Sunday, January 29, 2012

Not Necessarily the Best, but My Best

As the overloaded movie awards draws to its close, i.e., the Oscars, let me chime in with the movies I really enjoyed this year. The test for me is Would I watch this movie again and enjoy it.

10. 50/50. That's a 50/50 chance of a young man's chance of surviving cancer, not the usual stuff for a bromance comedy, but this one's smart, topical, tender, a bit randy, and really funny. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a standout in 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, joins Seth Rogen for a balance of charm and raunch.

9. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Never thought I'd love an APES movie, but this tense, often tender adventure film has strong writing, good performances from James Franco, John Lithgow, and especially Andy Serkis as Caesar, the leading ape character. The special effects are superb.

8. BRIDESMAIDS. Another unexpected but happy surprise. Kristin Wiig, the best thing about SNL, has co-written and stars in this riotous comedy that makes the HANGOVER movies look tame and unfunny. With a strong supporting cast (especially Maya Rudolph and Rose Byrne), BRIDESMAIDS manages to be offensive while also being an endearing treatise on female friendship. And you'll think twice about having some foods before trying on those bridesmaid's dresses.

7. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. Great to see master director-writer Woody Allen back in true form with a light-hearted comic fantasy about a guy who steps back into the 1920's to chat with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and a host of those "new thinkers" while avoiding his own nuptials. Whimsical and clever, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS was a relief for movie-goers who love Paris or Allen and even those who don't like either.

6. OF GODS AND MEN. If you haven't seen this extraordinary tribute to faith and service, I urge you to rent it. A quiet, thoughtful look at what happens to a French abbey in Algeria once the country falls into the hands of terrorists. Do the monks stay and serve their flock? Powerful and fulfilling story-telling.

5. THE DESCENDANTS. Subtle and heartfelt, Alexander Payne's dramedy gave George Clooney his finest role yet as a wealthy Hawaian lawyer and land owner who discovers his comatose wife has been cheating on him. Now he has to take care of his two daughters and extended family as well as face the "other man." The results are often funny and often touching.

4. MONEYBALL. Brad Pitt as former ball player who mangages a bottom-feeder team to a winning season sounds formulaic, but this baseball story is more about a man who finds himself and a new way to live than it is just about the game. Pitt and the entire cast shine.

3. THE HELP. Based on the immensely popular novel about the lives of maids during the 1960's, THE HELP has been adapted into a strong human drama with touches of humor ahd conflict and an ensemble cast that creates the type of movie that was standard back in the 1940's and early '50's (THE QUIET MAN, ALL ABOUT EVE). Violet Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain lead a superb ensemble cast, mixing humor with social comment and never letting one kill the other.

2. THE TREE OF LIFE. Terence Malick's deeply personal look at a Texas family in the 1950's and his visual counterpart of evolution, the cosmos, and flying dinosaurs put off the literal-minded viewers, but there's no denying the director's truth to vision. This is an amazing film.

1. (yes, a tie for first place) WAR HORSE. Steven Spielberg is a master at controlling his amazing technical skills to create memorable films (RAIDERS, E.T., SCHINDLER'S LIST, et al)that appeal to the heart as well as the mind has done it again with this sweeping epic set during World War I.
The plot is familiar: boy meets horse, boy loves horse, boy loses horse, boy and horse find each other. With John Williams' emotive score and magnificent visuals, WAR HORSE is a film to treasure.

1. HUGO. Another cinematic master, Martin Scorsese, returns to the roots of cinema with HUGO, a family film filmed in 3-D. An orphan boy and his friend discover the wonders of film in Georges Melius' early ground-breaking experiments. The color, art and set direction, and use of 3-D camera are breathtaking. Not to be missed.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


When I heard that PBS would be returning its surprise hit DOWNTON ABBEY, I threw my tea and crumpets into the air and danced with joy (Try to picture that). Since then the hoopla has been non-stop. It's as if I were LOST on the island, and someone explained the meaning of life or at least told me that series would be explained.

The first season of DOWNTON ABBEY stirred memories of BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, the elegaic goodbye to the good old days of strawberries and teddy bears at Oxford, and, of course, UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS, which chronicled the aristocratic Bellamy family and their servants from 1903 through 1930. Of all the English Masterpiece Theater imports, this is the one that put Public Television on the map. Both BRIDESHEAD and UPSTAIRS were what was once known as "appointment television," a term that seems long gone when there are over 300 channels to choose from. Until DOWNTON ABBEY.

Series One, set in the years before World War One, follows the Crawley family and their servants facing the possible entail of their magnificent estate, a scandal that could cost their eldest daughter Mary her reputation, and lots of in-fighting upstairs and down. The entire cast is inpeccable, but special credit should be given to the irreplaceable Dame Maggie Smith as Lady Grantham, the Dowager Countess and mother of the Earl. Smith's acerbic digs at any encroachment on her class or way of life are priceless gems, delivered with acidic humor. As Mary, the oldest daughter, Michelle Dockery, combines haughtiness with a growing sense of tenderness as she begins to shed her "noble" airs. Elizabeth McGovern is lovely and loving as Lady Brantley, an American heiress who saved the Abbey when she brought her fortune as a dowry. But the Brantleys have three daughters, which means the estate must go to the nearest male heir.

As the first episode of season 2 begins two years later, England is immersed in the Great War, and both upstairs and downstairs folks have men in the trenches. Lady Mary seems to have lost her true love, the younger sisters have joined the war effort, and Downton Abbey is now a military convelescent center. Much has changed, but the characters are even more developed and interesting. Appointment television is back!

Monday, January 2, 2012


I still haven't decided which 2011 movie I like the most, and we still have several strong contenders which haven't opened here yet. While in Memphis last week, we did see three interesting and varying films.

Steven Spielberg, perhaps the most consistently successful (and one of the best) story tellers in film history, has never forgotten what makes a film appear to large, differing audiences. His new film WAR HORSE, based on a young adult novel and a successful play, returns the director to his first love, movies from the golden age of film. Filled with allusions to GONE WITH THE WIND's expressionistic color palatte and John Ford's family classics such as THE QUIET MAN and THE SEARCHERS, WAR HORSE tells a simple story: boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy brings horse home. Yes, it's LASSIE COME HOME with its lush English country side in that wonderful MGM storybook color. But WAR HORSE is much more. Spielberg creates an idylic world to the eye, but beneath the surface people are struggling to survive, and when World War I rears its ugly head, Albert's father sells Joey, Albert's beloved horse, to the cavalry. The second, and grimmer, part of the film details Joey's struggles on the front and his amazing survival as well as Albert's attempts to find him. You can guess the last part for yourself. Spielberg's filming of soldiers and horses being slaughtered in Germany is reminiscent of his gripping D-Day invasion sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but his use of silhouette and layered images of horses and men leaping and falling to their deaths may be even more moving. Spielberg's direction includes warm, gracious performances from his lead players, but the real heart of WAR HORSE are the horses that play the two lead horse characters. He convinces us of their personalities, their devotion, and their hearts.

Perhaps the chilliest film of the year is YOUNG ADULT starring Charlise Theron, a rather cold fish herself, playing a beautiful woman facing 40 with a broken marriage and a career of ghost-writing that is beginning to wither. She's beautiful but broken, sloppy, and lacking in human empathy. In fact, the laughs that come for this comedy are more gasps of disbelief at how callous and mean-spirited her character remains. YOUNG ADULT is character study without a character to care about.

And finally there is MARGIN CALL, yet another Wall Street drama. The superb casts includes Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, and the always dependable Stanley Tucci as members of a firm not so loosely based on Lehman Brothers. We watch as they deliberately try to save their own necks, causing the financial crisis of 2008. I found this much easier to understand than any report I have read. Highly recommended.