2011 Movies

by Tim Van Schmidt

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ****

If you have been a fan of the Swedish trilogy of movies based on the popular “Girl” books, there is much to talk about when comparing the introductory Swedish release with the first of the English language remakes. Details of the stories differ enough to make for plenty of conversation.

What is the same though- which may indicate the true power of the story itself- is the skillful building of tension as the horrible mystery unravels. The details may differ but both movies keep you on the edge of your seat- even when you know the story already.

This is a slicker, more polished version, perhaps- from the settings to the throbbing, harsh soundtrack. The performances of lead actors Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara create believable characters with less self-righteousness and a little more edge than the characters in the Swedish version.

The most curious part of this production is the arty opening sequence which has no real connection to the rest of the movie- and recalled to me the stylized openings to most James Bond movies- and that’s not just a cheap reference to Craig’s reoccurring turns as 007. But James Bond movies don’t have a Led Zeppelin song introducing things, and here, it provides a kind of “keep-awake-for-this-movie” challenge from the very start.

Directed by David Fincher…2011…158 min…featuring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes ****

An imaginative prequel to the Planet of the Apes story- leaving room for more to come. A lot of the success here is due to the special effects that give the apes in the movie human-like qualities- and that has always been the point of these movies, after all.

However, this one takes it back to the scientific experiments that lead to the dawning of intelligence for the apes. It centers around a company trying to produce a drug that will help repair brain tissue ravaged by diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Of course, they try it on chimpanzees first with unexpected results- the apes show signs of increased cognition. The side effects, however, send the scientists back to the drawing board.

One baby chimp is saved by the lead researcher when the other apes involved in the failed experiments are destroyed. The researcher takes the chimp home, names him Caesar and raises him, keeping one eye on his progress and one eye on his aging father, suffering from a brain disease. This begins the series of events that results in a revolt of the many apes held in captivity in various sanctuaries and zoos. The first major showdown between the apes and the humans occurs on the Golden Gate Bridge- and leaves the door open for the story to continue.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt…2011…105 min…featuring James Franco, Andy Serkis (as Caesar), Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo.

Limitless ****

This movie would have you suppose, first of all, that most people live a dull existence.  We ‘re mired in emotions, we use only a small percentage of our brain and we allow habits, limited information and preconceived attitudes rule our lives. Then it goes further by asking- what would happen if there was a little pill you could take that would clear all of that up and more? This pill would unlock the potential of the human brain and give drive and purpose to everything.

According to “Limitless,” what would happen is that a regular person- like the struggling writer at the center of this action-suspense work-out- would make a lot of money and develop his power over the herds of unenhanced people around him. Apparently limitless mental focus creates limitless corruption, as mirrored by the physical decay that occurs when this drug user tries to stop. The movie is put together with sharp, innovative special effects photography and video effects that make the watching lively- besides the violent cloak and dagger action that is.

Directed by Neil Berger…2011…105 min…featuring Bradley Cooper, Anna Friel, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro, Andrew Howard, Johnny Witworth.

Water for Elephants ***

An epic-style romance with the rough and tumble business of a Depression-era circus as a backdrop. A young man studying to be a veterinarian is orphaned and hits the road, where he finds work as a traveling circus’ vet- and becomes part of a dangerous love triangle. The danger comes from the unpredictable behavior of the circus owner, who at once brings the boy into his inner circle but also gets insanely jealous as the sparks fly between the vet and the owner’s wife. Actor Christoph Waltz plays the part of August, the circus owner and ringmaster, with relish and single-handedly maintains the true tension in the movie. Beyond that, the circus environment- and the opportunity to “rub elbows” with a variety of strong characters- is there to add considerable flavor to an otherwise familiar love story.

Directed by Francis Lawrence…2011…120 min…featuring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz (as August), Jim Norton, Hal Holbrook, Mark Povinelli.

The Rite ***

A doubting seminary student is sent to Rome to attend exorcism classes and his doubt is shaken by his contact with a longtime exorcist with unorthodox methods.

Directed by Mikael Hafstrom…2011…114 min…featuring Colin O’Donoghue, Anthony Hopkins, Ciaran Hinds, Alice Braga, Rutger Hauer.

The Resident ***

Run-of-the-mill thriller. A young woman who has just separated from her cheating boyfriend moves into a building owned by a really nice guy- or is he? Once that question is answered there isn’t much else here except chase scenes within the walls of the building- and the creepy leer of the antagonist.

Directed by Antti Jokinen…2011…91 min…featuring Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Lee Pace, Christopher Lee.

Season of the Witch **

Despite lots of sword action, actor Nicolas Cage sleepwalks through this weak tale of a motley group made up of runaway Crusaders, a swindler, a priest, a young man and an old knight who must escort an accused witch to a distant abbey to be judged and exorcised.  Of course, nothing good happens to the travelers along the way and the witch proves to be plenty to handle besides. There are some cool demonic effects but mostly wooden dialogue and uninterested performers- which includes Cage’s co-star Ron Perlman.

Directed by Dominic Sena…2011…95 min…featuring Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Christopher Lee.

Battle of Los Angeles **

A weak invasion yarn- lots of gun play.

Directed by Mark Atkins…2011…91 min…featuring Nia Peeples, Kel Mitchell, Dylan Vox, Robert Pike Daniel.

The Iron Lady *****

As much as “The Iron Lady” is about the career of controversial British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it is also about aging. A lot of the movie is couched as flashback memories, mixed with hallucinations and mental drifting as an old woman slowly comes to grips with the details of her life- including her career, for sure- but also her family and marriage. Everything crowds together in her mind while diminishing capabilities make things more confusing.

This is all rendered with skill by Meryl Streep, who is not only able to express the drive and dogged insistence of the younger Thatcher, but also the deeply personal troubles of the old woman. It’s a masterful performance, blending facts and conjecture realistically. This blend, coupled with a brisk edit and plenty of material to cover, makes “The Iron Lady” a rich intellectual and surprisingly emotional experience.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd…2011…105 min…featuring Meryl Streep (as Margaret Thatcher,) Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant, Susan Brown, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd.

My Week With Marilyn ****

Actress Michelle Williams is a treat playing Marilyn Monroe in this engaging – and ultimately uplifting- production. Everything she does- from pouting to primping- to become Monroe makes her a bright spot on the screen. Williams is skilled for sure, but more, I think this indicates that Monroe had something unique and dazzling going on. Even an actress trying to be like her succeeds fifty years after her death. What Monroe had was complicated too, according to “My Week With Marilyn,” as the young fellow finds out who gets mixed up in a film shoot with her in London- the 1957 film “The Prince and the Showgirl,” directed by Sir Laurence Olivier.

Directed by Simon Curtis…2011…99 min…featuring Michelle Williams (as Marilyn Monroe,) Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh (as Sir Laurence Olivier,) Julia Ormond, Emma Watson, Michael Kitchen, Judi Dench.

Aftershock ****

An earthquake devastates a city in China and forces a woman to decide whether to save her son or her daughter. She chooses the son, but the decision tortures her soul for the rest of her life. The daughter, left for dead, survives but falls into the hands of foster parents, decent people and avowed Maoists.

There’s a lot of weeping and hand-wringing here as well as cultural ticks that are hard to understand, however the movie in general is beautifully made. The beginning sequence of dragonflies moving en masse through the city is mesmerizing to start with. The earthquake sequence of scenes is truly intense- inspiring one of those jaw dropping how-did-they-ever-film-that moments- and the after effects are heart rending both in the smoke and dust of the broken buildings and the scars the survivors carry with them the rest of their lives.

Directed by Xiaogang Feng…2010…135 min…featuring Daoming Chen, Chen Li, Yi Lu, Fan Xu, Jingchu Zhang, Jin Chen.

The Ides of March ***

When the preferred political candidate in this movie, played by George Clooney, is in the spotlight with the cameras on and an audience responding, he is inspiring and righteous in all he says. However, the moral here is that what you see is not necessarily what you get. Apparently politics is a rough business when balancing public opinion, media scrutiny, keeping a professional and volunteer staff in place and fending off attacks from the opponent. But that’s not all- it gets darker and deeper than that.

Despite all of that, “The Ides of March” is a somewhat restrained production. Maybe that has a lot to do with featured actor Ryan Gosling’s poker faced expression throughout the entire movie. But there’s a certain lack of oomph to Clooney’s character too. It also might have to do with the subject- the long timers in politics here have all developed a hard cynical shell that allows them to do despicable things as everyday business.

Directed by George Clooney…2011…101 min…featuring  Paul Giamatti, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei.

Midnight in Paris ***

Just look at the guest list for this movie: Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Luis Bunuel, TS Eliot, Henri Matisse and many more. Apparently director and writer Woody Allen wanted to meet them all, so he concocted this light fantasy in order to do that.

The famous people come and go quickly in this thin story about a young writer vacationing in Paris. He gushes about the city’s artistic history and the general vibe while his intended bride just wants to go shopping.  He obsesses about it so much that one night, at the stroke of midnight, he somehow time travels back to 1920s Paris and is readily accepted by the creative population. From there, his time travels become much more interesting than real life.

It’s all a clever mechanism to dig deep into the storied creative history of Paris and to try to bring the major denizens of a particularly productive era to life- with some pleasing results. The Hemingway character is amusingly straight forward while the Salvador Dali character is strange indeed. What’s weak here is actor Owen Wilson as the protagonist, who has the dazed look and nervous stuttering of Woody Allen down, but not much else. It is interesting to note that while Allen does not appear in the movie, you can clearly hear his voice in the writing and this, at times, tends to limit the actors, who end up sounding like mimics.

Directed by Woody Allen…2011…94 min…featuring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Kurt Fuller, Michael Sheen, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Adrien Brody.

Drive ***

Whether driving a stunt car or a getaway car for a heist, the main character here is super cool and confident. But he loses his cool when he falls for a lovely neighbor lady- and then her husband comes home from prison, setting off a tragic sequence of events. Actor Ryan Gosling turns in yet another mannequin-esque performance as the driver, despite the fast cars, screaming women, gangsters, cops and vicious, brutal violence.

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn…2011…100 min…featuring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman.

Hugo ****

This is a delightful advertisement for the film industry since the love of movies is at its very heart. The action takes place in a Paris train station sometime after World War I. There, an orphan boy survives by living in the walls and clock works of the station, places no one else goes. He spends his days maintaining the clocks, stealing food and avoiding detection.

In due course, the boy meets a grumpy old shopkeeper who is wise to his tricks and takes a disgruntled interest in him. All of this leads to wonder and discovery as there is much more to the old man than what first meets the eye.

The finale to “Hugo” fully illustrates the triumph of film preservation, recognizing the cultural contributions of early filmmakers and making their creative efforts live on for audiences of the future.

Directed by Martin Scorsese…2011…126 min…featuring Ben Kingsley (as Georges Melies),  Asa Butterfield (as Hugo), Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Lee, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law.

Martha Marcy May Marlene ****

I’m not sure this movie is ultimately enjoyable, but I admit it is a very powerful character study. This is the story of a girl who escapes an alternative communal cult’s bewitching powers only to find “normal” life increasingly hard to bear when she is taken in by her older sister.

There’s reason to escape the cult- physical and sexual abuse is mixed with criminal trespass and murder, all aided by drugs- but it is not all black and white evil either. There is also a sense to the commune of banding together into a family with a deliberate effort toward self-sufficiency in a pleasant, quiet rural environment. These elements combine to confuse and disorient the girl- the result of skillful brainwashing by the head of the cult.

At her sister’s home, the confused girl finds some comfort in a return to “normalcy,” at least in terms of being able to get out of her previous situation and get a perspective on what had been happening to her. In the process, however, she sees a certain kind of brainwashing going on in her sister’s upper middle class life- resulting in periodic scoldings and a nearly hysterical reaction to the girl going skinny-dipping.

The movie progresses very slowly, perhaps mimicking the slow climb out of mental confusion experienced by the girl, and the soundtrack is static and creepy. Elizabeth Olsen is a riveting figure as the former cult member trying hard to sort out what is in her head while coming to the terrifying conclusion that she better keep looking over her shoulder.

Directed by Sean Durkin…2011…102 min…featuring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Christopher Abbott, Hugh Dancy.

Another Earth ****

Although science fiction is an element to this movie- the appearance of a mysterious duplicate Earth- it is not the focus. Instead, this strange, static production focuses on the heaviness of guilt and the hope for redemption.

The story follows the sorrowful path taken by a young woman who causes a fatal traffic accident. She is so deeply disturbed by the result of her own actions that jail time is only the beginning of her punishment. Eventually she seeks out the other survivor of the accident to apologize, but ends up developing a tentative relationship with him instead. But this relationship does not redeem the damage that has already been done.

That’s where the second Earth- Earth 2 as it is called in the movie- comes in. The planet is a mirror-image of the original Earth, down to the exact landscape formations and the same people. However, not knowing what is really on that other planet FOR SURE becomes the tiny opening through which hope escapes. Includes an imaginative and, at times, atonal soundtrack.

Directed by Mike Cahill…2011…92 min…featuring Brit Marling, William Mapother, Matthew-Lee Erlbach , DJ Flava.

2012: Zombie Apocalypse **

Maybe this movie can be excused as a television production, but as such it is a weak affair at best. The script is dumbed way down- it’s the kind where everything the characters are doing is explained verbally. Now, there’s plenty of gore and violence and some imaginative costuming, but a lot of this is the group of survivors who are moving towards a rumored human safe zone sneaking around and jabbering. Actor Ving Rhames looks lost in a sea of younger actors.

There is one major redemption to this one- the zombie tigers. Now, that’s one that hasn’t been seen before and they are ferocious monsters at that. Skip ahead to those scenes. This was the second movie in a zombie double feature and far inferior to “The Horde.”

Directed by Nick Lyon…2011…87 min…featuring Ving Rhames, Taryn Manning, Johnny Pacar, Gary Weeks, Lesley-Ann Brandt, Eddie Steeples.

Melancholia ***

A young woman cannot shake an uncontrollable sadness as her wedding party proceeds around her. It’s due in part to a rebellious nature that hates all the ritual involved- and to the fact that a rogue planet is heading toward Earth on a crash collision course.

The first half of the movie is very human indeed- painfully so- as the bride’s elusiveness and just bad attitude makes the wedding reception festivities torturous.

But then the planet- Melancholia- comes closer into view. The closer it gets, the more unhinged the characters get and the less they can do but wait for the celestial event to be upon them. At first it looks like a near miss, but you really can’t expect that to be the end result of so much doom saying. The final sequences are awesome.

I found a close association between this movie and “Another Earth.” In both movies, the appearance of a new nearby planet causes stress to young women already suffering from major problems. But in “Another Earth,” the planet ends up representing a desperate kind of hope. In “Melancholia,” the planet is a sign that there is no hope.

The disturbingly deep sadness displayed in “Melancholia” also brings to mind another recent movie- “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” A strong thread through “Melancholia” is the relationship between the super sad bride and her very supportive sister. This is also the case in “Martha.” The young woman who has escaped from a cult group finds refuge with her older sister, also putting her through Hell despite a deep bond.

Directed by Lars von Trier…2011…136 min…featuring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland,  Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard.

Moneyball ***

Forget whose name is biggest on the marquee here- Brad Pitt- this movie belongs to actor Jonah Hill. “Moneyball” tells the story of Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, played by Pitt. But like Pitt in the movie and Beane in real life, the man in charge must let some fresh blood in the door and both Hill and his character in the movie are exactly that.

Hill plays a numbers savvy cubicle dweller who is obsessed with baseball statistics and what they reveal about a player. The irony here is that by reducing players to numbers- like their on-base percentages- he finds the truth worth of players disregarded for unusual style or more ridiculous reasons. Their stigmas make them a bargain in the baseball world despite encouraging numbers.

This is all news to Beane and his fellow baseball veteran buddies, and that’s what makes his move to try out the new computer supported system of evaluating players bold. But the truly bold one here is the young man willing to use new technology to venture into unknown territories- even if it is just about winning games with a limited budget. Hill plays the part with some humility mixed with a growing confidence that he’s really got something unique going on.

A treat here is some actual footage of the A’s on their successful run to the championship, mixed with the dramatization.

Directed by Bennett Miller…2011…133 min…featuring Brad Pitt (as Billy Beane), Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Stephen Bishop

Contagion ***

Here’s one of those Doomsday scenarios that could happen. That is, a super-bug develops that not only disables and kills, but spreads easily around the world. The real heroes then become scientists working on a cure under the stress of knowing that each hour their work remains unsuccessful, the number of disease victims multiply.

But heroism can’t fix what’s wrong with people in general and a horrible scene like this brings out the worst in some, making everything just that much more dangerous. That goes from hoodlums robbing and murdering citizens in a lawless atmosphere to government officials snatching up rare vaccines for themselves and their families. Everybody else just does what they can to survive.

But it’s clear that “Contagion” wants to believe in the power of some dedicated people- like a health organization official who ends up caring directly for sick people or a relentless blogger helping to expose government subterfuge- who will step up and keep swinging as long as they have any strength left in their bodies.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh…2011…106 min…featuring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Elliot Gould, Bryan Cranston.

We Bought a Zoo ****

After suffering the devastating loss of his wife, a writer/adventurer decides to forge a new life for himself and his two kids. He settles on an old house, out in the country,  that also happens to be the remnants of a zoo, complete with exotic and endangered animals. It’s a big project to bring the zoo back to life and it nearly tears the little family apart in the midst of their grief and misunderstandings. It also nearly bankrupts them.

But I have heard it said that if you really want to change your life, the best way to do this is to care for somebody else and the animals become that “somebody else” for the man and his son and daughter. But more, the oddball bunch of staff members at the zoo pitch in to make the reopening of the zoo, after a rigorous inspection, a group effort that is hard not to admire.

Sure, there are some dumb sequences here- particularly the farce revolving around the zoo inspector- but there is also plenty of real heart here as the characters deal with the angst of loss and the momentum of new purpose.

Matt Damon does not play Benjamin Mee as a guy who knows everything- he’s plenty confused at times- and that is kind of refreshing. While Maggie Elizabeth Jones is irresistibly cute as the daughter, Colin Ford pours on a frustrating mix of venomous surliness and hurt sensitivity. This is a feel-good movie with warts and weaknesses up front.

Directed by Cameron Crowe…2011…124 min…featuring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Elle Fanning, John Michael Higgins, JB Smoove.

Albert Nobbs ***

A woman survives in 1800s Dublin by painstakingly posing as a man in order to work as a waiter in a hotel catering to the rich. Named “Albert Nobbs,” the woman maintains her pose in order to scrimp and save to buy her own shop someday. Just when she’s nearing her goal, another person with a deception more bold than her own enters her life and inspires bigger dreams and more courage. Dreams and courage mixed with a nearly childlike naiveté, making Nobbs hardly prepared for what she encounters when motivated to action.

While actress Glen Close creates a distinctive character as Albert Nobbs, the movie is dominated more by actress Janet McTeer, who presents much deeper facets to women’s issues than just “working man” concerns. McTeer’s character here is charismatic in every scene she appears in.

Directed by Rodrigo Garcia…2011…113 min…featuring Glenn Close (as Albert Nobbs), Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Brendan Gleeson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ***

An ousted British intelligence head is drawn back into duty to find a spy in the upper reaches of command. It’s dangerous business alright- the whole thing gets kick started with a public execution of an agent- but there’s also a sense of tedium involved. It takes a really focused agent to uncover the tiny clues that lead to more tiny clues- and focused attention by the viewer to avoid dozing.

Directed by Tomas Alfredson…2011…127 min…featuring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy,  Mark Strong, John Hurt.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ***

A young boy focuses his frenetic energy on a mysterious key he finds in his father’s stuff after his Dad perishes in the September 11 attacks. Who wouldn’t miss a father like the one Tom Hanks plays in this one- so wise and supportive of his intensely inquisitive son? But the Mom is supportive too- and receives the brunt of the boy’s anger.

Directed by Stephen Daldry…2011…129 min…featuring Thomas Horn (as Oskar Schell), Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Zoe Caldwell, John Goodman, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright.

Cowboys and Aliens ***

Some unwitting cowboys and unwilling Apache warriors wage an unlikely war against an alien scout ship in the Old West. No matter that the heroes are outgunned and outnumbered by the terrifically strong invaders, the cowboys just belly up and duke it out with the ugly suckers, thanks to some help from another alien who has taken the form of a beautiful, gun-toting lass. It’s all kids’ stuff with cardboard characters and bottom-drawer dialogue. At least the special effects are cool.
Directed by Jon Favreau…2011…119 min…featuring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Abigail Spencer, Buck Taylor, Clancy Brown, Paul Dano, Adam Beach, Sam Rockwell, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Raoul Trujillo.

The Help ****

A young college grad returns to her home in Mississippi in the 1960s, determined to be a writer. She begins by writing a newspaper column about household tips, but soon recognizes a story happening right before her eyes. That is, the hostile stubbornness her friends maintain as far as racial issues are concerned. Her former buddies treat the African-American service people around them like dirt, as if it was one of their birthrights to be petulant with black people.

Skeeter, the young writer, then approaches “the help,” with an offer to get their stories heard. But it is not only an uncomfortable subject to talk about, but dangerous too. Change is in the wind anyway and the timing is right- the book triumphantly gives a voice to repressed domestic workers everywhere- a kind of evidence that the truth must come out eventually and it could hurt. All the right emotional chords are struck in this right-makes-might movie.

Directed by Tate Taylor…2011…146 min…featuring Emma Stone (as Skeeter), Viola Davis (as Aibileen), Octavia Spencer (as Minny), Bryce Dallas Howard (as Hilly), Jessica Chastain, Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spacek.

Thor ***

There’s no doubt about it- comic book characters Thor, his cohorts and his enemies from the mythical land of Asgard, do not fit in very well on Earth. Their costumes, manner of speaking and general arrogance sets them far apart from the humans they encounter.

Fortunately, this movie is more about the power intrigues going on in Asgard itself. The settings in Asgard are bewitchingly big in scale, the crisp, imaginative costumes a reflection of a different race of beings. The action in Asgard and in the home of the Frost Giants is great fantasy, dark, cold and huge.

The action on Earth is more of a character lesson for Thor than an essential part of the bigger events. Fortunately, actress Natalie Portman plays the human love interest with a perky energy, making the most of the obligatory fish-out-of-water part of the plot.

Directed by Kenneth Brangh…2011…115 min…featuring Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo.

War Horse ***

This is a big, grand production that pulls all the right heart strings with swelling music, gorgeous sunset skies, a mighty good looking steed and a fierce look of intense loyalty from the young owner.  It’s an epic story too- the journey of a horse through the ravages of World War I, touching the lives of people on all sides of the conflict.

The easy grab for the emotions, as pretty a package as it is, actually tends to minimize the characterizations involved. The people come and go quickly in this movie, some little more than a cardboard figure of a person, in the rush to reach the next emotional climax. All the strong movie cues worked- I felt a moist eye at key times and jumped in my seat as Joey bounded through the barbed wire- but I’m not sure how much of it had to do with people or even the horse, but in slick, professional movie-making.

The most effective scenes in “War Horse” for me were those taking place in the British trenches- the “war” without the “horse.” The terrible conditions and the soul-shaking fear reflected in the faces of the soldiers made my skin crawl. Then, the attack through No Man’s Land is most certainly horrific. This all said more about humanity than the rest of this horse fairy tale.

Directed by Steven Spielberg…2011…146 min…featuring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Celine Buckens , Eddie Marsan, Tom Hiddleston.

Trespass ***

Things get worse for a wealthy family having personal problems when their home is invaded by robbers looking for cash. It’s not a random crime- the thugs, in trouble over a bad drug deal, know the husband is a diamonds dealer and that he recently received a large amount of money. Beyond that, one of the bad guys has a massive crush on the wife, amping up the tension all the way around. Nothing goes as planned and things escalate with plenty of battery and screaming. Actually, the screaming is in the viewer’s head, as in: why am I watching this? Survival seems to be the only point here- and that’s not easy to do with a roomful of psychotics and liars.

Directed by Joel Schumacher…2011…91 min…featuring Nicolas Cage, Nicole Kidman, Cam Gigandet, Liana Liberato, Ben Mendelsohn.

The Tree of Life ****

Can you call a movie excellent if you don’t quite get the point of it? That’s the quandary with “The Tree of Life.” I was fascinated by this movie and watched it intently, but came away from it questioning just what I got out of it. If the point isn’t clear, is that a flaw?

The bulk of “The Tree of Life” is centered around the everyday life of a struggling Texas family in the 1950s. The main conflict is that the father is a stern bully who alternately hugs his kids, then flatly berates them. The eldest son takes a lot of the heat, but everyone is walking on egg shells around dear old dad.

The movie also flashes forward to the troubled son as an adult and it seems he’s having difficulty reconciling the events of his past with his high-rise city life. Part of the pain comes from the death of one of his brothers, which wounds the entire family and remains a sore memory for years afterward.

All of this is told with a very spooky, static form of moviemaking which could be best described as stream of consciousness. The viewer seems to be listening in on the random thoughts of the characters. The scenes come and go, sometimes with little more than an image or a few words in a voice over. And many of the scenes aren’t cut and dried, but pregnant with meaning- if you could figure out what that meaning is. In this way, the entire movie is like a piece of modern art- open to wide interpretation.

“The Tree of Life” is a beautiful movie and despite the lack of concrete storytelling there are still plenty of emotions here. But perhaps it’s a little like experiencing the world from behind a window- you can never really touch what is on the other side.

Directed by Terrence Malick…2011…139 min…featuring Hunter McCracken, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain.

Borgia Season 1 ***

Created by Tom Fontana…2011…12 episodes…featuring John Doman, Mark Ryder, Isolda Dychauk, Art Malik.

Downton Abbey Season 2 ***

Created by Julian Fellowes…2011…9 episodes…featuring Hugh Bonneville, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim carter, Brendan Coyle, Micelle Dockery, Siobhan Finneran, Joanne Froggatt, Rob James-Collier, Sophie McShera, Maggie Smith, Dan Stevens, Penelope Wilton, Jessica Brown Findlay, David Robb.

The Descendents ****

The trustee for a family holding a big swathe of prime real estate in Hawaii deals with pressure to sell the land while his wife lies dying in the hospital after a boating accident.

Directed by Alexander Payne…2011…115 min…featuring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie, Beau Bridges.

The Hunter ***

A hunter comes to respect his prey when he is sent to Tasmania to bag what may be the last “Tasmanian Tiger.”

Directed by Daniel Nettheim…2011…102 min…featuring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Morgana Davies, Frances O’Connor.

The Confession ***

A cold and calculating hit man coerces a priest into hearing a confession of his sins- and to answer questions about the nature of good and evil. The “evil” part is the majority of the conversation and that’s apt considering the man’s occupation. But there’s more to it than that as layers of evil get peeled back to reveal deeper layers yet.

Directed by Brad Mirman…2011…65 min…featuring John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland.

Margin Call ***

Stock traders push way outside their limits of coverage and panic in the board room is the result.

Directed by JC Chandor…2011…107 min…featuring Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore.

The Grey ****

“The Grey” is certainly an action movie- Alaskan workers survive a plane crash in the wilderness only to be hunted by relentless, carnivorous wolves. But it is also full of an intense soul-searching that intensifies the drama. Who’s doing the soul-searching? Just about all of the guys in the movie are, most particularly actor Liam Neeson’s character, who takes charge on the outside, but is drowning with personal pain on the inside.

The soul-searching seems to be the point here too because the survival part of the movie boils down to taking full use of all of your resources- however limited they may be- and then hope for a lot of luck.

There are some very effective action scenes in “The Grey,” particularly the airplane crash sequence- it is terrifyingly disjointed. So is the fall of one of the characters through the trees. Some of the wolf attacks are also hair-raising, giving “The Grey” plenty of adrenalin.

The action, however, frames the soul-searching that ranges from the usual guy crying over his kids to a jerk who doesn’t know when to stop bedeviling the people around him. For Neeson’s guy, he’s so weepy in his thoughts about his late wife, yet aggressive indeed when dealing with an outside situation.

The wolves themselves appear only in flashes, or from a distance, indicating that they are perhaps more of a symbol than meant to reflect a realistic situation. There’s even a kind of supernatural power about the beasts- and they become a supreme test. How each man meets that test is the real meat of the story.

Directed by Joe Carnahan…2011…117 min…featuring Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale, Ben Bray, Anne Openshaw.

Immortals **

Directed by Tarsem Singh…2011…110 min…featuring Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, John Hurt.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ***

Retirees facing various depressing scenarios in England bank on a senior resort in India that turns out to be significantly different than its image on the Internet and in the marketing material. It’s not all bad since the owner of the hotel- a young man with a lot to prove- is so accommodating, spinning a positive thread off of every problem the guests encounter. The colorful surroundings have their effect as well. Throw in a couple of love stories and you’ve got a charming diversion.

Directed by John Madden…2011…124 min…featuring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith,  Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie, Dev Patel, Lena Desae, Lillete Dubey.