Sunday, November 25, 2012

Indie movie roundup: "Holy Motors," "A Late Quartet," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "Searching for Sugar Man"


Written and directed by Leos Carax
Starring Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minoghue



Directed by Yaron Zilberman
Starring Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots, cameos by Wallace Shawn and Anne Sophie von Otter

Concept: A
Execution: B
Christopher Walken: A


Written and directed by Steven Chbosky (based on his novel)
Starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Nina Dobrev, Mae Whitman, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Melanie Lynskey, Joan Cusack

Logan Lerman: A


Directed by Malik Bendjelloul


Reviews to come

The difficulties of literary adaptations: "Life of Pi," "Anna Karenina"

Adapting books to film is a tricky business, and it’s generally the case that the better or more beloved the book, the more difficult the task of transferring it to the screen. To state the obvious, the movie needs to please—or at least avoid pissing off—the book’s fans, but also be accessible to those who haven’t read the book. This puts pressure on the filmmakers to stay reasonably (but not slavishly) faithful to the text, while capitalizing on the advantages and overcoming the limitations of a completely different medium to convey the book’s power.

In this respect, both Life of Pi and Anna Karenina pose particularly daunting challenges to adaptation. Life of Pi, a tall tale of a miraculous survival at sea doubling as a New Age-y parable of faith, was deemed unfilmable until Ang Lee decided he could do it—and did, armed with the latest and greatest in CGI and 3D technology. Anna Karenina, by contrast, had made the journey to the big screen multiple times but had yet to yield a film that came anywhere close to matching its artistic stature. Undeterred, director Joe Wright rather daringly went for a scaled-down approach that emphasizes the intimate over the epic and a theatrical, rather than naturalistic, style of representation.

Interestingly, both adaptations achieve about equal levels of success. Both are visually arresting and, for the most part, eminently watchable films that honor their sources. Yet neither quite reproduces the mysterious alchemy that gives the book its enduring appeal. What exactly is lacking is hard to say; but its absence prevents the whole from transcending the sum of its well-crafted parts.


Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan
Based on the novel by Yann Martel

I have not read Life of Pi, but by all accounts it’s an odd beast. Not least because it prominently features an odd beast, or at least an oddly displaced one: a tiger in a lifeboat. Make that a hungry Bengal tiger sharing a lifeboat with an unarmed young man.

Showing that interaction was apparently one of the biggest technical hurdles facing director extraordinaire Ang Lee, who responded by drawing on the most state-of-the-art computer wizardry this side of Peter Jackson. (In fact, for my money—or more accurately, the studios’ money—“Life of Pi” easily beats “The Hobbit” in the FX department.) The most formidable hurdle, however, wasn’t technical so much as existential: how to make a gripping, believable film out of a novel that has fantastical elements but isn’t exactly a fantasy and embeds an allegorical subtext but isn’t (necessarily) an allegory.

At the center of the novel, which the movie tracks closely, is a man who cleaves instinctually to the divine. As a boy, Pi Patel is attracted to not one but three of the world’s major religions and rather than choosing, adopts them all; as a young man, he finds his pan-spiritual faith tested—and transmuted—by a literally life-changing experience at sea. Pi finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a tiger after the ship on which he and the tiger were both passengers sinks in a storm. The two aren’t complete strangers to one another, as the tiger (quirkily named Richard Parker, the result of an administrative error) formerly belonged to a zoo owned by Pi’s family. But they become much better acquainted over the course of some 227 days, as their boat drifts idly across the south Pacific Ocean and they become unlikely allies in survival. Demonstrating a rare blend of guile, resourcefulness, and empathy, Pi manages to keep Richard Parker at bay and tame him after a fashion, assisted by little more than a makeshift raft and some rope, a sailor’s whistle, and his own wits. The pair have many strange adventures and see many strange and marvelous things before finally returning to the shores of human civilization. And it’s at that point, arguably, that the story really becomes interesting, at least for those with whom its metaphysical message resonates most deeply.

Portraying all this on screen is a tall order, but the Ang-man is game. More importantly, has game. The man’s never directed a bad movie, and he doesn’t here, even if this one gets off to a somewhat slow and creaky start as it intercuts between middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan)’s conversation with a curious writer (Rafe Spall) and Pi’s memories of his youth in India: how he came by name, how he first met Richard Parker, his quest for God, his first love. Most of the childhood scenes are a tad too cutesy, bordering on twee, while the present-day interview with the writer feels like what it is—a fairly pedestrian framing device—though it’s always good to see Khan, a really terrific actor who sadly isn’t given much to do here.

Lee finds his stride, however, once the story hits the open ocean, and Pi’s desperate struggle to survive and the evolution of his relationship with Richard Parker prove thoroughly engrossing. Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi during this critical period of his life, makes a sympathetic and compelling protagonist while Richard Parker, thanks to some spectacularly lifelike CGI, is a more than worthy co-star. Even beyond Richard Parker, the visual effects are a wonder to behold, whether it’s a positively Biblical flood of gleaming flying fish, a bobbing thicket of incandescent jellyfish, or the simple grandeur of acres of constellations in a clear night sky. It’s these sequences that come closest to capturing the sense of childlike awe, of being transported to another plane of existence, or, as Emerson might have put it, becoming a transparent eyeball, that the book (I suspect) was able to evoke in its readers. Yet something about the film’s presentation of such jaw-dropping moments feels more calculated to dazzle the physical eye than the mind’s eye—an impression heightened by an extended interlude on a mysterious, dreamlike island that almost literally devours Pi whole. Perhaps some subconscious knowledge that what we’re seeing is a glorious digital illusion, a triumph of the filmmaker’s art, diminishes any sense of spiritual transcendence.

And it’s in the effects-free coda that “Life of Pi” pushes up against the limitations of that art. The revels now being ended, Pi’s visions all melted “into air, into thin air,” the film concludes with a discussion between older Pi and his rapt listener on what his story means, or could mean. Ostensibly a dialogue, it comes across as a graceless lump of exegesis that lands with a resounding clunk, though it’s hard to say what alternative would have worked better. Perhaps the framing device should have been abandoned altogether, leaving audiences to decide for themselves what to make of Pi’s wild tale. As it is, the filmmakers decided, understandably enough, not to risk non-readers of the novel completely missing its underlying message. There’s no question it could have been much worse. The unanswered, and possibly unanswerable, question is whether it could have been better.



Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Macfayden, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, Ruth Wilson, Michelle Dockery, others
Adapted by Tom Stoppard

Is Anna Karenina a tragic love story? A cautionary tale of reckless, self-destructive adultery? A critical portrait of an appearance-obsessed society that accepts adultery only so long as it conforms to certain unspoken rules and boundaries?

The truth is it’s all of these things, and much more besides. It’s just as much a celebration of life without artifice, of love free of guilt, of happy marriage, and of the struggle to find one’s role and place in life—mostly via the other main character of the novel, Konstantin Levin, who serves as a stand-in for Tolstoy and whose experiences offer a counterpoint to Anna’s. It also offers, if not exactly a treatise, an extended meditation on the changing socioeconomic relationship between Russian landowners and peasants in Tolstoy’s time. The novel is large, it contains multitudes, and perhaps as a consequence, it defies easy or smooth transfer to the big screen.

But it never pays to underestimate Joe Wright, who’s no stranger to handling high-stakes literary adaptations (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) with confidence and panache. Here, working from an elegantly streamlined script by Tom Stoppard, he manages to produce a fluid, crisply paced film that remains quite faithful to the book. Like many of his predecessors, however, he chooses to focus primarily on Anna’s romance and its reception by the Russian aristocracy. (So much for the peasants, or for Tolstoy’s preoccupation with the ideal political and agrarian model for modern Russia.)

What’s distinctly original is Wright’s visualization of that particular set of social dynamics. Most of the film’s action is shot inside an old theater, and by most I mean the vast majority, from balls, soirées, and horse races to illicit trysts and private tête-à-têtes—sometimes on the stage, sometimes backstage, sometimes bleeding into the audience. Nearly every movement is carefully choreographed, as if everything we’re seeing is part of an elaborate performance, which is clearly the point. Some viewers may find the device overly gimmicky, but it’s intriguing to watch and really drives home the sense that these exquisitely dressed people are each playing a part for the others as well as for us. (The dresses, incidentally, are scrumptious—especially Anna’s, which, in addition to being gorgeous, often appear to reflect her emotional state at any given moment.) Tellingly, the few scenes that don’t feel that way usually involve earnest Levin (Domhnall Gleason, son of Brendan) and innocent Kitty (rising Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who bears watching), the girl he loves.

Not for the first time, Wright's casting choices are idiosyncratic, with almost no correlation between what actors he likes for key roles and whether they bear any resemblance to the characters as written. He also appears to have appointed Keira Knightley as his go-to muse for period pictures, and while he’s had remarkable success with her in the past, it doesn't take here. His casting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky, Anna’s lover, doesn’t help, either. Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, while perfectly pretty, seem too young, too callow, and literally too slender to play Anna and Vronsky. They lack the sheer vitality those two are supposed to exude without effort. They also don’t generate any sexual heat when together, which is a real problem.

Knightley has the hardest sell because Anna, for all her charm and vivacity, is a difficult character to root for, especially towards the end of her downward spiral. In both novel and movie, it’s very wearing on one’s patience to watch her torture both herself and those closest to her simply because she can’t face the admittedly crappy choice her society's thrust upon her. It’s all the more frustrating when you can’t see what it is about Vronsky, or her connection with him, that inspires such intense emotions. And without access to the trajectory of Anna’s inner thoughts, all we can see is their manifestation in her increasingly erratic outward behavior and agitated demeanor. Knightley does her best, but she never really succeeds in elevating her character’s predicament from avoidable pathos to inevitable tragedy.

Curiously, it’s Anna’s husband who ends up being the most compelling character in this ill-fated love triangle. Jude Law is a revelation as the cuckolded Karenin even if at first glance he, too, seems miscast, being too young and frankly too good-looking for the part, despite the film’s attempts to uglify him a bit. Karenin’s a cold fish, but he’s not without feeling, and Law does a fantastic job showing the stiffness and reserve of a man overly concerned with propriety and the appearance of what’s right, as well as the flashes of genuine pain, anger, and compassion that break through at crucial moments. As such, he threatens to upstage Anna as the true hero of this sad tale. That was probably not Tolstoy’s intent, and I’m not sure it was Joe Wright’s, either. Still, a little subversion, whether intended or not, is healthy, as Wright’s general approach illustrates. It keeps the dust from collecting on our most cherished classics, and that can only be a good thing.


Too-reverent "Lincoln" lacks spark


Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, James Spader, John Hawkes, Gloria Reuben, Jared Harris, Bruce McGill, Lee Pace, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jackie Earl Haley, many others

Abraham Lincoln may be the one American president who remains completely immune to trivialization. Being on the face of our lowest-value currency hasn’t cheapened him in the slightest, nor has being turned into a vampire hunter. Even bad movies about him, I suspect (not having seen the vampire hunter movie), treat him with the kind of respect reserved exclusively for Indisputably Great Men.

So, too, does Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which is far from being a bad movie—though it’s not quite a great one, either. Without question it’s an intelligent and honorable attempt to bring the Great Emancipator down to earth by depicting him as both a shrewd politician, not above resorting to ethically questionable tactics to achieve his goals, and a loving but flawed husband and father who was sometimes better at connecting with strangers than with his own family. Still, despite its best intentions it too often has the feel of a hagiography, almost like it can’t help kneeling before an invisible shrine.

That’s Spielberg, some critics might say, yet there’s no doubt the film belongs just as much to its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, and perhaps even more to its screenwriter, playwright Tony Kushner (best known for Angels in America), who previously worked on the script for Spielberg’s “Munich.” Here, drawing from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, Kushner focuses on the last, greatest legislative accomplishment of Lincoln’s presidency (and his life): getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a fractious, bitterly divided Congress in the final days of the Civil War. Time was of the essence, as Lincoln knew he had to secure passage before the return of the Confederate states who would surely block it. To do this he not only had to mediate tensions within his own party—between the radicals who wanted greater enfranchisement for blacks and the more moderate wing who prioritized making peace with the South—but also had to find a way to persuade at least some Democrats to vote for the amendment. This, in turn, required extensive behind-the-scenes political manipulation, intimidation, and, in certain cases, outright bribery.

We see all this unfold on screen, including Lincoln’s own role in quietly setting these stratagems in motion, all the while maneuvering to delay peace negotiations with the Confederacy without appearing to do so. Knowing better than to risk tarnishing his own public image, he delegates much of the dirty work to his trusted Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), who in turn delegates to a trio of shady operators (played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) the task of sussing out Democrat vulnerabilities and pressure points to line up “yes” votes. Lincoln reserves his own direct pressure only for a select few—party allies or others he knows he can persuade with a personal appeal.

The closed-door strategy sessions and backroom arm-twisting are the most interesting scenes in the movie, along with the scenes of heated debate on the House floor. Watching legislators in old-timey garb publicly abuse each other is always entertaining, especially when you’ve got Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the radical Republicans and master of the blistering put-down. (In showcasing the legislative process, warts and all, “Lincoln” is reminiscent of the underrated “Amazing Grace,” a little-seen 2006 film about the efforts of British abolitionist William Wilberforce to get Parliament to ban the slave trade in Britain.)

But somewhat perversely, “Lincoln” tends to lose energy whenever its focus shifts from the political plot to the man behind the plot. Kushner devotes a fair amount of attention to Lincoln’s rocky relationship with his wife, Mary (Sally Field), and his eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), primarily from the perspective of how they affected his motivation to pass the bill. However, these family elements end up functioning more as distractions than as integral parts of Lincoln’s moral universe. While Sally Field makes an impressively fierce Mary, even she can’t forge an organic connection to the rest of the film. And in her scenes with DDL, the two seem to be acting at each other rather than with each other—which may have been intended as a commentary on the actual Lincoln-Mary Todd dynamic, but doesn’t feel emotionally convincing.

As for DDL, he’s undoubtedly a great actor, and he brings a great presence to Lincoln, while painstakingly evoking the man’s mannerisms, reedy voice, and penchant for telling offbeat jokes and stories. Yet there’s something about the performance, even in Lincoln’s private moments, that feels like it’s being played on a stage, and has the effect of putting the audience at a distance. Some of this may be a reflection of Kushner’s script, which seems more interested in showing the effect Lincoln had on others than any internal struggles or doubts he may have had. More of it may be due to Spielberg, who’s demonstrated a tendency to treat history—for some reason, American history especially—with excessive reverence, and to mistake solemnity for gravitas. As in “Amistad,” Spielberg’s last attempt to deal with this country’s history of slavery, his choices in pacing, visual framing, lighting, even musical cues (courtesy of ol’ reliable John Williams) turn what should be a gripping tale of political gamesmanship into a gravely respectful reenactment of History with a capital “H.” There are also far too many shots of minor characters gazing at Lincoln with an awestruck expression, as if they're looking at God Himself.

Whatever the reasons, for a movie that’s so much about the messiness of the legislative process, “Lincoln” feels surprisingly sterile, static, and (ironically for a Spielberg picture) emotionally flat. Urgency, turmoil, passions are signaled, but somehow not conveyed, or conveyed through the filter of Lincoln’s transcendent, all-pervasive presence. As Lincoln himself would probably tell us if he could, his last few months on this earth were surely a lot less stately—and a lot more exciting. He deserved a film that captured that sense of instability and uncertainty, rather than muffling it in a cloak of historical inevitability.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Homeland Ep. 2-8: I'll Fly Away

One of the greatest feats of "Homeland"'s first season was the delicate balance it managed between making viewers empathize with Brody and at the same time feeding their doubts about him. The audience could feel the psychological damage wrought by years of imprisonment and torture while simutaneously wondering if he was planning to commit an even greater evil than that done to him. Even after it became clear he'd been turned, there was still the possibility he wouldn't go through with the plan - that he wouldn't pull the trigger, that love of his family, love of life, would pull him back from the brink.

This season, it's been much more difficult to sustain that balancing act, as we've now seen that Brody was perfectly capable of going through with it, even if a technical malfunction and his daughter's plea prevented him from finishing the job. We've seen that he's capable of killing, brutally, under orders from Abu Nazir, and of incredible cruelty to poor Carrie, the only person who loved him as the man he'd become rather than the man he once was. There's not much rationale for sympathizing with Brody now or hope for his redemption. Yet the show continues to find ways to pull us into his mental drama and, yes, empathize with him. (Maybe this isn't true for everyone; the friend I watch the show with, for example, finds Brody completely intolerable.) In particular, ever since Carrie convinced him to make a deal with the CIA, we feel his growing sense that what once looked like a potential escape route has become a trap, a maze with no outlet.

And so, in this episode Brody finally reaches his breaking point, after the CIA stonewalls his attempt to take Dana to the police to report the hit and run. He sees his daughter, and possibly his wife, slipping irrecoverably away from him; he sees he's just a pawn to the CIA; and he sees he has no choice. Damian Lewis does a stellar job (by now we should expect no less) conveying Brody's meltdown, from his bellowing "I CAN'T!" to Jessica and collapsing into fetal position (a callback to first season) to his flipping out on Roya to the eerie fatalistic calm that descends upon him when Carrie, against orders, takes him off the grid to calm him down and put him back on track. Carrie "handles" him, all right, with a mixture of soft pep talk and crazy monkey sex (all recorded by the CIA!), and succeeds in her immediate objective: Brody tells Roya he's back in. Roya looks skeptical, to say the least, but proceeds to drive him off to a remote field, introduce him to the mystery man who led the raid in Gettysburg, and bundle him off by helicopter to a meeting with...a clean-shaven Abu Nazir.

What happens next is anyone's guess. I think Nazir and Roya would have to be idiots not to have made Brody by now, and Roya's comments and general demeanor towards Brody - not to mention her disabling the tracker on his phone - suggest they know he's playing double agent. If they're not going to kill him, or torture him to find out what the CIA knows (which really isn't much), then what are they going to do with him? The easiest answer is that Nazir will try to reprogram him to their cause; but how can he possibly believe the CIA would trust Brody now?

As for Carrie, she's in it right there with him, right up to her f**king neck, as she would say. "Homeland"'s other high wire act has always been its depiction of the blurriness of Carrie's motives w/r/t Brody; it's become almost impossible now to tell how much of what she says to (and does with) him is in service of her mission, and how much of it an expression of her true feelings for him. She keeps telling Saul and Peter Quinn, who are giving her a pretty implausibly long leash, that it's the former, but there's little doubt she was being more honest with Brody last week when she told him she didn't know.

As usual, the subplots involving Brody's family were considerably less dramatically compelling than the main plot, though Morgan Saylor continues to impress as a very morally lost Dana who, not unlike her dad, is nearly going out of her mind carrying around a bundle of guilt she can't discharge. I also found her interactions with Mike unexpectedly sweet, especially since it was she who originally banished him from the Brodys' lives. The way things are going, Mike might be resuming full-time surrogate dad duties quite soon, and I'm beginning to think that can only be a good thing.

Random observations:

-I knew Brody's lying to Jessica about Carrie no longer being with the CIA would come back to bite him. This may be the last straw for their marriage. Nice work by Morena Baccarin in her limited screen time this ep.

-I'm glad to see Peter Quinn lookin' good, though that must be one seriously fast-healing stomach wound. He was popping so many pills last episode I half expected him to be concealing a painkiller addiction in this one.

-This is a quibble, but seriously, folks, no Congressman's chief of staff would ever tell anyone, let alone a journalist, that his boss had an open calendar for ANY day.

-Could Virgil's black van BE any more conspicuous? It doesn't look like it could be anything other than what it is, a surveillance vehicle. I did like Virgil's line about the Starship Enterprise, though.

Best moment: Saul face-palming at the sound of his protégée's sex noises. Can I admit that I laughed hysterically through that whole scene? (Carrie's blasé reaction to the news that the entire night had been monitored was also priceless.)

Best line: "I know, I was there." -Quinn to Carrie as she's railing about having lost six agents at Gettysburg to Abu Nazir's mystery man.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Upbeat "Silver Linings" shows few clouds


Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles
Based on a novel by Matthew Quick

A warm-hearted crowd-pleaser of a movie, “Silver Linings Playbook” attempts to tread the fine line between mainstream and indie film sensibilities, and ends up casting its lot with the former. Despite its trappings of unconventionality – mentally unstable protagonists, other kooky characters, an unlikely comic mash-up of football fandom and competitive ballroom dancing – it’s at heart a deeply conventional romantic comedy in both its structure and its ultimate message. That doesn’t prevent it from being perfectly enjoyable, but does diminish some of its long-term emotional resonance.

The story centers on Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a former high school teacher who’s just been released from a stint in a mental institution—a voluntary commitment after he walked in on his wife with another man in the shower and proceeded to beat the guy to a pulp. So yeah, Pat’s got anger management issues, which cause his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver) some reasonable concern when he moves temporarily back into their house. But Pat also has a plan: to get and stay fit, physically and mentally, and to win back his estranged wife, Nikki. He calls it his silver linings playbook, though it might just as easily be called the Power of Positive Thinking.

The problem is while Pat’s playbook includes healthy activities like running, it also seems to include a fair amount of obsessing over Nikki and not enough time reconnecting with his family—especially his dad, an obsessive (possibly compulsive) Eagles fan who doesn’t understand why Pat won’t watch football games with him. Pat’s life only really starts to move forward once he strikes up a friendship with neighbor Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow still deeply depressed by her husband’s death. Eventually Pat agrees to become Tiffany’s ballroom dancing partner in exchange for her playing intermediary between him and Nikki, whom Tiffany knows through her sister (Julia Stiles).

Anyone who’s ever watched a movie with a love triangle can guess how this arrangement ends, though to its credit the film doesn’t get there by the most obvious or straightforward path. Cooper and Lawrence have an interesting chemistry that isn’t exactly romantic, at least not initially; it grows by degrees as their characters let down their prickly guards and come to understand each other. The roles are departures for both of them, and they’re both quite good at conveying two unmoored individuals who mirror each other in their abrasiveness, stubbornness, and emotional fragility. The age difference between them is surprisingly unobtrusive: Lawrence is one of those rare actresses who can play both older and younger than her actual age—which might be why she’s most often cast as teenage girls forced to grow up way too soon.

Cross-cutting against Pat’s interactions with Tiffany are his interactions with other people in his life, including his parents, his psychotherapist (Anupam Kher), and a fellow mental patient (Chris Tucker) who periodically pops into Pat’s life only to be whisked away just as quickly. These characters seem to be included primarily for comic relief, which they do provide in abundance, even if some of the humor feels a bit contrived. But none of these other relationships is depicted in enough depth to carry much emotional weight or provide any real insight into Pat’s process of self-healing. There's a briefly unsettling moment of intra-family conflict early on that hints at the possibility of deeper tensions between Pat and his father (as well as an inherited penchant for violence), but it rapidly melts away, never to return. For better or for worse, the movie’s rather casual in its treatment of mental illness. It’s very vague on what Pat’s precise ailment is, when he was diagnosed, whether he’s on or off his meds; even his therapy sessions are played mainly for laughs or as glorified pep talks. His real therapy is clearly his bond with Tiffany.

This isn’t to suggest that “Silver Linings Playbook” fails because it isn’t dark enough or because it focuses too much on the love story. Yet it’s hard not to contrast with David O. Russell’s previous films—particularly “The Fighter,” another uplifting tale of a man overcoming his demons that managed to balance a tough, sweet romance against a much deeper, better-drawn family drama and a portrait of addiction so poignant and yet so unsentimental it makes Pat’s illness look almost trivial by comparison. There’s nothing wrong with a feel-good movie about a man pulling himself up out of the darkness. But showing a little bit more of that darkness could have made the “feel good” feel more earned, and elevated a merely pleasant movie to truly inspiring.

Grade: B

"Skyfall" tests limits of Bond myth


Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney

“Skyfall” is a good-looking, well-crafted Bond movie with a mild identity crisis. Put another way, it’s really two movies in one. Movie A is a classic .007 adventure, replete with car chases and shootouts, exotic locales, disposable babes, and a diabolical super-villain. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find Movie B, a much wryer, more melancholy tale of the passing of an era—the very era that Movie A celebrates.

This tension isn’t exactly new to the franchise: hints of it trace back to Pierce Brosnan’s days, if indeed not earlier, and the reboot casting of Daniel Craig was at least in part a response to it. However, director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Revolutionary Road”) may be the first to expand that self-awareness beyond Bond himself to the entity (and nation) he represents. It’s no secret that Bond’s popularity owes much to various flavors of nostalgia, one of them being the fantasy of British supremacy in keeping the world safe—the idea that what Britain could no longer achieve through military power could still be done through intelligence, and specifically through the unflappable, undefeatable .007. “Skyfall” keeps that fantasy going, though not without inflicting some serious dents in it: tellingly, the movie’s opening chase ends with Bond taking a (literal) fall and being written off as dead.

Of course he isn’t dead; Bond will always live to die another day. Perhaps even more tellingly, though, he chooses to remain off the grid until he sees news reports that a bomb has gone off inside MI6 headquarters, leaving the place a smoking, hollowed-out ruin. As the shaken agency retreats literally underground and comes under scathing inquiries from Parliament, while Bond gets a physical and mental evaluation that reveals he’s in sub-par shape for field work, there’s a suggestion in the air that the old order may be on the brink of obsolescence. It's underscored by the introduction of bran new characters like a younger, geek-chic Q (Ben Whishaw) and Gareth Mallory (a very good Ralph Fiennes), the MP leading the inquiry into MI6 operations, to whom there’s more than meets the eye. Nevertheless, for a time—in set pieces that take place mostly in Shanghai and a glitzy casino in Macau—“Skyfall” returns to classic .007 mode, with Bond back to business taking down the baddies and making the ladies swoon with trademark efficiency.

The film shifts gears again, however, with the entrance of the lead baddie, Silva (Javier Bardem in sinister mode). Never mind that Silva’s stolen some super-secret information that MI6 desperately needs to recover; that fact ends up being a Macguffin. Unlike most Bond villains, Silva isn’t particularly interested in taking over the world, and his leering, almost lascivious attitude towards Bond is likely to throw some viewers for a loop—like the guy behind me who groaned a very audible “oh HELL, no,” during an interrogation scene between Bond and Silva that’s laden with homoerotic innuendo. It quickly becomes clear, though, that Silva’s real obsession isn’t with Bond at all but with the woman behind him, M (Judi Dench). In targeting her, Silva appears bent on exacting vengeance against the country and agency that betrayed him years ago. Yet it’s even more strongly suggested that the betrayal is a personal issue specific to M, a point emphasized earlier in the movie by her willingness to sacrifice even her most trusted agents.

Thus Bond’s mission becomes a test of his own loyalty to M, leading to a final act beautifully shot in the unlikeliest of locations: a remote windswept manor in Scotland that turns out to be Bond’s childhood home, where, in a Batman-like touch, he witnessed the violent deaths of his parents. Is his defending M here a commentary on the nature of their relationship, perhaps that she’s become his de facto surrogate parent? If so, it doesn’t have quite the emotional resonance that Mendes seems to be going for, largely because the character of M remains something of a cipher. At the same time, there’s a certain poetic irony to the prospect of an uprooted Scot protecting a wounded symbol of British power on Scottish turf, in keeping with the movie’s general decline-of-empire theme.

In the end, of course, the threats are driven back, Bond reasserts his dominance, and the very last scene of the movie sees a full return of the old jaunty .007 charm. But that final tonal shift feels abrupt and not entirely convincing, a sign of “Skyfall”’s overall instability as a movie that repeatedly chips away at its own foundations. While the “A” plot ultimately prevails, it’s the subversive B strands that leave the deepest impression.


Monday, November 05, 2012

Homeland Ep. 2-6: Gettysburg Address


That's not a reaction I generally expect to have to a "Homeland" episode, especially one with a shocking climax, but that's pretty much how I felt about this one.

We were probably due for a comedown after the highs of the last couple of weeks, but the show really felt like it was struggling to get out of second gear tonight. It's not that nothing happens, because plenty, in fact, does happen: Surveillance of Roya Hamad shows her meeting a mysterious man the CIA can't identify, and Carrie - despite Peter Quinn's misgivings - calls in Brody to see if he can. He can't (or says he can't), but, prompted by some obscure impulse, does reveal that one of their other suspects, the tailor in Gettysburg, is dead. Under pressure from Carrie and again against Peter Quinn's advice, Brody approaches Roya to try to get more information from her about Abu Nazir's plans. Instead he only succeeds in (possibly) tipping her off. Because shortly thereafter, while investigating the tailor's shop in Gettysburg, Quinn, Danny Galvez, and several others are gunned down by a group of men in SWAT gear (one of whom turns out to be Roya's mysterious contact), who remove something from behind a wall before leaving. Yet when Carrie angrily confronts Brody about the debacle, he swears that he knew nothing about it and had nothing to do with it.

Meanwhile, Mike continues his investigation of Tom Walker's death and runs smack into Saul and Estes, who tell him to lay off; nonetheless, he confides his suspicions in Jessica, who refuses to believe him and tells him Brody's working for the CIA. Finally, in the subplot that refuses to go away, Dana tracks down the victim of little Spawn of VP's hit-and-run only to discover that the poor woman's on the verge of death and leaving behind a grieving daughter. Overwhelmed with guilt, Dana shares the bad news with Spawn and implores him to do the right thing; he, like a cornered rat, turns on her for pressing him.

That's a full slate of happenings. Yet most of them, with the exception of the massacre at the tailor's shop, felt like just so much wheel-spinning. Maybe it's because Roya Hamad and Gettysburg have been among the weakest of this season's "A" plots, and Dana's joy ride the tritest and most tiresome of the B plots. (I don't mind the Mike-and-Lauder-play-detective storyline as much, if only because it provides - intentionally or not - some welcome comic relief, e.g., Mike's hilarious, mostly wordless interaction with Saul and Estes.) Even the Gettysburg surprise seemed, at some level, faintly ridiculous: in such a small town, wouldn't the neighboring shopkeepers and passersby notice first the FBI squad and then the (fake) SWAT team shooting up the place? Covering tracks is clearly not Abu Nazir's priority, though it doesn't seem to have hurt him yet in keeping ahead of U.S. intelligence.

Not surprisingly, the best moments in the episode were the interactions between Carrie, Brody, and Peter Quinn. If Quinn survives - and it did look like he was alive at the end, albeit critically injured - this latest development is likely to make Brody even more of a wedge between Quinn and Carrie. Will she trust Brody, and should we, in turn, trust her judgment? This question has always been the heart of "Homeland." I don't know how much longer it can be - and for this reason, I hope they keep Quinn on as a character, as his relationship with Carrie is almost as interesting - but it's still what makes this show work.

Random observations:

-Quinn may have survived, but it looks like Galvez is down for the count. Poor Galvez - he's been underutilized as a character, especially this season, but I always liked him. At least, if he's dead, he probably isn't the mole.

-Brody may be a pathological liar, but I actually believed him when he told Carrie he hadn't (at least not intentionally) communicated anything to Roya. More likely that he was made, maybe long before this. Her question about his hand was one of her rare chilling moments.

-One point that's bugged me all along: the Hezbollah may think they confiscated the Brody video from Saul, but wouldn't they (and by extension, Abu Nazir) assume there's at least a *possibility* that Saul already saw the video? And combining that with Carrie's sudden reappearance on the scene, wouldn't they have put two & two together about Brody long ago?

-Recipe for future disaster: Brody lying to Jessica about Carrie. You just *know* that's going to come back to bite them both.

-While I hate her subplot, I have to admit that Morgan Saylor has been great as Dana, and especially so tonight. The storyline may be tired, but her reaction was totally believable.

From zero to hero: "Wreck-It Ralph" shoots and scores


Directed by Rich Moore
Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling, others

You don’t have to be a gamer to enjoy “Wreck-It Ralph,” Disney’s delightful adventure about a video game villain who decides he wants to be a hero for a change. Nor do you have to belong to any particular demographic group; the movie’s built to appeal to all ages and both genders. But you’re likely to be most entertained if you’re one of those who grew up with the first generation of video game technology – that is, basically anyone who remembers whiling away big chunks of the ’80s and early ’90s in an arcade or in front of an Atari 2600 or a Nintendo or Sega system. Credit Disney for a bit of marketing genius: this is the perfect movie for that generation to see with their kids, who can revel in the finest state-of-the-art computer animation of today while their parents joyfully spot old friends of yesteryear like Q-bert, Dig-Dug, Bowser, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

But “Wreck-It Ralph” is more than just a trip down nostalgia lane for Generation Xers. It’s also a Disney movie that plays and feels like a Pixar movie, which (“Cars 2” aside) is pretty much the highest emblem of praise for animated films today. Like any good children’s fantasy, the film creates a rich alternate universe - here, the secret world of a video game arcade - that's ingeniously tied to our own. Off the clock, after the arcade is closed for the day, the video game characters can kick back, whether by partying down, solitary tippling at Tapper's (an actual video game from the '80s), or attending support groups, and are free to jump from one game to another. The only caveat: if they die outside their own game, it’s truly game over for them; they won’t “regenerate” as they can on their own turf. Every morning, before the arcade opens, everyone hustles back to their respective games via Game Central Station, which, you guessed it, is a dead-on replica of Grand Central, only teeming with classic video game icons.

It’s not a bad life, but it’s better for some than others, an injustice that eats away at Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly, king of sad-sack roles). Ralph’s thankless job is to smash up an apartment building while the hero of his game, “Fix-It” Felix (“30 Rock”’s Jack McBrayer), rushes to repair the damage. Tired of seeing Felix toasted each night by the building’s residents while he himself is relegated to the garbage dump, Ralph decides to prove that he’s a hero, too, by winning a medal in another game. His quest leads him first to the modern paramilitary mission Hero’s Duty, then to a Candy Land-like racing game called Sugar Rush, where he forms an unlikely alliance with a mouthy, glitchy girl-avatar named Vanellope von Sweetz (Sarah Silverman) whose own dream is to win a race she's forbidden even to enter. Meanwhile, hot on the delinquents’ trail are Fix-It Felix, looking to bring Ralph back into the fold, and the stoic Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), tracking down a cyber-virus Ralph inadvertently let loose from Hero’s Duty, as well as King Candy (Alan Tudyk), the Mad Hatter-like ruler of Sugar Rush who’s obsessed with preventing Vanellope from racing.

The visual design of the movie is outstanding, down to the last detail. None of the principal games featured in the narrative are real games, but they’re astoundingly plausible imitations, especially when shown from the outside players’ perspective—from the primitive, Donkey Kong-esque graphics of Fix-It Felix (complete with flat, tinny beep-boop music) to the sleek hi-def animation and blazing gunfire of Hero’s Duty. And there are, of course, more real video game references than you can shake a stick at—certainly way more than I caught, and probably even more than a die-hard gamer could catch on first viewing. The relationship between the players on one side of the controls and the characters on the other is also cleverly handled, simultaneously reinforcing the separateness and the interconnectedness of the two worlds.

But in the end “Wreck-It Ralph” rises and falls by the emotional dynamics between the characters inside the games, and on this score, too, it succeeds. The kinship between Ralph and Vanellope may seem predictable at the outset, but over the course of the movie develops into a bond that feels genuine and believable. So much so, in fact, that the crisis points in their relationship—most memorably, when Ralph deliberately destroys something precious to Vanellope, and much later, when Vanellope sees him about to sacrifice something even more precious—are positively heart-stopping. Ralph’s fallibility is key here. The movie may ultimately be about self-fulfillment and realizing one’s dreams, but it doesn’t hesitate to show its would-be hero making some profoundly misguided assumptions and terrible decisions along the way.

Like its protagonist, “Wreck-It” isn’t without its share of flaws. Particularly in the beginning, it indulges a bit too much in broad gags that have more of a Dreamworks than a Pixar flavor. The film also piles up a few too many subplots, leading to a slightly saggy middle section and a slightly overstuffed, hectic climax. Still, overall it manages to tie the various threads together in the end without undercutting the basic power of its premise. At bottom, it’s a movie that shows that there’s more than one way to be a hero, and that the truest kind of heroism springs from love, not the desire to be loved. Forget video games—that’s pure Disney at its best.


BONUS: Speaking of pure Disney at its best, “Wreck-It Ralph” is preceded by a black-and-white short film, “The Paperman,” about a young man and woman drawn together by chance and a sheaf of white paper. It’s a sentimental wisp of a tale, but it’s also gorgeous in a retro way, reminiscent of the hand-drawn animation of Disney artists from decades ago. In actual fact, the animation is a remarkable combination of drawing and computer design. If that's Disney's future, sign me up.