2011: Part 1

The Art of Getting By. Directed by Gavin Wiesen. Honestly, it wasn’t really that bad. (Rotten Tomatoes score aside…) I mean, the cinematography is nice at times. On the down side, nearly everything about the movie is a cliché. Misunderstood but weirdly intellectual/snobby teens at a fancy private school? Check. Title that wants to be clever but ends up sounding dumb? Check. (And how ironic, given the lackluster nature of the plot.) Distractingly indie soundtrack? Check and double check. (Belle and Sebastian’s “Sleep the Clock Around” is one of my favorite songs, but the Mates of State version used in the film just doesn’t do it for me. And let’s not even get started on the annoying Leonard Cohen song used in an equally annoying scene.) Freddie Highmore isn’t a bad actor, but he fails to make an impression of any kind. I guess I still see him as the bright-eyed little boy from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; perhaps that’s why he has public stated his decision to not to continue acting as an adult. I can see why Emma Roberts was chosen to personify the dream girl Highmore befriends and lusts after, but she’s totally unsympathetic. Only Rita Wilson as Highmore’s mother, Jarlath Conroy as Highmore’s crusty art teacher and Michael Angarano as a slightly older artist/mentor fare better in their roles. (Alicia Silverstone is OK as a mousy English teacher but doesn’t have much of a part.) Also: what station are Highmore and Roberts really at in that poster? Because it sure ain’t 42nd St. – not with that adorably un-Times Square brick wall in the background. Frankly, The Art of Getting By is not a great film and I probably won’t be seeing it again any time soon, but it wasn’t exactly Razzie-worthy either. It was a decent diversion and gave me something to do on an otherwise boring Thursday night. I saw it at a free preview screening the day before it opened in limited release and, all things considered, I’m glad I didn’t have to pay.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Directed by David Yates. Wow. What is there to say? I’ve been in love with the world of Harry Potter since 2000; Goblet of Fire mania was the catalyst for me finally delving into the books at age eight. (When I was thirteen I went so far as to attempt writing fanfiction. It wasn’t a successful venture.) Well, after waiting four years for the end of the film series, I am more than pleased with the final movie. It was more emotional than any HP film since Goblet of Fire, at the end of which I bawled. In this film, I think I first shed a tear in the scene when Hermione disguises herself as Bellatrix and tries to get into Gringotts. I know it’s only meant to be a humorous scene, but something about it just made me feel so suddenly weepy because I realized this was the last time I would ever see a Harry Potter film in an original theatrical release. By the end of the film my eyes and nose felt absolutely destroyed. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 got the bulk of the story right, keeping most of the important details intact. The main trio were as good as ever, although Ron and Hermione seemed not to have all that much dialogue. I have nothing but praise and applause for Alan Rickman; Ralph Fiennes occasionally elicited laughter from the audience for sheer over-the-top-ness, but Rickman was a completely commanding presence. When he spoke, the audience listened. Most effective of all was the scene where Snape asks the Hogwarts students if they know anything about Harry’s whereabouts. He labors over every cruel word, with each syllable almost agonizingly drawn out and deliciously pronounced in his trademark deep voice for maximum terror. Maggie Smith is also terrific, particularly in that aforementioned scene with Snape, in which they duel wordlessly, and in the later scene when the gigantic Hogwarts statues are brought to life. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 should get a Best Picture nod at the Oscars, although it’s probably not likely given Hollywood’s reluctance to reward Harry Potter with real, honest-to-goodness awards. It is a magnificent end to a legendary phenomenon of a series that captured the world’s attention in 1997 and has had our love and devotion ever since.

Midnight in Paris. Directed by Woody Allen. Before seeing this film, the most recently made Woody Allen film I’d seen was 1991’s Shadows and Fog – a span of 20 years separates the two, which I can’t quite wrap my head around when I think of everything Allen has made in those two decades. The most impressive aspect of Midnight in Paris is how romantic it is; besides its enchanting setting, the cinematography is rich and gorgeous, aided by the sweet sounds of French-inspired instrumental music and the standards of the 20s, 30s and 40s that Allen has always loved to use in his films. Owen Wilson surprised me with the charms and neuroses with which he imbued his character; he’s great as the Allenesque leading man, adding depth to a well-written role. Adrien Brody, a favorite of mine, is hilarious as Salvador Dalí; the way he says “rhinoceros” will have you in stitches. Marion Cotillard, whom I had previously liked in Inception, is lovely. And Michael Sheen has some good moments as the pompous know-it-all constantly undermining Wilson. All told, Midnight in Paris is a very well-made movie that left me feeling pretty good by the end. I’m not surprised that the film has received such a warm reception stateside; it’s about time that Allen got out of the slump he experienced with You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Whatever Works.

Project Nim. Directed by James Marsh. This documentary tells the true story of a chimpanzee who was used and misused by both professionals and civilians in an attempt to teach him American Sign Language. I did not know anything about Nim Chimpsky (named for famed linguist Noam Chomsky, of course) prior to seeing the film but felt that Nim’s tale was told well. Marsh, who directed the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, is clearly a competent filmmaker although his tendency to overdramatize makes parts of the story feel emotionally manipulative. Certain techniques were employed to enhance the mood, like having an out-of-focus actor portray the man who shot a tranquilizer into Nim’s mother Carolyn in order to remove Nim from her grasp. Marsh shows the tranquilizer flying toward the screen in slow-motion; I nearly rolled my eyes, thinking OK, we get it! Most of the film tells the story in a more straightforward manner, focusing on the interviews, home movies and photographs more than any effects or moving type (when it is required, words representing Nim’s linguistic process and progress fly across the screen). Ultimately, all nitpicking aside, Project Nim is a moving story filled with human compassion.

The Tree of Life. Directed by Terrence Malick. Something you have to understand: in mid-May I saw Days of Heaven at the Museum of the Moving Image and was absolutely blown away. (In case you didn’t know, the icon for this website is the house from the movie.) That brilliant movie redefined everything I thought I knew about American cinema. So you can understand my excitement and eager anticipation for the new Terrence Malick film. Unfortunately, compared to Malick’s earlier masterpiece, The Tree of Life was almost painful. The fact that it is 2 hours and 18 minutes long is not an excuse for why it was so aggravating; plenty of movies, like Lawrence of Arabia or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, are longer but completely entertaining. There is surprisingly little narrative in The Tree of Life, despite the barrage of images that hit the screen. And in the Big Bang/creation of Earth portion, were the dinosaurs really necessary? (Was any of that sequence necessary?) It was so weird to see CGI in a Terrence Malick film. (Granted, I can’t exactly call myself a superfan on the basis of just Days of Heaven, but still…) And oh, those voiceovers! In a word: yikes. In Days of Heaven, I loved Linda Manz’s narration; here, Jessica Chastain’s breathy musings drove me crazy. In general, Chastain’s character is too ethereal for her own good. I found myself desperately looking forward to the little moments in the film with more dialogue than usual. On the other hand, one of my favorite scenes is when young Jack is in his schoolroom, staring at a girl who sits nearby. That moment felt real, though it was lost in the sea of confusion known as The Tree of Life. I actually had a headache by the time the credits rolled.

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