Friday, August 26, 2011

2011 Summer Movie Review part I: The Moments That Mattered

We'll see if my schedule allows me to do a comprehensive 'end of summer' box office wrap-up, but since summer 2011 doesn't officially end until next weekend, I figure I've got time. For now, here is my annual rundown of the various scenes, performances, moments, and miscues that defined the summer just past. Because sometimes, discussing the 'parts' is more fun than discussing the 'whole'. I'll try to avoid divulging plot twists and the like, but consider this a SPOILER WARNING.

Best Fake-Out: Vin Deisel sacrifices himself for the team at the finale of Fast Five.
Even if you feel silly admitting that you cared about the characters in this fifth and inexplicably terrific entry in the eleven-year long racing action franchise, you cannot deny that the characters cared about each other.  What made the movie pop was the genuine sense of camaraderie and bonding that existed between our main characters, which is one of the benefits of being the fifth film in a long running franchise.  So when Deisel's Dominic Toretto separates himself from the pack during the final chase scene, apparently intent on sacrificing himself to give the rest of his friends (including his pregnant sister Mia and her boyfriend Brian) a chance at freedom and riches, I bought it.  The film had built up a genuine 'series finale' vibe, and it seemed completely appropriate that the franchise would end with Dom, the series's most prominent character, giving his life so that his sister's unborn child wouldn't have to grow up without a father.  When Toretto miraculously survived his one-man cannon-ball run, I rolled my eyes a bit.  It wasn't until a week later that I remembered that this fifth film actually took place BEFORE the third film in the series (Tokyo Drift), at the end of which Vin Deisel made a cameo appearance.  Point being, Dominic Toretto was never in danger.  But the film was so unexpectedly compelling and exciting that I completely forgot what I already knew going in.

Best Scene in a Bad Movie: Emma Stone seduces Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid Love.
It's no secret that I hate the sub-par sitcom-ish antics of this obscenely overrated peon to stalking.  I hate the film is completely about the male pursuit of easily-won female flesh, and that the only genuinely engaging female character is regulated to a plot point to be fought over by the men during the third act.  But the second-act climax does contain one wonderful extended moment.  To set-up, Emma Stone's young attorney has just broken up with her longtime boyfriend as she heads to a bar where she had earlier been accosted by Gosling's pick-up artist lothario.  She basically walks into the bar and throws herself at him and DEMANDS to be his latest one-night stand.  What follows is a funny, well-scripted, and charming bit of anti-seduction, as Gosling lays out his usual scoring technique to a completely above-it-all Stone.  The scene ends in a somewhat unexpected fashion, and its one of the few moments of authentic human behavior in an otherwise painfully trite and borderline offensive 'romantic comedy'.

Most Poignant Expository Monologue: Will Ferrell confesses his sins in Everything Must Go.
The premise of Everything Must Go, an alcoholic who has just been kicked out of his house simply squats on the front lawn with all of his material belongings, could have easily been played for farce.  But writer/director Dan Rush and star Will Ferrell plays the premise (from a Raymond Carver short story) as genuinely real as they can, creating a genuinely thoughtful and small-scale human drama.  The most potent moment comes around the end of the second act, when Ferrell explains to his new neighbor (Rebecca Hall) just what broke up his marriage.  Basically, without going into details, he fell off the wagon during a business trip and did something very bad, or at least he thinks he did.  The sad and point-blank way he states 'I don't know...' when quizzed about the anecdote's accuracy, and Hall's very real reaction to it, brings an uncommonly raw bit of realism that is frankly uncommon in films starring stars as big as Mr. Ferrell.

Best False Hope: "Downeaster Alexa" plays as the gang flies to Thailand in The Hangover part II.
The Hangover part II is guilty of not only being a rehash of the first film, but being a relatively cowardly and lazy rehash of the first picture.  That it follows the same general story outline as the first film is not its biggest crime, as any number of sequels do that (especially back in the days when not every film was being constructed as a mythology-filled trilogy).  But the tragedy is that Todd Phillips sets up a much darker and nastier variation on the template during the off-kilter and almost somber first act.  The kicker is the actual plane-flight montage, set to Billy Joel's classic song about economically-struggling fishermen (my favorite of his songs, natch).  The montage and accompanied music sets the scene as what feels like a flight into doom, the opening steps on a journey into hell from which our would-be heroes would not or could not return whole.  The film eventually chickens out sometime before the halfway mark, with neither the courage to go uncompromisingly dark and scary or go inexplicably optimistic and sunny.  The second half of the film has signs of post-production tinkering, and the final product is unnecessary by virtue of its bland repetition.  But that genuinely foreboding montage, which turns a great Billy Joel song into the harbinger of doom, is a sign of things that were, alas, not to come.

Best Death Scene: Ellen Wroe does not Make It, only Breaks It in Final Destination 5.
This also qualifies as arguably the most suspenseful moment of the summer, as doomed gymnast Candace Hooper goes through her routine during a practice session, unaware that a loose screw has fallen from the ceiling and now rests on her balance beam.  Director Steven Quale shoots and edits this nerve-wracking sequence with 'bomb under the table' precision that, yes, invites comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock.  I wouldn't dream of telling you how it ends, but just know that it ends very badly for Ms. Hooper and hits just the right balance of horrifying hilarity that this messy series often strives for.  It's the best death scene in the whole series, and easily one of the ten best death scenes in recent horror history.

Most Delicious Bit of Lechery - Natalie Portman mentally-screws Chris Hemsworth pre-flight in Thor.
Natalie Portman is a very attractive woman, and Kat Dennings with long hair and nerd glasses is a very pruriently appealing visual.  But one of the most pleasant things about Thor, aside from the fact that it was actually pretty fun and engaging, was that it let the girls do the majority of the ogling, subjecting Chris Hemsworth to the kind of objectification that usually gets forced on the females in male-driven genre fare.  There are plenty of 'suggestive eye-movements' (to quote an age-old CAP Alert review for Antz), but the best little bit of such business comes right before the action climax.  The mighty Thor has basically reclaimed his powers, along with his royal costume and magic hammer.  As he prepares to fly to the spot where he can theoretically teleport back to Asgard, he offers Portman's Jane Foster a lift via a pleasure flight.  As he puts his arm around her, she gives him a snarky smile of not awe, romantic wonder, or inspired admiration, but of pure unadulterated lust.  It's a small moment, but its a great character gesture that makes Kenneth Branagh's Thor feel more at home with the goofier and more self-aware comic book adaptations of the 1990s (The Phantom, The Shadow, etc) than the current crop of often self-serious epics.

Best Cliffhanger - Kung Fu Panda 2 lays out its entire arc.
There are a dozen reasons that Kung Fu Panda 2 was my favorite film of the summer, if not the year thus far.  It was a pitch-perfect sequel that built upon the original relationships, upped the personal stakes, and expanded on the world while remaining a self-contained action drama.  Without going into any details, the final image of this second picture is a gut-punch of a surprise, a genuinely shocking revelation that instantly spelled heartbreak for several major characters and a conflict that likely will play out over the entirety of the series.  Jeffrey Katzenberg claims that he wants six Kung Fu Panda films.  By the end of this dynamite sequel, you know exactly where the story is going next, and you have the full confidence that the folks at Dreamworks have an entire mythology already planned, just waiting to be told.      

Worst Cliffhanger/Worst Scene in a Good Movie - Captain America kills its own narrative potential.
Captain America was among the happiest surprises of the summer, working as an old-school action adventure that put as much emphasis on character and relationships as it did on action.  Stanley Tucci helped make the first act of the film among the best opening acts of any superhero film, and Chris Evans successfully pulled off the most relentlessly 'good' superhero since Billy Zane wore purple tights and 'slammed evil'.  But all of the hard work to establish character and relationships went to hell in the final moments of the picture.  If you're one of three people who don't know what happened or why it happened, I won't spoil it here.  But the needless 'shocker' epilogue basically kills an entire franchise worth of period-set Captain America adventures for the sake of overtly establishing a certain status quo.

Best Ed Wood Imitation - Sean Penn randomly stands around in Tree of Life.
Generally speaking, one would not compare a Terrence Malick film to Plan Nine From Outer Space.  The latest existential spectacle, which is such a magnificent 'Terrence Malick movie!' that it borders on self-parody, works as a remarkably emotional tone poem about life itself, contrasting dawn of the dinosaurs to the single progress of a prototypical 1950s American family.  The first half is more potent than the second half, but there are moments of unmistakable power and pure cinematic grandeur.  However, there are also several moments, mostly in the opening and closing of the film, that involve Sean Penn.  Technically playing the grown-up older son of Brad Pitt's domineering-but-loving father, Penn basically stands around being mute,  somewhat brooding, and allegedly meditative.  Malick is a notoriously painstaking re-editor of his own work, so we can all guess what Sean Penn's original purpose in the epic-yet-intimate narrative was supposed to be at some point.  But now, even Penn has admitted (with no malicious intent) that he has no idea what he's doing in the finished film.  As it stands, Penn basically makes like Bela Legosi, silently standing around looking depressed for just a few minutes of screentime that is completely disconnected from the rest of the film.  At least Penn was not replaced by Malick's wife's chiropractor after the opening scenes.

Best 'For Your Consideration' Moment - Alan Rickman spills his secrets in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II.
I'm personally convinced that the Academy's new 'indeterminate number of Best Picture Nominees' rule was specifically crafted to avoid 'accidentally' nominating critically-acclaimed 'popular entertainment' such as this generally impressive series finale to one of the most ambitious undertakings in cinematic history.  Better to keep the Oscars only for 'appropriate' movies seen only by critics and kept out of wide-release as long as possible.  But if the Harry Potter series is to earn some Oscar love outside of the technical categories, there is no easier way to acknowledge the overall achievement that to give series MVP and beloved thespian Alan Rickman his first Oscar nomination.  And the series finale was kind enough to give him a tour-de-force moment that is both the highlight of the picture and one of the very best moments in the whole series.  Without going into details, it's an extended montage that both spells out just what was going on with Severus Snape pretty much from birth until his last moments in the film as well as perfectly encapsulates the moral of the whole Harry Potter myth: good people doing what is right in the face of unimaginable costs and sacrifices.  It is the tragedy of Severus Snape that gives the final Harry Potter film its beating heart.  And it is the final acknowledgment of that lifelong sacrifice (Harry's gesture to a man who was unthinkably brave in the most unexpected way) that gives the epilogue its punch.

And that's it for this summer's edition of 'The Moments That Mattered'.  The rest of the summer analysis (general box office, a bit on 3D, and a bit on international grosses) should follow this week, depending on time.  Until then, keep reading.

Scott Mendelson


Liam_Ho said...

I know you dislike how Captain America ended but I didn't know by this much. The far bigger problem to me in that movie is the montage scene where they are taking down Hydra bases. It was so rushed that you wouldn't know 3 years passed during that time. Since Steve Rogers is thrust into the present time doesn't that open up certain narratives dealing with him living in a different time. We might even have a flashback movie jumping from past to present.

corysims said...

Scott, 100% totally on point about Natalie Portman's performance in Thor. It's a great bit of character work by her by the fact that she's literally got the physical embodiment of proof for her research and she's giddy as hell that she'll finally be vindicated within the science community.

At the same time, through out the entire second act of the picture, she also lusting after him like nobody's business. It's fun to see Portman this loose in a film. Her performance reminds me of her work in Garden State with a touch of Jodie Foster from Contact.

Agree with you about Captain America's ending but Liam_Ho's right. I think, even the writers of the sequel have said that that montage allows them to go back to the 1940's at some points during the sequel(s). Like you, I would've preferred that last image of the kids in the street pretending to be Captain America and the Howling Commandos as the final image of the picture. It's the perfect capper. But, there is room to go back.

And, yes to everything about Snape, Rickman, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.

Nycvox said...

Please don't use "regulate" when you mean "relegate". I don't know whether it's you or your editor, but you've done it twice now.


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