Youth in Revolt (Miguel Arteta, 2009). This was Arteta’s first film in almost a decade after some quick, buzzy success to kick off his career. All the time between features didn’t eliminate his slightly arid style, which has a tendency to deaden the drama after a while. More problematically, the film exhibits a offbeat pushiness as it heaps in quirky details and disaffected anguish. It simply tries to hard. Michael Cera plays a sweet, timidly pining young man who conjures up an imaginary tough-talking alter ego who drives him to get the girl while also slipping deeper into a quicksand of miserable trouble. The only appeal to the whole thing is getting a glimpse of how Cera might approach a role that deviated significantly from his stock persona, although here it’s too much of a contrivance to really allow him to show what he could do. As the woman who wins his heart, Portia Doubleday gives one of the most uncharismatic performances in such a role since Iben Hjejle nearly sunk 2000’s High Fidelity.
Jonah Hex (Jimmy Hayward, 2010). Here’s a safety tip: if you build a drinking game connected with the viewing of Jonah Hex that requires taking a slug every time the title character’s full name is spoken, try to be consuming a beverage more forgiving than vodka when you do it. Of course, it’s not honestly advisable to watch Jonah Hex under just about any circumstances. A woebegone adaptation of a fairly oddball DC Comics series about an Wild West gunslinger, the film is a muddled mess, astoundingly ill-conceived from start to finish. John Brolin snarls his ways through the role, but the makeup effects that place some bands of scarred skin running like a footbridge across one side of his mouth also impede his ability to speak, making most of his tough-guy lines sound like they’re being delivered through a round of gargling. Even John Malkovich playing his villainous role with the sort of visible disinterest and contempt that he usually brings to these paycheck roles doesn’t generate enough amusement to make the endurance test of watching the film worthwhile.
Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978). Well, it’s plainly a masterpiece. For all the appropriate praise heaped on the imagery and the cinematography credited to Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, I think it’s Malick’s writing that stands as the strongest element of the film. The story of a trio of itinerant workers who briefly settle on a Texas farm in 1916 is narrated by the youngest member, a teenager played with a staggering naturalism by Linda Manz. It’s as rich and deliberately spare as a minimalist novel with Malick doing his best to wring meaning and import out of every little word, every tiny gesture, every glance at a better life up the hill. The film is a clear cousin to it’s predecessor, Malick’s 1973 feature debut Badlands, but that earlier effort’s earthiness and edgy humor are replaced by a blooming poetry. It’s debatable as to whether it’s Malick’s finest work–and a case can surely be made as it is–but it’s undoubtedly the film that defines him as a cinematic artist.
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011). I understand the marketing logic behind pitching this as a sort of “Hangover for Girls!,” but it sure does the film a disservice. As opposed to the ludicrously overpraised Todd Phillips comedy, there’s actually a story here beyond the glancing crudities and improvisational scraps. It’s not an especially novel one, but it’s told with just the right mixture of bravery, warmth and aplomb to overcome some of the slack in the film’s construction. Kristen Wiig plays a woman whose capability to sink every lower into her stalled mid-life funk is compounded by her best friend’s pending marriage and the evident picture-perfection that comes along with it. Wiig regularly overdoes it in her showcase moments on Saturday Night Live, but film has generally brought out a far more appealing subtlety in her approach, and Bridesmaids even proves she can genuinely act, investing her character with a believable coil of vulnerability, frustration and regained grit. Feig’s direction is largely of the shot-reverse-shot efficiency that he’s honed in television, but he also has a knowing way with emotional balance that keeps key moments from getting too harsh or too maudlin. And if he’s the one who figured out that Jill Clayburgh was the exact right person to play Wiig’s mother then he deserves extra credit for his efforts.
The Candidate (Michael Ritchie, 1972). It may now be looking as rickety and unsafe as a jalopy in a Ma and Pa Kettle movie, but it’s worth remembering that the American political system has been broken for a long, long time. It’s been nearly forty years since Jeremy Larner won an Academy Award (over both Luis Buñuel and Louis Malle) for writing this withering, resigned deconstruction of the endless compromises that go into taking a handsome fella from fervent idealism to viable candidate for the United States Senate. Robert Redford plays the main character, and if it’s not exactly a deep, intricate performance, it’s surely one that ingeniously exploits the actor’s magnetism and star power. There’s probably nothing in the film that a modern audience would find especially shocking, but it still offers a bleakly comic portrait of the apparently impossibility of introducing ethics into the country’s political process.