Saturday, March 3, 2012

Quick Takes: February Highlights

Wow, February was a very mixed bag for me when it came to movies. Two great films, one very good one, a couple of decent titles and a handful of crappy ones. My Netflix queue is loaded with potentially great titles from 2011 I haven't seen yet (Hugo, Descendants, Melancholia, etc) so I have a long way to go before I'm stuck with the earlier 2012 releases. I'm hoping March will be a more consistently great month. 

As for TV, I had to put Mad Men on hold. Halfway through season one, I couldn't get myself into it. I just don't care. What am I missing? So, while I shelve that title for the time being, I'm jumping into Breaking Bad, and after 3 episodes so far, I'm absolutely loving it. Wow! What a creative, funny, off-the-wall drama! I can't wait to write about it for next month's highlights.

Now, the good, bad and ugly of February, in order of viewing. I started the month off with last week's Best Picture winner, The Artist.

Dir. Michel Hazanavicius
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) was a handsome and popular movie star during the silent film era. He loved being the center of attention and America clearly adored him. That is, of course, until talking pictures were invented. Valentin's career and personal life began spiraling downward at breakneck speeds and there were only two things in his life that kept him afloat: his loyal, affectionate dog and the actress he once discovered and loved (Berenice Bejo, a wonderful face). The Artist is pure fluff. Sure, it's sweet and charming, but there is no weight to it. It was nearly impossible to take it seriously or feel any deep emotion for these characters. I hate to use the word "overrated" here but for me The Artist was only seen as a pleasant diversion, a peaceful distraction from the loud pomp and circumstance of Hollywood today. Recommended viewing, but with reservations.

Dir. Justin Lin
Finally! A sequel worthy of the fun and fresh 2001 actioner The Fast and the Furious. Fast Five picks up where we left off from the previous installment and smartly eschews the tired racing formula by making this one an out-and-out heist thriller. It's ridiculous and way over the top, but bringing Diesel and Walker back together again, in addition to new supporting performers (Dwayne Johnson, Joaquin De Almeida) and the good former ones (Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson) make these proceedings lively and entertaining. The previous sequels always left a sour taste in my mouth; Fast Five has me pumped for number 6.

Dir. Jesse Peretz
What a bummer. You have no idea how much I wanted to like Our Idiot Brother. This cast is responsible for making me laugh and smile for many, many years. I can't blame them, really. The script was stale, even a little bit phony. Love, love, love Paul Rudd, but who is this guy he's playing? He's clueless and bighearted, I get it, but I just couldn't connect with him. Faring much worse, though, were his insufferable, selfish, bratty sisters, played by otherwise wonderful and brilliant actresses (Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel). I got a few chuckles out of the film, but most of time I was wishing to watch the very same cast in a completely different movie.

Dir. Ariel Shulman and Henry Joost
Anticipation is everything. That's what makes these Paranormal Activity movies work for me. What lurks at the top of the stairs? What's hiding behind the closet door? If you let it, the anticipation of finding out the answers puts you in a state of high anxiety. These films are hugely successful - budgeting at $5 million, they rake in $100+ million - because they tap into that fear of the unexpected. I'm not one for torture porn (Saw, Hostel) or bloody horror films, so this type of "scary movie" where the villain cannot be seen is my cup of tea. Continuing the unraveling mystery of Katie and Kristi, Paranormal Activity 3 jumps back to 1988, when the "entity" began terrorizing the sisters. Joost and Shulman, directors of last year's favorite of mine, Catfish, helm this with a freshness that is typically unheard of for a sequel of a horror franchise. Impressively, this series has a lot of juice.

Dir. Richard Press
"He who seeks beauty shall find it." Anyone who has ever read Sunday's New York Times has seen Bill Cunningham's work. Well-known in fashion circles, Cunningham is a man who is never without a camera. He doesn't care who you are; he just wants to capture your clothes. He loves when everyday people walk the street wearing something that makes them happy, whether it be a funny hat, or colorful scarf, or shoes to die for. He believes that clothes define a person and he captures that persons essence better than anyone out there. Bill Cunningham is 80 years old, bikes around Manhattan every day, and takes pictures. He lives a simple life. He takes joy in the little things. His work is his life. How can you not smile when you think of him?

Dir. Steven Quale
I knew my luck would run out. After enjoying two good sequels this month (see above), this one had to shit all over everything. As you may know, I loved the first Final Destination; it's one of my favorites of 2000 and, in my opinion, it's among the best in the horror genre, period. Final Destination 2 was a huge drop but I still enjoyed it. That opening car crash scene shook me to my core. Number 3 was forgettable on all levels and I skipped number 4. So why I did bother with this one? Well, the buzz was pretty strong and I was nostalgic for some old-fashioned fate-driven gory death scenes. I should have left well enough alone. FD5 was a bore; only the LASIK scene caused me to peek through my fingers. And I'll admit, I got a nice buzz from that final twist, which I didn't see coming at all. Other than that, time to put this series to bed once and for all.

Dir. Eli Craig
Tucker and Dale Vs Evil is a surprisingly funny horror comedy that held up its inspired premise longer than I thought it would. I was expecting to grow tired of seeing a group of asshole college kids accidentally killing themselves, but it was actually a perverse pleasure to watch. It's certainly no genre-buster or game-changer, but a diverting, sometimes charming off-the-wall little horror flick. The highlight is the well-matched Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine as two clueless knuckleheads who are in way over their heads.

Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
Driver (Ryan Gosling) immerses himself in the world of cars every waking minute of his life. When he's not a getaway driver for robbers, he's a car stuntman in action films and works in a buddy's garage fixing up autos. It's a fairly simple life until he gets emotionally involved with a cute neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her troubled husband. Drive is a fantastic piece of pulpy cinema, peppered with a very strong cast, doses of extreme bursts of violence and situations that leave you filled with dread. I'm always amazed how much charisma and talent Gosling has as an actor; the man continues to surprise and delight. Albert Brooks received high acclaim for his role as a ruthless mobster and it's a wonderful change of pace for the dryly funny comic. However, I thought Bryan Cranston as the garage owner was just as strong, if not better. Ron Perlman has some great fun in a high-wire performance as an overly sensitive gangster. Refn is a fresh filmmaker, infusing a unique style in Drive that reminds me of some edgy films of the 70's.

Dir. Chris Weitz
Demian Bichir scored a surprising Best Actor nomination for his remarkable, deeply felt performance as Carlos, a hard-working gardener who dreams of a better life for him and his wayward son. The story is nothing new and breaks no new ground. But the performances are real and grounded, making A Better Life a compelling and authentic human interest drama. The plight of illegal immigrants is a polarizing issue in America and this film gets deep inside one fractured family's struggle to survive, making it impossible for the viewer not to care.

Dir. Jonathan Levine
I'm a big, big fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, have been since 3rd Rock From the Sun. I mean, how can you not like him? This kid has more talent than any other star his age. Watch Mysterious Skin, then his opening monologue of SNL from last year, and then enjoy 50/50, in which Gordon-Levitt tackles a new kind of leading role. He delivers a emotionally resonant performance as young, active twenty-something who discovers he has cancer. Will Reiser's phenomenal script (which is based on his life) mires some real, hearty laughs out of devastating truths. 50/50 is not a pick-me-up but it's certainly not a downer, either. It's one of the more life-affirming films I've seen in recent years.

Dir. Michael Sucsy
I was away on vacation on a tropical island and needed a night out on the town. Needless to say, the movie selection was sparse down there. At a ridiculously awesome price of $3.50 per ticket (cheap dates rule!), my wife and I took a chance with The Vow, a romantic sudser about a woman (Rachel McAdams) who loses her memory in a car accident while her husband (Channing Tatum) tries to meticulously pick up the pieces of their now-shattered marriage. How did Nicholas Sparks not write this film already? There's nothing in The Vow that hasn't been done to death already; you can beat for beat predict the events that occur from the first act to the last. McAdams tries her best and makes the film somewhat watchable, but Channing Tatum may be better suited in an action genre. He's not very big on that whole emoting thing. The subplots involving Sam Neill, Jessica Lange and Scott Speedman are laughable, mechanical and completely ripped off from the Nicholas Sparks playbook of cliches, even though I still can't get over the fact that Sparks never wrote this. Hate to say it, but The Vow is barely even worth the cheap seats.


NeverTooEarlyMP said...

I'm really looking forward to seeing A Better Life, as I somehow missed it when it was in theaters here. Kind of funny that you had several films this month that you liked better than the best picture winner The Artist.

Pete said...

Great month, totally agree about FD5. and you're right not to bother with FD4, that was totally forgettable. I thought FD3 was better than 2. The sunbed deaths were some of the best in the franchise. Only good bit about FD5 was that ending! Also loved 50/50 and liked The Artist a bit more than you did! Still need to see Drive and it's driving me a bit crazy!

Dave said...

Yeah, I liked a lot of things better than The Artist this year. But I wasn't ticked off when it won Best Picture. Sure, other films are more deserving, but at least it's a charming one and well-embraced by many people. The Academy could have done far worse.

Pete - what are you waiting for? Rent DRIVE today!

Eric said...

Fine batch of quick takes! I completely agree about Drive and 50/50, two of last year's best releases for sure.

In regards to Mad Men, it took me a while to really get into it. I don't know if it *clicked* for me until season two or three, actually. Now I can't wait for the new season.

And Breaking Bad is fantastic. You are in for a treat with that entire series.

Dave said...

Eric, two to three seasons is a long commitment. I don't know if I want to waste 13-26 hours hoping it'll click for me soon. But with Breaking Bad, I knew it would click for me 10 minutes into the pilot! Last time that happened was Lost!

Thanks for writing.


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