My Week in Movies: December 31, '11

We Bought A Zoo
Cameron Crowe, 2011
Crowe, baby. "We Bought A Zoo" is to Cameron Crowe as "The School of Rock" is to Richard Linklater - a little obligatory in its stylings and aims but a truly endearing success in so many ways. Indeed, a younger audience is in mind and certain silly characters or gags could stand to be excised from an artistic stance, but this is perhaps the most emotionally heavy "PG" I've seen - to watch it is to choke back tear-bursts for 2 hours before the final scene, while definitively and powerfully "feel good" in nature, forces even the most hardened among us to crumple in a heap of weep. Our characters, ramshackles in glossy veneers, inspire us to love more directly. In what almost feels an oddity in the modern age, they are not connected to Facebook or attached to iPhones - their endeavors are more explicit and affecting. Their departed wife and mother remains a presence throughout, infallible in her absence as we are not subject to judging her through action, only reverent recollection. Even off-hand comments about her from Matt Damon's character stop you in your tracks. Conflicts with genuine feeling may find you siding with one character or another, but realistically feature valid points on either side, making for some truly rewarding argument sequences. One in particular eventually culminates with a scene (pictured above) appropriately mirroring the "I always liked George" bit in "Vanilla Sky". And hey, Scarlett Johansson actually delivered a worthwhile post-"Lost In Translation" performance! About time (note: as an acquaintance has pointed out, I forgot about "Scoop", in which she is indeed quite good).

Further first-time viewings:

Cave of Forgotten Dreams - Werner Herzog, 2010
In what appears to have become typical Herzog fashion, there are some jaw-gaping moments of sheer wonder here, but moreover the piece is a borefest. The director may have involved himself all too personally in Timothy Treadwell's aftermath, but at least "Grizzly Man" was enjoyable and thematically intriguing. That said, I do wish I had seen "Cave" in the assuredly innovative 3D.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn - Steven Spielberg, 2011
Here's another title where I'll have to provide the disclaimer that I did not see the whole thing. But, please don't make me... I've seen the better part of the third act twice now and while, sure, the facial texture/animation is impressive, nothing else appears to be. The script in particular is atrociously rigid.

Total: 3

Rewatches (3): Young Adult x2 (Reitman, 2011), Take Me Home Tonight (Dowse, 2011), The Muppet Christmas Carol (B. Henson, 1992)
-Keep an eye out for a forthcoming "Why I Adore Young Adult" entry.


My Week in Movies: December 24, '11

A torinói ló (The Turin Horse)
Béla Tarr, 2011
In what I've gathered is par for the course with Tarr, this fascinatingly bleak hell - resoundingly inspired by Nietzsche's death of God - defies traditional critical evaluation, in this case while gazing down the well of life's brutal futility through a father and daughter whose close neighbors are none but the earth's harsh reminders of said futility. It is a portrait of our inability to affect any fragment of grander existence; our enslavement to our own conflicting mortality. The chill bites at your outer ear, the breath your nostrils, the boiled potatoes your assuredly decaying gums. "The Turin Horse" is a triumph in true Béla Tarr fashion, in that while one may wish to pause and rest between each segment, in the end not a frame is to be missed. I'd place it just above "Damnation" amongst the director's other works I've seen, which makes it the best of that admittedly meager bunch. In particular the opening shot and latter three segments (or "days") are phenomenal, and highly recommended for fans of E. Elias Merhige.

The Future
Miranda July, 2011
What a happily melancholy coincidence that this turned out a fitting companion to "The Turin Horse"! The two drastically different pictures take on strikingly similar themes albeit from opposite approaches. While Béla Tarr's final master stroke looks at an isolated 19th Century lifestyle-by-default of droning repetition that hones in on the pointless nature of life despite human persistence, Miranda July's far lighter and indeed very Miranda July-ish piece glimpses a modern state of silently selected stagnation, with elements such as discouragement, lacking confidence and self-consciousness preventing the achievement of various potentials. We wait and we wait and our envisioned future never comes. July's treatment of this contemporary middle class life will feel familiar to anyone willing to let it agree with them as it depicts deepening degrees of human delusion and moreover paints day-to-day events, no matter how inspired or "life-changing", as a living death. The slowest, most painful way to die is one we all suffer from: living.

Further first-time viewings:

The Hangover Part II - Todd Phillips, 2011
It's that moment when the little comedy that could (but wasn't all that great to begin with) becomes a tedious, profit-driven beast of overblown proportion.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - Brad Bird, 2011
How does a franchise sink from the benchmark of new millennium blockbuster action (the apparently insurmountable "Mission: Impossible: III", which I reviewed with a warning to ovulating women that Tom Cruise might impregnante them through the screen simply via awesomeness) to an embarrassing betrayal of itself? I don't know, ask the team behind "Ghost Protocol", I guess. Why is this reservoir of refuse enjoying such overwhelmingly positive reactions? Talk about going from "Mission: Impossible" to "Mission: Freaking Insanity". From the very onset to the final moment there is not a single second of worth to be redeemed in this atrociously generic and exceedingly preposterous (while practically mask-less and Ving Rhames-less) picture. Any film encounters innumerable forks in its path to production; I am baffled as to how this one managed to choose the wrong route every single time - technically, creatively, everything-ly. I've been bored before... but this is "Mission: Impossible"! What gives? I expect far superior story execution and scene composition throughout, where here we don't even get as much in the most pivotal scene! Here's an idea: how about when the most important piece of information is being revealed, you don't solely utilize a master shot of apathetic-looking/sounding supporting characters (Jeremy Renner??) standing on opposite sides of the frame. What's even worse, along with being my biggest disappointment since I thought Oliver Stone was giving us a bold 9/11 conspiracy film in 2006, "Protocol" is perhaps the most thoroughly dumb thing I've seen this year (and it takes a lot to top "X-Men: First Class" or "Fast Five" in that regard), to the point that I am utterly flabbergasted and absolutely exhausted from how recklessly stupid it all is. Just for starters... and I borrow the tone of "Burn After Reading" here... the Russians? Really? How dated is your plot when Russians (only "evil" because they're, well, Russian) are trying to access nuclear launch codes? You know what, I won't even get myself started. I'd be up all night reciting the instances of mind-blowing numb-skullery that abound in this tired, abominable-CG-laden wreck that, despite its "Ghost Protocol" title, seems to laughably aspire to "Minority Report" heights gadget-wise. Speaking of tired... what's the deal, Ethan Hunt? Scaled so many cliff faces in your free time you can't clear half your leaps anymore? I can hardly count how many times the now-klutzy Cruise clocks his head or stumbles at critical moments over the course of the excruciating 130-minute+ running time. Time to retire, agent. Take this franchise with you. I say all this as a staunch defender of the first three "M:I" films and a devoted fan of the Cruiser, mind you. And, finally - whose bright idea was it to make "Mission: Impossible" a comedy? Whoever that was can cozy up next to Hunt on the retirement train. Whatever the case, the biggest laugh comes unintentionally at the climax with a line the sheer asininity of which I haven't encountered since "Snakes on a Plane".

Total: 4

Rewatches (4): Young Adult (Reitman, 2011), The Lion King (Allers & Minkoff,1994), The Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1934) The Santa Clause 2 (Lembeck, 2002)


My Week in Movies: December 17, '11

Young Adult
Jason Reitman, 2011
After a steady qualitative decline over the past half-decade or so, I was ready for Jason Reitman to refresh me with something on par with "Thank You For Smoking". Instead the director has done me several better and gifted the treasure that is "Young Adult", which provided one of those oh-so-rare, distinctly personal experiences (a la "Weather Man", "Punch-Drunk Love", "Vanilla Sky", etcetera) in which I felt the film had been made just for me - obeying what I might wish of it or any project while challenging me, never falling to peeves and generally just "getting" me. From the onset there is so much to this multi-faceted examination of a fascinating character that I imagine with each subsequent viewing I'll come out having honed in on a new theme, whether it be the numbing permeation of reality television, the complexity of what it means to come home, various definitions of success and integrity, or our views of modern society as we know it - is it the way we like to think it is, as we see conveyed through iPhone commercials and Facebook conferences, or is it the actuality - fallen leaves on dillapidated signs and people simply making the best of what they have? And how do any of these ideas and observations affect us as individuals? Diablo Cody's seemingly introspective script has retained the wavemaking writer's characteristic new age wit while maturing beyond the insipidity of "Juno", even once poking fun at that picture's overt dialogic reaches with Buddy's (the multi-talented Patrick Wilson) reaction to Mavis (the pitch-perfect Charlize Theron) calling a triple-hybrid fast food joint a "Ken-Taco Hut". Despite bold and defining creative choices, the supporting characters do remain one-dimensional throughout. This works swell as they mesh and clash with Mavis' world (and, perhaps more importantly, vice versa), but I'm still gradually coming to terms with the third-act narrowing this one-dimensionality generates. It's not what transpires - I see few other ways it could have gone down - it's that all the sociological layers seem to peel away to more superficial quibbles. Maybe that's the point. Either way, I am eager for a rewatch so I might re-experience the film's tailored idiosyncrasies and further galvanize my interpretation of the wind-down.

New Year's Eve
Garry Marshall, 2011
There's just something magical about New York City in the wintertime. This welcome fluff piece with a classic Hollywood feel celebrates the spirited joy of a unique holiday, uniting us as it unites its star-studded cast, which includes many beyond those depicted on the "Mortal Kombat" character select screen-esque poster, including Cary Elwes, John Lithgow, Yeardley Smith, Carla Gugino and Matthew Broderick (portraying a character named Beullerton). I can't say I'd go out of my way for many of the charmingly intertwining stories had they comprised their own respective films, but as vignettes even the lessers engage on some level. I particularly took to the indie stage show-like thread involving a prematurely curmudgeonly Ashton Kutcher and a heartened Lea Michele becoming stuck on an old apartment building elevator, while others involving Sarah Jessica Parker and Abigail Breslin as mother and daughter and Robert De Niro as a man in hospice with one final wish are also of particular note. The weakest link involves Seth Myers and Jessica Biel racing with Til Schweiger and Sarah Paulson to have the first baby of the new year in what becomes a wildly innacurate (though, admittedly, touching in the end) tale featuring one of the worst fake pregnancy bellies I've seen on screen. Though not without its appropriately subtle touches, the screenplay does feel as though a working draft was churned up and never revised prior to production as it features some of the most trite dialogue and blatant exposition this side of "Days of Our Lives", but as should be clear, artistic heights are far from the goal in this case. In the politically correct world of "New Year's Eve" (which oddly features no homosexual or interracial relationships), no one is a bad guy and everyone gets some form of happy ending. Every so often it's a real treat to have a film of that sort, especially when it's as fun as this one, which in its superficial musical crescendos and climaxes did have me welling up at least three times, even once finding a tear rolling down my cheek (hint: during the countdown, a youthful smooch). And... Zac Efron! I'm telling you, the man is our new millennium Gene Kelly. The character he plays here (opposite a frumpy Michelle Pfeiffer) is precisely how I'd imagine "Gene 2000", and I can only hope this becomes embraced and Efron's agents quit making him shy from being "typecast" as "that singing, dancing guy".

Further first-time viewings:

The Change-Up - David Dobkin, 2011
As much as I dislike it, there is one moment in "The Change-Up" writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's "The Hangover" that I think of often. We cut to the aftermath of a wedding reception, and while the three men are engaged in buddy talk, Phil's (Bradley Cooper) son is innocently draped, asleep, on his father's reclined chest. It's a stealthily sweet moment that defines the character's relatively docile home life for the remainder of the film's exponentially zany shenanigans, and I feel it's that kind of thing that Lucas and Moore were trying to recapture with much of the inappropriately emotional "Change-Up". Where "Hangover" director Todd Phillips has proven again and again even in his lesser outings that wrangling crazy comedy and core emotion simultaneously is well within the bounds of his work, David Dobkin's fumblings here make detrimentally uneven what was already an ostensibly one-dimensional script. Never once did I suspect I'd find something in the realm of true quality in a rated-"R" body-switching movie starring Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds (whose character seems to possess an extra chromosome), but I didn't think I'd find something so wildly inept in every technical aspect it hardly justifies itself as a proper film. "Shanghai Knights" and "Fred Claus" weren't this bad. What gives? For as wearingly drawn out as it all is, it feels so rushed, as if there was only one chance at any given take and only a couple hours of production time a day for maybe a total of a month-long shoot. So it is possible to dislike a film in which a patch of pubic hair is referred to as being "like Sonny Crockett". What's more, while I'd heard reports of computer-generated nipples on a reverse shot of Olivia Wilde to cover up pasties that "accidentally" made it in to the final frame, I did not expect prosthetic breasts on the naturally lovely Leslie Mann. Who thought this was a good idea? My penis felt like it had wandered in to the uncanny valley. At least this is only the second-worst movie this year that features a joke about coprophagia.

Total: 3


My Week in Movies: December 10, '11

La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In)
Pedro Almodóvar, 2011
In a fashion not entirely dissimilar from that of this year's "Drive", this nearly perfect and truly "out there" film (only my second Almodóvar after being prematurely turned off by the ostensibly lesser "Live Flesh") is familiar in so many ways yet unlike anything you've ever seen. With the absolute precision and design sense of a lite Kubrick, the narrative feel of a stronger Argento, the pacing of Welles, liberated and darkly sexual performances evocative of Pasolini and the chops to stand amongst the greats of the genre it embraces as it languidly unravels, it derives from masters - steals from the best, if you will - to forge its distinct individuality. Charting an exponentially engrossing case of Stockholm and Reverse Stockholm with a deliciously sick twist or five, it is like "A Clockwork Orange" meets "Deep Red" meets "Touch of Evil" meets "The Decameron" meets Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"; it is "The Skin I Live In". Furthermore, while I can wish it did have the more overt deliberation of something like "The Shining" or "Magnolia", it does navigate its refreshingly scant exposition beautifully with assured reliance on film's truest assets - images! Strong, strong images! There, I believe I've over-excitedly covered a fraction of the reasons "The Skin I Live In" is great.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lynne Ramsay, 2011
The relentless opening act of "We Need to Talk About Kevin" threatens to make the whole an insanely strong candidate amongst the very best films of the year. Not in some time have I seen such a lucid narrative flow that rapt me in its turmoil so viscerally. Aiding matters are a surprising undercurrent of biting black humor and Tilda Swinton's bleak performance, so hollowed-out and lost with a single expression you hardly need know the details of her character's unenviable forfeits to feel pained sympathies roiling up inside your guts. Nature and nurture are waging what feels like a war inherently unwinnable for either side - a war as silent as the most muffled scream. What so unfortunately and frustratingly compromises the picture as a whole are the following acts, in which the film becomes something like "The Omen" mixed with "Marley & Me". How many times do we need to see the titular son carry out essentially the same acts with essentially the same results, as if the male characters are records stuck stubbornly on repeat? And are the poorly acted evil glares and unrealistically sinister retorts necessary? Though the harsh beauty of the cinematography remains consistent, when the character of Kevin gains more of a voice to flesh out the established yet mysterious state of his mother's life the proceedings take a nosedive of contrivance and redundancy, never quite recovering.

Further first-time viewings:

Rouge (Red) - Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1994
I suppose reactions like this are either why one might love me or hate me as a critical mind. One could say, "Wow, that Tom guy is unpredictable and really sticks to his guns, whatever those guns may be," or, contrarily, "This hack doesn't understand a good film when he sees one, how can he not at least respect the greatness of one of the most hailed films of the '90s?" Well, my apologies... "Red" bored me stiff. It has clearly influenced a wave of subsequently influential directors such as Tom Tykwer and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (incidentally directors I don't particularly care for), and with its implied strokes of influence might well have become a fleeting highlight of my late youth had I seen it around the same time I saw Tykwer's "Run, Lola, Run" (which I now consider immature but once found eye-opening to a world of cinema I hadn't yet discovered). Never for a moment, however, did it inspire interest from yours truly to the point that I hardly have anything further to say about it. It's not bad, per se, it's just there. It might be taken in to account that possibly intended implications were missed seeing as I for some reason mistook this for the first of the "Three Colors" trilogy and have not yet seen "Blue" or "White".

Total: 3


Chaske Spencer: More Than Wolf, & Tinsel Korey: Scarred Beauty

Almost through with their time portraying the couple atop the “Twilight” wolf pack, American Indian actors Chaske Spencer - whose smoothly deep voice could stop one heart while making another flutter - and the lovely, passionate and endlessly multi-talented Tinsel Korey are primed to launch further in to an entertainment world widely devoid of representation for their people. More importantly, the similarly minded two are utilizing much of their franchise-bestowed spotlight to not just better their neglected communities but inspire others to do the same through efforts such as their Be the Shift campaign. Both were happy to shed the censors in favor of honest discussion on the rarely publicized issues of substance abuse and poverty on Native reservations, the state of Natives in Hollywood, working with one another and what’s ahead in next year’s final installment in the epic love saga of fangs and fur.

Read the interviews on page 66 of Icon's Winter 2011 issue,

REVIEW: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 (Bill Condon, 2011)

Now four films in, it's next to impossible for one to reenter the "Twilight" franchise without an accepting understanding of the melodramatic, sometimes goofy fantasy it represents, and naturally this works in the favor of "Breaking Dawn - Part 1". "Eclipse" came as a pleasant surprise, demonstrating what this material can be at its best, and "Breaking Dawn", while not as redefining, carries the torch without regressing to the soapy fan service that plagued the main events of "New Moon".

The Lying Game's Allie Gonino

Saucy and sweet, former Stunners member and multi-talented Allie Gonino has been working her way up through television, having featured primarily on ABC Family’s incarnation of “10 Things I Hate About You” and now as a regularly featured character, Laurel Mercer, on “The Lying Game”, the first season of which recently had ten extra episodes ordered to begin airing Janurary 2nd. Gonino sat down with Icon to discuss her approach, inspiration, why The Stunners are no more and just what’s up her sleeve in regard to further musical pursuits.


My Week in Movies: December 3, '11

Oren Moverman, 2011
How are we seen by our peers - from subordinates to our closest, most important companions and dependents, even - despite our defining efforts to be revered as benevolent? Could these peers be hip to our schtick, simply allowing us to continue fooling only ourselves for the sake of maintaining some semblance of peace? "Rampart", its title implying a general look in to city cop mentalities of the 1990s, follows the gradual downward spiral of Woody Harrelson's intimately portrayed renegade, "Date Rape Dave". We enter his headspace, cautious yet eager to latch on to quirks and sentiments. Ever so steadily this headspace is contorted by circumstance - much of it preexisting yet finally coming to a head - and for 90+ minutes we live amongst its machinations, residents of the causes and effects of reputation-threatening scandal. The filmmaking is organic to its subject - I could not imagine "Rampart", which handily joins (and probably surpasses) the ranks of "Bad Lieutenant" (and, in a practically alternate sense, "Serpico"), being filmed in a more fitting manner. Speaking genuinely between the lines, the film is Dave, and can become frequently emotionally wrecking sans just about any form of contrived heartstring tugging. By extension Harrelson feels authentic as can be as he disappears in to Dave, surrounded by an impressive collection of talent allowed to exist naturally within their cinematic space including Robin Wright, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche and, in a highly impressive turn as an invalid derelict, film co-producer (and probable John McLane, Jr.) Ben Foster.

Total: 1