Friday, October 26, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012)


Cloud Atlas is a challenge.  It does not arrive as 99% of its film peers do, with a beginning, middle, and an end.  Six different stories spanning over 500 years of time are woven together and make your mind work overtime not only keeping them apart, which is its job while you watch the film, but afterwards, trying to connect larger and deeper themes to them.  Is Cloud Atlas the most visionary and grand movie of the year or is a pretentious bomb which falls apart under the weight of its ill-formed ideas?

I am inclined to say more towards the grand vision end of the spectrum.  Recommending people see it is a given; however, it should come with a warning attached.  It will not make immediate sense to you when the credits start rolling.  File Cloud Atlas next to 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life.  Some movie-goers classify these as ground-breaking cinema masterpieces which should be studied for decades to come; others believe they are a gobbled mess.  Cloud Atlas has more specific plot lines than either 2001 or Tree of Life though.

Describing the plot of the separate stories of Cloud Atlas is missing the point.  They are separate vignettes, yet they are tied together in a larger sense by ideas of freedom and perhaps karma.  The same actors appear in each story but as different individuals with different personalities, and even as the opposite gender.  Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are the two main protagonists in a few of the stories but Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, James D'Arcy, Hugh Grant, and Susan Sarandon pop up quite regularly.

What is perhaps the main theme of Cloud Atlas is freedom.  In 1849, a British lawyer (Sturgess) tangentially involved in the slave trade makes a choice which alters not only the rest of his life but transforms a slave into a free man.  This has ripple effects throughout the next 500 years.  In 1936, a young and edgy composer (Ben Whishaw) reads the lawyer's journal and gets ideas about a different type of freedom, the mind's freedom to think and create wondrous music.  In 1973, the energy crisis is spawning a transformation from oil to nuclear power; however, an intrepid reporter (Berry) has stumbled upon an evil plan by an industry magnate.  In 2012, an old publisher (Broadbent) mistakenly winds up in an old folks home and must plan his escape with other folks mostly tucked away there by their children waiting for them to die.

The 2012 story does not work very well.  Compared to its five counterparts, it is small-minded, silly, and distinctly feels out of place.  In 2144, the city of Neo Seoul has a new type of cloned-human whose main catechism to follow is 'Honor Thy Consumer'.  Society is based around the human power to shop and the government is now known as Unanimity; thinking for yourself is now entirely out of fashion.  Finally, in 2346 after an event known as 'The Fall', men live in a hunter/gatherer type society on a large island sometimes visited by extremely technologically advanced outsiders who are looking for something.

Cloud Atlas has three separate writer/directors: Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings.  All of them have past work which today is considered visionary; Tykwer with Run Lola Run and the Wachowskis with the Matrix trilogy.  They directed separate sections of Cloud Atlas which may account for the different atmosphere and tones employed in the filmmaking, but the pairing works.  Telling a story which incorporates both laser gun shootouts in 2144 and the whipping of a slave in 1849 probably should have more than one director.  The screenplay is based on a 2004 novel by David Mitchell which most likely tells a tighter and more easily digestible tale than the screen version.

Walking out of the theater after the show is over is an intriguing moment.  Complete strangers will start up a conversation about what they just witnessed.  I had a guy tell me, "You rarely see something like this."  Very true sir; Cloud Atlas is very rare indeed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Other Dream Team (2012)


At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the Soviet Union basketball team beat the U.S. squad for the gold medal and more importantly, bragging rights.  In what is assumed to be a U.S. dominated sport in which an American team had only failed to get the gold once before, they not only lost, but tragically, they lost to communist Soviets.  The Other Dream Team is not about the redemption of bruised American egos or of the games as a geopolitical extension of communism vs. capitalism, it is about the true composition of that 1988 Soviet team.

Four of the starting five players for the Soviet Union were not ethnically Russian, they were Lithuanian.  This is much more than the difference between being from New York rather than Minnesota or from being a dyed in the wool Confederate son rather than a northern Yankee.  Prior to World War II, Lithuania was an independent country.  As the southernmost Baltic state, Lithuania had the unfortunate luck of being sandwiched between global empires bent on totalitarian domination.  Throughout history, the Baltic states were just been a stepping stone on the way to greater battles.

Lithuanians are not Russians though; they have an entirely separate language, culture, and identity.  Lithuanians also love basketball.  In the 1930s, Lithuania even hosted the European basketball championships and won the tournament twice.  However, after the end of World War II and Lithuania’s subsequent envelopment behind the Iron Curtain, the best basketball players played for the Soviet team under the Soviet flag.  Yes, the Soviet Union won the gold in 1988, but to every Lithuanian out there, they know who was really on that court.

The Other Dream Team profiles the star players on that team, and if you are a basketball fan, you will recognize a few of those names including future NBA players Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis.  Growing up in Lithuania, these boys experienced the same hardships as they would have growing up in Russia:  10 year wait limits to buy a worthless car, food shortages, omnipresent suspicion, and no hope of ever seeing the West, let alone playing basketball there.  They played on local club teams and whenever the Army-trained Moscow team came to town, regular life would stop as all Lithuanians would gather round the TV or radio to cheer on the local boys over the Russians who represented what everyone realized was a fading empire.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.  In 1991, Lithuania proclaimed its independence right in front of a brigade of Soviet tanks and menacing troops.  There is news footage and first-hand testimony about fathers and brothers who did not come home after the first independence protests because they were killed by Russian soldiers.  Suddenly and very unexpectedly, the Russians were gone and Lithuania was a country.  They could democratically elect their own leaders, start their own businesses, and certainly not least, march under their own flag at the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Every American who remembers the 1992 Olympics thinks of the Dream Team.  Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson are just three names of the elite talent the U.S. sent to Spain to mop up the competition and restore America’s rightful spot at the top of the basketball pyramid.  They were global superstars, 11 superior basketball phenomenons…and Christian Laettner.  A footnote at the bottom of the Dream Team’s media goliath was the Lithuanian team who could not even afford uniforms.  However, because of an amusing turn of events, The Other Dream Team makes such an unlikely documentary because of the Grateful Dead…as in the band.

The Grateful Dead were big basketball fans and learned about the struggling Lithuanian team’s predicament.  Therefore, in the mail one day arrives boxes of tie-dye t-shirts and shorts with the colors of Lithuania’s flag and a skeleton basketball player on the front.  These items became the most sought after souvenirs at the Barcelona games.  If you were turned off by the megalomania and spectacle of the real Dream Team, Lithuania was the suddenly the team to root for.

The Other Dream Team appeals to basketball fans and will be enjoyed by them the most.  If you are only a passing fan of the sport but are interested in how international relations impacted the athletes or Lithuania’s niche part in the Cold War, you will also enjoy the film.  All others may want to steer clear as the subject matter is not up your alley.  The Other Dream Team is not as hard-hitting as Hoop Dreams, but perhaps that is because of its more uplifting atmosphere.  First time feature documentary writer and director Marius A. Markevicius brings forth an overshadowed, hard-knock group of basketball players from an out of the way country and has the audience truly wishing them victory, even over the likes of Michael Jordan.  This fact alone supports the global reach of the story and everyone’s desire to see the underdog succeed.                

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Seven Psychopaths (2012)


Seven Psychopaths may be the best movie title of the year.  Martin McDonagh certainly has a way of coming up with apt and memorable titles for the audience to carry around with them, he is also responsible for In Bruges (2008).  One could easily argue that Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson were also psychopaths in In Bruges, but Two Psychopaths doesn't work nearly as well when you can cram a full seven in there instead.  Also, if Christopher Walken is one of the psychopaths, then you're most likely doing the right thing.

Two mid-level gangsters are hanging out griping about the gangster business, specifically about whether or not either of them has ever shot anybody through the eyeball.  This is exactly the same conversation the two gangsters in In Bruges could easily have had.  Seven Psychopaths looks like it might might as well be In Bruges 2: Los Angeles.  However, these two gangsters immediately stop their conversation when a hooded assassin somewhat casually walks up behind them, shoots them in the head, and leaves a jack of diamonds on each body - enter the Jack O'Diamonds killer.  This was a good move by McDonagh.  He sets the audience up with two guys spouting Pulp Fiction dialogue and abruptly offs them to let the audience know they better be careful, Seven Psychopaths is odd, unpredictable, and may take a 180 degree turn when they least expect it.  It also means there is a fresh film here and not just an In Bruges knock-off.

There is a film within a film in Seven Psychopaths also named Seven Psychopaths.  Marty (Farrell) is a struggling screenwriter who thinks a bit of alcohol will take the edge off and let the ideas flow…like wine.  The problem is the glass of wine turns into a margarita and then into a bottle of bourbon.  This is no way to reliably develop characters on the page.  Billy (Sam Rockwell) is Marty's actor friend and wants to motivate him but as any good friend does, he reminds Marty that since he is an Irish writer, there is no fighting alcoholism, it is in his blood.  Billy tells Marty some good stories which he should put in his screenplay about the Jack O'Diamonds killer and a guy called the Quaker killer.  Each time one of these stories is told, Seven Psychopaths breaks away from reality and shows us sort of a short story which is narrated by either Billy or Marty.  The real seven psychopaths are not the characters in Martin McDonagh's film, but in Marty's screenplay.  

Billy is only a part-time actor though.  To make money, he works with Hans (Walken) to kidnap dogs, wait for the reward poster to be put up by worried owners, and then heads off to collect the dough.  Naturally, they kidnap the wrong guy's dog.  Charlie (Woody Harrelson) loves his Shih Tzu Bonny.  When Bonny turns up missing, Charlie and his goons start killing people.  It's not all bad news though, these violent segways are really helping out Marty's screenplay even though the body count is starting to rise.  Both Billy and Hans start contributing ideas for the screenplay about character backstories, motivations, and even possible dream sequences and endings.  Running and hiding from a vengeful gangster can be nerve-wracking, but fleshing out an effective screenplay is a good hobby to take your mind off of your troubles for awhile.    

The first half of Seven Psychopaths is one of the best films of the year; unfortunately, the second half torpedoes what was shaping up to be a surprising success.  The psychopath vignettes are original, creative, and the best part of the movie.  An oddball named Zachariah (Tom Waits) pops up to contribute one you will not soon forget.  Halfway though, with the real characters on the run from Charlie, the story is way too reminiscent of Scream.  In the Scream series, the characters knew what was coming next because they were very knowledgeable of the horror genre.  They described the types of characters who would not make it to the end and even in what order they would start to fall.  Seven Psychopaths turns self aware and veers directly into similar territory, but with the action genre.  Billy points out the best spot to have a final showdown, which characters will get shot and why, and he gets quite angry if Marty or Hans does something to interfere with how this is all working out in his head.

If you have not seen In Bruges, go see that instead of Seven Psychopaths.  If you have seen In Bruges and loved it (since everybody loves it), go see Seven Psychopaths and enjoy the first half.  Be aware of the downhill slide it is going to take but don't let it spoil the rest of what really could have been a great action/gangster/buddy film.  Instead, take note of just how good Christopher Walken is here.  He looks like a psychopath already with his spiked, Eraserhead kind of hair, stares into the camera like a psychopath, and is probably the best actor in Hollywood at playing a psychopath.  Hannibal Lector would take one look at Christopher Walken and say, "Wow, this guys is nuts."

Friday, October 12, 2012

Argo (2012)


You don't see the late '70s or early '80s in the movies very often.  Audiences are used to seeing movies set in the '60s, World War II, and the Old West, but seeing action take place in 1980 just feels foreign.  Everybody still smokes, even on airplanes, shirt collars are enormous, Jimmy Carter is the President, and the U.S. Embassy in Iran is being overrun.  

In late 1979, the Shah boarded a 747 out of Iran and the U.S. took him in.  The Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile, the revolution kicked off, and the streets were filled with angry Iranians venting rage at the U.S. for harboring the Shah; they wanted him returned to Iran to stand trial with a certain death sentence.  With stunning camera work right in the middle of the protest outside Tehran's U.S. Embassy, director Ben Affleck shows the anger, rage, and rising potential for violence.  As soon as the first protestor jumps the fence, the Embassy turns full throttle into crisis mode.  Documents are shredded and burned at breakneck speed while employees debate on whether or not to stay or run and hide. 

Six State Department Foreign Service employees working in the visa office elect to get out of Dodge.  They slip out of the embassy and find shelter with the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber) in his residence while the rest of their compatriots are taken hostage for a long stay in the embassy compound at the mercy of the revolutionaries.  It is only a matter of time before the Revolutionary Guard figures out that six Americans escaped; they have small children working in sweatshop like conditions painstakingly taping back together hundreds of shredded documents.  They need to be exfiltrated before time funds out.

Enter CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck).  There are no good options to get the six Americans out of Tehran, but Tony realizes perhaps the more overt the exfil the better.  His superiors initially balk at the absurd idea to transform the Americans into a Canadian film crew, but nobody else is offering a better idea.  Tony flies to Los Angeles to enlist an old CIA asset working as a makeup artist, John Chambers (John Goodman), and an aged out-of-the loop movie producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).  Together, the idea for the fake movie Argo is born.  Tony will fly to Tehran under the guise of scouting locations to film the sci-fi epic.

Argo is a thrilling film.  The suspense of the Americans hiding out at the Ambassador's residence is intercut with the bureaucratic efforts back home of officials deciding whether or not it is even in the U.S.'s best interest to rescue them.  If they are caught trying to sneak out of the country, it could be a major embarrassment for the CIA and the President.  Tony Mendez endures the strategic pressure from the White House led by the Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan (Kyle Chandler) and at the tactical level since not all the employees keeping their heads down in Tehran believe this crazy plan will work.  Supporting actors Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, and especially Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston all convey the urgency of their situations and really do justice to this top notch script.

Affleck creates a memorable atmosphere here.  The streets of Tehran are seething with hatred, the bustling office workers inside the Beltway are trying to chain smoke themselves to a solution, and the Hollywood execs on the West Coast realize they may have a chance to really do something worthwhile for a change.  All of these disparate characters and actors never come into contact on the screen but Argo never once feels choppy or haphazardly spliced together while attempting to make a whole.  It is fluid.  First time feature film writer Chris Terrio crafts a suspenseful thriller from the article "Escape from Tehran" by Joshuah Bearman.  

Ben Affleck has now directed his third good film after Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010).  Argo is by far his best work and will easily find its way onto dozens of Top 10 lists at the end of the year.  Most of us already know what happened in real life with the embassy hostages before the movie even starts.  It is a testament to how good Argo is that knowledge of how it turns out doesn't matter, it's how the film gets the audience to the conclusion which is thrilling.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Master (2012)


Welcome back to the screen Joaquin Phoenix.  Phoenix has always been a gifted actor and now he is back in his first film since Two Lovers (2008).  There was that unfortunate real/fake documentary I'm Still Here (2010) but it appears he has left that episode in the past where it belongs and is ready to get serious again.  Phoenix has a ready-made face for movies.  He has a natural sneer and to play Freddy Quell in The Master, he effectively talks out of the left side of his mouth which creates a sort of mumble.  Freddy is a character the audience will remember for a long time to come.

Just back from naval action in the Pacific during World War II, Freddy does not immediately receive his discharge.  They did not have so many words for it as they do today but Freddy returns with a nervous condition or is perhaps shell-shocked.  Every inkblot he sees in the Rorschach test has to do with a part of the female anatomy or the act of intercourse.  When his sailor buddies create a naked lady out of sand on the beach, Freddy curls up next to it, drapes his arm around her, and falls asleep.  Freddy also has very little to come home to.  There is no family, or at least none he wants to see, so he drifts.  There is vegetable picking on the farm, department store photography, and general vagrancy.

However, there is always a steady supply of hooch.  Freddy is a wizard when it comes to using whatever is under the kitchen sink to make some strong moonshine.  His life is in a downward spiral and much sooner than later, Freddy is going to drink himself to death.  Enter the Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Freddy chooses a very interesting boat to stowaway on.  The Master, aka Lancaster Dodd, has discovered 'The Cause', written a controversial book about it, gains acolytes, and travels the country preaching the new gospel.  Is Lancaster a take on L. Ron Hubbard and the beginnings of Scientology as some allege?  Probably.  There are quite a few similarities between the The Cause and Scientology but the exact tenets of the path to enlightenment are not the immediate concern of the film.

Lancaster sees something in Freddy; exactly what that is may be up to your interpretation.  There is mentor/protege, alcohol supplier/willing recipient, and savior/confused and listless disciple.  Dodd sees a soul ripe for the picking, but Freddy seems to have a pretty good bullshit detector.  The best scenes in the film are Phoenix vs. Hoffman one-on-one in question and answers sessions about Freddy's life and feelings.  Phoenix will most likely earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination for their first back and forth 'processing' segment.  This is similar to what Scientologists call auditing.  I guarantee this scene will nail you to your seat.  But Freddy doesn't always buy what Dodd is selling.  He wavers back and forth between blind adherence and violent skepticism.  

Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), does not trust Freddy and certainly does not appreciate his wishy-washy adherence to the new faith.  Peggy recognizes, correctly, that Freddy is not here for redemption; he just wants to get laid.  Even the all powerful Cause cannot transform and illuminate a blind soul for a billion years who exists only in the here and now.  

The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth film and continues his recent trend of focusing on very strong leading men.  There was Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2008) but he would wipe the floor with Dodd.  These men are strong in completely different ways.  Both are convincing talkers and are looking for the edge to take advantage of the next sucker to cross their path, but Dodd is not looking for a physical confrontation; he's going deeper, he wants your immortal soul.  Anderson is known for long takes and atmospheric shots.  The movie-goer unfamiliar with his previous work (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, etc…) may find The Master tedious and unfocused at times.  Anderson is much better than that though, he is one of the most creative and challenging directors working right now.

The Master is not Anderson's best, There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights are better, but this film deserves to find an audience because of Joaquin Phoenix.  Hoffman may be the Master, but Phoenix owns this film from start to finish; he is approaching Daniel Day-Lewis territory here and that is not a comparison to take lightly. 

The Oranges (2012)


The Oranges borrowed the underlying suburban malaise of American Beauty and remolded it into a comedy.  West Orange, New Jersey resembles the 2000 Best Picture winner but the atmosphere is different.  The characters still make horrible choices which impact their immediate families and friends, but the looming dread and depression are replaced by a lighter air, snappy one-liners, and does its best to keep the grief off screen.

Two families live directly across the street from one another.  The husbands, David (Hugh Laurie) and Terry (Oliver Platt), go jogging together every morning, barbecue together in the afternoons, and sip drinks together at night.  The wives, Paige (Catherine Keener) and Carol (Allison Janney), sip wine most of the day and do their best to ignore their husbands.  This is not a Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice situation either, the adults in these families are close, but platonic.  David and Paige's daughter, Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), moved back home after college to work on her design portfolio; therefore, some years later she still lives at home, works at a local furniture store, and haphazardly works on her portfolio.  Terry and Carol's daughter, Nina (Leighton Meester), disappeared after high school to travel which is code for go to cool cities she has heard about to party.

Each character and couple have their idiosyncrasies to not only help the audience tell them apart, but to establish them in a pattern so they have either an obstacle or an epiphany later on when the plot requires it.  David and Paige have marital problems.  They are in counseling but David is obviously spending most nights out back in his man cave.  Terry and Carol seem fine but it appears to be more of a case of 'Don't rock the boat'.  Nina unexpectedly descends upon the households for Thanksgiving gracing everyone with her presence.  It is gracing because Nina does not have the most stellar attitude.  She is crass with her parents by rolling her eyes at their natural and expected questions and though she strongly denies it, Nina is a natural troublemaker.  She has been all the way to San Francisco and back so now she has all of this world experience which her suburban parents just wouldn't understand.  

It takes only a few days for Nina and David to kiss, act awkward around each other, and then get busted at a motel room by Nina's mom.  Boom, the families are split apart.  Now, in American Beauty, someone would probably wind up dead here.  In The Oranges, many of these break-up scenes are played for laughs, mostly by Terry whose stuttering words and faux attempts at outrage take the tension out of the room.  The most aggrieved party here should be Paige.  Sure, the couple had marital problems, but her husband is cheating on her with a 24 year old!  So, what does the script do to Paige?  It writes her out of it.  Paige disappears for most of the middle of the film to a hotel room leaving David and Nina to flaunt their selfish relationship in front of all the shocked onlookers.

Why selfish?  David and Nina try and explain that they are both happy and isn't that the most important thing in the end?  Those two might be happy, but the five other people directly affected by their affair are devastated.  Well, they would be devastated if this family drama was handled by a dramatic film, but the audience must remind themselves that this is a comedy.  The two writers credited with the screenplay are Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss; it does not come as a shock to find out this is their first feature film script.  Not too many writers would have the idea and then courage to say, "Hey, let's make a funny American Beauty!"

The Oranges is not completely horrid; Oliver Platt is quite funny to watch but that is about all the movie has going for it.  David and Nina's relationship turns out to be the catalyst each separate character needs to change their lives and all for the better.  One starts getting in shape, one discovers charity, and another acts on a long delayed life move.  A ridiculous affair turns out to be just the right kick in the butt people need to turn their lives in the right direction.  Hopefully, the next script from these two guys isn't "Alien vs. Predator: The Musical".

Monday, October 8, 2012

Arbitrage (2012)


Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is guilty of multiple felonies including involuntary manslaughter and investment fraud, but he is not really an evil man.  In fact, the audience is on his side in Arbitrage; you want him to win and get away with it all.  You feel this way not because you're callous and root for the villain, but because the film's writer/director, Nicholas Jarecki, creates complex situations whereby innocent people will be hurt if the culpable party goes down.  You root for the powerful billionaire instead of the persistent detective or any do-gooding truth seekers.

The Millers are a very powerful and wealthy New York City family.  The patriarch, Robert, runs an investment firm who saw the housing bust coming.  The rate of return they earn for their investors appears to be on Wall Street's leading edge.  Robert's wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), is involved in multiple charities, is looking forward to retirement, and turns a blind eye to the secrets she is not supposed to know but seems to have a deeper insight of than most suspect.  Their pride and joy is their brilliant daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) who is the Chief Information Officer at the investment firm.  Robert has it all, family, successful business, friends; however, we learn quite quickly it is built on a foundation transforming very quickly from stone to sand.

The investment firm is involved in some very creative bookkeeping.  This is not to the Bernie Madoff level, but it is noticeable.  Robert made a bad bet and a lot of money is gone at the wrong time.  His firm is going through an audit because a prospective buyer is about to buy the company and provide Robert and his family a very comfortable rest of their lives.  If the audit, or even worse, Brooke discovers the missing money, Robert can kiss all of his hard work goodbye and say hello to a prison cell for the next 20 years.  If this were Robert's only problem, though, maybe he could devote his full attention to it, but he is about to become very distracted.

Contrary to his frequent proclamations and speeches, Robert does take his family for granted because he has a mistress.  Julie (Laetitia Casta) is a fledgling artist but is doing fine because her entire life is subsidized by Robert's affections and money.  On a spur of the moment trip one night to atone for his chronic punctuality problems, Robert falls asleep at the wheel, the car flips, and Julie is dead.  This is not a spoiler because 1) the preview gives it away and 2) the vast majority of the plot relies on it.  Robert is not the first billionaire in a movie with a dead mistress, but he lacks a true Mr. Fix-It.  He cannot be at the scene of the crime because all of the police attention will scare away his company's buyer and then he will have both the fraud charges and the manslaughter charges.  

Robert calls Jimmy (Nate Parker).  Jimmy is probably the one black guy Robert knows and for some awkward reasons, Robert thinks Jimmy will be cool enough to drive upstate, pick him up, and not snitch to the cops about it.  The cop on the case though is Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) and he is no fan of billionaires.  Det. Bryer knows about the affair, knows Robert was the driver, and knows Jimmy went and helped him out.  Jimmy is not talking though so the Detective turns the screws by charging him with obstruction with an attached 10 years in prison to threaten Jimmy to roll over on Robert.

How many problems can one guy really deal with?  Robert has the audit, the dead mistress, and the accomplice who can walk free if he just tells the truth about what happened.  All of these events are effectively juggled by the script, the direction, and the actors.  Every scene has some suspense attached to it because if the wrong person finds out about any of the enormous secrets circling Robert's head, then it's all over.  Arbitrage is Jarecki's first director credit; he was the executive producer on the great 2008 documentary Tyson.  His debut work is so strong that his next effort will most likely garner a lot of attention.  

Thoughtful and complex adult dramas of this caliber do not come along very often; therefore, do yourself a favor and go check it out.  In fact, head to the bar afterwards, order your drink of choice, and sit back and think about it.  Then look up the definition of Arbitrage, it turns out it is a real word.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Frankenweenie (2012)


The town of New Holland must be Tim Burton's dream of what a town should be.  There is a large windmill hovering on the edge of town, an abnormally spacious pet cemetery, and most of the school kids are various shades of macabre characters from horror literature and films.  Even the town's weather is foreboding as there is a nightly thunderstorm accompanied by frequent lightning strikes.  The electrons flying through the clouds in New Holland are always on the lookout for the perfect location to strike.

Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) would be an odd child in a normal town with run of the mill kids, but in New Holland, Victor is not that much different from his peers, although he is much more adept at practical science activities than they are.  The new science teacher, who has the best name of a science teacher ever, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), is an homage to Vincent Price and has the longest upper lip in the history of cinema, live action or stop-motion animation.  Victor's classmates include the Igor knock-off, Edgar 'E' Gore (Atticus Shaffer), Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), an Asian kid named Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao), and the Mummy knock-off, Nassor (Martin Short).  

Sparky is Victor's faithful dog.  He is the star of Victor's amateur 8mm short films, sleeps by his bed at night, and may be Victor's only friend.  After an accident sends Sparky to the pet cemetery, Victor is inconsolable until he sees the science teacher reanimate a dead frog's legs with electricity.  Luckily, Victor has an enormous attic full of all the strange apparatus's it would require to hook up and hoist recently departed Sparky out of the the skylight during a thunderstorm.  You are not far off if it reminds you of Edward Scissorhands.  It works!  Sparky is back; however, looking at Sparky is not very appealing and I cannot imagine really young movie-goers will appreciate his appearance either.  His skin, tail, and ears resemble a patch-work quilt with hideous stitch marks throughout and bolts sticking out of his neck.  Victor has Sparky back but perhaps keeping the whole thing under wraps will be more difficult than bringing the dog back to life.

The school kids are all competing to win the science fair and the competition is fierce.  Instead of following in his ancestor's ways and being a loyal and adept aide, this 'E' Gore is underhanded, conniving, and has a mouth which blabs far too much for a kid who seems to only have three teeth.  Pretty soon, Victor's reanimation facility is not the only game in town.  There is Shelley the turtle (love the pun on the name), Mr. Whiskers the cat, and something called Colossus which are all about to start causing trouble in New Holland.  This is not the most creative Tim Burton film out there, but if it makes a new generation want to seek out the original Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy, then it will serve its purpose. 

Tim Burton directed Frankenweenie but he did not write the script.  More scenes in the classroom with the science teacher would be welcome instead of science fair experiment treachery.  Also, Winona Ryder's character Elsa Van Helsing is far too underused; here is a supporting character who could have really given this story a needed jolt.  Despite its kid-friendly previews, I would not take the youngest of the young to the theater for this one.  There are enough knowing side gags for the adults and creepy crawly humor for the 3rd graders, but younger than that…probably not their cup of tea.  The story is a bit forgettable but the wink-wink praise for its horror ancestors makes Frankenweenie worth the trip.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Taken 2 (2012)


Released in 2008, Taken came out of nowhere to earn $145 million at the box office on just a $25 million budget.  The movie-going public recognizes fresh material when they see it.  Taken was original, creative, driven, and hosted one of the most memorable protagonists in recent memory.  Of course they would have to make a sequel to wring some more money out of Taken's fans.

A review of a movie sequel which starts outs praising the first installment instead of the new story is most likely not going to be very kind to the unfortunate title which ends in the number 2.  Taken 2 keeps Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, Famke Janssen as his ex-wife Lenore, and the always relentlessly annoying Maggie Grace as his daughter Kim.  Rule of thumb - if Maggie Grace is cast in your film, it will probably stink.  This is her second feature film in 2012, after Lockout, so she is 0-2 this year.  The bad guys are also mostly the same; they are the extended family of the first group of Albanians Bryan killed after they kidnapped his daughter and sold her into sex slavery.  Now they want revenge; they must honor their dead sons and brothers.  It doesn't matter that their sons and brothers were human traffickers, rapists, and murderers.  Family honor is family honor ya know?  

Bryan is growing close with his family again.  After a few days of work in Istanbul as a heavily armed bodyguard, Byran invites Lenore and Kim to Turkey to take in the sights and relax in a very posh hotel.  Fortunately for the Albanians, this is where they are going to kidnap Bryan, transport him back to Albania, and torture him to death.  The introduction of mom and daughter is a cherry on top for the head bad guy Murad (Rade Serbedzija).  He is older with grey hair; I mention this because all of the other couple dozen bad guys run together, he is the only one you will remember.  In Taken, Bryan had it comparatively easy.  He had one person to save and could methodically move through the ranks of thugs as he stabbed and shot his way to the top.  Now, not only does he have to watch his own back, he must save both mom and daughter, sometimes alternating which one he can help at any given moment.

The original Taken was so good because of Bryan's practical and purposeful methods of extracting information, Neeson's deadpan delivery, and the ins and out of seedy Paris locales.  Now take everything which made Taken a great movie and divide it by two.  You already know the story, you know Bryan will talk slowly and concisely about how he has certain skills, and this time you get to suffer a bit more because Maggie Grace gets more screen time.  The camera work also takes a nosedive during hand to hand combat.  The camera shakes, jumps up and down, does some jumping jacks, and the average edit is probably .002 seconds.  The audience has no hope of logically following who is punching whom or where a new bad guy springs up from.  Scenes where Bryan fights with a loaded pistol are much easier to watch.

It's not that I'm mad at writer Luc Besson or director Olivier Megaton; they probably were under a lot of pressure to re-create the Taken magic.  Unfortunately, they did not do a very good job.  The story is only a bit laundered from the first one and everything else is merely imitation.  Stay away from Taken 2, it will only remind you of its superior predecessor.