Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 In Review

Just stopping in to express my feelings on some of this year's releases.

1. Tyrannosaur:
The directorial debut of Brit-actor Paddy Considine stars Peter Mullen as a man consumed with rage who ends up getting involved in the domestic trials of a local shop-owner. The shop-owner, played by Olivia Colman, is terrorized initially by Mullen, but we come to see that her treatment at the hands of her husband (Eddie Marsan) is much worse.

I'm a fan of Considine and the creative circles he runs with - most notably Shane Meadows - and while this film seems to borrow somewhat from the DNA of those films - it's still rough around the edges and rife with cliches. The emotional performances of both Mullen and Colman have received a lot of press, but that emotion sometimes disguises mediocrity. Mullen, another actor of whom I am a big fan, is just fine, but I wouldn't call it his finest performances. Marsan, on the other hand, is chilling in his role as abusive husband, outshining the entire cast. There's a lot of good here and Considine shows promise behind the camera, but here's hoping there's still some room for improvement.

2. Attack the Block:

Another Brit film, this one by Joe Cornish (a veteran of British television) follows the adventure that ensues after an alien crash lands in a London project (the Block) and is subsequently beaten to death by a bunch of teenage thugs. Unfortunately for them, their victim was an extraterrestrial of the smaller variety and the resulting invasion of the big boys is a bit too much to handle. 

I couldn't be any more effusive in my praise of this film. There's hardly an aspect of it that I didn't find excellent. There seems to be a lingering nostalgia for young-ensemble adventure and sci-fi films of old as evidenced by 2011 titles like Super 8 and Paul - Block is the only movie this year that comes so close to that spirit, while also treading ground all its own. The film is fun and often funny, but it does not neuter the antagonists - the aliens and the rough neighborhood itself - of their threat. People, or more specifically teenage children, die often and brutally at the hands of these villains and their deaths are met with the appropriate sense of tragedy.

The ensemble of young actors are all quite good and Nick Frost is a pretty entertaining, but not distracting addition to the cast. Block's score is one of the best I've heard all year, offering something unique and booming that fits the action like a glove. The aliens and the idea behind their appearance takes a minute to get used to, but it's novel and they look great for how much they're shown. The ending was also one of the most satisfying and flat-out cool conclusions to a film that I've seen in recent years. Some part of me wants to know where else this story could go and there's certainly room for a sequel, but another part thinks the film should just be left alone in it's near perfection. Easily one of the year's best.


3. Martha Marcy May Marlene:

I feel like this film isn't getting enough credit in the recent awards season and that's a shame, because, like the above, it's also one of the year's best. I went in to the film expecting a stellar performance from newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (as was the hype at the time), but what I got was much more. In it, the title character runs away from a peculiar commune/cult environment and ends up with her estranged sister and brother-in-law. As the film progresses, we begin to see more of what her life in seclusion was like and how the experience has damaged her.

Olsen is great in the lead role, but so too is John Hawkes in the supporting role of cult leader. I think, when depicting situations like this, films too often stumble due to an inclination toward hyperbole. Cults and the people in them are batshit crazy and they do scary things - is what we usually see (I'm looking at you Red State) - but first-time feature director Sean Durkin uses expert editing to paint a much more subtle picture that, over time, becomes infinitely more disturbing with each added detail.

We don't see Hawkes dashing babies against rocks, but a dialogue with a new recruit about how the girls at the commune impregnated by their leader only give birth to boys gave me chills when I processed it. When blood is eventually spilled by the groups members, it comes as something even more shocking because they're not outwardly mad men and women, they're just a little off the norm, but maybe that's all it takes.


4. Knuckle:

This doc covers the very interesting and intense world of Traveler Bare-Knuckle Boxing contests (what they call Fair Fights). It would have been a lot easier for a director to exploit these people and their insane actions for cheap shock and awe, but where Ian Palmer succeeds is in exposing the shame of it all.

Knuckle follows several different family-clans in the UK as they settle old scores by the ancient laws of combat. Their family pride seems heightened by the various feuds they find themselves in and their boldness is multiplied by their overt Celtic machismo. One of the film's central figures, James Quinn McDonagh - a Fair Fights legend - laments the fighting, but over time is repeatedly drawn back to them for one reason or another. There's hope that some sort of peace can eventually be reached, but the reciprocal nature of violence is a hard one to shake off one the stone gets rolling.


5. Bellflower:

Another interesting title coming from a first-time feature director. It takes a bit of time to get going and the viewer has to get used to the douchbaggery of the protagonist and his best friend, but in the film's latter half you'll find payoff.

Essentially, the film's main character, played by director Evan Glodell, builds Mad Max-inspired weaponry with his best bud in-between getting wasted and never working a job. He falls in love, but that, sadly, doesn't last and a resulting car accident/brain trauma renders him somewhat unhinged. Violence and devastation ensure, but in the end, due to the film's slight lean toward the experimental, we are left to wonder what exactly we just witnessed - alternate timelines of reality? Dreams? Hallucinations? It's left up to our interpretation. Glodell shows some potential as a filmmaker and storyteller and while his performance isn't anything mind-blowing, he possesses enough charisma for more work in front of the camera.


6. The Skin I Live In:

I'm not what you would call a student of Almodovar's films, but I quite liked this one. It's a bit twisted and European-eccentric, but I also found it to be surprisingly broad in its appeal and accessibility. The plot involves a scientist (Antonio Banderas), whose wife was burned in a terrible car-accident, trying to create a super-resistant skin via human testing. The story jumps around a bit chronologically and we come to see how the tragedy has affected his family - most notably his young daughter. To give away much more would ruin the film's various twists and turns, so I'll leave it at that.

The Skin has the DNA of many genres and that's what I liked so much about it. There's the revenge side, the Frankenstein/mad-scientist side, the psycho-sexual-political side, the prisoner/torture side (though it's much more subtle than the American variety) and the family drama aspect. I love the journey this film took me on and I was left uniquely satisfied by every direction it chose to take. It's not a perfect film, losing momentum when the flashback begins, but it's pretty darn good. Though there is still much of 2011's crop still to see, this one currently sits fairly comfortably in my yearly top-ten.


7. Into the Abyss:

Werner Herzog's latest documentary about capital punishment is certainly worth seeing. It's not my favorite of his recent docs, but it gave me a lot to think about and whether you agree with what he's putting out there or not, that's at least a small victory. I have some very complicated feelings on the subject that I won't get into, but the story of the film had me confront those various feelings head on.

Despite what anyone says about Herzog being an impartial narrator, that's simply not the case with Abyss. He states very openly that he does not agree or believe in the use of the death penalty - specifically stating that he does not believe humans should be executed. The topics he chooses to cover, while unique and obscure (in classic Herzogian fashion), are clearly meant to address the inhumanity of the practice. However, one has to applaud the director for covering the case that he does - one that is particularly brutal and featuring two highly unsympathetic sociopaths. Cases of persons a lot less deserving of the death penalty would have been simpler propaganda for Herzog's position, but he chose something that would muddy the waters a bit more, which makes his film a helluva lot more interesting.

The film's score is repetitious, but I really thought it worked. Some of the film's segments were a bit long-winded and obnoxious, but, on the overall, it was a solid film.


8. The Adventures of Tintin:

Of the 8 films Steven Spielberg has made since 2000, I've seen 7 (still have War Horse), but I can safely say when looking at these crop of films that he's lost it. Sure, Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can are decent, but I can't say that I care for much else - Tintin included. I'm not hating on the director; he's been behind the camera for some of my favorite (and greatest all-time) films. I just think that, in this day and age of filmmaking magic and technology, he can't focus, eschewing the heart of his stories for bells and whistles.

His latest suffers gravely from this. Yeah, Tintin is great on a technical level. The 3D is great (saying a lot because I hate 3D) and the animation is great (also saying a lot because I hate motion capture/human animation), but that's where the greatness ends. The plot's action picks up right off the bat, which might sound appealing, but the film also forgets to develop any characters. I remember the character somewhat from high school French class, but not enough to feel some background/character building wasn't necessary. All we get in that department is repeated doses of general archetypes. Tintin is plucky and resourceful - watch what he does! Haddock is a drunk, he loves liquor! The bad guy has a sinister face and doesn't like the loveable drunk on a personal level, what a jerk!

Most of the film consists of elaborate chase scenes - brought to you by modern movie magic. These things are well and good in moderation, but here it's just one troublesome calamity after another with no time in the middle to breathe and develop a reason to care about the fact that these things are happening. Tintin looks like something that would be chalk full of heart, but it's actually completely devoid of it, which is a shame because I wanted to like it a lot more. I don't want to unduly blame Spielberg, but I have a hard time believing the end-product was anything close to what the film's three, heavy-hitter screenwriters envisioned. I see Steven Moffat as something of a storytelling genius and Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish are talented filmmakers in their own right. I can't imagine they wasted so much time one mindless-action-filler.


9. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows:

My Tintin review should serve as a pretty good clue as to how I feel about Sherlock Holmes 2. The film is devoid of any heart, instead relying on gimmicks, overlong action and some of the least humorous comedy banter I've ever heard. However, I'd have to say that I dislike this film a good measure more than Tintin. I hate practically everything about it, which even I found shocking since I rather enjoyed the original. Considering there are so many aspects I disliked about Holmes, I figured I might as well just list them:

- There isn't a goddamn mystery! Sherlock Holmes solves mysteries, right? Here, he's just engaged in fisticuffs with Moriarty and his henchmen over and over again. Sure, we're not exactly sure what Moriarty is up to, but we know it's bad and that he's the bad guy. Nothing comes as a surprise, nothing's a revelation.

- Holmes' deductive skills are reduced to a combat trick and his trademark eccentricities seem to have merely given Ritchie liscense to create a Jack Sparrow-wannabe, who revels in kooky disguises and pickpocketing.

- Moriarty sucks! There's so much build-up to the character in the first film and he's also Holmes' most feared adversary in literature, but here he's completely wasted. I thought it was a coup when they cast Jared Harris in the role, but he plays it boring. Despite the fact that he's already depicted as a wealthy man, his primary motives are monetary gain - hardly the mark of a sadistic, genius villain. He wants to be a war profiteer, so what? His marksman of a #2 is infinitely more interesting.

- The schtick is unbearable! Sherlock Holmes is an asshole to Watson and his constant posing punctuated by "witty' comments (the above-mentioned Jack Sparrowing) is incessant. I know he was like this a bit in the first film, but here he never seems to be taking anything serious ever. He's constantly pandering to the audience and it made me sick. If I hear another person use the term "bromance" to describe the pair in the film, I'll strangle somebody. Do I sound like a contrarion if I say that maybe I don't like Robert Downey Jr. anymore?

- Cut it out with the slo-mo! It's not necessary to use any cheap trick so often, but slo-mo is particularly tiresome.

I hope they never make this series a trilogy. There's only need for one Sherlock Holmes and today, that man's name is Benedict Cumberbatch. Funny name, I know, but he's seriously fantastic, as is almost everything about BBC's "Sherlock" (series 2 begins in January)

This film gets a D.