Monday, March 5, 2012

Project X

Project X
Grade: C
Cast: Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Dax Flame
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Free Admission Granted

Teenagers in movies are smarter than those in real life. They’re smoother. They’re cooler. They spend Friday nights at hip parties with hip music, rather than locked in their rooms with their best friends lip-synching to an embarrassing amount of Katy Perry.

Mass-market films with teenagers operate outside of the neuroses of growing up, the insecurities of personality, in confidence rather than confusion about sex. Sheer teenage exuberance becomes a victory over the compromises and socially accepted wickedness that hold the adult world together. These films bolt reality in favor of aspirational fantasy.

In this spirit, Project X is the entirety of the teenage id unleashed. With a house party that passes from a coming-of-age rite onto the verge of the apocalypse, it grasps both the fondness and fear that we feel toward youth. I feel a sort of admiration for its reckless abandon, for its willingness to take it all the way in each direction, even if the results are fairly mixed.

The film is produced by Todd Phillips of Hangover fame, and it plays like the night in The Hangover that we never see. Thomas (Thomas Mann) is the sensitive kid whose parents are confident their shy son could never throw a violent house party. JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) is the squat nebbish without a hope. Castro (Oliver Cooper) is the displaced New York fast-talker lamenting his abandoned party life back in Queens. All three friends attend a California high school that appears to be a magnet school for models. With Thomas’ parents away on his birthday, like so many teenage movie nerds before them, they throw a house party that they hope will decrease their virginity and increase their popularity.

From there, you can imagine. Loud music. Alcohol. Skinnydipping. Hook-ups. Angry neighbors. Broken glass. A broken lawn gnome full of Ecstacy. And that’s the gentle part. Bacchanalian pleasure presages Bacchanalian disorder. If the world is going to end this year, has anyone ever conjectured that it might come from a house party?

In its best stretches Project X intoxicates you with the desire for youthful abandon. It is shot in a found footage sort of way, as if it were an amateur documentary, and that gives the increasingly frenzied activity the weight of reality. It slowly boils you by asking “Can you believe this?” to gradually wilder things.

Eventually I said no. Too many of the hijinks are ripped off from John Hughes movies in the eighties, primiarily Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Weird Science (with an assist from Risky Business). And too often the film leaves you watching it rather than quite living it.

Like a great party, this review has burned out rather than ended. All that’s left is to say, “Have a nice day.”

Act of Valor

Act of Valor
Grade: C
Cast: Alex Veadov, Roselyn Sanchez
Director: Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh
Free Admission Granted

Act of Valor begins with the sort of sappy, mushy voiced-over letter that someone should regret. Someone may have. Preceding the storyline (and hence the letter) directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh appear on camera in what seems like a pre-emptive apologia. Speaking directly to the audience, the two men explain they cast real-life, non-actor Navy Seals and their families in hopes of celebrating the real people and capturing the real experience.

These real-life Rambos accustomed to living in the deep woods on sawgrass and toad meat soon face one of their toughest missions – hacking through the dense jungle that is the first 15 minutes of script and rescuing a real emotion. Capturing this stroke of emotion is one thing the directors state that they hoped to do – feeling that only SEALS and their families could authentically demonstrate the emotion of leaving your family for a dangerous mission. Never mind that actors do it well all the time. The stiffness of the families in the emotional moments raises the question, why are people so uneasy about being themselves in front of a camera?

For a while it looks like this mission will be an unintentional laugh riot. As the SEALs begin slipping into metaphorical body armor and gas masks, an even funnier thing happens. The film finally sends us on a mission. And it gets a lot better.

The audience finds itself tagging along on a moonlight jump from a cargo plane, landing in a marsh, re-assembling at the checkpoint, lining up the sniper redicle, squeezing the trigger, storming the stronghold, then being chased down a narrow dirt road by a drug cartel army, racing for a rendezvous with a pair of gunboats. The action is of unusually prolonged intensity. That’s when Act of Valor delivers what it promises – the sheer vicarious danger and thrill of being a Navy SEAL.

Act of Valor will quickly raise the age-old movie questions of whether the spectacle of film naturally glorifies violence. Is Act of Valor a real experience, or a hyper real experience? Is this an unsanitized depiction, or are America’s enemies really armed with an unusually high percentage of dud ammunition? At one moment, one SEAL gets to live out the Hollywood dream of hopping on a grenade and saving his friends in the name of his country. Then the director presumably yelled “cut” and he went to meet the family for dinner unscathed.

Valor is also certain to raise the sort of questions about collaboration with the military that have dogged films like Top Gun through the years. The movie actually was initiated by the Pentagon, which gave the filmmakers sweeping access, including some of the first shots inside a US nuclear submarine. Right or wrong, it raises the question of the line between art and propaganda.

But judging the politics isn’t as important here as judging the final product. While the warriors have obvious discomfort acting, and the script doesn’t help them, the action makes up for it. If the Pentagon wanted an exciting feature-length recruitment film, it got its money’s worth.

The Secret Life of Arrietty

The Secret World of Arrietty
Grade: B
Cast (voice): Mirai Shida, Ryunosuke Kamiki
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Free Admission Granted

It’s commonly accepted among the film literate that this is the year of living in the past.

What else could it be? The frontrunner for Best Picture is a silent movie for crying out loud (or not crying out loud, as the case may be). Can flagpole sitting and the Charleston be far behind?

While the conventional wisdom has reached this conclusion, the conventional wisdom has not reached a conclusion on the wisdom of eating a bowl of sugary yesteryear for breakfast every morning. Is this a healthy revisitation of tradition, or a cowardly retreat into the soft womb of the past?

I tend toward the old-fashioned. It took me forever to get a cell phone. I don’t have a tablet. While I’m a defender of well-made chaos cinema, when it comes to animation I have recently stated my orientation toward things past. And I think I found an answer to the previously stated question while watching the often brilliant The Secret World of Arrietty. Revisiting the past is most worthwhile when recovering lost values that deserve an awakening.

Written and “supervised” by the Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki (based on Mary Norton’s children’s stories The Borrowers), Arrietty is practically made of watercolors in an age of computer generation. The figures are well-drawn, but the film doesn’t shy away from asking you to use your imagination to complete the picture. And there are no overcaffeinated pet raccoons to “entertain” us every time the beat slows down.

So much of animation today resembles loud action movie principles – overtalking, breakneck pace, exaggeratedly intense motion. They are also geared toward creating an environment that blurs the line between fiction and reality. The gentle human scale of Arrietty – a spirited teenage girl the size of a blade of grass who lives underneath a house – reinvigorates the values of older generation’s of animation – imagination, humanity, and the art of the paper and pen.

The genius of Arrietty is that by shrinking its heroine to the size of a finger, it turns the familiarity of a common home into a landscape of danger and adventure. Rats and insects become predators. A common cat becomes an alien. And moving around a kitchen has the impact of landing on the moon. Arriety takes common things and rediscovers them as immense. And so is the first hints of romantic feeling – as Arriety forms a friendship with a sickly boy who moves into the house above.

So remember, every once in a while, Hollywood does make movies for the little people.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Grade: C
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Amr Waked, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Free Admission Granted

How long can any film review go before calling Salmon Fishing in Yemen a fish out of water story? Not to mention that the film stars Emily Blunt and her prominent lips. Every time Ewan McGregor’s Scottish fish expert looks at mackerel, he must think of her.

The man who took over Obi-Wan Kenobi becomes a new Dr. Jones, taking on an impossible mission of faith in Arabia. At one point, he even mentions the Ark of the Covenant. And yet he ends the movie as a sort of Lawrence of Arabia, obsessed, liberated and embittered by a folly in the desert. Or he should have, if the film did not choose to rescue him.

Salmon Fishing in Yemen is cleverly written, well-performed, with a unique and memorable story. One might even dare call it critic’s bait. However, for some reason it attaches a series of subplots that nearly wash it away. While the film they get out of the material is pleasantly acceptable, you can’t help but feel there was a better film snapping at the bottom of the line.

There’s a strong brew between the fish guy with a personality shortage, who is asked by a consultant (Blunt) to bring salmon to a valley in the Arabian desert for a visionary sheik (Amr Waked), who loves fly fishing. The script from Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) – populated with thoughtful one-liners like “That’s the good thing about Aspberger’s. It’s virtually impossible to hurt our feelings.” – plays strongly to director Lasse Hallstrom’s attraction to quirk and romance.

A lot of the really great screen romances aren’t set up with romance in mind. Their lovers work together on something fulfilling to them, moving toward a common goal. falling in love along the way. Salmon Fishing should be the story of two people who slowly fall in love as they jet around the world to find rare fins and flippers. It works best in the first half of the film when it is that film. (New romantic formula: Less mush. More fish.)

So why does the film feel the need to fish in conventional streams of generic drama – his unhappy wife, her missing soldier boyfriend, a jihadist subplot – to force the wrong type of conflict? It’s adapted from a book, but that’s not an excuse. Part of this speaks to money, I think, and the fact that you don’t really know how a movie is going to go before you begin filming it. You don’t know what the chemistry will be, or if there will be any at all. The subplots become a sort of insurance policy.

Which is a shame, because it takes away from a film that might have been great, but ends up only with a lot of things to offer, foremost among them the chemistry of the lead trio of Amr Waked, McGregor, and Blunt. When she first emerged six or seven years ago, I always thought Blunt had it in her to be a great actress. But I didn’t suspect she would have such delicacy and generosity as a love interest in romantic roles. Taken with last year’s The Adjustment Bureau – where she managed to lift a similarly besotted screenplay – this film certifies her as a chemistry machine, and a saving grace to mainstream-ish films that want to be different but only half-accomplish it.


Grade: B
Cast: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Free Admission Granted

“Judy, Judy,” Jimmy Stewart famously told Kim Novak in Vertigo, as he forced her to change her appearance to that of his dead lover. “It can’t make that much difference to you.”

This was Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous and revealing line in his 1958 classic, a meditation on the male gaze. I thought of it when I read about Haywire’s post-production. Director Steven Soderbergh deepened the voice of star Gina Carano, an erstwhile mixed martial arts luminary who is as ferociously tough as she is ferociously attractive. Her real voice – too girly – wasn’t to his liking.

No director has so lusted after his lead, seemed so driven to make her a star since ….. last month, with David Fincher and Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. While Haywire might be a riveting action thriller with retro style to burn, it’s important to remember this -- it’s also the pursuit of the perfect woman. It’s Soderbergh’s own Girlfriend Experience.

The perfect woman here comes with bite. Carano solves the major problem of the female action hero – she brings convincing intensity to the art of beating up men. In that sense, she reveals Mara and others as the cap-gun imposters they are. As special ops genius Mallory Kane, Carano leaps rooftops, slams bad guys to the ground, and looks elegant in a fashionable dress right before she chugs ritzy champagne. Even the man sent to kill her doesn’t really want to do it (Speaking of which, does Michael Fassbender hire a wardrobe attendant for his endless collection of bath towels?).

The slow-build foot chases and physical hand-to-hand recall Jason Bourne. But much of the film lifts from the John Boorman-LeeMarvin classic Point Blank, a film that Soderbergh admits he loves to steal from. And just like Point Blank, it’s a story of a double crossed tough guy/girl returns on a mission of revenge against the person who left her for dead (a sadly unthreatening Ewan McGregor).

Action films stand at a crossroads. Do they continue in the chaos cinema vein, stretching away from the bounds of realism. Or should they pull in the opposite direction, back toward realism and dark urban grittiness, like the first half of Drive and Haywire? I don’t know which it will be, but Haywire makes a strong case for itself.

The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin
Grade: D
Cast: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig
Director: Steven Spielberg
Free Admission Granted

In a parallel universe, a young filmmaker considers the long, overpowering tradition of computer-generated animation and – eureka – elides upon a great idea. What if I draw a bunch of pictures on consecutive sheets of paper and run my thumb across the edges?

The ensuing film becomes a major success, launching a revolution in animation. The gripping story of a spirited roadrunner and the driven but hapless coyote Javert who pursues him, critics praise its creativity and existential vision, carving out a stunning new fictional landscape completely shorn from reality. They are also astounded and delighted by the process. Did this young artist really spend hour upon hour creating thousands upon thousands of drawings? What nerve! What dedication!

In this year of critical nostalgia run wild, I’ll play my card here. I find the trend toward more realistic computer generated animation alienating and counterproductive. Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin takes tremendous pains to make its people and places seem only a little past the edge of reality. In a field where the purpose is escapist in nature, I question whether that’s an improvement.

On the other hand, I recognize whe a film is uniquely made, even when I don’t find it riveting, and I dislike it when a critic never admits this. Tintin – a childlike adventure with a French boy detective, a tipsy sea captain, and a pirate treasure – is definitely inventive. At one point, one of the film’s realistic-ish cartoon characters goes to a park, he has an old-fashioned cartoon portrait made of himself, one that makes him look like a teenage Dennis the Menace, suggesting how far computers and animation have wandered from pen and paper and how close they have come in mimicking realism.

The film’s animation isn’t necessarily animation. It’s a motion-capture process that’s translated into animation, generated by filming actors’ movements and then painting over them with pixels. By the time we reach a pirate-ship battle the inspiration clearly isn’t Disney or Miyazaki, but the high-seas CG “live action” of Pirates of the Caribbean. What’s the difference between a cartoon and a “live” CG extravaganza except a few algorithms?

So it’s quite impressive technically, but I feel when we go barreling through an Arab village with an eagle, a motorcycle, and a bursting dam - flashing from angle to angle in one motion - that something is being lost, or missed, or shuffled over.

So while I sit in the corner lamenting the disappearance of the simplicities of yesteryear, allow me to point out the villain of Tintin bears a considerable resemblance to Spielberg friend Stanley Kubrick. Apparently the late director didn’t go to Heaven or Hell, but to a giant HAL 9000 mainframe spouting mindless entertainment in Hollywood, which would probably seem like Hell to Kubrick. While seeing Kubrick as the misanthropic villain isn’t a surprise, I never really expected Stanley to be such a good swordfighter.

2011 Top 10

I didn’t get to enough movies this year to make a definitive Top 10 list. But these are my favorites.
Tree of Life – Terrence Malick’s symphonic memoir explores the relationships of nature and grace, mother and father, modern philosophy and religious wisdom, abstraction and reality, memory and existence, man and the divine, theory and life. On the one hand a consideration of Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Heidegger, Kempis, dinosaurs, and God. On the other, a simple memoir of childhood, compassion, forgiveness, and letting go. The most hyped film is the best, by a mile. 
Melancholia – Lars Von Trier’s provoctive rumination on depression and may be dealing from the usual deck of atheistic Euro-nihilism. But if you want to get filmmaking that pushes things, you have to praise filmmaking that pushes things. Kirsten Dunst awaits the end of the world, as a rogue planet named Melancholia closes in. Her somehow English sister Charlotte Gainsbourg loves life too much to panic.
Shame – Steve McQueen’s racy story of sex addiction and family has seen a backlash. Really? What I saw was a film that reaches for symphonic filmmaking but brilliantly holds its intricate family dynamic. 
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – What does a director do ? In the case of Tomas Alfredsson, take a crisp English spy saga and imbue it with a snowy disposition and encroaching mortality. The obsessive control of period detail, cerebral performances, and zoom-in, zoom-out episodes of storytelling makes this British spy story feel like David Fincher’s Zodiac. As John LeCarre’s regular hero George Smiley, Gary Oldman expertly hides a sense of duty and passion behind a face of cold professionalism.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams Werner Herzog’s 3-D visit to the 35,000-year-old cave paintings of Framce’s Chauvet Cave considers the beginning of the human imagination from the end of it.
Incendies – A pair of twins living in Canada return to Lebanon after their mother’s death to uncover family secrets and memories of the civil war. One twist too many, but passionate and engrossing.
Midnight in Paris Pure charm.
Like Crazy – Is Drake Doremus’ effort a great film, or a good film with a great performance and great ending? I’ve settled on the latter, but that doesn’t diminish its power and Felicity Jones’ fantastic turn. Of all the newcomer actresses, hers feels most complete and daring.
The Artist – It might be the Shakespeare in Love of 2011. Nonetheless, this silent curio is a very strong crowd-pleaser.
Fast Five – The joy of Fast Five is its absolutely shameless commitment to the lurid pleasures that films actually are (sex, cars, masculinity), rather than what tortured cineastes think they should be. So wrong – and so right. 

The Artist

The Artist
Grade: B
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Free Admission Granted

It is common to think of the Silent Era as cinematic pre-history, a lost era ruled over by tyrannosaurs and Charlie Chaplin.

Even the most dutiful moviegoers have left silents for so much pterodactyl meat, with a few known comedy routines kept around as much for anthropology as enjoyment. For most, movie history begins in 1927 the same way that we count American presidents from 1789, John Hanson and Samuel Huntington be damned. This version of film history neglects the fact that the late twenties witnessed film’s first golden age, and that early talkies were generally a step backward.

In recent years, there has been a very small silent revival with arthouse luminaries like Guy Maddin and Aki Kurasmaki engaging the form. Until now, these efforts have been contained to the festival circuit ghetto. The revival looks to punch into the mainstream with Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, the first silent movie (black–and-white-and-French, to boot) to get a real release since Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie in 1976, I suppose.

Would a silent movie with a story set outside the Silent Era work? Could you do The Social Network without sound? Who knows, but The Artist doesn’t take the chance. Recalling Singin’ in the Rain, the story is set around two movie stars at the crossroads of the silents and talkies – a sparkling actress on her way up and a frog-voiced actor on the way down. Of the pair, lead Jean Dujardin has been winning the lion’s share of attention, playing alongside a wise-beyond-his-species terrier. But like the plot itself, Argentine co-star Berenice Bejo steals the show, with a sunshine-smile verve that refuses to acknowledge the limits of silence. While the film will go to dark emotional places, the night is only there to set up the sunrise, and the final redemptive dance number is a tingling Golden Age sensation.

Let’s be honest – the real story is whether or not The Artist can catch fire with the public and revive the silent the way that Avatar revived 3-D or Chicago revived the musical. Will Tom Cruise don a bowler hat? Will Robert Downey Jr. go from playing Chaplin to being Chaplin? We’ll see. The Artist captured hearts at Cannes this year, and it has been the Jack Dempsey of audience prizes along the festival circuit ever since. While being a snowflake of a film, it manages to be the best snowflake that it can be.

War Horse

War Horse
Grade: C
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Free Admission Granted

Last year, I wrote a great deal about the return of sentimentality to the American cinema. You could see it in True Grit or the ending of The Town. They were built less on rational sense than emotional sense.

Well, it was just a theory. But even I never expected War Horse.

Steven Spielberg’s new one is either a Heaven of sentimentality or a hell of inconceivable character motivation and emotion. The cynic in me wants to dismiss it as a fairy tale of trench warfare, or E.E: The Extra Equestrial. The romantic in me wants to accept it for the well-done sentimental story that it is.

War Horse is being noted for its John Ford scenery, sugared cinematography (by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski) and its affecting touch. Thematically, it’s a little bit like Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Baltasar, about a donkey Christ figure who bears the suffering of the world around him. A horse travels through the First World War only to witness and live through tragic suffering, coming away with burdensome wounds of his own.

On one level it is the story of an Irish boy who is way too into his horse. It’s Twilight but with Bella as a horse. The courage of the colt and drive are established early, as he plows an un-plowable field to save the family farm. Sold into the army, circumstance and death force him to wander the countryside from owner to owner, dodging bullets and tragedy, on his way home.

There are two terrific scenes, the first an exciting, tragic cavalry charge into a German unit. The second has an English and German soldiers cooperating in no man’s land to release Joey from a tangle of barbed wire. They both display War Horse at its best: simple, memorable, moving.

In spite of its good moments, who is War Horse for? Do you take children to a horsey movie if it has images of battlefield aftermaths? Is it for the adults who will find its emotional overdrive – punctuated by John Williams’ typically overpowering score – simple or corny?

Mission Impossible: 4

Mission: Impossible 4
Grade: B
Cast: Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner
Director: Brad Bird
Free Admission Granted

Let’s be honest – it’s been a banner year for mindless action movies.

As the ball dropped down on 2011, the prospect of new Fast and Furious and Mission:Impossible entries didn’t exactly inspire confidence. There was no reason to expect Fast Five would rise above its dubious reputation to produce a crispy-crunchy hyper-masculine fantasy. Now somehow Tom Cruise and company have shaken off the last M:I flameout and produced an entertaining romp of fistfights and explosions for the Christmas season. The old wisdom about sequels: the original is always the best. The new wisdom about sequels: it takes a few to get it right.

Mission: Impossible 4 makes three corrections to its underwhelming predecessor that makes it worth a viewing:

Abandons MI:3’s heavy video game aesthetic in favor of more traditional action escapism - In MI:3 the villains were walking faceless targets who made Star Wars’ stormtroopers look like well-developed characters and hardy battlefield strategists. At least stormtroopers know to duck behind a tree at the sound of gunfire. While no one would accuse MI:4 of realism, at least it returns the feeling of intimate scale and real danger. Cruise’s heart-pounding climb up the side of a towering Arab skyscraper is a model of tight, simple action.

Shows action rather than implies – The action centerpiece of MI:3: Tom Cruise enters a building. We wait looking at the building. He burst through a window out the other side of the building. We never actually see what happened inside the building. But man, was there some flying glass! The action centerpiece in MI:4 is a long, fantastic foot-chase/car-chase through a desert sandstorm in Dubai. It involves us. We’re along for every step and gear grind.

Doesn’t bother with story or real human relationships - True, this isn’t a direction that we generally encourage action films to take. But it beats watching Cruise mosey his trademark phony romantic stutter in Michelle Monaghan’s general direction three times.

Brad Bird, the heralded Pixar animation director, is an interesting choice. The influence appears quickly, staging a prison rhubarb in a Russian gulag to a Dean Martin recording. It has a smart-aleck feel, almost a living cartoon, but in a smart way. I admire Bird for the way he keeps his tongue in cheek without ruining the intensity.

If you’ve been waiting on the “the film isn’t perfect” moment, here it is. Detractors of chaos cinema will find plenty to complain about, probably in between telling stories about getting pregnant at Woodstock or their family eating a car door during the Depression. Too often the fight scenes are choppy, leaving you thinking star-double-star-double-star-double with each edit. And by the end your head will wobble from trying to get it all straight (For instance the plot. Have I bothered to mention the plot has Cruise and team tracking nuclear launch codes? Have I even mentioned a plot exists at all?). Still, the film meets payday after payday, and you have to respect a steady payer.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Grade: B
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly
Director: Lynne Ramsay

We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t the first film this year to outlast its immediacy.

A novel written by Lionel Shriver in the wake of the Columbine school killings, director Lynne Ramsay has been trying to make the film since her last feature, Morvern Callar, in 2002. The unusually long gestation period has stripped the story of its ripped-from-the-headlines quality. It now plays like a quaint, violent memory. These are the under-parented demon children of not so long ago, not the ultra-wired sweethearts of today, the ones who are moving back into their parents’ homes at farm-like rates.

The distance has one benefit. It has given us the opportunity to re-assess cultural mythology surrounding violence. Compare the school shootings of Columbine to the attempted shooting of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords. During Columbine, the national media twisted the story to fit any number of evergreen social maladies: access to guns, underparenting, schoolhouse jocks gone wild. In the Giffords shooting, similar spin largely failed. People accepted the shooter’s primary and overwhelming responsibility.

Tragedy never lacks for explanations. The power to assign a narrative is the power to assert control over the chaotic. In a sense, that is the mission of Tilda Swinton’s Eva Khatchourian, running through her memory, testing her feelings of collective guilt in order to take power over the crimes of her son.

The centerpiece of We Need to Talk About Kevin is the mother-son relationship and the ties between love and dependency. Her son understands these ties intuitively. He is a master manipulator of love. In fact he sees no other purpose for it, understanding from an early age how to use it to wound. A bizarre response – to our mind – are Eva's long drives to visit her son in juvenile prison. Her final act of love clarifies it, seeming both reassuring and wicked. We can choose to live up to our obligations of decency, even to those who use it to push us away.

Kevin will leave Ramsay’s reputation as a talented visualist in good stead. Her use of red and yellow, bloody and attracting colors, is quite striking. As a storyteller Ramsay seems interested in twisted tales on the borderline of affection and manipulation. Her unconventional heroines are left by narcissistic men to navigate through acts of violence. She focuses on their quiet steel while also noticing their tough-to-like elements.

The running feeling of We Need to Talk about Kevin is circular. It bounces around the chronology. We bump into the same imagery in different places, such as the image of Kevin sucking on food, a tendency that appears to be stuck in the mother’s mind. The style eventually bogs down the film – movies can run in circles, but each circle needs to be further down the road than the last. However, Eva as a person is bogged down, forever surrendered to this central event. Her whole life leads up to it, and leads away from it. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a movie about moving on without being able to move on.


Grade: A
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Director: Steve McQueen
Free Admission Granted

A man. A woman. An underground train. Traded looks. Traded fantasies. No one looking. No one aware. The train stops. The lick of her lips. The ring on her finger. Will they? Won’t they? The crowd in the station.

The man is Brandon. We soon meet the rest of him. His job. His coldness. His naked body wrapped in blue sheets. His overpowering sexual impulse. Alleys. Back doors. Luxury hotels. His computer tracked off to clean porn. His apartment, appointed and neat, his first mask toward the world. The kind way to see him is as a ladies man. The less kind way is as a sex addict.

The premise of Steve McQueen’s highly sexual Shame, a rare recipient of an NC-17 rating, seems like a comedy, if it were played for any warmth. What if a sex addict’s hyper-controlled life of conquests, stimulation and disconnection crumbles when his gypsy sister needs a place to stay?

His sister  wears crazy on her sleeve, but places it next to a welcoming heart. She wants him to unwind and return her love. He wants her to leave. There is a vibe in their relationship – aloof, dependent – that suggests the relationship of parents. If they ever had parents. They are orphans to the city.

Is Brandon a sociopath? He’s polite, accommodating, holds doors for prostitutes, but he shows little feeling for others. But he's not really a sociopath. It’s not an absence of emotion or empathy, but a fear of it. He feels connection as much as his sister, but distrusts it. He loathes the risk of emotional connection dragging him down. And this is one sensibility of Shame: love as a necessity even when it feels like a punishment.

The film’s money shot follows Brandon jogging down a street, fascinated with his stride, with beautiful casual lyricism. It’s a flashy shot. It draws attention. Yet much of Sean Bobitt’s best work delivers in small amounts. Brother and sister argue on the couch. The backs of their heads hide their emotion. The camera tilts as the power shifts in the conversation. Words. Tension. Clumps of hair.

McQueen relies on long takes of silence that leave the audience in a state of uncertainty. We are left to interpret the message. The style gives the actors space to breathe. Michael Fassbender uses it to suggest the emotion churn, a memorably chilly performance. As his sister, Carey Mulligan excels – her usual minimalist reserve gets to take her LooneyTunes gene out for a spin. Her heartbreaking performance of “New York, New York” (her character is a lounge singer) is one of the film’s lasting moments.

There really is a lot of sex in Shame – as much as I’ve seen in aggregate in six years of film writing. Yet it isn’t erotic in the least. Shame engages in sexual fantasy at the same time that it debases its eroticism, making it seem like pathetically wasted energy and a drying of the soul. It strikes me as the work of a married man. There’s a push-pull attraction to the liberating fantasy followed by the judgment that keeps us in line.

A man. A woman. An underground train. Traded looks. Traded fantasies. No one looking. No one aware. The train stops. The lick of her lips. The ring on her finger. Will they? Won’t they? She can leave it, stop it there, pack the bags and return to life. Can he?

The Muppets

The Muppets
Grade: B
Cast: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper
Director: James Bobin
Free Admission Granted

Who doesn’t love The Muppets?

Birds love them. Bees love them. Even monkeys stuck in trees love them. That’s been the case since the 1970s, when Jim Henson first stuck his hand into a green sock and pulled out a cultural icon. (I know, he’s not really a green sock.)

Why you would have to be a heartless Texas oilman played by Chris Cooper (with his own personal rap!) to want to quash the long-gestating big screen return of the most famous pieces of felt in the world (Their last outing was 1999’s Muppets in Space). But it’s good that someone hates them, because The Muppets needs a plot. Long Garboed up at his estate, Kermit the Frog must reunite the original Muppet cast for a telethon to save the old Muppets Theater from the oil derrick. With the help of human friends, he finds Gonzo as a plumbing business magnate, tracks down Fozzie Bear at a seedy Reno nightspot, and springs Animal the drummer from anger management classes with Jack Black. Then there’s corralling Ms. Piggy, now running a Parisian fashion magazine after hiring Emily Blunt away from Meryl Streep.

The genius of the muppets is the way they talk to all members of the audience. They are smart for the adults and silly for the children. Miss Piggy does her karate chops. Hi-ya! You also get the smart satire, such as goofing on all the bands who tour without their original members. Fozzie Bear is stuck playing in such a band, which looks like it has been stocked with parolees from Muppet Prison.

The movie allows co-writer/human star Jason Segel to fulfill the lifelong dream of his character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, to make a puppet musical (with songwriting help from Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords). The sing-alongs are joyous, especially the campy “Life’s a Happy Song” number early in the film, and there’s something furtively sexy about Amy Adams performing “Me Party” (but don’t worry, parents – no need to cover your child’s eyes or anything.) The Muppets understands a lesson that I wish modern musicals would learn – that the best musical numbers have songs that are singable for the audience, rather than professionally polished and impressive. Sorry Dreamgirls fans – the most immortal movie musical numbers are the ones that everybody can sing.

As a seasoned film critic, you learn to get a sense of the target demographic. But what happens when you ARE the target demographic? You sit back, lose all critical perspective, and enjoy the show! Which was my experience with The Muppets, a film in which I seemed to be having as much fun as Segel and Adams were on the screen.

The Descendants

The Descendants
Grade: C
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lilliard
Director: Alexander Payne
Free Admission Granted

The revered New Yorker critic Paulene Kael famously stated that great films are rarely perfect films. Do we ever wonder about the opposite? Are perfect films rarely great films?

As the ultimate easy swallow, The Descendants – the latest release from Sideways writer/director Alexander Payne – has been practically pieced together by magical gold statuettes in the advanced laboratory of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s been, why, since last year that a film has been so deliciously and deviously designed for the award season. How many characters get a crying scene in this juicy monument to weeping and sobbing and sniffling? I lost count, but the answer is, too many.

And yet there are real positive qualities to be found in this story of a middle-aged Hawaiian lawyer (George Clooney) dealing with a lucrative family land sale, two rebellious daughters, and the adultery of a wife who now lays dying in a coma. The New York Times critic A. O. Scott has pinpointed the virtues of the film – a pleasant pace unruffled by plot, sharply written, with a richness of generosity for its imperfect characters in an imperfect world. I will see Scott and raise him Payne’s successful balance of the family dynamic between love and cynicism, a feat that often eludes quality filmmakers. For a long time, these strong virtues had me singing aloha.

But where does all this perfection lead us? To such hard-earned lessons as: a cheating spouse can produce a wealth of good and bad feelings. You shouldn’t put a price on a family legacy. Man, can our families, no matter how gosh-darn difficult, help us through hard times. On the invisible artistic scale between reassuring and challenging, this one leans heavily on the side of the former. The Descendants might be a perfect film. It is also a cuddly kitten of conventional wisdom.

Like Crazy

Like Crazy
Grade: A
Cast: Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
Director: Drake Doremus
Free Admission Granted

I don’t think I’ve seen anything lately quite like the ending of the 2011 Sundance Jury Prize winner Like Crazy. Spending time watching the rise and disintegration of a marriage, I wondered, is there really a moment when a romance ends? When the present becomes irretrievably the past?

If so, then we’ve already passed it, and tied no cloth around a tree to mark where we left the main road. The choices these two young people make – an American man and British woman, lovebirds at college, struggling with the ups and downs of love and immigration – are innocent, reasonable, and sympathetic. None of that helps as they stand there dripping wet, realizing that the past is over and it’s never going to return. There we are standing with them in a gently shocking moment of despair.

Browsing through some reviews of Like Crazy, I’m not sure all of the reviewers gather how sophisticated the film is. Some have treated Like Crazy as a typical romance, as if it is soapy schlock like The Time Traveler’s Wife or this week’s miserable rom-com. What’s being missed is that Like Crazy uses those common beats only so they can dig a trap door under them.

Aside from commenting on love and love stories, the Transatlantic back-and-forth raises questions about the effect of handheld communication upon modern sense of intimacy. Decades ago, these two people would either lose touch or get married. Today, with a phone in every hand, I think Like Crazy is considering an interesting and fairly novel idea: that the ease of modern communication creates a false intimacy that tempts us to replace our present with a sentimental past.

No one can declare a performance a star-making performance, particularly before the release of the film. There are too many important variables. Like, for instance, whether or not people will pay money to watch you. So you won’t hear me say that about the emotionally fragile performance of Felicity Jones, a 27-year-old stage actress of note. And yet if she does become a star – break in with a series of high-end performances, before we accuse her of selling out after a billion-dollar genre movie, and then re-gaining us with a speech at the Oscar podium that’s 20 minutes long – then Like Crazy will be the place that we see as the start.

One of my favorite back-cover blurbs for any book is the one that William S. Burroughs wrote for Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange: “One of the few books I’ve been able to finish in the past few years.” I felt that way about Like Crazy. In truth, I finish every film. But how many films finish me?