Friday, April 27, 2012

Catching Up With 2011

A lot of quality films were released in 2011, and unfortunately, since I have certain obligations such as my career (kind of), hanging out with my dog, exercising (sometimes), doing the dishes, sleeping, eating, and commuting for over 2 hours every day, I wasn’t able to catch them all (oh, yeah, I do have a wife as well...).

But a trip to New York to see some old pals recently gave me a few hours to kill on a couple of rather cramped airplanes (side note: I’m kind of a HUGE jerk on airplanes and have no shame in busting out my laptop and bringing fast food on the plane and basically just taking up every inch of space afforded to me...I paid for this stupid flight and I’m going to do everything in my power to enjoy it, okay?). 

So anyway, I was able to catch up on three 2011 films that slipped between the cracks for me this past year: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Dangerous Method, and We Bought A Zoo, and I felt compelled to type up a few thoughts on them.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a Cold-War era espionage film starring the great Gary Oldman, who is, as usual, amazing in this film.  He portrays George Smiley, a recently ousted British Intelligence Agent who is brought back in by the government within the course of the film to trace down a mole within his former unit.  There’s something about the aesthetic of modern spy movies that I really enjoy: Munich and The Good Shepherd, for example, were two films that everyone has forgotten about already but I still think of more often than most people. Tinker Tailor now falls under this category for me. 

Gary Oldman is doing probably the best work of any of his contemporaries right now, and he proves it in spades with this film. Smiley is a solid rock of an agent, a cold, calculating man of the British old guard who has perhaps the best poker face you’ve ever seen.  Somehow this performance, with such little speaking and minimal emotion, is still one of the best performances I can recall of 2011. The supporting cast is also great, and there are so many excellent actors in this film that I won’t even bother naming all of them.  They all do their part. 

Through the first third of the film or so, I was ready to name it my favorite film of2011 and give it every accolade possible. About at that point, however, the story begins to drown under the weight of all the detail it insisted on providing, and begins to drag through most of the rest of the film because of this.  It shifts from an excellent character study into a whodunit, to its own detriment, since the character study aspect of the film is the most engaging.  Still, it’s one of the best I’ve seen in its genre: it piqued my curiosity from the beginning, and made me think of every scene as an important puzzle piece in solving the mystery.  An easy 8/10 from me for the flawless acting ensemble, the sleek ‘60’s aesthetic, and a fantastic music score.  Oh, and I don’t know what the deal is with everyone being hella-confused at what happened in the film, but I feel that I understood it perfectly fine, so who knows.

A Dangerous Method

Along with TTSS above, A Dangerous Method was on my most-anticipated list for 2011, but for whatever reason, I never got around to seeing it.  I’ve never been the world’s hugest fan of the director, David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, The Fly, etc.), but I felt that the material in this script—a study of the birth of psychoanalysis and the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung—was a perfect fit for the director, who has always veered toward dark and psychological themes in his films. 

The major focus of the film is Jung, played stoically by Michael Fassbender, and his doctor-patient-rule-violating relationship with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young woman with quite the case of psychosis.  The more interesting parts of the film, however, come with the scenes involving Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and Jung’s entertaining and thought-provoking scenes in which they ponder one of life’s great mysteries: the human mind. Viggo’s performance reminded me of just how awesome he is in the right material, as he stole every scene he was in. In fact, I believe he’s a much better character actor than he is a leading man.  But the common tie of these scenes is Jung’s gradual manipulation of himself, and how he allowed this to effect his family, his practice, and his reputation. 

Unfortunately, this point was not necessarily hammered home with as much impact as it should have had.  For a movie that confronts the often-dark side of the human condition, the movie was decidedly bland and not dark.  It would not bother me except that the material promised something that the story didn’t ultimately deliver, at least for me.  A 6/10 for the art direction, costumes, a promising narrative, and Viggo’s performance. 

We Bought a Zoo
The last film on my list, We Bought a Zoo, is a Hollywood fastball down the middle, and I enjoyed it, cheesey as it may be.  Matt Damon stars here as a widower with two children who buy a home that happens to have a zoo on its land; fun and drama ensues.  It kind of reminded me of an old-school studio film: handsome leading man who’s a really good guy, obvious storyline about overcoming the odds to reach the zoo’s potential for the good of his family, wacky zoo employees as the supporting cast, and obviously, a love interest (although the film is based on a true story, I doubt that in real life, the zookeeper was one of the five hottest females on the face of the planet). 

Despite the obviousness of it all, it’s still a lot of fun.  There are several strong moments in the script, particularly a couple of exchanges between Damon and the kid who plays his son, as well as a very touching plot point concerning an aging Bengal tiger. 

Overall, it’s the type of movie you rent on a lazy Saturday night and can just enjoy with the family without thinking about too much of anything.  7/10. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Top 5 on Netflix: Top 5 Films of the 1970's

If you missed the opening post for my new Netflix Series, check below.

I have this ongoing inner debate with myself concerning which was the best decade for film (awesome, I know) and it’s always between the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.  The ‘70s are consistently regarded as a sort of turning point in American cinema, a time when auteurs who grew up watching European cinema from the ‘50s and ‘60s were able to thrive, taking the medium to a place beyond what the traditional studio system had been offering up to that point.  The ‘70’s, of course, brought us directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and saw the coming out parties of others such Woody Allen and Robert Altman.  So, the point here is that I won't be doing a Top-5 for every decade of cinema, only this one and maybe one other, because it's so chalk full of great classics that are available right now.  

At various points in time, several of my all-time favorites from this period have been available to watch instantly on Netflix: Network, Annie Hall, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, etc.  All of these would probably make this list were they still available.  So the key here is that you need to take advantage of watching the films on this list while you can.

One other quick note before my list: two films that aren’t from the ‘70’s, but resemble the style and themes of that era in just about every way (and it could even be argued that they paved the way for the ‘70’s) are Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The Graduate (1967).  If for some insane reason you haven’t seen these, then please add them to your queue, along with the others listed below.

Top 5 of the 1970’s:

1.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

There’s a reason that Jack Nicholson is simply referred to as “Jack” in Hollywood, and if you’ve ever wondered why, then look no further than this film.  His performance as R.P. McMurphy, a recent admittee to a mental institution, certainly goes down as one of the best all-time leading performances in my book.  As McMurphy begins to win over the other patients in the institution and undermines the terribly evil Nurse Ratched, an uplifting Christ-figure story plays out with such humor and effortless charm that it will make you grin from ear to ear at points and tear up in others. 

2.  A Clockwork Orange (1971)

My favorite Stanley Kubrick film, Orange is an endlessly stylish tale of adolescence in futuristic Britain.  Malcolm McDowell stars as Alex DeLarge, one of the creepiest lead characters in any film ever, who leads a band of “droogs” in a series of violent crimes before being subjected to a government brainwashing program.  Kubrick’s use of explosive colors and his patented long takes are just a couple of the things that make his direction a perfect complement to the source material.   

3.  Paper Moon (1973)

Father-daughter combo Ryan and Tatum O’Neal star as a couple of depression-era cons in this hilarious comedy by Peter Bogdanovich.  The dialogue is sharp and quick, and the O’Neal team (Tatum in particular as a 10-year-old) develops amazing chemistry throughout the movie as they deliver this dialogue.  The always amazing Madeleine Kahn also stars as a call girl.  Don’t miss this one. 

4.  Chinatown (1974)

It’s Jack again.  In this Hollywood crime drama by Roman Polanski, Jack stars as Jake Gittes, a private investigator who gets caught up in a case that’s simply way over his head.  As the ball of yarn unravels on the case, the eerie atmosphere is amplified and strange details emerge (to say the least).  Faye Dunaway (who’s always great) costars here in a particularly meaty role.

5.  Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep.  That’s really all it should take to get you to watch this if you haven’t already.  A very realistic story about the parents of a young child splitting up, something that sadly, millions of American families must go through every year.  There’s a scene where Dustin Hoffman makes French toast with his son, and it’s one of the more touching moments I can recall in any family drama.