2011 log (11)

(8 Nov) Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish)  75
[  This starts off kinda like one of those British kitchen-sink dramas, set as it it in a South London public housing project… But then aliens drop down from the sky, inspiring not so much fear or wonder as a wickedly gleeful desire to go kill the bastards in a group of teenage thugs (John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard), who ride their bikes into the night, armed with baseball bats, swords and fireworks! This is some badass sci-fi horror action fun, which starts low-key enough but grows increasingly more suspenseful and exciting. You could say that it’s a cross between “Assault on Precinct 13”, “E.T.”, “Aliens”, “The Goonies”, “Banlieue 13” and whatnot, but this debut from Joe Cornish also possesses a distinct personality, in part because of that whole kitchen sink realism thing. The creature design is also rather original, the aliens looking like some kind of big, hairy, pitch-black gorilla-wolf monsters with sharp luminescent teeth.    ]

(9 Nov) Crazy Horse (2011, Frederick Wiseman)
[ Reputed to offer the most beautiful strip show in the world, Le Crazy Horse de Paris, which has been teasing audiences since 1951, is now the subject of a documentary by legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who spent 10 weeks observing the creation of “Désir,” a new show directed by choreographer Philippe Decouflé. Using a fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité approach, Wiseman captures everything from production meetings to auditions, rehearsals, costume fittings, etc. We see a lot of stage numbers being performed as well, generally as works in progress, and the use of lights, shadows, projections, mirrors and other elements is often impressive. So much that the nude bodies on display almost seem like an afterthought (almost!). While a tad too long at 2h15, “Crazy Horse” remains an engrossing watch, thanks in part to some hilariously neurotic real-life characters. ]

(10 Nov) Immortals (2011, Tarsem Singh) 44
[ Like Zack Snyder’s 300 (which was also shot in Montreal with lots of green screen), Immortals features some awesomely stylish and brutal action scenes, but alas they’re too few and far between. Much of this tale of war amongst gods, titans and humans is devoted instead to ponderous pseudo-mythological exposition and humourlessly grandiloquent dialogue, generally delivered by way-too-stiff actors, including Henry Cavill as the heroic Theseus and Freida Pinto as the virgin oracle Phaedra. The only saving grace is good old Mickey Rourke as the wonderfully sleazy and evil Hyperion. Granted, this latest flick from Tarsem Singh (The Cell) does feature some spectacular 3D visuals; then again, the art direction is often awfully gaudy, if not downright campy. ]

(11 Nov) Singles (1992, Cameron Crowe) [ review91

(12 Nov) Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)  [  review ] 95 (previously: 94)

(17 Nov) The Artist  (2011, Michel Hazanavicius) 80 
[  In 1927 Hollywood(land), silent movie actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) enjoys fame and fortune. Two short years later, the advent of sound makes his career derail… Meanwhile Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young and pretty chorus line girl he’d been flirting with, makes it big. Falling star meets rising star: that’s the gist of this new film from many of the same folks behind 2006’s “OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions”, notably writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, stars Dujardin and Bejo, cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman and composer Ludovic Bource. Again, they perfectly recreate both the time period of the story and the filmmaking style of that era, in this case the golden age of the studio system, in the years when talkies came into prominence (already the setting of “Singin’ in the Rain”, not so incidentally). Shot in black and white, in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with no dialogue or sound effects (save for a few specific, very meta instances) but with intertiles, “The Artist” is not a spoof but a sincere homage, a veritable love letter to classic cinema. Like in “OSS”, Jean Dujardin’s dashing and debonair performance contributes greatly to the success of the film. It’s in his greased-down hair, pencil moustache, impeccable wardrobe and killer smile, in the way he emulates the likes of Gene Kelly, Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, but also in the way he navigates the tonal shifts of this romantic tragicomedy. Bérénice Bejo is very good as well, and so is the supporting cast (John Goodman, James Cromwell, etc.). Oh, and let’s not forget about George Valentin’s dog sidekick, who may just be my favorite character in the flick! This is an aesthetically irreproachable, featuring many clever, amusing and/or touching scenes… And yet I felt like it was missing a je ne sais quoi… A stronger narrative? More thematic depth? I don’t know… I admired and enjoyed “The Artist” while I was watching it, and for that it remains well worth seeing, but it didn’t quite have enough impact on me to call it one of the year’s best like some have done, going as far as predicting that it could win Best Picture at the Oscars.  ]

(19 Nov) Being Elmo (2011, Constance Marks)
[ “Elmo to a six-year-old is like Brad Pitt,” someone points out early on in this fun and surprisingly touching, if not particularly cinematic documentary about Kevin Clash, the man who’s been handling and voicing Elmo for the last 25 years or so. Here’s the story of a man who had a childhood dream, pursued it and made it a reality, becoming an integral part of the Sesame Street world he loved so much. Clash started crafting his own puppets and putting on shows when he was only 10, paid his dues on local TV in Baltimore and eventually got to work with Muppet empire mastermind Jim Henson. Constance Marks’ film shows how Clash poured all his best qualities and then some into Elmo. No wonder the little red fur-ball became so popular with the little ones! ]

(20 Nov) Starbuck  (2011, Ken Scott) 38 
[  Easily the most overrated film of the year, at least locally, “Starbuck” is built on a contrived and unconvincing as hell premise, having to do with how a guy who regularly donated sperm back in the day finds out that he unknowingly fathered 533 kids and decides to act as a guardian angel of sorts to as many of them as he can (but coming off like a creepy stalker)… But that’s not so much the problem here. I can imagine a thought-provoking and emotionally complex drama based on this out-there premise… Or a wacky and hilarious comedy… The problem with Ken Scott’s film, which he co-wrote with comedian Martin Petit, is that he tried to do both and, more so, failed in each case. The tone is all over the place in “Starbuck”, so is the pacing for that matter, the consequence being that we can never get past how contrived and unconvincing each twist and turn are. Patrick Huard does what he can, going a long way towards keeping us involved nonetheless, but ultimately, the film just. does. not. work. ]

(21 Nov) Hugo  (2011, Martin Scorsese) 78 
[ I must say, sentimental family movies about precocious children and “broken” adults teaching each other life lessons are one of my least favourite genres. But leave it to Martin Scorsese to make one that almost entirely won me over, thanks to dazzling 3D cinematography, magnificent art direction recreating 1930s Paris and all-around great performances (Asa Butterfield, Chloë Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, among others). Some of this adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 illustrated novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” remains too corny for my taste and there may be too many pratfall-heavy chases, but there are four or five absolutely brilliant sequences about the magic of early cinema, particularly that of George Méliès, which make it a must-see nonetheless. ]

(24 Nov) The Muppets  (2011, James Bobin) 90
[   Oddly enough, the movie this new Muppet flick most reminded me of is “Rocky Balboa.” It’s in that sense of nostalgia, with iconic characters who some may think are past their prime but who decide to stand tall and soldier on… Of course, on a scene to scene basis, this is a completely different kind of movie, filled as it is with goofiness, silliness… And musical numbers! Oh, those musical numbers! But beyond all that, there’s a truly moving story that pulled me in right away, as we meet Gary (Jason Segel, who co-wrote the screenplay with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” director Nicholas Stoller) and his little brother Walter (Peter Linz), who’s always dreamed of meeting Kermit the Frog and the Muppets – even though they’ve long gone out of style. What follows is a wonderful story about growing up, growing apart, looking to belong, looking to matter again, getting back together, getting back on stage… All of which is driven by Segel’s boundless enthusiasm, joie de vivre and obvious love for all things Muppets. I also loved Amy Adams as his girlfriend, Chris Cooper as the villain, plus all the celebrity cameos (Jack Black, Dave Grohl, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Emily Blunt, Neil Patrick Harris, John Krasinski, etc.). “The Muppets” is, quite simply, one of the most enjoyable movies of the year. Jim Henson would have been proud. ]

(27 Nov) Shame (2011, Steve McQueen) 84
[   There’s a cold, muted, almost clinical vibe to this film. The meticulous shot composition, the moody score, the sly use of ellipses and off-screen space, the way it formally mirrors the obsessive tendencies of its characters… Kubrick by the way of Soderbergh, a little bit “Eyes Wide Shut”, a little bit “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (maybe a little bit “American Psycho”, too, alas much more low-key).  And then there’s Michael Fassbender, who brilliantly embodies this fascinating character study, playing a walking contradiction of a man, who remains elusive and intriguing until the end. Alternately confident and awkward, suave and repelling, seemingly addicted to sex yet afraid of intimacy. Add to that a most unhealthy, quasi-incestuous relationship with his sister, affectingly played by Carey Mulligan, and the gradual realization that the two of them share a lot baggage and uneasy history (“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place”)… It all adds up to a powerful, rather disturbing film.    ]

(28 Nov) War Horse (2011, Steven Spielberg) 91
[   I can already see it. Many, many people are going to love this movie, LOVE it. But there are some, critics mostly, who’ll inevitably pan it. Funny thing is that both sides will do so for basically the same reason. This is a pure Spielberg movie through and through, with the wide-eyed sense of wonder, epic scope and brilliant production values you expect, as well as the fact that it’s blatantly sentimental, which is where the Beard tends to lose grumpier scribes.  Few filmmakers know how to work an audience and push the audience’s emotional buttons as well as Spielberg, and he’s going at it full throttle in “War Horse.” An adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel in which World War I was viewed through the eyes of a horse, the film sometimes superficially resembles “Au Hasard Balthazar” (in which the protagonist was a donkey) , but even though the film is mostly set in France, we’re not so much in Robert Bresson territory here as in the grand old tradition of classic Hollywood prestige pictures. Think John Ford, “Gone with the Wind”, David Lean, a bit of Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”… But think Spielberg, most of all. Starting with the birth of our thoroughbred hero in Devon, England, as witnessed by young Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who’ll name the beast Joey and tame him, the movie then follows the two of them as they struggle to plow a field in order to save the family farm from being reclaimed by the landlord (David Thewlis). That first act is note-perfect, truly involving us in this story of a boy and his horse. Irvine is great as the young lad, who somehow made me think of the fundamentally decent and loyal Samwise as played by Sean Astin in the “LOTR” trilogy, Emily Watson and Peter Mullan are both splendid as his mum and dad, and through the magic of cinema, the horse also delivers a magnificent performance, seemingly conveying all kinds of emotion though his big black eyes (I also loved the goose, heh). A feisty, noble, beautiful creature, Joey is put the test more than ever when the Great War breaks out and he ends up being sold to a British officer (Tom Hiddleston), but also serving in the German army, being adopted by a French jam maker (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter and, in one of the most hauntingly memorable sequences in the film, desperately wandering the No Man’s Land between the British and German trenches… Filled with overwhelming visions of beauty and horror, this tale of a miraculous horse features some relatively long stretches without dialogue, all visual storytelling courtesy of Spielberg and cinematographer extraordinaire Janusz Kamiński, though with the assist of wall-to-wall John Williams… And it all builds up to a wordless sunset finale that won’t leave a dry eye in the house. Expect “War Horse” to win (or at least get nominated for) a whole lot of Oscars.  ]

(28 Nov) Martha Marcy May Marlene  (2011, Sean Durkin) 83
[    Every year seems to bring an independent film that reveals an exceptional new -or at least previously unheralded- actress. 2011’s is this here “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” starring Elizabeth Olsen, finally breaking breaking out from the shadow of her older sisters Mary Kate & Ashley to come into her own as one hell of an actress. She plays Martha, a.k.a. Marcy May, a.k.a Marlene, a troubled young woman who went off the grid a couple of years ago, only to resurface in her sister (Sarah Paulson)’s life with no explanation. Through a series of flashbacks, which the film goes in and out of via nearly seamless transitions, we get to learn more about what she went through; or do we? “MMMM” blends past and present, memories and dreams, reality and paranoid delusions, ostensibly to depict the mental state of a former cult member. As Marcy May, she was part of a “family” living on a farm in upstate New York in neo-hippie commune fashion, under the leadership fo the charismatic yet unnerving Patrick (John Hawkes)… And now, back in the world, with her sister and the latter’s husband (Hugh Dancy),  Martha seems to have a confused sense of social boundaries, and she goes from charming and vulnerable to weird and hysterical and… It’s hard to describe but all quite captivating, thanks to Olsen’s tour de force performance but also to Sean Durkin’s writing and direction, which fill most scenes with slow-burn tension.    ]

October / December