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

Wednesday, October 24, 2012



History has a way of finding an audience through pop-culture.  The true story of Argo, wherein six American diplomats were smuggled out of hostile Iran by the CIA disguised as a Canadian film crew, was declassified seventeen years after it occurred, though I’m sure many Americans even today aren’t aware of the operation’s existence.  Actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has successfully publicized the incident in the most extensive and enticing manner available to him: He made a Hollywood movie about it. 

The feature film, which stars Affleck as the mastermind and operative behind the ruse, dramatizes these bizarre historical facts with an uneven proportion of veneration and fabrication, touches of levity, and a few incisive jabs at cinema’s inherent fakery.  The strongest section of the film, when Affleck’s character goes to Burbank to do pre-production on a pretend sci-fi yarn called Argo, is, witting to the director or not, a pointed examination of how Hollywood turns history into artifice, into consumer escapism. 

By the end, however, Affleck diverts from such candor, and recreates the final steps of the rescue with the nervous intensity, yet also the precise narrative tricks and empty gestures of the blockbusters he’s supposedly deriding.  It’s tempting to give Affleck too much credit, and posit that the finale’s machinations further his thematic critique, showing a progression from realism to sensationalism.  However, I can hardly bring myself to grant amnesty to the man who blighted the world with Gigli and Reindeer Games.  I’m half kidding, of course.    

Argo opens with the attack on the American Embassy in the Iranian capital on November 4, 1979.  The context of that fateful day is cleverly setup in a prologue using storyboards and photographs.  As the inhabitants of the building watch solicitously through the windows of their stronghold, an ocean of protestors roar outside the gates before scaling the fortress walls.  The trapped employees act pragmatically, burning and shredding important documents, calling for extra security, though none arrives.  Before long, the mob have taken the Americans hostage, blindfolded them, and turned their sanctuary into their prison.  Affleck stages the reenactment scrupulously and artfully, using nary a note of musical accompaniment, as he allows the terrifying immediacy of the situation to speak for itself. 

Back home, Americans are livid.  The film utilizes archival footage of spontaneous assaults on Iranians to illustrate the vengeful backlash the crisis engendered in the American people, evoking memories of more recent anti-Arab sentiment.  Fortunately, six diplomats managed to escape the embassy during the coup and have found solace at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).  The Iranian rebels, employing children in the painstaking task of reassembling the shredded files, will soon discover that six Americans have evaded capture and are hiding out in Tehran. 

Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA specialist in “exfiltration”—the art of organizing escapes from enemy territory.  In the lead, Affleck goes for affected understatement, but comes off flat, unreadable, and mirthless, his defining characteristics being his beard and shaggy do.  Plus, there’s a perfunctory subplot about Mendez’ troubled home life, involving spousal upheaval and a child he only speaks to over the telephone.  The film labors to make the family drama an essential part of its meager characterization only to highlight its lack of depth and pertinence. 

The aside does serve one important purpose: A call home to his son and a disunited viewing of Planet Of The Apes inspires Mendez’ outlandish stratagem.  He proposes that the CIA fund a fake movie that would require shooting locations ideal for Iran’s terrain and climate.  Next, they’ll receive phony Canadian passports and identities for the stranded diplomats, assign each a position in the crew, and then Mendez, as “producer”, will fly them all out of Iran himself.  It’s a gamble, but in a CIA pitch session where the only other suggestion is escape on bicycles, Mendez delivers the “best bad idea” in the room—one that just might be crazy enough to work.  For legitimacy, they’ll need a script, storyboards, shot lists, and advertising. 

With the services of producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and Oscar winning effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), Argo emerges as a fake movie with very real consequences.  The two showbiz vets, on top of lending the film some invaluable moments of trenchant humor, best epitomize Hollywood as a Mecca of deceit, and the movie observantly intimates that only there, in a dreamland of surface razzle-dazzle, could such a huge lie really be brought off with enough conviction to fool anybody.  Transforming actors into preposterous creations, Chambers trades in deception, and Siegel, his corporate counterpart, is head to leagues of charlatans and sharks.      

It’s revealing that Affleck truncates the subject matter’s satirical potential in favor of a pulse pounding—and far less resonant—final act.  Mendez travels east to rendezvous with the clandestine fugitives (Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, and Christopher Denham), and the movie marches on as straightforwardly as any genre potboiler.  The conclusion is foregone, surely, but with every turn of the screw, the director’s studied workmanship increases in transparency (a vital phone call is answered at the last possible moment; the Iranian rebels are either supernaturally perceptive or risibly dimwitted and disorganized, depending entirely on how it will serve Affleck’s suspense schema). 

In his auspicious debut, Gone Baby Gone, Affleck showed signs of Scorsese’s streetwise grit and Eastwood’s moral opacity.  Argo is thrilling but squandered, an historical recreation that promises cinematic self-reflexivity, but climaxes with the calculated gratification of a Ron Howard crowd-pleaser instead.  The director's worthwhile treatise on Hollywood’s garnishing of reality becomes his own final exam in the methods of that very same commercialized illusionism.  The film ends with shots of movie merchandise: Do they reflect on our own consumption of synthetic historiography, or do they advertise Argo action figures?  In Stores Now.

Monday, October 22, 2012



Frankenweenie begs comparison to ParaNorman.  Released within weeks of one another, both timed for Halloween’s seasonal festivities, and each crafted using the tactile artistry of stop-motion animation, the two films have so much in common it would be easy to confuse them.  And yet, what’s striking is how different they actually are.  ParaNorman had a wistful mood that hung over it like a quiet specter.  It had an urgent plot, a sympathetic protagonist, and a topical message.  Frankenweenie is a higher profile project (it was directed by Tim Burton based on his famous original short), but it’s so slight, so underwhelming as a narrative experience, that it seems to evaporate from memory as you watch it.  Although visually enchanting (macabre and imaginative), Frankenweenie offers very little story, and even less substance. 

Essentially, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie.  Victor Frankenstein (a descendent of the famous scientist perhaps) is a grade-schooler who doesn’t quite fit in, for he’s pretty average in a menagerie of otherworldly weirdoes.  Victor enjoys normal things, like movies, baseball, and playing with his dog Sparky.  The titular hound meets his grisly demise like so many beloved canines before him: He’s run over by a Chevy.  Inspired by his teacher’s demonstration of the effects of electricity on dead tissue, Victor digs up Sparky’s corpse and zaps it with lightning, thereby miraculously re-animating his lost companion.  Frankenweenie’s aesthetic architecture is meant to evoke such a process: The dead brought back to life.  It’s shot in archaic black and white, uses the shadowy atmospherics of Universal’s bygone horror heyday, and animates its figures with the stiff movements of rigor mortis. 

The movie is nearly fetishistic in its obsession with style.  Were Tim Burton a raconteur as well as a fantasist, his narrative might not be so threadbare that it labors to reach its eighty-minute goal.  As filler, the other kids try to resurrect their own deceased pets in an attempt to win some science fair.  The results yield a crop of deformed monsters that sum up the whole movie: As imaginatively conceived as the details are, they still can’t resuscitate Victor’s colorless quest for post-mortem companionship.  (The reason why all the other pets transmogrify so horrifically is only half explained.)  What Frankenweenie exemplifies best is Tim Burton’s talent for character design. The best freak in Freaksville is Victor’s classmate Edgar E. Gore, a toady, hunchbacked sycophant voiced stridently by The Middle’s Atticus Schaefer with more personality than ten Victors.  Now to retell the Frankenstein legend with Igor as the star, that would be an act of subversion worth zapping to life.

Pitch Perfect


With the runaway success of Glee, a singing competition movie of some kind was inevitable.  Pitch Perfect, an amalgam of said TV show and Bring It On, takes the honors, turning acapella crooning into a team sport.  The film is not terribly original: A talented new kid joins an underdog squad with depleted numbers, and they assemble a crew of misfits to compete in a big competition, at which they must defeat their bitter rivals.  We’ve seen this schematic before in several different genres, and Pitch Perfect even lifts ideas shamelessly from its cheerleading predecessor (“aca-politcal”; “cheer-ocracy”).  While the singing numbers have pep, and the comedy has bite, thanks to supporting player Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect is anything but.    

Beca (Anna Kendrick) reluctantly arrives at Barden College where her dad is a professor.  In earmuff headphones, piercings, and thickly applied eyeliner, Beca is an unthreatening “alt-chick” with dreams of Hollywood music producing.  Her father concedes to let her leave school early for LA, if she spends one year at Barden and gets involved in some kind of activity.  Her sweet singing in the dormitory showers is like a siren call to the Bellas, an all-girl acapella group that needs to replenish its personnel so it can compete against an all-male group—The Treble Makers—in a national contest.  Beca also catches the eye of a coed, Jesse (Skylar Astin), who she coldly rebuffs despite his charm and persistence. 

Anna Kendrick makes for a capable lead and a lovely singer (with the help of auto-tune, I’m sure), but at times acts with a bit too much attitude.  She has a touch of the Bella Swan about her, as she receives a lot of attention from others, though her petulant demeanor hardly warrants it.  The two team captains, Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp in a thankless role as the squad’s resident control freak), recruit the school’s smoothest harmonizers—a Japanese girl so soft-spoken she’s barely audible; a slut; a sexually ambiguous African American; and a dry British chippie self-christened Fat Amy (Wilson)—en route to glory.  Deadpan, wryly critical and unabashedly frank, Fat Amy may not be the Bellas’ star performer (that’s probably Beca), but she certainly becomes the film’s.    

If not for Wilson’s levity, or her exceptional timing and gift for self-immolation, we’d be stuck with Pitch Perfect’s competently performed musical mash-ups of obvious Top 40 tunes (“Don’t Stop The Music”, “Since U Been Gone”, “Party In The USA”, and “Just The Way You Are”, to name a few), its exhausted plot progression, and its relatively neutered vision of college life.  Though, I did enjoy the booth commentaries of John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks.  They recalled the films of Christopher Guest at their most sardonic and satirical: Commentary at a singing competition seems antithetical, and to whom were they broadcasting, anyways?  Pitch Perfect could benefit from being a little more off-key. 

Trouble With The Curve


Trouble With The Curve is the reactionaries’ answer to Moneyball.  No wonder Clint Eastwood (when he’s not ranting at invisible democratic candidates) signed on to play a growly talent scout for the Atlanta Braves, a set-in-his-ways veteran who uses not equations to sign players, but good old-fashioned instinct.  Benign and watchable, the movie is akin to a sunny day at a little league game where nothing exciting ever happens.  But for a film that purports to advocate going with your gut over numbers and calculations, Trouble With The Curve couldn’t feel less instinctual.  It was assembled using the oldest and most hackneyed movie formulas. 

Eastwood plays Gus Lobel, a legendary Major League Baseball scout who’s signed some the league’s most explosive players.  Times are changing, though, and he’s about to be put to pasture by his more progressive superiors.  He’s sent on one last scouting report in North Carolina to observe a high school big hitter.  As Gus, Eastwood phones in the cantankerous dinosaur shtick he’s been employing for over a decade now.  Whether Gus is struggling at the toilet, tearing apart his house from frustration, or shrugging off doctors’ grave warnings of macular degeneration, Eastwood plays him with the same “get off my lawn!” grouchiness that we’ve come to know as his inexorable style.  Only this time it feels more ineffectual and redundant than in previous roles.

Although advertised as a Clint Eastwood vehicle, this movie actually belongs to Amy Adams, as Gus’s only daughter, Mickey, a big city lawyer on her way to becoming a partner.  He was an absentee father and the two are estranged.  When the workaholic hears about Gus’s ocular ailments, she decides to put work on hold and meet him in North Carolina for some bonding time.  Mickey is no damsel, however.  She can shoot pool and whiskey with the men, and even knows more baseball trivia than handsome Yankee’s scout Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake).  He's after more than just factoids, by the way.  Adams just about takes over the movie, wrestling the spotlight away from a big shot like Eastwood, and showing palpable chemistry with Timberlake, her typically charismatic co-star. 

At one point he does call her “emotionally unavailable”, a quip he picked up from Doctor Phil, but the message is all the same: Mickey and Gus will have to work out their issues before movie’s end.  I only wish it hadn’t been done in the most facile and cursory manner imaginable.  (Gus recalls an incident where he failed to protect her that’s supposed to patch things up, but really just opens a whole new bag of concerns).  Can Gus prove his worth to his bosses despite his failing vision?  Can Mickey open up her heart to love?  Trouble With The Curve rounds the bases adequately with every contrivance in the playbook.  It may be a rebuttal to Moneyball, but (as The Sandlot so elegantly put it) it’s not good enough to lick the dirt off Aaron Sorkin’s cleats. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012



Looper will get a lot of credit for being original.  In a cinematic universe rife with remakes, reboots, and retreads, indeed it is, to a degree.  The premise, in which mobsters in the future send garbage (enemies, witnesses, and patsies) back in time to be disposed of by present day assassins, is pretty unique as far as I’m concerned.  The film even casts Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis as younger and older versions of the same character—an assassin (or Looper) named Joe.  And here’s the kicker: Levitt’s latest assignment is to kill Willis, his future self, once the latter comes crashing into his time zone.  Now there’s a movie idea.  Maybe one day, in the future, a single good idea will be enough to produce a great movie (perhaps there’ll even be an App for it).  Alas, here in the present, Looper can’t sustain its creativity throughout, growing disappointingly derivative as it stutters toward its confused and dissatisfying conclusion.

The movie begins auspiciously enough, introducing a sci-fi universe that’s at the very least one for people with working cerebrums.  It’s in the second half that the movie trips on its own convolution.  The year is 2044, time travel won’t be invented for another thirty years, and gangsters three decades on are using it for body disposal.  Loopers like Joe wait in fields to meet undesirables as soon as they appear bound and masked and ready for a shotgun blast to the chest.  Joe has worked for Abe (Jeff Daniels), his futuristic Fagin employer, since he was an orphan.  The world they inhabit is an anarchic, rundown dystopia full of wandering vagrants and well-dressed thugs.  It’s a place of honest beggars and crooked millionaires.  Writer/director Rian Johnson clearly has intentions to reflect our dichotomous economic times with his inequitable milieu, a demimonde of physical and moral decay, an extension of our environmental and cultural trepidations.     

Joe loves the perks of his job (the clothes, cars, and drugs) but is painfully aware of the vocation’s strange retirement policy: A Looper can be fired—or his “loop closed”—which means that the next body he extinguishes will be his own, thirty years older, thereby accepting his predestined demise on the way to enjoying thirty years of peaceful retirement.  Early on, we see what happens when a Looper fails to follow this policy.  In fact, that scene, in which a middle-aged fugitive falls apart before our eyes as his younger self is mutilated off-screen, is by far the most inventive and well-staged in the entire runtime.  It is, with the alien abortion in Prometheus, another recent example of a great scene in an otherwise mediocre movie.  Eventually, Joe’s number comes up, fomented by an unusual surge in closed loops attributed to a mysterious future honcho named The Rainmaker.  Joe’s older self appears in the form of Bruce Willis, and naturally, the old man won’t go down without a fight.   

For a while, the movie is quite compelling.  There’s a particularly fruitful diner rendezvous between the two Joes that finds great profundity in pointing out their inherent similarities (they both order steak and eggs instinctively) and their worldly differences (older Joe has a weary sadness that younger Joe can’t yet comprehend).  From there, Looper struggles to develop itself into anything dramatically fluent or intensified.  For reference, imagine what Total Recall would have been like if Paul Verhoeven hadn’t managed to transcend the idea of virtual-reality designer vacations.  It would just be an embryonic spark without a flame—a launching pad but no shuttle.  There’d be no Johnny Cab and no three-breasted hooker.  It’s not that Rian Johnson doesn’t have a creative mind.  It’s that he doesn’t know how to expand on his premise without abandoning it completely.  What begins in a fascinating metropolis where civilization withers eventually winds up on a secluded farm, a place of intimacy but lethargy, where Levitt’s young Joe shacks up with a pretty single mother, at which point the movie comes to a soporific halt.    

As a director who once set a film noir in a suburban American high school, Johnson has a talent for transmuting genre.  It’s not preternatural that his movie would begin growling hardboiled narration from sordid streets and end up on a lonely homestead: From Blade Runner to Shane.  But Looper feels like an uneasy mélange of, not only two genres, two movies.  As if directed half by Joseph H. Lewis and half by Budd Boetticher—with influences as varied as Phillip K. Dick, James Ellroy, and Charles Portis—Looper’s tapestry is often crudely sewn and, by the end, nearly bisected.  In the middle of Joe’s complex battle with(in) himself, just as the movie starts to rev its engines, it gets sidetracked onto that Kentucky farm, and into a murky subplot involving mutants and a shotgun-toting Midwest rube played by Emily Blunt.  The audience is left stranded in a cavernous labyrinth of undeveloped ideas reverberating with echoes from better movies: Notably The Terminator, but also Tarkovsky’s Stalker. 

When it comes to high-concept science fiction, Looper is at least better than last year’s In Time.  It’s more crafty, mature, and remains free of Andrew Niccols’ pre-school pontificating.  But compared to a work like Inception, however, Looper lacks a certain determination of vision.  Although I’m hardly Christopher Nolan’s greatest fan, I can admit that his dream-thriller had the integrity to see its concepts through to the end.  Looper detours so egregiously into the realm of derivative science fiction that by the second half I thought I’d dozed off and wandered into a different theater.  Problems are compounded by our confused character sympathies.  Who are we meant to root for in this fray, anyhow?  Renegade big Joe, murderous little Joe, or Emily Blunt and her potentially maleficent young son?  The last moments wrangle the disparate splinters into one flimsily consummated narrative popsicle-stick-house, but there’s no satisfaction in it.  There’s just the bewildering sense that whatever was clever about this picture has been effectively deserted for the sake of far more pat and prosaic sci-fi cherry picking.  All the originality that once was is now gone, drained like sand from an hourglass.

Monday, October 8, 2012

House At The End Of The Street


There is a grey area between a remake and a rip-off.  House At The End Of The Street proves it.  While not advertised as a remake of any kind, the film, by its halfway point, certainly grows too familiar to be a coincidence.  But is it a stealthy remake of one cinema’s finest horror films (I won’t say which for fear of spoiling anything) or is it a rip-off? And what’s the difference, anyhow?  I think, remakes are declared and rip-offs try to pass themselves off as original.  And even though House is certainly a conscious theft (an homage if you want to put it kindly), it isn’t a remake in any cooperative sense.   Either way, at that evocative halfway mark, by the time the film’s narrative aspirations started to clarify, I became pleased.  You see: up to that point, I wanted to blow my brains out from boredom.    

The movie stars Jennifer Lawrence as the new girl in a woodsy Pennsylvania town.  She and her mother (Elizabeth Shue) move in next door to a creepy mansion home to a spooky local legend.  Four years earlier, a mentally handicapped girl named Carrie Ann killed her parents there and ran off into the woods where she supposedly drowned.  According to the town’s teenagers, she’s still out there living off the land.  Lawrence’s Elissa isn’t too concerned at first.  When she meets the estate’s last living heir, the eldest son Ryan (Max Theriot), she grows more and more curious about the mystery of the house at the end of the street.  (Or maybe she decides Ryan’s quite the brooding hunk and worth a little “investigating”.) 

We can see why she’s so interested.  He’s a suspiciously likable fellow: soft-spoken, kind, handsome, and a little pathetic, all alone in a big dark house with no one to keep him company except…  wait.  Who is that girl chained up in the cellar?  Is it Carrie Ann?  That’s what we’re led to believe, at least.  I’ll admit, the denouement is a kick, as the film’s tricky machinations begin to unravel.  But up to that point, it’s a structural nightmare.  What begins lamely but conventionally—with the double homicide that jumps things off—then continues on a path so tedious and seemingly pointless I wasn’t sure what kind of movie I was watching.  The second act felt like a bad WB pilot, with Lawrence interrogating Theriot about his traumatized childhood while the monster, an innocuous blond in a nightgown, sits chained up downstairs providing zero threat or tension. 

If you don’t fall asleep in the middle (at one point I was doing origami with my ticket stub), the flick’s coda might keep you from demanding a refund.  I perked up a little, but mostly because I enjoyed spotting all the allusions to the classic slasher movie providing the obvious inspiration.  But without an original bone in its body, not a single moment of genuine fright, and a male lead whose acting is about as exciting as a traffic jam, House At The End Of The Street offers little besides I-Spy for cinephiles.  Ultimately, I’ve seen this movie before, better directed, acted and plotted.  I’m not sure I needed to see it ripped off or remade with actors (sans Lawrence) better suited for an Abercrombie catalogue. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

End Of Watch


Police officers don’t often get the same recognition as soldiers.  It’s probably because soldiers are equated with selfless sacrifice in foreign conflicts, while cops are often thought of as those pesky local stooges that write us traffic tickets just to fill their monthly quotas.  But End of Watch, a hardcore police drama that often watches like direct cinema crossbred with a first-person-shooter, shows us there are places—right here, in this country—where our police offers are indeed at war.   And the friendship that grows between a cop and his partner is none too different from that which might foster between two G.I.s fighting side-by-side on some distant battlefield.    

The heart of End Of Watch flows with the blood of these brothers-in-arms.  The two in question are officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), two patrolmen who roam around South Central, Los Angeles hunting down gangsters and drug dealers with Serpico-like zeal.  They should probably just stick to writing tickets (that is there job, after all), but they are as heedless as they are heroic, and the movie suggests that you can’t be a hero in uniform without some semblance of daredevil impetuousness.  As brave as they are, their meddling gets them in hot water with a Mexican cartel that’s flooding Hispanic neighborhoods with narcotics and murderous thugs. 

Shot in a style that masquerades as realism, the film makes use of handheld camcorders, micro-lenses pinned to the officers’ chests, and hood and dash mounted surveillance monitors that can follow the two leads as they pursue the city’s toughest dealers and gun-runners.  The reason for all the equipment—Gyllenhaal’s Taylor is making a movie for his law school class—feels like a contrivance (the movie depicts far more than one semester of cop work).  Mostly, though, the cameras are an excuse to shoot the film as if from a cop’s perspective, from the streets, behind the wheel, immersed in the action.  At times, it feels like we’re playing a video game—the camera literally following a disembodied hand and gun. 

The effect isn’t exactly verisimilitude.  In fact, I’m not sure what director David Ayer was actually trying to achieve with the video-game stylistics: maybe a feel for how violence has become so desensitized in our society, by a cascade of media produced representations of it, that gritty police work has lost its horror—or maybe he just thought it looked cool.  What the director does nail, unequivocally, is an overwhelming sense of mounting dread.  As our heroes close in on an inner-city gang leader called Mr. Evil, we can see the sharks slowly circling around them, even if they don’t realize they’re swimming in dangerous waters. 

The film comes to a heart-pounding conclusion as our boys fight for their lives in a neighborhood as friendly to them as a Taliban stronghold might be for a couple of stranded grunts.  By that point, the rapport between Gyllenhaal and Pena has grown so familiar, so humorous, so brimming with authentic affection—our concern for them earned so organically—that the tension is almost unbearable.   Much of the movie is the two actors talking, joking, spilling about girls and family, teasing each other about their ethnicities in a harmlessly walls-down kind of way.  What emerges in not just friendship—it’s brotherhood.

Having spent five months in police training to prepare for their roles, Gyllenhaal and Pena don’t just get the lingo down; they understand the trust essential to any good partnership under fire.  I do wish Ayers (who also wrote the screenplay) could have found time to shade in some of the peripheral characters: Taylor’s girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick) and Zavala’s pregnant wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) are as textured as a couple of coloring book outlines.  Yet, in the end, it’s the boys that carry the movie.  Through them, End Of Watch becomes a police action-drama about more than just taking down gangbangers.  It’s about duty, sacrifice, and heartbreak.  It does right by our boys in blue—neighborhood soldiers that don’t always get the credit they deserve.