Sunday, February 3, 2013

January 2013

     It’s getting harder and harder to criticize the Academy Award nominations as the number of worthy films shrinks yearly. As I struggle to find 10 good films to fill my end-of-the-year list, how can I expect anything but the usual suspects from the Oscar voters?

    While I’m not much of a fan of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or “Life of Pi,” what was really out there to replace them in the best picture category? My only suggestion would be “Moonrise Kingdom,” Wes Anderson’s sarcastic look at young love, which scored an original screenplay nod. In my Top 10, you’ll find such pictures as “Bernie” and “Robot & Frank,” but did either ever stand a snowball’s chance at a best picture nod?

     To me, I’m giving the voters a pass this year if only for their selection of “Amour,” a brilliant, devastatingly sad look at aging from challenging director Michael Haneke. It’s a French art film maybe more depressing than any best picture nominee in history; the idea that it’s competing with “Django Unchained” and “Zero Dark Thirty” seems crazy even for Hollywood.

      Among performers, I was most disappointed that Richard Gere’s perfectly calibrated work in “Arbitrage” failed to garner a best actor nomination. Also, Frank Langella’s memorable aging house burglar in “Robot & Frank” deserved consideration. (In all the endless Oscar prediction stories, I never even saw his name mentioned.)

       Much has been written about Ben Affleck being left out of the best director nominees and I would second that: “Argo” was the best directed film of the year, even though I selected “Silver Linings Playbook” as the best film.

       I’m betting, though not much, that “Argo” will be named best picture and Steven Spielberg will take home his third best director Oscar for “Lincoln.” The winners in the acting categories seem to be set in stone: Daniel Day-Lewis, obviously; Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro for “Silver Linings Playbook;” and Anne Hathaway for her stirring, but brief “Les Misérables” performance. If this plays out, it will be the third Oscar win for both De Niro and Day-Lewis.

        Here’s my (very tentative) Top 10. (Remember, I don’t mix foreign and English-language films; otherwise, “Amour” would certainly be near the top)

         1.  Silver Linings Playbook   (David O. Russell)
         2.  Argo   (Ben Affleck)
         3.  Moonrise Kingdom   (Wes Anderson)
         4.  Lincoln  (Steven Spielberg) 
         5.  Bernie  (Richard Linklater)
         6.  Arbitrage  (Nicholas Jarecki)
         7.  Robot & Frank  (Jake Schreier)
         8.  Zero Dark Thirty  (Kathryn Bigelow)
         9.  Ted  (Seth MacFarlane)
       10.  Skyfall  (Sam Mendes)

TED  (2012)
    The idea of a teddy bear that turns into a vulgar, dope-smoking slacker sounded like a one-joke, SNL skit. Instead, the film is a sharp satire about a generation that resists growing up, clinging to youthful indulgences and frat boy behavior to avoid adult responsibility. And, on top of that, “Ted” is one of the funniest movies of 2012.

     Dripping with caustic satire, a narrator (the smooth baritone of Patrick Stewart) tells the pre-title story of John Bennett and his special Christmas present, an oversized teddy bear. When he wishes for the toy to have the ability to talk, it does, scaring the crap out of his parents and, in time, becoming a media sensation (there’s a clever “Forrest Gump”-like clip of the bear on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”)

      When we meet John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted (the plush toy voiced by director Seth MacFarlane) again, it’s 25 years later and they’re still together; except now they’re getting high and drunk and trading cheap jokes even as John is sharing his bed with the very tolerant Lori (Mila Kunis). Clearly, it is time for John, stuck in a dead-end job at a car rental firm, to decide between a life with Lori or nightly debauchery alongside his furry, Joe Pesci Jr. buddy.

    That it is so easy to accept Ted as a reality is a tribute to writer-director MacFarlane, the creator of the animated TV hit “Family Guy” and this year’s Oscar show host, making his feature film directing debut. The script, by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, is not without its misfires and over-the-line inappropriateness (it strangely combines very adult material with 5th-grade level humor) but Ted and John form such a likeable combo that it’s easy to forgive the cringe-worthy moments.

     Central to the film’s living-in-our-youth theme is the campy 1980 sci-fi cult film “Flash Gordon” and its beefy star Sam Jones, both much admired by Ted and John. When the now middle-aged Jones shows up at a party given by Ted (no one parties like this teddy), binge drinking reaches new heights, culminating in a fight between the teddy bear and a soon-to-be boiled duck. 

       Be prepared to be offended—“Ted” is about as political correct as Howard Stern—and to laugh out loud at more gags than most writers come up with in a career. How can you not love a movie in which singer Norah Jones recalls a sexual encounter she had with Ted, commenting on his lack of an important, shall we say, tool of manhood. “Yeah,” croaks Ted, “you know, I’ve written so many angry letters to Hasbro about that.”

LIFE OF PI  (2012)
      If there was any doubt about how far out of touch I am with popular movie opinion, my thoughts on Ang Lee’s Oscar nominated picture should serve as clarification.

      Reviews, from the smartest critics in the country, have used such phrases as “miraculous achievement,” “spellbinding,” “profound” and “magical” to describe this metaphysical tale of an Indian teenager shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean with an unfriendly Bengal tiger. Pi, who was aboard a freighter with his family and a zoo full of animals headed for Canada, manages to survive on a lifeboat for months (it seems) while he avoids becoming dinner for his animal companion.

      Suraj Sharma, making his film debut, is very convincing as Pi, overcoming fear and hopelessness to live to tell his unbelievable story to a curious writer (in the film’s poorly staged and written framing device).

      For me it was all as believable as an episode of “Sponge Bob Square Pants.” Needless to say, movie trickery has been going on since moving pictures were invented, but those that are more computer simulation than cinema (not unlike “Avatar” and all the comic book hero movies) leave me empty. I couldn’t get emotionally involved in Pi because I never believed he was really in the ocean, encountering a tiger or flying fish or an ape or was surviving harsh weather on a tiny boat. It was like watching the pages turn on a picture book for children—glorious images but the preachy story soon grows tiring.

     Not helping in the believability department is the clumsy contemporary scenes with the adult Pi and this bland writer. Even worse is the convoluted, almost apologetic ending that undermines the “magical” aspects of the film.

     Nothing appeals to me less than a film or story that tries with all its might to uplift the audience. Just tell me a good story and everyone’s spirits will be raised.

      In spite of all the honors for Lee, this isn’t even close to his best work, which includes “The Wedding Banquet,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and his Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain.” In fact, I sometimes question the importance of the director on these tech-heavy projects; whoever was in charge of the CGI work was the real creative force.

FLIGHT  (2012)
     For a society that seems aghast every time a hero is found wanting—just in the past few weeks we’ve been treated to confessions from Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o, a Notre Dame football star—this portrait of a less-than-perfect airline pilot is the ultimate sign-of-the-times movie. Not unlike “Arbitrage,” this fast-paced and superbly acted film offers a behind-the-curtain look at the PR and legal machinery that cranks into action to protect the well placed and connected.

      Denzel Washington gives his best performance in a decade (“Training Day” was 2001) as Whip Whitaker, a supremely confident commercial pilot whose personal life is a nonstop orgy of drugs, booze and sex. The film opens with Whip, after a night of debauchery, maneuvering a plane to a miraculously safe landing (six are killed) after mechanical failure sends the aircraft into a freefall.

     He’s a humble, reluctant hero to the public at the same time that the FCC starts uncovering his questionable lifestyle. The union brings in a lawyer who is an expert in handle such problems (the always first-rate Don Cheadle), who counters the problem with smoke screens and legal trickery to cover for Whip.

      Washington, who has wasted his talent in recent years in second-rate action thrillers (even when he’s creating a complex character, as in “The Taking of Pelham 123,” it is lost in the melodrama), brings out the mood-shifting, constant denial and sudden violence of this unrepentant alcoholic. Even when his future is on the line, Whip can’t stop drinking. This complex, introspective performance earned Washington his sixth Oscar nomination. The Academy voters also recognized the smart and unpredictable script by John Gatins.

       Cheadle, who came to prominence opposite Washington in the 1995 detective yarn “Devil in a Blue Dress,” delivers another spot-on performance as the lawyer defending an indefensible man. Also quite good is Bruce Greenwood as Whip’s friend and union rep, who stays in his corner under the worst circumstances.

      John Goodman, who also had key 2012 roles in “Argo” and “Trouble with the Curve,” plays Whip’s supplier (of anything—legal or not), bringing a crazed, hyper-reality to the rather serious picture.

     The film also marks a return to form for veteran director Robert Zemeckis, who, since “Cast Away” in 2000, has committed to those computer/live actor hybrid constructs that, at best, are just weird. For my money, this is Zemeckis’ best film since “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) and the best acted since “Forrest Gump” (1994).

    I had high hopes for this film, even thought it was originally released in the movie graveyard of March, if only for the intriguing possibilities of Robert De Niro portraying an eccentric, unpublished novelist.

     Paul Dano, the quirky young actor who has co-starred with a litany of great actors in recent years, including Alan Arkin, Daniel Day-Lewis and Brian Cox, plays De Niro’s estranged son who lacks the charisma and abrasive self-confidence that his father exudes in spades. But both are clearly men lacking in a focus for their lives.

     Unfortunately, for the movie experience, these characters never grow into real people, instead saying and doing the same things over and over in search of something to create flesh and blood men.

      The script is based on poet-playwright Nick Flynn’s memoirs (delightfully titled “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City”), thus much of the dramatic weakness of the film can be traced to the fact that real life is rarely as entertaining as fiction (more on that later). Director Paul Weitz, who worked with De Niro on “Little Fockers,” I think saw this as a great vehicle for the 69-year-old legend. Turned out it was in another 2012 film, “Silver Linings Playbook,” that De Niro was given the chance to show what a great actor he remains.

       It almost seems as if the writer is so intent on making himself look bad that he turns Dano’s Nick into a tired, unappealing character. It’s a given that De Niro’s Jonathan Flynn, an irresponsible racist  whose belief that he’s a brilliant writer is more irritating than endearing, is the character we are meant to blame for the son’s problems. But Flynn (with help from Dano) has made his cinematic reflection so indecisive and weak that it’s hard to sympathize. Much more interesting, I have no doubt, is Flynn’s just released “The Reenactments,” which chronicles his experiences during the making of the film.

       There are a few nice moments between De Niro and Dano, but not enough to make the film worth renting or to overcome the predictable, cliché-riddled final act.

  The problem with true stories, at least the ones that are made into motion pictures, is that they tend to be less believable than almost any piece of fiction. To successfully transfer the unexplainable coincidences and irrational inconsistencies of the real world to the screen takes a very skilled writer and director. This incredible chronicle of a couple and their three children caught in the chaotic hell of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami while on vacation in Thailand has its moments but never convinced me that this family’s fate was in jeopardy.

  Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play married couple Marie and Henry Bennett, who are lounging at the resort’s poolside when the wall of water hits, eventually killing 230,000 across South Asia. Marie and oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) nearly drown and she is badly hurt, but they survive together. The father and the two youngest boys seemed to have survived unscathed, but are separated from the other half of the family. 

  Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (much acclaimed for his 2007 feature debut “The Orphanage”) and his production crew have done an astonishing job of recreating the horrors of the aftermath, making the devastation look very real. At points, the film has a documentary-like intensity. But the story has all the easily resolved dramatics of a TV movie, elevated only by the fine performances.

  Watts, one of the finest and most underappreciated Hollywood actresses, gives an intensely physical and heartbreakingly emotion performance as Marie, who bonds with her son as they fight to stay alive. It deservedly earned her an Oscar nomination, the culmination of a string of excellent work over the past decade, including “King Kong,” “The Painted Veil,” “Eastern Promises” and “Fair Game.”

  Holland, known in England for his stage role in the musical “Billy Elliott,” gives an equally impressive performance as Lucas, who must grown up quickly, taking care of his mother and helping others in need. For his and Watts’ performances, the film is worth seeking out, even as it fails the true-story litmus test.

     On paper, this Clint Eastwood vehicle looked like a guaranteed home run (sorry, couldn’t resist). But the script offers nothing but an unremarkable fastball right down the middle.

     This is baseball-movie comfort food, in which every character might as well wear a label saying “bad guy” or “good guy” and the plot turns are all advertised with explanation points in the early innings. Twenty minutes into the film, the entire plot becomes predictable and then plays out without a hitch.

      Eastwood plays Gus, a scout for the Atlanta Braves, whose failing eyesight seems to spell the end of the road for this legendary, but thoroughly disagreeable figure. Like an old gunslinger or infamous bank robber, he heads out on that one last big adventure, in this case, scouting a high school slugger whose stats have made him a sure fire top draft choice.

      Amy Adams plays Gus’ frustrated daughter he keeps at arm’s length (the film is bursting with sophomoric psychology), who risks a chance for a partnership at her law firm to be his eyes during this important scouting trip. Turns out, Mickey—named after baseball legend Mickey Mantle--knows baseball as well as Gus.

     The baseball aspects of the film are sadly dated. The debate over statistical-based approach vs. traditional scouting method of judging amateur players started at least 15 years ago and was the focus of “Moneyball,” written in 2003.

     But the problems with this film, the directing debut of Eastwood’s longtime assistant Robert Lorenz, have little to do with the baseball aspects. It’s the too obvious relationship problems and resolutions (Justin Timberlake plays a scout with eyes for Mickey) and a reliance on easy coincidence and simplistic character development. Randy Brown, with no other credits to his name, is the screenwriter.

      Over the last 15 years, we’ve come to expect greatness from any film Eastwood attached himself to—as actor or director, preferably both—but nothing lasts forever; “Trouble with the Curve” is little more than a routine grounder to second base.