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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Arbitrage

When it comes to the Richard Gere-Susan Sarandon quasi thriller Arbitrage, I really feel like I have to hedge my bets when it comes to a review (cue rim shot). On the one hand, it’s a slick film in some of the good ways Hollywood films used to be slick, sort of fun in a pulp-y, trashy novel sort of way and, come on, you get to see the not done yet Gere and Sarandon strut their acting chops, clearly having a blast doing it. On the other hand, even though its slickness gives off the veneer of a movie that is meant to be pure entertainment and basically harmless, it wears a world view on its sleeve that is hard to ignore and is so cynical that it sucks much of the fun out of things.

The story surrounds Gere, a crooked financier, who is racing the clock to complete a multi- million dollar deal for his hedge fund company before the outside world finds out his empire is all a phony house of cards that he’s been lying about, Bernie Madoff style. There’s also the complication of a car crash that kills his mistress, a crash Gere walks away from and is also desperately trying to cover up until he completes the big deal. All this doesn’t really give anything away since the movie’s story telling twist is that the audience knows everything and all the characters pretty much know everything, too. It’s just a question of whether or not the rich guy can beat the system or not. It’s also a question of whether or not any of the characters, even one, can resist the lure of money and remain uncompromised as Gere’s shadiness touches them.

There is some fun stuff in this movie. One of the interesting things in watching it is realizing that this exact same film could have and probably would have been made circa 1987-1993, and with the exact same cast. And not just the stars, but right down to smaller roles played by the likes of Stuart Margolin, Bruce Altman, Tim Roth and even Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. The difference, of course, is that in today’s world where everything that comes out is either part of a mega franchise, is a cartoon, or is a tiny indie darling, this movie is the tiny indie darling. In 1992, this would have been a big Hollywood production where the stars got paid and the studio rolled out the big ad campaign.

The other difference is that while in 1992, while some of the themes Arbitrage so stridently explores might have been portrayed on the fringe, it would have mostly been made as a slick mystery. In 2012, with the financial messes and moral outrages that go along with them front and center, Arbitrage falls into the cynical trap of saying that if you have money, you by definition must have made some serious moral compromises along the way. Every character in this movie, when faced between a moment when they can “do the right thing” or take the cash, takes the cash. Every time.

One of the phrases that has worked its way into my lexicon over the past couple of weeks with some of the political stuff and turmoil going on in the world has been “moral equivalency”. (Hey, I’m not proud of it, it just happened). In the world of Arbitrage, I really can’t tell if the message is that it’s OK to assume that everyone who has money got it in a sneaky way, or if the message is that when faced with the lure and temptation of money, we’d all sell out in our own way. Either way it’s a pretty bleak way to look at things. The big problem is that the movie comes dangerously close to putting the decision of a guy covering up his responsibility for a woman’s death in the same ballpark as a person looking the other way to protect a family member. It’s a false moral equivalency (I just wanted to say it again). I mean, look, it’s just a movie, but it leaves you feeling a little jaded when a movie is so simple minded as to basically say “all rich folks are crooked and shady”.

One of the great pro wrestling characters of all time was a guy named Ted DiBiase, who was known as The Million Dollar Man. He had his own personal valet and he’d “pay” plants from the crowd to do things like kiss his feet for $100. He’d then cackle and explain to all the peons in the crowd that, “Everybody has a price.” The Million Dollar Man, of course, was essentially a cartoon character meant to get a rise out of a crowd, which he did.

Maybe Arbitrage is meant to just get a little rise out of us. If so, OK, I guess. I had a lot of fun in sections of the film, in almost a nostalgic sort of way, watching Sarandon and Gere tear it up onscreen. There was a particular scene near the end where Sarandon’s character completely eviscerates Gere’s character, as she reveals she’s been wise to him the whole time, both in regard to the car crash and his bullshit persona. It’s great fun, old school scene chewing acting. There’s quite a bit of that sort of fun in this film, almost enough to recommend it. A lot more of that and a little less moralizing would have gone a long, long way to making this the popcorn thriller it could have (and should have) been.

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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in General Film, Reviews

 

Beasts of the Southern Wild

There’s an old sports cliché (wait, there are clichés in sports?) that talks about teams that end up being better than you might suspect they should be if you just take a look at the individual players. It goes something like “they’re greater than the sum of their parts”. As sports clichés go, it’s actually a pretty descriptive little way to make the point that sometimes the ingredients in the stew bubble and cook and get really yummy. On the other hand sometimes, no matter how good the stuff you toss into the pot, things just sort of end being kind of OK. One of this year’s critical darlings, Beasts of the Southern Wild, has all the ingredients. But it just sort of ends up being kind of OK.

Don’t get me wrong. On a strictly thumbs up or thumbs down basis, Beasts gets the Arthur Fonzarelli. It’s just kind of a tentative thumb. I really wanted to like this movie will full on enthusiasm. Maybe my expectations were too high. If I go down the movie checklist, everything is in order. Acting? Check. It might be somewhat questionable how much professional “acting” a six year old can do. But it’s sort of irrelevant when a girl inhabits a role the way Quvenzhane Wallis takes on the central role of Hushpuppy. As the character in the film who acts as the catalyst and narrator for the story of a group of people living on the other side, in a water logged area of Louisiana swampland called the Bathtub, Wallis is largely what the film rises and falls on. And Dwight Henry, as Hushpuppy’s father Wink, is near perfect as a guy who is close to unhinged but still can see clearly when it’s time to love his daughter.

The cinematography is wonderful. There are some simply gorgeous shots of the wild areas out beyond the levees. There are equally gorgeous shots of the junked up trailers the inhabitants of the Bathtub use as homes, the hollowed out truck beds they use as boats, and the decrepit dock houses they use as a makeshift school. Director Benh Zeitlin does a good job framing scenes and guiding what was apparently a local crew of actors through his vision for the story. Zeitlin creates an otherworldly, fantastical feel to the picture. The people living in the Bathtub not only have no connection to the “outside” world, they don’t have any desire to connect. When a huge storm hits, floods the Bathtub to dangerous levels, and the authorities swoop in to evacuate the area, the folks from the other side have no humanity, and literally seem like aliens from another planet. In many ways, this movie is the antithesis of Prometheus, where the characters are arguably doomed by their desire to know what’s out there. In Beasts, the characters just want to be left alone. They literally want to bury their heads in the sand (or in this case the water).

And I think this is what ultimately leaves me feeling like I have to stop short of calling this a truly great movie. There is a lot to admire in the characters of the movie. They’re fighters. And I feel like sort of a party pooper saying this, but to me, the movie romanticizes way too much the idea that a whole group of people wants to stay isolated and teaches their kids to have no curiosity about the outside world. (On the other hand, to paraphrase Walter from the Big Lebowski’s take on the tenants of national socialism, at least it’s an ethos). There is a ton to recommend this movie. Hushpuppy is adorable. She’s feisty, she’s wise, she’s a true treasure of a character, one you will definitely remember in a very good way. Her dad, Wink, fighting off death, is a man that loves his daughter (although he doesn’t seem capable of really wanting more for her), and there’s nothing to dislike about that. There were moments in the film where I was truly taken by the photography. I have to admire a director that can lead a non-Hollywood cast to a film that is better than most movies you’ll see. So, Beasts is certainly not a movie I regret seeing. You should see it yourself. In the end, though, I’m just nagged by the message of isolation as a romantic idea. And that leaves Beasts of the Southern Wild as more of a basic, albeit satisfying meal instead of the four star gourmet I was hoping for.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2012 in Favorites, General Film, Reviews

 

ParaNorman; Puppets with Heart

I’m willing to bet that few of you rushed out to see ParaNorman on its opening weekend as I did, but you should have.  I was downright eager to see what the minds at Laika – the team that brought us Coraline a few years back – had come up with this time.  So, some of you have already started to think to yourselves that ParaNorman opened two weeks ago and you’re wondering why I’m bothering with a review now.  The reason is simple, the movie was so darn fantastic (in many senses of the word, well, at least two sense of the word) that I feel it is my responsibility to get the word out to all you fine readers that you should go see this movie!  It is hard even to figure out where to start with the wonder that is ParaNorman, so why not start with the technical, the animation that Laika does so well.  The stop-motion animation is the skeleton on which this whole movie hangs.  I’ve been a fan of stop-motion animation for a long time.  After all, the actors are all puppets and who doesn’t love puppets?  But the flick that really made me into a bit of a stop-motion fanatic was Corpse Bride released in 2005.  When I purchased the DVD, I was excited to nerd out all over the place and actually watch the “making of” vignette in the extra features.  As it happens, the same company that was responsible for the animation in Corpse Bride is also the creative force behind ParaNorman.  Laika, a company reconceived from Vinton Studios, has developed some really amazing technology to make stop motion puppets even more expressive.  For example, this NYT article explains the use of 3D printers to create over 200,000 expressions for Coraline in the movie of the same name based on the Neil Gaiman children’s novel and animated by Laika.  If you want to explore how they make Norman so expressive in ParaNorman, you can take an in-depth look at the 31,000 parts that make up his head.  In a modern world where we get impatient when we have to wait for a whole minute for our computers to boot, there is something just so wonderful about a team of people so patient and creative that they can and will create a whole world for these puppets to inhabit and meticulously move those little humanoids through that world all because they know that reality just can’t measure up to the beautiful fantasy they can create.  Here’s what I suggest you do, finish reading this blog of course, and then go find yourself a copy of Corpse Bride and really watch the scene where Victor first meets the Corpse Bride, Emily.  Watch the way she moves, especially her veil, her train, and her hair.  That’s real, it’s tangible, not CGI, not virtual reality.  Some person or group of people figured out how to make her hair flow, her train and veil bounce over the ground and whip in the wind.  It’s staggering and it gives me hope just to think about what creative humans can do.

Ok, so I digressed there for a moment, but back to ParaNorman.  The world that team Laika has created is just so fun and full, from Norman’s carefully crafted zombie slippers to the perfectly sculpted ghost in the toilet; ParaNorman is more than just animation, it has heart.  It does something that really great films do; it manages to be thoroughly entertaining and uplifting while still commenting on the human condition.  ParaNorman features, as you might have guessed, a boy named Norman and he can see and speak to dead people.  That’s right, he sees dead people.  Okay, sure we’ve heard it before, but this movie is funnier and I think the acting is better, but maybe that’s just me.  There is a reason why so many storytellers like to use monsters; they really are the perfect metaphor for human failings.  Because Norman is different, he is ostracized, humiliated and bullied, even by his own father.  He is a lonely little boy who tries to fit in, but just can’t do it.  He is who he is and it is not in his nature to ignore the dead.  He has no living friends and his only ally is his mother, but even she doesn’t believe that he can really see the dead.  And so, as it goes, Norman retreats further into the world of the dead, his best friend appears to be his dead grandmother.  So certainly ParaNorman is about being misunderstood and who can’t relate to that.  But where do the zombies come in?  Well, perhaps zombies are just misunderstood too.  Literally.  They speak zombie.  How do we know they aren’t just asking for an aspirin for that killer headache or trying to tell you your shirt is buttoned wrong?  We don’t because we don’t speak zombie, but Norman does.  And so it is up to Norman to save his town, mostly from it’s own fear of the unknown.

Norman lives in a Salem, Mass-esque town called Blithe Hollow and it is a well-know and celebrated fact that the town – or more accurately several town elders – were cursed by a witch several hundred years ago.  Norman, through a series of premonitions and a visit from a dead relative becomes convinced that, not only is the curse about to come to fruition, but he is the only one who can save the town and he has to do it ASAP.  As it turns out, Norman does not have to go it entirely alone.  Just as the world of the dead starts to turn a little creepy for Norman, he finds a friend in a living boy named Neil, who is no stranger to bullying himself.  Neil not only believes Norman, he believes in him and even as Norman tries to push his new friend away, Neil steadfastly sticks it out through thick and thin and zombies.

Yes, Norman is different, but that’s what gives him the power to save his town and who can’t get behind that kind of message.  But the film comments on something even more universal than that, it comments on fear and what it can make humans do to each other – and to poor zombies.  So the audience learns two lessons, fear can make us do horrible things to one another and zombies aren’t so bad really.  I can really get behind a story where a band of mostly unwitting “nerds” hold the fate of the town in their hands.  I can also get behind a film where a wholly human puppet expresses something I think every one of us has felt at some point, that feeling of being different, alone, picked on, or scared.  If ParaNorman stands for one thing it is that it is okay to be different and it is okay to be scared.  It’s Norman’s weirdness that makes him great so the message is clear; when you run into the next strange or scary person, just try to remember, he might be the one to save your town from the witch’s curse so try not to be a jerk about it.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2012 in Reviews

 

Cosmopolis

The first tip-off for what I had in store in going to see David Cronenberg’s filmed take on the Don DeLillo novel Cosmopolis should have come from the reviews I skimmed through before going to see the movie. Reading reviews isn’t something I normally do before going to see a movie, but in this case I wasn’t sure about going to see it, so I hit metacritic.com to get a feel. To say reviews were mixed doesn’t really do the lay of the critical land justice. Reviews weren’t so much mixed as polarized. And having now seen the movie, I probably should have paid much more attention to the fact that even in the reviews that loved the movie, there was little to no mention of plot.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good metaphorical, atmospheric film as much as the next guy (or gal). Truth be told, I’d much rather see something that isn’t laid out in a point A to point B, paint by numbers fashion. Of course, one of the ironies of all this is that if you were to lay out the basic plot of Cosmopolis, you’d say it’s more or less about a billionaire who drives very, very slowly, literally from point A (his office) to point B (a barbershop). So, there you go. During the ride, the young tycoon (Robert Pattinson) loses all his money, has breakfast and lunch and dinner with his wife before he loses her, too, has sex with a couple of other ladies, has a prostate exam in his limo while talking to a female employee, among other plot devices. All this before the story climaxes with a scenery chewing, gerbil like Paul Giamatti spending the last 20 or 30 minutes of the movie delivering a rambling dialogue to Pattinson’s face about how Giamatti is going to kill Pattinson.

Looks good on paper, right? Not so much.

I’ll first say that Cosmopolis is the first film in a long, long, long time that I’ve been to where people actually walked out. Honestly, I can’t even name the last movie I’ve seen where this happened. In the screening I saw, there were about 20 people in the theater at the beginning of the movie. I counted six that left. They didn’t leave with any ill will, it didn’t seem. They weren’t cursing and throwing up their hands. But the constant, almost badgering, banal dialogue just did them in. It was like they were running a marathon they were completely determined to finish, just couldn’t make it, and sort of stumbled off the course. Or maybe more like one of those marathon dance competitions you hear about from the past. People were just dropping, one by one, until there were only a few of us left standing.

After the movie, as I was processing the handful of things I liked about it, and trying to tell myself that it’s good that directors are at least still allowed to try to make movies that take a shot at little more than the usual, a couple approached me. “We’ve identified you as a guy that looks like he might be able to tell us what we just saw,” the woman said. I just sort of laughed and told her what I had just been thinking. “I guess it’s good, in general, that material like that can get green lit,” I said. “I’m just not so sure that it’s good that that particular movie got the green light.” The woman than asked me again what the heck the point of it all was.

I was going to leave, but the woman just kept asking me what the movie was supposed to be about. She seemed genuinely shaken, like she just wanted to make sure she wasn’t oblivious to some great revelation.  So, I sat with her and her husband for a few minutes talking about what I thought the movie was trying to say, regardless of if it was any good or not. Finally, the woman just kind of shook her head, said something like, “I guess it was trying to say something”, and she and her husband stumbled into the night with the rest of the Cosmopolis victims.

Going back to some of the reviews I read before seeing the movie, I should have run as far away as I could when several reviewers mentioned that the Don DeLillo novel the movie is based on had largely been considered unfilmable. Maybe that’s the case. The sad thing is that Robert Pattinson, probably the last reason I was going to see the movie, was the best thing about it. Pattinson’s presence and charisma in a role that required him to act devoid of any discernible outward emotion or empathetic feeling for, really, anything held the whole movie, such as it was, together. You can argue that Pattinson was playing nothing less than a corporate vampire, but that would be too simple. I look forward to seeing where his career goes next. At the very least, he’s obviously ambitious enough to try things that are potentially interesting, even if they don’t pan out.

On paper, Cosmopolis looked like a pretty promising experiment. David Cronenberg putting together a socially conscious, psychological horror piece about the emptiness of the modern, capitalism obsessed world seemed almost can’t miss. But miss it does. A worthy miss and, certainly, I’m glad that we haven’t devolved so much into formula and big budgets and sequels that ambitious directors can’t take big swings like this. Too bad this one was a whiff.   

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2012 in General Film, Reviews

 
 
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