Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Short Takes: Film's I've Seen in the Past Month

Just in case anyone was worried that I wasn't being productive over the long hiatus, I do have evidence here that I was keeping busy: I ended up with an A- in my American Independent Cinema class, and B's in my other classes this semester. But fret not, I've also managed to watch a few movies during this time too. I decided that instead of doing a separate review for each film, I'll just do some capsule reviews (I'm not completely crazy, you know).

Red State (dir. Kevin Smith)

The brouhaha surrounding Smith's Sundance stunt/self-release-strategy has garnered a lot more attention than the film itself. As a result, very few even noticed when it came and went through select theaters with barely a peep. But how was the film itself? Surprisingly, not all that bad. Sure, the tone was all over the place (a pretty common problem with post-Dogma Smith films) and it believes itself to be a lot more significant than it actually is. However, Michael Parks is magnetic as a Fred-Phelps-like preacher of a church hell-bent on punishing sinners, and gets a juicy 10+ minute monologue/sermon that's really the film's centerpiece. Everything else is pretty much window-dressing, but as far as window-dressing goes, you can do much, much worse than this. B-

Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

Let's get this much out of the way first: Elizabeth Olsen deserves an Oscar nomination (perhaps even a win) for her beautifully restrained and complex performance as the titular character, a young woman who escapes from a cult in the Catskills with only a fuzzy idea of who she is. The confusing title refers to the three identities she assumes over the film; with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy), she's Martha, but among the cult, led by Patrick (a magnificent and terrifying John Hawkes), she's Marcy May. The film, from first-timer Durkin, is a gorgeously-shot and acted meditation on identity, and it graciously is very specific to the character without divulging too much information (very little is actually known about the cult, and the word "cult" is never actually used). It's a real beauty of a film that's easily one of the year's best. A+

The Future (dir. Miranda July)

Ah, yes, Miranda July. How much one can appreciate the "twee" will determine how much one can enjoy her newest film, which almost overdoes the twee, complete with being told from the point of view of Paw Paw, a cat in a shelter that Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (July) have decided to adopt. This decision results in both characters re-evaluating their lives and their relationship, as well as other left-field developments. It can be a bit overwhelming at times, but Linklater and July are enjoyable in their roles, and repeat viewings only deepen the experience. It's a difficult film, but it ultimately pays off, if you give it a chance. B

J. Edgar (dir. Clint Eastwood)

J. Edgar Hoover's life is a gold-mine of psychological drama: he was obsessed with threats to national security to the point of unbridled paranoia, but as a result he built the FBI essentially from the ground-up and encouraged progress in the forensic sciences. He had renowned mother issues, was a rumored cross-dresser, and many have supposed Clyde Tolson was much more than his right-hand man. It's all too much for a single movie, but J. Edgar's problem is that it can't be bothered to focus on anything long enough to make it seem significant. The result is a film that presents Hoover's life as a puzzle with missing pieces and only part of the picture on the box. It doesn't help that Leonardo DiCaprio gives a half-hearted and uninteresting performance as Hoover, that writer Dustin Lance Black doesn't seem to know why he's bothered to even write the script, or that Eastwood brings nothing of interest to the table. (Judi Dench and Naomi Watts occupy roles that barely even have screentime, as Hoover's mother and secretary, respectively). At least Armie Hammer, as Tolson, is all charm and warmth, a loyal puppy of a man. C-

Thor (dir. Kenneth Branagh)

Marvel's ultimate goal this summer was to pave the way for next summer's The Avengers, the big superhero team-up that's the comic-book-movie-equivalent of the Traveling Wilburys (or, more likely, those The Flintstones Meet The Jetsons specials). Thor, the first of the two films this summer, presented the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth), and the result was...boring. Branagh did his best to turn this into a Shakespearean tragedy, but he struggles to balance the mostly dull, wooden characters and desperate attempts at humor. Marvel fans will enjoy a nice cameo appearance in the middle of the film, but otherwise it's Thor's brother-cum-nemesis Loki (a delightfully impish Tom Hiddleston, who's having a stellar year) who ends up stealing the show. Ultimately, it never rises above being anything more than a two-hour commercial for The AvengersC+

Bridesmaids (dir. Paul Feig)

Yes, it was hilarious. Yes, it was refreshing to see women in a comedy talk and behave like real women. However, it was even more refreshing to see hilarious actresses get the chance to dig into meaty characters that are organic and interesting, not limited to a single trait or worse, no traits at all. It was also refreshing to see humor that was character and story-based, rather than humor for the sake of humor. Sure, the film had its problems: several characters didn't get enough screentime to justify their implied importance, and at over two hours it could have definitely used some trimming in the editing room. Though Melissa McCarthy earned most of the raves for her riotous performance as no-nonsense Megan, it's Kristen Wiig (who co-wrote the script with Annie Mumulo) who grounds the film in a performance that's both funny and soulfully real. B+

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