Thursday, January 31, 2013

Don't Know What's Worse. The anti-gay remarks or the "apology"

Homophobia exists in sports and everywhere else.    This is not news.   Do I believe that it's 2013 and we as a society haven't fully found a way to get past the fact that there are homosexuals?   Do I find it ridiculous that we can't?  Yes and yes, but that's not the issue I'm discussing.    

During an interview on Artie Lange's radio show, 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver was asked if there are any gay players in the Niners' locker room.    His response, "I don't do the gay guys.   I don't do that.   We ain't got no gay people on the team."  When asked if he would do if he found out a gay player was in his locker room, Culliver replied, "They gotta get up outta here."   When asked further if gay players should come out of the closet while still active, Culliver replied, "They gotta come out 10 years after (they retire)."    Not eloquently said, but his point is pretty clear.     Culliver had to know that his remarks would come back to haunt him quickly, especially during Super Bowl week where media is everywhere.

24 hours later, Culliver released a statement through the Niners:  "The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, they are not how I feel.   It has taken me seeing them in print to realize they are hurtful and ugly."   First off, Culliver wrote that.   Sure he did.    Who would ever doubt that the latter statement came from the same guy who spoke on Lange's program?
And what in the blue hell does, "They were a reflection of thoughts in my head, they are not how I feel," even mean?

Here's my issue.   Culliver's initial response was definitely anti-gay.    He doesn't want homosexuals on his team or anywhere near him.    That's obvious and even though it's not an enlightened opinion, it's his opinion and he is welcome to it.    To me, I don't know what's worse.   The statement or the apology which was formed by the Niners' public relations gurus.    Culliver has also said he was "just kidding" and "fooling around" on Lange's show.    Dude, no you weren't.    I'd respect you more if you just owned up to what you said.    Of course, such a thing isn't likely to happen and now the guy will have to be trotted around in front of the media to give an insincere and half-assed mea culpa.   

If there were no repercussions, Culliver wouldn't apologize for a word of what he said.    But come on, I highly doubt any of his apologies from here on out will be from his heart.     He will manipulated by the 49ers in order to protect their brand and protect their spaceship from being detoured on its way to Planet Ka-ching.   

To me, it's simple.   Knowing that you will be forced to issue an apology you don't really mean, don't say stupid things like that at all, even if it is what you believe.    Even if it was a bold-faced lie, Culliver should've said, "Live and let live, it's all good."  or something equally ambivalent.     Since the apology and all of the crap that follows will be a lie anyway, why not just watch what you say at the outset?    In Culliver's case, he's sorry he got caught, not sorry for his remarks.  

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) * * * 1/2

Silver Linings Playbook Movie Review

Directed by:  David O. Russell

Starring:  Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver

David O. Russell's dramedy Silver Linings Playbook walks a fine line, no make that a tightrope, in its depiction of mental illness.    It reminds me a lot of As Good As It Gets, in which Jack Nicholson's Melvin Udall is mentally ill, but the film works anyway because the right tone is established.     Three of the main characters are disturbed in some fashion, yet they remain touching, human, and likable.   
A good rule of thumb is that if we care about the characters, everything else settles in just right.

As the film opens, Pat Solitano (Cooper), a former Philadelphia teacher is released from a mental hospital after serving eight months of a sentence for nearly beating his wife's lover to death.    He is determined to get his wife back despite a restraining order and believes he can if he follows his delusional path.    Excelsior! is his rallying cry and although we don't know what it means, it sure sounds good.    He returns home to his father, Pat Sr. (DeNiro), a superstitious Eagles fan who believes the Eagles will win as long as Pat Jr. is watching the game with him.   

Pat Sr. himself is not without his own troubles.    He is banned from Lincoln Financial Field because of fighting and he realizes all too well that his own issues may have played a role in his son's.    Oh and he also bets more and more recklessly on Eagles games which may endanger the family's finances.   Pat's mother Dolores (Weaver) more or less acts as someone who has dealt with all of this many times before and can only cope the best she can.     Weaver and DeNiro create a believable, grounded, loving marriage.   

Putting a monkey wrench into Pat's plans for redemption is Tiffany (Lawrence), a young local widow who likes Pat and is able to communicate on a deep level with him because she is offbeat herself.     She uses sex as a way of coping with her husband's death.    At one point, she said she was fired from her job because she was having sex with everyone in her office, including women.     Pat is drawn to her and obviously likes her, but doesn't want to have sex because he fears it would be cheating on his estranged wife.     I was reminded of the funny line in Edward Burns' She's The One, where a character says, "You don't want to cheat on your girlfriend with your wife?"    Tiffany serves a purpose for Pat because she has contact with his ex-wife and can prove to be useful in this regard.    He, at first, has no other ideas what she may be useful for.   She agrees to give the ex-wife a letter from Pat in exchange for Pat's agreement to be her dance partner in a local contest.   

Cooper and Lawrence have chemistry and a lot in common.    They are so interesting to watch because they play by their own set of rules and you never know what will happen next, even if you think you know what will.     I enjoyed their performances immensely.    DeNiro's work is his best in many years.    He creates a stubborn, wounded, yet caring father who wants nothing more than a happy household and Eagles wins, not necessarily in that order.  

The film takes on the ebb and flow of a romantic comedy and I found myself drawn in to this goofy world.    It's not a case of where Pat's troubles are all cured because of Tiffany or love.    He simply finds a way to make things work within a world that doesn't operate by his standards and never will.    I wonder if he ever got his teaching job back. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Bronx Tale (1993) * * *

Directed by:  Robert DeNiro

Starring:  Chazz Palmintieri, Robert DeNiro, Lillo Brancato

When this film was first advertised upon its release, I thought I was in for a battle over a Bronx teenager's soul between the boy's father and a local mobster.    Because that never really materialized, I was rather disappointed in it and left it at that.    Upon more viewings, I liked it more.    The film is based on Palmintieri's autobiographical one-man play.   I'd be fascinated to see how he plays all of these unique characters.   

In A Bronx Tale, Palmintieri plays only one role, that of Sonny.   Sonny is a tough local mobster who takes a boy nicknamed C under his wing at an early age, becoming a street father figure to him.    C's actual father, played by DeNiro, is a straight-arrow bus driver who works hard for a living and wants to instill in his son that there are no shortcuts in life.    C's father warily eyes Sonny from a distance and fears his influence on his son.   Sonny dresses flashy and is feared.   When asked if he would rather be loved than feared, Sonny answers unequivocally that he would rather be feared.    Sonny is no-nonsense and exercises his power confidently.    It's easy to understand how C would want to emulate him.   Then again, C's father is a good man who does things the right way and if C emulated him, it wouldn't be such a bad idea.   Plus, he would likely avoid trouble,

A Bronx Tale captures a strong sense of time and place with its look at the 1960's Bronx.    The story centers more on C making wise choices with support from both his father and Sonny.   Both men love him and want to help him.    Sonny isn't using C or leading him down a sure path to hell.  In a way, C is the son he never had.    Sonny's father is frustrated by his perception that he is losing his son, but an insightful line of dialogue Dad tells Sonny near the end puts his feelings into perspective.    Both men have C's best interests in mind, despite going about the rest of their lives in much different ways. 

Sometimes movies don't click right away.   Expectations are different and it occasionally takes a viewing or more to understand and enjoy what is being presented.    Now that I think of it, I'd rather not see a story of two men fighting over a teenager's soul.     I find A Bronx Tale to be a strong example of a teenager who was able to make something of himself thanks to two very positive authority figures in his life.    Some kids are lucky even to have one. 

Lincoln (2012) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  Steven Spielberg

Starring:  Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader

Steven Spielberg's epic Lincoln focuses on the final few months of the President's life, which ultimately would help shape and define his enduring legacy.    During this time, the Civil War was drawing to a close and Lincoln was pushing for the passage of the 13th Amendment, which would end slavery in the United States.    Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but this carried little legal weight and once the war ended, Lincoln believed that slavery would become a states' rights issue.   In a moving and revealing speech to his cabinet, Lincoln outlines that the Emancipation was an exercise of his undefined war powers and without an amendment abolishing slavery, the Emancipation would be held up for years in courts and slavery would continue.     It is during this speech we see that Abraham Lincoln would be portrayed in a way we hadn't seen before; as a plain-spoken man who understands the rules of politics and plays them to his advantage.   

Does this go against the "Honest Abe" persona that Lincoln has been given throughout history?  Yes it does, but it's ultimately more realistic.    Lincoln wasn't above quid pro quo in order to get the amendment passed.   He was a realist more than anything, knowing that a few rules would have to be bent in order for the greater good to prevail.   Another major player in the amendment vote is Pennsylvania senator Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a staunch abolitionist who understands that he needs to secure votes to pass the amendment.   He sees that despite his feelings,  the entire situation must be played very diplomatically.   

In that sense, Lincoln focuses on the chess game that is politics.    Very few movies have ever shown the political process in action like this one does.    It shouldn't come as a surprise that politics went on almost the same as it does today, with compromises as a major component.    I also saw Abraham Lincoln in a more intimate way than I ever have before.    Lincoln is performed by Day-Lewis not as a man who knows he will have a secure place as one of our greatest Presidents, but as a pragmatist who is weary to the bone due to the war & the need to pass the 13th amendment.     He has a folksy, self-effacing way of expressing himself, telling stories as a way to capture his audience enough to let his point sink in.    When Lincoln dies, I didn't get the feeling that a giant had passed, but a person I knew had died.  

I also admired Tommy Lee Jones' work as the crotchety Stevens, who has his own reasons to want the 13th Amendment passed.    He and Lincoln have a chat at a party in which both understand without saying it that the failure to pass the amendment wasn't an option.    There are plenty of moments in Lincoln in which much depends on what isn't said vs. what is said.   Another wrinkle is presented by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's eldest son who wants to join the Army despite the objections of his mother (Field), who is still grieving the loss of her younger son a few years before.    Lincoln is truly caught in the middle between his son's desires and his wife's grief, which has kept a hold on her.     This is yet another example of Lincoln's world being shown as one big gray area.

It would've been easy for Spielberg to present Lincoln as an overwrought historical drama with Lincoln delivering thundering speeches and everyone being in awe as if they read about him in history books that were printed 100 years later.    By showing Lincoln as sometimes unsure, vulnerable, pragmatic, and human, it delivers a portrait of the man as well as the President that is touching. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

U2: Rattle and Hum (1988) * *

Directed by: Phil Joanou

Starring:  Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr, BB King

U2: Rattle and Hum would've been a better movie if it was decided early on whether it was going to be a concert film or a documentary.    The film is both and moves back and forth between the two very uneasily.    If the behind-the-scenes footage was nearly as compelling as the concert footage, we would've really had something here.   

The film follows the Irish band through its 1987 Joshua Tree tour, documenting its shows and its stops along the way.    The Joshua Tree was a milestone in the band's evolution to the mainstream.    I saw their concert at the Spectrum in September 1987 and they really put on a strong show.   In some cases, as with Where The Streets Have No Name filmed in Tempe, AZ, the live version of the song hits emotional arcs that the album version doesn't.     Live versions of Bad and With Or Without You are also stronger than the original album versions.    The original songs written for the film are also very good.   

The "revealing" behind-the-scenes stuff leaves plenty to be desired.    The scenes don't reveal much at all about the band.    They have such a guarded feel to them that one wonders why they were filmed at all.    The years that have passed since the film have shown Bono to be an interesting, compassionate man whose charity work is never ending.    The Bono shown here is none of those things.    The group is displayed in the same vein as a magician who doesn't want to reveal the secrets to his tricks.    

Then comes the concert footage, shot in slick visuals and even in black & white at certain points.   U2 is a great live band and Rattle and Hum does little to change that impression.   Then, cut to the band backstage or at rehearsal sitting around trying not to be boring.    Is there a belief that performers are always "on" while performing and relish in the chance to veg out?    That's very likely and I certainly understand it, but it doesn't make for a good documentary.

Argo (2012) * * * *

Directed by: Ben Affleck

Starring:  Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin

Argo is "based on a declassified true story" according to the ads.    I don't how much of what happens in Argo actually happened, but what's here is taut, suspenseful, and thrilling.   Movies takes plenty of dramatic license with "true stories", but since the idea is to entertain first and foremost, I have no issue if the finished product is done well.    Argo is done extremely well.

The Iran hostage crisis is the backdrop for Argo.    In late 1979, Iranian protesters stormed the US Embassy and took its workers hostage for what turned out to be a 444-day ordeal.    The protesters were angry that the recently deposed Shah was being treated in New York for terminal cancer and the US refused to deliver him back to Iran to face charges of crimes against humanity.    It's funny.    Back in 1979-1980, the Shah was seen as a harmless ally to the US deposed by an "extremist" Islamic regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini.    In reality, the Shah was a despot who oppressed his people, but since he was good for US business interests in Iran, he was "the good guy" and treated as such. 

During the raid, six American embassy workers escaped and found refuge in the Canadian ambassador to Iran's home.   Knowing that the Americans would soon be discovered and likely killed, the CIA tasks agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) to rescue the six Americans.   Since there were tense diplomatic negotiations ongoing to release the hostages, it could never be made known that the CIA was involved at all in attempting to smuggle the Americans out of Iran.   

Mendez is a brilliant strategist.  Knowing that he can't simply helicopter in and rescue the Americans, nor could he lead them over hundreds of miles in the Iranian mountains, Mendez comes up with a scheme that was bold, tenuous, and had numerous opportunities to go wrong.    He plans on conjuring up a story that the six Americans are actually a Canadian film crew working on a science-fiction movie called Argo and the crew is scouting locations to shoot the film.    As Mendez puts it to his superiors, "This is the best bad idea we have."

In order to make the movie seem legitimate, Mendez hires an actual movie producer (Arkin) and a movie special-effects wiz (Goodman) to set up a phony production company and promote the film publicly.   They even use an unproduced script and print up business cards.     By the time Mendez goes to Iran to put the plan into motion, there are stories in the Hollywood trade papers about the film, which goes a long way in convincing the naturally suspicious Iranians.

Argo is tightly wound and edited.    It contains very little fat and concentrates only on things which push the story forward.    It has a sense of time and place which add to its effect.    It's much more suspenseful to see CIA agents having to rely on wits and ingenuity rather than just have to strike some computer keys to solve an issue.    Also, there is plenty of humor in the Hollywood scenes for effective comic relief before the main event, which is Mendez' efforts to rescue the Americans while undetected by the Iranians.    Mendez believes the going out via the Tehran airport is the best way to go.   It's almost like hiding in plain sight, but he sees this as the least risky option in an assignment riddled with risks.

Affleck has already directed two other movies, Gone Baby Gone and The Town.   Both were very good efforts.   Affleck showed he could move scenes along and worked at a brisk pace.   Argo not only masters pace, but also an intense focus which heightens the suspense.   The performances aren't flashy, but all the more powerful.   The final scenes at the Tehran airport are filled with nearly unbearable tension because Affleck was able to show that the human stakes were so high.    Normally, CIA films are by the numbers action thrillers.   Here we care about everyone involved personally.   It doesn't matter how much of Argo was true or not true, Argo is a memorable film. 

The Watch (2012) * *

Directed by:  Akiva Schaffer

Starring:  Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Billy Crudup

The Watch is a basic formula buddy comedy with plenty of dick jokes and potty mouth humor.  Oh, and it's also about an alien invasion of a small Ohio town.    Is it a terrible movie?  No, it has some laughs in it and the actors go over and above the material.    Is it memorable?  Not really.   It doesn't really rise to the level of great comedies because it really has no intention to do so.

Ben Stiller plays a manager of a local Costco where the overnight security guard is murdered one night.   Actually, what happens to him is more like what happens when a bug hits a windshield.   This inspires Stiller to form a neighborhood watch, in which he is joined by Vaughn, Hill, and Richard Ayadade as a black Englishman named Jamarcus.    

Soon enough, the guys stumble across a bizarre helmet which has the capability of blowing things to smithereens.   They do this to a cow, truck, car, etc.   This is done in a montage that is exhausted long after the point is made.   Then, Stiller seemingly kills the alien owner of the helmet.    What to do?  Vaughn sees the riches that could be made and many photos are taken of the guys with the alien.   It comes as no surprise that simulated anal sex is included as part the photo package.

It seems in more and more comedies lately, the humor is based on penis jokes and veiled homoeroticism.    Some of them get a good laugh, others are tiresome and there you have it.    Is any of the alien stuff really inspired?  No.  In fact, I think it would've been better if the story kept the neighborhood watch guys battling earthly issues.    By the end when the guys are battling hordes of alien creatures, it doesn't differ much from other battles in serious alien invasion movies.   This reminds of zombie movies; no matter how the material is approached, sooner or later it comes down to a battle between the humans and zombies.  

The actors do what they can.   Stiller is a grounded straight man, while Vaughn's approach is more of an improvisational feel.    They bring energy to a story that needs every bit of it.   But ultimately, it's not enough to make The Watch a not horrible, but rather pedestrian effort. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Crossfire Hurricane (2012) * *

Directed by:  Brett Morgen

Starring:  The Rolling Stones

To date, I can think of three major concert films starring the Stones (Gimme Shelter, Let's Spend The Night Together, and Shine A Light).   Throw in all kinds of documentaries, interviews, newspaper articles, and I'm wondering why Crossfire Hurricane was even necessary.   The documentary, which can be seen on HBO, is a meandering look at the Stones in the 60s and 70s.   Is there a part two on the way?  After all, the Stones did perform and make albums in the 80s as well.  

The voiceover portions by the members of the Stones are taken from recent interviews in which the cameras weren't allowed to record the interview.    I won't begin to speculate as to why this is.    But the film was made to commemorate the group's 50th anniversary and it starts off in 1962 showing early footage of early concerts.    If the film is to be believed, success came rather quickly for the group and they were soon rivaling The Beatles in popularity here and in the UK.   They started off playing small clubs and then moved on to big clubs and then TV faster than you can say Rolling Stones.    In Beatles documentaries, at least you see them toiling in British dungeon-like clubs and in Hamburg for a few years before getting their break.  There had to be a struggle, no?

The Stones were seen more as the anti-Beatles.   They weren't a very handsome bunch and weren't as big on hygiene, but their music resonated with fans as more edgy than what the Beatles were producing at the time.    The songs lacked polish, almost deliberately, because the Stones were happier being antiheroes to the masses.   In a sense, they were precursors to the punk movement.

Their place in rock history is obvious and can't be denied.    However, what more can be said about them that hasn't already been said.   There is nothing here that's fresh or hasn't been covered before.   Many of the songs have been played time and again.    There isn't even a benefit of seeing the Stones today:  wiser, older, weather beaten, but still rocking well for guys pushing 70.    Wouldn't it be something to see the guys performing today?   Maybe that will be in part two.  

I don't know.   The film's heaviest focus comes up to and including 1978, but I get the feeling that the movie ended just as it was really getting started.   How about some insight into the strained Jagger/Richards relationship?   Bill Wyman left and the group I'm sure had to struggle with maintaining relevance in the 80s.   Then again, maybe there's a sequel in the works.    Let's hope.

85th Academy Awards Predictions

Here are this year's Oscar nominees and predictions.   It's a strange year to say the least.

Best Picture

Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Les Miserables
Zero Dark Thirty
Django Unchained
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi

Prediction:  Argo.    Normally, a film nominated without its director also being nominated has little or no chance of winning.    However, this film has won at every awards show so far this season and I have little reason to believe it won't here. 

Best Director

Michael Haneke (Amour)
Benh Zietlin (Beasts Of The Southern Wild)
Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)
Ang Lee (Life of Pi)
David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)

Prediction:  Steven Spielberg.   Ben Affleck is inexplicably not nominated for Argo, so Spielberg will win his third directing Oscar as a consolation prize.  

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)
Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables)
Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)
Denzel Washington (Flight)

Prediction:  Daniel Day-Lewis.   This will be his third Oscar win.  

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)
Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
Emanuelle Riva (Amour)
Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts Of The Southern Wild)
Naomi Watts (The Impossible)

Prediction:  Jessica Chastain.  Despite Lawrence's win in the SAG awards, I'm sticking with the Golden Globe winner Chastain.   Plus as goofy as Lawrence has been acting lately, I have to wonder how much of her performance was actually acting. 

Best Supporting Actor:

Alan Arkin (Argo)
Robert DeNiro (Silver Linings Playbook)
Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)
Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)
Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)

Prediction:  Tommy Lee Jones.   Won SAG award.  First time in which all nominees were previous Oscar winners.   Not a slam dunk.   

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams (The Master)
Sally Field (Lincoln)
Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)
Helen Hunt (The Sessions)
Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook)

Prediction:  Anne Hathaway.   Sally Field has two wins in two previous nominations, but her streak is broken here.   Anne sings well and when a pretty girl uglies herself up for a role, it warrants serious consideration. 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook

Prediction:  Argo.  A script that's full of wit and suspense, plus Hollywood gets to play hero!

Best Original Screenplay

Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Zero Dark Thirty

Prediction:  Moonrise Kingdom .   Not a film I liked, but it's quirky and weird, which usually wins out in this category.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Tree Of Life (2011) *

Directed by:  Terence Malick

Starring:  Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain

The Tree Of Life is a wonderfully complex film which is awe-inspiring...if you're on dope or just dropped some serious LSD.    Since I do none of those things, I'm stuck watching a boring mess of a film which inspired me to see how well the fast-forward button works on my DVR.   

The last Malick film I saw, 1998's The Thin Red Line, was a long, absolutely mind-numbingly boring existential piece focusing on American soldiers in the Pacific in World War II.     I'm not one for hyperbole, but it was one of the worst films I had ever seen.   13 years later, the newest Malick film will be in the same company.

The Tree Of Life stars Penn as Jack, an architect who suffered a recent familial loss and is now thinking back to his childhood.    During his flashbacks, he visualizes his mother, father, brothers, and if I'm correct, the big bang, the creation of life, single-celled organisms growing into larger organisms, dinosaurs, etc. etc.   All the while, questions are being asked of God.   I don't know what all of this is supposed to mean.   Malick probably does but he isn't sharing so I wind up sitting through this slog.

I don't really know how to judge the performances.    Very little dialogue is spoken and there is no really character building here.    It seems Dad is stern but loving, Mom is quiet and loving, and that's about it.   They are seen in dreamy flashbacks with lots of camera movement reminiscient of an acid-trip, or at least how such trips are portrayed in movies.    The film has a dreamlike quality and like most dreams, you wake up having forgotten most of it and remember only the outlines.

Many critics fawned over The Tree Of Life as a masterpiece.   What am I missing?   I see it as absolute junk.    I don't know what others see and they have their opinions.    I guess if a film is "different" in some way that makes it more a critical darling, especially since film critics have seen them all and are maybe weary of the same-old, same-old.    If same-old, same-old means a film with a definable plot, characters, and reason for existing that doesn't require psychotropic drugs to understand, then I'll be happy with that.  


Zero Dark Thirty (2012) * * *

Directed by:  Kathryn Bigelow

Starring:  Jessica Chastain, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton

Osama Bin Laden's death on May 1, 2011 came probably as a shock to most people.    The trail had gone so cold that it was assumed American intelligence had given up on searching for him.     According to the narrative of Zero Dark Thirty, the search continued all over the Middle East in an effort was years in the making.     Some leads were followed, others not, and some captured detainees were tortured for information that was sketchy at best.   As one CIA agent says to another during a coffee break, "How's the needle in the haystack coming along?"   Actually, trying to locate Bin Laden in that morass was equivalent to finding a needle in a stack of needles.

Zero Dark Thirty's protagonist is Maya (Chastain) whose single-minded, tireless hunt for Bin Laden resulted in his death during a raid on his compound in Pakistan.   At least, that's according to the movie, and although there is a disclaimer in the film's prologue stating the film was based on firsthand accounts, you never quite know what was beefed up for dramatic license.  

My feelings on the film are mixed.   I admired the technical aspects and its professionalism, but I wasn't as emotionally involved as I expected.    The film runs nearly 2 hours, 45 minutes and I wouldn't have minded the first hour being condensed into a briefer narrative.    The opening of the film contains jargon and names thrown about as if we should be instantly familiar with them.    The film picks up more momentum when, while tracking a known Al-Qaeda courier, the CIA stumbles on a compound which may house the hiding Bin Laden. 

The compound, to the surprise of Maya and the rest of the CIA, was located in a residential area and only about a mile from "Pakistan's West Point".    Did the neighbors know that Bin Laden stayed there?   The compound blew the belief that Bin Laden was hiding in a cave somehwere right out of the water.    It was learned that Bin Laden didn't go out at all and only had contact with the outside through a courier, but it was a relatively comfortable living arrangement.    Beats a cave that's for sure.

Maya is convinced that Bin Laden lives there.   The rest of her colleagues, including CIA chief Leon Panetta (Gandolfini), have their doubts and with good reason.   Imagine what a foreign & public relations nightmare there would've been with Pakistan (an ally) if the compound was invaded and Bin Laden wasn't there.    One of the elements that adds to the suspense of the Navy Seals raid is that, according to the film, there wasn't 100% certainty (except from Maya) that Bin Laden was actually there.    The SEALS were sent in as "canaries" which essentially meant they were going to find out for the CIA whether Bin Laden was there.

The performances are solid here.   I felt Chastain's character was one-dimensional and thus the performance can only hit so high of an emotional arc.   She handles it well, however.    The film mostly sees the characters in terms of their jobs and their search for terrorists.   I suppose it's a blessing that we're not inundated with scenes depicting the characters' family lives, since they wouldn't have really added much.    Zero Dark Thirty is focused on one thing, much like Maya, which is documenting how Bin Laden was found and what we now know historically was the outcome of that tireless search.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Les Miserables (2012) * * *

Directed by:  Tom Hooper

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham-Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Tom Hooper's version of the legendary Broadway musical is likely the best version possible considering the logistics involved.     Based on Victor Hugo's novel,  it diligently covers the ground the musical covers and even adds a new song, "Suddenly".     For years, the film was stuck in development because the material was considered unfilmable.    Hooper and his cast do an admirable job of creating a visually pleasing and occasionally rousing musical.    I'd have to consider this a comedown from the stage version.    The stage version had an emotional sweep that the film doesn't have.    Certain parts and songs here are emotionally charged, but other points aren't nearly as well handled as in the play.

The film concerns the travails of Jean Valjean (Jackman), a hardened convict who spends 19 years in prison after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family.    He is released to the world as a bitter man and after days of walking to Paris to meet with his parole officer, he is taken in by a kindly bishop.
Valjean steals the bishop's expensive silverware and vanishes like, well, a thief in the night.

Valjean is arrested by police and brought to the bishop, who in an act of compassion, lies in order to free Valjean.   A grateful Valjean begins his life anew and the parole officer is no longer in his plans.
He is hunted by Inspector Javert (Crowe), who has a black and white view on the law and morality.    He sees Valjean as a criminal incapable of change.    However, Valjean does change.   He becomes the mayor of a Paris suburb, (under a different name of course) and becomes wealthy running a factory.    One plot quibble is that Javert isn't that great at his job.   He is forever chasing Valjean for years on end and even though they live in the same city, he can never find him except by accident.    Just saying...

Another character is Fantine (Hathaway), a factory worker who is fired from her job and forced to prostitute herself to support her child Cosette, who is boarding with the evil Thenardiers (Cohen and Bonham-Carter).   Valjean comes across Fantine on the street, rescues the now sickly woman and promises her on her deathbed that he would rescue her child and raise her.     Another plot quibble in this film is that there is a lot of accidental bumping into going on here between characters.    Does Paris only have 100 inhabitants in 1832? 

I will not reveal much more of the plot, probably because doing so would take up a huge number of paragraphs.    I will say Cosette grows up a sheltered young woman and falls in love at first sight with Marius (Redmayne), a soon-to-be revolutionary who will start a revolution with a group of students and drinking buddies.    To say this revolution (based on fact) is ill-advised is an understatement.    Actually, it seems to be a revolution that takes place in one part of Paris while the rest of the city goes about its everyday business.     Strangely, the film really doesn't see Paris as a whole.   It doesn't seem as if there is a giant metropolis out there.      

Upon reflection, the plot to Les Miserables is absurd.   If the characters didn't keep accidentally running into each other at crucial times, nothing would happen.    However, this musical is more about the emotional truth than anything else.   It is epic in scope and has many more good songs than bad; songs which explain secrets, dreams, and harsh realities.    I admired the performances, although I don't think the Thenardiers were handled well.    In the play, they are the comic relief.   Here after they part with Cosette they have little to do.    They aren't seen as comic as much as desperate and ugly con artists.   

And although love at first sight happens plenty in fiction and I know I should just go along with it, would it be too realistic to expect Marius and Cosette to at least have a conversation before declaring their eternal love?   I picture the couple in a year or so at a very quiet dinner table because they have little to say of any interest.    And let's not forget Marius' friend Eponine (Samantha Banks) who is more attractive than Cosette and more interesting, but must play the role of sidekick with unrequited love for Marius.      

This is a strange review for me.   Les Miserables is a film with a silly plot, good performances, and a lot of costumes.   It has mostly good songs and is brilliant in parts while other parts reveal plot holes you can drive a truck through.    I'll stick with the three star rating because what's good here is very good.    However, I'll take the stage musical anytime. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Django Unchained (2012) * *

Directed by:  Quentin Tarantino

Starring:  Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington

Once again, Quentin Tarantino applies revenge fantasy to a sickening time in history only this time the results aren't nearly as effective.    In Inglourious Basterds, a group of Jewish soldiers get to kill Adolf Hitler and the rest of the Nazi hierarchy.    Here, the scale is smaller, involving a freed slave who gets to rescue his wife from the clutches of a slaveowner and take out dozens of his henchmen.    Imagine John Wayne appearing in Gone With The Wind and you'll have a good idea of how Django Unchained turns out.

Everything in the film is done to excess, including the killings, how people are killed, the dialogue, and the running time.    The film is 2 hours, 45 minutes long and upon reflection, barely had enough plot to carry a short film.     The characters could've saved themselves a lot of time and energy ( and us too) if they followed things to a more logical end.    Tarantino is not interested much in logic.   He wants to put his style on full display and that's not always a good thing.   

I'll describe the goings-on here as succinctly as possible without ruining plot points.    Foxx plays Django, who in the beginning of the film is a slave chained together to other slaves walking through a cold, dark forest.   Along comes Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter who rides with a stagecoach in tow.   This is no run-of-the-mill stagecoach, but one with a cardboard molar hanging atop its roof.    Why this?  Well, it appears Dr. King Schultz used to be a dentist.   What relevance does this have to anything?  I guess it's an excuse to put that strange tooth on the stagecoach roof.    Dr. Schultz's past as a dentist has no bearing on the plot whatsoever.

He discovers that Django would be able to recognize the quarry he is tracking and frees him along with the other slaves.   Dr. Schultz shoots the captors and plenty of blood squirts out.   This is a recurring theme with the killings in this film.   Lots of blood erupting from whatever body part is shot.   Why is this necessary?   It's over-the-top. 

Django assists Dr. Schultz in tracking his quarries.   In return, Dr. Schultz will assist Django in locating his wife, who was sold to a wealthy plantation owner specializing in mandingos.   His name is Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio as a smooth, mannered businessman with over-the-top panache who likes to see returns on his investments.    So what exactly is the scheme to get Django close to his wife and rescue her?   He and Schultz pose as potential buyers of a mandingo.    They offer an absurd amount of money to get Candie's attention and on to his plantation, which is overseen by shifty Stephens (Samuel L. Jackson), who is allowed a certain latitude in his dealings with his boss.

The plot is discovered by Candie and Stephens and instead of killing Django and Schultz, they insist that the money originally suggested for the mandingo be paid to free Django's wife instead.    Why didn't they just approach Candie saying something like, "You have a slave there and we want to buy her freedom.   How does $12,000 sound?"  (Or even, say, $2,000).   Simply because Tarantino wants to contrive the situation and allow for Django to kill dozens of her captors.

Before the ruse is discovered and Django starts killing folks, the film is already absurdly long.    Django and his wife Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) are one-dimensional.    I found myself not caring much about their dilemma and when their long, long-awaited reunion happens, it lacks emotional impact.    The only unusual thing about Broomhilde is her ability to speak German, which comes in handy in a later scene with Schultz in which they speak German to avoid detection.   This was used to much better effect in Basterds, in which Waltz's Landa spoke English to a farmowner to avoid detection by Jews hiding under the floor.

Waltz is terrific here.   He has the ability to be disarmingly polite while hiding more devious intentions, which makes him fascinating to watch.   Yet, he is also basically a good man who wants to help Django.   DiCaprio is fine here, but his character only allows him to do so much.    Samuel L. Jackson is evil, loyal, and knowing, all the while hiding under an Uncle Tom facade.

The most disappointing thing about Django Unchained is that it is style run amok.   Sometimes less is more, but Tarantino seems to be too in love with his creation to dial down.    It's a mistake he made in Kill Bill Volume 1 and Reservoir Dogs.    Much has been made about Tarantino's overuse of the "n" word here.   I agree that it is used far too much.    Like everything else in this film, it is excessive and overdone. 

The Three Stooges (2012) * *

Directed by:  Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly

Starring:  Chris Diamontopolous (Moe), Sean Hayes (Larry), Will Sasso (Curly), Sofia Vergara, Craig Bierko

I'm at the age now in which I realize that The Three Stooges should be taken in small doses.   If I were to stumble across them on TV, I would probably watch one short and be satisfied.    Any more than that would be overkill for me.    Such is my feeling about this movie, which is technically three episodes, but the entire process is about 90 minutes.     It's more than enough Stooges.

This film is nearly a decade in the making.    At first, Moe, Larry, and Curly were to be played by Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, and Jim Carrey, but all eventually dropped out.     Unless the film was a biopic of the Stooges,  I wouldn't be much interested in seeing actors of that caliber slapping each other around.     The actors playing the Stooges here are very good impressionists and are convincing enough, but I couldn't muster up a lot of enthusiasm for the whole enterprise.    I guess for me there is only so much face-slapping, ear-pulling, and sledgehammer-hitting I can watch without becoming bored.

The film isn't without a couple of laughs and a very appealing sequence in which Jersey Shore cast members get smacked around by Moe.   How Moe hooks up with the Jersey Shore cast I will not reveal, except to say that it mixes in nicely with the plot of the guys trying to raise $830,000 to save the orphanage they grew up in and lived in until the present day.    Why is the amount so much?   If you factor in all the years the Stooges were there causing havoc, you can imagine the costs that incur.   

The Three Stooges isn't a terrible movie.    If you're watching a Three Stooges movie, you expect certain things and this movie delivers on those expectations.    It has no real interest in being anything other than what it is.    That's fine, not every film has "Oscar" written all over it.    But you either enjoy what you're seeing or you don't.    For me, it's all one big "meh". 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Your Highness (2011) *

Directed by:  David Gordon Green

Starring:  Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel

Here is a spoof of medieval adventures that contains zero laughs.   Since spoofs are supposed to be funny and this one is not, what are we left with but nearly two hours of our lives stolen that we can't get back?

Some of the people responsible for Pineapple Express were involved in this woeful production.    Like Pineapple Express, some of the characters spend a great deal of time smoking weed and this is expected to be somehow funny in itself.   Granted, people smoking weed in medieval times is odd, but that doesn't translate to laughs,   Neither do jokes about child sexual abuse, homoeroticism, or a giant monster that is really five fingers and four of them are cut off during a battle.    No points for guessing which one remains.

Was there a clamoring for medieval spoofs that I wasn't aware of?   My understanding is that this film's budget was $50 million.   $50 million?   The visual effects are rather ordinary here and I can't imagine star and co-writer Danny McBride would have the cajones to demand a high salary, so where on Earth did the money go?  

It's baffling to me how certain movies ever get made and find mass distribution while other lower budget but infinitely better films struggle to find an audience.   I have a hard time believing that there weren't any better scripts to be filmed than this one.   Movie studios make only a handful of movies each year, so it's amazing how $50 million was thrown to the winds like this. 

I won't even waste my time explaining the plot of Your Highness.   There is one scene worth mentioning and I know I sound like a typical guy here, but Natalie Portman strips to a thong in one scene and looks really good.    If I'm not going to get any laughs, at least I got a visual feast for a few moments.