Monthly archives of “December 2011

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Young Adult, Jason Reitman (2011)

young-adult-theronThis thing makes Juno look like a Disney movie. Charlize Theron turns in an amazing performance — really, when you think about it, a performance in many ways more demanding than the one she did for Monster — as a terrified and terrifying former prom queen approaching adulthood on the asymptote. I’m not going to go into the plot here because if you have any sense you’re going to see this yourself and if you don’t then what good would it do. Diablo Cody’s script is lean and sharp. She doesn’t oversell or fake a single moment, and when she does write big furniture-chewing set pieces, they feel as utterly convincing and sickeningly inevitable as Aeschylus. The fact that all this takes place in a town that could pretty much pass for my hometown maybe twisted the knives even more vigorously for me, but this’ll stab you no matter where you’re from and/or wish you weren’t.

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War Horse, Steven Spielberg (2011)

war_horse_3There’s nothing new or unusual about an artist taking a chaotic, terrifying, inexplicable historical episode and seeking to make some sense of it by overlaying it with a cathartic narrative, but whew, Spielberg takes the cake! He doesn’t overlay, he positively smothers! This isn’t a movie about the insane mechanized apparatus of death that was WWI using the story of a single horse as a vehicle; it’s a movie about a beautiful, brilliant, heroic horse who happened to have lived through WWI. This movie’s sense of history is so bizarrely out of whack, it spends literally no time on the questions of who’s fighting and why; its only concern is the fate of the relationship between a farm boy and his horse.

There may be a kind of willful myopia in play here. We know Spielberg isn’t ignorant of history, so if he’s ignoring it, might that be a deliberate decision? Does the strangely old-fashioned lighting of the early and late bookend scenes offer a clue? I haven’t seen such heroic and artificial sunsets since Gone with the Wind, I don’t think. Is this, like Scorsese’s Hugo, less a movie about history than a movie about movies? I’m probably fishing in a puddle.

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Beginners, Mike Mills (2011)

beginners_a_lThis begins slowly, wistfully, bittersweetly, and immediately seizes my attention, but it takes less than an hour for me to start wishing that everyone involved would suddenly come down with the bubonic plague. The main characters here are, purportedly, horribly damaged and in pain. Self-hatred, self-doubt, self-denial! Plus cancer! Your natural inclination is to feel sorry for these beautiful and tragic people, but they do their very best to thwart your instincts by being the most insufferable bunch of self-involved moony whiners LA has ever seen, and that’s saying something. The tone here reminds me of S. Coppola’s Lost in Translation. The stylish weltschmerz. Every space — exterior or interior — just-so beautiful. My creeping horrified realization that no one on the screen ever has to think about money.

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Comfort of Strangers, Beth Orton (2006)

First time through you could be excused for thinking this sounds like background music at Starbucks. But Orton is truly protean, and here she is hitched up with the insanely brilliant Jim O’Rourke on the boards, and every song here rewards repeated listenings; they get weirder and deeper the more you listen. What I love best is the way songs just end when they’re done doing what they set out to do. That’s a hard skill for a poet to learn: When to eschew finishing in favor of ending.

I’ve loved Orton for more than a decade. I believe that if she had decided to promote herself harder, she could have been a superstar. She didn’t, and I think she’s probably stayed sane and happy as a result. I hear that she’s got a new one coming, at last, in 2012. I’m excited, but I haven’t minded waiting.

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Page One: Inside the New York Times, Andrew Rossi (2011)

No one with any interest in current events could fail to understand that information moves differently now than it did ten years ago, or ten months ago, or maybe even ten minutes ago. These changes have put obvious and well-documented pressure on “legacy media” companies like the Times. In July of 2002, NYT was trading at $50 a share; this past July it was at about $8 a share.

But you know all that. This movie goes over that territory, but where it really shines is in its depiction not of the Times as a company, but the Times as a collection of individuals. There are scenes where people gather around someone’s desk and hash out what the ethical course of action is vis a vis some situation that’s just arisen. People have principled disagreements, come to conclusions, act on them, and move forward. I found such moments heartening. Whatever else you want to say about the media, the Times, our desperate age, etc., you can’t help but come away from this feeling like these people are truly acting in good faith and truly on a mission for good. They’re probably doomed.

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Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog (2007)

In which the NSF flies Herzog to Antarctica so that he can ask a penguin researcher, “Does a penguin ever go insane when they have simply had it with the colony?” If you love Herzog, this will tickle you pink. Dour laconic condemnations of civilization, breathless Caspar David Friedrich-esque romantic ejaculations in the face of ineffable landscapes, a fascination with damaged and fragile characters that comes across as both exploitative and sympathetic at the same time (the scene with the traumatized man who “escaped” from something he can’t even talk about (East Germany?) and proudly shows Herzog the rucksack he has ready at all times, should he need to escape again, is without question my favorite moment in this film), and always, always, the magnetic attraction to oblivion. When Herzog talks about the dangers of diving under the ice, or how easy it is to get lost in a blizzard, or the way a penguin will sometimes become disoriented and start walking away from rather than toward the life-giving sea, you understand very clearly that he doesn’t dread these disasters; he longs for them.

Herzog continues to make fiction films, but more and more his best attention seems to be directed toward documentaries. (Which, after all, is the more interesting movie, Grizzly Man or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans?) Might it be that for a mature artist, the claptrap of artifice begins to seem an impediment rather than an aid to the realization of one’s dramatic — and even aesthetic — goals? Discuss.

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Hugo, Martin Scorsese (2011)

hugo-martin-scorseseSince the opening ten minutes suggest that CGI is going to be the star here, far more than character or plot, I resigned myself to enjoying some eye candy and settled in with my Milk Duds. After about an hour of sepia-honeyed faux Belle Epoque visuals, though, the movie’s agenda changes again. Scorsese is one clever guy. You gradually realize that this whole enterprise is basically an excuse for the maestro to champion his pet (and very worthy!) causes of film preservation and film history awareness. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this before. There are plenty of movies for kids that have broad social lessons to impart — be nice to people different than you, consumerism is a sickness, take care of the environment, etc. — but “ensure that cinema history is preserved”? That’s some special special pleading! I’m more than sympathetic to the cause, though, so it’s all good with me. C+ as a movie, but A- as a PSA.

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Hanna, Joe Wright (2011)

The plot here is wholly borrowed — three parts Bourne Identity; one part La Femme Nikita — so we’ll grade on style points alone, and we’ll give a solid B+. Wright usually takes assignments my mom would call “classy,” and his obvious geeky thrill in  slumming in the action genre is a little irritating. Still, he gets great performances out of his principals — the albino sprite to the left, plus Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett — and only at the movie’s very end does he allow himself / force us to wallow in an arty and hyperextended symbolist set piece. Completely forgettable but fairly entertaining.