Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Five, Worst Five of 2011

This is an annual form of distress for me. Inevitably, I'll forget something or feel bad that I haven't seen two or three key films that were adored by the masses. But that's the way it goes. I'm never going to see everything. All I can do is write about how the films affected me, and share that love, hate, or indifference in the most expressive way possible.

These ten films, scroll down to see the full list, impacted me the most. I'll have a full blown rundown in a month or two, when we get closer to Oscar time.

For everyone who stopped by the site, left a comment, or followed along, thank you. Happy holidays and happy new year. I'll see you in 2012.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What Oprah's Watching

According to my wife, the movies shown on OWN, or the Oprah Winfrey Network, are Oprah's personal favorites. That gives me hope that one day my love of "American Pie" will lead to some grand, nationwide enlightenment.

I know we all have our criteria for what makes a movie wonderful, but what are Oprah's? Here's my best guess:

1.) A focus on female empowerment.
2.) Characters that don't reinforce societal and racial stereotypes.
3.) Three knife fights--minimum.
4.) Smart, savvy female characters with heaving breasts.
5.) Scripts with a light sense of humor and lots of insight into the human condition.
6.) Fart jokes, with at least one reference to "cheek-flappers."
7.) Banjo-driven music score.
8.) If it's about sports, that'd be, like, the best.
9.) Fun-loving truckers like Jerry Reed in "Smokey and the Bandit."
10.) Rapping grannies
11.) Meg Ryan circa 1989 to 2000.
12.) Katharine Hepburn circa 1935 to 1967.
13.) Larry the Cable Guy circa 2003 to present.
14.) Anything starring Milla Jovovich...She made "The Three Musketeers" totally high-octane!
15.) Goons blowing shit up.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"

Last of the year for "The Weekender." You can read it here.

The wife and I saw this the Saturday morning after it opened, which meant a trip to the nearby AMC. Though I go to screenings, I love the multiplex. Not only do I get to maintain my critic street cred--so important to maintain in a competitive field--there are the following advantages.

1.) Previews: I need some surprises in my life, which is one reason why I try to avoid all Hollywood news and publications like "Entertainment Weekly." So, I get to get pie-eyed over the preview for the new "Batman" and feel the energizing hot flash of rage over "Battleship."

By the way, Liam Neeson is the new Sean Connery. Regardless of the character's nationality, Neeson's Irish brogue stays. It's part of his performance.

2.) The automatic ticket machines: Not because of the technology, but AMC's farewell image, which features a young employee waving goodbye. For reasons I can't fathom, the photographer caught him mid-farewell, so his hand resembles a claw and he sports a goofy snarl. He looks like he just absorbed a blast from a Winchester.

3.) Getting to enjoy a movie in peace: As Chris Rock said, "They show the same movie at 10 a.m. that they show at 10 p.m." There's something indulgent about having a big theater almost all to yourself.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Book of the Month, Dec. 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they make wonderful Christmas gifts. (Really, they do.)

A few weeks ago, The Projector, the Yahoo! movie blog run by longtime friends Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, came to an abrupt end. It was a shame for several reasons. Yahoo! took forever to launch the project and never promoted it properly. Plus, the duo's reviews and posts were thoughtfully written and insightful, with Leitch's essay on Jessica Chastain a highlight.

Grierson and Leitch will be just fine. Grierson, who writes for "LA Weekly", has a couple of books coming out. Leitch is an established author and writes for a bunch of other places, including "New York" and "GQ".

Leitch also founded Deadspin, the popular sports blog, and several of his books focus on sports. My favorite of his is "God Save the Fan," a hilarious, keenly observed collection of essays that looks into every aspect of sports that uncovers two truths: First, players, broadcasters, and team officials have contempt for the people who worship the game they represent. Second, people should not blindly worship at the altar of sport. They should feel free to root--and hate--on their own terms. For anyone who believes that sportswriting is just pageantry and snoozy summaries, "God Save the Fan" is an eye-opener.

That's it for now. Until next month, read in peace.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review of Knuckle

This is availale on demand and in theaters right now. I wanted it to appear in "ICON" next month, but it got bumped. Instead of waiting for February, when it'll be forgotten, I've decided to be relevant for a change.

The full crop of "ICON" reviews--both big and small--will appear on or around Jan. 1. I can't think of a better way to celebrate the new year, can you?


The Joyces and the Quinn McDonoughs, two related Irish Traveler families, have feuded for years. Instead of talking, the factions have settled their differences with bare-knuckle fighting. The pursuit is surprisingly sophisticated. The videotaped messages issued by the participants resemble the theatrical call outs of pro wrestling, while the fights themselves combine elements of a backyard brawl and an organized event. Neutral referees manage the action, breaking up holds and watching out for biting and illegal blows. Bets are placed. What's most troubling is that nearly everyone involved, even the film's star, venerable boxer James Quinn McDonough, thinks the activity solves nothing. Yet the cycle continues year after year: uneasy peace, taunt, fight. Director Ian Palmer spent more than a decade following this bitter Gypsy rancor. Though he clearly has some trouble coordinating the footage—Palmer doesn't quite untangle the web of bad feelings that has led to grown men pummeling each other and his attempts at including himself in the narrative are awkward—he's provided a stunning and sad sociological profile. ***1/2 out of 5 [R]

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review of "Hugo"

Scorsese's first masterpiece in a long time. I think too many people associate him as making one type of hard-boiled picture. But look at "After Hours," "The Last Waltz," and "The Aviator," which held bite underneath the gloss. He's versatile, and he could rock the beard. In fact, I'm sure that's how he got so close to The Band.

Other fun facts surrounding this review, which appeared in "The Weekender" and which you can read here.

*I wrote most of the review in longhand on a Philadelphia-bound train. I then labored over it for another two and a half hours at home, missing my beloved weekly pick-up basketball game. (I'm still not sure if I nailed the review.)

*Took Philadelphia's subway system for the first time. Among the highlights: carpeted seats and an argument between an old man and a booth attendant. Being next in line after that exchange was a bit awkward. I just about curtsied to the subway worker.

*I was in Philadelphia, near UPenn, for a screening. There, I sat a few rows behind a college student who would not shut up to his female companion about his career direction and his interpretation of "Melancholia." I instantly replayed every movie-themed conversation I've ever had with my wife. Verdict: Laura should carry a muzzle with her everywhere.

*One thing I love about Philly is it's cost-effective. Going to New York every week will make you poor. Ticket from New Brunswick: $28.00. Parking: At least $10.00. Subway: At least $5.00. Total: $43. To justify the travel, I have to see two or three movies per trip.

Here's Philly's breakdown: Independence pass to Philly, which includes subway and bus travel: $11.00. Parking at train station: $1.00 for the day. When I drive to Philly, then it's $6.00 if I can get street parking. Granted, I don't have the variety of screening opportunities, but I don't have to eat dog food or absorb the questionable scenery of the Northeast Corridor.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Film Round-Up, December 2011

Do you know how perilously close y'all came to reading another review of "Happy Feet Two"? It took a last-minute screener of "Lads & Jockeys"--which arrived in the mailbox on deadline day--to maintain "ICON"'s reputation as a fine arts publication.

There is some good stuff in the Round Up, including a cool costume drama about a legendary literary figure and a terrific documentary on a Hollywood icon. And you have Michelle Williams playing Marilyn Monroe in a movie that wastes her splendid performance.

That's it for now. These reviews appeared in the December issue of "ICON," and are reprinted with permission.


Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (Dir: Alex Stapleton). Despite having the refined, gentle bearing of your favorite English professor, Corman insists that inside he's an "inferno," which explains his nearly 70-year career producing and directing hundreds of cheap, campy flicks like The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and The Raven. He's perhaps more famous for his films serving as a training ground for actors and directors such as Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, and even Jack Nicholson, who says the filmmaker was his "lifeblood" during the lean years before Easy Rider. In this heartfelt, enlightening gem, Stapleton traces Corman's unconventional success and his enduring influence. The movie benefits immensely from the warm, funny anecdotes of his numerous collaborators—Pam Grier says her willingness to perform stunts kept her employed; Martin Scorsese credits directing Corman's Boxcar Bertha in helping him film Mean Streets—which also trace Corman's rise and fall in the movie industry. Even better, Corman, now 85, is exceedingly likable, a man more concerned about producing the TV movie Dinoshark than his impact on the American movie landscape. Not just a wonderful tribute, but one of 2011's best documentaries. **** [R]

Young Goethe in Love (Philipp Stölzl). Starring: Alexander Fehling, Miriam Stein, Moritz Bleibtreu, Volker Bruch, Burghart Klaußner. It's widely acknowledged that Charlotte Buff inspired the lovelorn Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to write his landmark 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Stölzl's charming, original work provides the background behind the literary misery. In 1772, 23-year-old Goethe (Fehling) is a fledgling poet and writer whose buffoonish behavior and lack of direction enrages his father (Klaußner), who sends him to Frankfurt for a more appropriate (and thankless) legal job. There, Goethe meets and falls in love with the witty, wild-haired Buff (Stein), whose family's struggles make marrying for love nearly impossible. That condition sets the stage for a most uncomfortable and dangerous love triangle. Spirited performances and a lively pace aid an entertaining affair that earns points for showing the rough side of romance. Many costume dramas coast on prestige or submerge their conflicts in courtly passion. Young Goethe in Love doesn't steer away from meatier, relevant subjects. ***1/2 [NR]

Lads & Jockeys (Dir: Benjamin Marquet). Documentary profiles three teenage boys who attend a boarding school for jockeys in Chantilly, France, a village near Paris. When not attending classes or ogling female classmates, the students are immersed in horse racing, which includes learning everything from cleaning stalls to controlling the horse's speed and temperament. Marquet employs a hands-off approach here, capturing the kids during their daily lives and showing the hard work and drudgery required in getting these graceful animals ready. There's no narration and no formal interviews, unless you count black and white news footage. For a while the absence of canned answers is a blessing, until you realize that Lads & Jockeys is shapelessly edited. The footage presented doesn't tell a story or provide much insight into the students, their instructors, or anything else. Aside from the last 20 minutes, the movie sort of sits there, when it could portray the intoxicating fear that is being young and away from home. ** [NR]

My Week with Marilyn (Dir: Simon Curtis). Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Emma Watson, Dougray Scott, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, Derek Jacobi. In 1956 Marilyn Monroe (Williams) flew to England to film The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier (Branagh), a union of future legends that was fraught with difficulty. Intimidated and in constant need of reassurance, Monroe maintained a sycophantic entourage and exhausted the patience of new husband Arthur Miller (Scott). Olivier, though a fan of Monroe's attributes, was exasperated by her fragility and leisurely pace. Third assistant director Colin Clark (Redmayne), a wide-eyed 23-year-old working on his first film, got thrown into the middle of this hoopla when Monroe took a shine to him…and destroyed his professional veneer. Adaptation of Clark's memoir works because of Williams, who aside from her physical resemblance, nails Monroe's neurotic vulnerability: the adulation both revives and destroys her. Unfortunately, the movie lacks the star's poise. It's too dark to be a frothy coming-of-age story. And it's too glossy—the film has the Weinstein brothers' prestige-y fingerprints all over—to pass muster as a character study, which would have made Williams' excellent performance all the more absorbing. Pleasant and polished, My Week with Marilyn's lack of bite turns it into another piece of baby boomer-friendly nostalgia. ** [R]

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Big Review: The Descendants

One of the year's best films features perhaps Clooney's finest performance. This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Alexander Payne prefers a lasting impression to an immediate impact. At the surface, The Descendants, his first movie in seven years, is about a harried father coping with two rambunctious daughters and a comatose wife. That's like calling Payne's glorious Sideways a buddy-buddy comedy about wine. What lies beneath is glorious.

Attorney Matt King (George Clooney) calls Hawaii home, but notes that living in paradise does not make him immune to life. His adventurous wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in a coma after a boating accident, a tragic development in an unraveling marriage. When she wakes up, Matt vows to talk things out with her. In the meantime, Matt is thrown into the unsavory role of primary caregiver. "I'm the back-up parent; the understudy," he tells us. It shows. His younger daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller) is a belligerent handful, and Matt's attempts to control her are half-hearted.

There's also work-related chaos. He's orchestrating a lucrative deal: selling 25,000 acres of pristine island property in the family's trust, which will make Matt and his cousins very rich. Then, everything changes. The doctor tells Matt that Elizabeth has no chance at living a normal life, a condition that legally requires taking her off life support. Ever the paragon of parental resolve, Matt picks up his older, brattier daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), from boarding school to help him inform friends and family.

Alex, sullen and resentful at the sudden attention from her neglectful father, has no desire to do anything for her mother. Matt tells Alex to grow up. That's when Alex drops the bombshell: Elizabeth was seeing another man. At this point, Payne's restraint becomes a glorious asset. Matt is determined to discover who slept with Elizabeth, a situation that any other director would portray as a race against time or some other domestic vengeance nonsense. It's clear that Matt needs closure right now. By not wasting time on the obvious, Payne provides the little details that make The Descendants such a lush film.

Payne, along with co-screenwriters Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, dares us to pay attention. Matt remarks that all the women in his life are determined to make him miserable, but what has he done to prevent that? Teachers and parents recognize Scottie's lack of respect, but not Matt, who lets her toss deck chairs into the pool. Alex's self-loathing—no one gave her credit for getting good grades or even saw her in the school play—highlights how oblivious both parents are. Also, Elizabeth and Matt clearly weren't a match. Early on, Matt comments that he hasn't ridden a surfboard in 15 years. What's prominently displayed in their backyard? Surfboards. Matt's father-in-law (Robert Forster) chastises Matt for being cheap with Elizabeth. What's most telling in those scenes is that Matt never corrects him.

Matt facilitates the pre-ordained. The King family has always been taken care of, so of course the land should be sold. Before taking the girls and Alex's dopey friend (Nick Krause) on a luxurious search for Elizabeth's paramour, Nick was content as the understudy, even though Elizabeth clearly wasn't mother-of-the-year material. When Alex observes that she's becoming her mother, it's uttered with the solemnity of a cancer diagnosis. Matt's quest isn't about resolution. It's about saving himself and his family.

Clooney's excellent performance is worthy of Matt's emotional journey. For years, the star has eschewed empty blockbusters for movies (e.g., Up in the Air, The Ides of March) that were so busy peddling important messages that they obscured his best qualities. Without a world-saving agenda to support in The Descendants, we remember that Clooney is the new Jack Nicholson, a leading man who can adjust his charisma for the situation. (Nicholson did just that, playing a pathetic, adrift retiree in Payne's About Schmidt.) Matt is flawed in many respects, but we always like him. That has everything to do with Clooney, whose performance adjusts to Payne's subtle shifts. In a supporting cast of able veterans (Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, a surprisingly good Matthew Lillard), the 20-year-old Woodley shines. As a crazy scheme develops faces and complications, she, like the movie, matures in front of our eyes.

Little things add up, both in life and in The Descendants, which by the end has accumulated the emotional resonance and complexity of a great novel. Payne has made a grand, emotional masterpiece from tiny strokes. So many dramas scream and strain to be heard. Rare is the movie that can satiate the soul by ending with couch-bound characters eating ice cream in front of the television. By mastering the art of what not to say, Payne has become one of America's most essential filmmakers. [R]