What's on my mind? A mix of movies, music, marketing, media, and much more ...
"Are you prepared to take a dive into the deep end of my head?" — Jason Mraz
Monday, March 19, 2012
What Happened to Martin's Musings?
If you're wondering what's happened to this blog, there's a simple answer: It moved.
You can now find all the same blog posts you read here — and so many more, I hope — at, yes, MartinLieberman.com.
At the new site, you'll be able to share the posts you love, and subscribe, so you don't miss anything in the future. The site's easier to navigate so you can find what you're looking for, and it doesn't have that annoying white text on black background design that annoys so many people (including me).
I hope you'll continue reading over there. And stay tuned for the official grand re-opening of Martin's Musings.
It was the best of movies, it was the worst of movies.
Alright, so that's a bit of an exaggeration, but go with me here for a little while, okay?
Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston are both back in movie theaters now with new movies, and while they're of different quality, they made me think about how differently these two actress' careers have evolved. Both at one time was America's Sweetheart, a beloved figure on the small and/or large screen, and yet, where one has gone right(er), the other seems to be totally off track.
Let's start with Reese. Her latest, This Means War, tells the story of an unlucky-in-love woman who is at the center of a love triangle involving two covert CIA agents (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy). That's right: Only in the movies would we be asked to believe that someone as gorgeous, vivacious, and seemingly together as Witherspoon, and two guys as attractive and smart as Pine and Hardy, have trouble finding a mate. The film is intended to be a comedy — Chelsea Handler plays Witherspoon's character's wisecracking sister — but the laughs are few and far between. The film is far-fetched, unexciting, and a real waste of these three actors' presence.
Watching This Means War, I couldn't help but wonder when the last time was that Witherspoon was in a good movie. It had to be 2005's Walk the Line, the film for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress. All of her better performances — that one, Election, Pleasantville, and, yes, Legally Blonde — were released almost a decade or more ago. These days, Witherspoon seems to be stuck in pretty bad movies — her last two, Rendition and How Do You Know, especially. It's a real shame, given how much promise she showed in those early roles. Given how good she's looked at awards shows lately, I'm thinking maybe Witherspoon should just stick to walking red carpets from now on. At least there we know she can make some excellent choices, and that she'll be worth watching.
Witherspoon's costar in How Do You Know, Paul Rudd, seems to have escaped from that mess unscathed. He's back on screen now in Aniston's latest, Wanderlust. In the film, Rudd and Aniston play a Manhattan couple down on their luck who choose to stay on a commune (sorry, I mean "intentional community") rather than with his loutish brother and sister-in-law. Co-written and directed by David Wain (Role Models), the film is no comedy classic, but it's good fun, with a cast (including Alan Alda, Kathryn Hahn, Malin Akerman, and Aniston's current off-screen squeeze, Justin Theroux) who all seem to be having a blast.
Like in her last movie, the very funny Horrible Bosses, Aniston isn't being asked to carry the film or do any heavy-lifting acting (Rudd is the real lead here). And that frees her to just act naturally and appealingly, showing her carefree side in one topless scene, and a looser sensibility in a scene where she's tripping out on hallucinogens. I don't know if it's because she's playing opposite Theroux or Rudd (with whom she starred in The Object of My Affection), or because she's part of a solid ensemble, but Aniston sure is enjoyable to watch here. Her performance and Rudd's, whose slow unravel is always fun, and their chemistry together, make Wanderlust worth seeing.
(For the record, this isn't to say that Aniston can't get serious or carry a movie — she's done both in films like The Good Girl and Friends with Money, and to a more limited degree in Marley and Me.)
It's been a long time since Witherspoon proved why she was a movie star and demonstrated why she received so much acclaim earlier in her career. Aniston doesn't always choose the best movies, but at least recently, her track record is much better, and that's probably why she remains one of America's Sweethearts — or at least one of mine. I'm giving This Means War a D+ and Wanderlust a B.
Whether you liked her or didn't like her, Margaret Thatcher was an important political figure. So she rightly deserves any recognition she gets, and merits a bio-pic.
That said, watching The Iron Lady, you get the feeling that this is a film more about Meryl Streep playing Thatcher, than it is about Thatcher herself. Would the movie have been made without Streep? Who knows. But you know somewhere, a few years ago, some film producers were sitting around and came up with this brilliant high-concept idea. Thankfully, Streep delivers.
The film is told through the eyes of a late-in-life Thatcher, who is struggling with dementia and can't tell the difference between past and present. She also thinks her long-departed husband (Jim Broadbent) is still alive. Through flashbacks, we see Thatcher's rise to power, and how her firm, take-no-prisoners style of leadership did some good for England but also made few friends. Clearly, even in her old age, the price of power still weighs heavily on Thatcher.
The Iron Lady was directed, rather surprisingly, by Phyllida Lloyd, whose last film, the dreadful Mamma Mia!, gave Streep a rare chance to go slumming on screen. The Iron Lady proves that Lloyd may have a future in movies after all. (I guess that's a backhanded way of saying she acquits herself much better here.)
But as compelling as the film may be, it's hard not to be distracted by Streep. The whole time, despite a good performance, she hardly ever disappears into the role, and you're left marveling at how cool it is to see Meryl Streep play Margaret Thatcher. The film, then, comes off a something of a stunt, and it lessens the impact of the story. (I mean, Good God ... even Leonardo DiCaprio, wearing all that obvious makeup, was able to disappear into the role of J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar.)
So The Iron Lady proves not to be one of Streep's greatest films, even if she is good in it. But of course she is. Those producers knew what they were doing. I'm giving The Iron Lady a B.
In recent years, the proudly, blatantly self-important projects that Steven Spielberg has worked on (often with Tom Hanks) — ones like the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific — have been such a turnoff. They may be good, but who wants to sit through something out of a feeling close to obligation? So I'll admit, I was resistant to seeing War Horse, uncle Steve's latest prestige project, and pre-disposed to not liking it. This film, an adaptation of the Tony Award–winning play and children's novel, tells the story of boy gets horse, boy loses horse to World War I, boy enlists in army to find horse, boy and horse are reunited, and all is well. It's about as audience-friendly as can be, and with gorgeous photography, a predictably majestic score by John Williams, and decent performances, the film is a rousing one that will make you stand up and cheer.
But of course it will. That's the whole point. War Horse is so engineered to appeal to its audience, and doesn't even try to hide it. No one gives the horse any credit but the boy, who just knows he can train it to save his family's farm. And guess what? Then the horse goes from owner to owner to owner to owner, during wartime, and yet somehow, miraculously, the horse (whose name is Joey, by the way) survives. And then, when the boy and horse come together again, the music swells, your eyes begin to water, and ... well, yeah. I knew going in that I wasn't going to love this movie. War Horse is generally well made, it's a slick piece of audience pleasing entertainment, but I didn't love it like I think I was supposed to. So I'm giving the film a B.
If you haven't noticed, I see a lot of movies. As I sit down to write this blog post, this year alone, of the ones that are considered 2011 releases, I've seen 50. Last year I saw 60, so I'm a little off my game, I guess. But there are still a few movies that have yet to open in Boston that I'm sure I'll see, and that'll push the number higher. And yes, I know it's now a couple days into 2012. That's alright. Again, we're talking 2011 releases, the ones that are eligible for Oscars and all the other awards, no matter when they're in my local theaters.
Okay, enough excuse-making. 2011 was a pretty good year for the movies. Looking back on all the ones I've seen, there were a good number of them that I gave high marks to (i.e., a B+ or better). So what follows are my 10 favorite movies of the year.
1. Moneyball An inside-baseball movie with a high-wattage star turn from Brad Pitt, who gives it the full Redford.
2. Hugo Martin Scorsese's latest only looks like a children's movie. In fact, it's a 3D tribute to the earliest filmmakers.
3. Martha Marcy May Marlene A heartbreaking, creepy, intimate, and intense film about a young woman who escapes from a cult but can't truly feel free.
4. Crazy Stupid Love A romantic dramedy about how complicated love can be, featuring a sensitive performance by Steve Carell.
5. Super 8 J.J. Abrams' homage to his childhood idol. It's the kind of movie (almost exactly) that Steven Spielberg used to make.
6. The Descendants Alexander Payne + George Clooney = A bittersweet story about a husband who learns things aren't as perfect as they seem.
7. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo An imperfect but very cool adaptation of the worldwide best-seller, featuring a kickass performance by Rooney Mara in the title role.
8. Page One Journalism is alive and well at the media desk at The New York Times, thanks to some dedicated, memorable reporters.
9. Midnight in Paris Woody Allen's best film in years celebrates nostalgia and Paris, and nostalgia in Paris.
10. Win Win An underseen gem featuring some great characters, well written by Thomas McCarthy and memorably played by a cast led by Paul Giamatti.
And the worst/most overrated films of the year? Well, thankfully, I see a bomb coming and I stay away — for the most part. That said, after 50 movies, there were bound to be a few that were torture to sit through or just underwhelmed me, despite popular acclaim. I don't have 10 of them, but here, in no particular order, are my least favorite films of the year.
Larry Crowne Tom Hanks directs himself and Julia Roberts in a painful romantic "comedy."
Bridesmaids I think I'm the only person who found this film totally overrated. Don't hate me for it.
Cowboys & Aliens A sci-fi action film where the creators intentionally left out the humor. Big mistake.
The Muppets Not the movie I was hoping for. The tone was off, the songs were largely forgettable, and Kermit wasn't the guy I remember.
Drive I just didn't get this one. A cool performance by Ryan Gosling in a film that doesn't know what it wants to be.
What were your favorites and least favorites? I'd love to know. Leave a comment below.
The Cold War–era spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy tells the story of a British intelligence officer who is pulled out of (forced) retirement when it's thought that a Russian mole is embedded within the Secret Service. Who is the mole? It's one of four gentlemen who are given the code names of the film's title. That's about all I've got. Despite an excellent performance by Gary Oldman (and his oversized glasses), I just wasn't invested in this one. It's stuffy, all-too-serious, and not exactly exciting to watch. No wonder my mind wandered throughout, and I couldn't wait for the film to end. Is it fair, then, for me to give the movie any review? I don't care; I'm doing it anyway. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gets a B– from me.
Most people will tell you that Thanksgiving is the time to give thanks. After all, it's right there in the name of the day. But at the end of the year, as songs like "Step into Christmas" are on repeat play, I can't help thinking of one line in that song: "I'd like to thank you for the year." So in the spirit of showing even more appreciation, I'd like to say a few thank-yous to some (but not all of) the people, places, and things that made 2011 so much fun. This list is in no particular order.
Thank you to my fellow email geeks, Only Influencers members, and industry peers. I've truly enjoyed getting to know you all and debating the various email and social media topics, but also things like the merits of Google+, Klout, or Rebecca Black, or whether The King's Speech or The Social Network was a better movie, and doing so via email, on Twitter, or while sitting in a hot tub in Park City, Utah. And a special thanks to Ryan Phelan for including me in his Only Influencers version of Ocean's 11.
Thank you to Tim Burke and the staff at In a Pickle, not only for making some delicious food (mmmm ... Cookie Dough Pancakes ... Nutella Stuffed French Toast) but also for being a smart, kick-ass small business that I love supporting and advocating for.
Thank you to the staffs of MarketingSherpa and MediaPost, who, in their infinite wisdom, planned conferences this year in Las Vegas, Key Biscayne, Captiva Island, and Park City ... and thank you to my employer for letting me attend them.
Thank you to Andy Grammer, Coldplay, Kanye West and Jay-Z, James Morrison, Jessie J, Matt Nathanson, and yes, even you, Lady Gaga, who created some of my favorite music of the year.
Thank you to Roots, for making some of the most comfortable clothes I own.
Thank you to my friends, for being there, for cooking for me, for brunching with me, for sharing my love of steak and cupcakes, for trying to set me up on dates, for playing the role of cheerleader, and for being the best support system a guy could ask for.
Thank you to Twitter and Facebook, and all the people I'm connected with on those sites, for amusing and entertaining me, for keeping me informed, and for broadening my horizons on a daily basis.
Thank you to the staff at Johnny's Luncheonette, who see me sitting at the counter quite often, and who apparently know me so well that they've started to order for me because I tend to get the same thing (macaroni and cheese, with broccoli) way too often.
Thank you to Marc and Ian, my twin nephews, for being born and always having a smile on your faces. A year from now, you're going to get into all kinds of trouble (likely with my help), and I can't wait.
Thank you to Abby, my niece, for being silly, for being my buddy, and for growing into a young girl who is smart and so much fun to be around.
Thank you to Pippa Middleton. For obvious reasons.
Thank you to my coworkers, who make me laugh on an almost daily basis, sometimes on purpose and sometimes without intending to. You make me think, you challenge me, you fascinate and intrigue me, you inspire me, and you remind me of what's really important.
Thank you to Clarence Clemons, Amy Winehouse, and Steve Jobs, who, before leaving us this year, gave me lasting gifts of great music and fun-to-use, can't-live-without-it technology. Your contributions to my life will live on.
Thank you to the writing and design staffs of Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, and Rolling Stone for your insightful, entertaining, and memorable articles.
Thank you to Fiorella's Express and Comella's, for your excellent Italian takeout; to U Burger and Sal's Pizza, for feeding me before my weeknight movie screenings; to Finagle a Bagel, for being my almost-every-Saturday lunch spot; and Lucky Wah, for serving me well for many years before you closed a couple weeks ago.
Thank you to my can't-miss TV shows Happy Endings, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Revenge, New Girl, The Amazing Race, How to Make It in America, Saturday Night Live, CBS Sunday Morning, and Modern Family.
Thank you to the me I used to be, who I became reacquainted with this year when I finally finished re-reading my 8+ journals from high school. You reminded me who I was, showed me who I still am, and encouraged me to make changes I said I would 20 years ago.
Thank you to everyone else I'm neglecting to mention here. 2011 was a great year (better than last year), and there are just too many people and things to thank for that. So rather than try to list everyone, I'm going to share this video slide show, so you can see just how happy I was throughout the year, and what kind of "Good Life" I led. (And thank you to Animoto for making this so easy and fun to create!)
Happy New Year, everybody! I hope 2012 is a great year for you all.
The next time someone says to you, "They sure don't make movies like they used to," you can direct that person to my review of J.J. Abrams' Steven Spielberg homage, Super 8. Or, you can tell that person to see The Artist, an affectionately made tribute to the early days of filmmaking, when the addition of sound changed the industry forever, that's made in the same style as one of those silent films from the 1920s. (Yes, 2011 is apparently the year of the throwback.) If you're thinking Super 8 + Hugo = The Artist, I guess you're not too far off. Just throw in a splash of Singin' in the Rain, too.
The Artist tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the biggest (fictional) movie star of his day. At the premiere of his latest film, he literally bumps into Peppy Miller (the adorable Bérénice Bejo), and when she's photographed with George, she becomes a tabloid sensation. Over the next couple years, as sound becomes a force in the movie industry, George's pride prevents him from changing with the times, while Peppy slowly rises in the industry, her roles growing larger and larger. Will Peppy melt George's heart and convince him to get on board?
That this film has nearly everything working against it — it's French, it's silent, it's in black and white, etc. etc. — and yet it still works, and does so beautifully, is something of a miracle. Dujardin gives an impressive, expressive performance, and Bejo, well, she's just a pleasure to watch. If you don't fall in love with her during the scene where she acts opposite a coat rack in George's dressing room, then you've got no heart. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius uses conventions of those early days (a dog, the score) and mixes in some modern touches, like smart use of sound effects, to convey what a change it was. Like in Singin' in the Rain (which, by the way, is my all-time favorite movie), some of the films and elements of the industry are played for laughs (particularly the opening scene, which has elements liberally borrowed from Singin' in the Rain), but it's all done with love. And the final scene will just make you stand up and cheer.
That The Artist is so many people's favorite movie of 2011 is no surprise. But for me, it's not quite there. I think it's a little bit too long, and, well, I guess I found some of it a little hokey. But The Artist is certainly a wonderful film, a more than pleasant surprise, and it's well worth seeing. I'm giving it a B+.
In just about two minutes, David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo announces its arrival with an opening credits sequence that's reminiscent of Fincher's Fight Club, except much, much darker (and a bit kinkier too). As the sounds of Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Karen O's take on Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" play, it's clear you're in for a distinctly ominous movie. And sure enough, with its story of murder, rape, violence against women, graphic scenes of torture, a plot involving Nazis, and a lead heroine who is so anti-social and prone to revenge that she's a ward of the state, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is no one's idea of a feel-good movie. And yet, it's a pretty damned good one.
If you're one of the millions of people who've read Stieg Larsson's novel or seen the original screen adaptation, then you know the story. I hadn't done either of those things, so it was all new to me. Here's the gist: Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced journalist in Stockholm, is hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the head of a rich family, to investigate what happened to his granddaughter 40 years earlier. Needing help, Mikael eventually hires a young female hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who, unbeknownst to him, conducted a background check on Mikael before he was hired for the job, and has a thing for getting back at those who've crossed her.
It's a cool story, featuring some interesting characters, a terrific screenplay by Steven Zaillian (his second great adaptation this year, the other being Moneyball), another strong score by Reznor and Ross, and expert direction by Fincher, who gives the whole thing a sense of menace that preys on the audience's worst instincts. Yes, the movie is graphic at parts, but you won't be able to look away for a second. For that, credit Fincher, but also give kudos to Craig, Plummer, and, as another member of the Vanger family, Stellan Skarsgard, all of whom give very good — and in the case of Skarsgard, creepy — performances.
And then there's Mara (last seen as Mark Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend in The Social Network), who makes a real bad ass, kick ass heroine. She's a walking contradiction — her look is a cry for attention, but her demeanor says "Stay away" — and Mara just disappears into this role, investing all of herself in it. She's awesome.
And yet, as great and gripping as it is, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is held back by its own source material. [SPOILER ALERT] The film seems to have three different endings, making it feel about 20 minutes too long, but even worse, the relationship between Mikael and Lisbeth goes to a place I just didn't buy. I get that the two would become allies and friends, and that she might develop a strong loyalty to him, but the fact that they would start sleeping together is unbelievable to me. And that took me out of the story a bit. [END SPOILERS]
For most other movies, those problems would derail my enjoyment. But most other movies aren't as well made as this one. And when the lights went up, all I wanted to do was see more. The second part of the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire, can't come out soon enough. I'm giving this film a B+.
Generally, when it comes to movies, I'm not a fan of the bait and switch. How frustrating it is to go to a movie expecting to see one thing, and having the film be something else entirely. But in the case of Hugo, I found the bait and switch a pleasant, and exciting, surprise. Yes, that's right: Hugo is not the children's movie it's being marketed to be. Rather, it's a film that celebrates filmmaking and makes a strong case for preserving the films of our past, the ones that laid the foundation for the movies of today. The filmmaker behind this cinematic call to arms is none other than Martin Scorsese, who has made one of the most beautiful films of his career, and surely one of the best of this year.
Hugo tells the story of a young boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives secretly in the walls of a train station in Paris. There, he takes care of the clocks, forages for food, avoids the station's manager of security (Sacha Baron Cohen), and steals mechanical parts that he needs to repair his late father's automaton. In so doing, he meets a mysterious toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley) and befriends his goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). That's the children's-story part.
The other half of the story is that before he passed away, Hugo's father often took him to the movies, instilling in him a love of the cinema that Hugo passes on to Isabelle. When the automaton is fixed (no spoiler there; it's sort of not the real point of the movie), it draws a picture of a scene from a movie that Hugo remembers seeing as a child. After researching the scene and the movie, the two follow a trail that leads back to Isabelle's Papa Georges, whose early work has been rediscovered and is now appreciated more than he ever realized.
To tell this story, Scorsese uses 3D in the same way the early filmmakers used moving picture technology: To show the world like you've never seen it before. It's the same way the folks at Pixar do, the way they give each image extra depth and character, without being intrusive and showy. That said, with Hugo, you'll notice the 3D — if only because of the expert way it's been used. For example, the film begins with a scene-setting, sweeping shot through Paris and through the station that eventually swoops up and captures Hugo looking out through the clock, from the other side of the wall. It's a stunningly gorgeous image, one with real depth and dimension, the kind that's replicated (but not duplicated) throughout the movie. Scorsese also pays tribute to one of the earliest films in a scene where a train goes off the tracks and literally drives right through the station, coming right at the audience. It's awesome. What it comes down to, and there's really no other way to say it, is that you must see Hugo in 3D. It was made to be seen that way. You can't possibly get the full effect of the film in 2D.
But the really impressive thing is that while Hugo may be a visual feast, it's also a well made, heartwarming story — especially for anyone who loves movies. Kingsley gives a wonderful performance that's matched by the wide-eyed innocence of Butterfield and Moretz. As Hugo and Isabelle discover those early films and learn why Papa Georges' work should be saved and celebrated, we, too, begin to appreciate them. And what person wouldn't want to be recognized for the work he or she has done, especially if it's work that was long thought forgotten or worthless? The way Scorsese portrays this is just incredible, recreating the process involved in making those early films (look for him in a quick cameo as a photographer) and giving real insight into why the cinema became such a beloved art form. He humanizes the people behind it all and shows it with a child's sense of wonder and amazement. You can't help but be a fan (or a bigger fan) of the movies after seeing Hugo.
Sometimes, the only way to recapture our sense of wonder is to see things through the eyes of a child. In Hugo, Martin Scorsese makes us all feel like kids again, as if we're seeing the movies for the very first time. Hugo is being sold as a children's movie, but it's more than that. So much more. Hugo is an amazing achievement, a film that should be celebrated for years to come. I'm giving it an A-.