Monday, September 10, 2012

July 2012


BRAVE (2012)—Pixar unveils its first female lead, but her story is as creaky as they come—it's a predictable variation on the Beauty and the Beast fable. Nevertheless, the film is a work of art, a gorgeously animated piece, and the heroine, a 10th-century Scottish lass named Merida, is dynamically rendered and great deal of fun to watch. (9)

MAGIC MIKE (2012)—A diverting piece of romantic malarkey that offers the gals some naughty male striptease action and Channing Tatum as the main hunk in the spotlight. As Connie pointed out, Matthew McConaughey's strip joint owner/emcee is the role he was born to play, and he chews the scenery with every bare-chested fiber of his being. Cody Horn plays the object of his affection, and for me, she is the most interesting and attractive element of the film, whose poster criminally doesn't even give her billing along with its five male stars. She should have a talk with her agent. (8)

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)—Critics pulled out every superlative in their vocabularies to praise this indie drama about a little black girl trying to survive intense and very trying times deep in the bayous of Louisiana. But to me, it was an amateurish, unfocused and above all depressing mess, painful to watch, not least because of dizzying and shaky camera movement, which typically does not bother me. Some likened its story and characters to Faulkner, and while I suppose that's an apt comparison, the production values, substandard direction and occasional fantasy elements turned me off completely. (3)

SAVAGES (2012)—A compelling action/drug movie featuring two brainless leads whose shared (!) girlfriend gets kidnapped by a Mexican cartel when a major buyout deal goes south. Worth it entirely for the no-holds-barred performance of Salma Hayek as a drug lord with unresolved mommy issues. You can sit and pick apart the plot holes in this movie all day long, but that's part of the fun of the film, directed by Oliver Stone in pure apolitical, full-on entertainment mode. (8)

THE AVENGERS (2012)—One Captain America, one Hulk, one Thor and two Iron Man films at long last digested, and I was finally ready to screen this super-superhero movie that brings them all together working in tandem (and sometimes pitted against each other). Unfortunately, it doesn't pack the punch of its predecessors—even Captain America was a better assembled and ultimately more enjoyable movie. In fact, the only one of these films I enjoyed less was The Incredible Hulk, and since that character is featured in The Avengers (albeit played by a different actor—the third consecutive chap, in fact, to essay this particular role), it's a reasonable assumption that he is the "weakest link," strong though Hulk may be. As written and directed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer wunderkind Joss Whedon, there are, naturally, flashes of visual genius and a number of truly funny one-liners (most of them delivered by wisecracking Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man), but too many superheroes spoil the broth in this one. They really need to get rid of the Hulk, who wavers too much between pure, unpredictable anger at everyone, and impassioned hero to only the Good Guys. This is the one time where it's not smart to go green. (6)

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (2012)—Where The Avengers had a budget of $60 million, this documentary was certainly put together on a comparatively microscopic budget, and while you shouldn't really compare apples to oranges, Versailles is the far more riveting of the two. Director Lauren Greenfield follows the lives of two wealthy socialites: David Siegel, the aging timeshare billionaire, and his former beauty queen wife, Jackie, whose tasteless, cleavage-exposing attire itself is worth the price of the movie ticket. We follow these unimaginably wealthy people as they set out to build Versailles, the biggest and most expensive single-family residence in the U.S., simply because they can afford to do so. (It's modeled, of course, on the famous French mansion, but conceived by rich people who still love to eat at McDonalds.) When the national financial catastrophe occurs, though, they find themselves at a crossroads and suddenly unable to continue funding the project (or even live precisely in the manner they previously had.) In one brilliant scene, David berates his family members for leaving the lights burning when nobody's home. The movie will leave you outraged, befuddled and laughing your ass off—sometimes simultaneously. It's a minor masterpiece. (10)

DAMN YANKEES (1958)—Douglass Wallop's 1954 novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant became a successful Broadway musical in 1955, so this hot property was a natural for a film. It's the famous Faust story told in a baseball setting, featuring Ray "My Favorite Martian" Walston as the devil, making a pact with Stephen Douglass to become baseball hero Tab Hunter while Gwen Verdon ("Whatever Lola Wants") struts smolderingly in her career-making role. Actually, for as sexy as Verdon's character is supposed to be (at least in 1950s terms), I wasn't remotely attracted to her. But the movie is plenty of fun anyway—I'd spent the previous week getting to know all of the show's songs via iTunes, so seeing them performed in context was a real kick. I have never seen Walston less than perfect in anything he's ever been in. (8)

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)—I was not a fan of the original Marvel comic book (it debuted in 1962), or of the popular 1977 TV series starring Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk, nor did I see Ang Lee's 2003 film adaptation, Hulk. The only reason I bothered with this 2008 reboot was to better appreciate this summer's aforementioned The Avengers movie, populated by vastly more entertaining (yet admittedly less smashy) superheroes. There's a one-dimensional Army bad guy (virtually unrecognizable William Hurt), a pretty love interest (Liv Tyler) and a boring big green guy. The movie watchable but not terribly compelling; barely three weeks later, I can hardly remember any of it. Hulk certainly does smash a lot of stuff, though. As Bruce Banner, Hulk's alter ego, poor Ed Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo for The Avengers, and both have done far better work elsewhere. (6)

HALF NELSON (2006)—Ryan Gosling plays Dan, a high-school teacher with a secret: he's a coke addict. And although he seems intelligent and has a loose, freewheeling teaching style that keeps his inner-city students at least awake, he (idiotically) gets high in the school locker room and is caught by one of his female students, Drey (Shareeka Epps). The awkward moment actually helps Dan and Drey form a bond resembling something like a friendship, but irony rears its ugly head when Dan becomes protective of Drey when it is revealed that certain members of her family circle are involved in the drug trade. Get it? Because he's into drugs too! It's only a matter of time before impressionable Drey will become involved in drugs herself…or will she somehow avoid the mistakes of the adults around her? That's the question posed by the movie, and although there are a number of solid performances (highlighted by Epps), I would have been happier with a bit more drama and a more satisfying resolution. (7)

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