Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lincoln

Directed by Steven Spielberg.
2012. Rated PG-13, 150 minutes.

Cast:
Gloria Reuben
James Spader
Bruce McGill
Lee Pace
Gulliver McGrath


Having just been re-elected as President of the United States, with the Civil War still raging on, Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) focuses his efforts on getting the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed which will abolish slavery in America. As with most laws that most presidents want passed, there is almost total support from his own party, Republican in this case, and almost none from the other. Some swaying must be done. To complicate matters, he wants it to pass in a rather short period of time since the South appears ready to negotiate an end to the war. However, he knows that any agreement they settle on would have to include the survival of slavery. Amidst pressure from everyone around him, Lincoln stays his course.

As has been said so many times already, Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits the character to such a degree he is truly lost within Abraham Lincoln. We see him as a man who, in his professional capacity, has an enormous presence. He fills the room both literally and figuratively. If not always complete confidence, he oozes authority. Leadership seems to come easy for him. We can see why people follow him. On the other hand, we can also see he's flawed. Political opponents see him as abusive of his power and/or chasing a pipe dream. Privately, his marriage is contentious and he's completely stifling his older son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) in order to protect his wife's well-being since she teeters on the verge of a complete breakdown. In the role of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field is nearly her leading man's equal, coming apart at the seams one moment and the very picture of composure the next. When neither of those two are on the screen, the movie is carried by a magnificent Tommy Lee Jones who give his most inspired performance in years playing Republican Congressional Leader Thaddeus Stevens.


Carrying the weight of history, the plot unfolds in a riveting manner. This is because the supporting cast is allowed ample room to breathe. In a departure from most contemporary films, especially biopics, much happens when our hero is not on the screen. He spends large chunks of the movie off-camera while we watch the bickering going on in the House of Representatives. These spirited debates mostly take the place of action scenes. Though there are a few actual battle scenes, the high powered pontification on display is more entertaining. These guys, led by the aforementioned Jones, don't just argue. They scream, shout and string together fifty cent words all to the cheers and jeers of a crowd. Then there's the covert vote-grabbing operation going on initiated Secretary of State William H. Seward (Strathairn). There are a few times when the movie drags as the same arguments are repeated but usually something else happens that snaps us out of it.

For director Steven Spielberg, in my very humble opinion, this is his easily his finest directorial outing since Munich and quite possibly his best since Saving Private Ryan. The Adventures of Tintin, the best of his three movies since Munich is merely okay. It has it's moments. The last Indiana Jones flick left a lot to be desired. Finally, War Horse was somehow nominated for Best Picture last year but is just a dreadful, overwrought, unstoppable force of cheesiness. Lincoln also has its share of the director's trademarked sentimentality and even some corniness. The opening scene where soldiers take turns reciting the president's most famous speech to him comes to mind. Thankfully, that sort of stuff is ratcheted down a thousand notches from War Horse. We're left with a wonderful biopic and Daniel Day-Lewis' performance for the ages.

MY SCORE: 9/10

Monday, February 25, 2013

Congrats to the Winners!

 


Just finished watching the Oscars. Congrats to all the winners, especially Argo, taking home the honors for Best Picture. You can read my review of it here.

Movies I've reviewed that received at least one nomination this year (alphabetically):


Django Unchained
Flight
Mirror Mirror
Moonrise Kingdom
ParaNorman
Silver Linings Playbook
Snow White and the Huntsman
Ted


In the coming weeks, I should get to a bunch more nominees, particularly from the Best Picture category. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Ed Wood

Directed by Tim Burton.
1994. Rated R, 127 minutes.
Cast:
Martin Landau
Sarah Jessica Parker
Jeffrey Jones
Patricia Arquette
Lisa Marie
George “The Animal” Steele
Vincent D’Onofrio
Mike Starr
Max Casella
Brent Hinkley

Ed Wood, here played by Johnny Depp, is widely considered one of, if not the worst director of all-time. This biopic follows him from the time shortly before he makes his first feature, Glen or Glenda through the completion and premier of his magnum opus of bad filmmaking, Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Let’s face it, Ed Wood was an abject failure in his chosen profession. He was also socially awkward, a fact exacerbated by the less tolerant era during which he lived. Even the end of this movie tells us Mr. Wood eventually descended into alcoholism. The template is there for a dead serious biopic. Luckily for us, our director for this feature, Tim Burton, is both skilled and quirky. The former keeps the story moving briskly and in an engaging manner. He gives us a fun film highlighting the subject’s passion for making movies. We know that he’s bad at his job, but we also know he loves what he’s doing and genuinely believes he’s making masterpieces.

Burton’s quirkiness lead him to some brilliant choices. The most easily recognizable is that we’re watching a black and white picture. It snugly fits the world these people inhabit. Ever the purveyor of palatable weirdness, Burton’s handling of this collection of misfits is also perfectly done. He makes them fun without making fun of them. To that end, he gets wonderfully odd performances from Johnny Depp, Bill Murray (Bunny Breckinridge) and Patricia Arquette (Kathy O’Hara). He also uses Sarah Jessica Parker (Dolores Fuller) as a conduit for the audience, first wide-eyed in amazement of Ed’s ambition and eventually our sober voice of reason. Her final outburst reveals a painful truth to Ed that he unsurprisingly ignores. That he is undeterred is a testament to his love for his craft and belief in himself.



The part of the movie that touches us most is the relationship between Wood and the legendary Bela Lugosi (Landau). They form a peculiar friendship. It seems to be based initially on Wood’s hero worship of the once great star then on his exploiting Lugosi and Lugosi’s willingness to be exploited. Wood is the only director who will have the rapidly declining legend. By this time, he’s more than happy to be in any production so that he can support his drug habit. By the end, we’re not sure who used who more but we realize they actually do care for one another.

When it’s all said and done Mr. Burton’s film is a tip of the cap from one filmmaker to another, a loving tribute to a man who gave everything to tell the stories he wanted to tell. Admiration permeates the movie. It’s evident that Burton understands Wood’s movies are a mess but he can’t help but respect the man’s drive. When the credits begin to roll, we’re in the same boat.


MY SCORE: 9/10

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Queen of Versailles

Directed by Lauren Greenfield.
2012. Rated PG, 100 minutes.

Cast:

Jacqueline Siegel
David Siegel
Richard Siegel
Virginia Nebab
Alyse Zwick


We meet 70-something year old David Siegel, his 40-something year old wife Jackie and their eight kids at their Orlando, Florida home in 2007. He is the king of an empire known as Westgate Resorts, the largest seller of time-share vacations in the world. He even claims personal responsibility for getting George W. Bush elected in 2000. It may not have been altogether legal, in his own words. As kings of empires usually are, he is also filthy stinking rich. He’s so wealthy, he is in the midst of building the largest single family private home in the United States, a 90,000 square foot behemoth he and his wife have dubbed Versailles. He estimates it will cost him about $100 million to complete. His company has also just built the biggest hotel on the famous Las Vegas strip. His eldest son Richard, (not by Jackie and appears to be about her age), runs it. Jackie is a stay-at-mansion mom who goes to expensive charity luncheons. Calling her a mom might be giving her too much credit as a team of nannies and housekeepers do most of the work. Jackie also shops. A lot. Life is good.

As you should know by now, a few short months later the bottom falls out of America’s economy. Since most of his customers begin tightening their purse strings Westgate is hit hard. To oversimplify, while what Westgate sells is physically manifested in vacations for their customers, on paper they’re sub-prime mortgages. David is hemorrhaging money and laying people off left and right (including most of his at home help) while desperately trying to save his business as a whole. In particular, he wants to save the hotel which is in serious danger of going into foreclosure. The completion of Versailles is also put on hold. Of course, all of this is a strain on the Siegel marriage as David grows ever more ornery and Jackie, not always kept in the loop, begins to feel alienated from her husband and is also stressed about the situation.


Jackie gets most of the focus, hence the movie’s title. To her credit, she maintains a healthy sense of humor about the whole thing. She slowly realizes how out of touch she and her children are. She tries to ratchet down some of her lavish habits but can’t quite keep it under control. For instance, a trip to Wal-Mart (probably a first) turns into a couple thousand dollars just in toys. With only four in-house employees, down from 19, to deal with her, David, their 8 kids, and I don’t know how many pets, things get pretty nasty around the mansion. Yet somehow, Jackie emerges as a sympathetic figure. Perhaps her husband becoming a rather grumpy old man gives us more empathy for her.

A bad break for not only the Siegels, but the entire country in the form of a recession turns out to serve this film really well. I’m guessing, they signed up to do this documentary as a way of showing off their extravagant (gaudy) lifestyle, a pat on their own backs for making it ridiculously big. If they had their way, it was going to say “Hey, look at how rich we are and watch us build our palatial estate.” Not to bash the wealthy but that would’ve been hard to twist into a narrative that was interesting to anyone. Real life intervened and gave us a plot. We get to see people go through a range of emotions, both good and bad. We see a change in the way they interact with one another. There is substance and even sadness in watching their family fortune deteriorate. Saddest of all, director Lauren Greenfield appears to have gotten it right judging by David’s reaction to the film. He and his family do not come across as well as they probably thought they would. After all, when filming started he was a billionaire with no end to his fortune in sight. At the film’s end he’s not exactly broke financially, but his spirits appear to be. He’s now suing Greenfield for $75 million for defamation of character. I’m not sure how he can win. Well, maybe he’ll win on Oscar night for Best Documentary. I don’t think he’ll enjoy that because then his loss will literally be someone else’s gain.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Thunderstruck

Directed by John Whitesell. 
2012. Rated PG, 94 minutes. 
Cast:

Kevin Durant
Taylor Gray
James Belushi
Larramie Doc Shaw
Tristin Mays
Robert Belushi
Spencer Daniels
Hana Hayes


Brian (Gray) is so bad at basketball, dribbling the ball twice without breaking a bone is a major accomplishment. Making a shot, no matter how close to the basket, requires divine intervention. His sister, with an opportunistic camera, regularly posts videos on YouTube of his athletic failures. Still, he loves the sport so much he's the manager for his high school team. He also obsesses over his hometown NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and their star player, Kevin Durant who plays himself. During halftime of a Thunder game, Brian once again publicly humiliates himself when he's selected to take a half-court shot for a prize, but he gets to meet his idol, Durant. They share a brief moment which includes Brian wishing he had Durant's talent and Durant, being polite, wishing he could give it to the kid. Wouldn't ya know it, the star's talent actually does transfer to Brian through the ball they're simultaneously holding, though this is unbeknownst to either. The next day, Brian is suddenly a basketball prodigy while Durant shoots like he's trying to throw a BB through a keyhole from thirty paces away. More predictably bland cheese ensues.

As expected, Brian makes his way onto his school basketball team and quickly becomes the best high school player in the state of Oklahoma. With his new found skill comes the pretty girl, arrogance, etc. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant's agent frantically tries to figure out what's going on. Eventually, he makes the incredible leap in logic needed to put two and two together and get five which is, of course, the correct answer in this case. The agent is played by Brandon T. Jackson who, as usual, seems to be doing a Chris Tucker impersonation. That said, he's pretty much the only one in the cast with any charisma whatsoever. While Jackson is doing Tucker, Gray as Brian is giving us his best Shia LaBeouf. Our leading lady Tristin Mays is very vanilla as Isabel, AKA the pretty girl. The most notable part of her performance is that she resembles a very young Jessica Alba. The rest of the kids play stock characters and have quite literally fallen off the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon assembly lines judging by my daughters who, after recognizing a number of faces, both exclaimed "Everybody's in this movie!"


Finally, among the actors, there's Kevin Durant. True, he's currently one of the best players in the NBA. However, as an actor, he's no Ray Allen. Many moons ago, Allen gave a performance in Spike Lee's He Got Game that, while not great, improved as the movie went on. KD is stuck in neutral. Based on everything I've heard or read about him, he's a genuinely nice guy. It seems no one has a bad word to say about him. His game has made him a superstar, able to sell shoes and a number of other things. He's just not yet a particularly compelling personality. His presence is entirely summed up in his height. He simply towers over everything else in the movie. However, other than that, there is no reason to actually pay attention to him.

Since Thunderstruck is a basketball movie involving magical powers it draws easy comparisons to Like Mike. Truth told, it's more like the love-child of Freaky Friday and Teen Wolf. It borrows heavily from both. I think you already get the Freaky Friday part of the equation. As far as Teen Wolf is concerned, you might've picked up on the arrogance thing. We also get a best friend who actively promotes him, a world weary coach (Belushi) and our hero has a major decision to make about how he will play the big game. What happens next is about as close as this movie could come to Teen Wolf. Thunderstruck even has similarly awful basketball choreography.

All in all, it's a harmless flick that takes no risks and, as a result, reaps very few rewards. It would be right at home on one of those kiddie stations I mentioned, or on ABC Family. That said, if you have children you have a dilemma. There is enough charm and fun for the kids to enjoy. It plucks along to its inevitable conclusion while you seriously contemplate maiming yourself. And no, I don't remember hearing the AC DC song of the same name.

MY SCORE: 3.5/10

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap

Directed by Ice-T.
2012. Rated R, 112 minutes.
Cast:
Ice-T
Grandmaster Caz
Ice Cube
Q-Tip
Dr. Dre
Snoop Dogg
Nas
Rakim
Xzibit
KRS-One
Mos Def
Redman
MC Lyte
Treach

Right away Ice-T, our host and the director, tells us that the one thing he knows for sure is that rapping takes skill. To demonstrate this, he then interviews numerous emcees whose collective careers span the entire chronology of hip hop. This makes Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap part history lesson. Calling it a nostalgic trip down memory lane is more accurate as Ice often seems to be visiting old friends. Inevitably, SFN is also part diatribe against the current state of the genre as a number of old schoolers lament the lack of craft in most of today’s popular rap music. Finally, it couldn’t be a hip hop documentary without lots of rapping. Most of the emcees interviewed give us an impromptu, though not necessarily freestyle, rhyme.

Ice-T makes for an amiable host. He’s genuinely having a good time talking shop with his buddies. He’s even fun when admonishing regular folk on the street for getting in his shot. His love and enthusiasm for hip hop shines through. There’s never a moment when he seems to be just going through the motions. He’s completely invested in his topic and has much admiration for the people he’s speaking with. If he’s faking it then this is, by far, the best acting job he’s ever done.

It shows they feel the same about him, also. Quite a few rappers mention how much Ice-T meant to the game. Invariably, these same rappers would burst into their own rendition of his classic “Six in the Morning” while he beams proudly and helps out.


For any rap fan, hearing these guys break into their own verse is a highlight. As expected, their lyrics run the gamut from political to gangsta, spiritual to braggadocious, profound to profane and whatever else you can think of. We even get to watch hip hop legend Grandmaster Caz compose a verse on the spot with pen and paper, then recite. It’s not the greatest rhyme ever but fun to see.

The absolute pinnacle of all this lyricism is wisely positioned at the very center of the movie. Current star Joe Budden recites a rhyme that’s as harrowing a tale as you’ll ever hear, ripe with all sorts of insight and reasoning. It resonates because the person depicted is not some sort of super-thug, but a real person whose daily choices significantly impact his life. During most of the time Joe is rapping, a montage of shots from around New York City plays out in a non-sensational manner. This not only demonstrates the depths which rap is capable of but it is two minutes or so of brilliant filmmaking. Fittingly, it’s the last thing we experience in New York (though not of New Yorkers) where the entire first half of the movie takes place.

While Ice is a fun-loving host, his questions don’t probe enough. A huge part of his stated purpose for making this film is getting inside the craft of rap. For those he engages on the topic (which isn’t everyone), he asks what they consider ideal writing conditions. This is a fine starting point but he leaves it at that. At best, it’s only a glimpse at the very beginning of the creative process, not the whole thing as his lack of a follow-up question suggest. Consequently, we’re left with a boat load of shallow answers. We only get more interesting, possibly useful information, if the person asked freely volunteers it. This only happens a few times, but you can see the eyes of the speaker light up, alerting the viewer we’re about to dive a bit deeper. Even these guys aren’t always allowed time enough to truly get into it unless they manage to dominate the conversation which Ice doesn’t always allow. Part of this is his fault for just plain stepping on the toes of his subjects, interrupting them when it feels like they’re about to get on a roll. Sometimes, it’s Ice genuinely helping out as a few of the artists are simply not articulate enough to explain themselves in a concise manner.


Another ingredient that seems to hamper Ice’s interviewing abilities is the movie’s apparent preference for quantity over quality. Instead of really getting into the nuts and bolts of with one artist or another, we rush off to the next emcee. Too often, a rapper will give a quick answer to one question and either be shown dropping a rhyme or is never heard from again. Cramming in as many people as possible leads to two things. First, scenes where it’s clear there was more entertaining and relevant discussion feel cut short. Second, it feels like hip hop role call where fans will likely find themselves thinking about who is missing from the roster. Clearly, a less is more approach would’ve worked wonders.

While rappers are obviously missing from either the New York or Los Angeles portions of the movie, both cities and their surrounding regions are well represented. Other than a stop in Detroit to interview both Eminem and Royce da 5’9”, the rest of the country is ignored. Most egregiously, the south is almost wholly absent. Thankfully, rapper Bun B is included, even if it is only briefly. He also happens to give us one of the more poignant moments of the movie. “The Dirty South” has never been thought of as a hotbed for talented lyricists, but there definitely are a number of them who live below New Jersey and east of California. At the very least, could Ice-T not find Scarface? OutKast? Ludacris? I can’t believe what I’m about to say given that I’m hardly the biggest proponent of southern rap. If you’re going to make a big deal about how rap grows region-by-region you should pay more attention to the one that’s been the most prevalent in our collective conscience for the better part of the last decade and a half.

In at least one regard, despite who may or may not be missing, hurrying along from subject to subject works. It keeps things light and moving at a brisk pace. If you’re at all a fan, the nearly two hours flies by as a new perspective or another rhyme is never too far away. Not a ton of it sticks to the ribs but it is fun to sit through. Those interviewees that do manage to go beyond the others include the aforementioned Caz, Bun B, Rakim and Xzibit along with Treach, Ras Kass and KRS-One. KRS and Kanye West both speaking of their first battles is also fun. If these names mean nothing to you this is probably not the movie for you. If they do, this is an enjoyable but only occasionally meaty documentary featuring more rappers than you can shake a mic at.

MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Argo

Directed by Ben Affleck.
2012. Rated R, 120 minutes.
Cast:
Ben Affleck
Bryan Cranston
Alan Arkin

John Goodman
Victor Garber
Tate Donovan
Clea DuVall
Christopher Denham
Scoot McNairy
Kerry Bishé
Rory Cochrane
Kyle Chandler

During the final days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the American Embassy in Iran is overrun by people angry with the U.S. for sheltering their recently deposed shah whom committed a number of atrocities against his own people. Hmm. This is part of an obvious pattern but since this is a movie review and not a political column we’ll keep it moving. In any event, over 50 Americans were taken hostage as it was hoped they could be exchanged for the shah. Amidst the mayhem, six Americans managed to escape and find refuge at the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Garber). Since it is only a matter of time before captors of the rest figure out who is missing and where they are, big-wigs at the CIA are trying to come up with a plan to rescue them so that they don’t also become hostages or suffer a worse fate.

Exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in and he quickly points out the flaws in all their ideas, but doesn’t have one of his own. Things change when his son’s love of science fiction movies inspires a plan so ridiculous it just might work. His idea is to pose as a producer scouting locations for his next film and leave with the escapees who will pose as his crew. Yes, this is based on a true story.


Argo succeeds mostly because it is devilishly tense. The conversations and debates among our six refugees or the hand-wringers of the CIA all carry a palpable sense of urgency. This and the progress we see the Iranians make in putting the puzzle together make it clear that the Americans are working against the clock. The other major reason it succeeds is because the comic relief is so well done. There are no bumbling fools or pratfalls, just sharp humor slicing through the thick of it at the perfect moments. It’s a masterwork crafted by Affleck, the director. For me, each of his three efforts from the special chair has been brilliant. By the way, Gone Baby Gone and The Town being the others. He may have made his name as an actor and dater of starlets, but it seems his true calling is behind the camera.

In front of the camera, he holds his own. However, the real acting kudos deserve to go to the rest of the magnificent cast. Each of them play their roles perfectly. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are both particularly exceptional. Both men can add this to a long list of fine supporting roles. For Goodman, that makes two just in 2012. He stole every scene in which he appeared in Flight.

Without any action scenes beyond the initial storming of the embassy and without demonizing an entire people as villains, Argo manages to steer clear of dull moments. Like any other movie ‘based on a true story’ it’s not 100% factual. However, in this case, liberties taken with the truth are wonderfully handled and enhance the viewing experience. This is grade A movie-making.

MY SCORE: 10/10

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What to Expect When You're Expecting

Directed by Kirk Jones.
2012. Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.
Cast:
Cameron Diaz
Jennifer Lopez
Elizabeth Banks
Brooklyn Decker
Anna Kendrick
Dennis Quaid
Ben Falcone
Rodrigo Santoro
Chris Rock

Rebel Wilson
Thomas Lennon
Wendi McLendon-Covey
Chace Crawford

If you’re eternally optimistic like me, or not, and have children you’d expect to laugh during a movie that bills itself as “laugh out loud funny for any parent!” Trust me, it does. Says so right on the back cover of the DVD, exclamation point included. Sadly, this may be the best joke involved with this movie, even if it is on me. My mother was right. I’m too gullible. She warned you couldn’t always depend on the goodness of Mankind or of advertising geeks who work for movie studios.

Unlike the blurbs occupying real estate on its cover, the title What to Expect When You’re Expecting is accurate. After all, we do meet a handful of women who will very shortly be expecting. By the way, this movie is based on the best-selling advice book of the same name. That probably should’ve been a warning. Anyhoo, we then journey through pregnancy with the soon-to-be mamas. In short order there’s the fitness guru/reality tv star (Diaz), the pregnancy expert who’s never been pregnant (Banks), the photographer who can’t get pregnant (Lopez), the girl who runs a food truck (Kendrick) and the NASCAR trophy-wife (Decker). Other than Banks and Decker, these ladies have nothing to do with each other. Well, almost nothing. At some point, they cross paths with each other in the most brief and contrived ways possible but still don’t get involved in one another’s stories. No, the scene in the pic above never happens.

However unrelated they may be, they do have something in common besides swollen bellies. Not one of them is the least bit funny. Almost none, but we'll get to that. Part of the problem is these women are not all that likeable. They’re self-absorbed mongers whose pregnancies have little to do with the circle of life. Instead of nurturing bundles of joy they seem to be incubating accessories - assets in one’s portfolio or validation of self-worth, and so on. Most galling, one is merely a depressing plot point in a budding romance.



None of the actresses turn in memorable work, either. Elizabeth Banks fares best and is part of the funniest, most heartfelt and oddest scene. Lopez does her best to look constantly forlorn. Diaz’s Jillian Michaels impression is meant to be a hilarious parody but fails miserably at the hilarious part. Finally, Decker seems to be channeling Jaime Pressly making me wonder why they didn’t just get the real thing. For the most part their men blend seamlessly into the background. The normally unexciting Dennis Quaid plays Decker’s husband/racing legend and stands out simply because we’re positive he has a pulse. And yes, since this is a “zany” comedy everyone will go into labor at precisely the same time. Gee, without me you never would’ve guess…who am I kidding? You knew that was a sure bet as soon as the second lady turned up in a family way. I confess, there is one exception. J-Lo literally takes the Angelina Jolie route to family expansion. Even that wraps itself up right on cue. Sigh.

Sideline players fare ever-so-slightly better. Rebel Wilson is mostly just there but elevates the Banks scene I referenced earlier. Wendi McLendon-Covey hits with a few zingers during her limited time on-screen. Most consistently amusing is the group of fathers who walk together in the park, kids in tow, led by Chris Rock and Thomas Lennon. They aren’t “laugh out loud funny for every parent,” but they’re a welcome reprieve from all the hand-wringing and failed humor of the major storylines. None of this is enough to salvage this heap. What to Expect is a classic case of a talented ensemble given nothing to work with and going through the motions.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Moonrise Kingdom

Directed by Wes Anderson.
2012. Rated PG-13, 94 minutes.
Cast:
Jared Gilman
Kara Hayward
Bruce Willis
Edward Norton
Bill Murray
Frances McDormand
Tilda Swinton
Jason Schwartzman
Harvey Keitel
Bob Balaban

One morning, Scout Master Ward (Norton) awakes to find one of his troops missing. Sam (Gilman) has run away from the campsite. Ward promptly alerts the local authorities and the boy’s parents. It turns out Sam is an orphan and now that he’s had another incident, his foster father no longer wants him. Still, Ward and top cop Cpt. Sharp (Willis) begin a search of the island they’re on with the help of Troop 55, the unit under Ward’s command. A short while later, Suzy (Hayward) runs away from home, much to the chagrin of her parents Laura (McDormand) and Walt Bishop (Murray). By the way, the Bishops have an interesting dynamic going with Cpt. Sharp. What we know before any of the adults in the movie is that Sam and Suzy met up and are trying to disappear together. The search for them both ensues.

In typical Wes Anderson fashion, Moonrise Kingdom is a quirky film that looks different from other movies the first instant you lay eyes on it. He does something that’s almost unheard of in today’s cinematic environment, especially the American market. His movies feel like a collection of still shots with short stretches of people performing minimal movements linking them together. This is no exception. Due to the location and the lush scenery it provides, this technique works brilliantly. The dialogue is similarly sparse. There are no big, showy speeches or shouting matches even when emotions are obviously high. The trick is every feeling needed to hook us into the picture is more than ably conveyed. The actors do a wonderful job with body language and facial expression without over acting or mugging for the camera. Of course, even that comes back to Anderson and the type of performances he coaxes out of his cast. In his hands, a blank stare speaks volumes. It’s subtle storytelling at its finest.

Still, MK would be lost if the story it were telling weren’t interesting. Fortunately, it is. The nucleus is a tender story of young love. Floating in the plasma around it are other interesting things. We get a look at how twelve year old boys interact, complete with overblown machismo. There is also how adults view and deal with kids in general, those they see as troubled youth in particular. Finally, there is a marriage at the crossroads. All of these are handled without excessive exposition or manipulation. It all adds up to a fun, if a bit oddly executed film.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Directed by Alison Klayman.
2012. Rated R, 91 minutes.
Cast:

Ai Weiwei
Danjing Chen
Ying Gao
Changwei Gu
Tehching Hsieh
Evan Osnos


Ai Weiwei is a world famous Chinese artist and human rights activist. His most frequent target is his own country’s government making him a dissident in their eyes. They have a history of silencing artists, intellectuals and anyone critical of their way of doing things, usually by imprisonment. Still, Weiwei has been fearlessly taking them on for years, not only in his art but with his tireless use of social media. He has created a movement among his people. This documentary follows him from fall of 2009 until shortly after his detainment in spring 2011.

The star of our show proves to be an inexhaustible force of nature. Much the way we think of Gandhi and MLK, Weiwei seems to be fighting for the rights of his people daily, without relent. We see him create art, with the help of a small army to implement his ideas, that takes digs at the powers that be in China. Other tmes we see him in direct confrontation with the law. Still other times he’s in America doing interviews about the political and social climate of his native land. Meanwhile, fellow critics of the Chinese government are jailed. In between all of this, we meet Weiwei’s family, some people who work for him and a few who’ve been long time supporters and/or benefactors. We not only get a feel for the man’s mission, but the passion he has for it and how infectious it has become. We really sense that he’s struck a chord with more than just the downtrodden and obviously disadvantaged, but with anyone who wants to better their society.



Of course, such a film almost can’t help becoming an exercise in hero worship. We get glowing endorsements from everyone interviewed. The opposing viewpoint is never expressed. This is expected from anyone connected to the Chinese government. However, is there not one person in China who disagrees? At the very least, does no one object to how clearly he’s influenced by Western Culture? More troubling is the glossing over of the flaws that make Weiwei human. As much as he cares for his cause, he seems as dispassionate about his family. It’s like he’s hardened to their concerns about his safety. In conversations with them he often comes across as cold and dismissive. It’s an understandable defense mechanism but one never discussed. The only one who seems to escape his cold shoulder is his young son, born of an extra-marital affair. That situation is brought up, but he’s not really pressed on it. We meet both his wife and the boy’s mother but neither speaks about how these events affected them. Weiwei himself matter of factly acknowledges he made a mistake, but it amounts to little more than shrugging his shoulders at the whole thing.

By the end, we get a portrait of a man who’s not always likeable but is fighting an extremely worthy battle. He does so armed with his imagination and Twitter account. He must be commended for standing up for what he believes in. With such dedication to both his ideals and working toward them combined with his popularity, it can be argued that Ai Weiwei is the most important artist in the world. If nothing else, Never Sorry ably conveys this point.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Directed by David O. Russell.

2012. Rated R, 122 minutes.

Cast:
Jacki Weaver
Chris Tucker
John Ortiz
Julia Stiles
Anupam Kher
Shea Whigham
Paul Herman
Dash Mihok
Brea Bee


We meet Pat Solitano Jr. (Cooper) as his mother Delores (Weaver) is picking him up from a mental healthcare facility. After a brief hiccup involving Paul’s buddy Danny (Tucker), they drive to their home in Philadelphia where they surprise his dad, Pat Sr. (De Niro). In short order, we learn Pat Jr. was sent away after a series of delusions culminated in a violent attack of the man his wife Nikki (Bee) was having an affair with. We also learn that he is obsessed with winning back her love despite the fact she’s moved away and has a restraining order out on him. Pat Jr. working extremely hard to prove himself worthy of her love while dealing with his demons ensues.

Through his unfiltered speech, therapy sessions and his family’s handling of him, Pat’s mental condition is thoroughly explored. In particular, we see the possible seeds of his problems through his father’s behavior. Pat Sr. is superstitious to a point of ridiculousness, even to his son. It’s part of what is evidently OCD. During the games played by his beloved Philadelphia Eagles remote controls have to be held a certain way, people have to sit in certain spots, etc. We know he’s prone to violent outbursts because we’re told he’s been banned from the stadium where the Eagles play after having been kicked out several times for beating people up. To show us this, the legendary De Niro gives one of his best performances in years. He’s fully a man stressed over his new line of business (basically, betting on Eagles’ games), exasperated by what’s become of his son’s life and beholden to his own artificial devices for creating luck. His interactions with Pat Jr. often turn confrontational.

Caught between the two is Delores. In the role of a mother supportive of both her men, sometimes to a fault she totally recognizes, Jacki Weaver does an excellent job conveying her character’s raggedness from being pulled to and fro. She tries to do right by everyone and often winds up little more than an enabler.


Then there’s Tiffany Maxwell. Played by Jennifer Lawrence. We quickly realize she’s as mentally and emotionally fragile as Pat Jr., but with a tougher shell. She’s the sister-in-law of another of Pat’s friends and a widow whose way of dealing with her issues is much to the delight of the men in the area. She also has occasional contact with Nikki and is willing to deliver messages to her from Pat Jr. making her invaluable in his eyes. Again proving herself a superior talent, Lawrence’s portrayal is note-perfect all the way through. Always at the appropriate times, she’s stand-offish, emotional, manipulative, confident and never quite stable.

Yes, the acting across the board is top-notch. If you need further evidence, every actor mentioned in this review, with the exception of Chris Tucker and Brea Bee, has earned an Oscar nomination for their work in this film. Truth told, Tucker is actually pretty good and Bee’s character has so little screen time she’s more a concept in Pat’s mind than an actual person. Aiding them mightily is the crisp dialogue, often improvised from what I’ve heard, and expert directing by David O. Russell. He’s made a cottage industry for himself of movies about contentious, not quite sane people. After all, his last movie was another wonderful flick full of folk who communicate at elevated decibels, The Fighter. This one inserts more comedy, but not of a crass or exploitive type. Laughs come from more true to life situations.

While we enjoy watching Silver Linings Playbook, we can’t help but spot the ending from very early on in the proceedings. That’s because at its core this is a date-movie, an unabashed romance. It does nothing if not march relentlessly toward the big kiss. Even this is preceded by our hero chasing down his true love after a wise elder tells him to go after her. This is pretty standard chick-flick stuff, but in David O. Russell’s capable hands it is far better than most of its ilk.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pitch Perfect

Directed by Jason Moore.

2012. Rated PG-13, 112 minutes.

Cast:
Skylar Astin
Anna Camp
Ben Platt
Adam DeVine
Freddie Stroma
Hana Mae Lee
Alexis Knapp
Ester Dean
John Benjamin Hickey


The Barden Bellas are an all-female competitive acapella group who’ve literally puked away their chances at winning a national championship. When the next school year starts up, the only two returning members are the iron-fisted Aubrey (Camp), who did the puking, and Chloe (Snow) her BFF and kinda, sorta co-leader. They need to recruit a whole new team but are having trouble finding people willing to join. It doesn’t help that the actual champions are the Treblemakers, an all-male group who also attend Barden University. Much to Aubrey’s chagrin, she and Chloe gather a group of misfits from all ethnicities and orientations they have to whip into shape. Among them is Beca (Kendrick), a reluctant college student. She wants to be a DJ, but her dad teaches at the school and is pretty much making her go. Of course, if you’ve only seen the trailers for Pitch Perfect then you know another of the new girls is Fat Amy (Wilson), a rambunctious soul from Tasmania. Lots of singing ensues.

Singing is what the movie does best. A seemingly endless succession of already catchy pop tunes from the 80s forward are given fun re-workings. I’m not sure how many of these would-be idols would make it to Hollywood, but they’re having a grand time with some fun songs. We have little choice but to do the same. It’s rather easy to get caught up in tapping your feet and singing along.

What it also does well is be silly. Here is where Fat Amy comes in. A sizable share of the movie’s funniest moments are hers. Her timing is rock solid and she has charisma to spare. It might be the best comedic performance of the last few years including 2011’s Oscar nominated turn by Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, a movie Wilson also has a role in. Most of the other funny moments are handled by Adam DeVine as Bumper, the leader of the Treblemakers. If there is one drawback to this pair is that what’s hinted at is never really explored as Bumper rather abruptly disappears from the proceedings. It’s too bad because that may have led to even more hijinks and shenanigans. Whatever funnies those two are not responsible for usually come from Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as competition commentators.



When other characters try to get in on the laughs, things don’t go so well. The main problem is that the rest of the Bellas are all one dimensional stereotypes. Whatever aspect of themselves we’re first shown of most of the ladies is all there is to them and they act only on those surface traits. For instance, the Japanese girl is a weird mix of traditionally docile housewife and a character from a twisted Asian horror flick, the black lesbian is constantly trying to grope one of the other Bellas and is relentlessly ghetto-butch, the promiscuous girl only expresses herself in overtly (hetero)sexual terms constantly groping herself, and so on.

Another place Pitch Perfect hits sour notes is during time spent on plot development. Whenever our principles aren’t harmonizing and/or going for laughs, the movie just works down the checklist of both rom-com and sports movie clichés (predictable break-up and training montages, for instance). From a character standpoint, Beca is the movie’s focal point. Her daddy issues (I don’t remember ever hearing about mom), musical prowess, battles with Aubrey and budding romance with Jesse (Astin) are all front and center without a surprise anywhere. To be honest, that isn’t even the real issue, though. The problem is how bland our heroine is. The others talk about her like she’s some way out there alt-girl or some kind of rebel threatening the establishment. Having her played by the fresh-faced but not particularly intriguing Anna Kendrick works against those ideas and we never feel Beca will do anything other than what she eventually does. It feels like she’s been modeled after pop star Avril Lavigne, or possibly Pink, but without the edge of either.

Truth told, even with the paint-by-numbers storytelling and the horrible stereotypes Pitch Perfect is a fun flick. It’s strengths provide enough cover for the flaws to keep us patiently waiting on the next musical set. To be on the safe side, we get them everywhere: on the bus, in the shower, at impromptu competitions on campus and, of course, on the stage. This and the wonderful performance of Rebel Wilson keeps us in a good mood most of the way through.

Friday, February 1, 2013

ParaNorman

Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell.
Rated PG, 92 minutes.
Cast:
Kodi Smit-McPhee
Tucker Albrizzi
Jeff Garlin
Bernard Hill
Elaine Stritch
Tempestt Bledsoe
Jodelle Ferland
Ariel Winter


Norman Babcock (Smit-McPhee) is that kid, the one everyone else thinks is weird. They have good reason. After all, he has no problem telling people he talks to the dead. Though no one believes him, he really can. In fact, his most frequent companion is his long passed grandmother (Stritch) who watches TV with him. With no way of proving this, as you might imagine, his living family members are rather disturbed by his behavior. Soon enough, we learn Norman has an uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (Goodman), that has the same ability. When that uncle dies, he warns Norman that it is up to him to stop the curse. Of course, Mr. Prenderghast doesn't tell exactly what the curse is. Matters become rather urgent when zombies start climbing out of the local graveyard. Yes, everyone in town can actually see them. And yes, this is still a kiddie flick.

Like a lot of movies aimed at children, ParaNorman focuses on how an outcast becomes a hero. It just chooses to do so through much more macabre means. It traipses into horror's shallowest waters but never immerses itself. Terrifying the audience is off-limits. The characters on the screen are plenty scared, but their plight is handled with a good deal of levity. And the jokes actually work. Dialogue is often sharp, though it does lapse into the standard Disney Channel schtick of a big sister being mean to her brother on too many occasions.

Even without frights, ParaNorman still manages to create tension. Much of this is due to the fact there is quite a bit of mystery surrounding just what Norman is supposed to do and why. This partially clears up, but even as we near the climax we're not real sure what he's going to do. Even he's not particularly certain. Rest assured, he does "something." It's a bit of a letdown because the last few minutes of our showdown scene get a bit too preachy, spelling out the moral of the story for us. Still, it's very enjoyable to that point.