Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscar: Predictions and Preferences

Who will win?  And are they deserving?  Here's a look at where I think the Oscars are headed in the major categories ... and where I wish they were:

The Nominees: "Brave," "Frankenweenie," "ParaNorman," "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," "Wreck-It Ralph"
Will Win: Brave
Should Win: Who knows?
For the first time since the category was introduced, I've seen none of the nominees, all of which received complimentary but hardly glowing reviews and none of which seemed particularly compelling.  But despite recent artistic competition, Pixar remains the heavyweight, especially with DreamWorks Animation shut out of the competition.  Despite the lack of effusive adulation, "Brave" seems to have the lock.

The Nominees: "Amour," "Kon-Tiki," "No," "A Royal Affair," "War Witch"
Will Win: Amour
Should Win: Amour
"Amour" won't win Best Picture, and its inclusion in both categories is strong indication the Academy membership thinks it's something really special (which it is).  The one wrinkle is the voting procedure: Unlike other films, Academy members who vote in the Foreign Film category have to prove they've seen all of the films in a theater, a process which should be used for all categories.  That means they've really been able to evaluate the strengths of the others, but few films have won the ardent admirers that "Amour" has -- and the voting bloc that has the time to watch five films in cinema tends to be older, making it more likely they'll relate to the themes in "Amour."  It's the likely and deserved winner.

The Nominees: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," "Life of Pi," "Marvel's The Avengers," "Prometheus," "Snow White and the Huntsman"
Will Win: Life of Pi
Should Win: Life of Pi
The Visual Effects branch goes to great lengths to educate voters about the work done on nominated films.  Though it was easy to forget that Richard Parker, the tiger in Life of Pi was almost completely a digital creation, nominees took pains to make it clear that, from start to finish, Life of Pi was a work of staggering artistic and technical accomplishment.  Since it won't win Best Picture, the Visual Effects Oscar is a strong consolation prize.  Its greatest competition comes from Marvel's The Avengers, but ILM's award nominations are fascinating to consider and frustrating for that visual effects house -- so many talented people have left it without the best of feelings, often leading to a backlash against its nominations that it has a hard time controlling -- despite 21 nominations since 1994, it has only won two Oscars.

The Nominees: "Argo," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Life of Pi," "Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook"
Will Win: Lincoln
Should Win: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Lincoln is a film I found as exciting as ponderous Encyclopaedia Britannica 16-mm film, but others find exquisite.  Despite the beautiful photography, meticulous performances and often inspired direction, Lincoln's fatal flaw for me was the inability of its screenplay to create characters, not waxworks.  The screenplay, filled as it is with mellifluous Tony Kushner language, never springs to life, and tends toward a recitation of facts.  Should it be nominated?  For Kushner's efforts, for its laudatory ambition, yes. And given the difficulty Lincoln has had in convincing the Academy that it's Best Picture material, it will almost certainly win Oscars in this category, Best Director and Best Actor.  But the adapted screenplay that created the year's most original character and most enveloping sense of time and place, that pushed the boundaries of what a screenplay can guide a director to achieve, is Beasts of the Southern Wild, adapted from, of all things, a stage play in which Hushpuppy was a boy.

The Nominees: "Amour," "Django Unchained," "Flight," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Zero Dark Thirty"
Will Win: Django Unchained
Should Win: Amour
Django Unchained is a movie so bold and audacious it has to be acknowledged, and this is the category to do it.  It has its detractors, who fault it (correctly) for being long, self-satisfied and offensive.  It will be, nonetheless, a deserving winner -- but even more deserving would be Amour, the intelligent, thoughtful examination of a marriage that relies on precise language and nuance of character to take audiences on a bold exploration of a single theme.  Problem is, too many people found Amour interminably slow and labored, forgetting just how thoroughly the film immerses them in a story that begins with two vibrant, creative people and ends with great sorrow and incapacitation.  Amour and Django Unchained both took audiences on an unprecedented journey, but in very different ways.

The Nominees: Alan Arkin, "Argo"; Robert De Niro, "Silver Linings Playbook"; Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Master"; Tommy Lee Jones, "Lincoln"; Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"
Will Win: Tommy Lee Jones, "Lincoln"
Should Win: Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"
SAG has spoken.  Tommy Lee Jones' hangdog indifference won't interfere with the Oscars the way it did with the Golden Globes, because the Globes are awarded by journalists, and the Oscars are, for the most part, voted on by actors -- who gave Jones their top honor for Lincoln.  His performance in that film has all the hallmarks of an Oscar-winning role: a seemingly thankless role that leads to a rousing speech and a moment that reveals more depth about the character.  It will almost certainly win the night, but at the expense of a mesmerizing performance by Christoph Waltz, already the recipient of an Oscar for a Tarantino film.  Waltz's Dr. King Schultz will be the character people most remember 20 years from now, but as Oscar has proven so many times, quality is not always the final arbiter.

The Nominees: Amy Adams, "The Master"; Sally Field, "Lincoln"; Anne Hathaway, "Les Miserables"; Helen Hunt, "The Sessions"; Jacki Weaver, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Will Win: Anne Hathaway, "Les Miserables"
Should Win: Jacki Weaver, "Silver Linings Playbook"
She sings, she emotes, she cuts her hair, she wins an Oscar.  No, it's not that simple, but it seems that way.  Hathaway's Oscar is virtually the only sure thing in the entire lineup this year, and there's no doubt she was affecting.  The technical difficulty of singing (live, at that) only helps clinch the deal.  But Jacki Weaver's impeccable blend of concern, compassion and comedy in Silver Linings Playbook made hers the richest performances of the bunch.  (Disclaimer: I've not seen The Sessions.)

The Nominees: Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"; Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"; Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"; Quvenzhané Wallis, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; Naomi Watts, "The Impossible"
Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Should Win: Naomi Watts, "The Impossible"
Jennifer Lawrence has the heat going into it, and the Academy wants to recognize her for the incredible breadth of her skill -- she's already an Oscar-nominated actress, and this year proved she's a top box-office draw.  She's the 21st century Julia Roberts, and don't forget how they loved Julia Roberts, only Lawrence has the savvy to make better, riskier choices, and her performance in Silver Linings Playbook was indeed memorable.  But not quite as memorable, rich, moving or risky as Naomi Watts, who took a role that at first seemed underwritten (rich, spoiled but loving mother) and took it to places most actors would never even attempt.  Her performance was the centerpiece of the criminally underseen The Impossible, and deserves the Oscar.

The Nominees: Bradley Cooper, "Silver Linings Playbook"; Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"; Hugh Jackman,"Les Miserables"; Joaquin Phoenix, "The Master"; Denzel Washington, "Flight"
Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"
Should Win: Bradley Cooper, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Abraham Lincoln is a stunner, there's no doubt about it.  He has the immense adulation of the entire actors' branch -- and just about everyone else.  It's a "born to play" kind of role, like Ben Kingsley in Gandhi; the Academy won't be able to go any other way.  But Bradley Cooper was equally alarming in Silver Linings Playbook, depicting a man desperate to change but afraid he won't be able to.  His performance is full-bodied and daring, but almost certainly too light and rom-com-oriented for the Academy's taste.  Not when Day-Lewis as Lincoln is on the ballot.

The Nominees: Michael Haneke, "Amour"; Benh Zeitlin, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; Ang Lee, "Life of Pi"; Steven Spielberg, "Lincoln"; David O. Russell, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Will Win: Steven Spielberg, "Lincoln"
Should Win: Michael Haneke, "Amour"
Every one of this year's nominated directors helmed a passion project and on that level the commitment, artistry and accomplishment of each is deserving.  Spielberg will win because, well, he's Steven Spielberg, and his decades-long effort to bring Lincoln to the screen paid off with a critical, commercial and artistic success.  The Academy spent a long time denying Spielberg, and has never quite finished making amends for that.  The enormous technical accomplishment, however, of Michael Haneke's Amour is the untold story of this year's Oscars.  On the surface, Amour is a film almost overwhelmed by the insistence of its camera to remain static; and within each of those carefully crafted compositions, Haneke works as carefully as a painter filling a canvas, as assuredly as a director of a stage play moving his actors to just the right spot.  Amour is a film so meticulously constructed, Haneke's richly deserving of the award.

The Nominees: "Amour," "Argo," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Django Unchained," ""Les Miserables," "Life of Pi," "Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Zero Dark Thirty"
Will Win: Argo
Should Win: Argo
Argo deserves what it is almost certain to get.  My sentimental favorite is Silver Linings Playbook, my emotional favorite is Beasts of the Southern Wild, but when it comes to putting the whole package together -- the screenplay, the acting, the direction, the editing, the production design (particularly impressive here), the whole kit 'n' kaboodle, no film did it with as much flair this year as Argo.  It's the kind of film, unlike recent Oscar choices, we'll still be watching years from now.  Some will see an Argo Best Picture win as a mea culpa for failing to include Ben Affleck in the Best Director category, but in reality, Argo will very likely walk home with the big prize for one big reason: It earned it.

So, now, let's see how this all pans out tomorrow, Oscar Night!

Friday, February 22, 2013

"Django Unchained"

 3.5 / 5 

Too much of a good thing is not necessarily a better thing, as it goes with both the overall length and the graphic violence of Django Unchained.

On screen is the proof of just how much Quentin Tarantino has grown, matured and developed as a filmmaker -- and just how stuck in his ways he remains.  Like the fascinating person who doesn't know when to shut up and finally becomes dull and ponderous, Tarantino is so proud of his capabilities he can't resist indulging in them.

His use of on-screen violence isn't a commentary on masculinity, a satirical jab at a violent society, or even an effort to depict savagery as mesmerizing art -- it's simply sheer excess, and goes so over the top in the last 40 minutes of Django Unchained's bloated running time that it becomes exhausting.

And yet ... Django Unchained is an often masterful, fantastically entertaining movie that combines and reflects so much film history -- absorbs and reinvents it -- that there are times when it is a revelation,  never more so than when Christoph Waltz is on screen as the improbably named German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Dr. King Schultz.

It's Dr. Schultz who gets the story going by unchaining the enslaved Django (Jamie Foxx, who's very good) in the first place, which an onscreen title card places two years before the start of the Civil War, even though the year depicted is 1858.  (Why the mistake?  Clever or honest?)  Schultz does so with an eloquently verbose flair that is his signature style, and Waltz turns a caricature into an indelible character with effortless ease.  Why in the world the Academy defined this central role as worthy of a Supporting Actor nomination is a mystery; Django Unchained relies on the Schultz-Django dynamic, placing Schultz at the forefront of the action throughout much of the story.  Waltz brings joyful mirth to a wholly original character, and he's a sophisticated delight throughout the movie's bloated running time.

Roughly the first third of Django Unchained wears the trappings of a post-modern, self-aware Western, beautifully photographed by Robert Richardson in widescreen glory.  Schultz teaches Django the ways of a bounty hunter, agrees to pay him a third of his rewards, and treats him as an equal.  One night, he asks Django about the woman named "Broomhilda" who the slave frequently talks about.  (Another one of those is-it-a-mistake-or-not moments, since Brunhilde is the German heroine and Broomhilda is a comic-strip witch.)

The story switches gears and gets into a very long second act that sees Django and Schultz trying to rescue Broomhilda, who turns out to be Django's impossibly beautiful, German-speaking wife, played with quivering dignity by Kerry Washington.  She's the property of plantation owner Calvin Candie (a fey Leonardo Di Caprio), and just as this vignette threatens to wear out its welcome, things seem to be moving toward a conclusion.

And then ... come to find there's another 40 minutes.  Another bloodsoaked 40 minutes on top of the great fun we've already had of seeing a horse's brains blown out, a black man torn limb from limb by savage dogs, and dozens of geysers of blood.

Capping it off is the film's seemingly clever but ultimately off-putting insistence on using the "N-word" as frequently as possible.  I lost track somewhere in the several dozens of uterrances.  The word is so pervasive it begins calling attention to itself, and over the course of 2 hours, 45 minutes, it's no surprise the mind wanders to questions of propriety.  Use of the word is demanded in a film that takes place in the Civil War ... but with so many other concessions to modernity in the film, no matter how anachronistically, is Django Unchained overloaded with "n---er" simply to shock, like the physical violence?  And when it's used by a black person as an epithet for another black person, context doesn't sap the word of power to disgust; ultimately, it feels inserted more for shock value than artistic integrity.

But still ... Django Unchained recalls everything from Gone With the Wind to Robocop, from Boyz N the Hood to Song of the South.  It mixes visuals from The Searchers and High Noon with Jerry Goldsmith's haunting theme to Under Fire.  It's a crazy quilt of classic movies that becomes something else entirely -- an almost-masterpiece.

Though Django Unchained is at times too self-absorbed and smug to work completely, and at others so violent that it cries out for a serious exploration of how effectively the NC-17 rating is being administered, it still manages to be almost ludicrously entertaining.

It's almost a victim of its own excesses.  Almost.  But, fortunately, not quite.

Viewed 2/22/13 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Monday, February 18, 2013

"Side Effects"

 3.5 / 5 

A dark gray hangs over Manhattan for most of Side Effects, undulating clouds that threaten to bring something awful at any moment.  They roil and rumble with the kind of uncertain danger that lurks inside Emily Taylor, a tremulous woman struggling with deep depression.

She has ever reason to feel hopeless.  Her handsome husband is getting out of prison after serving time for Wall Street crimes, her low-level job is all they have -- and slowly, she's losing her grip.  It's no surprise, then, that she seeks psychiatric help.  That leads her to try a newly approved anti-depressant, and its side effects may be a little understated on the warning label.

The setup for Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects may seem a bit dry, but the film is as enjoyably unpredictable, and oddly enjoyable, as that looming storm.

It's powered by a fine, deeply considered performance by Rooney Mara as a woman whose desperation  leads her to a drastic act that may or may not have been exacerbated by her experience with the medication prescribed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law).  He has his own demons, including a past allegation of impropriety with a patient and a consulting deal with a big pharmaceutical firm that could well be clouding his medical judgment.

At the risk of saying too much -- saying anything at all could be saying anything too much with this film -- just when you've figured out what kind of movie Side Effects is, it turns into quite another.  But at all stages, Soderbergh's dimly lit scenes and Thomas Newman's antsy, anxious score keep the tension going.

Audiences who prefer their movies to make it clear up front what they're getting are advised to use caution: The opening scenes require patience, the closing scenes require a certain indulgence of credulity.  In certain movies, the audience needs to be a willing participant, and Side Effects gambles mostly wisely that they'll play along through to the end. 

If Side Effects ultimately isn't quite as satisfying and as much of a stunner as it hopes to be, part of that is due to the critical performance of Catherine Zeta-Jones, less a result of her acting skills than her icy, sleek demeanor.  From the moment she comes on screen, you sense she's hiding something, that she's not quite the good doctor she makes herself out to be.  That lingering suspicion and an eleventh-hour revelation about her past are a little hard to get past.

And yet, Side Effects is a superior movie, a sharp-edged, well-constructed movie that seems to be one thing and turns out to be quite another (maybe even more than one other).  Don't let all the talk of psychiatry and pharmacology scare you off -- Side Effects is a sly entertainment, a movie made to watch with mind open to being thrown off-kilter and a nice, big bucket of popcorn.  

Viewed Feb. 18, 2013 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Favorite Films: "Mary Poppins"

So often dismissed by using the phrase "a Disney movie" as an epithet, Mary Poppins surprises everyone who sees it as an adult.

How do you describe the surprises?  Everyone knows the music: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Feed the Birds, Chim Chim Cher-ee, A Spoonful of Sugar, Let's Go Fly a Kite -- it's a glorious score.  And of course, the performances: Dick Van Dyke's perfectly awful Cockney accent that ultimately is charming, Julie Andrews as ... well, let's start there, actually.

You likely remember Mary Poppins in much the same way you do Maria von Trapp, effusively happy, endlessly charming and optimistic.  And if that's your impression of Mary Poppins, it's reason enough alone to revisit Mary Poppins.

The film's Mary seems to be a direct relation of Gene Wilder's dangerous Willy Wonka.  There's something unsettling right under her surface, especially when it comes to dealing with other adults.  Mary doesn't suffer fools gladly, has little need for extraneous things like emotion and empathy.  She arrives at the home of a dyfunctional family in Edwardian London and her only goal is to set things straight, to show the children that an adult can be trustworthy, to prove to the adults that their parenting skills are sorely lacking.

She is not a tactful person, she's got a haughty righteousness where her bone marrow should be, and you have to wonder what she does at night, when everyone else is fast asleep.  Julie Andrews is not an actress known for edginess, but her Mary Poppins clearly has a dark side we never see.  It's a deeper performance than you remember, one for which Andrews deservedly won an Oscar.

But the entire film has a dark undercurrent to it.  Even its Oscar-winning song Chim Chim Cher-ee is written in a minor key, and offers some stark imagery ("Now as the ladder of life 'as been strung / You may think a sweep's on the bottom-most rung") amid the happiness.

For a stylized fantasy (the stage-bound sets are a marvel), Mary Poppins is tinged with a weary acceptance of the world.  The kids are unloved by their too-old, put-upon father -- who, played to perfection by David Tomlinson, at times doesn't even try to hide his rage and resentment.

As episodic as it is, the story of Mr. Banks is the film's central through-line.  It's his failure to understand his children and their needs that brings Mary into their home; it's his belief that he's failed in his life that fuels his unhappiness, transferred onto the children; and, in the film's most strikingly adult moment, it's a humiliating, abrupt dismissal from his job that drives him so deep into despair that finally, at last, he can open his eyes to the children Mary's been trying to tell him he can't ignore any longer.

Tomlinson's quiet, quivering reprise of The Life I Lead might reduce grown-ups to tears they didn't know they had, even while kids don't quite understand what's going on: "A man has dreams of walking with giants / To carve his niche in the edifice of time," he sings after he loses his job, not sure how he'll tell his wife or his children that he's failed at the thing that drove him away from them in the first place.

Likely, you know Mary Poppins from happy little clips of happy little songs -- songs that, let's face it, may not be so happy: A Spoonful of Sugar is describing how to cope with life's unhappiness, after all, and Feed the Birds is about showing kindness to, well, a homeless person.

Watch it again.

You'll find a certain masterpiece, a movie transcends your notion of what "a Disney movie" is.  It's a glorious film, one that deserves a place among the finest films ever made.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Catching Up: "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"

 3.5 / 5 

How quick we are to idealize our past.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower never comes right out and says it, but it's set in the very early 1990s -- before cell phones and smart phones, before the Internet, when if someone told you, "Stay away for a little while," you had two choices: obsess over it or stay away for a little while.

Clearly, the movie thinks this was a much better choice than poring over Facebook or sending endless text messages, and it's certainly more cinematic.  The only real option back then was to pine away and feel sorry for yourself, and even if it seemed horrible at the time, now it looks sweet and low-tech, resulting in a lyrical melancholy that pervades The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a movie that in many ways resembles Say Anything, the finest of the 1980s teen comedies.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a freshman, which is a particularly hellish fate for someone with as many emotions as Charlie has.  He's been going through a difficult time, and throughout the movie we learn more and more about what happened to him and why it made him such an alleged wallflower.

But wallflowers don't make particularly compelling entertainment, and the fact is, Charlie may be a little unsure of himself, which is natural for a 15-year-old boy, but he's far from a shrinking violet.  Just a few weeks into the school year, he introduces himself to the brother-sister team of Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), beautiful kids both but ever so slightly eccentric.

Still, they're much more popular than Logan, and they're both seniors, which means that just as Charlie's high-school life is beginning, theirs is drawing to a close.  Charlie's increasingly close friendship with them, and their own circle of mixed-up friends, is the backbone for The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

The movie also has some brief roles for adults, none of whom are particularly notable except, perhaps, Charlie's English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who sees the boy's potential despite his shy tendencies, and encourages him to pursue his ambition to be a writer.

The movie plays out more in a series of vignettes than in a straight storyline, underscoring the simultaneous difficulty and success writer-director Stephen Chbosky has in adapting his own epistolary novel, which has Charlie recounting incidents of his first year in high school to an unknown recipient.  On the page, it was engrossing, on the screen it works less well, and throughout most of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the letter-writing idea is shunted aside.

The great success of the film is less in its meandering screenplay than in the two stellar central performances by Lerman and Watson as a boy and girl with a deep connection but whose age will keep them apart.  They know each other well -- but, then, how well can a freshman understand the yearnings and life lessons of someone who has already lived through the next three years?  Lerman captures the tenuousness well; he's an affable, sweet actor.  Watson puts on a convincing enough American accent and overcomes the tendency toward effusive bossiness that made her last few Harry Potter outings a bit obnoxious.

The key note that The Perks of Being a Wallflower hits sourly is the character of Patrick, an openly gay teen who comes across as brash, overbearing and too frivolous.  The movie seems to forget the reality of life in 1991, of AIDS and societal disapproval; twenty years on, we live in a different time, but Perks could have used Patrick as a reminder of how far we've come.

What Perks gets very right is the wistful sadness of being a teenager, of feeling disconnected and unsure.  It beautifully captures the way Charlie watches and learns that people are not always honorable, that relationships are not always easy, and that life is going to be harder than he thinks -- but it's a lot less awful when set to the beat of David Bowie's "Heroes."

Monday, February 11, 2013

Favorite Films: "The Poseidon Adventure"

The Poseidon Adventure toes the line between broad camp comedy and gripping drama in ways peculiar to the odd sub-genre of disaster films that were so enormously popular in the 1970s -- and it succeeds like none before or since by its sheer audacity.  This is not a subtle film, but it is an intensely sincere one, and that's what makes it so special.

A brief on-screen preface tells you everything you need to know in 33 words, the highest of high concepts: "At midnight on New Year's Eve, the S.S. Poseidon, en route from New York to Athens, met with disaster and was lost. There were only a handful of survivors. This is their story ..."

For those who live under rocks, the disaster is a tidal wave, and in the inimitable style of showman/producer Irwin Allen, it doesn't just hit on New Year's Eve -- it hits precisely at midnight, just as young women in hot pants, fading movie stars in satin gowns and leading men in tuxedoes are all helpfully gathered in the grand ballroom of the old ship, which just happens to be on her final voyage.  And it doesn't just hit the ship with force, it turns it all the way over.  "We're upside-down," characters helpfully note just after the ship turns upside down.

That happens after a 20-minute prelude that introduces each character in a fashion that would later be perfected by TV's The Love Boat: Short vignettes give us just enough information to know that the busty woman is a former hooker now married to a gruff cop, the old couple are Jews, the teenagers are bickering brother and sister, the handsome macho guy is a preacher exiled for his unorthodox ways.

It's the beautiful genius of The Poseidon Adventure to have a cast so game, so ready for this, that even the ridiculous moments are treated as serious drama; given some of the worst dialogue ever committed to screen, the actors make it all feel honest and genuine, if not quite fresh.

They all know that we're not here to see them act, anyway, we're here for the spectacle, and in that regard, The Poseidon Adventure delivers.  This is pre-digital, epic-scale filmmaking at its finest: When that ship flips over, everything turns over, setting in motion a quest for survival that manages to be as riveting the 30th time you see it as it was the first.

The pure moviegoing joy of watching The Poseidon Adventure is knowing how real it all is: Those aren't green-screen backgrounds Shelley Winters, Gene Hackman and Stella Stevens are swimming through, it's actual water.  The fire that surrounds Jack Albertson and Ernest Borgnine is as real as fire gets.  This is a movie that is bound and determined to give the audience its money's worth.

So, by the final scenes, when the Man of God is climbing out of the fire to reach salvation above (symbolism alert!), even modern audiences have to give a little gasp at the sheer enormity of it all.

There used to be a phrase for films like The Poseidon Adventure: "a movie-movie."  It knows it's a movie, it knows it's all for show, but Irwin Allen and his all-star cast are going to give you the best damned show the silver screen can offer.

It's a shame movies like The Poseidon Adventure are relegated to afternoon airings on AMC and to home video.  We'd all be better off if every generation got to see them on the silver screen, to remember that once, movies like this were possible.

If there are moments that The Poseidon Adventure threatens to become hilariously awful, especially toward the beginning -- but when a movie wants to please you so desperately it will put both buxom Stella Stevens and wide-bodied Shelley Winters into wet costumes (for such very different reasons), you'll forgive it pretty much anything.

Perhaps the most astonishing and wonderful thing about The Poseidon Adventure is that four decades ago, it was considered family entertainment.  What the kids didn't understand (the hooker, the preacher) wouldn't hurt them, and everyone could talk about the underwater sequences and that Christmas tree on the car ride home.

The Poseidon Adventure may feel dated in so many ways, but it has lost virtually none of its power to captivate an audience, to stun both grown-ups and kids into wide-eyed astonishment, and to remind us of the style and showmanship that used to grace movie screens so long ago.  It's not a perfect film, but it sure is a treasure.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Favorite Films: "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"

Toward the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the starship Enterprise has narrowly escaped certain doom.  Admiral James T. Kirk looks around the bridge and notices something awry: an empty chair where Mr.   should be.  The Enterprise may be safe, but something is very wrong.

It's the beginning of one of the screen's great death scenes, a moment that will move even those who have never seen an episode of Star Trek in their lives -- and that ability to transcend both its source material and its science-fiction genre is what makes Star Trek II one of the great adventure films, if not one of the great films, period.  Instead of taking the easy way and focusing on the action and visual effects, Star Trek II goes much deeper, emphasizing deep emotions and finely realized characters.

By the time it was made in 1982, William Shatner had played James T. Kirk for the better part of two decades, and while he's often mocked for his overly dramatic tendencies, just look at how he plays the moment when he realizes Spock is not on the bridge -- with just a subtle shift of expression, he conveys the respect, friendship and, yes, love these two characters have for each other.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best of the Star Trek films because at its heart it is a celebration of the loyalty and deep affection the entire Enterprise crew has for each other.  This is a movie that could be put to good use by organizational psychologists for the way it shows different people with different temperaments working together, respecting the unique contributions each individual makes.  He may be the captain of the ship, but Kirk doesn't consider himself above reproach.

Today's filmmakers may wonder why a movie like Avatar or Iron Man can be a box-office smash but not engender the longterm affection of audiences the way Star Trek does, but one look at The Wrath of Khan shows why: The entire story is rooted in the way the characters interact with each other.  It is a very human story, beginning and ending with the uncertain feelings Kirk has about growing older.

The plot really heats up with the introduction of the central villain, a superhuman egotist named Khan, who harbors a very deep grudge toward Kirk.  The character is a holdover from a 1967 episode of the "Star Trek" TV series, but most people who watch Star Trek II have never seen him before -- and the film tells us just as much as we need to know to get the gist of their feud.

Fascinatingly, Ricardo Montalban, who plays Khan, and William Shatner didn't actually work together on the film -- the two characters interact with each other via viewing screens, but they work incredibly well together.  And while both of them are astonishingly effective, Montalban's Khan is magnetic, exuding an obsessive vengeance that may have been based on Captain Ahab but that Montalban makes all his own.  Thirty years ago, Montalban was mostly dismissed as a TV actor repeating a TV role, but time has shown his Khan to be one of the screen's all-time great villains.

Backed by a rousing, memorable score by James Horner and some still-impressive visual effects, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a complete success on virtually every level, including the first (and impressive) screen performance by Kirstie Alley as Lt. Saavik.

But what makes Star Trek II so special is the effortless ease with which the crew of the Enterprise work together, particularly the central relationship between Kirk and Spock.  At the beginning of the film, Spock has ascended the ranks to become captain of the Enterprise, but when danger calls, it is clear that only Kirk is equipped to take command.  Kirk comes to ask Spock for permission -- and their quiet scene together is exquisite.  Spock cuts to the truth of the situation: "Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny -- anything else is a waste of material."

These two know each other, and the film takes it for granted that we know them.  The real beauty of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is that we do -- even if we are completely unfamiliar with "Star Trek," we know loyal, true friendship when we see it.  Star Trek II celebrates it, grieves for it, and basks in the undying hope that even when fate may seem to cut it short, friendship is as unswerving and true as the stars themselves.

"Identity Thief"

 2 / 5 

With its formulaic mix of broad slapstick and sappy sincerity, Identity Thief is a foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed version of a Disney movie from the 1970s, replicated later by Disney's own Touchstone in the 1980s.  It's got a high-concept set-up (middle-management executive finds out his identity has been stolen by a crass, plus-sized thief), an unexpected road trip, some bad guys with guns, a couple of zany car chases, and a heart-tugging finale.

Because Identity Thief is from Universal, it can go for R-rated raunch, but overall it works about as well as a movie like Snowball Express or Big Business, delivering fewer laughs and more sap than expected, but still manages to be superficially entertaining, mostly due to the hard work of its two stars, Jason Bateman as the executive, Sandy (that's a girl's name, ha ha -- the movie's favorite running joke), and Melissa McCarthy as the thief.

McCarthy, of course, was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Bridesmaids, the movie that Identity Thief's marketers most desperately wish this one was.  Once again, she proves she's one of the most fearless comedians working in film today, willing to do anything to get a laugh.  As Diana, the cyber-criminal who goes on spending sprees with other people's money, she tries hard to create a fully realized character, but the script does her no favors.

Mostly, Diana is a caricature, a broadly defined broad whose deep-down loneliness has driven her to her many misdeeds.  By playing up the warmth and playing down the realism, the filmmakers missed a chance to take us into some edgy, dark, bizarre territory the way Martin Scorsese did with some similarly distasteful characters in The King of Comedy three decades ago.  Identity Thief doesn't have that kind of nerve, opting instead for a middle-of-the-road approach that plays down her sociopathic tendencies in favor of her brazen goofiness.

McCarthy still manages to be wildly inappropriate and almost singularly equipped to repeat dialogue that would be impossible for any other actor to say, much less make funny.

Bateman is her match as a comedic actor, combining exasperation and desperation and grounding them in a reality that helps guide the film through its less effective moments.  There are, alas, plenty of those here -- for every genuine belly laugh, and there are several, there are two or three misconceived efforts to be sentimental and find a way to make these two characters somehow like each other despite Diana's despicable misdeeds.

There are also some needless, one-dimensional villains who are also hot on Diana's trail, a way-too-long detour into broad sex comedy (too obviously trying to emulate Bridesmaids), and a completely superfluous sequence that has Diana and Sandy battling a snake in the woods.  At that point, Identity Thief has quite literally gone off the track, and it never completely finds its way back.

Identity Thief never hits the comic heights it aspires to and never creates compelling chemistry between its weirdly matched characters. It's a mild diversion, but from actors like McCarthy and Bateman, it's fair to expect a lot more. 

Viewed Feb. 9, 2013 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Catching Up: "We Need to Talk About Kevin"

 3.5 / 5 

You should know it up front, because it's something the film is a little coy about: Kevin has killed a lot of people.  Knowing this informs everything that comes, and "spoils" nothing -- this is a movie about something unspeakably awful and someone unspeakably evil.

We Need to Talk About Kevin suffers just a bit for the hesitancy it displays in communicating this information.  If you were to watch it again, and I'm not sure why you ever would want to, the weird, languid, spaced-out moments of the opening would make sense.

They're images that are in the thoughts of Eva Khatchadourian, Kevin's mother, who is now just a shattered shell of a woman, thinking back on the life that got her to where she is now.  It is not in any way a happy life, and if there's one thing that can definitively be said about We Need to Talk About Kevin is that it is far, far from a happy movie.  There is not a moment that this movie will make you feel better about life; I have never had children, and We Need to Talk About Kevin left me seriously questioning my own parenting skills, worrying for children I didn't have.

Tilda Swinton plays Eva as a woman who was on the verge of losing her sanity the moment she discovered her pregnancy.  She and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly, whose naturally sunny demeanor is intentionally forced and out of place here) have very different views of their son, who in turn throws very different attitudes toward them -- to his father, he's warm and loving, to his stay-at-home mother, he's distant, cold, alien.

Eva can't pinpoint a moment it went wrong, because it was so very wrong from the start.  Now, she's left to piece through the memories on her own, unable or unwilling to leave town, her husband and daughter -- who turned out well herself -- strangely absent.  But then, everything is strange in Eva's life. We Need to Talk About Kevin moves back and forth in time, floating and meandering in the odd, disconnected way Eva herself feels.

Everything that happens in We Need to Talk About Kevin is a shock.  Why wouldn't the parents have known something was horribly wrong despite the reassurances of a pediatrician?  How is it possible Franklin is so unaware of his own son's sociopathic tendencies?  Could Eva's own emotional distance have affected the boy?  Might she have inadvertently planted the idea for his mass destruction?  And why, for God's sake, wouldn't she have done something about this long ago?

These are all the same questions Eva has, answered only by the simple facts: This happened, and nothing is going to change it.  She views it as her punishment to stay behind, to face the abuse heaped upon her by the townspeople to whom she is just as responsible as her son.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is filled with cool, even-handed cinematography (which emphasizes the color red, maybe a bit too frequently), a mannered and bleakly effective central performance by Swinton, and a slow and methodical pace, but the standout in the film is Kevin himself, played with galvanizing anger and rage by two different actors.

From six to eight, Jasper Newell plays him with cold dispassion, a hollow emptiness that refuses to be filled with anything other than hostility.  As a teenager, Ezra Miller adds fear-inducing mirth and glee to the performance -- Kevin takes delight in the pain he's causing, in the act he plays for his father and the bizarre regard he has for his mother.  This pair of actors create something rare: a character we've not seen before in the movies, a boy not like any other boy, vicious and calculating and completely without remorse.

We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn't open itself to a nature-versus-nurture debate -- Kevin is an awful, terrible human being, and his mother is right to be afraid of him.  Yet, its certainty about Kevin may be its biggest flaw: There is no examination of the crime or the perpetrator, purely observation, and Swinton's Eva is so far beyond help herself that there's no perspective.  We Need to Talk About Kevin is as dispassionate and deliberate as its central character.

But it is stunning.  There are moments that will literally take your breath away with their daring.  We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn't flinch -- even, and especially, when you wish it would.