Category Archives: 2011 Movies

Margaret (2011)

The behind-the-scenes story of Margaret could make for a compelling feature all its own. It began filming in 2005. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan had spent two years on the script. It was the follow-up to his Oscar-nominated 2000 film, You Can Count on Me. The only requirement was that Lonergan turn in a cut of the movie that was under 150 minutes. His first cut was three hours. The producers paid their own editor to chop the film down to two hours. Then came the flurry of lawsuits and countersuits between the producers and Lonergan. No less a cinematic statesman than Martin Scorsese was asked to take a look at the movie and edit it down to 150 minutes (Lonergan labored on the script for Gangs of New York). Several protracted years later, Fox Searchlight dumped the 150-minute Scorsese cut in a handful of theaters. Then a funny thing happened. The rare critics who got a chance to see Margaret flipped for it. Lonergan’s initial three-hour cut is now available on Blu-ray. It’s a happier ending than any of the participants might have imagined only a couple years ago. I’ve been eager to see Margaret for myself, to see if all these arty critics were being a bit overzealous in their praise. Days later, I can’t get it out of my head and I’m sure others would suffer the same wonderful affliction.

Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a privileged New York City teenager who usually gets what she wants. She’s on the hunt for a cowboy hat when she spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) with one. She runs alongside the bus, trying to ask him about the hat. It’s just enough to distract the driver. He runs a red light and plows into a pedestrian, Monica Patterson (Allison Janney). As a crowd forms and help is called for, Lisa holds the broken woman during her final, hellish moments. Afterwards, she lies to the police to protect the driver. The guilt eats away at her. She lashes out, she hurts others, she butts heads with her stage actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron), and she’s looking for anything to cope. Eventually Lisa decides to come clean and seek justice but it just might be too late.

Margaret is a messy, imperfect film, over-indulgent and cluttered, but man does it stick with you. It sits in your stomach. You can’t shake it. You just keep thinking back on it. And after a while, the flaws itself start to transform into virtues themselves. The film is messy and all over the place but my God does it excel at recreating, in startling spasms of uncontrollable emotion, the life of an American teenager. There is no off switch when it comes to emotions, and when you’re young everything seems like the end of the world. Like Lisa, you alternate between self-involvement and idealism, and you haven’t hardened to the way the world works just yet. The movie, thematically, latches onto the same wavelength as its heroine. Lisa is a flawed creature, deeply hurting and trying to come to terms with her own responsibility and guilt for the accident. It just so happens that she makes mistakes trying to deal with that pain, and innocent people get hurt, and people we once thought were noble reveal their own impulses and vulnerabilities. Whether she’s sympathetic as a protagonist doesn’t matter, though even when she hurt others I never found her less than fascinating. She feels everything so intensely, and those intense feelings bleed into other areas of her life. She can be woefully self-involved and callous at times, but she can also be self-possessed and fearless in a moral quagmire. At one point, a character argues that teenagers would govern better than adults because teens are still idealistic and proactive, even if their actions are dismissed as naive. Lisa wants to find justice in the world somehow, so she can make sense of this random tragedy. She still clings to the belief, even as the film becomes a messy legal battle (one of its many genres Lonergan dabbled in).

There are plenty of storylines and themes and messages that Lonergan wishes to weave into a seamless patchwork version of our intolerable, detached, self-involved culture. The film is something of a time capsule, way back in 2005, and the post-9/11 anxieties and civil insecurity is also dealt with in interesting ways. Lisa’s social studies class repeatedly descends into shouting matches, debates that reduce the opposition in the simplest terms. After a while, all we’re doing is trying to out-shout the other and no one is listening anymore. Lisa comments that our culture feels so disconnected and that people have stopped relating to one another. Of course this also extends to her as well, as she confuses her feelings and those around her. The mother-daughter dynamics are a fascinating character insight and one of the better onscreen relationships I’ve seen in years. You can clearly see where Lisa gets some of her showboat tendencies. Both mother and daughter have stopped being able to relate to one another, and Lisa can wield sarcasm like a weapon, as teenagers are wont to do to their parents. Mom is dating a man she doesn’t particularly connect with, and yet she enjoys the company and the desire to be wanted. Is that enough to fulfill her gnawing sense of loneliness? Lisa’s father is the type to run from conflict, and yet the man is just as self-absorbed and hurtful as anyone else in the film. Except he’s an adult and, theoretically, should know better. In that regard, the movie reminds me of the excellent Little Children; this is a movie of mitigated personal responsibility from people of all ages. If this is the way the world works, then why not give teenagers a chance?

The opera is a reoccurring motif for the film, and it’s a strong artistic association for the film because Lonergan sort of gives his characters arias with which to work. The emotions are sent to overdrive, the arguments are full-blast, and the dialogue lands in that articulate, hyper-verbal territory but isn’t self-consciously snappy. It’s hard to quantify but it’s dialogue that’s painful and revealing and, while beautifully crafted, can come across as genuine. The entire movie is the same way. This is a drama where, in Spinal Tap terms, the emotions go to eleven. It’s a big bleeding heart of a movie, but it’s not corny or maudlin or mawkish or TV movie sentimental. It’s fearlessly emotional and takes you on a journey with many stops. You’ll likely be horrified, thrilled, precarious, elated, angry, saddened, and frustrated.

It may be best described as a series of potent, powerful scenes rather than a traditional screenplay with a clear through line. The most memorable scene also happens to be the one that sets everything in motion – the accident. It is horrific and awful in ways that movies rarely deal with. The first image we see is a leg pinned under the bus. Oh no, we think. But then the camera continues to pan down and we see… the rest of her in a heap. Oh no, we say to ourselves again, even more aghast. We’re there for the harsh reality, the sad realization of Monica that she’s going to die (“Are my eyes open? I can’t see…”), and the shock and confusion of the situation. There’s blood shooting everywhere, no sign of help, and the woman is fading away, confusing Lisa with her deceased daughter of the same name. Lonergan makes us stay in this traumatic scene for a long time, an uncomfortable amount of time, enough that the horrible incident is burned into our memory as well, and when Lisa crusades for justice or looks for some physical or emotional escape from the trauma, we know why. It’s one of those one-scene marvels, a byproduct of near-perfection on every technical level.

This is pre-True Blood Paquin and boy does she deliver when it comes to the dramatic feats of her character. She’s convincing as a coy, too-smart-for-her-own-good teenager, she’s devastating as a lost, dour soul lashing out at the world, looking for anything to ease the pain, and even when she stumbles, she’s fascinating. Paquin goes through a variety of moods to suit the variety of tones and storylines for the film, and her performance never falters. I’m amazed at how fast she can spit out the verbiage, while crying her eyes out, and all without gasping for breath. She’s nothing short of amazing.

The rest of the movie is filled with recognizable actors in small parts, from Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) as a nice guy math teacher with his own weakness, Matthew Broderick (Election) as a pompous English teacher, Jean Reno (Couples Retreat) as the off kilter suitor to Lisa’s mother, Kieran Culkin (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as the bad boy druggie who deflowers Lisa, John Gallagher Jr. (TV’s The Newsroom) as the nice guy with the unrequited crush on Lisa, Rosemarie Dewitt (The Watch) as the bus driver’s wife, Lonergan himself as Lisa’s neglectful father, and the triumphant return to screen of Jeannie Berlin (The Heartbreak Kid) who hasn’t appeared in a movie since 1990. Berlin has the juiciest part as Monica’s closest friend and eventual confidant for Lisa. She takes on Lisa’s mission for justice, but she’s still wary of Lisa and her hyperbolic nature. She accuses Lisa of making up a garish detail (the Lisa name confusion in Monica’s last moments): “This isn’t an opera! And we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life!”

The title of the film comes from a poem called “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins addressed to a grieving subject named Margret: “Ah! as the heart grows older/ it will come to such sights colder/… /It is the blight man was born for/ It is Margaret you mourn for.” When you come down to it, Lonergan’s film is about the awareness of mortality, the shock of death, the realization of the end, and our pitiful attempts to turn off the feelings more fully felt. Adults, Lonergan argues, have become hardened to the world to the frailty of life, and you question if that hardening, a natural process, is a good thing. Perhaps the dubious claim that teenagers should take a chance running the world is not without some sliver of merit. Margaret is a movie that’s hard to pin down; there’s so much going on, not all of it fully realized or satisfying I freely confess, but it’s a thrill to witness an artistic vision that’s bursting with things to say, so many things that life cannot contain them all. The 150-minute running time will be a stumbling block for some, but honestly I never felt the film drag like I do most Hollywood action thrillers of that length. When you step away, and take the film’s messiness into context, then Margaret stops being an ambitious but erratic artistic miscue and starts coalescing into something bolder, richer, and thought provoking. It took a long strange journey to get here but Margaret is a movie that deserves to be savored and debated.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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Jack and Jill (2011)

I was anticipating bad, I was anticipating outlandishly bad, but nothing can prepare you for how stunning and jaw-droppingly awful Adam Sandler’s reported comedy Jack and Jill truly is. The movie swept the Razzie Awards in all categories this year, a historic feat. Sandler plays a rich ad exec and his braying, boorish twin sister, who Al Pacino, in a strangely committed performance as himself, falls in love with for no discernible reason. I’ve seen my fair share of craptacular cinema, and yet this movie is bad on a rarely seen level of human tragedy; it feels like the movie came from a different dimension, where they had no concepts of human relations, reactions, expectations, or senses of humor. It feels like you’re watching a cultural artifact of a civilization in decline. I haven’t been a fan of Sandler’s brand of naughty-yet-safe humor for a while, but this movie is weirdly cruel to all sorts of people, like Mexicans, atheists, adopted kids, Jews, and human beings with working senses of humor. The quality of comedy includes gems like, “Play twister with your sister,” and, “These chimichangas are making a run for the border.” The rampant and nakedly transparent product placement for Carnival Cruise and Dunkin’ Donuts is obscene. This is a charmless, witless film, and when it tries to wring actual emotion out of its daft scenario, the whole enterprise just implodes. Jack and Jill is so odious, torturous, reprehensibly bad that it feels like one of the joke movies that Sandler made in 2009’s Funny People. You feel like the entire movie is one long joke put on by a contemptuous Sandler. I think my good pal Eric Muller had it right; we’re on the tail end of Sandler’s deal with the devil. Jack and Jill is why the terrorists hate us.

Nate’s Grade: F

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

If you’re contemplating having children, then We Need to Talk About Kevin may not be the movie for you at this moment. It takes a stab at the nature/nurture debate and proposes that some children are just born broken and beyond the reach of even the most dedicated parent. It’s not exactly the cuddly message we get from most stories about the joys of parenting, but We Need to Talk About Kevin is a startling, provocative, and powerful portrait of grief, aggravation, and slowly dawning horror. Can even a mother love her monster?

Motherhood has not been the rewarding venture as promised for Eva (Tilda Swinton). Kevin (Jasper Newell at a child; Ezra Miller as a teen) wails so incessantly as a baby that she seeks out the sweet sounds of a jackhammer to drown out her shrieking babe. Even as a toddler, she knows there’s something just not right about her sullen, uncommunicative son. He seems to deprive her of any affection or attention she might find gratifying. Truly it seems much of Kevin’s motivation in life is to humiliate and torment his mother. It starts with being deliberately unresponsive as a child, and turning on a dime when in the presence of his father, then to delayed toilet training because he seems to enjoy making his mother clean up his mess (metaphor?), to the unexplainable massacre at her son’s hands. We Need to Talk About Kevin is an immersive experience, occasionally piling on how irredeemable Kevin is as a character. It also speaks to the unreliable nature of our shell-shocked point of view. It’s a disquieting film to say the least but I found it riveting and compelling at every second, artfully exploring a form of grief and social isolation that few will ever be able to fully understand.

There’s tremendous psychological detail to this nightmarish parenting tale, and it’s those details that make the film feel eerily authentic and not exploitative. I found it fascinating to be drawn into this world, like I was watching an intimate, illustrated case study come alive. I found it very telling that after Eva accidentally injures her son in a fit of frustration, she apologizes but can only bring herself to do so under the shield of third person, saying, “Mommy shouldn’t have done that,” rather than, “I shouldn’t have done that.” And then when they get home, little Kevin unspools a perfectly believable story to cover-up what really happened. Even at six this kid is a shockingly adept liar, possibly because he’s a budding sociopath. Horror movies have been bringing us little pint-sized terrors for decades, from Bad Seed to the Village of the Damned, but those wicked kids seem like child’s play compared to Kevin, a startling, vacant child who is the scariest of the bunch exactly because he feels completely real. No Satanic imagery, glowing red eyes, or over-the-top associations needed; this is one messed up kid.

Watching this tumultuous and combative struggle for domination is equal turns compelling and terrifying. In many ways Eva adopts the role of Cassandra, the Greek figure cursed with visions of the future that nobody believed; Eva warns the people in her life that Kevin isn’t right, that he’s entirely capable of great evil, yet everyone ignores her dire warnings, and even Eva is culpable to some degree of enabling. Rather than discipline Kevin or stick to her principles, she passively accepts the situation and carries on with full knowledge that Kevin is going unchallenged. To everyone else he seems like a bright, helpful, normal teenage boy, which is why dear old dad (John C. Reilly) is so condescending and dismissive when Eva voices concern. Parenting is supposed to be instinctive, right? Eva feels like a failure, that this young soul has been steered to the dark side under her watch, and I think her hesitation to continue ringing alarm can be summed up by the fact that she’s just exhausted, tired of fighting a fight that everyone else ignores. I think she may also be desperately hopeful that she can ride this out, that it’s only a phase for her son, that somehow he’ll grow up to be a normal, loving child through some miracle, like a switch will be flipped. The only time Kevin ever shows his mother compassion is when she reads him a bedtime story involving archery, a hobby that would prove deadly.

The film is told non-linearly as we observe the fragmented memory of Eva. We have to pick up the pieces of life much like Eva recovering from her son’s destruction. It’s interesting to discover the symbolic connections between scenes, the connective tissue binding the memories together, and director/co-writer Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) does an exceptional job of filling in key details to enrich this woman’s horrid life. The scenes don’t seem to last long, but Ramsay and her team provide all the meaning and weight we need so that the scenes matter. There’s a heavy amount of dread suffused into every scene in this movie, as the totality of events starts to become clear. The metaphors aren’t subtle but they are effective. Prepare for a lot of red in the color palate: squashed tomatoes, strawberry jam, splattered paint across Eva’s front porch as an act of vandalism. She spends the rest of the movie trying to clean away the red stains on her home (see what I mean about subtlety?). The splintered narrative also serves as a statement on Eva’s frame of mind, trying to move forward but haunted by a tragedy that goes down to the marrow.

And of course all praise of the film needs to also be placed at he feet of versatile actress Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton). She’s not given many lines of dialogue but what she is able to do to make her character feel fully lived-in is astonishing. There are so many different points of her life to play, from young exuberance to growing disdain to zombie-like pariah, and Swinton doesn’t strike one false note. Even during her grief and guilt she doesn’t go into hysterics. This is a woman that simply wants to waste away and be forgotten. Even when it looks like she might find some small measure of satisfaction or affection from another person, the movie sucker punches you. You realize that her son may be in jail but she’s serving a sentence all her own. Swinton is heartbreaking and subtle and nuanced even when it appears she’s simply staring off into space. You don’t really want to be in this woman’s head, and yet Swinton’s performance puts us there, hence all of my analytical assessment above. She’s a mixture of self-loathing, denial, bitterness, and penitence, and Swinton gives us telling glimpses of the storm below the surface. Her guilt is eating her away from the inside out. I’ll go on record and say it’s a crime that Swinton wasn’t nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (I personally apologize for not nominating her for the PSP Silver Cines).

I feel the need to talk and talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin, to sing its despairing praises, to encourage lovers of challenging, complex, and emotionally devastating film to experience this exceptional movie. It’s psychologically rich, bold, and revealing with even the smallest details to round out this hellish family scenario. It’s not an easy two hours to sit through, not by a long shot, but there are certain rewards for those who choose to wade through the darkness, Swinton’s haunting performance among them. This is a difficult subject and it’s produced a difficult film, but sometimes we need to be put in uncomfortable circumstances to get at a greater truth. What is the greater truth of the film? Maybe that parenting is really, when it’s all said and done, a leap of faith, maybe that avoidance of hard decisions is no solution, and maybe that some people are just beyond redemption. A movie that makes you think? Somebody ought to talk about this one.

Nate’s Grade: A

Like Crazy (2011)

The prevailing thought I kept having while watching the twee indie romance (?) Like Crazy was that this is like stupid. I spend fifteen minutes with the young happy couple, Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones), and then there’s already trouble. Rather than have to wait two and a half months to see one another again (a.k.a. eternity), Anna decides to overstay her visa because it’s not like that would be taken seriously in a post-9/11 world. Naturally, there are repercussions and Anna is banned from reentering the U.S., effectively putting a hitch in her romance. It’s such a short-sighted, impulsive, boneheaded decision, and it’s one that completely made me lose all sympathy for a couple that couldn’t bother to be apart for a mere two and a half months. Jacob and Anna try and hold it together but the constant starting and stopping, as well as the comforts of people closer, provide major roadblocks. I’m not a hardhearted person; I’m a sucker for a good romance. Many of my favorite movies of the past few years have strong romantic elements (Eternal Sunshine, Once, Moulin Rouge, WALL-E), but I felt next to nothing for this whiny, pitiful couple. First off, they’re only together for fifteen minutes before being ripped apart, which doesn’t exactly allow me enough time to emotionally engage. And then there’s the fact that these “crazy kids” have absolutely no passion between them, no spark, no nothing that would compel them to be together against all odds. You don’t feel anything approaching romance. And to top it off, Jacob has a perfectly lovely, charming, and available alternative played by the lovely and charming Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games). She even makes this doofus breakfast in bed. This movie felt like an entire montage of small moments that never accumulated into anything believable or compelling. I’ll take Lawrence and breakfast in bed and be grateful.

Nate’s Grade: C

Shark Night 3D (2011)

Piranha 3D was a horror movie that knew exactly what it was doing, and good gravy it did it well. Here was a horror comedy that brilliantly provided campy thrills, over-the-top mayhem, salacious T&A, and a jubilant sense of humor. It was a glorious 1980s-esque exploitation film adapted to modern times. In the wake of Piranha 3D came the pitiful Shark Night 3D, which was marketed with a similar celebratory exploitation angle. Besides the unifying aquatic threat, the two movies, however, couldn’t be any more different. Shark Night 3D is to Piranha 3D what Branson, Missouri is to Vegas.

It’s spring break on the Bayou, and seven friends are heading out to Sara Palski’s (Sara Paxton) family house on the lake. Nick (Dustin Milligan) has a full course load as a pre-Med major, so he’s looking to relax and finally make a move with his crush on Sara. Along for the ride are geeky Gordon (Joel David Moore), future NFL first-round pick Malik (Sinqua Walls), his girlfriend Maya (Alyssa Diaz), the rebellious party girl Beth (Katherine McPhee), and her ex-boyfriend, the self-absorbed Blake (Chris Zylka). Their revelry is interrupted when they discover that the lake is filled with all kinds of sharks. A group of menacing local rednecks terrorizes the gang and plan to feed them to the sharks.

What this movie reminds me of are the watered down soft-core “comedies” that used to grace the late night airwaves on the cable channel USA. Somebody had the bright idea to take movies that were primarily made to titillate with casual T&A; when you strip away those base exploitation elements, which in this case was sex and nudity, then you’re left with 90 minutes of strained filler and really flat jokes. That’s what Shark Night 3D (in non-3D) feels like. Ignoring the fact that Paxton (Last House on the Left) runs around in a bikini for 90 percent of the movie, the film is lacking guts of all kinds. The closest you’ll get to skin is some brief side boob from American Idol alum, and quizzically ever-present actress, Katherine McPhee (The House Bunny). I want to state for the record that giving McPhee a nose stud and some lower back tattoos is the unconvincing PG-13 translation of making her into a “bad girl.” I wouldn’t be as miffed about the omission of the exploitation elements if the movie presented a compelling story or some well-orchestrated suspense sequences. It presents itself as an exploitation film, replete with plenty of underwater POV shots of bikini bottoms but it pulls back at every opportunity, cruelly teasing the audience with the promise of something better, but better never comes.

Its ideas of suspense revolve around lame jump scares and quickly resolved sequences where characters are picked off by the sharks. The movie sets up a dramatic scenario and doesn’t waste much time. Characters get picked off with mordant efficiency, and yet there’s no pizazz to these deaths, no memorable or gruesome moments. Hope you like seeing people pulled under red water. Unlike Deep Blue Sea, an enjoyable campy outing, these sharks are just regular sharks and yet they behave like genetically engineered killing machines, leaping out of the water to snatch prey at high altitudes. They even know how to break an onboard motor, which sounds like the work of a shark suicide bomber. There’s never really a great explanation for why the sharks are even doing in a lake. Granted, it’s stated to be a salt water lake and spillovers from high waters have been known to deposit oceanic creatures inland, but then the dumb redneck characters take credit for the shark attacks. They say they put them in the lake. I don’t believe this for a second, nor do I believe that these goons are secretly clever when it comes to advanced technology. Their whole scheme, which includes one of them philosophizing about “moral relativism,” is completely unbelievable, as well as their crazy get rich quick scheme.

If you’re not going to deliver the goods, at least don’t pretend that your sharks-eat-college-kids horror movie is some serious work of art. Sadly, the thing that can save any low-rent horror movie, a sense of humor, is noticeably absent with Shark Night 3D. It goes all the way in the other direction, trying to churn serious drama out of ridiculous situations. Characters are prone to delivering long monologues that let us know how scared they are or of some past trauma. Sara is haunted by a drowning scare that put an irreconcilable rift between her and her ex-boyfriend, who happens to be one of the sinister rednecks. The stupid melodrama in this movie is played completely poker-faced serious. When one male character loudly bellows that his girlfriend, who died via shark, was the most important thing in his world, it’s something of a head-scratcher. Before this lady fell victim to nefarious shark attack, we knew next to nothing about her beyond superficial descriptions, namely her race and her designation as “girlfriend.” We don’t even see anything of this so-called relationship, so when the feeding frenzy starts and the characters start getting picked off, the wails of drama are comically misplaced. When that character tries to go back into the water to attain vengeance against the animal that took his woman (“They took one of ours, now I’m gonna take one of theirs”), it feels absurd and hilarious. The movie hasn’t even done a credible job to make us believe the significance of the character relationships.

The screenplay by Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg relies on stock roles almost to a degree of self-parody (the athlete, the smart wet blanket, the doofus, the virginal girl next door, the vampy girl – hey Cabin in the Woods, I got your lineup right here). You would think given the scenario of shark-infested waters, all you had to do was remain on land. The old chestnut about cell phone signals is here again, but I refuse to believe that Sara’s family house does not have a landline phone. I thought maybe for one shining moment Shark Night 3D would move into an unexpected direction, and then it didn’t. After our first shark victim struggles to pull through, our med student Nick takes charge. I thought it would have been great during this moment, when we fully expect Nick to be indispensable given his medical knowledge, that he gets eaten by a shark. Alas, my dreams of convention upheaval were not to be met. If you can’t predict every twist and turn the movie makes, including the heroic sacrifice and the “twist” betrayal, then you haven’t lived long enough to move on from the kiddie pool.

Shark Night 3D is a schlocky, tiresome, neutered exploitation film missing the elements that make exploitation films worth watching. After a while, it just becomes exasperating. This movie is 90 minutes of being lead around without a payoff. It wants to be a fun, campy movie, but then why does it take itself so seriously and lack the slightest sense of humor? It wants to be considered amongst exploitation horror movies, with nubile teens being stalked in their bikini bottoms below the murky depths, but then why does the movie pull back at every opportunity for sex and gore? Shark Night 3D is a movie that will appeal to no one. If you want thrills and chills, you’ll be disappointed. If you want T&A, you’ll be disappointed. If you want some good shark action, you’ll be disappointed. If you want a workable story and characters worth rooting for, you’ll be disappointed. If you love sharks, you’ll be disappointed, which is a real disappointment. The only people who won’t be disappointed will be the people who grew up on those late-night USA cut-for-TV soft core flicks. To those few people in their bubbles of ignorance, Shark Night 3D might be the best movie they’ve ever seen.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Three Musketeers (2011)

I suppose I should have known better seeing director Paul W.S. Anderson’s name attached to the loose adaptation of The Three Musketeers. From the previews, I thought that the film could perhaps settle on an enjoyable level of stupidity, something of a wink while it obliterates all fidelity to Alexander Dumas source material. Well, the movie sure is stupid but it’s far from enjoyable. This swashbuckling-on-steroids flick has got 17th century zeppelin-battleships, booby-trapped secret passages, and a confluence of English accents in France, but by far the dumbest part of this incredibly dumb movie is that war (or the “looming apocalypse”) rests entirely upon a diamond necklace. A ludicrous amount of the movie’s conflict rests on getting the Queen of France her stolen necklace back so that her husband doesn’t think she’s unfaithful. Instead of two people just having a conversation to clear up a misunderstanding, the movie pushes this marital conflict as the climactic push that will lead to global war. The action sequences are dull and none of the actors seem to be successful at faking enthusiasm. What does it say that Anderson rips off his own Resident Evil series as he concludes Musketeers, setting up a sequel that surely will never exist? This movie is bereft of any whiff of fun even with all its fantastical elements crashing through classic literature. It had a slight chance of being the right kind of stupid, but instead it’s just stupid times a thousand. Beware, canonical literature, because as long as Anderson lives none of you are safe.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

It may not be fair, but I was never expecting to like Steven Spielberg’s first foray into animation, The Adventures of TinTin. It just looked so busy and I’m still on the fence when it comes to motion-capture technology. So imagine my surprise when I found myself not just enjoying the movie but also actively loving it. This rollicking adventure practically hums with energy and imagination. It’s easy to get lost in its sweep. The action sequences, of which there are several, are terrific, breathlessly paced but showing great fair and imagination. It comes to the closest of any imposter to replicating the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Give great credit to Spielberg but also his team of terrific Brit writers (Dr. Who’s Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and the man behind Attack the Block, Joe Cornish). The characters don’t feel like soulless androids, the adventure is lively, the immersive visuals are gorgeous to behold, and the scale of some of these action set pieces is just massive, in particular a chase through a Moroccan city that is performed in one unblinking take (although does it matter when it’s animated?). I felt transported while watching Tintin, back to a time of childhood awe and excitement. Some will find the movie wearisome and vacant, but I’m prone to shaking off my adult quibbles when a movie can make me feel like a kid again

Nate’s Grade: A-

Miss Bala (2011)

Miss Bala (Mexico’s foreign film entry for 2011) is an unwavering, startling, and deeply tense movie about one woman’s tragic and unwilling association with a powerful drug cartel. Laura (Stephanie Sigman) wants to be the next Miss Baja California, but she’s unwittingly pulled into a life of crime after she witnesses a gang hit. The cartel ensures that Laura wins the beauty pageant and becomes a courier for them. The movie takes a Lars von Trier approach to storytelling, putting its heroine through a torture chamber of anxiety and terror. This woman only wants to escape the hell she has accidentally found herself a part of, but every attempt to escape, be it going to the police or confessing assassination plots to the intended targets, gets her corralled back into the fray. For Laura, there is no escape. The movie packs a near-constant surge of paranoia, as we fear that at any time something awful will happen. In fact it’s usually only a matter of time. Laura is more a symbol of the collateral damage of Mexico’s billion-dollar drug war than a character, and she kind of becomes a numb zombie by the movie’s latter half, perhaps accepting her doomed fate. Director Gerado Naranjo favors long unwinding takes and handheld cameras, which add a gritty realism and sense of compounding dread to the picture. The movie has an unflinching level of realism to it that makes it all the more haunting, stripping the romanticism from a life of crime. Much like Italy’s heralded crime film Gomorrah, this bleak but impassioned movie shows the inescapable tentacles of organized crime and gives a face to innocents caught in the middle. Miss Bala is a testament to the hidden toll of a nation at war with itself.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Courageous (2011)

Last fall, Courageous opened to sellout crowds, but unless you or your family is plugged in to Christian media, you probably missed it (you know a movie’s got to be good when it has a quote from former football coach Tony Dungy). This is the latest film from the Kendrick brothers, a pair of pastors that started their own production company and have been making low-budget Christian-themed dramas that score big profits. What they really create, in my estimation, are two-hour film components to go along with a ready-made Bible study/lesson package (and you bet you can purchase your own Courageous companion book). As you’d expect, from an objective standpoint, these films, intended for a select audience of the converted, aren’t paragons of film artistry. And the Kendrick brothers’ last movie, 2008’s Kirk Cameron vehicle Fireproof, was awful on just about every level of filmmaking. Courageous is a better film on every front, but “better” and “good” are not interchangeable descriptions.

In the small town of Albany, Georgia, a group of police officers have al come to a personal crossroads concerning fatherhood. Adam (Alex Kendrick, director and co-writer) has recently lost his 11-year-old daughter in a tragic car accident. Nathan (Ken Bevel) is trying to come to terms to forgive the absent father he never knew. He also has to protect his teen daughter from going out with a young boy who happens to be part of a gang. David (Ben Davies) is the rookie in the group with a shameful secret of his own, namely that he has a small daughter he abandoned with her mother. Javier (Robert Amaya) is struggling to find a stable job to support his wife and children. His wife fears they’ll have no choice but to go back to their home country. Shane (Kevin Downes) is feeling the pressures of the job as well and making bad decisions that will catch up with him. The five gentlemen decide to make a public pledge and sign a written contract promising to be involved, loving, and responsible fathers for their families. But saying it and doing it is another matter.

As with most of the Christian-funded film efforts, the movie is secondary to the message. Unlike Fireproof, the filmmakers package their wholesome message in a far more easily digestible package. There are moments in the movie that work really well and ring true, mostly the struggle of overcoming grief at the loss of a child. Adam is told that losing a child has been compared to losing a limb (look out if you lose a limb and a child). It’s not going to give Rabbit Hole a run for its money as far as psychological implications, but there are glimpses that feel like genuine and powerful drama. Whether Adam performing a dance with the memory of his deceased daughter is corny or emotional is up to you. Unfortunately, given the scatter-shot nature of the story, these moments only stay as moments, fleeting in their impact. But I was wholly surprised to even have anything genuine after the ridiculousness of Fireproof. Kendrick has improved as a filmmaker and his grasp on characterization is sharper; there are some nice moments of wry humor like when Adam keeps accidentally telling his chief he “loves him” (those declarations were intended for his wife on the other phone line). There’s an amusing bit akin to a “who’s on first?” routine as Adam mistakenly thinks Javier is another Javier he hired for some construction work. The struggle of an immigrant family hovering above the poverty line is a welcome storyline to a pretty middle-class point of view that dominates the story. I don’t know if the Javier character completely works in the context of this story, but he’s an amiable presence as he becomes an adopted member into the boys’ club. The opening even has a rather exciting flash of action with Nathan holding onto his carjacker from outside the speeding vehicle. There’s a foot chase that is crisply edited and filmed with a bit more flair than is normally accustomed to with these movies. It’s something of a small miracle that Courageous seems to exist in a modestly recognizable universe.

While being easily the best movie yet to bear the Kendrick name, Courageous still has enough faults to limit its execution, likely only reaching those already converted to its Christian values. Subtlety is rarely a tactic employed in Kendrick’s wheelhouse. As a result, everything can become rather ham-handed and message-laden. There are far too many different elements that just don’t jibe together to form a cohesive whole; the movie feels like a series of anecdotes that occasionally collide together. The narrative is stuffed with the death of a child, the struggle of immigrant workers to find a foothold, parental abandonment and reconciliation, gang recruitment, and police corruption (if you’re going to steal drugs from the evidence room, at least replace the weight value). They could have easily lost one of these guys from the plot, particularly the corrupt cop. There’s too much going on for real narrative momentum to get going. Structurally, most of the movies conflicts are resolved before we even get into the meat of Act Three, leaving the movie to finish with a hasty shootout with gang members that feels arbitrary. I suppose the Kendrick brothers might argue that the gang members represent the tragic results of boys raised without strong paternal role models, but that’s a rather simplified implication. And why does no one indignantly reject the idea that the death of a little girl was meant to prosper greater goodness in the world? I would imagine a grieving parent, no matter their closeness with God, would feel some modicum of anger at the idea that their daughter needed to die for them to be a better person. Kendrick is not nearly a strong enough actor to sell the various ups and down his lead character endures.

But the biggest problem I have with the movie is that it posits that “Christian values” and “ethics” are synonymous. I have no beef with any religious belief that people rely upon to choose to be better, more caring, conscientious, and active people. However, I bristle with the notion that ONLY religion can give people the tools to achieve these ethical realizations. The group of characters sits around a barbeque and talk about religion, parenting, their own negligent fathers, but they present religion, and specifically Christianity, as the only solution to being a better person. I would argue that mankind can realize moral good and hold to a code ethics without the direct tutelage of Christianity. If this was the case, would this logical argument not suggest that portions of the world that favor other religions are wayward in any sense of moral reasoning and value? What about before Christianity came into being, all that B.C. part of the timeline? Surely Jews would kvetch that they didn’t need Christianity to adhere to a moral order.

The movie’s patriarchal insistence that men are the only guardians of their family seems ignorant. The women presented in Courageous are pretty much the doting types who wrap their arms around their husbands and remind them what good Godly men that are. The movie puts all the pressure onto the men, somehow missing the point that women can and should be a contributing force when it comes to rearing a family. While the Kendricks have plenty of statistics at hand about the significance of a father, the movie tacitly paints a portrait that a family is doomed when it falls under the complete stewardship of a mother. I’m not going to rip open a feminist rant because I don’t find anything in Courageous to be insidious or malicious, though its depiction of black gang members seems a bit sketchy. I just think the overemphasis on spurring men into taking responsibility doesn’t need to be at the expense of women giving up something. Parenting should be a shared responsibility and not something tagged to whomever holds the title of head of household. And as presented, the movie gives the fathers questionable levels of control. Nathan takes his teen daughter out to a fancy restaurant where he presents her with a fancy ring as a gift in exchange for dad being granted veto-power when it comes to potential boyfriends with no expiration date. I understand it’s meant as a father caring for his daughter, but buying her a ring to celebrate her chastity seems incredibly creepy.

Courageous is an improved effort from the Kendrick brothers and their Sherwood Pictures production house. The movies may improve but they still remain subservient to a message, and the ticket-buyers who look forward to a positive affirmation of that message have fewer demands when it comes to characters, plot, direction, etc. The core audience has a high demand when it comes to spirituality, but I wish they had just as high demands for artistic quality. Why can’t the faithful find inspiration from a movie that isn’t so on-the-nose? Are my only choices when it comes to depictions of spirituality the bludgeoning type (Fireproof, Left Behind, anything with Kirk Cameron really) or the esoteric (The Tree of Life)? Good intentions can only get you so far, and while its core message that men need to be responsible and step it up when it comes to parenting is valid, the rest of the movie jangles with some questionable representations and moral simplification. If people feel truly inspired by these movies to better themselves, then that’s a commendable effect but it doesn’t make the movie any better. At one point a character says that his father was “good enough.” Adam responds, “Well, I don’t want to be just a ‘good enough’ father.” Well, to many Courageous will be a “good enough” Christian drama. To me, mediocrity knows no one faith.

Nate’s Grade: C+

A Separation (2011)

When A Separation won the Best Foreign Film Award at the 2012 Oscars, its writer and director, Asghar Farhadi, gave a heartfelt speech where he accepted the award on behalf of a proud people who “respect all cultures,” a country that is much more than portrayed on the news as a Middle Eastern state of agitation and repression. Then the Iranian state-run TV used the opportunity to insult Israel, saying that the Academy “bowed before Iranian culture,” their movie “left behind” the Israeli nominee (Footnote) and “the beginning of the end” of Israel’s influence as it “beats the drums of war.” Sigh. Just when it looks like progress can be made to build cultural bridges. A Separation is a nuanced tale of struggle between tradition, morality, and personal choice. It’s a movie worth taking pride in.

Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a married couple heading for a divorce. She wants to move to the West. He does not want to leave, especially since he must care for his elderly father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Simin wants a better life for herself as well as their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s own daughter). Simin does not want to leave without her daughter but cannot get the judge to give her custody without Nader’s approval. Simin has moved back in with her parents. Nader hires a working-class maid, Razieh (Sareh Bayet), to care for his father while he’s away at work. Razieh is working unbeknownst to her husband, who would disapprove but has been unemployed for nine months. Caring for the elderly man is a lot more than she bargained for. At one point, Razieh calls an imam to ask if it is a sin to change the elderly man’s soiled pants. Then one day Nader comes home to find hid father sprawled out on the floor, tied to his bed, and locked in the apartment. When Razieh comes back, she says she had an emergency and keeps it vague. Nader fires her, she demands payment for the day, and he pushes her outside his door. The repercussions of this action will be larger than either could have imagined. Razieh and her husband accuse Nader of intentionally pushing the woman, and when she fell she miscarried her baby. Nader is being tried for murder, but nothing is as clear-cut as what it seems.

There’s so much to dissect in the intimate, thrilling, and observant little movie about imperfect people living under an imperfect system. It’s far more than the dissolution of a marriage and its impact that has on their family. It’s about the separation of moral relativism, compromises, cultural estrangement, and the concepts of justice in a world brokered by unjust forces. A Separation is really an ongoing court case that ensnares all the characters and brings them down in some degree. The more information we learn, the more we start questioning exactly what we knew about these characters and their circumstances. We’ll get speeches about doing the right thing in the face of opposition, and yet characters will routinely lie to save their own self-interest in the sacrifice of truth. You’re thrown into the middle of this drama and by the end you’ll likely feel exhausted by how emotionally charged the whole thing is. Lots of breathless arguing, lots of teary-eyed emotions, lots of unvarnished pain exposed, and very little in the way of resolution. This is an agonizing film that doesn’t feel the need to kowtow to the hopes of an audience for a happy ending. The lives of these characters are too complicated for tidy resolutions. The open ending, where Nader and Simin await their daughter’s decision over which parent she will live with, feels perfect considering that these people, due to circumstance both personal and political, are resigned to limitations on their happiness.

This is one of those movies where there are no real villains. You can see everybody’s plight and find some reasonable empathy for these people. Initially, the audience sympathy seems to be completely with Nader. He doesn’t want a divorce but feels indebted to taking care of his ailing father. He feels like he cannot abandon his father to live in the West. Simin is more vague about her rationale for wanting to leave the country, though one can only assume that her concern for her daughter is directly tied to the subjugated roles of women in Iran. Otherwise, her daughter is apart of a middle-class family where education is prized. Simin callously says that the old man is so far gone into dementia, why does it matter? The tension becomes whether Nader would rather care for his aged father or secure a brighter future for his daughter. After this opening marital clash in front of a judge, the film mostly follows Nader and his care of his father. When he confronts Razieh and is fuming about how he discovered his father, we’re there with him. Then when he’s accused of murder, a charge we know seems preposterous given what we’ve witnessed, our empathy further aligns with Nader, who we fill is wrongfully accused of something so serious it will wreck his life and family. Then when Simin reappears, and seemingly believes the worst of the story, it feels like she’s using the fraught circumstances to her advantage to force her daughter’s hand into deciding to leave Iran. But then the movie continues and you see that Simin has more at stake, Razieh is a sad woman penned in by circumstances, and Termeh is not the innocent child she appears to be. Your loyalties will be pulled in multiple directions until you ultimately conclude that these aren’t good people or bad people but merely people, fairly relatable and sympathetic.

A Separation shows a different side to Iran, a side that most Americans don’t see given the news coverage. The Iran on display in the film is a world in conflict. There’s the emerging voice of women conflicting with the male sense of privilege, there’s the conflict between classes illustrated by the stark difference sin living conditions between Nader and Razieh, who must make lengthy commutes just to earn a pittance, the conflict between parents who say they want what is bets for their child but provide her with false choices and use her as a battering ram against the other side, the conflict between a justice system that must stick to the letter of the law and the cases that cannot be so simply defined, the conflict between allegiance and self-interest, the conflict between personal gain and the truth, the conflict of caring for the old versus establishing a life of opportunity for the young, and the conflict between religious faith and daily living. There’s so much going on in this movie that every detail feels telling, ever actor feels rooted is reality, and every new moment further complicates an already messy situation.

A Separation is the kind of meaty drama that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make anymore. It’s patient and uncompromising, trusting its audience to wade through nuance and ambiguity rather than be told explicitly how to feel. The complex character work, alarming intimacy, and observational details of a society in relatable turmoil build the foundation of one very enthralling, thrilling, deeply resonant piece of work. A Separation is an example of superior filmmaking and the idea that movies from around the globe, even places that our politicians demagogue as an “axis of evil,” can tell universally human stories. This is a movie that will spark discussion long after it’s over.

Nate’s Grade: A

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