PopMatters: The 40 Best Films of 2011

I voted, then contributed two blurbs for PopMatter's list of best movies.

The 40 Best Films of 2011

No. 27: Super 8

In a year full of film nostalgia, Super 8 does double-duty, recalling the Amblin movies of the ‘80s while also touching on the joy of making homemade low-budget movies (and the never-ending quest for “production values”). While the monster-movie aspect of Super 8 is its weakest facet, its ensemble of youngsters is as strong as you can find in this year or any other. They’re plucky without being typical “movie kids”, their feelings ring emotionally true for adolescents, and director J.J. Abrams really nails the way a group of kids all talk over each other. As much as Super 8 made me think about the movies from my 1980s upbringing, what it really made me nostalgic for is hanging out with a gang of awkward-but-creative  pre-teens.

No. 13: The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s most recent movie comes with the strong script we expect from him, effortlessly weaving one family’s personal tragedy into the history of Hawaii with a laid-back, island-time pace. But what’s most remarkable about The Descendants is how Payne coaxes great performances from unlikely places. Sure, George Clooney, who carries the meat of the storyline, is as good as ever. But supporting him are career-making turns from Shailene Woodley (best known from The Secret Life of the American Teenager), Judy Greer (normally relegated to playing rom-com best friends), and Matthew Lillard (most often used for his goofball qualities). You wouldn’t expect to be able to throw a teen soap star, a perpetual best friend, and the comic relief onto an island together and get something so emotionally rich from them, but Payne did.

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DVD Review: Another Earth

'Another Earth' Applies More Thought, Less CGI

"Too often characters in movies reveal too much of themselves to each other, or describe exactly how they’re feeling to each other. Another Earth never falls into this trap. John doesn’t come out and discuss his dead wife and child with Rhoda, and Rhoda doesn’t talk about her time in prison. Those experiences weigh heavily on them, but go unremarked upon. They exist in the background, like Earth Two.

Other times, though, it feels as if Another Earth somewhat squanders its best idea. Once the concept of Earth Two is introduced, the mind races with questions: How similar is it to Earth One? Is there a second version of me on the planet? If yes, is that person identical to me, or are there differences? If there are differences, who has the better life? Another Earth raises all of these questions without really exploring them. Instead, it spends all of its time on Earth One, detailing a story about grief, loss, and guilt—a story that’s not as original or intriguing as the double-Earth conceit."

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PopMatters: Worst Films of 2011

I contributed two blurbs for PopMatters's list of the most terrible films that came out last year.

The Worst Films of 2011

No. 8: Abduction

True, spoilery fact: There is no abduction in Abduction. Sure, main character Nathan, played by Twilight’s second-fiddle Taylor Lautner, sees his own face on a missing-persons website. But it’s not because he was abducted as a child—and the real reason is almost too stupid to go into. (It was a trap so the bad guys could lure him out of his safe, secret-agent-led foster home?) What follows is a series of fights and chases led by the ultimately charisma-less Lautner, who doesn’t really sell his character ultra-trained CIA spawn, but is even less convincing as a normal teenager. What’s most confusing of all is how director John Singleton and actors like Maria Bello, Sigourney Weaver, and Alfred Molina got dragged down with him.

No. 3: Just Go with It

Let’s see what Adam Sandler had been doing surrounding Just Go with It. He played a rich guy with a hot wife in Grown Ups. He played a rich guy with a hot ex-wife in Funny People. Immediately following Just Go with It, he played a rich guy with a hot wife (and his awful twin sister) in Jack and Jill. Sandler’s most interesting comedies arise when he creates a character—either real people with real flaws that drive the action, like Billy Madison, or strange outlandish types like in Little Nicky. Now, he seems content with being the normal, rich dude who puts in the minimum amount of effort to woo whatever young actress is roped in to play his love interest. Just Go with It is the peak of this sort of Sandler laziness. He has to choose between the young paramour he’s been chasing (Brooklyn Decker) and his female best-friend-all-along (Jennifer Aniston). What’s unclear by the end of the movie is what, apart from his successful plastic surgery practice, either of them see in him.

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DVD Review: Fast Five

'Fast Five' Is as Fun as When You Were a Kid, Smashing Your Toys Together

From the opening moments of the movie—when two flashy muscle cars conspire to collide with the prison bus, which tumbles and rolls and everyone walks away without a fatality—it’s clear that Fast Five is going to be at least a little silly. The characters drive off cliffs and leap out of windows and suffer neither broken bones nor scratches and bruises. It is, however, aware of its own outlandishness. “There’s nowhere in the world where people with cars hang out with models. We get that,” director Justin Lin says in his solo commentary on the movie’s extended edition, which runs a full one minute longer than the theatrical cut.

But there’s no harm in running away with the fantasy of it. In the commentary, Lin suggests that everyone just “embrace the ridiculousness of it.” There’s no reason not to, since going along with it means you get to see high-powered cars going up against buses, trains, and, eventually, bank vaults. The joy is similar to the one you experienced when you were a kid, smashing your toys into one another—only the movie has far more expensive toys. Lin estimates that more than 200 cars were destroyed during filming.

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The Daily Traveler: Rum Diary

Johnny Depp and Puerto Rico Star in The Rum Diary

Johnny Depp’s latest, The Rum Diary, opens tonight—an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's semi-autobiographical novel about working at an ailing newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the late 1950s. Filming was done on location on the island (which was recently top-rated in our annual Readers’ Choice Awards, along with several snazzy hotels and resorts). Johnny Depp, no stranger to working in the Caribbean, speaks fondly the two months he spent in Puerto Rico. "It's very vivid; there's a real celebration of life there," he told Entertainment Tonight. "The people there are very warm and welcoming—in truth, the sweetest people on Earth."

Film Review: Dirty Girl

'Dirty Girl': The Edgy Misfit

“'No one likes a dirty girl,' a high school principal tells Danielle (Juno Temple), the firecracker at the center of Dirty Girl. He’s wrong, of course. Plenty of people love a dirty girl, this film’s writer and director Abe Sylvia first and foremost. Danielle, growing up in Norman, Oklahoma in 1987, is the very picture of fun feistiness. She wears high espadrilles, piles on the makeup, smokes cigarettes, goes too far with boys in her Mustang convertible, and mouths off to people in an adorable Southern drawl. She sounds like a cliché, but Temple’s performance makes this dirty girl is a formidable heroine in high-waisted short shorts."

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DVD Review: Love, Wedding, Marriage

'Love, Wedding, Marriage': We Recommend Therapy

"Yet it’s not the premise to Love, Wedding, Marriage—and its strict romantic view that equates divorce with failure—that is the movie’s biggest flaw. Instead, it’s the way the film uses its premise to indulge the worst romantic-comedy tropes, scenes featuring zany speed-dating, bad karaoke, soap-opera-style revelations, a fake suicide attempt, schmaltzy third-act toasts, multiple uses of the phrase 'once upon a time', dramatic revelations, and wacky marriage therapies, plural. Did I mention that Ava has a three-week deadline to save her parents marriage before their big, surprise 30th anniversary party that she refuses to cancel?

Love, Wedding, Marriage goes for broad, just-shy-of-slapstick humor. Only Mulroney doesn’t have a feel for the right tone, rhythm, or look of a romantic comedy. In one scene, the marriage therapist that Ava sends her parents to—played by Christopher Lloyd in the most disappointing cameo of his ever put to film—has them run through some pre-therapy exercises that includes them hopping around and snorting air through their noses. Surely, this was supposed to be played for comedy.

In reality, there’s nothing really all that funny about watching Jane Seymour and James Brolin flopping around on screen. It’s almost more sad than funny. When Mulroney tries for some more directorial flourishes, he favors the more dramatic series of extreme close-ups, lingering ponderously on Mandy Moore’s face.

Then again, there isn’t much in the material to elevate with better direction. Much of the dialogue, written by Anouska Chydzik and Caprice Crane of the recent 90210 and Melrose Place reboots, is therapy-speak. People often say exactly what they feel. They talk about fulfillment, prioritizing, and validation. If there is a single least-funny word in the English language, it just might be 'prioritizing'."


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PopMatters' 100 Essential Directors: Oliver Stone

As part of PopMatters' survey of 100 essential directors, I did a brief piece about Oliver Stone.

The 100 Essential Directors Part 9: Victor Sjöström to Luchino Visconti

Oliver Stone

Underrated: Nixon (1995) and W. (2008). These two films, though controversial, are not as easy to argue about or as quick to ruffle feathers as JFK. And, though political, they don’t touch the same kind of raw, emotional nerve as a subject like the Vietnam War, like Stone did in Platoon and Born of the Fourth of July (1989). As a result, they’re both overlooked, a shame considering what Stone manages to accomplish in them: painting a human, even sympathetic, portrait of a figure that stands for everything he’s against personally. The two imperial presidents are cast in very different lights: Stone’s Nixon, in his quest for power, causes his own undoing, while his George W. Bush is almost totally powerless, haplessly flubbing his way through his own presidency. And yet Stone manages empathy for them both, and gets award-worthy performances out of Anthony Hopkins and Josh Brolin in the process.

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Fall Arts Preview: Fall Movies

Fall Arts Preview: Fall Movies


Everyone knows that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Macbeth, and all those other great plays. But, to paraphrase the Royal Tenenbaums, what this movie presupposes is—maybe he didn’t? Director Roland Emmerich, best known for his disaster movies like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, offers a melodrama that asserts that Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford, is the true scribe whose work  launched a million high-school essays.


The Artist

In the era of 3D, IMAX, and surround sound, it seems almost woefully backwards to recommend a movie that’s silent. Yes, silent. And black-and-white. And not in widescreen. The Artist is a new French film that takes place in Hollywood during the silent-film era, and it attempts to recreate that experience for current audiences. It’s a perfect antidote for those suffering from loud, color-saturated, quick-cut comics-movies fatigue."

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Fall Arts Preview: Fall Events

Fall Arts Preview: Fall Events

I wrote the massive guide to fall arts and culture, which was broken into Fall Events, Fall Books, Fall Movies, and Fall TV. For fall events, I covered upcoming art, film, music, theater, family happenings, readings, lectures, comedy, art and craft fairs, and special events taking place in Westchester September, October, and November.

"Talk Cinema

Film writer Harlan Jacobson screened The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—the original Swedish version, of course—before almost anyone else here had a glimpse of Noomi Rapace’s nose-ringed face, thank you very much. And he doesn’t plan on getting scooped this season, either. For his Talk Cinema series, Jacobson shows an indie or foreign film before its release, then hosts a discussion afterward with a filmmaker or critic. You don’t get to know what film you see beforehand, but speculating is half the fun.


The Zombies

This will be their year: to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary, the Zombies have planned a worldwide tour, with stops from Edinburgh to Tel Aviv. And, when they finally come stateside, they’re playing the Tarrytown Music Hall. In addition to ’60s hits like 'Time of the Season' and 'She’s Not There,' the band will perform songs from last year’s new album, Breathe Out, Breathe In."

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