This is a future that first takes shape in a dim Appalachia, lingering in a permanent time warp, where even a nuclear war seems unable to change much. The coal shaft explosions are still as present as the class struggles that have marked the place for hundreds of years.

The is the world of Katniss Everdeen, and it bears considerable resemblance to the world of Ree Dolly, Jennifer Lawrence’s previous heroine from Winter’s Bone. In each film, she has played a backwoods teenage breadwinner with a missing father and an enfeebled mother. Lawrence seems to win these roles at least in part because her mild Kentucky accent is Hollywood’s idea of backwoods credibility. That she fills each truthseeker with the same blend of bravery and vulnerability is the cinema’s good fortune.

Katniss volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, who is chosen by lottery to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a 24-teen televised fight-to-the-death. By some twist of logic, this ceremony keeps the unruly districts from rebelling against the kleptocratic capital.

The story catches Katniss in two swirls – her impending fame and her impending death. From the latter, we arrive at a young woman revealing her sturdy character as she faces her demise. For the former, our bow-and-arrow tomboy receives a makeover into a young woman. There’s a moment when the coal-country girl, partial to hunting clothing, goes for a twirl in front of a TV audience in a stylish dress. It’s a moment of surprise exhiliration, and it’s one of the film’s unexpected best moments. One of the film's shortcomings is that it loses sight of the fact that it is a coming-of-age story set in bizarre circumstances.

Coming-of-age means romance, as do YA novels (the film is based on a book series by Suzanne Collins). A movie aimed at young women means “torn between two men.” So of course it includes a love story, with the wimpy but likable Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a fellow contestant from her district. The dreamboat Gale (Liam Hemsworth) sits this one out back home, leaving a triangle for future films. The suggestion is that the refreshment of purity, authenticity and youth poses the greatest challenge to corruption.

Much has been wondered about the film’s politics. Are they left or are they right? Such is the state of politics in this country that the populist impulse on either side has come to resemble one another in some ways. The orientation is less important than the accuracy, of a centralized power structure draining the life and wealth out of the rest of the country, and the society that sublimates its violent imagination into competitive rituals.

But does The Hunger Games get this right? Or is this a case of how authors overestimate ominous portents found in simple progress? As it pertains to de-sensitization, The Hunger Games is its own best evidence. Twenty years ago, a movie about a teenage murder pageant – aimed at teenage girls, no less – would have caused protestors to lay in front of the theater doors. Now it’s a girls night family outing.

On the other hand, we’re 20 years past The Running Man, which was the last time that we were “only a few years away” from this sort of thing. Somehow we’ve managed to steer clear of death match game shows. In reality, masculine excess is not our problem. Men being forced by wives to wear those embarrassing strap-on baby carriers is more our problem than excessive bloodlust. Sometimes I wish I lived in a country that could still stage a televised death match.

Anyway, it drags at times, but I enjoyed The Hunger Games. And I’m also pleased to have a genuine event movie that everyone has seen, the first of several this year. Even better, its soundtrack hit No. 1 this week, something that used to be routine. It’s like taking a step back, appropriately, to 1984.

Wrath of the Titans

Wrath of the Titans
Grade: C
Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Rosamund Pike, Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
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In Ancient Greece, Homer’s memorized recitals of the stories of the heroes and gods certainly required an attention span. The Wrath of The Titans certainly does not. It demands only the attention typically demanded by modern Hollywood blockbuster screenwriting.

But would Homer, in all his “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog face wouldn’t close my eyes as I descended into Hades”-ness, have been better served by less longwindedness and more action? With three screenwriters and a focus group whittling his tales down to sixth-grade level? With Zeus turning to Hades before they run around tossing lightning bolts during the climatic battle and uttering that phrase that has echoed down through the ages: “Let’s have some fun!”

In fairness, Hollywood isn’t trying to make a story that will last down through the millennia. They’re shooting for two hours, tops. And while The Wrath of the Titans does nothing to crater your attention for that length of time, it doesn’t do much to earn it beyond the two-hour parking limit, either.

Something of a greatest hits of Greek mythology, The Wrath of the Titans pours enough mythological creatures into the story that you might think it’s Bella Swan’s new dating list. There are giant Cyclops, wraiths, minotaurs, and of course the flying horse, Pegasus. If they didn’t get into the first film, 2009’s Clash of the Titans, they must figure this could be the last chance.

Fans of Hercules and Theseus may be dismayed having their accomplishments credited to a different warrior. That warrior would be Perseus (Sam Worthington). After vanquishing the Kraken several years ago, the reluctant warrior must leave his peaceful life to help his father Zeus save the world from dastardly Olympian infighting. His brother Ares, the god of war, is plotting against the two of them. This is a perfect setup for Ancient Greece, the culture that gave us the "daddy issue.”

I might leave this film lost in a labyrinth with no string to lead it out except for one thing – the visual effects are rather brilliant. Kudos to visual effects supervisor Nick Davis and his team. They integrate the CG monsters smoothly into the “real” elements of the scene and find the right balance between spectacle and reality. The images own an enormous amount of visual detail.

I was also impressed, at times, by the art direction and cinematography. There’s a lovely earthen feel to the Greek infantry smudged in mud as they await battle. And some of the shots are really beautifullly composed. For instance, watch, for instance, the scene where Perseus lands the flying horse Pegasus into a phalanx of Greek soldiers. See how the camera glides – from the dismounting hero, down the line of kneeling soldiers. to a helmet planted in the sand, then upwards to a person walking back toward Perseus. It’s a well-thought-out and executed shot. Almost from the beginning, director Jonathan Liebesman and cinematographer Ben Davis plant little gems like this.

If only they had also planted little gems like characters you care about and action that matters.

21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street
Grade: D
Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube
Director: Phil Lord
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21 Jump Street isn’t just another forgettable adaptation of a television program, the disappearance from the cultural radar of which no no one laments.

Mais non! The only interesting thing about this one: how it inadvertently ended up standing on the tarmac red carpet to greet the arrival of Hollywood’s unexpected leading men.

Channing Tatum looks the part. The Hollywood heartthrob of a million female fantasies, he has anchored a string of overperforming rom-coms (Step Up, Dear John, and The Vow). The New York Times wonders if Hollywood can mint him into the answer for its leading man shortage. The real question is whether the Town is going to wake up to find it already has.

Then there’s Jonah Hill. Since Superbad he has developed into the most recognizable Apatow comedy player. And one day, you just look up and realize he’s one of the most famous and bankable young stars out there.

That no one really saw these guys coming is a comfort. That they represent two extremes of Hollywood stardom – the natural and the unlikely – is kind of neat. And in 21 Jump Street they slip into those two pigeonholes nicely. Tatum is the high school quarterback who everyone would expect to be a star. Hill is the chunky nerd whose popularity no one would predict. That natural tension is used to good comic effect, as a police force odd couple set to relive their high school years as undercover narcotics officers.

21 Jump Street was a short-lived Fox television show from the Pre-Simpsons, pre-X-Files time before the network ever had a hit. Its sole distinction was launching the career of Johnny Depp. If the point of “TV adaptations” is to capture a show’s built-in audience, then you have to wonder about the wisdom of making one from a show that no one watched.

The film shares very little in common with the show, from what little I care to recall. The film returns Tatum and Hill to high school, where the social life has changed, along with their social standing. The nerd rules the modern high school, the film insists. The dumb jock gets picked on for being a dumb jock. 21 Jump Street announces that the American high school has evolved into Glee.

21 Jump Street really is a jackhammer of Hollywood soullessness. It’s a disaster, but Hollywood has become talented at disguising worthlessness for the middle hour. When Jump Street finally runs out of gas toward the end, you sink into the feeling of just how rotten its core really is. Until then, enjoy the star power.

John Carter

John Carter
Grade: D
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynne Collins, Mark Strong
Director: Andrew Stanton
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Every March Hollywood thrusts forth a summer blockbuster that is neither summer nor blockbuster. It has a habit of being directed by Zack Snyder and always contains overly heavy CGI. This year, that film is John Carter.

John Carter is also a $250 million risk, and this adaptation of old Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novels has a great deal of potential energy for backfire. The fact that the film is dull, repetitive, derivative, underwritten. unoriginal, uninspired, and not particularly eye-catching for the investment makes it even a greater risk.

Directed by Wall-E’s Andrew Stanton, John Carter does have a little wry sense of humor that’s occasionally bolstered by witty editing. That’s a good thing, because it doesn’t have much else. The titular post-Civil War outlaw isn’t the only one here to commit theft. Right now, George Lucas is looking around the bedroom and checking his things. As well as the 80s version of Flash Gordon.

The appropriately named Taylor Kitsch handles the title role, as a Civil War veteran who chases an alien into an Arizona cave and travels across the galaxy to a war-torn planet. There he is rescued and enslaved by a savage race of hulking green men, then enlisted into a civil war by a free-spirited princess (Lynne Collins). Freed of normal gravity, he becomes a great warrior, fighting strange creatures. However his greatest battle might be fighitng off predictability when every character stops to tell him the plot.

Recently, Hollywood has taken the occasionally used term Space Western a little too far. John Carter is the latest number to import sci-fi tenets into cowboy stories (Cowboys and Aliens being another). I’m not sure why. It’s a little like Shakespeare films reshaped for high school. It seems to be a trend to make Westerns “relevant” for digital age audiences. As it doesn’t seem this trend is going that well, I have a question: Couldn’t we just start making Westerns again?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Project X

Project X
Grade: C
Cast: Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Dax Flame
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
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Teenagers in movies are smarter than those in real life. They’re smoother. They’re cooler. They spend Friday nights at hip parties with hip music, rather than locked in their rooms with their best friends lip-synching to an embarrassing amount of Katy Perry.

Mass-market films with teenagers operate outside of the neuroses of growing up, the insecurities of personality, in confidence rather than confusion about sex. Sheer teenage exuberance becomes a victory over the compromises and socially accepted wickedness that hold the adult world together. These films bolt reality in favor of aspirational fantasy.

In this spirit, Project X is the entirety of the teenage id unleashed. With a house party that passes from a coming-of-age rite onto the verge of the apocalypse, it grasps both the fondness and fear that we feel toward youth. I feel a sort of admiration for its reckless abandon, for its willingness to take it all the way in each direction, even if the results are fairly mixed.

The film is produced by Todd Phillips of Hangover fame, and it plays like the night in The Hangover that we never see. Thomas (Thomas Mann) is the sensitive kid whose parents are confident their shy son could never throw a violent house party. JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) is the squat nebbish without a hope. Castro (Oliver Cooper) is the displaced New York fast-talker lamenting his abandoned party life back in Queens. All three friends attend a California high school that appears to be a magnet school for models. With Thomas’ parents away on his birthday, like so many teenage movie nerds before them, they throw a house party that they hope will decrease their virginity and increase their popularity.

From there, you can imagine. Loud music. Alcohol. Skinnydipping. Hook-ups. Angry neighbors. Broken glass. A broken lawn gnome full of Ecstacy. And that’s the gentle part. Bacchanalian pleasure presages Bacchanalian disorder. If the world is going to end this year, has anyone ever conjectured that it might come from a house party?

In its best stretches Project X intoxicates you with the desire for youthful abandon. It is shot in a found footage sort of way, as if it were an amateur documentary, and that gives the increasingly frenzied activity the weight of reality. It slowly boils you by asking “Can you believe this?” to gradually wilder things.

Eventually I said no. Too many of the hijinks are ripped off from John Hughes movies in the eighties, primiarily Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Weird Science (with an assist from Risky Business). And too often the film leaves you watching it rather than quite living it.

Like a great party, this review has burned out rather than ended. All that’s left is to say, “Have a nice day.”

Act of Valor

Act of Valor
Grade: C
Cast: Alex Veadov, Roselyn Sanchez
Director: Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh
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Act of Valor begins with the sort of sappy, mushy voiced-over letter that someone should regret. Someone may have. Preceding the storyline (and hence the letter) directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh appear on camera in what seems like a pre-emptive apologia. Speaking directly to the audience, the two men explain they cast real-life, non-actor Navy Seals and their families in hopes of celebrating the real people and capturing the real experience.

These real-life Rambos accustomed to living in the deep woods on sawgrass and toad meat soon face one of their toughest missions – hacking through the dense jungle that is the first 15 minutes of script and rescuing a real emotion. Capturing this stroke of emotion is one thing the directors state that they hoped to do – feeling that only SEALS and their families could authentically demonstrate the emotion of leaving your family for a dangerous mission. Never mind that actors do it well all the time. The stiffness of the families in the emotional moments raises the question, why are people so uneasy about being themselves in front of a camera?

For a while it looks like this mission will be an unintentional laugh riot. As the SEALs begin slipping into metaphorical body armor and gas masks, an even funnier thing happens. The film finally sends us on a mission. And it gets a lot better.

The audience finds itself tagging along on a moonlight jump from a cargo plane, landing in a marsh, re-assembling at the checkpoint, lining up the sniper redicle, squeezing the trigger, storming the stronghold, then being chased down a narrow dirt road by a drug cartel army, racing for a rendezvous with a pair of gunboats. The action is of unusually prolonged intensity. That’s when Act of Valor delivers what it promises – the sheer vicarious danger and thrill of being a Navy SEAL.

Act of Valor will quickly raise the age-old movie questions of whether the spectacle of film naturally glorifies violence. Is Act of Valor a real experience, or a hyper real experience? Is this an unsanitized depiction, or are America’s enemies really armed with an unusually high percentage of dud ammunition? At one moment, one SEAL gets to live out the Hollywood dream of hopping on a grenade and saving his friends in the name of his country. Then the director presumably yelled “cut” and he went to meet the family for dinner unscathed.

Valor is also certain to raise the sort of questions about collaboration with the military that have dogged films like Top Gun through the years. The movie actually was initiated by the Pentagon, which gave the filmmakers sweeping access, including some of the first shots inside a US nuclear submarine. Right or wrong, it raises the question of the line between art and propaganda.

But judging the politics isn’t as important here as judging the final product. While the warriors have obvious discomfort acting, and the script doesn’t help them, the action makes up for it. If the Pentagon wanted an exciting feature-length recruitment film, it got its money’s worth.

The Secret Life of Arrietty

The Secret World of Arrietty
Grade: B
Cast (voice): Mirai Shida, Ryunosuke Kamiki
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
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It’s commonly accepted among the film literate that this is the year of living in the past.

What else could it be? The frontrunner for Best Picture is a silent movie for crying out loud (or not crying out loud, as the case may be). Can flagpole sitting and the Charleston be far behind?

While the conventional wisdom has reached this conclusion, the conventional wisdom has not reached a conclusion on the wisdom of eating a bowl of sugary yesteryear for breakfast every morning. Is this a healthy revisitation of tradition, or a cowardly retreat into the soft womb of the past?

I tend toward the old-fashioned. It took me forever to get a cell phone. I don’t have a tablet. While I’m a defender of well-made chaos cinema, when it comes to animation I have recently stated my orientation toward things past. And I think I found an answer to the previously stated question while watching the often brilliant The Secret World of Arrietty. Revisiting the past is most worthwhile when recovering lost values that deserve an awakening.

Written and “supervised” by the Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki (based on Mary Norton’s children’s stories The Borrowers), Arrietty is practically made of watercolors in an age of computer generation. The figures are well-drawn, but the film doesn’t shy away from asking you to use your imagination to complete the picture. And there are no overcaffeinated pet raccoons to “entertain” us every time the beat slows down.

So much of animation today resembles loud action movie principles – overtalking, breakneck pace, exaggeratedly intense motion. They are also geared toward creating an environment that blurs the line between fiction and reality. The gentle human scale of Arrietty – a spirited teenage girl the size of a blade of grass who lives underneath a house – reinvigorates the values of older generation’s of animation – imagination, humanity, and the art of the paper and pen.

The genius of Arrietty is that by shrinking its heroine to the size of a finger, it turns the familiarity of a common home into a landscape of danger and adventure. Rats and insects become predators. A common cat becomes an alien. And moving around a kitchen has the impact of landing on the moon. Arriety takes common things and rediscovers them as immense. And so is the first hints of romantic feeling – as Arriety forms a friendship with a sickly boy who moves into the house above.

So remember, every once in a while, Hollywood does make movies for the little people.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Grade: C
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Amr Waked, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
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How long can any film review go before calling Salmon Fishing in Yemen a fish out of water story? Not to mention that the film stars Emily Blunt and her prominent lips. Every time Ewan McGregor’s Scottish fish expert looks at mackerel, he must think of her.

The man who took over Obi-Wan Kenobi becomes a new Dr. Jones, taking on an impossible mission of faith in Arabia. At one point, he even mentions the Ark of the Covenant. And yet he ends the movie as a sort of Lawrence of Arabia, obsessed, liberated and embittered by a folly in the desert. Or he should have, if the film did not choose to rescue him.

Salmon Fishing in Yemen is cleverly written, well-performed, with a unique and memorable story. One might even dare call it critic’s bait. However, for some reason it attaches a series of subplots that nearly wash it away. While the film they get out of the material is pleasantly acceptable, you can’t help but feel there was a better film snapping at the bottom of the line.

There’s a strong brew between the fish guy with a personality shortage, who is asked by a consultant (Blunt) to bring salmon to a valley in the Arabian desert for a visionary sheik (Amr Waked), who loves fly fishing. The script from Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) – populated with thoughtful one-liners like “That’s the good thing about Aspberger’s. It’s virtually impossible to hurt our feelings.” – plays strongly to director Lasse Hallstrom’s attraction to quirk and romance.

A lot of the really great screen romances aren’t set up with romance in mind. Their lovers work together on something fulfilling to them, moving toward a common goal. falling in love along the way. Salmon Fishing should be the story of two people who slowly fall in love as they jet around the world to find rare fins and flippers. It works best in the first half of the film when it is that film. (New romantic formula: Less mush. More fish.)

So why does the film feel the need to fish in conventional streams of generic drama – his unhappy wife, her missing soldier boyfriend, a jihadist subplot – to force the wrong type of conflict? It’s adapted from a book, but that’s not an excuse. Part of this speaks to money, I think, and the fact that you don’t really know how a movie is going to go before you begin filming it. You don’t know what the chemistry will be, or if there will be any at all. The subplots become a sort of insurance policy.

Which is a shame, because it takes away from a film that might have been great, but ends up only with a lot of things to offer, foremost among them the chemistry of the lead trio of Amr Waked, McGregor, and Blunt. When she first emerged six or seven years ago, I always thought Blunt had it in her to be a great actress. But I didn’t suspect she would have such delicacy and generosity as a love interest in romantic roles. Taken with last year’s The Adjustment Bureau – where she managed to lift a similarly besotted screenplay – this film certifies her as a chemistry machine, and a saving grace to mainstream-ish films that want to be different but only half-accomplish it.


Grade: B
Cast: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum
Director: Steven Soderbergh
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“Judy, Judy,” Jimmy Stewart famously told Kim Novak in Vertigo, as he forced her to change her appearance to that of his dead lover. “It can’t make that much difference to you.”

This was Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous and revealing line in his 1958 classic, a meditation on the male gaze. I thought of it when I read about Haywire’s post-production. Director Steven Soderbergh deepened the voice of star Gina Carano, an erstwhile mixed martial arts luminary who is as ferociously tough as she is ferociously attractive. Her real voice – too girly – wasn’t to his liking.

No director has so lusted after his lead, seemed so driven to make her a star since ….. last month, with David Fincher and Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. While Haywire might be a riveting action thriller with retro style to burn, it’s important to remember this -- it’s also the pursuit of the perfect woman. It’s Soderbergh’s own Girlfriend Experience.

The perfect woman here comes with bite. Carano solves the major problem of the female action hero – she brings convincing intensity to the art of beating up men. In that sense, she reveals Mara and others as the cap-gun imposters they are. As special ops genius Mallory Kane, Carano leaps rooftops, slams bad guys to the ground, and looks elegant in a fashionable dress right before she chugs ritzy champagne. Even the man sent to kill her doesn’t really want to do it (Speaking of which, does Michael Fassbender hire a wardrobe attendant for his endless collection of bath towels?).

The slow-build foot chases and physical hand-to-hand recall Jason Bourne. But much of the film lifts from the John Boorman-LeeMarvin classic Point Blank, a film that Soderbergh admits he loves to steal from. And just like Point Blank, it’s a story of a double crossed tough guy/girl returns on a mission of revenge against the person who left her for dead (a sadly unthreatening Ewan McGregor).

Action films stand at a crossroads. Do they continue in the chaos cinema vein, stretching away from the bounds of realism. Or should they pull in the opposite direction, back toward realism and dark urban grittiness, like the first half of Drive and Haywire? I don’t know which it will be, but Haywire makes a strong case for itself.

The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin
Grade: D
Cast: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig
Director: Steven Spielberg
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In a parallel universe, a young filmmaker considers the long, overpowering tradition of computer-generated animation and – eureka – elides upon a great idea. What if I draw a bunch of pictures on consecutive sheets of paper and run my thumb across the edges?

The ensuing film becomes a major success, launching a revolution in animation. The gripping story of a spirited roadrunner and the driven but hapless coyote Javert who pursues him, critics praise its creativity and existential vision, carving out a stunning new fictional landscape completely shorn from reality. They are also astounded and delighted by the process. Did this young artist really spend hour upon hour creating thousands upon thousands of drawings? What nerve! What dedication!

In this year of critical nostalgia run wild, I’ll play my card here. I find the trend toward more realistic computer generated animation alienating and counterproductive. Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin takes tremendous pains to make its people and places seem only a little past the edge of reality. In a field where the purpose is escapist in nature, I question whether that’s an improvement.

On the other hand, I recognize whe a film is uniquely made, even when I don’t find it riveting, and I dislike it when a critic never admits this. Tintin – a childlike adventure with a French boy detective, a tipsy sea captain, and a pirate treasure – is definitely inventive. At one point, one of the film’s realistic-ish cartoon characters goes to a park, he has an old-fashioned cartoon portrait made of himself, one that makes him look like a teenage Dennis the Menace, suggesting how far computers and animation have wandered from pen and paper and how close they have come in mimicking realism.

The film’s animation isn’t necessarily animation. It’s a motion-capture process that’s translated into animation, generated by filming actors’ movements and then painting over them with pixels. By the time we reach a pirate-ship battle the inspiration clearly isn’t Disney or Miyazaki, but the high-seas CG “live action” of Pirates of the Caribbean. What’s the difference between a cartoon and a “live” CG extravaganza except a few algorithms?

So it’s quite impressive technically, but I feel when we go barreling through an Arab village with an eagle, a motorcycle, and a bursting dam - flashing from angle to angle in one motion - that something is being lost, or missed, or shuffled over.

So while I sit in the corner lamenting the disappearance of the simplicities of yesteryear, allow me to point out the villain of Tintin bears a considerable resemblance to Spielberg friend Stanley Kubrick. Apparently the late director didn’t go to Heaven or Hell, but to a giant HAL 9000 mainframe spouting mindless entertainment in Hollywood, which would probably seem like Hell to Kubrick. While seeing Kubrick as the misanthropic villain isn’t a surprise, I never really expected Stanley to be such a good swordfighter.

2011 Top 10

I didn’t get to enough movies this year to make a definitive Top 10 list. But these are my favorites.
Tree of Life – Terrence Malick’s symphonic memoir explores the relationships of nature and grace, mother and father, modern philosophy and religious wisdom, abstraction and reality, memory and existence, man and the divine, theory and life. On the one hand a consideration of Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Heidegger, Kempis, dinosaurs, and God. On the other, a simple memoir of childhood, compassion, forgiveness, and letting go. The most hyped film is the best, by a mile. 
Melancholia – Lars Von Trier’s provoctive rumination on depression and may be dealing from the usual deck of atheistic Euro-nihilism. But if you want to get filmmaking that pushes things, you have to praise filmmaking that pushes things. Kirsten Dunst awaits the end of the world, as a rogue planet named Melancholia closes in. Her somehow English sister Charlotte Gainsbourg loves life too much to panic.
Shame – Steve McQueen’s racy story of sex addiction and family has seen a backlash. Really? What I saw was a film that reaches for symphonic filmmaking but brilliantly holds its intricate family dynamic. 
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – What does a director do ? In the case of Tomas Alfredsson, take a crisp English spy saga and imbue it with a snowy disposition and encroaching mortality. The obsessive control of period detail, cerebral performances, and zoom-in, zoom-out episodes of storytelling makes this British spy story feel like David Fincher’s Zodiac. As John LeCarre’s regular hero George Smiley, Gary Oldman expertly hides a sense of duty and passion behind a face of cold professionalism.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams Werner Herzog’s 3-D visit to the 35,000-year-old cave paintings of Framce’s Chauvet Cave considers the beginning of the human imagination from the end of it.
Incendies – A pair of twins living in Canada return to Lebanon after their mother’s death to uncover family secrets and memories of the civil war. One twist too many, but passionate and engrossing.
Midnight in Paris Pure charm.
Like Crazy – Is Drake Doremus’ effort a great film, or a good film with a great performance and great ending? I’ve settled on the latter, but that doesn’t diminish its power and Felicity Jones’ fantastic turn. Of all the newcomer actresses, hers feels most complete and daring.
The Artist – It might be the Shakespeare in Love of 2011. Nonetheless, this silent curio is a very strong crowd-pleaser.
Fast Five – The joy of Fast Five is its absolutely shameless commitment to the lurid pleasures that films actually are (sex, cars, masculinity), rather than what tortured cineastes think they should be. So wrong – and so right. 

The Artist

The Artist
Grade: B
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
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It is common to think of the Silent Era as cinematic pre-history, a lost era ruled over by tyrannosaurs and Charlie Chaplin.

Even the most dutiful moviegoers have left silents for so much pterodactyl meat, with a few known comedy routines kept around as much for anthropology as enjoyment. For most, movie history begins in 1927 the same way that we count American presidents from 1789, John Hanson and Samuel Huntington be damned. This version of film history neglects the fact that the late twenties witnessed film’s first golden age, and that early talkies were generally a step backward.

In recent years, there has been a very small silent revival with arthouse luminaries like Guy Maddin and Aki Kurasmaki engaging the form. Until now, these efforts have been contained to the festival circuit ghetto. The revival looks to punch into the mainstream with Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, the first silent movie (black–and-white-and-French, to boot) to get a real release since Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie in 1976, I suppose.

Would a silent movie with a story set outside the Silent Era work? Could you do The Social Network without sound? Who knows, but The Artist doesn’t take the chance. Recalling Singin’ in the Rain, the story is set around two movie stars at the crossroads of the silents and talkies – a sparkling actress on her way up and a frog-voiced actor on the way down. Of the pair, lead Jean Dujardin has been winning the lion’s share of attention, playing alongside a wise-beyond-his-species terrier. But like the plot itself, Argentine co-star Berenice Bejo steals the show, with a sunshine-smile verve that refuses to acknowledge the limits of silence. While the film will go to dark emotional places, the night is only there to set up the sunrise, and the final redemptive dance number is a tingling Golden Age sensation.

Let’s be honest – the real story is whether or not The Artist can catch fire with the public and revive the silent the way that Avatar revived 3-D or Chicago revived the musical. Will Tom Cruise don a bowler hat? Will Robert Downey Jr. go from playing Chaplin to being Chaplin? We’ll see. The Artist captured hearts at Cannes this year, and it has been the Jack Dempsey of audience prizes along the festival circuit ever since. While being a snowflake of a film, it manages to be the best snowflake that it can be.

War Horse

War Horse
Grade: C
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson
Director: Steven Spielberg
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Last year, I wrote a great deal about the return of sentimentality to the American cinema. You could see it in True Grit or the ending of The Town. They were built less on rational sense than emotional sense.

Well, it was just a theory. But even I never expected War Horse.

Steven Spielberg’s new one is either a Heaven of sentimentality or a hell of inconceivable character motivation and emotion. The cynic in me wants to dismiss it as a fairy tale of trench warfare, or E.E: The Extra Equestrial. The romantic in me wants to accept it for the well-done sentimental story that it is.

War Horse is being noted for its John Ford scenery, sugared cinematography (by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski) and its affecting touch. Thematically, it’s a little bit like Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Baltasar, about a donkey Christ figure who bears the suffering of the world around him. A horse travels through the First World War only to witness and live through tragic suffering, coming away with burdensome wounds of his own.

On one level it is the story of an Irish boy who is way too into his horse. It’s Twilight but with Bella as a horse. The courage of the colt and drive are established early, as he plows an un-plowable field to save the family farm. Sold into the army, circumstance and death force him to wander the countryside from owner to owner, dodging bullets and tragedy, on his way home.

There are two terrific scenes, the first an exciting, tragic cavalry charge into a German unit. The second has an English and German soldiers cooperating in no man’s land to release Joey from a tangle of barbed wire. They both display War Horse at its best: simple, memorable, moving.

In spite of its good moments, who is War Horse for? Do you take children to a horsey movie if it has images of battlefield aftermaths? Is it for the adults who will find its emotional overdrive – punctuated by John Williams’ typically overpowering score – simple or corny?

Mission Impossible: 4

Mission: Impossible 4
Grade: B
Cast: Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner
Director: Brad Bird
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Let’s be honest – it’s been a banner year for mindless action movies.

As the ball dropped down on 2011, the prospect of new Fast and Furious and Mission:Impossible entries didn’t exactly inspire confidence. There was no reason to expect Fast Five would rise above its dubious reputation to produce a crispy-crunchy hyper-masculine fantasy. Now somehow Tom Cruise and company have shaken off the last M:I flameout and produced an entertaining romp of fistfights and explosions for the Christmas season. The old wisdom about sequels: the original is always the best. The new wisdom about sequels: it takes a few to get it right.

Mission: Impossible 4 makes three corrections to its underwhelming predecessor that makes it worth a viewing:

Abandons MI:3’s heavy video game aesthetic in favor of more traditional action escapism - In MI:3 the villains were walking faceless targets who made Star Wars’ stormtroopers look like well-developed characters and hardy battlefield strategists. At least stormtroopers know to duck behind a tree at the sound of gunfire. While no one would accuse MI:4 of realism, at least it returns the feeling of intimate scale and real danger. Cruise’s heart-pounding climb up the side of a towering Arab skyscraper is a model of tight, simple action.

Shows action rather than implies – The action centerpiece of MI:3: Tom Cruise enters a building. We wait looking at the building. He burst through a window out the other side of the building. We never actually see what happened inside the building. But man, was there some flying glass! The action centerpiece in MI:4 is a long, fantastic foot-chase/car-chase through a desert sandstorm in Dubai. It involves us. We’re along for every step and gear grind.

Doesn’t bother with story or real human relationships - True, this isn’t a direction that we generally encourage action films to take. But it beats watching Cruise mosey his trademark phony romantic stutter in Michelle Monaghan’s general direction three times.

Brad Bird, the heralded Pixar animation director, is an interesting choice. The influence appears quickly, staging a prison rhubarb in a Russian gulag to a Dean Martin recording. It has a smart-aleck feel, almost a living cartoon, but in a smart way. I admire Bird for the way he keeps his tongue in cheek without ruining the intensity.

If you’ve been waiting on the “the film isn’t perfect” moment, here it is. Detractors of chaos cinema will find plenty to complain about, probably in between telling stories about getting pregnant at Woodstock or their family eating a car door during the Depression. Too often the fight scenes are choppy, leaving you thinking star-double-star-double-star-double with each edit. And by the end your head will wobble from trying to get it all straight (For instance the plot. Have I bothered to mention the plot has Cruise and team tracking nuclear launch codes? Have I even mentioned a plot exists at all?). Still, the film meets payday after payday, and you have to respect a steady payer.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Grade: B
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly
Director: Lynne Ramsay

We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t the first film this year to outlast its immediacy.

A novel written by Lionel Shriver in the wake of the Columbine school killings, director Lynne Ramsay has been trying to make the film since her last feature, Morvern Callar, in 2002. The unusually long gestation period has stripped the story of its ripped-from-the-headlines quality. It now plays like a quaint, violent memory. These are the under-parented demon children of not so long ago, not the ultra-wired sweethearts of today, the ones who are moving back into their parents’ homes at farm-like rates.

The distance has one benefit. It has given us the opportunity to re-assess cultural mythology surrounding violence. Compare the school shootings of Columbine to the attempted shooting of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords. During Columbine, the national media twisted the story to fit any number of evergreen social maladies: access to guns, underparenting, schoolhouse jocks gone wild. In the Giffords shooting, similar spin largely failed. People accepted the shooter’s primary and overwhelming responsibility.

Tragedy never lacks for explanations. The power to assign a narrative is the power to assert control over the chaotic. In a sense, that is the mission of Tilda Swinton’s Eva Khatchourian, running through her memory, testing her feelings of collective guilt in order to take power over the crimes of her son.

The centerpiece of We Need to Talk About Kevin is the mother-son relationship and the ties between love and dependency. Her son understands these ties intuitively. He is a master manipulator of love. In fact he sees no other purpose for it, understanding from an early age how to use it to wound. A bizarre response – to our mind – are Eva's long drives to visit her son in juvenile prison. Her final act of love clarifies it, seeming both reassuring and wicked. We can choose to live up to our obligations of decency, even to those who use it to push us away.

Kevin will leave Ramsay’s reputation as a talented visualist in good stead. Her use of red and yellow, bloody and attracting colors, is quite striking. As a storyteller Ramsay seems interested in twisted tales on the borderline of affection and manipulation. Her unconventional heroines are left by narcissistic men to navigate through acts of violence. She focuses on their quiet steel while also noticing their tough-to-like elements.

The running feeling of We Need to Talk about Kevin is circular. It bounces around the chronology. We bump into the same imagery in different places, such as the image of Kevin sucking on food, a tendency that appears to be stuck in the mother’s mind. The style eventually bogs down the film – movies can run in circles, but each circle needs to be further down the road than the last. However, Eva as a person is bogged down, forever surrendered to this central event. Her whole life leads up to it, and leads away from it. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a movie about moving on without being able to move on.


Grade: A
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Director: Steve McQueen
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A man. A woman. An underground train. Traded looks. Traded fantasies. No one looking. No one aware. The train stops. The lick of her lips. The ring on her finger. Will they? Won’t they? The crowd in the station.

The man is Brandon. We soon meet the rest of him. His job. His coldness. His naked body wrapped in blue sheets. His overpowering sexual impulse. Alleys. Back doors. Luxury hotels. His computer tracked off to clean porn. His apartment, appointed and neat, his first mask toward the world. The kind way to see him is as a ladies man. The less kind way is as a sex addict.

The premise of Steve McQueen’s highly sexual Shame, a rare recipient of an NC-17 rating, seems like a comedy, if it were played for any warmth. What if a sex addict’s hyper-controlled life of conquests, stimulation and disconnection crumbles when his gypsy sister needs a place to stay?

His sister  wears crazy on her sleeve, but places it next to a welcoming heart. She wants him to unwind and return her love. He wants her to leave. There is a vibe in their relationship – aloof, dependent – that suggests the relationship of parents. If they ever had parents. They are orphans to the city.

Is Brandon a sociopath? He’s polite, accommodating, holds doors for prostitutes, but he shows little feeling for others. But he's not really a sociopath. It’s not an absence of emotion or empathy, but a fear of it. He feels connection as much as his sister, but distrusts it. He loathes the risk of emotional connection dragging him down. And this is one sensibility of Shame: love as a necessity even when it feels like a punishment.

The film’s money shot follows Brandon jogging down a street, fascinated with his stride, with beautiful casual lyricism. It’s a flashy shot. It draws attention. Yet much of Sean Bobitt’s best work delivers in small amounts. Brother and sister argue on the couch. The backs of their heads hide their emotion. The camera tilts as the power shifts in the conversation. Words. Tension. Clumps of hair.

McQueen relies on long takes of silence that leave the audience in a state of uncertainty. We are left to interpret the message. The style gives the actors space to breathe. Michael Fassbender uses it to suggest the emotion churn, a memorably chilly performance. As his sister, Carey Mulligan excels – her usual minimalist reserve gets to take her LooneyTunes gene out for a spin. Her heartbreaking performance of “New York, New York” (her character is a lounge singer) is one of the film’s lasting moments.

There really is a lot of sex in Shame – as much as I’ve seen in aggregate in six years of film writing. Yet it isn’t erotic in the least. Shame engages in sexual fantasy at the same time that it debases its eroticism, making it seem like pathetically wasted energy and a drying of the soul. It strikes me as the work of a married man. There’s a push-pull attraction to the liberating fantasy followed by the judgment that keeps us in line.

A man. A woman. An underground train. Traded looks. Traded fantasies. No one looking. No one aware. The train stops. The lick of her lips. The ring on her finger. Will they? Won’t they? She can leave it, stop it there, pack the bags and return to life. Can he?

The Muppets

The Muppets
Grade: B
Cast: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper
Director: James Bobin
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Who doesn’t love The Muppets?

Birds love them. Bees love them. Even monkeys stuck in trees love them. That’s been the case since the 1970s, when Jim Henson first stuck his hand into a green sock and pulled out a cultural icon. (I know, he’s not really a green sock.)

Why you would have to be a heartless Texas oilman played by Chris Cooper (with his own personal rap!) to want to quash the long-gestating big screen return of the most famous pieces of felt in the world (Their last outing was 1999’s Muppets in Space). But it’s good that someone hates them, because The Muppets needs a plot. Long Garboed up at his estate, Kermit the Frog must reunite the original Muppet cast for a telethon to save the old Muppets Theater from the oil derrick. With the help of human friends, he finds Gonzo as a plumbing business magnate, tracks down Fozzie Bear at a seedy Reno nightspot, and springs Animal the drummer from anger management classes with Jack Black. Then there’s corralling Ms. Piggy, now running a Parisian fashion magazine after hiring Emily Blunt away from Meryl Streep.

The genius of the muppets is the way they talk to all members of the audience. They are smart for the adults and silly for the children. Miss Piggy does her karate chops. Hi-ya! You also get the smart satire, such as goofing on all the bands who tour without their original members. Fozzie Bear is stuck playing in such a band, which looks like it has been stocked with parolees from Muppet Prison.

The movie allows co-writer/human star Jason Segel to fulfill the lifelong dream of his character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, to make a puppet musical (with songwriting help from Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords). The sing-alongs are joyous, especially the campy “Life’s a Happy Song” number early in the film, and there’s something furtively sexy about Amy Adams performing “Me Party” (but don’t worry, parents – no need to cover your child’s eyes or anything.) The Muppets understands a lesson that I wish modern musicals would learn – that the best musical numbers have songs that are singable for the audience, rather than professionally polished and impressive. Sorry Dreamgirls fans – the most immortal movie musical numbers are the ones that everybody can sing.

As a seasoned film critic, you learn to get a sense of the target demographic. But what happens when you ARE the target demographic? You sit back, lose all critical perspective, and enjoy the show! Which was my experience with The Muppets, a film in which I seemed to be having as much fun as Segel and Adams were on the screen.

The Descendants

The Descendants
Grade: C
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lilliard
Director: Alexander Payne
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The revered New Yorker critic Paulene Kael famously stated that great films are rarely perfect films. Do we ever wonder about the opposite? Are perfect films rarely great films?

As the ultimate easy swallow, The Descendants – the latest release from Sideways writer/director Alexander Payne – has been practically pieced together by magical gold statuettes in the advanced laboratory of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s been, why, since last year that a film has been so deliciously and deviously designed for the award season. How many characters get a crying scene in this juicy monument to weeping and sobbing and sniffling? I lost count, but the answer is, too many.

And yet there are real positive qualities to be found in this story of a middle-aged Hawaiian lawyer (George Clooney) dealing with a lucrative family land sale, two rebellious daughters, and the adultery of a wife who now lays dying in a coma. The New York Times critic A. O. Scott has pinpointed the virtues of the film – a pleasant pace unruffled by plot, sharply written, with a richness of generosity for its imperfect characters in an imperfect world. I will see Scott and raise him Payne’s successful balance of the family dynamic between love and cynicism, a feat that often eludes quality filmmakers. For a long time, these strong virtues had me singing aloha.

But where does all this perfection lead us? To such hard-earned lessons as: a cheating spouse can produce a wealth of good and bad feelings. You shouldn’t put a price on a family legacy. Man, can our families, no matter how gosh-darn difficult, help us through hard times. On the invisible artistic scale between reassuring and challenging, this one leans heavily on the side of the former. The Descendants might be a perfect film. It is also a cuddly kitten of conventional wisdom.

Like Crazy

Like Crazy
Grade: A
Cast: Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
Director: Drake Doremus
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I don’t think I’ve seen anything lately quite like the ending of the 2011 Sundance Jury Prize winner Like Crazy. Spending time watching the rise and disintegration of a marriage, I wondered, is there really a moment when a romance ends? When the present becomes irretrievably the past?

If so, then we’ve already passed it, and tied no cloth around a tree to mark where we left the main road. The choices these two young people make – an American man and British woman, lovebirds at college, struggling with the ups and downs of love and immigration – are innocent, reasonable, and sympathetic. None of that helps as they stand there dripping wet, realizing that the past is over and it’s never going to return. There we are standing with them in a gently shocking moment of despair.

Browsing through some reviews of Like Crazy, I’m not sure all of the reviewers gather how sophisticated the film is. Some have treated Like Crazy as a typical romance, as if it is soapy schlock like The Time Traveler’s Wife or this week’s miserable rom-com. What’s being missed is that Like Crazy uses those common beats only so they can dig a trap door under them.

Aside from commenting on love and love stories, the Transatlantic back-and-forth raises questions about the effect of handheld communication upon modern sense of intimacy. Decades ago, these two people would either lose touch or get married. Today, with a phone in every hand, I think Like Crazy is considering an interesting and fairly novel idea: that the ease of modern communication creates a false intimacy that tempts us to replace our present with a sentimental past.

No one can declare a performance a star-making performance, particularly before the release of the film. There are too many important variables. Like, for instance, whether or not people will pay money to watch you. So you won’t hear me say that about the emotionally fragile performance of Felicity Jones, a 27-year-old stage actress of note. And yet if she does become a star – break in with a series of high-end performances, before we accuse her of selling out after a billion-dollar genre movie, and then re-gaining us with a speech at the Oscar podium that’s 20 minutes long – then Like Crazy will be the place that we see as the start.

One of my favorite back-cover blurbs for any book is the one that William S. Burroughs wrote for Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange: “One of the few books I’ve been able to finish in the past few years.” I felt that way about Like Crazy. In truth, I finish every film. But how many films finish me?