Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) PICK
Cowboys & Aliens (2011) PASS
The Help (2011) PICK
The Lady Vanishes (1938) PICK
Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011) PASS
Smurfs (2011) PASS
Super 8 (2011) PASS
With Christmas almost here, some of the year’s most-hyped movies come to home video as would-be presents — but it’s hard to find a good movie in this heap of coal.
The best mainstream Hollywood film of the bunch is The Help, a crowd-pleasing tale of racism, segregation and speaking truth to power in 1960s’ Mississippi. Viola Davis’ powerful performance as a maid elevates the material above its triter conceits and stereotyped characters.
Off-the-beaten-path oddball documentarian Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is one of the year’s best films — and the only 3-D movie I would actually watch at home in 3-D. Herzog takes us into the Chauvet Cave in southern France, the site of the oldest cave paintings ever discovered. It’s a powerful experience of connection with early man.
Look also for Criterion’s new edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, a classic comedy-suspense machine about the disappearance of an old woman on a speeding train. Like the train itself, it starts slow but builds to a breakneck speed.
Going downhill fast, Hollywood’s latest sorry offerings include a pair of junky family films — both of which, curiously, transplant their characters to New York and weigh them down with grown-up business dealings kids won’t care about — and a pair of intriguing but disappointing summer sci-fi flicks.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins turns a charming 1938 children’s book about a meek small-town family man into a broken-family film about a divorced workaholic New York real-estate hustler trying to buy Tavern on the Green. The Smurfs takes the blue gnomes out of their enchanted forest and swamps them in a lame story about a New York marketing campaign for a new fragrance. Both suffer from gratuitous crude humor. Almost worse: rapping Smurfs.
J. J. Abrams’ Super 8 starts so well that it’s a letdown when it falls apart in the last act. It’s a tribute to 1970s/’80s Spielbergian fare, but exploits some dead-mother trauma to no cathartic effect and indulges in too much profanity and crass language. And Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens squanders the cross-genre promise of its title by failing to make either the cowboys or the aliens very interesting. The violence is unnecessarily nasty at times, too.
Content Advisory: Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Eccentric philosophical musings; explicit references to female anatomy in connection with prehistoric artwork. Teens and up. The Help: A strong scatological subplot; brief violence and fleeting bloody aftermath of a miscarriage; brief marital sensuality; some innuendo; profanity, crude language and racial slurs. Mature viewing. The Lady Vanishes: Stylized violence and menace. Teens and up.