Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents . . . the Good, the Bad, and the Never-Should-Have-Been-Made Movie List of 2012

Dear Readers,

What a year! I started out 2012 as a man who taught filmmaking, film history and film aesthetics, who therefore might be expected to watch slightly more films than the average person. But then, in July, I was asked to join the Midday with Dan Rodricks show on WYPR, 88.1FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, as a film critic, and since that time I have been watching at least twice as many films as I used to. What this means is that I have actually seen – for once – almost all of the movies that we can expect to see nominated for Oscars. Where I am weakest is in the documentary lineup, since I stupidly neglected to attend Silverdocs (a mistake I do not intend to replicate), and they get less theatrical distribution, generally, than even foreign films do.

So here are my lists. I have grouped them as follows:

  • Best Films of the Year (a lucky 13)
  • Worst Films of the Year (an unlucky 7)
  • Most Under-Appreciated Films of the Year
  • Most Over-Rated Films of the Year

There would be no point to a film list if it weren’t subjective, so if you have issues with my choices, so be it. Instead of hyper-linking to each film’s imdb page, this time I have linked to my initial review, if one exists. I was surprised to see that some films about which I held strong opinions did not have a review. Hmmmm . . . In any case, if the link takes you to imdb, you’ll know that no review exists. For some films, if I wish to remain in the local press-screening group, I must await those films’ Baltimore openings before I can post my thoughts. Within each list, I avoid rankings, but just put them in alphabetical order. Enjoy!

13 BEST FILMS OF 2012:

7 WORST FILMS OF 2012:

4 MOST UNDER-APPRECIATED FILMS OF 2012:

7 MOST OVER-RATED FILMS OF 2012:

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Iceman Cometh, but the Ice Runneth Away: “Chasing Ice” in the Era of Climate Change

Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski, 2012)

This is an important film about an important subject that nevertheless falls far short of being a great film. The director, the relative novice Jeff Orlowski, who is also one of the shooters and is in the film at one point, chooses to tell his story of climate change through the point of view of nature photographer James Balog, a man whose Extreme Ice Survey group is responsible for most of the imagery we have of glacier recession from the past 10 years. He is a seminal figure among those sounding the bell about rising global temperatures. Somehow, however, the film’s focus on this one man makes the entire topic feel narrow, rather than universal. I liked the filmmaker’s close attention to detail, but I would have preferred an approach with 2 or 3 other major players in the field, to broaden the view.

We follow Balog as his team sets up digital cameras in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana, against a backdrop of conservative skepticism from the likes of Sean Hannity and James Inhofe. Some of the still images we see along the way, as well as some of the video footage of calving glaciers, is truly impressive. Some of the scientific information we learn is very useful. I particularly liked the analogy, presented by one scientist, comparing what steroids do to the body to what greenhouse gases do to the planet. When it was all done, and the final credit song, performed by Joshua Bell and Scarlett Johansson, of all people, played under the titles (which were up on the screen for far too short a time – very hard to read), I felt informed, but less engaged than I thought I should have been. And it’s not because I’m a climate change skeptic. Rather, the slightly clunky approach to the material kept me on the outside.

But I do recommend this film for those who want to see what is happening to our glaciers. If you want more info, check out the Chasing Ice website.

Miserable at “Les Misérables”

Les Misérables

Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012)

Ah, what a journey . . . from the end of Napoléon’s reign, in 1815, then on to 1823, and finally to the June Rebellion of 1832. 17 years of nonstop singing! Exhausting for the viewer, but just imagine how it must have felt for the characters. No wonder Valjean’s voice is croaking at the finish.

I must confess that I am not the target audience for this movie. I saw the original stage musical version of this in the 1990s, and hated it. The nonstop movement of characters on stage, singing all the way, with absolutely no dramatic pauses, drove me nuts. I would just start to enjoy a moment, lingering on a tune that I had actually been able to grasp, when we would be on to the next scene. I felt as if I had been transported to ADHD hell, where the sped up world didn’t strike the folks around me as strange, since I was the only one who had taken my meds.

That said, three songs stayed with me: “On My Own,” “Drink with Me,” and “Bring Him Home.” No, not “I Dreamed a Dream.” I had thankfully forgotten that song until the trailers for Les Misérables started playing this fall (Susan Boyle notwithstanding). Unfortunately for me, only one of the songs I remember fondly was performed to my liking in the film. Samantha Barks does a lovely job singing “On My Own” as Eponine. The same cannot be said – for me – for Hugh Jackman and “Bring Him Home.” In fact, in spite of the universal praise for Jackman’s performance in Les Misérables, even from critics who hated the movie, I found him unbearable and his voice tight and strained. Ironically, since Russell Crowe has come under some criticism for his singing, I much preferred him as Javert. Clearly, in the world of Les Mis, I am out of sync. As the French would say, “C’est le monde à l’envers.”

A further irony for me was that, in a movie of epic 157-minute length, in which so many songs and reprises were rendered faithfully on screen, “Drink with Me,” felt shortened and rushed. Why, Tom Hooper, why?

To end this rant, let me make myself even more ridiculous in the eyes of fans of the musical and its adaptation by mentioning that I would gladly re-watch the 1978 made-for-TV movie again and again than be subjected to what is sure to be constant Oscar buzz for this god-awful mess. I would also enjoy jabbing a knife into my skull, I suppose.

So, many – but not all – of the film critics out there were not pleased with the film, and here is a brief sampling of the reviews:

It’s almost not fair for me to comment further, since I have made clear that I am an alien in the Les Mis universe. My filmgoing companion for the evening enjoyed the movie, and we had a pleasant conversation afterwards. We agreed that the three best voices – for us – were the three young leads: the aforementioned Samanatha Barks (Eponine), Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Amanda Seyfried (Cosette). In Dana Stevens’ review, she writes that Seyfried has the worst voice. ?!?! I guess we all have such conflicting reactions to this film and to singing, in general. Anne Hathaway, who is predicted to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, did not move me. Perhaps its not her fault. Being that close to her as she emoted wildly was just too much for me.

And I think that is what we will see in the reactions to the film. There are those, like my companion last night, who will respond positively to the proximity to the actors and to the handheld camera work that “keeps it real” (as my friend said). Then there are those, like me, who will realize that there is a reason why most musicals are post-synced (here, the singing was recorded live, rather than dubbed later), with the camera a fair distance away from the faces. It is just not that pleasant to be 3 or 4 inches away from someone in the full throes of a song (we are actually that close, at times, as there are also many extreme close-ups). If you enjoy raw in-your-face emotion for the sake of it, then this film might be for you. If you are a cold-hearted bastard who hates the universe, then maybe not (just kidding, that was my imagined voice from a fan of the film . . .).

Since the reviews, above, cover the full gamut of critical appraisal of the movie, and since I wish to get on with my life, I will just end with a few of my notes, hastily scribbled in the dark last night:

  • Terrible CGI in opening (and later, at monastery).
  • Voices not that rich in the “live singing” technique.
  • Like original musical, the pace never slows – non-stop movement. Part of what makes the movie bad, then, comes from the original stage musical.
  • Wide angle close-ups are even worse than regular close-ups.
  • Worse than stage musical because we are so close. People singing are not pleasant to be that close to. But – I will say this – about 3/4 of the way through the movie, I realized that I was actually better able to follow the story in film than in stage musical, since the proximity to the actors allowed me to understand what they were singing!
  • I hated the decision to hold on Anne Hathaway for entirety of her “I Dreamed a Dream” song – trailer for film worked better with cutaways.
  • Unaffectedness of little baby Cosette is so refreshing after all of that gushing!
  • First audible audience reaction was to Sacha Baron Cohen – a great (and deserved laugh). Film finally comes to life in inn. Helena Bonham-Carter great, as well.
  • A lot of actors are out of tune.
  • Not only do we get close-ups, but we start to get extreme close-ups- on Russell Crowe on rooftop, and then later on Eddie Redmayne.
  • RESTLESS HANDHELD CAMERA REALLY GETTING TO ME!
  • In spite of understanding story more here, I am amazed at what a poor job both the movie and original musical do in explaining the causes of the 1832 June Rebellion. What is fight about?
  • Many of the songs seem to high for Jackman – he’s straining!
  • Weird shot on Amanda Seyfried at very end of Eddie Redmayne’s “Empty chairs” song. It’s ridiculously short, as if they forgot it was there.
  • I have actually come to the conclusion that Hugh Jackman is terrible in this movie.
  • Why does Jean Valjean die so suddenly? He seemed so healthy and strong when he was carrying Marius through sewer.

Happy New Year to all, even those who now hate me. 🙂

“Premium Rush” – A Great Dumb Ride Through the Streets of New York

Premium Rush

Premium Rush (David Koepp, 2012)

This 90-minute movie is a sharp, muscular little action-packed ride that thrills the viewer as much as biking through the streets of New York thrills its main character. It is also quite dumb in many ways, particularly in its choice of antagonist. Michael Shannon, as Bobby Monday, proves yet again that there is no movie that he can’t almost ruin with his over-the-top bad acting.

Wilee, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a law school graduate unwilling – yet – to don a suit, who bobs and weaves his way through dense traffic as a bike messenger, a profession which rewards grit and speed. Wilee is something of an icon, having won the “Alley Cat” competition – where bike messengers triumph by reaching a destination first – three years in a row. Life is good, except that his girlfriend, Vanessa – also a bike messenger – played by Dania Ramirez, wants  him to settle down, and his rival on the messenger squad, Manny (Wolé Parks), sees an opportunity to step in and seduce Vanessa away.

And then one day, Vanessa’s roommate, Nima, a Chinese law student, calls in a messenger request for a special delivery of a mysterious ticket, which compulsive gambler Bobby Monday also wants, and the chase is on! If you have ever thought that a car should have no problem catching a bicyclist. then watch this movie to have your ideas changed. While the convoluted nature of the plot (which involves Chinese gangsters, gamblers and smugglers, and corrupt cops) may strain credibility, the action scenes are worth the price of admission (or purchase, or rental, or streaming, or . . . however you watch your movies these days). The actors on bikes – from Gordon-Levitt to Ramirez to Parks – are all immensely appealing and very fit, and watching them go all out with taut sinew and muscles bulging brings back whatever street cred the plot has lost.

But Michael Shannon . . . I do not like this actor! He has been terrible in every film in which I have seen him, and his presence in Take Shelter, for which I have seen the preview many times, is the sole reason why I will never watch that film. I had never seen him before Revolutionary Road, but he stuck out right away as a black hole of talentless suck from the moment his scenes began. Please, someone do us all a favor and stop casting him. I don’t care what Manohla Dargis thinks (as much as I normally like her writing), he is no Christopher Walken. That man – as crazy as he can play – knows how to work a nuance.

So I recommend the movie for a good time, as long as you are willing to overlook some significant flaws. As a former New Yorker, I loved seeing all of the locations shot from a bike’s perspective. If you get into the right mood, you’ll emerge from the experience with your adrenaline pumped. I suggest a good workout right afterwards . . .

“Django Unchained” – Tarantino’s Pulpy Revisionist Western Is His Best Film Since “Pulp Fiction”

Django Unchained

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

I hope this film ends up on a lot of film critics’ Top 10 lists, as it is not only exceptionally good fun and very well made, but also important as a magnificent reversal of the hundreds of films we have seen where the person-of-color sidekick must die to allow the white hero to triumph, as A.O. Scott pointed out in his review today. Here, not only does the opposite happen, but Jamie Foxx’s Django (“The ‘D’ . . . is silent”) does more than just survive. He kills lots of white folk, for money and for pleasure. And it feels right.

The last time I saw a movie where so many whites were massacred by blacks was 1993’s Sankofa, which was a little bit too preachy to be an enjoyable film experience. Quentin Tarantino, however, does the opposite of preach. He invites us to a party, where we can get down and join the fun.

But like all good parties, this one gets a little messy. Tarantino is the master of pastiche, as witnessed by his Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 films, but in this latest film he runs the risk of throwing a little too many overly stylized images and sounds into the mix. Still, unlike in those films or in Inglourious Basterds, he is working, in Django, from a tightly structured script, and so the stylistic digressions function more as appealing atmospheric window dressing than unnecessary digressions.

The plot of Django: Unchained is simple enough. The year is 1858 – two years before the start of the American Civil War, as the opening title card tells us, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) – a wily bounty hunter – frees Django (Jamie Foxx) – a slave recently separated from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), after a failed runaway attempt – in order to secure his help in tracking down some wanted men whom he knows Django to be able to recognize. And so a partnership and friendship is born, as Schultz’s dislike of slavery draws him into Django’s story, eventually leading him to help Django find his wife. It turns out she has been purchased by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and so off the bounty hunters go to “Candieland” to rescue her. Along the way, many people are shot, and much blood is splattered. This is the kind of film that the NRA claims is more dangerous than actual guns.

And yet, if you take this film as a cross between a “Spaghetti Western” and a “Blaxpoitation” film, then the (mostly) cartoonish violence is not horrifying at all, but part of the revisionist approach of the story. It is only by combining an iconic white-guy-hero-genre with one of the few credible black-guys-with-guns genres that Tarantino can make his larger point about the evils of slavery and racism. He announces his intentions in the opening credits, with music and red text titles that hark back to the 1960’s Italian-produced Westerns, even including the music by Luis Bacalov from the original Django movie (which starred Franco Nero, who plays a small role in this new film as the Italian in the bar who asks Django his name). This opening also references an early parody of this genre, Blazing Saddles, which itself was also tapping into the Blaxpoitation currents of the time in which it was made. Interestingly, the two most violent scenes in the entire film do not involve guns: the one is a brutal fight between two slaves staged by DiCaprio, and the other involves a man being torn apart by dogs.

For some, this craziness might not work, but for me, it did. The fact that the cinematography, by Robert Richardson, is beautiful and of gorgeous locations, does not hurt, either. Nor do the outstanding performances by all of the actors involved. From Jamie Foxx to Christoph Waltz to Leonardo DiCaprio to Kerry Washington to Samuel L. Jackson – even to Don Johnson as a plantation owner named Big Daddy – the cast raises the film to great heights, even when Tarantino gives in to too many juvenile urges, as he does upon occasion (it’s like he just can’t help himself – and who’s going to tell him no?). Jamie Foxx, especially, gives an amazingly nuanced performance that is both cocky and wary – he knows that at any moment the white folk could kill him, and it shows. The worst performance in the film was from Tarantino, himself, as a slaver with an Australian accent (why?!?).

There were some odd editing choices in the film, both temporally and geographically, but I grew to like them. They actually lend the film the aura of a parable, since we frequently jump forward to a scene, then cut back to an explanation of how we got there. Or we cut to an image that explains something a character is discussing, yet we are not sure where or when it is. The story still flowed in a linear fashion – not always the case with Tarantino – but these touches force the viewer to think about what is being seen.

The only part of the film that really annoyed me at any point was Tarantino’s musical choices. The Ennio Morricone pieces made sense, since he was the musical godfather of the Spaghetti Western genre, but some of the other tunes were just too much. And when Tarantino finally brought in some contemporary hip hop, it was just too much pastiche for me.

And so I conclude by saying that, in spite its flaws, and much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and think it is not only one of the best films of the year, but also one of the most important. Killing white guys for money? What’s not to like?

Best Wishes to All in This Holiday Season!

Merry Lizzymas

May this holiday season bring you great joy!

May all of your experiences, with friends, families, pets, and even enemies, be peaceful and happy.

May you finish the year 2012 doing exactly what you wish to be doing, and may you begin the new year filled with renewed energy and hope.

Let all days be merry, regardless of holiday, and may all companions in your life be as loyal and loving as my own “little heartbeat at my feet.”*

Merry Lizzymas!

*A phrase attributed to Edith Wharton, describing her own (many) dogs.

“Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec”

Last night, I watched Zero Dark Thirty, and while I will wait on my review of that film, I just want to comment on a few of the previews I saw before it began:

  • I saw previews for two (not one, but two!) films starring Dwayne Johnson: Pain & Gain (second time I had seen it) and Snitch. The first one looks great, actually (thanks to “The Rock” and Mark Wahlberg, and in spite of being directed by Michael Bay), while the second looks like an overly self-serious mess. I like “The Rock,” as he has oodles of charisma. I hope the first film lives up to the trailer.
  • The new Jackie Robinson film, 42, has a great preview, and I can’t wait to see it.
  • I saw, also for the second time, the preview for yet another Tom Cruise movie in which he plays a man named Jack, Oblivion, and while the premise seems interesting, the trailer is dreadful (as is the CGI).
  • Again for the second time, I saw the preview for Broken City – doubling is everywhere, as this one stars Mark Wahlberg, as well! – and I definitely want to see it.
  • Finally, the next M. Night Shyamlan mess is on the horizon – After Earth – and right after seeing the Oblivion trailer, and with all of the doubling up of stars in movies, it was all I could do to keep from yelling at the screen, “What is it with these post-apocalyptic films?” I also think it’s weird how Will Smith keeps on pushing his son as a movie star. I guess if it works . . . Will Smith is an appealing screen presence, so maybe his son will eventually become one, as well.

So here’s a review for a film that most of you have probably never even heard of. You’ve probably also never heard of the source material. I saw it a few weeks ago and have been waiting to post it for a moment when I had nothing else to review.

Adèle Blanc-Sec

Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec (Luc Besson, 2010)

I am half-French, and was raised bi-culturally and bi-lingually. As a teenager, I loved the Adèle Blanc-Sec comic series, by Jacques Tardi. They were very “adult” (nudity! sex! violence!) yet appealing because of their quirky creativity, which blended historicity and science fiction. The graphic quality of the actual comic was extremely appealing, as well. In general, growing up as a kid who spent a lot of time in France exposed me to the great European comics, such as TintinAstérixLucky Luke, and the darkly brooding (and sexy and violent) works of Enki BilalAdèle Blanc-Sec bridged the gap between the child-friendly universe of Tintin, Astérix and Lucky Luke and the adults-only world of Bilal.

So I was interested in giving Luc Besson’s 2010 adaptation of the comics a look. And . . . I really liked the first half of this movie adaptation, but then hated the second half. Ah, Luc Besson, quel gachis de talent!

Adèle Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin – attractive, energetic, often just right, but limited in her overall appeal) is an early 20th-Century Parisian adventuress and journalist whom we first meet on an Indiana Jones-like expedition to Egypt, where she outwits a horde of bad guys (the lead one played by the great Mathieu Amalric). She successfully steals a mummy, whom she brings back to Paris to save her almost-dead sister. It turns out she is friends with a mystic French scientist who can raise and control long-dead creatures. At the beginning of the film, this scientist causes a pterodactyl egg in a natural history museum to produce a long-dormant baby pterodactyl. Blanc-Sec hopes that this scientist will bring the mummy back to life, so that the mummy (an ancient Egyptian doctor) can cure her sister.

Confused? You should be! But in the comics, this all works. Here, it works, as well (in spite of the unfortunate first world/third world dynamics of the opening), until Blanc-Sec and her scientist revive the mummy. After which the film becomes an exercise in stupidity and bad CGI. It becomes just like every other Luc Besson since The Professional, in other words.  Besson is not without talent: his first feature, Le dernier combat, is a highly engaging black & white sci-fi post-apocalyptic parable. But slowly, over the years, he has gone the way of a George Lucas, seeming to enjoy technology for its own sake, rather than figuring out how to have it help the story. C’est un petit garçon qui veut see jous jous!

So if you ever have a chance to check out the movie, stop halfway!

This Is Jack Reacher at 40, on Hudson: 3 Reviews That Really Don’t Belong Together . . .

. . . except that all three of those films open in the Baltimore-area market today, and I’ve been sitting on my thoughts about one of them for a few weeks. I saw Hyde Park on Hudson at Cinema Sundays on December 8 – 13 days ago! – typed up my notes afterwards, and will now try and make sense of that film at the end of this blog entry (I did not like it that much). I saw This Is 40 at a press screening this past Monday (and enjoyed it immensely), and just saw Jack Reacher (ridiculous!) at another press screening on Wednesday. I feel like I’m getting to know the Cinemark Egyptian really well (which is where I also saw The Hobbit, on December 10), since that’s where many of these press screenings are held.

And so it begins:

This Is 40

This Is 40 (Judd Apatow, 2012)

Judd Apatow’s 4th feature film – as director – is, overall, very funny and satisfying. A.O. Scott, among many others, has written about how the film might turn some people off because of the relative affluence of its main characters, whose “rich people” problems are sure to be the envy of some viewers. And yet, like Scott (and me), many may find Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, and Maude and Iris Apatow – not to mention Megan Fox, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Melissa McCarthy, Jason Segel, Charlyne Yi, Chris O’Dowd and Lena Dunham – appealing enough to make the film work, in spite of its middle-aged bloat (it’s at least 30 minutes too long).

The film’s plot, such as it is, centers around a week in the lives of married couple Pete and Debbie (Rudd and Mann), bookended by their respective birthdays, in which they experience the lows and highs of many longterm relationships. They must manage their kids (one teen and one pre-teen), relationship issues, parent issues, business issues, and lots of money problems. Along the way, they sort of find time to re-affirm their love for each other. They mainly find time to make us laugh.

You may remember Pete and Debbie from Knocked Up: it was Debbie sister, Alison, played by Katherine Heigl, who got pregnant. In that film, we saw some intimations of (mild) problems in the marriage on the horizon, especially when Pete was found out to have been lying about business meetings so he could get some alone time in a movie theatre, or run off to play fantasy football with his buddies. But just as in the earlier film, whatever trouble here exists between Pete and Debbie gets worked out by the end, and there is great humor (and some pathos) in the writing that helps make the journey worthwhile.

I enjoyed the easy interplay between Rudd and Mann. In fact, Mann, whom I have not seen that often (and who is Apatow’s wife) is delightful. Even when her character is whiny, she has a light that shines from within and makes her a joy to behold. Rudd has always had a likable screen presence, and here he is as charming as he has ever been. Since Apatow makes both of them sometimes behave like jerks (to each other, to a kid, and especially to that kid’s mother, played by Melissa McCarthy), it helps that the actors are naturally pleasant. Apatow’s and Mann’s real-life daughters play Pete and Debbie’s children in the film, and they hold up their end quite nicely, as well. My two favorite performances, by far, though, were those of Albert Brooks (who plays Pete’s mooch of a father) and Megan Fox, who is cast perfectly as the (extremely) hot employee in Pete and Debbie’s clothing boutique. It’s nice to watch a film with such great depth in the supporting cast.

On a less positive note, I will say this, though. It often felt as if there were no arc to the performances from scene to scene, only within each scene, itself.  At those times, the film felt more like a (very funny) sketch comedy then a fully realized story. Perhaps if Apatow were less successful and powerful and/or had a trusted editor who could talk back to him, some of the 30 minutes of fat could have been cut out, and this might have helped focus the story, and the performances of the actors.

The one performer whom I did not enjoy in the film was Melissa McCarthy. Which is too bad, since I am a fan. I’ve been watching (and loving) her since “Gilmore Girls.” Unfortunately, the success of Bridesmaids – in which she played a loud-mouthed swearing partier, and was nominated for an Oscar for it – has probably ruined her forever (for me). While I seemed to be in the minority in the theatre, I found her overlong scenes in this film a bore. They are a plot  detour that the director seems to find very funny, but which I didn’t. Apatow even gives us an extended version of her scenes over the end credits, in which she gets to swear some more. Yippee! I tuned out after a while, but once her character was gone, the film regained its vigor.

If you’re looking for a fun time this weekend, and especially if you’re over 40 and/or have kids, I can heartily recommend this movie, flaws and all.

Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie, 2012)

Jack Reacher is actually 50. Well, the actor who plays him is, though you wouldn’t necessarily guess it by looking at him. Success has been kind to Tom Cruise’s face and body. There’s some slight fleshiness around the nose (inevitable – he is 50, after all), and some slight crow’s feet around the eyes. Otherwise, Cruise looks like he’s in better shape than Paul Rudd in This is 40. Especially with his shirt off, as Rosamund Pike, who plays opposite him, indicates with a forced quiver. “He’s hot,” her performance tells us. Or rather, “The director wanted me to make it look like he’s hot, so I’ll shake my head and do my best, but don’t blame me if you think I’m doing a terrible job here.”

Tom Cruise, in spite of his off-screen weirdness, has always been an actor whose on-screen presence I have enjoyed. And he’s a good-looking guy. But there is something very off-putting about the way his character is introduced through the longing glances of a variety of women, young and old, with whom he interacts. Right from the start of the film, you realize that Jack Reacher, a film brought to us by Tom Cruise-the-producer, is a vanity project for Tom Cruise-the-actor.

Before I started having doubts, though, my first thoughts, as the opening credits rolled, were more along the lines of, “Wow! Great Cast! Richard Jenkins! Werner Herzog! Robert Duvall!” And then I thought, “Wait, Werner Herzog? The director? I love his movies. But can he act?” My momentary qualms were dispelled when I next saw that Caleb Deschanel was the cinematographer. “OK,” I muttered, “at least it will look good, even if he did shoot Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

After that the film began with a solid, taut opening which, though extremely disturbing post-Sandy Hook killings, is nevertheless pretty strong, in a narrative sense. It sets up the story very well. Still, I gasped, “A sniper movie in these troubled times! I wonder if this will turn the audience off?” I guess we’ll see post-weekend box office . . .

To summarize: this is the story of how a mysterious former military investigator (Jack Reacher), now a drifter (but still a lethal killer), tries to exonerate a former military sniper who has been framed for a mass killing. While this might seem like a plot spoiler, since we see the face of the man who actually does the initial killing, and then subsequently see the suspect, it becomes clear within the first 10 minutes that he has been framed. In the course of his investigation, Jack Reacher beats up lots of very bad men, kills just as many, and almost beds the main female character, played without a trace of wit or grace by the aforementioned Rosamund Pike. I had liked Pike in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, so I was disappointed to see how bad she can be without good direction. Whether it’s her fault or the fault of the writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, she is almost unwatchable here, particularly when she widens her eyes to indicate fear, or twitches her lips to indicate nervousness.

She’s not alone, however, since my hero Werner Herzog is also terrible. I’m not sure why he would agree to do this (the money), but in addition to his over-the-top hammy delivery of ridiculous dialogue, he has the misfortune to be playing a Russian, yet to sound like a German. I hate it when American directors do this! Not all foreign accents are alike. A German sounds like a German! A Frenchman sounds like a Frenchman! A Russian sounds like a Russian! This was one of the things that killed me in the otherwise terrific Eastern Promises, by David Cronenberg (a Canadian): you had a German (Armin Mueller-Stahl) playing the head of a Russian crime family, with a French actor (Vincent Cassel) playing his son. Help!

At times, though, the movie almost makes up for its status as a Tom Cruise vanity vehicle filled with mediocre actors by not taking itself too seriously. There are some funny self-mocking moments. Some. But then Rosamund Pike comes back on and those moments are ruined. The audience with which I saw the movie was having a great time . . . laughing at the film, not with it. It can be weird to hear laughter in a film as violent as this one (though I assume I will, as well, in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained), yet I heartily joined in.

So much of the dialogue is painful. I think my favorite bit is when Sandy, a young girl with a sad destiny, asks Cruise, “Who are you, Mister?” When I heard this, I froze time, ran back home, watched my entire DVD collection, and found that the last time people spoke like that was in films of the 1950s. I then went back to the theater, unfroze time, and watched on, incredulous. “Mister?” Seriously?

And yet, in spite of it all, the experience wasn’t as dreadful as it might have been. Those moments of self-mockery, plus some terrific car chases, actually made the evening not a total loss. In addition, even if you’re laughing at something, you’re still laughing.

Hyde Park on Hudson

Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger Michell, 2012)

This film opened with a series of beautiful focus racks through trees and leaves, revealing gently lit houses, frolicking Scottish Terriers, and a somewhat frumpy middle-aged woman played by Laura Linney. OK, I’m game. I like focus racks. Up to a point. But then they want on a bit too long, and I quickly began to wonder if the movie, itself, would lack focus. Or maybe that’s just now, in retrospect, that I draw that conclusion. Whatever the case, this overuse of shallow focus does stand as a metaphor for the failings of a film filled with some fine performances, nice costumes, and occasionally fine writing, yet completely lacking in clarity of purpose. It’s mushy.

Hyde Park on Hudson, directed by a man who made one of my favorite Jane Austen adaptations, the 1995 Persuasion (as well as other films I like less, such as Notting Hill and Venus), is an exercise in what feels like unintentional frustration. It starts out telling one story – that of the romantic affair that a distant cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Daisy (Linney), conducted with the President – veers off into another, more interesting one – the first ever state visit of a King and Queen of England to America – and then plunges into a twisted melodrama where we uncover even more secrets about FDR’s sexual peccadilloes. Any of the stories, alone, if treated with the proper respect (and focus), could have made for an engaging movie. The last plot thread, especially, though, really deserved more time and attention. If you want to make a movie about how FDR was a cad, make that movie by all means, but don’t throw it in as an afterthought.

I enjoyed Linney as Daisy, but then again, ever since You Can Count on Me, I have been a fan. I enjoyed much of the rest of the cast, including Samuel West and Olivia Colman as the King and Queen, Elizabeth Marvel as Missy, and Olivia Williams as Eleanor. I did not, however, find Bill Murray satisfying as our 32nd President. Perhaps because it was Bill Murray. He has demonstrated impressive range over the years while nevertheless playing various variants on the comedic persona he created in the 1970s, but he is not really an actor in the mold of a Daniel Day-Lewis, able to disappear inside a role. His personality – or our long familiarity with it – gets in the way. His scenes are quietly appealing – it is BIll Murray, after all, who is likable enough – yet not riveting. His FDR lacks the energy and drive that probably made all of these various sexual liaisons possible.

One aspect of the film that I did find very interesting, in light of how things have changed since then, is the respect that the press shows the President. There is an agreement between them and his staff to never take photographs of FDR in a way that highlights his polio. There is also a reticence to dig into the sordid details of his love life. For better or for worse, it was a time – according to this film – where we respected the office enough to allow the man who held it some privacy. A closer look at that subject would have made for a far more compelling movie.

3x3x3: “A Royal Affair,” Where “Hope Springs,” but More “ParaNorman” Would Break the Norm

Today, 3 reviews of 3 films I have seen in the past 3 days. It makes for an interesting random jumble, and is in line with my attempts to see as many films released this year as possible. None of the films blew me away, so the reviews will be relatively brief. Here goes …

A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel,2012)

This film is Denmark’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar™. It is a well crafted costume drama, set in the late 18th Century, about a seminal figure in Danish history, Dr. Johann Struensee, who was counselor to King Christian VII, councilor of his court, and lover of his wife. For the first hour, it is quite gripping, as it sets up a unique historical political intrigue, unknown to Americans, where a man of no particular noble lineage managed to rise to a position of supreme power in a European nation, passed laws based on the principles of the Enlightenment, then fell from power and was executed. Struensee lives on in the Danish imagination today as a figure ahead of his time, whose ideas eventually came to fruition. In the second half of this 137-minute film, however, in spite of the tragedies that befall the main characters, the pacing drags, probably because we can see how it will all end (in a Chronicle of a Death Foretold kind of way), and because the filmmaker does nothing fresh with the material, other than to shoot it beautifully.

Indeed, the cinematography is one of the two main reasons to see this. Rasmus Videbæk, the Director of Photography, whose name I did not know before this, does an amazing job capturing the locations – both interior and exterior – as well as the actors, showing how the glory days of films shot on film are not yet over. The other reason to watch this movie is the actors. Alicia Vikander, whom we can all see right now as Kitty in Anna Karenina, brings real passion and depth to the part of the Queen. I did not particularly care for Anna Karenina, though I admired its ambitions, and as I thought more about that film, I revised my initially positive view of Keira Knightley’s performance in the title role. In A Royal Affair, Vikander delivers the performance that I wish Knightley had given in Anna Karenina. I believed her in the part: she fit the time period, and her ill-fated feelings came out of a fully realized characterization. I also fully believed Mads Mikkelsen (Casino RoyaleFlame and Citron) as Dr. Struensee. The interactions between the two of them (without the unnecessary quasi-softcore porn scenes of Anna Karenina) brought me completely into the story, even as I began to lose interest in the plot. Mikkelsen has a face that reminds me a bit of the Japanese actor  “Beat” Takeshi Kitano – almost stroke-like in its lack of excessively physical expressions – which is perfect for the metaphorical “mask” that Struensee must wear.

If you like historical period films, chances are you will like this one, and you might even disagree with me that it drags at the end.

Hope Springs

Hope Springs (David Frankel, 2012)

Phew! This is not a good movie. Whether it’s the background music (by Theodore Shapiro, a very nice man whom I once met as a grad student at NYU, but whose work here is cloying), the nauseatingly loud foregrounded pop songs that are also on the soundtrack, or the eunuch-like performance by Steve Carell, there’s a lot to not recommend here, including the fact that it has the same generic (and uninspiring) title of a film released just nine years earlier.

And yet, by the time it was over, I had actually been moved. It’s kind of like when you eat lots of food that you know is bad for you – and hate it while you’re eating it – yet somehow achieve a certain satisfaction after eating it. Or like when you listen to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe over and over again, or watch all of the riffs on her original music video: you know you could spend your time doing something more meaningful, yet you watch the videos, anyway, transfixed.

This is what I call a “soft” comedy (i.e., the jokes aren’t that funny). The story is about a long-married couple, played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, who when the movie begins have just celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary. They have grown kids (two or three – hard to tell since they’re not really developed), and are stuck in a routine that includes separate bedrooms, no sex, and absolutely zero intimacy. Finally, one day, Streep’s character decides she has had enough, and she buys tickets to a week-long couples therapy session with a psychiatrist played by Steve Carell. Things start out badly, but by the end of the film … well, you can guess. It is called “Hope Springs,” after all.

I don’t have much to say beyond that. Steve Carell’s delivery is too Michael Scott-like. I don’t buy him as any kind of “Dr.” here. And why does his hair look like he’s wearing a toupee? Meryl Streep is funny, though, and Tommy Lee Jones is funny enough. I love the moment when Streep looks at an “Open Marriage” book in a bookstore. Great expression on her face!

In addition, as shown in the film, the therapy sessions with Carell are too short to be meaningful. We’re there for all of two or three minutes, he spouts platitudes, and then gives them an “assignment.” To top it all off, his smile is maddening. I would react as Tommy Lee Jones does, or even punch him! It’s like he’s been neutered. Plus, the role, as written, could have been played by anyone. Why not use someone with less baggage than Carell?

Surprisingly, however, the film did succeed in making me nostalgic for what I have never had, which is a long marriage. The final handheld camcorder footage on the beach, at the end of the film when Streep and Jones renew their vows (spoiler alert … not!), was the best part of the movie. It actually made me wish I had had a long relationship to look back on, 30 years later … sniff. Of course, I would have had to have gotten married at 13, but still …

So if you are part of a long-together couple, you may actually love this movie, in spite of its many flaws.

Paranorman

Paranorman (Chris Butler & Sam Fell, 2012)

For the first hour, this was a terrifically original coming-of-age story about a misfit kid (who talks to dead people) who must learn to accept himself so that others may accept him. This is familiar territory, yet the details are wildly inventive. The animation – a combination of traditional stop-motion techniques and computer graphics – was gorgeous, and wholly immersed me in the story. I loved the opening ghoulish film-on-TV that Norman is watching, its use of the classic Vertigo shot and the subsequent repetition of that shot later in the film. What I didn’t like about the film, however, was the preachy we-must-all-love-one-another last half hour, which drastically reduced my enjoyment of the story. I felt as if the filmmakers could have reached their conclusion in a manner that was truer to the off-beat tone of the beginning. I wanted less typical Hollywood “norm,” and more “para” – or beyond – the norm.

And that’s it, folks. Thanks for reading!

“The Invisible War” + My Meditations on Violence in America

Invisible War

The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, 2012)

Yesterday, December 14, 2012, in Newtown, CT, a deranged gunman took the lives of 20 children and 7 adults (including his own mother) before then killing himself.  This act of atrocity in a place that many still believed was a relatively safe haven – an elementary school – has made most of us profoundly sad, and has renewed calls from some quarters for stricter gun laws. There are those, however, who have reacted to the tragedy by pushing back against such moves, claiming that if only the teachers had been armed, this would not have happened. Some have also suggested that it’s the lack of prayer in public schools that is to blame. I hope that, this time, our nation will engage in a substantive dialogue about why we think that gun ownership – from handguns to assault weapons – is an inalienable right, and why, increasingly, we think the solution to violence is to arm more and more people, even in schools. There is plenty of evidence, from my lifetime, that this will not happen. Witness the travails of activists who have tried, and failed, to change the tenor of the debate, from Representative Carolyn McCarthy of Long Island – the death of whose husband by gun violence motivated her to run for public office – to the parents of slaughtered children.

And so begins my review of director Kirby Dick’s latest documentary, The Invisible War. I had previously only seen one of his films, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which took on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its opaque process of determining movie ratings. The film was interesting, but also clunky. Kirby Dick is a man of strong principles and good investigative instincts, but he lacks some of the filmmaking finesse of other contemporary documentarians, such as Eugene Jarecki, Alex Gibney, Lucy Walker and Steve James. So when I saw that his latest film was on the Best Documentary Oscar Shortlist, and that it was available to watch instantly through Netflix, I put it in my queue and prepared to watch it, but with reservations.

And watch it I did. And it was, indeed, a bit clunky at times. Mr. Dick just cannot handle scene transitions that well. But that said, who cares? He has a knack for getting people to trust him and open up to him, which counts for more than anything else in a documentary like this, so I forgive him his faults. The subjects he interviews will break your hearts. This film is an absolute must-see profile on the horrific truth about rape and its administrative hell of an aftermath in the United States Armed Services. Watch it, please. But be forewarned. It will make you cry, and it will make you very angry.

The Invisible War deals not only with the violence perpetrated against women (and some men) through acts of sexual violation, but with the indifferent and wholly inadequate response of the military bureaucracy to the problem. The victims thereby suffer doubly. First they are raped physically (and in some cases, beaten), and then they are  raped emotionally as their motives and victimization are called into question. They are often blamed, and even when they are not, they are expected to just “get over it” and move on, while the perpetrators of the violence receive minor penalties or no penalties at all, and even move up in the hierarchy. The film highlights the antiquated administrative practice whereby all rapes must be reported to the commanding officer of a unit, who then has sole discretion on how to proceed. There are committees within the military to which victims may appeal, but these committees often defer to the commanding officer of the unit. Some times the perpetrators are these very same commanding officers . . .

Dick and his crew tell their story through a series of profiles of former female (and one male) members of the military who have been raped and are still dealing with the physical and emotional scars. It follows them as they finally band together to take collective legal action and sue the military. These people are incredibly brave, and you will weep as you hear their stories and yell as you see high-ranking brass in the Armed Services claim that there really isn’t a problem with rape in their ranks.

Which brings us back to the response to yesterday’s school shooting. When tragic things happen, the correct response, once the initial period of grieving is over, should be to step back and see how we can create situations where violence doesn’t fester, and where acts of violence have serious consequences for both perpetrators and enablers. Enough with the victim blaming!

The good news for this film is that, since it is short-listed for Best Documentary, hopefully more people will see it and then push for action on this issue. Here is a great website set up to help you “take action” to combat rape in the military.