Sunday, January 6, 2013

November/December 2012

     It seemed unlikely that the filmmaking team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal could top their Oscar-winning snapshot of fearless soldiers defusing bombs in Iraq, but taking on the search for Osama bin Laden was a good start. And while the slow, agonizing detective work that led to his death—as seen through one very determined CIA operative—is fascinating, it never reaches the minute-by-minute intensity of “The Hurt Locker” or offers enough dramatics to turn the investigation into compelling cinema.

      As satisfying as it is to see the behind-the-scenes maneuverings and, finally, the assault on his Pakistani compound at ground level, I had a hard time sharing the characters’ frustrations when I knew the end results from the opening frame. This is a superbly made and acted chronicle of one of the landmark events of recent history and shouldn’t be missed, but it requires patience; like so many films released at this time of the year, it easily could have been trimmed by 30 minutes. 

     Attempting to hold it all together is Jessica Chastain’s Maya, a young, inexperienced agent who goes from being shocked by water boarding at a Black Op site to a hard-hearted zealot who throws herself completely into the pursuit of OBL (as they refer to the elusive terrorist). Chastain, who emerged as a top actress last year with “The Tree of Life” and “The Help,” is handcuffed in her portrayal of Maya because the screenplay offers barely a hint at her personal life. Even with all her screen time, the lack of depth makes her seem like a supporting player much of the film.

      The extensive length of the movie is, in part, necessary to show the interminable 10 years it took to piece the intel all together, but the filmmakers trade away energy and intensity with the leisurely pace. The film also takes a long time to find a compelling counterweight to steely Maya. The always superb Mark Strong has some nice moments as her direct supervisor who is slowly convinced of her evidence, but it takes the arrival of James Gandolfini as the CIA director to bring out the feistiness in Maya. He nearly steals the picture with just two or three scenes.

      The brilliant recreation of the raid, shot as if seen through night goggles, will probably and understandably earn the picture a boatload of Oscar nominations. It reminded me of the nail-biting scenes that filled “The Hurt Locker,” except here we know how it ends and that, even in the face of danger, the Navy SEALs will leave unscathed.

      The closest comparison to “Zero Dark Thirty” is “United 93,” Paul Greengrass’ re-creation of what went on behind the scenes on Sept. 11, 2001. The details of that day are vastly more familiar than this new film’s decade-long saga, yet the filmmaker made you feel the almost unbearable reality of the moment and created a great film about a terrible event. Under similar circumstances, Bigelow and Boal fail to draw the audience (at least this one) into the minutia of the story, greatly reducing the impact of the picture. I’m not sure what kind of film they would have had if bin Laden had not been found and killed—they started the project before the May 2011 raid—but without the mesmerizing final 30 minutes all you’d have is Maya flying around the globe to verify another sliver of intel that might move the investigation one step closer to him; interesting history, but not exactly cinematic.

     The last time David O. Russell dipped into the quirky dynamics of fragile family life, he came up with “Flirting with Disaster,” one of the funniest and most insightful comedies of the 1990s, a screwball worthy of the classics that chronicles contemporary America’s obsession with finding roots.

     Sixteen years later, “Silver Linings Playbook” is just as smart and hilarious, jam packed with memorable characters and featuring, at its center, a pair of unstable souls looking for a chance to start anew.

      Like his 2010 film, “The Fighter,” this is the year’s best acted movie, with no less than six superb performances. But, acting wise, the big surprise of the picture is Bradley Cooper, best known from the “Hangover” films, playing a former substitute teacher with anger management issues. After flipping out when he catches his wife in the shower with another man, he ends up in a mental facility.

     When the bipolar Pat comes back to his parent’s Philadelphia home it quickly becomes clear why he has so many issues. Pat Sr., (Robert De Niro, in a return to glory) who has recently taken up book making in hopes of earning a down payment on a restaurant, is an obsessive, superstitious fan of the Eagles football team and clearly hasn’t tried very hard to understand his son. Pat’s sympathetic mother (Jacki Weaver) does her best to keep a calm lid on the household, but his father inevitably sets him off and, luckily, he finds someone to turn to. His refuge turns out to be an equally troubled, recently widowed young woman named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, brilliantly portraying the stoic sarcasm that defines so many in her generation), who enlists him as a dance partner.

   There’s no good way to explain how exhilarating this movie is as it explores Pat’s mental state, his misguided mission to reunite with his wife, the swirling chaos of his family, and the growing attachment to the blunt but vulnerable Tiffany.

     The film culminates in one of the funniest set pieces I’ve seen in years; in the family living room after a bruising Eagle loss, Tiffany faces off with Pat Sr. on football jinxes, a bet for all the marbles and the right course for Pat. Brilliant writing (Russell from a novel by Matthew Quick) and perfect comic timing (young Lawrence matching the great De Niro line for line) make the scene unforgettable.

       Other performances worth noting include John Ortiz as Pat’s best friend, who is having his own marital struggles, Anupam Kher as Pat’s offbeat therapist and the wild-eyed Chris Tucker, who I hadn’t seen in years, playing a fellow mental patient who keeps popping up just to further demonstrate that there’s a very thin line between crazy and just being human.

     “Silver Linings Playbook” may be the year’s best film, a biting, fresh and daring comedy worthy of the best of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges or Woody Allen. 

LINCOLN (2012)
      There is plenty in this remarkable re-creation of the final days of the Civil War to admire, but towering above it all is Daniel Day-Lewis’ flawless, commanding, hypnotic portrayal of the country’s most important president.

       This 55-year-old, two-time Oscar winning British actor creates the definitive Lincoln, not an icon or a revered martyred, but a flawed, occasionally unsure leader carrying the burden of a bloody war and the fate of 4 million slaves, along with difficult family issues. That he maintains his calm exterior and ability to tell a witty story in the midst of this turmoil seems nearly inhuman, but Day-Lewis helps us understand, turning this legend into flesh-and-blood while confirming his greatness.

     The smartest decision Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner made in “Lincoln” was to narrow the time period covered to when the president maneuvered the 13th Amendment through Congress while winding down the Civil War. It allows the actor to present a Lincoln at his most serious, avoiding the usual bio-pick clichés of romance, day-to-day life and artificially jumping from one state of life to another.

    I wouldn’t call “Lincoln” a great film; it’s burdened with too many obvious stereotypes, corny sentimentalism (the opening scene in which Lincoln talks to black and white soldiers may be the worst of the picture) and overall conventional filmmaking. Yet it’s a remarkable record of the country’s rebirth and a film everyone needs to see. 

      Even in the shadow of the magnificent Day-Lewis, other performers shine. Tommy Lee Jones is an unsmiling standard bearer of full equality for blacks, Thaddeus Stevens, the most influential member of the House who endures a decisive tongue lashing from the First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field giving one of her most powerful performances of her long career). Both give Oscar-worthy performances as does James Spader as a roguish, foul-mouthed early version of a hard-nosed lobbyist who does the president’s dirty work. A dozen others have memorable moments, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the president’s son who wants to enlist, the always reliable David Strathairn as Secretary of State Seward, and Jared Harris as an insightful Gen. Grant.

         “Lincoln” is a motion picture that seems to arrive—not unlike the director’s “War Horse”—from another era, yet could only have been constructed by this master storyteller. But equally important are the contributions of Kushner, whose script doesn’t shy away from complex political discussions and legislative maneuvering that are not always easy to follow but infinitely compelling, and director of photography Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s secret weapon for nearly 20 years, who recreates the gas light look of the 19th Century, burnishing the god-like profile of Lincoln and visually expressing with every frame the undeniable truth that no man has ever been so essential to this nation.

     Tell me this isn’t the perfect drive-in double feature, circa 1971? These insanely titled clunkers—attempting to cash in on the popularity of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”—feature battling star actresses and a title question that’s not worth answering.

     In “Helen,” Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters play a pair of small-town mothers thrown together when their sons are convicted of murder. Reynolds’s Adelle, a dance teacher with big dreams, decides they’ll start a new life in Hollywood. Winter’s Helen, a dreamy, unstable woman, goes along reluctantly.

      Adelle’s dance studio, exploiting tots and their parents longing to become Shirley Temple clones (the film is set in the 1930s), seems to be a success and she hooks up with a rich Texan (Dennis Weaver) who is the father of one of her students.

     But Helen is constantly worried that someone from their past is stalking them and soon there’s a dead body in the parlor. The manner in which it leaps from a seemingly conventional drama into weirdly benign slasher flick, as directed by Curtis Harrington, is both clumsy and startlingly clumsy.  (The next year, the director conned Winters into a follow-up question movie, “Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?”)

    Reynolds and Winters can’t match neither the star power nor the venom that filled those earlier gothic exercises, “Baby Jane” and “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” And even though the pair seemed long past their primes they were only 41 (Reynolds) and 51 (Winters). The leap from 1950s Hollywood to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s turned most 40-plus stars into relics. (Though Winters scored a huge hit the next year with “The Poseidon Adventure.”)

    There an amusingly dark ending to the film but by then it had become such a parody of itself that it’s hard to care. 

       More serious, but much less fun, is “Aunt Alice,” in which Geraldine Page chews up the scenery as a widow left with nothing who moves to New Mexico and starts killing off housekeepers. The film, produced by Robert Aldrich, who directed “Baby Jane” and “Sweet Charlotte,” has huge gaps in the plot; my guess is that it was chopped down from a longer running time. The scheme has Page’s Mrs. Marrable tricking the domestics into investing their life savings with her money manager, killing them and then burying them in the garden.

      Ruth Gordon plays Alice, a friend of one of the “missing” housekeepers who gets herself hired to investigate. The script would have been more compelling if the actresses had just made it up as they went along. But Page does manage to give a compelling performance, even as her motivations and machinations seem ridiculous.

     The real question about both of these films is: Why did I waste my time watching them? I don’t have an answer for that one either.

     After providing Jews a taste of better-late-than-never revenge in “Inglorious Basterds,” master blood-letter Quentin Tarantino offers African-Americans a fictional shot to exact a price for 250 years of slavery.

     Utilizing the laconic pacing and threat of sudden violence of spaghetti Westerns with the spit-in-their-face attitude of blaxploitation, Tarantino holds nothing back (as if he ever does) in this tall tale of a well-spoken, German-born bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz, Oscar winner for his Nazi in “Basterds”) who frees a slave (Jamie Foxx) to make him his partner in the killing business.

     The writer-director, boldly practicing his pitch black humor and willingness to show the most gruesome of deaths, doesn’t succeed as well as he did in “Basterds,” in large part because he stretches out scenes to such length (Waltz’s Schultz is the most verbose horse-riding man in history) that they are too often drained of their inherent dramatic energy. At two hours, “Django” might have been a great film—the extra 45 minutes just deflates it. And maybe, just maybe, the death toll could have been reduced by 20 or 30 percent, making those surviving killings more meaningful.

       The story is pretty simple: After the pair team up to kill the Brittle brothers, handily dispatched at a vast plantation run by Big Daddy (Don Johnson), Schultz promises to help Django find and free his wife after they spend the winter collecting bounties.

      They locate Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) at Candyland, the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who specializes in “Mandingo fighting,” a especially despicable sideline of slavery in which the fittest slaves viciously fight one another, usually to the death.

     What makes “Django” valuable—though I will resist suggesting it for a double feature with “Lincoln”—is its focus on what slavery really meant for blacks. Forgot about the lack of freedom or back-breaking work; what Tarantino hammers home is the constant  threat of torture or death and the hateful degradation by the white population; the daily crushing of the human spirit by being treating like livestock. I can’t think of another director who would be willing to take on this delicate subject (not even Spike Lee)—showing the hideous beatings, the oppressive use of the n-word—and actually get the film made. Yes, the script could have been sharper and the editing tighter, but you have to give Tarantino credit for throwing it out there, for better or worse.

     Robert Miller, like most Wall Street players, wants it all. And, for a moment, he achieves that goal—the indulgent, supportive wife; loving, successful children; the exotic, Euro-artiste mistress; cooperative friends and accountants propping up his cash-poor investment firm; and a rich, willing, if coy, investor prepared to pay him millions for the company.

     It all seems to be, if not under control, within his grasp. Then, on a romantic whim (the best and worst kind), he heads off with the mistress for a weekend getaway. His 60th birthday ends badly as he dozes off while at the wheel, crashing the car and leaving the girl dead.

      This finely detailed character study of an extremely resourceful man trying to escape the irresponsible actions of the privileged class serves as a brilliant analogy for the broken, frankly gamed, system that the American economy has evolved into. Fueling this autopsy is a surprisingly blunt script by writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (making his feature directing debut) and a spot-on performance by Richard Geer, an actor who has rarely received his due as one of the finest of his generation. Not only has he given iconic performances in some of the most influential romantic/sexual movies “American Gigolo,” “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Pretty Woman,” but he’s delivered under-the-radar exceptional work in less popular fare, including “Beyond the Limit,” “Internal Affairs,” “Primal Fear” and “The Hoax,” for decades.

      The role of the generically named Miller, an unruffled, quick thinking, still attractive money manager, plays to Gere’s strengths and it’d be a shame if Oscar voters didn’t reward him with a best actor nomination; it’s among his best performances.

     The film is an American tragedy turned on its head—a lesson in “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Not to get politically righteous, but, as “Arbitrage” pointedly demonstrates, Americans have accept the country we have; be it a massacre of innocents in a school room or million dollar winks in the boardroom. It’s all the same corruption that has no master except the bottom line.

     Great acting abounds in this film, including the ageless Susan Sarandon as Miller’s long-suffering wife; Tim Roth as the detective who is determined to nail him; Stuart Margolin, a veteran of 50 years of television, playing Miller’s clever, cautious lawyer; and Brit Marling as his loyal daughter, a partner in the business, who is shaken to her core when she discovers the financial reality of her father’s business. She plays “us,” the fools who have invested our futures, our retirement, everything we’ve spent a lifetime working for in the slim hope that we can get a little piece of the pie that others are feasting on.

     Just as rewarding as seeing a great film for the first time is discovering a gem you’ve never heard of. The title of this thoroughly entertaining and thoughtful British comedy says it all.

    The only reason I recorded it was because the film’s lead actress is Olivia Williams, one of Britain’s most appealing actresses (she was priceless as the object of desire in “Rushmore”). In “Lucky Break,” she’s simply enchanting as Annabel, a prison therapist who, in spite of her better judgment, falls for one of the convicts. She reminds me of early Diane Keaton as she tries to remain professional, sensible, as she fights off her growing affection for this charismatic, self-assured bank robber Jimmy Hand (English TV veteran James Nesbit).

      But I’m getting ahead of myself. The film opens with long-time crime partners Jimmy and Rud (Lennie James) botching a bank robbery, which earns them 15-year prison terms. I had no idea where the movie was headed as it introduces various prisoners, mostly as they work out their anger in Annabel’s group counseling sessions. But director Peter Cattaneo, who I had completely lost track of since he was nominated for an Oscar for “The Full Monty,” brings a working-class sensibility to the prison culture that makes it easy to simply enjoy the film’s collection of characters. 

      It’s when Jimmy first encounters Warden Mortimer (another quirky, late-career turn by Christopher Plummer) and identifies the song he’s quietly singing from “South Pacific.” Soon, Jimmy is cast as the lead in the warden’s own musical based on the life of Admiral Nelson. And, of course, being the only female in the place, Annabel is forced to take on the role of Nelson’s love, Lady Hamilton.

     Yet, for Jimmy and Rud, the play is just a cover for a planned prison break.

      The off-handed realism that Nesbit brings to Jimmy, encouraged by the romantic neediness of Annabel, is the center of this engaging picture, while the supporting cast brings out the reality that not all convicts are scary thugs.

     James, in a nicely understated performance, makes Rud’s growing interest in his role in the musical as Nelson’s sidekick amusing and touching, while Timothy Spall’s Cliff, a gentle, brow-beaten prisoner, becomes the heart of the picture; he’s way too naïve for this world of bad guys. Bill Nighy’s Rog is another repressed character, constantly apologizes for no reason, who knows he’ll be fine if he can return to his beloved Amy (a feisty Celia Imrie). And then there’s Ron Cook’s snarling, vindictive guard who lords over these easily bullied prisoners.

      Attracting Nighy, Spall and Cook, among the Empire’s finest character actors, along with the legendary Plummer says more about the quality of Ronan Bennett’s script (based on a novel by actor Stephen Fry) than any adjective I can type.

    I’m not a big romantic comedy fan, at least not the ones that Hollywood makes these days, but “Lucky Break” restores my faith in the genre, and in the hope that love, even when it seems impossible, can make everything right.

SKYFALL  (2012)
    Though too often the franchise has felt weighted down by its long history and jerry-rigged plots, I remain a devoted fan of the granddaddy of spy thrillers, the Bond movie.

    Since I was a kid (my father took me to see “Thunderball,” maybe the first “adult” film I’d ever attended), I have made it an obligation to see them all, even the cartoonish crap fronted by Roger Moore and, as rigor mortis set in, the painful Timothy Dalton years.

     For me, the underrated Pierce Brosnan, in the Bond saddle for four pictures, the best being “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997) featuring Michelle Yeoh as his wing girl, revived the series’ dignity, restoring a semblance of relevance to the ageless, martini-swilling MI6 killer.

     Then the franchise got lucky: the market for complex action heroes sprinting across the globe exploded on the heels of the success of “Bourne.” With a more ferocious, less playful, leading man in Daniel Craig, the series moved into a higher gear. Resetting the character with “Casino Royal” (2006), Ian Fleming’s original novel, the film gave hope that Craig and company could improve upon what Brosnan had done. Then the producers took a step back with 2008’s “Quantum of Solace.” Happily, for us devotees, “Skyfall” is first-class Bond, maybe the most engaging film since the Sean Connery era and certainly the best acted in the 50 year history of the series.

    I’m not sure what kind of arm twisting went on to secure Sam Mendes, the first Oscar-winning filmmaker to direct a Bond (his debut, “American Beauty,” also won best picture), but the unlikely choice turns out well. He stages the always-spectacular opening set piece, aboard and on top of an Eastern Europe train, with the flawless skill of an action veteran, while putting greater emphasis on what’s going on inside these characters’ heads and their complex relationships.

     The plot, not worth lingering over, involves the stealing of a list of agents (why do agencies’ even make such a list?) and a vow by the twisted bad guy to expose them one by one. Predictable stuff if it wasn’t for Javier Bardem’s Silva, an ex-MI6 agent who feels betrayed by M (Judi Dench in one of her finest screen performances) and wants revenge. Silva also may be the first out-of-the-closet gay villain, his sexuality played not for laughs or shock, but as another aspect of this bad guy’s life.  

     “Skyfall” puts the focus on M like never before, exploring the bond between her and James and her metal as she’s threatened both by Silva and by her new bureaucratic boss (Ralph Fiennes). And if Dench, Fiennes and Bardem don’t offer enough acting history, near the end of the film, Albert Finney shows up in a choice role as caretaker of Bond’s family estate in Scotland—there’s 16 Oscar nominations among those four.

     The script by John Lange, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade keeps the action moving at a breakneck pace (or it wouldn’t be a Bond), yet finds space for real characters exploring the results of their actions, creating a spy thriller that isn’t just a live-action video game. Now we just need someone to convince Craig he’s needed for a fourth film.

THE MASTER  (2012)
     Paul Thomas Anderson crafts motion pictures like few ever have. Combining unfiltered reality, larger-than-life performances and surreal, unexplainable sequences, staged and filmed with the precious of a diamond cutter, the 42-year-old writer-director is utilizing the language of filmmaking with a cool perfection and sudden brazenness that makes his films simultaneously confounding and stunning.

      Yet, since his brilliantly audacious 1997 debut, “Boogie Nights,” he hasn’t made a satisfying film. I could show you clips from any of his last four films, “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “There Will Be Love” and “The Master,” that would convince you that each was a masterwork. His command of the mise-en-scène (the French phrase for what a director brings to an individual sequence) is unmatched in contemporary cinema—he makes Martin Scorsese look messy. But I’ll take messy every day if it adds up to an intellectually and emotionally truthful story, a film with meaning and clarity.

      In “The Master,” we meet the damaged outsider who has been the centerpiece of all of Anderson’s films; this time it’s shell-shocked World War II soldier Freddie Quell (a effectively bizarre Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in with a group of philosophical cultists surrounding the man they call “The Master,” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an unfocused performance). He’s a bit of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, a bit of Rush Limbaugh, but also not unlike the pseudo heroes that made Frank Capra films so appealing. But, from my point of view, he’s not as interesting as any of those characters and certainly not as defined. I never really understood much about his theories or what drew all these sycophants to him like moths to light.

       Quell is a lost soul looking for a reason to live and he finds it in Dodd. Why the all-powerful, but strangely nervous Dodd embraces Quell is never addressed, beyond the fact that the not-very-bright ex-soldier makes potent bootleg liquor.

      There are a half dozen scenes in “The Master” that left me totally confused—was it real or someone’s dream and what exactly does Anderson wants us to make of it. Dodd’s wife, played by Amy Adams, gives some hints that this cult is really about sexual freedom, but Anderson never tips his hand; in some ways, this film hides more than it reveals. Filmgoers are left with Quell’s view of Dodd’s world, a naïve, muddled understanding—not exactly why I watch a movie.