Thursday, December 8, 2011


As promised by its visionary, ludicrously talented director Tarsem Singh, Immortals is Caravaggio meets Fight Club, a hyper-stylized, uber-bloody take on Greek God mythology, shot 100% green-screen/CGI-style ala 300.  Henry Cavill is appropriately chiseled as the hero (he should make for a solid Superman) and Mickey Rourke sank his teeth into the main villain role with greasy, nasty gusto.  But first and foremost, the film is an opportunity for Tarsem to let loose his wild, baroque visual sensibilities on his largest budget yet, which makes for some of the most striking imagery you’ll see all year on a big-screen.

Mike Mills’s Beginners is a wonderful little film filled with a lot of honesty and tears.  Christopher Plummer delivers an excellent, heart-warming performance as a 75 year old father who decides to come out of the closet and take up with a muuuuch younger boyfriend, which has Best Supporting Actor written all over it.  Great chemistry between Ewan McGreggor and Melanie Laurent (who delights with some casual, peek-a-boo nudity) meshes with a generous screenplay, while the quirky, stylish direction felt fresh at every moment.
Directed with his usual brand of cold, clinical detachment, Steven Soderbergh’s riveting virus thriller Contagion is a thinking person’s horror film, a genre piece that defies genre in more than a few ways, never giving into cheap Hollywood sensationalism or resorting to hackneyed plot twists.  With basically everyone in Hollywood in a juicy supporting role, Soderbergh surgically races through Scott Z. Burns’s brilliant screenplay, never resting for a moment, aided immeasurably by Cliff Martinez’s pulsating electronic score.  This is procedural cinema at its finest – no bloat, no bull-shit, just the facts – so if you’re into this sort of thing (Zodiac, All the President’s Men, Shattered Glass), it’ll knock you sideways and leave you wanting more.

Leave it to Martin Scorsese to show everyone how to truly utilize the 3-D format so that the medium actually feels pushed – Hugo is a technical masterpiece for all involved (Robert Richardson’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s production design are both Oscar worthy).  I’ll admit to  becoming slightly bored with Hugo’s plight at about the half-way point; had the film been a tight 90 minutes with some of the redundant bits cut out it would have been more successful.  But what truly makes the film special is its final act, which is nothing short of an ode to cinema itself and a cry for film preservation, reminding us why movies are important and why they’ve been such an integral part of our collective society for the last 100 plus years.

If Andrew Niccol’s heady and entertaining sci-fi thriller In Time doesn’t entirely make good on it’s incredible premise (time has replaced cash as society’s currency; people are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25 and die when their “time” has run out) then that doesn’t stop it from being leagues above most genre entries.  Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried generate sexy sparks as lovers on the run from thugs and corrupt cops in a dystopian near-future, with Cillian Murphy making for an excellent nemesis as a potentially sympathetic “Time Keeper” who thinks that Timberlake is guilty of a crime that he didn’t commit.  The look of In Time is sleek and shiny (the endlessly sharp and stylish cinematography is from the legendary Roger Deakins), and it’s clear that Niccol, a clever writer who often feels too cool for school (The Truman Show, Gattaca, Lord of War), is progressing as a director of action and sensation.

Leonardo Dicaprio gives a customarily intense performance as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s shadowy and mysterious biopic J. Edgar, a film that refuses to be something that many people clearly expected it to be.  Less concerned with the formation of the FBI and more interested in the personal relationships that shaped Hoover’s bent and deeply troubled psyche, Dustin Lance Black’s info-packed screenplay effortlessly oscillates back and forth between young and old J. Edgar, showing how his mother (Judy Dench, terrific) and life-partner (the perfectly cast Armie Hammer) influenced everything that went on in his life.  Tom Stern’s painterly, desaturated cinematography (the film almost feels like it’s in black and white) is elegant and restrained, while Eastwood’s gentle and surprisingly sensitive direction takes him in new directions as a filmmaker.

Simply put, if you can’t find time in your life to see and enjoy something like The Muppets, well, then there’s no helping you.  A total blast from start to finish, Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, and James Bobbin have taken all that you remember and love about the adorable gang of puppets and have brought them into a new generation, for old fans to fall in love with all over again, and for new fans to become familiar with and develop attachments.  Filled to the brim with smiles, songs, self-reflexive humor, amusing celebrity cameos, and the effervescent Amy Adams, The Muppets will delight anyone who comes into contact with it, unless of course you’re a total ass-hole with zero sense of childlike wonder and fantasy.

Don’t be fooled by the sunny, chirpy exterior of Jesse Peretz’s dark comedy My Idiot Brother – this is a film that relishes in showcasing dysfunctional people.  Paul Rudd is fantastic as Ned, a Jr. Lebowski sort of guy, blazed-out completely, totally na├»ve to all that’s around him, with the capacity to upset and annoy his three totally messed up sisters (Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks, and Zooey Deschanel) to the point where each one takes him in for a few days and then eventually throws him out.  This is a smart and silly comedy, a film that has a lot of heart buried in its darkly layered fibers.

Take Shelter is a shattering, devastating work of American art, written and directed by the mega-talented Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories), and a film that I greatly anticipate re-watching as soon as it arrives on Blu Ray.  Michael Shannon again demonstrates that he is one of the best actors currently living, delivering a performance of intense, sometimes overwhelming power and emotion, portraying a psychologically fractured man (or is he?) who is convinced that the storm to end all storms is brewing, and that life as we know it is coming to an end.  Jessica Chastain is quietly fantastic as his skeptical but loving wife, and by the film’s poetic and haunting finale, you’ll be convinced that you just watched a masterpiece, the sort of film that could only come from a truly original place.

What’s so special about Alexander Payne’s wonderful but sad new dramedy The Descendants is how all of the humor and pathos comes from a real and honest place, and how nothing feels contrived, fake, or nonsensical. George Clooney is great as a father of two girls who is forced to actually be the parent he hasn’t been in years after his wife is critically injured in a boating accident.  What follows between Clooney and his two daughters (the magnificent Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) is nothing short of phenomenal; genuine emotions are explored, old wounds are re-opened and examined, and life is shown for what is it – precious, unpredictable , and totally out of our control.

The Ides of March is a sharp-as-a-tack political thriller, the best John Grisham thriller that doesn’t bear the Grisham name, more concerned with being a ruthless piece of high-minded entertainment than an Oscar-winning expose on modern politics.  Ryan Gosling continues his incredible run of engaging performances as an idealistic campaign strategist for George Clooney’s presidential candidate, who may or may not be swayed to the other side by the reptilian Paul Giamatti.  Clooney’s direction gets better as the film progresses, culminating in one of the best scenes of the year, pitting Gosling against Clooney in the basement kitchen of a hotel – in this one scene you see just how good of a director that Clooney has become.