Saturday, January 01, 2011

Seen in December

Jeff Bridges in the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit (2010)

Despite December being a great month for movies, it always seems too busy to see everything you want to see. No matter what your intentions, the list is always a little bit disappointing. Here's what we saw this month, for better or for worse...

The American
A taciturn George Clooney turns in a precise performance as a professional killer looking over his shoulder at every turn. The film is precise in its own way - which makes one light touch about some butterfly/farfale analogy seem oddly heavy handed. I still enjoyed it though and in many ways it reminded me of Stephen Frears' The Hit. I don't quite understand why some people including critics hated it so much. I would say its biggest drawback was it was too slow and even making it a little dull.

The Shipping News
The adaptation of Annie Proulx's book gets the full Hollywood treatment. Director Lasse Halstrom gets the big greyness of Newfoundland right but I can't say the film would lure people to the island the way the book did. It is extremely painful watching big name American actors make a complete hash of the Newfoundland accent. Really, really painful. Gordon Pinsent shines. At times I think we slightly glorify Mr. Pinsent because he's one of us but seeing him amongst the likes of Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Pete Postlethwaite and Rhys Fans you see just how great, easy and natural an actor he is. Plus, he reminds me a little of my dad. Overall the film is dreary and sluggish and Spacey's voice over at the end induced an eye-roll that lasted well over a minute. I can't understand how the movie lacked a single calorie of energy. One note: someone should tell Julianne Moore to never, ever try doing an accent on film again. She could be tried for murder for what she's done to Newfoundland & Boston accents respectively.

Starting Out in the Evening
A quiet little film with sort of low rumble beneath the surface. Frank Langella plays an aging writer who despite success early in his career has floundered and now is having trouble getting what he believes will be his last book published. He's stuck in a rut and he feels he's running out of time. Lilly Taylor plays his daughter who is in a bit of a rut herself, replaying her own self-defeating patterns. Then one day a beautiful young Phd candidate played by Lauren Ambrose shows up to hound the author for an in-depth interview for her thesis about which he is the topic. Is she a stalker, a superfan, an ardent, respectful admirer or is she scheming for something else? It doesn't matter. She is the agent of change who causes an old man to re-examine what has made his latter years "stuck on repeat". At the same time, Taylor's character sees her father's frailty as a moment when she has to find her own strength. The film is like a stage play, in a good way, with an intimacy that feels as though you are really present with the characters. A simple story, finely crafted.

Winter's Bone
An American Gothic. The story of Ree, a 17-year-old girl taking care of her mother and two young siblings while trying to find the whereabouts of her drug dealing dad. He's gone AWOL on a bond against his family's house and losing the house means splitting up the family and losing everything. Set in the Ozarks the houses and trucks are hardscrabble but the film isn't disrespectful - it just is what it is. It's a unadorned story that is at times frightening, saddening and a little uplifting.

The Other Guys
Well intentioned parody with funny jokes and good actors but just really poorly executed. Very uneven pacing and terrible editing of action sequences. It also had a pretty awful soundtrack. Good for about two laughs but they couldn't decide whether to be Naked Gun or Hot Fuzz. Shame.

Tron Legacy
Entertaining if unsurprising sequel to the original Tron film. It reminded me of an animé film with a simple premise convoluted with many minor plot points and ideas that were generally unnecessary. Michael Sheen steals the show with his Ziggy Stardust-esque character. Visually stunning but some of the action sequences were a little confusing. Another uneven use of 3D despite being the perfect subject. Hot babes in skin tight outfits abound but the overall feeling was of sterility. The score by Daft Punk was fitting if unexceptional and unfairly criticized but I found the sound design did as much to create the digital world as the visuals. A fun night out that requires little thought to enjoy. Like a sugary meringue - sweet and pretty but not long lasting.

HBO's 24/7
Revealing inside look on professional hockey. Probably nothing of interest here for long suffering hockey widows, but for the curious and the devoted hockey fan will find it an attractive and intelligent look at professional hockey. It's the kind of myth-making treatment the NFL, NBA and MLB get weekly on American broadcasters but is a first for the NHL. The CBC, the national broadcaster that worships at the altar of hockey could learn a thing or two from HBO's approach. Number 1, restraint is often more powerful than hype.

Louis C.K.: Chewed Up
This was probably the best thing I've seen on Netflix thus far. One of the best American comedians working today, Louis CK is in top form in his eponymous hour-long showcase.

True Grit
What's to say? Great script, great acting, great directing and beautifully filmed. The Coen bros. have updated a pretty tired and flat original to create an American classic Western cut from the same cloth as say Unforgiven, or Deadwood. The Coen's ability to make a macabre joke at just the right time is on display here and the main players Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon are in top form. The young protagonist, Mattie Ross, is played perfectly by Hailee Steinfeld, which makes a huge difference in the film. In the original, the young girl was an annoying "Disneyified" precocious thorn in your side. Here she is determined, willful but becomes fearful and respectful. Of course, the smaller roles are filled with excellent actors such as Barry Pepper in the Robert Duvall role of Lucky Ned and Josh Brolin as hunted Tom Chaney. Some may not care for the ending but it fits with a common Coen brothers framing device of having the film begin and end with a narrator's voice (think of Raising Arizona, Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowsky and The Man Who Wasn't There).

The Town
Ben Affleck returns to directing in this crime thriller set in Charlestown, Boston. He also stars as the "Townie" bank robber who inadvertently falls for a bank manager of one of their bank managers. Lots of great actors in brief performances like Pete Postlethwaite, Blake Lively and Chris Cooper. Jeremy Renner is great as Affleck's frightening volatile friend while Jon Hamm is the FBI agent hot on his trail. The stakes are high, the action is tight. The basic conceit of a good hearted criminal who wants to go straight because he's met a lovely woman is rife with cliché (Affleck's character is also a failed pro hockey draft who lost his dream and his mother to crime) yet the film negates all of that. Like Paul Rand once said, don't try to be original, just try to be good, and that's exactly what this film does.

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