Friday, December 21, 2012

This is 40

THIS IS 40 (Judd Apatow, 2012)

A milestone birthday is causing tension for married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) in THIS IS 40.  With their pivotal birthdays occurring in the same week, it’s natural that they use the occasion of turning 40 to assess their lives and decide what needs work.  They try to be calm and sensible, making standard promises to eat more healthfully and take more time for each other, but Pete and Debbie can’t shake the existential panic creeping up on them.  

It doesn’t help that their businesses are in crisis to varying degrees.  Pete’s record label is bleeding money trying to sell new albums from music industry legends whose audiences have dwindled since their glory days.  Debbie’s boutique is managing to do OK but can’t afford to be short the thousands of dollars that an employee may be stealing.  

Debbie responds to it all by refusing to admit to her age, preferring to claim to be turning 38 or younger.  She sneaks cigarettes and withholds information that she doesn’t think Pete wants to hear.  Pete doesn’t seem as hung up on how many birthdays he’s had. Rather, he secretly rebels against the idea that a number means he should cut down or eliminate cupcakes and French fries from his diet.  He also doesn’t tell Debbie that they might need to sell their house and lies to her about the loans he continues to give his dad Larry (Albert Brooks).

At some time or another every adult has surely taken pause at the thought of having turned into one’s parents at least a little, but Pete and Debbie worry independently about the prospect of the other becoming like their father.  The concern is especially acute for Debbie.  She sees Pete’s dad unable to support himself and having a much younger wife and kids.  Never mind that her own father Oliver (John Lithgow) abandoned her as a child, goes years without seeing her, and also has a second wife and kids about the same ages as hers.  Pete frets that Debbie could develop the same kind of emotional distance with him that she has with Oliver, particularly as they go through a rough patch in THIS IS 40.  
The protagonists’ joint fear is stagnation, not mortality.  Have they become so at ease around each other that all mystery is gone?  With his legs spread eagle in the air, Pete asks Debbie to check out and confirm what he hopes is a hemorrhoid.  She thinks nothing of barging in on him while he’s on the toilet.  He uses the bathroom for alone time to play iPad games and escape from her and their daughters Sadie (Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow).  They don’t hate one another, at least not most of the time, but the strains of running businesses, raising a family, and turning an age deemed culturally significant have piled up.   

Thankfully the Pete and Debbie in THIS IS 40 are dialed down from the bickering couple that first appeared in KNOCKED UP.  They engage in their fair share of arguments, but this time around the relationship isn’t as acrimonious and Debbie, while still quick to anger, isn’t as shrill.  Whether they’re having a conversation or talking to others, all the chatter functions like therapy sessions.  (One funny moment has the pair attempting to use counselor-approved language while they fight.)  

THIS IS 40 works better as light drama than comedy, with humor defusing the bombs being lobbed in the marriage.  The jokes rely on common observations than insight, but writer-director Judd Apatow corrals many of the niggling worries into a squirming mass of anxieties capable of being laughed at.  Despite the title, by no means is the film a definitive or universal statement on reaching middle age.  

For better or worse Apatow likes to take a lot of detours in his films.  This time the aimless course he follows makes more sense even though it could stand a more guided approach.  Still, the path leads to every nook and cranny in individual and shared lives to illuminate the totality of what the duo is dealing with.  There’s also no single destination where Pete and Debbie must arrive as long as they’re on the journey together.  

Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

ZERO DARK THIRTY (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

As the years after the 9/11 attack pass, information regarding the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden becomes less frequent.  The push to find him also diminishes, but CIA investigator Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is first seen at a black ops interrogation site in Pakistan in 2003, refuses to give up the search.  She believes that if they can find a specific al-Qaeda courier known to many terrorists, they will find the organization’s leader.  Nearly a decade after the hunt began, intelligence work suggests that bin Laden could be hiding in a compound in Abbottabad.  No direct confirmation can be made that he is there, but Maya insists that this is the place.      

ZERO DARK THIRTY is based on first-hand accounts of actual events.  While there isn’t a person who will see it who doesn’t know how the film will turn out, how the characters go about their jobs can be plenty surprising.  As with all fact-based films, the assumption must be made that liberties have been taken with the true story for the sake of narrative clarity, creative license, and, especially in this case, the protection of confidential documents.  

ZERO DARK THIRTY is concerned with the process, not the characters.  The real-life inspiration for Maya played an important role, but this mission was far bigger than any one person.  Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal go into painstaking detail depicting the dead ends, setbacks, breakthroughs, and direct action taken that culminated with bringing bin Laden to justice.  The filmmakers set a business-like tone, which is not to say that the work isn’t personal for the agents.  Clearly it is but letting emotion cloud judgment does not help to achieve their goal.
The no-nonsense action scenes crackle with tension despite unfolding as though these are rather common, albeit highly dangerous, assignments.  The climactic raid on the Abbottabad compound is the standout sequence, yet what is most remarkable is how small it feels.  The same goes for other scenes that could have come straight out of any number of thrillers, like the trailing of the man believed to be the courier.  Bigelow’s great achievement is stripping down the action from the exaggerated theatrics in movies and television shows so the missions feel no less exciting and immediate. 

In an extraordinary performance Chastain projects a tough exterior as Maya.  Resolute in her purpose and unyielding in her actions, Maya can appear closed off as she invests every fiber of her being to completing the job.  Practically nothing is known about her life outside work--the same goes for her co-workers--but with few words Chastain says volumes about the core of this character through the quiet intensity with which she pursues her objective and responds to developments.  When she permits more outward displays, the effect is as bracing as a slap to the face.

Those responsible for finding and killing bin Laden are hailed, but Bigelow resists making ZERO DARK THIRTY into a rah-rah patriotic movie.  The matter-of-fact manner in which she handles this subject feels like the only appropriate way.  Pride can be felt in achieving a hard-fought result.  Satisfaction is earned in eliminating an enemy; however, as the film’s identifying figure expresses, relief in the moment cannot ease past wounds, especially as the larger undertaking still goes on unresolved.

Grade: A

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower


Shy, introspective Charlie (Logan Lerman) dreads starting high school in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.  He spent the summer leading up to his freshman year at Mill Grove in a psychiatric hospital and doesn’t have any friends or old acquaintances who want anything to do with him.  His sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) can be protective of Charlie, but as a senior with a boyfriend, she doesn’t want to be responsible for his development within the suburban Pittsburgh school’s delicate social ecosystem.

Charlie senses an outsider kinship with Patrick (Ezra Miller), a senior in his freshman shop class, and soon becomes friends with him and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson).  He isn’t bothered that Patrick is gay or that Sam has a reputation based on her early high school years when upperclassmen would get her drunk at parties.  Their freely expressed individuality and comfort with being misfits in the eyes of their classmates proves greatly appealing to him.  Patrick and Sam’s acceptance into their circle is the most important thing in the world to Charlie.  That’s why it hurts all the more and could trigger another breakdown when his misreading of a cue requires him to keep his distance from his new friends for an unspecified amount of time.

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER flutters with the excitement and terror that comes in being young and trying to find your way.  Everything is more keenly felt.  High school is perceived to be the entire world, and nothing is more meaningful than being wanted, even if it’s by the social outcasts.  In adapting his own novel, writer-director Stephen Chbosky makes plain the magnified emotions that define this stage of life. He treats the characters with respect for their limited perspective.  Although Charlie and his friends are partial to melancholy modern rock and vulnerable to the judgment of their peers, they’re not twee sorts who shrink at the first sign of difficulty.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER understands the prominent role music can play in the mental landscape of teenagers.  Set in the mid-’90s, it features a virtually perfect selection of tracks that express more than the characters can verbalize or might want to.  Chbosky nails the details regarding the thought and effort put into making mixtapes all the way down to goofing up the timing and running out of space.  His precision with the soundtrack earns him a pass for one improbability.  Even if these teens weren’t using the internet yet, they couldn’t identify “Heroes” by David Bowie? (Having these characters perform in THE ROCKY PICTURE SHOW floorshow cast is spot-on, though.)

Chbosky also excels at depicting the various dynamics within families and groups of friends.  Charlie’s parents and siblings, including a brother playing football at Penn State, don’t get a lot of screen time, but the few scenes with them convey the supportive environment and affectionate teasing that make it a crucial base for each member.  The sub-alliances, shifting lines, insecurities, and jealousies within a circle of friends are also laid out through careful attention to body language and implied messages.

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER gets so many things right about adolescence that it’s unfortunate some of the angst gets explained in a third act revelation that isn’t really necessary.  It’s a specific plot point that takes away from the universality of everything before it.  This small misstep aside, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER knows what it feels like to be young, to explore your hometown without adult supervision, and to hang out with people who get you better than you may know yourself.   

Grade: B

Monday, December 17, 2012


HITCHCOCK (Sacha Gervasi, 2012)

Rather than following his hit NORTH BY NORTHWEST with a more conventional thriller, Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) seeks something more adventurous for his next project.  In HITCHCOCK the legendary director decides that he must adapt Robert Bloch’s PSYCHO.  Many in the industry feel that the book, inspired by Wisconsin mass murderer Ed Gein, is too violent and perverse to be a mainstream film and that a horror picture is beneath Hitchcock.  A Paramount studio executive is wary about backing PSYCHO, so the Master of Suspense and his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) choose to finance it themselves.

Although based on Stephen Rebello’s book ALFRED HITCHCOCK AND THE MAKING OF PSYCHO, HITCHCOCK takes dramatic liberties with the behind-the-scenes story that strain credulity and attempt to diminish Hitch’s artistry by detailing his personal shortcomings.  Gein is imagined as a Hitchcock confidante, like a devil perched on the director’s shoulder fanning the flames of his fears.  Hitchcock’s obsessions and neuroses are well-documented in film scholarship and the movies themselves, yet this drama fails to expose the psychologically complex figure that the director’s public persona shields.  Even in private Hitchcock the character remains ever the showman.

HITCHCOCK theorizes that PSYCHO provides an allegory for Hitchcock and Reville’s relationship.  At best it’s a misguided attempt to explore her motherly role in their partnership and his untamed indulgence.  At worst it’s an insulting perspective of a longtime marriage and vital creative collaboration.  Additionally, HITCHCOCK makes the assumption that it must reduce his achievements to give Reville her deserved due.

Director Sacha Gervasi quotes shots from Hitchcock films and reproduces a measure of the director’s dark, droll sense of humor, but ultimately HITCHCOCK comes off as a glib film about a great film.  The snarky tone yields a movie as breezily entertaining but unfulfilling and unenlightening as Hollywood gossip items.  Hitchcock’s controlling behavior isn’t beyond reproach, but what matters in the end to audiences is how the director channeled his fixations into art, not how those hang-ups may have made him difficult to live and work with.  In its attempt to demystify the people and process behind a classic film, HITCHCOCK feels petty and disposable.

From the replication of old movie sets and methods to the novelty of seeing contemporary stars as Tinseltown legends, like Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, HITCHCOCK is content to be a film of minor surface pleasures.  Essentially it’s the antithesis of it’s subject’s work.

Grade: C-

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning


The dead of night interruption that begins UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING is a familiar one in homes with young children.  John (Scott Adkins) is awakened by his daughter, who claims there are monsters in their house.  The dutiful father gets out of bed and goes room by room to assure her that everything is fine.  The difference in this situation is that there really are predators lurking in the dark.  A trio of black-clad bad guys clobber John and then execute his wife and child in front of him.

Nine months later John awakens from a coma.  His memory is shaky, but when an FBI agent (Rus Blackwell) shows him a photo of Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), John recognizes him as the man who murdered his family.  Deveraux was one of the first government-created super soldiers.  Now he leads the UniSol underground against their makers.  Among his troops is Dolph Lundgren reprising his UniSol character in what amounts to something between a cameo and a supporting role in screen time.
Upon his release from the hospital John begins his quest for vengeance with the assistance of a stripper (Mariah Bonner) who suggests he had a different life than the one he recalls.  Standing in the way is Magnus (Andrei Arlovski), a sleeper super soldier who Deveraux turns and sends after John.
After Roland Emmerich’s UNIVERSAL SOLDIER debuted in 1992, the series puttered along with a couple TV movies and a 1999 theatrical sequel until John Hyams revived it in 2009 with REGENERATION, an entry that went direct-to-video in the United States. For the fourth installment DAY OF RECKONING director and co-writer Hyams treats ‘90s brain-dead action like art cinema.  

It’s a far cry from what Van Damme and Lundgren were doing twenty years ago, but in the end this film comes off like a band that claims all of the “right” influences in interviews but can’t synthesize good taste into work of merit.  The first-person point of view opening scene, complete with a blinking eyes effect, recalls Gaspar Noé’s ENTER THE VOID.  The surreal tone of David Lynch’s films heavily informs UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING’s unreal and rudderless feeling.  The body horror in David Cronenberg’s oeuvre and APOCALYPSE NOW’s journey ending with confronting a charismatic leader are also quoted.     

With its muddled story, familiarity with the ongoing UNIVERSAL SOLDIER series doesn’t appear to matter.  If only there weren’t so much of that ponderous, slow-moving plot leading up to and between the fight scenes.  A car chase that spills into hand-to-hand combat in a sporting goods store and two climactic boss battles give the primal satisfaction that action movies can deliver.  Hyams’ action chops and some neat flourishes, like the strobe effect and noise that accompany the summoning of Deveraux in visions, demonstrate his potential to invigorate the genre if he find or develop source material that isn’t such a slog.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (David O. Russell, 2012)

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has resided at a Baltimore psychiatric facility for eight months when his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) arrives to see that he is discharged in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  Diagnosed with a bipolar disorder after beating the stuffing out of a man having an affair with his wife Nikki (Brea Bee), Pat is better than he was before being admitted.  He’s lost a lot of weight and talks about having a positive mental attitude, but his improvements cover up the fact that he’s still struggling to control his explosive anger.

Pat moves into the attic of his parents’ Philadelphia home eager to fix what his violent outburst ruined.  Although Pat is laser focused on repairing his marriage with Nikki, everyone else doesn’t seem to think it’s such a good idea.  For one, she has a restraining order, so Pat isn’t supposed to communicate with her.  His friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) tries to set him up with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), an emotionally damaged widow, but Pat thinks she’s even more messed up than he is.  He reconsiders getting to know Tiffany when his therapist points out that helping her as a friend would be good for him too.  Also, Tiffany says she can get a letter to Nikki for him.  The catch is that in return Pat must be her partner in a dance competition.

On the surface SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is a raucous romantic comedy, but its real interests are superstition and delusion.  In a world that can be senseless and cruel, dealing with pain and disappointment through irrational beliefs or rituals can provide comfort and order.  Pat puts his trust in the self-improvement system and psychotherapy.  His father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), running books to make ends meet since he was laid off, casts his lot with obsessive-compulsive behavior and sports and combines them when it comes to rooting on the Eagles.  Donning a favorite team’s jersey doesn’t help them win, and wearing black while in mourning won’t bring back a loved one. Religion isn’t explicitly mentioned, although both Pats wear necklaces bearing the face of Christ.  Dressing in these ways can give relief, though.  
Whether or not one sees putting faith in any of these spots as silly or meaningless, they aren’t necessarily problematic unless they harm others or cause self-incapacitation.  Of course, that’s where the delusion comes in and the source of these characters’ struggles.  Pat can’t fully recover until he accepts that his wife may not want anything to do with him again and that he ought to stay on his meds.  Serial flings won’t grant Tiffany the freedom to shed her grief.  The tension and confusion pinging inside these characters’ brains have them poised on the knife’s edge.  Writer-director David O. Russell emphasizes their jittery mindsets and boundary issues through editing and camera placement and movements that indicate manic depression.

From the taboo scenario in SPANKING THE MONKEY to the protagonist’s combative family in THE FIGHTER, Russell’s films feed on chaos and relationship dysfunction. The humor in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK flows from unfiltered words and deeds. Cooper and Lawrence’s scenes crackle with their blunt and hilarious assessments of each other’s neuroses.  Both give excellent comedic performances that avoid playing mental illness as a colorful quirk.  While there’s a lot of brutal truth telling in their exchanges, tenderness and vulnerability underline the sharpness.  

The romantic comedy formula often contends that people being horrid to one another masks a deep, abiding affection that will eventually emerge.  It’s a crock but nevertheless that’s what gets stressed time and again.  The difference in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is that presenting abrasive personalities is a distancing technique for scared people struggling to recognize their willingness to love and be loved.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Anna Karenina

ANNA KARENINA (Joe Wright, 2012)

ANNA KARENINA begins in 1847 imperial Russia with Anna (Keira Knightley), wife of government official Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), traveling from St. Petersburg to Moscow to comfort her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) for the infidelity of her brother, Prince Stepan “Stiva” Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen).  While Anna pleads with Dolly to forgive Stiva, something she suggests her relative must do to regain her own happiness as much as anything, the promise of unspoiled love eases the tension in the home.  Dolly’s 18-year-old sister Princess Ekaterina (Alicia Vikander), otherwise known as Kitty, has two suitors.  In anticipation of rich cavalry officer Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) asking for her hand to be his wife, Kitty declines the proposal of Stiva’s friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).

The prospect of Kitty and Vronsky marrying is dashed when he and Anna unexpectedly connect with an animal magnetism that shocks and thrills her.  Although the scandalous affair taints Anna in society’s view and threatens to destroy her, with Vronsky she finds the passion that has been lacking in her relationship with Karenin.  In response, her husband approaches Anna’s relationship with Vronsky as if it is a policy matter. Karenin shares his perspective and a clear set of consequences if she is to continue it.  

Director Joe Wright’s entry to the film world came with his fresh cinematic treatment of PRIDE & PREJUDICE.  The Jane Austen novel seemed as though it had been adapted to death by the time of Wright’s version, but he lent immediacy to the period piece with modern touches and filmmaking verve.  ANNA KARENINA is another giant of the literary world that would seem to invite a staid, classical style, yet once again the director’s bold vision shakes up what might have otherwise been a fusty filming of the canon.
In their version of ANNA KARENINA Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard deliver an audacious adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic of Russian literature.  Much of the realist fiction’s action--everything set in cities--is transposed to the artificial confines of a theater.  Scenery and costume changes occur on camera in elaborately choreographed transitions.  Characters wander into the wings, the auditorium, and above the stage. With nothing incapable of being put on view, the visual strategy makes plain the hypocrisy between the public and private as well as the male and female.  It also pokes fun at urban progress, such as the lengthy tracking shot punctuated with the delivery of an ashtray.

Yet for all of the flashy staging indebted to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, gorgeous cinematography, and sumptuous production design, ANNA KARENINA relies on small, human gestures to convey the depth of feeling and judgment.  Emotional expression tends to be clipped and indirect, with much being communicated through glances and the subtlest of movements.  

Paced like a surging locomotive, ANNA KARENINA plays like the ultimate CliffsNotes, which is both testament to Stoppard’s exceptional adaptation and abridgement of Tolstoy’s novel and acknowledgment of the film’s somewhat superficial center.  Anna’s choice to sacrifice everything for Vronsky merits more inspection but is shortchanged for the sake of expediency.  Even with portions rendered in shorthand, ANNA KARENINA is a stylistic triumph in its exploration of the collisions between love and passion, the rational and irrational, and the moral and sinful.     

Grade: B+

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Holy Motors

HOLY MOTORS (Leos Carax, 2012)

Rather than being rooted in plot, HOLY MOTORS takes a journey through cinema via paired scenes that explore the human condition and technological evolution.  It organizes around the work day of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who rides in the back of a white limousine around what may be a future version of Paris.  His elegant chauffeur Céline (Édith Scob) drives him to nine appointments.  Based on ambiguous conversations and Oscar’s appearance, it is suggested that he holds a position of power in the financial industry, but his assignments soon reveal his occupation to be something much different.

At the first stop he emerges from the car as an indigent, crippled, old woman and begs for money from passersby while moaning how nobody loves her.  When his work is done, he returns to the vehicle serving as his mobile dressing room and prepares for the next job as a motion capture performer in a state of the art studio.  Throughout the day he changes roles for the unseen cameras and crew in what cinema has become in the world of HOLY MOTORS.

Like a prayer for the dying, writer-director Leos Carax’s confounding and exhilarating film is draped in a mournful air.  There’s a deep sense of what has been and is being lost as technical innovations transform life and art as they’ve existed for centuries.  More specifically, HOLY MOTORS grieves for the loss of the tangible as progress favors the ephemeral.  Oscar expresses affection for the large, noisy cameras of old, which now have shrunk to the point of being almost unnoticeable.  Headstones don’t display epitaphs but direct visitors to websites.  Sex happens in the virtual domain.  Department stores give way to e-commerce.  Existence is in the cloud and can be easily manipulated.  Whether explicitly choosing to be something else or tweaking the code, the self is mutable in this new age.

Yet the artistic vitality and humor with which Carax undertakes the decline of analog permanence and rise of digital tempers the pain and fear of advancement.  HOLY MOTORS is gloriously alive with experimentation and the centrality of human involvement regardless of what form the end product of their efforts takes.  Even if people are cogs in the machine, they are the animating force.  Witness the physical beauty and grace of Oscar’s recorded fight choreography in the motion capture studio and the intense eroticism of his interaction with the cyber woman (Zlata) who later appears there.  
Carax devotes a great deal of time to show how people can alter themselves significantly through makeup and wardrobe, again highlighting the importance of human contribution.  HOLY MOTORS celebrates performance, and Lavant, inhabiting eleven characters, seizes the opportunity.  He displays astonishing range in roles that demand him to be pitiable, athletic, grotesque, menacing, and endearing.  His greatest accomplishment comes in the film’s funniest section in which he reprises the part of Merde, a chain-smoking, flower-munching, gibberish-speaking creature who climbs out of the sewer and wreaks havoc in proper society.  (Merde first appeared in Carax’s short in the omnibus film TOKYO!)  

The changes HOLY MOTORS studies have as much to do with the movies as anything else.  Cinema’s history and genres interact through juxtaposition while a vigorously played entr’acte emphasizes the duality.  Neorealism and the CGI era are linked through their symmetry and asymmetry.  A beauty and the beast fairy tale precedes a coming of age docudrama.  Scenes that could have come from a gangster film and an action movie are paired, as are a chamber drama and musical tragedy.  The domestic surrealism of the ninth appointment rhymes with and diverges from the impersonal modernist home Oscar departs from to begin his day’s labor.  

As heady as HOLY MOTORS can be, Carax playfully arranges the pieces.  Merde rampages through a cemetery to the theme from GODZILLA and guides the supermodel (Eva Mendes) he abducts through a private fashion show.  Kylie Minogue, playing one of Oscar’s fellow performers, drops in to sing a song as though she’s been transported out of the French New Wave.  Datamoshing gives unusual beauty to image corruption.  HOLY MOTORS reflects wistfully on what once existed and ultimately revels in the primitive impulses and dreams that persist across time.   

Grade: A


SKYFALL (Sam Mendes, 2012)

James Bond (Daniel Craig) is missing and presumed killed at the start of SKYFALL, the 23rd official 007 film.  Things are not looking good for the British Secret Intelligence Service either.  MI6 head M (Judi Dench) faces being pushed out of her job, agency headquarters are attacked, and the hard drive with the identities of undercover agents working in terrorist groups is still out there for the wrong person to use against them.

Although he’s the worse for wear, Bond reappears and is approved to return to active duty.  He sets out to find the computer device with all those important secrets.  The path eventually leads him to Silva (Javier Bardem), an amoral genius who feels a certain kinship with his pursuer.  

SKYFALL differs from previous Bond films in that it devotes more time to character study than the spectacle-laden series ordinarily grants.  It’s not exactly an origin story, and thank goodness for that.  As a character Bond doesn’t need some complex history to explain why he’s chosen his line of work.  Nevertheless, it’s heartening that this installment adds a bit of dramatic substance to its typical arsenal of flashy stunts, worldly glamour, and sexy women.  Whether Craig continues to play the spy, SKYFALL brings some closure to his trilogy of films that deepens the character and his relationships with co-workers.  

With his flamboyant performance Bardem’s Silva makes for the most memorable villain in a long time for the Bond films.  His alternately attempts to seduce and taunt Bond with the promise of what they can do together outside the purview of government oversight because, after all, bad guys have more fun.  Bardem plays Silva as the cross of The Joker, Br’er Rabbit begging to be thrown into the briar patch, a tech nerd, and a dandy. He doesn’t just want to show up Bond and MI6.  He wants to be able to show off how superior he is to them.
Director Sam Mendes gets strong performances out of the supporting cast too. Dench’s M continues a respectful but cool relationship toward Bond that pays off in unexpectedly emotional ways.  As her potential replacement, Ralph Fiennes pleases as a political weasel working to see that her resignation is demanded.  Naomie Harris’s Eve adds the complicating dynamic of professional admiration for and attraction to Bond as they work together.  Bérénice Marlohe brings the requisite sizzle to her scenes with 007 while lending sadness to what the franchise would typically treat as a disposable role.

On a technical level, SKYFALL has to be one of the best looking Bonds.  The lighting flatters the stars, but cinematographer Roger Deakins reserves full eye-popping beauty for how he captures the locations, including Istanbul, London, Shanghai, and Macau. The set for the uninhabited island, a stand-in for Hashima Island, is a dazzling space that supports the bigger is better mentality of these films.  

SKYFALL proves that a long-standing series can deliver the expected fundamentals while keeping the new films fresh and unpredictable.  If the three Bonds with Craig point the direction for another fifty years of the spy, let’s hope it follows the evolutionary path this one lays.

Grade: B

Monday, November 19, 2012

Head Games

HEAD GAMES (Steve James, 2012)

In the documentary HEAD GAMES sports journalist Bob Costas says, “In most other sports the chance of injury is incidental.  In football the chance of injury and long term serious effects is fundamental, and no honest person can watch this sport and not acknowledge that.”  If Costas is right, there are a lot of dishonest or, at best, willfully ignorant sports fans and commentators.  Spend enough time watching football games or listening to sports talk radio and inevitably complaints of protective rules making the game too soft will surface.  Go to a sports bar on any fall Saturday or Sunday and at some point you’ll likely hear patrons, if not the announcers, bellowing about how an unnecessary roughness penalty is uncalled for or how a dazed player isn’t tough enough.  

Violence, especially in the highlight reel hits, is a significant part of football’s appeal, but after seeing HEAD GAMES, one wonders if the long term viability of the sport is threatened as consequences of such brutal repetitive contact become better understood.  It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that years down the line enough debilitated former players or their families sue the professional league into oblivion or the pipeline of participants dries up because concerned parents refuse to allow their children to play.   

Director Steve James draws from Chris Nowinski’s book HEAD GAMES: FOOTBALL’S CONCUSSION CRISIS and The New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz’s investigative writings to examine the effects of brain trauma experienced in the normal course of playing football, hockey, and soccer.  (Boxing is touched upon in one heart-rending section but is largely absent from the conversation, probably because public awareness of that sport’s dangers are widely acknowledged.)  Nowinski, an All-Ivy defensive tackle at Harvard and former WWE wrestler, was motivated to learn more about concussions after an injury forced him to retire.  He and others have found that concussions are much more commonplace, even among youth and college players, and that former National Football League players are at significantly higher risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can lead to premature dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

HEAD GAMES is an important film for those who play and watch sports.  It explains what the symptoms of a concussion are, what happens in the brain during the trauma, and how to proceed if receiving the injury.  Education of players, coaches, and trainers won’t eliminate concussions, but it can help them to identify when someone should be pulled from competition for personal safety.

Still, all the information in the world won’t matter if a culture change in sports doesn’t occur.  Whether it’s internal motivation or pressure from coaches and fans, athletes often feel obligated to play through injuries and will not report them, especially if it means losing a spot on the field or having one’s toughness questioned.  

Although HEAD GAMES is an advocacy documentary that criticizes the NFL in particular for being slow to accept scientific findings on concussions, James and his subjects aren’t crusading for the end of football or other games that present the risk of head trauma. The film struggles with the contradiction of knowing the serious risks while enjoying the games as participant and spectator.

Grade: B 

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

My Neighbor Totoro


In no time at all sisters Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto) enjoy exploring the new home they moved into with their father (Shigesato Itoi) in MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. They laugh about its less than pristine condition and are intrigued by the dust bunnies--or soot sprites, as an elderly woman (Tanie Kitabayashi) nearby calls them--that scatter when they throw open the doors and windows to long-closed rooms.  This new place suits them fine, although they’d prefer for their hospital-bound mother (Sumi Shimamoto) to have joined them already.

While Satsuki is at school and her father works in his office, four-year-old Mei wanders around the garden where she spots two small, unfamiliar creatures.  She chases them into the forest and encounters a much larger one that also resembles an egg-shaped cat and rabbit hybrid.  Mei tells her sister and father that she met a totoro, or a troll from one of her storybooks.  She wants to introduce them but is unable to find the way back to the spirits.  The totoro reappear from time to time to enhance the girls’ appreciation of nature and to comfort them when distressed.

As a hangout movie for kids, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO pleases with its easygoing pace, curiosity about the natural world, and sweet spirit.  It’s not quite a plotless film, but there’s an ambling feel to the unfolding story, as though these are just a few days plucked from the stream of Satsuki and Mei’s time.  They play, they learn, and they rest. Discovering the totoro is as and no more noteworthy than spotting any other woodland animal.  

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO lacks a villain, although the illness of the girls’ mother is a concern to the youngsters.  Here again writer-director Hayao Miyazaki takes a different tack, choosing not to impart major lessons or have his characters pursue self-actualization.  Instead he portrays such a matter as part of life rather than an all-consuming worry.  The children fret but are reassured by both parents and the old woman who sometimes looks over them.  

Miyazaki characterizes the children as children in all of their brash, inquisitive, creative, and vulnerable ways.  MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO respects where kids are in their development and provides them an unhurried space to continue to explore at their own speed.  Not much happens, yet every day is an adventure.  Few films understand childhood in such terms and present it in such beautiful imagery.  

Grade: B

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Cloud Atlas

CLOUD ATLAS (Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski, 2012)

CLOUD ATLAS plays connect the dots across the years in six concurrent stories with the same primary actors playing multiple roles over the different periods.  Lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) sees firsthand the horrors of slavery in the South Pacific islands in 1849.  In his diary, later to be published, he writes about this and his rapidly declining health on the voyage home.  Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is reading it in 1936 as he works and stays with a famous composer in Cambridge, England.  On the side Frobisher writes “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”, which is largely unremembered yet sought out by Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a reporter investigating a possible cover-up at a nuclear power plant in San Francisco in 1973.  

Luisa’s story is one that crosses the path of London book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) in 2012.  He writes about his own experiences hiding out from a client’s thugs and has it turned into a film, part of which is seen in 2144 Neo Seoul, Korea by server clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae).  Her inspirational words are passed down through an unspecified number of years and elevate her to god-like status among the primitives like Zachry (Tom Hanks).

The scope and ambition in CLOUD ATLAS are so enormous that the three writer/directors--Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski--and editor Alexander Berner don’t so much as tame novelist David Mitchell’s unruly tangle of loosely linked plots across centuries but make it presentable and even coherent. Berner’s editing is often nothing short of remarkable in connecting these disparate pieces so that they seem part of a whole.  As an instructional in crosscutting, it’s quite an achievement.  

CLOUD ATLAS shouldn’t work.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Prosthetics and makeup are used to sell the transformations for those in the main cast who switch genders and races from story to story.  Often the actors look ridiculous.  The pidgin English that passes for the future language of a post-apocalyptic tribe can sound silly.  The shifts in tone from one storytelling style to another can be jarring and incompatible.

Yet CLOUD ATLAS proves to be worthy of wrestling with its big philosophical ideas, including the seemingly misguided ones, and engaging with a consistent vision of fluidity among the ages and eternal truths.  For such a sprawling endeavor, CLOUD ATLAS reduces to some basic points.  At heart are the beliefs that individual voices can make a difference across time, if not in their own, and that love is ultimately what endures. CLOUD ATLAS is prone to sappiness and threatens to disappear up its own tail like THE MATRIX trilogy, but it builds to an irresistible final act celebrating the human spirit.  

Grade: B-

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Tall Man

THE TALL MAN (Pascal Laugier, 2012)

Recent years have not treated the mining town of Cold Rock, Washington well in THE TALL MAN.  The area is economically devastated, but the frequent, unsolved disappearances of the town’s children deliver the most significant blows to civic morale. With town and federal law enforcement no closer to solving the mysteries, local legend pins the abductions on The Tall Man, a shadowy presence who emerges from the forest to take the kids.  

By continuing to run the community clinic her husband once oversaw, widow and single mother Julia Denning (Jessica Biel) tries to do all she can for the townsfolk.  She is concerned for the welfare of Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), a mute teen whose sister was impregnated by her mom’s boyfriend, and makes the extra effort to extend kindness to one missing child’s distraught mother.

One night the racket of a radio preacher spouting hellfire and brimstone awakens Julia. Downstairs she discovers that the live-in babysitter Christine (Eve Harlow) has been beaten and tied up.  Then she realizes that her son David (Jakob Davies) is missing. She makes a valiant attempt to chase down the hooded figure in a long coat but is ultimately unable to retrieve her son and passes out in the middle of the road.
THE TALL MAN comes as close as anything in recent years at matching the better monster-of-the-week episodes of THE X-FILES, although here the mystery is approached from the inside rather than through a federal investigation.  (The connection to THE X-FILES also comes, perhaps incidentally, with the series’ Cigarette Smoking Man, William B. Davis, playing a sheriff.)  The secluded Pacific Northwest location and periodic child narration enhance the film’s fable-like tone as a regional cautionary tale. The authority of legend weighs heavily whether humans or supernatural forces are responsible for the missing kids.

Approximately the first half of THE TALL MAN plays out as a conventional suspense film, but writer-director Pascal Laugier has a couple tricks up his sleeves that transform the otherwise familiar notes into something surprising and provocative.  Genre gives Laugier the freedom to delve into a perspective on child welfare that a social issue drama would likely never dare to consider with any seriousness.  Naturally, the example provided herein is taken to an extreme, but the go-for-broke philosophical determination and ambiguous stance on what transpires make for a potent conclusion.

While THE TALL MAN’s success can be attributed to the execution of its twists and subversive core idea, Biel’s performance as a loving and fiercely protective mother amplifies the power of the narrative turns.  Feeling the depth of her character’s sacrifice is the difference between sustained dread and a jump scare.  Both tactics accomplish the task, but the former is more satisfying in the long run.

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


SINISTER (Scott Derrickson, 2012)

True-crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has a habit of getting on the bad side of local law enforcement wherever he goes.  In SINISTER his latest project does little to endear him to the community.  Ellison is researching the case of a girl who went missing after her parents and two siblings were hanged from a tree in their backyard.  In a ghoulish decision, the out-of-town author moves his family into the victims’ home, although his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two kids are unaware of the house’s recent history.

In the attic Ellison finds a box of 8mm home movies. The labeled cases feature innocuous titles for the films, but when Ellison fires up the projector to watch them, he discovers horrifying documentation of the murders he’s investigating as well as footage of other ritually slaughtered families.  The deeper Ellison sinks into his work, the more he struggles to shake the horrible images he’s witnessed.  Eventually he turns to a starstruck deputy (James Ransone) for assistance in gaining information about the larger story he’s stumbled upon.     

SINISTER functions as an unnerving testament to the power and pull of the moving image.  Ellison obsessively watches the home movies, poring over every frame for clues regarding the location and people involved in the killings.  Although he’s doing a careful reading of the text from an objective distance, he is still susceptible to being affected by what passes before his eyes.  Ellison is not a film critic in that he is not rendering approval or disapproval on the movies’ aesthetic values, but he is practicing the kind of dedicated engagement with the work that marks the cinephile.

Analytic interpretation aside, it’s a scary movie.  Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson mixes in a modicum of jump scares while maintaining an enduring state of uneasiness. The horror doesn’t come from anticipating a supernatural being leaping out of dark corners or seeing graphic violence.  For Ellison and the audience the terror comes in having what’s suggested in the flickering images seared into one’s consciousness. Swaying bodies dangling from a branch and the hint of mutilation are hard to shake from the mind’s eye.  Even when what’s depicted is not especially vivid, the persistence of the visions are.

SINISTER isn’t to be mistaken for a novel entry in the genre.  It owes more than a debt of gratitude to THE SHINING and THE RING, among others, but Derrickson processes the chilling influences into an eerie experience mindful of the significance of projected images watched alone in the dark.

Grade: B

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (Martin McDonagh, 2012)

In SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS screenwriter Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) is struggling to come up with a script for a film of the same name.  His creative block might be related to the alcoholism that his friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) suggests he has.  Then again, Billy can’t exactly be trusted completely.  The temperamental aspiring actor is hellbent on finding some way to collaborate with Marty on the screenplay.  While Billy is a good friend, he doesn’t make the wisest choices.

For instance, Billy is involved in a dog abduction scheme with Hans (Christopher Walken).  Billy takes the adored pets, and Hans returns them to the grateful owners for the reward money.  It looks to be an easy and risk-free method of lining their pockets until they take the beloved Shih Tzu of organized crime boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson). He doesn’t take kindly to news of his dog’s disappearance.  Charlie and his men don’t have to search long before they are chasing Billy, Hans, and a guilty-by-association Marty.
As a mash-up of ADAPTATION and ‘90s Tarantino-inspired films, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is either too clever by half or not clever enough to fulfill all of its ambitions.  Like Charlie Kaufman, writer-director Martin McDonagh loads the film over capacity with ideas and structural complexities.  McDonagh zigzags plenty, sometimes to the film’s detriment, but he provides plenty to chew on among the ample laughs and bloodshed.  

On one level the existential comedy is about the process of filmmaking.  On another it’s concerned with what makes a man a man and the social expectations of how machismo is expressed.  Ultimately SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is most interested in exploring the need for dreams, be they reflected in the movies or offered through religious promises about an afterlife.  Is what we do in our lives meaningless or the basis for the potential earning of some greater reward?  Are we even in control of writing our own life scripts, or is another screenwriter--the Almighty Creator, in fact--determining how the narrative develops?

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS doesn’t knuckle down and decide how to answer everything tossed out for consideration--how could it?--but even when it feels like little more than intellectual, postmodern spitballing, it satisfies as an exercise in storytelling.  It helps that McDonagh employs a who’s who of character actors to flesh out a rogue’s gallery worthy of living up to the film’s title.  As a foil to Farrell’s straight man, Rockwell is amusingly unhinged as a wild card of a friend.  Walken brings gravitas and soul to an eccentric man who knows all too well the tension between faith and despair in the face of the seemingly random.  Harrelson is a fearsome and humorous study in the film’s clash between violent and loving impulses.  Tom Waits and Harry Dean Stanton are plugged into the lineup for good measure.  SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS doesn’t reach the high bar McDonagh sets for it, yet he distributes a good number of pleasures with the film’s wit, contemplative offerings, and unpredictable nature.  

Grade: B

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Taken 2

TAKEN 2 (Olivier Megaton, 2012)

After rescuing his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) from human traffickers in TAKEN, former CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) dedicates himself to being there for her, whether she needs him or not, in TAKEN 2.  Given what they went through in Europe, he’s justified in playing the role of the overprotective father.  These days he’s overseeing her driving lessons and, at the drop of a hat, tracking down Kim to her boyfriend’s place despite having been unaware that she’s dating anyone.  

Bryan’s heroics in the previous film appear to have improved his relationship with ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), who’s now on the verge of a split from her wealthy husband.  When a tearful Lenore tells Bryan about her crumbling marriage, he asks her and Kim to join him for some rest and relaxation in Istanbul after he’s done with a job there.  

They accept his invitation, but Albanian toughs interrupt the Mills family vacation.  Led by Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija), they seek revenge on Bryan for killing their kin, friends, and colleagues when he rescued Kim in Paris.  Before Bryan and Lenore are abducted, he calls his daughter with instructions for how she can get to safety and help her mom and dad escape their captors.

Like the TV series 24, the attraction of TAKEN and its sequel are heroes who can brush aside bad guys with ruthless efficiency and display crack improvisational skills to wiggle out of any number of jams.  24 and the TAKEN films envision a hostile and untrustworthy caricature of a world that is best protected by a paternal figure with government connections and extralegal means at his disposal.  Both Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer and Neeson’s Bryan even have daughters named Kim.  The disappointment of TAKEN 2 is how long it takes to wind up and deliver Neeson in all his throat-punching and arm-breaking glory.  Enough with all the family theatrics already.  Let’s see Neeson bring the pain.
Maybe the unexpectedness of watching Neeson be so merciless has worn off because TAKEN 2 plays as though it’s going through the motions when he finally gets to take on his enemies.  Director Olivier Megaton competently captures the action and fight scenes, but the results bear little difference from dozens of similar films producer and co-screenwriter Luc Besson’s production company has churned out.  Neeson is a charismatic actor who cuts an imposing figure, but this repeat lacks the vitality and novelty.

In its best scenes the sequel briefly reverses Bryan and Kim’s roles. The security expert becomes someone who needs to be found, and the daughter turns into the rescuer, even if she’s merely following her dad’s detailed guidance.  The clever, if dubious, method of helping to pinpoint one’s unknown location with a hidden cell phone, a city map, a marker, a shoelace, and a few grenades brings a pleasing MACGYVER-like touch, although the achievement is also due to some of the least attentive abductors ever.

The problem in making Bryan the abducted is that TAKEN 2 lacks the immediacy and dramatic stakes of the rampage he goes on in TAKEN to save his daughter.  Obviously Bryan is more than capable of taking care of himself.  His ex-wife needs to be saved this time around, but her plight does not seem urgent for any significant stretches.  With lowered concerns, TAKEN 2 is content to play out as a familiar and lesser version of its predecessor.

Grade: C-

Friday, October 12, 2012

What to Expect When You're Expecting


The prenatal comedy WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING provides a snapshot of contemporary anxieties about imminent parenthood, but it may be more worthwhile as a document for future pop culture scholars to use to understand what was trendy in 2012.  Reality TV shows in the forms of a weight loss program and a celebrity dance competition, Auto-Tuned YouTube videos, and food trucks play prominent roles in the loosely intersecting plots of five pairs expecting babies.  Whether the film is analyzed for the attitudes and fears particular to this time for parents-to-be or what captured the mainstream’s attention, there are more valuable details found in the margins than in the dull and fragmented story.

The sets of expectant parents cover the spectrum.  Celebrity fitness trainer Jules Baxter (Cameron Diaz) thinks she can keep up her rigorous schedule while pregnant and doesn’t need to consider the input of Evan (Matthew Morrison), her partner in the relationship and on the TV dance contest where they met.  Holly (Jennifer Lopez) stresses over impressing adoption officials so she and her husband Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) can get a child from Ethiopia while he is wary of the major changes that may be forthcoming in their lives.  Alex is encouraged to hang out with a dad’s group that is intended to allay his fears but may reinforce them instead.

Food truck operator Rosie (Anna Kendrick) is upset  to discover that she got pregnant from a one night stand with Marco (Chace Crawford), a rival cook she knows from high school.  He commits to being there for her, but they struggle with a relationship started out of a sense of duty.  Baby store owner and children’s book author Wendy Cooper (Elizabeth Banks) and husband Gary (Ben Falcone) have been trying hard to get pregnant and are elated when it happens, but the nine months aren’t as smooth as they would hope.  It’s all the more aggravating for them because Gary’s young stepmother Skyler (Brooklyn Decker) and his dad Ramsey (Dennis Quaid) are regularly one-upping them with the ease of her pregnancy.
Based on a pregnancy guide, WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING ticks off boxes on the checklists of things to be aware of as parents anticipate the arrival of their babies.  The four stories set in Atlanta and single one based in Los Angeles reflect the diversity of experiences but play out as perfunctorily told, mostly meaninglessly connected tales.  All but one of the subplots come straight off the romantic comedy assembly line, reducing this major life event to strings of wacky hijinks and dodged conversations by people who seem as though they’d be challenged bringing a puppy into their homes, let alone a newborn child.  The scenarios didn’t need the gravity of educational role playing, just more emotional heft, especially in Kendrick and Crawford’s unusually featherweight section, and less broadly contrived nonsense.

The one thread that feels the most honest centers on Banks learning that being armed with information and the best laid plans doesn’t mean everything will happen easily or perfectly.  Her scenes, particularly a conference presentation, touch upon the range of emotions and complexity of the challenges during pregnancy that the rest of the film tends to gloss over.  

Grade: D