A lived-in performance by Gary Oldman is a standout in the taut espionage ensemble Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (B+). The film’s slow-boil pace and period detail are rewarding as members of the British intelligence elite dodge double-crosses with duplicitous Cold War villains. Thomas Hardy, Colin Firth and Toby Jones are all good in bit roles.
Woody Allen hits a late-career spark of comedic bliss with the supernatural romantic comedy Midnight in Paris (B) featuring Owen Wilson as a man who steps back in time to turn of the century France where he encounters a famous collection of artists, authors and celebrities. It’s essentially Bill & Ted for the intellectual set but told with such color and ebullience that it works as a wistful and enjoyable lark.
NOTE: 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of the Centers for Disease Control. Many believe this film is a very accurate depiction of the CDC in action. The show “On Second Thought” on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s NPR radio will examine the role of CDC in popular culture in July 2016, featuring interviews with Silver Screen Capture.
Pandemics, public health, punditry and political cronyism collide in Steven Soderbergh’s excellent medical thriller Contagion (A-). The director employs a sprawling, star-studded cast and a multi-narrative approach to help tell an ultra-realistic story about how a virus spreads globally into the lives of its characters. More of a worldwide mosaic than intimate character drama, the film is highly effective in showing the science behind the spread of disease and the ramifications and ripple effects on people from a variety of walks of live. Kate Winslet is superb as an epidemic intelligence officer. Matt Damon is also strong as an everyman whose life becomes consumed by something much larger than himself. Jude Law also gets to do some unexpected work with a snarky character. The film is well-shot and well-researched and is a standout in its genre without employing sensationalism.
Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz (A) presents a beguiling choice for its female protagonist (a mesmerizing Michelle Williams): does she stay with the husband she knows and loves (Seth Rogen) or pursue the charming guy she just met who seems to be sweeping her off her feet in multiple chance meetings (Luke Kirby)? The fact that our heroine is so flawed and unsure of herself is so rarely explored in film, and Williams is so relatable that it somehow works. Her vacillation should be irritating, but it is instead endearing. Polley’s film style is so fresh and exciting as she explores a young woman’s crisis of conscience. There are some final reel choices that will definitely stick with you, in addition to the amazing soundtrack and beautiful cinematography.
Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (A-) is a magnificent thriller mashed up with a prequel that manages to showcase how superheroes helped avert the Cuban Missile Crisis. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender play young versions of Professor Xavier and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in the original X-Men trilogy) as they establsih the early days of a school for mutants. There are wondrous flights of fancy and great coming of age motifs that all lead up to an amazing showdown. After Layer Cake and Stardust, Vaughn is proving a rogue storyteller with a tremendous vision for ensemble excitement.
Director Kenneth Branagh is a bit of an inspired choice to helm the sword and sorcery on a faraway planet comic book epic Thor (B), which pits Chris Hemsworth as the titular hero against bad boy brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for keys to the kingdom ruled by Anthony Hopkins’ King Odin. As Thor’s earthbound love interest, Natalie Portman gets some nice sequences; but this is all about action and fantasy and virtual chess moves. The best bits are by Hiddleston as the delicious villain and Kat Dennings as comic relief. Branagh does a good job keeping viewers interested in the affairs on two planets and with some complicated subplots, and it’s largely a blissful bolt of action and fun.
Although pretty as a postcard, Water for Elephants (C-) is as formulaic as a tale can be that blends animal cruelty and forbidden love. At pachydrm pace, this three-ring melodrama fails to ring true. Robert Pattinson has acting skills on par with Luke Perry. Witherspoon and Waltz dial it in as the other stock characters in the most mediocre show on earth.
Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids (B+) is a gut-busting comedy about women behaving badly. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are standouts in this ensemble about ladies going a little nuts on the path to a friend’s wedding. Gross-out gags, witty lines and sociological commentary aplenty fills up the screen for this shrewdly honest and very adult movie.
Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger (B-) is an old-fashioned comic book adventure with Chris Evans as a weakling who volunteers for an experiment that turns him into a super-soldier in WWII and ultimately a superhero. Evans is appealing as the noble hero, and sequences with his buddy played by Sebastian Stan set the stage for some of the most emotional elements of this series. The plot with a villain called Red Skull comes off as a bit cheesy. Overall, it’s a colorful entry into the Marvel canon and a soaring showcase to the original agent with shield.
Steve McQueen’s Shame (A-) is a tough and gritty look at sexual addition through a central character played by Michael Fassbender in a fierce and primal performance. His disturbing relationship with all women in the film, including with his sister played by Carey Mulligan, is absorbing and insightful. The “New York, New York” scene in a high-rise nightclub is haunting, as are most all of the sequences in the film, actually. The big city plays a critical role in the isolation the filmmaker captures, as the film is elegantly and hauntingly shot. It’s one of the best films of its year, despite being a tough subject.
There’s not much “hip” aside from Maggie Smith’s replacement surgery in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (B+), but this senior citizen passage to India contains considerable joys and sentiment. Director John Madden and his muse Dame Judi Dench draw viewers in to the emotional far pavilions of friends and family. More than Cocoon with curry, it’s quite a sleeper hit.
Just saw the year’s best picture and can’t imagine a scenario in which Oscars will disagree. Filmed as a silent movie in black and white with lush symphonic underscoring, The Artist (A+) is funny, romantic, nostalgic and occasionally profound. Jean Dujarden and Benenie Bejo display a chemistry beyond words in this ode to love and Hollywood. The dog is also an amazing supporting cast member. I was worried the film would be too cute for its own good and was quickly won over. Cinematic bliss!