Archive

2012

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Ethan Hawke is a true crime writer on the down slope who moves his wife and kids into the house where the grisly murder of another family occurred. His m.o. is to solve the case or to at least highlight the screw-ups of the authorities.

The funny thing is, he doesn’t tell his wife or two children he’s moved them into a house where grisly murders occurred, he finds Super 8 film of the grisly murders and the grisly murders of numerous other families from other areas throughout the country in the attic, his teen son is flipping out from night terrors, his lights don’t work, there are horrible thumps in the attic (and a snake and a scorpion), he sees a creepy dude in the yard who he has also seen in the Super 8 films, and his kids start drawing gruesome images of dead children. And his wife sleeps the sleep of a thousand nights, even though, during the day, she’s understandably nervous about this whole situation.

And he stays because “This could be my In Cold Blood.”

So his wife stays.

Implausible, predictable and stupid.

Frank Langella lives alone in the country a few hours from New York City.  He is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, functional but slipping, and at first, appears to be little more than a forgetful, petty thief of decorative soaps sold in the town’s gift shop.  When his son (James Marsden) brings him a robot for company and guidance, we learn that Langella was once a second story burglar who did two stints in prison.  He loathes the robot until he learns it has no conscience.  A friendship develops, and soon, the robot is acting as his accomplice in a jewel heist.

The movie is clever, often touching, and a bit subversive.  There is a hilarious section where Langella’s anti-robot daughter (Liv Tyler) visits.  Horrified at her father’s reliance on the robot, she turns it off, only to surreptitiously turn it on when she wants the house cleaned.

Though the film is set in the not too distant future, the credits are accompanied by clips of the work robots are currently doing (or being designed to do) for humans, and the future is now.

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A hodgepodge of The Devil’s Backbone, The Others, The Sixth Sense, and The Orphanage, the resulting stew lacks the intrigue, creepiness or depth of any of those films. Post WWI, a noted spiritualist debunker played by Rebecca Hall (The Town, Parade’s End) is enlisted by a teacher (Dominic West) to come to a remote English boy’s school. A young student has died and the children have been traumatized, not only by that tragedy, but by the ghost of another boy. After begging off, Hall unconvincingly takes on the challenge, easily solving the more recent death in the first quarter of the film. The rest is devoted to her chasing the ghost about, falling for West, and being manipulated for a big Shymalanesque reveal that is rushed, awkward and unnecessary. The film is overly ambitious, neglecting the less showy aspects of a ghost story, like pace, investigatory patience, and diversion. Instead, Hall tears around the house, easily converted from skeptic to believing hysteric, until her ludicrous connection is clumsily offered via flashback. It’s director Nick Murphy’s first feature and he is overmatched. Worse, there are a mere three scary moments, a number The Woman in Black provided ten fold.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s attempt to chronicle the rise of an L. Ron Hubbard type, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is crippled by what the director probably deems a necessary evil. Dodd finds the damaged and cruel WWII veteran Joaquin Phoenix, and through his character (a brutish Of Mice and Menesque Lennie), we see how the weak can be co-opted and conscripted by a charismatic charlatan. But to dramatize that point, we have to spend an inordinate amount of time with a vicious, unsympathetic thug. Phoenix’s rendition is jarring, but unpleasant, as his character is mentally unstable and ape-like.

Amy Adams plays Dodd’s fanatical wife and observes of Phoenix, “He’s a drunk and he’s dangerous and he will be our undoing if we have him here.”

And that’s what happens to the movie. Phoenix progresses, but from feral animal to a more controllable and controlled beast. Not a particularly interesting or illuminating journey.

The film is also repetitive. The scenes of Phoenix’s “processing” feel interminable, Phoenix skulks and broods and then attacks critics of Hoffman, and Hoffman charmingly explains his cobbled together philosophy, until he is questioned, and then he explodes.

The performances of Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams are all excellent (all three received deserved Oscar nominations), but this is a very long, awful dull, hard slog and the ending is ridiculous.

The Master is a marathon of well shot tedium. It’s also a bit of a cop out. If you’re going to take on the genesis of Scientology, why be so oblique? Why choose to focus so tightly on the relationship between the Hubbard character and a baboon like Phoenix?

 

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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 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.