YOU WILL BE MY SON, THANKS FOR SHARING and A SINGLE SHOT



You Will Be My Son revolves around a father (played by The Prophet and The Beat that My Heart Skipped’s Niels Arestrup, France’s Edward G. Robinson) who owns a vineyard that has a history and reputation second to few, and his son (played by Lorant Deutsch) who the father doesn’t love because the son just doesn’t have it in him to be the face of the wine company.    At first, the movie feels as if it’s going to be one of those been there/done that father/son dysfunctional stories that always seem to have more meaning for the filmmakers than the audience (and often makes me run screaming from the theater).  Because of this, the first third is a little hard going.
But then Paul, the father, does something.  When the manager of the estate is given six months to live, Paul goes behind his back and tells the manager’s son, shoe fetishist Philippe (who works at Francis Ford Coppola’s vineyard in the U.S.), and Philippe immediately flies back (about the only person who is perhaps portrayed here as meaner than Paul is Coppola himself whose winery won’t give Philippe time off to visit his dying father and fires him when he decides to go anyway—I’m not sure I really bought it, but it was kinda fun watching the French stick it to the U.S. in such a sneaky, underhanded way).  At this point, it becomes clear what the movie is going to be about (though it might help to know a little about French inheritance laws) and the nastiness begins, as does all the real enjoyment.
The screenplay by director Gilles Legrand (mainly known over here as a producer, including such films as Micmacs, The Widow of Saint-Pierre and  Ridicule), Laure Gasparotto and Delphine de Vigan could have used a touch more Douglas Sirk melodrama (it’s all a bit too subtle at times) and I’m not convinced that Deutsch was the best choice for the wimpy son (I mean, he’s such a drama queen one finally begins to sympathize with the father—that might have been the point, but Legrand doesn’t quite pull it off as far as I’m concerned).   But it’s set against some of the loveliest French countryside you’ll see in some time and Arestrup and Patrick (La lectrice) Chesnais (as the manager) are first rate.
Overall, a very neat, effective and perverse little family melodrama with quite a few twists and turns that is highly satisfactory.   See it with your first born.
Thanks For Sharing is a movie about sex addiction that only wants to cuddle.  I’m not sure I see the point.  It revolves around three men (Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins and Josh Gad) who are all in the same support group and whose stories unwind in just about the formulaic way you think they will.   Everyone is very sincere and works very hard and the three leads, along with the significant others in their lives (Gwyneth Paltrow, Pink and Joely Richardson), say their lines as if they were written by Oscar Wilde (it wasn’t—screenplay by director Stuart Blumberg and Matt Winston—Blumberg also wrote that other Mark Ruffalo starrer, The Kids Are All Right—I’m not convinced this is a step forward).  But no matter how sincere everyone is, nothing can hide the fact that the whole thing is rather routine, bland and boring.  It’s the sort of movie about addiction that actually makes you want to go out and have a drink.
A Single Shot is one of those movies about someone finding either drugs or money and what happens as a result.  Movies like this (A Simple Plan, Shallow Grave) are usually described as movies that do absolutely nothing, but do it very, very well.  A Single Shot, unfortunately, with all its strengths, only manages to do it somewhat well. 
But those strengths are often quite remarkable.  Director David M. Rosenthal and writer Matthew F. Jones have created an incredibly convincing small town mountain world where everyone knows everybody.  The daily details of this minor municipality have an incredibly realistic feel to them.  And both Rosenthal and Jones create a strong mood of despair: it never seems to do anything but rain and no matter how much wide shot country is shown, it all feels very claustrophobic.  
The movie stars Sam Rockwell and he, along with the rest of the cast (William H. Macy, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Melissa Leo, Ted Levine and Jason Isaacs), give remarkable performances.  Almost no one is recognizable behind their scruffy beards; weather beaten, lived in looks; and less than Walmart quality clothes.  And they all sport accents so convincing, there is many a time when you can’t understand a word they’re saying, which is too bad, because Jones has given all the characters often strikingly beautiful lines full of local color, equipped with full blooded colloquialisms and figures of speech. 
In the end, the story never really quite comes together in a satisfyingly dramatic whole.  Part of this may be because the set up and execution is pretty familiar with a plot that’s not particularly clever.  And it’s a little hard to empathize with Rockwell’s character, as well as he plays him, because he never seems to be as stupid as he acts with this new found money (it’s a bit difficult to believe he doesn’t know he won’t attract attention by suddenly flouting hundred dollar bills around).  And the menace to the characters involved often seems just a bit too vague; in fact, the middle section feels a little slow in going anywhere.
But one could do far, far worse.  One could go see Prisoners.

FRUITVALE STATION, THE WAY, WAY BACK and BLUE JASMINE



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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.

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.

FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON: Reviews of District 9 and Moon


I know I’m absurdly late in reviewing District 9 (as well as Moon, but no one cares about Moon that much, which is a shame because it’s just as worthy as District 9 in being talked about). Both are sci-fi stories about an idea: District 9’s is political and in your face while Moon’s is existential and introspective (which may tell you why District 9 got all the press).

District 9, written by Terri Tatchell and Neill Blomkamp (who also directed) has a clever premise (though not an original one; it’s already served as the basis for a couple of films and TV series) and is ultimately moving, but it’s also one of those movies in which I turn out to be a party pooper. I’m sorry, but I simply didn’t like it as much as other people did. The most interesting aspect of the story was how four people, three of them white and one black, all think they are the center of the universe and simply can’t conceive of the idea that they aren’t, in spite of the fact that the earth has now been visited by aliens. For three of these people, this leads to their death (though the hero, played by Sharlto Copley, finds redemption) while one, the owner of a private security firm (can you say “Blackwater”), who also happens to be the hero’s father-in-law, escapes totally unscathed. For me, the whole movie suffers from structural weakness (it starts out with one plot and then halfway through changes horses and goes in a different direction) and a story that doesn’t always convince. The first half revolves around a mid-level bureaucrat (Copley—see my review of Inglorious Basterds) having to railroad a group of space aliens out of their ghetto into a new, even worse ghetto. The move, backed up by the private security firm, is so poorly organized and sloppily carried out, it’s never really believable (though it’s difficult to say whether it truly is poorly organized or if the director thought a well organized, more believable relocation would be too dull to put on camera, so he jazzed it up with hand held camera work and a lot of manufactured chaos). When the hero gets infected by something and starts turning alien, his father-in-law abducts him for his own nefarious reasons; at this point, the story has one of those twists that is utterly ridiculous—once the father-in-law determines that the hero is no longer useful, he plans to off him. This would never happen since the hero is still very useful; there is still too much to study and the hero is worth more alive than dead. But if the father-in-law doesn’t make the decision to kill the hero, then the second half of the movie can’t transpire (isn’t it nice when one of the characters knows they’re in a movie and is willing to do what needs to be done to keep the plot going the way the author wants). Once the hero escapes, the movie becomes a rather routine, though exciting and well executed, chase picture in which the hero decides to help some aliens return to their home planet. Here the hero goes through that traditional character arc so beloved of books and film school classes on screenwriting. In one way, I don’t want to knock the movie; considering the relatively small budget, the writer, director and technicians have achieved something somewhat remarkable. But, though enjoyable, I’m just not convinced it rises above what it is. And perhaps I wouldn’t even have a problem with it not rising about what it is if everybody else didn’t keep saying that it does when it doesn’t.

Moon, written by Nathan Parker from a story by director Duncan Jones, in many ways had a deeper emotional effect on me, perhaps because its themes, for whatever reason, have a deeper resonance for my life. In the future, Earth needs supplies and is getting them from the moon by way of a mining factory run by a single person, played by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is counting down the days until he can return home to his wife and daughter on earth, but then something strange happens. He has an accident while out investigating a malfunction and wakes up in sick bay, saved by his 2001 type Hal robot (with the silky voice of Kevin Spacey, an existential nightmare in itself). Well, accidents happen; the problem is that when Rockwell reinvestigates the incident, he finds that he’s still there. He brings his double back to the mining base and slowly discovers the real truth: he himself, along with his twin, is actually a clone of the original Rockwell, who is still on earth, much older and now a widower. Every so many years, as a Rockwell clone runs down, it is replaced by another clone (there are thousands of them) with a false memory of having been in an accident where they lost consciousness and are now waking up. But now that Rockwell is aware of who he is, the question then becomes, who is he? Moon asks the same question as movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Screamers: if one can’t tell the difference between a robot, android, clone, etc. and a human being, then is there a difference? If you can’t tell them apart, then what makes a human being a human being? Of course, this is in many ways a philosophical question that one usually only deals with late at night in college when one is drunk, mainly because no robot or android has been created that one can mistake for a human being; the question is academic. At the same time, that doesn’t stop it from being haunting with a deep emotional resonance for many people (including moi). So when Rockwell decides to fight for his existence, I became deeply involved in his desire to be considered fully human. As I said, this suffers from the same structural problems as District 9. Moon starts out as a meandering story about someone trying to survive being isolated on the moon. Then it changes when Rockwell discovers his double and the story arc changes. In addition, the transition between the two story threads is weak. In District 9, it’s not believable that anyone would want to kill the hero; in Moon, Rockwell’s reaction to finding his double is too low key and not convincing. Neither story really takes off until they get past these problematic areas. Both are examples of scripts with week first acts, but strong final ones.