Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol

I know Brad Bird best as the director of "incredible" animated features -- "Up," "The Iron Giant," "Ratatouille" and, yes, "The Incredibles." His live action feature "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" is so ceaselessly kinetic it often feels like a cartoon, a mindlessly explosive, edge-of-your-seat, hair-pulling, nail-biting, jaw-dropping adventure with narrow escape piled atop narrow escape. Tom Cruise leads his three black-ops teammates (Paula Patton, Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner) to retrieve the launch codes for Russian nuclear missiles before uber-baddy Hendricks (Swedish movie star Michael Nyqvist of the original Girl With ... series) vaporizes a U.S. city and starts WWW III. Hokum? Of course, but the action sequences are positively stunning. Despite his legendary fall out with Viacom chief Sumner Redstone, Cruise is all over this film and will certainly be at the helm when the IM team mounts up for the next episode. What a ride!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Young Adult

The wonder of Jason Reitman's Young Adult is Charlize Theron, whose dark, dyspeptic character, juvenile fiction ghost writer Mavis Gary, so nimbly turns audiences verging on pity to deep animosity with a single line of such unimaginable insensitivity that we are left speechless. Kudos to writer Diablo Cody (Juno, United States of Tara) who has rendered yet another richly imagined middle-American dramedy that is squirm-inducing because Mavis's narcissism blinds her to her toxicity. For reasons that are not altogether clear, Mavis gets the notion to leave her Minnesota apartment for her hometown of Mercury once she learns that her high school beau (Patrick Wilson) has just become a father. She's determined to win him back. The results are devastating, and Theron's performance as a woman on the verge of a breakdown is Oscar-caliber. Mavis is a marvelous creation, as is her accidental drinking buddy, one-time hate-crime victim Matt Freehauf (winningly portrayed by Patton Oswalt). They find each other at the bottom of a shot glass into which they crawl to escape their individual pain and loneliness. Cody has written several brilliantly revelatory scenes but the capper, for me, comes near the end and is between Mavis and Matt's sister Sandra (Collette Wolfe), after Mavis and Matt's pity roll in the hay the night before. The scene between the two women will surely be savored by film buffs for years as a model of both screenwriting, film directing and acting as it captures, in five solid minutes, two people having a "heart-to-heart" and mishearing everything the other person is saying. It's amazingly real.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Nutcracker

The mother of childhood friends Andrew and Victor took the three of us to a performance of the Nutcracker at one of the fine arts theaters in downtown D.C. when I was 7 or 8. Mrs. Mealey loaded us into her huge blue sedan (Buick?) -- at least it seemed huge to me -- and drove us to the show, stopping by her school on the way. That was the first time I'd been in a public school building. I remember her classroom was much more colorful than the austere rooms at St. Benedict's where I went and there were no crucifixes or pictures of the Blessed Virgin on the walls. When we left her school we went to a cafeteria to eat before the show. I might have had a dollar in my pocket but I know she paid. The actual performance of the Nutcracker went by in a blur of color and wonder and menace; I remember vividly a trio of harlequins with hoops. Even though Andrew and Victor and I fought (literally) almost everyday, I really loved their mother and think of her around this time of year. Despite the fixation "grown ups" seem to have on making life complicated maybe it is just that simple -- be kind to people.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Wire Season 2 Episode 2: Collateral Damage

The Wire Season 2 Episode 2: Collateral Damage. The creators of The Wire wisely invested a lot of emotional capital into the diminutive port officer Beatrice Russell, who finds the bodies of the women being smuggled into the country by the mysterious Greek and his amoral henchmen. She's a terrific small-role but pivotal character in the second season. Russell took the port job because it paid more than toll booth attendant and she needed more dollars to take care of her kids after splitting from her husband. She never really wanted to be poh-leese. From the beginning, we're on her side because, like so many of us, she finds herself in s having to clean up somebody else's mess. She is the collateral damage referred to in the title of this episode. Russell (played by the wonderful actress Amy Ryan) is one of only two absolutely guilelessly charitable characters in the series, the other being the tragic corner boy Wallace from Season 1. Both Beadie Russell and Wallace found themselves swimming in the sewage of the drug trade, unable to fully understand the degree of evil doing business in Baltimore.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Big Bang Theory

I've been watching the first season of The Big Bang Theory (really, really late to this party, I know) and I can see why the actor Jim Parsons has been feted so mch for his role as super-genius / social-disaster Sheldon Cooper. Actually -- to borrow from the premise of this show about a pair of scarily brilliant young physicists living across the hall from a pretty though under-educated and under-employed waitress -- Parsons character is so heavy and so large, that everyone else in the show is pulled toward him and seem to orbit around him. Parsons talents in both elocution and movement are clearly of the stage -- classical stage at that. He's a joy to watch. Before looking up the skinny on this show I detected a Roseanne-y vibe, and not just because Johnny Gelecki co-stars and Sara Gilbert is a recurring featured player. Like Roseanne, it's a wordy sitcom of interiors about the lives of odd but lovable people.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Melancholia

Lars von Trier's Melancholia is a haunting, disturbing film about the deterioration of the closest of human connections, the familial, and the inevitable collision of lives that have grown too close through steadily declining orbits. Von Trier, who wrote the screenplay, gives the beautifully nuanced relationship between passive-aggressive beauty Justine (a radiant Kirsten Dunst) and martyr-victim plain-Jane sister Claire (the remarkable Charlotte Gainsbourg) an astrological counterpart -- the formerly hidden planet Melancholia (Claire? Justine?) draws perilously close big blue Earth (Justine? Claire?). The combination of these two seemingly incompatible storylines was disconcerting for me at first, but then something clicked. It came when Claire's contemptuous husband John (a wonderful Kiefer Sutherland) confesses to his panicked wife that he was not entirely sure that Melancholia would fly by the Earth and all would be well as he had formerly assured her. This deception capsulizes the lack of trust in their fragile relationship (a dance of death) and, indeed, all of the relationships in this film except that between Justine and her adoring young nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr). In fact, it is that bond that von Trier sears (quite literally) into our brains at film's end. (Warning: If you're prone to motion sickness from viewing handheld camera work, the first half of this film might be tough going for you.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Arthur Christmas

For holiday family fare, Sarah Smith's Arthur Christmas has some pretty sharp edges, which made it all the more delightful for me but, as with The Muppets and Hugo, will probably bore most youngsters. This animated film is the story of the Claus dynasty of Santas whose gift-delivery operation has evolved into something that is 100 times as intricate as the Pentagon. The film opens with S-1 (Santa 1), an enormous aircraft that resembles the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek and is captained by Santa (Jim Broadbent) on its yearly mission to deliver toys to all 600 million children before sunrise on Christmas. Santa's older son, Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie), the heir apparent, is in charge of ground-based operations, which includes hundreds upon hundreds of elves in a central command auditorium lifted straight from NASA. Steve's younger brother, Arthur (James McAvoy), is in charge of answering letters. When one particularly deserving girl's gift goes undelivered because of a SNAFU, Arthur and grandfather Claus (Bill Nighy) mount up an old sleigh and eight reindeer to make the special delivery -- but, of course, not without calamity. It is actually the faith and idealism of Arthur and the legion of elves who do the Clauses' bidding that keep Christmas and this movie afloat.

I haven't been able to figure out what movie-makers are doing with children's films. These movies are spectacular to watch (even in 2D) but they have too many moving parts, the characters speak too rapidly and the jokes and sight gags are loaded with cultural references from the Mad magazine school of humor that don't make the kiddies laugh. The screenings of Arthur Christmas, Hugo and The Muppets I went to were all attended by moppets 10 and under and I heard not a peep from any of them. I don't know if kids have changed but the pictures certainly have.

Gaslight


George Cukor's 1944 film Gaslight (Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman) is the only film I'm aware of that coined a psychological term. Sometimes I feel "gaslighting" is another name for American politics. Consider this definition from Urban Dictionary:

"A form of intimidation or psychological abuse, sometimes called Ambient Abuse, where false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception and quite often, their sanity. The classic example of gaslighting is to switch something around on someone that you know they're sure to notice, but then deny knowing anything about it, and to explain that they 'must be imagining things' when they challenge these changes.

"A more psychological definition of gaslighting is 'an increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to, the victim -- having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception."'

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hugo

Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a phenomenal piece of filmaking that comes close to transcending the medium to which it pays such sumptuous homage. Reflecting on it and writing about it is kind of like trying to tell someone why Van Gogh's The Starry Night is a masterpiece. Yes, one could talk about color and brush strokes, but in the end, the work's greatness is intrinsic and beyond itemization. To attempt to do so would be tedious, pedantic and, frankly, insulting to the work.

And, yet, Scorese's Hugo is rich in (1) cinematic ingenuity (his now famous seemingly endless tracking shots have been bested here and the 3D technology is so beyond brilliant it's truly intimidating), (2) narrative intelligence (the film weaves history and fantasy and pathos and comedy seamlessly) and (3) authentic humanity (not an ounce of sticky sentimentality to be found). During the last reel I felt both exhausted and genuinely inspired.

Hugo is the story of a young orphaned French boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a train station so that he might tend to the clocks as his uncle had but to do so he must elude the station's gimpy constable (Sasha Baron Cohen). Hugo has inherited his absent father's skills for fixing things (and, yes, indirectly people) even though Hugo himself feels badly in need of mending. The boy fixes a mechanical man that once belonged to the great French filmmaker Georges Melies (played by Ben Kingsley), a pioneer who is clearly a hero of Scorsese's. Therein lies the movie's adventure, a fabulous exploration into dreams and imagination and the nature of family. What an achievement. Oscar contender? Unquestionably.

The Wire Season 2 Episode 1: Ebb Tide

The Wire Season 2 Episode 1: Ebb Tide. When The Wire returned in June 2003 after nearly a year's hiatus, fans were probably nearly starved for more of the same. After all, loose ends had been left dangling at the end of Season 1: Stringer Bell, the second-in-command and brains behind the Barksdale drug-dealing organization, had not been arrested (though Avon Barksdale was behind bars) and for all intents and purposes dope fiends were still "fiending" for whatever was for sale on the West Side corners.

But Season 2 opens with Det. Jimmy McNulty, the star of the series, on a police boat patrolling the Baltimore Harbor, the detail he had specifically requested NOT to get after the Major Crime Unit was disbanded. When McNulty and his partner pull a floater from the Bay, it seems like the series is heading in another direction. In actuality, however, the dead young woman floating in the Harbor was Simon & Company's clever introduction to the overarching theme is Season 2 -- the drug trade is just one parasitic enterrpise feeding on this nation and the players come in all hues and from all shores.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Muppets

I really enjoyed James Bobin's The Muppets but fear young children will be bored despite the brilliant colors of the velveteen frog and his pals. The film -- whose human stars are Jason Segel and Amy Adams -- tells the story of Gary's (Segel's) fuzzy and stunted "muppety" brother Walter whose only desire is to visit The Muppet Studios in Los Angeles and see where the magic was made. So, Gary, Walter and Gary's longtime girlfriend Mary catch the Greyhound and head to Tinseltown and find the studio under threat of the buldozer. Still, singing and dancing ensue. The movie is fat with celebrity cameos and gags and musical numbers that are much like those staged in Bobin's off-kilter but tuneful HBO series The Flight of the Conchords. That is to say, the jokes are satricial and self-referential but kiddies would probably want more meaty action and less ham (no offense Miss Piggy).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Immortals

Tarsem's Immortals is an often stunning tribute to excess and the unsettling conflation of sword-and-sandal homoeroticism (ala 300) and mindless, though beautifully choreographed, brutality. The film is not so much about the Greek legend of Theseus, the hero who slew the Minotaur, as it is about the passing of the age of gods. The film doesn't necessarily raise the bar on the integration of live action and CGI -- and the acting (though performed by really beautiful people -- Henry Cavill and Freida Pinto) is just OK -- but the movie certainly sets a new standard for the number of decapitations that can be stuffed into 100 minutes of movie. It is truly astounding.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 13: Sentencing

The Wire Season 1 Episode 3: Sentencing. The cap to the first season of this remarkable show ties up some loose ends but leaves others dangling in the wind. In the previous episode, Cleaning Up, Det. Leander Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) tells Lieut. Cedric Daniels that the Barksdale case was the best police work he'd ever done but feels "unfinished." Episode 13 echoes that sentiment. Even though Avon Barksdale and much of his crew are sent to prison, we, the viewers, know the size and complexity of the drug trade, the desperation of users AND corner dealers, and the powerlessness of the police to do much to stem the tide. All of this is punctuated by the hooded figure of everyone's favorite stick -up boy, Omar Little relieving a dealer of his ill-gotten gain. "It's all in the game, right?"

J. Edgar


The aging make-up on the three wonderful principals in Clint Eastwood's intriguing J. Edgar -- Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer -- is a bit startling but rather than distracting me it forced me to pay greater attention to what the actors were saying and to their eyes ... that's where this story of loyalty and trust was actually played out. The script by Dustin Lance Black, who won the Oscar for the screenplay for Milk, is disjointed and theatrical -- like its human subject -- but it is also enormously affecting. It's the story of the intersection of crime, politics and power in the person of the founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But it's also a love story, actually three love stories: Hoover's Oedipal relationship with his mother, his chaste romance with his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson, and his megalomaniacal love for this country. It's not a hero's tale; Hoover is portrayed as often cold toward and demeaning of those closest to him. But that's not to say Hoover is an unsympathetic character. In one important scene late in the film, Hoover asks his dutiful assistant, Helen Gandy (Watts), "Do I kill everything I love?" She assures him he does not but it's said with the kind of caution one summons when trying to console without revealing one's lack of conviction. You can hear it in her voice and see it in her eyes.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 12: Cleaning Up

The Wire Season 1 Episode 12: Cleaning Up. Michael B. Jordan's portrayal of Wallace, the lost boy / runner in the Barksdale drug syndicate, was one of the most affecting performances in the first season. And this episode, Cleaning Up, belongs to this tragic character. The seizure of Barksdale cash and stash by Baltimore police drives Avon and Stringer Bell into damage-control mode, which means silencing anyone who might connect them to drugs and murder. Wallace is one of the two gentlest and most guileless characters in the entire series -- the other is port police officer Beatrice Russell from Season 2 -- and Stringer suspecs him of being weak. Bell orders Bodie and Poot (Wallace's boys from the projects) to put Wallace down. Regular viewers were no doubt startled by the execution, which was committed in the abandoned tenement where Wallace cared for a half-dozen street children. The betrayal (wonderfully filmmed) is upsetting and heartbreaking. BTW, in the final episode of Season 1, Sentencing, D'Angelo Barksdale's ringing indictment of Stringer's bloody deed -- "String, where's Wallace? Stringer! Where's Wallace? Where's Wallace, String?" -- was an amazingly chilling moment ... haunting and splendid.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 11: The Hunt

The Wire Season 1 Episode 11: The Hunt. John Doman as Major William Rawls gets star billing in the series throughout the program's 5-season run and for good reason. He's a pretty foul though essential creation for the show. His profane careerism epitomizes the kind of police officer who exercises Det. Jimmy McNulty and the other stalwarts in the major crimes unit. And yet, in this episode, The Hunt, the writers add levels to Rawls that probably blindsided some viewers.

McNulty is wallowing in self-pity over the shooting of Kima Greggs and Rawls is having none of it. As he tries to help McNulty pull himself together, Rawls states, emphatically, "You, McNulty are a gaping asshole. I know it, and I'll be fucked if everybody in CID didn't know it. But I'll be also fucked if I let you sit here and think you did a single fucking thing to get a fucking cop shot. Believe it or not, not everything is about you. Get it into your head, McNulty, it's not your fault. And the motherfucker telling you this, he fucking hates your guts. So you know that if it was your fault I'd be the first son of a bitch to tell you. Shit went bad; she took two for the company. That's the only lesson here."

This is marvelous writing and the scene is stellar.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 10: The Cost

The Wire Season 1 Episode 10: The Cost. This episode belongs to Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) and it's a bit of a pity that it's not as strong as those that bracket it. Kima's relationship with her lover Cheryl never seemed to be particularly well-developed for me. (Maybe straight white men find it difficult to write about lesbians of color.) Even though Cheryl was given more screentime than most of the other spouses of principal players in the series, she never moved far beyond being a disapproving scold, which is unfortunate. Cheryl was a journalist in a relationship with a police officer but that was NEVER explored. Instead, the writers chose to take the baby path for these two women. I will say this choice opened up some truly interesting opportunities for Greggs but Cheryl just became more disapproving and more scolding. No matter. Greggs delivers a wonderful monologue midway through this episode in which she recounts for Cheryl and their friends over drinks the moment she knew she wanted to be real po-leese. It's well done and, yes, darkly foreshadowing of how this episode would end.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fall in the Peace Garden

Ides of March

George Clooney's Ides of March is competent treatment of one of Clooney's favorite topics -- political dysfunction (see the 2003 HBO K Street series he created with Steven Soderbergh). Clooney directed and stars Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Morris, who is preparing for the Ohio Democratic Primary. Helping Morris are his campaign chief Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman)and media strategist Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling). This cynical film is about the cynical machinations of "big league"cynical politics -- in other words ... innocence is sacrificed, loyalty is dashed and heroes are brought low. The cast -- which also includes winning performances by Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright and Evan Rachel Ward -- is terrific, but their considerable talents are put to the sad task of telling such a dispiriting story.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

50/50

Jonathan Levine directed The Wackness (2008), a superior small film that was only able to cover half of its estimated $6 million budget through ticket sales. Levine's 50/50 is another terrific small-ish motion picture that I'm confident will do much better. For one thing, unlike the earlier flick, 50/50 has Seth Rogen's rapscallion vulgarity to draw boorish guys into what is ostensibly a Lifetime chick flick for dudes. For another thing, the film is a study in human resilience.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most engagingly intelligent actors who is not a major box office draw, is Adam, a young public radio producer in Seattle who receives a cancer diagnosis that does little to change his demeanor. You see, he's so inurred to life's dissatisfactions and disappointments that when he tells his disbelieving therapist that he's at ease, you really believe him.

Rogen plays Adam's best friend and co-worker Kyle who has his own detachment issues, and Bryce Dallas Howard plays Adam's self-involved artist girlfriend. (Between her roles in this film and in The Help, Howard's 2011 has been the Year of the Bitch.)

The lovely Anna Kendrick, who was so striking in Up in the Air opposite George Clooney, is marvelous as Adam's untrained and unprepared but totally winning therapist. Kendick's scenes with Gordon-Levitt alone are worth the price of admission and are studies in wounded guardedness as romance.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Moneyball

Baseball, as a sport, is so accessible and yet so rich in malleable complexity that it's easy to imagine it having been created by a Harvard dropout and called Faceball. Both the game's accessibility and complexity are on display in Bennett Miller's excellent film Moneyball. The film is based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, which explored a new model used by the financially disadvantage Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane to hire and field a winning team. Because the film is so layered, I chose to view it as not only an exegesis of America's favorite pastime but as a treatment of our seemingly chronic inability to let go of the familiar. Brad Pitt as Beane and Jonah Hill as Beane's Yale-educated numbers cruncher / new world visionary are truly splendid and their scenes together are finely crafted, thanks to scriptwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian. One particularly terrific scene has Pitt and Hill juggling player trades so hilariously and adroitly I was reminded of the work of Hope and Crosby, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis. Lovers of baseball might not love this film, but as a motion picture, Moneyball hits a homerun ... and is blessedly free of sports cliches.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 9: Game Day

The Wire Season 1 Episode 9: Game Day. The creators of The Wire clearly loved this show and all of its people, but they appeared to love some characters more than others because of the generosity they showed to them. Proposition Joe Stewart, the portly and predatory kingpin on Baltimore's Eastside, is given many singularly hilarious (and chilling) moments and lines during the series' run. The character is introduced in this episode, Game Day, as Avon Barksdale's competition. A sparkling metaphor for The Game of the drug trade, the basketball match up is rigged, of course, because neither man wants to play fair, only to win. When Joe takes the game, and $100,000, of Avon's money with a ringer, he's signalling to viewers that he's a force to be reckoned with. His appearances, which are often brief but terrific, are to be savored and studied.

Favorite Prop Joe line? Joe to stick-up boy Omar Little: "You ever steal from me, I'll kill your whole family." Joe to Nicky Sobotka (Season Two) after agreeing to repay Nicky for Joe's nephew's dirty dealings: "Fool, if it wasn't for Sergei here, you and your cousin would be some cadaverous motherfuckers." Genius.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 8: Lessons

The Wire Season 1, Episode 8: Lessons. Det. Jimmy McNulty is a terrific police officer but a wreck in nearly every other aspect of his life. He's a manipulative co-worker, an unfaithful husband, and a clueless, though not unloving, father. Episode 8 opens with McNulty setting his young sons on the trail of the Barksdale drug operation's second-in-command Stringer Bell, with whom McNulty is, understandably, obsessed. While his sons conduct a front-and-follow on Bell, McNulty loses the boys in the mall. The scene fades to the opening credits while McNulty stands helplessly by as mall security page his boys over the intercom. Later in the episode, as McNulty recounts the event to his buddy Det. Bunk Moreland, he voices no regret at involving his boys in the escapade. In fact, he brags about it. Bunk is unimpressed.
Dominic West is ostensibly the star of the series and it's no mystery why. He's a wonderful actor and his character is central to all that transpires in the first season, though the argument could be made McNulty was eclipsed by other characters in later seasons. In the first episode of the series, David Simon establishes McNulty as the catalyst for the creation of the special detail that led ot the surveillance of the Barksdale crew and revived many of his colleague's stagnant careers and stanched their cynicism. Still, it's McNulty's outsized personality and his seemingly bottomless capacity for self-pity that makes him such a delightful character to watch, cheer for and occasionally to disparage.

Warrior

Gavin O'Connor's Warrior is not a great film but it is a truly fine picture that strikes all the right chords and has an indominatable spirit at its core, much like its numerous pugilistic predecessors (from Stallone's Rocky to Russell's The Fighter). Yes, it's a stand-up cheer kind of affair but it's also thoughtful and poignant. The story is set in the crazy world of high stakes mixed martial arts caged competitions (of which I'm blissfully unfamilar) and revolves around the fractured relationship between two estranged brothers (the beefcake pinup duo of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) and their formerly alcoholic father (a terrific Nick Nolte). Needless to say, bitterness and regret fuels a lot of the fighting -- in and out of the ring. All three of the leads are fine as is Jennifer Morrison (House's Dr.Cameron), who plays the anxious but supportive wife of Edgerton's character. The film tracks the brother and their opponents as they move toward the predictable but tremendously entertaining last act in Atlantic City. O'Connor masterfully builds into the middle of the picture a split-screen montage of separate storylines as the brothers train for the $5,000,000 tourney. It's a super piece of film editing. Interestingly, and commendably, for a truly engagng film about fighting there's precious little blood spilled in Warrior.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Drive

There is so much beauty in Nicholas Winding Refn's film "Drive" that it comes close to being a work of art. It's beautifully conceptualized (the many interiors are almost tableaux), beautifully paced (it's slow but not languorous; it's deliberate, thoughtful and meaningful), beautifully acted (star Gosling has always been a prodigiously talented actor and Albert Brooks's Brooksian pacing and delivery are oddly perfectly pitched for his role as a menacing gangster). The film is exhausting and brutal and mesmerizing and not to be missed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Contagion

Steven Soderbergh's crackerjack thriller Contagion is a film without a star but that's not to say it's starless. In fact, the movie is brimming with Hollywood A-listers -- Damon, Cotillard, Law, Winslet, Fishburne, Paltrow, Gould -- all of whom play characters are waging individual battles against a worldwide killer virus that appears to be spread through touch. Soderbergh has an uncanny gift for narrative, and having a large cast and a half-dozen cities doesn't detract from this story's clarity or urgency. I don't know what we're to make of the story's indictment of a number of governmental and quasi-governmental agency and human selfishness, but knowing Soderberg, I'm pretty sure the bottom line is if we would only stop being asses we might make it out of this alive.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 7: One Arrest

The Wire Season 1 Episode 7: One Arrest. Andre Royo's Bubbles is, like the rogue Robin Hood Omar Little, an  intriguing dramatic invention, and I suspect maybe the character is rooted in a real person the show's creator David Simon knew as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. Bubbles has a pitiful drug habit but, strangely, he seems to rise above pity because his kindness and generosity are ennobling. In Episode 7, Bubbles asks Greggs to get his friend Johnny out of the clink and together Bubbles and Johnny go to an N.A. meeting, part of the parole deal, where Bubbles meets Walon (played by rocker Steve Earle). In one of the most affecting scenes in the first season, Bubbles rises from his seat when the call is issued to anyone wanting to live to come forward. Bubbles does so, gets the hug and the key ring and returns to his seat. His face -- one of the most interesting of all of the cast members in the series -- reads "ambivalence," "uncertainty," and "fear." It's a truly touching moment.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Wire Season 1, Episode 6: The Wire

The Wire Season 1 Episode 6: The Wire. The episode that shared the series' title is exceptional. It opens with the battered and sadistically tortured body of the stick-up boy Brandon laid out on the hood of an abandoned automobile behind project tenements. The camera moves from that horrifying display to the squalid apartment in which the young yard boys Wallace and Pout and a half-dozen school-age children live and are preparing for the day. In a scene of brilliant economy, writer/creator David Simon and episode director Ed Bianchi establish Wallace's gentle spirit and his extraordinary, parental care of the "hoppers" who are also victims of Barksdale's predatory organization. This episode belongs to Wallace, from first to last. It's the expression on his youthful face as he stares at Brandon's discarded body that seals the viewers' emotional investment in this young man and in his fate. In many ways, Wallace becomes emblematic of what's at stake.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

I left just before the end of Troy Nixey's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" because my annoyance meter had been pinging in the red zone for about an hour and I just couldn't take it anymore.

I feel a little crummy about trashing the movie because the young actress at the center of the film, Bailee Madison (Brothers), is such a trouper and I kinda wanted to see it through but then I thought "Nah. Life is entirely too short." I gave Miss Madison major props for holding her own in Jim Sheridan's "Brothers" (2009), a solid film that starred Tobey McGuire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal. In "Dark" Balee is opposite Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce, neither of whom seems to care about the film or their roles in it. I'd heard about actors phoning in their performances but I don't recall ever seeing it done so blatantly. I felt really sorry for young Bailee, not only was she being tortured by greedy little photophobic demons but she was having to carry the whole film on her small back.

But that wasn't even the most irritating bit in the film. I'm wary of films that begin with fearsome epilogues that give you the feeling they're probably scarier than anything in the rest of the movie, or that feature self-medicating 8-year-olds, or a father who introduces his fiancee to the daughter by the woman's first name, or a fiancee who buys a talking bear for the 8-year-old because you know animated stuffed critters are demon magnets, or a caretaker who when asked how he got nearly hacked to bits down in the basement sends said fiancee to the library to look up a book, or the presence of a Polaroid camera with flashbulbs.

But my main beef is the film's title. It's total BS because the entire premise of the film is there is some really bad shit going on in the dark. Don't bother.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

The idiocy of the title of Jesse Peretz's clever little film is an ironic guilelessness that sets our hero, Ned, played by the always entertaining Paul Rudd, apart from nearly every other adult human on the planet ... which might explain why animals and children adore him. The story's premise is that Ned -- an eternal flower child and organic farmer -- gets released from prison after doing time for selling pot to a uniformed officer with a sad story (yes, he's that trusting) and bounces from one of his three sisters to the next, invading their dysfunctional space and, oddly and, well, guilelessly uncovering the hollow cores of their lives. It's a clever tale that features some fine acting from Rudd, his trio of sisters played by Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks and Emily Mortimer, and Steve Coogan who plays Ned's repugnant documentarian brother-in-law. A sedate and intelligent hippie's movie that is only tangentially about smoking weed.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Wire, Season 1 Episode 5: The Pager

The Wire, Season 1 Episode 5: The Pager. For all of its complexity, the Wire deals mostly with primal motivations -- greed, lust, envy, sloth, etc. And for a series that has assembled such a rich assortment of characters, the writers offer precious little in backstory for them. We know practically nothing about the characters' childhoods or previously lives. It seems that all that matters is who these profoundly damaged (and damaging) people are and what they do today.

This episode, The Pager, ends chillingly with the off-camera abduction of the stickup boy Brandon by Stringer Bell and his murderous lieutenants. The viewer has no idea what will become of the boy, who is also the lover of rogue Robin Hood Omar Little, but Clark Johnson, a brilliant director who delivers a wonderful performance in Season 5, creates an atmosphere of nearly unbearable dread that will inevitably to lead to another primal motivation -- revenge.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Wire Season 1, Episode 4: Old Case

The Wire Season 1, Episode 4: Old Cases. Earlier HBO series had set standards for violence, nudity and profanity (The Sopranos, Oz) but none was as artful in the use of the F-bomb as The Wire. At times it was, as Detective Carver said so beautifully in Episode 3, "unbe-fucking-lievable." In this episode, Detectives McNulty and Moreland re-examine the scene of the late-night shooting of a young woman who'd been a sexual consort of Avon Barksdale. The scene lasts about 5 minutes and the only words uttered by the two detectives are some variation of the F-bomb. It's brilliant in a brash, post-modernist way.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Wire, Season 1 Episode 3: The Buys

The Wire, Season 1 Episode 3: The Buys. The Wire might just as well have been called The Unit because of the complex interconnectedness the writers of the series created between the detectives working to bring down the Barksdale empire. Still, the importance (and limitations) of electronic surveillance in building the case against the oily Avon and his merciless henchman Stringer Bell is preached most consistently and fervently by Det. Lester Freamon. In this episode, Lester emerges from behind his handcarved miniatures to show he's real Bal'more Poh-leese. He'd been shuttled off to the pawn shop division for being a conscientious lawman but "the unit" reignites his passion for catching the bad guy with determination and intelligence, day by day, piece by piece. His caring, fatherly mentoring of the young detective Roland Pryzbylewski is one of the more interesting evolving relationships in the series. Cool Lester Smooth is an extraordinary character in an extraordinary show.

Tabloid

I've often wondered how documentarians settle on their subjects. The subject has to be of personal and, at least to some degree, public interest and there must be enough "story" to capture an audience's imagination. In the case of Errol Morris's Tabloid -- the fantastic (in the sense of mind-boggling) story of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who was accused in the late '70s of kidnapping her Mormon boyfriend and forcing him into a weekend of sexual slavery -- the subject matter is riveting, like a Barnum and Bailey carnival attraction. It's so outlandish, in fact, that this tale of sexual exploitation, religious zealotry, and international intrigues simply MUST be true. Or, as my friend said as the credits rolled, "You can't make this shit up." McKinney, who provides most of the narration of her sad tale, is quite possibly mad, which of course is sad, but at the same time she is absolutely captivating. A guilty pleasure but a pleasure nonetheless.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 2: The Detail

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 2: The Detail. The series had an enormous cast of characters and the second episode continued the introductions. Who could be sure which of the many characters would become peripheral and which would be central? One thing was made more certain in this episode, however: Larry Gilliard Jr.'s neophyte drug overseer D'Angelo Barksdale would be a pivotal figure as his naivete is played by his drug lord uncle, Avon Barksdale, and the unit detectives trying to bring down the Barksdale empire.

The extended scene with Detectives Moreland, McNulty and Greggs in the interrogation box with D'Angelo is wonderfully written and seems especially foreboding for the young man.

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 1: The Target

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 1: The Target. The series opens with a young street tough and a Baltimore homicide detective conversing over the body of a boy who'd been killed for grabbing the kitty in a dice game -- something he'd done on several occasions before. This time, however, "Snot-boogie" would be gunned down "over some bullshit," as the street tough says. Thus the tone of this series is set -- talk is coarse and reductive, life is tenuous, the rules of the game are unfair when they're not nonsensical and yet everybody plays because "this is America."

(No, the series was not perfect. Some seasons were decidedly stronger than others, some of the acting was noticeably weaker and the writing, on more than one occasion, was far too pointedly polemical for my taste, and yet, despite all of that, the stories of "this American life" were as addictive as the heroin they were slinging in the project towers.)

The Wire

The Wire, the greatest television show in human history, debuted on June 2, 2002. This phenomenal program went leagues beyond routine police procedurals and courtroom shenanigans to explore the intricate intersections of life and law (and lawlessness). As a countdown to the 10th anniversary, I will be viewing all 60 episodes over the coming months and posting thoughts about each. Come along.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fright Night (2011)

Craig Gillespie's Fright Night is a good time with gore galore. A remake of the 1985 film of the same name (seems like just last week when I saw that movie), this version stars Anton Yelchin as a young biter-fighter who takes on his hungry neighbor, Jerry, played by Colin Farrell. Like the original, which starred William Ragsdale and Chris Sarandon in those roles, this Fright Night is refreshing in that it dives right into the feeding -- there's nothing coy about the vampy Jerry. He's a biter with balls who won't be denied. A car chase through the Nevada desert is a high point of the movie in which the special effects are modest compared to other films featuring the supernatural. Gillesipie gets winning performances from the entire cast but standouts are Farrell, David Tennant (of Dr. Who fame) as Las Vegas showman / vampire killer Peter Vincent and the ever-entertaining Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), as Ed, an early believer in Jerry's evilness. Good show!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Help

Two of my three moms worked in some capacity as "the help," so I've not looked forward to seeing Tate Taylor's movie. Films about privileged tyrants -- the suburban variety -- infuriate me, and I too frequently imagine the cruelties on the screen being visited upon those dear women, and their sisters. I wonder what might they have endured so that they could feed their own families, keep a home and, perhaps, put away enough money for the future. A lot of what Taylor has put on the screen -- particularly the maids' coddling of their employers' children -- made me terribly uncomfortable. While presenting these women's genuine affection for their charges and the grace with which they lived their lives, these scenes also showed how insidious was the world in which they were trapped, as one character described it, where they reared their own tormentors. A major plot element, the maid Minny's revenge, though wonderfully cathartic for the audience, seemed ultimately more demeaning of Minny than her victimizer. Still, I was deeply moved by many, many scenes in the film, and thought individual performances -- principally Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard -- were truly outstanding.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

In Jon Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens, all goes wrong in a dusty Wild West town just so that resident humans will set aside their differences (prejudice, extortion, genocide and imperial oppression) and pull together to kick some evil alien butt.
The movie opens when an amnesiac saddle tramp wearing a strange bracelet (Daniel Craig) wanders into the desert town owned by a heartless cattleman (Harrison Ford) and home to a mysterious beauty with a pretty huge secret (Olivia Wilde). The saddle tramp remembers nothing, not even his own name, but is lethal in hand-to-hand combat (think Jason Bourne circa 1868). Soon it's revealed that the weird bracelet is an alien weapon and the only thing that seems to stop these greedy alien gold marauders.
The film is populated with stock characters most of whom have some really important life lesson to learn while riding to the rescue of their kinfolk who were roped like steer and pulled heavenward, presumably to be poked and probed. (Ouch.) Favreau has staged some cool action sequences, including the aforementioned rustling, but Favreau's famous wit is MIA.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

It doesn't matter which sociopolitical problem you feel is being addressed in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (or any of the earlier entries in this timeless franchise). The film works for all (or none) of them. It's a wonderfully crafted, visually arresting motion picture.
Rise is directed by Rupert Wyatt and stars (ostensibly) James Franco (good but not great) as a misguided but charitable scientist who is artificially boosting the brain cells of chimps in his quest for a cure for Alzheimer's, which his father (played by John Lithgow) suffers. Alzheimer's seems to have replaced consumption and cancer as Hollywood's fatal disease du jour.
Despite some tinny acting in places, Rise is a rollicking, full-bore "F-U" to The Man (however he's defined) and a rousing "Got Yo' Back" to all of oppressed Apedom (ditto). Notice the way "monkey" is used to demean the apes in the film; an epithet by any other name.
The film, which features an amazing tracking sequence early on that follows a chimp at play and sets the bar really high for later sequences, is enormously entertaining and not a little bit cathartic, at least for me, after the recent congressional budget debacle.
It is another remarkable achievement in the melding of live action and computer-generated animation, which, IMO, makes the actual "star" star of this movie Andy Sirkis (known by most as the creature Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and the crew that created his character, the rebel leader / warlord chimpanzee Caesar (no subtlety in the naming there). The film's final tree top shot is, as the kids say, awesome.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Better Life

A poor undocumented Mexican immigrant in L.A., intent on giving his 14-year-old son A Better Life, borrows money from his sister and buys his boss's truck and lawn care equipment. On the first day of his new life, the vehicle and tools are stolen by a fellow immigrant he's befriended. That's the wind up. The pitch is father and son (Demian Bechir and Jose Julian, respectively) set out to find the thief and the truck and salvage the father's dream and the son's future.

Chris Weitz has directed a warm film about illegal immigration that has so many moments of genuine, unadorned humanity that I couldn't help but pull for the disconnected pair. At one point during the search, father and son find themselves in the barrio, surrounded by faceless, struggling masses. The boy turns to his father and asks, his face a study in indignation, "Why did you have me? Why do poor people have children?" The father, dumbstruck, sets his eyes in the middle distance so as not to betray the pain he feels and says to his son. "Don't say that. Don't ever say that."

See this film before it gets away.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Friends with Benefits

I thoroughly enjoyed Will Gluck's 2010 film Easy A with the entirely too charming Emma Stone. Gluck's Friends with Benefits has a lot of the same breezy insouciance and snappy sophistication but it also has two enormously catalytic stars at the center -- Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. They snap, crackle and pop from the first frame. The film -- which really is more about the journey to true love than the arrival -- has tons of sex talk and skin, but it's not dirty ... well, it is kinda dirty, but it's all good.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Horrible Bosses

The stars of Horrible Bosses are not the three gentlemen pictured here but the writers. Well, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis and Jason Bateman (left to right) ARE the stars but go with it. Writers Michael Markowitz and John Francis Daley really know their way around intricate, comedic plotting and masculine vulgarity. The script for this gem of a movie about three schmucks who work for bosses they REALLY would like to kill is dynamite ... a 21st century bawdy fest where everything goes wrong and then right and then .... It's culturally sharp and observant. Howlingly funny.

Captain America

Joe Johnston's Captain America has a swashbuckling verve to it that enhances what is basically a Dirty-Dozen-On-Steroids treatment of the origin of the Marvel comics hero, a 90-pound weakling who gets a makeover courtesy of 1940s-era Stark Enterprises (see Iron Man). Chris Evans' face, biceps and pecs are pretty formidable team as they take on the maniacal Nazi fiend Red Skull, played by Hugo Weaving (who else?). The ever-reliable Tommy Lee Jones brings fairly substantial weight to his role as Col. Phillips, who begins the film as a C.A. skeptic but eventually turns into a believer, especially after he sees the kind of attention the Captain gets from Special Agent Peggy Carter (I LOVE women named Peggy). The movie is a fun time though I am sure the good Captain (ironically, a classic example of an Aryan ubermensch) will be soundly pummeled this summer by a bespectacled British kid named Harry.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Beaver

Jodie Foster’s The Beaver is a fairly successful and affecting film about a middle-aged man (Mel Gibson) who, unaccountably, has drifted into a deep depression that has dismantled his business and his family. He is rescued (sort of) by a beaver puppet he finds in a dumpster. (It actually plays better than my summary suggests.)

His wife (Foster) and teenage son (Anton Yelchin) have had it with Downer Dad (and, yes, that plays as harshly as it sounds) and when he begins channeling his ego through a puppet that talks like the macho-version of the gecko from Geico it delights his younger son (Riley Thomas Stewart) but is not a sign of positive healing to other folks – at first. The puppetry – which I thought for a minute was a sign that the film was to be read as a parable – is surreal at times, played for broad laughs at others, but Gibson pulls it off with brio.

The movie comprises parallel stories that track Dad’s ups and downs with that of older son, Porter, who writes cribbed essays and term papers for classmates for pay so that he can take a pre-college trek across the country to visit sites that altered the course of history. (Now that’s an interesting idea for a movie.) Yelchin is a fine actor but his character was an annoyance to me because, again unaccountably, he despises his father and fears becoming like him, which, of course, all but seals his fate.

Much of what Foster puts on the screen is entertaining, and Gibson (as difficult as he might be for some folks to stomach) is pretty terrific. The story, written by Kyle Killen, has some puzzling elements – primarily the reason for Dad’s gloominess and why No. 1 son is such a gigantic pill. I suppose when you’re working on 90 minutes and change, some exposition has to be sacrificed.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Blue Valentine

Derek Cianfrance is best known as a documentarian and his beautifully crafted "hate story" Blue Valentine has the rawness of real life, which is what makes it nearly impossible to watch. Cianfrance directs Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, both riveting in their roles as a young couple who should be neither married nor parents but they are and are in torments. Told with a fluid, time-shifting narrative line, Blue Valentine delineates with documentary clarity where the innocent romance between these two damaged people began to unravel -- and it was almost immediately after they met. Williams is indeed spectacular, and Oscar-worthy, as the conflicted enabler Cindy, who has nothing left to give to a man she thought she loved but now loathes beyond speech. One particularly sickening moment comes late in the film when Gosling's Dean -- an irredeemable, self-serving narcissist who has been dipped in charm -- tries to embrace Cindy in her father's kitchen as hollow gesture of reconciliation. She whimpers and cringes during the embrace and her revulsion oozes off the screen. It's a devastating moment in a truly powerful film.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Eagle

Kevin Macdonald's sword and sandal epic "The Eagle" has a cruisy Abercrombie & Fitch style that is not incidental considering the film stars Channing Tatum who epitomizes A&F's homoerotic narcissism. Tatum is strikingly handsome and cameras love him but he seems to be most comfortable in front of one when he's dancing (see Step Up). And yet, Tatum isn't half bad as the Roman cohort centurion Marcus Aquila on the hunt in the British Highlands for the ninth legion's lost golden eagle emblem. He doesn't show nearly as much skin as he customarily does in his movies, which might be a sign that he wants to be taken seriously from now on. The film still has a sticky masculinity, most of it provided by Tatum's buffed-up co-star Jamie Bell, who plays Aquila's bitterly aggrieved slave Esca. Bell, who I've always thought is a fine actor with a distinctively jug-eared handsomeness, doesn't seem to mind playing second fiddle to hunkier leading men, many of whom he ends up outshining (see Defiant & Jumper). That's true of The Eagle, too, though the circle Bell acts around Tatum is not nearly as wide as I expected it would be. In the end, Tatum carries the flick nobly (as the poster suggests) though his accent is spotty and he has no acting range to speak of. The Eagle is entertaining enough though not groundbreaking in any sense and, oddly, there is not a single female speaking part.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Green Hornet

Reposting to correct error. Kato was not John Cho (of Harold and Kumar) but Jay Chou (of ....) .

The problem with Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet is not Seth Rogen's now familiar schlubby self-centeredness (which pretty much is the extent of his character portfolio). The problem with the movie is its length, loudness and loutishness. I thought Rogen's Pineapple Express (which he also scripted with Evan Goldberg) had the same problems, even though that film was crafted by a different director. That's not to say The Green Hornet has no entertainment value. It has piles and piles of it, if you enjoy visually arresting martial arts battles (courtesy of Jay Chou's Kato), high-speed vehicular crack ups and the destruction of urban architecture. It also features Christoph Waltz, the menacing Nazi interrogator from Inglourious Basterds, as a sartorially challenge criminal mastermind. For a former newshound like myself, the picture packs some clever insights into contemporary journalism, and the final (endless) shoot-out actually takes place in a newspaper press room. (The first time that's been done, I bet.) In the end, if you like Rogen's schtick (and not everyone does) and you enjoy your jokes evenly divided between smart and snark (ditto) and your gun-play deafening, then The Green Hornet is the ticket. P.S., I saw it in 2D and don't think I missed much.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam is an auteur with a singular vision so you know what you're going to get before the first reel starts rolling: fish-eyed lenses, dream(y) sequences, enormous puppety heads, slapsticky pratfalls and a bit of moralizing and vanquishing of evildoers. In other words, you get Monty Python on steroids but that...'s a really good thing. I enjoy Gilliam's films, mostly, but often they leave me feeling like that enormous diner from The Meaning of Life ... just one more clever cinematic device and I'll explode.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a Gilliam picture through and through with the mixed blessing of also being Heath Ledger's last film, the one during the filming of which he died. Ledger is wonderful as a mysterious conman who is taken in by Doctor Parnassus's traveling troupe of fantasy merchants who are on the run from a thousand-year-old deal with the devil. (Yes, Dr. Faustus.) The recasting of Ledger's unfinished scenes didn't feel as gimmicky as I had feared and considering the story is about getting lost in the fertile imagination of the title character, played sportingly by Christopher Plummer, having Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell step in wasn't at all jarring.
I was also delighted to see Andrew Garfield, who delivered a sparkling performance in this year's Social Network, as the film's lovelorn protagonist and Lily Cole, a striking young British actress with whom I was unfamiliar, as the good / bad doctor's daughter. Rounding out the principals in this entertaining picture was Verne Troyer (Austin Powers' Mini-Me) as Parnassus' trusted company foreman.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...