Monday, January 30, 2012

SAG Awards: “Help” win no surprise, Dujardin is

Jean Dujardin
I’m not sure what flavor of Kool-Aid AP movie critic Christy Lemire has been drinking, but I thought the Screen Actors Guild’s overall cast award for The Help was a dead solid lock, not the "surprise" Lermire described it as.

Look: if your movie is going to win the actress and supporting actress awards, as it will do at the Oscars (Sorry, Meryl, you’re going to miss out again), doesn’t it make sense that it is also going to win the best overall cast, especially with a cast that large?

However, I thought George Clooney was on a roll and was destined to pick up all the lead acting awards for his performance in The Descendants. I still think he is the favorite to win the Oscar. So the biggest — and really the only surprise of the night — came when SAG announced that Jean Dujardin was the winner for The Artist. I think that’s just another sign of how much this film has been embraced by the motion picture community and why it is a lock to win best picture at next month’s Oscar ceremonies.

Available on DVD: “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”

Andy Lau in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame finds Tsui Hark, a genre wizard, in top form in this splendid, action-filled period epic. It has opulent, stylized settings of elegance, grandeur and scope, flawless special effects, and awesome martial arts combat staged by the master, Sammo Hung. Yet bravura spectacle never overwhelms either the plot or the key characters. Chang Chia-lu's intricate script bristles with wit and suspense; the film from start to finish is a terrific entertainment.

It is AD 690, and the ruthless Empress Wu (Carina Lau) is about to ascend the throne. To mark the occasion she has ordered the construction of a 66-yard-high statue of a female Buddha in front of her palace. The construction boss (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is under intense deadline pressure when key ministers of the empress start bursting into flames and are swiftly reduced to ashes. The empress believes she has no recourse but to send for that Tang Dynasty Sherlock Holmes, Detective Dee (Andy Lau), whom she had imprisoned eight years earlier for daring to criticize her unscrupulous rise to power. She assigns to Dee her devoted aide Jing'er (Li Bingbing), a dazzling martial arts virtuoso.

The shrewd Dee, an actual historical figure popularized in the novels of Robert van Gulik, realizes he cannot trust anyone. Dee's nonstop adventures take him into a vast underground city and a remote monastery, among many other dangerous locales. What gives the film its edge is that it makes the point that while the empress may be a dragon lady, she may not be involved in the mysterious self-incineration of her ministers. Detective Dee has an appeal way beyond fans of Chinese martial arts fantasies.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

“The Artist” nails it

It’s all over but the shouting. The Artist, a black-and-white, predominantly silent film, will emerge from the age of CGI special effects to win the major awards — picture and director — at next month’s Oscars. The only film with a chance to derail The Artist, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, was eliminated at last night’s Director’s Guild of America awards presentation.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?"

The end of Kidd?
As movie buffs know, the above words were spoken by Caesar Enrico Bandello, the character memorably brought to life by Edward G. Robinson in that great 1930s gangster film Little Caesar. The line just seemed appropriate after reading this article which convincingly argues that Dallas Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd, a certain hall-of-famer, has come to the end of his playing career.

Available on DVD: “Daddy Longlegs”

Ronald Bronstein (center) with Frey and Sage Ranaldo in Daddy Longlegs
Scrambling through his own life like a human incarnation of Godard’s Breathless, the protagonist of the terrifyingly funny independent feature Daddy Longlegs makes his living as a movie theater projectionist in Manhattan. Played by Ronald Bronstein, Lenny is a moth as well as a flame, a havoc generator with unlimited, unfocused energy and a staggering lack of reliable parental instincts.

Too bad: This divorced parent has two sons, with whom he spends a few weeks out of the year. As Daddy Longlegs follows Lenny’s fraught, absurdly chaotic time with his boys, as well as his sometimes-girlfriend, the writing-directing brother team Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie give us a portrait of a man careening from one verge after another.

The film was initially titled Go Get Some Rosemary, and on the festival circuit, the Safdies’ semiautobiographical work proved too unsettling for some tastes. Not mine. Unsettling doesn’t begin to describe it, but then again it’s about an unsettled, manic character whose typical week of child care arrangements, impromptu vacations upstate and other foibles might turn to melodrama or to mush in the wrong hands.

Bronstein holds it all together. The actor, also a filmmaker, made a similarly shrewd and intimate indie called Frownland; here, as Lenny, he is fantastically effective and wholly believable as a sweet and sour soul. The boys are played by Sage and Frey Ranaldo. I don’t know if what the Safdies endured growing up was akin to what audiences experience in Daddy Longlegs. But I’m very glad they survived to make a very good film about it.

Available on DVD: “Margin Call”

Kevin Spacey instructs his traders in Margin Call
Margin Call takes ripped-from-the-headlines events and dramatizes them for all they’re worth. Which turns out to be quite a lot.

Starring a top cast including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci and Paul Bettany, Margin Call returns us to where previous films, including the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job and the HBO drama Too Big to Fail, have gone before: the opening days of 2008's global financial crisis. But this time, it’s different.

It’s different because this confident, crisply made piece of work does an expert job of bringing us inside the inner sanctum of a top Wall Street investment bank in extremis, giving us a convincing and coolly dramatic portrait of what it must have been like when titans trembled.

That sharp sense of authenticity was honestly earned, courtesy of the experience of writer-director J.C. Chandor’s father, who was an executive for Merrill Lynch for close to 40 years. That familiarity enabled his son to write clipped, to-the-point dialogue that sounds like talk the way it is talked when doors are closed and reporters are far away.

It was Chandor’s script, filled with tart exchanges and involving situations that explore unexpected areas of corporate psychology and human behavior, that attracted that high-powered cast, which also includes The Mentalist’s Simon Baker, Zachary Quinto (Spock in Star Trek) and Demi Moore.

Chandor’s work as a director maximizes the impact of his actors. Though Margin Call is his first dramatic feature, he’s had 15 years of experience in commercials and documentaries. That’s enough for him to know precisely how he wanted his script to be played, and that is quietly.

Margin Call is effective because its vivid dialogue is delivered with a restraint that never pushes too hard. This is playing hardball without raising your voice, evenly saying, "I don’t think that would be a good idea," instead of losing your grip. It’s as if each character is a well-dressed coiled spring, kept from exploding only by the tensile strength of fashionable suspenders.

Shot by Frank DeMarco and set almost entirely in the unnamed firm’s shadowy office high in a Manhattan spire, Margin Call’s sense of brooding tension comes from its confined space, from the gloom of events taking place during the wee hours of a long night of the soul, and from an effective score by Nathan Larson.

The film’s title comes from a stock market term referring to a demand for money when something bought with borrowed funds has ruinously decreased in value, which pretty much describes the crux of the situation the firm finds itself in. Margin Call has a fondness for business jargon in its dialogue, but even if the specific financial details being discussed are sometimes unclear, the thrust of events is never in doubt.

Margin Call opens as a team from human resources is arriving to terminate 80 percent of the employees on the floor. Everyone in the firm thinks — erroneously, as it turns out — that this will be the worst part of their day.

Among those let go is Eric Dale (Tucci), unceremoniously ousted from his position as a risk analyst. As he is being escorted to the elevator, Dale hands a flash drive to his assistant Peter Sullivan, tells him to look at the material and, as the doors close, simply says, "Be careful."

Be careful indeed. Effectively played by Quinto (who is also one of the film’s producers), Sullivan stays late to consider the data, and once he looks it over quickly realizes what the warning was about: The firm is so over-committed to risky loans that it pretty much owes more money than it’s worth.

That heart of Margin Call is watching what happens as that ruinous information works its way up the corporate food chain in the dead of night, first to Will Emerson (a cool Bettany) and then to his boss Sam Rogers (Spacey, doing some of his best work), the head of the trading team who is fiercely loyal to the firm’s 107-year-old tradition.

Finally, Chief Executive John Tuld gets involved. Gorgeously played by Irons, this is a man who marries genuine personal charm ("Speak to me as you might a small child," he tells a worried Sullivan) with complete and unhesitating ruthlessness.

Together, these men must decide how the firm will respond to looming disaster, how far they will go and at what cost to the very institution they are trying to save. All kinds of factors come into play, from the moral to the mercenary, and even if you think you know all there is to know about how Wall Street plays its games, Margin Call will open your eyes.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Available on DVD: “Attack the Block”

John Boyega (center) leads his teen gang in Attack the Block
"This is the block," declares one of the adolescent heroes of Attack the Block. "We take care of things our way." Set entirely within a tenement apartment building ("the block") and the surrounding South London projects, the movie follows five young teens (John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones and Simon Howard) on one night as they embark on a typical regimen of criminal mischief and mayhem — until ferocious, snaggle-toothed aliens start falling from the sky, forcing the boys to take up arms against the invaders and protect their turf.

When seen under bright lights, the extraterrestrials resemble the unfortunate offspring of a gorilla and a wolf. For most of Attack the Block, though, the otherworldly visitors are simply dark silhouettes with glowing eyes and teeth. They almost look like cartoons, but they serve the necessary purpose, the way that big rubber shark did its duty in Jaws. The primary concern of Attack the Block isn’t cutting-edge special effects: The movie is more interested in making viewers consider its disenfranchised protagonists from a fresh perspective. The fact that the film accomplishes this without a trace of gooey sentimentality is a small miracle. When characters die, and several likable ones do, you feel the sting of their death. But the movie — like these scrappy, street-smart kids — never lingers on schmaltzy emotions. It just moves on to the next crisis.

As much of a comedy as a mean little sci-fi/horror picture, Attack the Block defies categorization. Everything about this low-budget Sundance hit grows on you, from the delinquents we first meet while they’re mugging a female nurse (Jodie Whittaker) to the thick accents and slang that initially render the dialogue unintelligible (your ears become used to them, though). With his debut, writer-director Joe Cornish (who also co-wrote the screenplay for the Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson collaboration The Adventures of Tintin) displays a knack for deft characterizations and action choreography. In one of the film’s best scenes, the five boys, who have now joined forces with the nurse they had previously robbed, seek shelter inside the apartment of two girls who don’t want to be bothered and aren’t putting up with this nonsense. When the aliens suddenly attack, though, the girls prove to be just as tough and resourceful as the boys: Everyone here is a product of their environment.

Attack the Block is often reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead, another British import that successfully melded laughs with scares (the presence of Shaun’s Nick Frost here as a marijuana dealer cements the connection). But Cornish has bigger aspirations than a mere love letter to a beloved genre: Here is a shaggy monster movie that pulls double-duty as a satire of class and ethnic barriers, and how those barriers quickly disappear when we are forced to fight for our simple survival.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Available on DVD: “Higher Ground”

Dagmara Dominczyk and Vera Farmiga in Higher Ground
Vera Farmiga’s debut as a film director tells the story of a woman’s spiritual life from her teen years through the early dawn of middle age, a journey in which she becomes a believer and associates with believers but keeps listening for the voice of God and hearing nothing. Higher Ground shines a light on an important aspect of the human experience, one not often explored onscreen, and contains a number of notable performances — not the least of which is Farmiga in the central role. It was a hit at Sundance and deserves to have been for the aforementioned reasons.

The movie has also been praised for its balanced presentation of the religious life, and Farmiga herself has done a number of interviews talking about how she had no desire to skew the film in either a pro- or anti-religion way. Yet the point of view of the film is skewed, just by virtue of the story, which is adapted from This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir of her path into and ultimately out of evangelical Christianity.

The problem here is subtle, and therefore must be stated bluntly. The problem is not the point of view. An equally good movie could be made endorsing organized religion as rejecting it (and if anything it’s a relief that Farmiga treats the religious life with a respect uncommon in recent Hollywood film). The problem is that the story, as constituted, is of necessity against organized religion, but Farmiga, as director, pretends that it’s ambiguous. So you get a movie slightly at cross-purposes with itself.

Farmiga wants to convey the church’s sense of loving community, but everyone Corinne (Farmiga) meets acts like a smiling zombie, simmering with suppressed or unacknowledged hostility. The only one vital, life-embracing exception comes in the form of Corinne’s best friend (Dagmara Dominczyk), and even that character’s arc doesn’t reinforce the value of faith. When Corinne, wrestling with doubt, speaks up at a meeting, the creepy pastor (Bill Irwin) tries to cut her off, and a woman later warns her against preaching, which is the domain of men.

Against this background, Corinne’s spiritual questioning can’t help but seem either a manifestation of her honesty (the others are faking it) or her intelligence (the others are deluded). Farmiga may be trying to paint a neutral portrait, but the script is anything but neutral, and she probably would have been better off embracing more of the film’s contents rather than shying away from it. When Corinne tells her husband (Joshua Leonard) that he is boring, it’s difficult to imagine too many people disagreeing.

Still, perhaps the tension between director and screenplay isn’t completely bad, in that it makes Higher Ground harder to peg and invites closer scrutiny. It’s a movie of subtle shifts and unspoken transactions and rewards attention.

One thing you’re guaranteed to notice is that the young woman who plays Corinne as a teenager looks uncannily like Farmiga, down to her facial expressions and reactions. Chalk it up to nature, not CGI. Teenage Corinne is played by Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s younger sister.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Quick reactions to Oscar nominations

  • I was surprised nine films were nominated at that one of them was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and none of them were The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I expected seven to make the list, eight if Tree of Life was included, which it was.
  • I thought the supporting actor category had boiled down to a two-person race between Albert Brooks for Drive and Christopher Plummer for Beginners, but Brooks didn’t even make the cut.
  • I have no problem with Demian Bichir receiving a best actor nod but I’m shocked that neither Leonardo DiCaprio or Michael Fassbinder didn’t make the final five.
  • I am also shocked that Shailene Woodley didn’t make the supporting actress final five for her superb performance in The Descendants in which she held her own against George Clooney, the likely best actor winner.
  • I guess the animation branch of the Academy is still not buying into stop-action. The Adventures of Tin Tin failed to receive a nomination even though it was named best animated film by the Producers Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press.

Available on DVD: “Point Blank”

Gilles Lelouche is on the run in Point Blank
At the start of the breakneck thriller Point Blank, life is good for Samuel (Gilles Lelouche): He’s in line for a promotion at the hospital where he works as a nurse’s aide, his wife Nadia (Elena Anaya) is nearly eight months pregnant with their first child and the future seems exceedingly bright for the happy couple.

All that changes, though, when the authorities bring an injured perp, Hugo (Roschdy Zem), to the hospital for medical treatment. After Samuel chases away a stranger trying to disconnect Hugo’s respirator, thugs show up at his home, kidnap his wife and tell him he must somehow get the criminal out of the hospital and deliver him to a prearranged spot — even though Hugo is now under police guard.

What ensues is a breathless feature-length chase between Samuel, Hugo, the cops and the crooks holding Nadia hostage, jam-packed with sudden twists of plot and cliffhangers in which our hero’s goose seems to be thoroughly cooked. Aside from the title, Point Blank bears no relation to John Boorman’s crime drama. But the film is a worthy counterpart to the 1967 cult classic, sporting the same relentless, unsparing pacing and fury.

Suggestive of what might have been if Alfred Hitchcock had made a Bruce Willis action picture, Point Blank was directed by Fred Cavayé, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Guillaume Lemans. Cavayé resists the temptation to clutter his movie with needless exposition or supporting characters: The film runs a lean and mean 84 minutes, and the unwavering focus keeps the picture from ever losing speed. The familiar scenario of an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances has rarely been this breathless.

Point Blank is as disposable as a feature-length episode of TV’s 24: The movie is all adrenaline and excitement, and it doesn’t really stay with you. Just try to tear your eyes away while you’re watching it, though. Cavayé’s previous film, Pour elle (Anything for Her), was remade by Hollywood last year as The Next Three Days, with Russell Crowe. Chances are good that Point Blank, too, will generate an English-language counterpart. There’s no need to wait for that, however, when the genuine article is available right now.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Memos from Pete

Memo to all-Americans: Guv. Hair has given up on his misguided presidential quest. You can sleep peacefully tonight.

Memo to Texas Rangers fans: Sorry. I can’t get all that excited by the signing of the hurling Darvish. Maybe if one — just one — of these Japanese pitching phenoms had become an ace on a MLB staff I could be more optimistic. But the signing of a Japanese pitcher is as thrilling to me as staying at a Holiday Inn where a Japanese pop singer is featured in the lounge. Which reminds me: What has happened to the Japanese film industry? It used to produce some of the best movies in the world.

Memo to Municipal Judge Phyllis Lister Brown: If your paycheck comes from the City of Dallas, then you are an employee of the City of Dallas, not the state of Texas. Step down from your judgeship while running in a partisan election and quit your whining.

Memo to Dallas residents: Might as well accept the fact you live in a city, an urban environment. And chickens are not welcomed in the yards of urban environments. Want chickens in your back yard. Move to Howe. It’s just south of Sherman. I used to work there and, trust me, it’s just the place for having chickens in the backyard. Dallas? University Park? Not so much.

Memo to Jerry Jones: You are little more than two cornerbacks away from having a Super Bowl contending team. Sign a top-notch free agent cornerback (there will be a couple available) and use your first draft pick to get second one. Voila! Instant fix.

Memo to those interested in this weekend’s NFL playoffs: I’m thinking we’re about to have a replay of Super Bowl XLII — one of the most entertaining of these usually non-entertaining events ever, the one in which the New York Giants beat the previously undefeated New England Patriots 17-14. This time, however, I don’t think it will be that close.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Guard”

Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson in The Guard
For the f-word in heavy, conventional rotation, rent the DVD of The Change-Up. Which is another way of saying there's not much reason to watch The Change-Up, unless you're an unusually big fan of Ryan Reynolds or Jason Bateman. But for the same word in heavy, unconventional and often very funny usage, in a disarming black comedy set in County Galway, Ireland, feast your ears on the sweetly profane dialogue of writer-director John Michael McDonagh as heard in The Guard.

Is it a matter of a regional dialect lending a freshness to words, and combinations of words, deployed as fabulous verbal invective? Partly, yes. But McDonagh, the brother of playwright, screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), has a gift. Time and future projects will reveal whether his gift keeps on giving. Meantime The Guard, which stars the superb Brendan Gleeson as a police sergeant of flexible morals but stoic good cheer, makes up for a lot of formulaic crud lately.

The easiest benchmark with The Guard is to consider whether you enjoyed In Bruges, which co-starred Gleeson and Colin Farrell as hit men, because the brothers McDonagh (Martin serves as an executive producer on The Guard) spent time rooming together in London watching American movies and television and soaking up the argot of all kinds of pulp writers. Related influences have led to complementary comic sensibilities.

In The Guard Gleeson's Gerry Boyle teams up with a visiting American FBI agent, played by Don Cheadle, to chase down (in an ambling sort of way) a rumored half-billion dollars' worth of cocaine smuggled into Ireland by a trio of bad 'uns, notably the icy-eyed killer played by Mark Strong. Boyle enjoys his occasional prostitutes and is seen in the prologue dropping acid after lifting it off a corpse following a fatal highway accident. He sees the arrival of Cheadle's character primarily as an excuse to say things about black people being mostly drug dealers, and how Boyle's offhanded manner of fact-gathering must be strange to the visitor, because, as Boyle deadpans, "You're probably more used to shooting unarmed women and children."

Besides Gleeson and Cheadle, two of the most interesting faces in modern movies, the film is notable for its aggressively nonrealistic design scheme, full of heavy splashes of interior color and a glaring lack of modern technology, even for the Wild West of modern Ireland. McDonagh, cinematographer Larry Smith and production designer John Paul Kelly evoke crime films of an earlier time, when weather-beaten fellows such as Walter Matthau found themselves the unlikely central figure of an offbeat story. In between pints, crime-solving and score-settling, Boyle tends to his dying mother, played by Fionnula Flanagan. These scenes are sweet, if calculated perhaps too baldly to provide an extra measure of sympathy for the protagonist.

The repartee carries a proudly self-aware edge, on the verge of excess every minute, as when a low-life sociopath takes time to assess the virtues of jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker. (At one point Boyle has a discussion regarding Gogol versus Dostoevski.) As was the case with In Bruges, when the time comes for McDonagh's action climax the filmmaking comes up slightly short. It's a small problem in a small movie that yields large atmospheric and comic rewards. Part Joel & Ethan Coen and part John Millington Synge, this grotty little fairy tale casts a deft line and reels you in. I'd watch it again just to hear the drug smugglers argue over the use of the Americanism "good to go."

A shocker: Romney outpolls Hair in Texas

According to at least one polling outfit, if a Republican presidential primary burst out in Texas today, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney would come out ahead with 24 percent of the vote. Not only that, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would come in second with 23 percent, outdistancing the two Texans in the race, neither of which are even "formers." Guv Hair comes in third with 18 percent, Rick Santorum is fourth with 15 percent and Texas congressman Ron Paul collects 12 percent.

Now I call that a shocker because back last September this same poll gave Hair a 49-10 percent advantage over Romney.

But, wait! There’s even more bad news for the guv. If the race was just between Romney and Hair, the New Englander wins 46-45 percent. Well, you say, that’s really too close to call. But consider this: Last September that same two candidate poll had Hair in front 72-18. That’s a seismic shift away from the guv.

The poll also took the temperature in the U.S. Senate primary and discovered, to no one’s surprise, that David Dewhurst has a double digit lead over his nearest competitor, but not enough support to avoid a runoff. The poll measures Dewhurst support at 36 percent (down 5 percentage points from the last poll). Ted "Tea Party" Cruz is second with 18 percent, Tom "Da Mayor" Leppert is third with 7 percent, poor Craig James can only muster 4 percent and then there are the complete unknowns bringing up the rear.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Director’s destroy Spielberg’s chances for another Oscar

Neither Director Steven Spielberg nor his movie War Horse have any chance of winning a major Oscar next month. That became clear earlier this week when the Directors Guild of America failed to nominate Spielberg for his latest juggernaut. That leaves The Artist as the clear front runner, although between now and final voting many Academy members may feel the black-and-white silent film is just too clever for its own good. The question is what movie acts as a viable alternative. I know Fox Searchlight is going to launch a major campaign for The Descendants, but the last time a film that featured this little action won a best picture Oscar was when American Beauty won a dozen years ago. Next in line is Hugo, director Martin Scorsese’s most personal film and a salute to the history of motion pictures. The Academy has got to love that. Besides, Scorsese won the major prizes just five years ago and Hugo is a much better film than The Departed. But watch out for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a film that has found much more favor with the guilds than I ever though it would.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My final Top 25 college football teams for 2011

End of regular season ranking in parenthesis
1.. Alabama 12-1 (2)
2.  LSU 13-1 (1)
3.  Oklahoma State 12-1 (3)
4.  Oregon 12-2 (5)
5.  Stanford 11-2 (4)
6.  Boise State 12-1 (6)
7.  Oklahoma 10-3 (7)
8.  Arkansas 11-2 (10)
9.  South Carolina 11-2 (12)
10. Wisconsin 11-3 (8)
11. Michigan 11-2 (11)
12. Southern California 10-2 (9)
13. Houston 13-1 (16)
14. Baylor 10-3 (14)
15. Michigan State 11-3 (17)
16. Kansas State 10-3 (13)
17. TCU 11-2 (19)
18. Georgia 10-4 (15)
19. Virginia Tech 11-3 (18)
20. Southern Mississippi 12-2 (23)
21. Texas 8-5 (24)
22. West Virginia 10-3 (NR)
23. Missouri 8-5 (NR)
24. Nebraska 9-4 (20)
25. Texas A&M 7-6 (NR)
Dropped out: Clemson, Notre Dame, Penn State

Monday, January 9, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Future”

Miranda July and Hamish Linklater in The Future
Among the first things to ask about a movie are who’s telling the story and is it meant to be believed. Are we seeing the perspective of an omniscient director, a delusional character or a multitude of conflicting witnesses?

The Future is narrated by a scared cat that is recovering from a foot amputation and waiting for a mousey couple to adopt it. But the voice of the cat belongs to Miranda July, the writer, director and star of this elusive movie. In 2005, July directed an equally odd but considerably more poignant film called Me and You and Everyone We Know; but she is primarily a performance artist. The principles of that theatrical art form are vaguely defined and understood, and as her film flits in and out of the fantasy realm, July doesn’t cue us how she feels about the characters.

Those characters are Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), a pair of passive-aggressive Los Angeles bohemians whose similar looks and lack of direction may or may not be July’s idea of social satire. When they work up the courage to adopt the ailing cat, the couple are forced to wait a month while it heals. During that month, Sophie and Jason drift apart as awkwardly as they must have drifted together.

Jason decides he’ll be attuned to cosmic vibrations, so he quits his job in tech support and becomes the world’s worst door-to-door salesman. Sophie stops doing her dance-a-day YouTube series after one try, and impulsively calls a sleazy single dad (David Warshofsky) for the spontaneous sexual connection her life is lacking.

A shared longing for connection and purpose roots the movie in recognizable emotions, but the fleeting whimsy generates some oppressively hot air.

Why does a yellow T-shirt follow Sophie to the man’s house and engage her in a suffocating pantomime? Why is the man’s daughter digging a grave in their backyard? Why does the talking moon have so little to say?

July is a provocative and honorably independent filmmaker, but given the meager rewards of investing our time, The Future wasn’t worth the wait.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Nelson to Guv: “Get Back, Loretta”

Colleen McCain Nelson
I apologize for not mentioning this earlier when the item in question would have been easier to track down, but nevertheless here it is: The great Colleen McCain Nelson had a superb op-ed piece in Thursday’s Dallas Morning News pleading with Gov. Hair to quit his quixotic presidential quest and get back to Texas to do the job voters here elected him to do. Why should he worry about ruining the other 49 states in the union when he hasn’t even finished ruining his own?

"Call a halt to this clumsy campaign," Nelson wrote. "Cancel the ego trip to South Carolina. Use the money left in the bank to repay Texas taxpayers for their trouble. Get back to the business of governing this state."

That comment about repaying Texas taxpayers was a real eye-opener to me. It seems Hair’s quest is costing Texas taxpayers $400,000 a month. If the guv had a shred of decency left in his body — and, admittedly, I don’t think he has — he would direct that money to help fund our dying public school system instead of throwing it away on a vanity trip.

I would try to link to Nelson’s column, but because the News has erected a paywall, it would cost you to read it and I don’t want to direct any more funds into that paper’s coffers, the front page of which has shamed itself by being the chief cheerleader for Hair’s dismal campaign.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Final Oscar Nomination predictions

Listed alphabetically

The Artist
The Descendants
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

George Clooney The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin The Artist
Michael Fassbender Shame
Brad Pitt Moneyball

Glenn Close Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis The Help
Meryl Streep The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton We Need to Talk About Kevin
Michelle Williams My Week with Marilyn

Albert Brooks Drive
Kenneth Branagh My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill Moneyball
Nick Nolte Warrior
Christopher Plummer Beginners

Berenice Bejo The Artist
Jessica Chastain The Help
Janet McTeer Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer The Help
Shailene Woodley The Descendants

ichel Hazanavicius The Artist
Bennett Miller Moneyball
Alexander Payne The Descendants
Martin Scorsese Hugo
Steven Spielberg War Horse

A Dangerous Method
The Descendants
War Horse

The Artist
Midnight in Paris
Win Win

Cars 2
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss In Boots

The Artist
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Artist
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two
The Tree of Life
War Horse

The Artist
Jane Eyre
My Week with Marilyn

Bill Cunningham New York
Project Nim
We Were Here

The Adventures of Tintin
The Artist
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
War Horse

Declaration of War(France)
Footnote: (Israel)
Miss Bala (Mexico)
Pina (Germany)
A Separation (Iran)

Albert Nobbs
Green Lantern
The Iron Lady
J. Edgar
War Horse

The Artist
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Ides of March
War Horse

Albert Nobbs
Captain America: The First Avenger
Cars 2
The Help
The Muppets (Life's a Happy Song)

The Adventures of Tintin
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two
Super 8
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The Adventures of Tintin
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two
Super 8
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The Tree of Life
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Available on DVD: “Tabloid”

Joyce McKinney in the 1970s as she appears in Tabloid
Errol Morris turns away from his usual preoccupation with life-and-death subjects to take up the case of an eccentric beauty who became a tabloid sensation a generation ago. Now in her 60s, Joyce McKinney tells her story to the camera — talking directly to the audience, in a technique Morris pioneered. Along the way, journalists, acquaintances and friends fill in details that McKinney either forgot or chose not to remember.

In the late 1970s, McKinney became famous for kidnapping her ex-boyfriend, a Mormon missionary, tying him to a bed and forcing him to have sex with her. McKinney insists, and has insisted for more than 30 years, that the sex was consensual. But the young man eventually filed charges. To this day, no one but the participants know for sure what happened, though McKinney makes a persuasive case for her version of events.

Morris is a storyteller of the highest order, and within seconds, he draws us into his subject, doling out details, making us wonder what will happen next and dropping bombs for maximum impact. At one point, a British journalist describes McKinney as a nice, engaging woman, despite being "barking mad." That's as accurate a description as any.

The movie deals with truth and memory, with the lasting effect of media stardom, with what happens when the cameras go away, and with the outsize attention an unusual person can command in an era of mass communication. There may even be a moral lesson here: Two journalists appear onscreen, one responsible, the other a photographer for a go-for-the-throat tabloid. The one from the tabloid is still chortling over the damage he did so long ago, but the laugh is uneasy, with a touch of embarrassment. As the News of the World scandal reminds us, there is no way to look back with pride on a thing like this — to have spent one's life searching for ways to expose and humiliate people.

Better to have integrity, better even to be an authentic nut, than to be an inauthentic parasite.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Available on DVD: “Terri”

Jacob Wysocki and Hohn C. Reilly in Terri
Like its title character, an obese high-school misfit who wears pajamas to school because they’re comfortable, Terri grows on you.

It is a likable movie about a 15-year-old outsider (Jacob Wysocki) who doesn’t like himself so much. Over the course of the story Terri’s innate empathy endears him to the vice principal (John C. Reilly), then to a pretty classmate (Olivia Crocicchia), and, ultimately, to the audience.

Director Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man) tells Terri’s story like an edgy folk tale — call it "Beauty and the Beast in the forest of adolescence." Terri, who is parentless, lives at the edge of a scrubby wood with his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), a forlorn figure with dementia. In order for Terri to reach his standard-issue Southern California school, he trudges through the wood, through the wilderness to a stucco-built civilization.

He is inevitably tardy. Perhaps, the movie suggests, also developmentally delayed? In class, he hopes to be invisible at the back of the room. Fellow students, quicker and coarser than slow-moving and tender Terri, get him into trouble. His homeroom teacher can’t even make eye contact with him. Jacobs frames it and Wysocki acts it so that we feel Terri’s humiliation and embarrassment as our own.

When vice principal Fitzgerald asks to meet with him every Monday, lonely Terri feels special. Then the awkward student realizes he’s just another "monster" to whom Fitzgerald gives pep talks.

Wysocki is an actor capable of conveying what his character is thinking and feeling, and for all of Terri’s considerable awkwardness there is remarkable grace.

In home ec, Terri erects a wall of flour sacks and other dry goods and hides behind it, spying on pretty Heather (Crocicchia) as a boy fondles her in class. Too innocent to understand what is happening, he is mortified for Heather, who strikes up a note-passing relationship with him.

There are thousands of coming-of-age movies, but Terri is one where the point isn’t losing one’s virginity but rather gaining another’s trust. It is painful, it is funny, and it marks the remarkable debut of Wysocki.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The 25 Best Movies Reviewed in This Journal in 2011

1. Carlos. Bravura narrative filmmaking on a hugely ambitious scale, Carlos is a spectacular achievement. Part of the accomplishment of Carlos is the sheer accumulation of detail the movie amasses, and the long running time gives you a deeper sense of the terrorist lifestyle, and when and why Ilich gradually succumbed to ego and self-glorification without realizing it.

2. A Film Unfinished. The first Holocaust movie that's actually about another Holocaust movie, and in some peculiar way it brings us closer to the terror and tragedy of the original event.

3. Inside Job. If you think you've absorbed all you could about subprime mortgages, credit default swaps and the arcana of elaborate derivatives, think again. Inside Job traces the history of the crisis and its implications with exceptional lucidity, rigor and righteous indignation.

4. Still Walking. This small gem of a movie always feels true and real as it gently reveals the quiet moments that define our lives.

5. 13 Assassins. Epic in scope, ambition, and execution, it's a classic swords-and-samurai film with postmodern blood and guts, and it's completely satisfying.

6. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Imagine an opulent movie palace that was 30,000 years old, with posters preserved on the curving walls and the bones of the Stone Age patrons peacefully sleeping in the fairy dust. That's essentially what archeologists found in a French canyon in 1994 and what Werner Herzog brings back to life in this extraordinary documentary.

7. Of Gods and Men. Like the best spiritual movies, of whatever faith, Of Gods and Men moves us toward a union with the infinite, and when we come to the monks' last supper, the moment is staggeringly powerful.

8. Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives. A work of unostentatious beauty and uncloying sweetness, at once sophisticated and artless, mysterious and matter-of-fact, cosmic and humble, it asks only a measure of Boonmeevian acceptance: The movie doesn't mean anything — it simply is.

9. Lebanon. Gives us viscerally violent, intensely distressing glimpses into war's annihilation of people, places, and communities.

10. The Tillman Story. A probing examination of truth, decency and the American way. It also explores deception and military propaganda and lays bare the ravages of grief.

11. Another Year. Mike Leigh has a knack of making the ordinary extraordinary. Here he deals with themes of class, family and depression over a period of a year, breaking it up into seasonal chapters.

12. Exit Through the Gift Shop. A beguiling and subversively funny entertainment that considers art's worth from many angles, including that of guerrilla painters, gallerists, and seasoned collectors.

13. Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench. Visually distinctive and aurally delightful, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench has style to burn. A soulful black-and-white commentary on love, art and their competing demands, this Boston-based musical from Damien Chazelle floats on a wave of spontaneity and charm.

14. Animal Kingdom. Joins in the tradition of brutally unsentimental Australian crime dramas like The Boys, in which the stakes are low, except to the people staring down the barrel of a gun.

15. The Illusionist. Absolutely mandatory viewing for aspiring animators and filmmakers. (In terms of pacing, scoring, editing, and narrative, it's a film school unto itself.) For the rest of us, however, it's simply magic.

16. Incendies. A devastating mystery thriller from Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve that grabs you hard and won't let go.

17. The Trip. Have you ever been trapped in the back seat of a car while the old married couple up front bickers and banters for hours? It's either sheer torture or, if the couple happens to be Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, wildly entertaining.

18. Blue Valentine. A small but shattering film that marks its writer-director, Derek Cianfrance, as an artist of real depth, observes relationship dynamics at a molecular level, welling with as much understanding as Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage.

19. Meek’s Cutoff. There's nothing out there remotely like Meek's Cutoff, for which some viewers may be thankful. The ending seems calculated to drive the literal-minded screaming off of their couches and yet it's the only possible way out.

20. Fish Tank. A brilliantly acted and achingly bleak coming-of-age story.

21. Bill Cunningham, New York. Rarely has anyone embodied contradictions as happily and harmoniously as octogenarian New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham.

22. Waste Land. A fascinating look at the complex intersections of art and charity, reality and perception.

23. Waiting for Superman. Argues convincingly that everyone should have the right to a good education, not just folks lucky enough to score winning numbers: It should be a birthright, not a matter of chance.

24. Mademoiselle Chambon. This small, nearly perfect film is a reminder that personal upheavals are as consequential in people's lives as shattering world events.

25. My Dog Tulip. As disconcerting and unusual a piece of animation as the 1956 memoir that inspired it, and that is saying a lot.