Monthly Archives: December 2012
A funny thing happened after seeing The Guilt Trip. My father asked me what else Seth Rogen had been in that he had seen. And I was stumped (in retrospect, I could have said 50/50). I think that summarizes the mishmash of audiences for this mother/son road trip comedy. Rogen teams up with the ultimate Jewish mother, played by Barbara Streisand (Meet the Fockers), to travel the country. From that premise alone, it’s pretty much exactly everything you’d think it would be. The comedy is rather flat mostly because both characters feel mismatched from a comedy perspective; neither is given enough edge. I was surprised then when I found the warmhearted dramatic parts so much more skilled than the comedy (remember, sliding scale). The heart is better than the laughs. The deteriorating mother/son relationship is given some thoughtful consideration, and there are a few sweet emotional turns at the end to find a satisfying departure. It’s a rather nice movie, nothing too special or interesting, but nice can be perfectly fine under the right circumstances. I’m a Rogen fan and always enjoy his cocksure presence onscreen, and Streisand, at 70 years old, is still a natural movie star. The post-credits outtakes point to funnier material from their pairing, but director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) sticks to the well-worn path of the road trip movie. It’s fairly inoffensive and safe, but The Guilt Trip has some light-hearted pleasures to offer its older audience, especially middle-aged parents and grandparents. Simply put: if you have to see one older-appealing movie with your family this holiday season, Parental Guidance or The Guilt Trip, take the trip.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I have no qualms with my heterosexual nature to make the following statement: I love a good musical. Why shouldn’t I? None other than Martin Scorsese said any true film lover is a fan of horror movies and musicals, two genres uniquely suited to the visual flourishes of cinema. My tastes tend to run toward the more offbeat, like Avenue Q and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Sweeney Todd and Dancer in the Dark. My favorite movie musical of all time is 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, but that’s probably because I’m a movie lover first and foremost. A well-done movie musical can sweep you off your feet. The polarizing Moulin Rouge! is still my favorite film of 2001; I love every messy, ambitious, transporting second of it. And that’s what the best musicals and, in general, best films achieve: they transport us to another realm. Since the success of 2002’s Chicago, there’s been a run of hit-or-miss movie musicals proliferating the big screen. It’s hard to think of any longstanding Broadway hits that have yet to make the leap (you’ll get your turn, Book of Mormon). Of course it also works the other way, with plenty of movies being adapted into Broadway musicals, like Shrek, Elf, Ghost, Catch Me if You Can, Newsies, A Christmas Story, Sister Act, Legally Blonde, Bring it On, and Tony-winner for Best Musical, Once. Then you get movies turned into musicals and back into movie musicals, like The Producers and Hairspray. It seems like Broadway and Hollywood are stuck in a loop, feeding off one another’s spoils.
In 2012, two high-profile musicals got the big screen treatment: Rock of Ages and Les Miserables. The former is from 2009 whereas the latter is one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time, beginning in 1980 and spanning continents. Rock of Ages was savaged by critics and bombed at the box-office, whereas Les Miz is soaring this holiday season and is seen as a major Oscar contender. Of course one of these films is about the outrage of the lower classes being exploited by an unfair system that benefits the rich, and the other has Tom Cruise and a monkey named “Hey Man.” Having seen both films recently, and Les Miserables more than once, I think they present an interesting discussion on the pitfalls of adapting a popular theatrical show to film. You won’t have to wait long to figure out which movie succeeds and which falters badly.
Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, is set in early 19th century France. Prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is nearing the end of his twenty-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is convinced Valjean will never reform and go back to a life of crime. After help from a kindly bishop, Valjean flees his parole and sets up a new life as a businessman. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of Valjean’s workers, gets thrown out and tumbles down a chain of regrettable circumstances. She becomes a prostitute to support her young daughter, Cosette. Valjean recognizes poor Fantine on the street and, horrified at his own neglect leading her to this path, takes it upon himself to care for her and her daughter. Years later, the teenaged Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) has fallen for the young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius enlists his good friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) to help find out who Cosette is, all the while ignorant that Eponine is clearly in love with him. The young people of France are riled up about class abuses and exploitation, and the spirit of revolution is in the air. Javert is also becoming suspicious of Valjean’s true identity, so Valjean feels the need to flee once again. However, Cosette’s love and the bravery of the young revolutionaries makes Valjean decide to stop running from his past.
Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) made the ballsy but ultimately brilliant decision to have his performers sing live. Every line, every note, every performance is captured in the moment; there is nary a second of lip-synching. I cannot overstate how blessed this decision was. It places the emphasis on the performances, and that’s exactly what something as big and deeply felt as Les Miserables required for the big screen. Look, Hollywood actors are never going to be able to outdo trained and professional theatrical singers. What I expect from movie stars is movie-star level performances, and Hooper understands this. These actors aren’t playing to the cheap seats, belting the tunes with power and over exaggerated dramatics (note: there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style given the theatrical setting). In many ways, this is a more intimate Les Miserables, and it still maintains its charms and magic. There is no choreography, short of perhaps the more jovial “Master of the House” number, and Hooper puts us right in the muck of life in a 19th century impoverished slum. This is one dirty movie with lots of grimy period details, creating a reality that can only be implied on stage. The more visceral version of Les Miserables demands performances that are more naturalistic and less bombastic, to a degree. I am a cinephile first but I genuinely prefer my musicals with trained actors to trained singers. A great actor can add so much inflection and personality through the prism of song, whereas a great singer is concentrating on the notes first and foremost. I value performance over nailing the mechanics, and more movie musicals should follow Hooper’s path. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how to do the movie musical experience right.
I don’t know if Hooper was exactly the right man for the job but he certainly does the beloved stage show justice. Hooper’s visual tics are still present. The man loves to film in close-ups and at all sorts of tilted Dutch angles; he also loves filming a conversation between two people where neither one will be in the same shot. It’s a peculiarity that I never really warmed up to. However, Hooper generally has the best interests of his movie at stake, capitalizing on the large outpouring of feeling. This is a Big Musical with big emotions, and it’s easy to be swept up in its exuberant earnestness and humanism. It even has a famous concluding line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It’s the kind of stuff you roll your eyes at under lesser circumstances. Now, thinking back, you’ll realize that many of these people were simply painfully naïve and that there was a slew of death for no good reason. Purists may chafe at some altered lyrics and truncated songs, but really this is pretty much the closest version of the famous stage show you’ll ever see adapted. Not one of the songs has been cut (in fact a new one was written for the film by the original composers), and at a lengthy 157 minutes, it’s practically as long as the stage show, and just about sung through every moment. There are probably ten total lines that are merely spoken. I predict hardcore Les Miz fans will lap up every second.
Les Miserables also boasts some fortuitous casting (Taylor Swift at one point was rumored to be up for a role… shudder), none more than Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises). She is nothing less than perfect as Fantine. There isn’t a false note during any of her acting. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is so powerful, so breathtaking, so intensely felt, that it ranks up there with some of the best moments in all of 2012 movies. And oh can this woman sing her ass off too. You feel every flicker of anger and devastation, the grain in her voice, on the verge of tears and fury. This woman deserves every accolade they can come up with this year. This woman is a total lock for Best Supporting Actress. She’s wonderful during every moment of her screen time and the lengths and emotional ferocity of her performance, and subsequent pitfalls the character endures, left me reaching for the tissues at several points.
The other standout amidst a pretty stellar cast is Barks. This is her first film work though she has plenty of experience with her character, portraying Eponine in the 25th anniversary run of Les Miserables. Her singing is terrific, as you’d imagine, but her acting is just as strong. Her rendition of “On My Own” is a showstopper of a number. Barks naturally transitions to the demands of film. I was completely on Team Eponine and found her to be an infinitely better catch than Cosette. After people get a glimpse of this woman, she is going to get plenty more acting offers, and a few concerned inquiries into the size of her waist, which at times looks like it might be the size of The Rock’s neck. Hooper also has the good sense to film both “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” in unbroken takes; focus tightly pinned on our outstanding actresses, letting the skill of their performances sell the big emotions.
Of course the crux of the tale rests on two men, Valjean and Javert, and the rest of the cast does kind of get saddled in underdeveloped roles made more apparent as a movie. It seems blasphemous to say I was a little disappointed with both lead actors. Crowe (Robin Hood) is easily the weakest singer of the cast but that doesn’t mean he’s bad. He has a lower register and sings his parts like a rock musician rather than a Broadway player. Fans of the stage show will have to adjust their expectations for a more subdued Javert. Still, having an actor of Crowe’s talents is definitely a plus even if his singing is adequate. Jackman (Real Steel) is a Tony-winning thespian, so I held him to a higher standard. He’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do as Jean Valjean, and Jackman does an admittedly fine job with the bigger emotional parts. I just expected more from his vocal abilities but it’s not a major detraction. As my mother noted, it’s not too difficult to spot the classically trained singers in the cast. Also, for eagle-eyed Les Miz fans, look for the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, as the Bishop in this movie.
There is the tricky nature of translating a Broadway production into some variance of period reality. There’s plenty of relevance with the class struggle illustrated in the second half of the movie (Bane would approve). It’s an obvious statement but film is a different medium than the theater and affords different opportunities. The depressing reality of lower class life and the vultures that preyed on others is striking, yes, but sort of conflicts with the comic relief characters represented by the scheming Thenadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter). When the seriousness of the period is inflated, they feel like they sort of belong in a different movie. Then there’s just the conflict between stage reality and film reality. On the stage we’ll accept Marius falling madly in love with Cosette at first sight. When it’s on film, the guy comes across as a callous chump, oblivious to Eponine’s pining. He ignores the friend he’s had for years for some blonde in a bonnet. And the final number, reuniting all the dead cast members, works better as a curtain call than a finale to a film. These are just the quirks of theater one must just accept. I wouldn’t say the songs and music is in the same category as Sondheim or Webber, but there are definitely some hummable tunes here made all the more swooning. You’ll have a fine pick of songs to get stuck in your head for days (mine: “Look Down”).
Earlier this year, Rock of Ages came and quickly left the box-office, failing to make a splash with the American public despite a healthy enough run on Broadway and touring the country. The stage show is a jukebox musical set to the head-banging tunes of 1980s hair metal. Adam Shankman, the director behind the bouncy and thoroughly entertaining 2007 Hairspray movie musical, was tasked with bringing Rock of Ages to the screen with the same finesse. Cherie (Julianne Hough) a hopeful singer just off the bus from Oklahoma, meets up with Drew (Diego Boneta), a nice kid who gets her a job at The Bourbon Room, a rock club running afoul with the mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his moral crusading wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The club owners (Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand) are relying on fickle, burned-out, taciturn, and overall mysterious rock legend Stacy Jaxx (Tom Cruise) to save their club from financial ruin. Along the way, Cherie and Drew look for their big breaks, fall in love, get pulled apart, and reunite in time for one final sendoff to leave the audience tapping their toes.
Allow me to elucidate on my main problem with the rise in jukebox musicals: I find them to be, with rare exception, exceedingly lazy. The musical number is meant to advance the narrative and give insights into character and situation, just like any other aspect of plot. You’ll find great original tunes that do this. When you’re dealing with pop songs that the public is well familiar with, then your job becomes even harder, and I find many are just not up to the task. Too often jukebox musicals are designed to merely string together a pre-packaged and time-tested number of hit songs, utilizing the faintest of narrative threads to get from one song to the next. The appeal of jukebox musicals lies not with the story or characters but waiting for the next recognizable song and wondering how it will, poorly, fit into this new context. You’ll notice that these jukebox musicals seem to have twice as many song numbers. They know their selling point, and more singing means less time spent developing characters and story. And so my impression of the jukebox musical is one of a cynical cash grab following the bare minimum of narratives to achieve the status of musical so it can be resold with low risk. I’m simplifying things in my ire, yes, but there’s a definite reason that jukebox musicals have sprouted like mad in the past few years. They don’t require as much work and the audience seems to hold them to a lesser standard. Much like the worst of Friedberg and Seltzer (Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans), it seems just recognizing the familiar has become the core draw of entertainment.
And this is one of the main problems with Rock of Ages. I’ve never seen the stage show, but my God for something that purports to live the rock and roll lifestyle, it’s certainly so tame and scrubbed clean of anything dangerous. This feels like your grandparents’ idea of what “modern” rock music is. After a cursory search online, I’ve found that the movie makes some significant changes to convert a story about rock and roll hedonism into sanitized family friendly fare (spoilers to follow, theatergoers): apparently in the stage version, Cherie and Jaxx had sex, Jaxx remains a creep and flees the country on statutory rape charges, though before that he and Cherie share a lap dance/duet to “Rock Me Like a Hurricane,” the family values crusader characters were new inventions, the Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman, the best singer in the film) is considerably beefed up to provide Jaxx his happy ending, and they don’t even use the song “Oh Cherie.” I’m not a stickler for adaptation changes, but clearly it feels like Rock of Ages had every edge carefully sanded down to reach out to the widest array of mainstream filmgoers (Shankman says he cut Cherie’s lap dance number because it tested poorly with mothers). The funny part is that the movie lambastes a slimy manager (Paul Giamatti) for playing to demo numbers, shooting for pandering mass appeal rather than the art, man. Feel the hypocrisy.
The first hour of Rock of Ages is mildly passable mostly because of the goofy supporting cast, but then the movie just keeps going, getting more and more tedious with every protracted minute. The second half involves Cherie and Drew apart and finding new lows; for him it’s selling his soul to join in a boy band, and for her it’s selling herself, working as a stripper. Let’s look back at that sentence. One of those life choices is not nearly as upsetting as the other. Nothing against the hard-working strippers in this country, but Cherie taking to the pole is definitely more of a moral compromise for the character than whatever the hell Drew endures. It’s this leaden second hour that made me lose faith that Rock of Ages would even provide a morsel of cheesy entertainment. It has the misfortune of two of the blandest leads I’ve ever seen in a musical. Hogue (Footloose) and Boneta (Mean Girls 2) are both physically blessed specimens of human genetics, but oh are these kids boring boring boring. Their love story is completely malnourished and you couldn’t scrape together one interesting thing about them combined. The fact that Rock of Ages further strips away any interesting personality from Cherie (see above) makes them even more disastrously boring. To be stuck with these two for another hour of vapid griping, only to magically get back together, is interminable. Thank God they pumped up the side characters because that is the only time when Rock of Ages even challenges for your attention. Cruise isn’t the best singer but he’s pretty good belting out 80s rock hits, and the man has his natural charisma and stage presence to spare.
So I guess where Rock of Ages goes wrong, and where Les Miserables succeeds, is thinking of how best to translate the experience of the stage to the medium of film. Shankman does a pitiful job staging his musical numbers, with lackluster choreography that rarely takes advantage of the sets and characters. Worse, Shankman feels like he strays from the tone and angle of the stage show, sanitizing the rock and roll lifestyle and looking for ways to squeeze in bland happy endings. In other words, he doesn’t capture enough of the essence of the original stage show to please neophytes and fans of the Broadway show. With Les Miserables, I think most fans of the stage show, and they are legion, will walk away feeling satisfied with the results, content that real artists treated the long-running musical with justice. Hooper opens up the world of the stage show, utilizing the parameters of film, and the emphasis on performance over singing mechanics maximizes the unique power of film. Les Miserables is a grand movie musical smartly adapted to the opportunities of film. Rock of Ages is a sloppy, neutered, criminally boring mess poorly developed and poorly translated to the silver screen. Let this be an educational resource for future generations. Take note, producers, and learn from the mistakes of Rock of Ages and the accomplishments of Les Miserables. Oh, and guys, if you see Les Miserables, it will get you super laid with your girlfriend (I have anecdotal evidence).
Les Miserables: B+
Rock of Ages: C-
Director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, Oscar winners for 2009’s Best Picture-winner war film The Hurt Locker, were hard at work on their next movie when fate intervened. They were about to start production on a film about a 2001 incident where U.S. Special Forces almost nabbed Osama bin Laden, the notorious mastermind behind 9/11. Then on May 1, 2011, the world learned that Seal Team Six stormed bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan and executed the most wanted man in the world. Bigelow and Boal scrapped all plans and rewrote their movie from scratch. Now they had the ending we’d all demand; isn’t a movie where we get bin Laden way better than one where he narrowly escapes? Zero Dark Thirty (military terminology for well after dark) is the stunning result of Boal’s impressive reporting and condensing, Bigelow’s masterful direction, and a great supporting cast that brings history to vivid life. If you’re like me, you’ll walk out of the theater whistling to yourself, speechless at the spellbinding artistic achievement of the movie. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what essential, invigorating, quality filmmaking is all about.
We may know about Seal Team Six and the lead presented from tracking the courier, but few people know of the CIA analyst at the heart of the manhunt. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young agent stationed in Afghanistan who desires nothing more than to be the one who helps ensure that bin Laden gets killed. We follow her decade-long quest as she chases down leads, interrogates prisoners, and successfully presses the CIA brass for action, resulting in the fateful raid that took out bin Laden.
You can tell early on that Zero Dark Thirty is going to be an excellent film. Given the pedigree of is creators, my expectations were enormously high. I rated their previous collaboration as my top film of that year. I knew I was in capable hands when the film opens on September 11, 2001 but skips any visuals. We sit and watch a minute of a blank screen while the sounds of desperate 911 calls become a wall of sound. It’s enough to reassert the stakes while still being restrained. Bigelow’s directorial command is astonishing, pitting you in the thick of the action. There are a lot of moving parts with a movie like this, wheels within wheels, and Bigelow keeps everything moving and focused. It helps that the bigger manhunt is broken up into a series of mini-missions over the ten years. Bigelow and her talented production team have recreated the ends of the world to bring this story to life. That added sheen of verisimilitude gives every moment a sense of magnified power, an electric sense of relevancy. You’ll get goose bumps as they start circling the actual location of bin Laden. Bigelow, who won an Oscar for her virtuoso work on The Hurt Locker, still knows how to play every one of your nerves. There’s a clandestine meet up with a possible turncoat that is stuffed with dread. Every checkpoint, every safety procedure waved, you’ll be biting your nails, the voice in your head clearly saying, “Oh no, this isn’t going to go well.” Zero Dark Thirty is more crime procedural than the action thriller. Even so, Bigelow’s direction is top-notch and brings an intense, churning verve to the film, down to the smallest detail.
The film plays out like an absorbing, hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism, recreating the steps and false turns over the ten-year manhunt for bin Laden. There is a lot of information to process and over 100 speaking roles, and Boal and Bigelow do not stoop to pander to the less intelligent in the audience. You will be expected to catch up or fall behind. It can get confusing at points but Boal does an exceedingly articulate job of narrowing the particulars of the bin Laden case and presenting a clear through line. It’s a story that hops around the globe through a series of mini-missions, from a meet up with a possible al Qaeda spy to locking down a phone number to trace a courier in Pakistan. You see every step, every deal, and every effort that it takes to land the big break, namely tracking down bin Laden’s trusted courier to his Abbottabad compound. Boal even separates his narrative with titled sub-sections like a lengthy piece of journalism. We all know where the story is going to end up, but Boal’s supreme talent is making every step meaningful and tense leading up to that fateful raid May 1, 2011. The level of reportage detail is completely enthralling and will be relatively unknown to most filmgoers. Beyond 9/11 and the London bombings, I confess to being ignorant of the other al Qaeda attacks highlighted throughout. Therefore, not only is Zero Dark Thirty an exciting manhunt, it’s also an educational endeavor for most Americans.
The proceeding two hours are an engrossing manhunt, but when Zero Dark Thirty gets to the raid sequence, that is when the movie ascends to a level of cinematic excellence unsurpassed this year at the movies. There is nothing else in 2012 that comes close to matching the 30-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound. My heart was in my throat the whole time. I was physically shaking. I was pinned to my chair. The conclusion, nabbing bin Laden, is one of the most riveting sequences in film I have ever seen. It’s like Bigelow has complete control of your senses, and even though we all know how this story ends, you’ll be glued to the screen, pulse racing, anticipating every step. After the film ended, I told my friend Eric that I felt like I needed to start smoking, thus was how exhilarated I felt leaving the theater (message to kids: don’t smoke, even if you see Zero Dark Thirty). My head was bustling afterwards. All I could think about was the masterful conclusion to a very good movie. The raid sequence is brilliantly recreated and just about portrayed in exacting real time; you feel like you’re right there along with the members of Seal Team Six. For a civilian, it’s fascinating jut to watch the minutiae of what went down, but under Bigelow’s taut direction, it’s the moment every American has been waiting for since September 11, 2001. Bigelow is also careful not to portray the death in any sort of jingoistic, fist-pumping context. She sticks with her docu-drama approach, avoiding sensationalism, and you don’t even see the shot that takes down bin Laden. The film is also very careful not to linger on bin Laden’s dead body or even reveal his face; she doesn’t, as President Obama said, “spike the football.” Bigelow deserves a second Oscar just for her superlative handling of those unparalleled 30 minutes of pure filmmaking bravado. Plus, it’s the best ending of the year at the movies.
Let me address the brewing controversy ensnaring the movie regarding its depiction of torture. Zero Dark Thirty does demonstrate torture but it never glorifies it or presents it as anything less than dehumanizing and morally repugnant. But torture did happen (I’m sorry Dick Cheney… “enhanced interrogations”) and to whitewash this regrettable period of time from the historical record is a disservice to the truth. This country, as well as any other, engages in extreme and detestable measures; we only hope that our leaders have the moral clarity to make these ethical lapses as few and far between as possible. Now, the politicians and bloggers have attacked Bigelow’s movie as tacitly condoning torture, indicting that it was successful in getting that big break. This is not the case. Zero Dark Thirty shows a variety of methods being used, and yes we get a heavy helping of torture and humiliation, but it’s when Maya and others start treating the detainee like a human being again, offering food and conversation, is when the progress is made. The film does not explicitly declare one interrogation method successful, however, I can see where people will draw their own (wrong) conclusion. If anyone wants to read my exact stance on torture, just check out my lengthy review of the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side. In short, torture does not work and Zero Dark Thirty does not purport that it does, though many may conclude otherwise. It seems to me that the critics don’t have enough faith in the audience to accept ambiguity.
2011’s breakout actress, Chastain (The Help), is the focal point of the movie and she delivers. Her character has no life outside of doggedly hunting for bin Laden. She’s completely driven by the goal of killing him, and as such she gets to uncork some dandy angry monologues dressing down her colleagues for their failing dedication. Chastian does a fine job of keeping a veneer around Maya, shrouding her emotions into a mysterious calm, which seems realistic given the nature of the character but also makes it tricky to connect with her emotionally. This movie is not the great character study that The Hurt Locker was, and so Maya gets some rather shrift characterization: she’s a workaholic fighting for credibility. The real star of the movie is the story so all the characters take a back seat to Boal’s journalism. While Chastain is quite good, I have to shrug my shoulders at the various critics groups throwing Best Actress accolades her way (go Jennifer Lawrence).
The supporting cast doesn’t have a weak link amongst them, from Kyle Chandler (Super 8) as an outpost boss, Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as a CIA superior screaming at the bin Laden team to “find me targets to kill,” Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) as Maya’s closest friend in a hostile land, James Gandolfini (TV’s Sopranos) as CIA director Leon Panetta, Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones’ Stannis Baratheon) as a skeptical NSA head, and Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) as a member of Seal Team Six. That’s right America, TV’s Andy Dwyer helps cap bin Laden. But the real standout is Jason Clarke (Lawless) as an interrogator who eventually leaves the field for an office but still makes headway for Maya.
Much like The Hurt Locker, here is a movie that transcends politics and genre. Zero Dark Thirty is a nerve-wracking thriller, it’s an intelligent crime procedural, and it’s an engrossing and powerful work of relevant art. It operates on such a high level of artistic achievement that little else from 2012 even comes close. This thorough, intense, provocative, thought-provoking, morally ambiguous, thrilling, and generally tremendous movie is taken to a whole other level with its concluding act, brilliantly recreating the raid that took down Osama bin Laden, the most cathartic and satisfying ending of the year. You’ll be liable to whistle in awe at how accomplished Zero Dark Thirty is. Of course audiences should not accept every thing they see in the movie as unimpeachable gospel, as dramatic license is needed to help shape a formidable narrative. This is still a movie that desires to entertain and yea does it entertain. I look forward to the American public getting a chance to experience the same riveting theatrical experience that I had with my critical brethren, as well as the sense of catharsis and relief by film’s end. Zero Dark Thirty forgoes sensationalism for modulation, eschews moral righteousness for ambiguity, and expects the audience to keep up with its retinue of information. And you’ll be grateful to be given the chance to tag along. Run out and see this remarkable movie when you have the chance. Movies don’t get much better than this, folks.
Nate’s Grade: A
In the five years since 2007’s comedy smash, Knocked Up, writer/director Judd Apatow has ascended to heights in Hollywood that few ever achieve. And while his disappointing 2009 film Funny People may have been an example of the man flying too close to the sun (let’s mix metaphors, why not?), he’s had a stable career guiding mostly hit comedies to big numbers, particularly last year’s Bridesmaids. For Apatow’s next directing effort, he picks up a handful of supporting characters from Knocked Up and gives them their own spotlight. This is 40 is Apatow’s “sort-of sequel.” It may seem familiar in tone and style to his previous efforts, but there’s one big difference between this film and Apatow’s previous works. This movie never feels like it goes anywhere. Even Funny People went somewhere even if I disliked it.
Five years after the events of Knocked Up, Peter (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are struggling to keep their household afloat and sane. Their daughters, Sadie and Charlotte, (played by Apatow’s real daughters, Maude and Iris), are constantly fighting, Debbie’s worried one of her employees is stealing from her business, and Pete’s trying to save his record company without alerting his family to his panic. Pete has put all his efforts into promoting a new album from 1970s rocker Graham Parker, but really he’s fighting a losing battle against mainstream taste. Pete has also been secretly loaning out money to his no-good father (Albert Brooks), while Debbie has been trying to reconnect with her distant biological father (John Lithgow). Weirdly enough, both fathers have started secondary families and have broods of young children. As Debbie and Pete both approach the big 4-0, both of them make resolutions to better themselves, renew their family bonding, and reignite the spark in their romance. Of course, after two kids and several years of marriage tallied, it’s easier said than done.
The Apatow films have always had their own loping rhythm to them, an easygoing quality that isn’t as directed by plot as character. So when I say that This is 40 feels rather aimless, I want readers to recognize that this goes beyond the normal loosely plotted Apatow affairs. Usually his movies have defined events to direct the overall trajectory of the plot; a baby on the way, losing one’s virginity, etc. I’m hard pressed to say what exactly is the direction of This is 40. It’s about the ups and downs of a married couple, but there isn’t necessarily any definable conflict. They’re sort of in a malaise and internalizing their unhappiness, but the movie is the sum total of many small conflicts that never seem to congeal. As a result, the movie feels like it’s often coasting, going beat-for-beat until something new takes it on a mild diversion. It’s a movie of diversions without a unifying path. Sure the couple becomes, presumably, stronger by the end of the film, but I can’t say what’s taken place to explain this progression. The movie plays out like a series of loosely connected scenes. I enjoyed myself, and found the movie often amusing, but I kept wondering what it was amounting to. It was never enough of a niggling concern to stop from being entertaining, but when it was done, I thought to myself that I just watched Apatow’s friends hang out for two hours and call it a movie.
There’s also the issue of indicating this is a sequel to Knocked Up or at least exists within the same universe. There’s very little continuity between the two films other than Pete and Debbie’s family. Jason Segel (The Muppets) and Charlyne Yi (Paper Heart) make reappearances playing characters with the same names, but they don’t seem like the same characters (though the gyno doc is the same – hooray). My major sticking point is the complete absence of the stars of Knocked Up, Ben (Seth Rogen) and Alison (Katherine Heigl). Now I wasn’t expecting a drawn out cameo from these two, especially after Heigl publicly badmouthed Apatow and the movie that made her a star. I did expect some passing reference, even something as small as, “Ben and Alison are looking at schools for their daughter.” I just wanted something to feel satisfied. Where this becomes a problem is that I’m fairly certain that Ben and Alison would be attending several of these major social events for their family members. They make a big deal about Pete’s 40th birthday party, so why wouldn’t Ben and Alison be there? And with her litany of marital woes, wouldn’t Debbie seek out, you know, her sister to talk with, the same sister she hung out with all the time in Knocked Up? Apatow might as well have just given everyone a new name if this was as sequel-y as This is 40 was daring to go.
Part of my lukewarm reception to the film is likely my lack of empathy with the problems of the main characters. Good storytelling should allow anyone to be able to empathize with characters dissimilar to themselves. I found many of the problems in This is 40 to be the stuff of rich fantasy. Pete is worried his record company, that he started, might not make it. He’s also been secretly giving his mooch of a father $80,000 (!) over the years. Maybe these people could stand to cut back and live within their means. Their house is huge, downright opulent, and it seems like Pete has wasted plenty of money on needless expenditures, which his own employees eventually point out at work. Did they need a big 40th birthday bash? Do their kids need every expensive gadget? When they take a vacation, does it need to be in a lavish hotel along the beach? I found too many of these complaints to be whiny and indulgent. That’s not to say that there aren’t serious relationship problems that are given thoughtful attention. This is 40 is arguably Apatow’s most mature and reflective film yet, though that might be faint praise to some. I would rather the movie spent more time focusing on the relatable concerns of a relationship crumbling rather than the stress of possibly having to move from a super-rich house to a merely somewhat rich house.
And yet the movie is routinely funny and charming, thanks to the Apatow standards of cast camaraderie, character, and the mixture of raunch with sweetness. I like these characters and so I enjoy spending time with them, and even if I feel like we’re not going anywhere fast, I don’t mind that much. I’ll gladly spend two plus hours with these funny people and their mid-life crises comic follies, at least once. The characters are well drawn and played by capable comic players that can do their Apatow jazz deal, finding peculiar riffs to work and squeeze out mirth. I thought a discussion over the appeal of being a widower and the fantasy of a spouse’s untimely demise to be quite funny as well as a topic generally unspoken (“This is the mother of your children we’re talking about. You want her to go peacefully.”). Rudd (Wanderlust) and Mann (The Change-Up) are terrific together and entirely convincing as a longstanding couple, people who know the ins and outs of one another. It’s fascinating just to watch the nuts and bolts of a relationship that is still a battle; it also helps when you like both participants and find that they each have valid points. Though I cannot fathom how hiding impending financial doom is a smart move.
Apatow does a fine job of making sure the dramatic parts do not overweigh the film, usually settling things with a nicely punctuated joke or pop-culture critique (oddly enough, TV’s LOST becomes a major reoccurring gag, though you expect a bit more of a comedic payoff when they get to the controversial finale). I’m not sure that many people are going to know who Graham Parker is, but here he is folks. There are a lot of Apatow players peopled throughout, like Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids), Lena Dunham (TV’s Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), making fine work with minimal screen time. You’ll recognize other familiar faces as well. Occasionally the jokes feel like they go on too long, catching the downward slope of an overstayed improv riff, but I was laughing throughout and enjoyed the unpredictable nature scene to scene. You’ll likely predict the outcomes for certain storylines and conflicts, since Apatow is a sucker for the squishy ending, but you’ll feel like it got there on its own relative terms. It’s not exactly a happy ending but it’s a less unhappy ending.
There are plenty of supporting actors that shine in this movie, though I feel that I need to single out the great Albert Brooks (Drive). He plays such a passive-aggressive, manipulative, mooch of a father, but he does it in a way that almost wins you over, how straightforward he is with his bad behavior. When Pete tells him he cannot loan any more money, Brooks blithely, almost cheerily, theorizes that murdering some of his recent kids can solve this problem. He marches out, gets a hose, and asks the kids to volunteer who wants to be murdered. It’s scenes like this that manage to be funny but also cutting to a dramatic truth that the film hovers around, occasionally hitting the bullseye. Megan Fox (Transformers) is also enjoyable as a, what else, vivacious employee men are falling all over themselves for. And even Apatow’s own kids give rather strong performances, now playing actual characters rather than scene-stealers. Maude, the oldest, has a lot of dramatic scenes as the teenager daughter coming to grips with hormones and her crazy parents. The Apatow clan might just get some outside work after people see dad’s movie.
While I doubt Apatow has made any sort of definitive statement on what it means to approach four decades worth of life (and poop jokes), This is 40 is a perceptive and enjoyable movie even if it feels like a collection of scenes. Good thing I like these characters and enjoy spending time with them, otherwise I might find this whole film to be a bit aimless and self-indulgent. Seriously, how many scenes are there going to be of people singing along to music? This is 40 has enough going for it, be it comedy or some insightful dramatic moments, though it keeps an audience a bit removed due to the unrelatable nature of their posh problems. If there’s a This is 50 in the works, next time get me some more Rogen time. I’d rather watch him deal with raising a teenage girl in the age of social media. You don’t have to know anything about Knocked Up to follow along with This is 40, but then again, if you haven’t seen Knocked Up, just go watch that movie instead. Trust me.
Nate’s Grade: B
I would argue that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epic has left the biggest impact on the world of popular culture over the past decade. It’s hard to remember a time when the multi-billion dollar trilogy, and winner of just about every Oscar dreamt up, was seen as a risky proposition. Would there be an audience for this kind of movie, let alone three of them? Well, ten years later, and mountains of money still being counted, this question has been put to rest. And so the discussion naturally veered to that other J.R.R. Tolkien book, the first one, The Hobbit. The production of it was held up for years with legal battles over who owned the rights and then with MGM’s bankruptcy. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie at this point. They knew the fortunes that would come. Jackson returned to direct The Hobbit, which was designed to be two movies but then late into filming was transformed into a trilogy. Now we have three Hobbit films because, quite simply, three movies equal more money. Everyone’s doing the whole elongated film franchise now, from Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games. Why give up the cash cow so easily? The first chapter, An Unexpected Journey, arrives this year, and you’ll probably relive whatever feelings were felt for Lord of the Rings. I know I did.
Sixty years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a fastidious hobbit keeping to himself. Then one day the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) visits and brings with him a dozen dwarf guests. The dwarves, lead by Thorin Oakensheild (Richard Armitage), are looking to reclaim their ancestral home, the Misty Mountain. The greedy dragon Smaug overtook the mountain many years ago (did you know dragons apparently lust for treasure like pirates?). The group needs a burglar, and hobbits are small and make minimal sound, making Bilbo an ideal candidate. Naturally Bilbo refuses the notion of a dangerous adventure, but then he changes his mind (what? It’s not going to be 8 more hours of Bilbo doing housework). Bilbo and the dwarves encounter elves, orcs, trolls, wizards, and all sorts of creatures as they make their way across Middle Earth to the Misty Mountain.
I was more excited for the Hobbit films when they were initially going to be directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). I thought that master of creepy crawlies would come up with something decidedly different, but alas it was not meant to be. Jackson hopped back in the director’s chair and provides a nice sense of continuity between the film franchises. The man knows this world like the back of his hand. He still has his great sense of visual grandeur, and often the movie is gorgeous to behold. The locations give the realm of Middle Earth such a better tangible feel than had he gone the George Lucas route and spent all his time with green screens. Even the more heavily-effects-laden sequences, like the underground orc lair, are rich, dense, terrific film locations you want to get lost in, absorbing every detail. From a technical standpoint, the film is never less than beautiful. Jackson also maintains a superior handling of action, knowing how to extend a set piece and build tension. The villains in The Hobbit might not be as meaty or memorable as they are in Lord of the Rings (a testy, one-handed albino orc feels like a lackluster heavy) but they provide enough credible danger. If you loved the Lord of the Rings films, and their fans are legion, then you’ll likely enjoy the first part of the prequel trilogy. If I had to rate the first chapter of The Hobbit, I’d say it’s closer to 2002’s Two Towers in overall quality, the film I liked the least in the Rings trilogy.
Now that we know there’s a healthy audience for these movies, I worry that Jackson has lost his sense of objectivity. There is no reason this movie needed to be as long as it is. There’s certainly no reason that a 300-page book, primarily aimed at children, needs to be padded out into three movies, each promising to be close to three hours in length (9 hours out of 300 pages = 1.8 pages per minute). Instead of the Jackson who nipped and tucked Tolkien’s gargantuan tomes, removing Tom Bombadill, now we have a Jackson who adds lengthy appearances of characters only briefly mentioned before in the book (kooky naturist wizard Radagast). There are also cameos from the Lord of the Rings cast to provide some further connective tissue. Now we have Bilbo and his gang visiting just about every single gnarly creature in Middle Earth, or so it seems. Now we have a quest that doesn’t even begin until close to an hour into the film. And that quest seems a lot less urgent; rather than, you know, saving the world, our characters are out to… reclaim a mountain for the dwarves. The drop in urgency makes the tale and its detours feel like dawdling. The concluding hour is fairly well paced, especially once Gollum shows his ugly mug, but the movie feels like it has precious little forward momentum. I don’t have high hopes for the future films. Fans of Tolkien’s works will likely just be thrilled to see every facet of their favorite story brought to startling life, so they won’t care about lag. At the conclusion of this movie, as our characters are dropped off by giant eagles, they look in the distance and see the Misty Mountain, their hope renewed. However I was yelling, “Get those eagles back! Why do you have to walk the whole way there?” Looks like even more long movies of walking lie ahead (cue Clerks II Rings vs. Star Wars clip).
This is also a far different film than the Lord of the Rings epics when it comes to tone. It’s far more childish and filled with comedy, also aimed at children. I don’t mean the term “childish” to see like a negative broadside, though that’s the connotation. The world of Middle Earth isn’t ensnared in the perils of Sauron just yet, so even though we got trolls and dragons and the like, the temperament is chippier. There are a lot more comic escapades here and it’s easier to accept when, you know, the world isn’t being threatened with an eternally evil malevolence. There’s a lot of bumbling and physical comedy at play, especially when the dwarves take over poor Bilbo’s home. Later on, there’s an orc king who has what is unmistakably a pair of testicles hanging below his chin. I mean you cannot possibly look at the image and interpret it as anything differently. You probably would never see something like that, for better or worse, in the Lord of the Rings films.
The biggest news for me with The Hobbit was Jackson filming at 48 frames per second (fps). It’s twice the rate of how we’ve perceived movies since the 1920s. It is a brave leap forward in technology. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to have the opportunity to view The Hobbit in this exciting new format. Having come through the 48 fps experience, I’ll say that it has its pros and cons. On the negative side, it certainly breaks with the standard filmic look we’re so accustomed to, that dream-like state that’s removed from reality. Often the picture looks like it was recorded on video, giving the movie a stagy BBC feel to it. For some, this change will seem cheap or less grand. The biggest piece to get used to is that at 48 frames, everyone’s movements seem overly exaggerated. Everyone moves like they’ve had eight cups of coffee. It’s these hyper movements that make me think of that horrible TV feature on some HD TVs that plays down judder by amplifying movement, so everything looks like a video game cut scene. Your eyes may feel a bit more strained, as mine did after the three hours, trying to capture all the jostling movement. The 48 fps also has a tendency to blur quick motion, making it harder to pay attention to the particulars of action sequences.
Now, with that being said, I personally feel that the benefits far outweigh the detractions. The level of detail and clarity is outstanding. I felt immersed in this world. And with the 48 fps, it’s also the greatest theatrical 3D experience I’ve ever had. You feel like you’re literally inside the movie. When things fly at the screen you may just duck your head on instinct. The movie worked best when it could explore the different physical realms of Middle Earth. The underground orc world was magnificent to explore. There were several moments that made me gasp, taking my breath away at the level of detail. It takes a while to get used to and for your eyes to adjust, but I think the awkwardness dissipates and you’re left to gawk in awe with the effects and presentation. I doubt we’ll be seeing too many other films presented in this manner. Firstly, I think half the public is going to hate it. 48 fps really only works for films that necessitate a big canvas. You need a world that you want to be a part of, something to dazzle the senses, which means it will probably be best utilized with sci-fi and fantasy films. Hitchcock at 48 fps would certainly not be worth the extra frames.
Freeman (BBC’s brilliant Sherlock, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is a perfectly enjoyable lead. Bilbo is much more of that classic British nattering type, more comedic in nature than the sad burden of Frodo, and Freeman is naturally a skilled comedic actor. He doesn’t overdo any sort of hobbity nebbishness either, and when it comes to the dramatic parts he can sell those just as well. McKellen (X-Men) is as wonderful as ever as the wise yet playful wizard. The real breakout star of the movie is Armitage (BBC’s Robin Hood) as Thorin Oakensheild. The man has such gravitas to him, a commanding screen presence, and it helps when he has a completely badass slow-mo strut that burns into your memory how awesome the actor and character are (fun observation: at 48 fps, slow motion looks almost like “normal” movie speed). I anticipate Armitage to give the squealing fans of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) a new heartthrob to declare their loyalty.
Jackson’s return to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is pretty much more of the same, though with a less urgent plot, a broader scope of comedy, and some extra technical wizardry. Watching it will pretty much rekindle whatever feelings you had for the duration of the Lord of the Rings pictures. If you know this stuff verbatim, you’ll happily take every second of detail. If you’re like me and enjoyed the films but didn’t tattoo them in your memory, then you’ll likely have a pleasant if occasionally tedious experience with The Hobbit. I’m fairly certain that Jackson could have judiciously sliced a solid 20-30 minutes out of this unexpected journey; maybe they have fewer journeys with every magical being this side of Middle Earth. Still, the film is grand and sprawling and spectacular to witness. If you were interested in the 48 fps presentation, I’d recommend it but know what you’re going in for. It will be a very different experience and one that you’ll need some adjustment time to properly attune to. Unless you’re a techie, I’d advise watching the movie in a standard 24 frame presentation and then seeking out the high frame rate for a second helping, already knowing what to expect from the plot. I plan on seeing the next two Hobbit films in the 48 fps presentation. Hopefully by that time, come December 2013, my eyes will have recovered.
Nate’s Grade: B
I think Alfred Hitchcock would be amused at his continued notoriety, not just from the quality of his films but also from the magnitude of his own presence. 2012 offers not one but two different movies about the master of suspense, both of which are oddly close in time period. HBO’s The Girl explored Tippi Hedren’s account of what it was like to film The Birds, with Hitchcock being a provocateur. The more straight-forwardly named Hitchcock looks at Alfred’s trials to make one of his seminal films, 1960’s Psycho. I only wish that the movie spent more time on Psycho and less time on the Hitchcock marriage.
Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is starting to feel like he’s being left behind in Hollywood. He’s looking for his new project, something to rekindle his creative fervor, get those juices flowing once more. Then he comes across the book Psycho, based upon the murders of Ed Gein, a man who thought his dead mother was telling him to kill and make skin suits of his victims (Gein is also the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs; truly the gift that keeps on giving for horror). Murder, cross-dressing, incest. You can understand the hesitation from studio heads to bankroll the picture, even with the great Hitchcock name attached. With the sturdy support of his unflappable wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock puts his own money and clout on the line to see Psycho through. As the pressure mounts, Alfred is worried that his wife is spending a bit too much of her time with a certain screenwriter who wishes to woo her efforts away.
Sir Alfred was a blunt individual so I will follow suit and mince no words – this movie is terrible. How could it possibly be? It has tremendous acting talent and the rich angle of looking at the making of one of Hollywood’s most controversial and famous movies of all time the groundbreaking Psycho. Alas, it’s when the movie takes its many sidesteps away from the behind-the-scenes action of Psycho is where it goes astray. First off, I find the narrative framing around the marriage of the Hitchcocks to be superficial and hamstrung. We’re telling this vastly interesting story and grounding it in a very slight manner, gauging every creative struggle through the prism of whether or not Alfred and Alma will stick together. I assume it’s supposed to provide an emotional entry point for the movie, but I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about the jealous spasms Alfred felt as his wife spent more and more time with a caddish screenwriter, and boy did that storyline get tiresome. I want to know more about Psycho and not this dumb portrayal of martial woes told with such graceless handling. The whole portrayal seems so minute and clumsy and such a poor framing device when the making of Psycho is a juicy enough story. I didn’t need the focus to be on whether the Hitchcock marriage will persevere. Oh, and the resolution for this feels completely pulled from thin air, without any groundwork laid to explain the about-face into compassion in those final minutes.
Then there’s the portrayal of Alfred Hitchcock himself, which is so dubiously shallow when it comes to psychology. Oh, he’s obsessed with blonde leading ladies? Oh he’s a bit of a control freak? Oh he can be overbearing and demanding and standoffish? Wow, what powerful insights into arguably the most famous director in movie history. The movie, adapted by John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan), feels like it was made by someone who did the bare minimum of research on the man. There are no new insights or even mildly interesting ones to be found. It’s the standard boilerplate repeated with different actors. And then there are the nails-on-a-chalkboard scenes where Hitchcock imagines himself talking confessionally to none other than Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). Excuse me? Oh my goodness do these tacky sequences just grate. I don’t even understand their inclusion. Is this a manifestation of Hitchcock’s own sense of madness when it comes to moviemaking? Does he feel some connection to the horrible disturbed man who inspired his newest film? Does Hitchcock only feel like he can communicate to a figment of his own imagination? Whatever the reason, I wanted to smack myself in the head every time Hitch and Gein had a heart-to-heart. I should have known I’d be in for a bumpy ride when, in the movie’s opening minutes, a news reporter asks Hitchcock, after the premier of 1959’s North by Northwest, why he doesn’t just hang it up? Did this idiot even see North by Northwest? Would you ask Spielberg if he should retire after viewing Saving Private Ryan or Kubrick after A Clockwork Orange?
Then there’s the matter of Hopkins as Hitchcock. It never feels like the right fit. Turkey jowls aside, the man doesn’t look too similar to Hitchcock nor does he adopt a demeanor that proves convincing. Sure he goes for that highly imitable voice and cadence that Hitch is well remembered for, particularly his openings on his own TV show. You never feel like Hopkins has a real strong bead on the character, and surely the fault lies with the weak characterization relying on the collective knowledge of Hitchcock’s outsized public persona. Likewise, Mirren (The Debt) is fine but gets to play another of her steely strong-willed matriarchs. Mirren won’t let you done when it comes to performance but, given the lack of strong characterization, she goes on autopilot. The best actor in the movie is surprisingly Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers) who has a striking similarity to Janet Leigh, and not just in what you’re thinking. She’s instantly likeable and takes the Hitchcock peculiarities in stride, putting up a strong front but voicing her concerns when appropriate.
Director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil!) gooses up his story with all sorts of horror genre techniques, including editing fake outs and violent edits. I’m also unsure why so many liberties needed to be taken with the retelling of this story. I’m not going to be a person decrying the use of fictionalized elements in a true-life story for dramatic effect (I loved Argo), but you have to do so in a way that tells a better story without getting too far away from the essential truth of the matter. Hitchcock, in raising the talents of Alma, attributes many of Psycho’s development achievements to her keen womanly insights when they came from others. That’s fine, except that the movie portrays her in such a rarefied state of genius that she quickly becomes the movie’s surefire narrative cheat. Having problem with the last act? Let’s have Alma fix it. Having problems with the editing? Let’s have Alma fix that. It’s not compelling of a story for one character to chiefly have all the answers instinctively and without any sense of struggle. I understand that Alma did a lot of unaccredited work on Hitchcock’s movies, though it wasn’t uncommon for women to be screenwriters at that time and you’d think the pull of being a Mrs. Hitchcock would get her well-deserved credit. Regardless, I wish that Gervasi and McLaughlin had given Alma more depth than being put upon wife/secret savant collaborator.
It’s a shame because there’s a genuinely interesting movie to be had somewhere in here. The making of Psycho was fraught with difficulties and the studios just didn’t get it. Watching Hitchcock work through that process and persevere would be far more interesting. I enjoyed the multitude of famous cameos, like Michael Stuhlbarg as Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock’s agent and eventual head of Universal Studios, and even Ralph Macchio as Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano. I suppose the ins and outs concerning one of the most famous movies of all time could be considered, erroneously I feel, to be too “inside baseball.” That’s why I think the filmmakers expanded the romantic drama angle and had it consume the majority of the running time. Often the stupid perils of the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic squabbles feel so petty and cheap considering the magnitude of the work going on. Hitchcock feels like a movie that found the least interesting and essential angle to tell the story of the making of Psycho. Diehard movie fans might find some fun to be had with the minutia of Hollywood and Hitchcock’s life, but I cannot fathom how anyone could view this portrayal as effective. It’s not insightful, it’s not challenging, it’s not relevant, and it’s certainly not entertaining. This movie is not deserving of the name it bears.
Nate’s Grade: C
Director Ang Lee’s openly spiritual survival drama is really all about a kid, a lifeboat, and a tiger. Or is it? Based on the best-selling book, Life of Pi is a hard movie to put into words. You can assess what you’ve seen on screen but the emotional experience and the narrative purpose are a little trickier to nail. Our main character, Pi, is trying to survive adrift in the ocean, his only “companion” an angry tiger. I appreciated that the tiger acts, well, mostly like a tiger; ferocious, scared, territorial, and hungry for some tasty Pi. Just because they’re stuck together doesn’t mean this wild animal becomes cuddly. Lee has put careful attention into crafting a film that uses 3D artfully, and you can tell a big difference from the normal slapdash efforts made for an extra buck. The shipwreck scene is terrifying, the moments of wonder at sea are majestic, and the tiger is a marvel of CGI, rarely looking fake. Despite the life-and-death circumstances, I cannot say I was truly emotionally invested in the story, and I think that has to do with the reveal at the end. I won’t spoil it but we find out the story is also an allegory and there’s a deeper, sadder meaning to the dramatic events onscreen. The very nature of storytelling as a means of psychological redress is an idea worth pondering by film’s end. I just don’t know if it was a strong enough ending to send me on my way. The movie looks great, it’s imaginative and contemplative, but by the end, Life of Pi hadn’t convinced me about the existence of God, as it promised to do, but left me emotionally at arm’s length. Maybe that’s subtext for man’s relationship with God, but I won’t go there. I wish Pi’s emotional journey was held to the same level of art as the physical struggle.
Nate’s Grade: B
A funny thing happened while watching Killing Them Softly, the latest film from writer/director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). After an hour, I noticed a couple people stand up and leave, never to return. Then another and another like permission had been communally brokered. I counted ten walkouts at my showing, which was more than I had at Cloud Atlas, a film that I can at least understand the possible exodus. But this? It also got a rare F grade from CinemaScore, joining the ranks of The Devil Inside, Wolf Creek, and The Box. Before you put that much stock in what is essentially a movie going exit poll, Alex Cross was given an A grade from audiences. But why all the venomous hate? I can only theorize that the mainstream audience feels it was sold a bill of goods, a crime thriller with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The audience did not want to go on the lengthy talky detours. They wanted people to get dead. Whatever the reason, Killing Them Softly has killed its audience, who choose not to go softly in their disapproval.
Set amidst the economic meltdown of 2008, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Frankie (Ben Mendelsohn) are two lowlife thugs hired to rob a mob-affiliated card game. The trick is that local gangster Markie (Ray Liotta) had previously paid a group of guys to rob his own card game, fleecing his own customers. In his drunken revelry, Markie admitted as such to his pals. Now the situation is ripe for exploitation. Because any future robberies will have their suspicions pinned firmly on Markie, whether he had anything to do with them or not. As a result, no one is gambling, the public has lost confidence in the markets, and the mob needs to get things back to business. Jackie (Brad Pitt) is called in to make that happen. He’s a professional killer, who prefers to kill at a distance, without all those messy emotions. He has to trace the culprits responsible and give them the reckoning they have coming.
From a plot standpoint, Killing Them Softly is pretty thin. It’s just about the ramifications of two nitwits robbing a card game. This lack of narrative depth will rankle most filmgoers, but I didn’t mind it so much because Dominik uses the crime thriller veneer to examine the sheer ugliness of a criminal lifestyle. This is a pretty character-driven crime flick, and it has to be when there’s a malnourished plot. It takes some lengthy sidesteps, notably with James Gandolfini’s (Zero Dark Thirty) character, Mickey. He’s supposed to be a professional, but the man is a complete wreck. He’s belligerent to those in service positions (waiters, prostitutes), chronically drunk, and weirdly empathetic for his struggling wife, yet seemingly powerless to change his life’s downward slide into self-medicated self-destruction. Mickey is the ghost of Christmas Future, the vision of what this lifestyle does to people who make a living out of it, who actually live into their retirement age. The two young crooks, Frankie and Russell, are idiots yes, but even when they have money their lives are so empty. Russell is so disgusting, sweating profusely, that you can practically taste his stank. Frankie is a little more cognizant of the danger he’s in, and yet the moron doesn’t leave town after his big score. I’d think that’s the first thing you do when you rip off the mob. The day-to-day anxiety of a life of crime is just not worth the effort. You constantly have to look over your shoulder, a life dominated in paranoia, where every stranger or furtive glance could have sinister meaning. Even when you make money, you’re theoretically taking money away from someone else’s profit, and these are the kind of people that don’t take kindly to friendly competition. This is no enviable, glamorous life.
I think Killing Me Softly would be a better, easily more satisfying movie had it eschewed the attempts at extra weight and commentary. It’s no surprise that the scenes that follow a more traditional crime thriller route are the best. There’s palpable tension when Frankie and Russell are in over their heads. The conflict is prevalent and the suspense is nicely stretched out, notably during the card game robbery. Being neophytes, you don’t know what they’re liable to do but you can bet it won’t be smart. This is when the movie is most alive, most engaging, and most entertaining. When it plays it straight, and explores the sliding power plays at stake in a world of cash and guns, it can be a nasty but taut little movie. I’m just sorry that Dominik took a functional crime thriller and gave it an extra sheen of Important Things to Say (”America’s not a country. It’s a business.”). The political parallels never feel more than tacked on attempts to grope for deeper meaning. Oh I get it, I understand the comparison of mob enforcers and corrupt Wall Street execs, hoodlums and crooks in different casual wear, but that doesn’t mean the parallel is that meaningful. It’s on-the-nose and a bit in your face (really, people are watching C-SPAN in dive bars?).
Given Domink’s last film, I expected there to be some visual flourishes, though I’m unsure of whether they added much to the proceedings. Dominik sure can make violence entrancing, setting a slow motion slaying in the rain with stirring beauty to ironic Motown music. But he can also make the violence feel brutal, like a beat down on Markie that uses choice sound effects and editing to make you feel the punches. Even the opening seconds feel like an artistic assault to the senses, the loud static of noise interrupted by bursts of Obama’s sound bytes. The extreme camera angles, the visual felicities, the ironic music selections, they all seem to underscore the movie’s subtext-as-text approach.
Pitt (Moneyball) doesn’t come into the movie for the first thirty minutes. You’re welcome to see him, especially since he has such a coolly threatening demeanor, but also because here’s a character that will mix things up. I found myself rooting for the guy, partially because he was an accomplished professional but also because I wanted there to be consequences for idiots doing dumb to powerful enemies. I enjoyed the slow-burn intensity of Pitt when he was turning the screws on the screw-up. Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the Woods) is also enjoyable as a mob shill left to communicate the wishes of his higher-ups. McNairy (Argo) gives a performance that screams desperation, as he realizes the depth of trouble he finds himself into. And even Liotta (Charlie St. Cloud) does a fine job as a lout who misjudges the friends he keeps, discovering the costs of bragging.
In many ways, I feel like Killing Them Softly is akin to last year’s Drive, a more meditative crime thriller with bursts of gruesome yet beatific violence. Likewise, many filmgoers will be sore thinking they were catching straight crime thrillers and been given arty genre ruminations instead. And like my ambivalent feelings toward Drive, I can’t work up that much enthusiasm for Killing Them Softly either. It’s certainly got more ambition than most crime flicks but I’d rather it concentrate on telling a more engaging story. Dominik’s film is a bit too indulgent for its own good, given to visual flourishes and a narrative routinely sidetracked. And yet, I found it fairly interesting at just about every turn, well-acted, and intensely suspenseful and effective at different points. But it doesn’t add up to enough to recommend. The political allegory probably rubbed the walkouts the wrong way as well. The political allegory is too obvious, too pat with its “they’re all crooks” broadside. I wish the movie had abandoned the squalid, nihilistic art house ambitions and just kept things straight. When it has less on its mind, it works best. But for many, Killing Them Softly will be too tedious to see to the bloody end.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I’ve never read a Russian novel before, mostly because I don’t need to read 900 pages of bleakness and repressed happiness. With that said, I knew very little going into Anna Karenina (the very title sounds too heavy in syllables, like you’re stuttering). What didn’t help matters was director Joe Wright’s edict to set the story as if it was being performed on a living stage. This bizarre visual concept is interesting for a little while until you realize that it never goes further than the obvious note that the lives of the elites were played out in public for cruel judgment. The staging also gave me many periods of confusion where it felt like a character fantasy was taking place. The peculiar staging seems superfluous and the real draw for the film, not the relatively fine performances or Tom Stoppard’s (Shakespeare in Love) adaptation. I don’t think it works as a movie because, much like Wright’s Atonement, it feels too self-satisfied in its own mannered artifice. It’s an overload on style and the film neglects to give me a reason to care about the story and the characters. Keira Knightley as the titular heroine is hard to embrace, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Savages) seems miscast as her dashing lover, and Jude Law (Hugo) comes across as unreasonably tolerable of his wife’s flights of fancy, so much so it makes it hard to sympathize with her downward spiral. It’s a pretty movie and I applaud its attempt to do something different, but Wright’s Anna Karenina feels too fanciful to come across as tragic.
Nate’s Grade: B-