Thursday, January 31, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty


Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Chris Pratt, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini
Running Time: 157 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

When we first meet Jessica Chastain's Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, she's silently and nervously watching her CIA colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate a potential Al-Qaeda suspect. It's an interrogation that soon turns to torture when he tells her to fill a bucket of water. She can barely bring herself to do it and we're thinking there's no way this is the same woman the agency nicknames "killer," much less the one who eventually brings down the most dangerous man in the world. It'll be only moment of hesitancy we see because, like everyone else, we've underestimated her.

At its core this is about a woman who's beyond exceptional at her job, steadfastly refusing to take "no" for an answer. Wherever there's red tape, she walks through it. When superiors are in her way, she plows right over them. Operating with an emotionless, laser-like focus and precision, it's impossible for anyone to deter her from her main objective: Finding and killing Osama Bin Laden. In many respects she's the most patriotic, inspirational protagonist we've seen on screen in some time, but Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (again corroborating with Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal) won't let us get all warm and fuzzy about it. In fact, she hardly even gives us a moment to come up for air.

The chain of events start on September 11, 2001 but for the film's purposes the really begin in 2003 when Maya's career-long obsession with Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda leads her to be reassigned to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan where she witnesses and learns Dan's interrogation tactics and gets a potential lead on the whereabouts of Bin Laden's courier and right-hand man, Abu Ahmed. For all the complaints and controversy concerning the depiction of torture to gain valuable intel one of the more under-reported stories about the film is the sheer quantity of it, as the opening thirty minutes of the film is nearly all waterboarding.

The lead Maya gets isn't concrete (as few are) but it's one that stays with her and she obsesses over as she moves up the ranks in the CIA. Her biggest obstacles and bureaucratic and political as she faces off against the agency's Islamabad Station Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), who's more interested in adding notches to his belt by preventing domestic attacks than locating bin Laden. He'll learn that you don't stand in Maya's way. So will his boss (Mark Strong) and so will the CIA's director (James Gandolfini). Maya's greatest strength is in how by sheer force of will and determination she can eliminate those who won't fight for her cause and sympathetically convince those on the fence who she needs (like Edgar Ramirez's Special Division officer) to cooperate.

Maya lives, breathes and sleeps catching bin Laden and has little time for others who won't. When her co-worker (exceptionally played by Jennifer Ehle) asks why she doesn't have a boyfriend her response is exactly what you'd expect. She doesn't care, or she does, she sure as hell won't show it.  This isn't an actor's showcase or typically the type of role that lets a performer show off their chops, which is what makes Chastain's work that much more miraculous. The movie may be ice but somehow she isn't, despite infusing the distant Maya with all the characteristics that should make her difficult to root for under other circumstances. Or it could be that we're just not used to having our female characters written this strongly. It's the rare case where you could change the name on the script to a man's and still be able to leave the rest of the screenplay alone. And to think anyone would claim Chastain's performance isn't paramount to the film's success or somehow takes a back seat to the terror or torture sequences. She's in every scene, carrying this whole thing on her back.

This is a cold, clinical, procedural showing its only signs of a pulse in its unforgettable final scene, which is as strong a finish as you'll see in any film this year. But much like the mission itself, it feels meticulously executed, even as plans constantly change. One lead takes Maya to another lead and then to another after that until the SEAL Team arrives at Bin Laden's compound in the final, thrilling hour. Our appreciation of the steps Boal's script takes us to get there and all suspense rests entirely on the fact that we know the ending, but not necessarily everything. Will we get to see him? Will he say anything? Will we get to know who shot him? And yet these are all trivial questions in Bigelow's world, where the cold, hard truth is a far cry from the sensationalistic dramatization everyone likely expected going in.

It's also about risk. In one key scene a character talks about how it's easy measure the dangers of doing something but the risk of not acting is always trickier to figure out. It's all about weighing the options and for Maya it's her skill, confidence and even a little bit of luck that lands bin Laden on her lap. Her problem is convincing everyone there's a shot, including the members of the Team being thrown into the lion's den. The two we meet (played by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt) express concerns of their own and they're pretty logical ones. The last 40 minutes of the film are unbearably suspenseful and masterfully edited, almost literally bringing us in the compound to experience details we've only partially been privy to or have just wildly speculated on. Bigelow and Boal could have easily called it a day there, but they thankfully keep going, giving us a glimpse of its aftermath.

If there's a single decision that got Bigelow and Boal into the most trouble it's the disclaimer that appears before the film starts, informing us that it's "based on first-hand accounts of actual events."  If only they knew what they stepped into with that statement, however true it may be. And to be honest, I don't particularly care. This isn't a documentary and they can fudge the truth as much or as little as they want. You don't have to like it, but it's the filmmaker's right. Despite allegations, the movie doesn't automatically take a pro-torture stance by showing. And if Boal did embellish, or even if he made the whole thing up (which by all accounts he didn't), I still wouldn't have cared, just as long as the final product on screen delivers.

All the "controversy" surrounding the film feels like a convenient excuse to have political arguments that should be taking place outside the theater. Still, it's tough to deny any film generating this kind of discussion is at all a bad thing, provided that anger isn't directed at those who made it. The focus should be on how Boal's script somehow condenses a decade's worth of intelligence information into a sustainable, compelling narrative and how Bigelow was able to make an even more muscular and unrelenting film than The Hurt Locker. But Zero Dark Thirty's most controversial stance comes in an ending that's anything but celebratory. It's strangely sad and uncertain, bravely daring to ask the important question: What now?   
              

Monday, January 28, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild


Director: Ben Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Gina Montana
Running Time: 93 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It can sometimes be a a drag going into a film knowing it's a Best Picture nominee. Unless I'm completely shutting myself out from the news or internet before the actual viewing comes around, the story surrounding the movie is usually at risk of taking on a life of its own. It's easy to fall into the trap of assessing its worthiness for Oscars rather than analyzing what's on screen. The situation's even a little more extreme with Benh Zeitlin's borderline fantasy drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild since there's a built-in inspirational underdog story already attached. It's the director's first feature. It was made for next to nothing. It's about poverty. It stars non-professional actors. The protagonist is a little girl. The actress playing her is youngest ever Best Actress nominee. All these details would no doubt make for a feel-good documentary about the making of the movie, but at the end of the day none of that matters if the film rises to the occasion, as this mostly does. I wasn't sure where it was going at first using the shaky cam, documentary style approach, but it quickly gets where it needs to go, then soars for the remainder of its hour and a half, which seems to disappear in a flash. Zeitlin makes the absolute most of what he has, creating something that actually can be categorized as an experience.

Five-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her quick-tempered but physically ailing father Wink (Dwight Henry) are residents of the "Bathtub," an impoverished Louisiana bayou community facing an impending storm. In school, Hushpuppy is told stories of mythological, prehistoric creatures called Auruchs that were once frozen in the arctic but she imagines escaping from the melted ice caps and heading toward the Bathtub. With her father briefly missing, she's left to fend for herself, and accidentally starts a dangerous fire before he returns, angrier than ever, with his health rapidly worsening. With the storm baring down on the bayou and the threat of forced evacuation looming, Hushpuppy sets out to find her absent mother and come to terms with a new life that looks increasingly like it won't include her father.

The film's greatest success comes in its seamless ability to meld fantasy and reality, at points feeling like post-Katrina docudrama told through the prism of a child's imagination. Adding to the authenticity is the fictional location, which never for a second feels fictional. We don't doubt eroded an impoverished areas in the bayou just like this really exist and likely went a long way in providing the inspiration for the Bathtub. In fact, we know they do. While casting non-actors for any small or large-scale project is generally considered a huge risk, it fits just fine in this situation, a film that's shooting for complete, unrehearsed reality. And it's about time to dispel the ridiculous myth that voice-over narration is a lazy storytelling crutch despite the fact it's proven countless times how invaluable it can be when utilized properly. Wallis brings an innocent, natural curiosity to her Oscar nominated role that carries into her unforgettable delivery of the lyrical, almost poetic, narration of events that truly feel like they're being filtered through this child's perspective.

As surprising as it is that Wallis has never acted before, it might be the sturdy, volcanic presence of Dwight Henry that casts the largest shadow over the film. Their father-daughter relationship is an emotional rollercoaster, and for any (false) accusations that the somehow script paints poverty in a whimsical light, no one can claim this dynamic is in any way sugar-coated. He's really rough with her. Uncomfortably so. Yet we never lose sight of where he's coming from. That becomes even more apparent when the story shifts in its second act and the lives of the Bathtub's occupants are shaken up. They don't take kindly to anyone coming in and displacing them from their homes because it's theirs, no matter how hellish the living conditions.

Special mention should be made of composer Dan Romer and Zeitlin's moving score, which somehow wasn't nominated for an an Academy Award despite easily being the strongest aspect of the entire film. Chill-inducing from the second you hear the opening chords, it's one of those instantly recognizable pieces of music bound for a future of being played over trailers and video packages as everyone wonders which movie it came from.  Even those who don't quite grasp what exactly Zeitlin was aiming for here (and I'm still not completely sure I do) will have trouble denying there's some really impressive filmmaking at work and it'll be interesting to see him try to top himself going forward. Whether this holds up over time I'm a little less certain of, but then again, the the same could be said for just about anything. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook


Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, Anupam Kher, Shea Whigham, John Ortiz
Running Time: 120 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

With Silver Linings Playbook, writer/director David O. Russell walks the razor's edge between comedy and drama for 120 minutes. The feat he pulls off is so subtly miraculous it's likely few watching will conciously realize just how difficult it was. And I hope they don't. Analyzing it is the equivalent of trying to figure out a magician's greatest trick. It's best just not to think about it too much and enjoy the ride. The film is somehow even better than you've heard and that success is mainly attributable to its honesty, since, like its characters, it's always looking you straight in the eye and telling you the score. It's a searing no holds barred drama about mental illness while at the same a old fashioned, crowd-pleasing romantic comedy the likes of which we haven't experienced in years.

How this manages to be so edgy and disturbing, yet warm and inviting all comes down to tone and Russell masters it, pushing the conventions of the genre to its breaking point while still finding a way to play within its rules. It's not spoiling anything to reveal that the ending comes tied nicely in a bow but, for once, that's beside the point. If you only saw the final scenes you'd might think it was a fairy tale, which makes the fact that it feels so completely earned even more remarkable. And I believed every last minute of it. The suspense comes not in the anticipation of what will happen, or even how, but in the realization that you're nervous for these characters because you've been in their corner since the beginning. Sorely needed in an era when smart, mainstream crowd pleasers have seemingly gone out of style, it's the kind of film that makes me forget I'm supposed to be reviewing movies, serving instead as a reminder why I watch them. Empathizing with two mentally ill characters and their behaviors may not be a walk in the park, but if they're crazy, then it's a good bet we all are. 

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has it rough. After eight months he's finally released from the psychiatric hospital into the care of his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver), but his wife, Nikki still has a restraining order against him, stemming from the violent episode that put him there. While brutally attacking a fellow teacher who was having shower sex with his wife might qualify Pat for a medal instead of institutionalization, it's actually indicative of a much larger problem and the final straw in his lifelong battle with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. His father isn't in much better shape, having just been laid off and in the throes of a gambling addiction, betting on his beloved Philadelphia Eagles in hopes he'll earn enough to open a restaurant. He calls Pat his "lucky charm" for the games, but since his return home he's been anything but, refusing to take his meds and in complete denial about the collapse of his marriage.

Vowing to look for "silver linings" and stay positive, Pat sees his therapist (Anupam Kher) and starts physically training for what he hopes will be his eventual reunion with Nikki, but one that seems increasingly unlikely to happen with each violent outburst. Enter his friend's sister-in-law, Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed recovering sex addict stubbornly trying to strike up a friendship with him. But all Pat sees is in her is an opportunity to get back in touch with his ex. She'll help him out, but only in exchange for being her partner in an upcoming dance competition. Pat soon finds out the hard way he'll need to do more than just talk about having a positive attitude and finding silver linings to turn things around, and he'll need the help of his friends and family to do it.

Going by only the trailers and commercials, I was pretty sure I knew exactly what to expect going into this. Boy was I wrong. It basically looked like another As Good as It Gets, or a fluffy dramedy about a mentally ill man-child being cured by a beautiful woman. I was also concerned that Lawrence looked entirely too young for the role and fully expected to be creeped out by her pairing with Cooper, which seemed to stretch it even by Hollywood standards. But here's the thing. It doesn't matter. Chemistry is chemistry and there are no rules as to which actors can generate it together. Brilliant performances are brilliant performances and they can come from anywhere at anytime. When an actress is right for a part, she's just right for it. Age be damned. And it's a credit to Russell that his screenplay (adapted from Matthew Quick's 2008 novel) fully acknowledges that potential roadblock for audiences, clearing it right away.

From the moment Lawrence makes her entrance as Tiffany, it's clear no other actress could have played this quite like her or bounced off Cooper as skillfully. It's one of those tiny miracles that sometimes happen after you've cast a movie and realize all the actors attached dropped out for a reason and the cards aligned as such so that we could see these two stars appear together on screen, with a comic rhythm and energy that's unmatched. It's obvious from the characters' first awkwardly hilarious meeting, continuing into each succeeding scene. There's beauty in seeing a standard set-up being taken to places we've never seen before because of the conviction of the performances and pitch-perfect direction.The film often alternates wildly between emotional displays of anger and depression and flat-out hysterical comedy without missing a beat, often within a single scene. And Lawrence and Cooper are right there with it the entire time, hitting just the right notes.

Cooper (who might never hear the word "Hangover" again) displays a bottomless depth of emotion in this role no one could have expected, flipping a switch between scary outbursts and almost childlike naivete. When Pat demolishes his therapist's office after his wedding song plays over the loudspeakers, only to quickly recover and realize what he's done, the look of disappointment and hopeless resignation on his face says more than ten pages of dialogue could. The entire film is a push and pull as Pat struggles to stay positive and move forward with an illness that keeps pushing him back. We hardly see or get to know the wife who betrayed him, but it's impossible for us not to despise her anyway. Still, we can't help but wonder that if it wasn't that, would something else have sent him over the edge anyway?

Tiffany may be the pull to get Pat going, but she's NOT a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," the infamous term ascribed to a whimsical female movie character who exists for no other reason than to appear out of nowhere to save the male protagonist. Try telling Tiffany she's a MPDG. She'll more than likely give you the finger, tell you where you can shove your manic pixie dust, then kick your ass. Or sleep with you. Male or female. Doesn't matter. This is a character with agency, a life and goals of her own. It's easy to argue she's as motivated by Pat as he is by her. It's just another example of how Russell challenges us and Lawrence takes a character we think we know already and just completely subverts all expectations of how she's supposed to function in the story.

It's going to be tough for most (especially guys) to be able to separate Jennifer Lawrence from Tiffany Maxwell after this and that's not to in any way imply the actress is "playing herself," but is instead a testament to how deep a chord she hits by coming off so real. You believe she lost her husband at such a young age and that she's already this emotionally damaged from it. No games. She is who she is. And because the qualities we respect in her character come so close to the qualities anyone would respect in reality, the film straddles a line most hesitate even going near.

One of Lawrence's best scenes comes opposite Robert DeNiro's superstitious, gambling addicted patriarch, who partially blames himself for all his son's problems and thinks the Eagles can fix it. The way football is used in the story and how it informs this family's entire dynamic is masterful, perhaps representing the best incorporation of sports into a non-sports screenplay that I've ever seen. And for two hours it was great to finally have DeNiro back. This isn't Meet The Parents or Meet The Fockers we're talking about.. It's not just a huge role in screen time, but a hugely important one that the actor absolutely tears into with gusto, especially in his scenes with Cooper, with whom he has a great connection that seemingly carried over from their partnership in Limitless. It's as if all the skills we've long respected about his approach but were obscured for too long in sub-standard projects, are once again firing on all cylinders here. Firm but caring, and working hard to keep his family together despite obvious personality faults, the actor's essaying of Pat Sr. represents his best work in at least a decade, reaching its peak late in the picture.

Given a bit less to do, Jacki Weaver still brings a reassuring warmth to her role, making the most of her screen time as a mother trying to keep both her son and husband on the straight and narrow. Even Chris Tucker gives an unusually restrained performance as Pat Jr.'s best friend, Danny, who pops in and out from the mental hospital. I cared about this family and wanted them to overcome the obstacles they were facing because they're good, honest people who are written intelligently. While that seems simple enough on paper, it's still still astonishing how few movies in this genre seem to succeed at it.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when films nominated for all these awards have very little, if anything, to say about humanity. And it happens more than you'd think. This is exactly the type of project that's most difficult to execute well given just how much is dependent on finding that perfect balance in tone.The dance-off that closes the film is trickier to pull off than it looks, as is nearly everything else Russell does leading up to it. It can't be easy to choreograph dancing to look bad enough to be bad, yet just barely good enough to still be entertaining and funny. He takes a gigantic creative risk in the third act by embracing conventionality, but it pays off because he earned his way there and any other resolution would feel like a betrayal of the story and its characters.

There's no feeling like being in a theater with an audience wildly clapping and actually being on board with them for a change. After the credits rolled I was in a complete state of euphoria, literally wanting to run down the street telling everyone what I just saw. And that's coming from someone who's notoriously a tough sell on movies awash in optimism. But that's because they usually lie. Russell finds the way in, telling a brutally honest, relatable story that's just rough enough around the edges to leave an unforgettable impression. Silver Linings doesn't insult the audience with an easy solution, instead acknowledging life's difficulties in the most direct, unsentimental way imaginable. Raising the bar to an entirely new level for what's notoriously been the slightest of genres, it's that rare kind of film you can envision yourself constantly returning to with a different perspective.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ted


Director: Seth MacFarlane
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi, Patrick Warburton, Matt Walsh, Jessica Barth, Laura Vandervoort, Sam J. Jones
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The biggest surprise coming out of Seth MacFarlane's Ted is how edgy it isn't. Sharing similar themes some of the other bromance comedies released over the past few years, the real draw is the foul-mouthed teddy bear (voiced by MacFarlane) and all the other crazy happenings surrounding the idea of that stuffed animal being brought to life as a semi-functional member of society, and a washed-up C-list celebrity of sorts. Having never seen a single episode of Family Guy I can only wager a guess based on this that gross-out humor categorizes MacFarlane's approach to comedy. But his first big screen feature also suggests he's capable of more because, taken as a whole, this is a funny, enjoyable experience that fell maybe just half a rung short of my expectations, which were admittedly high based on the trailer. It's really the subtler, subversive stuff that pushes the movie over the hump despite some of its issues, which primarily stem from sex and poopy joke overkill. But in the end, it all somehow works itself out and is more than worth the watch.

In an incredibly funny prologue (narrated by Patrick Stewart), we're told the story of John Bennett, a child living in a suburb outside Boston in the 1980's who has a big problem making friends. That all changes when he wishes one night on a falling star for his new Christmas gift, a teddy bear named "Ted," to come to life. Much to the shock of John's parents, and just about everyone one else in the country, he does, setting off a media frenzy and giving him a friend for life. Flash-forward to 2012 and 35 year-old John (Mark Wahlberg) is in a serious, committed relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis) who wants to get married but must first solve the problem of sharing her boyfriend and their Boston apartment with a talking bear who drinks, swears, picks up prostitutes and gets high on a daily basis. John, a child at heart and loyal to his best friend, is never hesitant in joining in the fun, even if it means skirting the responsibilities of adulthood. Lori gives him an ultimatum: Her or the bear. So Ted, whose days as a top celebrity are well behind him, agrees to move out and get a job. But this doesn't really solve the problem as John must decide whether his wild, childish antics with Ted are worth throwing away a potential future with the girl of his dreams.

The actual laughs in Ted are hit or miss, but when they hit, they hit big. A lot of that stems from the set-up, as the opening minutes of the picture are well enough realized in concept and execution that MacFarlane would really have to work hard to botch the rest of it.  Some of the best moments come early when we see the childhood flashbacks of John and Ted growing up together in brief scenes filled with hilarious 80's period details like John's Star Wars figures and Nintendo, as well as the two  buds watching Flash Gordon on the couch. Even better handled is the depiction of Ted's celebrity status, which includes a frighteningly authentic looking clip of a past appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It looks as real as can be and that trend continues throughout the film with any scene Ted shares with human actors, as the motion capture rendering of this bear is absolutely flawless, proving filmmakers have come a longer distance than originally thought with this technology. In fact, it's probably the first time a motion capture creation of an animal seems preferable to just stuffing someone in a suit. As far as the actual "man-child needs to grow up" plot, Judd Apatow could probably sue. So could Adam Sandler. We know exactly where it's going and pretty much all the paces MacFarlane must go through to get there. That's the most disappointing aspect of this, along with the fact that some of the toilet humor gets obnoxious and repetitive after a while. But when the script's focus is on Ted acclimating himself to the real world rather than the rift John's bond with him causes in his relationship with Lori, the movie shines. And MacFarlane delivers exactly what's needed in the absurdity department with a hilarious, extended appearance from a certain washed up 80's TV star playing himself and a kidnapping subplot that's even funnier (and creepier) than was likely intended.

The best performance comes from MacFarlane, who provides the voice and movements for the bear. Hands down. He's the star. If anything, Wahlberg's noticeably too old for this role, even within the confines of someone who was cast precisely for that reason. At times it's off-putting, but at others it kind of makes the situation funnier because it's just so weird. But what's strangest is how inauthentic and forced his New England accent sounds considering the actor actually grew up just outside Boston. Did MacFarlane have him do that on purpose to get laughs or am I giving both too much credit? Mila Kunis isn't called upon to be much more than the sweet, perfect girlfriend and, as expected, she pulls it off with little difficulty, as Lori tolerates John's shenanigans only up to a point. While she can drop F-bombs and party with the best of them when necessary, her character's basically a saint, which works well for a story in which no one else is. That holds double for the two villains in the film, Lori's perverted boss Rex (played to slimy perfection by Joel McHale) and Giovanni Ribisi's bizarre stalker character, Donny, whose childhood memories of Ted make him determined to own the bear for his son. All the strange tics and line deliveries that infuse Ribisi's dramatic performances with all the subtly of a sledgehammer are suddenly a whole lot more enjoyable when we're finally given permission to laugh at them. So much so that when this insane story thread completely takes over in the third act I didn't mind it one bit. That, and anything involving Ted trying to survive since his celebrity dried up, are where the film's biggest laughs come from. Especially those involving his job at the grocery store.

While asking the audience to care about anything other than this bear was a tall order and I still wish a concept this excellent wasn't used to frame a familiar rom-com formula, yet it all mostly succeeds in spite of that. Ted also shares the same basic outline as every other guy-oriented comedy that's been released over the past few years, so it's probably a good thing we're not watching for insights or laughs about that. The movie is unfunniest when trying too hard with the bathroom humor, but at its absolute best when it's not even trying to be funny and allowing the premise play out with reckless abandon. It's the smaller, random throwaway stuff that work the best. But you can't help but wonder how great this could have been had MacFarlane dumped the more conventional approach and instead just let the material fly completely off the rails. Maybe he's saving that for the sequel. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

2013 Oscar Nominations (Reaction and Analysis)



Interestingly enough, I didn't attempt to predict the nominations this year, but I should have since it ended up being one of the safest and most predictable batch of nominees we've had in years. Announced this morning by Oscar host Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone, the 85th Annual Academy Award nominations (full list here) were only surprising for what was omitted. But given their history of head scratching snubs, do any of those decisions really surprise us anymore? You'd be forgiven for dozing off during the announcement which, save for the Best Director category shocker, doesn't off up much in the way of talking points. Lincoln racked up 12 nominations and, barring a huge upset, will be wining Best Picture. Spielberg's winning Best director. Daniel Day-Lewis is winning Best Actor. And you can write those down with a permanent magic marker. It's that kind of a year. I should probably bite my tongue now since I've only seen one of the Best Picture nominees so far, meaning there's a lot of work still left to do. That viewing these nominees could be considered "work" probably isn't a good sign, nor is it one that I've been trying to motivate myself to see Lincoln and Les Miserables for the past three weeks...unsuccessfully. Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty are a different story, though at this point all seem to stand little chance of stopping the Lincoln juggernaut and winning the big prize. I'm all for conventional, conservative choices if it means rewarding deserving films of quality (which, in their defense, the Academy always does) but boy did they really take the "safety first" approach to new heights this year. But there were still at least some noteworthy items coming out of the nominations this morning:

 -Nine Best Picture nominees. The second year in a row we've had that number. The two "surprises" are Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour but upon closer examination both do fit firmly within the Academy's wheelhouse. Same for Life of Pi, which likely pushed all the right emotional buttons for them.

-Ben Affleck SNUBBED for Best Director. God, that is a shock. If there was one element of the film that should have been a lock to be nominated it was Affleck's direction. Really strange. There's just no explanation/excuse for it.

-Kathryn Bigelow SNUBBED for Best Director. Well, here there's at least somewhat of an explanation. It's because she's a woman! Just kidding. It was the torture stuff. Leave up to the Academy to make their decisions based on news headlines rather than the actual work.

-Quentin Tarantino SNUBBED for Best Director. When you're as polarizing a figure as Tarantino is it's difficult to classify this as a snub. It's more like something that just comes with the territory. On the bright side, Django got in for Best Picture and that was far from a lock.

-Nine Best Picture nominees. The second year in a row we've had that number. The two "surprises" are Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour but upon closer examination both do fit firmly within the Academy's wheelhouse. Same for Life of Pi, which likely pushed all the right emotional buttons for them.

-Hugh Jackman gets his first Best Actor nomination for Les Miserables, proving that the Academy sometimes doesn't care how many critics trash a movie or performance if they really, really LOVE it. That was clearly the case here.


-If Alan Arkin's supporting actor nomination for showing up for a couple of minutes and grumpily delivering a few lines isn't proof enough the Academy votes for the actors they like and not the actual performances, I don't know what is.

-Christoph Waltz, NOT Leonardo DiCaprio, is nominated in supporting for Django Unchained.

-Anne Hathaway's acceptance speech is probably already written. That one's over.   

-Silver Linings Playbook gets a second wind with nominations for Picture, Director (David O' Russell), Actor (Bradley Cooper), Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro) and most surprisingly, Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver). This film's fortunes just turned around in a hurry. Party at Jeff Wells' house!

-Academy Award nominated actor Bradley Cooper. Let it sink in. 

-Was I the only one worried Joaquin Phoenix wouldn't make it in for Best Actor? Luckily, he did. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are in for Supporting as well. 

-If the nominations tell us anything it's that the surest path to being nominated is having been previously nominated.

-Beasts of the Southern Wild seems to be that little movie this year that everyone bangs the drum hard for as the underdog to the point that it gets willed to a Best Picture nomination. Then it doesn't feel so little anymore. Or like an underdog.

-QuvenzhanĂ© Wallis is the youngest actress ever nominated in the LEAD category. I wonder how Haley Joel Osment and Hailee Steinfeld,--both previous nominees thrown into supporting categories because of their ages-- feel about that.  

-Even though I knew it wouldn't happen, I was hoping for a Looper Original Screenplay or Emily Blunt Supporting Actress nomination. But there was no chance.

-No Moonrise Kingdom in anything except Original Screenplay. We all kind of saw that coming whether we wanted to admit it or not. Wes Anderson's films are just too far off the beaten path to ever secure a Best Picture nod from this stuffy group. He wouldn't be wrong to take it as a compliment. The same can be said, but doubled this year, for Paul Thomas Anderson, as The Master predictably got the shaft (save for the acting categories).

-No John Hawkes for Best Actor for The Sessions. A curious omission considering the nature of the part and the fact that he was at one point considered a front-runner to actually win this thing. Bizarre. That movie apparently lost a lot of steam.

-For some reason I fully expected Helen Mirren to be nominated for Hitchcock despite the film's lackluster reception, but was strangely pleased she wasn't. Mildly surprised Naomi Watts got in for The Impossible.

-Best Actress is shaping up to turn into a showdown between Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain. Having not even seen either performance yet I still feel comfortable calling that the most intriguing race of the night by a landslide. All the other outcomes feel pre-determined. This doesn't. It's the one worth watching.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Looper


Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels, Pierce Gagnon
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It's customary when talking about a time travel movie to bring up as many previous time travel movies as possible that the film you're reviewing was influenced or inspired by. But no such references need to be made when discussing Rian Johnson's completely original, one-of-a-kind Looper, the new benchmark subsequent entries in the genre will be trying to copy in the years ahead. It's no secret that I've been looking forward to this more than anything else released in the past year, and because of the talent involved and the genre it falls in, I'd be lying if I said it didn't have shorter distance to travel in receiving high praise. But at the end of the day it still had to deliver and nothing could have prepared me for how it did.

Nearly the entire first hour had me wondering how anyone could come up with an idea like this, much less be able to execute on it. The second, more methodical hour is spent trying to figure out the puzzle of how it will develop and eventually end. And there wasn't a minute of either where I wasn't on the edge of my seat.  More amazingly, Johnson does this without necessarily having to concern himself, the characters, or audiences with the intricacies or complications of the plot. Rarely has such a high concept been presented so smoothly, allowing us to quickly get to the meat of the story, which is a dark morality struggle between two men who are exactly the same person in every way but age, yet also entirely different. It's all set against the backdrop of a future that looks and feels so alarmingly authentic it's downright scary. All the other movies released this year, sci-fi or otherwise, can be shown the door. It's that good and relentless, with expert writing, directing and acting carrying it straight through to its brilliantly realized conclusion. 

The year is 2044 and America's economy is in collapse as the organized crime rate soars. Thirty years later in 2074, time travel will be invented, but not legalized, only available on the black market for crooks looking to dispose of bodies since tracking technology has made it impossible. They send the intended target back in time to 2044, where someone called a "looper" is waiting, blunderbuss in hand, to kill them and collect their silver payout. But a looper's services must eventually be terminated and when that day comes they're sent back to be killed by their past self. It's referred to as "closing the loop" and failing to do, or even hesitating, could hold disastrous consequences for both.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a skilled, but drug addicted looper in Kansas who's working for Abe (Jeff Daniels), a kingpin sent from the future to oversee operations.When his friend Seth (Paul Dano) fails to close his own loop he gives Joe some disturbing news from the future, just as as he's looking forward to a comfy thirty year retirement. There's just one thing left for him to do: Kill his future self so he can close his loop and cash out. But Future Joe (Bruce Willis) isn't about to to make it easy for him as a cat-and-mouse game unfolds between the two, with the crime syndicate hunting them both. Caught in the middle is a young mother named Sara (Emily Blunt) and her little boy Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who may be more important to the future than they know.

Just about the only concern I had going into this was the decision to have JGL wear facial prosthetics to more closely resemble a younger version of Bruce Willis. Scenes from the trailers and commercials did little to alleviate those worries, as it appeared out of context to be distracting, given that the two actors could never closely resemble one another no matter how much make-up work is done. What I didn't count on when the film got underway was how little this issue would matter. There's nothing to say other than you just completely forget about it and accept without thinking that these two men are present and future versions of the same person. That's only partially due to the make-up, as the praise should primarily go to Johnson and his two leads for never letting us doubt for a second that these two are the same person. It also helps that they're not. Each have completely different goals and personalities, as they should since they've been forced into a situation where they're sworn enemies.

Surprisingly, Willis doesn't show up until a good 40 minutes in, but when he does, Johnson has all the cards lined up so we accept him in the role immediately and without question. In one of the film's most thrilling sequence, we see a montage depicting the evolution from Young Joe into Old Joe and the events that eventually send him back to meet his younger self. It could have been such a mess, but Johnson gets it done in under 10 minutes, visually mapping it all out with no dialogue. But the real turning point comes when the two Joes come face to face during a diner conversation. There's almost a father-son dynamic at work between them, as the older, more experienced Joe tries to lecture his younger counterpart, who he sees as really just a young punk who hasn't lived yet. Unfortunately, Old Joe's clock is running out and the only person truly in control of his destiny is sitting across the table from him. From that point on everything you think you thought this movie was going to be gets completely turned on its head as this whole thing ends up being much bigger than both of them.

Johnson takes a huge risk in the second half of the picture, taking a story that started as one thing and turning into something else by bravely shifting the narrative's focus. In that sense, the real star of Looper ends up being the unusual structure with the entire last hour essentially taking place entirely on a farmhouse.  It really does almost feel like two different movies, but in the best way possible way, with each half answering the film's mysteries. Without spoiling too much, most of it focuses on this mother and the child she must protect when Young Joe arrives on her farm. What she has to protect him from and how she has to do it should be enough to make viewers' brains explode, yet Johnson somehow makes it completely comprehensible. It's complicated, heady stuff that shouldn't necessarily be easy to follow but strangely not a minute goes by where we don't know what's happening or feel lost. Not nearly enough praise is being heaped on JGL who accomplishes the impossible in believably pulling off a young Bruce Willis. While it's tempting to single out the voice inflection and imitative aspects of the performance (and they are spot-on), his biggest acting coup is guiding us through Joe's journey without us even noticing them. It's very much Young Joe's story as he must give up his hedonistic ways to step up and take responsibility for not just his actions, but his future self's. 

For Willis, this is basically the most functional supporting role he's ever had and his China montage scenes, as well as those opposite JGL in the diner, easily ranks among his most exciting work. Old Joe is a man on a mission and the unrelentingly dark places that mission ends up taking him are surprising, even to him. But the entire second half of the movie belongs to a revelatory Emily Blunt and 5 year-old Pierce Gagnon, who gives a child performance that has to be seen to be believed, and even then, you still might not believe it. Blunt's role as Sara is shrouded in secrecy from the start. We're not sure what her purpose is or how large or important the part will be and the thrill is in witnessing how she answers those questions as the film heads into the final stretch. It's such a tricky, complex part and she just kills it, conveying the desperation and sadness of this woman trying to trying to protect a child who's unusually difficult to protect.

Johnson also gets a superb performance out of young Gagnon, who's unsettling work here deserves to join the pantheon of great creepy child performances. We've seen this type of role before and it's a story element we're familiar with yet it feels completely fresh and terrifying with the emotion he brings to table. Reunited with his Lookout co-star, a bearded Jeff Daniels is given a rare villainous role and his scenes as crime lord Abe crackle with intensity precisely because he subtly and quietly plays him counter to what we'd expect. Dano and Noah Egan each ooze a pathetic desperation and incompetence as Joe's fellow loopers while Piper Perabo keeps the oldest profession alive in the future with her role as his hooker girlfriend Suzie, who's basically a symbol of the life he's about to leave behind.

This isn't one of those action movies with some sci-fi thrown in. It's hard science fiction with big ideas, containing a concept is so original that it's hard to believe it wasn't adapted from a short story in some lost classic sci-fi novel by Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick. The clues were there that Rian Johnson was more than capable of creating an entire universe from scratch with Brick and The Brothers Bloom but even the incredible promise displayed in his first two efforts couldn't have forecast he was capable of something like this, his darkest film yet.

This dystopian future is one we've never seen before, avoiding falling into the trap of so many other filmmakers who misstep by trying to depict a society that's too "futuristic" or has little relevance to our present. He wisely doesn't go too far, crafting a world that feels both retro and contemporary at the same time, yet also one with an unmistakable look and feel that seems unlikely to be laughed at when the film is revisited years down the line. It's far enough from our present to see it's the future, yet not removed enough to see aspects still linger. The glimpses we get of it, in conception, production, set and costume design are not only wondrous to witness, but frighteningly credible when taken on their own terms.

Obviously a major achievement on every creative level, what's most impressive is how Johnson spins such a complicated story with such a clear, concise precision. As it head into the final act, I ran what seemed like five to ten scenarios through my head as to how it could end. Of course, all of them were wrong. Looper saves its best trick for last, somehow still finding a way to close its own loop.               

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012: The Year in Memorable Movie Images

At the end of each year I tell myself to do one of these photo posts, but this time I finally got around to it. Consider it a somewhat flimsy replacement for a "Best of the Year" list, which would be unfair to compile without having seen at least the majority of the year's releases. Looking at all these screenshots, it seems I have a ways to go, with a lot of the really heavy hitters still coming up. But they're coming. It's always regrettable how many movies I just don't get around to reviewing, so this post at least confirms to you I'm aware of their existence or acknowledges, "Yep, I saw it." In a perfect world I'd use this list as a viewing guide or make a pledge to see every last one, but if I'm being completely honest, that's probably not going to happen. That said, the sheer volume of releases within a given year never ceases to amaze me, with most of them represented below.

While it may seem like I just threw up some screen grabs from the web (true to an extent) it took a while to compile this because I didn't want to just pick the obvious shots, or worse yet, promotional stills. These were selected because I either thought it was either the most impressively photographed or captures a visually memorable moment. There's something for everyone here, serving as a reminder that bad movies can contain unforgettable images. I may have found The Hunger Games to be a Battle Royale with cheese, but I scoured the web for a screenshot of the film's one true moment of genuine intensity that was singled out in my review (and was shocked how quickly it turned up). Similarly, after a spectacular pre-title and opening credit sequence, Tim Burton's Dark Shadows went straight downhill so it's easy to guess which image I chose to include. Those two films were at least fascinating near-misses. Others weren't so lucky, not even warranting placement here.

As hard as it may have been to find the right screen captures, what might be harder for audiences is trying to seek out some of the actual films, specifically lesser known titles many still don't even know exist. And I partially contribute to this problem by sometimes not reviewing certain films because I assume no one knows what they are, or if they do, have little interest in seeing them despite my enthusiasm. That's something that really has to change on my end. And considering 2012 was one of the stronger years for independent cinema in some time, and there are more media options than ever for watching movies, it's still kind of depressing just how hard it is to seek these out, or at least determine WHERE to seek them out.

For my money, two of the year's best films were the criminally little seen Take This Waltz and Bernie, which featured Earth shattering performances from Michelle Williams and Jack Black (yes, Jack Black) respectively. Anyone who saw those movies know that both these actors could easily be handed gold statues right now, with hers arguably being overdue.  But I'm betting far more casual moviegoers have no idea both titles are currently streaming on Netflix and that's through no fault of their own.  This increasing problem of not able to see anything was discussed on a recent episode of Movie Geeks United! and they sure hit the nail on the head. And sometimes it's not just limited to smaller films, with some giant Oscar contenders literally not being seen in certain areas of the country for months. That (and admittedly some laziness on my part) has often contributed to many of my viewing and reviewing droughts over the past year. Readers of this blog are loyal and on the look out for quality movies so I'm more likely to add that fourth star to one I feel really needs it and hasn't gotten enough attention elsewhere.  From where I sit, that's always seemed like a fair policy, even as I still struggle with the balancing act of reviewing more mainstream releases and smaller, potentially overlooked titles.

The shots below aren't labeled but have been placed in order by release date, from January to December. Most are easy to figure what film they're from. Others? Maybe not so much. As I said, I tried not to be obvious. Click here if you need to cheat. Consider this your unofficial 2012 movie photo album. Happy New Year!