Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Year at the Movies - 2011

Happy New Year!

The 2011 Year at the Movies is over, and I look forward to the new year in film. I am grateful to all my faithful followers throughout my three years of blogging, and I wish you the best in 2012. In 2011, I went to the movies 91 times to see 83 different movies in theaters, and I had lots of fun seeing just about all of them.

Enjoy this look at the 2011 Movie Year. You may come upon your favorite films of the year; you may encounter films you have totally forgotten or films you had no idea were released this year. If you wish, you are welcome to skip through the year's low-quality beginning and scroll down to the more recent films released.

Each image is followed by a brief reaction to that film OR an excerpt from the post I wrote about the film shortly after its release. Links to full posts follow excerpts. Titles include a date or dates when I viewed the movie.

Once you make it down past movie #83, you will find an image gallery of best performances, followed by my nominees for Best Picture, and my pick for Best Picture of 2011. At the end you will find a list of my Top Twenty Favorite Films of 2011.


1. The Rite (1/28)

Mikael (1408) Håfström’s The Rite is not an overly scary movie about exorcism, but it is a sincere, modest little movie about faith and God.

The Rite never scared me but it kept my interest. Having attended a Catholic grade school back in the 60s when the nuns still told stories about martyred virgin saints raped by Roman legions and priests visited by demonic strangers with cloven feet, I find most movies about demonic obsession fascinating, and this one, with its substantial atmosphere, fascinates to a worthy degree.

Full post here.

2. Sanctum (2/4)

Sanctum is especially marred by elements that detract from the thrilling adventure and the wow-inducing visuals. There’s too much clunking around of equipment and clacking away at computers, as well as moving around of characters too numerous to keep track of, before the storm hits and the nether regions flood. On top of that, the subterranean action is weighed down by silly friction between hard-driven Frank (Richard Roxburgh), the leader of the expedition, and idealistic son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), who feels scarred by Dad’s domineering character. In addition, the action is crippled by silly arguments about who’s staying behind or about the decency of using a dead woman’s dry suit. Jesus! In a life-or-death situation, you use the frickin’ dry suit! Then, of course, the resident gung-ho adventurer, Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), turns into a sniveling coward who swims off with the last oxygen tanks and later attacks Frank. Here, Gruffudd’s ravings constitute the worst acting in a film rife with wooden delivery of poorly written lines.

Full post here.

3. The Eagle (2/14)

The Eagle, an earnest adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, offers a solidly engrossing first half as Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), the son of the commander of the “Lost Ninth Legion,” assumes command of an isolated fort in Roman-occupied Britain in the 2nd Century AD. As the stolid by savvy Marcus, Channing Tatum exhibits commendable screen presence as he shapes up his fearful, grumbling Latin grunts like an American officer bolstering reluctant soldiers in a forlorn Vietnam firebase. Marcus senses danger and expertly prepares his men for a nighttime assault. Unfortunately, excessive fast-shutter speed camerawork makes most of the action a blur. Meanwhile, the film’s memorable long shots frame this Roman outpost of progress under brooding skies and establish its very convincing presence.

Full post here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Spielberg's War Horse

Echoing the tradition of films like My Friend Flicka and The Black Stallion, Steven Spielberg’s hugely sentimental War Horse is the story of an extraordinary horse, Joey, and the persevering boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who loves him so much he enlists in the hell of World War I to find him. At times the film is so innocently sentimental you’d swear you were watching a feel-good, cookie-cutter, studio release from the 1930s. In a touching speech that would have suited Ronald Colman or Errol Flynn, the kind-hearted Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston) sees how much the boy loves the horse, and the horse loves the boy, that he says, well, too damn bad the horse has to go to war, but I will only lease him; I will take good care of him; and I will return him to you after the war. How perfect!


After the good captain’s speech, and the film’s slow start, the pace picks up as Joey endures a series of adventures as he changes hands and is befriended by various characters “over there” on the Western Front. From good captain he goes to good German lads, who bid a farewell to arms and meet a tragic end, and from them he goes to a perfectly sweet, frail French girl named Emilie. Later, Joey is forced to lug a massive cannon up a ridge; after that he ends up in no man’s land, where his experiences are the most horrific and the film is at its best.

While most of War Horse plays like the type of movie that could only come from a more innocent time, or from Steven Spielberg, much drama is provided by a number of finely shot scenes that show Spielberg’s talent for dramatic effect. In sparing a more family-oriented audience the graphic impact of bullets hitting human flesh as in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg cleverly uses poetic framing to provide effect without being explicit. Riderless mounts charge through the German machine guns that are obviously massacring the charging British cavalry. The sail of a windmill blocks out the tragic fate of the two German lads.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Mavis Gary: Young Adult

In Juno and Jennifer's Body, Diablo Cody explored some of the life-changing and scary things that can and can't happen to teenagers in high school. This time around Cody explores what it’s like to be thirty-seven, or thereabouts, looking back upon those high school years, an experience that touched some people and caused other people a lot of pain.

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a moderately successful writer of a young adult novel series, but she is divorced, lonely, alcoholic, doubting her talents. When she learns that Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), her high school beau, is married and has just had a baby, she embarks on a quest: to go back to her small hometown in Minnesota and wrest her former boyfriend from wife, baby, and home. But now Buddy, the former high school alpha male, is a puffy-faced father who unabashedly pours breast milk into screw-top bags as he talks over the good old days with former flame Mavis Gary. Buddy seems just fine in the small town of Mercury, Minnesota, where the dining options range from Chili's to KFC, and where his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reese), plays the drums for a discordant band of thirty-something moms. Mavis, from the big city, would like to think that Buddy can do better than this and they can "beat this thing together."

Jason Reitman's Young Adult is a surprisingly touching examination of how we feel about the past. What are the moments that touched us? What are the moments that injured us? (Patton Oswalt gives a heartfelt supporting performance as Mavis's locker neighbor in high school, an overweight outcast beaten up and crippled by jocks.) How do we get past those moments and eke out a satisfactory existence for ourselves in the here and now? These questions are ones worth pondering. What's surprising about the film is that Mavis's quest seems so desperate and what she would like to get would destroy a family, yet I found myself identifying with her late-thirties crisis.

Strangely, Matt, the nerdy, crippled reject, emerges as Mavis's best ally. Suffering the complications of his beating, Matt lives with his sister, makes hybrid models out of pieces of superhero action figures, and ages homemade whiskey in his garage. Whereas Mavis never acknowledged Matt's existence in high school, now she seeks his help, his advice, his comforting embrace, and their developing relationship is the film's nice surprise. As a young adult who still needs to figure life out, Mavis sees that Matt copes with what he has. Talking to Matt's sister, Sandra (Collette Wolf), who seems to think that life would be better in the big city, Mavis sees that it might be better to be satisfied with what one has. Diablo Cody's Juno is a clever little comedy-drama; Jennifer's Body is a wild teenage fantasy-horror pic; but Young Adult is Cody's settled, more thoughtful look at the experiences that shape us and how we deal with where we end up.

Although Mavis’s quest seems immature, selfish, and cold, I identified with her bitter edge. As a writer, Mavis seems to know how to persevere in the face of unlikely success, and that edgy strength seems to fuel her futile endeavor. When our current condition doesn’t seem so rosy, we wonder about the choices we made in the past; we wonder if we can get what we lost. Theron plays Mavis’s acidic glare, her icy lies, with convincing precision. I can’t judge Mavis for that cold, self-centered glare. We’ve all had those moments of bitter regret. Mavis takes her bitter obsession to a pathetic extreme, but hers is a voice crying out in the wilderness that we all call home.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Wonders of Hugo

The greatest wonder of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is the production design of Dante Ferretti. In the film’s leisurely prologue, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), the orphaned boy who lives in the station and winds the many clocks, moves through the set for the Gare de Montparnasse that is much more than a little world film set. It is all of Paris under one roof. Here, Hugo weaves through busy shopkeepers and people rushing off to trains, pursued by Station Master (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his black Doberman, and he passes the café proprietress with her long-haired dachshund and the shy old man whose fancy for the woman is thwarted by her snapping dog, and we easily get a sense of the size of this world within a world, with its alleys and passageways into attics and clock towers. We hardly ever leave the station, except in flashback or to go to Isabelle's house, but we don’t need to. Here, all the world’s a train station.

Of the wonderful performances in a fine cast, my favorite is Sacha Baron Cohen as Station Master. He is slender and ramrod-stiff, impeccable in his bright blue uniform, but any authority is lost when he runs haltingly with his leg in a rusty brace, gets caught up on a train door, and dragged down the platform, a wonderful routine fit for the silent film era to which Scorsese's film pays tribute. An orphan in his youth, Station Master captures runaway orphans hiding in the station so that they can be sent to the orphanage where they will learn life the hard way as he did. Cohen is controlled, thoughtful, sensitive in every glance and articulation, and his smiles attempted to please the pretty flower salesgirl (Emily Mortimer) he loves are a laugh. But the film is led by the performances of Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelle, the girl who joins Hugo in his quest to fix a mechanical man and understand the message the automaton delivers. As the young girl who has only found adventure in books, Moretz is especially talented and graceful in her role. Cutting out a tendency to overact, Ben Kingsley delivers a fine performance as filmmaker Georges Méliès, and it is magical how CGI transforms Kingsley into the young Georges, the stage magician who becomes a cinematic magician.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Immortal Imagery: The Immortals

The Immortals is well worth seeing for its thrilling story, gripping action, and more than serviceable acting, but it is a must-see for the amazing imagery of Tarsem Singh (The Cell (2000) and The Fall 2008).

The story is a simple Greek mythological tale of heroes and formidable foes. The most formidable foe is King Hyperion, played by Mickey Rourke, looking much like he did in The Wrestler, beefy, craggy, and wearing his hair in long greasy strands, with the added threat of a deep, croaky voice. Theseus, the hero, is played by Henry Cavill, handsome and muscular. Bitter at the gods because the gods just don’t seem to care, Hyperion wants the magical Epicus bow (a cross between the elven bow of Legolas’s and an RPG launcher) in order to release the Titans (wiry zombie-like dudes imprisoned with iron bars chained to their mouths) and battle the gods, golden armored denizens of Mount Olympus wearing hats that look like they were designed by haute couture fashion designers who make models look like they come from another planet.

In a film featuring much manly slow-mo swordplay and buckets of blood, a nice calming effect is supplied by Freida Pinto as Phaedra, the virgin (not for long) oracle. Athena, played by Isabel Lucas, dressed in a little bit of golden armor, is nothing short of wow!

But The Immortals is all about the art direction. (Well, considering Athena and the gripping combat, not quite.) The sets for cliffside villages, palace chambers, and temples are modern minimalist design.

Even Mount Olympus is a simple circular platform with a few marble benches. The style of the imagery looks like something painted jointly by Maxfield Parrish and Thomas Cole.

But nothing detracts from the awesomeness of Tarsem’s expansive landscapes that stretch far beyond the limits of a framed image. In the middle of a vast wasteland, a wall and a steampunk gate guard the Titans at Mount Tartarus, and this is the setting for a battle between a vastly outnumbered group of heroes and a prodigious horde that gets channeled into a subway-like passageway.

Then it’s fast and slow-mo clashing and slashing before the gods come down and kick Titan butt in a scene that might well have made Sam Peckinpah sit up in his grave and gawk in envy. When Ares (Daniel Sharman) defies Zeus (Luke Evans) and helps the mortals, he pulverizes very slow-moving bad guys with a hammer while he moves at a faster godlike speed. It is a remarkable, very cool scene.

The violent combat is well staged, and for the most part it is not overbearing and belabored. Unlike 300, which is more about what you see than what you feel, The Immortals gives you characters and conflicts to care about once the action starts. Still, the set design and art direction stand out as the film’s best strengths and make The Immortals a movie to see.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Indies Out There

While Hollywood slings out fare like The Three Musketeers - 3D, major films like Eastwood's J. Edgar vie for the Oscars. In J. Edgar, Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover invests himself in his role, especially in the earlier past that explores the formation of his F.B.I., but when the film focuses on the 60s and 70s and features cardboard portrayals of Robert F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, DiCaprio and Armie Hammer, as Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar's "boyfriend," totter around in puffy, pasty-white old-age makeup that constricts their speaking and turns some of their scenes into ready-made parody. Meanwhile, smaller movies have delivered notable performances and provocative stories.

In Melancholia director Lars van Trier juxtaposes stunning imagery with Kirsten Dunst's visceral portrayal of Justine, a woman suffering from deep depression while a newly discovered planet, named Melancholia, advances meaningfully on a collision course toward Earth. I have already reviewed this film here, so I won’t add more than to say that so far this year Melancholia ranks second place to The Tree of Life on my list of the best films of 2011.

In Take Shelter, is Curtis seeing signs of an impending apocalyptic storm or is he succumbing to the schizophrenia that put his mother in an institution? The direction of Jeff Nichols and the fine performance of Michael Shannon, as the taciturn, haunted Curtis, leave the answer a mystery as Curtis's paranoia builds, he tears up the back yard to enlarge his storm shelter, and his nightmares of storms and zombies and plagues of birds right out of Hitchcock's The Birds become more horrific.

Throughout all this, Jessica Chastain as Samantha, Curtis's wife, is understanding and compassionate but firmly assertive when Curtis's weird behavior gets Curtis fired and threatens the family's security. While Curtis refuses to believe that his premonitions are not real, Samantha plans how the family can survive financially. Once again Chastain plays the ideal wife and mother, as she did in The Tree of Life, and once again her performance is perfect.

Shannon nicely plays the line between his acknowledgement of the possibility that he is manifesting schizophrenia and his firm conviction that a big storm is coming. Though the stunning ending is up for interpretation, the story delivers satisfying drama and a genuinely creepy atmosphere that strengthens a number of very gripping scenes.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

O for a Muse of Fire, Flood, and Alien Invasion: Roland Emmerich's Anonymous

Well known for destroying Los Angeles in Independence Day (1996), New York in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and practically the whole planet in 2012 (2009), Roland Emmerich attempts to destroy the widely held belief that William Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to his authorship, taking on the theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the real author of the plays.

Emmerich has a talent for the grandiose, but the most memorable aspects of Emmerich’s great disaster films are visual, and the overly talkie Anonymous becomes claustrophobic as it sets up the circumstances for de Vere’s production of his provocative plays under the name of William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), a vain, illiterate, shameless fop who is more than willing to take a free ride on another man’s talent. Much more time is spent indoors as de Vere (Rhys Ifans) becomes embroiled in confusing court intrigue surrounding the succession of Queen Elizabeth I, played over the top by Vanessa Redgrave as a silly old woman still primping herself for her swains. Additional time is spent chronicling Elizabeth’s scandalous choices of bedfellows.

Panoramic CGI shots of Elizabethan London, like the one above, breathe life into the film, but these moments are few and far between. Instead, the plot follows conniving earls and the hunchbacked villainy of Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), supposedly the basis for Shakespeare’s hunchbacked characterization of Richard III. The film’s best scenes, however, take place in the theatre and depict what it must have been like to view the first performances of Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. Emmerich overplays the rapture of the Elizabethan audience witnessing Shakespeare’s plays with shots of tear-filled eyes and female groundlings swooning over Romeo. Apparently, at the time, Shakespeare was just another very good playwright during a renaissance of great theater, and many of his speeches are merely utilitarian. But these scenes, staged with compelling authenticity, are full of rich atmosphere and energy, elements lacking from the rest of the film.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

God's Manic Depressive: Melancholia


Lars von Trier’s Melancholia opens with a devastating image. Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, stands facing the camera. Under heavy lids, her eyes open slowly, halfway. Her limp hair hangs in unwashed strands. Behind her, dead birds fall from the sky. Like Thomas Wolfe’s “God’s lonely man,” Justine peers into the abyss. In this case it is an abyss of depression. What follows this perfect metaphor for depression is a montage of images, some symbolic, some presaging what is yet to unfold, some rendered in such extreme slow-motion that movement is barely perceptible. To the music of Richard Wagner’s brooding prelude for Tristan and Isolde, we see ashes falling over Peter Bruegel’s painting “Hunters in the Snow.” Justine, in her white wedding gown, struggles to run, held back by heavy strands of black yarn. A horse collapses under a black, apocalyptic sky. A woman carrying a young boy moves imperceptibly across a golf course. Planets collide.

This examination of deep-seated depression in the shadow of impending, very metaphorical, cosmic catastrophe, is divided into two parts. “Part One: Justine” covers the disaster of Justine’s wedding reception as she succumbs by increments to the depression that has ruled her life. Her father (John Hurt) acts childishly and gives a toast that antagonizes his ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling). Justine’s mother responds with a bitter declaration about the absurdity of marriage. Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) makes an innocent proclamation of deep affection but becomes more and more alienated from his bride as Justine leaves the wedding party to lounge in a bath, drive a golf cart around the golf course, tell her boss how much she despises him, and do anything to avoid becoming intimate with her husband. Throughout all this, Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries futilely to stop Justine from falling apart, and Justine’s brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), tries to act the dignified host while regarding Justine’s family and her behavior with haughty disgust.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Movie Is Playing

It was a rainy day on Cape Cod today and my daughter and I had planned to see Footloose after I got off work, so we went and got taken away from the rain, and I got taken away from the stress and the fact that I devote hours to planning my classes and I don’t make enough to pay all the bills, by this silly, schmaltzy, fun fantasy world where everyone is so good-looking and can dance so well, and it was worth seeing just for the first part of the “Let’s Here it for the Boy” routine, the cutest moment in any film I’ve seen this year. Man, we loved it! Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what I see. Last Friday, I had wanted to see Take Shelter or The Mill and the Cross, but the arties and the indies don’t get to the Cape until a month or so after their release, if at all, and so I saw The Thing and Real Steel, the latter providing the same sort of silly escapist fantasy as Footloose, and I had a very enjoyable evening.

My favorite movie this year has been The Tree of Life, which I went to see in May on opening weekend in New York City. (It didn’t make the Cape until July.) I’ve been looking forward to seeing Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, but I knew it might not even make the Cape, and I learned that it was on Comcast, so I decided not to risk missing its theatrical release and watched it three times.

(In way of contrast, I watched von Trier’s Antichrist on Netflix. Interesting connections. Some amazing imagery. Same use of extreme slow motion and some recurrent symbolism: the bridge that’s hard to cross. As for some of the more graphic images, I liked the whetstone bolted to Willem Dafoe’s calf, but his bloody you-know-what was hard to take.)

I love all kinds of movies. I’m an equal opportunity viewer, and I’ll see a movie anywhere, anytime. One of my most memorable viewings of all time was seeing Zulu Dawn with my wife in one of the last, crumbling single-screen cinemas on Market Street in San Francisco where homeless people and pushers and pimps paid the two bucks to get off the streets or hide.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Robots & Aliens: Real Steel and The Thing (2011)

As a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film, The Thing (2011) does a nice job of building some of the same tension as paranoid scientists in a small Antarctic outpost suspect each other of being infested by an alien life form found frozen in the ice, and all the running around and bursting with alien tentacles and incinerating said tentacles and monstrosities with flamethrowers (Why does an Antarctic research outpost have flamethrowers?) is done in a set that is a faithful replica of the one for the 1982 film. Meanwhile, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as paleontologist Kate Llyod, does a very good job of showing fear in tight situations and emerging as the clever survivor, blazing away with her flamethrower like Ellen Ripley and wisely refusing to trust anyone. And even though the movie connects the dots niftily with the Carpenter film whose storyline it precedes, the end product provides only moderate chills and suspense, and it left me wondering why it essentially remakes the 1982 film when the storyline and premises of Howard Hawks’s 1951 film, The Thing from Another World, would have been much more interesting to revisit.

Family-friendly director Shawn Levy’s film Real Steel tugs at every emotional chord in a film whose performances are so over the top that you suspect there’s an overacting competition going on among the cast, but you eventually find yourself won over by the film’s touching core achieved by the relationship between bitter, wayward ex-boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), who drives all over the country, fixes up boxing robots, and fights them at fairs and carnivals, and Max (Dakota Goyo), his son he hasn’t seen since birth.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Oregon Trail Vérité: Meek's Cutoff (2011)

Want to know what it was like traveling the Oregon Trail in 1845? Watch Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, which follows the ordeal of a small train of three wagons and three families crossing the rugged high desert of Oregon, the travelers’ lives depending on trusting Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) and his dubious cutoff or a mysterious Indian (Ron Rondeaux), who seems to be leading them toward water.

Of all the movies I’ve seen about the Oregon Trail, this is the only one that is historically accurate about the details: the small, narrow wagons pulled by oxen; the travelers walking along at the pace of the oxen; the tedium and back-breaking labor of fording a river or lowering wagons down a steep incline; collecting scarce firewood from amidst the sage; the long, hot days; the nights darker than we know a night can be.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"How can you not be romantic about baseball?" - Moneyball

“How can you not be romantic about baseball?” This is what discouraged GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) of the Oakland A’s says when his unlikely assistant manager, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate who uses statistics and calculations to find capable undervalued players at the lowest cost, shows him an endearing video in which an overweight player hits a high ball, gets to first base, falls in an attempt to round first, and ends up scrabbling for the base on hands and knees, only to learn that he has hit a homer. Brad Pitt's Beane seems to send the question in three directions: toward his tubby, socially taciturn assistant manager who seems too immersed in numbers to have a passion for the game (even though he watches the games and Beane doesn’t); toward Beane himself, who may have lost a lot of that passion after being drafted as a promising star, only to reveal that he didn’t have the right stuff; and toward the audience, which might include a viewer like me who doesn’t share that passion at all and doesn’t follow baseball to the extent that I had no idea who Billy Beane was or what the Oakland A’s achieved in their 2002 season.

Indeed, it would be very hard not to be romantic about baseball, watching Bennett Miller’s meticulously made Moneyball, which includes memorable writing, solid performances, and striking cinematography that breaks out of the claustrophobia of the Oakland A’s cramped, austere offices and locker room to frame long shots of Beane in isolation or the infield lights of the ballpark fading to mist. From opening shots to the final poignant extreme close-up, Moneyball never hits a false note for me. Scene after carefully staged scene makes you feel emotion for a game played with a bat and a ball by players who don’t need to have the agility of basketball players or the strength of football players but who must have that elusive knack and built-in confidence that ensure they can make the ball go somewhere, anywhere, and get on base.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Not Catchy Enough: Soderbergh's Contagion

(To avoid spoilers, jump to second paragraph.)

A contagious virus, spread by human breath or touch, infects individuals in Macau, and they take the disease all over the world. Their contact with other humans spreads the disease exponentially. Researchers race to identify the malignancy. Once it is identified, doctors endeavor to develop a vaccine. Victims die in droves. People panic and riot for food. A paranoid conspiracy theorist uses his blog to raise suspicions about incompetent government handling of the crisis. The blogger also says that he has discovered a homeopathic cure. A disease investigator is kidnapped; the ransom price is a supply of vaccinations. Fear escalates. More riots. Rage. Chaos.

It’s all possible, and at its best, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion vividly charts the escalation of panic and chaos, with tensely staged vignettes set in Macau, Hong Kong, Chicago, London, D.C., and San Francisco. In addition, a star-heavy cast, that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, and an as-himself cameo by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, helps establish our sympathies when wooden acting and the film’s distancing matter-of-fact tone fail to win them.

After a poorly written couple of speeches in which Matt Damon’s mild-mannered father, Mitch Emhoff, uses the word “sweetie” at least six times as he watches his wife (Paltrow) go into convulsions on the kitchen floor and as he warns his step-son to stand back, Damon grounds the film and provides its emotional core with his performance as a loving father determined to help his daughter survive the epidemic. As Erin Mears, a doctor in charge of the overwhelming task of containing the disease, Kate Winslet is totally invested, as Kate Winslet always is. Meanwhile, Marion Cotillard’s appearance as the kidnapped doctor is an afterthought; Fishburne’s performance is painfully bland; and Elliot Gould is downright dreadful.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Not Swiss Cheese: Apollo 18

Borrowing the style of the “actual footage” genre, Apollo 18 adopts science fiction trappings and takes us to the moon where it builds more suspense and delivers more satisfying chills than all the thumps in the night of the Paranormal Activity movies.

Purporting to be the found footage of the top secret, forgotten Apollo 18 Mission, the movie sets out to reveal why NASA has stayed away from the moon since the 70s. Needless to say, crew members Ben (Warren Christie), Nate (Lloyd Owen), and John (Ryan Robbins) encounter more than just lifeless moonscapes, but I shall reveal no details here. As Ben, Warren Christie is especially intense and convincing as his blandly technical astronaut's tone turns to panic.

Since the story takes place in 1974, the crew members employ fixed 16 mm cameras (no camcorders here), and we get some stark black and white shots of the astronauts isolated in a barren terrain, an atmosphere which sets an eerie tone. Meanwhile, the claustrophobic lunar landing module, along with the delicate limits of the protection it offers, intensifies the urgency of the danger. If a demon haunts your house, you can leave the room or go stay with a friend, but on the moon there are no neighbors.

As a big-budget, color film enhanced with elaborate CGI, Apollo 18 could have been a major sci-fi epic, but what the filmmakers achieve here with three actors, a couple of tight interior sets, and murky shots of the lunar wasteland is quite impressive. This is an enjoyable little movie.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Oh, Help! The Help

Tate Taylor’s The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel, is well worth seeing for the acting. Most outstanding is Viola Davis as Aibeleen Clark, an African American woman who bravely agrees to reveal her stories about being a maid in a white household in the Jim Crow South. Asked how she felt taking care of a white child while her own child was at home with someone else, Aibeleen’s pain is seen in her inability to respond. Throughout the film, Davis shows worlds of pain and indignity in her eyes and facial expressions.

Also outstanding is Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, an endearing “white trash” blonde bombshell who married into wealth and who tries to get accepted by the intolerant queen bees of the bridge club. She cares little about racist etiquette, and her humorous, upstart nature is a pleasure to watch as Chastain effortlessly fills her character with believability and life. Octavia Spencer is much fun to watch as Minny Jackson, the sassy African-American maid whose rebellious nature gets her fired, and Bryce Dallas Howard, as Hilly Holbrook, the film’s resident out-and-out racist bitch, convincingly plays an out-and-out racist bitch. You can see it in her eyes and in the way she stomps around on a tirade, but the histrionics are hardly necessary to convince us of what Howard has already convincingly shown us more subtly.

At the center of the story is Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the iconoclastic daughter of a Southern land-baron family, graduate of Ole Miss, who aspires to be a journalist and has the idea of chronicling the hardships and demeaning conditions suffered by African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the first half of the 1960s. Stone is always endearing and engaging; her presence demands your attention. She employs those talents here, but her character is more vehicle than fully developed person. She is there to be so compassionate and so devoted to her project. Heaven forbid that it should be revealed that she wants to help the Civil Rights cause, but she also wants to make money and a name for herself.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Rise and Fall: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes (1968) is well known for many reasons: its honorary-Oscar-winning makeup; its catchy one-liners (“Take your paws off me, you damned dirty ape); Charlton Heston, the man who played Moses, as a cynical misanthrope; Heston in the nude playing a cynical misanthrope; model Linda Harrison playing the mute but very curvy Nova. But it’s most well known for its very dramatic, shocking surprise ending, which may not have been much of a surprise to viewers coming to the movie on VHS or DVD. Back in 1968, sixteen years old, I was totally surprised. When the famous reveal came, I almost felt a palpable kick taking me from what I had totally accepted as an alien planet and jolting me back to Earth.

What seemed to contribute most to the success of that reveal was, in my opinion, the effective degree to which the film immerses you in an otherworldly world from the moment Taylor (Heston) and his crew fall out of space and crash-land to the point at which Taylor and Nova wander off in the film’s final shots. Memorably, the film employs locations in Arizona for its stark “Forbidden Zone,” and the squat, earthen dwellings of the apes resemble the suburban homes of Bedrock, but they definitely look alien placed in a little valley in Malibu Creek State Park.

In addition, a number of little details contribute to the otherworldliness: the leather smocks worn by the apes, color-coded according to caste; the slanted, grease-smeared, Impressionistic bars of the cages; the dark chapel where a funeral is underway; and the natural history museum in which stuffed humans are used in the exhibits. Finally, there’s something very unsettling about the very prejudiced, militaristic, bureaucratic society in which Taylor finds himself, a “mad house” in which, at first, he can’t utter a word in his defense and when he is able to speak, he still finds it impossible to reason with his intractable captors. This world totally took me out of myself and far away, so that when the famous reveal slammed me back to Earth, I was stunned. (Also, the sequence in which the apes make their first appearance, hunting humans in a cornfield, is a very gripping, superbly edited sequence.)

The 1968 film was also very influential. It spawned four mostly forgettable theatrical sequels, one of them being Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) (perhaps the best of the sequels), the inspiration for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), in which a chimp named Caesar leads a simian uprising against humankind. In addition, it inspired an animated television series, as well as Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of the story in 2001’s Planet of the Apes.

Forty-three years after the film that started the whole “mad house,” we return to the Planet of the Apes, which is, and always was, our good old planet Earth, in Rupert Wyatt’s “re-imagined” origin story: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

As an origin story for the apes saga, Rise of the Planet of the Apes clearly sets up the groundwork for how the whole “mad house” planet gets started. Chimpanzees develop super intelligence by means of an experimental drug, developed by Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco), designed to repair the brain and cure Alzheimer’s, but the drug has an unfortunate side effect for humans that will take care of the human species and ensure simian dominance. Also, very nifty, simian subjects of the medicine pass on their attributes to their offspring genetically.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

After outlaw Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of nowhere with an alien weapon strapped to his wrist, and after he overcomes three stereotypical Western bullies, he straps on a six-shooter, dons a hat, and rides off across classic Western movie terrain. It was enough to make my viewing-eyes itch and my heart swell for my favorite genre, the rarely produced Western.

Knowing that Cowboys & Aliens is not a straight Western, I was rather pleased as the film took pleasure in fleshing out the action-oater side of this rather curious hybrid, taking extra time with purely Western elements and themes as it develops the characters who live in the typically dry and dusty town of Absolution.

When tyrannical cattle baron, Woodruff Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), rides into town to spring his wayward son, Percy (Paul Dano), from jail before he can be shipped off to the U.S. Marshall, it’s like a scene out of Rio Bravo. For the most part, Ford’s performance is cringe-worthy, but his craggy face and macho swagger fit the genre nicely. Keith Carradine is perfect as the aging but competent sheriff; Sam Rockwell, playing the mild-mannered bartender/doc, overdoes the silly meekness but develops an enjoyable presence; and it’s fun to see Raoul Trujillo (The New World) as an Apache chief. Meanwhile, Olivia Wilde plays a mysterious woman hanging around town, very interested in how and where Jake got that cool blaster on his wrist. But when her true identity is revealed, I was rather puzzled by some inconsistencies in regards to what she knows and what she can and cannot do.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Remember Hogwarts! Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two is the raw, thrilling grand finale to the Harry Potter saga, begun by the novels of J. K. Rowling in 1997, visualized by the eight-movie series that began in 2001. Throughout, I have not been an avid fan of the saga. Unlike many readers, I was not dazzled by the first novel. I read the first four novels aloud to my young son and daughter, but I often skipped through pages of dialogue that seemed less like pith and more like padding. To me, the stories read too much like video games: meet the challenge, solve the problem, move to the next level. When the movies came out, I accompanied both of my kids to the early ones, my daughter to all of them, sometimes feeling bored, sometimes nodding off to sleep, enjoying some more than others. But I must admit that the lengthy, sometimes ponderous, often bloated movies of the series successfully establish all the details and emotional connections between characters that are brought together masterfully and very touchingly in the final film. I don’t think the books and the films had to include so much padding, but all the ground covered in the previous films prepares the way for the gripping denouement achieved here.

This time the plot is simple and not over-burdened by the machinations and convoluted (often very contrived) hocus-pocus that weigh down the previous films. Harry and friends Hermione and Ron have their work cut out for them. Find a few horcruxes, destroy the pieces of Voldemort’s soul that are hidden in those horcruxes, and do away with “you know who.” Very quickly the forces of evil swoop down upon the forces of good, holed up in beloved Hogwarts, a wizards’ Alamo, and the final battle dominates the film.

We get shades of The Lord of the Rings with the evil hordes, including battle giants, massed outside the “castle,” shades of World War II movies with the talk of a “suicide mission” and the whole Hogwarts resistance movement. In addition, Voldemort’s army bombards a magic shield protecting Hogwarts; the good guys blow up a bridge; and the Hogwarts wounded huddle in the rubble of a shelter like the Brits during the Blitz. But when the battle is drawn, the action is gripping and characteristically Potteresque as Harry and friends evade a raging fire in the Room of Requirement, a storeroom of needful things that looks like the famous shot of Citizen Kane’s collection of possessions; and Harry attempts to slay the serpent, another horcrux. In addition, the fighting pauses for some crucial character development and dramatic moments, notably when Harry visualizes Snape’s backstory, and when he walks with Dumbledore in a dazzling white train station in his mind. I love it when Harry wonders where the train will take him, and Dumbledore responds meaningfully, "On!" (Yes, and Daniel Radcliffe will have to "go on" from here, his last performance as the famous Harry Potter.)

All the action and drama are enhanced by distinctive cinematography. Visually, this is an outstanding episode filled with striking images: a fearsome dragon soaring over London; Voldemort’s horde; a long shot of beleaguered Hogwarts; the minimalist white train station in Harry’s mind where he walks with the deceased Dumbledore. In addition, the poignant departures captured in the final scene on Platform 9 and ¾, nineteen years later, make for one of the most touching scenes in the eight movies.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Monte Carlo is a Delight!

Grace (Selena Gomez), Emma (Katie Cassidy), and Meg (Leighton Meester) are three girls from a small Texas town who go on a much-anticipated trip to Paris only to end up on the whirlwind tour from hell. They have a lot more fun when they make their way to Monte Carlo after Grace is mistaken for Cordelia Winthrop Scott (also Selena Gomez), a wealthy Brit heiress brat. In a comedy of errors, they stay in the best hotel in Monte Carlo, wear Scott’s designer clothes, and attend her charity ball with handsome French playboys, while the real rich bitch plays hooky from the event. This gives Grace the chance to expose the real her to a handsome French lad, throws reclusive Meg in with a handsome Aussie guy (Luke Bracey) out to discover the world, and allows diner-waitress Emma an opportunity to taste the high life, only to realize that her heart lies with her hometown beau, Owen (Cory Monteith).

There's lots to enjoy watching the three girls from Texas as their small-town eyes pop open in the midst of Monte Carlo extravagance, and as Grace’s masquerade leads her into some tight pickles. I laughed out loud at their delightful reactions to an experience that is a radical clash of cultures and economic backgrounds. The situations are lots of fun, but your enjoyment of those moments is guaranteed by the delightful performances of the three main performers.

Selena Gomez, with none of the brash delivery of Miley Cyrus, shows herself to be a very watchable actress. She’s cute, but believably so, and she never goes over the top. Cassidy is solid as the more daring, hedonistic Emma, but Meester as Meg steals the show, displaying a very sensitive, invested delivery of her lines. There’s an endearing playfulness about her that reminded me of Kate Winslet in Titanic. As the girl suffering the recent death of her mother and learning to enjoy life again, Meg’s character has more room for change, and Meester portrays that development very touchingly.

Delightful performances; beautiful shots of Paris and Monte Carlo; some comical turns by bit French actors as hotel clerks and policemen that reminded me of characters in Peter Sellers movies, and a nostalgic tie-in to To Catch a Thief make this an enjoyable movie. If I hadn’t taken my daughter, I wouldn’t have seen this movie, but I have to say I had loads of fun watching Gomez, Meester, and Cassidy have loads of fun portraying girls on a dream vacation.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Beginners (2010)

In Mike Mills’s Beginners Hal (Christopher Plummer) begins his life as an openly gay man after coming out to his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), at the ripe old age of 75. He also begins his decline toward death after finding out that he has terminal cancer. When his father dies, Oliver inherits his father’s highly intelligent dog, a Jack Russell terrier with separation anxiety and a sardonic humor rendered in subtitles, and tries to begin a relationship with a young French woman, Anna (Melanie Laurent), after a number of failed relationships.

In flashbacks and by means of slideshows that characterize the decades of Oliver and Hal’s lives, Beginners often charts Oliver’s deep loss and Hal’s brave steps to actualize his sexual identity with a whimsical tone, but this is a serious movie about coming to grips with the past and dealing with the realities of the present. With sensitivity and humor, once again delivering a solid performance, McGregor plays Oliver as a lost soul who wonders how his mother endured decades of marriage knowing that her husband was gay. Confused but impressed by Hal’s explanation of how he tried to play the straight husband in order to make the marriage last, Oliver attempts to make his new relationship work.

As Anna, Oliver’s girlfriend, Melanie Laurent shows a talent for very expressive acting. As demonstrated in Inglourious Basterds, Laurent uses the cast of her eyes and the movements in her lips to communicate a lot. Fittingly, she gets to play her first scene, when she meets Oliver at a costume party, virtually silently. Explaining that she has laryngitis, dressed appropriately as Charlie Chaplin, Anna communicates by means of notes on a pad of paper, but Laurent’s lively eyes and the uncanny animation in her lips communicate even more, making her performance a very engaging one.

A quiet and very understated film, Beginners is not an entirely happy one. Oliver loses his father. It looks like he might lose Anna as well. But the film is always worth watching for its humor, for the performance of a very talented Jack Russell, as well as for the three main human performances. Christopher Plummer’s subtle performance as Hal, an old man spreading his wings to live out his true sexual identity as his life is ending, is a believable, dignified performance that is definitely worth watching.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Vavoom! Kaboom! Transformers: Dark of the Moon

What’s with this Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf)? In the first two Transformers adventures his girlfriend is the curvaceous hottie Mikaela, played by Megan Fox. In the third installment, Mikaela has left him, and his new girlfriend is Carly, played by super model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. What makes Sam Witwicky a hot-chick magnet? His nerdy last name doesn’t keep them way. Being shorter than his girlfriends doesn’t keep them away. What gives? Perhaps, as his own mother so crudely suggests, it’s the size of his you-know-what.

Whatever the reason, Sam’s animal magnetism reels in this movie’s big vavoom factor! Mama! The human side of the story opens with Carly, dressed for work in a very short, very tight dress, waking up unemployed Sam by straddling him in bed. Then she puts on her spiked heels and clicks off to work. Throughout, Carly appears in each new sequence dressed in a different tight outfit that always includes spiked heels. She even has a chance to change into a skimpy top, tight jeans, and heels when she is captured by the bad humans, led by Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), who is aiding the Decepticon takeover of the world. Huntington-Whiteley's long legs and tight butt are shown in juxtaposition with those flashy pimped rides that transform into our hero bots. Dylan even says that the new Ferrari he purchased for Carly is the right car for her because both car and chick share the same sensual curves. Well, that's making it clear why Huntington-Whiteley is cast as Witwicky's girlfriend!

Of course, the film's kaboom factor comes from the many battles between the good Autobots and the bad Decepticons. This time around, the Decepticons are led by the traitorous Sentinel Prime (croaky voice by Leonard Nimoy), whose goal is to use a bunch of power pillars to form a teleportation bridge that will bring his planet, Cybertron, down to earth so that they can use the human race as a slave force to rebuild it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Poorly Developed Super 8

What do you get when you combine the production input of Steven Spielberg with the writing and directing of J.J. Abrams? You get overblown silliness and excessive lens flares.

I had hoped for more. I knew I was going into a film whose story seemed to draw from Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial as well as films like Independence Day and Alien, but I told myself that I wouldn’t mind the film’s derivative nature if it offered some taut, scary, thrilling, even touching, summer entertainment. What I saw was a big disappointment.

The film’s basic premise was intriguing: 1970s kids making a zombie movie with an 8mm camera witness a train wreck and discover the presence of an alien trying to assemble his space ship and get back home. Two scenes in particular, during which the kids film scenes from their movie, constitute the best moments in this film. In one scene, director Charles (Riley Griffiths), lead actor Martin (Gabriel Basso), bit player Preston (Zach Mills), pyrotechnics expert Cary (Ryan Lee), and make up artist Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) watch as actress Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) rehearses an emotional speech with very touching results. Here, the shy Joe Lamb, who has recently lost his mother in a tragic steel mill accident, starts to fall in love with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), whose wastrel, hard-drinking father feels responsible for the death of Joe’s mother. In another scene, the most striking visually (image above), the kids shoot a scene from their movie on a hill overlooking the train wreckage. Both scenes evoke the wonder of youthful imagination, the magic of filmmaking, and the bittersweet poignancy of young love. Along with these two scenes, the performances of Courtney and Fanning are the best the film has to offer.

Courtney and Fanning are full of sincerity and believability. They are worth watching, but they can’t save a film that starts with silliness in its major set piece: the train wreck. Rendered in poor CGI, a train racing from some sort of Area 51 hits a truck and sends ALL its cars flying through the air, exploding, plastering a huge area with twisted cars and chunks of wreckage that cover every space except for where the kids happen to be. Similarly, the Alien, looking like a midget-sized Cloverfield monster, moves fast, makes a lot of noise, but never generates a single second of drama or suspense. In addition, the Alien, whose most interesting characteristic is that it can carve tunnels underground like a hyperactive Horta on steroids, has no presence whatsoever. Most often a blur, it is flat and faded in the one scene in which it holds still in a face off with Joe.