Friday, January 27, 2012

The Grey

"The Grey" is a geek show, a gruesome game of Ten Little Indians with nothing more on its mind (contrary to a number of reviews by critics who must have just filed out of Phil 101) than having wolves pick off Alaskan oil-rig workers one by one like Julie Brown's homecoming queen. To give the appearance of slightly loftier ambitions, they've paid Liam Neeson to lead the expedition, lecturing on lupine behavioral patterns like Clarissa explaining it all.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Miss Bala

Mexico's entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar tells the story of Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a young woman whose girlfriend is among those killed at a club party by henchmen of a druglord terrorizing the country's north. Laura, who has vague aspirations of entering the state's beauty pageant, sees too much and finds herself an unwilling participant in the gang's deadly trafficking operations.

Oscar Nominations Reaction

It's been a long time since every one of the Best Picture nominees has been a thumbs-down picture, but even with nine choices, this year's unappetizing menu is just such a least-of-evils dilemma.

If I had a ballot, I'd mark it for the halfway decent "Moneyball," or perhaps (as a protest vote) the trifling "Midnight in Paris."

Saturday, January 14, 2012


Mark Wahlberg stars as Chris Farraday, a Mark Wahlberg-esque Mark Wahlberg and top international smuggler who, not wanting to rot in stir with Pops now that he's married to Kate Beckinsale and has two athletic young sons, has gone straight installing alarm systems. But Kate's kid brother owes a whacked-out hood (Giovanni Ribisi, typecast) seven hundred large, so Chris has to make one last run to Panama for the huge score that'll solve everyone's problems. He enlists best bud Sebastian (Ben Foster) to reunite his team and watch over Kate and the kids (Sebby's also trying, but failing, "to bring you a show with no intoxication").

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Movies of 2011: Thumbs Up or Down?

Below, a complete list (in chronological order) of thumbs up and thumbs down votes on the 164 releases I saw in 2011. (As Eleanor Clift said on "The McLaughlin Group," "On this show you have to make a decision!")

The Worst Movies of 2011

Compiling a list of the worst feature films of the year is always a matter of, as Blanche said on "The Golden Girls," "deciding which of my many suitors to flatter with an invitation." The challenge is never to come up with ten titles; it's to whittle down a list that could be twice or thrice as long. In so doing, I've chosen bigger names, many from talented filmmakers and actors, some under discussion for awards. Rest assured, any number of smaller, independent films ("Puncture," "Restless," "The Women on the 6th Floor") could readily supplant any of the titles on this list.

Chockablock with gringo Spanglish, in L.A. but not of it, the sententious father-son immigrant movie "A Better Life" features one of the worse screenplays in memory and cartoonish lead performances pockmarked with stilted line readings. The overdetermined plot relies heavily on coincidence - secondary characters pop up all over town - and the picture is wet with ersatz pathos and inane life lessons.

The fatal flaw of "Cars 2" is that there's nothing clever or interesting about a world populated by cars. It's a bad idea and plays out like a 90-minute Chevron commercial. The sense of wonder found in Pixar's best films ("Up," "Wall-E") gives way to a pile of anthropomorphic junk overstuffed with headache-inducing audiovisual noise.

The hoot-worthy piece of garbage "The Flowers of War" marks a stunning comedown for the master Chinese melodramatist Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern," "To Live"). The brutal 1937 occupation of Nanking by Japanese forces - said to have involved two hundred thousand casualties - is presented as an opportunity for heroism for a fatuous, exasperating white man, so dense as to be virtually non-functional, played by Christian Bale in a tone-deaf performance worthy of the year's Worst Actor Razzie.

"The Help" is a truly nauseating exercise in self-congratulation aimed at those who find the card game War just a bit too complicated. There's the white heroine (Emma Stone, wearing an unbecoming perpetual sneer of righteous indignation), the saintly and all-knowing black maids reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg in "Clara's Heart," the cartoonish villain who gets her comeuppance about ten times, and a notorious plot point so disgusting and on-the-nose it tells all about the filmmakers' wholesale failure of wit and imagination. "The Help" is not revolutionary; it's just revolting.

It's hard to imagine what demographic Martin Scorsese's loathsome vanity picture "Hugo" is aimed at, except perhaps film preservationists. It's totally inappropriate for young people, with its nightmarish visions, sadistic gendarmes, snarling Dobermans, abiding misanthropy, and the constant threat of death and dismemberment. This material is temperamentally totally ill-suited to Scorsese, who stretches it beyond the breaking point to an insufferable 127 minutes.

The Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts bomb "Larry Crowne" exudes the fetid stench of Nia Vardalos from every pore. In her cringe-inducing script, not one character's behavior, not one line of dialogue is recognizable as human. A career low for all involved.

Wayne Wang's cursory and emotionally uninvolving "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" is so deadly dull it makes "Lust, Caution" look like an action thriller. For two hours, these gals babble on about sisterhood, sacrifice and God knows what else (thankfully, Morpheus did visit). What I'll remember most is Hugh Jackman's cameo, perhaps the most bizarre in film history. Apropos of nothing, he waltzes in, seemingly from another movie, reads a few lines, and waltzes back out.

There was a longer line for refunds than for popcorn at Terrence Malick's deliberately impenetrable and audience-hating "The Tree of Life" ("audience-hating" is also a good word for Jean-Luc Godard; wild horses couldn't pay me - block that metaphor - to sit through "Film Socialisme"). The audience didn't pay for Malick's philosophical musings; they paid to see Brad Pitt and Sean Penn - then raced for the exits half an hour later.

Precocious children were the common bond shared by the two worst movies of the year: "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" and "Real Steel."

The two-hour-plus, fingernails-on-a-chalkboard torturefest "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is about Oskar, a logorrheic, enervating child (played by Thomas Horn), whose father (Tom Hanks) dies in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The tragedy is used as a set-up for a wild goose chase around New York, in which the motivations of the sketched characters Oskar meets are mystifying and their receptiveness to the insufferable boy is risible. All we want is for the twerp to shut up for two seconds, a prayer that goes unanswered. This hateful, exploitive pile of effluvium wallows in the details of 9/11 almost pornographically, endless replaying Hanks' increasingly frantic voicemails and littering the screen with images of bodies falling from the sky. On all levels, it's a movie to hate with passion.

Like Horn, Dakota Goyo, the young star of "Real Steel," made my skin crawl (even his name makes you want to punch his lights out). But he's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this most jaw-droppingly cynical movie in recent memory, a true ten-ton turkey. Dakota - hack, ptui - plays (with the smugness of a kid who knows the script's stacked everything his way) the abandoned son of Hugh Jackman, who in the movie's future world trains machines for the supposedly popular sport of robot boxing (and I thought "Cars 2" was a bad idea!). The two go all in on an undersized, early-generation bot who ends up defeating all comers, including the reigning world champion, a behemoth called Zeus. Throughout, you pray inwardly that the actors won't do that cheesy thing, won't say that cheesy line; they do, every time. Along the way, Jackman proves he can be a really shitty actor when he puts his mind to it. The defining memory is of the crudest product placement in film history - including one scene with four different cans of Dr Pepper. You almost have to respect corruption like that.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Great Movie Performances of 2011

2011 was an incredibly fertile year for great performances by actresses in leading roles. I'll get to them last.

2011: The Year in Documentary Films

Documentary has always been my favorite category of film. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's funnier, sadder, richer. The year 2011 in documentaries began with the release of a beautiful restoration of Lionel Rogosin's "On the Bowery," which has just a wisp of plot to connect loosely the stories of the alcoholic bowerymen it follows. Their faces - faces of resignation, of death in life - remain indelibly imprinted.