Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 18, 2013

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.)

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