January is a slow month at the cinema. Since genuine new releases are few and far between, I tend to spend my winter break sitting on the futon and binging on all of the movies that I didn’t get to see during the following year. (Or, as I have done in past years, binging on all of the TV shows I missed. One year, I watched four seasons of Lost in a little more than one week.)
Thanks to Netflix and its Instant Watch option, I’ve been catching up on a ton of movies that were released in 2011. Because my house has turned into a mini film festival – in six days, I’ve already seen 16 movies – I’ve decided to review them in short capsules. This will be a multi-part series with 10 titles in each. Enjoy!
1) Another Earth – Several things are going on in this subtle sci-fi drama. First, you have the discovery of a planet that is identical in every way to Earth. (Everyone here has a double/doppelganger there.) And second, the main character, Rhoda (Brit Marling), gets into a car accident with university professor John Burroughs (William Mapother) and kills his entire family. For this crime, she goes to prison. Once released, four years later, the aimless and guilt-ridden woman takes a job as a high school janitor. As a way to heal her psyche, she becomes a maid to the utterly despondent John. Their relationship is therapeutic for both, but Rhoda hasn’t been completely honest with the professor. Will her secrets, and her opportunity to visit Earth 2, threaten everything they have built? Another Earth is a beautiful – thematically and visually – film about second chances and redemption. I liked it so much that I included in my Best of 2011 list. Marling pulls double duty as the film’s lead actress and its co-screenwriter. She’s a great find. I’m very excited to see what director Mike Cahill does next. 4 out of 5 stars.
2) The Tempest – Julie Taymor adapts William Shakespeare’s play for the big screen, and in doing so makes a significant change: the male Prospero becomes a female, Prospera (Helen Mirren). I really like Shakespeare when his characters are brooding and neurotic; when they are trying to be funny, not so much. I’m not a big fan of The Tempest anyway, but this adaptation just seems to get everything wrong. Mirren, who is usually dynamic, seems uninspired and lackluster. I wasn’t impressed with the casting of Reeve Carney as Prince Ferdinand, Djimon Hounsou as Caliban, or Russell Brand as Trinculo. And the inclusion of the word f-ck in the screenplay was totally unnecessary. The only cast member with whom I was impressed was Ben Whishaw as Ariel. The costumes were frequently stunning – for instance when Ariel is dressed as a giant black bird – but the cheap-looking special effects undermined their impact. (To be honest, they were embarrassing.) Taymor really likes Shakespeare – she has previously adapted Titus Andronicus for the big screen – but she doesn’t seem to understand him. And even though her productions always attract A-listers, they still “lack something.” The Tempest is borderline unwatchable. 2 out of 5 stars.
3) Le Quattro Volte – A number of NY critics have lauded this Italian drama by Michelangelo Frammartino, which is supposed to demonstrate how we transform from human to animal to vegetable to mineral. The idea seemed intriguing to me, so I decided to give it a go. After the first 45 minutes, which are essentially watching an old shepherd taking his goats and Border collie from an enclosure into the hills and back again, I became anxious. What the hell? I fast forwarded through the rest, and it looked to be just as “interesting.” I abandoned the film. Since I didn’t actually endure this in its entirely, I shouldn’t really review it. But let me say this for the record, those 45 minutes felt like an eternity. If I want to watch an old shepherd herding animals, I’d rather be in Italy doing that. 1 out of 5 stars.
4) Trust – For his sophomore directing gig, David Schwimmer chose a drama/thriller about a 15 year old (Liana Liberato) who becomes the victim of an online sexual predator/pedophile. When she begins communicating with “Charlie,” he says he’s in high school. Then he’s 20. Then a grad student. When she finally meets him in the mall, she is confronted with a 30-something year old who convinces her to go with him to a hotel, where they have sex. (Her parents, played by Clive Owen and Catherine Keener, are out of town, taking her brother to college.) Rather than sensationalize such an event, the film attempts to show it from all angles. The enraged father becomes obsessed with catching the pedophile and, if he had his way, killing him. The mother is focused on consoling/helping her daughter. And in her innocence and naiveté, the victim believes that “Charlie” truly loved her and wants to be with her. At times I found Trust to be frustrating, probably because I identified so strongly with the father, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find value in watching it. Quite the opposite. If you have tweens or teens, this might be a good film to watch with them. The best thing about Trust is Owen’s performance. I’ve never seen him exhibit such range. The worst? At times, it can feel like it’s a Lifetime movie of the week. 3 stars out of 5.
5) Certified Copy (Copie Conforme) – Another NY critics’ delight that I hated, this drama is written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami. It begins in Tuscany at a book lecture, during which British writer, James Miller (William Shimell), discusses the issue of original art vs. copies. Elle (Juliette Binoche), a French ex-pat, is in attendance with her son. She has to leave the lecture early – her son is hungry – but before she goes she arranges a meeting with the writer at a later time. For the remainder of the film, we watch the two of them meandering through the streets of Chianti as they talk about relationships, art, children and more. I am the first one to love a philosophical movie, but not when the main characters are so unlikable. She’s desperate, needy, defensive, argumentative, and emotionally unstable; he’s dispassionate to a fault. In the real world, I wouldn’t have spent one minute with either of them, and yet, here we are forced to endure 106 minutes with both. Yuck. Those who applaud this film love the fact that you aren’t really sure what the relationship is between Elle and James. Are they strangers? Friends? Lovers? Married? This makes it “original” apparently. If by original, they mean infuriating, then I will concur. Who with a grain of sanity acts as if they have never met the other person when they have (SPOILER) in fact been married for more than a dozen years and share a son? No one I know. In my opinion, it’s just a screenwriter who is trying to be clever/pretentious, and who is wasting our time. 1 star out of 5.
6) Cold Weather – In this comedy/drama/mystery co-written and directed by Aaron Katz, Doug (Cris Lankenau), a college drop-out/slacker, moves in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). To help pay for the rent, he gets a job in an ice factory. His ex-girl friend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) comes to town, and then disappears. Because he studied criminal justice and is a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, Doug, with the assistance of co-worker Carlos (Raul Castillo) and his sister, attempts to find her. Unlike a lot of “quirky” indies, Cold Weather seemed very “real” and relatable. It didn’t feel affected or precious. It probably helped that I share a lot of the same interests as the characters, including crime solving, Star Trek, and slacking. I had read some bad reviews for this film so I put off seeing it for much longer than I should have. Everyone who hates this is just plain wrong. It’s very enjoyable, and the actors are exceptional, especially Castillo (his role should have been bigger) and Dunn, who steals every scene. Portland, Oregon, looks absolutely stunning, too, and thanks to this film, I’m thinking of relocating. 4 stars out of 5.
7) The Princess of Montpensier (La Princesse de Montpensier) – Adapted from a short story by Madame de La Fayette, this historical drama centers on Marie (Melanie Thierry), the titular princess who is in promised to one guy, is in love with his brother Henri (Gaspard Ulliel), but, because of political jockeying, ends up being wed to the Prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Love, or passion, cannot be denied, and Marie keeps pining for Henri, and he for her. As you can imagine, it won’t end well for anyone involved. Set against the backdrop of the Huguenot-Catholic wars, this film is your bog standard “love triangle” film, with everyone longing to be near the blonde, blue-eyed, buxom lead, including her teacher, the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson). When I was a teen-ager, this kind of thing really tripped my trigger – Camille Claudel and Queen Margot were favorites – but now I just find them tedious. And this is one of the worst I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s 139 minutes I will never get back. 1.5 stars out of 5.
8) Queen to Play (Joueuse) – Set in gorgeous Corsica, this film is adapted and directed by Caroline Bottaro and demonstrates how chess can transform a person’s life. Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a people pleasing hotel maid married to a laborer (Francis Renaud). The couple is barely keeping their heads above water. One day, while cleaning a room, Helene encounters a beautiful American woman (Jennifer Beals) playing chess with her lover. Something “clicks” inside of Helene, and she decides to buy her husband an electronic chess board for his birthday. He is perplexed by the gift. Although he hasn’t much interest in the game, Helene becomes obsessed with it, staying up late into the evening, playing matches against herself. She wants to advance but how? She finds her answer while cleaning the home of the reclusive American, Mr. Kroger (Kevin Kline). After finding a chess board on a book shelf, she asks him to play a game with her. Initially, he scoffs. But he sees something in her, and this one game turns into weekly sessions. The more she plays, the more her confidence increases, and, for better or worse, she begins to question her life. Queen to Play started out a bit slow, but if you give it a chance, it ends up being a very uplifting experience. It could be called “feminist” film, because the main character goes from being a mousy, quiet, subservient thing to having the confidence to stand up for herself and compete against a room full of rather dismissive men. I’ve long been a fan of Bonnaire, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in a bad film. I was a bit surprised to find Kline in this, but more surprised to see him speaking in French 99 percent of the time. After watching Queen to Play, I’ll definitely be seeking out other films by Bottaro. And for a short time, it made me want to buy a chessboard. 4 stars out of 5.
9) Tiny Furniture – Written, directed and starring Lena Dunham, this indie comedy centers on a recent university graduate (Dunham) who moves back to NY to live with her photographer mother (Laurie Simmons) and her high school aged sister (Grace Dunham). We follow her as she reconnects with an old friend named Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), finds a job as a hostess, attends parties, and tries to find romance first with an internet sensation named Jed (Alex Karpovsky) and then with a chef named Keith (David Call). “Quirky” usually means that I won’t like a film, but Tiny Furniture is different. Dunham is very down-to-Earth; an Everywoman, if you will. If you’ve been to college, you can relate, at least in part, with her situation. Kirke is an absolute treasure as the pill-taking, boozy, unsupervised, “bad influence” Brit. I wish this blonde actress a very long and illustrious career. Karpovsky delivers some of the funniest lines in the movie. He looks a bit like a very young Chris Sarandon, and talks like a taller Woody Allen. I hadn’t heard of Tiny Furniture – named after the subjects of the mother’s photography – until my friend mentioned it. I’m glad I checked it out. It’s touching, funny, and quirky, but in a very relatable way. Some might not like the “abrupt” and unresolved ending, but I was OK with it. 4 stars out of 5.
10) The Guard – If you read the synopsis on IMDB, you would think this was an Irish remake of Lethal Weapon. “A raucous comedy,” the DVD cover proclaims. Um, no. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, it centers on an “unorthodox Irish policeman” (Brendan Gleeson) who comes across as pretty clueless. He’s also an alcoholic and a racist … he’s lazy and has a fondness for hookers. Because an international drug-smuggling ring comes to town, he gets teamed up with an FBI agent (Don Cheadle), who is buttoned down and all business. It’s possible that you have to be Irish to find this humorous, because neither I nor my English husband chuckled much. In fact, I found it rather ho-hum. Fionnula Flanagan is good as Eileen Boyle, the main character’s mother who is dying, I assume, of cancer. And I always love seeing Mark Strong. He plays one of the drug smugglers; a Londoner who acts as if everything and everyone is beneath him. 2 stars out of 5.
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