Monday, January 2, 2012

Short Takes: 2011 Wrap-Up

The last two weeks of the year were very fruitful in terms of seeing movies. And thank god too, because it was killing me how little films I was able to watch at the end of the last semester (I mean, apart from pretty much the entire Charlie Kaufman filmography...more than once). If only I always had that kind of time....

A Better Life (dir. Chris Weitz)

In all honesty, this should have been another rote exercise in social drama: an illegal immigrant (Demian Bichir) tries to keep finding good work while keeping his son (Jose Julian) from getting involved with East Los Angeles gangs. The script does get preachy in terms of its advocacy of immigration reform, which is a noble cause for sure, and Weitz's direction isn't nearly engaging enough to make this drama stand out. But in spite of all of that, A Better Life succeeds with Bichir's soulful performance providing the film's heart, saying much more with a handful of looks than the rest of the film says with its sermons. B-

Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman)

I have a confession to make: this one was remarkably personal to me. No, I have never intentionally gone back to my hometown to steal my now-married-with-a-baby high school sweetheart back, as Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) does here. But I was astonished, and a little uncomfortable, with how much I had in common with Mavis - the swilling of Diet Coke straight from the two-liter bottle, the opening a new Word document only to surf the Internet, the fast-food diet, to name a few. I am a huge fan of Juno, and writer Diablo Cody may have actually outdone herself here with this scathing character study. Theron is fearless in her performance, fully understanding Mavis without being judgmental of her. And Reitman's distinct lack of style is brilliant choice, allowing the characters to simply exist within the film's world and interact with each other. The rest of the cast is aces as well - from Patrick Wilson as Buddy, the object of Mavis' affections to Elizabeth Reaser as Buddy's wife to Patton Oswalt as the crippled nerd who seems to be the only one who accepts Mavis for who she is. This is a film that cuts deep, and never relents. A+

Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Hugo has been dominating a portion of the awards talk this year, and the reason why is evident: a vote for Hugo is a vote for film preservation and celebration of the beginnings of cinema. And that's just fine, and it makes Hugo an interesting statement from lifelong-cinephile/film preservation advocate Scorsese, but it doesn't necessarily make a great movie. Hugo's plot, about an orphaned boy living in a train station who is desperately trying to fix an automaton left by his father, is interesting, but Scorsese never seems particularly engaged in telling a story here. Rather, this is an indulgence in his love of film with a film history lesson wedged in for good measure. Because of this, Hugo actually plays out like some of those early Lumiere Brothers films: there's plenty of spectacle to look at, but there's not much substance to it. B

Attack the Block (dir. Joe Cornish)

Now here's a clever little surprise: an alien-invasion film that is not only small-scale but also soulfully human. When aliens - referred to as "gorilla-wolf motherfuckers" - land in South London, a gang of teenagers take it upon themselves to defend their block. The film flies by, but writer-director Cornish pulls off some creative setpieces for the kids to make their way through, and uses the space of "the block" in inventive ways to keep things interesting. John Boyega, playing the gang's leader Moses, is the real find though; he endows the film with real heart and keeps the focus on what really counts here: the characters. He's definitely one to watch for in the future. A-

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (dir. David Fincher)

All told, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a lot going on: there's Mikael Blomkvist's (Daniel Craig) legal troubles, Lisbeth Salandar's (Rooney Mara) abuse by the Swedish legal system, a murder mystery involving a Swedish industrial magnate (Christopher Plummer), Nazis, rape, torture, and general misogyny. The Swedish adaptation of Steig Larsson's international bestseller tried admirably to incorporate as much of that as possible, leaving it bloated and messy. The American version, however, has the advantage of Fincher at the helm and Steven Zallian on screenwriting duties, giving this version a tighter focus, specifically on Lisbeth and the murder mystery. Mara was terrifically cast as Lisbeth, a perfect cipher who can be completely guarded while simultaneously vulnerable (she earns that Golden Globe nomination, and Oscar could be next), and Plummer steals every one of his scenes with that all-knowing twinkle in his eye. The film could have still used some trimming, but it captivates more often than not. B+
The Muppets (dir. James Bobin)

From the first clever, hilarious teaser trailers, we knew we'd be in for a winking delight courtesy of The Muppets come the end of the year. And the film delivered on that, being charming and sweet without ever necessarily being laugh-out-loud hilarious all the time. Walter enlists his human brother Gary (Jason Segel, who co-wrote the screenplay) and Gary's longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, in Enchanted mode) to help the Muppets save their legendary theater from being torn down by an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper). In the spirit of The Muppet Show, there's plenty of self-referential humor, non-sequiters, musical numbers, and celebrity cameos. But even the spectacle of Cooper rapping (really, you should buy a ticket just to see those two glorious minutes) can't distract from the film's real stars, the Muppets themselves. The spirit of a bunch of misfits putting on a show permeates the film, and even if the finale feels a little limp compared to the chaos of the rest of the film, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't grinning ear-to-ear. B+

Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh)

Now here's another film that hit remarkably close to home for me: set over the course of about 48 hours in Nottingham, Russell (Tom Cullen) picks up Glen (Chris New) at a gay club, but what starts as a drunken one night stand soon blossoms into something more. Writer-director Haigh has created a marvelously intimate portrait of love here, but what really makes Weekend soar is the believable and human chemistry between Cullen and New, both relative newcomers to the screen. They take this heartbreaking and reaffirming romance to new heights, resulting in what's not just a high point for queer cinema, but a high point in cinematic romances as well. A+

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