Back in Green

The Muppets (January 20, 2012 – Lyric Screening in Blacksburg, VA)     4/5

Directed by James Bobin (Walt Disney Pictures)

It may not be easy being green, or human, for that matter, but damned if The Muppets doesn’t abide by the title of one of its several, newly written songs. Co-writer and star Jason Segel, director James Bobin, and over a dozen furry friends try more than their best to convince us that “Life’s a Happy Song,” while still drawing tears from life-long fans and inductees alike. The first Muppet film in 12 years, this Disney-distributed comedy-musical extravaganza is nearly as punny as the material was in the 70s and 80s, in addition to a compelling theme that not only pays tribute to the Jim Henson days, but is also hip enough for kids and parents to get in on the joke together.

Walter, a new Muppet, is the brother and best friend of flesh-and-bone Gary (Segel), as well as an avid fan of The Muppet Show since its humble origins. It is not until Walter accompanies Gary and his girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), to visit L.A. that he discovers how broken and unloved The Muppets have become. In fact, a ruthless millionaire, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), plans on tearing down Muppet Studios and digging for valuable oil underneath. The only solution is to raise $10 million via a Muppets reunion show. But first, Walter must convince his idol, Kermit the Frog, to reunite the whole gang – including Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and his star-crossed lover, Miss Piggy. Meanwhile, Mary becomes jealous of Gary’s firm brotherhood with Walter, complicated by Walter’s desire to join the puppets who have always inspired him.

The self-reflective jokes are abundant, as is the irony that allows young children to develop a sense of humor. This I know firsthand. The Muppets obviously references several classic pieces of the Henson-era (and whips out a few side-splitting 70s jokes), but does attempt to freshen them up for a new audience. After all, there are cameos by the likes of Jack Black, Jim Parsons, and several others, as well as hilariously twisted covers of songs in the realm of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You.” But don’t worry grown-ups, Kermit does reprise that beautiful song of the movies, “The Rainbow Connection,” bringing tears to our eyes, once again. Meanwhile, the original songs, written by Flight of the Conchords‘ Brett McKenzie, are also terrifically witty, his ironic, reflective style of ballad-writing coming forth most clearly in “Man or Muppet,” nominated for an Oscar that it will likely win.

The Muppets is nostalgic, no doubt, but the desire to also be grounded in the 21st century, however necessary, could have been even better executed. Jack Black is surely a figure of modern pop culture, but has he really been relevant in the last few years? But I am grateful for the clever, heartfelt writing of Segel, who also provides laughs with his joyous overacting. Adams and Cooper are hilarious as well, but of course, the show belongs to Kermit and his cast of misfits. Walter may not be the most interesting Muppet in the world, but hey, he’s supposed to be your average, 3-foot bundle of fur. Yet the most successful component of The Muppets, which is utilized better than in all the other films, is the way it structurally provides each main character a challenge to overcome, intertwined with the general narrative.

Even more surprising, despite the self-consciously obvious humor, the film actually has quite a mature outlook on relationships, reminiscent of the work Segel did on his Judd Apatow-produced breakup comedy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Just as Gary must learn to accept love and let go of his brother, Walter must face the prospect of his dream and discover inner-talent. Kermit also faces the chance to heal his relationship with Piggy, simultaneous with the troupe’s comeback. Themes of belief and the power of togetherness actually hit home, as does the idea that the way you touch those around you is more important than the way you are viewed by “everybody.” If only Disney didn’t so avidly contradict itself, not afraid to prominently display a Cars 2 poster on the film’s visualization of the Sunset Strip. Some things never get old.

I’ve been a fan of Henson’s loveable creations from a very early age, and I find it fair to say that they helped define the way I laugh, something I can’t claim for several cartoons that were fervently watched by my 90s age group. Here, as 2011 has passed us by, The Muppets delivers that same intelligence and genuine love of life. Kids will be charmed by the songs, jokes, and energy because they are children. Adults will be moved because they feel like children once again. These are not happy times. In fact, they rarely are. That is why The Muppets will never disappear. In the case of their latest endeavor, these fuzzy creatures will put a smile on your face that is hard to remove. When you buy a ticket, you simply guarantee yourself a greater level of happiness than when you walked in. That is why, over 25 years ago, Henson created something both universal and eternal. His characters provide something we all want and will always need. As Kermit and Walter agree, (at a close third behind children and ice cream) laughter is truly the world’s greatest gift. For young and old, man or muppet.

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What Fingerprints Cannot Reveal

J. Edgar (January 13, 2011*)     3.5/5

Directed by Clint Eastwood (Warner Bros. Pictures)

*The following is a review from a screening of J. Edgar at The Lyric theater in Blacksburg, VA. In the coming weeks, I will attempt to visit the theater more often, since I will likely be able to see several films I missed in 2011. However, I will try to keep these reviews shorter than most, considering they won’t be in reference to new releases of 2012. The films that The Lyric shows are second-run, but usually critically acclaimed or of art-house interest.

One can’t deny that Clint Eastwood is still a director of ambition. Even 2010’s Hereafter, which was quite poorly written, was crafted with enough Eastwood stylization to make it consistently interesting. J. Edgar, a biopic about the infamous head of the FBI for nearly 50 years, thrives with such intrigue, looking and feeling in the realm of a dreamlike snapshot of history, and therefore, being nothing less than fascinating. Although it does stumble upon the many thematic elements it hopes to convey, supplemented by a technical production that appears somewhat lazy, J. Edgar haunts when placed in the hands of Leonardo DiCaprio, who transforms himself into Hoover like few actors could ever hope to accomplish.

Eastwood most succeeds in spanning decades with such fluent ease. Written by Dustin Lance Black, who also penned Milk, the film tracks the power Hoover exerts over the newly formed organization, pioneering law enforcement techniques that now seem basic, such as fingerprinting. We also flash through such events as the hunt for John Dillinger and the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby, all while gaining a sense of the possibly false image Hoover is building for himself, witnessed by an impressionable American public.

In addition, J. Edgar attempts to reveal the relationships that helped shape a shadowed figure. Hoover was very close to his mother, played by Judi Dench, and found a key ally in secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). Yet the most prominent figure in Hoover’s life was associate director Clyde Tolson, played quite successfully by Armie Hammer (familiar from his role as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), who soon became his companion for life. J. Edgar never shies away from the fact that its protagonist was gay, yet it handles the matter in an exquisite way. Hoover loves Tolson, no doubt, but their relationship spawns not due to sexual desire, but of a need for Hoover to hold onto an intense friendship. The image he hopes to build will simply not allow for the feelings he holds deep in his heart. But these are not Hoover’s only secrets – he makes tapes of his own accord, hardly ever revealed to the presidents (or first ladies) who are involved. Hoover compensates for his clothed personality by appearing to tackle crime (and Communism) with the strength of Superman, bending the rules to catch criminals but shunning away from Civil Rights, in addition to the homosexuality he hopes to mask with the promise of lifelong friendship.

At the core, J. Edgar is a surprisingly touching love story. Yet like its subject, appearance plays a key role. The film looks fantastic, but there are a few aspects of the production that seem particularly poor. The makeup, for instance, is quite exaggerated, the older version of Tolson looking like something out of a Universal monster movie. Color, while stylistically drained, never quite clicks with the surreal lighting that firmly places the film out of realistic context. Many performances also approach caricature, especially the characterizations of Robert Kennedy and Nixon. DiCaprio, however, feels ever so real, even in his over-the-top, elderly appearance. He dominates the film by taking authority where the situation calls for it, yet also showing the vulnerability that led his character to lead such a contradictory life. Even when it begins to approach self-parody, J. Edgar knows what a fascinating subject it has under its cinematic microscope.

This is both the film’s biggest success and weakness. Eastwood never quite gives enough weight to the moments that will help Hoover promote himself and compensate for his own inner-conflict. The story will eventually reveal that these important, misconstrued events have occurred, but we are too swept up in this complex, narrative puzzle to focus on the significance of any particular moment in Hoover’s career. The emotion often comes from scenes where Hoover is forced to confront his feelings. Unfortunately, these moments often occur in obvious places, rather than in the midst of the decisions Hoover is forced to make throughout such a long career. What Eastwood expects is for his unique style of filmmaking to firmly root his audience in history, letting both expectation and DiCaprio’s sensational performance to drive home an interesting perspective of a man we all know so little about.

I’m not one to judge Eastwood’s historical accuracy, but even when J. Edgar becomes slightly flat, it is still interesting to see how the director handles not only Hoover’s perplexing life, but the reactions of those who surround him. The film examines not only how Hoover affected the world, but how the people in his life provoked him to do it. And although the film never fully accomplishes this task, maybe that is an inevitability. Cinema, no matter how hard it tries, will never be able to fully understand the motives behind a person who actually existed in this world. No doubt, it can create fascinating portraits of life, but never without the intent of the filmmakers to support an idea that has already been manipulated by themselves. Eastwood’s ambitions lie in simply letting Hoover’s life fall before the screen, enamored in the conscious awareness that we are indeed watching a film. J. Edgar therefore attempts to breach a grand facade, entertaining through its display of a life that is as mysterious to us as the man who lived it.

CKep’s Top Films of 2011

Before I reveal the picks for what I believe to be the finest films of the year, I find it appropriate to mention a few I simply missed. I particularly regret not catching Take Shelter in theaters, or not taking the trouble to hop over to a Redbox and pick up Beginners. I’ve also not had a chance to revisit my childhood with The Muppets, or been lucky enough to be located near a theater where A Seperation is playing, which has been considered by many critics to be the best film of the year. Oh well, I’ll see them all eventually. But a new year has begun, and I must therefore shift my focus to the latest arrivals. Maybe I will continue to post reviews of films from 2011, especially those released on video. After all, I’ll be back at Virginia Tech, so it will be far easier to catch films I’ve missed than to drag myself out to the theater. And if properly indicated by the movies I have chosen to be on this list, it was a fairly exceptional year that does indeed deserve a closer look.

 I hope you agree with many of my selections, and if you don’t, that’s fine too. But please comment and tell me why your opinions differed, and if you find something that intrigues you, don’t be afraid to seek it out! With each film I have indicated where it is/will become available. At the bottom of the list, I have also given a few more examples of films I have yet to see.  Contrary to the belief of several reviewers, I truly enjoyed this year at the movies, and will be quite intrigued to see which of 2011’s wonders are rewarded within the next few months. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, but hopefully this will help narrow it down.

It has only been four months since I started this blog, and I would only be so lucky for the following list to paint a picture of the great viewing experiences I have had throughout the entire year. If this is your first time checking out my film criticism, feel free to browse through the 40 or so reviews I have posted, which account for all the current releases I have seen in 2011. If you’re up for it, also take a look at my two examples of film analysis, my “about” page, and the “favorite films” list I vow to complete in 2012! I have had a great time blogging over the past several months, and hopefully, the following year will provide a list just as rich and diverse as this one.


1. The Tree of Life

People who criticize filmmaker Terrence Malick often complain that his abstract style takes precedent over story and character, two elements that many consider the visual medium’s most essential. These are not the folks who should be watching Malick films. In The Tree of Life, every shot tells a story. And through these stories, we are not only able to contemplate the lives of an entire ensemble of characters, but also apply their methods of living to understand our own place in the universe. In the midst of it all, we have an astonishing “creation” sequence reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a touching story of a 1950s Texas family, a powerhouse performance by Brad Pitt, and explorations of memory, regret, loss, forgiveness, and love.

One can’t deny the themes and structure of each Malick film are remarkably similar, but when exploring a topic as ambitious as the meaning of life, one film may never be enough. But The Tree of Life makes a convincing case that it can, arguably what Malick has been working toward in his near 40 years as a director. It is not only the film of the year, but a shining example of why films must exist.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD (Rental & Blu-ray Combo Only), Download

2. Hugo

Sure, 3D can be drag.  A majority of the time, this revitalization of the 50s “gimmick” drains picture quality and often provides no supplemental entertainment, especially when applied in post-production.  But wow, does Martin Scorsese shut up the haters with Hugo.  The great American director visually cues our eyes to every minute detail, enveloping us in the majestic locale of 1930s Paris.  He also takes us on a ride through a playground of a train station, domineered by a lonely, parentless boy whose love of fixing things leads him to find a place in the world.  And how does it happen?  Through the movies, of course.

Featuring Ben Kingsley in a performance as influential silent-film director, Georges Melies, Scorsese takes a children’s novel by Brian Selznick and not only crafts it into a perfect family film, but also an elaborate plea for the importance of film preservation. As young Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield, discovers what dreams are truly made of, it is hard not to imagine Scorsese as that child.  It is equally easy to think of ourselves, and the films we first fell in love with.  But Hugo can draw tears from a non-movie lover just as well, and for that, it remains a tribute to the impact storytelling can have on us all.

Now in theaters.

3. Bellflower

This is creativity in the truest form possible.  That is, complete lack of restraint from everything that destroys great films these days – studio intervention, lack of passion, and an incessant drive to appeal to certain audiences.  Using a homemade camera and several other self-created gadgets, debut filmmaker Evan Glodell wrote, directed, and starred in a film made by a broke team of misfits who wanted nothing more than to create movies for a living.  Thanks to the miracle of Sundance, they now have that opportunity, and as evidenced by Bellflower, a film that even Glodell self-labels as “weird-ass,” movies that are personal to their makers are far from extinct.

 

Glodell, in a fictionalized version of himself, plays Woodrow, a young man lazing it up in California with his best friend Adrien (Jessie Wiseman). Inspired by Mad Max, the two spend their time building flamethrowers and a fire-spewing muscle car named Medusa, so that when the apocalypse comes, they will assure themselves as the dudes in charge. Little does Woodrow know that the metaphoric apocalypse will soon arrive, as he quickly falls in love and is hammered with the destruction of that same relationship.

Bellflower is a film with a singular look and feel, so pulsating with life that it often resembles a living organism (albeit one on lots of drugs). It works because Glodell knows that for some poor guy out there, the world is ending right this instant. The fact that he could so accurately transport that feeling into cinema is surely the year’s greatest success story. His film, meanwhile, is one of the most wholly original in quite some time.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

4. Drive

I’ve always wanted to call a film “bloody fantastic,” and with Drive, I think I’ve found the appropriate title to fit that pun.  Maybe because the phrase buys so perfectly into the persona of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest picture, which is unconventional enough to warrant crappy film criticism as sarcasm.

What could’ve been made as an average, action blockbuster is instead channeled into an enthralling character study, helmed by a chill-as-ice Ryan Gosling.  It plays like an L.A. version of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, as the stunt driver turned vigilante takes down the scum with which he has been accidentally intertwined, the head bad guy played by none other than funnyman Albert Brooks.

There is nothing too complex about the plot of Drive, but the mood and tension Refn creates is so unexpectedly captivating, and the violence it turns into breathtakingly artful.  But style is equaled with substance, as Drive also explores themes of loneliness, humanity, commitment, and purpose. Did I mention Refn’s film also features one of the year’s most intriguing love stories? Just tack on that hip, electronic score, and you’ve got yourself a masterpiece.

January 31 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

5. The Artist

Nothing quite evokes simple, human emotion than silent cinema, especially when it has been out of practice for nearly 80 years.  Leave it to a crafty group of French filmmakers to remind us by making one, and in doing so, present us with a film that seems startlingly new.

The Artist tracks the fall of fictional, silent-era film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), as his love interest, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), gains fame within the era of “talkies.”  Director Michel Hazanavicius so perfectly replicates the distinct style and techniques of silent cinema, as well as manipulates them for thematic effect.  The result reflects the universality that film has always had.  You will laugh, cry, and maybe even learn something.

The film belongs to its two leads, whose performances reflect not only the different methods of acting that are required between cinematic mediums, but also the importance of change in both movies and life.  Who knows what’s next for the film industry?  It’s anyone’s guess.  But The Artist is titled so for a reason.  Technology rules the movie business, and despite the amount of CGI-heavy crap that’s constantly thrown at us, somehow, the artistry within cinema will always survive.  Take Hugo, for example.  But The Artist doesn’t use 3D to prove its ideas (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Instead, it uses the past to show us that hope is not lost for the future.

Now in theaters.

 

6. The Descendants

Alexander Payne is a true maestro of “real” comedy. His films apply laughter in the most hopeless of situations, arousing emotion like only “real” life can. It then comes as no surprise that in The Descendants, he conducts what may be one of George Clooney’s greatest performances.

Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer with a disloyal wife in a coma, two daughters in his lap, and acre-upon-acre of fresh, tropical land that his native family may finally have to sell.  It is a sad movie that never overwhelms with emotion, instead sprinkled with humor in the unlikeliest of places.

The Descendants also conveys the necessity of reflection and forgiveness, doing so by displaying a man who must face life when presented with the epitome of human devastation.  This may be paradise, but as King assures us, the people who live there are just like you and me.  And at times, life calls for us to bring out the best in ourselves.  In the case of Clooney, it has also brought out the best performance of the year.

Now in theaters.

7. War Horse

Leave it to Steven Spielberg, arguably the most well-known filmmaker in America, to adapt a play that thrived upon the magic of puppeteering and insert his own brand of magic, the kind with which he has blessed the industry for over 35 years.  In doing so, he crafts an epic yarn with a horse as a metaphor for hope, in addition to the humanity that exists across all borders.

There is something in War Horse for every audience, and the emotion it arouses couldn’t be more genuine.  Only in John Ford has a sunset looked quite like this.  Whether young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is riding his noble creature through the English countryside, or attempting to simply stay alive as he climbs out of the home trench, the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski provides some of the year’s most astonishing imagery.

This is old-fashioned cinema in its purest form, continuing to prove that great filmmaking is always more necessary than original storytelling.  War Horse is one we have all heard before, but if I were still a child, it would be one I’d want to hear every evening before bedtime.  Spielberg can truly make anything new, and by doing so, he never ceases to guide home the human spirit.

Now in theaters.

 

8. Moneyball

Moneyball, the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, would seem like the least likely material to inspire a crowd-pleasing sports flick.  Thus said, Bennett Miller’s film is far more than your run-of-the-mill Cinderella story.  In a book filled with statistics and a singular appeal to baseball fans, an ingenious screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin has transformed a hybrid of sports and business jargon into a film about weighing one’s values in every game we play, including the big dance – life itself.

Brad Pitt gives another superb performance as Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics manager who with the inspiration of a young, Yale economics graduate, Peter Brand (played spectacularly by Jonah Hill), changes baseball forever as he selects players almost exclusively for their on-base percentage, allowing a broke franchise to pioneer a winning team.  This may be the story of that 2002 season, but it is more accurate to describe it as a testament to one man’s faith and intuition, in addition to the decisions he must make to find happiness and redemption.  Punch that into a calculator.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

9. Midnight in Paris

It’s no secret that New York is the official kingdom of Woody Allen, so a love-letter to Paris by the quirky 76-year-old couldn’t be more of a pleasant surprise, especially when the hilariously neurotic director writes and directs nearly one film per year.  Allen came up with the title Midnight in Paris before he even knew what the film would be about, and the passion he injected into those three words is apparent in every beautiful, warm-colored frame of his best movie in years.  It is also the most commercially successful he has ever had.

Owen Wilson is perfect as Gil, a screenwriter working on his first novel, who soon finds himself face-to-face with caricatures of his favorite literary and artistic idols of the 1920s, including Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein.  His misunderstanding fiancée, played by Rachael McAdams, has no clue that throughout their stay in Paris, Gil is making a magical time jump each night.  But she also does not understand the love her partner has for this city, and how magical things can happen for anyone who dispels the fear and illusion that cloud each of our lives.

Gil may find true romance in the past, but ultimately, the best time is always the present.  Woody Allen is sure living in the now, and he channels Owen Wilson for a role that requires not just an actor, but a real person, too.  Midnight in Paris is pure hilarity, but not without the grace and wisdom of a true American auteur.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD,  Download

 

10. Melancholia

With the creation of the world filling in my number one spot (if that is what we actually witness), it is only fitting that my top ten conclude with the end (which is definitely what happens).  The second Danish director with a film on this list, Lars von Trier, utilizes many influences in his beautiful symphony of destruction, including opera and German romanticism.  But the biggest influence of all is von Trier’s own bizarre sensibility.

Kirsten Dunst gives a terrific, psychologically dense performance as Justine, a woman who gets married upon the eve of the world’s anhillation.  Melancholia first arouses interest as we wonder what the characters may or may not know about the rogue planet that will soon crash into Earth, and becomes even more captivating as the bride’s depression allows her to partially infiltrate the fathom of our universe.  Meanwhile, her sister, Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), obtains the initial anxiety that Justine had upon her wedding day, and the trading of feelings between the two women becomes a story of its own.

There are many images in Melancholia that are hard to shake.  But von Trier’s biggest success lies in the fact that he can make a film about the human psyche that is so devoid of hope, yet seduces you with a sensory and emotional experience that is both completely unique, as well as immensely satisfying.   The apocalypse has been rendered onscreen several times before, but rarely can we feel it in our very soul.

Now Available – Amazon Instant

March 13 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

11. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olson, sibling of Mary-Kate and Ashley, gives a quite hypnotic, debut performance as a young woman who becomes partitioned from reality, escaping a cult only to find herself unable to adjust to normal society.  Her identity dissociated between two lives, and being unable to communally accept either, she begins to suffer from intense fear that the cult is following her, haunted by the image of their leader, played chillingly by John Hawkes.

The first film by writer and director Sean Durkin is a perfect example of a thriller that prefers silence over action in order to draw the necessary suspense.  In essence, this is a simple story, but the cinematic technique (especially the editing by Zachary Stewart-Pontier) is as intelligent as it comes.  Martha Marcy May Marlene successfully weaves between past, present, and hallucination with seamless execution, not only firmly planting us inside the mind of its protagonist, but also forcing us to walk away with paranoia equal to her own.

February 21 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

12. The Trip

What could be funnier than dueling Michael Caine impersonations?  Probably a lot of things, but throughout the entire duration of The Trip, it is hard to remember the last time laughter was so effortlessly drawn.  British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves in this film version of the BBC miniseries, as the two tour fancy restaurants in northern England for an article Coogan has been hired to write for The Observer.  The friends/rivals try to one-up each other constantly, in nothing other than an attempt to avoid all the problems typical of adulthood (and semi-celebrity).

The Trip is a film about how much acting means to those who are blessed with such talent, as well as the hold it has over what one wants out of this mysterious life.  Funny and sad in equal measure, this is a comedy that truly captures the pain behind what it takes to make people laugh.

Now Available – DVD, Netflix Instant

 

13. 13 Assassins

Needless to say, number thirteen was a quite obvious choice.  Cult director Takashi Miike takes story elements from one of the classic films of Japanese cinema, Seven Samurai, in addition to the 1963 film of the same title, and formulates his own bloody epic.  But of course, this culminates in one of the most spectacularly staged battle sequences in years, topping out at nearly 45 minutes.

With cinematography by Nobuyasa Kita, and a sensational performance by Koji Yakusho, 13 Assassins is as emotionally involving as it is a completely immersive thrill ride.  But before the film descends into limb-slicing nirvana, we become introduced to an entire palette of characters, in addition to a gradual immersion in the themes that battle will accentuate.  Yet at the heart of this grandiose action film lies a beautiful story about the horrors of war.  What makes 13 Assassins great is that amidst the elaborate destruction, it provides the hope that this society may soon move beyond it.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD, Download, Netflix Instant

Here we are, almost at the bottom.  For the two remaining entries, I have actually discussed a duo of films for each, all being movies I gave a 4/5 rating in my initial reviews (those above consist of every film I have given a 4.5 or 5).  I thought this would be a nifty way to conclude the list, rather than typing up a slew of honorable mentions.  I like most of the films I trouble to see, so naturally, I don’t want my end of the year list to include almost every flick I’ve reviewed in 2011.  Nonetheless, I thought the following four deserved recognition.

 

14. A Dangerous Method & 50/50*

The formation of psychoanalysis is a fascinating topic, and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, starring Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, is a terrifically acted, strangely distant story about the emergence of modern thought.  Keira Knightley, in an over-the-top, yet unfairly criticized performance, plays the woman who affects them both, spawning a series of events that causes each man to view these new theories of the mind in quite different ways.  It is a very poetic film, never playing to any emotional expectation, but instead, asking for psychoanalytical interpretations of its own.

50/50, meanwhile, is also about the relationship between two men, but in a quite different fashion.  Screenwriter Will Reiser, who scribes a comedic drama of his own life-changing experience, was diagnosed with cancer in his late 20s.  But luckily, he had a pal to help him through. Who? Foul-mouthed actor Seth Rogan, of course.  So naturally, Rogan portrays the best friend of a protagonist played with convincing sweetness by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who upon learning that he has developed a rare form of cancer with a 50/50 rate of fatality, must weigh his fears and desires against what he has yet to experience in life.  Also featuring great performances by Bryce Dallas Howard as Levitt’s indecisive girlfriend and Anna Kendrick as a lovely, young therapist, 50/50 mixes uproarious laughs with the inevitable sadness of mortality.

* I never formally reviewed 50/50, but considering I wanted to post this list in a timely manner, I did not find that to be a bother.  After all, I didn’t see the film in theaters (I caught it online a few days ago) and would have likely written a short capsule review at this late stage in the year.

A Dangerous Method – Now in theaters.

50/50 – January 21 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

15. Bridesmaids & The Help

2011 was lucky enough to feature two superb, female-driven ensemble films.  The first, Bridesmaids, proved the gleefully raunchy humor that mass-produces so many awful male comedies is appealing to most young adults with the ability to laugh, regardless of gender.  In addition, we are given a compelling story with intelligence, wit, and a genuine understanding for why people think, feel, and behave the way they do.  Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote, gives a star-making performance as a single woman who tries to understand her feelings about the soon-approaching wedding of her best friend, played by Maya Rudolph.  Stealing every scene, however, is the hilarious Melissa McCarthy, solidifying Bridesmaids as the year’s funniest mainstream comedy.

The Help, a moving drama based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, is adapted with necessary humor and gentleness by writer/director Tate Taylor.  Emma Stone, gorgeous as ever, is turning into quite the actress, and as the writer who touches upon Civil Rights in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, she gives a shining performance.  And as two African-American servants who have raised the children of rich whites, only for them to become clones of their parents, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer do nothing short of inspire.  One of the year’s most uplifting, this is a fine film to end the list of a great year at the movies.  Let’s hope 2012 has more to offer than doomsday prophecy.

 

CKep still needs to see…

The Adventures of Tintin, Another Earth, Attack the Block, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Guard, The Ides of March, J. Edgar, Life in a Day, Meek’s Cutoff, Margin Call, My Week with Marilyn, Rango, Shame, The Skin I Live In, Submarine, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Young Adult … and several others!

 

Thanks for reading! Keep in touch this year … and as always, happy viewing!

Corey Koepper (CKep)

Slo-Mo Fisticuffs Abound … But Where’s the Mystery?

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (December 16, 2011)     3/5

Directed by Guy Ritchie (Warner Bros. Pictures)

In contrast with literary devotees, I was quite intrigued by British action director Guy Ritchie’s reinvention of Sherlock Holmes, turning the world’s most observant detective into the Indiana Jones of the 19th-century, amidst a stylized, CGI-heavy backdrop of  smog-filled London. Yet Sherlock Holmes was far from a great film, and if it wasn’t for the continued greatness of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law in A Game of Shadows, then this sequel to the 2009 smash could consider itself a victim of the Reichenbach Falls.

The revitalized bromance between Holmes (Downey) and Watson (Law) does provide some sort of emotional link, yet one that would be completely severed without the dry wit and presence of the performers. Ritchie emphasizes both the successes and flaws of the film’s predecessor, staging elaborate, kinetic action sequences with a camera that never stops to breathe. But luckily, there is also a glimpse of the spark within the original works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as Holmes finds a fitting enemy in Professor Moriarty (Jarred Harris).

Meanwhile, Dr. Watson’s wedding day approaches. Yet the lucky lady (played by Kelly Reilly) will have to wait for the honeymoon, considering the devious professor is up to no good. After thwarting a bombing and intercepting a mysterious letter from lover/rival master of deceit, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), Holmes tracks down the recipient, a gypsy played by Noomi Rapace, the star of the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This leads Holmes and Watson to Moriarty’s scheme of starting World War I, and owning the weapons when it does begin. The story is roughly based on the Doyle original, The Final Problem, and thrives when it dwells upon the relationship between Holmes and Watson as the latter chap approaches marriage, as well as the developing rivalry between Moriarty and the former. If only A Game of Shadows wasn’t so bloated with action and meandering dialogue, that it might actually offer some mystery amidst Holmes’ sly observations.

But as in Ritchie’s previous movie, the action does take precedent. And despite the fact that these sequences are bombastic and overdone, they are still marvelously entertaining. The cinematography by Philippe Rousselot captures every punch or bullet with momentous impact, used spectacularly in sequences such as the escape from a train, or from a weapons factory in Germany. However, it is the climatic face-off between Holmes and Moriarty in Switzerland that features equal brain and brawn, something the rest of the film is never quite able to accomplish. For the most part, the plot is very convoluted. Ritchie, using a screenplay by Kieran & Michele Mulroney, always seems to favor Holmes utilizing his mental capabilities to knock out an opponent than have any significance to the story, which if the filmmakers hoped to pay any respect to the source material, should at least have an ounce of mystery.

There are key observations that Holmes makes, but they are often not provided until the end of the film, giving the illusion that the script has been clever enough to fool us. What it does do is fill the duration of the movie with rambling scenes of quick dialogue that not only confuse, but rarely provide a successful segway into the action scenes that give the film a reason for existence. But when the plot twists do come, they provide the sense of satisfaction that has been missing for about two hours. Poor execution allows A Game of Shadows to stay one step ahead of its audience, a tool that it hopes will allow it to bypass convention. And although it does anything but, this Sherlock Holmes reminds us that trying to keep up will still be fun, regardless.

For the most part, this is pure escapism. Yet the irony comes forth in the fact that A Game of Shadows is at its best when approaching something deeper. The match of Downey and Law was inspired, and the film never ceases to remind us that this is the case. Yet I found the performance by Rapace to be far less engaging, in addition to the bizarre character of Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, played by Stephen Fry. The complications of Holmes’ relationship with Adler are also far understated. But the standoff between Holmes and Harris’ Moriarty is where the film truly ties the knot. If only it did more than touch upon the differing views the men may have of human nature, and how this affects the way that each utilizes an extraordinary mind. Fear of death and life after marriage are also relatable themes that the film touches upon, but is never able to fully explore with all it propels at viewers.

As in the first, A Game of Shadows is most interesting in its stylistic portrayal of England, especially in a time when war may become inevitable. The second Sherlock is fully satisfied with a climatic battle, one in the form of a chess match. I only wish the film had fulfilled its promise of resembling one.

The Loneliest Island

The Descendants (November 18, 2011)     4.5/5

Directed by Alexander Payne (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Alexander Payne sure knows how to swing emotional curveballs at an audience. In 2004’s Sideways, which many consider to be a modern, comedic classic, he flawlessly executed a film of immense depression, segmented by numerous, hysterical sequences. George Clooney, who gave one his best performances five years later in Up in the Air, somewhat shared the sensibility Payne brings to his films, being charming and confident, but slowly realizing what decisions the immense weight of life must force him to make. The two of them together is a match made in heaven, or more appropriately … Hawaii? Yes, The Descendants is set in American paradise, but the film takes a clear stance that the people who live there have it no better than us. Seems like an equally depressing theme, doesn’t it? This is surely a sad film, but surprisingly, Payne shows some restraint of that infamous, emotional intensity. It is also funny when it wants to be, but Clooney, despite being a character we deeply care for, is no charmer at all. Thus said, The Descendants rarely missteps, and in a film about the flaws that make us human, how could it really?

Matt King (Clooney) is faced with quite a situation. A lawyer based in Honolulu, King is also the trustee of 25,000 acres of pure, Hawaiian land. The trust will expire in seven years, so King, along with his dozen or so family members on the island, must decide whether to sell the land, which will quickly turn into one of those resorts we longingly stare at in magazine ads. Meanwhile, a boating accident has driven Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastia), into a coma. And it might not be one she can wake up from. King, being “the back-up parent,” must also care for his two daughters, misbehaving 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and drug-prone 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley). But then, the Payne curveball hits. Alex reveals to her father that Elizabeth was cheating on him. The family then sets out to make whatever  they can of a devastating situation, the lover turning out to be none other than Matthew Lillard. Alex’s dim-witted boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), also comes along for the ride. The result is a surprisingly steady tone, never hilarious or heart-wrenching, but consistently comical and deeply affecting, nonetheless.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I think Clooney deserves his second Oscar. The film opens with a substantial amount of Matt King voiceover. This will surely bug people who loathe narration, but it accomplishes its goal by directly placing us within the mind of the protagonist we are meant to connect with. It does explain plot points, but not to the extent that it deprives us of information that we could’ve obtained from the film on our own. For the most part, it offers very beneficial information, and as the film advances, Clooney’s performance takes precedent. The character of Matt King is interesting because he recognizes that he was never the perfect husband. He was distant from his wife, and never there for his children. He understands why his wife cheated on him, but will never have the opportunity to give her what she deserved throughout their marriage. Initially, he feels like the victim, and who could blame him? But then the realization comes – if King hopes to cope, he must forgive her, the man who she may have loved, and himself, as well. It is a daunting task, but with a family to care for, and a big decision to make, life must go on. Even in the place where people go to escape it.

I was impressed by The Descendants‘ knowledge of what clichés it must avoid. There is a scene where the youngest daughter, upon hearing that her older sister and mother would go camping amidst the beautiful, King-owned land, claims that she would like to go camping, too. King has no response. As of yet, the land will be sold, but we now know that King doesn’t want it to be. There is no final scene where the family camps happily upon the ocean front, but from what excellent job Payne has done with connecting us to his characters, the audience knows what longing King has to make this a reality, and how he will try his best to make it a possibility. There are a few moments later in the film, with King alone in the hospital with his wife, that fully solidify Clooney as one of the greatest working actors (if that wasn’t already obvious). In fact, it might be the most moving scene of the year. Clooney’s sadness transcends that of screen acting and becomes as relatable as a performance can be, connecting to anyone who has lost another or been forced into a situation that seemingly has no escape. The tears seem real, because oddly enough, they feel like our own.

The Descendants makes a stance to not be manipulative, but if the film makes any mistake, it is to not build upon the emotional devastation that arises in a few scenes, which are often cut short by comedic relief. But I appreciate how tactfully Payne navigates these choppy waters, conveying the emotion without bludgeoning us with it. Some may argue that the emotions we are meant to feel seem rather obvious and unoriginally executed, but I feel as though Payne negates these arguments simply through the story elements. This is an unbelievably tragic situation, but it is not a film that wants us to grieve. It is one that asks us to recognize our flaws and respect those of others, and when regret, anger, and jealously plague our souls, to simply try our best to live.

Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film appeals to an odd sort of sensibility. The opening credits appear on a Hawaiian-font titlecard, which feels awfully unnecessary. But then again, the point is to establish an outside look of paradise, and then present us with the universal unhappiness within it. The Hawaiian music also serves to accomplish this goal, as does the beautiful cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. The film was shot mostly in Honolulu, and the use Payne makes of this location is simply outstanding. As for the characters who inhabit it, the result is similar. Shailene Woodley, who starred on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, gives a quite terrific performance as King’s eldest daughter. Seriously, she even cries underwater! Amara Miller as the younger daughter is also spectacular for her age, and it was surely quite fun to see Matthew Lillard as the enemy. I also can’t say enough about Nick Krause as Sid, the dopey boyfriend who never ceases to judge, but always makes us laugh. He even makes us sorry for judging him.

These all become characters that envelop us within their lives, an accomplishment Payne ties together with several others. He emphasizes the subtleties of the incredible performance by Clooney, whose journey we follow with the utmost attention and care. There are also great performances by Robert Forster as King’s father-in-law, and Beau Bridges as his cousin, Hugh. But ultimately, this is a film about the building of a family, and people who attempt to bring out the best within themselves in the worst situation imaginable. King did nothing to inherit acre-upon-acre of beautiful Hawaiian land, but somehow it ended up on his doorstep. He also did not ask for what happened to his wife. But sometimes, life throws responsibility upon us, and it is our job to handle it in the best possible way, even though it may seem unfair. Payne therefore wraps a story of paradise within the intangible truths of life. Does that mean you won’t laugh? Not at all. But it may help you understand why you are.

 

Hope Personified

War Horse (December 25, 2011)     4.5/5

Directed by Steven Spielberg (Touchstone Pictures)

The English play War Horse was a production built upon the premise of several genuine ideas, one of which being the emergence of life where none actually existed. The inanimate horses would become living, breathing organisms onstage, an experience I was lucky to have while seeing the play on Broadway. This was accomplished through the awe-inspiring skill of a quite talented group of puppeteers. Many have said Steven Spielberg (with a screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall)  is cheating by making a film adaptation of War Horse, which was also based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. After all, he uses real animals, as well as all the movie magic at his disposal. There may be some truth here, but it is far easier to notice what a splendid film he has made.

Spielberg is one of the great directors of our time, a main reason being he can make an audience feel like no other can. He knows what functions movies can serve, and he caters to those who he hopes will enjoy his own. His films are also that of classical, narrative genius, accompanied by genuine emotion, and all wrapped within that “Spielbergian” sense of wonder. So who better to direct War Horse? This is a man, who after 40 years in the industry, can still breathe life into anything.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is a teenage lad in Devon, England, who through the drunken purchase of his father (Peter Mullan), comes to raise a young horse into a strong, gorgeous animal named Joey, capable of plowing the family farm so that the property will not be taken away by a devious landlord, played by David Thewlis. It is fair to say Albert accomplishes something special, complete with the love and approval his mother (Emily Watson). But then a storm badly damages the crop, forcing Albert’s dad to sell Joey to the army as World War I begins to ravage Europe. The horse is cared for by a friendly captain, played by Tom Hiddleston, and from there, the film becomes a dual story between Joey’s experiences in the war, as well as Albert’s, once he is old enough to enlist. Things then go full circle, not only through a touching story of a boy and his horse, but also one of how the darkest of situations, often of our own causing, lead us to rediscover our humanity.

Spielberg stages this epic tale with the vision John Ford, visualizing both gorgeous, natural shots of England, as well as busy combat sequences with comparable beauty and intensity. It reminds you just how great a widescreen, theater experience can be. Many shots reminded me of such grand dramas such as Gone with the Wind, and others of westerns like The Searchers. And Spielberg never misses an opportunity to reminisce upon the great, old war films, including All Quiet on the Western Front. The silhouette of a mere boy, having witnessed hell on Earth, riding his horse amidst an empty landscape and blood-red sun, will surely impact you, and as he dismounts and embraces the family he holds so dear, the feeling will remain inside you.

This is Spielberg’s reawakening of such emotion, not just of Ford, but of an entire generation of filmmakers, artists who painted a sunset, which amidst the heart-wrenching strings of John Williams, in this case, would not soon be forgotten. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has been with Spielberg since Schindler’s List in 1993, photographs some of the most beautiful imagery that has ever bared a Spielberg label. Editor Michael Kahn, who also worked on Spielberg’s recently released, animated feature, The Adventures of Tintin, also uses fades and montage to great effect, simulating an editing style that has long gone out of style. Yes, War Horse is old-fashioned and proud, making it nothing other than something new.

But that doesn’t mean the film is a distinctly original product. The characters are all archetypal, Irvine playing a courageous, but slightly naive boy, who is able to recognize the humanity within a creature that is far from human. I enjoyed his performance, as of that by Mullan and Watson, as his parents. Albert, through the process of war, will soon learn to appreciate the courage of his sad and wounded father, as well as the lesson his favorite pal has taught all who have made contact with him. In terms of human friends, I found the character of softy mate Andrew, played by Matt Milne, to be fairly annoying. Thewlis, as the landlord, is never quite sinister enough, either. His son, played by Robert Emms, is also a slightly underplayed character. Meanwhile, the military characters are all decently played, but the subplots that really stand out are those featuring an elderly man, played by Niels Arestrup, and his granddaughter, Emilie (Celine Buckens), as well as that of two brothers (David Kross & Leonard Carow) who desert the German army. If nothing else, the latter displays what cruelty human beings can inflict, and the former what kindness they can show.

There is a scene in War Horse, also included in the play, with which I have had a hard time judging the quality of its execution. And days later, this conundrum still fascinates me. Joey is injured, trapped by barbed wire in no man’s land. Both the English and German armies spy him from their respective trenches, and a representative from each decides to go release the poor animal. Predictably so, the two “enemies” work together to trim the tangled wire. The twist is this – it took me until the middle of the sequence to realize that the men spying the horse, from inside the trench, were actually from separate sides. And I had seen the play! This is partially because Spielberg also has the Germans speak English, an aspect that both the film and play utilize in some cases for intentional, comedic effect. The filmmaker in me hopes that Spielberg also conveyed this confusion intentionally, in order to display the unifying elements of both sets of men, which war tells us should be different. This is obviously the meaning of the entire scene, as reflected through Joey, who represents hope in the best sense.

So poor or exceptional? It would take me a second viewing to decide, as it would for several other scenes. But it will only take one for me to proclaim that Spielberg so effortlessly transfers the tone and meaning of the play into a cinematic contraption, one that may not have the greatest acting or dialogue, but is a top-notch, technical production that touches our hearts to the core. Even when the darkness of our world takes hold, we are still subject to one idea – for the most part, we are all the same, and we all have the chance to be good. Sometimes it just takes a horse, or a movie to tell his coincidence-heavy tale, to make us realize this once again. Or as Spielberg would prefer, to make us see and feel it.

There is truly something for everyone in War Horse. An imaginative, fairly-tale-like story, fantastic imagery, pure emotion, and even the best action sequences Spielberg has shot since Saving Private Ryan in 1998. And whether we like it or not, its message applies to all of us. It has been awhile since the world-famous director has crafted the classics we love, including Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Jurassic Park. His previously mentioned war films of the 90s also seem enveloped within the distant past. But in the last 20 years, Spielberg has still made what I believe to be great films, including science-fiction pictures Minority Report and A.I. But the purists will always doubt whether the magic is still there, or whether our childhood, cinematic hero should consider himself retired. Luckily, there is an antithesis to that statement. His name is Joey.