Monday, April 2, 2012

Quick Takes: March Highlights

March was a mostly great month of movie viewing for me. I certainly didn't break any records with the amount of films rented, but I was impressed with some of the high quality entertainment I consumed. On top of these films, I'm still plowing through the earlier seasons of Breaking Bad which has become an instant favorite. I'm not rushing because I want to savor the show for as long as I can. Why must good things always come to an end?

I started with the cheesefest that is the latest Twilight film, but then things got a little bumpy after that.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part One (2011)
Dir. Bill Condon
Every year when a new Twilight film comes out on DVD, my wife and I have a tradition. We put the kids to bed, get cozy, dim the lights, pop in the DVD and provide a running commentary on the absurdity and ridiculousness of this mega-popular series. That is the main source of entertainment from these otherwise mind-numbing, incredulously vacuous films. We were sorely disappointed with the previous installment; Eclipse was so boring, we could barely mine any laughs out of it. I am happy to report that Breaking Dawn Part One is a return to form. From Taylor Lautner's cardboard emotions ("I'm so lonely, I will barely take my shirt off in this movie.") to Bella's father's constipated look ("My daughter's marrying a freak. I need to act sad and happy at the same time.") to the ineptitude of the vampires (oh, shit, unprotected sex with a human = not good!) to the mumbling nonsense from the werewolves (the pact is broken! We must attack! Ok, we will wait. No, attack now! Wait, not yet!). Lots of really juicy stuff here. It's impossible to take it all so seriously (as they do in the film), but Breaking Dawn Part One made our night pretty damned entertaining.

Dir. Martin Scorsese
It took awhile for me to get into this one. For the first 45 minutes or so, I was shifting uncomfortably in my seat as I watched some rather uninspiring story about a kid living in a train station who fights with Ben Kingsley over an all-important journal and runs from a determined guard, played by a miscast Sasha Baron Cohen. But then something interesting happened. Kingsley's backstory blew the doors open to the real story of Hugo. For me, it's not about the boy or the book or the robot. It's about film appreciation and preservation. When Kingsley's past was uncovered, I was engrossed by his life as a creative filmmaker. Melies knew how magical the movies can be. He was a true artist, a class act magician whose camera was his most valuable tool. This was the best part about Hugo. It's just too bad it took almost an hour to get there.

Dir. Gavin O'Connor
Now this is what The Fighter should've done! Warrior got under my skin. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, both very good here, play estranged brothers who are equally skilled in mixed martial arts. For their own reasons, they both join competitive fighting after several years of being away from the game. Oscar nominee Nick Nolte, as good as I've seen him in years, gives a searing performance as their father who does his damnedest to get them to forgive him for some questionable actions from the past. The lengthy running time flew by, the fighting scenes were cringe-worthy, and the dark, underlying family drama all helped make Warrior one of the best films of 2011.

Take Shelter (2011)
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a blue collar family man who is saddled with a severe case of paranoid schizophrenia. He slowly begins to experience frightening hallucinations that feel all too real for him. But Curtis is a man of pride. He won't admit to anyone that he has a problem, which causes friction in his marriage and his work life. What I really appreciate about Take Shelter was how down to earth it is. Each character behaves rationally, their emotions are impeccably on target. Director Jeff Nichols shows remarkable skill showcasing human behavior in such extreme and unsettling times. It helps that his lead is played by the very enigmatic Shannon, while Jessica Chastain is equally stunning as his headstrong wife. A fantastic film in many ways.

Dir. Sean Durkin
"Hi Martha. You look like a Marcy May." Creepy cult leader Patrick, played with low-key seductiveness by the great John Hawkes, lures girls onto his farm and domesticates them. They become wives, mothers, cooks, maids, you name it. As if that were not strange enough, these girls are forbidden to eavesdrop on another conversation. They cannot eat meals before Patrick and his "sons." When they answer the phone, the girls must always refer to themselves as Marlene. Director Sean Durkin, in an assured debut, begs you to ask questions. He intentionally sidesteps any easy answers. This isn't a stylish thriller but a subdued one, a rare thinking person's mood piece that has an eerie stillness to it. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a distinctive piece of work, effectively entering your mind and staying put for a long, long time.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (2011)
Dir. Constance Marks
A pleasant surprise. Part of me was expecting to spend 90 minutes learning all about Elmo, that ridiculously popular puppet who took over a portion of Sesame Street and every child's toy closet several years ago. My kids love Elmo but most parents like myself can only handle him in small doses (if at all). But Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey is really about the journey of Elmo's creator, Kevin Clash, whose fondness for puppetry at a very young age marked the way of a very illustrious career in children's entertainment. It's an inspiring, heartfelt story about a kid who had a talent and a dream. Clash is a charming, gracious and humble individual and his life story is a joy to watch. Some people just deserve their good fortune.

The Muppets (2011)
Dir. Jay Bobin
This was unintentional, viewing two puppet-themed films over the course of one weekend. Incidentally, Being Elmo enhanced my appreciation of all things puppetry, and thereby allowing me to enjoy The Muppets, a sweet, diverting family comedy jam-packed with cameos, witty one-liners, and a silly story setting up a major comeback for our beloved muppets gang. The film predictably ambles along, though none of the set pieces or songs really stick out. With the talented Jason Segel involved behind the scenes and in front, I was expecting the humor to be sharper and more polished. While I wouldn't call it memorable, The Muppets is still pleasant enough for the whole family.

Melancholia (2011)
Dir. Lars von Trier
I found a lot of correlations between this film and Take Shelter. For one, both films deal with a mentally disturbed protagonist and their families who attempt to keep them grounded. Then there's the fantastical force that is mother nature and how it metaphorically stands for the turmoil in their psychologically ravaged minds. But the problem I had with Melancholia is that it is so relentlessly, tirelessly downbeat. Everyone is so bitter, angry, and defeatist. Unlike in Take Shelter, the characters in Melancholia acted in ways that made very little sense. They were inconsistent: I don't believe Justine's husband would abandon her. I don't believe that Kiefer Sutherland's John would do what he did in the final act. And I get that Dunst is playing a depressed woman but her actions and emotions towards her sister felt very erratic. The wedding arc was insufferable; the characters populating the party were nearly impossible to penetrate. Things opened up in the second half and the film finally showed some promise. But some questionable character moments kept me detached from the film, despite some stunning visuals and an overall sense of impending dread. For a far more absorbing drama about a dysfunctional family during a wedding, Rachel Getting Married is the one that shook me to my core. (Spoiler alert: no planets collided during that one.)

Carnage (2011)
Dir. Roman Polanski
Roman Polanski is no stranger to filming stage plays. He did exactly the same thing to Carnage as he did to 1994's underrated white-knuckle thriller Death and the Maiden: he took a conversational story set in "one-room," littered it with stellar actors, and took no liberties with the setting. Polanski could have broken down that "fourth wall" and turned these plays into cinematic works, but he knew that the tension and drama are inside those crackling bits of dialogue. Carnage, though engaging and mercifully short at 80 minutes, fails to captivate and titillate. Jodie Foster was tonally way off; I've never seen her more out of place in a film as I do here. John C. Reilly and Kate Winslet are fine; they felt more at home here in roles better suited for their skill set. But Christoph Waltz nailed it here, so good as an overworked and exasperated husband who buries himself in his work. Carnage is flawed, thin, and at times awfully shallow, but those stinging words do sometimes hit home.


Pete said...

Great round up! I think we have pretty damn similar tastes! Melancholia and Hugo were overrated, MMMM and Warrior were great and I would give Carnage an extra star! I'm also three episodes into the second season of Breaking Bad and loving every minute.

Emil said...

You got to see some movies I'm still dying to catch up on, like Take Shelter, MMMM, Carnage and more. I find it interesting that while we share roughly the same overall opinions of Hugo and Melancholia, we liked different parts of them; I prefer the earlier halves of both, while you seem to like the later ones better. Heh.

Great write-up!

Dave said...

Pete, that's funny -- we're in the exact same spot in Breaking Bad. It's great, isn't it? I'm taking my time with it; I hope to be caught up in time for the new season in July, but I want to savor my time with the show. Each episode needs to percolate in my mind after each viewing. It's not often when come across something so brazenly off the wall. And agreed - we do have similiar tastes. I enjoy reading your stuff.

Emil! You're right, we did enjoy those films for entirely different reasons! Very interesting. But a lot of folks seem to love those movies altogether so I still think we're in the minority. Have fun catching up to those other great titles.

Sam Fragoso said...

Nice round up of interesting films.

Agree on nearly every criticism.

Take Shelter is pretty brilliant, and glad you weren't so heavy on HUGO - which I found to be a mess.

Dave said...

Thanks for the comment, Sam. Yeah, it seems to be that HUGO is the most overrated of the Oscar nominees this year (that I have seen so far). Bummer.

Alexander Diminiano said...

Let's get it out of the way that I absolutely hated the last Twilight movie when I saw it in theaters. It fell so far short of the novel, and on top of that, the acting was poor, poor, poor, and it was so boring for me. So I'd have to disagree with you a bit there. Hugo, I liked and gave a slightly higher grade. It was very faithful to the novel, which pleased me, because that is one hell of a hard book to adapt, but it was so overrated and only got a BP nom because it was a love letter to the old cinema. Warrior is in my top ten of last year. I think, in fact, 4.5/5 is a bit too low. I didn't see one flaw and it shocked me with its authenticity. But I respect your opinion. Haven't seen any of the others; since you gave it a 4.5/5, I'll try to hunt down Take Shelter and see it myself.

Dave said...

Alex, I can't argue with you about Twilight. Every negative thought uttered about those movies are perfectly valid. It's the experience of trashing the film that makes it all worthwhile for me and my wife.

Do hunt down Take Shelter. I think you'll appreciate it.


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