Review: “Gangster Squad”

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GANGSTER SQUAD

“Hey Mickey”
Grade: B- (RENT IT)

BY THE TIME the members of the Gangster Squad toast to their crime-fighting conquests in postwar Los Angeles, mobster Mickey Cohen is already red-in-the-face and shouting that they’ll never take him down.  Cohen, the legendary gangster who went west from his native Chicago to scope out Bugsy Siegel, is played by a pruned Sean Penn.  This is a performer who normally avoids uni-dimensional characters, but here, as a straight-up evil thug, he is crime incarnate.  “Gangster Squad” is indebted to Penn and his cast-mates, but it’s derivative in every way of a whole squad of other – make that, better – genre greats like “LA Confidential” and “Chinatown.”

Nevertheless, writer Will Beall, in an adaptation of “Gangster Squad: Cover Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles” by reporter Paul Lieberman, arms Penn’s Cohen with tommy-guns and zippy one-liners like “That’s wasn’t murder; it was progress” and gangster-squad-movie-image-emma-stone-ryan-gosling“L.A. belongs to Mickey Cohen.”  Not if Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) can help it.  Despite his pregnant wife’s protestations, he forms a group that  Cohen derisively nicknamed the “Stupidity Squad.”  Here, it’s comprised of Harris (Anthony Mackie), gun-slinger Kennard (Robert Patrick), Ramirez (Michael Peña), and techie Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi).  Ribisi is usually the chameleon who brings unique voices to supporting roles, as he did in last year’s “Contraband,” but in “Gangster Squad,” Ryan Gosling (as Sgt. Jerry Wooters) regresses to the pitch of his pubescence for some odd reason.  As Cohen’s girlfriend, Grace (Emma Stone) is less concerned with Wooters’ voice than she is with his looks. Gosling and Stone only recently romped in “Crazy Stupid Love,” but the results were neither lovely nor crazy (for the latter, see “Blue Valentine”).  These are two actors too keenly aware of their own allure to mix and melt in the way real chemistry on screen requires, so it’s a mystery why they’re reunited (and so soon).

That’s the work of Rubert (“Zombieland”) Fleischer whose “Gangster Squad” opens with a grizzly gangland murder that will make Gangster-Squadyou avert your eyes.  (Think of being snapped in half like a human biscotti as two cars pull you apart – oh, and there are coyotes around to eat your innards.)  Then, in keeping with the conventionality of “Gangster Squad,” Fleischer’s film ends with a hero hugging his wife and infant son on a beach in Southern California.  Order, family, justice have been restored: The End.  It’s this turn from the lurid to the lovely that makes “Gangster Squad” lopsided.  In short, it needs target practice.

Review: “Les Misérables”

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les mis main

“Did You Hear the People Sing?”
Grade: C (SKIP IT)

DIRECTOR TOM HOOPER has said he wanted to take a risk after winning an Oscar in 2010 for “The King’s Speech.” The result, an adaptation of the musical “Les Misérables,” was a nice try but it hits all the wrong notes. Here Hooper has on his hands another historical drama, an abridgement of Victor Hugo’s sweeping, five-volume novel from 1862, and one seemingly perfect for a Christmas day release, rife as it is with Christian themes: mercy, redemption, bread.  At one point, we’re told that “to love another person is to see the face of God” and the camera, in the final parishanne-hathaway-les-miserables-dreamed-a-dream__121124050625 scene, lingers on an ornate golden crucifix perhaps two seconds too long.  This comes as a relief since Hooper’s camera otherwise clings to the actors’ faces like a mud-mask and since most, if not all, of the principal players here can’t really sing, it makes their facial over-compensation that much more pained and pronounced.  You half wonder whether Hugh Jackson is standing on hot coals during his numbers.  Worse, there’s a tone-deaf Russell Crowe (as Javert) and Anne Hathaway, as the maligned Fantine, twisting her face so intensely that you fear for her tear ducts. On stage, “I Dreamed A Dream” is delivered with chest-beating intensity by a woman who has forsaken her dream but not her dignity. Hathaway’s version is more mousy than mighty and it drags the whole movie down to the level of melodrama.

By now, more than 60 million theatre-goers around the globe have seen CameronLes-Miserables-Still-les-miserables-2012-movie-32902319-1280-853 Mackintosh’s stage musical and know that “Les Misérables” doesn’t just entertain; it overpowers the audience with an immense cast of flag-waving characters, a barricade made of household furniture, a musical score both hushed (“Bring Him Home”) and hummable (“On My Own”).  Five years before it opened in London, to mixed reviews, the musical had a brief trial-run in Paris and at that time, the plot of Hugo’s novel was really only familiar to the French. That was no longer the case by 1985 when “Les Misérables,” powered by Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, opened at the Barbican Center and from there, took the world by storm.  “Les Miz,” as it’s now known, was also big biz: international tours and multiple recordings have made it one of the most successful stage musicals of all time.

les-miserables-trailer-ukIn case you’ve only recently reentered the earth’s atmosphere, “Les Misérables” is about a thief unjustly punished and pursued all his life by an obsessive police inspector. It’s 1815 and jailbird Jean Valjean (Jackman) is being paroled after a nineteen-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread.  He escapes, reforms himself, and reappears as a factory owner and mayor of Montreuil where Crowe’s Javert remains hot on his trail.  Around the men swirl the love story of Cosette, the thief’s adopted daughter, and Marius, a political revolutionary swept up in the June Rebellion of 1832. As Cosette, Amanda Seyfried is a surprisingly strong songbird, as is Eddie Redmayne, who lobbied Hooper hard for the part, as Marius. His jaw trembles when he sings and he cries his way, profusely so, through the closing dirge “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”  Still, they’re actors, not singers, and it’s puzzling why Hooper failed to cast a stronger vocalist than Samantha Barks as Éponine.  Each one of her costars is a one-dimensional vocalist at best and that’s a serious problem in a sung-through musical more than two and half hours long. Consider this costumed karaoke.

Never has “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which arrives toward the story’s conclusion, been more welcomed and more apropos since Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” knows how to clear a room.

The Best and Worst Films of 2012

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THE BEST FILMS OF 2012

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1. “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  “Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”  It’s hard to believe that the speaker of those words, little Quvenzhané Wallis, was just six years old when director Benh Zeitlin created this little masterpiece on freedom, family and the future of climate change.  As a motherless child named Hushpuppy, Wallis inhabits a grungy trailer neighboring her father’s; the place is overrun by weeds, pigs, and roosters.  Despite the odds, Hushpuppy is so defiantly free that she won’t even put her clothes on.  Like the sparklers she wields, Wallis is a firework in a film that blends magic realism and the realities we all know too well: a dad’s tough love, diaspora, poverty, climate change.  Even the doctors in white lab coats who look like they’re there to help Hushpuppy’s dear ol’ dad (Dwight Henry) are another form of social control, but the exuberance of “Beasts” is that its wild child can’t – make that won’t – be contained.  Even the mythic aurochs – figments of Hushpuppy’s imagination or the four horsemen of Revelation? – bow down before her.

Next year’s “Noah,” another flood-on-film, starring Russell Crowe and directed by Darren (“Black Swan”) Aronofsky is currently in production, but it’s not too late to call the whole thing off.  Zeitlin’s more modest “Beasts” already beat “Noah” to the punch with its postdiluvian picture of water, water, everywhere.  That includes the tears to which I’m consistently brought by this inspiring fable.  In the words of Hushpuppy, “They think we’re gonna drown down here. But we ain’t going nowhere.”  This is how film is supposed to make you feel.

2. “Argo.”  While “Beasts” has the best ending to any film in 2012, “Argo” has thejohn-goodman-argo best beginning:  Iranian protesters, outraged with the US for sheltering a Shah, storm the gates of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Inside, staffers are shredding top secret documents and nervously planning their escape.  When only six escape, CIA operative Tony Mendez cooks up a crazy idea: force the diplomats to impersonate a film crew to get them home safely.  Enter funnymen John Goodman and Alan Arkin, the latter of whom exclaims “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit!”  A lesser-known history lesson on the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and the political usefulness of America’s greatest export (the movies), “Argo” is tightly wound and terrific.

3. “Life of Pi.”  Is there anything Ang Lee (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) can’t do?  2005 was the pitiful year that the Oscar for Best Directing went to Lee but not to that sweetest taboo, “Brokeback Mountain,” a film that wentlifeofpi where most mainstream filmmakers fear to tread.    Weird and wondrous, “Life of Pi” is versatile enough that adults will appreciate it as a spiritual allegory while kids while stand in awe of its visual artistry.  And here’s another layer: “Life of Pi” ends up, on a meta-filmic note, being about the process of interpretation: were the animals actually Pi’s family members?  Is Pi the storyteller even a reliable one?  A film for the whole family, “Life of Pi” is gorgeous to look at and to meditate on the morning after.

4. “Searching for Sugar Man.”  Where in the world is Rodriguez?  From documentarian Malik Bendjelloul, “Searching” is the only musical detective story in recent history.  The artist known mononymously as Rodriguez never achieved major Sugar-Man-posteracclaim in America in the 1970s though he was an undeniable sensation in South Africa where his folky tunes became anthems against apartheid.  The film centers around two fans from Cape Town and their wish to unravel the mystery of Rodriguez’s disappearance.  Did he take his life or, everyman-style, skip out on fame to raise his daughters in Detroit and work construction?  Bendjelloul’s film should put an end once and for all to websites like “The Great Rodriguez Hunt.”  When they finally catch up with him all these years later, Rodriguez appears like a street-level sage saying cryptic things like “Nothing beats reality, so I went back to work.”  Come again?  This guy makes Bob Dylan look like an open book.

5. “The Master.” Certainly the strangest story on screen from 2012.  Anderson’s choice of 70-millimeter (twice the width of ordinary 35-millimiter film and customarily used for wide-screen films) was an interesting choice as “The Master” is an epic of internal proportions.  Its only landscapes are of the mental variety. Many claim the film is more a master-class for actors (Hoffman, Phoenix, Adams) than a story on par with Anderson’s earlier character studies (“There Will Be Blood,” “Magnolia”), but “The Master” requires multiple reviewing to discern its turbulent subtext.  When Hoffman, as cult-leader Lancaster Dodd, serenades his friend Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) by singing “Slow Boat to China,” the complexities of the men’s relationship finally sail to the surface.  Are they doctor-patient, priest-parishioner, frenemies or lovers?  Loosely based on Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) is a charlatan who preys on his disciples’ weaknesses, which makes Quell his lab rat, the slave to his “master.”  But is the relationship that definable?  “What does the ending of ‘The Master’ mean?” became a repeated web-search in 2012 and that question is bound to remain unanswered, even unanswerable, for some time.  The ending is like something out of Eliot.  Such a maligned mermaid that, I fear, won’t sing to me.

6. “Cosmopolis.”  In a fragment of Walter Benjamin’s from 1921, entitled “Capitalism as Religion,” the German philosopher asserts that capitalism is not only without precedent but that it offers its cult-like worshipers not redemption but total destruction.  Capitalism is “the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious cosmopolisexamstate of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation.  God’s transcendence is at an end.”  Make that the dead-end of “Cosmopolis” (based on a Don DeLillo novel now a decade-old), in which we follow a twentysomething billionaire named Eric Packer down his path of self-destruction. “Cosmopolis” is a neo-Marxist musing from the dark god of cinema David Cronenberg.  The first shot of Robert Patinson, just as bloodless as he is in the “Twilight” saga, sets the mood: Packer’s sunglasses are like the impenetrable windows of a limo and that limo, in which the bulk of the film takes place, is really a casket with vinyl interior. Everyone along the way is exploited in their own special way but that’s the lesson of this rare work of Wall St. noir: a free market enterprise enslaves both the boss and his workers. Patinson is proctological as Packer.

7. “Lincoln.”  A film so understated you’d almost dispute the fact it’s from uber-director Steven Spielberg.  That’s attributable solely to the acting and the erudition of screenwriter Tony Kushner who immerses himself in the sound of the Civil War just as D-Day, in the title role, loses himself in Lincoln.  The film, which smartly focuses on just a chapter in Lincoln’s political (and family) life, is another deposit in what Spielberg has been assembling for some time now, that is, a storehouse of American history lessons, from slavery (“Amistad”) through the twentieth century’s world wars (“War Horse,” “Saving Private Ryan”) to the techno-horrors of the past/present (“Jurassic Park”) and the future (“Minority Report”).  Oscar’s eyes will be on D-Day, Sally Field (as the First Lady), but the cast is full of other gems like James Spader, Julie White and the busiest actor of 2012: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

8. “Bernie.” With the exception of “Moonrise Kingdom,” no comedies from 2012 found themselves on the critics’ Top 10 lists.  That’s because Wes Anderson’s valentine to young love (see Number 10 below) is artsy and highly stylized whereas “Bernie” is big bernie10and brash and how could it not be?  It stars Jack Black as a Texan funeral director Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede who will either kill you with kindness or, if you’re his millionaire girlfriend Marjorie Nugent, a BB gun.  Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise,” “School of Rock”) directs in the mode of a Christopher Guest mockumentary: we’re given the gossipy real-life locals of Carthage, Texas and Matthew McConaughey as the Inspector Javier to Bernie’s Jean Valjean.  McConaughey excelled in supporting roles this year (i.e. “Magic Mike”) and he’s large and in charge in “Bernie.”  Add in Shirley MacLaine as Bernie’s sugar-mama Marjorie and you have a comedy blacker than black.

Prometheus-Movie-Spoilers9. “Prometheus.”  “I beheld the wretch, the miserable monster whom I had created!”  That’s not Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the 1818 novel that pretty much invented science-fiction as we know it and bore the subtitle: “The Modern Prometheus.” Don’t worry: you needn’t have a degree in Greek mythology to get at the film’s interest in biogenesis.  A prequel to Scott’s “Alien” of 1979, “Prometheus” sustains the series’ interest in the alien versus the human, the other versus, well, us.  (Wasn’t it Zizek who argued that the alien itself is beyond representation and therefore menaces the human and his fantasies of coherence?) Yes, there’s a reptilian man-eater on the loose aboard a spaceship but there are also corporate drones working for Weyland Corporation, an outfit so exploitative it makes the mining colony of “Avatar” look like the Walt Disney Company. Here there’s a self-administered C-section as horrifying as the gut-busting moment in that earlier classic. Michael Fassbender is only halfway human as the android David; he is just as true to Ian Parker as Ash in the original as heroine Noomi Rapace is to the queen of sci-fi feminism: Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley.  Those are some mighty big moon-boots to fill.

10. “Moonrise Kingdom.”  The other great film by a guy with the last name Andersonmoonrise-kingdom-whysoblu.com-3 in 2012.  If 2004’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and 2007’s “The Darjeeling Unlimited” are marked by a kind of comic chilliness, “Moonrise Kingdom” turns to puppy-love to warm up matters.  We’ll always have summer camp. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward have just the air of chic geek to set Anderson’s wheels spinnin’.  It’s so funny you forgot to laugh.

THE (VERY) WORST FILMS OF 2012

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1.  “Battleship.” “It’s the North Koreans, I’m telling you!” screams some soldier as robotic squid rise from the Pacific Ocean.  No, it’s this noisy shipwreck of a summer dud, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Pop-star Rihanna plays against type by wearing pants.  Here she’s a weapon specialist. The traditional features of narrative, such as characterization and actual human dialogue between mortals, take a backseat to a never-ending sequence of aerial shots and fiery explosions.  All inspired by the classic board game; I would have much preferred a round of Russian roulette.

2.  “Chernobyl Diaries.” Did somebody say Russia? What’s next? A movie based on the recent Japanese nuclear meltdown known as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster of 2011, Godzilla and all?  Even worse that being exploitative of an actual tragedy, namely the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, responsible for an unknown number of deaths, deformities, and cancers, “Chernobyl Diaries” isn’t the least bit scary.  The shaky hand-held camera bequeathed to horror-film-goers post-“Blair Witch Project” produces more vertigo than uneasiness and the flesh-eating mutants that haunt the abandoned power plant look like overstock from “The Walking Dead.”  Spielberg consistently turns historical tragedy into art; these guys turn tragedy into cash.  Scratch that: they turned a disaster into a disaster.

this-means-war-port3. “This Means War.” This  means refund. Reese Witherspoon exhausts the cute factor in this romantic comedy/spy film in which Tom Hardy and Chris Pine pine after Witherspoon’s character Lauren, a product testing executive with zero taste.  Directed by McG, “This Means War” really means two men triangulating their desire for each other through a woman, which is what the late theorist Eve Sedgwick identified as the dark-side of male homosocial bonds.  Women, it seems, are only there to get in the way of what can’t be openly expressed. Get a room, guys!

4. “Total Recall.”  We hardly expect an actress such as Kate Beckinsale, best known as an icy werewolf slayer in the Underworld series, to bring pathos to a reboot of the Phillip K. Dick classic, “Total Recall.”  (She brought that, however, to “Contraband” by playing the victim for once.)  Colin Farrell is going through the motions here as he jumps realities and time-frames; if it’s time traveling you’re after, a far better film this year was the edgier, and more original, “Looper.”  Directed by Mr. Beckinsale (aka Len Wiseman), “Total Recall” is supposedly about remembering but all you’ll want to do is forget.

5. “Red Tails.” How did the true story of the African American Air Force service517MK7QHhiL._SL500_SS500_ members known as the Tuskegee airmen of WWII become a tepid video game from the 1980s?  Oh, that’s because “Red Tails” has been kicking around Hollywood since the ’80s, when producer George Lucas first took interest in the project.  All that prep-time and it never leaves the runway and that’s because special effects trump life-like characters.  Lucas didn’t help matters when he openly discussed the difficulty in making such a film, which was followed by a broader discussion about the (mis)representation of black Americans on film.  “Flight” is a far better film from 2012 of a commanding African American pilot in mid-air.   “Red Tails,” meanwhile, is a total nosedive.

TWO MORE dishonorable mentions:  “American Reunion” and “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer

What am I forgetting?  Praise AND Punch the films of 2012 below…

Review: “This Is 40″

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21FORTY-articleLarge

“Happy Babies”

Grade: A- (SEE IT)

THE LATEST FROM Judd Apatow, the kinky king of comedy, is “This Is 40.”  As romantic comedies go, this is funny and his best work since “Knocked Up” of 2005. The indefatigable Paul Rudd plays Pete, a struggling record label owner, and Leslie Mann plays Debbie, a devoted mom.  She’s turning forty, or is she?  Even Debbie’s physician scolds her for fudging her birth-date on her paperwork.  The tone of this comedy is this-is-40-movie-posterlight; Apatow has clearly matured since the bathroom humor of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” though we haven’t left the bathroom entirely: Pete is prone to retreat there for a little peace and quiet.  But Debbie will abruptly draw back the door, asking who sits on the toilet for such a long period of time. It’s a relief to see that Pete and Debbie aren’t going for each other’s throats.  Their quarreling is not of the catastrophic kind – “This is 40” opens with Debbie horrified to learn that Pete has taken a Viagra to turn him “turbo,” as he puts it – but a kind of banal back-and-forth and the doe-eyed Mann is an expert at looking comically confounded.  “Why do we even fight?” she asks during a getaway in which Pete brings pot cookies and clowns around the hotel room.  It’s a question that all couples have asked themselves, especially when things are going smoothly. Just give it ten minutes for the mood to change.

There’s something adorable about a writer-director casting all the women in his life inThis-Is-40_02 his films. Mann is Apatow’s wife off-screen and, on-screen, Pete and Debbie’s daughters, Sadie and Charlotte, are played by Maude and Charlotte Apatow, respectively. The fact that they’re a Hollywood family doesn’t mean they feel fake.  Maude is 14 and accosts her folks for limiting her cell-phone and iPad use; Sadie, still their little girl, stands back and snarks that her big sister was nicer before her “body got weird.” Maude and Paul butt heads over the merits of TV shows like “Lost” and “Mad Men” while Debbie harasses one of Maude’s classmates for dissing her daughter’s looks on Facebook.  The boy’s mother is played by the marvelous Melissa McCarthy of “Bridesmaids.” Stick around for the outtakes, which are often funnier than anything in preceding 155 minutes.  Yes, “This is 40” runs a bit long, but it’s one lengthy salvo of jokes, jokes that work. (The film was pegged as “This Is 40 Minutes Too Long” by insiders prior to release.)  Pete’s father Larry (Albert Brooks) is on his second family with blond triplets; he’s always hitting his son up for cash.  Debbie’s father Oliver (John Lithgow) meets his granddaughters for the first time at a party; it’s an interaction Charlotte can only describe as “awkward.” Apatow’s film affirms family life but without any piety; this family feels ferociously real.

this_is_40_a_lIf you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you have probably been put in happy baby pose. That’s the one where you lie on your back and grab the soles of your feet like some blissed-out toddler.  “This is 40” features Pete and Debbie in their own adult versions of happy baby pose: Debbie discovers her husband on his back, legs up, asking her to examine his anus for him.  Again, she’s horrified and looking quickly, says “It’s a hemorrhoid” before running for her life.  Debbie, too, finds herself at the gynecologist in a similar pose as two nurses and the doctor breeze in, prattling away as she’s trapped with her legs up and open.  A yoga teacher of mine once described happy baby as “a vulnerable position,” and that’s an apt metaphor for where Apatow likes to position his characters and his audience.  “This is 40” makes happy babies of us all.

Review: “Any Day Now”

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Any Day Now

“My Two Dads”
Review: C+ (RENT IT)

D-DAY WILL likely take home the Best Actor Oscar (again) for playing the president on the penny, but don’t count Alan Cumming out.  Sure, the Scottish actor’s singing is ghastly in “Any Day Now,” but he gives it all he’s got and “Any Day Now” is better for it.  Directed by Travis Fine, the narrative centers on a male couple fighting for custody of a teenage boy with Down Syndrome.  Meet Marco (played by first-timer Isaac Leyva); he lives on a steady diet of donuts as his junkie mom turns tricks just out-of-view.  He wanders the City of Angels, clutching his doll and gazing up at a metropolis terrifying indifferent to whether he lives or dies.

7262904006_fb0ef51a57Thankfully, Alan Cumming steps in as Marco’s guardian angel.  As the tough-as-nails Rudy, Cumming is a drag performer and Marco’s neighbor inside a grimy apartment building.  Once Marco’s mom is carted off to the slammer, Rudy begins to care for the boy and soon turns to his new boyfriend Paul to help him gain custody.  Paul is played by a rather bland Garret Dillahunt (“Raising Hope”); his wig is even worse than Cumming’s, especially in the scene where he shoots hoops with his lawyer boss and it begins to peel off his head like road-kill.  Frances Fisher is a somewhat sympathetic judge who upbraids Rudy and Paul for lying to the court and masquerading as “friends” to keep Marco.  But that’s where this film’s strength truly lies: it’s a reminder that things haven’t changed all that much since the 1970s in terms of gay parents and their rights.  Paul is canned for not staying in the closet; Rudy is routinely harassed by cops and strangers on the street.  “That’s discrimination,” Rudy protests. “That’s not discrimination,” says Paul, “that’s reality.”

We’re meant to root for Rudy, Paul, Marco as an island for misfit toys and the directorMV5BMjE0MDI5MjAyMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTIyNjQ4OA@@._V1._SX640_SY457_ does a fine job at eschewing sentimentality; still, “Any Day Now” feels a bit like a movie-of-the-week with predictable courtroom scenes to play out. Yet Cumming commands your attention and he’s a diamond in an otherwise rough little picture. A smart, activist film still needs to be made about gay adoptive parents and their struggles but this isn’t it.  Maybe not “Any Day Now” but it’s coming – one can hope – someday soon.

Review: “Anna Karenina”

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Anna Karenina

“To Russia with Love”

Grade: A- (SEE IT)

IN 2011, THE WORST movie on the experience of shame was “Shame,” a prurient and pathetic mess of a film on the putative perils of sex addiction.  In 2012, the best film on the psycho-sexual nature of shame is “Anna Karenina,” Joe Wright’s third adaptation of a literary gem (after “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement”) with an exquisite Kiera Knightley again front and center.  If you liked Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany in “Silver Linings Playbook” and her feminist refusal to feel ashamed of her hyper-sexuality, check out her literary antecedent: Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, the Mary Magdalene of St. Petersburg. In her new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes that shame can be socially useful.  In one study, participants looked more kindly upon those visibly embarrassed by driving away from a car accident or spilling coffee on someone.  Shame signifies a concern for others.

Anna Karenina_004-001.rBut shame can be socially disastrous as well.  “I’m not ashamed of what I have done,” Anna tells her lover Vronsky, having left her husband for the dashing young Count, “Are you ashamed for me?” The Count, dressed ironically in white throughout the film, is played Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He has seductively large, wet eyes and a handle-bar mustache; he’s under the thumb of his imperious and unkind mother (Olivia Williams).  Tolstoy tells us that a “hot blush of shame spread all over [Anna’s] face” for “she knew what had stopped her, knew she had been ashamed.”  The cuckolded Karenin, meanwhile, is a repressed fellow who surprisingly never rages against his wife for her adulterous passion.  He’s played by Jude Law in collars appropriately buttoned up to the chin.  Tolstoy writes that Karenin refuses to feel jealousy because of its shamefulness: “Now, through his conviction that jealousy is a shameful feeling, and that one ought to have confidence, had not been destroyed, he felt that he was face to face with something illogical and stupid, and he did not know what to do.”  But that’s precisely Karenin’s problem and why he’s so undesirable to his wife: he refuses to feel anything.

For those of you who skipped Russian Lit., Tolstoy’s tome from 1877 is aAaron-Taylor-Johnson-and-Alicia-Vikander-in-Anna-Karenina-2 behemoth of a novel on a whole range of topics: love, disgrace, faith, forgiveness, capitalism, Christianity.  Did I leave anything out?  Levin (played by Domhnall Gleeson) occupies a parallel plot in the novel; he’s Tolstoy’s ideal Russian man who, in the novel, says things like “You know that capitalism oppresses the workers. Our workmen the peasants bear the whole burden of labour, but are so placed that, work as they may, they cannot escape from their degrading condition […] And this system must be changed.”  He pursues Kitty (Alicia Vikander) with an open heart, which contrasts Anna’s brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) who betrays his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) with the governess.  At the film’s start, Anna travels to her brother’s home to console her sister-in-law and implores Dolly to forgive her brother.  It’s a foreshadowing of Anna’s own affair with Vronsky and the forgiveness she will seek from her husband and Russian high-society.

AnnaKareninaTitleThe screenplay, which is an exercise in compression, is from playwright Tom Stoppard who had distilled Leo Tolstoy’s novel to the bare essentials. (He’s on sacred ground here: Dostoevsky, Nobokov, and Faulkner all regarded Anna Karenina as a flawless work of fiction.)   The production design is by Sarah Greenwood who hinges all of the action on a stage.  This is a wise move and in creative keeping with the theatricality of Tolstoy’s novel.  It also highlights the performative nature of shame and that as Anna succumbs to her adulterous passions in public, all eyes are on her and her inevitable demise. Dario Marianelli, whose ingenious music for “Atonement” relied on ticking typewriters and pianos, provides another stunning score. Everything should add up here, but this “Anna Karenina” stands, like the stage, at a distance. It’s lovely to look at but somehow doesn’t engage us as emotionally as one might hope.

“I’m a bad woman,” says Anna at one point in the film and we’re not sure whether to pity or praise her.  It all ends tragically, of course, but that’s Anna’s particular cross to bear.  She’s as daring as she is doomed.  Now ain’t that a shame?

Review: “Silver Linings Playbook”

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“One Flew Into the Cuckoo’s Nest”

Grade: B- (RENT IT)

FOR A GOOD while at least, “Silver Linings Playbook” is a film that is proudly off its meds and taking no prisoners.  Its opening has all the panicked pacing of a jailbreak and very nearly resembles one: Pat (Bradley Cooper) is being released from a court-ordered stay at a Baltimore mental health facility and he takes his friend and fellow patient (Chris Tucker) along for the ride.  Eight months earlier, Pat savagely beat his wife’s boyfriend after discovering the two in a shower with his wedding song – Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” – wafting in the steamy air.  Hearing even three seconds of the love song will set him off and set him back on his road to recovery.  We want to see him well and when Cooper, who has a vulpine face, steadies his closely set blue eyes, he has a scrappy-boy look of desperation that cries out for his mother or at for a prescription refill. In terms of mental illness, “Silver Linings Playbook” endorses a dangerous diagnosis, as simple-minded as the eponymous Beatles song: all you really need is love.

Silver-Linings-Playbook-2Back in Philadelphia, Pat’s homecoming is met by his worried mother (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), an obsessive fan of the Eagles and sports bookie who has no other way of communicating with his wife and son except through professional football.  He keeps his remote controllers in a tidy row and thumbs a lucky handkerchief as he watches every game on the edge of his seat.  Apparently, madness runs in the family.  There’s also mental illness just around the corner, in the form of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a policeman’s widow already popular with the local pervs for putting out.  Pat and Tiffany appear to be a match made in Halcyon and when the two cross paths at a dinner party hosted by Tiffany’s older sister Veronica (Julia Stiles), it’s a contest to see who can say the most outlandish thing or do the most impulsive thing to shatter any sense of civility and calm. They trade their experiences on different anti-psychotics as if they were vacation towns they’ve visited and walking Tiffany to the end of her driveway, Pat is invited inside for casual sex and slapped across the face in quick succession.  Both find that the other is useful in some way: Tiffany can help Pat get to his ex-wife, Nikki, who has placed a restraining order against him, and Pat can help Tiffany win a local dancing competition. To that end, she has converted her parents’ garage into a dance studio and once he agrees to train as her partner, she insists on daily dancing lessons.  This allows for the film’s pas de deux to take literal shape and pulling Pat in close, Tiffany brings her nose to his. “You feel that?” she asks of Pat. “That’s emotion.”

It’s sad to think that movie-goers born after 1988 only know Robert De Niro as theSilver Linings Playbook 2 paranoid patriarch in “Meet the Parents” and “Silver Linings Playbook” restores the actor to the realm of serious and sensitive cinema.  These same youngsters only know Bradley Cooper as the playboy ringleader in “The Hangover” and after such misfires as “Limitless” and “The Words,” he has finally found his mojo as a leading man. Yet “Silver Linings” runs off the rails in its last reel; it wants a happy ending and its lovers to ride off into the sunset when, in reality, people like Pat and Tiffany are missing the gene for Hollywood-like happiness.  There is no way that Pat’s therapist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher) would attend an Eagles game with his face painted, nor come to Pat’s home like he’s one of the family, and the swanky Philadelphia hotel in which the dancing competition takes place is not the sort of place Pat Sr. would visit without criticizing his son for trading in his football jersey for a pair of dancing shoes.

I have to admit I felt a little like Pat who, earlier in the film, flies off the handle when he reaches the unhappy ending of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  Enraged, he throws the paperback out an upstairs window, breaking it, and wakes his parents in the middle of the night to blast the novel for its depressing but decidedly realistic ending.  If only director David O. Russell (“Spanking the Monkey,” “The Fighter”) had taken a page from Hemingway’s playbook and not Hollywood’s.

Review: “Hitchcock”

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Anthony-Hopkins-as-Alfred-Hitchcock-on-the-set-of-HITCHCOCK

“Devious Genius”

Grade: B (RENT IT)

2012 HAS NOT been kind to Mr. Hitchcock.  Thirty-two years after his death at eighty, the so-called Master of Suspense has suffered the wrath of HBO’s “The Girl,” based upon actress Tippi Hedren’s spiteful recollections of working for him on the set of 1963’s “The Birds.”  Hedren remembers the man who made her career as little more than a sadistic Svengali who couldn’t keep his hands to himself.  The famous telephone booth scene in which the birds of Bodega Bay bear down on her character Melanie Daniels like kamikaze pilots was, according to Hedren, an opportunity for Alfred Hitchcock to traumatize and bloody her.  But who can say for sure?  A he-said-she-said is far from fair when one of the disputants is dead and gone.  Hedren is not alone in decrying Hitchcock’s treatment of his actors – he infamously treated them like cattle – but she hasn’t just bit the hand that fed her; she chewed it off.

425px-Hitchcock,_Alfred_02That’s precisely the problem with another act of revenge: Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock,” a behind-the-scenes take on the making of 1960’s “Psycho” and the marriage between Alfred (Anthony Hopkins) and Alma Reville Hitchcock (Helen Mirren). It’s as cruel to its subject as last year’s “Iron Lady,” in which another British icon was reduced to a demented old bat, and “Hitchcock” renews the allegations of “The Girl” involving the director’s obsessive control over his leading ladies, his marital aloofness, and dipsomaniacal perversity. As an earlier incarnation of Hedren, Janet Leigh is played – or very nearly mimicked – by Scarlett Johansson who nails the actress’s pursed lips and demure tilts of the head.  Jessica Biel, as Vera Miles, is one of Hitchcock’s discarded muses who warns Leigh that Hitchcock will attempt to direct her on and off the sound-stage.  If Hitchcock found himself fixated on the blond likes of Leigh, Grace Kelley, and later, Hedren, he also found himself possessed by the 1959 pulp novel by Robert Bloch and basis for “Psycho.”  He wakes wife Alma in the middle of the night to make her read a hair-raising passage and, forced to finance the film himself, appears willing to stake his long and illustrious career on making his most shocking film yet. He certainly reaped the rewards: we watch Hitch watch an audience watch the indelible shower scene and scream with horror.  Laura Mulvey, eat your heart out. Hopkins, in a prosthetic nose and tumescent waist-line, is superb in the role, and like “Lincoln,” “Hitchcock” is a less than perfect biopic that stays afloat only because of its actors and one-liners.

Unfortunately, Gervasi’s film hardly goes off without a hitch.  Scenes in which1352307244_jessica-biel-scarlett-johansson-james-darcy-lg Hitchcock imagines Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life basis for Norman Bates, as an imaginary friend (or foe) are preposterous and irresolved.  Even Anthony Perkins isn’t safe; he’s caricatured as a closet homosexual, which, of course, he was, but his importance is squandered when he’s represented, on Hitchcock’s casting couch, as a gay cliché.  As Lady Hitchcock, the director’s confidante and collaborator, Mirren is also superb, but we don’t get a real sense of her motivation nor what she wants from a dalliance with fellows screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). All dolled up, she asks Hitchcock, unflatteringly squeezed in a bathtub with a wine glass in hand, how she looks and he replies only with “Presentable.”  We get that she is unfulfilled romantically – the pair sleep in separate beds – but beyond that, we don’t really know why the Hitchcocks stay together and the film weirdly leaves out the fact that the couple had a daughter and that Sir Hitchcock was, based on his granddaughter’s account, a loving family man and not the schizophrenic control-freak this film portrays him to be.

Watch out Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Allen, and all ye who enter the Hollywood walk of directorial fame: they’re coming for you and your little wives too.

Review: “Lincoln”

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Lincoln

“This American Life”

Grade: B+ (RENT IT)

ABRAHAM LINCOLN ISN’T just a man but a monument.  Meanwhile, the movie inspired by his commitment to ending slavery and the Civil War is a mixed bag, a union, as it were, of playwright Tony Kushner’s talky script and Steven Spielberg’s love of spectacle.  What happens when you pair the intensely verbal with the intensely visual?  Sadly less than the sum of its parts, “Lincoln” is a mathematical equation as tricky to decode as “four score and seven years ago.”

Sally-Field-LincolnOn the plus side, there are the performances.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a titan of serious cinema, from “My Left Foot” to the best American film tragedy of the 2000s, “There Will Be Blood.”  This is a Method actor so focused and unfunny that he makes Anthony Hopkins look like Robin Williams.  He nails Lincoln’s reportedly reedy voice and effortless erudition. Reviewing “A Room with a View” back in 1985, Pauline Kael wrote of the actor: “In some scenes I wished the camera were at a more discreet distance from Day-Lewis, because you can see him acting and you’re too conscious of his black hair and mustache – you suspect he’s made up to be ascetic and all profile.” All these years later, Day-Lewis’ profile finally gets the close-up of its career.

On the surface, the casting of Sally Field as Mary Todd seems questionable given that the actress is eleven years D-Day’s senior, but dress any actor in Lincoln’s chin curtain beard and top-hat – and any actress in a hoop skirt and greasy hair curls – and their ages somehow find equilibrium.  The Lincolns’ youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) is seen before the fireplace, studying pictures of slaves disfigured by their masters’ whips. Mary is agonized over the enlistment of her older son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) into the Union Army while, beyond the domestic, Republican abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) are busy strategizing how to squash the Southern delegation.  “Lincoln,” at its heart, is not a biographical portrait but a study in political procedure. Seward has hired a group of Falstaffian fellows to cajole members of the House of Representations into passing anti-slavery legislation. The stand-out is W.N. Bilbo (a greasy James Spader) who brings some much-needed levity to “Lincoln” as he struts right through the front doors of the White House and delivers some deliciously salty language.

On the other hand, there are elements that subtract from “Lincoln,” or, at least, oppositional elements at work that make the film wobble like a house divided. Thanks to Kushner, “Lincoln,” inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” limits its scope to the political wrangling involved in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery and put one more nail in the Confederate coffin.  As the famed1ea284fabeb8cb8df6779196e5615d49b08dcbaafd7f816ff5ce83b6 Civil War historian Bruce Catton wrote, “To save the Union the North had to destroy the Confederacy, and to destroy the Confederacy it had to destroy slavery.”  Given the misnomer of its title, one expects from “Lincoln” a sweeping biopic that begins with the sixteenth President as a young prodigy growing up in a cramped log-cabin on the Sinking Spring Farm in Kentucky and ending with a very bad night at the theatre. The maximalist Steven Spielberg is no doubt up to the task.  So, too, is Kushner, the Pulitzer prize-winner who co-wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s 2005 “Munich” and, oh, just a little play called “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”  Whether Kushner and Spielberg are a match made in heaven should remain in question.  There’s a palpable tension between Spielberg’s love of the panoramic (i.e. the coast of Normandy, the Atlantic Ocean, space) and Kushner’s theatrical impulse to withdraw to the musty interiors of the White House and other Washingtonian halls of power. Regardless, “Lincoln” is destined to dominate next year’s Academy Awards; they might as well host the ceremony at the foot of Mount Rushmore.

Have no fear: there will be Oscars.

Review: “Life of Pi”

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“Pi of the Tiger”
Grade: A- (SEE IT)

POET MARK DOTY asks in his “Meditation” of 2005: “Isn’t the great power of animal eyes that we can’t read them?”

It’s a profound question and the crux of Ang Lee’s dazzling adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, “Life of Pi.” The titular role is played by Suraj Sharma, in his screen debut, and growing up on the Bay of Bengal, Pi locks horns with his unspiritual father (also a zoo-owner in the Indian city of Pondicherry). When Pi gets too close to the Bengal tiger kept in a cage out back, his father admonishes: “The tiger is not your friend.  When you look into its eyes, you see only your own emotions reflected back at you.”  His father’s lesson is that the animal is not a projection of human feelings but something entirely other. To prove his point, he ties a goat to the bars of the cage so that his sons can see that nature is not human but viciously red in tooth and claw.  Due to a clerical error, the tiger has been named Richard Parker, which is the film’s central joke, but also a significant part of the philosophical problem on Pi’s plate.  Notions of the “other” arise from psychoanalytic theories of object relations; the Other signifies everything the Self is not and stands as an obstacle to unity and social cohesion. The animal may look human – it may even have a man’s name – but it is nothing of the sort.  How, then, will Pi learn to live alongside the unknown?

Because “Life of Pi” is a fable, its plot-line is easy to relay.  It’s also the ultimate fisherman’s tale inasmuch as it may all be made-up. The film’s frame-story involves an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) narrating his story of adventure to another storyteller, a young writer (played by Rafe Spall), inside his Montreal apartment.  As a child in Pondicherry, Pi was an omnivore when it came to world religions; he drifted from Christianity and Judaism to Hinduism and Islam.  What do you expect from a mystical little boy whose very name is an abstract mathematical equation?   On being a Catholic Hindu, Pi tells us: “We get to feel guilty in front of hundreds of gods.”

Pi proceeds to recount his father’s decision to abruptly move his family to Canada, animals and all, and the shipwreck that left him stranded on a lifeboat alongside a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and the dreaded tiger.  The biblical overtones should be obvious enough: here we have Pi’s Ark, Pi’s faith tested, and Pi’s Christ-like resilience in the face of godly abandonment and indifference.  This will be lost on children, which is part of the film’s versatility.  Kids will no doubt marvel at “Li of Pi” for years to come because of its technical achievements: incandescent jellyfish, torpedo-like flying fish, an island of meerkats and flesh-eating vegetation.  Adults, meanwhile, will prefer to see Pi’s plight as an allegory and regard the tiger, as William Blake once did, in symbolic terms.

Much has been made of its “Avatar”-like special effects, but “Life of Pi” is also consistent with James Cameron’s 2009 classic in other ways. “Avatar,” too, stages a battle between humans and the animal-like other (those blue dudes with dog-ears and tails in Cameron’s case). If the Other is something too often demonized and ultimately conquered, “Avatar” saw the corporate destruction of the Na’vi of Pandora as a tragedy.  “Life of Pi” doesn’t deny that the battle between self and other is a violent one, but it’s more interested in making peace with the beast.

As in “Brokeback Mountain” (Lee’s last great film), which forced American audiences to reckon with a form of romance they don’t normally see nor understand, “Life of Pi” looks into the abyss of all social relations.  In “Brokeback,” otherness resides in the unreadable eyes of the self-hating Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) while in “Life of Pi,” that same haunting quality is right there in the eye of the tiger. Lee, who is nothing if not unsentimental, refuses to anthropomorphize the four-hundred-and-fifty-pound man-eater and “Life of Pi” is better for it.  Had Disney produced Martel’s book, the film would have ended with Pi and Tiger singing a duet but here, the tiger only stares with indifference and, without a word, slinks back into the jungle.

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