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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 PLOT COAGULATES: The National Board of Review Awards and the Oscars 2010

The National Board of Review Awards came out, which means that the race for the Oscar has officially begun (the NBR is the New Hampshire of the Academy). This also means I’ll postpone my column on the Best Actress race just a tad to analyze what the NBR awards mean.

Actually, they don’t mean an awful lot. The NBR and the Oscars sometimes agree (No Country for Old Men; Slumdog Millionare) and sometimes don’t (The Hurt Locker when NBR chose Up in the Air). The NBR is actually seen as a bit more mainstream, being conservative in their awards (like the Republican center right), which makes it surprising they chose The Social Network over The King’s Speech. That could suggest some sort of zeitgeist change in what people who give awards look for in movies, but it just as probably doesn’t.

I still think The King’s Speech will win Best Picture and Colin Firth Actor (over NBR’s choice of Jessi Eisenberg for The Social Network), if for no other reason than that the Weinsteins don’t mean a hoot to the NBR. Actress should still go to Annette Bening (over NBR’s Leslie Manville for Another Year). At the same time, the honors here for Manville and Eisenberg do help them gain a firm foundation for a nomination, so it is significant in that way. This also supports David Fincher being one of the five directing nominees that will have to be culled from the top ten titles come Academy Award voting time.

However, there are two awards that, gremlin like, could be throwing a monkey wrench into the proceedings. Best Supporting Actor went to Christian Bale for The Fighter. Bale is considered Geoffrey Rush’s main rival for the win and this will only keep Bale (a popular actor within the industry, even if he has a reputation for being difficult) in the mind’s eye. Best Supporting Actress is totally up in the air right now; NBR gave it (possibly very deservedly) to Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom. I don’t think this will move Taylor any closer to winning; it just keeps the Supporting Actress waters very muddy.

Also significant is that The Social Network won best Adapted Screenplay. I wasn’t sure whether Aaron Sorkin’s script was considered original or adapted. Since it’s adapted, David Seidler, who wrote The King’s Speech, can start rehearsing what he’s going to say Oscar night when he wins for Original Screenplay since Sorkin was his main, if only, rival. The award for Original Screenplay went to Chris Sparling for Buried, which may help jump start his campaign for a nom, but I can’t see it winning over The King’s Speech.

Best Foreign Language film went to Of Gods and Men from France. The winner of this award for the Oscars can often be determined solely by the subject matter of the film. Of Gods and Men is about conflict between a Catholic Order and Fundamentalists: sounds like a winner to me.

The Town got an award for Best Ensemble which could help Jeremy Renner’s chances for a Supporting Actor nom. Jennifer Lawrence got the Breakthrough Performance award which should help cement her nom for Best Actress.

And, of course, what’s very interesting here is what didn’t make the top ten lists. The Black Swan, 127 Hours and The Kids Are All Right, all considered shoe ins for nominations, were conspicuous by their absence.

Isn’t this fun.

TALKING TURKEY TWO: Predictions on the 2010 Oscars, Actor and Supporting Actor

The winner for Best Actor has generally been considered a shoe in: Colin Firth. This way the Academy can apologize for not giving it to him last year for A Single Man, when instead the voters gave a career award to Jeff Bridges (with irony attached—Jeff Bridges is supposed to be up against Firth again this year). However, now that the movie has opened, it also helps that it’s an excellent performance in the movie that is probably going to win best picture. Actually, though, Firth’s win was considered a shoe in a few months ago when the movie was just a gleam in its daddy’s eyes and nobody had seen it yet. This is sometimes called the Bette Davis or Jimmy Stewart award (Bette Davis won for Dangerous after not even getting an initial nomination for Of Human Bondage—though she did get enough write in votes to eventually put her in the top five; and Jimmy Stewart won for The Philadelphia Story to make up for not giving it to him for Mr. Smith Goes To Washington).

Firth’s main competition as of now is, contrastingly (yes, that is a word, or at least it doesn’t come up on my spellcheck) enough, James Franco for 127 Hours. I have to be honest; I don’t see Franco winning and I think this is more a case of wishful thinking on those who loved the movie. 127 Hours has only just opened and as the awards in fighting goes forward, I believe Franco’s possibility of capturing the gold plating will fade. Franco has worked incredibly hard to become a serious actor the last few years and though he has made great strides in that direction, I think the Academy hasn’t quite been convinced yet and would rather wait and see, rather than give him an award now. And besides, Firth has the Weinsteins behind him (can you say Gwyneth Paltrow).

The other nominees as of now will be Jeff Bridges for True Grit (with that irony thingy attached) and Javier Bardem for Biutiful, though neither have opened yet, so no one can be sure. But the buzz is very buzzy for them. The last position I’m giving to Jessie Eisenberg, who will be carried along by the support for the Social Network. There is talk of Michael Douglas, but rumor has it they are going to try to push him for Supporting Actor. Robert Duvall has years of reputation behind him for Get Low, but it’s a picture that’s come and gone and it’s hard to believe that his supporters will be able to renew excitement in it. Aaron Eckhardt has the least interesting role in The Rabbit Hole, which can’t help, and Ryan Gosling is one of our finest actors, but it looks like Blue Valentine is going to get lost in the holiday shuffle.

Supporting Actor again seems a shoe in for Geoffrey Rush, for a few reasons: It’s actually a lead; it’s been a pet project of his for some time (and the Academy likes to pet pet projects); and can you say Weinstein. He’s also great in it. His main rival seems to be Christian Bale for The Fighter. The movie has yet to open, but again, the buzz is very buzzy. But the winners in the supporting actor category tend to be a bit older (as opposed to the Supporting Actress category). The next two almost guaranteed a position are Mark Ruffalo for The Kids Are All Right (a well respected actor the Academy has always wanted to nominate, but for some reason the stars have never aligned in quite the right manner to do so yet) and Andrew Garfield for The Social Network, a rising star from England (and the next Spidey Man, so he better get a nomination now before Hollywood destroys all his credibility as a serious actor).

The last position is a knock down drag out fight among Michael Douglas (if they push him for Wall Street II); Matt “True Grit” Damon (another of those well respected actors who the Academy just hasn’t been able to nominate, at least since Good Will Hunting); and Jeremy Renner (who probably deserves it for The Town). There’s some support for Sam Rockwell, but the movie’s come and gone. Other actors have been mentioned; in fact, a large number of actors have been mentioned (Aaron Eckhardt, Vincent Cassel, Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, Jim Broadbent, Bill Murray), basically meaning that this last position is really up in the air. In the end, it all depends here on how those damn stars align.

Next Actresses.

DOING THE RELATIONSHIP RAG: Reviews of Up in the Air, Nine and A Single Man

What, to me, is most amazing about Up in the Air is how well it works when, to be perfectly honest (and hopefully Jason Reitman isn’t reading this blog—who am I kidding, of course, he isn’t), the movie really doesn’t work. Even the people I know who saw it all say they enjoyed it, but that it doesn’t quite rise to an Oscar worthy movie, even though the buzz now is that it will win best picture. I think the problem is that the focus of the plot and theme are unclear and in the end, the authors (screenplay by Sheldon Turner and Mr. Reitman) contradict themselves as to what they are trying to say. It’s about a man who flies around the U.S. firing people for other companies. It’s also about a man who has created what he considers to be the perfect life for himself, one in which he has no commitments and no serious relationships (especially with his family, for some reason never really explained). These two aspects of the script really have nothing to do with each other; he could be flying for any number of reasons (selling aluminum siding among others) and he would be the same person. The firing people plot is written as if it was central to everything that is going on, but because it isn’t, the plot isn’t quite as emotionally involving as it might be. George Clooney plays the airport hopping everyman, Ryan Bingham. To other people, he’s suppose to come across as very happy and together; he’s even suppose to come across that way to himself. But to the audience, or at least to me, he comes across as one of the most unhappy and depressed people I’ve ever met, though very high functioning. He claims that airports and traveling is his home, but it’s unclear what he gets out of it that makes him feel that way (the only time he seems really happy is when he and his cohorts crash a convention; it’s only at this moment that I really see what he sees in traveling); he’s also a motivational speaker, but it’s unclear why since his stock speech should only motivate people to cut their wrists.. His own motivations are also unfocused. When he is informed that he will no longer be traveling, it’s unclear whether he’s unhappy for the reason he states, that there is a dignity to firing people in person (which could very well be true because Bingham is wonderful at his job, often destroying people’s lives only to help them rise from the ashes like a phoenix), or whether he’s unhappy because he may not make his goal of 10 million frequent flyer miles. The authors seem to want to have it both ways. They seem to want to have everything both ways. When Bingham starts an affair with fellow traveler Alex Goran (a wonderful Vera Farmiga, who may finally get her Oscar nomination her fellow thespians have been wanting to give her for some time), it’s obvious from the formulaic structure of the piece that she is married. It’s so obvious that even the fact that it’s not remotely believable that she wouldn’t tell him or would go home with him to his sister’s wedding for the weekend or that Bingham should have noticed a wedding ring tan line shouldn’t fool anyone watching. Though there is a formulaic air to the piece, it doesn’t quite go there. The implication of the story is that Bingham is going to be fired and get a taste of his own medicine, but the script never comes close to this. Instead, it contradicts its own message by having Bingham come to realize that he needs to be involved with others, but then have his hopes dashed when he finds out Goran is married. In other words, the authors are basically saying, sorry, we were wrong, Bingham was right all the time, it’s best not to have commitments. But as I said, it’s amazing just how enjoyable the movie is. The acting is first rate, including Jason Bateman as the oily villain, Bingham’s boss who foams at the mouth because the economy is continuing a downswing meaning more and more people are going to be fired; and Anna Kendrick, as Bingham’s student, who sees Bingham’s business for what it is and gets out while she still can. The dialog is incredibly witty and lovely to listen to. It’s solidly directed and sticks with one. It may be one of the best movies that doesn’t work that I’ve seen in some time.

It’s doubtful that a film like Nine (directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall) could have an American director as the main character, mainly because Nine is about a director in anguish because he is not sure he has anything new to say and when it comes to American directors no one really expects them to say anything in the first place. Nine is very European in its philosophy, which is appropriate since it is based on Frederic Fellini’s film 8 ½ and the central character is based on the celebrated Italian director. I guess I’m going to be in the doghouse on Nine, because the buzz and most critical feedback on the movie has been rather negative, but I loved it and I don’t really know why people seem to dislike it so much. It’s about a director, Guido Contini, who is having a creative block. We should hate him. He’s nothing but a drama queen about it and most of his problems are his own causing. He keeps asking for pity when he doesn’t deserve it (he’s like the Orson Welles character in Me and Orson Welles). Yet I felt his pain and I so wanted him to come out of his funk. The director is played by Daniel Day-Lewis and many critics have also said he is the problem with the whole enterprise. But for my money, I think he got Fellini as filtered through the persona of Marcello Mastroianni picture perfect. The slouch, the chain smoking, the desire to do what’s right even while he’s in the middle of doing what’s wrong, the belief in God. It’s all there and for me, he just about holds it all together on his own. But he gets great support from Marion Cotillard as his long suffering wife; Judi Dench as his costume designer and surrogate mother; Sophia Loren, as his long suffering, now deceased real mother; Penelope Cruz as his mistress; Fergie, as a prostitute from the director’s childhood; and in the most exciting musical number, Kate Hudson as a member of the paparazzi who would like to bed Guido. The musical numbers often fail or succeed depending on the quality of the numbers (Kander and Ebb, who wrote the original music, tended to write tunes that sounded sort of all alike, no matter whether they were in Zorba, Nine, The Rink or Chicago). A Call from the Vatican and Follies Bergeres fall short, but Be Italian and My Husband Directs Movies get their job done quite well. However, the highlight of the musical numbers has to be Cinema Italiano, written directly for the film. It’s an early MTV type number in which Hudson suggests that Contini is often known more for style over substance. The screenplay, adapted by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, has more depth than the original book of the play, which is more pure farce from my memory. I think the audience liked the film as well. Once the movie was over and the credits were rolling, no one wanted to leave.

A Single Man, based on the book by Christopher Isherwood, is a lovely, lyrical tone poem about a man trying to come to terms with the loss of his lover. One of the most powerful and moving scenes comes early on. Colin Firth, as English college professor George, receives a phone call from the brother of his lover Jim informing him that Jim has died and the caller has to pretend that he doesn’t know that George was his brother’s lover when in reality he does and George has to pretend that he and Jim were only friends when they had actually been together for sixteen years. Firth is incredible here showing deep pain in his face, but careful composure in his voice. But the scene is key in a way that perhaps the director Tom Ford and writers David Scearce and the aforesaid Ford didn’t realize (or perhaps they did; every scene in the movie is very studied in a fashion photographer way, so perhaps this was intentional as well). The uncredited actor making the call is Jon Hamm, the star of the amazing TV series Mad Men. Mad Men also takes place during the same time period (A Single Man happens on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis as did one episode of Mad Men) and is every bit as carefully designed and photographed as is A Single Man. The two are full of both substance and style and have the ability to take one’s breath away with scenes that sneak up on you without warning. What is it about this period that is beginning to intrigue us? It was the prelude to one of the most profound changes in American history, but it seems that it is what is happening before the deluge than after it that is most fascinating to us today (see also Pirate Radio and An Education; though not American, it seems to be the same idea). George is considering killing himself (a subplot I don’t remember from the book), but first has to spend a drunken, emotional evening with his best gal pal Charley, a luscious, wonderful boozing Julianne Moore, as well as trying to figure out what to do with one of his students, Kenny (played by About a Boy and Skins’ Nicholas Hoult, but with a flat, unconvincing American accent that gets in the way of his acting) who keeps showing up for some reason. In the book (at least from what I remember), Kenny is very straight and has no idea George is gay (in the novel Kenny isn’t sleeping with his girlfriend because they don’t have a place to have sex, so George sets it up so that Kenny can use his place once a week); in the movie, Kenny seems out to get his professor in bed. I’m not sure the ending works for me; George dies, but not from suicide. It seems unnecessarily downbeat and I’m not sure what the author is trying to say with the irony. But still, it’s an emotionally involving movie that grabs you and won’t let go. Though Ford has been criticized for emphasizing style over substance in his approach to telling the story, the look over the ideas, I don’t agree. I found his studied direction to be one of the things that pulled me into George’s emotionally wrenching story.

BAD GIRLS: Movie reviews of Julia and Easy Virtue

What do you do with a problem like Julia? Half the time I found myself screaming at the screen at how ridiculous and inexcusably stupid the seemingly never ending plot turns were. The other half I was riveted to my seat just having to know how the whole damn thing was going to turn out. Julia is an alcoholic barfly (what my father once called a good time girl) with the sociopathic tendency to lie and manipulate people into getting what she wants. The irony is that she’s so successful at it, fascinatingly so at times, it just keeps digging her in deeper where she has to lie to fix the problems caused by her previous lies (just like that great sociopathic liar Craig’s Wife played by Rosalind Russell). Whatever one may think of the plot, the real driving force of the movie is the magnificent Tilda Swinton. She does one of those Bette Davis, go for broke, I don’t give a damn what I look like, performances. It’s written by Michael Collins, Camille Natta, Aude Py and Erick Zonca (maybe the number of writers is why there are so many plot turns) and directed by Zonca (who directed the beautiful The Dreamlife of Angels). In the end, one has no choice but to admit it is highly entertaining in spite of the questionable plot runs and an ending that seems too curt, as if the authors had just gotten too exhausted to fully resolve things.

Easy Virtue is based on a play by the witty Noel Coward, though the movie doesn’t seem to have that much wit to it. Whether this is Coward’s fault or the adaptor’s (Sheridan Jobbins and Stephan Elliot) is unclear since I’m not familiar with the source material. In the end, one spends most of the movie watching a young woman try to ingratiate herself into a family when she is so obviously so out of their league. There’s no suspense because you want the character to fail and it can be a little annoying spending an hour and a half waiting for someone to realize the obvious. The acting is fine, with Colin Firth (as a shell shocked war veteran that does a wicked tango); Jim McManus (as a dipsomaniac butler); and Kirsten Scott Thomas (as the “there’ll always be an England” aristocrat) taking the honors. Jessica Biel, somewhat ironically, is a bit out of her league, but she has such luscious lips and is so wonderfully American, you know she’s going to win the battle.