DISCONNECT, ARTHUR NEWMAN and THE ICEMAN



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Disconnect, the new techno-thriller from writer Andrew Stern and director Henry Alex Rubin, spends half its time preaching the horrors of modern computer technology and all the evils it can spawn, and then seems to change its mind and spend the other half telling us how that very same technology (and the evil it spawns) can bring estranged people together and save our souls by revealing who we really are.  One might think that the filmmakers were going for irony, but I have to be honest and say I think irony was the last thing in play here.  For me, the driving force of the film was pandering to the audience with filmmakers taking a typical middlebrow approach to art: confront the audience with something important and even horrendous, but only to the degree that it doesn’t upset them too much and affect the box office. 
Disconnect has several through lines in which people are linked in a sort of La Ronde relationship—one person in one story is connected in some way to a person in another.  It never comes full circle, so it doesn’t quite fit the structure of Schnitzler’s legendary opus, but it is the cleverest aspect of the film and perhaps the only satisfactory irony to be found: we’re all disconnected due to the internet, yet we end up being even more connected than we thought. 
The movie is ambitious and sincere, but never quite has the emotional impact it is aiming for.  One reason for this is that for a thriller, Stern and Rubin aren’t able to really generate that many, well, thrills.   There’s a lot of conflict, but precious little tension and it seems to take its time going anywhere.  There could be several reasons for this.  None of the various stories are all that original and their plot lines have few surprises; every turn is signaled well before it happens and the resolutions are rather ho-hum with a touch of LOL along for the ride (they all climax in a set of slow motion, Matrix like intercut sequences that were probably suppose to emphasize the tragedy of it all, but instead only doubled the over the top feeling that was already there).  
In addition, each through line has enough going for it to be a whole movie unto itself; but by squeezing each plotline into the length of basically a half hour TV episode, it tended to also squeeze out all the suspense (I couldn’t help but think of what Alfred Hitchcock or Claude Chabrol could have done with just one of the stories).   Finally, the whole thing just felt a bit too manipulated, never quite real, with characters that seemed more driven by the plot than the plot being driven by the characters; the result is that the more empathy the filmmakers tried to create for their characters, the less there was.
The acting is solid, but save for a couple of exceptions (Alexander Skarsgard as a victim of identity theft and Michael Nyqvist as someone who may or may not have stolen that identity), no one really rises above the limitations of the screenplay.   Hope Davis is wasted in a minor role (and for some reason is given the thankless and perplexing task of not understanding why her husband, played by Jason Bateman, might actually want to find out why his son tried to kill himself).   Everyone seems to wear their emotions on their sleeves.  Subtle is not a word that might be used to describe the film.
In Sam Shepard’s great play The Curse of the Starving Class, there is a conversation that goes something like this: one character wants to move in order to get away from their present environment, but another character responds by saying, “…but we’ll still be the same people”.  I couldn’t help but think of this when I saw Arthur Newman, a film about a man who creates a new identity for himself (yes, Virginia, Arthur’s last name is not the most subtle of choices here). 
Colin Firth plays the title character, a Babbit in a grey, flannel suit (well, since he works for Fed Ex, brown khaki pants, but you get my drift).  Arthur is a rather boring character, to be both blunt and kind.  And when he’s fired from his place of employment, he decides to reboot his life.  Unfortunately for him, and the audience, the new Arthur is as boring and uninteresting as his previous incarnation.  To make matters worse, Firth uses a bland American accent that’s even more tedious than his personality.
Things pick up a bit when he meets Emily Blunt (as things are wont to do when one meets Emily Blunt), who plays a character who has identity issues of her own, issues compounded by a game she talks Arthur into playing in which they break into people’s homes, wear their victims’ clothes, eat their victims’ food, drink their wine and have sex in their beds. 
In the end, screenwriter Becky Johnston and director Dante Ariola show great empathy for their characters, but the movie never really comes together.  I suspect that this is because there are so many through lines going on (Arthur wanting to be a golf pro; Blunt’s issues; their sex games; Arthur’s failed relationship with his son), that the filmmakers can’t seem to find a way to weave them all together in a satisfactory whole.
The Iceman, the new crime drama by writers Ariel Vromen (who also directed) and Morgan Land, is a movie where Ray Liotta finally meets someone even more psychopathic than he is and where Winona Ryder, David Schwimmer and Chris Evans try to earn street cred by playing against type (for the record, Evans comes out best).   There’s nothing really wrong with the movie.  It gets the job done and I was never bored.  Michael Shannon does very well in the title role.  But in the end, it doesn’t come close to plumbing the existential depths of the television series Dexter and falls into the “if you’ve seen one contract killer movie, you’ve seen them all”.   
Tell me what you think.

THE AVENGERS


The Avengers is a very entertaining movie and gets the adrenaline going, which isn’t quite the same thing as saying it’s totally successful or rises that far above what it is.  Written by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn and directed by Whedon, it’s an oddly schizoid movie.  On one side are wonderfully witty lines with often hysterically snarky dialog while on the other side are serious, earnest and highly dramatic tete a tetes that fall flat on their face.  On one side are the vibrant actors and Oscar nominees (Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Renner) and on the other are film personalities with pretty faces (Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Chris Evans)–and no matter how equal the writers may try to make the various superheroes when it comes to their powers, Evans will never be able to Eve Harrington Downey when it comes to Stanislavksy.  (For those keeping score, Scarlett Johansson falls somewhere in the middle, which in many ways reflects her role in the movie, a character trying to bridge the gap between all the antagonistic good guys.)  And finally on one side you have large scale action sequences filled with massive set pieces of uninhibited, glorious destruction (Manhattan now seems to be the new Tokyo, destined to be destroyed on a regular basis due to the specter of 9/11 in the way Japan is haunted by the atomic bomb) and on the other side is very little death (see Battle for LA in contrast—for The Avengers the studio apparently wanted to challenge the audience, but in a very non-challenging way).  As was noted, Whedon and Penn have a way with a snarky line (the best written scene is when all the heroes are in one room and due to the influence of Loki, get under each other’s skins saying all the mean things everyone in the audience is thinking).  But when it comes to heavy scenes, the authors can do little but immediately make fun of them once they’re over (Whedon had the same issue in Cabin in the Woods—the unbearable scenes of overage teenagers in distress were only made palatable, if that, by the more comic scenes of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford).  These more serious sequences might have had a better chance if all the actors were of equal caliber (there’s actually a very nice one between Ruffalo and Downey that suggests this); but this was ultimately a battle, unlike the one against Loki, the superheroes simply could not win (for an example, take the scene between Thor and Loki that Iron Man aptly described as Shakespeare in the Park).  The whole thing culminates with a knock down, drag out for the Big Apple when some aliens resembling the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz make their way through some sort of space time continuum and unleash their blitzkrieg upon an unsuspecting metropolis.  The battle itself is not exactly boring, but it also isn’t that imaginative and all in all, pretty derivative (again, it’s the snarky wit and two hysterically funny bits by the Hulk that really made this work as well as it does).  The special effects are, of course, first rate, though none may quite equal the SFX of Gwyneth Paltrow in Daisy Dukes (though one does shudder at the idea of this fashion style making a comeback since very few people can get away with short shorts—I know, I’ve tried).  The ending is resolved through a deux ex machina provided by Stellan Skarsgard (let’s face it, the plot is a bit clunky—c’mon, be honest with yourselves and give the devil his due) as well as an inconsistency with how much control Bruce Banner has over his green (ho, ho, ho) alter ego (apparently, it corresponds to the needs of the script at any given time).  But in the end, The Avengers is a perfectly fine time waster.  It’s no Iron Man or The Dark Knight, but, hey, it could have been worse.  It’s also no Spiderman III, Superman or Fantastic Four.