Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Billy Wilder's Advice for Screenwriters

Billy Wilder would be on every short list for greatest screenwriters ever. I always gotta root for the writers who get to direct, and he was a hell of a director, too. Wilder managed to make classics in several genres, and would get bored doing the same thing for too long. He said when he was in a good mood, he'd write a tragedy, and if he was sad, he'd write a comedy. Even some of his lesser-known scripts have extremely original or clever touches (Ball of Fire comes to mind), and he had a knack for story developments and character moments that were both unexpected and satisfying (as in Stalag 17 and Some Like It Hot, but most of all The Apartment).

In any case, from Conversations with Wilder (via Lists of Note), here's his advice for screenwriters (and writers in general).

1. The audience is fickle.

2. Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go.

3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.

4. Know where you're going.

5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever.

8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they're seeing.

9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then – that's it. Don’t hang around.

Reportedly, he also delivered one of my favorite aphorisms: "If you're going to tell people the truth, make them laugh, or they'll kill you." (I've seen it phrased a few different ways, and also attributed to Shaw, Wilde, and others, but it certainly makes sense from Wilder.) I've always been fascinated by where comedy and tragedy intersect or change places, and Wilder understood that much better than most. (I still need to see some of his films, but considering how prolific he was, that's not surprising.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kurosawa's Birthday 2012

It would have been Akira Kurosawa's 102nd birthday on March 23rd. My most extensive post on him is this one from 2008. The tumblr blog This Must Be the Place linked that piece and posted five days of Kurosawa posts, featuring plenty of photos and posters, as well as many comparisons between stills from Kurosawa's films and his paintings. The easiest way to check them out is to look at all the posts with the Kurosawa tag and work backwards. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick's Day 2012

This year for St. Patrick's Day, I wanted to pass on Frank McNally's "History of Ireland in 100 Excuses." Here's a sample:

1. Original sin.

2. The weather.

3. The 800 years of oppression.

4. A shortage of natural resources.

5. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak

6. Red hair.

7. The Celtic temperament.

Do read the whole list. This comes via Maria over at Crooked Timber, where there was a lively thread on the McNally list, with participants explaining a few of the less familiar references for folks who aren't native Irish.

McNally uses several runs of escalating excuses, and also quotes several poems and songs, including "34. Come all ye young rebels, and list while I sing/For the love of one's country is a terrible thing/It banishes fear with the speed of a flame/And it makes us all part of the patriot game." Since I post music most every year, I'll repost this pair. Sláinte!

Monday, March 05, 2012

2011 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(The many moods of Billy Crystal. Welcome to the Annual Post-Oscar Film Roundup, a tradition that dates back to the misty age of pre-blog times. It's broken into four parts. To read it all, start here, scroll down and use the "Older Posts" link.)

2011 was an odd year for cinema. Reportedly, it set a record for sequels (28). The good news is that the basement was better than many years. Most of the summer movies based on comic books (and there were many) were above average. However, while films in the above-average-to-good range were plentiful, films in the very-good-to-excellent range were far scarcer. I know some critics strenuously disagree, and thought 2011 was a fantastic year for cinema, but I felt I was being asked to grade films on a curve. While I could recommend many films as "worth seeing" in that rental or spend-an-evening-out category, I was much harder pressed to name any must-see films.

As for the Oscar ceremony itself, as usual, cinephiles watch to see good work (and careers) recognized, to howl at the injustices, and to marvel at those talented but sometimes clueless people who provide the glorious excess and astounding bad taste that Hollywood excels at.

Billy Crystal might have nothing new, but the ceremony only has so much flexibility, and I have to wonder why the people who always pan it bother watching at all. I found Crystal's face lift and unnaturally taut skin distracting, but got slightly more used to it as the evening progressed. I enjoyed him reviving his best bits: opening with a funny filmed segment spoofing the films, followed by a song and dance number about the nominees. He had a few sharp jokes about the formerly Kodak "Chapter 11" Theater and the absurdity of it all: “Nothing can take the sting out of economic crisis like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues.” The celebrity telepathy cam also had a few good gags, notably the Scorsese and Nolte bits, since Crystal said what we were all thinking about poor Nick.

The flying Cary Grants of Cirque du Soleil were sorta cool, but there a few too many montages (although for three years in a row, at least one was brilliantly edited). A filmed segment with the Christopher Guest company playing a Wizard of Oz focus group was hilarious. I liked some of the snippets with actors talking the first film they remembered seeing, most of all Brad Pitt's atypical story about Japanese monster movie War of the Gargantuas. As usual, the Academy was desperate to sell the idea of going to see movies in the theaters, which included candy vendor girls periodically appearing in the aisles, but at least the Academy was less blatant about it this year. (One year it was essentially, 'Stop pirating movies! Please!' It's a valid concern, but it didn't play very well.)

As far as the presenters go, the best were Emma Stone playing adorably off of Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. coming out as a self-absorbed star with a reality camera crew in tow, and Chris Rock riffing on how easy animation is to do (for actors, that is), along with the following jab:

I love animation because in the world of animation, you can be anything you wanna be. If you’re a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess. If you’re a short, wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man, you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra.

Angelina Jolie's bold leg jut spawned its own meme, spurred in large part by screenwriting winner Jim Rash aping it (he's better known as an actor on Community). Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis (who mangled his own name as a gag) had some fun with cymbals, and the cast of Bridesmaids did a fun job presenting all three awards for shorts, leading to sexual innuendo and a hilarious and unexpected bit with Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy playing a Scorsese drinking game (which cracked the man himself up).

The best speeches included Octavia Spencer's sincerely tearful one and Christopher Plummer's witty and appreciative speech. It was nice to see Saving Face director Daniel Junge say his thanks quickly and then hurry forward his co-director, Pakistani Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (I hate seeing the second and third winners get cut off). Apparently, the win brought new attention to the reality behind their short doc about reconstructing women's faces that have been disfigured with acid.

Meryl Streep's speech was apparently divisive, with some feeling it lacked humility, and others feeling it exemplified it. I fall more in the latter camp, especially given Streep's emotional shout-out to her husband at the start. (Acknowledging spouses, parents, the other nominees and the rest of the filmmaking team always goes over well. Michael Caine's acceptance speech for The Cider House Rules remains the model of classiness.) Unfortunately, The Iron Lady is a surprisingly subpar film (reviewed in Part 4), but Streep's performance is superb. Because she's consistently excellent, it's easy to take the quality of her work for granted. Earlier in the awards season, Streep herself said it was her friend Viola Davis' year. I would have given the award to Davis, so striking in both The Help and 2008's Doubt, but it is more of a supporting role (Davis probably could have nabbed the Oscar in that slot, but that would have shut out Spencer). However, it's hard to argue that Streep hasn't been worthy pretty much every time she's been nominated.

As far as snubs go, the biggest one was Michael Fassbinder's daring performance in Shame not even earning a nomination, when it should have won. (I'm assuming the sexual nature of the role scared off Academy voters, although for perspective, Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture in 1969 and was rated X at the time.) The Los Angeles Times performed a much-discussed study of Oscar voters, who are overwhelmingly old, white and male. (Actors make up the largest block.) I was also perplexed that the staggeringly good Coriolanus was shut out. I suppose it's possible that it will be submitted as a 2012 film in the U.S., but it had the prerequisite limited LA-NYC release in 2011, and was recognized as a 2011 film in some critics' awards, especially for Jessica Chastain for breakthrough artist. Ralph Fiennes was nominated for "best newcomer" (as a director) at the BAFTAs, and Vanessa Redgrave won Best Supporting Actress at the British Independent Film Awards. As covered in the review below (in Part 2), it's hardly a feel-good film, but it is stunning. Meanwhile, the Academy should just give a special Oscar to Andy Serkis for his consistently superb digital performances (Gollum, King Kong, Caesar the chimp, Captain Haddock). The field currently isn't deep enough to hand out a "digital performance" award every year, and digital and live performances should not compete, but special Oscars are not unprecedented, and Serkis defines "deserving recipient."

The main race was between Hugo and The Artist, and while I'd say Hugo is the better movie overall, I like both films, so I was fine with The Artist's win. Plus, it's sorta cool that a well-made black and white silent released in 2011 could win. Both WALL-E and Up consciously reclaimed the artistry of silent films, and I hope good filmmakers continue to both remember and explore the strengths and versatility of cinema as a medium. I wasn't sure about the Academy expanding Best Picture nominations to up to ten films, but for now I like it – but not all of their choices. Rob Vaux makes a strong case against the Academy's almost unfailing tendency to snub excellent genre films in favor of weak, highly-sentimental pap, especially in the Best Picture category. (It wasn't 'til the third film of the series that The Lord of the Rings managed to break through this bias.)

NPR show The Business hosted a debate on the Best Foreign Language Film nomination process. While flawed, the Academy has made great strides in making the process better, allowing major festival winners to be eligible.

Best song nominees have to receive an average score from voters to be eligible, and this is a fine idea, but the number is currently set too high. Alan Menken's "Star Spangled Man" should have nominated (not that he's hurting for awards). Whether to stage the nominees should really be a game-time decision, because some years they're great, and other years they're dreadful. It was fantastic to see the silly power ballad "Man or Muppet" win, but it would have been awesome to see it performed, even in truncated form. (Oh well, at least the muppets got to introduce a segment.)

The annual Montage of Death was well-done, but it has been for the past few years. The one surprise for me was seeing that Greek director Michael Cacoyannis/Mihalis Kakogiannis had died. I haven't seen many of his films, several of which are based on ancient Greek plays, but his version of Electra, starring Irene Papas, remains powerful and memorable.

Awards season has some odd tropes. Out here in Los Angeles, the trade magazines (and some billboards) go through seasons of "for your consideration" ads, begging for votes. Sometimes the suggestions "for your consideration" are mainly to stroke an actor's ego and unintentionally comic (my all-time favorite suggested a vamping David Haselhoff for an Emmy). The other classic move is to show a film still of a distraught actress, preferably with face contorted and mascara running, supposedly to show that this is a serious role and the "craft" trumps vanity. However, L.A. also runs the TV equivalent of these, and I hope they don't run elsewhere in the country. The ones where actors, directors and writers talk about what a wonderful film it is (and what a great experience it was to work with this visionary director) are perfectly fine. However, there are also TV spots that play part of a climactic scene while critics' praise scrolls past ("the finest work of his career" and so on). These serve as major spoilers, obviously. Perhaps it doesn't matter as much in L.A., where most folks who were going to see the film have done so already, and perhaps they are effective at convincing voters, and thus may help some deserving work. But I can't help but recoil at them, because they feel disrespectful to the work as a complete, structured, crafted piece. Those moments are built up to and earned in the film itself, and it feels wrong to yank them out of context for a 30 second spot. (Alas, I have searched in vain for video examples on the web, but if you live in L.A., the award spots for The Descendants, an admittedly fine film, exemplified this. One featured Alexander Payne and the actors talking up the film, which was fine, but the other showed Clooney's tearful scene with his comatose wife.)

Looking back on 2011, Ryan Gosling (Drive, The Ides of March, and Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Carey Mulligan (Drive and Shame) both had strong years. Both are established actors, but it's encouraging that they're still picking smaller, meaty projects. Meanwhile, it was a breakout year for both Jessica Chastain, who showed impressive range in The Help, The Tree of Life, The Debt and Coriolanus, and for Michael Fassbinder, who's been around for a while but earned widespread notice with Shame, X-Men: First Class and A Dangerous Method. Finally, it was a banner year for veteran screenwriter John Logan, who tackled disparate material in Hugo, Rango, and Coriolanus.

There are two related film conventions I could really do without, prevalent especially in comedies, romantic or otherwise (and films masquerading as them). One is the big public humiliation scene – sometimes it's both necessary and earned, but I find these often become exaggerated and unrealistic, which becomes more of an issue because they're not played for laughs. Instead, they're asked to set up the oh-so serious and seemingly obligatory "hero(ine)'s lowest point leading into act three." (Compare Bridesmaids and Young Adult in this respect; I think one sells it, cringe-worthy though it is, while the other one strains credulity… although I do like both films overall.) The other is the dreaded, supposedly heart-warming public speech (that for some implausible reason no one in charge ever stops). This hinges on the notion that feelings, especially love, are only truly real if declared very emotionally in front of as many people as possible, and that the target(s) of the declaration is always the sort of person that will welcome this, rather than being utterly humiliated. In a few cases these scenes work, but more often they feel emotionally manipulative, and most of all like connect-the-dots, forced sentimentality versus affection truly earned. (I'd argue Little Miss Sunshine, among other good films, sells its big climax with the family dancing on stage, and earns its good will.) Jeez, I thought Hollywood was trying to sell its fare to as many Americans as possible. Don't they understand that such histrionic displays are anathema to Midwesterners?

In any case, on to the films. As usual, I've tried to avoid spoilers or label them as such at the end of a review, so skip over any entry as desired. (My rule is, if you'd know it from watching the trailer or in the first ten minutes, it's not a spoiler.) I've also included links to a number of interviews (mostly audio segments from NPR shows) because they tend to be more lengthy and in depth than those from many other outlets.

2011 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

The Artist: Versatile silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is riding high, but the talkies are coming in. He befriends an up-and-comer, confidant chorus girl Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and the sparks fly, but he's married. George is dedicated to the art of the silents, but the public is losing interest, and his star diminishes as Peppy's rises. As many have noted, this is a love letter to Hollywood, especially its early, silent era. Dujardin has the million watt charm and period manner to carry it all, and he and Bejo play off each other beautifully. There's also a great little dog. (No offense to the various Lassies, but it's the best performance by a dog since Umberto D.) The supporting cast has a good feel for the material: John Goodman plays a film director, James Cromwell is Valentin's loyal chauffeur, Missi Pyle is his exasperated costar Constance, Penelope Ann Miller is his emotionally distant wife Doris, and Malcolm McDowell appears as a butler. The plot is simple enough, and the entire scenario evokes Singin' in the Rain. The excellent score, which is almost continuous, does borrow the love theme from Vertigo for a climatic sequence. I found this distracting at first, but it works both on its own terms and because of the heavy homage aspect of the film (plus, Bernard Herrmann was heavily inspired by Wagner for that piece). Some may find the film to be a trifle, but I'd say it's a delight, all the more so for film buffs. Silent films are a slightly different art form, and The Artist manages to be both clever and genuinely touching. Check it out if you missed it.

(Here's writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and producer Thomas Langmann on The Business.)

Hugo: Martin Scorsese's first family-friendly film, and first made in 3-D, winds up being one of his most touching. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a Paris station urchin in the 1930s between the wars. His mechanically-oriented father (Jude Law) used to maintain the many train station clocks, but died in freak accident, leaving Hugo an orphan. His alcoholic uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) isn't much help, either, so Hugo maintains the clocks himself and steals what he can to live, carefully avoiding the menacing but comical Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). He runs afoul of a cranky shopkeeper with windup toys (Ben Kingsley), but also befriends the man's granddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Together, Hugo and Isabelle try to uncover the mystery of a mechanical man that Hugo's father was trying to repair, while small and large stories between the other characters play out as well. (The British class accents are jarring at first if one stops to consider that all the characters are in Paris, but I got used to it.) I don't know how this film plays as a mystery for audiences not familiar with one of cinema's first true geniuses, the magician-turned filmmaker Georges Méliès. However, I suspect it will touch a chord with anyone who's ever gotten lost in a book, and even more so anyone who's ever gotten lost in a movie, and even more so anyone enamoured of the early great silents, most of all those by the remarkable, innovative Méliès. The film history material is tailor-made for Scorsese, who sprinkles visual quotations and homages throughout, most notably Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! But Scorsese's love for cinema spills out to suffuse the entire film with a genuine and surprisingly affecting warmth. Young Asa Butterfield has large, blue, expressive eyes (he's going to make a great Ender Wiggin), and as Hugo, he's not always politic and thus a more realistic kid. But we, well, feel his pain, and he becomes an engaging protagonist. Chloë Grace Moretz is charming as the curiosity-filled Isabelle, a girl always up for a good adventure and who delights in using big words, not to show off but out of sheer love for them. Sacha Baron Cohen gives an impressively calibrated performance as the Station Inspector, frequently sinister but often comic at the same time, and oddly touching in a few key moments. (It can be a delicate balancing act, and his instincts are impeccable. He also features in the funniest use of 3-D in the film.) The entire supporting cast is excellent. Michael Stuhlbarg plays René Tabard, a film professor eager to learn more about Méliès, who he met when he was an awestruck young boy. Christopher Lee is touching in a small role as a kindly bookseller. Emily Mortimer as Lisette, Richard Griffiths as Monsieur Frick and Frances de la Tour as Madame Emilie nicely play out their background love stories (apparently, l'amour is irresistible in Paris).

Meanwhile, Helen McCrory gives emotional weight as Mama Jeanne, who loyally shares in the silent suffering of her husband "Papa Georges," played by Kingsley with his usual precision but also a tortured, repressed passion that can spill out as bitterness. ("April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.") This is a world that knows tragedy and deep heartache, but also one where small gestures of genuine kindness mean a great deal, and can in some cases accomplish even more. Scorsese makes it all look easy, and he has a splendid sense of physical space. This is a film aimed primarily for a younger audience, but it works very well for adults, too. At its core, it is a love story – a love for storytelling and sharing stories, but also about finding new loves and reclaiming old passions. It's hard not to be moved by Kingsley as an artist who risked all, succeeded, lost all, but gets a second chance. Some of the final scenes on stage are simply magical.

(Here's interviews with the book's author Brian O. Selznick and screenwriter John Logan. Self-Styled Siren has a lovely piece on the film: "Later, when the bookseller gravely hands a beautiful copy of Robin Hood to Hugo, and tells the boy that the book is meant to be his, that’s the moment that reconnects Hugo to humanity, the thing that prepares him to perform the same service for Méliès.")

Coriolanus: Ralph Fiennes, a consistently exceptional actor, proves to be a formidable director as well. His Coriolanus is the best Shakespeare film since Branagh's 1989 Henry V. That's not to slight other fine films, such as Branagh's other efforts or the excellent 2010 Macbeth directed by Rupert Good and starring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood. However, as with Branagh's Henry V, Fiennes' Coriolanus is so striking as both a production and adaptation that any serious subsequent production has to contend with it. It doesn't need to make the same choices by any means, but Fiennes has explored and exploded the contours of this flawed but underrated play so boldly it would be folly to ignore his take. Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is both a general and a soldier's soldier, ferocious in his defense of Rome. This means he has no patience for civil rights and public cries for food during war time, and he despises the common people (who he views as soft) as much as they fear and loathe him in return. Rome's great enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) of the Volces, a foe Martius respects, threatens the city, so Martius goes out to meet him in battle once more. He wins a great victory at Corioles, and is awarded the name Coriolanus in recognition. All would be well, but Coriolanus' mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Senator Menenius (Brian Cox) have great ambitions for him and wish to have him named consul of Rome. This in turn threatens another political faction, led by the Tribunes Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson), who purport to speak for the common people, but of course have their ambitions as well. Coriolanus has no patience for dissembling, and no talent for it, either. He seeks to forego the tradition of showing his battle wounds to the common people, which could earn him much-needed good will, but the whole affair feels dishonorable and boastful to him. Additionally, insults to his impeccable, much-prized honor make him fly into a rage, leaving him open to easy manipulation. He is completely temperamentally unsuited to be a politician. His great tragedy is that those who love him, and value his good qualities, do not also see his considerable flaws and let him remain where he is suited and where he thrives, in the military. His enemies contrive events to make him lose his temper in public, and in short order, he goes from hero of the city to banished. (This rapid reversal is, by the way, the hardest plot point to swallow, and one of the play's biggest flaws, or at least the hardest part to sell.) Coriolanus leaves… but he will have his revenge. He seeks out Aufidius, allowing his respected former foe the opportunity to kill him, but instead, they join forces and march on Rome.

Shakespeare shows sympathy for Coriolanus and the notion of the 'honest, noble soldier,' and the common folk do not come off well in this play. As in Julius Caesar, the mob seems fickle, and swayed by whoever talked to them last. Meanwhile, Coriolanus is a much more flawed protagonist than many of Shakespeare's others, and his defects seem more glaring, especially to a modern audience less inclined to share Coriolanus' class attitudes, and aware (especially in this modernized version) of where such stances can lead. Coriolanus is less ambitious than Macbeth (even though he's similarly pushed to climb by others), but also far less reflective. Whereas Macbeth becomes fatalistic by the end, Coriolanus remains reckless. It's one thing for him to despise politicians and manipulation, but at times, he doesn't seem to even understand the concept. We can sympathize with him in several respects (he is a man 'more sinned against than sinning'), but he's harder to identify with than some of Shakespeare's other heroes and villains. (For instance, most viewers will not want to see him succeed in becoming consul, which seems like a disastrous prospect.)

Fiennes shot most of the film in Serbia on a comparatively small budget. This version of Coriolanus occurs in a time of modern warfare and media saturation. Bombed-out buildings abound, Coriolanus' rants are captured on cell phone cameras, and events are discussed on TV. The adaptation strategy is very clever – many sections are told in shorthand, with a quick montage of TV news coverage conveying the same information as several speeches. (Some reviewers found real-life TV journalist Jon Snow's appearance jarring, but I thought the TV pundit scenes worked surprisingly well overall.) Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan cut large swaths out of the play to keep it lean, and occasionally, these leapt out at me – a particular key speech cut and conveyed with a look instead (Aufidius near the end), a telling exchange that seemed thrown away (Volumnia's "Ay, and burn, too") – but these were rare exceptions. All the major scenes are there, as is the heart of the play. Fiennes really understands and delivers the essence of all the major characters and key relationships. Vanessa Redgrave gives one of her best performances (and that's saying something) as Volumnia, Coriolanus' proud, ambitious and sometimes blinded mother. Similar to the ghost of Hamlet's father telling his son to "Taint not they mind" while also urging revenge, Volumnia can, in the course of a single scene, implore her son to be patient and moderate, yet also cheer his obstinacy and contempt for lesser men. Jessica Chastain is good as his far more gentle and hesitant wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain). Brian Cox is splendid as the experienced political hand, Menenius (one of his best performances as well). I wasn't overwhelmed by Gerard Butler, but he was convincing as a man of war, and his respect, antagonism, and jealousy toward Coriolanus comes through. Overall, the actors handle the language intelligently and fluidly as good Shakespeare productions do – not sing-song in delivery, but not overly casual, apologetic or dead and listless, either. They understand very well what they are saying, and live and speak in a heightened reality, but inhabit it naturally. (Needless to say, some of the dialogue is fantastic.) Because Fiennes' work as a director here is very impressive and he's consistency superb as an actor, it would be easy to take his own performance here for granted and not give it its due. However, Fiennes delivers a ferocious, striking performance as Coriolanus. While Coriolanus is capable of gentleness and civility to those he genuinely respects, he is often frighteningly intense, struggles to control his contempt, and – especially when his ire is roused – he will fight to the death rather than forsake his honor. It's this intensity that forms the core of the play and this film, and helps sell the more problematic plot points. (I'd say the story could almost be "The Tragedy of Volumnia," with shades of Mother Courage, and ultimately, it all comes down to Fiennes and Redgrave.)

Coriolanus was not released wide, and not heavily promoted, leading to its almost complete and criminal omission from awards consideration (unless for some reason it's being submitted in the U.S. as a 2012 film, as discussed in more depth in the Oscars post). The other reason it's been overlooked, I suspect, is that it is a challenging, dark piece, just as Vertigo is a great but unsettling film, and thus not Hitchcock's most popular. Coriolanus does not offer the happy weddings that end Shakespeare's comedies, or the tragic-but-poetic deaths of some of Shakespeare's other tragedies. Tonally, it's probably closest to that cheeriest of Shakespeare plays, King Lear, and Jan Kott's observations about the stark, existential realities of Lear would fit much of Ralph Fiennes' film of Coriolanus. Seeing it was thrilling, and made me want to re-read the play and then watch the film again. While I don't expect Fiennes' Coriolanus to ever receive a huge audience, the smaller core that seek it out will highly prize its many virtues.

(Here's Ralph Fiennes on All Things Considered.)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Swedish director Tomas Alfredson proves to be an inspired pick to helm this remake based on one of John LeCarré's best spy novels. Fans of the original miniseries with Alec Guinness may wonder why bother, but both versions are excellent, and this is the equivalent of letting a new generation of actors perform a classic play. Gary Oldman anchors a truly exceptional cast as George Smiley, a master spy prematurely and involuntarily retired when a scandal forces his boss and friend Control (John Hurt) to step down from the Circus (the nickname for MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service, equivalent to the CIA). There is a mole somewhere in the highest levels of the Circus, and since Smiley is now on the outside, government official Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) thinks he's the perfect man to smoke the mole out. Toby Jones plays Percy Alleline (the new head of the agency), Colin Firth is the dashing Bill Haydon, Ciarán Hinds is the shady Roy Bland and David Dencik the even shadier Toby Esterhase. Each has been assigned a code name: Tinker, Tailor, and so on (based on the children's rhyme) and Smiley must figure out which one is the culprit. But this is a dangerous game, and Smiley and his cohorts and sources (Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam and Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr) are risking exposure and death. LeCarré, who actually was in the service, has always been the novelist for those who want their spy stories realistic, adult, and cerebral, and while there's some action and tons of suspense, don't expect James Bond antics here.

Oldman plays George Smiley with marvelous restraint and understatement, only betraying emotion on a few occasions – for instance, surprise at the start, recounting one of his few failures, and in a key confrontation. Throughout the film, we can tell that within Smiley lay great depths, but Oldman doles this out stingily; this tension makes him captivating to watch. Smiley as played by Oldman is one hell of a poker player, playing his cards very close to the vest, but on those occasions when he makes a move, he is swift, assured and devastating. One of his few weaknesses is his love for his attractive and unfaithful wife Anne. (We never really see her on-screen.) When Smiley had a Russian agent in detention in India who went on to become Moscow's great spymaster, Karla, Anne had left him (as she does periodically), and Smiley found himself revealing more about himself than he intended to the silent, normally chain-smoking Karla – down to leaving behind the engraved lighter Anne gave him. Interestingly, the film chooses to handle this scene not in flashback, but with Smiley recounting the tale to Guillam. It's an amazing, subtle job by Oldman; Smiley may be incorruptible, but he is fallible, and his haunted self-reproachment creeps into his voice.

This is very handsomely filmed, and Alfredson shows an impressive facility for visual storytelling, telling us volumes in brief shots. For instance, when Smiley visits his old friend and colleague, the feisty Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), her face lights up when she turns and sees him, then falls when she realizes why he must be there. It instantly tells us that they're close and that Connie is razor sharp. Similarly, there's a shot at a Circus Christmas party (an event the film flashes back to several times) where Bill Haydon is looking lasciviously at a barely-seen woman, then changes his expression to respectfully acknowledge George as Smiley turns to look at him. If there's a fault to this version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it's that it has to hurry too much, and we don't get to know all four suspects well, which hurts the mystery aspect of the central plot. As a character study, though, of Smiley and many of the supporting characters, it remains exceptional. Oldman is the strong center, but Cumberbatch, Hardy, Burke and Firth are unforgettable, too, with Mark Strong another standout as Jim Prideaux, the agent wounded on the scandalous mission that caused Control's downfall. His haunted eyes convey a great deal. This one is definitely worth checking out.

Now's as good a time as any to compare this film to the 1979 miniseries. The performances in both are excellent. Alec Guinness has more time to work as George Smiley, and it's a treat to hear his wonderful voice (like a cello, as one critic observed). Both he and Oldman are superb, and they don't play the character exactly the same. Similarly, the two Peter Guillams are both very good, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Jayston (who plays him with more of a chip on his shoulder). The main benefit of the miniseries is that it has more time (roughly five hours), and it introduces us to the four main suspects in more depth. It can also allow scenes to play out at length, which particularly helps the scene when Smiley confronts Tony Esterhase – several shifts occur. There's also more detail about what happened to poor Jim Prideaux in Soviet hands. However, some sequences are padded, most notably Ricki Tarr's story, which just doesn't have to go on at such length. Devotees of the original book may prefer the miniseries just because more of the book makes it in, but not all of these little scenes are essential (George being accosted by an old associate, for example). There are also a few changes from the book in Alfredson's version, including making one character homosexual – but I actually thought it worked rather well, accentuating the secrecy and peril inherent in the story. The new film is much better shot (by cinematographer Alberto Iglesias), and director Tomas Alfredson has a much better command of the visual strengths of the medium. That's not to say the '79 series is bad in these respects, even if it isn't as strong. DP Tony Pierce-Roberts actually won a BAFTA award for his work on the miniseries, and the nighttime exteriors are probably his best: effectively moody. (Consider that I, Claudius came out in 1976 and has great acting but horrendous production values.) Similarly, miniseries director John Irvin mainly sticks with conventional coverage of scenes, but has a keen sense for when to go for reaction shots and close-ups. Bernard Hepton as Tony Esterhase, Terence Rigby as Roy Bland and Michael Aldridge as Percy Alleline in the miniseries rate better mainly because they have more screen time, allowing us to better know their characters and assess their machinations. Other than that, I'd say it's a toss-up, or would give a slight edge to Alfredson's film. After seeing the new film, watching the miniseries again, and re-reading part of the book again, I'm looking forward to another look at Alfredson's take. Basically, if you're a fan of LeCarré or this story in particular, there's no reason not to enjoy them both (or all three, counting the book).

(Here's a great interview with Gary Oldman, who breaks down his disparate and astounding vocal work on various roles. Here's screenwriter Peter Straughn. NPR also did pieces on the original book, and two pieces on the original miniseries.)

2011 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

Margin Call: Most of the action takes place in the course of a single 24 hours at a high-powered investment bank at the beginning of the global economic crisis. Veteran Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is one of the casualties in the latest round of periodic firings, but before he goes, he hands off a flash drive to one of the younger employees, bright Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). It was something big that he couldn't quite crack. Peter takes a look, is horrified, and talks with his peer, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), then his bosses, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). Basically, Peter has spotted that the company (like many others) is massively overleveraged, is in a highly risky situation due to heavy investment in subprime mortgages, and the market appears to be getting increasingly volatile. They could be wiped out, and most of the financial sector could be devastated as well. Pretty soon, managers higher-up get pulled in – Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), and eventually, the big boss himself, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). Can the company be saved, and if so, how? Everyone involved starts looking for some way out, honorable or not – and in some cases, starts scoping out who they're going to sell out to save their own ass. (The movie poster tagline, adapted from something Tuld says, is "Be First. Be Smarter. Or Cheat.") Some knowledge of Wall Street malfeasance and the crash would definitely help (last year's Oscar-winning doc Inside Job is a good starting point, as is the 2004 doc The Corporation). Still, Margin Call does a good job of unobtrusive exposition and personalizing what could be a highly-technical tale. It's an appealingly bare bones film, just a good script with a simple but well thought-out structure, and a good cast that delivers fine performances. This is writer-director J.C. Chandor's first feature, and it's very impressive. One of the best signs is that while many of the characters have great speeches, most of them are tossed off and natural, rather than self-consciously calling attention to themselves. This is some of the best work these actors have done. (I also found myself thinking that Simon Baker really should have been cast as Ozymandias in Watchmen.) Rogers (Spacey) is one of the few who seems to consider the moral implications of their possible actions and not just his or the company's survival. Will (Bettany) has a great scene where Peter and Seth ask him how much he made last year and he breaks down where it all went, and later gives a memorable little speech about the hypocrisy of investors (with plenty of self-denial in there as well). Irons is also a particular delight, telling Peter to "Explain this all to me as if I were a small child, or a golden retriever. I didn't get in this seat because of brains," and offering a decidedly amoral (or immoral) pitch to one of his lieutenants. This one is well worth the time to seek out. (Chandor remarked that in the U.S., he was asked why he bothered to make a film on this subject, on the notion that it was overdone, while in Germany, he was asked why there weren't many more films on this subject.)

(Here's J.C. Chandor on The Treatment.)

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin): Writer-Director Asghar Farhadi's film opens with a married couple in divorce court, but the problem is not a lack of love. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to emigrate to give a better life for her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's real-life daughter), but her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi) refuses to leave his father, who has Alzheimer's, behind. Simin moves out and goes to live with her parents, Termeh stays with her father, and Nader hires the religiously devout Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father. Razieh becomes overwhelmed, and is uncomfortable with the prospect of stripping and cleaning Nader's father if necessary (she calls her imam or someone similar to check it is permissible), so she suggests that Nader hire her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) instead. However, before this can happen, Razieh leaves Nader's father alone and something happens, and when Nader confronts her, something else happens… What makes A Separation work especially well is its docudrama realism, with naturalistic performances and a highly believable plot. Most of the complications (or tragedies) that occur don't take place because the participants are evil people (some do tell consequential if understandable lies, but we don't always know this at first). This is real life in all its messiness, and events and fateful decisions cascade. At times the film achieves a Rashomon effect, where we're not sure what actually happened – at least two key events occur off-camera, and we're not fully aware of one until much later. Similarly, our sympathies constantly shift. Just when we think we have a handle on everything, we get a new piece of information or a character does something to change how we see him or her. We also become engaged enough we want to reach in and shake some of the participants to stop being so stubborn about the drama unfolding. A Separation insists on leaving some matters open-ended and ambiguous, and its impressive artistry is in appearing artless, with a carefully-plotted story that feels utterly natural as it unfolds before us. The cultural differences may be of additional interest for an American audience, and there appear to be class issues at play, too. This is a very well-crafted film.

(Here's a brief NPR piece featuring Asghar Farhadi that gives helpful background. I was also curious about health care in Iran. Apparently, basic care is widely available, but senior care might be different, and Nader might have been resistant to that, anyway.)

The Descendants: Writer-director Alexander Payne's Sideways remains his best, but this is awfully good, if a much more somber affair. Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer in Hawaii, learns that his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), a bit of an adrenaline junkie, has suffered a freak accident and is in a coma. He learns shortly thereafter from his oldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, who's excellent) that the real reason she was fighting with her mother is that Elizabeth was having an affair, which comes as a shock to Matt. Matt next learns Elizabeth will probably never recover, and has to wrestle with end-of-life decisions and a flood of conflicting emotions. On top of this, he is in charge of deciding who his wealthy extended family should sell their ancestral land to before their rights expire; a decision seems inevitable, so it might as well be the best deal, but will entail letting beautiful wilderness be turned into a resort. If that wasn't enough, he also has to deal with Elizabeth's caustic dad, Scott (Robert Forster), Alex's dipshit boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), and most of all, his two daughters, Alex and his youngest, Scottie (Amara Miller). Perhaps unwisely but quite naturally, he decides to seek out "the other man," too, both to see him face to face and to tell him that Elizabeth is dying. Needless to say, this adds additional complications, especially because the man, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) is married with kids to Julie (Judy Greer). Whew! As Matt says, he's "the backup [parent]," and he's basically a good guy, out-of-touch, trying to do the right thing but in way over his head, and all too human. The film is very funny at times, and it's particularly good at giving dimension to all the characters, even the secondary ones. Beau Bridges is memorable as "Cousin Hugh," the most notable of Matt's extended family. Julie Speer has a couple of good scenes, especially an unexpected one near the end, funny and slightly appalling, and even Sid and Scott show some depth or draw sympathy as things progress. The core of the film, though, lies between Matt and Alexandra. She's quick to lambast him, then eager to help him spy, yet while she's initially extremely critical of her dad and his sincere but inept parenting, she gradually gains a new appreciation for him, and vice versa. (The scene where Scott comes to visit his comatose daughter, and Alex watches her dad deal with Scott, is especially good, as she sees her dad with new eyes.) This is a very fine film, but I didn't like it as much as Sideways just because of the balance of drama to comedy; I'm less eager to rush out and watch this one again, just as I don't pick up Shakespeare's tragedies for kicks as often as his comedies (although I love them all). The Descendants has much more comedy than Hamlet, of course, it's also rooted in reality, and it deals with the serious aspects of its story gracefully. I greatly appreciate that this film is made for adults, and this may be Clooney's best performance to date (the other contenders being Up in the Air, Syriana and Michael Clayton). Meanwhile, Woodley really should have gotten more award nominations. Especially if you're a fan of Payne's work, this deserves a look. (The final scene/shot, as the credits roll, is a wonderful ending to the film, speaking volumes without dialogue.)

(Here are interviews with Alexander Payne, George Clooney, and a piece on the soundtrack.)

Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen's latest feature is a charming fantasy and his best film since 2005's Match Point. Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screenwriter of commercial fare, wants to write a novel of more depth but he's got writer's block. His fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) is frustrated with him, especially since he wants to write while they're on vacation with her right-wing parents (another source of conflict). It also doesn't help that they run into Inez' friends Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), and Paul is a pedantic academic who feels compelled to lecture everyone on everything, including subjects they know better than he (a familiar Allen character). One night at midnight, Gil is transported back to 1920s Paris, a golden age of literary and artistic innovation and talent. He hobnobs with the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Picasso, and over a dozen other luminaries. He tries to explain it to Inez and take her along the next night, but he's not sure how the magic works, and he winds up traveling back in time solo each night. Eventually he gives his manuscript to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) to critique, at the urging of Hemingway (Corey Stoll), a hard-drinking, fearless figure who essentially tells Gil to man up both as a writer and a man. Gil also meets a muse in the form of the beguiling, luminous Adriana (Marion Cotillard), whose charms have also inspired Hemingway, Picasso, and many other men. The entire premise is one of those, "Why didn't I think of that?" ideas, so obviously perfect, but Allen is the one who thought it all up, and the proceedings flow effortlessly and delightfully. If Hugo and The Artist are love letters to filmmaking, this film is a love letter to writers, painters and other artists (filmmakers too, but not as much). Viewers might wind up doing the 1920s version of celebrity gawking, as Gil does. It really is astounding to reflect on the explosion of artistic expression that occurred post World War I, and it's hard not to share Gil's awe and idealization of 1920s Paris. But of course, the past is not all rosy, and Allen brings this wisdom into the story in a clever and satisfying way. The entire cast is good, with Wilson (in the Allen role) likeably goofy as always. McAdams said at a press conference that Wilson told her the scenes 'were funnier when she was meaner,' and she makes Inez insistent but believable (and not without an occasional point), while all the other modern-day American characters are suitably credible and grating. Meanwhile, all the Frenchwomen are lovely – Cotillard, as well as Carla Bruni and Léa Seydoux in small but pivotal roles. One minor criticism: the few digs at right-wing politics, including the so-called "Tea Party," are very funny and on-point, but I'm concerned they will date the film in years to come. The historical ensemble is great, but standouts include Bates as the mentoring Stein, Stoll as the I've-stared-at-death Hemingway, and Alison Pill as a manic Zelda Fitzgerald, while Adrien Brody is very funny as a trippy Salvador Dali obsessed with rhinoceroses.
As with many a Woody Allen work dealing with another reality (counting his short stories as well), he is not always internally consistent – Stein's words to Gil near the end about how it's not believable that he didn't notice a particular something are sharp and a nifty plot shift, but suggest the entire time travel is in Gil's head – but the very funny scene with the detective hired by Inez' father John suggests that time travel really did occur. However, I didn't mind at all, and I doubt many viewers will. The point of this fantasy, and Allen's technique, is to take us where we and the story want to go, and Midnight in Paris succeeds splendidly in this respect.

(Here's Robert Weide, who directed Woody Allen – A Documentary, on The Treatment.)

The Guard: We get a surprising, dark and funny glimpse at the character of police sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) in the very first scene of The Guard, and the film rarely lets up after that. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh's first feature is an enjoyably off-beat character study and odd-couple crime story. (His brother is fellow playwright Martin McDonagh, best known in the States for In Bruges, and they share a comic and dramatic sensibility, including digs at Americans.) This is Gleeson's best role since The General or perhaps In Bruges. Boyle is at times deliberately bigoted ("I'm Irish. Racism is part of my culture.") or otherwise infuriating to get a rise of the film's straight man, FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). The two are uneasy partners and a great comic couple, alternating between abuse and kindness, all while trying to crack a drug smuggling operation and the murder of Boyle's recent new partner. At one point, Everett tells Boyle, "You know, I can't tell if you're really motherfuckin' dumb, or really motherfuckin' smart." Boyle stares back at him for a moment, then smiles enigmatically. Like Everett, we're wondering the same thing throughout the film, and it's never boring. Boyle is more than happy to exploit his position for perks, is technically corrupt, and has no problem with breaking the law per se (he spends his fiercely-guarded day off with prostitutes), but he also seems to take a very practical, greater good approach to crime. He's also very forgiving in his way – even when he's getting screwed, he doesn't take it personally, especially toward underlings who are in a bind themselves. The criminals are more memorable than usual as well – Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, and Mark Strong, who's a particular standout as an chronically irritated, philosophical henchman. ("We have to dump the body." "I don't do manual labor." "Come on!" "No. When I applied for the post of international drug trafficker, it said nothing about, 'must have experience in heavy lifting.'") I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Some movies self-consciously aim for "quirky" and "memorable dialogue" and wind up feeling forced and overwritten (Tarantino on his bad days). The Guard keeps things character-based and feels very natural. Fionnula Flanagan does a nice job playing Boyle's dying mom (similar to her role in The Invention of Lying), and the scenes between her and Gleeson give the film some poignancy and weight, as do several other more sober moments. The one had a limited release in the U.S.

(Here's Brendan Gleeson on Fresh Air, and Lance Mannion's review.)

Crazy, Stupid, Love: Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) and his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) are in a rut. Finally, she comes out with it and announces she's been having an affair and wants a divorce; he can't take her non-stop confession-and-accusation and steps out of their moving car. Still in shock, he moves out, hits the bars after work to drown his sorrows, and bemoans his situation to everyone he meets. Jacob (Ryan Gosling) is a slick player who's sick of hearing Cal's moaning, so he takes him under his wing so Cal can 'reclaim his manhood.' Cal doesn't have much game, but he does manage to score a wild night with Kate (Marisa Tomei). Meanwhile, Jacob is intrigued by Hannah (Emma Stone), the one woman who seems immune to his charms, and thus all the more enticing. Furthermore, Cal's son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is madly in love with his babysitter, Jessica Ripley (Analeigh Tipton), who's fallen for Robbie's dad, Cal. (Cal is oblivious to both parts of this.) That's a lot of crazy stupid love to go around, and the film does very well in several ways: it's genuinely funny, its humor is (for the most part) rooted in reality, and it weaves its multiple storylines quite deftly – all building to the best comedy chaos climax I can remember in a long time. Kevin Bacon is appropriately slimy as the other man, David Lindhagen, and Liza Lapira, Beth Littleford and Jon Carroll Lynch all have funny scenes in supporting roles. On at least two occasions, Cal and Emily almost reconnect, but fate (and bad past choices) intervene in the worst way. It's the added realism and sincerity, especially about the complexities of love, marriage and relationships, that make Crazy, Stupid, Love a romantic comedy that's a cut above. A lengthy sequence with Jacob and Hannah is great because he's attracted to her, but she's so oddball she throws him completely off his Mr. Cool game… and he winds up sorta liking it. (We also learn much more about him.) At several key points, Crazy, Stupid, Love chooses the less conventional and more genuinely funny (or moving) path. In fact, the two bits that turned me off somewhat were more stock – a later scene with Kate that's funny, but a bit over the top and less believable, and that dreaded, supposedly heartwarming convention, the public speech (that for some reason no one ever stops). Carell can do sad sack in his sleep, but as always, he sells both the awkward comedy and the deeper sincerity. The rest of the cast is strong as well, especially because we get to see all of them (the major characters, anyway) in moments of awkwardness and vulnerability.

(Here are directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra on The Business, and Steve Carell on Talk of the Nation.)

Shame: Speaking of crazy, stupid, love… British director and conceptual artist Steve McQueen delivers a striking character study, and wisely heeds the old advice to show, not tell. He also has a good sense of when to let real sound fall away and let music and images carry the scene. Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbinder) is a sex and porn addict living in Manhattan. He's successful at his job, and not shy at all about casual sex, but is also fiercely private and likes to keep the different aspects of his life carefully sequestered. He may be dysfunctional, but he's highly organized. However, his orderly world is overturned when his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay after breaking up with her latest boyfriend. Brandon is grudgingly accommodating and tries to be supportive in his own way, including coming to hear her sing, but things become strained. (No one can push your buttons like family, and while Sissy can be sweet, she also delights in tweaking her brother, and is especially fond of playing the guilt card.) We get to see Brandon's character revealed through a number of scenes. He's much smoother with the ladies than his sleazy boss, Dave (James Badge Dale). Brandon has no problem getting physical with prostitutes and one-night stands, but conventional dating with more of an emotional component leads him to have, um, performance issues. There's a great wordless scene on the subway when he stares at a cute woman sitting across the way (Lucy Walters). When she notices, at first she's a bit embarrassed yet flattered, but under his unwavering gaze she becomes increasingly uncomfortable. It's well-done, and the film has a number of such moments, often focusing on Fassbender's face with its subtle shifts (sometimes it's merely him catching his own gaze in the mirror, and registering his mood of the moment). Brandon's controlled veneer cracks in small ways, then larger, and his pushback against his sister, who is not one for respecting personal boundaries, can get nasty. The climatic sequence involves Brandon going on a destructive binge of sex and pickups. (You've never seen a man so unhappy to be in a three-way.) He judges his sister harshly, but he's much more like her than he first appears, and she makes him face things he would rather not. There's some hint of a shared, dark past, perhaps incest – she says "We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place." – but we never get all the details. The sex and nudity are never gratuitous, but there's plenty of it. Mulligan continues to be impressive, and this is a brave, vulnerable and memorable performance from Michael Fassbinder (he deserved Best Actor). The film also has perhaps the best ending scene of the year (The Descendants being the other contender) – a wordless scene whose significance is set up earlier in the film, and which hinges on facial expressions.

(Here's Steve McQueen on The Treatment, and The Business on marketing and distributing the film, which received a NC-17 rating in the U.S. Here's Michael Fassbender on Fresh Air.)

Martha Marcy May Marlene: The title is much easier to remember after seeing the film. It's lousy for marketing, but fits the story well. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a troubled young woman who joins a cult and then flees after two years, reconnecting with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). However, Martha's relationship with Lucy has always been uneasy (they lost a parent when young), and she struggles to re-assimilate. She has difficulty at times separating present-day reality from memories of her time with the cult, and she refuses to talk about what happened with Lucy and Ted. Lucy tries to deal with Martha's paranoia and odd behavior with patience, but Ted's tolerance becomes far more strained. What makes Martha Marcy May Marlene particularly effective is the way writer-director Sean Durkin carefully doles out information in small pieces, and seamlessly transitions between the present day and the past, sometimes within the same shot. This makes the viewer share Martha's fractured perception, because we're often wondering, wait, is this the present, or the past? Is this real, or fantasy? The cult at first seems warm and welcoming to the troubled Martha, but we gradually see more and more that's unsettling, especially about Patrick (John Hawkes), the charismatic cult leader. He can be very charming and seemingly kind, but is also subtly manipulative, domineering, possessive and predatory. (His tendency to rename cult members, especially vulnerable young women, leads to the film's title.) One of the standout scenes involves him performing a song he wrote for Martha (by then Marcy May) at a community gathering. It's pretty and sweet on the surface, but it's a stalker's ballad with a creepy, possessive undertone, alarming because of what it suggests about Patrick's intent and because Martha is so hungry for the seeming affection. Patrick and the rest of the community tell her she is special. Martha Marcy May Marlene becomes an increasingly disturbing viewing experience because of Patrick and the cult's treatment of Martha, her vacillating but occasionally willing participation in her own exploitation and that of others, and her near-absolute refusal to discuss anything with her sister and brother-in-law, who only know that she's escaped a bad relationship. While not quite a horror film, Martha Marcy May Marlene plays heavily on paranoia and uncertainty, and it's creepier because everyone involved is human, not some CG monster, and could exist in reality. The performances are uniformly excellent and subtle. Hawkes is always good, Paulson has never been better (that I've seen), and this is a breakout performance for Olsen in a challenging role; she needs to sell the whole endeavor more than anyone else, and she does. The very ending of the film is abrupt and left many audience members audibly dissatisfied. It is, however, a justifiable choice given the rest of the film. Some viewers might find Martha Marcy May Marlene too disturbing (some of the exploitation is sexual), but it's a memorable, unsettling mood piece and its craftsmanship is often impressive. The film hinges on the notion of uncertainty about identity, memory, reality and relationships, and everything in its structure and aesthetics – screenplay, editing, shot design, and occasionally the performances themselves – contributes to this. It's a promising piece of work from Sean Durkin (his first feature) and Elizabeth Olsen.

(Here's Sean Durkin on The Treatment and Sean Durkin, Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, "the friends behind [this] indie drama," on The Business. Self-effacing character actor John Hawkes gave a great interview on All Things Considered.)

Source Code: The great thing about director Duncan Jones is that, for two films in a row now (2009's Moon), he's made intelligent, real sci-fi. He takes a premise and fully explores it, and uses the genre to examine character and delve into human nature. His main characters are fallible but smart and plausible in their exploration of their situations. In this case, we're presented with an unconventional form of time travel to craft a thriller with a love story and some existential angst. A U.S. Army helicopter pilot, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), finds himself placed in a pod, then on a train, where he is tasked with finding the bomber who blew it up that morning. He can return again and again, but only for eight minutes at a time, and time is running out to catch the culprit in the present, because he's threatened to denote a much larger bomb somewhere in the city that day. Colter's chief liaison to "reality" is Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who is sympathetic to Colter's distress but focused on the mission. She reports in turn to Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who is committed to making this experimental "Source Code" project work, both to save lives and to polish his own star. Colter's mission is further complicated by the nature of this time travel – not only a mere eight minutes at a time, but inhabiting the body of someone else, Sean Fentress, a passenger on the train. He becomes smitten with the man's traveling companion, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), who's pretty but also kind, and very sharp. Colter wants desperately to save her, even though he's told she's already dead in reality, and trying to tell her what's really happening is fraught with difficulty. He also has some unresolved personal business of his own to tackle. Source Code works fine as a thriller, but is more satisfying than usual because none of its characters are dumb. Colter's struggles to work out and come to terms with his unusual condition, and the development of his relationships with both Christina and Goodwin give an emotional core to what could be a highly technical exercise. Farmiga is especially good as Goodwin in a scene where Colter asks her to tell him the truth, "soldier to soldier." If there's a flaw to Source Code, it's that it goes on too long, even though it runs only 93 minutes. (This is not a film that drags in the middle.) I would have chopped off one or two of its endings, which complicate the story, adding layers to the intellectual puzzle element but softening and muddying its emotional impact. (I'd have faded out on a certain freeze frame, which I trust is sufficiently vague but will make sense when you see the film.) In any case, kudos to screenwriter Ben Ripley, director Duncan Jones, and the rest of the cast and crew. While Source Code might not be flawless, it fulfills its needs as a Hollywood thriller while being significantly more original (and authentically sci-fi) than standard fare. (In a neat in-joke, Colter's father is played by Scott Bakula of Quantum Leap, which had similar elements.)

Contagion: Steven Soderbergh assembles a pedigreed cast to deliver this highly-effective thriller about a global pandemic. The big-name actors are presented as real people versus stars, and much of the film plays like a docudrama, with Soderbergh taking an aloof, detached, clinical attitude towards the progression of the events. It's a wise choice for the material, and Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns made a point of talking to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and other experts for accuracy (more below). Extremely contagious and highly fatal, the disease spreads more quickly than the authorities can contain it, the normal societal niceties start to break down, and martial law and other drastic measures are instituted. As Mitch Emhoff, a regular guy whose wife Beth (Gwenyth Paltrow) is the first known victim, Matt Damon represents the civilian perspective. He's no expert, but he's no dummy, either, and he reacts honestly to each new development. Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Eliot Gould and Jennifer Ehle are all fighting the pandemic in their respective capacities, while Jude Law plays a popular, conspiracy-oriented blogger who flames paranoia. (Bloggers are not portrayed favorably in this flick – my favorite line was, "Blogging is not writing. It's just graffiti with punctuation.") Soderbergh's films always have interesting elements, but his best are excellent, typically possessing a natural flow that makes them seem effortlessly put together. It's the realism of this film that really makes it so effective and chilling. After watching it, even if you aren't a germophobe, you're liable to recoil the next time someone coughs uncovered near you or doesn't wash their hands.

(Here are interviews with the chief consulting expert, Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, on The Business and Talk of the Nation.)

Young Adult: Director Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody team up again (Juno) with another good, but significantly darker, film. One of her former classmates calls Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) a "Prom Queen Bitch from Hell" (although she doesn't say it to her face). Mavis is basically a mean girl with a brain who's never really grown up. When her former boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) sends out an e-mail that he and his wife Beth (Eizabeth Reaser) have had their first child, it stirs up feelings in Mavis. She heads back from the big city (Minneapolis) to the small Minnesotan town she grew up in, determined to win Buddy back – which will, uh, entail breaking up his marriage and making him leave his wife and infant daughter. She picks up a drinking buddy and sarcastic conscience in the form of Matt Feehauf (Patton Oswalt), who went to high school with her and was definitely not one of the cool kids. The film's title is a double entendre; Mavis seems to be stuck in high school social dynamics, in denial that she may not be queen bee anymore, and she's also the ghost writer for a popular-but-soon-to-be-ending series of "young adult" novels set in high school. Essentially, we're following the villain of a story, a sort of evil Don Quixote, but it's hard to turn away. Mavis is not often sympathetic, but she's not boring, either. She's got some wit (although it's usually caustic), and her barely concealed bitchiness leads to a form of candor that can be refreshing and amusing – up to a point. Will reality hit Mavis, and when, and how? Or will she actually succeed in breaking up this marriage? Mavis is used to getting her own way, and in her own element, she can be formidable. Even when haggard, Mavis is attractive, and when she gets dolled up (there are a few makeover/beauty salon montages), she's a gorgeous woman, and she knows it. (Hell, she's counting on it.) She's plainly narcissistic, but it's not always clear what other issues are playing about inside, although we get hints of this as the film progresses. (Her trip is not solely ego-driven.) Young Adult is sometimes uncomfortable viewing, particularly its climatic scene. However, the scenes between Mavis and Matt are fantastic, and it's worth seeing just for those. If Mavis does face things about herself in the course of the film, it is not always willingly or fully, and what she does with those insights, fleeting or burning though they may be, is another question. One of the late scenes, between Mavis and Matt's sister Sandra (Collette Wolfe), is unexpected and subtly stunning, turning many a film convention about romantic comedies and "restorative three-act" flicks on their head (as Patton Oswalt notes below). Juno is much more of a crowd-pleaser, and is perhaps a better film overall, but I have to admire Young Adult for the risks it takes. It is superior to Juno in at least one respect – in Juno, some of the dialogue is self-consciously quirky and overwritten (especially the Rainn Wilson scene), but everything is Young Adult feels much more grounded and earned.

(Here's Diablo Cody on Morning Edition. I'd also highly recommend checking out Patton Oswalt on The Treatment. It's mostly his interesting thoughts on standup comedy, but he also offers some extremely sharp observations about Young Adult, particularly the section on Mavis-as-vampire, when he has a revelation of his own thanks to host Elvis Mitchell. He also did a brief interview on Weekend Edition.)

13 Assassins: (Released in Japan in 2010, limited release abroad in 2011.) Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) is a cruel, sadistic young man, all the more so because he is the Shogun's brother and thus effectively untouchable. Worse still, he may ascend in power, making him far more dangerous. This dread situation leads a group of concerned lords to consider what would normally be unthinkable – assassination. They contact the veteran, honorable samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), who agrees with their assessment and starts assembling his team, including his nephew. Along the way, the team also picks up Koyata, an oddball hunter and forest guide who boasts of being a ladies' man and descended from samurai (shades of Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo). Shinzaemon's greatest obstacle is Naritsugu's chief samurai, the skilled and wise Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura). The two men respect each other, and each tries to dissuade the other from his path; Hanbei is not blind to Naritsugu's sins, but his interpretation of bushido entails that he must protect Naritsugu. Shinzaemon and Hanbei often wind up trying to anticipate and outthink each other, and this adds to the suspense. Takashi Miike has never been squeamish about violence, and he puts his sensibilities to good use here. Most of the film is one extended battle, but well-staged into smaller skirmishes, ebbs and flows, and success and reversals. The 13 also show some impressive ingenuity in attacking a superior force. Before that, Miike makes sure we absolutely hate the monstrous Naritsugu (especially given his penchant for maimings). Apparently, 13 Assassins is a remake of a 1963 film, but it also owes a heavy debt to Seven Samurai – although these elements falls firmly in the homage versus rip-off camp, and the overall film is suitably different. (We don't get to know all of the 13 the way we get to know all of the 7, though.) The 13 assassins of the title are all badasses who can take on superior numbers, but they're not superhuman, either (as is the style of some Chinese films), and the much larger force they face can overwhelm them, especially individually. The outcome is often uncertain, and the shifts in momentary advantage make it a captivating view. Basically, 13 Assassins is a well-staged, bloody action flick with more depth than usual. If you're a fan of jidaigeki and chanbara (ahem), you'll want to check this one out. Be warned that the original film runs 141 minutes, but the American release (the one I saw) runs 125 minutes. This excellent post explains what's missing (obviously, it's full of spoilers).

The Muppets: The first theatrically-released muppet movie since 1999's Pigs in Space is a very fun outing. There are some odd rights issues with Disney owning the muppets (but not the Sesame Street characters, who were barred from making cameos, alas), and some of the original muppeteers were wary or even critical of this project, spearheaded by co-writers Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller. While their criticisms are valid, they're ultimately about minor elements, and the overall film is a loving, reverential, successful muppet movie, very much in the spirit of the original TV series and films. It uses that old musical standby plot – we have to put on a show! Gary (Jason Segal), his muppet brother Walter, and Gary's fiancée Mary (Amy Adams) travel to Hollywood, discover that the abandoned Muppet Studios is going to be demolished by an evil oil baron, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, who plays it deadpan to hilarious effect – "maniacal laugh"). They seek out the far-flung muppets to reunite them to put on a show to save the studio. If you grew up with the muppets or just remember them fondly, there's plenty of nostalgia here, and the film wisely makes the muppets being forgotten part of the comedy (including a great scene with Rashida Jones about their abysmal "in" factor, and an 80s robot with a dial-up modem). However, kids and adults less familiar with the muppets should really enjoy this nonetheless, from central gags (traveling by map) to the spontaneous (and sometimes abrupt) musical numbers, to the multitude of smaller gags, jokes and celebrity cameos. (Jack Black, in a more extended role, is especially good.) There's really not much to criticize here. I wasn't crazy about the heavy focus on Walter, Gary's muppet brother, because I wanted to stick with the core muppets I know and love, but it made sense from a story point of view. Plus, Walter and Gary's odd and unexplained brotherhood (itself a nod to Kermit and Fonzie being "twins" in The Great Muppet Caper) does lead to the best song of the film, the glorious, Oscar-winning "Man or Muppet." Segal makes a good goofy leading man, while Amy Adams, who was recruited specifically for the film, hams it up a little much (no slight intended to Miss Piggy), but remains a perfect choice and wonderful as always.

(Here are the Fresh Air interviews with Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, and songwriter Bret McKenzie. Here's Rob Vaux's interview with Kermit, Miss Piggy and Walter.)

Drive: Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) has a love for strong, silent loners with no names, and Ryan Gosling is more than up for the task as the "Driver," a man who's a stunt driver by day and getaway driver by night. The opening scenes and later car chases, all with minimal dialogue, are gripping stuff. Gosling strikes up a friendship with a woman in his building, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and also bonds with her young son Benicio; there's definite chemistry there. However, she's married to Standard (Oscar Isaac), who's released from prison and really does seem to want to make the most of his new chance – only he owes money to the wrong people. Meanwhile, the Driver's chief mechanic and stunt coordinator Shannon (Bryan Cranston) is trying to get money to buy a race car for the two of them – which entails supplication to small-time but dangerous mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, cast against type) and Nino (Ron Perlman). Drive does feature some strong violence (especially later in the film) that will off-put some viewers, but it's a good character flick with a strong mood, memorable aesthetic and well-constructed action scenes. Just when we think we've got a handle on the enigmatic Driver, he'll do something to confound our understanding. He can be quite kind, especially to Irene and Benicio, but can also threaten extreme violence to others. Mulligan is superb as always, and both she and Gosling excel at the unspoken glances, shy smiles and occasional awkwardness that define their relationship. Brooks makes a memorable villain, and Christina Hendricks is good in a small but significant role. Drive didn't receive a large release and is worth checking out, although I found it overhyped in some quarters as the best movie of the year. What's great about Refn is that he lets many moments occur without dialogue, but he also milks some of them an awfully long time. He opens with slightly-illegible pink neon titles and the soundtrack is mostly 80s-style synth pop, which he occasionally cranks up to 11 and asks to carry the film, but it just doesn't have that sort of depth. Some of his hero's actions seem more dictated by an aesthetic of cool and desired plot developments than any plausible human motivation. Your, um, mileage may vary on all this. Whatever Drive is, it is memorable, and Refn delivers a strong aesthetic. I'm interested to check out more of his past work and his next project.

(Here's Nicholas Winding Refn on The Treatment, and discussing the songs.)

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol: The fourth film in the franchise is easily the best, mainly because of Brad Bird's taut direction and the casting of Simon Pegg, who can play geeky comic relief to Tom Cruise's brooding Mr. Cool. The team is rounded out by competing Mr. Cool plagued-by-guilt, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and the hot female spy with a grudge, Jane Carter (Paula Patton). Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is nothing new plot-wise, but it's very well-executed. The set-up smartly entails that the team has no support, is facing steep odds, and must innovate and adjust on the fly, while the dual-motivations of revenge and saving the world work fine to keep the plot moving. (The bad guy's evil plot is actually more plausible than usual.) Michael Nyqvist and Léa Seydoux make good cerebral and sexy villains respectively, and are somewhat more memorable than usual, as are Josh Holloway, Anil Kapoor, Tom Wilkinson and many of the other secondary characters. (Bosnian Miraj Grbic, playing the supposedly native Russian Bogdan, has a distractingly bad accent, though, at least to my ear.) However, you're mainly tuning in for the cool set pieces breaking into vaults, scaling buildings and pulling elaborate cons with impossible fantasy tech – plus some funny quips and sex appeal – and Brad Bird and the rest of the team deliver the goods. (Good suspense and comedy both depend on a great sense of timing.) Ghost Protocol can't touch the depth and nuance of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with which it contrasts sharply as a "spy" film, but this is a well-crafted popcorn movie.

(Here's Brad Bird on The Treatment.)

Incendies: (Normally translated as "Scorched," festival-released in 2010 and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film last year, limited release in the U.S. and Canada in 2011.) Wajdi Mouawad adapts his play of the same name with director Denis Villeneuve. Nawal Marwan (Ludna Azabal) an émigré to Quebec from an unnamed Middle-Eastern country (speculated to be Lebanon), experiences some uncertain incident while swimming at a public pool, apparently has a stroke, and stops speaking to anyone, even her young adult twins, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette). She dies shortly thereafter, but not before tasking one child with finding their missing brother and the other with finding their missing father (she's also addressed a letter to each missing person, which are to remain unopened until delivery). Up until that point, the twins didn't even know these relatives existed. Their mother told them almost nothing about her past. The twins set out to unravel the mystery, but they're working off scant information, and often encounter obstacles or complete dead-ends. Simon wants to stop, but Jeanne remains determined. They are assisted by their mother's employer and friend, Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard), who is apparently the most dedicated notary in history, telling Simon, "To a notary, Mr. Marwan, a promise is a sacred thing." The scenes from the present day are interwoven with flashbacks from their mother's life, and we see the life of war, religious strife and turmoil she endured. The film doles out information carefully and deliberately, and gradually, the twins begin to piece the story of their family together. The viewer, having seen the flashbacks, is typically a step ahead of them, but only a step. The flashback scenes can be harrowing (particularly one involving a bus), some of the revelations are disturbing, and the build of the film to its climax is quite effective. This isn't really a feel-good movie, but this mystery film with an emotional core has a strong element of hope. Above all, it's about facing hatred, coming to terms with the past, and crafting some form of forgiveness.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: At first glance, the idea of a 3-D documentary may seem odd, but the 3-D really does add to the viewing experience of this Werner Herzog documentary on the paintings in the "Chauvet Cave" in southern France. A mind-blowing 30,000–32,000 years old (there's some disagreement), they are painted on stone walls, and the artists often exploit the contours, knobs and valleys of the rock face. Most of the documentary is just Herzog shooting his camera at the pictures while music plays, and the viewer is invited to contemplate the art as one would in a museum. Because access to the cave is heavily restricted, this is the best view most people will ever get of these remarkable paintings. One of the standout works is a series of horses, with flowing "brushwork." It would be a good piece in any era, but it is staggering, humbling and inspiring to think that this was created by someone some 30,000 years ago; it's a powerful statement that art and the need to create are absolutely primal to the human condition. Herzog being Herzog, he wanders off on some odd, philosophical digressions, including one about albino alligators at the end, but long-time Herzog viewers will just chuckle and take it in stride.

(Here's Werner Herzog on The Business, speaking on a wide range of subjects, including being cast as a villain in a Tom Cruise action flick.)

The Tree of Life: Terrence Malick's latest film is Art House with a capital "A." Malick's work tends to be divisive, with most viewers either loving or hating his films. The Tree of Life is probably most similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Koyaanisqatsi and the films of Tarkovsky, so seek it out or avoid it accordingly. I found myself, as with The Thin Red Line and The New World, appreciating Malick's wonderful aesthetic sense and ability to craft cinematic tone poems, but frustrated by his seemingly willful rejection of narrative. The film centers on a family in Texas in the 1950s, a young couple, the O'Briens (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three young sons. Early on, we learn that one son has died, but it's not clear which one or exactly how it happened (maybe I blinked, but several reviewers seemed confused on this point, and at least a few misidentified the dead son). The film skips around in time, focusing mostly before the death, but also forward into the future to one of the sons as an architect (Sean Penn), and all the way back in time to the Big Bang and the later age of the dinosaurs. Malick seems to want to set the viewer adrift in unmoored memory and imagination, giving only a few bearings (similar perhaps to the first section of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, where impressions and personalities are clear and often striking, but plot and basic facts are often maddeningly obscured). Whatever else Malick is, he is ambitious, and here he tackles life, death, childhood and creation and existence itself. (Apparently, he is also releasing a longer version of this 139 minute feature.) Viewers may be seduced by this highly personal-yet-striving-to-be-universal film, or they may find it pretentious, self-indulgent and interminable. (Or somewhere in-between.) As usual with Malick, the cinematography is gorgeous and delights in the natural world, and the performances are grounded and naturalistic. ("Running barefoot through the grass while sunlight spills through the trees and voices whisper" is a characteristic scene.) The kids are all believable and real, and Pitt and Chastain are both superb. As the patriarch, Pitt is not unloving, but can be authoritarian and overdoes it with his boys, under the belief that he is toughening them up for an unfair world. Chastain as the mother is a much more nurturing, free spirit. The Tree of Life is not my favorite Malick film, and I'll be interested to see how my reaction shifts, if it does, when I see it again. I'm glad he's making films, but I'd prefer to see his considerable artistry augmenting narrative rather than rejecting it. (It's an unnecessary tradeoff, even if the weight of his foot remains with the tone poem aspects.) Malick is scheduled to shoot two more films soon, so we'll see what direction he goes next.