Friday, February 3, 2012

Quick Takes: January Highlights

Another fantastic month in entertainment. I've seen far less movies than what I'm used to, but I'll take quality over quantity anytime. One of the reasons I'm not seeing so many films lately is because watching a TV series from scratch can be very time consuming. Last month, I watched the first two seasons of Damages, this month it's Parks and Recreation. I plan to devote some of February catching up to Mad Men. I've always been an advocate for good television. Some TV shows are just far more emotionally rewarding than most films I see all year.

To that end, here's the best of what January had to offer for me, arranged in order of viewing.

Dir. J.C. Chandor
In the best film I've ever seen about Wall Street, writer/director J.C. Chandor exudes confidence and remarkable restraint with his debut passion project, Margin Call. There isn't a single false note in this film, which takes place over a tumultuous 24-hour period in which a "big bank" agonizes over a crucial decision on the eve of the biggest financial crisis of our generation. Everyone at the corporation is affected, from the rookie risk assessment analyst who uncovers the error that would cost innocent people millions of dollars, to the middle managers who assesses every move as a power play, and to the cocksure CEO who weighs the balance of his company's fortune with the experience and skill of a fighter pilot. Wall Street and finances and balance sheets have never been this suspenseful. And what a cast! Kevin Spacey is the best I've seen him in years, while Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Simon Baker and Zachary Quinto deliver performances they ought to be proud of. It's Glengarry Glen Ross with hedge funds and portfolios. A high compliment if there ever was one.

Dir. Azazel Jacobs
Azazel Jacobs directed this sensitive drama about a lonely teen (Jacob Wysocki, an assured debut) who suddenly finds himself in the company of three very different people. The first is his school principal, played with such low-key brilliance by John C. Reilly. Sometimes I feel like Reilly phones it in during crappy movies, but when he has strong material to work with, the guy can hit it out of the park. Reilly sees Terri as a good-hearted kid who could use some guidance. At the same time, Terri befriends a fellow outcast named Chad and forges a connection with the pretty Heather Miles. Terri is a sweet film. Worth seeing not for its somewhat predictable story, but the performances by the two leads.

Seasons 1-4
Created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur
Parks and Recreation is an utter surprise and delight. When I started the first season last month, I was underwhelmed. The cast wasn't jelling. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) was a loopy ditz who was too cartoonish to be realistic. The writers seemed to be trying too hard to be "quirky." Then something amazing happened. In season two, the agenda of the writers became clearer. They made Leslie smarter. The cast had better things to do with each other. Parks and Recreation became a show about the characters and their inherent goodness. This is the least cynical comedy I have seen in a long, long time. Behind all of that sarcasm is a deeply connected group of people who clearly adore one another. There is so much heart in this show and watching Leslie and the cast evolve season after season gave me immense pleasure.

I love the additions of Adam Scott (Ben) and Rob Lowe (Chris) -- they add so much delirium and obsessive-compulsive humor to the show. I love how Jerry Gergich gets so much abuse. I love the pairing of Andy Dwyer and April Ludgate, he with the abundance of optimism and she of the deadpan sarcasm. I love that Tom Haverford dreams big. I love that Ron Fucking Swanson is terrified of his ex-wives but takes no bullshit from anyone else. And most especially, I love Leslie Knope and her incredible passion for what she does. She doesn't do anything halfheartedly. Modern Family may have more laughs per minute, but Parks and Recreation has depth and soul. It's a strong character-driven sitcom and that is as rare and special as a tiny horse named Lil' Sebastian.

Dir. Will Gluck
Will Gluck, talented director of Easy A, scores again with another comedy that succeeds because of its likable cast, sharp script and fast-paced direction. Friends with Benefits is a very funny and raunchy rom-com that may be predictable (I don't need to outline the plot, do I?) and has its fair share of cliches, but Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are so well-matched and charming that they made this film so easy to swallow. I'm as weary of romantic comedies with generic titles as much as the next guy, but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It clicked for me.

Dir. George Clooney
Anything George Clooney is involved with always gets my attention. I greatly respect him as an actor, a director and all around celebrity. The Ides of March is a terrific directorial effort. It's a taut, layered thriller about a shady presidential candidate (Clooney) whose dark secret affects the lives of those on his campaign, including Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his top aides, and Evan Rachel Wood as an assistant who gets too involved. I really wish Clooney chose to dig deeper here; the film only scratches the surface of the big fallout. I wanted Clooney to get nastier. I wanted more melodrama after the credits rolled. Subsequently, the film focused only on the inner turmoil of Gosling's character and, frankly, that's just enough to make The Ides of March an absorbing film, well worth a look. It just could have been so much more.

Dir. John Madden
It took me a long time to get into this one. The first hour only periodically grabbed my interest as the film kept weaving its fractured narrative back and forth in time. The characters began to take shape during some pivotal capture sequences halfway into the film. That's when The Debt became an interesting drama about guilt, secrets and forbidden love. The cast is aces all around but the standout is the luminous Jessica Chastain as the younger Rachel Singer (later played Helen Mirren). Chastain's rising star has been the subject of many discussions this year, but despite her very good work in The Tree of Life and The Help, it's her performance in this film that really struck a nerve for me.

Dir. Bennett Miller
Aaron Sorkin is pretty amazing. He takes topics that I don't always find particularly exciting and not only makes them interesting but also romanticizes them to a certain extent. He took us inside sports broadcasting (Sports Night), politics (American President, West Wing), Facebook (The Social Network) and now the messy, unpredictable nature of baseball. Moneyball, as written by Sorkin and expert screenwriter Steven Zaillian, is a thrilling account of a persistent general manager (Brad Pitt, deserving his Oscar nod) who works with a statistical geek (Jonah Hill, nicely underplayed) and attempts to think outside the box when managing his raggedy team. I particularly enjoyed Philip Seymour Hoffman as disgruntled, frustrated Coach Art Howe. I'm not a baseball fan by any means, but Moneyball entertained the hell out of me.

Dir. Shawn Levy
Well, damn if I ended up with a little lump in my throat. Who knew I'd fall for a movie that is manipulative, cliched and hobbled together from 80's classics? There are many groan-inducing moments in Real Steel, but when it's put together by an appealing cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly ("Freckles!"), and impressive newcomer Dakota Goyo, I could not resist its charms. Equal parts Rocky, Over the Top, and Short Circuit (!), Real Steel is hardly original. But it's a helluva lot more entertaining than it ought to be. I don't know how Shawn Levy did it. He took a bad movie and made it more than watchable. In fact, he made it (almost) great.

Dir. Deborah Chow
I miss Zach Braff. I wish he would do more films, or even head back to TV. He was always a pleasure to watch on Scrubs, and I'm a big fan of his work in Garden State and The Last Kiss. His sense of humor is relatable and always present, even when he's working with heavy material. The High Cost of Living is his darkest film yet, and Braff completely pulls off his role as a drug runner who makes the life-altering mistake of hitting a pregnant woman (Isabelle Blais, remarkable) while driving under the influence. The film is a low-budget Canadian import and will barely make a blip in Braff's career. It's not without its flaws and is a bit slow-going, but if you're a fan of Braff's and wish the dude would work more, this is worth a look.


Emil said...

Looks like you got some good watching done this past month! Nice to hear, and as always, this is a very well-written post.

I actually dozed off a bit during Margin Call. Not the film's fault as I quite enjoyed it, but damn that seat was comfy. So I can't really comment too much on it, but I hope to see it again at some point. As you said, some impressive performances in that one. I loved hom dominant Jeremy Irons was whenever he was on-screen, just as his character should be.

Terri was quite delightful. That whole party/date sequence had me at the edge of my seat. Wysocki made a teriffic debut, and I hope he'll find interesting roles in the future and can avoid type-casting.

Reading about what you had to say about Friends with Benefits, I realized that most people have been too busy talking about how similar it and No Strings Attached are to mention whether the films are actually, you know, good or not. Adding FwB to my rental list now.

I like The Ides of March better the more I think about. The whole development with Evan Rachel Wood's character felt a bit overwrought to me and took me out of the film a bit. No knock on Wood, though. I always like her. The rest of the cast were equally impressive.

Real Steel will have to be one we disagree on sentiments-wise. I agree with the points you bring up, but I found its charm very resistable. Kudos to it for well-directed fight scenes, but the story was just blargh. I never want to see a kid and a robot dancing together ever again.

Dave said...

Wow, thanks for the thoughtful reply, Emil. I always look forward to your comments.

I completely understand your distaste for Real Steel. I wasn't liking it at first myself. I kind of feel guilty, actually. I mean, it's tacky as all hell. But I fell for it, dammit. It was so freakin' likable to me. I heard that Fox greenlit the sequel before this was even released. I guess they knew they had a hit on their hands. I'm afraid you'll see that kid dancing with the robot again after all. :-)

I agree 100% about Wood's character in the Ides of March. That plot element felt out of place, though it was certainly a pivotal turning point in the film. I liked the film too... just given the pedigree, I wish it were better.

Emil said...

I find that whole "wishing a good film was better" often crops up for me around this time of the year. So many movies getting talking about so much during the Oscars season that you often end up a bit underwhelmed and disappointed when you "only" give something a 4 out of 5. I had something of that nature happened to me while watching The Descendants the other day, and there are plenty of other examples too. Often, these films grow on me when I revisit them a year or so later. Clooney-example: Up in the Air.

"I'm afraid you'll see that kid dancing with the robot again after all. :-)"

Not if I can help it!

Dave said...

Yes, I agree, it does happen a lot. I don't go to the movies often as it is, so I get the benefit of seeing most of the late-year releases after the Oscar wave dies down. However, just this week, I saw The Artist, and I wasn't quite blown away by it. Did the hype kill it? What was I missing? It's charming and very well-acted so I do recommend it. But is it worth Best Picture (which it will surely win)? No. Not by a long shot.

But hey, maybe I'll see it again next year and change my tune. Hindsight can be a bitch!

Sam Fragoso said...

Margin Call & Ides were quite good.

Never been a fan of Parks and Recreations.

Good write up - keep up the good work.


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