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.

LOOPER


The dystopian future in Looper, the new time travel movie written and directed by Rian Johnson, is every Democrat’s nightmare of what would happen if the Republicans regained control of the government: no middle class; no social safety net; everyone has guns; and China rules the world economy.

Everyone seems loopy over Looper (sorry, couldn’t resist), but I have to admit it left me more than a bit under whelmed.  The basic idea, the conceit, it absolutely brilliant in its high conceptiveness (I love making up words): as anyone who has seen the previews knows, time travel has been invented in the future, but has been outlawed, and only bad guys use it to send people back it time to be assassinated by hired killers, called Loopers (the main one here played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  But then things didn’t quite go as I expected.  In fact, once this conceit was established, I found the plot just one arbitrary decision after another until I felt the writer was driving the story rather than the concept and the characters changing the gears.

First, I find it almost impossible to believe that all the future governments would have gotten together in order to ban time travel (this is perhaps the Republicans’ nightmare view of what would happen if the Democrats regained power—world peace and cooperation).  But let’s let that go; I’m more than willing to at least give that much on the basic set up (hey, I can be a good sport at times).  

But things started falling apart for me when it was revealed that at some point, the looper’s future self is sent back for assassination.  Why?  Well, the only reason really given is that time travel is so illegal (you know, as opposed to only so-so illegal–like marijuana, maybe), they have to be disposed of.  Okay, fine.  But a week later and I still haven’t figured out the cause and effect here. 

When this future looper is sent back, his present day counterpart kills him (himself); realizes that the time has come for him to retire; and he’s given a big payoff so that he can live out the rest of his life the way he would like.  Thirty years to be exact.  Why thirty?  Why not thirty-one?  Why not twenty-eight?  Why not thirty-three and a third? Do I hear forty two years, one hundred and twenty two days?  Again, a week later and I still haven’t figured out the cause and effect here.

But the arbitrariness doesn’t stop there.  There are actually two, count them two for the price of one, conceits to the story.  It’s not just a high concept movie, it’s a HIGH high concept movie.  Some people in this future have suddenly obtained a genetic mutation that gives them a telekinetic ability.  I’m not sure why Johnson fell he needed this to be part of the plot.  To be ruthlessly honest, it feels like the sort of thing that is added when a writer doesn’t trust his basic concept (which, if so, is too bad, because again, the concept is brilliant) or it’s the only way he can force an ending based on the premise first given.  It’s not that it doesn’t play a part in the story, but it just seems so…arbitrary, and not nearly as interesting as the original idea of loopers.  But a writer’s got to do what a writer’s got to do, I guess.  

It all leads to a showdown on a remote farm run by the only empathetic character in the story played by Emily Blunt (though for me, I just didn’t find her interesting enough to empathize with).  You see (and stay with me here), in the future some ruthless gangster has gained control of all gangs and is systematically getting rid of all loopers (how anyone could know what is going on in the future is never explained).  This leads to a child being raised by Blunt, a cute as a buttons, barely out of his nappies boy who has such an advanced stage of the telekinesis gene, that in the future it will give him the power to take over everything.  (Exactly why he only takes over the gangs when with power like this he could take over the world, well…whatever). 

So this new boss must be eliminated, because the men he sends out after Gordon-Levitt’s future looper (played by Bruce Willis) accidentally kill his future wife and Willis must stop this from happening.  So, the goal is kill this kid so he won’t grow up to be a ruthless, sociopathic gangster that will do anything to gain power as opposed to the way everybody else grows up if the new boss never came along—ruthless, sociopathic gangsters that will do anything to gain power.  But at least the future wife will still be alive (well, I guess—I mean, she died unintentionally so it could have happened no matter who ran the gangs, but a reason was needed for the future looper to come back, no matter how….arbitrary, I guess). 

Wow, that was kind of exhausting. 

At the same time, the movie is technically arresting, creating a very convincing nightmarish future, though perhaps the most impressive and moving shots are not the crumbling cities, but a lonely diner and farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.  There are also some beautiful shots of an Asian city in the future that would be perfect for one of those 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles.  And there are also some moments of wit, not just in the dialog, but in the way Gordon-Levitt mimics Willis’s facial expressions.  But perhaps the emotional high point is the rather stunning and deeply emotional moving way Johnson ends the story; no matter what had come before, the ending does get to you.

This is the second time that Gordon-Levitt has joined forced with Johnson.  They first worked together on the high school, hard boiled film noir Brick, a cult favorite (something I have little doubt that Looper will also become).  I actually sorta have the same issues with Brick as I do here.  The concept of teenagers acting like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and talking like Sam Spade was arresting at first (though my immediate reaction was actually, I’ve seen Bugsy Malone, I don’t quite get the originality here), but in the end, I started losing interest because I felt the concept was driving the story and little else.  It was the same here. 

But also like Brick, I realize I’m going to be on the outside of the zeitgeist here.  Johnson is brilliant at concepts and is every studio’s dream.  The fact that he and I don’t see eye to eye will probably in the end say more about me than him.

Reviews of Sunshine Cleaning and The Great Buck Howard


Sunshine Cleaning is a movie about estranged sisters who bond after starting a business cleaning up crime scenes. It’s one of those formulaic films that have been the basis of American movies since the dawn of silents: someone goes on a three act journey and has a character arc change by the end. As such, the movie is obvious and takes no real chances. At the same time, the script is intelligent and well written (by Megan Holley) with some moving moments and it’s doubtful the audience will be disappointed. It also has some fine acting, especially by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as the sisters and a fine supporting cast of Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn and Clifton Collins, Jr. In the end, it doesn’t quite work as well as it should because the gimmick, the cleaning service, actually overshadows and distracts from the hero’s journey rather than really informs it. The sisters bond more in spite of it all rather than because of it. And there’s one scene, where Amy Adams attends a baby shower, that doesn’t have a strong enough pay off and falls flat. It probably doesn’t help that she has a big speech about what she’s gotten out of cleaning up crime scenes when in reality it’s Blunt who is the one who has come to realize what Adams has supposedly, but not really, learned here.

The Great Buck Howard also has Emily Blunt and Steve Zahn (though this time Zahn is playing the typical Steve Zahn role, complete with unflattering mullet). Like Sunshine Cleaners, it’s also formulaic as well as entertaining and intelligently written (this time by Sean McGinly, who also directed). In it, a man played by Colin Hanks, leaves law school in a huff and against the wishes and knowledge of his authoritarian father (play by Hanks’ real life father, Tom Hanks, who probably isn’t as authoritarian as his character or Colin would probably have never entered show business). In the end, …Buck Howard works better than Sunshine Cleaning because the gimmick here, an over the top character based on the real life over the top mentalist Kreskin, is more central to Hanks’ character arc and provides an ending that is wittier and cleverer than Sunshine Cleaning’s. It’s also buoyed by a delicious performance by John Malkovich as Howard and an equally delicious performance by Tom Hanks playing an unsympathetic character, something he’s actually very good at and the kind of role he hasn’t really played since perhaps That Thing You Do. It’s nice to know that if the public grows tired of Hanks being cast because he’s instantly likeable, he can always take a page from Alan Alda’s page book and revive his career by playing assholes.