Thursday, December 22, 2011

What I've Been Watching -- December 2011

Here's a run down of films I've watched over the last couple weeks that I just couldn't find the time to write full length reviews for. This batch has been a pretty good one for the most part.

Attack the Block (2011) dir.: Joe Cornish ****

Like District 9Attack the Block gives us a sci-fi story that takes place in an unlikely location – this time, South London, lovingly referred to by its residents as “the block.” Our heroes are a group of teenage thugs, led by the quiet, angry Moses (John Boyega), who discover what appears to be an alien fallen from the sky shortly after mugging a local resident. On the heels of this discovery, the boys find themselves being chased down by a horde of savage aliens while also dealing with cops and the local drug kingpin, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). Made on a comparatively low budget, Attack the Block gets the most bang for its buck, mostly out of its clever staging of action scenes and the use of its fine ensemble of young Brit actors. Especially good is Boyega as Moses, whose world-weary eyes communicate more about life in the urban area of London than any documentary could. Like the great genre films, Attack the Block uses its idea to shine a spotlight on more important social issues – my favorite moment takes place during a moment of reprieve from the action, when Moses, very soberly, hypothesizes that these creatures are government created because the all the drugs and crime in the ghetto aren’t killing its residents fast enough. “Cult classic” was a term made for movies like this one.

Beginners (2011) dir.: Mike Mills ****

I imagine it’s because I can sort of relate to this film on a personal level that makes me love it so much. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a professional graphic design artist, who discovers after the death of his mother that his old man, Hal (Christopher Plummer), was gay all those years of marriage. Rediscovering his father in the aftermath of tragedy is hard enough, but to also learn that his father is dying of cancer, too, is devastating. Mike Mills’ film could have been a lame, melodramatic soap opera if handled the wrong way, but with this talented cast he is able to craft a film of considerable weight and truth. I love that he begins the film after Hal is dead, causing Oliver to look back as he looks forward and attempts to begin a romantic relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent). The flashbacks bring resonance to Oliver’s present struggles in a way that is both surprising and inspiring. While my father was not homosexual, I, too, got to know him better after the death of my mother. His subsequent death a few years later left much unsaid and unresolved, but those years we had reconnecting were as important to me as they were to Oliver, and left me just as conflicted. But even if this weren’t a personal movie to me, it would still be one of the year’s best, simply on the performance of Christopher Plummer alone, who shines brightly as Hal. Hal’s liberation and free spirit are inspiring, even as his death sentence looms, reminding us that life isn’t about death, but about being.

Hanna (2011) dir.: Joe Wright ***1/2

This is what action films should be. Cerebral, surprising, and badass. Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is 16-years old and has been trained by her father (Eric Bana) to be the perfect assassin. Her world is shaken when she finds herself being pursued by government operatives, led by a sinister Cate Blanchett, who are trying to take her into custody. Hanna's escape leads her into the care of a vacationing family, whose presence brings out many repressed feelings and desires in the developing girl. And there's a character twist that I doubt anyone will see coming. This is a fast-paced thrill-ride of a film that gives both Ronan and Blanchett lots of scenery to chew. The action sequences, as directed by unlikely action director Joe Wright (Atonement), are fantastic and gripping. Unlike many action films made these days, the focus is on the actual action, not merely the editing techniques designed to make them seem intense. This is like The Bourne Identity for girls … girls who like to kick the shit out of people.

Margin Call (2011) dir.: J.C. Chandor ***1/2

If Inside Job was the overview exposing Wall Street’s corruption, excess, and blatant disregard for the trust of the American public, then Margin Call is the lacerating example of what went wrong. In the spirit of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, it is a closed room story of financial executives under pressure to swindle the American public to save their own skins. A junior analyst is entrusted by his recently fired boss with a file that upon completion reveals that their financial firm will be going belly up as of yesterday. Meetings are called amongst the big wigs and decisions must be made. The tone of the film is dark, the dialogue intentionally ambiguous and philosophical, and the performances sharp and convincing. The film has an all-star cast, including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto. Spacey, in particular, stands out as Sam, a Risk Management specialist who is having one of the worst days of his life, which begins with having to put his dog down and ends with him having to put the American people down. The film would be a tragedy if it wasn’t so goddamn realistic.

Terri (2011) dir.: Azael Jacobs ***1/2

High school is hard, but it’s even harder for a freak. Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is a very fat boy who comes to school in his pajamas. For all intents and purposes, he is a freak; to him, though, they just fit. Regardless, his behavior puts him on the radar of Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the school’s Vice-Principal, who decides to take Terri under his wing and mentor him along with other misfits in the school population. Terri’s conflicts deepen as he becomes involved with a popular girl who has fallen from grace. The story is unpredictable and always rings true. This film’s power comes from its honest performances, especially the newcomer Wysocki, who embodies Terri with a wisdom and keen insight I’ve never seen from a teenager in a film. Terri could easily become a type, but writer/director Azael Jacobs goes to great lengths to ground him in a believable world. Terri is a breath of fresh air.

Straw Dogs (2011), dir.: Rod Lurie **

This remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film stars James Marsden doing his best Dustin Hoffman impression, and Kate Bosworth as his nagging wife doing her best impression of paint drying. He’s a writer, she’s a TV actress (which would be an improvement for her), and they have come to her hometown in the deep south in order to repair the old homestead after hurricane season, give Marsden time to write a screenplay about the battle of Stalinsgrad, and give the local hicks a chance to revisit their teen lust and rape fantasies set to some bitchin’ Zydeco music. Not much of anyone’s motivations make much sense, meaning that we have to rely mostly on blatant stereotypes to understand everyone. The rednecks are salivating, ignorant, religious zealots in love with football and Southern hypocrisy. Marsden is a Hollywood leftist type, and Bosworth is…well, Bosworth. As I watched this film, I found myself feeling very sorry for Alexander Skarsgaard, who is obviously in this film because of his role as the hot vampire, Eric, in HBO’s True Blood. He is horribly miscast as a good ol’ Southern boy; it is as if the producers didn’t even watch the show, just assuming he’d be a good fit since he is in a show set in bayou country. Regardless, Straw Dogs is forgettable entertainment, as needlessly violent as it is patently dumb.

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