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My Week in Movies — Year End 2011

January 7, 2012

Before starting on my 2012 viewings, a wrap-up on the handful of movies I had the chance to watch at the end of 2011:

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS* — The film is an apparently true story about a secret U.S. Army project to try to create psychic spies — and, later, psychic assassins. The movie approaches it appropriately tongue-in-cheek (rather than the way, say, a History channel “documentary” would do), and it’s got some great performances. As a side note, the people in the program refer to themselves as “Jedi warriors,” which is kind of distracting in a movie starring Ewan MacGregor (although I did get a laugh out of his character asking, with genuine befuddlement, “What’s a Jedi warrior?”).

PAUL — A road movie, a stoner movie, a geek movie and a raunchy variation on E.T. written by and starring the Shaun of the Dead guys which manages, disappointingly, to be somehow less than the some of its parts. There were some great moments here and there, a lot of geeky in-jokes, but somehow I failed to fall completely in love. I liked it fine, but not enough to watch it again or insist on showing it to friends.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE — I literally had no idea what this movie was, going in. Anthony and I wanted to see a movie one day, we saw this had a high Tomatometer score and was playing nearby, so we went to see it without knowing so much as the logline.

It’s an indie film about a young woman who escapes from a cult and tries to return to a “normal” life, and her inability to re-assimilate, and her paranoia that the cult might be coming to reclaim her. It’s tense and well-made, and does an amazing job of showing the kind of psychological manipulation that goes on in cult environments. The movie gets you in the same head-space as the main character — at times cult life is so appealing and real life so strange and unpleasant, you find yourself almost thinking she really would be better off going back, at which point cult life inevitably crosses the line. In cult life, when those moments happen, you’re left with a choice: recoil, or rationalize. The audience member has the luxury of recoiling, but being so involved by the film means understanding how someone with nowhere else to go could make the choice to rationalize. Really powerful and a film for which I expect to see an Oscar nomination.

THE MUPPETS — Early on in the film, in which the Muppets have all long since gone their separate ways but need to get the gang back together for One More Show, there’s a scene where Kermit (and his new friends Jason Segel, Amy Adams, and Segel’s Marty Stu muppet stand-in Walter) find Fozzie (his voice somewhat off due to Frank Oz’s declining to participate in the film) singing with a knock-off Muppet cover band (the “Moopets”) in Reno. As he comes offstage, they greet him with forced, grimacey smiles and say (paraphrased) “Hey, your show was… it was great. Really good to see you.” They don’t mean the first part. But they mean the second with all their hearts.

The scene perfectly encapsulates my feelings about the film, as well as the film itself. The gang isn’t back together — some of them are the original members but several signifiant ones are impersonators (although, to be fair, much more credible ones than the Moopets); the original members, I care deeply about, and it hurts a little to see them veer so close to self-parody. The film is far too self-aware for my taste. It tries to be an 80s movie, complete with evil corporate villain whom they have to defeat by Putting On a Show, but it’s constantly nudge-winking the audience going “Hey, remember these movies? They were silly, right? We’re too cool for this room, you and me, but let’s play along, let them have their fun.” For a film that thematically tries to make a point of rejecting cynicism, it’s a really jarring tonal choice.

I’m not against self-aware humor — CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS, which I adore, is wall-to-wall with it — and I know that the Muppets have always been self-aware. But it feels less that the Muppets are self-aware about themselves, than that the movie feels self-aware about the Muppets being in it. It’s a subtle distinction, and maybe a distinction without a difference, but it just didn’t generally feel like the Muppets were in on the joke.

It feels weird to be giving this film what amounts to a negative review when critics have praised it almost unanimously — lo, I am become Armond White, destroyer of flawless tomatometers. This is, to be sure, a far less demeaning film than MUPPETS IN SPACE appeared to be (I could not even bring myself to see that one). This is a film that sprang, very clearly, from a place of deep love and affection, not one of simply monetizing a piece of intellectual property. Jason Segel loves the Muppets, he adores the Muppets, and I don’t begrudge him spending his get-things-made Hollywood capital to bring them back and share them with the world. But it feels like so much fan fiction, a fan film in which he’s inserted himself into Muppet canon and talked the Muppets into appearing as themselves (and Disney into bankrolling it).

And again, I don’t begrudge him. It’s inspiring, in a way, to see him live what I have no doubt was exactly the childhood dream he wrote as Walter’s, inspiring to see a film that feels like Segel reaching out to me and saying “You and I, we get this. These guys are awesome. Isn’t this awesome?” I don’t even watch How I Met Your Mother and I’ve barely seen Segel in anything, but I still feel like a buddy of mine got his dearest wish and I’m proud for him. You can see how much this means to him, even when he isn’t flat-out telling you so through Walter. Yet as with SUPER 8, it expends more effort reminding me of how awesome the other stuff is than actually being awesome itself. I don’t want movies to keep making me nostalgic for 20 years ago. I want movies that I can be nostalgic for 20 years from now.

At its best, the Muppets feel like themselves again (even when they’re not). The recreated Muppet Show intro number is truly moving, brief as it is. But when Segel/Walter and their story insist on stepping into the spotlight, the Muppets feel like they’re being commanded to behave in a different way, commanded to serve the film instead of the film serving them. For the first time in my life, I watched the Muppets and they felt like puppets.

This isn’t their lowest point, and it might even be the start of a new era. It’s a major Hollywood big-budget release, not some trashy Reno lounge; but it still isn’t quite where I would have wanted to find them, not what I’d want to see them having to do to prove their continued relevance, not after what they’ve meant to me. But goddammit, Muppets, for all of that: it’s really good to see you.

HUGO — I want to give this a thumbs up just for bringing Georges Méliès — the first visual effects artist and fantasy filmmaker — into the broader popular culture. But I would rather have a Scorsese-directed documentary on the subject than a movie that tries to build a narrative about him and just feels like it’s wasting a lot of time. Besides Méliès, I didn’t find any of the characters or their arcs particularly interesting — especially not Sasha Baron Cohen’s Station Inspector, who gets way more screen time than his function in the story (almost none) deserves — and the movie pretty much forgets it’s supposed to be about Hugo Cabret about halfway through. Also, I heard a lot of noise about Scorsese really “getting” 3D and doing some new and exciting stuff with it — and I didn’t see anything that particularly knocked my socks off. In fact, it was the first 3D movie that has ever given me a headache.

GREEN LANTERN — I had my fingers a little crossed for this movie — a lot of people were dismissing it just based on the trailers, but I kind of liked the look. I liked the idea of a superhero movie straddling the line between the kind of film a modern audience expects in scope and scale, but embracing its comic book roots rather than trying to go dark and gritty and realistic with it.

Unfortunately, this movie is just… stupid. It tries to do too much and winds up just wandering around with a lost look on its face. I don’t really buy most of the characters’ reactions to anything, I don’t especially like Hal Jordan except by virtue of liking Ryan Reynolds, what is even the point of Peter Skarsgaard’s character, how does nobody on Oa see that Sinestro is clearly evil, the immortal Guardians are easily-manipulated idiots… despite the entire planet being at stake, the universe even, at no point did I feel any sense of tension. When your villain is the living manifestation of fear, you better scare me at least once.

Some decent effects work, though. Parallax in particular I thought was generally well-done. The full-CG suit didn’t really bother me — it was probably easier to do than to try to add energy effects to a practical suit — and I was impressed with how well-tracked it was. I don’t remember feeling any moments of the bobble-head syndrome that afflicted, for example, the Clonetroopers.

But overall, I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground in calling this a terrible, dull, ridiculous film. An inauspicious end to my 2011 film experience.

We’ll start on my 2012 films (so far, DRAGON TATTOO and TINTIN) next week.

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