2011 Ten Best Movies

Oldman’s Smiley: TTSS

And we wrap up 2011 with another list, this one for the Herald. Read the story here.

The actual lists of best (and worst!) are arranged as a slideshow, so you have to do a lot of clicking. I know – ugh. Sorry! I will shortly post the list here in simple-to-read order.

Update: The link has vanished. Here’s the article.

By Robert Horton

2011: Year of mystery? Sometimes it felt like it at the movies.

            I’m not talking about actual whodunits, or in the case of the brilliant spy picture “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a whoizzit. No, the best movies of the year were a collection of offbeat mind-benders that challenged the viewer to keep up, in one way or another. Maybe it was an enigmatic hero (how’d that guy in “Drive” get those crazy skills, anyway?). Or a black comedy about depression that abruptly shifted into a meditation on, literally, the end of the world (“Melancholia”). Or you could have that tingly feeling of what-the-heck-am-I-watching-here-exactly, which might be mesmerizing (“Certified Copy”) or finally too navel-gazing for its own good (“The Tree of Life”). Even Woody Allen delved into a surreal world, with his biggest hit in years, “Midnight in Paris.” This tendency was true in bad movies, too; the giant stinker “Sucker Punch,” for instance, did its share of brain-teasing.

            What gives? So many movies offer up simple solutions, but some 2011 filmmakers seemed to be suggesting that things aren’t as easy as they seem. A lot of the movies on my Ten Best list pushed the boundaries of our expectations, and I was grateful for that. The year was supposedly a disappointing one at the box office, and some of the usual powerhouse franchises failed to rack up big numbers of the past. However, certain series were unbeatable: the final “Harry Potter” installment, for instance, and wherever we are (does it matter?) in the “Twilight” saga. I found out I could still be surprised when the third “Transformers” picture, “Dark of the Moon,” turned out to be zany fun. And “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” not only breathed new life into a dormant franchise, but got downright thrilling when the chimps took over in the second half.

            Winners of the movie year included the apocalypse, which figured in many a storyline (pre-2012 jitters, thanks to the Mayan calendar predicting our demise? Discuss), and women in comedy, who will get a chance to prove themselves thanks to the deserved success of “Bridesmaids.” Also “winning,” in the Charlie Sheen sense, were two actors who surely appeared in half the year’s releases, between them. Ryan Gosling hit it big with “Drive,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” and “The Ides of March.” Michael Fassbender arrived with fine work in “Jane Eyre,” “X-Men First Class,” “Shame,” and “A Dangerous Method.” The year’s biggest loser was film. By that I mean 35 mm. film, the format that has provided the vast majority of what we’ve known as the movies for over 100 years. Maybe you haven’t heard, but actual film has quietly disappeared from theaters in the last three years or so, and will be almost entirely gone within another year. Digital rules the day, ushered in by convenience, improved technology, and the needs of 3-D. It’s a change as important as the coming of talking pictures, but unlike the end of the silent-movie era (so charmingly re-created in “The Artist”), almost nobody has really noticed it.

            That shift is more significant than any single film of the year. Nevertheless, it’s time for the year-end cataloguing, and here are the best new movies I saw this year. A box of Professor Freud’s cigars to the following:

  1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” This is what a movie is. Watch it for five minutes and you’ll see. Bone-dry and richly emotional, director Tomas Alfredson’s film hones a John le Carre novel down to its essentials, aided by a superb cast led by Gary Oldman.
  2. Certified Copy.” Two people, played by Juliette Binoche and opera singer William Shimell, roam around Italy for a day, and our understanding of their relationship changes—are they strangers, or a couple, or possibly every couple? This is one of those arthouse tantalizers that manage to be as spellbinding as they are mystifying.
  3. Melancholia.” Kirsten Dunst plays a wayward bride, but this is no screwball comedy—or is it? An approaching planet suggests otherwise, in Lars von Trier’s fascinatingly peculiar end-of-the-world opus.
  4. A Dangerous Method.” The meeting of great minds (and a couple of bodies) provides the spectacle in David Cronenberg’s passionate tale of Freud, Jung, and a gifted patient who came into their psychoanalytic circle. Fassbender was joined by Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley.
  5. Meek’s Cutoff.” A Western, but perhaps not like any you’ve seen. Portland filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”) directed this story of a wagon train lost in the scrub country, with Michelle Williams as a pioneer wife generally shunted to the side in such tales. Because of its ending, the movie can be labeled an experimental film, so proceed advisedly.
  6. Drive.” Ryan Gosling is the man at the wheel, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s stripped-down and streamlined crime movie, which might not amount to anything new, but sure does its thing with confident swagger. Great supporting turn by Albert Brooks, too.
  7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Another head-scratcher, this time from Thailand, as an ailing man dreams his way through a series of unusual events. This is the kind of trippy experience only movies can provide.
  8. Poetry.” A film from Korea that is about poetry, and many other things: an aging woman, fighting the early stages of Alzheimer’s, determines to write just one single poem, despite the serious challenges in her way.
  9. Into Eternity.” Although Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” was the documentary hit of the year, this film, also about the mysteries of a cave, stayed with me longer. It’s a haunting look at a giant project to bury Finland’s nuclear waste for 100,000 years, and about how long that span of time really is.
  10. The Descendants” and “Le Havre.” No connection between these two except that they offer low-key redemption for a couple of seasoned protagonists. George Clooney gives a great star turn in the former; the latter is Aki Kaurismaki’s droll account of a deadbeat who rises to the moment when an immigrant kid needs help.

            Just missing my list were two raunchy comedies that showed a lot of sneaky heart: “Bridesmaids” and “Cedar Rapids.” Other runners-up include the rather good remake of “Jane Eyre,” the financial-meltdown thriller “Margin Call,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the overlooked “Rio” (maybe the best animated film of the year), the stirring French film “Of Gods and Men,” the alien-invasion comedy “Attack the Block,” Vera Farmiga’s oddball “Higher Ground,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.”

            Before we get to the bad ones, please pause for a special award (or a new agent) for Carla Gugino, a fine actress, who somehow ended up in “Sucker Punch,” “Elektra Luxx,” “I Melt with You,” and “New Year’s Eve,” a truly awful run (and “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” was no great shakes, either).

            Now, the worst of 2011. Let’s secure space in an underground vault in Finland for these radioactive elements:

            “Sucker Punch.” Zack (“300”) Snyder’s overblown video-game fantasy was a nonsensical jaw-dropper, set partly in a mental institution and mostly in la-la land.

            “The Green Lantern.” Ryan Reynolds starred as the DC Comics superhero, in a movie that didn’t have the guts to own its crazy universe.

            “I Am Number Four.” Few things are as lame as a failed attempt to manufacture a franchise, and this movie so very desperately wants to be the next “Twilight” or “Harry Potter.”

            “I Melt with You.” Four old friends gather for an annual blowout, only to find things turning more serious this year—and much, much more pretentious.

            “A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy.” More old friends, this time deciding they’ll get it on with each other in a less-than-credible group grope. Completely charmless, but also coy when it comes down to the nitty gritty.

            ‘The Dilemma.” Vince Vaughn and Kevin James in a bromance directed by Ron Howard, who really goes on auto-pilot here.

            “The Art of Getting By.” This was one coming-of-age film too many, and showed heavy Wes Anderson influence, from the cute dialogue to the jukebox soundtrack.

            “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” Sarah Jessica Parker has it all, which makes me wonder why I should care about how she does any of it.

            “Killer Elite.” Jittery camera, rancid dialogue, macho posturing—yes, this spy picture hit every cliché around, stranding Robert De Niro and Clive Owen in the process.

            “The Hangover Part II.” What’s amazing is not the ramped-up raunch, but the way every plot beat mirrors something from the first movie. The smoking monkey is very good, however.

In the interests of un-asked-for completism, and to gather them all in one post for my Year-by-Year Best Movies category tab, here are other Ten Best tangents:

Video of the Critics Wrap at the Frye Art Museum (Kathleen Murphy, Jim Emerson, Andrew Wright and meself talking about the movies of 2011).

A KUOW “Weekday” session with Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, and yours truly, on the best of ’11. Hosted by Steve Scher.

My ballot for Indiewire’s poll, and their overall results.

No new reviews for the Herald this week, and no new KUOW session either. In other words, a typical last-week-of-December pause in the onslaught.

At What a Feeling!, catch up on Eighties-ness with vintage reviews of Ken (King Frat) Wiederhorn’s Meatballs Part II, and John G. Avildsen’s Happy New Year. The latter allows a tip of the hat to the late Peter Falk, and some sort of sideways chance to ring in the new year. Thanks for reading The Crop Duster, and I’ll see you in 2012.

Movie Diary 12/28/2011

Hey all: the seventh annual Critics Wrap, held at the Frye Art Museum on December 15, is now online, in an abridged form; it will be broadcast on the Seattle Channel on Dec. 29 and 30 at 9 p.m. both days; and again on Dec. 31 at 1 a.m. and 11 p.m.

At What a Feeling!, Eighties reviews of Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes and Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts are on display.

Movie Diary 12/26/2011

Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939). Best wishes for the holidays. And as an aside: “Kill in the name of killing! Kill in the name of Kali! Kill! Kill! Kill!” But I hope everybody had a merry Christmas.

Brother Orchid (Lloyd Bacon, 1940). I wonder why I never watched this in the days when the local indie TV station had a big Warner Bros. package they broadcast over and over – maybe it was the dreaded phrase “gangster comedy” that put me off. Edward G. Robinson is the main reason to see it, although Ann Sothern has some fun as the moll; Bogart is stuck in one of those parts he was stuck in before High Sierra.

At What a Feeling!, an Eighties title I have mixed feelings about: John Schlesinger’s The Falcon and the Snowman, with Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn.

Tinker, Dragon, Method, Horse (Weekly Links)

The Knightley-Fassbender Maneuver: A Dangerous Method

Links to reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, and etc.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. “True to le Carré’s world but spellbinding in its own stripped-down fashion.”

A Dangerous Method. (Dead link; review follows)

By Robert Horton

In 1962 director John Huston made “Freud,” starring Montgomery Clift as the father of psychoanalysis. It might not sound like the sexiest material (the studio desperately tried to add spice with a subtitle, “The Secret Passion”), but the fascinating saga of Freud’s early breakthroughs in the study of the subconscious mind turned out to have the gripping suspense of a detective story.

            Some of that appeal is on display in “A Dangerous Method,” a terrific new film about the early days of psychoanalysis. It’s so early that Carl Jung, a promising doctor in Zurich, calls the practice “psych-analysis,” until he is gently corrected by Professor Freud—who correctly observes that, among other things, psychoanalysis simply sounds better than the alternative.

            Jung, played by Michael Fassbender, is the central figure in “A Dangerous Method,” which is scripted by the Oscar-winning writer Christopher Hampton. The film’s Jung is a respectably-married Swiss golden boy, drawn into a challenging case with a disturbed but brilliant young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Like the other characters, Spielrein is an actual historical figure, and her closeness to Jung is cause for concern back in Vienna, where Jung’s mentor, the eminent Freud (Viggo Mortensen), looks on with cagey interest.

            I’ve heard the movie described as “talky.” If interaction between people who are debating ideas that will define the progress of the 20thcentury is talky, then I guess that’s true—rivetingly true. The conversation is scientific but also personal, as the three people sort out their own issues. For Jung and Spielrein, those issues include sexual attraction. For Freud and Jung, their diverging theories about psychoanalysis create tension, but so do social matters: Jung, as a wealthily-married Aryan, has certain doors open to him that Freud must be very pragmatic about trying to enter.

            David Cronenberg directs this story in a classical style, which provides a fitting counterpart to the violent emotions that are teeming within. He completely gets the material: his movies, whether straight horror (“The Fly”) or drama (“A History of Violence”) deal with the way what’s going on beneath the surface of events inevitably finds its way to the surface, which might be a description of the psychoanalytic understanding of people.

            Viggo Mortensen’s embodiment of Freud, all cigar-smoke wisdom and singsong voice, is one of my favorite performances of the year. The very professional turns by Mortensen and Fassbender make Keira Knightley’s work stand out for its wildness; she’s out of key with the others, but that jibes with her character’s place in the story. She’s equally credible when she’s unhinged or when she’s lucidly debating psychology. Vincent Cassel contributes some brief but powerful scenes as a half-mad analyst, whose philosophy of “repressing nothing” affects Jung’s thinking. This movie might affect your thinking, too; if you think listening to brilliant people walking and talking can be a scintillating movie spectacle, this one’s for you.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (dead link; review follows)

By Robert Horton

The most startling aspects of David Fincher’s new version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” come at the beginning and the end. What comes in the middle is crisp, cold, well-crafted movie.

            The beginning involves a loony credits sequence set to a new version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” played against a montage of mannequins or robots or something (it might be kind of interesting, if you could see what it is). It’s a botch that almost throws the movie off kilter.

            But if there’s anything the director of “Zodiac” and “The Social Network” knows, it’s, uh, kilter. And this adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s mega-selling novel is utterly controlled in its swift-moving progress.

            If you read the novel, or saw the Swedish film version, you know the case begins with an ostracized Stockholm journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), getting hired to investigate a decades-old murder. The patriarch (Christopher Plummer) of a grandly wealthy (and unsavory) family wants to solve the disappearance of his niece, and installs Mikael on the Kennedy-like family compound to play sleuth. The other major player is a computer hacker of near-mystical talents, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), whose hostile attitude comes from a lifetime of bad treatment at the hands of men. We see an example of that, in grueling fashion, as Lisbeth is exploited by her depraved parole officer.

            A variety of plot strands weave together in a skillful way (Stephen Zaillian, the A-list writer who adapted “Moneyball,” did the script), although the actual resolution of the missing-girl story never becomes as urgent as the unfolding of Lisbeth’s personality.

            Actress Rooney Mara, perhaps best known for the electrifying opening scene of “The Social Network,” does beautifully with the role of Lisbeth. She captures the fury of the character, but that’s the easy part; what she conveys in tiny, almost subliminal ways is the wounded vulnerability, too. Craig is relatively colorless next to her, but the film doesn’t give him much of a chance to be anything but occupy its central-observer character. Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, and Joely Richardson (whose resemblance to her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, becomes stronger as she gets older) supply professional work in key supporting roles.

            When you think about David Fincher’s directing style, you might say he’s been waiting for an excuse for work in Scandinavia: all those frosty landscapes and IKEA products were just waiting to be visualized by his cool eye. The overall effect is more impressive than engaging—but having absorbed all three Swedish films based on Larsson’s literary trilogy already, I will confess to some déjà vu on the subject.

            And the ending? If memory serves, a couple of changes have been made to the ultimate explanation of things. That’s a pretty big deal for a cultural phenomenon that has already been absorbed by many—but movies can add new wrinkles to books, so fair enough. I wish Fincher had made the explanation a little clearer, though: two hours and forty minutes of movie, and I’m still not entirely sure what  happened with the poor girl who went missing on that fateful day so many years ago.

War Horse. “A tradition-of-quality kind of title.”

We Bought a Zoo. (dead link; review follows)

By Robert Horton

Cameron Crowe wrote and directed “Say Anything” and “Almost Famous,” so he gets a pass for making a career dud (“Elizabethtown”) and then taking six years to offer another feature film. The new one, “We Bought a Zoo,” is thankfully closer to Crowe’s likable early work than to his flop. “Likable” is about as deep as you can go with this movie, but that’s not a bad mood in which to spend a couple of hours.

            The picture’s based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee, so the outline is based on a true story. Matt Damon plays Benjamin, a widowed dad who walks out on a journalism career and buys a small animal park in California as a place to raise his two kids, unhappy adolescent Dylan (Colin Ford) and spunky tyke Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). He also buys a staff for the zoo, and when we see that his zookeeper is played by Scarlett Johansson, we might assume a bit of Hollywood romance is being engineered. This works out in ways that are not entirely what one might have imagined, an agreeable switch on our expectations.

            Damon balances his Everyman quality with a certain irritability, which works nicely, and if his scenes with older brother Thomas Haden Church are stock, at least they break up the rhythm a little bit. We should also note the performances by a tiger, some ostriches, and a gigantic grizzly bear. A sequence in which the bear escapes into the countryside would’ve played better if it hadn’t been for the real-life instance of wild animals getting loose in Ohio recently, but obviously the filmmakers couldn’t have anticipated that.

            Crowe peppers the film with his trademark dialogue, some of which is winsome, some charming, some made for immediate catchphrase status. There’s a warmth to his movies that keeps you going through their more saccharine passages, and he still has a knack for the running gag—in this case, the father’s advice to his son about how summoning up just 20 seconds of courage can change your life. Nice ending, too—not the climax of the storyline, but the final scene of the film, which offers some emotional resolution to Benjamin and his kids.

            Having had a pleasant time watching “We Bought a Zoo,” I can nevertheless say the movie has its icky-poo moments, many of which lean heavily on how adorable the little girl is. Sheer niceness can only go so far, at least at the movies are concerned. If Cameron Crowe should decide to be a little grouchy the next time out, that might not be a bad thing.

The Adventures of Tintin. “More technology than magic.”

I interviewed Gary Oldman on the subject of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and he had some cool things to say.

By Robert Horton

Gary Oldman has been touted as a top-line actor since his sensational breakthrough in 1986’s “Sid and Nancy,” with a career that has ping-ponged from leading roles to many (perhaps too many) delicious villains. In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Oldman gets a renewed professional validation, playing the role of George Smiley, the reserved, fastidious Cold Warrior of John le Carré’s world (a role made famous by Alec Guinness in a 1979 TV version of the novel). Oldman came to the area last week to promote the film, and I interviewed the casual-yet-dapper actor in his hotel room.

Q: I was looking at a note I took during the film, which says, “Gary Oldman eats his Wimpy’s burger with a knife and fork.” There’s no close-up of it, but it’s one of those little character-definers that tells you about Smiley’s life.

Gary Oldman: You’re the first person who has ever mentioned that. Yes, that’s who he is. Very much that school of a certain upbringing, a certain class. Indeed, between bites he would rest the knife, like so, against the plate.

Tomas [Alfredson] is the first director who was there at a props meeting, and went through all the props with me. That’s never happened to me. I’ve been an actor for 33 years, and I’ve never experienced that. We discussed the briefcase, and the watch, and the lighter. All the little notebooks and pens I would have—would Smiley have a tie-pin, would he have cufflinks? Would he have cocktail cuffs? And we decided that he wouldn’t because someone might remember that, and it could give him away.

Q: Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that Alfredson would be the kind of director who would go to a props meeting, because the movie’s about the importance of thinking every detail out.

GO: It’s all worked out. Certain colors that he wanted in the movie, too. He never referenced other films. He likes Hergé, he likes the cartoons of Tintin. He talks in colors, and smells, and he says, “I want the color to capture the smell of damp tweed. If that smell were a color, what would it be?” He’s an original piece, Tomas is. There’s no one quite like him. But you see that [in the film], don’t you? Colin [Firth] saw that. I remember Colin seeing it at an early screening, and he called up, and he said, “It’s a classic. It’s going to become a classic. There’s nothing like it.”

I love the silences. It’s rare that you get that. Movies, they assault you with sound and imagery now. I go home and a pull out the DVD of “The Conversation” [the 1974 Coppola film], and look at how they used to make movies.

Q: The film is considerably condensed from the novel.

GO: Tomas says it’s the fillet of the animal. He felt that it was about betrayal, loyalty, and emotion. He felt it was an emotional film, not necessarily a political movie.

Q: Did your own performance evolve, from the book to the shooting?

GO: Yes, it was a slow evolution. They called and asked me to do it, and I met Tomas, and adored him, and it was love at first sight, really. And I knew the role—everyone knows who Smiley is, it’s like being asked to play Hamlet. And then I dithered for a month, because of the ghost of [Alec] Guinness. Fear, real fear. I thought, “God, how do you do that? How do you fill those shoes?” And plus, there’s such reverence in the U.K. for Guinness and for le Carré. One can’t forget that I was the one who left—I’ve lived in America for 20 years. And they’ve never quite forgot it, you know. “So you’re that actor that lives in Hollywood and you’re going to come back to play George Smiley?”

You know, all these demons, these dragons—you’ve got to slay these dragons in your head. So I dithered around for a month, writing reviews for myself, projecting how they were going to cut me down. But in the end, you know—if you’re going to play Hamlet, you’re going to be measured against all the other Hamlets that came before, you’re always going to be compared to whoever it is, whether it’s to Burton, or Ken Branagh, or Olivier. So I sort of got my act together and said yes. Fear! It keeps you on your toes, you know, I guess it made it all the more challenging.

Q: What about the voice? You have a very specific voice as Smiley.

GO: John le Carré.

Q: Really?

GO: I met him. He has this thing of slightly leaning back when he sits, he’s got ever just slightly off the 90 degrees. And there’s a melody to his voice, and when I met him, I began to think, that’s a good voice for Smiley. Guinness had a bit more Eeyore in his voice [Oldman then imitates Alec Guinness sounding like Eeyore], though he may have pinched a bit of le Carré for himself. I think I started with an impersonation—his granddaughter worked on the movie, and when she saw it she came up to me and said, “there’s little things where you’re doing Grandpa,” and it was our little conspiracy—and then you move away from that and make it your own.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about holiday movies, with help from callers. It’s archived here; the movie talk begins around the 15-minute mark.

Indiewire did their year-end critics survey, which went for The Tree of Life, alas. Winners and critics are listed here; my ballot can be found by clicking on my name (can’t do a separate link, for some reason).

Next week, look for the annual “Critics Wrap” event to be broadcast on the Seattle Channel: December 29 and 30, at 9 p.m.; Dec. 31 at 1 a.m. and 11 p.m. (wow, the Dick Clark slot). It will also go live online soon.

At What a Feeling!, the titles of the week have had a distinctly chilly cast. Catch up with Eighties reviews of Maurizio Nichetti’s The Icicle Thief, Winter Flight (a film in David Puttnam’s “First Love” series), and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Also, Merry Christmas and all that.

Movie Diary 12/20/2011

The Grey (Joe Carnahan, 2011). Carnahan’s yakety-yak plus Liam Neeson’s authority plus survival in the snow plus an actor named Frank Grillo – plus wolves. And holy cats, people, you’ve got yourselves an action picture – not without its absurdities, but not without its grace notes, either. (full review 1/20)

At What a Feeling!, the frost is in the air with an Eighties review of Arthur Penn’s Dead of Winter, a tour de force for Mary Steenburgen (and Roddy McDowall, of course).

Movie Diary 12/19/2011

Berth Marks (Lewis R. Foster, 1929). And a few other Laurel and Hardy films from the new ten-disc box set. This is one of the funniest: close quarters on a train, especially in the upper bunk, where the comedy is golden for being confined. Some of the jokes in these movies may show their age, but nothing withers the precise hilarity of Hardy’s glances at the camera.

At What a Feeling!, I go on longishly in 1983 about The Big Chill in the pages of the Seattle Film Society’s newsletter, The Informer. There is a theme to this week’s What a Feeling! reprints, I swear. Also, could someone please explain to me why my review of the Canadian aerobics film Heavenly Bodies drew almost 100 hits over the weekend?

Mission: Impossible II (The Cornfield #53)

I haven’t seen the new one yet. Instead, a 2000 Film.com review of the second installment.

The rap on the first Mission: Impossible movie was that nobody could understand the plot. Still, the picture was a worldwide blockbuster, so the problems of lucidity couldn’t have been that troubling, right? At least that’s the attitude seemingly copped by the makers of Mission: Impossible II, which free-falls into another scarcely comprehensible storyline right from the start.

In its bare bones, the plot shouldn’t be as murky as the first film. A scientist (Rade Sherbedgia) has developed both a deadly virus and its antidote. One or both of these falls into the hands of the bad guy, who happens to be a former IM agent (Dougray Scott). Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must get the liquids, destroy the virus, and save the world, or at least the population of Australia, where much of the movie is set.

That all seems clear enough, yet the movie doesn’t establish that satisfyingly simple “get the McGuffin” through-line that would allow us to sit back and enjoy the big splashy action sequences, which are the point of this kind of thing. Grafted onto the spy-jinks, without satisfactory payoff, is the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious: Ethan, under orders from the IM Mr. Big (Anthony Hopkins), enlists the villain’s ex-girlfriend (Thandie Newton) for the mission. First Hunt falls in love with her—in a daffy but highly enjoyable scene that may be the world’s first courtship by car chase—and then must send her back into the bed of the villain.

If the Notorious idea were developed, or if Cruise and Newton (who knows the impact of a come-hither look) had chemistry together, perhaps this might have given us that through-line. Instead, the movie lunges from set-piece to set-piece, most of which are very engagingly staged: Cruise’s alarming rock-climbing scene, a bungee-jump into a skyscraper’s air duct, and a finale staged on motorcycles. Director John Woo squeezes juice out of these scenes, happily tapping into that talent for absurd coincidence and operatic athleticism that sparked his Hong Kong triumphs. When Tom Cruise and Dougray Scott aim their motorcycles at each other in a mechanized version of a jousting match, it is movie madness of a grand order.

The problem is that the motion picture around these individual stunts is patently a committee-made artifact. It doesn’t speak well to Cruise’s ambitions as a producer-star in the Warren Beatty vein: Mission: Impossible II lacks a vision of how the whole enchilada is supposed to blend together. Neither credited screenwriter Robert Towne nor Cruise seems to realize that capping a scene by having a spy yank off a lifelike face-mask is effective once, maybe twice, in a single film, but gets damned redundant when it happens every half-hour. The desperation of just getting the story straight becomes obvious in scenes where a couple of characters will simply stand there and tell us what’s going to happen next, and why.

Even Cruise’s character is puzzling; I couldn’t figure out why he was smiling so much. There isn’t much of the ensemble fun that the original TV series offered, with Ving Rhames (returning from the first movie) and John Polson relegated to sideline duty. Meanwhile, a great actor like Brendan Gleeson is wasted—although his sideplot, in which it is revealed that the story isn’t really about destroying mankind but about getting good stock options, is amusing. Richard Roxburgh, channeling Martin Landau from North by Northwest, is far more threatening as a henchman than nominal villain Scott manages to be.

There are graceful Woo touches even outside the action scenes, like the swaying of sheep as a helicopter buzzes their pen in the Outback. But it’s not enough to get over the blandness. Cruise may believe that producing a movie is much like leading the Impossible Mission force: gathering high-priced specialists to work on their own business, carefully assembling and executing a plan. But there’s a lot to be said for a movie being the expression of a single determined, forceful, crazy personality, an idea which this film inadvertently proves.

Outrage Shadows (Weekly Links)

Downey and Law, Shadows

Links to reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, and etc.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. “Either I’ve surrendered to the idea of a Sherlock Holmes story as an action picture, or this one’s just a better, cleaner movie overall.”

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. “One of the really unexpected winners of the movie year.”

I Melt with You. “A Gen-X take on the drunken blowhards from John Cassavetes’ Husbands.”

Outrage. “Plays as a parody of the yakuza film.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about revivals around Seattle in that old-fangled film delivery system known as 35 mm. The talk is archived here; the movie section unveils itself around the 20-minute mark.

And more KUOW: On today’s edition of “Weekday,” Steve Scher hosts Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, and me for a roundtable on some of the best movies of 2011. Special mention to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Melancholia, and A Dangerous Method. That one’s found here, taking up the entire hour.

At What a Feeling!, we hark back to an earlier incarnation of Alvin and his rodent pals, in 1987’s Chipmunk Adventure.

Thanks to all who came and participated – panelists and audience alike – in last night’s “Critics Wrap” at the Frye Art Museum, a conversation about the films of 2011. Lists will be published shortly on the Frye website, and a condensed version of the evening will be broadcast soon on the Seattle Channel; I’ll post links when that comes on.

Movie Diary 12/15/2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011). There is no mistaking this for anything other than a Fincher film, all sharp cold edges and crisp scenes. There sure is a sense of deja vu about the whole thing. (full review 12/21)

At What a Feeling!, check a vintage review of Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home. You don’t need to know this was directed by “Alan Smithee” to understand how bad it is.

Movie Diary 12/14/2011

Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011). Black lesbian teen in Brooklyn, navigating the shoals. It might not be super-complicated, but what’s here is very good. (full review 1/6)

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011). One of those Iranian films with an incredibly strong central situation, in this case a thorny ethical thicket from which no one, not even the audience, is let off easy. A terrific movie. (full review 1/6)

War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011). Nobody else can go grand like Spielberg goes grand when he’s of a mind to, and he is very much of a mind to here. (full review 12/25)

At What a Feeling!, get wacky with Disney’s Flight of the Navigator, a movie with a basic concept that should really freak kids out.

Thursday night, come ye to the Frye Art Museum for the seventh annual Critics Wrap, a gathering of film critics to sift through movie year 2011. Details here.