26 Feb 2012 @ 2:00 PM 

Sunday Minute
No. 237 | February 26, 2012

The Year That Was, One More Time

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The end of the year came before the end of my moviegoing for 2011, and my recap from the holiday season was admitedly an incomplete look back at last year’s films.  I blame Hollywood.  Most weekends are a drought for quality, then at the end of the year the heavens open.  I suspect we could more easily change the weather than the movie studios’ release schedule, which does create a challenge for anyone who wants to see all the movies that are worth seeing.

By now I’ve seen most, though not all, of what I’ve wanted to see.  (Melancholia, Carnage, some foreign films, e.g., remain on my “must see, but not yet seen” list.)  So, with the red carpet already laid out for the Oscars, it seems like a good time for a 2011 recap redux.

In the post below I’ll offer my quick take on some notable films that I hadn’t mentioned last time, including a few notable for the wrong reasons.  Then I’ll wrap up with my choices for top films for the year.  (As I type this I still haven’t made my list, so I’m as eager as anyone to find out what they are.)


Films of 2011 (Part II)

Films of the Year Recap

2011 Films, Notable and Otherwise

The Artist
A love story in love with movies, and with the way movies were once in love with love.  I found the film fascinating (and the reaction fascinating to read as well).  The Artist aims to recapture something that’s been lost, something more than just the stripped-down conventions of an early movie era.  It wants a way of looking at our world and ourselves free of the ironic and cynical view that’s become commonplace in recent times.  Not all was well in the old days, and The Artist has its scenes of tragedy as well.  Those moments may seem easier for us to grasp; the scenes of wide-eyed innocence feel less familiar.  They feel nostalgic, in fact, and if there is any use to nostalgia, it’s to say there’s something not quite right with the way things are today.  The once-fresh world of movies has grown old and stale, and we need a new way forward.  That’s a critique I find persuasive:  you’ll have to look hard to find anything new on this list of top grossers for the past year.  The Artist has something in common with the films on that list; it too borrows from the past.  But it is not an old film.  It’s wildly entertaining and the freshest film of the year.

Beginners
A film about sadness, but hardly sad at all, Beginners is sweet and warm, yet far too sweet and warm for its own good.  The performances are fine, and give credit to Ewan MacGregor and Christopher Plummer, especially.  The cast makes the film worth watching, but the story seems oddly muted.  Conflict is avoided at all turns, characters are explored only so far, and this tale of how life can be messy and full of surprise seems a bit too neat in the end.

A Better Life
An immigrant gardener and his son, and the struggles of working-class life in Los Angeles.  The Oscar nomination for Demián Bichir is well-deserved, and all the better if it draws a bigger audience for the film, now on DVD.  The bond between father and son is heartfelt and moving.

The Descendants
Frailty, thy filmmaker is Alexandar Payne, the director who has given us Ruth Stoops (Citizen Ruth), Tracy Flick (Election), Warren Schmidlt (About Schmidt), and Miles Raymond (Sideways).  No one is as flawed and as compromised in The Descendants, except perhaps the mother, who is left in a coma after a fleeting few moments waterskiing off the Hawaii coast in the movie’s opening scene.  This film belongs to George Clooney, playing the husband she can cheat on no longer.  He is a true hero by Paynean standards, an accomplished lawyer, a respected patriarch, though a hapless father to his two daughters.  Payne does excellent work blending tragedy with humor, and Clooney and the cast are terrific.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The film has its flaws.  There’s the problematical appropriation of 9/11 for its ready-made tale of anguish, reducing a still-fresh national tragedy to a simple plot device, to the occasionally annoying, frequently not credible, central character, Oskar, the boy who loses his father in the World Trade Center crash.  The father left behind a key and Oskar searches the city of New York for the lock it belongs to.  So far, not so good.  But Oskar’s encounters provide a number of memorable scenes.  Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, and Sandra Bullock  all do good work, and Max von Sydow as the mysterious “renter” shines in a role without a word of dialogue.  A bit gimmicky, but that is par for the movie overall.

Shame
The performances are wonderful.  Michael Fassbender offers a brave and powerful portrayal of a man addicted to sex.  Carey Mulligan shows why she is one of the leading lights of her generation.  The bitter truth that the movie pretends to deliver, however, is all bitter and no truth.  I found the story not just unappealing but hard to believe.  Director Steve McQueen may be more interested in the buttons he’s pushing in his audience than the lives of his characters onscreen.

A Separation
This film from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi ranks high on the list of critics’ favorites.  I’d have liked it more if it were a little less the Bickering Bickersons of Tehran.  It’s a drama about a family being torn apart:  a married couple on the brink of divorce, a grandfather with Alzheimer’s, a daughter caught in the crossfire.  The father hires a housekeeper, but when her pregnancy ends in miscarriage, he ends up in court accused of murder.  Fair to say, Persian justice does not operate the same as our own.  A Separation is a good film, well worth seeing, though I have to say, not as great as advertised.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Did I enjoy it?  Thoroughly.  Will I see it again?  Absolutely.  Did I follow it?  Well, yes and no.  There’s a complicated plot that I wouldn’t dare to describe.  It almost comes as an afterthought, anyway.  Atmosphere, character, and games of trust and deceit are at the center of this Cold War spy story, adapted from the novel of John le Carré, with a cast of mostly Brits headed by Gary Oldman.  First rate all around.

War Horse
A misfire of epic proportions.  A war is fought, millions die, but all is well:  the horse survives.  Steven Spielberg, please phone home.  (We won’t even bring up what you did to Tintin.)

Warrior
Another Oscar nomination (Nick Nolte as the alcoholic father) already on DVD.  Warrior is a father-son drama set in the world of martial arts fighting.  Above average for its kind, though nothing especially groundbreaking.


Top 10 Films of 2011

The List

1.  The Artist

2.  The Tree of Life

3.  Midnight in Paris

4.  Hugo

5.  J. Edgar

6.  Drive

7.  A Dangerous Method

8.  The Descendants

9.  Margin Call

10.  Bridesmaids

A few notes: (1) On any other day, you’d get a different list.  I could see any of the top four or five being #1, for example.  (2) I’ve left off foreign-language films, documentaries, and some others.  It’s silly enough to rank films of different genres telling different stories, but I did want to draw the line somewhere.  These are feature-length, live-action, fiction films in English.  That’s it.  (3) The conventional wisdom is that 2011 was a below-average year for movies.  I think it’s too early to tell.  What we are fond of now and fond of later are often different movies, and ultimately what makes a good year is a few good films that linger in our memory, not the ones we forget.  I’d guess most of the films on the list will stand up, and others will emerge.  But I don’t really know.  Only time will tell.  (Now, I’m wondering how I could have left off Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  The second guessing has already begun.)


The Artist (2011)
Michel Hazanavicius, writer-director
Guillaume Schiffman, cinematographer
Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Uggie
Trailer


Quote of note
“With pleasure.”
—George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), The Artist (2011)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 26 Feb 2012 @ 09:20 PM

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 30 Dec 2011 @ 11:00 PM 

Friday Minute
No. 236 | December 30, 2011

Where Has the Year Gone?

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Last we met, on this page at least, we were heading down the yellow-brick road with Dorothy to celebrate some joyous news with the Munchkins.  That was May.  May?  May!  So where have I been?  Good question.  Where have you been?  Another good question.  And where oh where has the time gone?

Long story short, my already full life became even more full and something had to give.  That something turned out to be writing for this site on any kind of a regular basis.  I had expected that I’d find time to add occasional posts, but that, I’ve learned, is harder to do when it’s not part of a daily or weekly routine.  So the year has slipped away—pffft!—but before it is officially done, let’s take a look back at some of the movies of 2011.

For the record, this is not my list of ten best films of the year.  No reason to stop at ten anyway, and slowpoke that I am, my moviegoing for the year remains a work in progress.  I’m still catching up with a few films from November (and before), and some late-year releases are just hitting theaters (A Separation opens today).

Rather, this is a list of movies I’ve seen (so far) that made going to the theater worth the time and effort.  It’s incomplete and somewhat arbitrary—I’ll have something a bit more definitive to say after I’ve taken in a few more year-end releases, sometime before Oscar time.  Let me add this disclaimer:  these are not necessarily great movies.  Some are only arguably good, flawed but with enough redeeming value to make them worth noting.

I’ve broken out the list into two groups:  one, films from before the deluge, i.e., before Oscar hopefuls hit theaters starting around October, and the other, films that have come out since.


Films of 2011 (Part I)

Pre-Oscar Season (films through September)

Standout Films

The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick doesn’t direct many films—five features in 38 years (though he may be just a slow starter, with nearly as many in pipeline).  What he lacks in number he more than makes up for with uncommonly rich, dense explorations of the beings who people his stories.  His stories are not the linear narratives we’re used to getting at the movies.  Nor are his characters revealed through the usual mix of dialogue and action.  Malick’s works resemble photographed novels as much as they do cinema.  Malick combines images, dreams, memories, and voiceovers to portray lives lived in the context of forces far beyond, and deeper than, ordinary experience.  His latest, The Tree of Life, has divided critics and audiences (making it the kind of movie I tend to favor).  A tour de force or tour de farce?  Depends whom you read.  I lean toward the former view.  The story ostensibly is about a family in a small town in Texas, yet it takes time for meditations ranging from the origins of the universe to the ultimate demise of Earth.  Within that grand sweep we see human life not as a thing in itself but an episode in the continuum.  Few movies take such a wide perspective; 2001: A Space Odyssey, a very different film, is one.  Malick, like Kubrick, contemplates the mystery of it all and gives his audience something rare, a chance to experience wonder.

Midnight in Paris
We think of Woody Allen as a New York director but he seems to have found new life in recent years making movies in Europe.  Since 2005 he’s released four films shot in London and one in Barcelona.  This year it’s the City of Light and Midnight in Paris is the best of the lot.  (Rome gets its turn next year with Nero Fiddled.)  Owen Wilson turns in a winning performance as Gil, an American writer in love more with the city than with his fiancée.  His knack for time travel offers an escape as he hobnobs with greats from the city’s storied expatriate past—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Porter, Picasso, Dalí, and Buñuel among them.  The film is sweet and whimsical, more than a bit nostalgic, and for one interlude in which Gil steals the heart of Picasso’s mistress, wonderfully portrayed by the beautiful Marion Cotillard, it’s altogether touching.

Drive
Drive is a steely cool slice of L.A. crime drama propelled by an unflappable, razor-sharp lead performance from Ryan Gosling.  The film borrows freely from a variety of sources, and influences such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Sergio Leone give the story a distinct non-Hollywood feel.  The driver, never named, is a man of few words.  He works as a mechanic in a shop run by gangsters, does stunt driving for the movie biz, and hires himself out for getaway work.  A loner by nature, he gets involved with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son and a husband getting out of prison.  Complications ensue and plans inevitably go awry.  Among the strong supporting cast is Albert Brooks as a ruthless and surprisingly believable bad guy.

Notable Films

Bridesmaids
A comedy with great laughs and real people.  See, that’s not so hard.  Thank you, Kristen Wiig et al.  More like this, please.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog’s 3-D documentary inside the Chauvet Cave in France, where some of the world’s great art has been sealed for thousands of years.  Ever wonder, What is it to be human?  This film holds part of the answer to that question.

The Company Men
A timely film about a corporate downsizing and for the unlucky duckies who lose their livelihood, what happens next.  A fine cast led by Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, and Tommy Lee Jones.

Contagion
Thanks to the brave leadership of politicians and medical professionals, the societies of the world pull together, avert panic, and successfully combat a mysterious and deadly virus sweeping the globe.  Oops…that’s a different film.  This one’s from Steven Soderbergh, and sad to say, it may be a somewhat more realistic view of what could someday happen.

The Debt
The film is a remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller and doesn’t achieve all that you might have hoped.  Still, it’s a heckuva story, and with Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and the busy Jessica Chastain, among others, you’re in good hands. 

Dogtooth
A Greek film that’s part horror, part comedy, about three older children living a totalitarian nightmare devised by their deranged parents.  Unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Hanna
Hanna is a teenage girl living in the northern wilderness, where she is trained by her father to be an assassin.  Saoirse Ronan does a terrific job in the title role.  The film is uneven in spots and has some plot elements that don’t really work.  Nevertheless, there’s plenty of action, some nicely photographed sequences, and a few moments of brilliance.

The Help
I can think of a few things wrong with this movie, but I enjoyed the performances, especially those of Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, and Emma Stone.  The racial divide of Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s may not be the same as it is today, but the divide now between the haves and have-nots feels as wide as ever, and for that reason, the film seems unusually timely.

Incendies
A Canadian-made film set in the Middle East and largely in French.  Two adult children travel back to the war-torn homeland of their dead mother to deliver letters to their brother and father and discover the truth about their family and themselves.  It’s devastating.

Moneyball
Films about baseball typically are not great movies.  This is no exception, though it is a cut above many of the others.  The tale leaves behind old-fashioned notions of the romance of the sport.  This one’s all about the science of numbers.  Perhaps that’s the way the game is played these days, but also it’s part of the problem—for the sport and for the movie.  A little more heart wouldn’t hurt.

Super 8
Probably the best Steven Spielberg film this year, though J. J. Abrams directed this one.  I liked the story of the clever kids, breaking curfew to make a movie.  The extraterrestrials show up, and what started fresh begins to feel like something we’ve seen a few too many times before.

Tabloid
Errol Morris’s documentary on the fascinating story of Joyce McKinney, with a big juicy 1960s sex scandal, a kidnapping, Mormons, and dog cloning to boot.

The Trip
Adapted from a British television series, The Trip follows the hilarious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on their travels through the Lake District of Northern England.  They drive, they stop at one inn or another, and they eat.  Not a lot more happens.  But they talk, and their repartee and impressions account for some best laughs you’ll find on film this year.  The movie feels a bit slapdash, and I can’t help but wonder what didn’t make it into the final cut, but one thing is sure:  no one who sees it will think of Michael Caine the same way again.

Oscar Season (films from October on)

Notable Films

Anonymous
The story is over the top—but Roland Emmerich was never one for subtlety.  He took liberties—hey, like Shakespeare—so don’t come to this film looking for history.  Whatever merits the Earl of Oxford–as–Bard authorship theory may hold (it does make for fascinating reading), at heart this film is a paean to the greatest writer of the English language who ever lived.  That’s something special, whatever his name was.

A Dangerous Method
Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud at the birth of psychoanalysis, featuring the story of Sabina Spielrein, the patient, protégée, and lover who unites then divides them.  Strong performances from Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortenson.  Keira Knightley plays the troubled and irresistible Sabina.  It’s a period picture, but with David Cronenberg at the helm, working from a Christopher Hampton script, it’s not at all old-fashioned.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The first of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy to get its English-language big-screen treatment, it delivers more or less what you’d expect (though not much more):  quick storytelling from David Fincher, a pulsating score from Trent Reznor, and dynamite performances from Rooney Mara in the title role and Daniel Craig doing some very un-Bond-like detective work.  The film is the kind of up-to-date genre piece that Hollywood should be making more of, if only it could kick its fantasy habit.

Hugo
A film about the magic of movies, and made with more than a bit of magic itself.  The story of Georges Méliès, the pioneer filmmaker who lost favor with audiences, ran a toy store with his wife at Gare Montparnasse in Paris, and late in life was rediscovered is one that deserves to be told, and now in fictionalized form it has.  Martin Scorcese directed the adaptation of Brian Selznick’s inventive novel.  Fine performances, with many comic touches and sweet moments.  I am probably more fond of this film than any other I’ve seen recently, and it’s the rare 3-D film I’m glad to have seen in 3-D.

The Ides of March
Intrigue behind the scenes of a presidential campaign, with pols and candidates more lifelike than we get on the reality TV known as cable news.  George Clooney directed and stars as Governor Mike Morris, but the film belongs to the campaign manager played by Ryan Gosling, who’s having quite a year.  An all-around fine cast, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright and Evan Rachel Wood on hand to do deeds nefarious and otherwise.

J. Edgar
Here, friends, is the love story of the year.  Leonardo DiCaprio is a revelation as the one and only J. Edgar Hoover.  Armie Hammer is Clyde Tolson, his colleague, confidant, and more.  Naomi Watts is his lifelong secretary, the loyal Helen Gandy.  A richly told tale directed by Clint Eastwood, probably on balance as good a film as any he’s made.

Margin Call
If you want a movie to help you understand the financial crisis of 2008, I’d recommend the documentary Inside Job.  It shows how the 1% ripped off the 99% and gives you the who-did-what (plenty of bad guys, not a lot of good guys).  Margin Call is the story of some of those crooks.  You might not like them—a few are just rich assholes, after all—but you get a sense of the price they pay.  The film doesn’t let them off the hook, but you can understand why they do what they do.  That may not be a popular take in these times, but it’s an achievement.  The cast is wonderful and the performances well worth the time.

My Week with Marilyn
Marilyn Monroe, as great a star as the movies have known, is brought to life in a remarkable performance by Michelle Williams.  You can’t take your eyes off her.  That’s the reason to see this movie, even if the film may be slight in other ways.


The Pause Button

As noted above, I’ll be back with another post or two early in 2012, recapping the year and looking at the Oscars (February 26).  The regular schedule for posts about movies is on hold for the time being.  I’d like to get back to writing more about movies when time permits, but that will not be very soon.  I have a couple of ideas for other movie projects, and someday I will get to them too.  Meanwhile, my next writing gig will not about movies, and will not be online, but it will keep me occupied for some time, and if and when there is news to share about that, I will let you know.

For you crossword fans, my 16-month series of Gram Cracker minipuzzles wrapped up earlier in December.  It was a fun experiment, and in the end I’d say the puzzles turned out well.  Hope it was fun for you solvers too.  Once again, a big “thanks” to two-time ACPT champ Dan Feyer for his expert test-solving skills, a big help to me getting the puzzles ready for prime time.  The Gram Crackers and other puzzles, as always, are at the MAD Puzzles page.


Hugo (2011)
Martin Scorsese, director
Robert Richardson, cinematographer
Brian Selznick (book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret), John Logan (screenplay), writers
Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen
Trailer


Quote of note
“If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around:  this is where they’re made.”
—Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), Hugo (2011)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 31 Dec 2011 @ 05:52 PM

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 07 Mar 2011 @ 11:40 PM 

Monday Minute
No. 221 | March 7, 2011

Rotary Club

Social media is quite the thing.  It’s how we make friends these days, and so I hear, how revolutions are made in the Middle East.  If you believe what they tell you on TV, you’d wonder if people had any way to communicate before Facebook and Twitter.  Well, I have it on good authority that there was in fact a social network before The Social Network.  They called it the telephone.

In the post-war years, the country had a new numbering plan.  People moving to the suburbs needed a new way to stay in touch.  Use of phones grew, and Hollywood took notice.

Onscreen, the ubiquitous telephone was hardly an innocent device.  It was often a signal there’d be mayhem and murder afoot.  This week, a threesome of films from mid-century with the telephone getting the most prominent and ominous billing—in the title.

Our theme this week
Mayhem, murder, and a telephone in the title

Dial M for Murder (1954)

dial m for murder

Dial M for Murder is a movie set in London made by Alfred Hitchcock in Hollywood.  Actors Ray Milland and John Williams lend their British accents to the production, starring with Americans Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings.

Milland plays onetime tennis pro Tony Wendice, a husband with murder on his mind.  He’s married to Margot, his would-be victim, the wealthy and unfaithful wife played by Kelly, in her first of three roles for Hitchcock.  Cummings is the paramour, a fellow named Mark Halliday.  Williams is the veddy British police inspector who unravels what turns out to be a less-than-perfect crime.

Wendice plans the murder with great attention to detail, blackmailing an old school acquaintance (Anthony Dawson) to carry it out while Wendice himself is safely away from home at a stag party.  Hitchcock pays great attention to detail too, and his execution proves more successful than Wendice’s, making for an especially memorable murder scene.  Watch Kelly in her beautiful white negligee (Hitchcock at first planned for a robe but took Kelly’s advice), and watch out for those scissors.

Wendice gets to hear it all over the telephone, but he does not become a suspect until after the wrong person is convicted of murder.  His ultimate undoing comes after much business about a latchkey.  It’s always something.

Though not as accomplished as the best of Hitchcock (a high standard indeed), the movie does have some great moments.  The director had a long fascination with blackmail and murder—and blondes—and it’s all on display here.  Adapted from a play by Frederick Knott, the film feels somewhat stagebound, in part because of the limits of 3-D filmmaking.  In a post-Avatar world, it’s hard to see the appeal of 3-D for this story (1 more D than neeeded), but Hitchcock loved to experiment.

Another odd aspect (from our vantage) comes less than an hour into the film, which clocks in at a brisk one-hour-forty-five minutes:  an intermission.  And they say we have short attention spans.


Dial M for Murder (1954)
Alfred Hitchcock, director
Frederick Knott (play and screenplay), writer
Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams
Trailer


Quote of note
Wendice
:  At exactly three minutes to eleven, you’ll enter the house through the street door.  You’ll find the key to this door under the stair carpet here.
Swann:  The fifth step?
Wendice:  That’s the one.  Go straight to the window, and hide behind the curtains.  At exactly eleven o’clock, I shall go to the telephone in the hotel to call my boss.  I shall dial the wrong number.  This number.  That’s all I shall do.
—Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), C.A. Swann (Anthony Dawson), Dial M for Murder (1954)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 08 Mar 2011 @ 07:50 AM

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 09 Feb 2011 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 212 | February 9, 2011

Best of 2010


Our theme this week
Top English-language films of 2010

Featured this week
(See Monday post for theme introduction)
Monday         —   Best Films of 2010 (#15 to #11)

Best Films of 2010 (#10 to #6)


#10 – Blue Valentine

blue valentine

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, two excellent actors who just turned 30, give a couple of their finest performances in Derek Cianfrance’s raw and searing Blue Valentine.  It’s a story of a couple told in present day and flashback, from their first meeting to final parting.  The film opens with their young daughter standing in a field screaming for her lost dog, and it closes with her running after her dad, who walks away from his family life in a blaze of fireworks.  There’s hardly a conventional shot in the whole works.  The photography, like the characters, is off-kilter.  The music, scored by Grizzly Bear, keeps us on edge.  The movie is unpredictable, even volatile, and in the end, unforgettable.

(Blue Valentine at MAD:  review)

#9 — Winter’s Bone

winter's bone

The story in short, from my look at Winter’s Bone two weeks ago:

The search for the father is about the oldest story around.  Telemachus, meet Ree.  She’s a 17-year-old living in the dirt-poor hills of Missouri.  She has a sick mother, a couple of younger siblings to care for, and a father nowhere to be found.  Unless she finds him in a few days—dead or alive—her family will lose their home.  The hunt is on.  First-rate performances from Jennifer Lawrence as the fearless teen and John Hawkes as her uncle, Teardrop.

It takes money to make movies, but not a lot to make a good one—or even one of the best of the year.  Winter’s Bone was made for a sum that would be rounding error for most Hollywood productions (less than the cost of those 30-second ads during the Super Bowl).  The result is a taut, focused film about an implacable heroine in a land we hardly ever see at the movies, the Ozarks.  It’s a fine, stirring picture from director Debra Granik.  There’s a lesson there for Hollywood, though not one it’s likely to learn.

#8 — The Ghost Writer

the ghost writer

Roman Polanski made plenty of headlines last year, putting a lie to the idea that any publicity is good publicity.  Still under house arrest at the time, Polanski released an especially good movie, though reaction at the time seemed as much a referendum on the director as on the merits of his film.  The Ghost Writer stars Ewan McGregor in the title role, as the hired hand writing the memoirs of Adam Lang, a former British prime minister, and possible war criminal.  Pierce Brosnan plays Lang, in a sterling performance.  The ghostwriter uncovers dark secrets of Lang’s past, putting his own life in danger.  Supporting performances from Olivia Williams, as Lang’s wife, and Kim Cattrall, as Lang’s assistant, add a dash of spice as Polanski lays on the intrigue.  It’s a cynical view of politics, in ways, perhaps even paranoid, but with Tony Blair, the model for the Lang character, now the focus of an inquiry in London for his role in the Iraq War, some elements of the film may in time look prescient.

#7 — The Fighter

the fighter

The Fighter is the true-life story of Micky Ward, a welterweight boxer from working-class Lowell, Massachusetts, whose greatest obstacle in pursuit of a championship is his own family.  Micky’s half-brother, Dicky Ecklund, is the home favorite, a onetime pug hoping to make a comeback.  The story is entertaining, but the real pleasure of the film is in the performances.  Mark Wahlberg is Micky, the quiet center of the storm, with the three Oscar nominees providing the fireworks:  Christian Bale as Dicky, Melissa Leo as the matriarch of the clan, and Amy Adams as the tough-as-nails girlfriend.  Director David O. Russell is best known for his comic and off-beat works (Flirting With Disaster, I Heart Huckabees), and that sensibility is evident in a few scenes, but overall this is a more conventional work, and one of his most enjoyable.

(The Fighter at MAD:  review and Micky vs. Marky)

#6 — Never Let Me Go

never let me go

No other film from last year haunted me as did Never Let Me Go.  Based on the wonderful novel of Kazuo Ishiguro, the film tells the story of Kathy H., educated at the English boarding school Hailsham, where students live an idyllic existence while preparing for a special mission in life.  Slowly, the children (and we) learn the role for which they have been selected, and the utopian dream turns into a nightmare.  The film has been called science fiction, but don’t expect any special effects or whiz-bang gadgetry.  It’s a quiet, unhurried film, uncommonly tuned in to the inner thoughts of its characters.  What is it that makes people dedicate their lives, literally, to service of others?  What allows them to accept an inherently unfair fate?  In a way, Ishiguro’s eye, and the film’s, has its gaze on a class of society, perhaps more evident in Britain, whose circumstances offer limited freedom and opportunity.  But the story has a deeper resonance.  It’s a meditation on life, that too-brief time each of us is given, and the need for us to choose how to spend it.  The film, I felt, came especially alive when Carey Mulligan, the adult Kathy, was onscreen.  Never Let Me Go has much to offer, not the least a chance to see one of the great talents of her generation.


Never Let Me Go (2010)
Mark Romanek, director
Kazuo Ishiguro (novel), Alex Garland (screenplay), writers
Adam Kimmel, cinematographer
Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley
Trailer


Winter’s Bone (2010)
Debra Granik, director
Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini, writers
Michael McDonough, cinematographer
Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt
Trailer


Quote of note
The Ghost:  You realize I know nothing about politics.
Rick Ricardelli:  You voted for him, didn’t you?
The Ghost:  Adam Lang?  Of course, I did.  Everyone voted for him.  He wasn’t a politician, he was a craze.
—The Ghost (Ewan McGregor), Rick Ricardelli (Jon Bernthal), The Ghost Writer (2010)

…58…59…60.

 30 Dec 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
No. 203 | December 30, 2010

It’s Kind of a True Story


Our theme this week
Recent movies based on stories of real people

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Social Network:  Mark Zuckerberg
Tuesday         —   Nowhere Boy:  John Lennon
Wednesday    —   Conviction:  Betty Anne Waters

Fair Game:  Valerie Plame Wilson

fair game_new

I had included a quote from All the President’s Men when I previewed Fair Game in October, and now having seen the latter I’d say it’s as close to the 1976 Best Picture nominee as we’re likely to get these days.  It doesn’t measure up entirely, but that may be more a reflection of different times and different outcomes to the stories than a problem with the filmmaking.

Both films are about wrongdoing in the White House, and both follow a couple of characters as they try to shed light on the truth.  In the earlier film, the crime is a petty burglary at the Watergate complex, and Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the burglary and its coverup lead to the resignation of a disgraced president.  The new film is about lies that the Bush Administration told to lead our country into war against Iraq, and the efforts of two whistleblowers, CIA agent Valerie Plame (dead ringer Naomi Watts, in a first-rate performance) and her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson (a fine Sean Penn), to expose the truth.  In the end, neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney, who is the kingpin in this telling, is brought to justice.  Scooter Libby, advisor to the vice president, is convicted in the scandal, but Bush soon commutes the sentence.  Plame, meanwhile, loses her career as a CIA officer when her cover is blown by the White House as retribution for an op-ed that her husband wrote questioning the administration.

The story of All the President’s Men may have shaken people’s faith in our government, but at least the system worked.  No feel-good equivalent is to be found in Fair Game‘s storyline.  The film does try to leave us with a more positive message, but it’s only partly successful at dispelling the troubling sense we have watching a gross injustice go unpunished.

The Wilsons are not disloyal to the country.  Rather, they are portrayed as true patriots.  Yet the film is more than just about politics and justice.  It’s a personal drama, and we get a look at the pressures that nearly tear apart the Wilson family.  In this respect, Fair Game has a level of involvement not found in the earlier picture, in which Woodward and Bernstein have no life outside of their jobs.

Fair Game is recent history, a history still being written, and people with political agendas are actively working to skew reaction to the film.  For more, this article by David Corn is worth a read.


Fair Game (2010)
Doug Liman, director
Valerie Plame Wilson (book, Fair Game), Joseph Wilson (book, The Politics of Truth), Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth (screenplay); writers
Doug Liman, director of photography
Trailer

 


Fair Game (2010)
Naomi Watts, Sean Penn


Quote of note
Valerie Plame
:  I get death threats every day.  People threaten to kill my husband, to hurt my children.  I went to the agency and I requested security to protect my family.  I was declined because, quote, my circumstances fall outside budget protocols.  If this is a knife fight, sir, right now we’re fighting it alone.
Jim Pavitt:  Joe Wilson versus the White House, huh.  But I feel as a friend I should tell you that those men—those few men in that building over there—are the most powerful men in the history of the world.  How much of a stretch do you think it would be for them to take on Joe Wilson?
—Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), Jim Pavitt (Bruce McGill), Fair Game (2010)

…58…59…60.


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