Monday, December 31, 2012

In the Line of Fire: FIVE BROKEN CAMERAS


As rumbles of war in the Middle East intensify for only the latest time in my lifetime, it’s important to look past empty hawkish rhetoric and witness the human-level situations that play out in that part of the world each and every day. It’s times like these that we need what cinema can provide: light amidst darkness, clarity amidst obfuscation, and understanding amidst fear. When we say that an actor was brave for doing a nude scene or for losing (or gaining) a massive amount of weight, when we say that a writer or director was brave for making a film that Hollywood considers a risky, artsy bet, we’re doing real bravery a disservice. You want to see true cinematic bravery? Five Broken Cameras represents brave moviemaking at its very best – a tough, tender, unflinching document of oppression and the human spirit, not in vague, empty-headed messaging or pat political statements, but in the stark, unavoidable power of picture and sound. This is cinema as a chronicle of history unfolding, of real people caught struggling to do the right thing.

Five Broken Cameras uses the very danger of its filming as its structure. The director and cameraman is Emad Burnat, a Palestinian farmer in a small village of energetic, resilient people. He first bought a video camera shortly after the birth of Gibreel, his youngest child, a pleased father wanting to grab memories for proud parents hold dear. It’s around this time Israeli developers began moving in, slowly but surely taking over more and more Palestinian territory. The village of farmers is finding land, livelihoods, subsumed by an ever-closer wall, by concrete buildings that appear seemingly overnight. There are peaceful protests beaten back violently by patrols from the Israeli armed forces. There are negotiations, legal challenges, and unease in the streets. Burnat is there to capture it all with his camera, even finding himself in the line of fire. One harrowing image finds a bullet shot straight into the camera and, with a scary-soft pop, the consumer-grade digital image buzzing away into terrifying computerized noise.

Burnat, with co-director Guy Davidi, follows the conflict as a backdrop for the child’s growth. We are watching home videos that add up to a portrait of a family, which in turn reflects the values of this close-knit village, which in turn reveals larger truths about the vast majority of Palestinian people. Rather than foregrounding political points, Burnat has a made a deeply humanistic, in some ways apolitical, film, arguing at its core for basic human rights, human decency, and the right to be heard. His narration, soft-spoken and melodious, takes us through everyday life, watching an adorable little boy explore the world around him. He toddles through the village with happiness, crossing through the checkpoints at the wall unaware of the menacing nature of it all, kicking at an exploded husk of a smoke bomb as if it were just another piece of nature resting in the soil.

Repeatedly, we return with Burnat to a shot of his five broken cameras, smashed, scrapped, shot, stomped, and shattered, placed in a row on his table, a physical record of the film’s making. The passing of time while watching the film can be measured not only by the age of Burnat’s children, but by the number of cameras we’ve seen destroyed, by the steady improvement in the tangible pictorial qualities of each new camera. It’s a perfect visual metaphor not only for the hazards of the film’s creation, but also for what the film represents: increased clarity through great danger. We see protests and violence from the Middle East in the media of the United States, but rarely are we afforded the chance to see it so personally, to comprehend it at a visceral ground level, to understand the overwhelming cycle of pain and perseverance from a first-person point-of-view. When Gibreel is only four years old, Israeli forces senselessly kill a beloved member of the village while he is peacefully protesting. This sweet little boy is heartbroken, his brow furrowing as he wishes harm upon the soldiers. He’s comforted, helped through his emotions, but the power of the pain, and the truth it reveals, lingers throughout this uniquely powerful film.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Fracked: PROMISED LAND


Fracking, the process by which energy companies drill into shale deposits deep underground and then shoot a mixture of water and undisclosed chemicals into the hole in order to extract natural gas, is rightly controversial. You may not have seen Gasland, the essential documentary on the subject, but you’re surely aware of that film’s most remarkable images of people lighting their tap water on fire. Fracking is safe and contamination of nearby water sources is next to impossible, at least that’s what the energy companies have a vested interest in having you believe. The good idea behind the newest anti-fracking film, Promised Land, is the way it puts those words in the mouth of its main character, a company man played by Matt Damon. His job is to ride into a small town and convince property owners to sell the rights to the shale under their feet in exchange for a big check and promises of residual checks to come.

Damon and his coworker (Frances McDormand) go door to door in an economically devastated town where the money offered sounds good. Too good to be true, says the local science teacher played by Hal Holbrook. An out-of-towner environmentalist played by John Krasinski joins the wise old science guy in a campaign to educate the townspeople about the dangers of signing away their town’s livability for an easy payout. Sure, the town would have a brief boom time, but is it worth trading their future livestock, farming, and fresh water? Director Gus Van Sant shoots the small town lovingly, with overhead shots of endless green expanses broken up only by farmhouses, silos, and herds of animals, the better to emphasize what can potentially be taken away.

The script, by Damon and Krasinski with an assist from novelist, essayist, and literary icon of sorts Dave Eggers, makes no effort to hide its didactic intentions. Well, almost no effort, I should say. There’s a wisp of a plot involving both men’s understandable, low-key, low-stakes romantic pursuit of a local teacher (Rosemary DeWitt) that doesn’t really go anywhere productive, but at least it distracts from scenes like Krasinski teaching a class about water contamination or Damon standing in front of an American flag answering tough questions in a local information meeting. It’s all pretty obvious, with character motivations and lines of dialogue blatantly standing in for the sociopolitical argument that’s inelegantly happening in a place somewhere between text and subtext.

The kicker is that the argument is so very noble. Of course we should be worried about what fracking will do to small towns. If anything, it’s a conversation that’s not being held often enough in the public sphere. The way the movie blends an economic and environmental argument is worthy, asking its audience to weigh the considerations of a struggling town’s short- and long-term best interests as the townspeople do. The problem is that there’s nothing else on which to ponder as the film plays out. It’s an editorializing documentary sitting just underneath the thin veneer of drama and I resented being asked to care about characters when they’re nothing more than living, breathing talking points. This is an artless message movie from artful people so carried away with their good message that they forgot to make a movie.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Off the Chain: DJANGO UNCHAINED



Deeply uncomfortable and scarily cathartic, Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s first true Western, finding inspiration from 70’s spaghetti and blaxploitation Westerns for a racially charged fantasy of bloody vengeance. The plot, set in the antebellum Deep South, concerns a hardened slave named Django (Jamie Foxx, steely cool) who is freed by the unassumingly dangerous German expatriate Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter, in order to assist in hunting down wanted slavers. The hunter doesn’t know their faces, but figures that the slave will identify them, seeing as they are the ones who sold Django and his wife (Kerry Washington, damsel distressed) to separate plantations. In exchange for the help, Schultz promises Django not only his freedom, but an opportunity for revenge and reunion as well. This is a film with many scenes of chains and whips inflicted upon stripped, sweaty, beaten bodies. It summons up ugly history to gorily dismantle the shameful institution (if only in some small, personal way) with a force history does not allow.

As one practiced in genre synthesis, Tarantino makes clear his aesthetic influences while recapitulating and recombining until he finds and elevates core attractions of his favorite genres. Here, he makes simple Western mythology out of volatile parts and unexpected juxtapositions. There’s a hint of his mindset of insatiable cultural appropriation in shots of snowy Sergio Corbucci fields; later, we follow a chain of slaves right out of Richard Fleischer's Mandingo. Drawing upon Western tropes by digging into less well-known (or downright disreputable) subgenres, Tarantino uses his film to reveal heroism and nobility in people usually kept off screen. How often, after all, did John Wayne films even seriously acknowledge slavery, a crucial economic engine and political hot button of the very era in which many of his cowboy epics were set? (Or Clint Eastwood. Or Franco Nero. Or, or, or.) Here, the black man is the hero, freed to exact his revenge, patiently working with a foreigner to set a trap for slimy slavers and steal back his bride.

That’s undeniably thrilling. But Tarantino’s approach can be awfully troubling as well. Though necessary, perhaps, the scenes of slavery and brutality sit awkwardly in such a pulpy setting. And yet there’s such a moral force behind it all. Why shouldn’t we get a kick out of seeing a slave determined to wage a one-man revolt through those determined to dehumanize him? Along the way we meet all manner of folk who are both imbued with Tarantino’s love of colloquial verbiage and an easy despicability. There are plantation owners (Don Johnson), vicious slavers (M. C. Gainey), cruel enforcers (Walton Goggins), and colluding slaves (Samuel L. Jackson in an altogether unexpected and especially tricky opaquely complex role). These characters are dancing around the edges of the plot, which ultimately turns its attention on one particularly charismatically nasty slave owner by the name of Calvin Candie who is played in a nice bit of unexpected casting by Leonardo DiCaprio. Calvin owns a large, notorious plantation called Candieland (get it?) that he proudly uses as a base for making money off of his slaves through prostitution and death matches. DiCaprio is clearly having fun (which, come to think of it, is a problem) and makes for a scary funny foil.

What’s disappointing is that the characters (especially the supporting ones) are thinner and the genre play is simpler and more surface-level than the usual Tarantino effort. His sure ear for dialogue turns tinny time and again, with some more overtly comedic set pieces galumphing embarrassingly. A scene in which Ku Klux Klan members avant la lettre argue about the size and spacing of eyeholes in their white hoods is just plain off tonally. Where he usually wields broad material in great crowd-pleasing gasps that don’t cheat fine thematic points and nuanced characterization, here he just has the brusque sensations. However painterly and powerful is an image of a pure white cotton field suddenly spotted with red blood, this is a film in which the human body has exploding baggies of red syrup inside and in which only simple catharsis and horror comes out with the gobs of viscera splattered about. (Though if anyone voices complaint about Tarantino’s approach to violence, let it be said that at least he modulates tone exceedingly well in its portrayal. Violence to slaves is gruesome; violence to slavers is a release.) Unlike his last film, Inglourious Basterds, which told an alternate-history World War II story through perfectly written scenes working on many levels at once, this historical genre picture is fairly one-note. I was occasionally entertained and delighted by the usual pleasures of the genre and certainly unsettled by the intensity of the slavery aspects of the plot, but was disappointed in the lack of deeper engagement or coherent commitment to genre subversion.

And then, there came a time when I found myself glad I hadn’t written the film off as mere uneven entertainment and provocation. There’s a sequence near the end of the picture that’s pure Tarantino, a long sizzle of suspense in which violence and surprise lie ticking, explosion fully possible at any moment. The suspense comes not just from a dangerous situation, but from the dangerous situation that’s almost, but not quite, occurring, existing as mere possibility that is deeply imbedded within character and plot in such a way that the audience knows deep down that this scene will not end with the same number of living characters that there were at its start. This is the kind of smart, writerly standoff that Tarantino does best and has within it an excitement and layered dexterity that I found missing in the rest of the film. Django Unchained frees itself from a bumpy buildup to go out with a (strangely doubled) flourish of flashy, almost frightfully effective and satisfying violence that just about justifies the film's existence and christens Foxx's Django a true new Western hero. Still, as good as it can be and as rousing some of the finale is, I’d have liked to see a sharper, deeper film that could have put to better use the unstable dynamite of its plot elements instead of relying on easy outrage and surface cool.

Monday, December 24, 2012

2012 OFCS Awards Nominees

This morning, the Online Film Critics Society announced the nominations for our 2012 awards. It's an interesting list with some surprising choices and omissions. That's worth a look.

You can see the complete listing here, but to get you started, here are the OFCS nominees for Best Picture:


Best Picture

Argo
Holy Motors
The Master
Moonrise Kingdom
Zero Dark Thirty

Winners in all categories will be announced on Monday, January 7, 2013. 

Hear the People Sing: LES MISÉRABLES


It took long enough to get Les Misérables on the big screen, at least when you’re talking about Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s beloved long-running (nearly 30 years) stage musical based on the hefty Victor Hugo novel. I’ll leave the comparisons of stage to screen to those who have actually encountered this production before, but as one whose first exposure to the musical comes through this film, I must say that, despite some reservations I’ll definitely mention, the film works. I can see why so many have such strong feelings about the source material. This is a sturdy, often stirring Hollywood musical of the kind that won’t win over any reluctant naysayers or those unlikely to either accept or ignore director Tom Hooper’s tendency to shoot everything in wide angle close-ups, but is sure to satisfy some of us who roll our eyes whenever Carol Reed’s altogether delightfully square literary musical Oliver! turns up in lists of Oscar “mistakes.”

If nothing else, Tom Hooper (who rode his last film, the even squarer The King’s Speech, to Oscar glory) has adapted Les Misérables in a way that’s determinedly earnest. It’s the kind of movie where characters are constantly having their lives turned upside down by momentous emotion and revelations happen in the blink of an eye. One glance and you’re the most in love you’ve ever been with a girl you just met. Receive one kind gesture and a criminal is instantly a better man, or an authority figure is instantly conflicted about his duty. Hooper underplays some of this quite nicely, but that will bury motivations from time to time. (There are a few character moments that left me lost.) Had the film been under the direction of a flashier, more competent visual stylist, there might have been an embrace of some of the more swoony elements in a way that could have led to greater clarity. Still, Hooper has been handed strong material and he’s smart enough not to mess it up.

The story, set in the mid-1800s, starts with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner who skips out on parole and, with inspiration from a kind priest, decides to start a new life as an honorable man. Too bad, then, that after several years of successful remaking, the policeman long in pursuit, Javert (Russell Crowe), eventually catches up.  This story crosses paths with Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is tragically unemployed and sickly, barely able to provide the money she needs to send to her very young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen), who has been left at a boarding house run by a couple of careless cons (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). Valjean promises Fantine that he’ll find the girl and make sure she’s taken care of. He does, but one step ahead of Javert, he and the girl flee. He starts over yet again. 

The plot picks up years later in Paris, where the frustrated public, among them idealistic students Marius and Éponine (Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks), plan a revolution. All of the other characters are in the general vicinity of the conflict as well, leading to Marius glimpsing Cosette (now grown into Amanda Seyfried) and deciding that he’s in love. Good thing she decides in the same instant that she loves him too, no matter how protective her adopted father is. And we haven’t even gotten to the revolution yet! This is a tragedy and a romance with an epic historical sweep that finds along the way menace and kindness, humor and heartbreak, romance and retribution. There’s lots of plot packed into a quick (relatively speaking, I suppose) two-and-a-half hours, leading to some moments where I was intellectually moved by the proceedings without getting my heart involved. There’s just no downtime here as we hurry from peak to peak and I felt a bit of a burden to fill in the gaps myself. And yet, this is sometimes powerful, always hardworking storytelling that soars on the back of memorable sung-through melodies and motifs.

Rarely stopping to catch a breath, the characters sing their hearts out. Hooper has one or two good ideas on how to capture the performances. First, there’s the live singing. Unlike most movie musicals, which record the vocal performances separately, leaving the actors room to maneuver through the scenes and dances without worrying about hitting all the right notes while filming, Hooper captured the singing right then and there on set. This results in many stirring moments of musical cinema in which characters are raw and emotive in ways that sound spontaneous. You can hear characters straining at times, warbling away from big notes when a swell of emotion chokes them up, weeping through swallowed notes or swelling with prideful energy. The singing is undoubtedly rough around the edges at times, but the cast does a fine job nonetheless. I was surprised how moved I was by Jackman’s clipped, half-swallowed bubbling in his most dramatic moments.

Hooper’s second good idea helps the cast’s singing as well. When the constantly swirling melodies part to let a character step forward and sing a solo soliloquy, his restless camera stops to capture the song in steady shots that keep the performance in close frames that regard the emotion that plays out with the notes. These moments could have failed a weaker cast, but here they are simple and effective. When Banks sings of unrequited love in “On My Own,” when Redmayne mourns in “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,” and when Jackman sings his epiphany in “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” the effect is a rather lovely work of cinematic theatricality, putting us not just front row, but on the stage for a terrific feat of musical acting. The clear standout sequence of this kind is Hathaway’s astonishing performance of what has to be the musical’s most well known number, the heartbreaking “I Dreamed a Dream.” It plays out in more or less one shot, each note a twist of the knife in this character’s sad trajectory.

Though the film feels so big with production design that feels like heightened grubby realism and soaring music that helps fill the frames with operatic emotions, Hooper’s closeness occasionally makes the whole thing feel small and cramped. (You wouldn’t really want to sit on the stage to watch the show now, would you?) He’s not a particularly visual director and when he’s called upon to manage a small group number – “At the End of the Day,” say, or especially with “Master of the House” – the shots don’t add up. When it comes to matching rousing unison and harmonies with nimble visual compositions to match, he’s not up to the task. Here he breaks with his old-fashioned material and old-fashioned approach for the sake of a misguided method of keeping editing choppy and shots close and ill framed. There’s a sense that he’s trying to stay away from precisely the bigness and exaggeration that makes the best movie musicals work so well. It doesn’t work for the material here, but it’s something that one can learn to overlook if determined to ride the emotion underlying it all.

After all, there’s a great story here, or at least so I gather. Some of the rushed storytelling left me scratching my head and the pacing in the final half hour or so goes strangely slack, but the broad strokes of pain, romance, and tragic revolution resonate well. The performers sell each and every big moment, a great cast, singing memorable, endlessly hummable tunes. Less a great movie, more a movie in which you can find greatness, Les Misérables is never better than when its director can get out of his own way. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Has Nice Beats // You Can Dance to It: GIRL WALK // ALL DAY


Girl Talk’s All Day, a whirlwind album-length mash-up, is the only sound on the soundtrack in Girl Walk // All Day, which is part silent movie, part music video, and part feature-length dance party. Any way you look at it, the film is infectiously toe-tapping. The film is a dance through New York City, a scenic tour that glides along, watching solitary dancers exuberantly, emphatically moving to the beat through crowds of real people simply going about their day. That could potentially be annoying, or like some sub-Candid Camera stunt, but instead it turns into one of the purest examples of musical joy the movies have given us in quite some time.

Director Jacob Krupnick’s camera sits back and regards the dancing as it happens, capturing full range of motion and the context of the environment. The music is pounding and hugely enjoyable, a flowing sampler of popular music from Beyoncé to E.L.O., John Lennon, Rihanna and Arcade Fire, from the Brothers Johnson and the Jackson 5 to Lady Gaga, Devo, Jay-Z, and Miley Cyrus, to name only some of the artists represented in a reported 372 danceable samples. Through lyrics beautiful, inane, and profane, the beat stays strong. As it moves along, we catch snippets of catchy hooks, bounce to some great flow, and groove to memorable melodies as they mix and match, compliment each other in new combinations. All the while, the camera moves through the city, from Chinatown to Central Park and from Wall Street to Grand Central Terminal.

There’s a loose plot of sorts that unfolds like a silent film in its broad, delightful exaggeration of expression. We’re mostly following a Girl (Anne Marsen), who bops along, dancing, wiggling and waving, sometimes eager to get passerby interested in joining her, sometimes blissfully lost in her own rhythms. In movie musicals, when one person is so full of emotion they simply must dance it out, there are often crowds of people ready to join in on the choreography. Not so here. This is dance for dance’s sake, the entirety of the city’s public spaces an impromptu stage. Luckily, the Girl is someone to watch, with a face as expressive as her dance. She’s our Chaplin, our Keaton, our Tati, a largely wordless figure to which the world must decide how to react.

There are two other dancers: the Creep (John Doyle) and the Gentleman (Daisuke Omiya). The Creep sometimes causes disruptions, but the Gentleman is a more respectful dance partner. We follow them from time to time, cutting away from the Girl. Eventually some of these characters will cross paths and exchange dances, acting out little scenarios. So there’s not much there and maybe the movie would be better off without nods towards plot, but there’s such a charming simplicity to the outsized dance-based movements that communicate so strongly through the soundtrack, that it’s hard to resist.

Along the way, sometimes the Girl is joined by new friends or receives positive nods and smiles from passerby. She’s just as often ignored. Other times she decides to take a break, like in a fun little montage in which she stops to shop. One charming moment finds her cheering up a little girl. Later, she gets caught up in a parade. Another moment finds her sad no one else will dance with her. There’s little down time here, though. She keeps moving, dancing to music that it appears only she can hear. As the movie goes on, we build to a dusk-set climax of sorts in which a larger crowd starts to join in on the dance. By the end, the effect is something that needs to be shared. At one point, in an unheard conversation recounted in subtitles, a bystander asks the girl, “Why are you dancing?” Her reply is a simple and powerful statement of purpose: “Because I’m happy.” And why shouldn’t we all try, at least every once in a while, to be so happy?

Note: As you might imagine, the music rights are what’s preventing this film from having anything approaching a more traditional release of any size. It’s screening in select venues, so if it shows up near you, I’d highly recommend checking it out. If you’re desperately curious and just can’t wait, the whole thing is streaming for free in 12 parts on girlwalkallday.com


Saturday, December 22, 2012

More Than a Name: JACK REACHER


There’s a scene in the middle of Jack Reacher in which the man himself (Tom Cruise), a former military investigator now poking around in the aftermath of a seemingly random shooting, finds himself confronted by two toughs ready to clobber him over the head. Reacher falls back in a confined space and his attackers, inexperienced and overeager, swing wildly. Reacher moves precisely and quickly, giving his attackers just enough room to inadvertently beat each other up, leaving him free to continue his investigation. This is a fun scene, well choreographed and a nice blend of danger mixed with a small amount of humor. But it is also a good enough metaphor for the film itself and the way it goes about working. It’s hardly original material, but it’s well written, quick-witted (at times) and precise, ready to lean back and let the plotting fall into place with good instincts. It’s a fine thriller, crisp, quickly paced, and with a smartly plotted mystery.

It starts with a terrifying act of violence. A sniper shoots into a crowd, seemingly at random, resulting in five deaths. The man the police take into custody does not speak when interrogated. He scrawls on a piece of paper a simple directive: Get Jack Reacher. They don’t have to look very far. He’s already on his way. What’s his connection to the accused? It’s all a tad more complicated than I need to get into here. Let’s just say that Reacher agrees to help the defense attorney (Rosamund Pike) investigate the case, while navigating the evidence provided by a perceptive detective (David Oyelowo) and the District Attorney (Richard Jenkins). How this seemingly open and shut case soon involves tails and goons (Jai Courtney and Vladimir Sizov), hired toughs (Josh Helman and Michael Raymond-James), an in-over-her-head girl (Alexia Fast), and a shadowy, mostly fingerless man played by the beloved German filmmaker Werner Herzog is complexity that eventually gives way to a grim, pulpy simplicity.

What holds the film steady on its course is the constant focus of Jack Reacher. As played by Cruise, the man’s a steady rock, a determined investigator who lives off the grid and shows up to help here out of a sense of duty. He’s no-nonsense, but with some terse quips here and there that are welcome wry one-liners. This character’s already appeared in a popular and ongoing series of novels by Lee Child from which I’ve meant to read one or two for a while now. Here Christopher McQuarrie, a fine screenwriter in his second directorial outing, gives the whole production the kind of easy familiarity and relentless steady momentum that drives us inevitably forward through the tangles of mystery, inevitable precisely because of the character at the center. Reacher feels like a character who enters fully formed. We know that he will get to the bottom of the mystery precisely because he’s so determined, part Shane, part Dirty Harry, a man who’s no (or rather, rarely a) loose cannon vigilante, but a man looking for justice with comprehensive training to back up his professed skills.

Cop and lawyer procedurals have told similar stories, investigating shocking crimes that aren’t as simple as they seem thousands of times over, an hour at a time, on TVs worldwide. What’s better here is the weight given to violence, a proper sorrow and horror. The opening shootings are scary enough (especially haunting in light of the many real life random massacres we’ve seen this year), but as we return to the event as the characters try to learn more, we’re given a montage that reveals who the victims were, examining their humanity with unexpected depth. Later on in the film, when a likable side character is suddenly murdered, it’s a sharp pain of a moment, unexpectedly fast and upsetting. How often do mysteries treat the deaths involved as mere plot point? Here, they’re felt more deeply than usual, which gives a heft to the unraveling mystery it might not otherwise have.

McQuarrie has made a fine example of slick popcorn filmmaking that’s serious about its entertainment. It doesn’t shortchange its subject by cheapening it. Instead, he allows the horror of the inciting incident to inform the intensity with which the audience is able to root for Reacher to untangle the motivations and conspiracies behind it. The movie embraces genre tropes a bit too much in the climax with what was an enjoyable investigation taking a turn into a standard action movie showdown, but McQuarrie never loses his refreshingly steady eye for framing the events on screen. This is a solid, well-built example of Hollywood craftsmanship that serves up some unsettling material and then brings in a movie star hero written with the right set of smarts to settle things back down again.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Scenes from a Marriage: THIS IS 40


Audiences first met Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) in Judd Apatow’s hit 2007 comedy Knocked Up. They were the harried couple in their mid-30s with two young kids, a family that was both a source of hope and a cautionary tale to the film’s leads, expectant parents played by Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl. Pete and Debbie were in some ways the best parts of that movie, memorable and with some exaggerated truth about them. You might remember Pete warning, “Marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond. Only it doesn't last 22 minutes. It lasts forever.” Now Apatow has plucked these characters from his earlier hit to create a spin-off with This is 40, a movie that proves Pete’s line about marriage correct. This is a sort of epic, R-rated sitcom episode, right down to the sunny bland visual sense, unfunny in large patches and lasting seemingly forever. It’s a shaggy, uneven film with some small, incidental pleasures that from time to time nearly make up for the production’s overarching solipsism.

The film takes place in the days before Pete and Debbie’s fortieth birthdays, a fine hook on which to hang a plot of personal reflection perched on the precipice of potential midlife crises exacerbated by pressures from outside the marriage. In true sitcom fashion, each half of this couple is hiding or minimizing important information from the other. Pete, when he’s not secretly scarfing cupcakes, has been giving money to his freeloading dad (Albert Brooks), which couldn’t be more inconvenient since his indie record label is on the brink of collapse and he’s missed a few mortgage payments. Debbie is also having trouble with her dad, an aloof, awkward, distant parent (John Lithgow), and money problems that need her to find out which one of her employees (either Megan Fox or Charlene Yi) is stealing from her boutique clothing store.

These are the main threads of anxiety that run through the picture, which are certainly fine impetuses for stress. It’s a shame that the film follows its characters right down a tunnel of self-absorption, with two characters locked in marital conflict in petty, grating ways. They bicker about diets, sex, childrearing, habits, money, vacations, and schedules. Over the course of 134 minutes, the film has plot elements that dead-end or take a cul-de-sac in a loose, rambling structure that allows foibles and miscommunications to escalate, pile up, fade away, come roaring back, shift priorities, and resolve, or not, in sometimes enjoyable fashion. Rudd and Mann are very good performers and are here, but the film is ultimately so repetitive an irritant, circling around the same emotional problems, relationship conflicts, and thematic concerns with increasingly less to say, that in the end I cared about the side characters far more than the couple at the center of it all.

Take, for example, the great Melissa McCarthy, an Oscar nominee last year for her work in the very good comedy Bridesmaids, who here plays a mom of one of Pete and Debbie’s daughter’s classmates. Following a terrible scene in which Debbie, thinking she’s sticking up for her daughter, cruelly berates the poor kid, the parents are called into the principal’s office. In a painfully uncomfortable scene, Debbie simply denies the encounter, which leads to McCarthy getting increasingly agitated. In the end, she’s the one who gets in trouble with the principal, coming across as a crazy person simply because Pete and Debbie present such a united front of deceit. (Well, McCarthy's character's a little crazy too, but still.) Beats me why we’re supposed to like this sort of thing. All this really did was cut off any lingering affection I had for the main characters.

Besides, all the stuff even approaching funny is happening with characters sitting on the sidelines with undernourished subplots, a fact that’s some sort of astonishing in a film this indulgent. For starters, there are Apatow’s daughters, Maude and Iris, playing Pete and Debbie’s daughters through convincing and cute character traits, the older newly adolescent and moody, the younger awfully precocious in a good way. I liked their relationship with each other as well, which leads to the film’s best off-handedly sweet moments. Brooks and Lithgow, as the flailing grandfathers, are fun as well, but never more than when they get a chance to play a scene opposite each other. Fox and Yi are amusing as two diametrically opposite employees, each quick to accuse the other of being the thief. Then there’s the terrific supporting cast filled with people like Chris O’Dowd, Jason Segel, and Lena Dunham, who have a handful of mildly funny lines, if that, each.

The determined self-centered absorption at the film’s center ends up dragging down all of its more admirable qualities, which are scattered about the film with no real central drive or organization. If we are to care about the couple at the middle of it all, it’s made all the more difficult by their selfishness wherein a great deal of their problems would disappear by simply speaking to one another honestly or thinking about the feelings and motivations of others. If we are not suppose to care about this couple, than the least the movie could do is offer up sharper character studies instead of unconvincing types stuck crosswise in three or four Idiot Plots at once. Perhaps Apatow really does believe that marriage is a tense, unfunny, formless, endless sitcom episode, but he didn’t have to go and make one, did he?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Quick Looks: ARBITRAGE, THE GOOD DOCTOR, and SLEEPWALK WITH ME


In Arbitrage, Richard Gere plays a hugely wealthy banker in some serious trouble. He’s become embroiled in a complicated financial deal that’s threatening to sink his company if the funds don’t get moved around quickly enough to cover his assets. And that’s not even the worst of it. He sneaks away from his wife (Susan Sarandon) to drive upstate with his mistress (Laetitia Casta) and ends up flipping the car. When he comes to, he sees that his mistress is dead in the passenger seat so he flees the scene of the accident. (The pointed intent couldn’t be clearer: the rich flee catastrophe on instinct.) So he’s dealing with financial trouble and legal trouble, skulking around large boardrooms, spacious offices, and fancy apartments, trying to avoid the consequences of his actions.

Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki has created a phony fantasy of a character study that feels altogether too calculated a guesstimate of how the one-percent lives. (Not that I have any experience with that income bracket, but it can’t be as simple as it’s made to seem here.) To put such material in a standard thriller (the kind with dramatic turns that make it play like an episode of Law & Order from the suspect’s point-of-view) only cheapens what was sparsely drawn to begin with. It should be juicier and with more of a bite; it’s all strangely toothless. That said, Gere gives a persuasive performance of a man crumbling under the burden of keeping up appearances. I also appreciated the work of Nate Parker, as a working-class man Gere debates scapegoating, and Tim Roth, as the investigator who is frustrated that the legal system seems rigged in favor the rich. Would that these performances were in a movie that would be able to better show them off.

Director Lance Daly’s The Good Doctor is a squirmy thriller about a lonely young doctor (Orlando Bloom) who falls in love (no, obsession) with a pretty patient (Riley Keough). He decides to tweak her medication in order to keep her in the hospital under his care. The script by John Enborn follows this situation to its predictable conclusion and the talented supporting cast (including Taraji P. Henson, Michael Peña, and J.K. Simmons) fills out the plot convincingly enough. It’s a shame, then, that the whole experience is just a sad, slow circle down the drain, completely without tension and devoid of emotional interest. This is a thinly imagined thriller that manages nothing more than a queasy feeling once or twice. It’s most unfulfilling in its flat visual style and ploddingly obvious script. As someone who sort of enjoyed Daly’s similarly slight first feature, the kids-in-puppy-love romance Kisses, I’m especially disappointed to see that this is where he’s gone next. He’s a director of potential and maybe someday he’ll live up to it.

Stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia has told the same – very funny – story in several mediums now. If you’re anything like me, you may have managed to hear several times over (in his stand-up, on This American Life, in his memoir) about his intense sleepwalking problem that caused him to, say, dream about a jackal intruding in his bedroom, which would result in him fast asleep shouting at a hamper, fully convinced he was confronting a wild animal. This is obviously a problem, but his career seemed to be taking off and his relationship with his girlfriend was growing complicated and one thing leads to another and he’s in a deep sleep while jumping out a second-story hotel window.

This story’s latest telling takes movie form in Sleepwalk with Me and it’s perfectly fine, though I did wonder if it would have worked better on me if the novelty was still there. Birbiglia, here the writer, director and star, has a loose, casual style that pumps up dream sequences with off-hand discombobulation that is undercut with silly shifts to reality. To fill out the rest of the semi-autobiographical movie, it follows Birbiglia’s relationship with his girlfriend (played by Lauren Ambrose) as well as his growing stand-up career that takes him from hotel to hotel, crummy gig to crummy gig. Altogether it plays like Woody Allen lite, warm and sweetly small. This is a minor, but often charming movie, mostly because Birbiglia is so likable. But the thing of it is, you’d have just as good a time listening to the original monologue, so I have a hard time recommending this movie outright. 

In the Bleak Mid-November: DEADFALL


Deadfall is the kind of unassuming thriller that’s built entirely out of familiar parts and yet still manages to make the parts work well together from time to time. It’s a dark, wintry little movie that starts on the eve of Thanksgiving, with brother and sister criminals (Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde) counting the money from their heist while zooming up a snowy, rural Michigan road. Trouble starts when they hit a deer and flip their car into a ditch, an accident that draws the attention of a passing state trooper. Covering their tracks, the brother and sister shoot him dead and split up, running their separate ways through the forest as a manhunt quickly assembles from the nearby police station.

A sort of rural noir with splashes of local color, this small, tight movie grabs suspense out of endless white plains and forests of hunters, cabins, and snowmobiles, as well as the kindness of strangers. Even though it’s actually Montreal substituting for Michigan, the setting feels convincing and atypical enough to draw some attention. Now, I’m not saying Deadfall is as good as Fargo, but much like the Coen brothers did with that film, this crime picture gains some fun and novelty out of setting traditional crime movie elements against the backdrop of an unexpected setting. Unlike the Coens, who appear to be constitutionally incapable of playing anything straight for too long – indeed it’s their verbal and visual wit that make them near constant delights – this film is dark and relentless.

The plot grows to include a couple of broken families trying to reconnect over this Thanksgiving weekend. In a big house in the country, mere miles from the opening accident, there’s a crusty old retired sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) and his wife (Sissy Spacek) who get a call from their son (Charlie Hunnam) downstate. He’s just been released from jail and wants to stop by. We also meet a tenacious young deputy (Kate Mara) who clashes with the protective, condescending sheriff (Treat Williams), who just happens to be her father. As these family dramas play out against the backdrop of potential danger, the film primes some setup for later satisfying, if a touch predictable and routine, payoff. Especially by the time a snowstorm closes the road and the prodigal son picks up the hitchhiking fugitive woman who’s desperate for a place to meet up with her brother and continue their getaway, it’s clear the shape the story will take. Still, it has some fun getting there.

I certainly don’t mean to oversell this movie. It sags in the middle, drops a few plot points, and cuts off interesting undercurrents before they have much time to develop. We never do figure out the exact nature of the brother and sister’s relationship or receive clarification on various convenient coincidences here and there. It’s also a little silly at times, like when Bana gets into a fight with a stereotypical Native American man who gravely informs his attacker that he was warned about this in a dream, or when two people (I won’t say who) are meant to be in love after a brief, relatively unconvincing, period of time. Come to think of it, just about everything involving Bana’s solo hike to the climax seems awkwardly motivated and weirdly irrelevant to the big picture.

But, working from a script by Zach Dean, director Stefan Ruzowitzky, an Oscar-winner for his Holocaust thriller The Counterfeiters, keeps the tension at a nice even keel. Through unfussy craftsmanship and a trustable, solid cast, he moves things along in a way not entirely dissimilar to the feeling of compulsively turning the pages of some just-satisfying-enough airport novel. I wasn’t involved so much as I was curious to see how the plot would resolve and through what twists the stock characters would have to live to get to the end. This is a movie that works well on that level and on that level alone I was satisfied. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Back Again: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a curious film. It’s an unhurried adventure film that will arrive at many thrilling cliffhangers eventually and whenever it feels like it. It’s a film possessed with its own rhythms and pacing, a sometimes-welcome casual disregard for the conventions of blockbuster filmmaking. Oh, it is still stuffed to the gills with action, incident, quips, and effects, but such standard spectacle requirements are served up with unusual timing. Returning J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy realm of Middle Earth to movie screens for the first time since The Lord of the Rings trilogy wrapped up in 2003, writer-director Peter Jackson is clearly enjoying time spent in this world. He shows it to us in detail, unapologetically luxuriating in every bit of his film’s backstories, tangents, and rumination of conflict to come. As someone who saw and enjoyed the three earlier films when they rolled through theaters a decade ago, but hasn’t seen any of them all the way through in the time since, I was struck by how much I was glad to be back in the world of travelers walking through sweeping second unit landscapes to the tune of a great Howard Shore score.

But though the world is the same, it’s a much different kind of story this time around. From what I recall, Rings had narrative drive, a quick pace, world-ending stakes, and deep wells of emotion. But of course, each of those films adapted one novel each. An Unexpected Journey has been adapted by Jackson (along with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro) from just a hundred or so pages from Tolkien’s comparatively slender prequel novel. Instead of a sweeping quest to save Middle Earth from certain doom, we’re following a scrappy band of dwarves on a mission to regain their homeland (and treasure) from a dragon. It’s a simpler quest, one played lighter and more boisterously entertaining on the page and so, you’d think, lends itself less to the kind of bombast and self importance in which Jackson is fully prepared to indulge. Though the first Hobbit film is ultimately slighter in some ways than the epic weight of the previous trilogy, it’s a worthy film all its own that works differently as it strikes off to tell a story all its own.

We start, after lengthy introductory expository scenes that takes us hither and yon through time and space, with a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), sixty years before he’ll leave his precious cursed ring to Frodo (Elijah Wood) and begin the events we’ve previously seen dramatized. Bilbo is visited by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who insufficiently prepares him for a visit by the aforementioned band of dwarves, a raucous, hungry bunch who laugh and sing, but turn gravely seriously when discussing the logistics of their plans. Led by their king-in-exile Thorin (Richard Armitage), twelve dwarves prepare for the long trek to the Lonely Mountain where they hope to capture what’s rightfully theirs from the fearsome Smaug, a creature here only glimpsed through shadow and fire in flashback.

After some expected hemming and hawing, Bilbo decides to head off with the group for the sake of adventure. The journey will take them into contact with aloof regal elves, vengeful slimy orcs, an eccentric woodlands wizard, hungry, dimwitted trolls, and, in the film’s best scene, the pathetic Gollum (Andy Serkis) ready for riddles. From the peaks of sentient mountains to the dewy caverns of pimply goblins, these adventurers trudge, trying desperately to keep the group together and survive along the way to their destination. Their task is a personal one of revenge and honor. Unlike the clear, heavy burden of the stakes in the trilogy, this film is an epic episodic adventure of inner drive and private motivations. There are hints at powerful emotions undergirding it all, themes of unintended consequences and the ways choices made in the heat of the moment reverberate through time and can lead to outcomes both good and bad. It’ll be interesting to see if and how these thematic through-lines are teased out in films to come.

As it is, An Unexpected Journey is a fine, fun fantasy film, involving and even a little bit moving around the edges. The design is seamless and impeccable. The effects work is impressive. The protagonists are largely loveable, funny and sympathetic. The villains are vague yet despicable all the same. The action, when it arrives, is generally well done, tense, exceedingly well choreographed, and even with some wit on occasion. This is the kind of film with the room and will to explore just about anything it would like to do. Veer off to spend some time with a sick hedgehog? Why not? Pause for a meeting between Gandalf and some characters from the Rings trilogy while Bilbo and the dwarfs get a head start? Sure! It gives the whole thing a feeling of existing in a rich, lived-in fantasy world that inevitably lost me from time to time, but I joined back up with it soon enough. Jackson makes Middle Earth the kind of place that seems to go on forever in every direction out of frame. If you fall under its spell, it’s the kind of nearly-three-hour movie that feels three hours in a good way. It won me over and nearly pushed me away and then won me back again a few times over, and by the time the credits started I was still ready for more.

Since this particular film is available in so many different – and contentious – viewing options, it’s worth noting for the record that I saw it in 24fps 2D. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Hear the Train a Comin': ANNA KARENINA


If I may borrow and twist around the opening line to a famous Leo Tolstoy novel, in fact the very one soon to be in question here: average filmmakers are all alike, but every experimental filmmaker is experimental in his own way. That’s not completely true, but it’ll go a long ways towards understanding the career trajectory of Joe Wright. He began his career with a confident adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride & Prejudice, moving on to a showy, but deeply felt, adaptation of a modern literary classic, Ian McEwan’s Atonement. His third film, The Soloist, was a contemporary based-on-a-true-story flop that felt like a misjudged attempt at conventional restraint. After that, rather than turning back to the realm of the literary adaptation, Wright leapt into more daring territory with Hanna, a near-masterpiece actioner with fairy tale overtones. Built from a potentially schlocky script, it is a film enlivened by a fracturing, emphatic use of bold compositions, a dreamy visual mood and intense sound design. He’s proven himself a filmmaker torn between the stately and the off-putting, between holding emotion close and letting pure sensation take over.

Wright’s latest film is a return to the world of canonized literature, namely Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. (It’s the one I hinted at earlier, although you may have gathered as much from the headline above.) Rather than representing a retreat to the familiar, it’s easy to see while watching the film unfold that Wright has quietly become one of the most experimental mainstream filmmakers working today. Whereas Pride & Prejudice plays it safe and stately, Atonement was filled with bravura show-off camera moves and narrative twists, and Hanna was an artful display of art house action filmmaking, Karenina finds Wright trying out his most daring experiment yet. Tolstoy’s massive novel about an unhappily married Russian woman has been abridged and thinned by playwright Tom Stoppard, but it’s Wright’s idea to place scenes set in Moscow and St. Petersburg inside a theater, literally making, for the people of high society, all the world a stage.

Through this conceit, Wright brings a kind of cinematic theatricality, heightened and ornate in ways the stage wouldn’t allow.  He uses every bit of the theater too, with characters framed by gas lamps downstage or climbing up into the rafters and rigging, descending into the aisles – the seats are gone, the better to become a racetrack or dancehall. The sets are flat, but detailed, as scenery scrolls by outside carriage windows and a forest of false trunks sit upon the floorboards. The fakery here is obvious and elaborate. Complexly choreographed camera moves through shifting stagecraft turn an office into a street into a restaurant around a moving character. It’s a sort of wonder, bold aesthetic artifice that becomes an enclosed experiment that manages to contain a sweeping historical epic in an interior. The scenes that leave the theater city for countryside of endless snowy or vibrantly green and yellow fields are bracing retreats from the rigid constraints of society.

But such a determined focus on physical spaces does not reveal similar interest in mental interiors. The film’s visuals are a sometimes intoxicating, sometimes repetitive blend of ballet and Brechtian conceits, but this splendid feat of technical artistry walls off the cast’s most excellently engaged performances. It’s a film as distant as it is exquisite. As Anna Karenina herself, Keira Knightley brings a kind of static suffering, to which Wright is happy to add heavy-handedly haunting by foreshadowing. (Do you hear that train whistle blowing? How could you miss it?) The film follows Tolstoy’s plotting, but its rush to fit so much in a relatively compact 130 minutes leaves emotion and motivation as nothing more than shorthand to be glimpsed dancing across the actors’ faces through the set design.  The rest of the cast of characters, from Anna’s husband (Jude Law), lover (Aaron Johnson), brother (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife (Kelly Macdonald), to a handful of Countesses (like Emily Watson and Olivia Williams), play their parts very well with the performers sinking convincingly into their roles. But they seem almost like an afterthought. They’re prominent and well cast, but feel like just so many cogs in the artful narrative machine.

Trapping Tolstoy’s characters in a constructed artifice of splendor may make for good metaphor and fine visual filmmaking, but it’s a difficult construction with which to invite an audience in. I found myself desperately wishing I were enjoying the movie more than I was and for a while I did. But in the end, standing outside looking in grew too difficult and, though I admired the sights, I couldn’t ponder the themes or feel the emotions for all the metaphor-embellishing bric-a-brac in the way. Wright is no less an impressive director for trying, but his adaptation is sadly an experiment that comes up empty in the end.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fail to the Chief: HYDE PARK ON HUDSON


One of the lousiest films in recent memory, Hyde Park on Hudson is a visually impoverished period piece of little consequence. I could imagine a perfectly fine film to be made out of the story of a 1939 meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the King and Queen of England in upstate New York, but this is most certainly not that film. In the hands of director Roger Michell (he of bland, irritating romantic comedies Notting Hill and Morning Glory) and screenwriter Richard Nelson, the true historical events are turned into the airiest, blandest concoction imaginable. This is a thinly written barely-there 94 minutes, a treacly, atonal disaster that shuffles its ignominious way through a painfully uneventful and unpersuasive series of half-realized events.

Told through the point of view of Daisy, FDR’s distant cousin, the film does its best to skirt around what little is interesting about the story it recounts. It’s a love affair presented without passion. It’s a meeting of heads of state on the eve of global conflict presented without suspense. It’s a weekend in a mansion in the midst of a global depression presented without any reflection of economic or sociopolitical realities. No, it all is treated like the mildest possible farce, a lukewarm sub-soap opera comedy of errors that’s mostly error and entirely comedy free. In fact, in writing the previous sentence I felt bad about tarnishing farce, soap opera, and comedy of errors by even mentioning them in connection to this film, even if only to demonstrate how little it manages to accomplish.

It’s all enough to make one wonder what scared the filmmakers away from actually doing something with their material. As is, the whole thing just sits up there on the screen, inert from frame one. Michell has somehow even coaxed the wonderful, idiosyncratic Bill Murray into this mess, in the lead role no less. He does a passable FDR impression, I suppose, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the script gives him little to do. Worse still are the film’s attempts to mine some comedy out of the president’s medical problems, framing an early interior moment of guest-greeting with a window in the background that allows the foreground to be interrupted by the sight of the president being carried around the back of the house. Ha ha, we’re supposed to think; FDR can barely walk. How delightful?

The rest of the floundering cast is made up by such generally dependable performers as Laura Linney, who plays Daisy about as well as a shallow characterization with copious terrible narration to recite can be played, and Olivia Williams who wears a nice set of false chompers as Eleanor Roosevelt. As the King and Queen of England, Samuel West and Olivia Colman, adequate though they are, can’t help but pale in comparison to Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayals of these people in The King’s Speech. If one were to cynically suppose that this cinematic endeavor was nothing more than a late attempt to draft off of the success of that Oscar-winner of a couple years ago, I would not be inclined to disagree.

As the film drags itself through a seemingly endless runtime, thinking it is finding much humor in a King in a bathing suit or eating a hot dog and much poignancy in a thoroughly unconvincing love affair, the picture begins to take on the distinct feeling of a film with nothing to do. It’s a film without a point of view, without any point at all, come to think of it. With little to say and no reason found to say it, I can’t help but feel that this film is about as useless a film as I’ve ever seen. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Criminal Minds: KILLING THEM SOFTLY


Killing Them Softly is a tense, talky little thriller, shot through with obvious arty nods towards oblique, gritty crime movies of the 1970s, the kind where glowering character actors talk all around their conflict between moments of bloody consequences. Writer-director Andrew Dominik, adapting the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, moves the setting from 1970s Boston to late-2008 New Orleans, the better to suit his thesis that connects American capitalism to the robbery and retribution that powers the film’s plot. The connection is made early and often, most obviously and effectively in the film’s crackerjack inciting incident in which two low-level criminals (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) stick up a card game organized by a mid-level criminal (Ray Liotta). While cash is forced into a pair of briefcases at gunpoint, the TV in the background breaks into regularly scheduled programming, filling the room with the sounds of George W. Bush explaining the need to bailout Wall Street.

It’s immediately obvious that Dominik is going to hammer home his thematic intent with all the subtlety of blunt force trauma, throwing a sharp elbow into the audience’s side shouting “Get it?” To say it has subtext would be too kind. Luckily, the film, a small, tough work of quiet tension, is just good enough to sustain itself in the face of its auteur trying a little too hard. Besides, I far prefer a film that’s trying a little too hard to a film that’s too lazy to leave much of an impact. Here, the ultimate entrepreneurial criminal is represented by Brad Pitt playing a dark, smoking, and professional hitman. He rides into the picture to the tune of Johnny Cash on the soundtrack, ready to clean up the mess caused in the underworld by this first-act robbery. Negotiating with a lawyer for shadowy interests (Richard Jenkins), Pitt agrees to bring in a big-shot out-of-town killer (James Gandolfini) to help take down three conspirators and one scapegoat. Nobody’s going to stick up a card game in this town and think they can get away with it. Not on his watch, not as long as he gets his money.

Pitt’s performance is controlled, unshowy work that forms a quietly dangerous center around which the other characters can turn. The film is structured around scenes of men glowering across tables and cars at each other, talking through long-winded monologues and dialogues about what they’re about to do or what they’ve just done. The writing in these moments is alternately humdrum and prickly, occasionally finding laughs so easily that if it weren’t such a carefully scripted picture you’d think it was by accident. In roundabout discussions and unexpected twists of language, the movie works. In between these scenes of tightly wound wordiness are directorial flourishes of fades, slow motion, jarring edits, and surprising jolts of sound design. Much like last year's Drive, this is a kind of distillation of crime movie tropes built back up with self-conscious moodiness and stylishly upsetting splashes of violence.

Though Dominik gets fine performances out of his cast and puts them through tough, crisp crime plotting of a fairly satisfactory kind, the film is in the end only an argument for itself. The closed loop of plotting leaves it all feeling empty, like drab pessimism for nothing more than the sake of drab pessimism. The coldly cynical underpinnings that reverberate throughout the film are often electrifying, juxtaposing speeches by then-candidate Barack Obama or news reports about the freefalling economic conditions with the story’s matter-of-fact preparations and negotiations leading up to theft and violence. But such stabs at weightier intent and broader implications are as exasperating as they are electrifying, both too obvious and too muddled. Cynicism comes cheap, something made especially clear when a general air of disaffected, inconclusive unhappiness is really all this particular film is up to in its grumbling thematic content.

It’s a good thing that Dominik just about makes up for the thematic mud underneath his glossy images and appealingly (type)cast group of sad, violent, greedy men. Even if by its conclusion, the film comes up emptier than you’d expect, it’s still a competent genre exercise, suspenseful and engaging all the way through. Its characters are unapologetically looking out for nothing more than reasons to advance in their criminal occupation of choice, to get the job done and get paid. As such, it’s a small film that only steps wrong when it tries to act bigger than it is.
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