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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.

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.

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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 takeaways.

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.

 

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 seems like a goof. The picture 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.”

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“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)

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

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“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 is rounded out by 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 in The Untouchables, but damn close.

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

And Sean Penn as Cohen?

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See Sean Penn in Casualties of War.

The picture also gives us Emma Stone as the Kim Basingeresque world weary ingenue?

Taylor Swift must have been unavailable.

***

Ryan Gosling. “Don’t go.”

Emma Stone. “Don’t let me.”

***

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The plot thuds along.  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 our heroes can’t find the location of this new wire service.

Perhaps they shouldn’t have blown up his trucks carrying the wire service equipment instead of following them.

No matter. Because Cohen places the wire service HQ, the jewel in his criminal crown, in the back of the nightclub that doubles as the hottest spot in LA.

The film was not well received but it is troubling that it was not roundly demolished, it is so crappy.

For example, in one scene, a thug’s overcoat (in balmy LA, mind you) catches on fire when he is backed into flames. He removes the burning coat, kills a man, and yet, in the next shot, voila!  The overcoat has returned to his body, unsinged!

The film also shows Mickey Cohen watching footage of one of his boxing matches, an Cohen explains how he held on to the championship.

The real Cohen, however, 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.


I saw this on my flight back from Rome. I tried something new, a review in real time, where I watched and typed, watched and typed.

Big trouble early. The First Lady is Ashley Judd and she telegraphs where we may be going when she tells our hero, Secret Service agent Gerard Butler, that the president (Aaron Eckhart) can get the country off its dependence on foreign oil but cannot pick her earrings. I think I know who the bad guys are.

President Eckhart and wife leave Camp David in a motorcade in brutal, snowy weather, they hit black ice, and as the car totters on a bridge, Butler must make a tough call. Goodbye Ashley.

18 months later, Butler is haunted. And cashiered at the dreaded desk job at Treasury.   Martial music portends trouble and Butler is dressed for it. Unshaven, dark on dark, like Christopher Moltisanti.

A massive unidentified military plane gets in near spitting distance of the White House before receiving a final warning from the two, and only two, jets hawking it.  When it shoots the jets down, and starts shooting up the White House, no worries. We send one, as in the loneliest number, other jet to intercept. The threat is seemingly neutralized at the expense of the top of the Washington Monument.

As this goes on above ground, the President is hurried to his bunker beneath the White House with the VP, the Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo), the South Korean prime minister and a boatload of aides and security personnel.  The president is apparently a sexist, because it is Leo to whom he says, “Ruth. Where is my son?”  Sadly, she did not respond, “I’m not the fu**ing nanny.”

Meanwhile, Butler is out in the street in front of the White House, which is suddenly overrun with Asian ninja-skilled terrorists. He’s killing a boatload and it is on, on like Donkey Kong.

Oh snap. The president gets jumped by the South Korean prime minister’s security team. They’re really North Korean! [insert joke here] And the White House has been overrun above ground and below . . . Hey, wait. Olympus HAS fallen!

Luckily, Butler is in Olympus. He’s John McClane! I’m intrigued. Forget the play by play. I watch uninterrupted. This experiment has failed.

LATER:  I was wrong about the bad guys. Not big oil. Former Secret Service agent Dylan McDermott went traitor and snapped at the president about “globalization and Wall Street” and the $500 million necessary to buy the presidency. I smell Tea Party, who as we all know, have a natural affinity for the North Koreans.

Regardless of its politics, this is the most anti-American film I’ve ever seen. Not so much philosophically, but competence-wise.   As noted, the Secret Service takes the President on icy bridges at night and the skies around D.C. have become a lot friendlier 12 years after 9-11.

Also, Morgan Freeman is Speaker of House and thus, acting president.  Freeman is also a total puss. He actually started withdrawing troops from the Korean DMZ and the Seventh Fleet after the terrorists killed the VP and threatened to kill the President.

President Eckhart makes Freeman seem like Teddy Roosevelt. It seems the U.S. has a nuclear failsafe system. 3 people can provide numbers to defuse our nuclear missiles in case of a rogue launch, making us defenseless in the process, which seems to be the aim of the terrorists. So what does Eckhart do? He orders two of the code handlers to give up their codes so they won’t be killed. Eckhart has the third. But it turns out the terrorists didn’t need the third code. Because they intended to blow the missiles up in the silos. Which required only one code.

Nice system.  Good choices. Bad movie. Impeach Eckhart.


This biopic of Alfred Hitchcock’s making of Psycho attempts to juggle three stories:  the strain on the relationship between the director (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock’s own perverse infatuations with his leading ladies, present and former (Scarlett Johannson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles), and the actual making of the movie, with its unsettling, revolutionary ties to the Ed Gein murders.  Each of these threads is presented in a tepid and/or listless manner.

Hopkins and Mirren are quite good, but the script gives Hitch little to do but mope about his wife’s inattention, and Mirren’s near-dalliance with another writer (Danny Huston) is a bit uncomfortable.  Either the 68 year old Mirren, or Alma Hitchcock (she was 60 at the time of the making of Psycho) are too old for the communication of unquenched sexual urges necessary for the role.

As for Hitchcock’s own urges, the film cops out.  The director is shown as a peeping tom, and any darker heart is reflected only by his silly imagined conversations with Gein.  Leigh and Miles commiserate a bit on the director’s peculiarities, but nothing particularly upsetting is revealed, and neither actress is capable of delivering some deeper psychic injury or fear.  At best, they cluck, “oh, be careful.  You know old Hitch.” Given the director’s very disturbing behavior prior to, during and after Psycho, the wispy treatment seems cowardly. But even if the filmmakers were reluctant to travel that dark path, they missed many other opportunities to illuminate the eccentricities of the director. The lore has it that Leigh and Hitchcock were both unhappy with John Gavin’s work in his love scene with the former, and that Hitchcock instructed her to “take matters in her own hands” to amp up the passion. Yet this gem of a vignette is left out?

Finally, there is the risky making of Psycho, a film Hitchcock bankrolled himself when the studio became leery over the subject matter.  Hitchcock is ostensibly based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. which I have not read but hope is more interesting than was portrayed in the film.  The making of the film is characterized as worrisome at times. The director’s financial stress is shown, and he pouts when his wife is away, but that’s about it. Nothing of Hitchcock’s craft is developed, and some of the hurdles, such as the fight with the censors over the shower scene, are played mainly for laughs. So much is missed.

Take Rebello in a 2010 interview:

But she is killed in the shower in the novel. In fact, Hitchcock told many people that he was most attracted by Bloch’s notion of a murder coming out of the blue in an everyday, confined setting—the shower, where we feel relaxed and complacent but where we’re utterly vulnerable.  Hitchcock was thrilled with the idea of shocking audiences by casting a major star as the heroine and killing her off so early in the picture. That violated every Hollywood rule. Bloch’s heroine has her head cut off in the shower, not exactly the kind of thing that even Hitchcock could have gotten away with, even if he had been tempted. Bates in the novel is middle-aged, pudgy, alcoholic, brooding, unattractive, repugnant. He also has extensive conversations with his mother, which would have been fatal and a cheat on film. Casting Anthony Perkins was a lucky masterstroke; he’s as charming, attractive, sad, perverse, and lethal as earlier Hitchcock killers like the one Joseph Cotten played in Shadow of a Doubt and Robert Walker played in Strangers on a Train. Perkins had already worked with top directors like William Wyler, Anthony Mann, and Stanley Kramer, and Paramount had spent lots of money promoting him as a successor to the late James Dean or comparing him to the young James Stewart or Henry Fonda. Although he had become a teen idol and even made some hit records, things hadn’t quite clicked and, at the time, Perkins felt typecast and owed Paramount a movie. Hitchcock could hire him inexpensively. It was a perfect storm.”

There is so much here, but the film merely gives us Hitchcock cackling at killing Leigh early and the tut-tutting over the ghastly plot, with Alma disapproving, the powers that be huffing “You can’t do that!” and Hitch gleeful as the bad little boy.

One added point.  As noted, Johannson and Biel are pedestrian, but they aren’t the only ones.  The bullying studio head is played in embarrassingly broad fashion by Richard Portnoy, James D’Arcy’s Anthony Perkins is an impression rather than an embodiment, and Ralph Macchio is unfortunately unearthed for a short scene as the writer, Joseph Stefano.  The Karate Kid is not missed.  And I can watch Robocop only so often to remove the taste of yet another Kurtwood Smith uptight authority figure performance.

At the end, you’re left with a damning question – why make this picture?  It does little to communicate Hitchcock’s demons or his genius, it meanders and plays it safe, an unfortunate testament for a cinematic trailblazer. One that should not have been delegated to director Sacha Gervasi, whose resume’ is anchored by his 2008 documentary of a Canadian metal band, Anvil: the Story of Anvil.

Tom Cruise plays a former military detective, a ghost drifter who is drawn into the role of lead investigator for the defense of an Iraq War sniper accused of a senseless shooting spree in Pittsburgh. As he digs deeper, he unravels the true motive for the killings and the web of intrigue surrounding them.

Jack Reacher is a competent thriller, and Cruise is convincing as a smart, tough ex-military hero. He exudes a certain intelligent menace despite his short stature (the Jim Grant books had him a lot bigger) and the story whips along. The bad guy, a disfigured Werner Herzog, is a treat, and the scene where he gives a man a chance to avoid execution is memorable.  There are also some sharp exchanges in the script which, if not Dirty Harry, is subversively conservative.

Still, the aim of the villains is weak (a construction company???); the late introduction of Robert Duvall as a sidekick for Cruise strains credulity; and the effort to mask the necessary killing in the cloak of a shooting spree is, upon reflection, wild overkill, the kind of gambit that would elicit the attention the bad guys sought to avoid.  These weaknesses are forgivable, but when Cruise drops his gun to go mano a mano with his nemesis, the film veers into Road House territory, if only for a moment.