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Rogers for Roosevelt | Cap v. NSA.

“Steve Rogers doesn’t represent a genericized America but rather a very specific time and place – 1930’s New York City. We know he was born July 4, 1920 (not kidding about the 4th of July) to a working-class family of Irish Catholic immigrants who lived in New York’s Lower East Side. This biographical detail has political meaning: given the era he was born in and his class and religious/ethnic background, there is no way in hell Steve Rogers didn’t grow up as a Democrat, and a New Deal Democrat at that, complete with a picture of FDR on the wall.”

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.

I Checked Out Early.

As far as Wes Anderson films go, I really enjoyed Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, and was indifferent-to-irritated by Bottle Rocket, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited. Count Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel among the latter bunch, sadly.

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.

2013 in Film.

A very happy 2014 to you and yours. As always, there are a few 2013 movies I’d still like to catch up on (The Act of Killing, Fruitvale Station, The Great Beauty, The Grandmaster, Short Term 12) and a few others waiting to be watched on the Netflix machine (Warm Bodies, Kon-Tiki, Berberian Sound Studio.) Nonetheless, a new year means it’s time for the annual GitM movie round-up, and 2013 isn’t getting any closer in the rear-view.

Like last year, I’ve gone on longer than usual to make up for the lack of reviews throughout the year. Overall, I’d say that, in spite of a disconcertingly bland summer full of films that needed major rewrites, 2013 ended up yielding a surprisingly bumper crop at the movies, as good as last year’s fare and arguably the deepest year since 2007. So without further ado, let’s get to the…

Top 25 Films of 2013
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009/2010/2011/2012/The Oughts]

1. 12 Years a Slave: As someone who was underwhelmed by Hunger and outright hated Shame, I was as surprised as anyone that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave turned out to be the movie of the year. But as it happened, McQueen’s penchant for cold, painterly compositions of suffering and depravity was a perfect fit for this harrowing descent into America’s peculiar institution.

With all due respect to Michael Fassbender’s turn as the dissolute sadist Edwin Epps, the better performances in 12 Years a Slave are underplayed. As Solomon Northrop, Chiwetel Ejiofor — who first showed he had star wattage to spare ten years ago in Dirty Pretty Things — obviously carries the weight of the film, and he manages to subtly convey his character’s determination losing out to despair. Sarah Paulson’s work may not be as showy here as that of the Bender of Fass, but she is just as effective at illustrating the way antebellum slavery warped the mindset of the master class. (As the Cumber of Batch vignette points out, even a benevolent tyrant is still a tyrant.)

And, in a powerful cameo, moving about and berating his room of wares with a heartless dispatch, Paul Giamatti chillingly captures the cruelty and obscenity of the slave trade, in which children become commodities and family ties a nuisance to be overcome. (If the film’s producer, Brad Pitt, really wanted to make a bold statement, he’d have switched roles with Giamatti — As it is, his white savior turn here is the only real misstep in the movie.)

Obviously, this film is a hard watch at times, but, doggone it, it should be. After decades of dancing around the topic in anything from Gone with the Wind to Gods and Generals — even last year’s revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, mitigated the real horrors of slavery by giving its title character so much agency — 12 Years a Slave offers a steady, unblinking gaze at the underbelly of our republic, and underscores the grim reality so often obscured by our founding fictions: Only a century and a half ago, a great and terrible darkness festered in our erstwhile land of liberty, and its ramifications did not just disappear at Appomattox. If the audience ends up feeling like Pippen holding the palantir at more than a few moments throughout this tale, well that’s the point. Our past is complicated, and it’s time we did a better job of recognizing it.

2. Before Midnight: Speaking of truths that hurt, Richard Linklater’s third stanza in the ballad of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) captures another dark and fundamental one: However potent at first, love can be a tricky business after awhile. As I said in the Best of the Oughts list (where Before Sunset clocked in at #8), I can take or leave Before Sunrise — I saw it at an age when I was already far too cynical for it — but adored Before Sunset, and that’s still probably my favorite of the three. But Midnight is right up there, and I really admire Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy’s decision to take us into colder, murkier waters this time.

True, the first hour of this movie can seem a little unfocused: I didn’t mind spending all that time at a dinner party with characters we’ve never met, but it made the film feel a bit more like Linklater’s Slacker or Waking Life, both of which are given to a lot of random philosophical musing at the expense of forward momentum. But when Jesse and Celine go off for a walk by themselves, the movie starts to click again. And the last forty minutes or so are absolutely electric, as [spoiler] our two former lovebirds, ostensibly spending a romantic evening at a couple’s hotel, instead find themselves engaged in a knock-down, drag-out Airing of the Grievances that will ring all-too-true to anyone’s who ever been in a long-term relationship, on the rocks or otherwise.

Instead of giving us anything like a feel-good rom-com this time around (and seemingly much to the horror of some of the dumbstruck-looking couples at my showing…oof, Date Night Fail) — Before Midnight opts for a much more realistic and unflinching portrayal of a romance that, over the years, has accumulated its share of fractures, bruises, and silences. I’m not sure where the story goes from here, but definitely count me in for Before Noon in 2022.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis: “If I had wings like Noah’s dove, I’d fly the river to the one that I love.” Given the confluence of the Coens and the Sixties folk revival here, this always seemed like a good bet to be one of my top movies of the year. As it happened, I did really like Llewyn Davis — but it’s also both a pricklier and jauntier film than I originally expected.

Even by Coen standards, the film has very little plot to speak of. We just follow Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, like Ejiofor another actor who’s been turning in excellent character work over the years) a folk singer as talented as he is unlucky and self-defeating, as he shambles around New York — playing gigs at the Gaslight, herding cats, and generally trying to stay afloat in the pre-Dylan scene. This is partly like the story of Dave Van Ronk, whose autobiography the Coens began with, and partly another artist-adrift-in-the-world-of-commerce story akin to Barton Fink — except, this time, Llewyn probably actually deserves to make it.

Especially in the random escapade to Chicago in the middle of the film, you get the sense that the Coens had no real interest in telling a traditional story here. Carey Mulligan (who, as it happens, played Oscar Isaac’s wife in Drive) starts out seeming like an important character and then just fades into that beautifully nostalgic freewheelin’ mist that permeates the look of the film. Other actors — Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham — appear for a few bars and move on.

I suppose the aimlessness of Llewyn could rankle. (One of my gradual school friends has a great theory about this – Llewyn Davis is folk-song as movie, with a deliberately elliptical structure and repeated refrains.) But I myself loved the look and feel of this film (the quality folk renditions don’t hurt either), and I appreciated its basic folk-song conceit: Sometimes, Hard Times are just a fact of life. If Llewyn was operating only a year or two later, he’d be a beneficiary of the Dylan boom (or, at the very least, a Phil Ochs type figure.) As it is, he’s just a unlucky soul, doing what he does best even while likely going under for the final time. I can’t wait to see this movie again, and to see what the Coens have up their sleeves next.

4. The World’s End: In a summer of way too many dumb and bloated duds, Edgar Wright’s third chapter in the Cornetto Trilogy was very welcome counter-programming, and a smart, winsome night out with the lads. Of course, any time you have pros like Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Bill Nighy working in your ensemble, the final product should come out rather droll indeed. Still, this was one of the most purely pleasurable films of the year, and props to Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for crafting a film that felt fresh even while mining similar territory as their previous installments, Shaun of the Dead (folks being frightfully British in the face of robot/zombie hordes) and Hot Fuzz (strange things afoot, and the elders up to no good, in a wee English village.)

5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: At last, the Incident with the Dragon. This is actually the lowest any of PJ’s Middle Earth films have ever been on a year-end list, which is partly due to the strength of the movies already mentioned, and partly because this was the first time in five films that I felt like Jackson et al have lost the thread a bit.

Bilbo facing Smaug in a Game of Wits is the climactic confrontation of this entire story, but here its impact is diminished considerably by (a) the movie suddenly cutting to Legolas squaring off against a made-up end-boss Orc and (b) a long and contrived scheme, right out of Alien 3, whereby Thorin and the dwarves try to confuse the Old Wyrm with a large golden statue of Durin. This plan not only robs Smaug of menace by making him seem like a blind idiot. (Smaug the Terrible, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, can’t manage to squash a single measly dwarf?) It’s another setpiece, not unlike the barrel ride earlier in the film and the escape from the goblin tunnels in An Unexpected Journey, where video game physics have completely taken hold of the picture. (It’s “The Desolation of Mario,” as one wag put it.)

So why is this still way up at #5? Well, I still relish being in Middle Earth, the occasional cartoony antics notwithstanding, and there’s a lot to like here, from Martin Freeman’s Bilbo to the hallucinations and spiders of Mirkwood to Gandalf at Dol Guldur to the character design of Benny CumberSmaug. I could have done without the Team Legolas/Team Kili stuff, but Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel is otherwise a solid addition to the saga. And I just have a soft spot for these films — here’s hoping the third film doesn’t drift too far afield into fan fiction.

6. Gravity: [Spoilers in this review] Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is up this high because it (along with Smaug) was the purest eye candy of the year — just a breathtakingly beautiful film at times, and well worth the extra price for IMAX 3D. (It’s also easily the best of the three space-mission-gone-wrong movies in 2013, though Europa Report isn’t half-bad.)

Unfortunately Gravity was also, let’s face it, schmaltzy as all hell — I wish Cuaron had had enough trust in his story and audience to forego, for example, cornball conversations about Bullock’s lost kid. And, even notwithstanding how close all the space stations are to each other here (a plot point I can forgive even though it too is absurd), the ultimate fate of Clooney’s endlessly jabbering astronaut is just a gross violation of basic physics. (And moving from the impossible to the improbable, I’d have been less annoyed by the end if Bullock had splashed down in the middle of nowhere, instead of twenty feet from paradise.)

All that being said, did I mention this film is beautiful? The space walk stuff alone would put it in the top ten.

7. All is Lost: Still, I really wish Gravity had taken a few pages from another memorable survivor story of 2013, J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost. (Although to be fair, sailors apparently have gripes about this one also.) We never really find out anything about Robert Redford’s backstory in this movie, except that he’s 1%’er enough to own a spiffy yacht and curmudgeonly enough to be sailing it alone in the Indian Ocean. And, after a scene-setting monologue at the beginning, Redford (“Our Man”) barely says a word in this movie. Instead, his character is defined entirely by his actions, and the film’s considerable suspense comes. not from lathering on excess sentimentality like a paste, but merely from seeing a fellow human in a very bad situation, and witnessing an almost primal retelling of the Old Man and the Sea.

8. American Hustle: I feel like, the significantly overpraised Silver Linings Playbooks notwithstanding, David O. Russell’s movies usually come in around the 7 or 8 spot every year, and American Hustle is no exception. Well-made, well-acted, well-written, Hustle is an engaging and entertaining Who’s-Conning-Who story of New Jersey grifters, set against the real-life story of Abscam and a healthy smattering of Seventies glitz. With strong work across the board (and from Christian Bale and Amy Adams in particular), Hustle also happens to contain the first honest-to-goodness performance I’ve seen from Robert DeNiro since…I dunno, Casino? In any case, well worth seeing.

9. Captain Phillips: Paul Greengrass had also a mulligan with Green Zone, but he’s another director who can be reliably trusted to deliver quality, and Captain Phillips — give or take ten clunky and moralizing minutes at the beginning — is no exception. Like the more resonant United 93, this is another gripping You Are There dramatization of a recent Bad Day on Earth, and like that earlier film, Greengrass makes sure to humanize and contextualize the bad guys — this time, the Somali pirates who are basically plying the only trade available to them.

As per De Niro above, it’s also good to see Tom Hanks giving a real performance here, and not just phoning it in or coasting on his star power. Apparently, he attributes it to his recent experience in last year’s Cloud Atlas, which marks another way that film, an interesting failure, is underappreciated.

10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: He’s not a Russell or a Greengrass, but Francis Lawrence is another director who tends to make genre films — for example, I am Legend and Constantine — that are better than you’d expect them to be. And despite the fact that he’s operating from a more unwieldy book — I have no idea how they’re going to wrest two more blockbuster films out of Collins’ strange, admirably downbeat Mockingjay — Lawrence’s Catching Fire is a more immersive experience than the first Hunger Games movie, which, all apologies to Gary Ross, felt rote and by-the-numbers.

Did I love Catching Fire? No, not really – It hit at about the level of the later Harry Potter films. But much like the movie I have in the “most unfairly maligned” box below, I think you’d be hard-pressed to craft a better film from the source material, particularly given the constraint of continuing with the same actors from the first one. (I know Jennifer Lawrence is America’s sweetheart or whatever, but imho she’s still miscast here. Just because she was in Winter’s Bone doesn’t make her a perfect Katniss.) And, in any event, it’s great fun to see pros like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Amanda Plummer work their way into the Panem proceedings.

11. Nebraska: Like the next film on this list, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is an auteur movie I admired but didn’t necessarily engage with. This all feels a bit like deja vu, partly because of similarly-themed road trips like The Straight Story, but more because Payne seems to be covering a lot of the same ground here that he did in About Schmidt, from June Squibb not taking any guff to the goofy, to the point of being uncharitable, extended family of the main character. (Jack Nicholson had to contend with Dermot Mulroney and his mullet; Now it’s Bruce Dern and Will Forte versus two greedy ex-jailbird twins. There’s also elements of The Descendants here, with Forte and George Clooney both discovering secrets about their loved ones after they become their caretakers.)

Still, with its storefront facades crumbling in luscious black-and-white, Nebraska works best as a gentle and elegaic reflection on the passing of a certain kind of small-town, 20th century America — this is probably the most sympathetic argument you’ll find for the Tea Party vision of the USA — and a reminder, a la “That Was Your Mother”, that your parents and grandparents had their own lives that you, as their kids, will never fully “get.” And if nothing else, it’s nice to see Bruce Dern, who’s put in fifty years of solid character work now, get this kind of extended curtain call.

12. Her: I admittedly had stratospheric hopes for Spike Jonze’ Her, which has been billed as a direct descendant of my favorite movie of last decade, Eternal Sunshine. And, well, I really liked the near-future sheen of the production — its light satire of current media, its slightly-out-of-step fashions, and especially its gorgeous hybrid Los Angeles-Shanghai cityscape. This is an artful and mostly well-thought-out piece of science fiction, made with delicacy and driven by ideas rather than special effects, and that’s always welcome.

But as a love story? Er….not so much. Put aside the criticism that this is a movie about Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore in love with a box, although I can definitely see why that’d be a dealkiller for some. Even if you accept the science fiction here, and allow that Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha is her own free-thinking entity, the vision of love being offered here is basically one never-ending phone call, where both people are constantly talking about their feelings. That’s true love? That…sounds exhausting. (Ask anyone I’ve ever dated – I’m not one for the phone. I text or e-mail.)

Not to say that true romance has to have a physical component, although in my experience it definitely helps. (And speaking of Samantha constantly lamenting her lack of physical form, I call shenanigans on the idea that civilization will somehow develop true AI before creepy love robots, but I digress.) To me, romance is also about simply experiencing things together — movies, music, dinner, travel, in-jokes. I suppose there’s some of that in Her – Theodore and his OS go to the beach and whatnot, but much more often it just seems to be a constant state-of-the-relationship phone call. No thanks.

Put another way, Her ends up being a lot like the fake letters that Theodore (rather improbably) writes for a living: An impeccably crafted simulacrum of romantic connection, Her relies on constant professions of feeling to cover up the fact that it’s really just a well-made artifice.

13. Spring Breakers: Along with survival stories and harrowing space missions, another trend of 2013 were films that used either Youths Gone Wild and/or beach-ready hardbodies as a metaphor for the contemporary (and sickly) American Dream: See, for example, The Bling Ring, Pain and Gain, The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Don Jon. Of these, the best was, strangely enough, Harmony Korine’s hallucinatory bacchanal, Spring Breakers — a movie that sticks in your head like gum on your shoe.

Spring Breakers is undoubtedly inchoate and repetitive, and it can’t seem to decide if it wants to revel in trashiness, send it up, or go dumpster-diving for the lost innocence underneath. (Watch James Franco and his muses croon Britney Spears’ “Everytime” and tell me what you think.) But there still seems to be a method to the madness. Basically, this is Fear and Loathing in St. Petersburg, a savage and surreal journey into one of America’s playgrounds of frenetic excess, and James Franco is our Raoul Duke. “Spreng brayyke, Spreng brAYYke, forever.”

14. Upstream Color: And speaking of hallucinatory and surreal journeys, Shane Carruth returned from his extended post-Primer hiatus to bring us this bizarre, intermittently captivating disquisition on love in the time of possession by parasites and animal-human hybrids. (Hey, if Joaquin Phoenix can adore an iPhone, why can’t Amy Seimetz and Carruth find fulfillment in their respective ManBearPigs?)

Like Primer, Upstream Color is mostly inscrutable the first time around — if it helps, I can tell you mindworms, acoustics, and pig daemons are involved — and I can see people just finding it pretentious and annoying. But, for what it’s worth, I found segments of Upstream Color evocative and entrancing, even if I had no clue what was going on. Sometimes you just go along for the ride.

15. Prisoners: [Spoilers in this review] It’s been awhile — Sunshine, maybe? — since I’ve seen an otherwise excellent movie crash and burn so miserably in the last reel like Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. For the first two hours or so, this film — a story of missing children and their bereft parents, who have their eye on an all-too-likely suspect — is a powerful police procedural and grim disquisition on vigilantism that burns slowly and intensely. If it had ended earlier (and differently), Prisoners would be a top 10 film this year, and could plausibly be mentioned in the same conversation as, say, Mystic River, Zodiac, and even In the Bedroom.

That being said, I got a bad feeling when, late in the movie, suitcases full of snakes suddenly enter the investigation. And, sure enough, soon thereafter, an individual who had only been conspicuously cast up to that point (a la Stellan Skarsgard in the Dragon Tattoo remake) suddenly starts chewing scenery like one of the redneck family from The X-Files, and what had seemed a thoughtful exercise about the agony of un-knowing suddenly becomes a half-baked retread of The Vanishing. Alas, until that last-minute lurch, Prisoners was quite a good film, with Hugh Jackman particularly memorable as a father whose berserker rage would make Wolverine blanch.

16. Iron Man 3: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, which came out the first week of May, looks like an even better film in retrospect, given how many tentpoles stumbled later in the summer. While not as engaging as 2012′s The Avengers, it’s clearly an improvement on Tony Stark’s botched second adventure, and closer to the quality of the first one. And while I don’t want to spoil the (now contentious in fanboy circles) big twist, I actually loved being blindsided by it: Black basically used comic book folks’ foreknowledge against us, and, under everyone’s noses, pulled off a clever switcheroo that also works as very dark political satire. Well-played.

17. The Great Gatsby: Well, to be fair, F. Scott Fitzgerald did call it “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” In 3D, Baz Luhrmann’s overstuffed, overlong adaptation of The Great Gatsby is like too-rich chocolate cake — It’s fun for awhile, until you start to feel a little sickly. But that’s also sort of the point of the book, so this adaptation also works in a meta-fashion. In any event, I quite enjoyed this ludicrously busy film for about 45 minutes or so, but began to check out when Gatsby began to court Daisy Buchanan in earnest, and there was still another hour or so to go. But hey, if you’re going to overshoot the mark, why not overshoot it gloriously? Gatsby would be proud.

18. Kill Your Darlings: A.K.A. The Beats: Origins: Rise of Ginsburg, in the modern-day movie parlance. In any event, this New York City coming-of-age story about Allen Ginsburg’s Columbia days made for a solid afternoon arthouse matinee, with quality performances by Daniel Radcliffe (clearly trying, and mostly succeeding, to shake Harry Potter), Ben Foster (doing an uncanny William Burroughs impression), Jack Huston (playing Kerouac with — strangely for Boardwalk Empire viewers — his entire face), and Michael C. Hall. (David Cross, who played a later version of the poet in I’m Not There, also shows up to pass the Ginsburg baton.) I have to say, tho: After only a handful of movies (Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), I find Dane DeHaan’s schtick wearing thin. Your mileage may vary.

19. Enough Said: If you’re looking for a light entertainment, Nicole Holofcenter’s amiable romantic comedy — about a masseuse (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who discovers that her new best friend (Catherine Keener) and new boyfriend (James Gandolfini) used to be married to each other — is a small, well-observed, and worthwhile film in the key of The Kids Are All Right. Fair warning, tho’: Some of the gentle ribbing about Gandolfini’s weight here takes on a morbid cast with his recent passing. (Pro-tip: If Enough Said whets your appetite for more Gandolfini comedy, there’s always the estimable In the Loop.)

20. A Single Shot: Much like Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, an aura of inexorable doom hangs over this backcountry noir by David Rosenthal, which involves hunter Sam Rockwell accidentally firing at the wrong target and unearthing that inevitable albatross, a giant bag of money. Rockwell — invariably an appealing presence in good films and bad (alas, he had a terrible movie in 2013, which I’ll get to in a bit) — holds the screen even as a very reticent woodsman. But the real pleasure of A Single Shot is that it eventually amounts to an actor’s workshop for some very quality character actors, including Jeffrey Wright, William H. Macy, Ted Levine, and Jason Isaacs.

21. Dallas Buyers Club: Deep in the heart of Texas, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto lose weight and buck admirably for Oscars in the true story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic good-ole-boy turned AIDS activist, also with Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O’Hare, and Griffin Dunne. (Griffin Dunne!) There’s not much to say about this one: It’s an admirable production, and McConaughey and Leto both give 110% and deserve their likely Oscar nods. But this film still has trouble shaking that Oscar-baity, overly earnest biopic feel. And as someone who generally thinks the FDA should be assuring the safety of medical drugs, I had issues with some of the anti-Big Guvmint grandstanding here.

22. Frances Ha: At first, this story of a young woman in Brooklyn (Greta Gerwig) and her attempts to both make it in modern dance and stay besties with her friend Sophia (Mickey Sumner) feels like another variation on HBO’s Girls, a show whose self-indulgence and first-world-problems whining I quickly grew bored with. (Adam Driver showing up here doesn’t help with the differentiation.) But Frances soon establishes its own quirky rhythm, and it’s refreshing, after Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg, to see Noah Baumbach telling the story of a likable New Yorker for a change.

23. Computer Chess: Another quirky, dialogue-driven black-and-white comedy here for the later going, this small-scale indie by “Mumblecore Master” Andrew Bujalski follows a bevy of programmers — the only recognizable one being Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, all grown up — as they lug their Tandys and Commodores to a weekend computer chess tournament in the early 1980′s, hoping to show off the best AI, impress each other, and maybe craft a little bit of the future. Like Upstream Color, this occasionally absurdist tale is more about tone than anything else, but I liked its home-coded, DIY aesthetic and standing-on-the-threshold-of-tomorrow unease.

24. This is the End: If I have to pick a pack of dudebros to await the end the world with, I’d rather hang with Simon Pegg and the lads up above at spot #4 than find myself at the Franco residence, hiding out from the Rapture with the likes of Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride. But to give credit where due, Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s apocalyptic raunchfest will leave no boundary of good taste uncrossed to make you laugh, and they’ve brought along any number of friends and neighbors willing to be involved in a ridiculous cameo or three.

25. World War Z: As always, the last spot here could go to a number of different films, from the admirably strange Chan-Wook Park Southern gothic Stoker to the better-than-expected James Mangold episode of The Wolverine. I went with World War Z, since — despite all the terrible hype surrounding this project beforehand — this Marc Forster/Brad Pitt blockbuster actually turned out to be not-half-bad. It wasn’t much like the book, of course, and I could’ve done without the seemingly grafted-on Harrison Ford-style “My wife! My family!” phone calls here and there. Still, I liked that the movie sprinkled a few moments of quiet creepiness in with the action setpieces — say, in North Korea with David Morse and James Badge Dale, or in Scotland with, er, WHO Doctor…Who. So all in all, no harm, no foul. I just wish they’d sprung for the original bizarro ending.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

Star Trek: Into Darkness: The hackadocious ST:ID has already been good and thoroughly eviscerated by the folks at Io9, so I’ll just repost what I said when I posted that worthy link: “The first one had a number of egregious plot holes too, of course, but it at least had a charming cast and the benefit of novelty. The charming cast remains, but since Into Darkness is otherwise just a lousy and ultimately insulting remix of Wrath of Khan with a frisson of 9/11, the extreme dumbness here is even more aggravating.” As one wag put it soon after this disaster, maybe in the rebooted universe it’s the even movies that are terrible.

Man of Steel: Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was nowhere near as aggressively insulting as Into Darkness, but it suffers from similar issues — namely a really sloppy script and far too much 9/11ness throughout. I thought Henry Cavill made for a superlative Superman (and I’m not just saying that because he’s a fellow Warcraft enthusiast), but really, what was going on in the writing department? Why does Russell Crowe keep popping up like Basil Exposition? Why was Amy Adams taken up to the Krypton ship? And, even notwithstanding the extremely out-of-character decision Kal-El makes here near the end, why is Superman trying to destroy Metropolis? (Zack Snyder gave his answer for the ridiculous collateral damage here – I don’t think it washes.)

As with Green Lantern, I’m willing to give this movie a mulligan and hope DC rights the ship with Batman v. Superman v. Wonder Woman or whatever it’s called. But right now, DC is lagging far behind Marvel in the world-building-on-film department. And, for now, Cavill is the second Supes in a row, after Brandon Routh, to deserve a better adventure.

To the Wonder: Oof, To the Wonder. It’s great to see Terence Malick becoming a more productive filmmaker in his later years — after making four movies between 1973 and 2005, he’s now made two films the past two years (the other being The Tree of Life) and has two more in the can. Unfortunately, to my eyes To the Wonder — ostensibly the story of Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams’ romantic issues with Ben Affleck (who, other than his back and shoulders, was seemingly left on the cutting room floor) — was an incoherent, disjointed mess that came across like somebody doing a parody of a Malick film. Here’s hoping for better from Knight of Cups.

Elysium: [Spoilers in this review] So it seems here like Neil Blomkamp had a few ideas for a decent science fiction story — The few Haves live in a deluxe orbital paradise in the sky and all enjoy free health care, the many Have-Nots are stuck on a dusty, windswept Earth, have no health care at all, and are always trying to break in to said orbital Nirvana — but no actual plot to speak of.

As a result, Elysium, Blomkamp’s calamitous sophomore effort after the promising District 9, was another movie in a summer full of them that made absolutely no sense at all. Since these magical cure-all health care machines seem to operate without cost, why weren’t a few already sent down to Earth long ago? And if that MacGuffin-y station reboot code is so all-powerful, why didn’t ruthless businessman William Fichtner, who was carrying it around the first third of the movie, just depose Jodie Foster (who’s embarrassing here) and make himself Emperor of Elysium? Makes. No. Sense.

The Last Days on Mars: It’s a bit unfair to include this among the “Most Disappointing,” because this is basically just a bad indie film you might find on Syfy — Nobody was waiting in line at midnight to see The Last Days On Mars. Still, it’s depressing to see the Murderer’s Row of talent assembled for this science-fiction tale — Olivia Williams, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Liev Schreiber — and then have the hook turn out only to be The Walking Dead on Mars. Everyone here, and especially Williams and Koteas, deserves better.

MOST OVERRATED:

The Way, Way Back: In the opening moments of this glib, trite Cape Cod coming-of-age story, Mom’s mean new boyfriend (Steve Carell, playing against type) berates a sullen teenager (Liam James) on the drive out to summer vacation, telling him that, on a scale of 1 to 10, he’s only a 3. Well, that’s about right for this painfully clunky movie as well, which would just be an inoffensive bore if it wasn’t weirdly being hailed in some corners as an under-appreciated 2013 gem.

Honestly, it is bewildering to me that this film received such positive attention. All the saccharine dollops of It Gets Better here can’t obscure the fact that, for two uninvolving hours, we’re stuck on the Cape with a whiny, passive protagonist — who never does anything to suggest that Carell, however dickishly, didn’t have him dead-to-rights in the first reel — and a bunch of hackneyed, one-dimensional characters out of an ABC afterschool special.

Why does the Girl Next Door (AnnaSophia Robb) seem to be interested in our hero? Why does Local Cool Guy Sam Rockwell (and you know it’s a stinker when even Rockwell can’t save your flick) take him under his wing? Well, mainly because these are the sorts of things that happen in movies like these. If you’re hankering for a sweet coming-of-age “That One Summer It All Changed” type movie, rent Adventureland (or, if it has to be on the Cape, rent One Crazy Summer). But The Way, Way, Back is Not, Not It.

Stories We Tell: I’ll tread lightly here because I like Sarah Polley as both an actress and director (Take This Waltz was #17 last year), and I’m still interested in whatever she’s up to next. Suffice to say, I could never get over the inherent narcissism of this much-heralded documentary, about Polley slowly discovering that her father (actor Michael Polley, whom I knew from Slings & Arrows) may or may not in fact be her father. For some unfathomable reason (other than, I suppose, a documentary could be made), Polley chooses to interrogate every single one of her family members — except her mother, a flighty soul who died of cancer when Sarah was 11 — about this potential revelation, on camera. Erm…ok.

I just don’t get it. It’d be one thing if the House of Polley’s deep dark secret was something more interesting or world-historical than illegitimate parentage. (Nazis in the attic or somesuch.) But, as it is, Stories We Tell is just the documentary equivalent of a Selfie. It doesn’t have anything particularly noteworthy to say, other than, ok, a lot of families have “lies mutually agreed upon,” and I grew bored and eventually a bit disturbed by the egoism and exhibitionism of the whole enterprise. No shame if Polley wants to go digging in the family dirt, but I’m not sure why I really need to be involved.

The Wolf of Wall Street: So this was my birthday movie this year, which basically means that, alas, my girlfriend and I recently spent the afternoon of December 29th with a bunch of insufferable douchebags. Let our terrible mistake be your good fortune — This one can be skipped. (At least know what you’re in for: As an early Spike Jonze cameo telegraphs, this is essentially an unfunny three-hour episode of Jackass.)

Scorsese’s Wolf would’ve been innocuous enough if it had been 90 minutes long or so: In fact, a first-act power lunch with DeCaprio and Matthew McConaughey gets all the “these guys are nihilistic, worthless wastes of space” points across fine enough, no need to belabor it. But at three ever-lovin’ hours, the film wears out its welcome well before the end, and somewhere in that third hour — around the time DeCaprio is screaming at and gut-punching his second wife (Margot Robbie), so that we all leave knowing the asshat behavior we’ve witnessed for 180 minutes is actually not ok — I’d joined the douchebag train myself and was idly scrolling through my phone in the theater, waiting for somebody to give this dire Wolf the Grey Wind treatment, or at least throw him in the clink already.

Anyway, like all too many fratboy and/or Wall Street types, the film is not nearly as hilarious or as transgressive as it thinks it is — for example, the too-long-by-far traveling-on-Quaaludes scene was more funny and more concise (with ether) in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing. And, as I said up above, there were plenty of other movies mining this “grotesque excess is the new American independence” vein in 2013 — just go see Gatsby or Spring Breakers instead.

Blue Jasmine: This one’s not terrible or anything — it’s no Cassandra’s Dream — and Cate Blanchett is a pro as always. But Blue Jasmine is no Midnight in Paris either: It’s basically just Woody riffing on (re: cribbing from) A Streetcar Named Desire by way of the financial crisis — There’s not a lot of there there. Also, even though he must know a lot of uber-rich Manhattanites, Allen seems as clumsy about class here as always: Blanchett and Baldwin’s spoiled Ivy League kid here seems like he’s a member of Harvard’s Class of 1942. (On the blue collar side, Sally Hawkins and, surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay, do better at crafting real people out of class stereotypes.) Again, Blue Jasmine isn’t a travesty or anything, but it’s not top-shelf Woody by any means, and has been significantly overpraised.

MOST [UNFAIRLY?] MALIGNED:

Ender’s Game: The long-awaited movie adaptation of this science fiction standard got quite a bit of bad press before release because, well, author Orson Scott Card is a terrible human being. (That’s why I have “unfairly” in brackets up above: Card has been a malignant enough presence over the years. Malign away!)

All that being said, if you’re not inherently averse to all things Card at this point, I thought Gavin Hood’s film was a surprisingly decent adaptation of the once-acclaimed novel (which I enjoyed enough in high school — I haven’t read it since.) Despite being a bit long in the tooth for the part, Asa Butterfield made for a quality Ender, with the necessary streak of amoral darkness about him. (We could’ve used Butterfield for Anakin Skywalker back in the day — but even in that Phantom Menace era, the very similar Lucas Black was always available.) And, speaking of Star Wars, hey, Harrison Ford is alive here! Always good to see.

WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN:

The Counselor: So, The Counselor. In a nutshell, Michael Fassbender is a slick Texas lawyer — everybody keeps calling him “Counselor,” Counselor — who, while wooing good girl Penelope Cruz, gets involved in a shady Mexican cartel-connected drug deal with two acquaintances who definitely know better, Javier Bardem (along with his bad girl wife, Cameron Diaz) and Brad Pitt. Naturally, as a result of some unfortunate happenstance — and side-dealing by one of the parties involved — Bad Things Happen. But you knew they would, didn’t you, Counselor?

Was The Counselor actually a good movie? Well, that one’s easy: No, no it wasn’t. Was it terrible? Well, Counselor, I think so, but to be honest I’m not even entirely sure. Just as To the Wonder seemed like a Malick parody, this one reads and watches like a parody of Cormac McCarthy — We have the macho posturing, lots of misogyny of the madonna/whore and vagina dentata variety, no small amount of Old Testament speechifying, and plenty of cartoon nihilism, Texas-style. Of course, I think, No Country notwithstanding, most of McCarthy’s stuff reads like parody — Blood Meridian was terrible; there, I said it — so your mileage may vary.

What I do know is that The Counselor was completely cuckoo-bananas, that it did linger in my mind for several days after watching it, and that, if nothing else, I remain sort of impressed that an A-list movie this strange, verbose, and relentlessly dark made it to the screen in this form. But am I recommending it? God, no, Counselor, you’ll sue me…or worse.

Only God Forgives: Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, which has Ryan Gosling playing a Hamlet of sorts in the Thai boxing underworld, is an easier mark: This is definitely not a good movie. (Ok, the lighting’s not bad.) I liked Drive less than most people, but still thought Refn’s Bronson was an impressively savage little number. But this movie, which plays like a film school homage to David Lynch, is a nearly unwatchable mess, and I feel terrible for Kristin Scott Thomas that she wasted her playing-wildly-against-type movie moment (See also: Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges) in this drek.

Now You See Me: WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN.

THIS JUST IN | UPDATE | BREAKING NEWS | MUST CREDIT GITM:

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: I was just reminded that I totally forgot to include Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues anywhere on this list. Mistakes were made, I regret the oversight, and I just want to take this moment to apologize in full to Mr. Burgundy and the entire Channel-4 News Team. (If it’s any consolation, I went to your Newseum exhibit. Also, what do you want me to do? I’m bliiiind!)

In any event, there’s too much Brick and far too little Baxter, but if you enjoyed the first one, this chapter — which has Ron and his crew taking their talents to CNN and the Big Apple, partying like Wolves of Wall Street, and learning the world a thing or two about car chases — hits at about the same level of hilarity: Maybe slot this somewhere in the late teens/early twenties? I dunno, I immediately regret this decision.

THE REST:

Worth Netflixing: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012), Don Jon, Europa Report, John Dies at the End, Monsters University, Oblivion, Pain and Gain, The Place Beyond the Pines, Side Effects, Stoker, Thor 2: The Dark World, West of Memphis

Don’t Bother: Admission, The Bling Ring, Closed Circuit, Drinking Buddies, The Fifth Estate, Gangster Squad, Kick-Ass 2, Much Ado about Nothing, Oz the Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim.

Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis; Robert Redford, All is Lost, Christian Bale, American Hustle; Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

Best Actress: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight; Sandra Bullock, Gravity; Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine; Amy Adams, American Hustle; Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer’s Club; Jeffrey Wright, A Single Shot; Ben Nelson, Kill Your Darlings; James Franco, Spring Breakers; Ben Kingsley, Iron Man 3

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave; Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave; June Squibb, Nebraska; Maria Bello, Prisoners; Amy Adams, Her

Unseen: 2 Guns, 21 and Over, 42, 47 Ronin, The Act of Killing, After Earth, Aftershock, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, August: Osage County, Austenland, Bad Grandpa, Baggage Claim, Beautiful Creatures, Berberian Sound Studio, Black Nativity, Blue is the Warmest Color, The Book Thief, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Byzantium, The Call, The Canyons, Carrie, CBGB, The Colony, The Company You Keep, The Croods, Dead Man Down, Delivery Man, Despicable Me 2, Diana, Epic, Escape Plan, Fast and Furious 6, Frozen, Fruitvale Station, Getaway, GI Joe: Retaliation, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Grandmaster, The Great Beauty, Grown Ups 2, Grudge Match, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Hangover Part III, The Heat, Homefront, Identity Thief, In a World, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Insidious 2, The Internship, The Invisible Woman, Jack the Giant Slayer, Jobs, Kon-Tiki, The Last Stand, Last Vegas, Laurence Anyways, The Lone Ranger, Lone Survivor, Machete Kills, Mama, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Movie 43, Mud, Oldboy, Olympus Has Fallen, Out of the Furnace, Paranoia, Parker, Parkland, Percy Jackson 2, Philomena, Planes, Post Tenebras Lux, The Purge, Red 2, Redemption, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Riddick, R.I.P.D, Romeo and Juliet, Runner Runner, Rush, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Smurfs 2, The Spectacular Now, Stand-Up Guys, Trance, Turbo, Twenty Feet From Stardom, Warm Bodies, We’re the Millers, White House Down, The Wind Rises, Winnie Mandela, You’re Next.

    A Good Year For:
  • Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her, Man of Steel)
  • Ben Kingsley Reveals (Ender’s Game, Iron Man 3)
  • Black and White (Computer Chess, Frances Ha, Nebraska)
  • Character Actors in Lead Roles (12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis. A Single Shot)
  • De Caprio Blinging (The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Fassbatch (12 Years a Slave, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
  • Harrowing Tales of Survival (12 Years a Slave, All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity)

    A Bad Year For:
  • The American Dream (The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain, The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Javier Bardem (The Counselor, To the Wonder — but he’s very watchable in both.)
  • Cumberbender (The Counselor, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek: Into Darkness)
  • Maersk (Captain Phillips, All is Lost)
  • Making it in NYC (Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis)
  • Missions in Space (Europa Report, Gravity, The Last Days on Mars)
  • Symbols of Presidential Power (Iron Man 3, Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down)

2014: 3 Days to Kill, 22 Jump Street, 300: Rise of an Empire, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Annie, That Awkward Moment, Bad Words, Big Eyes, Birdman, Blended, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chef, Child 44, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Divergent, Draft Day, Dumb and Dumber To, Edge of Tomorrow, Endless Love, Exodus, The Expendables 3, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, The Fault in Our Stars, Foxcatcher, Fury, The Giver, Godzilla, Gone Girl, Grace of Monaco, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hercules: The Thracian Wars, How to Catch a Monster, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. 1, I, Frankenstein, Inherent Vice, Interstellar, The Interview, Into the Woods, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Jane Got a Gun, Jersey Boys, The Judge, Jupiter Ascending, Labor Day, The Lego Movie, Lucy, Magic in the Moonlight, Maleficent, Million Dollar Arm, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Monuments Men, A Most Wanted Man, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Muppets Most Wanted, Neighbors, Noah, Non-Stop, The Nut Job, Nymphomaniac, Paddington, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Pompeii, The Purge 2, Ride Along, Rio 2, Robocop, Sabotage, Serena, Sex Tape, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, St. Vincent de Van Nuys, Tammy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, This is Where I Leave You, Transcendence, Transformers 4, Unbroken, Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters, Veronica Mars, Welcome to Yesterday, Walk of Shame, Winter’s Tale, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Zero Theorem, and

“So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of the Five Armies, and it was very terrible…”

2012 in Film.

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…

Top 25 Films of 2012
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009/2010/2011/The Oughts]

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.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

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.

MOST OVERHYPED:

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.

2011 LEFTOVERS:

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.

THE REST:

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

    A Good Year For:
  • The CIA’s Publicity Department (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty)
  • Existential Despair (Oslo, August 31st, The Grey)
  • Domnhall Gleeson (Anna Karenina, Dredd)
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin (Lincoln, Hyde Park on Hudson)
  • Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables)
  • Limousines (Holy Motors, Cosmopolis)
  • Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, Killing Them Softly)
  • Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly)
  • Channing Tatum (21 Jump Street, Haywire, Magic Mike)

    A Bad Year For:
  • The 1% (Cosmopolis, Les Miserables, The Dark Knight Rises)
  • Dull Husbands & Dim Lovers (Anna Karenina, Take This Waltz, The Deep Blue Sea)
  • Hi-rise Apartment Buildings (The Raid: Redemption, Dredd)
  • Slavery (Django Unchained, Cloud Atlas, Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter)

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…

Fact-checking Lincoln.

It’s not a question of being wrong, it’s just inadequate,’ Foner said…In fact, he says if the 13th Amendment had not passed in January 1865, Lincoln had pledged to call Congress into special session in March. ‘And there, the Republicans had a two-thirds majority and would ratify in a minute,’ Foner said. ‘It’s not this giant crisis in the way that the film’s portraying it.’

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.

TL;DR: Lincoln is an entertaining and worthwhile film, but, then as now, compromise can be overrated. (Kushner quote via Tropics of Meta.) Update: More from Foner.

Twenty Years of Garmonbozia.

Does it work if you haven’t seen the TV show? As Lynch might put it, gosh, no. (It’s a prequel, but it bends time and space to wrap up a few stray plot threads from the series — if you’re working your way through the show on DVD, treat the movie like a coda or you’ll be lost.) But that’s what’s fascinating about it — in some ways, Lynch’s most uncompromising and unrelenting movie is the one he made while beating the dead ghost-horse of a canceled soap opera.”

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?

Talkies Killed the Silent Film Star.


Expectations are a funny thing. Had I simply walked into Michel Hazanavicius’ fun but gimmicky throwback The Artist with no foreknowledge of the production, I probably would’ve left the theater thinking it was a frothy and mostly delightful homage to the silent films of yesteryear. But burdened as it now is with a bevy of Oscar expectations, I left thinking: “Well, that was fun and light…but Best Picture? Really?

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.

Just a Small Town Girl.


To give credit where it’s due: I have complained earlier that Diablo Cody’s penchant for having her characters speak in endless hipster bromides suffocated both Juno and Jennifer’s Body, and that Jason Reitman’s Juno and Up in the Air were both too slick and vapid in their presentation to make much of an impression on me. But Reitman and Cody’s low-key and funny Young Adult, their second collaboration, marks a step in the right direction for them both.

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.

Saving Private Ed.


Or The Whinnys of War, perhaps? Anyways, happy new year, everyone — I hope 2012 rang in with much joy and not too extreme of a New Year’s Day hangover. And now, since there are still a few more to go, back to the holiday season reviews! (For those few who may be wondering, the usual end-of-year movie round-up for 2011 will be up early next week, I hope, as I plan to plug a few more holes first via Netflix over the weekend.)

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.

Do Not Wake the Dragon.


So, David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a well-made and suitably unpleasant experience, I suppose, and I expect it will send the very impressive Rooney Mara right to the top of the A-list. (Not to beat a dead horse, but the difference between her and Knightley on Monday was striking.) But I have to question why it was even necessary to make this movie in the first place.

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.

Thundering Son of a Sea-Gherkin!


Much like Hitchhiker’s Guide in 2005, I should go ahead and admit upfront that my review of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn probably won’t be much use to many stateside. Growing up overseas in England and Belgium, I was a definite Tintin kid. So I have a pre-existing fondness for the character, and, for at least the first forty-five minutes or so of this film, I had trouble wiping off the huge “Great Snakes, a Tintin movie!” grin off of my face. (When you throw in the trailers for The Hobbit and Star Wars in 3D beforehand, it almost seems like Hollywood is explicitly trying to cater to my inner six-year-old these days. Trailers for an Asterix and/or Mr. Men movie would’ve completely clinched 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.

Freudian Slip.


Continuing on to a mother movie in this packed December’s line-up, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method chronicles the illicit romance between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), as well as the doomed friendship between Jung and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson), a father figure of sorts to him, In sum, this is a dry, classy, and elegantly-made period piece, dramatizing the disputes between these two eminent psychologists and…wait, wait, stop the review. Wasn’t this meant to be a David Cronenberg movie? Death to Merchant-Ivoryisms! Long live the old flesh!

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.

The Circus is in Town.


There’s a mole, right at the top of the Circus. He’s been there for years.
I haven’t read the John le Carre novel or seen the esteemed Alec Guinness miniseries, so I can’t compare this to earlier versions. But with an amazing cast of British talent and a mastery of mood, Tomas Alfredson’s grim, brooding, and atmospheric Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is assuredly one of the better films of 2011, and one that will seep in your head…slowly.

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.

Mr. Incredibles does the Impossible.


For those many of you out there who harbor reservations about Tom Cruise these days, and/or who were badly burned at either Mission: Impossible 2 (John Woo still owes me money) or Mission: Impossible 3, I can definitely see why you might be thinking of giving Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol a pass. My advice is: Don’t. In fact, see this film in IMAX if you can, especially if — like me — you have any inclination towards vertigo (and, of course, a desire to see the first six minutes of TDKR — I caught ‘em at the “Operation Early Bird” Smithsonian showing a week or so ago.)


Surprisingly — or perhaps unsurprisingly if you consider that Bird is the brains behind The Iron Giant and The IncrediblesGhost 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.

Defective Detective.


With our protagonist’s chief arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, emerging from the darkness for his curtain call, Guy Ritchie’s lazy, loud Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows should be The Dark Knight to the first film’s Batman Begins. It is, only to the extent that Ritchie et al have continued to make of Holmes a Victorian-Era Batman, cursed with observational and deductive skills so overpowering that he can basically see the future and single-handedly beat up crowds of thugs like it’s Arkham City. Otherwise, unfortunately, they’ve made a hash of it. In short, this is more like the Iron Man 2 to the first film’s Iron Man.

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.

After Hours.


It all seems so stupid, it makes him want to give up — but why should he give up when it all seems so stupid?” With the holiday season upon us, a lot of films to catch up on. First up in the queue is Steve McQueen’s stylish but mostly hollow addiction drama Shame. Like McQueen’s earlier Hunger (and not unlike Christian Bale’s turn in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist), Shame is a middling film anchored by a strenuous and committed performance by Michael Fassbender. He’s great here, and Shame occasionally has moments of quiet power. But the film as a whole, sadly, is overwrought and mostly silly.

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.

Frog out of Time.


I have some issues with Jason Segal, Nick Stoller, and James Bobin’s fun, nostalgia-heavy reboot of The Muppets, which I’ll get to in a bit. But, before I put my critical hat on and not to bury the lede: For the most part, The Muppets works. It’s a sweet, good-natured, and really enjoyable Thanksgiving enterprise that hearkens back to the glories of the TV show and first three muppet films (The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan), as well as the days when Jim Henson (we still miss you) still walked among us. And it is, in short, a really good time.

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.

A Clockmaker’s Fable.


In the opening moments of Martin Scorsese’s ambitious, expertly-crafted, and, alas, strangely sluggish Hugo, we are transported to a snowy winter’s evening in 1931 Paris at the Gare Montparnasse, where an orphan boy (a Frodo-ish Asa Butterfield) named Hugo Cabret watches the train station crowds from behind a clock face. He eyes the station guard (Sasha Baron Cohen), the flower girl (Emily Mortimer), the socialite (Frances de La Tour), her potential paramour (Richard Griffiths), the ancient bookseller (Christopher Lee). And as flakes of snow whirl about in three dimensions and a haunting Howard Shore score perfectly evokes the melancholy elegance of Parisian yore, we see young Hugo eventually hone in on the toy stand of a despondent old man (Ben Kingsley.)

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.

Blue Hawaii.


Elvis never had it so rough in paradise as the poor protagonist of Alexander Payne’s smart, well-observed family dramedy, The Descendants — a welcome return from hiatus for the writer-director of Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. Admittedly, The Descendants runs a bit long, and has more endings than Return of the King. Still, this elegiac 21-century Hawaiian tale of a distracted paterfamilias coming to grips with a decision to DNR his wife after a terrible accident has the attention to detail and human foibles we have come to expect from Payne, and the mournful-rainbow quality of an IZ cover. In short, this is quite a good film.

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.

Devil in a Blue Dress.


(Ok, admittedly, that’s still unsubstantiated. Sorry, couldn’t resist.) In any event, a sturdy and plodding workhorse of a biopic, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar attempts to humanize the man who fanned forty years of fears about Communism to become architect of the F.B.I. and one of the most powerful figures in Washington. It’s…not bad, and I would say I was engaged for most of the movie’s run. But, even despite all the Brokeback Mountain-style kabuki restraint that Eastwood must’ve felt he had to employ to do justice to the are-they-or-aren’t-they relationship of Hoover and longtime partner Clyde Tolson, a film about a figure as polarizing as J. Edgar Hoover should take stronger stands about its subject. Despite some very good (and, in di Caprio’s case, very bizarre) performances, this is mostly biopic mush.

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.

That Sinking Feeling.


I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country…George Clooney’s The Ides of March (which I finally caught several weeks after Drive — hopefully I’m a little faster with the back-half of this year’s Clooney double feature) is easier to admire than it is to recommend. Attempting to dramatize the dark corners of American politics where careerism strangles idealism, it’s a film with a serious purpose and admirable ambitions. It’s well-made, and definitely well suited to the deflated, cynical “change we no longer believe in” zeitgeist of this political moment. And it’s generous to its bevy of talented actors, even if they don’t interact as much on-screen as I might have liked.

At the same time, I found Ides‘ depiction of contemporary politics to be totally theatrical and unrealistic, and its messaging rather muddled. (For a Phillip Seymour Hoffman movie that does get politics right, despite its occasional Sorkinisms, check out Charlie Wilson’s War.) The basic conceit here is All the King’s Men, basically (or, if you’re new-school, Primary Colors) — No man is a hero to his valet and all that, especially in politics. But by having the feet of clay of Clooney’s Obama-esque candidate, Governor Mike Morris of Pennsylvania, here be (yawn…oh, and major spoiler, I guess), in the parlance of politics, a “bimbo eruption,” Ides not only makes itself seem relentlessly dated. It seems to flinch from the problems in contemporary politics that people are actually and justifiably cynical about.

So, now that I’ve spoiled one of the major “twists,” let me roll it back for a moment. It’s the final days of the Ohio Democratic primary, and Governor Morris is in a neck-and-neck race with Senator Ted Pullman of Arkansas (Michael Mantell, not a factor here.) Running the respective campaigns are Hoffman and Paul Giamatti — although, don’t get your hopes up, they have maybe 30 seconds of time together.The kingmaker of the entire race could well be Senator Thompson of North Carolina (Jeffrey Wright), who has recently dropped out and has delegates to spare — although, again, don’t get your hopes up, Wright is here for maybe five minutes tops. And the ace in the hole is Morris’ wunderkind campaign aide, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). He does…messaging? Voter outreach? It’s totally unclear, and we never see him do anything important. But the film depends on him being considered an amazing and indispensable political genius, so let’s presume he is. (Yes, yes, more Gosling haterade. He’s actually fine here, FWIW.)

In any case, Meyers is apparently such an earth-shattering asset that, one day, the opposition (Giamatti) asks to do lunch in a possible bid to get him to switch sides. But when word of this (totally innocuous) barroom meet leaks to an enterprising NYT reporter (Marisa Tomei), the story threatens to tank Meyers’ relationship with his boss (ok, maybe) and develop into a full-blown, campaign-sinking media sensation (Really? Why? They’re both Dems. And are all Ohio voters meant to be such political junkies that they would devote extreme import to an aide on one campaign having lunch with another? This is an inside-the-Beltway, Lloyd Grove tidbit at best.) And then there’s the complicating matter of Meyers’ new fling, a young and exceedingly friendly campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood). What was it Chekhov said about comely interns in the first act of a political play…?

So you can basically tell where The Ides of March is going from relatively early on. (If not, every Obama-esque utterance by Morris, who’s a pro-gay-marriage, secular humanist liberal dream candidate, also gives the game away. There’s gotta be something up the man’s sleeve or there’s no movie.) Still, I admired some of Ides‘ visual conceits — for example, having the climactic, idealism-deflating tete-a-tete occur in a hotel kitchen. (In US politics, really horrible idealism-deflating things have happened in hotel kitchens.) And, thanks to its actors and crisp direction, the film mostly sustains an impressive dramatic heft even when the story seems more than a little implausible.

But here’s the trick [back to the big spoiler, if you want out]: So Governor Mike Morris, as its happens, has a failing for the interns. To which I say…Honestly, who cares? This is the sort of thing that destroys your political idealism? We had an impeachment crisis over exactly this issue, and 60% of America shrugged and backed the president at the time. And, ten years after the Bill Clinton era, the sin of his administration that rankles isn’t his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky — It was the final removal of Glass-Steagal, which helped pave the way for the (unpunished) economy-imploding blowout of our times. Similarly,the thousands hitting the bricks for #OWS in various cities right now don’t particularly care who Obama, or anyone else in Washington, is screwing at any given time. They care who they’re screwing over.

And, in the end, the intern problem here is only the icing on the cake. The Ides of March is a film that’s almost entirely about the process of politics — scoops and polls and leaks, campaign managers and endorsements. It has almost nothing to say about the actual content of politics — jobs and schools and taxes. I don’t even remember, other than the aforementioned litany of hot-button cultural issues, any actual, honest-to-goodness questions of political import coming up. One of the main reasons, I’d argue, why the American people are sick-to-death of politics and politicians today, is all the useless, inside-baseball, endless-horse-race media coverage, when all folks really want is a good, well-paying job and a decent school in the neighborhood. In this respect and despite its good intentions, Ides is less a diagnosis of the disease afflicting the body politic and more just another manifestation of the symptoms.

Prognosis Fair.


I promised myself I would stop writing six-to-eight-paragraph movie reviews here if one-to-four paragraphs sufficed. Jonathan Levine’s 50-50 is an excellent film to launch the new occasional brevity.

In short, this is a solidly successful attempt at infusing a cancer dramedy with Knocked Up-style Apatowishness — the lowbrow humor, the wry observations, the bromance — and it’s totally fine for what it is. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character here is mostly indistinguishable from his turn in (500) Days of Summer — he’s the good guy bad things happen to — and Seth Rogen’s character here is mostly indistinguishable from, well, Seth Rogen. Given this, your mileage may vary.

My main problem with 50/50 is that it telegraphs its characters’ arcs from the beginning. Gordon-Levitt’s original girlfriend, here played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is just a little too unsympathetic from Jump Street — you know she’ll be out the door by Act 2 — while Anna Kendrick’s helpful therapist is so gosh-darned winsome that it’s no surprise she eventually ends up taking her work home with her. 50/50 would’ve been more interesting, I think, if Howard’s character was a reasonably sweet individual who was just overwhelmed by the burdens of the situation. But that’s now how we’re playing it here.

Otherwise, 50/50 has its moments — I particularly liked JGL’s two stoner/chemo buddies, Phillip Baker-Hall and Matt Frewer (getting typecast as a cancer patient?) And, when the film grows darker in its third reel, it feels reasonably well-earned. All in all, 50/50 is a perfectly benign fall date movie.

The Only Way to Live in Cars.


Well, I’ve been meaning to pair this review with the other Ryan Gosling movie of the moment, George Clooney’s The Ides of March. But since I still haven’t caught Ides and this has been languishing in neutral at the back of the queue…

Boasting a retro feel, catchy synth-pop soundtrack, New Wave credit stylings, and Lynchian bursts of graphic violence, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive basically attempts to be a high-minded, crazysexycool throwback to the Cinemax thrillers of yesteryear. (Put simply, what The American was to the European arthouse, this film — despite its nods to 70′s flicks like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop — is to 80′s trash.) In this regard, Drive is half-successful: It’s well-made, stylish, and often-entertaining trash for sure. At the same time, the movie fails to live up to the promise of its first hour or so, and ended up feeling a bit hollow.

It doesn’t help that the film probably peaks in its opening minutes, when — after it is quickly established that our main character (Ryan Gosling) is a wizard behind the wheel who moonlights in LA as a getaway driver — we watch him conduct a nighttime job to the Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock.” Rather than go all Grand Theft Auto in fleeing the scene of a warehouse robbery, Gosling’s Driver (yes, that’s his name) specializes in subtlety, misdirection, and knowing the lay of the land better than the cops do — More often, he’s just hiding the car rather than gunning it…and why is he listening to that Clippers game the whole time? (There’s a reason, and it’s a smart reveal.)

As it happens, Driver’s day jobs are Hollywood stunt man and mechanic for Shannon, a fatherly but perpetually unlucky grifter (Bryan Cranston). Recognizing the kid’s obvious talent, Shannon has been forging alliances with local gangland kingpins Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) – who crushed Shannon’s pelvis for non-payment years earlier — to raise the money to get his charge into stock-car racing. While this plays out, Driver begins to woo Irene, the cute single mother next door (Carey Mulligan). (This usually involves Gosling stoically doting over her ten-year-old son.) But all plans get thrown for a curve when Irene’s ex-husband (Oscar Isaac) is released from the joint, with one last bit of unfinished business ahead of him — business that will, despite the hugely unlikely odds of such a coincidence, bring Driver’s work and home lives crashing together like a multiple vehicle pile-up on the 405…

Drive nicely zigs where you expect a zag in making Irene’s ex-con husband, Standard, a fundamentally decent guy. (And like Robin Hood and Sucker Punch, this is another film where Isaac makes a strong impression.) But soon thereafter, as Driver, Standard, and out-of-nowhere third wheel Christina Hendricks find themselves on that one last job that goes terribly wrong, Drive slips off the road and veers toward B-movie triteness. From here on in, it just becomes a not-particularly-interesting revenge flick. (This is also the point where the movie shifts gears from contemplative “lonely samurai” character study to visceral gore-fest.)

The thing is, for a movie called Drive, there’s actually not much driving to be had here. Now, obviously, the world doesn’t need another Fast and the Furious — We’ve got plenty of those already. But, aside from a quick getaway from that aforementioned botched job, the film never really makes much of the driving aspect of the story after the bravura opening sequence. Instead, Drive just becomes a standard-issue, the-mob-shouldn’t-have-messed-with-THIS-man action-noir, except this time the tortured loner in question tends to wear fancy leather driving gloves.


The other major problem, for me, at least, is Gosling, which is one of the reasons I was going to wait to pair this movie with Ides of March. I still haven’t seen Half-Nelson, but in the films I have seen him in — Blue Valentine, for example — he’s been underwhelming. And, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t buy the Steve McQueen-ish badass bit from him here. (There’s an excessively violent moment here in an elevator which is as ludicrous as it is gratuitous. Er…Gosling is not Jason Statham — that mob enforcer guy would break him in two.) When George Clooney played this sort of deeply recessed, melancholic character in The American, I thought it worked. But Gosling just seems…well, dweeby and desperate to me, one bad moustache away from restraining order territory. A real human being he may be, but I just could not take him seriously as a real hero.

It’s a Sick World Sometimes.


Maybe he’s retiring, maybe it’s just a sabbatical. (And, either way, he still has Haywire in the can and Magic Mike, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and a Liberace biopic on his plate, not to mention second unit work on The Hunger Games.) Still, as the crisp, dark, and intelligent Contagion once again makes clear, Hollywood will lose one of its most interesting working directors when Steven Soderbergh decides to hang up the clapperboard.

Less adventurous and more satisfying in its storytelling than Soderbergh’s last major film, 2009′s The Informant!, Contagion basically applies the Traffic technique of several separate, loosely interweaving tales told around the globe (albeit this time with a more subdued color palette) to spin a harrowing chronicle of a possible pandemic. The main reason the film works so well is because Contagion is actually not the end-of-times pestilence thriller the (spoilerish) trailers make it out to be. Rather, and much like David Fincher’s Zodiac, it’s mainly a smart, well-told procedural, and it’s the grounded, matter-of-factness of Contagion that ultimately makes it so frightening.

Contagion telegraphs its unsentimental, take-no-prisoners approach to the story in the first five minutes, when, after returning home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Macau (and a brief layover in Chicago), Gwyneth Paltrow starts having trouble breathing and [minor spoiler] promptly drops dead. Soon, her family (including a low-key, earnest Matt Damon) are in quarantine, and the CDC Director in Atlanta (Lawrence Fishburne) has dispatched an epidemiologist (Kate Winslet) to coordinate with local officials on plans for a possible outbreak. (FWIW, the Minnesota Department of Health is not amused with the film.) But, unfortunately for the world, the barn door is already open: This new MERS-1 virus — part-bat, part-pig — has already been unleashed, and not just in Minneapolis, but in cities all over. (Turns out, Oceans 14 in Macau was a terrible idea.)

As the situation worsens around the world, we start following more individuals on the frontlines in various locales: A CDC researcher (Jennifer Ehle) working to find a cure for this new plague. An academic biologist (Elliot Gould) trying to isolate the virus in San Francisco. A WHO official (Marion Cotillard) and Chinese doctor (Chin Han) looking to discover who was Patient Zero in Macau. Two homeland security suits (Brian Cranston and Enrico Colatoni) sent to determine if this is the work of the terr’ists. A blogger (Jude Law) firmly convinced of government conspiracies and homeopathic wonders. And all the while, even as secrets pass from person to person and fear mutates into panic, the virus continues to spread. Ain’t no Patrick Dempsey monkey gonna solve this one, I’m afraid.

There’re plenty of stars and recognizable faces flitting about this story — some have more to do than others. (The Cotillard subplot seemed a bit unnecessary to me, to be honest, and the Jude Law one is basically just an extended screw-you to the vaccines-cause-autism crowd.) But, as I said, Contagion‘s killer app is its versimilitude. The movie never talks down to its audience, or has its scientists repeating expository information over and over again. (For example, it explains once what a “R-naught” is and assumes you can keep up from there.) It doesn’t have scientists (or Matt Damon, for that matter) running around trying to catch infected monkeys with helicopters — The excitement mostly comes from watching scientists and bureaucrats do their job well. And I liked the fact that, even though no one is safe here, Contagion doesn’t feature some kind of sci-fi-ish, humanity-obliterating virus. It’s a nasty bug with, iirc, a 25% fatality rate — In other words, a more virulent version of the 1918 influenza epidemic — making the story that much more plausible, and scary.

Speaking of scary, I should say that, back in the real world, I’m a pretty sanguine sort about germs, and so I found Contagion more unsettling than anything else. But if you’re at all of the germophobe persuasion, hoo boy — You’re going to have a tough time at this one. From infecteds hacking up a lung on a public bus, to waiters wiping down bar glasses with a dirty rag, to people endlessly and unconsciously touching rails, bannisters, buttons, and each other, Soderbergh does a great job here of intimating that human beings inadvertently leave a slime trail of germy death wherever we go — not the least in movie theaters, exactly like the one you’re sitting in. Point being, [cough, cough], OCD-ish folks will probably want to Netflix this one, instead.

They Finally Made a Monkey Out of Him.


So where were we? Ah yes, catching up on movie reviews. To close that circle (for now), and as you might have heard, Rupert Wyatt’s admirably low-key Rise of the Planet of the Apes — a.k.a. the first half of Roddy McDowell remake month — is a better unnecessary-prequel than anybody really had a right to expect.

I do wish I’d seen Rise before word leaked out that the movie was surprisingly good, because — going in with higher expectations — I mostly felt like I was just sitting through an extended version of the movie’s trailer. Still, allowing for some iffy science throughout, this sixth Apes film turned out to be a decently smart and engaging evening of late-summer cinema. And as a genre B-movie with a patina of political subtext, I’d say it hits at about the level of the Spierig’s pharmaceutical vampire thriller Daybreakers.

As you probably know by now, Rise of the Planet of the Apes tells the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee made extra-smart in the womb by an experimental Alzheimer’s drug concocted by a Dr…oh let’s just call him James Franco. When this project gets shut down — the maternal protectiveness of Caesar’s mom Bright Eyes (wink, wink) is misinterpreted as a hyper-aggressive side effect of the drug — Dr. Franco brings Caesar home to live with him and his ailing father (John Lithgow) instead. There, he is raised, Project Nim-style, by the good doctor and his dad, and cute, ethically-minded zoo veterinarian Caroline (Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire) eventually makes four.

But, as Doctor Caroline perennially intones, one should not tamper with the forces of nature. (Ok, sure. But let’s not overstate the case — or should we have something against pasteurized milk?) And, as Caesar grows older and more leery of playing the pet, his chimp tendencies begins to manifest themselves more and more often. Meanwhile, after showing signs of promise under the original medication, Papa Lithgow’s Alzheimers begins to take hold again. This forces Dr. Franco to experiment with more virulent and aggressive forms of his wonder drug, and makes Lithgow even more feeble and disoriented on a daily basis — and we already know what happens when chimps on this particular drug feel overprotective. One way or another, it’s clearly about to get all Frankenstein up in here.

That gets us to about the end of the first act, which is easily the most conventional and weakest portion of the film — not the least because none of the humans make much of an impression. I’m not a James Franco hater — he was in Freaks & Geeks, after all — and I think he gets way too much grief for slumbering through the Oscars last spring. (What can you do? It’s a thankless gig anyway.) That being said, he does seem sorta disengaged, and even bored, throughout this picture. For her part, Pinto makes even less of an impression — She’s a complete non-entity. And the rest of the humans basically only have one note to play, be it John Lithgow and his dementia or Franco’s boss at the pharmaceutical company (David Oyelowo) twirling his moustache.

All that being said, Rise takes it up a notch in Act II, when Caesar finds himself consigned to San Francisco’s primate prison(?), run by the father-and-son team of Brian Cox and Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton. (Surprisingly, given his scenery-chewing turns in movies like Troy, Cox underplays it, while Felton is suitably Malfoyish — albeit with a quality American accent.) In this ape Alcatraz, Caesar is thrown head-first into the deep end of chimpanzee society — No more sweaters, college boy! Instead, he must survive the prison yard, learn the power dynamics, and figure out how to befriend the key allies, such as a former circus orangutan and a belligerent ape, he will need to make good his escape.

This isn’t A Prophet, exactly, and to be honest — even with all the impressive WETA work on display here — I could never really suspend my disbelief enough to accept Caesar as a real, honest-to-goodness chimp. (The apes and orangutans work better.) Still, the monkey Shawshank stuff in this middle third of the movie is surprisingly compelling, and it put me in a good mood for the final act, when Rise finally lets its funky-monkey freak flag fly. (I won’t give away what happens here, but like the rest of the narrative, it’s pretty well telegraphed by the trailer.)

My only real complaint, is that I might’ve done more with the Soderberghian ALZ-113 angle here, but I guess one can figure out for themselves what happens next, and/or they were saving that for the sequels. Return of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, anyone?

Corner Boys and Aliens.


Y’know, after being underwhelmed by both Super 8 and Cowboys and Aliens these past few months (not to mention completely taking a flier on the presumably terrible Transformers 3), I was starting to wonder if maybe i had just gotten too old and cynical to enjoy a good alien invasion flick these days. But then, last night, I saw Joe Cornish’s thrilling debut Attack the Block, and I realized that that’s just succumbing to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Now this is an alien invasion done right, bruv. Believe it.

In short, Attack the Block is a hoot from start to finish, and it puts those well-heeled Hollywood competitors to shame. At turns funny and frightening, it has the freewheeling, energetic pulse of a Kick-Ass, the unintrusive but real layer of smart sci-fi social commentary that marked District 9, and, in no small part to the sleek Basement Jaxx score, a trip-hop and dub-step cool rivaling that of Hanna or Run Lola Run. Midnight in Paris is probably still my favorite film of 2011 so far, but if there’s any justice, this will be the sleeper hit of the late summer and early fall.

Attack the Block takes place in South London on the evening of Guy Fawkes Day, when fireworks are lighting up the sky and troublemakers are out on the prowl. Trying to get home on this dark night without being harrassed is Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse new to the high-rise project she now calls home. She doesn’t make it. But before the hooded collection of street toughs who rob her can get away clear, a meteor of some kind suddenly totals a nearby vehicle. (Cue Sio Bibble: This can mean only one thing: Invasion.) While Sam makes a run for it, the gang — really, just a bunch of kids — move to check out what’s left of the car. The obvious ringleader sticks his head deep into the wreckage…

And, a la Harold and Kumar, we now meet our “real” protagonists. Moses (a charismatic John Boyega), the fellow who just entered the car, is not actually Evil Victim #1. Instead, he gets slashed across the face by some kind of space varmint, and so he and the rest of the crew — Pest (Alex Esmail), Jerome (Leeon Davis), Biggz (Simon Howard), and Dennis (Franz Drameh) — hunt down and kill the offending alien. Since nobody knows what it is, they decide to take the corpse to the pad of the local weed dealer (Nick Frost), who’s been known to enjoy stoning out over the National Geographic channel. Problem is, the rest of the very new arrivals to the block don’t take kindly to one of their number being murdered…and they all come a little bit bigger.

That’s basically the set-up, although there are few other characters running around to make things fun: Say, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), the Avon Barksdale of this hi-rise, who has atrocious taste in hip-hop. Or Brewis (Luke Treadaway), the loserish grad student who’s just on the block for a resupply. (His funny intro is borrowed from Michael Bolton, except this time it’s to KRS-1′s “Sound of da Police“) Or Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao), two gangsta-wannabe nine-year-olds who look up to the older crew. (Memo to Cowboys and Aliens: This is how you do little kids in an alien invasion story. See also: Newt.)

Attack the Block has some very funny moments — “Right now, I feel like going home, locking my door, and playing FIFA!” — and a good bit of stoner humor. But don’t get the wrong impression: This film as a whole is rather dark, and even ruthless at times. (At one point, on his dad’s orders, Dennis takes his cute little dog outdoors to join the team. Spoiler: It lasts about five minutes.) Not knowing much about Attack the Block other than that Nick Frost and the producers of Shaun of the Dead were involved, I expected the film to be jauntier. But it has an edge, alright, and a body count. The monsters here — basically furry gorillas with glow-in-the-dark fangs (or, for those of you in the know, grues) — may be low-fi compared to what we’re used to in these sorts of movies, but they can do some damage, and some rather grisly damage at that.

Which, of course, is part of the fun. As a horror movie, a comedy, and a smart, tightly-plotted thrill ride, Attack the Block succeeds on all fronts. If space aliens and dubstep aren’t your bag, then I guess there’s a chance you might find it all lo-rent and bewildering. Otherwise, this is the purest and most visceral roller-coaster ride of the summer so far, and, barring an absurdly good fall, one of the best films of 2011. Respect.

How the West was Lost.


I know I wasn’t the only movie fan out there rooting for Jon Favreau’s sadly boring Cowboys and Aliens to be the hit of the summer. The cast is a Murderer’s Row of fanboy favorites, from Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford as the headliners to Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, and Clancy Brown in the margins. Favreau is generally considered to be a good guy, and with Swingers and Iron Man under his belt, he’s built up a lot of goodwill in the genre community (which he didn’t lose with Iron Man 2, since that film is generally considered a rush job.) And I, like many others, was rooting for Ford in particular to break out of a decade-long funk, and it seemed like Favreau might’ve figured out how to get it done.

So, I’m sorry to report, even at this late date, that Cowboys and Aliens is more deadwood than Deadwood. It’s not Wild Wild West bad, I guess, but there’s no narrative urgency to be had here at all. It’s almost sad, really. Some estimable production values are put into service of a total snoozer of a script. And even with all the star power involved — the movie just never finds a spark to get things moving. By 20 minutes in, I had gotten bored with it, and after an hour I was just dutifully waiting for the credits.

So what in blue tarnations happened? Well, laziness abounds here — to take just example, the aliens here are close kin to what we just saw skulking about Super 8. But I expect much of this film’s inertia lies with the fact that, like Green Lantern, Cowboys and Aliens could field an entire pick-up basketball team with its bevy of screenwriters, and the resulting mess shows. Apparently these five (six if you count story credits) souls presumed that, if they just threw enough stock characters at the story, the so-low-its-high concept of cowboys vs. aliens would simply carry the movie. Suffice to say, it doesn’t work out that way.

As the film begins, a man with piercing blue eyes and no memory to speak of (Craig) wakes up in the desert, a photograph of a woman in his hand and a strange metal shackle on his arm. After handily dispatching some would-be bandits, he rides to the nearby watering hole of Absolution, where he soon makes nice with the local preacher (Brown), meets a mysterious and alluring beauty (Olivia Wilde), gets into fisticuffs with the spoiled son (Paul Dano) of local tough guy Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), and discovers from the sheriff (Carradine) that he’s really a ne’er-do-well named Jake Lonergan, and wanted for a stagecoach robbery. Just as this newly-rechristened Lonergan is about to be brought back East in chains to serve hard time, the real trouble begins.

That would be the eponymous aliens, who, out of nowhere, strafe this sleepy Western town and abduct many of its fine, upstanding citizens, including the sheriff, Dolarhyde’s bratty son, and the wife (Ana de la Reguera) of the local saloon proprietor (Rockwell). And so the survivors of this dastardly attack band together to reacquire their kinfolk. Their ace-in-the hole on this mission is Lonergan, whose shackle has a very useful laser cannon within, and who now can kinda sorta remember a previous encounter he and his ladyfriend (Abigail Spencer, a.k.a. Don Draper’s kindergarten squeeze on Mad Men) had with the invaders. But Winning the West back from aliens who enjoy an overwhelming technological superiority is a horse of a different color from fighting indians or poachers. In fact, come to think of it, indians and poachers might come in real handy right about now…

If this synopsis makes it sound like Cowboys and Aliens is a ripping western adventure yarn, well, don’t be fooled, stranger: The result is more than a little dull. It doesn’t help that the movie continually makes lazy Screenwriting 101 (or worse) choices as it goes along. Yes, we do have both a little kid and a dog on this mission, and, yes, the two do form a bond. Yes, Old Man Dolorhyde has some growin’ to do, particularly with regards to his “adopted” Native American son (Adam Beach of Flags of our Fathers), whom he mistreats for no particular reason. So why are the aliens here on Earth in the first place? Er…I dunno…shall we say gold? What’s that you say, Rockwell’s character can’t shoot straight? Hmm, well I sure hope he gets that squared away by the third act!

As I said in the favorite movies post yesterday, Rockwell is probably the best thing about Cowboys and Aliens, and the only person who occasionally spins the proceedings here into gold. (His character actor compadres, Carradine and Brown, aren’t given enough to do) For his part, Craig is…well, ok — He does the steely badass thing well enough. But before I saw this, I was thinking of him as Bond and Layer Cake, i.e. a mark of quality. Only as the film rolled did I remember: Oh, yeah, he’s actually in a lot of crap too, like Road to Perdition and The Jacket.

As for Ford, well he’s not bad either, to be honest, and he does seem engaged in the material. But, there’s something off as well — Like Pacino-as-Pacino, DeNiro-being-DeNiro, and Nicholson-doing-Nicholson, he seems to have reached that age where he can only play himself playing a role. Old actors never sour, I guess. They just go meta. (It reminds me of a recent interview with Andy Serkis on playing Gollum again after ten years, and he said it felt like he was doing an impression of himself the whole time. Ford seems trapped in the same feedback loop.)

And Olivia Wilde — well, I want to like her. She seems smart and funny, she’s easy on the eyes, and she’s the niece of lefty writer Alexander Cockburn. But, lordy, when she first wanders into this movie in her calico print settler’s dress, she’s like an Angel of Boring. I can’t tell if it’s completely her fault, but she and her character, both before after her Big Reveal, definitely contribute to the stultifying air permeating this film. Better luck in the next Tron.

We Need a Hero.


When Hal Jordan took a bullet for Steve Rogers by being the inevitable middling comic book movie of the season, the path was open for Marvel to go three-for-three this year. And, hey, they pulled it off! Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is still the most fun and self-assured of this year’s comic book crop, but Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger is another solidly entertaining summer outing, and as good a Cap movie as Thor was a Thor movie. In the end, I probably preferred this film of the latter two, both for its four-color propaganda poster flavor and because I just prefer Cap to the Asgardian — but it’s really a toss-up.

If anything, The First Avenger is more faithful to its titular character, since Johnston, unlike Branagh in Thor, plays this period piece straight, without the likes of Kat Dennings and Clark Gregg providing a security blanket of 21st century irony. Speaking of which, Chris Evans has already shown he exudes star presence in movies like Sunshine and Scott Pilgrim, and he was easily the best thing about otherwise bland comic-book flicks like Fantastic Four and The Losers. But, in the past, he’s always skated by on his snark, and I was worried Steve Rogers might be turned into a self-aware, wisecracking Spiderman sort to accommodate that. But, no, Captain America here is noble, earnest, and maybe a tiny bit dull — exactly as he should be.

In this incarnation as in the original comic, Steve Rogers is a puny kid from Brooklyn whose spirit is willing and flesh is weak: Even as his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stans), and seemingly every other able-bodied American male in the borough, head off to fight Hitler and Japan in the Big W-W-I-I, Rogers is rejected from one recruiting office after another for being a tiny, wimpy asthmatic. That is, until a German emigre named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Rogers again trying to serve his country for the umpteenth time. Perhaps, Erskine decides, this brave little man might be the perfect candidate for America’s top-secret Super Soldier program, conveniently headquartered in New York City. (Not to be confused with the Manhattan Project.)

It had better work, since Nazi Germany already has a Super Soldier of its own. That would be Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a.k.a. The Red Skull, head of Hitler’s deep-science division HYDRA. And, while Hitler wastes time “digging around in the desert” (heh), Schmidt has located the all-powerful Cosmic Cube in Eastern Europe, where it had been under guard by Mr Filch/Walder Frey. Now, with his right-hand man Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), Schmidt threatens to use this powerful device to (wait for it, wait for it) take over the entire world. Can anyone stop his dastardly plan? Anyone, anyone? Rogers?

So, ya, pretty standard set-up, of course. Along the hero’s journey, Captain America suffers through boot camp (led by Tommy Lee Jones, who’s phoning it in but who at least isn’t doing his Two-Face schtick.) He gains a costume, a shield, a squad (the Howling Commandoes), and the attentions of a plucky and beautiful British agent, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell of Cassandra’s Dream.) And he learns, more than once, that war isn’t a USO show, and that with great power comes great sacrifice…but let’s save those spoilers for The Avengers.

Speaking of that forthcoming super-team, there’s plenty of chum in the water in The First Avenger for Marvel fans, from Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper here, not Roger Sterling) to the aforementioned Cosmic Cube to a great first shot of Jones’ Zola, which pays homage to his four-color incarnation. When it comes to real, not comic-book, history, however, The First Avenger is obviously a bit fast and loose with the era. Several years before Truman desegregates, the Howling Commandoes are a multiracial brigade, and in fact the entire US Army seems integrated. And while Peggy has to put up with some macho bravado, she still seems unencumbered by the sexism of the period.

Still, given that this is a movie about a guy wrapped in Old Glory who continually punches Hitler in the face, the rose-tinted ahistoricism didn’t bother me all that much. Captain America is a propaganda vehicle by design — arguably the best section in the movie has him being taken on a Flags of our Fathers-style USO tour. And like Superman’s commitment to truth, justice, and the American Way, Cappy has always been more about who we as a nation should be than who we actually are, so I found myself more willing than usual to forgive the film some well-intentioned anachronisms. If anything, I’m glad The First Avenger didn’t choose to make Cap an overly militaristic hero. Instead, he’s a unassuming kid from Brooklyn, given great power, whose patriotism mainly consists of just trying to do the right thing.

Hogwarts, We Hardly Knew Ye.


So we come to it at last: the great battle of our age (and one of the many reviews I’m behind on.) And yet, while I don’t much enjoy being a hater in this department — The Leaky Cauldron did start ’round these parts, after all — and while the world clearly disagrees with me anyway (the film is now #3 all-time in box office receipts), I found David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Part II to be a bit underwhelming.

Not to overstate the case: This eighth and final film in the Potter series is a quality production, well-made and well-acted throughout, and it’s still a good deal better than Chris Columbus’ flat first two movies. But it just didn’t resonate with me. Even more than the last film, Hallows Part 2 is stuck with dramatizing some of the clunkiest plot elements in the entire series. (Jesus Harry, anyone? And how ’bout that goofy coda?) And by separating out the story into two movies, Hallows Pt. 2 is bereft of much of the connective tissue that makes the Potterverse so engaging. Honestly, if you told me when the book came out that I’d end up preferring the film about the camping half of Hallows, I never would have believed you.

What do I mean by connective tissue? Well, firstly, the killer app of the Harry Potter series, as Laura Miller argued back in the day, was always Hogwarts, and Book 7 sorely missed the rhythms of boarding school life that infused the first six tomes. That was always an obstacle these last two films would have to overcome, and I thought Part One actually did a good job of it. But, as it turns out, the emotional failsafe — especially for the films, where we’ve really seen these kids grow up — was the interactions among the Big Three. And, now that Hallows has been sliced in half, Harry, Ron, and Hermione really don’t have all that much to do with each other here in the back end.

Instead, we have — after a brief adventure in the vaults of Gringotts — the Siege of Hogwarts, which takes up most of the picture. And it’s all very impressive, with its psychic shields, stone soldiers, rampaging ogres and whatnot. But this is all action-fantasy spectacle, and — after Helms Deep, Minas Tirith, and various other besieged redoubts in recent cinema, not particularly engaging spectacle at that. (Also, I guess the idea here is the good guys are buying time for Harry to find the Ravenclaw diadem, but the way the story comes across, all this carnage seems beside the point anyway. Couldn’t all the loss of life have been averted if Snape just took Harry by the pensieve before the Big Battle?)

Speaking of ole Severus, the back half of the film is also burdened by its source material. To be honest, I’d forgotten about many of the things that aggravated me about Deathly Hallows the book, until the story unfolded here once again. I already mentioned the Aslanification of Harry, where he has to now sacrifice himself for Voldemort’s sins to be truly expunged from this world. (See also: Matrix: Revolutions.) Then there’s the conversations with ghosts and the heavenly train depot rendez-vous with Dumbledore (weirdly, also in the third Matrix.)

And then there’s the Snape story, which plays out mostly as expected, but still has the effect of totally cheapening the character of Harry’s real dad. (As it is here, Snape is the unrequited hero, and James Potter is just a bullying prat who happened to marry Lily.) Like I said, a lot of these plot developments seemed to be coming by the end of the series — Severus always seemed like he was deep undercover, and Harry’s lightning scar made sense as the seventh horcrux. But the execution in the book, and subsequently here in the movie, is clumsy.

One more small issue here: Along with Hogwarts itself and the Big Three, the third leg of the stool for the films has been its British Thespian Full Employment program. But, with the exception of Ralph Fiennes’ Serpenthead Voldemort and arguably Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, the amazing collection of talent in the bullpens here doesn’t get all that much to do either. Estimable actors like John Hurt and Jim Broadbent have only reaction shots, and even big moments like the death of David Thewlis’ Lupin and Natalia Tena’s Tonks are given short shrift. (FWIW, the only big new actorly add in this last installment is Ciaran Hinds as Alberforth Dumbedore, but he’s virtually unrecognizable underneath his Michael Gambon makeup.)

Again, not to be a total hater — This is a competently-made and even sleek production, and it’s hard to see how David Yates could’ve improved the situation given the constraints of the source material. But, there’s no riff as inspired here as Yates’ Brazilian reconception of the Ministry of Magic in the last film, nor any sequence as transporting as the animated origins of the Hallows we saw last November. Like the book series from whence it came, the last chapter of the Harry Potter films ends with a bit of a plunk.

100 Things I Love About My Favorite Movies (Pt. 1).

Hello all. So, yes, it’s been quiet again, and the movie reviews I’m behind on are piling up (I’m three back now, going on five.) In the excuse department, work has been even busier than usual, of late, and, obviously, the political scene has been depressing. So there’s that.

Anyway, in partial recompense, here’s my first entry of a fun meme I saw at Cryptonaut-in-Exile a few weeks ago: “100 Things I Love About My Favorite Movies. The rest will follow in a leisurely fashion at some future point.

Here’s the rules: “Rather than posting your 100 favorite films (which has been done and overdone), you simply post your favorite things about movies…[I]nstead of obsessing over whether the films you put on a list are ‘objectively good enough’ to put on said list, you simply jot down 100 moments/lines/visuals that have made a lasting impression on you or sneak their way into running gags between you and your friends.

And, so, without further ado and in no particular order:


1. Sam Rockwell in Galaxy Quest: I’m starting off with this one because I’m borrowing it from Jonathan Hardesty, from where cdogzilla saw this meme. Sam Rockwell is pretty consistently the best thing about a lot of so-so movies (most recent case-in-point, Cowboys and Aliens), but here he has the distinction of shining bright in a very funny movie regardless.


2. Out of Sight — Timeout at the Bar: “By that time I had been thinking about you a lot, and just wondering what it would be like if we met, if we could take a time-out.” This was on Cryptonaut‘s list, and for good reason. One of the sultriest seduction scenes ever filmed.


3. He Got Game — Opening Homage to Basketball: The last scene of The 25th Hour might well make it into one of the other 80 slots. But for now, I really love this Aaron Copeland-scored opening montage to He Got Game, which makes the case for basketball being the real Great American Pastime.

4. Citizen Kane — News on the March! — “Then, suddenly, less than one week before election, defeat. Shameful, ignominious. Defeat that set back for 20 years the cause of reform in the US!” Like Casablanca, Citizen Kane is one of those movies I originally put in to study up on film history, and left amazed at how powerful it remained. This movie still feels like it could’ve been made yesterday.


5. Big Trouble in Little China – Elevator Scene: “‘I feel pretty good! I’m not scared at all! I feel kind of invincible.’ ‘Me too! I’ve got a very positive attitude about all this!‘” Sure, this is a goofy movie regardless. But I dig how Big Trouble just takes a break for a few moments here to lets its characters get their chill on.


6. Annie Hall — Final scene: “After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I realized what a terrific person she was, and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I thought of that old joke, y’know…” The Marshall McLuhan scene is a keeper too, obviously, but this funny and poignant close is Woody’s relationship movies condensed into 30 seconds. (Fun film fact: The scene right before this, where Alvy runs into Annie at The Sorrow and the Pity is Sigourney Weaver’s first movie appearance.)


7. The Shining — The Twins: “Come play with us, Danny. Forever and ever and ever.” I talked about this scene here. Nowadays, when I watch The Shining, I’m frightened by the Gods-eye-view in the opening moments, the shower scene, and Jack Torrance’s insanity-inducing writer’s block. But, when I was a kid, it was the twins. Definitely the twins.


8. In the Loop — Malcom visits the White House: “I’m sorry, I don’t… This situation here is… Is this it? No offence, son, but you look like you should still be at school with your head down a f**ing toilet…Don’t get sarcastic with me, son. We burned this tight-arsed city to the ground in 1814. And I’m all for doing it again, starting with you, you frat f**k.” Arguably the funniest scene in a very funny film, although it’s always hard to pick a favorite moment from this comedy classic. And doesn’t it seem like the WH is really like this these days?


9. Batman Begins — Batman gets the drop: “WHERE ARE YOU?!” “Here.”” The bat-man that preys on the wicked — This is the Dark Knight in a nutshell.


10. Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing: This along, with Brazil and the next film in this list, have been my three favorite movies for awhile now. I was looking for the scene where Tom drunkenly crashes the powder room at Leo’s club (“Close your eyes, ladies! I’m coming through!“) to chat with Verna. (“I bet you think you raised Hell.” “When I’ve raised Hell, sister, you’ll know it.“) But it’s not online, and since I love the whole film anyway, here’s the trailer instead.


11. Amadeus — Don Giovanni. “And now…the madness began in me. The madness of the man splitting in half…As I stood there understanding how that bitter old man was still possessing his poor son even from beyond the grave. I began to see a way, a terrible way, I could finally triumph…over God.” A lot of great scenes here too. Here, the patron saint of mediocrity conjures up his master plan.


12. The Fellowship of the Ring — Frodo and Sam first look upon Mordor: “Mordor…I hope the others find a safer route…I don’t suppose we’ll ever see them again.” “We may yet, Mr. Frodo. We may.” Obviously, it’s hard to pick one scene from the trilogy, but the closing seconds of FotR, when Frodo and Sam look out at Mordor from afar just before entering the Emyn Muil, is high up there. It’s the entire journey, distilled in one perfect moment.


13. Menace II Society — Interrogation Scene: “So you bought the bottle of beer — definitely at 12:15? Now you see something, you done f**ked up, you know that, right?” The Hughes brothers’ breakout movie is underappreciated, imho, and also eminently quotable. (“Snaps for the petrol!“) This is where it seems like the jaws are snapping shut on Caine — They should use this technique on Take the Money and Run…then it might be watchable.


14. Blade — Opening Rave With all due respect to Guillermo del Toro’s Aliens-style Blade 2, the Blade franchise peaked in the first ten minutes of the first film, when a fratty B&T’er finds himself in the wrong club in the meat-packing district. Special bonus for the pulse-pounding Pump Panel remix of New Order’s “Confusion.”


15. I’m Not There — Riddle and “Going to Acapulco”: Another film that’s hard to pick one scene from, but this is one of the loveliest musical numbers in the movie, in a town that literally recreates, per Greil Marcus, Dylan’s “Invisible Republic.”


16. The Charlie story in High Fidelity: “Charlie, you f**king b**ch! Let’s work it out!” A lot of funny, painfully-on-point scenes in this movie, and Rob’s scenes with ex-girlfriends #2 and #4 (Lili Taylor) are equally memorable. Still, great self-deprecating cameo by Catherine Zeta-Jones here, and this film is definitely Cusack’s post-teenage peak.


17. X2 — Nightcrawler at the White House: Bamf! As I said in my original review, it’s really a toss-up between this and Magneto’s escape for the best scene in Bryan Singer’s second X-flick. But this moment, kicking off the movie as it does, illustrates how much more fun the second film in comic-book franchises can be, once all the origin-story throat-clearing is out of the way.


18. Carter Burwell’s score for Being John Malkovich: Burwell has done a lot of great work for the Coen brothers over the years, but this is one of his best. It’s hard to imagine the film’s out-of-left-field conceit working as well without the low-key, yearning sadness of the score.


19. Hudson in Aliens: “Maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events, but we just got our asses kicked, man!” Ah, Hudson. This all-time action film, with a great slow-burn first act, is obviously another very quotable movie, and Bill Paxton has more gems than anybody. “Maybe we’ve got ‘em demoralized!


20. 28 Weeks Later: Robert Carlyle runs like hell: Another great and memorable opening scene that quickly establishes the grim moral economy at work in this surprisingly good sequel. Some folks think of Trainspotting‘s Begbie when they see Carlyle — I always think of this.

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