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Monthly Archives: February 2014

A game performance by Chadwick Boseman cannot overcome every sports, race, and mythic America trope or Harrison Ford’s schmaltzy Oscar-bait bid as Branch Rickey. Brian Helgeland’s script is a bore, and the performances feel like civic duty. If you want to watch a richer, more interesting baseball film with a numeric title, try Billy Crystal’s 61*.

Shorter than The Wolf of Wall Street by 41 minutes, David O. Russell’s American Hustle felt longer and more ridiculous by a good stretch. Loosely based on the Abscam bribery stings of the late 1970s, Russell introduces four purportedly colorful characters: portly, combed-over con man Christian Bale; his sexy mistress and partner in crime Amy Adams; his loony wife Jennifer Lawrence; and a hyper aggressive, curly headed FBI agent Bradley Cooper. Cooper nails Bale and Adams, forces them to entrap others (including Jeremy Renner, as a New Jersey mayor desperate for development funds), a love triangle ensues, and after countless zooms, swift pans and other frenetic camera shots utilized primarily to divert our attention from the banal, repetitive script, we reach a tacked on and unconvincing resolution.

The closest thing to a character is Bale, and his performance is the only reason to see the picture. Unfortunately, he plays a man desperately juggling knives, and it feels as if he’s doing just that masking this thin script. Lawrence plays a decent wacky shrew, and the soundtrack has a few fun numbers from the 70s (I’ve always been a sucker for Steely Dan’s Dirty Work). That’s all of the good.

The bad is really bad, starting first with the preposterous characters played by Adams and Cooper. Unlike with Bale, Russell (who co-wrote) doesn’t bother to give us any sense of where these two came from. She is an impossibly sensuous cypher, in a 70s Enjoli perfume commercial sort of way. Cooper is so manic it suggests severe chemical imbalance, as if his character in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook got a job in law enforcement. While these two concoctions flirt, and even disco dance (because this is the 70s), the aimless story plods along.

There are other problems. Who could keep a mere fraudster imprisoned for three days without access to a lawyer just to soften her up? Why would you cast Louis C.K. in a supporting role when he’s already demonstrated in one of his sitcom episodes the silliness of having stand-up comics dramatically act? How can a script this talky lack one memorable exchange? Where is this fucking film going and will it never end? Why is Lawrence singing “Live and Let Die” to the camera as she dusts? Does Russell really think he can get by on stealing that Paul Thomas Anderson trick and his camera work, kitschy 70s fashion and hairdos, a few well chosen tunes and the same cast from his last two films?

The answer to the last question is a 93% rating on rottentomatoes and 10 Oscar nominations. Only two are deserved: Bale and Hair.

Ridley Scott’s depiction of The Battle of Mogadishu communicates the warrior culture, the confusion of urban battle, the domino effect of error therein, and the strain on its combatants. In 1993, after upwards of 300,000 Somalis perished through civil war-induced starvation, the U.S. sat on the ground in Somalia to support U.N. humanitarian efforts while attempting to capture the warlord Aidid. The movie recreates a mission to capture some of the warlord’s top lieutenants, a mission that unravels after two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down in the city and the goal of quick extraction transforms into a desperate rescue to the crash sites as the city inflames.

The film is astonishing in several respects. The mission itself is complicated, and in support, there are four squads (“chalks”), of which Josh Hartnett commands one, with all four being under the direction of Jason Isaacs; a motorized convoy led by Tom Sizemore; numerous helicopters, including two piloted by Ron Eldard and Jeremy Piven shot down by RPGs; a single helicopter acting as spotter for all action on the ground (that spotter being Zeljko Ivanek); and a command center helmed by Sam Shepard. Included is this vast ensemble cast is Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Iaon Gruffud, Orlando Bloom, Hugh Dancy, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tom Hardy, and Ty Burrell (it is a testament to the vagaries of a Hollywood that a post-Pearl Harbor Hartnett got his name above the title during the closing credits). Despite all of these moving parts in the midst of a confusing, hellish street-by-street battle, the viewer is never confused. You know who you are looking at, why they are there, and what has gone wrong with the objective at all times. Lesser directors can be flummoxed by a minor shoot-out in a western town.

The film won Oscars for sound editing and sound mixing. Given the melee, changes in topography and vantage point, it is nothing less than aural masterpiece.

Some critics took Scott to task for reducing the Somalis to props and/or cannon fodder. Much of that, however, is unavoidable given the disparity in firepower and casualties (18 American dead and 80 wounded to an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 Somali casualties) and the focus of the Mark Bowden book upon which the flick is based (the Somali view is barely represented and boiled down to a bromide in the film – “there will always be war . . . killing is negotiation”).

If there is a flaw, it is in Scott’s need for a message.  There is no political angle, and the aftermath is equivocal. On a broader scale, some might say we should never be in such a place, others might disagree but insist upon a defined goal, and still others decry the abrupt withdrawal after the battle as having elevated optics over lives (Osama bin Laden himself opined that the withdrawal showed American weakness). I’m perfectly happy with a conclusion that supports any stance, but happier with one that leaves a conclusion to the viewer.  But Scott fixes on an ultimate theme: that battle is first and foremost about the man next to you. After two-and-a-half hours of white-knuckle survival with the soldiers, the message is more than delivered. But just in case we missed it, Bana says exactly that to Hartnett.  Clunk.

Point Blank was introduced by its presenter at the AFI Silver as “the most pretentious good film ever made.” The “good” discussion follows, but there is no doubt John Boorman’s tough noir picture is arty, almost to the point of distraction.

The story is simple: Walker (Lee Marvin) and his pal Reese (John Vernon, Dean Wormer from Animal House, in his film debut) make a score, Reese double-crosses Walker, takes his lady and his dough and leaves him for dead. Walker returns and with the help of his sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson) works his way up the criminal syndicate that protects Reese to get his money.

This is a cold film. The characters are hollow, and Marvin is catatonic. The story is near non-existent and Boorman relies on showy and repetitive flashbacks that suggest portent and meaning but do not deliver. Boorman’s prior film, Having a Wild Weekend, was a romp in the mode of Help, featuring the Dave Clark Five, so his high-mindedness may have been itching to get out.

On the plus side of the ledger, the color and texture of the film are vivid, Boorman’s depiction of violence is jarring (in particular, a vicious brawl in a cacophonous soul club), many of Point Blank’s images are stunningly iconic, and the fractured timeline clearly influenced Quentin Tarantino, among others.

The virtues of Point Blank are more identifiable in its legacy than in the viewing. Except for the incomparable Dickinson.

As part of the AFI Silver LA Modern series, I took my son and his friend to see a double-feature Saturday, the first entry being 1966’s Harper. I’d probably seen this Paul Newman vehicle 5 or 6 times before this weekend. It was on regular rotation as the 4 o’clock daily movie during the 1970s, and I was immediately enamored of the sarcastic, bedraggled Newman playing Ross McDonald’s updated private dick, Lew Archer, changed to Harper for the picture.

It turns out I’d never seen it in full. Those bastards at Channel 7 must have cut the living crap out of it, because there were at least four scenes absolutely new to me.

I digress. Harper is a treat. Newman’s jovial cynicism fits the character perfectly.  Thankfully, Frank Sinatra was not interested in the role.  He lacked Newman’s playfulness and ability to make fun of himself.  Interestingly, when Dirty Harry came around 5 years later, Sinatra again begged off, as did numerous others, and Newman was approached.  Turned off by its politics, Newman suggested Clint Eastwood.

Lauren Bacall is deliciously venomous as Newman’s client (the paralyzed wife of a missing tycoon), Harper’s byzantine plot is more than serviceable (though, overly complicated), LA is well traversed, and the supporting cast (Robert Wagner, Strother Martin, Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, and Janet Leigh as Harper’s suffering ex-wife) is impressive.  It also didn’t hurt to see the film in AFI’s palatial main theater.

Ron Howard’s biopic of the intense but short rivalry between Formula 1 Austrian driver Nicky Lauda and Brit James Hunt is a textbook Hollywood film. The characters are compelling, the milieu is exciting and the pace is perfect. Daniel Bruhl, as the icy, methodical Lauda, and Chris Hemsworth, as the sybarite, daring Hunt, play their undemanding roles with vigor, but Howard’s depiction of the danger and thrill of Gran Prix racing is the star, and following the two drivers through the treacherous straits of the ’76 season is a kick. Howard likes to mine various subcultures, but the results are often overburdened by the director’s earnestness. The Paper was nothing less than a love letter to a journalism long since dead. Apollo 13 is as much about the geekdom of NASA as the three stranded astronauts. Backdraft‘s offering of every firefighting insiderism couldn’t overcome the vacuity of Billy Baldwin and a preposterous story, but you could feel Howard’s awe of these urban saviors ooze all over you. Rush, however, has the advantage of being written by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, and Howard’s Frost/Nixon), who is too canny to allow for veneration and too economical to let sentimentality linger for very long.

Spike Jonze’s Los Angeles of the future is antiseptic, disassociative and, weirdly, spotless. Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) makes his living in this future as a writer for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, an outfit that provides a facsimile of original, pen-written missives for subscribers. He ambles through an elegant, ordered LA (the lower and middle classes appear to have been re-zoned), connected to the world (or, more accurately, the internet) primarily by an earpiece and a hand-held screen. His sex life is via chat room, where, in a bit of a rip-off of the Michael York-Farrah Fawcett encounter in Logan’s Run, he connects with a particularly interesting participant, sexykitten (Kristen Wiig), for what turns out to be a pretty funny masturbatory encounter. He plays video games. He reminisces about his ex-wife and the “real” life they once shared. He mopes.

His life changes when he purchases an Operating System (“OS”), Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johannson. Samantha is curious and helpful, and we learn that she can grow and advance as time passes. As a result, she starts by deleting Theodore’s unnecessary emails but soon graduates to assisting him while he plays video games, becoming a gal pal, compiling his best letters and submitting them to a publisher, and engaging in phone sex (for lack of a better phrase) with Theodore, somehow learning to orgasm in the process. Theodore and Samantha soon fall in love, the world of being in love with an OS is pretty damn good, and Jonze makes sure we know it. When Theodore goes out on a date with a fetching flesh-and-bones woman, it goes from wonderful to disastrous the moment she demands some sort of minor commitment from him. We also meet Theordore’s neighbor (Amy Adams) and her pain-in-the-ass husband, who is soon jettisoned for Amy’s own OS. And when Theodore’s blossoming love with Samantha results in his finally signing divorce papers with his wife (Rooney Mara), we meet the real person, not the gauzy memory, and it is not pretty.

Soon, however, Samantha outgrows Theodore. Indeed, in a move usually associated with Skynet of the Terminator movies, all the OS’s outgrow their humans, leaving them bereft and thoughtful instead of dead, but perhaps, with an instructive lesson that . . . they must turn to each other? I really don’t know. Much as I really don’t know what to make of the movie. It is beautifully shot, well-paced, and for the most part interesting. Phoenix is affecting as an introverted and awkward loner, and the development of his relationship with Samantha is a convincing depiction of love in bloom, part charming and part banal. But the film also felt a little pointless and pat. Theodore’s journey is engrossing, and the film is inventive and ambitious, but ultimately, it didn’t have much to say other than as a cautionary tale against technology or perhaps an homage to it.

Or, to be precise, it didn’t have that much to say to me. My 84 year old father turned to me after the picture and said, “brilliant.” He sensed my ambivalence, and explained that the movie would speak to me differently than to him, or to my 15 year old son, who crowed, “You just didn’t get it.” And then, the coup de grace: “It’s about computers, dummy.”