Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 18, 2013

2012 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

Prometheus: Oh, the wasted potential. Two scientists discover possible evidence of alien intervention early in humankind's history, and convince one of Earth's richest men to fund a space expedition to a distant system in search of humanity's possible creators, whom they dub "engineers." Needless to say, they don't find quite what they expected. Ridley Scott's latest film (and a welcome return to sci-fi) showcases his impressive aesthetic sense and command of the medium, and features a strong cast. The production design is astounding, and Scott can certainly deliver atmosphere. The film succeeds in creating a sense of mystery, and moments of both horror and wonder – although it also raises more questions than it answers, which may alienate some viewers. Unfortunately, the script really needed more work, and suffers from seemingly unforced errors. On a few occasions, supposedly smart characters act so inexplicably stupid it jars the viewer out of the film. Luckily, that's not always the case; as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a woman of both science and spirituality, Noomi Rapace provides a strong core for the proceedings, and continues a Scott tradition of heroines with human frailties but steely resolve. The film offers a tense show-stopper of a scene (you'll know it when you see it) that's sold partially with effects, but mostly through Rapace's desperate and grounded performance. The other standout is Michael Fassbender as the aloof, calculating robot David, who is tasked with serving the crew yet seems to consider himself superior to them. (Early in the film, we see him watching Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, imitating his manner of speech and even his haircut. It's one of many small touches that make David intriguing.) Idris Elba and Charlize Theron do a good job with what they're given. (Guy Pearce is a superb actor, but appears in distractingly subpar old-age makeup. Originally, his character, expedition bankroller Peter Weyland, was going to appear young in the film, and the age-appropriate Pearce is fantastic in one of the disc extras.) Hotly anticipated, Prometheus wound up being much debated and pilloried. I view it as significantly flawed but worth a look, especially for fans of Scott, Alien, Rapace or Fassbender. (Also because it is such a mixed bag of triumph and head-scratching failure.) A sequel or two may follow.
Original writer Jon Spaiht's script was very much an Alien prequel, and answered many of the questions never addressed by the series. It also addressed or bypassed many of the WTF moments in the film as it exists. The second writer to be hired, Damon Lindelof, has plenty of critics due to being one of the head writers on Lost and his reputation for delivering mysteries-without-satisfying-resolutions. Lindelof was tasked with keeping Spaiht's same basic structure but taking out the more direct Alien elements (that dictate came straight from the studio), and while it's easy to rag on him, many of the problems actually aren't his fault. After going through all the disc extras and reading plenty more about the film, I have to conclude that Ridley Scott contributed some inspired ideas, but also forced some pretty bad ones. His aesthetic sense is amazing, and the production values and many of the performances are good, but the film really needed more time on the script. Supposedly, a locked-release date was one factor that prevented that, and it's really unfortunate.

(Red Letter Media has a great, funny summary of all the unanswered Prometheus questions. The "honest trailer" is also funny. Henry Rothwell takes on some of the science and plot holes, Cavalorn delves into the religious symbolism you may have noticed, this infographic summarizes the film's cross-breeding, and FSR covers problems in the film that made sense in the original script. Oh, and here's Damon Lindelof on All Things Considered.)

Les Misérables: The ridiculously successful stage musical based on Victor Hugo's ridiculously long, sprawling novel comes to the screen at last, with mixed results. (The novel itself has been adapted many times.) Likely you know the basic story: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread, turns bitter from his treatment, but is shown mercy by a bishop (Colm Wilkinson, the original stage Valjean) and determines to make a better life. By mistake he condemns Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to a life of degradation; as penance, he raises her daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). All the while, he is pursued by the relentless police inspector, Javert (Russell Crowe), who seeks to send him back to prison for violating his parole. Cosette falls for the young student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is secretly loved in turn by the gamine Eponine (Samantha Barks), daughter of the scheming Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Oh, and there's also France's 1832 June Rebellion, Paris street urchins with British accents, and plenty of singing, too.

Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) delivers a mix of inspired and questionable choices. He opted for rolling multiple cameras as the actors sung live, with an accompanist (piped in through an earpiece) adjusting to them; full orchestration was added later during postproduction. This approach is in contrast to the traditional playback method, where the music and singing is fully recorded beforehand, and needs to matched by the actors during filming. Playback makes sure all takes match, as they must, for editing, but also ensures that a good rendition of the song can be used (or at least the best possible). The live approach (also used extensively in the film Across the Universe) has the benefit of allowing the actors spontaneity and the ability to change pauses and rhythms, as well as the overall performance of the song. The playback method still allows some leeway, but does require more of a commitment to a reading upfront, particularly when it comes to timing and rhythm. Still, good singing entails a certain form of acting (working out the shifts in a song), and a good director will have plenty of discussion and rehearsal before recording. It's not that playback kills acting (many classic musicals show otherwise), but it does require more preparation. Basically, the live method privileges acting (specifically, spontaneity in performance) while playback privileges the music and singing (and requires a more prepared performance).

Accordingly, Hooper's film features some very good performances, acting-wise, but some of the songs suffer as songs; fans of the musical might be happier with the filmed versions of the 10th and 25th anniversary concerts. Hooper at times seems embarrassed to be directing a musical, forsaking some of the strengths of the genre, such as energy and rhythm. The Prologue number, ('Look Down') is delivered at a dirge-like pace that robs it of its usual momentum. Jackman performs "Valjean's Soliloquy" with so many pauses he likewise kills the build in the piece. Russell Crowe, while a fine actor, does not have the voice to sing Javert, and it's just painful every time he's on screen. His acting can't compensate; the role requires a degree of vocal power because strength is key to the character, and Crowe's strained singing constantly undercuts his portrayal. Vocally, Jackman might have been a better fit for Javert, and particularly struggles with the high parts of "Bring Him Home." Still, it's one of his best acting jobs to date. Amanda Seyfried has a pretty yet slight, trilling voice, but she doesn't have to carry much of the movie. Samantha Barks, who played Eponine in the 25th anniversary concert, is one of the better things about the film. The pacing suffers a bit in her big song, "On My Own," but it's a good performance acting-wise and vocally. Eddie Redmayne is likewise good, particularly in "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." As you might gather, Hooper's live approach (with copious tight close-ups) works best for the more intimate songs, and the gem of the film is Anne Hathaway's raw, vulnerable performance of "I Dreamed a Dream." The film's worth seeing just for that (and her Oscar was inevitable). I only wish that Hooper had used this approach more selectively and not uniformly.

It's fashionable in some quarters to bash Les Mis the film and/or the musical. I've seen people criticize the music as unsophisticated – okay, compared to Bernstein and Sondheim or opera, sure, but plenty of musicals in the standard repertoire have at least a few simple tunes and rather trite lyrics. I've never been a huge fan of the genre because, while I can appreciate the skill of the performers, the plot tends to grind to a halt during the singing, and the stories tend to be overly sappy and sentimental. Les Mis, whatever its other faults, does have some thematic depth, sociopolitical commentary and strong characters, thanks to its source material. Fantine's unforgiving fate, brought on by a single mistake (if it can be called even that), is arresting, dark and adult fare. Valjean and Javert are complex characters, and the parallels and contrasts between them – including their reactions to an act of undeserved mercy – are fascinating. For me, the problem with the musical is that more of the best songs are in Act 1 and the young lovers are (no surprise) much more boring than Valjean, Javert and Fantine. (The student rebellion also lacks much context or explanation, and doesn't fully connects to Valjean's story, although some viewers likely get the gist. The musical actually gets a surprising amount of Hugo's novel in.) Still, Les Mis can boast some excellent character songs, capturing the main players' outlooks very well. Hooper's film adaptation has been divisive, with some viewers loving it and some hating it, although many of its harshest critics never liked the musical, either. I think the film's flawed and an interesting case study of good and bad artistic choices, but worth a look.

(Here's Tom Hooper on All Things Considered, and Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway on Weekend Edition. Here's costume designer Paco Delgado on The Business. Lance Mannion did a series of seven posts on the film, starting with this one.)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: The Hobbit is a decent film that suffers severely from bloat. This adaptation should have been released in two films, not three. The Hobbit was originally a book for children, albeit a great one, and the plot and themes are much less complex than those in J.R.R. Tolkien's masterwork, The Lord of the Rings. (Rankin-Bass' 1977 animated version runs only 77 minutes, but admittedly leaves a great deal out. While it boasts some great voice talent, it also "kiddifies" the source material.) Likely you already know the plot; thirteen dwarves are bent on reclaiming their ancestral fortress and vaults of gold, both taken over by the fearsome dragon Smaug. The wizard Gandalf pushes them to hire a burglar, but some of them are skeptical about this, and the titular hobbit (halfling) in question, Biblo Baggins, is initially quite reluctant to accompany the dwarves on an adventure.

This first Hobbit film from Peter Jackson runs almost three hours, it feels padded and protracted, and the pacing suffers. As a Tolkien buff, I enjoyed all the extraneous segments on their own merits, but it's fanboy material that should have been saved for extended editions or a separate "Lost Tales" series of films. The primary concern has to be crafting a good film that stands on its own, not turning The Hobbit into an extended prequel for Jackson's splendid adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. The most excusable inclusions are those related to the expedition leader, Thorin Oakenshield, showing why he is so driven to reclaim his birthright. Parts of the film are legitimately great: the "Riddles in the Dark" section (which Tolkien rewrote after LOTR) with Gollum is creepy, tense and darkly funny, Martin Freeman makes a superb Bilbo Baggins, and Ian McKellan is a very welcome return as the wizard Gandalf. On the director side, as with King Kong, Jackson really needs a good advisor he trusts who will tell him "no" and reign in his more excessive fanboy digressions (I love some of 'em, but save 'em for the extras or other films). On the studio end, unfortunately, the profit motive seems to overwhelmed good artistic sense.

Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino delivers a spaghetti western slave revenge tale, and the results are mostly entertaining but also a bit self-indulgent. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter (and supposed dentist) hunts his quarries primarily in the American South. The slave Django (Jamie Foxx) can identify three of his targets, so Schultz buys Django's freedom. Schultz winds up teaching Django his trade, Django is a natural with a gun, and they become partners (as well as friends, after a fashion). Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who has been bought by a particularly cruel slave owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). To accomplish this, they concoct an elaborate cover story that they're willing to pay a great deal of money for mandigo fighters, slaves who will fight to the death (a fictional construct of the film). Along the way, we witness some of the cruelties of slavery and the casual, entrenched racism of the era. The proceedings are entertaining and harrowing enough as a film, but not great history… although it can and has provoked some good discussions. Tarantino's beloved violence is actually more contextualized than in most of his other films. As usual with Tarantino, there are some good performances and memorable scenes, but the film's also overly long, self-indulgent and drags. Tarantino loves hyper-verbose characters, and delivers two here in hero/antihero Dr. King Schultz and villain Calvin Candie. Tarantino's dialogue is good, but as usual can become self-consciously clever and drag on too long. The shtick works better than normal here because both actors dig into their roles with relish, and the characters' speeches are often power plays; the characters are being self-indulgent, not just the writer-director. The big final shootout is fun enough for its comic excess and just desserts, but does also take the film completely out of the realm of reality. To be fair, earlier elements do the same if to a lesser degree, such as a broadly comic Klansman scene or the use of 70s songs in the soundtrack. The tone varies wildly as Tarantino gives us a mash-up pastiche of everything he likes to entertain us and make a few more serious points, and for the most part, he succeeds. Washington is good as Broomhilda, but remains almost solely a victim and damsel-to-be-rescued, unlike Django, the hero of the tale. (As long as authenticity is out the window, why not let her do a little more?) Samuel L. Jackson delivers a provocative performance as Stephen, Candie's older family slave, a sort of Uncle Tom/"house slave" figure who publically plays up ridiculous stereotypes as a kind of court jester, while being sober and diabolical behind the scenes. (Franco Nero, star of the 1966 spaghetti western Django, has a cameo.) As you might imagine, different audiences' reactions varied tremendously to this one, and it sparked many a discussion on race and historical accuracy (some of which are linked below).

(Here's Quentin Tarantino on The Treatment and All Things Considered. Here's Tarantino and Christoph Waltz on Fresh Air. Talk of the Nation assembled some critics to discuss the film. Tarantino convincingly explains one of the big plot questions here. See also the reactions to Django Unchained as a film and as history from David Denby, Jelani Cobb, Chauncey DeVega one, two and three, Aisha Harris one and two, Ta-Nehisi Coates one, two, three (and more tangentially), and Spike Lee's reaction.)

The Hunger Games: Writer-director Gary Ross, who has a knack for smart choices in his adaptations, shows that facility once again with The Hunger Games, the big budget film based on the first book in Suzanne Collins' popular young adult series. The concept is basically gladiatorial games/the most dangerous game set in a future dystopia ruled by a corrupt Capital, with randomly-selected teen tributes (a boy and girl from each of 12 districts) the combatants. They must fight to the death until only one champion survives – and the whole thing is televised, with bets placed on the outcomes. When her younger sister is selected as one of these tributes, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in her stead. She's from District 12, the poorest of them all, and doesn't have the formal training of some of the other tributes, but she illegally hunts to feed her family, so she's got some outdoor skills and is very good with a bow. Unfortunately, the boy chosen from her district is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), someone who once showed her kindness, and she'd have qualms about killing… if she can bring herself to kill at all. Katniss essentially is forced to confront her own humanity in a series of situations that pressure her to be inhumane.

The Hunger Games benefits from a strong supporting cast, including Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Paula Malcomson, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson. (Sutherland should be especially valuable in the second and third movies.) The books are told from a first-person perspective, and Ross makes some of his more inspired adaptation choices in adding scenes with gamemaster Seneca Crane (Bentley) and popular TV personality Caesar Flickman (Tucci). It's their pride in the games – subdued and extravagant, respectively –that gives the film its dark irony and sharpest commentary. (It's strongest when Flickman exults over a past clip from the games – he shows bloodthirsty enjoyment over the 'moment when a tribute becomes a champion' while the poor young man is wailing in despair.) One of the problems with the film is that it has to actually show things that were left to the imagination in the books, and that requires balancing gruesomeness with a PG-13 rating so the intended teens and tweens can see it. This requirement hurts certain scenes in the film (Rue, the dogs). Ross also intentionally went with a disjointed camera style in the beginning of the film (hand-held, tight and poorly-framed shots, jump cuts, etc.) to convey unease. I felt he overdid it significantly and should have used this technique much more selectively, especially in the early going. Overall, though, the film does quite well as both an adaptation and on its own terms, benefitting enormously from casting Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. She credibly coveys both the strength and vulnerability of the character, and sells the key moments. (I wrote a little more about the first book here.)

(Here's Gary Ross on The Treatment, and Ross with Jennifer Lawrence on Morning Edition. Here's Producer Nina Jacobson on The Business.)

Seven Psychopaths: Writer-director Martin McDonagh is back, with another clever, fun flick featuring a good cast, but this time, the results aren't as strong as In Bruges. It has its moments of poignancy along the way (Hans' monk story), but this is a slicker, more shallow affair. Martin McDonagh has written a script called Seven Psychopaths… about a struggling screenwriter named Marty… who is trying to write a script called Seven Psychopaths. It's all a little too cute, over-written, self-referential and self-satisfied in the end, but it's still far more interesting than run-of-the-mill fare, especially if violence plus ironic, self-consciously clever dialogue is your thing. The core trio of Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell are especially good together, and the film's worth seeing just for a bravura scene where Rockwell as the irrepressible Billy gives an exuberant, extended movie pitch and his story's climax (an extended, ridiculous shootout) is visualized for us.

Hitchcock: Anthony Hopkins plays Alfred Hitchcock and Helen Mirren his talented, clever wife, Alma Reville, as they struggle to make one of his eventual masterpieces, Psycho. Hopkins and Mirren are good together, as are Scarlet Johansson as Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel as Vera Miles and James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins. (Not to mention Toni Collette as Hitchock's whip-smart secretary, Peggy.) The sections dealing with Psycho, including the fight to get funding and its artistic challenges, are great, and Hitchcock does a nice job of capturing how innovative Psycho really was. Unfortunately, there's also a silly invented subplot with Hitchcock jealous and insecure over Alma spending time with an admittedly slimy screenwriter, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Hitchcock talks through his fears in fantasy sequences with Ed Gein, the killer that Norman Bates (and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs) is based on. The filmmakers try to suggest that Hitchcock strongly identifies with Gein, and play with the idea of his own murderous instincts. It all feels forced, and some of the film's conversations between Hitchcock and Alma, Janet or Vera similarly strain plausibility. I've read the Stephen Rebello book that was a key source, and knew this film wouldn't be as good as one of the real Hitchcock's best (that would be an unfair standard), but I nonetheless wanted the film to be better than it was. I just thought that the artistic and funding challenges Alfred and Alma faced were sufficient to make a good film without the invented intrigue, which I felt forced cheap psycho-babble motivations onto Hitchcock as a character. Overall, Hitchcock the film reminded me a bit of Simon Oakland's speech near the end of Psycho – slightly ridiculous, and not truly worthy of Hitchcock the director. Still, there are some good scenes, particularly one where Hitchcock sneaks into the theater lobby during Psycho's shower scene to listen with relish to the audience's reaction. (I still haven't seen The Girl, which is supposedly a harsher depiction of Hitchcock, but has also received more criticism over its accuracy, even if the man certainly had his personal faults.) Hitchcock buffs will still want to see this one, but should adjust their expectations accordingly.

(Here's Director Sacha Gervasi and producer Tom Pollock on The Business)

ParaNorman: Young Norman Babcock is seen as the "weird kid" at school, but he's more unusual than most, in that he can see and speak to ghosts. His parents try their best to connect, but just don't get Norman. Schoolmate Neil is one of the few people Norman confides in and who thinks Norman's ability is cool. Norman's small town of Blithe Hollow has a legend about a evil witch who cast a curse on the town. Norman's oddball uncle Mr. Prenderghast claims that there's annual ritual that must be performed to keep her from rising. When he dies in a freak accident, his ghost comes to Norman to implore him to take up the mantle (but he's skimpy on the details). Norman doesn't quite pull it off, and soon the dead are rising and the witch seems to be growing in power as well. It's up to Norman, Neil, Neil's jock brother Mitch, Norman's sister Courtney (who doesn't like Norman much, but is smitten with Mitch), and school bully Alvin to save the town. ParaNorman has some funny bits (crawling arms and detached heads make for good slapstick) and a PG macabre aesthetic. It's not really for young kids, but older ones and adults should enjoy it. The film has a number of inventive and satisfying plot twists; it's particularly good at making us look at characters in a new light. (At a certain point, we even wonder if Norman should bother to save the town.) The filmmakers used a very involved stop-motion animation process. It looks good, but I have to wonder if the same look can't be achieved with computer animation (if not now, eventually) with far less grief for the creators. The film's worth a look.

Brave: Pixar's latest is still good, but one of their weaker efforts – Pixar's stab at the princess franchise of parent company Disney. Yes, Pixar's set the standard high, but this one just doesn't have the creativity, sense of wonder and restraint that informs the studio's best. It's too bad, because this is their first feature starring a heroine, and she's a redheaded Scottish lass, to boot. Princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is a tomboy who's great with a bow, and chafes at the prim-and-proper role that's prescribed for her by her caring-but-exasperated mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson). Merida takes more after her brawling father, Fergus (Billy Connolly), who lost his leg to a monstrous bear years ago. When Merida is to be married off to one of a selection of underwhelming princes in the name of political unity, her rebellion swells to full force, bringing her conflicts with her mother to a head – and regrets all around. Merida seeks out a witch to grant her a wish that will change her life – and she gets it – with unexpected results. Brave has some pretty funny bits, and also scenes of action and peril, but it's also much more sentimental and by-the-books than other Pixar films. Your mileage may vary with this one; this is most of all a mother-daughter film, and I do know some mothers and daughters who really enjoyed it. I thought it was all right, but wouldn't rush out to see it again.

Farewell, My Queen: This French film centers on Léa Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde, a young woman who serves a reader for the queen, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), wife of King Louis XVI. The film chronicles events at Versailles during the first days of the French Revolution. Gossip grows rife and accurate news becomes much prized. Sidonie isn't much for politics; she's devoted to Marie, who can be kind to her, but is also easily distracted and can be selfish and thoughtless. Sidonie has her rivals, but is well-liked by the palace archivist and a male servant who wants to bed her. She can move with ease throughout most of the palace, and the film features at least two great shots: One is a steadicam shot, behind Sidonie, as panic has set in at nighttime in the palace and she weaves through a tight, dark hallway filled with scared nobility bustling from room to room with candles. The score adds some menace, but the staging is effectively claustrophobic. The other shot sees Sidonie hurrying through a set of palace rooms that are opulent, but sparingly lit, pale and empty, save for Sidonie's echoing footsteps. There's some violence in the film, although we tend to see the aftermaths, and mostly director (and co-writer) Benoît Jacquot builds an atmosphere of menace through suggestion. Sometimes he eschews the traditional shot-reverse shot in favor of a single take, panning back and forth between the characters. He's particularly fond of this in scenes between Marie and her possible lover, Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchesse de Polignac. (Their relationship is one of the crimes against Marie listed by the revolutionaries; many of the palace's nobility are frightened to see their names on a potential death list.) Sidonie has a ground's eye view to the revolution, and seeks out more information – she sees nobles flee, beg, kill themselves… and she also sees her fellow servants make their own choices. Seydoux is pretty but with an unusual look: prominent cheekbones and slit-like eyes. She can make her face inscrutable and sphinx-like, which works nicely for this cipher of a character. At times, she seems something of a blank slate, and while this gives us an interesting, somewhat neutral perspective on the proceedings, it also prevents us from making a deeper emotional connection with her, which could have made the final section of the film stronger. Sidonie is surprisingly, even creepily nonchalant at times, and while her relationship with the Queen does build to a climax, we ultimately need to guess at some of her motivations.
One of the most striking scenes comes near the very end, when Sidonie is riding in a carriage dressed in finery pretending to be the Duchess, and waves to each person she sees out the window. The real Duchess, dressed as a servant, chastises her not to peer out, but Sidonie ignores her. At one point, Sidonie waves to a man who scowls at her and draws his hand across his neck, a threat that she should be guillotined. Sidonie doesn't seem to care. Earlier, she felt betrayed by Marie, but complies with the deception, even though it might cost her life. Is she enjoying playing dress-up, and her brief moment of power and status? Is she fatalistic about her chances? These are provocative, memorable choices by Jacquot and Seydoux, but perhaps there's a little too much enigma to allow deeper emotional engagement. We don't learn much about Sidonie's past, but she seems to be very well-educated for her station. She also has some fire, as when Marie challenges her near the end. (Marie: "Ugly words for a pretty mouth." Sidonie: "My words are my only possession, Madame. I wield them well.") Still, I enjoyed this film and liked the idea of telling the story from a servant's perspective.

The Intouchables: (Released in France in 2011.) An odd couple buddy film with some great laughs and more somber moments (and loosely based on a true story), The Intouchables was enormously popular in its native France. The plot is fairly predictable, but it benefits tremendously from excellent casting and chemistry between the two leads, Omar Sy as Driss and François Cluzet as Philippe. Driss is a slacker and petty thief; he's got his kinder side, but he's looking out for himself first (and occasionally, his extended foster family). He's on the dole/welfare, and to get his check he needs to show he's interviewed for a few jobs. He just wants proof of rejection for a gig as an assistant to Philippe, but instead, he gets hired. Philippe is a rich man paralyzed from the neck down due to a hang-gliding accident (he used to be quite the adrenaline junkie). Driss is physically strong and up for that aspect of the job, but Philippe primarily picks him because Driss is so full of life, makes him smile and is unsentimental; Philippe cannot stand pity. As the two work together, they inevitably grow closer. Driss's compassion and sense of responsibility grows, and he in turn pushes Philippe to move forward with a pen pal love affair; Philippe's terrified the woman will be repulsed by his condition. Some of scenes in The Intouchables may be calculated crowd-pleasers, such as an exuberant dance number by Driss, but we don't care; it's great fun, as is the twistedly funny opening sequence, which tells us a great deal about Driss, Philippe and their relationship. For better or worse, this is much lighter fare than the somewhat similarly-themed Diving Bell and the Butterfly (the second film reviewed here), which is more meditative, elegiac, lyric, moving and somber. Still, you won't regret seeing this one.

(Here's American distributor Harvey Weinstein on The Treatment.)

Bully: (Premiered in 2011, widely released in 2012.) This documentary examines an old and pernicious problem, school bullying. The filmmakers follows public school students and their families from several states. It also examines the lives of two teenagers who killed themselves due to bullying, and the anti-bullying campaign their parents have launched. The most troubling aspect of the documentary is the lack of support kids often receive from adults. One student, a lesbian, is ridiculed by at least one of her teachers, and others will not intervene when students harass her. (Disturbingly, the anti-anti bullying movement, such as it is, is largely fueled by social conservatives who want to be able to harass gay kids, because otherwise the other kids might think being gay is okay, and western civilization will fall, or something.) For another student, even the kids he considers "friends" are abusive toward him (if slightly less so than the others). His dad tells him they're not really his friends, and he needs to fight back – but what can the kid really do? He's scrawny, and his dad seems ashamed of him. There's also a scene where there's been an incident, a school administrator asks two kids to shake hands, and the bullied kid initially refuses – and is chastised by the adult. He eventually shakes hands, but is clearly still bothered, and says (I believe accurately) that the bully was only putting on an act for the adult and would continue to do the same stuff again, just as he had before. While adults who don't see an incident can be at a loss to adjudicate this stuff, and at least the adults at this school are trying to do something, it did make me wish some of them had better bullshit detectors. Similarly, in a later office scene with an administrator, a bullied kid and a parent, the administrator chastises the bullied kid for not reporting further incidents. Yes, kids do need to learn to speak up, but realistically, adults have to be the ones to follow up, and have to work to be approachable. Bullied kids tend to shut down and withdraw, or in some cases, act out themselves (as does one student in the film). It's a point the film makes pretty well, especially near the end – bullying is something suffered by kids, but it can't be just their burden to solve or endure it alone; it's a problem that adults and a community have to solve.

Some of the camerawork is sloppy and the sound was cleaned up considerably in postproduction, but that's kind of the nature of the beast here. (It looks like students or other amateurs did some of the filming, so access took precedence over quality, and that makes sense for the subject matter.) The MPAA initially slapped a R rating on Bully due to profanity, thus preventing many schools from arranging viewings. This was an ironic victory for the bullies, since the profanity was uttered by them at their targets. Luckily, protests and a deal made with the MPAA by the Weinstein Company eventually allowed the film to be released in a PG-13 version.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father in the Bathtub, a swampy region south of New Orleans and especially prone to flooding. To qualify as dirt poor, they'd first to have dirt; when the floods come, they don't even have land. The inhabitants of the Bathtub don't have much, but they're resourceful and try to help each other out. Hushpuppy's mom isn't on the scene, and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) has health issues and can't always look after her, so she's become very self-sufficient at a young age. The film is narrated by Hushpuppy, and does an excellent job of capturing her perspective – she's at that age where reality and fantasy blend together and aren't distinguishable. Hushpuppy listens to the heartbeats of animals, she imagines talking to her mother, and she also imagines extinct prehistoric beasts called "aurochs" (she hears about them at the makeshift bayou school) being frozen in ice but breaking free. The Bathtub inhabitants, with nothing to eat due to the flood except for scarce fish and some reserves, decide to dynamite the nearby levee in hopes the flood waters will subside, but this also means the civilian authorities come in and try to evacuate them. Meanwhile, with her father ailing, Hushpuppy and some of her friends go looking for her mother. Wallis is extraordinary, and the film's worth seeing just for her performance: fierce, playful, sensitive and ultimately moving. Dwight Henry, a nonprofessional actor (and local baker), is also very natural as Wink. The film has a strong "triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity" vibe. Because some of the Bathtub evacuees want to escape the town after they've been "rescued," there's also a strong "live free or die" vibe near the end. Beasts of the Southern Wild received generally positive reviews, but reactions to this aspect of the film were more divergent. I was fine with Wink and the adults choosing their own fates, especially on the grounds of personal dignity, but I was honestly rooting for Child Protective Services, too, near the end. I felt the ending was overly romanticized. I liked this film, but also thought it was overhyped. The script was adapted by director Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from her one-act play.

(Here's Benh Zeitlin on The Treatment and The Business. Here's Quvenzhane Wallis on All Things Considered.)

The Campaign: Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), a dim-witted, entitled, philander of a Southern politician, is used to the local corrupt machine getting him elected without challenge. Unfortunately, he make a series of public gaffes that even the not-very-discriminating public objects to, and Cam's freelance efforts at damage control makes things even worse. ("In my lifetime, I have made over 100,000 phone calls, and maybe 1,000 of them are obscene! That's a very small percentage.") Enter milquetoast travel agent Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) who dares to file for office and run against Cam Brady. Brady doesn't take kindly to this, and the two start trading off attack ads, dirty tricks, and… very dirty tricks. A few real-life reporters and political figures make cameos, and get some of the best lines. ("This is likely to hurt him with the Christian right, social conservatives. Really any group that opposes baby-punching.") Will Ferrell has played many variations on this same character, the self-important, dim-witted blowhard, but he's good at it, and he and Galifianakis work well off of each other. This film was rapidly written and produced, and it's not the best work either comedian has done, but it's got several genuinely funny scenes (the comedy tends toward the raunchy), and even a few more serious points about corruption in politics. (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd play the rich Motch brothers, who expect their politicians to do as they're told.) Dylan McDermott is also memorable as Marty's ruthless (and possibly psychotic) campaign manager.

Celeste and Jesse Forever: A divorcing couple tries to remain friends. However, they're so close it seems like they're still a couple, which freaks their friends out, who urge them to move on. When they do try, it causes more conflict than they expected. This is particularly the case for Celeste (Rashida Jones), since Jesse (Andy Samburg) was always the well-meaning, disorganized slacker, and she was always the more put-together and accomplished of the pair. When things start to go really well for Jesse, a nasty side of her comes out. Jones co-wrote the screenplay with Will McCormack, who plays the sketchy "Skillz" in the film. The film has its funny moments, and its real strength is delving into jealousy, insecurity and kidding yourself. It's this honesty that makes the film an above-average relationship flick. Celeste is the lead character, she faces more about herself, and I thought Jones was especially good.

(Rashida Jones gave a good interview to NPR about being glad to be able to play a more complex character than the sweet girlfriend roles that have been common for her. I also particularly liked this bit, about her difficulties auditioning early in her career: "I was too quirky to play a lead girl but I was too exotic to play the stable best friend. ... I would try out to play women of color and they'd be like, 'You're not dark enough.' And then I would try to play a surfer babe and they'd be like, 'You're too exotic, we want somebody who kind of looks like the girl next door.' My personality maybe doesn't match what I look like.")

This Is 40: This "sort-of sequel to Knocked Up" centers on couple Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) from the B story in that film. They're got money woes juggling struggling businesses (a clothing store and music promotion, respectively), plus two kids who generally don't get along. Debbie wants to reconnect with her absentee dad (John Lithgow) and wants Pete to stop lending money to his (Albert Brooks, who excels at guilt trips). Pete may be more immature, but they both have their issues. On top of this, Debbie is in full-blown denial mode about turning 40, and their intimacy, affection and marriage come into question. As usual with writer-director Judd Apatow, the film has some really funny scenes and great dialogue, but the overall arc is weaker. It's not as protracted as Funny People (which was about a half-hour too long), but there's a similar feel of Apatow slapping everything he wants in there and not pruning and shaping the film as a whole. It also feels a bit self-indulgent, in that Apatow keeps casting his wife, Leslie Mann, who is genuinely good, but also his kids, who are just not as strong. At several points, Apatow cuts to his younger daughter, Iris (playing Charlotte), for some intended-to-be-funny quip that just dies. (Was that really the best take? Did he really have to underline it with the camera? Has he lost all objectivity?) It's painful. Luckily, there's plenty of great stuff otherwise, and Apatow stacks the cast with strong supporting talent. Besides Lithgow and Brooks, he's got Jason Segal, Robert Smigel, Chris O'Dowd, Annie Mumolo, and Melissa McCarthy (who's especially funny riffing in the outtakes that roll during the credits). Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi are also surprisingly good. Some of the most hilarious scenes are both the most off-color and most true to life, as when Pete asks Debbie to look at a possible ailment in his butt. (Two older women in the theater completely lost it at this point; it felt like it was a moment of recognition, because they also starting whispering to each other.) It's not Apatow's best film, but if you've liked his other efforts (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, and many more as a producer), you'll like this one.

(Here's Judd Apatow on The Treatment.)

John Carter: A decent but not great film based on the vintage pulp novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (who also created Tarzan), John Carter suffered from outsized expectations due to its massive budget (reportedly close to $250 million). Its writer-director Andrew Stanton is one of the best screenwriters working today (he's worked on most of the Pixar scripts), but this was his first live-action film, and was ridiculously ambitious considering that. It's not a masterpiece, but it's been criticized more than it deserves (the problem was more the film's marketing than the film itself, although Stanton had a major hand in that, too). Civil war soldier John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), weary of war, is being hunted and hides out in an old abandoned cave with odd carvings, and winds up accidentally transporting himself to Mars (Barsoom, the natives call it). The lower gravity makes it hard for him to adjust to movement at first, but it also makes him freakishly strong by local standards, and able to leap and bound across the landscape like a superhero. Mars has several competing factions, two "red" Martian contingents (who look basically human), based in the cities of Helium and Zodonga, who have been fighting each other for as long as they can remember. There's also the "green" Martians, who have multiple arms, and sometimes clash with the other two. On top of all this, some powerful, mysterious non-Martian aliens known as the Thern have decided to intervene in the wars for unknown reasons, and have granted the Zodonga special weaponry. With his amazing physical abilities, John Carter winds up very popular with the green Martians. When he rescues the gorgeous and proud Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) of the losing Helium faction, naturally he decides to help her out, too. John Carter teams up with her and his green Martian pal Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton) in hopes of finding a way home and discovering more about the Thern. The low-gravity action sequences are pretty spectacular, there's a fun Martian doggie, and the supporting cast (some live, some voice acting CG green Martians) is strong: Dominic West, Ciarán Hinds, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, James Purefoy, and Polly Walker. Several problems plague the film, however, some perhaps due to studio interference. An early sequence shows the Helium and Zodonga factions fighting, but it's hard to tell them apart, and before this initial setup is firmly established, in come the Thern to disrupt it and change the rules of the game. We then cut to Earth for what feels like about a half-hour (there's also a belabored framing device). The pacing is pretty poor throughout, unfortunately. Basically, the filmmakers don't orient us well, and despite the movie's pulp origins, the world is fairly complex, given that there are four factions to establish, and key characters within each one. John Carter also suffers from being much copied since the first novel, A Princess of Mars, was published in 1912. Elements that feel clichéd in the film may have been original to Burroughs, but they no longer feel that way to us. I wanted to like this more than I did. The setup is lacking, the pacing suffers in the middle, the story isn't that coherent, and I just didn't care that much about the characters. Fans of pulp sci-fi will want to check it out, but others might want to pass. (I do know a diehard Burroughs fan who had a nerdgasm over this film.)

Cloud Atlas: For most viewers, Cloud Atlas is a love it-or-hate it movie, scoring "A"s or "F"s from the critics. Adapted from David Mitchell's novel of the same name, it's a series of six loosely-interconnected stories set in different time periods. The directors (Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Lana Wachowski) cast each actor in multiple roles. It's neat to see someone be the lead in one story and a supporting actor in another, but while some of the makeup is impressive, other instances are painfully bad and pull the viewer out. The same goes for the performances, which range considerably. Ben Whishaw is affecting as struggling young composer Robert Frobisher, Doona Bae brings a touching grace to Sonmi-451, Halle Barry is solid throughout, and Jim Broadbent is funny, touching or tyrannical as needed in his segments. On the other hand, Tom Hanks hams it up considerably, and his signature segment as Zachry, the furthest in the future, is hampered by the characters speaking in a slangy patois that might have read fine on paper, but approaches sci-fi cliché and self-parody on screen. (Here's my parody of it.) The film runs almost three hours, and we're willing to go along with it for a while because of the implicit promise that all these seemingly unrelated threads will come together and pay off. The thing is, they really don't, the pacing lags, and some segments simply aren't that interesting on their own (some viewers will strongly disagree). The cross-cut ending scenes for each segment reach for profundity, but I found them mostly trite and overwrought. All that said, I do think some elements of the film work very well. Zachry's fears are personified in the form of a green-skinned demon dressed akin to an undertaker called Uncle Georgie (Hugo Weaving), and the filmmakers play with quick cuts, lapping sound design, wild angles and gravity-defying appearances by Georgie to make him effectively, memorably creepy. It's a gutsy experiment that works; most of the others in the film don't. I suspect the genre- and tone-hopping of the segments worked better in the novel. In the movie, for instance, the 70s corporate espionage segment feels like it's there merely to bridge other segments. It's not that its star Halle Barry is bad, because she's not; we're just seen such things before, and we're not sure why we should care here. Hey, give the filmmakers credit for ambition, if nothing else.

(Here's Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Lana Wachowski on The Treatment.)

Lawless: It's 1931 in rural Virginia, and alcohol is illegal. The three Bondurant brothers make their living bootlegging booze. They're led by Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), who's a local legend and supposedly indestructible due to surviving firefights in WWI and a plague. (The film's loosely based on a real family.) The main character is the youngest brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who's ambitious but not too tough. He's sweet on a local girl, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska, who's quite good), but she belongs to an austere religious order, and her father definitely does not approve, especially when Jack gets deeper into crime. Trouble emerges because the Bondurants are simply too profitable; they've been buying off the local cops fairly cheaply, but a big-time bootlegger, represented by a creepy dandy of a henchman, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes to acquire them or shake them down. Rakes is both a sadist and one to hold a grudge, and he makes sure things get ugly as a war escalates. Jessica Chastain also appears as Maggie, a woman who comes to work at the Bondurant saloon to flee some unknown past in the city. The rest of the cast includes Jason Clarke (as Howard Bondurant) and Gary Oldman in a small role (as another crime boss). Director John Hillcoat has a good feel for westerns and western-like films; as usual, he delivers good performances and scenes of quick, brutal violence. (It's also more fun than some of his other deeper but bleak efforts, such as The Proposition and The Road.) LaBeouf and Dane DeHaan (as backwoods gimp and wunderkind Cricket) give the film most of its exuberant energy as they try out new bootlegging techniques, and Pearce brings a meticulous menace. This is some of Chastain's better work; she's grounded and natural, and helps anchor the film. She's particularly good playing off of Tom Hardy as the taciturn Forrest; the characters have some chemistry, but Forrest is reluctant to act. Hardy accomplishes a great deal with grunts, nods, and tiny gestures, and he's particularly interesting to watch.

21 Jump Street: This flick wisely aims to be a fun summer comedy and nothing more – and largely succeeds on those terms. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are rookie, odd couple cop partners who screw up spectacularly. They get transferred to a special unit run by tough-talking Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), who assigns them to go undercover at a high school to bust up a drug ring. In a neat twist, the two flub their introductions and wind up having to adopt each other's fake identity, which means the anti-intellectual Jenko is supposed to be a science whiz and the shy, schlubby Schmidt is supposed to be on track and in drama. The most problematic sections of the movie come with Schmidt's potential romantic involvement with Molly Tracey (Brie Larson), because she's still in high school and he is in fact an adult, even if he's shy and insecure with women. The same goes to a lesser degree for the attentions of science teacher Ms. Griggs (Ellie Kemper) for Jenko (but at least they're age-appropriate, even if she doesn't know that). It all kinda works, and never gets too creepy. The supporting cast features some good comic actors, and there's some funny stuff and surprises along the way. 21 Jump Street received plenty of "better than I expected" reviews, but it would be wrong to oversell it, too – it's a silly summer comedy and fun diversionary viewing, nothing more or less.

Zero Dark Thirty: I'm discussing this film in a separate, longer post I'll link here later, but didn't want to delay posting the roundup any longer. This isn't as polished as I'd like, but for now:

While I couldn't see Zero Dark Thirty in a vacuum, and others have found it very engaging, I found director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Marc Boal's previous effort, The Hurt Locker, much more effective as a film on its merits, and United 93 much more effective (and accurate) as a docudrama. (The Hurt Locker is the first film reviewed here, and United 93 is the fourth film reviewed here.)

Watching Zero Dark Thirty was an odd experience for me because I went in knowing some major accuracy issues from following this stuff, covered best in relation to the film by Jane Mayer , Steve Coll, Alex Gibney, Peter Bergen and Ali Soufan. My theory is that the main problems occurred because the production time was extremely tight and, as Gibney puts it diplomatically, Boal and Bigelow were seduced by their sources. Consequently, they excluded a mountain of other contradictory evidence and accounts, including material raising questions about the real Maya's credibility and culpability. (I suspect they didn't even know about the other stuff in any depth, or dismissed it out of hand. But to my dismay, they've got plenty of company, including reporter Mark Bowden, who apparently knows the final raid well, but not much about the preceding years.) I support Bigelow and Boal's right to make any film they want (and I'm a fan of Chastain and some of the other actors), but I question many of their artistic choices. The docudrama aspect makes the issue much more pertinent than it would be otherwise, because the explicit and implicit promises that 'we've gotten the essence right, even if we change some particulars' is a key part of both their aesthetic and the viewing experience. And hey, I want to root for the filmmaking team, but.. Basically, I think they wanted to make a film about a plucky heroine who fights her bosses to bring a terrorist to justice at great personal cost (and there's a grain of truth there), but when they settled on that story, it required outright dismissal of many other accounts and precluded many other artistic choices. They wound up eliminating drama that actually occurred and inventing conflict where there wasn't.

Related to this, trying to make a film heavily featuring the U.S. torture program that doesn't raise "political" questions and yet is simultaneously honest is basically impossible. I can buy good intentions from Bigelow and Boal, but two factors loom huge here – their choice of sources, and their artistic choice to deny context to the viewer. I think they picked an outlier account that contradicts many other accounts that are mostly consistent with one another. Unfortunately, this smacks of shoddy research, lack of due diligence, lack of skepticism in reporting, and seduction by a preferred narrative. So on the source/accuracy front, I think they got played, and that they bear some culpability for that. (I'm not surprised they're defensive about this, but the caliber of their arguments have been disappointing, and aren't helping any.) Meanwhile, on the "political" front, as Emily Bazelon puts it, "The filmmakers didn’t set out to be Bush-Cheney apologists. But they adopted a close-to-the-ground point of view, and perhaps they’re in denial about how far down the path to condoning torture this led them." Peter Rainer puts it more strongly:

What I find troubling and infuriating is that by turning the hunt for bin Laden, however expertly, into a glorified police procedural, Bigelow neutralizes the most controversial and charged aspects of this story. (To no avail, I might add: The film is controversial anyway.) President George W. Bush is never shown, ditto Dick Cheney, Iraq is AWOL, and President Obama is only glimpsed in a 2008 campaign interview. This is a bit like making a movie about the D-Day invasion without referencing FDR or Eisenhower.

I sincerely respect the impulse, but unfortunately in this case, trying not to be political winds up being political. (It was possible in The Hurt Locker, because the grunt level experience in Iraq doesn't have to touch on why the war started, but they don't pull it off here.) Bigelow and Boal would fiercely disagree, but it winds up being gutless and misleading. "Showing not telling" is a great aesthetic, but they cannot offer us the chance to "decide for ourselves" if they omit so much crucial information. (See the links above from Mayer and the others.) Much of the "ambiguity" Bigelow and Boal present is an artistic construct, an artistic choice, as is their decision on how to present their key protagonists. Zero Dark Thirty presents the illusion of hard truths versus hard truths themselves.

The film' structure roughly goes: Torture, the New Search for bin Laden, Maya Against her Bosses, and The Raid. The Search section has the most subchapters, and I found it by far the best, with some talented filmmaking on display – tense action scenes, alternating with a decent look at how grueling (and even boring) counterterrorism work can be. The Raid is well-staged, but loses some suspense since we know the outcome. The Torture section's main purpose aesthetically is to establish the film as "gritty" and "realistic"; it's also got the most problematic material in terms of accuracy and denial of context for the viewer. That said, I found some of the scenes in the Maya Against her Bosses section implausible as well, and surprisingly bad. The film becomes the old, clichéd, maverick cop defying his (her) chickenshit boss flick, with some of the worst writing and directing of the film, and I honestly felt embarrassed for the actors and the filmmakers. These scenes made me wonder why, if Bigelow and Boal chose to take such artistic license elsewhere for the sake of a 'gritty and realistic' aesthetic, they chose to go for such occasionally cartoonish conflict in this section. (Your mileage definitely may vary; many viewers loved this film.)

When authenticity is a vital part of a film's aesthetic and is explicitly and implicitly promised by the filmmakers (and is a key part of their promotions of the film), then it becomes a fair and important area of criticism. Bigelow and Boal are free to make any film they want, of course, and I defend them on that front, but the film raises important questions about the nature of truth in art, and artistic choices and responsibilities regarding it. (We've discussed accuracy issues with some of the other films in this year's roundup, but Zero Dark Thirty is different in that it's covering controversial recent history, and major players in the torture program still face criminal liability over their actions, at least overseas. The stakes are higher. But more in the separate post.) I found that Jane Mayer summed up my feelings pretty well when she wrote, "Maybe I care too much about all of this to enjoy it with popcorn. But maybe the creators of “Zero Dark Thirty” should care a little bit more."

1 comment:

Syrbal/Labrys said...

Grateful for the posts, that's me! So glad to find a Tolkien fan NOT making shrill pom pom shaking squeeks over The Hobbit. I was never that fond of the book, and seeing it being stretched into a trilogy of films not only bores, but annoys me.

I tried to read "Cloud Atlas" and the style reminded me of what could occur if Jane Austen and Frank Herbert had a crack baby together. So, I am undecided if I want to inflict the film upon myself.

But now I know what to fall down in front of on Netflix in spring-gardening-exhaustion! Thanks!