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February 1, 2012


During the course of his growing movie oeuvre, I have developed a respect for Steve Carell's ability to steer what could become an adolescent joke of a movie and moor it securely with an emotionally complex performance. A character who could devolve into a buffoon instead reveals a core of humanity with which the inner insecurity in all of us can identify. In Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's Crazy, Stupid, Love Cal's wife has cheated on him and wants a divorce, so he wants to get back by scoring himself. Ladies' man Jacob (Ryan Gosling) can't help but notice Cal's loutish behavior in the bar, and ultimately becomes Cal's pick-up coach. And of course, unlikely bonds are forged, motivations misinterpreted, reconciliations attempted, insights gained.

By now you've heard all the praise for Tate Taylor's The Help based on the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett about black maids who raise children for well-to-do white women. Aspiring journalist “Skeeter” Phelan convinces the maids to tell their story. The sin of the film (and I assume of the book) is that it treats white people as the saving catalyst for blacks. Let's pat ourselves on the back for pulling "those people" out of their misery. It is at its very core patronizing and self aggrandizing, and has absolutely NOTHING authentic to say about the real struggle for civil rights.

There is a lovely little movie that used to be shown on late night TV, way back when network television still aired late night movies. Robert Mulligan's 1978 Same Time, Next Year starred Alan Alda and Ellen Burstein in a chance encounter. Each is married, but they agree to meet on the same weekend each year. Each year finds one at a time of personal crisis that the other helps through. Echoing this premise is Lone Scherfig's One Day. It is a horrible movie, made more horrible by the exploding calendar trope that in turn is made worse by the fact that we virtually never get the relief of the time skip trope to move us along a little faster, please. Instead we get EVERY SINGLE July 15 of almost every sequential year, from 1988 to the present of the characters' saccharin almost-romance. Ms. Scherfig, according to NYT critic A. O. Scott, is "a veteran of the Danish Dogme 95 movement" established by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. That, and the fact that she directed 2009's An Education with stunning performances by Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard, make this movie hard to fathom. Scott admits that the film is done a disservice in the end by its "maudlin excess," but he praises it "at its best — observant, relaxed, touching and charming.... As they make their way through professional ups and downs and serious relationships with other people, the movie opens up and allows its attention to wander into odd corners and byways." Spoiler Alert: My attention wandered A LOT, and as the calendar pages kept floating by, I thought, "Maybe she'll get hit by a bus," and moments later, SHE DOES. But we are not spared. She lives, and July 15 continues to go on and on and on.

Nazi Germany continues to be a hot ticket for movie narratives. Last fall brought John Madden's The Debt, a remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller, which I haven't seen but probably wish I'd seen instead. In East Berlin circa 1965 something took place when three Mossad operatives set out to capture a Mengele-like Nazi fugitive. The daughter of one has written a book about their heroic exploits. Yet as the film oscillates between present-day Tel Aviv and 1965 East Berlin, circling ever closer in on the past, a more complex war story emerges. An examination of memory, ambivalence and guilt, this servicable film gets racheted up a few notches with performances by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds.

The origin story Rise of the Planet of the Apes places the onus on the Frankenstein-esque genetic engineering lab where Will Rodman (James Franco) works. John Lithgow turns in a good performance as Will's Alzheimer's-afflicted father and Caesar, played by Andy Serkis (who inhabited the role of Gollum in Lord of the Rings) is loveable when young and justifiably outraged by the time he goes berserk. Director Rupert Wyatt keeps everything well-paced until the apes embark on their apocalyptic rebellion, at which point all sense of timing is lost in an endless CGI melee wherein the film, along with the apes, runs utterly amok.

I liked Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, based on the pulp novel by James Sallis, and I defy anyone to make the claim that he did not at the very least like the opening sequence. The man with no name maneuvers an invisibly souped up Chevrolet Imapa through narrow streets and down urban highways, hiding in underpasses and shooting out again with nary a flutter of emotion. Most of the film's electro-pop score was composed by Cliff Martinez, who wrote the score for Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but that opening sequence is paired with the French musician Kavinsky's (Vincent Belorgey) "Nightcall." The driver falls hard for a young mother (Carey Mulligan) and decides to go straight as a race car driver, an idea that ends up being financed through local gangsters played with relish by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks. The plot involves a bag of money, double-crosses, a stab in the eye with a fork. We all know where it will lead...

I just took a tally of the films discussed thus far, including those latecomer 2010 flicks, and The Ides of March is the fourth film in which Ryan Gosling stars or co-stars. My feeling is that it was a lot more. He's a wonderful presence on the screen. Ides, directed by its star George Clooney, is a political campaign drama. Clooney plays they pol and Gosling plays the press secretary who goes rogue as the reality of down and dirty politics begins to obscure the lofty rhetoric of the campaign. It's a good movie -- well-written, well-acted, nicely shot -- but I wanted more.

David Frankel's The Big Year is a lovely and loving little movie. The co-stars Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson clearly had a good time making it. Their characters are avid birders strenuously competing in a year-long quest to log the most bird sightings. It is a sport requiring both the athletic prowess to scale challenging terrain and encyclopedic knowledge of bird songs, migrations, and all things ornithological. It also takes oodles of free time and money. Owen Wilson's Kenny Bostick is the reigning champion out to break his own record. Steve Martin's Stu Preissler is in a perpetual state of trying to retire as CEO of a company he has built  into enormous success. By contrast Jack Black's Brad Harris is a loser who still lives with his parents, yet they support his passion. Like any story of this sort, the birding ultimately functions as a catalyst for the greater lessons each character discovers about himself through the journey.

Brett Ratner's Tower Heist is just that, a heist movie, but with a Robin Hood-y twist. There is the evil Wall Street owner of the ritzy high-rise penthouse, Arthur Shaw played by Alan Alda, juxtaposed with the ensemble of building staff and residents headed up by Ben Stiller and augmented with some street cred supplied by Eddie Murphy. Shaw is meant to be a stand-in for a Bernie Madoff-type who has bilked the staff of their life's savings, and the plot turns on setting that wrong right. It is a nice little entertainment, though if you suffer from vertigo, as I do, you will want to spend much of the movie with your eyes squeezed shut.

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