201-203: Sister, Moonrise, Flynn

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201: Your Sister’s Sister

Mark Duplass is on a roll lately. After directing the excellent drama Jeff, Who Lives at Home and starring in Safety Not Guaranteed he also played one of the leads in Your Sister’s Sister, Lynn Shelton’s newest feature. Duplass again creates a very likable guy, Jack, who has some serious issues to deal with. He decides to retreat to a cabin in the woods owned by his best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt). What he doesn’t know is that the sister of his friend, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), is also there to work out her own problems. Hannah and Jack strike up a relationship that culminates in a situation that is extremely uncomfortable for all involved. Your Sister’s Sister is, however, a sweet drama about recognizing each other’s flaws and forgiving them for it, however selfish their behavior might be. Highly recommended if you want a small drama about real people with real feelings.

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202: Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson is a very divisive director. Ever since his first feature, Bottle Rocket, people have been debating whether his movies are works of art of just exercises in art direction. Anderson’s movies are often clinical manifestations of a very exacting brain. They present delightful worlds in which the characters are allowed to play to their heart’s content. His newest entry, Moonrise Kingdom, is no different and this time Anderson invented an entire island for his characters to play in. Everything revolves around two kids who run away from home to start a new life elsewhere. This puts the entire island on high alert, which results in funny situations and poignant drama. I liked Moonrise Kingdom a lot, but I also felt that it was really hard to get through the highly polished look of the film. Anderson is always a meticulous filmmaker, but this time he has taken his control of, in particular, camera movements to another level and that made the movie feel very artificial in many places. I didn’t get that feeling at all while watching his, in my opinion, best movies The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited. I still recommend people seeing Moonrise Kingdom, if only for the top-notch performances of the cast.

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203: Being Flynn

Robert De Niro’s career has in the last decade not been what it once was, but you don’t need me to tell you that. So it is nice to see that once in a while he wants to step outside his safety zone and take on a role that takes a little more effort than Meet the Parents or Analyze This. In Being Flynn he plays Jonathan Flynn, a self-proclaimed genius writer, but in reality nothing more than a con man who has neglected his family. The real main character, however, is Nick Flynn (played by Paul Dano), his son, who he has not seen in years. Nick also wants to be a writer, but struggles with the notion that he is not cut out for the job. One day Jonathan reaches out to Nick, which throws Nick for a loop. Does he want his father in his life, or does he want him to leave him alone. This predicament only worsens when Jonathan shows up at the homeless shelter where Nick works sometimes. Being Flynn is a movie about a very dysfunctional relationship between a father and a son with De Niro playing one of the biggest assholes in his career. Being Flynn could have been a very powerful movie, but it lacks the drive to make us connect more with the main character. Dano is fin as Nick, but the problem is that Nick is not somebody you want to root for. You want to give him a swift kick in the butt to get him to pick up his life and stop whining. While the performances are fine all-round, this casts such a large shadow over it all that just can’t be overcome.

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189-193: Bruges, Cliffhanger, Trouble, Chernobyl, Instead

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189: In Bruges

In Bruges looked like just another action movie to me. Even the involvement of one of my favorite actors, Brendan Gleeson, wasn’t enough to get me to watch it. But during the years following its initial release more and more people came out of the woodwork to confess their mistake in dismissing In Bruges in the manner I did. I decided to give in and give In Bruges a chance and what do you know… it is brilliant. So incredibly not what I was expecting. Central to the story are two British criminals who are sent to Bruges in Belgium to lay low for a while after a tragic accident. There they have to wait for their boss to call with instructions. What seems to be a regular crime story with two thugs spending time in one of the most dreamy cities in Europe turns into an existential fight for survival and redemption. There are a lot of great performances in In Bruges. Colin Farrell is brilliant as the petty criminal who acts more like a bored child than a professional hitman and Brendan Gleeson is masterful as ever as the hardened criminal who is trying to keep everything together somehow. Their chemistry starts to build throughout the movie to culminate in a sequence that is truly harrowing. Martin McDonagh wrote and directed a movie that will stay with you for a long time. I loved it. See it.

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190: Cliffhanger

It was a Saturday night, I was tired, so I went and stood in front of my DVD cabinet to find a movie that wouldn’t challenge me one bit. The result was Cliffhanger, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) I had not seen in fifteen years or so. And with good reason, because this movie turned out to be even more dumb than I remembered. The screenplay is so incredibly full of holes and implausibilities that it took all the fun of the action out of it for me. I think the whole reason why I (and many with me) look back fondly on Cliffhanger is the opening sequence, which is as horrendously suspenseful as ever. If you have anything resembling vertigo I urge you to skip the opening sequence and pick up what happened there from the rest of the movie (that shouldn’t be too hard). When the screenplay turns out to be so incredibly dumb, is there still something to be enjoyed in Cliffhanger? Sure, the action is decent throughout the movie, the acting is deliciously over the top and the scenery is beautiful (actually shot in Italy, not Colorado). Cliffhanger is a clear example of just about every action movie made in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: big brutish heroes taking on mindless groups of evil doers with lots of explosions and extravagant stunts. It’s just that sometimes one movie hits it out of the park and the other takes a walk. And yes I am talking about Die Hard being the slugger, not Cliffhanger.

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191: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve is a sports movie of the most common denominator. And I so wanted this to be another Moneyball, a smart look at the business of baseball and what goes on behind the scenes of my favorite sport. But what I got was a melodramatic mess about an old baseball scout (Clint Eastwood) who doesn’t want to accept he is losing his grip on his job and his estranged daughter (Amy Adams) who wants to be close to her dad if only he wasn’t such an insufferable asshole. Trouble with the Curve is in fact the polar opposite of Moneyball. It goes out of its way to tell us that the new baseball (as seen in Moneyball and now used around the league) is much worse than the old school way of finding talent. Therefore everybody who has anything to do with computers and spreadsheets is presented as oafish and all the old guard is portrayed as lovable and eccentric. In addition to this incessant polarization the screenplay takes a turn for the worse when a telegraphed red herring from the first act is used to finish the movie in the cheapest way possible. During that first act of Trouble with the Curve I thought I was dealing with a movie that understood baseball, but it turned out it didn’t know anything about it at all. I guess I’ll have to grab my copy of Moneyball and erase Trouble with the Curve from my baseball loving brain.

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192: Chernobyl Diaries

As far as useless found footage movies go Chernobyl Diaries is right up there with the worst of them. We are witness to a group of young people traveling around Europe and ending up in the Ukraine to participate in a tour of the area surrounding Chernobyl, the site of the most horrendous accident involving nuclear materials. Their focus is Pripyat, a village where everybody had to drop what they were doing to escape the evil that was spouting from the reactor. Now, supposedly, the radiation levels are low enough to go wandering around the village (which they aren’t by the way in real life). Of course their visit isn’t without peril, because when they want to leave the village they discover they are not alone, something has been left behind. Chernobyl Diaries comes from the brain of Oren Peli, who also fathered the Paranormal Activity series. As with so many other found footage crap movies, Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t think it’s necessary to actually convincingly tell us a story that could be called found footage. The camera angles are all circumstantial and in no way believable like the pioneers (e.g. The Blair Witch Project) were. Let’s hope Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t spawn a load of sequels as Paranormal Activity did and still does. That would be truly disastrous.

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193: You Instead (Tonight You’re Mine)

Having been to quite a few music festivals in my younger days (wow, I sound old) I can get behind the vibe of You Instead (or Tonight You’re Mine, I’m not sure which is the right title), David Mackenzie’s latest feature. He actually filmed the movie at a music festival and that lends it a tremendous amount of goodwill. Goodwill that is much needed, since the screenplay is nearly devoid of anything interesting. It is a love story about two musicians, one British and one American, who are handcuffed to each other by some mysterious festival patron. They will have to spend the rest of the weekend, their gigs and day-to-day activities chained to each other. Of course something beautiful blooms between the two of them and everything will be all right in the end. You see, nothing special. The charm of You Instead comes from the images and situations Mackenzie chooses. The drunk, muddy, stoned get-together around a campfire, the sweaty tents filled with thumping music and those quiet mornings when you try to think of a reason why you drank so much the night before (believe me, I’ve been there). This was actually the only reason why I continued watching You Instead… nostalgia. At least You Instead has a lot more life to it than Mackenzie’s last feature Perfect Sense, which I found excruciatingly boring and completely forgettable.

186-187: Back to the Future I & II

Back to the Future

Back to the Future was one of the first movies I clearly remember seeing on the big screen. It was the actually the first movie the new movie theater in my hometown screened. Before that we had to go to the next big town and we just didn’t have the time and the money to do that in my family. With the new theater the next phase in my life began and it started with Back to the Future. From that point on I could go to the movies whenever I wanted to and I assure you that was what I did… a lot. It is therefore no surprise that Back to the Future occupies a very special spot in my heart. And I am glad to say that after nearly twenty-eight years it still holds up. Though some of the humor and visual effects don’t hold up so good Back to the Future makes up a lot of the wear and tear with a tremendous amount of good old-fashioned fun. This movie is bursting at the seams with situations and performances that are totally engaging like the diner scene where Marty meets his father for the first time or the confrontation between Biff and George that seals the deal for Marty. Or the entire character of Doc Brown, for that matter. I return to Back to the Future on a regular basis, just like someone will return to their favorite ice cream to feel better.

Back to the Future Part II

Back to the Future Part II isn’t regarded as a very good sequel. I happen to like it, though. I like the way the uppity tone from the first movie is turned upside down to create an atmosphere that is totally menacing. From the moment Marty arrives in the future you know this is not going to end well. True, the catalyst that sets off the adventure (the sports almanac) isn’t the strongest in the world, but it gets the job done. It sets in motion a mind-boggling time travel adventure that takes us to several of our favorite moments from the original movie, but now shown from a slightly different perspective. It is great to analyze how these scenes were transformed and reenacted from different viewpoints. It is uncanny how Zemeckis managed to do this. I look back on Back to the Future Part II like I do on Alien3, I know it is flawed, but I recognize the way it expanded on the original material and enriched it. I would even go so far as to say that I like Part II better than Part III, because I never actually understood the whole appeal of moving the story to western times. But that’s one for a future piece.

185: Hope Springs

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Marriage is hard. I can tell you this from experience. It is a delicate game of give and take that can be screwed up far too easily. Kay (Meryl Streep) knows this all too well. She has been married for over three decades, but over the years anything resembling passion has been replaced by routine and more importantly… distance. Her husband, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), doesn’t see the problem. He gets his breakfast every morning, is home for dinner and falls asleep in front of the television. Kay and Arnold have become roommates instead of a married couple and Kay wants some of their old life back. She arranges an intense therapy session and tells Arnold she is going, whether he wants to come or not. Along the course of the therapy sessions, led by Dr. Feld (a surprisingly restrained Steve Carell), secrets are revealed and problems are laid bare.

What Hope Springs wants to tell us is that when we want a marriage to work there has to be passion and communication. Without those two elements there is no use in staying married. Even more important is the message that forcing these two elements is often even worse. Both Kay and Arnold try to force their love for each other in extreme ways and both times they fail. They (and we) come to the conclusion that love is organic and inexplicable and that it can’t be coerced by way of some strawberries or candles. It probably helps a little, but if the foundation isn’t there, forget about it.

Hope Springs is surprisingly candid about all these revelations and this is mostly due to the brilliant performances of the central cast. I connected a lot with Jones, mostly because I recognize some of myself in him (and vowed to change some of those traits after seeing the film). Streep channels her age perfectly and shows us a vulnerable side that is heartbreaking. Carell rounds out the trio with a performance we have not seen often from him. He never loses his cool and moderates the conversation between Kay and Arnold instead of dictating it with his usual shenanigans.

I had already heard through the grapevine that Hope Springs was a lot better than the poster or trailer made it out to be. This is true, but there are certainly problems with Hope Springs. Director David Frankel’s (The Devil Wears Prada) incessant use of songs is so overtly manipulative that it becomes almost expected that we get Annie Lennox’s Why? blaring from the speakers when our heroes need to work out something crucial in their relationship. Luckily the performances overcome Frankel’s constant search for melodrama by not giving in to his wishes. Streep and Jones play their parts so down to earth that no amount of musical melodrama could tear them down. Maybe that’s why Hope Springs works so well.

178-180: Safety Not Guaranteed, Innkeepers, Fear and Loathing

178: Safety Not Guaranteed

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Quirky indie movies are a dime a dozen, most of them self-important exercises in low-budget moping. But sometimes an indie surfaces that manages to find the strength to raise itself above the crowd and find something interesting to say. One of these is Safety Not Guaranteed, a great science fiction fantasy drama about people searching for meaning. Once again Mark Duplass manages to give us an engaging performance (earlier this year also in Your Sister’s Sister). He plays Kenneth, a man who thinks he has built a time machine. Young journalist Darius finds a classified by Kenneth asking for a companion on his experiments. Darius (Aubrey Plaza) convinces her editor to investigate further. Under the ‘supervision’ of Jeff (New Girl’s Jake Johnson), Darius and researcher Arnau (Karan Soni) go to find the mysterious man who must be out of his mind. Once arrived things start to take a turn for the absurd as everybody starts to take the opportunity to work out their own problems. The heart of the story is the relationship between Kenneth and Darius. Plaza and Duplass really hit it off and sparks fly every second they spent together. It is an endearing look at the lives of two people searching for more. On the side there are the adventures of Jeff and Arnau, both of which are funny, but ultimately not very important to the central storyline. The whole, however, is a beautiful mix of science fiction, drama and comedy. I totally recommend watching Safety Not Guaranteed, even if you don’t like independent cinema.

179: The Innkeepers

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Deconstructionist horror movies are nothing new. Earlier this year I reviewed the excellent The Cabin in the Woods and last year I loved Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Now I can add The Innkeepers to that list, while this last addition to the genre does the deconstruction a little more subtle.  Everything in The Innkeepers revolves around the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is about to close for good. Two custodians (Claire and Luke) are charged with taking care of the inn during its final weekend. Legend has it that the inn is haunted, or so Luke tells Claire. He is supposedly interested in the inn’s sordid history and has even devoted a website to it. During the weekend, however, strange things start to happen and old guests turn up to stay for one more night. Claire and Luke go looking for signs of the haunting, but in the end may be getting more than they bargained for. Director Ti West ramps up the tension from the beginning and doesn’t let up until the end when things start to really get out of hand. Along the way he inserts a surprising amount of humor into his screenplay which alleviates some of the more standard tropes of the haunted house genre. There is a tongue-in-cheek quality to The Innkeepers that isn’t overtly visible. I was often glued to the edge of my seat. Not because the movie was so scary or something like that, but because West paints a great picture that will stick with you. I recommend searching out The Innkeepers.

180: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

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Terry Gilliam adapting a Hunter S. Thompson novel is a match made in heaven. Gilliam’s movies always feel like fever dream with all its wild imagery and brilliant production design. Thompson’s famous novel about a weekend in Vegas at the end of the carefree hippy era filled with drugs, alcohol and other such debauchery fits perfectly with Gilliam’s visual exuberance. From the very first moment we know we are in for quite a ride. We see Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro speeding down a deserted highway on their way to Vegas. They are clearly operating under the influence of several types of drug a normal person wouldn’t think of taking, let alone combining. Once in Vegas the shenanigans don’t stop. Soon the drug use starts to take its toll and the situation turns more grim by the minute. This change is reinforced when we are witness to Del Toro intimidating the waitress (Ellen Barkin) at a diner on the wrong side of Vegas. It is an incredibly uncomfortable scene in an already uncomfortable movie. While the movie is more concerned with the drug use than the political underpinnings of Thompson’s novel I admire Gilliam’s courage to take on a project like this. I love Fear and Loathing for what it is: a crazy ride hopefully none of us will ever have to endure.

171-173: ParaNorman, Cosmopolis, Skyfall

171: ParaNorman

With ParaNorman, animation company Laika has made themselves a force to be reckoned with. After the flawed, but charming Corpse Bride and the downright awesome Coraline they have shown that they can tackle grown-up while simultaneously entertaining young and old alike. ParaNorman fits perfectly within that description. This story about a young boy who can see the dead wandering around is a touching story about being different and embracing that ways that make us unique and interesting. It goes to places where you never thought it could go. It plays with your expectations and several times gives the audience something to think about. All the while we are treated to beautiful animation, perfect pacing and hilarious comedy. The pacing comes to the for when we are treated to quiet character moments followed by raucous action fun and never do the transitions feel jarring. The comedy is everywhere. From tiny moments between Norman and the ghosts to the zombie invasion in the village that suddenly takes a turn for the unexpected. I loved ParaNorman from start to finish. In fact, I felt this would be a special movie when I watched the first trailer. Highly recommended and a certain contender for my top ten for 2012.

172: Cosmopolis

David Cronenberg is more and more removing himself from the type of movies we have come to know him for. No more body horror for him, but something that resembles psychological horror. Earlier this year I watched A Dangerous Method, which was not a movie I could get behind (for whatever reason). Now it is Cosmopolis, a movie that I want to like so bad, but am having a hard time doing so. Cosmopolis, based on a novel by Don DeLillo, is about a young man who wants nothing more than a haircut. The problem is that his regular barber shop is on the other side of Manhattan and the streets are about to be overrun by protesters who want nothing more than to lynch our hero. This is because he is a very wealthy and successful investment banker and that makes him a prime target for them. On top of all that he sees his empire crumble in front of his eyes during the day. It is a strange journey on which he almost never leaves his limo and meets several people he has conversations with.

I stress this last bit, because most of Cosmopolis consists of conversations of the highest sort. Like A Dangerous Method, you really have to keep your attention with the film or else you will lose chunks of relevant (and sometimes not so relevant) dialogue. I like these kinds of movies where dialogue plays a big part, but it usually takes me a couple of viewings to grasp the whole picture. Can I recommend Cosmopolis? That’s a difficult question. It all depends on your willingness to have your ears do more of the work than your eyes. For the most past I like the direction Cronenberg has been going in the last few years (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are brilliant movies), but I also wish he would once in a while go back to the more outlandish subjects he tackled in movies like The Fly and eXistenZ. Who doesn’t love some freakish body horror every so often?

173: Skyfall

James Bond has never been a slam dunk for me. I can appreciate the action sequences and the strange situations Bond finds himself in on a regular basis. But there always is a nagging resistance in the back of my mind that prevents me from loving these movies the way a lot of other people do. This new incarnation has been up and down for me. I liked Casino Royale, but that was more due to the bold turn the series took. I was stunned that I was incredibly bored by Quantum of Solace. Now we have the third Daniel Craig James Bond movie, titled Skyfall, and it falls somewhere in between these two earlier installments. I liked Skyfall, I truly did, but I constantly got the feeling that we have seen it all before. How many times have we seen a list of secret agents get into the wrong hands? How many times have we seen people hacking into computers to get their way? How many times have we seen the bad guy be captured (willing or not) to hedge some nefarious scheme? It has all been done before. Maybe this is because Bond has been around for fifty years by now and the stories run a little thin after all that time. As a spy thriller there is a lot to like about Skyfall. It is fast paced, funny at times, and full of drama that doesn’t actually involve Bond. As an entry in the Bond continuum I must this is one of the better entries, but as a movie in the free world among other movies I don’t count this as a great movie.

169-170: Tropic Thunder, Lawless

169: Tropic Thunder

Anyone who loves Vietnam war movies (or movies in general) owes it to themselves to watch Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller’s hilarious spoof. Nothing is safe when Stiller gets his hands on it, it seems. Platoon, Apocalypse Now, the entire movie industry, everything gets its fair share of Stiller’s wrath. Because that’s primarily what Tropic Thunder is about: Stiller venting some cropped up frustration. His frustration with agents (Matthew McConaughey), producers (hilariously despicable Tom Cruise), directors (ever funny Steve Coogan) and most definitely the stars. He doesn’t shield himself from his own wrath. His character is a stupid action star, who decided he wanted an Oscar and played a retarded man in a misguided movie called Simple Jack, for which he is admonished by multiple Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (an obvious jab at Russell Crowe), who himself decided to turn himself into a black man to get ready for his next role. I have watched Tropic Thunder several times now and it doesn’t cease to entertain me. There is so much to love here. So many great lines to quote (“I’m a lead farmer, motherfucker!”). I also recommend everybody to watch the brilliant making of documentary Rain of Madness, a parody of Hearts of Darkness, the fabulous documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. Tropic Thunder is one of those rare comedies that work on many levels: it is incredibly funny, painfully insightful and even surprisingly dramatic at times. I urge everybody to see it.

170: Lawless

John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, was one of my favorite movies from 2009. It showed me that this director was capable of creating a world that is terrifyingly real and menacing. Next he would go on to direct an extraordinary project: a short film based on the video game Red Dead Redemption, coincidentally one of the best video game experiences I have ever had. It is therefore not surprising that I was very anxious to see what Hillcoat would do next. It turned out it would be Lawless, a movie about the infamous Bondurant brothers (Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke), a notorious gang of bootleggers who ran their operation in the mountains of Franklin County, Virginia during the Prohibition. That is, until Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) turned up to clean the area. Supposedly Lawless is based on a true story about these three brothers who used the Prohibition to carve out a niche for themselves. This sounds noble, but in reality they were of course ruthless criminals when push came to shove. So were the law enforcement officials, who didn’t hesitate to crack some skulls to get their point across. Hillcoat doesn’t shy away from the violence these people have to perpetrate and endure and Lawless is because of that not stuff for viewers with a weak stomach. It is all framed beautifully and undeniably the work of a visionary director. There are, however, some holes in the story, but those didn’t really bother me that much. What compelled me were the excellent performances by just about the entire cast. This is by no means Hillcoat’s best movie (I have not yet seen The Proposition), but it is also not the worst movie of the year.

> IMDb