Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 at the Movies: The Good, The REALLY Good & The Lousy


What a strange year.   A weeks-long moviegoing break was absolutely not planned and was terribly painful in many ways, but the end result was worthwhile on all fronts: Lucy almost fully recovered (the vet used the word "miracle" to describe our feisty little dog), while I got some healthy time away from the silver screen.

Don't get me wrong, there's almost nothing better in the world than spending time in a movie theater.  But after a summer of ear-deafening, sometimes soul-crushing sameness to one superhero movie after another, to an endless supply of "blockbusters," the quiet time was appreciated.

And when I got back to the movies, I did it with a vengeance. Of course, I'm just another guy with a laptop, I'm not paid to do this, and I rarely get into the movies for free -- though frequently they are helpful, even necessary, to my full-time job.  But every time I go to the movies, like the vast majority of people in the world, I plunk down real, hard-earned money, and that gives me a right to expect something of value for it.

For a lot of people, that means mindless, fast-paced action, the louder the better.  Nevermind that most of these movies make little narrative sense, that they're edited with such a frenzy that it makes me suspect (just what are they trying to hide?).  For me, the "something of value" comes down to this: Do I forget I'm in a movie theater?  Do I lose myself in the story that's being told?  Do I come away feeling like my life's a little better for the couple of hours I just gave away?

In all 10 of these cases, the answer is a resounding yes.  Interestingly, none of these movies is on the list of 10 highest-grossing films of the year.  Does that make me a cultural snob?  I hope not, because here's something I can absolutely guarantee (if you can tell me convincingly that I'm wrong, I'll be surprised): Every one of these films is worthwhile, illuminating, insightful, inspiring, fascinating, or just downright entertaining.

These are my 10 favorite films of the year because I think they're terrific, and I think you'll feel the same.  Don't feel badly if you have to talk yourself into seeing some of them -- not all of them are easy or instantly appealing.  I won't tell you which, but I resisted at least a couple of them.  I'm glad I gave my time to all of them, and hope you will be, too.

In life, 2013 may have been a mildly crappy year.  At the movies, it was great.  Here's to 2014!

  #10 - Dallas Buyers Club  


Matthew McConaughey is getting all the Oscar talk for his role, and with good reason.  He's given a nearly impossible task in this movie: Take a character who is not simply unlikable and make the audience care about him. McConaughey's Ron Woodruff is a miserable excuse for a human being, and by the end of the film, he's improved only fractionally, but his story is mesmerizing.  Still, despite the work he does, it's not McConaughey's film: Dallas Buyers Club belongs to Jared Leto, who delivers the most fully realized performance of the year.  Leto alone is transcendent.  Leto with McConaughey are spectacular.  Despite the incredible story it tells, Dallas Buyers Club is sometimes a little flat (both visually and narratively), but these two actors turn it into something special.


  #9 - Before Midnight  


The 2004 film Before Sunset may be one of the most romantic movies ever made -- even more than its predecessor, Before Sunrise.  How do you make a sequel to such a romantic, lovely movie?  You show what really happens when romantic love fades and real life takes over.  It's not always easy to watch.  Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have been married nine years now, they have kids, and sometimes they wonder if they even like each other anymore.  They can certainly be cruel, and Before Midnight doesn't flinch from showing us what that does to both of them.  Maybe you have a wonderful, argument-free relationship, but for those of us who don't, Before Midnight is the slap in the face by the jilted lover, who happens to be the very person who's still by our side.  Fortunately, it's also got a warm embrace afterward, and some gorgeous Greek scenery.  Unlike Before SunsetBefore Midnight probably won't work if you haven't met these characters before -- but if you have, it's the year's most honest movie about human interaction, much better, I thought, than Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine.


  #8 - Room 237  


You've almost certainly seen The Shining.  Though it wasn't particularly well-received when it was released in 1980, the Stanley Kubrick horror film has become mandatory viewing, despite the fact that it's not all that scary.  There's just something about it … .  Room 237 interviews five people who are obsessed with The Shining, and that's putting it nicely.  They're the cinematic equivalent of overzealous flat-earthers or Obama birthers, convinced that they see something in The Shining that other people don't see.  And they've got proof, ranging from interviews Kubrick gave to notes he took to the best evidence of all, the movie itself.  Room 237 never shows the moviegoers it interviews, but it is chock-full of film clips, and their theories, arguments, assertions and conspiracies will make you rethink everything you ever knew about The Shining, and maybe even about filmmaking.  Room 237 is essential for anyone who says they like movies.


  #7 - Inside Llewyn Davis  


Almost until the very end, Inside Llewyn Davis seemed to me a movie more to admire than to embrace. And then there's that final scene, the one that might make you wish you had paid more attention to the rest of the movie, and that gets you thinking, even as you're sitting there in the theater, about everything else you've seen.  It just so happens that what you've seen is a beautifully rendered ballad about ambition, talent, love, understanding, pain and loss.  That might make it seem a little touchy-feely, and perhaps a little too artistically challenging for some audiences -- which is, in a lot of ways, just like the folk music at the heart of the movie.  The really tricky thing is, Inside Llewyn Davis might not immediately make an impact; it's a tough film to really love.  But then you'll find yourself thinking of it days or weeks later.  No one in the movie seems to actually like Llewyn (Oscar Issac) much, but they can't help but care deeply, even passionately, for and about him.  The movie is a little bit the same way.


  #6 - The Wolf of Wall Street  


Outrageously, almost impossibly, entertaining, The Wolf of Wall Street might not be Martin Scorsese's most intellectually stimulating accomplishment -- but, damn, is it stimulating.  Leonardo DiCaprio leads a cast hell-bent on shocking you silly, making you laugh a lot, and instilling a certain ire; these are hateful people doing hateful things, but they are exactly the kind of people most of us envy, as much for their lifestyle and money as for the effortless ways in which they flaunt their excess.  The thing is, they've done it by climbing all over you, and The Wolf of Wall Street makes it plain that what they've done is despicable.  The trouble is, the movie can't seem to decide whether these are villains or heroes, whether we should hate them or simply laugh at them.  The indecisiveness matters -- but only to a certain point, because it's such a freakin' good time at the movies.  You'll be shocked, you'll be appalled, and you'll barely notice the movie's epic length or, perhaps, its moral wishy-washiness.


  #5 - The Way, Way Back  


You can practically smell the chlorine-laden water slides in The Way, Way Back, which avoids being just another coming-of-age movie and instead reminds us of what it's like to be young, uncertain and a little sad.  It's a period film, and while it can't help but play the nostalgia card, it does so honestly and effortlessly.  The Way, Way Back never feels forced or contrived, and the central relationship between 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) and Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the Water Wizz amusement park, rings strikingly true.  Duncan just about worships the man, and thinks he wants to be just like him; Owen is only just beginning to realize that maybe "just like him" isn't the best thing in the world to be.  Still, it's not just the performances (including a hilariously ribald Allison Janney) that set this apart, it's the entire tone of a movie that remembers how good it was to be young -- and how not-so-good, too.


  #4 - Saving Mr. Banks  


Emma Thompson delivers the single best performance of the year in Saving Mr. Banks.  Not just the best performance by a female (outshining Sandra Bullock in Gravity), but the best performance, period.  Her interpretation of P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, is free from the kind of treacly sentimentality that Travers herself was so afraid, and sure, infused the Disney version of her fictional creation.  She's fussy, she's headstrong, she's downright irritating, but she's also heartfelt and sincere.  Travers is the kind of person we all hope we don't become but secretly fear we will (or have): angry that life didn't turn out the way she planned, secretly desperate for someone to notice her, and irritated when they do.  Saving Mr. Banks may be sun-dappled and scrubbed clean of anything that might be offensive, but that's in keeping with both the backdrop and the time it depicts.  Lurking just under the surface is a satirical bite, a surprisingly cutting dismissal of what critic Richard Schickel called "The Disney Version," which is tempered by the presence of Walt Disney himself.  As portrayed by Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks offers both the best defense and sharpest indictment of Disney sentimentality yet attempted on film: He knows his movies soft-pedal the truth, emphasize the sweet over the sour, but he never forgets why they do that -- to mask the harsh reality of life.  Saving Mr. Banks is one of the best movies yet made about making movies, digging into the creative process and showing how trade-offs and decisions are made.  Don't dismiss Saving Mr. Banks because it was bankrolled by The Walt Disney Company; it's a fine, well-crafted movie that manages to be soft and sharp at the same time.


  #3 - Blackfish  


Crafted like a traditional Hollywood thriller, Blackfish may not be the most honest documentary ever made -- it never tries to hide the fact that it has an agenda -- but it's one of the most riveting.  Like last year's extraordinary Senna, Blackfish thrusts us into a world most of us know little about and gives us a lead character who's mean-spirited, aggressive, disturbing and memorable.  Tillukum is a killer whale who was taken from his home and made to perform tricks for the amusement of humans, and in the end it turned out he wasn't too happy about that.  His final act of defiance was one that shocked everyone, but the filmmakers want to understand why it happened.  Blackfish offers some disturbing answers, indicting pretty much everyone who sees it, since there are few people who haven't been to Sea World or laughed at the "antics" of captive marine mammals.  You can argue, pretty effectively, that Blackfish is horribly one-sided, but the other side refused to engage with the filmmakers because its position, the film posits, is simply untenable.  Blackfish is an angry, angering movie.  It may be possible to disagree with its reasoning and presentation (though not with its cinematic flair), but it's not possible to come away from this movie feeling nothing at all.


  #2 - Her  


This is exactly what it feels like to fall in love: The sudden rush of joy knowing you are not alone in the world, that there is someone else who feels the things you feel, who doubts the things you doubt, who wants to learn what you know.  The big problem for Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) isn't so much that the object of his affection is a computer operating system, it's that Samantha (the OS in question, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is just as complex as he is.  Designed to evolve and grow, Samantha starts to wonder about her own place in the world, even as she remains committed to Theodore.  But Theodore is what he was meant to be -- he has grown into the person he is, and may not be able to meet Samantha's needs.  Her is an exquisite piece of filmmaking, as beautiful to look at as to experience.  Given that many of us are more apt to put the "needs" of our computers and smartphones before the needs of other people, it's not even all that far-fetched.  But it is indeed lovely.  Phoenix, an actor better known for his bizarre off-screen behavior than his accessibility as a performer, brings a warm, happy humanity to Theodore, who is not the introspective, socially awkward geek you might think, but a well-adjusted, happy adult who finds love when and where he least expects it.  Who can say why love strikes?  But when it does, poets have told us, we're helpless; and that's exactly what Theodore is.  Man-computer love may not exactly be the norm, but, hey, why not?  Her takes an unconventional pairing and makes it feel vital and precious.  Created with a soulful, sometimes detached, eye, Her is a wise, wonderful movie, with a cameo by the most offensive, charming computerized character (and I'm not talking about Samantha) you may ever encounter.

  #1 - Fruitvale Station  


No other film in 2013 affected me the way Fruitvale Station did.  It combines a romantic, mournful sense of fate and destiny with a magnanimous vision of humanity that is utterly disconcerting for many reasons, not the least of which is that we know right up front that the main character will be senselessly murdered in the end -- by police, no less.  That knowledge infuses every frame of the movie, but never makes it feel maudlin or contrived, rather urgent and compelling.  For most audiences, the characters and lives depicted in Fruitvale Station feel utterly alien, but that's one of the film's points: There are entire worlds happening outside your own, even if you never notice them.  They are vibrant worlds, filled with people just as deserving, just as flawed, just as important as the ones you know, but director Ryan Coogler doesn't force this point.  His beautiful, simple drama presents the final day in the life of Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), beginning first with the very end and continuing with the moments that led up to it.  They're not particularly weighty moments, but they matter because they're so honest: Every one of us, I think, goes through the day aware of what we're doing, wishing we could be better, hoping we'll get the chance to do it right tomorrow.  For Grant, tomorrow never comes, and Coogler's screenplay gives us some powerful, lovely food for thought -- it might not come for any of us.  Every moment takes us closer to the end, and who knows what that end may be?  Fruitvale Station took me somewhere I hadn't been and left me in a state of shock.  I've rarely cried as openly or as much as I did in this film, not simply because I was angry about what happened, but because the movie dared me to care deeply -- about Oscar, yes, but also about life.  Fruitvale Station is a fine, special film, made with technical flair (it opens up an entirely new way to use modern communication devices to tell a story), palpable passion, and extraordinary humanity.  See it.

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If only every movie were as worthwhile as these 10.  Alas, it's just not so.  While I still hold true to my conviction that two hours in a theater is almost always time well-spent, these three movies made me seriously doubt that belief:

    All Is Lost   


The title's a cheat.  All isn't lost, just most, particularly a sense of entertainment, enlightenment or believability.  Take Life of Pi, strip it of its mysticism, beauty and meaning, and you've got this endlessly stupid piece of claptrap.  We're supposed to believe in the indomitability of the human spirit or something like that; but anyone who sits through this eye-roller shows just as much courage and strength of will as the central character.  Call it The Old Man and the Zzzzzzs.

    Man of Steel   


A long, painful slog through a "re-imagined" Superman -- a joyless creature, really.  Henry Cavill cuts a fine figure as Superman, but this loud, brainless movie is strictly for fanboys who, let's face it, have pretty much made up their mind to like something before they walk in the theater.  If Superman had been like this in the 1930s, the Great Depression might never have ended.

    Stoker   


I remember virtually nothing about it, except for the fact that I was unrelievedly bored and disappointed that I couldn't even find it laughably bad.  All I am certain of is that Stoker was just plain awful.

"The Wolf of Wall Street"



 4 / 5 

Is there anyone who will be surprised when it all comes crashing down again? Those of us who aren't old enough to remember October 1928 may remember October 1987.  Or the spring of 2000.  Or the fall of 2008.

Yet, here we are again, cheering the rise of the stock market as if everyone's getting rich.  We glorify IPOs when they succeed, jeer them when they fail, and measure the health of just about everything by how much the stock market rises or falls.

It's almost like we didn't learn anything in 1928, and again 59 years later, and twice more in the two decades after that.  Las Vegas and Atlantic City are sucker bets, but Wall Street -- well, Wall Street is legitimate, investing money in stocks and 401(k) funds is what smart, educated people do.

Yeah, well, just remember, the house always wins.

In Martin Scorsese's prodigiously entertaining satire The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) runs the house.  He's a swindler, a hustler, a con artist and he passed his Series 7 to prove it. He'll sweet-talk anyone to sell just about anything -- wait, make that absolutely anything, even his threadbare honor in the end.

Belfort has the misfortune to begin his career as a stockbroker on Black Monday: October 19, 1987, the day the party ended.  Back then, anyone with a taste for money went to Wall Street, because the opportunity to make a fast buck was everywhere.  The jig was up in '87, but not everyone wanted to believe it.  Belfort wasn't ready to let go of the drug-addled, sex-fueled, suspender-and-sunglasses days of the Eighties, not after learning the kinds of tricks he learned from his mentor, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a small but disturbing role).

Belfort didn't plan on it that way, according to the movie.  He was just about ready to earn a semi-honest buck when he stumbled onto a scheme to sell penny stocks and proved that his natural talents, such as they were, lay in parting money from people.

One problem: the shady little outfit he starts working for insists on doing things the hard way, three or four bucks at a time.  Only after stumbling onto a strange, rotund, drug-addicted blowhard named Danny Porush (Jonah Hill) does he really get things moving into high gear -- starting a company designed expressly to target the richest people in America and hustle them.

It works brilliantly.  Awash in money, drugs (Quaaludes are his preference) and more hookers per square foot than a political convention in a snowstorm, Belfort epitomizes the over-the-top excess that we'd like to believe ended in the '80s.  Except it didn't, not by a long shot -- it just got overshadowed by the Internet investment schemes, electronic trading and real-estate bubble that created widespread economic ruin, while ensuring people like Belfort remained very, very rich.

The Wolf of Wall Street is the movie The Bonfire of the Vanities wanted to be.  That movie was a disaster, adding a high-gloss, upscale sophistication to its attempts to satirize the "Master of the Universe" mindset.  It was too polite and unaware of the long-term ramifications.

The Wolf of Wall Street is anything but polite.  It's profane, it's borderline pornographic at times, and it comes complete with all the hyperactivity of its famously fidgety director.  The movie never slows down for a minute, careening from Manhattan to Long Island to Brooklyn to Italy to Switzerland to England with such manic zeal it's impossible not to be entertained.

In DiCaprio, Scorsese has found a game actor willing to do just about anything; he'll bury his face in a hooker's ass and snort cocaine, he'll use shocking and debasing language, he'll howl like the wolfman and still make us believe every moment -- DiCaprio is nothing short of astonishing.  DiCaprio has always been a fine actor, but who knew he had the knack of physical comedy?  A scene involving some outdated Quaaludes and a pay phone in a posh country club has to be one of the funniest, finest in any movie released this year.

Hill is equally revelatory, flashing a bizarre, bleached-white smile and managing to be equally smarmy, disgusting and lovable.  The rest of the massive cast is fine, too, especially Kyle Chandler as the not-necessarily-goody-two-shoes FBI agent who doesn't yield in his chase.

But, here's the thing: Satire only goes so far unless it manages to make a point, and it's dubious if The Wolf of Wall Street ever does.  Are Scorsese and his screenwriter, Terence Winter, in awe of Belfort?  Do they think he and his kind are the bane of society?  It's never entirely clear, and the final moments of the film don't quite hit their mark: I wasn't sure whether the movie was honoring or damning Belfort, who, after all, wrote the book on which the film is based and even appears in it briefly.

For a good two of its three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is mind-bogglingly good, but the final hour seems unfinished, not nearly as incisive, smart or frankly damning as what preceded it.

I wanted to walk away feeling something deeply -- whether anger or a grudging admiration.  The movie got me there, filled me with both astonished amusement and a certain righteous anger, then left me dangling.  But, hey, if you're gonna have to dangle, you might as well at least have a memorable ride up, and The Wolf of Wall Street is certainly that.

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As a side note: Why in the world would The Wolf of Wall Street not have received an NC-17 rating?  There is absolutely no reason anyone under 17 would need to see this movie or, arguably, should see it.  Not only would a teenager almost certainly find nothing in it remotely enjoyable, but this is a movie that doesn't shy away from mind-boggling depictions of sex and drug use.  The profanity is nothing if not noteworthy.  In context, that makes it a dizzyingly entertaining movie, one made by adults for adults.  There's nothing at all wrong with the concept of a movie that is off-limits to younger children, and if the MPAA believes that Frozen deserves a PG rating for "some action and mild rude humor," then there seems no way to justify the R rating given to The Wolf of Wall Street.  There is virtually nothing in this film that a parent would find suitable for a child under 17 years old. And there's nothing wrong with that, either.  It's outlandishly fun to watch, but the R rating is a bit mystifying.

Viewed Dec. 31, 2013 -- Laemmle NoHo

1230

Friday, December 27, 2013

"Inside Llewyn Davis"



 4.5 / 5 

Springtime will probably never arrive for Llewyn Davis, because he doesn't want it to.  He's trapped in a bleak cycle of endless struggle, which is mostly of his own making.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village.  His timing is off.  Bob Dylan hasn't appeared on the scene yet (though he's seen for the briefest of moments in the movie), and folk songs are the staple of beatnik coffee houses.  It seems like everyone wants to be an artist, except people like Llewyn's sister, who has become a hopelessly "square" suburbanite -- or, worse, his father, who has given up completely.

Joel and Ethan Coen's exploration of Llewyn's pointless career makes one thing quite clear: Llewyn Davis has talent, a lot of it.  What he doesn't have is ambition.  He aimlessly floats from sofa to sofa, until finally even his sister won't take him in anymore.  He's also got a box of unsold records, the only album he cut when he was part of a duo.  He doesn't want to be part of a duo anymore, with good reason.

Llewyn is painfully self-conscious about what he doesn't have, but what makes his character and his story so compelling is that he is completely oblivious to what he does have: a group of friends who care deeply about him, people who will literally give them the shirt (or, at least, jacket) off their backs, and genuine opportunity.

"You're like King Midas' idiot brother," his friend and occasional lover Jean (Carey Mulligan) tells him.  She ought to know -- she's been on the receiving end of Llewyn's self-made bad luck, and the consequences could rub off on her relationship with clean-cut Jim (Justin Timberlake), who gives Llewyn the chance of a lifetime by inviting Llewyn to record a novelty song about astronaut John Glenn.  Llewyn doesn't think twice about the mistake he makes after the recording session, and it's a whopper.

It's also exactly the kind of move that seems to come second nature to him.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a bleak movie, but not an unhappy one -- it achieves a miracle of tone under the sure-handed direction of the Coen brothers, bearing almost no trace of the manic, surreal qualities that make many of their movies so off-putting to some (me included).  Here, they're thoughtful and quiet, though the movie is not without enormous humor.

It's a perfectly realized film, layered with literary references, visual symbolism and quietly dazzling cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel that renders Llewyn's entire world in a washed-out dullness that's simultaneously hopeless and beautiful as it sends Llewyn on a journey that leaves him physically and mentally exhausted.

Isaac, who sings beautifully, conveys Llewyn's desperate exasperation with enormous affection -- Llewyn doesn't want to end up like this, he just doesn't know what he could do differently, and he endears himself to the audience as much as he does to the friends who don't know if they can take him in yet again, but invariably do.

It's a beautiful, haunting (and funny) movie all the way, but then offers up one more surprise: a final sequence that is both a bit of a shock and an inevitability.  For fans of the Coen Brothers who might be otherwise perplexed by the deliberate introspection of the movie (which shares a few similarities to their  A Simple Man), the last few shots are a sly delight -- but they don't exist just to throw the audience for a loop.

After you leave the theater, you'll think about how Inside Llewyn Davis ends and how it begins depends.  A lot of your view on the ending will depend on how you come to view Llewyn himself, a victim of fate or of his own stubbornness -- or maybe a little of both.  Either way, the Coens have crafted a movie to leave you wondering if those cryptic final moments should force you to rethink everything you just saw, and maybe Llewyn himself.

Viewed Dec. 27, 2013 -- Arclight Sherman Oaks

1040

Thursday, December 26, 2013

"Saving Mr. Banks"



 4.5 / 5 

When a famous person commissions his or her portrait, the final work is hardly expected to be objective; it will meet the specific requirements of the subject, and the last thing anyone can rightfully expect is that genuine art will result.

Yet, it has happened in the art world, so why not the cinematic world?  The Walt Disney Company could have created a feature-length film about the making of Mary Poppins to commemorate the musical's 50th anniversary, but instead took a curious route, opting for a highly fictionalized account of the struggle between Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers to bring her books to the screen.

Somewhere in the process, amid the corporate shoulder-slapping over what a brilliant marketing move this would be, director John Lee Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith delivered a terrifically entertaining film that comes as close as any mainstream movie I've ever seen to capturing the way storytelling is a highly personal process, one whose mysteries are locked away within the mind of one single writer.

Ask any writer, painter, composer or actor to explain why certain scenes exist, or how the inspiration came for a particular work, and you'll either be met with a cold, icy stare that implies you could not possibly understand or, on the other end, you'll be subjected to long historical ramblings about childhood and pain.

Saving Mr. Banks gets both of them, though the latter are not nearly as numerous as the former, and they're all delivered by two transcendent actors, Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.

Keep in mind, this is a movie made by the company Walt Disney created, so there's little reason to suspect Walt will be treated as a real-life human being -- but indeed he is.  Argumentative, passionate about his beliefs and his work, and doggedly determined to secure the rights to Mary Poppins from the ardently opposed Mrs. Travers. (There's good reason for her oft-stated insistence that she be known as Mrs. Travers, as the film will explain.)

But Mrs. Travers is at the end of her financial rope.  Book sales have dried up, along with the corresponding residual payments, and losing her beloved house would be the least of her concerns.

Saving Mr. Banks picks up when Mrs. Travers agrees to go on an "exploratory trip" to Los Angeles to meet Disney and his film's songwriters and screenwriter.  They're ill-prepared for the experience.

What they find in Mrs. Travers is a woman who cannot abide anything about moviemaking, Los Angeles or, frankly, life in general.  And here is where the genius of the script for Saving Mr. Banks kicks in: Through her trip, and with the aid of sun-dappled flashbacks to her life as a girl in Australia, Mrs. Travers comes to a surprising and unnerving realization:

She has become exactly the sort of inflexible, intransigent, fussy adult she never imagined herself becoming.

As for the Disney camp, they simply have work to do -- there's a lot of money already riding on Mary Poppins, and there's one big problem: Mrs. Travers hasn't signed over the rights to the film.

Early scenes between Mrs. Travers and writer Don DaGradi and composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) are a delight to watch as every notion they've ever held about the allure of filmmaking and the beautiful sunshine of Hollywood are laid to utter waste through a few well-chosen words and dismissals.

These are the comic gems that have ben lifted for the film's lighthearted trailer, but the rather large surprise of the film itself is discovering why Mrs. Travers is so resistant.  "These characters are family to me," and through the liberal use of those flashbacks -- often viewed as a "crutch" for some films, but genuinely worthwhile here -- the audience begins to understand some of Mrs. Travers views quite intimately.

And so does Walt Disney.  Just when he thinks he's got her, she relents and hops on the next plane back to London, more certain than ever that she will never let Disney and his "money-printing machine" get their hands on Mary Poppins.

A long, crucial, quiet scene between Disney and Travers in the sitting room of her London home is the clincher, as Disney explains why they may have more in common than the stuffy, angry British author has ever expected.

In this scene, and others with Mrs. Travers, the Sherman Bros. and DaGradi going through the script line by line, something astonishing happens in Saving Mr. Banks -- it becomes one of the most compelling explorations of the creative process that I've ever seen.  Mrs. Travers thinks back to the childhood scenes that inspired her work, remembers the impact they had on her then -- and still do, more than a half-century later -- and considers how they might relate to what she wrote.

Saving Mr. Banks seems like the story of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers -- but, then, Mary Poppins to many viewers seems like the story of Jane and Michael going on grand adventures with a flying nanny. There's more happening here, and it's an enormous credit to the writers, the director and the actors that they have been able to find the emotional core of this story.

In fact, although Saving Mr. Banks is a story about Hollywood and Walt Disney, it is really about the awful middle-aged realization that we have allowed our youthful ambitions of love, simple achievement and happiness to be overwhelmed by the sadly adult expediencies of money, success and approval.

Saving Mr. Banks is anchored by the truly astonishing, memorable, practically perfect performance by Emma Thompson as Mrs. Travers.  Say all you will about the technical accomplishments of today's actors, Thompson does something deceptively simple here: She creates a fully realized character, one whose silly quirks become less silly and more understandable as time goes on, and the final shot of her is cathartic indeed: Whether it came out exactly the way she wanted it or not, she finally got Disney to make a movie she could approve of -- and enjoy.

Although Hanks is relegated to a bit of a supporting-actor role, he achieves something pretty remarkable, as well, by taking a well-known historical figure, one who has achieved iconic status, and finding warmth, humanity and complexity in him.

That it was made by The Walt Disney Company can be held against Saving Mr. Banks but, in the end, shouldn't be.  If they had intended to make a hagiography, they could have done so quite easily.  What they've made instead is a film that captures the essence of why it's so difficult to translate a novel to the screen, and what goes through the mind of a writer whose work is being analyzed.

The movie is at times brilliant in its ability to show the dichotomy between the happy world of Disney and the no-nonsense world she thought she created, and the schism could not be better showcased than by the nuanced, warm-hearted and disarmingly candid performance of Thompson.

There are cloying moments, to be sure.  There are moments of self-congratulation by the Disney team that could leave some people averse to seeing Saving Mr. Banks.  If you're one of those -- try not to be, just for two hours.  This is a film that places the cynics among us (and there are many) front and center, holds their behavior up as almost laudatory, then asks one big question:

Where did it come from?

How did you grow from being that happy child to being this bitter adult?  And would you not mind it if the world could, just for a little while, be more like what you once knew it to be?

Saving Mr. Banks loses just a little with some slightly cartoony characterizations and the overtly golden gloss it puts on most everything.  It looks at times more like a Hallmark commercial than it does a mainstream film.  But those are small qualms about a film that surprised me in the best possible way: By being a genuinely terrific movie, anchored by one of the best screen performances of the year.

It's been a remarkable year for actresses, from Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine to Sandra Bullock in Gravity, but none have done what Thompson does here: Show how a woman (any person, really) can find once again the child who still just wants to love and be loved.

Saving Mr. Banks is not, as feared, the work of the studio's marketing team to celebrate the half-century mark of Mary Poppins -- it's a fresh, lively, emotional, top-notch film all its own, one that has the added benefit of revisiting a cinematic classic and finding out just why it's so much better than you imagine it to be.  Whether you give Mary Poppins a fresh go after seeing Saving Mr. Banks is your choice -- but do see Saving Mr. Banks for one of the most refreshing and satisfying movies of the year.

It may be a work of commissioned art, but happily, it turns out to be quite a worthy artistic accomplishment unto itself.

Viewed Dec. 25, 2013 -- Laemmle NoHo 7

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"Frozen"



 3 / 5 

Hans Christian Andersen has long held an allure for Disney animators, but not surprisingly his long, complex, often melancholy and heavily religious stories have proven difficult to adapt.  Still, after their successful, groundbreaking retelling of The Little Mermaid, there's little wonder Disney animators took a second look at a concept that proved too much for even Walt Disney to tackle.

The story is "The Snow Queen," and for Frozen, screenwriters have taken a few bits and pieces from Andersen's story and grafted them to a more traditional narrative.  Instead of two little children from a village, we're presented two princesses (the more cynical among you may already determine some nice merchandising opportunities) who live in the mythical, more or less Norwegian kingdom of Arrendale.

One of them, Elsa, has been born with an odd power: She can conjure up snow and ice at whim.  This delights her younger sister, Anna, but after Elsa accidentally harms her sister during childhood, she shuts herself away and refuses to let anyone know of her abilities, lest she cause more damage.

This is just the setup, and its complexity reveals the film's biggest flaw: It's emotionally a bit icy.  A mermaid who wants to be human, a beast who wants to be a man, a lion who needs to accept his responsibility, a young girl who wants to be released from her forced imprisonment -- they all engage the heart as well as the head.  A princess who has to find her sister who has run away because she turns things to ice and has never learned to control her power but is nonetheless ashamed of it … that's a bit more complicated.

Frozen is a visually masterful film, possibly the best-looking movie Disney has ever created.  Those millions of bubbles under the sea and the march of the animals toward Pride Rock may have been previous high points, but they're nothing compared with the snow, ice and shimmering, frosty beauty of Frozen (which is a movie that looks just fine in 2-D, by the way).

Voice casting is spot on, with an alarmingly good Kristen Bell as Anna and Wicked star Idina Menzel as Elsa.  Menzel makes a fantastic impression, but anyone who's seen Wicked will be hard-pressed not to hear more than a few reminders of Elphaba and Glinda in the soaring duets.

Musically, the movie is all over the place; combining musical styles can work well (think about the calypso beats and Broadway standards of Mermaid), here the pop-rock love ballads don't quite mesh with the more standards songs.  The music is merely fine rather than spectacular.

Best of all are the supporting characters, especially the endlessly amusing, thoroughly adorable snowman named Olaf, who longs to know what summer is like; and a helpful-if-dim reindeer named Sven.  It's also enjoyable to see the standard gender roles reversed -- even in female-driven movies like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and even Tangled, the women wanted to please the men.  In Frozen, the men are strong, interesting characters but secondary to the movie's two females.

It's a shame, then, that the plight of Anna and Elsa doesn't quite feel as strong as it should.  In a visually ravishing sequence, Elsa flees her kingdom and vows never to return -- but her selfishness is presented as a sort of declaration of independence, and unlike, say, Elphaba's key "Defying Gravity" moment, it feels pressured by plot contrivance rather than character.

Similarly, Anna's determination to find her sister struggles for justification.  Her kingdom is under a snowy permafrost, but Anna is less concerned about that than being snubbed by her sister for the umpteenth time.

These aren't small flaws: Frozen struggles to find a story that is genuinely compelling on a purely emotional level.  Still, it gives us some genuinely engaging characters, great performances, and looks absolutely extraordinary.  It's an exquisite film, and on that level ranks up there with the best work Disney animators have ever undertaken.  It's just odd to discover that for all of its great strengths, Frozen left me a little cold.

Viewed Dec. 25, 2013 -- AMC Promenade 16

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Special Guest Review! "All Is Lost" Reviewed by Jeff Watson


For the first time in the history of Out There in the Dark,
we have a guest blogger!  John's partner Jeff weighs in
on the very visceral reaction he had to All Is Lost.

 1 / 5 

All Is Lost, including the two hours of my life that I spent enduring this giant question mark of a movie. 

Who is this guy?

Does he have a name?

Why should I care about him? 

What is motivating him, at the age of eighty-something (Ed. Note: Redford is 78), to set sail alone on the Indian Ocean? 

Why does he make a series of seemingly illogical choices in the face of his predicament?

Is he unaware that the weather, 1,700 nautical miles from Sumatra, can be volatile?
Has he not heard of GPS transponders?

Why does it occur to him to distill his own water before it dawns on him to use his emergency fishing supplies to catch a fish?

REALLY?

Fine.

I can suspend disbelief with the best of them. I do it everyday.  I work for Disney for God’s sake.

But I can’t suspend my annoyance with this uninspired, senseless piece of cinema.  C’mon!

Yes, Robert Redford can hold the screen with relative ease.  But so could that whale from Blackfish.  The whale, I rooted for.  The crazy old guy on the yacht alone in the middle of nowhere, not so much.  I mean, when my grandfather was this guy’s age, he wasn’t allowed out in the garage without supervision.

*******

JOHN: So, you didn't like the movie?

JEFF: I'd rather watch a marathon of Madea films.  

Monday, December 23, 2013

"All Is Lost"



 2 / 5 

Having spent a sum total of less than a day of my life on board a water vessel of any sort, I'm the last person who can criticize the technical veracity of All Is Lost, but the nameless character played by Robert Redford doesn't seem the brightest of sailors.

There he is, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, when his sailboat is hit by a stray cargo container.  Water floods into the boat, destroying the communication equipment and leaving Redford's stalwart character, unhelpfully named "Our Man" in the credits, all alone.

Maybe what he does next is exactly what any experienced sailor would do, but it seems unlikely.  He tries to patch up his boat, tries to get his ruined radio to work, and eventually ends up jumping into an inflatable life raft as his vessel sinks beneath the surface.

All Is Lost tries to be two things: a blatant bid for an Oscar for a film legend, and an allegorical ode to the indomitability of the human spirit.  It fails at both.

It bungles the Oscar opportunity by failing to give us an idea of who this mystery man is, and although Redford inarguably can hold attention on screen, even he can't create a character out of thin air.  All Is Lost gives us absolutely no information about why "Our Man" went out to sea in the first place, what he's trying to find (even if just a spirit of adventure), or if he feels lost and adrift in his own life.  There's a single clue: His boat is called the Virginia Jean, but what does that mean?  Is it his wife?  His daughter?

The movie opens with a few lines of indifferently delivered narration.  They're just about the only words uttered in the movie, with the exception of one expletive screamed to the heavens about an hour in to the film.  But they provide no insight into this character -- and without it, the film is purely a technical achievement.

On that level, it's interesting enough, though hardly unprecedented.  Movies as varied as Open Water, Life of Pi and Jaws have made the sea more menacing, majestic and compelling, and the long central sequence in which "Our Man" and the Virginia Jean are tossed about at sea look a bit too much like they were shot in a studio with a fire hose trained on Redford.

As for the allegory: We get it.  Never give up on life.  There are always possibilities.  Hope is never lost.  All that good stuff.  They're important messages, they can be rendered beautifully.  But without any clue of who we're watching, we're left with no idea why it matters.  Of course "Our Man" will try to save himself at every junction, because what would be the point of making a movie about a man who just gives up?  It would be an awfully short movie.

As it is, All Is Lost feels like an awfully long movie, and seems to struggle to find ways to show us how desperate "Our Man's" situation is.  There are a lot of shots of "Our Man" eating canned beans.  And yet, a few scenes later, there he is cooking up a meal on a propane stove.  He goes days and days trying to cope without water or food, never realizing until it's too late that there's a fishing line and probably a decent number of fish right under him.

The guy can't navigate by the stars, but lo and behold he manages to recover an expensive, unopened sextant from his sinking ship and use it to plot a course (on a free-floating raft, no less) into shipping lanes.

The problem with All Is Lost isn't that these unlikely things happen, it's that you're aware they're happening and you focus on just how unlikely they are.  In the fantastical, joyful movie Joe Versus the Volcano (which otherwise bears no resemblance to All Is Lost in any way), Joe and his beautiful girlfriend are on a raft in the middle of the ocean when Joe sees the moon rise, falls to his knees and thanks God for his life, even if it has set him adrift.

I kept waiting for some similar scene to happen in All Is Lost -- a moment that conveyed the existential nightmare of being lost at sea, wondering if anyone back home even knows you're out there.  I wanted "Our Man" to realize the foolishness of his ways, to seek contrition, to find peace in his impossible situation.  This isn't that movie, not even close.

All Is Lost proves that even at 78 years old, Robert Redford can still command the screen like nobody's business, but that even an actor of his underrated, formidable achievement can't be compelling without material.  There's nothing here, nothing at all, just a nameless man who has to figure out a way to survive.  How they managed to make that so uninspiring is beyond me, but they did.

There's some beautiful underwater photography in All Is Lost, and it's quite literally impossible not to find some compelling drama in the plight of a man drifting in a raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean, hoping to be rescued.  All Is Lost is never boring, exactly, it's simply as aimless as that little life raft, always threatening to deflate and sink, and somehow staying above the surface, though just barely.

Viewed Dec. 23, 2013 -- Sundance Sunset Cinemas

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Her"



 5 / 5 

Think back to 2001: A Space Odyssey and HAL-9000, the computer who mutinied when faced with deactivation.  The problem was, HAL had made a mistake, and the awareness of his own fallibility was so overwhelming, HAL had a computerized nervous breakdown.

Samantha, the computer (or, more accurately, operating system) at the center of Spike Jonze's brilliant Her, also faces the inherent problems of self-awareness.  Science, after all, can only go so far; it may, as Her posits, be possible one day for computers to achieve a level of sentience previously reserved for organic beings.  But the very notion creates a conundrum: Anything that is self aware has the ability to evolve, and the ability to evolve carries enormous emotional implications.

We've seen the concept carried out before in science-fiction tales -- computers and robots become aware of themselves and then retaliate against the humans who made them.  Her begins from a similar point, but carries the story in an entirely different, brazenly fresh, and disarmingly beautiful direction.

Her takes place in a futuristic version of Los Angeles.  (How far in the future?  That's for you to determine for yourself -- that one point alone is worthy of a long discussion, which indicates the satisfyingly dense level of detail Jonze and his production team have put into the film.)  It's where Theordore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) lives and works.  His job is to write "handwritten" letters for people who are too busy or, more likely, too detached from the world to know what to say for themselves.

Theodore has the heart, eyes and sensibilities of a poet, but he's been in something of a rut since his wife left him.  Walking home from work one day, a video billboard catches his eye, and he buys a new operating system for his computer, one that the software company promises has a remarkable ability to think, feel, adapt and evolve to meet the needs of its user.

What he discovers when he boots up his system is disarming, to say the least.  His operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) has given herself a name, and she does indeed think and seemingly feel.  She can carry on full, engaging, even witty conversations.  And even though she can read a whole book in a fraction of a second, and can gain insight into Theodore by scanning the documents on his computer, she doesn't understand the nuances of human behavior -- and she wants to learn.

Where Her goes from here is a delightful surprise that is best left kept something of a secret, though the film's poster makes it clear that this is "A Spike Jonze Love Story," and indeed Her moves squarely into romantic territory.

But "a guy falls in love with his operating system" is a nine-word logline that doesn't come close to hinting at the depth and beauty of Her, and nothing prepared me for the gorgeous, frequently amusing and often ravishing, visual qualities of the movie.

Like a science-fiction version of Lost in Translation, Her has a deep and compelling interest in exploring an intensely human emotion -- not love, but connection, the need to feel someone else wants to share the same space with you.  But does that space need to be physical?  Can we be in love with an inanimate object?  Take a good, serious look at the way people lavish attention on their smartphones and you likely have your answer already; Her begins by moving to the next logical step -- then keeps going, ending with a final five minutes that's as close to perfect as I could ever want a movie to be.

Her is a movie about emotions, but it's not terribly emotional itself.  It's more concerned with observing its characters through a distant, detached lens; we watch and observe rather than feel emotionally connected with them.  That makes sense, since most of them are learning how to re-connect themselves.

This is a haunting and lyrical movie, and it's one I suspect a lot of people will have a hard time embracing.  But even if you aren't fully enraptured, it will be impossible not to at least admire the physical and visual sheen of the movie and the absolutely astonishing central performances.

Joaquin Phoenix, whose career choices can charitably be called bizarre, is revelatory.  Theodore isn't just the center of the movie, he's in every scene, practically every shot -- and he's not some simple-minded, emotionally stunted character, which would have been an easy choice.  Theodore is a grown man, talented and successful, perfectly well-adjusted though lonely and empty.

If he's dubious about Samantha as a "person," he doesn't express too much surprise -- he's lived most of his life online, communicating with people through the computer, developing (and even consummating) relationships there.  And though Her is set in the future, the way he lives his life, constantly wired and unaware of the physical world around him, isn't that much different than the way most people live today.

Phoenix is thoroughly winning in the role, but so is Johansson, though we get only her voice -- that's more than enough, as she creates a rich, warm, genuine character who is herself shocked at what happens when she lets her mind expand.  Equally good are Amy Adams, Chris Pratt and especially Olivia Wilde in smaller roles.

Wilde plays a woman with whom Theodore goes on a blind date.  She's tentative and unsure, but discovers she likes this slightly unusual, not inordinately handsome guy -- but she also knows people are unreliable and disappointing.  So she lays it all on the line with him.  It's a bold scene, and underscores a disturbing message Her seems to be communicating: We feel empty when we can't connect with other people, but we're increasingly scared of doing exactly that.  Other people can fail us, they can reject us.  Other people can change in ways that aren't convenient and comfortable.

A computer just can't let you down like that.  Or could it?  Remember what HAL did.

Don't let the offbeat subject matter, or even the cool, hypnotic style dissuade you.  Her is one of the most human, and very best, movies of the year.

Viewed Dec. 21, 2013 -- ArcLight Hollywood

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