Thursday, December 1, 2011

Quick Takes: November '11 Wrap Up

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon (2011) wasn't exactly a strong start to the month of November. But at least I got the worst of it done with right off the bat. What a loud, garish mess. It's sad because I'm a huge fan of the original Transformers, a funny, ridiculously entertaining action blockbuster. The second film was a big step down but it wasn't terrible. It was enjoyable up to a point. But TF3? Unwatchable. All of the heart, charm and spectacle of the original is completely gone. I'm surprised I made it all the way through without turning it off. Oh, the torture of being a completist! 1/5

Bad Teacher (2011) was a disappointment considering how much I love this cast. I think Cameron Diaz is a remarkable talent but she doesn't have a good track record of choosing strong material. Justin Timberlake, a movie star in the making, took a step backwards by playing this role of a dorky substitute teacher too broadly. Only the terribly underused Jason Segel shines brightly here. But he wasn't enough to save this middling, sporadically humorous comedy from Jake Kasden. 2/5

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop (2011) doesn't have much depth nor did I walk away feeling any differently about the whole late night mess. While O'Brien appears very likable on stage, he is actually a deeply sarcastic man which often makes for uncomfortable viewing. It's a bummer that we learn nothing of what makes him tick, really; we only know that he is pissed because his dream job was taken from him prematurely. In the grand scheme of things, these problems are minuscule (O'Brien walked away with millions to retire early) so it's hard to feel really badly for him. 2.5/5

The hype machine can be a vicious thing. When you wait to see a popular movie after it has had some time in the spotlight, you risk the chance of clouding your judgment. When I saw Little Miss Sunshine a few months after it came out, I was worried - it couldn't possibly be that good. Well, I was wrong and it ended up being one of my favorite films that year. Was Bridesmaids (2011) just as lucky? Not quite. I'm afraid it falls in the same camp as The Hangover. It's a funny film with standout performances and memorable set pieces. But is it a great film? Is it a classic? I'm afraid not. Melissa McCarthy is wonderful as Meg, and she deserves all of the praise she has gotten this year (she will always be Lorelai's BFF in my eyes). I do have to say, though, that I'm totally digging Kristen Wiig's career trajectory this year. She's our next Tina Fey. She anchors Bridesmaids with skill and verve. 3.5/5

The next two films came out of nowhere and shocked the hell out of me. I wouldn't be surprised if either landed on my Best of the Year list. First, Hanna (2011), the third film from Joe Wright, whose Atonement was not a film I was crazy for (The Soloist is unseen by me). But Wright is a gifted filmmaker and Hanna is a fantastic showcase for his talents. It's a kick-ass action thriller that features Saoirse Ronan in a performance that should guarantee her a Hollywood career for life. Eric Bana is a former spy who trains her daughter to become an assassin in order to avenge her mother's death. Hanna is a film of many themes - family, honor, revenge - and it's also a film of technical brilliance. Fused with a hypnotic score from The Chemical Brothers, Hanna has impressive scenes with long takes, gorgeous frame work and stunning photography. 4.5/5

Then I saw another great film immediately afterwards, a movie I had zero expectations for. After experiencing the pleasure of Hanna, I embarked on The Trip (2011), a British road comedy that also features some terrific scenery and inventive editing. But that's where the similarities end. The Trip is actually a 3-hour BBC miniseries pared down to a 100-minute film for America and the result is an oddly affectionate look at two friends who share a common bond of films, food and culture. Assembled by the ever-so-versatile filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, The Trip is a fantastic showcase for two very funny men: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Most of their exchanges are improvised, but there is a caustic, biting wit that underscores their lively and often hilarious conversations. Their dueling Michael Caine impersonations are among the funniest bits of material I've heard all year. "But she's only 16 years old! You were supposed to blow the bloody doors down!" 4.5/5

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) had a lot going for it during its first hour. I was really digging the Indiana Jones vibe and that period detail so meticulously crafted by director Joe Johnston. Chris Evans is a charming lead and the relationship between him and scientist Stanley Tucci was brief but warm-hearted. But unfortunately the plot kicked into autopilot midway into the film and all elements of surprise and sure-footed pacing went right out the window. It's too bad. I liked Captain America enough to recommend it but disappointed that it failed to live up to its potential. 3/5

Red State (2011) also suffered a similar fate, though it is a more successful picture. The first half of Kevin Smith's electrifying career departure is a tense thriller about a couple of oversexed teenage boys and their ill-fated quest for nookie. What follows is an unpredictable, though wildly uneven, potboiler that is anchored (and saved) by a terrific, commanding performance by John Goodman. The villains - notably Michael Parks and Melissa Leo - were too one-note to stick with me and the post-shoot out scenes were somewhat anticlimactic. Red State is a little bit of a mess, but it's a very entertaining one and marks a promising rebirth of a director in need of a change. 3.5/5

My sole big screen outing in November: A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011). I'm not a fan of 3D; I find the practice distracting and it takes me out of the story. 3D turns movies into amusement park rides, and that's not what I love about this medium. That said, I got a few good laughs out of this movie - some at the expense of the 3D format. The use of 3D here is effective and doesn't feel like a cheap studio ploy to rake in more bucks. The film itself does not compare to the original classic (yes, I said it; it's a classic), but I'd say it's on par with Guantanamo Bay. And once again, Neil Patrick Harris all but steals the show. 3/5

After some heavy hitting new releases, I plowed through a few older titles I had been meaning to see for some time now. The first, a documentary I'd been hearing raves about: Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father (2008). What a heartbreaker. Director Kurt Kuenne pieces together a video diary about a young man named Andrew Bagby who was senselessly killed by his mentally unstable girlfriend. The video diary was intended to be a keepsake for Andrew's newborn son, Zachary, who would learn that his father was a decent man who was well loved by many. The film takes a tragic turn midway and Kuenne keenly observes how fragile life can be. The real stars of Dear Zachary are Andrew's tirelessly devoted parents, David and Kate. They are two people we could use more of in this world. 4/5

The next film is yet another doc from the same year, but it could have been made anytime in the last 5 years and very little would have changed. I.O.U.S.A. (2008) matter-of-factly spells out our nations problems with debt. This is dry stuff; the filmmakers don't really attempt to liven things up with human-interest anecdotes, which I wish they did. It's still an informative must-see, if only educate yourself on how our country got to where we are financially and where we are headed. It's not pretty, folks. We're in deep shit. Our kids and grand kids will be paying for these problems and that notion is kind of depressing. 3/5

Michael Keaton really needs to make more films. I rather adored his quirky little comedy, Game 6 (2005), which is the first screenplay from renowned novelist and playwright Dom DeLillo. Keaton is a playwright on the cusp of a career crossroads - his next play will either end his career or catapult him into greatness, the result hinging from the response of a much-feared critic (a well cast Robert Downey, Jr). You can tell DeLillo is a very accomplished writer of dialogue. The words spoken in this film are thoughtful and at times philosophical. The characters - especially Keaton, Griffin Dunne as an old writer pal fallen through times, and Harris Yulin as an esteemed actor losing his grip on his craft - are intelligent and deeply wounded. How the film is tied to one of baseball's biggest upsets is cleverly done. 4/5

My November viewings winded down with a pair of family films over the Thanksgiving weekend. Winnie the Pooh (2011) is a delightful, droll film for the entire family. It's really quite a pleasure to see a modern day toon that doesn't assault your senses with juvenile humor, fast-cutting action and by-the-numbers storytelling. Winnie the Pooh is simple, pure and has a certain intelligence that is deeply rewarding for adult audiences. A great family film is one that speaks to all ages and this is surely one of them. 4/5

And finally, Pixar breaks its amazing streak of unparalleled perfection with Cars 2 (2011), an enjoyable though underwhelming sequel to one of Disney's most lucrative franchises. When I see animated films from Fox or Warner Brothers, even Dreamworks, they always appear to be loud and goofy, attempting to attract an audience full of kids with A.D.D. Pixar films tend to have a gentler spirit, taking their time to tell a story and not contstantly resorting to cheap, instant laughs. Cars 2 seems to be Pixar's attempt to go "mainstream" and it's disconcerting to see them stumble a little bit. The main problem is that Mater isn't a compelling character to anchor a film. He's a hilarious sidekick, but doesn't have enough depth to drive an entire film. (I know, it's a cartoon character of a tow truck, I shouldn't be using the word "depth" here). And the plot is rather dense for a children's film; how many 6-year-olds will really get these references? These problems aside, Cars 2 looks impeccable. Pixar's attention to detail remains unparalleled. For me, an adult viewer with a love for spy films, I got a kick out of hearing Michael Caine's voice and seeing some clever movie references. Not a dud by any means, but Cars 2 is unusual step down for an industry giant. 3/5


Eric said...

I have been trying to catch up on some of this year's movies, too. I agree about Bad Teacher - a waste of all of the talent involved. Can't wait to check out Hanna and The Trip, as those have been at the top of my queue for a while now.

Sir Phobos said...

I've only seen 3 of the movies in this post, so I'll just go through them quickly.

100% agree with you on Hanna. Awesome.

I hate, hate, hate Captain America. His character is about as empty as one could get.

Gotta disagree on Red State being a mess. You mentioned Michael Parks being one-note, but, well...that guy would be one-note in reality. I would say that gripe should be leveled at the kind of person his character was rather than the performance or writing.

I'm glad Harold & Kumar is at least a worthy addition. I'd agree that the first is a classic.

Dave said...

Eric, do seek those titles out. Worth a look.

And I see what you're getting at, Sir Phobos, regarding Michael Parks. I just think it's easy to play a religious nutjob, and Parks just doesn't do anything interesting to the part. Parks didn't *become* him -- he just seemed, to me, like an actor playing a part. I think all the speechifying and long monologues just took me out of the movie and I felt I was watching a performance as opposed to a portrayal.

Anonymous said...

Nice wrap up. Good to see The Trip on your list which was kind of overlooked in theaters. Also Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father was heartbreaking. It still haunts me.

I’m kind of surprised you gave A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas even three stars though, A shameless use of 3D with hardly any laughs IMO. What a disappointment from the first well written one.

Overall a great recap! Happy New Year!!

Dave said...

Thanks Mark! I appreciate you writing in and sharing your two cents. I agree, I may have been easy on HK3D -- it's certainly not in the same league as the original. But like Guantanamo Bay, I got a few laughs out of it and just enjoyed the two leads doing what they do best. 3 stars out of 5 is only a very mild thumbs up, mind you. :-)

Glad to see some love for The Trip. I think it's the funniest film of 2011 so far.

Happy New Year!


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