Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Movie Review: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

That I had not seen "Walk Hard" up to this point is a mystery even to me. This is the kind of comedy that throws everything at the wall to see what sticks and for the most part, it all does.

"Walk Hard" is somewhere between "Walk the Line" and "Ray" with a dab of every other musician's life story that has ever been made into a movie. Even The Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" can be seen in the mix.

"Walk Hard" is basically the typical biopic movie structure in simplest form. It begins as Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) prepares to go on stage, his face bathed in spotlight. But he can't go on yet, because according to Sam (Tim Meadows, with some great deadpan delivery), Dewey Cox, "has to think about his entire life before he goes on stage." Flash to years earlier, when Dewey was just a young boy on a southern farm faced with the childhood tragedy of accidentally slicing his brother in half with a machete. Haunted by accidental murder and his father's disapproval, Dewey decides to become a musician.

Dewey becomes a sensation with his provocative country jams, which cause some to dance and others to punch priests in the face. He marries Edith (Kristen Wiig), who keeps telling him he won't be a famous musician even when he actually becomes one. Soon, Dewey will fall for June Carter stand-in Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), and leave Edith for her. Dewey's marriage ends in a reveal that manages to be uncomfortable and hilarious.

One thing I have never really expressed here is my deep admiration for Johnny Cash, and my deep discontent for some of the ways in which Cash's life is portrayed in "Walk the Line." The biggest problem I've always had with "Walk the Line" is the way in which they demonized Cash's first wife, and totally abandons her character in favor of Cash's relationship with June Carter. "Walk Hard" actually does a much better job in judging its character, mainly in what an oblivious idiot he is and how someone like him really can't function in society.

Knowledge of the history of American music is not required to enjoy this movie, but it would certainly help. When the end of the 1960s rolls around, Cox's music begins to resembles that of Bob Dylan, prompting the film to briefly mimic "I'm Not There." After hanging out with The Beatles in India (with uncanny impressions of the Fab Four), he turns into an LSD addict and tries hopelessly to create his opus. The over-the-top orchestra, which includes a few animals, is funnier when you realize that Cox has turned into Brian Wilson when he was making "Pet Sounds."

"Walk Hard" does to the biopics of the 2000s what "Spinal Tap" did to the "Behind the Music" documentaries of the 1980s: it skews them by becoming one of them. "Walk Hard" proves what is wrong with the format by following its formula and then reducing each trope to its most basic terms. For example, Meadows's Sam is the character who is always introducing Dewey to a new drug, first by telling him that he shouldn't try it, then by telling him how much it will benefit his life to a degree that he can't say no. Biopics consist of a lot of characters who serve as nothing more than plot points in order to introduce the subject to the next thing that will ruin their life.

Another part of what makes "Walk Hard" work is that it not only talks like a biopic, but walks like one as well. The sets and costume choices all match each time period they are a part of consistently. The Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony seen later in the film looks and feels exactly like a real lifetime tribute to a musician. This goes to show that the only people who can satirize the life of a musician the right way are those who truly admire music. Therefore, it comes off as more truthful than mean-spirited.

The movie sometimes loses its satirical edge when it veers into more crass, over-the-top comedy. Now, I am not against crass, over-the-top comedy when it isn't just thrown in for the sake of being there. Here, it is thrown in for the sake of being there.

While watching "Walk Hard," I was frequently reminded of "MacGruber" (released after "Walk Hard"), another genre-mocking genre entry. That movie also went over-the-top at times. However, as seen most prominently in its sex scenes, it served more as a way to knock down everything we hold near and dear in movies. In "Walk Hard," perhaps the penis that suddenly appears on the side of the scene was meant to make fun of unnecessary gratuitous humor, but in the end, it came off as exactly that. The movie also loses a little steam following Dewey's LSD rampage.

Despite this, "Walk Hard" delivers the kind of laughs you rarely get, the kind that forces you to stop and recompose yourself. Imitation is supposedly the sincerest form of flattery, and the pseudo-Cash ballads resemble many songs from the Man in Black in ways that only someone who deeply admired his work would know. And if Jack White wants to make a cameo in your movie, then something must be going right.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Oscars 2012: For Every Great Nomination, There is a Terrible Snub

For every one satisfying Oscar nomination, there are endless movies, directors, and actors that could have filled that spot as well. This year, a surprising amount of suspected shoo-ins were snubbed, along with many that may never have had a chance. This year, who will join the ranks of "The Searchers," "Touch of Evil," and "Do the Right Thing" for most egregious snubs of all time? It is time to celebrate those who didn’t make the cut.  

Best Picture: 50/50
            Usually, Best Picture is associated with large scale, historical spectacles. What the Oscars really love, however, are stories of triumph in the face of adversity. No other movie could have better fit that label than “50/50,” Will Reiser’s funny and moving autobiographical story of coping with cancer. It deals with both the dire and the mundane in ways that few movies about cancer before this ever have. It might not have caught the Academy’s eye, but the impact of its naturalistic writing and effortless performances will long outlast the February 26 ceremony.

Best Director: Steven Spielberg (War Horse)
            Spielberg is known at times for letting his emotions get the best of his movies. However, his sentimentality toward movies and re-creating history are at their best here. This is perhaps the most detailed depiction of World War I in film, and the ending, evoking John Ford’s most famous westerns, could make even the most hardened movie buff cry.

Best Actor: Ryan Gosling (Drive)
            Gosling pulled a hat trick this year with memorable performances in “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “The Ides of March,” and “Drive.” His against-type performance in “Drive” was the best of these. Conveying so much with so little dialogue, his transformation from a stellar getaway driver to a psychotic killer in the film’s final act is shocking in its subtle believability. Gosling helps elevate a flawed movie by turning The Driver into one of the most unforgettable movie characters in years.


Best Actress: Charlize Theron (Young Adult)
            It may be tough to make the bitchy former high school prom queen likable, but in “Young Adult,” Charlize Theron shows that it is at least possible to make her relatable. Theron so perfectly disappears into Mavis Gary’s self-denial that sometimes, it is hard to even tell whether it is really self-denial. “Young Adult” doesn’t give Mavis the fairy tale redemption ending that a lesser movie would have resorted to. While she doesn’t deserve our sympathy or attention, giving it to her doesn’t seem like such a crime.

Best Supporting Actor: Patton Oswalt (Young Adult)
            Awards season is usually kind to comedians who take a stab at dramatic acting. However, Patton Oswalt, who had not one, but two, fantastic dramatic turns, first in 2009’s “Big Fan,” and this year in “Young Adult,” has yet to be nominated. Oswalt’s performance is much more toned down than anything usually seen from him. He serves as a perfect foil to Theron, wallowing in self-pity, but also displaying a great deal of self-awareness. While his life has fallen apart, he never seems disturbed by it. An actor’s job is to make an unlikable character likable, and Oswalt takes a loser and turns him into something much more unique.

Best Supporting Actress: Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)
            This breakout performance from the 20-year-old Shailene Woodley has been inexplicably left out of the race. Woodley delivers one of the most devastating moments of the year: after hearing that her mother is in a coma, she goes underwater to cry. Making the leap from an ABC Family melodrama to holding your own against George Clooney in an Alexander Payne movie is the mark of a promising movie star in the works.  

Honorable Mentions:
Brendan Gleeson (The Guard): For the ten of you out there who actually saw this movie, you'll know that Brendan Gleeson is the only person who could make a bumbling and racist Irish cop hilarious and a bit of a sneaky genius. 

David Fincher (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo): Fincher turned a pulpy story into a haunting Swedish noir. Seriously, after this, "The Social Network," and the various other movies he hasn't even been nominated for ("Se7en," "Fight Club") how has this guy not won an Oscar yet? Perhaps Fincher is the Academy's new Scorsese. 

And a few more: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (50/50), Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March), Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris), Diablo Cody (Young Adult)

You can also check this article out at The Daily Orange. It is also available in print. Yes, print still exists. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oscars 2012 Nominations: Initial Reaction

The Oscar Nominations were announced today, and there was less surprises in the movies included and more in those that were excluded. Those snubs are for another post entirely.

After a late release date and tepid reviews, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" pulled off a surprise Best Picture nomination, as well as a Supporting Actor nod for Max von Sydow. Like Christopher Plummer, he is another veteran actor who has yet to take an Oscar home. Plummer, thought to be the guarenteed winner, now has some competition. Things just got interesting.

Meanwhile, "Hugo" received the most nominations of any movie this year, with a whopping total of 11. Frontrunner "The Artist" follows close behind with 10. The amount of nominations a movie receives usually doesn't usually equal a win, but "Hugo" definitely became a much more serious contender than it was prior to today.

The most satisfying part of the nominations is the prominent presence of pure comedies in the major categories. Woody Allen deservedly returned to the Best Picture and Best Director race with "Midnight in Paris." Meanwhile, "Bridesmaids" scored nominations for Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo in the Original Screenplay category, and for Melissa McCarthy as a supporting actress. This will mark the first time in Oscar history that a mainstream R-rated comedy with a combined puke and diarrhea joke gets to be nominated. It looks like comedies are finally starting to be taken more seriously. Maybe if "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," and "Superbad" had come out this year, they could've been contenders, too.

Full list of nominations here. My annual list of snubs will be published tomorrow. 

Speaking of comedies, Jim Rash is one of the writers who is nominated for "The Descendants." Yes, this guy.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Movie Review: Me and You and Everyone We Know

"We are all a little weird and life's a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible to ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love."
-Dr. Seuss

Few movies could be as polarizing, yet as undeniably well made, as Miranda July's "Me and You and Everyone We Know." Some will angrily walk out of it believing they have just seen the typical, nonsensical Sundance entry. Others will take a queue from the opening credits, which are placed against a man setting his own hand on fire, and be prepared for the totally unexpected.

"Me and You and Everyone We Know" is told in a series vignettes that sometimes overlap, and sometimes don't. July plays Christine Jersperson, the perky and awkward performance artist who has a day job as a driver for Elder Cab. She struggles to sell her art, which consists of videos of her acting out various dialogues, usually concerning people in love.

Richard Swersey (John Hawkes), who had set his hand on fire in the first scene, foolishly thinking he could pull off a magic trick, is recently separated from his wife and he tries his best to bring his two sons up right. His two young boys take to the Internet and form a twisted relationship in a chat room, while two neighboring and insecure teenage girls vie for the attention of a creepy man who lives next door. They may all vary in age, but they are all dumbfounded by the seemingly meaningless direction of life.

July, a former Portland based performance artist in real life, has created a movie that is itself a piece of performance art: every scene depends on an audience reaction in order to get it going to its intended effect. There are so many different scenes that push it to a limit, whether it be the hand burning or the goldfish scene. In the memorable yet perplexing goldfish scene, a goldfish in a water-filled plastic bag is tossed from car to car on the highway. In a way, it shows how helpless each character in the ensemble is to the unfolding of their own story and in the way that the fish's survival depends on the movement of each car, so does each character depend on the actions of one another.

July is just as good of an actress as she is a writer and director. She displays a delicate emotional vulnerability that is funny and sometimes sad. While her speaking manner is awkward and timid, her presence is always inviting. When her and Hawkes are on screen together, they share an uncomfortable chemistry that makes it seem as if each of them was a puzzle piece that was meant to be together. Creating this can be tough, but these two actors rose to the occasion and succeeded. 

Watching "Me and You and Everyone We Know" made me think of Todd Solondz's "Happiness." Just as that movie was about the many eccentric lengths people go to in order to find happiness, this movie is about the crazy lengths people will go in order to find what they think is love. In the end, love is not some universally known feeling. It is something that can only be shared amongst a select group, it is what connects me and you and everyone we know. 

"Me and You and Everyone We Know" is filled with many deep and powerful images that might not hold as much significance on a first viewing. I began to appreciate the film more during round two. You will begin to notice little things, such as one image at the beginnings that mirrors a painting shown at the end, and the combination of those two is rather remarkable. I would not call this a nice little movie, as some of the characters do things that wouldn't necessarily make them likable. However, it is a movie that is very quiet and mature throughout all of its humorous instances. It is not a concluding resolution, but rather a concluding feeling, that defines everything. Movies don't do that often enough. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Golden Globes 2012: My Predictions

Since the Golden Globes don't mean much towards the Oscars, and they are actually kind of a sham (last year, "Burlesque" was nominated after some actions that most people would consider to be corrupt), I will not spend too much time analyzing who will win and why. The Globes are a fun night to watch everyone in Hollywood get drunk and compliment each other. However, with Ricky Gervais hosting again, another large scale takedown seems possible.

Since you probably don't care much anyway, without much further adieu, here are my predicted winners for tonight's Golden Globes in all of the major film categories*:

Best Picture (Drama): The Descendants Upset: The Help

Best Picture (Musical or Comedy^): The Artist Upset: Midnight in Paris

Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) Upset: Alexander Payne (The Descendants)

Best Actor (Drama): George Clooney (The Descendants) Upset: Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

Best Actress (Drama): Viola Davis (The Help) Upset: Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs)

Best Actor (Musical or Comedy): Jean Dujardin (The Artist) Upset: Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris)

Best Actress (Musical or Comedy): Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) Upset: Charlize Theron (Young Adult)

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer (Beginners) Upset: Jonah Hill (Moneyball)

Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer (The Help) Upset: Berenice Bejo (The Artist)

Best Screenplay: The Descendants

*I have neglected to include the TV nominees, as the absence of "Breaking Bad," "Community," and "Parks & Recreation" lead me to believe that those categories don't even exist this year.
^This is among the dumbest pairings of all time.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Attention Everyone: The New Wes Anderson Trailer Has Arrived

Lately, I've been complaining a lot about terrible, no good, misleading trailers for movies. That temporarily ends today, as the trailer for Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" has arrived. Not only does it make this movie look fantastic, but it is most likely showing exactly what we will get, maybe that's simply because Anderson has a very distinct style of filmmaking. It almost looks like a series of children's drawings.

I love everything about this trailer. I love the outdated look of it. I love the French soundtrack. I love that it includes a clip of Edward Norton saying the phrase "Jiminy Cricket," which brings back the use of the phrase "cuss" in "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson's last movie (and one of my favorite movies of the last decade). I love that the rest of the cast includes Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, and Bill Murray. Seriously can Bill Murray win an Oscar for this role? Just because he's Bill Murray?

But I digress. Watch the trailer below. Then re-watch it a few more times like I did:

Movie Review: The Purple Rose of Cairo

Warning: The following review contains some content that many would consider to be spoilers, mainly because it is hard to discuss this film without giving a lot of the story away (especially the ending). So if you haven't seen this movie, just go rent it right now based on this sentence alone. 

When I was younger, I was one of those kids who thought I could free the miniature people trapped inside the TV set. Luckily, my parents never let me play with a hammer.

Woody Allen probably never had a hammer either, but he did have the ability to write a superb script. "The Purple Rose of Cairo" combines Allen's gift for realistic fantasy story telling with chaos theory. The result is one of his finest films.

Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a wishful thinker and a bit of a dreamer. That might be because she lives in Depression era New Jersey (any era New Jersey would probably be bad enough), has an abusive husband (Danny Aiello), and works a dead end job as a waitress which she is eventually fired from. Things like this would want to make anyone want to escape into the comfort of a good movie every single day.

Cecilia frequents the action-adventure-romance picture "The Purple Rose of Cairo." Enough is seen of this movie's story that "The Purple Rose of Cairo" becomes a movie-within-a-movie with the movie within it also being called "The Purple Rose of Cairo." Hope your head doesn't hurt too much yet, because the main character of the movie within a movie, the explorer Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) literally walks off the screen and into Cecilia's life.

Tom is the kind of man that could only exist in Cecilia's dreams: he's strong, brave, and romantic. Meanwhile, she's used to a weak-willed alcoholic. The best part of this whole act is that there is absolutely no explanation for it. It is similar to the way that Allen goes to no length to explain Gil's ability to travel back in time in "Midnight in Paris." Save the science behind it for a J.J. Abrams movie. All that matters to Allen is the ensuing reactions if seemingly impossible situations such as a movie character coming to life were to happen to an ordinary person.  

In accordance to Chaos Theory (sorry, there has to be at least a little background philosophizing here), the movie-within-a-movie's story cannot go on without the presence of even a minor character such as Tom. This leaves the characters in the movie within to partake in much philosophical kvetching. Meanwhile the actor playing Tom, Gil Shepherd (Daniels, again), is left to ponder his next career move after this debacle occurs, and he eventually, like his own character, finds himself falling for Cecilia after they meet.

"The Purple Rose of Cairo" might be Allen's saddest movie. Well, almost every one of his movies ends on some sort of note of melancholy. However, this is one of the few that leaves its protagonist with too many problems and too little hope. Maybe the funniest thing about this movie is that even though it tells us that movies provide the best form of escape, the bigger movie itself is as far from escapism as possible.

This is a movie that tends to also be really funny at times. I love the way the characters attending the screening of "The Purple Rose of Cairo" interact with the characters on the screen. Everyone is so surprised as to what as happened, but no reacts in any over-the-top way. Reacting as little as possible to a situation that requires a more emotional reaction is always funny. Escapism is okay as long as we know that we are escaping into a realm of fiction, and not into a realm of reality.

"The Purple Rose of Cairo" is a great black comedy about the absurdity of reality. Every one of its characters, even the minor ones, are memorable in some way. Farrow steals the show as the abused mess of a woman, and she is absent of the high-pitched shriek voice that she would have to take on two years later in "Radio Days." She also owned the ukulele before Zooey Deschanel and her army of hipsters decided to take it over. Daniels also gives my favorite performance I have ever seen him in ("Dumb & Dumber") in two different roles, one being the overly confident pseudo-intellectual that Allen so frequently mocks.

The scene in which Tom Baxter first jumps off the screen, even by today's standard of special effects, still feels magical and jarring. Maybe it is the way he so suddenly changes from black and white into color.

The conclusion of "The Purple Rose of Cairo" is one that is beautiful even in its sadness. Cecilia seems to have become more self-aware, yet she remains just as sheltered by the cinema. After Gil leaves town without telling her and she realizes her husband won't change, she returns to the theater and watches Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing with a sense of both desolation and wonderment. Perhaps it was at that moment she understood that that was the best her life would ever get: to sit inside a theater and watch two people who don't exist feel a sense of happiness that she would never get to feel. Maybe every once in a while, being drawn in by the flashing light of film from a projector can be a good thing. It can heal wounds and make the pains of life feel just a little bit better.

The Season 6 Premiere of 30 Rock Tonight...

...finally gives me a reason to post the clip below. One of the funniest scenes in the show's history, and a disturbing reminder that Don Draper can also impersonate a Jamaican woman:

PS. Save "Community." Seriously

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Check This Out: If We Don't, Remember Me

I have been meaning to share If We Don't Remember Me for a while now. It is a gallery of living, moving movie stills (or GIFs, in Internet speak). IWDRM has found a way to maximize the art of the movie still: it is no longer just a still image, but a living encapsulation of a brief moment in time. Watch endlessly, the moment before Travis Bickle snaps, or notice a sense of humor you didn't notice before in Sergio Leone's films. Some are funny and endearing, others are subtle and almost moving. In between my viewing of videos of cats morphing into croissants and the dog from "The Artist" skateboarding (is there anything this dog can't do?), there is something subtle and quiet to be addicted to on the Internet.

I don't think I need to say much more, I am now going to let a few of my favorite stills from the site speak for themselves:
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Fight Club

American Psycho

Taxi Driver
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
2001: A Space Odyssey

Red Tails: On Dubstep, False Advertising, and My Hatred of Kids

We here at The Reel Deal enjoy making fun of George Lucas a lot. Mainly, we target him for the fact that hokey Naboo sequence for "Attack of the Clones" and the fact that he will be rereleasing "The Phantom Menace" in 3D later this year.

The latest release under the Lucas name is "Red Tails" or as I will call it here, "DubTales" for the absurd soundtrack that has been accompanying its commercials. During Lucas's interview on "The Daily Show" on Monday night, I saw a side of him that took me off guard: he was forthright rather than pompous. This looked a lot more like the guy who made "American Graffiti" and "A New Hope."

"DubTales" is yet another movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, the brave African American fighter pilots who, against all odds, took to the sky and fought for America during World War II. Lucas has been working on this movie since 1988, and various people, including himself and Samuel L. Jackson, have been slated to direct. Anthony Hemingway is slated to direct a final script written by John Ridley. Anthony is unfortunately not related to Ernest, but Ridley is credited with the story for "Three Kings," one of the best war movies ever made. Perhaps he can bring something original to a story that has been told so many times on film.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg raping Indiana Jones (courtesy of South Park). 

The story behind the making of "DubTales" is an interesting story itself. According to Lucas, studios were hesitant to finance a story like this. Studios today largely concentrate on foreign box office, as that is where the real money is. It is no longer just about making movies that will appeal to Middle America, but what will appeal to the rest of the world. Instead of doing careful research, the easiest thing to do in order to break cultural barriers is to make movies that have less emphasis on story, and more emphasis on explosions. This explains the existence of the "Transformers" series.

So apparently, an inspirational story about African Americans won't sell well overseas. I have never conducted a focus group, and don't know if any were actually conducted to reach this conclusion, but the most perplexing part about this is that even George Lucas can have trouble getting a movie made.

Lucas was not trying to make "DubTales" for a foreign audience. Rather, he is targeting it toward teenage boys, whom he would like to learn more about this momentous story. That explains the Dubstep soundtrack in the trailer. I appreciate his efforts, but adding music like this to a movie about World War II seems wrong. It feels less like finding the right audience and more like pandering. And how could I resist making fun of blatant pandering? Teenage boys should be encouraged to see movies about history, but they should not be the one deciding the way in which they are made.

This picture has no purpose here, I just think it's funny.
It is very possible that this ad was just an attempt to grab an audience and not a reflection on the actual film. I have been starting to trust ad campaigns for movies less and less by the day, thanks in part to how the trailers for "War Horse," "Hugo," and "Young Adult" represented their respective movies so inaccurately. Trailers are not the selling of the actual product, that is what buying tickets is for. Trailers are meant as a tool for hype, but given that no one seems to know how to represent a movie accurately nowadays, studios should look into heavier use of word of mouth.

I believe George Lucas cares more about the movies he makes than he lets on, and I will consider seeing "Red Tails," but never "DubTales."

Watch the Interview Here:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
George Lucas
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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2011: In A Weak Year, There Are Still 10 Best Movies

2011 wasn't necessarily a bad year for movies. Sure, it looks poor when compared to 2010, which boasted both "Black Swan" and "The Social Network." Just like any other year, 2011 had too many great movies to fit on just one list but as always, I will try.

Choosing number one this year was difficult. I didn't know what to choose, so I looked to my heart, my head, and my gut. My heart said "War Horse," my head said "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and my gut said "Midnight in Paris." Ultimately my heart won out, but it was a close battle. One of these days, I might have to abandon numbers and simply pick the ten movies I enjoyed most. But for now, these are the best movies of 2011:

1. War Horse- Once the ending credits rolled and I finally found the emotional strength to leave the theater, a thought immediately rushed into my head that was so contagious that it simply wouldn't go away: "War Horse" is the year's best movie. The common theme of 2011 was nostalgia and Spielberg brought "War Horse" past its roots into a tribute to the great film epics of the past. Every emotional note hits its mark seamlessly here. The ending itself is enough to reduce any film buff to tears. Its journey into the crushing soul of war and then back again is as rewarding a journey as you'll take this year. Most times, I would deem a film like "War Horse" as a pandering attempt to win Oscars. This time, I call it the best film of the year.

2. Midnight in Paris- Every few years, Woody Allen has another supposed comeback. However, "Midnight in Paris" is the real thing, and it ranks near "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters" as one of his absolute best. A struggling writer (Owen Wilson, a perfect Woody Allen stand-in) vacationing in Paris looks for answers in the past, and through a thankfully unexplained gap in the space-time continuum, ends up in 1920s Paris, talking to the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Midnight in Paris" is the most thoughtful, inventive, and overall, entertaining comedy of the year. And it achieves both of these things by being neither too dark nor too light-hearted. No matter what city he is in, and no matter how old he gets, Woody Allen's wit, insight, and grasp on human conversation never cease to amaze me.

Midnight in Paris (2011) // Woody Allen

3. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo- I might have spoken a little too soon when I deemed this the best movie of the year a few weeks ago. Then again, Facebook isn't necessarily the best form of communication. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is still among the most extraordinary films of the year. It's an old fashioned film noir wrapped in crisp digital cinematography, a haunting score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and mesmerizing direction from David Fincher. It is most notable, however, for recreating Lisabeth Salander and making her the female hero the Digital Age. Rooney Mara gives the bravest performance of the year and in one scene, pulls off an act that is shocking even in a time when being shocking and controversial proves all the more difficult. Due to very poor scheduling during a crowded weekend at the end of the year, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" still cannot find the audience it deserves. Yet, the sequel is still in the works. The more time I can spend with Salander and the rest of the "Dragon Tattoo" universe, the better.

4. Hugo- "Martin Scorsese made a children's movie" was the hype surrounding the release of "Hugo." What everyone should have been saying is, "Martin Scorsese made another classic." "Hugo," a movie about the preservation of movies, plays into this year's theme of nostalgia. Perhaps Hollywood's answer to trying to improve the state of movies was to look toward the past. If so, it is working. It also helped that "Hugo" is the only movie I'd encourage anyone go see in 3D, as it actually adds to rather than detracts from the story. It is the most entertaining lesson in film history you'll ever get. "Hugo" might just give birth to a whole new generation of cinephiles.

5. Young Adult- Mavis (Charlize Theron), the young adult writer from which this movie gets its name, is like an odd mixture of Stephanie Meyer and Paris Hilton. She might be the least likable movie protagonist of the year, but Theron makes Mavis seem so genuine because Theron doesn't seem to think too highly of her either. "Young Adult" is a turning point in the careers of director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody; it is more in line with the ambiguity of "Up in the Air" and much less precious than "Juno." "Young Adult" will be a good time capsule movie, as it so accurately portrays America in 2011 in both its disenchantment and its cultural excesses. Perhaps what the misleading advertisements for "Young Adult" should have shown is that this is a not a dark comedy about happiness, but rather a bleak one that shows that when people sugar-coat misery and loneliness, it only makes them feel worse. In a world where reality is processed into such simple comfort fantasies as a young adult novel, "Young Adult" is the jolt of reality that isn't just for that kid who thought they were so loved in high school, but for a world of filmmakers who feel everything must have a happy ending...

Young Adult (2011) // Jason Reitman

6. 50/50- ...but that doesn't mean a happy ending is a bad thing. Great stories run on hope. "50/50" is a cancer comedy about living. Writer Will Reiser turned his struggle with cancer at a young age into an unlikely story about beating the odds. The mark of change is letting a negative life experience influence change for the better, and there is no better way to reflect on the past than to find the humor in it. Everyone in the cast is totally in their element, most notably Angelica Huston, Seth Rogen, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The scene in which Gordon-Levitt shaves his head is the bravest thing I've seen an actor do on camera this year aside from what Lisabeth Salender does to get revenge on her tormentor. Funny, thoughtful, and spontaneous, "50/50" is all the better for examining life through a comedic point of view. 

50/50 (2011) // Jonathan Levine

7. The Artist- "The Artist" is more than just that silent movie: it is the year's most indelibly entertaining film. The clever sound and image play throughout bring "The Artist" to a whole different level of inventiveness. This is both a cinephile's and a nostalgic's paradise. This film is essentially timeless in scope and story. Its characters are broad yet so memorable. Leads Jean Dujardin (as George Valentin) and Berence Bejo (as Pepe Miller) have the best chemistry I've seen this year. Chemistry is when two actors play off each other naturally and even when the two aren't together, there seems to be an electrifying force between them that will eventually bring them together. The third act might be a little overlong, but it is worth it for the ending, in which the true reason for Valentin's refusal to speak is revealed.

The Artist (2011) // Michel Hazanavicius

8. Terri- One of the most overlooked movies of the year that is also one of the year's best, "Terri" is a weird (in the best sense of the word) little story that is also weirdly inspired. Maybe no one wanted to see it because the idea of a protagonist who gets excited by watching a hawk catch its prey isn't exactly enticing. Yet the always pajama-clad Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is funny and sincere in an unexpected way. The friendship he forms with the principal (John C. Reilly) feels the exact same way, which is why it was the most believable bond seen on screen this year. "Terri" in general doesn't seem like the kind of movie that was ever after major awards or box office success. That's why it feels so pure, and why the relationships it portrays feel so real.

9. Bridesmaids- Most critics put "Bridesmaids" on a ridiculous pedestal as the greatest achievement in feminism since women's suffrage. Now that the buzz has subsided, "Bridesmaids" can finely step down and be recognized for what it is: an insanely hilarious and even touching big studio comedy. It took me a second viewing to realize that this is not a movie concerned about getting a story across, but rather about stretching a bunch of strange characters and awkward situations to their possible limits, an experiment just to see how long an audience can laugh for. This is why it is even better that they chose to let Kristen Wiig's drunken airplane tirade go on instead of letting the girls go to Vegas. The astounding success of this movie is a triumph in many ways, especially because it fast-tracked the career of director Paul Feig ("Freaks and Geeks") and showed that a raunchy but honest movie about friendship could connect with audiences. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, welcome to stardom.

Bridesmaids (2011) // Paul Feig

10. The Tree of Life- Long after its release, "The Tree of Life" is still the most ambitious movie of the year. Even though I am still struggling to figure it all out, I continue to admire the beauty and subtle simplicity of Terrence Malick's vision. As Malick's career has advanced, his films have gotten bigger in scope, yet more obscure in message. By setting this story of a Texas family coming of age in the 1950s against the backdrop of dinosaurs and the creation of the Earth, the characters are not just products of that era in American history, but struggling, clashing creatures trying to find the answers to everything and only being able to guess as to where are the right places to look. If Malick is God of this film, then the camera is his non-judging lens looking onto all of humanity. "The Tree of Life" is neither a pretty Windows screensaver nor "The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs", but rather the work of a famously private director who will only shares himself through his one-of-a-kind films.

Just Missed the List: Source Code, The Descendants, The Muppets, Crazy, Stupid, Love, The Guard, The Ides of March, Super 8

Worst: Cowboys & Aliens- This epically dull sci-fi blockbuster included an alien spaceship that resembled Squidward's house. That is all.

Most Overrated: A Dangerous Method, Drive, Moneyball

Most Disappointing: The Rum Diary, Your Highness, 30 Minutes or Less

Still Need to See: Melancholia, A Seperation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Shame, Like Crazy, Take Shelter

All movie title card images were found on this awesome website.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Movie Review: The Artist

Who would have thought that a modern black and white silent film could be funnier and more entertaining than most films made with sound and color nowadays? Sound might have been improved film, but "The Artist" proves that a step back into silence every once in a while isn't such a bad thing.

For anyone resistant to seeing a silent film, "The Artist" is only partly one. It incorporates the orchestra that would usually play live alongside a silent film as well as a few incredibly clever sound tricks. "The Artist" is an "I'm big, it's the pictures that got small" story about silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), with a last name evoking Rudolph Valentino and a mustache and toothy grin evoking Clark Gable. In 1927, Valentin's Hollywood career is soaring. He stars mainly in action and romantic pictures which usually boast names such as "A Russian Affair" and "A Chinese Affair." His dog, who is always on his side in both movies and in life, probably plays dead better than most dogs.

Movies are all about those little coincidences that, like a butterfly effect, later have a huge impact. After leaving one of his premieres, Valentin bumps into a fan (Berence Bejo) with a made-for-Hollywood name: Peppy Miller. Her name, and pictures of the glance that the two exchange, is all over the tabloids the next day. In order to get closer to George, Peppy auditions to be a dancer in his next movie. As she gets her start, George teaches Peppy the most important rule in being a successful actor: look distinct.

Around the same time that Peppy becomes a household name, the cigar wielding studio head (John Goodman, perfect for the role) decides that silent movies are out, and talkies are in. George wants absolutely no part in the talkies, and he pays the price for his arrogance. The inside of the studio is shown in one scene as a never-ending staircase in which people constantly walk up, but rarely down, like the Hollywood machine that mass produces movies and stars. Valentin becomes just another piece of unnecessary inventory.

"The Artist" is both a satire of the way movies are made and a movie with the broadest of plots and characters. Archetypes are usually unacceptable to me but here, they are just so lovingly that they actually work. As a movie star, George Valentin has no singular appeal, as he can play both a swashbuckling action hero and a dazzling romantic. These roles only seem to suit him in silent movies, and his fear of speaking makes his attempted comeback all the more difficult.

When the new form of motion picture medium first developed, the early filmmakers were like magicians constantly trying to play tricks on audiences. "The Artist" revives that spirit of visual trickery that is so often missing from today's movies. Some see 3D as a new form of this. What "The Artist" shows is that the image of a woman putting her arm through a man's jacket and moving it around can give off the appearance that it is actually someone else's arm. That didn't even require a pair of 3D glasses.

"The Artist" plays many more tricks with sound, both silent and audible. With one very subtle yet shocking clank, sound is brought to a silent world. A title card that reads "Why won't you talk?" could be considered hilarious despite the dramatic nature of the scene that it is placed in. Another card that appears at the movie's most thrilling moment, which I will not spoil here, will leave you relieved and stunned. You'll be relieved at what it really means, and stunned as to how easy it is to play with words.

Watching a silent movie is a totally different viewing experience. A silent movie will make even the most casual viewer pay more attention, as actions and gestures are the only things guiding the way. Audiences in the 1920s must have been some of the most engaged moviegoers there were. By bringing together silence and sound, "The Artist" ties the past and present together. Silence might enhance viewing in several ways but in a way, movies were never meant to be silent. After all, every silent movie was accompanied by a live orchestra. A moving image can only go so far.

"The Artist" also uses the silence as a sense of humor. The cue cards, perfect in their font, display dialogue that is both hilarious and thoughtful, and not just plot focused. Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius makes the style fit into every ounce of the overall theme.

Anyone can make a silent movie. The true achievement of "The Artist" is how it gives this old technology a raison d'etre. Some characters were just meant to be seen as silent. Looking past the silent element of "The Artist" is a movie that is funny and entertaining in the most timeless sense possible. The mark of most great movies is that you never want them to end. "The Artist" may be one of the year's best movies, but its biggest problem is that it begins to lag on in its third act. The darkest portion of the film begins to feel contrived and repetitive after a while, basically bringing down everything the movie had so beautifully built up.

But then, "The Artist" miraculously saves itself in its closing minutes with a few final lines that basically define the entire movie: clever, but not at all snarky. Just as seen in "The Artist," the Hollywood studio machine churns out an uncountable amount of movies every year. Few rarely stick. Every once in a while, a movie like "The Artist" comes along in which you wish the characters would dance off the screen and into your own lives. Maybe it helps when that machine is French. 

If you liked this movie, you'll also like: Singin' in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, Barton Fink, Modern Times, Citizen Kane, Hugo, Midnight in Paris

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Movie Review: War Horse

The Magic Hour.
Many have remarked that the ending shots of "War Horse" evoke the feelings and beauty captured in the landscape of classic Hollywood films, from "Gone with the Wind" to just about any John Ford western. And rightfully so, as this feels like a movie straight out of another era, the kind that isn't made so often nowadays. It has the power to move any viewer, but it might just bring the biggest film admirer to tears.

Based on a play which was based on a book (I have not seen or read either), the cinematic version of "War Horse" could not have been brought to life by anyone except for Steven Spielberg. It might seem predictable from start to finish, but there is simply no other way to tell this story.

"War Horse" gets off to a slow start, but even the most impatient moviegoer will want to stick it through. In rural Devon, England just before the outbreak of the first World War, a farmer (Peter Mullan) buys a horse for a price more than it appears to be worth. While his wife disapproves, his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is infatuated with the horse, but not in an "Equus" kind of way. The horse, whom Albert names Joey, is small but distinctively beautiful, marked by four white socks on his legs and a large white spot on his face. At first, Joey can barely carry a plough but by the end of the movie's lengthy first hour, he has plowed an entire field. Joey may be smaller than the others, but he is fast and persistent.

Then comes The Great War and like most men in the area, Joey is enlisted into battle. He comes into the care of Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, or F. Scott Fitzgerald in "Midnight in Paris"). After losing Nicholls in battle, Joey ends up in the care of the British, the Germans, and at one point, a young French girl. Albert enlists in the war, in hopes of being reunited with his beloved horse.

When it comes to depicting the horrors of war, no one does it better than Spielberg. It is stark realism to the highest, most detailed degree. If "Raiders of the Lost Ark" evoked a young boy playing with action figures in his backyard (as a critic once said), then "War Horse" evokes that young boy who is all grown up, knows history too well, and has sat through every action and adventure movie there is.

There have been few notable movies made about World War I, and the scenes in "War Horse" which take place in No Man's Land and the trenches could definitely give "Paths of Glory" a run for its money. It looks exactly like the post apocalyptic hell that it should be depicted as. When it comes to unflinching historical accuracy, no one beats Spielberg.

Even when Spielberg fails (and he has before), he never loses his uncanny eye for what elements truly complete a movie. In "War Horse," every little thing ends up having some sort of payoff. He knows what the viewers wants, but he also knows they shouldn't have to be cheated in order to get it.

Despite having a lot of plain human characters, "War Horse" makes an indelible impact. It is Joey the horse who truly makes it special. If there was an Oscar for animals, he would surely win it. Having Joey as the main character of this movie is something of a small relief, as it is nice to have a totally silent lead character sometimes, and I don't mean like Ryan Gosling in "Drive" kind of silent. Since horses can't speak, they use the purest form of acting: the emotions generated by their facial expressions and body language. You can tell when the horse is in physical pain but the more time you spend with Joey, the more you can see emotions that go below the surface. From Joey it is apparent that every living creature feels the effect of war and loss. Think of it as a minor "Consider the Lobster" effect.

"War Horse" is many things. It is an underdog story, a tragedy, and a love story in one. It displays Spielberg's great gift of always being able to shine the beacon of hope into the darkest of times. Spielberg gets to end "War Horse" with the big happy reunion he so often likes to conclude with. But here, it doesn't feel like schmaltz as it did at the conclusion of "War of the Worlds." It felt much deeper than that, and totally in place.

As many before me have pointed out, shades of "The Searchers," no doubt a huge influence on Spielberg's career, can be seen here. As Ethan Edwards stood outside the open doors of the house, feeling isolated and overwhelmed by the burdens of both the atrocities he's seen and the bigotry he feels, is an outsider not just to normal society but even to his own family. As Joey stands just outside the open gate of the loving family's estate, he probably can't help but feel the same way. He is loved and many strangers go to great lengths to save him but he is still an animal who has seen more than any can imagine, and in an instant could be traded from one owner to the next. Even if Albert raised him, he will never have one true master. "War Horse" in a sense, is a western, and Joey is its outlaw.

"War Horse" is also the best looking movie to come out this year. From the red sunset to a shot in which an entire army emerges from a field of tall grass, "War Horse" is like looking at a constantly morphing painting. Despite the horrors of war, the beauty of the natural world does not cease to exist.

"War Horse" is especially different because of the unique perspective it is told from. It shows that when war breaks out, everybody feels the consequences. It takes a series of contrived coincidences and two and a half very speedy hours to arrive at this point, but when a movie is able to suspend you from disbelief during its entire running time and keep you in that state, it has ultimately done exactly what its supposed to do. I cannot justify the poignance I felt once the movie ended, but the fact that this emotional state stuck with me long after the ending credits rolled shows the subtle and outstanding power of this movie. Just as Joey is not some dumb horse, just as "War Horse" is not some war movie.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Movie Review: A Dangerous Method

Psychoanalyzing the Psychologists
Scorsese has one. Kubrick has one. Cronenberg now has one. The Croneberg stare; in which a character looks into the camera, realizing what they lost is really what they wanted and all they have left to feel is remorse and self-hatred. This happens just seconds before the dramatic cut to black. This is repeated once again in "A Dangerous Method."

Movies have a funny way of dealing with history. Some praise those movies that remain completely accurate to the facts, and others prefer those that deviate into historical fiction territory. "A Dangerous Method" is a restrained drama that wants to be an intense one and a piece that strives to be totally historically accurate yet deep down, it wants to be an insane piece of historical fiction. 

  "A Dangerous Method" begins at the turn of the 20th century as Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a budding star in the psychoanalysis movement, attempts to cure a seemingly incurable patient named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Jung's personality is one that is cold and impersonal, and he doesn't even look at his patients when he speaks to them. The deeper Jung digs into Sabrina's child issues, the closer the two become, and the more dangerous their relationship ultimately turns out to be. Let's just say a touch of S&M is involved. 

While Jung studies and beds Sabina (unbeknownst to his wife), he makes frequent trips to Vienna to visit his friend and mentor, the cigar-chomping Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). The two construct the foundations of early psychoanalysis but they have differing opinions on it. Freud is purely scientific and Jung is quite spiritual. They clash and talk but mostly, they just talk. 

"A Dangerous Method" is not necessarily a bad movie. It is more like a good movie that missed the mark of greatness that it had the potential for. Oftentimes, this is even worse than a movie that is just bad. Cronenberg is an immensely talented director, especially when it comes to dealing with the darkest depths of human behavior. However, he never really makes movies on a larger scale, and a larger scale is exactly what "A Dangerous Method" could have used. 

I walked into "A Dangerous Method" as a stranger to psychology. The many dialogues between Jung and Freud made me more interested in further exploring the subject on my own. However, it is the subject matter, and not the story created about it, that is so interesting here. It tries to tell too many different stories at once and therefore never effectively completes any of them. Cronenberg seems like he wants to focus more on Sabina, and while she has a twisted and interesting mind, there is much more fertile ground that needs to be explored in the rivalry between Freud and Jung. The movie sometimes feels like a vehicle for Knightley's turn in a dramatic role. She is effective when she's not hamming it up and being reminiscent of nothing more than a pirate princess.

But let's back up to the rivalry between Freud and Jung, and the fact that it doesn't even seem to exist. In the movie, it is less of a rivalry and more like an extended heated argument that leads to nothing once the steam cools. In one brief sentence, it is revealed that Sabina's findings go against Freud's findings on sex and the ego. It is addressed once, and then never brought up again. In another similar incident, Freud tells Jung he will reveal nothing of his thoughts to him as a way of remaining powerful over him. It is a strong moment that should have paved the way for an entirely different movie. Why wasn't Jung more angry at Freud for this, when Jung knew that some of Freud's findings were wrong?

"A Dangerous Method" should have taken a cue from a much better film about a rivalry during the birth of the new discoveries during the beginning of the 1900s: "There Will Be Blood." The rivalry of that movie culminated into something much more horrific and tragic; a boom rather than a whimper. Maybe this story would have benefitted in the hands of a different director and a different writer.

"A Dangerous Method" is saved mostly by the outstanding performances of Fassbender and Mortensen. Fassbender rises to the occasion even with some of the flat dialogue he is given and Mortensen, meanwhile, depicts a tone and voice that are reminiscent of Alex DeLarge, who ironically could have used a serious couch session with Freud. The real star of the movie however, is cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. His stunning camerawork is romantic yet haunting; a mood that most perfectly captures the era. I could see myself watching this movie with the volume off and just being carried away by the imagery.

All of those great parts just feel like fragments. Occasional lines are thrown in here and there to show their importance but then are never brought back to their full extent. "A Dangerous Method" is like watching a very monotonous professor in a very crowded Psych 101 lecture. That is why that stare at the end feels blake rather than thoughtful at the end, as Cronenberg's previous features ("A History of Violence", "Eastern Promises") left so much more to ponder. "A Dangerous Method" consists of many great parts searching for a much better movie to be a part of.