Thursday, March 31, 2011

Catching Up With 2010: Movies

I saw fewer new films in the theatre in 2010 than I have in any year since high school (I graduated in 2002), and yet I still managed to see virtually everything I was really interested in before the end of the calendar year.  In general, I missed the films listed below either because they weren’t released in Milwaukee until right around Christmas or because they only had limited runs here.  There are still a small handful of notable 2010 releases that I haven’t seen, such as Oscar nominee 127 Hours (which only very recently became available for rent) and Rabbit Hole (which hasn’t shown up on DVD yet).  As with the larger list of 2010 films that I posted at the end of last year, I only considered films that had at least one public theatrical screening in Milwaukee (so Carlos still doesn’t qualify). 

Alamar (To the Sea) (Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, Mexico, 73 min.)
If Robert Flaherty were alive and making films today, his work might look something like Alamar, a gorgeously filmed quasi-documentary look at father/son bonding.  Mayan father Jorge has only a few weeks with his 5-year old son Natan before he leaves to live with his mother in Rome.  Jorge decides to spend the time teaching his city-dwelling son about his Mayan roots by taking him fishing on the pristine Chinchorro reef.  The story unfolds organically and with unforced tenderness against the stunning backdrop of the open sea.  In a sense, Alamar feels almost too gentle to be truly great.  But it is one of the most beautiful and lyrical films of the past year.  B

Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, USA, 87 min.)
This story of one man’s search for the true story behind an increasingly suspicious Facebook relationship with a family of precocious artists is entertaining and stylishly made.  At times the film itself seems a little too slick and a little too narratively tight to be entirely on the up and up, but at least that is appropriate for the film’s themes of representation vs. reality.  There is an off-putting element of exploitation at play – the filmmakers try to squeeze a little too much gravity out of what is, ultimately, a fairly harmless hoax – but there is some real power in the contrast between the glamorous lifestyle that the family projects on Facebook and the soul-crushing banality of their everyday reality.  B-

Chloe (Atom Egoyan, Canada, 96 min.)
Though it’s named after Amanda Seyfried’s character (a high-end New York prostitute), this psychological drama’s main character is actually Julian Moore’s slowly aging gynecologist.  The subject matter of Atom Egoyan’s latest exploration of voyeurism and convoluted paths toward emotional connection isn’t sex, but Moore’s gradual loss of intimate connection with her husband (Liam Neeson) and college-age son (Max Thieriot).  While the story is told almost entirely from the point of view of Moore’s character, Egoyan and screenwriter Erin Cressinda Wilson still develop Seyfried and Neeson’s characters enough to make them seem like three-dimensional people who exist independently of Moore’s emotionally frustrated perspective.  Unfortunately, the film abruptly turns from a cerebral, waking dream tragedy (a la Eyes Wide Shut) into a hysterical, exploitative thriller (like Fatal Attraction) in its last ten minutes.  But the disappointing ending shouldn’t entirely detract from the nuanced character work of the rest of the film.  B

Despicable Me  (Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, USA, 95 min.)
Despicable Me has the same weaknesses as the similar yet superior Megamind:  bland computer animation and average voice work by movie stars rather than skilled voice actors.  Where Megamind ultimately succeeded due to its witty dialogue, tight plotting, and general charm, Despicable Me is basically just an adequately diverting kid’s movie.  C

The Fighter  (David O. Russell, USA, 115 min.)
Like The Social Network, The Fighter is content to enliven the clich├ęs of its genre (in this case, the boxing picture) rather than do the hard work of reinventing them.  But David O. Russell’s direction is lively and snappy, and he manages to make family drama scenes nearly as riveting as the visceral in-ring action.  The film is also a tour de force of contrasting acting styles, with Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams’ understated naturalism being purposefully suffocated by the showboating of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, an effect that makes Wahlberg’s struggle to escape his stifling family life palpable.  B

Get Him to the Greek  (Nicholas Stoller, USA, 109 min.)
The Judd Apatow formula is getting a little too familiar, and the films that the super-producer is not directly responsible for writing and directing are rarely as strong as The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People.  This Forgetting Sarah Marshall spin-off is no exception to that rule, but it is a decent variation on Apatow’s patented mix of half-improvised comedy and simple pathos.  Russell Brand and Jonah Hill are funny as a washed-up rock star and the record company executive charged with restarting his career, and the colorful supporting cast is (over)loaded with ringers like Aziz Ansari and Elizabeth Moss.  But Diddy, of all people, manages to steal the show with a surprisingly funny self-parody.  There is a really funny comedy buried somewhere under the overlong setpieces, endless string of celebrity cameos, and overly obvious music cues.  C+

The King’s Speech  (Tom Hooper, UK, 118 min.)
It’s easy to resent Tom Hooper’s historical drama for all of its awards show success.  But despite its outward appearance as “inspirational” awards bait, this is actually a modest and engaging film that sets out to do little more or less than depict an interesting piece of history.  David Seidler’s script wisely sidesteps the typical biopic problem of trying to cram King George VI’s (Colin Firth) entire life story into two hours, instead focusing specifically on his struggle to overcome his stammering problem as he’s due to take the throne.  Firth avoids making his character too easily likeable, and provides one of the more realistic depictions of stuttering on film, and he is nicely complimented by Geoffrey Rush’s uncharacteristically subdued performance as the King’s speech therapist.  B

Restrepo  (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, USA, 93 min.)
The U.S. occupation of Iraq has gotten tons of press coverage, but the conflict in Afghanistan hasn’t been as well documented, perhaps because the terrain is more dangerous.  So Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s documentary Restrepo (named for the U.S. military outpost where most of the events of the film take place) is valuable as a piece of journalism even if it isn’t always successful as cinema.  Many of the images of tense skirmishes and miscommunications between the U.S. soldiers and the Afghani townspeople are riveting and unique, but they are cobbled together somewhat awkwardly with conventional talking heads interviews.  The film is stunning on a moment to moment basis, but there is no real sense of shape to the overall picture.  B

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World  (Edgar Wright, USA, 112 min.)
Michael Cera’s awkward nice-guy shtick has been played out for several years, but this adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels puts a fresh spin on the actor’s usual persona by exploring the selfishness and arrogance that often comes with being a young, shy hipster.  Meanwhile, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) travels way outside of his comfort zone and successfully delivers the sort of sensory overload rarely seen outside of Hong Kong cinema.  The nonstop special effects and editing tricks do become a little overbearing by the end of the film, but they are varied and witty enough to remain interesting up until the film’s overextended climax.  O’Malley’s central conceit – Cera will only be able to date Mary Elizabeth Winstead if he can defeat her “seven evil exes” in a series of outrageous video game-style battles – is charming and fun, and there is enough diversity in the encounters to keep the film feeling fresh until it unconvincingly tries to redeem its titular hero in the final fifteen minutes.  B

The Tillman Story  (Amir Bar-Lev, USA, 94 min.)
This documentary focuses on the media manipulation of the Afghanistan war death of NFL star-turned-U.S. soldier Pat Tillman.  Tillman was killed by friendly fire, but high-ranking members of the military, with the complicity of both the mainstream news media and the White House, twisted the story to make Tillman’s life and death suit their own political purposes.   Director Amir Bar-Lev covers that story thoroughly and grippingly, but his intense focus doesn’t prevent the film from working as a powerful statement about the media’s general failure to properly report on the conflicts in the Middle East.  B+

The Town  (Ben Affleck, USA, 125 min.)
There is nothing in The Town that any fan of heist films hasn’t seen dozens of times before, but at least it’s a well-executed and entertaining example of the genre.  Ben Affleck shows some surprising visual flair as a director (and is more successful behind the scenes than in front of the camera, as he makes for a fairly unconvincing tough guy), and one extended car chase has the rugged power and dark wit of the ‘70s crime movies that clearly served as an inspiration for this film.  The excellent supporting cast, which includes Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Chris Cooper, Titus Welliver, and Pete Postelwaithe, is arguably wasted in thinly conceived stock roles, but their distinctive presences do give the film a weight and energy that it wouldn’t otherwise have.  B-

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