Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hit and Run

Directors: David Palmer and Dax Shepard
Starring: Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell, Kristin Chenoweth, Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper, Ryan Hansen, Michael Rosenbaum, Beau Bridges, Joy Bryant, David Koechner
Running Time: 100 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Whenever seeing anything involving the Federal Witness Protection Program I always think back to that episode of The Simpsons when Homer wore and hat and shirt that read: "WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM." The main character in the action crime comedy Hit and Run would probably wear something like that, not out of stupidity, but just out of exhaustion from hiding for so long. He's played by Dax Shepard, who also wrote and co-directed with David Palmer what turns out to be something rare nowadays. A smart, funny, edgy and exciting mainstream comedy that marches to the beat of its own drum. That he's the brains behind this might be surprising to some, but not to anyone who's seen NBC's Parenthood where he consistently crushes it as a key player each week. Now with this, it seems his talents extend behind the camera as well, but it's still hard not to be at least a little surprised the movie works this well and that he's actually leading man material on the big screen. Besides utilizing a terrific cast well, he's also written for his real-life girlfriend Kristen Bell her strongest post-Veronica Mars role yet and one that brings all her strengths as a performer to center stage again. Which makes sense. You'd figure if anyone could figure out how to do it, it's him. I know I'm supposed to dislike the guy, but he's sure making it really difficult.
Robbery accomplice "Charlie Bronson" (Shepard), has been spending the past four years in Milton, California under protection and monitored by clumsy, incompetent and trigger happy U.S. Marshal Randy (Tom Arnold). He lives with his fairly new girlfriend, Annie (Bell), a professor at the local college who holds a doctorate in "Non-Violent Conflict Resolution" from Stanford and has just been informed by her kooky boss Debbie (Kristin Chenoweth) of an opportunity to head up her own department in Los Angeles.Only there's a problem: Charlie can't legally leave and her hilariously sleazy, overprotective ex-boyfriend Gil (Michael Rosenbaum) will do it whatever it takes to stop them, even enlisting the help of his gay police officer brother Terry (Jess Rowland) and recruiting the dangerous Alexander Dimitri (Bradley Cooper), one of the defendants Charlie testified against who's hell bent on evening the score. With Charlie driving his suped up, restored Cadillac, he and Annie are suddenly on the run from not only Dimitri, but Charlie's sordid past, the exact nature of which Annie remains in the dark about. Now besides Annie getting to her interview on time, both have to worry about even making it to L.A. alive.

Don't be fooled by the generic title. As far as action comedies go, this is better than most, with a clever script packed with jokes and smart dialogue that rarely miss the mark. Much of why everything works can be attributed to the fact that while the characters are colorful and their actions often unrealistically preposterous, it's kind of strangely grounded in a reality we can relate to. Shepard crafts a screenplay that captures the way people talk to one another, with the style of humor almost Seinfeld or Arrested Development-like in how ridiculously relatable it is and that's evident in almost every conversation between Charlie and Annie. They actually seem like a real couple who talk how real couples talk and joke and argue about things real couples do. Of course the joke there is that Bell and Shepard actually are one but that has absolutely nothing to do with the writing. And we've definitely seen more than a few off screen partners fizzle on screen due to a lack of chemistry so the pairing was far from a guaranteed success, even on paper. But they make the snappy dialogue come alive, sharing a natural back and forth that feels distinctively authentic and unforced. An argument about the ethics of using the word "fag" is surprisingly interesting and funny in their capable hands as is a scene in which Charlie explains to her how he decided on the manly "Charles Bronson" name.

From its opening minutes it's obvious this diverges from your usual comedies, taking its time getting where it needs to go, to the point that the real action doesn't really start to kick in until the third act. But by then we're so invested in these crazy characters we're practically on the edge of our seats waiting to see it resolve. The car chase sequences (and there are three notable ones) set to a solid soundtrack are a welcome respite from the CG enhanced chases we're used to and a throwback to when actual cars were driven by real people in movies. They're well choreographed and exciting, but more importantly, it's easy to follow what's happening and they exist for reasons that aid the story. But if I had to choose, the relationship arc works better as the film's surprisingly at its best when in full rom-com road trip mode. Shepard and Bell are just that good together. Annie's pacifist approach to solving conflicts makes for some really funny scenes opposite the quick-tempered, impatient Charlie and it feels like an even exchange. The two actors are really co-leads in this, which isn't a claim you can often make in mainstream comedies.

Physically, Shepard may not exactly fit the standard definition of your typical movie star, but here he transcends his supporting roots to carrying an entire full-length feature with offbeat charm and likability. Playing straight man to all the comic chaos unfolding around him he shows off a considerable amount of versatility, successfully fluctuating between the more broadly comic material of the film's first half and the off-the-wall intensity and violence of the second. He's a perfect match with Bell, whose performance in this couldn't have possibly come at a better time, reminding us what she's capable of with engaging material. It's something she hasn't been given in the past six years as this script gives her the opportunity to show off the quick, witty one-liners and smart delivery that originally caused TV audiences to originally fall so hard for her. It's fair to say after some dicey choices in projects, her future prospects have suddenly improved in a big way just within the past month with the announcement of the Veronica Mars movie so it'll be intriguing to see her try to capitalize on it. This role proves everyone right that she's got what it takes to succeed on the big screen, but who could have guessed that Shepard of all people would, quite literally, be the driving force who brings it out?   

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, especially a dreadlocked, pre-Silver Linings Bradley Cooper as Dimitri, who has a scene involving the purchase of dog food that's funnier than it has any right being. Tom Arnold turns in his most inspired comedic work since, well, True Lies, as clumsy U.S. Marshal Randy. The character isn't necessarily important, but he's likable and unannoying, with Arnold nailing every scene he's in. It appears Shepard pretty much just cast all his friends in this (right down to Parenthood's Joy Bryant as Dimitri's girlfriend and Veronica Mars' Ryan Hansen as a bank robber) but he made the right choices since they all do as good a job as possible in roles they're obviously well suited for.

In a perfect movie world more audiences would have heard about this and it would have done better, yet it's easy to understand why it didn't. It would be difficult for marketing to convey what a neat genre hybrid it is, and the plot and cast, outside of possibly Cooper (and even that was doubtful at the time), wouldn't exactly inspire confidence at first glance. It's one of those "under the radar" surprises that needed word of mouth to get people to check it out, but if they do now, they'll be shocked just how funny it is. There was hardly a moment where I wasn't smiling or laughing. Judging from what's in theaters it isn't easy writing and co-directing a creatively successful action comedy, not to mention a frequently funny one in which you're the lead. That Shepard can do this better than most his first time out is the biggest surprise. While he's actually believable as a motorhead action star, his true strength might lie in writing and directing romantic comedies he can headline with Bell. It's a partnership already off to a strong start.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Director: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Nina Dobrev, Johnnny Simmons, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Rudd, Joan Cusack, Tom Savini
Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

While watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower it soon became clear to me why it undeservedly tanked at the box office despite surprisingly strong critical notices across the board. That gap between what's expected going in and what the film ultimately delivers is huge. Trying to market this exclusively as a teen movie is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just doesn't fit, but not because it isn't a movie for teens. It's just not only for them. There's a universal quality about it that extends further than the age of its characters to reach adults who remember what it was like to be that age at that time, or really, any time. The events take place in a frighteningly accurate and detailed 1991 as the film plays as if it were actually made in that year, then stuffed in a time capsule labeled "2012."  Thematically and visually darker than you'd anticipate, it carefully handles some really challenging material like depression, suicide, gay bashing, sexual abuse and domestic violence with uncommon intelligence and restraint, more closely resembling suburban dramas like The Ice Storm or American Beauty than your typical "teen" movie.

This has a lot of ground to cover well and if you told me a novelist and first-time director made it I'd be shocked because it just looks and feels so cinematic. If you told me the director also wrote the book it's based on then you'd have to scrape me off the floor. But that's just what Stephen Chbosky does in successfully adapting his own 1999 cult teen novel to the screen, proving it's possible for a writer to maintain enough creative distance from his own work to effectively shepherd its translation to the screen. Already in college when the book came out, I was a little too old to be in the intended reading audience and therefore slightly too young to be the exact age these characters were in '91. But it's close enough. I definitely recall that bright lime green cover in bookstores all over and thinking how juvenile it looked. Talk about literally judging a book by its cover. Not only is there nothing juvenile about this story, it's sophisticated and mature, never once pandering or talking down to its audience. With its protagonist fresh out of the psychiatric hospital due to past trauma and desperately aching to fit in, it might make for an interesting double feature with Silver Linings Playbook. That there are even similarities in tone at all should give you an idea just how good it is. In a year full of surprises, this is yet another big one.

Shy, introverted Pittsburgh teen Charlie (Logan Lerman) is about to start his freshman year of high school and experience all the adolescent pain and joys that accompany it. Still emotionally reeling from the suicide of a friend, and struggling with his own depression, he does get support from his parents (Kate Walsh and Dylan McDermott) and older sister Candace (Nina Dobrev), but spends most of his time writing letters to an imaginary recipient. As a fact Charlie describes as sad, his only friend the first day of school is his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who's at least is someone to talk to and exposes him to literary classics like The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. Social refuge comes when he's befriended by seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and her step-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller), who welcome him to their inner circle with open arms and slowly get him to come out of his shell, exposing to a fun side of life he's never experienced. She's kind of a bad girl trying to go good while he's openly gay and carrying on a secret relationship with popular football player Brad (Johnny Simmons). As Charlie's popularity and confidence grows with a new set of friends, so do his feelings for Sam, which in addition to causing some problems amongst them, threatens to reignite the painful memories of a childhood trauma that could send him back into his isolated world.

All the different ways this could have gone wrong  are avoided at every turn. This could have easily turned out as an after-school special when you consider the thematic content, but Chbosky clearly had other, grander plans. Not everyone's high school experience was the same but the one thing that seems universally accepted is that each person thought that theirs was the absolute worst. Possibly ten times worse than Charlie's in their own mind. This replicates that feeling and it would be hard for anyone to not at least find one character or situation they relate to in it. Ultimately though, it's a period piece. It's hard to specifically pinpoint exactly what makes the setting feel so much like an embodiment of the early '90's because the details are so numerous that hardly a scene passes where I wasn't subtly taken aback by the accuracy of a particular clothing, music or even vehicle choice. It wraps you in the warm, familiar embrace of nostalgia in a different way than, say, Adventureland, by carefully placing everything in the background rather than foreground. It's 1991 just because it feels like it is without Chbosky ever forcing those details down our throats. The events probably could taken place during any era but that it happened during this one feels especially important beyond the simple reason that its setting was adapted from the novel. With texting and anti-bullying campaigns running rampant there's absolutely no way this story could have taken today and carried the same impact. This is probably it's likely to connect with audiences older than the studio expected.  There was very little help for troubled students and stigmas attached to much of it back then, which raises the stakes of Charlie's story and, to an even greater extent, Patrick's.

As played by Percy Jackson's Logan Lerman, a protagonist who could have very easily come across as a whiny cliche of teen angst is so likable it's practically impossible to root against him More often using body language than actual dialogue, Lerman makes Charlie seem incredibly closed off yet strangely open and observant at the same time. He's a total introvert who's not yet discovered how that can work in his favor, but getting there. At first it seems he's just like any shy teen until it becomes obvious his problems run a lot deeper. It wouldn't be fair to call Sam an unrequited crush or necessarily just a friend. The relationship's kind of complicated, but the gist of it is that she's nonetheless such an important person in his life that it almost doesn't matter how it's defined. Having not seen any Harry Potter, this role really stands as my first extended exposure to Emma Watson, and while she sometimes slips in and out of her American accent, it's easy to see why everyone's so high on her. For the most part, she takes a well-traveled character type and makes it seem fresh and original with her poise and charm. The part of Sam also allows her to take something that's in short supply these days for younger actresses. A serious, yet somewhat lighthearted, age-appropriate role that's that's far removed from something like Twilight or The Hunger Games. It also seems Chbosky knew the already strong connection Watson had amongst young audiences who grew up watching her and didn't dare waste the opportunity to exploit that relationship to full effect.

It's Ezra Miller who, walks away with the film as Patrick, delivering a supporting performance that's both outlandishly goofy, funny and heartbreaking. What's amazing is how he so skillfully navigates the problems and pressures of this kid who so often uses a joking mask to hide the absolute hell he's going through as an openly gay teen in the early 90's. A scary scene late in the film exposes just how hard it must have been and how little protection and help there was. Those who were clamoring for a supporting nomination for Miller are justified as its easily the most memorable performance amongst a wide array of strong ones. The adults hardly have anything to do but it was nice for a change to see Charlie's parents depicted as supportive and receptive, if just slightly out of the loop for understandable reasons. It was even nicer to see the relationship between Charlie and her even more supportive sister (who has problems of her own) freed from the manufactured sibling conflict we get in these types of movies. Their few scenes together are kind of touching and if the relationship had  been explored further, Nina Dobrev briefly gives the impression she would have been more than up for the task. With the exception of Arrested Development, Mae Whitman's screen presence can be irritating, but as Charlie's first sort-of-girlfriend, she's actually asked to play a character who's irritating, so therefore successfully is. If Paul Rudd spent the entire rest of his career reprising his role as English teacher Mr. Anderson I wouldn't complain since this, not the string of too similar feeling hit-or miss gross-out comedies, represents the kind of meaningful supporting work he should be taking more often. It's unlikely you'll watch without being reminded of your favorite teachers or how likable Rudd is in the right role. Freed from the shackles of having to carry a movie as lead and improve unfunny material, he's as subtly good here as he's been in a long time.

The movie takes a twist in the third act that's not entirely unexpected, but it nonetheless comes off as a gutsy turn into some darker territory for those unfamiliar with the source material. What's surprising is how capably Chbosky handles it since there's a lot going on at once, including a major reveal that could have easily seemed over-the-top or sensationalistic if not presented just right. The film is full of such choices. It doesn't even visually resemble a teen movie, shot by cinematographer Andrew Dunn in a much gloomier color palette than the cheery sitcom look so frequently prevalent in the genre. As expected, the soundtrack is basically a character unto itself with Chbosky making some inspired choices from what was definitely a fruitful period for music. Yes, we could have probably done without the Smiths making what seems like their hundredth soundtrack appearance on a depressed teen's mix tape, but it's tough to argue it doesn't fit in this case or that its placement isn't unusually restrained. The same goes for the interactive Rocky Horror Picture Show screening which, despite being far from restrained, is at least incorporated well into the story.

David Bowie's "Heroes," and the characters' discovery of it, also has a major role in the proceedings. While you could resonably claim these music savvy teens not knowing such a famous song (to the point they can't even name its title or artist), is a writing error on Chbosky's part, it's actually the exact opposite. While it's certainly now a classic rock staple, it wasn't in 1991 and it's not like you could have just "Googled" to find out what it was. As someone who didn't discover classic rock or knew which artists sang anything until college, them not knowing that song isn't far-fetched in the slightest. It's yet another tiny detail that makes perfect sense in a script smart enough to convey that teens sometimes think they know everything, when in fact they have a ridiculously long ways to go. The song's been used countless times in movies but it legitimately feels like we're hearing it for the first time because the characters are, allowing us to join in their excitement.

It's hard enough standing on the sidelines and watching someone else adapt your book or screenplay, making brutal cuts by excising entire scenes and storylines to make it "flow" better or feel more cinematic. Just ask Stephen King, who always seems have complaints whenever one of his novels are adapted for the screen, often blaming filmmakers for deviating from the source material or not being true enough to HIS vision. Maybe he should sit down with Chbosky, who so completely grasps that a book's a book and a movie's a movie. A novel's only job in this process is to provide the starting point or inspiration for the film and by objectively standing back, he was able to determine what would and wouldn't translate effectively to the screen. It's a major accomplishment when you consider he had to take an axe to his own writing while still retaining its essence.

Books and movies are two completely different animals but they join in an inspired way with this adaptation, thanks to its author, screenwriter and director. Never nosediving into easy sentimentality, this is a film that understands growing up and knows that things can get better and also much worse. It's also to imagine the movie without its signature voiceover narration, which here proves the power of that storytelling device if used well. The one used in the final sequence feels just perfect, capturing a time and a place where you just want to grab a fleeting moment and hold onto it as long as possible. But it'll pass. When the film ended, I couldn't stop thinking about what will happen to these characters when it does.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Dennis Has a Podcast: Defunct TV Shows That Should Be Kickstarted Into Movies (with Jeremy The Critic)

I once again joined my good friend Dennis as a guest on his terrific Dennis Has a Podcast to discuss what the recently successful kickstarter campaign for a Veronica Mars movie could mean for other defunct TV favorites and which shows we'd love to see revived as feature films. No hints here. You'll just have to listen. And most aren't your usual choices. We also delved into the state of late night TV and discuss why it's been so hard finding the right host for the Oscars. Our chat was a blast and probably the most fun I've had on the show so far. Enjoy!

 Click here to listen.

And don't forget to check out other episodes of DHAP on iTunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Most Anticipated Films of 2013

Anticipation can be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing since it's great to be excited about a movie you're interested in, yet a curse when said movie is then burdened to meet those lofty expectations. Making judgments or assumptions on a film you haven't seen based on very limited information is a recipe for disaster, not to mention the risks of holding on to those judgements when you eventually view it. But it sure is fun, so I may as well make official what critics and movie buffs do before seeing something anyway. I've got it down to a science now. In determining whether something will appeal to me I look at three factors, which are very much in order of priority:

1. Director
2. Plot Synopsis
3. Cast

If you've got all three lined up then you're really set. But even then it's still somewhat of a crapshoot. In other instances, it's plainly obvious based on those criteria that I will more than likely love something (The Master and Looper come to mind for 2012), but the film still has to go the distance.The most fun can come when those rules get thrown out the window and mitigating factors come into play, causing a film I never would have expected to be a player become one of favorites of the year. Drive and Silver Linings Playbook are prime back-to-back examples. From the former I expected nothing until the rapturous reviews poured in and the latter had a trailer that didn't exactly misrepresent the movie, but certainly undersold it. The fallout from those two films can still be felt on this year's list. It's all about track records and batting averages. Consider it the sabermetric approach to determining a film's future worth. In some cases we have the benefit of trailers, posters and stills. In others, I'm going on very little. If you don't see a movie on here you know what that means. And yes, I'm all superheroed out if you're wondering where those are. But everything was considered, from smaller independent projects that might only get a limited release to major studio movies. What surprised me most was just how dark the top contenders ended up being. My future favorite film of 2013 may or may not be listed below.

 Runners-Up (In No Particular Order)

Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, TBD) 
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Brie Larson
Synopsis: The journey of a contemporary, porn-addicted Don Juan-type as he attempts to become less selfish.
Why? To be totally honest, I was a bit disappointed when I heard that JGL's directorial debut (formerly titled Don Jon's Addiction) would be a rom-com instead of a really dark, gritty independent drama. On the surface the plot doesn't really interest me and I'm not thrilled with the casting of Johansson. But outside of the interest in whether JGL can be as strong behind the camera as he is in front of it, the big draw for me here is seeing him again share the screen with his former Angels in the Outfield co-star, Tony Danza. What a reunion that should be. Just seeing the underrated Danza again in what I'm hearing is a pretty substantial supporting part (as his dad!) should be a real thrill. In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing a movie just about JGL asking Danza to be in his movie.

Oldboy (Spike Lee, October 11)
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley
Synopsis: An everyday man has only five days and limited resources to discover why he was imprisoned in a nondescript room for 15 years without any explanation.
Why? Spike Lee has directed exactly one movie I loved (25th Hour) and the talented Olsen has lately been giving a lot of great performances in projects that have just missed the mark for me. Here's hoping the teaming of the two will produce more positive results. While I admire the original Chan Wook-Park film I have no issues with them re-imagining it and am curious to see what Lee does. It sure beats rumors of that other version being shopped around a couple of years ago with Steven Spielberg and Will Smith attached. 

Serena (Susanne Bier, Sept. 27)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones
Synopsis: In Depression-era North Carolina, the future of George Pemberton's timber empire becomes complicated when it is learned that his wife, Serena, cannot bear children.
Why? All I know is that if Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are re-teaming I don't care who directed it or the nature of the plot. They've proven to be so good together this gets a free pass merely because of their presence. And that they're also co-starring in another much more anticipated film later in the year so this is just icing on the cake.

This Is The End (Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, June 14)
Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Michael Cera, Mindy Kaling
Synopsis: While attending a party at James Franco's house, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and many other celebrities are faced with the apocalypse.
Why? This seems like an answer to my frequent complaint that every other comedy released these days is exactly the same and uses the usual interchangeable actors. Now THIS could be different. Are we sure it's not based on a true story because I kind of believe these people (and that's not even mentioning Emma Watson, Paul Rudd, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Martin Starr, Craig Robinson and Rihanna all playing themselves) would be at James Franco's house with the world ending. And what's Franco like playing himself considering he seems to put so much of himself into everything he does anyway, movie-related or otherwise. It's rare you get to see so many celebrities given the opportunity to spoof themselves like this. Let's hope it's not squandered and Rogen delivers. I can see it being either a huge bomb or the comedy of the year. Or maybe both.        

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, May 10)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire
Synopsis: Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner now living on Long Island, finds himself fascinated by the mysterious past and lavish lifestyle of his neighbor, Jay Gatsby. He is drawn into Gatsby's circle, becoming a witness to obsession and tragedy.
Why? There's no middle ground with Baz Luhrmann. It'll either be incredible or a massive train wreck and if it's latter you can bet it'll at least be memorable. Even though this was pushed back from last year it's worth paying attention to any adaptation of Gatsby with that cast. It'll probably be a mess (and in 3D for crying out loud) but it's a must-see if just for the curiosity factor.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, Aug. 16)
Starring: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine
Synopsis: The tale of an outlaw who escapes from prison and sets out across the Texas hills to reunite with his wife and the daughter he has never met.
Why? Supposedly this a methodically paced Badlands-style 70's throwback. Good enough for me. Having Mara, Affleck, Foster and Caradine(!) in it can't hurt either. The director's a real question mark since it's his first feature but that hardly seems to matter as we've learned in the past. Early reviews have been excellent so I'm kind of expecting big things. Awesome title by the way.   

The Monuments Men (George Clooney, Dec. 20)
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Daniel Craig, Cate Blanchett, Billy Murray, Jean Dujardin
Synopsis: In a race against time, a crew of art historians and museum curators unite to recover renown works of art stolen by Nazis before Hitler destroys them.
Why? It's Clooney. Everything he touches as either a director, producer or actor seems to turn to gold these days. He just attach himself to junk. This plot itself doesn't grab me at all but the cast does and we know he'll deliver the goods. A possible Oscar contender.

Labor Day (Jason Reitman, TBD)
Starring: Josh Brolin, Kate Winslet, Tobey Maguire, James Van Der Beek
Synopsis: Depressed single mom Adele and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.
Why? Here's another one that gets a recommendation on director alone. And that cast isn't too bad either (Van Der Beek!?) The rest of it is kind of a question mark but since Reitman showed off another dimension of what he can do in 2011's brilliant Young Adult I'm willing to follow him wherever he decides to go.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, Nov. 15)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, Kyle Chandler
Synopsis: A New York stockbroker refuses to cooperate in a large securities fraud case involving corruption on Wall Street, corporate banking world and mob infiltration.
Why? DiCaprio and Scorsese team up for the 700th time and while I would normally roll my eyes at that, this actually seems somewhat intriguing and features a solid supporting cast. It's a safe bet on here, but there's a good reason for that.

Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, Oct. 4)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Synopsis: Astronauts attempt to return to earth after debris crashes into their space shuttle, leaving them drifting alone in space.
Why? Early word suggests this will be pretty good despite it being in production for seemingly forever and its release date being pushed back from late last year. There's still that Clooney factor and the chance to see Bullock (who supposedly carries most of this) in a rare sci-fi turn that hopefully signals a renewed post-Oscar commitment to doing serious work with talented directors. Well, probably not. But it doesn't hurt to get our hopes up.  

Top Ten

10. Nebraska (Alexander Payne, TBD)
Starring: Bruce Dern,Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach
Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes prize.
Why? You can use a permanent magic marker to write down Bruce Dern's name as one of the five Best Actor nominees next year for this black and white road trip movie. Anything directed by Alexander Payne coming off The Descendants automatically gets a spot on this list and the inspired casting of Forte in a dramatic role is worth looking out for.

9. Anchorman: The Legend Continues (Adam McKay, Dec. 20)
Starring: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Kristen Wiig, Christina Appelgate, Harrison Ford
Synopsis: The continuing on-set adventures of San Diego's top rated newsman.
Why? If an impending sequel to one of last decade's most popular comedies with the entire cast returning wasn't enough, now they've just recently added Harrison Ford to the mix. Ford was already surprisingly successful playing a aging, bitter news anchor in the underrated Morning Glory so it should be fun to see Mr. Grumpy face off with Ron Burgundy.

8. Her (Spike Jonze, TBD)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara
Synopsis: A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly-purchased operating system that's designed to meet his every need.
Why? Something that sounds this weird can only be directed by Spike Jonze. And that it stars Joaquin Phoenix should only serve to make it that much weirder. Adams, Wilde, or Mara in this would be intriguing enough but that it's all of them makes me wonder what Jonze has up his sleeve. On paper, it feels like it could be reminiscent of Adaptation, which would obviously the best possible scenario. Whatever it is, it's a must-see.

7. Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, TBD)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Burke
Synopsis: A Bangkok police lieutenant and a gangster settle their differences in a Thai-boxing match.
Why? Gosling re-teams with the director of Drive. Need I say more? With both already proving they can take what appears to be on paper a pulpy genre exercise into uncharted territory it would be foolish to bet against them again. Supposedly, this is even more violent and shocking. A scary thought. 

6. The Place Beyond The Pines (Derek Cianfrance, March 29)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta
Synopsis: A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks as a way to provide for his lover and their newborn child, a decision that puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective.
Why? Well, it's another reunion for Gosling , this time with Blue Valentine director Cianfrance and the trailer actually looks pretty terrific. From what I've been hearing there's a lot more to this film than has been advertised and Gosling again playing a stunt driver is a can't miss proposition, especially if he's facing off against good cop Bradley Cooper, whose film appearances now carry a renewed sense of anticipation since we've recently discovered the range of his abilities as an actor.

5. Parkland (Peter Landesman, TBD)
Starring: Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Paul Giamatti, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Duplass, Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Welling
Synopsis: A recounting of the chaotic events that occurred at Dallas' Parkland Hospital on the day U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Why? I'm in for anything involving the Kennedy assassination and this Tom Hanks-produced project featuring a loaded cast looks to be no exception. Since the anticipated film adaptation of Stephen King's 11/22/63 went into turnaround and won't be going in front of the cameras anytime soon I can get my fix from this. Focusing on characters in and around the Parkland hospital where Kennedy died is a novel idea just as long as it doesn't turn into another overstuffed Bobby.

4. Blue Caprice (Alexandre Moors, TBD)
Starring: Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Joey Lauren Adams, Tim Blake Nelson
Synopsis: A narrative feature film inspired by the events known as the Beltway sniper attacks.
Why? Finally. The Beltway sniper movie. Part of me wondered if this would ever get a release but I'm glad it will, even if it's just limited or VOD. I'll take it. This is supposedly a really small-scale production which is appropriate considering the frighteningly claustrophobic nature of the crimes. There's a lot of interesting facets to this story that haven't been widely reported but from what I heard this will be more of a mood piece. Which is fine too. The released stills of Washington as John Allen Muhammad are downright chilling, as is the teaser trailer. 

3. American Hustle (Dec.13)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, Louis C.K.
Synopsis: An FBI sting operation in the 1970s called Abscam leads to the conviction of United States Congressmen.
Why? While not much is known about this yet, it's hard to describe any movie directed by Russell and featuring these actors (especially Cooper and Lawrence) as a question mark  The description almost makes it sound like Argo, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Russell's clearly in the zone right now having almost gotten a taste of gold this year with Silver Linings Playbook so this could be the one that pushes him over the top with either a Best Picture or Best Director win. Either way, this currently filming project is as close to a sure bet for creative greatness as possible. And you know it'll be ready by December. Russell works fast.

2. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, TBD)
Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller
Synopsis: The story of John du Pont, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and killed Olympic wrestler David Schultz (No, not THAT David Schultz) .
Why? Let's put it this way: Steve Carell is playing John du Pont. Carell tops the list of comedic actors I've always wanted to see tackle a super dark role and it doesn't get much darker than the psychotic billionaire murderer who killed Schultz. Fascinating story. Ingenious casting. And it's from the director of Moneyball. Just look at that picture of Ruffalo as Schultz. It really doesn't get any more intriguing than this. I'm anticipating a potential nomination for Carell and it's definitely possible we're looking at the movie of the year here.  


1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, TBD)
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham
Synopsis: A singer-songwriter navigates New York's folk music scene during the 1960s
Why? When the film (loosely based on sixties folk singer Dave Von Ronk's posthumously published memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street)  had its release delayed last year and I read the somewhat flimsy synopsis, I pushed it to the back of my mind. Then that trailer hit. While I'm always interested in seeing what the Coens do, it's tough remembering a film of theirs I greatly anticipated ahead of its release. It always seems to be a case of respect rather than admiration with them and just a mild curiosity factor for whatever project is next. This feels like the first time they've made something that really feels in my wheelhouse. I love the time period and its music, and just from the glimpse we're given in the trailer, it's clear the effort was made to authentically capture it in all its glory, which is no small feat. Plus, you've got Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as folk singers (doing their own singing) which from the brief glimpse in the trailer feels like strangely magical casting. We already know the Coens have it in them to release the best film of the year but this is the first time they seem armed with the ammunition to do so. It's their most promising project in years, and that's coming from someone who's liked pretty much everything they've done. If nothing else, we're at least guaranteed a memorable soundtrack. I haven't even seen it yet but just those two minutes make me not only want to see this movie, but literally live inside it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Liberal Arts

Director: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janey, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser, Zac Efron
Running Time: 97 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Any fears that writer/director/star Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts would hit uncomfortably close to home for me wiped away during the first half-hour when 35 year-old New York college admissions counselor Jesse Fisher (Radnor) laughs and rolls around in the grass upon returning to his alma mater in Ohio. It's a relief when the movie does eventually hit on the truth that returning to your college at any point after graduating can be awkward, uncomfortable experience that isn't the slightest bit welcoming despite how much you may have enjoyed your time there. Once college is over, it's done. The best case scenario is you take what you've learned and the experiences you've had and carry them with you for the rest of your days to positively inform your actions and decisions as an adult. That's not exactly what's happened for Jesse (Radnor) who jumps at the opportunity to return for the retirement ceremony of his second favorite professor, Peter Holberg (Richard Jenkins).

Obsessed with literature and the arts, Jesse's mind had never really left so returning is almost a formality at this point. But it won't be the same. Not by a long shot. It's to Radnor's credit that his script acknowledges that but then somewhere along the line it loses me and it starts to become a movie written by someone trying to send a message rather than stay true to the characters.We knew the message we were going to get going in and it's unquestionably the right one, but I just didn't care for the way Radnor delivered it. What starts as a highly relatable personal journey of self-discovery ends up giving too many easy answers for the more challenging questions the film intelligently asks.

At times I felt almost bludgeoned over the head with its black and white philosophizing which is a real a shame considering the more honest feelings it subtly invoked. It kind of becomes a mess in the third act, but at least it's a fascinating one that has something to say and proves that Radnor definitely has a promising filmmaking future ahead of him when (if?) How I Met Your Mother ends. His forseeable acting future could be taken up playing characters within in the same general realm of his lovelorn, super sensitive Ted Mosby but that's okay. I really like that character and consider Radnor a likable, underrated actor capable of delivering performances that may end up being even better than the really good one he gives here. Because of the rather obvious similarities between Ted and Jesse you wouldn't necessarily be wrong in calling this Ted Mosby: The Movie, and from where I sit there's nothing necessarily wrong with that either. Nor is the fact that Elisabeth Olsen's Zibby ends up being the latest addition into the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" canon. If you look up the very definition of the term there's likely to be a picture of  Zibby right there next to it as it would be difficult to find a character that better exemplifies that infamous (and sometimes unfairly derided) movie trope. But let's be honest. Did anyone really expect Radnor to make a film without a MPDG? I'd almost be disappointed if he didn't. What I don't like are those characters being discarded by the screenplay once they've served their purpose, rendering them practically pointless aside from their role as a life message deliverer.

Certain character types exist because they work when effectively executed and the real reason the MPDG gets more flack than other more insulting stereotypes has to do with the fact that it hits a rather embarrassing nerve for guys, depicting them as insecure and needing to have their lives saved by a woman. Or rather a girl. A free-spirited one who doesn't care a single iota about any issues or flaws they may have. Like any screenwriting creation it's shaded in a certain amount of truth. And also like any, there are good and bad depictions that primarily depend on the integrity of the surrounding narrative. As far as these things go, Olsen's Libby, the 19-year-old daughter of one of Prof. Holberg's colleagues, makes for a textbook MPDG who's smart, pretty and seemingly mature beyond her years. And that's not to mention the fact she writes letters. On actual paper. A real keeper. The only drawback is that she reads Twilight, which horrifies Jesse (and me). While I don't recall that the books are never implicitly mentioned by name it's clear what they're talking about and it soon becomes this hilarious symbol of their age difference and an opportunity for Radnor to go into full Mosby mode, giving a snobby, pretentious speech about how its popularity represents America's declining tastes. It's a fun scene.

Compelling, the film burns through much of its story in the first 25 minutes only to pleasantly reveal that it's just getting started. The meat of their relationship takes place by mail, making it even harder for Jesse to stay away this time. They do seem made for each other which is why it gets so frustrating when Radnor the writer attempts to undercut that in favor of delivering his well-intentioned, but poorly realized message. While there's undeniably a lot wrong with a 35 year-old guy getting involved with a 19-year-old girl and creeping around the dorm and attending parties, Radnor underestimates how good he and Olsen are together at selling something that comes off as the complete opposite. So attempts later to turn this into an American Beauty or Lolita-like situation fall flat because certain plot developments feel overwritten. And it sure doesn't help the cause of his goal that the two of them look around the same age despite Radnor being considerably older. At points the movie is so relentless in its morality it seems like he's trying to have his cake and eat it too by depicting this magical, once-in-a-lifetime connection before telling audiences, "Oh wait, shame on YOU. It's wrong." Without spoiling too much, I'll say that Jesse does (or rather doesn't) do something I just couldn't buy. Well, I could buy it, but it felt manufactured to teach a lesson and stands in stark contrast to his actions leading up it. Then sub-plots are piled on top of it and an entire separate story is tagged on involving a bookstore clerk (played by Elizabeth Reaser) that's actually kind of insulting in its obviousness.

The movie's best scenes are on campus with Jesse and Zibby talking and just hanging out. It feels real and Olsen proves she's capable of going to the opposite end of the spectrum as the brainwashed cult follower she darkly portrayed in Martha Marcy May Marlene. As a director Radnor perfectly captures the very specific feeling of a small liberal arts school at that point in someone's life without missing a beat, as well as the wild array of supporting characters you'd encounter there. The great Richard Jenkins serves as the film's sturdy anchor with his heartfelt performance as the retiring Holberg, who's not quite sure he's ready to leave or what to do with himself once he does. His attempts to hang on as long as possible mirror Jesse's and their bond feels like a honest one. Far less successful is a sub-plot involving his old romantics professor, the cold, detached Judith Fairfield (Allison Janey) who seems to exist as a bitch on wheels plot device to provide final act shock value rather than an actual human. Surprisingly, Zac Efron is really effective in a small role as a campus stoner trying to get Jesse to embrace the spontaneity of life while John Magaro impresses as a depressed, emotionally disturbed student he takes under his wing.

Radnor supposedly based this script off a visit he made to his alma mater of Kenyon College in Ohio while promoting his directorial debut a couple of years ago and the strange feelings it invoked. I almost feel guilty not recommending it since I'm a big fan of the actor and it definitely strikes a chord but a story like this can't for a second feel overplotted and needs some room to breathe. All the scenes with he and Olsen are gold and after the first 40 minutes or so you really think this is going somewhere deep, only to just pull back and handle everything with kid gloves.As unfair as it is, I couldn't help but compare it to the all-time greatest college-set dramedy, 2000's Wonder Boys, which tackles a similar topic, but appears to do so effortlessly by showing instead of telling. Or in this case lecturing. While it all doesn't quite come together, I'd still rather watch this again than some better movies that don't screw up as interestingly. It's at least clear coming out of this that Radnor will at some point make a great film. This just wasn't it, too often coming across as overly sensitive and eager to please as its protagonist.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Taken 2

Director: Olivier Megaton
Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Rade Serbedzija, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, D.B. Sweeney, Luke Grimes
Running Time: 91 min.
Rating: PG-13  

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It isn't difficult to see how Taken went on to become such a critical and commercial success when it was released with little fanfare and even fewer expectations in early 2008. At the time we all knew Liam Neeson was a great actor but had little clue he'd be so believable as an action star. He was playing a quietly intense man thrust into a situation that at least seemed at the time to be out of his control. Everything about it seemed fresh. The kidnapping. The crime. The fight scenes. The grittiness. The shocking sight of the sixty-something Neeson kicking ass for an hour and a half. In an era of overblown effects, here was this no-nonsense, bare bones action thriller that knew exactly what it was supposed to do and did it. It didn't reinvent the wheel but it sure was a lot of fun, with director/co-writer Luc Besson somehow pulling this all off within the confines of a PG-13 rating. Capitalizing on its success, Neeson's played a variation on the role so many times since (even taking it to more dramatically tragic heights in The Grey) that you'd figure the novelty's worn off by now. And to an extent it has, but that doesn't mean it doesn't still work.

Taken 2 plays out almost exactly how you'd expect the sequel to Taken play out, only a bit crazier. Rumors of its inferiority to the original are greatly exaggerated. It does some things better than its predecessor and others not as well but at the end of the day it all evens out. Its two biggest attributes just might be its off-the-wall silliness and an increased focus on the supporting characters, one of whom nearly steals the movie out from under Neeson. Those who don't enjoy this follow-up or think it fails to recapture the spirit of the original should probably go back and ask themselves whether the first film was really as strong as they thought. This nearly equals it.

This action logically picks up where the last film left off as the body count ex CIA operative Bryan (Neeson) left behind in rescuing his kidnapped teen daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) from a sex traffiking ring comes back to haunt him. Now Murad (Rade Serbedzija), Albanian crime boss and father of one of Bryan's victims, is out to avenge his son's death and won't stop until he pays. That opportunity comes when the emotionally scarred Kim and her now separated mother Lenore (Famke Janssen) surprise Bryan by joining him on his vacation in Istanbul. But by the time he starts to suspect they're being followed it's too late, as he and his ex-wife are taken captive. Now it's up to Kim to use her own resourcefulness and follow her dad's very specific instructions to find and rescue them without being captured again herself.

There's a little more set-up this time around as much of the first half hour is spent establishing a new family dynamic despite little time presumably passing since the conclusion of the last film's events. The formerly hostile relationship between Bryan and Lenore is noticeably more civil with even a possible chance of reconciliation while Kim struggles to pass her twice failed driver's test and hide a new boyfriend from her overprotective dad. It's kind of a neat reversal to have Bryan placed in a rare position of vulnerability and having to rely on his daughter to rescue him and her mother. It also succeeds in giving Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen twice as much to do this time around and neither disappoints in their heavily expanded roles.

Despite being the one "taken," Bryan's still pulling the strings, sometimes quite literally, as in the film's most uproarious scene when he gives Kim ridiculously complicated instructions to finding their whereabouts that involves a shoestring, a map and her throwing live grenades all over the city. Laugh all you want but you can't tell me it isn't inventively original or that director Olivier Megaton (taking over for Besson) and Grace don't fully commit to this weirdly entertaining sequence with everything they have. Of course, this isn't to say Neeson's playing some helpless victim here, eventually dishing out just as many beatings as he did the last time around, if not more. If there's anything to complain about it's that he may as well qualify as a superhero rather than a former CIA agent. And yet Neeson still somehow sells it, again giving us front row seats to see an action master at work.

One of the more unintentionally hilarious elements of the original film was nearly 30-year-old Maggie Grace's performance as the 17 going on 12 year-old teen. Who can forget "daddy's little girl" getting a new pony for her birthday and awkwardly running to her father with arms flailing? It was a really bizarre take on the character, making me wonder whether Grace was just overcompensating for the huge age difference or the portrayal was intentionally serving some larger symbolic purpose in the story (like the loss of her virginal innocence). Her work here is a complete 180 from that as she's not only completely believable as a reluctant teenager still emotionally wrestling with her ordeal, but as a makeshift action heroine who's learned to run since the last film. And this time the movie seems in on the joke regarding her age. How else could you explain this script's obsession with her failed driving tests? I'd call it a sub-plot if only it were that and didn't lead to an excuse for an exciting car chase through the streets of Istanbul with her dad yelling instructions at her like a backseat driver. It's almost become a running gag having adult performers playing teens but this is a steep age difference Grace pulls off and I'm betting it would be a challenge for anyone not familiar with the Lost actress to guess she's not at least around the same age as the character she's playing.

Famke Janssen's formerly unlikable ex-wife has been softened for obvious reasons to fit the plot but despite the actress's best efforts I can't say I cared as much about her fate. Yet even this installment's most fervent detractors would have difficulty denying it's really the improved father-daughter dynamic this go around that what most sets it apart from its predecessor. And in one of the strangest aspects of an already strange film, someone involved in the production is apparently a big fan the Drive soundtrack, as two highly recognizable songs from the already cult classic make curious (if entirely pointless) cameos. That so many seem to be up in arms about it despite the filmmakers being legally well within their bounds to use them speaks volumes about the imprint that movie and its music is still leaving. Anything signifying that I'm okay with, even if it does nothing to add or take away from the proceedings here.

Yes, there will be a Taken 3. We know that much by how the seeds are so obviously planted for it at the end. And it'll be interesting to see how they move forward considering all the characters who can be taken already have. The series may have to move in a completely new direction, which is probably for the best just as long as Neeson's still involved. Sure, this film's ridiculous but so was the original. Both in a good way. The Taken series works because it fully embraces its own ridiculousness without so much as winking.  And while the set-up here isn't quite as crisp it does accomplish what a successful sequel needs to in expanding the universe and getting us further familiarized with the characters. Considering there's a new name behind the camera the drop-off is quality is surprisingly minimal, with extended sections of the film certainly crazier and more fun than they have any right being. You might occasionally shake your head at its absurdity, but you won't be bored.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


Director: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey, Ashlie Atkinson
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

I watched Compliance with my stomach in knots the entire time, wondering how much further it could go and whether I would even be able to make it through. It's that disturbing. The feelings and emotions it's likely to invoke in audiences attempting to endure the experience may be uncomfortable, but they're worthwhile nonetheless. The film depicts a real world scenario most people go to the movies to escape from, and after you see it, there's a good chance you'll be angry. "There's no way that could happen." "These people are idiots." "I would never do that." That's a normal reaction, but also an entirely misinformed and incorrect one. It's also an ironic response considering the characters' inability to see a truth that's literally right in front of their faces. The incident depicted in the films not only happened, it happened 70 different times in over 30 U.S. states. How do you explain that? The people are real. The events are real. And this doesn't veer much, if at all, from the exact incident it's based on, with writer/director Craig Zobel wisely choosing only to dramatize the details for maximum effect.

The story itself might be simple, but the characters' actions (or lack of such) aren't. Remember that famous Milgram obedience experiment (later adapted into a little seen 70's TV movie starring William Shatner) where subjects administer lethal electric shocks to people in another room simply because someone in a position of authority tells them to? That's this movie, except taken to the highest level possible and made that much more disturbing by the fact that these characters actually can see the harm they're inflicting and do it anyway. One woman in particular. And it's all because she just can't say "no." Her frustrating behavior escalates until the noose gets tied so tightly around everyone's necks that the suspense of how it will all resolve becomes unbearable. The only thing we do know is that it can't end well.  And at its center is a deeply rich performance from a veteran character actress that easily ranks amongst the year's best, closely followed by another actress' emotionally devastating turn. It's a prime example of just how much can be accomplished on a smaller budget if all the right elements are in place.

The day has already off to a poor start for ChickWich fast-food restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd).  Having already been verbally dressed down by a supplier, she's running low on bacon because an employee left the fridge door open, and there's a visit from corporate looming. Mocked by her subordinates behind her back, it's clear from the opening minutes that Sandra runs a tight ship and prides herself on doing the best possible job, rarely deviating from company policy. When she gets a phone call from a man referring to himself as "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy) about a complaint that one of her employees stole money out of a customer's purse, she summons the alleged perpetrator, Becky (Dreama Walker), into to her office.

Denying any involvement in the theft, Becky sits there as Sandra is questioned and given instructions over the phone to search her belongings until the cops can arrive to handle the situation. Before long she's asked to do things that go far beyond the usual protocol for any law enforcement official, much less the manager of a fast food joint. I should probably stop there at the risk of spoiling too much but let's just say it's clear pretty early on that this guy on the phone isn't a cop and something's very off.

The situation escalates to alarming levels as Sandra dutifully fulfills all the obligations asked of her by this man and even starts involving others in Becky's detainment, like shift supervisor Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), goof-off employee Kevin (Philip Ettinger) and even her own perplexed fiancee Van (Bill Camp). Soon they've all past the point of no return, getting too close to this increasingly perilous situation to see the forest from the trees. You keep waiting for somebody to say or do something that would put an end to Becky's undeserved misery and humiliation, but the longer it goes, the more disturbing it gets, making it only that much harder to watch. We quickly realize the "somebody" to stop this definitely won't be Sandra, who's apparently never heard an outrageous command she'll refuse to obey.

The caller and his actions are presented very cleverly throughout. And  they have to be since the events, despite being inspired by a true story, would seem almost too outrageous to believe unless Zobel executed this perfectly. One of the boldest decisions he makes involves whether to fully reveal the prankster's identity or keep him as a threatening, disembodied voice on the phone. If this were a horror film or a mystery/thriller you could argue for the latter but since this aims higher and fits more into the category of a psychological character study, he makes the right call in granting us full disclosure into how he operates.

We see how this man's constantly re-adjusting his story to fit the developing situation and changes his tone at various points to get the desired responses and needed cooperation from his victims/subjects. It's especially evident in how he berates the accused Becky while manipulating Sandra with praise she's likely not used to receiving in daily life. You can tell aiding this "officer" makes her feel wanted and important, and the more that happens, the easier she becomes to manipulate. When we do eventually meet the caller, actor Pat Healy somehow manages to exceed all terrifying expectations of what we think he could be. There's no money involved in this scam and the majority of laws are broken by his targets in the restaurant, who really just become pawns in a sick game he's playing for sociopathic thrills. It's clear this guy's a pro and he's done this before. 

That Ann Dowd wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this staggering, multi-layered performance is criminal. Even as I was practically screaming at the screen in disbelief at Sandra's cooperation, Dowd subtly hints at an entire personal history that's brought her to this point. She doesn't play Sandra as dumb because she isn't. She's very good at what she does, but has probably been dumped on all her life, leaving her with the inability to say "no" to anyone or anything. Even her relationship with her fiancee, the one aspect of her life that seems to bring her any joy, feels manufactured in her own mind.

I began the film liking Sandra, and despite her sinking into what seems like the depths of moral hell after that, Dowd still made me pity rather than disdain her by its end. It would have been so easy to play this woman as cruel or stupid but because she represents her as a good person trying (and failing miserably) to do the right thing, this entire story has even more of a bite. You want to say that if this woman can fall victim to a prank like this, then anyone can, but we know that's not completely true. It takes a certain personality type and this scam artist literally found the perfect mark in this woman.

An even more physically and emotionally grueling performance is given by Dreama Walker as Becky and anyone only familiar with the actress from her perky TV comedy work on Don't Trust The B---- in Apt. 23 should probably prepare themselves. Spending nearly half the movie topless, the treatment her character endures may be humiliating, offensive, and in many ways the most unwelcome nudity you could see in movies, but it sure isn't pointless. You'd figure any actress would really have to have ultimate trust in their director to do the shocking things that are asked of Walker so it's a relief that Zobel returns the favor by earning it and avoiding any sort of exploitation. Everyone that happens to Becky needs to happen for the story and while I always feel uncomfortable calling film performances "brave," Walker's work comes about as close as it gets. Had she not completely surrendered herself to the role, there would certainly be a lot less to talk about when it ended. She makes Becky seem so vulnerable it's almost as if the character's a bleeding wound that can only be stopped by someone willing to step in and do it. After a while the horrifying possibility presents itself that maybe no one will. 

The third act of the film is really something to behold when you consider how much tension Zobel has already squeezed out of such a heart-pounding premise. It's easy to come out of this blaming one character but nearly everyone on screen is somewhat responsible, or at least "compliant," in what transpires. And it's worth noting what it takes to end the ordeal, hinting that only someone completely removed from such a dire situation can objectively assess it. Zobel goes further still with an epilogue that asks the same big questions we do of the characters, concluding in a final scene that strangely reminded me of Fargo, conveying that the most deplorable crimes can seem that much worse when committed by small town people you see at the grocery store, go to church with or even get served by at your local fast-food restaurant. Compliance has sparked a certain degree of outrage among a vocal minority who have seen it. But it isn't because they feel it couldn't happen. It's because they know it can, and did. Admitting that is tough, especially when the events could so easily involve any one of us.