Thursday, December 29, 2011

Frugal Beautiful Reviews Secrets Of A Stingy Scoundrel

Frugal Beautiful gives the 2-year-old book its first review in ages.

An excerpt:

The writing in this book is hilarious, a little raunchy and totally snarky- you will totally love it.  This is the kind of book you want to have in your arsenal and openly displayed on your bookshelf as a “screw the system” book that totally helps you save a few bucks.   It’s worth the purchase price,  both for applicable tips and entertainment’ll laugh and get a few “OH SNAPS” out of it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: The Adventures of Tintin

I can't decide whether I wanted to slap or hug Tintin. He's a babyfaced, relentlessly upbeat British reporter with apparently lax supervisors who don't mind if he takes a few weeks to trot across the globe and hunt for lost pirate treasure. He's got a loyal dog, Snowy, who follows him everywhere, helps him fight bad guys and catch the odd bird of prey that flies off with an important roll of parchment.

Tintin is not one to give up, even when stranded in the Sahara or stuck in an out-of-fuel propeller plane careening into the ocean. Does it make me a bad person to yearn for his swift, grotesque death? Probably. Nevertheless, The Adventures of Tintin is thrilling to watch, even though you've got a strong suspicion Steven Spielberg won't murder his Uncanny Valley-spawned protagonist halfway through the movie.

Filled with improbably races, chases, rescues and fights, the film is a whimsical family adventure that glistens with spectacular animation that's well beyond the likes of Polar Express. More impressive as a technical achievement than a story, the film couldn't possibly be more visually mesmerizing. Characters move with believable weight and nuance, the set pieces explode with believable physics and lighting, and the stylized, plastic-like sheen of the entire package looks gorgeous in 3D.

The tale is boilerplate, globe-trotting wild goose chase, but what's so wrong with that? Tintin is consequenceless, pretty entertainment that doesn't wear out its welcome. It's no doubt leaving that feat to its sequel.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: The Ides of March

Although some of its key plot twists are a bit simplistic and exaggerated, the Ides of March is an incisive political thriller with yet another fantastic performance from Ryan Gosling, in what has turned out to be his breakout year that elevates him to the top rank of actors.

Playing an ambitious but virtuous political consultant to the next wannabe JFK (George Clooney), Gosling gets involved with a wide-eyed intern (Evan Rachel Wood) and flirts with defecting to the enemy camp, led by Paul Giamatti. Gosling's own boss, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has an agenda of his own, and the affairs and backroom dealings lead to a cutthroat political endgame that's engrossing to watch unfold.

Although the script has ambitions of hard edges, it seems to be alarmingly naive. There's more nuance in political thrillers as antiquated as the original All the King's Men. The Ides of March could have easily been made in the 30s, but its dated pretenses pack some altruistic charm.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Top 10 Movies Of 2011

1. The Artist -- Like all film lovers, I've held my nose and plowed through the silent classics in order to develop an appreciation for the caveman days of the art form. I found all of them, even the "greats" from the likes of Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin, to be as about enjoyable as salt mining. Frankly, I'm worried about anyone who says they actively watch silent movies for their own enjoyment rather than the need to be educated. The Artist, however, defines the term of addition by subtraction and refines the bare essentials of cinema to tell a run-of-the-mill, A Star is Born-style story with heartbreaking precision while also commenting on the art form and the style it possesses.

2. Moneyball -- This book really shouldn't have been turned into a movie. Somehow, Bennett Miller rescued this thing from development hell and turned it into the best baseball movie I've seen not called Field of Dreams. Every time I think of the film, I think The Social Network, because it's so similarly paced and deliriously brainy.

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- I can take or leave the Swedish versions of Stieg Larsson's potboilers, but David Fincher works his magic and turns them into brilliant and important films. The transformation he elicited from Rooney Mara will establish her as an acting dynamo who will get whatever role she wants for the rest of her life. The movie is outrageously long but feels almost too short. That's a Tarantino-style sign of sheer brilliance.

4. Midnight in Paris -- If Woody Allen's elegaic tribute to the golden age of intellectual radicals -- which doubles as a sly comedy mocking the very essence of nostalgia -- wins best picture, somehow topping the three movies I loved more -- I would be thrilled. My fear is that it will be damned with the faint praise of a best original screenplay Oscar, but the awards won't be this movie's legacy. Allen bends Owen Wilson like a pretzel to become his avatar, who replicates Allen's heart, wisdom and cluelessness rather than his mannerisms.

5. Super -- Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page make the most disturbed, dysfunctional and alarmingly repressed heroic couplet since Batman and Robin. Everyone gushed over the similarly-themed Kick-Ass, and justifiably so, but I fear that film sucked up all the love and left none for the superior, devilishly written Super.

6. Your Highness -- When my fellow critics rained hell upon David Gordon Green and company for what was supposedly an awful, misfired waste of time, I was disappointed. Surely, they couldn't all be a bunch of morons who just didn't get what Green was trying to do, right? Turns out they were. A sly, Blazing Saddles-style mockery of all things dungeon and dragon, this should have killed in the year that the fantastic Game of Thrones gave HBO a one-up when it appeared to be about out of lives. James Franco and Danny McBride make beautifully awful music together.

7. Straw Dogs -- Taking on the neoclassical tactic of taking an imperfect but potential-filled original and reshaping it into a masterwork, Rod Lurie improves upon Sam Pekinpah's 1971 fever dream meditation on masculinity and lifts it to higher ground. Juxtaposed with the Battle of Stalingrad, the drama commands career-defining performances from James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, who plumb brutal depths to find their darkest places. The movie is defined by the writing and storytelling rather than the performances, but the whole thing would have derailed had the stars not been at their absolute best.

8. Red State -- You know that scene in Walk the Line where the record label exec gives Johnny Cash one last chance to sing, telling him to dispense with the gospel nonsense and sing the song that screams from his inner depths like a primal roar? This is that primal roar from Kevin Smith. The socio-political commentary dressed up as an exploitation thriller marks a hard right turn from anything he's done previously. He's famously said he's about done making movies, and few believe him. Well, I do. I believe he's done making Cop Outs and done bowing to anyone who would dare stand in front of his sadistically witty visions. Smith has shed the cocoon and evolved into a higher being as an artist and commentator.

9. The Future -- Miranda July seems like the universal soulmate -- the off-kilter, zany artist whom anyone would think they've known all their lives. The only time I've spent with July has been in her movies, but I feel as though I know her. She stares into the fatalistic angst of life in your 30s and pulls out the saddest comedy you'll ever want to bathe yourself in over and over again.

10. Rise of the Planet of the Apes -- The acting in this movie is superb, with James Franco and Andy Serkis forming the most unlikely, heart-incinerating father-son bond you're ever likely to see. Very much a Batman Begins for the oft-rebooted and forgotten franchise, I adored the way it focused on relationships rather than resorting to sci-fi silliness in its lowest form. This is very much the film, to borrow from the filmmaker who made the No. 8 movie on the list, in which the monkeys spank us.

Honorable mentions: Young Adult, Source Code, The Adjustment Bureau, We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Worst movie of the year:

Cars 2 -- I've disliked some other Pixar work, including Cars 2, WALL-E and Ratatouille, but this one is so putrid and revolting that it becomes the first film from the studio that I outright despise and refuse to allow into my house. There is no life or entertainment to the film whatsoever. It's a numb cash-in on characters popularized by a mediocre movie. Any film that relies on Larry the Cable Guy for half its entertainment quotient is pretty much dead on arrival.

Dishonorable mentions: No Strings Attached, Zookeeper, Monte Carlo, Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Review: Albert Nobbs

I've got to hand it to Glenn Close for working so hard to get her dream project made. I'm happy for her for any awards she receives, and wish the movie all the success in can muster.

That said, I couldn't stand to watch it.

All the accolades for makeup the film has received crack me up. Close and Janet McTeer, who play women masquerading as men in order to scrape by in the male-dominated service industry in 19th century Ireland, look nothing at all like men. It's impossible to believe that anyone would be duped by their disguises. Perhaps the poor makeup jobs represent a pinpoint criticism of the upper class's indifference toward the help -- which maybe stretched so far that wealthy wretches refused to even look at their employees' faces. That's too much of a stretch to make, though.

Believability problems aside, the story is as dry and slow as the overrated Gosford Park. I appreciate the themes of survival in the face of repression, but I ached for this thing to end from the halfway point on. The film was adapted from a short story, and perhaps a short story it should have stayed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review: Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol

Pop quiz. Ghost Protocol is:

A.) The subtitle of the new Mission: Impossible.

B.) Something that sounds too much like the names of 100,000 video games.

C.) What your acting career goes into when you marry Tom Cruise.

D.) The name of the Ghost Busters' ray gun that zaps spirits.

I will never reveal the answer, because to do so would be a violation of Ghost Protocol. But what I can tell you is that the movie is way better than you think it will be, and that this message will self-destruct and peel off its latex mask to reveal that it wasn't who you thought it was all along and is secretly a guy named... Ghost Protocol.

The characters in the movie enjoy saying the phrase "Ghost Protocol," and so do I. You may find yourself walking out of the theater saying "Ghost Protocol" in situations appropriate and not. It's best delivered with a stern look on your face, preceded by an eye-shift, a lean and spoken as a half-whisper. Try it.

What you shouldn't try is the wickety wickety wack stunts in the movie, which include using Spider-Man gloves to scale the Burj Khalifa, crashing a spy car into the ground to use its airbag as padding and staring directly into Tom Cruise's blindingly white teeth without sunglasses.

The film opens in a Soviet prison. I use the term "Soviet" because it sounds more Ghost Protocol than boring "Russia." As Ethan Hunt, Cruise breaks out of a prison cell, thanks to the computer program Norton Prison Break 2012, operated by the agent who will come to be Ethan's wisecracking sidekick (Simon Pegg). Pegg, of Shaun of the Dead fame, is usually funny, but in this movie is about as annoying as someone who won't stop saying Ghost Protocol.

The rest of the spy team includes Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who lugs around dark secrets from the past as well as extra consonants at the end of his name, and Jane (Paula Patton), who is part of the Barbie DreamSpy collector set. In what must be a budget-saving maneuver because the spies will not be paid or acknowledged, the government tells the spy crew to go off the grid and complete a rogue mission to stop a Soviet nuclear missile from Ghost Protocoling the hell out of America.

The race is on, and this time it's impersonal.

The movie is as fun as it is dumb, and trust me, it's as dumb as it is Ghost Protocol. The stunts are ceaseless thrill rides, the story moves at the pace and rhythm of Cruise's Cocktail-pouring exploits in the movie Cocktail, and Pegg even stops making idiotic jokes occasionally. What I adored most about the movie was its gadgets, as well as its characters' uncanny ability to use them ineffectively. These secret, unpaid spies show that you get what you pay for, and watching them continually screw up and risk their Protocols becoming Ghosts is much more entertaining than watching a Bourne or Bond type skate through without a scratch.

The movie makes me feel so good that I've decided to break Ghost Protocol and give you that quiz answer anyway. It's C.

Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg. Written by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, based on the TV series by Bruce Geller. Directed by Brad Bird. Rated PG-13. 132 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Review: Straw Dogs

James Marsden plays a Hollywood screenwriter who goes with new wife (Kate Bosworth) to her backwoods hometown in the Deep South to sell the home in which she grew up. They hire some of her old friends to do some contracting worth, and they terrorize the couple in increasingly bold and disturbing ways. A remake of Sam Peckinpah's 1971 thriller, which starred Dustin Hoffman, Rod Lurie's film equals the original and surpasses it in many ways.

Subtle character shading and more convincing motivation for the sordid characters makes up for the performances, which can't match those of the original.

Lurie is a severely underrated filmmaker, whose The Contender (2000) is one of the finest political dramas ever put to film and Nothing but the Truth (2008) was unfairly left out of that year's awards chase due to distribution problems. His Straw Dogs remake is riveting, challenging and thought-provoking, and I hope he continues to show his unique brand of skill.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: Like Crazy

There are few things more annoying than two people who are meant for each other. Like Crazy pairs Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones as too-young lovers who are inconvenienced with the fact that they feel an overwhelmingly biological need to spend the rest of their lives together, despite not having enough independent experience to recognize their love for what it is.

The film takes the path of a formulaic romantic comedy, sans laughs and star power, acting as though the story is compelling enough to pull us through. But it amounts to a slog, with several scenes in which both characters stare off into space during intimate moments, wondering if there is more than this. The leads lack personality and much of the dialogue is juvenile to the point of inanity.

The roadblock subplot of visa troubles separating the couple is an insignificant hurdle, and only draws things out. I like the way the film ends, bypassing the easy way out to stay contemplative and indecisive. The filmmaker and writers show flashes of brilliance but in this film stay mired in mediocrity.

Our 2011 Christmas Letter

Dear friends, family and Guy Who Empties Recycle Bins,

It was a fantastic year of knowledge and development in our household. Four-year-old Luke has started to read and serve the galactic good by helping Star Fox defeat the evil Andross on 3DS, two-year-old Emma has nailed her letter sounds, as well mastered Jessica's technique for getting what she wants via incessant nagging and a refusal to negotiate. Murphy, our dog, has also taken an interest in literature. Whenever we leave him alone with a book, he sinks his teeth into it. Meaning, as a dog toy. He remains an illiterate derelict with the propensity for inhaling board books, but his advances in potty training do far outpace Emma's at this point, so we'll keep him for now.

The year was a good one in terms of business ventures. I've taken on a lot more freelance work. Freelancing is great because it keeps you from unnecessary wastes of time such as "sleep" and "free time" and allows you to make a bunch of extra money, some of which the IRS is kind enough to let you hang on to for a few days before taking it away.

Jessica was the house's financial MVP for figuring out a brilliant way to earn extra income -- shatter her knee. Thanks to her wise decision to turn her ACL into confetti while on school grounds, disability insurance covered all the costs and also made us $1,500 richer.

Things were tougher on the economic front for the younger members of our household. Luke and Emma continue to fester among the rates of the bitter unemployed. Emma took her inability to score gainful employment particularly hard, and has become a fervent political activist. A crazed right-wing extremist, she blames Obama for her failures and has started her own daily tea parties to bring attention to a government that refuses to roll back its child labor laws. She's also started a side protest called Occupy Mommy and Daddy's Bed, in which she rises at 5 a.m. to shove aside her family's version of the 1 percent when they're at their most vulnerable and most willing to negotiate.

We look forward to more knee injuries in 2012, and hope you're able to enjoy more of the same. Except for you, Recycle Bin Guy. We don't know you and are frankly disturbed that you're reading this.

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Top 10 Games Of 2011

1. Mario Kart 7 -- I guarantee you this will destroy my thumbs from overuse. Absolute perfection.

2. Uncharted 3 -- If I ever have another son I am going to try to name him Drake. Probably won't succeed, but will sure try.

3. Portal 2 -- I am so proud of myself for beating this without using a walkthrough, which is the opposite of how I beat the first one.

4. L.A. Noire -- It's a shame the studio that did this game closed down. Fantastic detective yarn.

5. Batman: Arkham City -- I think this game was made by Batman himself, based on actual footage of his daily life.

6. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim -- If you don't think you're an evil person, play this to prove to yourself that you really do enjoy slaughtering innocent villagers with magic spells.

7. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword -- Looks ugly, but proves that the Wii is still worthwhile. Probably the most innovatively designed Zelda in a decade.

8. Super Mario 3D Land -- Along with Mario Kart 7, makes the 3DS a must-own.

9. NBA Jam: On Fire Edition -- Way better than last year's release, which was frikkin' fantastic itself.

10.Marvel vs. Capcom 3 -- The fighter so nice it came out twice in 2011. Buy the second version, which lets you play as Galactus.

Honorable mentions: You Don't Know Jack, Gears of War 3, Dark Souls, LittleBigPlanet 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mortal Kombat, Professor Layton and the Last Specter

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

With mass shootings that mirror the Columbine catastrophe becoming more frequent, it's fascinating -- if frightening -- to examine the way these crazed shooters were raised. It's all but impossible to find a satisfying answer about whether delusional assassins are created by nature or nurture.

The question weighs heavily on the mind of a mother played by Tilda Swinton, who recounts key moments in raising her son (Ezra Miller) -- who has just been arrested after slaughtering students at his school -- along with her husband (John C. Reilly).

There is always something off about the child. Even as a toddler, he refuses to conform to social norms. It's easy to second-guess the way Swinton handles the child, especially when she reacts with blind anger, and we're  left, like her, to imagine the implications of her child-rearing methods.

It's a credit to the fascinating film, told with economy and speed, that it promotes such analysis and discussion. This is a fine drama that is sadly a sign of the times.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Just as Junebug was Amy Adams's introduction to big-time filmmaking, MMMM -- could the movie's title be any more difficult to remember? -- will serve as the coming-out party for Elizabeth Olsen, who appears to have inherited double the acting ability of a standard-issue Olsen sister.

The remarkably expressive and penetrating Olsen plays Martha, a former member of an abusive cult who's gone AWOL for two years before crashing with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). Lacking a purpose or sense of self, Martha struggles to conform to social boundaries, as well as to discover her sexual identity.

Given to spontaneous, bizarre actions such as stripping bare to go for a swim or leaping atop a counter, Martha annoys the hell out of her hosts, but earns sympathy because she's never quite worthy of the scorn she receives from either. Director T. Sean Durkin juggles Martha's hellish flashbacks and visions, working in tandem with Olsen to create a tantalizing psychological smorgasbord that dares the audience to piece together its mysteries. A bold and daring film, MMMM -- I will never remember that damned name -- is one of the indie gems of 2011.                             

Review: The Iron Lady

My only significant gripe against The Iron Lady is that it's not a sequel to Iron Giant, nor Iron Man. Can you imagine how cool either of those would be? A massive robot played by Meryl Streep, stomping the Soviet Union with her feet and snuffing out the troubles in the Falkland Islands with her little finger? Or an ironclad, jetpack-equipped Streep, blowing away government spending with a laser blast from her hand while blasting away gender barriers with a smart bomb deployed from her hip?

As it stands, The Iron Lady is no slouch. If the British are good at anything, it’s navel gazing. The incestuous tabloid culture and brainy BBC documentaries spawns self-analysis at a staggering level, approaching that of Terrell Owens. Thus the film industry produces fantastic introspections of its great historical figures, with recent examples being The Queen and The King’s Speech.

The biopic on Margaret Thatcher belongs in those regal ranks. I’d have settled for a straightforward tale of a feminist and humanitarian icon who led England through geopolitical and economic challenges, providing skilled leadership and symbolizing strength and solidarity. But this movie is far more than that, bookmarking Thatcher’s political exploits with shattering scenes of Thatcher in old age, coming to terms with the fragments left of her life. To succeed as a politician, she had to fail on some level as a mother and a wife. The great woman wrestles with her perceived inadequacies and lingering ghosts that haunt her fading mind. It’s here that Meryl Streep truly shines in the role.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the film is a handsome, robust and multifaceted portrait of the political figure, bolstered by a superb performance by Streep, who immediately shakes off any second-guessing about the casting. Unlike her lauded yet single-note performance of Julia Child in Julie and Julia, Streep shows formidable range and depth. She captures Thatcher's political dynamism, as well as her late-life physical and mental troubles. The result is not only a vivid portrait of a political force who fought for her vision with might and enthusiasm, but a tender reflection of a woman coming to terms with her mortality.
The film could have been plodding, handsome and stately and still worthy of a measure of praise. But The Iron Lady echoes its protagonist by shattering expectations, leading you through a breathless escapade and leaving you staring into the sad, desperate void of mortality. Neither Iron Men nor Iron Giants nor Iron Lions in Zion have anything on this stunning movie.
Starring Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent. Written by Abi Morgan. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. 105 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Review: My Week With Marilyn

Portraying a slightly less good-looking Marilyn Monroe, Michelle Williams overcomes her miscasting to melt into the persona of the ill-fated screen goddess. As My Week With Marilyn argues, all she ever wanted was to be treated and loved as a regular person.

Excellent performances help overcome the limp, movie-of-the-week style screenplay, in which a wananbe filmmaker (Eddie Redmayne) becomes Monroe's shoulder to cry (and sometimes smooch) on as she wilts from unceasing pressure from the public, as well as domineering male forces in her life in the form of Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) andhusband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott). The cypherlike protagonist becomes Monroe's unlikely soothsayer who, if the film is to believed, played a major part in magically turning her into a more stable, reliable performer.

It seems like oversimplified hogwash, but that's how films like this go. The movie is most interesting as a character study of Monroe, and Williams delivers on most fronts, capturing her sense of despair and adoration of the limelight if not her screen radiance.

Review: Young Adult

Diablo Cody seems incapable of writing realistic dialogue or giving characters believable motivations. Or giving them names that don't seem like they came from pro wrestling, for that matter.

And that's exactly what makes her movies so much fun.

Did Shakespeare write the way people talk? Did Woody Allen? Or Kevin Smith? When it comes to film, and especially comedy, realism is overrated.

Go into Young Adult with your logic detectors on high alert and they'll explode your brain, especially in the third act. Although Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who penned loved-by-most Juno and hated-by-most Jennifer's Body, no longer tries to make everything that comes out of every character's mouth seem like it belongs on a bumper sticker, she's still very much her rambunctious, challenging self. And the comedy of manners, under the careful guidance of director Jason Reitmen, is all the better for it.

 Charlize Theron play Mavis Gary, a ghostwriter who cranks out Young Adult yarns about the drama and insecurity of high school life. Although she's 37, she's so good at what she does because her maturity level is stuck back in high school. On a whim, sparked by raging jealousy over a birth announcement from a former flame, Mavis heads back to the one-Chili's town that spawned her for a drunken, half-cocked attempt at stealing her ex away from his wife and baby.

At a bar, she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a pudgy geek who lives with his sister and action figure collection. Mavis is the type of girl from high school that everyone remembers and doesn't expect to remember them. She co-opts Matt as a fallback friend for the trip -- the one she calls when plans A through D fall through, and he willingly complies. Disapproving of her plans to run away with Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), he becomes her conscience -- Jiminy Cricket with an unrequited crush.

Mavis is a walking grease fire; the type of narcissist who, if called a hot mess, thinks it's a compliment on her looks rather than a comparison to dog poop. Mavis hurls herself at Buddy with the aggression of a bowling ball, convinced that she'll have him forever -- or at least until she gets sick of him -- if only she can pry him away from that damned baby, whom she refers to as "it," and that agonizingly cheery wife (Collette Wolf).

Being a device and construct rather than a person, Mavis has a knack for saying and doing all the wrong things at precisely the wrong times, making an ass of herself and then blaming everyone but herself for the results. If you saw Bad Teacher, this is the Cameron Diaz character without as much tact or demureness.

Theron rarely gets to sink her teeth into a role like this, and has a disgusting amount of fun making us hate her while becoming as obsessed with her as poor, hapless Matt.

Because this movie is being tossed out to the Oscar-time wolves, people may dismiss it because it's so slight. There are no great truths here. Just a bunch of laughs, quotable lines and a lifetime supply of  awkwardness. It's a vintage example of the better angels emerging from the demented mind of a Diablo. 

Starring Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser and Patton Oswalt. Writted by Diablo Cody. Directed by Jason Reitman. Rated R. 94 minutes.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Review: The Artist

The great secret of film appreciation is that silent movies are generally no fun. They're medicine. Homework. Caveman-style works you have to force yourself to sit through just to be able to tell yourself and others that you've done the time in order to build credibility. There are exceptions to the rule, but in general, even the greatest silent movies -- the comedies by Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd -- are easier to appreciate and analyze than enjoy.

Along comes The Artist to demolish that line of thinking. A masterwork from writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, it presents silent film as a valid modern entertainment medium by using the construct as a device to comment on film history. Although his story is nothing spectacular -- basically a reworking of the A Star is Born mold -- the eloquence and artistry with which he delivers his film steal the show.

His actors take on the exaggerated styles of their cinematic ancestors, exaggerating emotions and gestures in order to spark the audience's imagination, much like well-written descriptive writing. Jean Dujardin is superb as a stand-in for Rudolph Valentino, a silent star who sinks into the figurative quicksand of changing times. Berenice Bejo is his equal, as an up-and-coming flapper who winds her way to success, only to suffer internally as her former idol falls. John Goodman, as a high-powered tycoon, and James Cromwell, as a dignified assistant and driver, effortlessly fall in to supporting roles, lending a solemn regality to the proceedings.

The Artist is a spectacular achievement and a bold new direction in filmmaking. Instead of cheering, I'll keep my mouth shut and give a silent nod of approval.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Review: London Boulevard

Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley make a dynamite pairing in London Boulevard, the uneven but compelling directorial debut of acclaimed screenwriter William Monahan.

Farrell plays an ex-con with a soft heart who tries to go straight by working as a fix-it guy. That's how he pairs with Knightley's character, a somewhat fragile starlet. Farrell's past has a way of catching up with them, plunging the pair into more than they bargained for. Both leads stay squarely in their comfort zones, with Farrell offering his brash cool while Knightley doesn't find much in the character to ignite palpable passion. Still, their chemistry blends well together, making scenes that would otherwise be dull start to sizzle.

The hardscrabble writing and gritty direction keep the film moving at a brisk pace. The plot is filled with twists and turns and never bores. The whole enterprise feels like a been-there, done that affair though.

Review: The Muppets

Let me begin with a disclaimer that I've never really gotten the Muppets. I stood by as my parents watched and loved the Muppet Show when I was a child, but I always found it a bit dry and drab. The films ranged from tolerable to unwatchable in my eyes, and re-watching them as an adult did them no favors. As far as these characters go, the Muppet Babies was more my speed. Maybe the puppet show aspect disconnects me from the attempts at absurdity.

So I'm a tough-to-please hater. I heard the raves about the new film and wanted to like it, but suspected my lifelong problem with the live-action characters would stifle me from falling in love with it. It's less than ideal to go into a film with baggage, but I'm just being honest here. As a good luck charm, I took my wife and two kids to a Saturday morning show for which I paid my own way. I hoped that being surrounded by the joy and innocence of my family would melt my defenses.

Those hopes went largely unfulfilled.

That said, The Muppets is by far my favorite Muppets movie, but that's not saying all that much given how I feel about the series. I liked the way the film acknowledged that the time for these characters has passed, and in doing so scrambles for a way to make them relevant again. I cracked up during two or three scenes, including that fantastic musical number in which the chickens clucked their way through Cee-Lo's "Fuck You."

What bothered me was the lack of charm in the Muppets characters. Kermit is supposed to be the everyfrog you identify with, but he's too much of a whiner for my tastes. Fozzie is just pathetic, Gonzo can be interesting as an outsider -- as in Muppets from Space -- but has nothing to do in this movie, Miss Piggy is shrill and agonizing and Animal has always scared the hell out of me. Jason Segel and Amy Adams are game human straight men for the Muppets' antics, and both ham it up marvelously during production numbers, but there's only so much they can do.

Overall I found the movie a bit too cloying and self-aware to distinguish itself from the mass of kiddie flick pap. The plot walks a fine line between straight-up awful and making fun of awfulness, and too often veered toward the former by trying so hard to let me in on the joke. The relentless celebrity cameos jab you in the ribs as if to say, "Hey, laugh just because I'm famous and I'm here," failing to go to the next step by actually giving the stars much of anything entertaining to say or do before they vanish.

I don't think it's gonna work out between us, Muppets. Get back to me when you're animated babies again and maybe we'll talk.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

With their gadgetry, sexploits and one-liners, the bombastic likes of James Bond tend to trivialize the spy "game" of the Cold War era. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy proves decisively that the cloak-and-dagger maneuverings between Soviet and Western spies don't need exaggerated silliness to make them engrossing.

Based on a 1974 John le Carre novel, which was previously best known as the basis for a British TV show from the era starring Alec Guinness, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's effort deftly maneuvers through a complex whodunnit. A game cast of Mark Strong, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik play key roles in an ever-shifting shell game of moles, cheats and divided loyalties bought and sold in backroom deals.

The plot is a mess, and not easy to understand in a single viewing. The pacing and performances help keep you involved even if the circuitous storylines lose you. Superb ensemble acting relays the mounting stakes as the tide ebbs and flows in and out of the offices of MI6, which its operatives appropriately refer to as "The Circus."

Although the dense material would probably be better suited to an HBO series treatment in the vein of "The Wire," the film does an excellent job of racing through mental chess matches between formidable foes. It convinced me that the Cold War provided the hidden playing field for one of the greatest shows on earth.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Review: Happy Feet Two

Animated sequels rarely work, and Happy Feet Two is business as usual. Unable to capitalize off its daring, rule-breaking predecessor, this one is as stupid as it looks, which is saying something.

Although there are token efforts to call back to the freshness of the original -- a couple scenes in which the computer-animated penguins are spliced into real-world footage -- the plot is a rehash of the self-actualizing message of the first film at its best. At its worst, it's an endlessly irritating succession of Alvin and the Chipmunks-style squeaky-voiced cover songs underlined with slapdash choreography.

Sidelines involving undersea creatures only detract from the main plotline, introducing unnecessary characters that are hard to care about.