In The Company You Keep, Robert Redford stars in as well as directs a story of an ex-Weather Underground radical who has been living quietly as a public-interest lawyer in upstate New York for more than 30 years. His true identity is discovered by an annoying reporter (Shia LaBeouf) after the apprehension of one of his co-conspirators (Susan Sarandon), who was one of four terrorists who robbed a bank and murdered several security guards in the process.
Redford, that noted “liberal activist,” shows where his sympathies truly are. This is a movie that argues:
1. The Weathermen were fighting for peace.
The Company You Keep begins with a montage of real news clips (and a fake one) edited together to tell the story that the Weather Underground grew out of the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society and that its activities were meant to end the Vietnam War by “bringing the war home.” Nonsense. The Weathermen loved war and wanted more of it. They were a murderous group of Black Power and Marxist revolutionaries bent on the violent overthrow of the United States. After the 1970 accidental explosion that killed several terrorists who blew themselves up with their own bombs in a downtown New York City townhouse, the true intent of the bombs was revealed: They were meant to be used to blow up a library on the campus of Columbia University. Not exactly a military target.
By Zeus, it’s been awhile since there’s been a decent shoot-em-up at the movies. But G.I. Joe: Retaliation will slake your need for gadgets, guns and explosions, and it’s even got some cool villains and funny jokes.
This one finds the super-secret team of elite military masters from all over the world up against the Zeus project by which the equally ferocious team of nasties known as Cobra hopes to rain down death and destruction on the earth. The Joes may have courage, comradeship and extremely large machine guns on their side but Cobra Commander and his crew have something that can top all that: They control the President (Jonathan Pryce) of the United States, who is actually a plant named Zartan. And what is Zartan up to? Only calling a world summit of the eight nuclear-armed powers and tricking them into doing his bidding.
When an action spectacular is willing to go all the way and have characters say things like, “The world will cower in the face of Zeus,” you know you’re in the frenzied land of pure junky comic-book energy, and on that level Retaliation works just fine. In the opening minutes alone, there are three big ker-blammo fight scenes involving the close-knit core members of the Joe team: There’s the wily old sergeant Roadblock (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson), the amiable but slightly dense captain Duke (Channing Tatum), the rookie Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and the slinky Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki).
Admission is a terrible movie from director Paul Weitz, who these days only makes terrible movies (Little Fockers, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and American Dreamz are three of the worst movies of the last decade). Its plot is contrived and sitcom-y, its characters stale, its banter weak. But if you can make it all the way through (that’s a big if), you’ll discover that in addition to its other woes it’s ethically disturbing.
Tina Fey plays a Princeton admissions officer who, along with a handful of colleagues and her boss (Wallace Shawn), is responsible for giving a thumbs up or a thin envelope to tens of thousands of hopefuls, 90 percent of who won’t make it. To the extent there’s anything interesting about the film, which is based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz and written by Karen Croner, it’s the convincing insider stuff about how admissions officers do their work. According to this film, the “first reader” goes through the pile of applications, flags some for special consideration, then meets with the other officers in a conference room at which everyone argues over the relative merits of each candidate. (The movie completely ignores, of course, the most salient feature of college admissions offices, which is that they dramatically lower standards for designated victim groups, even if the students stamped as underprivileged actually grew up in a penthouse on Park Avenue.)
Portia (Fey) gets a call from an old Dartmouth classmate (Paul Rudd) who is now running one of those hands-on crunchy-granola “indie” schools that seem primarily interested in nurturing the students to deliver left-wing anti-capitalist rants on cue. John (Rudd) makes a plea for Princeton to give special consideration to a student called Jeremiah who doesn’t score well on tests but has constructed an amazing intellect on his own terms. Oh, and Jeremiah’s back story comes with an intriguing detail: Remember that time in college when you gave a kid up for adoption, John asks Portia? Well, Jeremiah is that boy. John knows this because his roommate supplied the car that took Portia to the hospital to deliver her child.
It wouldn’t be fair to call The Incredible Burt Wonderstone a disastrous movie. It would be fair, however, to call it three or four disastrous movies crammed into one: It’s abysmally awful as a buddy flick, as a broad satire of Las Vegas, as a romance, and as a soulful character-based comedy. In a moviegoing year that is already piled deep with the remnants of terrible movies, this one skitters atop the garbage heap like a roach.
Steve Carell plays the title character, who in the opening scenes is a kid in the 1980s who turns to magic because he’s lonely. He’s the kind of boy bullies chase around the block, and after a rough day of being forced to eat tree bark, when he arrives home at an empty house we find out that it’s his birthday. But all he has to show for it is a note from his mom, a single present and instructions to enjoy making his birthday cake (if he wants to bake it himself). The present, though, is a box of magic tricks, together with a video by legendary magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) that give him an opportunity to master something and a lifelong friendship with a classmate, the equally dorky Anton.
Cut to the present day, when Burt and Anton, under their goofy stage names, play packed houses every night in a Vegas hotel-casino despite putting on a groaner of an act complete with red velvet tuxedos, corny patter, and the theme song “Abracadabra.” The act seems to be a spoof of David Copperfield, Barry Manilow and Siegfried and Roy, staged with the maximum cheesiness of Gob’s magic act on Arrested Development. Carell and Steve Buscemi (as Anton) sport silly wigs and prance around being bitchy with stereotypically gay mannerisms. (Yet minutes later, Burt is revealed to be a ladykiller, the homoerotic scene between the two men forgotten.)
The arrival of an amazingly annoying Jim Carrey on the scene as Steve Gray, an underground hipster street musician modeled after Criss Angel and David Blaine, sets the woefully tame plot in motion: Will Burt and Anton adapt to contemporary tastes or will they fade into irrelevance?
Three years ago Disney made a bazillion dollars off Alice in Wonderland, and this spring they’ve followed that up with a film that delivers a similar experience and is likely to be equally profitable. Like Alice, the Wizard of Oz prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful is a little too goofy, but it has its moments and your eyeballs certainly get their money’s worth. The special effects and the 3D are as brilliant as the jokes are dim.
James Franco, who is completely the wrong choice for the part, stars as Oscar (friends call him Oz, Z being one of his many middle initials), a cheap fairground magician in a black-and-white 1905 Kansas. He’s on the run from some circus freaks he has cheated when, wouldn’t you know it, here comes a twister that batters Oscar in his hot-air balloon. Next, the image widens, the black and white is replaced by color and we’re in the merry old land of Oz.
Launching this movie exactly the same way The Wizard of Oz got started seems like a failure of imagination, though merely rehashing much the same plot with 21st century special effects would give you a film better than most. Like Dorothy (who isn’t in this one), Oscar encounters some unusual friends (first up, a flying monkey who vows to become his lifetime servant after the lame and cowardly Oscar saves him from a lion with a two-bit magic trick). The monkey and others are versions of people Oscar knew back home. They hit the Yellow Brick Road for a quest to defeat an evil witch (by breaking her wand this time), and Oscar becomes the toast of the Emerald City.
All of this is sprinkled with dumb humor more appropriate for a spoof than a second entry in the series; Oscar wants to know why the wisecracking monkey is dressed “in a bellhop’s uniform” and he and the monkey muse that there must be some yellow-brick potholes in the road. When Oscar mentions bananas, the monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) grouses that it’s a stereotype to accuse monkeys of liking bananas (which he loves, but never mind). You know what’s really easy? Making fun of The Wizard of Oz. You know what isn’t? Creating a piece of dramatic fantasy that lingers in the popular imagination for four generations. So guess which movie is better?
The Die Hard franchise has reached its Batman & Robin moment: the fifth installment in the once-exciting series, A Good Day to Die Hard, is an unspeakably dull and shoddy product that, were it not for the presence of Bruce Willis, would be indistinguishable from a quickie genre film made for the European straight-to-video market.
Disastrous on every level, the film is ugly to look at, choppy in plot, woeful in special effects (you could have photoshopped a more convincing image of Willis’s John McClane dangling from the bumper of a truck that is itself dangling from a helicopter), and tiresome in its gimmicks. This time, as if to recreate the magic of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which looks like a fine piece of cinema by comparison, McClane butts heads/joins forces with his son Jack (actually John Jr.), who, to John Sr.’s surprise and ours, turns out to be a superspy working for the CIA in Russia. Jack is played by a surly side of beef named Jai Courtney, who vaguely resembles Willis but has all the charisma of your average rutabaga.
At the beginning of the movie, McClane is in New York discussing his son’s plight with a fellow cop. His boy is in a Russian prison, so naturally McClane (who barely knows the kid, having long been estranged from him) kisses his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) goodbye and boards the first plane to Moscow — even though his boy has not requested his help and doesn’t need it.
Russia is seething about the upcoming show trial of a politically persecuted figure, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), who refuses to hand over a mysterious “file” wanted both by gangster-ish Russian authorities and the CIA. Jack McClane, who is undercover as a Russian, arranges to get himself put in the same prison and brought to the same courtroom side by side with the dissident, having offered the prosecution an irresistible deal: McClane will claim that Komarov paid him to carry out an assassination.
This development doesn’t make a lot of sense (if Russian higher-ups can conduct circus trials, why would they need help from an unknown outsider to win a conviction?), but it at least leads to a massive prison-break scene in which the courthouse gets blown up in order to free Komarov and McClane Jr., who with CIA help promptly flee to a safe house.
At least that’s the plan, but McClane Senior, who inserts himself into the drama (despite his son, who calls him John, repeatedly telling him to get lost), messes everything up and finds himself at the wheel of a large truck as the two fugitives flee Russian thugs.
Steven Soderbergh is one of Hollywood’s more unpredictable and rangy directors. You never know if you’re going to get a crowd-pleasing entertainment (the Ocean’s series), a smart thriller (Contagion), a dreary leftist diatribe (the four-hour Che), a parody of a film noir (The Good German,) or a surprisingly well-rounded character study disguised as a girls’ night out movie (Magic Mike).
Soderbergh’s latest combines elements of the thriller and the noir but is hardly a crowd-pleaser. Told in a chilly, detached style, Side Effects willfully keeps the audience from getting too involved, and the film is unlikely to remain in theaters very long. That would be disturbing if this is Soderbergh’s cinematic swan song, but despite his claims that he’s taking a long break from filmmaking his record suggests he won’t be able to stay away from the big screen for long. (On the small screen, Soderbergh will shortly be delivering to HBO his Liberace movie, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as the pianist and his younger lover.)
Side Effects, if it is far from Soderbergh’s best work, still has its strengths, though describing exactly what they are would be giving away too much. Suffice it to say that Rooney Mara, who broke through with an Oscar nomination in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, proves that she is a star performer who can hold the screen without the bizarre hair and makeup and extreme behavior that made her Tattoo character an actress’s dream part. Moreover, she again does nude scenes, putting her in a small group of serious actresses who are willing to go wherever the role takes them.
Jude Law, his boyish charm gone, is every bit Mara’s equal as a perhaps shady psychiatrist who is randomly assigned to treat her character, Emily, in a hospital after she inexplicably rams her car straight into the wall of a parking garage. Having recently welcomed her financier husband (Channing Tatum) home from prison after he served several years for insider trading, she falls into a deep depression which Martin (Law) tries to treat with the name-brand antidepressants that we’ve all become slightly too familiar with in the last 20 years. Her previous psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), encourages him to start the patient on a different medication, called Ablixa. Meanwhile Martin, who has a wife (Vinessa Shaw) and a son in private school to worry about, casually accepts a pharmaceutical company’s offer to take part in a trial study meant to promote another drug, for which he will receive $50,000.
The movie is called Gangster Squad but it’s so inept that I kept thinking of Police Squad! — the 1980s spoof TV show that gave us the stone-faced detective Frank Drebin and led to the Naked Gun movies.
Gangster Squad stars a top cast — Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin as cops trying to break up a criminal racket, Emma Stone as Gosling’s girl, and Sean Penn as vicious gangster and ex-boxer Mickey Cohen. All of them are terrible, but special mention must be made of Penn’s performance as the lethal Cohen, who rules the underworld and owns the police in 1949 Los Angeles. Penn, who for reasons I couldn’t fathom plays the part under a fake nose and a prosthetic brow that make him look like Herman Munster, does a piece of cartoonish overacting, all snarls and shouts, that would have embarrassed the cast of the 1960s Batman.
Moreover, the action of Gangster Squad is so ludicrous that you half expect “Ker-BLAM!” and “BIFF!” to pop up in quotation balloons on the screen. Brolin plays Sgt. John O’Mara, a tough-as-nails cop who accepts an assignment from his grizzled boss (Nick Nolte) to make war on Cohen’s crime outfit. The Sarge isn’t expected to make arrests, though: Cohen has so many cops on his payroll that that would be a waste of time. Sarge’s brief is to spend the movie destroying Cohen’s property and generally terrifying his minions until the final showdown.
Despite asinine comments by Quentin Tarantino, who has called our present criminal-justice arrangements “slavery through and through,” and Jamie Foxx, who has boasted that “I kill all the white people” in the Tarantino-directed Django Unchained, the movie isn’t especially inflammatory about race.
The title character, an ex-slave, doesn’t kill all the white people. In fact, his best friend and co-hero is a white, European dentist turned bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar as the dapper but terrifying Nazi colonel in Inglourious Basterds. Moreover, one of the chief villains of Django is played, in a surprise, by Samuel L. Jackson as a house slave who despises Django with a fury that makes him a perfect match for the wicked plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) for whom he works.
Mostly, the movie is an incredibly violent, incredibly long, and often very funny popcorn picture with its roots in both spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. The quintessentially Tarantino moment comes when racist whites seeking to kill Django and his dentist friend form a posse of rough riders with bags over their heads (presaging the Ku Klux Klan) in 1858. The vigilante group (including former Miami Vice star Don Johnson as an easily outsmarted plantation boss and Jonah Hill in a cameo) falls into squabbling over a dispute about the craftsmanship of the bags. It’s a hilarious disquisition reminiscent of the argument about Madonna in Reservoir Dogs or the details of dining at a French McDonald’s in Pulp Fiction.
Other scenes in the movie may remind you of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Searchers, but the closest resemblance is to…. Blazing Saddles. Just as Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little joined forces as equals and shocked racists in Mel Brooks’ 1972 comedy (which was co-written by Richard Pryor), Waltz and Foxx make for a fine pair of gunslingers who don’t care what haters think of their friendship. They wander the South getting in and out of trouble as they search for Django’s wife (Kerry Washington), who is being tortured at the evil plantation run by Calvin Candie (DiCaprio). Django, a former slave, has received his freedom and a new job as bounty hunter courtesy of King Schultz (Waltz), who needs Django’s help in recognizing three men whom Schultz will receive a hefty fee for killing.
After a quarter of a century in development, the big-screen version of the Broadway musical Les Misérables is finally here. Will it sweep away audiences like the stage show? Put it this way, at a screening I attended I overheard two women discussing how they’d worn waterproof eye makeup to prepare for the inevitable deluge of tears.
The musical film, which is sung virtually all the way through like an opera, is directed by Britain’s Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for The King’s Speech just two years ago. If Les Mis wins Best Picture, as seems possible given the sweep and majesty of the story, Hooper would match Francis Ford Coppola’s feat of winning the top prize twice in three years.
Hooper makes sure all of his actors give big, bold performances; playing things subtle is not the way to approach this epic, two hour and 40 minute story about freedom, love, sin, redemption, justice, poverty and revolution. Hugh Jackman leads the cast and does great work as Jean Valjean, the prisoner who, when paroled, initially falls back into his thieving ways but then after an encounter with a kindly bishop he has robbed resolves to start his life anew. Under an assumed identity, he rises to the rank of mayor of a French town and becomes wealthy as a factory owner.
By failing to keep up with the terms of his parole, though, Valjean makes himself a fugitive who is endlessly pursued by the tireless policeman Javert, played by Russell Crowe. Both Jackman and Crowe have been singing professionally for years (Jackman is experienced in musical theater, while Crowe fronted a rock band back in Australia). But Jackman’s rich baritone voice is better suited to this Broadway piece than Crowe’s surprisingly light and reedy tenor, which sounds nothing like his husky speaking voice.
Zero Dark Thirty marks a cinematic breakthrough into the realm of journalism. Just a year and a half after the Navy SEAL assault that brought Osama bin Laden’s life to a bloody conclusion, The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow has brought the story to the screen, using extensive research and aid from the White House. President Obama evidently thought this film, which has a gripping documentary feel, would be released before the election and make him look good, but it turns out he was wrong on both counts. Zero Dark Thirty (military slang for the wee hours of the morning when the attack took place) makes Obama appear somewhere between irrelevant and counterproductive in the intelligence mission that led to Bin Laden’s demise.
Young star Jessica Chastain, who last year got an Oscar nomination for The Help, gives another awards-caliber performance as a 30-year-old CIA agent named Maya who has spent 12 years tracking Bin Laden, ever since she was recruited out of high school. At CIA black sites in Pakistan and Afghanistan, she actively participates in brutal interrogation techniques including forced sleep deprivation, beatings and waterboarding. These procedures are shown as essential to learning of the existence of a courier, Abu Ahmed, whose trail would eventually lead to Bin Laden’s fortress-like lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
President Obama is referred to obliquely as someone who demands factual certainty (without which, it is implied, he won’t give the go-ahead for the assault, which is worrisome enough) but doesn’t appear in the film except in a clip from a real-life news program. In the clip, Obama is shown disavowing torture, which would seem to pose a major obstacle to the CIA agents watching him on television. They know too well that meddling from politicians who have no idea how difficult it is to obtain intelligence from career terrorists could easily nullify their efforts. Obama comes off looking like a weak, oblivious fool who places his own preening above the national interest. Like I said: This movie is practically a documentary.
How do you top the Lord of the Rings trilogy? The answer seems to be: with quantity. The medium-length novel The Hobbit is now apparently going to inspire more hours of big-screen film than any comparably-sized book ever.
Originally scheduled as one film, then two, and now three, J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 juvenile fantasy book, which begins 60 years before The Fellowship of the Ring, finally comes to the screen after decades of legal disputes, in a bloated two hour and fifty minute production that left me thinking: So what?
It’s not that the movie is bad, exactly. It has as many magical creatures and thrilling battle scenes as you could want. Its special effects are seamless and amazing. It’s just that its structure takes on a numbing, repetitive feel. After nearly an hour of preliminaries, the title little guy Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman; Gandalf the Grey, played by Ian McKellan; and their associated band of 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield, played by Richard Armitage, head off to fight for the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor, which has been terrorized by a dragon called Smaug.
So it’s march, battle, discuss the next stage, repeat. For nearly three hours, at the conclusion of which our band of friends spies their destination in the distance, which they figure to reach only after another five and a half hours of such slogging.
Bilbo, the uncle of Frodo (Elijah Wood), is the character through whom we first encounter the One Ring to Rule Them All, in a scene where he meets Gollum (Andy Serkis) that is among the creepiest and most compelling in the film. Bilbo is a mild-mannered little hobbit who had no interest in adventure when a sudden visit from the wizard Gandalf was quickly followed by the unwelcome intrusion of the 13 rambunctious dwarves sworn to repel the dragon from their homeland. Bilbo, tapped by Gandalf to be the “burglar” of this adventure, is at first not interested, but being dismissed as unadventurous seems to bring out the daredevil in him. Bilbo grows as the film goes on, outwitting Gollum for “the precious” and gradually turning into an unexpected, if quiet and mild-mannered, action hero.
We already knew that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a lousy president — the Depression dragged on for 11 years, mostly on his watch, so the proper word for what he did to the economic calamity is “extend,” not “end” it — but the strange Bill Murray comedy Hyde Park on Hudson makes clear that FDR was a horrible man as well.
The movie is principally about FDR’s habit of employing his mother to call up local women, some of them cousins, and send them over to be the president’s concubines at his country house in upstate New York. It’s made clear to the women that they’re not to be taken seriously, they’re not to say anything, and they’ll be discarded as soon as the president tires of them, and in this film by Roger Michell (Notting Hill) all of this is presented as merry good fun and entirely suitable behavior by the iconic figure of the party that “cares about women.”
Laura Linney plays Daisy, a second cousin who is hurried into FDR’s life for unpaid sex work. FDR flirts with her by showing her his stamp collection, then takes her for a quiet country drive in his car, which is operated exclusively by hand controls due to his paralysis. But apparently the president was able to maintain an extramarital love life that can only be called Clintonian, or perhaps Kennedyesque. (Why is it that our most priapic presidents tend to be Democrats? Is it because they enjoy doing to the country what they do to unsuspecting younger women?) A more astute director would have played FDR’s womanizing as yet more evidence of the imperiousness of a president who famously used to lie around in bed in the morning dreaming up a price for gold, for instance declaring 21 cents to be the right number because sevens are lucky and 21 is three times seven.
Daisy, quickly accepted as the newest member of the household (though not the only concubine present), gets to witness the events of the summer of 1939, when (or so this movie would have us believe) the fate of the free world rested on whether or not the king of England would eat a hot dog.
Silver Linings Playbook is, like its hero, bipolar and unstable. What at first looks like a low-budget, gritty indie character study about mental illness eventually turns into a shameless shower of Hollywood syrup. In other words, it has Oscar nominations written all over it.
Start with Bradley Cooper as Pat, a Philadelphia schoolteacher who, as he is being driven home from a Baltimore mental institution by his mother (Jacki Weaver), is already acting a little weird. Gradually it emerges why he was in the hospital: He nearly beat to death a man he caught with his wife in the shower, and he remains obsessed with reconciling with her.
David O. Russell, who directed Silver Linings and wrote it, adapting a novel by Matthew Quick, got started with amusing little movies like Flirting with Disaster but a couple of years later made a more conventional play for Oscars, The Fighter (which won both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo top honors in supporting roles). Nowadays his strategy seems to be to use his indie credibility as the castor oil that makes grouchy critics swallow much more than a spoonful of sugar in this conventional, formulaic crowd-pleaser.
Pat gets invited to a dinner party where he shows up inappropriately attired in a Philadelphia Eagles jersey – no. 10, for DeSean Jackson, the wide receiver whose infamous spiking of a football at the one yard line is repeatedly mentioned as a metaphor for Pat’s own habit of messing up the easy stuff. But he meets a fellow victim of instability, Tiffany (a superb Jennifer Lawrence, who is sure to get another Oscar nomination for this performance), whose husband recently died under vaguely described circumstances.
Meanwhile, staying with his parents in a working-class Philly neighborhood, Pat keeps having mini breakdowns (the breathless scene in which he searches for an old wedding video while Russell pounds a Led Zeppelin song in the background is the best in the movie), getting unwelcome visits from a police officer assigned to his case, and getting in arguments with his dad (Robert De Niro). The old man’s slightly obsessive-compulsive habits and gambling on Philadelphia Eagles football games seem to prove that he is the crazy tree from which this young nutjob didn’t fall very far.
Lincoln showcases Steven Spielberg in homework mode. It’s the product of a drudge staying up all night hoping to pass his Oscar exam. But Lincoln won’t win any Oscars, and doesn’t deserve any. It’s a hopeless bore that, in an attempt to humanize an icon, turns him into a mere politician.
The film has a couple of very strong points but otherwise it’s a near total write-off and a waste of your time. Its best aspect is the wonderful lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the finest actors living and an artist who never ceases to challenge himself. Most actors would have been so excited by the prospect of playing Honest Abe that they would not have been able to resist playing the role as if all the angels of History were singing a backup chorus at every moment. But while he was living his life, Lincoln was just a man, one with a thin, wispy voice, a sadly nutty wife (Sally Field, who can’t resist hamming it up) and humble surroundings. By being so gentle and restrained, Day-Lewis makes you lean forward to hear every word and marvel at Lincoln’s judgment.
But Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, otherwise flounder. Intent on avoiding cliche, Spielberg keeps swerving around the most dramatic moments. For instance, when the film begins (with a gritty battle scene of Union and Confederate soldiers wrestling in mud that unfortunately has a vaguely comical aspect), Lincoln has already given the Gettsyburg address, and we hear only portions of it recited from memory by the soldiers he is speaking to. This encounter with black Union troops seems forced and improbable, not least for the weirdly casual, even dismissive, way these ordinary soldiers treat their president. Wouldn’t they be even a little bit intimidated?
As the film goes on the big majority of it takes place in 1865, when Lincoln is persuaded that his Emancipation Proclamation had no legal basis because state laws can’t simply be overruled by executive fiat. To formally abolish slavery, Lincoln’s Republicans fight to pass the 13th Amendment during a lame-duck January session of Congress. The Republicans have won in a sweep, but not all of them want to outlaw slavery, so the party sets about rounding up votes from the institutionally racist Democratic party. Democrats who have lost their seats in the November election, Lincoln’s aides reason, no longer have any reason not to vote with their consciences and are free to do the right thing for its own sake.
Generation X has taken over the movies. Just this fall, new films from David O. Russell, Ben Affleck, and Quentin Tarantino promise to be major players come awards time. So who are the five best American filmmakers under 50?
5. Darren Aronofsky
Arrogant enough to turn down the opportunity to direct Batman Begins, the Brooklyn-born filmmaker has made some surprising choices. After starting out in David Lynch territory with Pi, he threatened to disappear in a fog of epic sci-fi weirdness with The Fountain but returned to Earth in triumph with the agreeably gritty and surprisingly straight-on The Wrestler, which relaunched Mickey Rourke and showed an unexpected depth of feeling and humanity. Then came Black Swan, a worldwide sensation that deservedly won Natalie Portman an Oscar and managed to be cerebral, trashy, arty, and sexy all at the same time. Now Aronofsky is going off in yet another direction, steering the mega-budget Bible epic Noah with Russell Crowe, which sounds like either a disaster or a sensation but seems guaranteed to make an impression.
Is Argo that good? Yes and no. Affleck takes substantial liberties with the story of the bizarre rescue of six American hostages who were separated from the rest in the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis in Tehran, and all three of his films (the others are Gone Baby Gone and The Town) end melodramatically. Still, Argo is hugely entertaining, with a smart script and a deft sense of humor.
Affleck the actor (he probably should have cast someone less lackluster in the lead) plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent at Langley and a specialist in “exfiltration.” He rejects several possible solutions to the problem of how to save six U.S. Embassy employees in Tehran who sneaked out the back when angry ayatollah-loving revolutionaries demanding the return of the U.S.-backed shah of Iran stormed the compound and took 52 Americans hostage. (The 52 eventually returned safely, more than a year later, by which time President Jimmy Carter was seen as hopelessly weak and Ronald Reagan had just been sworn in.)
The subgroup of six hid out in the home of the Canadian ambassador but couldn’t come up with a plausible reason to leave the country without being detected and arrested. Mendez, back in Virginia, thinks outside the box. Way outside the box. He suggests papers be forged to indicate that the six had been in the country for just a couple of days — and had arrived to scout locations for a schlocky Star Wars ripoff called Argo.
Affleck has a lot of fun with late-70s L.A., and he clearly is more interested in showbiz than in international politics. The Hollywood sign in the hills was crumbling and forgotten, and a makeup man (John Goodman) whose credits include a Planet of the Apes movie serves as an introduction to several cynical, wily, loveable characters including a caustic producer (Alan Arkin). Told that the CIA needs him for a mission involving “the worst place you can think of,” Goodman’s character replies, “Universal City.” As for Mendez’s cover story of being a small-time producer, Goodman says, “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything. You’ll fit right in.”
Looper, a clever and action-packed heartland version of The Terminator, may not make as much sense as it should, but as the Bruce Willis character says in a diner, “I don’t want to talk about time travel [crap]. If we do, we’ll be here all day, making diagrams with straws.”
Fine. So: Looper isn’t taking itself too seriously, and nor should we. Rian Johnson’s film, set mostly in 2044 Kansas, is loads of fun, making judicious use of special effects (with its rusty hovercycles and ragged slums it looks more like Repo Man than Blade Runner), and it has some cool twists.
Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play the same character at two stages of life. As a man of about 30, Joe is a hired assassin and a junkie who gets high by sprinkling drugs on his eyeballs with a dropper. In 2074, his masters in a massive crime syndicate send him hooded, bound figures that he simply arranges to shoot at a given spot at a given time. Joe owes his job to temporal outsourcing — in 2074, due to tagging techniques, it’s too hard to get rid of dead bodies but Joe is living before that technology exists.
When a friend (Paul Dano) is assigned to kill his own self from 30 years in the future, we learn that these “loopers,” as the hit men are called, are being assigned to “close the loop” by exterminating the future versions of themselves. A mob boss (a quietly scary Jeff Daniels) sent back from the future to monitor these roving assassins convinces Joe that it’s best not to tangle with the crime lords’ idea of how time should play out. Nevertheless, when Willis’s Old Joe, in 2074, manages to alter the circumstances when he is kidnapped and sent back in time for assassination, younger Joe hesitates and allows Old Joe to escape in the cane fields of Kansas.
If you’re thinking, “Master of what?” the answer is “Master of filmed images,” and that virtuoso is Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love who is justly acclaimed as one of the most singular and fascinating talents of his generation. Only moments into The Master, Anderson is already spellbinding as he presents strange moments from the life of Freddie Quell (a first-rate Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally disturbed sailor who is goofing around on an unidentified Pacific island in World War II when the war ends. Quell has a strange sexual obsession he shows when he, bizarrely, cuddles up next to a sand sculpture of a nude woman, and throughout this long, engrossing but at times repetitive, static, and frustrating film Anderson will refer back to this odd episode without ever furnishing much of a clue as to what it means.
Quell is a drunk and a n’er do well who has seen combat, though what horrors he experienced also remain a mystery to us. After the war, he gets a job as a photographer in a department store (in a scene Anderson, typically, turns into an amazing fantasy set piece scored to dreamy music of the period) but loses that gig in a moment of unexplained rage, then is forced to work as a farm hand until he is literally chased out of the fields when his secret moonshine (made with paint thinner) causes the death of a fellow worker.
Wandering by a docked boat where a group of swells are having a party, he climbs aboard and wakes up with a hangover, a new life, and a new guiding light: charismatic Lancaster Dodd (played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman), better known to his family and followers as the Master. The sci-fi-inflected self-help gospel he preaches is simply known as the Cause, and as Freddie is allowed to stay aboard for a voyage from San Francisco to New York, he is gradually attracted to and subsumed by this cult. In perhaps the most arresting scene of several intensely dramatic ones in the film, the Master interrogates Freddie about his past with a series of rapid personal questions until the younger man starts to break down and slip into a hypnotic state in which he confronts his crushing secret: He left a sweet girl named Doris back in Massachusetts and all he wants is to get back to her. If he can ever deserve her.
After Freddie becomes a fully paid-up member of the Scientology-like “Cause” and functions as virtually another son to the Master (who is obviously modeled on the sci-fi novelist and founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard), he takes to proselytizing on the streets and slugging anyone who dares question the faith. At a fancy party in New York, the Master’s hypnosis party trick and disquisition on the importance of recalling details from past lives earns derision, and the Cause packs up and moves to Philadelphia. It won’t be the movement’s final move.
Clint Eastwood’s best picture since Gran Torino (zero Oscar nominations) is Trouble with the Curve, on the surface a baseball movie but really a defense of a kind of cultural conservatism that is quintessentially Clint. Eastwood plays Gus, a longtime talent scout whose prostate and eyesight are failing at roughly the same rate. By the end of the movie, he hasn’t done anything about these but he has shown some young hotshots a thing or two about experience, wisdom, and age.
Gus, a widower whose wife’s tombstone is inscribed “May the Lord grant you extra innings,” is in danger of losing his job (a fellow scout, played by John Goodman, even suggests this might be a good moment to retire) while in the process of scouting an arrogant small-town slugger (played to perfection by Joe Massingill) who figures to be a first-round draft pick.
Decrying the way that number-crunching knuckleheads like a younger competitor have no feel for the aspects of the game that don’t show up in statistics, Gus believes the human factor is the reason a young protegé is in a slump. So he arranges for the kid’s parents to come see him, and the problem is fixed. Standing in for every young spreadsheet geek (and, without being mentioned, Moneyball) is a rival scout played by Matthew Lillard of The Descendants, who can now boast of playing the sworn enemy of both Eastwood and George Clooney within the space of a year. Lillard’s character believes you can learn everything there is to know about a player without ever attending a ballgame. As Sam Kinison used to say: Is he right? Hint: Gus says things like, “Anybody who uses computers doesn’t know a damn thing about this game!”
Gus has a daughter who has become a big success as a lawyer in Atlanta, but though she grew up talking baseball with her dad, something isn’t right between them. Also, she is working on a case that will determine whether she makes partner, but worrying about what will happen to her dad if he is forced out to pasture, she agrees to come along on his road trip to contribute her considerable baseball acumen and make sure he doesn’t drive too much. He complains that the reason his ‘65 Mustang is looking a little banged-up is because his garage suddenly got smaller.
The new thriller Premium Rush isn’t a great movie, and its story has more than a few bumps, but it has one thing going for it: It’s a charged-up, full-on, Red-Bull-chugging sample of what life is like for a New York City bike messenger. These are the fearless souls who make FedEx look like the Pony Express.
The messenger is played by one of today’s more capable young actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (a favorite director Christopher Nolan featured in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises). Gordon-Levitt, who prepared for the role so extensively he crashed into a cab and gashed his arm (an accident referred to in a blooper clip after the credits roll) races through the movie as Wilee (named for Wile E. Coyote), a pumped-up Ivy Leaguer who could have been a lawyer but chose the life of adrenaline junkie instead. He’s got girl problems (sexy Vanessa, played by Dania Ramirez, is also pursued by fellow messenger Manny, played by Wolé Parks), he’s got occupational problems (the best parts of Premium Rush are when he’s mentally mapping out a path through the labyrinth of cars, trucks, buses, and pedestrians), and now he’s got a problem with an extra-special package.
The package (really just an envelope) has to be taken from Columbia University’s campus to some questionable characters in Chinatown within an hour and a half, but after picking it up, Wilee finds himself menaced by a guy (Michael Shannon) who claims he’s the head of campus security and demands to be given the envelope. It turns out Shannon’s character is really a cop, Bobby Monday, who owes some Chinatown underworld thugs a lot of money in gambling debts. And the envelope Wilee carries? It’s a kind of deposit slip for an underground Chinese bank with a value of $50,000.
With all of its European intrigue, its wild shoot-outs, and its lantern-jawed fighting men, The Expendables 2 reminded me of a 1980s movie. But that movie, alas, is Top Secret.
Top Secret, an Airplane-style spoof of WW II action flicks, was only slightly wilder and more ridiculous than the sequel to Sly Stallone’s surprise 2010 blockbuster and career relaunch. The Expendables 2 features hundreds of interchangeable baddies who repeatedly pop up in front of our heroes, present their chests and heads for strafing, and fall obligingly to the ground in bloody lumps of meat. But E2 is slightly more enjoyable than the crashing, thumping mess that was the original, because it is at least aware of its own absurdity. Also it features more footage of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, two stars who were barely in the first one and have never been guilty (as Stallone has, many times) of taking themselves too seriously. Put it this way, any movie that features these three actors standing hip to hip blasting away the scum of the earth isn’t all bad.
E2 begins with a robustly choreographed breakout/shootout/chase scene, in which Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Jet Li play a gang of buddy-mercenaries sent in to Nepal to rescue a hostage who is about to be tortured. It would be giving away some of the fun to say who they’re after, but as the lads ram into an enemy encampment (with a steel girder affixed to their Hummer on which the words “knock knock” are written), freely express their feelings with ammunition, and use a motorcycle to take down a helicopter (chopper beats chopper), you’ll have your action-movie quota filled and then some. For the ladies, or people not old enough to remember the Reagan years, there is also a new Expendable: 22-year-old Liam Hemsworth, one of the male leads in The Hunger Games.
The quintessential moment of The Bourne Legacy, which continues and expands the scope of the first three Bourne movies, comes when one top-secret intel type tells another, of a hit squad, “That was a D-Track team we sent in there!” (or, possibly, “That was a detrac team we sent in there!”). The second official replies, “I don’t know what that is.”
Neither do I, and neither do you, and for long stretches of the film, which stars a thoroughly convincing Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, a walking lethal weapon who is part of the same program that yielded Jason Bourne, The Bourne Legacy is completely incomprehensible. There are reams of jargon, heaps of secret code names, miles of exposition. Yet I was completely enthralled by this magnificent mumbo-jumbo. As Woody Allen says at the end of Sleeper, “I don’t know what the hell that means but it sounds brilliant.”
This time Matt Damon declined to participate so we begin with Renner, the The Hurt Locker star, diving underwater in frigid Alaska on some sort of spy scavenger hunt. He doesn’t know what he’s doing there and, even after the movie ended, I didn’t either either. His Aaron Cross pulls off some nifty stunts to survive, then runs into a fellow secret agent and narrowly escapes death. Back in D.C. the back-office hacks led by Eric Byer (Norton) are trying to kill him with drones. Cross finds a tracking device in his leg, cuts it out, and for some reason decides it needs to go down the throat of a live wolf to fool the drones. Couldn’t he just throw it away and let the drone hit it where it lies? Still, watching Renner tangle with a wolf is lively stuff, and things are just getting going.
After The Dark Knight, we already knew Batman was a Republican. In The Dark Knight Rises, this son of privilege who made a fortune in his own right stands up for free enterprise and individualism against the collectivist demagogues who stir up class warfare and vilify the wealthy. That’s right — this time he’s BatMitt.
Here are the political takeaways from The Dark Knight Rises:
5. Bane is not Bain.
Rush Limbaugh, who apparently hadn’t seen the new movie, initially wondered, “Do you think that it is an accident?” that the movie’s lead evildoer is named Bane in a summer of chatter about Mitt Romney’s former outfit Bain Capital.
But not only is the bad guy’s name a coincidence (it dates back to 1993), Bane is the opposite of Bain. The villain plots to destroy Bruce Wayne by attacking the Gotham Stock Exchange, then launches a Marxist revolution in which the lower orders strike down the financiers and the “oppressive” bourgeoisie. Bane even empties the prisons, though to his credit he doesn’t do what the Democratic Party would, which is to guide the mob to the nearest polling place and forbid anyone to check their IDs.