Arbitrage

September 30, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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You could be forgiven for wondering how you have never heard of this big Fall Oscar-bait of a movie starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth. It certainly seems like the type of film whose previews play on every station and in every theater for 2 months before it premieres.  Yet, for reasons I am unclear on, this one has had a positively indie release with scarcely a drop of advertising.  Which is funny because this film is anything but indie.  It follows the misdeeds of venture capitalist Robert Miller (Richard Gere) as he tries to simultaneously close a sale, keep folks from finding out he cooked the books and avoid a homicide cop (Tim Roth) who is hot on his trail.  Unlike many recent films I’ve seen, the plot is absolutely linear (without so much as a flashback or dream sequence) and every artistic decision (from dialogue to cinematography to musical score) seems to be as mainstream Hollywood as possible.  That said, Gere is devilish fun to watch, if you like rooting for the devil, that is.  He is in his element as the leading man and looks to be perfectly comfortable with the role of the audiences tour guide.  The dialogue can be snappy and fun, with Sarandon having the privilege of giving the movie’s zinger come-to-jesus speech (and she spits out every line of that speech with relish, perhaps attempting to make up for her somnambulance through much of the rest of the film).   Also, the plot moves quickly along, never boring the viewer who is just looking for some entertainment in the sub-genre that I might call thriller-lite.  If you want depth and insight, art, truth or the thought-provoking, then I might suggest something else; “The Master” perhaps.

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Looper

September 29, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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Much has been said about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s nose (like Nicole Kidman’s in “The Hours”), how distracting it is and whether it makes him look more like Bruce Willis.  Yes- it is distracting and reminds us of the paradox of cinema (ie that we can except familiar faces in various roles– good, evil and otherwise– but we are thrown off by slight tweaks to those same faces; I suppose it is a product of evolution that we can accept aging an actor more easily than changing their profile).  And, I guess, no- the nose doesn’t really make him look that much like Willis, though a scene at a café table reveals how exact a copy it is.  However, Gordon-Levitt deserves his due credit for making every effort to mimic Willis’s trademark facial expressions and body language; there is a reason that they ask him to mimic Willis rather than the other way around that has everything to do with how talented an actor he is.  As for the film beyond the nose, I must say I found it to be more than passable summer fair (late summer?  Okay, fall.  But it should have been summer fare).  While not as fun as “The Avengers,” it takes itself less seriously than “The Dark Knight Rises” and seems to find the right balance between ponderous science fiction and winking action film.  It lacks the head-over-heels action or stunning visuals of this year’s “Total Recall” but the far more nuanced story reminded me of another 80’s Schwarzenegger hit: “Terminator.”  I’m sure director Rian Johnson (whose rather brilliant “Brick” was an homage to 40’s film noir) was well aware of the parallels about a time traveler trying to kill a child  to prevent the man he becomes.  Just as I’m sure he intended such nods as naming the boy’s mother “Sara” and giving a throw away role to Garret Dillahunt, who played a terminator in the “Sarah Connor Chronicles” TV series.   The basic plot arc unfolds fairly early and most viewers will get a sense of exactly where the film is going.  However, it takes a couple of dark detours along the way and has an ending that I hadn’t been able to predict.  Also, kudos to the promoters who were smart enough to leave key elements of the movie out of the previews; being surprised in an action film is itself a surprise these days.   So, better than “Total Recall?”  Definitely. “The Avengers?”  Definitely not.  “The Dark Knight Rises?”  Close, but I gotta give it to “Looper” by a nose.  Complaints and groans welcome in the comments.

End of Watch

September 23, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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As far as the fast-paced, thrill ride, cop drama goes, I would say this belongs near the top of the list.  Through a clever use of hand-held cameras mixed with the more traditional, stationary ones, the viewer is easily drawn into the steady stream of action on screen.  The film covers three months in the lives of two beat officers (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) in South Central L.A., one of whom is video taping their tours of duty for a class.  We get some scenes of criminals who are recording themselves or the officers in their personal lives at weddings, quinceañeras, etc. but most of the film focuses on these two men on duty.  Scenes of them laughing and joking with each other feel intimate and real and the audience laughs with their easy camaraderie.   Likewise, scenes of violent engagement are tense and I could feel my heart racing.  While this film could have been a series of disconnected scenes (ie a random slice of life for two cops), it definitely has a narrative arc that builds toward a fairly predictable ending.  That one flaw aside, I found the movie engaging and fun for what it was: a grown-ups cop/buddy movie.

The Master

September 22, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Posted in 2012 | 3 Comments
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After a good deal of time pondering The Master, I’m still not really sure what I think.  The fourth film in six weeks that deals with the human need to trust others and its ability to be exploited (see “The Imposter,” “Compliance” and “Kumaré”), this one feels like the weakest at making that point.  The critics who call this an awful film are being unduly harsh but it is a difficult film.  Rather than any form of a traditional arc, the story drifts (a bit like L Ron Hubbard’s Sea Org) from scene to scene; we get powerful moments of anger, panic, hubris and desperate pain that would have been more meaningful had they been moored more firmly to narrative.  We also get moments that may or may not have been real (were those women really dancing naked?  If so, how did that suddenly materialize?  If not, what is the context for the next scene?  Did Freddie really get a call in a movie theater?  If so, how did Lancaster find him?  If not, how did he know to go to England?) that only add to the viewer’s confusion and, therefore, to a growing sense of disconnect from the characters and, therefore, the stories message.  All of that said, Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of the year.  This is one of those truly, truly brilliant performances that immediately called to mind Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.”  Phoenix transforms himself; he carries his body like a man curled in on himself with pain (shoulders up, back hunched) and his face seems older and more broken.  Even his walk is different.  As brilliant as Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are, and both these performances would outshine most people in most films, they pale next to the energy coming off of Phoenix.  In this role, he establishes himself as possibly the best male actor of his generation (yes, beating out DiCaprio, Franco, Gosling and Bale) and on par with the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis.  For him alone, I would recommend this film.  I would give his performance ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ and the story itself ◊.  I’ve split the difference.

A Separation

September 18, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Posted in 2012 | 1 Comment
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I have come to this film a little late, renting it on DVD because I missed it when it was in theaters in January.  I was interested because it won an Oscar for best foreign film this year and I have to say that I am thrilled that I caught it.  It is filmed entirely in Tehran and we are treated to a fascinating look into modern Iranian culture.  The film tells the story of a husband and wife separating and the effects this has on everyone.  While it appears to me to be a morality tale on the dangers of divorce, the story unfolds in such a believable way and with such sincerity that it is hard to hold that against them.  The film is full of beautiful, sensitive performances from all the actors (the husband, wife, their daughter, his father, the housekeeper and her husband) and tells a story of small, incremental errors of judgement, followed by little lies and then bigger ones that lead to sorrow and regret.  This is not an American melodrama and every step on this path is completely believable; I sympathized with every poor choice and every lie to cover it up.  This makes the final moments that much more heart-wrenching, when you get a full sense that everyone has paid an emotional price, that none of them can see themselves as wholly innocent or good again.

Keep The Lights On

September 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I would consider this another fine example in what I might call the sub-genre of “realistic relationship films.”  Much like “Blue Valentine” from two years ago, this movie deals with the coming together and falling apart of a modern relationship and like last years “Weekend,” it looks at the struggles unique to modern gay relationships.  I loved both of those films and this one as well.  The lead actors (Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth) have a fantastic chemistry and it is easy to believe they are madly in love.  Both give natural and convincing performances, though Lindhardt (already a huge star in his native Denmark) steals the show.  His Eric is constantly full of wonder and so fragile that he gives the film an intense sense of intimacy.  I must say that this film does not succeed for me as much as those other two did, partly because Eric was so completely (and believably) co-dependent that I got a bit tired of him toward the end; I really wanted him to set a limit on Paul’s emotionally manipulative behaviors.  But, of course, he does not.  As is true to life, neither man changes in any core way.  They come together and then they slowly come apart and, along the way, we get to see something beautiful and sad and courageous and painful and, most importantly, true about what love is and isn’t, what it can do and what it cannot.

Samsara

September 9, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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For those of you who know “Baraka,” the format of this film will be remarkably familiar to such a degree that you might wonder why make this sequel at all.  However, I would have to gently disagree.  During its 99 minute running time, I found myself far more mesmerized than bored and, though the format & message were the same, none of the images were.  For the uninitiated, “Samsara” has no speaking at all: no dialogue or narration.  In fact, it has no human voices except those singing faintly during some musical pieces.  It is simply images from around the world stitched together in a way to highlight the beauty, the frailty and the transience of life and culture.  We are shown stunning scenes of nature, powerful images of diverse human dignity, the majesty of great human civilizations (crumbled and rising), and human need for the spiritual and the profane.  All is presented without comment and, to my mind, without judgement.  It is all simply part of who we are: beautiful, needy, weak and strong.  When NASA next sends a vessel into deep space, with all of its maps, photographs, anatomy lessons and recordings of human sounds, it should also have this movie because it captures so many parts of what it means to be human that we would otherwise forget to mention.

Premium Rush

September 1, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment

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“Top Gun” on bikes; I think that pretty much sums up this fast-paced bit of summer.  Like sun tea, homemade ice cream and BBQ this is exactly the sort of thing you expect this time of year.  A cocky pretty boy proves he is the best of all bike messengers because he’s daring to the point of suicidal.  There is a love interest, a pseudo-villain, in the form of a competing messenger, and a real villain, in the form of a corrupt cop (of course).  Joseph Gordon-Levitt winks and smirks his way through this high-speed caper that involves Wilee (as in the coyote, get it?) rushing through Manhattan traffic while being chased by said cop, played with maniacal intensity by Michael Shannon (who was truly truly brilliant in last year’s “Take Shelter).  Why?  Wilee is trying to deliver a movie ticket (nice touch) that represents thousands of dollars that the cop needs in order to stay alive but that is really to pay for a Chinese child’s entry into this country (legally, it is pointed out) so that he can be reunited with his mother.  Awwww…. the audience is supposed to say.  Why does a movie ticket represent thousands of dollars?  Because the story needs Wilee to be carrying something valuable, heartwarming and small.  The reasons provided in the movie are so improbable as to be beyond the point of mentioning.  Once I had discarded the plot (as surely as the director did), I discovered a fresh take on the old trope.  With a nifty use of modern special effects, director David Koepp was able to keep me entertained with some great bike tricks and pulse-quickening traffic scenes.  For all the nonsense, I was seldom bored.  It won’t stay with me long but it was sweet while it lasted; what more do you want from summer candy?

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