Movies Seen Over the Holidays

In an effort to slow down and recharge, Ann and I saw a lot of movies in the theaters, on video, and on demand over the past few weeks, in addition to some TV shows. Here, in no particular order, are thumbnail reviews of a few of them. The last, Bunny and the Bull, you may not have heard of, but is a must-see.

Community—Watching this show about a group of misfits at a community college has been one of the great pleasures of our TV viewing. From Abed to Jeff to Shirley to the character played by Chevy Chase, there’s lots of possibilities here for both humor and depth, and a commitment to a diverse cast and at the very least some surface examination of social, religious, and racial issues played against a surreal and absurd backdrop. A favorite episode involves a paintball fight. Another, riffing off of Goodfellas. Highly recommended.

IT Crowd, Season Four—We love the IT crowd, based around three lovable quirky geek losers in the basement of a large corporation. Season three was, in our opinion, the best. Now that we’ve seen Season four we can report that…Season three is still the best. The scripts for season four seemed to force situations too much, and substituted the simply unbelievable for the surreal or absurd. Lots of good set-pieces, but something’s come unglued. It felt like late-era Seinfeld.

Modern Family—I know a lot of people like this show and are happy to have a positive portrayal of a gay couple raising a baby on network TV…but the show is at best uneven. Sequences in which the gay couple keep assuming an Asian-American doctor knows everything about everything Asian just make them look like fools and are wince-inducing. The realtor dad in one of the other families is incredibly creepy—to the point of stalker-creep—and the creators of the show don’t seem to realize this. But it’s mostly the sloppy way in which the families’ jobs have been integrated into the show—almost not at all—and the kind of upper middle class suburban ease with which the characters move through the show that grates the most. These people don’t have any real problems, and so the trivial is magnified to the level of drama. Exceptions to the expected include the Colombian son, who is quirky and interesting and non-cliche. But an incident involving an accident outside a cupcake shop just shows how sloppy this show is—for the sake of a joke, the family members inside apparently don’t hear the car smash into the side of the shop. There’s a lot of second-hand observations of reality here. Often predictable, coincidental, and uneven, with a few truly funny episodes shining through.

Below–I watched this quite awhile ago, but seeing it in our Netflix history, I thought I should recommend it. This is an excellent submarine/supernatural story, well above the norm, with great editing and peformances. It holds together throughout. Definitely rent it.

Terribly Happy—Set in small-town Denmark, this classic bit of bizarre neo-noir involves a poker game of fate and a bog and dead people and a sheriff recently arrived from Copenhagen where he did something terrible. Will he solve these new crimes? Will he get too involved with a local married woman? Why the hell is that kid pushing that squeaky pram all the time? This is the real deal–a truly original and good take on the genre.

True Grit—A great Coen brothers movie that gives us a sincere and believably brave teenage girl as a protagonist and an outstanding performance from Jeff Bridges as a US lawman. The cinematography is ravishing in its desolation, every set-piece is note-perfect, the dialogue is a delight, the violence is not sensationalized, and the ending is complex, bittersweet, and perfect. (In theaters now.)

Backyard—A searing and complex fictional view of the Juarez murders and disappearances of hundreds of women. Much better than a movie on the same topic starring Jennifer Lopez, Backyard mostly uses actors little-known in the US, including a female cop, and examines the murders in the context of Juarez as a whole, Mexico’s relationship with the US re NAFTA, and much else. One of the most horrifying lines in the movie comes when the female cop tells a radio host that people care so little about the murders and they have remained unsolved for so long that basically anyone can murder a woman, mimic the crime scene details of what appears to be a serial killer, and dump her in the desert without fear of reprisal. That, by now, there are dozens of murderers. It’s grim stuff, and the filmmakers don’t hold back in their depictions of murder and brutality…but if they did, the film would feel sanitized and false.

The King’s Speech—Within the limited context of the film’s conceit, this film is note-perfect. It’s not something I expect I’ll remember in a week, but it is entertaining to watch Firth and Rush act with each other. (In theaters now.)

Black Swan—Once I realized what was going on, about 30 minutes in, this became a snooze-fest made more excruciating by the dynamic between Portman’s character and the ballet’s director, and by the passivity of Portman’s character. I understand that this is the whole point of the movie, and acknowledge I might not be the ideal audience for it. Ann liked the movie more than I did, but she didn’t love it, either. The directing and cinematography are interesting, but this is far from a classic. (In theaters now.)

Kill Shot—Based on an Elmore Leonard novel and starring Mickey Rourke, this is a reasonably good neo-noir, although with some predictable elements. The film’s commitment to a couple’s failing relationship helps lift it above average. The performances are very good.

The Horsemen—An occult thriller starring Dennis Quaid as a detective rapidly losing control of an investigation of bizarre murders. The first half of the movie is vivid, intense, and somewhat unpredictable, but the last third trends toward the cliche and loses its way.

The Horseman—This Aussie tale of a father’s revenge for the murder of his daughter, with intense violence and sadism, is not for the faint of heart. The relentlessness is to be applauded, but the blocking on fight scenes is not always convincing, and the odds too stacked for us to believe he’s going to overcome them…even when he does. I’d like to see more from this director, but the film fell a little short.

A Serious Man—Having just seen True Grit, we finally decided to see the Coen Brothers’ previous film, about a Jewish college professor beset by bad luck. It was quite fascinating to watch A Serious Man after True Grit as they couldn’t be more different in approach. True Grit has classic storylines and structure. A Serious Man is fairly slice-of-life, with the conceit of visits to various rabbis to provide form. It’s uncomfortable in its humor and its seriousness, with one set piece involving letters carved into teeth worth the price of admission alone. By movie’s end, we were torn between finding it a powerful piece of filmmaking and thinking it hadn’t added up to much.

Arena—About intergalactic gladiators. I didn’t get past the first 10 minutes. Horrible.

The Damned United—Bracing, exciting, and darkly hilarious soccer/football flick. Go rent it now.

The Red Riding Trilogy—This series based on the David Peace novels set in northern England forms a troika of perhaps the best neo-noir filmmaking of the past 20 years. Stunning and set in bleak places, about a series of murders and molestations. Quite simply classics right up there with The Wire, and I’m not going to say more here because I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment. (They are dark, dark, dark, however.)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy—These mystery-thriller Swedish imports become progressively less comprehensible as they cut out a lot from the novels but also leave in things that only make sense if you’ve read the books. Ann and I both found ourselves subbing in information from memory to make sense of the narrative. Although the books are terribly translated, they are complex in terms of plot and character. The last film in particular, by jettisoning complexity, becomes fairly boring—and totally botches the timing/pacing on courtroom revelations. The acting is uniformly excellent, however.

Tenure—A laid-back tale of a professor (Luke Wilson) in competition for tenure has a lot going for it. It’s genuinely likeable, as is Wilson’s character, and unlike the formula for many movies of this type, he doesn’t sleep with the student who tries to seduce him, keeping quite a firm boundary between them. Another professor who believes in bigfoot is a hoot, and although this isn’t first-class material, it’s comfortable.

Quintet—The. Worst. Science Fiction. Film. Ever. Made. Starring Paul Newman, directed by Robert Altman. I’ve mentioned this one before, but I want to warn people off again. This is dreadful.

The Wedding—Another of Robert Altman’s ensemble shambles, but with slightly more focus and thus with more energetic pacing. From 1978. Very funny and often off-color.

Not Quite Hollywood—This documentary about Australian exploitation films, which led to the Mad Max trilogy, is fascinating and suitably raunchy, but waaaay too long. Recommended but with reservations. It’s definitely thorough.

Salt—A well-above-average spy thriller starring Angelina Jolie. Jolie is a member of the CIA outed as a Russian spy who goes on the run to prove her innocence. There’s at least one outrageous illogical event in the middle of this well-paced thriller, but all in all it’s quick-footed, intelligent, and worth your time. Jolie does just fine in the lead role.

The American—This movie about a hitman on the run and stuck in a small Italian town only works because of the slow pacing that allows the atmosphere of setting and character to accumulate deliberately. The cinematography is excellent as well. George Clooney does his usual great job.

Carlos—About the infamous terrorist, but the On Demand version I saw I later found out was savagely cut down to 2.5 hours from about 5 hours. This makes a lot of sense, because parts of the film are just amazing—similar to the great Baader Meinhoff Complex—and other parts seemed cursory or jumpy. Whole sections of Carlos’s life are given just a couple of minutes, and now I know why. I plan on tracking down the DVD version when I can.

Another Year—Stunning new Mike Leigh flick. Yes, it does indeed follow a middle-aged couple and their friends through the events of a single year. The desperation of one of those friends is the key to the whole movie, and by the end each nuance of each mundane scene is fraught with tension. It’s an amazing accomplishment, to bring out so much moment-by-moment from such every-day events. First-rate. (In theaters now.)

Predators—Rarely has a film so obviously gone downhill not just in terms of the script but also the set design. We start out with real locations and lots of open spaces and end up on what looks like abandoned Star Trek TV series sets, in the gloom and dark. Far from creating claustrophobia, it had both Ann and me wondering if they blew all of their money on the first half of the movie. Adrian Brodey is competent as is the rest of the cast, but it’s all so predictable. It was also horribly predictable that Lawrence Fishburne would not be on screen for that long. Nothing new here. Nothing exciting. A few oohs and aaahs early on for a crash-landed spaceship. Otherwise, who cares?

Little Children—A beautifully realized expose of a middle class neighborhood, complete with secrets and secret passions. The voice-over narration works nicely and the film has a kind of authority that resonates in the choreography. Kate Winslet is masterful, as is the rest of the cast. A kiss in a children’s playground sets off a series of events that seem almost pre-ordained. What is the reality and what is the play-acting dream? The movie seems to say we all exist in certain orbits and roles, which we can get knocked out of. Some of eventually return to those roles and orbits and some of us are forever no longer the same.

The Secret in Their Eyes—Haunted by an unsolved murder and rape, a detective continues his inquiries over thirty years, with unexpected results. A fine Argentine film with an unexpected resolution, which also delves into the history of the country. Flashes of dark humor and almost-romance are interspersed with the seriousness. Highly recommended.

Tiny Furniture—Slice of life about a college student returning home to live with her verbally abusive mother and sister, and trying to make a life for herself. It’s refreshingly small-scale, and also refreshing to see a movie that isn’t full to bursting with people who look like they came out of cologne or perfume advertisements. It’s gritty and funny and sad, and doesn’t amount to much, but made me want to watch whatever the director does next.

The Town—I think it’s clear from this piece on Booklifenow what I thought of this film. Ann felt the same way. Blech.

Wilby Wonderful—Starring the lead from the wonderful Canadian series Slings and Arrows, about a Shakespeare company, alongside Sandra Oh and Ellen Page, Wilby Wonderful uncovers small-town secrets and corruption in a comedy-drama context. It’s fairly light until a possible murder, at which point there’s a huge mood swing and some unbelievable character actions…before it gets on track again. There’s a lot of the usual in here despite some fine performances.

Vicky Barcelona—We finally saw this intricate relationship flick set in Spain and directed by Woody Allen. It was tighter and more complex than we’d expected, with fine performances by all four leads: Rebecca Hall, Scarlet Johanssen, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz. There was definitely a passion and quandry that justified the drama. Still, the ending didn’t wow us. It fell just a tad short somehow.

Bunny and the Bull—By far the most imaginative movie on this entire list, from the creator of the Mighty Boosh. A stunning series of set pieces using both real locations and surreal sets and computer animation, it’s basically a road-trip-gone-wrong movie that’s mostly humorous but becomes gradually more serious and has elements of the bittersweet. The scene in the clip below made me fall off the couch laughing.


  1. says

    Thanks, Jeff! I’ve been looking for new things to watch and you’ve given me a lot to add to my queue (and a few to avoid).

  2. Egg says

    Try catching the new-ish Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey jr. and Jude Law. I was impressed on how Jude Law played Dr. Watson. The end credits are worth the movie watch as well, especially if you’ve ever seen the original Strand drawings.

    Also, try to find a movie called “Goodbye Lenin!”. It was released in 2004, and takes place in East Germany around the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    Will try to catch the reccomendations. Thanks for the warning of Modern Family. Was wondering about the show.

  3. Ben Jones says

    I’ve given Modern Family a chance or two and it’s not for me. Its use of the mockumentary format–and arguably of the single camera no audience format–seems more about following trends than anything integral to the show. They also fall back on narration/talking heads to say things that should have been gotten across in the scenes.

    At first I didn’t like Community either, based on the pilot. It got a lot better over the course of the first season.

    And I was very impressed by A Serious Man. My favorite Coen Bros film is still Hudsucker, but ASM is bold in being starless, cheap-looking and open ended. A stark risk for Hollywood filmmakers.

  4. says

    Sorry to hear that about the fourth season of IT Crowd, I’ve been looking forward to it. I’ll still watch it, though, because there just aren’t enough shows like that out there.

    And Community is fantastic!

  5. Nathan says

    I’ve seen many of those, and agree with your assessments of many of them. Agreed on both of the Coen Brothers’ films. Also, Terribly Happy felt very Coen Brothers-ish to me.

    I thought The Horsemen and Predators were both pretty awful.

    Will be checking out Wilby Wonderful, Bunny and the Bull, and possibly Little Children and Tenure. And Community, which everyone seems to love.

  6. Claire says

    If you like the whole “based on a book, so we’ll assume you read it” thing, try 1987’s The Fourth Protocol, which you can only follow if you’ve read the book, but which is also completely and utterly butchered, so if you understood or liked the book, you’ll be incredibly annoyed by the film. I wanted to walk out of this one after the opening scene, but my father and brother weren’t having it. At least they suffered, too.

  7. H Crider says

    This is off-topic, but I thought you might want to know: Caplin Rous, the capybara whom you interviewed a while back, has passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. His human has posted to Facebook and Twitter (while requesting no religious or “rainbow bridge” messages) — Caplin had many online friends.

    I got to know Caplin because of the interview that appeared here. There was something magical about a capybara and a human conversing. I now imagine capybaras on the shores of the River Moth. They must be immune to the blandishments of the king squid, of course.