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Friday, October 21, 2011

2011 Catch-Up: Beginners, Harry Potter, The Help, Drive, Jane Eyre, Moneyball

My movie reviews have been woefully lacking as of late, but I have seen several 2011 movies and wanted to give my opinions.  Here are 6 movies I've recently seen,  all extremely different, and I think worth seeing in their own way.


Beginners is a low-key, whimsical movie about loss and love among a depressed man (Ewan McGregor), his new love interest (Melanie Laurent), and his recently out-of-the-closet father (Christopher Plummer).  I saw this back in July, enjoyed it, and yet it's a bit hard for me to write about now.  Perhaps that's not the best sign.  The movie switches back and forth between  present, recent past, and distant past. The flashbacks are definitely the more interesting part of the movie.  As much as I like Melanie Laurent (she was the second best part of Inglorious Basterds), the love story is significantly less interesting than the family story.  Worth seeing though, and it's looking like Christopher Plummer may be a very strong contender for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

Grade: B-

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

I'm a HP fan, but not a superfan.  I've read all of the books exactly once and seen all of the movies exactly once.  I don't freak out if the movies are not exactly like the books-I actually don't think that is a filmmaker's job at at all.  So now that the series is over, how did the do wrapping it up?

While the movies tend to blend together a bit, the final movie went out with a pretty good bang.  It was certainly an improvement over the belabored whining of the characters in the Deathly Hallows Part I.  It ties up the loose ends, and even gives us a peek into the future.  There is definitely something missing, though.  Harry Potter is fun because of the humor and childlike wonder at the magic.  The Deathly Hallows is extremely dark, and I couldn't help but miss some of the whimsical fun from the earlier movies.  And yet, who can resist the great British cast doing their best in the final installment?  Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman?  Yes please.  It was a great series of books, and on the whole pretty fun movies as well.

Grade: B

The Help

An old-fashioned tearjerker made from a hugely successful novel, there are many ways this movie could have failed, and yet it remains highly watchable and engaging, for two main reasons:  Author Kathryn Stockett, who wrote a really entertaining story, and the amazing cast of actresses who bring the characters to life.  Where to start?  Viola Davis gives her all, which is a hell of a lot, in the key role of Aibileen, the role which should be the focus of the movie.  Emma Stone is also really charming in the role of Skeeter which (unfortunately) is the focus of the movie.  My other favorite performance is probably by the best breakout actress of the year, Jessica Chastain, as Celia Foote.  Did I mention Octavia Spencer, Sissy Spacek, or Bryce Dallas Howard?  All could be viewed as over the top, yes, but mostly in the right ways for a shoot for the rafters tearjerker.   Allison Janney, who I usually love, is the only actress who didn't quite convince me.  Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a strong directorial vision behind these women.  The movie was given to a novice director, and he seems a little overly tied to the book, bringing in every subplot as he translates his frend's book.

So the movie is entertaining and I definitely shed a tear, but what of its much-discussed racial subtext?  It's had a lot of criticism (and defense) for its take on the civil rights movement.  I don't have a problem with a white woman deciding to tell a story set in this time.  I think she felt called to do so, and there is obvious heart and passion in her work.  My main issue with the movie is its portrayal of Southern racism.  The movie purports to show the terrible treatment of Southern maids, yet its criticism falls almost entirely on Hilly, who is shown as a racist bully with a small cadre of followers.  The rest of the characters are either kind to the maids (Skeeter, Celia, Hilly's mother), or eventually change their hearts (Skeeter's mother).  At a time of intense hatred, division, and violence in the South, this seems to be a little naive.  Instead of showing segregation as a symptom and relic of slavery and a racist past, it almost seems more like a way for a few meanies to show their hatred.  As much as I love Emma Stone, Skeeter also seems a little too good to be true.  Isn't she a little obviously a stand-in for the author herself?  Is she a believable Southern girl of 1963?  Not quite to me.

All in all, The Help is a very entertaining movie, gives some juicy roles to some great actresses, and does have points to make about the past.  Unfortunately, it's afraid to look that past squarely in its face.

Grade: B


Perhaps the most opposite movie to The Help.  Drive is a movie about a loner (Ryan Gosling) who makes his living as a Hollywood stunt driver.  He also makes an illegal living as a driver for those carrying out nocturnal heists.  Then, he gets involved with his neighbor (an excellent Carey Mulligan), her young son, and eventually, her ex-con husband.  That's when things start to go very wrong for him.

For the first half of Drive, I was transfixed.  Gosling is awesome in the taciturn role, further cementing his perch as the best young actor currently working.  European Nicolas Winding Refn shoots and imbibes the movie with such a sense of obvious cool, it's spellbinding.  It's also not a movie afraid to take its time setting up its story.  Then comes the second half, where I was still transfixed, but also a little repulsed.  That's because the movie gets brutally violent and doesn't really let up.  After a while, I wondered at the point.  The violence reminded me a bit of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, yet that movie seemed to have more of a philosophical outlook that Drive lacks.  Drive seems to be using the violence more for artistic affect.  Cinephiles should definitely see this movie for its masterful acting, directing, and mood, but I would have preferred if this hugely talented director had a little more intellectual depth.

Grade: B+

Jane Eyre

Did we need another version of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte's classic gothic romance that has been filmed umpteen times?  Perhaps not, but when you have a talented director and a great central pair, it still proves a highly engaging tale including such irresistible elements as a lost orphan, a crazy woman in the attic, a proto-feminist heroine, and repressed love.

The young Mia Wasikowska (so good in The Kids Are Alright) again proves her talent in the central role.  She is the right age and the right temperament for Jane, and she's not afraid to play the repressed emotions close to the chest.  Michael Fassbender is every bit her equal as Rochester.  A couple of minor quibbles with the movie.  It skips quickly over Jane's younger days, which are important for story development.  It also doesn't really re-imagine the story in any especially new way.  Nevertheless, worth seeing for a good story well told and well acted.

Grade: B


Does a movie about statistics sounds exciting?  Moneyball is a baseball movie that doesn't fixate on talented players, but rather on the statistical amalgamations of the team as a whole.  And it does a riveting job at tying you up in this world, where Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) throws out conventional wisdom and ties his team to the statistical theories of young economist Peter Brand (a surprisingly subdued Jonah Hill).

The movie kind of tells two stories.  One is the actual baseball season, the use of statistics, and how the characters react to this.  The other is the personal story of Billy, who was himself drafted into Major Leagues and turning out as a major disappointment.  Brad Pitt is terrific in the role, and I expect he'll be getting an Oscar nomination for this.  Jonah Hill is also great in his quietly funny role.  The movie also has quite a bit of heart, even if it seems a little strange to root for the guys who look at players in terms of numbers rather than as human beings.

It's a movie about change, risks, choices, and payoffs, and it's very very good.

Grade: A-

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