Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 05, 2012

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.

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