December 31, 2012

The Year in Review

I complained loudly this year about the dearth of good movies. But now it's time to honor those people and films that were good (even if they were merely good at being bad). So, without further ado:
My favorite films of the year, in alphabetical order:

Arbitrage. Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon star in this effective capitalist thriller that depicts the heights and depths of corporate crime and the subsequent moral decay. Arbitrage doesn't cop out at the end, a refreshing feat for a relatively commercial movie. Read the review.
Argo. Ben Affleck takes on the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81, and depicts the recently declassified rescue mission by pretending to make a bad sci-fi flick. It's one of the most suspenseful movies in recent memory, even if you already know the outcome, and riddled through it is a wonderfully cheeky sense of humor. Read the review.

Bernie. Bernie may be my favorite movie of 2012: it's a fun dark comedy starring Jack Black as a prissy funeral director who murders a rich widow (Shirley MacLaine) and gives away all her money. Highly entertaining. Read the review.

The Deep Blue Sea. Rachel Weisz gives a fine performance in this tragic, beautifully rendered study of passion and its consequences. It's set in post-WW2 London, and was originally written for the stage by Terence Ratigan. Read the review.
Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino's American slave-era revenge fantasy is a violent, colorful carnival-ride through the genteel horrors of the pre-Civil War South. As fascinating and darkly funny as it is purposefully dubious, with excellent performances by Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christopher Waltz, and Samuel L. Jackson. Read the review.

Headhunters. This taut Norwegian thriller combines the right elements of fun and fear to weave a tale of survival about an art thief who steals from the wrong collector. It's full of the surprises so often lacking in American thrillers of late. Read the review.

Killer Joe. Oh so disturbing, but oh so good. I'm half ashamed and half happy to include William Friedkin's Texas trailer park thriller on this list. It's too potent and seedy not to be noticed, and the performance of Matthew McConaughey (and really everyone else) feels electric, terrifying, mesmerizing. Read the review.

The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson's loose roman a clef for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as 'The Master') are strong, and the movie lingers in your memory, like fine wine. It may not be a great film, but it's certainly a good one. Read the review.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower. A lovely movie about high school, anchored by Logan Lerman's wonderful performance. It captures the full emotional range of adolescent life: funny, sad, incisive, melodramatic, deadpan, goofy, witty, rapturous. Read the review.

Skyfall. It may be the most elegant Bond flick, limiting itself to relatively few of the junky chase scenes, explosions and such, and bolstered by a number of interesting locations, including the final showdown on the Scottish moors. Some have complained about M's increased involvement in the story, but Judi Dench always seems like good company. And as sullen as he is, there's something undeniably fascinating about Daniel Craig as James Bond. Read the review.
Zero Dark Thirty. A natural progression from Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's collaboration on The Hurt Locker. People have complained that it takes an ambiguous stance on torture. I think it makes a case for the power of showing and not telling. And it also presents to us the awful ambiguity that is war. Read the review.

Standout Performances:
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jason Clarke, Zero Dark Thirty 
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained 
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Dennis Lavant, Holy Motors
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Matthew McConaughey, Bernie and Killer Joe
Nate Parker, Arbitrage
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Sam Rockwell, Seven Psychopaths
Edith Scob, Holy Motors
Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea

What's most distressing to me about this list is how few women are on it. This problem is not due to a lack of good actresses, but a lack of good parts for women. Sure, Sally Field was good as Mary Todd Lincoln, but her character was designed to be that clingy, complainy wife role, something that seems almost too easy for someone of Field's range. Besides, everything in Lincoln was subordinate to the showcasing of Lincoln, and the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. Susan Sarandon might have made this list for Arbitrage, but the writer-director Nicholas Jarecki didn't give her anything to do until the end.  

One of the biggest acting surprises was Logan Lerman, who made his character in Wallflower so charming, shy but but determined, and compassionate. And DiCaprio proved that his acting is far more exciting when he's playing a character role. Forget Hoover and Hughes: give us more Candie. 

Worst Movies
Finally, a list that was easy to make. These films made it to this list for either failing to meet my expectations, or exceeding them far and away. Savages was such fun to heckle, Magic Mike was as boring as it was sweaty, Robert Pattinson demonstrated his A-B acting range two-fold in Breaking Dawn 2 and Cosmopolis, and President Lincoln failed to bring any vitality to the worst movie about him in 2012. 

1. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
2. Breaking Dawn Part 2
3. The Campaign
4. Cosmopolis 
5. Dark Shadows
6. Lawless
7. Magic Mike
8. Rampart
9. Savages     
10. Ted 

Favorite "new-to-me" movies of 2012
I'm always on the lookout for films I missed, often because they came out before I was born. Four of the following films did. All seven of them were enjoyable in their own way. So here are my favorite "new-to-me" movies of 2012, with two words of description apiece:

City of God (2002): mesmerizing exposé 
The Conformist (1970): gorgeous, gorgeous 
Dog Day Afternoon (1975): riveting transaction
In Bruges (2008): immaculate tragedy
The Lady Eve (1941): clever girl 
Metropolitan (1990): good conversation
The Warriors (1979): youthful energy

The 1st Ever "What the Hell?" Award goes to:

HOLY MOTORS. There are no words to adequately describe this movie. I panned it somethin' fierce in my review, and yet, as I think back on Holy Motors, I'm struck by how evocative it was. It's a flaky, trippy little freak of a movie. Read the review.  

(Edited 2/23/13 to add Zero Dark Thirty to my list.)

December 30, 2012

Pitch Perfect

Cashing in on the Glee-mania (perhaps already too late), Pitch Perfect is a loving send-up of Acapella music and all those formulaic competition movies. (Isn't really just Sister Act with teenagers?) It's about a girl named Beca (Anna Kendrick), who's forced into college by her English professor dad, even though she just wants to go to L.A. and become a music producer. Beca unwillingly joins a girl's singing group called the Barden Bellas (the school is called Barden University). The girls have problems winning at all the big competitions, namely their Type-A self-appointed leader, Aubrey (Anna Camp), who refuses to allow input from the other girls, especially Beca. So you know, they eventually confront this problem and wow everyone at the big final competition.

The best thing you can hope for in any formula movie is a little novelty. The plot of Pitch Perfect sticks to its safety net with relative consistency, making it amusing fodder if you haven't seen this kind of thing a thousand times already. What Pitch Perfect lacks in originality, it makes up for in sheer quantity of engaging performers: Kendrick is mousy and a little too perfect to convince us that she's a music-producer-superstar in the making, but she's plucky and engaging. She'll do, since Emma Stone either can't sing or wasn't available to do the movie; Rebel Wilson, as Fat Amy, the girl in the group with no verbal filter, makes off with every scene like a bandit; Brittany Snow as Chloe, the offbeat but deferential co-leader of the group; Adam DeVine (of TV's Workaholics) as the obnoxious, egotistic frontman of the rival glee club; and Skylar Astin as Beca's love interest, who happens to have a beautiful singing voice himself. He introduces her to movies like The Breakfast Club (because it's now law that all teen comedies refer back to older teen comedies).

It's likable but overrated. I remember being swept up during the big number in Sister Act (the one where Whoopi leads the nuns in a rock-n-roll-ish update of an old Catholic hymn and brings down the house.) Music is powerful, as the popularity of all these movies and shows can attest. The songs--performed with such aplomb and vigor--are exciting. Those are the best moments of Pitch Perfect, not to mention the occasional throwaway lines. It has a good sense of humor. I just wish the plot itself had been a little tighter.

Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are wonderful as the two commentators on the competitions. They're ex-gleeks themselves, and their banter is hilarious. Good hams are better than bad actors any day. Written by Kay Cannon. Directed by Jason Moore. With John Benjamin Hickey, Alexis Knapp, Ester Dean, Hana Mae, Ben Platt, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. 112 min. ½

Killer Joe

I don't think I've ever seen a movie as perverse or twisted as Killer Joe. The story, which is set in Texas, involves the unkempt Smith family: 20-something son Chris (Emile Hirsch), his no-good father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), Ansel's second wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), and Chris's younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). The Smiths concoct a little scheme to have Chris and Dottie's real mom murdered, so they can collect her insurance policy (of which Dottie is the supposed beneficiary). They hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a detective who works as a freelance hit man, to do the job. Of course, there's a problem. Chris didn't check his facts well enough, and it turns out his sister is not the beneficiary of their mom's insurance policy.

The director, William Friedkin, has a track record for putting his audiences through hellish experiences (legend has it that some theater-goers apparently left The Exorcist in states of shock). Like many of Friedkin's other films, Killer Joe has a certain trashy appeal to it. It presents the trailer park family as a circus sideshow: There's something horribly fascinating about their disloyalty to themselves and each other, their greed, and their sheer stupidity. What's beyond fascinating--and downright horrible-- is the ease with which they allow Dottie to be used as a sex object to temporarily sate the desires of the beast they've invited into their dysfunctional nest. Indeed, this movie shows us a family of demons trying to best a devil, forgetting their that own ineptitude--and his masterful cunning--will give them away. Killer Joe is sort of a combination of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Blue Velvet. McConaughey appeared in one of the Chainsaw movies, as a maniacal killer. He exercises a lot more control here, but again emphasizes the sleazy, creepy aspects of his personality.

Killer Joe is entertaining up to a point, but the finale is subtly brutal--and then perversely brutal. The feelings of pleasure that we get from most thrillers can so easily be turned into dread and disgust, and Friedkin has no problem ratcheting things up to assist that progression. One wonders how bad it must have been for the actors, who are so abused, both physically and psychologically, throughout this movie. Nevertheless, everything about Killer Joe is done well. It's first-rate technically, sharply acted, darkly funny, surprising, suspenseful. It seems like the kind of movie that could only take place in Texas. (Even though that isn't true.)

Written by Tracy Letts, from his novel. In case it wasn't clear, this movie is absolutely not for children in any context. 102 min.

December 29, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Does anyone remember that whole sub-genre of movies about the normal guy meeting the kooky girl who changed his life by encouraging him to live life to the fullest? Goldie Hawn did a couple of those kooky girl movies, and Geena Davis won an Oscar for play one of them in The Accidental Tourist. Well, writer-director David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook is sort of like those movies, if both the guy and the girl were playing kooky characters.

(Take note of some very mild spoilers in this paragraph.) Bradley Cooper plays the lead, a former teacher named Patrick, who at the beginning of the movie is getting released from a mental institute after spending eight months in court-ordered therapy. Patrick was sent there because of a violent outburst involving his wife and another man. Now he's been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, but refuses to take his medicine because it makes him foggy, and bloated. He finds a fellow misfit in Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence), a very young widow whose husband died during an act of Good Samaritan-ship.

Patrick is living with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) in his Philadelphia hometown, trying to improve himself so his wife Nikki will take him back. He's deluded himself into believing she will take him back, and experiences moments of paranoia and rage. (For example, he freaks out any time he happens to hear the song that was played at their wedding.) Tiffany turns out to be the best thing for Patrick: she goads him into pairing up with her for a dance competition (in exchange for which she will pass along a letter from Patrick to Nikki, as Nikki currently has a restraining order against him). Their off-kilter relationship works, for them, and for the movie. Yes, Silver Linings Playbook stops short of being original. It resurrects too many staples of the formulaic romantic comedy, such as the character's carefully-contrived weaknesses coming back at the end to throw a little doubt on the outcome of the dance competition, or the dance competition itself, which seems like a pretty standard conflict for a movie like this.

But what makes Silver Linings Playbook stand out is the performances of its cast. Cooper, who I must admit tends to get on my nerves, is believable and sympathetic in this movie. Jennifer Lawrence, who everyone knows is extremely talented, does a fine job in this movie. It's one of the few strong female roles I've seen this year, in fact. De Niro and Weaver work well together as the parents, well-meaning but a but clueless as to how they can help their son's mental health issues.

There's one major flaw. In several scenes, the characters start screaming at each other at the top of their lungs. Russell should have put a stop to this. It doesn't work. It turns up the viciousness and quickly, transgressively, enters into the real of histrionics. Fortunately, there's a sharp sense of humor that generally saves the day. It's another good, not great movie.

With Chris Tucker (who has some amusing bits as Pat's friend from the mental institute), Julia Stiles, Anupam Kher (who's very funny as Pat's therapist), Shea Whigham, John Ortiz, and Paul Herman. 120 min. ½

Django Unchained

There's something unsettling about Quentin Tarantino's project of providing wish fulfillment revenge fantasies, first to the Jewish people in Inglourious Basterds, then to the American slaves, in Django Unchained. Watching one of Tarantino's films almost always gives me the impression that this director is full of himself, because his movies are so audacious. But it's hard to be too concerned with these thoughts, because Tarantino's movies are generally so much fun to watch. (Jackie Brown remains my favorite.)

The plot of Django Unchained is this: a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz, played by Christopher Waltz (who was so deliciously evil in Inglourious Basterds that you can't help but wonder if he's going to turn bad in this one too) enlists the help of a slave named Django (silent 'D'), played by Jamie Foxx, to find three white men who are wanted for murder. Dr. Schultz works for the government, and is legally permitted to kill any of his targets as long as he produces their bodies. Django worked on a plantation under these men, who once beat his wife ferociously after she and Django tried to escape. Eventually Dr. Schultz and Django form a partnership, after Schultz gives Django his freedom, and they decide to rescue Django's wife, now working a plantation in Mississippi.

This plantation in Mississippi is run by Calvin Candie, and it's called Candieland. The name itself suggests the genteel, gruesome horrors of slavery. When we finally get to Candieland, where we know the film will play itself out in full faux-Shakespearean fashion (Tarantino is maybe the comic book Shakespeare of our time), it's the most terrifying visual in the movie: the cotton jutting out of the fields like white dollops of foam; the slaves working in the punishing Mississippi sun; and Leonardo DiCaprio, never more villainous and enjoyable in his entire career, as Calvin, the Southern gentleman with a murderous temper, who gets his kicks watching black men fight each other to the death.

Django Unchained is the most suggestively violent of the Tarantino movies. The director holds back here more than usual, presumably to demonstrate a little good taste. He's already walking on egg shells by making a movie that tries to retroactively punish white racism, and if you can allow yourself to enjoy its maniacal plot, you're likely to have a good time. The camera, more often than not, looks away from the violent acts, or at least, the most violent parts of them. The suggestion is powerful enough. There's the expected bloodbath, near the end. That's the cookie, the reward for the initiated, who perhaps sit through Tarantino's talky, long-winded plots just for those ten minutes of gory violence. But as much as I was filled with anticipation and suspense for that scene to come, the rest of the movie is what's more enjoyable (although the long-windedness takes a toll: they could have shortened it a bit, I think.)

The performances in Django Unchained are the film's strongest assets: Jamie Foxx turns into some kind of 1850's blaxplitation superhero. His performance is smooth and assured, and his indignation both righteous and horrific. Waltz is a charming participant, perhaps incredulously caught up in the story, but like any good bad movie, necessarily out of place. He's a wonderfully engaging actor, and all the scenes where he talks his way out of being shot by various farmowners and sheriffs and villains, are deliriously funny and amusing. DiCaprio is wickedly good, playing a part that's truly distinguishable from so many of the banal-important roles he's played before. He's colorful, capturing that weird mixture of Southern gentleman-Gothic torturer.

The South, like every other place figured into a Quentin Tarantino film, becomes the director's playground, where he employs any and every ingredient that interests him. Thus we get a movie set in pre-Civil War America full of 20th century Westerny songs as background music (and a few rap songs, too). The anachronism works well for this kind of pop-history-carnival ride. It's not a perfect film, and it's not the director's best film, but it's a fun movie, and I'm always grateful when movies aren't afraid of showing us a good time.

With Kerry Washington (as Broomhilda--Tarantino must have been waiting 20 years to use that name), Samuel L. Jackson (perhaps the most hated character in the movie, as the self-loathing head-slave, and Mr. Candie's right-hand-yes-man), Walton Goggins, Don Johnson, Laura Cayouette, Dennis Christopher, James Russo, James Remar, Tom Wopat, Cooper Huckabee, M.C. Gainey, Bruce Dern, Ned Bellamy, Jonah Hill (who has a cameo in one of the funniest scenes: a pre-KKK nighttime attack that isn't very well-thought-out by the participants), Tom Savini, Robert Carradine, Michael Parks, and Quentin Tarantino. Written by the director. 165 min. ½

December 28, 2012

Oslo, August 31

In case you're yearning to feel a little depressed around the holidays, I will recommend you watch Oslo, August 31st, a Norwegian film about a recovering drug addict named Anders (played by Anders Danielsen Lie), who is granted 24-hour leave from the rural treatment center he's been living in for several months, so that he can go to Oslo for a job interview. Anders is depressed, and in the beginning of the film we watch him walk into a lake, clutching a large stone, in an attempt to drown himself like Virginia Woolf did. Only it doesn't take. He goes to Oslo, meets up with some old friends and acquaintances, does the interview, hooks up with some partying college students at a rave, and caves in to the compulsion to buy some heroine--with money he stole from people's purses at a party.

Oslo captures the loneliness of an individual with a certain amount of elegant detachment. When Anders and an old friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner) meet up, though, Anders discovers that his life isn't necessarily worse than other people's. Thomas is married with a baby, but he's fallen into a routine that is comfortable, dull, and deadening. He's not happy either, he assures Anders, who's sinking deeper and deeper into the depression that drove him to drugs and booze for so many years.

There's a heartbreaking moment where Anders describes his relationship with his parents, who by his description were very loving and open. He was free to do what he wanted. His parents, he says, saw religion as weakness, "but I'm not so sure." He seems to be suggesting that his parents gave him no boundaries, and that this ostensibly free and with-it style of parenting made him just as much a prisoner as he would have been under repressed, strict parents. (It's enough to make anyone despair that there's no hope in raising children, whether you're tough on them or not.)

The theme here is that vague yet incessant loneliness that I think all of us feel at one time or another, and sometimes the loneliness becomes an ache that never quits. This isn't a message movie about the destructiveness of drug abuse, or a cautionary tale about being strict with your kids so they won't turn into aimless junkies. This is a movie that simply zeroes in on that aimlessness, to show us what it's really like. It's profound, and yes, sad. But the writer-director, Joachim Trier, fashions it with such simple beauty that it feels like a poem, an elegy to the incurable addicts among us. It's sad without being morose or maudlin. Trier's film tangles with the specter of the inevitable: the trajectory of a life that seems predestined for a tragic end, despite the best efforts of Anders, or anyone, to effect change.

If it's possible for a movie to be neither hopeless nor hopeful, then this is surely it. ½

Currently available on Netflix for instant streaming.

December 27, 2012


More terrifying than King Kong, Jaws, or the apocalypse, the Corporation has become the cinema villain/monster par excellence. This is apropos in our current age of corporate executives turning money into more money in mere seconds, and wiping out the life savings of entire companies with fraudulent business practices. Arbitrage, like last year's superior Margin Call, examines a billionaire (Richard Gere) whose irresponsible, arrogant, greedy behavior threatens his company and all who work for it. But he's nothing if not a sly businessman, so when his hedge fund is threatened with exposure, he decides to sell his massive company in time to avoid public embarrassment or any financial ruin. Gere is perfectly suited to this role: he's got the look of a wearied executive down, spinning all kinds of falsities about working for his family, when it's really his own success, the addiction he has to making more money, that drives him.

When his hush-hush lover, a failed French artist, dies in a car accident in the middle of the night because Gere fell asleep at the wheel, he's finally faced with a genuinely sticky situation, and Arbitrage is about how he tires to get himself out from under it. It's not a brilliant movie, but there's something brilliantly corrupt that it shows us about human beings, about American culture, about our entire value system.

What's so refreshing about Arbitrage is that it doesn't go for the obvious, but the inevitable. The people in this world are the recipients of a moral decay that's far more glamorous than the things we see on the news--the horrific shootings and the drug trafficking and the human trafficking, that we all deplore with such moral certitude. The moral decay of Arbitrage is one where negotiations extend beyond the conference room and into the bedroom, where money drives every motivation, and even marriage runs on the concept of mutual interests. There's a decidedly Victorian sense of patriarchal faux-benevolence that keeps all the players in place. The finale is so wonderfully fitting that it makes up for the fact that at times Arbitrage feels like an episode of Law and Order mixed with Wall Street. It's not a great movie, but a pretty good one, and a frighteningly apt comment on human character.

The supporting cast includes Susan Sarandon (who doesn't get to shine the way I wanted her to, until near the end) as Gere's wife, Tim Roth as a detective, Brit Marling as Gere's daughter, an executive herself who still sees the business world as a place inhabited by honest people with clean motives, Nate Parker (who delivers the film's most sympathetic performance) as a down-on-his-luck kid (whose father once worked for Gere) who comes to Gere's rescue, Laetitia Casta as Gere's girl-on-the-side, Stuart Margolin, Chris Eigeman, Graydon Carter, and Bruce Altman. Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki. 105 min.

December 24, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

Watching The Queen of Versailles is like watching the Bluth family from Arrested Development, except there's no endearing insanity to humanize Jackie and David Siegel, a rich Orlando couple with seven children. Siegel made all his money in the timeshare industry. At his peak, he owned nearly 30 resorts in 11 different states. The documentary chronicles their life over nearly a four-year period, from the silver spoon days to the unexpected economic downturn following 2008's financial meltdown.

Jackie is the star of the documentary. She was born in Binghampton, New York, got a degree in engineering, but left her job to become a model. She's in her early 40s now, but her oversized boobs, clearly not the work of God alone, are a testament to a living that has been made on looks rather than personality or brains. This isn't to say that Jackie is a total dumb-dumb. Being filthy rich has certainly dulled her out, but there's a sense that Jackie does have intelligence. It's just not a quality she's been relying on over the last fifteen years. She's an amalgam: a small-town American girl turned beauty queen turned trophy wife, with enough kids to warrant a pointless reality TV show.

The title refers to a 90,000 square-foot home being built by Siegel. It's modeled after Versailles, and is the biggest house in the United States, complete with 10 kitchens, an ice skating rink, and a baseball field. After Siegel's company begins to lose money, the house goes into foreclosure. The current Siegel home is considerably large to begin with, but with their extravagant spending habits, it's overcrowded with stuff.

The Queen of Versailles has been getting a lot of praise from critics, presumably because it captures the sickening allure of materialism that has made so many rich people unhappy with their lives, but addicted to the money and the prominence and possessions that come with being rich. What ultimately is bound up in this lifestyle of the insanely rich is a need for more money, generally pried from the hands of middle-class folks, lured into buying pricey timeshares they can't afford by Siegel's persuasive sales staff. This is the kind of behavior that got us into the recession, so The Queen of Versailles is a remarkably apt depiction, zeroing in on one millionaire (or was it billionaire?), who's so rich he brags about fixing the Bush elections with surprising nonchalance.

You're likely to find this interesting, but depressing. The Siegel's unashamed extravagance--the very behavior that once moved an entire class of people to behead their own leaders--feels particularly maddening when you consider that so many other Americans look upon their lifestyle with envy, thinking, "if only it were me."

Directed by Lauren Greenfield. 100 min. Currently available for instant viewing on Netflix.

December 23, 2012


Lincoln isn't a bad movie, but it's hardly the masterpiece we've been waiting for (or not waiting for), for the better part of a decade. 

Spielberg's latest important film, once again showing that his better work was done on the unimportant movies like E.T. I suspect people with clout in the movie industry will whip themselves into a frenzy of self-satisfaction at their moral enlightenment for liking Lincoln and bestow upon it many awards. But the movie is turgid and talky, and as clever as some of the writing is (it was scripted by Tony Kushner, who adapted an excerpt of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln), the language, and ultimately the movie itself, seems to be lost in its own ramblings.

The worst thing about Lincoln being ultimately dissatisfying is that people will overpraise the good things in it, and laud it all the more for its noble intentions, and the admittedly astonishing performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. His voice sounds a little like Ronald Reagan's, but more high-pitched. The look is as close to perfection as we're likely to get. And there isn't a better casting choice I can think of. Certainly Day-Lewis adds much to what is good about Lincoln.

Spielberg goes for the cerebral pleasure of a courtroom drama, full of candid, forceful discussions about law and morality in dimly lit rooms, then juxtaposed with scenes of political figures pontificating about the pros and cons of black people being considered human. And it's perhaps deliciously amusing to think of Lincoln strong-arming the House members into voting for the 13th Amendment. But the movie lacks the power I wanted it to have. The big Congressional vote scene at the end of the movie is fairly well-done: a moderately exciting finale to a movie that lumbers through its material, taking too much pleasure in its own mediocrity. And the assassination is tastefully handled, not mired in sentiment. But it's also not completely detached.

Sally Field, who reportedly had to convince Spielberg to cast her as Mrs. Lincoln, is right for the role, but it's a thankless role. She's playing a depressed woman who had more than her fair share of demons (including the loss of one son at this point in the story; her youngest, Tad, later died in 1871 at age 18). Mary, often maligned as crazy, and perpetually about to be "dragged off screaming to the snake pit" (to quote Bette Davis), comes off as the grating housewife. She utters a sadly prescient line near the end of the film, that she'll be remembered for her madness and for being a source of grief and pain for the President. She's best when she's allowed to match wits with some of the fatuous politicians who have stood in her husband's way.  Field's got the look down too, and her performance adheres itself to the vague impressions most of us have of Mrs. Lincoln.

There are a few colorful performances that add some spark, including Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thadeus Stevens, who's been working for thirty years to end slavery. Hal Holbrook, the lovable bullfrog, plays Francis Preston Blair, an aging Republican who also felt that slavery needed to die. David Strathairn plays Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Robert Lincoln, the eldest Lincoln son, who's determined to fight for the Union despite the wishes of his parents, afraid they'll have to bury another son. With James Spader, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, Gloria Reuben, Bill Raymond, David Costabile, Julie White, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris (as General Grant), Peter McRobbie, Gulliver McGrath (as Tad Lincoln), and Boris McGiver.

The biggest problem with movies like Lincoln is that we tell ourselves they are important so therefore they must be good movies. I suppose it's possible that someone sat through this movie completely enthralled in the dialogue (I've enjoyed many a chatty movie before), but for me it was only half as good as I was hoping it to be.

(This review was written while listening exclusively to music by The Civil Wars.)

December 22, 2012

In Her Shoes

This is how "chick flicks" ought to be made all the time. In Her Shoes (2005) isn't a perfect film, but it's a satisfying film, anchored by the performances of three wonderful actresses, all with their own instantly recognizable charms: Shirley MacLaine as the grandmother, and Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as her two grown-up granddaughters, both living in Philadelphia, and both unaware that their grandmother, now stationed at a thriving retirement community in South Florida, is even alive.

The sisters are close geographically, but their relationship is strained: Rose is the successful corporate lawyer, married to her job, voluntarily frigidized by her perceived lack of appeal to men, and Maggie is the terminally down-on-her-luck younger sibling, who uses her good looks to get what she wants. Rose, whether she likes to admit it or not, derives a feeling of superiority--an ego-boost--from Maggie's perpetual ineptitude and from always having to bail her out. But Maggie's unreliability soon morphs into real betrayal, severing the sisters' relationship seemingly for good. Maggie finds out about their out-of-touch grandma, and out of desperation retreats to her geriatric sanctuary.

What is surprising to learn about In Her Shoes is that Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), directed it. Hanson's body of work, if you look through it, is relatively obscure until the 90s when he had success with the ridiculous nanny-gone-nuts melodrama The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992). Hanson had a field day with L.A. Confidential, which provides more proof that a commercial director can produce a masterpiece when he's given the right script and the right actors. In Her Shoes isn't a masterpiece, exactly, but as a representative of its much maligned genres (they are really two distinct entities)--the romantic comedy and the chick flick--it's a good example of how sentimental, feel-good entertainment can be turned into something elegant and character-driven.

The screenplay, by Susannah Grant (who also scripted the immensely entertaining Erin Brockovich) is adapted from Jennifer Weiner's novel. Grant's script is self-indulgent, but in that inevitable, pleasing way that makes the movie appealing, even if some of it is a bit too much (like Cameron's reading disability, which is handled with as much finesse as you could expect from such a Lifetime-movie-esque plot device). The script is also very funny, and the humor elevates the darker moments of the movie. Perhaps it's grasping at too much by trying to be an honest look at two complex women and their relationship, while also trying to be a feel-good chick movie, but it pulls both off with a lot more charm and appeal than most movies accomplish with just one of those balls to juggle. And the jokes are well-chosen and well-placed: They don't saturate the movie. They run pop up at unpredictable moments, and are brought to life with delicious zeal from the appealing cast.

As for the actors, MacLaine has perhaps never been more restrained, and she's so regal, so powerful in that restraint. You want her to be your grandmother, because she's loving but also because she's interesting, tough, sharp, and wise in a quiet, pensive way, like she's always aware of the next five moves in the Chess game. Or maybe the entire game, right from the start. Cameron Diaz, who's a really charming actress when given the right part, thrives in this movie, especially against the dramatic chops of Toni Collette. Both women breathe a stunning array of depth into their characters.

With Ken Howard as the girls' father, Mark Feuerstein, Brooke Smith, Alan Blumenfeld, Francine Beers, Jerry Adler, Candice Azzara, and Norman Lloyd. 130 min.

December 15, 2012

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly feels gloomy and vacant, humorless. It's a hollow crime drama. I suppose that's an appropriately realistic way for a crime drama to be. But I was wanting something more fun. Brad Pitt is a talented actor when he's given the right material. He's not bad here, and yet he's not entirely right for this role. His character, an apparently talented hitman who doesn't like to put his victims through any emotional or physical torment, preferring instead a quick and painless assassination, is uninteresting. He's not flashy or cool in the way a Brad Pitt character needs to be to make him truly come alive as a performer. His name is Jackie Cogan (the source material, by author George V. Higgins, is the novel Cogan's Trade), and his services are enlisted by a bunch of mobster-looking corporate guys who were robbed during a poker game.

The perpetrators of this robbery are two ne'er-do-well types: a drugged out Aussie named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and a chatty career criminal named Frankie (Scoot McNairy). They don't have much finesse when it comes to holding people up, but they manage to pull off the job anyway. There's a bit of a hole in the plot: the sort of 'master-of-ceremonies' of the poker game, played by Ray Liotta, had already gotten away with robbing the game several years back. He eventually admitted this, and by then was laughed at, good-naturedly, and tentatively forgiven. Knowing that he would be blamed for any subsequent robberies, the two hoods feel confident they can get away with it scott-free. The fact that Liotta wasn't rubbed out after his admission seems like a weak point in the script, and the entire movie hinges on it, loosely.

Not only does the film seem to rest on a fuzzy, poorly worked out detail, but it's relentlessly talkative, and not in the Quentin Tarantino isn't-it-great-how-clever-the-script-is kind of way. Mostly it's a bunch of scenes of has-been criminals hashing out the details of how they're planning to perform an upcoming job, but revealing more about their own insecurities and failings in the process. It's a bit like seeing someone's father cry. And the talkiness feels like padding, not entertainment.

There's some artfulness to director Andrew Dominik's imagining of all this. (Take note of a spoiler here.) He turns one scene--in which Pitt shoots Liotta while he's at a red light--into an almost scientific display of the bullet exiting the gun, torpedoing through the window glass, through Liotta's hand raised in self-defense, into his face and out the back (all in slow motion, of course). But that's not really impressive. It's just a little better than having to sit through another brutal killing scene. (Liotta already figures in a particularly unwatchable sequence where two hired men beat the hell out of him. It's quite distasteful to look at it.)

There's an obvious political agenda in Killing Them Softly that doesn't quite take. Throughout the movie, anywhere there's a radio or a television, we hear or see clips of President Bush and President-Elect Obama (the movie is set at the end of 2008) talking about the financial crisis. Is this some kind of ironic explanation of the motivations of hit men? Apparently it's an indictment of American morality, as Pitt confirms in his rant at the end of the movie, closing the film out with an admittedly funny line: "America's not a country. It's just a business. Now f***ing pay me."

With Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Sam Shepard, Slaine, Vincent Curatola, and Max Casella.