Testimonials


Great coverage Howard. Way more than I expected. Thoughtful, intuitive and very detailed. You picked up on nuances I hoped to make, and others I perhaps could have. I am now finally fired up for rewrite. Loved your service. So very worth it.
david

LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>I think it’s safe to say that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is no Django Unchained when it comes to race relations.  No, this chronicle of the life of a black butler who served at the White House over eight administrations is a bit too well intentioned for that.  At the same time, it’s one of those well intentioned movies that probably would have benefited from being a little less well intentioned. 

…The Butler is what is usually called middle brow—in other words, it’s a film that deals with serious and challenging subject matter, but does it in a way that will never seriously challenge anyone (while making them think it does).  It’s a movie that takes no real chances, has no real edge, does nothing new, because in the end, the choices the producers, the director (Lee Daniels, hence the title) and writer Danny Strong make, feel as if they were made with a firm eye on the box office.  This doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t entertaining.  It’s definitely that (though somewhere towards the end, one does start to feel its length).  But in the end, it’s little more than that.  
For those of you who have been on a walking tour of Siberia for the last few months, Lee Daniels’ The Butler revolves around Cecil Gaines, a black man who rose from cotton picker’s son to being a domestic at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The story is basically ironic.  It’s about a man who is fixed squarely in the midst of history (he can’t seem to turn around without it smacking him in the face), yet at the same time, takes absolutely no part in it.  He watches it go by, like a parade, but never actually marches with it.
The strongest scenes in the film are the scenes of everyday life of Gaines’ family and friends, the times they gather to gossip, play cards, drink.  There is an incredible naturalness to these scenes, an improvisational verisimilitude that is often riveting.  At times it feels as if one could watch these scenes of domesticity flow on forever.   All of which leads to a second bit of irony: the less political the movie is, the more alive and vibrant it is.  Whenever the focus is on the issues, the more on the nose and obvious it becomes until it takes on the weighty tone of one of those message pictures from the old days of MGM and Twentieth Century Fox.
By using what is called poetic license, screenwriter Strong is able to dramatize every single important civil rights issue and event from the 1950’s on.  He does this by giving Gaines a “the times, they are a changing” son (in real life, the character Gaines is based on had no such troubled relationship with his offspring).  Whatever event Gaines doesn’t witness himself, his son can experience them by going on the road with the freedom riders, being a personal friend of Martin Luther King or joining The Black Panthers.  If this method of story telling comes across as convenient, well, it is.  And while the scenes at Gaines’ home feel fresh and felt first hand, the rest of the movie comes across more like a Cliff Notes (remember those) version of race relations in America.
This is seconded by the casting of such stars as Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, James Marsden and John Cusack in the white roles.  Much has been made of this stunt casting.  But it should also be noted that this is stunt casting in which none of the cast is given any stunts to do.  Almost no one really resembles, and at times barely sounds like, their real life counterparts (the make up feels especially uninspired).   Only Jane Fonda really escapes unscathed in her role as Nancy Regan (a further irony: the former anti-war activist playing the people, here and in The Newsroom, that she use to rail against when she was younger). 
But if the movie is saved, it is saved by the dynamic performances of the rest of the cast.  Forest Whitaker is perfectly fine as Gaines, but it’s Terence Howard, Adriane Lenox, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz who shine as Gaines’ fellow workers and neighbors. 
However, towering over everyone is Ms. Oprah Winfrey who takes no prisoners with her performance as Gaines’s wife.  Before her appearance, the movie is little more than sincere, a bit stiff and familiar.  But from her first appearance, slightly slattern, obviously tipsy, a cigarette dangling precariously from her mouth, she brings an energy and intensity to the screen that was missing earlier.  It’s a deeply moving performance.
Two more issues to be noted.  First, in the social media and criticism world that surrounds this movie, there is a suggestion that this is an original and ground breaking story, something that’s never been told before.  But are people really this young?  In many ways, one could make the argument that this is little more than a sequel to a popular TV mini-series from 1979 called Backstairs at the White House which dramatized the lives of people like Gaines from the time of Taft to Eisenhower (with Andrew Duggan in the Robin Williams role).
Second, I remember when there was a lot of criticism of the movie The Help, a movie about southern domestics, criticism that often came out before the movie was even released.  I’m not sure why there was so much anger toward that film, but not toward this one.  Gaines is far more passive than any of the characters in The Help, all of whom were far more willing to risk their lives and positions than Gaines would ever think to do (the most he does is demand equal pay for blacks as for whites, but he demands it at such a late date and so near his retirement, it seems a hollow victory and has none of the emotional resonance that the decisions made by the characters in The Help did).  And if you’re one of the ones who thought the maids in the earlier film were stereotypes, then logically you should consider Gaines to be something out of a 1930’s movie.  For those of you who trumpeted Lee Daniel’s The Butler, but criticized The Help, you not only should have your head examined, you need to apologize to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

THE PATIENCE STONE and MUSEUM HOURS



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

I saw the movies The Patience Stone and Museum Hours on the same day, and one of the more interesting overlaps here is that they both have as a central plot point someone who is in a coma.   I don’t know if that would be considered a zeitgeist, but there it was.  However, beyond that, the movies have little else in common.
The Patience Stone is written by Jean-Claude Carriere (a screenwriter who actually dates back to many Bunuel films like Diary of a Chambermaid and Belle de Jour) and the director Atiq Rahmi, based on a book written by the director.   In it, the person in a coma is the husband of a much younger wife.  The two live in a house in an unidentified Middle Eastern city that is war torn.  Fighting is going on all around them while people go about their everyday activities (going to work, shopping, praying, getting water) as if all the bullets flying by are annoyances they have to put up with, like flies.  But the wife has no money; no way to buy more medicine; little food; no water; and two little girls to protect.
One would think from this description that the movie would be a tension filled high wire act of an experience.  But oddly enough, it never really connects in an emotionally satisfying way.  Instead, the longer it goes on, the more slack it becomes.
There are probably two reasons for this.  The first is that the movie seems to be about two things.  One through line dramatizes the second to second, minute to minute, day to day struggle for survival on the part of the wife (which gives the story what tension it has).   But the other through line dramatizes the wife’s awakening to her own sexuality and worth as a human being.  This part seems forced and what is termed “too on the nose” in the biz; it just never feels like it is growing organically out of the characters’ personalities and situation.  And these two through lines never really come together in a meaningful way. 
Meanwhile, Museum Hours, written and directed by Jem Cohen, is also a bit all over the place.  It’s one third drama, one third art lecture and one third travelogue (the story takes place in Vienna, Austria).  Unlike The Patience Stone, one could make a case that almost nothing happens here.  Yet, as it goes along, you find yourself and more won over by its offbeat charms until you have to know how it’s all going to turn out.
The story revolves around Johann (Bobby Sommer), a security guard at the Kunsthisroisches Art Museum.  He’s an older man who has had his trials, a gay man who lost his partner a few years earlier (if I understood the dialog correctly—this sort of was thrown out so off handedly, I wasn’t sure I heard right).  But he is also at peace, coming to enjoy his days at the museum, both the people watching as well as his interactions with the visitors.
This time around, the person in a coma is a Canadian woman who had moved to Austria some time before.  The only family contact in her possessions is a cousin, Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), who lives in Montreal.  Though Anne hasn’t seen her cousin in some time, she comes to Vienna to take care of her.  She meets Johann at the museum when he helps her with directions to the hospital.  The two bond as he offers to be her interpreter with the doctors there.  As time goes on, they find themselves in each other’s company more and more until the inevitable happens with Anne’s cousin, and she has to return home.
The movie hops all over the place, leaping from through line to through line almost willy nilly.  There seems to be little cause and effect as to when the jump will come and the story goes from a trip through some caves to Anne by her cousin’s side at the hospital to Bobby’s often quite astute ruminations on the various artists in the museum, like what paintings teens like best and his feeling that some of the paintings are no more than soft core porn of their period.   He especially has strong feelings about the artist Bruegel, who did sort of documentary paintings about peasants and their day to day life—there’s one very funny scene where a art lecturer, played by Ela Pilpits, is challenged by a couple of pompous visitors until she walks off in a sort of huff at the end. 
There’s a leisurely feel to the movie (Cohen is obviously in no hurry to tell his story) and the acting is of the non-actorish type (as in the Italian neo-realists).   This does give the feeling of a movie that perhaps goes on a little longer than it should; more professional actors might have given it a bit more energy.  At the same time, this is a very satisfying and ultimately moving film.

THE CANYONS and PRINCE AVALANCHE


I have seen more than a few bad films by celebrated filmmakers in my life.  But The Canyons may take the clichéd and proverbial cake.  It has to be one of the worst movies every made by a respected writer/director, in this case Paul Schrader.   I mean, this is a film that isn’t even as good as Torn Curtain, Shadows and Fog or The Bonfire of the Vanities (well, actually, I may have gone a bridge too far there; Bonfire… is pretty bad).   I’m not sure what is worse about it: that it’s just so horribly bad in it’s own right, or that it was made by the filmmaker of such movies as Blue Collar, The Comfort of Strangers, Light Sleeper, Affliction, Auto Focus and the underrated The Walker (as well as the author of such classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull).

Continue reading

THE SPECTACULAR NOW and ELYSIUM



This year has been something of a horse race for coming of age films.  I don’t think I’ve ever really kept count, but I don’t remember seeing as many in one year as I have this one.  It’s not a particularly close horse race as horse races go.  The lead, when it comes to quality, is obviously, as far as I’m concerned, a dead heat between Something in the Air and The Bling Ring.  Behind those two, and lagging far behind it should be noted, are The Way, Way Back and Mud.  And behind that, in a distant, distant, distant last place, is The Kings of Summer.  However, a movie has now come along that may just about dislodge The Kings of Summer from its singular location.
After seeing The Spectacular Now, I turned to my friend and told him, I swear I’ve seen this film before; it was part of a TV series called The Afterschool Special; starred a couple of familiar TV kids of the day; and was about teenage alcoholics (there were actually a couple of shows like this: a made for TV movie, The Boy Who Drank Too Much with Scott Baio and Lance Kerwin and that Afterschool Special one, The Late Great Me! Story of a Teenage Alcoholic).  No, The Spectacular Now is not a remake; but overall, I really couldn’t see all that much of a difference between The Spectacular Now and an episode of a series that was often made fun of in its day for it’s obviousness and PSA feel (it was only a few steps up from those films shown in school in the 1950’s on the dangers of premarital sex). 
I really don’t understand the big hoopla over this film.  It gets the job done, but I’m not convinced it does much else.  But for some reason everyone, including film critics who should know better, is calling it original and non-formulaic—perhaps the two very words that could never be honestly used in describing this picture (directed adequately by James Ponsoldt, with a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber—a far cry from their exciting work of (500) Days of Summer).  It’s one of those movies in which every plot turn is telegraphed minutes, if not hours, before it happens; in which everything pretty much happens the way it always does, and always has, in movies like this; and just about worst of all, it’s one of those movies where, if you haven’t gotten the message that has been so obviously preached for the majority of the film, the central character actually tells you what it is in the final scene (really?  I mean, really?—Jesus, it’s like the ending of The Breakfast Club, except at least that movie had a bit more interesting of a message to its message). 
The story revolves around high school senior Sutter (played by Miles Teller, who is perfectly fine and does his Shia Lebouf best when it comes to his lines, though I’m not sure I ever fully bought him in the role).  Sutter has the smarmy personality of a used car salesman, and the drinking problem to go with it.  He’s one of these characters who is described in a way that is never dramatized: he claims to be one of the most popular kids at school and that no party is successful without him—of course, we have to take his word for it since he never does anything to prove it.  At one point at prom (which feels very underpopulated), he yells out that he loves these guys—why he does, I have no idea (in his defense, this is also the point where he has the best line in the movie: “we’ll never be this young again”).   His most moving and honest scene (and the one, perhaps, least encumbered by formula and predictability) is a moment he has with his boss, played by Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk, in which he is very honest about himself and describes himself in a way that, for the first time in the film, is actually supported by events in the story.
It’s not that the movie is without some moving scenes.  As clichéd as it is, Sutter has a scene with his father whom he hasn’t seen since he was a child that is quite memorable.  It’s not just that his father turns out to be someone other than what he seems at first (who didn’t see that coming).  Sutter’s father (played spot on by Kyle Chandler) is more than you’re run of the mill alcoholic; he is one mean drunk and the scene has some unexpected menace that the rest of the movie could have used.
Perhaps the biggest crime of the film, though, bigger than the triteness of the formula and simplistic story telling, is the use of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s mother.  Leigh is someone who had potential to become one of our greatest actresses with incredible performances in such movies as Last Exit to Brooklyn, Miami Blues, Rush and Georgia, but has now been reduced to playing parts easily beneath her, throwaway roles in movies she is too good for.   That is perhaps the only thing in this movie I didn’t see coming.
Writer/director Niell Blonkamp is brilliant when it comes to metaphors.  The movie that made his name, District 9, is a comment on race relations and immigration revolving around aliens from another planet making their way to earth and ghettoized in South Africa.  Elysium, his new sci-fi story, is a metaphor on the haves and have nots, the 1 percenters having fled a decaying earth to a state of the art space station, leaving the earth to the 99 percenters.  Unfortunately, this is about where any interest in this movie stops.
The metaphor is original and exciting, but the set up, the concept, the back story, never seems well thought out and doesn’t feel remotely convincing.  After leaving the theater, all I and my friends did was pick apart how unbelievable it all was (it’s a world in which the population has not just sub-par, but almost no medical care; lives on a planet that is losing its resources; an earth where the pollution is deadly, and yet the place is overpopulated—a neat trick if there ever was one, and just one of the many parts of the film that never made sense).
But the fact that after the movie was over all we could talk about was the errors in the premise suggests a much deeper problem here.  We were talking about the errors because none of us cared about the characters or what was happening to them.  Everyone in the movie seemed bland and one dimensional, spouting dialog that had no bite to it.  And the over crushing direction with the emphasis on disco-like pounding action, over crushed any possibility of an emotional connection to what was happening on screen.   And it all ends with a scene so ludicrous, I and my friends were desperately trying to be polite and not burst out laughing.
There are plenty of interesting names in the cast.  Matt Damon plays the lead with an absurdly ripped body that feels out of place in a world where people can’t get the right kind of nutrition.  His chief opponent is played amusingly by Sharlot Copley (who has the lead in District 9); but what’s amusing about it all is not his performance, but that he’s taken the Anthony Michael Hall approach to his career and built up his body so he doesn’t have to play the bullied pipsqueak anymore.   And it’s always nice to see Alice Braga and Diego Luna.  But perhaps the biggest irony of the movie is that the best and worst performance of the movie is given by the same person, Jodie Foster, as the head of security on Elysium.  Bless her heart, she gives it her all and works her ass off, including giving her character an odd, clipped accent; but almost nothing about her performance works.  At the same time, she’s compulsively watchable, so what are you going to do?
But speaking of Jody Foster, though the film preaches understanding and sympathy and how we should treat each other with respect and as equals and all the other ten points of the Sermon on the Mount law, I did find it odd that in the movie women were given only two choices: the female trying to do the job of a male and by doing so, becomes a bitch of a Lady Macbeth because, well, that’s what happens to women who try to do a man’s job; and the female who is an adjunct to the male and is defined by her relationship to him—in this film, she’s not even allowed to be a doctor, no that’s a man’s job, she has to be the nurse in the equation.
That’s not even bringing up the other issue in that we have a world where the vast majority of people on Elysium are white and the more than the vast majority of people on earth tend to be minorities, mainly Hispanic.  But who is the savior of the world?  The whitest of the white, Matt Damon. 
In the end, I am quite worried that with this second movie, Blonkamp may be on his way to becoming the next M. Night Shyamalan, someone with only one good picture in him.  What is worse, Blonkamp may turn into one of those filmmakers who is a great visual stylist and thinks that that also automatically makes him a good writer or that he doesn’t need a good screenplay as long as he is at the helm.  Even District 9 suggested that this might be the way of the world for Blonkamp; it was a great idea with a strong first half, but the second half become much more formulaic and lost much of the originality and vibrancy of what came before.  

FRUITVALE STATION, THE WAY, WAY BACK and BLUE JASMINE



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

The movie Fruitvale Station has a horrific finale, a fevered, shaking camera dramatization of a terrible, tragic incident.  It’s also the main reason to see the film.  It’s a disturbing, chaotic and frustrating set of scenes and makes you very angry.  So if nothing else, the movie has certainly achieved something here.  At the same time, as a whole, the movie never really connected with me.  The rest of the film is a chronicle of the events, a day in the life of type thing, of the central character, Oscar Grant, a young man with a difficult background spending his last day on earth without knowing his time is running out. 
How you feel about the film will probably depend upon how you feel about this character.  Oscar (played sincerely and solidly by Michael B. Jordan) is a petty drug dealer who has been in and out of prison.  He’s also a compulsive liar; a player; has anger management issues; and refuses to take any responsibility for how his life has turned out.  He’s the sort of guy who tells his girlfriend and mother of his child that that last affair he recently had, you know the one, well, hey, now, babe, that meant nothing and it’s over and I’m a new guy now; then in the next scene, he’s flirting with a young woman at the store he once worked at.  He’s also the kind of guy who threatens his ex-box with bodily harm if he won’t give him his job back, the job he lost from constantly showing up late (at another time, he threatens to urinate on a poor store owner’s entranceway if he won’t let some friends of his use the store bathroom—you see a pattern here). 
After all that, he should be fascinating.  He’s the sort of character that I go to movies to see.  But Oscar isn’t.  In fact, he’s sort of familiar and the kind of character we’ve seen many times in movies before.  There’s nothing that particularly unique or vibrant about him.  He’s even a bit bland, when all is said and done.  Hard to believe when one reads the description above, but that was pretty much it for me.
I think because of this, once the emotional effect of the horrific incident at Fruitvale Station wore off, I thought: okay, it was a terrible event, but I’m still not sure why the writer/director Ryan Cooglar made the movie.  The tragedy at the end is not presented in a way that is a commentary on Oscar’s life, though one gets the feeling that Cooglar wants it to be in some way.   Instead, it’s unclear Cooglar offers any real insight to the situation or has anything to say about it other than, well, than “shit happens”.   Which, actually, is a perfectly fine theme; it’s just unclear that this was Cooglar’s intention.
I do highly recommend a film with a similar situation, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, written and directed by Paul Greenglass, also a true story about a black teenager who was shot and killed by police officers for unclear reasons; this time in England.   It’s a tension filled story that grabs you from the beginning and refuses to let go.  Fruitvale Station felt a bit too leisurely to me.  
Over the past couple of years, two genres of film seem to have dominated the silver screen: the coming of age film (from Moonlight Kingdom to The Perks of Being a Wildflower to The Kings of Summer to The Bling Ring to The To Do List) and the film apocalypse (from It’s a Disaster to This is the End to The World’s End to World War Z to almost any movie based on a super hero).  I’m not sure what this means.  I can’t say that it’s a particularly optimistic view of the world to say that just when one takes the first steps toward being an adult you’re shit out of luck because the world’s about to bite you in the ass big time.
The latest foray into the coming of age category is The Way, Way Back, a story about a teen,  Duncan (played satisfactorily by Liam James), having to spend a couple of weeks at a beach house with his mother Pam and her new boyfriend Trent, who treats Duncan like a cockroach to be stomped on.  While The Kings of Summer is a more ambitious film, The Way, Way Back is actually more satisfying if for no other reason that while the kids in the former film are nothing but spoiled brats who don’t know when they are well off, the hero in the latter film is in a near nightmarish situation in which he is more sinned against that sinning.
But like many films in this popular genre, The Way, Way Back is fun and entertaining and even moving at times, while not really bringing anything new to the table and it all feels rather formulaic.  What it does have is some very nice acting, especially from Sam Rockwell in the Bill Murray role, as Owen, the manager of a swimming park who takes pity on the depressed Duncan and becomes the true father figure that Trent (Steve Carrell, giving it his all, while at the same time, never seeming comfortable in the roll and always looking miscast) could never be.  Giving more than able support is Toni Collette as  the scared and desperate Pam; Allison Janney, hysterical as Betty, the alcoholic in the making next door neighbor; and Maya Rudolph as Owen’s long suffering co-worker.
Perhaps the most original and intriguing aspect of the screenplay (by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also directed) is the character of Betty.  In many ways, she treats her kids in the same inexcusably awful manner as Trent treats the kids under his roof.  But while Trent leaves you with the feeling that he’s one degree off from becoming Ted Bundy, it’s obvious that Betty and her kids all love each other very much.  It’s a clever juxtaposition.
But in the end, does it really matter?  The way things are going in the movies these days, all the characters are going to die in a couple of years anyway.
Blue Jasmine is a character study of a faded Northern bell.  Any resemblance to A Streetcar Named Desire is purely unintentional, I’m sure (and I have the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge in my pocket).  But though written and directed by the great Woody Allen, it feels like a screenplay written by someone who had no emotional attachment to anyone in the film or anything that is going on in it as well.  And when it’s all over, you go: fair enough, but exactly why was it made?
It stars Cate Blanchette as Jasmine, a woman married to a Bernie Madoff type (Alec Baldwin) who loses all her upper class trappings when her husband is arrested and the IRS and the court take everything she owns.  She moves to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger, someone she feels too superior to to really want to have anything to do with (Sally Hawkins).  The story is told in a rather clunky manner with tons of expository dialog and some distracting side trips (mainly dealing with the Ginger’s love life) that just get in the way of Jasmine’s central through line. 
The plot is often not that believable; Jasmine takes a computer course for some reason that never made sense—she claims to be computer illiterate, but no one in her social background is this obtuse.  She also has a romance with a politician on the rise (Peter Sarsgaard), someone who works for the State Department yet still has enough money to buy a second home only Donald Trump could afford (okay, I’m exaggerating, but you get my drift).  This subplot is so questionable that one is expecting Sarsgaard’s character to turn out to be a con man of some sort with the intent of Jasmine getting a taste of her own medicine; but no, he is exactly what he seems.   And that’s without mentioning a surprise ending that only poses more questions than it answers.
On the plus side, this is a movie that is cast within an inch of its life.  Everyone is excellent and some, like Hawkins and Blanchett, are brilliant.  Perhaps most surprising Is Andrew Dice Clay who is spot on as Hawkins’ working class ex-husband (who knew that Clay could actually have had an acting career if he hadn’t been such a jerk).  But in many ways, that is almost all Blue Jasmine has.  Whether that is enough, is up to you.

ONLY GOD FORGIVES, THE WOLVERINE and WASTELAND



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

I hate to say it.  It’s so snarky and such a cliché and I hate it when I hear someone else say something like it, but I simply don’t know a better way to phrase it: Only God Forgives is the sort of movie a filmmaker makes when he starts believing his own press.  In other words, it’s a film that shows incredible talent on the part of its director Nicolas Winding Refn (who also wrote the screenplay), but is so showy, ostentatious, gaudy and florid, calling attention to how brilliant the filmmaker thinks he is, that it  becomes impenetrable as it drowns in its own pretentiousness.  One just stares at the screen trying to figure out what everyone was thinking while you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m sure it means something to the filmmakers, but hell if I can make heads or tells of it”.
This is too bad, I mean, really too bad, because Refn is the wunderkind from Denmark who made his name with the Pusher trilogy (which I haven’t seen) and used the notoriety of those films to come to the U.S. to make Drive, that glorious neo-noir about a stunt driver by day, get away driver by night, who finds himself conflicted when he falls for his neighbor who has a little boy as well as a husband in jail.   That movie was a controlled, tension filled character study with a real page turner of a story.  In contrast, Only God Forgives moves at a snail’s pace with a story made up of beautiful sets filled with people who often sit or stand immobile looking like mannequins, all filmed within an inch of its listless life (the stunning cinematography is by Larry Smith)—it’s as if Macy’s windows were designed by Chan-wook Park or Kar Wai Wong.
The basic story revolves around an American with mommy issues who runs a boxing gym in Bangkok.  When the American’s psychotic brother rapes and kills a sixteen year old prostitute, a fascistic, but righteous, police detective uses very righteous and fascistic means to restore order by manipulating the prostitute’s father/pimp into killing the brother.  When the American finds out what his brother did, he lets the father go.  But then the American’s mother comes to town ahead of an expected drug delivery and she wants vengeance.
Ryan Gosling plays the American, and like many of his other roles, he’s probably a bit too metrosexual for the part (he speaks so little so that whenever he does, his tinny voice seems a bit out of place).  In the end, it’s Kirsten Scott Thomas as the mother, in wicked Babs Stanwyck blonde tresses, and Vithaya Pansringar, as the righteous police detective with a karaoke fetish, who deliver the most effective performances (Thomas also has the best line; when she finds out what her son did to the prostitute, she says, “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons”).  
Much has been made of the violence in the movie and it’s there, for sure, but it’s nothing that out of the ordinary for this sort of film and I’m not sure what everyone is so upset about.  At the same time, IMHO there is some hypocrisy here.  It’s obvious that Thomas has more going on in her relationship with her sons than simply expecting a card on mother’s day.  But while Refn has no problem throwing gallons of blood around the sets, he seems to balk at showing incest.  I’m not convinced the movie is as brave as Refn may think it is.  Even White Heat with James Cagney was more daring in this area.
In the end, Refn has nobody to blame but himself for how it all turned out.  He is the director and the writer after all, so it’s a little hard to find another fall guy.  But it might be interesting to take note: for the first film in the Pusher trilogy, he co-wrote the screenplay with Jens Dahl; Drive was written by Hossein Amini.  And there is something about this movie that does show contempt for screenwriters.  It’s a film that feels all driven by the vision of an auteur who doesn’t think he needs help to reach his vision.   There was certainly potential here, but it might have been interesting to see how it would have all turned out if someone else had written the screenplay.
The Wolverine is a perfectly acceptable entry in the rash of blockbusters revolving around comic book heroes.  There’s nothing that wrong with it and ends up being more fun than one might think.  Perhaps the easiest way to say it is that on a scale of one to ten, it’s far, far superior to Pacific Rim and Man of Steel, but it’s no Iron Man or The Dark Knight.  It stars Hugh Jackman in the title role and he looks great in his Elvis sideburns and motorcycle tough Marlon Brando clothes.    The serviceable screenplay is by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank; the ditto direction is by James Mangold.  It all revolves around some dirty dealings among a wealthy Japanese businessman; the Yakuza; and a walking virus of a slinky blonde (played amusingly by Svetlannd Khodchenkova, again in tresses gold of Stanwyck Babs).  In the end, it should be said the movie doesn’t paint the country of the rising sun in a particularly positive light: it’s major themes seem to be that save a Japanese soldier from the bombing (atomic, of course) of Nagasaki, he’ll still stab you in the back, and Japan is a country run by the rich and the mob with a police force that doesn’t seem to exist. 
Wasteland is a sort of heist film that is structured in such a way that the pay off finale is its only real reason for existence.  Because of this, the screenplay (by the director Rowan Athale) has only one purpose and that is to revolve itself around the “surprise” twist ending (the surprise is in quotations because it’s really not all that big a surprise by the sweet time it takes to finally get there).  What happens is often what happens in movies structured this way: the story and the characters never quite seem believable or satisfying since they are not there to drive or tell the story, but only to set up the ending. 
The story unfolds in an as told to way:  recently released petty criminal Harvey (Luke Treadway) is being interrogated by DI West (Timothy Spall) after being found at the scene of a crime, a break in at a club owned by a mobster with the mobster’s enforcer, who Harvey has a grudge against, lying almost dead on the ground in front of him.  Harvey, who is in pretty bad shape himself, tells West what happened. 
It’s not a bad way to tell a story, but it’s a fairly clunky one here.  Athale makes one of the most common mistakes in screenplays like this: Harvey tells West all sorts of details that he couldn’t know since he wasn’t there to witness the events himself.  And the way he tells a story doesn’t feel like the way an accused criminal would tell it, but the way a character needs to tell it so the audience gets the whole shebang (again, to set up the ending).  He doesn’t even tell West the same story the audience sees: at the very end, we discover suddenly that Harvey has never used the names of his accomplices the whole time in talking to West, though in the flashbacks, the names are constantly used—so what parts of the story did he tell West and which didn’t he?  (And just how hard is it going to be for West to figure out just who these friends of Harvey are anyway?  One of them is Harvey’s roommates, for Christ’s sake, not to mention a character who is his ex-girlfriend)
Though there is something satisfying about Harvey’s ultimate plan (Harvey wants revenge and he gets it, sort of; the enforcer ends up in hospital, but there’s no indication that anything more is going to happen to him), it’s just dramatized in a somewhat slipshod manner and it’s all a bit convoluted with too many goals for the characters.  And the ending with West listening to Harvey one more time is ridiculous and not one iota believable (again, it’s not there because the characters would act this way, but out of necessity to reveal to the audience that “surprise” ending). 
At the same time, everybody gives the whole shebang their all.  You certainly can’t fault any of them.  They get more than everything out of their parts that they can and, in fact, act as if an Oscar nomination depended upon it.  At the same time, they are trapped by lengthy sets of dialog that often go on and on.  One doesn’t always know how to react the verbosity.  Sometimes you admire the actors for their dexterity in saying Athale’s realistic and vibrant dialog; at other times, you just want to yell at the screen, just shut the hell up and get on with it already.  Only Spall, with his long suffering, jowly bull dog look, gives the strongest and most interesting performance (and Athale’s biggest error as screenwriter is probably the underuse of this character). 
For more reviews, check out my blog at http://howardcasner.blogspot.com