Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Better Life

A BETTER LIFE (Chris Weitz, 2011)

Undocumented worker and single father Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) finds himself between a rock and a hard place in A BETTER LIFE.  His boss Blasco (Joaquín Cosio) plans to shut down his landscaping business and return to Mexico. Carlos could keep Blasco’s clients and have more control over his employment if he will buy his boss and friend’s truck, but he doesn’t have enough savings to afford such a big purchase.  Although he asks to borrow money from his sister, he’s resigned to rejoining the rest of the day laborers who gather outside a nursery waiting for folks to drive by in search of hired hands.

To his surprise, his sister loans him what he needs.  This favor fills Carlos with hope for the potential of achieving greater financial stability that can facilitate moving from his East Los Angeles home to a part of the city with a better school for his teenage son Luis (José Julián).  Carlos worries about Luis falling in with local gangs and not having the bright future he wants more than anything for him.

The pride Carlos feels in going into business for himself quickly gives way to devastation when the man he selected to help him on jobs steals his truck and tools. With little information to go on, Carlos and Luis search the city for the thief and the truck.
Rather than engaging in a political debate about illegal immigrants, A BETTER LIFE observes the human issues at stake. Certainly it possesses great empathy for the characters, but A BETTER LIFE is more interested in observing the common struggles than making judgments about those who have snuck across the border.

Director Chris Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason’s contemporary American spin on BICYCLE THIEVES excels at depicting the challenges, fears, and dreams of those here illegally.  Although Carlos has been in the United States for a long time, he lives under the persistent threat of deportation.  He initially balks at the idea of buying the truck because a routine traffic stop could send him back to Mexico and separate him from his son.  He has no legal recourse when a lawyer cheats him out of money or when his truck is stolen.  Nevertheless, he has secured a measure of relative comfort. The one-bedroom house Carlos and Luis call home is no palace, but it’s a major step up compared to the thief’s home in an apartment packed wall to wall with fellow Mexicans in a racially volatile section of L.A.

Bichir, who earned an unexpected Academy Award nomination, impresses throughout A BETTER LIFE as he portrays a cautious man whose compassion is reflected in his actions more than his words.  His love for his son is evident, whether in accepting the couch for his nightly resting spot rather than the bedroom or exuding joy in picking out a present for Luis.  Carlos’s fundamental decency in how he treats those who he needs help from and who have wronged him speaks to the good example he seeks to set.

A BETTER LIFE’s sense of place and eye for detail are strong, but the too-smooth style and rushed dramatics are at odds with the hardscrabble existence on display. The subject matter calls out for an aesthetic like the film’s neorealist inspiration than the rather tidy treatment Weitz applies.  In 98 minutes A BETTER LIFE blitzes through all the major issues that an undocumented worker might face, thus shortchanging them from accruing any emotional weight.

That race to touch upon the various ordeals finally slows down for a big scene near the end when Carlos answers his son’s question about why his parents chose to have him.  Bichir expresses the fatherly affection and optimism he feels for his boy while Carlos is at his most defeated point.  It’s almost sufficient to tip the critical scales on a film that means well to a fault but tries to do too much with too little.

Grade: C+

Monday, February 27, 2012


WANDERLUST (David Wain, 2012)

When unemployed George and Linda (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) go broke in WANDERLUST, they pack up their things and leave Manhattan with the intention of getting a helping hand in Atlanta from his rich but miserable brother Rick and sister-in-law Marissa (Ken Marino and Michaela Watkins).  Worn down after a long day’s drive, they decide to make an overnight stop at the next closest place rather than push on to their destination.

The GPS directs them to Elysium, which sounds like a charming bed and breakfast but turns out to be a rural Georgia commune.  Although they’re reluctant at first to stay, they enjoy a restful night spent with the friendly hippies who live there.  George and Linda continue on to Rick and Marissa’s but soon bail on the thought of living with them until they get back on their feet.  Rick lords his generosity over them, and George can’t stand the thought of slaving away at his sibling’s port-a-john rental company day in and day out.

So it’s back to Elysium for the frazzled couple.  They commit to trying out the alternative lifestyle for two weeks before deciding what comes next.  Linda gradually adapts to the carefree ways of the farm while George finds it all a bit absurd and holds out hope of a job back in New York City coming through.
Considering that a significant part of WANDERLUST’s comedy is rooted in laughing at hippy-dippy conduct well past its cultural expiration date, the commune scenes are an inconsistent source of humor.  The gentle mocking of outdated awareness and hopelessly idealized philosophical viewpoints lands softly when successful, perhaps because WANDERLUST is hitting easy targets.  For instance, Justin Theroux’s Seth, who passes for an alpha male in the leaderless community, never seems quite deluded enough for him to be the foolish caricature he’s meant to be.

The scenes in regular society tend to produce the biggest laughs.  George and Linda’s two scenes with a real estate agent played by Linda Lavin highlight the ridiculous contortions in which contemporary life can bend things.  The couple’s indecisiveness over whether they’re prepared to commit to purchasing a place hits the modern and urban sense of uncertainty.  The parrying over how to describe the home in question--is it a micro-loft or a studio apartment?--strikes at how branding and rebranding keep definitions slippery for those who need to know what they might acquire.  It’s easy to understand how losing the illusions of high pressure civilization might appeal to a couple burned by it.

Rudd has become something of a comedic MVP.  While his finest work isn’t in WANDERLUST, he’s still very amusing in the ways in which he wrestles with George’s choices and twists in agony over the nonsense and temptations around him. Aniston, who often comes across a smidgen or two too uptight in her recent films, takes to her character’s awakening to laissez faire living with gusto.

Written and directed by and featuring several members of the sketch comedy troupe The State, WANDERLUST has a freewheeling, improvisational aesthetic that doles out enough solid jokes, even if it does so erratically.  Enough jokes connect from scene to scene to make this a mostly worthwhile comedy even if feels like less than the sum of its best lines and reactions.

Grade: B-

Sunday, February 26, 2012


ZAPPED! (Robert J. Rosenthal, 1982)

Since purchasing a Roku one of my preferred ways of using it is to peruse Netflix’s instant offerings and pull up a random 1980s film remembered from video store shelves past. Chances are I’ve never seen what I end up selecting or have such a dim memory of these mostly forgotten mediocrities (and worse) that it’s like seeing them anew. Watching surefire stinkers from upwards of thirty years ago isn’t the best use of my time, but yesterday’s turkeys are stuffed with some viewing value now that they’re cultural relics. So that’s why ZAPPED! made it onto my film log, OK?

Released near the peak of Scott Baio’s stardom, ZAPPED! features the teen heartthrob as a high school science nerd who gains telekinetic powers. Aspiring botanist Barney Springboro (Baio) has a private laboratory in the school where he grows plants and works on experiments with mice. He’s unaware that some additional ingredients have dribbled into his latest concoction. The solution explodes while he’s working with it, but rather than being disfigured and horribly injured Barney acquires the power of controlling objects with his mind.

At first Barney doesn’t realize the full extent of this gift, but he finds it helpful for diverting attention when a teacher puts him on the spot in class and catering to his surging hormones by popping open the sweater of cheerleader Jane Mitchell (Heather Thomas). He tries to keep this new talent to himself, but his friend Peyton (Willie Aames) and goody-goody class president Bernadette (Felice Schachter) happen to come across him testing his skills in the lab.

Peyton wants to put his friend’s telekinetic abilities to use getting the hapless school baseball team to win games and aiding him in impressing Jane so she’ll dump her college boyfriend Robert (Greg Bradford). Bernadette has visions of co-publishing a study about this parapsychological breakthrough in a scientific journal. The affable Barney goes along with the wishes of both.

Although ZAPPED! was marketed as raunchy teen sexploitation, it’s actually a tame comedy and sweet love story. The gratuitous nudity is minimal and feels shoehorned in to keep at bay horny ticket buyers from storming the box office and demanding refunds for being sold a false bill of goods. Without the bare breasts ZAPPED! is at best mildly provocative. Clean up an oral sex joke and fleeting pot references and this could have been another of the TV movies Gary Coleman starred in around this time.

An item in the January 6, 1982 Spokane, Washington Spokesman-Review suggests that the to-be-released film, referred to as WHIZ KID, will be rated PG, which might have appeased Heather Thomas. The actress refused to be topless in ZAPPED! and filed a complaint with the Screen Actors Guild. (This explains the prominent and unusual mention of her body double in the credits, although this disclaimer didn’t satisfy her.)

Typically in this sort of film the humble, nerdy hero gets an inflated sense of self, chases the hottest girl in school at the expense of the kindhearted one beside him, and then rediscovers his true identity. If ZAPPED! serves any purpose, it’s to show why that familiar construct is in place. Barney doesn’t do any of that. He remains levelheaded and stays loyal to the nice, brainy girl who first shows interest in him. Sure, he asserts himself against his parents, but they’re the fearful, uptight sort who create the template for authority figures in Twisted Sister videos. The result of his mostly responsible behavior is a film with little dramatic urgency and no hurdles to overcome. There’s a fundamental reason why films don’t have a nice guy stay nice and allow good things to continue to happen to him. It’s boring.

The film’s mostly straight arrow nature and the racy characteristics imposed on it combine into a predictably unstable compound. ZAPPED! fancies itself to be the bad boy and flirts with that image, but this low-rent production is far too wholesome and blandly unfunny for that affectation to be convincing.

Comedy-wise ZAPPED! serves boilerplate high school hijinks and inorganic film parody inserts. The undersexed teacher and principal subplot is notable for its tonally discordant risqué suggestion and irrelevance to everything else. As a pent-up baseball coach Scatman Crothers gets the obligatory marijuana-fueled dream sequence. The sight of him riding a bicycle beside Albert Einstein while his wife fires salamis at him sounds funnier than it is.

ZAPPED! isn’t exactly a parody film, yet it loosely riffs on CARRIE, especially at the end. Just imagine that the prom concluded with the triumphant telekinetic protagonist comically undressing most fellow classmates rather than being covered in pig’s blood and leaving them to burn. A STAR TREK sequence is integrated quite awkwardly, as though it were inserted as an afterthought. While goofing on THE EXORCIST, trying on De Niro’s TAXI DRIVER mirror monologue, and (presumably) paraphrasing the most famous line from ON THE WATERFRONT may have been less played out in 1982, all of these referential jokes all flat.

While Aames comes off as the unconvincing cinematic ancestor to Seann William Scott’s Stifler in the AMERICAN PIE series, Baio and Schachter perform respectably enough. Baio fulfills his obligation to make the Tiger Beat crowd swoon as he gets to be smart, sensitive, and calm and collected. Surprisingly Schachter isn’t tarted up or dumbed down, as these films typically require. They make a cute couple. Too bad they’re in a film aimed at the mouth-breathing audience.

Chances are ZAPPED! would have been garbage whether it were clean or dirty through and through. It just happens to throw the paper recyclables and used deep fryer oil in the same container.

Grade: F

Monday, February 20, 2012

This Means War


CIA operatives and best friends Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine) discover that they’re both dating the same woman in THIS MEANS WAR, so the competition is on to see who can be the first to win her heart or at least make her break it off with the other.

Both men utilize the full resources of their employer to gain intelligence on indecisive consumer product tester Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) and to thwart the other’s romantic advances.  Lauren’s none the wiser to their spying or their friendship, leaving her free to enjoy being lavished with her suitors’ intense attention.  Encouraging her to string both men along for as long as possible is her married friend Trish (Chelsea Handler), who lives vicariously through Lauren’s suddenly active love life.

Love is a battlefield in THIS MEANS WAR, and the three likable leads are the casualties.  Witherspoon has served her duty logging time in romantic comedies, but she deserves better than one that requires her to play a character who doesn’t seem likely to behave in a duplicitous manner or ignore what her beaus pulled on her.  That she has to follow the advice of a thoroughly unappealing Handler, who never declines an opportunity to make a smutty comment, is all the more indignity.  Hardy is left to look like a noble, wounded service dog as he respectfully appeals for Lauren’s affection, excepting that whole invasion of privacy thing.  Pine settles easily into the lady-killer role, even if he’s a bad boy to be redeemed, at least according to this film’s confused perspective.

Of course, the huge unspoken problem with THIS MEANS WAR is the aggressive eavesdropping on and monitoring of Lauren.  It’s hard to feel a rooting interest for Tuck or FDR when their courtship of her hinges on recording and reviewing her every word and is motivated by the pettiest masculine rivalry.  Never mind that much of what they might learn about Lauren could come from simply asking her about her interests rather than treating her as if she were in a terrorist cell.  That wouldn’t allow director McG to trick out THIS MEANS WAR with a bunch of high tech gadgetry and action scenes.

I often feel like the people making romantic comedies don’t actually like the genre. THIS MEANS WAR never attempts to create an air of romance.  The creepy vibe permeating the love triangle doesn’t allow it all to be played off as a light contrivance either.  Although Pine, Hardy, and Witherspoon are squandered, they offer a game effort at making this dubious material work.   Ultimately, though, THIS MEANS WAR is a pronouncement of aggression on the very audience that wants to see a funny love story.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Big Miracle

BIG MIRACLE (Ken Kwapis, 2012)

In BIG MIRACLE a family of three gray whales gets trapped in the ice off the Arctic coast of Point, Barrow, Alaska.  TV news reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) is shooting another story when he spots the father, mother, and baby whales poking through a hole in the ice.

A frozen column of ice is blocking the whales from swimming south.  To survive the whales keep a hole open by regularly bringing their beaks and heads above the water’s surface so this small patch doesn’t freeze.  While this method helps them for the time being, it can’t be sustained indefinitely, whether because of the injuries they may incur or colder temperatures that may freeze the hole shut.

Adam sends his report to his home affiliate in Anchorage and then watches as it ignites a media circus and an international effort to save the creatures.  Adam’s Greenpeace activist ex-girlfriend Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore) rushes north to see what she can do.  Reporters flock to the small, isolated town, including the ambitious Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell), who views the story as a chance to do more serious work.

With the sly encouragement of his wife, who hints at the public relations benefits from providing assistance, oil company executive J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson) offers the use of his barge to break the ice.  Two Minnesota inventors (James LeGros and Rob Riggle) see an opportunity to showcase their water-warming product and jumpstart sales for their company.  The Inuit community initially favors killing the whales for their people to use but recognizes how their custom will play to a worldwide audience and throws in their support.  The Reagan administration also gets involved, in part to counter its negative environmental record and help current Vice-President George Bush in a Presidential election year.
The big miracle of BIG MIRACLE is that it turns out to be a heartwarming, serious-minded, all-ages film.  Based on a real 1988 operation to save three whales, it’s predictable and plays out like a large scale TV movie, but BIG MIRACLE is invested with solid craftsmanship and a nuanced view of how idealism, pragmatism, and politics intersect.

Although no one will mistake this for the family version of Billy Wilder’s cynical media satire ACE IN THE HOLE, director Ken Kwapis and screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler examine the self-serving motivations of all involved with the rescue.  The irony is that with everyone acting in their own vested interests, something great is achieved that would otherwise have been too expensive and inefficient to pull off.

The characters are drawn in surprising and atypical ways.  Barrymore’s activist is driven by the purest intentions and possesses the moral upper hand, but she’s consistently the most unpleasant person on the scene. Rachel means well, perhaps more than anyone else.  She also contains the potential to create the most problems.  Conversely, most films would fall back on TV reporters standing in as the convenient villains.  While Adam and Jill hope to exploit their coverage of the story for career advancement, the fact that they’re giving the whales airtime helps push the effort along.  Without the journalists and photographers, public interest would likely be too low for all of the parties to make the commitment.

If a movie is referred to as being for the whole family, it’s usually shorthand for computer animation, like the Pixar films; sensory overloading but bloodless action, like the SPY KIDS films; or puerile comedy, like Eddie Murphy’s string of PG-rated films.  BIG MIRACLE lives up to the classical definition of a family film.  It’s thoughtful, moving, funny for kids and adults, and provides discussion fodder for the car ride home.

Grade: B

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Vow

THE VOW (Michael Sucsy, 2012)

Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) have been happy together for four years in THE VOW, but their lives are shattered when a car accident sends her through the windshield and into a coma.  Although she eventually awakens, Paige has no memory of Leo or their marriage.

Complicating matters further, she doesn’t recall a few years’ worth of major changes in her life.  Paige is surprised, and somewhat distressed, to learn that she gave up law school to become an artist.  She thinks she’s still engaged to the guy she dated before Leo.  Prior to the accident she hadn’t spoken with her parents for years, but as far as she can remember, they get along very well.  In fact, it takes a great deal of persuasion to get Paige to go home with her husband rather than leaving the hospital with mom and dad.

Although Paige makes some efforts to resume the life unknown to her, she feels more comfortable carrying on as though it’s more than four years earlier.  She moves back in with her parents and explores her feelings for the ex-boyfriend.  Meanwhile, Leo tries his best to be understanding and figure out how he can help his wife remember the great love they shared.
THE VOW presents some fascinating challenges for Leo and Paige, yet without fail the screenplay comes up short in allowing them to overcome the obstacles in their paths.  From Paige’s perspective, what must it be like to wake up and learn that practically everything you think you know about who you are has been upended?  How devastating it must be to be told that the lover, career, relationships, home, eating preferences, and possibly political views that you remember having are all different.  It’s no surprise that Paige retreats to what feels familiar than the reality of her pre-accident existence, but the lack of inquisitiveness about her mysterious recent history and the relatively easy manner with which she returns to her abandoned way of life drain the drama from the predicament.

From Leo’s vantage point, what does it feel like to have the person you love the most acknowledge you as a stranger and seem like one to you?  THE VOW does a better job of addressing Leo’s pain at not having his love reciprocated, although mostly this amounts to Tatum moping.  Granted, that’s a valid response, but THE VOW lacks feeling below surface level.  More disappointingly, THE VOW barely explores Leo’s emotional responses to post-accident Paige not being remotely the same woman he married.  After all, Paige isn’t the only one forced to do some major recalibration because of her brain injury.

Another big flaw in THE VOW is the lack of chemistry between Tatum and McAdams.  He’s called to carry the film’s emotional weight.  Simply put, he’s unable to shoulder that burden.  He shows some charm and sensitivity when Leo is actively wooing Paige, but otherwise Tatum often lumbers through the film as though he’s been overly medicated to avoid feeling much anguish.  You empathize for Leo but never sense that he’ll be a wreck if he and Paige can’t reconnect.  That quality must be found in Leo since Paige doesn’t know what she’s missing.  THE VOW aspires to the tragic romance of Nicholas Sparks books and their film adaptations but can’t match them.  Despite Paige’s accident and Leo’s metaphorically wounded heart, THE VOW hits a shallow bottom resulting in just a minor rebound.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Best Films of 2011

1. THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick, 2011)

Terrence Malick’s deeply felt THE TREE OF LIFE finds immense potency in its universal evocation of growing up. Malick and his editors expertly weave together the micro and macro strands into a stunning tapestry in praise of creation and natural and supernatural adoration. With its solemn tone and dominant use of hushed voiceover, THE TREE OF LIFE functions as a two-hour, eighteen minute prayer. Malick’s sacred depiction of eternal human conflict, both inward and outward, is one of the great achievements in cinema for this year and any other.

2. CERTIFIED COPY (COPIE CONFORME) (Abbas Kiarostami, 20xx)

CERTIFIED COPY is an endlessly rich study of a relationship as the platonic ideal versus its all too human form. Abbas Kiarostami utilizes Juliette Binoche and William Shimell as signifiers of their genders and worldviews, not necessarily as individuals, as he charts how two people are when a relationship originates and the versions of them that exist years later. This mind-blowing drama of intellectual rigor and emotional resonance uses reflective surfaces that allow CERTIFED COPY to look different every time you see it.

3. MARGARET (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)

A New York teenager’s reactions to a bus accident serve as Kenneth Lonergan’s way of exploring the national response to 9/11 in this sprawling drama. MARGARET contains untold layers as it follows Anna Paquin’s Lisa lose her innocence in expecting the outside world to conform to her inner life and learning that it won’t. This highly ambitious film vibrates with rage and sorrow and yet also points toward the connections to ease the pain. MARGARET is a major achievement but has been difficult to see. For Columbus-area readers, it’s lone public screening in town takes place March 7 at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

4. TAKE SHELTER (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

TAKE SHELTER considers where the line is that separates a prophet from a madman. Jeff Nichols follows the progression of the protagonist’s mental dilemma and feels the strain that comes from agonizing over a man’s capacity to do right by his family. In an outstanding performance, Michael Shannon portrays such a conflict with great sensitivity and control.

5. SOURCE CODE (Duncan Jones, 2011)

This nimble science fiction-inflected thriller excites via the urgency of a soldier’s mission to stop a terrorist from blowing up a train while bringing compassion to the repeated scenario he cannot affect. SOURCE CODE hints at an intriguing moral question regarding utilitarian philosophy, but whether the film amounts to anything more than a highly entertaining thrill ride isn’t necessarily important.

6. SUPER 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)

Playing with his Steven Spielberg movie maker kit, J.J. Abrams fashions a retro blockbuster in SUPER 8 that’s part monster movie and part coming of age story. Many of my favorite films of the year dealt with coming to terms with loss and letting go of the past. SUPER 8 just happened to do so with large, impressive setpieces and tender and funny interactions between kids on the verge of adolescence.

7. MELANCHOLIA (Lars von Trier, 2011)

With MELANCHOLIA Lars von Trier crafts a bold, intensely felt vision of depression via the story of two sisters awaiting Earth’s obliteration by a newly discovered planet. While existence hangs in the balance, von Trier’s fatalistic embrace of impending doom is starkly beautiful and strangely reassuring. Without question Kirsten Dunst’s Justine is the director’s surrogate, someone who finds comfort in the awareness that years of despondency and anxiety were not for naught. Now that her worst possible fear can be confirmed, what else is there to do but submit to the inevitable? In a film full of strong images, its final one is most striking for what it says about accepting those things that cannot be changed.

8. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

The art of observation gets a fascinating showcase in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. The Cold War espionage thriller is a model of narrative minimalism. With nary an overblown James Bond setpiece in sight, director Tomas Alfredson displays marvelous precision in showing how an agent might do the difficult work, and Gary Oldman is the epitome of quiet cool as the investigating George Smiley. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is low key, which is only appropriate, but it is also electrifying when it cuts through the noise to the buried truth.

9. TABLOID (Errol Morris, 2010)

For TABLOID Errol Morris finds a bizarre true story from 1977 known as the Mormon sex in chains case. A former beauty queen was accused of following a man to England and then abducting, seducing, and raping him. How much any of it is to be trusted is left up to the viewer of this wildly entertaining documentary, but Morris suggests that the desire to impose a narrative, whether for personal or commercial reasons, overrules the truth.

10. 50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011)

Although the main character is diagnosed with cancer, 50/50 is less about the disease and more concerned with the struggle for loved ones to provide support and for the afflicted to allow them to help. This sharply written and performed dramedy tends toward the glossy side, yet it persuades with healthy doses of sincerity and decency.

(Author's note: Since it's a question I've fielded often enough, A SEPARATION [JODAEIYE NADER AZ SIMIN] is not included on this list or my Honorable Mentions for a very simple reason.  I haven't seen it.  It has not yet opened in Columbus nor been available to me. To date, the only chance I had to see it was at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, but it wasn't on my schedule.)

2011 in Film: The Honorable Mentions

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (Sarah Smith, 2011)

Packed with as many jokes as Santa’s bulging bag of gifts, ARTHUR CHRISTMAS treats viewers to a visually inventive, quick-witted dessert for holidays to come. While the 3D isn’t essential, ARTHUR CHRISTMAS uses the extra dimension better than its animated competition.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Werner Herzog makes a case for 3D as an artistic tool as he employs it to convey the space in a place where few are likely to be permitted to visit. The documentary inspires a reverie in seeing and contemplating the prehistoric paintings in southern France’s Chauvet Cave. To enter into it via this film is to consider our species’ origin, marvel at what their lives must have been like, and become aware of how far we’ve come.

CONTAGION (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

Steven Soderbergh’s thriller lays out a realistic and chilling scenario that shows how the world’s population could be threatened by what’s transmitted from a cough, a handshake, or a common bowl of nuts at a bar. If PSYCHO made people reconsider taking showers and JAWS forced second thoughts about going for swims in the ocean, CONTAGION could inspire obsessive hand-washing and stocking up on antibacterial sanitizers.

THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne, 2011)

Director Alexander Payne takes a family on a sad, funny, and heartwarming journey as they discover what is truly important to them as individuals and as a group. Set in Hawaii, THE DESCENDANTS digs into the regular lives of people who can’t avoid problems and sorrow simply because they inhabit a place that looks like paradise on earth. The rocky mental landscapes are difficult to navigate even while surrounded by beautiful, lush terrain. Payne and his two co-screenwriters hit upon the core of emotion with startling clarity.

HANNA (Joe Wright, 2011)

The pleasantly strange HANNA examines womanhood by way of a Grimm fairy tale crossed with an action film. As a socially naive teenager with lethal survival skills, Saoirse Ronan continues to prove why she’s among the best young actresses around. Director Joe Wright dazzles with a colorful and delirious vision of modern life to an outsider’s eyes.

THE INTERRUPTERS (Steve James, 2011)

Steve James’s powerful documentary about the people trying to break the pattern of youth violence in Chicago gives a ride-along on an emotional roller coaster. THE INTERRUPTERS manages to be touching, frustrating, and uplifting as it depicts the depth of the problem without claiming to have a solution.


Werner Herzog makes clear his objection to capital punishment in this documentary, but the director isn’t interested in voicing a polemical argument. Instead, in speaking to two death row inmates, their family and friends, the victims’ relatives, and those tasked with carrying out executions, he uncovers the narratives people write for themselves to endure terrible experiences and hold onto their humanity.


Director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen made two of the year’s finest debuts with the paranoid drama MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. Durkin seamlessly blends the protagonist’s abusive past in a cult with the post-traumatic stress she feels while at the refuge of her sister’s home. Complementing the technique is Olsen’s affecting performance, which delineates the struggle to differentiate between past and present.


In OF GODS AND MEN a group of French monks in an Algerian community are forced to choose whether to stay and serve the locals or flee for safety from the encroaching civil war. The quiet and studied nature of the decisions these men make beautifully portrays the struggle of living according to a set of beliefs, especially when following a higher calling may risk one’s life.

PUTTY HILL (Matthew Porterfield, 2010)

Although PUTTY HILL tells a fictional story about a working class community outside Baltimore reeling from a young man’s drug overdose, what Matthew Porterfield captures is surely true to similar real life tales. Borrowing documentary techniques and employing a non-professional cast, the director makes this observation of life on society’s margins feel astonishingly familiar. Porterfield never condescends in creating a compelling and heartfelt film.

WAR HORSE (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Steven Spielberg’s technically proficient study of war's dehumanization is rendered in a swooningly earnest style in WAR HORSE. The battles sequences are as thrilling and tragic as the World War II fighting in the director’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN while WAR HORSE’s determinedly old-fashioned storytelling proves a suitable match for its consideration of the old and the modern converging.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Worst Films of 2011

If you're wondering why THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II (FULL SEQUENCE) isn't repeating its predecessor's achievement in topping my Worst of the Year list, the answer is that I had no desire to watch it.

1. BATTLE LOS ANGELES (Jonathan Liebesman, 2011)

Using rapid-fire edits and dispensing with a tripod have been action movie trends for some years, but BATTLE LOS ANGELES pushes these techniques to the limit in a film that is absolutely incomprehensible. No logic exists in how shots are juxtaposed. The nonstop noise and visual bombardment is so fatiguing that it practically induces blindness, as though the information overload shuts down one’s eyes for a few seconds at a time. Rather than entertaining with the military fending off an alien invasion, BATTLE LOS ANGELES assaults the viewer.

2. BELLFLOWER (Evan Glodell, 2011)

With its homemade flamethrowers and MAD MAX-inspired DIY car, BELLFLOWER arrives at the toxic intersection of indie film, fanboy sensibilities, and Etsy. This exceedingly dark plunge into wounded masculinity is merely an artier, Instagram-filtered version of the hypnotically awful cult film THE ROOM.

3. APOLLO 18 (Gonzalo López-Gallego, 2011)

Never mind that the overactive sound design and aggressive cutting in APOLLO 18 blows its found footage conceit. If it is what it purports to be--a document condensing leaked footage of the last manned mission to the moon--withholding secrets until late is pointless in this form, especially if what we’re seeing had previously been uploaded to the internet . While waiting for the filmmakers to reveal the supposedly shocking truths, this tedious fake documentary wanders aimlessly and abuses the Super 8 filter. Making APOLLO 18 in a standard form might not have resulted in a less stupid film, but it surely would have been a better one.

4. THE DARKEST HOUR (Chris Gorak, 2011)

A hot young cast, class of 2007, fills a feature film reminiscent of a lousy TV pilot when networks were churning out LOST clones. The alien invaders are usually invisible, which eases the strain on the FX budget but doesn’t do much for creating excitement while the bland survivors roam a deserted Moscow.

5. NEW YEAR’S EVE (Garry Marshall, 2011)

NEW YEAR’S EVE plays out as if it is an experiment in auto-generated screenplay writing and cast like one fills teams for a draft in fantasy sports leagues. Take a bunch of generic storylines, populate them with recognizable actors, fill a lot of the inconsequential roles with other familiar performers, and toss it all together to create a big pile of ambivalence. Nothing about it feels personal, funny, sad, romantic, or vital in the slightest way. It’s as revelatory as emptying one’s mind and staring at the wall for two hours.

6. JUST GO WITH IT (Dennis Dugan, 2011)  

JUST GO WITH IT features an extraordinarily bad match of star Adam Sandler and farcical material. Sandler has never been the most energetic screen presence, and this romantic comedy’s slack pace kills any potential humor found in the deceptions and misunderstandings. As with GROWN UPS, JUST GO WITH IT feels like a way for the actor to subsidize a vacation with friends under the guise of making a movie.

7. ZOOKEEPER (Frank Coraci, 2011)

If a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters can produce Shakespeare, then ZOOKEEPER must have been banged out by one primate pecking away at a keyboard between sessions playing on a tire swing. This nearly laugh-free amalgamation of DOCTOR DOLITTLE and NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM spends far too much time on romantic comedy machinations and away from the talking animals that are presumably the film’s calling card.

8. THE ROOMMATE (Christian E. Christiansen, 2011)

Say what you will about the bad qualities of THE ROOMMATE, and there are many, but it is easy to watch garbage worth a few derisive laughs. This thriller, which might as well have been titled SINGLE WHITE FEMALE: THE COLLEGE YEARS, fails to nurture a sense of isolation or palpable fear. Then again, it’s hard to feel scared when stars Minka Kelly and Leighton Meester give such hilariously terrible performances.

9. BEASTLY (Daniel Barnz, 2011)

The Classics for Tweens adaptation BEASTLY bedazzles the oft-told BEAUTY AND THE BEAST story with smart phones, social media, tattoos, and Jujubes, but such contemporary things won’t keep kids from noticing how super lame it is. It’s a bad CW drama posing as a feature film and one undisguised as a Hollywood executive’s wish to horn in on that jackpot of sweet, sweet teen supernatural romance cash.

10. CONAN THE BARBARIAN (Marcus Nispel, 2011)

This remake is basically a gorier, bigger budgeted version of a basic cable or syndicated TV series. Lacking in personality and any narrative interest, it’s merely a repository for the gallons of digital blood spilled in the incessant battle sequences.

Friday, February 03, 2012


CHRONICLE (Josh Trank, 2012)

In CHRONICLE three high school students crawl into a hole in a field one night and find something otherworldly.  Soon thereafter the guys discover that they have developed telekinetic powers.  At first this newfound ability to move things with their minds is something they use on a small scale, like building things with Legos or turning on a leaf blower to blow up their female classmates’ skirts.  Their telekinetic skills increase as they use them, and it isn’t long before they’re moving cars or flying.

Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) is arguably the most talented of the trio and the one who has benefited the most from acquiring superpowers.  With a dying mother and angry, alcoholic father at home and a spot at the bottom of the social ladder at school, Andrew was lonely and miserable.  He was videotaping everything as a way of distracting and protecting himself, even if doing so also brought unwanted attention. His recordings supply most of the “found footage” that comprise CHRONICLE.  In these documents it is easy to see that the intense bond Andrew forms with his cousin Matt Garetty (Alex Russell) and big man on campus Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) is as meaningful to him as their superhuman gifts.  The weak, unpopular one now feels strong and important.

As Voltaire wrote, and as another superhero film reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility.  Matt suggests that they need to establish some rules for how they use their powers, but Andrew for one has no desire to have any limitations placed on him.
The overwhelming number of superhero films of late and the seemingly limitless ability of CGI have taken some of the wonder out of displays of dazzling feats beyond ordinary human potential.  CHRONICLE restores that thrill through the actions and reactions of three teenage boys who behave like their real life counterparts might. Director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis devote significant time to the guys goofing off.  Their prank-pulling and limit-pushing is not that far removed from what the JACKASS crew might attempt if they had the capability to control objects with their thoughts.

The acclimation to superpowers portion of CHRONICLE is good fun in a particularly adolescent male way, but without any boundaries or check on such power, the outcome is eventually bound to result in ugly consequences.  Andrew’s telekinetic talents greatly exceed his emotional maturity, so he channels his antisocial rage in harmful ways.  CHRONICLE echoes CARRIE and the Columbine shootings as the bullied evolves into the bully, culminating in a spectacular battle in and above downtown Seattle.

Trank employs the found footage construct more to provide a firsthand account than to suggest someone has unearthed and assembled the videos. The casual nature of the teens’ activities and their emotional extremes feel more immediate in this form.  Plus, since Andrew can control the camera with his mind, CHRONICLE can position it anywhere, giving the film the visual freedom that the characters enjoy.

Grade: B