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."'

Yesterday

  Director Danny Boyle's hummably insightful morality tale, Yesterday, is a sure starmaker for amiable Hamish Patel, who plays ...