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 NoĆ©’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+