Thursday, April 12, 2012

Catching Up With 2011: Movies

The ten films mentioned here each had at least one theatrical screening in the Milwaukee area in 2011, although I only caught up with them in the early months of this year.  

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France, 100 min.)
I wouldn’t argue that this modest tribute to silent cinema deserved any of the many awards that it received, but it is fairly entertaining in its own modest way.  Oddly enough, it is the silent movie gimmick itself that stands in the way of this being a truly superior piece of light entertainment; the narrative’s pathos would’ve been a lot more palpable if the rest of the world started talking while Jean Dujardin’s fading star remained silent.  It just feels awkward to watch clips of (what are supposed to be) talkies in silence.  B-

Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 181 min.)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) is arguably the highlight of the Romanian New Wave so far, so it is more than a bit disappointing to report that writer-director Cristi Puiu’s follow-up is one of those tedious art films that mistakes lengthy, indifferently filmed scenes of non-action for probing psychological insight.  A filmmaker copying the groundbreaking aesthetic of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) is equivalent to a graphic artist drawing inspiration from Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup paintings; once the point has been made, there’s really no need to make it again.  And even considering how important a lived-in feeling of stasis is to that style, there’s no reason that Puiu couldn’t have made the same point in one-third of this film’s running time.  The final sequence does take the aesthetic of boredom to a morbidly funny place, but it isn’t worth sitting through the rest of this three hour anti-epic to get there.  C-

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 106 min.)
Steven Soderbergh’s take on the disaster picture charts the rapid spread of an H1N1-style virus as it travels from Hong Kong to the United States.  Some of the scenes depicting the resulting panic and chaos are effectively filmed and edited, but the sense of mounting dread is constantly undercut by the It’s a Mad Mad Mad World-style casting, which finds many impressive actors distractingly stranded in roles that seem to have been assigned to them arbitrarily.  C+

Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, 102 min.)
Jean-Luc Godard is unquestionably one of the most important, influential, and interesting filmmakers of all time, so it’s a shame that his (allegedly) final feature is such a tediously random mess.  Apparently this is meant as some sort of commentary on the fallibility of digital video, but it mostly plays like a lousy experimental student film.  D

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, USA, 158 min.)
The murder mystery at the center of this film isn’t terribly engaging, even for those of us who haven’t read Stieg Larson’s mega-selling novel or seen the recent Swedish film adaptation.  But David Fincher is such an impeccable craftsman that he manages to make the many scenes of people sitting in front of laptops or reading particularly stupid passages from Leviticus seem exciting, and Rooney Mara is so sensational as the goth computer hacker protagonist that she makes up for the miscast Daniel Craig as her journalist sidekick.  B-

Hanna (Joe Wright, UK, 111 min.)
Joe Wright brought a welcome sense of energy to the potentially stuffy period pieces Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007).  The wild international action picture Hanna shows what a Wright picture looks like when it consists entirely of the attitude and stylishness that existed on the margins of his previous films.  It’s intermittently exciting to watch the titular heroine (Saorise Ronan) get chased across the world by an obsessive intelligence agent (Cate Blanchett, adopting a broad Southern accent for no apparent reason), but the pointlessness of the whole enterprise ultimately weighs the film down, especially when it becomes clear that Wright can’t commit to making either a propulsive action blockbuster or a freaky avant-garde head trip.  C+

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, USA, 107 min.)
This documentary about the aftermath of a senseless murder begins as a well-reasoned anti-death penalty tract, but director/narrator Werner Herzog’s trademark curiosity prevents the film from turning into a didactic political statement.  As the (frequently riveting) interviews with the Death Row-dwelling perpetrators and the family members of the victims pile up, it becomes clear that the film is less a social argument than a poetic look at the profound effect that violent death leaves in its wake.  B

Moneyball  (Bennett Miller, USA, 133 min.)
Ace screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin deserve some credit for turning a book about statistics into a competent human interest narrative.  But at the end of the day, this is still a movie about baseball and math, and the viewer’s enjoyment is likely to be directly proportional to their interest in those subjects, despite the best efforts of a stellar cast.  C

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, Portugal, 272 min.)  
This massive epic is the final film of wildly prolific director Raul Ruiz, who died shortly after its completion.  Considering the melodramatic nature of the narrative, and the elaborate way that it is told (with at least six different narrators picking up the story at different points), the film can feel a bit dry, and it certainly never lets you forget that it is over four hours long.  While the film sometimes seems to lack passion, it is nonetheless a visual marvel, with consistently breathtaking set  and costume design.  The cinematography was unmatched by any of 2011’s other films in terms of the richness of its colors, the depths of its compositions, or the inventiveness of its framing.  B

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 117 min.)
Pedro Almodovar’s campy Frankenstein variation gradually reveals the origins of a plastic surgeon’s (Antonio Banderas) mysterious obsession with a patient (Elena Anaya) who he keeps locked in his basement.  The film lacks the perverse psychological investment that a director like David Cronenberg might have brought to it, but the plot twists are deranged enough to make the narrative gripping from beginning to end.  B

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