Saturday, September 29, 2012

Fred Won't Move Out

Sometimes, we go to the movies because it's time to go. And sometimes, ya gotta go in mostly blind because the alternatives (in this case Won't Back Down) seem particularly unappealing.

And so it came to pass that we found ourselves watching the critically acclaimed Fred Won't Move Out, starring the critically acclaimed Elliot Gould. It runs about an hour-and-ten and when it was over, we agreed that it wasn't really a movie. It was about 2/3rds of a movie. Maybe 3/4s.

Now, what's there is pretty good. Very low-key. But while it poses the problem (in the very title) and even gets to the critical point where it might become a very serious problem, or something (kinda), the movie ends.

Well, of course, there's a reason that drama follows a particular narrative structure and you mess with that at your peril.

Anyway, this is a movie about an old couple (Elliot Gould, who's only in his early 70s, and Judith Roberts) who live in their increasingly dilapidated house with only one helper (Mfonsio Udofia) to cook their meals and clean up, and to do a lot of caring for the wife, who has advanced Alzheimer's. They're visited by their children (Fred Melamed and Stephanie Haberle, amsuingly and perhaps coincidentally named "Bob" and "Carol"), who are distraught (and highly inconvenienced) by their parents' country home, and want to move their mother into a home in the city.

And, there's your movie.

The lead character is really Bob, and Melamed (who was the serious man in A Serious Man—not the lead, but the lead's antagonist) plays him convincingly. He's a struggling, wannabe moviemaker who sees echoes of himself in his father, in an old friend, in the doof who comes to his parents' house and plays songs on a synthesizer so they can all sing ("music therapy").

Well, let me rephrase that: we see those echos, but Bob is struggling hard not to see them. There are little vignettes throughout the film, but not one of them goes anywhere. There's an emerald frog, a Christian jogger (the family is Jewish, though not practicing by all accounts). There's a story of a box company that Fred tells, but we don't know if it was his company, and if that's the company that Bob now runs.

They sporadically call their parents "Fred" and "Susan" and sometimes "mom" and "dad" but we don't ever know why. In the opening scenes it seems like Bob and Carol are husband and wife—I mean, it takes a while before you realize they're brother and sister. (Took us a while anyway.) They call water "vodka", I guess because they didn't drink any more. Fred misses his cat, not remembering that it's dead.

None of this stuff is explained. None of it goes anywhere. It's a slice-of-life movie that shows a small window into some kids whose parents are near death.

There are certainly some touching moments here, but the characters seem small, and the movie itself highly exploitative. That is, it derives its emotional power not so much from involving character development that allows you to appreciate the suffering of the elderly, but more from a lot of the detailed nitty-gritty about advanced stages of Alzheimer's.

Gould and Roberts play their roles well, but the effect is more gut-wrenching than anything.

I guess you could say we didn't hate it, but we couldn't really approve of it, either. Make of that what you will.

End Of Watch

David Ayer, the writer of such cop dramas as S.W.A.T. and Training Day (to say nothing having penned the original movie in The Fast And Furious franchise—hope you got royalties, buddy!) takes a turn at the helm for a new cop drama/buddy flick End Of Watch.

This is the story of a couple of cocky young cops who are out on the street, mixing it up with the locals, keepin' it real (as the kids say) and ultimately crossing swords with some dangerous drug dealing organizations (Pfizer and Eli-Lilly).

Ha! I kid Big Pharma.

No, the larger villain in this piece is prohibition, the War on Drugs which, as helpfully pointed out by some graffiti, has cost us over a trillion dollars and fosters crime and abuses of civil liberties. Except for being literally spelled out for a brief moment, the movie doesn't really talk about the really blatant stupidity of the whole enterprise, just portrays the lives of those who live and work in it.

So, what is there to say about this well-worn ground? Probably not much you haven't heard before. It's not really any fresher, say, than Trouble With The Curve with one notable exception: You never know who might die, or when.

Of course, it's a police drama, so we gotta set aside that something like two LAPD officers have been shot in the past ten years. Way more LAPD officers have been shot in movies and television than in real life. (There have been about 200 total deaths in the entire history of the LAPD going back 140 years, probably only half of those throug shooting.)

I digress. Non-dramaticallly.

Anyway, this movie works, by-and-large. It's engaging. It develops its characters well. It has a more vignette feel than a typical 3-act type structure, but the vignettes escalate nicely, and the characters change and grow over the time that passes.

The two leads, played by Jake Gyllenhall (Prince of Persia) and Michael Peña (The Lincoln Lawyer) are the leads, and they're both appealing and have a good chemistry. Their girls, Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick (50/50) work well with them, and all four have a natural feel as a group, really feeling like buddies and their wives and girlfriends.

The other characters are less sharply drawn, maybe even a little stereotypical but the concentration on the two leads really pays off.

It would seem to be necessary to address the whole business of the movie's camera work: It's all shaky-cam. At first, this kind of annoyed me, because the pretext is that Gyllenhall is filming it all, and that there are cameras everywhere (the police cars have built-in cameras, the gangbangers have cameras, there are street cameras, etc. etc.) but it's quickly apparent that plenty of the shots are done from angles that are completely impossible from a "natural" perspective.

So, that seemed needlessly artificial in the cause of being natural. But it did win me over eventually, especially as some of these shots were very effective. There were even a few "first person shooter" shots, reminiscent of the last few minutes of DOOM where the movie emulated the game. But this was effective in creating a real sense of danger, in the mold of that old "Shoot/Don't Shoot" video from a few years back.

So, overall, it's not unfair to say that this is like a particularly extreme version of "Adam 12", but it's also not unfair to say that it's a particularly good episode of same. The Boy and I liked it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Trouble With The Curve

It's not impossible that critics (and some amateur reviewers) were unswayed by Eastwood's speech to an empty chair at the RNC when reviewing Trouble With The Curve but I wouldn't put any money on it. The criticism, raised also by The Boy, is that it's "by the numbers". And it's true, there aren't a lot of surprises in this film.

The Flower loved it. Doubtless because she's an Eastwood fan (Gran Torino is the movie by which all others are measured) but also doubtless because it's not stale for her.

However, I also loved it, and I'll get to why after a quick capsule.

Trouble With The Curve is the story of a baseball scout (Eastwood) who's losing his vision and being threatened by an up-and-coming geeky number cruncher (Matthew Lillard of Scooby-Doo). His longtime bud and team manager (John Goodman, The Artist) goes to bat for him with the Big Boss (Robert Patrick, Autopsy), but then asks his daughter (Amy Adams, Sunshine Cleaning Company) to tag along with him to North Carolina, where a hot young slugger is coming up from the minors. On the road, they meet a charming young scout (Justin Timberlake, In Time).

The father/daughter relationship is the key thing here. Widowed when his daughter was only six, Eastwood's Gus dragged his daughter Mickey with him from state to state, and game to game, until deciding to send her to an aunt and uncle, then later to boarding school. Mickey's still wrestling with the feelings from this, having gotten a law degree and spent seven years with 6-day-a-week-workweeks trying to get a partnership in a Big Law Firm.

As I said, there's no real surprise here; it felt like an old school Hollywood film. Almost all the characters are likable and even the small parts are played by familiar faces like George Wyner and Chelcie Ross.

So, why did I like it so much? The relationship between Gus and Mickey is excellently done. First, big props to Amy Adams, who is by turns a tough lawyer, a vulnerable woman, a little girl, a sassy teen—she basically plays out a lifetime in this one role. Eastwood does a similar trick, by turns seeming like his old self (say, ca. 1980), imposing and sorta dangerous, but at other times frail and unbelievably old.

The brilliance of this movie is in the direction and camerawork that plays all these ages of Gus and Mickey against each other. Eastwood and Adams have a wonderful chemistry and, perhaps surprisingly for a Clint Eastwood movie, the film is a character study and an acting showcase, and it kept me captivated through the satisfyingly predictable story arc.

Timberlake is good, too. I feel like I have to mention that because every time I read a review of a movie with him in it, they say "Justin Timberlake is really talented, dammit!" (I guess the rancor is due to his early success as a teen heartthrob or his deflowering of Britney, but I think it's time to let that go. Dude can act and is unsurprisingly convincing as a charming suitor.)

This is the first time at the helm for frequent Eastwood assistant director, Robert Lorenz, and it reminds a bit of The Thing From Another World, in the sense that the '50s sci-fi horror flick had Howard Hawks' fingerprints all over it, just as this has many of Eastwood's trademarks.

Not a bad thing, in either case.

I can't say it's for everyone because some people couldn't care less about the character studies. But we all enjoyed it, even if the Boy felt it was slow in parts.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Arbitrage

An early entry in the Oscar race, Arbitrage is the story of a high finance dude who gets himself into a bit of a pickle. This makes an interesting comparison to last year's Margin Call which was also heralded as an early Oscar possibility. (It received one—undeserved—nomination for writing.)

All the usual pitfalls and caveats apply: Do we have here a movie about high finance written by people who don't know anything about high finance and created by people who are antagonistic to it, at least outside of what their own portfolios and money managers do for them?

Well, not exactly.

Much like Margin Call, the financial details are murky at best. Some of the buzz referenced a Vanity Fair article, which I presume was more elaborate, because this plot boils down to high finance dude embezzling—wait, I think since Corzine, we call it misplacing—$412 million, and trying to secure a deal that will cover it up before anyone discovers it.

Topical! 

This movie throws in a little crime drama and family sub-plot to boot, which is a mixed bag.

The crime drama part woke me up after the setup had kind of put me to sleep, steeped in cliché as it was. It gives the proceedings a needed urgency that at its best is Hitchcockian. The family drama—well, that doesn't work as well. The crime drama plot resolves first and the family drama remains, but it hasn't been developed well enough to have much of an impact. It's not bad, just detached.

Overall, though, the movie works, mostly due to a mostly tight plot. You don't really know how it's gonna play out, and that holds interest.

It's getting a lot of praise for the acting, so I should probably talk about that.

High-finance dude is played by Richard Gere and he's getting praised up-and-down for it. But. It doesn't work for me. Gere is too affable and way too mellow. The guys I've known in high finance are more like the intense, brooding King of Versailles.

And almost the whole cast, acting-wise felt a little off. Not bad, exactly. Just not quite fitting the roles. From Gere's laid-back-yet-uber-powerful-finance-guy to Tim Roth's police detective, it didn't feel like a cohesive ensemble of people inhabiting their roles.

Susan Sarandon is the airhead (or is she?) wife, Britt Marling is the super-smart financially savvy daughter, Laetitia Casta is the sexy artiste and Nate Parker is the faithful friend. Actually, Stuart Margolin, staple of '70s shows like "Love American Style" and "The Rockford Files", was probably my favorite player.

It was pretty good. The Boy enjoyed it okay. I wouldn't put it front runner for Oscars, but they don't ask me.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Brave

It's probably enough to say Pixar? Brave? Redemption! to herald this latest animated feature, in which Pixar atones for the disastrous and tragic Cars 2. This time? The target is princesses.

The caterwauling that accompanied this movie's announcement with movie sloths shunning it because "Pixar finally has their first female lead and she's a princess!" was stupid. Not ineffective, necessarily, because the movie starts along the very, very well trod princess path.

The Boy said this hurt them somewhat, since it's been done badly so many times before. And I confess to a degree of trepidation as we're introduced to the fiery-headed princess, who's more into archery and adventures than princess stuff.

OK, in a '90s Disney-style princess movie, you'd queue the self-discovery song, and the character would go on an  that would ultimately lead to her misguided parent(s) learning to accept her for who she is.

Kind of a pandering to the participation trophy generation, really.

This movie? Well, it takes a sharp left turn when you least expect it to, and becomes a movie about feisty young children learning to respect their elders and the responsibilities that come with who they are.

You know something's up when the mother points out that by her actions, Princess Merida may have started a tribal war.

But that's not really the sharp turn. And what's extra cool is that the sharp turn is only barely hinted at in the trailer. You just never see it coming until it's just about to happen.

Great voice cast, with Kelly MacDonald ("Boardwalk Empire", No Country For Old Men—who the hell knew she was Scottish?) as Merida, Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson as her parents, and a bunch of other people from the Harry Potter movies rounding it out.

Visually stunning, naturally. Merida's hair is a triumph. At the same time, Pixar manages to hit the sweet spot between photorealism and cartoon-ism. The characters are cartoon-y enough to avoid the Uncanny Valley while there is, for example, a fishing scene where the water and fish look absolutely real.

The most amazing stuff I can't say without tipping off what the movie's about.

Great score. Both The Flower and The Barbarienne loved while The Boy liked tremendously. He expressed some reservations, as I mentioned, about how tired and badly the tropes had been done, but even he got a little excited when we started talking about all the little sight gags and masterful touches we expect from Pixar.

We missed most of the opening short but it looked lovely, too.

Definitely worth checking out.

Wild Horse, Wild Ride

So, here's the premise: Every year the government rounds up hundreds of horses, and the Mustang Heritage Foundation (I think) throws what it calls the Extreme Mustang Makeover, where people adopt the horses for ninety days, during which time they must thoroughly break them. At the end of the three months, they all get together and compete to see which horse is the best behaved.

Then all the horses are auctioned off to glue factories.

Wait, what?

No, I've never made any bones about my mistrust of horses. However, I've known and loved some horse people so I'll keep my glue and dog food comments to a minimum.

Basically, this is a movie in the style of a reality show, only instead of people, it's horses. Well, horses and people. Horses and horse people. Horses and their people have interesting relationships with each other, which this movie explores.

Here we have some old guys and some young guys and a coupla sassy chicks, struggling with their horses over the time period—although the struggles are very different one to the next. The old Indian guy can barely get on his horse in time, whereas the sassy cowgirl breaks hers—we don't even see it—in three days.

This is an emotional time, at least for the humans. The horses...well, who knows? They'd eat you if they had sharp enough teeth.

Predictably, a great many of the humans fall in love with their horses by the end of the training period. Also predictably, the ones who had the greatest difficulties have the hardest time parting with them. And also predictably, the ones who seem to have the least emotional attachment are the ones who are the most successful.

Predictability aside, it's a good movie. It's a nice predictability that tells you good things about people. You kinda like these folks, mostly (the sassy cowgirl kinda annoyed me) and there's just miles more competence and ability in them than in, say, a trashy "let's be famous for acting badly" reality show.

And even an ol' horse hater like myself couldn't help but be a little bit moved.

The Boy also liked it, though he allowed as there was an awful lotta horse training. He thought it dragged a bit in the middle till it got to the competition. I don't think he has any opinions on horses, but he's certainly less sentimental than his old man.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Apparition

I realize how trite this sounds -- like the inevitable dog in the ghost story, which always growls before his master sees the sheeted figure...
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Rats In The Walls, 1923

As longtime, regular readers of the blog know—and I don't know why I use that phrase so much, since there's, like, three of you, but cut me some slack—The Boy and I are somewhat aficionados of the horror film.

The Boy is, just because I've dragged him to a lot of horror films. That's what a weakness for popcorn will do to you.

And me? Well, I just am. There's no explanation for it. I attended all four of the After Dark Horror Festivals and saw 29 of the 32 movies. And I'd do it again, if those bastards put up another one. (Actually, I walk by their address pretty regularly and I think it's a vacant lot.)

Anyway, I got to jonesin' for a bad horror flick after watching 2016, which is sort of a documentary on the bad horror flick we live in, and fortunately, I guess, there weren't any good horror flicks. So, between The Possession, The Apparition and The Tall Man (which I think is more of a thriller anyway), I got confused and picked The Apparition.

This movie is the brain child of writer/director Todd Lincoln, and it is relentlessly mediocre. There were a million ways it could have provoked interest but it stayed the course, refusing at every turn to do something unpredictable. It's beating on the already hoary clichés of the Paranormal series, mixed with a few elements that were old in 1923 when H. P. Lovecraft had the decency to use an agitated cat, instead of a dog (as is done in this movie).

This doesn't have to suck. Woman In Black touched on almost every cliché and built up slowly. But the atmosphere worked and the characterization, while similarly clichéd—well, it existed.

The premise is this: There's a seance in 1972 where some bad stuff goes down. The seance is repeated with some Ghostbusters style technology in current day and really bad stuff goes down, i.e., a girl is sucked into the impenetrable void, never to be seen again.

Then we cut to our two leads, Kelly and Ben (Ashley Greene and Sebastien Stan) who are a couple of kids moving into Kelly's mom's "investment house" in Palmdale (an exurb 40 miles north of Los Angeles). Level 1 Poltergeist activity starts happening immediately.

Weird mold appears all over the place. A brand new saguaro cactus abruptly dies.

At that point, I'm thinking: "Ghosts? There's some kind of deadly mold issue (or maybe radon gas, remember that?) or something that kills cactii, the very plant you were just referring to as indestructible. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the two fall asleep on the couch and wake up in the middle of the night with every single door opened (though still locked) and the alarm not triggered (though still armed).

Maybe the most ironic thing here is that they're surrounded by unsold and abandoned houses. People left their houses because they were slightly underwater, so ghost? Yeah, let's stick around, maybe it improves the curb appeal.

Anyway, while this escalates in the predictable way, Ben decides it'd be best to keep his previous activities on the down-low, 'cause, you know, why scare your girlfriend with the information that her continued association with you might get her killed. Even when your old seance pal Patrick (Harry Potter's Tom Felton looking less like Malfoy than Harry here) keeps calling you and emailing you with subject headers like "YOU'RE TOTALLY SCREWED"!

Yeah, so Ben's a complete tool. Even before it was clear he was being a tool, it wasn't clear what Kelly, aspiring veterinarian, was doing with Ben, who's basically on the Geek Squad and not doing a good job at that. He's also a mope, and—did I mention that he opts for NOT saying, "Hey, honey, if you see anything strange, that might be due to the evil spirit I conjured a year or two back. You know, the one that took my LAST girlfriend"?

Kelly, on the other hand, is a go-getter and a hottie. In fact, it's really clear early on that the filmmakers realized that their best assets are her best assets. She's clad in tight clothes, or scant clothes, or (at the movie's high point) scant, tight clothes.

I don't like to rag on horror films, at least not new ones and especially not first efforts, but I felt sorry for the actors at times. At one point, after it's clear that Patrick has screwed up again and made things worse, the naturally call him for help, and his plan is to reverse the polarity. That dead look Sebastien Stan had when he actually said those words (or something very close) in his eyes was in character, but I couldn't help feeling that might have been the actor himself feeling that way.

The movie, presumably unintentionally, evokes Ghostbusters a lot. And Poltergeist. And a whole bunch of low-budget '80s flicks filmed in the exurbs of L.A., where the music was one guy sitting on a Moog.

I think, like a lot of horror movie makers, Lincoln had a few good images he wanted to put on-screen. One is fairly original and a few of the others, while not original, are well-enough presented. But it's not nearly enough to sustain the 80 minutes. (The Boy agreed with my "relenetlessly mediocre" sentiment but credited it for at least not being overlong.)

It also doesn't make any sense. One schlocky scare comes when a little girl says "Your house killed my dog!"  There's absolutely no reason or justification for her to know that. We've never seen her before and we never see her again. And it's also not true. (This movie borrows the conceit most recently seen in Insidious, that it's not the house but the person.)

(The schlocky thing isn't meant as an insult. It's not great, but it wakes you up. A lot of horror movies, when they have no point, message or structure, go for that fun-house approach of throwing a lot of inexplicable shocks and weird visuals at you. It can work.)

Then there's the whole premise of the thing, which is that these people in the '70s are trying to contact a recently deceased colleague and succeed. And then the later kids try, and succeed. Twice. And it seems to be the dead guy, though there's no explanation of why he's so pissed and according to Patrick, the expert, it's actually a being "older than any ghost or demon" that they've actually dragged to this plane of existence.

Wait, what? So...was this their colleague then? He was a demon? And we do see the guy. So...huh?

As boring and nonsensical as it is, it goes completely to hell when Malfoy shows up like Egon Spengler and starts trying to convince us that there's a logic and sense to it all. The exposition is painful. And even the fake-end is so thoroughly unconvincing and desultory, you just feel bad that you know the movie's gonna have another ten minutes.

I have cracked the code on this movie, however: The main character is The Apparition itself. After all, in the traditional narrative arc, act one introduces the character and the element that disrupts the equilibrium while act two presents an insurmountable problem and act three shows the character's growth and story resolution.

From the perspective of the living, human characters, that doesn't really happen. It's all act two. They never change.

From The Apparition's perspective, the first act is when the two seances occur, which are aborted quickly after getting its attention. Kind of like a game of ding-dong ditch. In the second act, Malfoy—who has the capacity, apparently to create devices that are amplifiers of dickitude to the paranormal—tries to capture it, then (later on) tries to abjure it. In the final act, the Apparition learns to deal with his tormentors, and changes and grows as a spiritual entity.

This, by the way, is a way more interesting idea than the one they actually filmed.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

2016: Obama's America

I thought Dinesh D'Souza's anti-colonialist theory of Obama's actions was a classic case of over-thinking things when first I heard of it, and it's not like I'm going to vote for the guy, so why see a documentary about it?

Peer pressure, I guess. A lot of my tweeps had seen it and liked it.

So, how is it?

Well, he makes a pretty strong case.

From a documentary standpoint, this is sort of the polar opposite of the Herzl bio. Where Herzl's story is epic and tragic and heroic, the documentary is very dry. Obama's story is really very pedestrian, but the documentary is engagingly presented.

Actually, I think D'Souza's story—which we get glimpses of—is more interesting and inspiring.

The Left—and lots of libertarians—are christening Dinesh as the right's Michael Moore, which is delicious in its irony. Most of what he says is factual, backed up by Obama's own words, and not only not smears but not even anti-Obama.

When people say it's "anti-Obama," what they're saying is "This hurts his chances for re-election."

Well, sure, the truth about the President is very damaging when it gets out, whether he's suggesting we "spread the wealth around" or "you didn't built that" or "they get bitter" (and cling to guns and religion). It's like saying he's a socialist: The Left and some on the right get all wee-weed up about it, and so we can't use that word, but if there's a socialist policy he objects to, I've never heard him act in a way to support that.

Mostly, this documentary stays out of the weeds: No birtherism, no questioning when Obama actually met Ayers nor whether or not he actually wrote Dreams From My Father, and while D'Souza admits to copping some of Moore's techniques, he left out Moore's favorite of humiliating people who are kind to him because they disagree with his politics.

He does go off the rails a couple of times: For example, he brings in a psychologist to talk about kids with missing fathers. (Didn't the Dems get a petition of 1,500 psychologists asserting the Barry Goldwater was crazy?) He lost me a little bit toward the end, too, when speculating on what 2016 would be like if Obama were re-elected.

I actually felt a little better about Obama when it was over. I've proceeded under the idea that (longtime readers will recall) Obama Is Stupid And Lazy. It's actually somewhat reassuring to think that this destruction he's wrought isn't just slackerism and isn't even really evil (at least from the perspective of those who old America to be the root of all evil in the world). I think I'm reassured.

I guess my overall take on this is kind of a big "So what?" Obama may very well be anti-neo-colonialism. In fact, I think we can pretty much guarantee it. But all of his mentors—as listed in the movie—were Americans. Davis, Ayers, Wright and his Harvard prof whose name I forget were all born-and-bred in the USA.

Ultimately, it wouldn't matter if he were born in Kenya (I mean, apart from his mother being an American citizen) or that he was raised in Indonesia. Plenty of people believe what he believe right here at home. Hell, Clinton probably held most of the same ideas—he just wasn't as intellectually lazy, and he was smart enough to see the writing on the wall. (And I'm actually curious to hear what he says at the DNC.)

The Boy didn't have too much to say about it. He thought it was a little slow at first but picked up pretty well.  We weren't at one of our usual theaters though, so the popcorn wasn't up to snuff.

But that was probably Bush's fault.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Lawless

I didn't know this movie was a thing when I hauled The Boy to the theater to see it. But I guess director John Hillcoat (The Road) and writer Nick Cave (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) have a following from working on a Western a few years ago called The Proposition, since everyone seems to be talking about that and comparing this to that.

The direction is solid as is the screenplay, based on the novel based on a true story based on stories from the novel-writer's family.

Basically, the prohibition of alcohol turns the Virginian backwoods hillbillies—almost all of them, it seems—into moonshiners. Everything's fine at first as the cops are just as happy to buy booze as anyone else, but then a special prosecutor from Chicago comes in and "clamps down". Predictably, "clamping down" means making sure he gets a piece of the action. The Bondurants are too dumb and too indestructible (they believe they are unkillable) to give in to the new guy's demands and meanwhile manage to piss off a big time gangster.

Violence ensues.

And there's your movie!

Short summary is that The Boy and I liked it, though neither of us thought it was great. I kept thinking, "Boy, Prohibition sure was stupid. I'm glad we don't do anything that dumb today." But my sarcasm was lost on myself.

To get into the details: The acting was top notch across the board. The Bondurant brothers are played by Tom Hardy (fresh from his role as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, also Inception), Jason Clarke (Public Enemies—he probably should just keep the Prohibition clothes in his closet) and Shia LeBeouf.

LeBeouf gets a lot of flack, I think mostly for the idea (that he probably didn't float) that he could take over from Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. But he's really a fine actor, and he excels in roles like this: Where his two beefier brothers are all about brute strength and fearlessness, he's a lot more cowardly, charming and probably not as smart as he thinks.

I mean, on the scale of wispy/wimpy modern actors, you got your Michael Cera at the bottom, followed by your Jesse Eisenberg, followed by your Anton Yelchin, followed by your Shia LeBeouf, followed by your Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who manages to play tough guys).

Anyway, LeBeouf is just small-framed, not really scrawny. He's wiry, fast on his feet, and while easily intimidated (in this movie) relative to his brothers, the situations he finds himself in are ones most of us would find rather intimidated, if we're being honest. LeBeouf takes a beating in this flick and is ostensibly the main character, though the movie's really not that strongly focused on character evolution.

Tom Hardy, who grunts and shambles his way through the violence and danger, is oddly compelling. He keeps the film centered.

The acting is good all around: Jessica Chastain (The Help) as the city-girl-with-a-past; Mia Wasikowski (Alice In Wonderland) as the preacher's daughter LeBeouf's character has his eye on; Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) is the crippled-boy/mechanical genius.

Rounding out the cast are Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce. Oldman has a small role as a big-time gangster we wish we saw more of. (His story doesn't really go anywhere.) . Pearce is the villain of the piece, and he's wonderfully psychotic.

He's lean and he looks effeminate, even, but he's brutal and sadistic. The movie only intimates half the nasty crap this guy is in to.

Speaking of lean, man, these are some skinny people. Chastain and Wasikowski and DeHaan have found a millieu in which their emaciated physiques really fit in!

Seriously, though, guys: eat a sandwich. DeHaan needs to get to a gym, stat.

So, yeah, solid acting, directing, writing, lighting—the sound is mostly good, though the music is occasionally intrusive. It didn't seem quite period-correct either. (I don't know that that's true, but it didn't feel right to me at times.)

So, why isn't it great? I think because there really isn't much character development. The characters are interesting to start with but they don't really change. There's a lot of fine acting bits, and some good character reveals, but not really any change.

At one point, I began to wonder if it was a Michael Mann film, because it reminded me strongly of Public Enemies. But it was way more engaging to me than Mann films. Like I say, the characters are strongly drawn and even sympathetic, even when they're doing brutal things. But they don't change.

That's my best guess, anyway. I'd probably recommend it, if you aren't too squeamish.

Robot And Frank

This is one of those movies where the trailer seems to give away the whole thing, like Hope Springs.

In fact, if you haven't seen the trailer, skip these next few paragraphs and go see the movie instead.

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The story, as seen in the trailer: In the near future, crotchety old Frank (Frank Langella) walks to the library to check out books and the librarian (Susan Sarandon), taking the occasional call from his hippie-activist daughter (Liv Tyler) and harassing his son (James Marsden) who decides to get him a robot.

Frank hates the robot until he realizes he can teach it how to steal, and since Frank is a former cat burglar surrounded by rich hipster doofuses (he calls them "yuppies" 'cause he's old), this finally enlivens him. He begins to actually like the robot, which causes problems when he's suspected for the crimes and the robot's memory could be used to incriminate him.

That's all in the trailer.
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But unlike Hope Springs, the trailer doesn't come close to capturing either the humor or the depth of the movie. It makes you feel like you've seen the whole movie, which was amusing but maybe a little cutesy.

The actual movie, while funny, steers hard away from anything cute. The impetus, in part, for the son getting the robot is that Frank's memory is fading. This sets up an interesting parallel that challenges our ideas of identity and existence.

And yet, the robot—charmingly blandly voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, and perfectly acted by Rachel Ma—never aspires to anything beyond itself. It insists that it does not exist, that it is nothing more than a program and set of memories, and feels nothing about its own continuation. Its selflessness and focus on getting Frank better is precisely what allows Frank to manipulate it.

That's kind of a mind twister right there. The robot's entirely artificial "humanity" allows the rather narcissistic and criminal Frank to twist it to his ends. Despite this dark under-pinning, it's an essentially upbeat film.

The supporting cast is all wonderful—Jeremy Sisto has a small, charming role as the local sheriff—but, once again (and it's been too long), what we really have is the Frank Langella show. It's not quite the same as Frost/Nixon, in the sense that while Frank is a larger-than-life character, the supporting characters are all pretty easy to empathize with.  You get the idea that his long-suffering family would be justified in abandoning him.

Of course, Langella is totally plausible as someone who could pull this off. He's charming. Even as a stooped-over old-man, he still towers over most of the cast. There is this terrific poignancy, too, as one gets a sense of human dignity and the beauty of humans living out their aspirations even when those aspirations aren't necessarily noble.

Where films working the "cute old folk" angle tend to neuter them, or make them stereotypically feisty or crusty, but ultimately harmless, on a good day, Frank is self-absorbed, cunning and even criminal.

And this film makes you want him to go on, to get that next score.

This, of course, has a lot to do with Langella's great performance. Newcomers Jake Schreir (director) and Christopher D. Ford (writer) have put together a solid film, with no wasted space and which teases a lot of interesting philosophical questions while keeping a funny, lively pace throughout. The music by "Francis and the Lights" is strongly reminiscent of Thomas Newman (Finding Nemo, The Green Mile) which I think was a very good choice.

The Boy and The Flower both enjoyed very much, though I think I enjoyed it more.

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