Monday, February 20, 2012

Top 10 Movies of 2011

I've put it off too long. I was trying to get a lot of the critically acclaimed movies released late in 2011 watched before making up my list. But, it's already February and I need to go with what I have. I have to admit that I did not see as many movies in 2011 as I normally do. 2011 seemed like a bad combination of a not great year for movies and a rather pathetic attempt by myself to see the movies there were. So, to get 10, I might have dug a bit deeper than normal:

(10) The Muppets - This does a really good job of being both nostalgic and modern at the same time without being cynical or sarcastic (thanks to Jason Segel). My son had never seen the Muppet Show and loved the movie. I grew up on the show and loved it as well.

(9) Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - I think this movie works, and most critic agreed, because of the combination of director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) translating cartoon action to live action, and some levity by Simon Pegg. I think this movie doesn't take itself too seriously like too much Tom Cruise stuff usually does. For a different take, I highly recommend Wunelle's review: "Recombinist ..."

(8) Hanna - I think this was an underrated movie and it was quite awhile ago that I saw it. The cinematography, sparse dialogue and nice performance by Saoirse Ronan all work to great effect. Click the title to see a nice review by Wunelle.

(7) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 - Pt. 2 very nicely ties up both Deathly Hallows and the series as a whole. An especially good performance by the always great Alan Rickman as Snape.

(6) Rise of the Planet of the Apes - I was expecting just a decent popcorn movie and was pleasantly surprised to get a bit more. It should be no surprise that the unexpected bonus is the remarkable performance by motion capture actor Andy Serkis (of LOTR fame) in the role of the chimp Caesar. This performance was deserving of an Oscar nomination.

(5) The Ides of March - Great cast - Paul Giamati, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Clooney and Gosling. Timely subject matter - political intrigue and influence.

(4) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - I guess I'm one of the people that likes both versions of this film equally well. While I believe that Noomi Rapace's performance in the Swedish version of the movie is the defining one, I think Rooney Mara does a good job of not mimicking her and makes this her own. The pacing of the American movie is better and does not rely on having read the book as much.

(3) Haywire - Very distinctly Soderbergh in a dialogue and visual sense.

(2) Meek's Cutoff - Subtle, quiet, yet still powerful. Nice performance by Michelle Williams.

(1) Moneyball - If you think this movie is about baseball, you are largely missing the point. it is more about how we value things and how important it is to believe in what you are doing, even when nobody else does. This is probably Brad Pitt's defining performance of his career and one that a younger and more naive Brad Pitt could not have pulled off. It's a naturalistic, nuanced performance. Jonah Hill also does a great job in an understated performance.

Honorable Mention: X-Men: First Class, Super 8, Contagion, Rango, Limitless, Pearl Jam Twenty, Bobby Fischer Against the World

I would like to have seen the following (and surely will this year):
The Descendants
The Artist
A Dangerous Method
Take Shelter
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Iron Lady
The Tree of Life
A Separation
J. Edgar
Adventures of Tintin

I have a feeling that if I'd seen any of these, they would have made my top 10.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

2012 VNSA Used Book Sale

A sampling of my finds from our yearly trek to the VNSA Used Book Sale:

Virtual Light by William Gibson (one of my favorite authors. This is the last book of his that I did not have.)

The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman
The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies by John Scalzi

Science Non-Fiction

Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution by Madison Smartt Bell

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist by Richard Feynman
Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law by Peter Woit
They All Laughed ... Fascinating Stories Behind the Great Inventions that have Changed Our Lives by Ira Flatow
eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben

General Non-Fiction & Philosophy

AThe Lord of the Rings and Philosophy Edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson

The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Erich Fromm
The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol
This Game of Ghosts: The Sequel to Touching the Void by Joe Simpson (yet another book about mountain climbing ... I love these!)
The End of Oil: On the Ege of a Perilous New World by Paul Roberts

The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot by Naomi Wolf
Render Unto Darwin: Philosophical Aspects fo the Christian Rights' Crusade against Science by James H. Fetzer
Modern Architecture: since 1900 by William J. R. Curtis
Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress ... by Michael Specter (Wunelle had turned me on to this book and I was thrilled to find it)

"No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance." -- Confucius

Sunday, February 05, 2012

ASU Origins: Something from Nothing

You'll have to forgive my little bit of hero worship. I went to the previously mentioned ASU Origins talk with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. My seat was great (despite the iffy photo I took with my phone).

Something from Nothing was mostly as an informal talk about each of their current books: Dawkins' children's book The Magic of Reality and Krauss' Something from Nothing. The talk was unmoderated and bounced around quite a bit from evolutionary biology to cosmology to religion and politics. It was erudite and humorous and as has happened with the previous talks I've went to, I had a great time. Taking place in a packed Gammage Auditorium (the last public commission of Frank Lloyd Wright) on the campus of Arizona State University, it was gratifying to see so many smart people (young and old) who were willing to pay money to hear other smart people talk. I was lucky enough to speak to many of them before after the show. Getting to have a real conversation with rational people was an experience I don't often get. There may yet be hope for my generation and beyond.

During the last talk I attended, I was able to meet, talk with and get an autograph from Lawrence Krauss. This time, I made sure to stick around and speak to Mr. Dawkins. I had him sign the Magic of Reality book that I had bought for my son Alex for Christmas.


Update: You can view this talk online here: Something from Nothing

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Girl Power

What does a Western set in 1845 on the Oregon Trail have to do with a modern action thriller, you may ask? More than you think, I say. I had intended on writing two reviews but in a weak moment, I thought I could save some time and appear clever by comparing Meek's Cutoff with Steven Soderburgh's Haywire. How successful I am remains to be seen. The success of the movies is not in question. Both are outstanding.

Meek's Cutoff is based on a true story of a group of settlers led by Stephen Meek (played brilliantly by Bruce Greenwood), their guide. He's prone to bragging and general nuttiness and the band of weary travellers eventually figure out he may not have any idea where they are going. The trip that was supposed to take a couple of weeks stretches over a month. They're almost out of water and in treacherous lands.

Some might consider Meek's to be slow, but I believe it is for effect. The deliberate nature of the narrative builds tension and anxiety in both the characters and the observer. Being in the 1800's, there is a definite hierarchy of decision-making in the group, with the males ostensibly taking the lead. The male members of the group converse among themselves, the females the same. In one of the most effective plot devices, the conversations of the males are often in heard in the background by the females. But it is done faintly so that the movie watcher is made to feel like the women, barely able to hear what they are saying. I found myself often trying to turn up the volume (was on Netflix) just to hear what they were saying. It was a bit maddening and made me feel anxious. And, I believe, that was exactly the director's intent.

After endless meandering, no clear directing by Meek, and with water quickly running out, tensions rise to the point that the lead female, Emily Tetherow, played by the always fantastic Michelle Williams, takes things into her own hands. I won't say how, as that would give away a bit too much, but it is literal, symbolic and forceful all at once. Besides the previously mentioned Greenwood and Williams, the cast is capably filled by Will Patton and Paul Dano, among others. Dano (There Will Be Blood) and Williams (Brokeback Mountain) have a bit of experience in the Western genre, but the revelation is the virtually unrecognizable Greenwood. Usually playing clean-shaven, reserved and authoritative roles (Presidents a couple of times, Capt. Pike in Star Trek), he is positively wild and woolly here. I recommend this movie. Grade: B+

Haywire, with MMA veteran Gina Carano in the lead role of secret agent for hire Mallory Kane, was another pleasant surprise. Carano has had a couple of bit roles, but this is her first starring vehicle. As you would expect from a non-actor, this is not a Shakespearean role exactly, but it doesn't need to be. Soderbergh plays to her strengths ... a cool demeanor, physicality, great fighting ability, and, let's face it, she's not harsh on the eyes.

The details and intricacies of the plot are not nearly as important as the set-pieces for Carano's action. The plot does enough to carry Carano around to different places/countries and to different scene-chewing baddies: Ewan McGregor as her "boss", Michael Fassbender as a fellow agent, and Mathieu Kassovitz (Amelie) and Antonio Banderas as a couple of diplomatic string-pullers. Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, and Bill Paxton all capably fill roles as her allies.

Movie watchers, and Americans in general, are idiots. As a rule, they are unappreciative of nuance and incapable of picking up plot points unless they are spoonfed them. For this reason, Haywire is the odd action movie more appreciated by the critics than the general audience (a point well made at Antimatter's blog). Perhaps misreading the TV ads, movie-goers expected an all-action movie. Thankfully, that is not what Haywire is. It's not that it doesn't have action ... it's that it is not go-go-go and it is not cartoonish. The action grows out of the plot.

One of my favorite scenes is after Mallory and Fassbender's character have left the party and she already knows of the doublecross. And I'm pretty sure he knows she knows. But they play it coolly. They are showing every sign of a normal loving couple returning home but there is a tightly coiled tension awaiting that moment when they get in the room and he will attack.
The strength of the scene (and the movie) is as much about the anticipation of action as the action itself.

Haywire has a lot of the usual Soderbergh elements: a quirky jazz soundtrack, clever dialogue, and cinematography digitally filmed almost exclusively by Soderbergh himself. Like most good directors (and even some bad ones), you could guess who the director was even if you didn't already know. But in the case of Soderbergh, that's not a negative. I recommend this movie. Grade: B+

For some more takes on Haywire, also check out Journal Wunelle and his review: Root Canal, and also the previously mentioned review at Matter - Antimatter: Annihilation

Now, to tie it all in, here is where I believe these two movies share some thematic elements. Both movies are spare with no effects and infrequent dialogue. Both have a strong female lead who initially take direction from males of dubious intent -- Greenwood's Meek and Ewan McGregor's Kenneth. Through adventures that are either ill-conceived or outright devious, those females discover the duplicity of the males. At that point, they take control of their futures and proceed to an ambiguous and unresolved end. But the destination, ultimately, is not as important as the path and the decision they made. Both have strong female protagonists that would be dangerous to underestimate or as the character Kenneth says in Haywire:

"Don’t think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake."