Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Control, Punish and Shame

As we've often noted here, most of the time, when conservatives say "freedom," they really mean privilege. This trait isn't limited to social and authoritarian conservatives, but it's often more noticeable with them. Theocrats in particular are less likely (at least among their own) to hide their true beliefs about their own superiority and desire to control others.

Fred Clark of slacktivist has written a fair number of characteristically thoughtful pieces on the anti-choice abortion movement. Earlier this month, he received some pushback for a characterization of abortion opponents:

Last week we looked at an incident involving an evangelical college that fired a woman for having sex outside of marriage — offering her former job to the man she slept with. Examining San Diego Christian College’s double-standard, and the affirmation of that double standard in Christianity Today’s reporting on the incident, I wrote this:

Given the chance to choose between “saving babies” and controlling women, both the magazine and the college instinctively opt for controlling women.

Women who have sex must be punished. …

To defend this, Clark quoted a Right Wing Watch piece on a radio segment with Pat Fagan, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council run by Tony Perkins. (FRC's members can be labeled "conservative Christians," although I'd put it more strongly and call them right-wing theocrats.) In the segment, Fagan discussed an article he wrote on Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court case that "established the right of unmarried people to possess contraception on the same basis as married couples and, by implication, the right of unmarried couples to engage in potentially nonprocreative sexual intercourse." Fagan wrote that "Future generations may rank this as the single most destructive decision in the history of the Court." In the radio segment (audio at the link), he said:

The court decided that single people have the right to contraceptives. What’s that got to do with marriage? Everything, because what the Supreme Court essentially said is single people have the right to engage in sexual intercourse. Well, societies have always forbidden that, there were laws against it. Now sure, single people are inclined to push the fences and jump over them, particularly if they are in love with each other and going onto marriage, but they always knew they were doing wrong. In this case the Supreme Court said, take those fences away they can do whatever they like, and they didn’t address at all what status children had, what status the commons had, by commons I mean the rest of the United States, have they got any standing in this case? They just said no, singles have the right to contraceptives we mean singles have the right to have sex outside of marriage. Brushing aside millennia, thousands and thousands of years of wisdom, tradition, culture and setting in motion what we have. …

It’s not the contraception, everybody thinks it’s about contraception, but what this court case said was young people have the right to engage in sex outside of marriage. Society never gave young people that right, functioning societies don’t do that, they stop it, they punish it, they corral people, they shame people, they do whatever. The institution for the expression of sexuality is marriage and all societies always shepherded young people there, what the Supreme Court said was forget that shepherding, you can’t block that, that’s not to be done.

Points for honesty, I guess, but this attitude is pretty astounding. Two major problems present themselves. First, Fagan's depiction of cultural mores on sex is laughably ahistorical. In the United States alone, as the Guttmacher Institute points out:

The vast majority of Americans have sex before marriage, including those who abstained from sex during their teenage years, according to “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954–2003,” by Lawrence B. Finer, published in the January/February 2007 issue of Public Health Reports. Further, contrary to the public perception that premarital sex is much more common now than in the past, the study shows that even among women who were born in the 1940s, nearly nine in 10 had sex before marriage.

The new study uses data from several rounds of the federal National Survey of Family Growth to examine sexual behavior before marriage, and how it has changed over time. According to the analysis, by age 44, 99% of respondents had had sex, and 95% had done so before marriage. Even among those who abstained from sex until age 20 or older, 81% had had premarital sex by age 44.

“This is reality-check research. Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades,” says study author Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute. “The data clearly show that the majority of older teens and adults have already had sex before marriage, which calls into question the federal government’s funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for 12–29-year-olds. It would be more effective to provide young people with the skills and information they need to be safe once they become sexually active—which nearly everyone eventually will.”

(You can read the full study here. And as the joke goes, it's not "premarital" sex if you never get married.)

Consider Victorian Britain as well. It's was one of the most outwardly prudish societies of the past few millennia, especially regarding sex and female sexuality, and yet prostitution was rampant. The image did not match the reality. Similarly, Utah, the most Republican state in the nation, and outwardly socially conservative, consumes the most porn in the nation, and "those states that do consume the most porn tend to be more conservative and religious than states with lower levels of consumption." We won't even delve fully into the Greeks and Romans, or the history of marriage, including polygamy or the concept of women as property (which continues somewhat to this day).

Second – Fagan really, truly thinks he should get to control sexual activity, whether it's through "society" or his church or the government. He's outraged by the idea that "single people have the right to engage in sexual intercourse." Furthermore, "society never gave young people that right, functioning societies don’t do that, they stop it, they punish it, they corral people, they shame people, they do whatever." Bluntly, Fagan believes that his fellow citizens – adults – shouldn't be allowed to fuck without his permission.

This is a recurring trait among authoritarians (looked at in most detail previously here) – they truly believe that they should be able to control other people's lives and make decisions that are none of their damn business.

This attitude isn't limited to far-right social conservatives, however. Mitt Romney's campaign remarks about 47% of Americans being 'takers' focused more on economic/fiscal issues (also the idea of a social contract), but weren't that different. Like Fagan, Romney's accusations are grossly counterfactual, and like Fagan, there's a mean streak there – a sense of entitlement, and resentment, and a desire to punish his less-fortunate fellow Americans (certainly if one looked at his budget plan).

We can discuss all this in terms of the stupid-evil-crazy vortex, but the bottom line is that a significant portion of American conservatives are, well, delusional assholes. They believe things that simply aren't true, and they want some of their fellow Americans to suffer. Specifically, they want the Americans who already have less than themselves to suffer. ("Delusional assholes" may sound harsh, and use a more polite term if you like, but "jerks" seems too tame and "bastards," "scumbags" or similar words aren't that much tamer than "asshole." Meanwhile, "delusional" seems hard to contest.) Fagan is more of a theocrat and Romney more of a plutocrat, but both seek to place themselves atop a hierarchy, with most of their fellow citizens below, and they view that as the natural order. Even if one believes that they are nice or well-intentioned, people of this mindset should be prevented from gaining power over others – but I would argue that their desire to domineer others proves that they are not nice or well-intentioned. As we've noted many times before, theocrats aren't seeking freedom, which they already possess –they are seeking privilege, and power over others.

(This post is part of the annual Blog Against Theocracy, even if it's not an organized event this year, but check out Tengrain's posts for the occasion. Here are my archives for Blog Against Theocracy, the Religious Right and Religion, which naturally overlap significantly.)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Headline Twist

So, this headline for LA Observed:

Means that this guy:

Endorses this woman in the Los Angeles mayoral race:

But for a split-second, I read it as Clinton endorses:

Hey, it's more filling than cake.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ivan & Alyosha – "Running For Cover"

There's also a good live version from their KCRW session (but the backing vocals are mixed too low for my tastes). As some folks might have guessed, the band takes its name from characters in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov.

Kurosawa's Birthday 2013

Each one [of the films I’ve made with Kurosawa] is something very like a revelation to me – not only about him, but about myself as well. Talking about actors’ realizing themselves, when I am with Kurosawa... I realize myself best. And yet he never dictates. Rather, he allows you to do your best, and for him you do it.
– Takashi Shimura

Photos and quotation from This Must Be the Place. Fans of Akira Kurosawa will recognize the film as Ikiru. As much as I love his chanbara (samurai films) and jidai-geki (period films), Ikiru remains one of my favorites. From my most extensive post on Kurosawa:

Ikiru (To Live, 1952): A petty bureaucrat discovers he's terminally ill, and turns first to hedonism but then struggles to find some deeper meaning or last gesture. This one starts slowly, but is well worth the time, with a great performance by long-time Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura. There's some funny and occasionally very dark satire in this one, including a wonderful bureaucracy montage. (There's also a scene of overacting that makes me wince, but hey, it was the young actress' first film.) The story cycles around and ever closer in on Kanji Watanabe (Shimura), building in emotional power. There's a scene in a park near the end that's one of the most moving I've ever seen. It's true of many Kurosawa films, but this one will really stay with you.

Monday, March 18, 2013

2012 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(Welcome to the Annual Post-Oscar Film Roundup, a tradition that dates back to the misty age of pre-blog times. (It was delayed more than I'd like.) It's broken into four parts. To read it all, start here, scroll down, and use the "Older Posts" link if necessary.)

2012 saw a number of strong films, from quieter and more intimate movies to several very good summer blockbusters. I didn't absolutely love many films this year, but I enjoyed (or appreciated) quite a few.

As far as the Oscars ceremony goes, I'll say again that cinephiles watch to see good work (and careers) recognized, to howl at the injustices, and to marvel at those talented but sometimes clueless people who provide the glorious excess and astounding bad taste that Hollywood excels at.

Host Seth MacFarlane didn't win much love. His brand of humor is often crass and tries to be transgressive, but the show producers knew that; they picked him because his show Family Guy has a devoted following that skews younger than the average Oscar audience. MacFarlane used a framing device of Captain Kirk (William Shatner) beaming back to the future via a TV screen to warn MacFarlane of the trainwreck reviews he was going to receive the next day. Kirk would show video of an offending number (the first was a song-and-dance number called "We Saw Your Boobs"), and then in the "present," MacFarlane and a few stars would stage some classier song-and/or-dance number. MacFarlane would then ask Kirk if that 'erased' the bad reviews, which would then get marginally less scathing. The whole concept seemed to be MacFarlane poking the Academy – you say you want a younger audience, but you also want a classy show – assuming those two conflict, which do you really want?

Of course, the framing device doesn't truly get you off the hook for a bad number. The whole bit was "meta" and perhaps self-involved, but the truth is, in Hollywood and the rest of the country, everybody the next day is talking about how the host did, and judgment standards tend to be harsh. The show's always bashed for being too long and padded, and generally, that's deserved. By MacFarlane's standards, he cleaned up his act considerably for ABC, but it was still too much 'smirking male adolescent' for many critics. I thought some of his jokes were aimed at the industry more than women themselves, but I have to agree that some of his material was sexist or crossed the line (for instance, mentioning Jodie Foster's "boobs" in The Accused, especially considering it's a rape scene). A Jewish joke or two is almost obligatory, but the bit with MacFarlane's CG character, the crass teddy bear Ted, went on a bit too long and started to get a bit creepy (the Jews run Hollywood, the after-party orgy is at Jack Nicholson's house, etc.).

I've never been a big fan of MacFarlane, despite his talents as a voice actor and singer. Family Guy and his other shows have always had a meanness to them, and we don't really care about their characters, in contrast with The Simpsons, where, for example, Homer Simpson is selfish, impulsive and dim-witted, but does actually love his wife and children and will sacrifice for them. It's a more mature, wiser show, and asks us to laugh at ourselves at least occasionally and not just at others (its decline is another conversation). That said, Family Guy is actually funny and successful if taken on its own 'smirking male adolescent' terms. There are many flavors of comedy, and plenty of them do have a mean streak, if not as insistent.

The joke I most enjoyed (I've been waiting for someone to do this) was MacFarlane saying, "The next presenter needs no introduction"… and then actually leaving, without giving any further introduction (well-played, given that it was Meryl Streep). The gag riffing on The Sound of Music was also pretty good. When MacFarlane told a joke off of Django Unchained ("A lot of controversy over the multiple uses of 'the n-word'. I am told the screenplay is loosely based on Mel Gibson's voice mails.") the audience booed, and MacFarlane with some justification jabbed back, "Oh, you're on his side."

As Washington Post TV critic Lisa de Moraes notes, Oscar hosts are either insiders and outsiders, and outsiders such as McFarlane tend to take a scorched earth approach, planning that they’ll never host the Oscars again. Meanwhile, the Oscar producers and the Academy were quite pleased with McFarlane because the broadcast nabbed 40.3 million viewers:

…making it the most watched entertainment program on TV in nearly three years.

Even more important to broadcaster ABC: Sunday’s Oscarcast scored a nearly three-year record among viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, who are the currency of TV ad sales.

In particular, the network boasted the show’s 34 percent year-to-year ratings spike among 18- to 34-year-old men, who are the elusive unicorns of the ad world.

Ratings trump concerns over taste for the Academy. (The factor that's often ignored in Oscar ratings is that the selection of films nominated make a significant difference. If one or more of the major contenders has a large following, they'll tune in, regardless of the host.)

The quality of his jokes aside, MacFarlane actually hit his marks and kept the show moving much better than most of the other performers on stage. Presenter banter is often awkward and goes on too long, but it was noticeably worse than usual this year, with decent timing and smooth delivery a rarity. (Perhaps everyone and not just a select few got blitzed beforehand?) Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy are usually funny, but the gags just weren't good and their timing was surprising lousy. The Avengers cast also tripped all over each others' lines.

The James Bond montage was surprisingly weak, especially compared to some of the excellent Oscar montages the past several years. That said, the best moment of the night was Shirley Bassey, 76 years old (!!!), nailing "Goldfinger" and receiving a well-deserved standing ovation. I could have done without all the other song and dance numbers, including those for all of… three musicals? Chicago, Dreamgirls and Les Misérables, but no mention of Moulin Rouge, Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Sweeney Todd, Across the Universe or dozens of less-prominent musicals? Three films in 10 years constitutes a revival of the genre? (Perhaps there were rights issues, but I'd be shocked if the owners would turn down the free advertising. It turns out that the producers of this year's Oscars show also produced Chicago, so the stench of self-promotion hangs heavy here.) Adele was good (she was initially nervous but settled down), although it was rather unfair to feature only two of the five nominated songs. I could have done without Jennifer Hudson and Barbra Streisand, but both sung well. (Streisand sung after the "Montage of Death" had concluded. For the past few years, someone has sung during the actual montage, but has only been shown intermittently, primarily at the beginning and end. Our viewing party theorized that Streisand demanded otherwise.)

I wasn't crazy about Michelle Obama presenting an award. (Apparently, this was the idea of Harvey Weinstein's daughter Lily.) Given that past presidents and first ladies have been involved with the Super Bowl, Oscars and other awards shows, the general concept was hardly unprecedented, even if the level of involvement was greater. (I instantly thought of Ronald Reagan doing the coin toss for the Super Bowl.) Media Matters lists some other examples (Laura Bush participated in a taped Oscar segment in the past), and Steve M has a great roundup of similar stuff, including President Reagan's coin toss and participation in other Hollywood ceremonies. That's not to mention Nancy Reagan appearing with Mr. T and on Different Strokes, or Richard Nixon appearing on Laugh-In. (Oh, and remember George W. Bush appearing on Deal or No Deal? At least it was to honor a vet, but it was still bizarre.) I guess that, besides any image burnishing, it's all in the name of promoting American commerce and pop culture. I'm all for promoting the arts (even the more commercial ones), but I still wasn't wild about the segment. That said, it's silly to blow a gasket over Michelle Obama's appearance if you never objected to the other stuff. It's not as if the conservative outrage machine needs any rational reason to flame away or was going to like Hollywood otherwise, since they attack it constantly (see Roy Edroso's archives, among others); in a sense, this was the most thoughtful gift Hollywood could bestow.

The main value of the ceremony is in seeing worthy recipients honored (and/or trainwreck voyeurism), since the actual speeches tend to be underwhelming. Several years back, the Academy wisely added a "thank you cam" back stage for winners to go through their list, but alas, some winning speeches are still little more than the list. The welcome exceptions included Daniel Day-Lewis, who gave a sweet, humble and deadpan funny speech, as when he suggested that originally he was slotted to play Margaret Thatcher instead of Meryl Streep and she was pegged to play Lincoln.

One tip for next year for the ladies: Kiss your husbands or boyfriends after they give their speeches. Day-Lewis and another winner both had distracting, visible lipstick on them. (At the party I attended, we wondered for the first incident if it was a rash or sore before finally deciding it was lipstick.)

The worst injustice was probably giving Best Animated Feature to Brave over Wreck-It Ralph. Brave was decent, but a subpar effort from Pixar, while Wreck-It Ralph was entertaining, inventive and touching to boot. The Argo script was good, but I would have given Best Adapted Screenplay to Tony Kushner for Lincoln. (Looper should have had an original script nomination.) I also would have given Best Supporting Actor to Tommy Lee Jones or Robert DeNiro over Christoph Waltz, but since all five nominees already had an Oscar, it was hard to be too upset. It was nice to see Life of Pi win some four awards. (But how much of that cinematography was visual effects work? And how should that affect the award?) Ang Lee always gets good performances, but had to juggle significant technical challenges as well, and was a worthy recipient for Best Director. I think Spielberg and Lincoln got hurt by backlash over Ben Affleck not getting nominated for Best Director, and while I was fine with Argo winning, I do think voters took Spielberg's accomplishments a bit for granted this year. Decent biopics aren't rare, but great ones are; Spielberg, Kushner, Day-Lewis and the rest of the team made Lincoln look easy to make; it wasn't. (It's not a standard biopic, either, but it was no less challenging for that.)

Hathaway and Day-Lewis strongly deserved their wins. I would have respected Emmanuelle Riva winning Best Actress. (Although her co-star Trintignant actually had the harder role, and playing disabled can be easier than voters realize, Day-Lewis in My Left Foot being a possible exception.) Jessica Chastain has done better work than in Zero Dark Thirty, and while she makes a fairly convincing tough gal, her character didn't really have much depth. Given the field, I was happy to see Jennifer Lawrence win for a genuinely excellent performance that was funny, dramatic, biting and touching. (Extra points to Hugh Jackman for bounding to help her when she fell on the stairs.) On the kid performance front, Quvenzhané Wallis justly earned praise for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but I think Pierce Gagnon as Cid in Looper also delivered a striking, memorable performance (although he didn't have to carry the whole movie the way Wallis did).

Playing speakers who went on too long with the Jaws theme was a great touch, but one of the victims was the Visual Effects winners for Life of Pi. That's unfortunate, because one of the major developments in the industry is the financial woes of American visual effects houses, and Rhythm & Hues, the lead VFX studio behind Life of Pi, has filed for bankruptcy. KCRW's show The Business covers the story here and more briefly here, and The Hollywood Reporter also has a piece on it (in a nice gesture, the Animation Guild bought lunch for overtime workers at Rhythm & Hues). Given that so many hugely profitable movies are effects-driven, it makes little sense that the people doing essential work are going out of business. (Disclosure: I have a few friends in VFX.)

Finally, Entertainment Weekly put together a very good primer on cinema sound design and the sound awards.

On to the reviews. As usual, I wouldn't put too much stock in their relative category rankings. I try to label spoilers (my guideline is that, if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler). I didn't see as many foreign films and indies as I would have liked, but I saw slightly fewer movies overall in 2012.

2012 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Two

Lincoln: Director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and actor Daniel Day-Lewis head up an impressive team for this film on Abraham Lincoln and the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. At the center onscreen is Day-Lewis, whose resemblance to Lincoln (with the help of some makeup) becomes uncanny. It's one of his best performances, and he captures the warmth, intelligence, humor, and most of all, the dueling weariness and spirit in the man. Gaze at him, and you see an old soul, eyes that have seen perhaps too much, and a bemused smile about that odd creature, humanity. Day-Lewis pitches his voice high, to match historical accounts of Lincoln's speaking voice. His Lincoln is at turns enigmatic, cornball, an elevated being, and bursting with human frailties. The film wouldn't work nearly as well without a performance of this caliber. The movie's mostly talking heads and legislative maneuvering, and while political and historical junkies may find it fascinating, it's not necessarily an easy sell for a general audience. At the start of the film, the Civil War is drawing to a close, the South will try to keep slavery as a condition of surrender, and many in Congress will acquiesce to halt the war. However, the many lame duck members of Congress present an opportunity, because Lincoln and his allies can approach the softer supporters of slavery and appeal to their consciences – or just bribe them. (If progress is to made, appealing to the better angels of everyone's nature will only get them so far, and sleazier backroom deals will have to do the rest.)

Day-Lewis makes all this captivating, and he's got plenty of help. Spielberg being Spielberg, he can absolutely stack the deck with acting talent, even in small roles. Sally Field is memorable as the strong-willed, occasionally neurotic Mary Todd Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is their son Robert, who chafes at not being allowed to see military action. (One of the better scenes involves Lincoln losing his temper with him.) David Strathairn is Lincoln's former chief rival and Secretary of State, William Seward, who's grown to respect the man but is sometimes still baffled by him. The same goes for Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), Lincoln's harried Secretary of War. James Spader (typecast) as William Bilbo and John Hawkes as Robert Latham are tasked with the subtle and not-so-subtle bribes, which provide some humor and puncture a little sentimentality. Jackie Earle Haley is memorable as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, politically doomed but still potentially dangerous. Hal Habrook makes a welcome appearance, as does S. Epatha Merkerson in a small but crucial role. (About a dozen other actors of note fill out the ranks.) Finally, there's Tommy Lee Jones as fiery orator and stalwart abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, one of the "Radical Republicans" bent on ending slavery. It's one of Jones' best performances, and Stevens is faced with one of the greater dilemmas in the film – should he effectively disown his true beliefs in public on the congressional floor to win passage of the 13th Amendment – or speak his conscience and potentially sink a cause he's fought most of his life for? Spielberg wisely chooses to make this a moment of great tension, and Jones sells this struggle of conscience beautifully.

My one big complaint was, where's Frederick Douglass? The abolitionists, including many former slaves, are not well represented in the film apart from Stevens, and I wanted at least a cameo for Douglass. (It turns out that an earlier script by John Logan focused on Lincoln and his relationship with Douglass, then Paul Webb wrote more of a full biopic, then Tony Kushner wrote what eventually became the shooting script, centered on the 13th Amendment.) Spielberg was wise not to try to cover all of Lincoln's life, but the most worthy criticisms of Lincoln as history relate to sidelining the abolitionists. (More below. Criticism over the false depiction of Connecticut politicians voting to preserve slavery – for a more dramatic voting scene – are completely valid, but the demands that Spielberg re-film and recut the scene are absolutely ridiculous. It's simply not practical, and would set a horrible precedent. These events took place in 1864, and there are other inaccuracies in the film besides; use it as a teaching moment to launch a classroom discussion instead.)

All that said, I believe (as some historians have argued) that the film will encourage viewers to read more about Lincoln, the abolitionists and the Civil War, and it will do more good than harm on that front. Meanwhile, its merits as a film are considerable. It does an excellent job exploring both the mystique and humanity of one of America's most famous figures, and delves into the nature of political progress far more seriously than most pop culture. That's no easy feat; the team here just makes it look easy. (At the end, it's hard not to wonder about Lincoln the man, "What if?") Lincoln is worth seeing for Day-Lewis' remarkable performance alone, but I think this film will grow in esteem over the years. (On the technical front, DP Janusz Kaminski overdoes the shadowy eye sockets for my tastes, but generally speaking, this is a very handsomely put-together production, as one would expect from Team Spielberg. I think it's his best film since his 2002 entries, Catch Me If You Can and Minority Report.)

(Here's Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Doris Kearns Goodwin and sound designer Ben Burtt on NPR. Here's Tony Kushner on Fresh Air and Janusz Kaminski on The Treatment. Historians Ronald White and Corey Robin weigh in on its accuracy and the choices it makes. Finally, I'd recommend the three-hour PBS series The Abolitionists for some of the crucial history the film does not cover, including much more on Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.)

Silver Linings Playbook: Writer-director David O. Russell (The Fighter) sure has a knack for coaxing out great performances from his actors, and this is an excellent romantic comedy-drama that hits all the notes it has to. Adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick, the film centers on Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a youngish former high school teacher who's bipolar. He's been in a psychiatric hospital because when he discovered his wife having an affair, he severely beat her lover. She's taken out a restraining order, but he's still in love with her, and is working hard to put his life together to win her back. He's lost a fair amount of weight and is determined to lose more (he jogs around his Philly neighborhood with a trashbag on to increase sweating), but he's not thrilled about taking his meds, which can make his thinking foggy. His well-intentioned but overwhelmed mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) springs him early from the hospital (the court's approval is involved) and Pat's OCD, Philadelphia-Eagles-worshipping father Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) isn't entirely sold on it. Pat Sr. tries to connect with his son, but struggles, especially when Pat Jr. backslides, and Pat Sr. also feels guilty about possibly screwing up his parenting in the past. (It's DeNiro's best serious performance in a while, understated, nuanced, phenomenally grounded, and authentic.) Also trying to keep Pat on the straight and narrow is his psychiatrist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher) and one of his best friends, Ronnie (John Ortiz). Ronnie seems to be doing great, but he confides to Pat that he's very distressed, mostly because he's trying to please his somewhat uptight wife Veronica (Julia Stiles), who doesn't care much for Pat, but does make an effort. Into Pat's life comes Veronica's sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), widow of his high school classmate Tommy (who was a cop). She's depressed and hates putting on a show, too, and the two instantly bond by trading war stories about the drugs they've been prescribed. Tiffany makes a strong pass, but Pat declines because he's still in love with his wife, and she feels rebuffed. (He's also a bit delusional about his chances.) Things really pick up when Tiffany offers to smuggle a letter to Pat's wife Nikki (illegal, and potentially dangerous)… if Pat will partner with her for a dance contest.

There are many things to like about this film, but the key is the developing relationship between Pat and Tiffany. It feels real, it's funny, they're both more than a bit neurotic (he's more peppy and she's more dour), but they can be kind to each other. (Tiffany rightly pegs that Pat thinks she's more damaged than him, though.) A single scene can deliver laughs but also poignancy. (One of the cooler scenes involves Tiffany surreptitiously hearing Pat sticking up for her; he's definitely got his issues, but on one level, he respects her and "gets her" much better than some of the other people in her life, no matter how well-intentioned.) All of the family scenes also have that ring of truth, with both of Pat's parents as loving as they are helpless, and Pat Sr. definitely a model of his generation when it comes to repression. (A scene where Tiffany faces down Pat Sr. is fantastic. Chris Tucker is also good in a small but important role as a charming pal of Pat's from the hospital.) Russell and the actors understand mental illness (Russell's son is bipolar and OCD), and this isn't a disease-of-the-week tearjerker or sensationalized treatment of the subject. Mental illness is an important theme, and while it also drives a lot of the comedy, its portrayal isn't schticky or cheap here, nor is it the sole definer of these characters. I laughed out loud frequently during this film, and this is the comedy of recognition and compassion, not derision and distance. This is the best work Bradley Cooper's done, displaying both manic energy and depth, all grounded in a real character. Lawrence alternately shows a fierceness and vulnerability that are both affecting. (She definitely gets that reject-them-before-you-can-be-rejected dynamic, and it's arresting when we catch some tiny glimpse of desperation through the sarcastic mask.) I honestly cared about these characters, the film sells some potentially tough character developments, it earns its good will, and the two climatic scenes are beautifully done.

(Here's David O. Russell on The Treatment. Here's Bradley Cooper on Fresh Air and Morning Edition. Here's Jacki Weaver on NPR.)

2012 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson's latest film has his usual quirky characters galore, but also a sweet side that helps ground it. It's a tale of young romance in 1965, as misfit orphan and "Khaki Scout" Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) decides to run away from camp on a New England island with a girl who lives there, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). They've been secret pen pals since meeting a year previously during a student play. When Suzy, who's never quite fit in either, discovers that her lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) have been reading a book about raising a problem child (she knows it's her), she's all the more eager to leave. Unfortunately, a historic storm is bearing down, so everyone is in even hotter pursuit than they would be otherwise: Suzy's parents, the lonely local police captain (Bruce Willis), earnest Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), the other scouts (some who are eager for the chance to bring in Sam violently) and the implacable Social Services (Tilda Swinton – seriously, that's how she refers to herself). Oh, and Bob Balaban narrates the progress of the storm. What makes Moonrise Kingdom work so well is its authentic, warm depiction about budding love. Sam and Suzy are tweens, and hopelessly impractical about what they need to run away. Sam at least brings a tent and some camping gear, but Suzy brings along a small library of her favorite books and a record player. We can't help but root for them, and wonder about the supposed wisdom and reliability of some of the well-intentioned but intensely fallible adults guiding their lives. The kids' affection outpaces their good sense, but it also gives the film an emotional core that anchors Anderson's more fanciful flourishes. This isn't for viewers who know they dislike Anderson's style, but I thought the entire cast was great, and really enjoyed this one.
My one quibble is due to a pet peeve about the unrealistic depiction of the survivability of lightning strikes.

(Here's Wes Anderson on The Treatment and Fresh Air. Here's music supervisor Randall Poster. Here's composer Alexander Desplat on The Business – he also composed the scores for Argo and Zero Dark Thirty.)

Argo: The eventual best picture winner, Argo is an ambitious and often dazzling blend of Hollywood satire and taut thriller. Based on true events, it chronicles how, in the early days of Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the American hostage crisis, six Americans managed to sneak to the Canadian embassy. The CIA then attempted an improbable escape plan, crafting cover identities for them as a fake film crew to try to extract them. Ben Affleck, whose superb directing work on Gone Baby Gone went underappreciated, directed Argo and also plays one of the leads, low-key CIA agent Tony Mendez. First Mendez must sell this crazy idea to his bosses, including Bryan Cranston as Jack O'Donnell and others higher up ("Do you have any other bad ideas?" "No sir; this is the best bad idea we've got."). Then Mendez heads to Hollywood and recruits CIA asset and makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Goodman and Arkin have fantastic chemistry and impeccable timing as they put together a sci-fi film, Argo (it appears to be a bad Star Wars rip-off), complete with poster art, outlandish costumes and a publicized first reading. One of the most effective sequences in the film intercuts between the preposterous, comical reading in Hollywood and scenes of tension in Iran. It would have been easy to overplay or flub this, given the wide disparity of tones, but Affleck uses a gentle touch that manages to emphasizes both the absurdity and human stakes of the whole situation. Finally, Mendez must get to Iran, and hardest of all, sell the six Americans (some of whom are quite skeptical) to go along with his plan. In addition to the aforementioned actors, who are all excellent, Victor Garber is great as the Canadian ambassador and Clea DuVall and Scoot McNairy are standouts among the hiding Americans. (A scene where McNairy, as Joe Stafford, must rely on his Farsi language skills, is wonderful.)

The film has been fairly criticized for taking some liberties with the truth, primarily in playing up the role of the CIA and playing down the role of Canada (more below). Also, with the exception of a housekeeper, the Iranians are primarily depicted as an angry, menacing mob, and we learn little of them as people and their point of view. I did appreciate that the film provided a brief primer on Iranian history for American audiences, since I'm sure many viewers had no idea that the U.S. and U.K. instigated a coup of Iran's democratically-elected prime minister in the 50s over oil. (Meanwhile, I'd love to read the real-life screenplay of "Argo." Apparently, it was actually based on Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light, which I haven't read, but is reputedly pretty good.) It's no surprise the film industry took so warmly to this one, given that in Argo, Hollywood saves the day.

(Here's Ben Affleck on Fresh Air. Here's Ben Affleck and executive producer/"story detective" David Klawans on The Business. Here's Tony Mendez, Gary Sick and the NPR staff on the film's accuracy.)


Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been. It will be instantly outlawed, used only in secret by only the largest criminal organizations. It's nearly impossible to dispose of a body in the future, I'm told. Tagging techniques, what-not. So when these criminal organizations in the future need someone gone, they use specialized assassins in our present called "loopers." And so, my employers in the future nab the target, they zap them back to me – their looper. He appears, hands tied and head sacked, and I do the necessaries. Collect my silver. So the target has vanished from the future, and I've just disposed of a body that technically does not exist. Clean.

– The opening narration of the movie

The new film from writer director Rian Johnson of the creative and engaging Brick (the fourth film reviewed here) is a science-fiction action flick with an intricate plot and much more character depth than usual. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, and brighter than most, although as he notes, loopers are not known for their forward thinking. There's a process calling "closing your loop," in which the future gangs have a looper kill himself, and pay in gold as compensation. Letting one's older self escape, "letting your loop run," receives extremely harsh punishment. The thing is, a future crime boss called "the Rainmaker" seems to be closing more and more loops.

Joe has a conscience of sorts, especially when it comes to kids (he was an orphan), but he's also a killer and junkie living for the moment, and fundamentally selfish when we meet him (like Judas, he is paid in silver). His closest relationships are with a fellow looper, Seth (Paul Dano), who's a bit of a screw-up, and a dancer/prostitute, Suzie (Piper Perabo), who's gentle enough with him but wants to keep things strictly business. As the trailer reveals, when he faces his own older self (Bruce Willis), older Joe escapes, and young Joe must go on the lam trying to catch him. All the while, both Joes are being pursued by the cruel Kid Blue (Noah Segan) and the rest of the gang. Their leader is Abe (Jeff Daniels), who's returned from the future to run things for the mob (it's a one-way trip), and he's low-key, with a sense of humor, but has a brutal streak. (The violence in the film is mostly handled tastefully, but some of it is much more disturbing than a typical film, because it employs the viewer's imagination.) Willis is intent on changing something in the present to prevent events in the future, but it's a tricky proposition. Meanwhile, young Joe's flight eventually brings him to the farmhouse of the understandably guarded Sara Rollins (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon, whose performance is impressive).

One tradition of good sci-fi is to use an unusual situation to explore some part of the human condition or specific characters. Looper does that extremely well. Time travel is a natural for stories about regret and "what-ifs," and some of the strongest scenes are between Gordon-Levitt and Willis, as Willis tries to talk sense into his younger self. Sara is also a woman of hidden depths, and she and Cid draw more out of young Joe than he might have imagined. The logic and mechanics of the time travel in the film don't fully make sense upon close scrutiny (the two major models are a closed system and divergent streams, and Looper kinda tries to meld both), but these seem like forgivable elements given the quality of the film produced. Looper has many inventive elements, but it's the emotional core, the haunting and moving moments, that ultimately make it so memorable. The score, by Rian Johnson's brother Nathan, creatively and effectively uses many manipulated found sounds (the disc extras show more). Oddly enough, this is third film in which Willis has faced his younger self in some fashion.

(SPOILERS) I thought the very end was well set up and resonated. The effective range of the blunderbusses had been nicely established. As an audience member, I was left wondering if it wasn't wiser (monstrous as it would be), to kill Cid, who looks absolutely terrifying when he goes full Akira with the raging telekinesis, but young Joe's sympathy for kids and the fading of his willingness to kill when faced with Cid's traumatized, bloody face worked for me. Meanwhile, I bought the sex scene between Joe and Sara as a moment of intimacy and connection both characters were hungry for, but not that he had suddenly fallen in love with her (this reaction is exactly as Johnson intended). Old Joe took almost thirty years to discover true love and change his life, but young Joe gets a taste of a different path earlier (plus, he rightly feels guilty about Seth). Both these parallel lines of character development work, and sell the toughest scenes: Old Joe's guilt over killing a child is tastefully shot and grueling, sold by Willis' performance, while young Joe's final act felt appropriate, the act of self-sacrifice it's meant to be, sold by Gordon-Leviitt's regretful demeanor. It closes up the "loop" of time but also wraps up the narrative nicely, giving us a film that's both intellectually (for the most part) and emotionally satisfying.

(Here's Rian Johnson on Weekend Edition.)

Life of Pi: Yann Martel's popular novel defies easy adaptation, but director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee do a stupendous job bringing it to the screen. In the framing story, a writer struggling to find a good story (Rafe Spall) is introduced to the middle-aged "Pi" Patel (Irrfan Khan), because (he has been told) Pi can tell him a story that will make him believe in God. Intermittently the story returns to the present, but most of it is told in flashback. Pi (played by several actors, but mostly portrayed at 16 by Suraj Sharma) grew up in India, where his father owned a zoo. His full first name is "Piscine," a word related to fish (and French for "swimming pool"), but this inevitably means he's nicknamed "Pissing" at school, so he comes up with an elaborate plan to sell his schoolmates on the mathematical nickname "Pi" instead. (It's one of the great early sequences in the film, full of energy and clever adaptation choices.) Pi's parents are not very religious, but Pi winds up joining a church, synagogue, and mosque out of curiosity and searching. The zoo is losing money, and Pi's parents decide they must emigrate and sell the animals, but while on a ship, a terrible storm hits, the ship starts sinking, and Pi must scramble into a lifeboat, where several animals wind up as well – a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutan… and a male Bengal tiger (named Richard Parker due to a paperwork error). Most of the film centers on Pi's struggle to survive in these highly challenging circumstances. Due to hunger, thirst, and despair, he increasingly can't always tell what's real and what's not, but does witness both magical and harrowing sights. (A sequence involving a jumping whale at night is one of the most gorgeous.) The visual effects team does a masterful job selling us on the reality of the tiger, and the film just wouldn't work otherwise. Similarly, this is a film that really benefits from 3-D, and Ang Lee's choices are smart or even inspired in this respect. This is well worth a look.
Having a possibly unreliable narrator is vital to the book, and the film does a good job of capturing this, most of all with Pi's delirium on the water. The "second story" was handled exactly as I suspected – in a monologue. It's a wise choice, because visualizing it could be too brutal, and our main concern should be on the story's effect on Pi. Even so, the choice depends on a great performance, and luckily, Suraj Sharma comes through. I thought the final exchange between the writer and the adult Pi was slightly sentimentalized, with the music coming in to boot. I fully bought it as a moment of human compassion, but when I read the book, I found the ending more ambiguous and haunting. I thought Lee softened it to make it more palatable for a wider audience. Even pausing on the writer longer as he weighs it all, and not using the music, would have made the moment starker and less sentimental, but still got to the same place. Still, I'm not entirely set on that; these are debatable matters of artistic judgment about one of the most challenging elements of the book to adapt. (Perhaps they filmed and cut it several different ways to test it out; I'd be interested in the disc extras.) The filmmaking team did a remarkable job overall in making a very difficult project look easy.

(From NPR, here's Ang Lee, Irrfan Khan (the older Pi) and Suraj Sharma (the younger Pi). Here's studio exec Elizabeth Gabler and marine consultant Steven Callahan on The Business. Finally, here's Yann Martel on the original book on Bookworm.)

Amour: Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) outdoes himself in bleakness with this unflinching and affecting tale of illness intruding on a long marriage. This is for the most part a two-character film centered on elderly, retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). She suffers a stroke, normally-effective surgery doesn't correct it, and she returns home. One arm and leg don't work well anymore, she feels humiliated and ashamed by this disability, and withdraws, shunning even well-wishers. She hated being the hospital so much she makes Georges promise not to take her back no matter what, and he fatefully agrees. She has occasional home care from outside, but she has a second stroke, becomes further disabled, and the primary burden falls on Georges to care for her. The love of the film's title is readily apparent but also becomes strained; they both become overwhelmed, and neither of them always copes well. Isabelle Huppert plays their daughter, Eva, who is a bit self-involved but one of the few people voicing concern and questioning Georges' choice to steadfastly honor the wishes of her deteriorating mother. All the acting is superb, and while Riva received more of the accolades (including an Oscar nomination), acting disabled involves some technical challenges but is comparatively easy; Trintignant actually has the more demanding role performance-wise and narratively, in that he must anchor the film. Amour has a few moments of humor and levity, but they are scarce. This is not a pleasant film to watch, but it is a good one. It's the authenticity that gives Amour its snap and poignancy, particularly the moments when Georges, despite himself, loses patience with Anne. I still prefer Bergman's treatment of similar heavy subject matter, and am not always a fan of Haneke's preferences for long, static shots, rarely cutting in, and using off-screen action (the technique can be effective, although I thought it worked better in The White Ribbon). That said, I respect that Haneke intentionally leaves some key moments, including a climatic scene, more ambiguous than he could have. As the film builds, Haneke occasionally gives us a brief respite of peace or tenderness, but then tends to undercut this, sometimes brutally. In both the story and the storytelling, Haneke is intent on denying us easy answers and false comfort.

Anna Karenina: Director Joe Wright and actress Keira Knightly team up yet again, this time with a handsome adaptation of Tolstoy's celebrated novel. (Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay.) The setting is 19th century St. Petersburg, Russia. Anna is an upper-class woman devoted to her young son with her very proper husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), but their marriage lacks passion. Anna's brother, "Stiva" Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), has cheated on his wife with the governess, and Anna travels by train to Moscow to try to save their marriage. She begs her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly McDonald) to forgive him; Stiva does love her, but he's weak when it comes to fidelity. Anna meets the dashing Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and the sparks fly. The young and comely Kitty (Alicia Vikander) also has eyes for Vronksy, and she is desperately loved in turn by Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who has money, but does not interest her because he's terribly earnest and not as dynamic as Vronsky. (It wouldn't be a Russian novel without a few love triangles.) Anna is increasingly drawn to Vronsky – who encourages her every step of the way with professions of deep love – and finds herself in a seemingly impossible dilemma. How can she deny the passion she feels for Vronsky, and keep her distance, in misery? But how can she leave her son, whom she would never see again, if she were to leave Karenin to be with Vronsky?

Wright and Stoppard choose to start the film in a theater, as if all the characters are actors in a play. Occasionally throughout the film, the film breaks out into the countryside, or the real world invades the theater, as during a horse race, when real horses are seen racing across a theater stage. This framing device could play as forced or affected, but it works surprising well. It effectively underlines how Russian high society enforces a strict social code and defined roles – especially for women. One of many striking aspects of the story is how much of a double standard exists for men and women when it comes to infidelity. The film is handsomely shot by Seamus McGarvey, and it won the Oscar for Best Costume Design (Academy voters do love those big pouffy gowns). It's a testament to Tolstoy and the filmmaking team that none of the major characters are shallow or two-dimensional. Anna can seem selfish and short-sighted, but also quite sympathetic. Karenin behaves with impeccable honor in his own eyes, but he's a bit of a cold fish. Vronsky seems sincere, but there are hints of fickleness in him as well. Each character has opportunities for regret – but not all are granted chances for redemption. The film builds well to the story's famous ending. I still need to read Anna Karenina, so I can't speak to this film as an adaptation, but it works well on its own merits as a film.

(From NPR, here's Joe Wright, Tom Stoppard and Keira Knightley.)

Skyfall: James Bond's latest outing is an atypical Bond flick but also one of the better entries in the franchise. A wounded Bond (Daniel Craig) works hard to recover and return to full active duty for a vital mission, but he's challenged by physical limitations… and mental hang-ups as well. Someone with inside knowledge is targeting M (Judi Dench), and it's personal, but with potentially wide-ranging, dangerous consequences, too. As usual, there are some impressive stunts and action set pieces, but the casting and acting is a cut above in this one. The film boasts no fewer than four Oscar winners plus a deserving nominee: Director Sam Mendes, and actors Dench, Javier Bardem and Albert Finney, plus Ralph Fiennes. (Naomie Harris and Ben Whinshaw are also good.) It's quite a lineup, and the story allows nearly everyone some splendid moments. Bardem has a blast as Silva, the twisted-and-clever chief villain, who uses computers, deception and even his own sexuality as weapons. As always, Craig makes a credible badass, but he's also convincing in selling both Bond's vulnerabilities and the indomitable will that pushes him forward regardless. I do know viewers who thought this was a good flick, but "not a Bond film," but Casino Royale received the same response in some quarters. Personally, Casino Royale may be my very favorite Bond film (with the possible exception of Goldfinger). While I do expect certain elements in a Bond film – most of all, well-staged action sequences – I'm less tied to specific tropes, and appreciate the effort to make a good film that's not paint-by-numbers. (It's a successful effort in this case.) Composer Thomas Newman received both praise and criticism for his score, and while it's not one of his most distinctive, given that it's a Bond film, his musical palette is more constrained. Meanwhile, Adele's Bond song is one of the better recent ones, and amazingly enough, the only Bond song to date to win a Best Original Song Oscar.
Casino Royale was a reboot of the series; Skyfall in a sense is a reboot of a reboot. Attentive viewers may spot some of the pieces being moved into place, but they're not likely to mind; these elements are designed to be fan-pleasers. Additionally, while the film delves a bit into Bond's background and psyche, it's of a piece with the great train banter in Casino Royale. Thankfully, the filmmakers resist the horrible urge to psychoanalyze and "explain" all of our main character, as unfortunately occurs in, say, Immortal Beloved and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

(Here's Sam Mendes on The Treatment and Morning Edition.)

The Avengers: One of two major (and good) superhero movies of the summer, The Avengers is less serious than The Dark Knight Rises, but also more fun. The Marvel film team cleverly made separate films first to introduce all of the major characters in the Avengers, and then released this one. Writer-director and fanboy extraordinaire Joss Whedon proves to be an inspired choice to helm the outing. As usual, he delivers some memorable dialogue, interesting character touches, and crowd-pleasing scenes. At times he may stretch plausibility for the sake of a laugh ("He's adopted."), but his overall instincts prove quite sound. As in the original comics, the super-villain who has the heft to drive the superheroes together is Thor's perennial foe, Loki, the Norse god of lies, mischief and fire. Whedon has a good sense of physical space and pacing, and the extended, gigantic, climatic battle has good ebbs and flows, an overall build, and sharp character moments. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets a bit lost in the midst, but almost every other character has at least one great line or scene, and Whedon has a strong feel and affection for these characters. Despite the heavy firepower of several characters and star power of some of the cast, it's a testament to good filmmaking that Clark Gregg as mere mortal Agent Phil Coulson delivers one of the film's strongest moments. It'd be lovely if more summer blockbusters were this satisfying. Make sure to watch through the credits.

The Dark Knight Rises: The third and final installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy isn't as good as either of the previous entries, but he's set the bar high for himself and it's still well above the average superhero flick. Crime has dropped in Gotham City and Batman (Christian Bale) hasn't been seen in eight years. His alter ego, Bruce Wayne, has become a enigmatic recluse. He regains a spark when he's burgled by an attractive and agile woman who turns out to be Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). There's another intriguing woman on the scene, do-gooder Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), and Wayne's trusted friends, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) urge Wayne to rejoin society and take a greater interest in his failing business empire. Meanwhile, a mysterious villain named Bane (Tom Hardy) has arrived on the scene, and sets up a surprisingly large operation in Gotham's sewers. Bane's big, strong and wears an odd mask, but he's no dumb brute—he's cunning, and perhaps most dangerous of all, something of a fanatic. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is by now a weary police commissioner, harried by the ambitious Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley (Matthew Modine) but helped by a young cop with good instincts, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The Dark Knight's ending, arguing that Batman had to take the rap for murders Harvey Dent committed, was one of the more strained and implausible story elements in that movie, and its fallout in this third film similarly leads to some of the weaker story moments. Some of the plot developments also strain credulity (especially medical credulity). All that said, the cast is excellent and this is a well-constructed film overall. Bale remains a superb Batman, Hardy makes the most of his eyes and voice, and Hathaway gets quite the showcase. As Kyle, she has particular fun toying with men, playing the coquette or damsel in distress before pickpocketing them or delivering a boot to the head. (Hathaway also delivers some wonderful withering gazes.) If you've seen the other two, it would be silly to skip this one, even if it's a slight letdown. All in all, Nolan has acquitted himself extremely well, and Batman fans can count themselves lucky to have received a strong trilogy of films.

I found some of the political analysis of this film silly, although not as inane as that of The Dark Knight (the second film covered here). The film is not an indictment of the Occupy movement; Bane simply coopts some populist rhetoric while imposing a dictatorship, a very old gambit in history. Similarly, while Batman/Bruce Wayne is indeed a member of the wealthy 1% (a common comic book trope), in this film and the others, Wayne follows a family tradition of demonstrating a social conscience. He may be a bit cloistered (Kyle calls him on this), but he has a good heart, and he stands in sharp contrast to the many Mammon-worshipping figures in the series (for instance, several of the high-rolling villains in this film, Mr. Lau [Chin Hau] and the crime syndicate The Dark Knight, and Earle [Rutger Hauer], Falcone [Tom Wilkinson] and the entire corrupt Gotham system in Batman Begins). The Batman films have never aimed for serious, penetrating political analysis, but they nonetheless possess more depth and nuance than those flogging them for their own agendas ever seem to notice. (For just one example, Batman Begins ends with Gordon showing Batman the Joker's card and wondering if vigilantism and other measures don't lead to a never-ending cycle of escalation.) The films can be used to launch a good political discussion, but I've never been a fan of shallow, reductive readings.

(Here's Christopher Nolan on The Treatment and All Things Considered.)

Wreck-It Ralph: Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of Fix-It Felix, an old school arcade video game (basically, a Donkey Kong clone). After hours, when the arcade closes, Ralph and the other video game characters are off the clock and can socialize. But Ralph has to retire to his home in the junkyard (an uncomfortable mountain of bricks) while Felix is feted and beloved by the other characters in the game. Ralph attends a therapy group of video game villains, who feel similarly put-upon, because they're only doing their job – and it's an important one – but they don't get any appreciation. Pushed too far, Ralph decides to "game-jump" to a first-person shooter game called Hero's Duty because it promises the chance of a medal. He next winds up accidentally popping into a candy-themed Japanese racer game, Sugar Rush, but inadvertently brings a "cy-bug" (the replicating, plague-like foes of Hero's Duty) with him. In Sugar Rush, he meets up with Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a smart aleck racer who pesters Ralph like an annoying kid sister. She has great need of a gold coin, so she steals his medal. Meanwhile, Felix (Jack McBrayer) and the rest of the game denizens discover that Ralph is missing, and that they need him – an "out of order" sign is slapped on their machine. Felix goes in search of Ralph, because all of their virtual lives are in danger if they can't get him back before the arcade owner gives up on the game and pulls the plug. Felix teams up with the tough-talking Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch) from Hero's Duty, hot on the trail of the cy-bug. (As part of her character backstory, she is haunted by ridiculously traumatic memories.) Ralph and Vanellope eventually become pals, but he's warned off helping her by the ruler of Sugar Rush, King Candy (Alan Tudyk, doing an impressively old-timey goofball voice). Oh, and game death is permanent for a character if it occurs in a game other than their own. Whew! This is a delightful film, consistently entertaining, inventive, and even moving. Video game veterans will especially enjoy the many shout-outs and small touches (the sound designers, who do a superb job, must have had a blast). Underneath all the fun, serious themes lurk that give the film its deeper resonance. Ralph actually shares a great deal with Prince Hamlet, of all characters, in that he's trapped in a role he doesn't like. His mighty struggle about his identity and the disconnect between his own feelings, his actions, and how he's perceived drives the movie. There are also more familiar themes of friendship and forgiveness between Ralph and Vanellope, and Ralph and Felix, but they're well-handled. The bugs might scare small kids, but everyone else should enjoy this one.

(Here's John C. Reilly on Weekend Edition.)

The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film features great performances and intriguing characters but a less solid narrative. World War II has just ended, and troubled sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is trying to put his life into order with limited success. Maybe he's got PTSD, but regardless, he has rage issues and self-medicates with sex and alcohol, including self-made moonshine. He's smitten with a neighborhood girl, Doris Solstad (Madisen Beaty), and they talk about running off and getting married, but first he runs off to make money or find himself or something. He winds up connecting with Lancaster Dodd, "the Master," (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a new quasi-religious movement called "The Cause." Dodd records a probing interview with Freddie, and it affects both of them deeply. (Dodd is drawn to Freddie as both a man and a provider of moonshine.) Dodd's loyal and protective wife Peggy (Amy Adams) doesn't quite approve of Freddie, especially the moonshine – and she (memorably) has more than one method for getting her way – but she is also fully committed to the Cause and understands Lancaster's desire to play savior. Phoenix delivers a feral, primal performance, possibly his best – Freddie is almost all id, little restraint, and Phoenix chooses to explore each physical space he enters, picking up and handling objects compulsively, as if he cannot process the world otherwise (or as a way of marking territory). He's riveting, because (somewhat like Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood), there's an ever-present undercurrent of rage and deep pain, and he might snap at any moment. Hoffman, always superb, chooses to imbue Lancaster Dodd with stillness and great self-control, making for a splendid contrast with Phoenix as fidgety Freddie. But Dodd can still lose his cool, explosively and disastrously. Dodd and the Cause are loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and many of the odder, smaller scenes (Dodd posing as a cowboy for a portrait and burying prized items in the desert) are directly based on incidents with the eccentric Hubbard. Paul Thomas Anderson reliably delivers nuanced performances and some great scenes, but his overall narratives aren't always as coherent and strong. (I'd say There Will Be Blood remains his most complete film.) Unfortunately, that's the case with The Master, which just kinda ends rather than concludes. It's still well worth seeing for fans of Anderson or the actors, but The Master isn't great as a story, but rather as a dual character study – albeit one that never fully explains either of its enigmatic leads. (But as Hamlet said defiantly, "You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.") Anderson shot most of the film in 65mm, and it looks good; the format doesn't help the many interiors that much, but it does give extra detail for the many close-ups.
Freddie is a fascinating character, but he isn't particularly sympathetic, and while his failure to follow up with Doris is somewhat sad, it also underlines a delusional aspect to him. (I felt Doris probably dodged a bullet.) Meanwhile, Lancaster Dodd is never quite able to explain Freddie's hold over him to Peggy or the rest of his close circle, but the striking and bizarre "Slow Boat to China" serenade has a strong homoerotic undercurrent. Given that "the Cause" is nominally all about suppressed memories and emotions (versus a cash cow for the gullible), perhaps Dodd and Freddie really are perfect for each other.

(Here's Paul Thomas Anderson on Fresh Air and The Treatment. Here's Amy Adams Fresh Air and Weekend Edition. Finally, here's Lawrence Wright on Scientology and Hollywood.)

The Cabin in the Woods: Writer-director Drew Goddard and writer-producer Joss Whedon deliver a very original, entertaining movie that may be the horror film to end all horror films. They alternately play with and explode tropes of the genre, but all with affection, wit, and skill. We’ve seen young adults go off for weekend fun in an isolated locale before (they're played here by Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz and Jesse Williams), but what's up with the scenes with the guys in lab coats? (Played by Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, and Amy Acker, among others.) Viewers who absolutely hate horror won't like the scenes of bloody violence, but lovers of the genre or of film in general should heartily enjoy this one. Goddard skillfully delivers both tension and comedy. We're normally only a step or two ahead of the cabin characters, and it's a joy to put the puzzle together; the successive plot developments are at turns intriguing, disturbing, and hilarious. (A shot involving multiple elevators is one of the best of the year.) It would be a crime to give more away; just see it.

The Grey: Writer-director Joe Carnahan delivers a kind of existentialist action film. John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is an expert shot, and serves as wilderness security for a remote oil company plant up in Alaska. Most of all, he deals with wolves. Ottway is a haunted man, and even considers suicide; we see flashbacks of a wife, but don't know why they're no longer together until late in the film. After the end of a months-long shift, Ottway and a contingent of employees board a plane to return to civilization, but there's a crash. (In one of the film's most striking scenes, Ottway calmly talks a man mortally wounded in the crash through his own death.) What's worse, the plane got thrown off-course, it's very cold, and they landed in the middle of a wolf pack's hunting territory. After holding out for a day, and a couple of people being killed by wolves, Ottway convinces the survivors to try to hike their way out heading south. They gather the wallets of the dead with the intent of returning them to their loved ones. Ottway's a natural leader and the strong, silent type, a badass who doesn't feel the need to strut, which contrasts with the braggadocio of some of the oil men – and Ottway is challenged multiple times. What makes The Grey a cut above is Neeson as Ottway. His performance is often somber and extremely grounded. All of the characters drift toward the philosophical, given their situation – they might die, and naturally think about both reasons to live and regrets in their life. The physical challenges of the weather and landscape can be formidable, and the wolves are constantly menacing, but it's this quality of reflection and growing camaraderie among the men that makes this film more than a taut thriller – it can be genuinely moving. I can recommend this film with one major caveat – it's been fairly criticized for its depiction of wolves as more dangerous and aggressive than they actually are. This is a bigger deal because grey wolves have historically been over-hunted and only recently left endangered species status in some states. The film establishes, though, that wolves would not normally hunt humans, and that it's the deep territorial intrusion that changes the dynamics. That might still be dodgy, but regardless, the point is that the film should not be treated as a great source for information about wolf behavior or ecology, but it works extremely well on its own terms.

(Here's Joe Carnahan on All Things Considered.)

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."