Sunday, March 4, 2012

What I've Been Watching -- January/February 2012

Take Shelter (2011) dir.: Jeff Nichols ****

I don’t usually like to eat sour grapes and complain about Oscar snubs, but after seeing the remarkable Take Shelter, it is an absolute travesty (in movie world) that Michael Shannon did not receive a nomination for Best Actor at the 2012 Academy Awards. His performance as a man afraid he is on the brink of insanity, while also choosing to entertain that insanity is one of the most risky, challenging, and heartbreaking roles of 2011. It is a role of a lifetime for the excellent Shannon, who has shined in other roles (The Runaways, Boardwalk Empire), but steals the show here. Also great is Jessica Chastain, as the beleaguered wife. Chastain was in seven movies last year, and played such a great variety of roles so well that she has to be regarded as one of the hottest young actresses working today. Take Shelter is good enough that I now have to go back and reflect on my list of best films for 2011. It is a magnetic film, demanding your attention and your thoughts.

A Better Life (2011) dir.: Chris Weitz *** ½

Demian Bichir puts in an excellent performance as Carlos Galindo, a Mexican immigrant whose undocumented status puts him at a disadvantage when his work truck – his only source of income – is stolen. Carlos and his son go searching for the truck and discover the significance of their father-son bond in the face of the political and personal ramifications of illegal immigration. The film apes the structure of Vittorio deSica’s classic The Bicycle Thief, but director Chris Weitz gives A Better Life its own flavor in the details of life for an undocumented citizen in Los Angeles. Bichir’s performance never falls into sentimentality, and allows us to empathize with Carlos without crossing the line into pandering for pity. The film has a lot in common with another terrific film about the undocumented, 2007’s La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon). In that film, a child crosses the border illegally to be reunited with his mother, who is working to send money home to Mexico. Both films are about the ties between parents and their children, and both capture the heart of immigration issue – it’s about people, not borders.

Beautiful Boy (2010) dir.: Shawn Ku ***

If you’re looking to be depressed for an evening, this is the movie for you. Michael Sheen and Maria Bello play a married couple on the cusp of divorce when their only child shoots up his college campus, killing 21, including himself. We follow the couple as they try to pick up the pieces and figure out how, and why, a tragedy this horrific could happen. Sheen and Bello carry the film with strong, measured performances. The camera work, which gives us a fly-on-the-wall vibe, is perfect for the material. Yet, the movie suffers from the fact that it just isn’t interesting enough to sustain its length. Subplots involving extended family, work relationships, and the exploitation of the media are overshadowed by the central performances. One of my friends suggested that it sounded like 100 minutes of falling action, and nothing could be more accurate. This is the sort of material that would have been better served as a short film, not a full-length feature.

Anonymous (2011) dir.: Roland Emmerich ** ½

Did Shakespeare write his own plays, or was he merely a front for someone else, someone more educated and erudite than the son of a glovemaker? I wasn’t annoyed by the thesis of this movie, which suggests that the real bard was none other than Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Oxford. I was annoyed by the fact that I thought of this movie as having a thesis statement. Roland Emmerich, notorious for big-budget special effect crap like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 10,000 BC, has not made a film so much as written a term paper. It’s an entertaining term paper, as far as term papers can be entertaining, but it’s still a term paper and all that entails. The paper – I mean film – dresses up Shakespeare’s period as a time of class struggle, political intrigue, and incestuous romance, in which de Vere throws his family and fortune to the dogs just so he can write some inspired verse. Along the way he enlists the help of playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to be his beard, but Jonson’s ethics and pride keep him from doing any such thing; this is not an issue for the smarmy, uneducated actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), though, who sees an opportunity to be awesome and takes it. While I wasn’t impressed with the film’s presentation overall, there were moments to be embraced. I was especially excited by the way Emmerich went to great lengths to show the culture of the Globe Theatre and how Shakespeare’s productions would have looked on stage. These scenes will be used by high school English teachers with geeky joy for years to come.

What’s Your Number? (2011) dir.: Mark Mylod *

Movies like this make me hate the human race. A self-described “jobless whore,” Ally Darling (Anna Faris) is a mouth breathing moron who is under the impression that she will never be happily married if she sleeps with 20 or more men. So, she desperately enlists the help of her jobless, womanizing neighbor (Chris Evans) to help her track down her former lovers so she can try to reconnect and get hitched. Suffice to say, if you don’t know how this story ends, this is a movie made for people of your IQ level. Plot holes and leaps in logic abound here, as is typical of modern rom-coms, but nothing inspired my hatred more than Anna Faris’ performance. The plot’s gimmick is misogynist enough, but the way Faris tries to play her role as a jaded New York type only enhances its woman-hating heart.

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