December 31, 2012

MOVIES: Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, 2012)

It's the year of the Hitchcock biopic, with this following close on the heels of HBO's The Girl. This movie has, at least potentially, a more interesting story than HBO's "pervy old guy harasses pretty young actress," but doesn't do enough with it.

The bulk of Hitchcock focuses on Hitchcock's effort to make Psycho despite the studio's reluctance, and that part of the story is the strongest. Scarlett Johansson makes a reasonably convincing Janet Leigh, and Jessica Biel has a few nice moments as Vera Miles, warning Leigh about Hitchcock's tendency to get obsessive about his leading ladies.

But Anthony Hopkins is never a very convincing Hitchcock; strictly in terms of the impersonation, Toby Jones did a better job in The Girl. And the movie wastes a lot of time on silly subplots like the relationship between Hitchcock's wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), and a writer friend (Danny Huston) with whom she's collaborating; neither Mirren nor Huston gives us an interesting enough character to care about, so we don't much care about Hitchcock's suspicion that they're having an affair.. Even worse are the scenes in which Hitchcock has imaginary conversation with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the man on whom Psycho is loosely based.

It's a perfectly competent movie, and it's never painfully unpleasant to watch, but it's a bit superficial, and never digs deep enough into its characters to be compelling watching.

December 30, 2012

MOVIES: Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012)

Life of Pi is a gorgeously photographed movie, and one of the few I've ever seen that made me wish I were able to watch movies in 3D, because I think it would be even more spectacular in that format.

Unfortunately, that is the only nice thing I can say about the movie, which is a treacly fable that explicitly promises to "make [us] believe in God," then yanks the rug out from underneath us by revealing itself to be simply a pretty lie covering up a mundane tale of human cruelty and brutality. (Which, come to think it, actually is a pretty good summary of many religious myths, so maybe the movie is accomplishing its goal after all.)

The bulk of the movie is spent with young Pi (Suraj Sharma, making his acting debut) on a small lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The tiger is a CGI creation, and its scenes are never quite convincing, because Sharma doesn't have the talent or the experience to convince us that it's really there, or that he's genuinely afraid. In fairness, there are plenty of more experienced actors who don't do that very well, either, but it's an awfully tough thing to demand of a rookie.

Sharma's inexperience is only highlighted by the movie's framing device, in which the adult Pi is played by the very fine Irrfan Khan, who is telling his tale of survival to a writer (the character is a nonentity, existing only to recite variations on "and then what happened,?" and Rafe Spall is adequate to the role's limited demands). Khan brings vastly more life and richness to the role than Sharma does, and does so despite the fact that he's saddled with the worst of the movie's spiritual psychobabble.

If you feel you must see the movie, you really should see it while it's still in theaters (unless you have a really amazing home theater system); the visuals will lose a lot shrunk down to TV size. But good as they are, those visuals were not enough to make up for the dishonest sentiment, New Age twaddle, and sanctimony of the story.

MOVIES: Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

What do you need to know about Skyfall? Not much, beyond the fact that it's a Bond movie. Yeah, it's a fairly good Bond movie, as such things go, but it's just as painfully misogynistic as the series has always been, and (with one striking exception) the characters are as flat and uninteresting as ever.

Daniel Craig's limited talents are perfect for the role of Bond; the character is supposed to be stoic, so the immobility of Craig's angular wood-block face doesn't do too much damage. Javier Bardem is the principal bad guy, and he has apparently taken the lesson from his work in No Country for Old Men that a bad haircut is a substitute for actually playing a character.

Judi Dench gives the movie's only real performance as M, and she's delightful, bringing to the role an emotional truth and complexity that are neither required nor deserved by so otherwise dull a movie. Noemie Harris has some appealing moments as one of Bond's spy colleagues, but she's undercut by Bond's inability to treat any woman under the age of 50 as a human being instead of as a sex object, and by a final punchline about her identity.

The best thing in the movie is Roger Deakins' cinematography, which is absolutely gorgeous; the sequence set in Singapore is particularly impressive.

If the shallow characters and empty sexism of Bond movies are your cup of tea, you'll no doubt enjoy this very much. But all of the hype proclaiming that this is a good movie even when judged against non-Bond movies is wildly undeserved.

December 10, 2012

MOVIES: Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012)

After spending far too many years lost in the uncanny valley of CGI animation, Zemeckis makes a fine return to live action.

Denzel Washington stars as airline pilot "Whip" Whitaker, who is flying a short hop from Orlando to Atlanta when there's a horrifying disaster. There's mechanical failure in the middle of a storm, which may or may not have been exacerbated by Whip's reckless flying as he attempted to avoid the storm. Whip makes an audacious series of manuevers and manages to land the plane in an open field. His heroism is mitigated not only by his recklessness, but by the fact that he's drunk and high on cocaine. To add to the moral ambiguity, there's the possibility that Whip's miraculous landing was aided by his intoxication; a sober pilot might never have attempted such a crazy save.

That's the setup for a story that we've certainly seen before: the redemption and salvation of an addict, aided (of course) by the love of a good woman. And even more than usual, the religious overtones of "redemption and salvation" are fully intended; there is a strong undercurrent of Christian morality in the movie. One of the flight attendants has been trying for years to get Whip to join her at church; the co-pilot is a devout "will you pray with me" type; the passengers on the plane are always always always referred to as "102 souls," as opposed to "people" or "passengers."

There are a few too many moments in which Zemeckis and writer John Gatins give in to the cliches of the genre. Whip's love interest is an addict with a heart of gold (that they found the restraint not to actually make her a hooker is a small miracle), very nicely played by Kelly Reilly. The choice of classic pop/rock songs on the soundtrack are frequently painfully obvious -- "Ain't No Sunshine" during the obligatory pouring the booze down the sink; "Sympathy for the Devil" as John Goodman makes his first entrance as Whip's dealer.

But there is enough that works about the movie to make it successful despite the familiarity of the story. The plane crash is a spectacular action sequence, a thrilling and terrifying scene with impeccable special effects work. Supporting performances from Reilly, Goodman, Don Cheadle, and Bruce Greenwood are strong.

And at the center of the movie is Washington, delivering one of his very best performances. Whip is so accustomed to lying and hiding his drinking that it's not until fairly late in the movie, in a sequence where he actually has sobered up, that we realize in retrospect how hard he's been working to maintain that illusion of normalcy. It's beautifully detailed work.

Very much worth seeing, though obviously not for those with fear-of-flying issues.

BOOKS: The Sound and the Noise, Nate Silver (2012)

Nate Silver's The Sound and the Noise is an overview of the art and science of making predictions -- why we're so often bad at it, how we're learning to get better, and why it's such a hard thing to do in the first place.

There is less here than you might expect about politics and polling, the fields in which Silver has become famous. Instead, Silver looks at what we know and have learned about predictions in areas like climate change, baseball, earthquakes, poker, the stock market, and weather forecasts.

In some areas, our ability to make good predictions has gotten much better in recent decades; we are able to predict the weather (for the next week or so, anyway) far more accurately. In other areas -- earthquake prediction, for instance -- we are least learning to acknowledge that we are very far away from being able to make accurate predictions, and accepting that fact is a sort of progress in its own right. And in some areas -- the stock market, or political punditry -- even if some experts continue to claim that they can predict the future, the evidence suggests that they'd be just as well off flipping a coin.

Silver's style is smart but accessible, and when he does dive deeper into statistics than readers might be comfortable with, he's very good at explaining the concepts and tests he's using. This is an entertaining and useful book on a fascinating topic.

December 04, 2012

MOVIES: The Sessions (Ben Lewin, 2012)

The Sessions is a very good TV movie-of-the-week, elevated to that level by its two lead performances.

It's based on the life of Mark O'Brien (played here by John Hawkes), who at the time of these events was in his late 30s. He had polio as a child, and spent most of his day in an iron lung, but longed to have at least one sexual relationship. Enter sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt); the movie is about their therapy sessions and the relationship that develops between them.

Hawkes and Hunt are both fine. I've never known anyone with polio, so I can't speak to how accurate Hawkes' portrayal is, but it feels right, especially the voice -- thin, airy, speaking in short phrases with frequent pauses for breath. Hunt is obliged to play many of her scenes in the nude, and her comfort with that makes it less awkward than it might be.

The movie does, however, suffer from the usual movie double standard about nudity. Hunt is frequently shown in full-body shots; we never see Hawkes below the waist. It's coy and distracting. The other movie cliche that keeps the movie from rising out of TV territory is the notion that disabled people are special, spiritual beings, and that just to be in their presence will make you a better person and move you in ways you've never known.

Hawkes and Hunt are worth seeing, but you won't miss anything by waiting for DVD or cable to see them.

MOVIES: Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

Oh, where to begin with the problems of Anna Karenina?

We could start with the absurd melodrama of the plot, which asks us to accept that a man can fall in love with a single glance, and that he can win the woman with a bit of charming obsessive stalking.

Then there's the staging conceit, which is that we're watching the actors perform the story in an abandoned theater. There's no audience; in fact, the seats have been torn out, and that space is used by the actors as a playing area. We see stagehands wheeling furniture around; curtains and backdrops are raised and lowered; the musicians providing the score stroll through the scene.

This gimmick is eventually moved to the background, and we get scenes filmed at other sets and exteriors, but the first 15 minutes or so are very faithful to the theatrical notion, and it damages the movie badly. Watching actors make a mad dash across the backstage area just in time to enter through a door that wasn't there five seconds earlier lends an air of madcap farce that doesn't suit Tolstoy, and the movie never quite recovers from that misstep.

And finally, there's the casting. As Anna, Keira Knightley plays every scene as if it's the climax of the movie; her emotions are dialed up to 11 throughout, which is both inappropriate and exhausting to watch; by the time we reach the final scenes, which should be heartbreaking, they just play as more of Anna's histrionics. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky is a blond surfer dude, a not-so-bright undergrad dressing up in his great-grandfather's clothes. Jude Law's Karenin is a bland nonentity (and the decision to borrow James Lipton's facial hair for the role was ill-advised). There are two good performances in smaller roles: Matthew Macfadyen plays Oblonsky with a nicely understated sense of humor, and Olivia Williams is chilly and regal as Countess Vronsky.

There is an occasional lovely moment. The first dance between Anna and Vronsky is beautifully staged and filmed, with the other dancers choreographed in a way that emphasizes the passion and romance of the moment. A scene in which Karenin tears up a note from his wife and throws the shreds into the air, with their falling around him marking the beginning of a larger snowfall, is a creative use of the theatrical conceit. But those moments come too rarely, and they can't make up for the overwrought performances or the silly romantic cliches of the story. A spectacular disaster.

December 03, 2012

BOOKS: The Blank Wall, Elisabeth Sanxzy Holding (1947)

This one has a story strong enough that it's been adapted for the movies twice -- in 1949 as The Reckless Moment, with Joan Bennett and James Mason; and in 2001 as The Deep End, with Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic. (The latter was a somewhat looser adaptation.)

It's set late in World War II, when Lucia Holley is on the verge of collapse from trying to manage the household on her own (her husband is in Europe). The news that her teenage daughter has begun dating an older man doesn't help her mental state, and she starts trying to figure out a way to get him out of Bea's life. Things go wrong (as they so inevitably do in suspense novels), and suddenly Lucia's got a corpse on her hands and a death to be covered up.

Holding doesn't waste time on extraneous detail, but everything she does tell you is useful; her characters are crisply and quickly drawn, and her story moves briskly and logically from point A to point B.

Social attitudes of the day are, of course, present, but the casual sexism and racism of the late 40s are not so offensive here as to be distracting, as they can be in some novels of the era. In fact, the only real eyebrow-raising moment for me was in a moment that was surely intended to show that Lucia was, for her era, fairly enlightened -- a scene in which Lucia is surprised to realize that her housekeeper Sibyl is an actual person! With dreams and a life of her own that go beyond doing Lucia's grocery shopping! (We still occasionally get that type of scene these days, though it's more likely to be about the Hispanic nanny or gardener than the African-American housekeeper, and it always strikes me as terribly condescending.)

Can't say that I'll be rushing out to read more Holding (though there's plenty out there; her books seem to be reprinted every 15 or 20 years), but The Blank Wall is a taut and effective thriller that holds up surprisingly well after more than sixty years.

MOVIES: Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)

Silver Linings Playbook is a strangely unbalanced movie, with its best performance entirely dominating the fim.

Bradley Cooper stars as Pat, who's coming home after eight months in a psychiatric institution, hoping to win back his wife. Given that he was hospitalized for nearly beating her lover to death, this seems unlikely, but a strong grasp on reality isn't really part of Pat's emotional toolbox. He's bipolar, tends to go off his meds, and has problems with impulse control.

About twenty minutes in, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman with emotional issues of her own, and here is where the movie goes a bit out of whack. The problem is that while the rest of the cast is fine, Lawrence is superb, so much so that the balance of the film is thrown off; what should be a story about two people beginning to find emotional peace with one another becomes a story about a really interesting young woman and the relatively boring people in her life. It's like watching Meryl Streep take the stage with the South Podunk Amateur Theatrical Society.

And it's not as if the people fading in Lawrence's wake are untalented hacks; Pat's parents are played by Robert De Niro, who is more subtle and understated than he's been in years, and Jacki Weaver, who is a warmly supportive presence; and there's sharp supporting work from John Ortiz, Julia Stiles, and Chris Tucker. But once Tiffany enters the movie, she's the only thing you care about. Lawrence is riveting; every gesture, every silent reaction, every line reading feels fresh and right, and communicates about twenty-seven different things at once.

David O. Russell's screenplay (from Matthew Quick's novel) is smart and funny, and less prone than movies of this genre often are to present Pat's and Tiffany's symptoms as charming quirks for our amusement rather than as the serious problems that they are. Definitely worth seeing, and I find it hard to imagine that the holiday movies will bring a better performance than Lawrence's.