Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best and Worst Films of 2013

Best of 2013 Collage

A brief word of explanation about the title of this post. When I was a Russian and French teacher, and director of the Russian Exchange Program, at Choate Rosemary Hall, from 1993-1996, I started running a weekend film series, to which I playfully gave the name “Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood.” All of the teachers went by Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, etc., and I thought it would be cute to reference one of my favorite TV shows growing up, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I also hoped that the films I screened might provoke some kind of significant discussion about art, life, and other weighty topics (hey, I was in my 20s . . .), hence the “metaphysical” part of the title. And, actually, we did have – as I remember them – some pretty decent conversations after the screenings. Looking over my files from the time, I see that the films included, in no particular order: Taxi BluesTime of the GypsiesEuropa, EuropaThe Double Life of VéroniqueToto le hérosWomen on the Verge of a Nervous BreakdownNight on EarthDivaDelicatessenTokyo Story; and even On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (one of my favorite Bonds). It was an interesting variety of movies, as you can see, and I hope that at least some of them helped to create an awareness of film art in my then-young charges (who are all now well into their 30s . . .). So, in honor of my youthful film-programming passion, I have kept the name “Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood” all these years for my (ever-growing) list of favorite films, and I apply it here to my “best of” (and “worst of”) list for 2013. 

If a film that you consider great is not on my list, it may be that I have not seen it yet, although that really only applies to the Academy’s Foreign Film and Documentary categories, as I have seen virtually all of the major contenders in the other categories (which doesn’t mean that I consider them “best of” material). In any case, I have not considered country of origin or genre in choosing my top 10 (and 10 runners-up), but merely the quality of the film (as I see it). Some of the choices will not surprise you, but some might, as will some of my omissions. In my “Pleasant Surprises” section, I have listed films that, while not necessarily “best of” material, were ones that I liked a lot, and which caught me off-guard, since I was expecting very little when I sat down to watch them. In my “Biggest Disappoinment” section, the 5 films listed are ones for which I had high hopes, perhaps because of their trailer, or because of previous work by that director, or perhaps because I was just stupid. I do not list “Best Director” or “Best Screenplay,” because I feel that if I think is a film is well made, then the credit goes to the director and the writer(s). I have never understood how one could separate those categories. One last thing – if I have reviewed the film, then the title’s hyperlink will take you to my review. If I haven’t, then the hyperlink will take you to another critic’s review that I liked. Enjoy my list, and feel free to leave comments after you look it over! Read all the way to the bottom, as I have included my choices for actresses and actors, as well.

For all lists, the order is not random, but the differences between #1 and #10 may not be that significant (to me).

Best Films – Top 10:

  1. Twelve Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
  2. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
  3. Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
  4. Twenty Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville)
  5. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)
  6. Her (Spike Jonze) – I’ll post my review on Jan. 10, when it opens in Baltimore
  7. American Hustle (David O. Russell)
  8. Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener)
  9. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
  10. Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas)

Runners-Up:

  1. Nebraska (Alexander Payne)
  2. Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta)
  3. All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor)
  4. Philomena (Stephen Frears)
  5. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Justin Chadwick)
  6. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
  7. Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée)
  8. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey (Ramona Diaz)
  9. The Armstrong Lie (Alex Gibney)
  10. Fill the Void (Rama Burshtein)

Pleasant Surprises (couldn’t help myself – there are 11 here):

  1. The Broken Circle Breakdown (Felix Van Groeningen)
  2. World War Z (Marc Forster)
  3. Mud (Jeff Nichols)
  4. Rush (Ron Howard)
  5. Stoker (Chan-wook Park)
  6. Frozen (Chris Buck/Jennifer Lee)
  7. Monsters University (Dan Scanlon)
  8. Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine)
  9. 42 (Brian Helgeland)
  10. Shadow Dancer (James Marsh)
  11. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence)

Biggest Disappointments:

  1. Elysium (Neill Blomkamp)
  2. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
  3. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)
  4. Man of Steel (Zack Snyder)
  5. Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve)

Worst Movies of the Year (again, couldn’t help myself – there are 11 – I just had to show my contempt for Marty’s latest):

  1. Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow)
  2. Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro)
  3. After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan)
  4. Carrie (Kimberly Peirce)
  5. The Counselor (Ridley Scott)
  6. A Good Day to Die Hard (John Moore)
  7. Runner, Runner (Brad Furman)
  8. About Time (Richard Curtis)
  9. Broken City (Allen Hughes)
  10. The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)
  11. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Best Actress (again, there are 11):

  1. Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) – She should be in this category – I don’t care what the Weinsteins have decided! And I’ll post my review on Jan. 10, when it opens in Baltimore.
  2. Veerie Baetens (The Broken Circle Breakdown)
  3. Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color)
  4. Amy Adams (American Hustle)
  5. Barbara Sukowa (Hannah Arendt)
  6. Andrea Riseborough (Shadow Dancer)
  7. Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)
  8. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said)
  9. Hadas Yaron (Fill the Void)
  10. Mia Wasikowska (Stoker)
  11. Judi Dench (Philomena)

Best Supporting Actress:

  1. Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
  2. June Squibb (Nebraska)
  3. Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County)
  4. Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color)
  5. Naomie Harris (Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom)
  6. Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station)
  7. Evangeline Lilly (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
  8. Margo Martindale (August: Osage County)
  9. Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler)
  10. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

Best Actor:

  1. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Twelve Years a Slave)
  2. Robert Redford (All Is Lost)
  3. Christian Bale (American Hustle)
  4. Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)
  5. Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
  6. Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station)
  7. Joaquin Phoenix (Her)
  8. Daniel Radcliffe (Kill Your Darlings)
  9. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)
  10. Chadwick Boseman (42)

Best Supporting Actor:

  1. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
  2. Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
  3. Matthew McConaughey (Mud)
  4. Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back)
  5. James Franco (Spring Breakers)
  6. Bobby Canavale (Blue Jasmine)
  7. Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
  8. James Gandolfini (Enough Said)
  9. Harrison Ford (42)
  10. Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)

“American Hustle” Plays the Long Con and Wins

American Hustle

David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Three KingsI Heart Huckabees, The FighterSilver Linings Playbook) is not one of America’s most prolific directors – 5 years passed between Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, and another 6 passed between Huckabees and The Fighter – but he is definitely one of our most interesting and versatile contemporary filmmakers and, fortunately for us, he seems to be picking up the pace of his output. I was not as much a fan of Silver Linings Playbook as some, but I enjoyed a lot of it and was grateful – as always – for the uniqueness of his voice. Now – just one year later – he comes at us with an edgy, vibrant 1970s period crime thriller, American Hustle, filled with great performances and terrific filmmaking flourishes, which some film critics have already labeled as the best film of the year. I wouldn’t go quite that far in my own estimation of it, but it’s great fun and probably one of the most entertaining smart films of 2013.

American Hustle takes place in 1978, in New Jersey, and the director and production designer have a lot of fun, as you would expect, with clothing and hairstyles. This specificity of time and place, along with just the whiff of truth allowed by the opening title card – “some of this actually happened” – lends the film a colorful hallucinatory quality, as if half-remembered events had resurfaced in a dream one night after too much good food and wine. Does Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, remarkable) really wear his hair in such an outrageous combover? Does Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, in a rich and moving performance) really wear dresses open down to her navel? Does Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, marvelously high-strung) really put his hair in tight curlers every night for just the right permed look? Is the pompadour sported by Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, working hard, but miscast) really such a good thing for a politician? The decade of the ’70s certainly saw its share of over-the-top styles, but this film is designed more for satire than for verisimilitude – emphasis on “some of this actually happened” – letting us know right away that we’re in for a good time. What’s real and what’s not is part of the game. We’re dealing with con artists, after all.

That’s not to say that there aren’t genuine emotions at play. At the center of the story is a bona fide love story between Rosenfeld and Prosser. Rosenfeld, about 40 pounds too heavy (Bale actually gained that much weight for the part), nevertheless has something confident and sexy in him that charms former-stripper Prosser, and his plan to defraud local businessmen with the promise of future bank loans offers her the chance to play the part of an English woman with bank connections. Together, they dream of escaping their working-class roots and achieving the ultimate con of self-reinvention (even if Prosser’s accent is terrible).

When the film opens, Rosenfeld and Prosser are in the middle of a sting operation being run on local politicians by DiMaso, an FBI agent who had earlier arrested them (which we see, later, in flashback). Their sentence involves helping him wipe out corruption in New Jersey, an impossible task, and one that, as it turns out, is well beyond DiMaso’s limited capacities. At this point in the film, they’re estranged, and Prosser seems to be now leaning towards DiMaso, but we’re never quite sure where her true feelings lie, nor what she really wants, until the end. Which is part of what makes this film so much fun: we’re always guessing, and never sure about the plot twists to come.

The bulk of the story is, in fact, loosely based on the real Abscam sting run by the FBI in the late 1970s. Here, Rosenfeld and DiMaso cook up a plan to entrap state representatives, one senator, and Mayor Carmen Polito of Camden, using a fake Arab sheik (the “Abdul” of “Abscam” – no one said this was a politically correct operation) and a briefcase full of money. Why DiMaso is so obsessed with taking down corruption has more to do with the fact that he wants to make a name for himself (he still lives with his mother) – his own self-reinvention – than because that corruption is causing any real harm (at least as presented in the film). In the end, he’s no more honorable than the people he’s trying to take down.

The real revelation in the film is Amy Adams, an actress I have always admired, but who here dives deep into the heart of Prosser and shows us the strength, intelligence and desires of a real woman, even in those crazy outfits she wears. She manages to be formidable and vulnerable at the same time. When she finds herself in the same room as Rosenfeld’s ditzy and depressive wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, very good), there’s no question who is the better soulmate for the man. The film belongs to her, which is saying a lot, given how good most of her co-stars are.

My main beef with the film is that it loses energy in the final third, and would be better if it were 30 minutes shorter. Also, the way the plot is wrapped up at the end is just a little too pat. But it’s still a very good film, and so elaborately plotted that you’ll have a great time trying to stay ahead of the con.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” Howls and Drools, but Has No Bite

Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

When I emerged from the preview screening of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, after being bombarded for nearly three hours with graphic images of sex, drugs, and money laundering, I felt like I had just seen an excessive film about excess, which just might have been great had it been cut down to well below the two-hour mark. I thought, “Sure, Marty’s being self-indulgent, but he still knows how to shoot a movie.” In the days since, however, as I have occasionally flashed back to various scenes of writhing bodies and white-powdered nostrils, my opinion has soured. I now believe that The Wolf of Wall Street is not just a mess (and a misogynist one at that), but one of the most offensively bad films of the year. I’ll bet it does great box office. Film critic David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, agrees: “I didn’t much care for [the film], but every time I describe it to someone he says, ‘I want to see that!’ Many people are going to be made happy by the wild, hyper-vulgar exuberance, the endless cruddy behavior (swindling, drugs, whoring, orgies, dwarf-tossing, more swindling), and the fully staged excess of every kind.'”

The movie is based on the supposedly true-life tale of one Jordan Belfort, who made it big with a bogus investment firm, did copious amounts of drugs and screwed a gazillion women, and then got caught and did time. Or wait . . . is that a gazillion drugs and copious amounts of women? I can’t keep it straight, and since the women are treated like commodities for sale and consumption – just like the drugs – you’ll have to forgive me if I’m confused. And since Belfort treats his clients as suppliers – of cash – it all gets muddled into one big blur of intoxication, which is, I suppose, the point that Scorsese is trying to make. Greed is bad, and lust for one kind of illicit gain goes hand in hand with gluttony of all kinds. I. Get. It. Do we really need a three-hour movie to drive this point home again and again and again? Well, if you want to have your coke and snort it, too – get a contact high, cheat vicariously on your spouse, and watch someone else spend lots of money – then your answer may be yes.

Personally, I can’t stop the feeling that Scorsese just got off so much on the fun of it all – nubile female bodies, included – that he forgot to make an actual movie. It’s a bit like an undercover narcotics agent who starts taking drugs to blend in with his marks, only to find that he’s hooked. All of the scenes of drug ingestion and orgies are staged with such energy and visual flair that it’s not clear what Scorsese is doing. Does he want us to celebrate Belfort? Condemn him? Both? If only I could find a point of view in the film, it would help me understand why I needed to see the female characters consistently degraded and debauched. Instead, it just feels like a 71-year-old man’s idea of a good time. Bring on the hookers!

Which is too bad, because there are moments of genuinely good filmmaking and acting in the middle of it all. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Belfort, is quite good, and commits fully to the part, managing to sometimes rise above the material. Jonah Hill, as Belfort’s friend Donnie Azoff (a fictional composite of a few real people) is a solid supporting player, as is Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife Naomi. The best performance in the film, however, belongs to Matthew McConaughey, who appears, sadly, only in the beginning as Mark Hanna, an established trader who takes the young Belfort under his wing to teach him how to be a successful trader (how? do coke and masturbate frequently). There is great restraint in that early scene, which vanishes as soon as Belfort strikes out on his own. As for the rest of the cast, Rob Reiner, as Belfort’s father, is wasted, as is Jean Dujardin as a Swiss banker.

I have enjoyed many films that use excess of violence, sex, drugs, and/or venality in their scripts and visual aesthetics to brilliantly illuminate their stories, such as Django UnchainedBetty BlueRequiem for a Dream, and Margin Call, to name just a few. The most recent example – and a far, far better film than The Wolf of Wall Street – is Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. In that film – one of the best of the year -Korine traffics in the same drug- and sex-infused material as does Scorsese, and travels through the same gray moral area that Scorsese thinks he is exploring, yet – unlike Scorsese – emerges cinematically triumphant. Instead of going to see The Wolf of Wall Street, then, just rent or buy Spring Breakers. You’ll still get to see lots of naked ladies doing coke, if that’s your thing, but that film has an actual point to make.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” Liberates the Man from the Myth

Mandela - Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Justin Chadwick, 2013)

In spite of some of the usual pitfalls of biographical films (or, as they’re commonly known, “biopics“) – which include conflation of events and characters, as well as oversimplification of historical causes and effects – Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a perfectly pitched and well-crafted film about Nelson Mandela, the late South African freedom fighter and leader. Idris Elba (“The Wire,” “Luther“) delivers a standout performance as Mandela, as does Naomie Harris (28 Days LaterSkyfall) as Mandela’s second wife, Winnie. The cinematography, by Lol Crawley (Hyde Park on Hudson), lends the picture an elegiac hue when appropriate, as well as the edgy rough look it needs when the film turns bloody. The only truly off-key notes, for me, were the U2 song that played over the end credits, which was as ordinary as the great man was extra-ordinary, and the old-age make-up applied to Elba, which sometimes looks like, well, make-up.

But what makes the film especially worth seeing is that it presents Nelson Mandela as a flesh-and-blood human being, capable of both good and bad, and liberates him from the Yoda-like mask that the world had projected on to him after he emerged from prison over 20 years ago. Mandela was, first and foremost, a fighter, willing to die for the cause he believed in. He was not a god. He was a man. A great man, but still a man, and this film reveals him in all of his imperfect human glory.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom moves very quickly (sometimes almost too much so). We meet Mandela – or, as his close friends and family call him, Madiba – as a boy after an initial opening dream sequence, but before we’ve had a chance to become familiar with the actor who plays him we jump ahead to Johannesburg in 1942, where the 24-year-old Mandela – now incarnated, as he will be in the rest of the film, by Elba – is practicing law. It’s easy to see, as Elba portrays him, how people would be drawn to Mandela: he is intelligent, charismatic, handsome, and possessed of great personal authority. He’s also a bit of a Lothario, seducing women easily, and then cheating on them with other women. Life is as good as it’s going to get for an African in South Africa. The white minority may be in power, and racial discrimination may be omnipresent, but a smart lawyer like Mandela can take pride in his work and live with some semblance of dignity.

But then, in 1948, everything changes when the Afrikaner National Party wins the general election and establishes a system of codified racial segregation, which they call apartheid. Almost immediately, Blacks are moved into separate communities and targeted with severe reprisals when they protest. And protest they do, primarily under the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), the Black political party that will soon be banned by the white government. Mandela, recruited by the ANC, becomes increasingly radicalized with each act of apartheid injustice, and is soon leading the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), and participating in acts of terrorism against the government and white minority rule, making a name for himself along the way. After a short prison sentence, Mandela, now divorced from his first wife (who did not share his passion for resistance), meets Winnie, who will become his domestic and political partner for almost 40 years. Although at first she is content to play merely a passive supporting role in the fight against apartheid, events and circumstances will eventually lead her to battle, as well, albeit in a manner different from her husband’s.

After many more anti-government acts that send him into hiding, Mandela is eventually captured and tried, along with other ANC leaders, and sentenced to life in prison in 1963. In prison he will remain until 1990, when then-President of South Africa, F.W. De Klerk, responding to the increasing international isolation of his country, frees Mandela and paves the way for a transition to majority Black rule. Most viewers are probably familiar with what happened after that, and how Mandela was then elected as South Africa’s first Black President in 1994. That election is, in fact, where the film ends; it does not concern itself with the details of Mandela’s rule, other than to show how hard he worked to avoid bloodshed and retaliation against whites, in order to ensure a stable transition to democracy. Given what the film shows of the terrible treatment he and his family endured over the years, this capacity for forgiveness stands out as the remarkable act that it was. This forgiveness is also a major point of contention between Mandela and Winnie, leading to their eventual break-up.

I was a college student in the 1980s, and was made aware of the struggles against apartheid primarily though the campus divestment movements of the time, as well as through Paul Simon’s Graceland album. The first time I saw images of Mandela was when he was released from prison on February 11, 1990 (my 21st birthday), and he was already, in his early 70s, an old man, though still spry. His was a voice of calm and reason at a time when that kind of levelheadedness was most needed, and I just assumed that he had always been a wise and measured soul. It was therefore quite a revelation to learn what kind of a man he was when young – a freedom fighter willing to die for his cause – and to see how he progressed from defender of the status quo to violent radical to elder statesmen to father of modern South Africa. The film benefits from the timeliness of its release, just weeks after Mandela’s death, but it would be a must-see even without that (un)happy coincidence. We need to see that heroes are not necessarily born, but made by circumstance (and their reaction to that circumstance). This film makes that point brilliantly.

Nowhere is the contrast between what was and what might have been better exemplified than in the conflicting evolutions of Nelson and Winnie. They start out as soul mates, equally committed to the cause of Black liberation, but the 27 years that Nelson spends in jail lead him to very different conclusions than they do Winnie (who spends her own substantial amount of time in prison, as well). He chooses diplomacy over war; she chooses war. At the end of the film, we understand both points of view, but are very glad that Nelson’s triumphed. When they separate – personally and politically – it’s a sad moment for Winnie, but a good one for the nation to be. Elba and Harris are magnificent in their respective roles, helping us to see how the years of pain and suffering have transformed the Mandelas, and South Africa. You will empathize and sympathize with them both, and emerge from this film deeply moved, and grateful that a man such as Nelson Mandela existed.

“Saving Mr. Banks” – Too Much Saccharine, Not Enough Sugar

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013)

Are you a fan of Mary Poppins, the 1964 live-action Walt Disney film starring Julie Andrews? It’s certainly a film that the United States Library of Congress now thinks is important enough to warrant preservation, and it’s definitely a film that has entertained many a child over the last 50 years. I know that I have always loved it, as well as its star, Julie Andrews, who filled my childhood with glorious music from that film and The Sound of Music. I’ve also always enjoyed the story of how Andrews, the originator of the role of Eliza Doolittle in the original stage production of My Fair Lady, was passed over for the My Fair Lady movie (in favor of then better-known star Audrey Hepburn), only to win the Oscar for Mary Poppins (Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for My Fair Lady). Don’t get me wrong – I adore Audrey Hepburn – but Andrews should have been cast, instead. Still, if she had been, then we wouldn’t have the joy of hearing her sing “Feed the Birds,” and that would be the greater tragedy.

If you are, indeed, a fan of Mary Poppins, then I suggest you buy the new 50th Anniversary Blu-ray collection, which promises special features galore. You could, of course, go see the new Walt Disney film, Saving Mr. Banks, which purports to be about how Mary Poppins was made, but you’ll probably enjoy re-watching the original film more. It’s not that Saving Mr. Banks is terrible; it’s just not that interesting. With its overly sentimental and superficial psychoanalysis of what made P.L. Travers (the author of the books on which Mary Poppins was based) tick, it adds nothing to our understanding or appreciation of either Travers or Walt Disney, who together form the dueling duo at the center of Saving Mr. Banks. It does, however, offer up a few solid performances and even a few delightful moments of whimsy. There’s just too much saccharine in the spoon that the director, John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), proffers to his audience. If you have a high tolerance for false sentiment, however, then you may gag less than did I.

Saving Mr. Banks tells two stories, one set in 1906, the other in 1964. The former is about the young Helen Goff, who will grow into the adult P.L. Travers, and the latter is about how that adult P.L. Travers is reluctantly wooed by Walt Disney (the man and the company) to sell him the rights to adapt her books for the screen. In 1906, we get a charming young actress as Helen (or “Ginty,” as her father calls her) – newcomer Annie Rose Buckley (quite good) – and in 1964 we get Emma Thompson (no-nonsense, and almost too much so). As the script flashes back and forth between the two times, we are meant to see how the traumatic events of the past have molded the sweet girl into the steely spinster of the present and, even more so, how the relentless charms of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks as, well, Tom Hanks) eventually work enough wonders to free the emotionally distant Mrs. Travers from the shackles of that past. It doesn’t work. Instead, the juxtaposition of a scene where Ginty’s alcoholic father (Colin Farrell, quite good in spite of it all) embarrasses himself with a scene of conflict between Mrs. Travers and the Poppins filmmakers just feels forced. Human beings are too complex to be explained through flashback alone. In addition, as has been well documented, the truth of the matter was more complicated, and the real P.L. Travers apparently never really accepted what was done to her book.

What does work in this film, however, are the scenes with the film’s composers, brothers Robert and Richard Sherman, played by a good-enough B.J. Novak and an excellent (better than I’ve ever seen him, even) Jason Schwartzman, respectively. It’s fitting that they should end up being the true sentimental center of the movie, rather than the flashbacks, since it’s the music that made the original Mary Poppins so charming. Novak and, especially, Schwartzman, show us the real magic of Disney’s best work as they perform the songs-in-progress for the dour Mrs. Travers. They may not win her heart, but they win ours.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” – One Groundhog Day of a Odyssey . . .

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)

The new Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which opens across the country today after a two-week limited run in New York and Los Angeles, takes us on a crazy ride through the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961, just before the arrival and ascent of the young Bob Dylan. The film, as has been widely reported, is loosely based on the life of folk legend Dave Van Ronk, which lends it a gloss of historic verisimilitude. But to spend much time analyzing that aspect of the story is to miss the point of it. As in all of the Coens’ movies, the cinematic space – its time, place, genre – is merely set dressing for the overarching theme of their entire œuvre: the miserable odyssey of talented, but flawed, protagonists doomed to never quite rise to their own potential.

In films as diverse as Raising ArizonaBarton Fink (my personal favorite), FargoThe Big LebowskiO Brother, Where Art Thou?No Country for Old MenTrue GritA Serious Man and many more, the Coens explore, through comedies, quasi-musicals, thrillers or Westerns, the trajectory of the failed hero. Often the results are darkly funny (Fargo); sometimes they are tragic (No Country for Old Men). The beauty of Inside Llewyn Davis is that it is both. Like its hero, it is far from perfect, however. The Coens, masters of the picaresque, have a tendency to wax episodic – spending too much time on individual set pieces rather than a cohesive whole – and while this movie is far more tightly structured than The Big Lebowski, it does not quite reach the brilliantly plotted heights of either Barton Fink or Fargo. It won’t be my own top film of 2013, but it’s still very good.

We first meet Llewyn (not to be confused with my own middle name, Llewellyn) Davis (an excellent Oscar Isaac) – a somewhat-known folk singer – as he’s singing the traditional ballad “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in front of a rapt audience, alone on stage with his guitar and beautiful voice. This is one of three such solo performances by Isaac, and each is, on its own, reason enough to see the film (as in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, musician T Bone Burnett is the music supervisor here, and the resultant soundtrack is a must-have). We quickly learn that Davis wasn’t always a solo act: his late singing partner recently killed himself. Never a hit when part of a duo, Davis is really struggling now, and his prickly personality is no help. Soon after getting off stage, Davis is informed by the club owner that a “friend” wishes to see him in the back alley. So Davis steps outside, where he receives a good and proper beating. Why? We’ll find out eventually (the script is circular), but it turns out that this an apt metaphor for how life treats him, over and over; it’s his own personal Groundhog Day

Llewyn – who, it turns out, is homeless – next wakes up in the apartment of the Gorfeins, Columbia University professors who are part of a dwindling group of people willing to let Davis sleep over. They’re generous, as Davis gets an actual bed with them; with others he sometimes ends up on the floor. Davis promptly repays them by accidentally letting their cat escape – a cat, we discover, whose name is Ulysses – and this unintentional act of irresponsibility becomes the second part of the metaphor. Life may treat Davis badly, but he brings the worst on himself.

And so we follow Llewyn Davis as he descends into an underworld partly of his own making, struggling to fight his way out of despair and escape the clutches of oblivion. Along the way, we meet a colorful cast of characters that include Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, and F. Murray Abraham, all of whom, like Isaac, are in fine fettle and make their individual scenes sparkle with life. Unfortunately, by the time we return to that opening scene and learn why Davis is deserving of that particular beating, we’re as exhausted and exasperated by him as are his friends. He really does bring misery on himself, in spite of his talents. If not this time, then perhaps later, somewhere, someone was bound to thrash him.

And therein lies the rub, at least for me. When the movie ends, Davis has gone from bad to worse, yet seemingly learned nothing from it. It is a sad and sour experience, lovingly crafted with the Coens’ usual meticulous attention to detail, that leaves us as miserable as is the protagonist. That would be fine – redemption can be trite – if there were more to the story than just a catalog of suffering (something the Coens already tackled in their Job-like A Serious Man). Instead, misery is the end game. In a sense, the Coens here do to us what Davis does to his friends: give us hope that there’s a larger purpose to the enterprise, but then don’t quite rise to the potential of the material. There is great beauty on the way down, however – more than in most films – and so I still give the film a strong, if qualified, recommendation.

The Desolation of “The Hobbit”

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2013)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, depending on which printed version you read, is about 300 pages long. It’s a slim volume of great fantasy writing, in which we meet Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of Middle Earth who is the most reluctant of adventurers. Part of what makes The Hobbit so enchanting (to this reader) is its simplicity of plot, which allows for a wonderful complexity of world design. We are on a quest, in search of treasure guarded by a dragon, in the company of dwarves, elves, and a powerful wizard named Gandalf. Good folk must rise to the occasion, and bad folk must die. By the time it is done, we have indeed been “there and back again” (the subtitle of the novel), and have returned from our journey as changed in spirit as is Bilbo.

Later, Mr. Tolkien expanded his tale with the renowned sort-of-sequel trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, which is grander in ambition and scale than its predecessor. I have always been a big fan of the first book of that series, The Fellowship of the Ring; less of a fan of the second book, The Two Towers; and even less of a fan of the final book, The Return of the King. I’ve never even attempted to read The Silmarillion, the not-quite-finished-at-the-time-of-Tolkien’s-death work that was supposed to expand and explain the world of Middle Earth to an even greater degree. My problem with The Lord of the Rings has always been the fact that the writing begins to overwhelm the story after Book One: I stop caring about the legions of orcs and goblins, and the battle scenes are interminable and dense.

I felt very much the same way about Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations of the trilogy, which began in 2001, continued in 2002, and ended in 2003 (with an Academy Award for Best Picture, no less): I loved the first one, and liked each subsequent film less and less. I was amazed at the technical wizardry on display, and thought the actors were all excellent. I just found the story too unnecessarily abstruse and the battle scenes too damn long.

I was excited, however, when I heard that Peter Jackson was adapting The Hobbit, as I figured the brevity of the book would keep Jackson’s tendency towards excess in check. Ha, ha! Not so! He had other plans. The Hobbit would be split into three movies – all close to the three-hour mark in length – to allow for a prequel of equal scale to The Lord of the Rings. Argh. If you can’t get enough of Tolkien, then this is your dream come true. If you like stories contained by a semblance of structure, however, too bad. You can read my thoughts on the first film of this new trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (released a year ago), and see that though I admired Jackson’s vivid imagination, I deeply regretted his choice to blow up the story as he did.

One of the best things I can say about this new movie is that the 48 frames-per-second technology is a lot less distracting this time around. I was also a big fan of a romantic subplot (a complete invention of the filmmakers) between an elf and a dwarf. In the midst of all the bloated filler that the almost nine-hour length of the series requires, the interspecies love story was a surprisingly moving addition, mostly because of the charming performances of Evangeline Lilly (Kate from “Lost“) as the “she-elf” Tauriel and Aidan Turner (Mitchell on “Being Human“) as the “tall for a dwarf” Kili.

Other than that, I was annoyed. Granted, the actors are all fully committed to their characters – Martin Freeman (Watson on “Sherlock“), as Bilbo, especially – and the visual effects by Weta Digital are, as always, impressive (Smaug, the dragon, is amazing to behold). But the story is a mess, and proceeds at a snail’s pace in spite of the almost nonstop action (how is that possible?). After all, we need to leave something for the third movie . . .

But the worst sin of all is the attempt by Jackson and his screenwriting partners to make Bilbo’s story a direct prequel to the doom and gloom of The Lord of the Rings. Instead of a fast-paced journey “there and back again,” we get a series of portentous scenes in which Sauron – the evil necromancer at the heart of Tolkien’s trilogy – is shown to be at work behind every evil deed. Even Smaug cannot escape Sauron’s reach. Jackson links the former to the latter with a visual dissolve from Smaug’s eye to Sauron’s eye; a neat trick, perhaps, but one that diminishes Smaug’s own power. If the dragon is just another puppet of Sauron, then he’s nothing but a really big orc. I would have preferred to see the dragon invested with greater personal agency.

It’s not worth recounting the entire plot, but to those who know the book (or saw the first film), I’ll summarize it as follows. We begin our story with Gandalf, the dwarves and Bilbo getting ever (slowly) closer to the Lonely Mountain, the former home of Thorin (the lead dwarf, heir of kings) and their ultimate destination. After a series of adventures involving orcs (of course), giant spiders (creepy), and wilder-than-in-Rivendell elves (amongst whom we meet Orlando Bloom as Legolas and Evangeline Lilly), the company (minus Gandalf, who has gone off to confront – surprise! – Sauron) arrives at Dale, the town just below the Lonely Mountain, where they are helped by Bard, a descendant of a former Lord of Dale (who tried, but failed, to kill Smaug when he first arrived). After some initial conflict over local politics, Thorin, Bilbo and most of the other dwarves (minus an injured Kili and those who choose to stay with him), make their way up the mountain and find a way in by the “last light of Durin’s Day” (part of the prophecy that guides Thorin). Once inside, they confront Smaug (first Bilbo, alone, and then all together). Though almost incinerated, they nearly defeat him. Smaug proves too strong, however, and the movie ends with him leaving the mountain to destroy the town below. In my version of the book, Smaug flies out of the mountain on page 231 (out of 302). We’ll see how Jackson fills out the remaining 72 pages in The Hobbit: There and Back Again, coming to a theater near you in 2014.

Now, lest you mistake me for someone who dislikes unfaithful adaptations of books, and sees that as the main reason for my annoyance with Jackson, know that the real problem is that he’s not doing anything new here. All we’re getting is Lord of the Rings lite, with end-of-the-world evil at work. The tone is exactly the same as in the Ring series. I would have preferred a prequel that introduced the various species of Middle Earth, as well as Gandalf, and hinted at the power of the ring. Then, at the end, if he really wanted to, Jackson could have brought in a foreshadowing of the conflict to come. That was not to be, at least not in this version.

In spite of all that I’ve just written, I am sure that this film will have immense appeal to all die-hard Tolkien fans. And in an age of never-ending long-form drama series such as “Game of Thrones,” I am also sure that many viewers will not even care about my concerns over the lack of a tight structure. It’s fun just to inhabit the universe for a few (or more) hours. So be it. If that’s you, then enjoy.

“The Armstrong Lie” – Truth and Its Consequences

Armstrong Lie

The Armstrong Lie (Alex Gibney, 2013)

The truth will out, and when it does, the bigger the lie that preceded it, the harder the fall of the liar. On such a simple premise has a filmmaking career been made.

Alex Gibney likes to tell stories about hubris and the overreach of power. In films like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the RoomTaxi to the Dark SideClient 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (released earlier this year), he crafts profiles of dominant personalities hoisted by their own petards (in Spitzer’s case, quite literally). We watch, fascinated, as men (they’re always men) who think they’re smarter than everyone else – and who really should know better – do very stupid (or illegal, or both) things. In The Armstrong Lie, Gibney tackles yet another big fish: Lance Armstrong, once hailed as the seven-time winner of the Tour de France and a renowned cancer survivor and activist, now brought low by a doping scandal.

What makes this particular film different from other works in the Gibney canon is that Gibney puts himself in the middle of the story. Originally setting out, in 2009, to make a film about Lance Armstrong’s comeback – and attempt to put the ever-present rumors of doping to rest – Gibney was forced to recalibrate his approach as investigators and rivals finally exposed Armstrong’s secrets. In his voiceover narration – and occasional off-camera questioning of Armstrong – Gibney reveals that he was as much a fool as the rest of the world in believing Armstrong’s deception. Still, knowing Gibney’s work as I do, I have to question how much he actually trusted Armstrong to begin with, and how much he may have been hoping for scandal. It certainly makes a better movie that way. No matter, for with his usual insightful and meticulous approach to his subject, Gibney creates yet another indelible portrait of a fallen idol. Who cares what his original intentions may or may not have been . . .

The movie begins in January of this year, as Armstrong speaks directly to the camera (and Gibney) just three hours after his revelatory interview with Oprah Winfrey. He is reflective, introspective and (mostly) humble: a changed man. Or is he? Much like Eliot Spitzer, he admits to past wrongdoing, but – even more than Spitzer – retains a hint of defiance and a certain lack of awareness of how much his deception has hurt his credibility and future prospects. Still, he is prepared to finally take his (legal) medicine, and it is to our benefit that he allows Gibney such intimate and repeated access to his evolving thoughts on his life and career.

Born in 1971, Lance Armstrong was a rising cycling star when, in 1996, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After undergoing aggressive treatment – some of which we see – Armstrong was pronounced free of the disease, and resumed his cycling career. He joined the United States Postal Service team in 1998, and in 1999 won the first of his 7 Tour de France titles. Always suspected of doping – which, the film shows, was (and maybe still is) something that quite a lot of cyclists were doing – Armstrong managed to beat back rumors and outfox investigators through cleverness, ruthless intimidation, and the employment of one very smart Italian doctor, Michele Ferrari. Indeed, it is fascinating to learn how the science of doping – using steroids, other harder-to-detect drugs, or transfusions of one’s own blood – evolved over the years. I had no idea the extent to which these athletes would go to gain an edge.

All of which is too bad, because one thing that is clear is that, doping or not, cycling is hard work, particularly in the Tour de France. The drugs may help more oxygen get into your bloodstream, but you – and you alone – still have to put in the grueling work to climb the mountain. These guys may have cheated, but they are still remarkable athletes. And, the film legitimately asks – without exonerating the cheaters – who was actually clean? Certainly not the organizers of the sport, many of whom seemed to know exactly what was going on.

The film also explores Armstrong’s rising celebrity, and how it allowed him to do great things, such as found Livestrong, and . . . less great things, such as accuse former friend and teammate Frankie Andreu – who had admitted to his own doping – and his wife Betsy of lying in court testimony, damaging Frankie’s career prospects. In Betsy Andreu, however, Armstrong may have met his match, for she is not ready to forgive him his threats and betrayal, as the film and recent editorials she has written make clear. Beware of bullying the wrong person . . .

It’s a complicated film about a complex individual undone by his belief in his own inviolable power and fame. Hubris is fascinating, especially when, in hindsight, you can see where the overreaching took place. For Armstrong, there were two significant missteps (other than doping in the first place):

  1. The first was his return to the cycling circuit in 2009. Had Armstrong been content to live out his life as a former champion, and to just accept that there would always be rumors associated with his victories, he would most likely have been able to keep his reputation, his tour titles, and his money. Instead . . .
  2. The second was his agreeing to be the subject of an Alex Gibney film. Come on, man! Had you never seen one of his movies before? It was only a matter of time before you, yourself, became a classic Gibney protagonist. Truly, it was karma.

Once again, Alex Gibney has created a parable for our time, which I highly recommend.

In a Theater Near You: Midday on Current and Upcoming Films

[UPDATE: Missed the show? Please listen to the podcast!]

Midday December 6 Collage

It’s that time of year again, when we review the films of the current season – those in theaters and those soon to be released – and make our recommendations of what to see and our predictions of what will make it into the Oscars race. From 12 Years a Slave to Philomena to Nebraska to The Hobbit to August: Osage County and beyond, we’ve got your cinematic needs covered.

So join us on Friday, December 6, when Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – appear on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss movies, movies and more movies!

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast.

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!