2011 Films

THE 84TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS
2012 Oscar Picks and Predictions

Yes, yes, we all know the Oscars don't really matter. The whole idea of competitive awards for artistic achievement is a little dicey to begin with, and the Academy Awards broadcast is just a self-congratulatory Hollywood wankfest, in which they get nearly everything wrong. (This is, after all, the body that incorrectly deemed How Green Was My Valley a better film than Citizen Kane, Ordinary People a better movie than Raging Bull, and that Crash was in any way better than being hit repeatedly in the skull with a ball-peen hammer.)

And who the hell remembers who won anyway? Pop quiz: who won Best Actress last year? No cheating now, but I'll give you some context: it was the year that The King's Speech—a perfectly pleasant, artistically uninspired crowd-pleaser—won Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Colin Firth), and Best Director (Tom Hooper). It missed the sweep of the Big Five, however, when Helena Bonham Carter lost the Best Actress Oscar to…

If you answered, "Who is Natalie Portman," you either remember Black Swan way better than I do, or you cheated, or you're my freakish mother who never forgets a useless piece of trivia. (Or maybe you're Natalie Portman herself. In which case: Hi, Natalie. Loved you in Beautiful Girls. Congratulations on your Oscar last year. Please choose better movies.)

Besides, by this point we're just sick to death of all of it. When I was a kid, the Oscars were the one night of the year when we could see all these famous and beautiful people dressed up in one place, but cable television changed all of that. By this point in the year we've already seen Christopher Plummer win a Golden Globe, a Screen Actor's Guild Award, a Critic's Choice Award, a BAFTA, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and a Motor Trend Car of the Year Award. We know he's going to win the Oscar, and, by this point, we just don't care—especially since we know that we're going to have to sit through a four-hour endurance test just to see him win another statue for what must be, by now, an increasingly tacky mantle.

So, haters, I hear you: the Oscars are too long, utterly predictable, scandalously commercial, culturally insignificant, and almost guaranteed to be—as they are every year—a gigantic disappointment.

But you know what, Sachean Littlefeather? I could give a rat's ass: I still like 'em. Continue reading

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ALBERT NOBBS (2011)

Directed by Rodrigo García

Warning: Contains mild spoilers.

I must confess that I went into Albert Nobbs with the lowest of expectations. It is a film that is served terribly by its publicity campaign—the woeful trailer, with its sappy theme song and overall tone of drawing-room comedy—had me referring to it disdainfully as "Dragtown Abbey" or "Albert Knobless." I almost certainly would have avoided the film altogether if it hadn't represented three of the remaining items in my annual Oscar Nomination Scavenger Hunt (Best Actress nominee Glenn Close, Best Supporting Actress nominee Janet McTeer, and Best Achievement in Makeup.)

However (though I still can't quite recommend it) Albert Nobbs turns out to be a far more interesting—and darker—movie than it appeared to be. Based on a novella by the early-20th century Irish writer George Moore, the titual character (Close) is a woman passing as a man in turn-of-the-century Dublin. (And no—just to get the inevitable criticism out of the way—Close gives a fine performance, but does not make a very convincing man. Let us just assume that it would have occured to very few people in turn-of-the-century Dublin to even be suspicious of this elfin, effeminate man, and leave it at that.) Albert has been working as a man for more than 20 years, and for several years has been a waiter at Morrison's Hotel, run by the morally-compromised Mrs. Moore (Serena Brabazon). Albert—and here I should mention that I shall follow Moore's novella and refer to Albert with female pronouns—has been miserly saving her wages and tips towards the purchase of a tobacconist's shop: somewhere, she says, where a woman can work behind the counter.

Albert has no personal relationships: her desperate need to hide her own identity, and some horrible experiences in her youth, have led her to create an emotionally autonomous life for herself. This solitary existence, however, is challenged by the arrival at the hotel of housepainter Hubert Page (McTeer), who is assigned to share Albert's bed and thus discovers her secret. Quickly, however, Albert learns that Mr. Page is also a woman passing as a man, and is herself happily married to a woman. The idea takes root in Albert for the first time that she does not necessarily have to spend her life alone, and so she sets her sights on Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a young maid having an affair with a loutish handyman named Joe (Aaron Johnson). When Helen and Joe decide to exploit Albert's interest and squeeze some money out of her, a strangely dark love triangle ensues. Continue reading

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EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011)

Directed by Stephen Daldry

Exceedingly phony and insufferably cloying, Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close begs the question: ten years after the events of September 11, 2001, are we ready as a nation to turn our collective trauma into simpering schmaltz?

No. No. A thousand times: no. What has happened this year? From J. Edgar to The Iron Lady, from The Help to Red Tails, movie makers seems intent on approaching very serious historical events in a way that just reinforces every pejorative definition of the adjective "Hollywood." Is there something about a suffering economy that makes the American people crave shallow, manipulative movies that let us pretend we're grappling with historically important subjects, and emotionally weighty subject matter, without actually having to do so? I understand that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but that's not what's happening here: these movies have little or no redeeming elements mixed in with their sickeningly sweet syrup: they are pure snake-oil being hawked with misleading and criminally exaggerated claims of importance.

Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close takes the idea of making sense of the 9/11 attacks far too literally, embodying the quest for meaning in an 11-year-old boy named Oskar (newcomer Thomas Horn, handed an impossible role that could never be anything but annoying). Oskar has some unspecified disorder along the autism spectrum, and so his saintly father Thomas (Tom Hanks) arranges "reconnaissance expeditions" for him: complicated treasure hunts that force Oskar to go out into the city and engage with other human beings. After Thomas dies in the World Trade Center, Oskar finds a key in Thomas's closet in an envelope labeled "Black." Convinced that this is a message from his late father to undertake one final quest, Oskar goes in search of the key's owner, making a plan to visit—on foot—every single person named Black in the New York City area.

Excessively contrived and unforgivably twee, to call this set-up a "conceit" is an insult to conceits: it's simply preposterous. I spent most of the movie wanting to report Oskar's mother (Sandra Bullock) to child-protective services for apparently allowing her socially-disconnected son to wander the city alone talking to strangers. Fortunately, every single person in New York City named Black turns out to be a paragon of patience and virtue, all of whom are just unbearably touched by Oskar's quixotic quest for understanding.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close assembles an all-star cast in the service of this nonsense. Seen in flashbacks, the character of Oskar's father tests the very limits of Tom Hanks's "likable everyman" persona: his goodness starts to seem both intolerable and vaguely maniacal. Bullock actually gives the better performance as Oskar's depressed, slightly estranged mother, at least until the ridiculous machinations of the plot's third-act twist make her, too, seem like an unhinged parental psychopath. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright portray two of the first—and most important—of the random people Oskar encounters: both are such good actors that I am growing increasingly tired of seeing them lend their weight to projects so unworthy of them. Continue reading

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WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011)

Directed by Lynne Ramsay

Spoiler Level: Low

Several years ago, I visited some friends just a few weeks after the birth of their first child. Haggard, exhausted, and pushed to the brink of breakdown by the sleep-deprivation that comes with a colicky infant, my friends described their initial experiences of parenthood with an unusual and heartbreaking candor. "We hate it," they said. "We've hated every second of it." Over the unrelenting screams of their new daughter—a sound that tortured me after five minutes, but with which they had been living for weeks—they expressed feelings that are almost certainly common, if seldom spoken aloud. "It feels like we've made the worst mistake of our lives," they said. "We want our old life back. Honestly, I think we'd smother her if we thought we could get away with it."

Their beautiful little girl has since, of course, become the greatest joy of their lives. That bad period did not last long, but while it lasted there were surely moments when they wondered what all new parents must wonder at one time or another: what if it never gets any better? It is one of those fears so painful and frightening—so threatening to a parent's essential morality and identity—that it can barely be acknowledged. What if I never love my child? What if it never loves me?

Motion pictures have long played on this fear, of course, usually in the form of horror movies like The Bad Seed, Rosemary's Baby, It's Alive, and The Omen. Rarely, however, has the subject been treated as seriously—and therefore as disturbingly—as in Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, a 2011 film that is going into wider release this week.

Adapted from the 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a difficult, discomforting film—and I mean that in the best possible way. Tilda Swinton gives a fascinating performance as Eva, a woman living in the aftermath of a shattering crime committed by her first-born child. Ramsay shows us Eva's life in the present—where she is little more than a haunted pariah in her community—but jumps backwards and forwards in time through her relationship with her son, Kevin. The disjointed, non-linear structure is more than a narrative device, for Eva barely exists in the present, and has no future: she is condemned to spend the rest of her life reliving the nightmare of her life before. Continue reading

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THE IRON LADY (2011)

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Spoiler Level: Low

Can a movie be offensively inoffensive? How about controversially non-controversial? Is it acceptable to be neutral about a polarizing figure, or are films about real people and true events obligated to take a stand one way or another?

These are interesting questions: unfortunately, they are far more interesting than anything in The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd's ridiculously toothless biopic about Margaret Thatcher. Written by Abi Morgan (who co-wrote the very different but similarly shallow Shame), The Iron Lady makes an excellent companion piece to Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, in that it takes one of the most interesting (and, for my money, repellent) figures of the 20th century and utterly fails to do justice to either their crimes or their accomplishments. Meryl Streep's uncanny impersonation is a thing to behold, but if she had delivered it in a six-minute skit on Saturday Night Live it might have served a more commentative and courageous purpose.  Continue reading

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THE HELP (2011)
The Unenthusiastic Critic #8

As regular readers of this blog know, “The Unenthusiastic Critic” is my girlfriend, N., who normally sits down with me—under protest—to watch movies that I feel represent unforgivable gaps in her movie education. This week, however, we're departing from the format, as N. joins me to watch a recent release that neither of us has seen before.

The truth is, I was pretty unenthusiastic myself, and had deliberately avoided going to see The Help in theaters. But I'm an awards-show addict, and when The Help received several nominations—not just from the (notoriously dubious) Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but also from the more respectable Screen Actors Guild—I knew I was going to have to watch it. You see, I make it a point to see as many nominated films as possible, so that when they win awards they don't deserve I can rant about them with a clear conscience. This year, I had a strong feeling I'd want to throw a proper, well-justified fit if The Help should happen to win anything, and so I decided I'd have to give it a look.

And because I couldn't face it alone, and because I thought the perspective of an African-American woman might be helpful, I approached the one person on the planet I knew wanted to watch The Help even less than I did: my girlfriend.

"You have fun with that," she said. "I'm not watching that shit." (To be fair, this is what she always says whenever I suggest we watch something for this blog.)

Continue reading

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THE BEST FILMS OF 2011

Lists of this kind are really only useful for generating arguments. I've labeled this post "The Best Films of 2011," and I'm fairly arrogant in my opinions, but even I recognize that an arbitrary list of films, assembled according to criteria I would not be able to fully explain, is not definitive.

For one thing, I haven't seen everything. Every year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science generates an official "reminder list" of productions that are eligible for consideration in the main categories at the Oscars: there are 262 films on this year's list, and that doesn't even include documentaries. I managed to see just over 60 of those films, and have reviewed fewer than 30 since I began this site in April. (What can I say? I slacked off on my day job as much as I dared.)      Continue reading

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THE MOST OVERRATED FILMS OF 2011

Every year, when awards season rolls around, I follow the nominations and prizes the way other people obsess over March Madness brackets or Presidential primaries. And every year, I find myself asking one question over and over again:

Are you all sniffing glue? Continue reading

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WAR HORSE (2011)

Directed by Steven Spielberg


Spoiler Level: Low

I am occasionally accused of being a cynical bastard—and the accusation is not wholly without merit—but a cynical bastard could not have fallen so completely for the old-fashioned Hollywood charms of War Horse, the second—and far better—of the two Steven Spielberg films currently in theaters. In fact, War Horse seems almost specifically designed to counter my criticisms of The Adventures of Tintin, and to stave off any argument about whether Spielberg—unarguably at the height of his technical powers—has lost his ability to really move audiences. Epic, humane, and admirably unafraid of sentiment, War Horse is pure old-school family storytelling. If you'll surrender your own cynicism long enough to forgive an unavoidable movie-review cliché, it's the kind of movie they just don't make any more. Continue reading

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THE DESCENDANTS (2011)

Directed by Alexander Payne

In my rush to see and discuss as many films as possible before the end of 2011, I keep trying—and failing—to write short reviews. But, for once, I feel I can be succinct about The Descendants, the new George Clooney vehicle directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways).

I hated it. I really, really fucking hated it.

Is that enough? Do you need more?  Continue reading

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THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Spoiler Level: Low

There were moments early in The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Steven Spielberg, when I hoped the film might take flight and become the 21st century Indiana Jones movie that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull so completely failed to be. Certainly, most of the elements are there: it's a light, action-adventure chase film in which our hero and his comic sidekicks follow clues all over the globe, in search of lost treasure, moving from one elaborate, stunt-heavy set piece to another with the bad guys nipping at their heels.

And yet The Adventures of Tintin—though an undeniably impressive technical achievement—is never quite as much fun as it should be. Continue reading

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THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)

Directed by David Fincher

Spoiler Level: Low

I should begin by saying that I went into David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo completely cold. I am one of what is apparently no more than a handful of people worldwide who have not read Stieg Larrson's 2005 novel (published in English under this same title, but originally published in Sweden as Män som hatar kvinnor, or "Men who hate women"). Nor have I seen the 2009 Swedish film version of Män som hatar kvinnor, directed by Niels Arden Oplev and starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. I was, in short, aware that there was this phenomenon surrounding this novel (and its sequels), but knew virtually nothing about the characters or plot.

I now will read the books and see the other adaptation, because now I know what all the fuss is all about. Continue reading

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MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011)

Directed by Simon Curtis

The dirty secret of my life as a lay critic is that I see way, way more movies than I ever review. This is predominantly an issue of time—it takes 1-1/2–2 hours to watch a film, but at least twice as long—sometimes, for me, four times as long—to write about it. But this half-assed triaging is also based on my interest level: sometimes, what I have to say about a film just isn't worth my time or yours.

It is, of course, the movies that I really love or really hate that inspire me to write about them, and it's the passable in-betweeners that tend to fall through the cracks. If I walk out of a film saying, "Eh, it was okay," that's usually going to be the movie I never quite get around to writing about. (For the record, if you are wondering what I thought about Bridesmaids, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Fright Night, The Guard, Red State, The Skin I Live In, or The Muppets, to name just a few, you may quote me thusly: "Eh, it was okay.")

But now we are in awards season, and it seems wrong not to at least chime in on some of the contenders. Continue reading

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TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011)

Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Spoiler-Level: Low.

There are two ways to approach a viewing of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the impressive new adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 novel about espionage and cold-war paranoia, and one of them is far more rewarding than the other. Continue reading

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HUGO (2011)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Hugo is being called a departure for Martin Scorsese, whose illustrious career spans 50 years and as many films. At first glance, the director of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Good Fellas, and The Last Temptation of Christ would seem an odd choice to helm a 3-D adaptation of Brian Selznick's 2008 illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. A gentle, enchanting fable about fate, wonder, and redemption, there really is nothing else in Scorsese's oeuvre that resembles Hugo. Continue reading

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MELANCHOLIA (2011)

Written and Directed by Lars Von Trier

Warning: Most reviews (as well as the director) have been very open about the big events that occur in Melancholia, and this review will follow their example. While I don't think this knowledge subtracts from the movie in any way—in fact, I think it's essential—you should not read this review if you don't want to know. Continue reading

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J. EDGAR (2011)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood has done the impossible: he's made me feel bad for J. Edgar Hoover. No one deserves to have this bad a bio-pic as their cinematic gravestone.

J. Edgar is directed by Eastwood (who won Oscars for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby), and written by Dustin Lance Black (the Oscar-winning writer of Milk), and it is hard to determine which man deserves the lion's share of the blame for this turgid and tedious mess. Featuring a ridiculously miscast Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, a shallow, subtlety-deaf screenplay that wants to be Brokeback Bureau, and a clanking directorial style that feels like a color-blind Douglas Sirk helming an episode of Dragnet, J. Edgar is just laughably, appallingly bad. Continue reading

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THE IDES OF MARCH (2011)

During Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential bid, political strategist James Carville narrowed the campaign's message to one simple, effective sentence: "It's the economy, stupid." That statement—and its intentionally reductive phrasing—has become something of a meme in American politics. It's the _______, stupid has been used to pinpoint the single most important issue in any campaign, the one soft spot where damage can be done, where points can be scored, where a seemingly unstoppable opponent is glaringly vulnerable.

For movies, I would like to propose a version of that phrase that is almost always appropriate, and never more so than for George Clooney's competent but underwhelming new film, The Ides of March:

"It's the writing, stupid." Continue reading

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DRIVE (2011)

Perfectly timed to transition us gently from the silly popcorn movies of summer to the austere Oscar bait of winter, Drive is an art house crime drama that works both as a commentary on the genre and as a lean, stylish thriller in its own right. Beautifully directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson), with a fascinatingly impenetrable performance by Ryan Gosling at its center, Drive has the feel of a dark fairy tale, a minimalist fable so simple that it achieves the romance and ambiguity of myth. Continue reading

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CONTAGION (2011)

Spoiler Level: Low

I'll keep this short, because it's hard to say much about a film that has nothing much on its mind. Contagion, the new medical-disaster movie opening today, boasts typically excellent work from its director (Steven Soderbergh) and its all-star cast (notably Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, and John Hawkes). Unfortunately, why anyone thought the script by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) was worthy of all this Oscar-caliber talent completely eludes me. A good director and a great cast can fool you for a while—and there are brief moments when Contagion rises above its mediocre script—but all the talent in the world can't rescue a film that ultimately has no heart, no insight, and no point. Continue reading

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CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011)

Spoiler Level: Low

John Milius's Conan the Barbarian (1982) came out when I was thirteen years old. By all rights, it should have been right in my sweet spot—I was a pubescent white boy who read comics and played Dungeons and Dragons, after allbut I barely remember the movie, and what I remember most is not liking it at all. Part of the problem, certainly, was that Arnold Schwarzenegger looked, sounded, and acted nothing like the version of Conan I knew (which was the chiseled, stoic warrior in the comics by Roy Thomas and John Buscema). But the larger problem was that, even for my thirteen-year-old self, the movie just wasn't any fun. Continue reading

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ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011)

Spoiler Level: Low

Sometimes all you need to make a tired genre feel fresh is a change of setting. Attack the Block—the triumphant feature debut of writer-director Joe Cornish—moves the ’80s-style alien invasion movie out of the Spielbergean suburbs and into the projects. ( “I used to wonder why those stories never happened where I lived,” Cornish has said of the films he loved as a kid, and it’s a fair question: why is it always middle-class white kids who stumble on the extraterrestrials?) By dropping its monsters down in a South London council estate, and by finding its unlikely heroes in a multi-racial group of teen-age delinquents, Attack the Block achieves something remarkable: it makes what could have been a formulaic, low-budget monster movie feel like a story we've never seen before. Continue reading

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COWBOYS AND ALIENS (2011)

Spoiler Level: Safe beyond what you get in the trailer—but, as we shall discuss, you get WAY too much in the trailer.

With some movies, reviews are almost superfluous. What is there to say? I'm reminded of Tony Shaloub's movie producer in Barton Fink, giving "guidance" to the struggling writer about his script: "Wallace Beery. Wrestling picture. What do you need, a road map?"

Cowboys. Aliens. What do you need, a review?

Continue reading

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

Spoiler Level: Safe

It's been a superhero-heavy summer. After Thor, X-Men: First Class, and Green Lantern—to say nothing of their close cousins in costumed derring-do Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbeaneven this lifelong comic fan was feeling done with capes and cowls for a while. I was feeling done with explosions, done with battles, and done forever with objects being hurled at the screen to show off the latest (but familiarly murky) 3D technology. I was ready for some Merchant-Ivory-style dramas, where tightly laced, turn-of-the-century Jamesian aristocrats have subtle, polite conversations in parlors, hardly ever saying exactly what they mean, and almost never underlining their points with flamethrowers.

All of which is to say that I went into my midnight showing of Captain America: The First Avenger feeling not just exhausted but over-saturated, and feeling that if I had to endure one more superhero origin story I was going to shove a radioactive spider up my butt and let it munch me into an early, cancer-riddled grave.

And then Captain America started, and I was shocked to realize it was—for the first hour or so at least—the best superhero movie of the summer.

Continue reading

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HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2 (2011)

Spoiler Level:  Spoiler-free beyond what you'd get in the trailer, because my girlfriend is the only person in the world who doesn't know what happens, and she hasn't seen it yet.

And so it's over. After fourteen years, seven books (over 400 million copies sold), and eight movies (over $6.4 billion box office worldwide so far), the Harry Potter saga draws to a close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. While author J.K. Rowling recently announced the launch of a website, www.pottermore.com—which apparently will trickle out background material and other arcana and minutiae—Harry Potter fans will have nothing new of substance to look forward to for the foreseeable future, or perhaps ever. "It all ends," the movie's tagline reads, and to anyone with even a passing interest those words are bittersweet. I attended a late-night screening that began at 3AM, and when the final applause died down, and the credits rolled around 5:30, no one in the packed theater seemed anxious to go home and leave this incredible world behind. Continue reading

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GREEN LANTERN (2011)

On this Thursday,
Just past midnight,
I went to see
Green Lantern, right?
Let those who'd do
the same tonight
beware my warning:
Green Lantern's shite.

Continue reading

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SUBMARINE (2010)

Spoiler Level: Low.

So I had almost talked myself out of reviewing Submarine, the 2010 film by Richard Ayoade that opened in the U.S. last weekend. It's not that I didn't like the film: I did. The problem is that what I most want to say about it has almost nothing to do with the film itself, and it feels unseemly to unleash a torrent of abuse and invective on this small, charming British film that does not deserve it. Why should I pick on this movie? Why should I link my tangential rant to this first-time feature by actor Richard Ayoade and his very talented cast? If I can't review the movie on its own merits, I thought, I shouldn't be reviewing it at all.

And then I remembered the motto of my website: Nobody gives a rat's ass what I think anyway. Continue reading

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SUPER 8 (2011)

Spoiler Level: Perfectly safe.

It's fitting that the heroes of Super 8 are aspiring young filmmakers. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, Super 8 takes place in 1979, when Abrams himself would have been about the same age as his protagonists here. I don't know if little J.J. and his friends ran around making zero-budget movies with an 8mm camera, but I know Super 8's co-producer Steven Spielberg did—twenty years earlier—and he grew up to make films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which no doubt inspired the young J.J. Abrams.

Now Abrams and Spielberg have collaborated on the delightful Super 8, which is both another entry in, and a fabulous tribute to, the long, unbroken legacy of big summer movies. Super 8 is several homages in one: it plays (quite deliberately, and quite effectively) like a long-lost Spielberg film from the late seventies or early eighties, but it is also a throwback to the pictures of Spielberg's childhood, which was the golden age of alien invasion and monster movies like The Blob, The Thing from Another World, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. In wearing these influences quite brazenly on their sleeves, Abrams and Spielberg avoid being painfully meta, and instead have made a film that openly celebrates the sheer joy of filmmaking, and the way we never really grow out of the movies—and the movie makers—that we loved as children. Continue reading

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X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)

Spoiler Level: Low

Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class is a triumph in many ways. Rescuing the series from the diminishing returns of the previous movies by Bryan Singer (the passable X-Men and X2: United) and Brett Ratner (the muddled X-Men: The Last Stand), Vaughn breathes new life into the franchise by taking it back to its start.  Continue reading

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MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)

I find it both sweet and sad that Woody Allen—who is 76 years old, and has made 40+ films in a 46-year career—is still making movies about the adolescent longing to be an artist. It never goes away, does it?

Midnight in Paris, his latest film, is not really about art, and it's not even really about Paris (although it will make you want to go there). It's about the immature longing for the idealized Paris of the 1920s: the fantasy of the expatriate, modernist mecca of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein (all of whom appear in the film). It's about that feeling that there was once a golden age when people really knew how to live, of which our sad modern age is just a pale imitation. Continue reading

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PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (2011)

Okay, look—I'm not saying Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the worst movie I've ever seen: it isn't. I'm not saying it's the worst movie I've seen all year: it isn't. (Sorry, Hop.) I'm not even saying it's the worst movie in the Pirates franchise: I haven't seen the third one, but I am reliably informed that this one is slightly better than that.

What I am saying is this: don't see it. For the love of God, don't see it. Continue reading

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BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK (2011)

Movie Review

An unassuming old man with a camera stands in the crowd outside one of the most prestigious fashion shows in Paris, trying to get in. The old man shyly and politely shows his press credentials to the young woman serving as gatekeeper, but he looks unremarkable and unfashionable, humbly dressed in exactly the sort of blue work jacket the Paris street cleaners wear. The harried staff person seems ready to dismiss him, until her horrified boss rushes forward to admonish the girl and personally escort the old man past the velvet ropes. "Please," he tells his employee, "this is the most important person on earth."

The “most important person on earth”—or at least in the world of fashion—is 80-year old Bill Cunningham, but he'd laugh at the suggestion. The subject of the new documentary Bill Cunningham New York, directed by Richard Press, doesn't understand what all the fuss is about, and the director (speaking at the screening I attended in Chicago) reports that Bill hasn't even seen the film: he's far too humble, and far too busy. The rest of us can watch Bill Cunningham New York and wish our lives were a little more like his; he's having too much fun being Bill Cunningham.

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THOR

Spoiler Level: Low, but if the movie had any surprises worth spoiling this would be a better review.

Note: This review is of the 2-D version; I've yet to see 3-D improve a movie, and I very much doubt it would have improved this one.

The Marvel comics version of Thor, God of Thunder, is not an easy character to translate to the big screen. Even in the comics, the character has always been slightly one-note: a bold and brash oaf who speaks in oaths and proclamations that range (depending on the writer) from faux-Shakespearean to faux-Biblical nonsense. Even when the comic was at its best—during Walt Simonson's mid-80s run, for example, which showcased the hero's mythological roots and added some much-needed humor—Thor was always the least interesting character in his own book, the dull straight man in a colorful universe of scheming and squabbling gods, demi-gods, giants, and demons.

So the good news about Thor, the new film by Kenneth Branagh, is that Joss Whedon has himself an excellent God of Thunder for next year's highly anticipated Avengers movie. Chris Hemsworth is the bright spot in this otherwise unremarkable slog-fest, and manages the very difficult trick of playing big and brash without playing dumb. His Thor is considerably more charming and affable than the character has ever been on the page, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he brings to a smaller role in what one hopes will be a better movie.

The bad news is…well, pretty much everything else. Continue reading

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OF GODS AND MEN (2011)

Movie Review

Watching Xavier Beauvois’s extraordinary film Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux), I found myself thinking of Leon Bloy’s oft-quoted observation that "any Christian who is not a hero is a pig." Bloy's words are a harsh reminder that Christ asked a lot of his followers—in fact, he asked everything. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” said the Son of Man. Poverty, chastity, charity, humility, doing unto others, turning the other cheek, and the real possibility of a violent and horrible death: he must have known it would be a tough sell. Two thousand odd years after his birth, Christ’s message is still a lot more radical, and his example far more demanding, than most nominal Christians are willing to acknowledge.

It’s hard to think of a film that better explores the question of what it would mean to truly live a Christian life than Of Gods and Men. Loosely based on a 1996 incident in Algeria, the film imagines the last few months of a small community of French Cistercian-Trappist monks caught between both sides of the Algerian Civil War. Facing a threat that grows, throughout the film, from probable to inevitable, these eight men must decide whether to stay and lose their lives, or to flee and abandon their vocation. Whether you consider yourself a believer or notand, for the record, I do not—the result is a profoundly beautiful and powerfully gripping drama about faith, conviction, and quiet, humble courage. Continue reading

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ARTHUR

The best that can be said of director Jason Winer's 2011 remake of Arthur is that it's harmless. And it is harmless—in the same way, for example, that necrophilia is harmless. Yes, it's distasteful, it's disgusting, and it's extremely unpleasant to watch. You can't believe anyone would actually enjoy such a thing, and you can't help but feel there ought to be a law against it. But if you look at it objectively, you realize that it's kind of a victimless crime. I wouldn't particularly want to watch someone nuzzle up to my grandmother's corpse, but it wouldn't really do my grandmother any harm, and it shouldn't sully my fond memories of her. Mostly, I'd feel sort of embarrassed for the necrophile.

By the same token, Winer's Arthur—the latest public act of cinematic corpse-raping—won't sully my fond memories of Steve Gordon's 1981 original, which will still be making audiences laugh when this pointless remake is long and deservedly forgotten. Continue reading

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SOURCE CODE (2011)
Movie Review

SOURCE CODE (2011)

Though I suspect this may be the subject of a future column, let me briefly say here that I may be the only person I know who didn't love Inception. I appreciated the ambition, and the technical skill involved, but the actual viewing experience left me cold. I like my movies to be smart, but I don't like them to feel like a game of Three-Card Monty: if a director is constantly challenging me to figure out how he (or she—but it's usually a he in this scenario) has tricked me, my left brain is going to be so busy with the puzzle that my right brain isn't going to be involved in the emotional flow of the story. Inception had good ideas and brilliant visual effects, but ultimately I didn't care about—or even register—the characters. For me, it was a movie to admire more than love.

I mention it here because I think everything Inception gets wrong, director Duncan Jones' Source Code gets right. Source Code is undoubtedly a smaller picture, both less impressive and less anxious to impress, but for me it's the better for it. Continue reading

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HOP (2011)

Look, I crapped out a movie!

For my inaugural review, I decided to test my resolve. Being a film critic sounds like the perfect life, after all, if you imagine seeing only movies you would want to see anyway. So I asked myself, "If you were contractually obligated to review all the current movies, which one would be most likely to make you want to slit your wrists?" This was the clear choice. (That being said, I was prepared to like it. Honest.)

There are reasons why we don’t have a lot of great—or good—or even mediocre—Easter movies. The relevant Christ story is hardly feel-good family fare, and there is no agreed-upon mythology around His secular stand-in, the Easter Bunny. Not so much a beloved holiday character as a vague and distant holiday figurehead, the Easter Bunny inspires neither childhood affection nor adult nostalgia. I’d call him a marketing icon, but honestly, that would be an insult to such legendary figures as Mr. Clean and the Jolly Green Giant, who at least have definable personalities, understandable motivations, and consistent, iconic designs. What, on the other hand do we know about the Easter Bunny? He's a rabbit…and he brings candy…for some reason. The Easter Bunny has no origin story, no imagery, no entourage: he's a cipher, a blank, a roughly rabbit-shaped void at the center of a confusing, brightly-colored sugar bacchanalia.

Thankfully, now we have Hop, a movie that seizes this blank slate and writes absolutely nothing of value on it. Continue reading

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