Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Descendants

Alexander Payne makes smart movies about people (most often men) who are decidedly unheroic but are, generally speaking, good, even though their actions are often questionable. They do bad things for good reasons. Citizen Ruth, Election and Sideways were modern day morality tales, to my mind, and wonderful ones at that. They are so rich because of the person Payne chose to put at the center of the stories -- Laura Dern, Matthew Broderick and Paul Giamatti, respectively-- all terrific, intelligent performers.

Now there's George Clooney, who pulls on the skin of sad perplexity that is Matthew King, the protagonist in Payne's new film The Descendants. Clooney, individually, and the film, as a whole, have been celebrated as stellar examples of modern cinema and Payne as a true auteur of closely observed American tales. I would agree. What makes Clooney (who is so much more than an A-list movie star -- he's a real, honest-to-gosh actor) so good in the role as a near-widowed father of two unruly girls whose mother lies in a coma is his total immersion into the part. It's not the kind of immersion that requires bucketfuls of makeup (J. Edgar) or histrionics (Young Adult) but rather deep understanding of what's on the mind of a man at his wits' end and who, seemingly, with every additional scene must shoulder another burden.

Clooney's performance is quietly brilliant and deserving of every accolade he's received. His stunning young co-star Shailene Woodley, who plays his foul mouthed and foul tempered older daughter, is a revelation. Bravo, to all parties

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Wire Season 2 Episode 6: All Prologue

The Wire Season 2 Episode 6: All Prologue. This marvelous episode is one of the strongest from the second season because it is loaded with classic moments, from Omar's testimony against the murderous Bird to Greggs' and Prez's visit with a plainspoken stripper. But in this episode viewers also bid farewell to D'Angelo Barksdale. The writers give D'Angelo a strikingly insightful speech toward the end of this episode. It's set in a classroom at the prison where inmates are discussing The Great Gatsby. D'Angelo (played by Larry Gilliard Jr.) shares that a man's character is the sum total of his earlier deeds, the prologue. It's not really about the trappings that he gathers around himself (foreshadowing to a later discover about his nemesis Stringer Bell) but about the man himself, his heart, his soul. It's a perfectly pitched moment that resonates tragically as we watch, stunned, as D'Angelo falls victim to an assassin inside the prison who is hired by Stringer to silence his best friend's nephew, for fear he, D'Angelo, might flip and bring down the Barksdale organization. This episode is terrific from first to last.

The Wire Season 2 Episode 5: Undertow

The Wire Season 2 Episode 5: Undertow. The fine character actor Chris Bauer plays union boss Frank Sobotka, a role that Bauer, who works a lot, has described as one of the greatest characters he's ever played. Most viewers of the second season would agree that Sobotka is a character of nearly Shakespearean complexity. A truly tragic figure, not brought low by hubris, arrogance or greed but by the cosmos or the Fates. Sobotka is a kind and caring, though misguided man, who, not unlike Michael Corleone in Godfather 3, tries to rise above the crime and corruption of the Greek's drug and prostitution trade but is pulled back down, the undertow of this episode's title. And as befits classic tragic figures, Sobotka, a truly good bad man, pays dearly for his actions.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a curious work for me because the wonderfully gritty Swedish version was released just two years ago. Those of us who see a lot of movies might wonder why Fincher felt moved to create what is ostensibly the same film in spoken English and, for the most part, written Swedish. (I would really appreciate Fincher explaining the logic behind that decision. Is this supposed to suggest authenticity? Frankly, it made no sense to me.) But then the answer to the first question lies within the question, I guess. American audiences would not be (have not been) turned on by a subtitles-heavy version of a complex story of murder and intrigue in the Norse lands. Stieg Larsson's "Girl" novels have been devoured globally so getting the most bang out of a film adaptation in Anglophone markets would require no subtitles. I can find little to quibble about with Fincher's telling of the tale of the damaged and damaging computer genius Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) and the discredited investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) who are hired to investigate a nearly 50 year old disappearance. Several times I felt like I was watching the touring company of a show I'd already seen on Broadway. That might seem odd considering Craig is such a fine actor and Mara herself is terrific but it just goes back to my opening comment -- Why was the movie made? I'm sure the answer to that question can be found in the Hollywood press but it's not apparent on the screen.


Roman Polanski's Carnage, the film adaptation of Yasmina Reza's stage play "God of Carnage," is a feast for movie goers who enjoy watching people behaving badly. The film is a close, economical rendering of Reza's story of a pair of parents meeting in the home of the couple whose 11-year-old son was attacked by a schoolmate, the son of the other couple. Jodi Foster and John C. Reilly are the parents of the "victim," and Cate Winslet and Christoph Waltz are the parents of the child who Waltz early on describes as a "maniac." This character's admission introduces the theme that seems to underlie Reza's cynical treatment of contemporary America -- that entropy many of us feel or observe might be attributed to our general resignation, acceptance, of moral decay as the new world order. The boys' altercation -- which is shown during the opening credits -- isn't actually what this often howlingly funny film is about, a fact that is becomes increasingly apparent the more the couples drink, revealing poorly hidden animosities and disaffection. Polanski's direction of Carnage is sure and clean and the film is entertaining if you enjoy your meat blood red.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Wire Season 2 Episode 4: Hard Cases

The Wire Season 2 Episode 4: Hard Cases. The Wire never wanders too far from the idea that family is the locus of both solace and disaster. The parasitical Barksdale operation is every bit a crime family as anything in the Mafioso, maybe more so. In Season 2, the show's creators extended their examination of cancerous familial ties to include the dysfunction of the Sobotka stevedores -- misguided but well-meaning Frank, his fiercely loyal nephew Nick and Frank's clown prince of a son, the substantially endowed Ziggy. These men are as toxic to one another as the imprisoned Avon Barksdale is to his nephew D'Angelo, who in Season 2 is doing 20 because of Avon's rash decision to have D'Angelo transport a heroin re-up from New York City to Baltimore. At the end of the first season, D'Angelo was ready to turn the entire kit-and-caboodle of his murderous kin and their hangers-on over to Baltimore's Finest but was dissuaded by his mother Brianna, a fascinating combination of Medea and Calpurnia, who urged him to think of his son, his baby's Mama, and the cousins. It worked. D'Angelo took the 20 but then in Season 2 tells Brianna, Avon and the rest to leave him be. But, tragically, he cannot escape the reach of the family's most treacherous member, Stringer Bell.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

We Bought a Zoo

Cameron Crowe's We Bought a Zoo is not so much about acquiring things (the zoo) as it is about letting go (the past). It's the true story of a recent widower, writer Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), and his two children -- Rosie, a precocious 7-year-old (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan, a darkly cantankerous 14-year-old (Colin Ford) -- who take possession of a small preserve for endangered species near L.A. It was Mee's attempt to find peace for himself and his famiy away from the things he associated with his deceased wife. Daughter Rosie is delighted by the move; Son Dylan, not so much. It's a fairly smart film and is not as much about fish out of water as one might expect. It has bigger notions to ponder, like, what would lead a fish to leave the water in the first place. It's a good movie with some winning performances from Damon, Ford, Scarlett Johansson as the chief zookeeper, and Elle Fanning as her daughter.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Beginners (2010)

Mike Mills's semi-autobiographical film Beginners (2010) is about both change and stasis -- change that is imposed by circumstances and the stasis that results from fear and pain and the fear of pain. Mills tells the story of a septuagenarian father who comes out to his 40-something son and soon after receives a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. The father is played by Christopher Plummer and the son is Ewan McGregor, who are wonderful in this keenly perceived and intimate tale. Mills uses an interesting elliptical style as the story of the father, Hal, taking a younger lover and plunging head first into gay activism intertwines with that of the son, Oliver, falling, hesitantly, for a beautiful and intriguing French actress he meets at a party. The father, though terminally ill, is all youthful abandon while the son is the epitome of caution and dismay. It's a wonderful juxtaposition, and, to Mills's credit the film avoids cliche and jeremiads about destiny and fate and seizing the day. And love, while it doesn't quite triumph, does acquit itself nicely. Beginners is a sweet and tender movie.

The Wire Season 2 Episode 3: Hot Shots

The Wire Season 2 Episode 3: Hot Shots. Stage actor Pablo Schreiber, Lieb Schreiber's younger brother, was a standout in The Wire's second season. As Nick, an under-employed dockworker (there was no other kind in Baltimore) caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Schreiber -- a tall, classically handsome man -- was the most tragic figure in the Sobotka clan because he not only had to witness, helplessly, as his family disintegrated with the killing of his uncle Frank and the imprisonment of his cousin Ziggy because of their involvement with the Greek's murderous brigade -- but he also watched as the only life he'd ever known was dismantled, block by block, brick by brick. In that regard, Nick was not so very different from the crosstown corner boys and drug dealers who he early on disparaged but then later came to emulate. Though the title of this episode refers to a package of spiked dope (hot shots), it could just as easily refer to Nick, who, despite being well over 6 feet tall, desperately wanted to be a bigger man. We were pulling for him and the other men who too often turned to crime to feed their families. (As a side note, Schreiber's superbly contained performance in Season 2 made his co-star, James Ransone's Ziggy, seem clunky and cartoonish in comparison. I will comment in more detail on Ziggy in a later posting.)

The Adventures of Tin-Tin

What to say about Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tin-Tin? I feel the same way about this film as I did about Martin Scorsese's Hugo: A master filmmaker can take technical innovations introduced by lesser lights and show how it's really done. Tin-Tin (a motion-captured feature starring the bodies and voices of Jamie Bell, Andy Sirkis and Daniel Craig) is leagues beyond your run-of-the-mill animated wizardry. Each frame is so richly detailed it is almost an excess of artistry. It was too fabulous. I was put in mind of Stendahl Syndrome, that phenomenon that happens to some folks who visit art museums and are overwhelmed by the beauty. That's how I felt about Tin-Tin, which is based on the classic adventure comics by Belgian artist Georges Remi, who went by Herge. Tin-Tin is a ginger headed reporter who jets around the world with his faithful and equally intrepid terrier Snowy. In the film, Tin-Tin follows clues around the globe (literally) to a pirate's hidden treasure. It's a wildly exhausting ride but, oddly enough, it's so well-crafted it feels more like a masterclass exercise than anything.

Queen & Slim

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