Saturday, May 11, 2013

What I've Been Watching -- May 2013

  Killing Them Softly (2012) ***1/2

Perhaps Andrew Dominik’s crime film is a bit heavy-handed with all the sound clips from the 2008 election playing on every TV and car radio as his characters skulk around the outskirts of what seems to be Detroit, but Killing Them Softly is electric filmmaking. This is a filmmaker that knows what he wants his cinema to do – to stir, to unsettle, to remove the Emperor’s clothes.

Killing Them Softly is an excellent allegory of sorts, reveling in its central premise that the America that is publicly on display has little to do with the America in the shadows. The corporatization of the United States has not only sunk its teeth into Wall Street and the White House, but in the local mafia, too. Death sentences for double crossing hoods has to be determined by committee, and the public pressure to respond to the fleecing of criminals is really no different than anything we’ve been watching on our TVs for the last several years.

Dominik’s eye is exceptional, as is his script, and he gets a terrific performance out of Brad Pitt as a hired hitman who sees this world as it really is – not as a land of opportunity, but as a land of “fuck you, pay me.” It’s a cynical film, going down as bitter as the drinks these criminals swallow, but it is a film with a definitive personality and vision. And you don’t get too many movies with a final line of dialogue as rousing as this one has.

Holy Motors (2012) ***1/2

A freaky trip of a movie, and I can honestly say I’m not sure if I understand what director Leos Carax was going for. One thing is for sure: Holy Motors is a spellbinding cinematic quest. It is equal parts absurd art film, engaging human drama, and visual buffet. As I watched it, I couldn’t stop thinking of David Lynch at first, but about halfway through the film took on a life of its own that was unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

The film follows a day in the life of a man known only as DL. He’s an actor who drives around a metropolitan city in a limo, stopping for “appointments” in which he dresses up in character and enters into a life not quite his own, yet fully his own. At one point he’s an insane homeless man who eats people, at another he’s a computerized alien seeking a mate; he plays a dying uncle, a devoted father, a long lost lover, and eventually himself. It’s a lot of roles for one man to have, and actor Denis Lavant is a maestro, embodying each role with a human touch we seldom get by American actors. For all the film’s crazy absurdity, it is an undeniably human story, which I think is trying to expose all the roles we escape into in our own lives as we deal with our own pain. The beginning of the film seems to highlight this as the director, Leos Carax, himself plays a character having a dream in which he enters a cinema full of sleeping patrons to watch the very film we are about to witness.

I can’t say I got what the film is trying to say, but I know that the ride is a great one if you like challenging pieces of art. It’s definitely a ride that requires a return visit.

The Guilt Trip (2012) **

Barbara Streisand does not do many movies anymore. At one point she was one of the most popular box office draws. She is still a cherished entity in the movie industry, as evidenced by her appearance at this year’s Oscar ceremony. So, what sort of film does she choose to make when she returns to the big screen? The Guilt Trip, a 90-minute sitcom co-starring Seth Rogen, whose balls were clipped upon receipt of this trite, miserable script.

Here, Streisand plays the stereotypical Jewish mother – nagging, offering unsolicited advice, always looking to feed everyone, using guilt as a weapon – and while she tries to bring her ethos to the role, she is never quite able to overcome the lame one-liners she has to chew on. Rogen has it even worse, playing the straight man role here so prim and properly that he is hardly recognizable. I imagine he only took the role because he wanted to work with Babs – a decision that makes perfect sense in our Bucket List world.

This film is a Mother’s Day edition of Planes, Trains and Automobiles that will no doubt be a laugh riot among those that worship CBS sitcoms. To me, it was just an episodic mess in which we have to endure Babs and Rogen on a road trip in which Rogen is looking to get his mom hooked up with a long lost love. Along the way they hit up all the taboo, uncomfortable places for a mom and a son to go to – strip clubs, bars, cramped motel rooms, job interviews. And, of course there is the requisite emotional moments where we are supposed to realize that mom’s are people, too. Ugh. This movie was much better when Albert Brooks called on Debbie Reynolds to star in his brilliant comedy, Mother.

Hell, even Psycho had better mother-son humor.

Hitchcock (2012) **1/2

What is this movie trying to be? A Hitchcock tribute? A love story about the master of suspense? A biopic about the corpulent dude that risked everything to make a cinema classic? Regardless, it’s not very effective at any of them. Hitchcock tries really hard to be good, but it is about as good at being good as poor Norman Bates himself.

This is sad because it’s clear that Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren really invest themselves in their roles as Hitch and Alma, Hitch’s long suffering wife. They have an electric chemistry whenever they are on screen, but then the film decides to spoil that chemistry by trying to inject plot into the fold. Director Sacha Gervasi should have paid more attention to the Marilyn Monroe biopic, My Week with Marilyn when putting this movie together. That film allowed its plot to meander in order to give the actors room to breathe and connect with each other. I think that’s what most people want with a biopic anyway – to feel like they are witnessing great icons in action, as if they are living beings. We want to feel like a fly on the wall as they live the glamorous lives we have long suspected they had. Unfortunately at times, Hitchcock feels more like a trip to the wax museum, and for as good as Hopkins is he often comes across more as a caricature than a real human being.

Despite the fact that the movie is based on Stephen Rebello’s excellent book about the making of Psycho, I have a nagging suspicion that the best biopic we could get about Hitchcock would be one dealing with the making of Vertigo. After all, how does a man approach the making of a movie that was so remarkably personal and – possibly – autobiographical.

The Bourne Legacy (2012) **

Is it too much to ask that an action movie actually be fun to watch? The Bourne Legacy begins in the least interesting of settings – Alaska. Now, maybe that’s unfair, since The Grey was one of my favorite movies last year, but let’s be honest: unless you’re Liam Neeson fighting wolves, all you’re going to get from an Alaskan set is gorgeous vistas and not much else. And that’s pretty much what Tony Gilroy gives us for the first hour of this slug of a movie – Alaskan vistas intercut with government bureaucrats talking about super soldiers and double crosses.

Once the action starts, though, the movie doesn’t get much better. This may have something to do with the casting of Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, a Jason Bourne type who doesn’t have the luxury of amnesia to make him interesting. Part of what made The Bourne Identity so great was that Bourne had amnesia, which meant we had to discover his abilities and all the surrounding intrigue right along with him. In The Bourne Legacy, Aaron Cross is fully integrated into his world, and unless we know how messed up the government agency he works for is, there isn’t much for us to care about. I didn’t want this movie to be a redux of The Bourne Identity, but without a charismatic lead that I could be invested in, I sort of want to file this movie under “Never Should Have Been Made.”

Besides, Jeremy Renner is not a great lead actor. As much as studios have been trying to push him as a leading man, he just isn’t. His best work – The Hurt Locker, The Town – was in supporting roles working off of well-built casts. He’s like the number two guy on a great sports team. There’s nothing wrong with this. I just hope he realizes it before his career goes the way Ryan Reynolds’ seems to be.

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