Sunday, January 20, 2013

"The Guilt Trip"

 2 / 5 

Let us take it as a matter of faith that both Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand are gifted comic actors.  This is something you might not realize solely on the basis of The Guilt Trip, a listless road-trip movie that makes some seriously wrong turns.

You don't have to reach as far back as What's Up Doc? or For Pete's Sake to see Streisand's gifts -- they were on lesser but still fine display in 2004's Meet the Fockers.  She's great at situational comedy and even better (or, at least, was decades ago) at flat-out farce.  Movies like Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin prove Rogen knows how to mine comic gold out of seemingly the most mundane of premises, though his career has taken a rather odd trajectory of late.

So, what goes wrong in The Guilt Trip?  For starters, it doesn't seem to know what to do with the talents of either of its stars, even though they're its executive producers.  They're both playing it way too safe here as Andy, a struggling thirtysomething scientist-turned-inventor, and his overbearing Jewish mother, Joyce, who decide to take a road trip together.

The motivation for the trip isn't as patently absurd as, say, Steve Martin's and John Candy's in Planes, Trains and Automobiles or as weird as Albert Brooks's was in Mother (a similar movie that's superior on every level).  It's forced and contrived, as Andy sets up a series of meetings to pitch the non-chemical cleaner he has invented and decides to take his mother along when she reveals something about her (and his) past he never knew.

And there, precisely, is the dilemma.  The movie is marketed as "One Mother of a Road Trip," when really it tries almost too hard to be a warm, touching, heartfelt tale of a mother reconnecting with her distant son.  Marketing aside, you don't put Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand in a movie together to watch them emote -- unless, perhaps, you're Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand.

Every minor mishap and hazard along this road comes with thorough emotional explanations, as if watching these two wind up in a topless bar or scarfing down a 50-oz. steak wouldn't be enough.  There's nary a bare breast or hint of vomit to be seen -- and, let's face it, that's what you'd want to see in this post-Apatow comedy world.  The broad, slapsticky stuff is pushed aside almost entirely; in fact, you'll have to stay until the very last of the end credits to see the movie's sole laugh-out-loud bit of physical comedy, which didn't even make it into the film itself.

Really, why make a movie like this unless you're going to mine the comic possibilities inherent in 70-year-old Babs getting drunk in Vegas?  Instead, she sheepishly walks into the room at 7 a.m. and tells her son what she did the night before.  A side trip to the Grand Canyon doesn't involve a mule or a Native American headdress or a spill in the Colorado River; the two stars just stand there and try to riff off of National Lampoon's Vacation for a moment.

And yet, somehow, The Guilt Trip isn't a total failure.  Streisand is, as she always has been, a confident, ingratiating screen presence, the kind of actress you like almost despite yourself.  In full schlub mode, Rogen is charmingly flummoxed by his inability to find success and happiness.  And in a few of these warm-and-fuzzy moments, of which there are far too many in The Guilt Trip, the movie works.

Most notably, I looked up the name Ari Graynor to see who the actress was who so successfully delivers a single word on screen that brings an unexpectedly strong emotional core to a dramatic scene that threatens to fall disappointingly flat.  And when, in a cheap motel, Streisand finally lets loose and tells her son exactly what she thinks of the way he's been acting, she once again demonstrates how accomplished she is at toeing that fine line between anger and sweetness, between humor and pathos.

But, boy, The Guilt Trip makes you work for those few moments, and work far too hard.  Neither pleasingly bland nor riotously inappropriate (you wonder what that movie might have been like), The Guilt Trip is an unfortunate, almost unrelievedly mediocre misfire. 

Viewed Jan. 20, 2013 -- Pacific's Sherman Oaks 5


Saturday, January 19, 2013


 4.5 / 5 

The first two shots of Amour announce its simple, quiet brilliance.  In the first, firefighters break into a Parisian apartment and discover the body of an old woman meticulously placed on a bed, surrounded by flowers.  Amour will have no plot surprises in that sense: The woman has died.

But in the next long, static shot, she is alive, part of an audience preparing to watch a concert.  In the traditional, narrative sense that matters so much to Hollywood, nothing happens -- but the shot is a little cinematic miracle, as director Michael Haneke manages to make the woman and her husband stand out even while they blend in.  They get ready for the performance, they exchange a few unheard words, they could be anyone.

They are Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emannuelle Riva).  They are in their eighties, have been married for more years than they likely can count, and are so sure of each others' steady presence that what happens the next morning at breakfast is something neither knows what to do about.  It's a perfectly ordinary morning, Anne makes an egg, sits down and vanishes into herself.  The moment doesn't last long, but it is the moment that will end a marriage and at least one life -- slowly, with desperate sadness.

Amour is a sad film, and a lovely one, but Haneke seems less interested in eliciting an emotional response from the audience.  Like the pianist the audience is assembled to watch in the opening shot, this is a film that demands to be admired for its artistic and technical accomplishments, to be regarded and contemplated more than savored.

It is, clearly, not a film for audiences accustomed to narrative action and dramatic arcs.  Amour encompasses a wonderful story told with sweet sympathy, but when it comes to seeing old people on film, it is as far from Driving Miss Daisy or Cocoon than, I imagine, most American audiences are willing to see.  Many in the audience I saw it with grew restless, some were perplexed, others riveted to the screen -- but everyone let out a sudden shriek when a moment of shocking violence occurs, one that is so modest by American standards it is hardly worth mentioning, but that elicits a reaction so sharp it speaks to the ways in which viewers will be emotionally wrapped up in Amour even if they find it distant and cold.

With a barely moving camera, meticulously composed shots and almost icy insistence on forcing us to watch the most personal, often humiliating moments of a vivacious spirit whose life is coming to an end, Amour demands patience and rewards it with a thoughtful, complex examination of its title subject.  What is love?  What does it mean?

Curiously and enticingly, Haneke lets us know only what we see and hear of characters who keep much to themselves.  Their adult daughter (Isabelle Huppert) is told her mother has had a stroke well after it happens, and her reaction -- and that of her parents -- is unexpected and, most importantly, unexplained.  Haneke knows only these three people could understand.

After that night at the concert and an unseen trip to the hospital, Anne will never leave the apartment again.  The entire film, save its first three shots, are contained in this magnificent dwelling that, itself, is ever so slowly falling apart.

Rather soon after arriving home, Anne says it might be better if she were to die now.  "Put yourself in my situation," she reasons with her husband.  Neither betrays their intellectual's inclination for emotional restraint, but the love in their eyes and heart is evident.  Georges refuses, Anne knows she is helpless.

Both Trintignant and Riva are extraordinary -- but she, in particular, astounds with a performance that demands absolutely no dramatic ferocity, no histrionics or artifice.

In Anne, she creates a woman with a long life, lovely at times, no doubt unlovely at others.  She is not an easy woman, but she is a soul, one that is slowly fading, and Amour asks, quietly but boldly, if you loved someone, what, in the end, would you do any differently?  Love is patient and kind, we have been told; love never fails. Amour reminds us that is true.

Viewed Jan. 18, 2013 -- Sundance Sunset Cinemas


Sunday, January 6, 2013


 3.5 / 5 

Wherever she is, whatever time of day it may be, whether she is alone in the middle of the woods or surrounded by colleagues at the hospital where she is a doctor, Barbara knows she isn't safe.

Every set of eyes is on her, and those that aren't could very well be.  Some time ago, Barbara made a formal request to leave Communist-ruled East Germany.  It was denied, and her audacity left her incarcerated.  It's 1980 now, the height of the Cold War, and Barbara has been released from jail but not from suspicion.

Here in the same movie season as Zero Dark Thirty, a big-budget American movie about a decade-long manhunt that cost billions of dollars in a quest to fight terror, is Barbara, a micro-budgeted German film about the kind of quiet, simple, unrelenting terror that even the most ardent conservative war mongerer could hardly imagine.  In Barbara, the physical battles are long since over and true terror is a daily way of life.

With secret, well-hidden scars from her last life still healing, Barbara is assigned to a small pediatric hospital in an anonymous town, and she intends to let nothing affect her.  She goes to work, she does her job, she prefers not to socialize, she goes home and steals nervous glances out her curtains to see whether the Stasi agent assigned to keep watch on her is doing his job.  He usually is.

Barbara can find moments of freedom only when she's on her bicycle, and she's using it to help carry out a plan, the pieces of which come together slowly, bit by bit.

In Barbara's life, no one is above suspicion, and this includes the handsome doctor who seems genuinely kind -- but who readily admits that he is living in his own kind of purgatory for having played a role in a tragic accident, and whose own punishment includes filing reports for the government about Barbara.

The arrival of two very different patients lead to difficult decisions, and throughout Barbara this slow, deliberate, beautifully crafted film takes pains to remind viewers that while no one in Soviet-ruled East Germany was innocent, every one of them was intensely human, with his own secret sorrows.

Barbara is a thoughtful movie, a cinematic equivalent of a short story that places theme, tone and characterizations at the fore -- there is a plot, and it's surprisingly rich, but Barbara comes upon it obliquely, which makes the ultimate decision Barbara faces that much more touching.

Through it all is the actress Nina Hoss as Barbara, who almost never smiles despite a pretty face, who smokes incessantly because there's little else to do in a world where a walk to the grocery store could lead to a late-night police invasion.  Her demeanor is stern, harsh, uncaring, but her heart holds much more than she could ever begin to explain.

Barbara is not a film for people who enjoy a straightforward narrative.  But it's a strong, fine example of the kind of cinema that evokes a time, place and mindset with alarming explicitness.  By the end, Barbara has you feeling much more deeply than you thought you could about this unexpected woman, whose severity only hides how desperately she wants to feel again.

Viewed Jan. 6, 2013 - Sundance Sunset


Saturday, January 5, 2013

"Zero Dark Thirty"

 3.5 / 5 

About 20 months passed between a history-altering event with profound political consequences and the release of an electrifying thriller about an investigation that led to a hated man's downfall.  The year was 1976, and less than two years earlier, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, followed by the book and movie All the President's Men.

That earlier film is worth mentioning, because it took a new story still fresh in the memory and made it into a taut, intelligent, gripping thriller that felt continually exciting but also knew how to pare its story to the barest of essentials.

Zero Dark Thirty is good, but it's not in the same league as All the President's Men, which is mostly the result of a rambling, unfocused screenplay that only comes into jarring, truly riveting focus in the final 45 minutes -- although it's a movie that bills itself as being about "the greatest manhunt in history," which is how it terms the search for Osama bin Laden, the problem is that hunt goes on for nearly a decade before reaching resolution.

The first two hours of Zero Dark Thirty contain a lot of characters we are apparently supposed to know by sight, and makes a lot of oblique references to places, names and situations that I'm guessing most people (certainly me) have long since forgotten.

That makes it confusing and overloaded, but not uninteresting.  It's just that, like this year's other big historical epic LincolnZero Dark Thirty assumes we are much more well-versed in the subject than we likely actually are.  Back to All the President's Men for a moment: Perhaps it was pure serendipity that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein spent no small part of the movie explaining the story to their editors, in the process reminding the audience of who did what to whom and (hypothetically, at least) why.  Zero Dark Thirty doesn't have that luxury.

Nor is it able to create particularly vivid characters.  Most are on screen for a relatively short time -- there must be three or four dozen speaking roles.  That massive scale and timeframe works against the film when it comes to creating a genuinely captivating movie experience.

This is neither a documentary nor a fictionalized account -- it wants to be vivid and faithful to the events that transpired, making it at times feel much like a high-quality dramatic re-enactment.  And as such, when dedicated CIA agent Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, finally deduces bin Laden's most likely location, a movie that had been interesting in fits and starts finally takes hold and shows us a gripping, crackling re-enactment of what happened that night in 2011.

Everyone who steps foot in the movie theater knows the outcome, and Zero Dark Thirty doesn't pretend it's going to leave us guessing in the tradition of a standard movie thriller.  Here, it's all about the technical prowess of the filmmakers, and Kathryn Bigelow proves again that she's impeccable when it comes to making a movie look and sound great.

Yet, at a key moment (and out of necessity given her character's professional role), the film's finale relegates Chastain to the role of worried heroine.  She can only stand by while her men go out to fight, biting her nails and casting worried glances at a screen, completely helpless.  Meanwhile, for about the third time in Zero Dark Thirty, the audience needs to learn a new set of characters -- the SEAL team who conducted the raid.

This isn't as much an actual problem as it is an unfortunate outcome of the choices the filmmakers made in telling this story without a definitive perspective.  Zero Dark Thirty seems on the surface to be Maya's story, but then shifts focus to her equally committed and horribly ill-fated colleague (Jennifer Ehle)?  Earlier, it has spent an awful lot of time exposing us to CIA torturer (Jason Clarke) whose techniques are effective but ignite a firestorm of controversy -- he seems equally important to the story until he casually announces he's had enough and mostly disappears. We also get to know a couple of the SEALs (Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton) who lead the raid -- are we supposed to relate to them?  It's lack of perspective (or, perhaps, the decision to make them all important characters) that dogs Zero Dark Thirty through to the end.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty is admirable.  It's a competent, sometimes engrossing and very, very long movie made from inherently flawed script.  It's technically flawless, admirably attention-getting, and does shed some light on an incident that, for most of us, remains swathed in mystery.  But it wants so much to be capital-I important that it forgets to be capital-T thrilling.

Viewed January 4, 2013 at ArcLight Hollywood