David Chase’s The Sopranos was a titanic television achievement, a violent, rich soap opera centered on a New Jersey crime family, adroitly crossing into the areas of everyday life of “civilians” and finding common cause in the political, familial, and cultural. But Chase was more an organizer of talent than a creator – he wrote very few of the episodes and only directed two. This is not a knock, but it may be relevant in evaluating Chase’s first underwhelming feature length film, Not Fade Away.

The picture opens with the chance first meeting of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger but quickly swings back to 1960s New Jersey, where another band is forming. Chase captures the awkwardness of the early house show; the various personalities (the guitarist who always needs more time for the band to be “ready” and the jealous former frontman, sidelined to back-up because of a weaker voice); and the juice of a well-played song.

But just when you think the story might go somewhere, Chase reverts back to the lead singer’s (James Magaro) depressing home life, where his dying father (James Gandolfini) harangues him for his long hair and his mother kvetches in full Livia Soprano mode. When we get back to the incremental steps of the band, we are again diverted to the domestic woes of Magaro’s girlfriend (Bella Heathcoate) and her own miserable homelife (her Dad is a scotch-swilling GOP square and her sister is a free spirit soon to be forcibly institutionalized).

The leads are weak. As the band’s budding lead singer, Magaro provides no more than smarm and edge, though he performs a convincing transformation from dork to Dylanesque cool. His mercurial girlfriend Heathcoate is leaden and charmless.

Worse, very little happens in this dark (and by dark, I mean inexplicably dimly lit, as if the 60s is best evoked by dingy exposition), moody, mostly joyless picture. We get some affecting vignettes and then what feels like filler after there is no follow up. The end is a preposterous paen to the power of rock n’ roll that is more peculiar than poignant.*

That said, had this been the first two episodes of a miniseries, who knows? I certainly would have continued to watch.

*. Having just read this sentence, I am forced to add “so put that in your pipe and puff on it, Pancho.”

This documentary doesn’t chronicle the decline of Detroit so much as provide a pastiche of the city’s current plight through the eyes of union workers, street folks, a bar owner, a video blogger, and various other denizens. While there is a faint whiff of class warfare, mainly dramatized by juxtaposing the opulent Detroit opera house (subsidized by the auto companies) with the rundown bleakness of the surrounding area, the thrust of the documentary is visual rather than thematic or political. The regular haunts and isolated neighborhoods are shot in extended, mournful stretches, the people are captured reminiscing in their natural element, and the depiction of the old abandoned structural dinosaurs of the city evokes dystopian films and the work of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

At its best, ParaNorman is a funny, clever and visually appealing stop-motion animated feature about a boy who must save his town from the emergence of zombies.  Unfortunately, the characters are a bit stock and thin (the zombies, who are cursed for having wrongly hung a witch back in the day, are the most realized of all the characters).  Worse, it bangs away “lessons” about bullying.  It also continues the recent trend of making almost all adults stupid, cruel and retrograde (Frankenweenie) and likening the world they have created to a gross, materialistic craphole (The Lorax, WALL-E, Happy Feet).

Mostly enjoyable, but the unsubtle p.c. preaching should stay in public schools where it belongs.

Ethan Hawke is a true crime writer on the downslope who moves his family 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 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?