IN THE HOUSE, MUD and TO THE WONDER



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In the House, the new film from writer/director François Ozon, is a movie where you wait an hour and forty-five minutes for the other shoe to drop…and it never does. 
The basic premise revolves around Germain, a somewhat bitter high school teacher, who assigns his literature class an essay about what they did over the weekend.  The results are depressingly high schoolish until he reads one from student Claude who writes about his attempts to insinuate himself into the household of a fellow student who has an ideal, Andy Hardy/Donna Reed middle class home.  The essay is condescending and laced with wry observations, but it shows talent.  It also ends with “(to be continued)”.  As the film goes on, Claude gets inside that household and writes more and more (to be continued) essays until Germain is so hooked that he not only spends extra time with Claude, he also helps him in ways that will come back to bite him in the ass.
The movie starts out well and even makes your mouth water at the possibilities here.  Just what is this Claude up to?  And why is he involving Germain?  But alas, these are the shoes that never drop.  And as the story continues, often backed by a thrilling music score by Philippe Rombi that makes you think something exciting is transpiring on screen even when it isn’t, the more and more puzzling the whole thing becomes.  Not only do we never find out exactly what is going on, it kind of ends with the idea that nothing was ever going on at all in the first place.  But if so, then what was the point of it all?
Equally puzzling, and I think one of the major problems with the movie, is that as Claude continues on with his soap operic observations of this family, the better Germain (as well as his wife who also starts reading the essays) thinks Claude’s writing and story is becoming, when in actuality, the less and less interesting, the more banal, boring and clichéd, it turns out to be.  Let’s face it, Claude was never going to be mistaken for Proust, but still it’s just difficult to believe that Germain continues to have such a high opinion of his student the more he reads.  Even more puzzling is that as the essays pile up, the more obvious it is that Claude is at times just making things up (if he’s not, then he’s even a worse writer than he appears).  But this never seems to dawn on Germain, perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of the film.
It must be said that though the actors never quite sell the premise and plot turns, their performances are still first rate.  Frabrice Luchini, a character actor with a face that Walter Mathau would be proud of, plays Germain with a certain hang dog loopiness.  Kirsten Scott Thomas plays his wife and it’s one of her sharpest performances.   Ernst Umhauer is Claude with a smile just this side of Damien in The Omen.  Also in a blink or you’ll miss it cameo is Yolando Moreau, proof that even in France, as over here, if you win the equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress but don’t look like Catherine Deneuve, you’ll still be stuck having to play parts insultingly unworthy of you.
 
The conversation I had with my friends after seeing Mud, the new Matthew McConaughey vehicle by writer/director Jeff Nichols (who also gave us Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories), went something like this:  Them: “What did you think”, Me: “I think it moved a little leisurely”, Them: “A little?”, Me: “All right.  It was as slow as molasses”, Them: “Thank you”.
Yes, Mud is not the most forward momentum of movies.  And in a way that’s rather surprising given the basic subject matter.  Ellis, a young teen, and his best friend go look at a boat that has lodged in a tree after a recent flood, but discover that someone is living there, the title character Mud, who is in town to rescue the woman he loves and take her away before he is killed by the bounty hunters hired by the father of the woman’s boyfriend Mud killed after the boyfriend beat up the woman.  Sounds pretty much like a ticking time bomb of a premise to me, but the movie tends to get diverted along the way with the teen’s problems with his parents who are drifting apart and his attempt to win the heart of a girl who is out of his league, until the tension all gets a bit waterlogged since Nichols just can’t get as much energy flowing for his other through lines as he does for the one concerning Mud.
But there’s also something else missing from the heart of this movie.  One of the major leit motifs here is that Mud is constantly described as a liar and nothing remotely as he presents himself.  The woman he loves says it; his substitute father figure says it; even Mud says it, until at one point even Ellis himself screams it at him.  Yet, oddly enough, the one thing that Mud never does is lie.  Everything he tells Ellis is pretty much exactly on the level with not one whiff of misrepresentation.  Well, that’s not exactly accurate.  Mud does tell a whopper once.  When Ellis yells out at him that women aren’t worth loving, Mud tells him that’s not true.   Except that within the context of the movie, Ellis is right and Mud is lying.  All the women in the movie do nothing but declare their love for a man, then stab him in the back.   I suppose that Nichols might be saying that the nobility of the male of the species resides in the tragedy of their continual decision to fall in love in spite of how unworthy their beloveds are.  Still, it all seems a bit odd to me.
The point, though, is that this sort of throws Ellis’s journey off a bit.  The audience is being set up for Ellis to learn some big secret about Mud,  a lie that will change Ellis forever and help him on his journey to adulthood as is the wont of coming of age films.  But there is no secret.  It’s all a red herring.  And Ellis learns something about life, but it has little to do with the title character.
The movie is lovely to look at with languorous vistas of sunsets and open waters and there’s a nice feel for small town life.  It has a slam bang climax that’s not that believable, but is incredibly satisfying emotionally.  The acting is solid, though it’s Sam Shepard as the father figure who gives the most interesting performance.   Tye Sheridan as Ellis is capable.  And McConaughey does his McConaughey thing, though this time he only strips down to his bare chest.  Oh, yeah, uh, Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon are in it, too. 
Tortuous.  I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to say it.  Writer/director Terence Malick’s new film To the Wonder is…tortuous.  Directed/filmed/edited in the same style employed for the central section of his last film The Tree of Life, a series of quick glimpses and expressionistic scenes, To the Wonder starts out somewhat hypnotically with gorgeous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki.  But it’s not long before one quickly realizes that there ain’t a lot going on here and what there is, isn’t that original or interesting.  In fact, the best way to summarize it might be to say that there seems to be some sort of story here, but Malick is desperately determined not to tell it.  It concerns a man’s relationship with two woman, one a French citizen he brings to America with her child and whom he grows tired of, the second an old flame that he has a fling with and whom he grows tired of.  As the film goes on it begins to resemble more and more a classical music video that one might find on a PBS station after its daily schedule is over.   And the aesthetic approach, the snippets of scenes sewn together with a somewhat impressionistic, improvisational feel, seems as if it’s not there to bring more insight and depth to the relationships semi-dramatized in the movie, but chosen to cover up the idea that there’s really nothing of interest going on.   The characters are played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko (who seem to spend much of their time quietly avoiding each other while living in a house they can never seem to finish and is filled with boxes and suitcases that are never fully unpacked—I think this is what is called symbolic), with Rachel McAdams as the old girlfriend and Javier Bardem as a rather unimpressive priest who does little but walk around in existential agony, though not in as much existential agony as I was in watching the movie.
Tell me what you think.

OSCAR RACE 2012–BEST DIRECTOR



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Continuing my Oscar predictions, the next category is Director.  In certain ways, picking the director nominees used to be fairly easy.  You selected which five films you thought would be nominated for best picture and then try and decide which one wouldn’t correspond with a director (there often was one difference).  But now that it is possible for there to be up to ten picture nominees, this sort of throws a monkey wrench into the system.
In many ways, you still make your guesses using the same principle.  You decide which five movies you suspect would have been the nominees if the rules of up to ten weren’t in existence and you take that as your cue for your basic list of for the director’s category.
Like all the other categories, the top five seem to be slowly rising to the top.  So to the list:
Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty to win.  It’s not just the double whammy so far of winning the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review awards.  There’s no guarantee that that translates into an Oscar win, though at the same time, it don’t hurt.  Part of what is helping here is that Argo, which had the lead, peaked and was being overshadowed by Spielberg and Lincoln (which was more successful than was originally thought) and is now being overshadowed by Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty as well.  Will she win?  Right now it’s all buzz, but the buzz is deaf impairing, so unless the movie opens and then crashes and burns, it seems she’s got it (the first female director to win twice; the first to be even nominated twice).
Steven Spielberg for Lincoln.  This seems like a done deal, not just because it’s Lincoln directed by Spielberg, but also because it did much better than anyone expected (which is important since people expected it to do well as it was).
Ben Affleck for Argo.  Once the front runner for winning, but has now been eclipsed.  But his nomination still seems like it’s in with the in crowd.
Tom Hooper for Les Miserables.  My only hesitation here is that the movie hasn’t opened and I’m a little loathe to make a prediction for a musical (I still remember Nine), but it looks like a sure thing.
David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.  It’s a serious comedy and that doesn’t hurt and people just seem to love it to death. 
Now there are definitely other possibilities, but here is where things get tricky.  If you think that another director is going to get in there, you’re going to have to decide who won’t make it.   Right now, I think only Tom Hooper and David O. Russell have a chance of being unseated and replaced by: Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master (the issue here is that the critics loved it, but the public, which includes the voters, didn’t); Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild (deserving, and the strongest possibility for an upset as far as I’m concerned); Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained (the movie is too unknown a quantity and it may open too late to really excite people); Peter Jackson for The Hobbit (he’s already got it for The Lord of the Rings, I can’t see them doing it again and some people haven’t been happy with some of his directorial choices; it may also be opening too late for people to care); Michael Haneke for Amour (probably deserving, but he’s probably going to get shut out; and since it’s going to win Best Foreign Language Film, they’ll probably nominate it for screenplay and forget the direction); Wes Anderson for Moonrise Kingdom (forget about it, it will be Zeitlin before Anderson). 

ARGO and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS



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Argo, the new thriller written by Chris Terrio and directed by Ben Affleck, has been described as one of those throw back Hollywood studio movies, one that isn’t based on a franchise or comic book, but is instead a solid, well written, professionally made piece of entertainment aimed at adults.  And this is a very accurate description.  But at the same time, this also means that it reduces a terrifying and important and politically complex situation to a routine thriller; has jokes that are as old as the Hollywood Hills (though I seemed to be the only one that laughed at the screenwriting/free meal punch line); and has character arcs and plot turns that are obvious and formulaic and have everything but subtlety (and the kitchen sink, I suppose). 
But does any of this matter?  Does anyone care?  It doesn’t seem so.  Mainly because it is also highly, if not, incredibly entertaining for the most part (or enough part to make it work very well on its own terms).  Indeed, the approach may reduce the circumstances to a Casablanca like simplification, but it doesn’t ignore the historical reality altogether (and gives it more attention and depth than expected).  The jokes may be stale, but they are still funny and delivered with the timing of pros.    The plotting may be predictable, but it still keeps you on the edge of your seat.  And the character arcs may be formulaic, but they still bring a tear to the eye. 
So I suppose the conclusion is: go for the entertainment, but leave your aesthetic at the door.
The story revolves around a group of American embassy workers who manage to get out a back door and take refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.  To rescue these six people before the Iranian government finds them (and most likely would kill them), a CIA agent, Tony Mendez, is assigned to rescue them and he does so by coming up with the “best, worst idea” they have: Mendez will pretend to be a Canadian movie producer scouting locations in Iran and then take the six out with him pretending that they are part of his crew. 
There’s nothing that wrong with the movie.  It more than gets the job done.  And it has some wonderful aspects to it, especially in some of the supporting roles.  Alan Arkin plays a once big movie producer now reduced to accepting life time achievement awards and he plays his part as if it’s the role of his life (he may be as old as the jokes, but he makes them zing as if they’ve never been told before).   John Goodman solidifies his career as one of our most enjoyable supporting actors as John Chambers, a make up artist who won an Oscar for the original Planet of the Apes movie.   Victor Garber takes a nothing role as the Canadian Ambassador and fills it with such humanity, one wants to give him the Nobel Peace Prize.  And there’s a scene at the end where the annoying Doubting Thomas/Debbie Downer character, who had bad talked the mission the whole way, fulfills his arc by suddenly becoming more invested in his playacting than the others, describing the fake movie they are not shooting to some Iranian guards as if he was pitching the project that could make or break him (which it could, I suppose).
At the same time, as fun as it is, one does wish it could have been better.  The rest of the cast is filled with a bunch of TV actors as if the producers were hoping that casting them alone would cover up a certain flatness in most of the roles (it doesn’t, though, as hard as people like Bryan Cranston try).  The second act drags a bit, and though the third act is exciting, it is also a bit over the top (so over the top, it’s obvious it didn’t quite happen this way—and it didn’t—the most suspense the real participants had at the airport was a ticket agent who suddenly disappeared for no reason for ten minutes, only to return with a cup of tea) and relies on the authorities turning into a bunch of Keystone Revolutionary Guards (one wanted to shout to them, “Just call the tower, you idiots”).
And then there’s Ben Affleck.  Many, including yours truly, were relieved when he became a director.  He wasn’t doing anything that interesting from an acting standpoint and his career seemed to stall.  Then he gave us Gone, Baby, Gone and he was back with a vengeance.   Since then, he has become a more than competent director.  Unfortunately, he’s also gone back to acting and keeps putting himself in the lead in his films.  There’s nothing wrong with his performance here, but like most of the supporting ones, he can do little with breathing real life into the role and I just kept thinking how much more interesting the film might have been if someone with more screen presence, like Jeremy Renner or Ryan Gosling or Michael Fassbender, had been in the lead.
But then I saw the movie Seven Psychopaths (the second feature by writer/director Martin McDonagh, who gave us the deliriously wonderful In Bruges in 2008) the same day as Argo and what a study in contrasts.   
Where Argo was made with a studio finesse, …Psychopaths is a shaggy dog of a story; where Argo is the perfect movie to study for formula with all I’s dotted and tittles crossed, …Psychopaths feels made up as it goes along;  where Argo is filled with a supporting cast of actors that seem to be used to cover up a lack of depth in the characters, …Psychopaths has one of the most impressively written ensembles inhabited by perhaps the best and most exciting cast of the year (even when it comes to using TV actors, Argo comes up with Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights where …Psychopaths uses Boardwalk Empire’s Michaels’ Stuhlbarg and Pitt); where Argo feels like the poster child of how-to screenplay books and college classes, …Psychopaths seems to revel in saying “fuck you” (and not just implicitly, but also explicitly over and over again in the screenplay) to anyone who thinks one should write according to the rules; and where Argo feels satisfied to be what it is, a well made thriller, …Psychopaths feels infused with the passion and a desire to really do something personal. 
So whereas Argo is fun and extremely entertaining (and you will not be disappointed if you see it), Seven Psychopaths is something else: a wonderful, witty, perhaps brilliant rag tag of a movie that does nothing you expect and surprises you in ways that very few movies do.
The basic story line revolves around Marty, a screenwriter who is blocked, (Collin Ferrell, who along with Renner, et al., would probably also have been a better choice for the lead in Argo) and his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell, in perhaps his finest performance to date), who makes a living kidnapping dogs with his friend Hans (a heartbreaking Christopher Walken).   All Marty has for his opus is the title, Seven Psychopaths, but nothing else.  But in working out his storyline, he finds himself caught up in Billy and Hans’ world, especially after they abduct a dog from the sociopathic mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson, who seems to be having more and more fun the further he gets away from the role that first made his name, that of obtuse, country boy Woody in the TV series Cheers).  Let’s just say that chaos, violence and hilarity ensue.
McDonagh  does some remarkable things in Seven Psychopaths.  The story is ridiculous.  It’s almost never believable.  It’s so over the top, it makes Scarface look like Little Lord Fauntleroy.   But the more preposterous the movie becomes, the more caught up you are in the whole stupid, insane mess.  And just when you don’t think it can get any more outrageous, McDonagh pulls a rabbit out of his hat (both figuratively and literally) and doesn’t just go one level higher, he makes a tiny adjustment and suddenly you’re so emotionally caught up in the whole thing, you find yourself on the verge of tears.   No matter how far from reality the story gets, there’s something so real at the core, that the emotions at times sweep over you in ways that never make any sense, but yet, there they are.  How does he do it?  I don’t know.  But there’s no point in fighting it; resistance is futile.
In the end, though I think Seven Psychopaths is a far superior movie to Argo, I think both represent what I wish movies would be.  If you’re going to do a studio driven, formulaic movie that doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is, at least make them as entertaining and intelligent and enjoyable as Argo.   But if you’re going to write something personal, if you’re going to revel in being independent and taking movies in a new and unique direction, then movies like Seven Psychopaths are indispensable.   Argo is the future of the studios.  Seven Psychopaths is the future of filmmaking.

JUST THE PERFECT KINSHIP: Reviews of the Town and The Social Network


There came a time when many British films, especially those that concerned the working classes, were subtitled so that audience might be able to better understand what was being said. Upon seeing the Town, in which many of the characters are natives of a certain neighborhood in Boston, one has to wonder whether we’ll have to start doing the same thing in the states as there were times when the Boston brogue tended to obscure what was being said in this gritty, urban thriller. In talking with my friend Beriau, I stated I preferred The Town’s approach, authenticity, over the somewhat unskilled accent of say, a Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness; Beriau wasn’t so sure, especially because of that one scene where Jeremy Renner (terrific here as a sociopathic thug) was talking about someone he killed and the reasons for it. It seemed an important scene, but I had no idea what he said. The Town is a story about a group of bank robbers who have great tastes in masks and disguises. The movie is directed by Ben Affleck and written by Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard. Aaron Stockard also wrote another Ben Affleck movie, Gone, Baby, Gone, and the two of them seem to have an aptitude for working class grit. Affleck comes off a bit better than Stockard this time round. With The Town, Affleck demonstrates that he is probably a better director than actor, or at least a better director than romantic or heroic lead. The action scenes have a slam bang feel to them (though they often are the sort where no one can ever seem to shoot someone except when it’s convenient for the screenwriter); the neighborhoods have a certain down and dirty bleakness to them; and the romance between Affleck and Rebecca Hall has a certain sweetness to it. The Town is never less than entertaining, especially whenever Renner is on screen, stealing the show as only a good sociopath can; he’s the main reason to see it. The rest of the movie is a bit dicey at times. The bank robberies here are too good, too clever, too artistically brilliant to be realistic. They’re enjoyable and fascinating, but one does come away from them thinking they’re the sort of thing one only sees in movies. They also suggest that Affleck’s character’s main problem is not so much his criminal background as a lack of career counseling; this guy shouldn’t be robbing banks, he should be running them. Though Renner is the top of the food acting chain, Affleck and Hall are also affective. But the others didn’t really thrill me all that much. Chris Cooper, as Affleck’s father, isn’t really given anything to do and he proceeds not to do it. Pete Postlethwaite also seems wasted in the role of the gang’s go to guy for money laundering. Jon Hamm is actually rather bland as the FBI agent hot on everyone’s trail. This blandness is perfect for his role as the man in the grey flannel suit on Mad Men, but it’s uncertain how far this can take him in the movies. The plot itself also has some issues. Part of it is personal. The older I get, the less empathy I automatically have for crooks and thugs and the authors don’t really give me any strong reason for rooting for Affleck here. I also wasn’t convinced that Postlethwaite had enough power to get Affleck to go on that oldest of clichés of heist movies, the last job. And once Renner kills some policemen, I have no sympathy for Affleck at all; he may not have shot them himself, but he’s equally culpable. At the end, in a voice over, Affleck states that everyone has to pay for what he’s done in life. The only problem is that he hasn’t closely begun to pay. He got away with the money; the affection of the girl, with the possibility of them being together again; and he’s living in what looks like, even if it’s not to my taste, a rather nice house with a great view of a river (this almost feels like an ending come up with in committee or via focus groups). It’s too idyllic to come across as any sort of punishment. I mean, I should have it so lucky if I’m responsible for the death of a couple of cops.

A critic once described the dialog in the movie All About Eve as some of the best staircase wit in the movies. I couldn’t help but think of that remark in watching The Social Network in which the writer Aaron Sorkin gives his actors one witty line after another; in fact, wholesale paragraphs of witty lines, all delivered with the speed and dead on intensity of a SWAT member taking out a bad guy. But isn’t that one of the things movies can be for: to have people say what they should have said, not necessarily what they did say? If only we could all live in the wisecracking world of His Gal Friday. The Social Network seems like one of those movie marriages of writer and director made in heaven. While Sorkin parcels out his flashes of spoken lightning, director David Fincher plays every scene for what it’s worth. In another reference to All About Eve, he grabs you like the dogs nipping at your rear end and doesn’t let go. With this and Zodiac, Fincher seems to be showing a skill at somehow keeping a movie ship afloat even if it has a somewhat unwieldy structure (I’m not using unwieldy here in a negative term; but in The Social Network and Zodiac, so much information has to be covered and dramatized effectively even if the story doesn’t necessarily conform to traditional Hollywood structural guidelines as taught in film schools or as found in various how to books). For some reason Zodiac didn’t connect to the audience (I loved it); maybe because it’s structure was just a bit too unwieldy for general consumption. Here, Sorkin has used a somewhat familiar approach by providing the story with a linking narrative, the various depositions Mark Zuckerberg, the central character, had to participate in, allowing the rest of the story to be filled in with flashbacks. And this probably did help give the story a bit more focus. Zuckerberg is played with ferociousness by Jesse Eisenberg. Zuckerberg should probably be flattered. From his various appearances on TV and The Simpsons (where he was portrayed as always speaking through his Facebook account), ferociousness is not his strong point when he talks. In fact, he comes across as the almost stereotypical geek who almost seems to have some trace of Asperger’s syndrome. Eisenberg plays him as a lion who lives his life pacing a cage. And to a certain degree that does seem to be what is driving Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, someone who is trapped in a cage of isolation because he doesn’t have the right pedigree to be invited to the best parties or the right fraternities. He’s the person who hates people not because they look down on him, but because he is not one of them looking down on others. How shallow this psychology is is probably a matter of personal opinion, but it does work. Zuckerberg would do anything to humiliate those who refuse to recognize his worth and is quick to take slights where none are intended (the fact that they aren’t intended is even worse; it means they slighted him without even acknowledging his existence). He created Facebook not just to do something brilliant, but to prove that he’s a superior human being to the upper crust snobs, the Winklevoss twins, who can’t let him in their frat house any farther than the bike room and when they offer him a sandwich, they give him a store bought one ensconced in cellophane. Zuckerberg starts distancing himself from his best friend Eduardo Saverin (an excellent Andrew Garfield with a first rate American accent), pelting him with passive/aggressive insults because Eduardo is invited to join a fraternity. Instead, his alpha male hero becomes Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker (almost as sociopathic as Jeremy Renner’s tour de force in The Town), the founder of Napster, who also stuck it to the man. But when Zuckerberg realizes that Parker is too sociopathic, and has a way with partying and women that Zuckerberg could never hope to achieve, he drops him, too. It’s possible that as good as everyone is here, Timberlake actually gives the best performance; or is it something about sociopath’s that we can’t take our eyes off of them. Oddly enough, both Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg and Ben Affleck’s bank robber have the same ending: isolated, but having basically gotten away with everything. The difference is that I wasn’t really asked to feel that sorry for Zuckerberg. Some, yes, but Sorkin’s attitude seemed to be Zuckerberg dug his own grave. If only those involved in The Town had felt the same way.