by Raj Ranade
You’d be forgiven, after the more-terrible-than-usual slog that was this year’s Oscar ceremony, for never wanting to think about the films of 2011 ever again. But March’s DVD releases are a reminder that there was more to the movie year than the blackface Billy Crystal skit with Justin Bieber. Here are a few films that are worth remembering (along with a couple that aren’t).
Must See: Senna (3/6), Melancholia (3/13), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (3/20) (full reviews at aceweekly.com)
Carnage (3/20): Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the play The God of Carnage cements his status as The God of Claustrophobia – from Rosemary’s Baby on through 2010’s The Ghost Writer, Polanski has had a special interest in the way paranoia, resentment, and fear bubble up in close quarters. The difference in Carnage is that said paranoia, resentment and fear is played for laughs, as a meeting between yuppie couples about a fight between their children turns a tinyNew York apartment into a stew of simmering marital resentments and boiling tempers. The leads (John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, and Christoph Waltz) are all in top form as their passive-aggressiveness sheds the passivity. And it’s fun to see how Polanski subverts some of the smugness of the original play – the bookends he devises for this story have a way of profoundly changing the work’s meaning even without altering a single word of the script.
A Dangerous Method (3/27): Art-house horror maestro David Cronenberg (The Fly, Eastern Promises) may be holding back on the splattering blood in his latest, but the movie cuts deep all the same. A Dangerous Method looks and feels like a standard Victorian-style costume drama of repressed desires as it tells the story of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the woman that threw their relationship into disarray (Keira Knightley). But it’s also about the traumatic birth pangs that occurred as these founders of psychoanalysis ushered a revolutionary new sexual openness into the modern world. It’s also about the complex ways in which ideas are molded not just by theory but by class, race, and gender. But if the heady intellectualism is the primary draw here, there are also the incredible performances, particularly by Mortensen, who brings a sly, dry humor to his portrayal of the famous bearded cigar-contemplator.
Worth Your Time: The Descendants (3/13), Young Adult (3/13) (reviews online)
The Adventures of Tintin: The best Hollywood action sequences of 2011 were polar opposites. The skyscraper-scaling in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol might have been 99% CGI for all I know, but the physics of how Tom Cruise’s body dived, fell, and collided with the scenery felt involuntary-jaw-drop real. Nothing in Tintin, by comparison, remotely resembles reality, but the momentum of the damn thing is irresistible. When Steven Spielberg stages a chase that turns an entire seaside town into a Rube Goldberg machine, with cars and buildings and tanks colliding into each other in one seamless take, you don’t exactly buy it, but you can’t help marveling at the giddy joy on display. Spielberg has tended towards the somber and the political in recent years, but in Tintin, his repressed inner child strikes back with a vengeance – you may not remember much about Tintin’s plot after its over, but you’ll remember what it feels like to be a really excited 10-year-old.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (3/20): The central appeal of these stories has always been the fearsome techno-feminist at their center, and David Fincher’s film does portray Lisbeth Salander well – Rooney Mara manages the impressive feat of being scarier and more vulnerable than Noomi Rapace in the original Swedish version. But too much of this film’s 160 minutes is a slog – an excess of dutiful exposition that focuses way too much on the story’s bland males instead of its fiery female. Fincher’s always good at the “show” part of the phrase – the crisp, digitally-shot cinematography is gorgeous – but he neglected the “don’t tell” part this time around.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (3/27) – I won’t say categorically that this is the worst film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, but I’m sure having a hard time thinking of a worse one. After his father (Tom Hanks) dies in the 9/11 attacks, a young boy searches for the lock opened by a key in his dad’s closet by randomly visiting hundreds of strangers, thereby learning valuable life lessons and getting eyes misty. This is cornball fluff, but damned if director Stephen Daldry and company won’t make their movie seem important by any means necessary. In this case, that means summoning up the most gut-churning imagery from 9/11 and hoping you’ll think that sinking feeling in your stomach is Great Art Working Its Magic. What I felt instead was revulsion at storytellers papering over an insipid story by appropriating real catastrophe – plummeting jumpers and horrific pre-death phone calls propping up lazy fortune-cookie sentiment until you think it’s important. Great actors like Max Von Sydow and Sandra Bullock do their best, but no one could survive a premise this toxic.