Sunday, January 01, 2012

November/December 2011

It's the wee hours of 2012 as I type my final movie blog of the prior year. I missed November, owing to various work, vacation and television obligations (including a seven-night cruise to Mexico and watching the entirety of Downton Abbey's second season). So I'm including both November and December in this installment.


MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011)—I was suckered into seeing this by Miami Herald critic Rene Rodriguez, who praised the film's supposedly masterful ending. I had a different take, which was, "What ending?" The movie—about a young woman who escapes from a commune where women are brainwashed into being sexual slaves—ends abruptly with no real resolution. And while I can appreciate that this is the point, I wanted something a little more than "Th-th-th-th-that's all, folks!" (7)

BUTTER (2012)—This is probably the first movie I've blogged about that was still unreleased by the time I got around to writing about it. I was invited to an advance screening of this one in Santa Monica in November, way before its official March 2012 debut. Full disclosure: Not only did I laugh out loud numerous times during this comedy, but a couple of the scenes were genuinely moving as well. That's why I'd like to be able to rate this wonderfully cast and superbly acted comedy a full-on "10." Unfortunately, too many illogical plot points prevented me from feeling fully satisfied by what should have been a home run in the spirit of Alexander Payne's Election, after which it clearly patterns itself. A savvy mix of outrageous, profane humor and tearful sentimentality, director Jim Field Smith's film is certainly the best movie ever made about the art of butter carving. In it, Ty Burrell (of TV's hit series Modern Family) is an Iowa-based champion sculptor who uses the titular dairy product; when political forces encourage him to bow out and give others a chance to win the blue ribbon, his power-obsessed wife (Jennifer Garner) blows a gasket and enters the competition herself to keep the family name on the trophy table. Enter Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a 10-year-old black foster child who discovers she's pretty darn good at butter carving herself, and takes on Garner. Here's where those pesky plot flaws start to rear their ugly heads. How does Garner learn this art practically overnight? Why is Burrell elbowed out of the running at all, when he clearly has no other serious competition? Worse yet: after Garner's character accuses Destiny of getting help from Hugh Jackman, why does anybody pay her any attention, when Destiny's solo handiwork was observed by an audience? I realize this is a comedy, but you've gotta have some logic or the house of cards just falls apart. Still, if you can somehow overlook some of the irritating and quite frankly lazy plot conceits, what's left is enjoyable enough, especially thanks to Olivia Wilde's over-the-top portrayal of a lunatic stripper, and newcomer Shahidi is a winning Destiny. Additionally, there are also humorous turns by familiar supporting players from comedy TV shows (Phyllis Smith of The Office, Kristen Schaal of Flight of the Conchords). Thumbs up for some hilarious bloopers at the closing credits mark. (7)

LIKE CRAZY (2011)—An apprentice carpenter (Anton Yelchin) falls in love with a pretty British student (Felicity Jones) studying in the States. When their intense love affair (i.e., great sex) prompts her to overstay her visa, complications obviously ensue. The actors give it their college best (ha-ha), but the movie feels largely improvised, which I gather it was. It's hard to sympathize with these dumb-dumbs, who should have known the government wouldn't take kindly to her breaking the rules. The moral of the movie seems to be that love, no matter how strong it is at the beginning, is doomed to fade. Whoop-de-do. (7)

TOWER HEIST (2011)—A comedy caper starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy as a couple of guys who try to swindle a fortune from a Bernie Madoff-like financier played by Alan Alda. Not bad, but should have been a lot funnier (and a little more plausible). Murphy's role fizzles way before the conclusion, but Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) does well in a smaller role. (7)

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN, PART 1 (2011)—Penultimate installment in the vampire series created by Stephenie Meyer may be slightly better than its two predecessors, but it's still infinitely worse than the original film. Ally Sheedy lookalike Kristen Stewart finally marries vampire Robert Pattinson, and they honeymoon on a beautiful island that's very pretty to look at. Then she gets pregnant, and her unborn hybrid baby nearly kills her and (for reasons I couldn't completely understand) totally pisses off the wolf-men, who launch their own attack. I wasn't exactly bored, but there was rarely a time when I didn't wish I was watching the original Twilight. There's one truly magical moment when wolf-boy Jacob (Taylor Lautner) makes a mysterious connection with the baby Renesme, which will hopefully be elaborated upon in the series' final chapter, due next Christmas. (6)

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011)—Some generations ago, Santa delivered toys on Christmas the traditional way, with the reindeers and the chimneys. But with the world population now in the billions, how can that possibly work? This animated entertainment purports to resolve the conundrum (an army of elves toil in front of computers and there's a big super-spaceship), but the film's explanation was, at least for me, more perplexing than the original question. But the wonky logic won't matter to kids—at least the kids I saw it with—and there's enough charm and action here to keep everybody interested. (7)

A DANGEROUS METHOD (2011)—A tremendously flat and dull film about Freud, Jung and a troubled female patient they first treat, then mentor. As the patient, Keira Knightley is a revelation—in the early part of the film, this striking beauty contorts her features in ways that are alarming and horrifying, and as we see her take control of her demons, she gives one of the year's best performances—too bad it's in one of the year's most boring films. (4)

JOSEPHINE AND MEN (1955)—The only archival movie I saw in November stars Glynis Johns as a woman who only seems to be attracted to men who need her. The moment they don't need her desperately, she completely loses interest. That doesn't sound like much of a plot, and it isn't, but the British-made Josephine sparkles with wit, good acting and deft direction. Co-starring Peter Finch, and directed by the legendary Roy Boulting. (8)


HUGO (2011)—Martin Scorsese directs a film for children about the importance of…film preservation? I found it to be a rather odd theme, but I guess that's what people like Scorsese care about. Based on the sort-of graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, this amazingly photographed film introduces us to the title character, an orphan who lives behind the walls of a Paris train station and operates all of the building's clocks. As we learn about his backstory, he locks horns with a shopkeeper who turns out to be pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès. Their relationship is the cornerstone of a movie that should be more interesting to adults than children. I saw the film in 2D, but am hoping to catch it again in 3D—by all accounts, it's a richer and more rewarding experience. (8)

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) I've never enjoyed spy movies—I never know what's going on or who's double-crossing whom—but it is rare that I pass up an opportunity to see a VIP screening and hobnob with movie-industry folks. (Thanks to my friend Irene for constantly inviting me to these cool events!) Plus, it stars Gary Oldman, one of the best actors ever born. Unfortunately, this is spy a thriller with a plot so convoluted that I was practically catatonic with boredom trying to follow it. Forgive me, all you intellectuals, but in my private Hell, this is the only movie that's playing, forever. (1)

THE DESCENDANTS (2011) I don't make any secret about the fact that Alexander Payne is my favorite living director—I adore (and own) all of his previous efforts, from Citizen Ruth to Sideways, which are all loaded with drama, comedy, pathos and satire. The Descendants is a worthy addition to the Payne canon, even if it's not quite up to the level of quality of its predecessors. It's still a fascinating story, with a terrific lead performance by George Clooney as a Hawaiian attorney whose wife lies comatose in a hospital bed following a speedboat injury. Previously a neglectful husband and father, he pulls his family together while dealing with a startling revelation about his wife that comes to light after her accident. This is a movie that had me tearing up one second and laughing literally a moment later. This is easily one of the year's best films. Only debit: the movie never once lets you forget that it takes place in Hawaii, and beats us over the head with nonstop ukelele music. (9)

THE ARTIST (2011)—A dazzling and wordless triumph. In the late 1920s, silent films are about to become a thing of the past. But before talkies take over, George Valentin is everybody's favorite leading man. Aspiring actress Peppy Miller literally bumps into him, and her career starts to take off. The Artist tells both of their stories (as well as Valentin's adorable Jack Russell terrier), which seems far more compelling than what any of their respective movies are about. It's a wonderful surprise, with plenty of good old fashioned drama and romance; writer-director Michel Hazanavicius has taken something extremely old and turned it into the freshest film of the year. Like Hugo before it, it's a movie about movies, but this one has more heart and soul—and achieves it without color or spoken dialogue. Leading actress Bérénice Bejo is ravishing. The Artist is not to be missed. (10)

YOUNG ADULT (2011)—Juno writer Diablo Cody (retiming with director Jason Reitman) turns in another screenplay full of her trademark snark, but this one works only sporadically. Charlize Theron is perfect in the role of an attractive and single (but morally bankrupt) author of young-adult novels who abruptly decides to marry her high-school boyfriend, even though he's a happily married father of a baby girl. Arriving at her small hometown, she connects with an ex-classmate (comedian Patton Oswalt) she doesn't even remember. Will Theron succeed in stealing her ex-sweetie, or will her embarrassing and misguided plot backfire in her face? There are a few chuckles as the film shambles toward its inevitable conclusion, but constant movie companion Joan said it best: all the good parts were in the trailer. (7)

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011)—An extremely long and incredibly dull examination of a 10-year-old boy (Thomas Horn), devastated by the loss of his dad (Tom Hanks) on 9/11, and his odyssey to figure out the meaning of a strange key Hanks left behind. For me, the movie's main problem is that the boy—a social misfit who probably suffers from Aspergers Syndrome—isn't a fraction as likable as he should be in order for the audience to care about him; he tends to shout at people a lot and keeps rattling an annoying tambourine. The film comes to life briefly when an elderly mute neighbor (Max Von Sydow) enters the picture, and for a time, we enjoy the two of them attempt to solve the mystery of the key. But as soon as Sydow checks out, so too do we. The film's editors chopped out a subplot involving James Gandolfini, whose entire part ended up on the cutting room floor. What a pity that another 30-45 minutes of this bloated film didn't go with him. The dishonest filmmakers first depict the boy's mother (Sandra Bullock) as napping and neglectful, but unconvincingly ask us to believe she's a saint by the end of the picture. (6)

WE BOUGHT A ZOO (2011)—My low expectations for this sentimental family film paid off in droves. Based on the true story of a widowed father of two children who buys a dilapidated zoo with plans to refurbish it, the movie is overly simplistic and one-dimensional, but director Cameron Crowe has his heart in the right place, and gives the film enough sparkle, humanity and animal jokes to balance the massive levels of corn. (The two leads, Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, are two of our most attractive movie stars.) To my astonishment, I spilled more tears in this movie than practically any other in my life. We Bought Another Zoo, anybody? (9)

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)—I am one of the few who haven't read the Stieg Larsson or seen the original Swedish film adaptation, which turns out to be a huge plus for viewers of this remake. Director David Fincher (Seven) is at the top of his game, having assembled a great cast led by the titular Rooney Mara as Lisbeth, the punkish, bisexual misfit who teams with Daniel Craig to solve a mystery for Christopher Plummer's character. It's pure story from start to finish, absorbing, violent, surprising and satisfying in numerous ways. Astonishingly, at 158 minutes, the movie could stand to be even longer, as one of its few debits is that the last 20 minutes seems a little short-handed and rushed. I would buy a longer director's cut of this marvelous piece of entertainment. Mara turns in what is probably the year's best performance by an actress—she makes her character detached, dangerous, pitiable, fiercely intelligent and ultimately sympathetic. Unfortunately, the movie is apparently tanking at the box office. (10)

WAR HORSE (2011)—Steven Spielberg's latest "serious" effort starts off as an old-fashioned sentimental story of a boy and his horse; it becomes alternately gripping, violent and suspenseful—but also unforgivably bloated. The horse is conscripted to help soldiers on the front lines of WWI, and the animal flip-flops on both sides of the battleground during various hours of the film to make the following points: 1. The horse is wonderful and heroic; 2. Regardless of which side you're fighting on, you're still a human being; 3. War sucks for everybody. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, the movie needs at least 40 minutes lopped out of it. There was enough here to keep me entertained, but its excruciating length is a major liability—when the horse isn't at the center of the story, the movie suffers. (7)

PUSS IN BOOTS (2011)—Entertaining and worthy Shrek spinoff focuses on the swashbuckling kitty, who joins forces with Humpty Dumpty and a female feline voiced by Salma Hayek. Lots of motion, humor and Spanish music, with a cool redemption subplot; it's mostly for kids, but it'll keep the adults entertained. I love how the poster plays with a popular cinematic cliché of a protagonist calmly walking away from an explosion! (8)

JANE EYRE (2011)—I have neither read Charlotte Bronte's classic novel nor seen any of the countless film or TV adaptations; this newest version is my first encounter with Jane. To my surprise, it seems more Dickensian than Austenian as a story (innocent youngster endures various hardships and runs afoul of evil, tortuous and cantankerous souls as he/she barrels toward adulthood). In the title role, Mia Wasikowska is picture-perfect as the not-especially-attractive Jane, yet somehow exuding a spiritual beauty and winning our hearts with her morality and ability to love. It's got me curious to check out other film and TV versions. Interestingly, I had intended my final film of 2011 to be Shame, starring Michael Fassbender (so coldly aloof as Carl Jung in this year's A Dangerous Method), but it was so relentlessly dull that I didn't make it past the first 45 minutes. Yet here is Fassbender again, turning in a fine performance as Jane's love interest, Rochester. (8)


The Artist
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Descendants
Crazy Stupid Love
Real Steel
Midnight in Paris
Win Win
Life, Above All
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
One Day


The Muppets
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
A Separation
My Week With Marilyn
The Debt
The Tree of Life
The Devil's Double
Straw Dogs
The Way


Sucker Punch (half)
Take Shelter
Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence


I don't really discuss TV series in this blog, but for posterity's sake, I should mention that this was the year I began burning through several different series, all of them still going strong as of this date: Dexter, Breaking Bad and Homeland, in that order. And yet I still found time to watch a fair amount of old movies, both on DVD and in the theater. Here were my favorites:

Barney's Version
Blind Corner (1963)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Cash on Demand (1961)
Country Strong (2010)
Cry Terror (1958)
The Fighter (2010)
Grand Hotel (1932)
The Great Escape (1963)
The Greengage Summer (1961)
The Holiday (2006)
Holiday Inn (1942)
Hud (1963)
Kind Lady (1951)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The Mark (1961)
Mister Roberts (1955)
A Night at the Opera (1933)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Rabbit Hole (2010)
Shane (1953)
The Silent Partner (1978)
The Snorkel (1958)
Sophie's Choice (1982)
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
Super (2010)
Susan Slade (1961)
The Well (1951)

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