It’s Back to New Movies… Six of Them
Although my column for Roger Ebert is still percolating around the world, the attention, and even the little bedlam it engendered, has toned down a bit. However, the controversy of a movie critic — me — being told by the new publisher of his newspaper that he couldn’t review films in which “women were alpha and men were beta” had great resonance for a lot of people. It led me to leave that paper and join up with this website.
With hundreds of thousands of hits through Roger’s website, as well as on Twitter, Facebook, myriad Blogs, and so many websites that picked up the story that I lost track, it was clear that people were fascinated, intrigued, and even angered by the controversy from both a journalistic standpoint and a motion picture angle. The column, headlined “Reactionary Men Who Fear And Hate Strong Women” was read in more than 90 countries and is available here on WNYMedia.
Thousands of comments could be found everywhere, and I was always aware when interesting ones popped up. Suddenly, I was being discussed on websites I knew about, and also on websites about which I knew very little: Bitch Magazine, The Mary Sue, and Cineville, among many others. The latter is based in The Netherlands and the Dutch female writer chose images from Disney’s “Snow White” to illustrate her column. The Mary Sue is owned by the Mediaite Company, which was founded by former NBC legal analyst and current ABC news personality, Dan Abrams. One of Great Britain’s most prominent theater critics, Mark Shenton, even chimed in, writing in London’s “The Stage” newspaper that the situation of a critic being told he couldn’t review movies in which women were empowered was “extraordinary.” The Buffalo News covered the story, as did the Toronto Star.
Everywhere, readers of the column engaged each other either with common sense or with vitriol. The internet can be a very nasty place. There were debates about the merits of “Snow White And The Huntsman,” the feature mentioned by the publisher as the touchstone of cinematic anti-male bias. And, there were debates about a business choosing to reject potential advertising by censoring commentary about the motion picture industry.
I was advised to sign up for Google Alerts, which sent me daily emails as my name showed up on the web. At the peak of the story, as many as a dozen websites were mentioned in a single email. Truth be told, although I did read the web entries, I stopped reading the comments on them early-on. Except for reactions to Roger Ebert’s own writing, I now hold the record for most comments for a non-Ebert authored column. The story continues to hold interest, and more than two weeks after its publication, I still receive Google Alerts with references to the story.
I was invited to appear on the Saturday edition of “CBS This Morning” on November 24. The show flew me to New York City on a Friday afternoon, put me up in a very nice hotel, and provided limousine service at the airport and during my travels in Manhattan. The segment went well, with anchors Sharyl Attkisson and Anthony Mason providing an overview of, and asking questions about, the column and the reaction to it. I’ve done television before, so it all felt very comfortable. By Saturday at noon, I was finished, out of the hotel, and heading for a friend’s Manhattan apartment where I would stay until Monday evening enjoying what locals call The City, a place that’s second nature to me.
The whirlwind of attention took me by surprise. And the weirdness of thousands of people thinking they know you and writing about you can be daunting, especially if you let it overwhelm you. After returning to Buffalo, there was something remarkably peaceful about going to a press screening Tuesday morning for the new movie “Killing Them Softly.” As is usually the case, there were four people in the theater watching the film; myself, two other critics, and the studio publicity representative. Very restful, indeed.
That was then, and this is now, so here are my thoughts on six new and recent releases: “Life Of Pi,” “The Sessions,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Anna Karenina,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” and “Skyfall.”
As a movie critic, I long ago taught myself not only to ignore the hype about new films, but also to avoid it.
I knew very little about the book “Life Of Pi,” except of course having heard its title and having seen copies of it on a table at Talking Leaves, the local independent bookstore in Buffalo. I never read the novel.
When I saw “Life Of Pi” a few weeks ago at a morning press screening for critics, I approached it the way I approach all films. I always eagerly anticipate the moment when the lights go down. I want the movies I see to do one or more of any number of things: Surprise me, jolt me, energize me, engage me, excite me, move me, thrill me, even dazzle me. Just don’t bore me.
As I sat watching the enchanting “Life Of Pi,” I was surprised by almost everything in it. I loved the audacity of it, the mastery of the story-telling, the breathtaking cinematography, and the unique fantasy of its adventures. I had never seen anything like it. The movie is so much more than a spiritual journey involving a teenage boy and a tiger.
In a former French-controlled area of India, the Patel family runs a small, albeit colorful zoo, but the father decides that Canada is the promised land, so they will all move there with the scores of animals that populate the zoo. The main attraction at the zoo is a tiger named Richard Parker. One of the children in the family is a middle-teenager known as Pi. During a storm, the ship transporting the family and the animals sinks into the Pacific Ocean, but Pi survives with three of the animals, including the untamed and very primal tiger. Through much of the film, Pi will share a lifeboat with this angry and dangerous Bengal tiger. The movie, which is based on Yann Martel’s novel, then turns into a tale of survival and self-discovery. Pi, played with exceptional believability by first-time actor Suraj Sharma, faces peril after peril.
We watch the film knowing that Pi will survive. His story is told in flashback by an adult Pi (the great Indian actor Irrfan Khan) to a writer looking for some meaning to his own life (Rafe Spall, son of actor Timothy). The fact that we stay with this amazing adventure, with its flying fish, glowing sea creatures, and mysterious island crawling with tens of thousands of meerkats, is a testament to Sharma’s acting, David Magee’s solid screenplay, and Ang Lee’s visionary direction.
In carrying out his role, Sharma acted against a green screen, that invisible wall on which the film’s digital geniuses showcased their movie magic. Although there are 23 shots of an actual living tiger in the movie, you can’t put an actor in a lifeboat with a real unchained tiger and not know the probable outcome. In the novel and the picture, Pi is on the ocean for 227 days. There’s a mathematical formula out in the ethernet regarding how long Pi is on the Pacific. He’s shipwrecked for 227 days. This is turned into 22/7. It seems that 22/7 equals 3.14. Which, of course, equals Pi. True? I don’t know. Math is not my strong suit.
“Life Of Pi” does ask the audience to make a decision, to answer a question. Is Pi’s remarkable adventure a hallucination or did it really happen? I know what I think, but that’s not relevant to anyone’s enjoyment of this wonderful film. One of the pleasures of going to the movies is to draw your own conclusion.
Regarding Lee’s monumental and riveting use of 3D, there is no question. Some of the visuals are absolutely astonishing. Lee uses 3D the way it should be used, creating multiple layers that dazzle the moviegoer. A view from beneath the surface of the ocean up to the lifeboat then onward to the sky is stunning.
When I wrote and talked about “Avatar,” I said that if people could see it in 3D, they probably should see it in 3D.
Regarding the exceptional “Life Of Pi,” it’s not a matter of people possibly seeing it in 3D, it’s a matter that they must see it in 3D to fully enjoy what it offers. Director Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda have created something magical. I rarely tell people that they must see a movie in this format if that option exists. Three-dimension is not always that worthwhile or necessary.
Everything changes with “Life Of Pi.” This rewarding work offers 3D the way you’ve never experienced it. Lee takes three dimensional cinema to a new level. It’s one of the best films of the year.
Also very good, but thematically different, is “The Sessions,” a dramatic comedy about rising above misfortune and discovering joy where once it was only a dream. I commented briefly on “The Sessions” in my review of “Lincoln,” in terms of the acting and possible Academy Award nominations for its key actors.
In “The Sessions,” John Hawkes plays a man stricken with polio. We’re in 1980s Berkeley, which if you’ve never been, is worth a visit for its sense of a countercultural era long vanished in most of the United States. Even today, Berkeley retains a hippie vibe with granola overtones. Its governmental structure thrives on multiple meetings in which every aspect of every sentence in every law, contract, or proclamation is examined to make sure no citizen is made uncomfortable or made to feel unwelcome by their contents. The city’s ubiquitous single-story California craftsman homes, cottages really, house a population that relishes a little TLC for the human experience, as well as a little THC for the mind.
In this milieu lives Mark O’Brien, a real-life person, a poet, who is the subject of this fictional film. “The Sessions” is based on a magazine article he wrote entitled “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate.” We meet the 38-year old O’Brien after he has spent most of his life in an iron lung because of polio. For a few hours a day he can be free of this chamber, and O’Brien, a virgin, wants to experience the joy of sex. Kissing, fondling, masturbation, actual intercourse, whatever is possible, he wants to relish these pleasures. He is not a paraplegic or quadriplegic. Over the course of his life, he has lost muscle tone and the ability to control his movements. He is visited by caretakers, who tend to most needs, save one.
O’Brien hires Cheryl (a beautifully sympathetic Helen Hunt), the surrogate of the magazine story, with the emphasis on the word surrogate. She is not a prostitute. She is a professional sex therapist, who will keep notes, record memories, and prepare a report of her sessions with Mark. As per the rules of this sociological endeavor, he will only be allowed six meetings with Cheryl, a married woman with a genuinely understanding husband. Until that is, when she seems to be having unexpected feelings for her polio-stricken client. Not love, mind you. Not anything romantic. But something unusual, at least for her. It seems the poet has charms heretofore unknown, and certainly unexpected.
The movie is about Mark’s sexual awakening. It is tender and honest and flows with a sense of caring for all its characters, including Mark’s neighborhood priest (a sweetly comic William H. Macy), to whom he turns for advice. Ben Lewin wrote the lovely screenplay and also directs. He isn’t afraid of letting his characters show the kind of empathetic emotion we rarely see in American movies. He has some experience with his film’s subject matter. Lewin, who was born in Poland in 1946 and emigrated with his family to Australia three years later, had polio as a child.
Because the emotional heart of the “The Sessions” rests with the actor playing O’Brien, it is essential that everything he does is believable and nothing he does is off-putting. After all, this is a film about sex, and for too long, Hollywood (and what that generic word means) and the major studios have been squeamish about the subject, a subject that was liberated in so many superb movies of the 1970s during the great renaissance of American filmmaking. This was an enthralling rebirth since stunted by corporate meddling and the birth of over-hyping what are now ridiculously called “products,” by studio executives.
Hawkes does many fine things in “The Sessions.” He draws you in immediately. And importantly, as I wrote in my review of “Lincoln” when I compared Hawkes to Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s the tearful reaction of the audience to Mark O’Brien’s story that confirms the emotional power that Hawkes showcases. I continued, “a good actor takes moviegoers on a journey. They are with him, readily following his time on the screen. Happy to laugh. Willing to cry. When it succeeds it’s part of the magic of the movies. Hawkes succeeds mightily. Day-Lewis’s strong performance (as President Lincoln) is an invention, a good one to be sure. Hawkes’s quiet performance is rooted in the human condition. His is better.”
“The Sessions” is another must-see film, also one of the best of the year.
“Killing Them Softly” is a motion picture crime drama draped in style but lacking a reason to be. It chokes on its own atmosphere. While thinking about the few and sporadic pleasures of some of its parts, I realized that it fails overall because it lacks a central character around whom audiences can rally. It’s a simple rule of moviemaking: One character has to stand out. Whether or not that character is good or evil, he or she has to take control of the film.
The movie is based on a 1974 novel (entitled “Cogan’s Trade”) by the late George V. Higgins. It’s been adapted for the screen by Andrew Dominik, who also directed. This is his third film, the others being the interesting and quirky “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and his debut effort, the 2000 “Chopper.” Higgins is especially noted for his “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle.” In his books, the author celebrated the criminal underbelly of metropolitan Boston.
One of the problems with “Killing Them Softly” is that it has no sense of place. It seems to be Boston, but the picture has been shot in the contemporary wasteland of some areas of New Orleans. We see neighborhoods with great swaths of abandoned houses or overgrown fields. There are trailer residences and perhaps an oil refinery in the background. A couple of the characters meet in a car under an overpass that seems to go to nowhere. Much of this is wreathed in mist.
Brad Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, an enforcer for low-level thugs. He arrives in town to kill a couple of youthful, lightweight punks played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn. Both are jittery goofballs with no future. For some strange reason, Mendelsohn’s character affects a British accent. Or maybe it was rooted in New Zealand. Director Dominik is from there. Who knows? At the encouragement of a dry cleaner named Johnny Amato, a clichéd gangster character, the duo rob a regular card game run by Ray Liotta, who fronts for whatever mob guys run these kinds of card games. Liotta’s game has been robbed before. He recognizes that this new theft will shine too bright a light on him and possibly result in his being whacked. Amato is played by Vincent Curatola, a regular in these roles.
After engaging in that aforementioned car front conversation with Richard Jenkins as a businesslike bad guy, the facilitator of the goings-on, Cogan joins up with James Gandolfini’s Mickey, an overweight alcoholic, prone to hookers and laziness. Offered the chance to hit a couple of guys, Mickey opts to kill just one. Now it’s here that the movie really wobbles. Mickey seems willing to kill a fellow named Dillon, but you’ll be forgiven if you have absolutely no idea who Dillon is. He’s in the film for little more than two minutes and doesn’t do much. Dillon is played by Sam Shepard, and it seems that he has something to do with running Johnny Amato’s realm. None of this is too clear. Dillon will show up with a goon of his own and toss a fellow through a window. Then he’s nothing more than a name in some sentences and a specter hovering over the action.
Writer-director Dominik is treading in shark-infested waters here. The big kahuna shark is Quentin Tarantino, who has built a career on bringing low-level criminals to cinematic glory. Dominik’s primary fault is that he let the actors bring their own mistaken sense of their characters to this very violent party. He should have guided them. Pitt, Liotta, Jenkins, Gandolfini, McNairy, Mendelsohn, and Curatola all seem to be in a different movie. Gandolfini and Curatola might as well be back in “The Sopranos,” their greatest success. Liotta seems right out of “Goodfellas,” but in reverse. He takes a beating that is breathless in its brutality.
As for Pitt, someone should have awakened him. He’s chosen to underplay as if underplaying makes his Cogan more lethal. He even affects a jaundiced, tongue-in-cheek attitude towards a lot of what happens. It undercuts the deadly seriousness of the bloody murders being committed.
I did like the gritty and sometimes foggy cinematography as well as the acting from Liotta, and McNairy, who brings a startling freshness to his role.
Dominik has also made a thematic choice that you can take or leave. He sandwiches the action between political speeches by President Obama and former President Bush as they relate to the financial crisis of 2008, which means the picture is set during that time. The director seems to want to make a connection between card game thieves and corporate thieves, between the economic pitfalls of being a citizen of gangland and the economic pitfalls of an entire nation. It’s a too easy, too obvious connection, and it doesn’t work.
Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” has been made into a movie more than two dozen times, from the Silent Era to a very good version in 1997 with Sophie Marceau as Anna and Sean Bean as Count Vronsky. Most famously, the Tolstoy novel was turned into a classic starring Greta Garbo in 1935.
The new version is directed by Joe Wright, who earned well-deserved acclaim for “Atonement,” and it is written by playwright Tom Stoppard whose love of philosophy and linguistics knows no bounds. What he got away with in his Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Shakespeare In Love,” a movie I enjoyed, trips him up with this new “Anna Karenina.” Stoppard’s freewheeling, non-linear style from the Shakespeare film, doesn’t work with Tolstoy’s book.
Stoppard, with Wright’s blessing, has taken a sweeping novel and confined it mostly to a theater set, as the cast drifts in and out, on-stage and off, occasionally roaming the vast Russian countryside or arguing with each other and acting melancholy within ornate chambers of oversize homes. Whenever the walls of the theater are broken, the picture breathes a little.
The story should be simple. The cream of the crop of Czarist Russia, the elite movers and shakers, carry on with their lives in keeping with the dictate of the novel’s opening sentence: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The characters have problems that they will either keep secret or share with others. The book plays out in eight parts. The movie seems to play out forever.
The aristocratic, beautiful, and married Anna Karenina will have an affair with the wealthy, dashing, and handsome Count Vronsky. Anna is supposed to be helping solve problems within her own family because her brother is turning into a rabid womanizer. An encounter on a train with Vronsky’s mother, leads to meeting the Count and then passion and peril take over. Anna is married to a dull, but honest and stolid government official. He’s a good provider, but he’s no Vronsky. Divorce is out of the question. The story moves between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Anna creates a scandal. She’s shunned. Nobody except Vronsky wants to have anything to do with her. But she soon becomes suspicious of his actions. Jealousy rules. Mental anguish is a real world term, not words on a divorce petition. Meanwhile, Anna’s brother Oblonsky has more than his own share of problems with which to contend. A possible marriage involving a member of his family and a determined landowner roils the waters. That’s the tale being told. I’d be surprised if you don’t know what it all leads to, especially regarding Anna, but I won’t divulge anything else.
In the right hands, “Anna Karenina” should be a strong motion picture building to a powerful emotional finish. Not here. Yes, it is wonderful when toy trains on a theater set turn into real trains at a station or thundering horses race across a stage, but the whole thing plays like a backstage musical. Wright and Stoppard forget where to put the focus. The film becomes cluttered with characters literally waiting in the wings.
The movie’s greatest asset is Seamus McGarvey’s beautiful cinematography, which deserves an Oscar nomination. Every frame is a pleasure. McGarvey also did the photography for “Atonement.” At this point in his career, he should be regarded as a master, and his name should be known to everyone who cares about the look of a motion picture. Also worth praising is Sarah Greenwood’s production design. She turns a stage set into an imaginative miracle.
In addition to Wright and Stoppard not appreciating the value of playing it straight with Tolstoy’s tragedy, the film is hampered by uninteresting performances from Keira Knightley as Anna and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky. Neither brings much fire to their roles. Knightley is a toothsome worrywart rather than a woman determined to have the man of her dreams. With Knightley it’s hard to tell if she really loves Vronsky. She frets too much upon the stage. Taylor-Johnson, who generated some heat as the handyman in “Albert Nobbs” comes across as bland. Of course, he’s has to act with the often lackadaisical Knightley, so who knows what he could have done opposite an actress more in tune with her character.
Matthew Macfadyen is exhilarating as Oblonsky. He wakes us up. And reliable Jude Law is excellent as Karenin, Anna’s husband, suitably determined to keep his marriage intact, although throughout most of the movie, the heavily-bearded Law is wrapped in costumes so cumbersome he looks like an angry monk.
Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” has been adapted for the real stage and it’s also an opera. Perhaps it could be a musical-comedy, “Grease” with Faberge eggs. Regardless, I found this new film version to be misguided and a bit boring. It never captures the soul and depth of Tolstoy’s novel. It pens it into a theatrical corral. And with Knightley, it never finds its headstrong heroine.
“Silver Linings Playbook” is in the tradition of Frank Capra‘s “You Can’t Take It With You,” that mirthful tale about a zany family with more kooks than one family should have.
Imperfect as it may be, the mildly entertaining movie manages to wrest some fun from its madcap story of a guy who beats up the man having an affair with his wife, gets out after a brief stay in the loony bin, and finds a soul mate with a woman perhaps equally as damaged as he is. The guy is Bradley Cooper and the gal is Jennifer Lawrence. Both are watchable and entertaining, but none of this is Academy Award material; therefore, the rush to turn this average comedy into Oscar gold is a bit misguided.
Better than anyone is a raucous and riveting Robert De Niro who plays Cooper’s wild man father, a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic who runs bets and knows a thing or two about craziness, not the least of which are his own obsessions.
David O. Russell directs and wrote the screenplay, which is based on a novel by Matthew Quick. Russell has a nice take on uncivil behavior, and I like the oddity of ballroom dancing as a metaphor for a very offbeat meeting of the minds. However, it’s tough to turn comic material like this into a cohesive film because you’re hoping the audience laughs at bipolar behavior. Fortunately, De Niro gets it right.
“Skyfall” is a very good James Bond movie. One of the best. The 007 film series is 50-years old. I think this is what people want a Bond movie to be like, although Ian Fleming’s literary Bond is even more crude and much nastier than what we see in the films. Top-to-bottom, the acting in “Skyfall” is exceptional, including Daniel Craig (as Bond), Judi Dench (as M), Ralph Fiennes (as a government overseer), Naomie Harris (as Bond’s sidekick), Ben Whishaw (as Q), Albert Finney (be surprised), and Javier Bardem as a classic-style Bond villain with a sexually ambiguous side. The action sequences are quite engaging, and I was thrilled by the vibrant cinematography by Roger Deakins especially the amazing vistas of Shanghai, China and the mountains of Scotland.
The main story in “Skyfall,” about a stolen hard-drive that contains the names of MI6’s secret agents thus putting them at risk, is modern and effective. A second story, about whether or not Bond and M are dispensable vestiges of a world of spying that is now old and tired is the better of the two and really propels the film, which is ultimately about loyalty. Director Sam Mendes and his team of screenwriters have put James Bond front and center in the movie world, which is exactly where he deserves to be.
Michael can be reached at Movierole@aol.com