About Time

November 11th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

On his 21st birthday, slightly awkward wallflower Tim (Domnhall Gleeson) receives the unlikely news that he has the ability to travel backward in time. Dad (Bill Nighy) explains the miraculous capability to his son, noting that the trait is enjoyed exclusively by the male offspring in the family line. Like most time jumping narratives, “About Time” exercises the science-fiction device to coincide with some kind of moral affirmation, even if filmmaker Richard Curtis normally makes his bones with material decidedly less bleak than Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko,” or Rian Johnson’s “Looper.”

Arguably the most common theme explored in time travel fiction is the idea that going back to “fix” – or, such as Ray Bradbury’s legendary 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder,” even just observe – something in the past will establish an alternate history/future. “About Time” is not at all interested in or concerned with the Butterfly Effect, and Tim opts to use his power to woo the woman of his dreams, the charming Mary (Rachel McAdams) – even if he has to repeat situations until he gets them just right. “About Time” does not invest in its premise with the kind of care taken by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis in the exceptional “Groundhog Day,” still the summit of time-fracturing romantic comedies.

The rules of the temporal paradox are conveniently obliterated to suit the heartwarming, completely predictable outcomes for which Curtis is known, and the writer-director busies himself with familiar tasks, especially in a plot trajectory where Tim labors to undo the misery of his sister Kit Kat’s (Lydia Wilson) bad luck and poor choices. Another thread involving grouchy playwright Harry (Tom Hollander) provides the initial complication to Tim’s conquest of Mary, leading to the movie’s most sustained consideration of time travel’s amorous benefits via the potentially endless variations of Tim and Mary getting it on for the “first” time.

A.O. Scott, Andrew O’Hehir, and Gabe Toro are just three of the critics who recognized the problematic male fantasy creep factor in Tim’s seduction of Mary. Unfortunately, Mary remains duped by Tim’s time manipulations for the film’s duration, and Curtis misses what might have been an important opportunity to engage with ideas surrounding the ethics of Tim’s superhuman ability. McAdams does the very best she can, but her character is never Tim’s equal, and their partnership is founded at least in part on a deception, no matter how much Curtis insists that time travel cannot guarantee love.

The irritating voiceover narration seems engineered to make certain the audience knows that the power to travel in time means nothing next to an appreciation of a life well-lived. Dad admits that he used his time travel powers to read every book that caught his interest, Dickens twice (the pursuit of riches is quickly dismissed as an option by both Dad and Curtis). As “About Time” wears on, Tim’s relationship with Dad supersedes the comfortable, content existence Tim shares with his wife, and the father-son spotlight contains strong echoes of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance,” which featured a powerful expression of paternal love and a more poignant argument that in the end, we really only get one chance.

A Band Called Death

November 4th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like fellow Detroiter Sixto Rodriguez, Bobby, Dannis, and David Hackney’s trio Death recorded stunning music embraced and appreciated by its largest audience decades following the original production. A little Motor City magic connects “Searching for Sugar Man” to “A Band Called Death,” another compelling movie version of an almost too-weird-to-be-true tale of unrecognized brilliance and second chances. Made by first-time feature documentarians Jeff Howlett and Mark Christopher Covino, “A Band Called Death” is a great underdog story backed by giddy bursts of rock and roll firepower. It’s also a moving portrait of looking back, moving forward, and family love.

Hard-liners will say it’s a stretch to claim that Death was, as the New York Times headline of Mike Rubin’s profile claimed, “punk before punk was punk,” but only the worst kind of snobs would dismiss the strange beauty and punchy immediacy of garage tracks like “Politicians in My Eyes,” “Freakin Out,” and “Keep on Knocking.” Rubin appears in the film, and his terrific 2009 feature article established the blueprint used by the filmmakers: a tapestry of blood brothers, crate-diggers, and resurrections, the latter partially embodied by Bobby’s children in Rough Francis, a group formed in tribute to Death.

When the movie gets to the details of the 1975 United Sound Systems studio recording session and the subsequent major label flirtation, Howlett and Covino really find their stride, collecting interviews from Groovesville director of publishing Brian Spears – who recognized immediately that Death was something special – and producer/mogul/Groovesville CEO Don Davis, who initially thought his colleague had lost his mind. Following multiple rejections by label after label, Death catches the ear of Clive Davis, who offers a deal contingent on a name change.

Then, in a pure expression of the “corporate rock sucks” mentality championed by punk heroes large and small, David more or less tells Davis to go to hell and the brothers walk away, managing to take the master recordings of their work with them. Pressing 500 45s independently on their own Tryangle imprint, Death further embodies the fierce DIY credo of self-sufficiency, but neither the single nor its B-side get enough airplay to make a difference. The tapes would collect dust in an attic for years, until the inclusion of Death tracks on rarities compilations and interest from record collectors like Robert Manis, Ben Blackwell, and Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra eventually closed a circuit through Bobby’s son Julian.

The movie constantly reminds us that David Hackney was the soul of the group. Some delightful prank phone calls hint at David’s frequency on an unexpected wavelength, and the movie makes clear that the young musician took inspiration from sources like the Who and Alice Cooper. In part because David died of lung cancer in 2000, the visionary bandleader’s absence weighs mightily on the emotional scales of the movie. David, whose conceptual acumen guided the entirety of the Death endeavor, assumes a kind of mythical prominence as an ahead-of-his-time prophet. Howlett and Covino surely play up this status, but both Bobby and Dannis take seriously the spirit of their brother forecasting that eventually, the rest of the world would catch up to Death.

The Counselor

October 28th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

If one believes the assessment of Scott Foundas in his apologetic “Variety” essay, Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” is a slept-on and misunderstood near-masterpiece on par with “Blade Runner” and not the ridiculous, cringe-worthy embarrassment described by many other critics. For those keeping track, Metacritic’s page for “The Counselor” averages fifteen positive reviews, thirteen mixed reviews, and twelve negative reviews to come up with a score of 49 on a hundred point scale. Foundas discloses his role as the organizer of the “first complete North American retrospective of Scott’s films,” and the critic’s feelings extend to the eyebrow-raising claim that “The Counselor” is “bold and thrilling in ways that mainstream American movies rarely are, and its rejection suggests what little appetite there is for real daring at the multiplex nowadays.”

Familiar generalizations about the public’s lack of taste and intelligence aside, the first part of that claim is dubious. Directed by Scott from novelist Cormac McCarthy’s first script produced originally for the screen, “The Counselor” is a cryptic neo-noir crammed with the most familiar tropes and expectations of the style. Contrary to Foundas’ opinion, the movie ventures nothing and gains even less, unfolding with a solemn pomposity that will delight only those viewers who believe they are in on the joke as opposed to being the butt of it.

Take, for example, the spectacle of Cameron Diaz’s cheetah-stroking femme fatale replicant Malkina grinding and squeaking her mons pubis on the windshield of Reiner’s (Javier Bardem) Ferrari. Apart from the scene’s flirtations with outright misogyny, amplified by Reiner coarsely likening Malkina’s vagina to a “catfish thing” and a “bottom feeder,” McCarthy appears to reveal a disappointingly regressive embrace of masculine fears regarding “repulsive” female sexuality. Whether or not one finds the scene liberating or debasing (see Tracy Moore’s “Jezebel” column for a more detailed discussion), the moment typifies the film’s anything goes desperation to rise above the forgettable banality of its plot.

While “The Counselor” is not exactly a bore, Scott’s phony gravitas and McCarthy’s drug trade philosophy-lite conspire against the efforts of the game stars. Along with Bardem and Diaz, the principal cast includes Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, and, in the title role, Michael Fassbender. A few arresting visuals, including the high-speed clothesline decapitation of a motorcyclist, must compete with secretive conversations too dutiful in their elisions. Further, the pace of the film oozes like the fecal sludge that hides the narrative’s MacGuffin-esque drug shipment in a disguised septic truck bound for Chicago.

Along the way, Scott indulges plenty of McCarthy’s signature bloodletting, including the sight of the nightmarish “bolito,” a kind of motorized piano wire garrote/noose that cuts through the neck of any victim unlucky enough to have it slipped over his head. Death comes for the guilty and the innocent alike, but aside from brief glimpses of Cruz’s naïve and underdeveloped Laura, Scott and McCarthy have no interest in exploring a point of view alternative to the twisted lawbreakers whose moral failures lead to unspeakable outcomes. Only time will tell if Foundas made the right call on “The Counselor,” but unless the movie gets embraced as camp, it is unlikely to ever attain the status of Scott’s better films.

Carrie

October 21st, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A disappointing and unnecessary remake of Stephen King’s first major success, Kimberly Peirce’s take on “Carrie” almost slavishly follows the rhythm and pace of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic. The rehashed script, credited to Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and original screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, fails to turn up anything new and significant from the source material despite filmmaker claims to the contrary. Indiewire’s Drew Taylor has suggested that the late addition of Cohen’s name to the official credit list is a legal development born of Aguirre-Sacasa’s sometimes word-for-word and scene-for-scene reliance on Cohen’s adaptation.

King’s conceptual tour de force continues to hold a magnetic appeal for audiences of many ages. Drawing on the primal fears that accompany the physical and emotional changes of adolescence and placing them in close quarters with the tension between religious fanaticism and the strong pull of normalcy and conformity, King tapped into the insecurities that go hand in hand with rites of passage. The greatest fright of “Carrie” arises from the inversion of the Cinderella story: an unthinkable scenario in which a mother seeks to murder her own flesh and blood. Peirce boldly affixes a messy, opening flashback to Carrie’s birth that flirts with infanticide by scissors, but the prologue detracts somewhat from the punch of De Palma’s charged shower room spectacle and its mix of eroticism and revulsion associated with Carrie’s menstruation.

Like some of the self-referential elements of the 2002 TV movie version of “Carrie,” the new edition slips in a few convenient updates, including an underdeveloped cyberbullying thread surrounding a YouTube upload of Carrie’s humiliation. Less competently, a throwaway reference to Tim Tebow will date faster than William Katt’s ruffled, powder blue tuxedo shirt. Surprisingly, very little attention is paid to the discovery of Carrie’s telekinetic super-powers, a thematic component ripe for reconsideration in the context of titles like “X-Men: First Class.” Aguirre-Sacasa’s experience as a Marvel Comics writer makes the missed opportunity especially vexing.

Peirce, whose blistering “Boys Don’t Cry” explored a world filled with inexplicable horror, seems like a strong choice to tackle “Carrie,” but the raw verisimilitude of her 1999 feature debut is conspicuously absent in the new movie. The director struggles with tone, especially when it comes to the handling of the high schoolers who make Carrie’s life hell. Peirce does clarify Sue Snell’s (Gabriella Wilde) sense of regret and guilt, restoring both the character’s pregnancy and her “psychic connection” to Carrie that manifests most directly in the climactic house destruction scene. The rest of the tormentors, especially Portia Doubleday’s exceedingly cruel, one-note Chris Hargensen, dart toward parody and cartoon.

While there is nothing wrong with the casting of talented performers like Chloe Grace Moretz (in her first leading role) and Julianne Moore, Peirce provides few opportunities for the principal actors to distance and distinguish themselves from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Spacek and Laurie both earned Oscar nominations for their portrayals in the De Palma film, and that feat most certainly will not be repeated by Moretz and Moore. Peirce works hard on the development and clarification of the twisted, abusive, and operatic mother-daughter dynamics, but Moretz never quite accesses the fragile vulnerability of Carrie with the same degree of credibility demonstrated by the unforgettable Spacek.

Salinger

October 14th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Probably the weirdest and most disappointing thing about Shane Salerno’s documentary “Salinger” is the lack of interest shown in the words and ideas of the popular author’s literary output. Sure, the movie follows a familiar script that makes connections between “real life” sources and inspirations for well-loved characters and events, but the desperate autobiographical sleuthing does its enigmatic subject no favors, focusing on the “mystery” of J.D. Salinger instead of anything resembling a thoughtful consideration of the man’s talents. The movie is enough to send disciples back to their dog-eared paperbacks. I daresay “old Jesus probably would’ve puked if He could see it.”

If the superficial treatment of Salinger’s oeuvre fizzles, so too does Salerno’s ill-advised decision to stage reenactments of Salinger pounding away at a typewriter, often in front of a huge movie screen filled with images that speculate on everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to the failure of Salinger’s marriage to Claire Douglas. The effect is cheap, disheartening, and, if you’ll pardon the easy swipe, phony as hell. The use of a mute actor impersonating Salinger distances us from the charm, warmth, and humor of the fiction, stirring up instead the uglier tendencies toward the writer’s irritability, paranoia, and seclusion.

While some of the talking heads are people who knew and interacted with Salinger, too many of the interview subjects belong in the desperate stalker or eager opportunist categories. Salerno gives Joyce Maynard way more screen time than necessary to articulate her points about Salinger’s pattern of fixating on very young women and girls. A grim section highlighting the ghastly crimes of Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley Jr., and Robert Bardo would be more at home on an episode of some lurid true crime cable series. In contrast, a too-brief discussion about William Shawn’s decision to overrule the “New Yorker” fiction editors who rejected “Zooey” hints at a more insightful and discerning narrative.

Salinger fanatics and completists will discover a handful of titillating material, including a very short, previously private motion picture film clip of the author made during his World War 2 service, several rarely-seen photographs including the only known image of Salinger at work on “The Catcher in the Rye,” and a final revelatory coda outlining the possibility of forthcoming publications. Claiming that “information was provided, documented, and verified by two independent and separate sources” (whatever that means), Salerno describes a novella informed by Salinger’s work as a counter-intelligence agent, a love story based on Salinger’s relationship with his first wife, a treatise on the Vedanta religion, and a full account of the Caulfields, including a retooled version of “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans.”

Most tantalizing of all: five new Glass stories, purportedly focused on Seymour, and a “detailed genealogy” of the family. Salerno claims the first of the tales sees Seymour and Buddy “recruited at a party in 1926 for the children’s quiz show ‘It’s a Wise Child’.” Less hopeful is the note that these stories are “saturated in the teachings of the Vedanta religion,” a deep fear long held by Salinger followers disillusioned by the author’s later tendency toward theological didacticism at the expense of rich and involving storytelling. Salinger biographer Paul Alexander summarizes this shift, saying of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” “It’s long on tone and absolutely devoid of plot.” Salerno’s movie doesn’t have much of either, so here’s hoping that we might get to read some new Salinger in the near future.

Gravity

October 7th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A hair-raising survivor thriller, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” imagines the deadly consequences of the Kessler effect on a shuttle mission spacewalk endangered by projectile debris. At the risk of drawing fire from the enthusiastic moviegoers who made “Gravity” the most successful October film opening to date, the movie does not surpass the intellectual and emotional engagement of Cuaron’s brilliant, blistering “Children of Men,” although for many, the fierce determination and will to live expressed by stranded astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) will sets heart to pounding. “Gravity” is still better than good. Along with Emmanuel Lubezki’s phenomenal work as director of photography, the visual design certainly heralds another milestone in the development of photorealistic CGI.

“Gravity” is so direct, so focused on the life-sustaining importance of critical tasks performed step by detailed step, one wonders whether or how philosopher and Cuaron fan Slavoj Zizek will apply the “paradox of anamorphosis” to the new film. Zizek’s fascination with the idea that meaning in “Children of Men” can be derived only from examining the background and the margins – as opposed to the principal elements of plot that dominate the foreground and the action – invites a kind of discourse that must be altered for discussions of “Gravity.” Of course, it is entirely possible that Zizek could surprise us all with a claim that the chasm of space functions in a manner parallel to Cuaron’s previous efforts, but I for one see the filmmaker’s latest as a canny, calculating blend of technological experimentation and classic Hollywood formalism, the latter most disappointingly embodied by Steven Price’s often-standard issue score.

As one of the biggest movie stories of 2013, “Gravity” has already generated a metanarrative constructed by people interested in the intricacies of the production process as much as the drama of Dr. Stone’s predicament (the last time this happened on a similar scale may have been “Avatar”). Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson posted a series of comments on Twitter popping a few holes in the movie’s logic balloon. The items called out ranged from minor, possibly aesthetic issues (why Bullock’s hair didn’t float in zero-G) to questions of positioning (Hubble, the International Space Station and a Chinese rig are “all in sight lines of one another”) to several other matters of plausibility. From a storytelling standpoint, one can chalk the entire lot of Tyson’s observations up to the most basic rights of artistic license. The popular scientist also made sure to note that he enjoyed the film “very much.”

No potentially groundbreaking movie dealing with space exploration can escape the inevitable comparison to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “Gravity” reviewers have lined up to pay their respects to Stanley Kubrick’s landmark. Kubrick’s film, no less meticulous in its own approach to orbital verisimilitude, was sui generis in a way that “Gravity” cannot claim. Andrew O’Hehir even suggests that “Gravity” is like a “secular equivalent to the spiritual or supernatural dimension found in Kubrick’s and Tarkovsky’s great space movies.” Both “Gravity” and “2001” have a way of defining the terrifying immediacy of an astronaut’s fragile tightrope walk between life and death, but Cuaron – with one notable exception – chooses not to float toward the metaphysical phantasmagoria so indelibly conjured by Kubrick.

Don Jon

September 30th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

In a famous line in Laura Mulvey’s influential “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the film theorist writes, “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the onetime child performer turned serious and sought-after actor, makes his feature writing and directing debut with “Don Jon,” a loaded, comic spin on the prerogatives and expectations of masculinity and femininity in the age of ubiquitous Internet pornography and media-constructed messages selling us the just-out-of-reach good life. Gordon-Levitt’s decision to situate his characters within the world of working-class New Jersey Italian-Americans is simultaneously the movie’s strongest asset and greatest liability.

As swaggering bartender “Don” Jon Martello, Jr., Gordon-Levitt adopts the hairstyle, wardrobe, and thick accent necessary to distance key elements of his more contemplative public persona and previous role choices from the broader exaggerations of his priapic new character. The tactic, underscored in one of the movie’s effective trailers, serves as a reminder that Jon derives pleasure from a particular set of basic offerings. Possibly in ascending order of importance, Jon cites “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, and my porn” as the few things that he really cares about. The central conundrum for the young man, then, is outlined by Jon’s perceived failure of real life to recreate the same thrills offered to him by the fantasy world of pornography.

Jon is accustomed, night after night, to alcohol-fueled club hookups that rarely extend beyond one-night stands. When he spots perfect “dime” Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), Jon has no clue that his predictable pattern of predatory conquest will be challenged, upended, and torched. Gordon-Levitt suggests that Barbara’s own sense of entitlement is driven by a no-less damaging enslavement to the happily-ever-after mirages served up in countless big screen romantic comedies. Johansson’s extraordinary physicality coincides with Mulvey’s claim that the viewer takes scopophilic pleasure in “using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight” (Gordon-Levitt was enthusiastically praised by Reddit users for his “genius” casting) and her character is decidedly situated within the “language of the dominant patriarchal order” to which Mulvey refers.

Strictly from a narrative standpoint, the inclusion of Julianne Moore’s older woman, a grieving widow named Esther who teaches Jon that “real” sex is a “two-way thing,” softens and subdues the movie’s flirtation with chauvinistic brutishness. The revelation of Barbara as a manipulative, demanding, castrating princess, rather cleverly communicated in the only dialogue spoken by Jon’s otherwise silent, eye-rolling, constantly texting sister Monica (Brie Larson), gives off the slight whiff of sour stereotype. Moore’s worldly, mature guide contrasts efficiently with the high-maintenance Barbara, allowing Gordon-Levitt to investigate a mother-whore equation and let his character off the hook.

When the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was published in May, some mainstream press articles and essays fixated on the tricky terminology of sexual “addiction” by noting the convoluted history of hypersexuality in the DSM and the ongoing question of whether compulsive use of sex and porn is more than a “condition” in need of additional study and research. In spite of the graphic descriptions of sexuality and the inclusion of lurid but carefully edited clips of well-known “adult” industry veterans like Alexis Texas and Tori Black, it might be a stretch to describe “Don Jon” as edgy and challenging when the movie’s conclusion hews to Jon’s description of the pretty woman and pretty man who drive off into the sunset even though “everyone knows it’s fake.”

Prisoners

September 23rd, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like Baran bo Odar’s “The Silence,” theatrically released this year in the United States, Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” deploys a large ensemble cast and interwoven plot threads involving victims, police detectives, perpetrators, and the bereaved to examine moral relativism in a stomach-turning crime involving children. Both movies follow the rules of the procedural, but “The Silence” emerges as the superior film based on its director’s deliberate objectivity in exploring the range of individual motives and personalities. Villeneuve, whose previous feature “Incendies” was selected to represent Canada as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, struggles to find much room for nuance in Aaron Guzikowski’s sprawling screenplay.

In a weird inversion of the typical direction of the biblical allusion, Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a struggling carpenter whose love for his daughter is so great, he is willing to do harm to an individual the police have questioned and released. On a crisp Thanksgiving Day, Dover’s young child disappears from her own neighborhood along with the daughter of family friends. The chief suspect, a creepy, monosyllabic manchild named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), drives an old RV that the girls were seen climbing on, but following a dramatic arrest, no trace of the missing children can be found in the vehicle or the home of Alex’s grim aunt, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo, distractingly made up to look heavier and older).

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is assigned to handle the case, but the absence of any forensic link between Jones and the lost girls forces the officer to pursue other leads. Unsatisfied with Loki and driven by a sense of urgency, Dover takes matters into his own hands, abducting and imprisoning Jones, the single action that should drive the story’s thorniest dilemma: would you become a monster to stop a monster? That’s a question addressed in many movies – see Ji-woon Kim’s “I Saw the Devil” for a particularly riveting and graphic example – but “Prisoners” can’t quite rise to the challenge. One scene with Viola Davis alludes to a deeper exploration of thought experiments on the ethics of torture, but the direction it points toward is not pursued.

While the levels of contemplative sophistication are running on empty, “Prisoners” is still worth seeing for the remarkable cinematography by superb image-maker Roger Deakins. The longtime collaborator of the Coens has been Oscar-nominated without a win a staggering ten times, but his work is always award worthy. In “Prisoners,” the texture and sense of scale in composition rendered by Deakins transcend the shortcomings of the drama’s pretend thoughtfulness, and the movie is a visual feast of practical lighting that caresses the outdoors and imagines the boundaries of asphalt and woods and daytime and nighttime with startling clarity.

The outlandish twists and turns in “Prisoners” include a crimson herring so red it’s positively bloody, and Villeneuve wastes far too much time digging in that particular rabbit hole. Gyllenhaal’s Loki is deprived of any meaningful explanation of his pained demeanor. His policeman is a blank page and we are given no glimpse into any kind of life outside his relentless quest to maintain a perfect record of solutions. The potential of seeing Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, and Terrence Howard process their walking nightmare is a promise unfulfilled, as Bello disappears into catatonia and Jackman takes center stage.

The Spectacular Now

September 16th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Observant and sincere, James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Tim Tharp’s “The Spectacular Now” is quieter and more naturalistic than the recent version of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower, another novel-to-film coming of age story willing and eager to treat its teenage characters with sensitivity and respect. Both stories deal substantially with the encroachment of the unwelcome responsibilities of adulthood, and Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are perfect as young people negotiating the rapid approach of life after high school. A worthy addition to the canon of serious-minded teen movies, “The Spectacular Now” could mark breakthrough turning points for the talented young leads, both of whom showcase their finest screen performances to date.

The plot is as easygoing as protagonist Sutter Keely (Teller), a quick-witted high school senior interested in the Spicoli-esque pursuit of a good time, all the time. Sutter is the kind of kid who outwardly makes it all look so easy, even if his borderline math grades pose a minor threat to graduation. Behind the smiling façade, however, are the lasting scars of paternal abandonment, now taking up residence in the form of Sutter’s dependence on the contents of his ever-present hip flask. Sutter’s mom Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works hard to provide for her son, clearly hoping he won’t follow in his father’s unsteady footsteps. Recently dumped, Sutter surprises his friends and himself by pursuing a rebound romance with the quiet, overlooked Aimee Finecky (Woodley).

As a filmmaker, Ponsoldt takes obvious pleasure in collaborating with the performers, and some of the most rewarding exchanges of “The Spectacular Now” emerge from the long takes and unhurried intimacies that give Teller and Woodley the space to listen, react, and respond to each other. The opposites-attract combination of smart but slightly sheltered girl and sociable, underachieving wiseacre boy will remind some of Cameron Crowe’s beloved “Say Anything…” but “The Spectacular Now” appears to aim for a slightly different kind of epiphany for its central pair. John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler never doubts his suitability as a partner for Ione Skye’s Diane Court the way that Sutter second-guesses being with Aimee.

As admirably as “The Spectacular Now” holds focus on Teller and Woodley, Ponsoldt sometimes fails to fully capitalize on the story’s grown-ups. The film certainly would have benefited from one or two more short conversations featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh. The same goes for the brilliant Andre Royo as Sutter’s patient geometry teacher Mr. Aster. Bob Odenkirk plays a terrific turning point scene as Sutter’s tailor shop boss and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who starred as an alcoholic elementary school teacher in Ponsoldt’s previous feature “Smashed,” appears as Sutter’s slightly older, married sister.

For many viewers, the film’s highlight will be Sutter’s ill-advised journey to visit his absentee father, an irresponsible lush whose glassy eyes instantly relate the grim knowledge that he spends most of his time inebriated. As Tommy Keely, Kyle Chandler steals the brief segment in which he is featured. The father-son interaction is clearly engineered as a bleak wake-up call to Sutter and a reminder to the audience that history can come uncomfortably close to repetition. Sutter’s anger and resentment reside next to a pained and fragile vulnerability that positions “The Spectacular Now” as one of the year’s most welcome entries.

Blackfish

September 9th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Next to the events that inspired it, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish” is the worst kind of public relations nightmare for marine park giant SeaWorld Entertainment. Systematically documenting and dismantling years of questionable practices and dubious assertions about orcas, the gripping film uses an array of footage, from degraded old television spots to freshly composed interviews with scientists and former killer whale trainers. Most dramatic, however, are clips from several harrowing incidents in which the massive black and white captives have inflicted harm on one another and on human beings. SeaWorld representatives declined requests to be interviewed, and issued a rebuttal to some of the film’s charges.

The movie’s central non-human subject is a twelve thousand pound bull orca named Tilikum. On February 24, 2010, Tilikum killed 40-year-old SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. The same orca was also previously involved in two other deaths: trainer Keltie Byrne in 1991 and Daniel Dukes in 1999. Although Tilikum has become one of the most widely known whales in captivity due to these three incidents, other captive orcas have killed trainers and there are dozens of well-documented near misses. In the wild, orca attacks on humans are nearly nonexistent.

A reasonable person might ask why Tilikum has continued to perform in SeaWorld shows after killing Dawn Brancheau and the answer, not surprisingly, is financial. Tilikum’s value as a stud is of tremendous significance to his owners. Motley Crue drummer and animal rights activist Tommy Lee – who does not appear in “Blackfish” – has called Tilikum the “chief sperm bank” of SeaWorld. Graphic video of trainers collecting whale semen underscores the exploitation, and the revelation that Tilikum is the most prolific sire in orca captivity leads Cowperthwaite to a deeper and more disturbing discussion of the cruelty of separating offspring from parent. Orca researchers know that killer whale calves remain with their mothers for life, and descriptions of desperate, long-distance cries as the young are taken by force leave a deep impression on the viewer.

To be fair, SeaWorld does not break up all mother-offspring family units, but shrewdly, Cowperthwaite builds a case that exculpates the whales for presumably just responding to the appalling conditions in which they are forced to exist. In the wild, orcas swim many miles each day, and the cramped pens of SeaWorld in no way, shape, or form offer adequate room for the animals to thrive. Among the repercussions of cell-containment are behaviors in which whales rake one another with their teeth, dental problems from gnawing and chewing on barriers, and the most pathetic visual reminder of the difference between wild bull orcas and those in captivity: the collapsed dorsal fin. SeaWorld’s explanation for the numbers on flopped-over dorsal fins doesn’t align with scientific data.

The closest cinematic companion piece to “Blackfish” is probably “The Cove,” the gruesome expose of Dolphin hunting in Japan, but Cowperthwaite’s film also shares much in common with Werner Herzog’s phenomenal “Grizzly Man,” particularly in the way the ethics of human interaction with wild creatures are pondered. Interestingly, “Blackfish” omits any footage from “Free Willy,” although a few shots of Richard Harris in the much maligned 1977 “Jaws” pretender “Orca” are used to underscore some points about long-held misperceptions of killer whale behavior. Two other films are worth noting: “Blackfish” may lead some to Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone,” one of the most memorable films of 2012. Also, Amy Kaufman reported in “The Los Angeles Times” a few weeks ago that the ending of Pixar’s upcoming “Finding Dory” was “retooled” following a screening and discussion of “Blackfish.”