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This is the film cops might make about themselves if they were in the business of recruiting like the military and they had a big budget. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are LA cops, and they work a beat every bit as tough as that of Sean Penn and Robert Duvall in Colors and Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day. Unlike those duos, however, these guys love each other. Brothers in blue, these two are damn near bunk mates. But they happen upon the stashes of a drug cartel, twice in between stunts of great derring do, and bad things happen. And that’s it. We see the camaraderie, the daily toll, the unbreakable bond, the heroism and some kick-ass gunplay.

There is no story to speak of, the movie doesn’t really work as a “slice of the life” exercise, the villainous Hispanic gang members are wildly cartoonish (they don’t say, “ess-Ayyyyyyy” but they come close), and director-writer David Ayer (who wrote Training Day) utilizes a distracting, ridiculous camera technique (Gyllenhaal is filming his daily activities for a class he is taking). The different vantage points juice up the action, but the technique also evokes The Office and the Paranormal Activity movies. On the plus side, the movie is occasionally thrilling and Pena and Gyllenhaal are very good.


Denzel Washington has earned his best actor nomination. His performance as an addict pilot who saves a plummeting passenger jet while it and he are loaded is riveting. His character covers the gamut, from stoned to heroic, solemn to terrified, brash to impotent, but unlike other aging, iconic actors, Washington is toning down his idiosyncrasies. The scene where he learns that 6 of the 102 passengers did not make it, including a flight attendant with whom he was intimate, is a study in restraint. One shudders to think what Pacino would have done with such a role. While Tony Montana scarred that actor permanently, Washington was able to accept his best actor Oscar for Training Day without making excess his trademark.

Washington’s multi-faceted and powerful performance takes us through what is otherwise a confused film by Robert Zemeckis. The opening scene is a skillful, harrowing recreation of an incredible crash and what follows looks to be somewhat of a procedural, as the defense lawyer (Don Cheadle) is introduced and the airlines, the union and the government take their positions. Before you can settle in, however, Zemeckis pivots, and you’re watching a film about addiction, replete with a whore (well, a heroin addict) with a heart of gold (a wan Kelly Reilly). Okay. Fine. Will Washington’s valor be sullied by revelation of his intoxication? Will his heroism be overridden by his own self destructive tendencies?

As the film’s day of reckoning approaches, the picture reaches for the spiritual, and the final trials become ludicrous. Will he drink? Will he lie? Has he hit rock bottom? Before we find out, enter John Goodman, as the drug dealer who must get Washington straight via cocaine after an all night bender, in a wacky, comic turn.

What the hell is going on here?

In parts, the film is moving. In others, it is muddled or plain awkward, but Washington pulls you through what eventually morphs into a redemptive weepie.

The fourth of the series, it is the weakest entry, but it still delivers a double threat: gore-free chills and inventive use of a series of cameras allowing us to be voyeurs to the terror. The cast is a little less compelling, though one of two boys being possessed by a demon is pretty creepy. With no name stars to pay, no real location budget, and more of the story to tell, we can expect these for some time.

 

Poor little rich girl, Amy Minsky (Melanie Lynskey) is in her early 30s, recently divorced, depressed and living at her parents beautiful, opulent home in Westport, CT.  My how times change. When Jill Clayburgh did it, she was An Unmarried Woman and it was kind of a big deal because she had to face economic dislocation, romantic inexperience and societal reproval.

Here, Amy is surrounded by the usual troupe of insensitive caricatures who serve to make us feel she is really the good one, and in case we forget, she is juxtaposed against her ambitious parents, high school friends who have not moved on, and a would-be suitor utilized to show that though Amy presents as a wallowing mope, at least she’s not a loser like him.  And she’s a photographer, no less, but she gave it up for love. Odds on a return to that vocation by the end of the film are, obviously, high.

The character is too fortunate and too dull to gin up any sympathy or interest.  She flings with the 19 year old son of friends of her parents (Christopher Abbott), whose charming little quirk is that he is an actor who hates acting (Abbott’s character ends up going to Oberlin, which, coincidentally, is where his character in HBO’s Girls matriculated).  They bemoan their uncool parents, Westport, and their sad stations (his second quirk is pretending to be gay for his mother because she is “into being accepting”). Minsky’s Mrs. Robinson experience does not make her more compelling.

Expectedly, the film sports precious acoustic music and a pile of Lilith Fair ditties to cement its indie bona fides (Liz Phair should sue Laura Veirs, but I guess there ain’t a lot of money there), and in most other respects is as cookie-cutter as any studio assembly line production.

It does have one good line, when her ogre of a mother (at least, as played by Blythe Danner, she is supposed to be an ogre) upbraids her for her laze and self-pity with, “What did you think life was going to be, one ribbon cutting after another?”

But that’s like after an hour.

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David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter) has written and directed a special drama/romance, made all the better by a flawless ensemble. Bradley Cooper is just out of an 8 month court ordered stint in a psychiatric ward after having found his wife in the shower with her lover and beating the hell out of the former. Cooper is also bipolar. Under police supervision and ensconced in the Philadelphia home of his OCD, Philadelphia Eagle fanatic, bookie father (Robert De Niro) and supportive mother (Jackie Weaver), Cooper plots his way back into his wife’s heart, enlisting the help of a neighbor (Jennifer Lawrence) who has a few not insubstantial psychiatric and familial problems of her own. Unfortunately, he does this while forswearing the medications that will keep him on an even keel.

The film seamlessly portrays the pressure and effect of mental illness on a family with the Herculean effort of love and commitment it takes to manage it. Intertwined is a beautiful, engaging love story.

Cooper is rightly nominated for Best Actor. His performance is riveting, and no easy feat.  He presents a character plagued by demons, trying to hold them back, while leveling off to actually grow. As I walked out of the theater, my estimation of Cooper as merely a more electric Ryan Reynolds was erased, and Daniel Day Lewis’s turn as Lincoln seemed humdrum in comparison.

Jennifer Lawrence, also nominated, also wows. She is wounded and in crisis, and as she reaches for Cooper, her desperation and need are palpable. De Niro, who I wrongly suspected might have been nominated for best supporting actor as a nod to his overall body of work, is touchingly desperate as a father who carries his own mental disability as well as the weight of failing his son. Last, but certainly not least, the film’s fourth nominee Jackie Weaver plays Cooper’s mother lovingly while communicating the weariness of someone who has been required to hold a tenuous family together. The rest of the cast is also very funny, especially a portly Chris Tucker, who plays a patient from the psychiatric ward with a penchant for self-furlough.

This is a tough film to make. Mental illness does not lend itself either to yuks or romance, and without Russell’s deft hand, it could easily have been offensive, pat and/or schmaltzy. Cooper’s outbursts are funny, but that is because he’s a funny character whose disability has removed his filter. But Russell does not sugarcoat the illness, and when Cooper is manic, we are scared for him and those around him. Lawrence is also hard, mercurial and often tough to take, and normally, she would have been the whore with a heart of gold. In fact, her damage requires Cooper’s strength and the two share a strong chemistry.

To be able to construct a sweet, original romance from such stuff is both an achievement and a damning indictment of almost all romantic comedies/dramedies that have so little to say about people. This is the best movie of the year.

The buzz was so strong I couldn’t resist, so I queued up the discs for Season 1 and me and the wife settled in. What was not to like? I’d been impressed by Damian Lewis ever since his turn as Captain Winters in Band of Brothers, and The Manchurian Candidate set-up was intriguing. Better, the series started off with a bang as Sgt. Nicolas Brodie (Lewis), a Marine held in captivity by al Qaeda for 7 years, calls his wife (Morena Baccarin) to tell her he’s been rescued just as she is dismounting her lover, Lewis’s Marine buddy.  The CIA operative who suspects his allegiance, Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), is so committed that when her boss Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) threatens to expose her excess, she offers him her body.   So far, so good.

But boy does this show get ragged, if not in a hurry, eventually. There are many reasons.

1) Could an American be turned against his government ala’ Laurence Harvey? Sure. He could be a ticking time bomb. But could an American be turned into a ideologically driven, pray-to-Allah daily in his garage Muslim who has accepted in his marrow that he must strike the blow against his homeland? Perhaps, but with absolutely no backstory on Lewis’s character, and the thin gruel provided as his impetus, the leap is too far.

2) As Lewis’s Javert, Danes is a bi-polar freakout queen who regularly tests the limits of her family friends, coworkers and meds. She is singularly miscast, laughably over-the-top, made even more annoying by her love of jazz (which, we’re led to believe, is intricate and riffy like her mind), and is horribly written. My favorite line is when she directs the apprehension of a dangerous sniper, warning other agents over the radio that he is to be considered armed and extremely dangerous. When her mentor tells her to be careful, she responds, “this is not my first polka.”

I’ll concede.  Her signature move – the bug eyes and quivering trout mouth – is pretty awesome.

 

She is wonderfully lampooned here by Anne Hathaway in this SNL skit, but upon reflection, it’s not so much a goof as a faithful rendition.

3)  Danes is presented as a tough cookie, but she soon lapses into a simpering “I never got asked to the prom” victim and it becomes more and more difficult to take her seriously as a CIA pro.

4) Danes’ mentor, Mandy Patinkin, is as interesting as Carlton your Doorman but that doesn’t prevent a pretty involved, sleepy subplot about his wife leaving him.

5) There is actually a line where the al Qaeda man who has turned Lewis says, “And they call us the terrorists.”

6)  Apparently, if you are going to authorize a drone strike on a school, it is always best CIA practices to videotape the Vice President, the deputy CIA director and the Secretary of Defense making that decision.

On the upside, the sister of our good friend is in the show, and whenever she appears, we point and remark at how similar the two are in appearance and mannerism.  Every time.

Ah, the corruption of celebrity.

The exploration of the Tarantino oeuvre ended last night as me and the boy watched Tarantino’s opus (I will not subject my son to Death Proof from Grindhouse or Tarantino’s contribution to Four Rooms unless he’s really bad). Pulp Fiction is audacious in its break with continuity and vibrant in dialogue.  The film is essentially a series of riffs (and nobody riffs better than Samuel Jackson and Christopher Walken) or two person sketches. A stunning follow-up to Reservoir Dogs, the movie is a pop culture totem, demonstrating Tarantino’s love for kitsch as well as his sharp ear for a modern, urban, tough guy patter, Spillane-meets-Quisp.

Almost all of the performances are brilliant.  I’ve criticized Tarantino’s reclamation projects, but his insistence on JohnTravolta (over Daniel Day Lewis) was exactly right.  In the words of Tarantino’s agent, at the time, “John Travolta was at that time as cold as they get.  He was less than zero.” But Tarantino would not budge, and as hit man/enforcer Vincent Vega, Travolta is just the right amount of cool and introspection to Jackson’s ferocity. When the boss’s wife (Uma Thurman) mistakes his heroin for coke and overdoses, Travolta snaps out of his own drug-induced laze and, in one of many comic but harrowing scenes, becomes electric. The performance is artful, it resulted in an Academy Award nomination, and it resurrected his career.

If there is a criticism, it is of one vignette, after Jackson and Travolta accidentally shoot a man’s head off in their car. They need to get off the street, and end up at the home of one . . . Quentin Tarantino. Even the introduction of “The Wolf” (Harvey Keitel), a Mr. Fix-It who arrives to assist the stranded duo, cannot save this halting sequence or Tarantino’s amateurish acting. Rank has its privileges, but this particular hubris was detrimental.

But that’s a minor bump in the road in this highly engaging and original flick.  Related — The Pulp Fiction Oral History:  Uma Thurman, Quentin Tarantino, and John Travolta Retrace the Movie’s Making.

The first half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short Timers, is flawless. Marine privates Joker (Matthew Modine), Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onfrio) and others are trained with their class at Parris Island by their Lord and Master, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann (R. Lee. Ermey). Kubrick depicts the indoctrination and transformation of Marines in a manner that is tragi-comic, lyrical and, at the end of training, deadly. Penned by Kubrick, Hasford, and Michael Herr (Dispatches), the dialogue has the stamp of authenticity (Hasford and Ermey were Marines and Ermey, first hired as a technical advisor, had actually been a drill sergeant at Parris Island during the Vietnam war). The process of creating cohesion and toughness is brutal and efficient, and its unsparing nature produces effective warriors, but it also damages the fragile D’Onofrio.

The second half opens with a concise commentary on the problems of an occupying army, memorably introduced by the sultry voice of Nancy Sinatra. Despite such promise, the film becomes less engaging. Modine is sent to Vietnam as a correspondent for Star and Stripes and he wants desperately to get in “the shit.” He does, during the Tet Offensive, and what he sees is the hard killers from Parris, broken, unmoored and wreaking havoc. The film plays out as a series of barely connected set pieces, which is in stark contrast to the single-mindedness of the first half.

I strongly recommend Matthew Modine’s diary and Herr’s Vanity Fair piece on Kubrick.