Monthly Archives: January 2013

The pace is brisk, the acting for the most part superb, the feel genuine, and the final act white-knuckle. Ben Affleck’s tale of the clandestine evacuation of 6 Americans hiding in Tehran after the storming of the American embassy is almost as incredible as the actor’s improbable rise as a director after a long plummet from the heights of A list actor.

What is true is that 6 Americans made it out of the U.S. embassy into the hands of Canadian embassy personnel and that a fake sci-fi movie was created as cover for their exit posing as the film crew. That’s about the sum total of what is accurate in this movie.  Affleck takes this nifty premise and constructs a gripping yarn around it, one that is lessened only a little by Affleck’s leaden acting as CIA operative Tony Mendez and a shopworn and unnecessary theme built around his family woes. Affleck’s handling of the storming of the embassy (which was very accurate) and the tense escape via the airport (a near complete concoction) is assured, and the creation of an Alan Arkin Hollywood producer for comic effect is savvy.

After Gone Baby Gone, The Town and this film, Affleck is a top 5 director.

Imagine that.

Sofia Coppola’s fourth feature is a return to the lackadaisical moodiness of her breakout film Lost in Translation, but instead of a disconnected and lonely established actor (Bill Murray) in Tokyo, we get a young Hollywood star (Stephen Dorff) when he is not working, every bit as disconnected. He lives in the Chateau Marmont, beds beautiful women regularly, spends time with his daughter (Ellie Fanning), and fights ennui. Unlike Lost in Translation, however, Dorff and Coppola don’t have jet lag or the outsider in a foreign land to explain or sustain the languid pace and feel. Dorff is also no Bill Murray. The latter registered pathos and bemusement in an understated manner, while Dorff (Blood and Wine, City of Industry, Feardotcom), who normally plays the heavy, lacks the chops and just seems tired.  He is not aided by Fanning, who seems adrift, and the two fail to convey any familial connection.

The result?  Coppola has made a film about a bored person that is boring. While the director is intrigued by long repetitive scenes (identical twin strippers who perform for Dorff, Dorff’s daughter performing a routine on ice, lots of freeway driving), the feeling is not mutual, and the scenes play interminably. Most others just feel like your own day if you were a dull Hollywood actor.

This doesn’t even work as the anti-Entourage. Mood pieces can be nice, but you need some meat on that bone, and Coppola’s paltry output (4 features in 11 years) is perhaps explained by the fact she has little to say.

After taking my boy to Django Unchained, we started a concerted effort to watch the Tarantino catalogue. When he asked about the Kill Bills, I told him they were films made primarily for children, but were so violent, if cartoonishly so, that children probably shouldn’t be allowed to watch them. Of course, Tarantino is a visionary, having anticipated an audience of children of a wider breadth than I could have imagined, scads of 24 to 36 year old slacker geeks, still living in Mom’s basement, deathly terrified of footballs and baseballs and supervisors and real women, banking retirement on mint condition comic books, their only meaningful relationships having been 2 to 3 minute internet trysts with the various Jenna Jamesons cranked out of the San Fernando Valley with increasingly worrisome regularity.

This is their crack cocaine.

Volume 1 is stylish, meticulous, occasionally funny and inventive but a mostly tiresome abscess of a picture. As if any enjoyment derived from the first picture required penance, Volume 2 is that contrition.

In The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow exhibited an expert feel for the milieu of a bomb disposal team in early post-Saddam Iraq. While her depiction of the mechanics of the team was the subject of debate, the desolation and immediacy of her scenarios was spot on, evoking the overburdened and overwhelmed sensibility of better-equipped invading/liberating armies since the time of the Romans. What kept The Hurt Locker from being a great film was the simplistic protagonist, Jeremy Renner, a danger freak and little more, with whom we were required to spend too much time.

In Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow again utilizes a simplistic heroine, CIA officer Jessica Chastain, whose entire persona is a relentless “get bin Laden” zeal. Fortunately, the story Bigelow is telling is an intricate intelligence bureaucracy procedural and Chastain is progressively morphed from the driver of the story to an observer. To her credit, she remains disciplined and does not stray from the confines of her role. Chastain is emblematic of the effort and the desire to fight al Qaeda and eliminate its leader, and the film has refreshingly little interest in what makes her tick, her relationship with men, etc . . . the story is quite enough. This film is much like United 93, authentic, thoughtful, and gripping, even though we know the end.

Two other aspects make this picture extraordinary. First, it deals with politics in a subtle yet effective manner, opening with a clutter of 911 calls on 9-11, which creates the urgency necessary to begin the story, and acknowledging certain political realities (the failure of the CIA on WMD, the changing domestic political tenor on enhanced interrogation, and the Obama administration’s moves with regard to same) without gettng bogged down in their import or advocating for any particular position.

Second, of some controversy, Bigelow shows torture.  Torture assuredly occurred and was also assuredly of value in the war against al Qaeda. Just ask new National Security Advisor John Brennan: “There has been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists. It has saved lives.” The histrionic attacks on Bigelow’s film because it merely shows torture demonstrate the exact false and forced narrative that Zero Dark Thirty eschews. It is depressing that Bigelow had to actually say, “”Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Usama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore.”

Bigelow’s statement is echoed by Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down: “Torture may be morally wrong, and it may not be the best way to obtain information from detainees, but it played a role in America’s messy, decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and Zero Dark Thirty is right to portray that fact.”

Juxtapose the statements of Bigelow and Bowden with the criticism of actor and activist David Clennon (“Torture is an appalling crime under any circumstances. ‘Zero’ never acknowledges that torture is immoral and criminal”) and you have the difference between Zero Dark Thirty and the spate of shit message movies that Hollywood churns out every year to show us the right path. The Clennons are terrified. By showing that torture may have gotten certain results, sweet Lord Almighty, we have endorsed torture, which we cannot hope to condemn unless we show it was a masochistic folly of absolutely no intelligence value.

Perhaps we can delete the great line where one interrogator tells Chastain to be careful because the domestic political winds are shifting and she doesn’t want to be “the last one holding a dog collar” and substitute it with, “you know, upon reflection, this stuff we’ve been doing . . . It’s just morally wrong and maybe even criminal.”

A 6 year old girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in functional squalor in a poor, bayou fishing community – The Bathtub – cut off by a levee in Louisiana. What passes for the comminity’s teacher tells her that one day, the ice caps will melt, the Bathtub will be swamped by water, and prehistoric beasts will roam the earth. As a storm comes, most of the inhabitants evacuate, except for Hushpuppy, her disturbed father, and some boozing stragglers and abandoned kids. They create a floating bar, a drunken, drifting haven, but their world is dying around them.

This is a mystical, beautiful picture, told primarily through the eyes of the girl, who speaks to her dead mother and imagines beasts marauding her world. The breakdown of her surroundngs after the flood, the fevers of her own imagination, and her introduction to civilization (they are forcibly evacuated) is gorgeous and moving and Wallis’s fierce maturity is captivating.

This is a real life fable (“a passionate and unruly explosion of Americana”, per A.O. Scott) with barely a semblance of a plot, so beware – it does meander. But it is rightly nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, as is Wallis for Best Actress. Her confident, self-possessed performance is one of the strongest child turns I’ve ever seen. The non professional actor Dwight Henry (he’s a New Orleans baker who read for the part during down time and reluctantly took it because he was starting a new business) is also noteworthy, giving a raw, jarring performance. Filmed on location, the film’s rendering of nature reminded me of Terence Malick, but unlike Malick, first- time director Benh Zeitlin connects with actors as well as his surroundings. I’ve never seen a film quite like it.

Okay, technically, this BBC production is not a film, but I have watched both seasons, the second of which is currently on demand on the BBC channel, and they merit a good recommendation.

The competition to theater releases from television series, mini-series and films is stiff.  My unscientific list, just from HBO, demonstrates that as a “studio” it is as prolific and successful as any —

The Sopranos
John Adams
Angels in America
Game of Thrones
The Wire
Boardwalk Empire

Taking Chance
Barbarians at the Gate
Too Big to Fail
Into the Storm
Path to War

If I haven’t listed an HBO series, mini-series or film, it is not that I made an omission – it means that some of what HBO puts out, like Treme and Hung and Carnivale, isn’t all that great.  But the network’s hit-to-miss ratio is impressive.

BBC’s output is similarly strong and pre-dated HBO’s reign. The Hour is a lovingly detailed show depicting the creation of a BBC television news program in 1956.  In season 1, we were introduced to producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), anchor Hector Madden (Dominic West of The Wire) and reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw, James Bond’s new Q) as they developed the program while investigating Cold war intrigue. Season 2 brings us police corruption intersecting with a high-level blackmail scheme. The look is very time-specific and classic, and because of that, The Hour has been favorably compared to Mad Men, but it is much more story-driven and deliberate.

I realize television viewing time is limited by so many strong options. Much to the consternation of many folks who have highly recommended certain shows, I haven’t been able to tackle Homeland, Breaking Bad, or Justified, having committed to Downton Abbey, Sherlock and, for a time, The Walking Dead. If you can fit The Hour into the schedule, you won’t regret it.

Image result for ted movie

For better or worse, Seth MacFarlane is our Academy Award host this year. It almost has to be better given Billy Crystal’s snooze-inducing Borscht Belt performance last year and the train wreck that was stoner James Franco and clueless ingenue Anne Hathaway the year before. MacFarlane is the force behind numerous animated television shows, the best of which is the occasionally funny but mainly awful Family Guy, an outlet for easy shots and pro forma crudity still outclassed by the tired old Simpsons and never, ever near the same class as the brilliant South Park. So, I’m no fan. But I am hopeful. MacFarlane is a gifted mimic and I watched him on a recent Saturday Night Live. He was surprisingly deft and his impression of swimmer Ryan Lochte was nothing short of brilliant.

Ted is MacFarlane’s creation, a live teddy bear wished for by a young Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg is all grown up and he and Ted remain roomies, even as Wahlberg hits year four with his luminous girlfriend, Mila Kunis. Kunis wants commitment and maturity, Ted and Wahlberg smoke dope all day and watch TV, and things come to a head when, after an anniversary dinner, the live couple come home to find Ted with a passel of hookers.

There are a few clunker lines, but for the most part, this is a very funny, very crude (Ted’s come-on to a grocery store checker is waaaaay over the top) and surprisingly sweet story of a boy and his childhood pal. I say “surprisingly” because I would have expected MacFarlane to be a little more daring. He comes close, such as a scene in the end where, after Ted has gone through a harrowing ordeal and appears to have died, he wakes up but appears to be impaired. Is Ted going to come back as a mentally disabled stuffed bear?

That’s MacFarlane – and Ted – in a nutshell.