December 31, 2011

MOVIES: War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

How familiar a story is War Horse? So familiar that you could begin the movie with an old-fashioned soap opera-style voice over: "In today's remake of Lassie Come Home, the role of Lassie will be played by a horse."

That horse is Joey, who's raised and trained by Albert, and oh, how they love one another. But then World War I comes along, and Albert's father is forced to sell Joey to the military in order to save the family farm.

So it's off to France for poor Joey, who gets to live out every WWI movie cliche you can think of -- he hauls artillery, gets captured by the Germans, hides out in a French windmill. He's even rescued from No Man's Land in one of those scenes where a British soldier and a German soldier venture timidly out under flag of truce in order to save the horse, because goddamm it, Joey is just that special.

Making Joey the protagonist of the movie has the odd effect of making War Horse a movie that is utterly disinterested in who wins the war. English, German, who cares as long as Joey survives? Albert's nearly blinded by mustard gas, but that's not important; we have to worry about Joey's injured leg.

And if you're annoyed by the anthropomorphizing of animals, then you're going to hate this movie, in which Joey sacrifices himself for his horsey BFF and is treated as though he has the full range of human emotions.

It seems almost silly to comment on the human beings here, but there are some pleasant performances to be found. Emily Watson and Peter Mullan ooze devotion as Albert's parents; Niels Arestrup is all grandfatherly concern as a French jam-maker; David Thewlis brings comic mustache-twirling villainy as the evil landlord.

If you enjoy old-fashioned sentimentality, then you'll love War Horse. But Steven Spielberg is working so hard to create an old fashioned John Ford experience, without adding anything new to the mix, that you might as well just go to Netflix and watch an actual Ford movie.

MOVIES: Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)

Shame made me angrier than any movie has in a long time. It presents itself as a bold story of sexual addiction, which is merely an idea it uses to tell an utterly conventional story that reinforces the most Puritan strain of American sexual morality.

In the world of Shame, the only acceptable sex is that found within a monogamous long-term relationship, and even that is only allowed in moderation. Frequent sex, sex with multiple partners, or sexual activity entered into for physical pleasure (as opposed to emotional bonding) is to be condemned in the harshest terms.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is the movie's protagonist, and because he is attractive enough to pick up women easily, and wealthy enough to hire prostitutes when he likes -- and above all else, because he has lots of sex -- he must be miserably unhappy and incapable of any basic human decency.

His sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives for a visit, and though it's clear that he has her own emotional problems, the blame for her choices and the things that happen to her is placed squarely at Brandon's feet, because y'know, he's a slut.

One particularly offensive moment: Late in the movie, Brandon is put through a "long dark night of the soul" moment, during which he sinks ever deeper into compulsively self-destructive behavior. How does director/co-writer Steve McQueen choose to tell us that Brandon has gone as low as he can go? Why, with a visit to a gay sex club, of course, because nothing's more degrading than that.

Even beyond the movie's ghastly Puritanism, it's just not that well made. McQueen is fond of slow and static moments, apparently thinking there's something profound about them. Take, for instance, Mulligan's 5-minute rendition of "New York, New York," an optimistic anthem that she slogs through as if it were a suicide note; or the long, long, looooooong shot of Fassbender jogging through Manhattan in the middle of the night.

Awful, offensive, insulting, cheap movie. Run from it as fast as your little legs will carry you.

December 30, 2011

MOVIES: A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

A Dangerous Method is a somewhat aimless ramble through a few years in the lives of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a woman who begins as Jung's patient before becoming Freud's, and ultimately becoming their colleague in psychotherapy.

Fassbender and Mortensen give blandly competent performances, both speaking in the slightly formal, vaguely English-accented tones that signify "cultured European" in Hollywood movies.

Knightley, by contrast, is anything but bland, especially in the first twenty minutes of the movie, when the character is at her most disturbed. It's a festival of tics as Knightley jerks and shrieks and chokes her words out through clenched teeth, with an attempted Russian accent that veers unpredictably from nonexistent to full-on Boris Badenov. It is without a doubt the most embarassing performance of the year.

The movie can't make up its mind what story it wants to tell. At first, it looks like it's going to be the story of Jung curing Spielrein of her sexual neuroses, then it turns into a romance between the two, then it's the story of the disintegration of the Freud/Jung relationship. And none of the stories are very interesting.

MOVIES: Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia, 2011)

Glenn Close has been trying to get Albert Nobbs made for 30 years, since playing the role in a stage version of the story. It's the story of a woman living as a man in 19th-century Dublin. Albert has been Albert for so long that he doesn't even remember the name he was born with; he took on a male identity in order to survive financially after being orphaned in his early teens.

The movie is beautifully appointed, with lovely sets and costumes, and the period details are spot on. I found that it took a few minutes to adjust to the Irish accents, but eventually got used to it.

The problem with the movie is what I think of "Boys Don't Cry Syndrome." That is, because Glenn Close is not for a second convincing as a man, you leave the movie thinking not so much about Albert's plight as about the fact that everyone else in Dublin is a frickin' idiot for not catching on.

To be sure, Albert Nobbs has a huge advantage over Boys Don't Cry in that Glenn Close, unlike Hilary Swank, can act. As wrong as she is for the role physically, the rest of the performance is excellent. Albert's pain and fear of being discovered are palpable, and his hope of finding a happy ending with one of the hotel's maids (Mia Wasikowska) is contagious, even though we know how unlikely it is.

Doing a much better job with the male drag is Janet McTeer as Hubert, a woman living under similar circumstances. (The sheer coincidence of these two winding up employed by the same Dublin hotel does not bear much scrutiny.) McTeer is very believable as a man, to the extent that in a scene where Albert and Hubert decide (for the first time in many years) to put on dresses, she actually looks like a man in drag.

Not anything you need to rush out and see, but worth catching when it hits cable or Netflix.

December 29, 2011

MOVIES: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)

You don't expect much from the fourth installment of an action franchise, but this one's a terrific popcorn flick. There are a couple of great action sequences, and a story that holds together reasonably well and provides stakes high enough to hold our attention.

No one is called on for any great acting, to be sure, but Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, and Paula Patton are pretty to look at and fight well, and Simon Pegg provides effective comic relief.

The movie's high points are both set in Dubai -- the much-promoted sequences in which Cruise climbs the outside of the Burj Dubai tower, and an even better chase scene set during a dust storm.

Lots of fun, and a very pleasant surprise.

MOVIES: The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

If you come to The Adventures of Tintin with a pre-existing fondness for the characters, you may enjoy the movie; if not, I think you're going to find them flat and uninteresting, and the story predictably simple.

On the plus side, these are the best CGI humans we've seen yet, only occasionally slipping into creepy "uncanny valley" territory; it's helped by the fact that they're not quite going for photorealism, and the characters retain just a little bit of cartoonishness (there are a lot of enormous noses). Some of the action sequences are exciting, and John Williams' score is a lively rouser in much the same style as his Raiders work.

But the characters are paper-thin, given one characteristic apiece, at most. Tintin is intrepid; Thomson and Thompson are bumbling incompetents; Haddock is a drunk (and the movie treats that as a joke in an offensive way). They're cardboard cutouts being pushed around the world in service of a story that's not very interesting, and it doesn't add up to very much.

December 26, 2011

MOVIES: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011)

There are some interesting things to be found here, notably a couple of fine supporting performances, but the movie is done in by some lazy screenwriting choices and a horrible lead performance.

Here's a screenwriting challenge for you: Your central character is a young child; his parents are important characters, but they have relatively little screen time. You need to be sure, despite their limited time in the movie, that they make a strong impact and come across as likable, devoted parents.

You could work hard on writing their few scenes to give them those characteristics, or you could take the lazy way out, as screenwriter Eric Roth and director Stephen Daldry have done: cast Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock in the roles, and let the audience's affection for those actors do the work for you.

Similarly lazy, and bordering on vulgar and offensive, is the use of 9/11 as the movie's generic tragedy. The movie centers on a child's attempt to cope with the death of his father; for plot purposes, that death could have come about in just about any way imaginable. Admittedly, this one can't be blamed on Roth and Daldry; Jonathan Safran Foer's novel takes the hit for this choice.

Oskar, the child at the center of the film, is played by Thomas Horn, who is making his acting debut after having been spotted by the producers on Jeopardy! He is painfully bad, particularly in the more emotional moments. The movie relies heavily on his voice-over narration (another bit of screenwriting laziness), and he delivers every line with the same ponderous solemnity.

There are two marvelous supporting performances that almost make the movie worth seeing. Jeffrey Wright plays one of the many people who cross paths with Oskar during the film; one of the movie's worst moments, a particularly vile bit of cheap tear-jerking, is the monologue Oskar addresses to Wright. The marvel is that Wright, simply by sitting there and listening with absolute attention, sincerity, and conviction, comes damn close to making the scene bearable. It is a spectacular reminder that acting is much more than what you're doing when you're delivering lines.

Even better is Max von Sydow, who doesn't get to deliver any lines at all; his character has suffered trauma of his own, and as a result, he does not speak. But when he arrives about halfway through the movie, he is the first character who feels like an actual person, and the strength of his performance elevates Horn almost to believability.

But even with such solid support, Horn isn't capable of the performance this movie needs, and since he is the indisputable star of the movie, it collapses around him. Even with a better actor in the lead, though, I don't think the movie works, and I'd still be offended by its use of a national tragedy in so cavalier a way.

MOVIES: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

I have not read John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, though after seeing this adaptation, I'd like to. It seems fairly clear that there's an interesting story being told, but in condensing it down to 2 hours, so much detail has been lost that the result is a confusing muddle.

Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, a recently ousted British intelligence agent who's brought back for a secret mission. It's the early 70s, the Cold War is in full swing, and there is apparently a Russian mole at the very top of the organization. Smiley is tasked with finding him.

There's a marvelous cast of actors here. Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, David Dencik, and Colin Firth are Smiley's four principal suspects; Benedict Cumberbatch is his young assistant; Tom Hardy is an unpredictably rebellious agent; John Hurt is the former director of British intelligence.

But the screenplay by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan condenses the story so tightly that every single line of dialogue is freighted with significance. You barely have time to breathe here (and don't even think about taking a restroom break); if you miss a small detail in the first five minutes, you're likely to spend the rest of the movie confused by everything that happens.

You have to remove some detail when you turn a novel into a movie, but there are limits, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy goes well beyond them. You can't shrink a novel, especially a complex espionage tale, down to a haiku and expect anyone to make sense of the results.

MOVIES: Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)

A child has been assaulted, and a group of well-meaning but rather clueless adults come together (in the absence of both the perpetrator and the victim) to argue about what would be a just resolution. Hmmm....what might have attracted Roman Polanski to such a story?

Carnage, based on Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage, is a talky bore, marred by miscasting, loathsome characters, and a story that simply isn't all that interesting.

The setting is the New York apartment of Michael and Penelope (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), whose son has been attacked by another boy; the assailant's parents, Alan and Nancy (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), have agreed to a meeting to discuss the situation.

And the next 79 minutes (yes, the movie's that short, which is mercy in this case) are utterly predictable, as the veneer of polite civility breaks down (especially once the booze is broken out), and the four find themselves shrieking sub-Albee insults and accusations at one another.

Waltz comes off the best of the four, with a vicious icy politeness that never quite fades and does nothing to disguise the fact that he's the most ruthless of the four, and the one who's least interested in being there.

Foster is badly miscast. There needs to be a sharp class distinction between the couples, I think, with Foster and Reilly being more nouveau riche than the other couple, who come from older money; Foster feels as if she'd be far more comfortable in Winslet's role. Reilly is somewhat better suited to his role, though he lacks the physical menace that I think the part needs. (James Gandolfini played the role on Broadway, and Matt Dillon was originallly announced for the part in the movie; either would have been an improvement.)

But ultimately, the problem is that there's no story here to hold our attention; it's just four people in a room being nasty to one another. The movie's message doesn't seem to go any deeper than "people are bastards, especially when they're pretending not to be."

MOVIES: Young Adult (Ivan Reitman, 2011)

Charlize Theron stars as Mavis, a writer of factory-line young adult novels in the Sweet Valley High mode whose career is about to come to an end; her series is being discontinued, as no one much cares about teenage romance these days unless there are vampires involved.

Even without that blow, Mavis would be a bit of a mess; she's a serious drunk who's never really left adolescence. So when she discovers that her old high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) and his wife have just had a baby, that somehow triggers in her the conviction that he really does still love her, and she just needs to go remind him of that.

Once Mavis arrives in her old home town, she winds up spending much of her time with Matt (Patton Oswalt), another former classmate. They hadn't been close in high school, and they only meet now because they happen to be at the same bar.

The performances are good. Theron is to be commended for her absolute commitment to Mavis's loathsomeness; there's not an ounce of typical movie star "you must love me" in the performance. And over the last few years while no one was really paying attention, Oswalt has turned into quite a good actor, and he's the best thing about the movie; he's nursing his own high school wounds (literal and metaphoric) in ways that are only slightly more adult than Mavis, and he's perhaps the most immature voice of reason the movies have ever seen.

But Diablo Cody's script falls flat. You wouldn't expect from these characters the same sort of whiplash-inducing pop culture references that you got in Juno, but what we get in its place is a steady drip of nastiness and cruelty. Despite the best attempt of all involved, it's hard to make that either funny or entertaining. This is the first Reitman movie that's left me feeling sort of meh.

December 11, 2011

MOVIES: Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

Coriolanus is not one of the more popular Shakespeare plays, and I think this was the first time I'd seen a Shakespeare movie without having first read the play, or at least a summary of the story. So I was a little nervous about whether I'd be able to follow things, but Ralph Fiennes has assembled such a good cast that even if you don't follow every single line, the gist and emotional thrust of the scene always comes through, and the story's very easy to follow.

Fiennes has updated the story to the present day, and we begin in "a place calling itself Rome," which is not quite our Rome. The opening scenes feel rather like Shakespeare's take on the 99%/1% political rhetoric of our day; the masses are starving, and there are riots throughout Rome, notably at the Central Grain Depot. The people place the blame largely on Gaius Martius (Fiennes), a general who holds the masses in contempt.

Martius leads a successful defense against an invasion from the neighboring Volscians, with his principal victory coming at the city of Corioles; for this victory, the Senate confers on him the honorific "Coriolanus." They are prepared to name Martius the new consul -- ruler of the city -- but tradition requires that their choice be ratified by the people, and Martius's inability (and unwillingness) to communicate with them leads to serious conflict.

The cast includes Gerard Butler as Martius's longtime rival, the Volscian general Aufidius; Vanessa Redgrave as his mother, Volumnia; and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain as his wife, Virgilia. Best of all is Brian Cox as Martius's principal political ally, the senator Menenius, who is particularly delightful in the early going, when he's the ultimate glad-handing schmoozer; he's just as good, though, when his story moves into darker territory.

Coriolanus is a marvelous war story, a tale of a man brought down by his pride and snobbery, and if it's not quite as compelling a story as those of the major tragedies, Fiennes makes as entertaining a movie of it as one could want.

MOVIES: We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

What is a mother to do when she finds herself raising a child that she doesn't like very much, a child who she comes to believe may be so evil as to be unworthy of love at all? That's the dilemma facing Eva (Tilda Swinton) in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a chilly and impressionistic look at a woman coping with her own sense of responsibility after her teenage son kills several of his high school classmates.

Director Lynne Ramsay fragments the story, jumping back and forth in time, giving us tiny pieces of information and trusting us to put them together. And as we do, the real horror of Eva's situation begins to sink in: Her son hasn't been warped by bad parenting; he's simply a budding sociopath from day one.

And we get to watch him grow up, with three different actors playing the role. Kudos to Ramsay and casting director Billy Hopkins for finding three kids who look enough alike to be convincing, and for getting such creepy, affectless performances from all three -- Rocky Duer as the world's most malevolent toddler, Jasper Newell as a willfully bratty pre-teen, and Ezra Miller (who gets the most screen time of the three) as the teenaged Kevin.

It's Swinton's movie, though, and she's very good here, struggling to cope not only with her son, but with a husband (John C. Reilly, whose amiable doofus shtick is put to good use) who doesn't see the problem, and with a marriage that's disintegrating under the strain.

Sadly, the movie is not up to the level of the performances from Swinton and Miller. Ramsay's hopscotching through time feels somewhat aimless, and gets tiring after a while; it begins to feel as if Ramsay is withholding information not for any particular storytelling purpose, but merely for the sake of being artsy and cryptic. Worth seeing, though, for the strength of the central performances.

A note to those of you in Los Angeles: The movie's having a one-week Oscar qualifying run here (it'll re-open more widely in January), at the Silent Movie on Fairfax. That's an odd choice for such a run, and it's not a good place to see a movie. It's a cramped room with ancient, uncomfortable seating, a tiny screen, and a terrible sound system. It's currently used mostly for eccentric repertory screenings at night, and rarely does regular runs of first-run films. Unless you really feel compelled to see the movie right now, I'd wait to see it in a real theater in January.

December 08, 2011

BOOKS: 11/22/63, Stephen King (2011)

A time-travel tale in which a Maine high-school teacher goes back to try and stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Well, eventually, he does that, but not until King has spent nearly 300 pages on an entirely unrelated trip to the past. It's not until 400 pages in that Lee Harvey Oswald makes his first appearance, and we're still only halfway through the book.

Lord knows King can tell an entertaining story, and this book is no exception. But he's now become so popular and famous that he's not required to submit to editing, and apparently has no interest in editing himself. The bloat here is terrible. There's some fancy technobabble at the end about the cumulative impact of all these trips to the past, but by that point, it comes off as only an attempt to justify his lazy refusal to edit.

At half the length, this could have been one of the year's best books. Not great literature, certainly, but a wonderful, breezy time travel tale. At 840 pages, it's mostly a sad example of an author who's become too big to be disciplined anymore.

BOOKS: When She Woke, Hillary Jordan (2011)

Here we have a near-future reimagining of The Scarlet Letter. It is also, though you won't see these dreaded words on the book or in any of its advertising, a science fiction novel.

A sexually transmitted plague has greatly reduced global fertility, and contributed to the rise of theocratic government in much of the United States. Abortion is banned in most states, and our protagonist, Hannah Payne, has just been convicted of murder for having an abortion. Her punishment is to be Chromed -- to have her skin color medically altered so that she is instantly visible and recognizable as a murderer. (Murderers become red, sex offenders blue, relatively minor offenses yellow, and so on.)

Thanks to Chroming, the prison system has been largely shut down, with only the most violent and dangerous offenders being jailed; people like Hannah are simply released into society to make their way as best they can, which isn't easy, given that Chromes (especially Reds and Blues) are social pariahs.

Jordan doesn't give us all that much plot; Hannah spends some time at a religious halfway house before finding her way to an Underground Railroad of sorts that helps Chromes get to Canada, where Chroming is viewed with horror. Instead, the novel is a cautionary "if this goes on" tale, giving us a glimpse into a world in which government and religion have become closely intertwined.

The notion of Chroming is the most interesting thing in the book, and it raises a lot of fascinating questions and possible stories that are beyond Jordan's scope here. I would love to see Jordan return to this world for more novels, but given how carefully the book's publicity has avoided the science fiction label, I don't expect that to happen. "Literary" authors, after all, don't stoop to writing sequels and creating franchises.

December 06, 2011

TV: catching up on some new stuff

A bunch of new stuff I hadn't gotten around to posting about yet:

I Hate My Teenage Daughter (Fox, Wed 9:30)

(or: When Bad Sitcoms Happen to Good Actors, Part I)

Finally, we get what is officially the last new show of the Fall 2011 season, and what is certainly one of its least impressive efforts. Jamie Pressly and Katie Finneran star as best friends, both of whom were social outcasts in high school. They want desperately for their daughters to have a happier teenage experience than they did, but are horrified to see the girls becoming precisely the same sort of spoiled brats who made their own lives so miserable. Pressly and Finneran are both marvelous comic actresses, and my god, they're giving it everything they've got, trying desperately to pull laughs out of nowhere. But talent only goes so far when there's no material to support it, and there's not a joke to be found anywhere.

The Exes (TV Land, Wed 10:30)

(or: When Bad Sitcoms Happen to Good Actors, Part II)TV Land's latest attempt to find a companion piece for Hot in Cleveland is a step up from Teenage Daughter, but it only rises as far as amiable blandness. In what has quickly become TV Land style, the cast is mostly made up of actors you remember from previous sitcom work. Kristen Johnston stars as Holly, a divorce attorney who sets up her newly-single clients in need of new homes as roommates in the apartment across the hall from her own. As we begin, the apartment is occupied by ladies' man Phil (Donald Faison, getting to stretch the most from his old image) and inert lump Haskell (Wayne Knight, adding to his resume of vaguely creepy slobs).

They're about to be joined by new roomie Stuart (David Alan Basche, who's been playing second banana roles on flop sitcoms for a decade now; you'll know the face, even if you don't know the name), who seems to be a recent graduate from the Felix Unger School of Roommate Annoyance.

Again, the material isn't up to the level of the cast, though the characters are more likable than those of Teenage Daughter (but then, a crippling migraine is more likable than those characters). This one might be worth checking in on in a few weeks to see if it's gotten its bearings yet. (And I think the show's one relative unknown, Kelly Stables, will eventually go on to better things; she's got the charm and timing of a young Sarah Jessica Parker.)

Would You Rather? With Graham Norton (BBC America, Sat 11)

The British panel show is a distinctive genre that's never really quite caught on in American television. A host poses questions or discussion topics to a panel of celebrities, who are expected to answer in delightfully witty style (a touch of bawdiness is always welcome, too). The host may award points for the best answers, and a winner may be named at the end, but the scorekeeping is always distinctly secondary to the banter, the spontaneous one-liners, and the general sense of jolly conviviality. What's My Line and the early versions of To Tell the Truth had some of the spirit, but they weren't as witty, and they took the game far too seriously; Hollywood Squares had the right sense of humor, but everything was scripted, and the improvisational nature of the thing is a key factor. The genre's had more success here in radio, where Wait Wait Don't Tell Me is a fine example of the form.

As part of BBC America's first ventures into original programming for its American audience (as opposed to programming imported from the UK), we're being offered this panel show, hosted by Graham Norton, whose chat show is a staple on the network. Here, he has a panel of four celebrities -- that is to say, one person you've heard of and three B-level standup comics -- to whom he poses a series of "would you rather" questions, such as "Would you rather spend the rest of your life with the voice of Darth Vader, or with the voice of Alvin the Chipmunk?"

The best of these shows rely heavily on the interplay among the regular panelists, who learn how to riff off one another and how to set up one another's jokes. Obviously, in the early stages of the show, that chemistry doesn't exist yet, so the show's going to be heavily reliant from week to week on how well that week's guests improvise. Based on the first two episodes, it'll be a bit of a bumpy ride for a while, but Norton's a charmingly naughty host. Hardly essentially viewing, but mildly amusing if you've nothing better to do on a Saturday night.