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Monthly Archives: August 2013


Taken on it’s own terms, You’re Next is probably a 2 star film.  The story of a family of ten, terrorized and murdered one by one at a secluded reunion, is effective and frightening. The mystery, however, is easily deduced, and the killings themselves, which take up most of the film, are (with the exception of an inspired murder by blender) a pedestrian lot of slayings, stabbings and bludgeonings.

The film’s terms, however, are my objection. I was drawn to it by my son, who pointed out reviews noting pitch black humor, a play on the genre, a fresh twist,  etc . . . I was hoping for Scream or Evil Dead 2, but this is just an abattoir with an occasional wry exchange.

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After watching Showtime’s premiere of Ray Donovan, a compelling crime drama about the consummate “fixer” in LA, I was enthusiastic.

Boy was I wrong.  Seven episodes in, and I’m calling it quits. What promised to be a smart, hard-edged look at the worlds of celebrity, law and crime when they intersect has become a ridiculous, overblown meditation on family, coated by some of the worst Boston accents I’ve heard since Thirteen Days.  I’ll identify one issue that I think says it all.

If you needed to have your father killed in LA, would you

A) use your ample connections in LA’s underworld, protected by your even more ample connections in LA’s law enforcement community, to do the job

Or

B) go to your hometown of Boston to invite Public Enemy #1 Whitey “James Woods” Bulger to come out of hiding for a trip to LA to do the job?

 

 

I would have given a great deal to have been at the studio screening of David Fincher’s Zodiac. I wonder who said first, “You mean, this movie is almost 3 hours and we never definitively learn whodunnit?”

The 1969-1970 Zodiac killings are unsolved and at least by serial killer standards, the Zodiac racked up a meager body count (only 5 victims are confirmed as by Zodiac’s hand).  Nonetheless, these narrative infirmities are more than compensated for by the killer’s panache.  Zodiac taunted the police departments of four different Northern California communities with letters to newspapers, including ciphers to be broken which promised to reveal his identity and wild threats (including one to shoot San Francisco kids as they left school buses). Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac wanted to lord his superiority over his pursuers.

Fincher takes the Zodiac case and uses it to dramatize exactly how such a crime burrows itself into the marrow of people, altering them profoundly. Jake Gyllenhaal is The San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who becomes obsessed with the killer the day his first letter to The Chronicle appears. Graysmith would eventually write the definitive book on the Zodiac, and as played by Gyllenhaal, he is sucked into the mystery to the near exclusion of all else. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Paul Avery, the Chronicle crime reporter who covered the case and received a threatening letter from the Zodiac. Avery had labeled the Zodiac a latent homosexual and the Zodiac wrote him a Halloween card warning, “You are doomed” (which resulted in the staff of The Chronicle creating buttons emblazoned with “I Am Not Paul Avery”).  Downey’s Avery is driven from The Chronicle, to drink and drugs and despair, exacerbated by his fear of the Zodiac. The two police officers assigned to the case are also damaged. William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) eventually transfers to another division while Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is at one point accused of forging a Zodiac letter (he was cleared of all charges).  There are also the survivors. The Zodiac attacked 3 couples while they were alone and vulnerable, but two men survived, one of whom was the only living person to see the Zodiac. He is a shell, having escaped the country, found at the end of the film to provide one final clue.

The psychological study is encased in a meticulous yet accessible procedural. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt keeps myriad threads intertwined without sacrificing pace, no mean feat given a multi-jurisdictional crime reverberating in the worlds of the police and journalism.

Fincher re-creates those crimes in a manner that communicates their terror and the vulnerability of the victims without being sensationalist or gratuitous. Indeed, the most frightening scene is one where no violence is done. Five months after his last killing, the Zodiac killer pulled over a woman with her baby on a highway, letting her know her back tire was wobbly. He feigned assistance by tightening the lugnuts, but the wheel fell off immediately after she got back on the road. The killer came back, offered to bring her to a service station, but instead drove her around until she was able to escape into a nearby field with her baby (the connection to the Zodiac was made after he referenced the encounter in a letter to The Chronicle a few months later).

It’s hard to imagine that the director of the gruesome Seven made this picture, which is restrained, methodical and to my mind, infinitely scarier. Having to turn away and shut your mind off has less of an effect than when you cannot do so and you’re required to think.

This film has just recently been offered for streaming on Netflix so take advantage.

The opening scene, where our beleaguered protagonist Duncan (Liam James) has to endure a numeric assessment from his mother’s new boyfriend (Steve Carell, who deems Duncan a “3” on a 1 to 10 scale for his layabout ways) reveals a great strength and a great weakness of the film.  James, as an awkward, inward 14 year old dragooned to Carell’s beach house with his mother (Toni Collette) for the summer, exhibits all the hideous hallmarks of the age. He’s ungainly, goofy and paralyzingly shy.  Carell also keenly occupies his type – an exact, sly bully who masks his menace in the cause of trying to be a father figure.  Everyone time he says “hey, buddy”, it presages a cut, an attack, and therein lies the problem with this coming of age tale.  With Carell identified as a villain from the get go, little that occurs next is unexpected or fresh.

That said, the script, from the Oscar winning writers of The Descendants (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also co-direct) is assured.  The story of Duncan’s growth under the tutelage of Sam Rockwell, a comic guru who runs the local water park, takes pity on Duncan, and gives him a job, is the heart of the picture, and their banter is really very funny and often surprisingly touching.  As Duncan’s mother loses herself in Carell’s world, we know  Carell must be slayed.  While we wait for that inevitability, however, Faxon and Rash have a blast with the water park and all of its quirky characters (including both Faxon and Rash, who are both very funny as well).  Carell’s coterie at the beach are also well written, if not fully developed, with Allison Janney delivering the lion’s share of the killer lines, most of which are directed at her own son, who has a wandering eye she insists be covered up by a patch.

There is triumph and happiness at the end of the picture, as you knew there must be, but with a little more care and guts, the writers could have made a great film.  Instead, in the middle, they so vilify Carell that they do lasting damage to the story.  Duncan goes on a boat trip and Carell forces him to wear a ridiculous life vest while the much younger kid with the wandering eye is unburdened.  The cruelty is too much.  It robs Carell of any chance of being anything but a caricature, demeans Collette, and is so humiliating to Duncan that you start to lose sympathy for the kid.  I don’t think Faxon and Rash wanted Carell’s numeric assignment to find purchase with the audience, but that’s what they risked.

This film is a similar to, but not as good as Adventureland.

Not bad, not great, along the lines of Dodgeball, with a few good gags (in particular, Vegas magician Steve Carell freaking out 20 minutes after the start of his 7 day stunt stint in a box above The Strip).

This is a movie that answers the question: What would Michael Scott have been had he left Dunder Mifflin to become David Copperfield?

Two thoughts.  First, Jim Carrey plays Carell’s nemesis, and boy has he aged.  Cable Guy schtick doesn’t work so well from such a weatherbeaten vessel.  Second, I am a huge fan of Steve Buscemi.  He stood out in Miller’s Crossing, his dramatic work in Reservoir Dogs and Fargo was gritty, his season on The Sopranos was sublime, and his Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire is rock solid.  But where did he get the reputation for comedic chops?  He’s been in 5 Adam Sandler vehicles, but having that on your resume’ isn’t exactly a recommendation.  Funny looking is not funny.

The excellence of writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Mud lies in its authenticity, confidence and reserve. As I watched this coming-of-age story about two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loffland), both of poorer Arkansas stock, and their involvement with a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey), I couldn’t shake what the film wasn’t – maudlin, simplistic or heavy-handed (i.e., like the template for so many “coming-of-age” stories about young boys, Stand by Me). While those two films have the Huck Finn story in their DNA, that’s where the comparison ends. Stand by Me needed a narrator to tell you what was of import and what was not in the adventures of their young male characters, and by the end of it, you felt thoroughly manipulated. Mud, however, requires no such crutch. The symbol of what is a man and father, what the divorce of his parents means to a boy, what young love is, and the heart of friendship, is depicted in a lifelike, piercing way. There is a wonderful scene where Loffland’s uncle, played by Michael Shannon, tries to impart some wisdom to Ellis, explaining in a deft but allegorical manner how Ellis needed to stay out of trouble and the nature of his responsibility to Neckbone, who is both a rock and a natural born follower. When Neckbone asks Ellis what they were talking about, Ellis shrugs and replies, “I don’t know.”

The performances are almost completely spot on, and Sheridan and Loffland should be shoo-ins for best actor and best supporting actor, but I’m certain they will be overlooked. That’s a shame, because they are at the ages where pure naturalism (for example, Quvenzhane Wallis in last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild) cannot carry the day. These boys are making intuitive choices. Their interplay alone is mature and steady, and Sheridan’s scenes with a would-be girlfriend are heart wrenching. They will evoke your best friend from childhood, and you won’t need Richard Dreyfus intoning, “he was my best friend from childhood.”

McConaughey, who has bouts of phoning in roles with a quick smirk and a lazy drawl, delivers a much deeper performance here as the outlaw, desperate not only to escape the law but to reconnect with his true love (Reese Witherspoon). Nearly every other supporting character – from the rigid, recluse Sam Shepard to Ellis’s parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulsen), to Shannon (whose three scenes damn near steal the movie) – contributes in an effective, understated manner. If there is a weakness, it is Witherspoon, and she was not bad, she was just a little outclassed.

Nichols (Take Shelter) shoots the Mississippi River as a dream, and when the boys are on or traveling to and from the island where McConaughey is holed up, the feel is very Terence Malick. But when the boys are back home or amongst the townies, the look is bleached and tacky, further emphasizing the juice they get from their adventure.

Another kudo – when Hollywood deals with the non-urban, at its worst, you get a grotesque caricature, and at best, you merely get a sort of condescending ennobling, the hick version of “the magical negro” (usually wrapped up in a “you’re better than this place, Willie!”). There is none of that here. Instead, Nichols has written rounded, grounded, real characters.

It is perhaps unfair to use this picture as a club against Stand by Me. To the positive, it ranks up there with the equally excellent Sling Blade and One False Move and is thus far the best film of 2013.

 

I watched this on the plane as well and it is dreadful in every respect. Ostensibly about an impeccably tailored group of LA police vigilantes formed to take down gangster Mickey Cohen in 1949, Gangster Squad sports a script so hackneyed it plays as near farce. Basically, it is a mash of The Untouchables and LA Confidential, if those films were re-written by a 13 year old boy whose sole inspiration was Rambo II.

Some gems:

“To the sarge. You’re a bull in a china shop but we’d follow you anywhere.”

***

“I’ve been with a lot of outfits but none better than you group of misfits”

“To the Gangster Squad!”

***

“I signed up for this so I could tell my boy I tried to do something about it”

***

“Can you remind me of the difference between us and them? Because at this point I can’t tell anymore.”

***

“If I leave, Keeler dies for nothing.”

***

“Tomorrow they’ll take my badge. Tonight I’m still a cop.”

***

“Let’s finish it.”

***

“We gotta’ take out that gun!”

“Watch this, hoss.” (six shooter beats machine gun)

***

“Wanna’ dance?” (Man with gun drops it so a fistfight can occur)

***

“Every man carries a badge. Mickey Cohen pledged allegiance to his own power.”

***

“Jerry threatened to leave the force but he never did. I guess he couldn’t shake the call of duty that echoed in his ears.”

You simply cannot believe what you are hearing.

The squad is led by the wooden and true Josh Brolin, and consists of a playboy (Ryan Gosling), a cowboy (Robert Patrick), a black guy (Anthony Mackie, who uses a knife just like James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven), a Hispanic (Michael Pena, who is Patrick’s Tonto, and maybe even his son, depending on your reading of a death scene), and a geek (Giovanni Ribisi). Not quite Costner’s gang, but damn close.

They are all awful, but Gosling is by far the worst, utilizing a Brooklyn accent on helium. The result is a really dreamy Elmer Fudd.

 Sean Penn as Cohen?

See Sean Penn in Casualties of War.

And Emma Stone as the Kim Basingeresque, savvy but world weary ingenue? What? Was Taylor Swift unavailable?

***

Ryan Gosling. “Don’t go.”

Emma Stone. “Don’t let me.”

***

***

The plot thuds along as our avengers mess with Cohen, but their efforts must be expedited because Cohen is setting up a wire service which will give him control of all betting west of Chicago in a week. If it becomes operational, he will be too big to take down, but they can’t find the location of this place. Perhaps they shouldn’t have blown up his trucks carrying the wire service equipment instead of following them. No matter. Because Cohen sites the wire service HQ, the jewel in his criminal crown, in the back of the nightclub that is the hottest spot in LA.

The film was not well received but it is troubling that it was not roundly demolished. This is a picture that portrays a thug garroting a character.  The thug’s overcoat (in LA, mind you) catches on fire when he is backed into flames. He removes the burning coat, yet when the job is done, in the next shot, voila!  The overcoat has returned! This is also a film where Mickey Cohen is depicted watching footage of one of his boxing matches.  Cohen explains how he held on to the championship. The real Cohen never had a championship fight (he lost to World Featherweight Champion Tommy Paul two minutes into the first round), which I suppose is nitpicking.  Yet, despite being a “championship” boxer, Cohen loses a fistfight to Brolin to close the movie, which is not nitpicking.

The following critics gave the film positive reviews: Ricardo Baca (Denver Post), Richard Roeper, Rafer Guzman (Newsday), Rex Reed (The New York Observer), John Hanlon (Big Hollywood) and Peter Debruge (Variety).

Follow the money, I say. Follow the money.