Thursday, December 29, 2011

A surprisingly safe "Dangerous" movie

It features lots of interesting period-piece trappings, but David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method is an unsatisfying piece of work.

In David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method – an adaptation of a Christopher Hampton play called The Talking CureMichael Fassbender plays Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen portrays Sigmund Freud and Keira Knightley takes on the role of Sabina Spielrein.

Jung and Freud presumably need no introduction; Spielrein on the other hand, may not be familiar to most audiences. She was a patient of Jung’s who went on to become an analyst of some repute and who also was one of Jung’s mistresses – at least according to Cronenberg’s talky period piece.

Try as I might, I seldom got past the sense that all three actors were playing characters rather than deeply inhabiting them, an impression that’s reinforced by the fact that Jung, Freud and Spielrein eventually become advocates for different – if overlapping – views of human behavior.

The screenplay, which was written by Hampton and based on a book by John Kerr, revolves around an interesting conflict, although the movie tends to make its clash of ideas seem less than urgent. I’ll risk a bit of reductionism to put it this way: Freud insisted that sex was at the core of human behavior. Jung believed there was more to humanity than sex; he affirmed what he saw as humanity’s inherently religious impulses.

A Dangerous Method might be the least Cronenberg-like of recent Cronenberg movies, a stylistically straightforward piece that sprinkles conversations (some vaguely interesting) over a variety of Swiss and Austrian locations, many shot by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky with tasteful rigor.

The movie’s sense of caution comes as a bit of a surprise because sex (and its importance) lies at the heart of the drama, as well as at the core of a growing conflict between Jung and Freud, who – for a time – thought Jung would inherit his mantle as head of the psychoanalytic movement.

Cronenberg fans needn't totally dismay; the movie is not without a bit of kinky behavior. As it turns out, Knightley’s Spielrein achieves her greatest sexual kicks by being spanked, a pleasure Jung obligingly provides, although he seems determined to show that he’s not having a good time doing it.

Jung seems to be torn between a conformist commitment to his marriage (perhaps made easier by the fact that his wife was wealthy) and the unleashing of his more libidinous drives.

Although I had difficulty totally buying either Fassbender or Mortensen, neither has the annoying impact of Knightley, who enters the picture screaming as she’s being carried into Jung’s hospital in Zurich. In portraying Spielrein’s hysteria, Knightley juts out her jaw and contorts her facial muscles as if her body is being jolted by high-voltage shocks.

I don’t know if this is a “realistic’’ portrayal of severe hysteria, but I do know that in movie acting suggestion sometimes can be more powerful than demonstrative assertion. Put another way, Knightley’s performance may drive you a little crazy.

The story is not without political overlay: An increasingly concerned Freud fears that Jung’s interest in such matters as mysticism will undermine the scientific aura that's essential to the acceptance and growth of psychoanalysis.

These arguments too often make it seem as if the movie exists to articulate various points of view rather than to deeply probe the nature of its characters. At one point, though, Vincent Cassel shows up as Otto Gross, a brilliant psychoanalyst who believes all repression represents an unhealthy limitation of freedom. Cassel's welcome presence pushes the movie away from the neatly intellectualized debate between Freud and Jung.

Of the movie’s trio of principals, Mortensen probably provides the most interesting interpretation. His Freud has a deep and cagey sense of self-assurance – at least as it applies to the psychoanalytic domain over which he presides. A Dangerous Method, however, really has more to do with Jung than with Freud, who is absent from long stretches of the movie.

Maybe that’s why Mortensen’s performance wasn‘t enough to make me buy into A Dangerous Method, a movie that seems to unfold on a distant planet where talk about sex and dreams tends to become absurdly dispassionate. In the introduction to his book, Kerr talks about the ways in which Freud and Jung became the first thinkers to live with “that peculiarly intense burden of self-reflection that distinguishes the psychology of modern man.”

Maybe, but intense self-reflection isn’t necessarily the best place to begin a drama, and neither Cronenberg nor Hampton has been able entirely to liberate the material from the confines of the stage – other than by ensuring that the film’s conversations take place against a variety of elegant European backdrops.

In a time when the talking cure seems to have been supplanted by the dispensation of pills, the issues in A Dangerous Method don’t readily spring to life. They seem to swirl inside the embryonic and insular world of psychoanalysis, which – at least in this outing – provides no satisfying dramatic conclusion.

Friday, December 23, 2011

'War Horse:' sentiment at full gallop

Steven Spielberg gives great spectacle in War Horse, but the sentimental notes may be sounded too loudly.
First, it was a book by Michael Morpurgo. Then it was a play by Nick Stafford, a theatrical showpiece that featured giant horse puppets. Now, it’s a movie by Steven Spielberg.

We’re talking about War Horse, a movie that makes maximum use of Spielberg’s talent for spectacle, as well as his penchant for pouring on the sentiment. I prefer the spectacle to the sentiment, but the mixture probably will result in one of the season’s most crowd-pleasing entertainments, a story held together by (as the title suggests) a horse.

How can you not feel sympathy for a horse that finds itself in the middle of some of the most horrific battles of World War I, at one point tangling himself in barbed wire on a scarred battlefield? It's one of the most agonizing sights you'll see this season, and Spielberg plays it for all it's worth.

Spielberg, of course, includes humans in his movie, as well, though none evokes as much emotion as the horse.

The story begins when Ted (Peter Mullan) outbids his landlord (David Thewlis) for a horse. Ted’s son (Jeremy Irvine) takes over care of the horse, which is more suited for running free than for the drudgery of farm work.

But Irvine’s Albert, who names the horse Joey, harnesses the horse’s energy and even proves that Joey can plow a rugged English field, an act of equine will that saves the family farm.

When war breaks out, Ted decides to sell Joey to the Army, and the movie becomes Spielberg’s foray into World War I. For his part, Albert pledges he will find Joey and return him to English pastures.

Once he becomes part of the military, Joey falls under the care of a strong but sensitive officer (Tom Hiddleston) – and the movie quickly breaks into episodic chunks, including a picture-slowing interlude in which Joey winds up in the care of a French grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens).

Of course, Albert eventually matures enough to join the British Army, which gives Spielberg a chance to show the kind of trench warfare that dominated that conflict. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski contrast the grim horror of war with the bucolic opening scenes, and there's no denying that some of the footage (horses pulling a huge cannon, for example) is both astonishing and sad.

And to make sure that we understand the humanity of both sides of the conflict, there's a scene that emphasizes the fact that the British soldiers and their German counterparts aren’t as different as they might believe themselves to be, the movie's can't-we-all-get-along moment. (Joey, it should be noted, falls into German hands at on point, and is pressed into service for the German army.)

Did I feel my heart strings being tugged at? Yes, but War Horse can seem so eager to connect with mainstream audiences that it loses some of its luster. There’s no denying Spielberg’s skill, but War Horse tries (too hard, I'd say) for the kind of epic grandeur that John Ford achieved when filming the American west.

War Horse boasts a dazzling display of craft; it's a horse-drawn tearjerker, the kind of old-fashioned movie that offers loads of big-screen reassurance no matter how harsh its content becomes. So I'm a little mixed on War Horse, which can be breathtakingly beautiful and ... well ... distressingly Spielbergian.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

They bought a zoo, but not much of a movie

Matt Damon plays a man who buys a zoo in a family-oriented film that's never especially believable.

>We Bought A Zoo is an Americanized adaptation of a memoir by British author Benjamin Mee. I’ve skimmed Mee's book, and it seems significantly smarter than this Cameron Crowe-directed movie, an entertainment made palatable by Matt Damon’s likability as the man who buys the zoo and Scarlett Johansson’s down-to-earth turn as the zookeeper who helps him run it. You also may find that some charm accrues to the movie as a result of its story, the tale of a recent widower (Damon) who climbs out of his grief by buying a rundown zoo and learning something about the zoo business. Damon’s Benjamin not only discovers the world of animals, but breaks through to his angry teen-age son (Colin Ford). In case all that's not enough, we get shots of Benjamin's cute-as-a-button daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). The supporting cast includes Thomas Hayden Church (as Ben’s older, more skeptical brother), and Elle Fanning (as a teen-ager who falls for Ford’s character). Crowe, whose last movie – Elizabethtown – tanked in a big-way flirts with after-school-movie blandness in a movie that never feels believable enough. Granted, there's something undeniably intriguing and even a little cracked about a story that puts some old-fashioned resolve into the task of trying to save a foundering zoo. Know this, though: We Bought A Zoo is long way from Crowe's best work in movies such as Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous.

'Tinker, Tailor' has mood to spare

It may not always be crystal clear, but Tinker, Tailor has plenty to recommend it.
I admit it. I sometimes became confused watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a big-screen adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1974 novel. Frustrating? Yes, but there also were times when I found the movie so atmospherically right I didn’t care whether I could dot every “i” or cross every “t” in Le Carre’s labyrinthine plot.

A bit of background. Dense with character and incident, Le Carre’s novel does not naturally lend itself to adaptation. In 1979, it took the BBC seven episodes to translate Le Carre’s novel into a comprehensible drama. The great Alec Guinness starred as George Smiley, the world’s least emotive spy.

Those familiar either with the novel or the BBC series immediately will know that screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan faced a monumental task. Fair to say, they haven’t entirely succeeded in taming Le Carre’s novel.

But in the case of Tinker, Tailor, mood and background may be as important as a plot that, in its overall arc, is easy enough to follow.

Here’s the gist: We’re nearing the end of the Cold War. The British intelligence agency – known to its employees as The Circus – is in the midst of a power shift. A group of rebellious spies is trying to unseat the agency head, known as Control (John Hurt). They succeed in ousting Control, and his most reliable operative, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Control subsequently dies.

All of this turmoil begins when Control initiates a search for a mole who has penetrated the highest levels of British intelligence.

In keeping with the feeling of institutional decline, Tomas Alfredson -- who directed the terrific Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In – gives the proceedings a bracingly severe tone. From the start, it’s clear that Alfredson has total command of the movie’s look.

Following the story isn’t made easier by the fact that the screenplay employs a flashback structure that can be disorienting. And the screenplay’s refusal to explain any of its spy jargon doesn’t help either.

But I doubt whether you’ll find a better supporting cast in any movie this year. Populating the spy ranks are intelligence bureaucrats played by Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and David Hencik, all of whom are superb.

And in Hurt, Alfredson has found an actor whose weathered face does as much to suggest institutional collapse as any plot developments could. Hurt crops up at the beginning and in some flashback scenes, and he gives the movie a cynical weight that's indispensable.

Then there’s Oldman, whose restrained performance as Smiley has been praised in the British press and elsewhere. To play Smiley, Oldman slows his delivery and explores the lower octaves in his vocal range.

He can be brilliant. A scene in which a drunken Smiley reenacts a long-ago interrogation of a top and much-feared Soviet agent delivers the goods, and is punctuated by Oldman’s slight wobble when Smiley finishes his story and attempts to stand up.

But there are also times when Oldman’s restraint seems to lack resonance. Smiley has been through a lot. His wife Ann (never seen in full view) has left him. He has endured the endless sordid battles of Cold War spying. He’s been pushed aside by the agency that has dominated his life. He's hardly the kind to vent: Still, I found myself wishing that Oldman had taken us a little past Smiley’s purposefully blank expressions.

Maybe Oldman, who functions as the story’s principal investigator, didn’t want to take anything away from his fellow actors. In a scene in which George meets with Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), a former intelligence emplyee, Oldman watches while Burke creates a telling portrait of a woman whose romantic impulses were channeled into admiration for her co-workers. It's a great small piece of work.

Although it falls short of perfection, and although, as I’ve said, Tinker, Tailor can be confusing, it always feels intelligent, partly because of Alfredson’s skillful direction and partly because there’s not an actor on screen who doesn't seem smart in some way.

Tinker, Tailor includes sexual betrayals, references to torture and fierce intra-agency battling, but instead of going for cheap thrills, the movie immerses us in a world-weariness that fits its historical moment. Alfredson may not fret about whether viewers sink or swim with the plot: But surely he wants us to swim in the same murky waters in which the characters bob, looking for something to grab hold of.

'The Artist' is one of the year's bset

It may be silent, but The Artist earns some very laud applause.
Sometimes at a film festival or in the company of a particularly interesting filmmaker, I have been fortunate enough to experience something akin to what I imagine audiences felt during the silent era, a sense of child-like wonder at the special felicities associated with the moving imagine – from a quickening of the pulse to the breaking of a heart.

Naturally, I loved Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a movie that understands and celebrates such early pleasures. I'm equally grateful that in a year when the final Harry Potter movie boomed its way toward supersonic levels of fantasy, director Michel Hazanavicius brings back simpler joys in The Artist, a black-and-white silent movie.

Although The Artist tells a familiar story – a silent star (Jean Dujardin) hits the skids when talkies arrive – the movie nonetheless feels fresh, buoyed by a love for the movies, and perhaps even more importantly by a fascination with the gleam that movies (and everything about them) seem to give off, radiant light of unparalled intensity. The Artist also features a great dog, the importance of which shouldn't be underestimated.

Set in Hollywood, The Artist begins with Dujardin’s George Valentin at the peak of his career in the silents. Not surprisingly, Valentin relishes his celebrity, wearing it as flamboyantly and easily as a cape flung around his ample shoulders.

Dujardin, of course, has the right look for this kind of role: He’s handsome with a high-wattage smile. Valentin lives with the wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and loyal pooch in one of those lavish Hollywood mansions, something straight out of Sunset Boulevard, only less creepy. An obscenely large painting of a beaming George in top hat and tails hangs next to the front door, George's tribute to himself.

The story contrives to mix Valentin's fate with that of a young dancer (Berenice Bejo). Valentin gives the star-struck dancer her first break. She goes on to have a career that not only survives the transition to sound but flourishes. She’s Peppy Miller, a star with a name that sounds as if had been borrowed from a soft drink.

Not to be outdone, Valentin decides that he must carry on with what he regards as a purer form of movie artistry. He wants to make one more silent movie to prove that the studio types – represented here by John Goodman – are wrong. But Valentin succeeds only in showing how right Hollywood is to embrace sound. The public wants the next new thing, and Valentin's picture flops.

Hazanavicius makes a brief, startling and witty use of the sound in one of Valentin’s dreams, perhaps the movie’s most clever moment, but he's not resorting to silence as a gimmick; the absence of the human voice enhances the story.

The Artist balances Valentin’s melodramatic decline with an upbeat ending that’s designed to send audiences home smiling. Hazanavicius accomplishes this without late-picture expressions of profundity or phony uplift, but with one of the great and least fettered forms of human delight: tap dancing. Need I say more?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

'Tintin' made my head spin

Parts of The Adventures of Tintin are as creative as you'd expect from Steven Spielberg, but the movie left me feeling a bit woozy.

With just about everyone climbing on the 3-D bandwagon, it’s hardly surprising that Steven Spielberg – an acknowledged master of popular entertainment – has tried his hand at it.

In the animated The Adventures of Tintin -- from a comic-book series by the Belgian artist who went by the name of Herge -- Spielberg shows off a mixture of motion-capture animation and moving camera work that makes for a dizzying ride. The story is an amalgam of three Tintin stories, consistent, I suppose, with this milkshake of a movie.

The dazzling opening sequences are set in a flea market where the intrepid Tintin (voice by Jamie Bell) purchases a model ship called The Unicorn. Of course, this is no ordinary model, but a vessel that holds a key to the mystery at the movie's heart. That means the bad guy -- one Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig) -- wants to get his hands of the ship. Sakharine tries politeness before resorting to stronger measures.

The story eventually unites Tintin and Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), an unashamed drunkard, whose rundown ship has been hijacked by Sakharine.

The story sends this unlikely duo in search of lost treasure, and allows Spielberg to put his hero through a variety of action-oriented trials that are bound to remind audiences that Spielberg also directed the Indiana Jones movies.

The action is skillfully mounted, of course, but there’s too much of it, and it culminates in a clash of dueling cranes that's louder than it is exciting. Moreover, the combination of motion-capture (animation just short of photo-realism) and frenzied activity creates the unwelcome sensation of an amusement park ride run amok – at least it did for me.

I wouldn’t say that Tintin is fall-down funny, but there are welcome splashes of humor, the best involving a couple of bumbling police officers voiced by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg.

It’s hardly surprising that Spielberg, who long ago earned his action stripes, knows how to keep a movie moving. And those who grew up with the Tintin series may find the movie satisfying. Personally, I found the opening credits -- which boast an appealing hand-drawn look -- more winsome and winning than almost anything that followed.

For me, Tintin’s adventures felt about as convincing as the look of Tintin’s trusty dog Snowy – which is to say that these adventures felt carefully calibrated to maximize motion capture and 3-D as much as to create any feeling of spontaneously generated pleasure.

I don't know how Tintin might play without the 3-D, but it proved too much for my eyes, which longed for the respite of some quiet exposition, say Tintin tap-tapping on his trusty typewriter.

A chilly 'Girl With The Dragon Tattoo'

Director David Fincher's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is good, but may not ink an indelible mark.
It’s fair to say that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo qualifies as one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of the holiday season. Given the groundwork that already has been laid, how could it not?

The late Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of novels -- of which Dragon Tattoo is the first – still sells off the charts. We’ve already seen big-screen Swedish versions of all three books, and there hardly seems to be a person attuned to popular culture who hasn’t heard of Lisbeth Salander, the tech wizard and ace hacker who harbors deep secrets and who remains Larsson’s most memorable character.

The new and beautifully crafted version – from director David Fincher (The Social Network, Zodiac and Se7ven) -- has been made with consummate care, and – most importantly -- Fincher has found an actress in Rooney Mara who matches the brilliantly edgy work done by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish original -- and that's saying a lot.

Salander’s appearance – spiky hair, multiple piercings and a pallor that might make a vampire jealous -- feels both familiar and strange. She’s like a human porcupine with quills fully extended. Touch, and you'll probably get hurt.

(An FYI: Mara appeared briefly in the opening of Fincher’s The Social Network, playing the young woman Mark Zuckerberg insulted in the movie’s first scene.)

Like Rapace, Mara also shows occasional flashes of beauty, traces of softness beneath the hardcore exterior. She’s one hell of a character, and you definitely wouldn’t want to cross her.

So what else do we get?

We get the kind of richer, more varied look that stems from having a large Hollywood budget. We also get scenes that are shocking and ghastly.

We also get the same kind of labyrinthine (a nice way of saying overly complex) plot that marked the first movie, a story full of former Nazis, wealthy aristocrats, and skeptical journalists -- not to mention serial killing, rape and revenge. And even more than his Swedish predecessor, Fincher falls prey to the furrowed-brow seriousness the material seems to evoke, pulp striving for art.

This march toward artistic legitimacy is abetted by a fine cast.

Daniel Craig brings the expected gravity and a touch of vulnerability to the role of journalist Mikael Blomkvist; Robin Wright portrays Blomkvist’s journalistic partner and sometime lover; Stellan Skarsgard appears as a member of the wealthy and highly dysfunctional Vanger family, and Christopher Plummer plays Henrik Vanger, the ranking member of the Vanger clan.

Plummer’s character summons Blomkvist to the Vanger island retreat, and hires him to investigate the long ago murder of a favorite niece, Thus, the story begins.

Two strands lace throughout the opening chapters of the story: Salander’s and Blomkvist’s, and these eventually are joined in Steven Zaillian’s script, which one imagines to have reached phone-book-like proportions to accommodate the story's two-hour and 38-minute length, not all if it fleet.

Now if you’ve read the book and seen the Swedish movie, you may inevitably find yourself playing a game of compare and contrast: It’s not easy to watch Fincher’s movie without trying to remember how the same situations were handled in both the book and the earlier film. This either becomes a distraction or a source of enjoyment, depending on your temperament.

The bottom line: I thought the Swedish movie was fine (with an exceptional turn from Rapace), but I liked Fincher’s English-language version a little better, maybe because I found myself caught up in the mood and atmosphere created by Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. I wouldn't call The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Fincher's best work, but he definitely knows how to serve up a chilled and even classy dish of deviance and menace.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The 10 best movies of 2011

Time for the year-end wrap up, which -- for most critics -- means a list of the top 10 movies of the year. If 2011 wasn't a banner year for movies, it wasn't bad either. I always figure that if I have a difficult time narrowing my list to 10, it must have been a better-than-average year.
In 2011, even some of the more hyped movies (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II were good. A word about the series, which concluded this year, probably is in order: Aside from keeping a ton of British actors off the unemployment line, the Harry Potter movies turned out to be more consistently involving than anyone initially might have expected.

But among the special pleasures of the year, I rank a few more highly than others, even though I don't necessarily want to burden them with 10-best stature.

-- Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh turned director for Kill the Irishman, the story of the rise and fall of Cleveland hoodlum Danny Greene. Ray Stevenson gave a fine performance as Greene, and the always enjoyable Christopher Walken had an equally nice turn as Jewish racketeer Shondor Birns. At the time of the movie's release, I wrote that it broke no new ground, but did a hell of a job turning over old soil. If you're partial to gangster movies, you should make it your business to find this one on DVD.

-- Sometimes, a movie arrives with buzz acquired at the Sundance Film Festival. That was the case with Another Earth, a movie in which director Mike Cahill used a sci-fi backdrop (a second Earth hovered mysteriously over this one) to explore the grief-stricken life of a young woman (Brit Marling) whose careless driving resulted in the death of a mother and child. The sci-fi element may sound a bit far-fetched, but the movie's emotions felt absolutely real.

-- I approached Rise of the Planet of the Apes expecting nothing, but found something I'd been missing, a genuine helping of pulp excitement. Who'd have believed anyone could breathe new life into the Planet of the Apes series? Director Rupert Wyatt did.

-- Great performances abounded in 2011. Brendan Gleeson was glorious, profane, rude and strangely endearing as an unorthodox Irish cop in The Guard.

And then there's John C. Reilly. What a year for an actor who usually flies under the radar. Reilly played the raucous Dean Ziegler, an insurance agent who insisted on upholding the cause of ribald fun at a gathering of Christian-oriented insurance agents in Cedar Rapids. In Terri, a movie about an overweight teen-ager, Reilly was wonderfully inappropriate Mr. Fitzgerald, an assistant principal unlike any other we've seen, not that assistant principals are much of a movie staple. Of course, Reilly also appears in We Need to Talk About Kevin and Carnage, both of which have yet to open nationally.

And the year shouldn't pass without mention of Kevin Spacey's work in Margin Call. We're not talking about the flippant Spacey of movies such as Horrible Bosses or Casino Jack, but an actor who carried the full weight of a collapsing financial institution on his shoulders.

And while we're on the subject of Margin Call: I didn't put it on my top-10 list, but it should be acknowledged as one of the best acted movies of the year -- not only by Spacey, but by Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Simon Baker and Paul Bettany.

Throughout this topical drama about a Wall Street firm on the verge of collapse, the actors keep their performances under tight control as they keep an eye on one another during a long night of meetings, personal jockeying, financial analysis and ethical indifference.

When Alfred Nobbs starts playing around the country, watch for the robust performance of Janet McTeer in a role that's best discovered in a theater.

I would, of course, be remiss if I didn't mention a couple of special foreign-language films: Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre takes an encouraging look at people behaving decently toward an "illegal" immigrant, and Korean director Chang-dong Lee's Poetry manages, rather miraculously, to make a successful mix out of a horrific event and the search for self-expression by an aging, Alzheimer's-stricken grandmother.

Whether any of these movies becomes an important part of movie history remains to be seen, but each boasted elements that either moved me or which I enjoyed immensely, and I didn't want to push on without at least giving them a tip of the hat.

So now, for my top 10:

I put this as the top of my list because Brad Pitt, as a stern father, never has been better and because director Terrence Malick took a highly personal look at growing up in Texas during the 1950s. I'm not sure that Tree of Life was totally successful in mixing the intimate and cosmic or that every part of the movie worked equally well, but making a personal movie on this scale requires daring, skill and an artist's view of the world. Malik has plenty of all three.

2. HUGO.

It's difficult to imagine anyone loving movies as much or as intelligently as Martin Scorsese. And in Hugo, an adaptation of a story by Brian Selznick, Scorsese puts every ounce of that love on screen. Hugo is both a boy's adventure and an unashamed ode to the delight movies provided in their infancy. And, yes, it also boasts the best 3-D ever.

3. The ARTIST.

Director Michel Hazanavicius has made a silent movie that's clever, involving and entertaining. He tells the story of a silent movie star (Jean Dujardin) whose career hits the skids when sound arrives. Sounds familiar, but Hazanavicius' movie -- shot in sumptuous black-and-white -- feels as fresh as anything I've seen this year because Hazanavicius seems to believe in the power of cinema to speak directly to the heart.


If you don't think Iranian movies have matured beyond the days of beautiful images and simple stories about kids, you haven't seen A Separation, one of the most emotionally complex movies of the year. Director Asghar Farhadi tells the story of a husband and wife who separate and are then caught up in a legal battle involving the woman who takes care of the husband's aging father. A Separation is one of those rare movies that respects everyone's point of view.


I debated whether to put this one on my list at all, but finally decided that it belonged there because of Elizabeth Olsen's terrific performance as a young woman who escapes from a cult. Martha Marcy also builds more tension than most of the big-budget movies that try for similar effects. Credit director Sean Durkin with an amazing debut that keeps us involved by never quite allowing us to find our balance.


I've long contended that director Gore Verbinski (of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) is one of the few directors working today who really understands how to use images to comic effect. For all of his work on Pirates (and, no, I'm not saying those movies were great), Verbinski's most creative effort didn't sail on the high seas. It takes place in the desert, where Verbinski stages a clever animated western that stands as this year's best and most imaginative piece of animation.


Director Lynne Ramsey's spare and horrifying adaptation of Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel - ostensibly about a killing rampage at a high school -- is really a stark and often horrifying exploration of the dark side of motherhood. Kevin isn't everyone's cup of tea, nor should it be. But for those who like filmmakers who push things to disturbing extremes, Ramsey's movie is a keeper. It's also one of the most visually arresting movies of the year, and features outstanding work by Tilda Swinton.


Werner Herzog's The Cave of Forgotten Dreams has found its way onto a variety of 10-best lists. But I was more affected by Herzog's Into the Abyss, a documentary about far more than senseless murder -- although it's about that, too. Into the Abyss looks at shattered Texas lives, and stands as a clear-eyed examination of capital punishment, particularly what it does to those charged with carrying out death sentences.


Director Alexander Payne's look at a Hawaiian lawyer (George Clooney) trying to cope with terrible loss is both touching and funny. Although it's a few clicks short of a knockout, Payne's movie stands as one of the best and most meaningful mainstream entertainments of the year.


Director Bennett Miller (Capote) brings engaging authenticity to the story of Billy Bean (Brad Pitt), the Oakland Athletics' general manager who tried to build a winner by employing a system created by a nerdy statistician (Jonah Hill). Moneyball is smartly written and fun, a baseball movie that dares to wonder whether it's right to romanticize the sport.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Theron conquers in 'Young Adult'

Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody reunite, but it's Charlize Theron who saves the day.

Young Adult begins in a high-rise apartment in Minneapolis, a building with the kind of one-bedroom apartments that have small terraces and that frequently are occupied by single people. Or maybe they're the kind of apartments people move into after a divorce.

One of those tenants -- Mavis Gary -- is lying face down in her bed, where she presumably wound up after drinking too much, something she does a lot.

As Young Adult unfolds, we learn that Mavis ghostwrites a once-popular but now fading series of books for young adult readers, the kind of tweens who've probably moved on to the Twilight books. Mavis is supposed to be writing the series' last book, but she's having difficulty because she's beginning to struggle with second thoughts about her life.

And it doesn't help that she's gotten an e-mail from her high-school sweetheart telling her that he and his wife have just had their first baby.

So Mavis packs a few things, and, in one of those rash decisions that could make sense only to her, drives back to her small Minnesota hometown to reclaim that erstwhile boyfriend.

Mavis thinks her task will be simple because she was (and still is) beautiful. Mavis and Minneapolis or dreary married life in Mercury, Minnesota? The choice, Mavis believes, is a no-brainer.

That's the backdrop for Young Adult, the latest collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the duo that gave us Juno, a comedy about teen pregnancy.

Say this: Reitman and Cody are not shy about taking risks. They've built their movie around a character that’s both deluded and dislikable, but they've managed to hedge their bet because Mavis is played by Charlize Theron, who captures Mavis' haughty insensitivity, her budding alcoholism and her manipulative personality in spectacular, often funny fashion.

It never occurs to Mavis that Buddy might be happily married or that he and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) might be seriously committed to each other and to their young family.

Only one of the town’s residents – a geek played by Patton Oswalt – seems to see through Mavis’ facade. Having suffered a vicious beating in high school (a group of thuggish jocks thought he was gay), he views himself as damaged goods. Oswalt’s Matt is willing to tell Mavis how appallingly she’s behaving, not that Mavis cares.

Some of Young Adult is funny and some if it is sad, but there's also a slight stuck-in-a-rut feeling about the movie. Reitman's last movie, Up in the Air, was richer and more entertaining, and Cody still hasn't shed all the self-consciously clever tics that were apparent in Juno. On top of all that, the movie's central focus -- Mavis' boundless narcissism -- can make Young Adult feel as narrow as Mavis' worldview.

Now, not all of Young Adult is easy to take. A scene toward the end is so ugly, it’s painful to watch. It’ s supposed to be that way, but it serves as a kind of exclamation point to what we already know: Mavis is a wreck of a woman, so misguided that even some of her best verbal jabs don't earn her much sympathy.

Most movies are about characters who struggle to come of age. This one pushes, maybe a bit too hard, against the grain by introducing us to a woman who hasn't come of age and perhaps never will.

Still, Young Adult remains watchable because Theron makes an amazing Mavis, a woman who's ready to be completely irresponsible with the lives of others. Oswalt also scores as Matt, a decent, self-aware guy who sees the cliff toward which Mavis relentlessly is driving. Not everyone will share Matt's concern for Mavis, and some may even hope that when the she reaches that cliff, someone pushes her off.

This 'Mission' hits an action bull's-eye

A 'Mission Impossible' movie that pushes most of the right buttons.

Look, they don't call it Mission Impossible for nothing.

Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol -- the fourth in a series of Mission Impossible movies -- features action that's either physically impossible, highly unlikely or downright ridiculous.

But that's just what we want in a Mission Impossible movie, and director Brad Bird, best know for animated movies such as The Incredibles and Iron Giant, serves up a Mission edition that delivers the action-packed goods. Along with star Tom Cruise - and a worthy supporting cast - Bird ensures that this Mission flies through some of the year's most compelling action.

The movie's best set piece takes place on the glass wall of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, a 2,700-foot-high skyscraper. I'm squeamish about heights, so this tense bit of business was strictly a white-knuckle experience for me. Still, it's indicative of the kind of a crackerjack action Bird strings around a serviceable story about a lunatic general (Michael Nyqvist) who wants to start a nuclear war.

Joining Cruise's Ethan Hunt on a mission aimed at stopping nuclear Armageddon are Paula Patton (as a highly competent IMF agent); Simon Pegg (as the agent with tech skills) and Jeremy Renner (as an assistant to the IMF secretary played by Tom Wilkinson).

The screenplay wisely affords Renner -- scorchingly good in both The Hurt Locker -- an opportunity to show another side of himself. The rest of the crew is in equally good form.

Watch for Lea Seydoux, as a deadly blonde assassin, who ultimately winds up duking it out with Patton's character. And, hey, the gadgets and high-tech wonders are pretty impressive, too.

Cruise's main function here is to take a variety of beatings and keep on ticking. Whether he's scaling the walls of skyscrapers or leaping onto moving vehicles, Cruise portrays Ethan with old-pro efficiency. It's almost as if he understands that he's playing second fiddle to the action, and has no problem with it.

The screenplay, which tries for a bit of emotion with a backstory involving Ethan's late wife, doesn't skimp on locations, taking us to places as far flung as Moscow and Dubai. It also makes good use of the powerhouse presentation that IMAX offers. (The film will be released at non-IMAX theaters on Dec. 21.)

Despite its near-maniacal commitment to efficiency - cramming as much action into every scene as possible - Ghost Protocol knows it's also supposed to be fun, and it is. (It makes for an interesting contrast with this week's other franchise release, Sherlock Holmes. That movie seems to know its silly; this one is earnest in its approach, refusing to waste time putting tongue into cheek.

There are times when Ghost Protocol , like most action-heavy thrillers, threatens to wear out its welcome, but it never really does. This is one Mission fans should have no trouble accepting.

'Sherlock Holmes,' the Franchise Continues

As a version of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows doesn't cut it. As a big movie action contraption, it's passable.

Forget the Sherlock Holmes once known as a detective with a keen and unforgiving intelligence. That Holmes -- a creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- has vanished inside a much more contemporary creation: a kick-ass movie franchise.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows -- the second movie starring Robert Downey Jr. (as Holmes) and Jude Law (as Dr. Watson) - seems less interested in celebrating Holmes' legendary powers of deduction than in flexing as much action-movie muscle as possible.

So it should come as no surprise that the plot doesn't much matter, except to say that it pits Holmes against arch rival James Moriarty, played here by a bearded, confidently evil Jared Harris.

In the early going, Holmes frets over Watson's impending marriage. Few other renderings of Sherlock have flirted so openly with Holmes and Watson's infatuation with each another, and this one goes so far as give them an improbable comic scene in which they waltz together. If I remember correctly, Holmes leads.

If you saw the first installment, you pretty much know director Guy Ritchie's game. Ritchie sees Holmes as a disheveled detective who's as quick with his fists as he is with his wits. For his part, Downey lives up to this image of Holmes, seldom looking as if he's not in need of a bath.

The banter between Holmes and Watson doesn't exactly reach Noel Coward levels, and there's no enjoying Game of Shadows if you don't revel in amped-up action, including the firing of some very heavy artillery.

Even taken on its own terms, the movie is not without miscalculation: Noomi Rapace, the brilliant Swedish actress who created the role of Lizbeth Salander in the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is entirely wasted as gypsy woman who's shoehorned into the movie for plot reasons.

Surely, Rapace could have made larger contribution; her role is the dramatic equivalent of a guy who holds another guy's coat during a fistfight.

Stephen Fry fares better in a genuinely amusing role as Holmes' diplomat brother, Mycroft Holmes. Fry's comic talents are used to best effect in a scene in which he appears nude. (No, we don't see enough of Fry to challenge the movie's PG-13 rating.)

When not busy changing costumes, Holmes' tries to get to the bottom of a mystery that has something to do with arms sales and with setting various European countries at one another's throats. But let's be honest: There's nothing much at stake here aside from getting to the next action set piece and maintaining the scaffolding of characters and effects that keeps the series from toppling.

Game of Shadows does that - and so it probably should be regarded as a passable addition to a successful franchise. I didn't love Game of Shadows, but I didn't mind Ritchie's latest action contraption, either. Perhaps because nothing about this helping of Sherlock Holmes needs to be taken seriously - and Ritchie seems to know it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Into the heart of a soul-destroying obsession

Shame, which has been rated NC-17, explores the depths of one man's sex addiction.

After two exceptionally grueling movies – Hunger and now Shame – it seems fair to wonder whether British director Steve McQueen isn’t trying to test the soul of actor Michael Fassbender.

In Hunger, McQueen cast Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the IRA rebel who in 1981 led a prison hunger strike that resulted in his death. The role, which seemed to blur the line between performance and ordeal, was nothing if not demanding.

In Shame, McQueen puts Fassbender through another wringer. Fassbender plays Brandon, a New York sex addict, whose behavior involves him in a soul-crushing ordeal.

OK, so McQueen isn’t really trying to destroy Fassbender, but he sure knows how to set an arduous physical and emotional pace -- and his actor responds in kind. Shame is a journey to the very bottom of Brandon’s parched soul, and Fassbender holds nothing in reserve.

Shame, which features nudity and explicit sex scenes, has been rated NC-17. But it’s not the nudity or the graphic sex (none of it erotic) that turns the movie into a brutalizing viewing experience; it’s the emotional violence to which Brandon subjects himself and others, as well as the maddening persistence of his compulsions.

This is a guy for whom the office men’s room is a place to masturbate, a man so seized by his sexual urges that he follows women off subway cars, hires hookers and can’t stop watching porn on the Internet.

Brandon is handsome, but also has a kind of ghastly pallor, as if he’s only half alive. When he’s not in the throes of his addiction, he works at keeping his distance from others. When Brandon’s sister (Carey Mulligan) tries to move in with him, his protected world faces a major disruption. Mulligan’s Sissy is a singer whose personal life is in disarray.

At one point, Brandon and his boss visit a nightclub to hear Mulligan’s Sissy sing. She does an agonizingly drawn out version of New York, New York that moves Brandon to tears. It’s not a place he likes to be.

Later, Brandon finds himself attracted to a woman in his office (Nicole Beharie). He takes her to dinner. He loosens up a bit. But when it comes to making love to this woman, he can’t perform. For Brandon, relationships are the enemy of desire. He prefers anonymous sex.

McQueen’s directing style involves holding shots for an exceptionally long time, sometimes photographing conversations from a distance, and using wide-screen spacing to create tension between characters.

Now, you can’t watch a movie such as Shame without taking a walk on the seamy side. If you’re interested in seeing an actor plumb the depths of a powerful addiction, Shame will take you on one of the year’s most disturbing rides.

Whether you emerge from the experience having learned something from Brandon’s torments is another matter. Shame is powerful, but not necessarily profound. It tends to be obvious when it comes to Brandon’s addictive personality and not especially interested in how he might have gotten that way.

Oh well. Shame shows the prolonged agony of being chained to a compulsion. Its unremitting intensity and startling frankness make it stand apart, even if those same qualities do not carry it to greatness.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

'The Sitter' is R-rated rot

If you keep up with celebrity news, you know that Jonah Hill no longer fits the roly-poly profile that his fans have come to love in movies such as Superbad and Cyrus. I've read that the newly minted Hill has lost 40 pounds.

Earlier this year, Hill hit a new and encouraging career mark in Moneyball, which probably represents the height his artistic achievement to date. In that movie, Hill played a brainy baseball analyst whose statistical approach to the game helped the general manager of the Oakland Athletics (Brad Pitt) put together a winning season.

Hill's latest - The Sitter - reportedly was filmed prior to Moneyball, but arrives in theaters in the midst of the holiday season. You may want to think of it as a blatant exercise in counter-programming, as well as a step backward for Hill.

Here's the thinking: With family-oriented fare such as Hugo, Arthur Christmas, The Muppets and the upcoming Adventures of Tintin crowding every multiplex, a raunchy comedy just might appeal to every disgruntled guy who dutifully accompanied a date to the latest Twilight movie.

And in a week of buzzless national releases, it's also possible that The Sitter will appease those who hate the idea that Hollywood -- with visions of Oscar dancing in its head -- tends to go prestigious at the end of the year.

I'm not in any of those groups, so for me, The Sitter represents a reminder of the kind of movies Hill may have to shed - along with the excess weight - if he's going to sustain a career.

Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express and Your Highness) seems to be doing his best to obliterate memories of such early acclaimed work as George Washington and All the Real Girls. Although The Sitter boasts a couple of moments that try to make nice, it's a mostly distasteful romp through a series of implausible and profane gags, many involving kids who are too young for major exposure in this kind of comedy.

A pre-weight loss Hill plays Noah Griffith, a young lives at home with his single mother (Jessica Hecht). The plot contrives to have the reluctant Noah babysit for three difficult kids, an anxiety-ridden 13-year-old (Max Records), a precocious girl who hides behind thick layers of make-up (Landry Bender) and a sullen Latin-American adoptee (Kevin Hernandez).

The screenplay further contrives to have Hill's Noah score some cocaine for his girlfriend (Ari Graynor) -- with the kids in tow, of course. As if to declare its salacious intentions, the movie opens with Noah performing oral sex on Graynor's character, a favor that she won't reciprocate. Hey, I don't like giving away jokes in reviews, but you should know something about the movie's mindset.

Or consider that Hernandez' Rodrigo has a fondness for cherry bombs and frequent urination. I guess someone thought it would be hilarious to watch Rodrigo relieve himself on the dance floor in the middle of a girl's Bat Mitzvah.

Noah's search for cocaine (surely a worn-out substance as far as either comedy or drama is concerned) puts him in contact with Karl (Sam Rockwell), a drug dealer who displays a boundless but obviously false sense of bonhomie.

Rockwell is one of my favorite actors, and he's certainly game for a far-out role, but he's stuck in a movie that tries to temper its foulest impulses with occasional flashes of sensitivity. Case in point: The scene in which Noah informs Records' character that it's OK to be gay or another in which Noah tells off the philandering father of the three unruly charges for whom he ultimately and predictably develops some fondness.

J. B. Smoove, Method Man and other black actors can be found on the movie's fringes, but they're mostly restricted by writing that tends to be too caricatured to be funny.

Hill is likable enough to survive this kind of comedy, but little in The Sitter serves to amuse. Built around car theft, drugs, exploding toilets, profanity, and other forms of inappropriate or illegal behavior, The Sitter is one of those comedies that manages to be more unpleasant than funny.