Review: “The Great Gatsby”

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“The Last Tycoon”

Grade: B+

IN THE AFTERGLOW of a loud, lavish and limousine-laden party – thrown for the sole purpose of winning back an old girlfriend named Daisy Fay – host Jay Gatsby tells Nick, his neighbor and friend, that the past is never set in stone.  “You can’t repeat the past,” Nick protests, to which the consummate self-made man, Gatsby, replies: “Can’t repeat the past? … Why of course you can!”

It’s a crucial difference in opinion and one that captures the American essence of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic “The Great Gatsby,” printed in April of 1925 and foisted on 20120719144128!Gatsby_1925_jackethigh-school freshmen ever since. (The paperback edition, which was already selling more than a half million copies annually, is currently back on top.) The novel’s titular tragic hero is the very emblem of the nouvelle riche and as the lord of Long Island Sound, he’s been catapulted from an anonymous Midwestern existence as a Great War veteran to the mysterious man-of-the-hour.  Lots of Gatsby’s neighbors are in Nick’s ear about whether he’s a killer, a bootlegger, or truly the owner of a successful franchise of pharmacies. Nick is played by the typically neuter Tobey Maguire.

But if Gatsby is the American Dream incarnate, a man who emphatically holds that the past and the future can be bent toward any ambitious man’s objectives, his life plays out as a kind of lonely nightmare. (Don Draper of “Mad Men” is just a reworking of the Gatsby archetype.)  His rosebud Daisy is now a married mother and Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, is one of many looking to expose him as anything but great.  Possessing what Fitzgerald describes as a “cruel body,” Tom is a racist and a philanderer with a married mistress named Myrtle waiting in the wings.  A hostile Tom – I can remember Mrs. Maroney, my high school English teacher, exclaiming “I hate Tom!” – denigrates his rival as “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.”

Now 38 years old, Leonardo DiCaprio fits the role of Gatsby to a (sun-tanned) T.  We’ve watched this actor transform from the cat-eyed androgyne of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “Titanic” to the square-headed hulk of “J. Edgar” and “The Aviator.”  Those latter biopics, centered on reclusive and enigmatic men, have prepared DiCaprio well for the role of James Gatz/Jay Gatsby, who roams his stately pleasure-dome likeLeonardo DiCaprio Charles Foster Kane.  As Daisy, Carey Mulligan (“Drive,” “Shame”) is mostly mute, torn as she is between her own flame and the unfaithful husband who provides her a mansion of her own across the bay. Tom is played by the Australian actor Joel Edgerton (“Zero Dark Thirty”) whose blue eyes flicker ferociously back and forth when he is finally confronted by Gatsby in a swelteringly hot Manhattan hotel room.  “Your wife doesn’t love you,” Gatsby tells Tom, “She’s never loved you.  She loves me.”

Much of what I’ve already laid out here are plot points, because they remain every bit as compelling and air-tight as they are on the page.  Unfortunately, what stands in the way of “The Great Gatsby” becoming as great a film as it is a novel is largely due to the direction of Baz Lurhmann, the Aussie director famous for the MTV-style editing and splashy art direction he brought to “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge.”  Those films succeed as great-gatsby-joel-edgertonstagey spectacles – stabbings, solos, cancan lines – whereas the source material here is a more hushed, low-key affair.  (Even the climactic murder, in the novel, is described after the fact and left to the reader’s imagination.) Lurhmann’s hyperactivity is well suited to the gaudy opulence of Gatsby’s high-points – described by Fitzgerald as a “universe of ineffable gaudiness” – but he can’t seem to represent the man’s emotional lows.  It was a mistake to make the place from which Nick narrates his tale a sanitarium, and awfully literal-minded as well to type out some of the novel’s more famous lines across the screen, as if a Power-Point presentation were needed to heighten the drama.  Lurhmann’s touch is really more of a stranglehold.

This is not to say that “The Great Gatsby” doesn’t lend itself to flashiness, especially in terms of the novel’s automobiles which are, in Lurhmann’s kaleidoscopic reimagining of the tale, as gorgeous as the interiors of Gatsby’s wedding-cake mansion.  DaisyTHE GREAT GATSBY CAST FILM IN SYDNEY Fay, back in her Louisville days, had a “little white roadster,” writes Fitzgerald; there’s Tom’s blue coupé and the so-called “death car” that sets the double demise of Myrtle Wilson and Jay Gatsby into motion.  Even Nick frames his libido (or lack thereof) in automotive terms, saying that he is “slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires.”  Putting the brakes a bit on Lurhmann’s style would have made this “Gatsby” greater – less tinsel and more teeth.

Note:

I want to thank all of my followers but after two years of writing film reviews for CINEMAWOLF, I realize that keeping a truly state-of-the-art blog is a full-time job and the demands of my professional life prevent me from staying current here, so this is likely my final film review.  You can find my reviews in print in The G&LR and elsewhere.  I wish all of you a long life as grand as Gatsby’s!

Review: “Mud”

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“Mississippi Moon, Won’t You Keep On Shinin’ On Me”

Grade: A-

MARK TWAIN NEVER forgot the Mississippi.  In 1856, he left Ohio for Louisiana by steamboat, intending to travel on the Amazon.  Fortunately, Twain changed his mind and apprenticed for a Mississippi riverboat pilot and the rest is (American literary) history.  “The great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun,” he wrote in one of his earliest sketches about that river.  Twain would no doubt have found the new film “Mud” from Jeff Nichols – who reportedly asked his cast to read the author while on set – a marvel, rich as it is with local color, narrative density, and feeling.  It’s full steam ahead for Nichols, whose previous films include the little masterpieces, “Shotgun Stories” (2007) and “Take Shelter” (2011).

A coming-of-age tale, “Mud” centers around two boys named Ellis (Tye Sheridan of “Tree of Life”) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland).  American kids don’t really explore the 000020.17055.MUD_Film_Still1woods and streams anymore – there are apps for that now – which is why the boys’ backwoods existence evokes a golden age when childhood was the closest thing to freedom.  Ellis and Neckbone discover a remote island with a boat inexplicably wedged in the treetops up high. There’s a well-executed panning shot – compliments of director of photography Adam Stone – in which the boys first encounter the island’s sole inhabitant, a stranger with an even stranger name: Mud (Matthew McConaughey, in his best starring role to date).  Mud’s too amicable and avuncular to be dangerous – Ellis takes an immediate liking to him – and for a while, the boys shuttle between their families (played by Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson as Ellis’s feuding parents) and ornery neighbor Tom Blakenship (a buzz-cut Sam Shepard), bringing Mud the canned food he needs to survive on the lam. Michael Shannon, the star of Nichols’ previous films, is Neckbone’s guardian, Uncle Galen; he’s busy scouring the river bottom for oysters and banging around in the equipment of a deep-sea diver.

But no man, of course, is an island, and Mud’s criminal past connects the boys to a whole host of problems in their tiny Arkansas town.  Mud’s back story is a romantic one: he’s killed the Texas lover of his on-again-off-again girlfriend named Juniper x.MUD_.0426(Reese Witherspoon) who has brought him nothing but trouble.  Driven by what Toni Morrison calls one of those “deepdown, spooky loves” that make one “so sad and happy,” Mud and Juniper are the kind of couple that send restraining-orders as love-notes.  Tom Blakenship blames all of Mud’s trouble on Juniper and, as a ex-military sharpshooter, he comes in handy when the father of Mud’s victim (Joe Don Baker) brings a bunch of hired guns to town to track Mud down.  It’s all in the nonverbal dialogue when Juniper spots Mud (temporarily off the island) from the balcony of her run-down motel; it’s Nichols’ riff on “Romeo and Juliet” with the same collision of eros and violence.

Gender politics, as usual, muddy the waters and the script’s only failure is that its conflicted relation to women and femininity feels, well, Twain-era. It becomes clear that Ellis and Mud are leading parallel lives, for the Huck-like Ellis is crushing on an older girl named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) who breaks his heart in the way JuniperIMG_3962.CR2 breaks Mud’s over and over again. Because Ellis’s father is estranged from his mother (the underrated Paulson), he warns his son that all women are snakes, selfish and impossible to please.  “Mud” doesn’t really disavow Ellis (or the audience) of that biblical bunk except for Mud’s corrective, which comes later in the moments before a river-boat shoot-out.  Mud assures the boy that women are worth loving, but is “Mud” really on board?  The film’s women remain archetypal and far-off.

Mud’s island, meanwhile, is a wondrous place; it’s the ultimate man-cave wherein he’s planning his escape by river but also a dangerous place replete with a hissing snake pit (foreshadowed well from the film’s start).  Nichols’ “Mud” is that rare work of art that achieves something tantamount to Twain’s best stories (for adults and children): it reminds you, simultaneously, of what it was like to be a child but also what it’s like to feel – however incompletely – all grown-up.

Review: “The Place Beyond the Pines”

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“Into the Woods”
Grade: B+/A- (SEE IT)

“IF YOU RIDE like lightning you’ll crash like thunder.”  Those are cautionary words delivered by Ben Mendelsohn, a car mechanic and former bank robber, to Ryan Gosling in “The Place Beyond the Pines.” It’s a worthy follow-up, from director Derekthe-place-beyond-the-pines-dane-dehaan-emory-cohen Cianfrance, to his “Blue Valentine” of 2010 and every bit as grittily realistic and desperately somber.  A peroxide-blond Gosling plays Luke, a stunt biker and drifter who, in an already much-discussed opening shot, walks from his carnival tent to a giant metal cage in which he and two other bikers zip around upside down and sideways. Cianfrance maintains that frenetic pace as Luke is soon reunited with Romina (Eva Mendes) whom he saw the last time he was in town and, unbeknownst to him, impregnated.

Luke vows to pull his life together and support his wife and child but is drawn to the allure of danger and easy money.  Ben Mendelsohn’s character Robin schools Luke in how to rob banks in the Schenectady area, which he does successfully, at least, for a The-Place-Beyond-The-Pines-posterwhile. Gosling’s character is heavily tattooed – Frankenstein’s visage adorns his hand – but all the writing on his neck and fingers belies the fact that Luke is virtually unreadable.  Gosling can play this too-cool-for-school macho role with his eyes closed – we’ve seen it before in “Drive” where there, too, he played another stunt man with a heart of gold – but here, he makes us sympathize with this daredevil turned family man.  “Pines” artfully captures the exhilaration of crime as we watch Luke speed off, heist after heist, to Robin’s getaway truck, which carries him out beyond the pines where the men chain-smoke and count their cash.

Like “Blue Valentine,” “Pines” spans a swath of time – fifteen years, to be exact – and it would spoil the plot to reveal how exactly Luke and Bradley Cooper’s character Avery cross paths except to say that film’s second half belongs not to the criminal but to the cop who stops Luke dead-in-his-tracks.  Avery is the son of a judge (played by Harris Yulin) and a new father himself, and though his life looks honest and respectable in comparison to Luke’s, we find that he’s surrounded by crooked cops (including a typecast Ray Liotta).  Flash-forward 15 years and both Luke and Avery’s sons – AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan) – are teenagers in the same high school, and here we see the leitmotif of the sins of the father played out as Jason slowly realizes his friend’s father’s involvement in his own family history. ‘Nuff said.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” is driven chiefly by the magnetism of its actors.  This is surely Eva Mendes’ best performance to date, but because “Pines” is interested mainly in men and the patrilineality of violence and regret, she’s forced to bring everything she has to a somewhat trite and undeveloped role.  The same is true for Rose ByrneMV5BMjI5NDY5NTY4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDE5ODEyOQ@@._V1._SX640_SY427_ who (dis)appears later in the film as Bradley Cooper’s wife Jennifer.  It’s the singular failure of Cianfrance’s film – and a script by Ben Coccio and Darius Marder – that a woman’s only job is to wait on the sidelines and worry about her man.  AJ is entirely misplayed by Emory Cohen – too “street” for a DA’s son – whereas Dane DeHaan brings real pathos to the part of Jason, a fatherless child who, in the last scene, only wants to feel what his outlaw father must have felt as he drives his motorcycle out beyond the pines.  It’s a lasting image and one of an achingly real predicament: a teenager who, lost in his own grief, can’t see the forest for the trees.

Review: “Ginger & Rosa”

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“New Radicals”

Grade: B

IN LATIN, THE words for friend (“amicus”) and lover (“amans”) are derived from the same root – “amo,” which is to love. In Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa,” a film about the highs and lows of female friendship, there is that same slippage between friendship and love. Elle Fanning (“Somewhere”) and Alice Englert play the title roles in thisGinger & Rosa sensitive, intelligent film set in London in 1962.  The adults around them are up in arms about nuclear arms during the anxious days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  There’s the commanding Christina Hendricks as Ginger’s mother Natalie and Jodhi May as Rosa’s mother Anoushka.  They met in a maternity ward during World War II and their daughters have been besties ever since.  They share a bathtub and examine each other’s underwear like water-nymphs; they discuss existentialist philosophy with Ginger quering “Do you think Simone de Beauvoir has a bubbly personality?” and “Do you think there’s a ‘forever’?”

But is there really such thing as a B.F.F.?  Sexuality, integral to Potter’s coming-of-age tale, has the potential to ruin everything between them and Rosa’s sexual relationship with Ginger’s handsome father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) drives an understandable wedge.  ginger-and-rosa09There’s an excruciating scene on a boat – and we feel Ginger’s agony because of Fanning’s precise performance (not to mention her dead-on British accent) – in which Ginger can hear Roland and Rosa’s lovemaking in a room next door. She presses a pillow to her ears to deaden the sounds of sex and betrayal.  The secret affair is another ticking time bomb and the circle of activists and artists that surround her – her gay godfathers (Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall) and Annette Benning as their feminist gal-pal – threaten to find out that Roland is sleeping with his daughter’s lifelong friend.

Political liberals on film are usually portrayed as sexually incontinent, so are college professors (i.e. “The Squid and the Whale,” “Wonder Boys,” “The Life of David Gale,” “Smart People” – okay, I’ll stop there).  According to the movies, our beliefs in love, reform and pacifism must infuse a sex life that knows no bounds. Roland fits this stereotype to a T – “I’m not sure I’m father material,” he under-states – and we want to see him found out. The film’s resolution is rushed and its pace overall plodding.  Roland tells Ginger “You were born radical,” but “Ginger & Rosa” ends on a fairly conservative note with Ginger having learned one of life’s hardest lines: eros trumps philia every time.  This must be what The Smiths were getting at, in “Ask” from 1986, when Morrissey sang: “If it’s not love then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.”

Review: “Stoker”

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“American Gothic”

Grade: C+/B- (RENT IT)

A SURPLUS OF style, a dearth of drama, “Stoker” falls significantly short of its famous name.  The namesake of Park Chan-wook’s new film is Abraham “Bram” Stoker who was born in Dublin in 1847 during the Irish potato famine. He wouldn’t become a master of horror until he published his novel Dracula exactly fifty years later. Stokerstoker1f-1-web hardly invented the vampire legend – Byron’s private doctor, John Polidori, beat him to the punch with The Vampyre, his contribution to the same ghost-telling contest that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1816.  What Stoker did was package a mixture of vampirism and eroticism that Victorians could truly sink their teeth into: an American edition of Dracula followed its English publication, and an abridged edition appeared in 1901.

The film “Stoker,” written by actor-screenwriter Wentworth Miller, has all of the goriness of Dracula but it moves more at a zombie’s pace than a real bloodsucker’s.  It centers around a melancholic girl named India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) in what is essentially Hamlet from a daughter’s perspective: India’s father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) has died a nicole-kidman-stokermysterious death upstate and his dashing brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) suddenly appears on the scene where he flirts with his widowed sister-in-law Evelyn Stoker.  She’s played by Nicole Kidman, who had long chosen risky roles (“Eyes Wide Shut,” “Birth”), and Wasikowska could be seen as something of her Aussie protégé (“Albert Nobbs,” “The Kids Are All Right”).  Over the course of “Stoker,” she has to transform from a shrinking violet into shrieking and violent and it’s a tour-de-force performance inasmuch as she appears practically possessed.  “We don’t need to be friends,” India tells her uncle coldly, “We’re family.”  At first, it appears as if Uncle Charlie is the evil influence until we sense that India is far from a passive receptor but something truly wicked.  She goes from girl to gorgon.

The shower scene in which India masturbates to memories of a recent killing is laughable – stupid even, but Wasikowska never wavers in her eerie embodiment of a girl metamorphosing into something horrible.  It’s a bloodbath in every sense of the Matthew-Goode-and-Mia-Wasikowska-in-Stoker-2013-Movie-Image2word.  South Korean director Park is best known for his “vengeance trilogy” (including “Oldboy) and his heavy hand, stylistically speaking, strangles the film, both in terms of timing – the opening credits needlessly hiccup and reset themselves – and storytelling.  What exactly is the story of “Stoker” and what relation does it bear at all to vampirism?  We live in the age of the vampire (“True Blood,” “Twilight,” “Let Me In,” et al) but Park’s family gothic adds nothing to the lore. It only takes, and in the process, drains your time and your patience.

Review: “Side Effects”

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“Happy Pills”

Grade: B+ (RENT IT)

IF INDEED STEVEN Soderbergh is retiring from filmmaking with “Side Effects,” his last film will be as perverse a spectacle as his first, 1989’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.”  (The 50-year-old Atlanta native says he wants to pursue painting full-time.)  At 26,Side-Effects-Viral-Site-Jude-Law Soderbergh became the youngest director to win the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes.  He has made more than twenty-five feature films since then, and “Side Effects” is a devious doozie of a psycho-drama to go out on.  It’s also the first good film of 2013.

“Side Effects” centers around a depressed twentysomething named Emily (Rooney Mara) whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison after a four-year sentence for insider trading.  “I can get us back to where we were,” _MG_6630.CR2the jailbird pledges, “I promise.” Mara, in a Linda Blair haircut, mopes around their Manhattan apartment, unable to put on a happy face.  When she deliberately crashes her car into a wall, she invites the scrutiny of a British psychiatrist named Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who offers her a veritable pharmacopeia of anti-depressants.  Halfway through “Side Effects,” Mara finally smiles and it’s the result of a powerful pill called Ablixa. Its side effects include somnambulism, crying jags, and suicidal ideation. Dr. Banks is earning 50 thousand annually as a pharmaceutical consultant for Ablixa, and when he bumps into Emily’s previous doctor (played by Catherine Zeta Jones) at a conference on ADHD, the two swap stories and a few happy pills Jones’ character has at the bottom of her purse.

And just as “Side Effects” begins to look like a critique of our chemical culture, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who wrote Soderbergh’s “Contagion” as well) twists the plot into something else entirely.  It reshapes itself, in the Hitchcockian mode ofside_effects_still18_catherine_zeta_jones murder and double-crossers, and forces us to shift our attention, and our sympathies, from Emily to Dr. Banks in a maze of deceit and trickery. There is something old-timey about the film’s representation of lesbian women, as duplicitous man-haters, and it’s difficult to discuss further without spoiling the film’s secrets, but the payoff is appreciable.  We can only hope that Soderbergh puts down his paintbrushes and returns to the directing chair before too long.

2012 Best Actress: Will it be Riva?

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“Hospice Pair”

Grade: B+ (RENT IT)

“AMOUR” IS THE provocative title to Michael Haneke’s latest and most funereal film to date.  Anyone familiar with either “The White Ribbon” or “Funny Games” will look skeptically on such a director delivering any kind of love-story in the traditional mold.  Yet, like its nakedly romantic title,” “Amour” is indeed a romance – Haneke-style.  It centers around the agonizing last days of Anne Laurent, a lifelong music teacher and Parisian esthete who inhabits a quiet apartment alongside her husband Georges.  The9 Laurent home is sparsely decorated – a few fine rugs, a grand piano, a ceramic lamp in Hermès orange – and it reflects their quiet, introverted lifestyle. They are visited by their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) on occasion, but they prefer their record collection and nightly glass of wine (alone).  Still, they foster nothing but intimacy between each other and with Eva who confesses to her father that her husband is having an affair and that her marriage is in crisis.  Sitting at a distance, Georges listens with the impassive stare of an analyst.

Anne looks a bit livelier when their former student Alexandre Tharaud (as himself) comes to call; when the man inquires about his maestro’s recent illness, Anne changes the subject and asks him to play the piano for them.  It was Tharaud whom the couple had gone to see at the film’s start.  Haneke gives us the wide shot of the music hall – Alexandre Tharaud480a shot reminiscent of the puzzling last scene in his “Caché” – and we must find the Laurents politely waiting for the recital to begin. The shot lasts longer than one expects and it demands that we look harder at Anne and Georges, and, it would seem, ourselves as another audience, another mirror.  Less ingenious is the symbolism of the pigeon which keeps trapping itself in the Laurents’ apartment; at first, it’s set free and later, it’s wrapped in a blanket and held closely to Georges’ chest.  Such catch-and-release can be found at the end to James Ivory’s “The Remains of the Day” (1993) where the bird is an obvious stand-in for a character whose wings have been clipped.

Anne is played with the deepest pathos by Emmanuelle Riva, who is 85-years-old and now the oldest nominee for Best Actress in Oscar history.   She will likely lose to a 22-Amour_love_liebe_poster_jean_louis_trintignantyear-old named Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook.”  But don’t overlook, as Georges, Jean-Louis Trintignant.  He and Anne carry on like any ordinary elderly couple:  morning, noon and night, they occupy a cozy corner of their kitchen where they share tea and nostalgia. All that changes when Anne experiences a lapse in consciousness, the first tremor of her impending illness.  Georges panics as Anne stares into space, and even more so after she appears to have no recollection of her seizure-like absence.   Anne’s health deteriorates quickly and after a series of strokes, she finds herself confined to bed and reliant on Georges to feed, dress, and wash her paralyzed body.

“Amour” is about one woman’s dignity in the face of certain death, but it’s also about a husband and the burden of devotion.  Georges has a slight limp and we watch as he labors about the apartment, as if under house-arrest, in his new role as Anne’s nurse.  We are almost certain, given the opening shot of Anne in her funeral bier, that Georges will become Anne’s mercy-killer. Which is to say that Haneke’s idea of true love is that it is always a commitment and only sometimes a crime.

Review: “Mama”

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“Visitation Frights”

Grade: B+ (RENT IT)

THE FREUDIAN FREAKSHOW that is “Mama” features some genuine hair-raisers.  The movie’s monster is an undead mother who climbs the walls like a human tarantula and whose undulating hair is rivaled only by the ginger heroine in last year’s “Brave.” Linguistic analysts have shown that the syllabic repetition of “Ma-ma” originates in the infant’s primal pronunciations, in that original cry for food, warmth and only later on,936full-pan's-labyrinth-poster self-doubt and Hallmark cards. The film’s producer is Guillermo del Toro and you need only glance at the poster for his “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) to grasp his adeptness at melding horror and vaginal symbols; he’s like the gothic Georgia O’Keefe.  In “Mama,” the film’s orphans – Victoria and little sister Lily – are haunted not just by the titular specter but by oozing crevices that ruin perfectly good wallpaper, out of which flutter moths and Mama herself, sometimes in the form of a vacuum-powered toupee.

“Mama” begins with that most psychoanalytical of scenarios: abandonment. The opening, which precedes a beguiling title sequence of creepy drawings in a child’s hand, is a rush: Victoria and Lily’s father has killed his coworkers, his estranged wife, and whisked away his daughters only to veer off a snowy highway into the valley below.  He comes upon a cabin in the woods where he attempts to kill his daughters in cold blood but, low and behold, the cabin is owned and operated by a more powerful and over-protective force: Mama Mia!  Fast film-review-mama-fca7bc20726c2efaforward to the aftermath of the girls’ disappearance and their worried uncle played by Nikolaj Coster Waldau of “Game of Thrones” and girlfriend Annabel (a rocker Jessica Chastain).  Everything about Chastain’s character is thin; she sports a Joan Jett haircut, plays bass in a band, and curses like a sailor because, well, she’s hardcore. Did I mention she’s a brunette here?  She’s also a rival to Big Mama who has managed to transplant herself to the girls’ closet thanks to a pseudo-scientific study of their rehabilitation. (Why, by the way, are there no spy-cams in this joint?)  Annabel must play mother to the girls inside a home that looks like the suburban one in “Home Alone” (1990) but, of course, this is a crowded house (with ghosts and things that go bump in the night). Annabel speaks to the film’s central contrivance when she herself asks the good doctor: “This is a joke, right?”  And a hokey one at that.  Like the Ramones T-shirt she dons to demark her air of twenties cool, her character is standard issue.

hqdefaultWhat is far from standard is the fact that we see more and more of the ghoulish Mama as her secret is found out.  She has her own tragic back-story and when the girls’ surrogate family returns to the very cliff where Mama took her life, we begin to sympathize with the film’s glass-eyed ghoul. (This was Mary Shelley’s conceit in her 1818 Frankenstein.: “I’m malicious because I’m miserable!”)  This is anything but standard in your conventional horror flick: the killer isn’t entirely unkind but kind of kin.  Here, in “Mama,” we get that old familiar feeling that the thing we all love and fear the most is, well, family.

2012 Best Actress: Will it be Watts?

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“Water Works”

Grade: B

TWO ASPECTS OF Juan Antonio Bayona’s disaster film “The Impossible” will haunt you.  The first is the tsunami itself, which slammed into south-west Asia on the 26th of December, 2004, killing nearly a quarter-million people and leveling scores of luxury hotels.  “The Impossible” begins and ends with the Bennett family, Maria and husband Henry (Ewan McGregor), flying to and fro a high-end Thai resort where they open Christmas gifts and lounge poolside. The film’s first fifteen minutes are the lull before the storm and Bayona is even able to extract a frisson of terror out of something as quotidian as a red rubber ball that the Bennett boys – Lucas, Thomas, and Simon – bop around the pool area; they’ll soon find themselves floating out to sea like the ball itself.  Wilson!  A loose page is blown out of the book Maria is reading and gradually, the vacationers notice that something sinister is in the air.  One of the most terrifying images is of the palm trees just beyond the hotel walls being felled, one after another, as the Indian Ocean violently overruns the lazy sunbathers.  Bayona gives us numerous underwater shots in which we see a soup of twisted metal, palm trees, bodies, automobiles reduced to matchbox cars, even a drowned elephant.

The-Impossible-PosterBeyond such verisimilitude, which is agonizing indeed, there is also Naomi Watt’s performance as Maria, a doctor who has temporarily hung up her stethoscope to raise her three young sons while living abroad in Japan.  Bayona built the biggest water tank in Europe to simulate the disaster and, currently making the rounds on TV talk shows prior to Oscar night next month, Watts reports that she was strapped to a chair, submerged, and brought to the brink of drowning in order for the director to elicit true terror from her.  But Watts’s performance is a marvel not simply because of her lung-busting cries – she gave us plenty of those one decade ago in “The Ring” – but because of her relationship with Lucas (Tom Holland), the eldest of her sons. There’s that uncomfortable moment when Lucas is ashamed to see his mother’s mangled and exposed breast; there’s another when Maria insists on helping an abandoned boy whom she and Lucas hide in the treetops. Dehydrated, leg badly injured, Maria shares a soda can with the two boys and stares up at the younger one like he’s a cherub on high.  A good actor, like a good tennis partner, brings out the best in her scene-mate and Watts is able to elevate Holland so that he, too, becomes the emotional core of “The Impossible.”  You don’t doubt for a second that it’s her love for Lucas and the other family members that keep her fighting for her life.

The film’s title is trite, the family’s reunion never really in question, and Bayona (“The22003 Orphanage”) either forgot or simply didn’t feel the need to close the film with the official death toll or some kind of acknowledgment that most, if not all, the tsunami-victims weren’t as lucky as the upper-class Bennetts who had health insurance and private planes at their disposal.  It’s as if every other survivor is put there to either facilitate or frustrate the family’s predictable reunion. The Bennetts are actually an Anglicization of the real-life family that survived the disaster, the Alvarez Belóns of Spain, and it’s a shame that European actors were swapped out for blond-blue-eyed ones. Nevertheless, it’s Watts who powers “The Impossible.”  That’s her kilowatts.

Review: “Zero Dark Thirty”

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“Your Detainee Will See You Now”

Grade: A- (SEE IT)

NOW WHAT?  SUCH was the sentiment that snuck up and surprised any viewer of “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow’s last film on war and soldier psychology.  Recall Jeremy Renner, as the leader of a bomb disposal team in the Iraq war, returning home after his 265924-vlcsnap_176681last rotation. Oh how the mighty have fallen: he’s become a dad dispatched to get groceries.  We watch as a dazed Army Sergeant wanders a sterile-looking supermarket, looking out-of-place and bored by civilian life. The epigraph for that film came from Chris Hedges, a war correspondent at The New York Times: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”  Of course, “The Hurt Locker” ends with its hero back where he belongs, on the battlefield, but it’s hard to root for Army Sergeant William James when his resolution is likened to addiction.  Is this, then, a work of propaganda or pacifistic satire?

With “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow’s first film since the Oscar-winning “Locker,” she stays in the (war) zone and expands her interest in America’s battles abroad and the addictive highs and lows they enable.  A similar air of futility hangs over the action of “ZDT.”  Here, we have a heroine, a CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) who vows “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.”  That revenge killing, which occupies 40 of the film’s 157 minutes, is certainly its climax, but the road to that now legendary raid on Bin Laden’s compound in the Pakastani city of Abbottabad, is where “ZDT” largely dwells. This is a film, controversially so, that gives us the interrogation rooms, torture chambers, and “black sites” that made the night of May 2nd, 2011 and the heroic efforts of SEAL Team 6, possible.  At the same time, “ZDT” asks whether all of those closed-door procedures were really worth it?  The film may end with a mission accomplished, but there is seemingly nothing but a string of defeats and detonations along the way.

At its core, “ZDT” traces the metamorphosis of a friendless, work-obsessed Maya.  At the start, she’s only an ambivalent participant in the waterboarding of a suspect, Ammar (Reda Kateb), an Arab man with known ties to al-Qaeda bank accounts.  Up until the final scene, she’s as cold as ice.1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty  Bigelow’s writing partner, Mark Boal, is again on hand to pepper the script with intel of a different kind: “Everybody breaks – it’s biology,” says CIA field agent Dan (Jason Clarke) as he systematically destroys the mind and body of his detainee.  Much of “ZDT” is hard to watch – beyond the torture, there’s the suspenseful scene in which a Jordanian with information regarding bin Laden’s whereabouts slowly penetrates the bunkers of an American base – and when it’s all over, the viewer is again faced with the uncertainties that define a potentially un-winnable war against terrorism.  All that we know for certain is what Maya believes must be the case: an electronically cut-off bin Laden must be communicating with a courier named Abu Ahmed.  Catch the courier and catch the killer of 3,000 plus Americans.

If not for the ambiguous final shot of “Zero Dark Thirty,” it would be far easier to allege that Bigelow’s latest is on par with John Wayne’s “The Green Berets” (1968), a pep rally for the Vietnam War.  I, for one, am deeply discomforted by the idea that real-life works of American militarism can be turned immediately into a mainstream movie; this only zero-dark-Thirty-30-entertainment-news-Jessica-Chastain-719462581further blurs the line between war and entertainment in an era of “Call of Duty” and “Six Days in Fallujah.” As Adorno and Horkheimer wrote after World War 2, “real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies.”  But Bigelow spares us hawkish politics for something more sly, more cynical. The only time we even hear President Obama speaking is when he’s giving an interview to “60 Minutes” and denouncing torture in a film that unflinchingly puts America’s torture of Muslim prisoners on display.  In the foreground are Maya and her fellow operatives, barely listening to their boss on the boob-tube; the suggestion is that they operate outside the law.  That exposes the official, albeit hypocritical, stance of the White House, and by extension, the nation at large, for what it really is: just noise.

Potentially, the real torture in “Zero Dark Thirty” lies not in those excruciatingly cruel interrogation scenes but in Chastain’s final expression.  What is Maya thinking exactly?  Is it relief or remorse?  With the hunt over, tears fall and if our heroine isn’t thinking “Now what?”, she may have something even more radical, even more un-American, on her mind, which is: What for?

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