Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Quick Takes: December '11 Highlights

A very slow month in movie watching, but hey, there wasn't a turkey in the bunch. I spent a lot of time catching up with Damages, Parks and Recreation (more on that next month) and, well, getting through life. Movies just simply took a backseat this month.

Dir. Mike Mills
Top honors for the month of December goes to Beginners, an exquisite romantic drama about a guy coming to grips with his father's death while navigating the blossoming relationship with a new lover. I loved this film. Ewan McGregor, sublime as ever, is Oliver, who meets Anna (Melanie Laurent, delightful) shortly after his ailing, recently-out-and-proud father passes away. Christopher Plummer, who deserves an Oscar for his work here, graces his character with a quiet dignity. It all sounds so dreadfully serious, but the film is funny, subversive and utterly charming. Writer/director Mike Mills has a knack for filmmaking -- the story flows effortlessly back and forth between Hal's coming out of the closet and bonding with his son, with Oliver's hesitance to commit to Anna. Beginners is easily one of the year's best.

Creators: Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat
When the BBC aired its first season of Sherlock last year, the reviews were phenomenal. I was intrigued by it, and was pleased to find it streaming on Netflix. It is a modern-day retelling of the classic literary giant and not only did the filmmakers respect the original source but they made it fresher than it has ever been. Holmes and Watson are perfectly cast. I had never seen Benedict Cumberbatch before this, but one thing is definite -- he is a star. What a great screen presence! I look forward to seeing him in more things. And as Watson, Martin Freeman is surprisingly good. I know him only from the original Office and it was nice to see him in a completely different type of role. (Wait til we see him step into the role of Bilbo Baggins in the new Hobbit film next year.). The stories are engaging, the writing sharp, and the cinematography is smashingly gorgeous. I cannot wait for season 2.

Dir. Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
For some reason, I don't think Crazy, Stupid, Love should have worked at all. The setup is something straight out of a sitcom - timid family man attempts the dating scene after leaving his wife, while his young son pines for the family babysitter - and writer Dan Fogelman's previous writing credits include Fred Claus and Bolt. So imagine my surprise to learn that this movie is much, much better than it really ought to be. Why does it work so well? Because the film doesn't resort to cheap laughs and because the characters are real and complex. Crazy, Stupid, Love is full of heart and warmth; by the time the final act rolled around, there was tremendous feeling and emotion because we believed in these people. We believed Steve Carell loved his wife. We believed Ryan Gosling finally met his match. We wanted everyone to work things out. We cared. And isn't that how to make a good movie? Make your audience care.

Dir. Tate Taylor
The Help is an immensely popular novel which was successfully adapted to an equally popular and respected motion picture. I never read the novel, but I know many who have and gave this film their stamps of approval. As a newcomer to the material, I was immersed in this tale of racism in the south between hard-working maids and their ignorant white employers. There are no surprises here; it's even a little predictable. But the cast and writing are so strong that the film has no problems selling the emotional impact of its story. More impressive is that The Help was helmed by a newcomer; Tate Taylor has brought care and deftness to a story many people have embraced.

Dir. Andrew Haigh
If Richard Linklater were to remake Before Sunrise for the gay crowd, it would look a lot like Weekend, a beautiful film about two young loners who meet, debate, screw, and fall in love over the course of a single weekend in England. It's sexy, artful and intelligent; writer/director Andrew Haigh successfully nailed that feeling of meeting someone who riles you up, shakes you to your core and fills you with desire and want. Tom Cullen and Chris New are natural and exquisite.

Creators: Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman
Don't fuck with Patty Hewes. That's what I've learned when watching the first two seasons of Damages, an electrifying series from Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman. Patty Hewes, as played with icy perfection by Glenn Close, is a high powered attorney with a very limited conscience. She'll do whatever it takes to get her clients the big payoff. Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) is caught in her tangled web of deceit as she joins her law firm. It's a twisty series filled with fantastic scenery-chewing performers, such as Emmy-winner Zeljko Ivanek, Ted Danson, and William Hurt, among others. I've enjoyed the first two seasons tremendously, but I'm taking a break before I resume seasons 3 and 4. All of those twists have given me whiplash.

Dir. Terrence Malick
The Tree of Life is a confounding, perplexing film. It is Art, with a capital A, a tone poem filled with such stunning clarity and beauty. There is a lot to admire about this film: the boldness of the presentation of Malick's vision, for one, is unparalleled. Many thought he was being pretentious (and they may be right) but he certainly is not lazy or lacking in creativity. Like all art, The Tree of Life is subjective. As a father of two young children, I found many of the scenes involving Pitt and his sons to be touching and pleasantly bathed in warm, sometimes bittersweet, nostalgia. What did nothing for me, though, was the overuse of the whispering narration, which had very little context to what was displayed on the screen. And despite being overly long at 150 minutes, I wouldn't dream of asking Malick to cut out any of the stunning visuals (as excessive as they may be). I prefer more narrative coherence to my films so it was difficult for me to love The Tree of Life. But I experienced it. And I'm damned glad I did. 

Dir. Woody Allen
Woody Allen continues to impress. I'm not a big fan of his; I don't consider his 70's and 80's classics to be favorites of mine. I still think Match Point is his best film, and I thoroughly enjoyed Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I was quite taken with Midnight in Paris, his latest venture with Owen Wilson as an Allen-esque screenwriter who falls in love with the city of Paris. First off, Owen is perfectly cast; it's the best work he's ever done and he really captures Woody's spirit more than any other actor I've seen. The scenes from the 1920's are radiant and so effortlessly charming. I'm not a history or literature buff so much of the references went over my head, but I found myself enjoying Wilson's interactions with these famous characters. The story is predictable and Rachel McAdams doesn't quite add much to her poorly written character. But Midnight in Paris continues Allen's robust late-stage career performance. He is as sharp as he's ever been.

Dir. George Gallo
Middle Men is the "inspired by true events" story of a smooth-talking business man (Luke Wilson) who teams up with a pair of computer geniuses (Gabriel Macht and Giovanni Ribisi) to create a groundbreaking and lucrative business involving internet porn. Even if only a little bit of this story is true, it's quite an impressive tale. George Gallo (who helmed the unjustly underrated 29th Street many years ago) is mostly successful in keeping this jam-packed film moving along quickly. Wilson is excellent, easily one of his best performances. Good to see Kevin Pollak, James Caan and Jacinda Barrett stand out in a strong ensemble. Middle Men is a gem of a film, well worth a look.

Dir. Seth Gordon
Horrible Bosses takes the Strangers on a Train premise and spins it on its axis. Pals Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis conspire to kill each other's bosses, played respectively by Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell. Horrible Bosses, in many ways, could have been so much better. The cast is aces - they deliver big laughs when the material allows them to. But unfortunately, it's not often enough. Screen talent isn't enough to make me love this film. These characters find themselves in extremely dangerous situations and act as if it's all a game. There was no sense of realism; it was very difficult to care about anyone here. But despite that major weakness, this film has fast-paced direction by Seth Gordon (whose phenomenal '07 doc The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is one of my favorite docs in the last ten years). One thing to note: Aniston is sexy and daring; it's the best thing she's done since Rachel Green.

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