Thursday, December 29, 2011

Film Shuffle's Top 20 of 2011

It's that time of year again! Time for me to play make-believe movie critic and do my "best of" list. I made it 20 this year instead of 10, because ... well, I just felt like it. Everybody who does a list like this has their own rules, and I have mine. Most notably I try to only count movies officially released in 2011, which excludes films from 2010 that I didn't get around to seeing until early 2011. There are a few big releases I've yet to see - namely War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Pariah and We Bought a Zoo. I may end up seeing one or more of those before the year is out, but I don't trust my opinion on any movie for a list like this when I've had less than a week to marinate my thoughts.

ANYWAY, here goes. Several of these are favorites on other lists, but hopefully there will be some surprises.

"My boy Treelore always said we gonna have a writer in the family one day. I guess it's gonna be me."

20. The Help (Dir. Tate Taylor)
There are two ways to misread this movie, in my opinion. One is to treat it like it's trying to be the definitive work on racism and the true experience of black maids in white households, and by extension finding it offensively wanting in that goal. The second is to treat it like it *is* the definitive work on racism and the true experience of black maids in white households, and to love it for being a great success at that. It's a movie, y'all. An entertaining, often moving flick about women, friendship, and taking a stand. And no matter what you think of the material, it's hard to argue that the cast - especially Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain - make it sing despite its weaknesses. (Original review)

"I'll be the candle."

19. Arthur Christmas (Dir. Sarah Smith, Barry Cook)
This is a new Christmas classic, as far as I'm concerned. Right up there with Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, and Black Christmas. (Okay, your mileage may vary on the classic-ness of that last one, but probably because you haven't yet discovered it.) It may be the time of year in which I'm writing this prejudicing me in this film's favor, but then again maybe not. Because it's not just that it's thoroughly drenched in the Christmas spirit or that it makes me want to believe in Santa again that makes it special to me. It's clever and witty in a way that reminds me of Aardman's other brilliant movies. (Original review)

"Elizabeth is dying. Wait ... f*** you! And she's dying."

18. The Descendants (Dir. Alexander Payne)
I'm probably kinder to and fonder of this film than I ought to be, but I think it's quite a good picture of the complexity of grief and family. Better certainly than most death-in-the-family melodramas that we've all seen and which tend to elicit a sort of Pavlovian response of emotion. This boasts at least two of the best performances of the year, by George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, and for Clooney's part it's a career best. (Original review)

"No man can walk out of his own story."

17. Rango (Dir. Gore Verbinski)
The animated western is a seriously underexplored genre. This is some of the most original and beautiful animation i've ever seen and a love song to both "spaghetti westerns" and their more romantic John-Ford-y predecessors. As much as I love Pixar, I'm glad to see other studios get a chance to shine in this medium. This is not a cute and fluffy animated film for kids. There's a sass to this movie that's irresistible and very entertaining to watch. (Original review)

"I don't know anything. I'm just a rock in the sky"

16. The Future (Dir. Miranda July)
Miranda July sees the world in a very unique way, and I envy her for it. I'm also grateful that she sometimes lets me see the world through her filter by way of her filmmaking. A couple adopting a cat might seem like a simple thing that could not sustain a movie, but July turns it into a Great Life Crisis for her characters as this commitment forces them to realize the limits of their own lives. Yet these limits are as nothing compared with those of the cat they hope to adopt, and one of the (many) strokes of genius in this movie is that the cat itself is given a voice to tell us about its anxieties, making it as complex and neurotic a character as any human in the film. (Original review)

"With pleasure."

15. The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius)
I find it hilarious that people are so surprised that a black and white silent movie can be engaging and entertaining. Of course you can tell a great story with no dialogue! Hollywood was doing it for years before Al Jolson turned the sound on. What I find more impressive about the movie is the modern sensibilities it brings to it. The dream sequence - one of the only scenes in the movie that has sound - is one of my favorite scenes in a movie this year. This is an old story, using old tools, but made with modern eyes and hands. And the modern is what makes it remarkable. (Original review)

"That's what everybody's been saying: You'll feel better and don't worry and this is all fine and it's not."

14. 50/50 (Dir. Jonathan Levine)
This movie is a rare tear-jerker that earns its tears. It's not precious about the main character's cancer, nor does it trick you into feeling something because you think you're supposed to. We've seen loads of people in movies fighting cancer, but this movie makes the bold decision (though calling it bold is sad, however true it is) to show real people dealing with it. Not just the patients themselves but the people around them. Some handle it well, others spectacularly not, but that's life. And it's refreshing to see those rare occasions when actors and storytellers manage to conjure that elusive life and capture it on film. (Original review)

"If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around - this is where they are made."

13. Hugo (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
I've said a lot about the first hour of this film, which I still find incredibly flat, especially when it's in the same movie as the amazing second half. But that second half can't be ignored. As much a tribute to film preservation as to film history, Hugo is something I love more than pretty much anything else - a surprise. Once Hugo and Isabelle finally uncover the mystery of the automaton, the movie (like many of the characters in it) finally finds its purpose. And it's a beauty to behold. The recreation of iconic images of early cinema are less realistic and more evocative of the dreams that must have inspired them. As Norma Desmond would sing in the Sunset Boulevard musical, "we taught the world new ways to dream." And nowhere is that clearer or more beautifully portrayed than in the last act of this movie. (Original review)

"Stop talking about production value, the Air Force is going to kill us!"

12. Super 8 (Dir. J.J. Abrams)
With all the attention Hugo has gotten for its moviemaking nostalgia, I'm surprised a lot of people seem to have forgotten this gem from J.J. Abrams which riffs most obviously on Spielberg's E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind but also Alien and The Thing. A group of kids are making a monster movie and a real monster movie basically shows up and starts happening to them. Great, natural performances from the young actors, which is rare. Also rare - a Fanning that doesn't make me roll my eyes. (Original review)

"You are a piece of work."

11. Young Adult (Dir. Jason Reitman)
As prickly and unpleasant as Juno was cuddly and offbeat, this was a bold move for director Jason Reitman's and screenwriter Diablo Cody's reunion. This movie is more a character sketch than a story, and the journey of the main character is an unusual one, leaving her worse off in the end than she was in the beginning (despite passing through a clear "epiphany" moment, which is turned completely inside out). This is a bitch of a movie. Uncomfortable, but undeniably brilliant.

"I've always wanted to do that spell!"

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Dir. David Yates)
More than providing a fitting conclusion to a series of films that - along with the books that inspired them - have consumed the last decade of my life. More than the thrill of seeing people I'd watched since they were practically babies grow into actual actors. The accomplishment that means the most to me is that when it was all over I wasn't sad. I wasn't thinking about the end of an era and what on earth I'd do with my life now. I was thinking about how proud I was. Proud that these films were passing into the halls of cinema history alongside other beloved epic fantasy adventures, in whose company (to paraphrase Theoden in Return of the King) it need not be ashamed. (Original review)

"At first, I did not know it was your diary. I thought it was a very sad handwritten book."

9. Bridesmaids (Dir. Paul Feig)
Just like it's a mistake to expect The Help to be the kitchen sink of movies about racism, it's a mistake to expect Bridesmaids to be the definitive work on women. What this movie is is a refreshing kick in the panties to the traditional "chick flick" and (in a smaller way) a portrait of how intimidating and soul-crushing a wedding can be when you're not the one getting married (and ESPECIALLY if you've NEVER been the one getting married). I found this movie surprisingly relatable, and I hope it's the beginning of more good and entertaining stories about us wimmins. Not holding my breath, but it's certainly a start. (Original review)

"I should have known if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody would end up dead."

8. Tucker and Dale vs Evil (Dir. Eli Craig)
On the surface, this is a spoof, plain and simple. But a closer look shows a surprisingly clever script with more genre subversions than seems possible in one movie. The idea of plopping kids in the woods and using their prejudices about rural people against them is a genius one, and the fact that the movie is able to sustain the joke for as long as it does is rather amazing. Honestly one of the best times I had in a movie theater this year. (Original review)

"There's worse things out there to be scared of than us tonight. Trust it."

7. Attack the Block (Dir. Joe Cornish)
I can't remember the last time I was as scared by a movie monster as I was by the creatures in this movie. GAH! But this is not just a monster movie. This movie is like if Aliens married the fourth season of The Wire. There's some great characterization and social commentary here, but not so much of the latter that the movie drowns in its own self-importance. The wonderful cast of kids is led by the amazing John Boyega, who I'm certain we'll see much more of in the future. And boo to the AMPAS for passing over the awesome score, which gives the film its urban pulse. Awesome, awesome movie. (Original review)

"I shall accomplish your task with magnificence."

6. 13 Assassins (Dir. Takashi Miike)
Samurai stories hold a real fascination for me. The idea that men train for years and years in preparation for battles that will almost surely end their lives. The idea that in so many of these stories, these warriors volunteer for causes that have little to do with them personally but are a stand against a dishonor that is too great to be borne. That this was made by Takashi Miike, who has given us some of the most twisted films to come out of Japan (Fudoh, I'm looking at you), is kind of flabbergasting to me. But, as I said above, I do so love a surprise. The final battle is one of the most breathtaking action sequences in any movie this year. In any year, really.

"Your hard drive is filthy."

5. Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen)
We have such a tendency as human beings to judge people who are different from us, who are dealing with demons that we will hopefully never have to face. What makes Shame such an incredible film is not its bold, unflinching portrayal of its protagonist's depravity, but its sympathy for his suffering (even if it's suffering that we can't quite understand). Michael Fassbender gives easily the most astonishing and painful - not to mention far and away the best, male or female - performance this year. An excellent, excruciating movie that I'm not sure I could watch a second time. (Original review)

"Why would I not understand the context? I am the context."

4. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsay)
A horror movie along the lines of The Bad Seed or The Good Son, this movie presents a fascinating relationship between a bad kid and a bad parent. This inevitably reminds many viewers of the events at Columbine in 1999, but what's at play here is more than a reference. Tilda Swinton plays a mother at three different stages - in the beginning and formative years of her son's life, in the weeks/months leading up to the horrible crime he commits, and some time after his crime as she deals with the aftermath, at least some of which is almost certainly in her own mind. I went in thinking this would be an "eat your spinach, it's good for you" indie film, but I was gobsmacked at how compelling it is, especially the astonishing performance of Tilda Swinton.

"It was a good time back then."
"It was a war, Connie."

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir. Tomas Alfredson)
Chilly, methodical, and precise. That describes most of the characters in this film, but it describes the film itself as well. The plot is so tightly wound that you're afraid to blink in case you miss something, and the cast is a who's who of Britain's greatest (male) acting talent. On top of that, the nostalgia of the period setting lends itself uncommonly well to the pervasive sense of an era coming to an end. A near perfect suspense thriller.

"I can never decide whether Paris is more beautiful by day or by night."

2. Midnight in Paris (Dir. Woody Allen)
This movie contains my absolute favorite moment in any film this year, and I think it's at least partially responsible for a film project I'm undertaking in the coming year. I've admired Woody Allen's films for many years, but this is the first film of his I've loved. It's pure magic, and a dream - everything I ask from a movie. C'est magnifique. (Original review)

"And you have proved to be a real human being and a real hero."

1. Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
I wish I'd posted this list sooner, because this film has cropped up at the top of a lot of lists lately, and now I look like a bandwagoneer. But in all honesty, this was my number one as soon as I saw it in September. This is a movie that seems to be directly lifted from my subconscious - like the team from Inception went into my brain and downloaded everything I thought was awesome and made a movie about it. Every single thing about this movie - the music (THE MUSIC!), the meticulously framed shots, the badass yet surprisingly likable villain, the Gosling, the Gosling's satin jacket - seems like it is just for me. Like Midnight in Paris, this movie shaped my movie watching in general. And I can't remember the last time (maybe never) that I thought of Los Angeles as a cool and romantic place. Guys, this movie. THIS MOVIE. *swoons* (Original review)

Alright, 2012 - whatcha got?

Saturday, December 3, 2011


First things first - this movie is most certainly not for everybody. The litmus test comes in the first few minutes of the film, when a naked Michael Fassbender gets out of bed and walks alarmingly close to the camera. If this is going to make you giggle or storm out of the theater in outrage, you're probably not going to get anything out of the rest of the movie. For the rest of you, if you see this in a theater, I have one bit of advice - don't sit too close. Just saying.

If you know anything about this movie, you probably know that it's rated NC-17 - a rating that has sadly become synonymous with "porn" for a lot of movie theaters and the fear of which has led a lot of quality storytelling for adults get chopped up and artistically compromised. (I use the word "adult" here in the literal sense, not in the "adult entertainment" sense.) Kudos to Fox Searchlight for putting it out there as an NC-17. Not that they really had a choice once they decided to distribute it, because director Steve McQueen (not to be confused with that other Steve McQueen) was adamant about not cutting one frame.

I have a fairly particular stance on sex in movies. While exploitation has its place, sex scenes in mainstream movies have to have a purpose other than telling the audience "these characters are having sex." There are too many other ways to meaningfully convey that to relegate onscreen lovemaking to a mere story beat. (See the beginning of Barefoot in the Park, for an example of the right way to do it.) Screen sex, in my opinion, should always be about revealing something about the characters involved. It's the most intimate and revealing situation that characters can be in, and can be a brilliant way to unveil or underline something about someone. There is a great deal of sex going on in Shame, but none of it is expository.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a New Yorker who works in an office doing we-don't-know-or-care-what. Things come easy to Brandon and he doesn't have to try very hard, either in his job or with women. He's single, good looking, financially well off, and living in both an era and a city where everything is available to him whenever he wants it. This might sound like paradise, but we quickly see that for Brandon it's a punishment. He is a sex addict, if such a thing does exist (psychiatrists are divided on it). Sex is not fun for Brandon; it is a compulsion that is slowly consuming his life. If that sounds ridiculous, it wouldn't after you'd seen Michael Fassbender in this film. There's a moment near the end, when his character is climaxing, that is one of the most horrible things I've ever seen happen on an actor's face. The camera closes in on his face, and he looks for all the world like he is dying in the utmost agony. I've never seen anything like that.

Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to his apartment to crash for a few days that turns into an indefinite amount of time. There is something in both hers and Brandon's past that haunts them, but the movie doesn't clarify it beyond a few subtle hints. But her visit brings the burden of his addiction into sharp relief. He can't bring a woman home while she's there and there are certain things he doesn't like having in the apartment in case she snoops around and finds them. After spending so much time immersed his own needs, it's suddenly quite inconvenient to have someone else to look out for and he can't really take it. Add to that the fact that his addiction is starting to affect his professional life as well, and Brandon is very near a breaking point.

The women (and in one case, man) Brandon screws are nameless (well, one of them has a name, but you've forgotten it as soon as she says it). They're things, just as Brandon's own body is a thing, that he uses and (more accurately) abuses. The one woman he tries to have a normal relationship with he can't bring himself to have sex with, and when I say "normal relationship" I'm being charitable, because they go on exactly one dinner date before he tries to seduce her the next day. When Brandon finally breaks, it's quite hard to watch, but the rather perfect end of the film gives you the hope that he's turned a corner and is on his way to getting better.

Challenging subject matter aside, this is a FANTASTICALLY made film - beautifully shot, with lots of great little touches, particularly in the sound mixing. Performances are phenomenal, especially Michael Fassbender, and I'm so glad that he's being seriously talked about (and promoted by the studio) as a player in the Best Actor race (which seemed impossible a couple of months ago, given how explicit the films is). Carey Mulligan is at her best here, as far as I'm concerned, and those of you who were wondering if she could sing well enough to pull off the still-in-development My Fair Lady remake - yes, yes she can. I want a recording of her rendition of "Start Spreadin' the News" right the heck now.

I still have yet to see the other McQueen-Fassbender collaboration, Hunger, but have new incentive to do so. Again, this film is not for everyone, but it is an astounding piece of work.

The Artist

I think movie nostalgia must be the unofficial theme of the fall movie season. There are more than a few movies that pay homage to different classic eras of filmmaking, but two of them are among the critical darlings and the frontrunners of the Oscar race. One I've already written about is Hugo, which is a love letter to very early (turn-of-the-century) films. The other is The Artist, which deals with the time when silent films were being phased out and "talkies" were taking over.

The Artist reminds me a great deal of Singin' In the Rain, though it is fundamentally a very different film. The main character is George Valentin, a silent film superstar. An innocent chance encounter between George and an ambitious ingenue, Peppy Miller, is captured by photographers and the girl gets a sudden leg up in the acting world. The film charts a very basic rise-and-fall story. As George fades into obscurity along with the art form that made him famous, Peppy rises to great heights as a talking film star. The story itself is nothing earth-shattering; what makes this film sing (there's a joke there, and if you don't get it, you will in a second) is the way it's told.

It's a silent movie.

Not only is it silent (well, mostly silent), it's black and white and it's French-made, with a French actor you've probably never heard of in the lead and only a handful of actors you might know (all of whom are in small roles). And it's wonderful.

It's a bit frothy, which has made some critics look down their noses at it, but it's a brilliant piece of storytelling and manages to do it with virtually no sound. It might look on the surface like an imitation of a silent movie - just going through the motions and lazily employing the old techniques - but that's a short-sighted criticism, in my opinion. The cinematography is quite obviously not an imitation of the silent style, nor is the music or (again, despite surface appearances) the acting. The movie actually looks, photography wise, like a Fred & Ginger musical. The sets and costumes are all Old Hollywood glamour. And, in the same way that Tropic Thunder is a riff on war movies and Young Frankenstein is a riff on classic monster movies, The Artist is a riff on silent movies that actually makes genuine and serious use of the conventions of those movies, while giving the current film its own unique twist.

George lives in a world that is dying and making way for a new world, and with that comes a certain anxiety. Nowhere is that fear more vividly or brilliantly expressed than in an exceedingly clever dream sequence that I don't dare spoil here, mostly because I can't possibly convey it properly, which is one of only a couple of instances where the film breaks its own sound rule. It's genius. One of my favorite scenes in a movie this year.

Berenice Bejo is very charming as the up-and-coming actress Peppy, and the character has some unexpected layers that make her both endearing and almost a villain at times. The real star of the show here, though, is Jean Dujardin, who plays George. There's something very Chaplin-esque about how he plays this character. There's a moment in the film where he's at the breakfast table and I almost expected him to break into Dance of the Dinner Rolls. There's such a profound sadness to his character, too - again, like Chaplin's tramp character - that's heartbreaking to watch, even while you're laughing.

Okay, I lied. The REAL star of the show is Uggy the dog, George's canine sidekick. This dog is capable of skills and thought processes that aren't supposed to be in an animal's repertoire. I haven't seen Tintin yet, but I hear Snowy is a similar kind of character. Uggy does a trick where he sits up on his hind legs, George pretends to shoot him with an imaginary pistol, and he keels over like he's really been shot. And there's a scene with him and a policeman that you will not believe.

Stanley Kubrick once said that "silent films got a lot more right than talkies." The culture of filmmaking may have moved on, but there's still a lot to learn from those early days (or maybe we just need to be reminded once in a while). It's been said that you can tell if you're watching a great movie if you can turn the sound off and still be able to tell what's happening, and The Artist is a twenty-first century testament to that. If you've never been interested in silent movies before, I would highly recommend this film (and Hugo, for that matter) as an entry point.

My Week With Marilyn

Time to catch up with reviews again! Still writing about stuff I saw last week, but hopefully I'll get fully caught up tonight or tomorrow.

I've been a fan of Michelle Williams for a while now, going back to her Dawson's Creek days and even her role as a young Natasha Henstridge in Species (don't you dare laugh!). She seems to have been the one in the Dawson's crew to come out with the most significant career, not perhaps money wise but certainly in terms of artistic merit.

My Week With Marilyn is a fairly mediocre film - a pretty middle-of-the-road period piece about a classic Hollywood era, in a year with so many nostalgia-fest movies about classic Hollywood eras. What elevates it and makes it worth watching is Williams' performance as Marilyn Monroe. She doesn't look like Marilyn at all, but her embodiment of Marilyn as a character is so uncanny that it's almost like she's channeling.

The film takes place during the shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl in England. Marilyn had just married Arthur Miller and was probably the most famous woman in the world. The film was being directed by Laurence Olivier, who was also co-starring. And a young man named Colin Clarke had moved to London to get a job in movies and found himself as Olivier's 3rd Assistant Director (a.k.a. gopher). Though the movie covers the length of the movie shoot, it centers on around nine days in which Colin is drawn close to Monroe (while her husband is away), only to be devoured and spit back out again. That sounds harsher than it is, but it's something Marilyn can't really help. Because Marilyn at this point in her life is much bigger than just a flesh-and-blood woman; she's a brand. I love the little moment where she's about to greet a crowd of fans and whispers to Colin "Shall I be her?" as if she's going to play a character, because in a lot of ways Marilyn was a character she was playing.

The thing that struck me most is how the mood of a room changed - helped along by cinematic elements, of course - whenever Marilyn entered the room. The first time she steps on the set in costume is just magic. Everyone, especially Olivier, is upset that she's two hours late, but in that moment no one seems to care. The entire shoot is fraught with drama, with Monroe frequently late, occasionally absent and, on most days when she showed up to work, difficult. But when Olivier and others watch the dailies, it's undeniable that she has a gift for acting for the camera that no one else has, even thespian icons like Olivier and Sybil Thorndike. You can see, and Williams conveys it perfectly, what a burden all that attention is, though. And having the particular kind of notoriety that she did was rather self-defeating. The moment in the film that I probably felt the most for her is when Olivier tells her to not think about the acting so much and simply do what she does ("Just be sexy!").

One of the elements that amused me was the obvious battle between the classic style of acting and method acting. Marilyn's acting teacher had to be on set with her every day and was with her most of the time off set, too. We're told that Olivier hates "method" and has hated it since his then wife, Vivien Leigh, worked with Elia Kazan on A Streetcar Named Desire. That triggered something in my memory about some comments that Kazan apparently made at Leigh's expense during the making of that film, as if method was the only way to act and everything else was just silly. *rolls eyes*

The movie is fairly forgettable, but there are several good performances. Aside from Williams, Kenneth Branagh is quite good (and serendipitously cast) as Olivier. Julia Ormond was actually one of my favorites, playing the small role of Vivien Leigh. And I was pleasantly surprised by Emma Watson, who has another small role that is thankfully easily distinguishable from the brainy witch she is best known for playing.

One last thing. While the movie itself is not extraordinary, it is nonetheless a good example of How To Do a Biopic. The problem with most of these biographical movies is that they're kind of sampler platters of a person's life. This is the trap that J. Edgar and (as I understand, as I've yet to see it) The Iron Lady fall into. "Life stories" don't make good movies, because people's lives are not actually stories. They are a series of stories, many of which overlap one another. The best way to tell a story of someone's life is to not try and tell *the* story of their life. As lukewarm as I am on My Week With Marilyn in general, it at least gets that part right.

Bottom line: This is good, the performances are mostly great, but you can probably wait until DVD to see it. Unless, like me, you're obsessed with seeing all the Oscar contenders before nominations come around. :P

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Arthur Christmas

This movie was not on my Must List. There was SO MUCH coming out this week in particular that I wasn't going to be bothered with a holiday kids movie. It looked cute, but the teaser didn't grab me, and I could probably catch it on television eventually. But when people started seeing it, they were saying how clever and funny it was, and then I remembered that Aardman was involved, so I gave it a go, and I'm SO glad I did. If you're looking for a family film and you've already seen The Muppets, and maybe you'd like to see something with a similar kind of dry humor that you might associate with Harry Potter or Doctor Who, I humbly submit Arthur Christmas for your consideration.

I had intended to use a picture of Arthur, GrandSanta, and Bryony in the oldschool sleigh, but this picture pushed my "awwwww" button so hard, I was compelled to use it instead.

We start with the little girl in the picture above. She's writing a letter to Santa, and she has all kinds of questions about how Santa-ing works. At least one of her questions is answered in a shot of a series of framed photographs in a corridor at Christmas headquarters. No, the Santa she's writing to is not the same person as Saint Nicholas. He was the original, but the title has passed down, father to son, to the current Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent). We also learn that Santa doesn't actually read the letters that are sent to him. That job is delegated to the Mail Room, which is where we find Arthur (James McAvoy), Santa's younger son, who is the biggest fan of Christmas EVER. He writes a very sweet reply to the little girl, assuring her that Santa is very much real, and keeping the drawing she sent pinned to the wall behind his desk.

Arthur's older brother is Steve (Hugh Laurie), who is pretty much the brains of the operation. He's taken Christmas Eve into the 21st Century, making present drops a well oiled machine, run by thousands of elves, with Santa only placing one ceremonial present in each town where their huge spaceship of a sleigh stops. I love the little ninja action of the elves and that everyone in the operation has a smartphone with GPS and naughty/nice gauge. :P So everything's going swimmingly, and they return to the North Pole to have Christmas dinner, celebrate another "Mission Accomplished" (yes, there's a Bush-era-esque banner), and get some well-earned rest.

Except there's a problem. There's a present still undelivered. Which means a child got missed. And what a coincidence - it's the little girl we met in the beginning. Arthur is very upset - she's going to wake up and think Santa doesn't care about her! Or doesn't exist! Steve assures him that they'll messenger the package and she'll get it in five days, but that's not good enough for Arthur - it will ruin the magic! Steve says there's not another way - they can't take the super-sleigh back out, because it just traveled 7 million miles or summat in one night. And his feeling is that it's not a big deal if only one child out of all those millions is missed - it's only a tiny margin of error, after all. The rest of the film is Arthur's quest to deliver this present and preserve the magic of Christmas for this one child, with the help of GrandSanta (Bill Nighy) and a gift wrap elf named Bryony.

There are a lot of great little details. One of my favorite things is Bryony and her bow porn - she's loaded her smartphone with pictures of bows like you or I would load an iPhone with pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch. Not that I have done any such thing, and how DARE you insinuate such a thing! And I looooooooved GrandSanta and his efforts to prove that Christmas can be done without all this newfangled-ry. And the newfangled-ry itself is quite a clever commentary on how crazy the commercial aspect of Christmas has become.

This movie - the basic story, anyway - reminded me a lot of the Book of Mormon musical, and I'm not sure I can explain why without going into spoilers. For those of you who've seen the musical, though, Arthur is totally the Elder Cunningham and Steve the Elder Price; the journeys of their characters are very similar. "I'll be the candle" may be my favorite line from any film this year. My favorite image, though, is of the four generations of Santa, peeking through the closet door at a sight none of them has ever seen - the look on a child's face on Christmas morning.

LOVED this movie, and it was the perfect thing to see to put me in the holiday spirit. I hope many of you get a chance to see it and that it does the same for you. If you do Christmas, of course. :-)


*sigh* I seem to be in the minority on this movie. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I think an awful lot of people are letting their quite understandable love for the second half of this movie make them see it as better than it actually is. That's not to say it's not a good movie, but the thing as a whole is not as great as a few of its parts. I'm sorry. It's just not. In my opinion, of course.

The movie is based on a novel by Brian Selznick, whose first cousin, twice removed, is the great golden age movie producer David O. Selznick, and the book is clearly a love letter to movies. But the book has the same problem the film has. It spends a lot of time - too much time, in my opinion - in the train station where the title character lives, just following his routine and his continual attempts to evade the attention of the station inspector. I will give the movie this - it actually does show us that Hugo is quite right to worry about what will happen if he is found and why it is so important that he keep the clocks running, which the book only tells the reader as almost an afterthought.

The first hour of the film is rather frustrating to get through, because it feels like it's marking time until it gets to the part that Scorsese was clearly much more interested in. For the first hour, it's like Scorsese is trying to make the kind of film his friend Steven Spielberg is best known for. But he's not as good at it as Spielberg is, and the stakes just seem too low. The main reason this first half is tolerable is that it is so wonderfully shot and the 3D is so captivating. This is definitely a "must see in 3D" movie. It's not just a visual gimmick; the technology is actually integral to the themes of the movie. And Scorsese, who is a true artist of cinema, is using the technology in ways you've never seen before, which is very exciting to watch, even during the sections where the movie isn't as much so.

Hour One introduces us to Hugo Cabret, the orphaned son of a clockmaker who has started to learn his father's trade when the father tragically dies in a fire. He lives for a time with his inebriate uncle, Claude, with whom he lives in the walls of the train station and who teaches him how to wind the station clocks. The most important of Hugo's possessions are a wind-up automaton that his father found abandoned in a museum where he worked and a notebook with pictures and notes on how the automaton was built and which Hugo has been using to try and repair it. He's been stealing parts from toys at a small toy booth in the station, but the owner of the store catches him one day and punishes him by taking his notebook. Hugo eventually learns, with the help of the toymaker's goddaughter, Isabelle, that the toymaker is actually Georges Méliès, who was a pioneer filmmaker at the turn of the century (and, incidentally, the designer and maker of the automaton). He made something like 500 films, but his most famous is A Trip to the Moon. You may recognize this still from it.

And here's where the movie FINALLY finds its purpose. There's a bit of talk about halfway through the film about machines having a purpose, and that when they're broken they can't fulfill that, and how people are much the same way. This movie is (I suspect unintentionally) the perfect metaphor for that, because it doesn't find its purpose until this point. Méliès is a very sad man. He doesn't like to talk about his time as a filmmaker, and possibly has forgotten or blocked out a great deal of those memories, because he believes no one cares about or remembers his work. It is unfathomably tragic that nearly all his films were melted to make shoe heels or else recycled to make new film and that (we believe at the time) there is only one of his films that remains intact. And the rest of the film is as much a meditation on the magic of filmmaking and the importance of film preservation - a longtime passion of Scorsese's - as it is a conclusion to the story.

This second half is simply magical, and I think the movie might have worked better if it had pruned or truncated the story of Hugo and centered the film much more on Méliès and his legacy. Ben Kingsley gives easily the most compelling performance as Méliès, and Helen McCrory is almost as delightful as his wife, Jeanne. I can't quite put into words how amazing the behind-the-scenes filmmaking scenes are, as well as the stunning recreations of some of early cinema's most iconic shots. If I were only to go by this section of the film, this would be my favorite of the year, hands-down. But I can't quite ignore the first half.

I really would like to see this again and give it another shot (though I can't imagine I'll have the time). The reason for this is because I suffered what is easily the WORST audience I have ever had the misfortune to sit with. There was a loud-talking woman who had to be emphatically told (twice!) to be quiet just as the movie was starting. There were so many latecomers - some of them as much as an hour into the film's running time - that I lost count. And the man a few seats down from me was (perhaps unconsciously) tapping his feet continuously throughout the film as if he was practicing choreography. It's possible I might have been more receptive to the film if I hadn't spent most of it in a rage at my fellow moviegoers. It was Thanksgiving Day, and I know there were people there who don't get to the movies frequently, but that's no excuse. Audiences like this are a huge reason why people don't go out to the movies anymore.

The Muppets

Alrighty, here we go. The Muppets. Bottom line. Absolutely back to the spirit of the classic Muppet movies and the television show. If you have any lingering affection for these creatures at all, you will enjoy it. I have a couple of quibbles, but the joy here is far too large to be undone.

There. If you plan to see it, that's all you need. Read nothing. Watch no clips. Just let the joy wash over you, then come back. You know, if you want. No one's making you, jeez!

And now, if you've seen it already, here's a closer look.

You know the story. Even if you'd never seen a trailer or read anything else about it, you could have guessed without much difficulty. The Muppet Studios in LA are about to be torn down by an evil oil magnate unless the Muppets can raise the $10 million needed to keep it. So they decide to put on a show - a telethon to raise the money. It all starts, however, with a man named Gary and his muppet brother Walter.

Walter is the Muppets' biggest fan. He grew up watching the show and the movies, and Kermit and the gang were his refuge when the world wasn't so kind to him. It's not easy bein' felt, yo. So when Walter gets a chance to go on a trip to Hollywood and visit the old Muppet Studio, it's the greatest day of his life. What he doesn't know until he gets there is that the studio has fallen on hard times. No one is there now except an old guide giving $5 tours, almost all the attractions are closed, and everything is in a serious state of disrepair and disuse. He sneaks into Kermit's old office and overhears a plan to turn the studios into a Muppet Museum, but that's just a cover. The greasy Tex Richman plans to tear everything down and dig for oil.

Walter is deeply upset - he screams for like five minutes - and he's determined to Do Something. He and Gary, along with Gary's lady friend Mary, find Kermit's house (or mansion, rather) and give him the bad news. Kermit is saddened but doesn't really know what can be done. He sings The Most Heartbreaking Song in the History of Time ("Pictures in My Head"), whose title I can't even type without tearing up. If you have ever had people who were once incredibly important to you and who you couldn't imagine drifting away from, only to find that eventually that's exactly what happens, this song was designed to make you cry like a crying crier who cries. I thought the transition into this song was a little weird and abrupt, but forgot all about it when the song started. Definitely the best of the new songs.

Kermit thinks it'll be impossible to get the gang back together, but Walter tells him he should at least try. So they hit the road (and eventually travel by map LOL) and track everyone down. Along the way, the usual Muppet story absurdities crop up - e.g., Gonzo and Scooter are doing pretty dang well, so couldn't they afford to pony up some money and at least put a dent in that $10 million? Who cares - we're going to put on a show, dangit! When they've gotten everyone back but Miss Piggy, Kermit shows a strange reluctance to go and find her.

And here's where the movie hit the biggest snag for me. I have always been a huge Kermit/Piggy fan. You might say they were the first couple I ever "shipped," and their romance has always been one of my favorite parts of the show and the movies. A love so powerful it transcended not only species but animal grouping, it was always fraught with conflict (mainly, I think, because she expended so much more energy on their relationship than he did). But it was just ... meant to be, you know? I'm fine with them having drifted apart, and I appreciate that they were genuinely trying to explore their relationship and make it feel real and textured. But the way the two characters are written here is just weird and doesn't feel like them at all. It's like it was written by someone who doesn't quite get what made them tick - like a Harmonian trying to write Ron/Hermione. Well, not quite that bad, but it just felt off, and that was kind of disappointing. I did mostly love the scene where they're walking the streets of Paris - she in a beret and he in a turtleneck, like they tripped and fell into a Jean-Luc Godard film. But again, the writing is not quite there. Perhaps it would have been a bit better if we'd seen flashbacks to what drove them apart instead of all the telling. I don't know. Minor quibble, I guess, but it felt major because it had to do with my favorite aspect of the movies/show.

BUUUUT, back to the good stuff. Kermit and the gang manage to get two hours of broadcast time for their telethon, even though everyone has told them they're not relevant and no one cares about them anymore. But they need a celebrity host, and no matter how many eighties stars Kermit calls (the only people in his Rolodex) no one is interested. They get desperate and decide to try and plead with Tex Richman, but he does an awesomely bad rap number about how that's not going to happen, and to top it off, he's not only going to take the theater, he's going to take the brand name and all the character names and start his own muppet show, with edgier muppets - to cater to the more cynical world they all now live in.

But hope is not lost, and in typical Muppet fashion, everything comes together at the last minute. I loved that the theater was empty at first, but that it filled up over the course of the two hours as people realized how much the Muppets had meant to them over the years. What I loved more was that people in my audience started singing along with the songs. Notably, the theme song ("It's time to play the music! It's time to light the lights!") and the One, the Only, don't pretend you don't know it's the Ultimate Heart-Tugger "The Rainbow Connection." If I thought I'd cried all my tears at "Pictures in My Head," I was so wrong. There are some wildly funny musical moments, too, such as the barber shop quartet singing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl also has a cameo early in the film) and and Camilla and the chicken chorus doing CeeLo's ... I guess it would be "Cluck You." ;-)

I loved the message in the end, which, like all messages in Muppet movies, is pretty standard stuff but good to hear anyway. And the moment at the end, when Kermit opens the theater door, genuinely took me by surprise. And of course brought back ALL THE CREYS.

There are some excellent cameos, most of which I won't spoil, but - hey, you're not supposed to be reading this until you've seen it anyway! My favorite is Emily Blunt, giving a nod to her Devil Wears Prada character as Miss Piggy's assistant. Oh, and HELLO THERE, MICKEY ROONEY! He was a muppet before there were Muppets, don't you think? Loved all the throwbacks to old Muppet numbers (great use of "Mahna Mahna") and covers of famous songs, and I liked most of the new songs, too. I already mentioned "Pictures in My Head" and the lolarious Tex Richman Rap, but there's also "Me Party," which in addition to being a great disco sendup, is like the story of my life - pretty much every day is a Me Party. :P And there's a great Serious Character-Building Song called "Man or Muppet" (Jim Parsons, FTW!).

It's not perfect, even for a Muppet movie, but it's close enough. It's good to know that the world hasn't gone so far into the cynical that the Muppets can't bring us back to a place where genuine sweetness trumps trash and hipster ironic commentary.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Descendants

Alexander Payne hasn't made a feature film since 2004's Sideways, which many consider his best (though About Schmidt gets the crown, as far as moi is concerned). And while his latest film, The Descendants, doesn't quite rise (though it comes close) to the excellence of either of those films - again, as far as moi is concerned - it is probably the likeliest of his films to date to get some serious Oscar ground, especially as regards its star, George Clooney.

The Descendants

You know the basic story if you've seen the trailer. George Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii, and Matt's wife Elizabeth is in a coma after a boating accident. Oh yeah, and she was also cheating on him - a fact he doesn't learn until after it's too late to confront her about it. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to tell you this, because we learn it very early on - Elizabeth is not going to come out of her coma, and according to the instructions set down in her will, the doctors can only care for her in that state for a short while. So it's time for Matt to get in touch with family and friends and begin a long and painful goodbye. And the knowledge that she'd been having an affair makes it all the more excruciating. Add into this mix Matt and Elizabeth's two daughters, 17 year old Alex and 10 year old Scottie. Alex, played by the remarkable Shailene Woodley, is a wild child, frequently indulging in booze and older men, but she's actually surprisingly pulled together considering all this. Scottie is out of control in her own way, often getting into trouble for her smart (and occasionally foul) mouth.

Matt is, at first glance, the stereotypical "too busy to emotionally connect" male, but Clooney's portrayal and the writing of the character win you over very quickly. I particularly love his line about thinking a parent with means should give their children enough money to do something, but not enough for them to do nothing. This is significant to the B story, because Matt is the trustee for his family's ancestral land (his family's line traces back to Kamehameha I, hence the movie's title) - one of the increasingly few untouched bits of paradise in the state. He's under pressure from not only his family but the entire state of Hawaii to do the right thing with the land. The family wants to sell, because the sale will make them a lot of money and it's an incredibly complicated process to keep the land. Most of the rest of the state think it would unconscionable to sell. The family wants to somewhat compromise by taking the option that, while paying less than other bids, will at least keep the money in Hawaii. But Matt's more immediate family matters understandably overshadow this decision for most of the film.

The movie itself is nothing incredibly new. It reminded me a bit of Terms of Endearment in the way it handled family comedy/drama and hospital bedside tragedy. It doesn't weave the comedy and drama together as successfully as it might have. In fact, it feels like the second act is almost a different movie entirely, bringing the levity that the first and third acts make necessary. The movie has some really extraordinary moments of emotional frankness. That's partly the writing - I especially love the moment where Matt has an extended scene of yelling and cursing at his comatose wife for her infidelity before chastising his daughter for doing the same thing later. But where the movie really shines is in the superb performances, pretty much across the board.

Shailene Woodley is fantastic as the older daughter, Alex. Her reaction to hearing the news about her mother is absolutely heart-shattering and her chemistry with her screen dad, Clooney, makes some of the movie's greatest moments. Amara Miller, as Scottie, is your typical movie kid for a lot of the film, but she gets some great moments, especially toward the end. I don't think I need to tell those of you who know me well how much the whole situation of most of this movie affected me, and I don't think any moment in this movie broke me more than when they break the news to Scottie, much later in the film. Judy Greer, I'm glad to see, has finally broken out of the "quirky/evil best friend in a rom-com" hell and gotten to do some great things lately, and her role as the wife of the Other Man is really wonderful, especially her final scene. Beau Bridges plays a character that MUST have been a straight-up homage to his brother's most memorable character, The Dude. And Robert Forster is rather amazing in the couple of scenes he's in, playing Matt's father-in-law. And I kind of loved Nick Krause as Alex's hilarious stoner boyfriend. He brought humor where it was desperately needed, but even he has a serious side.

But the star of the show, and not just in billing terms, is George Clooney. I was intrigued before seeing this by the idea of him playing a husband and father, as Clooney has eschewed anything resembling that lifestyle in his own personal life. This is the kind of character you've seen dozens of actors play in other movies. Another director, fifteen years ago, would have cast Tom Hanks. Sixty or seventy years ago, it would have been Jimmy Stewart. It certainly wouldn't have been Clark Cable or Cary Grant, the easiest parallels for Clooney that come to my mind. We've just never seen him play this kind of character. He's not the warmest or most successful of fathers in the beginning, but there's a real connection with his kids and a desire to do what his wife would have wanted, even though she doesn't particularly deserve it except in a "she's dying, cut her some slack" kind of way, that makes him a sort of hero over the course of the movie. And when he makes his big decision at the end of the film, and there are people who object strongly (and with a lot of passive aggression, I might add), I wanted to badly to jump into the screen and tell them to [BADWORD] off, because in that two hours of storytelling, this character gained my trust and I felt that whatever decision he made, after the journey he'd been on, was going to be the right one.

It's not perfect, but I loved loved loved this movie. I'm not sure I could see it again soon, because hoo boy is it emotional, but I highly recommend it. It's rated R, but it's barely an R (for language and, I'm almost positive, nothing else). It's getting serious buzz as an Oscar frontrunner, but I have a feeling that may disappear next week when The Artist steals everyone's hearts.

Friday, November 18, 2011


I was 'meh' on this beforehand. It was on my schedule, but I was ready to cross it off if there was going to be an issue of making time for it. I was also further annoyed that NONE of the AMC theaters in Manhattan (which is the only chain in NYC that does any kind of matinee pricing) were screening the film in 2D. But then I saw some wonderfully ecstatic responses from a couple of AICN screenings. So I ponied up the extra money for 3D but brought my own glasses - the nice ones we were given at BNAT1138 that you can use as sunglasses and that don't give you the 3D headache.


Let me start by giving you the bottom line. If you loved 300, this movie is right up your alley. In fact, you might think it's the same movie. Scantily clad warriors doing battle against impossible odds, with gods in the mix and plenty of highly stylized violence ... sound familiar? It did to me, but I didn't really care because it was all so AWESOME!

Henry Cavill - who you may or may not remember as the jerkwad Humphrey from Stardust - takes the lead as Theseus and shows us why he's going to rock like a hurricane as Superman in the forthcoming Man of Steel. Mickey Rourke is the baddie, and Slumdog Millionaire's Frieda Pinto is the beautiful virgin oracle. John "Ollivander" Hurt plays a wise old man who is much more than he seems. And an actor named Luke Evans who I've never seen in a movie in my life, but he looks FOR ALL THE WORLD like Battlestar Galactica and Dollhouse star Tahmoh Penikett, plays Zeus (also, he'll soon be appearing as Bard the Bowman in The Hobbit). Oh, and one of the lesser known Cullens from the Twilight movies plays Poseidon. Stephen Dorff is in it, too.

The basic story is that the ruthless king Hyperion (Rourke) wants to declare war on the gods. To do this, he's going to release the Titans (who are not what you might think they are from seeing Clash of the Titans), and to do THAT he needs this special bow that was forged by Ares. Theseus, with the help of his fellow slaves and the lovely oracle, must lead the fight to stop him. Now, I'm a huge fan of Greek mythology, and while I was fine with the different way the gods were portrayed here, my one beef with the movie was that there wasn't more of them. Because when they finally join the fight, it is a beautiful, slow-motion-y, head-exploding thing to behold.

This movie was made by Tarsem Singh, whose first film was The Cell, which had a fairly forgettable story but a truly unforgettable visual aesthetic. I didn't see his later film, The Fall, but Immortals is cut very much from the same cloth as The Cell. The visuals are like nothing you've ever seen before, and even though it's not quite as coherent a movie as 300, I liked the look of it a bit more (notably, the color palette, which I found more pleasing to the eye than 300's nearly monochromatic look).

Like I said, if you dug 300, you will probably like this a lot. Yeah, it's essentially trash, but it's GLORIOUS trash. If you can find a theater that's showing this in 2D, I don't think it will lessen the experience at all. In fact, I think huge chunks of the movie aren't even in 3D anyway. (Though Frieda Pinto's naked bootay gets the up close, 3D treatment, if you're into that sort of thing.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

J. Edgar

First, let's get this out of the way. I am a mere (ha!) 36 years old and was not even born yet when J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972. The only reference I really had for him was Bob Hoskins's brief appearance in Oliver Stone's Nixon. I knew nothing about the man going into this movie, except that he essentially created the FBI as we now know it and that he was rumored to be a homosexual and occasional cross-dresser. Those latter details have so permeated our culture's portrait of him that I didn't know until a couple of months ago that these were unconfirmed rumors. Well, I guess they'd have to have been, given the time period.

Not that that matters, as both his (repressed) homosexuality and the cross-dressing are accepted as fact in this film, though perhaps not in the way you might expect. The film goes back and forth between the young Hoover, in the very first days of his leadership in the Bureau of Investigation, and the older Hoover, in the Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon years. Both versions are played rather spectacularly by Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, the "old age" makeup is pretty bad and at times distracting, but the performance is so good - a true "movie star" performance - that most of the time you can forget about it. The older Hoover is dictating a memoir and telling stories (in more senses than one) about his early days in the FBI, notably his part in the investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping. These stories of his professional life show him as a man desperate to be respected and admired, and desperate for his Bureau to be respected. I don't know how accurate this is, but the film indirectly credits Hoover with the implementation of a lot of the basic tools of investigation that we take for granted today (i.e., fingerprinting and keeping a crime scene free from contamination). There's a great scene, when he arrives at the Lindbergh estate, where he chastises the local police for carelessly traipsing over potential evidence and handling the ransom letter with bare hands. It's bizarre to think, in our current culture that is so saturated in police dramas and investigative storytelling, that it wasn't long ago when most people had no idea how important that kind of thing could be.

The movie doesn't raise Hoover up too high, though. It's unclear how much of the older Hoover's flashbacks are actually being dictated to the memoir writer, and that could very well be by design. Hoover often acted officially out of personal motives (jealousy and paranoia), and the film definitely doesn't let him off the hook for that, but you can tell that Hoover's version of events has been in his head so long and so firmly that whatever he's exaggerated or rationalized to himself has become the truth in his mind.

Hoover's political life story in the film is wrapped around his personal story, a story that I suspect no one alive can do more than guess at and extrapolate from facts and testimony. We see his social awkwardness, which the script attributes both to his devotion to his career and to a bitter struggle between societal expectations and his own desires. He attempts to woo and even propose marriage to typist Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) after knowing her only a few days, but seems dreadfully uncomfortable around other women. His mother (played by Judi Dench) loves him very much, and quite possibly knows the truth about his ambivalence to women, but makes it unmistakably clear that she does not approve of homosexuals (her conversation with Edgar about "Daffy" is devastating).

Which brings me to Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, perhaps better known as The Social Network's Winklevii), who Hoover made his Deputy at the Bureau (though he was nowhere near qualified) and who was possibly the love of his life. There were some giggles in the audience during their scenes together and the obvious tension between them, but this story is really the heart of the movie. What's heartbreaking is that these two men clearly love one another, but while Tolson doesn't have a problem subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) expressing his feelings for Edgar, Edgar never reciprocates any of those sentiments and it may be that he can't even admit his feelings to his own self. Their feelings for each other are never played for a laugh, and it's just so unbelievably sad to see how much they mean to each other and know that they can't even properly express it, even in private. The image of Hammer's Tolson reading a love letter, written by someone else but that Edgar had once partially read aloud, is one of the most moving things I've seen in a film this year - seeing him agonizing over things he heard in Edgar's voice and wishes had been addressed to him.

I have to address the cross-dressing thing, because the film does, and I was very impressed with how they did it. Again, it wasn't done for a laugh or even a hint of a joke. Of course, it wouldn't have been in the movie at all if there hadn't been the rumors, but it's not an "oh yeah, and he wore dresses" kind of thing. It's a legitimate expression of grief, and I totally bought it.

This film does have some issues. I thought the flashbacks were occasionally a little awkward, and as I said before the aging makeup was mostly awful. It wasn't so bad on Naomi Watts, but DiCaprio and Hammer looked like something from Madame Tussaud's. Again, though, the performances more than make up for it. I did feel like some of the historical cameos were more impressions than characters (e.g., Burn Notice's Jeffrey Donovan as Bobby Kennedy), but they weren't too distracting.

In the director's chair is the Man, the Myth, the Legend - Clint Eastwood. If you've seen any of his other films, you probably know what to expect here. It's not bombastic but quiet, steady, and sure. Eastwood also composed the score for the film, which is a very subtle, mostly (perhaps purely) piano score. A critic made the observation that Eastwood spent his career as an actor playing men who were above the law, like The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry, and that he's spent his career as a director telling stories about how these kinds of men are obsolete, which is part of what this movie is about. I can't help observing, though, that - for better or worse - the FBI is what it is today because of Hoover, and whatever else he might feel about his legacy, he'd probably be proud of that.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Quick thoughts on some recent releases

I've been so busy knocking horror classics off my to-watch list, I've been remiss (well, not completely, but more remiss than I'd like) with newer releases, particularly in writing about them. But here are some brief thoughts on some movies that are in theaters now.

The Ides of March - I love George Clooney as a director, but for me this movie falls short of Good Night and Good Luck and even Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The second half works more than the first, where everyone seems to be working too hard to be their characters, especially Evan Rachel Wood, who's trying way too hard to be the sexy intern. Ryan Gosling is quite good, and so is Clooney himself, but only once they're both allowed to get to the dark side of their characters. The most impressive work, though, comes from Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as the head of the campaign. His final scene with Gosling is amazing, but it's not quite enough to overcome the first half. Again, for me. Your mileage may vary.

Take Shelter - I've been a fan of Michael Shannon's since his breakthrough performance in Revolutionary Road, so it's wonderful to see him take the lead here. His character is having visions and experiences that lead him to believe that an apocalyptic storm is coming. He's a modern day Noah, doing things that convince everyone else that he's crazy, but firmly believing that his actions are absolutely necessary. Jessica Chastain (in roughly her sixteenth movie role this year - I exaggerate, but she's been in a LOT this year) turns in another great performance as Shannon's long-suffering wife. Like Martha Marcy May Marlene below, I think I like the performances and the idea better than the film itself, but it's still pretty remarkable.

Footloose (2011) - Believe it or not, I had NEVER seen the original before a few weeks ago. I absolutely loved it, of course, and was really glad to see that John Lithgow's preacher character wasn't a caricature of religious fanatics. I really loved the relationship between him and Ariel, and that you could see that he was not in favor of all the morality measures. I was really struck by how much I loved the music (especially as I already knew all the songs). And I don't care if it's an unpopular opinion, I had a way bigger crush on Chris Penn in this movie than I did on Kevin Bacon. The remake is, in my opinion, REALLY good. One of the key changes that actually improves on the original is that they begin the film with the car wreck that we only hear about as backstory in the original. We see the pain it causes the community, and even though you know it's an overreaction, you can understand (especially in our 9/11 culture) why they put all the ridiculous laws in place. The tragedy hangs over the rest of the movie and gives it a bit more poignancy. I loved that they used so many of the original songs, albeit mostly new versions of them. The slowed down "Holding Out For A Hero" was a favorite of mine, and much more suited to the moment in which it was used than Bonnie Tyler's version was in the original. The one thing I thought was not quite as good as in the original movie was the relationship between Ariel and her father. It's still pretty good, but not as layered and not as warm. There were SO MANY nods to the original, though. The whole film begins with the original Kenny Loggins "Footloose," Ren drives the yellow bug, and he and Ariel even wear almost the exact same outfits to the dance that Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer wore in the original - the red jacket and the white ruffled dress!

The Woman - Even without the Sundance controversy (there's YouTube video of a guy sort of snapping at the screening there), I was interested in this because of its director, Lucky McKee. McKee's wonderful May played at my first BNAT and Sick Girl (his Masters of Horror entry) played BNAT 7. He's an interesting filmmaker and his films all seem to heavily revolve around women. This is kind of a revolting film, but not in a bad way. The plot centers around a man who finds a feral woman in the woods and brings her home, chains her up in the barn, and attempts to "domesticate" her. He recruits his family to help him, and the domestication inevitably involves him (as well as his son) taking sexual advantage of her. The climax is completely over the top and operatic, but fairly consistent with McKee's style. It's kind of a fable and not meant to be taken literally.

Martha Marcy May Marlene - I'd heard raves about this movie, but I'd say it's a good film (not a great one) with great performances, notably that of Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to Mary Kate and Ashley), who plays the titular Martha (and Marcy May and, for one scene, Marlene). The film goes back and forth between Martha's refuge in her sister's home and her life in the commune from which she escaped. You're never quite sure why she joined the commune in the first place, nor at which precise point she decides that it's no longer somewhere she needs to be. That's probably by design, but it keeps the viewer at more of a distance than I like. Oscar nominee John Hawkes (I love typing that) is amazing as the commune/cult leader, and he's such a talented actor that he never comes off as creepy as characters like that often are, and you can totally see why Martha would have fallen under his spell. Sarah Paulson is the other great performance here, as Martha's sister, whose guilt and paranoia over her sister's circumstances slowly unravel her over the course of the movie.

It's the most spook-tastic time of the year!

As is my habit in October, I've been gorging myself on horror movies - more than usual, I mean. I'm making a concerted effort to fill in gaps in my genre knowledge, which means I've exposed myself to some real gems.

The Stuff - Oh, how I wish I could describe to you how amazing this little 80s nugget from Larry Cohen is, because a plot summary won't do it. "The Stuff" is an edible substance that becomes a huge craze all over the world, replacing ice cream as the dessert of choice. But the movie's tagline says it all - are you eating it or is it eating you? LOVED this movie. Michael Moriarty is genius. Larry Cohen even more so.

The Howling - I'm not sure why I'd never seen this before. This may be the best werewolf movie ever, and I'm pretty sure I like it more than American Werewolf in London (which I also love, but not as much as The Howling). Most notorious scene is obviously the moonlight wolfsex scene, but the transformations are really spectacular. There's an actor named Dennis Dugan in this, and I couldn't keep myself from remembering him from a trailer for another film - one of those "ain't those gays hilarious" comedies from the 1970s called Norman, Is That You? (starring Red Foxx). Dugan is also the man who's directed most of those horrible Adam Sandler comedies, including the forthcoming Jack and Jill. He's fine in The Howling, but I'm afraid his career prejudiced me against his character. :P Oh, and Dick Miller is in this, which makes this movie 100% cooler than anything not including Dick Miller.

Something Wicked This Way Comes - If you're looking for something not terribly scary and not too gross, this is an EXCELLENT Halloween flick for the family. Reminds me a lot of Stephen King stories, which is inevitable, I guess, as the novel was supposedly a huge influence on King's work. Jason Robards is great in this as the guilt-ridden father. Jonathan Pryce is wonderful, too, as the sinister and aptly named Mr. Dark.

Creepshow - Speaking of Stephen King, this was one I'd never seen in its entirety. It's an anthology film (or portmanteau, if you will), and features five stories, all written by King, with a bookend story featuring TOM ATKINS OMG. The fourth story, "The Crate," is probably my favorite, mostly because it has the awesome Adrienne Barbeau in it ("I know all the best stores."). The one with Leslie Nielson and Ted Danson is great, too. The one starring King himself is a bit weak, and "Father's Day" seems far too short (though it does have the most fantastic, incongruous dancing-around-the-house scene EVER). The standout, though, is the last segment, "They're Creeping Up On You," with E.G. Marshall as the germophobe whose pristine apartment is completely overrun by cockroaches.

[REC] - This is another one of those "found footage" films, a la Cloverfield, and it was remade almost shot for shot a couple years after its release as a movie called Quarantine (directed by the Dowdle brothers, who also made the BNAT9 dud The Poughkeepsie Tapes). This was quite good, and I loved that the sickness was thought to be what people in older times believed was demon possession. (Not that I don't believe demon possession is a real thing, but it was an interesting detail.)

The Fly (1986) - Oh, WHY couldn't Cronenberg have done Breaking Dawn?! I know it's only a dream, but the horrible baby!Brundlefly birth is AMAZING. Jeff Goldblum is so great in this, but the star of the show is the special effects. This movie is a perfect example of why I will wave my flag for actual makeup effects and practical stuff over CGI any day. Also, this movie is SO GROSS EWWWW.

Candyman - Yes, I totally believed in the legend when I was growing up, and NO, I will not ever stare into a mirror and say it five times. Nope. This is a darn good horror movie, with a great "is this real or is the character crazy" dilemma. The ending is your typical horror movie gotcha, but after what happens with the character in question ... it's kind of satisfying, to be honest.

The '81 Slasher Triple Feature - All three of these were released in 1981, kind of the Golden Year for the subgenre. It's interesting to look at these and see how much they have in common, down to specific scenes and shots, in some cases.

The Burning - Classic campsite slasher with some notable "before they were stars" performances - Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens (and Fisher Stevens' ass in the World's Most Unappealing Moon Shot). Half of this movie is Meatballs, but when the horror kicks in, it REALLY does. The most famous (and infamous) scene in the film is the Raft Scene of Death, where the killer abandons the traditional one-by-one stalk-and-slay and lays waste to half a dozen kids AT THE SAME TIME. Also unconventional in that, instead of a final girl, it's a final boy - a boy who is not even a terribly sympathetic character.

The Prowler - This is touted by horror fans as a fairly legendary early installment in the slasher genre. I didn't really see what was so special about it, other than OMG A GAZEBO DEATH in the first ten minutes. This has a lot in common with the original My Bloody Valentine, which also came out in 1981, notably its use of the party/event where something bad happened, leading to the town never having the party/event again (at least for several years), leading to the inevitable reestablishment of the party/event, which also inevitably leads to the something bad returning. The killer even wears a mask that looks a lot like Harry Warden's gas mask from MBV.

Friday the 13th Part 2 - The last F13 movie with any kind of respectability. Ginny (played by the incredible Amy Steel) is one of the great final girls in ... finalgirldom. Right up there with Chainsaw's Sally and Halloween's Laurie, as far as I'm concerned. The way she thinks through and outsmarts Jason - down to putting on the dead Mrs. Voorhees's smelly sweater and pretending to be her - is above and beyond the typical final girl badassery. Oh, and the opening murder of whatsername (the final girl from the first movie) is pretty dang awesome - Jason frikkin' TRACKED HER DOWN!

The "Peter Jackson Is Twisted!" Double Feature

Dead Alive - Possibly the most disgusting movie I've ever seen, but also really funny. You'd never guess, just going from the LOTR movies, that this kind of thing was lurking inside that sweet Kiwi man. There's a sequence where the hero is fighting an evil baby in the park that is one of the most hysterical things I've seen in a movie. The climax, though - where the hero experiences an all-too-literal Freudian rebirth - is seriously disturbing.

Bad Taste - This is one of Jackson's first films, and while Dead Alive (or Braindead, as it was originally called) put Jackson on the map, this film gave him a career. It is low budget genius, and Jackson actually plays a couple of roles in it. It's kind of awesome that this and Braindead were the kind of films he was known for when he got the Lord of the Rings gig.

The "Mannequins are EVIL" Double Feature

Tourist Trap - Classic stranded-in-the-middle-of-nowhere plot, but with CREEPY MANNEQUINS and TELEKINESIS! Normally, my big screen is the best way to see any film, but I should NOT have seen *this* film that way. First ten minutes kind of broke me. If you find mannequins creepy AT ALL, this movie will freak you out. Chuck Connors is awesome in this, though, and oh, that last shot is hilariously disturbing.

Maniac! - I had been so scared of seeing this, but coming right on the heels of Tourist Trap it was a breeze. This is a pretty great flick, though - one that gets slapped with the misogyny label pretty often (and wrongly, in my opinion). The gore is wonderful, Joe Spinell is fantastic, and it's a glimpse at that creepy, grimy, early 80s New York that a lot of grindhouse movies exploited so well. It also, like Creepshow, has a wonderfully incongruous musical moment, when the main character (Frank) goes to a photo shoot and we hear the wonderful "Showdown," which has the following classic lyrics:

Put on something nice
Just in case you die.
You'll leave a pretty corpse behind--
Yippee ... ki yo ... ki yaaaaay!

Asylum (NOTHING is more awesome than this image!)
I *LOVED* this movie! This 1972 anthology movie stars Peter "Van Helsing" Cushing, Herbert "Inspector Dreyfus" Lom, Frank "Clockwork Orange" Magee, Robert "Jesus of Nazareth" Powell, Charlotte Rampling, and Swedish siren Britt Ekland. There are a handful of stories, all told by patients in an insane asylum, and Robert Powell has to guess which one of them is the former head of the hospital - as a test to see if he gets the job as the former head's replacement. "Frozen Fear" is brilliant, especially when the chopped pieces of a dead body reanimate and get with the murdering. But the greatest of the stories is "Mannikins of Horror," in which Herbert Lom's character has built a little robot version of himself (with real human guts (!!!), which you see when the robot gets crushed). There is nothing more magical than the sight of that little robot sneaking around (very slowly) and hiding in shadows to escape detection.

The Sentinel - This is another great "crazy-ass 70s" movie, in which a model rents an unbelievably affordable apartment in New York, only to find out that the building is a portal to hell and that she's been chosen to be the new gatekeeper. There's lots of hilarious things in it, such as Burgess Meredith throwing a birthday party for his cat (which he forces to wear a little party hat). It was fairly controversial when it came out, too, as the director chose to cast deformed people as the demons for the climax (I recognized one of them as an actress from Mutations, which played BNAT 6). This is also another all-star cast - the aforementioned Meredith, Chris Sarandon, Ava Gardner, Beverly D'Angelo, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, a mustachioed Jerry Orbach, Sylvia Miles, and Eli Wallach, among others.

Trick or Treat - Not to be confused with 2007's Trick 'R Treat. This is ... not a great movie, horror or otherwise. It's a slice of 1980s cheese, starring (STARRING!) the kid who played "Skippy" on Family Ties. There are some cool cameos from Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne and some rockin' (if still pretty bad) 80s hair metal music, but it's not great and its relationship to Halloween (as you'd think would be substantial, given the title) is tenuous. The thing that I will remember it for, though, is where I saw it. There's a little theater in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) called The Nitehawk, and until the Alamo Drafthouse decides to open a theater here, this is the closest thing we've got to it. They've got the "dinner and a movie" gimmick, and you can tell that they've got a similar love for movies that the Drafthouse does, but they're just now kind of building their programming cred, which is what makes the Drafthouse stand out. This month was, I think, their first attempt to actually do non-first-run movies, and they're off to a good start, but there's a long way to go. My favorite part of the screening was the series of grindhouse trailers that made up the pre-show - there must have been about twenty, and almost all of them were spectacular and very reminiscent of my fondest memories at the Alamo. The trailers didn't belong to the theater, though, and it makes me sad that that won't be a regular feature of screenings. I understand they do have clips and things playing before all the movies, but ... I'm so spoiled on the Drafthouse that I fear it will pale in comparison.