At Lawyers, Guns, & Money, Steven Attewell reminds us that Captain America has always been an FDR progressive. “[U]nlike other patriotic superheroes (like Superman, for example), Captain America is meant to represent the America of the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, and the Second Bill of Rights – a particular progressive ideal.”
Which reminds me, I was glad to see Cap so obviously take arms against the post-9/11 GWOT surveillance/preemption apparatus in Captain America: The Winter Soldier a few weeks ago. CA:TWS is top-tier Marvel, right next to The Avengers and Iron Man, and an even better film than the quality first installment. I particularly enjoyed the second-act twists involving Operation Paperclip and a UNIVAC, and if nothing else, the movie has furnished us with another very funny meme in “Hail Hydra.”
That being said, the third act slips off the rails some — state-of-the-art aircraft carriers with easily penetrable overrides, ho-hum — and the death count here, while not as egregious as in Man of Steel, still veers well into the absurd. When it comes time to face Ultron, how ’bout going easy with those grenades, Cap.
You know the drill by this point. This is yet another of Anderson’s precious dollhouse-and-train-set movies, a Tintin comic brought to life, with all of the usual twee affectations and tics we have come to expect. (If you thought Wes Anderson movies were too white before, this flick is so white it has a ski chase.) And for whatever reason, this time the wall-to-wall bric-a-brac aesthetic just did not connect for me.
Part of the problem, I think, is that Hotel is bereft of what is usually one of the sharpest arrows in Anderson’s quiver: There are no artfully placed pop songs anywhere in this movie, which, now I think on it, is one of the ways his films in the past have been best able to escape their elaborate artifice to establish real emotion or human connection.
But the other, bigger issue here is tone [mild spoilers to follow]: The Grand Budapest Hotel felt to me like it’s heedlessly skating along the surface of tragedy. Even notwithstanding a dead cat joke which put me in a foul temper (too soon), there are stabs at black humor here — chopped off fingers, a decapitation, prison shivvings — which jar with the movie’s antic frivolity, and suggest black humor really isn’t Anderson’s forte. He’s fine at creating one particular, immediately identifiable as “Andersonian” tone, but apparently not so great at modulating it.
Along those lines, not that you can’t or shouldn’t make a comedy about the horrors of World War II, but I found something off-putting about, say, the cutesy alternate-universe Gestapo banners (“ZZ”) fluttering all through the hotel while our heroes are engaged in their latest madcap Keystone Kops chase. I’ve been short of sleep this week, so it may just be that I wasn’t in the mood for it. Still, for me, The Grand Budapest Hotel didn’t take.
Whatever its other faults, 2012 was actually a pretty solid year at the cineplex. In terms of great movies, the crop wasn’t as rich as, say, 1999. (To name just a few from that year: Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Matrix, Three Kings, The Iron Giant, Election) But, in general terms, I thought most of the movies that came out this past year avoided obvious pitfalls and delivered at or better than the level they promised.
For example, almost all of the year’s superhero movies were surprisingly good — no real Green Lantern-y whiffs this year. Most of 2012’s unnecessary sequels and even-more-unnecessary remakes — MIB III and Amazing Spiderman, say — turned out better than expected. Horror moved out of the serial killer/torture pr0n ghetto in both conventional (The Women in Black) and unconventional (Cabin in the Woods) ways. Lowbrow, could-be-terrible comedies like 21 Jump Street and Ted actually had some solid laughs to them. And even the intentional B-movies — like Dredd, Lockout, or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — all had their moments, even if I can’t recommend some of those in their entirety.
In any case, now that the last few 2012 films have hit DC theaters, and my dissertoral defense obligations are now behind me, it’s at last time for the usual end-of-year list ’round here. Since I didn’t do any individual reviews this past year — I still haven’t decided if those will return for 2013 — I’ve upped the 2012 list to 25 movies, and, at the end, added a few thoughts on some of the others that crossed my field of vision over the past twelve months. Without further ado…
1. The Dark Knight Rises: “Theatricality and deception, powerful agents for the uninitiated. But we are initiated, aren’t we, Bruce?” I know Christopher Nolan’s TDKR wasn’t as well-received in many circles as The Dark Knight, and for understandable reasons — the Joker will always be Bat’s #1 nemesis. Still, I loved this closing chapter of Nolan’s trilogy — its audacious scope, its Occupy Gotham meets the French Revolution ambience, its tight connections back to Batman Begins, its menacing yet loopy villain, its repudiation of the ends-justify-the-means arguments of TDK. (So much for the contention in that earlier film that “sometimes the truth isn’t good enough…Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” That dubious line of thinking backfires for Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Wayne, and everyone else who partook of it in the last film.)
I don’t know how The Dark Knight Rises plays to the uninitiated, since, like most fans, I went in presuming that (a) Bane would break the Bat and (b) Talia al Ghul was involved in some capacity. And admittedly there are some problems here, as in all of Nolan’s Batman movies. As soon as Alfred starts going on about French cafes in the first reel, it’s pretty clear where the film will end up eventually. (And that closing doesn’t make sense anyway, since billionaire Bruce Wayne is likely recognizable all around the world, certain Chinese prisons notwithstanding.) And speaking of prisons, how, exactly, did barefooted Bruce get back from somewhere in the Middle East into a Gotham City on lockdown?
All that being said, there was a lot to like here. I enjoyed the intricate plotting of TDKR, and how some of its central points hearkened back to lessons learned in the previous films. (For example, Bruce’s concern, in light of Joker-style escalation, about the fusion reactor becoming a weapon.) I liked how Anne Hathaway was introduced as a prototypical Anne Hathaway character — the Nervous-Nellie maid — before revealing her decidedly-unHathawayesque Selina Kyle. I was consistently entertained by Tom Hardy’s sing-songy Bane voice, including goofy flourishes like his admiring the pre-game rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. (“He has a beautiful voice!” If only Bane had subsequently gotten a chance to freestyle.) And I thought there were moments of real poetry, such as when, to suggest the passage of time while Bruce’s back healed, a Bane-commandeered Batmobile prototype rolls along a snowy Gotham side street.
One common complaint I heard about TDKR is that it’s a Batman movie without Batman — that the Caped Crusader completely disappears in the second act of the film. I don’t get it, and my theory is people who hold this view have never, personally, been broken. Granted, we all expect that Bruce Wayne will get his back fixed and get back in the game. Still, even if it’s weirdly the most mutually supportive prison on Earth (which makes more sense once you realize Bruce throws down a rope once he got to the top), I like the Lazarus Pit detour, and the ultimate payoff of seeing Bruce/Bats back in action in Act III. Fall down, get back up. Get your back broken, have Tom Conti punch that vertebrae back in. Get the s**t kicked out of you, get rid of that rope and rise.
2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay…small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it’s because I am afraid and he gives me courage.”
I can see why some folks didn’t cotton to TDKR, but I really can’t get my head around all the Haterade that’s surrounded Peter Jackson’s excellent and entertaining first installment of The Hobbit. This was a great movie! And it was easily as faithful to Tolkien’s book in both tone and story as the latter two Rings films. (For people complaining about the inclusions of Radaghast the Brown, Dol Guldur, and the White Council, I submit to you Osgiliath and Far-from-the-Bookamir. Pale Orc, meet Lurtz.)
Particularly bewildering to me is all the whining about 48 FPS. I thought An Unexpected Journey looked amazing. Granted, I spent a childhood watching Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and the like, and so I’m used to suspending my disbelief while watching images that seem video-immediate. But still. All the kvetching about the new standard was, in my opinion, totally over the top. (In terms of snapping my abilty to engage with a universe on screen, I had more issues with the operetta-ness of Les Mis. Er…are they really going to sing every single line of this movie? Russell Crowe too?)
As for all the complaints about the pacing, admittedly this first chapter was languidly told — Three and a half hours and we only got to Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire. But, y’know, I like spending time in Middle Earth — If the dwarves want to sing again, have at it, good fellows. (Just don’t go all operetta on us.) And given that, for example, GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire books are getting ten hour adaptations each, or Treme or Boardwalk Empire are enjoyable 35-hour stories where, often, not much happens plotwise, I had no problem at all with the expanded length — particularly as the additions were straight from Tolkien’s notes and not, say, 40 minutes of dwarf-tossing jokes. Let’s hope that holds through the third film, which is the one I’m really worried about.
In any event, I thought An Unexpected Journey was a great adaptation of the first third of The Hobbit, and that it threaded the needle quite well between feeling like it took place in the same world as the LotR trilogy and bringing a more lighthearted and jovial tone to Middle Earth, in keeping with the children’s book nature of The Hobbit. Bring on the incident with the Dragon.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild: “I hope you die and when you die, I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself!” I tend to consider myself a cynical and curmudgeonly fellow, so I was quite surprised that Beasts of the Southern Wild — a film I expected to find aggravatingly twee — kinda knocked me sideways. I’m not even sure if the movie would hold up to a second viewing — When I reflect on it now, those scenes in Beast that don’t feel like scraps of dream seem like they probably shouldn’t have worked.
But, at least that first time around on the big screen, this fairy tale of a young girl living on the wrong side of the Louisiana levees (a.k.a. “the Bathtub”) had a strange sort of magic to it. I particularly liked the End Times conflation of Katrina and global warming, and vibed with the film completely around the time Hushpuppy feared that the melting ice sheet would inadvertently unleash the four boar-monsters of the apocalypse. Pretty soon, we’ll all live in the Bathtub.
4. The Avengers: “Shakespeare in The Park? Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” In the 2011 list, I voiced my sneaking suspicion at #14 that Joss Whedon’s The Avengers wasn’t going to work. Consider that crow eaten. Even despite a bland opening sequence and a third act alien invasion that felt weightless, this was a surprisingly fun time at the movies, and perhaps the best popcorn film of the summer.
In particular, I liked that this was never a particularly “dark” movie. The Avengers aren’t tortured souls like Batman or even the X-Men, and Whedon, a former X-Men writer, didn’t portray them as such. Instead he was able to capture the voice of each of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes — Cap the boy scout, Thor the thunder god, etc. — throw them in a hovering aircraft carrier together, and let shenanigans and shawarma ensue.
True, Hawkeye in particular got short shrift, Scarlett Johansson was still woefully miscast as the Widow (Olga Kurylenko anyone?), and Cobie Smulders, a.k.a. your Aunt Robin, just isn’t much of a film actress. (Exhibit A: this alternate opening.) Still, I liked the balance Whedon came up with here, where Robert Downey’s Iron Man was given the dramatic arc befitting his star wattage, but Chris Evans’ Captain America still ended up leading the team. And, arguably for the first time on film, Whedon got the Hulk exactly right.
5. Looper: “I’m from The Future. You should go to China.” Speaking of Marvel comics, Looper [moderate spoilers] may just be the best Franklin Richards movie we see in awhile. In any case, I wasn’t much for either Brick or especially The Brothers Bloom, but I thought Rian Johnson’s third film was a smart, well-crafted science fiction story that was very worthwhile.
As in most time travel tales outside of 12 Monkeys, Looper‘s final few scenes don’t make any sense. (Spoiler: JGL’s decision at the end would seemingly have to result in everything Bruce Willis did being rolled back — Thus, none of that carnage at Jeff Daniels’ compound or along the road would ever have happened, and there would be no money lying around, etc. etc.)
But until then, Looper is a satisfying and stylish mishmash of time travel, telekinesis, and the Chandler and Hammett-isms (by way of Miller’s Crossing) that inspired Johnson’s Brick. It also included the creepiest time travel outcome I’ve seen since people were ‘porting into walls in The Philadelphia Experiment. (That would be the grim fate of Paul Dano’s future-self.)
6. Lincoln: “I wish He had chosen an instrument more wieldy than the House of Representatives.” I’ve already noted my problems with the history here: It’s rather ridiculous to argue that the lesson of the Civil War is that compromise is awesome, or that the constitutional amendments that emerged from it are a product of such. Quite the contrary, really. Spielberg and Kushner also vastly overstate the danger that the Thirteenth Amendment would not pass here, and Kushner, given the comments cited in that earlier post, unfortunately doesn’t seem to understand Reconstruction at all.
That being said, Daniel Day-Lewis’s eerie evocation of our sixteenth president is the performance of the year, and I remain impressed that this film, while a touch too Spielberg-y in its opening and closing moments, nonetheless forewent the traditional biopic route and embraced a narrowcast, nineteenth-century CSPAN aesthetic instead.
7. Oslo, August 31st: “Look at my life. I’m 34 years old. I’ve got nothing. I don’t want to start from scratch.” A movie that made it here via Netflix, Oslo, August 31st is a well-observed day in the life of a recovering heroin addict (Anders Danielsen Lie), as he returns to his old haunts and tries to make peace with the shambles he feels he’s made of his existence.
Looking desperately for a way to reconnect to the world at large, or at least to transcend his current despair, Anders has a series of conversations with former friends and enemies, during which he discovers that even those who didn’t miss the train of life going by are, by and large, just going through the motions. Everything here feels uncomfortably true, from Anders’ visit to see a former partner in crime, now a married academic, to his self-defeating job interview, to his plaintive calls to the woman who disappeared, to his falling back into old habits. A quietly devastating film.
8. Moonrise Kingdom: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” True, this Wes Anderson film could not be any more Wes Anderson-y — I’m looking at you, Bob Balaban the omniscient narrator — so if that’s a problem for you, I wouldn’t expect Moonrise to change your opinion of the man’s work.
As with the less-successful Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited, Anderson is ensconced in his usual sandbox. Nonetheless, this story of two tweenagers enjoying a summer love, and the problems this causes for all the conflicted and compromised adults around them, ranks up there with Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums (#46), and The Fantastic Mr. Fox among Anderson’s best. It’s also a beautifully shot film, redolent of the sun-drenched afternoons of years gone by.
9. Cabin in the Woods: “Cleanse them. Cleanse the world of their ignorance and sin. Bathe them in the crimson of – Am I on speakerphone?” When it comes to Joss Whedon, I’m not at all what you’d call a browncoat. I liked Firefly and Serenity alright, but much prefer Farscape when it comes to Blake’s 7 knockoffs, and neither Buffy nor Angel spoke to me like it speaks to many. (The West Wing is another show I never understood all the love for, but I digress.)
At any rate, consider me as surprised as anyone that both of Whedon’s 2012 films ended up in this year’s top ten. Sure, this outside-the-box take on teen slasher tropes is a gimmick movie, and one that’s more wry than it ever is frightening. Still, at least the first time around, what a ride Cabin turned out to be — It’s rare to watch a third act of a film feeling like just about anything could happen. I just wish we’d seen more of “Kevin.” (see pic above)
10. Killing Them Softly: “This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now f**kin’ pay me.” This is another movie that racked up a lot of negativity for some reason, presumably due to it being mis-marketed as an action/gangster film.
Since I knew going in that this was Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to the strange and languid Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I got about what I expected – a dark character piece that almost-but-not-quite-successfully tries to fuse Cogan’s Trade with a commentary on the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and general disillusionment in the Age of Obama. Personally, I liked spending time with these guys — Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn’s twin screw-ups, Richard Jenkins’ officious middleman, Gandolfini’s broken assassin. And, while the political angle didn’t quite gel, I still admired what Dominik tried to do here.
11. Amour: “Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.” Not exactly the best time you’ll have in a theater this year — Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days comes to mind as a similarly unrelenting two hours at the movies. Still, Michael Haneke’s unflinching study of an elderly couple staring dementia and death in the face has a grim power to it, as well as two mesmerizing performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.
I can assure you, I don’t plan to sit through this film again any time soon. Still, Amour puts the lie to so many other depictions of love you see at the movies, and I left E Street afterwards both somewhat shaken by it and thinking it was time to carpe some diem (or as the kids say, YOLO) right now, before it’s too late.
12. The Grey: “Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.” And if old age doesn’t get ya, there’s always wolves, y’know? First, let me be clear: This movie is as wrong about wolves as another film I’ll get to in a bit is wrong about torture. All the Canis lupus stuff in here is abject nonsense.
But, to me, the wolves were really just the dispatching agents in this often-gripping existential drama. The real story of The Grey isn’t about wolves at all. It’s about Liam Neeson and his pack of tough-guy survivors coming to grips not just with their looming mortality, but with the reasons they wanted to live in the first place. In the Alaska wilderness, as in Paris or anywhere else, nobody gets out alive.
13. The Deep Blue Sea: “Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.” Just as past years have seen dueling underwater monster movies (Leviathan/Deepstar Six), asteroid disaster flicks (Armageddon/Deep Impact), and Truman Capote bios (Capote/Infamous) and 2013 will have two separate attacks on 1600 Penn (Olympus Has Fallen/White House Down), 2012 featured three quite good movies about women forsaking their kind, boring husbands for passionate, simpleton lovers, and subsequently running into a social buzzsaw as a result.
All of ‘em made this list, but in the end The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies’ lush evocation of postwar England, garners the top spot among them. Along with memorable turns by Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, occasionally dream-like scenes like Londoners awaiting the Blitz in the subway tunnels or singing along to “You Belong to Me” have stuck in my memory this year.
14. Argo: “Brace yourself; it’s like talking to those two old f**ks from The Muppets.” Ben Affleck’s well-made chronicle of a successful CIA operation along the fringes of the Iran hostage crisis often felt like transparent Oscar bait to me. The Hollywood stuff felt it like needed to be more fleshed out and, since the history is well-known, the many attempts to ratchet up the suspense in the third act just didn’t work for me personally. (YMMV.)
Still, I was impressed by how well-balanced Argo came out — From its opening storyboard sequence, the movie doesn’t mince words about our many misadventures in Iran, making what could have been simply a depressing jingoistic exercise into a more thoughtful story of diplomatic blowback. Overall, I prefer Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and The Town — Still, as a director, he’s now 3-for-3.
15. Celeste and Jesse Forever: “You know what your problem is? Contempt before investigation. You think you’re smarter than everybody else.” Full disclosure: Writer-star Rashida Jones was an acquaintance of mine in college, so I went in to Celeste and Jesse hoping more than usual that I would like it. Nonetheless, after a rough 10-15 minutes at the outset, this well-observed and wistful after-the-rom-com, about the break-up of a longtime couple, gradually gets to work on you.
It seemed like bit players like Elijah Wood (as Rashida’s gay boss/BFF) needed more to do, and Chris Messina has played the surprisingly wise frat-bro so many times by now that I can’t really take him seriously anymore. But otherwise, Celeste and Jesse earns it emotional beats and, by the time the final reel rolled, I felt quite invested in it.
16. Cloud Atlas: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
Here’s yet another 2012 film where it feels like critics just began to pile on mercilessly at a certain point. The Wachowskis and Tom Twyker’s adaptation of David Mitchell’s high-brow sci-fi novel doesn’t quite gel, and some of the plotlines — Ben Whishaw’s amanuensis, Tom Hanks after the Fall — were more interesting than others, most notably Jim Sturgess in the South Pacific and Jim Broadbent’s nursing home jailbreak. (Also, no nice way to put this, but much like Keira Knightley, Halle Berry is an A-list actress who’s never all that good.)
But even if it doesn’t live up to its ambition, Atlas is still an impressive and intellectually (if not emotionally) engaging feat. Granted, it wasn’t subtle about its message, but the degree of difficulty here should count for something. At least Atlas was reaching for something totally new — and every so often, especially during the occasional montage bringing together the six tales, you can catch a glimpse of it.
17. Take This Waltz: “Life has a gap in it… It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it.” The second of this year’s adulterous love triangles — this one set to one of Leonard Cohen’s many classics and The Buggles — Sarah Polley’s follow-up to Away From Her has a low-key, natural, and lived-in feel that’s hard to fake.
True, Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen felt a little too baby-talk-schmoopy in their scenes together, and Luke Kirby’s handsome pedicabbie always just seemed like a self-absorbed creepshow to me. But one of the strengths of this film is how all the characters here seem like three-dimensional human beings, with all the needs, vulnerabilities, and suspect decision-making attending.
18. Rust and Bone: “We’ll continue…but not like animals.” Speaking of follow-ups, Jacques Audiard’s second film after A Prophet felt like the movie the much-hyped Silver Linings Playbook wanted to be. This rough-and-tumble romance between a street fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a damaged whale instructor (Marion Cotillard) after a terrible accident is never as good as A Prophet, and it goes seriously off-the-rails in its third act, around the time Cotillard tattoos her leg-stumps “gauche” and “droit.” But up until then, Rust and Bone manages to sidestep a surprising number of movie-of-the-week pitfalls and keep its gutter-punch rawness intact.
19. Seven Psychopaths: “No, it doesn’t! There’ll be one guy left with one eye. How’s the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left?” I didn’t like In Bruges as much as a lot of people, and occasionally this new film by playwright Martin McDonagh suffers from the same outrageousness-for-its-own-sake. (Case in point: the scene where Woody Harrelson interrogates Gabourey Sidibe.)
Still, I kinda liked how this increasingly loopy and laconic film seemed to realize it would be more fun just to hang around with its gaggle of likable actors (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Colin Ferrell, Tom Waits, Zeljko Ivanek, Harrelson) for awhile and just dropped the plot. I only wish McDonagh had found more to do with Olga Kurylenko and especially Abbie Cornish, who are (literally and figuratively) wasted here.
20. Anna Karenina: “Is this about my wife? My wife is beyond reproach. She is, after all, my wife.” Like Killing Them Softly and Cloud Atlas, Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Anna Karenina is a film I admired for its ambition, even if the conceit — here, that all of the Russian society scenes take place on a nineteenth century stage — doesn’t end up quite working. And even if there’s some of the same unnecessary grandstanding that marred Atonement‘s Dunkirk scene (intricate shots are fun and all, but they should serve the story), this is quite a beautiful picture.
While Keira Knightley unfortunately doesn’t make much of an impression in the title role, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass and Savages just seems out of his element as Vronsky, Jude Law brings pathos to a character that could’ve just seemed like the villain, and there are a number of enjoyable turns in the margins of this story, from Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan) covering the sociopolitical elements of the book to Matthew MacFadyen — who seemingly jumped right into late-Alec Baldwin mode right after his stint as Mr. Darcy in 2005 — as the oafish Oblonsky.
21. Skyfall: “Do you see what comes of all this running around, Mr. Bond? All this jumping and fighting, it’s exhausting!” Speaking of beautiful films, Daniel Craig’s third outing (and Sam Mendes’ first) as 007 doesn’t match the heights of Casino Royale, but it’s looks like the billion dollars it made, and it’s a far sight better than the sophomore misstep of Quantum of Solace. (It also features an instant classic Bond song in Adele’s title track.)
My biggest problem with Skyfall, and it’s a hard one to overlook, is that, in a transparent effort to capture some of that Dark Knight cachet, they effectively turned James Bond into Batman here. So Bond is now a rich orphan who grew up in Scotland’s version of Wayne Manor? Erm, ok. It doesn’t help matters that Javier Bardem’s ridiculous villain — The Joker + gay panic, basically — has exactly the same goofy plan as the Clown Prince of Crime did. (The next Big Bad to get captured on purpose, apparently? Gary Mitchell Garth Khan Gruber.)
But this is a Bond movie, so set your low expectations accordingly. Even if it feels like we’re already approaching Moonraker or Octopussy territory only three movies into the Craig era, this is still among the better outings in this long and storied franchise.
22. Django Unchained: “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.” From the opening moments of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, it’s clear this film is going to be a bit of a mess. (Our title card reads: “1858. Two Years Before the Civil War.” Uh…that’s three years before the war, Quentin.) And, to be honest, I liked this movie better when it was called Inglourious Basterds — Here, we have basically the same experience, with QT once again righting history’s wrongs with a blood-spattered vengeance.
I actually liked that Tarantino decided to put the evils of American slavery front and center in this film, since it’s an ugly underside of our history that, cinematically, has been pretty much buried. (One admirable exception to prove the rule: CSA.) The funniest scene in the movie is probably QT riffing off both Blazing Saddles and Birth of a Nation with his Klansmen complaining about their eyeholes.
Nonetheless, I’m not sure why, given all the very real horrors of slavery QT often draws from, we ended up with the exceedingly fake Mandingo Fighting as a centerpiece of this story, other than it was in some blaxsploitation films QT used to enjoy. With that in mind, and more egregiously, a good hour of this movie makes absolutely no sense: Why wouldn’t Schultz and Django just be like, “I’m a lonely German guy who will pay top-dollar for a slave that speaks German?” (Tarantino tries to address that particular question here. I don’t think it works.)
Still, however sloppy and self-indulgent, Django was a decently enjoyable movie for most of its run. It would be nice, tho’, to see Tarantino take a stab at another Jackie Brown-style project at some point. As it is, it feels like he’s continuing to disappear up his own ass.
23. Holy Motors: “Weird! Weird! Weird!” I’m usually not one to end a movie once I’ve started it, but I turned off David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, via OnDemand, well before the end. (I hear Paul Giamatti shows up at some point.) Far more entertaining — and much, much stranger — was Leo Carax’s bizarro stab at the wandering limousine genre this year.
As with Django, it seemed like there was a lot of name-dropping and inside baseball, of the cinema history variety, going on in Holy Motors, which is behavior I find irritating a lot of the time. But I found Denis Lavant’s mad misadventures here compulsively watchable, even if we passed basic coherence two or three lefts ago.
24. The Woman in Black: “I believe even the most rational of minds can play tricks in the dark.” This wasn’t a Cabin in the Woods-style reinvention of horror tropes by any means. That being said, I quite enjoyed this played-straight Hammer films throwback, with Daniel Radcliffe unwisely investigating ghostly happenings at a mansion along the moors.
Rather than relying solely on blood, guts, and jump cuts, The Woman In Black resurrects classic cinema techniques and all the old standbys of this particular genre — rocking chairs, Victorian dolls, creepy children and whatnot — to put the audience ill at ease for ninety minutes. In sum, a slight but effective scare machine.
25. Dredd: “In case you have forgotten, this block operates under the same rules as the rest of the city. Ma-Ma is not the law… I am the law.” As with every year, a lot of films could have gone in this final spot on the list — Bernie, Life of Pi, Savages, Marley, ParaNorman. But I’m giving it to Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s Dredd, because it’s a good example of what went right at the movies in 2012.
There are better movies than Dredd this and every year, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better Dredd movie. Travis and Garland took what was distinctive about this character – give or take his Watchmen-like satire of American superheroes — and transported an issue of the comic to the screen, no more, no less. Extra points for a likable cast (Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Headey) and for Karl Urban — unlike Stallone back in the day — never taking off the helmet.
Prometheus: Pretty much everything that needs to be said about the dumb-as-dirt disaster this turned out to be has been encapsulated by the Red Letter Media guys. Whhhhyyyyyy? Why does a movie with such a terrible script ever get greenlit? Why does Damon Lindelof, after putting out an idiotic film like this, continue to get work in Hollywood?
It’s sad, since even notwithstanding the greatness of Alien and Aliens (and I’d submit that Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are more admirable failures than this film), there are elements of a much better movie here — most notably Michael Fassbender’s T.E. Lawrence-loving android and the sheer look of the picture. Otherwise, however, this was just a terrible, nonsensical movie, and I ended up just feeling embarrassed for Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, and everyone else involved. For shame.
Silver Linings Playbook: I like David O’Russell. I like Jennifer Lawrence. I have no issues with Bradley Cooper. But, Lordy, I hated this film, and I just can’t figure out where all the hype is coming from. Granted, SLP falls into a very specific genre of movie I despise, whereby some severely damaged dude is suddenly saved from loneliness, madness, and/or general despair by a perfectly unique and perfect girl for him. (See also: Sideways, Punch-Drunk-Love, and all the other many iterations of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.) Honestly, all of you who keep making this same movie, go see Amour or something.
But even notwithstanding that sort of ubiquitous rom-comminess, SLP just seemed really by-the-numbers to me. The only variation on the same-old stale tale, as far as I could tell, is that this time there’s a really important game AND a really important dance competition at the end. And while Jacki Weaver does some memorable things as Bradley Cooper’s long-suffering mom, I didn’t take DeNiro seriously here at all. Just a bad movie.
Zero Dark Thirty: As it happened, I kinda hated Zero Dark Thirty too, but at least here I get where the positive reaction is coming from. To be honest, I expected going in that I’d leave ZD30 conflicted — that it would be a good movie undone by its egregious lies about torture. As it turned out, this is not even a good movie — it’s strongest pleasure consists of watching quality character actors — Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane – in brief turns as suits. (Tom Donilon is English?)
For one, ZD30 is far too blatant in its CIA embeddedness. Every CIA character here is a well-meaning tortured soul, heavy-hearted with the burden of saving the world. There’s no mention of, say, Tora Bora. The CIA’s egregious, world-historical fuck-ups, like arguing there were WMD in Iraq, are brought up only in passing. The agency’s outright crimes, like, say, waterboarding a guy 180 times to obtain a false positive, aren’t even mentioned. Watching Type-A go-getter Jessica Chastain and her ponytail flounce around for America for two and a half hours, you’d have no idea that her real-life counterpart and her ilk have been found guilty of, among other things, torturing and sodomizing an innocent man.
Admittedly, it could be because this pro-torture distortion of the history put me in an increasingly foul mood. Still, even as a movie Zero Dark Thirty has serious problems. As one of Chastain’s co-workers, poor Jennifer Ehle has to offer up some of the most ridiculous telegraphs of her impending death since Lt. Deadduck in Hot Shots. And I found the last forty minutes or so of the film, which depicts the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound in excruciating detail, to be a total snooze.
We know what’s going to happen here. And since we’re already in Fantasyland as far as the efficacy of torture goes, why not add sharks or tigers or man-eating bears to this war pr0n raid on OBL’s Afghan fortress? Or how about a badass female #2 (Maggie Q? Olga Kurylenko?) to fight Chastain, martial-arts style, over a deep chasm or conveyor belt or something? Might as well, since we’re already far afield from anything approaching the Real World. In sum, this film is sheer propaganda, and ham-handed agitprop at that.
The Master: Going into this film, I was rooting for Paul Thomas Anderson to build on the promise of the first hour of There Will Be Blood. Unfortunately, The Master is a pretentious bore, and not nearly as deep as it thinks it is. Get past all the Kubrickian grand-standing — Kubrick has clearly replaced Scorsese and Altman as PTA’s object of homage these days — and Anderson has made another variation of the same movie he’s always made, from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia to TWBB: People create fake families for themselves, look for validation in those families, and are ultimately let down by those families. It wasn’t a very interesting point three movies ago.
Poor Joaquin Phoenix sweats Method blood to give his character some resonance, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams have their (brief) moments of note — To his credit, PTA always does seem generous with his actors. But none of them can do anything with what they’ve been given. The Master, unfortunately, is yet another solid case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
MOST UNFAIRLY MALIGNED:
John Carter: Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit could go here, as could Cloud Atlas. But, in the end, it seems like no movie got a tougher racket this year than Andrew Stanton’s estimable adaptation of John Carter. True, I watched this on Netflix rather than in the theater, which tends to be a more forgiving experience. But still, this film was a well-made, decently intelligent, and reasonably faithful and engaging adaptation of its source.
It wasn’t my favorite movie of the year or anything — it wasn’t even in my top 25, as we just saw — but it was totally fine for what it was. I have no clue why everyone pounced on this movie like they did. But, as with all the detest in some circles for An Unexpected Journey, it speaks poorly of what the Internet has done to movies in some ways. There’s a rush-to-judgment and piling-on effect that, at least in this case, wasn’t merited at all.
Coriolanus: Not sure if this would have broken the 2011 list last year or not. Still, Ralph Fiennes’ bloody cover-version of a relatively unknown Shakespearean history, modernized by way of CNN and Afghanistan, has a lot to recommend for it. Along with Fiennes himself, Coriolanus features fine performances from James Nesbitt, Jessica Chastain, Gerard Butler and especially Vanessa Redgrave (as the general’s scheming mother) and Brian Cox (as the most hail-fellow-well-met of Senators). Definitely worth a Netflix.
Margaret: Whether you want to call it a holdover from 2011 (when it came out) or from the 2005 list (when it was filmed), Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is also worth catching up with sometime. Here, Anna Paquin — better than I’ve ever seen her — is a self-absorbed NYC teenager forced to come to terms with the ramifications of a terrible bus accident she helped to precipitate. Along for the three-hour ride through this distinctively New York tale are Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, J. Smith-Cameron, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, Olivia Thirlby, Kieran Culkin, and Rosemarie DeWitt. (FWIW, the provenance of the film’s name is also the best tell for what it’s ultimately about.) Well worth seeing.
Worth Netflixing: 21 Jump Street, Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, The Amazing Spiderman, Bernie, The Bourne Legacy, Detachment, Haywire, The Hunger Games, The Life of Pi, Les Miserables, Magic Mike, Marley, Men in Black III, ParaNorman, The Raid: Redemption, Savages, The Sessions, Snabba Cash, Ted, To Rome With Love
Don’t Bother: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Casa de mi Padre, Chronicle, Compliance, Cosmopolis, Dark Shadows, Flight, The Hunter, Hyde Park on Hudson, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Killer Joe, Lawless, The Loneliest Planet, Lockout, Rampart, Red Hook Summer, Safe House,Snow White and the Huntsman, Total Recall
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; Liam Neeson, The Grey; Dennis Lavant, Holy Motors; Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, August 31st; Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
Best Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea; Emmanuelle Riva, Amour; Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone; Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Best Supporting Actor: Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas; Ben Mendelsohn, Killing Them Softly; Jude Law, Anna Karenina; Clarke Peters, Red Hook Summer
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables; Samantha Barks, Les Miserables; Frances McDormand, Moonrise Kingdom
Unseen: 2 Days in New York, Act of Valor, Alex Cross, American Reunion, Arbitrage, Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Brave, Butter, The Campaign, The Cold Light of Day, Contraband, Deadfall, The Devil Inside, The Dictator, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, End of Watch, The Five Year Engagement, For a Good Time Call…, Friends with Kids, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Guilt Trip, Hitchcock, Hope Springs, How to Survive a Plague, The Impossible, The Intouchables, Jack Reacher, Joyful Noise, Not Fade Away, One for the Money, Man on a Ledge, The Man With the Iron Fists, Mirror Mirror, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, On the Road, Parental Guidance, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Pirates: Band of Misfits, Premium Rush, Project X, The Raven, Red Dawn, Red Tails, Robot and Frank, Rock of Ages, Safe, Safety Not Guaranteed, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Secret World of Arietty, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Step Up: Revolution, Taken 2, This is 40, The Three Stooges, Tim & Eric Billion Dollar Movie, This Means War, Trouble With The Curve, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II, The Watch, W/E, The Words, Wrath of the Titans
2013: 2 Guns, 42, 47 Ronin, 300: Rise of an Empire, About Time, After Earth, All is Lost, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, As I Lay Dying, August: Osage County, Before Midnight, Better Living Through Chemistry, The Black Marks, The Bling Ring, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Byzantium, Captain Phillips, Carrie, Chavez, Closed Circuit, Closer to the Moon, The Colony, The Company You Keep, The Congress, The Counselor, The Dallas Buyers Club, Dead Man Down, Devil’s Knot, Diana, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His & Hers, Dom Hemingway, Don Jon’s Addiction, The Double, Elysium, Ender’s Game, The Europa Report, Evil Dead, Fading Gigolo, Fast Six, Filth, Foxcatcher, The Frozen Ground, Gambit, Gangster Squad, Girl Most Likely, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, Gods Behaving Badly, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Grandmaster, Grand Piano, Gravity, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby, The Hangover Part III, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Heat, Her, Homefront, Horns, How I Live Now, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Hummingbird, I, Frankenstein, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Inside Llewellyn Davis, Iron Man 3, Jack the Giant Slayer, Jack Ryan, Kick-Ass 2, The Last Stand, The Lone Ranger, Lovelace, Mama, Man of Steel, Monster’s University, Monuments Men, Movie 43, Oblivion, Oldboy, Olympus Has Fallen, Only God Forgives, Oz the Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim, Pain and Gain, Parker, The Place Beyond the Pines, Red 2, Riddick, R.I.P.D., Side Effects, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Stoker, This is the End, Thor: The Dark World, The Tomb, To the Wonder, Trance, Twelve Years a Slave, Upstream Color, Warm Bodies, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Wolverine, The World’s End, World War Z, and
You have nice manners for a thief and a liar…
Historian Eric Foner, who knows of what he speaks, fact-checks Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln. I enjoyed the film quite a bit, and would recommend it to all comers, particularly Daniel Day Lewis’s typically amazing performance. That being said, I thought the excessive emphasis on the virtues of compromise in this story was fundamentally wrongheaded.
For one, the death of slavery would never have reached the House floor were it not for several decades of uncompromising agitation by abolitionists. “On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.” As many of y’all know, that’s William Lloyd Garrison in 1831, giving one of the most definitive statements against compromising with an evil like slavery. Point being, compromise didn’t end slavery in America — an abject refusal to compromise did.
For another, as Foner notes, Lincoln had the votes in the next Congress — so there was no real need to compromise in this situation in any case. And besides, is it really a heroic moment for Thaddeus Stevens to be downplaying his commitment on the House floor to basic human equality? Surely, misleading the public about one’s true beliefs in congressional debate is not something we should be applauding. Nor does Washington, now or then, need any more erstwhile reformers who think the right thing to do when confronted with a stand on fundamental principle is to obfuscate and capitulate.
Of course, this nation was founded on compromise — some of them quite repellent, like the Three-Fifths — and the United States wouldn’t exist without it. And at other times, intransigence on principle has lost battles that compromise would clearly have won, such as the stubbornness of Woodrow Wilson dooming the League of Nations to defeat in 1919 and 1920, But the problem with this — mostly contemporary — emphasis on compromise is that it leads the filmmakers to a flawed understanding of the history of this period.
However much research Tony Kushner did on Lincoln here — and the film is indeed very well-written — it’s unfortunately quite clear that he doesn’t know jack about what came after the War. Here’s what he said to NPR on the subject:
“I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn’t take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.'”
This, I’m sorry to say, is nonsense. Here, Kushner is blithely reciting a century-old popular myth, perpetuated by the Dunning School and D.W. Griffith, that isn’t just anachronistic and wrong. It’s been widely discredited, by some of the very same authors the film cites as sources.
The noble cause and the Klan did not arise because the North was mean to the former Confederate states. They arose because many in the South refused to accord African-Americans the basic civil liberties for which the war had ultimately been fought. To “forgive and reconcile with the South” would mean acceding to the disfranchisement and general abuse that many whites desired to levy upon African-Americans in the former Confederacy. Indeed, when Kushner’s desired move to “forgive and reconcile with the South” came with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, it was followed relatively soon thereafter by the emergence of Jim Crow. In short, Kushner’s argument here is pure wishful thinking, and it has been exposed as bunk by the last 40-some-odd years of Civil War and Reconstruction histories.
Twenty years after its opening, Grantland‘s Alex Pappademas takes another look at Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. I never understood the hate this film received. (Then again, I also liked Peaks’ much-maligned second season.) Sure, it’s a bit all over the place, but there are impressionistic moments in Fire Walk With Me — the trapped Leland monkey, the picture-within-a-picture, the phantom Bowie — that still frighten me for reasons I find impossible to explain, much in the same way some of the third act bizarroland suicide stuff in Mulholland Drive — the blue box, the creepy homeless guy, the little tourists — seems to bypass my brain completely and just frazzles my spinal cord. And what’s not to like about Special Agent Chet Desmond?
Don’t get me wrong — The Artist is a very enjoyable evening at the movies, and it’s an airier, sweeter, and less didactic love letter to an earlier era of cinema than was Scorsese’s occasionally-ponderous Hugo. But there’s not much there there. Aside from the occasional po-mo in-joke, this is a 1920’s film through and through, one that borrows the storytelling conventions and acting styles of the silent film era (and much of its story from a later production, Singing in the Rain.) In other words, it’s pretty much just a gimmick. An entertaining one, sure, but a gimmick nonetheless.
As far as the story goes, the year is 1927, and silent film actor George Valentin (an appealing, Gable-esque Jean Dujardin) is king of the hill, top of the heap. His Tintin-like adventure serials — Tintin-like in that his sidekick is a scene-stealing pup (Uggie) — are the draw in Tinseltown. And he is always surrounded by young admirers, including Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, also appealing), a leggy ingenue with a lopsided grin who’s got the moves like Rogers (the moves like Rogers, the moooooooooves like Rogers) and who is struggling to break into the picture business. From their very first meet-cute, George takes to Peppy like Fatty Arbuckle to gin — much to the consternation of his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) — but unfortunately their stars are moving in different directions.
Y’see, through the miracle of modern technology, films are now becoming “talkies” — an innovation that creates an opportunity for America’s New Sweetheart, Peppy, but leaves George just a dimming artifact of the past: His broad facial tics and gesticulations begin to look utterly ridiculous in an era of sound, and even the remarkable shenanigans of his faithful Jack Russell companion can’t put his movies over the top. In short, the country’s tastes are changing, there’s not much room for silent film waggery any longer, and hastening George’s descent is the small matter of the Great Depression. What’s a broken down old film star to do?
Well, he could handle the situation with grace and let Peppy have her turn in the spotlight — but I suppose that’s a contemporary way of thinking. Here, George — shown to be an egotistical sort from the start — becomes an increasingly self-destructive drunk who heedlessly shuns the friendship and charity of those around him. (I didn’t get his behavior in the last act at all, to be honest.) But, really, this isn’t a modern character study — It’s a 1920’s lark, and taken as such, it’s a simple, fun night at the movies. Go in with suitably low expectations and you should have a grand ole time.
In the end, I’m not quite sure where all the Best Picture talk is coming from — Is it the annual Weinstein steamroller at work? is it critics falling for a movie that rewards their knowledge of film lore? Hollywood types relishing a tale of, well, Hollywood types? Or is it just a function of the relatively weak year at the cinema? Whatever the case, I wouldn’t put it nearly that high on my own 2011 list. Nonetheless, The Artist does signify the emergence of a major talent who should become a star in this business. I refer, of course, to far away the best thing in the film — Uggie. Best Picture? Perhaps not. But, c’mon y’all, Consider Uggie. We all know he made this movie work.
Perhaps because it clearly has autobiographical qualities, Young Adult is also Cody’s most adult work so far — her Jackie Brown, as it were. Gone are the wall-to-wall witticisms of Juno and Jennifer, although Charlize Theron (really excellent here) still makes a worthy neologism of “Kentaco Hut” (i.e. one of those Taco Bell/KFC/Pizza Hut three-for-one deals found in the contemporary strip mall) and Patton Oswalt’s character still finds time to squeeze in Star Wars references and Betty Friedan and Sylvia Plath jokes. And, unlike Juno and Up in the Air, this film has a more ragged and lived-in quality than Reitman’s prior films. Rather than oversweetening the product as usual, his tendency towards the glib works to leaven the real bitterness at the heart of this movie.
The end result is a smart, well-written character study of one rather awful Minnesotan, Mavis Gray (Theron), who, having reached the grim age of 37 (iknorite!), journeys back to her hometown to woo her now-married-with-child ex-boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). Formerly the Queen Bee of her high school, and now a divorced ghostwriter of Sweet Valley High-ish YA fiction in Minneapolis, Mavis is — unfortunately for the hapless denizens of Mercury, Minnesota — also a primping, egotistical, and self-absorbed neurotic, who is, more often than not, three sheets to the wind. Nonetheless, she is determined to use all of her wiles to force the Road Not Taken into existence and save her dopey ex from a dismal life of marriage-with-children in the provinces, whether he likes it or not. (Unwavering determination: Great and often rewarded in rom-coms; sad and stalkerish in real-life.)
In other words, like Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm — this is one of those comedies where you spend most of the film watching a truly lousy person navigate normal social situations and squirming as their horrible natural tendencies exhibit themselves. Since it’s so popular these days, you probably already know your tolerance for this Theater of the Socially Awkward sort of thing: I myself kinda dig it. (Also along to witness the slowly unfolding train wreck is comic Patton Oswalt, playing the amiable nerd who held the locker next to Mavis back in the day and who was, of course, completely invisible to her.)
Unfortunately, Young Adult doesn’t quite stick the landing: The film loses purpose after the climax of Mavis’ gambit, twenty minutes or so before the end of the picture, and an attempt at a late-in-the-game twist — it involves a conversation Mavis has with Hot Tub Time Machine‘s Collette Wolfe — just feels like (more) screw-you score-settling by Cody. Still, for the most part, this is a dark and well-observed film that doesn’t overstay its welcome and makes for some enjoyable counter-programming in the recent sea of holiday blockbusters. Just don’t let Mavis move next door to you or anything.
Next on the docket is what turned out to be my b-day film this year, Steven Spielberg’s old-fashioned weeper War Horse, a.k.a. Saving Private Ryan meets The Black Stallion. In short, despite some first act hiccups, War Horse is a solidly engaging film. True, it plays some rather easy chords in order to derive its suspense and emotional power — namely, Animals-in-Peril and People-Saying-Farewell-to-Their-Trusty-Equine-Companions. And the scenes here of World War I are considerably more stagy and less resonant than Spielberg’s re-creations of WWII in Ryan. (Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front aren’t in any danger of being upstaged here.) But, perhaps due in part to its steadfastly old-school movie traditionalism, War Horse goes to work on you after awhile. It’s a simple tale of a boy, a horse, and the Great War that came between them, elegantly told.
That being said, War Horse doesn’t really find its footing until it leaves the rather twee English countryside and heads off to the Continent for the great conflagration. In fact, the first forty minutes or so are something of a Spielbergian schmaltzfest, as a poor lad (Jeremy Irvine) tries to get his noble and spirited young horse Joey to take to the plow and save the family farm. Joey was acquired by this desperate bunch — the Narracotts by name — when the drunken pater familias (Peter Mullan), a veteran of the Boer War, overpaid for him in a moment of liquid courage bidding against the local landlord (David Thewlis). And so, to stop said landlord from exacting his revenge, young Albert Narracott must coax and train Joey to do farm work meant for a much sturdier beast — skills that may come in handy in the battlefield a few years hence.
With Thewlis twirling his moustache as Mullan and Ma Narracott Emily Watson — humble, decent folk, both — fret about losing the farm, the first act of War Horse feels like one ginormous and schmaltzy cliche, especially coming from this director. (Hey, Joey! Why the long Spielberg face?) But when Tom Hiddleston (i.e. Loki of Thor) shows up as a dashing young military man — i.e. exactly the sort of naive, well-meaning fellow who perished by the millions in WWI — and takes the reins of our stallion protagonist, War Horse begins to gather momentum.
Under the command of Benedict Cumberbatch (late of Tinker), Joey and his new rider venture off to the Great War. But — as WWI vet J.R.R.Tolkien intimates with the last ride of the Rohirrim in Return of the King (and see also Faramir’s doomed assault on Osgiliath in PJ’s film version), World War I is a conflict where old-school cavalry charges are tantamount to organized suicide. The Civil War had Gatling guns and the Franco-Prussian War mitrailleuses, but, by 1914, the Germans have enthusiastically adopted honest-to-goodness machine guns, and the battlefield is no place for a horse anymore.
And so the rest of the movie is a Red Violin-type tale where we follow Joey’s misadventures as he passes variously through English, German, and French hands over the course of an increasingly horrible and dehumanizing (dehorseizing?) bloodbath of a war. (Among those who cross Joey’s path are A Prophet‘s Niel Arestrup, The Conspirator‘s Toby Kebbel, Sherlock‘s Eddie Marsan, and soon-to-be-Davos Seaworth Liam Cunningham.) And, while the last few Gone with the Wind-laden moments struck the wrong tone with me — after the trenches, it’s a bit late in the day to make military service seem poetic — War Horse for the most part gots its hooks in me over its run. You will believe a horse can war.
For starters, with the exception of a Nine Inch Nails-y music video credit sequence (set to that ultra-catchy cover of “Immigrant Song” from the teaser), this film is no different in tone or content than, nor does it improve on, the Swedish version that came out all of two years ago. (Ironically, that film’s two stars, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist, are also on-screen this weekend in Sherlock and MI: Ghost Protocol respectively.) To be honest, I don’t even know why Fincher bothered to make this film, except for the paycheck: He already covered this sort of ground in Se7en, and went well beyond it with Zodiac. And even Matt Reeves’ Let Me In was further afield from Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In than this is to Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 film.
If anything, Oplev’s 2009 version was more elegant in many ways. You definitely don’t need to see them both. There, the clues snapped together better as the story progressed — Here, it’s occasionally unclear how our two intrepid investigators, Lizabeth Salander (Mara) and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) have made the intuitive leaps they have. There, the post-case coda was briskly covered — Here, the extended ending approaches Return of the King-levels. And, perhaps most importantly, in the 2009 film, there was more than one bleedin’ suspect in the movie. Here, even without the obvious casting tell, the eventual murderer is pretty much the only person we meet over the course of the investigation. (Fincher should’ve paid Willem DaFoe and Christopher Walken just to show up and skulk around.)
Now, in my Let Me In review, I was rather tolerant of that film being a note-for-note remake of the Swedish version, while here, not so much. What’s the difference? Well, for me, it’s mainly because Let the Right One In was a novel take on the teenage vampire story, i.e. a story worth telling. But both versions of Dragon Tattoo are, in my humble opinion, puerile, sadistic trash. Honestly, what does it say about us that this brutal, rapey, not-particularly-interesting revenge-pr0n thriller was the #1 best-selling book in America for many moons? The only interesting subtext here is of buried secrets festering rot, which registers in both the national history of Sweden (who, as a neutral nation, had its share of Nazi sympathizers during the war) and the personal history of the author (who apparently wrote these books as penance for ignoring a horrible crime.) Otherwise, I find these films to be ultra-violent, serial-killer crapola.
And speaking of indications of how screwed up we are as a country, why was Steve McQueen’s Shame rated NC-17 if this movie got an R? Shame had a lot of consensual (if pained), not-very-appetizingly-filmed sex, and, ok, full-frontal nudity from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. (Yes, Virginia, adults have mommy and daddy parts). Meanwhile, this movie has beatings, murder, rapes, torture, eviscerations, disembowelments, Stellan Skarsgard…oh, heck, let’s just give it an R. Honestly, the MPAA’s priorities are nothing short of bizarre. (I’m not advocating censorship of this film — Bring the kids if you’re so inclined. It’s the ridiculously messed-up priorities that rankle.)
I’ll concede that, in general, I find serial-killer movies to be abominably stupid. (They’re not even frightening. In that regard, I much prefer supernatural horror. Other than Silence of the Lambs, American Psycho, Zodiac, the original Vanishing, and, if you want to count it, A Clockwork Orange, I can’t even think of any films in the serial killer genre I like.) So if the Dragon Tattoo books were your cup of tea, but not so much so that you didn’t bother to catch the Swedish movie, then perhaps you’ll find The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo worthwhile. The movie is definitely competently directed and made — Fincher isn’t going to put out bad product. But I found this an unnecessary remake of a grotesque and ludicrous story in the first place, and I’m kinda annoyed with myself for spending money on it.
Point being, I had a different reaction to this film than I’m guessing those unfamiliar with the world of Tintin will. Even notwithstanding the joy of seeing these beloved characters come to life, The Secret of the Unicorn is filled with easter eggs for Tintin-o-philes. Our hero (Jamie Bell) has nods to Cigars of the Pharaoah, The Black Island, and King Ottokar’s Sceptre on his wall. Later we encounter a crab with golden claws, a zero-G nod to Explorers on the Moon, and, as the villain’s “secret weapon,” a cameo by one of Captain Haddock’s (Andy Serkis) more amusing adversaries. And, in the background, Spielberg and Jackson are constantly recreating sight-gags from various Tintin adventures — say, Snowy digging up a ginormous bone in the desert –that continually conjured up ancient memories of childhood laughs within me. If you like Tintin, you’ll almost assuredly have a good time here.
And if you don’t know Belgium’s most famous boy journalist from a hole in the ground? Well, that’s a stickier wicket. The exquistely craftted chase scenes are reasonably engaging, if ever so slightly repetitive, on their own. (And a shout-out to John Williams’ score, which could be my favorite work of his in at least a decade.) But if you don’t know anything about these characters already, I’m not sure you’ll find much of a rooting interest here. For better or for worse, this is pretty clearly a film by Tintin fans for Tintin fans. (If anything, I sometimes wish they’d hewed even closer to the books. Some of the setpieces — say, Haddock and the bad guy (Daniel Craig) dueling with construction cranes — felt like generic action-spectacle filler. I’d rather have seen Tintin do more detective work.)
But, whether you’re new to Tintin or a veteran hand, I’m happy to report that the motion-capture animation here is the most impressive I’ve ever seen — no dead eyes to speak of here. I actually thought the animation Zemeckis’s Beowulf was reasonably well-done back in 2007, but this is better by an order of magnitude. (It helps that Spielberg and Jackson have forgone the uncanny valley by going for a Herge-plus look.) In fact, the two things I was most afraid of not working going in — the motion-capture animation and Snowy — are probably the two highlights of the film. (Tintin’s faithful companion is a scene-stealer through and through.) Conversely, the character who I thought would be an easy slam dunk, Captain Haddock, actually grows somewhat tiresome over the course of the movie. (The swearing plays, but all the alcoholic tendencies that are funny on paper begin to grate in three dimensions.)
Speaking of three dimensions, I caught this in 3D, but I’m not sure it really added much to the experience — especially when you factor in that a 3D movie ticket now costs all of $15.50(!) here in the District. I know I recently hated on the 3D push in my Hugo review, but, still, that price for one ticket to a 100 minute film is verging on the ridiculous. My advice: Take your kids to Tintin, but spend 2D money, and use the savings to buy them one of the books.
Unfortunately, there’s not a whit of Cronenberg’s usual weirdness to be found here, and the film, while harmless enough in its own right, suffers terribly from the missed opportunity. After all, this isn’t David Lynch making The Straight Story. Here we have the father of psychoanalysis, who became a world-historical figure mainly by reducing everyone to an unverifiable gaggle of repressed sexual impulses, going toe-to-toe with one of his proteges and the foremost advocate of dream analysis. Not to mention a colleague to them both who hates herself for loving spankings (hey, at least it’s not car crashes.) I mean, could the subject of this film be any more within Cronenberg’s normal wheelhouse? But, for whatever reason, he refuses to indulge his prior inclinations here, and the resulting film is well-mannered and arid. Even when Vincent Cassel shows up in the middle-going as an advocate for the virtues of the unrepressed id, the movie lacks any real charge.
That aside, there’s another major flaw with A Dangerous Method that seems churlish to dwell on, but which would be a problem regardless of the director. Fassbender (who’s been having a good deal of sex onscreen this week) and Mortenson are both very good here — the latter especially seems at ease as the cigar-chomping Freud, a supporting role outside his usual parameters. But, while she may be a wonderful person, Keira Knightley is just a terrible actress. I’ve tried to give her the benefit of the doubt through films like The Jacket. Atonement and Never Let Me Go, but her wayyy-over-the-top, herky-jerky performance here clinches it. (I’ll put it to you, good people: Has Knightley been impressive in anything since her supporting turn in Bend Like It Beckham?) Particularly in the first half-hour when she’s still playing “teh cRazeE,” I just felt embarrassed for her and for poor Fassbender.
“Never repress anything,” Vincent Cassel’s hedonist tells Jung at one point in this film, which may or may not be sound as a life philosophy. All I know is I wish Cronenberg had taken this advice, and that Knightley had thought better of it.
That being said, this movie is a hard nut to crack, and I’m not sure awards time is going to be very kind to this quality production. Not unlike Alfredson’s earlier adaptation of Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor seeks mainly to capture a mood — here, the daily anxieties, moral compromises, and ethical rot that come with too many years immersed in the spy game. That it succeeds in this endeavor while still telling a cloak-and-dagger tale of byzantine complexity is impressive. But, for all its strengths, Tinker Tailor is a somber and slow-moving piece, and, like the reticient spymaster at its center, it can feel remote at times. At least on a first viewing, I found Tinker more intellectually involving than emotionally engaging, if that makes any sense. (To be fair: As a newbie to the story, I spent much of the movie working hard just to keep up with the plot. Those already familiar with le Carre’s tale may be able to better soak in the picture the first time through.)
Given its languid opening, you wouldn’t think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had a exceedingly complex espionage tale to tell. It does. Like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (and here the similarities end), the film begins with a botched job in Budapest: Agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) has been sent by Control (John Hurt), the head of “the Circus” (a.k.a. MI6) to meet with a defecting Hungarian general in order to ascertain the identity of a mole deep within British Intelligence. But the mole gets word of this operation first: Prideux is shot in the back for his troubles, and Control — along with his #2 man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) — is ousted from the Circus, leaving Scotsman Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) at the head of the unit.
Cut to several months later, and Smiley is secretly brought out of retirement by a political operative (Simon McBurney) to investigate further into the mole. Picking up where the now-deceased Control left off, and with the aid of two junior agents — one from the Circus (Benedict Cumberbatch), one from the field (Tom Hardy) — Smiley must figure out which of MI6’s ringmasters is spilling secrets to the Russians. Is it Alleline, who has an unknown source he wants to peddle to the Americans? The debonair Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), who’s perhaps just a little too hail-fellow-well-met? As a Hungarian emigre, Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) could well know top Soviet officials, and Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) keeps his cards close to his vest. Or is it, as Control feared most of all, Smiley himself, and the fox has been put in charge of the henhouse?
So, there are a lot of balls in play, and, even though the movie retains its unforced air, it has to keep the revelations moving at a brisk clip to get through the dense thicket of a plot — which is one of my quibbles with the picture. Why not let the story breathe? According to Colin Firth, the original cut of the film was 3.5 hours (it’s now 127 minutes long) and, while that may be a touch long, it would have been nice to spend a little more time with some of these characters. (Hind’s Roy Bland, for example, basically lives up to his name here — He’s too good an actor to be given this little to do. And as one of Smiley’s lieutenants, Roger Lloyd-Pack, a.k.a. Barty Crouch in Goblet of Fire, seems like he should have more backstory also.)
Surprisingly (to me, at least), it’s the rising generation of thespians that is given more to do here. Tom Hardy’s agent, Ricky Tarr, relives the story of a doomed affair with a beautiful potential defector (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Mark Strong’s Prideaux hides out as a schoolteacher, and Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam goes deep undercover in the Circus to procure data for the investigation. They are the doers. The older, more dissolute and jaded generation are the watchers, and none more so than the implacable, owl-eyed Smiley himself. As David Edelstein noted and Jim Gordon notwithstanding, Gary Oldman is an actor that usually goes to eleven, so Smiley’s restraint is a bit of an About Schmidt turn for him. But, he’s very good here, especially when he has an interviewee in his grip and begins slowly, inexorably tightening the vise.
Surprisingly — or perhaps unsurprisingly if you consider that Bird is the brains behind The Iron Giant and The Incredibles — Ghost Protocol is a pretty great action movie. It’s sleek, fluid, involving, and it’s almost unbelievable that this is Bird’s first live-action film. From its opening moments — as two IMF agents (Simon Pegg and Paula Patton) break Ethan Hunt (Cruise) out of a Russian prison — Ghost Protocol moves with a brisk confidence to (almost) the finish. And you’d have to go back fifteen years, to Brian DePalma’s original film, to find an M:I as entertaining. (Quite frankly, this one might even be better. I haven’t seen the first one in awhile.) In short, I can’t speak for Tintin yet, but if you’re an action aficionado at all, this film should get your money this Christmas — especially over Sherlock.
The plot doesn’t really need going over here. As you might expect, there’s an impossible mission, if Ethan Hunt and his team (Pegg, Patton, and eventually presumed future-Cruise replacement Jeremy Renner) choose to accept it — in this case, retrieving Russian launch codes from a deranged bureaucrat (Michael Nyqvist of the Swedish Dragon Tattoo films) hell-bent on global thermonuclear war. To even have a chance of accomplishing it and saving the world, this last remaining IMF team will have to travel to exotic locales, engage in espionage and misdirection, and utilize all the 21st-century tech and derring-do at their disposal. But wiil that be enough? Well, probably, but you never know…
In the end, I have three basic, and minor, nitpicks with Ghost Protocol. First, the third and final act (in India) is just a bit of a letdown after the dizzying heights (literally) of the first two, in Moscow and Dubai — but that speaks to the strength of the first 80 minutes more than anything. Second, Bird & co. occasionally forget to restrain their impulse to turn Simon Pegg’s character into Threepio — all comic relief, all the time. (An understandable inclination, but the humor can still be a bit broad at times.) And, third, the coda of the film — you’ll know it with the inevitable cameo by you-know-who — is just terrible in every way. It feels like it came from the bad Tom Cruise movie everyone feared Ghost Protocol would be. (Fortunately, it’s only five minutes of screen time.)
But other than those minor caveats, this is quite a good film. I would say 2011 has been a mostly disappointing year in movies, except for the fact that several potential schlockfests — Thor, Captain America, Rise of the Planet of the Apes — all happened to come out on the entertaining end. Ghost Protocol continues, and caps, that welcome trend, and goes down as one of the best action movies of the year. Now that he’s finished rehabilitating this once lamentable franchise, let’s hope Brad Bird chooses to accept more impossible missions in the years to come.
When the better-than-expected first movie appeared during Xmas 2009, the Guy Ritchification of Sherlock Holmes seemed like an innovative approach to Arthur Conan Doyle’s mythos, one that found room for 21st century action movie conceits within the material of the original stories. But, perhaps in part because that approach is no longer fresh this time, or perhaps because Stephen Moffat’s team has managed to rejuvenate the character more traditionally on BBC, A Game of Shadows is much less entertaining — I found the first hour almost unwatchable. The best thing you can say about it is that it gets better as it goes along.
A Game of Shadows begins far too frenetically, with Sherlock (Robert Downey Jr.) trying to intercept his love interest from the first film, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), as she delivers what very well could be a parcel bomb on orders from the dastardly Professor Moriarty. (Jared Harris, the best thing here by far.) Plenty of worthwhile action movies begin with this sort of in media res setpiece, going back to Raiders of the Lost Ark and including the first film (when Holmes and Watson, iirc, prevent some sort of satanic ritual perpetrated by Mark Strong’s Big Bad.) But here, the tone and pacing feel off from the start, with Ritchie-being-Ritchie, an endlessly mugging Downey, and the bombastic soundtrack all trying to oversell us on the antic mischief at hand.
Game of Shadows continues in this unfortunate vein for most of the next hour, lurching frantically from setpiece to setpiece — Watson’s bachelor party, Watson’s honeymoon on a train, a Roma camp, the Paris Opera — but never establishing any compelling interest in the goings-on. (Along the way they pick up mysterious gypsy Noomi Rapace, who adds very little — although it’s not really her fault.) Seriously, this first half of the film is close-to Van Helsing-bad.
It doesn’t help that Holmes’ powers of deductive ass-kickery only seem to have strengthened during the interstice between films: In terms of extra-sensory fighting style, he might as well be Daredevil at this point. In terms of problem-solving — for example, when he finds that secret door in the Paris catacombs — he’s Professor X, doing more mind-reading than solving puzzles. (Also, despite the fact that he’s meant to be the world’s greatest detective, I’m not sure Holmes asks anyone a single question over the entire course of the movie.)
All that being said, the movie does begin to pick up in the back end — right around the time Holmes and Watson stop by a German munitions factory. (There are still some groaners to be had later. I’m looking at you, epipen.) This is mainly because, for one, all the nameless goons get left behind and the supervillains of the piece, matching our heroes in absurd power, move to the fore: Moriarty seems to have Joker-in-TDK-like levels of prescience, and his #2, Col. Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson), becomes, for all intent and purposes, Deadshot. For another, the movie wisely borrows dramatic heft from staging its final act at Reichenbach Falls — and, indeed, it’s the battle-of-wits between Holmes and Moriarty atop those fateful falls that makes for the most engaging scene in the film.
Still, it’s a real slog to get to Reichenbach, with only Harris’s mannered malevolence as Moriarty offering any respite for much of the way. (Well, Law’s not bad, either, but by design he takes a back seat to the more manic and off-kilter Downey. And Stephen Fry, in a dream role as Mycroft Holmes, is unfortunately wasted.) Holmes fans will know that the story much of this movie was drawn from, “The Final Problem,” turned out to be not-so-final after all. If A Game of Shadows is what we can expect from the rest of this franchise, here’s hoping this film is more successful at bringing the curtain down on this iteration of Holmes. Mr. Cumberbatch, you are needed.
Here, Fassbender is Brandon Sullivan, an Irish-American Silicon Alley midmanagement type living in Chelsea who fills his empty days watching pr0n at work and his lonely New York nights having meaningless sex with hookers and anonymous strangers. Ok, let me stop there for a second: Awwwww, poor damaged rich guy! Nymphomania is such an underappreciated and overlooked #firstworldproblem! Yes y’all, like The King’s Speech, my empathy meter clicked out early here. It doesn’t help that Sullivan is given no real redeeming qualities to speak of — He’s, quite literally, just a prick. (Plus, as someone who actually lived the “depressed in Gotham” existence, I found it less a Boschian purgatory of carnal pleasure and more like I am Legend, but of course there are millions of stories in the Naked City. YMMV.)
Anyway, Brandon’s life is upended when his needy, inconstant, and equally lacerated sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, also giving more of herself than the project deserves) shows up at his door. Both Brandon and Sissy were clearly damaged at an early age – A childhood of abuse is intimated through nasty scars and sketchy stories. But while Brandon has an insatiable craving for angry, consequence-free sex (in fact, he can’t perform when on an actual, honest-to-goodness date with a co-worker), Sissy is desperate for emotional attachment. In other words, basically these two are like oil and water, and they’re both cooped up in the same smallish NYC apartment with their respective demons. This will not end well.
So the board is set, but, in all honesty, the pieces don’t do much moving. As in Hunger (and much like Tom Ford’s A Single Man), Steve McQueen seems more interested in creating artistic moments than achieving any kind of narrative momentum. Plot isn’t everything, of course. Character studies are fine. even ones involving mostly static characters. But we don’t learn anything about these two characters except they’re troubled and needy. We need more to hold interest here.
The best of McQueen’s artistic vignettes by far are the bookends of the film, when Brandon hunts for a hookup on the subway and gets caught in a game of eyeball with a possible partner (Lucy Walter). Without dialogue, Fassbender and Walter display a microcosm of conflicting emotions — surprise, lust, shame, guilt — through gazes and body language across a crowded train. But, otherwise, we also have to sit through a lot of filler here, like Fassbender going for a half-mile run to MSG and Mulligan crooning all of “New York, New York” in damaged-siren mode (which conjured grim memories of Georgia.) We have long, uninterrupted scenes of Fassbender and Mulligan fighting like cats and dogs. (Quite frankly, they feel like gimmicks, as did Fassbender and Liam Cunningham’s long and more impressive one-take chat in Hunger.) And we have a good bit of sex, all filmed — with one exception in a hotel room — in the seventh-circle-of-hell fashion of another addiction film, Requiem for a Dream.
In short, I just didn’t buy it. The characters did not ring true to me. I couldn’t see Fassbender (hard, angular) and Mulligan (soft, curvy) as siblings. I found it hard to believe Sullivan could be at once suave enough to pick up anyone he wanted at a club (particularly as compared to his inept boss, James Badge Dale), and yet so unbelievably terrible at small talk on a first date. And McQueen’s third-act decision to have Fassbender’s character, in the midst of an epic bender, wander into a ridiculously sinister gay dungeon in the Meat-Packing District for consummation, carried more than a whiff of homophobia about it. Shame has some powerful performances, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Fassbender and Mulligan get acting nods here. But the film is all surfaces and very little depth. I left, like its wretched protagonist, unsatisfied.
Word has come down that Frank Oz and some of the other original muppeteers were unhappy with the film, but it’s hard to imagine a more honest and heartfelt tribute coming from Hollywood these days. Say what you will about the Segal-Stoller-Bobin version of The Muppet Show, it doesn’t feel at all like a Disney cash grab. (It’s also considerably more enjoyable than the Muppet book-movies of the nineties, like A Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island.) And while frankly it’s still a bit jarring to note the changes in Kermit’s inflections and facial expressions since Henson’s passing, if you just think of him as a James Bond figure, now recast as Steve Whitmire, there’s a lot to like in this production.
The movie begins with the Apatowish-feeling introduction of a new muppet, Walter (Peter Linz), and his brother Gary (Jason Segal), two all-American kids growing up in the heartland — Smalltown, to be exact. (I presume Walter was adopted.) For obvious reasons, Walter becomes obsessed with the Muppets at a very early age, and so, when planning a trip to the Big City of Los Angeles with his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), Gary — to Mary’s mild consternation — offers to bring his brother along so he can visit the Muppet Studios. So far, so good. But on that fateful visit, Walter discovers that a nefarious oil man, Tex Richman (a hilarious, hip-hoppin’ Chris Cooper), is planning to buy the now-bedraggled studio in two weeks and destroy it, in order to get his hands on all the precious black gold pooled underneath. (In fact, he’s cut a deal with those classic one-percenters, Statler and Waldorf. Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh.)
Naturally, Walter, Gary, and Mary track down the one-and-only Kermit the Frog — now living alone in a massive mansion bought by the since-estranged Miss Piggy — and inform him of Richman’s evil plan. To save the studio, Walter explains (having seen the contract), the Muppets will need to raise ten million dollars in the next fortnight. How can they do that? I know, let’s put on a show! And so Kermit and the team travel the world (by map) to get the band back together. As it happens, Fozzie has been working the Reno circuit with a tribute act called the Moopets (Dave Grohl, in an Animal costume, on drums.) Gonzo is a plumbing magnate, Bunsen Honeydew’s at CERN, Sam the Eagle at FOX News. But what of the porcine goddess? Can Kermit et al procure the talents of Miss Piggy once again after all these years? And, being optimistic has-beens in a harder, crueler entertainment world (the #1 show these days is Punch Teacher, hosted by Ken Jeong) where are the Muppets going to find some much-needed star wattage for their telethon? Maybe Animal made some friends in rehab…
That’s the basic gist, and for the most part The Muppets moves along with pop, fizzle, and verve — There are one-liners and sight gags piled into every corner of this film, and they usually stay true to the original wry-but-well-meaning Muppet brand of humor. Oh, yes, and there’s musical numbers too, as befitting a new Muppet movie. (They’re contributed by the Ernie of the Conchords, Bret McKenzie, and, even without FotC director Bobin providing the visuals, they’re all very Conchordian. (Consider lines like “a very manly muppet.”) Speaking of the songs, I do have a small quibble in that the humans — Jason Segal and Amy Adams — do almost all of the singing in this film. Shouldn’t the Muppets be taking point on the musical numbers most of the time?
Of course, it’d be hard for any new song to approach the timelessness of “The Rainbow Connection,” — In fact, Kermit and the gang actually sing “The Rainbow Connection” here late in the third act — which brings me to my main issue with The Muppets: It’s a total hipster nostalgia-fest, and it effectively turns the Muppet gang into Rocky Balboa or The Expendables — old, forgotten warhorses out for one more curtain call. Why not just let the Muppets continue on in another grand adventure? Do Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny ever worry about their contemporary cachet? Instead, Segal and Stoller have adopted an Almost Famous framing device — Walter’s desire to fit in/hang with his now out-of-date idols — that is almost suffocating at times in its Internet-era emo-hipsterishness. I mean, I grew up on and love the Muppets too, but does this film really have to be about some uber-fan’s feelings about them?
I’ll confess, it wasn’t just that I found the nostalgia cloying at times. More troublesome is the fact that the overwrought nostalgia here is tied to the wrong era. Time and again, this movie makes The Muppets seems like icons of the eighties, which I suppose is when young Segal, Stoller — and I — were into them. Here, Kermit et al sing along to (groan) Starship’s “We Built This City,” released 1985. They get a definitively eighties montage sequence, that is set up as such. Kermit has Cyndi Lauper in his rolodex (and, to be fair, President Carter.) They even have an ’80’s robot — which they continually call ’80’s Robot — driving them around from place to place, and offering people New Coke and Tab to boot.
But the problem is, The Muppets aren’t really products of the eighties at all. They’re seventies creations (and, really, Archie Bunker notwithstanding, isn’t Jim Henson one of the quintessentially seventies television icons?) Following on the beginning of Sesame Street in 1969, the Muppets appeared here and there throughout the early decade — including on Saturday Night Live — and got their own show in 1976, which ran until 1981. For that matter, The Muppet Movie came out in 1979. In 1984 — at best a year or two after what we now think of as “the eighties” coalesced — The Muppets Take Manhattan came out, effectively ending the Muppets’ participation in the decade (the exception being The Muppet Babies animated Saturday morning cartoon, whose theme song is still lodged in my head after all these years.)
The point being, The Muppets not only trafficks too much in nostalgia for my liking. It trafficks in a misplaced nostalgia that has more to do with the generation of the writers than with the actual Muppets themselves. Don’t get me wrong — Segal and Stoller do a lot right, this a very enjoyable evening at the movies, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to leave with a smile on your face. But the rewriting of history rankles — When you get right down to it, Generation Y shouldn’t misappropriate the legacy of Kermit and the gang any more than Tex Richman. Let the Muppets live their own time.
Who is this old man, and how his fate bound up with Hugo’s? That is the question that drives this historical fairy tale (formerly Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret.) What follows is a child’s adventure story, a fantastic and whimsical tale of movie history bound up in the love of film itself, and an exercise in 3D innovation forged by a master craftsman with clockwork precision and…ok, let’s take a breath here. At the risk of opening myself to charges of pearls before swine, can I actually just confess to being a little bored by Hugo?
Mind you, I’m not happy about it: I love movies, i like historical fantasy. By the syllogistic principle, I should adore a historical fable about loving movies. In addition Hugo is an exceedingly well-made entertainment, and I presume it works reasonably well as a family film for Potter-inclined children of a certain age and temperament. (Although, frankly, I could imagine a lot of kids being bored too.) And every time some new character popped into the story, it was almost always an actor or actress — Chloe Moretz, Ray Winstone, Michael Stuhlbarg — that I’m fond of watching. But it’s a plain fact that, however entrancing Scorsese’s second- and third-act invocations of Georges Melies — the cinema’s first imagineer, as it were — I watched Hugo feeling mostly disengaged from it.
In the interests of full disclosure, while thinking over the reasons for how this clinical distance might’ve happened, it occurred to me after the fact that I have felt much the same about almost every other one of Martin Scorsese’s films. I’m not saying the man’s a hack or anything — He’s clearly an exceptional craftsman and a deservedly historic figure among American directors. But from his early classics (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, all of which I saw on VCR years after they came out) to Goodfellas (which, to be fair, I caught after The Sopranos) to his recent run of films (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island, The Departed), I’ve had almost the same reaction in the end to every one of his films: Well that was well-put-together, but not very emotionally engaging. (The one major exception here, and my favorite Scorsese movie, is The Last Temptation of Christ, although I also quite like Casino and The King of Comedy. Update: And Kundun, After Hours, and The Age of Innocence as well, now that I think more on it.)
The other issue at work here is the issue of the Third Dimension. Over the course of its run, Hugo — a movie which eventually discusses the earliest days of the cinema — not very subtly makes a case that we are witnessing a similar birth of a new art form right now, with 3D technology. (After showing us the Lumiere brothers’ 1895 film of an arriving train, which scared audiences untrained in film-watching into thinking they’d be run over, Scorsese recreates the scene at the Gare Montparnasse using 2011’s finest 3D tech.) Now, I know that saying things like “3D movies are just a fad” is exactly the type of statement that will leave one ripe for ridicule down the road. (re: “Talkies will never catch on,” or “Why would we ever need color?“) Buuuuut…I’m still not entirely sure the current 3D boom is anything more than a fad.
Here’s the thing: I’m glad visionary directors like Scorsese, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson are pushing the envelope and the technology on 3D. (For what it’s worth, Cameron says Hugo is the best 3D photography he’s ever seen. I’ll reserve full judgment until I’ve seen The Hobbit at 48 frames per second.) At the same time, it seems to me that, at least at present, 3D is mainly being used as a way to push audiences to continue seeing films on the big screen instead of watching them at home. In other words, it’s a filler technology being used to paper over the gaps at a transitional time for the medium, and its recent embrace has more to do with the business of movies than the art of them.
So, my skepticism about 3D at the moment isn’t really about being a Luddite. If anything, the technology isn’t advanced enough yet. When audiences can see the effect without wearing the damnable headache-inducing glasses, or we move past screen projection to full three-dimensional projection, not unlike the holograms in Star Wars, then I might start to agree we’re in Lumiere or Melies territory. But making movies look vaguely and unnecessarily like pop-up books, or having a ginormous Sasha Baron Cohen head jump out at you rather than the usual arrows and projectiles or whatnot, is not really a game-changing use of the medium, and it seems a bit hubristic to suggest so.
I still submit that the most groundbreaking use of 3D I’ve ever witnessed was in the concert film U2 3D, which layered completely separate images into one field of vision, and thus suggested an entirely new form of cinema syntax. Unfortunately, neither Cameron nor Scorsese have opted to explore that route as of yet. Instead, Scorsese has given us here a fine example of how standard story-telling can be slightly enhanced by 3D. I just wish it wasn’t so ponderous at times. Your mileage may vary, of course, but when I was having reactions during the movie like, “Oh Lord, we’re about to get another ten minutes of Sasha Baron Cohen playing the martinet,” that is just not a good sign.
After a brief pre-credit moment of zen with the woman (Patricia Hastie) whose boating accident is the crux of the story, we meet Matt King (George Clooney, very good), a Honolulu attorney with a lot on his plate. His wife is still in a coma several weeks after the incident, and her condition isn’t improving. His younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is more than he knows how to handle (he’s “the backup parent”), and his older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, a real find) is fast becoming a reprobate at a boarding school on the Big Island. The beautiful parcel of Kauai land his (haole) family has owned for generations is up for sale, and he alone has to choose a buyer — a decision all of his many cousins are watching with keen interest. And, it soon comes out, the woman he has spent his life with, and who he must now help his family and friends say farewell to, has been having an affair with a local real estate agent (Matthew Lillard), and was, in fact, planning to leave him. Life in a Hawaiian paradise? “Paradise,” King tells us in a voiceover early on, “can go f**k itself.”
Like Schmidt and Sideways, most of the rest of the film involves a road trip journey of self-discovery — this time to beautiful Kauai (where, if you’ve ever visited there, Princeville and downtown Hanalei both get their druthers.) Along for the ride is Alexandra’s amiable, dim-witted boyfriend (Nick Krause), and at various times we meet Matt’s take-no-guff father-in-law (Robert Forster), beachbum cousin (Beau Bridges), and the Other Man’s sweet, unknowing wife (Judy Greer). But, unlike say, About Schmidt, where Dermot Mulroney and his family of rednecks were mostly just joke fodder, The Descendants is less sneering and more open-hearted toward its cast of extended characters (even Inconsiderate Cell Phone Man, who shows up as the husband-half of the Kings’ couple-friends.)
Along with best adapted screenplay — this is based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings — I would also expect The Descendants to garner Oscar nods for the very naturalistic Woodley and another for Clooney, who maintains his record of quality here. (Does any leading man have a better one? Even his bad films — The Good German, say — are usually interesting failures.) We’ve already seen Clooney suffer existential crises the past two years in Up in the Air and The American, but this one also stands on its own. His King isn’t the hyper-competent individual of those other two films — He’s just a well-meaning guy, who’s been distracted from his life for too long, trying to make the best of a bad hand.
It doesn’t help that Eastwood has yet again opted for the tinkly piano and gray palette that seems to characterize all of his historical pictures. This worked wonders for Letters of Iwo Jima, not so much for Flags of our Fathers and this film. Here, Eastwood has set a story beginning in 1919 — perhaps the most lurid and tumultuous single year for America in the 20th century (I’m only ever-so-slightly biased on this) — and made it look like a drab, washed-out daguerrotype. In that fateful summer, after an anarchist’s bomb blows up the front porch of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in the ritzy West End of Washington (his neighbors, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, had just parked down the street), Hoover is hand-picked to run the new “General Intelligence Division” of the Justice Department that will bring the perpetrators to justice.
With previous experience at the Library of Congress in organizing information, Hoover soon takes on two key assistants in Tolson (Armie Hammer, once again exuding Ivy League entitlement) and personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, who gets the best of the age make-up), and quickly attempts to make a CSI of the GID. Cut to forty years later, and Hoover — now balding, paunchy, and covered in latex — is obsessively snooping on Martin Luther King and making veiled threats to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy about his brother’s sleeping habits. With our two historical poles established, the rest of J. Edgar flits back and forth in time, telling the story of its protagonist as both a young and old man – Other than these two moments, the film spends most of its time, strangely enough, dealing with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. (In 2004, when discussing The Alamo, I noted how fun it is to cast the story of American history with actors. Let me say that Josh Lucas totally works as Charles Lindbergh.)
For the most part, J. Edgar is an innocuous edutainment. But it also has some serious problems, and not just the standard-issue groanworthy biopic tropes like Freudian parent issues overdetermining the subject’s entire life story. (Here, Mom (Judi Dench) is a stern and overbearing sort who forces Hoover to bury his secrets within, even as he’s trying to pry up everyone else’s.) Y’see, it comes out rather late in the third act that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have attempted to add a Fight Club-ish “unreliable narrator” schtick to the film: The whole time, we’ve been watching Hoover’s sanitized retelling of his own history. But this should-be-huge reveal is underplayed, and thus becomes somewhat buried. And, as a result, people who don’t know anything about the times are going to leave a theater with a very wrongheaded sense of the story.
For example, it’s never mentioned or adequately explained that the 1919 anarchist bombings which open the film only killed two people — one of them the bomber on Palmer’s porch, who either tripped or mis-timed the blast — and that, not unlike recent times, pretty much everything Palmer and Hoover did subsequently in 1919 was a massive overreaction. (Hence, the “Red Scare.”) They show Hoover and a team of G-men knocking down an anarchist printing press in Paterson, New Jersey linked to the bombs, but, with the arguable exception of Emma Goldman’s deportation proceedings at Ellis Island, they don’t show any of the many, many raids that were just glorified fishing expeditions and/or excuses to remove foreign-born potential Communists from American shores.
Similarly, when the film briefly depicts the Centralia Massacre that same year, it shows events in a way that Hoover, and many other Americans, probably saw them — I.W.W. radicals killing patriotic veterans in a turkey shoot. But that depiction does violence to the much more complicated truth of the event, which involved American Legion members deciding first to go march on some radical Wobblies. And you’d never know that the culmination of that day was an I.W.W. member and veteran grabbed from jail by soldiers, beaten, castrated, hung, hung, hung, shot, and shot. Again, Eastwood and Black have written themselves a pass for this, because they hint Hoover is an unreliable narrator at the end of the film. But that lede is buried.
So the history has definite issues, and this same tendency towards whitewashing detracts from the whole film. Granted, given how little we know, the Tolson-Hoover relationship should perhaps be treated with this discretion — although my understanding is they were more conceived of as a couple than this film lets on. (FWIW, Hammer is quite good here despite some unfortunate age-makeup, and a Supporting Actor nod is likely.) But, that aside, and to be blunt about it, sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. One can argue that Hoover had all the reasons in the world to be the way he was — an overbearing mom, a traumatic secret, whathaveyou. But this film spends more time trying to make us feel charitable towards its protagonist than it does putting his behavior in any kind of appropriate context. (For example, why is Hoover obsessed with MLK? Should he be wiretapping him? It’s never really addressed.) Should we feel for J. Edgar, after hearing his story? Perhaps, yes. But we should also leave the theater with a clearer sense of how illegal and often reprehensible his rise to power really was.