For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Monday, October 31, 2011

In Time


By now, Justin Timberlake, the mousketeer-turned-singer-turned-actor, has impressed in enough supporting roles -- like "Alpha Dog", "Black Snake Moan" and "The Social Network", for instance -- to warrant a shot at becoming a viable Hollywood leading man. His first Big League start is the inept and stupefyingly on-the-nose science fiction romance "In Time".

A teenybopper's "Minority Report", the movie is set in a futuristic world where time is now currency in the form of a digital, luminescent green countdown clock on every individual's arm. At the age of twenty-five, at which point aging ceases, the countdown begins. Rich people can live forever, but the poor are literally working "day to day", earning just enough time to keep themselves alive for weeks, days, or even hours. When your clock hits zero, you drop dead.

In a stroke lifted from genre pioneer "Metropolis", the wealthy live lavishly in gated communities while the poor work to power them in confined industrial ghettos. Timberlake's Will Salas is one of the worker bees, natch. A suicidal billionaire gives him one hundred years before taking a plunge off a bridge. Cillian Murphy's Inspector Javert, a timekeeper named Raymond Leon, is convinced it was murder and begins investigating.

With a century burning a hole in his pocket, Will stumbles into the wealthiest (achem) "timezone" and rubs elbows with "timelender" Phillipe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser) at a black tie gala. When Leon and his "Matrix-y" Gestapo break down the door, Will takes a hostage, the plutocrat's wide-eyed, bob-cut daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), and runs for it. Eventually, she becomes Maid Marian to his Robin Hood when he starts handing out free time to penniless slumdogs. And later on she's Bonnie to his Clyde -- turns out bank vaults are easily accessible and full of time no one's using.

Whether he realizes it or not, Writer/director Andrew Niccol is sermonizing on the equal distribution of wealth in America. Somehow I don't think the filmmaker is much interested in the dichotomy of rich and poor; he seems more interested in giving audiences a schmaltzy action movie with a unique premise and splashes of immediacy. What he achieves instead is a silly chase and caper flick that's only real weight comes from its self-seriousness.

"In Time" feels lighter than air and still alarmingly melodramatic. And instead of establishing a futuristic world and letting the people exist there naturally, the film's characters are one-note dialogue cannons that live to serve the film's half-inspired premise. They say such risible lines as, "Nobody's got the time for a girlfriend", "My time is as good as anybody's", and "His crime wasn't taking time, but giving it away" with a mock earnestness that permeates the entire film.

Even the world itself lacks imagination. Like some kind of fashion ad with a blue-collar-chic theme and dozens of gorgeous twenty-somethings, I wasn't sure if I was watching a film or flipping through an issue of Vanity Fair. Timberlake and Seyfried both give serviceable enough performances. With such a weakly written script and such unchallenging direction, I don't blame them. Timberlake, specifically, can declare this folly a rough first night on the mound; it's best forgotten. Back to the bullpen with him. Shake it off, man. Start preparing for the next go at genuine movie-stardom.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene


You may be wondering: Who is Martha Marcy May Marlene? And why does she have so many names? I wish the answer was simple, but when you're a teenage girl named Martha, and you run away to join a cult of abusive wackos living on the fringe in upstate New York who decide to rename you Marcy May, things can never be that simple. The eponymous troubled youth, who's played to a traumatized tee by newcomer Elizabeth Olson, moves through this unnerving psychodrama in a perpetual state of brainwashed shock. Writer/director Sean Durkin isn't satisfied just laying the sad story of poor, twisted Martha Marcy May out for the viewer to gaze at with troubled eyes; he wants us feeling her fear, living her pain, and seeing through her clouded haze of post-abuse PTSD. Don't be surprised if you walk away from "Martha Marcy May Marlene" feeling a little taken advantage of.

The opening moments establish a demented near-reality. Living in a secluded commune in the woods, the film's "Manson Family", led by skeletal pedophile Patrick (John Hawkes), goes through their everyday business of chopping wood, pinning up wet laundry and setting the dinner table. It would appear normal -- if the year was 1850 and the citizens weren't all creepily handsome teenagers. (It's like an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial crossed with M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village"). It establishes their weird rituals: the boys eat first... and then the girls. It also establishes the film's overarching aesthetic, a pasty, washed-out color scheme and extremely shallow focus (we're dealing with the subjectivity of warped minds here, people). Almost immediately, the heroine, Marcy May/Martha, makes a run for it and ends up a houseguest at the home of her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson).

Employing ghostly match-cuts, the film from then on segues sporadically into flashbacks of Martha's -- sometimes merely odd and other times downright horrific -- two years with the cult. As she lounges about at her sister's lakefront mansion, swimming or chatting, she's only half-present. Her body may have run away from the abuse, but her mind can't escape it; she's under Patrick's control on a subconscious level. She can't shake the terrifying feeling that they're coming for her at any moment. But are they even looking? Like no film I've seen, this one peers fearlessly into the disturbed mind of a cerebral hostage. And Elizabeth Olson really shines -- achieving lived-in believability and evoking pity and paranoia -- in this beautifully photographed art-house film -- a film that's really all about human headspace.

And somehow, it feels like a catch-22: For its entire runtime, we're stuck rooted in Martha's dreamy POV. This critic would've preferred more of a plot. As it stands, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" feels like a brilliant, embryonic idea, wonderfully realized in form and style, that never takes shape into a complete drama. The film's final, ambiguous homage to "The 400 Blows" only reiterates the sense that, here are copious chilling moments, all anchored expertly by a crushing central performance, in search of a story to justify them.

The Thing (1982)


"Alien" in Antarctica? One could make that argument. But John Carpenter's remake of Howard Hawks' 50's sci-fi classic is deliciously squirmy, disgusting and campy in ways that would never interest Ridley Scott or his aforementioned, pretentious intergalactic haunted house pic. One of Hollywood's most inventively gory creature-features, and one of its more respectable remakes of a 50's pulp science fiction movie (along with "Body Snatchers" and "The Fly"), "The Thing" is also blessed with Carpenter's usually spooky atmospherics. It's a ghost story that erupts spontaneously into melty, slithery, bloody f/x that rival "The Evil Dead" in gruesomeness and ingenuity. By 1982, Carpenter had shown what he could do on a shoestring with "Halloween", the Indie phenomenon that introduced the world to indestructible "bogyman" and slasher mainstay Michael Meyers. With "The Thing", you can see the studio money lining the frame, but "selling out" certainly didn't dilute the stylishness of this genre virtuoso -- even if it did inspire him to amp up the gore.

The bogyman in "The Thing" doesn't need a knife to do its bloodletting; the alien that crash lands its UFO into the tundra of Antarctica is far more ostentatious -- and messy. While Steven Spielberg's stranded extra-terrestrial was gobbling Reese's Pieces and phoning home that same year, Carpenter's was devouring scientists, absorbing their DNA, and then shapeshifting into their exact replicas. At a remote facility in the South Pole, Kurt Russell's MacReady -- a tough-guy helicopter pilot -- and a bunch of researchers turn on each other when a stray German Shepard carries the insidious beast into camp underneath its fur. Pretty soon the poor wolfie bursts open to reveal a snarling, hairless, limb-sprouting, all-around nasty monstrosity of alien horror. The thing spreads like wildfire among the unwitting cadre of isolated nerds, and it's up to MacReady to separate the humans from the celestial charlatans, barbecue the impostors and save the day.

Russell plays the same steely, bum-with-fire-in-his-eyes that he played in Carpenter's own "Escape From New York". He and all the others -- that include Keith David, Wilford Brimley, and Donald Moffat -- are one-note appetizers for the hungry parasite, the true star of the film. Yet, Carpenter never lets us forget the vastness of their surroundings, the tightness of their lodgings or the frigidness of a climate so uninhabitable survival there would be a difficult proposition even without a ravenous space carnivore on the loose. The camera flies through claustrophobic tunnels in moments of panic and lies still, taking in the eerie emptiness, during scenes of agonizingly quiet calm. The potent combination of Carpenter's patient build ups and the f/x team's brilliantly repulsive pay-offs (including a decapitated head that grows spider legs and then scurries off down the hall) achieves a balance of style and exploitation that defines Carpenter. Even at his most commercial and derivative, he's still a unique and powerful supplier of cinematic bogymen -- of all shape-shifters and sizes.

The Rum Diary


The best thing that can be noted about "The Rum Diary", other than the ever-amusing antics of an inebriated Johnny Depp, is that it's filled with love for the author of its source material. Depp and notorious gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson were close, personal friends, and Depp, having portrayed another one of the writer's alter-egos in 1998's "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas", struggled to adapt Thompson's novel for years. After it was finally shot in 2008, it sat on a shelf growing mold for some time, waiting for an editor and a distributor. At long last, "The Rum Diary" is here. And although it can't quite capture the writer's fervent belief that ink could be as caustic as hydrochloric-acid, the film is best taken as a passion piece for Depp and a warm tribute to his dear friend and mentor, who unfortunately took his own life some six years ago.

As a red biplane soars ethereally through the frothy cumulus of Puerto Rican skies in 1960, Depp's Paul Kemp stumbles awake to see its tail banner welcoming the visitors of an American industrial carbide company. The island, at the time, was an American colony in every sense but semantics. The "territory" was a cruise ship hotspot for gluttonous American tourists seeking the American Dream at 50 bucks a night. All the beaches had been bought up by developers looking to get rich -- the locals are shoed from the sand like raccoons encroaching on a rickety porch. Kemp comes from New York to write horoscopes for the imperialist's only newspaper, The San Juan Star, a collapsing outlet full of zany scribes. (Giovanni Ribisi's titubate Moberg is a filthy, grumbling drunkard of the highest order; Editor Edward Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) is a cynical hairpiece on the verge of a nervous breakdown; and Michael Rispoli's Bob Salas becomes Kemp's corpulent, hell-raising sidekick).

Kemp wanders around the island like a confused drunken Martian and, upon seeing the squalor of the Puerto Rican children, finds a journalistic cause. Soon after, an American businessman (Aaron Eckhart) -- with a saucy and angelic young girlfriend (Amber Heard) -- hires him to write the travel brochure for a spiffy, lavish resort. He finds himself with a moral conundrum. On the surface, the film's a droll, rum-induced escapade with gorgeous locales (those beaches, that sky!), quirky characters, cool period cars and clothes, and a hip island soundtrack. On deeper examination, it makes dated, but interesting remarks about the avarice of capitalism in Puerto Rico while outrage about communists in Cuba was beginning to take hold. The hypocrisy is maddening and "The Rum Diary" becomes Thompson's "paradise lost" (the American military used the island for carpet bombing practice). His naivete goes with the last drop of rum and what's left is an activist on a crusade against "the bastards". His plight would reach a pinnacle in the early seventies with his famed road trip to fabulous Las Vegas.

However shapeless and murky, Terry Gilliam's "Fear And Loathing..." was radical and imposing. Writer/director Bruce Robinson's "The Rum Diary" is just too safe. Love it or hate it, the former film demanded a reaction. This one is dramatically loose, stagnant and directionless. At 120 minutes, it's really not all that long, but it sure starts to feel that way. The love is there, especially from Depp who succeeds in humanizing Thompson like never before; it's a valiant and commendable remembrance to his fallen hero. But I doubt either artist would have preferred a requiem of such quick disposability.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Ides Of March


George Clooney's political drama, "The Ides Of March", has at least one respectable quality: It's never bias. Clooney, an infamous ultra-leftist, is surprisingly equitable in his treatment of politicians from Right and Left. Basically, he makes abundantly clear his general distaste for both.

The allegorical figure at the center of this campaign thriller is Democratic presidential-nominee hopeful and populist favorite Mike Morris (Clooney), a golden boy with a killer smile and all the answers (apparently, electric cars will end terrorism). At least, that's what his idealistic junior campaign manager, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), likes to think. Of course, there's no room for idealism in politics (silly rabbit). Early on, when the lad rendezvous at a bar with New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), their exchange foreshadows what's to come: Meyers boyishly decrees Morris "The One" and the more seasoned Horowicz retorts with a line the director himself is clearly thinking, "Eventually, they'll always let you down."

Is Clooney venting his disappointment about a certain lame-duck president? It would seem so. And his negativism encroaches on just about every frame of the picture (at one point, Meyers stands silhouetted wistfully against the biggest American flag since "Patton"; the shot is held too long, just in case we didn't get the message). Sopping with portent and cynicism, "The Ides Of March" is hardly an exhilarating and insightful piece of character driven storytelling; rather, it's a vehicle for Clooney to peddle his political malcontent, and do it with about as little grace and subtlety as humanly possible.

To Clooney, politics is a game of secrets and lies. The film's narrative path traces Meyers' journey from innocent believer to hardened player, and his "LA Confidential" moment of devious opportunism plays out so epically we can almost see Clooney giddily squirming in his director's chair. Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman show up as opposing campaign managers. Their chess match -- with naive pawn Stephan lying in the middle with a moralist migraine -- makes up the film's initial conflict -- until a fetching young intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), raises the stakes with her promiscuity. (I'd warn about spoilers if it weren't already so tiresomely obvious).

For as much screen time as Molly-the-slutty-intern gets, she's little more than a plot device. Her peculiar behavior propels the film forward, so the script (by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon) uses her age (20, by the way) as an easy excuse for its contrivances. In fact, the film is highly calculated. Like a politician (or a bad college professor) it talks at us, telling us how we should feel instead of evoking those feelings. Its pontification keeps us from ever identifying enough with Meyers to understand why losing the Democratic ticket would be such a national catastrophe. If we do care, it's because Clooney's ominous, over-dramatic visual style makes us think we should -- and that's cheating.

Admittedly, "The Ides Of March" is so professionally made and has such strong actors across the board, that it continuously looks great. But, ultimately, it's not. It's too cynical, witless and opaque to resonate as a profound work of insider political drama. Clooney reaches for the Machiavellian and the individualistic in the same stroke. The brackish clash suits his questionable interests. But the fact that the film can't communicate anything cogent through the murk certainly does not.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011



Can a movie about somebody sick with cancer be funny? The short answer is: yes, it can be funny, but it better not be a comedy. "50/50", starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an every(young)man radio editor from Seattle who gets diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, was written autobiographically by screenwriter Will Reiser, and let me assure you, it is not a comedy, but a deeply moving drama -- although it is, at times, quite charming.

It's got considerable bromantic chemistry between Gordon-Levitt -- who gives his finest performance since "The Lookout" -- and Seth Rogan as his best bud Kyle, a typical post-Apatow man-child with a taste for weed and bar skanks. After Adam (Gordon-Levitt's character) gets blindsided with his newfound illness, Kyle tries to get him looking on the bright side. "50/50! If you were a casino game, you'd have the best odds." But Adam's journey from then on is loaded mostly with existential grimness.

Even the film's aesthetic has a de-saturated, hospital-wall anemia to it that, while never too blatant, certainly puts the viewer in Adam's sickly headspace -- his colorless haze of fear and doubt -- his loneliness. Which is audacious and astute, as the film is wise enough to understand that dealing with a deadly illness -- like the singularity of cancer, with its notorious treatments and their awful side effects -- is perhaps the most personal experience one can have.

For most of the film, Adam feels utterly alone, on a journey of awakening through fatigue. Yet the film also, with its speckled bright spots of positivity, suggests that our loved ones battle with us, in their own way. Adam's got Kyle, with whom he shares his medicinal joints, and the two go bar hopping with the intention of using Adam's cancer as a pickup line. His mother (Angelica Huston) extends her assistance, but is rebuffed. Never before has being there for someone else looked so needy. The girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), only sticks around because she thinks it's the right thing to do, rather than recognizing Adam's struggle as her own, like any loving girlfriend would.

Rounding out Team Adam is novice counselor Katie (Anna Kendrick) who's so by the book her advice comes off as cold and punctilious as opposed to warm and insightful -- something Adam so desperately needs. Their relationship blossoms into something more than doctor-patient in the film's only real crowd-pleasingly false element. It's an easy pairing, so the film ignores the fact that vulnerable people often fall in love with their therapists (it's called transference, and it's not healthy). Also, considering the passion between the two throughout the film is as bloodless as Adam's pasty cheekbones, their Hollywood courtship is most certainly tacked on.

But other than that blip, "50/50" handles a rough topic with a tremendous amount of grace, humor and essential humanism. We don't care what happens to Adam because he has cancer and cancer is scary; we care about Adam because we genuinely like him. And that's the reason why "50/50" succeeds: it takes a touchy cultural anxiety and brings it down to earth with characters we recognize and would sympathize with regardless. They're touching and funny, but not too funny -- despite what the trailers may suggest, this is not a comedy.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Take Shelter


Michael Shannon, the star of the psychological, doomsday thriller "Take Shelter", has proven considerably adept at playing seemingly normal men with seriously demented inner lives. His breakout performance, in "Revolutionary Road", earned him an Oscar nomination. He played the disturbed neighbor boy/man of suburban feuding couple Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) -- he was a man who, in his psychosis, carried ominous wisdom about the soul suffocating, picket-fence-prison of the American Dream, and how it would, in time, consume even his kindly neighbors. He was right. In Shannon's HBO period drama, "Boardwalk Empire", he plays a straitlaced Atlantic City prohibition officer with conservatism so deep his flagellations and impromptu baptisms come off as way more deranged than anything performed by the bootleggers and gangsters he's paid to stop.

Consequently, the role of Curtis LaForche seems to be Taylor-made for Shannon. On the outside he's a construction worker and family man with a beautiful young wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and a deaf little girl. The three live peaceably in a farming community in the Midwest. All's well, except -- Curtis is having horrifying nightmares. They always begin with the pitter-patter of rain and the roar of thunder, then, something horrible happens to either him or his daughter. The dreams are too visceral to be ignored and similar hallucinations begin to creep into Curtis's waking hours as well. Obsessed, he starts digging out an old storm shelter in his backyard, absolutely convinced that some kind of apocalyptic storm is coming. Are his visions premonitions or the delusions of a man losing his hold on reality?

One of the reasons why "Take Shelter" feels authentic -- despite the fact that it's clearly an anxiety infused "Shining"-type paranoia flick -- is that Curtis is very aware that he might be crazy. He has too many of his faculties to be dismissed as a raving lunatic straight out, yet all the warning signs are pointing that way: his mother went nuts around the same age, the doctors think he's losing it, and even his wife is starting to fear him. But Curtis has this unshakeable feeling that there's a storm out there, coming, and he can't let it go.

The film racks up the tension from its first minutes, with Curtis staring up at a demonic grey cloud of swirling, hellish precipitation. The rain falls, not as blood or anything that easy, but as a thick yellow liquid that's unnerving simply because it's just not quite normal. At times the movie has an engrossing tactility: you can just feel the sopping wetness of the characters in Curtis's horrific nightmares. (The young family always seem so vulnerable, especially his handicapped daughter). And the shelter he builds is a wall-to-wall reincarnation of Cold War nuttiness: gas masks, rows and rows of canned vegetables, and cots that look like they were stolen from an underground army barracks; the low-key lighting entraps the characters in claustrophobic darkness.

The performances, especially Shannon's, are always interesting, and the characters act naturally enough to suggest they could exist. The whole is it real, is it not question has been done, and better, but "Take Shelter's" most insightful assertion is that it is our most irrational fears that are the hardest to overcome. When the film tackles that point quite literally in the third act, it's breathtaking. Only, the film spends too much of its middle section jump scaring us with fiendish unrealities and sluggishly following Curtis on his "Am I Crazy?" investigation. After a while, the story loses its drive toward that big, climactic storm that will either spell the end of the world or the end of Curtis's sanity.

That's a rock and a hard place you never want to find yourself between. Michael Shannon hangs there throughout "Take Shelter" with enough sympathy and menace to keep us fretting for his ilk all the way to the fadeout -- even if the plot points around them don't quite gel.