2011 Film Reviews
by Dr. Bob Blackwood
These movie review articles appeared in the Columbia River Reader and are copyrighted by Bob Blackwood
Back to film year index page
83rd Annual Academy Awards, the most-watched TV show throughout the
world, will take place on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011.
Usually, I would give you my picks for certain categories; I won’t this
year. Why not? Because of an early
deadline, I can’t see the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday, Jan. 30, but
if you are making your picks in the office/school/church and/or local bar Oscar
pool, here is what you should do. Check
out the Golden Globes for the major categories: Best Drama: “The Social
Network.” The comedies rarely walk
away with an Oscar for Best Picture. Best Actress, Drama: Natalie Portman-“Black
Swan.” Best Actor, Drama: Colin Firth-“The King’s Speech.”
Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo-“The Fighter.” Best Supporting
Actor: Christian Bale-“The Fighter.” Best
Director: David Fincher-“The Social Network.”
Good luck with picking screenplays. Then,
check out all of the films in your local theaters.
the Golden Globes, watch the SAG Awards for the choices of actresses and the
actors, in particular, or get the results the next day on the internet or in
your local newspaper.
check out the Academy Award nominations: Best Film: “Black Swan,” “The
Fighter,” “Inception,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Social
Network,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “127 Hours,” “Toy Story 3,”
“Winter’s Bone,” & “True Grit.”
Wildman Handicapping: Bet
on “The Fighter,” “The King’s Speech,” or “Winter’s Bone” (black
horse, everyone’s second choice).
Actress: Annette Benning (KAAR), Jennifer Lawrence (WB), Michelle Williams (Blue
Valentine), Natalie Portman (BS), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole).
Natalie Portman or Jennifer Lawrence (black horse).
Best Actor: Colin Firth (KS), James Franco (127 Hours), Javier Bardem (Biutiful), Jeff Bridges (TG) & Jesse Eisenberg (SN). Bet on Firth.
Rapids” Is Heart-Warming; “Unknown” Is Thrilling
Arteta’s “Cedar Rapids” (MPAA: R) starring Ed Helms (the tooth-missing
dude from “The Hangover” and TV’s “The Office”), John C. Reilly, Anne
Heche and a slick Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (TV’s “The Wire”) was a lovable
comedy. True, Helms’ Tim Lippe
seems barely adult often (never left his small town to climb into an airplane
before), dates his 7th grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver) (OK, I might
too), and believes insurance agents can be quite noble people.
When he represents his insurance firm at an insurance convention in the
metropolis of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he gets the chance to see them as they are:
some a bit sleazy, some a bit repressed, some OK when the chips are down, some
trying for cheap thrills, some just trying.
it’s not one of those sentimental films where everyone turns out to have
Mother Theresa-like human concerns—certainly not with Anne Heche as one of the
actors. But let us say that when Tim
Lippe leaves Cedar Rapids, he has lost his illusions but gained a mature
perspective on life and love. Plus,
the audience loves to laugh at him and, ultimately, with him.
That is as good as it gets; and “As Good As It Gets” was too.
Will it win two Oscars? Not without Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, but it
has a good cast and a good script.
Collet-Sera’s “Unknown” (MPAA: PG-13) with Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn,
January Jones and Diane Kruger is a thriller with a twist (no, you have to
untwist it yourself). Set in Berlin,
the heartland of espionage since the 1910s, Neeson is a scientist with
attractive wife (Jones from TV’s “Mad Men”) in hand, who is ready to give
a report on a significant discovery at an international conference filled with
biggies of all varieties. Thanks to a Berlin taxicab, driven by another hottie
(Kruger), which goes into a river, Neeson loses his memory, his i.d. and most of
his money. When he finds out
who-he-is, his wife claims he isn’t who-he-is.
She even has a husband with i.d. (Quinn).
does Neeson resolve this matter? With
a visit to a shrink and some pills—not on your life!
How about hooking up with a retired Stasi (East German security) officer,
played by Bruno Gans? How about some
frantic running around, assorted violence and startling revelations?
I really wanted to see what happened next.
on the Academy Awards:
Next year, if our publication schedule permits me to see both The Golden Globes
& The Screen Actors Guild award shows, I will give you specific picks on The
Oscars. Still, I was in the ballpark
on the six categories that I did give to you:
Colin Firth for Best Actor and Christian Bale for Best Supporting Actor
were right on the money. Natalie
Portman for Best Actress (identified as the favorite and a shudderingly
memorable performance) and Melissa Leo (identified as the black horse pick) were
close. Best Director Tom Hooper for
“The King’s Speech” was one of two, and for Best Film “The King’s
Speech” was right on too.
Films—Hard to Miss This Year!
year, Diane and I go off to DragonCon in Atlanta, GA, over the Labor Day
Weekend. I walk in the parade down
Peachtree Street dressed as Gandalf the Grey or the pirate Bartholomew Roberts.
But my favorite occupation, other than going to Trader Vic’s and
scoping out vampires, is to speak on panels dealing with Science Fiction or
we have had a flood of them. I’ll
touch on a few.
feared Jonathan Liebesman’s “Battle: Los Angeles” (MPAA
PG-13) would be another “Independence Day,” a rip-off of Wells “War of the
Worlds.” I know some special
effects mavens were hoping for that.
surprised they were when they viewed a study of a returning combat sergeant
(Aaron Eckhart), who has trouble dealing with the action he has survived abroad
in the Middle East. The focus is on
Aaron Eckhart’s hard-bitten sergeant, almost retired, and now in the fight of
his life. The value of this film
rests solely in Eckhart’s performance and the soldiers of his company.
You see their concern for each other and for the civilians around them.
These actors make the major contribution to this film.
If you want glossy special effects, go elsewhere.
Nolfi’s “The Adjustment Bureau” (MPAA
PG-13) based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team,” had Matt
Damon, Emily Blunt, a wonderful expanded script by Nolfi and an upbeat theme.
You can have a fine work of art focused on self-destruction, such as
Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” It
seems to be rather harder, today, to create one with a strong note of hope.
script is helped by Damon’s right-on performance as a young politician with a
self-deprecating sense of humor, who bats one out of the park for love—an
attraction to a beautiful dancer (Blunt), which both actors make us feel is for
real even though their times together are few.
The plot—at times seeming to be both science fiction and
fantasy—explains the attraction, and the fight of the two to overcome an
almost godlike control of their lives by an unseen organization.
Some individuals will see the film as a religious commentary.
No, it’s just Dick’s worlds-within-worlds’ view of life, and done
a beautifully cast film—Jake Gyllenhaal as the military hero, Michelle
Monaghan as his love interest, Vera Farmiga as his superior officer, and Jeffrey
Wright as the nutty doctor who is experimenting with Gyllenhaal—has problems
in Duncan Jones’ “Source Code” (MPAA PG-13).
Unfortunately, the plot relies on a version of the old time-travel
routine that Harold Ramis did so much better as a comedy in “Groundhog Day”
with Bill Murray. The plot has
become rather tired, thanks to scripts like this one.
Redford’s “The Conspirator”: Historically
Accurate & Timely
an actor, Robert Redford’s range is awesome.
When his somber older spy mentors Brad Pitt as the younger spy in “Spy
Game” (2001), Redford advised the younger Pitt to prepare to “Find a warm
place to die,” when the younger man’s CIA career was over.
Redford breathed concern into the phrase rather than a threat.
Redford’s characters always seem to have a core of vulnerability, like
Marlon Brando’s, like Paul Newman’s.
people prefer Redford’s comic roles, where the emphasis is on timing, the way
the lines are delivered, and the physical expression of the actor.
He was certainly successful with them.
a director, most of Redford’s films—such as “Ordinary People” (1980),
“A River Runs Through It” (1992), “The Horse Whisperer” (1998)—tend to
be a bit thin on the comedy index. His
latest film, “The Conspirator,” doesn’t have a smile in it.
Nevertheless, I could not take my eyes nor my concentration away from
every image in “The Conspirator,” a commentary on the trial of Mary Surratt
(Robin Wright), the woman who was hanged for allegedly being part of the
conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
choice of actors was gifted: James McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland”) as
Surratt’s Union officer/defense attorney, Wright (“State of Play”), and
Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Clayton”) as the Southern senator/lawyer and
Washington insider who arranges Surratt’s defense.
Kevin Kline plays the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who insists upon
the conviction of all suspects and the maximum penalty of law by any means.
this were a sloppy sentimental film, Wright’s Mary Surratt would have been
making noble speeches about the due process of law in private to her attorney or
to her daughter, but this film follows the facts closely.
Mary Surratt did not say much, because she feared her son, John (Johnny
Simmons), had been involved in the conspiracy and was being sought as one of the
When her son was captured and tried in 1867, two years after the assassination, the federal government dismissed all charges after a two-month trial resulted in a hung jury. Though Mary Surratt had a clever young attorney who did all that could be done for her, the untutored mother knew what her 28-year-old attorney did not. When due process of law is ignored in periods of great stress, there is no justice, only the demands of those in power. We are all learning variations on that lesson now.
from the Past; Flick from the Present
Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”
should give a film critic the chance to plug a film, at least once a year, which
you may not get a very good chance to see in the near future.
One such film is Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010),
which opened at the Toronto Film Festival last year and has somewhat limited
distribution. It is a work from the
award-winning director’s heart and head, not from any desire to pay the rent.
is a documentary depicting the drawings on cave walls found in the Chauvet Cave
in southern France. Some drawings
are 32,000 years old; some are a few millennia younger.
They were preserved when falling rocks sealed off the cave about 25,000
years ago. Herzog was the first to
shoot inside the cave, but only with small 3-D cameras (a useful cinematic
technique when drawings are on irregular surfaces) and small light sources that
would not damage the drawings.
commentary on the drawings is sometimes a bit overstressed (German Romanticism,
really?), but it is obvious that the few who have seen the drawings are moved by
them. You could compare the cave to
a temple, a cathedral, or even a place where people shared stories and hopes and
dreams—a good bar with an intelligent clientele. This film will give you
something to think about, “the stuff that dreams are made of” does not
change over 32,000 years—though belief systems, life styles, and peoples’
The funniest film I’ve seen this year to date is Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids” which was co-scripted and stars Kristen Wiig of “Saturday Night Live” and also stars SNL’s Maya Rudolph plus Melissa McCarthy as a ball of fun, and I do mean a big round ball. As my local rock radio critic “The Regular Guy” said, “This is not a chick flick.” No, it is a funny film with lots of over-the-top physical skits as well as some meaningful dramatic moments. It is the sort of thing that Kristen Wiig never gets a chance to do on SNL, where she continues to be limited to a number of egocentric flakes that annoy me, rather than cause me to laugh. Wiig has a lot of talent; I think you’ll laugh a lot.
Mills’ “Beginners”: A Comedy, A Documentary, A History of Sadness
graphic designer’s mother (Mary Page Keller) dies.
The designer’s 75-year-old father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), a museum
curator, comes out of the closet, starts living an active gay life with a much
younger man (Goran Visnjic), and dies of cancer.
His sad 38-year-old son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), goes to a costume party
dressed as Sigmund Freud and meets a woman, Anna (Mélanie Laurent) with
laryngitis. They go to her hotel
room and just sleep—no sex. She
turns out to be a French actress, who is also emotionally bankrupt.
A relationship develops.
of the film’s structure is the quasi-documentary approach owing to director
Mike Mills’ life and his late father’s coming out.
It is a refreshing mixture of genres.
I would have liked to have seen more of his life with his mother, for
Oliver seems to have been the primary male in her personal life.
the film is basically a comedy. We
see Oliver and Anna go through the dance of love—attraction, rejection,
attraction…. We see him developing
drawings into a “History of Sadness” project which has no commercial
potential, but which the relatively young lovers can appreciate through their
lived experience. At the same time,
we see a genuine concern between his father and his lover, Andy.
Though dying, Hal maintains an upbeat laidback manner with a reserve that
his younger lover cannot show.
are the laughs in this flick, you ask? Well,
if you have ever had a bad relationship in your life, you tend to develop a
sense of irony—even a lot of laughter of recognition.
If you don’t take a chance, you can never be happy.
If you do take a chance, you just might get emotionally satisfied or
slammed again. When you see Oliver
and Anna emotionally fencing with Oliver’s dog chiming in too, it is funny.
No, it is not big laughs out of “The Hangover,” but it is funny.
mean this is one of those comedies made for adults, people who have lived with
the result of the death of a loved one? Yes.
Is this what other people would call a melancholic soap opera?
They might, if they don’t have a sense of irony.
Let’s just call it a comedy for adults, even if someone breaks into
tears in your row at the theater.
if I want a comedy for adults with some outright laughs, for Heaven’s sake?
In that case, try Tom Hanks’ film “Larry Crowne,” about a
middle-aged Navy veteran (Tom Hanks) who goes back to college and meets a great
teacher (Julia Roberts) and some younger students who become his friends.
You’ll probably like that one. I
Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens”:
Good Old-Fashioned Western with Hostile Extraterrestrials
can hear some of the other critics wailing even as I type: “Oh, ‘Cowboys
& Aliens’ isn’t an ‘adult’ Western.
This is just another action flick with hostile aliens too.”
Well, I’m ready for an old-fashioned Western.
I sat through Martin Campbell’s “Green Lantern” recently.
I thought it would work for a 10-year-old who loved special effects.
Of course, if he or she were a precocious 12-year-old, “Boredom,
& Aliens” (MPAA PG-13) is an action flick set in the West of 1873.
It has two great action heroes: Daniel Craig, as the Man Without a Memory
but wearing an ET bracelet, and Harrison Ford, as the burnout Union colonel (now
a cattle baron) with a no-count rich kid son.
As the film develops, we expect a shootout between these two and their
cronies, but, then, here comes the aliens.
these aliens are not those aliens who have charming children, or very wise
elders who are reaching out to civilize the known universe, but rather the
old-time “Invasion from Mars” giants with a bad attitude who also take human
prisoners. Yup, they took some kin
from the townsfolk, the colonel’s son who was sitting in jail (thanks, in
part, to Craig’s character), and a few others too.
They even took some Chiricahua Apaches, which tells you how really nasty
these aliens were.
last time we fought Indians who kept running the U.S. Cavalry ragged, it was
Geronimo and his Chiricahuas. Despite
their hostility toward all invaders, even the Chiricahuas joined the townsfolk
and the Colonel’s cowboys. Yes,
there is another group of humans that were involved too, but I won’t tell all.
Wilde (Thirteen from “House) is smashing as the mystery woman.
Sam Rockwell makes a good part-time doctor.
I think that was Buck Taylor who gets bumped off early in the film, but,
hey, he deserved it. So if you like
an action film, take it in.
the other hand, if you like films set in Paris, films with a romance, films with
some satire, and films where a character travels back in time to hang out with
Cole Porter, Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Dali, Buñuel, Josephine Baker,
Gertrude Stein and other legends, try Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (MPAA
Wilson is the Paris-loving writer and time traveler; Rachel McAdams is the
writer’s fiancé and the most hated female character Allen ever created.
Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose”) is the 1920s woman he comes to
love. This is the best Woody Allen film in years.
I saw it a second time; half the people in the popcorn line were seeing
it for the second time too. This is
a dark horse pick for the Oscar.
Brought Us Some Good Films
has been a month of great expectations, one disappointment, and two sure hits.
the disappointment was Gary McKendry’s “Killer Elite” starring Jason
Statham, Clive Owen and Robert DeNiro. However,
if you just want an action film, “Killer Elite” will not disappoint you.
Statham’s acrobatics almost eclipse Jackie Chan’s accomplishments.
But, Statham can also give a good dramatic performance; check out “The
Bank Job” (2008). Clive Owen’s
way with a leading role in “Children of Men” (2006) would have won him an
Oscar if it had not been a science fiction film.
Robert De Niro, of course, can make something out of almost
anything—but this script gave none of the actors much space to develop their
characters. It was too close to that
parody of action films “Shoot ‘Em Up” (2007) with Clive Owen.
Soderbergh’s “Contagion” with Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence
Fishburne and Jude Law was a perfect Soderbergh film—well-edited, with an
upbeat tempo, and deep insights into character with jewel-like precision.
was a film not just about how an international disease is spread, but rather
about how intelligent doctors and scientists deal with the most dreaded diseases
that crawl out of some pesthole. Paltrow,
playing the main American contact for the disease, was willing to take a role
where she rarely appeared healthy and vibrant—what confidence she must have as
an actor. Matt Damon’s role had
him suffering through most of the film, yet he still displayed a certain
vitality. Jude Law did another of
his sleazy character turns—just slightly reminiscent of the killer he played
in “Road to Perdition” (2002), and, no, this is not a plot spoiler. Laurence
Fishburne’s physician was a very human man who was asked to be superhuman when
the heat came down on him as the chief administrator fighting the contagion.
Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” with Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the Oakland
Athletics’ general manager during their 2002 season, was surprisingly nuanced.
It reminded me of the similar challenge that David Fincher faced with
“The Social Network.” How do you
make a picture about the challenge of reducing your evaluation of something to
an esoteric system determined by a particularly clever data cruncher (Jonah Hill
in “Moneyball”) without putting the audience to sleep?
Brad Pitt showed how to do it. You
use the bags under your eyes. You
carefully spit your tobacco juice into a cup.
You educate your daughter to not make the same mistakes you made.
At least one critic was surprised that Pitt could do it so well.
I guess Pitt just refuses to be limited to being featured on the covers
of supermarket magazines.
of March” Beautifully Done; “Anonymous” Has Its
Clooney’s “The Ides of March” is the best political thriller I’ve seen
since Franklin Schaffner’s “The Best Man” (1964) with Henry Fonda.
Clooney has directed three other films: “Confessions of a Dangerous
Mind,” (2002), “Good Night and Good Luck” (2005), and “Leatherheads”
(2008). This film is better.
in a Democratic presidential primary in Ohio, the plot is direct, and the tempo
is as taut as an over-tightened “E” string. Clooney plays the candidate, but
Ryan Gosling is the star of this film, the 30-year-old media guru to the
candidate’s experienced campaign manager, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
These two formidable actors are playing against the other candidate’s
campaign manager, the talented Paul Giamatti, and, at times, against each other.
Rachel Wood, the intern, provides the sexual angle, though for my money the
hard-bitten New York Times reporter
played by Marisa Tomei, would be of greater interest—though far more
dangerous. A ticket will show you
who winds up on the top of the pile. “The
Ides of March” shows that politics is the game of the winner—a game that has
no rules, just advisory guidelines.
smell of this campaign is the smell of the real thing. Clooney’s father was a
TV newsman; Clooney knows the game well and swims in that pool. Clooney’s
Governor Mike Morris and Gosling’s political hustler are liberals, not very
religious, and, also, are only human.
Emmerich’s “Anonymous” is strictly an alternate view of history.
The Earl of Oxford really writes Shakespeare’s plays (I chuckle when I
read noble challengers to the authorship of Will Shakespeare, actor and son of a
glove-maker). Here, Queen Elizabeth
has bastards including the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Southampton (as her
father’s daughter, she’d be more likely to kill them at birth than create
rivals for the throne). And
Elizabethan England is the site of many political plots (quite accurate), which
works well for the audience.
Earl of Oxford, played masterfully by Rhys Ifans, has a number of comic turns
when the man who accepts the role of public author of his plays, William
Shakespeare, (played by Rafe Spall) turns out to be problematic, instead of his
first choice, Ben Jonson (played by Sebastian Armesto).
The historic Jonson was a competent poet, playwright and
producer/director of his own plays—such as “Volpone.”
In addition, Shakespeare was alleged to have acted in Jonson’s play
“Every Man in His Humour” (1598).
acting is the best English actors can do, which is marvelous.
Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the older Queen Elizabeth, may have given her
best performance in this film. With
a better vehicle, she’d have another Oscar.
Dr. Bob Blackwood, whose dissertation was on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a play written by a former English actor and glover’s son, is a colleague of Paul “Man in the Kitchen” Thompson. Blackwood’s story of fishing on the Bogachiel River near Forks, WA, can be found in this issue. At Forks, Blackwood cited no vampires from “Twilight,” though a mysterious fellow in a cloak at a filling station was a dead ringer for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, or Bela Lugosi.
“Margin Call,” “The Way”—Out
of the Ordinary Films
Scorsese’s 3-D, beautifully-composed film, “Hugo,” (MPAA: PG) is based on
a children’s book about a 12-year-old orphan in 1930’s Paris.
As a child, Scorsese was an invalid for a time, trapped in an apartment
in New York’s “Little Italy,” watching the world pass below.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) exists, now that his uncle (Ray Winstone) has
disappeared, oiling the many clocks in a Parisian train station and spying on
the people around him.
keeps an eye out for the bad-tempered station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).
He reveres his departed father (Jude Law) and an automaton (a mechanical
man) they couldn’t revive. He
meets a girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who changes things in his life, as they
always do, and meets the grouchy toyshop owner (Ben Kingsley) who is raising
shopkeeper is George Melies, French pioneer of inventive filmmaking.
You’ve seen his “Voyage to the Moon” with the rocket shell which
winds up in the eye of the Man in the Moon.
He did hundreds of films, which are delightful.
Not only is Melies the original inventor of the automaton, who gives the
children the key to the automaton, but also by the end of “Hugo,” Melies’
old films are restored and are respected again.
And they live happily ever after.
opposed to the elegance of “Hugo,” J. C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” (MPAA:
R) is the portrait of a nightmare. In
2008, an investment firm headed by a ruthless CEO (Jeremy Irons) decides to
peddle worthless product to save itself before the market tanks.
The cast is excellent with Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Zachary
Quinto, and a special performance by Kevin Spacey.
He is the one executive who has more than a momentary twinge about what
he is doing, but he is
a company man. This is a beautiful
film about a horrid world that is depicted accurately in Charles Ferguson’s
documentary “Inside Job” (2010), an Oscar- nominated film.
more upbeat film is Emilio Estevez’s “The Way,” (MPAA: PG-13) starring his
father, Martin Sheen. Sheen plays a
California doctor whose wayward son (Emilio Estevez) dies on the first march in
his 500 mile pilgrimage from France to St. James’ shrine at Santiago de
Compostela, Spain. The doctor
decides to take his son’s ashes with him and finish the pilgrimage.
He meets three companions on the way—a plump, comic Dutchman (Yorick
van Wageningen), a blocked Irish writer (James Nesbitt), and an emotionally
upset Canadian woman who smokes incessantly (Deborah Kara Unger).
They have adventures; they learn to know each other.
I laughed, and I shuddered in self-recognition.
This is a spiritual, rather than a religious film, and it is memorable.