Happy Holidays 2011
Since the January issue is a special double issue, it will be March before any regular film review from me appears again. Here are a few movies I've seen recently that are worth the price of admission with whatever money you have left over from Christmas shopping:
* Early critics' awards nominations have completely ignored Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter,which is a gross injustice. It is a masterpiece of slow-building suspense, about an Ohio road construction worker named Curis (Michael Shannon) beset by nightmares and visions of cataclysmic storms, and becomes obsessed with building a state-of-the-art tornado shelter for his family. The question of whether Curtis is insane or psychic fuels the plot. For my money, Shannon gives the performance of the year, and Jessica Chastain continues her miraculous year as Curtis' mystified but loyal wife.
* Alexander Payne specializes in tragicomic, delicately nuanced movies about decent but flawed people ("Sideways," "About Schmidt") and The Descendants is one of his best. George Clooney, in his best performance to date, is Matt King, decendant of Hawaiian royalty and the islands' first white settlers, who has the sole power of decision over whether his family will keep or sell a multi-thousand-acre seaside wilderness property in Kauai. Simultaneous with this decision, Matt faces decisions on whether to pull the plug on his comatose wife, what to do with his two rebellious daughters, and what to do about his wife's lover, among other things. The tone of "The Descendants" masterfully combines wry wit and melancholy; Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael give us brilliant visuals of a Hawaii that is part beachfront magnificence, part urban Southern California. ("My mainland friends think I live in Paradise," Matt says at one point. "Are they insane?") The very fine cast combines young up-and-comers (Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause), fine character actors in mid-career (Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer), and beloved old hands (Robert Forster, Beau Bridges).
* My Week with Mariyn is Simon Curtis' film adaptation of Colin Clark's memoirs of his brief fling with Marilyn Monroe while serving as a prodiuction assistant on the film "The Prince and the Showgirl." Clark, the son of art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, apparently spent his life believing he alone understood Marilyn--one of many, many men who believed the same. The film, though meticulously made, is fairly lightweight, but the performances of Michelle Williams as Marilyn and of Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier make "My Week with Marilyn" an absolute must-see. The supporting performances of Judi Dench, Zoe Wanamaker, Philip Jackson, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, Julia Ormond and Eddie Redmayne are the icing on an airy and elegant cake.
* I'm not particularly enamored of Fozzie Bear using the word "fart," but in every other way The Muppets is a delightful film for the whole family, as well as a worthy return to the big screen for the late Jim Henson's lovable brain-children. Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller created an enjoyable story about Gary (Segel) a regular guy; Mary (Amy Adams), his loyal girlfriend; and Walter, Gary's brother, who happens to be a Muppet. The story takes the threesome to Los Angeles, where they must reorganize The Muppets to save their movie studio from demolition at the hands of the evil Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Segel & Co. have great fun in creating stories for Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, etc. as to what happened to them after going their separate ways, and it effectively demonstrates to a new generation of children the unique lovability of these nubbly-cloth characters--particularly Kermit, an Everyfrog for the ages. When Kermit and Miss Piggy sing "The Rainbow Connection," it's as if The Muppets were always with us. A steady stream of cameo players (Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Arkin, Neil Patrick Harris, etc.) adds to the fun.